Mother Heart

I am not a religious person.

I don’t got to church or temple or mosque. I don’t pray or bend a knee to Goddess or God. But after nearly fourteen years of motherhood I have come to believe in something, something fierce and  powerful and universal. Something outside of me, completely out of my control. Maybe it is Mary, or Hera, or Gaia. I don’t know the answer to those kind of questions. I only know that I’ve felt it. I’ve been wrapped up in it, been at one with it, some Jedi force of motherhood–birthed of something primal and fierce.

It would be poetic to say this connection to some universal mother’s heart is born of having had the lullaby of another’s heartbeat tied to your own for nine months, but I don’t think that’s true. There are mothers who did not physically bear or carry their children who know exactly what I’m talking about, and of course there are fathers, whose hearts rend and tear and rip as sure as any mother’s.

Yet there is something uniquely feminine and mysterious about the moon and the Earth and birth and the way it is all knotted together in this unknowable universe. There is something uniquely feminine in this great, universal beat of motherhood.

Maybe the drum beat thrum is tied to the planet or to the tides, like the blood that flows each month or the way that waves lap and play upon the shore. Maybe the gargantuan beat is held in place by the gravity of our own selves, hanging as pregnant as a full moon, ripe and heavy. It doesn’t matter. Through everything, it beats steady and strong.

Through mist or magic, or maybe even just the mundane, when you love a child, your own heart joins the chorus, picking up the tempo.

And so you go, until another mother’s heart suffers the unimaginable. When that happens, that central heart which sets our beat slows in mourning. It grows heavy.

Today I learned the son of an old playground friend had died. It was the kind of news where you do a double take, a triple, when you are sure you have misread or misunderstood. Because of course it makes no sense, no sense at all to lose a child, a child who was not ill or sick, a child who you’d only seen smiling and happy.

In what order of the universe is that ever acceptable?

And for the briefest of seconds you imagine the unimaginable–and in that split second of time, you can feel the splinter of another mother’s heart, in tandem with her grief, in solidarity with her loss. As my friend mourns her son, the heart of every other mother she knows weighs a little bit heavier, and the hearts of all the mothers those mothers know. And so on, and so on.

Perhaps that is why women keen and wail as they bury their dead. A dirge, not only for the dying, but for the living as well, a mourning song to lose yourself in, or to hide within while you put the pieces of your heart back together. Or a message, coded in grief: our hearts are breaking with you. Let us take the weight and bear it, even for just the space between a heartbeat or two.

A collective bleeding, a collective beating. That collective is why so many women, so many mothers, are affected so strongly by the pain and suffering of any child, their own, but the children of others they know and love, the children of strangers, who are in pain, the children of faraway countries who hurt. Because somehow, even though we didn’t bring those children to the breast, didn’t swaddle them against our heart, didn’t love them with the same ferocity and tiger’s growl of their parents–we feel it, because we have all imagined it. We have all had nightmares, shuttered our minds against the unimaginable.

When the unthinkable happens to someone we know, to a child we know, we are forced to confront it.

Let the Mother heart take over, my friend. Let the collective beat of all those motherhood hearts carry you through while you pause, while you put yours back together.

Let us provide cover for you while you need it.

I’m not religious. I don’t got to church or temple. I do not pray, not to any recognized Goddess or God. But I bow down to that great beating heart of humanity, of motherhood.

I know there are those of you who do. And if you do, please spare a thought, a moment, a prayer or a word for a family who is grieving. Who is suffering the unimaginable.


For Deb





The Only Advice You Ever Need

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When my kids were young, every waking, walking, talking moment was an important teaching moment. So many things to impart, to model, to drive home: names and ABCS,  numbers and how to fold a slice of pizza to eat it NY style. I taught them how to take turns, how to climb the steps to the slide, and the magic of please and thank you. I taught them how to wipe their sweet little tushies.

As they got older and those sweet little tushies turned into cute little bums, the lessons became more nuanced. How to push their peas onto the back of their fork with their knife (ok, that one their very proper Brit dad taught them), how to avoid hurting other people’s feelings, when to call me from school. Don’t get me wrong, I like nothing better than imparting moral lessons at the dinner table. As my younger son once famously lamented: You have a lesson for everything!! But as they get older and our time together becomes compressed I realized I could sum up most of my lessons into the only piece of advice you really ever need to give your kids.

Don’t be an asshole.

All the things I strive to teach my kids–playing fair, thinking about others, listening, taking turns, being kind, respecting differences, looking after their belongings, not eating with their head in their plates…ALL of those things fall neatly under the category of not being an asshole.

One of the perks of older children is the freedom to call a spade a spade. Or in this case, an asshole an asshole. As the cute little bums gave way to big boy butts and a tween-age tuchus, the stranglehold we kept on our four-letter word usage has loosened, but along the way we’ve used every fill-in-the-blank to round out this advice, from ding-dong to dolt, to jerk or wally (ok, my very proper Brit husband used wally). But keeping it four-letter-word real now appeals to their vulgar little minds. It catches their attention. Sometimes it makes them laugh. And they remember it. Hopefully as they go forth into the world they hear my strident Mom voice in their conscience reminding them to ask, WWaAD?*


The answer? Oh, it could be as simple as walking out of a public toilet knowing full well the toilet paper was gone yet not giving the next person a heads up. But there are so, so many other things.

Like excluding someone on the basis of looks or popularity, spreading rumors, sabotaging friendships. Like feeling better about themselves by making someone else feel bad or taking out their frustrations on an easy target. An asshole demands his way or the highway. She mocks the boy who summoned up the courage to ask her to dance. Like making the cheap joke just to get the laugh, even if it means hurting someone else’s feelings. Like stepping on whoever is in their way with no regard, or even sometimes just for fun. An asshole will pressure you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable, all squirmy in the gut.

Don’t be an asshole.

The thing about ding-dong dolt wallies is that though their intentions are sometimes cruel, often it’s just a case of not stopping to think about how your actions or words are going to affect those around you. Stopping to think is doable. It just requires a little bit extra.

Don’t be a wally. Take the extra thirty seconds.

60af4c5eabf01b83fd8e100cd8c45c71We all hurt other people’s feelings. Sometimes even intentionally. We all eat with our fingers and forget to flush the toilet, say things we don’t mean or talk in the movie theatre. We all make mistakes and bad choices. But if you’re an asshole, you probably won’t learn from them.

All the lessons I’ve taught over the years. All the speeches and pleas, they can all be diluted into that one, single lesson.

Don’t be an asshole.

The world has enough. Like that woman last week who didn’t warn me about the toilet paper.

*What Would an Asshole Do?


Toy Story

car boyAs my boys get older and their interests shift from matchbox cars vroomed on the carpet to computer games that make my head spin, it seemed only natural we’d start to clear and cull the clutter of toys which have defined our lives for the better part of twelve years.

Digging through the crates of cars and bins of bulldozers, sorting the Playmobil knights and pirates, stacking the Thomas track to pack should have been cathartic. All the space we will reclaim! All the weight to shed! And it was. For a little while. Until we got to the bottom of all the cars and trucks and things that go.

Dumping out the Matchbox cars I realized, with the beginnings of a lump in my throat, there was a story behind almost every one. This one was a Matchbox match of the black VW Golf we had in NYC, fondly dubbed, The Daddy Car. That one was the Mini-Cooper my husband had to go back to the beach for after it had been accidentally left behind in the sand. The big blue monster truck? We bought that one to placate a cranky toddler right before a long car trip. There’s the clutch of construction vehicles which came to the playground every day for three years, forklifts and front loaders traded between hot little hands, now scarred and chipped with playground digging. There were race cars and emergency vehicles that populated the road rug we kept under the bed. And at the very bottom of the box, dusted with lint were Lightning McQueen and friends.

One of our favorite pictures, taken when we were still a family of three, shows us tanned and relaxed in the Florida sunshine, a chunky toddler smiling a goofy grin to the camera. In his sweaty hand, he clutches a toy Chick Hicks. We collected those collectible cars and each new acquisition slept under a pillow, was carted around in pockets and fists. Those cars were the bread and butter of his play for years.

My younger son’s taste was more eclectic. Frying pans and toy kitchens, and lest we forget the empty Listerine bottle phase. But his passion was construction vehicles. The knowledge I acquired with boy child number one was put to the test with boy child two. Backhoes, front loaders, rollers, pavers, scrapers and forklifts. We had  a bag of yellow, plastic diggers that came to the beach and another bag of yellow, plastic diggers for the park. His eyes lit up like Christmas every time we passed a construction site. We spent hours watching buckets full of dirt and rock rise into the Cypriot sun. We even once went to a  trade show where we were entertained by backhoes strutting their outriggers to Lady Gaga. Go figure.


Toy stories.

The Toy Story trilogy, for all its cute adventure and syrupy sentimentality is, at its heart, about the inevitable passage of time. By packing those well-loved toys in a box labeled for the attic, kids take the final step over the threshold of adolescence and close the door on childhood. And while I sympathize with Woody, well-loved cowboy, playmate, and friend, the character I identify with most is the oft unseen mother.

You see, the mother isn’t just packing up a box of toys to be donated or even a box of memories. She’s packing up all the magic she witnessed over the years; the undiluted imagination, the possibility, the joy that zooming a bunch of cars on the carpet or digging in dirt brought to her children.

My older son takes his bike into the Danish woods with friends and cycles around now. Maybe they’re making the same sounds he used to make when he was a toddler pushing a tiny bulldozer around the sandpit while he flies over dirt minds and careens around trees. I hope so. My younger son spends hours upon hours making intricate models of World War II aircraft and micro-mini Star Wars fleet out of Lego. Nerf weaponry has replaced the construction vehicles. Computer games have replaced the wooden Thomas track.

And I am left with the phantom limb syndrome of all those toys and the memories they evoke.

f79d635f2e3f60140fb20047093dbdf7In the end, the memories remain even if the toys don’t. I packed up three giant baggies full of matchbox cars to deliver to the school after school program. The Duplo and the giant mobile crane that took up precious square footage in an apartment with limited storage. But in a box to travel to wherever we go next went things I couldn’t quite part with:

The Daddy car and ‘Man’, the action figure we spent weeks looking for, only to find  in the inner workings of our printer the day we were packing to move to Cyprus, long after his absence had been forgotten. Randy, the driver of Unit 2. The pirate ship and a small selection of backhoes and forklifts and site-dumpers. And of course, Lightening McQueen and his car-patriots.

They will stay with us, like the snapshots I have of those two smiling boys, to infinity and beyond.


Tiger tiger, burning bright

2012-12-01 09.00.13A few weeks ago, my eldest son went to a school dance.  With 50 Kroner in his pocket and a spot quiz of my mobile number, he went off to shake his 8 year old groove, Gangnam Style.  He had a grand old time, but confessed that he was a bit confused about the girls who were chasing him around, to the extent that at one point, he had to hide under a chair.  Upon explaining to him that sometimes boys and girls do this to each other when they like someone, he shot us a look of such incredulity that my husband and I had to go into the other room to laugh. Of course, this is just the beginning.  We often wish such swift growth upon our children to get through the daily grind, the monotony of the day to day chores and car-pools and activities and play-dates and bedtimes that we sometimes wish their childhood away.  Soon my son will be old enough to understand what those girls (or boys) are doing.  Then he will be old enough to chase them back.  Soon after he will be old enough to swallow his pride and muster his courage and ask someone out.   He will experience the butterflies of his first kiss, the heady perfume of first love.  He will sling an arm over someone’s shoulder or put a casual hand in a back pocket and saunter down the street wrapped in the warm cocoon of young coupledom.2012-10-25 11.25.08

And then, almost inevitably, someone will break his heart.

He will survive, we all do.  But the real question is, will I?

I have had to fight back tears when I have seen one of my children standing alone at the edge of a playground.  I have gone soft and misty hearing about other people’s children getting excluded at school.  How will I survive my son’s first heartbreak?  I am going to have to sit on my hands to stop from wringing the neck of the person that breaks my son’s heart.  I may have to strait jacket myself to stop myself going all Texas Cheerleader Mom on their ass.  How dare someone not love my son.  Who in the world do they think they are?  Were they raised by wolves?

In 2011, thanks to Amy Chua, ‘tiger Mom‘ entered  the urban lexicon stage right.  But to me, a tiger mom shouldn’t be the violin-toting, math tutoring, college prepping your kindergartener that it has come to be associated with.  To me a tiger mom is a mom that defends her young with a ferociousness that borders on feral.  I can remember the shattering of my heart, the feeling of not being able to breathe for a time, of almost literally drowning in sorrow.  When I think of my son experiencing that for the first time, the claws come out.  Tiger mom indeed.

If you’ve ever watched a show like  “A Birth Story”  or “A Baby Story” you’ll see women with placenta still dripping from their hospital beds gush about the instantaneous bond they felt with their child.  Women who swear that every day during the 72 months of pregnancy they felt that bond growing stronger. I’m sure it happens like that for some people, but not for everyone.  Sometimes it takes a few hours, a few days, weeks, even a few months.  But barring extraneous circumstances, it almost always does happen.

When my first son was born, there were unexpected complications and he had to spend a few weeks in the neo-natal intensive care unit. When you take your birthing classes you learn how to breath and how to ask for an epidural in 17 languages.  You take a tour of the hospital and take a sneak peek at the newborns in their little incubators.  But no one ever teaches you what to do when you go home, but your baby doesn’t.  So in the post-hormonal exhaustion of just having birthed a live human being and watching as doctors whisked him off, I didn’t feel very bonded.  The next 2 days were spent waiting for test results and visiting and trying to hold and nurse while not disturbing tubes and iv lines.  Not too much bonding then either, more just stunned somnolence.  It wasn’t until about a week later, as I lay sobbing in my bed because I’d forgotten my breast pump tubes at the hospital, that I realized I would do just about anything for my son.  The idea of someone hurting him was so abhorrent, I realized that I would happily go to prison just to inflict punishment upon the person who made him cry.   I tried to think of something I wouldn’t do to save him–and I couldn’t come up with a single thing.  Would I lay down my life?  In a heartbeat.  Would I harm another that was harming him?  In the blink of an eye.  Would I exact revenge Old Testament style and bring down a plague of locusts upon the house of his enemy?  It sure felt like it at the time.  So it didn’t happen immediately, but my tiger instinct was aroused.  In our house we have always referred to it as the emergence of Mama Lion, but the idea is the same.  The ferocious defense of your young.

That burning intensity has of course been tamed.  There’s no need to get Kill Bill in the face of the four year-old in the sand box.  I don’t need to practice ninja mom moves when my kid doesn’t get picked for the playground soccer.   Without a doubt I would still defend my children with my life, but I’ll save it for the big stuff.

Like that first heartbreak.

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