Suburban Snapshots

Protecting My No

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

I don't say no easily. This is why I'm currently in charge of maintaining the PTA website and am running a Daisy troop that's one girl over the official ratio. It's why there are 46 containers of Play-Doh in my living room. It's why the local girls' softball team has twenty of my dollars and why I'm constantly burying copies of The Watchtower in the bottom of my recycle bin. Hell, it's why I have a kid.

I thought I'd be better at saying no. Growing up I was often frustrated that my mom never seemed to refuse anyone, and was constantly giving people rides or covering shifts or taking in relatives with no where else to go. She still does it, plus now she's constantly inundated with other people's children — mine included. I come from accommodators, it's in my genes.

So when I do say no, I have important reasons. When I say no, I've considered all other options, including "maybe" and "not right now." I've quickly run through scenarios and consequences. I've contemplated the outcomes of yes and have decided that they don't override my discomfort with no. It's not that I want to let you down. I don't want you to feel dismissed or hurt, my no isn't about you, it's based on a complex series of probabilities and experiences.

Sometimes no is met with a frown or grumble: No, you've had plenty of candy before bed. No, I don't have time to run to the post office for you tomorrow. No, I'm not making lasagna because it's such a pain in the ass that I'd almost rather have actual anal sex.

I understand those brief rebuttals. What I don't need is a debate, I don't want a guilt trip or a multi-sentence exchange justifying my no. We aren't discussing why you can't stay up another hour, I'm not apologizing for not being in the mood right now or explaining at length why I'm not going to open a credit card with your store today. My no deserves respect, dammit. My no is never easy.

I like to yes. Yes makes everyone happy, yes makes me a hero, yes makes me santa and the ice cream man all at once. But sometimes yes makes me tired or overbooked or frustrated with myself for not protecting my time or my convictions. I'm trying, I'm working on the balance between yes and no. I'm learning that often, a decisive no hurts everyone less than a reluctant yes.

Another View From the World of
the Suburban Mom

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I just replied to a text from a friend inviting me over for dinner because she knows my kid didn't sleep last night, ended up in my bed, and kept me awake for four hours. Another was checking in because I also kept said child home from school "sick" when I was too exhausted to fight off her whines and pleading this morning. "Is Anna feeling okay?" As a matter of fact, she's fine. I'm about to fall face-first into my own lap and am currently debating whether I should have a cup of tea and risk ruining tonight's sleep for the sake of being coherent when my husband walks through the door in half an hour.

Unlike the author of the discouraging article about suburban motherhood and friendships I just finished reading, I didn't move to the suburbs after we started our family. I moved to the suburbs when my husband dragged me here after he'd grown tired of dealing with Boston traffic and the college students surrounding our condo who regularly used our car as an extension of the sidewalk. Our daughter was a belated and unexpected housewarming gift.

At first I was just a woman looking for friendship. I was freelancing and drove to gigs in Boston almost weekly and I'd squeeze in lunch or coffee with friends. Our neighborhood then was populated mostly by retirees — wonderful people who welcomed us and then went about home improvements and visits from the grandkids. The people our age seemed to all have babies or were expecting. I visited my sister in Maine a lot.

Once Anna arrived I set about finding friends like it was my job. There was a local moms group that I joined, screwed up the time of my first meeting, showed up as everyone else was leaving, and then accidentally flung my sucked-out shrimp tail down a member's cleavage when I finally did make it to a dinner event a few weeks later. I felt neither unwelcome nor a sense of instant camaraderie. I took it for what it was: a group of moms who were somewhat familiar with one another, who had a decent amount of disposable income, and happened to live in the same geographic region. I went in knowing that just like love, real friendships tend to just kind of happen. At 34 I knew what I wanted in a friend and I knew I'd be incredibly lucky to find it at what amounted to a mom dating event.



That night we had a private room and a guided beer tasting. I got the shrimp throwing out of the way early to break the ice and had lovely conversations with the women seated nearest. It was enough for me to get a feel for the community and I left with an idea of which of the moms were most my type. A month later my dues lapsed and I didn't attend any more nights out.

Ultimately, it wasn't the moms group where I made the very real friendships I am so grateful to have now. It was offering an acquaintance a ride to the repair shop, it was posting some maternity clothes on Freecycle, it was volunteering to help with the neighborhood block party and accepting an impromptu invitation to a lesbian dance club. There was no formal admission to an established group or monthly dues or even solid plans.

Making friends is as much about you as it is about the people you seek out. You decide how invested you want to be and how hard you want to chase it, you cultivate the type of friends you need and avoid the ones you don't, you decide whether or not having someone to grab coffee with is worth navigating cliquey, political bullshit. Maybe it's a difference in location or median income, but I either haven't encountered the kinds of cliques the Boston Magazine article is based on, or maybe I've been too busy making friends to notice.

Enough Already With Elsa

Monday, March 24, 2014

I have a vague memory of the Christmas that my sister got a Cabbage Patch Kid when we other two girls didn't. I don't think I wanted one, but had a notion that people were going batshit crazy for the things and that my aunt had visited both an ancient oracle and a witch doctor just to find out which Toys R Us would have them in stock on a given Tuesday.

Every year I watch people on Black Friday cram themselves through sliding doors to pummel each other toward high-def televisions in the true spirit of the season. I'd smugly snicker with everyone else at lines wrapped around Apple stores for whichever shiny, new gadget I'd end up buying three months later.

My sanctimony was as thick as the smell of people who've spent three nights on the sidewalk outside Best Buy.

And then Frozen happened, and the request for a Frozen-themed birthday party, and while it's established that I'm pretty laid back in my parenting style, it's also understood that I lose my fucking mind over birthdays (I actually enjoy this temporary insanity, it's one of the few times a year my husband just rolls his eyes and shuts his mouth while I spend money on coordinating piƱatas and cake plates).


And oh, Anna wants to dress up as Elsa. That's irony, Alanis.

Now, when I say I'm crazy about birthdays, please don't mistake me for the level of crazy that would throw down $250 for a Disney-licensed Elsa dress on eBay, where people who stalk Target's loading docks to intercept new shipments cash in on the tears of a million little girls. No, I'm crazy but I have principles, dammit.

I bought her a $40 pageant dress that I'll staple some shimmery scrap of fabric to. My cousin is braiding a blond wig she wore as Lady Gaga for Halloween and shipping that with a pair of sparkly flats. I ordered the cake to save time, and I'll hang our Christmas lights over the appetizer table for ambiance. Her guest list is limited to family — my sister birthed a child army so I'd never have to invite the whole kindergarten class to a party.

It's the gift that's bringing my crazy to the tipping point. All she's asked for is this dinky little $6 figurine, but like all things Elsa, it's nowhere to be found. I've been ducking into Targets, running through Toys R Us and braved two separate Walmarts on a Saturday. I group-texted friends to be on the lookout, and I'm considering setting up a hunting blind at the...I've said too much.

It's less crazy if you know it's crazy, right? RIGHT?

She may or may not get the doll, but she'll have her party and I'll eat my leftover cake for breakfast and everyone will be happy except my husband, who will remind me for the eleven-billionth time that all he ever had as a kid was "some ice cream cake and a song." Then I'll eat his cake too, and that's not a euphemism.

My Smugness Comes From Years of Experience

Thursday, March 06, 2014

One day back in my happily childless twenties, I visited my favorite produce market on a Saturday when the place was so crowded I popped three tomatoes just trying to shimmy down an aisle. I passed a woman with a full grocery cart and two elementary-aged kids and thought, "God, why would she bring them here on a Saturday?" A minute later, her little girl tried to ride the cart and tipped the whole contraption, distributing melons and imported dates across three aisles.

Waiting in the fancy cheese line, I stood patiently as the man in front of me held his daughter up so that she could sample several varieties of cheddar, and wondered, "Does this asshole realize there are six people behind him? Can't he culture this kid on a quiet Tuesday?"

Today I watched a conversation on a friend's Facebook page where several moms tried explaining to one twenty-something woman why we bring our children, you know, out in public, like, ever, and later in the thread, why we choose to have children at all.

Maybe you've noticed that lately the Internet has been pretty harsh toward us parents. We can't do right on planes, in restaurants, museums, we complain too much, we don't enjoy it enough. Our kids are either monsters or milksops, spoiled rotten or thoroughly neglected. Apparently we weren't being judgmental enough of each other, so anonymous strangers have risen to the occasion.

It's not hard to be smug. If I really wanted to, I could give it back and better — I've been a childless twenty-something. I've lived in cities, shared public transportation with strollers, eaten next to fussy babies. I didn't want to have kids, but I managed to make my decision without basing it on some superficial opinion of people I read about on the Internet. I was able to conclude that maybe parenthood wasn't my bag for well-thought-out reasons, not because one time a kid threw a tantrum next to me in Starbucks.

The childfree who take such satisfaction in the wholesale dismissal of parenthood have zero idea what it is to have a kid — no stop, don't even argue. Please. Periodendofstory. I don't say this to people when they wonder why anyone who'd complain about spending Saturday night contracting Black Plague at Chuck E. Cheese's ever reproduced in the first place. I don't wag my knowing finger and tsk, "Oh, you'll see, honey. Around the same time you realize how silly those enormous glasses make you look and stop with the pioneer beard, you'll see what an amazing gift children are. You'll understand that for every shitty, dry birthday party where all they serve is Walmart cupcakes and boxes of Hi-C, there are a million sparkling bursts of joy." That would just be condescending.

No, I'm content to keep that piece of satisfaction to myself and instead diplomatically explain that I really do enjoy bringing my five-year-old to the grocery store, because she loves the free slice of cheese at the deli and she can read all of the cereal boxes now, which is incredible. I remember my twenty-five-year-old self and I know I'd have had little understanding of this. When I was in my twenties, a co-worker lost her three-year-old to a genetic disorder. I knew intellectually that it was tragic and that she was heartbroken, but it's only now that I can comprehend the depths of her devastation and marvel that she ever returned to our office.

I don't think I'm any better than those who haven't yet or who've decided to never reproduce — some of my favorite people are gleefully unencumbered by offspring — and I don't evangelize for breeding. I also don't bother myself with concerns over what people half my age do with their lives, and I won't condemn an entire demographic based on random public interactions or some poorly composed viral headline.

Maybe I'm singing a tune that's only familiar to my contemporaries, but what's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

Parenting Ad Hoc

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


I rolled out of bed a luxurious half hour after my family one weekday morning, hearing Steve making his tea and packing leftovers for lunch, the sound of his heavy work boots tromping over the voice of the weather man announcing probably more snow. By the time I made it down the hall to the living room, Steve was in the bathroom and Anna was alone on the couch. The weather report had ended, and the news anchors were breathlessly recounting the latest fire/school shooting/drug-fueled crime spree. I could see she wasn't fully paying attention, but she'd recently been asking a lot of questions about fire and I didn't need a sensationalized news report getting her any more anxious.



When Steve came back into the room I asked if he could be more mindful of what's on the television when the 5-year-old is present, and he muttered something like "Not a big deal" or "The real world" or something, and I refrained from kicking him in the tender, post-vasectomy testicles.

This is ad hoc parenting. These are the things you didn't think to talk about when you were deciding on education and religion, corporal punishment, circumcision, disposable vs. cloth, and savings accounts. If you thought agreeing on your baby's name was a struggle, wait until you realize that you and your partner have completely different views on your toddler's eating habits.

In our house, Steve is very strict around dinner time: Sit, use a fork, napkin, no hugging during meal times, clean your plate. My philosophy is sit, put food into your body until you don't want any more, but don't think two rigatoni are going to get you dessert. I let her hug me and listen for Steve's heavy sigh, then I joke about him being raised in a Russian orphanage.

On the other hand, I want that kid in bed at 7:30, and Steve is very flexible about bedtime. Stories usually creep past the 8:00 mark while I bide time waiting for my adult company to return to the couch.

You don't sit down and hash out these parenting decisions, you make them on the fly and sometimes resign yourself to your partner's methods because you know this is a shared responsibility and ultimately you trust their parenting. Mostly. On occasion, you'll mutter, "She's not going to go soft because I let her hug me at dinner."

The only way to prepare for this is to know that you can't prepare for it. You'll find yourself in it, living it, arguing about it, and then finally coming to some kind of agreement, even if it's tenuous one. It's a compromise, just like every other part of sharing your life and space with other people.

I know sometimes it's hard for Steve to let go of his tendencies and submit to my parenting style and I might never understand some of the battles he picks. The important thing is that we give each other the trust and respect to make decisions independently of each other. Based on how the five-year-old is turning out, I think so far we're doing all right.

A Letter to My Husband on the
Approach of Valentine's Day

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Hi Honey,

Listen, I'm with you on this being a fabricated holiday. I get it. But I'm still sitting here shoving pencils through paper hearts for Anna to bring to school because apparently candy is now as big a faux pas as store-bought cards. These make her happy and her little friends will enjoy sword fighting with the pencils until they lose circle time privileges.

I knew you weren't a romantic when I met you and babe, I'm a cynic too. Hallmark can spare me the soulmates line and the meant-to-be business. I was twenty-five and crazy about you, and you were like, "Cool," and our match was made. I knew you'd grow to love me.



I do have a point, and I'm very slowly getting there.

You always take care of me, so even though I can count on one finger the times you've surprised me with wine and cheese after a bad day at whatever crappy job I had in 2002, the fact that you work so hard to improve our lives — the way you do the laundry without being asked, that you never complain when I leave you with Anna for hours, or how you lift all the heavy stuff so I don't have to — trumps your deficit of sentimentality. I joked about the garbage disposal you installed for my birthday but I really do appreciate it and I'm sorry for being such a brat about that new car.

The generator you got me for Christmas was great too and I'm thisclose to learning how to turn it on without blowing up the electrical panel you spent so long meticulously wiring. You do all of this because you're a good man, practical to your very marrow. I've learned that hard work is the currency of your affection.

So when I ask if you want to "do something" for Valentine's Day, you should know me well enough to understand that I am not hoping for some contrived overture that includes waxy drug store chocolate and a hot tub date scene out of "The Bachelor". What I'm saying is that I'd like you to sometimes ignore all your sensible tendencies and get a little corny just because it'll make me happy. It's like Anna's been singing non-stop for two months now: Let it go.

Once a year I want a back rub that isn't a segue. I'd like you to spoon me to sleep with both your hands above the equator. I want you to be the one to call in the reservation then agree to be my designated driver and not balk at the two thirteen-dollar drinks it'll take to get me into the passenger seat. I want your hand on my knee while you drive even though your callouses snag my tights. There must be a view around here we could go enjoy, and when I suggest it I'd like you to not joke about how I won't be able to see anything anyway with my head in your crotch.

Actually that's pretty funny, you can keep that in play.

Honey, let's just be dumb for each other this Valentine's Day and if it'll make you feel better, I'll let you tile the shower on Saturday.

xo
Bren

The Love That Keeps You Married

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

I love my husband this week. This week, I look across the room at him and think, "How long can I safely assume Anna would stay glued to that iPad right now?" This week I want to tell his bosses what a dedicated employee he is and tell Anna to stop saying that she loves me better because I let her have hot cocoa after school. I want to make his favorite dinner even though it's so packed with fat that I can't go near it. I'll tell him I'm proud of his work, that he's a great dad and husband, that sometimes when I joke about my friends wanting to get in his pants I'm kind of serious and maybe a little concerned. This week he's getting more random hugs, less sarcasm, and lots of appreciation.


1997. Strictly roommates.

Last week I wanted to beat him with the pillow he hugs to sleep and which inevitably ends up making its way onto my face when he lets go of it in the middle of the night. He couldn't say a thing that didn't annoy me, he was full of sarcasm and tone, he'd been sick and stressed and brought all of it into the house after work. All I could see were the piles of crap he makes on every surface in the house and the pile of dishes he ignored before work. His coughing annoyed me, the tissues everywhere annoyed me, the way he spoke to Anna led me a few times to break the cardinal parenting rule of not contradicting your partner in earshot of your children.

Steve is much more steady in things like this than I am. He doesn't get annoyed like I do. I don't consider myself moody, but I might walk around tense and aggravated and bottled up, I keep it in especially when I know I'm being unfair. Usually my first indication that he's stressed or tired is that he stops trying to grope me every six seconds. And even when I'm such an irrepressible rag that I don't want to hang out with myself, he wants me around. Two weeks ago when I couldn't stand the sight of his wet boots tipped over at the back door, I thought about taking off to my mom's for the day, just for some space, just to miss him again.

And I would miss him, I'd call an hour later and apologize for being so crabby, because as much as I know I'm right about his tone and how heinous it is of him to pile crumpled receipts on his dresser, I also know precisely when I'm overreacting or letting some deep-seated resentment create an uncalled for defensiveness in my reactions. Usually this happens when we talk about money -- like when Steve so much as innocently asks, "Do you know how much you spent on stuff this week?" and I freak out about feeling lorded over despite the fact that to date we have not had to relocate to my station wagon.

The thing is, none of this is even a blip in our state of the union. I know these episodes will cycle over and over, that there will always be times I can't get close enough to him and times when an entire state doesn't seem big enough for us both. Yet I feel like these are exactly the things the uninitiated will point to as a rut or an incompatibility, those people who believe that love is a balm for everything, and that "real love" doesn't struggle. Heading into our 10th anniversary and our 15th year together, I'm less naive. Real love's got this on lock. Real love keeps this in perspective and doesn't anticipate bliss in every moment.

A friend's grandfather told her, "The love that gets you married isn't the same love that keeps you married." But no one's going to dance to that at their wedding reception.