Keller vs. Sullivan, Part II: Is there an Annie Sullivan in the house?

The appointment starts with great promise.

The neurologist, young and eccentric, says he knows exactly how to help my daughter. Follow his recommendations, he says, and she’ll be talking, using the toilet and behaving like a typical five-year-old in no time.

I am giddy with relief.

It’s a feeling all special needs parents know well. In a world where no one “gets” our kids — and some just get them flat-out wrong — when you encounter someone who not only gets them but knows how to help them, it’s like Christmas, your birthday and the season premiere of The Walking Dead all in one.

I call it the Annie Sullivan Effect, for the woman who taught a blind and deaf Helen Keller how to communicate. Like Sullivan, these women and men come into your child’s life and flip a switch you didn’t even know where to look for.

We have been lucky enough to know several Annie Sullivans. They hold a special place in our hearts and prime real estate in our prayers.

But as much as I adore these people, there is a massive drawback to meeting a real life Annie Sullivan. It makes the disappointment that much greater when someone who appears to have Sullivan potential turns out to be a JAGBA, (Just Another Giver of Bad Advice).

If there is one thing special needs parents have in abundance it’s JAGBAs. They leap out at us whenever we venture forth in public with our children or post about them on social media.

“Do you speak with him?” one woman asked when I explained that my then-3-year-old son couldn’t talk. “I mean, maybe if you modeled speech it would help.”

I was beyond tempted to reply, “No, we communicate entirely in mime. Look! He’s doing the ‘I’m-trapped-in-a-giant-invisible-box’ routine! Haha. Good one, buddy!”

While JAGBAs exist for all moms and dads, they can be particularly vexing for special needs parents because, unless the person speaking has a degree in neurologically atypical development, he or she has about as much chance of giving appropriate advice as I do of being crowned Miss Argentina. (It could happen but the circumstances would be very suspicious.)

Even once you do explain your child’s condition, some JAGBAs refuse to accept that this negates their words of wisdom. That some kids are wired differently challenges, well, apparently everything they believe about the universe.

Having seen up close and personal how differently some children develop, I can very comfortably say it is more bizarre to believe the “one-size-fits-all” line of thinking than it is to reject it.

Take my son and speech. Everything that helped typical kids learn how to speak, such as modeling speech, didn’t work for him. And trust me, we modeled out the wazoo. At his pediatrician’s request I narrated everything we did, much to the concern of people who found themselves near us in public. “Here we go up the stairs,” I’d say, as people inched away from the crazy lady. “Up, up, up the stairs.”

Even things that helped the majority of atypical kids learn how to speak, such as speech therapy and sign language, didn’t work. (And no, despite what some JAGBAs argue, learning sign language does not discourage kids from speaking. It’s not like they have the keys to the kingdom being able to sign “milk” and “potty.”)

So what did the trick? A new neurologist and an occupational therapist who determined the problem was with my son’s vestibular system. (Essentially, his sense of balance.) Instead of trying to get him speak, this therapist focused on movement. She pushed him on platform swings and swung him in circles. Within a week, he said his first words. Probably to get her to stop.

When you witness something like this, you don’t just drink the neurologically atypical Kool-Aid, you chug it.

That’s why I am ready to follow every recommendation this young neurologist gives. He has already built a reputation within the local special needs community for “thinking outside the box” and getting results.

His first suggestion is to take a stool sample so he can prescribe a course of probiotics and supplements for my daughter. Sounds good.

He then sends us across the hall so his nutritionist can devise a special diet for her. I am THRILLED. Eating has been a major issue for my daughter ever since she started chemotherapy and the constant nausea and vomiting turned her off food.

Toward the end of her cancer treatment she was fed entirely through a tube. When she began her recovery, her doctors recommended a liquid meal replacement drink to help her gain weight and grow as we gradually reintroduced solid foods. It has helped us tremendously but we would love nothing more than for her to enjoy eating again.

Unfortunately, the nutritionist is no Annie Sullivan.

The trouble starts when this woman — let’s call her Twiggy — enters the room, turns sideways and disappears. Okay, I’m exaggerating but she was worryingly skinny. I know it’s not nice to be prejudiced against anyone for their weight but I have a really hard time trusting anyone who doesn’t seem to enjoy food. Especially a nutritionist. I mean, what was she going to teach my daughter to eat? Altoids and laxatives?

She asks for a list of foods that my daughter consumes on a regular basis. It’s a short list and when I mention the name of the supplement beverage, her head snaps up and her eyes grow wide over protruding cheek bones.

“That stuff is poison,” she says. “It’s full of sugar and sugar feeds cancer.”

“Her oncologist recommended it,” I reply. “Her tumors have been steadily shrinking the entire time she has consumed it.”

She looks surprised.

“Ok, well, let’s get her off that,” she says and then lists on her bony fingers several nutrient-dense foods I would be thrilled for my daughter to eat but I’d be lucky to get my husband to try.

“Great!” I chirp. “How do I get her to eat all this?”

She looks at me blankly.

“We have a lot of trouble getting her to try new foods,” I explain. “Do you have any suggestions?”

“Just put it in front of her,” she replies, pulling out her phone because apparently we’re boring. “She’ll eat if she’s hungry enough.”

That’s when I knew it was all over. Because yes, most children will eat foods they don’t particularly like if the alternative is going hungry. But kids with sensory issues or oral aversions won’t, especially if they are too young or developmentally delayed to make the connection between hunger and food.

Her advice was the equivalent of Annie Sullivan telling the Kellers, “Just force Helen to develop a concept of language and a method of communicating.” Great in theory, but how do you get there?

In that instant it became apparent that, although this woman was well-versed in nutrition (she could correctly pronounce “quinoa”), she was pure JAGBA when it came to eating and the neurologically atypical.

I wasn’t alone in this assessment. A few months later, the neurologist added a feeding therapist to his staff so children could learn to eat these incredible diets being created for them.

And once again I was reminded that they can’t all be Sullivans.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that big a deal. Two years on and my daughter has almost caught up developmentally, even without the help of kale. Some people have asked why I even bothered with all the therapists and doctors if she would eventually get there on her own. The truth is, we had no idea if she would.

Also, as a parent you see your kid struggling with the basics and you want to help. You want your child to enjoy everything other children her age do: giggling with friends; the sweet, sunshiny taste of an orange; the pride of not crapping her pants.

Although there is far less call for Annie Sullivans around our house these days, I will probably always be on the look out for them. This is largely because I feel so out of my depth as a parent to the two unique, fabulous people that are my children.

So to any and all the Annies out there, thank you for what you do.

And call me if you have any suggestions.

This entry is dedicated to the miracle-working Ms. Lee. Thanks for being our first Annie Sullivan.

 

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In this corner, we have Annie Sullivan.

Keller vs. Sullivan, A Two-Part Series

Part 1: I’m sorry, Mrs. Keller

I’ve always thought Annie Sullivan was the bomb.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Sullivan was a 19th century educator who taught a blind and deaf child how to communicate with the outside world, paving the way for the latter’s life as a speaker, writer, activist and all-around badass.

The child was, of course, Helen Keller.

While both Sullivan and Keller have been lauded for their achievements, there’s someone else who deserves credit for Helen’s greatness.

That person is, of course, her mother.

Don’t worry, this isn’t some saccharine tribute to a complete stranger simply for giving birth. Rather, it’s an overdue and sincere apology to a person who deserves more credit than she’s been given. At least by me.

Some background

I have been borderline obsessed with Helen Keller since childhood. What can I say? She’s one hell of an icon.

And while long ago I placed Helen and her teacher on pedestals, I dismissed her mother as sweet but useless. This was mainly because I was a judgmental a-hole before I had children, with an unmatched ability to dismiss people I’d never met and experiences I’d never had.

In my defense, most of the books written about Helen Keller mention her mother only incidentally, focusing instead on her relationship with Sullivan.

The most in-depth portrayal of Kate Keller comes from the 1959 play The Miracle Worker, which chronicled — what else? — the early days of Helen’s relationship with Sullivan.

In the ultimate good-cop/bad-cop set up, the play portrays Kate Keller as kind but weak willed and dangerously indulgent of her child. This is in stark contrast to Annie Sullivan, a fiery yankee with a no-nonsense attitude who swoops in to instill order in the Keller household.

There’s no reason to believe these characterizations are far off the mark. Kate was the mistress of a genteel Southern household. Sullivan was the child of Irish immigrants and spent a large part of her life in a asylum for the poor.

What the play makes clear early on is that to thrive, Helen needs less of her mother’s kindness and more of Sullivan’s tough love.

A child lost

Although a work of fiction, The Miracle Worker is considered, for the most part, an accurate depiction of what occurred when Sullivan moved in with the Kellers to teach their daughter.

When it opens, 6-year-old Helen is depicted as near feral. Without the ability to understand what’s going on around her, she has been left in a protracted state of infancy. She is filthy and disheveled. One can presume — if one is me, anyway — that she is in diapers.

In the first few minutes, she attacks another child with a pair of scissors. A few minutes later, she tips her baby sister out of her cradle.

There is yelling and crying, and like the setup in a bad reality show, the Kellers are depicted as a Family in Crisis.

The audience learns that Helen’s parents have been advised to put their daughter in an asylum for the mentally ill. So far they have resisted but unless they can get Helen under control, they may have no choice.

Sullivan quickly identifies, of all things, Kate as the greatest obstacle to Helen’s success. Kate refuses to discipline or train her child. She dispenses hugs and cuddles instead of punishments and allows her daughter to run wild, stepping in only if the child has hurt someone or could hurt herself.

When Sullivan attempts to instill some discipline in the child, Kate frets that she is being too harsh.

Sullivan decides the only chance she has of getting through to Helen will be if her mother is out of the picture.

She’s right. It’s only after Sullivan moves into a small house with Helen and works with her one-on-one that she is able to teach the child the concept of language, thus changing her life forever.

What a kick to the maternal nuts.

What Kate did for Helen

While there is no denying that Sullivan changed Helen’s life for the better, I believe Kate’s contribution was as great, if not infinitely more subtle.

Helen Keller is inspirational not only for finding her voice despite physical setbacks but because that voice was so remarkable.

Her writing and speeches — which are still quoted today — show a soul filled with wisdom, joy and compassion. This is astounding when you consider she spent the first six years of her life in what was practically solitary confinement.

Until she learned how to communicate, Helen largely knew only silence and isolation. She had no way to express her feelings or even understand them.

She was also aware of the fact that she was different. In her early years she would feel people’s faces while they were talking and move her own mouth in imitation. She knew she was missing a piece of the puzzle. She also had to sense that few people wanted to be near her. Even her father and older brother gave her a wide berth.

But because of Kate, she also knew affection and comfort. Her mother’s kindness and total acceptance taught Helen that, as different as she was, she was still worthy of love. It’s difficult to imagine who she would have become without that knowledge.

Kate also showed a heroic amount of empathy and patience. While most people dismissed Helen as wild or even insane, Kate looked beyond her behavior and tried to understand what was going on in her child’s head. She knew Helen didn’t act out because she was a mean child. She was frustrated. She was lonely. She wanted desperately to fit in but she didn’t know how.

Kate Keller did more than just defend and mediate for her daughter. She kept her tethered to humanity.

That’s some hardcore parenting right there.

Could she have done this and still instilled some discipline in the child? I guess. Hell, she could have been a real super hero and devised a system of communication for the child as well but she didn’t.

All I can say is, from one mother to another: Kate Keller, I get it now. I’m sorry I didn’t get it sooner.

You rock.

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One great mama.

Observations from the field

“I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!”
Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games

I thought Katniss Everdeen was stupid. All she did was volunteer to take her sister’s place in a fight to the death.

This idiot here offered — once again — to chaperone a school field trip.

I don’t have a great track record with field trips. (See here.) But I had high hopes for this one. My daughter is no longer in a special needs classroom. Her classmates are, for the most part, neurologically typical kids without sensory issues.

A trip to the nature museum sounded easy.

Here are some of the conclusions I reached after that day:

  1. Teachers should be allowed to call off field trips without any warning if they feel like it.

The morning of my daughter’s class field trip, the temperature reached 94 degrees (34 degrees celsius) with 75 percent humidity. (It’s fall, y’all!) This wouldn’t have mattered except we had a 40-minute walk there and back.

“I didn’t realize it would be this hot,” the teacher said. “Oh well.”

Tack on the hour we spent playing outside at the museum and many of the children were exhibiting signs of heat stroke by the time we made it back to school.

2. Teachers should be allowed to do whatever they want, whenever they want.

Just, because.

3. Kids really do say the darnedest things.

This is one of those truisms that exist for a reason, such as, “Your children’s favorite restaurant will always be in the most crime-ridden part of town.”

(Seriously. I’ll never forget taking my niece from Scotland out to the Steak n’ Shake and watching her eyes light up when a sheriff’s cruiser pulled up out front.

“Sheriffs are real?” she asked with delight.

“They are,” I replied. “Maybe we could go out and say hi…”

There was a loud thump as two deputies slammed a skinny, bearded teenager across the hood of the car and cuffed him.

“Or not,” I said. “They’re, um, busy.”)

But back to kids saying funny stuff.

On the walk to the museum, a 7-year-old girl in glasses and braids sidled up to me and asked, “Did you do anything fun last night?”

“We played Uno,” I said.

“That sounds fun,” she said. “Me? I was in a car wreck.”

“What’s your name again?” I asked.

At lunch time, when I was speaking with some of the children about the Harry Potter books, I accidentally let it slip that Ron Weasley dates Lavender Brown.

“Spoiler alert!” one of the girls shouted.

Another shook her head and said, “That’ll never last.”

But the most amusing words by far were spoken by a chubby-cheeked, 6-year-old girl named Clara. When she fell off the swing, she soberly informed me she had hurt her booty. When some of the older girls told me in a panic that she was injured, pointing at a bright red patch on her arm, she gravely informed me, through a thick lisp, “It’s just a little psoriasis.” (Ith jutht a little thoriathith.)

4. Academic situations still freak me out.

Part of our trip included a lesson in the planetarium on the sun, the phases of the moon, and constellations.

It was all fun and games until our super chipper, heavily pierced tour guide (“Call me Britney!!!”) began asking questions.

“Does anyone know how long it takes the Earth to rotate on its axis?”

“How long does it take the Earth to orbit the sun once?”

“Can anyone point out the Big Dipper?”

Suddenly I felt the familiar panic these question-and-answer sessions always induced as a child. It didn’t matter that I knew the answers, or that I had zero chance of being called on. My palms still broke out in a sweat and butterflies flitted through my stomach.

I knew I had become too emotionally invested in the moment when a boy who had been blurting out correct answers claimed it took 35 years for the moon to orbit the Earth and I had to stop myself from exclaiming “Loser!”

5. There really is something in the water.

Kids these days grow up fast, and I don’t just mean metaphorically.

My daughter is in a mixed first-, second- and third-grade classroom, meaning her classmates range in age from six to nine. While I expected the third graders to be larger than the first graders, I was unprepared for just how mature modern eight- and nine-year-olds look.

When one boy asked me a question about the museum’s iguana, I could barely focus on his words, so mesmerized was I by his wispy, Menudo-esque ‘stache.

One of the third grade girls stood at my height. I am 5’ 4”. She is nine.

On a trip to the restroom, one second grade girl confided in me that she was menstruating.

I’m starting to think all my friends who eschew products from animals treated with growth hormones are on to something.

6. Teachers don’t make enough money.

I know, I know, everyone thinks this — or pretends to — and for a variety of reasons.

While I could say there is no paycheck large enough to cover marching kids through a heatwave or not strangling the ones who play that STUPID FRICKING bottle-flipping game, the one that comes to mind has to do with teacher training.

Before we departed for the museum, I was scanning the books on the classroom shelves, creased tomes with titles such Basics of Mathematics and What in the World is a Homophone? (Don’t worry, I read that one wrong as well.)

It dawned on me, not for the first time, that teachers have to know a lot of stuff and not just the actual subjects they teach.

There are thousands of people who spend their lives studying how children’s minds work. There are countless methods and techniques for teaching each subject. Teachers are expected to learn all of this, remember it, and apply it correctly without losing their minds.

I remember the textbooks used by my friends who studied education in college. They were as thick and dry as bricks, full of incomprehensible phrases they actually understood. I could barely remember to staple my papers before I handed them in and they were using words such as “metacognitive” in a conversation.

And let’s not kid ourselves that all the subjects they teach are simple. Basic addition is one thing but could you confidently give a lesson on the correct usage of the accusative form following a prepositional phrase?

In summation: kids are funny as hell; teachers are smart as hell; North Carolina in October is hell.

I’ll have more following the next field trip.

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My expression when it was all over.

 

 

 

A very angry thank you

To the doctors, nurses, techs and child life specialists who choose to work with pediatric cancer patients, I have one quick question: What the %*&@ is wrong with you???

You know there are easier ways to make a living. In fact, I would be hard pressed to find a more demanding way to earn a paycheck.

Sure, there are other professions with long hours and stressful conditions. Not one includes telling parents their children might die.

Perhaps no one mentioned this in medical or nursing school, but there are fields where the chances of watching an infant vomit and defecate blood are next to none. Podiatry comes to mind. Urology, perhaps.

Or, hey, you know what? F—k medicine altogether. As far as I know, investment bankers don’t have to repeatedly stick a needle into a shrieking toddler to start an IV in impossibly small veins.

Yes, other people deal with anger on the job. (Does anyone like a telemarketer?) But in no other profession is the vitriol as relentless and undeserved as it is for you.

Sometimes it comes in the heat of the moment: a parent snaps after weeks, months, even years of watching their child suffer, and turns on those trying to help.

Other times, it comes from the realm of the Perpetually Righteously Indignant, those terminally wise fools who enjoy spouting off to anyone who will listen about how oncologists love nothing more than a new diagnosis or a relapse because it means more money in their bank accounts.

There is a special place for people like this. I’ve heard it’s very warm.

And then there are those who believe doctors are part of a conspiracy to keep the cure for cancer under wraps because, as the logic goes, if you cured cancer, the medical industry would lose out on a valuable source of revenue.

Look, I love me a good conspiracy theory. Is it possible that pharmaceutical company execs are conspiring with each other to keep a failsafe cure for cancer from coming to the market? I dunno. I have some serious reservations about this theory but then I didn’t spend all those years watching The X Files and not learn a little something about the possibility of the implausible.

But if this is the case, do I believe the doctors and nurses working with pediatric cancer patients are “in” on it?

Oh hell no.

Because it would take one hell of a monster to subject children to the misery and uncertainty of chemotherapy and radiation if there was a magic pill that could quickly and painlessly make all the bad stuff go away.

What I would suggest for those who think caregivers are in on the Great Cancer Caper is to spend 24 hours on the job with a pediatric oncology doctor or nurse.

Change the sheets of a toddler who has just thrown up for the tenth time in an hour. Listen to the screams of a 5-month-old whose chronic chemo-induced diarrhea has left his bottom covered in sores. Comfort the parents whose child just died in their arms.

Then come back and tell me if you think there is any amount of financial compensation that could make this worth it.

But back to you, oncology types.

What gets me about you people, is that you choose to live the way most people can’t.

Most people get to exist quite happily outside of the pediatric cancer bubble. Before my daughter was diagnosed, I was one of them. Like everyone else, I thought of kids with cancer only when an ad for St. Jude’s came on the TV, or when watching old episodes of Highway to Heaven. (I don’t get out much.)

These often saccharine depictions, which are still too overwhelming for some, don’t even begin to capture the horror of pediatric cancer.

You live the reality.

You spend your work hours in the trenches with these children, witnessing more pain and suffering than any human should have to. You spend your down time walking or hiking or mud-running to raise money for cancer charities. You celebrate the victories. You cry at the funerals. You honor the birthdays of those who will never grow up.

It takes one hell of a person to do that. I mean, the words “bat” and “s—t” come to mind but that doesn’t really capture the high regard in which I hold you maniacs.

All I can say is, on behalf of all the families that have been or will be affected by pediatric cancer, thank you. Thank you for choosing to do what you do, to put up with what you put up with.

Because your lunacy makes it possible for cancer families to keep going.

Y’frigging nut jobs.

Sign here to end the abuse

It shouldn’t happen to a child but it does.

Every summer, across the country, thousands of privileged, middle class kids are forced to attend institutions known as “summer camps.”

The travesties they endure in these cleverly disguised tear factories cannot fully be depicted in writing. Suffice it to say, “campers” are coerced into such “fun” activities as swimming, making crafts, playing games and singing songs, all when they would much prefer to be at home rolling around on exercise balls.

Forget what you think you know about pediatric suffering. Forced labor, starvation, domestic violence — nothing can quite compare with the indignity of lanyard making and games of “Hot Potato.”

The choice is obvious: children should be allowed to play video games for eight hours straight or trail two inches behind their beleaguered parents mumbling, “Bored, bored, bored,” every single day of summer vacation if they prefer, instead of being subjected to the hyper happy ministrations of attentive teenage counselors with names like “Tinkerbell” and “Meatball.”

Until recently, experts were divided as to who was most at fault for the existence of these licensed pits of despair.

Some blamed the school system for ceasing to hold classes for 12 weeks every year. On further scrutiny, it became clear that teachers forced to direct and focus the energy of the nation’s children year round would, in professional parlance, “lose their s—t.”

Others faulted parents, who selfishly refused to drop everything — or cease employment — for three months to direct and monitor the activities of their children every waking minute of the day.

Still others, mainly those who raised their children decades ago or don’t have children of their own, have repeatedly claimed this concern over filling children’s time is ridiculous. This group of experts, many of whom never removed the cigarettes from their mouths while putting their children to sleep in lead-based-paint-coated cribs, have said children should entertain themselves, playing outside with friends, roaming the woods, riding their bikes.

Of course, in this day and age this option is only available to parents who live on quiet cul-de-sacs with trusted neighbors not listed in the sexual offender registry who are within walking distance of woods not being used as shoot-up galleries by junkies. And then only if the children wear helmets, are slathered in factor 70 and checked thoroughly for ticks in the evening.

Even those who do enjoy such a prime real estate location would more than likely find any efforts to encourage this enjoyable independence in their children stymied by bystanders — mainly those who raised their children decades ago or don’t have children of their own — who would report them to authorities for neglect. (Click here to read about the arrest of a mother who let her 9-year-old walk to the local park unattended, or here for the woman investigated because she let her three children play in their own backyard while she folded laundry inside.)

Still, children shouldn’t be forced to suffer just because modern-day parents pretty much suck balls no matter what decisions they make.

Sign here to stop the madness. And consider our other petition against the indignities endured by teenagers whose parents drop them off right in front of the movie theater instead of around the corner, BECAUSE THAT IS SERIOUSLY F—KING EMBARRASSING.

 

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Seriously, this s–t needs to stop.

 

 

 

 

 

The ultimate guide to hosting your child’s birthday party

 

Six weeks out: Select a date, time and venue.

Tell your child it’s time to plan their birthday party. They will no doubt have tons of ideas and it is your job as the Person in Charge to effectively steer them in a direction which is both realistic and affordable. I wouldn’t call crushing dreams a perk of motherhood but — oh, ok, I totally would.

Explain that the kid in his class who had laser tag, a magician and a bouncy castle at his party was, in fact, compensating for something, perhaps the fact that his parents are dead inside and don’t really love him.

If you have venue options, list them now. In our house those venues are limited to home or the YMCA. We once looked into having a party at the science museum and discovered it would cost more than our wedding.

(That’s not saying much since we eloped and our wedding cost $300. Still, keep in mind that you are planning a children’s party, not a ceremony that legally binds you to another human being.)

If you must book a venue, you’re already about two months too late. All the dates and times you want will already be taken, and you’ll be lucky to get their 5 to 6:30 slot on a Sunday.

Party planning tip: Some parents will tell you now is the time to choose the theme for the party. This is a HUGE mistake, at least if your children are as fickle and obsessive as mine. Because I can guarantee that even if your child insists that she loves Dora the Explorer and definitely wants a Dora the Explorer party and let’s make everything Dora the Explorer, the night before the party she will loudly announce that Dora the Explorer in fact sucks balls and Elena of Avalor is the only character who brings any real joy into her life.

Four weeks out: Draw up a guest list.

Numbers will depend largely on where the party is held. My children know if they choose the YMCA, the sky’s the limit. If they want to do it at home, they are limited to eight friends. This is for the very simple reason that, in this day and age, many parents will stay at the party with their children. Some seem to think the the entire family has been invited. This means that for every child invited, you can expect between two to five guests, depending on how many siblings exist and whether grandma is visiting.

Three weeks out: Send the invitations.

Personally, I always do electronic invitations, not because I’m a huge ecowarrior but because I am lazy.

Some people will finalize the theme now so the invitations will match. Big mistake. I just go for a generic “Holy Crap! So-and-so is turning (fill in the age)!” in primary colors.

Two weeks out: Choose a cake

Really organized parents will have done this much earlier, especially if they want one of those fancy cakes that are popping up at kids’ parties these days. (Think fondant and hand painted edible flowers.)

I either buy from a grocery store bakery or make one, especially since my kids have really strange requests when it comes to cakes. This year my son wanted his to feature the star of the “My Big, Fat Zombie Goldfish” books. (Which are awesome, btw.) Try asking Costco if they make a zombie goldfish cake before being removed by security.

One week out: Finalize the guest list and shop for decorations and favors.

Hahahahaha, omg, I’m totally kidding. I mean, you can look at who has RSVPd but technically you’ll never have a real guest list until after the party. This is because some religions forbid people from RSVPing. At least, that’s the only explanation I can come up with for not clicking “Yes” or “No” on an evite.

After reminding your kid this is it, no going back on the theme, load up a basket with themed cups, plates, napkins and banners. Place a balloon order. Look at the final bill and realize this party will cost more than your wedding.

Two days out: Start getting the house ready.

Of course, this is only the case if the party is at home, which is in itself a major argument for having it elsewhere.

Have your children assist you in putting away stray toys and cleaning up their rooms, even though their rooms will be off limits during the party. Realize you have become your mother.

The night before the party: Stuff the piñata.

Smile a little to yourself because “stuffing the piñata” is one of those domestic chores that sounds vaguely dirty, like “icing the buns” and “beating the rug.”

Stuffing the piñata. Giggle.

The morning of the party: Hang the decorations.

This is when you realize that birthday banners are either way too short or two long. Too short and you can’t find a doorway to hang them from. Too long and the guests will be clothes-lined when they come through the door, even though they are only four feet tall.

Two hours before party starts: Clean in a blind panic.

As tidy as the house seemed before, you are now seeing it through the eyes of a guest.

Decide the kitchen counters need to be clear of items. Realize the books on the shelves look sloppy. Ask yourself why you never noticed what looks like a blood stain on the skirting board.

When you are finished, realize your house hasn’t been this clean since when the previous owners showed it.

At the party:

If you are at a venue, everything will go swimmingly.

If you have the party at home, you can expect the following:

All four children who RSVPd will arrive, all with their parents, some with siblings. In addition, the other four children WHO DID NOT RSVP will also show up, along with their parents and siblings, forcing you to make do as best you can, grateful you bought extras of everything.

One particularly obnoxious pint-sized sibling WHO WASN’T INVITED will sniff at your homemade cake and declare “This is way too small.” Consider whispering in his ear “Nobody likes you.” After all, there would have been PLENTY OF CAKE had this little tax write off’s parents not INVITED their extended family WITHOUT RSVPing.

When it comes time for the piñata, explain to the children there is extra candy inside the house, so there is no need to kill each other over the chance to pocket the last roll of Smarties, which suck anyway. They ignore you and proceed to reenact various scenes from “Lord of the Flies.”

Cut the cake into postage stamp sized slices so there will be enough for everyone. The kids will finish in one bite and lick their plates, looking at you plaintively as if they are in an ad for UNICEF.

Some people will advise that now is the time to open gifts but I never do this at the party because my children are terrible liars and will give their honest and ungrateful opinion on every gift, even the good ones.

One minute after the last guest’s extended family has left the party:

Vow never to have another party.

Frankie cake
Zombie goldfish cake, anyone?

 

What Parents Say vs What Kids Hear

 

Kids only hear half of what their parents say. It’s, like, science.

It doesn’t matter how many times you repeat yourself or how clear you think you have made yourself, on a daily basis your children will reveal that they’ve comprehended about a third of your message.

To keep things really amusing, they have an enormous capacity to fill in the blanks of what they didn’t hear.

The following is a list of scenarios all parents are familiar with that demonstrate the difficulty of attempting to communicate with children. Budding, perceptive, brilliant minds, my a—.

Scenario 1:

You are upstairs, outside or just generally out of earshot but your kid needs to ask you/tell you something urgently. When you hear them*, you say/holler:

“If you need me come upstairs/outside/within earshot because I can’t hear you. I’m in the shower/killing a cockroach/burying something the cat killed!”

They hear:

“Stay exactly where you are and yell really loudly so I can be of assistance. Please make sure the panic in your voice is disproportionate to the matter at hand. For example, if you can’t find your favorite cup, scream like someone has broken into the house and we need to call the Special Victims Unit. However, if your sister has fractured her arm and the bone is protruding at a sickening angle through her skin — and, oh yeah, she has passed out — sit lazily at the bottom of the stairs and call out, ‘Mooooommmm.’”

Scenario 2:

Your child wants to know how to spell a word. Unfortunately, it is not a word you’ve ever heard and you’re not sure it exists. For example:

“Mom, how do you spell ipsbefluffle?”

You: “What word?”

Child repeats unintelligible word.

You: “Use it in a sentence.”

Child: “I sure love ipsbefluffle!”

You say: “I don’t think I’m familiar with that word. I can’t help you.”

They hear: “Repeat it ad nauseam until we both get so frustrated we hate each other.”

Scenario 3:

Your child asks for your help, usually with some impossible and detailed task, while you are very obviously in the middle of doing something else that requires your full concentration.

Child: “Mom, can you untie this knot for me/translate this article into Pashto/assist me in hacking into the city government’s database?”

You say:  “Just a minute, I’m cooking dinner for 20 people/on the phone with a customer service representative after being on hold for 40 minutes/defusing a bomb!”

They hear: “OMG, I’m totally kidding! Ask me again immediately.”

Scenario 4:

Child wants to wear an article of clothing that is in the laundry because she wore it yesterday.

Child: “Where’s my rainbow skirt?”

You: “In the laundry.”

Child: “Why?”

You: “It’s dirty.”

Child: “Why?”

You say:  “Because you wore it yesterday when you face planted in the mud on the playground. Find something else to wear.”

They hear:  “If you ask me again in five minutes I’ll pretend we never had this conversation and suddenly make the desired outfit appear out of thin air.”

Scenario 5:

Your child wants something they absolutely cannot have: a cell phone, a Nintendo DXL, a taser.

You say: “No.”

(Or, if you are me: “Hell no.”)

They hear:  “Talk to me some more about this cell phone, Nintendo device, taser. What are its various features? How will your life be improved upon obtaining this object? List the kids in your class with awesome parents who let them have one. Don’t forget to ask me if we are poor.”

Scenario 6:

Your child is reading the signs along the side of the road as you drive. She comes to a word or a series of words she doesn’t know and asks for your help. As much as you would love to help her, you have no idea which sign she is looking at and can’t investigate further because you are driving. A f—king car.

You say: “I can’t really help you right now because I’m driving.”

They hear: “Point rigorously at the sign in question and I will figure out which word you are talking about even though I am operating a large death machine and then we will all laugh and be merry.”

Scenario 7:

One of your children is doing something to annoy the other. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly a punishable offense. For example:

Child 1: “Child 2 is bothering me!”

You: “What is she doing?”

Child 1: “Looking at me!”

You say: “Ignore her.”

They hear: “Go into more detail about this injustice. How does it make you feel? Is it making it difficult to exist with any sense of security? Please list any and all things in living memory your sister has done to irritate you. Use complete and long sentences. Don’t forget the pointless details!”

Scenario 8:

Your child has been at school all day, learning exciting new things and interacting with friends and you would love to hear all about it.

You say: “What did you do at school today?”

They hear: “If you answer with more than one word, something terrible will happen to someone you love.”

Scenario 9:

Your child has an impossible wish, to be instantly four inches taller, or three years older, or — in the case of my son — a brunette.

You say: “I’m sorry. I wish I could help you but I can’t.”

Or even: “Your hair is lovely. But if you want to change it when you are older you can.”

They hear: “Tell me again and I’ll think up some way to stretch out your bones, speed up time, remake your genetic code. The whinier you get, the happier I will be to assist you.”

Scenario 10:

Your child is unable to locate a random and pointless object, so they try to recruit you for help even though there is no reason why you would know where it is.

Child: “Mom, where’s that gas station receipt?”

You say: “Where did you leave it?”

This is probably one of the most utilized answers in our household. The children (and my spouse) are constantly asking me where their things are, as if I run around snatching up objects and hiding them in random places like some sort of demented elf from a Bavarian fairy tale.

In reality, I have no idea where they put their stuff unless I happen to trip over it. By asking, “Where did you leave it?” I am both giving them a good starting point for their search and making the passive-aggressive point that they need to keep track of their things.

Unfortunately, they hear:

“Ha ha! I totally know where it is and once you are in bed I will take it out and enjoy its use. However, if you ask me 5,000 more times and berate me for losing something that belongs to you, I will divulge its location.”

Scenario 11:

You are conversing with one or more other people when your child desperately needs to speak with you. (If your children are like mine, they never actually need to speak with you until you are speaking with someone else. Then it’s a verbal pile on.)

You say: “I am speaking with someone right now but if you hold on a few minutes I will be able to assist you.”

They hear: “Exclaim ‘Mom! Mom! Mom!’ repeatedly. Be persistent! I really do not want to be talking to this person. Don’t forget to keep your voice at that irritating monotone you never use otherwise.”

Scenario 12:

You child asks you a question that would stump Confucius. For example, “Why is rain wet?”

Now, you can either start out at “That’s a good question. I don’t know.” Or you could go into a long and detailed explanation about accumulation and precipitation, only for them to reply that’s not what they were asking, and eventually end up at “I don’t know.”

Either way, your child won’t be satisfied. Because when you say “I don’t know,” they hear “I do know. I know exactly what you mean and what you’re asking and I understand all the complex philosophical thoughts going through your sweet head but I will withhold any answers because it gives me a supreme sense of satisfaction to keep you ignorant. However, if you ask me 5,000 more times I will eventually give in and let you partake of the wisdom.”

 

*I’m using “them” instead of “him” or “her” just to keep this simple, even though it’s technically incorrect. Sue me.

Six “truths” all parents know about dance recitals

1. The idea of a recital is better than the reality.

Don’t get me wrong, it is beyond fantastic to watch your little tyke in the spotlight, wearing an enchanting costume and appearing more groomed than you’ve ever seen her (or him) in her (or his) short life.

But your joy will deflate into butt-numbing despair as troop after troop of pint-sized Pavlovas stumbles on to the stage for their turn.

Heading into Hour 3 of this extravaganza, you will die a little inside when yet another class assembles to perform an interpretive dance to the extended version of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”

2. These things are ridiculously expensive.

On top of the tuition you’ve paid all year, you will be expected to fork over for a costume, and, in some cases, a recital “fee” to cover the cost of a venue.

For my daughter’s show, those charges were $95 and $75 respectively. I paid less than $95 for my prom dress. Some of the older students had three or four different costumes, so I can only imagine what their parents had to pawn to cover the cost.

Add in professional photos and the obligatory bouquet of flowers and you will walk away from the theater feeling like you’ve been mugged.

3. The otherwise normal and lovely staff at you child’s dance school will turn into lunatics.

I can’t even imagined the pressure these people are under to put on the perfect show. In addition to the fact that parents can be over demanding a-holes, the whole event serves a marketing purpose for the school. Personally, I wouldn’t want the fate of my business to rest in the hands of a 3-year-old’s ability to execute the perfect jazz square to “Hakuna Matata,” but that’s just me.

The woman who runs my daughter’s school is lovely and kind and speaks to the children in a calm voice and makes each one feel special.

During the week of rehearsals leading up to the show, it was as if she ate guano for breakfast.

Her staff shrank in her presence. She yelled at a mother because her 4-year-old child’s ballet shoe lace had come undone. She screamed at the narrator, who I believe is her grandson.

The night before the big show she sent out an email at 10 p.m. that was so desperate you could almost smell the gin on her breath through the screen:

Please, please, please, send your child in with CLEAN tights — no rips, holes or stains.

Please make sure your child’s hair is slicked back OFF HER FACE. Stage makeup should be applied in advance.

PLEASE BE ON TIME.

The subject line was “Listen Up, You F—king Idiots: I’m Not Going to Have My Business Ruined Because Your Children Are Borderline Feral.”

Ok, I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea.

4. You will find yourself getting a little offended by something.

Maybe this is just me.

In my daughter’s show, several classes danced to parts of the overture from “The Sound of Music.” Because presumably we wouldn’t get that, even though it was printed in the program and introduced by the narrator, there was a segue number featuring a pack of teenage girls dressed as nuns pas de boureeing across the stage.

I’m not particularly religious, but when I saw this during dress rehearsal, I had to push my mouth shut. It just seemed a little irreverent, even though the nuns were executing lovely adagio moves and not break dancing. All I could wonder is, what’s next, a rabbi kick line? Imams executing the perfect splits?

In addition, at least one number in every dance recital will feature little girls looking really… unlittle girlish.

When a pack of 8-year-olds in harem pants starts twerking, you know that someone’s lost the plot.

5. The best place to be is backstage.

This year I volunteered to supervise my daughter’s class backstage. Was it stressful? A little. Boring? Not at all.

Me and the 14 six-year-olds in my care had a blast, even though it takes a lot to keep kids that age from rioting when they’re hyped up but have to wait two hours for four minutes on stage.

After rousing games of “Simon Says” and “I Spy,” they were edging towards “Lord of the Flies” territory until I remembered my son’s favorite Internet page featuring kid-friendly Christmas jokes.

Or so I thought.

“What’s Santa’s favorite sandwich?” I read from my phone.

“What?”

“Peanut butter and jolly.”

They giggled.

“What does Tarzan sing at Christmas?”

“What?”

“Jungle Bells.”

They guffawed. Shouting to be heard, I called out:

“Who is Santa’s least friendly elf?”

Then I read the answer and my eyes went wide.

“Who?” they all asked.

“Um, Jeff. It’s Jeff,” I lied.

They pretended to get it. I switched off my phone. The real answer was “Gof—kyourself.” Seriously.

6. No matter how broke and exhausted you are by the time it’s over, you will look forward to the next one with great anticipation.

Because parents are suckers.

how-students-can-prepare-for-dance-recitals_1798_40057736_0_14115220_500-640x427

The Kids Are All Write

It’s a given: all parents are inordinately proud of anything their children create. From the first rudimentary crayon etchings to the hand-made popsicle stick picture frames, we simply live to marvel over anything they’ve put their hearts and minds to.

I’ll never forget the absolute thrill I experienced when my son produced his first “drawing.” You see, according to my sleep-deprived, slightly deranged mind, this was the first sign that he was communicating with me. Up until then, I had been doing all the talking, keeping up a non-stop stream of conversation in which I asked and answered all the questions, made all the observations, cracked the best “A priest, a rabbi and a lawyer walked into a bar” jokes.

When he finally put Crayola to paper and left a permanent imprint, I felt like, for the first time, I was privy to what was going on in that sweet little head:

 

Crayon

I know, I know: he’s a friggin’ GENIUS, right?

When he started preschool it became my daily thrill to dig through his Thomas the Train backpack and pull out his drawings, his paintings and his collages.

The excitement only grew when his sister started school. Now that they’re old enough to write, opening their backpacks every day has become even more interesting.

My son has become a particularly prolific author, although his earlier work tended to get bogged down with details:

Ages

Chapter One spring break   

It was spring break and Alice was going to Ashley’s house. I can’t wait to be there Alice exclaimed.
All right calm down said her father. She was 9 1/2 years old and Ashley appeared to be 10 or 11 years old. But Ashley’s half birthday was tomorrow. She’ll be 10 1/2 tomorrow her father exclaimed. 
Her father was 47 3/4.

 

It evolved as he discovered new elements of punctuation:

Exclamation

Chapter 2 It Begins to Snow
Let’s read books said Ashley! Okay said Alice! You read! said Alice!
Chapter 1 Piano Lessons!
Ohhh! said Ashley! one day Lily was going to get piano lessons. She was 10 years old. Ohh! just like you exclaimed Alice! Then Mr. Handmachine stepped up to Lily!

(He also obviously had issues with chronology. And I don’t even want to know who Mr. Handmachine is.)

After reading six pages of the following, I had a talk with him about pacing:

Wahahaha

 

For a while, many of his stories focused on super heroes, such as the high-concept character known as:

Super Naked Hero

 

And the dignified:

Captain bottom
Finally, a hero we can all get behind. (Get it???)

When he began reading ghost stories his own writing focused more on the macabre. Let me tell you, as a parent nothing makes you prouder than to know your 8-year-old produced the following:

Razor blade

“Thooommmassss and Crrrissss haavvveee a nice triiipp, moaned the ghost. And the ghost got out a razor blade and it cut out Thomas and Cris’s stomach and blood was everywhere. The End!”

So stinkin’ cute.

The real hero in this situation, though, is his teacher. Not once has this lovely man suggested professional help or called my son a psycho. Instead, he writes the sweetest, most encouraging notes in the margins.

Considering the following passage:

Parents on wall

“It was a dark and stormy night and Thomas and Chris were heading back to their house. And when they opened the door and their parents were hanging on the wall.”

If you squint you can see that his teacher wrote the following:

“I bet they were surprised!”

Of course, my son isn’t the only talented author in the class. Two of his friends have written a series of novellas dedicated to my son recounting the adventures of a hamburger named Sesome (deliberately spelled incorrectly, they assured me). I must say, Sesome is one of the most three-dimensional characters I’ve come across in recent memory.

Consider this passage:

Sesame Frenchie

“One day Sesome could not get out of bed. He could not stop thinking about Mrs. Frenchie. She was hot, well, at least to him.”

They are truly masterful authors to let the reader decide whether Mrs. Frenchie was, indeed, “hot” by objective standards, or attractive only to Sesome because of some detected spark between the two.

Nearly as impressive is their ability to weave modern American slang into their prose. Consider this passage, after Sesome successfully thwarts a bank robbery:

Sesame Popo

“…Sesome grabbed the bag and ran. He gave it to the PoPo (police).”

Aren’t kids awesome???

This isn’t to say that they limit themselves to the short story genre. Here is a poem my son wrote and then tried to charge me for:

My mom

My mom’s poem
My mom is cool because she is really nice. She let’s Stella the cat in. She is 40 years old. She is very nice to us. She cooke’s dinner. She stays healthy and calm!
The End!

You know what? I am cool. And nice. And I do spend all day letting the cat in and cooking dinner.

But he didn’t get a dime.

Then there was this public service announcement masquerading as fiction:

Ugly Lady

Chapter Two
The Very Ughly Lady
Once upon a time there (three) sister’s. Two sister’s were good. But the third was smoking. She was super ughly!!! The End

I could be wrong here, but I think he is trying to say that smoking is bad and anyone who does it is not only bad but ugly. Not just regular ugly either but UGHLY, with an “h.”

Of course, I don’t always understand everything I pull from his bag. Since I’ve never played dodge ball (let alone “doogeball”) in full protective gear against an angry village mob, this threw me for a loop:

Doogeball

And I’m beyond curious as to what is happening to the unfortunate creature on the right:

Tinker Bell

This is not to say that my son is the only one who makes my heart burst with maternal pride. The following missive recounting our cat’s hygiene practices was penned by my daughter and shall remain in my possession for eternity:

Stelle butt licker

Just. So. Proud.

 

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The very real emotional void filled by my cat, who is a major a–hole

 

My family doesn’t have a great track record with pets. Until recently, our one and only foray into animal ownership was with neon colored fish who kept dying at the worst possible times.

While everyone kept telling us a dog would be therapeutic for the children, I was concerned it would be less-than-therapeutic for me, since I would no doubt bear the brunt of feeding, walking and cleaning up after the thing.

I’ve wanted a cat for years, but my husband is “allergic” to them in that he hates them.

He managed to get over his “allergies” when the children and I fell in love with a sweet white cat with dazzling green eyes who began lolling about in our garden shortly after we moved into our new house.

“Can we keep her?” my kids asked.

I desperately wanted to say yes, but didn’t want to “take” her if she belonged to someone. We put up posters around the neighborhood and tucked hand made fliers in people’s mailboxes. I joined the neighborhood Facebook page and posted her photo but heard nothing.

So, one day I scooped her into a cat carrier and took her to the vet. It turns out she was microchipped and did belong to someone, who didn’t seem at all surprised to hear she was out making eyes at another family.

“She just never bonded with us,” her owner explained, when I called her from the vet’s office. “She comes in at night when we are asleep to eat but otherwise she avoids us.”

I realized I was holding my breath. My children were crazy about this sweet cat, especially Jack, who would spend hours sitting by her side and talking to her.

I was hugely relieved when the woman said we could keep the cat, who my children had named Stella.

To say Stella has brought joy into our house is an understatement. The children adore her. They argue over who gets to feed her, they are thrilled when she chooses to sleep next to them.

As a mother, anything that makes your children happy that isn’t bad for them has a special place in your heart.

But I’ll admit that I have selfish and slightly unhealthy reasons for loving this cat. She is, after all, the baby who will never grow up.

My children are still at the age where they like me. I know that will all change. As part of their growth and development they will need to break away from me, and nature’s preferred method seems to be a spontaneous and organic lobotomy that convinces adolescents their parents are lame idiots who exist merely to embarrass them.

Oh sure, they’ll pass through this phase. (I hope.) But it will never be the same as it is now, when they throw their little arms around me and tell me I’m the best mommy ever, or fall asleep cuddled up next to me, or run to me in excitement to show off the drawings they’ve made or read me the stories they’ve written.

I get that it’s all a part of a healthy emotional development, that without this rebellion they could end up living in my basement as adults, making suits from the skin of slaughtered invalids.

I get it. It doesn’t mean I like it.

Raising children is like being madly in love with someone you know will some day break up with you. You just hope that, in the aftermath, they’ll still want to be friends.

But pets? Pets are different.

As long as I keep the Meow Mix coming, Stella will like me.

With Stella, my kisses won’t suddenly become “lame.” I won’t embarrass her for reasons unknown. I won’t be pinpointed as the cause of her irrational fear of clowns, just because I happened to jump out of the closet in a Bozo suit dripping fake blood and screaming her name as a prank those five nights in a row back in kindergarten.

Of course, because cats are part angel, part a—hole, there are times when I wish we could rethink this unhealthy relationship. While all cats chase and kill small animals, Stella is somewhat of an overachiever in this regard.

Not a day goes by when the carcass of a bird, mouse, rat, lizard or squirrel doesn’t turn up by the back door. Unless I bury their corpses incredibly well, she will DIG THEM BACK UP and play with their rotten, maggot-infested bodies. And then come inside for kisses smelling like death.

One day I discovered she had tucked a couple of lizard corpses under the front door welcome mat and so I tried, unsuccessfully, to sweep them into the bushes. Because their lower halves had been flattened into the front step, their heads flopped back and forth like windshield wipers. I finally managed to scrape them off with a trowel.

It almost made me reconsider the wisdom of making her my emotional crutch.

Aw, who am I kidding? I’ll forever be a sucker for that adorable, contempt-filled face and sociopathic spirit.

 

20160803_090114
The little lady who’s going to help me deal with my children growing up. Here she is striking the classic feline pose known as “Get that effing thing out of my face.”