Let's Dress Up

“Do NOT call me Vivienne!” my daughter reminded me for what felt like the 35th time this week. “I am STILL Baby. He is my mommy. You are the costume maker. Okay?!”

I had forgotten again that we were still residing in the fantasy world my children created. You’d think that after days of my middle daughter calling my oldest son “Mama” and referring to me as “Costume Maker,” I would get it right, yet still I lapse back into the real world and neglect to acknowledge their chosen reality.

In all honesty, the alternative universe situation is pretty great. Both kids assume complimentary roles: mommy/baby, teacher/student, lion trainer/cub, circus master/clown, fire chief/fire fighter. They seem to have some system of trading off who gets to be in charge, and for the most part, the roles and responsibilities of these characters keeps them from fighting.

For the majority of this summer my children have been members of an imagined traveling dance troupe from Madagascar. They put on daily shows, have multiple costume changes, and while my son’s designation switches from mommy to daddy to teacher to boy ballerina to DJ on the daily, my daughter has firmly remained Baby. This is probably some delayed response to the birth of her sister last summer, but it’s so much easier to call her Baby in public than it is to call her Lion Cub or Ariel, so whatever. We’re embracing it. Except when I forget.

Somewhere in the process of this dance troupe fantasy my children decided that I needed a role. Actually, we had some serious confusion when one of them was being the Mommy, and we know that my daughter cannot hang with name confusion. “UGH! YOU are not the mama!” she declared on a particularly frustrating afternoon when I kept responding to requests for “mom.” Apparently, no one was referring to me (for once!). Clarification ruins the game, so naturally I needed a new title. I am forever switching them in and out of outfits, tying scarves around their heads, making eye patches out of construction paper, fashioning hats out of old (but clean!) cloth diapers: “Call me Costume Maker,” I said.

At first I thought that this new title would last only as long as their chosen titles, and as soon as they left the dance troupe game to become fire fighters, I would go back to Mommy or be assigned a new more appropriate name. But it stuck. They’ve called me Costume Maker pretty consistently for a good chunk of July and all of August. The more they call me Costume Maker, the more it feels accurate and sweet and kind of special.

I’m surprised at how I’ve responded to this new name because the transition to “mommy” really took me some time. Most days I still find it hard to believe that the rest of the world sees me as an actual grown-up, let alone someone responsible for three whole children. Despite the fact that I’ve fostered, adopted, given birth twice, lead a MOPS group, and drive a freakin’ minivan, I still struggle to declare my legit mom status (as if this is something that requires declaration – once I spent the entire day with a smear of pumpkin oatmeal up the back of my leggings – no one but me is questioning my place in the world).

***

About a year ago, one of our old babysitters texted me to see if she could pass my number along to a family that was interviewing her for a nanny position. They needed a reference, and I was happy to sing her praises. But once I got on the phone with the other mom, all of my insecurities flooded to the surface. She asked about how the sitter interacted with my kids, how she adhered to our family rules, what she did if the children misbehaved. Every time she fired something new at me I wanted to reply “I know she babysat for other families…you should probably talk to a real mom about this.” Of course, I didn’t say that. I answered her questions because as an actual real mom I did have answers, but I was surprising even myself. How did I become someone who had a philosophy on how to help a three-year old through a meltdown? Is this real life?

I’ve spent nearly my entire adulthood waiting for the moment where I’m defrauded, found out, exposed. I got married young, and even down to my very wedding day I still felt like I was playing dress up. Then I played house. Then I worked for a start-up and played entrepreneur. I pretended to be a grad student, and then I acted the part of a teacher. The entire time I waited: The jig is almost up, I thought. They’ll know that I’m a fake. That I only look the part, but it’s just a costume. It’s just a part I’m playing.

Recently a college student who interned in my husband’s office asked me a question about a paper he was writing. He said he thought I might be of help because I was “kind of a teacher and a writer of sorts, right?” Without missing a beat I said “Actually, I am very much both of those things.” As I spoke those words, I could hardly believe it. What was I saying? This was the moment I had been waiting for – the part of the show where the audience declares that they’ve suspended disbelief for long enough. Like that scene at the end of the Wizard of Oz, I have to come out from behind the big talking head and wave my hands feebly – it’s just me.

But here’s the deal with costumes: once you wear them everyday they just become clothes. Somewhere along the lines I just stopped pretending and whatever I had feared was an alternative reality was actually my life.

***

A few weeks ago, my son wanted me to help him turn some old plastic sheeting into a cape. Then he pilfered random cardboard pieces from the recycling bin, and shoved some newspaper up his nose. He donned swimming goggles for added effect. “Take my picture,” he said. “Text it to everyone you know and say ‘Now Mason works at the dump.’” So he was Dump Boy for several hours.

For my kids, the jig is up only when they say it is. They will correct and instruct everyone around them and declare who they are – who they want to be – with conviction. They embrace each role with reckless abandon, and I love that about them.

As I look at my kids in their wild assortment of bizarre get-ups that they’ve engineered from a plethora of different costumes, I feel thankful that they enter into new worlds and new roles without hesitation. I hope that I can continue to learn what it means to embrace my own identity, in that same way, and I hope together we can live whatever new roles come our way.


Written by Anna Jordan.

Supermom

I see it all the time: my favorite bloggers and Instagrammers—the mom “celebrities” of the online world—rushing to remind people that they are not supermom.

“How do you do it all?” people ask.

“I don’t; I don’t!” they exclaim, almost desperately.

Maybe their perfectly styled living room and four photogenic children equate to “supermom” status in your eyes. Or maybe it’s the way they adopted three children while building an international non-profit organization, or the way they homeschool their kids and make thousands working from home. You want to know their secrets…

But then they carefully list it out for you, via social media comments or blog posts, and tell you all the reasons their supermom status is a myth. They share the abbreviated version of the faults that make them inferior as a mother. No Pinterest-worthy birthday parties. Few home-cooked meals. They tell fart jokes to get their kids to smile for the camera and sometimes use candy infused with Red Dye 40 as a bribe during those “perfect” family photo shoots. Their floors are dirty. They never exercise but wear yoga pants six days a week.

You read the list and nod your head half-heartedly. Maybe they aren’t supermom, but if someone took a swab of their kitchen floors and yours, surely yours are more likely to test positive for some type of disease. And maybe their designer throw pillows are usually in a heap on the floor, but you technically gave up on throw pillows four years and three kids ago and prefer to rest your head on unfolded laundry as you nap on the couch.

I always laugh at these conversations onlineboth the temptation to consider another woman as The Ideal Mother and then the justification that happens as every mom tries to prove to the world all her faults.

And then someone called me “supermom…”

I was talking to my best friend on the phone and she mentioned that another mutual friend had called me by this ridiculous title. “What?!” I exclaimed. My list promptly began. Before I could even think about it, I began rattling off all the reasons I am far from supermom. I let Zianne watch four consecutive episodes of Daniel Tiger so I can get the house cleaned on Wednesday mornings. I put my kids down for their naps at 2pm when every other toddler in America is waking up, just so I can cram in all my errands for the day. When we are at the grocery store, I let my kids pick out gluten-filled rolls from the bakery bins and eat them while we shop to keep them entertained. And sometimes I also grab a pouch from the shelf (and on special days, a donut). Basically, I show up to the checkout with a cart filled with half-eaten groceries. I hand the clerk all our empty pouches and bags, smiles plastered on my kids' food-covered faces.

I am not supermom. My list of faults can prove it to you.

My bathrooms are clean, but my floors are filthy. I work out regularly, but I do not eat healthy. I breastfeed my babies, but I don’t make their baby food. I read to my kids, but I let them watch TV too often.

But.

But.....what if I have it all wrong? What if my list of faults is exactly what makes me supermom after all? What if it’s not the things I do well, but my ability to adapt, negotiate, and bend that makes me an excellent mother?

What if the secret of being a good mom is not doing everything perfectly, but loving your children imperfectly? What if the secret to being supermom is recognizing your limits, yet being able to act gracefully and strategically when your children ask you to live outside of them?

Come to think of it....

I am supermom, not because my bathrooms are usually clean, but because I have learned to be okay with crumbs on the floor. I am supermom, not because I stock our house with fresh groceries each week or make dinner most nights, but because I’m okay with grabbing bread from the bakery bins to appease my children while we shop. I am supermom because I have learned how to meet my own kids’ needs while also balancing my own. I am supermom because I was uniquely created to be their mother.

And you are supermom, too. When your kids are whining in the car and you blast Taylor Swift to salvage the ride, or when you bust out the iPad to get through a restaurant dinner. When you trip over a pile of throw pillows because your kids demolished the living room while you took a work call in the kitchen. When you order take-out so you can walk the kids to the park instead of washing dishes at the end of a long day. When you rock your yoga pants as you “run” around town with your children.

Those moments of alleged weakness are what make you strong. Yes, you do many things well. But your resilience, fortitude, resourcefulness, and sense of humor when things get tough count the most. Think about it. You’ve never seen a superhero movie where the setting is a clean house with organic soup simmering on the stove. Superheroes earn their titles by being strong and strategic in difficult situations, so I’m pretty sure if anyone is supermom….it’s you.


Guest post written by Jen Russum. Jen is a wife, mom to two little girls, and a college English professor. She shares narratives of grace on her blog www.jenrussum.com.

Biological

Biological.

That’s what I have to call my daughter sometimes.

“Now is she adopted too?” A new acquaintance will ask.

“Kajsa? No. She’s biological.”

Sometimes I mix it up and offer a more vivid response. She’s homemade, or if I’m really feeling jazzy, we worked on him in the office and her, uh…wink wink.

No matter how I answer the truth remains: all it is, is a word.

I wish the me of 2009, and 2010, and 2011, could believe that. Plenty of people know my husband and I wanted to adopt from the time we knew we wanted to get married. Like all good decisions, both were cemented at a football game before either of us could drive.

And plenty more people know that we tried to adopt, even before we tried to go biological, but at every turn we hit an impassable roadblock—age in China, money in Ethiopia, to adopt from Colombia we were going to have to leave work and medical school for 6 weeks at least.

What most people don’t know is this: I gave up on adoption for fear of the word biological. We could have easily transitioned our efforts from pursuing international adoption to local, but I secretly harbored a fear it wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t feel right, it wouldn’t work right, I wouldn’t become a mother the right way.

I actually believed there was a right way.

I believed I first had to cross the Rubicon biologically.

This is, fortunately, utter rubbish.

I can say that now, with my hand on a bible, before a jury of my wondering, maybe wounded peers, because I have become a mother both ways and it turns out biological is not that different from Lord Voldemort, minus all the black magic evil stuff: just a name.

Biological is just a word.

***

It’s most often nurses who ask me, or coworkers of my husband. Occasionally it’s a friend of a friend.

They ask, usually with an apology attached somewhere, did it feel any different?

Sometimes they wince a little, waiting for my response. The wincers often share later they have a brother who was adopted or a niece. Every now and then they themselves were placed in a family of strangers.

Each time this happens my mind drifts back to another conversation I’ve had over the years. The one that takes place when people find out my husband and I met in high school and have been dating (by which I mean initially our parents intruding on us in the living room) since we were 13 and 14.

“Oh, what a story,” they say. “How sweet is that? How wonderful!”

I smile here, and nod. It is sweet and wonderful and all of the kind things people say. I like our story. And then I want to hear theirs.

“Oh, I mean, we just met through friends. It was a New Year’s party. Not really much of a story.”

Okay pause. Meeting my future husband at 13 does have a certain shine to it, but it’s not superior to the couple who met, say, backpacking through Europe, or at a college tailgate, or via the internet, or at a game night at church. It just isn’t. In the day in, day out, dinner prep, and date nights, and bill paying, and making out on the couch, I never, ever, put my hand up and say, “You know why this is so hot? Because we had 3rd period algebra together in 1999.”

Believe it or not that has happened not once.

Back to my inquiring nurse. The same is true of my life as a mom. When we are doing something really fun or extra special, a beach day maybe, I never, ever, stop and look at my biological daughter and say, “This is neat because you attached to my uterine lining.” Then, side eye to my son, “And it’s slightly less neat with you because I had to have a criminal background check.” Her biology is yet to make the ocean any more spectacular.

The reverse? Also true. I don’t look at my boy playing in the water and think, this is incredible because his mom might have had that abortion and he’d be dead now instead of shouting here with us. And then look at my daughter and scoff, Hmpf. Don’t know what you’re so fussy about. Everything got handed to you. Born to two married, happy, healthy, stable, financially secure parents. Cry me a river, girlfriend. His adoption is yet to make the sky any more majestic.

Neither of their origin stories has ever enhanced or detracted from our life. Not once.

***

I’ve been stuck on that last sentence for weeks, coming back to it over and over. Why won’t these words loosen their grip on me?

I finally figured it out. They won’t let go of me, because they’re not true.

Neither of their origin stories has ever enhanced or detracted from our life. That is patently false.

In both the ordinary shuffle of dinner and bath time and the extraordinary treat of a family vacation, I do catch myself marveling at the wonder of it all. I do crawl to the edge of the cliff, just for the rush of looking down from safety at what might have been:

My son’s birth mom was told her pregnancy was likely unviable and termination was recommended more than once.

We were told our daughter had fluid around her heart, that I had intrauterine growth restriction, that she’d need to be born early, then that her lungs were infected and weak.

Both of my children could have been snuffed out by biology.

And here they are, throwing sand at each other and asking for more snacks.

The beach is indeed bluer because Ridley is there. Ridley is fantastic, a joy, a gift beyond words. He is my son. He became so through adoption after some tremendous biological triumphs. It’s a good story. I’ll have to tell you sometime.

The sunset is indeed a more brilliant shade of pink because Kajsa is there. Kajsa is fantasic, a joy, a gift beyond words. She is my daughter. She became so through a series of her own tremendous biological triumphs. It’s a good story. I’ll have to tell you sometime.

Biology isn’t just a word. It’s a good word. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it gets put in really good stories.

Good words with the capacity to hurt often end up in the very best stories: marriage, friendship, dragon, hold my beer while I try something, motherhood. A lot of good words lead to a little heart break, a little blood.

In two weeks we are reentering the adoption process. In about two months we are going to get really serious about uh…wink wink.

The amount of biological unknowns is staggering.

The range of biological possibilities is terrifying.

So this is what we do as we set out on what could be two very twisting tales, we remind ourselves of this: scary words lead to the best stories, almost every time.


Written by April Hoss

The Things I Gave Her

The day is done they say goodnight and somebody turns out the light.
The moon is high. The sea is deep. They rock and rock and rock to sleep.[1]

I close our last book and CoCo wraps her legs around me. She flicks the lights off, then on again. Her nose crinkles and she giggles under her pacifier. It looks silly in her mouth but preserves her babyness. That and the way she rests her head on my shoulder when the lights finally go out.

I place her in her crib and she nestles against the upper left bumper of her crib, the same spot I would place her as a newborn. I put her blanket over her, touch her back, and brush her head.

Suddenly she springs up as if she saw a spider.

“I need my sweatshirt!” She cries.

I plod down the stairs and get her sweatshirt. I slip her arms in and zip it to her chin. 

“My socks!” she yells.

Again I go downstairs, get her socks, and put them on her feet while she stands wiggling.

She lies down and holds her pacifier in her mouth and I watch her eyes close.

Then she sits up, but not as suddenly. She reaches to the other end of her crib where her stuffed animals are smooshed together in a pile. She finds four animals, taps them each on the head once, places them down, and cuddles back up at the other end of the crib, waiting for her blanket.

I lean over the crib, tippy toes skimming the floor, and kiss her head. I start to walk away and jump back for one more kiss. “I love you, I love you, I love you!” I say as many times as I can. She giggles, I close the door, and walk down the stairs with a new weight on my shoulders.

I think of my brother at four years old, collecting leaves in the fall and crying as the wind would take them. I see him tapping walls in my mother’s arms before bed and when his medications caused his whole body to tic and tumble to the floor. I hear my parents shouting and sobbing behind closed doors.

I remember the phone call that pulled me home. I raced past my grandmother sitting uninterested on the couch and upstairs into my brother’s room. He was lying facing the wall, crying loudly. I lay next to him and wrapped my arms around him.

“Are Mom and Dad okay? Do you still love me?” he asked.

“Yes. Yes.”

And then moments later, “Are mom and dad okay? Do you still love me?”

“Yes. Yes.”

I let myself lean into the kitchen counter. The front door slams and I stand up, pour water and dry quinoa into a pot, and click the stove on.

Greg always says hello but looks beyond me—his eyes darting around the kitchen, surveying the scene. He spots the scars of messy children and a mother with only two hands. I hear him move to the dining room, pick up the mail and drop it down again, and walk loudly into the bedroom.

When he returns he is in sweatpants and has a warm smile.

“CoCo tapped four animals before bed tonight.”

He looks at me seriously and I can tell he is wondering how he should be reacting.

“It was ritualistic. Possible OCD behavior.”

“Okay.” He put down his fork, “What do we do?”

And I give him the answer he needs.

“We keep an eye on it. But there’s really nothing to do.”

I push away the image of a future conversation where I’m yelling at him between sobs, “We’re not medicating her!”

***

The next morning, I watch CoCo carefully. I observe her every move: throwing cushions on the floor and leaping from one to the next, building with blocks and screaming when they topple, arranging her animals to watch her dance recital complete with crown, tutu, and wand.

I remember that woman in Central Park with the shiny hair parted down the middle.

“She won’t nap!” I say on my tenth lap of the pond.

“Small kids, small problems. Big kids, big problems.” She says.

I felt like rolling my eyes but instead smiled and exhaled and she was gone.

Those words feel heavy today and I long for that day of pushing my stroller around the pond littered with tiny, white sailboats.

CoCo has an angelic face. It is soft and round, puckered, rosy, doll lips, a button nose, big, round eyes that are green with a ring of blue. Her dark hair parts to the side and make the blue in her eyes glow. Her soft curls frame her face and bounce just under her ears. 

When she was born I touched her lips with my pinky.

“She has a top lip!” I laughed. It was the most perfect mouth I had ever seen. And I was so thrilled I didn’t give her my mouth, that top line of flesh where a lip should be. 

When I walked around New York City with her in the Baby Bjorn that little, serious face seemed to take even a stranger’s breath away. Today I look at her and admire the beauty I created and think about what else I’ve given her. The things I don’t want her to have. I think of the time around her second birthday when she started to blink. Or six months later when she started to take big deep breaths every few seconds. Both behaviors disappeared but they stay sewn into my thoughts. Every so often I find myself waiting for them to reappear.

I used to tic when I was little. I stiffened my neck, shrugged my shoulders, flared my nostrils, stretched my fingers, twitched my nose, rolled my eyes. I suppose I learned to suppress them on my own, but if I think about it today, they all come back.

I don’t want her to have these ugly things from me or these scary things from my brother.

Tonight as I place her in her crib I remember rocking her to sleep, her tiny body swaddled tightly, her pacifier taking up most of her face, like a little glowworm, the kind I slept with as a child, a safe glow at my side.

She lies down on her tummy and doesn’t tap any animals. I cover her with her blanket, offering her all of the warmth and safety I have. As I walk away she yells, “MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY!.” One last kiss and the door closes.


Guest post written by Kim LiCalzi. Kim lives on Long Island with her husband and two daughters. She teaches first grade, runs very early, writes very late, and empowers her sweet and fierce little girls. 

[1] The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynto

P.s. This week on our podcast we're chatting with Heather Avis about adoption, how parents can teach their kids to be inclusive of children who may look or act different, and why raising a child with special needs is the ultimate honor. Listen here