From the vault: Christmas Magic

Originally published, December 2009


Wedding planning was a nightmare for me. I wanted the whole shebang and, while my husband wasn’t resistant to the fuss, he had never once attended a wedding. Not one. He didn’t have a clue what was involved. Worse, we had just found out that he would be deploying soon and we wanted to get married before he left. We had six weeks to plan a destination wedding with 75 guests. (Because I refused to budge on having a real wedding.)

At every decision, instead of simply voicing an opinion, he asked a question – even about the things that you wouldn’t think were questionable. When I told him to pick some groomsmen, he asked me why. I explained that I had bridesmaids and they needed groomsmen to balance them out. Then he asked why I had bridesmaids. Up until a few days after the wedding he thought the bridesmaids were supposed to come clean our house. Seriously.

He wanted to know why he had to wear a tuxedo. Then he didn’t think his tux should match the groomsmens’ tuxedos because my dress wasn’t going to match the bridesmaids’ dresses. After that line of questioning I bought him a book called Grooms for Dummies or something like that, and every time he had a stupid question about a time-honored tradition I just referred him back to the book. Too bad Wikipedia wasn’t around then.

All of that’s to say that I’m starting to realize that incessant questioning is probably a genetic trait.

If you should drive by my house now, you’ll notice that it looks awesome. It is bedecked with garland, bows, wreaths and little white lights on the outside. On the inside there’s a fully decorated tree, more garland, stockings, some nativity sets and various other Christmas junk. I’m feeling a little smug, I gotta admit. But the decorating hasn’t been easy because at each step of the way Bo, my five-year-old son, has asked me to explain everything. Ev-ery-thing.This is the first year that he’s really been aware of Christmas and he is maxing it out.

“Why do we have a Christmas tree?”

“Why do we put ornaments on the tree?”

“What are stockings?”

“Why would Santa put gifts in a stocking?” and

“Why are they on the fireplace?”

And so forth and so on.

It has forced me to rethink all of the holiday traditions. I’ve read enough about Christmas history to know some of the back stories but, really, when you think about it, it all is pretty weird.

We chop down a tree, haul it into the house and then hang little figurines and lights on it. We put giant socks that no one could ever actually wear in front of a fire so that a fat bearded guy in a red suit can put presents in them – after he slides down the chimney, oh, because his flying deer are parked on the roof, you know, because that’s the fastest way for him to get to every house in the entire world in one night.

At my house we also have a little elf that comes and goes every night to report back to Santa about Bo’s  behavior and the elf plants himself somewhere different every morning. And we do it all, why? That’s right — because the Messiah was born in a barn in Israel 2,000 years ago.

What do we take these kids for, idiots?


But it’s fun for the kids and the adults, so we keep doing it every year.

This year I gathered all of our Christmas books into a pile and every night before bed I read Bo a different Christmas story – just to hammer all the magic in. Last night I read him The Velveteen Rabbit, one of my all time favorite stories. For those who’ve forgotten the story, a little boy gets a stuffed rabbit doll for Christmas and then he loves it so much that the rabbit becomes real.

On average I’d say I eked out about four words before each new question. I stopped counting the questions at 32. It was a 25-page book. The questions started with “What is ‘velveteen’?” (My answer: “It’s like velvet.” Which was followed, of course, with “What is velvet?”And have you ever tried to explain velvet? A few more months of this and I could write a dictionary.)

Anyway, as the story progressed Bo’s questions increased right along with his horror. (“They’re going to burn the bunny? That’s mean! What would they burn the bunny? What are germs? Why don’t they just put him in the washing machine? Why don’t they have a washing machine? When were washing machines invented? Who invented them?”) So I thought that Bo would be placated and comforted and all would be well when we got to the part where the rabbit becomes real. Bo has at least a dozen stuffed animals in his bed at any given time and he likes to pretend that they’re all real, so I thought he’d really be into the end of the story.

Oh, no, no, no.

To his little mind The Velveteen Rabbit was just a Victorian version of the movie “Child’s Play”. I didn’t pick up on his fright right away and so I stupidly asked him if he would like for his toys to become real some day, thinking that the mere suggestion would throw him into fits of sugar-plum Christmas magic. Instead, it sent him to the sort of place where Haley Joel Osment saw dead people.

“No,” he said, his eyes wide as he slowly shook his head. “Toys are toys, Mommy. They shouldn’t become real.”

“But don’t you want your toys to be real?” I asked.

“No,” he said, definitively. “They outnumber me. They might take over everything and destroy the house. And the teddy bears would turn into real bears and they would growl at me and eat me.”

I had to admit that there was a certain logic to what he was saying.

“Mommy, I don’t want my toys to become real,” he said. “What can I do to make them stay toys?”

“As long as you don’t love them you should be okay,” I said, instantly feeling a little guilty for warping the Christmas magic.

But this new approach to toy ownership might make life much easier for me come spring cleaning/consignment sale time. And I can’t imagine that Bo is going to beg me to drop another $50 in Build A Bear Workshop anytime soon.

Which is magical enough for me.

From the vault: Christmas 2009, Speaking Parts

Originally published December 21, 2009


Three Kings

My son was really excited after church Sunday because he said he had been the loudest one in his Sunday School class’ nativity reenactment. His teacher agreed.

“He was the loudest one we’ve ever had,” she said, smiling.

The teachers had assigned roles for each child to play in their lesson about the birth of Jesus. Bo, apparently, had played his part with great enthusiasm.

“Which part did you play,” I asked him, thinking that if he described his role as “loud” maybe he had been the angel with the famous, “And lo, from the east …” line that is something of a rite of passage for every American child. But who was I kidding? As if any teacher would look at Bo, who is always either tormenting some other child or dreaming up new forms of torment, and think, “Angel…he’s perfect for the Angel part.”

“Guess,” he told me, but I couldn’t think of any other speaking parts.

“Were you Joseph?” I asked, hoping he’d say no because Joseph is the usually the most shafted character in the nativity story. Sometimes he is left out completely. I have several nativity sets that didn’t even come with a Joseph. It’s like it was simply Joseph’s job in the Bible to lead the laboring Mary and her donkey to the stable, rearrange the hay in the manger and then just stand off to the side and let history play out, never to be heard from again. Actually, I guess that was exactly Joseph’s job in the Bible. Anyway, I don’t recall Joseph ever saying anything in any Christmas program I’ve ever seen. If Bo had been a “loud” Joseph then the whole scene had probably been a disaster.

“No. Guess again,” Bo said.

I went through all the characters – wise men, shepherds, Mary, Baby Jesus, but Bo said no to all.

Finally I gave up and said, “Bo just tell me which part you played.”

“I was the cow,” he said, with great pride. I cracked up laughing, picturing my little boy being the loudest, most enthusiastic cow to ever witness to the birth of Jesus.

“MOO!!!!” he screamed, demonstrating. As if I needed an example of a loud holy cow. He moo’d the whole way home, reliving his stage debut, I guess. By the time we got back to the house I was sorry that I hadn’t seen it for myself. But (and here comes the sappy part) such is the parenting experience.

We never get to see every little thing our children do. Even those of us who are lucky enough to spend lots of time with our kids still miss huge chunks of their lives. I learned of Bo’s first steps on a daily progress report from the teachers in his mother’s day out class, which he only attended for three hours on one day each week. He had chosen those three hours as the best time for him to step out into the world. Right beneath the details of his bottles and bowel movements that day one of the teachers had scrawled, “Bo took three steps today.” I pasted that form into his baby book in lieu of a photo of the momentous occasion.

I was very sad to have missed seeing those steps. That’s why the saddest thing for me during deployments is all the stuff that my husband misses seeing. I’m a pretty good story teller and I try to recount in as many details as I can everything that happens so my husband will feel like he was there, too. Sometimes I tell the story so effectively that months or years later he recalls the details and we both forget for a second that he didn’t actually see it happen. But, when something amazing or amusing happens while he is deployed, my first thought is always how sad it is for him that he didn’t get to experience it. My second thought is how sad it is for the kids that he wasn’t there to share the moment with them. And my third thought is how sad it is for me that I don’t have anyone to nudge and laugh with over what just happened. I suppose my fourth thought is how I will describe it when I get a chance to talk to him again.

This Christmas, like many before, lots of families are separated by distance and war. Lots of kids have been performing in Christmas plays that one or both parents have had to miss. Lots of kids will be fighting with their siblings for the attention of the one parent who is home. Lots of moms will be trying to balance a video camera while installing batteries in new electronics or fumbling with the maddening zip ties that keep toys shackled to cardboard boxes.

And “over there”, lots of soldiers, airmen, Marines, sailors, civilians and contractors will have one all-too-short phone call during which to hear as many details about their families’ Christmas celebrations as can be recalled. They’ll check their emails several times throughout the day, in hopes of receiving bleary-eyed Christmas morning pictures. They’ll get off the phone and tell their buddies with pride about all that’s going on back home, including as many details as they can, telling the story as if they had been there themselves. Then they’ll go back to work and hope that the day – and the deployment – passes as quickly as possible.

Merry Christmas to all of you, and especially to those of you who are spending Christmas with your loved ones on the phone. Whether it’s your first or your fourth (or more) Christmas apart, may it be as merry as possible. To those at home: Take and send lots of pictures and note and share as many details as possible. And to those away: Please stay safe and healthy, and remember that it won’t be like this forever.

Drone Parenting


Hi, I’m Rebekah. I’m a ‘drone parent’.

(The picture above is a ‘helicopter parent’ — my sworn enemy.)

I watch my kids from afar. I do not engage in their every activity. I let them argue with other children and I don’t try to settle the arguments. I let them fall down, sometimes getting hurt. When extreme danger in imminent, I swoop in and act, otherwise I just survey the scene from a distance, like the pilot of an unmanned drone.

This is not negligence on my part. This is my parenting strategy, one advocated by experts like these and these. I believe in letting kids make (and learn from) their mistakes while the costs of making mistakes are small. I believe that if I protect them from themselves when they are little, they will not develop the judgement they need to make good choices when they are bigger and the costs of making mistakes are much higher.

My polar opposite is the helicopter parent but, being a drone, I tend to just ignore the helicopters. (I’m letting them learn from their mistakes, too.) But, being helicopters, it seems to be outside of their natures to just ignore me. Case in point:

Last night Bo, my 8-year-old son, had soccer practice. He’s too young to just be dropped off for practice so I have to stay and watch with my other two younger children. Rudy is 4 and Lucy  is 10 months, and neither is AT ALL interested in sitting still and watching their brother play soccer. Rudy wants to run and Lucy wants to crawl, and not even in the same direction. But I’ve found a way to manage both. The soccer area (there are several fields side by side)  has a six-feet-tall fence around the entire complex. There are no breaks in the fence and only one gate, which stays closed during practice. There are usually lots of other siblings running around and Rudy likes to play with them. My solution: I put Lucy in a jog stroller and walk laps around the complex while Rudy plays with her new friends. I’m able to constantly watch Rudy as she plays, even though I am not right next to her, and Lucy stays entertained and happy as we walk. (And I burn a few calories.) Rudy is a pretty obedient kid and likes to follow rules. She’s stays off the soccer fields and doesn’t go near the gate. She can see me at all times and knows to come and find me if she needs me, and I tend to walk right by her every five minutes or so.

I’m pretty proud of this plan. Rudy gets exercise. Mommy gets exercise. Bo gets exercise. Lucy doesn’t scream for an hour. Everyone is safe. Everyone is happy.

Well, almost everyone.

Last night as I was approaching where Rudy was playing at that moment, another mother stormed up to me, flanked on either side by three children who looked to be between 9 and 15. When I was few feet away she spat out, “Is Rudy your child?” (Naively expecting her to tell me how adorable my little girl is) I smiled brightly and said, “Yes!”

“When I asked her who was watching her, she pointed at you,” the lady said accusingly.

“Yes, I am watching her,” I replied (not quite as brightly as before. I was beginning to see where this was going.)

“Well, don’t you think you should be with her if you are watching her?” she demanded.

“No, no I don’t,” I replied and I kept on walking.

The lady’s jaw dropped and when I glanced back over my shoulder she was walking in the other direction, leaving.

I’d love to say that the encounter didn’t get to me, but it did. As parents, I think we all worry that we’re screwing up, and nothing makes us worry more than another parent telling us that we’re screwing up. I spent the next 20 minutes reminding myself that I am a good mom; that I am not negligent; that Rudy really was safe and had never been out of my sight. Then I went to my mean place and noted internally that the woman had three kids, all at least middle school-aged, who were weirdly attached to their mom in public…

But that’s not fair, so I’ll stop.

The thing is, if you do parenting well, you’ll work yourself out of a job. If you over-parent, you’ll find yourself parenting those kids well into their 30s and even 40s, and possibly parenting their kids, too.

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Shut the Front Door

It happened the other day.

I was at a get together with a bunch of other families. Kids running everywhere, people chatting, you know the drill. Anyway, Lucy, my almost 5-month-old baby, got hungry and I went to make her a bottle.

A dad was in the kitchen as I was making the bottle and he quipped, “Did you hear about what they’re doing in New York with the formula?” and a whole breastfeeding/formula feeding conversation ensued. He wasn’t criticizing me for giving her formula, nothing like that, but I still found myself getting defensive. “Well, I’m still breastfeeding,” I said. “I just supplement with formula. You see, I started feeding her rice cereal a couple of weeks ago and my milk supply has been dropping ever since. This happened with my other kids, too. I mean, I still pump all the time and I nurse her as much as I can to try and build my supply back up again, I’ve even tried Brewer’s Yeast,  but…” And on and on I went. It’s like I was reciting Chapter 10 of “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding”.

The poor guy didn’t know what had hit him.

As the mother of an infant during The Great Formula Feeding Debate of 2012, every mother’s every feeding decision has become some kind of political stance. Worse, our culture can’t seem to decide what to think about breastfeeding. If you don’t breastfeed, you’re a bad mom. But if you do it in public, you’re an exhibitionist. (Which, I guess, means that society has decided what to think: Mothers shouldn’t leave the house until their babies are at least one year old.)  Just weeks earlier I had felt obliged to hide out in bathrooms and cars to nurse Lucy while out in public. It was either that or subject the poor kid to having a blanket over her face on a 100 degree day. I’ve probably wasted gallons of gas sitting in a running car while Lucy took her sweet time suckling. Fortunately, there’s a DVD player for the two older kids, who also often had to hide out with me.

(I suppose I’m part of the problem. I’m no prude, but I don’t like the idea of just letting it all hang out, and I definitely don’t like the looks I get when I do nurse in public. I mean, I went to Mardi Gras — twice — in my early 20’s and managed to never show my tits, so I’m certainly not going to do it now…  in Walmart … after nursing three babies … when no one is offering beads.)

And then this week the whole” legitimate” rape/abortion thing hit the news. All of a sudden people — ahem, men — were everywhere talking about what women should do with our uteruses. (uterii?) First the boobs, now the uteruses. It all makes me long for Victorian times. I can’t imagine a politician back then getting up on a stump to discuss women’s private parts.

I get it — as mothers it’s not just about us. We are blessed to carry these precious lives inside of us and we have the beautiful opportunity to feed them nature’s most perfect food. We are tasked with providing for another life, a truly remarkable privilege. In fact, it’s all a misty, watercolor, Hallmark card … until you’re bedridden with preeclampsia, or in your 30th hour of labor, or the doc forgets to give you something for the pain before he stitches up your hoo-ha, or your nipples are so sore, cracked and bleeding that every time the baby eats she looks like Dracula after a kill. (All things I have personal experience with, btw.)

My point? Motherhood is intensely personal and often intensely painful. So people — ahem, men — need to shut the eff up.

Let’s try this, ladies: The next time some guy wants to talk pregnancy, abortion or breastfeeding with us, let’s turn the tables on him. “How’s your scrotum?” we should ask. “Are you wearing boxers or briefs? You know, tighty whities aren’t good for the boys — too constricting. And do you masturbate? Daily? Doing so helps prevent prostate cancer, you know…” Or perhaps the even more personal, “How much time do you spend with the children you’ve made?”


Jumping off the high dive

There was never a time when I didn’t want kids. Sure, there were plenty of times — perhaps even a majority of the hours of my life — when I didn’t want to raise children, but having kids just seemed like part of the normal progression of life to me, like cutting teeth, jumping off the high dive and learning how to ask for a bathroom in Spanish. (Donde esta el bano?)

I remember being a young teenager and realizing that, while I didn’t necessarily envision myself ever being married, I always planned on having at least two kids. My sister and I even worked out a deal on this. My aspirations back then teetered between being a rock star and a tortured poet — ideally, both —  and hers were to grow up to own a Volvo station wagon and wear pleated dress slacks from Talbots with sweaters that had ducks appliqued on them and earrings to match — but to never risk getting fat. We decided that it made sense for both of us if I would just have some illegitimate babies and let her raise them. It was a win-win plan. She even agreed to let me name one of them Wolfgang.

Even in my drug-addled early twenties, even when I dated men so wildly unsuited to fatherhood that they were almost a parody of bad boyfriends, I knew I wanted to have children. Even when I woke up in sweaty terror from an honest-to-God nightmare I’d had in which I’d dreamed I was pregnant by my then-boyfriend and would have to deal with him for the rest of my life, I still knew I wanted kids. Someday. Just not with him.

(By the way, you’d think that nightmare would have tipped me off that the boyfriend in question was not Mr. Right. Wrong. That moment only came when he kicked out the windshield of my car. While I was driving. What can I say? I looooooved him.)

So here I am, 35 years old with two children and a third on the way, shocked to find that I’ve spent most of the last decade filling my ears not with rock ‘n roll nor poetry, but with the uber-catchy tunes of the Laurie Berkner band and occasionally having discussions with other moms about how the previous host of “Blues Clues” was “way hotter” than the current one. I still shudder at the idea of playdates and have my kids partially convinced that such things only exist in cartoons — same as dinosaurs and talking rabbits. I truly believe that if you forced me to choose to between receiving a good, old fashioned, Singaporean caning or spending three hours at the park with a moms’ group and a herd of preschoolers, my only question would be, “how many lashes?” Because if it’s anything less than five, I’m choosing the caning.

All of that said, it is equally shocking to me that so many of my old friends have opted out of parenthood altogether, and mostly by choice. Faced with the same options that tempted me into shopping at Baby Superstore and buying a wardrobe full of Liz Lange, they walked back up the bar, ordered another Red Bull and Vodka and stayed blissfully ignorant about the narcotic effect of watching two and half hours straight of “Yo Gabba Gabba”. (And that really is their loss, btw.) Over the years I have deduced that the earlier people entered into the parent game, the less of a choice it was — which probably made it easier to choose. My friends who are in their mid-to-late thirties and early forties and don’t have kids find themselves wrestling with a do-we-or-don’t-we choice. But those who just drank too many Red Bulls and Vodka (or, in my case, Bud Lights at a hockey game)  and found themselves knocked up, didn’t have to wrestle much with the question. In other words, the longer people wait to have kids, the more of themselves they have to lose.

(For the record, I was already married and my husband was buying the Bud Lights…)

And I’m glad that parenthood was somewhat decided for us. In fact, the next two kids were totally intentional, because once you’ve jumped off the high dive once, it is much easier to jump a second or third time. And once you know where the Mexican bathroom is, you never have to ask again. And … well, you get the point.

My sister, by the way, has three kids of her own, a rather stylish wardrobe and … a mini-van that she detests. She keeps trying to get someone to hit her and total it so that she can get a new vehicle, perhaps that Volvo station wagon of her dreams. Oddly enough, these days I’m the one of us who does more of the stay-at-home-mom thing and she is the busy businesswoman. Neither of us are rock stars nor poets. And neither of us have a child named Wolfgang … yet.