Throwback Thursday: A Classic Comeback to an Age-Old Question

If you have a teenage daughter, you know that there is no better source of cold, hard truth—especially about your appearance and fashion sense.

I rely heavily on my 19-year-old daughter for honest answers to critical questions like, “Hey, is it okay to wear socks with these?” I text pictures to her while shopping so she can assist with wardrobe choices. She screens my outfits before I leave for dates.

This may be her most significant contribution to our household—she keeps me from looking like a dork, or at least from looking like an old dork.

I became aware of Maddy’s gift for hard-hitting fashion feedback when she was very young. Consider this magnificent exchange from when she was just four years old.

I had just bought a new outfit, and it was a bit of a style departure for me. Fifteen years ago, I was every bit as bottom-heavy as I am now. Big butts weren’t as acceptable then as they are now. (They ARE acceptable now. I believe in my heart that they are.) So, I tended to hide my “curvy” lower half under big, tunic-style tops.

This time however, in a moment of body-bravado, I’d purchased a fitted black sweater and a printed wrap-around skirt. It was a long, narrow skirt with a tribal pattern on it. Between the fitted sweater and narrow skirt, my shape wasn’t hidden at all.

“Wanna see my new outfit?” I asked four-year-old Maddy, and she, already clothing-conscious and opinionated, gamely agreed.

I put on the outfit and stood in front of the mirror, where I could see her little face looking at me from behind.

Head tilted, she considered my ensemble with a definite frown. It was so clear that she didn’t approve, I just had to do it: I had to ask that age-old question. And she gave the best answer that I’ve ever heard.

“What’s the matter, honey?” I asked. “Do you think this skirt makes my butt look big?”

“No,” she said seriously, my joke lost on her. “I think your butt makes that skirt look big.”

Maddy age four 3

Thoughts on Graduation: At Least They Don’t Eat Bugs Anymore

A momentous occasion is happening today: my youngest child is graduating from high school.

As usual, the clichés are all true. It really does seem like just a short time ago, she was following me down the sidewalk with a lunchbox bigger than her five-year-old head.  This post isn’t really about that, although I’ve been shaking off those thoughts all morning.

The thing that’s freaking me out is this: although my daughter is almost 18, and my son is 20, suddenly I feel like a brand-new parent all over again.

When each of them was born, I felt excited, terrified, proud, overwhelmed—like every other new parent.  The stakes were high: life and death. If I slept too hard, they might suffocate in their crib. If I chose the wrong foods, they might have an allergic reaction. If I failed to pay attention or made the wrong decision, I could ruin them or even lose them for good.

To make matters worse, it seemed like for the first few years of their lives, they were actively trying to kill themselves. You know how it is with babies and toddlers: turn your back for a second and they’re sticking their fingers into light sockets, wandering out into traffic, trying to eat toxic substances….remember?

You probably see where I’m going with this.

Parenting an almost-adult feels exactly the same. The stakes aren’t life or death anymore, but they’re still high. Decisions my kids make at this stage will absolutely impact the quality of their lives for years.  In some ways, early adulthood is a trajectory, and a degree of difference now can have a big impact on where they wind up in a decade or so.

There are the big life decisions, like where to go to college, and what field to study. Whether they’ll follow their passions or follow a paycheck. Then there are those insidious, spur-of-the-moment choices that could change their lives forever: driving drunk, just once. Skipping the condom, just once. All the time, every day, whether they realize it or not, my newly adult children will be making choices that determine the courses of their futures.

So yeah, I’m not sleeping very well these days, just like when they were babies. I’m constantly second-guessing myself, just like when they were babies. And some days, they seem like they’re actively trying to ruin themselves, just like when they were babies.

They don’t stick their fingers in light sockets any more, but some of the choices they make are just as stupid. And just like “Don’t eat that bug” didn’t make sense to them when they were toddlers, my pearls of wisdom are lost on them at this age, too. They speak English now but they don’t speak Perspective. I probably sound like an adult from a Peanuts cartoon: “Wah wah wah, wah wah, wah.” I want so badly to help them through these tough years, but I can’t. They have to grow up on their own.

I don’t mean to sound negative—this time is very exciting! It’s like when they were learning to walk: they fell down a lot. I wasn’t any less proud of them for it. (Can you imagine? “Get up, you little hobo, learn to walk right!”). It’s worrisome and frustrating, but that’s what kids do when they’re learning to walk. At this age, they’re kids one minute and adults the next, and I love them either way. They make me angry, sure, but they also surprise and delight me with the people they’re becoming.

Last night I went to my son’s apartment—his first—and there he was, living like a starving twenty-something, nothing in the fridge.  He’s working, going to school and barely scraping by. I’m so proud of him I could bust. I’m so worried about him I can’t sleep. He’s right where he’s supposed to be, and I guess is this is probably just how I’m supposed to feel.

And today my daughter will graduate. My heart’s all swelled up with tenderness for her. Like when your baby starts to smile and coo—you knew it was coming, and every kid does it, but there’s something so magical and heartwarming when it’s YOUR kid. I know I’m going to lose it when I see her in the cap and gown. I’m excited, terrified, proud, overwhelmed—just like 17 years ago.

Congratulations and good luck to all the graduates in the blogosphere today, and to their parents, too.

Butthead Chatterbox: The Very Worst Word

When my son was very small, the worst word he could think of was “butthead.” Mo was shockingly articulate even as a preschooler. He had quite a vocabulary, but his arsenal of insults was still pretty childish. “Butthead” was his big gun. I don’t know where he picked it up, but can still picture him, about four years old and furious. He paused mid-rant to muster the courage to use it, or maybe he paused for dramatic impact—but I remember that hesitation and then his angry little face as he spat the word: BUTTHEAD.

Children are so literal. I can imagine why my son found that word so offensive. Picture a butt in place of a head–awful! Ugly, freakish… and if you are a butthead, whatever comes out of your face is poop, right? Taken literally, “butthead” is downright disturbing.

With my daughter, the worst word was “chatterbox.” Maddy is a born talker. It’s in her genes. Every time someone called her a chatterbox, she was crushed. “Aw, honey,” I’d soothe, “It’s not a mean word; it just means you talk a lot. Our whole family does. Don’t feel bad.” But she did feel bad; she felt gravely insulted whenever someone used that word to describe her.

Finally, I got it out of her: when Maddy was little, she equated the word “chatterbox” with the term “litter box.” No wonder she was offended. Is there anything more disgusting than a litter box? A stinky, messy box full of dirt and poop? (Again with the poop. It’s a recurring theme with children.) For some reason, her childhood brain overlapped those two concepts and every time someone teased her about talking too much, she felt like she was disgusting. Poor kid.

Despite my rich and varied repertoire of curses and insults, for me, the worst word is “worthless.” I’m not sure why that one hurts so much. I can’t recall anyone ever calling me worthless. No, the only person who ever uses that word about me is me. “Worthless” is a word that creeps into my head when my depression is acting up. In fact, that’s how I recognize that it’s depression. I really, really hate that word and I don’t use it….but my depression does.

If you’ve never struggled with depression, that may not make sense to you. Depression is not the same as being sad. If I tell someone I’m depressed, and they ask what’s wrong, I know they don’t get it. Nothing is wrong except my brain chemistry, which is telling me that everything is wrong. It tells me repeatedly and aggressively that EVERYTHING IS WRONG and there’s no hope of it getting better. There are no voices in my head—nothing that dramatic—it’s just my own thinking gone askew. I know it’s false; I know it’s chemical. But it still really, really sucks.

You know when you have PMS and you fly off the handle for some stupid reason, and you know it’s stupid but you can’t stop? Or you start crying and you realize it’s just your hormones but you’re not any less sad? Same idea. I have dealt with depression for most of my adult life. I usually recognize it as biochemical nonsense, but that doesn’t always make it easier.

“Worthless,” I’ll hear myself thinking. “This is all worthless. Why even bother? Nothing is going to change. Nothing is getting better. This is a hopeless waste of time.”

Truth be told, this is why I haven’t posted in weeks. I’ve been fighting with my moods. I have written a few posts, but I always abandon them when those vicious thoughts begin. If I write about depression, I sound whiny. If I pretend everything is fine and blog about something else, I sound false.

When I’m depressed, the critic in my head is blown all out of proportion and nothing gets past it. Everything is worthless: blogging, Weight Watchers, trying to save money, trying to be good mom…all my productive, healthy impulses are subject to attack.

When I was in therapy, they referred to this as “cognitive distortions,” which basically are flawed thinking patterns. They taught me how to counter those thoughts with more realistic, sensible ones. That helps—recognize the falsehood and replace it with something truthful.

When I was religious, they said those thoughts are the voice of The Enemy (yep, that means Satan) trying to bring you down. I know it sounds loopy, but it’s one of the more helpful lessons Christianity taught me: you don’t have to own every thought that comes into your head. You can reject the bad thoughts because they aren’t coming from you. Again, recognize the falsehood and replace it with something truthful.

One of the most useful techniques for fighting depression is a sort of hybrid of those two concepts. I can’t remember where I learned this—possibly from a David Burns book? The idea is that you reject those negative thoughts and refuse to own them—in fact, you give that ugly voice in your head a name. You give it a separate identity from yourself, and then you tell it to shut up. You tell it it’s wrong, and you tell it why, and you take a stand in your own head against the crazy talk.

I know, sounds like goofy psychobabble…whatever. Try it next time you’re beating yourself up. It’s pretty effective.

As I’ve been working on this post, I thought of a perfect name for my ugly depression voice: Butthead Chatterbox. So appropriate! That’s what I’m going to call it when I tell it off, like this:

Depression: This post is worthless. Trite…hackneyed…worthless. It’s also embarrassing. Do you think anyone reads this? And if they do, they’re just going to know what a mess you are. Why bother?

Meg: Shut up, BUTTHEAD CHATTERBOX. I don’t care if anyone reads it and besides, they do read it. They told me they miss my posts. You talk too much and you’re full of poop.

See how that works? It’s absurd enough to make me laugh, but it’s also a reminder of how hurtful words can be—even the ones that seem silly. When I think of my angry little boy and my vulnerable little girl, my protective instincts come out swinging…just what I need to fight the Butthead Chatterbox.

P.S: For an entertaining but oh-so-accurate picture of depression, check out this post by genius blogger Allie Brosh. In fact, read all her stuff; she’s hilarious.

A Sneak Peak at Empty Nest Syndrome: UGGHHH

My daughter’s been away at camp all week. I’ve been home alone since Sunday. Usually, this means a good time for me. This week, not so much.

I’ve been a single mom for about 14 years. For most of those years, when my kids went away, it was kind of a treat. Judge me if you will, but every parent needs breaks and single parents need them even more. So I would pack their little overnight bags and bundle them off to Dad’s house with lots of love and kisses, and then PAR-TAY!! Momma’s alone for the weekend! YESSS!

Let me tell you, some of those weekends I got pretty crazy. I could sleep with ALL THE LIGHTS OFF AT ONCE. I could pee, or even take a whole shower, with no one walking in. Leave the TV off for the whole weekend. (Is there any sound more grating than SpongeBob?) Not have to make anyone pancakes. Not have to break up fights. Not have to share. It was awesome.

But things are changing at Casa de Meg. My son moved out two years ago. My daughter is almost 17 and about to begin her senior year in high school. She’s like a roommate now- albeit one I cook for and drive around, but still- it’s just she and I in our two-bedroom apartment. And she’s away fairly often these days, so I’m grateful for her company when I get it.

Last week, I tried to plan ahead for this kid-free week. I figured I could line up some internet dates—at least it would be blog fodder to entertain you with. Or maybe I could work out a whole bunch, try the gym by my house like I’ve been meaning to. I could catch up on paperwork. Paint something, maybe.

OR, I could—and by “could” I mean “did”—sit on my couch and drink and eat fast food and watch crappy TV for four days. I suck.

Here’s the problem: when my daughter leaves, it’s no longer a getaway from my single parenthood; it’s a glimpse into my future. That future is an empty nest. EMPTY NEST!! EMPTY NEST!!! (<——that is me shrieking crazily like Chicken Little).

Remember those cartoons where the guy would dive from the ridiculously high platform into the ridiculously tiny bucket? They would show the view from the platform down into the bucket before he jumped, and there would be clouds halfway between because it was so high up. That is how I picture the empty nest: way, way, down at the bottom of a very high cliff. One day, approximately 395 days from today, my daughter is going to leave for college and I am going to have to jump off that cliff.

Melodramatic? Me? Okay maybe, but I am really that apprehensive.

I had my first kid before I turned 21. I don’t know how to be a grownup without being a mom. I always figured I would raise my kids and then resume my regular life– catch up on all that stuff that normal people do before they have kids. Only now they’re grown and I don’t know what to do. Or maybe there is so much to do I can’t decide what to do. And I don’t have anyone to do things with and I don’t have any money to do them and waah waah waah… Is there any beer in the fridge? TV sounds pretty good.

One day at a time, Meg. I have books to edit, college to finish, dogs to walk, blog posts to write, practically ARMIES of WINNERS on the internet just waiting for me to date them… there’s plenty to keep me busy when the kids are gone. Maybe I will find someone new to make pancakes for. Or better, someone to make pancakes for me.

And anyway, there’s still a whole ‘nother year before I have to jump.

 

 

 

 

 

Cupcakes and Competition: Lessons from a High School Bake-off

Hot Fudge Sundae Cupcakes with Cookie Dough Centers. Yeah baby.

“Mom,” my daughter said. “I have to bake cupcakes for Huffman’s class. It’s for a bake-off and I get 25 points for entering.”

“Great,” I answered. “How many points do we get when we win?”

Oh, we won. We don’t mess around. We made Hot Fudge Sundae Cupcakes (a la Joy the Baker) with a cookie dough center, complete with whipped cream and cherries. Some of the other kids—kids who brought inferior baked goods–criticized Maddy for trying too hard.

Trying too hard?? It’s a competition! Do you criticize your basketball team for trying too hard? Do you tell your track runners to slow down? No. You tell them to WIN.

My daughter and I are both highly competitive. Our competitiveness is exceeded only by our lack of athletic ability. So while we can’t run faster or jump higher or hit harder than you, we will KICK YOUR ASS in a bake-off. Our cupcakes will mop the floor with your lousy cookies and then stuff them down your throat, LOSER.

Only we won’t say that out loud, because we’re ladylike.

Maddy and I were cracking ourselves up, talking about our aggressive baking and how our thwarted competitive natures spill over into non-competitive arenas because we have no other outlets. Maddy said something like, “Yeah, I’m good at all the lame stuff—baking, board games, logic puzzles…”

Then, because I am a mom, I jumped in with a little lesson that I wish I’d learned earlier in my life.

“Baking isn’t lame. Logic puzzles aren’t lame. You think it’s the lame stuff because it’s what you’re good at,” I told her. “Other people wish they were good at the things you’re good at—it’s not lame stuff. You just don’t value your talents because they come easily to you. But they don’t come easily to everyone. ”

When I was younger, I felt like I was only good at easy things. My strong suits are words, pictures and people.  To me, those are all easy, fun, fluffy talents. Even my strongest skill, which has always been writing, seemed inadequate to me. Because I have a simple, straightforward style, I felt like my writing was unsophisticated and childish. I always believed that the real value was in the numbers skills–the logical, left-brain sort of talents. Yeah, I can make things look nice and I can get along with people but who cares? Who’s going to pay me for that?

As I entered corporate America, I was subjected to personality and aptitude tests that reinforced that belief. No matter which test they administered, I was cast straight into the bimbo category: you’re a Sanguine! A High I! An ENFP! They all seemed to indicate that I talk too much and I can’t keep my act together. I think my elementary school teachers were in on those tests.

I wished I could be more like the analytical types, or the bold, Type-A types. I wished my skill sets were more practical. Basically, I just wanted to be what I wasn’t. Don’t we all?

One perk of getting older is that as we gain perspective through experience, we are able to see ourselves more clearly and understand how we fit into the big picture. I have now read enough bad writing to realize what a gift it is to be succinct and articulate. I have now worked for enough terrible bosses that I see the value in people skills. I have seen enough ugliness to appreciate my own ability to make things beautiful.

I’ve also figured out that not everyone thinks that what I do is easy. Even smart people with great ideas can’t always put them in writing. They think it’s some crazy superpower, just the way I feel about people who can do math in their heads.  More than one employer has capitalized on my people skills—turns out that people skills, or “soft skills,” as they are referred to in corporate-speak, are very hard to teach.

I’m not sure if this is universal or just women who do this, but it took me a long time to understand that the “easy stuff” only seemed easy to me because I am good at it.

This phenomenon of downgrading our own talents seems to be an extension of the grass-is-always-greener mindset.  We always think someone else’s talents are more valuable than our own.  Someone said, “If the grass seems greener on the other side of the fence, try watering your own lawn.”  Genius.

In this case, we need to recognize that just because it comes naturally to us, doesn’t mean it’s cheap or lame—someone wishes it came naturally to her, too.  Someone wishes he could write a better sentence, or bake a better cupcake.  My abilities are unique and valuable, even though it took me several decades to realize it. They are worth cultivating.

Another perk of being middle aged: I still have time to implement all this wisdom I’m trying to impart to my daughter. It’s not like I’m croaking out advice on my deathbed. It’s not too late to capitalize on those talents—not too late to water my own lawn.

Let The Wild Rumpus Never End!

Maurice Sendak died.

My sister suggested I blog about it, because she knows I love Maurice Sendak. I’m trying. The truest post, if I could swing it, would be a big blank page, room-size, with those three words in the middle and that’s it: Maurice Sendak died.

I would sit in front of that big, blank page and cry, and then I would really, really want some crayons. I would color all around those words in blue scribbles and I wouldn’t even try to make them look like Wild Things. Then I would invite some neighbor kids in to color with me. That would be a little creepy– that crying lady with the blue crayons wants us to color with her—but the kids would respond just right. I would tell those kids to draw whatever they want—what they’re scared of, what comforts them, what they ate for breakfast.  I would ask them to draw something from their favorite story, and I hope one of those kids would draw a Wild Thing. We would fill up that giant page until it became a forest, and maybe an ocean would tumble by with a private boat for Meg… to remember Maurice Sendak.

I clearly remember reading Where the Wild Things Are when I was little. I remember being shocked at Max—he chased his dog with a fork!—and then feeling sorry for him, sitting up in his room without any supper. I remember the scratchy lines of the illustrations and the soft, greyish colors and knowing just how that room felt. It felt like winter, when dark comes early and you can’t play outside so you make up inside stuff, and that’s how you get into trouble. Yes, my childhood self empathized with Max, yes you have been very bad, and now you’re mad at everyone and sad at yourself because you know you shouldn’t have chased the dog. You’ve had a tantrum, and you’re tired from crying, and you still want to be angry but you want your mom more. Max was my people.

Even more clearly, I remember reading Where the Wild Things Are to my son. Like every kid who’s ever been introduced to that book, Mo loved it, and we read it until he knew it by heart. I can still hear him reciting it in his biggest little voice, with the consonants mixed up. If you have ever heard a two-year-old yell, “LET THE WILD RUMPUS START!” then you probably share my soft spot for Maurice Sendak.

As a parent, the lovely part of that book was the opportunity to hear my kids’ interpretation. Sendak left whole pages free of words so that we could make our own.  My kids would wait expectantly for me to continue the narrative, but instead I would ask questions. “Which Wild Thing is the scariest? Which is the funniest? Which one would you ride on if you were Max?”

What a genius Sendak was, to create a book with such lasting appeal that my children love it as much as I do. What it must have felt like for him to know that for almost 50 years, parents and children snuggled together and imagined themselves in the world he created.

Nothing I could write would do him justice: his humor, the simple elegance of his words, his perspective on humanity, his respect for the intelligence of children.  His stories remind us that dealing with reality requires a certain deftness of imagination that children possess naturally and adults must cultivate.

While I’ve only mentioned Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak’s legacy is extensive. You probably remember Little Bear, and Chicken Soup with Rice…so many. The year my son was born, he released We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, a sad and stirring picture book that reminds us that much of reality doesn’t make sense, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

So good-bye, Maurice Sendak. Readers the world over are roaring terrible roars and gnashing terrible teeth for you. I hope that your dinner is waiting for you on the other side, and it is still hot.