Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Restorative Power of Girlfriends

I am one of those moms who never leaves her kid overnight.

Alright, not never. But only three times. Once to attend a conference in NYC and once to attend one of my oldest friend's weddings, held in a location that can be fairly described as geographically challenging from an airport access standpoint. Both junkets entailed two nights away from home, and both times, R. stayed with the Grape. So he had no opportunity to feel orphaned.

The third occasion involved a family wedding ninety minutes away. The Grape stayed with a sitter while R. and I both attended, but we were gone for less than 24 hours.

All of which, when spread over nearly four years, veers me dangerously close to being one of those odd women who never, ever leaves her kid.

Which isn't to say we have no separation. The Grape goes to preschool four days a week. On occasion, I'll bribe him to stay for an hour in the playroom at the gym. Once or sometimes twice a month, R. and I get a babysitter and go out in the evening.

But I very rarely travel for business. And R. and I never vacation without the Grape.

One of my friends, M., a very happy mommy of several, admitted years ago that sometimes she gets jealous of her husband's business trips. "Even if he's working, he gets eight hours to read a book on the plane if he wants... Or he can sleep."

Mind you, she was talking about a wacky and exhausting itinerary, which went as follows: Fly to Frankfurt. Attend lunch meeting. Fly back to Boston.

But we all nodded as we bounced our infants. We understood her envy. Eight hours (each way!) alone in one of those lay flat business class seats sounded like a spa holiday at that moment in our lives. And yes, we all also grasped that we were tossing around a first world problem.

Many of us at that gathering worked part time, but working, even if you're like me and lucky to work for yourself and do what you love, doesn't provided the kind of rejuvenation that true free time does.

Last October, another of my friends, V.,  mentioned that she and a few of her friends from her student days do a girls' weekend almost every year. This past year, they met at a spa in the mountain states.

I was intrigued. I have these girlfriends from my law school days, friends I haven't seen since before I was pregnant with the Grape, but with whom I was, during my DC years, pretty darn close to inseparable. V. had counseled that one friend must take the lead, reach out to the others and insist on nailing down both dates and a destination, if our girls' weekend had any hope of getting off the ground.

So I ran with it. I emailed C. and G., who live in DC and San Francisco. We nailed down dates half a year out, carved them in stone on our calendars, and chose a coast (west, which admittedly made a three day weekend into a five day adventure).

We briefly (seriously, for under five minutes) debated scheduling a vacation for all three families. That could be fun, but it would also cost way more, in terms of cash and time off expenditures, and what I craved most was girl time. The first (annual?) law school girls' weekend was hatched in under a dozen emails.

We secured child care. For me, this meant leaving the Grape with my mom on Wednesday so I could fly out Thursday, first thing. R. picked him up from her on Friday night and manned the weekend. I was home in time to collect him from school on Monday.

We booked accommodations and flights, and settled on Calistoga, in the Napa Valley, as our getaway destination. The website promised pools heated by natural springs, lazy bike rides through wine country, great food and wine, and lots of time to chill and catch up. The weather looked reliably summery. Three kid-free nights in sunny California with two of my favorite people awaited.

The Grape and I packed for his stay at my mom's. As I hoisted his bags to the car, the Grape began to realize something. "Mamma, where's your bag?" he asked, with great alarm.

"Kiddo, we need to talk."

While I can't say the Grape was impressed with the game plan, he was fine. Still, I felt a little guilty as I drove away from my mom's on Wednesday.

Those small pangs of bad feelings dissipated as soon as the plane landed in San Francisco. I was stunned how much ground I could cover, how fast I could move, solo, and how close to relaxing a flight in cattle class could be without  a small person in my lap, demanding entertainment and services, puking, and hosing down the neighbors with his juice box.

Of course I called the Grape from the left coast, indeed I tried several times.

He was pissed. He did not want to talk to me. But my mom assured me they were having a nice time on their first extended solo visit, and that the Grape had his halo firmly affixed to his little head the whole time.

As for me, I cannot believe we didn't do this sooner. Calistoga, and the entire Napa region, is beautiful, with made to order summer weather, and cool, dry, made for good sleep nights. We ate well, tasted bubblies and cabernets, and lounged at the pool. A lot.

We spent hours catching up on the details of each other's lives. The car didn't have a working radio, and it didn't matter, because the conversation kept going without pause. We floated in the pool for hours, until our skin went pruney and the sun started to set. We ate uninterrupted, multi-course meals.

I tried something entirely new and got a mud bath. (Review to follow later.)

Of course I missed the Grape, and by Sunday night, sitting at SFO waiting for the delayed redeye, I was ready to be home, to see him, to tuck him into bed.

But here's the truth: I think our little separation was healthy.

I came home, excited to see my kid, recharged in a way I've never felt before  (perhaps because, even in my single days, my vacations tended towards hyper-active, hyper ambitious adventures, with lots of point to point travel, schlepping and in the moment logistical planning.

I've never just chillaxed (as my younger sister would say) for a whole weekend before. Even on long ago beach trips, I always indulged in intense exercise and/or night life. And when I worked in corporate America, I used to joke that it took me a full week to even begin to relax, which presented a problem when dealing with the standard issue one-week break.

Motherhood has refined my time management skills. By Saturday night, I felt truly relaxed for the first time since before my pregnancy turned into the Pregnancy from Hell, which is to say, it's been at least four years.

I'm not telling you all this to make you jealous. I'm recounting my restorative weekend with my girlfriends, because I think you should all do the same thing. Soon. And the don't let daunting logistics scare you off.

You can do this, in three easy steps:

1. Nail down a date. Accept that this weekend will take place 3-6 months from the date you start planning. Throw out three weekends over email, see what works for your group, and commit. If your first dates don't succeed, do not table the question. Propose more dates until you get a hit. Accept, from the get go, that some/most of you will have to travel.

2. Choose destination and book hotel(s) and flights.

3. Arrange child care, and maybe back up, on call child care, if you're type A like me. Impress upon child care provider(s) that your dates are sacrosanct.

That's it. The rest of the details are easy. My bank account is leaner this month, but I feel energized and (paradoxically) calm in a way I can't recall feeling since before the Grape joined us. It's as if I took some highly social, marathon length yoga class.

To me, the time spent with dear friends, and the serenity, even if it wears off too soon, is priceless. I can always look forward to the Second Annual Girls' Weekend.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Of jump castles, Barbie cakes and registry redux

The brilliant Scary Mommy stole my thunder today.

By which I mean Karen Alpert scooped my would-be theme, the out of hand toddler/preschooler birthday party phenomenon. And she did it really well, so you should pop over there and read her piece about ten reasons birthday parties suck.

They don't all suck, of course. We've attended a few good ones recently. It's amazing what you can learn at kids' parties.

At a Barbie party, I learned we'd get to lick the frosting from between Barbie's legs! (For the uninitiated, one can procure a pink cake in the form of a ball gown with a Barbie doll submerged to her waist in the pastry and frosting dress).

It got better.

"How?" (You might ask.)

Answer: a pinata! With Barbie's picture on it.

So after molesting the doll, the kids could take turns whacking a picture of a woman with a big stick until she put out (candy).

Note to self: Barbie parties have strong anti-feminist undertones.

But the kids loved it. And it was over by noon. And they served coffee. So it was, in birthday party terms, a huge win.

At another recent good one, the hosts had the brilliant idea to feed the kids outdoors, which spared all the parents present from hyperventilating about spilling tomato sauce, punch, and frosting all over their beautiful new home.

The Grape gets invited to his fair share of birthday parties, and thankfully, the vast majority we've attended haven't sucked. I credit myself  for choosing his friends from the offspring of people who possess common sense. I do worry about what will happen when he starts picking his own pals, because I refuse to participate in the competitive party insanity.

My friends, thusly armed with common sense, understand the one simple rule for making a child's birthday party not suck: Provide adult beverages. The aforementioned coffee is great during the am hours, but wine is essential anytime after noon. This, unlike most statements that appear in this space, is not my opinion. It is a fact.

Danger: Walked uphill through the snow, fighting off bears with lunchbox moment ahead.

My siblings and I got by without our parents hiring Broadway caliber entertainers, ordering desserts that cost more than the average wedding cake, getting hysterical about booking venues half a year out, or losing sleep over the perfect theme.

I figure that the Grape (slated to turn four this summer), will be good with a few friends and an ice cream cake, just like he had last year. Because if his guests want fancy custom favors, a trained sea lion or a made to order sushi bar, they've got another think coming.

Ms. Alpert nailed it with her candor on the evils of treat bags, the parents who can't get it together to respond to invitations, and those moms who spend days or weeks on Pinterest trying to perfect their Elmo cupcakes.

And I almost cried tears of joy when she whipped out the ever-tacky birthday party registry. I find shameless shakedowns for presents unappetizing under almost all circumstances. Call me old fashioned, but I think specific gifts, like tips, should be accepted instead of expected.

When it comes to having the three to seven year old set register their product demands on the Internet for the whole world to see, my stomach turns and I fear for the future of our society. That sentiment goes doubly for parents of tots whose stated demands start in the fifty dollar per item range.

Mercifully, the Grape and I have yet to be invited to a child's birthday event with a gift registry. We'd need to decline, and I suppose then I'd be forced to explain my philosophical reasons in toddler terms. "You can't go because Junior's parents suck don't share our values are materialistic monsters . Aaarrggh. You just can't go."

The one area where I break with Ms. Alpert concerns her first point. I understand her reservations about jump castles, and I can see that having a band of three-year-olds leaping for joy while coated in vomit might cause a parent to re-evaluate her opinion about this wildly popular form of small child entertainment.

But I love those jump castles. The Grape L-O-V-E-S loves them too. And nothing burns a sugar high like jumping up and down like a maniac. So if you have room for one, by all means, get one for your little darling's party.

And don't write me and tell me they're dangerous, or that so and so broke his arm/ankle/nose in one. Lots of really fun things in life carry some measure of risk, and to me the payoff of the jump castle, measured in terms of both calories burned and in pure joy, outweighs the risk of a possible ER visit.

Just please, if your kid is a known puker, steer him towards another activity.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Thank you for all the texts, calls and emails that arrived from as far away as Brazil, Australia, Italy and Finland yesterday afternoon. Our family is fine.

The Grape and I were home when two apparently homemade bombs exploded at the nearby Boston Marathon finish line, because sunny spring holiday or not, the Grape needed a nap.

Had the Grape not required a recharge, he and I would have meandered down to the marathon finish line area (because of neighborhood geography, and routine marathon street closings, we would not have been on the side of Boylston Street that was bombed, but we would have seen the whole tragedy).

I heard the blasts, and felt some very mild reverberations. I didn't realize anything was wrong until sirens started wailing from all directions. (It would not have struck me as unusual for Boston to stage celebratory cannon fire on Patriot's Day, but now I'll never ignore a sound like that again.)

The Grape slept through the whole thing. I watched the TV and my Twitter feed in disbelief and disgust, answered calls and texts, and participated in a roll call of our circle of city friends. R. came home from work early.

When the Grape woke up, he shrieked with delight when he saw his school (located on the same block as the finish line) and the scores of emergency vehicles on television.

Oh, to be three and innocent.

He asked what all the fire trucks and ambulances were doing, and I told him the fire fighters and medics were helping people. I found out later yesterday that the late Fred Rogers counseled exactly this kind of focus during a tragedy: look for the people who are helping. Boston's first responders did a tremendous job yesterday. Neighbors who were at the scene said the triage and evacuation were as orderly as could possibly be expected.

The Grape asked if people were hurt and I said yes, but didn't elaborate and I switched off the news. He didn't press the issue, and soon went on with important toddler business, such as playing with his cars.

Today a few moms asked me what I plan to say to the Grape about the attack. My answer: as little as possible. I see no reason to bring up the subject, to shatter his innocence, since thankfully nobody he knows was hurt or killed. Had we known a victim, my gut impulse would be to answer questions truthfully, but with as little detail as possible, and not to prompt inquiries. I might have sought advice on the level of detail to share from a reputable professional counselor.

Modern childhood is short enough; I see no need to truncate it further by elaborating on events the Grape's mind cannot possibly process.

Still, we live two blocks from the largest roped off crime scene in Boston's history. The Grape has seen the news vans, the police dogs, the emergency personnel, the crime scene tape. He overhead a parent tell an elementary aged child that all those police "are looking for the bad guys." He asked me if that was true. I said yes, which satisfied him—and me, because it's the truth.

Really, what else could I say?

We don't know yet whether the attack was domestic or foreign, the work of a lone wolf or an organized group. Any speculation on the identity of the perpetrator(s) in the absence of proof is toxic enough for grown ups to indulge in, let alone for small kids. It's an unfortunate reality of the modern media age that when no facts are available, the pundits, and many reporters and bystanders, broadcast their personal speculations far and wide. Certain wing nuts stoke race based hate. I don't want the Grape around that kind of conversation or coverage.

I see nothing wrong with protecting a small child who can't yet separate fact from conjecture from the coverage. I don't care for high-drama post-tragedy television myself, and tend to look to the major newspapers' websites for updates.

So far, there aren't many.

We do know that the bombs were packed with nails and other shrapnel, designed to inflict maximum mayhem. The bomber(s) timed the blasts so that the streets would be packed with spectators cheering on a large number of runners.

We also know that similar improvised explosive devices are widely used in armed conflicts around the globe, and that they're not particularly difficult to manufacture. Detailed instructions are a simple Google search away for anyone with an Internet connection.

The Grape doesn't need to hear any of that. He doesn't know the words "bomb" or "terrorism." He doesn't know about guns or even swords yet. Weaponry isn't part of his world or his vocabulary.

Because he's three. And when you're three, I think you should receive horrible information on a need-to-know basis only.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Expel the Perpetrator of Yesterday's URI Lockdown

Re: Yesterday's Shooting Hoax on Kingston Campus

Dear President Dooley:

I am an alumna and, if the professor's account and news reports are deemed true, I demand you expel the student who set off yesterday's series of events on campus.

I do not care if s/he is brilliant in academic terms, whether s/he has some type of impressive scholarship, or whether this is the first blemish on his/her record. Some actions should be one strike, and you're out.

Any student deemed college material by your admissions committee should have enough sense to know that one cannot yell "Fire!" in a crowded building.

Yelling, "I have a gun!" in an auditorium, no matter with what preamble or disclaimer attached, constitutes the same type of reckless disregard for the public safety.

You must not tolerate it.

Yesterday, I learned of the alleged shooter on the University of Rhode Island campus as many alumni did: the news popped into my social media feed. Word spread like wildfire that URI had a gunman on the loose in Chaffee Hall (the university's largest teaching building).

Thankfully, no reports of injuries came in, and Internet news outlets started speculating that the report was a hoax. Of course you had no choice but to lockdown the campus, cancel classes and other programming, and call in a swarm of law enforcement authorities—all of which caused needless anxiety, stress, inconvenience and money.

The yeller will have his/her defenders, who will argue that kids do dumb things, that they play stupid games. I would argue that perhaps any extra-curricular games in class need not be tolerated by professors and tuition-paying classmates, but that is secondary to my main point. Others might argue free speech rights, but long established case law indicates that free speech rights do not protect those who incite mass panic.

Sometimes dumb decisions result in serious consequences.

Send a message that you will not tolerate incitement of panic and the resulting risk to public safety.

Expel the student who yelled s/he had a gun in Chaffee Hall, and do it now, without apology.

Thank you, and best regards,

Mari Passananti, Class of 1995