The Idiom is Actually “Raising Children”

sambuchhauntedhouse

From a sidewalk in Galati, Romania, where one of my adult sons lives

I think I understand why an article titled “Quit Doing These 8 Things for Your Teen This Year if You Want to Raise an Adult” keeps appearing in my Facebook newsfeed this week. It’s about a parent’s choice to refuse to do things like waking her kids up in the morning, packing their lunches, dashing forgotten items to school, helping with projects, and other things most teenagers—people the same age our great-great grandparents were when they were getting married and raising kids and crops of their own—could probably handle without adult intervention. I get it. Kids can become a make-work project, getting them to acquire competence is an important part of parenting, it isn’t easy, it isn’t comfortable, yes, yes, yes.

I understand the message but it is badly presented in this article. It’s not just that the writer’s lack of insight into her own ableism is downright offensive. It’s not just that teenagers grow at different rates, including at rates complicated by developmental delays. Some of them aren’t neurotypical, or are struggling with mood or anxiety disorders that affect their abilities to focus, remember details, and harness the ole get-up-and-go. The article’s bad presentation is all of this and more.

I’m slightly farther ahead in the parenting lifecycle than the author of the article. I have two children who have become adults in spite of me waking them up and making their lunches every day until they graduated from high school. Now that they’re out in the world—one of them in the third year of a computing science degree at a large research university, and the other across the Atlantic Ocean serving as a volunteer in a rough industrial town—one of the things I don’t worry about is whether they will get up in the morning now that I’m not waking them myself. They do. They just do.

No, what I do worry about are the same things I’ve always worried about. I worry about whether they’ll be kind to people, generous with their time and energy. I worry about whether they’ll help people out and offer second chances when dumb mistakes are made, even if those mistakes have bothered them. I worry about them being able to resist petty power struggles, and being prepared to inconvenience themselves in the interest of making life better for other people, particularly people who are smaller and weaker than them. I hope they remember me and their father inconveniencing ourselves to care for them when they were young and weak. To raise a person who doesn’t remember being treated like this is to risk raising someone who doesn’t know to treat other people like this. It’s priming someone to be a problem partner, a problem parent, a problem caregiver for their own parents when the time comes for us to grow old, losing track of our time and possessions, needing someone to patiently and helpfully oversee our daily activities. The tables that we’re sitting at with our children at this early stage in our family lives—they turn.

There’s more still. Not all parents are equally well-equipped for parenting. Some of us work, run businesses, parent alone, are simultaneously caring for older generations, cope with illnesses of our own, spend years in pregnancy and breastfeeding modes that make us less than constantly available to our kids. Maybe what I’m saying when I walk into my fifteen-year-old’s bedroom while it’s still dark and pat him on the arm until he pats my hand back, telling me without a word that he’s awake, isn’t that he’s cute and I want him to stay my baby forever. Maybe I’m saying I realize I never spent an entire week planning and executing a lavish birthday party for him, so I hope he can accept my love in these small installments offered in silence every morning. Maybe what I was saying when I chucked that daily granola bar and sandwich into a brown bag for my eighteen-year-old is how sorry I am that I was too busy with his baby brothers to ever be a parent volunteer in his classroom while he was at school, so I hope he’ll accept rations of food I paid for and assembled with my own hands instead.

It’s trite to spell it out—not to mention terribly ironic to have to write it in response to an article that repeatedly condemns “judging” among parents–but clearly, parents can only offer their kids resources they actually have. Even then, those resources—time, money, talents, health and wellness–have to be tailored to meet the needs and characters of individual kids, rather than being applied as meme-ish rules of thumb pasted under bossy headlines. We don’t, contrary to what the article’s title says “raise an adult.” The idiom is actually that we raise children. Unless kids die young, they will become adults. There’s nothing their parents can do to stop that and there’s no need to quit anything but worrying about it. What’s more important than whether they’ll be adults is what kinds of adult behaviours we’re modelling for them.

Bad, Honest Advice on How to Write as a Young Parent

心情不好

This 25 year old mother of two is me. Lazy butt had written precisely zero novels.

Enough people have asked how I managed to write two novels while at home with my kids that I thought I’d better craft an answer a little more thoughtful than “by being a crap mother.” Here it is, some very honest and probably very bad advice on how to launch a writing career while masterminding a large, young household.

  • Stop cleaning the house. This is done by a) quitting once conditions become sanitary without proceeding all the way to spiffy and, b) looking at your children the way our great-grandmother’s (and my parents) looked at their children: as a private workforce, a domestic militia of barely competent workers. Assigning one light chore every day and one heavier cleaning task on the weekend should do it.
  • Start mowing the lawn. Look, you’re not going away on writers’ retreats to the Banff Centre any time soon. That’s not the life you chose. But you do need to spend time  alone with your thoughts en plein air, and pushing a machine that drives conversation away all around the backyard is better than nothing.
  • Stay up. My creativity comes in all-or-nothing surges. During a surge, I tend to get about four hours of sleep during the night, maybe less. This isn’t a desperate attempt to make the most of the hours when my house is quiet (though it has that benefit). There’s simply more energy in my mind when I’m creative and it keeps me sleepless for weeks on end. Don’t resist it just because your family needs to get up in the morning. Squeeze a ten minute nap or two into the daylight hours even if it means taking the bus and sleeping away the commute (trust me, most of my university’s student population does this, even the sleep-drooler population). Staying up to write won’t be your lifestyle forever. Think of it as a grueling but temporary training regimen, like going for long, long runs leading up to a marathon.
  • Keep reading. I was badly stuck during the writing of my current novel. There was a difficult decision to be made, I didn’t have the confidence to make it, but until I did, the book couldn’t move forward. The solution was to stop writing for the rest of the day and read some excellent writing that succeeds in doing the very thing I was afraid to attempt. I opened a collection of short stories by Mavis Gallant, read until 1am, and went to bed stoked to take the risk I needed.
  • Don’t spend too long lying around miserable about not being Mavis Gallant. This was an unintended side-effect of reading good writing. It’s inevitable and understandable, just don’t let it go on for too long.
  • Talk to your partner about your book. His input may not make it into the manuscript but airing your story’s sticking points out loud with an attentive adult who wants you cute and happy is a helpful exercise. It also downplays any burgeoning sense of resentment he may have for a) the project that consumes so much of your attention, and b) the way you hog the lawnmower.
  • Share with care. I don’t mean to say you should make your partner to read half-baked early drafts. Don’t do this to your loved ones. They often don’t know what to say and it puts them in an awful position. Instead, use a professional writer-in-residence based in your local library, university, or other arty institutions. These real, working writers are waiting to read fifteen pages or so of your writing and give an impartial, informed assessment of how you’re doing and how it could be better. Their services are free and competition for their positions is fierce so you can usually trust they’ve been well-screened for things like being a jerk. But having said all this, if someone asks you to read their work, do it. You can take a lesson from the writers-in-residence and limit the amount of pages you’ll read, but say yes. Strictly speaking, I don’t believe in Karma but I make a cautious exception when it comes to lending my pickup truck and to helping other writers.
  • Distract. If you have kids at home during the day, introduce them to pastimes they can do by themselves in the same room as you while you sit still and say very little—things other than screen-time, which won’t make anyone happy in the long run. What could those pastimes be? It depends on the kid. For some kids, nothing will fill this bill and you’ll just have to let them trash your house while you get some work done, or learn to type with their heads wedged into the triangle formed by the crook of your arm and the edge of your desk (been there). If they are willing to give you a break, get them some Lego, craft supplies, Play-Doh, a load of siblings, a bunch of ironing to do—anything.
  • Be honest with yourself about other interests competing for discretionary time. If you can’t give up crafting, cake decorating, direct marketing essential oils, etc. in order to make time to write consistently, it might be best to wait until you are willing to make writing a priority. There’s nothing wrong with other pursuits, we just need to be realistic and at peace with how we choose to spend our time.
  • Don’t call your writing a hobby if you’re doing it as a serious artistic project. Don’t let anyone call it a hobby.
  • Go easy on people. People are who you are writing for. Don’t tell me it’s all for yourself, forever and ever. That might be how things turn out but that’s not the goal you have in your heart. Spending time with your kids, your partner, your extended family, friends, colleagues, strangers is part of writing. Nothing is more inspiring than life going on around you. This is an advantage mothers surrounded by people have over other writers. When I was working as a columnist for a newspaper in Fort McMurray staffed mostly by young, single newcomers to the city, a pattern emerged when these people would try to write columns of their own. They’d write a few articles on food they ate or television they watched and then their columns would usually fizzle. What they lacked wasn’t talent or voice or experience, it was other people. They were isolated, lonely, and in many ways creatively bereft. You and I, we are none of those things.

And that is the awful truth of how I do it.

 

 

Call Me Binoo

binoo's island

Binoo, on his island, reads a book

In 2005, Quebecoise author Dominique Jolin’s popular children’s books were adapted for English television as Toopy and Binoo, an animated series headlined by an oversized, chatty mouse and a little white cat who doesn’t speak at all.

2005 was also the year my fourth son was born, delivered without a doctor in a Fort McMurray hospital during an April snowstorm. No one thinks her kids are ordinary but this boy has made an exceptionally strong case for extraordinariness. Ask anyone.

While he was still in his super-toddler form, his little brother, my fifth son was born. Baby brother’s birth wasn’t ordinary either. But instead of being a cavalcade of feats of frontier hardiness, my ultimate son’s birth drama was launched six weeks too early, beginning in an ambulance and ending in a neonatal special care unit.

By the time itty-bitty, needy brother made it safely home, our super-toddler had started identifying with Jolin’s cartoon mouse character, Toopy. I could tell by the way he called me nothing but Binoo and the way my new baby was renamed “Patchy-Patch” after the stuffed toy Binoo fawns over on the show. We all played along. It was hecka cute, cost us nothing, and benefitted us in ways I didn’t recognize during the haze of caring for five children under the age of eleven.

I’m not sure if Jolin wrote Toupie et Binou as a script for toddlers confronting the harsh fact
that mothers are busy people with more to their lives than indulging the whims of one child, no matter how extraordinary. When we make art, we may wind up expressing truth we don’t otherwise perceive. Either way, Toopy and Binoo is a work of genius.

In print, the script of an old-school episode of Toopy and Binoo would read as an uninterrupted monologue by Toopy, mostly spoken in the second person to Binoo. Toopy prattles on in the forefront while in the background Binoo cares for Patchy-Patch, makes small adjustments to keep Toopy’s surroundings safe, and gently redirects and makes suggestions without a word—no pop psych editorializing about social skills or recycling. Binoo plays along, lets Toopy’s imagination wash over him, engaging it, validating it without adding much to it.

This is what the daily life of a toddler at home with his mother (especially with a little sibling) really looks like. They are together in the same world, but each of them wanders within it. There’s constant interaction but its intensity ebbs and flows. The mother’s role in the child’s imaginary world is a supporting one, like Binoo’s role in Toopy’s world. She participates almost by default and, though it may be unwitting, fosters the child’s sense of being “fabulous” by letting him take the lead in play.

binoo's island2

“Looks like Binoo has finished reading his book…”

For parents, there’s a self-serving side to this arrangement. A Toopy-kid—imaginative, caring, happy—is secure enough to loosen that strangle-hold toddlers like to have on their mothers’ attention. In the “Binoo’s Island” episode, Toopy can’t reach Binoo because he’s sitting on a blanket, wearing his glasses, reading a book. And it is not a crisis. “Looks like Binoo is on his very own island,” Toopy narrates, adding only, “Wow!” He then spends the rest of the show goofing around with the premise of a marooned Binoo but actually leaving Binoo the frick alone until Binoo himself decides he’s finished reading his book.

That’s some social modelling I can get behind.

There are lulls in the story where Binoo is not even looking and Toopy is happy just to be near him. Sometimes when a Toopy-kid is talking, a real Binoo-mom keeps looking down at her preemie infant or at her screen full of work and just says, “Uh-huh, uh-huh…” Toopy can deal with that. He knows he’s still “fabulous” even if other things and people need some space to be fabulous too. He knows the dividing of Binoo’s attention won’t last forever. Maybe Toopy and Binoo makes a case for the value of “quantity time” because parents are human, houses are small, everyone is important, and sometimes quantity time is all we want.

My penultimate son told me as much. One afternoon, I had been on Binoo’s Island for quite a while when he came into the bedroom where I was working on a novel and just stood at the foot of the bed. I looked up, greeted him, and asked if he wanted anything. “I want,” he said, “to be near you.”

Done.

 

 

Angry Grizzly Bear on This Generation

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Seen the #THISGENERATION graphics yet? The generation referred to in this series of red posters isn’t mine—the awkward demographic between Generation X and the Millennials. thisgeneration3The generation in question isn’t the artist’s own cohort either. From what I can tell, he’s a salty old fella from the beginning of the Millennial spectrum. #THISGENERATION—the one harpooned in his simple red graphics—is that of my kids and current classmates.

I spend almost all of my time with #THISGENERATION. Like the artist, I am part of a university community filled with people who get younger and younger than me every semester. In my growing family and in my volunteer activities, most of the faces I see and voices I hear are those of #THISGENERATION. By my own choice, I move through their sphere, outnumbered by them, and perfectly content to be so. What have I found in their sphere? I’ve found the full breadth and depth of human character, intelligence, and kindness. It exists there just as it does among people my own age and among people much older than me. Humanity isn’t something we age into or out of. We’re all equally a part of it.

Of course, I have a huge problem with the way these red posters fail so utterly in representing how or why my children and my friends live the way they do. It’s part of my general revulsion for any sweeping statement made about an entire category of people, especially when those statements appear to be based on fanciful anecdotes unsubstantiated by any proper data and, frankly, smack of the petty mean-spiritedness.

thisgeneration1Let’s pursue a methodical close reading of a few of the posters. In this one, #THISGENERATION is hassled for going somewhere private to take pictures of themselves to post in public. Sure, this is a situation that has and will continue to showcase a whole lot of terrible youthful judgment. But let’s hold our noses, take a page out of the gun lobby’s script, and remind ourselves that cameras don’t exploit people, people exploit people.

When I was in university, my bestie had a cheap, nasty film-camera and pestered me into appearing in ridiculous pictures. She was a genius, I guess. We were taking selfies before there were selfies. I wish two things about those pictures were different: that they weren’t so blurry and that there were many, many more of them. I no longer look like I did when I was twenty. And I certainly don’t blame anyone who is twenty right now for

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An Aunthentic, Antique Selfie ca. 1994

understanding they will never be more beautiful and wanting to use the slick, cheap technology they have to document and revel in it. Heck, go ahead and pose in the bathroom if that’s the best place to relax and get a natural expression. Yes, some of today’s selfies will cause regret. That’s awful. But all those picture we don’t have from back in our day cause us a kind of regret too.

This one has more text so the weak points of its underlying assumptions are more glaring. First, the Candy Crush posts on my Facebook feed aren’t from #THISGENERATIONthisgeneration4 but from older people. Most of us won’t commit  to long, challenging gamer-ism so we play simple, free, throw-away games like Candy Crush. It’s mostly an old people game.

Beyond this sloppy misrepresentation, the larger problem with the comic is that it sets up a false dichotomy between online social contact and face-to-face contact. No one has to choose between these two options. Young people’s relationships span both social media and face-to-face life, just as they do for older people. The centre of young people’s social lives has shifted, moving toward a social space that didn’t exist in the past, the same way people’s relationships expanded to include phone calls during the twentieth century. However, the locus of new social contact points isn’t that different from what’s gone before it. My 19-year-old son observed that my 1990s social life required “a lot of legwork.” That’s true. But it wasn’t all about hoofing around, trying to find each other. We tied up our parents’ landlines, wrote notes to each other in class, wore earbuds and ignored our seatmates on public transit, sat together silently watching television because we had to share the same screen, bullied, and gossiped. Our social interactions weren’t always the rich, face-to-face encounters romanticized by “if you remember this your childhood was awesome” memes. My awkward generation also bored each other, hurt each other, wasted time, didn’t go outside enough, and let opportunities to enrich each other’s lives pass by.

In many ways, #THISGENERATION is more connected to their friends and acquaintances than young people have ever been. That can include being more connected to their parents. “So are you more of a friend-mom?” one of my classmates recently asked me. I do my fair-share of nagging and bossing but I do enjoy my kids. All those excruciating baby-years are paying off with these fantastic friends I made myself. That was the point of this parenting project all along— making people with whom to share my life. It’s come to include my online life.

I haven’t even mentioned the safety benefits of having kids in #THISGENERATION. When I was sixteen, my girls and I would get on a MetroTransit bus, leave Cole Harbour, and stay out until the last ferry brought us back from Halifax. We did this without any way for my parents to check on me, without anything in my pocket that could summon rescuers if something went wrong. My husband grew up in a rural area where he’d take a car and disappear into dark, icy prairies, unreachable for hours. I don’t know how our parents could stand it, and I’m glad I don’t have to.

How about this one?

thisgeneration5I was amused recently to read a twenty-year-old paper warning scholars they ought to take spoken literature (orature) more seriously since it was all #THISGENERATION was going to abide. In the early days of texting, a prominent Canadian author wrote a novel including a vision of the future where both written and spoken communication had morphed into flip-phone era texting shorthand. Of course, that hasn’t happened. #THISGENERATION doesn’t often use their phones as phones. When dealing with people at a distance, they prefer written over oral communication. A phone call means someone’s dead or in jail. #THISGENERATION has become extremely literate, plugging away on Tumblr writing heavy text posts about art and  relationships and social justice, learning creative writing in epic style on fan fiction sites, while older adults quip away in 140 characters. No one reads and writes more than #THISGENERATION.

None of this is meant as a glib “the kids are alright” brush-off of how hard growing up is for young people and the elders caught in the blast-zone. Things like pervasive online pornography, harassment, the permanence of online gaffes, and the ways compulsive gaming and social media activity can rob the achievements and relationships kids need to build their futures are all serious problems. So let’s stop snickering and get serious. #THISGENERATION ought to be able to look to older people for support, help, and love to ease their way. We can’t support people when we’re sneering at them. We can’t understand them when we’re oversimplifying them. We can’t show them much of anything if all we see can in them is their worst.

Ode to an #uglyfeminist

I do not wish to be beautiful. I’ve learned a lot and lost nothing of lasting importance by going through life far from beautiful. I am complaining about nothing. I wouldn’t be thinking about ugliness at all if it hadn’t come to the social media forefront recently with the Twitter hashtag #uglyfeminist.

The hashtag is as troll-ridden as it sounds. It’s not a springboard for enlightening discussion (something the Internet is not known for anyways) but a brawl. On one side of it are misogynists who think it’s clever to reduce millennia of struggle for safe and equitable conditions for half of humanity to a joke where women they do not find sexually attractive are simply frustrated at being unworthy of the social favour men mete out. On the other side are women posting pictures of themselves showcasing their conventionally attractive looks to—I don’t know—prove #notallfeminists are ugly. Some feminists actually do fulfill their social obligation to look the way men want them to, and shame on men for not fulfilling their side of the social contract, I guess.

Now, I won’t tear down my Twitter sisters any further for living their struggle in the ways they see best. I continue to believe that tossing out wedges for women to drive between each other—like the #uglyfeminist hashtag—is an old device men use to make peace for themselves by keeping women preoccupied attacking each other. I won’t do it. But I will share a few things I’ve learned about why ugliness matters.

Ugly is the opposite of beautiful – the opposing end of a crude, arbitrary, culturally constructed spectrum of physical attractiveness. As long as the lights are on, the appearance of beautiful humans affects the people around them. Beauties are able to change other people’s behaviours, beliefs, and sway their emotions just by looking the way they look. Don’t argue. If this wasn’t true, the multi-billion dollar advertising industry would not exist in the form we all know. Most of the time, being beautiful makes the daily hassle of social life easier. It’s a form of privilege and power.

On the opposite pole of the spectrum, we ugly folks have our own kind of power over people.  Like beautiful people, we affect other’s behaviours, beliefs, and emotions simply by showing up and looking the way we do. The effects are different in nature but not in potency.  But where the beautiful can inspire warmth and affection they may not deserve, we can inspire disgust and derision we don’t deserve.

I’ve experienced disgust and derision based on my looks. Most of it happened in junior high school when both my looks and the people around me were at their worst. I’ll spare us the details but on a rainy day in 1987 I was voted ugliest girl in school by a group of loud, rude boys who didn’t know me at all.

They were personally offended that a girl would let herself be so unattractive to them. My looks were transgressive. They flouted the social code that promises boys they’re important and social life ought to be constructed to keep them happy, comfortable, and gratified. As part of that social code, girls are expected to look the way boys want us to.

By being ugly, it was as if I didn’t know how important boys were—or worse—that I knew and I didn’t care. The boys knew in a tacit, latent way they probably didn’t fully realize they understood, that I needed to be punished for my transgressive ugliness. If looking bad all on its own wasn’t aversive enough for me (it was) they would provide the aversion themselves by humiliating me in public. And that’s what they did.

Girls responded to my ugliness differently. At nearly every all-girl-party I went to—especially ones with older, big sisterly girls—I would be given the gift of a makeover. Someone would stick my head in the sink and set about changing my life, just like in the movies. In the late 1980s this meant curling irons, hairspray, and loads of eye makeup. It was sweet and noble and futile. When the big makeover reveal moments fell flat (unlike my high, sprayed bangs) I felt an especial hate for my ugliness, for its imperviousness to makeovers—its rejection of my friends’ love and goodwill.

Sensing my parents’ reaction to my “awkward phase” was bittersweet too. “Awkward” is a term grownups apply to gently describe the unbalanced strangeness in the form and features of children they remember as silky, sparkly babies.  Adults say “awkward” like an apology, with longing and grief. Longing and grief spring from love. There’s heartbreak in the word “awkward.”

I wish I could say I was ugly as part of some precocious feminist stunt—that it was about rebellion and wilful disobedience to oppressive social norms. That wasn’t it at all. I was ugly because I needed my braces off. I needed my body to relinquish the emergency weight it added to get me through the growth spurt that never came. I needed my hair to grow out of the awful cut my well-meaning mother chose for me. I needed to start buying my own clothes. I needed the 90s to start so everyone else would wash off their eyeshadow, let the aerosol out of their bangs, and join me in low maintenance grooming regimens. I needed mean-boys to grow up. Eventually, all of that happened.

Is being ugly what made me a feminist? It must have been one of thousands of factors. Did it make me the frustrated, bitter, unwanted man-hating caricature of the #uglyfeminist hashtag? Clearly, it didn’t. Most of the people who mean the most to me are men—my husband, my five sons, my father, brothers, cousins, brothers-in-law, friends, mentors, colleagues. I don’t spend much time baking them cookies or ironing their shirts but I do love them in my own way.

And it goes like this: a few years ago, I caught one of my teenaged sons sharing an unflattering photo, a candid shot, of a 13-year-old girl we know, the daughter of a family friend. He and a male friend who had never met this girl were laughing, mocking, and posting the photo in a fairly obscure region of a social media website. The odds of the girl ever seeing it herself were low. That didn’t matter.

“Honey, don’t,” I said to my son. “That girl is me.”

This is the gift I, an ugly feminist, try to give to men instead of beauty. It’s truth, which, as sweet, silly Keats says, is beauty after all.

How to Read Minds in the Check-out Line: Hints for Parents of Toddlers

My uber-toddler. It was the best of times, it was the worst of time.

My uber-toddler. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Those social media posts and blog entries written by moms of young children, complaining about the way strangers interact with them in public spaces — I could have written those. In fact, I once wrote and voiced a five minute piece for CBC Radio about a low point in my public mothering of little kids.

My youngest child is the ripe old age of six and doesn’t attract much attention in grocery stores or restaurants anymore. However, in order to arrive at this time of life, I first had to run the gauntlet of five toddlers.

All five of my kids had monster moments but two of my toddlers – the first and the fourth – consistently and horrendously stood out when we were in public. They were what kind people called “handfuls” or “going concerns” and what not-so-kind people might’ve considered proof that there’s no hope for the future of humanity. Thanks to bad mate-selection on their father’s part, these two also out-class me in every measure of relative size and strength and I often looked more like their underqualified, overwhelmed, soon-to-be-fired nanny than their biological mother.

What I mean to say is I fought in the trenches of toddler-motherhood for as long and as hard as just about any other women ever to complain about it. I hear you, sisters. I remember. Three short years ago, I was you.

I want to show support for mothers of younger children – treat toddler-moms and their kids the way I wish people had treated us. I want to give the assurances I wish someone had given me – even if it’s going to be a few years before toddler-moms will be able to believe me.

Of course, what I have to say might not be true for everyone witnessing the struggle. I know that. I went on the radio and testified about it to the whole country. Yes, there are plenty of grownup weirdos who have no idea how to behave in public and feel they can scold other adults for things that do not concern them. I don’t know what they’re thinking.

But I can speak for myself. And between me and more than a few other parents with older kids, it’s safe to assume there are allies among the onlookers. It’s safe to assume:

No one cares about the noise and mess kids make as much as their parents do. Everyone in line at the Wal-Mart has ninety-nine problems and someone else’s little kid isn’t one. To strangers, little kids are pretty much white noise – alright, maybe beige noise but definitely not the red noise they sound like to their own parents. What might be interpreted as hostile glaring from strangers is likely just bored staring, idle bemusement, a lack of anything else to look at. We won’t remember or resent a noisy little kid. But thanks for the floor-show while we wait in line.

Wanna know what we’re thinking of that noisy little kids’ parents? I’ll tell ya. Nothing. We’re usually not thinking about them at all. Like most people, we have no trouble staying busy thinking all about ourselves. Most experienced parents are only too happy to let newer parents enjoy absolute rule in their own jurisdictions. There’s nothing we want more for toddler-wranglers than the free exercise their own good judgment. Maybe we’re jerks but compassion isn’t the only thing on our minds when faced with someone else’s struggle. Sometimes, it’s more like, “Better them than me.”

Our smiles for goofy little kids aren’t supposed to encourage them to keep acting up. We usually give frazzled moms space, willfully trying not to notice them. But kids don’t understand space the same way we do and can wind up too close to ignore. At times like these, our smiles and friendliness are meant to show goofy kid’s mom that he’s not bothering us nearly as much as she might worry he is. It’s a simple sign of good will. His mom is having a hard time and a common, deeply ingrained social reaction to seeing one of our kind in distress is to offer non-verbal reassurance and comfort with a smile. We don’t expect those moms to smile back at us – heck knows we never did – but if they did, it’d probably relieve some tension. It’d feel better than scowling and making a retort about how it’s not okay. The truth is, if no one’s being hurt, it probably is okay.

Sometimes someone is being hurt and it’s hard for moms of older kids to ignore years of well-learned reflexes and let it go. Raising toddlers leaves us with something like a post-traumatic stress disorder, hurling us into flashbacks of our very worst days – the ones when we went to the emergency room hoping the medical staff wouldn’t call the police about our kids’ bizarre but completely accidental injuries. When a fellow mom is distracted and her little kids look like they’re in danger, we might break down and squawk out a warning.

This was me, a few weeks ago. I was waiting in a slow, painful line while a mom with two young kids was paying for her purchases. She was focused on the cashier, trying to move along as quickly as possible, and her older daughter was pushing the baby back and forth in a shopping cart. It was a harmless, boring game. It was so boring the little girl added a new element. She pushed the cart as hard as she could and let go of the handle. The baby was launched toward a metal shelf. His mom was still busy with the cashier and hadn’t seen any of it. So this horrible voice called out “Excuse me, your daughter…” It was my voice. The mother whirled around, lunged for the handle of the cart, and turned back to the cashier without looking at me. She wasn’t grateful. She was ticked off. I get it. It’s embarrassing to feel like we’ve been called out in public for making a mistake. It’s embarrassing to be the one doing the calling. But accidents happen to everyone, even good parents. People jump in to help not because they don’t care about adults but because they do care about kids. That sounds sappy but it’s true.

We’re not trying to sabotage other parents. Everyone in the mall is muddling through, trying to figure out his or her own humanity. For me, being a good human means if I see a toddler standing alone screaming in a big space full of strange adults I will always rush up to him and say, “Hey, honey, are you okay? Are you by yourself?” Among a thousand reasons, I will do this in case someone who may not be such a softie steps in to take advantage of the situation. There is no way for me to know the kid’s mom is standing behind a nearby planter trying to teach him a lesson about the perils of being a doofus who won’t stop running away. I raised a kid exactly like that. I know how frustrated and desperate he can make his poor mother. But I also know how relieved and grateful I was every time my son truly was lost and someone reached out and rescued both of us. Personally, I’m happier living in a world where the “natural and logical consequences” of my kids’ bad behaviour is encountering compassion from someone with no specific duty to love and care for them who’s willing to love and care for them anyway.

Toddler-mothering sisters, we’re in this together, though maybe not at the same time. We’ve obsessed over the same little failures, exulted in the same small successes. Maybe no one has more confidence in young mothers’ abilities to overcome than mothers just a few years ahead of their schedule. We’ve lived through toddlers and emerged largely undamaged. More importantly, so have our freshly civilized older kids.

I’m Back — or, Someone Like Me

We — my family of seven — have moved to a new house in a new city. Though the physical act of moving is over we’re still not quite ourselves. Frankly, we never will be. We’re different now. I’ve moved enough to believe that, in time, these new differences will be mostly for the best. And I know “for the best” hardly ever means pleasant or easy.

One comfort I have as I and six other pieces of me venture into the more-than-ordinarily unknown every day is the house we have to come back to. Unlike all the other houses we’ve owned, this one was home to another family before us. They built it to suit their fancies and lived here for twenty-four years. Naturally, it’s a bit quirky — a bit haunted.

Here are some highlights.

Cold Storage!

Cold storage to delay all kinds of decay

This is the cold storage room which, as my father who was raised in a converted former funeral parlor explained to me when I was 4 years old, is the best place in the house to keep a dead person. It’s also got a rack for properly storing fur coats — at last.

Secret office space behind the furnace

Ultra-private office space behind the furnace

Behind the furnace is the secret inner office. I’m not sure who used to work here but he was probably very easily distracted. No windows, lots of white noise, total privacy. No, I’m not using it as my office. I work in the laundry room, like a normal person.

Laundry Office

I’m at the laundry room (What?), I’m at the office (What?), I’m at the combination laundry room and office

Honestly, I’m just happy to be working sitting in a chair instead of leaning against the headboard of my bed, typing on a tea tray.

The wrong wood

The wrong wood

This is what let us buy the house at the price we probably would have paid if it was truly haunted. Everything here is finished in a light, strongly grained oak. In 1990, it was right on. In 2014, it is wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s so wrong the sellers’ (very bad) realtor offered a cash-back incentive to help new buyers rip it all out. We opted for a reduced price instead and will be keeping all the lovely once-living material a hardwood tree was sacrificed to provide. I like it fine and even if I didn’t, it’d be sick and tragic to waste it.

Pin oak leaf

Pin oak leaf

There’s more oak outside in the form of a still-living tree. It’s fertilized by the carcass of a dead dog lovingly buried at its base. What was the name of that grody Stephen King book? About the cemetery, with the pets?

Unstained cedar doesn't look like much but it smells amazing

Unstained cedar doesn’t look like much but it smells amazing

Also outdoors is the virgin cedar deck. It’s never been stained or varnished and when it’s warm the whole backyard smells like a fancy new hope chest. Smell-writer loves it.

Sturgeon (yes, we know he's a goldfish)

Sturgeon is not a sturgeon

Formerly from outside is Sturgeon. He’s the sole survivor of the backyard pond. When a freak snow storm hit the first week of September, the boys couldn’t bear to leave him outside. Yes, we realize he is not a sturgeon but a goldfish (and we also realize a snow storm in September in Alberta is actually not freakish).

Her de facto name is "It's That Spider Again"

Her de facto name is “It’s-That-Spider-Again”

Here’s another new, accidental pet. This big, skinny spider has been hanging around watching the kids play video games in the basement ever since we got here. She commands too much respect for anyone to want to kill her and she refuses to step onto a sheet of paper so we can turn her loose in the outside world.

portal

The Portal

This might be our favourite thing about the new house. It’s a magic portal in the kitchen floor that sucks up dirt from an ordinary broom and hurls our filth into the void. It might be old technology to better housekeepers but I remain astounded by it.

rock

Sometimes a rock is just a rock

When my dear barely-older-than-me brother — my childhood animus — came to help us unload the moving truck, he said this towering rock in the front yard was the only thing he envied. Let’s not psychoanalyse this any further.

Tabula rasa

Tabula rasa

And last of all the quirky and darling things I could include in the tour of the house that has consumed all my time, energy, and money for the last month, here’s a 17 foot tall neutral-coloured wall I have no idea how to decorate. Leave suggestions in the comments, I beg you.

With that, here’s to clean slates and new beginnings and all things desperately optimistic.