Latest Chart: Trying to be brave

August 28, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

And so it begins.

We’ve now been through a whole week of school. Like so many of you, my husband and I discussed what to do about sending the kids back. We watched the news. We read and reread the emails from our schools and tried to parse additional meaning from the lines on our screens.

In the end, after weighing all of the information on hand, we decided to send the kids to school in person.

I mentioned to my nephew a week or so ago that this was the hardest decision we’d ever had to make as parents. Some hard decisions you know will come: letting them drive; helping them through the teen years. Holding them up when someone breaks their hearts or they experience any kind of bias or they get passed over for an opportunity. Becoming a parent, as all of you who have children well know, flips on a switch the day we bring them home from the hospital. Some parts of our minds are constantly evaluating, weighing circumstances, and bringing information and opinions and emotions into place when the time for those decisions come.

No one, though, could have ever expected this: trying to decide whether going back to school—school, for goodness sakes; a basic human activity—would threaten our children in such an unbiased way. As we’ve heard time and again, the virus doesn’t discriminate between class, gender, ethnicity, location. It just invades your spaces and leaves you irrevocably changed.

***

Given that my husband is a physician, we talk a lot about health in our house. The pandemic has given us a chance to talk even more about it than usual. It also lends a “tough it out” kind of tenor to conversations. Can’t go to the movies? Tough it out. Can’t see your friends closer than 6 feet? Tough it out.

And, up until this week, the same applied for school.

But we opted, yes, to send them in person. Whatever the consequences of that decision, we’ll bear them. We’ll answer questions. And we’ll be washing our hands a lot as we do so.

***

This small return to normalcy has helped the mood around the house, despite the “straight out of a movie” circumstances. Twelve can’t identify the new students in her grade because she doesn’t know what they look like due to the masks. Fourteen is in high school now and can’t easily identify anyone either; her school took a hybrid approach this week, doing three days online and two in person, so she got to see some faces. Not everyone turned their screens on for online school, so she knows voices. Even voices sound different behind masks, though.

And yet, the mood has improved around here. And my day has become as elastic as saltwater taffy. When everyone was home all the time, the days felt like they would stretch for hours longer than they actually did. We’d deal cards with a lackluster flip of our hands or stare at the TV with glassy eyes, our gazes drifting to the clocks and letting resignation settle in that we still had ample time before the next meal or bedtime.

Now that I have some semblance of a routine back, the days are stretching again except in the other direction. I sit down at my computer and get involved in a project then look at the clock. I’m always surprised by how much time has passed and even more surprised by what I accomplished. “What? It’s only 9:15? And I’ve still got the whole school day to go? I can turn on a video and work out and then get back to my desk!”

Time is definitely a bizarre thing. We talk about losing it and saving it, but it always fascinates me how we’re living in it, right now. We’re living through a pandemic and a return to something that looks like our regular lives in the same moments. We’re planning for the future and reminiscing about the past and wondering if our present will look like either.

***

If it isn’t obvious already, my thoughts are scattered from the first week of school.

I’d forgotten, almost, what morning pickups and afternoon drop-offs looked like, and now we’re back to two schools so that complicates the beginning and end of every school day for me. I worry when I see the kids approach the doors of their buildings and I see teachers, also in masks, thermometers in hand, using them like permission scanners to let kids walk through the doors behind them. I restrain from hugging my children right after they come home, forcing myself to wait until they change out of their clothes for the day, which is hard because I’m a believer in the positive emotional tsunami that is hugging.

We’re back to normal, and yet we’re not.

Parenting is about contradictions, and never is that more true than in our current age. We worried about gun violence and cyberbullying. Now we worry about COVID too. Our heads turn in sharp angles when we hear someone sniffling or a person mentions a headache. We watch the news and hear the stories about the families who have lost their children to this terrible virus, and we want to hold our own a little tighter even as they squirm to be free.

So we arm them with masks and hand sanitizer and yoga mats six feet long so they space out when they sit outside for lunch. We try to ignore that winter will come and send everyone indoors and that the flu might not be the flu, or it might, or it might not. We push away the guilt of wanting the kids to go back to school so we can return to what we were doing before the pandemic hit without wondering if our kids will lean on a table with an open hand and then contract this illness.

***

Parenting is also about bravery. Of arming our kids with the tools they need to live in the world and make their mark on it. It sounds nice enough to say, an inspirational meme to pass around on social media or to tack up on your computer. Often, though, we forget the definition of bravery until we’re forced to live it: being brave means that even when you’re terrified, you go ahead anyway.

So maybe this is an exercise in bravery, this sending them back to school. Maybe getting up every day and going through their routines and the extra effort of arming themselves with protection—“Don’t forget your mask.” “I won’t.” “Did you wash your hands?” “Yes, Mamma.”—will allow them to take deep breaths and move forward. Maybe it will reinforce for them, in a way much bigger than memes can, that our most immense challenges are the ones that sear courage into our souls and hearts.

Maybe, by the time all of this is over, we’ll be fireproof towards these types of challenges.

And so it begins.

Newest Chart: Moving the needle one hash mark at a time

July 31, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

Late last night, when the girls had brushed their teeth and were settling into their beds, I went to Twelve’s room to say good night. In the dark, she scooted to a sitting position.

“Mamma, I have an idea.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Sit down,” she said, patting her bed. “This might take a while.”

Earlier in the evening we’d watched President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral service of civil rights activist John Lewis. In his trademark style, President Obama inspired us and made us believe that we have it within us to be the change we want to see in the world. His challenge reminded us, too, that what we have right now is what we get. This life, this summer, this opportunity to be with one another.

I don’t know for sure if his speech spurred Twelve to her “idea.” Maybe it was the spirit of inclusion and togetherness that John Lewis fought so hard for every day of his life. Maybe it was, as she told us last night, just the boredom of summer break.

I suspect it was all of those things and more. Her idea boiled down to this: she was requesting that we spend one day a week unplugged. No phones; no devices; no computers. Minimal TV. Just our family spending time together.

Twelve’s assertion was that she spent part of her day bored. She didn’t know what to do with herself in her room if she wasn’t on her iPad talking to friends or reading borrowed books through our local library’s app. She thought we all spent too much time on our devices and wanted us to change that. It would take care of the boredom and bring us that much closer together.

The comment about her boredom caught me off guard at first. Before summer break, we drew up a list of academic tasks for the girls each week this summer, but we also made sure to keep the mood and pace light. When she made the comment about being bored in her room, my first instinct was to ask whether what we’d designed for her and Fourteen for “summer homework” wasn’t enough. Then, in my mind, I took a step back and thought about her tone and mood.

The pandemic has brought so much change to our lives. Much of it has been challenging and frustrating. So much of it has been confusing. But there have been a few slivers of daylight in this darkness we’re all fighting.

I’ve seen changes in Twelve; good changes. Back in the spring, almost a month into lockdown, my husband and I saw Twelve’s frustration level mount by leaps and bounds. For once, we couldn’t offer her any concrete answers about a life event. We’ve got scores of stories about people’s kindness or lack thereof, the challenges that come in school or college, or what it means to move from one job (or part of the country) to another.

But this? None of us have lived through a pandemic before. We were still trying to process what it meant for us as people. How on earth were we equipped to provide that information to others, particularly those most dependent on us?

The pandemic doesn’t care about race or creed or politics; it also doesn’t care about parenting challenges.

We decided to go back to a tried-and-tested method for Twelve. We asked her to pull out a notebook and start keeping a journal to record her feelings. Any time she felt sad or angry, she had to write about it. At the very minimum, she had to write in the journal two to three times a week.

At the time, we didn’t specify that she had to share the journal with us, but after we told her to start writing in it the notebook began appearing on our dresser with regularity. Now, as I leaf back through it, I can see the changes in glacial movements.

“Today I feel pretty average,” she wrote as the opening line to her first entry in April. She concluded the entry with, “I miss [school]. I miss hugging my friends.”

Later in the month, she used the journal to vent. When a friend of a friend requested Twelve’s email (without any of us, including Twelve, knowing about it,) the child started emailing Twelve with enthusiasm. Twelve answered her notes with minimum patience, and at the end of April, she started her entry with the title: “4th Graders: Why do they like ‘big kids?’” After spending several lines ranting about constant notifications, she ended the entry with, “Aside from being grumpy about [them,] I’m okay. Monday is a fresh start to a new week.”

She continued to write about tests and friends and missing out on playing soccer for the park district’s team. One continuous theme, however, was the boredom she felt. In all honesty, if I had to pick between a bored child and a perpetually angry one, I’d pick bored any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

In between the lines about being bored, though, Twelve’s tone started to change. She mentioned things she was excited about: her big sister’s birthday and getting to share animal facts with family members over Zoom. And the “I’m bored” comments have started to morph more into “Today was an okay day” kind of comments.

The needle has begun to move one hash mark at a time.

Last night, then, when she mentioned her new plan to combat boredom, she used the words in a completely different tone. Gone was the whining and the narrow-focused attitude that plagues tweens and teens. In its place was a matter-of-fact approach. She didn’t have anything to entertain her in her room, so she decided to find a solution.

From the time the girls were too young to understand the words, I’ve made them repeat a particular sentence after me: Smart girls find a way to fix the problem. As they got older, I forced them to parrot it back like a call-and-response—“Smart girls do what?” I’d demand, and one or both would roll their eyes and intone, with flat words, “Find a way to fix the problem,” the syllables words drawn out to indicate how utterly sick and tired they were of having to repeat the adage.

Maybe, though, all of that call-and-response, that drumming it into their heads is actually coming back to us. Maybe they’re starting to fix the problems, not just throw complaints at them. Twelve still has moments of getting worked up over something, but if she can find a way to fix problems during a pandemic then maybe—just maybe—we can say something good came out of it after all.

 

 

Newest Chart: Joy and Sadness (or shelter-in-place Weeks 8 through 11)

May 29, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

We’ve been doing this for 11 weeks now.

Eleven.

I had to look at my calendar to confirm that number, and when I did I realized two things: first, how I’ve slightly neglected Growth Chart. I felt a stab of guilt, because in the weeks I was supposed to post I thought of it with the best of intentions. Then another task would get in the way, or I would let it get in the way, or…something. Parenting is hard at the best of times. During a pandemic, it’s the equivalent of climbing Everest.

I promise to do better.

On a broader level, 11 weeks is almost three months. Am I the only one who still finds that number hard to believe? I mean, we’ve been staying at home, going to school at home, not meeting with friends, not arranging get togethers for almost three months.

I feel like the language around these topics is changing too. Thirteen finished 8th grade yesterday (and, believe me, I will definitely be posting in the coming weeks about what it means to be the mother of a high schooler now.) Earlier this week my husband asked if we should do something to celebrate her graduation from middle school.

This topic actually started back in January. My parents came to visit, and my mom teased Thirteen about throwing a full-blown desi, or Indian, party. Think lots of food, lots of adults standing/sitting around talking about the food, getting all dressed up, and little kids running around the house. All with the soundtrack of Bollywood’s latest hits or the evergreen ones, depending on who’s controlling the music at the moment.

I grew up attending parties like this one and even had a semi-desi party for my high school graduation. I remember that night with a lot of fondness. It was filled with music and singing, a big cake, me coming down the stairs with another family friend, who was also graduating, in our caps and gowns (at my parents’ insistence, even if I felt a little silly,) and my mother crying while I was cutting the cake as if I was going off to war.

I’m a parent myself now, so I get the emotion she felt, but still. I was going to college. Not the front lines. 😀

In any case, it was easy to throw a party. No doubt Mom probably spent days planning the menu and the flow of the evening. But my parents didn’t hesitate. They didn’t wonder, “What if…” or have to contend with the government about whether it made sense to hold a celebratory event.

That night, when my husband asked about the graduation, I hesitated. What could we possibly do? How could we possibly “celebrate” when the most important part of that concept—sharing the joy with other people—wasn’t allowed anymore?

I still don’t have an answer to that question. At the time, I just said we’d think about it, spend some time brainstorming. Come up with some sort of idea.

Our worlds have contracted to those immediately around us in our dwellings. While “family time” is great, the inability to bring others into our lives for good occasions and bad has become almost stifling. The opportunities that arise—attending an author event in a bookstore almost 250 miles away via Zoom—are something of a solace, but they can’t replace person-to-person interaction.

Even as I write that, I know my family is incredibly fortunate to be healthy and safe. There are so many across our country and the world who have had to fight this out alone, either due to personal life choices or being sick and in quarantine or getting stuck in a location due to travel that got upended by COVID-19. It’s hard enough to come to terms with the fact that our world has been like this for 11 weeks now. I can’t even begin to imagine fighting this out with no one else or in unsafe conditions.

In a philosophical way, it almost seems silly or childish—or maybe even selfish—to ask for the opportunity to share exciting moments like graduation from middle school with others. I’m amazed at Thirteen’s poise and good humor during this entire time. She’s disappointed, yes, and she wishes more than ever that she could have finished out the school year with friends, dispensing hugs, slamming locker doors for the “end-of-the-year locker slam” their school does.

Yet, she doesn’t let her intense wish for normalcy sully the good things: weekly Zoom meetings with a dear theater friend. A surprise gift from a classmate who, due to social distancing, didn’t linger long enough to talk, just dropped the gift on our doorstep and then texted from her mom’s car that she’d left something. The plans for a poster to hang on the van, as well as other items to decorate it, for the parade we’ll drive through later today at the school, the first time any of the students have converged on the parking lot en masse since mid-March.

Through the last few weeks, I’ve thought of that moment toward the end of Pixar’s Inside Out when Joy learns that Sadness actually helped create one of Riley’s favorite memories. One of her happiest memories. And, of course, we’ve had conversations about perspective, about keeping our eye on the bigger things, the important things. Safety and health.

Eleven, admittedly, has struggled with this entire concept and situation more, but that’s because she processes emotions and expresses them to a different degree than her big sister. Yet, she, too has found moments to laugh and get involved and make jokes about being stuck at home. Maybe it’s from having a sister who handles herself with poise, consciously and subconsciously, all the time. Maybe it’s because she understands that her sister has had to give up more, as an 8th grader, than she does in 6th grade.

Maybe Joy and Sadness can, and do, work together, so that when we turn the orbs of our memories one way, we experience one side of the event and when we turn them the other way we can appreciate the other side.

Maybe it’s time to get brainstorming in earnest.

Stay-at-home, Weeks 5 through 7

May 1, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

We’re wrapping up Week 7 of shelter-in-place…I think? Yes, I’m sure that’s right. I just had to squint at the screen, as much to convince myself it’s right as to get over the fact that it’s Week 7.

In the three weeks since I’ve posted, we’ve done a lot of what many of you have done. We’ve watched TV. We’ve ventured outside the house and around the neighborhood. We’ve baked.

Oh my, how we’ve baked. Many of you will remember the cookie experiment. Thirteen has gotten better about reading recipes and evaluating them. Well, okay about reading recipes more than once and then asking my opinion. Maybe. Sort of. She did ask me what I thought of one recipe, of the directions and portion size.

Sorry, I keep getting sidetracked. Has anyone else felt like this recently? You’re in the middle of one task, but you keep getting sidetracked by something else. I promise, I’ll try to stay on topic. For now, anyway.

So, yes, baking. We started out quarantine with the 12 dozen+ cookies. Then we went to brownies that tasted really great, even if they weren’t perfectly smooth and even in shape. Those of you who follow me in Instagram saw the lemon scones. That was actually the second batch of two that got made.

Oh my gosh, they’re yummy. And buttery. And just… (sigh)

Baking. Right. Last weekend it was red velvet cake that didn’t turn red because there wasn’t enough food dye. It didn’t matter. It tasted phenomenal. I think we could just ditch the red and call it velvet cake, it was that good.

Tonight on the menu we have garlic knots. Thirteen really wanted to do something sweet again, but the general consensus in the house was that we need to try something savory for a change. After all, variety is good.

(And I’m still trying to lose some of the baby weight. I know, I know, they’re nowhere near being babies anymore. Now who’s getting distracted?)

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen other interesting developments:

 

**The girls’ school decided, in the interest of the health of the kids, to go to a four-day school week until the end of the year. Unlike many kids who are watching pre-recorded videos and working through packets in independent study, Thirteen and Eleven are in live Zoom classes from 8 to 3. It has its advantages—namely, that they’re occupied and see their friends every day. Of course, there are those times when the internet decides to spaz out, and then I run around doing everything I can to fix it. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened in such a dramatic way after the Great Internet Crash of April 1.

Thirteen cheered when she heard about one less day of school. She is a teen, after all. But Eleven complained a little bit about it. Not much—she’s old enough and smart enough to know why the administration made the decision—but she’s found herself challenged by all the changes in routine since shelter-in-place took effect, and this was just something else upending her routine. Remarkably, she’s transitioned fairly well to the new week. I think, because her body is much more sensitive to fatigue than her older sister’s, she saw the benefit pretty quickly of having a day where she isn’t required to be online all the time.

 

**Eleven’s somewhat easy transition to a four-day week is a huge relief. Around Week 5, she was really starting to get agitated about the entire situation. Who isn’t, after all? We all feel an undercurrent of worry, anxiety, stress, or some combination of the three.

In that week, though, Eleven let out a burst of energy that warranted a punishment.

Here in Central Illinois, spring swings between, well, spring temperatures and winter ones. It can be 72 degrees one day and 45 the next. On one of the more temperate days, everyone was in the back yard in the evening while I made dinner. My husband was trying to get Eleven to kick the soccer ball around with him. Thirteen got up and gave the ball a little tap with one foot, making a self-deprecating joke about her soccer “skills.” She and her dad tried to include Eleven in the joke, but my younger child wasn’t having it.

She charged toward the ball and kicked it extra hard without stopping to consider where it might go. That was right at father’s head. If he hadn’t been facing in her general direction, he said, he wouldn’t have ducked in time.

Eleven apologized profusely, but we decided it wasn’t enough. For the next week, we said, in addition to extra chores, she would have to keep a journal about her feelings. It didn’t matter what she wrote about. She could even complain in the journal that she was bored or that she thought it was silly to write about everything. She agreed, and we came up with a schedule of three writing days a week.

The chores lasted just the one week, but the journal has continued. “Hearing” her written voice is a treat. And the longer she’s kept the journal, I think the more she’s seeing it as an outlet to entertain us. She writes her entry for the day and leaves it on our dressing table for us to read when we can, so the writing definitely tends to lean toward that of entertainment.

The biggest benefit, other than having her own COVID diary, is that her attitude has become more positive. Things that would normally set her off for hours at a time now just bug her for a few minutes. Sometimes they don’t bug her at all.

It’s definitely not a magic tonic, but at least we see progress. That’s worth more than anything.

 

** The other day as I went out for my weekly grocery run, driving to all the places in one afternoon that I would normally spread over the week, I started thinking about summer. Originally, we’d signed up the girls for all sorts of camps. Now, with the exception of one, everything has been canceled.

I wondered what the kids might do during the long, languid days of break. Almost every summer since moving to Illinois, they’ve attended camps of some sort. It’s hard to remember a time when they didn’t have anything lined up for vacation time.

I always stood firm on the fact that the camps would only be half days, and sometimes we’d have gaps of a week between them. The last two summers, the girls went to South Carolina to be with their grandparents and aunt, so that would often take out almost all of August. So, really, the whole idea of summer camp was more summer leisure time. Except we’ve all been stuck in a warped version of “leisure time” since late March.

This made me think of the years we lived in Texas. When we moved there, Thirteen was just about 2, and I was expecting Eleven. We lived there for three years, on a tight budget and trying to come to grips with the punishing Texas heat. That combination led me to create Playroom Summer Camp—basically games and crafts I did with the kids for a couple of hours in the playroom.

We didn’t exactly do particle physics, and when I think of those weeks I can still feel the underlying anxiety that plagued me as the mother of two toddlers. I always felt like I was doing something wrong or was about to do something wrong or that everything would blow up. Occasionally, when I read old Growth Charts from those years, I smile. For some of them, I remember sharing some things but not others, and I can feel the essence of that anxiety in the undertone of my words.

This summer? I don’t know. I’m toying with the idea of making the girls cook with me every day instead of once a week. As for other possible activities, I’ve asked them what they might like to do. That tension, that sensation that everything’s going to blow up, has disappeared. For the most part.

After all, the summer is for them. Well, that, and to keep them occupied. Like how they stay occupied during school. Or while they’re baking scones.

(So yummy…)

 

 

 

 

Latest Chart: The quiet revolution…

February 28, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

In the movies, revolutions always seem dramatic. Someone declares war on a person or an entity or even an entire government. There’s a lot of fist pumping, feverish painting of sandwich boards, and montages of marches. At the end, the protagonist shares tearful hugs with those nearest and dearest to him/her. Occasionally the plot allows for forgiveness of the antagonist.

No one ever told me that revolutions don’t have to be so…well, loud. Sometimes they can creep into a house without anyone even realizing it. The protagonist makes one small change and then another and another. Before you know it, things start to look really different.

Our story begins with a feisty eleven-year-old not afraid to express her opinions, and she has many of them. Particularly where clothes and fashion are involved. The backstory will reveal that time and again the protagonist has declared herself to be uninterested in how she dresses. Once or twice the word “tomboy” has even been used. She wears her laid-back attitude like a badge of honor.

This makes even more sense when we consider one of the supporting characters of the tale: the teenage older sister. This sister has, from her earliest years, loved dressing up and looking pretty. During her first haircut at the age of three, she grinned at her mother from the booster seat of the chair in which she sat, the drape covering her toes and hanging so low she looked like a sweet face on top of a funnel. Her grin held excitement, pride, and the first hints of maturity. She knew she was getting a haircut, and she couldn’t wait for the results.

Now, a decade later, the older sister takes pride in how she looks. Her sense of style is well-defined, even if her mother hasn’t quite learned the elements that comprise that definition yet. As in, if the two go shopping together, the mother will hold up a piece of clothing and nine times out of ten the teenager will respond either by rolling her eyes or by blinking rapidly in mock horror.

All that to say, the teenager has dominated the world of dressing well and fashion in the house.

Until now.

In the last six months, a change has crept across the stage as quietly as a fog rolls in. One day it’s just there, and you wonder how you could have missed it. Now it’s becoming denser, and it doesn’t seem to be dispersing any time soon.

*****

Last summer Thirteen began exploring her style choices (within financial reason) with more intention and understanding of what she likes and doesn’t like. In the beginning, Eleven would watch her big sister and then declare for all and sundry that she “doesn’t care” or thinks “fashion is dumb” or any one of a number of other phrases. She’s always been a jeans/shorts and t-shirt girl, this one.

This attitude has formulated in the last few years, and we got used to the tussles with Eleven on the nights when we needed to get dressed for a formal event. She’d pout and complain and throw dagger eyes and then sigh and throw her hands in the air and comply. Not exactly the formula for a successful start to an evening, but it worked. More or less.

Since the end of the summer, though, she’s become less vocal about her dislike for dressing up. Looking back, I can pinpoint when the change happened to the day even if I don’t understand why. My sister-in-law celebrated her silver wedding anniversary in August and threw a big party to celebrate. As part of the festivities, my sister-in-law graciously hired a makeup artist and hair stylist to help family members get ready on the day of the party.

Thirteen was practically bouncing with joy when she heard about the arrangements. Eleven whined and complained. The grownups shook their heads at her.

Then, on the day of the party, she declared in a confident voice laden with just a hint of uncertainty that she’d like to get her hair styled too. She went on to ask for makeup. I turned away so she couldn’t see my jaw drop. At one point, when she wasn’t looking, I turned to Thirteen and literally asked, “What’s going on here?”

Thirteen’s eyes had gotten wide with as much shock as I felt, and she shook her head.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Well, don’t say anything to her,” I replied in a low tone.

At the time I thought it might be a one-time indulgence on Eleven’s part. She saw all the other women getting gussied up and decided to join the fun. Good for her, I thought, and didn’t bring it up too many times after the party.

In these sorts of matters, I’ve discovered it’s better to approach my younger child like I would an animal in the wild: with caution and slow, quiet movements.

When school started, Eleven reverted back to her typical comfortable clothes. Yet I’ve noticed her looking at Thirteen’s outfits with more interest. In the last couple of months, she’s complimented her sister in the morning when Thirteen comes down to breakfast. Once she looked at what her sister was wearing and asked, “I wonder what I would look like in that.”

Last week I went upstairs and caught sight of her standing in front of her dressing table mirror. She didn’t see me, so I watched as she pulled all of her long hair over one shoulder. She took a second to assess the results, and I moved down the passageway before she caught me spying and got embarrassed.

This week she decided to try different hairstyles, and here is where the story takes an interesting turn.

Thirteen has always taken great pride in how she dresses, does her hair, and paints her nails when she knows she has a special event or a performance coming up. Now her little sister has chosen to emulate some of her hairstyles. Thirteen’s discomfort with her sister encroaching on her territory is obvious in the second glances she gives her sister and the sideways suggestions that she might want to try a different way of doing her hair.

Through most of sixth grade, Thirteen went to school with a pair of long pigtails. It became her signature look, one she maintained throughout the year. Yesterday Eleven announced she wanted to try pigtails. Thirteen made a half-hearted attempt to talk her sister out of it, and I tamped down her efforts.

“It’s not like you have a copyright on hairstyles,” Eleven said in an even tone to Thirteen.

After breakfast today I helped Eleven part her hair and do the pigtails, and as we got into the car Thirteen started pointing out that their friends in school kept saying how the two of them looked alike. She made a note for Eleven of a hair bump in one place. She told Eleven that if the pigtails bothered her, she could always pull them out and do a low ponytail—Eleven’s signature look.

“Enough,” I told Thirteen. “I don’t want to hear you say anything about [Eleven’s] hair now. Not a single comment or suggestion. She’s free to do what she wants.”

The car became quiet for about 60 seconds, and then Eleven changed the topic of conversation. After a moment or two, Thirteen joined in. I let the issue go as well.

Because revolutions don’t have to be big, loud declarations of how one person is going to change the world. Sometimes they can be quiet movements, small gestures. They can be tendrils of self-confidence unfurling toward the sun, ready to grow and take deeper root until a person feels so grounded they don’t have to worry about anyone else’s opinion at all.

And that story is just as compelling as any other.

 

Latest Chart: Enough

December 13, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

We’re in that time of year when people talk about goodwill. Goodwill toward the less fortunate; goodwill toward those who hold opinions in direct opposition to one’s own. Dozens of holiday movies through the years have offered audiences a wide of range of emotions when estranged family members show one another goodwill and reunite.

I suppose it’s going to sound a little strange, then, that this week I encouraged one of my children to hold back her goodwill.

On Monday morning, I looked Eleven straight in the eye and said, “If [that classmate] tries to talk to you, just walk away.”

“Just walk away?” she repeated, eyes widening a little.

“Yes,” I said. “If you have a disagreement with someone once or twice, then it makes sense to try to stay and work it out. But sometimes, when you’ve tried everything you can and it’s not working, you have permission to leave the situation.”

“I don’t want to be rude.”

“I’m not telling you to be rude,” I said. “I’m not giving you permission to be mean or act out against [that classmate]. Just walk away. Don’t let anyone have the power to force you to stay and listen to things you don’t want to.”

She seemed fascinated and challenged—and a little relieved—that I gave her that advice.

*****

Here’s what led up to this.

The classmate in the conversation above has been with Eleven since kindergarten. In their first two years of school together, the kids were great pals. Eleven often cited this classmate as a “best friend.”

In second grade, this classmate’s personality began to change. Eleven started coming home with stories of how the classmate would say rude things or exclude Eleven from playing with others. S/he would ignore Eleven for a few days at a stretch and then suddenly want to be friends again.

I know my daughter isn’t perfect. She’s got a deep sense of compassion for her friends and is always trying to sort out problems for them. She also has a temper like quicksilver, and while we’ve worked actively with her to think before she reacts there are still days she barks first and asks questions later.

With this classmate, however, the teachers confirmed that almost every single time the child in question had no cause to treat Eleven the way s/he did. Eleven did all she could to extend goodwill to the classmate. The classmate accepted it on some days and rebuffed it with force on others.

The classmate’s behavior with other kids changed as well, but somehow s/he singled out Eleven. Eleven became frustrated, unable to process why her friend changed and wondered what she could do about it. We spent many hours through fourth and fifth grade coaching Eleven. At one point last year, we even told her to keep social interactions to a minimum. Cordial but not so involved.

The estrangement, the mixed messages, the passive aggressive actions continued. Eleven’s frustration mounted. She started to say she didn’t look forward to school anymore. My husband and I questioned Eleven repeatedly and in a variety of ways to make sure that altercations didn’t go beyond verbal ones, and they didn’t, but they upset Eleven anyway.

Thirteen and Eleven go to a small school, and the size has its perks. The camaraderie most of the students and teachers share reassures families, and it makes the school an attractive educational institution in town. Of course, the downside is that if you want to get away from someone it’s much harder.

At the end of summer, Eleven’s droopy demeanor toward the subject of school baffled us. When we asked her about it, she said she loved her school and couldn’t wait to see the teachers and start middle school. She just didn’t want to have to deal with this classmate anymore.

We reiterated the approach from last year: keep social interactions to a minimum. Don’t sit with the classmate at lunch. If s/he approaches Eleven at lunchtime or recess, find a reason to get out of the situation as fast as possible.

The classmate began to “lean on” Eleven at the start of the school year for “emotional support,” but the passive aggression continued. Some days the classmate was happy-go-lucky with Eleven, calling her by cute nicknames and trying to chit-chat. Other days s/he ordered Eleven to leave—as in, “I need to talk to N., go away.”

“What did you do?” I asked Eleven when this happened two weeks ago.

“What could I do?” Eleven said wearily. “I didn’t want to be rude, so I left.”

Then we discovered that the classmate and Eleven were exchanging emails. Eleven, it seemed, still held out hope that the classmate would go back to being his/her old self. The best friend she remembered from kindergarten and first grade. That’s why she began responding to the messages.

It didn’t work, of course. The emails left Eleven upset, confused, and emotionally drained. When we discovered them, we told Eleven to delete the classmate’s phone number, because the classmate was responding from a cell phone.

The function of technology in this case was a blessing. Because the classmate was using a phone instead of emailing in the traditional way, Eleven was required to download each message. After we told her to delete the emails and not to respond to the classmate ever again, she pointed out that in the event the classmate did send a message she wouldn’t have to read it. She could just delete it.

At the outset, Eleven was upset about our interference with the emailing. There were tears and loud words. Then, as we continued to talk and sort through why she was doing what she was, she started to see the sense of what we were telling her.

Enough is enough, I thought.

Eleven’s dad and I agreed that this time there wouldn’t be polite words. Eleven wouldn’t go to school and offer the classmate a congenial nod or listen semi-patiently to another story or outburst. This time there would be a marked difference.

*****

We live in a world where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell one another what we think. Thanks to social media, everyone’s sense of entitlement on the right to their own opinions has increased a thousand-fold. So instead of coming right to the point and saying that a person’s words are hurtful—or that a child is doing badly in school, or that an employee is underperforming, or that a patient’s medical condition is largely due to the bad choices that person is making—instead of saying any of these things, we duck our heads and tolerate each other’s opinions.

The trouble with this kind of tolerance, I believe, is that it leads to another type tolerance: the kind where we implicitly give people permission to say and do whatever they want and not suffer consequences.

*****

I don’t like confrontation any more than the next person. I want my children to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted, kind people. But if they compromise on the first two traits, will they ever truly exhibit the third? If they’re willing to let people say whatever they want and tolerate it, when all the while their own hearts and minds are crumpling in pain, how do they develop true kindness? If people treat them horribly, how will Thirteen and Eleven maintain any hope and optimism for themselves or the people in their lives who love them and wish them well?

*****

“Just walk away?” Eleven asked. “Don’t say anything?”

“Don’t say anything,” I told her. “When you’ve reached that limit, it’s really okay to just leave.”

I saw something small in her eyes then: the spark of her self-confidence flickered a little brighter. She straightened her back. That relief, as I said before, appeared in her face and demeanor.

I hope that by encouraging her to be kind to herself, she’ll be able to dole it out to the people who will receive it and return it in spades.

 

Latest Chart: Words that hurt

October 18, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Every phase of parenting, I’m discovering, has its deepest joys.

When they’re newborns, you just want to hold them all day (well, when they’re not spitting up on you or screaming at 3 a.m.), and they’re content to be held. In the midst of the Terrible Twos, there are the adorable pronunciations of words and the innocuous questions that make a parent shake her head. Kindergarten brings the wide-eyed wonder phase; every day allows for a new discovery, a new breakthrough, and those all-important steps toward independent thinking and behavior.

I’m currently the mom of two middle schoolers, and the biggest perk of this phase is the conversation. The girls are smart and funny. They’ve often made me break into laughter so hard, tears spill from my eyes and I can’t draw a steady breath. They’ve also challenged me with questions that leave me stuttering for a moment as my carefully-laid plans start to hydroplane and I need to gain traction again.

My husband and I encourage the girls to talk, about everything, and at times it’s truly a pleasure. Other times, it can turn into a little bit of a hurtful conversation. At times like that, I can’t help but wonder whether that’s a weakness in my child that I have to help turn into a strength or whether it’s a weakness in my parenting that I need to fix.

Last weekend we went to Chicago for a little getaway. My husband, the girls, and I shared a hotel room, which means one bathroom between the four of us. Eleven had already showered and dressed; Thirteen was in the bathroom, and I was on deck to go next.

To pass the time, my husband pulled up soccer videos. He and Eleven watched a video of world-class Brazilian player Ronaldinho (now retired). After watching for a little bit, my husband handed me his tablet and said, “You have to see this guy!”

I’m not an athlete, but Eleven plays soccer for the park district so I do take an avid interest in the game. This also stems from my own days as captain of the cheerleaders in high school. The first sport of the season for our school used to be boys’ soccer, and our team was strong. Add that to the fact that I was buddies with many of the guys on the team, and all that creates an equation where I really do enjoy watching the sport when I can.

I’d never seen Ronaldinho play, and his handling of the ball blew me away. The no-look passes combined with the way he kept faking out his opponents made him a legend in the sport. As I watched, my husband explained how, because the Brazilians are so good at samba dancing, Ronaldinho used many of the same moves in the way he played. He was so quick—as all Latin dancing requires a person to be—that other players had trouble tracking the ball.

I may no longer cheer with a squad, but I still get excited about amazing sports. Every time Ronaldinho did something I thought really cool, I would let out a, “Oh, wow!” or a “Beautiful! That was incredible!”

“Okay, Mamma, that’s enough,” Eleven said, sarcasm tinging her voice.

I ignored her. She’s a soccer player and can appreciate, with first-hand experience, the difficulty of what Ronaldinho was doing, but, as I said, I’ve spent some time with the sport myself. In high school, I took time out to understand how it was played so that I could lead the other girls to cheer for the guys at the right times. Plus, what Ronaldinho did just looked so freaky cool (seriously, Google this guy.)

I kept cheering him on over cyberspace during matches that were years old, and she kept exclaiming about my exclamations.

“Jeez, get excited much?” Eleven said a few times, this time in a snarky manner. “We get it, Mamma. You think he’s cool.”

My cheeks got warm, and I stopped talking. For a moment, I considered shutting the tablet off together, but I didn’t want to look like I was throwing a tantrum. And I really did like the highlights.

Thirteen came out of the bathroom, and I put the tablet on the bed, gathered my clothes, and went in for my own shower. As I stood there, I considered several responses to Eleven. They ranged from the mundane—It’s not nice to make fun of your parents—to the profound—a philosophical treatise on what it means to be able to participate in a sport without actually being on a team.

More than anything, I tried to soothe away my hurt with a good shampoo and rinse. Because it did hurt. Yes, I’m Thirteen and Eleven’s mother, but I’m also a person. I have likes and dislikes as much as anyone else. I have thoughts and opinions, hobbies and interests.

I have feelings.

When I came out of the bathroom, I still hadn’t decided on what to say. Fortunately, I didn’t have to say anything at all. My husband had done the talking for me.

“Go talk to her,” he told Eleven in a stern voice.

She came to my shoulder as I put my items back in the suitcase.

“Sorry for being all sarcastic and snarky,” she said in a flat tone.

I drew a quiet breath.

“I know I’m not an athlete,” I said, “but I still do enjoy soccer. When I was in school, I knew I wasn’t good enough to play so I became a cheerleader. That was my way to support the team and the school. It was my way to enjoy the game.”

She just stared at me with a neutral expression.

I didn’t go into lecture mode. My husband had already played “bad cop” and done that for me, so I took a different tack. While in the shower, I’d spent a little time thinking of my cheerleading days and remembered something.

“You know,” I told Eleven, evening out my tone to let her know the conversation would ease away from her getting into trouble, “when I was a cheerleader, I kept little journals about my experiences. Our team went to state, but we lost. It might be interesting for you to read those journals so you can get a sense for how it felt for me to cheer on the boys.”

I turned to Thirteen who had, no doubt, witnessed the whole lecture Eleven received. “You might get a kick out of reading them too. Next time we go to [South Carolina], I’ll show them to you.”

Eleven didn’t say yea or nay to reading my cheerleading journals, and I didn’t push the issue. Instead, I started talking about something else, giving Eleven the out she needed at the moment to nurse her wounded ego. I know it probably hurt to get lectured, to get into trouble for being impulsive with her words.

It’s a habit of hers, and I’m trying to teach her to think about what comes out of her mouth before it actually does so. She has improved, but at times like these, it reminds me we still have work to do. She definitely has a ways to go. Does that mean I have a ways to go as a parent?

I don’t know, but maybe being aware of all this is a good start.

Brand new Spurts: The boomerang effect and driving fast

October 4, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last two weeks, readers!

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I had to switch cars for the day. I drive a Honda Odyssey, which I absolutely adore. He drives a BMW. Which I love and hate all at the same time.

The BMW needed to go to the dealership for service, and I’ve had bad experiences with the dealership here in town. So any time it needs any oil change or anything else, I take the car to another dealership about 45 minutes away. With the drive there and back and the actual service time, that means the car has to stay with me for the whole day.

On this particular Friday, the kids loaded into the BMW before school and I fumbled for a minute with some of the controls.

“I don’t like driving this car,” I muttered.

“Why?” Thirteen asked.

“It just makes me a little nervous,” I said. “It’s an expensive car, and I’m always a little worried about doing something to it. And…”

“And?” Eleven prompted.

“Well,” I said sheepishly, “it goes from zero to sixty in, like, three seconds. And that’s really fun to do. So…”

We turned onto the main road outside our neighborhood, and I revved the engine just enough to pick up speed.

“You want to drive faster right now, don’t you?” Thirteen asked.

I grinned. “Little bit.”

“Yeah, here’s Mommy getting pulled over for speeding on the way to school,” Eleven joked, which would be quite the accomplishment considering we live a total of 1.1 miles away.

“That’s why I don’t like driving this car,” I said.

The girls continued to rib me all the way to the main entrance of the school. As they got out, Eleven called out a reprimand to drive properly. I pulled the car onto the main road again, revved the engine just a little more, and smiled.

*****

For anyone who hasn’t listened to the radio lately, collaborations seem to be the new thing. Ed Sheeran’s doing it with everyone under the sun. Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber—they’re all singing in all sorts of combinations with different artists.

One day as we were driving home, we were listening to the song called Eastside that features the talents of Benny Blanco, Khalid, and Halsey. (And the fact that I had to Google the song to get all three singers’ names right tells you how up to date I am with the singers of today.) Thirteen and Eleven didn’t seem to mind it all too much, although Thirteen kept talking about how creepy Halsey’s voice sounded.

“Who wants to go to the east side with her anyway?” Eleven said in a huff.

“Yeah, and why the east side?” Thirteen murmured. “What’s wrong with the west side?”

“Well, they’ve got their own story,” I quipped.

Thirteen groaned loud and long.

“That’s a terrible joke,” she said.

“Hey, I think it was pretty clever,” I replied.

She just shook her head at me. I thought she’d appreciate it more, being a theater kid and all. I’m still pretty proud of it myself, actually.

*****

Last week the entire middle school went on an overnight camping trip together. In the weeks leading up to the trip, the grades spent time preparing skits to perform for everyone. Eleven came home more than once expressing her frustration with the lack of seriousness on the part of the other sixth graders. They didn’t seem to spend too much time worrying about their lines, it seemed, and it didn’t help that it felt like they never had enough time to practice.

“If they’re not taking responsibility for it, then do something,” Thirteen suggested one morning before school. “You can rehearse before school, at recess, in advisory. Do something about not getting enough time to practice.”

Eleven rolled her eyes at her sister’s advice. Part of her, I know, appreciated it. Part of her wished that her big sister didn’t seem to have the answer to everything.

The refrain I’ve drummed into the kids’ heads is, “Smart girls find a way to fix the problem.” It’s nice to know that Thirteen has taken that to heart. Now if only Eleven wouldn’t scoff every time her big sister reminded her of it.

*****

They say that a person only fully understands the difficulties of parenting when s/he becomes a parent. The longer I’m a parent myself, the more I appreciate my own mom and dad. I often think about the kinds of challenges they navigated with my sister and me. There’s the issue of parenting in general, and then they had the added challenge of steering us in a culture and country that they adopted as home but that wasn’t their birthplace.

My husband and I talk occasionally about how people without kids can’t fully grasp the speed bumps that trip us up. And certainly the kids can’t grasp them either. How can they, when they’re the cause of those speed bumps?

Occasionally, though, the boomerang comes back around sooner than anyone expects.

Eleven is the notorious early riser of the two girls, taking after her father and grandfather. Thirteen doesn’t get out of bed with ease; it generally takes her a little longer in the morning. I can commiserate, because I know exactly how she feels. While adulting requires early mornings sometimes, they’re not my most favorite.

In an interesting twist, though, once Thirteen is awake she moves fast. Eleven will wake up early, shower, get dressed, and come downstairs by 7:30. We aim to leave every morning by 8 a.m. for school. She can still find a way to be late.

Eleven’s freshest first thing in the morning, and she loves to chat. Her train of thought skips along from one subject to the next at lightning speed, and because she has a lot to say she’ll often just stand in the kitchen and talk. And talk. And talk. I have to remind her to keep moving on her way to get her breakfast or to keep eating it.

Yesterday morning, Thirteen came down after Eleven, as she often does, ate her breakfast, went back upstairs to brush her teeth, and came back down to see her sister still eating. At that point, Eleven decided she had to go pee. She left her breakfast and went to the bathroom.

“She gets down here before me,” Thirteen said, “and yet we’re still late for school.”

I suppressed a knowing grin. “This is exactly what it was like when you were in sixth grade. That’s why I yelled so much. And then I stopped yelling.”

“Yeah,” she said in that half-teasing voice of hers, “because now your favorite child’s in sixth grade.”

“No, I stopped yelling when you were halfway through sixth grade, because I realized it didn’t accomplish anything,” I said honestly.

She pondered this for a bit, and I smiled into my mug of tea. I don’t know if she remembers the yelling; she didn’t say one way or the other. But I know she understands now why I did it.

Gotta love that boomerang. Looking for it to swing back around again soon. Maybe this time on just how much we spend on the kids.

Newest Chart: When parenting boomerangs

September 20, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Two weeks ago, on the day after Labor Day, I woke up with a sore throat. No problem, I thought. When the seasons change here in Central Illinois, we expect a day or two of scratchiness.

On Wednesday of that week the scratchiness had disappeared, and congestion had arrived. Again, I didn’t bat an eye. Okay, so I would come down with a cold. Not fun but certainly nothing to worry about.

Then came Thursday. The day I woke up feeling like a truck had run over me. Twice.

Because my husband had to go to the clinic later that morning, he volunteered to take the kids to school. I followed the three of them to the mudroom and watched them put on shoes and pick up backpacks. Then I opened my mouth to bid the girls goodbye.

“Have a good—”

“Go sit down,” Thirteen interrupted with full-on teen stubbornness.

“I will, I just—”

“We love you too; go sit,” she repeated.

“I know, but—”

“We love you, we’ll have a good day, see you after school, there,” Eleven piped up behind her sister. “Go, Mamma. Take it easy.”

I looked at my husband.

“What has the world come to?” I asked, feigning shock. “Do you see the way the kids are ordering me around?”

He pecked a kiss on my forehead and reiterated what the kids told me. In essence, all three of them were banishing me to the sofa for the day. Since they outvoted me, I had no choice but to listen and was grateful to do so.

I spent that day catching up on HGTV and a movie or two. When it came time for dinner, we ordered Chinese. My husband and Eleven picked it up on the way home from soccer practice, and I watched them walk in with the takeout containers from the couch.

In a move rare for me, I didn’t get up to serve anyone. Instead, I let Thirteen come to me. She pulled a little side table to me.

“What do you want to eat?” she asked me and filled a plate per my requests then brought it to me.

“When you get all better, I’m sanitizing everything,” she said, picking up the remote a little gingerly. She set it on the coffee table and went to the island counter to join her sister and father for their own dinner. After a few minutes, when she saw my plate empty, she refilled it for me.

On Friday, though I didn’t know it was possible, I felt even worse. I also woke up with a temperature, which the girls monitored with me during the day. That evening when I announced the fever had dropped, they both cheered.

Throughout the weekend and all of last week, the girls went out of their way to take care of me. Eleven asked repeatedly if she could help with household chores not normally her responsibility. Thirteen made sure I stayed comfortable on my sofa spot for the week. Both of them took turns teasing me in the most good-natured fashion, gentle but still funny.

Last Thursday I felt good enough to do some small tasks, which took me to sorting through the mail right around the time the girls would come home from school. As he had done many times, my husband stepped up (despite starting to feel a little icky himself three days earlier) and brought the kids home. I happened to be standing at the small counter close to the mudroom where we drop mail and other items when everyone walked in

“Oh my gosh!” Thirteen exclaimed, taking a dramatic two steps back. “Oh my gosh!”

“What?” I asked, pretending not to know why she was reacting that way.

“What is happening here?” Eleven asked, tacking on to her sister’s performance with her eyes wide. “What’s going on?”

“What?” I asked again.

Thirteen put a hand to her chest in Victorian fashion, and both girls proceeded to go upstairs to their rooms to wash up. I just shook my head at all the silliness and went back to the sofa. By the time they came back down, I felt depleted of the little bit of energy I’d spent during the day. I went back to the sofa.

“What was going on before?” I asked Thirteen.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said, our family’s code for taking the Fifth Amendment.

I suppressed a smile, a signal for me that I really was feeling better.

Since Monday we’ve all gone back to our normal routines. My husband recovered from his laryngitis. I’m almost back to a hundred percent after the cough/cold/flu I endured.

This morning, Thirteen came downstairs for breakfast before school.

“My throat feels a little scratchy,” she said.

I held up a finger to her. “No. I forbid it. You can’t.”

She rolled her eyes.

“It’s all you guys’s fault,” she said, glancing at me and her dad.

“What did we do?” my husband asked.

The ribbing continued, and Thirteen took a handful of cough drops to school just in case. I hope it’s just the run-of-the-mill, fall-season throat scratchiness and nothing more serious. From recent experience, I know how miserable the more serious version can make a person. But the girls have shown me that they know exactly what to expect if one of them does get sick, because they took such good care of me.

Sometimes when parents are in the thick of actual act of parenting, we don’t know if what we’re doing is making a difference. If what we’re trying to teach the kids is actually sticking. Weeks like this offer me reassurance that it is.

Latest Spurts: Getting haircuts and achieving world peace with Fruit Loops

August 30, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the past few weeks, readers!

Last week before school started, I took the girls on an errand run. We had several things to do that day, including haircuts before school started and picking up some groceries. Along the way we chatted about the haircuts in particular.

For the last few years, Thirteen has enjoyed having long hair. She’s styled it a variety of ways, and relished its length halfway down her back. Earlier in the summer, though, she floated the idea of cutting it to her shoulders.

I didn’t say anything at the time. Kids have ideas and then change their minds. Also, between getting ready for our Norway trip and working on my novel, I didn’t want to spend time or energy on anything not crucial to either. I knew we’d have about five days before the kids started school to parse out the details on any potential hairstyle changes.

The girls went to Myrtle Beach to visit their grandparents, and when Thirteen came back she still wanted to get her hair cut. She’d already enlisted her grandmother as moral support for the idea. The only hurdle she had to cross was convincing her father.

In all honesty, I didn’t think he’d agree. Imagine my amazement when he did just that. As we drove to Great Clips last week, we discussed the conversation in the car.

“I still can’t believe Daddy agreed to let you cut your hair,” Eleven remarked.

“Yeah, well,” Thirteen said with a sigh, “he said I can only do it this one time. I can’t ever cut it again after this.”

“Why does it even matter to him?” Eleven said with her trademark bluntness. “I don’t get it. I mean, it’s not like it’s his hair.”

“Yeah,” Thirteen echoed.

“Well, in India, long hair is a sign of beauty,” I said. “Daddy grew up there, and culturally that’s what long hair stands for. It’s normal for him.”

“That’s weird,” Eleven declared.

“Maybe for you,” I said, “but there are so many cultures where people do things that we think are weird but they think are beautiful. In Africa people wear those rings around their necks to make their necks longer. In China people used to think small feet on women were beautiful, and they would break the feet of young girls and bind them so that their feet looked little.”

“Yeah, Mamma, I get it.”

“So, just like that, in India, long hair is a sign of beauty, and we don’t necessarily have to agree with it, but we do have to respect Daddy’s opinions and ideas, even if we don’t like them.”

“Maybe he’s just jealous because he can’t go for a haircut,” Thirteen mused about her father’s minimal hair.

We shared a laugh on that one, but I hope the main message got across.

*****

After the haircuts, we made our way to Sam’s to pick up a few items in bulk for the new school year like Capri Sun and favorite cereals that were running out. Our Sam’s club changed its layout in the last few weeks, so I had to make my way down most of the main aisles to get my bearings. The girls followed along and commented on all the foods we don’t eat.

“It’s so unfair,” Eleven said after the third or fourth item we crossed that we wouldn’t buy, “I don’t understand why we can’t try some of these things just once. Just once, and we’d never ask for them again.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” I said. “Once you’ll have them, you’ll want them again.”

“Yeah, but you’ve had most of them.”

Okay, so maybe not most, but it’s true that when it came to food choices my parents weren’t as stringent on what we did or didn’t eat as my husband. Of course, when I was a kid, food nutrition labels didn’t exist as we know them today. The FDA began mandatory labeling of food packages in 1990; before that time, some foods came labeled but not all did. And because I grew up as the child of immigrants, the kinds of foods we were eating were automatically different than most households.

All that to say that the conversations we have in this country today about protein, fat, and salt didn’t exist when I was growing up. People didn’t have all this information, so we ate with more pleasure and less guilt. Of course, I couldn’t express this last part to the kids, but I did remind them about the food labeling.

“We know, Mamma,” Eleven said in a sullen tone.

For the rest of the shopping trip through Sam’s, she hung back and didn’t say much. When it came time to pay, I directed the cart to the self check-out stand. Thirteen scurried forward to help load groceries into the cart after I scanned them.

“And what is [Eleven] doing?” she asked.

“She’s back here sulking because she can’t have Fruit Loops and Little Debbie Oatmeal Pies,” I said.

I turned to my younger daughter, and she cracked a smile. She couldn’t help it, even though she really wanted to hold onto that grumpiness. After a minute or two, she started helping with the groceries too.

Maybe this is the key to world peace. Forget diplomacy. Just offer everyone Fruit Loops.

*****

The first day of school was a half day, so the kids came home and ate their lunch. On the second day of school, I went to wish Eleven a good morning and found her grinning. I gave her a hug and asked what was making her so happy.

“We get to sit at the middle school tables,” she said, referring to herself and the other sixth graders, “and not because the middle schoolers are gone on the camp-out or a field trip or something. It’s because we are middle schoolers now.”

I couldn’t help grinning back at her myself. I remember what it felt like to cross the threshold from one major part of the school to another. The excitement that we were growing up and like the “big kids” now, although I know Eleven would never quite put it that way. I hope her excitement for middle school stays through these first few weeks.

*****

On Monday as I pulled into the school’s drop-off line in the morning, we spotted one of the new sixth graders.

“There’s A.,” I said.

“Oh, yeah,” Thirteen commented. “You know, her mom walked her into advisory on the first day.”

“Yeah,” Eleven added, “and she looked a little embarrassed.”

“Yeah,” Thirteen said, “she did.”

Before I could even open my mouth to tease the girls about walking them in, Thirteen turned to open the car door.

“It’s okay, Mamma, you don’t have to walk us inside,” she said with one foot out of the car.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yeah, really,” she said and got out; Eleven was two steps behind her.

I had just enough time to get in a “Bye, love you!” before she shut the door. Not that I would have walked her in. But since she’s a teenager, I should at least get the pleasure of torturing her with the possibility, right?