Newest Chart: Let’s be mad at the parents now (or maybe not; anger is futile anyway)

February 26, 2021

By Ekta R. Garg

One of the absolute pleasures of the kids being so close in age is watching them bond. They tease one another, they often walk through the house with arms slung over one another’s shoulders, and they’re in one another’s rooms more often than in their own. (Fourteen would argue her sister is more guilty of this, but I’ve seen the teen enter the tween’s room many times too. :>)

Fourteen often jokes about leaving her sister behind or doing the 21st-century equivalent of selling her to gypsies. I know she’s joking…most of the time. When we brought Twelve home from the hospital, my now-teenager plopped herself on the floor—all of a self-assured 2 years old at the time—and demanded with plaintive cries that we give her the baby. The video and pictures from that time show a child growing exasperated with the adults around her. Why, you can see her thinking, did they not get it?

Twelve, of course, adores her older sister. Oh, she complains about her. Makes fun of her. Rolls her eyes in melodramatic fashion as she states just how melodramatic Fourteen is being. But there’s no doubt that she’d follow her sister to the ends of the earth.

In the last year, then, we’ve started relying on Fourteen to help smooth ruffled feathers when Twelve gets upset about something. She may not realize this, but as time goes on we plan to use her more and more as the buffer. The mediator.

The person privileged enough to listen to Twelve’s bellyaching.

A prime example of this happened earlier this week. The temperatures were lovely for February—sunny and in the 30s—and Twelve was in school in person (at her school they go three weeks online, one week face to face.) My social child loves her friends, and even though she spends a fair amount of time chatting with them online on a regular basis, she values most the time she gets when she can see them without the barrier of a screen.

On Tuesday, as Twelve tells it, during study hall she went outside with her friends. They ran around for a little while and then hung out and talked. When I picked her up from school, she was as chatty as a magpie. Her normal self, when she’s had a great day.

A few hours later, her mood had turned upside down. She spent hours doing her homework and was clearly frustrated with it. She worked with a friend over via video chat, which helped, but she had a pile of things left on her to-do list. Not everything required the friend’s help, and not everything was even that hard or due the next day. But they were time consuming.

I finally dragged her away from her backpack just as she was packing it up almost three hours after she started.

“Why don’t you come and watch TV with us for a little bit?”

“I have to practice my cello,” she said in a sullen tone.

“I know, but you’ve been working ever since you came home. Just take a break for a little bit. You can practice after dinner.”

“After dinner?” she asked as if I’d told her to spend the rest of the night walking on her hands instead of her feet.

“Yes, after dinner. You only have to practice it for ten minutes for the practice challenge, right?”

“Right.”

“So, ten minutes is nothing. Come watch TV, eat dinner, and then go practice. You’ll feel a lot better, trust me.”

She sighed, she rolled her eyes, she mentioned how she didn’t like doing things “like that,” but she came with me.

The practice challenge, by the way, is a challenge her cello teacher sets for all his students every February. Basically, he challenges the kids to practice for 10 minutes every day of the month. At the end, the kids who complete it get a little certificate. It’s more about the bragging rights, though, which he highly encourages (in a healthy way.)

Normally one to practice for 20 minutes about three or four times a week, February is the time when Twelve gets away with less practice time on days like these. If she can do the full 20, great. If not, she hits her 10 minutes and calls it a day.

She complains about practicing the cello at all, but she knows that doesn’t get very far with us. So she’s made it a part of her routine, and she has a set order of when she likes to do things. Generally we don’t push her to change her methods too much. She gets good grades and gets her practicing done consistently. On days like this one, though, when she was clearly in need of some time away from school things and needed to do something fun, I push her out of the comfort zone of her routine and nudge her to interrupt the cycle of frustration.

She came and watched TV with the family for about 30 minutes; then it was time for dinner. As we ate, my husband asked Twelve about the day and whether she had any study hall time in which she could have worked on some of her homework. She got a little defensive, saying she really needed the time with her friends.

I’d hoped that TV and eating would help shift her mood, and it did a little but not by much. After she put her plate in the sink, she muttered about needing to practice and made her way upstairs. Fourteen just shook her head.

“That’s why she should use her study hall time to work on homework,” she said. “I do. I work on homework and spend time with my friends and get my stuff done and have fun all in the same day.”

“Maybe you can talk to her,” I suggested.

“She’ll listen more if she hears it from you,” my husband added.

“I did,” Fourteen said, sensing right away that her sister’s homework issue was about to become her problem.

“Try again,” I said.

She didn’t respond, and I figured she’d pull the favorite teen excuse “Oh-I-forgot-to-do-that” if I asked her about it later. I decided to go ahead with doing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen. I’m a firm believer in the fact that we give our problems our all in trying to solve them, but on some days the best way to solve them is just to go to bed and start over the next day.

Everyone else drifted to their rooms, and the girls’ lights turned off. I finished cleaning up and shut off the kitchen lights then went to Twelve’s room to say good night. I got a stiff “good night” in return. Fourteen was a little more jovial.

When I went to our room, my husband grinned and handed me a note card.

“Look what I found on the floor,” he said.

I read it, not sure at first what I was looking at. Someone had written messages on it; some were in pencil, some in ink. The handwriting was different between the two, and I realized what had happened.

In addition to all the other inside jokes and things they share, the girls set up a mail system between their rooms. Fourteen has a little mailbox with an actual flag that someone gave her as part of a Christmas gift. Twelve has a tiny stocking on her wall. They leave one another messages in the mailbox and stocking from time to time, and although I knew they did this I’d never seen one of the messages. Until now.

The exchange went like this. The spelling and syntax are all original; I haven’t changed anything. (And if you’re wondering about the first line, Twelve decided on a whim to learn Spanish using Duolingo.)

“I’m sorry. I just had a no bueno day, and I feel bad, so, yeah.”

“That’s alright.”

“I just had a day of confusing emotions and now I can’t decide how I feel.”

“Our parents made me tell you about the study hall thing.”

“Huh.”

“I said I didn’t want to. You can guess what happened.”

“Well, now I’m mad at them. Great. Juuust great.”

“Anger is futile. Don’t worry be happy.”

I laughed out loud. Really, I did. But it wasn’t a mean laugh, and only a small part of it was, “Oh, they’re funny.” It was mostly a delighted one. Because it’s moments like these that tell me we’re doing something right. We’re helping these girls bind ties so tight that no matter where they go or what kind of day they have, they’ll always be there for one another. And even their parents, who they’ll probably get mad at, can’t stop them from supporting each other.

Newest Chart: Can a joke just be a joke, please?

January 29, 2021

By Ekta R. Garg

These days we’re all encouraged to be more aware of different cultures and lifestyles. It’s everywhere. The other day, the kids started watching the old version of Lady and the Tramp, and they said the movie opened with a message from Disney about how some of the attitudes shown in the film might be racist. Instead of pulling the movie, Disney decided to leave it up so it could start conversations about how we can find common ground.

It’s an admirable idea, and I know they’re not the only ones doing it. In the last year, people have started having uncomfortable talks with one another so they can try to understand different viewpoints. George Floyd’s murder, and the murder of so many others, was wrong and unnecessary and shouldn’t have happened, but maybe people of privilege will start listening a little more closely now.

That’s the idea anyway, right?

I wonder sometimes, though, if it’s possible for us to be overly sensitive. To start walking on eggshells because we’re too scared to say anything. Too scared to make a joke or to speak without thinking.

Twelve’s school, which goes from K-8, is using a hybrid model these days. After Christmas break, everyone was online for three weeks. This week only the middle schoolers went back to the school building. Next week, they’ll go online for a three-week period while the elementary kids get to be in person.

Naturally, Twelve and her friends were thrilled to see one another face to face. They spent a lot of time talking and laughing, albeit while socially distanced, and the teachers took advantage of the extra space across the school (because the middle schoolers are using elementary classrooms in addition to their own) to assign a few group projects. Twelve thought she hit paydirt when she got to work on a social studies project with some of her best friends.

When I picked her up from school on Wednesday, she was fighting a frown. She explained that the groups were required to write a skit and be prepared to perform it. Her group was assigned an incident between Christopher Columbus and Native Americans where the Native Americans serve Columbus a meal.

“Guess who had to play the Native American because she was the only non-white person in the group,” Twelve grumbled.

I was taken aback. Honestly, I didn’t know how to respond. I lacked full context—the tone of voice used when someone suggested she take on the role of the Native American server; Twelve’s answer to the question. I also know that Twelve would do anything for her friends. Her loyalty to them runs deep. That means she’s willing to put her own feelings aside for them, even if she gets hurt in the process.

(It’s a challenge she’s had since kindergarten; I bet, in fact, that the kindergarten teacher wouldn’t even bat an eye if I told her that Twelve still did this.)

“How did that make you feel?” I asked, not really knowing what else to say.

“Well, it kind of bothered me,” she said, a half question in her voice. It was as if she was wondering aloud whether it should bother her or maybe to what degree it should.

But it didn’t end there. As the group was practicing lines and Twelve went through the motions of acting out serving the meal, one of the kids said to the child playing Columbus, “Don’t take that from [Twelve,] because that food is too spicy for white people.”

So much to unpack here. First, the student who made the comment is, again, one of Twelve’s closest friends. They’re known in the friend group for an off-the-wall sense of humor, and I’ve known this kid long enough to know they’d never hurt Twelve on purpose.

Also, it was interesting that the student was making a comment about how much spice “white people” could tolerate.

The biggest thing—the most practical, I would say—is that the friend was talking about the wrong kind of “Indian” when it comes to spicy food, at least stereotypically. The stereotype says that people from India are the ones who eat foods that’ll make your eyes water. Some of them actually do; it really depends on what state you’re in there in India. The food varies widely from one state to another, north to south, east to west.

The comment was a casual one, a joke. It stuck out, though, in part because we’re all supposed to be enlightened these days. We’re not supposed to make “culturally insensitive” remarks. But given the context, the situation, and Twelve’s reaction to it, can the comment really be considered culturally insensitive?

I raise this question, because I know that within our family we make jokes about cultural issues. Outside of our house, in public, people not understanding the context might wonder if we were being ignorant about other ways of life. We’re not. We’re just catching on to the humor of the moment and going with it. So isn’t it okay for others to do the same?

That night at dinner, Twelve was telling the rest of the family about the incident. Like me, no one else really knew what to say. I tilted my head in thought.

“If it bothers you—”

“No,” Twelve said, holding up a palm and grinning. “Whatever you were going to say, no.”

“I was just going to say maybe you could talk to [your friend] privately about it.”

“It’s good, Mamma. I’m fine with it.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m sure. It doesn’t bother me. I’m over it.”

I was glad to hear it, glad that she was able to make a decision on how she felt about it and move on. As the kids get older, it’s harder to know when to intervene and when to let them work things out. And maybe the fact that her friend’s comment did make me pause is evidence of an increasing awareness in me too. It’s funny, I didn’t consider myself a minority until recently. I always just thought of myself as a person. Maybe a situation like this will help me be aware of other people’s awareness so that if they say something they think might offend me or anyone else in the family, I can assess the situation and answer honestly.

In my experience, most people don’t want to hurt others. They say things and move on. And while it’s important to be aware of the privilege that reinforces and informs casual comments, it’s also important to remember that sometimes a joke is just a joke.

Latest Chart: Christmas wishes

December 25, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

In a year full of so much strife, pain, and loss, it seems like a luxury to have a day of joy and laughter. Yet today has been just that. In the movie version of 2020, Christmas this year has been the part of the film that offers a respite after the buildup of drama. It’s been a day full of the idyllic scenes that make the Hallmark Channel so famous.

We’ve had the copious presents under the tree; some of them were practical items (sweatshirts) and others were indulgences (a Harry Potter bracelet for Fourteen; a hoodie with Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan on it for Twelve.) We’ve spent the afternoon playing board games that involved loud protests about when it counts for someone to yell “Uno!” and bursts of giggles about ridiculous clues given during Taboo. We’ve even shared some Christmas chocolate, an occasional treat and indulgence indeed.

This week leading up to Christmas Day has had its fair share of typical holiday moments too. We decided on the day the kids’ break started that we’d watch a movie every single day. To combat drawn-out discussions about what to watch, each family member got to choose three movies and write the names on individual slips. Every day, we’ve taken turns drawing the slips and have dutifully sat to watch one another’s choices amid groans and grins (depending on how much we liked that day’s feature film.) By the end of break, we will have watched 15 movies—a marathon that is a record for us.

Fourteen put her best acting skills to use for the past three weeks, insisting that I must have been the one to place a mystery gift under the tree when she knew very well it was her dad who put it there. (In fact, she was the one who wrapped it for him.) She demanded on a daily basis that I “confess” to being the Secret Santa, even going so far as to say I could “confide” in her and that we didn’t have to tell anyone else that I’d done so. In this house, she’d easily win an Oscar for her pitch perfect performance. Not once did she drop the character of “impetuous, impatient teenager wanting answers immediately.”

In a burst of bravery, Twelve decided to ask her friend group what pictures they’d like her to draw for them as Christmas presents. She ended up drawing 11 pictures, and they ran the gamut from How to Train Your Dragon characters to snowy scenes of a home in winter. She wanted to do a good job, and she began working on the pictures in late November. With online school keeping her busy, she finished the pictures last weekend. We decided the best way to make sure the pictures got to all her friends on time was to hand deliver them. The excitement Twelve experienced in seeing her friends face to face at a social distance in the last two days totally eclipsed her embarrassment in sharing her drawings with everyone.

My own contribution to this holiday break has been challenging myself with a variety of new and fun meals to make. I’ve spent more than my fair share of hours planning, cooking, and washing dishes afterward. It’s been a delight, though, to hear the sighs of pleasure at the table and the demands that I replicate the meal of the moment. More than once, Fourteen has said, “Make more right now.”

In this week and especially on a day like today, it’s easy to forget the challenges we’ve experienced this year. Is that okay? I don’t know. My husband and I have spent most days this year trying to guide, coach, goad, chide, encourage, and, on occasion, reprimand the kids as they’ve encountered the unexpected. We’ve talked multiple times about how we’re living through a historical event and how reading about history in an article or watching a documentary about it is much easier. Even today FaceTime and phone calls reminded us how we’re separated from our extended family because of the pandemic.

Yet, after this year, today seems like a full dose of normalcy. The kind that doesn’t need a follow-up dose three weeks later. It’s allowed us to exhale and smile with relief afterward.

The new year is a week away. We have no idea what 2021 will bring us. After this year, I think we’ve all learned to make the most of days like today. The days when we can treasure one another from start to finish.

Maybe that’s one of the lessons we’re meant to learn from the pandemic; maybe we won’t rush through the precious moments so much anymore. We’ll live through every moment—really live through it, as opposed to styling it or capturing it or rushing through it. We’ll live the moments and create the memories we keep talking about. The kind of memories filmmakers rely on for inspiration in their blockbusters.

I hope you all experienced peace and love today. I hope the new year brings you prosperity and good health. More than anything, I hope 2021 brings you moments to remember.

Brand new Chart: Being grateful

November 28, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

Although 2020 has felt like one really long weekend, we’ve actually managed to turn this Thanksgiving break into a long weekend that feels…well, like a vacation.

**For the first time ever, I didn’t cook the entire Thanksgiving dinner all by myself. Fourteen’s mashed potatoes, pecan pie, and cornbread muffins hit sweet spots for me (literally and figuratively.) I think these were easily my favorite items this year. And it was fun to share the kitchen space with her, both of us moving around one another with ease as we each focused on different elements. We spent quite a bit of time ribbing one another about our individual dishes but had the satisfaction of watching the entire family enjoy our efforts at the end.

**We’ve found a show we can binge as a family that everyone loves. When it first premiered in 2018, I was the sole fan of “New Amsterdam.” My husband and I watched “The Blacklist” for a while; it included Ryan Eggold in the cast, and Eggold is the star of “New Amsterdam.” However, I was intrigued by the medical show mostly because of NBC’s decision to include veteran Bollywood actor Anupam Kher in the cast. I started watching the show for him but fell in love with the entire premise and, especially, the fact that it’s a mostly clean show. We’re not spending all of our time watching people bed hop and/or moan and whine about their relationships.

One day Fourteen and Twelve came into our room as I caught up on the latest episode and some ironing, and they parked on our bed to watch with me. Since then the entire family has gotten into the show, and thanks to Peacock (NBC’s streaming service) we get to see all the adventures of Dr. Max Goodwin and Co. from the beginning. At the rate we’re going, we’ll be all caught up by the end of the weekend…just in time to agonize about when the show will return in 2021 (production stalled due to COVID.)

**Schedules are laid back. Fourteen had a take-home math exam that she finished up earlier in the week, but other than that we’ve all been operating on a much more relaxed timeline. School will be back in session in less than 48 hours, but it feels like the holiday season has actually begun and that has me thinking about yummy meals for Christmas break and trying to go into stealth mode as I order presents and hide them.

**The agenda for today and tomorrow is to set up the Christmas tree and all of our decorations, one of the most normal things we’ll do this year. We won’t be traveling for the holidays; for the first time in years we won’t see extended family in person. But we’re not thinking about all that today. Today the biggest decisions will be what ornaments go where on our lovely tree and whether we want to be brave and set up a second tree this year.

For the first time in a long time, moments of true normalcy have descended on us in this Thanksgiving break. We’ve laughed; we’ve squabbled. We’ve teased one another and shared with one another. The pandemic is still a major issue, and we’re reminded of that often but the bursts of every-day moments are refreshing.

There’s no telling what next year’s Thanksgiving will look like. We’ve talked with family members about getting together and making all of 2020 fade like a nightmare. But in all honesty, this year’s Thanksgiving break has had its perks too. And for that I’m truly grateful.

Latest Chart: Where efficiency meets embarrassment

October 30, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

Parents of teens and tweens everywhere, congratulate me. I’ve managed to embarrass both of my children with a single act. And all it took was saying yes to an opportunity.

More than two years ago, a magazine started in our part of town that’s meant for the residents here. It’s not for the entire town, mind you. Nor does it go to the sister town that’s a stone’s throw away. It’s just meant for a couple of dozen neighborhoods as well as the apartment complexes around us.

The magazine shares news of our local library, my book reviews, and information about local events. The main feature article every month, though, is a family from around here. The family appears on the cover and on the multi-page spread inside. You get softball information like favorite hobbies and vacations taken as well as what jobs the main couple hold and where the kids go to school.

Since my book reviews have been appearing in the magazine for a while now, I have occasional contact with the main feature writer and the publisher. In the middle of the summer, the publisher and I chatted on the phone about a variety of topics related to the magazine: how to add varied content, for example. I have a master’s degree in magazine publishing, so for me this conversation was a natural fit.

And, truly, it was kind of like coming home. I’m deeply grateful for all the amazing writing/editing/publishing opportunities I’ve been given and continue to get through the years, but I miss working with a team on a longstanding imprint. There’s something inherently satisfying about putting together a publication that is well-edited, well-written, and engages its target audience, and doing it on a regular cycle.

We talked in broad terms about what kind of contributions I might be able to make to the magazine but left it open-ended for now. Then, at some point in that conversation, the publisher asked me if our family would like to be the feature family for an upcoming issue. I said yes without batting an eye. After all, the magazine, as I said, is strictly local, and it doesn’t even go to everyone here in the area.

My father-in-law is generally happy to go along with whatever the majority of the family does, but I knew the magazine story might be a little bit of a hard sell to my husband. He works hard and is proud of all he’s accomplished, but he doesn’t like a lot of attention for it. Twelve is exactly the same way. Despite the deep drive she possesses to work on her art, she’s ultimately conflicted about sharing it.

On an intellectual level, she loves the idea of people seeing what she’s created. Emotionally and psychologically—and, let’s be honest, physically—she squirms whenever she gets compliments for her art. It makes her visibly uncomfortable. Like any creative person, she wants to be recognized but she doesn’t want the applause or the overflow of compliments.

I’m still not sure how that squares away in real life, but in her brain it does.

I figured that Fourteen might be a little fidgety with it all, because her hair or outfit might not cooperate on the day of the photo shoot, and she seemed a little embarrassed that something we get in the mail regularly would now feature her and her family. Her embarrassment was the vague sort that most teens feel, though, so I didn’t pay it much mind. I thought the photo shoot itself would be enough to buoy her spirits.

On the day of the shoot, before the photographer arrived at our house, I heard plenty of groaning and complaining.

“Why do we have to do this again?”

“Why can’t I just wear what I’m wearing?”

“How long is this going to take?”

“It’s too windy out there; we’ll all blow away. Oh, well, I guess we can’t take the pictures!”

“We’re going to look dumb standing in front of our house getting our pictures taken.”

“I hope no one sees us out there when the photographer comes.”

“Why do we have to wear long sleeves? It’s so hot outside!”

(The easy answer to that one, by the way, is that magazines are always planning two to three issues out. The photographer was taking pictures of us at the end of the summer for the November issue; we had to look fall’ish to fit the other content in the magazine.)

“I have a headache.”

“My face looks terrible.”

And on and on.

The photographer surprised all of us by finishing her work in about 15 minutes. I was a little surprised, and worried, that the pictures wouldn’t turn out. Everyone else ran inside the house in glee, happy to be done with the whole thing.

When it came time to provide content for the story about our family, no one seemed interesting in answering the questions the writer sent me. I shrugged and answered them myself. Soon enough, the magazine story became “out of sight, out of mind.”

Weeks later (as in, earlier this month,) the publisher let me know the issues had been printed and volunteered to drop off copies. He came, and we chatted some more about the magazine. He also complimented me on the pictures, which made me even more eager to see them. They turned out incredibly well, and I knew our extended family would be excited.

The immediate family, however…

“We’re on the cover?” Twelve exclaimed when she came home from school.

“That’s the whole point of this,” I explained patiently.

Groans filled the air above us.

A day or so later, I sent the publisher an email to thank him for taking the time to come drop the magazine copies at our house. In his response he complimented me again on the pictures and story and mentioned the November issue would “drop” into mailboxes within a day or so.

I figured it was best not to say anything about that; while we were showing our copy to my family on FaceTime, I let slip that thousands of homes would be getting it. My parents and sister were delighted. The exclamations of everyone on this side of the screen could have made it crack.

That was all before our friends start getting the magazine, of course.

“People at the hospital have been texting me all day,” my husband said with mild chagrin the day after it came in the mail.

“I made the mistake of mentioning it to my friends on our chat, and now they’re going to go ask their parents about it,” Fourteen said, covering her face with a hand. “My outfit is amazing, but my expression is horrible.”

Twelve came home from school in a huff. “A sixth grader was complimenting me on how our house looks. You did this, Mamma. You.”

Yes, I did this. I’ve always prided myself on efficiency in my tasks, and I managed to embarrass almost everyone in the family in one fell swoop. I think I can say my job as mom of teen and tween is accomplished for this month.

It’s so nice when minimal effort yields maximum result.

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.