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: I thought they stayed little forever…

June 26, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

I blinked and became a mother.

I blinked and became a mother again.

I blinked and am the mother of a 14-year-old.

Is it just me, or does 14 sound more grown up? Hear me out on this. I think there are age markers where the kids are no longer kids. When they’re 5, we think, “Oh, so sweet, s/he’s just in kindergarten.” But then 6 rolls around, and suddenly they’re in elementary school.

They hit 10, and we think, “Wow, s/he’s still a kid.” But suddenly they turn 12, and they’re on the verge of becoming a teenager.

And now that I’m the mother of a 14-year-old, it’s become glaringly obvious to me that in four years I’ll be the mother of a college freshman.

Okay, wait a second. Maybe I need to back up. I need to think of Fourteen as she is now and not that far into the future.

In many ways, she’s still a little girl. Already this summer I have had to give this child a hand to get out of bed, because she’d rather loll away her summer vacation instead of getting up at a decent hour in the morning. I’ve stood next to her, kissing her on the cheek several times in succession, calling her bluff every morning when she’s “sleeping” but not acting convincingly enough like it, and reaching under the comforter to pull her pajama shirt down in a gentle manner after it’s ridden up overnight.

I stroke her hair and sing stupid songs that I invent on the spot, and, when nothing else works, reach under the comforter again for her mile-long longs and swing them, again with the same gentleness I used when she was a baby, toward the floor. Her legs are so long that even this move doesn’t provide her body with upward momentum. Instead, she rubs her eyes and, after a few seconds, holds out her hands to me so I can pull her up. With a yawn, and suffering from extreme bedhead, she pads to the bathroom and shuts the door.

It’s when she shuts the door that I know she’s a teenager and not a little kid. Privacy, please, she’s saying with that one small gesture. I need a minute, and I need it alone.

I’ve seen these small shifts in other areas too. Although we bought Fourteen’s birthday cake (well, birthday brownies, but that’s beside the point,) she’s made it clear since the start of the summer that she’s going to bake her sister’s cake when it’s Eleven’s birthday. As a reward for pitching in to clean the house, we bought her a small succulent and a tiny cactus. A friend dropped off another succulent at our doorstep for her, and she’s keeping a close eye on all three plants in her room. She even went so far as to re-pot them herself when it became clear they needed it.

And she’s become quite savvy in her comebacks. Earlier today when she and Eleven and I were laughing our way through a game of Liar, she caught me lying about how many cards I’d put down.

“I know your tells,” she said.

“Really?” I asked. “What are they?”

“Wha—no. That’s not how this works. I’m not going to tell you, otherwise you’re going to try not to do them.”

She’s also become more tolerant and, in some ways, more lenient with her younger sister. On the days that aren’t too hot, the girls have taken to walking around the neighborhood for about 30 minutes. They use their alone time to dissect TV shows. I’m sure there’s also some complaining about “the parents” that goes on too. But I don’t mind. They’re bonding, and Fourteen leads the way in that.

“I’m a hoarder,” Eleven declares when I’m helping her clean out her closet, and I know she says and does this because her big sister has a strong connection with objects from various events and memorable dates. If either my husband or I tease Eleven about something, there’s a 50-50 shot she’ll get offended. If Fourteen jokes with Eleven, my younger daughter’s face cracks into a smile that then usually erupts in a laugh.

Fourteen doesn’t order her sister to leave her room; instead, the girls will fold their laundry together. And that game of Liar from earlier today? By the time I joined them, they’d already been playing for more than 30 minutes. The only reason I got in on the fun was because they were laughing so hard and getting so crazy that Fourteen, her eyes wide in dramatic fashion, begged me to join them.

“She’s crazy,” she stage-whispered of her younger sister, knowing and probably betting on the fact that Eleven was listening around the corner.

This older child of mine, bit by bit, is turning into a responsible young woman. She cares deeply for her friends, and she doesn’t hesitate to take the lead when asked. Most of the time, too, she’s in a sunny mood. None of that melodramatic teenage darkness for her, thank you, as she mocks teens who behave that way.

“[Eleven] is more of a teenager than I am,” she says with a roll of her eyes, and it’s true. On some days my younger child’s mood bounces like a ping pong ball, and it’s hard to predict when and where the bounce will go.

Of course, Fourteen is still a teenager. We have to remind her every week to clean her room. If a conversation doesn’t engage her directly, she’ll often drift off into her own thoughts and have to be brought back to Earth. If she’s got a plan for something on her own—painting her nails before a socially-distanced meeting with her friends—she’ll go after it without anyone reminding her, but try to get her to do the same for something we asked her to do and her face goes blank as she blinks once or twice.

“I forgot,” she’ll say; another one is, “I don’t know.”

That’s one of her tells, the classic “I don’t know” that translates to “I didn’t do it” or “I’m not interested and am annoyed you’re making me.”

Still a teen. Still at home for four more years. Always mine.

I love this kid.

 

Latest Chart: Weeks 1 and 2 of Shelter-in-Place

March 27, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

As I sit here writing this, my kids are in school.

No, not that kind of school. The kind where they get to wear regular shirts but pajama bottoms. The kind where they see their teachers’ homes, because everyone’s in a different location but in the same place online.

The kind that separates the majority of the population due to COVID-19.

Last week Thirteen and Eleven were on spring break, but it was a vacation out of the Twilight Zone. On the Friday before their break started, the school had announced it would go exclusively online once we came back from our days off. By then the governor of Illinois, too, had asked everyone to shelter in place.

So that’s what we did last week. And this week. And, now, for the foreseeable future.

Now, mind you, we didn’t have grand spring break plans before all this even started. Our family had no travel plans. I was supposed to go to Louisiana for a wedding, but other than that were going to stay home. Catch up on our sleep. Watch movies. The girls both need hair trims, so I’d earmarked that for vacation. The middle school dance was supposed to be in April, and we’d discussed dress shopping.

We did catch up on sleep and watch movies, but that was the only thing that felt normal.

We didn’t leave the house. On the second or third day, Thirteen received word from some of her classmates of an online chat in Google Hangouts. She spent hours every day talking to her friends, all of them teasing one another and comparing notes on their experiences at home.

Eleven moped a bit when she heard her big sister’s voice ring through the house with excitement. I encouraged her several times to email her friends and video chat with them. They’d all be home, I reasoned, so she had a pretty good chance of catching someone.

Although she did talk to some of them, by the end of the week she’d hit her limit for the whole situation. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when school started Monday online. Sure, it was weird not making the short drive to the school building, but it was closer to “normal” than last week.

On Monday, at the end of the school day, Eleven came downstairs sparkling with energy. She and Thirteen talked about how organized everything was. Her face exuded relief and gratitude to see her teachers and to follow the same routine she does during the normal school day.

That’s due solely to our amazing administration and teachers; they worked hard all during spring break to make this transition as smooth as possible.

By last night, however, the energy and optimism had diminished. Like the rest of us—like the rest of the world—Eleven is not just tired but weary. She wants to do normal things, and here the definition of normal, as all of you know, is incredibly basic.

Last night during dinner, without even thinking about it, I said, “I was supposed to be in Madison today.”

Madison as in Wisconsin where I go every year for my favorite writers’ conference; I was supposed to be there this week.

And just like that, like a series of blocks tumbling to the ground, we started mentioning in short bursts all the things we were supposed to be doing this week. Eleven took it the hardest. I suppose that’s my fault; I shouldn’t have made the comment about Madison or that Eleven was supposed to be starting her soccer season this week or that both she and Thirteen were supposed to have their school’s quarterly arts showcase last night.

Yeah, now that I’m thinking about it, it definitely was not my finest parenting moment.

“Coach was going to start me as forward,” she said, disappointment in her face and voice. “We were going to send off [all the senior players]. This was going to be their last season.”

The more she let all these things out, the more stunned she looked. It was as if she hadn’t gotten around to counting exactly how many life events had skewed to “abnormal” during this time. I tried to salvage the situation at one point.

“Just yesterday…or was it the day before?” I interrupted myself. “Anyway, I filled out a survey from the park district in which they asked if you could play in May or June or, if they made the season longer in the fall, if you could play. I said yes to everything.”

She seemed a little mollified by that, but not by much, and even as I said the words I knew how hollow the promise sounded.

Thirteen has her share of disappointments too. For the school’s Maker Faire (in which kids learn a new skill or improve an existing one and then do something creative with it,) she was building a dragon. Originally all Maker Faire projects were being completed at school, but when the shelter-in-place order ramped up I brought the dragon’s head home.

But this was no ordinary dragon. He was going to be a major prop in the eighth grade play that the school produces every single year. And Thirteen, our improv-loving actress, was committing her lines and the music to memory as if she were premiering on Broadway.

There was also the middle school dance, her last at this school before she moved on to high school, and the talent show. Not to mention her dance recital has now been postponed indefinitely. In some ways she, should have been more dejected.

Last night, though, she didn’t speak up, and she didn’t seem overly upset by anything. Instead it was Eleven who needed an encouraging word, and we offered many. I could see in my younger child’s face the same questions we’ve all been asking: how long is this going to last? Are we ever going to be able to see our friends face to face again?

When does life go back to being “normal”?

None of us know, of course, but my husband and I reassured Eleven as best we could. He’s got his entire medical career to back him up. I’m a mom, and a former cheerleader to boot, so I have optimism and encouragement in spades. Acknowledging for Eleven that we’re just as worried and anxious as she is for life to go back to normal made her steel herself against what she knew might happen next: the dreaded parent hug.

She finished sweeping the kitchen, which is her chore every night after dinner, and escaped to the solitude of her room. Thirteen finished wiping down the counters and strolled upstairs after her. I washed the dishes and went up to say good night to them both.

Eleven had already fallen asleep, but Thirteen was still awake and I asked her how she was doing.

“Fine,” she said.

“We talked a lot about how [Eleven] is feeling about all this, but we didn’t really talk about what you’re thinking. If you need someone to talk to, you can always come to me.”

“I know,” she said in that quick way teens use to get their parents to stop bugging them.

“Hey, it’s either Daddy or me,” I joked, “and you know what you’re going to get there.”

“Yeah,” she said with a chuckle, “I know.”

This time I heard the sincerity in her voice. She and both Eleven know they can talk to us at any time, about anything. After all, in this time of shelter-in-place, that’s what we have, right? Each other. Time. And, within the confines of our homes, space to talk.

All of us, I know, are eager for this to pass, to get back to life at its regular speed. I’ve had a few moments this week where it’s all overwhelmed me, like it did Eleven. But I’ve also gained a lot of comfort from the fact that when we say “we’re all in this together,” this is one of the few times in history that the “all” is literal.

So let’s stay strong. For each other. For the kids. For the everyone.

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.

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?

Latest Spurts: Missing soccer games and planning pranks

September 28, 2018

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last two weeks, readers!

My husband wears pink dress shirts. He’s shown up at work with glittery clips in his pockets and made jokes about it. He didn’t bat an eye when I put purple sheets on the bed last week. When all’s said and done, he’s pretty confident in his maleness.

Even he has his limits, however. Last week, as he got ready to leave for his first ever violin lesson, he hefted Twelve’s violin case in his hand and took a closer look at it. He fingered the flap that covers the zippers on the case.

“What’s this?” he asked.

I glanced at it. “Oh, that’s the Belle pin [Twelve] got when we went to Disney.”

He grinned. “I’m not going to leave this on there.”

He took off the pin and dropped it on the counter next to the phone. My eyes got wide. His smile got even wider.

“She’s not going to like that,” I said.

My husband didn’t respond, just said he’d see me after his lesson and left. A little while later, Twelve came downstairs after her homework and went to the mudroom to put her books away. She stopped at the counter on the way back towards the stairs.

“Wha—Daddy took this off?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Okay,” she declared, “it’s on. I had some pranks saved up for April, but they’ll work just as well now.”

After that heady announcement, I have yet to see any of these pranks in play. I don’t know if that means I should be worried. I’m sure, though, that we haven’t seen the end of this.

***

Last week on our drive to art lessons, we stopped at a red light. Ten glanced out the window at other cars around us. Just then she saw a woman throw a cigarette out the window.

“Geez, lady, don’t throw it at our car,” she said. “Throw it…down your pants!”

Throw it down your pants? I wondered. Where do my kids get this stuff?

“Um, because that’s not dangerous or anything,” I said, trying to keep my voice light.

“Well, smoking is already dangerous, so let’s just add some risk to it!”

I couldn’t even argue the technicality on that one—about smoking being dangerous, that is. Comes with the reality of being a doctor’s child, I suppose. Still not so sure about the whole “throw-the-cigarette-in-your-pants” thing, though.

***

Ten has thoroughly enjoyed her soccer season. This is the first time she’s ever played a sport as part of a team, and even though she struggled in the beginning because the team lost she’s learning that it is about the team. And the teamwork.

Winning, of course, would be amazing, but for the moment we’re going to focus on one life skill at a time.

Although she’s on the JV team, the coach has been gracious in giving her and other JV players who show up to varsity games a few minutes on the field. This indirect encouragement has made Ten want to play even more. Every single time there has been a varsity-only game and I’ve mentioned the email that states, “JV players are not required to attend,” she’s replied, “I want to go.” And we’ve let her; until this past Monday.

Originally our Monday was going to look like this: pick up both kids from school, give Ten a few minutes to change into her soccer jersey, take her to the varsity game that started at 4 p.m., get Twelve to the music studio for her guitar lesson by 4 p.m., bring both kids home, prep dinner and leave for the new writing class I’ve started taking by 5:45.

I already know what you’re thinking; I can’t be in two places at 4 p.m. That wasn’t going to stop me from trying.

I decided to be kind of Zen about the whole thing and roll with it. I knew my husband would call at some point and bail me out somewhere. I just had to wait for his call. And not forget which kid was going where.

After school, however, Ten got into the car grumbling about her homework.

“What happened?” I asked.

“We have to do this puzzle thing for math, and it’s so hard, and I can’t figure it out.”

She doesn’t do it nearly as much anymore, but I could imagine her with her arms crossed tightly across her chest in consternation.

“I remember when we had to do that,” Twelve murmured.

“When is it due?” I asked Ten.

“Tomorrow,” she said, her frustration evident.

“Well, if it’s due tomorrow and it’s that hard, then maybe you shouldn’t go to the game today,” I said, steeling myself for the reaction that would come.

Silence, first.

“But why can’t I go?” Ten protested.

“Because school comes first,” I replied, firm but polite. “Besides, it’s a varsity game, and Coach said there was no guarantee you would play.”

When he says that I think it’s more to appease the parents of the JV kids who don’t end up playing than anything else. A soccer disclaimer, if you would. But I didn’t say anything about that to Ten.

“Fine,” she said through clenched teeth as she entered the house.

She hung up her backpack, dumped her lunchbox on the kitchen counter as per routine, and stomped—actually stomped—across the great room and up the stairs. A moment later the door to her bedroom shut in what was something akin to a slam although not quite there. Twelve watched her sister’s actions then turned to me.

“Just wait until she’s a teen,” she said.

I know I’m in trouble when the kids are warning me about that.

Latest Spurts: Weird, pathetic kids and more

January 26, 2018

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last two weeks, readers!

My kids are so weird sometimes.

Earlier this week as we drove home from activities after school, the girls got into a discussion about the documentary Madness in the Desert. It details the challenges and trials of the cast and crew during the making of the blockbuster Hindi film Lagaan. As a quick recap, the movie shows the (fictional) story about villagers in 1800s India who accept a challenge from the ruling British soldiers to participate in a cricket match; if the villagers win the match, they don’t have to pay their taxes for three years.

(And anyone who has Netflix needs to watch the movie now. It’s phenomenal.)

In any case, the kids recently watched the documentary about the making of the movie and were sharing some of the facts with me. Some of them I already knew, like how the crew had to overcome the intense challenge of making actors look like A-list cricket players (not all actors know how to play the game on a world-class level; go figure.) During filming, though, one of the British actors dislocated his shoulder while shooting the match sequences.

“Mamma, is it possible to dislocate other parts of your body?” Nine asked.

“Yeah,” I replied, “anything that’s in a socket, like your arm, your hip—”

“Your eye,” Eleven interjected. “Here, let me try.”

“Di-Di, blink really fast, and you’ll be able to do it!” Nine exclaimed.

There was a pause in the conversation. Then Eleven said, “I’m blinking, but nothing’s happening!”

They dissolved into a fit of giggles. I pulled the car into the garage and rolled my own eyes.

My kids are so weird.

*****

Another conversation came up in the car on the way home from an activity. The kids told me about a student in their art class who didn’t listen when the teacher asked her in a polite tone to sit down. The student’s instant response was, “No.”

“She was so disrespectful,” Nine said.

“Yeah, why would her parents let her talk like that?” Eleven asked.

I wanted to be careful in answering. Whenever the kids bring up these types of questions, I always stay as neutral as possible while remaining truthful. There are a hundred factors that go into these kinds of situations, and it’s hard to answer the why without knowing more about the what.

“Well, different parents have different rules on things,” I said finally.

“You and Daddy don’t let anything slide,” Eleven said.

“That’s because we want both of you to grow up to be kind, courteous, empathetic—”

Pathetic?” Nine exclaimed.

“Yes,” I said, chuckling, “our goal is for you to be pathetic.”

“Hey!”

Eleven had started laughing by this point, but even though Nine got the joke right away she didn’t find it as amusing as her sister did.

“I said empathetic,” I went on.

“Okay, then, that’s better,” Nine said.

*****

Last Thursday I picked up Nine from dance class, and we chatted as we walked back to the car. She told me about the only boy in her class and the conversation the two of them had that day. When she mentioned his name was Romeo, I smiled.

“Is that really his name?” I asked.

“Yeah, why, is that a problem?” she asked, and I could hear the rise in her voice that only comes from fierce loyalty to her friends.

“No,” I replied in a mild tone, “I just didn’t know that people actually name their kids that.”

“People name their kids Juliet all the time,” she said.

Point Nine.

*****

On Monday we normally go straight from school to drop Eleven at her violin lesson and then Nine at her cello lesson. This week and next, however, Eleven’s teacher is out of town, so we drove to Nine’s lesson and got there a little early. Both girls settled in the comfortable couches in the waiting area of the cello teacher’s studio to get started on their homework.

I had my computer with me and started reading a new partial manuscript sent to me by one of my writers. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nine shift in her seat and glanced at her. We exchanged a smile, and just then she dropped her eraser.

She knelt to the floor to get it and then sat back in her seat. Eleven glanced up and gave her an enthusiastic wave, as if they hadn’t been sitting less than five feet from one another the whole time. Or had ridden from school together.

Nine widened her eyes, filled her cheeks with air like a puffer fish, then raised her eraser in exaggerated slow-mo is if she was going to throw it at her sister. Eleven pretended to get scared and hid her face behind her hands. I heaved a huge sigh and went back to the manuscript.

Have I said that my kids are weird?