Latest Chart: You think you’re a negotiator? You haven’t met a teenager.

April 23, 2021

By Ekta R. Garg

People think that political candidates have to be great negotiators, and often they do. They have to figure out how to balance the demands of their constituents with their own goals, maybe their own personal ambitions for power. Their tactical abilities don’t hold a candle to a teenager on a mission, though.

The following has become a running joke—at least, I consider it a joke—for Fourteen and me any time I’m driving her places.

“Do you want me to put in the directions to Starbucks?” she asks, gesturing to the GPS screen.

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re not going to Starbucks.”

“But we’ve got time.”

“School starts in twenty minutes, so, no, we don’t have time.”

“But it’s so close by.”

“Nope.”

“But you could get a treat for yourself, Mamma. Anything you like, you can get.”

“That’s really generous of you, but no.”

The context might change a little—we might be driving to her violin teacher’s house where they have lessons in the teacher’s back yard socially distanced, say, or to her dance class where she and four other students share a huge dance studio the space of two bedrooms. On the rare occasion I do use the GPS, she’ll tell me I’m spelling “Starbucks” wrong as I input street names. She’s even “failed” my driving several times as I drive right past the coffee joint instead of turning into the parking lot.

The argument, however, is always the same. Take me to Starbucks. Buy me a treat.

In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not in the habit of taking my children to Starbucks much. We’ve stopped there during road trips a few times for a cup of tea and to use the bathroom. There was the infamous episode with Twelve, when she was in preschool and still gaining confidence in using the bathroom like a big girl, when she made me stop there every day for a week after school just so she could pee. She never even asked for something to eat. She just wanted to stop in this one particular Starbucks on the way home.

Now, however, thanks to visits to Myrtle Beach with the grandparents and the girls’ close friends (who are really more like honorary cousins) who live there, Starbucks is high on the priority list for my 14-year-old.

This week she tried to sweeten the ask by including her sister. Yesterday, after picking Fourteen up at school, I had to make a quick stop at the grocery store near home. We had just enough time for me to go to the store, grab the one vegetable I needed to make dinner, and then get in the car and drive to Twelve’s school in time to pick her up after track club.

“Are we going to Starbucks?” Fourteen asked after we chatted for a few minutes about her day.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I have a lot to do at home,” I said.

“What do you have to do?”

I cited the two magazine articles I still had to write plus a few other tasks.

“So wouldn’t getting some Starbucks help?” she asked. “Just think, it’ll make your work so much nicer.”

“No.”

“Oh, come on,” she said in a teasing tone. “You know you want to.”

“Not really,” I countered. “I really just want to go home and write my articles and finish my day. Plus, it’s not even on the way.”

“That’s okay, [Twelve] won’t mind if we’re a few minutes late to pick her up.”

“You really think so?” I asked wryly. “How would she feel if you got Starbucks and she didn’t?”

“So get her something too,” she said. “She’s your favorite child anyway. Don’t you want to make your favorite child happy?”

“She’s not my favorite,” I said automatically, “I love you both equally, and I’m still not going to Starbucks.”

In truth, I really was tired, and I could feel my resolve slipping a little. If we’d actually driven by a Starbucks on the way, I would have probably at least considered stopping, not because I wanted to give Fourteen a treat but because she was wearing me down a little bit. In a rare moment of fatigue, I knew I would have considered giving in to her just to make her stop begging.

The trouble was that I knew it wouldn’t stop her completely; she’d just again start after week or two.

(Toddlers and teenagers; really, someone has to find a way to bottle that quality and monetize it.)

We arrived at the grocery store, and I told her she could stay in the car. As I walked toward the entrance and put on my mask, I decided to let my teen’s persistence wear me down a little anyway. I wouldn’t go to Starbucks for her, but I could make a peace offering.

I grabbed the vegetable I needed then wandered to the bakery section of the store. After perusing the choices for a couple of minutes and glancing at my watch, I picked up a box of eight snickerdoodles. Within minutes I’d zipped through the self-checkout area and made my way back to the car.

As I got back into the driver’s seat, I handed her the grocery bag and told her to look inside. Her eyes lit up when she saw the little box. Feeling my firm hold slip even further, I told her she could have two right then.

She has a snack after school every day anyway, and I knew when she went home she’d have a glass of milk. I figured the cookies could count as the snack part of her after-school routine.

We got to Twelve’s school several minutes early and sat in the pickup line talking as we waited. I turned off the car and watched as Fourteen pulled her second cookie from the box. Without a reminder or any admonishment, she closed the box right away and put it down.

I stared at the box for a minute then retrieved it from her lap and opened it.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

I pulled out the first of my own two snickerdoodles.

“Having a treat,” I said.

I might be (mostly) impervious to teen begging, but even I need a little fun every now and again, right? And hopefully this will put off the constant requests to stop at Starbucks. For a week or so anyway.

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.

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.

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: 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.

 

Newest Chart: When parenting boomerangs

September 20, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

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

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

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

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

“Have a good—”

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

“I will, I just—”

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

“I know, but—”

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

I looked at my husband.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I asked again.

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

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

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

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

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

This morning, Thirteen came downstairs for breakfast before school.

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

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

She rolled her eyes.

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

“What did we do?” my husband asked.

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

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

Latest Chart: Annoying your kids and finding Dinah

August 16, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

I stared from the dock at the lake. The placid green-blue water reminded me of the Caribbean, but no Caribbean country featured a collection of tall peaks circling the water. The sweeping mountain range gazed down, offering a vista of a glacier the color of a summer morning peering over the top of the range as if it wanted to play hide-and-seek.

With a little help, some gentle coaxing, and minimal instructions from the friendly (and I’d definitely say optimistic) gentleman running the dock, I climbed into a canoe with a paddle. He seemed to have no trouble whatsoever believing that I could not only paddle the small boat but also make it to a destination and back to the dock. On purpose.

Maybe it was the scenery around me that defined “picture-postcard perfect.” Since arriving in Norway, I’d had trouble holding on to the stresses of my life back home. How could I, when the mountains invited me to take a seat by their side and just let myself be? Everywhere we looked, everywhere we walked, the scenery and the people greeted us with a benevolence that seemed to come from a storybook. How would it feel to uncurl my fist and let all my worries slip through my fingers?

“We’re not making any progress.”

I suppressed a sigh. Maybe it wasn’t so hard to find an ounce of that stress. Especially with a tween and a teen in the same boat as me.

After the nice man at the dock pushed us off, we all started to paddle. The first few attempts took us in literal circles. We’d done some mild white water rafting earlier in the week during the first part of our tour, so I tried to remember what the rafting guide told us to do and paddle according to those instructions.

It didn’t work very well. The girls continued to let loose their complaints into the air above us, and it baffled me for a minute whether the valley was the right place for them to do so. The serenity of the Norwegian landscape had muted my daily frustrations. Hadn’t they felt its magic too?

“This is hard.”

“Here, why don’t we paddle on opposite sides?” I suggested from the back of the canoe. “[Eleven], you and I will paddle on the same side, and, [Thirteen], you paddle on the opposite side from [Eleven]. And it’s your job to make sure you paddle in the same rhythm as her.”

The girls fell into a better cadence of paddling. After 10 or 12 strokes, though, they lost it again. Eleven couldn’t see this at all, of course, since she sat at the front. Thirteen either hadn’t seen it or was concentrating too hard on paddling to care.

Without warning, without saying another word, I started to sing.

“I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day! I’ve been working on the railroad, just to pass the time away!”

“What is that?” Eleven asked as if she’d smelled something rotten.

“Where did you learn that song?” Thirteen asked, her tone expressing her eyeroll.

I stopped singing. “In school. It’s a really old song people used to sing for jobs like…well, working on the railroad. You know, when you needed to follow a certain rhythm to do your work. Can’t you hear the whistle blowing, to rise up so early in the morning? Can’t you hear the captain shouting…”

A rut opened in my memory for a moment. I knew the next few words involved a woman’s name, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was. So I fumbled through that part and kept going.

The girls groaned, audibly, but I noticed that their paddling got a little better.

We made it to the miniscule beach about a half mile away from the dock and the boathouse—just far enough to admire our progress but not so far as to exhaust us. We explored the shore for a bit, ducking past a low-hanging tree, following the curve of the short shoreline around to where another member of our tour group had graciously pulled in our boat when we’d arrived. The beach was more like a mini island, explored in a couple of minutes, a small resting spot for anyone who had an inclination to paddle deeper into the valley later.

About 10 minutes after we arrived, one of the tour guides zipped close to us in a motorized boat to let us know that lunch would be served soon and we needed to head back. Once again the girls and I relied on our fellow travelers to push us into the water; they were from Florida and spent as much free time as they could engaging in aquatic outings, so the dad of the family there had no trouble giving the canoe a nudge after we’d all settled with our paddles.

We started paddling, and I started singing.

“I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day! I’ve been working on the railroad…”

“Oh no,” Eleven said with a loud groan.

“Not this again,” her big sister echoed with chagrin. “You know people can hear you, right?”

I broke off my own singing. “So what? I don’t have a bad voice. I can sing in tune.”

My memory clicked into place just then, and the name came back to me.

“Dinah, blow your horn! Dinah, won’t you blow, Dinah, won’t you blow, Dinah, won’t you blow your ho-o-orn!”

“There’s more?” Eleven asked, incredulous at the tempo change.

“This is distracting!” Thirteen said in a loud voice over mine.

“Maybe that’s the point,” I replied in a speaking voice.

Neither of them had a response for that comment.

I started singing again. I kept singing, noticing that the paddling had fallen into sync much faster on our trip back. In fact, we had little trouble keeping ourselves in a fairly straight line as we worked to get back to shore.

I sang through “I’ll Be Working on the Railroad” another time or two just to annoy the kids—yes, I admit it, that was the bigger draw—before dropping my voice to a volume meant more for myself to sing through the title track of “The Sound of Music.” I couldn’t help it: in a moment like this, I understand what would inspire Maria Von Trapp to let loose on those hills. They did feel alive to me.

The glacier, the valley, that lake, and the Caribbean blue-green water made me grateful for music. For the opportunity to travel. And, yes, even for kids who get annoyed with their parents.