Amy’s Story

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“I would have died without daycare,” Amy tells me on our way to a local diner. After the death of both of her parents, two unexpected pregnancies, a number of odd jobs, and a failing relationship, Amy was ready to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse in the fall of 2013. Although she had someone lined up to watch her two young boys, that person backed out at the last minute. She got the break she needed when Janet, the director of the on-campus daycare center, found last minute openings for Amy’s two children. Now, a semester away from graduation, Amy maintains a 3.71 GPA as a full time nursing student and a single mom of two young boys—quite a feat if you ask me. She is steps away from “making it”.

When I first met Amy, she reminded me a lot of myself: a native New Yorker in her 30s with a couple of energetic little boys she frequently chases around. A Brooklyn girl, Amy grew up in the projects of East New York, and she tells me that while life there started out “okay”, it quickly became a place where she “couldn’t even play outside.” As a mother, Amy prefers the Long Island neighborhood she lives in now, with her sons, Manny, 4, and Julian, 2, and a man she thought was “the love of her life”.

Although her relationship with the boys’ father began as most love stories do: happy, loving, and full of promise, today is it barely a shadow of what it once was. He and Amy hardly speak, and although he buys diapers and pays for her gas to and from school, they are little more than roommates. Amy shares a bedroom with her sons where they sleep in a queen size bed while their father has a twin bed in the other bedroom. When I ask her about how they co-parent, Amy tells me he refuses to “parent” at all—insisting, “If I take care of them, then you are doing nothing.” As a full time nursing student, Amy’s days are full of classes, labs, clinicals, and a lot of studying—she is hardly “doing nothing”. Considering the boys’ father doesn’t work, she expected him to be more involved in their lives, but this is far from the case. While he greets them and hugs them in the mornings and evenings, he does little else with the children. He also seems to resent Amy’s devotion to her children and her schooling. He once told her, “You’re 300 percent dedicated to kids, 100 percent to school, and not enough to me.” His archaic sense of parenting roles leaves Amy as a single mother despite the presence of another parent in the same household.

Fourteen years her senior, she tells me his patience is thin and he has difficulty watching the kids be anything but obedient soldiers. Whenever the kids get too rowdy, he immediately retreats to his room because he simply “can’t take it”. Amy explains that he drives his other two children (from a previous marriage) to and from school daily, but has little involvement in their lives as well; he also has an estranged daughter who lives in another state. Manny and Julian have never met any of their half-siblings. This obviously upsets Amy, but there is little she can do about it. Despite all this, Amy explains that she wants them to know their father and feels responsible for making this happen, so she makes a point of having them say goodnight to their father every night—even if they’re away. She discloses that her commitment to knowing their father makes her feel like she’s “forcing” it, but still, she believes it’s the right thing to do. Amy has frequently done “the right thing” in her life-even from a young age.

Although Amy became a mother for the first time at 30, she had actually been mothering since the age of 16 when her parents adopted four foster children. She helped her parents tremendously with her younger siblings and when I ask her if she was ever resentful of the added responsibility, she seems genuine when she answers, “No.” When her parents died, her dad in 2002 and her mom in 2006, Amy became the legal guardian of three of the four children (one was already over 18). They all continued living together in the three-bedroom apartment in East New York. When I ask her about how she managed being a parent of four adolescents at just 25, she tells me that “She felt immature” and that because of that, she spoiled them. She goes on to explain that beyond her own sadness due to her parents’ death, she felt even worse for her younger siblings because they had parents “leave” them twice—first their biological parents, then their adoptive parents. Although Amy doesn’t go into too much detail, she says because of that, she compensated by letting them do things she may not have let her own children do. Despite living apart, she continues to have a close relationship with her siblings, and spends much of her free time with her sister in Brooklyn. She also has a brother and some family in Florida, where she visits as often as possible. She say her family misses her kids when they don’t see them for a while; it’s nice to know she has a support system and people who love her boys almost as much as she does.

As part of her attachment parenting style, Amy co-sleeps with her boys and she speaks of this setup fondly—except of course when she has work to do. She frequently holds their hands from the floor while they go to sleep to avoid falling asleep herself. Although all she wants to do is stretch out in bed with a little head under each armpit, she can’t afford that luxury on most nights. After they are out cold, she still has hours of studying, laundry, cleaning up, and making lunches ahead of her. Falling asleep with them would make for a harrowing following day. Each day is too busy enough…

Although Manny could sleep until 9 or 10 if she let him, Amy has to wake up him at 6:30 to get to school by 7:30. She is up at 6 to get ready before the boys are up. They grab their lunchboxes and hop in the car to school—where they go five days a week. She doesn’t have classes on Mondays, but she brings them in from 9-2, just so she can study (a 3.7 GPA in the nursing program doesn’t come without sacrifice). In the car, they are usually dazed and complain about the sun in their eyes. After a few minutes, Manny comes alive and starts talking about all his friends as he is quite the social butterfly. Julian tells stories about his teachers, “Kaffy” (Kathy) and “Cavey” (Carey). Once at school, Manny eagerly runs into his classroom while Julian lingers in the gym a little too long. Once Julian is settled in his class, Amy literally runs to her own class. If she’s one minute late, she gets marked “late” and gets “locked” out of her class. Besides the embarrassment, Amy is concerned she will be missing essential information so she makes a point of being on time. Still, the rushing around with the kids and the focus on school, coupled with a lack of funding and cash for everyday things-let alone “treats”- is grueling. She tells me the boys want everything they see on TV, and without an income, buying the necessities is hard enough. There is simply no extra money for toys.

At school, professors and administrators don’t care about the fact that she’s a single mom. She feels that doesn’t get treated like an adult and she wishes there was more support on campus for student mothers. Overwhelmed is the word she uses to describe how she feels much of the time. She confides in me that she frequently wants to breakdown, but knows that too much depends on her “keeping it together”—so she does just that. She reiterates that, without daycare, she doesn’t know what she would do: “I couldn’t go to school, for sure.” She wants to do a lot more with her kids and for herself, but a lack of time, money, and energy is a problem.  She goes to parties the kids’ are invited to on the weekends for “free” entertainment. Much of the time, she doesn’t have cash to give a gift and feels badly about it.

In the evenings, the boys play while Amy gets dinner ready. Although the boys’ father has been home most of the day, they never come home to a prepared meal. After dinner, Amy and her boys watch TV together. She affectionately explains this is the only part of the day where she doesn’t try to multitask. She relishes this time with the boys glued to her lap as they watch a favorite show. After that, it’s baths and bedtime. And the grueling routine starts all over again.

I can’t help but admire Amy and her dedication to not only her children, who are warm, hilarious, and super-loved, but to herself and her own future. Over the course of our talk, she continuously reiterated how important the campus daycare center has been to her and her family. Besides being a place that is convenient where she knows her kids are well taken care of, it has also become a place of support and guidance. She knows the staff there fully support her and help out whenever possible–whether it be giving her extra hours for study time, or financial and emotional backing. They provide scholarships for student mothers via grants and are constantly giving out necessities like diapers, clothes, formula and even special gifts during holiday time thanks to a campus community fundraiser. Unfortunately, the center is way underfunded by the college, and much of the financial support they do provide to student parents is from fundraisers and the donations of other parents. The staff themselves are way underpaid; despite this, they still manage to put the student parents and their success as a top priority.  Amy fully acknowledges this, and even though her own strength and dedication that have brought her to the place she is now, she still attributes much of this success to the campus daycare center.

When I ask Amy about where she sees herself in 20 years, her response is fairly quick: “Not in New York. Hopefully owning a house in Florida somewhere. Hopefully with an understanding man.” I press her more, asking her if there’s anything else, perhaps grandiose, she may want besides those things. She shrugs her shoulders warmly, shines a shy smile and replies, “I just want a simple life.”

I am rooting for Amy and I know that she will have her ideal simple life very soon; I  will always admire her perseverance and humility. Raising great kids is hard enough–raising great kids in her situation is truly note-worthy and admirable. Thank you, Amy, for allowing me to share the story of a strong and inspirational woman like you.

Amy and Me

Amy and Me

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Why I Have Kids (Or How I Manage to Avoid Adults)

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Even in my hazy  teens and 20s, drunk on life, love, poetry, travel (and some other stuff), I knew I wanted children. Yet, like the Hollywood stars in  “12 Women With Perfect Responses for Why They Don’t Have Kids“, so many fellow academics seem to opt out of parenthood, instead choosing to spend their free time pursuing the things we were trained to do in graduate school: teach a lot, publish books, write poetry, and compose tersely-written articles for scholarly journals (on truly crucial subjects like why an author chose to use the word “anarchic” instead of “chaotic” in her short story. Yeah-super important stuff.). Those colleagues who have chosen to procreate,  have one token child–a rare few have two or more. I felt like a Duggar telling folks in my department that I was pregnant with baby #3 (“Don’t you already have two kids?” is a question I got a lot) and when I pull into the faculty parking lot in my Honda Odyssey, I feel all the judgmental Prius eyes staring unkindly at my spacious third row.

While I so much agree with Gloria Steinem’s notion that “Everybody with a womb doesn’t have to have a child anymore than everybody with vocal chords has to be an opera singer”, and I am thoroughly entertained by Kim Cattrall’s feeling that kids “…(are) adorable and funny and sweet, and then I have a headache”, I can’t say that I actually relate to any of these sentiments. I have always adored children, and from a very young age, have had a strong desire to be a mother. Were cultural expectations of women as mothers deeply embedded in me or was it something else? Probably a bit of both….I’m convinced that my feelings of displacement in the world of grown ups was  the reason I have always gravitated toward kids–and valued their existence so much that I always knew I wanted to have a few of my own. For as long as I can remember,  children have always felt like home to me—and adults scared the absolute god out of me.

Unlike children, adults expect things from people—and that sense of expectation was very distressing to me as a child. They want kids to say hi to them, to give them hugs or kisses—or worse, to perform.  As a fairly talented pianist (as a little kid, anyway), I was constantly asked to “play, Stella, play!” I only complied because of the tremendous joy it brought my father to watch his little girl impress his friends by knocking out a Mozart or Beethoven piece. Nevertheless, these expectations and sense that I was being evaluated, coupled with some of my own anxiety issues, made me DREAD contact with anyone over the age of 18. I didn’t want to play the piano like a monkey for my parents’ friends or tell them about what I was writing at school, or explain my part in the school play. Yes, I was one of those kids…comfortable on a stage, but frightened by regular interaction with grown ups.

I was one of those kids many adults didn’t “get”, and who got called “shy” all the time. Many adults would even ask me idiotic questions like, “Why are you so shy?” What a great question, random adult! Let me, a bashful 6 year old, explain the intricacies of introversion to you now. I’m not sure of the answer people expected to that question, but at best they got an “I don’t know” coupled with a shrug and a welling of water in my eyes. At worst, they got was a tsunami of tears that came from a place of fear, anxiety, and the inability to articulate those feelings. Needless to say, interaction with adults was very low on my “things I want to do” list.

To make matters worse, my parents were chronic socializers. If you know any Greeks, you know that they are passionate, warm, often cooking (amazing food), frequently yelling, and always spending time with, well, other Greeks. My family was no exception. All I wanted to do was stay home, read books, tell stories to my stuffed animals, hang with my immediate family, and play with my dolls. Instead, I felt like I was constantly dragged to another random person’s home where I would have to perform or socialize. My shyness didn’t bode well for me in this kind of hyper social environment.  I always felt like crying when adults asked me simple questions like “How are you?”, and in retrospect, it’s obvious I had some social anxiety issues. I remember one incident when, after having arrived to a family friend’s home, I let my whole family exit the car first—and then locked myself in the vehicle to avoid having to go in and talk to people. It took quite a bit of time and coaxing to get me out of the safety of my dad’s maroon Buick. Let me be clear: there was nothing wrong with these people–or the rest of the adults I shied away from. I just always felt awkward around pretty much everyone (I will go to therapy one day to figure it all out, I promise).

Because I couldn’t lock myself in empty cars forever, I had to find a way to survive these social situations. Instead of leaving myself in “vulnerable” situations with adults, I tried to find the youngest child around and became his or her babysitter. Not only did that help me avoid talking to people, but I always felt comfortable with kids my age or younger. I admired the ability in children to play and be silly and not judge. They were naturally happy and selfish which was great because they didn’t ask me any questions about myself or make me feel like I had to somehow “perform”. Because of the lack of expectations, I actually did like “performing” for them whether it was reading to them, telling them stories, or even, yes, playing the piano. They were a captive audience, and would never ask me why I so bashful.

Come to think of it, my introversion and social anxiety somehow led not only to my inclination toward motherhood, but also to my chosen profession. I get to read aloud and teach my students all the things I know, and then I get to home and do the same with my babies (with the benefits of being able to kiss and hug them). When I tell people I’ve met in adulthood that I was an intensely withdrawn little girl, they are stunned. I suppose I come off as fairly chatty and eager to socialize now. Still, I frequently feel awkward at large  social gatherings (especially at  cocktail parties. Those are the absolute worst), and when I see children in any setting, I am immediately drawn to them. Little humans helped me overcome some serious issues in my life, and for that I am eternally grateful. So why wouldn’t I want to bring some of these small folks into my own life? Especially when they give me a great excuse now to disengage with adults when I’m bored, annoyed, or stressed by a conversation? (“Jube has to poop; The baby needs to eat; Giorgie is having a tantrum–GOTTA GO!”). And so what that I can’t devote as much time to writing and reading as I would if I didn’t have babies? That’s what sabbaticals are for, right?

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An Ode to Winter (Almost) Past

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For months, I’ve been pleading with the weather gods for a reprieve from the freezing cold, ideal-for-hermits-who-never-want-to-leave-their-warm-abode kind of weather. “We are ready for the sunshine, weather gods!” I would scream (to myself). Just last week, as we were driving home from school, the boys caught a glimpse of their favorite park peaking out through a few patches of melted snow and at the same time, they both screamed: “PARK!” Not, “Let’s go to the park!” or “I love the park!” Just the noun: “PARK!” like a bunch of cooped up Neanderthals stuck in their cave of a home for too long. Goodness knows we have tried everything to get these kids “outside”, but the anesthetizing temperatures and legion of snow days have made the whole process just plain difficult—not to mention the Herculean task of getting three little humans dressed for sub zero temps (and finding matching mittens, of course).

So, yeah–this winter has been, well, wintery : too much snow, even more ice, a lot of cancelled school, illnesses that stung us in turns like mosquitoes,  salt stains on my hardwood floors, and more shoveling than the average back can stand (thank you, husband, for always shoveling so I can spend another year upright). More so, there were way too many hours spent indoors. My kids watched enough TV that it became a part of their regular conversations (“Giorgie, do you think Mario and Luigi have a baby brother like us?”), and I probably yelled too much about their over-use of technology (as I held my iPhone behind my back). Still, there was something about this winter, in all its ill-repute, that I already miss. Winter was the time we were all forced together like refugees, undistracted by other people and playmates, or by the lure of the sun and its promise of fun. Instead, we were frequently found lazing on a couch, all five of us, intermittently snuggling, tickling, teasing or trying to get the baby to do a new “trick” (I think we finally mastered waving!). We were looking outside the window analyzing the size of the snowflakes (“These ones look like golfballs, Mommy!”), sometimes even venturing outside for a walk or an always-short snowball fight (Giorgie and I are a little intolerant to freezing snowballs in the face. He has the excuse of being 3; I make up a new (bad) excuse every time). We do laundry, play with Star Wars figures or Thomas trains or dinosaurs, and cook meals and wash dishes—the regular stuff. We do that stuff in other seasons too, but in this kind of New York winter, there is the notion that we are “snowed in” and we are battling some kind of extraneous force together . And that makes the winter, well, kind of fantastic. The focus is on our family, on the present moment, not on the things we normally would have done (or wasted time planning) had we not been snowed in (hey, I can do hot yoga in my next, childless life).

This past weekend, we got some sweet relief from the harsh weather. As the time sprang forward (and we crossed our fingers and toes that our little ones would “spring forward” with us and not wake up at 4:30 am), the weather gods generously bestowed upon us a 46 degree Sunday. To honor that last snow, and the prospect of a new spring, we went for a hike at Caleb Smith state park. The boys splashed in shin-high slush, skidded on sparkly ice, and “fed” the resident swan bites of their snowballs. I wore baby Marco in the same Ergo carrier I have worn all the boys in and, as good ole winter taught me this year, I  relished the present, and time stood still for a little while. For a few minutes, as I sat with my precious sleeping baby under a pagoda, I watched the big boys slip and slide across a slushy bridge with their dad, smiles and wide-eyed joy in tact. I got to hear shrieks of excitement over a new found puddle of melted snow, and watch that rare gigantic grin of my husband’s (that I love oh-so-much) glimmer as his boys splashed around with unabashed bliss. And so, my new sentiments toward old man winter  are confirmed: he is not all that bad after afterall. Maybe the beauty of winter IS its unwelcoming features—and that in its bareness, our love is even more prominent.

I have always been a lover of sun and summer and the warmth it brings, but this year, despite complaining about the winter all season (I’m sorry, man), I’m grateful for the gift it has given me: the realization that the present moment is the best moment–especially if I’m with my boys…even if it is 2 degrees outside.

 

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Why Today Doesn’t Suck

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I am finally here. It’s just me today. Just me, my computer, my grande Americano, and my glass water bottle, encased in bright orange rubber. My limbs are free of dangling children and I don’t have to worry about the hunger or pee schedules of three little boys. My hands contain no crumby snacks or sticky toys, and my fingers are able to freely and confidently tap on the blue keyboard cover of my brand new MacBook. If I wanted to, I could take my iPhone out without someone asking to play a game on it. If I really wanted to get crazy, I could stare at the wall for a moment and feel confident that when I get back to my page of words, things will still be intact.  I only get a few hours a week to do this thing called writing—and boy, does it feel good. Between the exceptionally snowy and cold New York winter and the sickness that has assaulted my household, the boys and I have become quasi recluses. But not today, my friend. Today, it’s just me and my sweet old pal, writing.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve got a blob of dried formula (delivered via a spit up I didn’t even realize occurred) on my shoulder, that all my dreams last night involved cleaning up kid-vomit from a carpet, or that there’s a wooden train in my jacket pocket (maybe Percy, maybe Oliver, maybe even Mavis)–nothing is going to stop me today. I will write and drink coffee for four hours straight. I will produce actual words on a page today despite feeling the extra luggage of baby weight on the waist of my yoga pants every time I lean into my computer screen. I will look up at people walking in and out of the coffee shop as if I do something glamorous outside of this place besides wiping (adorable) butts. Oh baby, I will garner inspiration from the muses that are going to sing a sweet symphony to me today. And I will harvest a musical litany any dead poet would be proud of. I will accomplish all of this because I am powerful, and smart, and I have something to …Oh wait–there’s a call coming in…

FROM THE KIDS’ DAYCARE.

My whole life shifts, freezes for what seems like four whole minutes as I see the name of the children’s daycare clearly on my smartphone screen.

This can only mean one thing—this is no enigma. Daycare never calls to see how your sabbatical is treating you or just to say hi. They don’t call to let you know that your preschooler just mastered writing his last name, that your toddler finally ate a meal without draping the floor with his scraps, or that your baby finally started crawling. Nope.

THEY ONLY EVER CALL TO TELL YOU TO COME PICK UP YOUR KID BECAUSE HE IS SICK (in the nicest way possible, of course).

And there goes my day of pretending. Pretending that I’m a thinking, writing, idea-generating individual. These calls are what confirm I am tied and bound to one role first and foremost—mamahood.

Despite all of the wonderments of motherhood, being robbed of my time of productivity (or the joys of staring at the wall alone)–SIMPLY SUCKS.

I tell my students to never use the word “suck”. It’s such a lazy choice of a word that can be replaced by so many other delightful possibilities (calamitous, gloomy, ill-fated, or luckless anyone?). But today, I don’t have time for interesting words. Because today just sucks.

Before I even answer the phone, a barrage of reasons why being a mother today sucks flash through my mind:

 This sucks because I just sat down with my coffee.

                                This sucks because it means I will probably be home with sick kids for the next week or so.

This sucks because my poor kids will feel badly. And be sad. And cranky.

This sucks because  cranky kids are jerks.

   This sucks because I will have to entertain my other two children while I nurse the sick one back to health.

                      This sucks because the other, aptly entertained, kids will soon contract the same illness.

This sucks because I’ll probably get sick too.

   This sucks because being sick with three sick kids is the equivalent of an icy hell (kind of like New York this winter).

 As I answer the phone knowing what to expect, I am greeted by Janet, the director, who quickly says, “It’s not an emergency or anything serious.” She is a smart lady and almost always begins like this as to not alarm parents. I know what’s coming…or so I think.

Instead of telling me of the very-hard-to-get-over virus one of my son’s has contracted which will prohibit them all from coming to school for at least a week, she tells me that she just wants to let me know that Giorgie’s eye is a little pink, but not particularly gooey, and that since I already started him on the drops (as a precautionary measure since the other boys had conjunctivitis), he is fine to stay. She just wanted to let me know, she says. She adds that he was happy and comfortable and that she’ll see me at 5 o’clock.

I quietly pick up my jaw from the floor, stare at the wall for a while, take a sip of my still-warm coffee, and write my first blog post.

Today does not suck after all. And I am thankful.

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