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Finding the Bond in Mothering and our Choices

Please note: I wrote this short essay as part of my now defunct column, Thoroughly Modern Mollie, which was a slice-of-life parenting column. Now it’s been compiled into an e-book: HONEY, I’M SORRY I KILLED YOUR AQUASAURS (and other short essays of the parenting life). There’s another focus in the media these days about stay-at-home mothering verses “working” mothering. I’d like to say it’s completely bogus, but that has not been my experience as a woman who stopped working outside of the home when I had children. There’s a lot of tension around this issue. And there should be. Parenting should be under the microscope; we need to be vigilant in our parenting, with the acknowledgement that there is no blanket answer for everybody. With all of the recent media attention on the issue, I was reminded of this particular column. Enjoy.

If you look, you can find inspiration anywhere—nature, literature, the arts. Sometimes the least likely place to find inspiration is in a church. But one of my most recent “light-bulb” moments came at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro and from one of its most active and incredible members—Carolyn Menk.
My parenting column came up in a conversation we had. I said how excited I am to be writing about such a rich topic and how different it is to be a stay-at home mom now than say, when my mom stayed at home. There was so much more support then.
Carolyn, who is a recently retired nurse, smiled and said. “Yes you’re right. When I was raising my children, I had just the opposite lack of support. I felt I had a profession and wanted to continue working. And boy, even my mother, could not understand.”
We discussed the guilt, the lack of support, and the courage it takes to follow you own heart. Because that is what I am doing now and that is what Carolyn did all those years ago.
Later it occurred to me how strange and almost absurd our conversation was. I mean, first of all, what is it about mothering and our choices that make it okay for folks to feel they can pass judgment? Nobody would make the same judgments about our husbands, would they?
As is usually the case, my own mother has had problems with the choices I have made it my life—though she does support my decision to stay at home. But her ideas about it are different than mine. For example. I mentioned to her how difficult it can be when Eric, my husband is working late or on a business trip and after being with Emma all day, I am the one to have to put her down (which is no easy task) at night. I enjoy my daughter, but long for that evening relief.
“What?’ she exclaimed loudly into the phone. “You’re staying at home. That’s your responsibility. Well, your father never helped me with that. He’d play with you in the evening and hand you right back to me.”
In her own way, my mom hit the nail on the head when it comes to the new paradigm in parenting. My husband not only participates in all phases of the care of our child, but does so joyfully. And I could not be more happy about that. I think that we are all winners in this situation. Eric gets to spend time with Emma, I get a much needed break, and most of all, Emma is benefiting from spending time with him.
Eric also participates in the household chores. He does not expect that I should be the 1950s version of a housewife and mother—doing all the cooking, cleaning, raising the babies, and looking good while I am doing it all. I am staying at home to spend time with Emma and that is what we both consider to be important right now.
That is our choice. But there are many choices. When I think of the choice that Carolyn made, and many other women like her, including my own grandmother, I applaud them for following their own bliss. I think that one of the best things we can doing for our children is to be happy people and if that means working outside the home, then so be it, as long as their needs are always central.
I have a good friend who recently decided to go back to work part-time because staying at home with her two girls was just “too difficult.” She went through the usual self-evaluation and emotional ups and downs before she came to that decision. I think that if she was unhappy and stressed out as a stay-at-home mom, she did what was best by going back to work. She is much happier now and her girls are none worse for the wear.
Too many times stay-at-home moms and working moms seem to be at odds, judging each others choices, and becoming overly defensive about their own. I don’t think we need judge one another, but to support each other. Each of our decisions is wrought with the challenges and the joys that go hand in hand with parenting.
You might think that my conversation with Carolyn could have been somewhat tense because of our different perspectives. But we found a common bond in our mothering and in our choices, no matter how different the situations. And that truly is inspiring.

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9-1-1 Shenanigans (or why you should really LISTEN to your kids)

This is an essay from my collection HONEY, I’M SORRY I KILLED YOUR AQUASAURS.

Have you ever seen the cell phone commercial with the little girl braiding her father’s hair and chattering like a squirrel on drugs? He has this bored look on his face, watching the clock, and is very patiently trying to listen to his daughter. I know how he feels—and so does my husband.

Both of our girls are extremely verbal and sometimes they even argue over who gets to talk—given that they often want to talk at the same time. But Emma, our five-year-old, never seems to have a down time, except when she is sleeping. I love to talk with her and listen to her. I want her to know that what she has to say is important. But no human being, no matter how patient, could possibly listen to every word she says.

There’s that aspect of listening—the actual physical possibility or impossibility of listening and hearing every thing a bubbling five-year-old can muster. The other aspect of listening is the belief factor. With Emma, the belief factor is key.

She tells so many wild stories that all of her teachers come to me with her tales. They are amused by her active imagination. I am proud of it and want to foster it along. (When I was a child, such storytelling was forbidden. And I often was called a liar and punished.) When Emma tells her stories—and they are stories, not lies— we all play along and listen, assuming that they are stories.
There are times, however, that only the truth is called for—and one of those times recently happened in our home.

The girls and I were outside enjoying the glorious weather, as were our neighbors, who decided to grill. They have one of those grills that sometimes shoot flames into the air and Emma saw the flames, and ran into the house. I was in the garden weeding and Tess was close by.
Emma came back outside and said, ”Everything will be fine, now Mommy. I called 9-1-1.”

“You did what?”

“I called 9-1-1.”

“Why? Is there an emergency?”

“Al has a fire. So I called 9-1-1.”

“Emma, listen to me. Did you really call 9-1-1?”

She smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know. Let’s go swing.”

Okay. So I chose to swing. I chose not to believe Emma.

About 15 minutes later, we were in the house and a police officer came to the door. A very serious officer with—I think— a club in his hand, which pounded on my door.

“Yes?” I said opening the door, my heart pounding.

“I’m responding to a 9-1-1 call.” (This after two attempts at calling us.)

“You are? “ It then dawned on me. And I yelled for Emma. When she presented herself to us, my normally outgoing child buried her head in my hips, her eyes wide as saucers. “You called 9-1-1, didn’t you?”

Well, the police officer, much to his credit, melted when he saw Emma. He kneeled down and said “Sweetie, I want you to know that you did the right thing if there was a real emergency,”

She took off running into the bedroom. He wanted to talk to her more, but she wouldn’t come out.
“I’m sorry, “ I said. “She told me she called and I didn’t believe it. I know you have better things to do.”

His main concern, however, was not in scolding us. He wanted to make sure that Emma would not be afraid of him or other policemen. He told me to keep reinforcing the positive aspect. And we have and I think she is okay.

As for me, it took a couple of days for me to get over it. As I stood at the door, opening it for the officer, a million thoughts were going through my brain, What have I done? Has my sordid past finally caught up with me? (Not that I even really have one.) Is Eric okay? Has he been in an accident? Not once did I even think that my daughter’s story was what brought him to my door.

I am glad—albeit slightly embarrassed—that this happened. I am listening more intently to my children; they do have a great deal to teach me. Sometimes, suspended belief is a blessing and what helps to make life magic. If we listen long enough and hard enough to kids, they will have us cynical world-weary adults almost believing anything and seeing life and all its wondrous “things” through their eyes. Things like the enchantment of fireflies, newborn birds, the rings of Saturn, and police officers that melt at the sight of sweet, imaginative children. Thanks, officer.

A Mysterious Pee-er

I’m currently compiling my old newspaper columns, which I plan to sell in an e-book format. For those of you who don’t know, I wrote a slice-of-life parenting column for the Daily News Leader in Staunton for years.  I’m enjoying going through them and reliving some of these moments. Thought I’d give you a sample today.

We have a mysterious pee-er in our house. I am hoping that it is Tess, but I can’t be sure.

She is just 22-months-old and many of the manuals on potty-training say not to even try until a child is two, but I noticed that she began to be interested in all things potty about a month ago and so I dug out the old Elmo potty chair and she promptly urinated in it. I made a big fuss over it and let her go around in undies (a big deal) and she peed right through them. Okay, I thought, it must have just been a fluke that she actually went once in the potty.

Against my better judgment, I called my mother, who swears that I was potty-trained by the time I was a year old, which I find hard to believe. She said, “Keep after her. Let her go around without a diaper for awhile and sit on the potty so she can see what it feels like. Talk to her about it, like she is an adult.”

OK. That was worth a shot. Oh, to have two children completely out of diapers, what heaven, what utter and complete joy that would be. (Emma was a slow toileter—she was just over 3. And according to my mother, we had missed out “window of opportunity” with her. Though doctors would tend to disagree.) So, I have been letting Tess go around buck naked. She loves it, revels in being naked, as all toddlers seem to. She spends most of her time in the living room while her sister is in preschool. And I am in and out of the room, picking up, checking my emails, getting her juice, cleaning up spills, and so on. I ask her if she needs to pee. “No pee, Mommy.”

“Okay, but if you need to, sit on the potty, okay?”

“Okay Mommy.”

Of course, I have cleaned up various accidents—of both varieties in the past few weeks. But last week, I moved the potty chair while I was cleaning and noticed some urine in it. What????? Evidently Tess had used it while I was out of the room! A breakthrough, I thought, wishing I had been there to cheer her on.

When I told my husband about it, he brought up another possibility.

“Maybe Emma did it.”

Mmmmm. Interesting possibility. But I don’t think so. She takes great pleasure and joy in using the “big girl” toilet  and announce it to us almost every time she does.  But, she is becoming a kind of prankster and likes to tell stories—so it’s hard to get the truth out of her. I asked her about it she denies using the potty chair. “It’s for babies,” she says. In the mean time, Tess is still having accidents through the house.

A couple of days ago, she went on Emma’s bed. I have gotten to the point where I put a diaper on her after she has an accident. She hates diapers. Essentially, I had almost given up again. There is just no point to forcing the issue. And when my husband is home, he just can’t take it. He just can’t take the unknown quantity to this method. Where will she go? When? And will he be the one to discover it by stepping in it? Or will she pee on him again, as she did last week?  So, since he has been home for a few days, I have been slacking off and shortening her naked time.

This morning, though, I noticed urine in the potty again. Obviously, it was from yesterday. We were doing a major cleaning in the living room and the potty chair had gotten relegated to a corner. I can’t figure out when Tess (or Emma) would have actually used it. But there you have it. Pee in the potty—and yet no pee-er to speak of. It’s looking like I will have to keep a closer eye on that potty chair.

Don’t forget, you can pre-order Scrapbook of Secrets. If you do, let me know and I’ll send recipes from Cumberland Creek to you.

Five things I thought about during my morning run:

1. My house filled with golden light this morning and how it gave way to the gray.

2. Marbled-gray skies. Spitting rain.

3. My Emma–up and at it this morning. I think we’ve given her a good work ethic, if nothing else. 😉 She’s off to the museum for the day to work on the farms.

4. We’ve been hearing about what a good worker she is–but also about how “entertaining” she is. heh.

5. If you haven’t heard, I’m doing a pre-sale special on SCRAPBOOK OF SECRETS. Order the book from Amazon, let me know about it, and I’ll send you some recipes from Cumberland Creek. Here’s the link.

Five things I thought about during my morning run:

1. Hearing from my editor yesterday. Now I know more about when to expect the copy edits on SCRAPBOOK OF SECRETS. That’s a good thing. I was a bit concerned because my daughter is having her tonsils out the end of his month and I didn’t want to be distracted from her.

2. Thinking a lot about my fictional town of Cumberland Creek. And the next book.

3. The Yoga class last night left me a bit sore this morning and I can feel my muscles screaming with each stride.

4. Emma is off to the museum today to work and then they are having a little party for the interns. Nice. When she left this morning she said, “I’ll come home smelling of chickens and cows,” and grinned.

5. Tomorrow Harry Potter. Word.

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P R O C E S S

One of our first poses in last Yoga class was plow. Imagine the old “bicycle” exercise except that your feet are not in the air, but on the floor behind your head. Yep. You have to be careful in this pose or you can seriously hurt a number of places on your body—your neck, most particularly. As I was reaching to get my toes to the floor and realizing it wasn’t going to happen last night, my Yoga teacher said, “It doesn’t matter if you get there tonight or in your next lifetime. What matters is the practice, the process. You simply can’t muscle your way into this.” Once again, I am struck by how often what comes down in Yoga class is a reflection of my life. For the past few days, I’ve been trying to muscle my writing—because my daughters are on summer break starting next week. For the most part this muscling business works for me. I give myself early deadlines so that if anything goes wrong further into the process, I have plenty of time and space. I wanted to have SCRAPBOOK OF SHADOWS to my editor this week. (When is it due? February 2012. Crazy, I know.) My self-imposed deadline is just not going to be met this time. And yesterday I realized I’m okay with that. I’m done muscling my way into anything, especially my writing. The process, right now, is so clearly calling for distance. I’m going to use it.

Five things I thought about during my morning run:

1. My sweet Emma, pouring her heart into the Mulan audition yesterday and not getting a part.

2. Recently, I was paid for a memoir that I edited. I bought a new printer. My last one was just about dead. The new one is a scanner, printer, and copier. Very sleek looking. And it’s inspired me to clean and organize my office.

3. With all the drama around my family in Pa. these days, I was really down yesterday. I’m so grateful for the friends I have in Va. Brightens my life.

4. I was able to get to the farmers market yesterday between errands. We are set with tomatoes and cucumbers. I also picked up some Hollyhocks and Foxglove. I still need my yearly stash of herbs and Petunias.

5. My strawberries are really coming in. And yesterday Eric pointed out that we actually have some wild strawberries growing in another corner of our yard. Finding wild strawberries when I was a kid was always a treat. The flavor is so intense. I found myself as thrilled with our new cache of wild strawberries as I was when I was a kid finding them in the woods. Silly, isn’t it?

Five things I thought during my morning run:

1. Running with the Wii is not my favorite kinda run. But it’s pouring and I can’t get to the gym.

2. But I do like the way it tells you how many miles you’ve run right on the screen. 4.5 miles this morning. Great start to a LONG day of rehearsals and plays.

3. SCRAPBOOK OF SHADOWS. I am deep into it. A day away from it and light bulbs are not just going off, but flashing all the time. Calm down, brain, please!

4. But here’s the thing, with just this little bit of space away, I’ve hit on some key elements that I think the book is missing. Taking into consideration the kind of edits I’ve gotten on the first book, I think I know where to go. Just not sure how to get there.;-)

5. So, after spring break (this coming week), I’m going to spend half my day on it and half my day on the romantic suspense I’m writing. Plan.

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Dreams. Recipes. Life. My Grandmother’s Recipe Book.

I come from a long line of savers.   Sometimes I curse them for all the things they’ve left behind for me to sort through from time to time, other times I feel incredibly blessed.

One tattered blessing is a brown notebook brimming with recipes cut out of magazines and newspapers pasted on the pages, along with recipes written in my grandmother’s  handwriting. Some of the clippings are from the 1930s. This was when she first married, had a whole married life ahead of her, and was dreaming about what she would cook and bake for herself and her new husband in the years to come.

But there were wars to fight, careers to wield, and one very special baby girl to adopt, raise, and love. My grandfather went off to the war; my grandmother went to work—and found that she loved it, changing the landscape of their family life.

When I asked my mom about the recipes in this notebook, I was a bit surprised to find that my grandmother had never cooked most of them—at least not after my mom arrived on the scene. But only a bit.  After all, so many of us love our cookbooks, read them, dream over them, and yet don’t cook from them. As my mom said,  “As cooks we perfect several dishes we learn to rely on and sometimes we never branch out.” As the author of two cookbooks, you might think this trend upsets me, but it doesn’t. Thinking of readers dreaming over my cookbooks is every bit as satisfying to me as thinking of cooks cooking from them.

Still, as I run my fingers over the yellowed pages neatly put together and organized by my own grandmother’s hands, along with the comfort that envelops me, I feel a sense of regret. The passage of time requires us to pick and choose which dreams to follow and which recipes to make.

What I see here is so clearly my grandmother—the neat handwriting, the clear, organized mind at work in her table of contents and a meticulous index. (Unfortunately my camera doesn’t focus that well on her text.) Her passion for Chinese food is evidenced by these recipes and clippings, as well. She lists several recipes for chop suey, yet Mom only remembers her making chow mien.  Gram embraced Chinese food while my grandfather was stationed in China, then Burma. Chinese restaurants were popping up here and there, as well. My grandmother was the kind of a woman who would wake up at 2 a.m., hungry for Chinese food, and drive 40 miles to the nearest all-night Chinese restaurant to quell her craving. Such is the stuff of family history.

My mother waxes poetic over certain dishes her mother prepared. One of them is doughnuts. Eureka. Several doughnut recipes are contained in this book. The baked doughnut recipe calls to me and we’ll try it out sometime over the next few weeks. As we mix the dough and make a mess in our own kitchen,  I’ll tell my daughters stories about their greatgrandmother, her dreams, her recipes, her life.

Baked Doughnuts

Full disclosure: I’ve not tried this yet. If you try the recipe and it doesn’t work, please let me know. I’ve copied it exactly as my grandmother wrote it.

2 cakes compressed yeast of 2 packages dry granular yeast

¼ cup lukewarm water

1/3 cup shortening

2 tablespoon, salt

2 eggs beaten, melted butter and granulated sugar

1 ¼ cups scalded milk

½ cup sugar

1/1/2 teaspoons nutmeg

4 ¾ cup all-purpose flour

Soften yeast in the lukewarm water. Meanwhile scald the milk and pour it over the shortening, sugar, salt and nutmeg measured into a mixing bowl. When milk mixture cools to lukewarm, stir in softened yeast and eggs, the flour and beat until thoroughly mixed. Cover and let stand in a warm place until double in bulk (about one hour.) Then turn dough out onto a well-floured board. Shape into a soft ball, but do not knead. With floured hands, gently press the dough out to about ¾ thickness. Then use slightly floured rolling pin to roll dough to uniform ½ inch thickness. Brush off lightly any excess flour on the top. This dough is very soft. Cut-out with a floured 3-inch doughnut cutter, lift carefully with a pancake turner so as not to distort the round shape, and place 2-inches apart on a greased baking sheet.

Brush gently but thoroughly with melted butter or margarine and let rise until double in bulk—20 to 25 minutes. Bake in a 425-degree oven from 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately brush with hot melted butter while on the baking sheet, the remove from the pan and put two or three at a time into packer sack containing granulated sugar. Shake gently to coat. These are elegant served warm, but if any are left, they may be reheated in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes and will be just as delicious as when first baked. Makes 2 ½ to 3 dozen.

Five things I thought about during my morning walk:

1. Wow. It’s windy.

2. My meeting with Emma’s teachers. I’m so proud of my Emma. She struggles and daydreams. But every one of her teachers says she’s a joy to have in their class. She’s kind, caring, and sweet. I’ll take that.

3. The organization issue is not her’s alone. We need to help her more.

4. When I was leaving, her science teacher said to me, “It must be…I don’t know…strange to write all day.” Indeed.

5. Off to see the wizard today.