The Battle of the Tween

Once I locked my chocolate eyes on the dark round version of my Prima’s, I became filled with certainty of the connection we shared. I cannot forget the long first days, weeks and sleepless nights we shared trying to figure one another out.

She was wild and sweet, with a million distinct and curling dark brown eyelashes I knew by heart by day two.eyelash closeup

She knew me immediately and wanted me, and wanted me to know she was brave and centered and tuned into everything I felt. I knew because I felt everything she did, too.

There was never any emotional pretense between us.

Recently, Prima did something I had been expecting – she grew into a young lady. Or a grown girl. Not sure which, yet, but somewhere in between.

It happened gradually at first and Mr. Bailey and I expressed our nervousness with gentle teasing, whispered conversations and calm anticipation.

Then one morning our baby girl woke up and she was no longer little. At all. She became a pre-teen over night.

I was prepared.

Turns out, my mental preparation was crap. The pre-teen years are an emotional ambush. Mentally prepare all you want – it’s not really going to help you. Once you’ve been summoned to the battlefield you better be wearing emotional body armor and have a damn good backup plan. Or three.

In the wake of one moonrise and set, Prima was completely embarrassed by me, wanted me to disappear, needed my total attention and sage advice and seethed loathing at me.

And that was only the first morning.

Hurtled into the fighting, I felt woefully inadequate. It all seemed familiar and yet so foreign. It all made sense (I had been a pre-teen girl once, too) and it made absolutely no sense at all.

I screwed up my courage and got through the first few skirmishes with only a few minor injuries, with Mr. Bailey running the occasional air cover sortie.

'It's a twelve year old whiskey.' (I want more pocket moneyI'm boredI hate you.)

‘It’s a twelve year old whiskey.’ (I want more pocket moneyI’m boredI hate you.)

Once things seemed to stabilize for Prima, I retreated to my foxhole and completely lost my shit. How was I ever going to get through this? Just what were the rules of engagement? How was I supposed to be equal parts confidante, enemy, friend, mom, sex ed advisor, and understanding listener while avoiding any major, life-changing screw ups? Far from ever considering myself a perfect mom, I sensed the real risk of truly messing up like a looming offensive ground maneuver.

It reminded me of overcoming some of those early parenthood stages – night feedings and toilet training – only to find yourself smack in the middle of more – the biting stage and night terrors!

Parenting Prima hadn’t felt like that in quite awhile. Third, fourth and fifth grades had been pretty happy and smooth. She was confident, independent and fun to be around. And she liked us. She liked me a lot. She even told me once her friends thought I was cool!

But that time was gone.

Feeling the absence of my mom, I reached out to a friend for advice. Sobbing my woes to her over the phone in crackling voice, she heard me out. “What if I don’t get this right?!” I gulped.

“But you will,” she said.

“How? Why?”

“Two things: because your heart is in the right place, and you’re trying to do the right thing and you truly love her. And because you are Judy’s daughter and you learned from the best. You didn’t always think your mom was perfect or that she did right by you, but she set a wonderful example for you, and that’s what you’re doing for Prima. Let all that love guide you.”

Oh. So. That was pretty good advice.

A couple days later, Prima started liking me again – at least in the privacy of our home.

I soaked it in, knowing what a cunning opponent she could be – and snuck into her room that night to count her eyelashes.

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The Nomination

Prima came home from school the other day looking tentative, bewildered and slightly pleased.

She sat quietly as Secondo chirped about her first-grade day all the way home.Pulling for victory

As they hung their backpacks and ate a snack, Prima told me at school they had done nominations for a class representative for student council.

“Oh?” I said, the distracted mom showing appropriate interest. “Did people vote? Or were they nominated?”

“Nominated,” she replied, pausing awhile. “I was nominated.”

“Really!?” I might have said too brightly.

“Yes, Mom,” she said, telling me who had done so. Per my typical MO, I extolled the virtues of the person who nominated her, emphasizing this small and significant act of kindness in what might turn out to be a disappointing childhood experience.

She agreed it was very nice.

“But, Mom.” Refocusing me, now. “I have to write and give a speech and then everyone votes on one boy and one girl to be on the student council,” her voice quivering ever so slightly when the words “write” and “speech” passed her lips.

These are difficult things for Prima.

“That’s OK!” I cheer-led. “I will help you. You talk and I’ll type it for you.”

But when we sat down at our desk, she locked down, tension bringing her full pink lips into a mash, her smooth brow furrowing. She was on the verge of tears as I suggested ways she might begin. “What about this…” I offered, suggesting some boring version of what I thought she might say.

“No.”

“Well, how about…” I volleyed again.

“Moooommmm! NO.” Yowza. I took a deep breath and waited, brushing away my own irritation.

And she put together the single best campaign speech ever dictated. Like, for reals.

I’ll prove it.

It began with “I can use my ability to talk to the student council members about what fifth grade has to say and what they like. I think that everybody matters in this, not just one fifth-grader.”

It continued with, “If I become the representative, I will respect your ideas and tell them to the student council.”

Good, right?

And in the face of my repressed mamaworry, she gave me the clincher, “And I will always be myself.”

My heart stopped.

“That’s it,” she said, confident that she had expressed herself, the tension gone.

When I could talk without giving away that inside I was melting with pride and gushing with sappy and devoted love and appreciation for her indomitable spirit, I said, “Prima, that’s true. And it’s perfect.”

We practiced and practiced and when she headed out of my circle of love the next morning, she was a bit nervous, but ready.

I could not have been more proud of her than I was in the moment when she dictated the last line. Not even if she had won. Of course, I wanted that for her. Not just because she’s my kid, my piece of heart out roaming the world, my 6-pound 8-ounce baby girl, but mostly because there’s a lot this child struggles to achieve. But struggle she does. She fights. She perseveres. Without fail.

Here’s the thing: when she got in the car after school, she told me she hadn’t won.

I was still proud, and ready to point out all the good that came out of it.

And then she broke out into a huge smile, all pink cheeks and dancing almond eyes and shouted, “Just kidding! I GOT IT!”

And my heart started again.

Wonder of 5

Secondo and I are walking hand-in-hand across a snowy parking lot. Her chubby 5-year-old hands echoed by the puffy brown and pink coat she’s wearing, hood flung back, wide-open to the blue sky.

Photo by Michał Koralewski

Photo by Michał Koralewski

“I believe in God,” she announces as we weave through the icy spots, the dirty snow, the salt and grime of the lot. “And I believe in Santa Claus.”

I smile broadly.

“Do you?” I say through my grin. “OK.”

A day earlier, Mr. Bailey had pointed out to me that Secondo was in a stage of discernment and wonder. What she is learning in her first year in formal school and comes home in delightful and confusing, definitive and doubtful ways. It’s a glory to witness.

I caught her the other day walking around the house with the illustrated children’s Bible my mother gave me as a kid. She was pretending to read each story as she flipped through the pictures. She disappeared, then reappeared, saying, “Why did Jesus die on the cross?” in the tone of voice reserved for questions like, “why do we sleep at night?”

Then, one night as I was tucking her into bed, “God is invisible,” she told me, very matter-of-fact, then suddenly a bit angry, “WHY?”

At five, she is now aware of the larger world around her, even as she struggles to define it in a meaningful and ordered way. She knows the bliss of having her teacher point to her as an example of appropriate behavior – and the embarrassment of having her classroom card turned from green to yellow for pushing in line. Yet, she postpones her tears of hurt until she’s away from school, ensconced in our car, sobbing, “I was going to get only green all year long!” Secondo basks in the warmth of loving friends’ attention, flinging her arms wide and singing at her Thanksgiving performance of “Any Turkey Can Tango” or “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” on Christmas Eve. Yet, she’s also run headlong into a shower of hurtled sand, thrown hard in her face by someone she assumed liked her. She even knows the embarrassment of having a recess accident.

This would be Secondo.

This would be Secondo.

For weeks, at night when I tucked her in, she told me she was dizzy and couldn’t fall asleep. I gave her a comforting placebo of lavender cream that took away the dizziness. Even as she doubted the efficacy of this little invention, she insisted I apply it religiously at the same time, each night, waking from a dead sleep if she’d dozed off in the car, to ask for her “dizzy cream.” Then suddenly one morning she sauntered into our room and announced she didn’t need it anymore, her dizziness was cured.

On the day before Thanksgiving as Mr. Bailey prepared the turkey to take a long briny bath, she walked into the kitchen and stopped as she caught sight of the dimpled white fowl sitting on the counter. “Who killed that?” she deadpanned.

She’s exploring the poles of human experience – the agony of the yellow card, the ecstasy of Christmas morning and well, the mysterious muddle of faith, death and life for which none of us have answers.

Even better than this journey of hers, is the opportunity for Mr. Bailey and I to watch the world swirl around her tiny frame, as she strides boldly into each new day, and then settle softly every now and then.

They’re kids. Not clones.

Parents seem to be endlessly amazed by the fact there are profound differences between their children. I mean, they are truly astonished, right?

It’s a frequent topic of discussion among them, and I am including myself in this circle of inanity.

When one pauses to consider: given the innumerable DNA coupling, all the random genetic match-ups, do you really think each little human being you push out of your body will be an exact duplicate of the one before? If not in appearance than in attitude, interests and propensity to like Elmo better than Dora? It defies logic.

Yet. We seem to be continually astounded by the fact our children are all not carbon copies. Shock that the oldest is quiet and obedient while the middle child is loud and outrageous. Surprise that the middle child will party all night long if not forcibly put to bed while the youngest brushes his teeth, looks at books quietly and then comes to kiss you goodnight all on his own.

So, what is it about the difference between siblings that is endlessly entertaining to us as parents? You got me.

I, by all means, am not immune. I too find silly entertainment by the personality differences between Prima and Secondo.

Of course, there’s a “for example” that comes to mind.

Prima has always loved school. Since the days when we guiltily used the working-parent lexicon, calling daycare as “school,” until now, well into the elementary school years, Prima goes to school smiling, happily. She’s the kid in the class the teacher always loves. The go-to gal in the classroom, the nice kid every parent compliments. (I know this factually because: Her birthday is over the summer. This past summer, the phone rang on her special day. My mouth hung open as I heard two years worth of teachers on the line, wishing my first born a happy birthday. She was over the moon excited to get the call, but not too surprised. It’s clearly a love-love situation.)

Along came Secondo. She has more or less enjoyed school, except when she threw raging fits for six months every morning while getting dropped off for nursery school. Oh, and, ummm, preschool, too.

Whereas at drop she would cling to me, fussing, at pick-up, she would take another tack. Secondo would primly walk passed me when I came to pick her up, all her friends dashing to give her hugs on her way out the door. I apologized and cajoled, but she was decidedly aloof. Her Pre-K buddies would call out to her, voices thick with a futile desire to gain her approval and love, “Bye, Secondo! See you tomorrow! You’re my best friend!” with nary a response from her. To be fair, sometimes she would respond with sighs, and eye rolls and perfunctory embraces. She didn’t want me to believe for one second she was backing off of her earlier position, that preschool was something she was fundamentally uninterested in, all evidence to the contrary.

Now Secondo is in kindergarten, and I am enthused. They are both at the same school, on the same schedule. The girls look so sappily adorable walking in and out of school together, my heart races with mom-adoration to see them go and when I pull up to pick them up. Happy Mommy wants for kiddos now to be happy. Please.

The first day of school, playing happy Supermom, I had their after schools snacks ready and waiting when they walked in. We unloaded backpacks and washed lunchboxes as we chatted and they munched.

I asked a million questions. Prima provided her usual ample information, in a rush, sharing everything she could think of. Getting relatively little from Secondo, I tried a more nuanced approach.

Me: Secondo, was there anything interesting about kindergarten?

Her: Well. [Fixing her gaze on me steadily. Pause.] There’s no toys in kindergarten. That’s interesting. [Pause] And, HORRIBLE!

Not making this up.

It’s early in the school year and as Mr. Bailey always likes to remind me, transition times are the hardest.

“She’ll get into it,” he reassured me. Fast forward to a very recent Sunday night meal.

Me: So, Secondo, are you excited to go back to school tomorrow?

Her: [Looking at me dully, she cocks her head to the right.] Sitting around? Writing Cs ALL DAY? Does that sound like fun to you?

She’s five years old. As she says this to me, she’s sitting there in pigtails, sipping milk.

As I often do, I admonish – “Secondo!” then hide my face behind my napkin and dissolve into eye-watering silent laughter. Mr. Bailey does the same.

But, here’s the trickiest part of it – she’s right. Writing Cs all day sounds like a stage of hell even as a writer, I would rather not journey. This child makes one heck of a powerful argument. Who could resist being amazed by that?

Secondo v. Food

One of my earliest memories of Secondo is her smashed up newborn face pressed into my breast, glug, glug, glugging away on milk. She was immediately a good eater, and a little bit of a food oddball.

If only Secondo was so eager to eat...

When she got a little bit bigger, her nursing efficiency excelled. She wouldn’t even stop to cough. I still can’t figure out how she did it, but the child could cough while still latched on, spraying milk all over me, and her, and not miss the next glug.

Her second year brought an addiction to black beans, avocado and cherry tomatoes, halved. She only drank cow’s milk – preferably warmed in the microwave for 1 minute, even in the dead of summer. Altogether those foods were at least 50% of her daily diet.

Besides her Mr. Bailey and I, Prima, and our dog, Chance, milk has probably been the most consistently reassuring aspect of her young life.

Despite her food promiscuity in her second year, Secondo has regrettably become picky. She tends toward vegetarianism (fine by us), and relies upon the presentation of wheat- and dairy-based foods for needed sustenance.

Secondo’s food groups include: Annie’s Organic Mac & Cheese, cheese sticks, apples and peanut butter, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on wheat (crusts removed, please), plain pasta, cherry tomatoes, halved; mandarin and Clementine oranges and Pirate Booty.

Also, she chews her food longer than any other human being I’ve ever witnessed, particularly when she doesn’t particularly want to ingest it.

One night recently, I wanted to provide our youngest with some protein so I cut our freshly prepared teriyaki chicken into delicious bite-sized pieces and strongly encouraged her to, “Try some!” Smile, smile, smile, nod encouragingly.

After some cajoling, she dove into it. I grinned, smugly, and we began talking about the high points and low points of our day. A full 20 minutes later, Secondo began asking if she could be excused. As she asked, I spotted a flash of fleshy white tucked into the cheek of her mouth.

“Is that your chicken?!” I asked.

She dropped her chin and looked up at me through the top of her blue-green-gray eyes, nodding slightly.

“Chew and swallow, child! Chew and swallow!” I admonished, as Mr. Bailey and I shook our heads.

Several days later, Secondo got the chance to go out to lunch with my Dad.

At dinner later that evening, I asked her where they had gone.

“Papa took me to McDonald’s,” she whined, not being a big fan of the golden arches. “I had milk.”

“That’s all you had?” I asked, incredulous. She nodded solemnly.

“What did Papa have?”

“A fish sandwich.”

“Secondo, why didn’t you get something else to eat?” I inquired, as she sat not eating her dinner. “A hamburger or oranges or something?”

She shook her 4-year-old head of golden curls and placed both pudgy hands on the table, clearly exasperated by all my questioning.

“BEE-cause you don’t want me to eat things that aren’t FRESHhhhh!”

Sigh.

One day, we might unlock the key to Secondo’s curious appetite. Until then, we’ll just keep repeating, “Chew and swallow, Sisi, chew and swallow.”

 

Sweet words can sometimes sting!

Children bring so many things to our lives. Devoted, unconditional love, chubby hands placed gently on cheeks, sweet breath kisses, unending admiration for all that you do and are.

Our little darlings can also be sneakily and disarmingly honest. (Photo by Erin Wheeler, check out her website in Links)

They also bring unrelenting honesty. This can be a good thing and a bad thing, and sometimes at the same time.

Two examples pop to mind.

Several months ago, Secondo and I were in my bedroom. She was cavorting on our bed, distractedly watching whatever PBS show was on, and paying some attention to me getting ready.

I was busy treating the process of getting ready as an episode of Extreme Wardrobe Selection, with intense clothing demolition, salvage and various attempts at guerrilla accessorizing. I was stripping off clothes like I was in the dressing room at Gap and diving through my closet in my unmentionables, when Secondo suddenly exclaimed between giggles:

“Mommy, that’s so funny!”

“What, my darling?” I answered, about to wrestle myself into a flattering pair of leggings.

“When you walk, your bottom is all jiggly!” she said, laughing heartily.

That stopped my prancing. “Secondo!” I said, shocked, turning to face her.

As adults we are conditioned to respond to comments insensitive to our emotions with fiery retort. But as I turned, Secondo’s face with all smiles, lit up by her unconditional love and adoration of me. She threw her arms open to hug me, still giggling.

Her comment, despite dealing a blow to my vanity, to her was a simple realization enveloped in her admiration for her Mommy, wiggly tush and all. And that was the real stunner – her acceptance and love wrapped up in her scrutiny of my derrière.

The second example of this was aimed at Mr. Bailey. It’s essential for this case to know Mr. Bailey is a physical cross between Jimmy Stewart (height) and Steve Young (build).

There we were walking through the throngs of tourists on Pier 39 inSan Francisco. Late afternoon, wind whipping as it does off of the Bay, bodies pushing along to the beat of a street musician’s bongo drums, Prima and I got separated from Mr. Bailey and Secondo (Sisi, as we sometimes call her).

Hanging out by the tour boats, Mr. Bailey soon emerged from the crowds with Sisi and we started out again, towards our hotel.

“Whoa!” Mr. Bailey said as he got within earshot, “That was crazy! This lady on a bike just ran into me!”

Prima, without missing a beat, nonplussed: “Was the biker OK?”

Since he and I were overcome with laughter, I’m not sure if he felt quite the same measure of abject acceptance and love. But I can report that Mr. Bailey, being who he is, shared this story several times throughout the trip.

Setting the vacation record straight, kid-style

This summer Mr. Bailey and I upped our travel quotient by triple from last summer, when our big trip was a long weekend camping excursion in the high country. As a family, we were focused on making fresh, fun memories to blow the stink out of the sadness-soaked highlights of the last two years.

Mr. Bailey and the children

Introducing Prima + Secondo to one of the greatest cities in the world. Little did we know they'd have a slightly different take... Photo by Mrs. Bailey

Our first trip took us to the Bay Area, always a go-to place for The Baileys pre-kid days. Now that Prima and Secondo are 8 and 4, we figured it was the first trip they had a chance at remembering. We budgeted to stay in the city, strategized about visiting some touristy San Fran spots, and planned to stroll, eat great meals, and createGolden Gatememories for our family.

About halfway through, as we rendezvoused with my brother who lives in the Bay, we were treated to a rapid-fire re-accounting of all the glorious highlights of our vacation so far – kid style.

“So, Uncle Benny, first, my Mom left her Nook on the airplane,” Prima began in her know-it-all-voice.

I groaned. No, no, no, these weren’t the memories I expected!

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, Uncle Beeny, and we were on the train and she said, ‘Oh no, I forgot my Nook!’ And she started to cry,” Secondo chimes in, her voice going up an octave in excited urgency.

Oh, shoot, I thought, my forgetfulness is now the highlight of the trip.

“And then, Uncle Benny, we were walking along and we saw the Sparkle Guy!” Prima shouted, cutting off her sister. The Sparkle Guy is aSan Franciscoperformance artist/walking tourist trap who hangs out on the Pier clad in silver glitter from head to toe.

The Sparkle Guy in his getup. But some lucky little travelers got to see him between acts...

“But, but, but, then Uncle Beeny, later we saw him and we were walking to our hotel, and it was later, and, and – ” Secondo’s words couldn’t come fast enough.

“And he wasn’t wearing his mask and he was just riding his bike home on the side of the street!” Prima finished triumphantly, Secondo giggling hysterically. “And when we were on the bus to the hotel these guys started yelling at each other!”

“Prima,” I moaned, having forgotten that part of the trip entirely.

“And then, Uncle Beeny,” Secondo jumped in again, frenzy now in full swing, “we saw this old lady wearing these little shorts and walking and eating this HUGE peach, like chomp, chomp chomp!”

Sure that was funny at the time, but really? I thought.

“Then!” Prima battled back, “We were at the Pier and this girl made this old guy take her picture and he took off his gloves really slowly and took the picture and gave back the camera and then she looked at the picture and said, ‘Can you take it again? My hair was in my face!’” both girls laughed wildly.

OK, that was hilarious, I allowed.

Their uncle told them how impressed he was with their stories. It was silent for a moment or two as I recalibrated my expectations of what this trip would bring into their sweet little minds. But I couldn’t give up without a fight.

“We rode the cable cars,” I offered, “And ate in Chinatown and went to Ghirardelli and saw all the big ships, right?”

“Yeah,” said Prima, bored, “we did all that, too.”

Photo by Mrs. Bailey

Mr. Bailey, my brother and I burst out laughing.

Despite the months of planning, the savings account expense, the sacrifice on the part of my brother and his family to host us, and our focus on seeing the sights and making halcyon memories, the kid-version highlights boiled it all down to a mish-mash of discarded, humbling moments. At first it was discouraging. But then, it was delightful.

The kid-version, I realized, made hay out of chance encounters, stressful moments, mishaps and entertaining misfits. It cast bit players in starring roles and illustrated the humbling humanity in the parents they probably too often see as perfect.

Once I re-jiggered my thoughts, I was elated by the kid-version highlights, and asked the girls to recount them again and again. I laughed at their tales, rich with a child’s perspective, free of any pretense and goofily making dramas out of silly moments the four of us had shared.