Bad Choices

Pajama Day

It went about as badly as it could have.

It was Pajama Day at school—some sort of Spirit Week thing, I guess—so my kiddo and I woke up an hour early this morning to go shopping.

That’s right.

I awakened a child already in pajamas so she could put on clothes to go purchase pajamas to wear to school.

If you do not already have a tween, this is just a little bit of the cray-cray you can look forward to.

We are a low-key jammie family. Sometimes the kids get matchy-matchies for Christmas, but otherwise, our PJs are usually just t-shirts too worn, stained, or see-through to wear out in public anymore. This blasé approach to overnight garments has not heretofore been a problem. Until today. Freakin’ Pajama Day.

Pajama Day prompted the meltdown last night. Which led to the argument. And the words we should not say. Which led to the apologies. And the problem-solving wherein my oldest child strategized that she would pay for the superfluous new pajamas with her allowance money. Which led to the two of us standing in a department store at 7 o’clock this morning.

The only place open that early was north of the airport, an unpredictable drive on weekdays, but we made it in good time. We even saw a Panera nearby.

“Mom, I’ll just grab the first jammies I see and we can split a quiche before school.” That was my kid. Always making the best of things.


We don’t shop very often. New shoes as needed. Occasional sprees with Grandma. We are a hand-me-down kind of family. We had never been to this department store. It took us a few minutes to get our bearings.

After asking directions, twice, we ended up in Women’s Sleepwear, where even the puppies on the nightgowns looked severe.   Around the corner, I found a Kids’ Zone with princesses, bubble gum, and unicorns affixed on every nightgown. Was there no area in between? At age 11, my daughter is a hybrid—part grown-up, part child, part sulking puppy, part unicorn. She loves softball and sushi and sweet boba tea. She sleeps with a stuffed animal, but she is also taller than I am. It can be difficult to find her styles, not to mention her sizes. She still likes bright “kid colors” – pink, purple, bright green, turquoise – but palettes become more subdued as sizes increase. Out of habit, I grabbed a handful of larges and extra larges, but once in the dressing room, we discovered that a child’s large was too small, and a woman’s large dwarfed her small frame.

Where was the tween wear? The LOL fleeces, those annoying emoji shirts?

My daughter ducked into the fitting room and declared the first pajamas at least a partial success. “Mom, I found a pair of plaid pants that will work,” my daughter called from the fitting room. “It is part of a set, but the shirt is totally see-through. I’ll just wear the t-shirt I brought in the car.”

“The vacation bible camp t-shirt from two years ago?” I asked. That was one of the shirts that had prompted this preposterous shopping trip in the first place. Last night, it had been rejected as not pajama-y enough. “I’ll find you a better top,” I replied.

“No, Mom,” she growled. “I don’t like the shirts here.”

“How can you say that? You’ve only tried on one. I’ll be right back.” I paged through rack after rack, and pulled anything that looked like a possibility. I brought back about fifteen pajama-like tops, and one by one, she tried them on and nixed them all. Too big, too itchy, too small, too green.

“Mom, you aren’t listening to me,” Katie wailed, after the ninth shirt.

Not listening? I was standing in a department store at 7:30 in the morning. To find pajamas for a kid who was now grousing at me for trying to find her pajamas. Now we were both angry. This was what I got for giving in to her ridiculousness: more ridiculousness.

“Just pick a shirt,” I replied. “And let’s get out of here. We are going to be late for school.”

“What about Panera?” she cried. “We were going to have breakfast, remember?”

When I reflect back on situations during which my daughter and I have clashed, I can usually point to a moment — when I could have righted the ship, steered us toward a safe harbor rather than deeper into distress. I now realize that this was such a moment. I could have taken my tween to breakfast. After all, there is nothing easy about being eleven years old, feeling simultaneously big and small, both responsible for yourself and utterly dependent on your mom. Even the department store could hardly figure out who my daughter was, with all those sizes and styles scattered willy-nilly. Breakfast would have made us twenty minutes late to school. But over eggs and toast, we could have laughed about how badly pajama shopping had gone. I could have parented us through this dicey situation.

Instead, I steered us toward the rocks.

“We don’t have time for breakfast now,” I replied tersely. “Hand me the pajamas you are buying, and get dressed.”

She half-heartedly tossed the pair of plaid pants over the changing room door, and muttered to herself about the meanest Mom ever.

Unfathomably, there was a line at the checkout counter. Other parents, I supposed, trying to placate their children with early morning retail. When it was our turn, the clerk said, “These pants appear to be part of a set. Where is the top?”

I turned to my kid. “I told you,” she said. “I don’t want the top. It’s too see-through.”

“Yes, but you have to—” I broke off. “Never mind,” I said. “We’ll be right back.”

We strode back to the dressing room full of children’s and adult sleepwear in a heap.

“Find the shirt,” I ordered.

“But I don’t want it!” she replied.

“Yes, so you’ve mentioned. But the store will not sell them separately. Find it.”

“That’s dumb,” she replied, and dug through the pile and unearthed a sheer sky blue shirt and thrust it at me.

Here was another opportunity. This was the first thing we had agreed upon all morning. We could have talked about the economics at play in pairing a great pair of pajama pants with a sub-par shirt. Or I could have applauded the modesty which had prompted my child to reject the sleazy shirt in the first place. Instead, I hustled her along—back to the checkout line, to the car, and ultimately to school. En route, she changed into her new plaid pants—the very first pair she had tried on an hour earlier, before I had offered her dozens of other choices and clogged up our entire morning.

In her new pants and her ratty old camp t-shirt from two years ago, she looked perfect. And, for once, I told her so. “You look great, kiddo.”

“Never doubt my sense of fashion, Mom,” she said. And my grown-up little girl closed the car door and headed into school.

Maybe she isn’t the one confused about growing up. Maybe I am.





Health & Fitness & Oreos

Sick of Sick Kids

Henry threw up in his bed last night.

Over the monitor, I heard him talk to his T-rex. Then there was the unmistakable sound of yacking. I trudged down the hall, and found his blanket warm and slimy. Gross, but not surprising. My kids, and most of their friends, have been passing around a bug this week. Henry was simply the last to fall.

In the beginning, we navigated the crud pretty well. My husband was away, so I became Nurse Mommy. I found a working thermometer in Lizzie’s marker bin, and a jug of Gatorade in the garage. Armed with a sleeve of Saltines and a blue bucket, I set up a sickbay in the living room. I fluffed pillows, rubbed tummies, and sponged fevered brows. I spoon fed the sickos ice chips laced with Ginger Ale.

When Katie, my champion vomiter, completely missed the basin by her side, I forgave. “Poor love,” I clucked, and sopped up the sludge with a cloth.

We cuddled and drowsed, and only half-watched Harry Potter in front of the fire. I held their smelly bodies and remembered the tiny heft of them as infants, how each one could fit in the crook of my arm.

“I love you, Mom,” said Lizzie. “You take good care of us.”

“I love you, too,” I replied. I did take good care of them.



They call it a “24-hour bug” because that is how long the children suffer the worst of it. Except my kids stagger their starts. A single virus takes a week to tear through our family. Which is unfortunate, since, as it turns out, I only possess 24 hours of hospital-grade patience.

On day two, I started to dislike my invalids. I began to doubt symptoms. “Ninety-nine degrees is hardly a fever. Drink some ice water. You are going to school.” I took issue with their nausea. “And you? You threw up an hour ago. Stop it. There is nothing left to toss.”

My transformation from Florence Nightingale to Nurse Ratched wasn’t entirely my fault. If the children would have stayed cuddly and bilious, I could have endured a week of quarantine. Instead, things got ugly.

Gratitude gave way to entitlement. They demanded more movies, and a better soft drink selection. I made smoothies that no one drank, and applesauce that ended up in the dog. I cooked homemade soup, and they plead for Top Ramen.

When the pink eye arrived, I lost my cool. It struck Katie first. Her stomach was on the mend, but school refused to take her back looking like an addict. So she stayed home for the fifth day in a row. I plunked everyone in the bath to disinfect, and Lizzie promptly had a gusher of a nosebleed. While I staunched it, little Henry, fascinated by pink bathwater, began slurping. “Stop drinking your sister’s blood!” I yelled.

On any given day, I navigate plenty of crazy. Their lips hurt, so they can’t eat broccoli. Someone’s “teeth feel funny” when she tries to sleep. Last year, Katie missed the school bus because of itchy pants. I bandage phantom “owies” and kiss invisible wounds. And it is okay. I want my kids to turn to me for comfort, to believe Mommy takes good care of us.

But I also want them to suck it up. To rally. I know of no miracle formula for building resilience in a child, but I think it probably starts with dragging your arse off the couch when you don’t feel 100%. Just ask any boss. Ask any parent.

Most days, I can be the mom who nurses sick tummies. But after too many crud buckets, the other mom emerges. The kids call her mean. But she knows something they don’t—suffering is not the end of the world. Indeed, the ability to overcome discomfort is part of growing up, as is the capacity to nourish a healthy body in the first place. It takes that other mom—the one peddling kale chips and a brisk walk to school—to teach this. Sometimes the mom who makes them feel worse is the mom who helps them get better.



There Is More than One Way to Load a Dishwasher

My husband is in charge of bedtime tonight. Which is why it is 10:24 and all three children are still awake.

I don’t mind breaking rules. I hold cereal taste tests for dinner and let the kids eat hot dogs for breakfast. In an era of helicopter parenting, my children run barefoot, climb trees, and walk by themselves to the corner store. But when it comes to bedtime, I am regimental: Bath, Jammies, Teeth, Books, Sleep. This is a half-hour process, though I have gotten it done in as little thirteen minutes, seven if I skip the bath.

My husband’s strategy is different. He strives to wear the children out. “It’s simple,” he says. “Play hard, sleep hard.” I think he developed this theory on a college bender. When Dad does bedtime, it is customary for the kids to fall asleep in the same clothing that they wore to school. With Nutella on their faces. And smiles. He frequently skips Bath, Jammies, Teeth, and Books, and goes straight to Circus Stunts. When I went in to say good night just now, they were practicing acrobatics.

“Watch this, Mom,” shrieked my five-year-old. “It’s called cannonball!” She tucked her forehead to her knees just as her father hurled her three feet into the air. She landed upside-down in a pile of pillows, laughing.

I looked at him. “Really?”

“At least she didn’t hit the ceiling fan this time,” he said. Then he turned his attention to our two-year-old who was demanding a trick called, “Beeto,” which seemed merely to involve Dad shoving him to the mattress by his face.

Despite our philosophical differences regarding bedtime, we no longer argue about it. I used to implore my husband to stop thrashing the children and read them a damn story. He used to ask me why I insisted on so many freaking baths. “Didn’t we just clean them yesterday?”

But somewhere along the way, we realized this was not a disagreement worth having. It just wasn’t. My husband works in an office, and he actually misses playing with the kiddos. I work from home. I see them constantly, and by bedtime, I am desperate to have them out of my sight. But even if this was not the case, arguing over bedtime routines is wasted breath.

In fact, a lot of our old arguments have fallen by the wayside. We no longer squabble over what goes in the kids’ lunch boxes, how the clothes are folded, or how to load the dishwasher. (He does it terribly WRONG, but it just isn’t an argument worth having.)

We could easily fill our lives with disagreements about these things. But we have bigger fish to fry. We are raising three little humans and every day there are hundreds of questions to answer. Can I cut my Barbie’s hair? Do I have to wear matching socks? Can I please wear these purple shoes to build a time machine in the garage? In the beginning, we made up all of our answers. Often, Dad said YES, and Mom said NO. Occasionally, vice versa. But after ten years of inventing answers to our kids’ incessant questions, something funny has happened: we finally know what it is that we stand for.

We are for love, but not indulgence. We want our kids to feel safe, but also curious and to know adventure. We nourish their wellness with good food and exercise. We teach them to be brave, honest, modest, and kind.

And that’s about it.

I think too many of us argue about the little stuff — the toys, the dishes, the bedtimes — because it is so much easier than figuring out the big stuff. Deciding where our children will put their dinosaurs is way simpler than determining what we will teach them about God. Or Santa Claus. Or sex before marriage. Saying NO to mismatched socks is easier than talking about nonconformity, or popularity, or whether it is more important to be accepted by peers than to be secure in your own skin.

My husband and I could definitely argue about the dishwasher. (I mean, my God, he puts Tupperware lids on the bottom rack.) But there is so much more to figure out. When our daughters say they want to be cheerleaders, will we let them? And how about our son? We have taught all three how to punch, but will all three learn how to sew, too? The oldest is asking about home school. Should we try it? The kids are toying with piano, but the middle one wants a drum kit. Can we still say we support the Arts if we don’t want a drummer in the house? When we want to argue, this is where we spend our breath. Who are we hoping these children will be? How are we helping them get there?

When we think about it that way, it turns out there are plenty of parenting rules that are actually not rules at all. Kids are marvelously resilient. They can eat Cheerios for breakfast or sushi. It does not matter. The trick is in valuing one another’s choices in front of the children, and letting them know there is more than one way to pack a lunch, style a Barbie, and even (gasp!) load the dishwasher. Lots of questions have more than one right answer. Just as there are many ways to be brave, honest, modest, and kind.




New DadvMom on New York Observer today.