Full Deck by Barbara Shulgasser-Parker

September 18, 2007

eye yous to be a riter before I lost my mind

Filed under: thoughts on child-rearing — bshulg @ 2:25 am

   I used to be a writer. For more than twenty years, I negotiated the stress of deadlines, difficult bosses and office politics with good manners and restraint. I took myself to be accomplished, self-possessed and a pillar of composure under pressure.

  I didn’t know what pressure is.

  Now I stay home looking after our four-year-old. When asked if I work, I say, “Harder than I ever have in my life.” I haven’t slept since I was seven months pregnant. I cry at the drop of a sippy cup. At times I have lost my temper. Often I have lost my train of thought. My equilibrium? Out the window. How do I doubt my ability? Let me count the ways: as a parent, as a wife, as a human being.

  When my son was four-and-a-half months old and I was well into my forties, I dropped him on his head.


I immediately considered suicide. How could I live having caused him such pain? Who knows what damage I’d done? How could I go on, knowing that as his guardian and protector I couldn’t manage the simple act of keeping him in my arms? Would a younger woman have held on tighter?

   He turned out to be fine. I actually caught him just as he hit, softening the blow. (The reflexes were still good.) He was left with a small bump on the head, minimal tears and perhaps a few questions about the competence of the person in charge.

   I took solace in the knowledge that my husband had also been dropped on his head as a baby. I now think of this as the secret to his considerable charm. At least that’s what I plan to tell our son when he finds out what happened.

  But I was shaken. And this is why. After the birth of a child, your life is given over to the child’s care. You pour all your love into your baby and most other obligations and concerns fall away. In return for this sacrifice there is the joy of baby gurgles and smiles and kisses and snuggles and first steps and first words. He ate “strambled eggs” for breakfast. He wore “jHe wore”enamas” to bed and a “bathing soup” to the beach. Yes, the reward-to-work ratio is great, but if a formerly capable person can’t even hold her baby reliably in her arms, what magnitude of mistakes lie ahead? Drowning the kid in the bath? I tell you I was shaken.

  And I was tired. Exhaustion weakens your natural defenses, obliterates your good judgment and atomizes your patience. You are a disaster waiting to happen. And you don’t look so good, either.

  Not that I get a look at myself that often. Until my son was nearly three, I rarely had that kind of time. Leisurely self-examination is not possible with a baby in the house. When I say leisurely self-examination, I am taking literary license, because what I really mean is that there is no time for showering, tooth-brushing, tweezing or any of the other multi-step processes that distinguish man from the apes.

  People with nannies may not know what the rest of us are painfully aware of: that brushing one’s teeth, for example, is a complex and surprisingly time-consuming procedure, and that the needs of a small child will halt the progress between any two of the many steps required, and often derail the effort entirely. Does your three-year-old appear at the door of your bathroom covered with applesauce just after you have removed the cap from the toothpaste tube but before you have applied the toothpaste to the toothbrush? You’re too smart for that, right? So you keep the little one with you in the bathroom. But he is no fool, either. In two-and-a-half seconds he will drop your hairbrush in the toilet and then climb in after it just as you’ve applied shaving cream to one of your calves. (Note: Give up on leg-shaving. A. There are too many steps. B. Unlike the health problems that result from neglected dental hygiene, there is absolutely no reported risk associated with hairy legs.) 

    In the past, I could never understand how a man who shaves regularly, spending long minutes a day in front of the mirror lathering, scraping and inspecting his face, could leave the house with hairs hanging out of his nose. Wouldn’t one have to push them aside to make way for the razor?

  Today I have only sympathy for such distracted souls. When my son was three, I caught a reflection of myself in the microwave door and discovered on my own face an eyebrow hair that was four inches long. Four inches! The hope that I was the first known example of overnight super-accelerated hair production flashed through my mind and then vanished when I began breathing again. And with the oxygen came reality. I understood that a hair of mine had been rudely surging into the environment for a good sixteen weeks or so and I had failed to take note. On finding the hair, I reviewed the people I’d met during the previous four-month period and cringed. No one had said anything. Not one word. For all I remember (and memory is another casualty of raising a small child) some of them have dropped out of my circle forever, gossiping amongst themselves about my messy downward spiral.

  If I did have time to look in the mirror, I wouldn’t be able to see straight anyway. Some nights my son wakes twenty or thirty times before dawn. The first few times I fall back asleep. But after the tenth cry of “Mommy,” or “I want to eat a snake,” as he exclaimed recently, I find myself wide awake and staring at the glow of the digital clock. Not so long ago I must have dozed for a while because I suddenly sat up in bed atwitter remembering a dream that a thick, black seven-inch hair had erupted from my nose and was descending past the border of my lower lip. I frantically searched for scissors. As if to clarify the fact that this was a High Alert anxiety dream, the only tool I could find was a pair of giant gardening shears, the kind with the two-foot long handles. Carefully, oh so carefully, I inserted the large blades into the offending nostril, my left, I think, and with some effort, clipped the hair at its root. It sounded like a dry twig snapping. If I were a therapist I might diagnose this as the sound of a psyche cracking.

  You, too, may have heard that sound at places where mothers and children gather, at playgrounds, at schools, on front lawns, in backyards, at pools and gymnastics classes.  It is especially loud where the mothers are older, well-educated, career-oriented women who delayed marrying and having children. Supposedly, the happy tradeoff goes like this: in exchange for decrepitude and low energy, older parents offer children patience, calmness, wisdom and the benefit of our practical experience in the world and the workplace. My practical experience largely revolved around dealing with a series of promotion-obsessed newspaper editors. I learned to ignore their posturings most of the time and fight them when attacked. This is not a good way to raise children.

  You can ignore a self-absorbed middle manager. Children cannot be ignored unless you don’t mind cleaning poopie off the kitchen floor. You can silence a lazy colleague by cheerfully taking on the extra work he refused. But shaming a child of three will profit neither the child nor the parent unless you don’t mind the pitter-patter of vengeful little feet coming to get you.

  You think you’ve learned how things work after years of college, graduate school and real world experience. It turns out that where children are concerned you know nothing at all. In fact, for some privileged women the work experience may rob them of the one thing a mother must know: How to nurture. I’ve heard that some women conquer their workplaces using traditional mothering techniques – warmth and empathy – to cement important alliances. I’ve heard about them but I’ve never met one.

  In the old days, middle class and upper middle class young women went from the protection of their families straight into early marriage, pregnancy and child rearing. They brought with them child-like warmth and an ambition only to be good mothers and wives. Were they frustrated, bored and depressed when left alone with unreasonable screaming babies? Yes! But as Betty Friedan chronicled, they had known no other adult life and were unaware that frustration, boredom and depression were appropriate responses to their situation. They suffered in silence and did their best to impersonate loving mothers. Many of us were raised by women like that. And they did a surprisingly good job.

  But forty-year-old mid-level executives do not suffer in silence. I hear older mothers in the playground talk to their children as if the kids were slow-witted trainees from the marketing department.

  “I just told you six times to stop banging on the table,” I heard one woman say to a child who wasn’t old enough to understand the concept of “six.”

  Another one’s hesitant child needed Mommy’s hand to guide her on the scary monkey bars.

  “Mommy, help me,” she pleaded. 

  “I’ll show you once and then you have to do it yourself,” she told the kid firmly. I’m certain the mother thought she’d made a generous offer. But the child needed kisses and giggles and the courage to overcome her fears, not a lesson in the survival of the fittest.


  My son loves cars. Since he was two he has been naming the makes and models of every car we pass on the road. The interest has broadened into engines (“Look, a V6!”), reading the names of the roads we drive on, proposing alternate routes, describing traffic patterns, and now reading license plates and discussing the states they come from. We take a quick trip to the store and my son turns it into a graduate course in urban planning. But one day, after he asked, “How do you spell Cadillac?” for the forty-eighth time in a row, spelling it for the forty-eighth time seemed more than I could manage. Perhaps the girl on the monkey bars had been whining at her mother all day before I encountered them and the mother was actually handling her exasperation beautifully. I’ve had days like that, when my son has hit me, thrown things at me, run away, broken something I cherished, and I have uttered thoughtless, dispiriting reprimands that, upon seeing his face collapse in hurt and humiliation, I immediately wished I could retract. So I told my son, “I’ve run out of letters, sweetie. That happens sometimes. I can spell Cadillac one more time and that’s all for now.”

  Some things cannot be explained so easily. Recently an old friend died. My son was fond of her and when we explained what had happened, he repeated, “She died.”

  “Yes,” we said. He looked off into the distance. I imagined he was contemplating life’s mysteries.

  “When is she coming back?” he asked.

  Mortality is always on our minds. As my husband and I watch our son grow, we wonder how will he handle the inevitable loss of us. Of course, life is full of risk. Any parent of a small child could get hit by a bus. Young people get cancer, too.

  But these are rationalizations, which statisticians will dismiss as folly. My husband is a decade older than I. The actuarial tables predict for both of us an exit relatively early in our son’s life, and that leaves us brooding. How young will he be when we go? How can we make him strong and independent so he can withstand the sorrow that lies before him?

  I sat on the floor and said to our son, “She’s not coming back, sweetheart. When you die, you don’t come back.”

  I thought of the joy of meeting my husband ten years ago and knowing that he was the one for whom I’d waited all my life. And I thought of the six sublime years we spent together before our son arrived. Did I rob my husband of more years like that by asking him to have a child with me? He was already a father. I was the one who had never been a parent.

  “You don’t come back,” I said to our son. I felt a quick stab of pain, imagining my husband’s death.  

  My son was still thinking. I hesitated to tell him any more than he may have wanted to know, so I waited. And in those seconds, I drifted away and saw loss inexorably ahead of us, all around us. When I blinked away those troubling thoughts, he looked sad. I leaned over to hug him and tell him that we were sad, too. Then he said: “So who will get her car?”

  I must learn to read his face a bit more accurately, I thought. 

  “I don’t know.” I said. “There is a lot I don’t know.”

   And that, it seemed to me, was the lesson of the day. Clumsily, I strive to turn the unruly world into a place my son will view as clear and rational and amenable to strategies of the workplace, and ultimately the only thing that is really clear is that clumsiness opens the gate to a larger truth we all must accept and embrace: Sometimes you just don’t know the answer. Perhaps my son is starting to see this.

  He is also starting to fathom other people’s pain. The books tell you that children develop full blown empathy at around the age of four and right on schedule, my son is doing his part. When I spill the orange juice or burn the toast or drop the sugar all over the floor and tears of frustration burn my eyes, my son interrupts the self-pity. “It’s okay, Mommy,” he often says at such times. I take it as a universal offer of comfort from someone who seems to sense my need for reassurance. It’s as if he can see that I don’t know what I’m doing. When he says, “It’s okay, Mommy,” I think there really might be a chance that it is okay.

  I could say, “And that’s why I’m still here, plugging away,” but with children, there is no alternative. Whether my son were a good-hearted soul or the devil incarnate, I would still be trying to feed him and clothe him and teach him how to live in the world. Parents don’t really have a choice. You might as well love what you are doing.

  And most of the time I do. The trick is to survive the times you don’t. We recently endured a prolonged case of bedtime mutiny. Instead of bath, story, kisses and tucking in, for several weeks my son refused to undress, then began hitting us and running out of his room screaming. One night, my husband and I were catching our breath after such a bout.

  “He’s The Punisher,” my husband said. “He’s killing us.”

  “He never gives us a break,” I said.

  My husband shook his head. “We deserve better.”

  I thought about this and reviewed the evidence.

  “Apparently not,” I said.

  “Deserve” is a concept best left out of it, I think.

It is only the exceedingly long-term, grinding nature of the child-rearing project that persuades us that we are entitled to anything, like sleep or peace or obedience. By Year Three, you are wondering what you’ve done to merit such sustained and unremitting torture. You wonder this in a way that wouldn’t have occurred to you during the first six months of your child’s life.

  When our son was five months old, he was teething, and like all babies, often cranky. Daytime sleep had become unreliable. On one occasion, after a few hours of active wakefulness, he had slipped into pre-sleep irritability. He was spasmodically thrusting his fist into his mouth to relieve the teething pain. I gathered him up and placed him in his stroller (which we then kept in the living room!) hoping to rock him into a nap. I expected him to drop off without resistance. But as the rocking proceeded, his agitation rose and he began to cry. This was not a whimper, but rather a full-blown, my-intestines-are-twisting-into-a-Windsor-knot, breathless, ear piercing, strangled wailing. I held a pacifier in his mouth to calm him. He usually could sense the pacifier even when he was crying and close his hysterical mouth around it to drift into sleep. But this time he cried around it. So I took it out and lifted him into my arms, holding him to my chest and letting him rest his head on my shoulder.

  He continued to cry.

  I put him back in the stroller and rocked him some more.

  He continued to cry.

  I put a chilled teething donut on his gums.

  He continued to cry.

  After a half hour of fretting over his pain and watching his face go red and wrinkled, I lifted him out again and carried him downstairs to the kitchen with the intention of heating a bottle, resorting to formula as knockout agent.

  I wasn’t yet desperate. Desperate comes at four in the morning when you’ve been walking the child for two hours and nothing seems to abate the intensity of the screaming. I wasn’t desperate, but I did want to help him find respite, and the crying, I admit, was grating on what was left of my nerves. By now my husband and I had endured five months of sleep deprivation. We were weary from walking him through his fussiness. The teething added a good hour-and-a-half each evening of screaming to our menu and we’d just about had it. So as my son shrieked in my left ear, I walked down the stairs to the kitchen toward the bottle of formula to which I was attributing magical powers. My ear was hurting from the sound, and my neck was beginning to hurt, too. And then I heard something above the din. I couldn’t quite make it out at first. After a few seconds, it became clear that what I heard was laughter. And the laughter, it turned out, was coming from me. This was no forced social laugh, but more like an uncontrollable expression of resigned bemusement. The descent to the kitchen slowed as my laughter mounted, and it so thoroughly drowned out my son’s loud unhappiness that I didn’t realize until I got to the bottom step that the crying had ceased. 

  Even at that age, my son was already a great laugher. I’m sure he recognized what he heard and was probably plenty puzzled. I could feel him pull his head up off my shoulder. He turned to me. I turned to him. I was helplessly in hysterics, my face two inches from his. His look said, “What the hell?” But my laughter continued. And then, as if the whole teething business had just been an elaborate practical joke that he was finally admitting, he started to laugh, too.

  At that early stage of his life it would never have crossed my mind to think that listening to hours of screaming was too much to bear, that I deserved better. I expected to be tired. I expected teething and crying and spitting up. Also, my near-obliviousness to the strain was surely partially attributable to the high concentration of postpartum hormones pulsing through my system. If dealers sold baggies full of oxytocin on the street corner the world would be a better place.

  But today, three-and-a-half years later, when my son hits me, I feel betrayed, unfairly treated and outraged. Because the honeymoon is over, I must constantly remind myself of how it felt to be high on hormones and to try to reproduce that mood of acceptance at will. I look for moments when the love I feel for him fills me and I linger over them, hoping they can sustain me through the trying times.

  These days when my son wakes in the morning I take deep breaths of the warm fragrance he gives off, like bread just out of the oven. When he’s so uncharacteristically pliant, I cover him with kisses of gratitude.

  “Good morning, knees,” I say as I kiss them. “Good morning, elbows. Good morning, chin. Good morning, ears. Who has Daddy’s Museum Quality ears?” Sometimes I see him smile, and I move on. “Good morning, belly,” I say and I stick my face right in there. Once I get him laughing he stretches like a tired puppy, then stumbles out of bed and shuffles to the bathroom.  

  The other morning, after this routine, my son, now fully awake, threw his arms around me, held my face in his hands and smashed his mouth on mine for a big passionate kiss. I hadn’t yet had time to attempt even a single tooth-brushing step, which he quickly figured out.

  “You smell yucky,” he said.

  “Thanks,” I said.

  Worried he’d hurt my feelings, he patted my hand. “It’s okay, Mommy,” he said. “I still love you.”

  “And I love you,” I said.

  “I know.”

  “You do? That’s good.”

  “Mommys and Daddys are supposed to love their children.”

  “They are? Who told you that?”

  “I already knowded that myself.”

  As a rule, I disapprove of saying, “We must be doing something right.” It’s smug. It’s self-congratulatory. And it tempts the fates. But I’ve found over the last few years that it feels kind of good, every now and then, to think it secretly to yourself.




  1. This was so well written, so genuine, funny, touching and on-the-money that I just couldn’t stop reading it and it’s VERY early in the morning. I’m adding your site to my RSS feeds and I’ll be looking for more. Thing is, I am NOT an older mother, but I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. I could relate as someone who has been there. All those emotions are not confined to someone of advanced age….trust me!

    Comment by Lynn — September 18, 2007 @ 12:11 pm

  2. Barbra Shulgasser is a clever and funny voice of sensible irrationality in a world of child-rearing madness

    Comment by michael heaton — September 18, 2007 @ 4:50 pm





    Comment by JULIAN BARRY — September 18, 2007 @ 8:37 pm

  4. Barb: This is great stuff. My only suggestion is to break it down into attention span sized chapterlets. Give each a title. String them together. Make a book. Definitely, make a book. I love it.

    Comment by Uncle Weasel — September 19, 2007 @ 6:23 pm

  5. Ok, so I read the Rock Star “The Who” first…. and then this gem. I think you are going to force Uncle Weasel into Blog Retirement…. he hit his peak with the Superman story.

    I thought I knew about you and your “decade” older husband…. but now that I know he was dropped on his head, I understand all about him. What I seemed to have missed was going “downstairs” to the kitchen. Talk about sleep deprivation !!! Or did I miss those stairs ???

    I agree with Uncle Weasel on chapterlets…. Or whatever. Perhaps just making the paragraphs a bit shorter would make reading a bit easier.

    You forgot the chapter on Duct Tape…. The cure all for child rearing.

    Keep them coming..

    Uncle Ira

    Comment by Uncle Ira — September 19, 2007 @ 9:49 pm

  6. Bravo! It is rare to read thoughts on being a mother that fully describes the rollercoaster of emotions that occur on a moment to moment basis. Also, articulating the self-doubt and self-torture that the role of mother requires is a challenging and brave thing to do, all while acknowledging the ridiculousness of the intensity of it all….well done. I do agree that this long piece could have been several shorter essays. The effect of the observations would be felt even more by the reader. Looking forward to more….

    Comment by Kara — September 20, 2007 @ 3:05 am

  7. Barbara, Could you be anymore honest? The belly laughs coming from my cubicle have my co-workers giving me sideways glances but they can only guess the joy I found in your stories of child-rearing adventures. You have a way with the brutal honest of everyday emotions that can only come from the view of a mother who loves and laughs with her children. Don’t ever think no one is listening: We’re just waiting for the next chapter!

    Comment by Johnny D. — September 20, 2007 @ 6:19 pm

  8. I had to read it all. As one who has become used to short attention span activities due to my association with “The Children” that’s pretty good. You’re doing great. I can tell due to my vast experience with “parenting results” of all kinds. I wish you were having just a little more fun. A sense of humor will get you through as will self-forgiveness and the truth that nobody has ever had THE answer to proper parenting. There are actually so many. I have always thought that LOVE, a positive attitude and “KNOWING” that they will be okey goes a long way to making parenting work. Children have a way of making our best beliefs come true when we keep those beliefs in the forefront of all our conerns. For example, my son was tenacious not stuburn, another was careful not cowardly, another was a planner not a postponer, my youngest was energetic not hyperactive and my inablity to be all things at all times would make them stronger and more capable. Actually all this turned out to be true, as I see it. I am not very computer competent and I’ve never read a blogged message before or typed one. I hope this goes through. See you Monday.

    Comment by Miss Bonnie — September 22, 2007 @ 10:17 pm

  9. You write with warmth and honesty. This was a very funny piece. This reminds me of humorist Sandra Tsing Loh’s writings. Parenting is an adventure that you share with your children. You might as well have fun while your at it!

    Comment by Gina Blatt — October 2, 2007 @ 3:50 pm

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