I know a man who never waters his garden. Every spring, he plants an array of seeds in richly fertilized and cultivated soil, tamps a fond farewell and hopes for the best. He says a little stress is good for the plants, being thirsty will make them hardy, and when they do get a drink of rain they will learn to use that sustenance efficiently. As crazy as personifying vegetable sprigs sounds, this is the way the man gardens, and year after year he reaps a bountiful harvest.
This man parents his children in much the same way: lays a solid foundation, provides the necessities, and then sends them out on their own come what may. He likens giving help in any manner to coddling and has a no re-admittance policy after the age of eighteen. Like their horticultural counterparts, his children are resilient, self-sufficient, and stoic in the face of adversity; but they aren’t very loving, or generous, or kind.
I think of this man every year when I start my garden and consider trying his tough-love approach. Why not? I ask myself. What could it harm? I imagine letting something I gave life to struggle to the point of perishing, dying needlessly when help is a hose-length away. I flirt with his method, yet every year at the first sign of wilting leaves, I shower my little plants with a gentle spray, ultimately not willing to risk losing any of them if I can help it. Does this mean I am spoiling them, raising them to be weak and defenseless in the soiled world? Am I quashing their will to live? And what about my own parenting style, what does my garden say about my mothering?
I rake this question back and forth in my mind while methodically preparing this year’s dirt. Do I make life too easy for my child? I till through tangles of deeply rooted social convention and conflicting opinions. Will letting her cry breed insecurity? Will picking her up make her needy? I break apart the clumpy surface mounds of clay and sand, as common as my daily routine, and mix them with what lies beneath: cool, dark richness. Not just dirt any longer, but soil, ready to impart its magic upon tiny, shelled dormancies. How profound it is to be the medium of growth, to be the one responsible for raw potential, like a mother shaping a life. Am I worthy of such a miraculous mission?
From my sifting thoughts, a single word sprouts and vines towards its flowering. Purpose. What is my purpose in cultivating a person? It would be simple to apply the principles of agriculture to child rearing if I were only interested in one generation, one season, but my purpose is to raise a child capable of becoming a nurturing parent herself one day. Giving nourishment is so much
easier after receiving it. So, while I understand this man’s philosophy, I will still water my plants. I can love without indulging; I can assuage their thirst without rotting their roots.
Michelle Riddell lives with her family in rural mid-Michigan. She is a substitute teacher at her daughter’s elementary school where source material, both heartbreaking and humorous, is abundant. Her short features have been published in MomSense and Hello,Darling magazines.
Lana Bellahas a diverse work of poetry and flash fiction published and forthcoming with Anak Sastra, Atlas Poetica, Bewildering Stories, Beyond Imagination, Buck-Off Magazine, Calliope Magazine, Eunoia Review, Cecil’s Writers’ Magazine, Deltona Howl, Earl of Plaid Lit, Family Travel Haiku, First Literary Review-East, Foliate Oak Literary, Garbanzo Literary Journal, Global Poetry, Ken*Again, Kind Of A Hurricane Press, Marco Polo Arts Literary, Nature Writing, New Plains Review, Poetry Pacific, The Commonline Journal, The Higgs Weldon, The Voices Project, War Anthology: We Go On, Thought Notebook, Undertow Tanka Review, Wordpool Press, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Featured Artist with Quail Bell Magazine. She lives bi-continents, in the US and Asia, where she is the wife of a novelist and the mom of two frolicsome imps.
My sister stands beside me on the pool deck. We aren’t watching our kids play-fight in the water. Our eyes are on the adolescent bird sitting at the base of an oak tree a few feet away. We can hear his mother squawking at him from a bush nearby. He’s fallen from her nest, and she can’t carry him to safety because he’s almost her size. But she can’t leave him alone, either, because she knows better than any of us that the woods are full of raccoons, that her life’s work might end in a half-eaten lump of sorrow if he can’t get to a low branch somehow. There’s nothing for her to do but to wait and to sing.
My sons are young teenagers who need me less than they used to. They and I are developing new ways of relating to one another, but not the ones I saw coming. I hear myself telling them how to do things, how to be, how not to feel. I watch them push and doubt. They fall out of trees, and I sit, huffy and anxious, because I no longer hold their world in my hand. Because I hope for so much.
“Look at that,” my sister whispers. Both of us are frozen.
The teenaged bird is working his tiny nub-wings. They’re untested. They can’t possibly lift him. His frantic mother is warning him, begging him to be alright. My sister and I have forgotten to breathe as we watch him stab his beak and tapered claws, not yet dulled by endless twig-collecting and insect-finding, into the trunk of the tree. He’s beating his wings so hard against the bark I imagine they’ll break.
These days I flip through old scrapbooks more than I used to. I memorize the colors in my frozen moments, images I curated to stoke the future embers of mother feeling that might one day smolder at the base of my heart. I do it because I’m forgetting. I need these pictures to remind of the times my children sat backward on my lap and put their hands on my cheeks. When they stared so close I could count their eyelashes. Now they stand a few feet away from me when we cross a parking lot. True, I can still read them like the favorite books they’ve always been to me, but now, where their words used to lay clean, they clump together, muddied under layers of outsized emotion.
My sister and I lean ourselves against the treated wood of the deck. We’re silent but both of us are willing the bird-teen higher. We can’t believe he hasn’t plummeted to his death by now. We watch him make it halfway up the tree, his little propellers chopping the air. His mother is losing her voice from cheering him, from screaming, it seems.
And then he falls, landing on gnarled roots at the base of the tree. For a second he doesn’t move. I figure he isn’t dead yet, but will be soon, from the impact. I look past the tree, to the hill behind it, because this is too much to witness. My boys are throwing a football in the clearing. The younger one catches it and the older one tackles him, sending him hard into the earth. It’s only a matter of time before someone throws a punch but I’m thankful for the distraction.
Mother bird is quiet. Then I see her son stirring from the corner of my eye. He fluffs his gray feather coat, then stamps his feet and starts beating his wings, turning in a half circle so that he’s once again facing the trunk of the tree. He jumps toward it and clings, and his mother sends forth her everything song one more time. My sister and I can’t believe what we’re seeing, but it’s true; he’s making it, not to the lowest branch, but to one much higher.
I muse about that bird mother long after we’ve all gone back to the house. Did she go to bed early, hoarse and headachy? Did she find herself unable to feel after her son’s escape because it cost her so much? Did she remind her boy to visit once in a while, before he finally flew away, to let her know how things are going?
Maybe. Me, I’m still waiting. My boys are at the tree’s base, where the roots are thick and solid. I feel my stomach muscles pull tight as I watch them move their wings a little now and then. I’d rather gather them close and save all that for another day, but they’ve seen those top branches, and won’t be dissuaded. So I sit on a perch nearby and do what I can.
Hannah Vanderpool is a writer, a former ex-pat, and a home educator of three interesting middle schoolers. You can connect with her on Twitter, @HannahVPool, or at Praying With One Eye Open.
There’s something about parenting both a typical child and a child with special needs that brings to mind a Venn diagram. The oval with the overlap bulges or shrinks depending on my mood. That center, their common ground, contains the love I feel for both of our children, the desire to protect them, the surprisingly ferocious exasperation that comes on when they’re belligerent, and the emotional fatigue that accompanies the constant duty that parenthood requires.
On my daughter’s side, perhaps it’s the left-hand circle, I’ve got her milestones checked off just as expected. Sure, riding a two-wheeler took a little longer than we thought it might, and we’re still waiting for her to enjoy curling up with a book independently, but on the whole, we’ve got ourselves a precocious, spirited, healthy seven year old in that space. On the right, my four year old son has started to use full sentences, walks unsteadily, and begins to revel in pretend play. The place between my children grows wider each year, but my acceptance slowly grows alongside it.
Zev was born with a rare chromosomal abnormality, so rare there is no one quite like him to look to for comparisons. After his diagnosis, my husband and I were left holding an uncertainty that nearly did me in: would he ever learn to talk, or walk? Would he have any sense of independence whatsoever? I’d thought parenting was hard when my typical two year old still wouldn’t sleep through the night and had tantrums that shook the walls, but Zev’s birth introduced a new level of stress. Remember that new-parent vocabulary we all waded through: hindmilk vs. foremilk, ferberizing, attachment parenting, 1-2-3 magic, and (I had to google this one) elimination communication? These were replaced with terms like microcephaly, hypotonia, sensory-integration disorder, intellectual disability, failure to thrive, g-tube. We staggered through the first few years on hyper-alert, the days full of specialists, surgeries, sometimes utter despair.
But I’ve mostly come out the other side at this point. The challenge now is to live in the space that joins those two circles of the Venn diagram, both socially and at home. Zev is praised for his efforts at potty-training, while his sister memorizes Hebrew phrases. Anya eagerly attends sleepovers with girlfriends, while her brother greets strangers with hugs. I no longer blanche when parents complain about the struggles of their typical children. He’s just such a picky eater; I can never get him to eat enough vegetables or You have no idea how hard it is to keep her in clothing; she just grows so fast. How funny that I once furiously and self-righteously expected everyone to understand Zev’s side of the diagram, when all they know is typical parenthood. I’m embarrassed by my earlier indignation but proud of my newfound tolerance.
Recently, the well-meaning case manager at Zev’s IEP meeting felt compelled to remind me that only a special mother could have been granted a child like Zev. “Imagine if you weren’t an English teacher, and what if he wasn’t exposed to so much stimulation? He was given to you because you are a perfect match for his needs.” Even a year ago I would have been hard pressed to hide my disgust, sick of the platitudes and resentful of the parents without our “burden.” I see now why she, and so many other well-meaning friends, need to make a neat package of the imbalance, even if I can’t always buy into it. It’s another way of deriving meaning from some painful truths. Not all children are born with equal gifts. It sucks. But please believe there is beauty and growth in this at the same time.
If I could capture Zev’s intonation on paper, it would be a sometimes staccato burst of clear syllables, and the next moment the sounds are roiling and smashing into one another unintelligibly. If he had more control of his muscles, some of what he utters would sound downright smart.
“Are you my sweet boo?” I said. “Boy, I mean. I meant to say boy!”
“You called me boo,” he giggled. But his utterance sounds like, “You call mee boo.”
“Are you boo?”
“No,” drawn out, softened.
“What are you?”
“I sweet Zev,” he announces.
Zev is not merely a postscript to the epistle that is his neurotypical sister. His missing pieces first shattered but now rebuild me, truly better and more balanced, most days. The Venn diagram appeals to logic and a finite collection of similarities and differences, while the real work of parenting defies such boundaries. But still, that ever-shifting space between the circles keeps me centered, and, dare I say it, whole.
Alisha Goldblattis an English teacher living in Portland, Maine with her two beloved children and husband. Her first children’s book, Finding a Way, is to be published in the spring; it introduces her son and the unique way he experiences the world.