June 17, 2015

"When I Whisper, Everyone Listens"


Machiavelli, the Whisperer

For years I thanked God that Michelle, my second daughter, was so much easier than her sister, two years older. . But she had carefully observed Anne and realized charm worked much better than confrontation. When asking for something, Michelle would preface it with so many appreciative compliments that I was eager to do what she asked.

Michelle was almost grown before I realized that she had gotten her way much more than Anne had. She is the ultimate iron fist in a velvet glove. I was in awe how she handled doctors and nurses whenever my mom was hospitalized.  Once, when her dad and I were squabbling, teenage Michelle suggested, "Mom, you should wear more perfume." 

My favorite Michelle story occurred when she had just turned 3. She fell in the playground and needed ten stitches in her head. The ER was a horror as I had to fight tooth and nail to stay with her. Right after the accident we went on vacation with my parents, my brother Joe, his wife, and their three kids from Kansas City. Michelle was very close to my parents and had no experience sharing them with anyone but Anne. Immediately upon arriving , my chatterbox ceased talking. After a day of absolute silence, she deigned to whisper, but only to me and my mom.

Her absolute command was terrifying. Even after she woke up from a nightmare, she remembered to whisper. When I was playing with her in the water, I could coax her to make sounds, but she refused to utter sounds that were words. I was frantic, convinced that her fall had caused brain damage or a lasting emotional trauma. Was she upset that I was pregnant with Rose?

When her grandma asked why she wouldn't talk, Michelle whispered. "With my cousins here, when I talk, nobody listens. But when I whisper, everyone listens." Her ingenious scheme worked wonders. Everyone spent the entire ten days trying to trick Michelle into talking. I had just gotten a tape recorder, and the impact of Michelle's silence is documented. The main topic of conversations recorded was the strange silence of a certain three year old. The minute Joe and his family drove away, Michelle started talking and has never stopped. 

Michelle told this story on her college applications. "It is rather funny to think that in my large family of overachievers, a three-year-old's decision not to speak in one of our fondest and most memorable stories. To this day, I cannot speak a word to my Uncle Joe without receiving the loud surprised reaction, "She talks." All colleges eagerly accepted her.

Have you ever tried not talking for an hour at an immediate family gathering of 11 people? 

June 10, 2015

Parental Anxiety and Children's Wings

 My mother's combination of fearlessness, faith in God, and experience with 5 younger brothers made her wonderful mother of 5 boys. She didn't worry; she didn't clip any wings. She didn't let little things like sons on the roof or a son out of touch hiking the Appalachian trail for months upset her.   Her shy, timid, anxious daughter was a mystery to my her.  I am a  lifelong worrier. From early childhood, I frequently told my parents, "I'm scared."

What my mom did effortlessly, I have had to struggle with every day of my 43  years as a mother. All my daugters are braver and more adventurous than I am. For the most part, my anxieties have not infected them. They respect my fears.  I have decided to concentrate my worries when their planes are in the air, not when they  are on the ground for days or years in Kosovo, Rwanda, Niger, Sydney, Shanghai, Istanbul, Sierra Leone, etc.They always call, email, or text when the plane lands, at any hour, in any part of the world. Flight Tracker is my best friend. 

My oldest daughter Emma has inherited her grandmother's bold fearlessness.

From my journals, 1974-1975
From the time Emma was 10 months old, I took her twice a day to Central Park, particularly one very large playground. Emma would casually wander off almost 100 yards away. As long as I was was close enough to meet her eyes and waved when she glanced at me, she seemed perfectly confident. One nightmarish day, she managed to slip out between the playground bars and head for Central Park West. I didn't know I could run so fast.

At 15 months Emma would go down slides and climb up jungle gyms that three year olds would avoid. By 2 she was so physically competent that I felt confident about sitting on a bench and watching from a distance as she clambered over a climbing structure designed for children 6 and up. She hardly ever cried if she fell down or bumped into something. Emma was happiest learning new physical feats. She loved the water; at age one she would fearlessly walk into the ocean and laugh if she were knocked down. She was physically fearless yet not particularly reckless except about things she could not possibly know about. She was always ahead of other kids in trying something new physically like walking up the slide backward.


Emma in Niger, 2000                                                                      
 One month ago, I sat in a grass hut in a small village in Niger called Koyetegui, and watched democracy in action, Nigerien style. The five members of the Bureau de Vote sat on overturned pestles normally used for pounding millet, and offered me a seat on a woven mat. And so I sat, as the sun set and the kerosene lantern was lit, and watched as the chickens were chased out of the hut and the entire village crowded into this cramped space to watch the solemn counting and recounting of the 132 votes that had been cast in this tiny district. When the vote counting was over and the report had been filled out and duly sealed with wax, I rode back to the regional capital of Dosso with the ballot box to turn in the election results. It was only the next day that I learned from my driver that the chief of the village had presented me with a gift of an enormous river squash. I spent the entire ride back to Niamey replaying the events of the past few months in my mind, wondering how I had ever gotten to be so lucky.

From applications to graduate schools in International Relations in 2000:
In three and a half years, I visited over 75 cities in 53 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In several countries–Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Nepal, Benin, Curacao–I was the first AIRINC representative to conduct a survey. I have had the opportunity to do amazing things in my life. I have seen some of the truly wondrous places in the world, from the Sahara desert, to Machu Picchu, to the Mekong River Delta. I have jumped out of a plane in Maine and been seventy feet underwater in the Caribbean. I have witnessed one of the poorest countries on earth usher in a new era of hope and democracy.

My post to a Salon Group, 2001:
My 28-year-old daughter has just accepted a summer internship in Rwanda. Seven years ago, a million people were killed in three months in the worst genocide since the Holocaust.  At Columbia she is specializing in human rights, transitional justice, and Africa. If she wasn't going to Rwanda, she would have gone to the Congo. I am fiercely proud of her. But I worry about how to handle my fears as she goes from one world flash point to the next. I want to support her, not burden her with my anxieties.

2013

Emma, her husband, and their 2 kids are spending two years in Paris, so she can work for an international organization. Her 5 year old daughter, now fully fluent in French, has inherited her fearlessness. When Emma was pregnant, she fretted that she would not be able to handle an anxious daughter.

In many ways, I, an anxious mother, did better with my bold daughters than my bold mother did with her anxious daughter. I never forget her telling me, "You would be much happier if you were more like me."

Letting your fear of what could happen clip your children's wings  and undermine their confidence and autonomy endangers them most of all