I would say it feels like a tornado has been whipping through my family, except it was a literal hurricane first, and I am afraid every day that it may not have abated yet. In the past few weeks we lost my Great Uncle Dan, my Great Aunt Pat, and this past Friday my Great Aunt Shirley, among other terrible losses and sadnesses. I am not even remotely ready to process all the emotions that are tearing through my mind, but I want to remember something specific about my family because I think somewhere in it may be the secret of life.
My Uncle Dave was married to Aunt Shirley for 61 years and loved her with a depth and sincerity one rarely sees in this world. When he gave her a glass of wine at Wine Time, he always accompanied it with a kiss on the cheek, saying, “Here you go, doll.” He built fires in the wood stove on cold winter days because he thought she’d like a cozy place to sit and sometimes tossed extra fragrant wood in so she could enjoy the smell. When she was reading and the light grew dim, he’d turn a lamp on behind her to spare her eyes, and when she dozed off, he’d cover her with a blanket, kissing her head as she slept. I am so glad that two such truly kind people found one another and shared that love and generosity of spirit with their family.
Earlier this year when I was visiting my parents, I told them how I’d come to think of these small gestures of love as the “Uncle Dave Instinct,” as if he spent his days walking around trying to think of nice things to do for everyone. He didn’t do it for show or make a spectacle of the little moments when he’d hum a waltz and spin my Aunt Shirley around the kitchen island (thinking they were alone while I was playing under the table). When my Grandma Wanda and I were chatting in their kitchen the day after Thanksgiving, he didn’t interrupt or ask if we wanted lunch, but simply placed grilled cheese and homemade tomato soup on the table, to which Gram squealed, “Oh that is just what I wanted! How did you know??” He squeezed her arm and said, “That’s what little brothers do.” It was clear that to him, it really was just the natural thing to do for the people he loved.
My father also has a strong Uncle Dave Instinct, probably nurtured from spending so much time with such a gentle, kind man, or maybe something genetic that my Grandma Wanda also shared. He brings my mother tea in bed every morning and has done so for 40 years, sometimes accompanied with a particularly fragrant rose or sprig of lilacs in a bud vase. Most of my father’s family is kind in those sensitive, beautiful ways, and it’s hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it because it seems too good to be true, that anyone in the world can be so sweetly thoughtful and caring, let alone a whole family like that.
As the grateful recipient of countless nap blankets, wordlessly refilled drinks, my favorite flowers brought in from the garden to welcome me when I visit, warm pats and hugs whenever we pass each other, and small kindnesses throughout my life, I want to be this type of person and to cultivate that kindness and love in myself. I want to love someone with that purity of affection, and I want to let everyone in my life feel the way a warm hug and a genuine smile from my Uncle Dave or my dad always makes me feel.
I also saw that despite the effects of time, grief, and life’s challenges, the Uncle Dave Instinct lasts a lifetime. When we visited my Aunt Shirley in hospice, we noticed the sheets and blankets were pulled up to her chin. My Uncle Dave was worried she would be cold from the air conditioning, so he made sure to open the blinds to let some sunlight in and tucked her in tightly, repeatedly asking the nurses if they thought we should get her another blanket.
It is easy to get distracted in this world by all the things we have to do, by global politics and unrest over current events, by over-philosophizing and abstracting all our experiences in search of meaning and understanding… and it may really be as simple as loving people with that singleness of focus and clarity. To know it’s chilly and they may want a blanket. Maybe that is ultimately the most important thing we can do as humans on this planet: to love and cherish each other and to show gentle kindness every time we can.
I vividly remember when I learned that racism was not just an historical problem. We were driving from New Jersey to Virginia to visit family for Thanksgiving. After several long hours in the car, we stopped to get gas in Manassas at a station with a market attached. There was a queue for an available pump, so my mother took my brother and me into the market to get snacks and drinks. We were elated when she said, “Get anything you want, but just one thing,” and we took our time carefully selecting packets of cookies and chips, with the plan that we’d split them and effectively each get two snacks (we were in first and second grade, this was the height of cleverness for us). As my brother hemmed and hawed over whether he actually wanted chips (which he knew I did) or maybe beef jerky instead (yuck) my mother got drinks and hustled us along to the register queue about a half dozen or so people deep.
“Ma’am, you come on up here, I can ring you up,” the cashier said, waving my mother ahead of everyone else waiting. She looked around confused, and it slowly started to sink in that he was waving her ahead of all the Black customers waiting. She shook her head, said, “No, I’m not next.”
I saw a shadow cast over my mother’s face as she realized what we hadn’t yet, as the cashier insisted, “Oh yes you are, come on up.”
Another customer turned to my mother and said, “Just go. He’s not going to ring any of us up until he’s done with you.”
My mother was aghast, grabbed everything out of our eager hands, and plunked it all on the counter. “I don’t want any of this anymore,” she said in a measured tone, “and I don’t want to do business with anyone who treats their customers like this.” She gestured toward the queue and finished, “You should be ashamed of yourself, man,” then pulled us out the door.
We caught up with my father just before he was about to start pumping gas and she insisted we leave. He protested that he didn’t want to stop again in holiday traffic, and she gave him that hell-hath-no-fury-like-an-Irishwoman-scorned look we all know so well. We all got back in the car and left, stopping at the next exit we saw for by then badly needed gas.
My brother and I were perplexed and tried to make sense of what all that had been about, when my father said quietly, “I just can’t understand racism. What a hateful thing.” I remember piping up, “Daddy, what do you mean racism?” and my parents started a conversation that has been going on in our family ever since. He is a big Civil War buff, so he started with a refresher crash course on slavery and how some people in the South or other parts of the country still mistreat Black people.
“Because they were on the other side of the war?” I asked naively, and he backed up to clarify that no, the abolitionists in our family fought against slavery, that it was never white people versus Black people, and my brother asked, “Then why did we make them slaves if they weren’t our enemies?”
God bless my parents, they kept on unflinching through our onslaught of questions and confusions for the rest of the car ride, tackling white supremacy, the KKK, the Civil Rights movement, and Affirmative Action, which was all over the news in the early 1980s as people were bitterly calling it “reverse discrimination.” We kept coming back to the question that started it all for us, “So why was that man waving Mommy ahead of everyone else?” We literally couldn’t wrap our minds around the idea that he was showing preferential treatment not because my mother was young and pretty with small children – as there were Black mothers with even younger children than us waiting – but he wanted the Black customers to know he thought less of them than us. That he wasn’t being polite, he was being pointedly hostile because he had hate in his heart. We were appropriately stunned.
Once our eyes were open, we started to actually see racism around us, to notice the way people of color were treated compared with us, to hear the names they were called and the way people spoke about them or made them feel threatened. We were raised to have empathy and recognize people of all races as just like us, but we were also made aware of the unfair privilege we sometimes had for being white and how that was used against other people. We tried to follow my parents’ example of speaking up and not supporting people who were racist, and I wish I could say it was easy, but I still fail to do enough to this day. I’m trying a lot harder now.
Later on that same trip, my mother took my brother and me to a shopping mall to get school clothes at the post-Thanksgiving sales (this was before Black Friday was such a huge thing as it is now). As we approached the entry to the mall, we saw a Black woman with a stroller and two small children, struggling to get through the door without letting go of the children’s hands. A parade of white customers walked by her through another door without helping, some pointing at her, laughing, and talking to each other about her. A mall security guard stood nearby looking on with amusement. As we got into earshot, we saw two women shove by, sneering loudly, “If she can’t manage them all, maybe she shouldn’t have so many children,” then letting the door slam on the stroller.
“That woman looks like she needs some help,” my mother said, and we rushed over. My mother helped pull the stroller through while my brother held the children’s hands to keep them close by. The woman looked sadder than I’d ever seen an adult look in public and said to my mother with her eyes downcast, “Thank you, ma’am. You didn’t have to do that.” My mother just said breezily, “Oh come on, every mother needs help sometimes. I can’t believe everyone else was ignoring you.” “Oh, I guess you’re not from around here,” the woman said. They shared a meaningful glance and wished each other a good day.
As we were walking away, I said something cheerful and self-congratulatory like, “I’m glad you stood up for that lady, Mommy! And I’m glad we held the door for her because she’s Black.”
My mother was quick to correct me, “No, baby, we hold the door for other people and help them when they need it because it’s the right thing to do.”
You may have already seen this on my Facebook page, but if not, here, have an excellent feel-good holiday cry on me:
Right??? I’ve seen it dozens of times, and I still burst into tears every time it comes on. I may or may not have kept it open in a tab on my browser for a week or so for when I needed a big “awww” moment and a smile. You can too, I won’t judge.
The other day my mother mentioned that my father excitedly asked her to record the recent remake of Pollyanna on PBS. She was surprised to learn it was one of his favorite movies as a boy, after his whole family (he had five sisters) piled in at the drive-thru in 1960 and he fell head over heels in love with Hayley Mills. They kept it on their DVR so I could watch it from my apartment, and it was so utterly charming and uplifting that I completely understand why they felt “a little emotional” and / or cried their faces off watching it.
One of the central motifs of the film – and part of why the term “Pollyanna” caught on to describe irrepressibly optimistic people – is the Glad Game, invented by Pollyanna’s deceased father. In any unpleasant situation, the challenge is to find something to be glad about, however small or seemingly insignificant, and to hold onto that positivity.
In the past few weeks, I have not particularly wanted to feel glad about anything. It has been tempting to be overwhelmed with discouragement and sink under the crushing waves of despair, to dismiss any attempt at positivity as naïve, magical thinking, or to snap at people who pointed out rays of hope and tear them down for their privilege or lack of concern. It was like an across the board dirge of “Let’s call the whole thing off.”
But damn if Pollyanna didn’t get me right in the feels and remind me that the times when you feel low are the most important ones to play the Glad Game and to try to find the silver linings. I saw that the key to Pollyanna’s sunny disposition and perpetual good humor is that she was always thinking about other people and trying to make life better for them. She resisted cynicism, negativity, and self-interest, and so she was able to help people and bring about change.
I’m trying not to talk too overtly about politics in every post, but a stated part of the GOP campaign strategy this year was to stoke such intense feelings of cynicism and fear that people were too despondent to get out and vote. They wanted people to believe the system was rigged or that every politician was just as corrupt as any other, and that the government was too inefficient to help anyone anyway. I have thought a lot about who benefits when cynicism prevails. When people feel too hopeless to insist on change, the hegemony succeeds in maintaining the status quo. When we feel overwhelmed by the forces of evil in the world, we start to believe good never existed and was all an illusion anyway. But I believe in my heart of hearts that most people are inherently good and want to do right by one another – it just takes overcoming fear, precarity, and self-interest enough to stand up to those motivated by greed and power. It is therefore more essential now than ever before to embrace radical, subversive optimism and to refuse to become complacent in the face of constant attempts to drown us in cynicism.
I’ve started to channel my feelings of frustration, worry, and fear into working to help other people and the environment. I want to stop wallowing in the things that upset me in my personal life and focus on spending my time more constructively, making art, raising awareness, helping promote education and compassion, listening, and working harder to understand. The more I can escape my own ego / consciousness and focus on others, the easier it is to find ways to be glad and grateful.
So that is my wish for you this holiday season and in the coming months. May you always find something to be glad about, and may your life be full of gratitude and compassion.
I’m not sure why, but I often feel compelled to have a list of superlatives on hand at all times. We’ve talked about this a little before, so I like to have my answers prepared. I also imagine a scenario where someone darts up to me on the street like, “Vicki, quick, what is your favorite cookie? President Obama needs to know, don’t keep him waiting!” I don’t want to be the person hemming and hawing between chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin while the beloved leader of the free world taps his foot and sighs.
For as long as I can remember, my favorite holiday has been Halloween. There have been years where I sat it out, usually due to bronchitis and once an ugly break-up, but in my heart, it’s the clear winner, and here are 13 (ooh, spooky!) reasons why.
1. It is a celebration of pure imagination.
(From 2010 when I went as Tippi Hedren’s character Melanie Daniels in The Birds. Yes, I am perfectly aware how I could use that hot pink pussy bow blouse this year.)
Every part of Halloween invites creativity and getting carried away with one’s imagination. Choosing a new identity for a costume, working out how that idea will be communicated, and going out into the world as a fantasy self, a scary ghoul, or literally anything you can imagine is wildly exciting and fun for children and adults alike (or it should be). Decorations allude to the supernatural, party games evoke gross-out anatomy or enactment of fantasy superstitions, and you can enjoy all the dark and twisted parts of people’s minds without worrying for their psychological well-being.
2. In the northeast, it falls at the perfect time of year.
Admittedly, many of my feelings about Halloween come from growing up in suburban New Jersey and living in Connecticut and New York my whole adult life, so there is some subjectivity here. But generally, the weather is just cool enough to have a crispness to the air, but not so cold you can’t enjoy being outside for hours at a time. As autumn is my favorite season, Halloween feels like the peak moment of colorful falling leaves, harvest type stuff like apple-picking, and it closes the door on summer to usher in the holiday season of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, etc. It hits at a solid point in the school semester, usually after midterms but before heavy back-half projects start becoming pressing, when there is still plenty of time to catch up before Thanksgiving break. It is practically synonymous in my mind with the feeling of leaves crunching under leather boots and the faint scent of woodsmoke in the air – that time is heavenly.
3. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
Whenever my family discusses holidays (which is with what I suspect to be abnormal frequency, come to think of it) I announce that Halloween is my favorite, and everyone sort of nods and someone says, “Yes, of course, because of the candy.” But it’s not just any candy. Reese’s Peanut Butter cups are magical sensory joy, and around Halloween you can find them absolutely everywhere, even the miniature ones wrapped in autumnal foil at like your gynecologist’s office. Think carefully – is there actually any other time of year you allow yourself to unabashedly eat a full-sized Reese’s peanut butter cup? Their packaging looks like the living embodiment of Halloween, and so many of my neighbors used to give out the single-size cups that I felt like Halloween was an elaborate Reese’s harvest. I know this has probably become far less common with the huge surge in peanut allergies, but it seems like everyone has a specific favorite Halloween candy that they’d never buy for themselves during the rest of the year. I won’t even get started on fun size Snickers.
While yes, Halloween started in a religious context (like every other holiday, let’s be real) it’s one of the only ones that doesn’t intrinsically exclude anyone on the basis of culture, race, religion, ability, or creed in its modern, secular form. Yes, some people still choose not to celebrate it because of their religions (Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Orthodox Jews, etc.) but if they chose to celebrate, they would be welcome to do so. People try very hard to politicize Halloween, especially in election years, but it’s sort of like an anarchist of a holiday in that it refuses to be co-opted by any one group. Everyone can incorporate some sort of costume into their everyday lives, even just an orange sweater and sunglasses as a nod to the day. Halloween is for everyone because it is fundamentally about fun and bringing everyone together to be silly and creative.
5. Every bar and club in the city has something going on.
There is a weird myth that Halloween as an adult sucks, and every year some one of my friends reposts this Oatmeal strip as definitive proof that they are right to stay home and scoff at Halloween. Nonsense. I am very lucky because my closest friends through high school were the cast and crew of our musical theater program, so we all loved getting dressed in elaborate costumes and pretending to be other people or creatures (literally, it’s what we did for fun all year). We had great parties that often included cheesy zombie films and a lot of screaming and dancing, and that is exactly how I want to remember being a teenager. The house I joined in college threw various costume parties year-round (this may be part of why I joined) and went all-out for Halloween. In NYC, you have your choice of thousands of dance parties at just about every club, and if you wander into a random bar, you will at least find a good happy hour special and some black cat or pumpkin decorations. The sheer volume of people out in the city (and those who come in from Jersey and Connecticut to join them) reinvigorates every place, and if you keep your act together and focus on having fun, you will.
6. Unbeatable people-watching (dogs too).
You can learn so much about your friends by how they dress for Halloween. Everything from the choice of costume (or choosing not to wear a costume) to the attention to detail and execution tell you about their character in manifold ways. When you meet people in a bar, they communicate so much more about themselves on Halloween than any other night because they’ve let their guard down and let some of their true selves out. If you feel claustrophobic, you can grab a sixer and sit in Union Square to watch thousands of people’s imaginations traipse by. On the weekends leading up to Halloween, you are practically guaranteed to see some painfully adorable kids and dogs in costumes, and if you get really lucky, you can see middle aged men from your neighborhood riding the subway home at 4:30am dressed as M&Ms or Flava Flav, singing dance songs to anyone who will listen.
7. Genuinely silly entertainment.
The novelty songs are ridiculous and dated, but unabashedly fun. The pet costumes are next-level adorable. The television episodes with your favorite characters sporting Rocky Horror Picture Show garb are delightful. The movies are not scary enough to actually be haunting or disturbing (I’m thinking Elvira-level because I’m a chicken about actual horror films), and they don’t try to teach you a lesson or moralize beyond, “Watch out for dudes in hockey masks with machetes!” and, “Thank goodness the zombies are defeated!” It’s spooky in a fun way that can take its mask off at the end of the night and say, “Hey, it was all pretend, now let’s eat some candy.”
8. It’s an occasion to teach children manners or a reminder that most kids are actually really sweet and well-behaved.
My mother has become a Halloween grinch and says she hates Halloween because of all the bratty kids stomping on her porch, not saying “trick or treat,” demanding candy, then pouting when they can only take one piece and not saying “thank you.” It seems like things have changed a bit in her neighborhood, but I was raised to be almost obnoxiously polite, and I treated Halloween as a time to pop in and say hello to all our neighbors. I said “Trick or treat!” then “Hello Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So,” and I reminded them who I was if they didn’t recognize me. We talked about my costume, I complimented their decorations, occasionally they invited me in to take a picture or give me a glass of hot cider (I know, I know, but only the people we knew very well), they asked me how soccer was going or what my favorite subject was in school that year, I thanked them profusely even if they gave me a Dum-Dum or Good ‘N Plenty (ugh), wished them a Happy Halloween, and made sure to walk carefully down their steps and walkways, not stepping on any flowers or landscaping etc. It drove my brother crazy in the years when we still trick-or-treated together because he wanted to hurry up to go to other houses, but I was busy chatting and thinking I was just adorable.
It set a precedent for how to interact with our neighbors and other adults that I remembered throughout the year, and it gave me practice responding graciously to compliments on a pretty dress or answering questions about myself when it would have been easier to be shy and hide behind my brother. I try not to be a total creeper in talking to strangers’ kids, but I am always pleased when I tell a parent, “I love your daughter’s costume, that’s so creative!” and they encourage their child to say “thank you” and tell me all about it. Kids light up when you recognize their costumes (like how do you know Cinderella?!?) and it gives them a chance to safely talk to people about something sort of impersonal, but also personal enough to them that they care about it.
It is a ridiculous tradition to scoop the guts out of a gourd, carve a face or something into it, put a candle or LED in it, and leave it outside to rot on your porch. And yet, I absolutely love pumpkin carving. I love seeing the goofy and cartoony faces on pumpkins that kids obviously drew themselves, and I love the intricately shaded, artistic carvings some of my friends do. I feel like there aren’t enough opportunities for sculpture past the Play-Doh years, so pumpkin carving is a necessary creative outlet for the generation that never learned to whittle or woodwork. And I got to use the good kitchen knives, so win-win.
10. It is the day before my birthday, which is All Saints’ Day and the start of Día de los muertos.
I know, this seems like a trivial point of self-absorption, especially in light of point #4 above, but my birthday is on All Saints’ Day, a beautiful Christian holiday in the western / Catholic tradition that celebrates all the saints, known and unknown. It is part of a cycle of festivals, followed by All Souls’ Day. It is generally a time to reflect on the loved ones we’ve lost and remember them. It’s a cool time of year to balance darkness and light, and to learn about things like Día de los muertos and various rituals around death and remembrance worldwide. If children are interested in learning about spirituality and other cultures, it’s a good time to discuss that, or to learn about the difference between fictional witches and Wiccans. Or to start discussing death and what it fully means, without it being associated with the specific death of a loved one. I know that stuff isn’t strictly fun, but Halloween serves an actual purpose spiritually for some, so it’s interesting to investigate if you are inclined. On a personal level, I always thought of Halloween as a laying-to-rest of the past year, and awakening with a new life on my birthday – that’s why I tend to make birthday resolutions instead of New Year’s. And it doesn’t hurt that all my friends felt obliged to share their Halloween candy with me as a kid.
It would be flat-out strange to give someone a Halloween gift or basket or money-filled card (this does not apply to my grandparents, naturally). There is no expectation that you get your boyfriend or friends anything except maybe tossing them a lollipop or showing up to a party with some pumpkin ale. Kids can put together costumes out of clothes and items from home if they don’t want to buy a licensed character costume, and they’re celebrated for their creativity. Party decorations can be as simple as tissue ghosts, a 99-cent package of spiderwebs, or nothing at all and you just say the house is haunted. Don’t want to buy candy for trick-or-treaters? No problem – just pop an empty bowl on your porch with a “Please Take Just One” sign.
12. Wholesome, dorky activities, often with historical underpinnings
Halloween is the time of year where you can go to a farm and run through bales of hay with cardboard skeletons popping out or take a hay-wagon ride and somehow it feels festive, instead of like a bunch of straw poking through your jeans. There are always great Halloween-themed activities and events at the historical preservation village near where I grew up, and they hosted educational visits for our Brownies troop with an added history of witchcraft, Halloween traditions, or spooky local superstition component to make it thematic. If you’re into running, you can find all kinds of Zombie 5Ks and child-friendly costumed walk-run events. They don’t conflict with family time or drinking time the way Turkey Trots or St. Patrick’s Day events do – Halloween is its own thing, and it’s just for fun.
13. David S. Pumpkins
Also, I found this image of a hula dachshund in an image search, and I can’t keep it to myself.
So whatever you do to celebrate the very best holiday, be safe, kind to others, and have fun! Indulge your inner child and go all-out at a costume party, or stay home and Netflix up some silly movies. Keep a vigil for the Great Pumpkin, or just scroll through your social media feeds and gush at everyone’s ridiculously cute kids. Do whatever you want – that is the great gonzo madness of Halloween!
When I was young, I took certain biological conditions of my existence for granted. I assumed I would find the love of my life in college or shortly thereafter, that we’d get married, and that I’d have children in my early to mid 20s. My mother was 25 when she had me, and her mother was 25 when she had her. I realized as I approached my 25th birthday that I would not be following that tradition, but surely, I thought, it was right around the corner. I believed I’d met the right person and that our life was leading in that direction. I was laughably wrong.
This November I turn 35, which I have customarily treated as the expiration date on my childbearing years. I’m not sure where I got that number, although since Facebook thinks all I’m interested in is menstruation and reproduction, articles on fertility pop up all the time. In one from The Atlantic originally published in 2013 called “How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby?” which came up again this weekend, I re-read how a lot of our culturally-accepted understanding that 35 is the start of fertility decline is based on French birth records from 1670 to 1830. And today I read how the one thing I believed to be true, that all a woman’s eggs are present at her birth, may not be true.
In truth, I rather enjoyed the poetry and Keanu “whoa” moment of a meme I saw once (and of course can’t find now), declaring, “The egg that became you formed in your mother’s body when she was in your grandmother’s womb.” That’s a pretty profound expansion of one’s physical existence beyond the borders of known consciousness. But it’s also okay with me if that’s not accurate. I know of many examples in my family and others where women continued having healthy babies well past 35 and 40, and my doctor, like everyone else in my life, says I worry too much and my age shouldn’t be an issue. But I think she’s assuming I’m not going to hit pause for another 5 or 10 years while I get the rest of my life together and find a suitable partner.
Beyond feasibility, there are other factors to consider in having a baby, like the increased odds of some chromosomal mutations and genetic aberrations with age, or whether I personally should be passing down my DNA at all. Maybe the love of my life turns out to be someone who’s unable to have children in the traditional way, or maybe it turns out I’m unable to carry a child to term (you don’t really know until you get pregnant, right?). I always thought I’d have plenty of time to work those questions out, but I’ve wasted a really lot of it. And I would like some time to get to know the person with whom I’d be creating another life and be reasonably confident the world would benefit from a combination of us.
So turning 35 is a bit sad for me. Even if it’s not the actual end of my chances to have biological children, it’s a lot closer to the end than 25 was, and I haven’t made any better progress in dating men who want to marry me and start a family. If anything I’m back-sliding on that front. Men my age like to freak out when I say upfront that yes, I want a real relationship and yes, I’d like to get married and have children sooner than later. Maybe I’m supposed to pretend I don’t care or that I’m so chill all I’m thinking about is brunch tomorrow, but that would be a lie. I’m not trying to waste more time, but I’m also not going to settle for the wrong person just because he might be my last chance. I’d rather be alone forever than unhappy with the wrong person again. I’ve always been okay with adoption, an option that would give me more time, but that’s by far the more difficult and expensive path, and from what I understand, preference is still given to married couples with healthy bank accounts. I don’t imagine saying, “I don’t know, I’ll trust the universe and figure it out” is the best approach to getting approved to adopt as a single parent if it goes that way.
Occasionally in quiet moments preceding mortality-based “What the hell am I doing with my time on this planet?” type panic attacks, I like to ask myself, “Do I even want children?” I think about the ways my life would change, how expensive and exhausting and challenging kids are, and I can’t honestly say I know for sure I’d be a good mother. I’m nurturing, I try to do right by people, I have a pretty strong sense of responsibility when it comes to caring for pets or other people’s children, so I assume I could get my act together for my own, but I don’t actually know if that’s true. Would I be able to put on a good face in the depths of depression and act like everything’s okay so my kid has a normal childhood, or would I make them miserable and unhappy because I still can’t manage my brain chemistry and need a lot of quiet time? Children can’t process that stuff easily, and I don’t want to damage someone I’m supposed to be encouraging to dream and hope and love.
I’ve always believed I wanted a family because I had a pretty great childhood and family means so much to me. Some bad things happened, I had some struggles, but my parents were always there for me and helped me through it. We had a lot of fun, and I am so grateful that my parents made our family such a priority – we ate dinner together every night, no matter what, and we all talked about our day, discussed current events, and truly knew each other as people. I dream of having that, instead of eating by myself at midnight if I get around to cooking. I’m very close with both of my parents and my brother as adults, and so in addition to the years of cute little people cruising around and energetic family life, I’d like substantive relationships with my children as adults too. My mother recently told me she and my father had a “No Assholes” policy when we were kids, which is to say they would not tolerate brattiness, unkindness, temper tantrums, selfishness, materialism, passive consumption of media, lying, or any of the things that would enable us to grow up into boring, asshole adults. They were quite young when they had kids, so their intent was to raise people they enjoyed being around. And then they spent a lot of time with us and did their best to help us be good people (they still do). I think that’s what I want.
But… I don’t want it with the wrong person. I have dated some great guys, but also some appallingly terrible ones, and I worry about my judgement and ability to pick the right person for me. I have deals with a few friends and family members that if they ever see me dating someone who seems like another jerk, they need to tell me immediately and not let me waste time trying to spare my feelings. I tend to only see the best in people and latch onto it, so I need to start being slightly more objective and honest with myself about misgivings, if the plan is to have a child with a man whom I hope to be the love of my life.
I know a lot of people who have chosen not to have children, and it seems like they have very happy, full lives. I also know a lot of single parents who are happier than they ever were in a relationship with their children’s parent. Maybe the universe has something different in mind for me than I’d always planned for myself. I know I will do my best to find the meaning and beauty in whatever iteration of family life or solitude I end up in, but I’d like it to be by choice and not by default. I have been saying for a while now that if I were still single when I turned 35 I’d adopt a cat, and I’m having commitment issues even with that. How will I know when it’s the right time to move on from plan A to something else? When do I stop looking for a life partner and just enjoy men’s company for what it is? Or does it just happen quietly one day, when some more time has passed, and I ask myself why I kept sabotaging relationships and clinging to my solitude, then decide I must not have wanted a family after all?
Fujikasa Satoko, Plant Growth, 2013, stoneware with matte translucent glaze, at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
I have spent most of my adult life trying to fix the things I think are wrong with me and trying to make my life better (it’s been one of the themes of this blog since 2014 at least). All of my goals for personal growth, improved health, financial stability, positive life experiences, cultivating relationships with truly good people, and aligning my existence with my values are directly compatible with meeting a soulmate and raising a family, so it’s not like I necessarily need to shift focus or do anything differently. If anything, I should probably focus more on them while I can, since I’m not sure I would be able to get a lot of exercise and meditation in with a newborn around.
I recently read the infinitely-quotable book How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh, who always makes life seem so simple and gentle. He uses an extended metaphor of gardening for how to bring love from oneself out into the world to share with others. I was especially taken with a line on aspirations:
If you have a deep aspiration, a goal for your life, then your loving of others is part of this aspiration and not a distraction from it.
I’ve been thinking about this over and over, as I think about what goals I want to set for my 35th birthday. I need to adjust my mindset to one where love, and nurturing my relationships with love, are back at the center. If I want to bring love and family into my life, I need to make myself a garden where love can grow (both metaphorically and yuck, yes, physically). Whatever form that takes, I need to welcome it with gratitude, and I know I won’t get there any sooner by being impatient about it.
So this year I am going to try to actually celebrate, instead of grieve, and be grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, instead of resentful that time passed with no more progress toward a family. I will try to enjoy the unanswered questions and unsettled conditions as mysteries of possibility yet to unfold. I’m going to keep trying to be more open and honest and present day to day, to be more of myself even when it would be easier to give up, curl into a ball, and make decisions I’ll regret years from now. I always tell other friends who are upset about being single that you can’t meet the love of your life until you’re both who and where you need to be, to be right for each other. So maybe it’s time to start taking my own advice and make the best of things as they are, instead of how I might wish them to be.
And maybe it’s time to look into adopting that cat.