Monday, December 18, 2017

Pet Project

The following appears in the December edition of Chicago Parent.

In a moment of rare parental indulgence and surrender, I purchased a pet for my youngest son, Joey, last Spring. Every school assignment, every top ten wish list, every note to Santa for five consecutive years had included a request for some sort of domesticated critter. I was beaten down.

Thankfully, I did remain coherent enough to choose an animal that required very little maintenance.

I got him a hermit crab.

While Joey obviously would have preferred something that didn’t rescind into its shell whenever he walked into the room, my son demonstrated a strident devotion to his new friend. He did online research and quickly dubbed the thing “Green Shell.” He wet his drinking sponge religiously with my Ice Mountain and took him for daily walks to ensure he got sun. Green Shell was the most pampered and adored hermit crab the world has ever known.

Until Green Shell died.

I noticed several months in that Green Shell wasn’t rotating between his two favorite spots: sitting on top of his coconut shell hut and sitting INSIDE his coconut shell hut.


I was not mentally prepared for a dead pet and all that entailed. So I went into procrastination mode.

I snuck into Joey’s room that night and moved Green Shell from the top of his hut and instead placed him inside his hut.

Then I switched him back the next day.

Problem solved.

Joey continued to water, feed, and engage Green Shell in his daily activities while I played my twisted version of Elf on the Shelf. When a tornado siren went off in our neighborhood, Joey hustled upstairs to save his dead pet from imminent doom.

My husband expressed some concern over the macabre nature of my rouse.

So I distracted him with prime rib until he forgot what we were talking about.

Another month or two went by before I started feeling guilty. I decided it was perhaps time to bid farewell to Green Shell. My ploy was starting to resemble “Weekend at Bernie’s,” and even I had my morose limits. Plus, Joey was insisting I purchase more food, a fresh sponge, and a bigger cage for Green Shell. He also suggested that perhaps Green Shell could use a girlfriend.

I marched upstairs to Joey’s bedroom with a plastic bag to take care of business while Joey was at school. I scripted out a brilliant talk on love and loss. The moment had finally come.

I found Green Shell in the corner of his cage.

Hold up.

I hadn’t put Green Shell there.

It occurred to me that Joey must have moved him. So I reached in and wouldn’t you know?

Green Shell was the Lazarus of hermit crabs.

The creepy little thing that hadn’t shown the slightest hint of movement in months was alive and well. I saw his legs wiggle around when I picked him up. Surprised and slightly scared, I immediately dropped Green Shell on his damn coconut hut.

My dead crab script got tossed and I called my husband in a semi-hysterical state. He suggested I stay away from the mortuary sciences.

Then offered to pick up crab legs for dinner.

And people wonder why I drink.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Cult of Parenthood

The following appears in the November edition of Chicago Parent.

I do not watch much television, stubbornly retiring my remote after “Breaking Bad.” The pinnacle of programming had obviously been achieved, so why mess around with crap like “Fuller House?” Still, I found myself inexplicably curious about the A&E series, “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath.”

Perhaps it was the basest of all human emotions. I wanted to check out the train wreck. Maybe gather some gossip on John Travolta and Tom Cruise along the way. Weren’t space aliens involved?

Ten hours of binge-watching later, I gained a different perspective.

Listening to the tragic trajectory of people sacrificing savings, belief systems, and families for something “more,” I was overcome with déjà vu.

It hit me.

Scientology is a lot like the cult of parenthood.

It starts out innocently enough. You are a parent! You are part of this fabulous club where everyone is BFFs and eager to share diaper coupons! The world is exploding with possibility, much like the volcanic cover of “Dianetics.”

Slowly, things change. You’re presented with the ladder to childhood success. What? You never signed your kid up for tee-ball? Music lessons need to start before age four. You bought that Irish Dance costume USED? What in the name of Xenu is going on here?

More time passes and you find yourself mortgaging the house for travel teams, private coaches, and boozy tournaments all in an effort to move up that ridiculous ladder.

Not that I’m opposed to the boozy tournament part.

You barely see your friends and family. You start sounding insane when discussing your nine-year-old’s hockey “career.” Anyone who isn’t equally focused on their kid’s development is considered an outsider and obviously “suppressive.”

Leah Remini delivered a wake-up call. Although my kids revel in a wide variety of activities, they didn’t need to be their very best all the time. It was fine to phone it in now and then. Skip the ladder. Take the escalator. Save your tired feet to fight another day.

With a renewed focus on reducing the intensity of our lives, I registered my kids for the inaugural season of a local Chicago Park District hockey program. It was a less intensive program than what we’d done previously. My middle son threw himself on the ground in protest:

“I cannot be a HORNED FROG!!!”

Too bad, kid. Now practice your ribbits.

Due to the massive savings, all three could play fall hockey. I was okay knowing two of them would struggle. They were thrilled for the opportunity nonetheless.

Danny is reminding me of a steam engine, but definitely up for the challenge. Jack is slowly finding ways to be supportive towards teammates just starting out. It’s not his nature to be patient, but he’s giving it his all. And Joey remains a maniacal drunken giraffe on skates, improving ever so slightly, but smiling up at the stands when he does.

I am relieved my kids aren’t playing AAA Hockey and I defer to others to pursue becoming a prince.

For now, it’s good to be a frog.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Recreational Obsession

The following appears in the October edition of Chicago Parent

I occasionally have been known to get obsessed with certain topics, researching theories and historical timelines until the wee hours of the morning. I am so well versed in my fixations, I could probably defend dissertation-worthy papers on my findings.

Unfortunately, my papers wouldn’t exactly fall under the “Ideas that Benefit Humanity” category:
  • How Jive Records Destroyed JC Chasez’ Career in Favor of the Less Talented but More Marketable Justin Timberlake 
  • Why George Clooney Never Really Got Over Kelly Preston 
  • The Truth Behind Matt Damon’s and Ben Affleck’s Secret Control of the Oscars 

Now before you take away my foil hat, I would like to point out that folks with OCD can go many different ways. There is my clean-freak sister whose house reveals no tangible evidence that anyone actually lives there. My older brother’s perfect vacuum lines and angles would impress Archimedes himself.

Exhausted after trying to keep my house immaculate with three boys and a husband who simply does not notice mess, I applied my genetic code to the world of celebrity gossip and conspiracy theories. It makes me happy. And possibly a little insane.

My youngest son, Joey, began demonstrating OCD at an early age. As a baby, he would sit in his high chair and scream bloody murder if we accidently left a drawer or cabinet open. By two, he was marching firmly towards hoardersville, saving candy wrappers, old socks, and free plastic cups from kid meals. In order to shake that habit, I told him he would most likely die under old boxes and dead cats.

Brutal, but it worked.

Yet recently, there has been a distinct shift in behavior. We visited Camp-Land RV. Joey was dazzled. He reviewed the brochures like a classical scholar inspecting the Rosetta Stone. He woke me up at 5 am the next morning to explain the differences between RV Class A, B, and C motorhomes. He took a tape measure to our narrow Chicago driveway and explained where exactly we could park an RV.

He is also researching financing.

My inclination is to let the obsession play out. If he is anything like his mother, he will eventually move to a new subject after a year or two of solid research, chart development, and cost analysis.

Or maybe he will grow up and find employment at an RV dealership.

Either way, I will always view those with OCD as kindred spirits. They are passionate and knowledgeable, and perhaps the best teachers out there.

Now ask me what really happened between Taylor Swift and Harry Styles. Totally know.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Bully Me This

The following appears in the September edition of Chicago Parent.

I love me some Steve Harvey like no other, so I obviously watch a lot of Family Feud.

Yet a recent question left me reeling.

“Name the worst grade of grammar school.”

Being a Family Feud devotee, I naturally scored the number one answer: 7th grade. Zero hesitation. And it had everything to do with the dawn of the bully.

The causes of bullies are historically varied: insecurity, unstable home lives, malicious strains in the DNA to name a few. The result is the same: indiscriminate attacks throughout junior high school, leaving kids in an anxiety-induced state of alert, needing to decide:

Run, fight, or follow.

For those who follow, the statistics aren’t good. Bullies face much higher rates of substance abuse, depression, unemployment, incarceration, divorce, and suicide. So when my first son approached 7th grade, he was warned. Prepare to walk away from friends who will follow. Prepare for kids being total jag-offs. But the toughest warning of all?

Prepare to have your heart broken. Again and again.

It was a difficult year for him and me. I fought the urge to march over to the stoops of parents: DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOUR KID IS DOING? DO YOU KNOW WHAT HE IS SAYING? IS ANYBODY PAYING ATTENTION IN THERE???

My sane husband talked me down. It didn’t stop me from giving the side-eye whenever I spotted certain parents, but I tried not be obvious.

Fine. I was completely obvious.

So as my second son geared up for 7th grade, I started having the same talk with him. He cut me off.

“My grade doesn’t have a bully. Whenever a kid tries to be one, someone stops them.”

“A teacher?” I asked, astonished at the prospect that some miracle educator had finally found the cure to this horrible multi-generational ill. Who could this Marie Curie be? How had she eviscerated bullydom? Give me her name, son!

“Jake Brady.”

Wait. Jake Brady wasn’t a teacher. He was a kid! An always-smiling, slightly shorter-than-average kid. Sure, he was good at sports, but there was nothing terribly intimidating or scary about him. How was this even possible?

“He just stops it. Right when it starts. And everyone listens.”

Call it leadership. Call it confidence. Call it the gift of true humanity finding itself in a 12-year old boy. My son went on to clarify that Jake stuck up for everyone, not just his friends. He even stuck up for kids he didn’t like because he thought it was unfair for bullies to go after them for being different. And suddenly, my inner 12 year-old girl with the awkward perm, lazy eye, and stack of books wanted to hug Jake Brady. For someone who has never known a day of cool in her life, it was hard to believe that people such as this existed.

So thank you, kid. You have shown us all that empathy lives. That kindness lives. That good exists.

Please don’t ever change.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Baby Shower

The following appears in the July edition of Chicago Parent.

After receiving an invitation for a baby shower last month, I immediately headed over to the online registry. I was curious to see how far child-rearing had evolved from when I last had a newborn. Surprisingly, the list was as timeless and practical as if it had been produced in 1950.

There was a strong focus on the necessities (diapers, pacifiers, bottles, bedding, etc.), but not a hint of the vegan/organic/gender-neutral lifestyle I assumed all millennials were now embracing.

Grumpy old Gen X’ers like myself are known to occasionally make sweeping and unfair generalizations while yelling at neighborhood kids to get off the lawn.

The stroller resembled something out of NASA, but I wrote that off to the ever-changing improvements in space-baby technology. The crib, which I dubbed Optimus Prime, had the ability not only to transform into a toddler bed, but also a twin bed frame and ultimately a tiny home.

Talk about sound planning.

My mind drifted back to the day I registered. Overwhelmed by the endless choices before me, I waddled around Babies ‘R' Us fighting back nausea and immense feelings of inadequacy. Was I going to need a breast pump? I didn’t know for sure I wanted to go that route. The bassinet was adorable, but our one-bedroom condo could barely fit a crib. And what the hell was a Pack ‘n Play? And an ExerSaucer?


I handed the registry gun off to my mom who proceeded to request 150 sets of baby sheets and mattress protectors.

“Trust me. You’re really gonna need those,” she smiled.

My shower came and went with a U-Haul full of items that were supposed to keep my baby alive, happy, and on course for meeting every developmental milestone.

Prior to that day, I always thought of showers as happy occasions. Instead, it was my holy crap moment.

What had I gotten myself into where I now required an entire aisle of Costco?

And as all moms before me, I became wise to the marketing. The most important item? A purse big enough to accommodate a diaper, a sandwich bag of wipes, and some loose Cheerios. My Nana’s gentle reminder also helped:

Half of our country’s presidents once slept in drawers.

There is one item I wish NASA could develop insofar as mothering. It is a time machine. The magic of expecting my first child was overshadowed by a lot of needless worry, angst, and fear. I would go back and tell myself it would all be fine. Danny would be fine. Joe didn’t need to re-screw every bolt on the crib six times. Taking three infant CPR classes may have been overkill.

I would instead have soaked up the miracle.

And realized my mom was right.

You can never have enough infant bedding. Especially when flu season hits.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Pregnant Pause

The following appears in the June edition of Chicago Parent.

I was two weeks late before I even gave it a thought.

After all, tubal ligations are one of the most effective means out there. When I reluctantly accepted medical advice after three c-sections, a big part of me felt I was closing down shop prematurely.

I had planned for five boys. My imaginary 4th and 5th sons, Sean and Michael, were supposed to be the charmers. The hellions. The ones who refused to play chess and instead chose rugby. As the youngest, they would hear stories from their brothers about their Tiger Mom and her dictatorial leanings and shake their heads in disbelief.

“Mom is easy. Just make her laugh and she’s all yours. You guys did it wrong.”

But I never took the risk. I never got to meet Sean and Michael.

When I ran into a hockey mom from last season pushing a stroller, infants were the furthest thing from my mind.

“You have a baby! In an ice rink. I didn’t even know you were expecting!”

“Oh, Marianne. I had a tubal years ago. I was almost five months along before I knew. This just proves God really does have a sense of humor.”

I peaked in on the beautiful grinning baby girl wrapped in pink and my mind started doing the math.

Oh sh*t.

A few hours later, I found myself watching the clock, awaiting the results of my impromptu Walgreens purchase. I thought of my Nana. Her mother (my great-grandmother) had died three months after giving birth to her final child at age 47. No, geriatric pregnancies simply didn’t end well in my family.

But again, I thought of Sean and Michael. And a part of me was excited. While I couldn’t fathom doing car seats and diapers at 43 years old, there was nobody in my life who brought me as much joy as my children. How could another one be a mistake? Even though the results read negative, several more weeks went by before I knew for sure.

My husband was relieved.

 I cried.

The moment I decided to indulge in a full-blown depression, I discovered our dryer was broken. Then the ice hockey bill came due. The boys all came home with a list of materials needed to build their much-hated dioramas. The crack in our minivan windshield (which I put off having fixed) spread out so that driving morphed into peering through a pair of bifocals. So much for my funk.

No, Sean and Michael were never meant to be. I will always mourn that fact. But my husband and kids prove every day that God does in fact have a sense of humor.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Blame Game

The following appears in the May edition of Chicago Parent.

When two dozen heavily frosted blue cupcakes mysteriously disappeared at a class birthday party several years ago, the offender was quickly identified. Little Matt looked like he had been devouring Smurfs whole. His hair, face, and fingers were covered in the telltale frosting.

Mass hysteria broke out as attendees began realizing the implications of Matt’s actions:


Well, besides Matt.

There were hushed whispers. A group of moms gathered in the corner. Blame was assigned. But it was not Indigo Matt’s fault.



Why hadn’t she been watching him more carefully? What kind of child was she raising? Who teaches her son that it’s perfectly acceptable to devour an entire tray of cupcakes?

Yet when Matt’s dad came strolling in a few minutes later from an apparent cigarette break, the villagers put down their pitchforks. Mom wasn’t even at the party. Dad mumbled a half-hearted apology. The tone changed.

What a great guy to have brought Matt to a birthday party all by himself! Dad of the Year! Get this man a slice of Little Caesar’s!

It was the first time I truly comprehended how society cuts mothers zero slack. Sociopaths go on murderous rampages and receive far more leniency than moms. And who do the psychologists usually blame when serial killers strike?


She obviously never hugged him enough. She probably didn’t sign him up for scouts. She gave away his dog when he was nine simply because he wasn’t taking care of it.

I realized that I would be getting the blame for ever poor decision my kids made for the rest of my life.

Several years after the Great Cupcake Debacle, I was at an event where my oldest son ran around helping the hostess collect plates and clean up.

“It must be so nice to have a child who was born that awesome,” commented a nearby dad.

And that’s when it hit me. Mothers are manipulated into believing they are responsible for every misstep, but if a child shines?

That’s happenstance.

How often do we hear about Mother Teresa’s own mother? Did you know she raised three kids on her own after her husband died? Mother Teresa credited her mom with teaching her kindness and instilling a deep sense of compassion. Yet history barely acknowledges her.

My boys hold the door for people. I used to play along and pretend they arrived on planet Earth doing this. In all actuality, it took several years of going batsh*t crazy and having doors slam on my butt as I balanced a baby and groceries while my two oldest jettisoned themselves into the house without so much as a glance back. Finally, they started remembering to show this basic courtesy.

It is time moms stand up for ourselves. Stop feeding the narrative that mothering isn’t a boatload of work and every success exists in a vacuum. If we are getting nailed for each blunder, then we should take ownership of a small fraction of the victories.

Every trip to the museum. Every bedtime story. Every time you helped them up after they fell and reminded them that the learning is in the falling.

That was you.

And you were wonderful.

Friday, March 3, 2017

I Spy with My Mom Eye

The following appears in the March edition of Chicago Parent.

When certain moms tell me how much they love being the focal point of neighborhood action (having kids over, feeding feral children, maintaining mob security), I feel a degree of shame. Not only do I eschew groups of kids gaining access to my home and pantry, but my thought when others don’t?

You people are crazy. 

I do not enjoy my cabinets raided, my ears accosted, and the whirlwind of jumping, leaping, and shouting boys. I’ve got sensory issues, dammit.

The argument I hear most often from open-door policy moms is that they are keeping tabs on their kids and their friends. They know exactly what is going on. They have their fingers on the pulse of tween society.

For me, it seems like an awful lot of work and expense to secure the same information I get by employing a series of enhanced interrogation techniques. I am the daughter of a special agent. My father utilized his years of government training in raising his four kids. He could detect a lie with a mere blink or shift in eye contact. He knew the targeted questions to ask. And we never, ever doubted his ability to kill us 100 different ways and make it look like an accident. Unfortunately for my kids, my dad was generous enough to share this training with me.

My best intel comes via carpool. For whatever reason, kids are naïve enough to buy into my distracted driver performance. I fumble with the radio. I mutter about traffic. I sing Journey tunes. In all actuality, I am making mental notes of every inappropriate comment and act of unkindness.

I’m essentially Jason Bourne.

And after I lull them into a false sense of security? That’s when I pounce:

“So, who is like the MEANEST kid in your grade?”

“Who would you trust with your life?”

“What kid do you hear the teachers complaining about most?”

“Who gets everybody else in trouble but never gets caught?”

There is an old adage that states, “show me a kid’s friends, and I’ll show you his future.” Even God backs me up on this up in Proverbs 13:20:

“He that walketh with wise men shall be wise, but a companion of fools shall be destroyed.”

As my boys get older, I know I have less and less say in who they choose to befriend. It doesn’t matter how many secret files I maintain, if some kid appeals to their sense of humor or sense of fun, there is very little I can do. I am left hoping that my lectures against mob mentality and choosing right when everybody else chooses wrong will hold up.

But if not?

I’ve got my dad’s old files.

And Russia on speed-dial.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Marriage Fantasy

The following appears in the February edition of Chicago Parent.

My husband and I recently logged in another successful year of marriage.

Our body count held steady at zero. No dishes were thrown and/or broken. The ability to feign interest in each other’s favorite topics has never been stronger.

Joe seriously thinks I like Fantasy Football. When he rambles on about possible trades or player pick-ups, I am reminded of the adults from the old Peanuts cartoon: Mwha mwha mwhua mwha.

Yet with a well-timed raised eyebrow or occasional “NO WAY,” my attentive performance goes unquestioned.

Joe and I both possess fiery personalities. Yet we rarely fight. I would like to think it has to do with the mature status of our relationship and our ongoing evolution as a couple.

But I’d totally be fibbing.

Joe loses his mind over the small things (“Where are all the clean socks…YOU KEEP SWITICHING DRAWERS!”). Though when real disaster or tragedy strikes, he holds it together.

Not me. Those are the moments I barely comprehend English, and logic and reasoning become as foreign to me as the top 10 Fantasy picks for wide receiver.

As the kids started dropping off the assembly line twelve years ago, there was definitely increased tension. I had to lose the notion of “the marriage fantasy” promised to me by dozens of rom-coms and poorly written romance novels.

Now our lives were a litany of questions. Who would remember to grab formula on the way home from work? Who would take off to go to the pediatrician’s office? Who would get up for the next 3 am feeding?

And whose idea were these kids anyway?

In all seriousness, the kids were the impetus for us being together. Many of my earlier relationships failed because I sensed future bad dads. The men were often too selfish, too fragile, or too unreliable to invest myself.

When I met Joe, there was instant safety. He was okay with my brand of crazy and not easily shaken. Plus, I thought he was totally dreamy.

Joe eventually bought me a beautiful engagement ring that I never wear because I have sensory issues and I hate rings. He is okay with that.

I reluctantly went along with the idea of a wedding even though I wanted to go to Vegas and get married by Elvis. My dress was off the rack and cost about $200. I think I ordered my invitations from the same place that killed George Constanza’s fiancé.

I never cared about the visuals. The big diamond. The big day. The big honeymoon (which I’m told we’ll get around to taking one day).

I cared about creating a family with someone I loved who would not run away when things got tough.

Recently, I directed my husband to the wrong school for one of the kids’ games. It was on a snowy day where we had five different events to hit. When we arrived, I realized my mistake. The actual venue was two minutes from our house, but we were now 45 minutes away.

Joe frowned, threw the car into drive, and tried his best to avoid getting another red light ticket. We made it in time for my son to play the second half.

Joe wanted to gripe, to direct his ire at me, and to go into full blown rant mode.

But he didn’t. So I questioned him about his Fantasy Football team. I asked him not to spare a single detail.

He had earned that one.

And so much more.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Time I Almost Killed My Husband

The following appears in the January edition of Chicago Parent. 

When it comes to parenting, my husband and I agree on most things. We swore to each other a long time ago to represent a united front against the tyrannical tendencies of our progeny. Man-to-man was discarded once our third son was born. In choosing a zone defense, we knew that regular and clear communication would be critical. For the most part, our plan went swimmingly.

Until recently.

My oldest son began exploring high school choices this month. As a chess-tutoring, trombone-playing 7th grader who just so happens to be built like a Bears’ lineman, Danny has been a unique work in progress for many years. With a complete lack of fast-twitch muscle fibers, the kid has nonetheless enjoyed playing ice hockey and basketball. He talks about a future career in engineering or computers. He has been involved in music since he was four years old.

After a visit to his #1 choice, Chicago’s storied Mt. Carmel High School, I was dumbfounded to discover the school did not have a marching band.

Being a wife somewhat lacking in introspection and calm, I immediately attacked the object of my ire: my husband, Joe (a Mt. Carmel graduate and now Public Enemy #1).

“No marching band? NO MARCHING BAND?? You NEVER told me they didn’t have a marching band!! I feel DECEIVED! Let down! RUINED!”

The voice on the other side of the phone went silent for a moment before finally speaking up:

 “I’m sorry. I do believe you have the wrong number.”


After a 24-hour cooling down period, I realized I never explained my rationale for all the music lessons. I had just assumed my husband understood that marching band was the ultimate goal. It would be Danny’s high school clique. The cool geeks. The kids everyone saw at the football games but who didn’t actually risk traumatic brain injury.

The problem was, I never quite communicated this to my husband. Joe was never part of the nerd chic division of high school. Sure, he won the math and accounting awards, but he was cool. He looked like a Backstreet Boy with killer cheekbones and a letterman jacket.

The thought of joining marching band was as foreign to him as me entertaining becoming a cheerleader. For the record, six-feet tall girls never ever entertain becoming a cheerleader, unless the squad really needs a base.

While still licking my wounds and resigning myself to the fact that Danny might never be part of a marching band, my husband browsed the Mt. Carmel website. He then pointed out that there IS a band, they just don’t march anywhere.

“Maybe Danny can get them marching?” Joe suggested.

“Yeah, because he knows so much about formation and drills,” I muttered, defeated.

“Marianne, do you think I ever envisioned having a son who is capable of so much? He can assemble his own Christmas stuff faster and better than I can! Don’t underestimate him. If something is really important to him, Dan will make it happen.”

And just like that, Joe and I were back on the same page, believing and supporting our child on whatever path he chose.

So long as it included the occasional lateral or v-formation and a to-the-right flank.

Sorry. Sometimes I can’t help myself.