Lovey destruction — January 3, 2019

Lovey destruction

My daughter has a lovey. A’s is a baby blanket, basically, with an animal head in one corner. And like all loveys – whether it’s a stuffed animal, a blanket, or some hybrid of the two – it comforts the baby the way the primary parent or caregiver does. Its texture and smell evoke that important person and calm the baby down. My daughter uses hers to keep me with her, even when I can’t be there in person. The lovey is me. That’s why I should’ve started to worry when she began gnawing at the corners.

joanna and jessica 1977

I was very young when I first fell in love with babies and decided I wanted to be a mother. (I’m in the photo above in the groovy 70s rainbow jeans with my cousin Jessica.) But I didn’t actually become a mother until I was 45, which gave me a lot of time to imagine what kind of mother I’d be. In those long, exhausting, isolating days of parenting a newborn, I’d talk to myself. It probably sounded like the pep talk an Olympic athlete might give herself before stepping into the stadium: “You’ve been training for this your whole life. Now go on out there and have fun.”

And we did have fun, my girl and I. Almost everything we did, almost everywhere we went, we were happy and in synch. Even when she was tiny, I didn’t struggle to figure out what she wanted. I was responsive to her needs, sensitive to her changing mood, attuned to when she needed to be energized and when she needed to be soothed. And she calmed me down, too. I’ve always been the most comfortable, the most confident, the most “me” when I was alone with her.

For two wonderful years, we lived inside a bliss bubble of mutual regulation. Other people entered our bubble, of course – her dad, other family, other caregivers. But it was mostly us. There was an invisible thread between us at all times. We used the thread to communicate “you are loved” and “you are safe” and to absorb those ideas and translate them into self-esteem and a sense of security.


The lovey had always looked and smelled pretty rough. Like most kids, A hated when we washed it. But now the corners were in tatters. A was the one tearing at it like a tiger cub tearing at the carcass of a wild boar. Yet she seemed dismayed to see how her beloved looked in the cold light of day. One time, she got a chunk of it stuck between her teeth and squawked for me to get it out. When I showed her the little piece of blue fabric that I yanked out, she seemed genuinely surprised to see it. The only explanation I can come up with is that she’d gone into a fugue state, unaware of her actions.


Our bliss bubble seems to have burst. A can’t stand the sight of me some days. She tells me I’m not allowed to walk through the room she’s in. After I’ve had my coffee in the morning, she complains about my bad breath. She slams doors in my face, says she wants “me time.” She’s furious when I won’t pick her up and carry her when I’m already carrying lots of other things. It’s not all the time. I still get snuggles and kisses. But some days, she’s furious at me just for existing.

This has been the most painful part of parenting so far. I’m not going to lie. But then I remind myself that she’s separating from me. There was no way we could stay in that bliss bubble forever. She’s got to go to school and other places without me. This is natural. This is healthy. The timing is perfect. And because she doesn’t have the faintest idea how to sit me down and break it to me gently that our dynamic is about to change, she separates from me with a flurry of insults and a thousand little rejections. This is how my little girl grows up.

Based on: Assesment and Treatment of Difficulties in Mother-Infant Attunement in the First Three Years of Life: A Case History. Beatrice Beebe, Ph.D. and Phyllis Sloate, Ph. D. 1982.

“Anna in Frozen” braids — November 28, 2018

“Anna in Frozen” braids

Today the day finally came. I’d been dreading it.

I was about to do her hair, and A asked me for “two braids, like Anna in Frozen.” I knew what she was really asking. She wanted me to give her long, straight hair. White girl hair. All the books I’d read and the seminars I’d attended had led me to this moment. And the truth is I wish I’d handled it differently.

“Well, that’s a little tricky baby, because Anna has a different kind of hair than you do.”

“You can have this braid on this side of my head, over here. And this braid over here on this side. Like that, okay?”

“Uh huh.”

“And Anna has hair that’s brown and also hair that is white. I want you to make me look like that.”

“But baby that’s not possible. Anna has straight hair and yours is curly, coily, cotton candy hair.”

I was quoting a book title. I thought about the hundreds of times I’d read her that book and the other books like it, written to boost black girl self-esteem. The message is always that natural curls are versatile, natural curls are a lot of work, and there is no such thing as bad hair, no matter the curl pattern. I make sure her books and toys are filled with kids who look like her, I make sure she has loving relationships lots of people with hair like hers. I looked down at her sweet, hopeful face and wondered if any of these messages had sunk in. This was the VERY first time my daughter had ever requested a particular hairstyle, and she asked for the hair of a Scandinavian princess. A looked at me blankly, unable to understand why I was being so obstinate, so I said:

“It’s very difficult to make one kind of hair look like another. That would be like if Anna tried to have curls like yours. Can you imagine? I bet she’d dream of having curls like yours. But I just don’t think it would be possible, do you?”

She didn’t respond, so I said:

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Then I parted her hair down the middle, and covered her head with small, two-strand rope twists. Then starting above her forehead and holding the twists as though they were clumps of hair, I braided a large French braid on each side.



To be honest, I love the way the ‘Anna in Frozen” braids turned out. It was by far the most ambitious style I’ve ever done and I had no idea what to expect but it came out even better than I’d imagined. [Edited to add: it had no structural integrity and fell apart in less than 24 hours.] But those braids were two lovingly crafted cop-outs too, a missed opportunity to remind A about how many compliments she gets on her hair. I didn’t insist that she’s extraordinarily beautiful (which she is) or tell her that it crushes my heart a little that she wants to look like anyone else. Something told me not to discourage her from looking like Princess Anna of Arendelle, at least not today. My worry was that any pushback might cause her to dig in her heels. Instead, I tried my best to deliver on her request. And maybe when I did, it seemed like I thought Anna in Frozen had the most beautiful hair, too.

When I showed her the photograph above, she smiled politely. I asked if she liked them and she said she did, but she wanted hair that went “down to here” – she pointed below her shoulders. There are limits to what Mommy can do.

rebel rebel — August 22, 2018

rebel rebel

Here is a partial list of rules my daughter (3) doesn’t follow:

We ask for things nicely and say please.

We color on paper, not the walls.

We don’t sneak spice bottles from the kitchen and empty them onto the floor.

We don’t pull makeup out of Mommy’s purse and paint our face.

We only take toys into bed with us at night if they don’t light up or make noise.

We don’t pull strawberries off the strawberry plant until they’re ripe.

We play with play-doh, slime, and markers at the dining room table, not the couch.


Has A forgotten these rules? Not at all. She can recite them by heart.

Is she trying to drive us nuts? Not at all. She wants to please us.

We’ve reminded her of the rules countless times, but she doesn’t need a reminder. She just doesn’t care about the rule as much as she WANTS TO DO THE FORBIDDEN THING. Her brain isn’t developed enough for impulse control and she can’t consistently choose following the rule over breaking the rule.

It isn’t toddler defiance, although it looks a lot like it, especially when she doesn’t show any remorse. She has an incompletely formed brain. And like all 3 year olds, A is brimming with narcissistic grandiosity, omnipotence, egocentric thought, and self-centeredness. These are the very qualities that make her so hilarious.

When she breaks these rules, her dad and I don’t punish her. And we’re not being indulgent, although it might looks like it. I’m aware of how our parenting style looks to some other other adults; it seems we’re enabling A to pick and choose which rules she wants to follow. But judgment from other adults is no concern of mine. I know that asking my toddler to control her behavior with a 100% success rate is about as reasonable as asking her to complete a Sudoku puzzle with a 100% success rate. I can’t even do that most of the time.


bizarre love triangle — August 15, 2018

bizarre love triangle


So I want to warn you laddie
Though I know that you’re perfectly swell
That my heart belongs to Daddy
Cause my Daddy, he treats it so well
– Cole Porter

Despite being drama-averse in my private life, I’ve somehow found myself embroiled in a bizarre love triangle.

In the beginning, my husband was a loving and trustworthy parent who doted solicitously. He carried our daughter on his shoulders. He bounced A around, he tickled her, he swung her upside down. He was always lots of fun… but he wasn’t me. He was A’s second favorite parent. And I thought all three of us were fine with that arrangement.

Then she turned two and suddenly she only had eyes for daddy. When I made her mad, she’d cry for him. When he was working late and couldn’t get home in time to put her to bed, she’d beg to stay up late so she could see him. He became her sun and moon.

Now she’s a few months past her third birthday and her feelings for her father are only intensifying. When he comes home from work each evening, she loses her mind with excitement.

I started grad school fairly certain the Oedipal Complex was bogus and I quickly learned that most of what Freud had to say about women and girls has been debunked. But six (?!) years later, I’ve come to realize that the Oedipal Complex is true, but only if I don’t take what Freud said literally. Of course, my daughter doesn’t want to murder me and have sex with her dad. That’s a preposterous theory. She has no idea what it means to kill someone or have sex with someone.

But she knows about love. She craves attention, approval, and affection from her father. She used to crave getting those things from her mother, but now I’m in the way. This is developmentally normal, this is perfectly natural, and it’s healthy. (If she had same sex parents, this wouldn’t be happening, but as it turned out she has a mom and dad.) Developmental psychologists say she’ll likely move out of this phase around age 6. In the meantime, my job is to disillusion her in the kindest possible way. I need to let her know I love her and I don’t hold a grudge about her favoring her dad over me. I get it. But she can’t have him because I won’t give him up.


subtropical tantrum — August 6, 2018

subtropical tantrum


When my daughter doesn’t get what she wants, she’s been known to collapse to the floor, pounding her fists and wailing as though grieving the death of a life partner of 50 years. And with something like houseguests she loves saying goodbye and driving away, the loss is that monumental – at least to her.

I view tantrums the way I view those subtropical rainstorms that happen every afternoon in Florida. It’s a warm and sunny day, without a cloud in sight. Then all at once, the sky opens up and there’s storm-force winds, lightning, and a torrential downpour so violent that everyone runs for cover. It’s more than a little terrifying.

But even when – especially when – A is furious with me, she needs me to be the grownup in charge. That means keeping calm and staying safe.

I get down at her eyesight level so as not to appear intimidating. I keep my face very calm and sympathetic-looking. If we’re somewhere crowded with a lot of moving objects and people, I move us towards shelter. A quiet spot where she can throw a fit safely. If she’s flailing around and in danger of hitting her head, I’ll restrain her. But as lightly as possible – just enough to reassure her that I won’t allow her to hurt herself. I hold my arms stiffly around the her, but away from her body – as though my arms are the bars of a cage. She never likes it, of course. But it sends a nonverbal message that I’m still in charge.

The trick is to stop myself from doing anything to shorten the tantrum. It’s counter-intuitive, as tantrums are horrible. They’re stressful for everyone within earshot. But the logical, reasonable side of her brain has completely shut down at this point. It’s off line. There’s no point in trying to:

  • Hold her accountable for anything she says while she’s having a tantrum
  • Tell her why she shouldn’t be having a tantrum
  • Try to distract her or bargain with her so she’ll stop the tantrum
  • Soothe and comfort her in an effort to shorten the tantrum

Instead, I say, “I know you’re very sad. It’s hard to say goodbye to people we love.” I keep her safe, I keep calm, and I reflect what’s happening.

If it’s because I’ve taken away a toy she refused to clean up, “You’re really angry with me for taking away the toy. It’s upsetting to see your toy taken out to the garage.”

In short order, she runs out of steam. I can feel her soften. When she lets me know that she’s ready for comfort, my arms are in a position to easily segue to a hug.

And just when it looked like none of us may survive this thing, it’s over. The heavy rain stops, the clouds dissipate, and the sun comes out again.

agile baby — July 24, 2018

agile baby

fullsizeoutput_3236My daughter is gifted with a natural athleticism and physical coordination that has nothing to do with me. These are inherited traits, and I met her the morning after she was born. It’s when I met her birth mother and two half-sisters, too. They’re all very tall with extremely athletic builds. That could be said of exactly none of the people in my family.

It was clear pretty early on that A was strong and coordinated, with excellent balance. Now she’s three. And a highly confident three.

When she was one and still crawling, we sat on a blanket in a park with a friend. A crawled off, turning back to see me from time to time. I’d smile and wave and she’d continue crawling away. I was thrilled and so was my friend, another family therapist in training. Part of me cringed at the thought of what my daughter was crawling over and past. But I had an unobstructed view of her and the park was mostly empty. The truth is, I was dying to see how far she got. At one point, passersby saw this little African American baby crawling by herself and nervously looked around for her mother. Seeing only two white women seated on the grass in the distance, they grew alarmed. I waved and gestured wildly that she was with me, and that I saw her, and it was okay.

By not hovering over my daughter, I was letting her know that I trusted her and I knew she was competent enough to find her way back. And A was letting me know how capable she thought she was. Extremely capable, as it turns out. After a while, I called her back with a cheery voice. She turned around and crawled directly back, lay down, and put her head in my lap.

Like all babies, she wants to master new physical skills, to climb and conquer. But my girl’s not reckless. She meets all challenges with cautious, quiet determination. The first time she encounters a tricky ladder or rock wall, she’ll often say she’s not ready to try it yet. I never push.

She hasn’t reached the toddler milestones any earlier than other kids. She didn’t take her first step until she was 16 months. I did nothing to nudge her along in any way. I knew she’d walk when she was ready.

At two, she crawled out of our hammock as it was moving. We’d been in there together, swaying in the afternoon breeze of a perfect Southern California day. I’m not sure why she decided to exit the hammock at that exact time, but she began to lower her legs over the edge. I suspect a lot of moms would have vetoed her idea, and they’d be smart to. But I was curious if she could stick the landing. She held onto my arm until the hammock had swung to the highest point, dropped lightly onto both feet, then took a step back out of the path of the swinging hammock. It was masterful. I yelped in amazement, but she didn’t look surprised at all. She crawled right back into the hammock, which was still swinging.

Clever Baby Milestone — May 18, 2018

Clever Baby Milestone

I’ve discovered another landmark event of child development nobody talks about – it’s that moment when when you and your kid both realize that she knows something you don’t.

A few months ago, A corrected me when I was wrong about something. I was giving her a bath. She had a bunch of rubber toys shaped like animals in the tub with her and I misidentified an alligator by calling it a crocodile.

I was thrilled and amazed. I didn’t think to ask A how that moment felt – to know something that Mommy doesn’t. She’s very verbal, but even she might not know how to describe that. My best guess is it would feel like a cross between a proud moment and a scary moment.

…If she doesn’t even know that this is an alligator, then she’s not as smart and powerful as I thought. Maybe she shouldn’t be in charge after all. And if she’s not in charge, who is?

Certainly not this guy:


Musical Rx — April 23, 2018

Musical Rx

Behavioral Definitions:

You used to paint/draw/sing/dance/act/write/play an instrument etc. when you were a kid and you loved it.

Whatever your thing was, when adults asked what wanted to be when you grew up, you’d tell them about it. When you did it, you were lost in your own little world, with no sense of time. You felt at peace. You were gratified. The more you did it, the better you got. It began to look like you could maybe get serious about this thing, maybe study it in college, or become a professional.

But maybe you got bogged down by teachers/coaches/professors whose harsh critiques crushed your spirit.

Maybe the pressure you were under terrified you, so instead of failing, you quit altogether.

Maybe you gave it up when you became an adult in pursuit of “marketable skills.”

And now you wonder.

What would have happened if you’d kept making art/music etc.?

How good would you be at it now?

Could you be making a living at it?

If you did, would you be happy?


Pervasive emptiness, regret, a sense of feeling unfulfilled

Musical therapeutic intervention: Listen to the following song once a day



focus — April 21, 2018



A asked me what a word meant for the first time tonight. I came home to find her crying and yelling at her dad through the bedroom door because he wouldn’t go in and tuck her in for (I’m assuming) the eleventh time.

I went in her room to talk some sense into her and she scurried back to her bed, which was full of toys. I suggested that maybe the toys were keeping her from being able to focus on sleeping.

A: “What is?”
me: “What is what?”

A: “You say.”

me: “I say what?”

A: “You say. What is?”

me: “What is what?”

A: “Focus”

me: “Oh! You mean what does the word focus mean?”

A: “Yeah.”

me: “Um, it means to give something all your attention. Like, you’re not thinking about anything else.”

Here are three reasons why I think this moment between us was a really big deal, and I think more attention should be paid to this developmental milestone for kids:

First, she’s gone all two years ten months of her life hearing me use words she didn’t understand. And – like any of us would if we were in a foreign country and didn’t speak the language – until now she smiled and pretended she understood. But today was the day she decided she needed a bit more clarity.

Second, she asked me about an abstract concept. She wanted a definition, which isn’t something she can point to and ask for that way. Even “focus” – the word she wanted defined – is pretty abstract. I know she wasn’t imitating someone else she heard asking for a definition because she did it in such an unconventional way.

Third, our smart cookie was changing the subject. She didn’t want to relinquish any of the toys in her bed. By engaging me in a conversation about semantics she might be able to pull my attention away from trying to taking away her toys.

She didn’t seem impressed with my definition. I convinced her to keep two of the smallest toys and let me put the rest away. After I left the room, she fell fast asleep.

line? —


IMG_0647For fifteen years, I worked as a writer in Hollywood. Not a successful one at all. But I wrote continuously and got paid occasionally. I was slow. It took me weeks to outline and develop the plot points and structure before I typed a single word of the actual script. Then I’d quickly write a first draft, which I’d describe as “farting out a first draft” as a sort of acknowledgment and apology. The only way to get through that first draft was to continually reminded myself that it didn’t have to be good. It just had to exist, so the real writing could begin. The rewriting.

I loved the rewriting phase of the process the most. That was when the characters came to life and the prose found a voice, too. Everything leading up to the rewriting was an awkward and painful means to an end.

When I wasn’t writing in my sweatpants at home, I was pitching ideas to studios, networks, production companies, and agents. Even though these interactions were happening in real life and not on a page, they were still highly orchestrated and choreographed. The executives’ days were scheduled in segments so I could guess how long it would take. I was offered water, either cold or room temperature. The people I was pitching to were all in their office chairs; I was led to mine.

I’d get so nervous before pitches that my entire digestive system would just clock out. It was best that I not eat at all. The people I was pitching to were – on the whole – young, fit, attractive, and well-dressed. This was terrifying enough. But on top of that they expected me to prove that I could make them a lot of money. Execs are friendly to  writers for this reason, making small talk for about 1 to 2 minutes as everyone turns off their smartphone and gets settled into their seats.

So on the elevator ride, I’d repeat to myself statements that were true but also calmed my nerves.

They have money they want to give to a writer.

They’ve already read something of mine that made them think I’m good.

They invited me here to tell them my idea.

Yet each time I was escorted by an assistant into a conference room, I felt like a lamb walking into a den of foxes. To protect myself, I prepared and memorized every word of my pitch, then practiced and polished it until I could perform it as though speaking off the cuff.

Sometimes on weekends, I went to improv comedy shows – at The Groundlings or Upright Citizens Brigade. Often, a friend was performing. But sitting in the theater and waiting for the lights to go down, I’d feel so nervous that I’d want to run away before the show started. I knew this made no sense. All that was expected of me was to sit in the dark for the next few hours. Yet I still felt nauseated, imagining what it would be like to be a performer with no script to work from. I imagined freezing up there on stage and having no words at all.

Now I’ve harnessed that empathy into a new career as an associate marriage and family therapist. My clients (I presume?) expect me to say something helpful during our sessions but there’s no way I can prepare. I can’t control the content of the session by dictating what we discuss. I have to wait and find out what the client wants to talk about. I’ve been in training for four years and I still sometimes struggle with a tiny flash of panic as I realize a client is coming in a few minutes and I have no idea what to say.

When I’m not at work, I’m home with my daughter, A. She’s sunk deep into a new developmental phase, in which she has a vivid imagination and talks constantly. Sometimes it’s to herself, sometimes it’s to animals or plants. A patch of dirt in our landscaping is her boat and the roly-polies are her family.  The little pebbles in our neighbor’s rock garden are her friends. She narrates our lives and I struggle to keep up by relying mostly on the “yes and” technique of improv. When I don’t fully understand what she’s said, I pull from a repertoire of noncommittal phrases that show that I’m listening and I care:

Ah! Okay, tell me more…

Oh! That’s amazing! I had no idea.

Uh huh.

When it’s obvious to A that I don’t know what she’s talking about, she gets pissed. She’ll say, “Not uh huh!”

I flubbed my line.