A crime of passion. A lesson for us all.

It happened in the glow of our large flat monitor with the two dead pixels, which have long taunted us with their bold red hue. Stella freaked out, both passionately and oddly, flailing her arms around her head and wailing out of apparent discomfort. A powerful emotional display for a fit based on what seemed like extreme annoyance, rather than searing pain as an onlooker might have assumed.

She screamed, completely outraged, “I’M TOO BIG FOR THIS!!!” If she’d flowed into a monologue, I’d have heard rants about deep injustice and the heavy hand of parental control squashing her inalienable rights and unflinching conviction that she is no longer a baby. I’m sure of it.

Or was it more simple? Was she referring to the “Elmo Rides a Tricycle” video we were viewing together on YouTube? Was I insulting her intelligence with this media selection? It was eye patch time and Elmo had never failed to secure her cooperation. Were those days over? Or was he the inspiration for her rebellion? After all, the tricycle song is not about the act of riding so much as it is about freedom. Something I’d considered innocent now appeared insidious. Questions raced through my mind while those dead pixels continued their mocking stare.

But then, as quickly as the storm erupted, it passed. She went back to scrutinizing Elmo’s amusing antics, entranced once again by his simple joy. It was as if her tantrum switch had been flipped suddenly to “OFF.” I breathed a sigh of relief, and left the room to go prepare myself for our errand-filled morning. Crisis averted.

Or was it? When I came back, the meaning of her earlier, indignant outcry was shockingly clear. There on the floor, next to the stained office chair where she was perched, was a gory spectacle. Her beautiful French eyewear lay dead, brutally squashed and ripped into two damaged pieces. DOA. The hinge on the right cable had not only been stretched back far beyond its capacity, but also twisted violently. Horrifying. And she’d waited until just the right moment, after I’d departed, indicating premeditation. The office, once reserved for couch cushion bouncing and mindless online escapism, had become a crime scene.

But, dear jury, was Stella the perpetrator or only a victim herself? She had experienced a huge growth spurt in recent months–why did I not realize this would include her head? Oh I’m fooling no one! Dear God, I must confess! I knew Stella’s glasses had gotten tight. I knew! But I did nothing. I stood by while Stella’s head was squeezed mercilessly by those spectacles. Now we’re all paying an emotional and financial price. For shame, mother. FOR SHAME.

As we lay Stella’s ninth pair of glasses to rest, I’m compelled to help others learn from this tragedy. If you’re child says they are too big for something, they mean it quite literally! Size up for Christ’s sake!

I rest my case.

Cirque de Okay

My official assessment is that this week’s in-office vision therapy went well. It was interesting, and eye-opening. (Once again I’ve let you down and resorted to puns.) Eye-patched Stella threw a couple blocks in frustration and engaged in impressive evasive maneuvers, but we managed to reel her back in while avoiding a fight. We totally persevered. It felt like a small victory for all of parentkind.

Helpfully, as the session got underway, the vision therapist answered all the questions I’d been asking, having gathered input from the doctor in order to do so thoroughly. And from there, she wisely kept things moving right along from exercise to exercise. In that way, Stella’s in-office vision therapy equates to a miniature three-ring circus with acts designed to mesmerize only toddlers. Imagine a large beating drum in the background and super dramatic announcer voice: “AND NOW, the great spinning disk of wonder three inches off the ground!… gasps and applause… AND NOW, the neighborhood’s tallest block tower, assembled and destroyed before your very eyes!… more gasps and applause… and now, feathers falling from the heavens… entranced silence, some “oohs,” then applause… etc. etc.!”

Here at home, Stella’s vision therapy is also a circus–one in which the elephants, lions and monkeys have escaped and are trampling the ring master and audience. It’s almost impossible to keep the show going for more than three minutes, so we do home-based vision therapy in small stints or whenever she shows interest. Sometimes, she even asks to do eye patch games! Yep. My heart almost stopped the first time she requested vision therapy. In order to better seize these moments, I pre-cut and keep handy eye patches of Magic Tape that I can quickly slap on her glasses’ right lens. Previously, I’d to stop the presses, take off her glasses, put two pieces of tape on the right lens, then carefully and annoyingly cut off the tape edges around the lens resulting in tons of tiny pieces of tape stuck to my fingers and scissors which is utterly unhelpful when you are in a major hurry in trying to take advantage of a very small window of  toddler attention.

At this week’s appointment, opening acts included a matching game–simple but smart in that it forced Stella to hold an image in mind and then scan the floor for its equal. Then, there it was. The therapist brought out this large spinning disc with slim, straight back and white stripes. On this briskly rotating table, the size of a super duper extra large pizza, the vision therapist placed some small colored blocks. Stella’s job was to snag whichever color the therapist dictated. It took a moment to teach Stella to resist grabbing the disc and to only touch the blocks. “Okay, Stella! Get the red block! No, not the table, the red block! You can do it!” She got a couple, placing her hand on them and slowly dragging them off the disc before falling into what looked like a state of hypnosis. So I put her in my lap and gave her a little pep talk/verbal assistance.  I did not, of course, help her get the blocks off the disc. I did say, “Ooh… here comes the blue block… here it comes…. here it comes…” to help keep her engaged and tracking. She got through about three rounds of this exercise (six or so blocks per round)–HOORAY! It was clear, and interesting, to me and the therapist that this was extremely challenging and exhausting for Stella. She almost fell asleep as the therapist stashed the disc away, a marked change from her energy level immediately preceding. We’re talking a full-on daze and string of yawns. Those moving stripes forced her to work so hard to focus, and it took a lot out of her. Even with Stella’s frustration level climbing higher due to fatigue, we plodded steadily through more “eye games.” But she did all the exercises presented. Some more easily, accurately, and agreeably than others. But she hung in there.

The imposing disc of wonder wasn’t the only overt difficulty. In particular, Stella seems quite uncomfortable tracking things that fall from just a couple feet above (with her left eye, anyway). She doesn’t even want to look up for the “balloon game” anymore, wherein I simply toss her a balloon from my standing position so that it falls right toward her hands for catching. But with a small but fun bit of dancing around with scarves and feathers, the therapist got her to follow their descent with her eyes and catch, with me holding her arms to receive them. Chalk up another victory for Stella’s left eye! And hope and sanity.

The session–the stretch following the disc exercise, anyway–reminded me of my basketball-playing days. Early on I was taught to practice free throws after games or drills, when my arms and body were nearly depleted. Because that’s how you get good, that’s how you become consistent, that’s how you hit the winning free-throw at the end of a long battle of a game. “Stella’s left eye is going to be a champion and leading scorer,” I thought! But that’s not QUITE how it’s going to work with Stella’s vision therapy at this point. The therapist noted that she’d save the more tiring exercises for the end of sessions in the future, so as to lower Stella’s frustration level throughout. This makes total sense, doesn’t it? It’s important for Stella to feel motivated or at least willing to go on. If she starts to feel more defeated than successful, her resistance would surely skyrocket. No, thanks!

This week’s vision therapy appointment granted me a couple realizations. First off, good vision therapists and good mothers have a core attribute in common: a careful balance of assertiveness. You can’t use brute force and you also can’t let the kid off the hook. You have to be firm, consistent and persistent, while mindful of the temperament of the individual child. Secondly, the fact that certain exercises are so uncomfortable for Stella made me understand how hard sports or perhaps even reading would likely be for her without the help of vision therapy. I don’t know if we’ll achieve visual perfection, but I have faith that Stella and her eyes will be very much okay.

With feathers, spinning circles, constant encouragement and gentle but insistent correction, we are preparing Stella for the visual demands that lie ahead in the circus of life. “…AND NOW, the social interaction and focus-requiring structure of preschool!… hearty applause… AND NOW, organized athletics of some kind…borderline obnoxious cheers!… AND NOW, completion of a puzzle without angry tossing of the pieces!… And the crowd goes wild!

Insert screaming noise here.

WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU GUYS? (I’m talking to my brain cells here–not you, dear readers!) Ahem. I mean, hey you smart little guys up in my head. I’m concerned about you! Are you feeling okay? Gosh, I wish there was something I could do to help you. Maybe I should eat more salmon… or go for a run. Would you like that?

I am literally and figuratively losing it. Here’s the deal: I typically spend a solid half hour a day, at least, looking for my keys, phone, wallet, Stella’s sippy cup that I just filled, her Godforsaken “paci-binky” and/or sunglasses that I just put down. It’s inevitable. Thirty minutes is absolutely not an exaggeration. It’s a minimum.

Lately, I’ve been getting worse. My rage level is rising with each desperate, irate scouring of the house for items that are often right in front of my face. Things that were in my hands not two mintues before. Sometimes, I start to hyperventilate just a bit. I always want to cry, but I can’t, because I’m too pissed off.

A rage tsunami is forming. But I’ll be glad when it hits, because the wave of anger will surely wash all of our belongings into the street. They’ll be spread out and easier to find.

This is out of control!

Proud of my veggie rebel

One of the many reasons to shop at PCC (Natural Markets), besides tons of carefully selected fresh, local organic produce? Their Kid Fruit Program, described on their website as “Free fruit for kids! Kids ages 12 and under can choose a free serving of a fruit or vegetable to eat while their parents shop. Kids are occupied with eating a delicious snack and parents feel good about establishing healthy eating habits.” Brilliant, I know.

Earlier this week, Stella and I ventured to PCC for what has become a weekly ritual: Slightly-less-angst-ridden-than-before grocery shopping followed by a walk to the “chocolate store” (Theo Chocolate‘s showroom and factory, just down the block and around the corner from PCC in Fremont, where free chocolate samples are abundant and the atmosphere is welcoming) then a walk back to our car along a portion of the Burke Gilman Trail that abuts the canal. After some Hazelnut Crunch and Coconut Curry milk chocolate bites, we wander and wave to friendly boat captains, watch the boats’ wakes ripple out and tumble and splash against the rocks at our feet, and occasionally spot fish taking breaks in the nooks and crannies along the edge. Also, and this is less quaint, I have to physically restrain Stella from launching herself into the water and divert tantrums by pointing to birds.

During this last trip, we meandered through PCC’s produce section as usual, in terribly inefficient fashion because neither my list nor my head are remotely organized. Well, Stella’s mental/verbal tractor beam locked in on the carrots. So I handed one of the massive, bright, slightly dirty spears to her, expecting her to wave it around like a wand or imitate a bunny rabbit as she’s known to do. I figured I’d slice it up and saute it for her later. But no. She proceeded to vigorously munch on that carrot throughout our time in the store (which meant she also sat contentedly in the seat of the shopping cart–unheard of! Thank you, brilliant PCC!), and all the way to the chocolate factory. On our way out, a cashier remarked, referring to the Kid Fruit program, “How cool to see a kid pick a vegetable instead of a fruit!” Stella finished at least half of the entire large carrot, Bugs-Bunny style, and her chin took on an orange hue. I so wish I’d captured that moment on film–my little twenty-three-month-old walking down the street in her chic blue glasses, with tiny pig tails in her hair and a giant carrot in hand.

Mind you, this  is the girl who, after a day of fun at a birthday party a couple of months ago, during which she only ate crackers, cookies, and cake, came home and demanded broccoli. I quickly steamed some and she devoured an entire bowl of the green stuff. This is also the girl who, upon spying a fresh white bag or box from Trophy Cupcakes in the grip of a passerby, recognizes the logo and goes absolutely bonkers, breathlessly demanding “birthday cupcakes!” Her “intake” fluctuates, like most toddlers, but this girl loves to eat.

Stella’s feeding issues are so far behind us, I can barely see them in my proverbial rear-view mirror. But, when I saw her eating that carrot, I was lifted up. I remembered and I realized. We are such a long way from hypoallergenic formula through an NG tube. So close to two years old. Beyond lucky.

Broken glasses, stained clothes, and other infuriating non-issues.

The other day during breakfast, I asked Stella to name her favorite animal. She sat there for a minute, with her brow furrowed and finger perched on her lips, obviously in deep thought. Stella then perked up and exclaimed, “MEERKATS!” We saw them at The Woodland Park Zoo a couple weeks ago. Honestly, I expected them to look more like rodents, but they were WAY more adorable than that. I remember Stella smiling from ear to ear as she watched the meerkats scurry around in their faux-desert environment. Melted my freezer-burned heart. Anyway, Cody and I were so impressed with her question-answering that we followed up with another query: “Stella, what’s your favorite food?” She immediately replied, “Animals!” Come to think of it, the girl does enjoy bacon and chicken.

It’s amazing to me how someone so cute, small and thoughtful can be so destructive. See, Stella’s first pair of glasses lasted only 18 days. Last night, while riding in the car, she just about tore one of the temples clean off. It’s still attached, but dangling and wonky. Kind of like my sanity, except with that, there’s no warranty.

Know what else is messed up? There are oil stains on every piece of clothing that I own. Pre-treating with dishwashing liquid helps a lot, but it’s hard to get them all out, because oil stains are invisible until you put the garment on to wear for the day. Then they leap from their hiding places, get all up in your face, and yell, “Surprise, chump!” And you’re not thrilled. Upon reflection, the amount of rage these stains have prompted from me is embarrassing. I have thrown tunics across rooms, and yelled angrily about how I have nothing to wear. And I’m 33 years old.

Perhaps my instability is linked to the fact that Stella’s been eating a lot less lately. Yep, when Stella’s appetite wanes to this degree, it still bothers me, even though I know better. When I said my sanity was dangling, I meant it. During the past week, more food has wound up on my clothes than in her mouth. She often refuses to sit in her chair and will only come to the table if she gets to sit in my lap. I’ve had to fight to remain calm–especially when she gets my hopes up by grabbing a fistful of tomato-y, olive-oil laden pasta, only to casually dump it back on her plate and grab me by the front of my shirt for leverage as she repositions herself in order to get down from the table, after eating just about nothing. Maddening. She’s just too busy thinking about meerkats to eat, and who has time for napkins when mom’s new t-shirt is at the ready?

But I’m not all hopeless or anything. Stella’s got a back-up pair of glasses (because I’m a genius). Even better–I haven’t seen Stella’s eyes cross since she got the glasses! Over the past couple weeks, I bought an entire new (summer) wardrobe for Stella and myself. But I’m no fool. At meal times I’m wearing that fun, striped apron I wisely bought a year ago and never used. Which reminds me, Stella happily ate a bit more at breakfast and lunch today–hooray!

Sorry, Cody and Stella. I’ve been a bit down lately. But it looks like we’ll survive. In the heat of a frustrated moment, I forget how good we are at that.

Adjusting

Our train, still rumbling through New Glassesville, jumped the track a couple days ago. Stella took an impressive spill in one of her signature, glorious full-sprint to flat-out moments. The temples got bent out of whack. I bent them back into approximate place. That marked the beginning of a new wave of resistance. I’d put the glasses on her head, and Stella would immediately and mercilessly tear them off. This went on for about two days. She’d only leave them on while completely distracted–like say, at the playground, on helicopter rides, or watching the fireworks I convinced the city to present nightly over our home. Not really, but the effort to entertain Stella (necessitated by the specs) had been waning when it seemed  she was taking to the glasses. And now I’m kicking things back up a few exhausting notches.

Clearly, it seemed, the glasses needed to be adjusted. But it was Memorial Day weekend, so we couldn’t go in. We had to tough it out, and I almost went insane because they’d be fine at first, and if she left them on for a couple minutes (an act of God) they’d wind up about a half inch off to the right. Finally, Tuesday, wondrous Tuesday, arrived. We went in that morning for the adjustment on her frames.

I found myself showing a distinct lack of trust in the very skilled optician. I just can’t help it. Because didn’t you know? The fate of not only Stella’s eyesight but THE WORLD rests in my hands. Apparently. if I’m not 100% on top of everything, this increasingly oily ball of life we call Earth is going to burst into flames (easier now, with the oil spill and all) and it’s all over.

Seriously. I spent a good five minutes explaining what had happened and what was off about the glasses. As if she didn’t know anything. She did initially ask, “What’s going on?” But I really took that ball and ran with it–just like Forest Gump. I just kept going, across the goal line, out of the stadium and across the nation, only I didn’t make friends along the way and inspire people to pursue greatness, I instilled new worries and pointed out everyone’s flaws.

So, probably because I kept insisting that the glasses were seriously “off” (she didn’t really see it) and not staying in place, she tightened them up a bit. Which created a whole new problem. They looked perfectly straight, but Stella’s refusal to wear the glasses reached new heights.  It got worse and worse and I got more panicky and angry with each passing hour. Then, driving home after running errands (which actually do a decent job of distracting Stella from her glasses), I looked back to see that Stella had removed her troublesome specs. Holding the temples in her white-knuckled fists, with an expression of sheer rage on her face, she stretched the glasses–temples and all–into one straight, flat line. They were no longer glasses. They became a bookmark. I was driving and there was nothing I could do about it except unleash a nervous, faux-calm, sometimes faux-perky, sometimes serious and admonishing, nonsensical string of, “No! Gentle! Glasses! Uh… uh… hey Stella! Look at the truck! No! Stella, gentle! Glasses! Gentle glasses!” Finally I just said, to myself because I never ever swear in front of Stella (usually sort of–I’m really trying!), “Ah screw it,” and she kept those glasses in that horrifying horizontal position until we got home a few minutes later.

Imagine my surprise when, not only did they spring back into place, but they seemed to fit better. She has been wearing them with much more acceptance today. What? Yes. Stella, in a fit of anger, managed to execute a perfect adjustment to her own glasses. And I didn’t even have to fill her in on what the several, nuanced issues were. Now she just needs to get a job at the optician’s office so we can pay for her stylish and amazingly resilient Parisian specs.

No acute abnormalities.

This is part of a new segment I’m calling “Eye on Stella: Strabismus Watch 2010.” Sorry. I just thought that was kind of funny. And I’m running with any humor I can find these days.

The ER, whose job it is to save lives and not provide conclusive diagnoses, called Stella’s condition “convergence spasms.” A quick google search on this term terrified me (apparently, in some cases it’s brought on by hysteria–Stella’s tantrums aren’t THAT bad), and thankfully led me in another direction. After some research, and due to the nature of what actually happens to Stella’s eyes on occasion, I’m convinced that they’re incorrect. My theory is that Stella has the treatable, relatively common condition known as intermittent strabmismus, known to flare up during times of stress, fatigue, or illness. Of course, last time I checked I was a stay-at-home mom and copywriter–not an ophthalmologist. Though, I did diagnose my husband with photography-induced crazy-eye. Nailed that one.

So, last Friday. It was:

The culmination of a week during which Stella barely ate and lost a whole pound of weight (at least), due to a bastard of a cold entailing massive congestion and a cough that could drown out a chainsaw.

The day Stella may have bumped her head on the window sill in the kitchen. I was making lunch, heard a scream, and only saw what happened out of the corner of my eye.

When her eyes rolled in severely, a total of ten times by 11pm for two to ten minutes per spell. When this happened, she couldn’t see remotely straight.

The evening we headed to her doctor’s office having snagged the last appointment of the day, waited as they paged neurology at Children’s, then headed to the ER, where they awaited our arrival and Stella was not allowed to eat or drink for several hours and underwent a head CT scan that showed “no acute abnormalities.”

Since that day, I’ve been carrying around a feeling that threatens to burst my chest. It ebbs and flows. It makes me cry, sometimes. It makes me think about what-if’s and the meaning of life. It makes me wonder, once again, if I’m strong enough to survive parenthood. But I can’t quite pinpoint it. It’s too vague and all-encompassing to grasp. So I keep wondering what it is. I don’t think it’s as simple as “anxiety” or “fear.” It’s something to do with those. But more do to with love. It is absolutely huge and it is always there, probably in every parent, but right now it’s much too close to the surface. Which makes it hard to function.

On the other hand, after unthinkable tumors and lesions and brain bleeding were ruled out, I am obviously extremely relieved that the issue appears to be isolated to her eyes–or more specifically the muscles that control her eyes. If I’m right and it’s strabismus, early intervention ensures an excellent prognosis, ideally achieved through vision therapy (eye exercises) and maybe a patch to strengthen the weaker eye (which seems to be her right one). But I’m having a hard time as we navigate the two weeks that separate us from her ophthalmology appointment at Children’s Hospital. Every time she cries or screams in frustration or stares off into space or rubs her eye or refuses to nap or has a tantrum, I feel a contained form of panic rise up and I’m gripped by a question that is more of an all-encompassing mentality: What is wrong? This is a terrible way to live, really. A mode of existence encouraged by the worst-case-scenario culture of the internet, where I spend too much time. It’s a way of being that I am familiar with, as a worrywart by nature and having gone through Stella’s feeding aversion with her, but it’s currently heightened. Maybe there’s a touch of PTSD-like trauma from our tube days. Following Friday’s scare, I jump too quickly to the idea of wrongness. But! There are also times in which I see more clearly and with more appreciation everything that is right. The contrast between the two is sharp. It makes me ache.

I sometimes wonder what is wrong with me, and the way I see–the world and myself. Why is this all so hard for me? Why am I so jumpy around Stella since Friday? Why does it sometimes feel as if I walk on eggshells through life and motherhood?

As I sit here, I’m afraid of the radiation of her CT scan (ugh, do I remember correctly that they had to run it twice? why didn’t they work with us to keep her still in order to get it right on the first try?) and of an admittedly imagined potential for vision loss (could this nebulous eye issue make life harder for Stella?). Since Friday, I’ve seen her right eye drift in very briefly a couple times, and it jolts my entire nervous system like an electrical current. I’m disturbed when I see her eyes misaligned, not because she is any less beautiful or sweet for it, but because it’s a signal that something is likely amiss with my baby–something I don’t understand. What’s causing it? What does it mean? How will it affect her? My mind fills in the blanks, creating scenarios and possibilities with whatever is lying around: fear, anxiety, hope, and love so strong I can hardly bear it sometimes.

Back when Stella wouldn’t eat, I always felt 100% convinced that in the end, she would be just fine. Beneath all the panic was a kernel of certainty. It’s still there.

Confident Mom Interview #4: Roller derby mama Erin Clark

How about a little dose of “bad ass”?

I had the pleasure of meeting Erin Clark during my time as a copywriter at an ad agency. Erin managed a couple of the accounts I worked on. At that time, she was at a crossroads–dealing with the fallout from a divorce and wading further into the waters of single parenthood. She was always very honest and open, whether about what the client was actually saying and demanding (no sugarcoating, but no panic either), her addiction to designer jeans, or her motherly pride and concern about her girls, who were “tweens” at that time.

Unlike me, she doesn’t have a self-torturous tendency to jump to the worst-case scenario. She’s a stunningly positive person, as evidenced by her near-permanent smile. Inhumane deadlines and outrageous client demands couldn’t diminish it. And it turns out, concussions, bloody noses, and cracked ribs can’t either.Those are the three injuries she’s sustained in less than one year on the track in the Jet City Roller Girls, a flat track roller derby league based in Everett, Washington.

Here’s a woman who can push through fear, take a hit, and get back up again. A valuable lesson for any mom. (It’s a particularly well-timed message for me.) Here is my interview with the newly transformed Erin Clark, or as she’s known in the rink, Devilynn Syde (#666).

Life and Times of Stella: Motherhood is not so new for you. But roller derby is! Wow! What prompted the decision to become a derby girl and how has it affected you?

EKC:  Prior to derby, my hobbies consisted of watching TV and shopping on eBay.  Not very productive, and certainly not healthy or character-building.  I’d always been envious of those who had hobbies they were super passionate about, hobbies that were an away-from-work outlet… something that provided different challenges, and an opportunity to meet new people.  Derby has provided this–and then some.  It has, quite literally, turned my world upside down.  It is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, and my girls, without question.

My interest was initially piqued by a friend of mine telling me that he had taken his family to a Rat City bout, and his comment, “I can TOTALLY see you doing roller derby.” I thought about it for a minute, and ultimately agreed.  The girls and I went to our first bout, I got some information about how to get started, and dove right in.  The toughest thing was deciding which league to try out for.  I ended up deciding to give Jet City (the Everett league) a try, for three reasons:  one, they had a boot camp coming up, Rat City did not.  Two, a friend from my childhood was on the league and had nothing but good things to say.  Three, Jet City teams practice twice a week… Rat City had up to five practices per week.  Not ideal for a single parent.  I went with Jet City, attended boot camp, and was picked up by Camaro Harem.

Life and Times of Stella:
How hard was it to enter the derby world? How were you tested and challenged along the way? Ever want to give up or were you 100% confident and determined the whole way?

EKC
:  “Booty” camp was HARD!  I skated a ton as a kid, and occasionally took the kids to Skate King for a public skate as an adult…but derby is an entirely different form of skating.  A whole new world.  There were nine girls in my booty camp.  Booty camp is eight weeks long, four practices per week.  I was one of the weaker skaters when I started.  I went to each practice feeling sick to my stomach.  I knew the entire league was watching me, and I genuinely felt like I sucked.  I definitely was NOT 100% confident, at any point, during booty camp.  There were several times that I considered quitting, due to not feeling good enough.  I was tested and challenged at every single practice.  I never considered myself a competitive person… derby has brought that out in me, in a big way.  Initially, my goal was to not be the worst skater in camp.  Towards the end, I strove to be the best.  Mostly, I just didn’t want to look like a dumb-ass.  Despite growing as a skater in that eight-week period, I wasn’t sure I was good enough to be picked up by a team.  The anxiety and pressure to succeed during that time-frame was probably the most intense and overwhelming experience I have ever had.

Life and Times of Stella: What lessons has derby taught you? Are there lessons or benefits that moms in particular can glean from derby?

EKC: The most important thing derby has taught me is to be patient, and always always ALWAYS focus on the positive.  Learning to play derby is an evolution.  It is impossible to be awesome right off the bat.  It takes time to learn the rules and master the skills.  Allowing yourself to get easily frustrated… or bashing yourself for all the things you are doing wrong… have a negative impact on progress.  I did this at first, and learned my lesson the hard way.  It is SO much more productive to focus on the things I am doing well, and recognize that there is always room for improvement.  This is absolutely something that can be applied outside of derby.  I’m typically a glass-half-full person anyway, but I definitely find myself using this philosophy more in my parenting now vs. my pre-derby life.

Life and Times of Stella: What do your daughters think of your roller derby career? Are they proud? Inspired? Jealous?

EKC: My kids absolutely LOVE the sport and are having a great time.  I sincerely hoped that would be the case, but of course you don’t really know until you try it out.  I didn’t jump into this lightly.  One of the main reasons I took on this endeavor is because it is family-friendly… and is something all three of us can participate in together.  I had many conversations with my daughters prior to trying out.  I needed to make sure they would be okay with the time commitment (which is huge), and an interest in the game itself, as I fully intended to drag them with me to all associated events and activities.  They are both very involved (Elly plays, too), and really enjoy the community aspect. Like me, they now have a wider circle of friends who love and accept them.  They are both very proud of me. They like to tell their friends that their mom is a derby girl.  I know it was my involvement that inspired my younger daughter to play.  My older daughter doesn’t feel it is a good fit for her (she doesn’t like the idea of hitting/hurting people) and has definitely expressed some jealousy as a result… but I try to shift her focus to other areas of contribution.  She is a fantastic photographer, for example.  So, she can take pictures of her sister and me playing. [insert big smile]

Life and Times of Stella: Best and most challenging aspects of roller derby life?

EKC:  The biggest challenge is by far the time commitment.  I’m skating five times a week.  In addition to my own team/league responsibilities, I’m also coaching a junior team (Elly’s team), which takes up even more time.  I love it, but as you can imagine, it takes a huge toll.  I’ve lost touch with my family and non-derby friends as a result.  Dating is pretty much impossible.  I have a hard time keeping up with domestic tasks.  I’m away from my daughters three nights a week.  I just don’t have enough time to get things done.  It’s hard.  The other big challenge is being okay with my skill level… accepting that I’m still a work-in-progress.  Staying positive, when I’m not nearly as good as I want to be, is a struggle.

The best part of derby is by far the support and encouragement of my teammates… and being surrounded by such a fantastic group of women.  I’ve never played a team sport before, so this feeling of unity, the pursuit of a common goal (outside of a work environment) is new for me.  It is truly hard to put into words how amazing this feeling is. But, suffice to say, I absolutely love it.

Life and Times of Stella: How old are your daughters, and what is the biggest parenting challenge you face right now?

EKC:  Emma is 14 and Elly is 12.  They are good kids overall, but of course there are challenges.  They are in their teen years, and they are girls.  In this day and age, that alone is a scary thing.  The way that girls dress and interact, and their accessibility via online networking tools, goes WAY beyond what I experienced at their age.  It requires close monitoring and boundaries.  Because I’m away from home quite a bit, I have to be extra diligent here… which is often hard.  I trust my girls, but don’t trust others.  I do what I can to keep them on the right path and, of  course, safe from harm.  I worry about both my daughters, for different reasons, but don’t want to be one of those paranoid parents, ya know?  In general though, I’d say the biggest challenge really is their access to things and people that should be off-limits.

Life and Times of Stella: You said that as always, you’re open to discussing anything. So, exactly how long ago was your divorce, and how did it affect you and the way you mother your daughters?

EKC: My ex and I separated in September of 2005.  Our divorce was final in February of 2006, so I’ve been divorced for four years.  We attempted to co-parent the kids, but had an exceptionally difficult time communicating, so never really got the hang of that. So, we pretty much each parented in our own way when the kids were with us.  When my ex moved out of the state (December of 2007), I retained sole custody of the girls.  The girls visit their dad a few times a year, but I am ultimately responsible for their parenting.  This was a bit of an adjustment, but we’ve managed and are doing fine.  It sometimes sucks to be doing everything by myself… but I like to think that I will eventually have a partner who will help balance things out.  That is a whole other topic, though.

Life and Times of Stella: Is there anything you worried about when they were little that you now realize was a total waste of time? Help us worry less!

EKC:  Hmmm.  This is a good question.  I’m not an excessive worrier by nature.  But there are two things that come to mind.  One: Don’t compare your child to others.  Just because someone else’s kid does something earlier than yours does NOT mean there is something wrong with your child.  All kids develop at different rates.  I remember that being a concern when my girls were younger.  Another thing… if your child wants to express herself/himself by wearing clothes or a hairstyle you wouldn’t be caught dead in, let them.  Trust me, you’ll have bigger battles later.  Your child is not you, after all.  Individuality is a good thing–even if you think it means your kid might be perceived as weird.

Life and Times of Stella: What is your biggest fear and biggest hope for your daughters?

EKC:  That’s easy.  My biggest fear is that my kids will be harmed in some way, or go down a bad path and be unhappy.  My biggest hope is that they will work hard and be successful and happy.  I could expand on either statement… but it really comes down to unhappy vs. happy.  I choose happy!

Life and Times of Stella:
Advice for other parents of girls? Especially those of us with ones that are wee and, try as we might, can’t predict all that’s in store.

EKC:  I think the biggest thing is teaching them how to be safe and use good judgment at all times.  I encourage openness and honesty in my house, something that wasn’t truly valued in my upbringing.  Remember what it was like for you as a child or teenager, and recognize what options are available for your child in this day and age (specifically, things that could get them in trouble).  Assume that they will want to experiment and stretch boundaries.  Be available to guide them in the right direction when they are tempted to try things you disagree with.  Be willing to talk about things that make you–or them–uncomfortable.  When they are old enough, be honest about the challenges and temptations in your past.  Allow them to learn from your mistakes, and expect that they will make their own.

Just, wow.

Stella keeps busy at the ER. Thankfully, none of the many available tubes were used during the ER visit. (Sorry, inside joke.)

We were back at the ER at Children’s Hospital last night, our old stomping grounds. It’s a long story that I will tell soon. But all I can right now is “wow.” All the things I thought were so hard lately, all the things I’d been tired and complaining about, my occasional shortage of patience with Stella during a terrible cold, my lingering fear about her eating, my lack of perspective despite Stella’s earlier health challenges… they’re all punching me in the face simultaneously. And I’ve made the mistake of using Vicks tissues on my eyes while crying. Bad move. It feels like my eyes are radioactive–Cody tells me they’re not glowing but I’m pretty sure I just saw some sparkly green stuff shoot out of my pupils. I was a fool. Now I’m just scared.

A head CT scan did rule out some horrifying stuff. Which is great. But serious questions about my sweet Stella’s eyes remain. A nebulous initial diagnosis hangs in the air. Simply put, this is a rare situation. As one doctor put it: “Odd.” As another doctor put it: “I don’t like it.”  My mission for now is to get Stella an appointment with the head ophthalmologist at Children’s Hospital. As soon as humanly possible. I find myself sinking back into old habits, from the days of Stella’s feeding aversion, spending any free moment researching, grasping for answers, even though we’ve yet to see the proper specialist.

I feel like such a jerk for not appreciating more how well Stella has been doing. IS doing! This is just one more challenge she’ll overcome. I can’t overstate how incredibly lucky I am to have her. And no matter what the outcome or prognosis or course of treatment: STELLA IS PERFECT JUST THE WAY SHE IS. Always has been.

There’s so much to this story. I look forward to sharing it when I have regained a bit of composure.

Confident Mom Interview #3: Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids

Lenore Skenazy, Free-Range Crusader

Do you remember the media hubbub from a couple years back, when a woman labeled by some as “America’s Worst Mom” let her kid ride the NYC subway all by himself? I thought so.

I chatted with Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids one recent Sunday afternoon as she made chicken soup from scratch—and no. Sadly, I didn’t think to ask if the chicken was free-range.

On April 1, 2008, Lenore wrote a column for The New York Sun: “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Take The Subway Alone.” She never imagined that it would land her on just about every talk show under the sun. Ever since then, she’s been taking hits and garnering praise as the bold leader of the free-range parenting movement.

She’s painted as a renegade in the media, but the woman I got to know over the phone seemed more like your average, concerned mom, just doing her best to stay sane like the rest of us. The only difference? She thinks the anxiety parents face today is out of control, detrimental, and largely out of place. And she’s doing her best to fight fear with fact, as seen in her book, Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.

Lenore certainly has some avid detractors. But to me, her message rings true.

The purpose and principles of free-range

I asked Lenore to quickly define the parenting style she’s helped champion, and the well-worn line rolled off her tongue. She called it “an old-fashioned approach to parenting that lets us give our kids the freedom we had.”

More explanation can be found on her website: “…we believe in safe kids. We believe in helmets, car seats and safety belts. We do NOT believe that every time school age children go outside, they need a security detail. Most of us grew up Free Range and lived to tell the tale. Our kids deserve no less.”

Her parenting approach, by the way, isn’t based on a hunch. Or nostalgia or laziness. It happens to be backed by a lot of research, which can be found throughout her book. Lenore points to the crime rate as a prime example. It’s much lower today across the board than in the 1970’s, yet kids have less freedom and parents more fear than ever.

Free-range, but not necessarily organic

Lenore has two boys, now 11 and 13 years old. I asked her if she was free-range from the start, when her first son was born. Her very honest answer surprised me.

“No, not at all!” She explained that while she’s an advocate for free-range parenting, she isn’t always able to put everything into practice. She recalled an incident from when her oldest son was one. He was in his car seat, with Lenore and her mother-in-law sitting by him, and her husband driving. “The boy was crying. My mother-in-law said to give him a bottle. I was like, ‘No! I can’t give him a bottle! What if the nipple lodges in his throat?’” She laughed, recalling how in that moment, she trusted all the baby books she’d read, rather than the common sense of her mother-in-law, who’d raised three kids.

Lenore acknowledged, “It’s hard to take a step back from the culture.” But there was something that came much more easily to her than it does to most people: “Trusting strangers more.” Lenore credits this trust to 20 years as a reporter in New York City. “I’m always talking to people in different neighborhoods from all different backgrounds. And everyone’s been great. I really do trust people… and I always felt like if you go into a Starbucks and you have to go to the bathroom, you can ask someone to watch your child.”

She realizes that this is radical stuff to many parents today. Because to so many of us, a stranger is “a predator until proven otherwise.” Luckily, according to Lenore, actual statistics don’t support this bummer of a belief.

What worries the anti-worry guru?

Based on what I’d read about Lenore, I knew there were a lot of things she didn’t worry about: her young son riding the subway alone, for starters. So I wondered, what does the free-range generalissimo worry about?

Lenore sighed, and the list began. “I’m worried right now that my sons aren’t reading enough.” She also worries about their level of communication or lack thereof—especially in regards to one of her sons in particular. “I asked him, ‘what’d you do on your camping trip?’ and he said, ‘Stuff.’”

She admitted, “I worry about their dependence on electronic amusement. Should they not be on the computer? Are they eating too much junk food? Are they nice to their friends? Do they have friends?”

Lenore paused and remarked, “The idea that I’m not a worrier cracks up me and my sister. We are such worriers.”

“I don’t come from pioneer woman, cavalier background,” Lenore continued. “I grew up with a stay-at-home mom.” Yet, she pointed out that her “child-focused” home environment never neared the “level of paranoia about the world that has been foisted on parents today.”

Keeping free-range kids safe

Lenore may be a legend among free-range parents, but she’s very concerned about safety. When her youngest son turned ten, he had a football-themed party. The sole item in the goody bag? A mouth guard.

Free-range parenting isn’t a free-for-all for kids. She explained that, of course, “You’re responsible for them. You teach them how to cross the street. You teach them to be where they say they’re going to be.”

Lenore stated her belief that, no matter how many people are placed on the sex offender registry, “It’s safest to teach your kids to say no to whatever creeps them out,” and to make sure they know that they can always tell you. Lenore emphasized that it’s absolutely crucial to say to them, “I won’t be mad at you.”

“It’s incredibly important to keep the line of communication open. That’s going to help them a lot more than telling them don’t talk to strangers and keeping them inside… Besides, most sexual predators are people they know.”

According to Lenore, the most important message to kids isn’t “Don’t talk to strangers,” but, “You’re allowed to say no and you should tell.”

The goal, she says, is to build confidence in kids. “The confidence to say no—to predators or bullies—comes from doing things in the real world and feeling pretty good about yourself.”

Nothing to fear but fear-mongering?

I’ve often wondered, in regards to myself and other parents I know, “Why we are so scared?” So I asked Lenore to explain the forces undermining parental confidence today, and why the free-range mentality doesn’t come naturally for most.

This is Lenore’s hot button issue, and I could tell by the way her voice changed—slightly higher and faster—when she responded. This is clearly an area she’s studied in-depth, and in her educated opinion, it boils down to “media saturation” and the “safety industrial complex.” Profit-driven messages are messing with our vulnerable parental minds.

The Law and Order phenomenon, she explained, sears graphic images and story-lines of victimization into our brains on a near-daily basis. Coincidentally, Law and Order went on the air in 1990, in the period when parental and general fear was soaring to new, paranoid heights. Our parents simply weren’t bombarded with terrifying and disturbing stories and imagery of sexual and physical violence in the way that we are today, which helps explain our more fearful, mistrusting mindsets.

Lenore said that when you follow the trail of fear, it leads directly to a giant dollar sign. “It all comes from the money to be made via advertising on TV or money made in selling products.” Parental fear is profit-driven, from TV ads to “class-action lawsuits about a drop of lead in Barbie’s eye.” Take a closer look at all the protective measures that at first seem instinctual, “and there is money behind it.”

Lenore highlighted a few products that may seem innocuous at first glance: knee pads, infrared baby monitors, and bath water thermometers. She noted that their very existence and widespread availability have heavy implications for parents. The message: You aren’t capable of keeping your kids safe without the help of products from more knowledgeable companies and experts. For that reason, it can be very hard to walk away from Babies ‘R Us feeling remotely confident as a parent, unless you spend a lot of money.

She explained that the knee pads imply that your baby isn’t safe even when doing a fundamental activity like crawling. The bath water thermometer suggests that “you’re about to scald your child.” The infrared monitor tells us, “At no time is your child is safe and sound.” Lenore pointed out that until recently, when your baby was asleep, you could take a break and “breathe a sigh of relief.” Parents today are afraid to let down their guard for even a minute, and it’s exhausting.

Lenore sees these products and their relentless proliferation and promotion as posing a fundamental question: “Don’t you care enough to save your child?” Of course, our instinct as parents is to say yes. And we spend a lot of money in order to do so. But no purchase is ever enough to take away the fear that has been planted.

My jaw dropped when Lenore told me about perhaps the worst fear-based money-maker she’s ever seen–an ad for a GPS device that’s also a 911 phone. In this short commercial, a kid is lured away from his bus stop by a remote control car. The next thing you see is the kid in the trunk of a strange man’s car, followed by a highly suggestive scene in a dark alley. If you watch closely enough at the end, when a SWAT team arrives to rescue the boy, you’ll notice that the stranger is pulling up his pants. I wish I were kidding. Honestly, I’d hoped Lenore was exaggerating. She wasn’t. See for yourself, but don’t say I didn’t warn you, and don’t take their misleading stat at face value:

Yikes. No wonder fear is so rampant, Lenore commented, despite the fact that crime is down, child abduction is rare, and that when abuse and kidnapping does happen, it’s usually at the hands of an acquaintance or estranged parent.

Lenore pointed out that whenever something does happen to a child, from a bump on the head to something more serious, parents are attacked or blamed to the fullest extent possible. She lamented, “We’re so afraid these days. Fate used to be part of the bargain. Now, anything that happens to the kid isn’t blamed on fate, it’s blamed on the parent. ‘Why did they let her eat that grape? How did they break their arm?’ It’s all traced back to negligence on parents. We’re blaming them because we’re scared and if we can distance ourselves from that parent’s disaster, it gives us a sense of control.”

Lenore added, “Our litigious society makes it seem like everything that happens has cause or blame.” In other words, there are no accidents anymore. It’s always somebody’s fault.

“Everything is now seen in terms of cause and effect. If we turn our backs for a second, then we will be blamed.” As a result, we’re always looking for possible ways our kids could be hurt, and willing to spend money on products—previously non-existent or considered unnecessary—claiming to protect them.

It’s hard to be a confident, free-range parent today because our commercial culture is constantly feeding our fears.

Sheltered kids lack coping skills

Lenore explained that today, some college administrators refer to incoming freshman as tea cups, “because they’re so delicate.” Sure, they’re “beautiful and perfectly made” but take them out of their protected display case and they break. They don’t stand up to everyday wear and tear, because they’ve always been shielded.

Lenore noted that college students are using mental health services in record numbers. “More college kids are depressed now than during the Depression,” she said.

“The point is,” she continued, “self reliance doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere. Sometimes you have to figure out your own route home because you missed the bus and can’t get a hold of your mom.” Unfortunately, most kids are bailed out and don’t get the chance to build confidence by overcoming obstacles.

How to worry less? See adversity as opportunity

I asked Lenore what she’d say to a parent who wants to stop worrying, but can’t let go. She said that parents need to take the pressure off of themselves. When her best friend read her book, she told Lenore how much she appreciated “whole chapters telling you to relax.” The fact is, Lenore explained, “Not everything you do has a big impact on your child’s development.”

“It’s a big relief when you realize it’s not all up to you. Not every synapse is up to you to connect in the brain. Not every day has to be perfect. They’re going to fail and that’s probably good in the long run.”

Lenore believes that when adversity strikes, we as parents have the opportunity to say, “Okay this is the punch, and now we learn how to roll with it… Life isn’t going to be perfect. The sooner they realize it, the better they can handle it.”

As for a specific strategy to get nervous parents started, Lenore suggests leaving your cell phone home for a day, giving your child the opportunity to problem-solve on his or her own. (More concrete free-range parenting ideas can be found in the FAQ section at Free-Range Kids.)

It’s a wide, enriching world for free-range kids

I asked Lenore to think of an incident—something her kids said or did—that affirmed her free-range parenting style. I wondered if she’d seen behavior that let her know that the freedoms she’d given them were fruitful investments in their character.

She thought for a minute, and then perked up. She explained that her youngest son takes the subway to school and transfers in Manhattan. Along the way, her son has befriended, as Lenore put it, “the guy who gives out free newspapers.”

The man’s a fixture at her son’s stop. “The guy has been through some hard times,” Lenore said, adding that he’s likely been “homeless or incarcerated… and doesn’t want to see my son go the same route.” This man has not only become a friendly acquaintance of her son, he’s become interested in and invested in her son’s future.

In fact, this man wrote her son a letter, amounting to a pep talk on paper, urging him to stay the course in life. He also gave her son a book about John F. Kennedy, meant to inspire.

Lenore shared her feelings on the unusual relationship. “It made me proud that he [Lenore’s son] connected with another person, that the person is looking after him… and that the man feels good about it.” Lenore, the seasoned reporter, couldn’t help but add, “And it makes me happy that my son reads the newspaper.”

Lenore is delighted to see that her son is “not writing people off because they’re a different color or poor or hard up.” It’s just one of many lessons he’s free to learn.