Thursday, June 26, 2014

Go ahead. Judge Me. I Dare You.

Several months ago, I got into a mini-shouting match with a woman while I was walking with my two daughters. Okay, I'm not proud about the fact that I eventually gave the woman the finger, but here's what happened:

At the time it was still pretty cold in New York and my youngest was not a fan of hats. I kept two wool baby skull caps in our diaper bag and would sort of rotate them as we walked. Inevitably, she would let me put it on her for a few minutes only to toss it off or on to the ground just a bit later. 

This game of cat and mouse was getting old and I knew we only had two more blocks to go before the grocery store. So, I decided to give the hat -- and myself -- a rest. 

Enter evil old witch lady. Okay, that's being harsh. But, she was old. And female. I think.

She yelled across the crosswalk, "Put a hat on that baby. She's cold." 

Here's where I pause to say that nothing rattles me more than perfect strangers trying to tell me how to care for my own children. And then here's my tiny addendum: There are certainly many, many times when I am ridiculously appreciative of the random help of strangers. Doors get held open while I try and navigate two kids, a scooter, a stroller, bags and a shoe that is "falling off my foot right now mommyyyyyyy!" and I'm thankful. I'm thankful for the woman who gave me money so I could fill a parking meter when my youngest daughter was screaming and needed a nap and I couldn't find a convenient place to make change. I'm grateful that one day when I was too sick to leave home and my spouse was traveling, my daughter's teacher offered to pick her up for school. I'm grateful for people that let us cut in line at the bathroom when they see my kid doing the pee-pee dance. Point is: I am most of all grateful that it takes a village to raise a kid and most of the time, that village shows up.

So, what was it about this particular exchange? It was her tone that really irked me. And I was tired. And yeah, it was f***ing cold. And I had one kid who didn't want to wear her mittens ("They're itchy!") and another who had just flung her hat off a block earlier. 

So, I yelled back, "Mind your own business!"

She mumbled something and started to approach us.

"What's that lady saying?" My oldest daughter asked. 

"Who knows..." 

She got closer. And here's the part that I found hilarious. She was in fact wearing one of those giant fur Ushanka hats. The kind you'd see a Russian spy or trooper wear on TV. It was like she was saying, in her very dress and manner, "You suck as a mother. And I obviously am rocking this cold weather thing like a mo-fo!"

She got close to us, leaned over the stroller and said so both my kids could hear, "You should be ashamed of yourself."

I said, "You should be ashamed of yourself!" and kept walking.

And then, she screamed back at me, "Well you should be a better mother!"

Cue The Bird. And yeah, I might have said something else that I won't repeat here.

Later, the sane and well-rested part of me figured that she probably just thought she was being helpful and that I'd be eternally grateful for her quick ability to point out my shortcomings.

But, that's where she and anyone else who intentionally or unintentionally judges a mom or dad is wrong.

I have said it before and I will say it again. This parenting schtick is super duper hard. No matter how you come to it. 

And here's the other part: You never know what kind of day has preceded whatever moment you are witnessing between child and parent. 

I should take my own advice, I know. Whenever those stories go viral about parents leaving their kids in the car while they run errands or get gas, I totally judge. But really in the end, all I can say is, "Okay, well, it's not the way I would do it. But I don't need to condemn them for it."

And I can keep airing the dirty, dark secrets of how I raise my girls. Hey, last night they ate SpaghettiOs (which is indeed written like that and defined as "an American brand of canned spaghetti featuring circular pasta shapes in a cheese and tomato sauce and marketed to parents as 'less messy' than regular spaghetti," on Wikipedia.) and watched three episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants. While the combo of these things (heck, one of them by itself) makes me feel nauseas, they loved it!

I am not super strict about bedtimes or how early my kids potty train. I let my kids sleep in my bed when my husband is out of town and they watch a lot of TV when I'm working on a piece of writing. On the other hand, I'm psycho about putting on sun block, installing a car seat and probably a little to crazed about possible choking hazards. But I will never, ever tell you to put a sunhat on your kid because he might get a sunburn. Promise.

So, go ahead. Judge me. I dare you.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"Who Is That Man In The Photo, Mommy?"

Two months before I got married, my father fell off of a treadmill. A trip to the ER led to some testing and the testing led to a diagnosis of late stage lung cancer. Just a few days after he walked me down the aisle, he fell into a coma and on the night I returned from my honeymoon, he died.

I’ve struggled for years to write about my Dad, the father who raised me. While I’ve nearly completed a memoir about my birth father--who I really only got to know later in life--I have rarely written about Anthony (Tony) Franco.

Dad was ever present, nearly omnipresent. In fact, when I was in first grade, he told me he was a magician and therefore could see everything I did during the day. A note had just come home saying that I was "too social". For the next week or more, I barely spoke at school. I kept imagining Dad as this sky high presence in the classroom, hovering above our desks. 

Later, when I strayed too far while selling Girl Scout Cookies in our suburban Detroit neighborhood, he somehow found me. I will never forget his big boat of a car pulling up in a driveway I didn't recognize. "Time to come home, Meredith," he said. And I knew he would always be there.

He raised me as his own and never failed to tell anyone who might listen that he felt like he brought me “home from the hospital.” He said this frequently in front of me I think to very clearly state the point that he loved me wholly, completely and without conditions. He tried for years to legally adopt me, but my birth father wouldn’t sign the papers.

And, then, as Dad was essentially dying from lung cancer and we were planning a wedding, we decided to finally make my adoption official. At 23 years of age, I got adopted and changed my name legally.

I appeared in court, Dad via phone from Florida, and we explained our situation. He had raised me from the time I was 4 years old, 3 if you count when he was dating my mom, and he had been responsible for me since then.

Even when I pushed and fought against some of his conventions (an early curfew in high school or his suggestion during my heavy 'grunge' phase that I not dress “like a hobo” come to mind) he still so clearly provided that initial base for me where and when my birth father could not. 

He took the time to talk through any problem I was considering. He argued and debated with me. He cheered me on. Growing up, I was one of nine children, but he still made sure he had the funds to pay for college, to help me buy a car when the time came and to facilitate a move to New York City.

You always knew where you stood with my Dad - which meant that when he was disappointed in you, you knew it. When he was excited or happy with something you were up to, he was a loud and passionate cheerleader. He used to tell me pretty regularly that I had more talent in my little finger than he had in his whole body. He was also fierce about the fact that I could be anything I wanted, that moms could also work and provide for their families, that women were tough as nails and that I should always seek the best for myself.

When he died, it was like the world fell apart for a little while. The glue that held everything together in our blended family melted. What was left were broken apart pieces of a puzzle I still can’t quite put together.

So, for years, it was hard to recall much of anything without breaking down. The pain was just too raw.

But lately my daughter has been asking, “Who is that man in the photo, Mommy?” And I’ve started to answer her. Sometimes her retention of what I’ve said is humorous (she recently told my brother that I said Dad was "in space now.”) and some are downright halting, “Mommy, do you ever just miss your Dad?” And yes, then the tears start to flow.

There are some that would claim that because his blood does not coarse through my veins, that because we share no biology, he is not really mine to claim. But when Eva asks me if unicorns are real I say, “Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

Kind of like love. You can’t see it all the time. But dear lord, you know it’s there.

I may not be Italian, but I feel Italian (just come to my house one night for linguine alle vongole). I may not have been born a Franco, but I am one. I may not have had the conventional father set-up growing up, but I still know I was claimed, loved, renamed and worried over.

Happy Father’s Day to every father out there, no matter how you came to know fatherhood or love your children. And happy day Dad, wherever you are.