Mom, where are you?

Floating in the warmest water, surrounded by tiny bubbles, a sky of swirling gray peeking through a redwood canopy while raindrops steadily splash on my upturned face… in our newly-installed hot tub. At 11.15am. On a Wednesday.

We’ve wanted a hot tub in the backyard for years. There’s a corner that’s just perfect for it. Tucked up against the fence, under the giant redwood tree – the perfect alcove of peace and quiet. And steam and bubbles. And soon bunches of pre-teen boys making inappropriate jokes, and wild whooping four-year-olds spilling apple juice and eating soggy Ritz crackers…

But not yet! It’s still tranquil, serene, bliss.

I’m not sure that’s where I was supposed to be before noon on a Wednesday morning.

I’ve been a Stay-At-Home-Mom (SAHM) for about ten years. I realize what a blessing this is, to be present and available for my kids all day. To not have to scramble for childcare when one of them is sick. They know I’ll bring the homework they left on the kitchen counter. I’m able to chaperone field-trips without rearranging my schedule, to help in the classroom and “spy” on the social dynamics of my daughter, or to see for myself if my son’s occupational therapy is really working. But it doesn’t necessarily mean a soak in the hot tub whenever I want!

I can exercise while the kids are at school, pick up the dry cleaning, take Pretzel the dachshund to the vet and myself to the dentist, prepare dinner, stock up on the boxes of frozen waffles we never seem to have enough of – all between drop-off and pick-up. My working friends often do a Target run after the kids are in bed, they have to arrange last-minute pick-ups in between meetings, grocery shopping happens on the weekend – life seems much more complicated logistically as a working parent, not to mention the emotional toll it takes.

So I don’t take the privilege of being an SAHM lightly. I am incredibly thankful for it.

But after a decade it has started to feel a little less fulfilling. Mundane. Isolating, even as I’m surrounded by dozens of little faces singing Sevivon Sof Sof at the lunchtime Chanukah concert. There is no separation between me – and me.

When I pick Jed’s friend up for preschool, and see his mom dressed in heels, a beautiful blouse and lipstick, I want to beg her to take me with to her office in the City, to her meetings, and meaningful interactions with adults (not “grown-ups”) about policies and contracts.

From my vantage point at home, if I stand on my tippy-toes and lean all the way to the side, I can just make out the tips of the Bay Bridge, leading the way into glittering San Francisco. While my working friends in the Financial District barely notice the sparkling blue of the Bay and the majestic spans of the Bridge laid out in front of them. The view is always more beautiful from the other side. I know.

As I helped my little guy brush his teeth this morning, he started whining and yelling at me (only four-year-olds can do both simultaneously producing a grating whell of a sound): something about a Spongebob toothbrush and Monsters University toothpaste, and then he started crying… and I started crying. I couldn’t remember what Monsters University was and I thought he said Angry Birds toothbrush. No separation between me and me.

The kids come home from school, hungry, cranky, bursting with stories, wanting something from someone – mostly me. I roll with it, a smile on my face and a song in my voice (the smile is a little strained and the song is Linkin Park’s A Light that Never Comes). Snack for you, 8×7=56 for you, tie your hair back for ballet, listen to your barmitzvah lesson for ten minutes, all of you wash your hands, with soap. Just enough to fit into half an hour before it’s back in the car for the rest of the afternoon.

(As an aside SAHM is a misnomer – at least the SAH part. It should be NAH – Never At Home, and also nah, as in not gonna schlep around today).

Somewhere between chairing the preschool parents committee, and serving lunch at the middle school, I seem to have lost myself. My daughter used to tell her teachers that my job was volunteering in the library at her school (actually, I wouldn’t mind working in a library). I can’t find the space between Mom Nicki, and Nicki.

So this Wednesday morning, as I walked from the car toward the house in the relentless rain, laden with boxes of frozen waffles, I glanced toward the new hot tub. Sitting quietly in its corner.


The rain gently pattered down on me and the redwood tree stretched majestically into the gray sky, the steamy mist danced mystically above the water, and the bubbles floated around me – it was magical.

I felt the whisper of a space between me, and me.

What I learned today in second grade

She could’ve been talking about her spelling test, she described the story to me so matter-of-factly, her little face betraying no sadness or hurt. “At recess, Mom, she said I was too small to play. So I just sat on the stairs and watched.” It was the third day in a row that she’d been told she wasn’t wanted, for one reason or another. She was used to it.

There’s always a Queen Bee, buzzing busily in the circles of female friendships. Her role is subtle in younger years, she hasn’t yet been crowned. But by the age of six, there she is her Royal Highness, cape flowing regally from her narrow shoulders, sparkling crown planted on her head – giving her free reign to determine who gets to be friends with whom, what games they will play at recess, whether your new boots are hot or not. If you are in her favor, you are golden. She casts her royal glow on you, and you feel that you are walking on air, that the chariot the two of you ride together will actually sprout wings and soar above all the lowly subjects on the playground. There is nothing you can’t do together. There is nothing you can’t do alone! Until you are no longer in her favor – one day you’re in, the next you’re OUT. Yes Your Majesty. Curtsey. Exit.

Nobody dares to unseat the Queen. It’s as much the order of things on the playground as it is in the beehive. The perception is that without the Queen – this Queen – it would all fall apart. And the industrious second grade she-bees need hierarchy and order as they buzz about their busy days of school, recess, hip-hop, birthday parties, sleepovers.

“Sage,” I say in a barely-controlled pseudo-calm voice, “why didn’t you tell her she can’t say you can’t play, and that she hurts your feelings?”

“Mom,” again so deadpan, expressionless, “you know I have a hard time saying that. I wanted to, but I just can’t get those words out.”

Ugh. Yes, I do know. I know exactly how she feels. I know how uncomfortable confrontation makes me. I know she’s worried that if she speaks up, expresses her indignation and hurt at being excluded, Queenie might alienate all the other bees from her, and she’ll be all alone at recess with no prospect of a buddy to walk with to hip-hop and no hope of a sleepover ever.

My heart breaks into sharp shards as I look into her no-longer-innocent green eyes. I imagine picking up one of those shards and piercing Queen Bee’s fuzzy little body with it. You can’t say you can’t play! Preschool 101.

Worst of all, my little bee is afraid to buzz.

Every day there is another exclusionary incident. She wouldn’t let Sage tell a story. She sneakily lured Sage’s friend away from her at lunchtime. She told Sage she wasn’t good at basketball.

Sage and I role-play: what would she say next time QB told her she couldn’t play? You don’t get to tell me I can’t play. What would she say when QB told her to stop telling her story? That hurts my feelings.

I encourage Sage to eat lunch with different girls, to share her stories with somebody else. I imagine her little heart beating loudly in her chest while she tries to muster the courage to speak up to QB, to tell her that the things she says don’t feel good – because, 32 years after being in second grade, my own heart pounds in my throat when I try to do the same. Do we ever really leave the playground?

I stop hearing about QB for a while. Sage seems happy, talks about school and friends, no drama, no incidents. On parent-teacher day, I sit down at the little desk, and there screaming up at me from the self-assessment each child writes, in her still-developing-but-perfectly-formed-no-2-pencil letters, are the words: One friend is mean to me all the time.

There are those shards, so real and sharp I make a fist around one. I look up into her teacher’s kind, unwavering gaze. “Do you know what that’s about?” It bubbles out of me, unfiltered, heated, sticky. I hear myself say, over and over, “She just doesn’t want to tell her how it makes her feel. She’s scared she’ll be alienated from all the other girls.”

Wonderful Teacher quietly nods. She knows exactly what I’m talking about (of course, she’s not a second grade teacher for nothing). “It’s important to teach the children that if being around a friend doesn’t make them feel good, that’s not a friend.” I simply stare at her. I feel like she is my second grade teacher. “Friends are people you want to be around, and who want to be around you. If it feels bad, it’s not a friendship.”

The bees start buzzing excitedly. Life 101.

Sage spent the next weekend with a different friend, an awesome friend. All weekend. Back-to-back sleepovers. Smiling faces for 48 hours. They were inseparable, happy, busy, together-bees.

I’m never too old to learn the lessons taught in second grade.

Back on the playground, QB looks anxiously about for a few new subjects.

Whole Lotta Country

(Hit play and turn the volume way up!)

When I was ten-years-old I saw Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton perform the song “Islands in the Stream” on TV. Dolly was wearing a whispy, flowing black dress, her bottle-blonde hair in its signature Dolly-style. Kenny wore a tux and his mane of gray made a big impression on me. They were both very glam. Exotic even, to my wide eyes. They stood together on the stage, and Dolly waved her dress and tapped her heels as she sang. It was that southern drawl that drew me in, as much as the catchy music and lyrics. Bitten by the Country Bug.

Music played in our house and in the car all the time when I was growing up, but it was never country music. My mom loved rock – Dire Straits, Talking Heads, Fleetwood Mac – and everything by Billy Joel and Elton John. My sister and I would listen to the Top 40 every Sunday – we knew all Madonna’s songs by heart, every Michael Jackson move, we loved A-ha and Duran Duran. I heart the 80s! Definitely no room for country tunes – that “Islands in the Stream” performance was a one-hit-wonder for me.

Until I moved to the U.S.

A Friday afternoon in 1999 found me driving up to Tahoe with my Texan friend – she has the strongest southern accent of anyone I know, it’s possibly the reason I’m friends with her, just to hear her say “y’all” over and over! She turned up the volume to Garth Brooks’ “Papa Loved Mama.” I couldn’t get enough of it! Those lyrics – Mama’s in the graveyard, Papa’s in the pen… Damn.

For someone like me who loves telling stories, there’s no greater storyteller than a country music artist. Every song is a heavily dramatic narrative – about love, and relationships gone awry, boys seeking daddy’s approval on the wide, open prairie, and misunderstood mothers. Set to the soulful or catchy tune of an expertly strummed guitar, these songs reach in and squeeze my heart with every beat. Add that southern drawl that I wish was mine, and I’m lost to the music of Nashville.

It’s the wannabe actor in me, I’m sure, that’s drawn to all things country. When I hear Trisha Yearwood sing “She’s in Love with the Boy” I play out the scene in my head: chickens pecking the ground, high school sweetheart, dad doesn’t approve, mom saves the day. My favorite song this past summer was Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” – backroad town, boy meets girl, heavy guitar, pick-up truck on the lake. Dra-ma-tic!

It’s not for everyone – I part ways with many in my love of country music. I’m getting used to the surprised looks and eye rolls when I disclose that yes, I did see Garth and Trisha in concert a couple years ago – best concert ever! Or that the TV show Nashville (musical drama series about fading country music superstars and hot new talent) has become my must-see Wednesday night viewing – mostly for the music, and also because of the beautiful, expansive Nashville scenery, the perfectly country hair and boots, not to mention haunting guitar performances by unshaven cowboys at the Bluebird Café, where every country musician is discovered. Better than Game of Thrones! How can you not watch it?

My red cowboy boots have become as essential to me as flip flops – I’m so glad it’s fall so I can now wear them every day. I’m working on saying “y’all” more authentically (my South African accent gets in the way). Last night was the Country Music Awards in Nashville – every song was fantastic! But the one I loved the most was sung by Kenny Rogers and a Dolly-replacement (Jennifer Nettles)… I was back in my parents’ living room in Pretoria, circa 1984, mesmerized by “Islands in the Stream.”

Rock ‘n Roll always… but definitely a whole lotta Country!

Hashtag Facetime

My boys were playing a game on Sunday that involved a lot of shouting and leaping off beds and onto beanbags – nothing out of the ordinary. Usually I don’t pay attention at all, except to wish they would do it a little more quietly. But then I became aware that their language of play went something like, “Hashtag-jump-higher!” Followed by, “Hashtag-shut-up!” And then, “Hashtag-look-at-me!” Etcetera, etcetera. By the time we went out for the day, the older three were actually calling the four-year-old Hashtag. Talk about Damaging Life Events.

My kids have too many electronic gadgets, are too connected to their ipods/ipads/tv/wii/instagram/internet, and too disconnected from Real Life. I have to remind them daily not to turn on the TV until after dinner, please don’t play Minecraft even if your homework is done, go outside and ride bikes with your brother, it’s a beautiful day! I tell the little one he can watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse after his bath, and at 3.30pm he asks if he can take a bath now.

The kids groan and say, “But Mooom.” Yet with my gentle insistence they slowly venture outside, find the pogo stick and the frisbee, and eventually get up to good, ol’fashioned, outdoor fun (actually, it’s when I yell at the top of my lungs, “DON’T ASK ME AGAIN AND GET OUTSIDE RIGHT NOW” that they hightail it to the basketball hoop).

And now “hashtag” has made its insidious way into even their non-electronic imaginative play. O.M.G. When I hear it, I see Jimmy Fallon and JT’s hilarious Hashtag Sketch – they have an entire conversation using the word “hashtag” accompanied by a hand movement signing a hashtag. It demonstrates how ridiculous we’ve become ascribing all our experiences to a phrase #allinoneword, and also pokes fun at how connected to cyber-world we all need to be. I cried real comedic tears watching my two favorite celebs play that scene, laughing at myself in it all – but now I realize even my baby boy knows what a hashtag is, and also, he taught his preschool teacher how to use her iPhone! Not. That. Funny. Now.

I ban the kids from anything that has a screen for the rest of the day. We go to the beach. They’re still calling J the H-word but at least they are looking into each other’s eyes while they wrestle in the sand and chase seagulls instead of angry birds.

In the afternoon, I receive a text from my friend in Christchurch, New Zealand. She tells me our sons are FaceTiming right now. I heard talking from the boys’ bedroom, but figured it was to each other, not to friends a day away! So much for my screen ban. But I can’t be mad or indignant. My son was crushed when his good friend moved to New Zealand, yet they get to talk to each other every week. And not only talk – interact as if they’re in the same room.


Grandparents live half a world away. Friends come and go. Cousins don’t really know each other. But before my grandmother died, she got to see her youngest grandson on Skype – she never held him in her arms, it’s true, but she saw him move, and open his eyes and she knew what he looked like when he cried and smiled.

My parents and in-laws visit us at least once a year. It’s heartbreaking when they leave. Nothing replaces in-person, physical proximity when it comes to building relationships. On the day of departure, I can’t help but think of our grandparents leaving Lithuania and Latvia in search of better in South Africa, how they left their families behind, really knowing that they would never see them again. And they didn’t.

My kids’ grandparents watch them grow on Skype. We send videos of hip-hop performances and karate gradings. My mother-in-law sends me photos of Jacaranda trees blooming in Johannesburg because she knows how much I adore and miss them. My daughter has been known to text her grandmother in the middle of the night during a sleepover. We feel connected to friends who have moved away, and even to people who live nearby but life is busy and we just don’t get together.

Is it necessary for a preschooler to know how to take photos with an iPhone? Of course not. But how lucky he is to be able to see his Grampa whenever he wants, even though they are continents and time zones and miles apart.

Yes, we are terribly connected to our iDevices – and so are our children. But we are connecting with each other too. I don’t want my son to be known as Hashtag, but #ilove21stcenturycommunication.