Unfettered

I’ve been researching and writing about potty-training for my job, and I’m thinking back to when we were potty-training Eleanor. I remember little, except that it was a mess. We wanted to have her in underwear before we brought home Genevieve. We also transitioned her to a bed, very much against her will, so that the crib would be available. When we came home from the hospital, I regretted all of it. I wanted back her babyhood.

That year of Eleanor being 2 feels lost. Each day, I got out of bed, took a shower, cried, and pondered whether a mother so sad could raise an emotionally healthy child. Sometimes I wonder whether Eleanor’s sensitive nature stems from that period.

We took fewer photos and fewer videos. In our sitting room, we have a collection of candid family photos on the wall, and there is a picture from every year of Eleanor’s life except that year.

Now that Henry is nearly that same age, I am realizing how much joy I missed. I still have a lot of parenting years in front of me, but the toddler years are my favorite so far. Even with Eleanor, during that horrific time, I loved taking care of a toddler. They have such big personalities, and their goals are so far beyond their capabilities. For all of those parents lamenting the terrible twos, I will take your 2-year-olds. I will take the tantrums and the mispronounced words and the slobbery kisses.

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Henry is obsessed with Santa Claus, and more than once, he has shouted “Santa!” in public while pointing to a white-haired man. When I ask what he wants for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, the answer is usually cashews. And he believes that every problem can be fixed with a screwdriver. “Drivers” happen to be his favorite toy, and he often carries three or four around the house.

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I am so fortunate to get to do this toddler phase again without the fog of grief clouding everything. And I am hopeful that I will remember more this time around. If not, I have this.

Reading: The Neapolitan Novels

I love to read the lists of the year’s best books that pop up in December. Before Christmas, I saw several references to The Neapolitan Novels, specifically to “The Story of the Lost Child.” I was suspicious initially. In my mind, the name implied a series of Italian romances. And I tend to associate series (wrongly, I know) with the dozens of repetitive Baby-Sitter Club books I read as a child, not with great literature. Still, the reviews of the earlier three novels were glowing. Had I found four worthwhile books in one shot?

I finished “My Brilliant Friend” last week, and I’m now in the middle of “The Story of a New Name.” The books follow the friendship of two women in Naples, Italy, from childhood to old age. The first book shows the girls in childhood, and the second is about their adolescence and early adulthood. The second book is grabbing me more than the first did because it delves into the pressures that society puts on women when it comes to marriage and motherhood. Plenty of other themes are woven in, about how childhood experiences shape us and about how the expectations of other people can stifle us or launch us.

If you have had a friend who awes you, this book will ring true. Likewise, if you have had a friend who frustrates you. I hate to pull out that “frenemies” word, though that seems an apt description for this pair of characters. They compete with each other and want the best for each other. The protagonist, Lenu, is relatable as she struggles to keep up with others who seem effortlessly intelligent and cosmopolitan. Her life feels like the story of my high school years. I may have looked smart, but I was working so hard for it.

I spent a lot of last year reading female writers. When I look back at the books I read in school, most were written by men. We dabbled with Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, and Toni Morrison, and that was the end of it. No surprise that the female authors tend to have more female characters, and those characters are multidimensional, both flawed and strong. The characters in the Neapolitan Novels fall in that same category. They anger me, and still I want to keep reading.

Greg and I discussed books a few weeks ago, and it came up that I haven’t read “Moby Dick.” Greg suggested that I read more classics as part of my New Year’s resolution. And I said OK — as long as they are by women.

Conversations with 6-year-olds

I joined Eleanor at school for lunch today. Her school encourages parents to come for lunch, though I rarely do because I want her to gain independence. We already spend a lot of time together. Also, I have plenty of other things to do such as writing, cleaning the house, and eating all of the chocolate.

I knew she would be thrilled by the surprise, especially on this long week back after winter break. She looked twice when I walked into the cafeteria. Was this happening? Yes! I sat across from her, and her friends immediately began to talk. One of them had a birthday today, and so the others had to tell me their birthdates, and there was a bunch of chatter about a book that they had read last year about a runaway gingerbread man. The kids were breathless with all they had to tell me.

I asked Eleanor whether she ever talked at lunch.

“Well, not really. It’s kind of hard,” she said.

No kidding. In the midst of the jabbering, two girls sitting farther down the bench began to ask, “Does Eleanor have a sister?”

At first, I pretended not to hear, a ploy that was believable given the noise bouncing around the cafeteria. The pair persisted. “Eleanor’s mom! Does Eleanor have a sister?”

I paused, considering whether to throw the light switch or keep my middle child tucked safely in the dark. Their asking suggested that Eleanor had talked to them already. How abandoned would she feel if I lied when she had spoken the truth?

“Yes, she does,” I said. They waited. “Her name is Genevieve.”

That seemed to satisfy them, so I left it alone. I try to avoid discussing death with other children. Such a personal topic. We all have our own beliefs. I know that Eleanor mentions Genevieve to other children though, and I have heard her argue with her disbelieving friends. It pierces me.

I’ve been handed this child who is so sensitive, and I want to tell her that she should keep her sister a secret, not for the sake of other people but for her own protection. But there are happy secrets, and there are sad secrets, and sad secrets always seem to imply guilt or shame. We cannot talk about this because other people will think we are weird or crazy. In my own life, I use circumstances to decide when to introduce Genevieve. That’s a difficult and painful judgement for me to make, so I’m not going to ask a 6-year-old to try it. I am teaching my daughter to speak the truth even when it makes other people uncomfortable. I am teaching her to speak the truth even when it makes me uncomfortable.

I tell myself that this will be best for her — and for our family — in the long run. I worry that I am being selfish, that my own personal interest in keeping Genevieve’s memory alive will hurt my living kids. I worry that they will feel they weren’t enough for me despite the daily parade of kisses and hugs and “I love you’s.” There’s a reason — many reasons, really — that parenting books don’t touch this topic.

Maybe my children would feel safer if I kept this hidden. Maybe they would feel happier if when they asked me what I wanted most, I said “a vacation” or “a diamond” or even “world peace.” Then they wouldn’t really know me, and that seems a huge loss, too. Even after going through all of this with Eleanor, I find my tongue glued to the roof of my mouth when Henry points at the framed footprints that belong to Genevieve. He doesn’t yet understand, and I will have to help him make sense of this thing that seems impossible even to me. Your sister died. We lived.