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Wednesday
Jan012020

Light and Shadow

My website was supposed to be a place where people could hang out, get to know me better, and perhaps get a chuckle from some of my silly posts. The problem is I'm not all that funny. Not everything I write is hilarious, or even amusing, and yet I have no other place to post the maudlin stuff.

Anyway, I’ve decided to create a home for these disturbing little gems. They’re still my children, after all. I might be shocked by the things they do and say, but a part of me loved them enough to give them life. I suppose they deserve a dark little corner in which to play.

So ... enjoy?

Friday
Sep202013

Home Sweet Home

“How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again."

—   James Agee, A Death in the Family

 

You can never go home again.

That’s exactly what my mom told me when I asked why we had to leave Tuxedo, NY (a place to which we’d moved two years earlier, after leaving Harriman, a place to which we’d moved six months earlier, after leaving Georgetown, a place to which we’d moved a year earlier, after leaving…) Yeah.

Mom was a bit of a nomad.

Her two best friends were Rand and McNally. The road atlas was no mere map to Mom — it was a brochure for a golden future, rife with possibilities, and she studied it like a kid who’d just discovered the Sears toy catalog for the first time. She even dog-eared her favorite states: Montana, Oregon, West Virginia. Our next home was never more than a whim away. To this day, I still panic a little when I hear Willie Nelson telling me how much he just can’t wait to get on the road again. That song was Mom’s anthem for adventure — there was no turning back once she started singing it.

I was fifteen when we left New York (that time). To say I wasn’t a fan of leaving would be an understatement of epic size and scope, like saying Snooki is a few watts short of a light bulb or Charlie Sheen has a little image problem.

The point is I liked Tuxedo. I wanted to stay. I’d attended seven different schools by the time I’d entered seventh grade, and the one in Tuxedo had broken the record for The Longest Time at One School.

Two years and three months.

It was heaven. I had finally found a place where, even if I still didn’t quite fit in, at least I was no longer being ridiculed daily as the ugliest, fattest, poorest kid in class. I’d even stopped sneaking next door to the elementary school each day at lunch, just so I could pass the period huddled in a quiet stairwell, away from taunts and fear and the constant, overwhelming yearning to just … disappear. Another year or two, and I might have had friends.

But it wasn’t to be. Because you can’t go home again. And whatever had prompted Mom to return to her tri-state origins in the first place — whatever sense of “home” she thought she’d find — remained as elusive as Snooki’s membership to Mensa.

And so we hit the road, leaving behind the most beautiful place I had ever lived. I pouted and raged and silently vowed to get off the crazy-train as soon I was old enough, regardless of where it had stopped.

A couple years later, I met my future husband at a community college outside Phoenix (thus proving every cloud has a silver lining). We shared similar backgrounds and had both logged many years playing Pin The Tail On The Roadmap. We left Phoenix, a town in which neither of us had chosen to live, and settled in Austin. My father and stepmother let us stay with them, rent-free, so we could pad our savings. Six months later we bought our first home. I still remember lying in the middle of the living room floor after we’d signed the papers, floating on a cloud of contentment.

We were homeowners.

That little house was ours. No one could make us leave, so long as we paid the mortgage. At long last, we had ROOTS — and did we ever dig them in! Past the dirt, past all the rocks, way down where the earth is cold and heavy. Not even the strongest wind could shake us loose. We’d live there forever.

There was only one small problem — small being the key word. We had outgrown our little house even before adding to our family. Once our daughter was born, it felt like living inside a postage stamp. I’m not sure why an infant the size of a bowling ball needs a million onesies, much less two million burp cloths and seventeen million toys. I just know they do ... and I knew if we didn’t find something larger, our house would stretch like an overinflated beach-ball until it finally exploded, covering the neighborhood in a curious layer of stuffed-animal cats and half-naked Barbie dolls.

With the threat of Toddlermageddon looming, we looked for a new house. Amazingly, we found one nearly three times as large, twenty years younger, and far more energy efficient than the one in which we’d spent the past twelve years … all at a price too good to believe. We made an offer. Then we sat back and said, “Ruh-roh. What the hell were we thinking?”

We don’t deal well with change. It’s not from lack of experience — it’s the opposite, in fact. Familiarity breeds contempt. In my case, though, the word contempt is too mild. Terror is more like it.

Homegirl likes her sense of security. Bigtime.

We couldn’t bring ourselves to sell, even after we’d signed the papers to buy a second house. Turning the first into a rental property seemed like the perfect answer. We wouldn’t make any money, but neither would we lose too much. It was worth it to keep our options open. If we hated the new neighborhood, we could always move back. We weren’t really leaving this time. And now we were landlords. Again, there was only one small problem.

We sucked at being landlords.

We could have hired a management service, but then we would have lost a stupid amount of money. So we did everything ourselves.

It wasn’t fun. In fifteen months, rent was never paid on time and the simplest of transactions turned into massive headaches. When our tenants decided to break their lease two weeks before Christmas, the task of finding new ones, especially at that time of year, no longer seemed worth the effort. It was time to grow up and stop hedging our bets.

It was time to put the house on the market.

Ironically, it sold just three months before our daughter’s school announced its new, permanent location … two blocks away from our old house. Rather than driving over 40 miles a day (and paying $6 a day in tolls), I could have walked her to school. In five minutes.

Of course, that would have meant returning to the smaller house. And life should be lived moving forward, not backward. Also, you can never go home again.

Because of my daughter’s school, I now return to my old neighborhood several times each day. And I know you can’t go home again, and I know I wouldn’t move back into that house even if I could, and yet … I can’t get past this sense of nostalgia every time I see the place. My steering wheel tries to turn, and my fingers itch to pull over, to trim the too-low branches from the fan palm and sniff the blooms of the mimosa tree one more time. This melancholy is more pervasive than the nandina that still grows beside our old garage. I know it is not the structure for which I long so much as the memories and the history and the little piece of my soul I somehow forgot to pack.

Some day, I hope I’ll be able to drive by the house without feeling so damned nostalgic. But then I wonder if that won’t be the saddest day of all.

All this reminiscing reminds me of a story I wrote when we sold our little house on Mosley Lane. Perhaps it’s time to share it again.

I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you have the privilege of living in a house you love.

____________________

Goodbye, Mosley

 

I know it’s just a house. 

Just a shelter from the elements, a glorified box with windows and doors. To say it’s nothing more than bricks and mortar would be stretching the truth, since there’s only half a wall of masonry in front. Even that serves more for decoration than function. Simple lumber provides the only real support. Clearly, the architect cared more for cheap construction than design elements.

Once upon a time, there were rats in the attic. We set traps when we suspected this and quickly had proof: a dead rat, with a hollowed out skull where its head should have been. Presumably, the other rats had eaten its brain. Zombie rats ... who knew? Calls were made to pest control specialists. Contractors eventually replaced the siding and roofing, safeguarding us from the rodent version of Dawn of the Dead. We set more traps, loaded with peanut butter, in case any of the little freaks of nature were still inside. 

Zombie rats love peanut butter.

There are a thousand things I meant to do to this house. Now that it’s empty, they jump out at me: the gaps where the baseboards still need to be caulked; the gouges in the wall where I got a bit too zealous removing the wallpaper; the crack in the ceiling, along the drywall seam. 

If I look hard enough, I can just make out the holes in the wall where the baby-gate was attached. And that’s when it hits me.

These walls have seen more of my life than any others I’ve known. 

They held me up after my mother died, when the effort to walk was more than I could bear. They watched me bring my newborn daughter home from the hospital and set her tiny, sleeping body on the bed. They must have seen the terror on my face, must have realized how unprepared my husband and I were when I whispered, “What do we do now?” The house answered as best it could. The doors seemed to stick less when she was sleeping, and the needle-sharp holly outside her window quadrupled in size. No intruders would dare enter.

My baby outgrew her crib in this house. She became a child here. It feels so wrong to stand in her room now that it’s barren. Where is the Winnie the Pooh wallpaper border we hung when I was pregnant? Where are the Tinker Bell murals that brightened her playroom? 

The halls echo with my footsteps instead of her laughter. Safe, neutral tones have replaced the vibrant green walls and purple trim she loved so much. I know it had to be done — who would buy a house with such ludicrous colors? But it still feels like a betrayal, like I’ve destroyed a piece of her childhood. With paintbrush and putty knife, I have erased every trace of the giggling babe who once crawled these floors.

My little girl.

I’ll no longer be able to sneak into this room while she’s at school, or sit in the rocking chair and feel the phantom weight of her tiny body against my chest. The scent of baby lotion no longer lingers on the air. There’s only the sharp smell of fresh paint, and the bittersweet sting of remembering.

There are more memories waiting for me down the hall, in the bedroom my husband and I shared for so many years. Sleepy morning kisses and gentle rain pelting the windows. Candlelit nights and soft sighs. But these are private memories, best left unwritten. No one will know the games played in this room. The house will keep our secrets.

I walk to the living room and stare out the window. The patio looks so sterile without my jungle of houseplants crowding it. The ash tree will drop its seedpods soon, but someone else will have to sweep them up. I’m relieved, yet I can’t stop a stab of jealousy as I picture a stranger sitting beneath these branches. Will they wrap themselves in a blanket on chilly autumn mornings and sip their coffee, as I did? Will their eyes watch for the flash of red from the cardinal who winters in our yard? Will their spirits lift when they hear his song?

The image before me blurs, and I know it is time to leave. Time to say goodbye. 

Goodbye to pool parties and plentiful parking, to zany neighbors and crooked walls. Goodbye to an insanely large closet and an annoyingly small kitchen. Goodbye, messy tree and sweet, melodious cardinal. Goodbye, zombie rats. 

Goodbye, Mosley.

I turn my key in the lock for the last time and allow myself one look back. I see much more than an empty house. Behind the cracked, peeling paint of the front door I remember thirteen years of laughter and tears, thirteen years of fights and reconciliations, of highs and lows. Within this simple shell, there was the joy of birth and the sorrow of death. 

But above all, there was life.

I know it’s just a house. 

Just wood and nails that cannot see my tears or hear my whispered thanks. I offer both anyway. 

Thank you, Mosley. Thank you for being our home.

 

Wednesday
Jun122013

PSA (subtitle: Why I Suck at Life)

I was hard at work Friday afternoon, building my author platform (which is code for screwing around on Twitter), when my neighbors phoned. I’ve only known Wendy and Dave for a few years, but they seem like genuinely nice people — always willing to lend a hand (or a garden tool), and friendly without being intrusive or pushy about it. In short, they’re the perfect neighbors for someone as sociopathic introverted as me.

Wendy and Dave had gone to San Antonio to celebrate their 20th anniversary, leaving their two daughters, 11 and 5, at home with family friend “Aunt” Sally for the weekend. Wendy said her eldest daughter, Zoe, had called them because Aunt Sally had gone to take a nap a couple hours ago and wouldn’t wake up despite repeated efforts from the girls. I ran to her house and found Aunt Sally (a young-looking 52) in bed, not breathing. Her eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling, and there was a foamy discharge around her mouth, like toothpaste bubbles that had popped and dried. Dave had been trying to call 911 from San Antonio, and I grabbed their portable phone and did the same.

It’s hard to describe how chaotic everything felt in that moment. I’d only been in Wendy and Dave’s house once, a couple years ago, and I’d never been upstairs. Just trying to find their bedroom was like stumbling through a pitch-black maze, and simple things, like locating a light switch or operating a new phone, seemed inordinately complex. I had my cell phone (with Wendy still on the line) held to one ear, and their portable phone with 911 to the other. For a couple minutes, I was nothing more than a conduit. I channeled questions I couldn’t answer (house address, Sally’s age, medical history, etc.) from 911 to Wendy, and then parroted her answers right back.

The 911 dispatcher told me I needed to get Sally on her back and onto the floor right away. The chaos factor had somehow tripled by this point: Wendy is crying in my right ear, 911 is feeding me instructions in the other, Aunt Sally’s hyperactive poodle is growling at me, then licking me, then jumping all over me AND the body, the 5-year old is bouncing on the bed beside Aunt Sally, cheerfully urging her to wake up, while Zoe, the 11-year old, is telling me how she tried to listen for a heartbeat and couldn’t hear one. Despite the panic I was feeling inside, I somehow managed to sound calm and reassuring when I told Zoe to take her sister and the damned dog downstairs. I gave them an encouraging smile and told them not to worry, that they'd done an awesome job and I was going to help Aunt Sally now. It’s been three days, and I still can’t remember that moment without my hands shaking.

I didn’t wait to see if the kids did what I asked because I was focused on moving Aunt Sally off the bed. This is the point where I'd really like to say I didn't have a single squeamish thought and just leaped into action. The latter part is true, at least. I never once hesitated, even though I was pretty sure Aunt Sally had been dead for quite some time. For the next few moments, my mind seemed to operate apart from my body. While my arms were sliding beneath her knees and waist in what was perhaps the most incredibly inept attempt to move a body, ever, my mind was in freak-out mode, bouncing around like a feral cat in a dog kennel. I kept saying, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," to this woman with the dead, open eyes, while in the back of my head a voice was chanting, "Oh, God, I don't want to do this ... I HAVE to do this ... please don't make me do this ... you can do this … you can do this … you can do this."

Of course I was doing it all wrong. I have really weak arms — I can’t bench-press a feather, so I don’t know why I thought I could just lift her up and carry her like some poorly conceived reenactment of An Officer and a Gentleman. Moving a completely prone body is something that's hard to understand until you've tried it. I'd say it was like trying to lift a 175 lb. sack of flour, except it's not anything like that. Flour in a sack would have its weight somewhat evenly distributed, whereas a human body is dense in places you don’t expect and can’t predict. 

It didn’t take me long to realize I was never going to get Aunt Sally off the bed this way. So I snatched up the phone and told the guy at 911 that I just wasn't strong enough to do what he’d asked. I didn’t recognize my own voice, probably because it was filled with the sort of despair that comes from knowing you’re in a life-or-death situation and failing miserably. Fear, panic, frustration … I felt it all rising inside me, bubbling up my throat, ready to erupt in one giant, desperate sob. But then the 911 guy told me to grab whatever blankets or sheets I could find beneath Aunt Sally and use them to pull her to the floor. Because duh. And also ehhhh. Let’s add “stupid” to the myriad emotions I was experiencing.

Sally was lying on a thick comforter, so there was something sturdy to grab. A large, slate nightstand was blocking her path to the floor, but 911 told me not to worry about hitting her head or hurting her when she fell.

I called on my feeble arms once more and somehow managed to pull, tug, and yank her off the bed. Of course I also knocked a bunch of crap off the nightstand, and even as I’m reaching for the phone again I’m realizing that I just dumped all this stuff right on this poor woman’s face — bottles, lotions, a tumbler full of water and the tumbler itself are raining down on her — and she isn’t flinching or blinking or jerking or doing ANYTHING, and so my brain decides to take a little picture and forever preserve the image of her unseeing eyes and her slack face, because obviously I would need to be shown this scene again and again, whether awake or asleep, for who knows how many more days or weeks or months.

While my brain was being ever so helpful, the guy on the phone was instructing me to start chest compressions. I felt something pop beneath the heel of my hand on the first one, because this story can’t possibly get any more horrible. I didn’t stop, though. I had the phone pinched between my ear and my shoulder, but it kept trying to pop out every few seconds because I was moving so much. I was doing all sorts of weird contortions to keep it in place — if I dropped it, I’d lose the 911 guy who was counting off the chest compressions for me. The pace you’re supposed to use is a hell of a lot faster than I’d ever realized (100 per minute!), so I’m glad I could hear him and sync my motions to his voice.

I can’t remember how many times he counted to thirty before the first police officer arrived. All I know is that I’ve never been so relieved to relinquish responsibility for something in my life. When I tried to stop, however, the officer told me no, keep going, keep doing the chest compressions, and then HE started to count them off for me. He opened a respirator bag and connected some leads between a tiny machine he’d brought and Sally’s chest. An extremely loud, continuous tone came from the machine, along with mechanical instructions to resume CPR. I think perhaps a pulse was supposed to have registered? We stayed as we were, me doing chest compressions and him using the respirator bag in between reps, until the paramedics arrived. My role was officially over, except for the millionty questions the police would be asking throughout the evening.

I went downstairs to check on the girls and was surprised to find my daughter there in the living room with them. I’d told her to stay inside our house, but the fire truck, ambulance, and five police cars parked outside had frightened her. I never heard a single siren, although I assume they were used. Maybe adrenaline blocked the sound?

Wendy called to let me know they’d checked out of their hotel in San Antonio and were heading back to Austin. I had her speak to the police, who needed to locate Aunt Sally’s next of kin. It turns out Aunt Sally had mentioned having some chest pains earlier, although they apparently weren’t bad enough to seek treatment. Zoe pointed out a grocery bag on the counter; Aunt Sally had brought a bunch of stuff to make the girls treats during their fun weekend together. According to Zoe, Aunt Sally hadn’t been there very long when she’d said she felt tired and decided to take a little nap. Fatigue, as I’d later learn, is a common heart attack symptom. I recalled there being a wet washcloth on the nightstand, and when I asked Zoe about it she said Sally was sweating a lot — another warning sign of a heart attack. Then again, it was 106 degrees here Friday afternoon. Sweating is an easy symptom to dismiss when it's summer in central Texas.

After obtaining police and parental consent, I took all three girls (and the stupid dog) home with me. I really didn’t want the kids to see the body being removed from the house, and the police heartily agreed. I cannot say enough about our amazing first responders. I realize this was probably “all in a day’s work” to them, but their confidence and competence made a terrible situation seem a little less so.

The girls had never stayed with us before, but I offered to keep them for however long they and their parents would like, which ended up being from Friday afternoon through Sunday night. My daughter got a glimpse of what it’s like to have an older and younger sister, and I got validation for my one-and-done childbearing decision. I jest — they’re all really good kids.

When I tucked them in the first night, I told the eldest girl that I was just one bedroom over and she was welcome to come and get me if they needed anything.

“Even if you’re asleep?” she asked. 

“Of course,” I said. “It’s okay to wake me up.”

“But when I tried to wake up Aunt Sally, I couldn’t.”

Guh. Just ... guh.

I assured her my heart was in great shape, and that what had happened to Aunt Sally was rare. But it really isn’t. And this is where my story becomes a PSA, people.

Everyone should know the warning signs of a heart attack. Most episodes don’t involve sudden, searing pain like we’ve been conditioned to expect from television drama. Some are so subtle they’re called “silent heart attacks.” In every case, though, minutes matter! Familiarize yourself with the symptoms here:

Warning Signs of a Heart Attack

And remember: women can exhibit different warning signs than men. Heart disease is the number one killer of women, so educate yourself on the differences.

Heart Attack Symptoms in Women

I hope you never find yourself in the sort of situation I encountered on Friday. But if you do, I’m sure you’ll respond with far less bumbling and clumsiness. There are a thousand things I wish I’d done differently, although I did other things — important things — that I never knew I could do.

 

Will I be better equipped to handle the next emergency that comes along? Hard to say. I'm actually hoping I don't have to find out. In the meantime, you can bet I'll be leaving crisis management skills off my resume.

 

 

 

Monday
Nov122012

Telling Stories

Somewhere during my morning commute, a woman named Jane wandered into my head. This is her story, or at least one very small part of it. It is told from Jane's point of view, not mine. Never mine.

__________________________________________________________________________________

 

STRINGS

“Green sweater … green sweater … green sweater.”

I mumble the words over and over as I paw through the clothes in her closet, their smell somehow mustier than the rest of the house. This room has been closed off for days, so the scent of disuse makes sense.

It also makes my skin crawl.

What I wouldn’t give for some rubber gloves and a dust rag right now. I bet I could even find a rusty old can of Pledge beneath the kitchen sink. She always kept her cleaning supplies there, in a half-rotted cardboard box. At the very least, I could find something to scrub away the layer of dust and grime that seems to coat every surface, something sharp and astringent to fill the stale air. The sense of abandonment that clings to the house, though — that’s a different story. They don’t make a cleanser for that. And even if they did, it’d be too late to use it.

Downstairs, I hear my brother, Erik, talking to the others. I can’t make out their words, not with the old A/C unit rattling in the living room window, but the hum of conversation reminds me to hurry.

Convinced the sweater isn’t in the closet, I turn and yank open random drawers. In my haste, I upset the picture frames that blanket the top of her dresser. As I set them upright, matching each frame to its dust-free strip like a puzzle, I realize she’d arranged them strategically. Each picture covered a dent or a particularly ugly chip in the dresser’s thin veneer, effectively hiding the years of abuse and neglect. For some reason, this makes me angry. I push the frames back, so that all the scars show.

I return my attention to the drawers, careful not to disturb my handiwork. In the very last one, I find the prey I’ve been hunting: a pale green sweater she’d made many years ago. Sea foam green, I think it’s called, although I’ve been to the sea many times and have never seen foam that color. Sea foam gray would be better.

I close the drawer and shake the folds from the sweater. It’s a lovely piece, made lovelier with time. She was always good with a crochet hook, but it’s age, not skill, that makes the yarn so soft. The big, loopy stitches look almost unbearably delicate. It seems an odd choice for a final shroud, but it’s not my place to argue. Not anymore, at least. God, how she’d laugh if she could hear me think such thoughts.

There’s a string of yarn dangling from the bottom of the sweater, and I make a mental note to snip it off before handing the garment over. When I examine it closer, I can see that it’s the start of a row, the loose bit you’re supposed to work into the other stitches as you go. How could she have forgotten this? She took such care in crafting the rest of the sweater, such pride in her work. I’m assuming that last bit, of course — it’s been years since we’ve spoken, and I have no idea what made her proud. But she asked to be buried in the damned thing, so it must have meant something to her. In all the years she’s owned it, how had she never noticed this flaw? It’s so obvious. Almost deliberate. Why did she never attempt to fix it? A few quick flicks, and she could have woven it back into place, hidden it the same way she hid the gouges in her dresser. Or she could have cut it off entirely, as I’m planning to do. Something. Why did she ignore it?

It bothers me more than it should, that string.

I pick at it absentmindedly and frown at her dresser. I know the others are waiting downstairs, but I’m distracted by the pictures now. I wonder if Erik will want them. He’ll be disgusted by the Wal-Mart frames, of course, but you never know with Erik. Or at least I never do. And it is Erik’s smiling face and Erik’s deep blue eyes — our mother’s eyes — that feature so prominently in each photo. All except one, that is.

A small frame in back holds the only proof I ever existed in this house. Surprisingly, there isn’t half as much dust on this picture. The larger photos of Erik probably shielded it. It’s the only explanation I care to entertain.

I stare into the frame and recognize nothing of myself in the young girl looking back. I try to recall how old I was when it was taken. Ten? Eleven? Certainly before my twelfth birthday, before innocence was first shattered by my father’s ugly hands and my mother’s uglier silence. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember I was ever carefree. But now, the memories won’t stop.

That last summer, the last trip we ever took to the lake cabin. Picking wild blueberries with my mother, catching trout with Erik, teasing him when I landed the biggest fish. Lying beside my father in the narrow old hammock, never questioning his touch on my leg or the reluctance on my mother’s face as she watched us.

That summer was the last time our family was whole.

Someone’s replaced my knees with rubber bands. I stumble to my mother’s bed, still clutching the photo, still fiddling with the loose string of her sweater. The old springs groan beneath my weight as I sit.

I’ve spent thirty years trying to forget. Why did she want to remember? Why did she keep this, of all pictures? And why didn’t she do something about this goddamned string?  How could she stand to look at it hanging there, day in and day out, a constant reminder of her mistake, a daily affirmation of her failure?

Now the memories hit so hard and so fast that they split me open. I’m sliced apart, my skin mere ribbons, and I sit there bleeding and lost and so very desperate to gather up all the pieces of myself that have spilled onto my mother’s floor. I don’t have time for this. There’s a funeral to plan, bills to pay, a house to sell. Somehow, I must find a way to put myself back together again, even if all the pieces don’t fit.

Because the reality is the pieces will never fit. There will always be something missing, a part so tiny only a child could see it. Lord knows I’ve found plenty of other things to try stuffing into the empty spot over the years. Some have worked better than others. Some have come so close to making me feel complete that they have even fooled me. Almost.

It’s amazing the lies you can tell yourself.

All it takes is one string to unravel it, one errant piece of yarn left dangling. You give it a yank, and boom — you’re nothing but a scared little girl, crying for the mother you lost not last week, but thirty years ago. And when your brother finds you there, tangled in a pile of yarn that was once a sweater, and asks what the hell happened, perhaps you will finally find the words that have eluded you for so long.

“It wasn’t my fault.”

 

 

Thursday
Oct252012

The Hardest Job You’ll Ever Love

They say parenthood is the hardest job you’ll ever love, and they’re right. When my daughter was born, nothing could have prepared me for the difficulties ahead: The bone-crushing exhaustion that comes from catching sleep by minutes, rather than hours; the constant fear that if you lower your guard for just one second, the SIDS monster will snatch away your baby; the searing pain of trying to breastfeed when latching problems have left you cracked and bleeding. “Maternal bonding time,” my ass.

Then came the toddler years, brimming with battles of will so mind-numbingly frustrating they made the days of 2 a.m. feedings look better than an ice cream sundae topped with whipped cream and George Clooney. This is what they meant by the hardest job you’ll ever love, I thought. The Terrible Two’s … the Even-More-Terrible Three’s … and the Really Rather Dreadful Four’s.

My daughter is seven now, and the days of tantrums are behind us. There’s no longer a need to drag my screaming child through the house (by her ankles) and hold her ever-squirming body in the time-out corner for three of the longest minutes of my life. She hasn’t had a time-out in years. There are rules, and there are consequences for breaking them. She gets that, and she also gets that we don’t relent — even when her punishment backfires on us (like when we revoked a much-anticipated sleepover … Mommy and Daddy had big plans for their night alone, dammit!). Still, consistent discipline has paid off.

So, this whole parenting this is a piece of cake now, right?

Not so fast, Perky McOptimism. It’s a piece of something, but it sure as hell ain’t cake. Because however out-of-control those early years felt at the time, there was still control. And it was mine to wield. I had the power to make everything better and, more importantly, I was allowed to use that power.

You scraped your chin? Mommy will bandage it. You had a nightmare? Mommy will sing you back to sleep. Your tummy hurts? Mommy will wash the vomit from her hair and then snuggle with you until you feel better. Ah, those were the days.

Now I sit with impotent rage while she cries over whatever psychological scars her classmates have inflicted that day. This week it was something seemingly simple — Best Frienemy demands to be given her favorite snack at recess each day.

“If you don’t want to give it to her," I say, "then don't."

“Then I’ll hurt her feelings.”

“You don’t have to be mean about it. Just politely remind her that it’s your snack, and you want to eat it.”

“When I do that, she says she won’t be my friend anymore.”

*cue lengthy discussion about friendship versus extortion, the crux of which is: real friends don’t pull shit like this*

Me: “If this is important to you, then you have to stand up to her. If she’s really your friend, she’ll accept that and perhaps even respect you more for it. Trust me, babe. You’re not doing yourself — or her — any favors by letting her bully you. She has to learn what sort of behavior is and isn’t acceptable, and as her friend, you have a responsibility to help her learn that.”

“But then she won’t play with me anymore.” The tears are flowing freely now.

“There are plenty of other kids in your class,” I remind her. “If that’s how she wants to be, play with someone else.”

“I can’t!” she wails. “She tells everyone they’re not allowed to play with me.”

“Everyone? Really?”

“Everyone!”

“I bet you can find one kid in your class who’d still play with you.” But I wonder how much is exaggeration. Kids are scary.

“I don’t want to be alone,” my daughter says, her voice barely audible. “Can’t I please just go to a different school?”

And this is the point where, as a parent, you begin to long for the simple days of exploding diapers and sleepless nights. The days when you still had the power to soothe and comfort your child. Yours was the superhero status gleaned from an awesome ability to mend every broken toy, broken dream, and broken heart that came along. Mommy could fix anything.

When your child looks at you, pleading, and you recognize their unshakable faith — their certainty that you, Supermom, can fix this for them — it is indescribably painful to tell them they’re wrong.

Sure, there are things I could do: I could remind the school to enforce their “no sharing” policy. I could have a talk with Best Frienemy and tell her to back the fuck off. I could meet with Best Frienemy’s parents — they are wonderful people who don’t pretend their kid is perfect. I know they’d address the problem quickly and efficiently. But would any of these solutions truly help my daughter in the long run?

She needs to learn how to stand up for herself, and the sooner the better. Today’s schoolyard bully is tomorrow’s abusive boyfriend. If I fight her battles now, how will she defend herself later? I’d be depriving her of the chance to show the world how strong she can be, and in doing so I'd make her exponentially weaker.

Sadly, the best thing I can do to help her is … nothing. Nothing substantial, at least. I’ll stand behind her, and I’ll continue to guide her and support her as best I’m able. But to her it must look like I don’t care enough to get involved. I’ve told her she has to fix this herself. The choice is hers, and she alone must make it. But from her point of view, I’ve failed her. If you look hard enough, you can see it in her eyes. The lowering of the pedestal. The removal of the cape. I’ve pulled back the curtain, and she sees there’s just an ordinary woman back there. An ordinary woman who has no fucking idea what she’s doing.

The hardest job you’ll ever love? You could say that.

Because the thing about parenthood is it starts out two degrees from impossible and then it gets hard. And if anyone tells you differently, they’re lying (or they haven’t been paying attention, and their kids are one match away from setting the family cat on fire). Parenting isn’t easy. And if you think it is, then you’re doing it wrong.

The good news is it’s a life-long gig. You don’t stop worrying about your kids just because they’ve moved out — if anything, you remember all the crap you did in college and worry about them more than ever. As long as you both draw breath, you will spend each day worrying, suppressing every instinct you have to jump in and keep them from making some huge mistake and getting their hearts (and yours) broken again. Because deep down you know the lessons they learn from each failure outweigh the failure itself. And each mistake makes them stronger. Braver. Smarter.

Which is good, because some day they are going to have children of their own, and they are going to experience fear and rage and heartbreak unlike any they have ever known before. And they will need every ounce of courage and knowledge they have squeezed from their own life — that life you gave them, that life you stepped back from despite the pain. That life you let them live for themselves.

Best of luck, my friends. We’re going to need it.