Revisiting the Nutcracker

by Abby on December 3, 2019

Here’s a look back at one of my favorite holiday posts. Ah, memories!

Nutcracker, missing an arm and his hat
Fritz could be my kid! I was thrilled to have this realization during one of my many, many viewings of The Nutcracker.

I love The Nutcracker—the music, the dancing, the costumes. I am lucky enough to have seen it performed professionally several times. My dad took me to see it as a kid and even in college. I made my husband take me when I was pregnant with our first child, and I forced my sons to go with me once they were old enough. This is actually not as hard a sell for boys as you might imagine. After all, there are swordfights and a Mouse King and all sorts of acrobatic dancing.

Most people picture graceful ballerinas and Sugar Plum Fairies when they think of The Nutcracker, but the story is actually not all so sweet. If you recall, the Nutcracker in the title is the gift given to young Clara by her beloved godfather on Christmas Eve. Her brother Fritz gets jealous, grabs the Nutcracker from Clara, and breaks it. That’s totally something my kids would do!

A big part of my holiday stress since becoming a parent is due to the expectations involved in celebrating Christmas. There are my children’s outrageous gift lists, filled with live animals (hedgehogs, hamsters), loud musical instruments (a drum set, a ukelele), and every other page of the Lego catalog. Then there’s the jockeying of the relatives, all of them intent on getting equal time with my children. And there are the endless invitations and obligations, all of which seem to cost money and time I don’t have.

But mostly my stress is caused by this ridiculous notion that kids are supposed to be good and patient and grateful at all times in the midst of this melee—while all jacked up on sugar and up way past their bedtimes. The naughty/nice list is too much pressure on an energetic little boy with no concept of time or delayed gratification. Anyone who playfully warns, “Santa’s watching…” while wagging a finger at a kid having a hissy fit should be choked with a string of twinkle lights.

People who picture the holidays filled with cherubs in footy pajamas sweetly clutching teddy bears while visions of sugar plums dance in their heads need to come to my house in December. It’s all broken ornaments, tantrums, and time-outs around here. I am seriously considering having “Kids are why we can’t have nice things” stitched on a throw pillow.

But The Nutcracker reminds me that this is normal. Kids are sometimes often cranky and tired during the holidays. Sometimes they are unhappy with their gifts. No matter how much you coach them to force a smile and thank Aunt Betty for the hand-knitted wool socks, kids don’t have good poker faces. They might frown and pout when they get a lame gift. And let’s be honest: plenty of adults do too. Some of us just have better poker faces.

At Christmastime, I try to keep my expectations low and my décor replaceable. I may never have a Nutcracker to pass down to my grandchildren as a family heirloom, mostly because my own kids will have destroyed it first. But Nutcrackers make bad gifts for kids, anyway. You’re better off picking something out of the Lego catalog. May I recommend page 32?


The Homeless Man at Breakfast

by Abby on December 7, 2017

“Enough with the homeless man! Sit down and eat your yogurt parfait!” You know your parenting has gone awry if you find yourself hissing these words at your 8yo son in Panera, as I did one recent Saturday morning. Let me explain.

Our family had decided to go out to breakfast. A rare occurrence, since I prefer to drink my coffee at home in my bathrobe, not get all gussied up with pants and lip gloss to stand in line with a bunch of strangers. Anyway, there we were, enjoying our bagels and beverages. Riley was seated facing the window, where a homeless man was waiting by the entrance, asking passersby for spare change.

Homeless men in Baltimore

Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common scene in our city. Both of my sons have big hearts and lots of questions. A few I get on the regular: “Mommy, what does that man’s sign say? Why is he homeless? Why can’t he just go and live with his parents? Can I give him my chips/juice box/half-eaten bag of dino fruit snacks?” Sometimes we give someone an (unopened) snack or a dollar, but of course, it’s not possible to help everyone.

Sometimes, if I have the energy, I will launch into a long, confusing lecture on systemic poverty, affordable housing, and charitable organizations. This goes over about as well as you’d expect with two boys who live in a safe, loving home with unlimited access to toilet paper, pretzels, and Wifi. Where the fridge and dresser drawers are never empty, thanks to a Grocery Fairy and a Laundry Fairy!

On the one hand, I love that my son is worried about this homeless man outside Panera and wants to help him. On the other hand, it consumed our ENTIRE family breakfast.

“Can we give him some money, Mommy?”

“How about some food,” suggests Dad.

“OK! Can I go give him my bagel?”

“That’s stupid, Riley. He won’t eat it,” says Big Brother helpfully.

“I don’t think he wants your leftovers, buddy. We’ll get him something on the way out.”

“Look, he has 4 coffees now. People are giving him drinks.”

“That’s nice. See? People want to help.”

“Is that a policeman? What’s he doing? Is he telling that man to leave? Ooh, look, he’s doing a dance now!”

The jaded part of me who’s lived in Baltimore for 20 years—yes, the setting of “The Wire”—thinks, that’s not a dance, that’s what’s known as the “heroin lean,” son. Then the non-jaded part of me is immediately appalled that I know that and that I’m assuming the man is on drugs. This is followed by a shame spiral because I am raising children who already know what junkies, weed, and police brutality are, not to mention way more kinds of weapons than they’d know from just watching the Power Rangers.

Can you see why I prefer having breakfast at home?

In the direction I was facing at our table, though, I had a different perspective. I could see a line of people of just about every race and ethnicity, young and old, able-bodied and in wheelchairs. People were holding the door for one another, letting people go ahead of them in line, chatting with strangers about knee surgery: “Oh, you lookin’ good, honey! I had it last year. Just keep doing your exercises!”

We finished our breakfast and got up to buy another bagel to go. Riley was all set to give it to the homeless man, but outside the door we discovered he was gone. “I was looking for him, too,” said a woman next to us. “I had a bag of clothes in the car I wanted to give him.” People want to help.

Always the mom looking for a Teachable Moment, I said to my son, “You know, if you want to help there are other ways. One of your classmates is collecting pajamas to donate to a homeless shelter. Want to go pick some out?” I was so pleased with myself for thinking of this. It’s the perfect opportunity. Riley LOVES pajamas. He changes into them the second he gets home from anywhere, at any time of day. He owns more PJs than Hugh Hefner, R.I.P.

“Nah. You can, though.” And just like that, his altruism has passed. Giving a bagel to a dancing homeless man is one thing. Going clothes shopping with your mom for some anonymous person is quite another.

I used to want to avoid unpleasantness of any kind, any reminder of pain or suffering. I still want to shield my kids from it, even if that’s not possible or advisable. I struggle with how to talk about tough subjects like homelessness, the self-consciousness of doing the wrong thing or not doing enough, and the despair of knowing I can’t solve it.

What my kids and I can do, however, is acknowledge it instead of turning away. To the homeless man outside Panera: We see you. You matter. We want to help.

P.S. I did buy some pajamas to donate. Any excuse to pick out cute footies in toddler sizes!

P.P.S. Parenting is exhausting. You don’t get Saturdays off.


Playing with Dolphins

October 20, 2017

It’s not every day I find myself on a standup paddleboard in warm, turquoise waters. But one morning last week, that’s exactly where I was, three days into a girls’ trip to the Gulf Coast of Florida. The trip could not have been better timed, stress-wise or weather-wise. I pushed for the paddleboards, having done […]

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Tweet Me, Text Me, Teach Me: Back-to-School in 2017

September 15, 2017

Back-to-school time is more stressful than the holidays, a mammogram, and an extended visit with the in-laws COMBINED for most moms I know. My September breakdowns have been well-documented here. The unfortunate fundraiser meltdown of 2011. The carpool catastrophes. The scavenger-hunt supply lists, the endless forms to fill out. I was hoping to breeze through […]

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Back-to-School Reflections

September 6, 2017

I am not the mom who cried at preschool graduation, or on the first day of kindergarten. Most years I greet the start of the school year with relief and celebration. (Whew! The summer ran me ragged. Let the teachers take over!) This year was different. This morning I dropped off a third-grader and a […]

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Notes from a Writers’ Conference

May 9, 2017

This past weekend I did something shockingly out of the ordinary: I went to a writers’ conference! In New York City! Without my family in tow! There was a time I considered myself a professional writer first, and a pretzel server/baseball uniform washer/carpool driver second. Those times have changed. It took a whole lotta effort […]

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Tiptoeing (or Trampling) Through the Tulips

May 4, 2017

As I prepare to head off to New York City for the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference, I am sharing one of my favorite posts from my archives. My writing career has certainly taken me to some fascinating places over the years … The View from the Other Side of the Pool House Tucked away […]

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Unplugged on the Slopes

March 27, 2017

This winter we took our kids skiing for the first time. We claimed the excursion was a birthday gift for my younger son, who just turned 8. But we also wanted to take advantage of the SkiPA Snowpass, a program that offers discounted lessons and lift tickets for 4th and 5th graders and their parents. […]

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Why I Went to the Women’s March on Washington

January 23, 2017

In 1971 my mom was fired from her job as a public school teacher for being pregnant with my brother. She was married, but the law in Connecticut at that time stated that female teachers could not work past their fifth month of pregnancy. The teachers union took her case to court, even though she […]

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Tropical Islands, Mental Health, and Parenting in Winter

January 17, 2017

I love it when different threads from different parts of my life come together. It makes me feel like I know what I’m doing, like maybe I had a plan all along. It’s like that Steve Jobs quote: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have […]

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