Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Not Fitting In: A lesson from the kitchen table

Step into my kitchen and you will always find fresh flowers on the table. If not fresh flowers, then a seasonally appropriate piece of decor. As Oprah says, your home should "rise up and meet you" and that's just the sort of person I am : a Fresh Flowers Or Seasonal Decor On The Kitchen Table kind of girl.

Oh, who am I kidding? I have to stick something on the table because there's a hole in the middle of it. It's a big, round hole that's intended to hold an umbrella. Because you see, my kitchen table is not actually a kitchen table. It was designed to live out its life on a patio (hence the umbrella hole) but we saw it in the store and thought it was too pretty to brave the elements, so we rescued it and brought it inside. Hole and all.

The hole isn't the only issue. We weren't quite as exacting as we should have been with measurements, so the table is a tad bit too large for the space. Once you sit down you'd better make yourself comfortable because you're pretty much trapped. And of course, because it's an outdoor table of an irregular size, no standard tablecloth will ever fit. But despite its flaws, I love my outdoor table brought inside. It's sturdy, durable, and different, hole and all. And somehow, it reminds me of myself.

Not fitting in has fit me perfectly for most of my life. I think it's a feeling most children of immigrants can relate to: you grow up with one foot in each world, never feeling completely steady in your stance. As a child I felt out of place among the blue-eyed, peanut butter eating masses at school, but still never completely at home in my own home. I was too young, too immature to embrace what made our family different, and though I loved the familiarity of my parents' native tongue, the customs and traditions they brought from Egypt, I feared fully embracing them would separate me even further from the seemingly perfect American experience I thought I craved. Who was I, anyway? An outdoor table brought inside.

And that was just the beginning. In an uber-successful family of doctors, nurses, lawyers, I was the one with Career ADD, flitting from one profession to the next every few years, searching for that perfect fit. And once I finally found the work I loved doing, I still couldn't find a way to make it work for my life. You can bring an outdoor table inside, but you can't always make it fit.

Now we find ourselves living in a sea of manicured lawns and pedicured toes. A place where candle parties are a way of life and stay at home moms rule the roost. At times I love the serenity and peace of our tranquil neighborhood, and at times it makes me want to put on a multi-colored wig and run screaming down the cul-de-sac at 3am. In this neighborhood of freshly starched tablecloths and perfect place settings, I sometimes find myself feeling like the outdoor table that was left uncovered all winter and finally brought inside only to make a big, muddy mess all over the floor. Yet another place I don't quite fit in, but the good news is, I don't really care.

Because somewhere along the way something happened. Somewhere between all the years in school, the different jobs, the different cities, the different countries, I filled up that hole in my table. Filled it up with a mixture of equal parts self-awareness, pride and inner strength. And not long after that I met the sweetest man with floppy brown hair. Together we made two beautiful children who remind me every day with their goofy giggles and joyful souls that we fit together perfectly as a family. And that maybe, just maybe, I did something right.

Now as I watch them grow, part of me hopes they will have an easier time fitting in than I did, because I hate the thought of them going through even a moment of angst. But I also know there's tremendous power in being able to stand out from the herd, and that the path of greater resistance is well worth the effort. So as we sit somewhat awkwardly around our too-big, too bulky, outside table brought inside, I run my fingers over every crack and bump and give thanks, knowing there's no place I'd rather be. And I say a silent prayer that my children will always know that this is where they fit. That they are lovely, that they are loved. Holes and all. Inside and out.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Cupcakes and jobs: facing tough decisions as a parent

Funny how life can turn on a dime. Or a word. Or a cupcake.

In my last post I wrote about embracing the here and now. I had one of those breakthrough moments where I realized I was shortchanging myself and my family by living in the past, I was wasting too much energy lamenting over where I wasn't in my life. I pledged to accept the hand that life had dealt, to cherish the opportunity I've been given to be home with my two young children. I vowed to look for possibilities instead of problems. I tried to think about all I could accomplish during this hiatus from full-time work: I'd try one new recipe every week. I'd become the sort of person who used "scrapbook" as a verb. Maybe I would even learn the secret ways of the Local Ladies Who Lunch and not feel like such an outcast in my own neighborhood. I walked around repeating a new mantra to myself: Now is my friend. Now is good. Now can be great!

It lasted about a week.

Then along came the cupcakes. They were my idea, so I take the blame. You see, I was just trying to fill that time of day I've come to know as the witching hour: the post-afternoon nap, pre-dinner, dad's not home from yet, I can't get a (*&^ thing done stretch from roughly 4-6pm. My little boy was restless, bored with his vast array of toys and the weather was lousy. A teething baby had been using me as a chew toy and my aching arms (as well as other body parts) just needed a break. So I put her in the highchair with some Cheerios and said the magic words to my son: "Let's make cupcakes!"

So we measured and we mixed and 22 minutes later it was a beautiful thing to behold: frosted deliciousness wrapped in a tiny paper liner. My sweet little boy turned to me with sprinkles still clinging to his chunky fingers and asked the magic question: "Mama, can I eat one?"

"Not now," I told him. "You can have one after dinner."

Even before I finished saying it, I could see his little chin start to quiver, the tears welling up in those blue-green eyes. Cue the massive meltdown in 3, 2, 1....

What was I thinking? "Not now?" A toddler's whole world is now. Later, tomorrow, 3 weeks from Tuesday... these are concepts that don't quite register with a 2.5 year old. I might as well have told him "Not ever," because all he could wrap his mind around was the fact there was a cupcake on the counter, a cupcake he had slaved over (OK, Betty Crocker slaved over it, but he had helped), so close he could drool over it (and probably did) and it was somehow forbidden?

So there I stood in the kitchen, faced with a tough choice: stand my ground and preserve some hope that dinner would be eaten, or let him eat the cupcake and put an end to the tantrum. Maybe it wasn't the best decision, but I chose the path of least resistance, the one covered in sprinkles. He grinned, grabbed the cupcake and buried his face in the frosting. Crisis averted.

But it's never that simple, because who wants to stop with just one cupcake? So of course he turned to me with frosting still oozing from his mouth, cheeks still stuffed, looking like a rabid chipmunk and begged for another. But this time, I stood firm: "No. Not now." Back came the tears, the balled up fists, the stomping feet. "Not now" is not fun.

Later that same night I came to know exactly how he felt. Once both kids were asleep I settled in to do a little bit of writing. OK, maybe just a quick hello to my 635 Facebook friends, then a little writing. Right after just the teensiest little bit of email, I'll do some writing.

Except that someone had sent me a cupcake. Not an actual cupcake (although if there is a way to receive baked goods via email, someone please tell me how to make it happen), but my very own seemingly forbidden fruit. It was a job posting for the one position I wanted, at the one place I'd always hoped to work. Here I was, trying so hard to commit myself to staying home with my kids, a decision I'm pretty sure is the right one right now, and along comes a cupcake. What to do?

Eating the cupcake (applying for the job) would mean a potentially huge stomachache: daycare, commuting, a demanding schedule, being away from my husband and kids, missing out on so much personally. Is it worth the pain? I have a good situation "sans" cupcake: I recognize that we are blessed to be in a position where financially I don't have to work full-time. And working a few nights/week at a local radio station helps bring some escape from 24-7 Mommyville. Could I really handle an entire cupcake at this point?

But not being able to eat the cupcake is, pardon the pun, no piece of cake: I crave the life I left behind, feel like I'm missing out on so much professionally. A cupcake like this doesn't come along very often. My stimulation-challenged brain shouted "Eat the cupcake, already!" while my heart screamed "Not now!"

Not now is definitely not fun.

So what's a girl to do? Eat the cupcake or put it back on the shelf? It's times like these I wish I had someone to make the decisions for me. Someone to tame my internal tantrum and set me straight. Someone to help me sort out "now" from "not now." But I'm a big girl, and this is part of growing up. I'll just have to think it over, pray for clarity, and figure out if this is my time to take a bite.

Mona Shand is the mother of 2 and a local news reporter who loves cupcakes.