Sunday, July 25, 2010

Thoughts on attending my 20 year high school reunion

Hair straight or curly? Dress or pants? Or blouse and skirt? Which one best says "I'm not the awkward geek you might remember" and "I've got my act together now" with a touch of "I just threw this fabulousness together without trying too hard" and of course does not make my butt look fat? These are the questions I ponder as the clock ticks down to Saturday night, a date that will definitely go down on my permanent record: my 20 year high school reunion.

This will be my first reunion. I think there was a 5-year but I missed it. 5 years just didn't seem like long enough apart to merit getting back together. Also, I was living on a Caribbean island, working for a resort company, putting my degrees in French and International Relations to very good use leading relay races on the beach in multiple languages. I'm pretty sure there was a 10 year reunion but I missed that one too, probably because I was living on yet another island (Kauai). But life takes funny turns and one of them took me away from the islands back to the Michigan's lower peninsula, so I have no geographic excuse not to go. We don't have any other plans and we do have a babysitter. We bought the tickets, put it on the calendar, so I guess it's now official: when the Lahser High School Class of 1990 reunites Saturday night, I will be there.

I still find it ironic that I'm attending, much less even had a minor role in planning this event, since I have spent much of the past two decades trying to distance myself both mentally and physically (hence the islands) from my 1-12 experience. No "K," as I skipped kindergarten, which is the equivalent of having a scarlet G for "Geek" branded on one's forehead at age 5. Maybe that was the reason, or maybe it was my mass of frizzy, dark curly hair in a sea of shiny blondes, or maybe it was just my bad luck, but from the early days of elementary school when the Great Divide opened up between the Cool Kids and the Others, I was on the wrong side. At least it felt wrong at the time.

I don't have the happiest memories from those early school years. I had a few close friends (who remain close today) but for the most part, was a bit of a loner. I remember being teased- the painful name calling at the playground, the even more painful name calling I suspect happened behind my back. I remember the loneliness of lunchtime in the cafeteria, and the sinking feeling every time a teacher said it was time to pick teams. I remember burying myself in books, befriending the likes of Laura Ingalls Wilder, making my own playdates with Encyclopedia Brown, Ramona Quimby and the Judy Blume crew. I remember the kindness of teachers, their sympathetic looks as I'd drag my feet on the way to the playground.

And I remember the Cool Kids. They seemed so very, very cool. They were the trend setters, the style mavens, and I was always a few steps behind. They had mothers who ran the PTA, lead the Girl Scout troop and baked cookies for class parties. My mother was a university professor, but at age 8 I failed to realize how truly impressive that was. I was too busy watching the Cool Kids go running off the school bus into the waiting arms of their mothers as I sulked away to a babysitter waiting at home.

A few weeks ago my all-American, captain of his high school soccer team, Cool Kid of a husband and I were at my parents' house and dug out my old middle school yearbook. He got a kick out of reading the loopy, dot-your-i-with-a-heart cursive signatures in the back until he came across the spots I'd gone over with thick, permanent marker. "What's that about?" he asked. "Oh, that's just where the mean kids wrote nasty things that I crossed out." His pitying look reminded me that my experience was not exactly normal.

High School was not much better. I fancied myself quite the thespian, so I tried out for the lead in the school play, and was instead cast as Nurse #2. I tried to follow in my star swimmer of a brother's footsteps and suffered through a miserable season of ear infections just hoping not to drown. Academically I excelled, but AP Calculus is not exactly the express train to Coolsville. In perhaps a nod to a future career in broadcasting, I won a speech contest to deliver the Commencement Address to my fellow graduates of the Class of 1990. The crowd was large, the applause was polite, and the looks on their faces seemed to say, "Umm, OK. Who are you?" I was glad to be done.

As a defense mechanism, I began in childhood to coat myself in nearly iron-clad armor: a giant smile (a decoy to ward off the appearance of unhappiness), a sarcastic, self-deprecating sense of humor (why not beat them to the punch and make fun of myself), and a mental strategy I'll call "When-Then." As in, "I may feel like a nobody right now, but one day when I'm older, things will be different and then I'll show them. I'll show them I'm somebody." It's a philosophy I've clung to through much of my adult life: When I lose 5 pounds, then I'll be satisfied. When I land that dream job, then I'll feel fulfilled. It's a sneaky method of delaying happiness in the present, always envisioning a happier (thinner, richer, etc.) future. But it doesn't work, because "then" never happens, it's always pushed aside by another "when."

A few years back the idea of attending this reunion would have terrified me, as I was still living in that When-Then world. But 20 years does wonders when it comes to perspective. I know I'm not the timid, awkward girl I once was, and I'm no longer trying to prove anything- not to myself, and certainly not to the Cool Kids. I know that the labels we carry as children (and sometimes assign ourselves) don't have to follow us the rest of our lives. I've come to realize that the Homecoming King and Queen don't actually wield any political power. The prom date who dumped me before the last song even played with the "It's not you, it's me" speech? Turns out he was telling the truth: he's not so into girls.

Thanks to the wonders of social networking, I've already "reunited" with dozens of high school classmates. Online we've shared everything from the joys of new jobs, new babies, to the painful losses of jobs and loved ones. In cyberspace we've established something we may not have had in person: a friendship. As nice as that is, I have found myself replacing my "When-Then" thinking with "If Only." As in "If only we had been friends back in the day, just think how different things would have been!" I find myself imagining walking down those high school halls with my head held high, greeting friends right and left, making plans for weekend parties and late night phone calls. Maybe I could have skipped all that angst-ridden, finding myself stuff in my 20s and gone right for the well-adjusted 30s? Maybe I could have been happier.

But that sort of "If Only" thinking is just as toxic and counterproductive as "When Then." While "When Then" allows us to live in the future, "If Only" is a way to reinvent the past. Neither one deals with the here and now, or gives credit for where we've been. I am who I am today because of what's happened, good and bad. And that includes high school.

So come Saturday night I will head to the reunion with just a few butterflies in my stomach. I'll do my best to enjoy the chance to reconnect not with the kids that we were, but with the people we've become. We will eat, we will drink, we might even dance. I will put away my "When-Thens" for good and I will raise a glass to the Lahser High School Class of 1990 with this final "If Only": If only I had known it would all be OK.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

When is enough enough? The challenge of deciding whether or not to add to the family

***AUTHOR'S NOTE (ESPECIALLY IF AUTHOR'S EXTENDED FAMILY IS READING): The author is *not* pregnant. This is merely an article exploring the possibility of another child, and should not be considered grounds for any sort of celebration.***

It happened while I was out, and that's probably a good thing. I came back from Target to find my husband had removed the Pack 'N Play that has occupied a prime location in our family room for the better part of 3 years. It's now all pack and no play, stuffed into a canvas sack and stuck in the basement alongside the baby bathtub and the Jumperoo. Earlier this week, we lent the bassinet and swing to a friend with a newborn. So plastic piece by plastic piece, our house is slowly becoming de-baby-fied. The baby phase is quickly being extinguished, much like the flame on my little girl's first birthday cake. I know there are many people who would celebrate this milestone and gladly reclaim the space for more adult purposes, but I can't help feeling a little bit sad and a lot bit conflicted. You see, I don't know if the Pack 'N Play will ever come back to stay. You see, I'm just not sure if we're done with the baby phase for now, or if we're done with it for good.

It's been just over 3 years since we were blessed with baby #1. He kept us waiting more than 2 weeks past his due date but then one hot July day, like a firework in the sky he blinked up at us with those big blue eyes and boom! Just like that we went from couple to trio. From Mona and Mark to Mom and Dad.

Adding baby #2 required very little discussion. We both knew we wanted another baby, and almost 2 years to the date after #1, there she was. A tiny, thoughtful little bundle blinking up at us with those same big blue eyes. We retained our previous titles while our little boy proudly added a new one: Big Brother.

But will there be a #3? That's not so automatic. If it were only up to my husband, I think he'd be perfectly content to call it quits at 2. He's an only child with a very small extended family that rarely, if ever, comes together. They are exceptionally loving but seem to have clear boundaries around each separate family unit. I on the other hand come from a Big Fat Egyptian Family. It's parenting with an Etch-a-Sketch, a place where the lines between siblings, cousins, and close friends are blurry at best. The difference was never more evident than on our wedding day.

Here we are with Mark's family:

And with mine:

So I always envisioned myself with a large family, but I got started on this whole baby-making thing kind of late. Now, the idea of adding a third child feels daunting and yet tempting all at once. Scary, but safe. Thrilling, but maybe too thrilling? The rational part of me says "Why rock the boat? Life is just starting to get a teensy bit easier." After all, we're down to 1 diaper wearer. We're a household that sleeps through the night, pretty much every night. We fit comfortably into our current vehicles and our favorite booth at Red Robin.

But then then there's the emotional side of me, the one that says "BABY!" As difficult as parenting two young children can be, as tiring as it gets, as long as the days (and nights) often feel, motherhood is a transformative experience. So much that there are moments when I look into those two sets of big blue eyes and think, "Now I understand. This is what I was born to do." In those moments, it's hard not to want to do it again.

Not to mention the fact that the whole deal seems so much more enjoyable the second time around. It's a bit like making pancakes. The first one is certainly delicious, but sometimes the because it's the first one you worry whether the pan is too hot or too cold; you're quite never sure if you've added enough of this or too much of that. With baby #2 I've found myself feeling so much more confident as a parent, more relaxed, more able to enjoy the rid. If she does turn out to be our last I can only hope I've enjoyed it enough, savored each "first" along with each "last."

If you ask our little boy, the answer would be a resounding "Yes!" In fact, you don't even have to ask him- he's already told everyone we know that he wants 6 more babies. He adores his baby sister and in just the 12 short months of her existence he has become more loving, more gentle, and is even learning to share his toys. He is her protector, her favorite toy, her giggle partner. And she sees stars when she looks at him. Most of the time, the two of them are a walking, talking advertisement for procreation.

My giant extended family doesn't make the decision any easier. There's nothing that would make them happier than word that the family is going to get giant-er. In fact, they love babies so much they've developed a highly sensitive pregnancy detector capable of sniffing out the earliest signs of baby. My husband doesn't understand why I agonize over what to wear to family functions, but I've learned the hard way that one overly blousy blouse is all it takes to get the rumors flying. Sometime after the construction of the Great Pyramids but well before the advent of the internet, Egyptian women invented and perfected the concept of social networking. Before you can say "But it was just a blousy blouse!" you've received 5 congratulatory phone calls from Cairo and 6 pairs of knitted booties from Troy, aka Little Cairo. No pressure there.

My no-nonsense, engineer of a husband would appreciate some sort of formula for calculating the ideal number of children, preferably one with lots of supporting data and analytic models. But family math is already a strange equation. It begins when you get married and two hearts defy arithmetic to somehow become one. It continues when, with the addition of each child, you subtract lots of sleep and most of your cash, yet some how end up feeling more alive and infinitely richer. Still, is there a tipping point for that delicate thing called sanity?

So would three be company or would three be a crowd? Would we have three amigos or a not-so-holy trinity on our hands? Could we handle the extra blessings/stresses, or are we better off just quitting while we're ahead? Those are three questions I'm just not ready to answer. So for now three will have remain an idea, one I'll hold onto in the basement of my mind. Right next to the Pack 'N Play, which isn't going anywhere just yet.

Mona Shand is a radio and TV news reporter and the mother of 2. *** Author's note: Hear that everyone? TWO.***