Wednesday, September 11, 2013

just the two of us

I'm in a Starbucks with a pumpkin spice latte and my laptop now like some goddamn stereotype. Man, even I hate myself right now.

Starbucks always makes me think of working hard. I studied for all my board exams in Starbucks-es, from Step I at that Starbucks on 103nd and Broadway all the way up through my Anesthesia Oral Boards at the location on Monroe and 8th. The difference between Starbucks-es in New York and Atlanta, by the way? The Starbucks-es in New York serve you much, much faster.

I also wrote my entire book at the Starbucks on 29th and Park, which if you need to do work is (or at least was five years ago) an ideal Starbucks--huge, a preponderance of large tables, with a strip of power outlets around the entire outer wall. Oh, another difference between Starbucks-es in New York versus Atlanta? People bring work to Starbucks-es in Atlanta of course, but usually it's more like a rest stop, or a place to have some coffee and kill time between appointments or tasks. In New York, people set up shop. I read once in an article that Starbucks aimed to make their coffee shop locations into "virtual living rooms," places where people can kind of hang out in an armchair and meet with friends--hopefully buying large quantities of overpriced food in the process--and I think that there's likely no place where this is more true than in New York, where a lot of people frankly don't have actual full-sized living rooms in their apartments.

I mean, I brought my laptop there, and maybe my bookbag, a manuscript envelope, assorted miscellany. But there were people who brought full desktop computers (24-inch monitor AND the tower), the entire contents of their law library, extra desk lamps for those darker corners of the store. During my final year of residency when I was trying to finish my book by the July 1st deadline, I would take one day per weekend that I wasn't on call, leave Cal with Joe, set up base camp in one corner of that Starbucks and just sit there for eight, ten hours at a time. I would buy one coffee and get something cheap(er) but filling, like an egg salad sandwich. And then I would sit there and bust ass, looking up only occasionally if something interesting was happening, like the police coming in to extract homeless people that refused to get out of the bathroom--something that happened with alarming frequency. When I left, usually in the early afternoon, my hair and clothes would reek of smoke from the coffee roaster, as though I'd just smoked a billion cigarettes.

This has been Starbucks Talk. I'm your host, Michelle Au.

Anyway, the point of this post was not to talk about Starbucks (and it goes without saying that I have no affiliation with Starbucks, not only because I don't run paid ads on this blog but because this is such a small blog that STARBUCKS DON'T GIVE A SHIT WHAT I SAY), but to catch you up on Mack.

When I decided to go part-time, one of the first things that pushed me to consider scaling back at work was the fact that Cal was already halfway out the door to college, but the things that made me actually decide to make the leap was Mack. Because see, the thing with Mack is that...he's fine. He's always just fine. Cal's the oldest, so he often gets a lot of attention because of his school and activities (Cal recently joined the Lego Robotics team at school, and to say that Mack is inelegantly jealous would be kind); and of course Nina gets a lot of attention because she's a baby and needs us to do every damn thing for her. But Mack? Mack is always OK. He can do a lot of stuff for himself. He can play nicely by himself or with his siblings. A lot of the things he needs (a glass of milk, help reaching something high) Cal can often troubleshoot, and does, especially if I'm tied up doing something like cooking dinner or putting the baby down. He's happy, he's pleasant, he's not really that high-maintenance for a four year-old. And that's how I think he ends up getting ignored a lot. Classic middle-child syndrome.

And the thing with Mack is that he's just so reassuring with how normal he is. Cal was by all accounts kind of a weird child (he's much better now, warm and social and adaptable in ways we could only dream of when he was Mack's age, when he was...less so those things) but Mack has always been like the textbook illustration of Boy in Early Childhood. He like sports and wrestling with dad. He plays pretend and makes up little playlets with his stuffed animals and action figures. He's sunny and affectionate and snuggly and fun. Even his drawings are textbook--every human looks like a happy scarecrow with vertigo, all stick limbs with five fingers on each hand, clubby feet, smiley face. Every house has a chimney, every flower has six petals, and there's always a sun with beams shooting out in the corner.

(The reason that I make such a big deal about the drawings is that Cal's drawings at this age were--well, they were pretty weird. He was always good at drawing inanimate objects or landscapes, but when it came to drawing people, his drawings were just odd. Even when he was five and beyond, he'd sometimes draw people missing limbs, sometimes missing heads, and when he did draw a head it would be tiny, like a pinhead, with no face on it. NO FACE. What the hell, young Cal? Anyway, long story short I started introducing Cal to comics and gave him a little key of facial expressions so that he could draw his own comics and so the reader would be able to infer the mood of each character and thus the thrust of the story. So that's not an issue anymore, but still, I will admit that there was a period of time where I was worried that this was the first sign that we were raising some kind of sociopath who was unable to read human emotion or something.)

(And yes, I also see how telling it is that I just spent a paragraph talking about Cal in a entry that I ostensibly started to talk about Mack, but see, that's the thing! Cal was so weird and attention consuming! And Mack is so normal and easy! That's exactly why it's so easy to set him on autopilot-parenting and exactly why he's going to quit his tutoring job and join a violence gang because his parents never paid attention to him! I mean, probably!)

One of my main goals now that I have more time is to spend some time with Mack, just the two of us, one-on-one. I had to take him to the dentist two weeks ago, an expedition that I billed as our "special day" (in that yes, we were going to the dentist, but he could skip school for the rest of the day and afterwards we could go the playground and then have lunch together wherever he wanted! And also: free toothbrush!) and the degree to which he was excited about his "special day" with me was unreal. He talked about it literally every day for the weeks leading up to the appointment, and he seemed to especially relish the fact that it would be just for him, that Cal would have to go to school and that Nina would have to stay home, and weren't they going to be so jealous? There really was nothing that extravagant about the day at all, so the special thing for him wasn't so much the activities or skipping school or the Chick-Fil-A for lunch, as the fact that it happened at all. For half a day, he was my only kid.

So anyway, something that I've committed to doing is to try and have a special day with Mack about once a month--or at the very least, a special morning or afternoon. We'll just do something low-key--making Rice Krispie treats, going to the playground, doing an art project--but just something that we can do alone without Cal being there asserting his own superiority in gluing pompoms ("I used to do it like that when I was four too, Mack...but you'll get better at it. I mean, probably.") or without Nina there needing all of my everything. And maybe we won't even need a dentist appointment as an excuse to do it.

Parenthood, right?


  1. Awww I love this! Your kids seem so sweet. :)

  2. Love the blog! Glad you are getting some free time from work to spend with Mack. Looks like you are doing an excellent job with parenthood. I can relate to Cal because I was like him as a child and I think I turned out just fine. I actually have a drawing of me and my husband I sketched without our faces!

  3. You appreciate this now, but let me tell you, you are really going to be glad you are taking this time with him when he's a teenager. There is nothing that makes for easy teen years as the relationship built when they are small. It seems to be the make or break line with a lot of kids.

  4. You rock. Out loud. Carry on.

  5. Anonymous3:34 PM

    awwwwwww this made me tear up.

  6. Anonymous4:35 PM

    That's great that you're planning special time with Mack. I recently read the book Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish

    And in it, it recommended that it was important for each child to get one-on-one time with each parent somewhat consistently. In our child psychiatry lecture, they recommended each child have at least two hours of special time per week with each parent within which to do what the child wanted to do that was fun for the child. This was recommended to be discipline and lecture free time, and sibling free time. Other books recommend going on a trip with teenage children one-on-one as the child gets older.

  7. Blink and he'll be gone. Nina, too. I know people always say this, and I've been hearing it for the past 16 years since I became a mom, but somehow it didn't really dent my psyche at the time. Suddenly I'm having a bit of existential crisis about the little time left before my babies are gone. How come it felt like this was how it would be for as long as you can imagine?! Why didn't I have like 15 kids, spread over 30 years, so I could, you know, never have to move on from this phase of my life?! And what the heck is there ahead that compares to how awesome being a mom raising my kids? I hope there's something, because in less than five years I'll be home alone while The Hubs is überoccupied with his first year as a "real doctor" (post fellowship) and my little birds have flown away to college and whatnot. I suppose there will be some nice things about it (eg: instead of working really crazyproductive flights that get my hours in as quickly as possible so I can get back home to my kids, I can do those cushy layover trips in tropical places.), but all the sudden the thought of how quickly that future time will be upon me is causing me angst. I love every stage of mothering...there are sweet aspects of every age. But I can't imagine being a grandmother is as wonderful as being The Mom. So, trying not to be too clingy now. But yeah, good you're keying into this now. You've still got some time. ♥

  8. Oh wow. I really liked this whole Cal/Mack thing, but I really LOVE that you are back to writing more! Also my son is 22, and daughter is 15. She's needy, he has always been way too independent and I let him be. I wish every day I had let him be more of a kid, and less of a responsible big brother. So good on you.

  9. Love this. I think I'm going to follow in your footsteps and start having some special days with my younger son.

  10. This post was so sweet. It also makes me wonder what the heck I'm going to do one day when I have kids. (First one's on the way! Yay for research year during a general surgery residency!)

  11. That is so adorable. I was an oldest kid but all I remember is the stricter rules, not any extra attention! I'm LOVING that you're blogging more again-you are one of the funniest writers I've read and I hope that getting to spend more time with your family (notice that I didn't say working part-time, I know this is still a full-time job!) has been working out for you all.

  12. Anonymous10:14 AM

    As a classic middle child from a gang of six, I was JUST like Mack. This didn't ever happen in my past...and yet I survived, but I totally would have loved this!) No kid ever grows up wishing mom had spent more time at work.
    Love your parenting; love your writing. SO glad you're back. Seems you've found that elusive balance. Kudos. You sound like an awesome mom.

  13. Okay, I'm a 28-year old middle child, and I STILL treasure time I spend one-on-one with my parents. My mom came to visit me last year (just me! not my sister! no one else!) and I think I talked about it incessantly for a month. I'm so happy to read that you're carving out special time for Mack -- enjoy!!!

  14. Anonymous8:20 PM

    Yes, parenthood. It's hard. You're doing a great job. My MIL was one of eight. She was second youngest, so #6 of 8. Her father lived a long fruitful life. They were immigrants and settled in the suburbs of a major American city. 'Til this day she randomly talks about how she longed as a little girl for her father to just spend some time with her alone the two of them. All she wanted was for him to hold her hand and walk with her in the neighborhood just the two of them. It never happened. She is a very needy wife. I think the child parent relationship is very important for better or worst. I am fortunate to be a stay at home mom. My husband works insane surgery hours. We are far from family. My "baby" (almost a year old) gets what I thought was "alot" of attention. My oldest is so demanding with her attention (it's usually negative attention). I do notice everyone (myself included) feels more balanced when each child gets a little time just me and that child. So very important to create those bonds. I'm glad to hear others say this will help in the teenage years. Looking back on my own teenage years sounds about right. Can't wait for you to post your NEXT Mack "date". He looks like such a sweet and smart little guy. :) Thanks for sharing. I can totally relate to you and your feelings.

  15. Wellesley0610:38 PM

    As the middle child of 3 siblings, I really appreciate your blog post and think it's wonderful you're making the effort to spend more time with Mack.

    I'm in my late 20s now but in the last few years, I've had my father and grandmother each separately say to me that they both recognize that I kinda got the short end of the stick because I was the middle child. It was kind of nice to be acknowledged but sad too.

  16. Anonymous9:44 PM

    This is a bit random, but are those Instagram photos I see? What service do you use to print them out?

    On a note that's actually related to this post, I echo the comments about carving out time for middle kids. I am one myself and remember feeling left behind as a kid. Thanks for acknowledging it with Mack.

    1. I think those are Instagram photos!

  17. Anonymous10:40 AM

    I know this is over a year old, but I wanted to weigh in. I'm a 36 year old grown middle child (4th of 5 kids, to be more specific). Mom always said I was the easy, happy, low maintenance kid. And I was fine. I am fine. I grew up to be a fairly easy, happy, low maintenance adult. I had a fantastic childhood. With very few exceptions, I never felt neglected. I became a doctor (the only one in the family, go fig. But it should be noted that all my siblings are wildly successful in their other respective fields). I got married, I have some kids. Being a middle child definitely shapes the way I parent my own kids because I honestly think a little benign neglect is not a bad thing. Boredom is good for creativity. The ability to amuse themselves, the ability to deal and cope with change - these are incredible skills that we can't really teach our kids, we can only allow themselves to learn. Independence is a great thing. You always seem like a really caring and great mom. There is a very strong possibility that Mac is fine and WILL BE fine. My parents did try to specifically seek out individual time with each kid (good job, mom!) but I wanted to give a shout out to middle children. Sometimes "middle child syndrome" is not necessarily feeling neglected, but realizing that life isn't fair and learning to cope.

    I once read a book about birth order by a therapist. He said he paid for his practice counseling grown firstborns, he paid for his car counseling the grown youngests, he rarely saw those grown middle children in his office. He said, "They already know life isn't fair. It makes for a very well adjusted adult."

  18. You are so lovely :)

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