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Excerpt: 'Good Enough Mother: The Perfectly Imperfect Book of Parenting'

Casey and Cole: The Rose and the Thorn

TO HELP YOU UNDERSTAND ME AND MY PARENTING style (and I do think of it as a "style"), allow me to reintroduce the people who've helped me hone it. Though I crave peace and the occasional week-long vacation alone so that I can escape the role of referee for the fights over who ate the last Pop-Tart, I simply cannot imagine my life without my husband, Buff, and my children, Casey and Cole.

I look back on my life pre-children, and I realize that nothing I thought I understood intellectually about raising kids compares with the reality of just doing it. The sheer gravity and magnitude of the responsibility, the fears, the joys — which never go away — can leave you breathless with anxiety, consumed by what-ifs and worst-case scenarios. If you let them.

How is it that Casey and Cole, the pilot and copilot of the bus driving me straight to the funny farm, can also make my heart strain at the seams when I catch a glimpse of them from across the room? Can I keep up with them? They're each so much their own person, a melding of genes from my husband and me, coupled with their unique personalities, likes, and dislikes. Sometimes I look at them and marvel at who they are, where they came from, and what's shaping them as they learn and grow. Casey, my sweet rosebud. Cole, my sweet thorn, who should have been named Get Down From There.

And then, sometimes, I want to wring both of their necks. Like the time they spray-painted a long white streak down the middle of the brown garage.

But that's how life is, isn't it? The very thing that scares the hell out of you is the same thing you want to do, again and again and again. Like jumping out of a moving plane at thirty-three thousand feet, or running to the drugstore for a pregnancy test, hoping against hope the stick will turn pink.

During my first pregnancy my obstetrician said Casey's due date was August 28. The problem was, no one informed her, and as the day came and went, my cervix stayed closed tighter than a Ziploc freezer bag. When in the beginning I got a glimpse of Casey, on the first of many ultrasounds I had during her time in utero, I was fascinated. Completely, totally, hopelessly in love with someone who, save the occasional jab in the ribs, I hadn't yet met.

Still, Casey wasn't exactly an ideal tenant, because her idea of fun was partying all night and kicking all day, and I gotta tell you, after forty-two weeks, I weighed more than my husband and I'd had enough. Yes, she was late, and I was cranky. Fast-forward a few days to when I thought I was in labor and the doctor breezily informed me I was not, but said that I should expect all systems to be go within twenty-four hours or so. Buff's response was to go play golf, and mine was to promptly lock myself out of the house. Off I waddled to the neighbor's house to put my feet up and sip on my first glass of chardonnay in nine-and-a-half months. I knew it probably wasn't going to make a dent in Casey's development at forty-two weeks, but it was certainly going to improve my disposition.

Naturally, even though I already felt like a water buffalo, after drinking the chardonnay was when I started to feel truly peculiar. But I couldn't get into the house and I couldn't find Buff, who was busy merrily whacking a few balls. After only a mild bout of freaking-out, I finally reached him, and he came home only to ask me (while I was panting away and nearly ready to keel over because I was so out of breath with the one breathing technique I could remember) if I was really in labor, because, after all, the doctor had said I wasn't.

I still made him drive me to the hospital, where I spent the next twenty-seven nonproductive hours in labor. Remarkably, after the resulting C-section from a doctor I'd never seen before but whom I was willing to kiss on the lips after he finally got that kid out of me, my heart, ever-so-Grinch-like, instantly expanded by three sizes the minute I laid eyes on Casey, my sweet-as-spun- sugar angel from on high.

I vividly remember when Casey and I were first introduced. After the nurses cleaned her up and handed my delicious baby burrito (which is what I've always thought swaddled babies look like) to me, I marveled that I had played any role whatsoever in her making. And then a shudder gripped me from the tip of my sweaty, matted hair to my thankfully pristine pedicure.

I thought: NOW WHAT?

Because here's the thing: Unlike for your car or microwave or computer, there is no owner's manual provided! Those munchkins come out hollering with it all hanging out — and the nurses hand them to you and leave you to your own devices.

Of all the nerve!

I expect you were a lot like me and read all of the books that tell you what to expect during pregnancy and what newborns will be like. But for me Casey's birth was much like exam week at college, when I crammed all night, consuming nothing but black coffee and NoDoz, gripped by the irrational fear that, as soon as I took my seat in the classroom, clutching my number-two pencil, all those answers would instantly fall right through the trapdoor of my cerebral cortex when I needed them most.

So there I lay with my baby burrito in my arms looking up at me as if she were as terrified of this new arrangement as I was.

Naturally, I panicked.

But Casey was such a delightful baby, with such a lovely, easygoing, nondemanding, sunshiny disposition, that Buff and I quickly fell into a regular schedule, and, minus a few toddler moments, it was all fairly smooth sailing. Basking in our success — thinking, ridiculously enough in retrospect, that her nature had something to do with our nascent but clearly already formidable parenting ability — Buff and I decided that we weren't going to have this baby dictate to us. Oh, no. We were already a family unit, and she had joined our family, and nothing was gonna change. We were going to do whatever we wanted, when we wanted to, and Casey was just gonna tag along and be happy about it.

So we took Casey with us everywhere — on trips, to restaurants, shopping, to parties, out with friends. She almost never cried and was good as gold.

Casey was as a baby all those years ago as she is as a tween now: quiet, sensitive, quick to smile, fairly easygoing, with a wonderful disposition. (Of course, by the time she hits adolescence, I'll be waiting, cringing with despair, for the first time my wonderful daughter will look me full in the eyes and say, "I hate your guts!")

In fact, I should blame her for tricking Buff and me into having another child. She was such a good baby, we thought (mistakenly so), Oh, what the heck, we are just amazingly great parents. Why not go to the well one more time? Why, this is a snap! In fact, we're almost perfect as parents. Who needs all that gobbledygook you find in baby books? Not us! Why, we should write our own!

Just as we were busy patting ourselves on the back, the stick turned pink, and life was never ever the same again.

You know, I've faced and conquered many challenges in my life. But that was BC — as in, Before Cole.

Cole Arthur Parham. Little did I know that even though he freeloaded in my womb for thirty-eight weeks, the real work would begin just about the minute he got out. When that boy was snatched from the comfy confines of the womb — he, like his sister, the prior tenant, deigned to move out of his rent-controlled district only because the digs got too small for him — he was a take-no-prisoners kind of baby. In fact, his mantra was "I'm gonna get my way, so don't get in my way."

One of the few problems I'd had with Casey was that she had had trouble suckling, and I'd had to work with a lactation consultant, who had hovered over my breast, cooing and squeezing, trying to entice Casey to latch on.

Cole, on the other hand, never wanted to latch off.

The lactation consultant and all those baby books I'd devoured told me that I should brace myself for the every-two-hours onslaught, as breast milk flies right through babies. So here I was, a scant hour and thirty minutes after feeding Cole, nipples sore, bags bulging under my eyes from no sleep, my hair closely resembling a rat's nest, a toddler clutching one leg, with a kid whose mouth was wide open at every turn and who was gearing up for more. At an hour and forty-five minutes, that boy was ready for food! His stomach would start growling and he would begin to cry. It took only a minute of crying before the battalion was fully engaged and the full-on screaming started. There was no consoling him. So I threw the baby books out the window and shoved the teat into his mouth because I couldn't take it anymore.

Three months later, when I had to go back to work, I cold-turkeyed the daytime milk-fest because I had to be able to fit into my suits (fervently praying every day that the binding I'd wound around myself like a mummy would prevent me from leaking on the five o'clock news). But I still kept up the nighttime feeding for a long time, as I'd done with Casey, because it was such a wonderful way to connect with my babies at the end of the day. I always felt like the minute you stopped nursing, any old fool could take care of your baby.

Speaking of fools, that was me, wondering just what the heck was going on with Cole. Not to say that the boy was difficult (ha!)—he was just so markedly different from Casey. Even when she was only a few months old, we could pretty much keep up our regular routines as a family, because she was such a well-behaved dream in public. As she got older, whenever we went out to eat, she'd sit calmly and quietly in her high chair, coloring and waiting patiently for her food.

Once the food arrived, it would miraculously move from the plate to her mouth without any stops at the floor or my lap. Cole, on the other hand, would squirm in his seat the entire time, spilling salt and sugar everywhere before grabbing a fork or a knife and merrily playing games you rushed to stop before anyone got hurt.

Nearly nine years later not much has changed. I was talking to one of the counselors at Cole's camp last summer — not even one of his own counselors, mind you — and once she realized who I was, all she could say was, "Yeah, that Cole is a wild man."

Take teeth, for example. Casey, being the responsible child, has lost all her teeth in the house, and has come to me for comfort and in happy anticipation of a visit from the tooth fairy andthe five bucks she'll discover under her pillow in the morning.

Cole has lost maybe one tooth in the house. The others have literally been lost. Somewhere. Anywhere. Just lost.

Last time that happened, he wrote a note to the tooth fairy:

Dear Tooth Fairy,

I lost my tooth AGAIN, and when I find it, it's going to be your lucky day.

Cole is the child my mother warned me about when she was trying to put the fear of God into me. He's the child you'll urge your daughters to steer clear of. Once, when he was

about four, he was busy putting on a "show" for us when Casey ran in and announced that she wanted to be in it too.

"Casey," he breezily informed her, "there's only room for one star in this show!"

Actually, Cole is an adorable boy with a bright smile, dreamy dimples, and huge brown eyes. Buff and I used to joke with each other that he looked like a Volkswagen when he was born, because his eyes literally took up a third of his face! He will, no doubt, charm his way into public office sooner than we all think. He's energetic, headstrong, single-minded — all quantities you want in a world leader.

But not a third grader.

In fact, just the other night he informed me that he wanted

to be president.

So I said, "You do?"

"Yep." Then he frowned. "Does the president have to

make speeches?"

"Why, yes, he does," I replied.

He shrugged. "Well, I don't really have anything to say."

That's the first and only time he'll ever say that! I know I can't control what he's thinking about or what's going to come out of his mouth, any more than I can control Casey's tendency to shy away from the spotlight.

The fact that my children are such polar opposites has taught me a priceless lesson in managing my expectations and minimizing comparisons. Casey's and Cole's personalities are now as they were the minute they emerged from the womb. Casey is quiet, shy, and demure. Cole entered screaming.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

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