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Why Worry?


   It wasn’t just that the voice was familiar to me, but the tone of the voice on the phone was also instantly and unpleasantly recognizable.  I would know it anywhere.
    It was, for those of you who’ve raised a family and know what I’m talking about, the annoying sound of an adult child ( or, to be more specific, a child who is almost an adult) letting me know that she wouldn’t be needing my advice at this particular moment.
    I’ve heard that tone plenty of times.
    “Mom, I’m 20 years old,” the disdainful voice on the phone said. “I know what I’m doing.”
    Oh, really? Is that a fact.
    I wanted to ask her if she had any idea how many times the words “I know what I’m doing” are served up with a really bad idea.
    I don’t know for sure, but I imagine “I know what I’m doing” is exactly what runs through the minds of squirrels, deer, possums and skunks right before they cross a six-lane highway. At rush hour.
    It seems to me George Armstrong Custer sent a similar message before riding over the hill and straight into a mighty big mess. So did Amelia Earhart as she cranked the propellers, climbed into the cockpit and flew right into an unsolved mystery. So did somebody at the White Star Line when the unsinkable Titanic rolled out of the shed and splashed into the sea. Just before it sank like a stone.
    What do you want to bet that some unlucky stiff in Chernobyl  said the same thing?  “Of course, I hear the warning bells. Relax. I know what I’m doing!”
    Want the perfect contemporary example of thinking you’re a whole lot smarter than you really are and getting us all in a lot of trouble because of it? Two words: British Petroleum. They told us they knew what they were doing, too.
      I woke up the next morning with a headache, brought on, I’m sure, by grinding my teeth all night.
    As a parent, nothing infuriates me more than having my offering of perfectly good advice and wisdom ignored.
    She ought to listen to me so I can save us both a lot of headaches. I’ve been around. I’ve done a few things. I’ve made enough mistakes for the both of us.
    I deserve a little respect. After all, for goodness sakes, I know what I’m doing.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Summer wings

It's officially the last day of school, in my household at least. Although the weather hasn't cooperated, I'm looking forward to slowing down. To long walks and time to think. To watching little girls ride bicycles…
First published June, 2008

It was the best part of a summer day: When the long, cool twilight winds us down; when light plays with shadows and night moves up, painting the edges of the horizon. When the moon chases the sun across the sky.

When stars appear and the air is heavy with the perfume of red roses and green grass and hamburgers cooked on the grill. When cats pounce on imaginary prey and dogs bark, passing the word that the day is done.

I walked my own silly dogs, walking off a long day at work, walking off my dinner and shaking off the weight of everything that had settled on me since I opened my eyes that morning. They strained at their leashes, pulling me forward. I pulled back, dawdling, distracted by the scenes in the windows of the houses I passed. Golden windows that gave me glimpses of other lives. Other interiors.
I heard voices and looked up to see her coming toward me, riding under the branches of the tall shade trees that line the boulevard.

She was astride a shiny new bicycle. A helmet was strapped under her chin, her hands gripped the handlebars and her skinny legs pumped the pedals. Her face was tight with concentration.
Her father, home from work, still dressed in his crisp white shirt and dark trousers, trotted behind her. His arms were outstretched, ready to catch her if she lost control and crashed.
She raced down the sidewalk, passing me as I stopped on the pavement to watch, and was gone. Her father tossed a smile as he ran past.

Maybe it was the time of day, the shadowy, magical part of the day when time is fluid and plays tricks on us; when what was and what is stop for an instant and exchange glances. Perhaps it was my mood, tinged with violet like the evening sky.
But for a heartbeat, I was that little girl. For an instant I was 6 years old. I could feel the handlebars in my hands, and the pedals against the soles of my shoes.
The world rushed by me as I flew down the streets of my neighborhood, leaning into the curves as the wind tangled in my hair. I had wings. I had wheels. I was free to push myself as far as I dared to go, yet I was still safe. If I fell, there was someone there to save me.
The man and the child rounded the corner and were gone, heading home. My dogs, impatient with the delay, tugged at their leads, anxious to travel. They had things to see before calling it a day.

I walked on, but my mind was light years away. I was a girl on a bike. I was a mother, my heart in my throat, watching a child, wobbling and weaving, navigate the world without training wheels.

I could see who I had been. What escaped me, is who I have become.

And then, just as night settled around me, it was clear: I’m still a bit of both. I still have my wings. I still have my wheels.

And if I fall? I pick myself up.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap can be reached at cherylannemillsap@gmail.com

Toasting another school year with a strawberry shake


June 19, 2004

Funny how what we miss changes as we grow

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Special to Handle Extra

The last day of school always catches me by surprise. So does the first day actually, but the routine is familiar and it doesn’t take long to get into the groove. Before I know it, it’s Christmas, and then spring break.

After that, the days gather speed until another year has passed. In the blur of final exams, recitals and sports, my children make a leap and I’m left with the bags of school papers, broken crayons and assorted hats and mittens they found stuffed in their desk.

This year, the last day was worse than usual. My son left home furious because, according to him, he would be the only student whose parents were abusive enough to make him go to school on the last day.

My daughter overslept, missed the bus and had to be driven to school. She stormed out of the car and into the building without a backward glance.

My youngest child sat quietly in the back seat and rode out the storm. When I delivered her to school, she hopped out of the car and trotted up to the front door, her backpack bobbing up and down. She turned around to smile at me and wave one last time before she disappeared inside.

I drove home and tried to work but I was restless and couldn’t focus. I was worried about my son, and couldn’t stop thinking about my 14-year-old daughter.

Our “welcome summer” tradition on the last day of school has been to go to the Milk Bottle on Garland for a celebratory lunch. In the past their friends have been invited and we were a rolling party of noisy, hungry kids.

This year, the teenagers all had something better to do, something that didn’t include me, so I found myself with only one child. The little third-grade graduate.

We ordered our usual cheeseburger special and while we waited for our food we talked about important things like who her teacher might be next year, and how much homework fourth-graders had.

Suddenly, she put her head down, hiding her face in her arms.

“Are you crying?” I asked. She just shrugged without lifting her head.

“What is it?”

She didn’t say anything for a minute then turned her head to the side. She looked up at me with large tear-filled hazel eyes, and a serious face — with exactly 28 freckles scattered across the bridge of her nose — and said, “I’m schoolsick.”

It’s funny how we can take words, like Playdoh, and squeeze them into new shapes. If her brother or sisters had said the same thing, it would have meant they were sick of school, sick of being told what to do and when to do it, sick of lessons and projects. Just sick of it all.

But she was heartsick because the school year was ending and weeks without the teacher she loved, and the comforting daily routine, were stretching out in front of her. She was bereft.

When our food arrived we stopped talking. She drank the milkshake first, then ate the fries one at a time, and finally a bite or two of the hamburger. By the time we finished, she was cheerful and chatty, full of plans for the summer.

We drove home, and I thought about the future. There aren’t many “hamburger parties” left before she’ll be too busy to celebrate with me. And I may never hear the word “schoolsick” again. Not in a good way, anyway.

That night, I kissed her and tucked her into bed. Then I walked into my room and looked into the mirror. “I’m childsick,” I told my reflection. And I understood exactly what I meant.

Handmade Happiness

    I got a call from a friend the other night. One of those late-night calls women make when they have a moment to themselves.
    She was alone in a quiet house full of sleeping children and a husband who was softly snoring in front of the television. She was desperately tired. After all, she’d spent the day caring for her three small children. She’d packed lunches, driven the morning carpool, played with the toddler who was still home all day, shuttled to after-school activities, made dinner, helped with homework, refereed baths, read a bed-time story, fetched one more glass of water and finally, finally, turned out the light.
    Then, when she could have gone straight to bed to catch up on some much-needed sleep, she did what mothers do all the time. She got busy.
    Sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by her boxes of beads and stones and all the tools and findings she uses to make the beautiful necklaces and earrings she gives as gifts to friends and family, she let her mind wander as her fingers worked. She felt the tension slip away. For a few minutes she wasn’t Mommy. She was herself again. That’s when she picked up the phone to call me.
    While we talked, I thought back to my life when my children were still small. I spent the day doing all the things stay-at-home mothers do. At night I spent hours answering a powerful creative urge.
    This seems to happen to many of us when our children are born. We get crafty.
    I see young mothers experiencing this all the time. Women who were once busy professionals with pressured careers now sew baby dresses or construct elaborate scrapbooks and photo albums. They revel in this new side of themselves, gathering with others who are experiencing the same delight in handcrafting.
    I think it has something to do with the way we change after the babies come along. Suddenly, we are no longer the carefree women we were before. Our minds are never still. We’re listening, watching, weighing and evaluating. We fret. We forecast the future and regret the past. Mothering is all-consuming. There are few moments when our children aren’t foremost in our thoughts.
    Creativity is a way to slip out of the confines of being the responsible party. It is a way to open and explore the child who still lives within us.
    My days were consumed by the work and worry of four young children. Goodness knows, I had plenty to keep me busy. But every night, even when I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open, I sat down to create. Like my friend, I went through my beading phase. I strung freshwater pears into ropes, adding antique charms and other found objects to make one-of-a-kind necklaces and earrings. I sold these to a boutique in the area and soon began to notice my work on women at the children’s schools and around town. That spurred me on to stay up later and make more.
    After that, I spent long hours making hats, steaming and blocking the fabric, stitching silk roses and velvet leaves onto the felt and straw. These went to the same boutique. Again, I began to see my hats on women at the mall or at church.
    Later, I polished and cut old silverware and bent the handles into earrings, rings, key rings and necklaces. These went to local gift shops and to antiques and craft shows.
    I took black-and-white photographs of children and families and then delicately hand-tinted the photos, adding small touches of color to give the portraits a vintage look.
    I packaged gift trays using and vintage china, silver and lace and shipped them across the country to be opened by grateful strangers.
    I smocked dresses and rompers for my daughters and my son, sometimes finding myself nodding over my needle.
    Most of this was done at night. When I should have been sleeping. When I should have been too tired to do anything more than close my eyes and rest up for the coming day.
    But, like my friend, like so many women, I crafted into the wee hours. I made things with my hands. Letting my mind play while my fingers worked.
    After a while I realized that my newfound passion for crafting was nothing new. I was just one more in a long history. Middle-class Victorian women, gifted with time by the household innovations of the industrial revolution, wove accessories from the hair of loved ones or painted delicate watercolors.
    I tinted photographs and strung tiny pearls. Now, I write. I still sit down and write late into the night the way my friend works with chunky gemstones and glass beads.
    Some mothers sew. They crochet or knit. They bake. They refinish furniture. The commonality, just as it always has been, is the desire to create. To construct and produce and, each in our own way, to provide proof beyond our most precious contribution - the children that own us so completely - that we were here. That deep inside there was a spark, a gift, a source of happiness that was completely handmade.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com.


Graduation Girl

Going through previous graduation columns…

Home Planet: They grow up at breathtaking speed

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
The Spokesman-Review
June 2, 2008

She came into this world after a labor and delivery so fast and efficient it left us both dazed and breathless. Exhilarated and exhausted, I rubbed my cheek against her soft, dark curls. I counted 10 tiny fingers and 10 tiny toes. I tucked her into the curve of my arm and closed my eyes to rest.

I’m still trying to catch up.

I brought her home and held her close to me as we rocked in her great-grandmother’s rocking chair. I nursed her and sang lullabies in the dark. But in a heartbeat she got away from me. Before I knew it, she was toddling around, talking and singing, one thumb in her mouth and the other hand twisting her hair, laughing a deep belly laugh at the antics of her siblings.

Then, distracted by the everyday chores that pulled at me, I looked up to find she was ready for kindergarten, already reading the books her brother and sister brought home from school.

Another blink and she was on her bicycle, wearing Band-Aids on skinned knees and an ear-to-ear grin on her face. She was in constant motion, an Energizer Bunny who danced through the house and into our hearts.

We were still calling her “the baby” when she went away to summer camp for the first time and I brought her home to find she’d grown taller in just a week.

One minute she was playing with her dolls and the next she was wearing braces on her teeth and getting into my makeup and talking about boys. Then she was driving and dating and we were arguing about curfews and clothes.

Yesterday she was in my arms and now, although it feels like I only closed my eyes for a second, she’s graduating from high school.

While I looked over my shoulder at the past or gazed too far down the road worrying about the future or simply focused on the day-to-day routine, she grew up.

She’s bright and beautiful and I’m grateful for every minute I’ve had with her. But, oh, how I wish I could turn back time.

When she heads off to college in the fall, putting three states – and other less-tangible barriers – between us, I suspect she’ll start her new adventure with just as much impatience and exuberance and determination as she showed when she came into my life in the wee hours of a February morning 18 years ago. She’ll rush off to her future, a whirlwind of potential and possibility.

And once again I’ll be left to catch my breath.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

The Hannah Project

     My friend sat with her husband in a stadium crowded with of thousands of parents just like the two of them. One by one their college-educated children marched across the stage and picked up diplomas, given with a smile and handshake, before crossing to the other side and back to their seats.

      Suddenly, my friend’s eyes filled with tears. Tears of tenderness. Tears of bittersweet sadness. And, to her surprise, tears of relief.

      For the first time it occurred to her that she’d really reached the end of the “Hannah Project” they’d started 22 years before. She had, as the old saying goes, worked herself out of a job. The baby was grown. She had a good education and, most miraculous of all, had already been hired by a reputable company. There was a young man in the picture who gave every indication that he would eventually be a son-in-law.

      For a moment she was wracked with sadness. The baby was gone. Then, for the first time, my friend realized that she wasn’t losing the baby. She was gaining freedom and independence and a second chance at making some of her own dreams come true. Without the day-to-day worries of parenting, she could focus on the dreams she’d put off to raise a child.

      In the time it took a new graduate to cross the stage, she had an epiphany. She was graduating, too. Even as she grieved, she was already looking forward to having a second chance at life.

      Wanting to share what she was feeling, she reached over, clasped her husband’s hand, and whispered in his ear.

      “I can’t believe she’s all grown up,” she said. He nodded.

      “It seems like she was born yesterday,” she whispered. He nodded again

      “We’ve got a lot to look forward to,” she said with tears in her eyes.

      “I know,” he replied squeezing her hand, looking like he was close to tears himself. “No more tuition.”

      She told me the story over a cup of coffee, still shaking her head and laughing. She’d been overcome by the significance of the moment. By the idea that it wasn’t just her child who was moving into a new life; that she was being reborn, as well.

        Her husband had more practical matters on his mind.

        “I had stars in my eyes and he was seeing dollar signs,” she said.

      Actually, when you think about it, that’s a pretty good description of parenting. From conception to graduation, raising a child is brief periods of rose-colored daydreams followed by sobering reality. Maternal glow and  morning sickness. Lullabies and sleep deprivation. Adoration followed by frustration. The drive to give a child what he or she need to grow and thrive and the spirit-crushing responsibility of bringing in the cold hard cash to make it happen. And, finally, when they step out of the nest, regret tempered by the thrill of picking up the life you put on hold.

      Of course, that first step is a big one. A few days after the graduation ceremony, over a late-morning homemade breakfast of pancakes and sausage in mom’s kitchen, my friend’s daughter sheepishly asked for a small loan to tide her over. Just until the first paycheck. It seems the deposit on the new apartment and all the other nickel-and-dime expenses of starting a life on one’s own had erased the balance in her checking account. And, she’d been thinking… To really get ahead she might need to go to graduate school.

      I laughed and she smiled at me over her coffee cup.

      “I know, I know,” she said. “I got ahead of myself.” Apparently, so did her husband.

      My friend may have stars in her eyes but she doesn’t have to rush to decide what she wants to be when she grows up. Again. After all, it takes a little time to wrap up a big effort like the Hannah Project.

      Well, time and a few dollars more.  

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

The ties that bind

     Slipping into a parking spot across the street from the high school, I turned off the engine and waited for my daughter to come out the door.   

     Enjoying the quiet of the car, a welcome respite from the noise of a busy day, lulled by the warm sun made even warmer by the window, I relaxed as I watched the students as they gathered outside. Some were waiting for rides others were just socializing, happy to be released.

     I noticed a pair on the corner, a girl and a boy who couldn’t have been more than freshmen. They still had the fresh, slightly awkward look of of a pair of leggy, yearling colts.

     They were standing close together, and I could see that they were both focusing on something in the boy’s hands. Then, I noticed the cord dangling from their ears and I realized they were sharing the earphones for the boy’s iPod. His music was hers. While she studied the screen of the music player, the boy studied her. When she glanced up, he looked away, embarrassed to be caught. Occasionally she risked a peek at him, through her lashes, quick and surreptitious. It was a dance of glances.

     He kept looking out at the street, scanning the cars going by, watching for his ride. He must have seen it coming because he quickly said something to the girl and reclaimed the earphone, coiling it and stuffing it into his pocket.  Then, a bit stiffly, he leaned over and wrapped his arms around the girl. She returned the embrace.

     They looked like a couple stepping out onto the dance floor for a first slow dance. There was a bit of hesitation, a slight distance between their bodies that hinted of first kisses and sweaty palms. When his mother pulled up to the curb he hurried to the car and they drove away.

     The girl, clutching her books to her chest in the way of schoolgirls in the movies and romance novels, turned to walk down the hill. As she hurried toward her own ride, for a moment, she forgot herself and skipped one little skipping step, like the little girl she had been not so very long ago. She got into her mother’s car and away they went.

     Watching my own daughter make her way to me I thought about the scene I had just watched. About the way the pair had been tethered, sharing a single pulse of music, shoulder to shoulder sneaking peeks at one another, before joining their mothers.

     I thought about the women who were even at that moment asking “How was your day?” and “What did you do today?” and getting only shrugs and noncommittal grunts in return.
    I glanced over at my own child as she grunted and shrugged at my questions.

     I realized then that each of us, the three women in a crowd of parents driving home with our silent, precious, adolescent cargo, on some level, still believes that the cord that bound us to our offspring is still intact. A spider’s silk umbilicus of love and worry and pride.

     But what we haven’t thought about is who might be replacing us at the other end of that thread. A girl. A boy. A new love. A new song.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for the Spokesman-Review. She is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Dancing on Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day. Another column from the archives…

June 5, 2006

Life’s tender moments dance into our hearts

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Staff writer

The dance starts before we are born.

Babies wait in the dark, moving in time to the beat of a mother’s heart and with the rhythm of her steps.

As newborns and infants, they curl, warm and safe in our arms. We hold them close and sway unconsciously from side to side, in the ancient, instinctive movement that soothes a child.

In a few months, when they find their feet, they jump and bounce, squealing with pleasure.

Of all the tender moments I have shared with my children, I think I’ll remember the dancing the most.

I loved it.

Supported by my hands around their sturdy bodies, they danced in my lap, pushing into the air. Their bright, round, full-moon faces smiled at me as they chewed on fat little fingers. Laughter bubbled up out of them.

Together, we took baby steps with lullabies and nursery rhymes.

As toddlers they reached up to me, stepped up on my toes and wrapped their arms around my knees or held tightly to my fingers as I waltzed around the room.

We giggled and wiggled with silly tunes from Sesame Street.

We boogied with pop music on the radio in the kitchen and danced jigs around the house listening to old bluegrass tunes and folk songs.

Some nights, they came to me quietly, slipped their arms around my waist, and we swayed to Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Etta James and Diana Krall, moving slowly around the living room. There was comfort – given and taken – in the embrace.

And love. Love set to music.

Occasionally, when we were feeling silly, we tangoed. Or we moved like Apache dancers across the room, dipping low at the finale.

We twirled and pirouetted to Tchaikovsky. We were the graceful Swans in Swan Lake.

Then, one by one, my children outgrew me.

One by one they let go of my fingers and my knees and my waist. Now my son towers over me. Even my daughters are taller than I am.

Now, only my youngest, almost 11 and almost eye-to-eye, will occasionally, absent-mindedly, step up on my feet and signal she wants to move.

I’ll twirl us around the room for a minute before she pulls away to go up to her room or outside to play.

I’m back to being a wallflower.

It’s OK. No one dances with their mother forever.

Or do they? When you think about it, it’s all a dance.

From the moment they’re conceived, we skip to the tune our children play. After they’re born, even when they’re standing on our feet, they’re really leading us.

Anyone who has raised a teenager knows how it feels to be outmatched; out of time with music you can’t even hear, trying to keep up with fancy footwork. As the years pass, as I grow old, the choreography will change but we’ll still be dancing.

Children grow up and away. That’s what life is all about. Making your way, holding on to others until you’re strong enough and steady enough, and the music comes through clear enough, to make it by yourself.

If you’re lucky, you find a partner. And it starts all over again.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

The Good Mother

Another Mother’s Day column from the past…
May 5, 2008

Home Planet: At times, it’s alright to get it wrong

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
The Spokesman-Review

I got my first taste of mother guilt just minutes after the birth of my first child.

After I delivered her – an all-day affair that in no way resembled the serene, choreographed breathing and point-of-focus births in Lamaze class films – I held her, counting fingers and toes, and nursed her and finally let them take her away for all the things they do to newborns. Exhausted and exhilarated, I chatted with the nurse who stayed with me to take care of all the immediate post partum chores and we quickly discovered we had mutual friends.

“Did you hear …?” she asked, dropping a gossipy bombshell. “No!” I said. “I always thought …”

And we were off and running, comparing notes on the bad behavior of a couple we knew. Just the kind of thing you do at a party or some other social occasion. But, I suddenly remembered, it wasn’t a party. I wasn’t just one of the girls. I was somebody’s mother.

Obviously not a very good mother, I thought, less than an hour on the new job and I’d already fallen short. What kind of mother, I asked myself, forgets for even a moment?

That was just the first time. I’ve wallowed in a lot of guilt since that afternoon.

Now, I could fill pages with my mistakes; with all the times I lost my focus or worse, my temper. I could write volumes on the little things I got wrong or just didn’t get at all. I could fill an encyclopedia with the times and places of situations that didn’t go as I’d hoped. Things I should have said and didn’t. Things I shouldn’t have said, and did. Steps I should have taken but missed. Promises I had to break and lessons I neglected to teach.

But I don’t have to record any of that. It isn’t necessary. All I have to do is look at my children, (most of whom can only be described as children in a proprietary way. Three of the four are grown and out of my grasp) and I am swept away by a tide of self-doubt and occasional deep regret.

What kind of mother, I still ask myself, gets it so wrong so often?

Fortunately, years of talking to other women – especially other mothers – have taught me one important thing: We all get it wrong some of the time.

From the moment any child comes into the world, he or she is placed in the hands of a rank amateur. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had one child or a dozen. Each new child puts you back at square one.

Mother’s Day is coming up. I’m hoping I’ll get my children together for at least an hour or so.

It doesn’t matter if there are flowers or chocolates or packages wrapped in pretty paper. It doesn’t matter where we are or what they bring me. All that matters is that I get a chance to see them all, intact, upright and reasonably well-adjusted in spite of me. And – this is the part I don’t remember often enough – because of me.

I’d like to think that on some level my children understand that even when I made my biggest blunders I was trying so very hard to get it right. I did the best I could but I was working without a script. Leaping without a safety net. Navigating without a map.

I suppose I could ask them, if I do get them all together, to tell me what I did right. But that would be fishing for compliments, wouldn’t it?

And goodness knows, I’d never want to be guilty of that.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

On Mother’s Day, it all adds up

Another Mother’s Day column from the past…

May 13, 2006

Weighty concerns easily forgotten on Mother’s Day

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
The Spokesman-Review

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.

It doesn’t matter if it’s your first Mother’s Day or your 21st; you’ve probably already learned one very important lesson: Mothering is heavy-duty stuff. It’s definitely not for lightweights.

In fact, one of the hardest adjustments you have to make to a new baby, to every new baby, is dealing with the weight gain.

I don’t mean the extra pounds that creep up on you during pregnancy – the combined weight of baby, water and nine months of indulging in milkshakes, Krispy Kreme doughnuts and grilled cheese sandwiches. It isn’t uncomfortable swollen ankles that spill out over the tops of your shoes, or tender breasts.

It isn’t the stubborn little roll of fat around your middle that won’t go away. The spare tire that resists dieting, Pilates, Yoga and everything else you throw at it.

It isn’t the heavy diaper bag, packed with everything you could possibly – but probably won’t – need to care for the baby, or the backbreaking labor of tending to a family.

That’s the easy stuff.

What hits you hardest, what weighs you down and takes the longest time to adjust to, is the responsibility that lands on you once the baby arrives. That is forever.

I’m talking about the chest-crushing pressure to be a good mother and raise a healthy, well-rounded child; to leave behind a legacy of love and kindness; to make the right decisions and do the right thing. The oppressive worry about a child’s future; their success at school; their success in life.

For some, it’s the baggage from your own childhood, a burden you may not have even realized you were carrying, that has to be shifted before you can shoulder the new load.

And then there are all those expectations.

Raising a child is a weighty matter.

When you think about it, like the stones that filled the hold of sailing ships, the children we love and care for are the ballast that keeps us from tipping in the squalls or slipping under the waves. They weigh us down and balance us. They keep us from drifting away and they keep us afloat.

Children anchor us.

So tomorrow is Mother’s Day.

That means, if I’m lucky, the wicker tray, the tray that comes out only on special occasions, the one with a pocket on the side for a magazine or the newspaper and a special place for a glass of juice or a vase of fresh flowers, will be carried upstairs and placed on the bed beside me.

On it will be hot coffee, crisp bacon, scrambled eggs and maybe French toast. Or waffles with strawberries and whipped cream.

Queen for a day, I’ll lean back against my pillows and enjoy the luxury of breakfast in bed, and I won’t be counting calories. Why should I?

I’ve got children. That means I’ve put on a lot of weight over the last few years.

Tomorrow is my day to celebrate.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Thank you for flying ‘Air Mom.’

Looking back on columns about mothers…

May 7, 2007

Motherhood really isn’t about smooth landings

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Staff writer

     Imagine we are at a party (let’s make it a cocktail party because I’ve got a new dress and I’d like a chance to wear it even if it’s only in my imagination) and we’re making small talk, chatting the way strangers do.

     And imagine that I told you that one day I decided I wanted to be a pilot.

     I’d never really thought about being a pilot before, but one day, I just knew that was what I should be.

     So I read a few books about flying, and a few more books about airplanes. I watched a couple of videos and began to notice airplanes everywhere I went, paying special attention to the pilots who were flying them.

     Lots of people are pilots. How hard could it be?

     Then, late one night, I rushed off to the air field, strapped myself into the cockpit, grabbed the stick and took to the air with no practical experience. I counted on instinct to guide me.

     If I were to say that to you, you’d think I was, at best, a liar. At worst, maybe a little crazy.

     But what if we were at that party and I popped a canapé in my mouth and told you I have a child. One day I decided I was ready to be a mother. I read a few books, watched a few videos and studied babies and mothers wherever I went.

     I asked myself, how hard could it be?

     Then, late one night I went to the hospital. With no practical experience and very little training, I came home with a child. Counting on instinct to guide me.

     What’s crazy about that? Isn’t that the way most of us become parents?

     I brought that first child home with me over 20 years ago.

    I’ve still never flown a plane, but now I’ve got four children. And I’m not convinced that trying to fly without a lesson wouldn’t have been the easier route

     Parenting is hard.

     Most of the time, it’s impossible to see just where you’re headed, the speed at which you travel is terrifying and there’s no good way to stop once you start. And if you crash and burn, it’s not just yourself you’ll be hurting. There’s that precious cargo.

     You take a plane down, you’re dead. You screw up your kids, you’re a bad parent.

     That’s a lot worse than being dead.

     Raising a child, you have to be the pilot, the copilot and the navigator.

     Oh, and you’re also the flight attendant. You spend a lot of time making everyone but yourself comfortable.

     The instinct to nurture and protect your young is a good start. It certainly helps. But nothing teaches like experience.

     Which brings me to my point.

     Mother’s Day is coming up. That’s a good time to think about who got you where you are today.

     Most of us have someone, a mother or a mother figure who kept us aloft. She was the calm voice that told us to buckle up and breathe deeply. She guided us around storms and didn’t bail when the going got rough.

     She brought us in safely. She gave us our wings. She put our feet on the ground.

     This Mother’s Day, buy a card. Pick a flower. Take your mother somewhere she can wear a pretty dress.

     And while you’re at it, by all means, tell her thanks for the ride.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons.”  Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Who will teach him to pull up his pants?

     It was one of those beautiful spring Saturday mornings that thrill you. When the sun is out, the air is suddenly warmer and there are tender green shoots peeking up in the flower beds. The kind of day you remember. The kind of day that makes you remember.
    Out on weekend errands, we drove through the neighborhood passing rows of houses, many with people in the front yards talking to neighbors, enjoying the sunshine.
    When we stopped at a red light I looked over to see a man playing with his young son. The little boy was behind the wheel of one of those motorized child-sized toy cars. A Power Wheel. In this case, a Jeep. He was steering but his father was behind him, helping him push the little vehicle up a particularly steep place in the front yard.
I watched them as we waited.

Parenting without a map

      Last week at the bookstore, I spent an hour moving slowly along the rows and bookshelves, my head tilted to one side, reading titles.

      After an hour or so of skimming titles and sampling chapters I had three books I couldn’t leave behind so I carried them to the cash register and got in line. There was a man talking to the cashier and just ahead of me a pregnant woman stood with three books of her own. Tilting my head again, I read the titles she held.

      Each of them had something to do with parenting.

      Ah, I thought. She’s looking for an owner’s manual. I remembered doing the same thing.


Mom in ‘98 kidnapping due in Spokane soon

A woman accused of kidnapping her sons from her ex-husband 12 years ago is expected back in Spokane this week to face a felony charge after fighting extradition from Pennsylvania.

Jill D. Haugen, who also is known as Jill Connington, has been in a Pennsylvania jail since Dec. 29, when police arrested her on suspicion that she picked up her sons for a visit in 1998 but never returned them.

The boys, now 17 and 15, were living with Haugen in Milton, Pa., where she was going by the name Ann Thompson.

Spokane police are expected to travel to Pennsylvania this week to get Haugen, who faces one charge of child custodial interference, said Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor John Love. The felony carries a maximum penalty of about a year in jail. The boys were set to return to their father, William Connington of Spokane.

“The bigger picture is here’s a father who hadn’t seen his kids for 10 years, and thought he probably never would see his kids again,” Love said.

Haugen, 48, said as said that she is a victim of domestic violence and her sons are victims of sexual abuse. Police say there’s no merit to her claims. She faces a $25,000 bail in Spokane County, the same amount she’s been held on in Pennsylvania.

William Connington testified at an extradition hearing in Northumberland County on Friday, according to The Daily Item in Sunbury, Pa.

“She ran because she knew she was going to lose the kids. Not because of anything else,” he said, according to an article you can read here.

Looking back: Raising a son

February 25, 2008

Home Planet: Kids often leave us hungry to know more

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
The Spokesman-Review

The first person on my mind when I opened my eyes in the morning, was my son. I suppose that was because I had talked to him the night before.

He called me and we talked a long time, about a lot of things. But when I put down the phone I still had unanswered questions.

I had caught up with him, but there was still a lot I didn’t know.

“What’s really going on with you?” I wanted to ask. “Are you OK?”

Later that morning, packing a lunch for my daughter, his little sister, I put a handful of Goldfish crackers in a zip-top bag. And I had to smile.

There was my answer.

Guys and dolls

When my son was 2, he used to play with dolls. Now at 5, he wouldn’t be caught anywhere near one.

I never discouraged him to stop playing with dolls – in fact, I prefer them to the superhero action figures – but somewhere along the line, he got the message somewhere that only girls play with dolls.

Earlier this month on the website for Mothering magazine, writer Joe Troxell discussed how his wife bought a cotton doll for their son when he was just an infant. She named the doll “Ollie.”

“I tried to look as expressionless as the limp Ollie in my hand,” Troxell wrote in his essay, “Real Boys Play With Dolls.” “Nathan was not yet a year old. In the next few years there would be plenty of time to undo this affront to his masculinity. It would mean I would just have to buy him his first BB gun sooner than I’d expected, or start giving him baseball cards and sporting equipment at every religious holiday—even holidays I’d never heard of before.”

Troxell wrote about growing up in the rural south and learning traditional gender roles. So he was frustrated to see his son take to the doll and eventually bring Ollie wherever he went as a toddler.

Over time, however, he discovered that his “aversion to my son’s playing with a doll might be based on obsolete traditions that no longer served their original purposes.” When he asked his wife if there were any benefits to having boys play with dolls, she replied: “Do you want Nathan to someday grow up and be a good dad? … So he’ll need to have qualities like compassion, sensitivity, and patience, as well as some practical experience with things like holding a baby, right?”

Troxell explores the issue in his essay and comes to this conclusion: “In a culture that often equates masculinity with violence and exploitative behavior, I can think of no better toy for a young boy than a doll to help him model kindness and responsibility for his actions. … If we want the next generation of men to be good fathers, compassionate citizens, and sensitive leaders, perhaps this process begins with something as simple and as countercultural as a childhood doll.”

How about you? Did your sons play with dolls?

Juggling it all

When a friend asked me what I was up to these days, I gave her a sample of my usual “to do” list.


“Mothers have always quilted,” she said matter-of-factly. “That’s what women have to do survive.”


I don’t like to sew and would never have the time to actually make a quilt, but what my friend described as “quilting” in this case is what many women have been forced to do in order to balance work, family and other obligations – especially in an economy like we have today.


Many of us no longer have a choice, so we try to be creative with our time and resources. I know moms who have launched their own businesses, moms who work two or more part-time jobs, moms who weave income-generating work in between caring for their kids by putting their hours in early in the morning, during naptimes and then again late at night.


My own quilt is a huge mess right now – a little uneven and patched with scraps that have no foreseeable pattern. When people ask me what I do these days, I tell them I teach a little, I write a little, I go to classes at night, I take good care of my kids.

In other words, I juggle like a growing number of moms. It’s what we do to survive.

The family that volunteers together…

Volunteering as a family provides quality time for busy families, strengthens communication and promotes cooperation, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service.

For many families, the experience also increases problem-solving skills while enabling parents and older siblings to be role models to the younger ones. It can be as simple as visiting seniors at a nursing home or picking up litter along the Centennial Trail. Or, it could be a regular family activity such as the birthday parties that the Collins Whitehead family of Spokane Valley organizes every month for the mothers and children at St. Margaret’s Shelter.

By working side-by-side, families who give back to the community learn about social issues and spend quality time together, according to experts. As a result, children learn values from their parents that include empathy, tolerance, respect and civic engagement.

Is your family involved in community service? How did you pick your project? What prompted you to volunteer together as a family?

Also, how old were your children when they started taking part in volunteer work?

Books We Love

Every year, the Association for Library Service to Children awards the prestigious Caldecott Medal to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. Some of those books are probably already on your bookshelves at home – they’re the ones with the gold sticker on the front featuring a rendition of the medal. Many of these books also can be found at the Spokane Public Library and other libraries in your area.

The award was named in honor of Randolph Caldecott, a 19th-century English illustrator. It’s his birthday this month so Auntie’s Bookstore is having a Caldecott Storytime on Saturday.

Come down to enjoy the amazing artwork as we read some Caldecott Medal and Caldecott Honor books. All Ages. 11 a.m., Auntie’s Bookstore, Children’s section, 402 W. Main Ave. Free. (509) 838-0206.

 My family’s favorite book this year didn’t win the medal, but it did receive the Caldecott Honor (those are the books with the silver sticker). It’s called “How I Learned Geography,” written by one of my favorite artists, Uri Shulevitz. (He also wrote and illustrated other Caldecott honor books including “Snow.” In 1969, he won the Caldecott Medal for “The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship.”) “How I Learned Geography” is about a boy forced by war to become a refugee. Although he was often hungry, he found solace in a map that his father bought one day at the market instead of food. The book is based on Shulevitz’s life, and how his family fled the Warsaw Blitz during World War II. (Shulevitz now lives in New York City.) It’s an absolutely beautiful and inspiring book, I think.

What are your some of your family’s favorite books this year?

No cussing

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but my kids recognize a bad word when they hear one.

Thankfully, they don’t use expletives in their conversations with friends and family but I know for a fact they’ve heard me utter the occasional cuss word during stressful moments. I’m not a huge potty-mouth, but I’ve had to make a more conscious effort to watch my language ever since I became a mom. That’s why I laughed out loud when I saw this story earlier this week about the efforts for a cuss-free week in Los Angeles County.

It all started with McKay Hatch, a 15-year-old who established a No Cussing Club two years ago at his school.

As a result of his work, Hatch’s hometown of South Pasadena declared itself a cuss-free zone for a week last March. Yesterday, county officials in Los Angeles declared this week “No Cussing Week.

“Next year I want to try to get California to have a cuss-free week,” Hatch, a sophomore, told the Associated Press. “And then, who knows, maybe worldwide.”

According to the AP, Hatch lives in a household where swearing isn’t allowed. When he was in seventh grade and noticed that his friends started cussing, he decided to start a group. Now, the No Cussing Club has its own website and hip-hop theme song. People all over the world have been contacting Hatch because they want to join. By cutting down on swearing, people treat each other with more civility, said the teen, which then compels people to work together and solve problems.

So parents, do you ever catch yourself swearing around your kids? What are the rules surrounding language and the use of profanity in your household?

When Feelings Hurt

My youngest son had a half-day today. When he climbed into the car he started crying quietly. “I had a bad day,” he said.

“What happened? Did you get in trouble?”

“No,” he sniffed, and cried harder.

“Did someone hurt your feelings?”

“Yes!” he sobbed. “I don’t wanna talk about it!”

We were quiet for a bit. “Would a Happy Meal help you feel better?”

“Yeah, I think so,” he said.

As we pulled out of the drive-thru I asked him if he wanted to talk about what happened, or if he was getting over it. “I’m getting over it,” he replied.

When we got home he gave me a big hug and kiss. “Thanks, Mom.”

How do you handle it when your kids get their feelings hurt?

Single Mom Attempts to Raise Fourteen Children

Nadya Suleman has outgrown her childhood.  She grew up as an only child.  Now she longs for a family, and she will do anything for it.  The mother of fourteen children deflects the glares she receives from other families; she denies being selfish whatsoever.

Nadya recently gave birth the octuplets, and science has proven that this number of children cannot be born safely.  Mental, physical, and even social problems are sure to arise.  The kids are under close medical supervision right now as they begin to live their tender lives together.

In addition to her newborns, Nadya has six other children who are all younger than seven years of age, and she intends to raise all of these children independently in her own fashion.  Suleman is not currently married, and she is working toward a degree at college.

Why?  Why is someone who has no substantial or steady income so set on raising fourteen children?  Why is Suleman so stubborn in her quest for a family?

In an interview with Anne Curry, Suleman said, “All I wanted was children. I wanted to be a mom. That’s all I ever wanted in my life. I love my children.”  Suleman is determined not to allow her children experience the loneliness of being an only child like she was.

Do you support Nadya for her decision?  Is it safe for someone to raise this many children single-handedly?  Is Nadya giving her children the love and attention that she claims she is, or is she blindly robbing them of a normal childhood and happiness?

Eight might be more than enough

Earlier this month, I asked you about your thoughts on family planning and how factors that include money, time, religious beliefs and environmental concerns all play into your decisions. So along those lines, I thought I’d bring up the California couple that gave birth to octuplets – six boys and two girls, born weighing between 1 pound 8 ounces and 3 pounds, 4 ounces and delivered via Cesarean section. (The babies, by the way, are all breathing on their own and five have started bottle feeding. And, according to news reports, the woman who gave birth to them also has six other children.)

Yesterday, The Los Angeles Times wrote about the risks and ethics involved in such a pregnancy. “When we see something like this in the general fertility world, it gives us the heebie-jeebies,” Michael Tucker, a clinical embryologist in Atlanta and a leading researcher in infertility treatment, told the LA Times. He added that, “if a medical practitioner had anything to do with it, there’s some degree of inappropriate medical therapy.”

The reporters noted that these multiple births not only involve the potential for all kinds of health problems for mother and babies; they also “consume enormous financial resources for hospitals, health insurers and families.”

Some people have strong opinions on this issue. On The Seattle Times website, a woman who identified herself as Bothell mom wrote: “This woman went into the hospital and had a ‘litter’ like an animal. This is going to cost society at some point. There is NO way you can convince me that this family is going to foot this bill on their own for the lives of these kids. Unless this family is pulling in A-List Hollywood paychecks, they’re going to end up being a drain on taxpayers. …”

What do you think?

You are Getting Sleepy…

I’ve been going through some journals I kept when my three oldest were all under five. I’m not sure how I stayed awake long enough to write because in almost every entry I mention trying desperately to get some sleep.

One of my favorite entries starts: “They can’t stay up forever, can they? They will go to sleep eventually, won’t they?”
Another entry exults: “Ethan and Alex are both napping at the same time!”  Other mothers and parenting books advised me to nap when my children were napping. Right. That’s when I cleaned house and read the paper.
How about you? If you have young children, do you feel well rested? Do your kids take naps? For parents with older kids, how did you cope during those sleep deprived months/years?

Teaching Kids to be Lifelong Learners

Sometimes, it is easier to measure how much a child has learned through scores, a grade or something equally tangible.

But as many of us have discovered, the numbers or grades don’t tell the whole story. They’re a snapshot of a moment, perhaps, but they’re certainly not a reflection of the whole child – his or her knowledge, talents and awareness of others and the world.

Since I’m relatively new to parenting, I sometimes worry that my 5-year-old isn’t ready for school, that he hasn’t learned how to read and write like other kids, that he might already be behind everyone else even before starting kindergarten.

I’m grateful for my son’s preschool teachers, who continue to teach me that there are other ways of knowing, other indicators that my son is on a healthy path to becoming a lifelong learner besides the traditional methods of paper and pencil exercises and keeping score.

One of the teachers recently loaned me this pamphlet, “A Parent’s Guide to Early Childhood Education,” by Diane Trister Dodge and Joanna Phinney. (It’s available through a website called www.TeachingStrategies.com.) “Our goal is to help children become independent, self-confident, inquisitive learners. We’re teaching them how to learn, not just in preschool and kindergarten, but all through their lives,” they wrote.

One section also addresses how and when a child should be learning reading, writing and mathematics:

“We could give your children workbooks. We could make them memorize the alphabet. We could drill them. We could test them. But if we do, your children may lose something very important. …

“Children who are rushed into reading and writing too soon miss important steps in learning and may suffer later on because they lack the foundation they need for using language. Children who are taught to read before they are ready may be able to sound out and recognize words, but they may also have little understanding of what they are reading. If they haven’t been given time to play, they won’t have explored objects enough to know what words mean. …

“Because math involves more than memorizing facts, because it involves logical thinking… children need many opportunities to count objects, sort them into piles and add some to a pile and take some away. It is by playing games like these that they will learn to truly understand addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. Without these concrete experiences, children may give correct answers but probably won’t understand what they are doing and why.”

What do you think? When and how did your child start learning how to read, write and do math? How do you teach your children to become lifelong learners?

Parenting books for the holidays

 The hosts of NPR’s Tell Me More (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=98325158recently shared their favorites. They include:

  • Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood,” by Leonard Pitts Jr.. A book about African American men and their experiences as dads and with their own dads.
  • “Infants and Mothers: Differences in Development,” by T. Berry Brazelton. A book that identifies three categories of infants in this formative period: quiet, active and average.
  • “Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent,” by Meredith Small. A look at how child-rearing differs from culture to culture, and the effects on our children.
  • “The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age Two,” by William, Martha, Robert and James Sears. All about attachment parenting.

That last one by the Sears family became the “baby bible” at my house. I also read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” but that book made me a little paranoid.

Which baby or parenting books would you give as gift? And since we’re talking books again, what are your children’s favorite holiday books?