Scary Things: How a picture and a threatening message scared our entire school.

My 16yo son came into my room after 11:00 Sunday night to wake me up and ask whether I heard about the potential shooter threat at his high school the next day.

I’d gone to sleep about an hour earlier, in my new effort to get more sleep (and pretty much overhaul my entire life #again) in the new year, and right before I’d turned out the lights I’d seen a text come in on my Apple Watch as I sat on the toilet. I’d noticed it was from someone on my football mom group text, but here’s the thing about Apple Watches and 52-year-old women: they’re not a natural fit. I was hot to get one for its looks but the reality is that unless I’m wearing reading glasses, which I wasn’t doing sitting on the toilet in the dark to pee before bed, then my old lady eyes can’t read what is happening on the tiny screen.

I could make out that the text said something like, “Did you hear about … “ but that was all I could decipher and I wasn’t curious enough to know more. I thought it had something to do with the imminent departure of the football team’s head coach, and I figured whatever was said could wait until the next day.

Unfortunately, this sound thinking did not prevent me from attempting to scroll through the text on the watch, sitting in the dark on the toilet, with my clumsy ogre fingers and then suddenly realized that I had inadvertently hit one of the emojis you can send in response to a text. Convenient feature, unless you are blind. I cringed.

“Shit,” I thought and hoped for the best as I finished up and got under the covers and listened to the fake waves hitting the fake sand on my sound machine, and drifted off to sleep.

The knock on my door 40 minutes later was jarring and I sat straight up and yelled something crazy and then my poor kid stuck his head in to tell me the news. “Mom,” he said, “have you heard there might be a shooter at school tomorrow?”

That question will wake a person up.

He then went on the tell me how someone had seen a picture posted by a student at his school on SnapChat of a gun and an ominous warning, and that the photo had spread like wildfire on social media and kids were freaking out.

I quickly stumbled to get my phone off my dresser – since my new “sleep better” initiative includes getting it away from my head all night – and saw that it had been blowing up with texts in the football mom thread about the potential danger the next day.

By the time I was aware of the issue, I read that the police had been notified and arrested the kid, a senior at the school, who posted the picture of what looked like an assault weapon – which looked to by lying on a bed – accompanied by the message “Stay tuned.”

After the football moms learned that the kid had been arrested, talk turned to whether he had been part of a bigger plan to attack the school and whether their kids would stay home the next day. A lot of the kids, it seemed, were really upset by the photo and the thought that their school could have been attacked.

Early the next day, while my son ate his oatmeal and I toasted the roll for his ham sandwich to take to school for lunch (this is a full-service operation), messages were still flying about who was and wasn’t going to school and that there would be an early-morning meeting for faculty and staff to report on what had happened. Our basketball coach had indicated at first in a text to the team and parents that he wasn’t going to school, then later that he was but that his son (who’s my son’s buddy) would be staying home. But a little after 6 a.m. I saw on the football mom thread that a board of ed member (and fellow football mom) was sending her son, and that confirmed my own sense that my son would be safe at school that day.

My biggest complaint was that it took police and school officials until late Tuesday morning to issue a press release to disseminate some facts and allay fear. Prior to that, parents had received brief messages from both sources informing us that a threat had been called to their attention and investigated and found to be unwarranted. That morning, I wanted more details, more reassurance, than “unwarranted.”

It turns out, the weapon in the picture was an airsoft gun and from what I gathered in follow up texts from football moms, the kid who posted it was pretty benign. Moms reported that their kids who knew him – who had worked with him at a local restaurant one summer – said he was a nice, quiet boy. That he didn’t seem like the kind of disgruntled kid who would go and shoot up a school. Most moms agreed he’d made a dumb decision, for whatever reason, and had paid a heavy price. We still don’t know what the post meant, if it was directed at the school or if it was just him fooling around on SnapChat and maybe threatening a friend who also has an airsoft rifle. Who knows?

My son had no hesitation going to school and I figured that with all the police swarming the school that morning, it seemed like the best day of the year for him to be there. And also, don’t most school shooters arrive after school has started and blast their way in? That’s kind of how the Columbine attack went down, not to mention Sandy Hook and Parkland. If this boy really had been part of a bigger plan, it seemed to me like the proverbial jig was up after the SnapChat snafu.

It wasn’t until I was sitting on the bleachers with my basketball moms at a game on Tuesday afternoon, that I realized my thinking was not in line with other parents. I overheard two moms talking about the incident and turned around and asked them if their sons had stayed home the day before and they both nodded. When I’d picked my own son up from basketball practice after school on Monday, he immediately reported he was the only kid from our town in his group of friends to go to school that day. I asked about a few kids in particular, whose parents don’t seem to be over-reactors, and he confirmed they had not been in school that day either.

I texted him when I pulled up along the front of the school after basketball practice Monday and watched him emerge from the windowless brick building that is our high school, where a school shooting would not provide many means for a speedy exit, and watched him approach the car wearing shorts and a tshirt under the cold January sky. I’d moved into the copilot seat so he could drive home, something I’d promised earlier in the day. He’d just completed the 6 hours of driving needed to get your permit here in New Jersey, and I’d told him (in a moment of deep love earlier in the day, which I deeply regretted at pick up) that he could take the wheel and drive me home after school.

If you want to know what I think is a much more imminent threat to my own safety, and I guess his as well, it is sitting helpless next to a 16yo learning to drive (it was just his third time behind the wheel). In fact, if you were to chart my heart rate over the 24-hour period between when I heard about the potential for gun violence at our school and letting my kid drive me home, I can guarantee – based on the amount my armpits sweat during that 5-minute drive home – that the ride was way more harrowing.

Apparently, according to my children, my stress level while they are driving is over the top and unnatural. They’d even warned their youngest brother to expect me to be white knuckling alongside him as he drove. Apparently, their father is a much more relaxed passenger.

It always surprises me when my thinking is not in sync with the majority. I was just as surprised to learn that so many of my son’s classmates stayed home on Monday as that other parents don’t grip the door handle for dear life when their teenager is at the wheel. And I think that if I had been a younger mom, I would have worried about being judged about sending my son to school that day.

Maybe the most troubling part of this whole story (other than my son having to see me stagger around in the dark in my underpants searching for my phone) is that this is the world we are now living in. Where we see a picture of a gun and ambiguous message and fear for our children’s lives. And the only thing we can do about it is keep our children close, because no one else is doing anything about it.

We do nothing to place any real limits on who gets to have a gun and just what type of firearm they can get.

This is the new normal.

And that really is so much scarier than sitting next to a teenager learning how to drive.

I know, things can seem scary. And frustrating. At least we’re not alone. Sign up below to get my recent posts, delivered straight to your inbox. That’s not scary at all.

Embracing the Last Teenager in My House

It’s just me and my 15yo son left living at home and I find we make quite the odd couple. He wrinkles his nose at the quinoa I keep trying to make us for dinner and I am mystified by the noise he calls music that thumps from his bedroom.

Like, is Lil Uzi going to seem like the Beatles to us some day? And if so, I don’t want to know what’s coming down the pipe for my grandchildren.

But my son and I have found that watching movies together is where we can meet in the middle (luckily, I have cinematic tastes akin to a teenaged boy).

You can read about it here on Grown and Flown.

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The Time My Daughter Told Me I Was a ‘Terrible Mother’

keep_calm___by_trl_phorce-d5ipns9-1A few weeks ago a girlfriend sent a text to me and another woman about picking a date to coordinate a ladies night out to celebrate the holidays.

“I want to make sure the date works for you guys before I send it out to the whole group,” she texted us. We went back and forth about a couple of dates but pretty much I was like, “Everything works. I’m good.”

We settled on next Wednesday, Dec. 17 and she sent out a big group text and a whole thread ensued about who can make it and who still needed to find a babysitter. I was secretly pleased that I no longer really needed a sitter, my high school girl could handle herself and her brother for the night, and I thought about what I was going to wear instead.

So last Sunday I stood in the cold with the girls night organizer and another friend listening to the middle school chorus sing holiday tunes before the annual lighting of our town tree. The subject of our night out came up and we all stood shivering and agreed that our destination would be fun and then the other mom said she was still having a hard time finding a sitter.

My 17yo had just arrived from work and walked over to join our circle. I turned to her and asked her what she was doing that night — thinking maybe she could watch my friend’s kids — and then I stopped myself and said, “Wait, she’ll be watching my little kid!”

We all started to laugh and my daughter asked, “What night is this, anyway?”

“The 17th,” the organizer told her.

“Oh,’ said my daughter, giving me a look, “you mean your son’s birthday?”


“Amy!” shouted the organizer, “you told me you were free that night!”

“I thought I was!”

And right on cue, the 17yo said, “You’re a terrible mother.”

“I have a learning disability you guys,” I continued, trying to recover, “I can’t remember things.”

And then I thought a little bit more and observed, “And I don’t even have a job.” In the past, I would use that as an excuse for my forgetfulness; for when I dropped the ball somewhere in my life. And with only two kids living at home right now, I couldn’t even pull the ol’ “I’ve got four kids” card out of my back pocket.

Now I didn’t even have that to blame.

Maybe I was just legit stupid.

At that, the teenager grabbed the car keys out of my coat pocket and said, “That’s it. I’m taking the car and driving home,” and she stormed off into the crowd.

The other moms and I laughed and I promised that I’d still be there, albeit after the obligatory trip to the local hibachi place to celebrate a 12th birthday.

I told the story to another girlfriend as we exercised the next day in my living room and she shook her head when I got to the part about forgetting my kid’s birthday and I repeated the “learning disabled” bit.

“Maybe you need an IEP,” she suggested and that really got us laughing but then I thought, “That’s not such a bad idea.”

An IEP is shorthand for the Individualized Education Program that’s tailored for students who are classified in school with some type of challenge that’s getting in between them and learning. Like, I could really use having somebody sit down with me and kind of help me sort through my life, identifying the things that challenge me – like arriving anywhere on time or dropping my son off at the wrong place  – and figuring out ways to overcome them.

We’d call it my ILP (Individualized Life Plan), which would be a grown up version of the IEP and my kids could even have a copy of it to make modifications as we discover future challenges.

Or maybe I could just pay better attention to things.

I checked my phone as the concert ended and Santa screeched by on the firetruck, its sirens blaring and lights flashing in the darkening December sky, and saw that my daughter had texted that she was sitting in the car waiting for me.

I searched through the crowd for my son and we headed out to the parking lot behind the borough hall. I opened the door and slipped into the warm car and my daughter said, “Seriously, Amy.”

“I know, dude,” I said. “But isn’t it part of my charm?”

We laughed about it during the quick drive home and I thought of ways of breaking it to my son that I would be going out for a little bit after hibachi next week.

That is, if I remember.

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Those Awful Teen Years

IMG_2770I was not a nice teenager.

In fact, it could probably be said that I was a wee bit scary.

On top of the usual teenage stuff – like, rebelling against my parents and experimenting with drugs and alcohol and boys – I also had an extra-special helping of anger woven into my teen spirit.

I was pissed at my parents for divorcing; my mom for remarrying; and at the world in general when I was plucked out of the comfortable bubble that had been my life for 13 years and plopped into a whole new universe. My new home may have been only an hour south from where I’d grown up but it seemed light years away from everything that I had known up until then.

I seethed. I skulked. I acted out.

The only things that I’m thankful for about that period in my life are that A. I survived and B. There was no Facebook back then to document it all.

(There truly is an upside to growing up in the Eighties besides knowing all the words to the “Like a Virgin” album.)

I’d really rather forget the heavy eye makeup, questionable clothing choices and terrible attitude I sported in the early-to-mid-80s. Really, I cringe just thinking about the Flashdance-inspired ensembles and my big, Jersey Girl hair; my defiant cigarette smoking and sneaking my high school boyfriend in through my bedroom window late at night.

But the Universe has managed to have the last laugh because, as the mother of four kids, I’ve now had the opportunity to be on the other side of teen angst.

It’s scary, y’all.

At one point, three of my kids were teenagers simultaneously and it was probably one of the most harrowing periods of my life since it happened to coincide with the end of my marriage. That provided more drama than a month’s worth of  “General Hospital” episodes. Luke and Laura had nothing on us, yo.

Recently, the oldest daughter of a guy I’ve been dating turned 13 and while on the outside I was all, “Mazel tov, that’s great,” all I could think in my head was, “You poor motherfucker.” Really, the only thing more brutal than a 13-year-old girl would be twin 13-year-old girls. The government should figure out a way to harness all that angst and eye rolling to use as a weapon of mass destruction or some shit. That could really do some damage.

Pretty much the only time teenagers are amusing is when they’re not your own, which is why I got a kick out of Sasha and Malia Obama’s recent appearance at the annual turkey pardon headed up by their dorky dad. Their bored postures, crossed arms and the stony looks on their faces were pure teen evil genius. They were barely putting up with the whole charade – their dad laughing at his own corny jokes – and practically ran out of the room when it was over.

Credit: White House / Via

Credit: White House / Via

I mean, who has not been in a public situation with her own child and not wanted to reach over and throttle both the kid and the kid’s shitty attitude? And this is not counting all the times that you’ve wanted to commit a teen-directed homicide in the privacy of your own kitchen.

So I was surprised when I heard that a GOP staffer, one Elizabeth Lauten, took a swipe at the Obama girls’ turkey pardon performance, suggesting on Facebook they show “a little class” and perhaps “Dress like (they) deserve respect, not a spot at a bar.” Ouch.

I mean, wow, she went there. It’s like Lauten, the communication director for a southern Republican congressman, had forgotten for a moment what it was like to be a teenager. What it was like to behave in a way that might be regretted years later. What it’s like to, say, get caught shoplifting when you were not much older than Malia, which according to Smoking Gun, is what happened when Lauten was 17.

It’s probably safe to say that a lot of us would rather forget some of the things that happened during our teen years. And man, I’m glad I’m not president because I don’t even know what people like Lauten would make of some of the outfits my daughters have come downstairs wearing or the withering looks my older son has cast in my direction. She would not be impressed.

It’s hard enough to be a teen much less have to grow up under the 24/7 news microscope. The Obama girls should be left alone to work through wearing skirts that are way too short the way the Bush girls dabbled in underage drinking. It’s all a part of growing up.

I did it. My kids did it. We all did it.

I’m just glad my shenanigans never turned up on anybody’s news feed.

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Boy on Fire

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See more from my favorite photographer:

I should have seen it coming.

Or maybe I should have smelled it.

Earlier in the evening I’d detected the unmistakable odor of teen spirit wafting up from the basement, where my youngest son has been hanging out more and more lately. I mean, who could blame him? Not only is there a sitting area with a TV and XBOX system, but his older brother’s bedroom and bathroom down there – currently unoccupied as the 22-year-old’s away at school – make it like a cozy Petri dish for raging hormones.

“Why does it reek of Axe?” I yelled down the stairs, trying to be heard over The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” marathon blaring on the television.

The unmistakable scent gave me pause. Too many times in the past I’d smelled that smelly smell – a mixture of musky armpit and aggression – climbing out of the basement as my older son worked through his teen years. And while at first I just thought he was being really fastidious about his personal grooming, later I would realize that he was using his enormous collection of stinky Axe products to mask activities other than showering going down in his lair.

So I had a PTSD moment, standing at the top of the stairs and recognizing that unmistakable odor, but then laughed it off. I assumed the almost 12-year-old had just been experimenting with the numerous cans of body spray – with names like “Dark Temptation” and “Anarchy for Him” – left behind when his older brother took off for college in August.

When will I ever learn to connect the goddamn dots?

I finished cleaning up after dinner and settled onto the couch to watch this week’s episode of Homeland when the fire detectors on all three levels of our house began to shriek.

“Is Axe really that powerful?” I thought as I ran to the basement to investigate. I was really still thinking that body spray, however stinky, could set off smoke detectors.

And then I really smelled it.


Or, more precisely, I detected something that had been recently set on fire and put out.

It’s smoky when I get to the bottom of the stairs to find my little guy standing there wide-eyed, teary and seemingly confused.

“What the hell is going on down here?” I shouted, noticing the scorched area of rug by his feet and big, grey specks of ash scattered about.

“I don’t know,” he stuttered, and I ran into the bathroom to find more pieces of ash on the floor and toilet seat and noticed that the toilet had also recently been flushed.

“What were you burning?” I yelled, not waiting for him to come to Jesus.

Jesus was fucking coming to him.

“I don’t know,” he said, continuing with his disoriented act and then I give him my scariest look. “Paper,” he finally blurted out.

“With what?” I asked, imaging some book of matches he had stolen from one of his brother’s drawers, and then he got down on his knees to retrieve the lighter he’d had the wherewithal to shove under a nearby desk when he realized the jig was fucking up.

“Are you insane?” I screamed, “Why would you do that?”

“I don’t know,” he cried, visibly shaken. “I just did.”

Here’s the good thing about the men in my family when they admit to having fucked up, which isn’t often. They finally do what I fucking tell them to do and don’t make a stink about it.

So my little man marched up the stairs and got immediately into the shower. He didn’t dawdle like he usually does and get distracted by some YouTube video, or lie down on his bed and think about the new soccer ball he desperately wants for his birthday.

He took a shower. He brushed his teeth. He told me he even used mouthwash. He read his book for 20 minutes and then he turned out the light to go to sleep.

Right around then his 17-year-old sister got home from her babysitting gig and I told her to go smell the basement.

“It smells like fiery boy down there,” she came back to report, and I laughed and told her about what had happened.

“What an idiot,” she said.

And of course, I agreed. But I also wondered how much of it was, in a way, my fault.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m not in any way taking the blame for the kid’s budding pyromania. But  I tend to give my little guy, as the youngest of four, a lot more leeway than his siblings. He uses words like “atrocious” and tells me my upcoming trip to the Hamptons sounds “fabulous.” He just seems more mature than the other kids did in middle school. Like he has his wits about him.

I know. I am a terrible judge of character.

But lately, he’s always asking to light the candle I like to burn on the kitchen counter and I even showed him how to work the same lighter he would use to almost burn down the house a few weeks later. I’ve noticed he’s lit the candle a time or two when I wasn’t around, and I probably should have been a lot more stern about that. And concerned probably, too.

But when half of your kids are in their 20s, you get to the point where you start to think that maybe certain acts of bullshit are behind you. You assume the younger children have learned from their older siblings’ mistakes and will spare you the ensuing drama.

You think certain people are smart enough not to set shit on fire in your basement on a Monday night.

And lots of things have gotten lit up down there in the past. Pipes. Libidos. Dreams.

At least now I know exactly what it smells like.

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The Beginning of the End


Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Sometimes, the moments strike when you least expect them. Right when you’re sitting there, in the third row of the high school auditorium chatting with another mom while both your daughters, now seniors, sit onstage and wait to be inducted into some honor society that will look good on their college resumes.

You’re sitting and chatting about the girls – maybe about how they keep turning their heads to avoid having their pictures taken by you – when they suddenly stand and start filing towards the front to receive their certificates.

And all of a sudden, when you try to take a picture of your young neighbor, the same little girl who moved across the street a dozen years ago whom you described to people as Punky Brewster and who has become a staple in your house for the last decade, your vision blurs as the tears start to fill your eyes and you get that burning feeling at the back of your throat.

And you’re not even getting your period.

You don’t even try to take a picture when it’s your own daughter’s turn to walk to the front of the stage and receive her certificate. You just want to take it in, the beginning of the end. Over the next few months, there will be a lot of these ceremonies. Your daughter and her fellow hard-working students will be honored at various inductions into this society or that as they round the bases towards June.

They’re all heading down that same path that zillions of high school seniors have walked in the past and with, for many, the same inevitable end. They will graduate and a month or two later, will take their proverbial shows on the road to college.

And I know I’ve been down this road myself a time or two with my older children but for some reason, it’s really hurting a little bit more this time around. When the first one left and then his sister, it was like, “Well, there’s plenty more where that came from.” But now that well of children is starting to run a little dry.

Punky’s mom across the street happens to be in the same ever-shrinking boat. When Punky ships off to school in August, my pal will be left at home with her hubby and 15-year-old son to keep her company.

“Next year the only thing I will hear are farts,” she texted me the other day.

They do this, kids. They start out making you weak at the knees with the love you feel for them – their tiny little fingers and sweet smelling heads – and then push you to the brink of homicide after a few short years of  incessantly asking, “Why?” and “Why not?” By the time they are teenagers, you really start to wish that they would just go away. And then, just as suddenly as they entered your world — they start to make their exit.

And you’re like, “Wait. What?”

But of course they come back, bringing bags of laundry and a newfound disdain for midnight curfews, but it’s never the same. It all starts to seem a lot more temporary.

I look forward to the future, but I’ve really loved being a mom. And not that I’m not going to be the mom anymore, but it’s just changing. I mean, sometimes the kids call me “Amy” when they’re trying to make a point and some are old enough to get staples in their head and CAT scans without my consent.

And I think if I could have any super power, what I’d really like to be able to do is to go back in time. I’d like to go back and spend a late afternoon, between naps and making chicken nuggets, sitting on a park bench and watching my little ones go up and down the slide for hours and beg me to push them on the swing. And, unlike before – when I’d resist as long as I could and tell them they needed to learn how to swing themselves – I’d get up and go over and give them a great big push.


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photo-35I knew that my 48th birthday yesterday was a something when it even seemed to give my father pause.

I called him the day before to thank him for the gift he sent, and he mentioned my age and how the calendar on his computer had told him it was “Amy Byrnes’s 48th birthday” and then he says, “Huh” and literally paused.

My father is a man of few words so I could tell that for him to bring it up, he thought my age was a something, too. I think it even made him feel old.

And honestly, I usually don’t really get caught up in my age. I still feel like the same, albeit much smarter, woman who I was 20 years ago. I feel healthy and strong and know that I can still turn heads if I really put my mind to it and wear, like, mascara and stuff.

It’s just that I’m starting to feel, as I near the end of my 40s, that there’s an expiration date on all of this. Things are starting to feel a little less infinite.

For one thing, as much as I didn’t really worry too much about a man’s age initially as I re-entered the dating scene, I’m starting to think that a cap needs to be put in place. I need to draw the line on just how young of a man I am willing to spend time with, which is really going to limit the already pretty limited dating pool I’m forced to deal with.

It’s like that really great line from the movie “The Other Woman,” which I watched last night with my daughters, in which the Lesley Mann character — who is struggling with whether to leave her philandering husband — expresses her horror at the idea of dating in her 40s.

“The last time I was single I was 24 and the dating pool was everyone,” she cries to the Cameron Diaz, not-very-sympathetic, character. “And now it’s like a shallow puddle of age appropriate men who are old and gross.”


I’m also starting to feel that I need to get going on all of those things I was going to do “some day” – like write a book or be a famous blogger –because “some day” is, like, right now.

I worry, which I never did before, that I’m getting too old for some things, like going to certain bars on Sunday nights to dance and wearing the cat necklace my 11-year-old gave me for my birthday out in public. I’m concerned about what other people might think about me and whether I can pull certain things off because even though I feel young, my looks are beginning to betray just how old I really am.

And that light I’d been looking for at the end of my parenting tunnel — that time in my life I fantasized about when I still had to wash three little heads under the tub faucet each night and sweep piles of discarded Cheerios and bits of American cheese off my kitchen floor – when they’d actually grow up, is kind of here, too. In no time I’ll watch my oldest turn 22 and graduate from college and send my third kid off to school and things around here are really going to start to change. Even my days as the mom of an elementary school student are starting to wind down, which you’d think – as I’ve had a child in grammar school since 1999 – wouldn’t come as such a big shock, but it’s hard to believe that those days of art shows, band concerts and middle school dances might actually come to an end.

The good news is that I am ridiculously optimistic, like, as hopeful as a golden retriever just waiting for you to drop something off your fork onto the floor, so I know it’s all going to work out. I’m just going to move to new stages of my life while my neck continues its downward spiral as it tries to merge into my décolletage but it’s all going to be okay.

Because what are my options? I have a girlfriend right now who is facing the challenge of breast cancer, so I’m certainly not going to start crying about my sagging boobs. I’m lucky their collective droop is the worst issue I have to deal with in that department.

And even though this was the fifth birthday I’ve celebrated as a single person, I appreciate how it’s forced my kids to take responsibility for making it a special day for me. They bought me great gifts, took me out to dinner and even paid for parking. They also took care of some pesky chores around the house – like putting chemicals in the pool and organizing shelves in the garage – without a peep of resistance. Someone even emptied the dishwasher.

So, am I thrilled about turning 48? Um, not so much. But am I grateful for all of the things I am blessed with here, in the middle of my pretty wonderful life?

You betcha.

Happy birthday to me.

Happy birthday to me.




‘How Ugly is This Guy?’: Things My Kids Ask About My Dates

images “Okay, Mom,” said my 17-year-old daughter, totally out of the blue not long ago. “How ugly is this guy?”

We had been lying around our den one afternoon – along with her older sister and best friend from across the street – laughing and chatting about nothing in particular, when she asked her question.

I had just started dating someone and although it was the first real relationship I had had since I split from their dad five years earlier, the girls really didn’t want any details. In fact, the entire subject of this new guy made their faces twist in disgust and brought an abrupt halt to the conversation.

So I was surprised she would ask me anything about him, especially what he looked like.

“I don’t know,” I told her. “I think he’s kind of cute.”

She then proceeded to make gagging noises and pretended to vomit over the arm of the leather chair she was draped in. But the neighbor was all over it; leaning forward to get every detail she could about my new dating life.

“Maggie is, like, obsessed with this,” my daughter sniped and she told her friend to cut it out. She made it clear that my dating life was totally disgusting and not cool.

I always thought that by the time I got around to dating, once we were able to brush all the ashes and soot of the nuclear fallout of my divorce off and get on with our lives, my kids would be happy to see me happy.

I am so naïve.

The truth of it is that children, for the most part, are not really that interested in their parents’ happiness; especially when it puts their own happiness at risk.

No, it turns out my kids would rather see me alone, surrounded by cats and stacks of newspapers and back issues of The New Yorker, than with a significant other.

And for a long time, that seemed to be my trajectory. I was really busy with a demanding full-time job and managing the fallout of the divorce – all of the emotional ups and downs – to even think about dating. I had a pissed off ex-husband and three ornery teenagers so I didn’t really feel the need to develop any new relationships. I had enough personalities on my plate to manage, thank you.

But five years after everything imploded, even my therapist was like, “Start dating, already.” And I tried. I signed up for online services and never said “no” to anyone trying to fix me up with someone. I even gave a checkout guy my number, for gods sakes.

But my heart wasn’t really in it.

So, unlike all the glasses of wine and cups of coffee I shared with a litany of fix ups before, I went on a date not long ago with not only an open mind, but an open heart and kind of liked the guy enough to go out again the next night.

And I’ve got to admit, the whole thing came out of the blue. One minute I’m going to meet yet another guy at a bar for a drink and the next, we’ve gone out together seven times in two weeks.

So the kids were annoyed that this new relationship briefly took me away from being on call 24/7 for sandwich making duties and counter wiping. They like the idea of me standing in our kitchen at the ready as they go about their lives. They like to know that I’m around on the off chance that they might need me.

And they’ve been jealous of things that have taken my attention away from them in the past – like my girlfriends and my former job – but nothing compared to the disdain they employed when discussing my love life.

One night, as I rushed around the kitchen putting out taco fixings for dinner before I got picked up to go out on a date, two of the kids were complaining that I was going out with this guy again and I threw up my hands and asked, “You guys, don’t you want me to be happy?”

And the two of them looked at me and said, unequivocally, “No.” They barely blinked before they said it.

My 20-year-old daughter told me she had come home from a summer class the night before and was feeling cranky about the course and when she saw her older brother sitting on the couch watching TV, she asked him where I was.

“Out on a date,” he said.

“AAARRRGGGHH!” was, I think, the response she said she gave him and he immediately snapped back, “Cut it out. Mom deserves to date.”

So, at least a quarter of my progeny can see past themselves and support my love life.

I tried to talk to each kid about it privately. I tried to assure them that I wasn’t going to marry the guy. We were just dating and that if it wasn’t him, at some point it was going to be somebody else.

I told this to my little guy, and he just said, “Face.”

“Face?” I asked. “What do you mean face?”

“I want to see his face,” he told me. “Take a selfie so I can see what he looks like.”

But it never came to that. The relationship lasted the duration of two gel manicures — for whatever reason — but it taught me a lot about myself and what I want. And I think it was a really good experience for the kids. It helped brace them for when I am in a relationship that lasts longer than a month.

No matter what he looks like.




Letting It Go

2364When my oldest was a junior in high school, I couldn’t wait to start looking at colleges. He and I drove north over his spring break that year to stay with friends just outside Boston to visit a couple of schools, and you would have thought I was going to Disney World.

Libraries! Dining halls! Dorms! I don’t think Space Mountain could have rivaled the excitement I felt as I walked around those campuses.

And I really love Space Mountain.

My son, on the other hand, was mostly annoyed with the entire process and refused to sit through any of the schools’ information sessions. He did consent to removing his ubiquitous headphones for the actual tours but would then quickly pop the buds into his ears when we got back into the car.

I would spend hours – like a nut – paging through the big college guides we had bought at Barnes & Noble and trolling the Internet, plugging in his SAT and GPA to determine whether he had a chance of getting into this school or that. I often joke that he was lucky I was also going through a really messy divorce at the same time, which prevented me from getting totally weird about the whole thing.

In the end, we probably visited seven or eight schools before he applied to about 10 the December of his senior year for regular admission.

And when the letters started to trickle in that spring, there was really no rhyme or reason to where he was accepted, rejected or wait listed. He ended up going to a school we didn’t visit until after he was accepted, to which he had applied more as an afterthought because some of his friends had visited and liked it. It seemed like a good fit because he wanted to major in engineering (or maybe that was me) and the school was known for its engineering program and then, of course, he ended up switching out of engineering by the end of his freshman year and all reasoning went out the door.

Kid #2 the following year was pretty easy in that she was all about applying early to her brother’s school and by mid-December we had the whole thing wrapped up and she was looking for a roommate on Facebook.

In retrospect, she should probably be at some small, liberal arts college closer to home, but at the time I was happy not to have to go through the whole rigmarole two years in a row.

So now, this third time around the college merry go round with my high school junior, I am trying to keep things in perspective. But it’s totally not easy and I fluctuate between being really into it and totally over it.

We went to visit a couple of schools at the end of last week, bringing our total number of colleges visited to four, and I can tell you one thing: I’ve got Chronic College Tour Fatigue (CCTF). I don’t want to walk through one more student union or hear one more anecdote about a bench or chiming bells.

And please don’t make me shout something about who we are. I’m not fun like that.

I found myself back home this weekend going through the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2010 and plugging in my daughter’s data on Cappex, and after about an hour of studying various schools’ acceptance and retention rates, I was like, “What am I doing?”

I don’t want to get caught up in a lot of hand wringing about finding the perfect school for her and whether or not she can get into it. Because now that I have a sophomore and junior in college, my concern has shifted to what they’re doing AFTER college. The thought of anyone I just spent, like, 50 grand to educate sitting in my basement unemployed playing XBOX or watching Breaking Bad really makes me agitated.

There’s no science to any of this. Getting into the perfect school is some great American myth, brought to you by the same folks that came up with the legend of the white picket fence and the fantasy of the Victoria’s Secret swimsuit catalog.

There is just no such thing.

So, I think I just need to take a deep breath and put it all in my daughter’s hands. She’ll figure out where she wants to go and how to get in if that’s where she really sees herself. I will inevitably relapse and get crazy about something — SAT subject tests or a pending deadline — but hopefully I’ll have the wherewithal to calm down fast.

I will need to, in the immortal words of Princess Elsa, let it go.

But I take comfort in the fact that I won’t have to traipse around one more quad or tell one more kid walking backwards that she’s about to slam into a light pole for another six years when it’s my little guy’s turn to look at schools.

Hopefully, my CCFS will be in remission by then. Or maybe, like learning to tie his own shoes or riding a bike, my youngest will just take care of it himself.



How to Get a Tattoo

Credit: Magnus Manske

Credit: Magnus Manske

I have a tattoo.

And if you have gotten any sense from this blog of the boring, pretty traditional kind of person that I am, then you understand that it is truly the weirdest thing about me.

I never even really wanted one.

The night I got it about a dozen years ago, I was just kind of along for the ride to watch my then-husband and sister-in-law get inked and then go out to dinner. I was in it for the food and drinks, basically.

My sister-in-law had gotten a bee in her bonnet about getting a tattoo – doing all sorts of research on, like, the cleanest place to get one locally and the best artist to do it – and it just enabled my husband’s long-held desire for skin art. So her husband and I accompanied them to their destiny with a needle.

But when we got to the tattoo parlor and were faced with the pages of samples of potential body stamps – cartoon characters, Chinese symbols, flowers – my husband started to think it would be a good idea if I got one, too. A REALLY good idea, he said.

I have never been very good at saying “No.” When handed a cigarette as a youngster I gladly puffed away, and when my BFF in high school suggested we take her dad’s BMW out for a spin, even though we were still a year shy of having drivers licenses, I got in and fastened my seatbelt. I made an excellent accomplice.

So, maybe lifelong issues have stemmed from poor decision making.

Anyway, the husband started some slight pressuring and before I knew it, I was hunched over in a chair with some guy sitting behind me and dragging a needle through my lower back.

I wasn’t even drunk.

And let me tell you, I have given birth to two children with absolutely no medication. Zilch. Zippo. Nothing.

And while the process of getting a baby out of you really hurts, I found natural childbirth fairly manageable. You just need to keep your wits about you.

You should have seen me then, carrying on in the tattoo parlor, sweating and feeling weak with my wits scattered all over the linoleum floor. I was in so much pain that someone had to run next door to the Cumberland Farms to buy some orange juice to keep me from fainting.

Later, one of the other tattoo artists came in to the little curtained-off area to survey the two-inch butterfly sitting on my lower right hip and said, “That’s what all the fuss was about?”

This was a man thoroughly covered in ink, with artwork creeping out of his shirt and all the way up his neck.

The four of us ended up getting tattoos in various shapes and sizes on different parts of our bodies, and then headed off to dinner at a local seafood place. We sat outside on a deck overlooking the river in the soft summer air, pulling steamers from their shells and marveling over what we had just done, feeling just a little bit giddy about our bandaged tats.

As a stay-at-home mom with three kids, it felt so edgy and naughty to say I had a tattoo. This was back before it became de rigeur for all professional athletes and everyone under 30 to be inked up and probably a cultural turning point for tattoos in general when mothers of three from New Jersey were getting body art. If you charted the history of tattoos on a timeline, that summer probably marked the moment when having a tattoo went from being cool to so last year — like Facebook and Uggs.

For the most part, I’ve never really regretted getting it. It’s fun to pull out as a party trick after a few drinks and I liked that my husband thought it was sexy. Now that he’s not around, I still don’t hate it. I’ve never thought of having it removed and since it’s on my back and out of sight, I often forget the bluish butterfly is even there.

But none of this is to say that I would ever support any of my children marring their bodies permanently with ink. One of the upsides of having a tattoo is that I always assumed it would act as a deterrent to our children from getting inked. I mean, who would want to do anything that dorky?

So I thought it was funny when I heard that President Obama was using the same rationale with his daughters. He has said that if Sasha or Malia got a tattoo, he and Michelle would get inked as well.

“Michelle and I will be right there and we’ll post it so that everybody will be able to see it and we’ll say we all got matching tattoos,” he told Ellen DeGeneres this week.

But I have one daughter who keeps talking about getting a tattoo. It would be meaningful though, she tells me. Not some stupid butterfly.

I’ve already come to terms with the increasing number of holes running along the perimeter of her ears. Every time I see her, it seems like there’s another one (thank god no freaky gages, though). But I cannot stand the thought of her ruining a perfectly good ankle or shoulder – covered in all that beautiful skin I spent years patting dry after a bath and slathering sunscreen on for a day at the beach – by some stranger with an electric needle. It really bothers me.

And even though I’ve never had an urge to get another tattoo, when my daughter brings up wanting to get one, I pretend to get all excited about us doing it together. I suggest we get the same beef-and-broccoli sign on the inside of our wrists or whatever.

She just stares and gives me the same withering look she reserves for when I suggest she gets a job at school or takes her car in to get the oil changed.

It’s quite scary, actually.

Before she turned 18, my daughter needed my permission to get a tattoo but now that she’s 20, she can walk in and get the side of her face tattooed Mike Tyson-style if she wanted.

It’s hard as a parent to sit back and watch your kids mess with the things you worked so hard to nurture and protect when they were young — like brain cells, lungs and flesh.

I’d like to ask my mom what she thought about four of her eight children having something permanently inked on their bodies, but I don’t think any of us have had the nerve to tell her yet about our tattoos.

Do you have a tattoo? Do you regret it and have you told your mother?