on self-defense

My husband takes the kids to karate class twice a week. Early on in the class, perhaps the second time they went, our daughter, M, asked the Grand Master, “When can I learn to hurt people?”


She asked because in school, students often feel they have the right to pick her up. As in, put their arms around her and lift her off the ground and then say, “You’re so little!” like she’s a doll or pet.

Or inconsequential.

It makes her angry, and she’s learning how to express that feeling effectively. We went to a birthday party at the zoo last month, and several boys were holding her arms and pulling her along. She was smiling and saying “Stop!” But the kids didn’t stop. I made eye contact with her and she didn’t ask me for help, but laughed and said, “They won’t stop!” I asked my husband, “Does she need help? I honestly can’t tell. I want those kids to let her go, but are they playing?”

My husband walked over and with a playful tone, with a smile on his face, grabbed her in a bear hug and said, “I have her now!” And the boys dropped her arms instantly. So instantly, that I believe those boys knew what they were doing wasn’t okay. (If they had held on and continued the game, with my husband and daughter, it would have been clear to me that she was playing, too.)

Later at home, we talked about it. Our daughter was telling us that she was trying her release moves on the boys–the moves she had learned in karate–but it didn’t work when there were so many boys.

I asked her, “Did you really want them to stop or were you playing a game–were you playing ‘prisoner’ or something?” (They play this, and roles go back and forth between captor and prisoner–our kids play this all the time.)

“I wanted them to stop! They weren’t listening, though.”

I furrowed my brow: “But you were laughing when I saw you. I couldn’t tell that you really wanted them to stop. I looked at you and you didn’t ask me for help.”

“Well I didn’t want to not be friendly.”

My husband and I both said almost in unison, “You don’t have to be friendly if you want somebody to stop.” I elaborated, making my “Mom is unhappy” face. “There — make that face if you don’t like something. Look angry when you say ‘stop.’ That is always okay.”

“Yeah, and maybe I can ask the Grand Master what to do if you have three people attacking you.”


Two days ago, M said to me of her and her friend L: “We kind of wish we weren’t so nice. I don’t mean to sound like a big shot, but there are these girls who want to be friends and we don’t really like them, and we play with them and include them, but we wish we could just say “No, we don’t want to play.”

Given that information, I said, “Well, sometimes we spend time with the people we didn’t choose ourselves. It happens. It’s a good idea to be nice in these situations.”

Yesterday, she came home and told me about one of these girls, E. E likes to confirm with our daughter that they’re “best friends, right?” E sometimes pinches our daughter’s cheek, rather hard, for no apparent reason. I asked M what she did when E pinched her cheek. “I told her it hurt, but she did it to another girl too and that girl said ‘ow’ too but E just didn’t care.”

Then our daughter described how she was playing with her hair and making crazy pony tails on top of her head. She and her good friend L, who was sick that day, often do this. E, however, decided to tell our daughter, “Stop doing that. Take those out. You look ugly!” Our daughter said, “I don’t appreciate you saying that.” (??? Really?) And E said, “What? I’m just being honest.”

(Uh, is it just me, or is E a sociopath*?)

In reacting to this story, I probably did the worst thing a mother could do:

“Well, I will say that I do not like E. She seems to not understand what being honest is. She doesn’t seem to care about how she makes you feel.”

I told our daughter that the next time E made her feel badly by being “honest” or whatever, to respond with a “Whatever, E,” while shrugging her shoulders.

It’s no karate release move, but it’s the only thing I could think of that was age appropriate.

Today, E made up a song about our daughter, singing, “she’s so stupid, she’s so ugly.” (Again: SOCIOPATH.*)

Our daughter said, “Whatever, E.” E did something to L, our daughter’s good friend, too. L also said, “Whatever, E.”

“She got the message, Mom.” (And I am thrilled.)

E learns how to behave from somebody. I cannot wait to meet her mother.

Our girl is only in the fourth grade. I hope it’s not too late to teach her what I did this week: You don’t have to be nice. There is great power in expressing your discomfort or displeasure or complete disdain. A look. A shrug… A well-timed “Whatever.”

As long as she doesn’t use these moves on me…

*a friend has pointed out that E might instead be a psychopath. Calling her a sociopath is an insult to Sherlock, as played by Benedict Cumberpatch.

managed expectations

My husband talks about managing expectations when he talks about his job. He can’t let people expect too much: There is a fair amount in corporate finance that one cannot control or remotely foresee. He can’t let people expect too little: That could create a false sense of accomplishment or  unwise complacency and hinder growth. So: You manage expectations.

Yael Chatav Schonbrun, in her essay “A Mother’s Ambitions” in The New York Times, has mastered the management of her own expectations. She was on a fast academic track, but motherhood gave her reason to slow down. Her change of pace didn’t come without a certain amount of regret. But it seems also to have given her a sense of resolve.

I hated knowing that my mentors and colleagues were not terribly impressed with me anymore… the fact is that I am in a field where incredibly smart people live and breathe the work that I spend only a small number of hours doing… I don’t see much from women like me, who back down from, but not out of, work… Our culture, especially the culture around work, is so all or nothing… Could it be possible that greatness can also mean finding ways to increase the amount of happiness in the world, even if that work happens on a tiny stage that can be seen and applauded by few? … I tell myself that it is.

I like that. Once we make a choice among work, raising children, doing one, doing both, off-site, on-site, whatever, we risk one of two things: A sense of righteousness (“My choice is THE choice to be made, I can’t believe any other choice might be made,”) or a sense of resignation (“I have no other choice.”)

Neither thing is wrong or right. I’ve felt both ways at different times. But neither feeling seems particularly positive, or affirming. And I think when we’re righteous, we might expect too much. When we’re resigned, we might expect too little. 

I like being “resolved.” It’s hard to manage my own expectations: Not too big, not too little, but just right. There’s a lot of trial and error.

I got an email the other night from a writer for a business magazine. She likes this daily news and research summary I write for a nonprofit organization. It made me feel good, knowing that somebody out there bothered to write me at 10:30 pm to say that. Feeling good made me feel silly almost immediately–I mean, it’s one email. It’s not like I’ve been published in The New York Times.

Yesterday, I took the kids to get haircuts. A lady sitting next to me for the 45 minutes we were there chatted with my daughter and son. She said to me, out of the blue, after about 15 minutes, “Now, I can say this, because I’m a complete stranger. Your children are adorable and I can tell that they spend a lot of time with you. I can just tell. They reflect you.”

I almost started to cry. All I could say was “I have a husband whose job allows me to work from home. I’m very lucky.”

But after reading “A Mother’s Ambition,” I think I should not have felt silly about feeling good about a complimentary email. I should not have said to the lady at the hair salon anything about my husband or that “I’m very lucky.” 

I should have said, simply, to both women, “Thank you. That means a lot to me.”

I’m resolved to do that next time. It will happen again, after all. I’m increasing the amount of happiness in the world, on a tiny, mobile stage on which the show never ends.

And it means a great deal.

To me.

Our son was mad at me tonight. So, so mad.

It’s hard, being six. Especially when you have a big sister who assumes the role of ‘mom’ in any and all circumstances, and when your dad is flying all over the world, and you feel like the only boy in the world.

I took the kids to the park today. Our son’s classmate and his best buddy C. was hosting a final play date–C. is moving this week. My husband is in Asia, it’s the last day of Spring Break, his best friend is moving… it was going to be a weird afternoon.

He (and his sister) had a great time. Watching our boy play with other boys, as boys do–roughhousing, shoving, falling, laughing, asserting themselves, yelling–it’s refreshing. (Watching our daughter manage the relative chaos: comforting.) But it was soon time to go.

We had to eat dinner. We then had to go home, clean up, settle in, and prepare for school the next day. I mentioned all this as we said our goodbyes to C.

We drove on to have dinner out–an end-of-break hurrah since Daddy’s away. We crossed a parking lot, and my son would not take my hand. He usually does. But he would not. We sat down where the server seated us. He could barely look at me. I asked him, “Are you angry with me?” I do this, you see. If I can tell they’re angry with me, I ask them to share why, so that we can address whatever I did, or whatever they perceived I did.

He nodded yes, he was in fact angry with me. My daughter and I (mostly my daughter) then peppered him with questions, trying to figure out what it was I did. (Is he mad because Mom won’t let him play Minecraft on a school night? Is it because she wouldn’t let him have a second cupcake?) “No” to all questions, nothing by way of an explanation. He was immovable. I asked my daughter to let it drop. Our food came, and suddenly he looked across the table and tried to speak.

“It’s just that…” and his voice broke. He didn’t want to cry in the restaurant.

“You don’t have to tell me, honey. It’s okay, just eat your dinner.” He did.

The food seemed to lift his spirits (obviously–two hours of running in a park with only a cupcake for sustenance is bound to make anybody cranky) but not quite enough. He was still pretty blue as we left.

We got in the car. Buckled up, closed the doors. And then:

“I don’t wanna go to school tomorrow and there’s nothing you can do about it… waaaaaah!” And there was a wail, a wail like you’ve never heard. This boy was in some serious despair.

“You’re mad at me because I can’t make it not a school day tomorrow?”

“Yeeeeeeeees! Waaaaaaaaah!”

I tried so hard not to laugh.

I turned into our neighborhood and offered little: “There’s so much we can’t do. I can’t make it not a school day. I can’t make Daddy be here, and not in Asia. I can’t make things stay the same. I just can’t. It’s okay to be mad at me. You should be. Usually I can make things better. But I just can’t this time. Sometimes things are just hard and yucky. But soon, they won’t be. Sometimes things get easier on their own.”

He cried and moaned… He sobbed in the shower. I tucked him in and he was still pretty mad at me but very politely and sweetly declined my offer of an extra blanket.

My daughter came by later and talked with me about what she’s learning in math, unit fractions and obtuse angles and measurements and whether she’ll make it into the fourth grade. She’s a thoughtful, conscientious girl who wonders about her own feelings.

I told her that I thought her brother was still mad when he went to bed.

“I think he’ll forget all about it when he sleeps, Mom. He was just really tired.”


We’re all just really tired. Tired of all those things that just have to get easier on their own. Things that we can’t make better.