“Mom, I Don’t Feel Good”

Or the Importance of TherMOMeters

When I was a girl, if I went to my mom in the morning on a school day and said, “I don’t feel good,” she had a routine response. She would first feel my forehead with that hand of hers. It seemed to me then, and does still now, that her perfect hand had been sculpted to cup my small brow, it fit my little temple like a robin fits into its nest, snug, and warm, and the first step toward healing.

Then came the regimen of questions inquiring about my symptoms. Depending on my responses—as in, if it did not include anything like ‘I’ve been barfing,’ or ‘I keep pooping,’ or ‘I am covered in bumps’—and her hand did not detect raging heat emitting  from my skin, she would say this:

“Go get dressed, wash up; then eat your breakfast. We’ll see how you feel.” If after all of that, and I still felt badly, I would probably get a sick day. “But no playing,” my mother would warn. “You have to stay on the couch and rest.”

It was sage advice that I understood then and now, and I raised my girls administering a similar health test, and I use it on myself as well. My mother knew that sometimes we are just off, a little low, or slow, sluggish or even sad, maybe a little anxious.

All we may need is a tiny kick start, a re-set, a nudge. A sweep away of the bad dreams or night frights. A smoothing of the sheet lines pressed into our cheeks. A mom’s perfect hand nestled upon our forehead that lets us know, “You’re alright.” (In fact, do it. Do it now. Take your own hand and gently cup it across your own forehead, and close your eyes, and remember someone’s loving health inquiry, with just their hand).

And, that was all I usually needed. Of course, a good scrub with Sweetheart soap and Pepsodent toothpaste . . . and the Mackler breakfast of champions, shared by astronauts we were told: Tang! And cinnamon toast! Who wouldn’t feel a little better?  Off to school I went.

Seriously, though, when my own daughters came to me to say, “Mom, I don’t feel good,” they received the same questions as I did from my mom, but hopefully the breakfast they were served included a little less sugar. I knowingly carried on my mother’s practice, and it worked.

If I got a call from the school later that day, I wouldn’t be surprised, they were sick after all. If I learned that they had lost their homework and were afraid to ‘fess up, we solved the problem. Maybe they were anxious because of ‘that kid,’ there’s always a kid. A kid they liked, didn’t like, who looked at them funny. Whatever it was, sometimes the moment just required a gentle pause.

To this day, for myself and for my girls, I advocate pausing. Having just traveled a few hundred miles a few times to a few places, I am quick to remember how we humans complicate our lives. Sitting in airports and public transportation lends itself to this realization, this witnessing. People have stuff and stress and a million reasons to hurry and push, roll their eyes and harrumph, snap and sigh. Loudly. Damn, we need to pause from our very selves.

The girls will still call me, and I hope they never stop, to say they don’t feel good just as I called my mom until she felt so bad herself and she couldn’t hear or speak very well. Just as I was not always looking looking for sage advice, my daughters are not necessarily seeking counsel either, maybe just a voice of soothe and sympathy. Or maybe they have an inquiry. ‘What was that tea you used to give us?’ ‘Do you think I should go to the doctor?’ ‘Those bumps have not gone away.’

I was questioned once by someone about my parenting. I don’t know if I had recently responded to a call from one of the girls, or if I was talking about parenting in the 90’s, but I was called a “helicopter parent.” This person certainly did not understand some of the basics to parenthood as I perceive them. The comment could have been a matter of age or gender difference, either way, it was a noteworthy perception, and earnest.

And I simply know that there is a significant difference between deeply caring and tending to a child, or adult as the case may be, and controlling and regulating the minutes of their lives. Steering their goals. Manipulating outcomes. Helicopter parent I was/am not. But participatory and concerned I was, I am.

I miss being able to call my own mom to say, “Mom, I don’t feel good.” Or, as was often the case, “Mom, the girls don’t feel good.” Even from afar, for many years, my mom represented the voice of reason and reassurance that I needed when sick or worried, and when I was concerned about a sick or worried kid. And, even from afar, I could feel her hand on my forehead.

It has nothing to do with wingless air transportation. It’s just love.

In my recent travels I’ve also had the opportunity to watch young mothers caring for young children. I witnessed some deeply loving and careful parenting, and I quite admire these young women and their ability to walk upright and smile while balancing an abundance of energy and exhaustion and babies, as well as car seats, telephones, and stuffed bunnies. I also witnessed something that has not yet settled in my brain.

I remember parenting peers doing this in the 90’s, and I remember to some degree that I, too, softened the edge of my own parents’ stern parenting. But the parenting I witnessed, recently, involved these young women engaging in a lot verbiage toward negotiation with their little ones, two-year-olds that is. They ended their requests with “okay?” Added a level of politeness, “Please don’t play near the cliff, okay?” And explanation, “If you do you might fall down and you could hurt yourself.”

I would always just scream, “Stop!” “Get away from there.” I admit, neither polite nor diplomatic. To some degree, I believe parenting the very young is an aristocracy, and I was the queen, and you, toddler, were my subject. There are rules, consequences, and routines that regulate our lives so they are safe and productive. But you didn’t need to know this, two-year-old, you just needed to stop whatever it is that you were doing that was dangerous or disastrous, thus I screamed, “Stop!”

No negotiation. Period. There will be plenty of time for that when kids are in their teens and have language, logic, lipstick, hormones, and of course, love, on their side.

I suppose in the world of parenting, as in the world of politics, the pendulum swings. The strict parenting of my Catholic upbringing in the 60’s—with curfews and mandatory confession; hand me down clothes and finishing every scrap of food on our plates (even liver and onions? OMG, yes!); no ‘talking back’ and lots of “yes, sir’s or ma’am’s”; and the dreaded, seldom-used but always-threatened ‘Red Painted Paddle’ on the top of the refrigerator awaiting our disobedient bums.

To the current kinder and quieter approach from parents who practice polite, and teach diplomacy; conduct lengthy discussions about spilled milk or scattered toys; make requests and avoid demands, for whom nap time is optional. (What???) Well, it still seems that love is the single most important and required ingredient. Their toddlers in the throws of terrible two’s are not terrible at all. They’re quite smart and curious and definitely cute. Go girls.

In talking politics recently with my daughter Riana, she commented that “It’s your fault, you know, you baby boomers,” or some such statement making reference to the mess of the current political world and what we baby boomers have done to fuck it all up. And I sadly agreed. But our intent was not to fuck things up, do understand that, I pleaded. We were trying to clean things up from the generations before us, who fucked things up in their way.

Will these wonderful children I recently had the pleasure of meeting and watching, someday tell their very diplomatic and polite parents, ‘You fucked it all up’? Yes, they will. And they will be smart, worldly, kind, productive adults, modeling their own parents, and questioning the fucked up world. It goes round and round. All the more reason for a pause. Could we just pause the nation please?

I guess the moral of the story is that we should all parent with every ounce of know-how and love we have in our coffers. Slather it on our little ones like organic, non-GMO, allergen-free, sunscreen. Or Coppertone. Or baby oil! Either way. The world will still get, or remain, fucked up in some way. And it will be someone’s fault. Just do the best you can. Pause on occasion.

As Graham Nash wrote, “Teach your children well.” And as he also wrote “Teach your parents, well,” too.

In the meantime, these young mothers I witnessed? They also have that magic in their hand. A built in therMOMeter. Whether their entire house is child-protected with clips and gadgets and buttons, and their disciplining comes with diplomacy, when their little ones come to them not feeling good? Their instincts out-maneuver any parenting theory. They go with love.

And to my girls? Any time you don’t feel good, you know who to call. I’m always here. No helicopter, no paddle, no diplomacy. Just me, loving you.

A Prayer for My Girls

May each day pass in anticipation of absolutely nothing
that will keep you from living that day fully and entirely.

May each day be full of passion, draining your senses and demanding
response, thoughtfulness, and kindness. A paint brush, or tap dance.

May your rest be calm, without fit or fury or fever
a  time of replenishing your sensual fiber and ability.

May your love be encompassing, knowing no bounds
but for self preservation and respect and enthusiasm for what’s next.

May your friendships be true, held firmly by a stalwart trust
that will remain long after you each may go your separate ways.

May you know teachers who give more than words, but threads,
sturdy and long, connecting the images sewn into each day.

May you know lovers who listen to the sounds of your requests
with their fingers, their eyes, and their souls.

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