Saturday, October 31, 2015

Weathered hands hold lifetime of memories

From today's Briefing:

Every now and then, I glance at my hands in alarm. Where did all these veins and ligaments come from? Why didn’t that scar from Christmas 2009 heal? For real, are these actually my hands?
Yes, these are my 43-year-old freckled, slightly lined hands. And oh, the stories they could tell.
Tales of calluses from the monkey bars and from those uneven bars on 1970s playgrounds — the kind from which girls would flip and hang like opossums.
Tales of learning to type on a manual typewriter, the kind that required superhuman strength from the pinky fingers to force the number 1 and the letter P to strike.
Tales of holding my babies for the first time, of swaddling and diapering, bathing and feeding, cradling and snuggling.
Those babies keep getting bigger, and though my hands are still required, the jobs have evolved.
Right now, my hands are a little beaten up from my amateur sewing skills. Katie, who has never fully embraced store-bought costumes, has designed for Halloween this year an out-of-this-world ensemble. She is a cow in space.
This bovine space traveler getup consists of white sweatpants and sweatshirt covered in black spots and a black cap sporting a host of wires that support painted Styrofoam planets and the sun.
Katie did most of the work — planning, painting, cutting, pinning. She’s not yet comfortable with sewing by hand, so that work belongs to me and my now-needle-worn fingers. The final effect — Holstein meets the Milky Way — is totally worth it.
My weathered hands will come in handy again Saturday as I follow my cosmic calf through the neighborhood. Inevitably during trick-or- treating, a handmade accessory pops off, and a quick rescue is required. (Last year’s narwhal tusk necessitated frequent adjustments.)
I’m not complaining one iota about the sewing or the anticipation of on-the-spot fixes. In fact, I’m soaking it up in light of another turn of events: My older child is, for the first time ever, not dressing up at all.
I remember my teenager as a wiggly bear, a toddling crab, a speedy Buzz Lightyear, a magical Harry Potter, a disarming mummy, a bearded wizard, a spindly scarecrow, an alarmingly overgrown monkey.
I recall holding Cooper’s dimpled hand as we walked house to house, reminding him to say “please” and “thank you,” urging him to take only one or two pieces. I remember swiping a fun-size Snickers bar or two from his overflowing pumpkin pail.
This year he’s just one of us, planning to visit with friends, hand out candy to pint-sized ninjas and princesses, maybe swipe a Snickers or two from his sister’s bounty. That’s what happens, I suppose, when you’re 6-2 and closer to college than elementary school. You’re not exactly grown up, and you’re definitely not a little kid.
His hands are still smooth, though.
Those hands have their own tales. Of practicing clarinet, pitching tents and kayaking the Atchafalaya Basin. Of texting, cycling and lighting candles on the church altar.
For a couple of years, predictably and understandably, he wouldn’t let me hold his hand in public. Yet somewhere in the transition from little kid to teen, he started offering his hand again.
His hand wrapped around mine — that’s worth celebrating, no matter how stark the contrast, no matter how foreign my aging hand looks. We’ve both got a whole slew of stories left to discover and tell. I’ll accept every wrinkle and imperfection along the way.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, October 19, 2015

Parent-teacher conferences are no reason to fret

From Saturday's Briefing:
Nestled between the anticipation of the first day of school and the joy of Thanksgiving break is a less celebrated phenomenon: parent- teacher conference season.
I’ve been attending such conferences since Cooper was a baby and his child care center summoned me to review a checklist of age-appropriate behavior. Now, as an elementary school teacher in my third year, I’m also conducting such meetings. It’s not easy for either side.
As a parent, it’s difficult to sit before another adult, the one who sees your child more often than you do most days, and hear strengths and weaknesses boiled down to a few phrases. It’s hard to see the essence of your child, the person you worry about and care about and love most of all, boiled down to a reading level and a math assessment and a couple of quotes.
As a teacher, it’s difficult to truly know a student after only seven weeks of school. At the same time, it’s difficult to fully describe the child in only 15 or 20 minutes.
During Cooper’s first-ever conference, more than 13 years ago, the teacher told me she was concerned that my son had no fear of strangers. “He will smile at everyone,” she intoned. “He will wave at everyone.”
Her stoic pause and intense eye contact told me that I, too, should be worried, but I couldn’t understand why. I was on edge the rest of the meeting, unable to focus on all the boxes with checkmarks, instead internally fretting over my firstborn’s lack of discernment.
It’s been like that ever since — well-meaning teachers, excellent teachers, reporting data that attempt to define my children.
Can they sit on their pockets during calendar time? Can they sit in a chair for a lesson? Can they stand in line without talking?
Can they identify letters and sounds? Write letters? Write a complete sentence? Write a complete paragraph? Can they count? Add one-digit numbers? Subtract? Solve multistep word problems? Solve division problems using area models?
It’s all important, yes, but it doesn’t add up to the total child. All that data doesn’t reflect the heart and spirit of a person. It doesn’t necessarily reveal resiliency or a delightful sense of humor or a healthy dose of whimsy. A 20-minute conference can’t begin to capture the soul.
Knowing all of that makes it even more challenging to be the one responsible for collecting data and anecdotal notes, for reporting the academic, social and emotional essence of a child.
When I see a mom wrestling her fingers or biting the inside of her lip, I want to reach across the desk and hold her hands. I want to say, “Let go of your worries. Nothing I can say about how your child performs at school changes who you are as a mom or how fiercely you love that baby. I’m offering only a tiny window into your whole child’s world.”
I don’t say all that. Instead, I say things like, “I love having your child in my class,” and, “Your child is a valuable member of our classroom family.” And then we look at reading data and writing goals and math assessments — because that’s what school is about.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Working yourself out of the mom job

From today's Briefing:
Sometimes you’re so entrenched in the work of parenting that you forget you’re working yourself out of the job.
I’ll always be a mom, of course, but every night that I tuck in my children, I’m one night closer to being out of the raising-children business. With my babies now 339 months and 124 months (otherwise known as 14 and 10), I’m well past the midpoint of the heavy lifting of child rearing.
It’s been years since I stocked no-tears shampoo in the bathroom cabinet. Sippy cups are long gone. I have no idea about the latest technology in disposable diapers or baby wipe warmers (are those even still popular?) or jogging strollers.
Yet I’m still firmly rooted in the business of raising my children, so much so that it’s easy to forget that the days are waning.
Most schooldays, Cooper beats me home. He rides his bike from school and settles in to his homework routine. By the time I walk in the back door, he’s at the kitchen table, studying classical civilizations or irregular Spanish verbs or mitochondria.
Before I can even set my purse on the barstool, he asks, “Momma, how was your day?”
Not, “Momma, I’m hungry.” Or, “Hey, I need to tell you something.” Nope, he welcomes me home with maturity that sometimes takes me off guard — until I remember he’s four years from college. My time as his everyday mentor is running low. We’ve got more — so much more — to cover, but that daily greeting reminds me he’s moving in the right direction.
Now there’s evidence that he’s starting to realize what exactly he’s moving toward. He’s increasingly aware of the world beyond our sheltered home.
I’ve had a little hip pain — nothing serious but enough to make me grumble a couple of times.
“Why don’t you go to the doctor?” my reasonable son asked this week.
I think it’s muscular, I answered, and I want to work on some stretches on my own before I go to the doctor and incur who-knows-how-much in expenses.
“Don’t we have insurance?” Cooper asked.
Yes, I explained, but we have a high deductible, which means I pay 100 percent of costs for everything until we hit a certain amount, and then we pay a percentage of the costs.
“And we don’t want to hit the deductible,” I told him, “because that means one of us has had an accident or needs surgery or something catastrophic has happened.”
I told him how much premiums cost each month and how many hours I work to earn that money, and then I threw in a few estimates for office visits and diagnostic tests. I explained that we, of course, seek treatment when we need it, but it’s also important to be a wise consumer.
He was silent for a moment. Then he crossed the room, wrapped his arms around me and said, “It’s hard to be an adult.”
I hugged him right back, silently agreeing and soaking up the gesture of empathy.
He broke free and looked me in the eye. “So, how long can I stay on your insurance?”
Wise question, young man. You’ve got another 12 years if you need it. Soak it up. That time’s guaranteed to fly by.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at