Tag Archives: parenting

the mother figure

I got home late from work, tossed the mail on the counter and was still taking off my coat as I grabbed the phone to pick up the messages indicated by the blinking red light.

When I heard the voice, I stopped.  Moving.  Breathing.  Thinking.

It was the sweet little voice of James’ 9-year-old daughter, Chelsea, calling from her mother’s home, across the country.  “Hi Miss _____,” she said softly.  “Or Bryn or Sabrina or whoever picks up this message.  It’s Chelsea, and I miss you so much.  I was just talking to my daddy and decided to call you and tell you how much I can’t wait to see you over Spring Break and the summer.  I wish I was in Colorado with you.  Call me back sometime soon.  I miss you.  Bye.”

By the time the voicemail clicked onto the next message, I was sitting on the floor of my foyer, coat half-on/half-off, with damp cheeks.  How I love those children of his…

Dating with kids is a dicey prospect at best.  In previous posts,  I have written about how much it hurt me to say goodbye to his children, and how upset my daughter Bryn was when I told her that James and I had broken up.  They are innocent passengers on our dating journeys, buffeted by the ups and downs of relationships they can’t begin to understand.

Just a short time ago, I was worrying about his three children as if they were my own.  Their mother is pretty chaotic and unstable, and unfortunately more interested in partying and drinking than in them.   The children don’t trust her or feel safe with her, and their reports of  physical and verbal abuse between her and her fiance had James racing to his attorney to evaluate his legal options.   They are smart, good kids caught in a difficult and sad situation.

My time with James’ children meant a lot to me, but I realize now that it was good for them, too.  In fact, I was probably one of the best things to happen to those kids in a long time.  Unlike their own mother, I know how to love completely and without conditions or manipulation.  Even when they pushed me away, I was steady and committed to them.  I cared for and about them without asking for anything in return.  I listened to them and supported them and showered them with affection.  And I offered a role model to the two little girls that they didn’t have anywhere else in their life.

And now I have to let them go.

James always said that the kids came first.  If that’s true, then the best thing he can do for those children is to create a safe, stable family for them.  I hope that he goes out and finds a good woman he can truly love who will love them and nurture them.  I hope that someday he models for them a healthy romantic relationship so that they will have some idea of what one looks like.  I hope that those precious girls have a woman in their life to guide them to their fullest potential, because they have so very much.  I hope that his son will have a mother figure who helps him understand that not all women will make him feel inadequate and helpless.

Is it too much to hope for?  Maybe.  But it’s all I can do now.

So, I picked myself up off the floor, shrugged off my coat, and sent a quick text to Chelsea letting her know that Bryn would call her over the weekend.   Then I said a silent prayer for all of them — that they be happy, healthy, and protected.

It’s all I can do.

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meet the modern American family

I have been spending an inordinate amount of time lately with my ex-husband, Bryce.  No, we’re not grabbing beers together after work or hitting the tennis court for a doubles match.  We’re attending informational meetings, open houses, and promotional tours for local middle schools in the hopes of selecting the best fit for my elder daughter, Sabrina.  It is a choice we will make jointly.

Now, for those of you who are not from this area and are already scratching your head, our school district is somewhat unique in that you can “open enroll” your child in any school in the district.  You are guaranteed a place in your local, neighborhood school, but if you’d like to enroll in a different school, you may do so through the open enrollment system.  Essentially, with open enrollment, you toss your child’s name into a lottery system for that school, which determines their acceptance or not.   So, there is a lot of school shopping in my town.  Sabrina is a very bright kid with some special needs  at the talented and gifted end of the spectrum so we’re visiting four different schools, all of them more than once, to make this decision with her.

And tonight, quite unexpectedly, I found myself facing one of those surreal divorce moments that always seem to sneak up on me….

I was sitting in an auditorium, with Sabrina on one side and Bryce on the other, when one of the elementary school moms I’d once been friends with walked in.  Our eyes met briefly, then I saw them sweep and take in Bryce and Sabrina, and finally determinedly look elsewhere.  I couldn’t help but grin.

For this was one of a handful of women who stopped speaking to me altogether when word hit the grapevine that I was leaving Bryce.  She didn’t know Bryce — I’m pretty sure they’d never spoken before — but she was instantly judgmental and appalled at my gall.   She and her friends haughtily and publicly insisted that I was making a big mistake and would regret it in short order.

Except that I wasn’t and I haven’t.

And frankly, I’m not sure which aspect of my present life confounds and annoys them more…

  • Is it that I didn’t crumple under the weight of guilt and regret and become a frumpy and pathetic divorcee?
  • Is it that I have made a life — however modest and humble — of which I am proud and with which I am content?
  • Is it that my standing within our community has not been altered or affected in any appreciable way?
  • Is it that Bryce and I have (at least on the surface) a very congenial and mutually-supportive friendship?
  • Is it that we have both found happiness with others and have accepted those other partners?
  • Or is it that they were so damn wrong and can’t figure out how or why???

I know that after the divorce, I was supposed to slink around town looking guilt-ridden and glum, but I didn’t feel that way and wasn’t about to play that role for anyone’s benefit.  I know that my relationship with Bryce — the fact that we sit with each other at soccer games and school functions and community events — is surprising and confusing to those who don’t know us and our commitment to our daughters.  I know that my sincere acceptance and welcome of his girlfriend Debbie makes some people just plain uncomfortable.

But you know what?

They need to just get over it.

Because it’s actually pretty simple:  Bryce is not a terrible person; he just wasn’t the right partner for me, nor me for him.  Debbie is a very nice, sweet, friendly woman whom I have absolutely no reason to dislike.  We are all doing our mutual best to support and raise my daughters.  For the life of me, I will never understand what is wrong with this picture.

I had a phone conversation this week with a guy friend I’ve known for 27 years, during which he told me that he thinks it’s “unnatural” for Bryce and Debbie and me to attend the girls’ events together.  Now it was my turn to be confused.  “Unnatural”??  Seriously?  What exactly are we “supposed” to do — take turns loving them?  Maybe I should only love them on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that Bryce and Debbie can also get their days?  Or perhaps we should do the time-honored thing and shove them in the middle of some acrimony so that they can get the more traditional divorce experience?

So here we are now, reviewing and considering schools, discussing pros and cons for Sabrina and trying to make the best choices possible for her, and I am reminded — once again — that even in our attempts to do what is best by our girls, we are somehow different.

I have made my peace with different.  I am proud of where we are now and what it’s taken us to get here.  I am glad that my children are not embarrassed by our behavior, nor do they feel torn between us.  There will be arguments and hurt feelings and maybe even legal battles down the road, but we are establishing a good, strong precedent for working together for the sake of our children. We are integrating new partners and trying to support each other in our new lives.  We are the embodiment of the modern American family, for better or for worse.

And we’re not going anywhere.

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{ping}

When my children are with me, I say good night to each of them by lying in bed with them, chatting about their days and saying prayers.  At the end, just before I get up to leave, I ask them to tell me one thing for which they are grateful.  I do this because I think it’s important to encourage a habit of gratitude and because I want them to close their day on a positive note.  When they were itty-bitties, I would refer to this time as me spending a minute with them before they sleep; it has since been shortened and is now simply called, by all of us, “Our Minute.”

My ex-husband has his own traditions with the girls, but they have both told me how much they miss Our Minute together at the end of the day when they are at their dad’s.  I hate that I cannot be there with them every night.  I miss their soft little cheeks and bubbling stories of their days.  I miss holding their hands or softly stroking their hair while we recite our prayers together.  I hate that the decisions that I made 2 1/2 years ago keep me from sharing Our Minute with them every single night.

My phone pinged 4 times in rapid succession, and I picked it up to discover multiple texts from my older daughter, Sabrina…

The texts contained, without preamble or explanation, her two prayers that we typically say together.  Then a separate text that simply read, “Here are our prayers.  I miss you sitting with me.”

Then, finally, a moment later, “P.S. I’m thankful for being able to text you.”

I was overcome by those simple, sweet messages.

Leave it to a 10-year-old, and the technology of her generation, to close the distance and space between us in an instant.   She is so much smarter than me.

And I am grateful for that.

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yowza.

Every once in a while, I have a Single Parent Moment that leaves my married parent friends shaking their heads in amazement and quiet relief that they are not in my boat. Last week, I had such a moment.

James and I have been on-again, off-again for just over a year now.  My daughters, aged 10 and 8, have known him for many years, became reacquainted with him before we started dating last September, and have been mostly unaware of our relationship ups and downs.  To them, he has been a constant over the last year.  They know him, they like him, they have vacationed with him, and for the last few months, they have known that we sometimes spend the night together.  But he has never stayed over at my house when my girls are also there.

Until last week.

I decided it was time, so I told the girls that James would be coming over, was going to spend the night, and that he’d be there when they awoke in the morning.  My youngest, Bryn, teased me about it with a grin.  Sabrina, my 10-year-old, shrugged.

James arrived as I was putting Sabrina to bed.  He let himself in the open front door and shouted up his hellos to us all.  And then it began:

Sabrina:  So, is James coming over to have a drink with you?

Me:  Yes, and remember I told you that he’s going to spend the night tonight?

Sabrina:  Uh-huh.  So…. are you guys gonna have sex?

YOWZA.

I wish I could report that I responded maturely and gracefully, but I’d be lying.  What I did instead… was laugh.  Yes, that’s right.  I laughed.  I giggled until I had tears squeezing from the corners of my eyes and I was clutching my tummy.  At first, Sabrina looked at me, puzzled, but then she started laughing, too.  We ended up lying on her bed, clutching each other amidst fits of giggles.  It was ridiculous.

Eventually I recovered, and, wiping my tears of silliness away, replied thusly:

Me:  Baby, I’m a grown-up and you’re a child, and so who I do or don’t have sex with isn’t something we are going to discuss.  In fact, who I do or don’t have sex with isn’t really anyone else’s business except for the man I’m involved with.  That’s not even a question that other grown-ups typically ask each other.  And, when you’re a grown-up, whether and with whom you’re having sex won’t be any of my business either.   Do you understand?

Sabrina:  Hmmm…. Yes, I think so.  I guess I feel like it should be my business if I’m going to end up with a little baby brother or sister.

This dramatically illustrated the fact that, while I have instructed her quite a bit about the biology of sex, I haven’t quite gotten around to the idea that adults have sex for reasons other than procreation of the species…  So I punted and went with what I had:

Me:  I can absolutely, positively assure you that you will not be gaining a little brother or sister.

Sabrina:  Phew.  Okay.  That’s really good news.   Thanks, Mom.

Me:  Sure, baby.  Anytime.

There is so much about single parenting that is surreal.  So many conversations that I never imagined having, so many events that I never pictured, so many moments altered by the simple, pivotal fact that their father and I no longer live together.  Parenting is always something of an exercise in Extreme Winging It, but single parenting throws in the extra curve balls.  Just for fun.

I am sure that there will be many more moments such as that one, many more conversations that leave me speechless or giggling at the absurdity of the situation.  But I feel quite certain that, even if I should live another 42 years, I will never, ever, ever forget the night my 10-year-old asked me if I was going to have sex.

Yowza.

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breaking up with his kids

When I was first divorced, I knew that I would likely end up dating men who had children.  I thought that I was prepared for this eventuality, even though the first few men that I was involved with did not actually have children.  I thought that I knew what I was in for.

Statistics tell us that step-children are the primary stressor on second marriages and the biggest reported contributor to the deterioration of those marriages.  I am not here to dispute that.  Between my kids and James’ kids, we accumulated some pretty good examples of children acting out against the interloper in their family.  And some of my worst arguments with James — including the last one — stemmed from disagreements about the children.

But that didn’t stop me from falling in love with his kids.

Sure, his son Jay’s teasing of me ventured into the disrespectful realm sometimes, and yes his teenage daughter, Taylor, once spent an hour pretending like I wasn’t in the room.   His two youngest girls, devoid of guile, would sometimes ask me directly what I was doing there and how long I was staying, with the clear implication being that I was somehow interrupting.  But the moments that stuck in my heart were preciously sweet..  Like how, when we were all lying on the sofa watching a movie, Jay would allow me to put my arm around him, and he would ever so subtly snuggle against me.  Or the times when 9-year-old Chelsea would beg me to stay and hang out with them.  Or how little 5-year-old Chloe  insisted on carrying my purse to the car for me, just to be “helpful.”  So many tender, small moments that I cherish.

I last saw them 10 days ago, when I went to his house to say goodbye.  I couldn’t believe how sad it made me, how many tears fell on my solitary drive home over children that are not even my own.

I knew, from my own childhood experience, that when you date a single parent, you also date their children.  What I hadn’t fully appreciated is that when you break up with that single parent, you also break up with those children.  And it hurts.  A lot.

I have spent some time recently remembering my own experience on the other side.  I remember many of the men my mom dated, but none so clearly or so fondly as Van.  Van and my mom dated off and on from the time I was roughly two until I was 12.  They had a passionate, tempestuous relationship, and I learned early on that when they broke up, it was never forever.   Other men didn’t get a second chance, but Van kept coming back.

Van was as much of a father as I had in those early years.  On Sunday mornings, I’d curl up on his lap and he’d read me the comics, changing his voice for each of the Peanuts characters.  He took me hiking in the Shenandoahs, and built me snowmen in the yard, and taught me to ride a two-wheel bike.  He was the one who told me that my grandfather had died.  He was tall and handsome and funny and one of my best friends.

But one day he was gone.  The last time they broke up, I remember asking my mom what had happened.  She pursed her lips and said tersely, “We broke up.” I shrugged, certain that it didn’t mean anything and certain that he’d be back. But I never saw him again.  The weeks melted into months and the months turned into a year and my mom met and married the man who became my stepfather.  I loved my stepfather, but I never forgot about Van.

When I was 27, I finally tracked Van down and wrote him a long letter, telling him of my educational and professional achievements, my budding relationship with my now ex-husband, and updating him on all my friends and family he’d known.  I enclosed a photo of myself and my boyfriend.  I had no idea what to expect when I mailed the letter, but what I got back was no less than wonderful:  a lengthy missive telling me how often he’d thought of me over the years and how much he’d missed me.   He told me how he’d always regretted not having the opportunity to say good-bye to me, but my mother wouldn’t allow it.  He’d remarried and later retired, and he sent me a photo of him and his wife.

How I wish I could talk to Van now.  Not only must I get over James (damn hard on its own), but I must also let go of his children.  I can still see Chelsea’s smile and feel Chloe’s small hand in my own and laugh at Jay’s constant tickling or rib-poking.  I was not in their lives long enough to have made more than a passing impression on them; but I’ll remember them, and the weeks we spent together, always.  I protected my heart mightily with regard to James — walls and buttresses surrounding it lest I should fall completely in love with him and end up broken beyond repair.  But I had no such ramparts in place to protect my sorry heart from his kids.

There is so much about dating this time around that surprises me…. so much for which I am woefully unprepared.  Breaking up is brutal.  Around every corner is another reminder of James that cuts me quickly and cleanly and makes me wonder again how we ended up here.   Then, just when I catch my breath again, I round another corner and smack squarely into a reminder of his kids.  It’s bruising, I tell you.

I have found myself sinking into my own children for solace.  Their hugs and kisses ease my sense of loss.  Like the jilted lover who takes a new partner to bed to forget the smell and taste and touch of the one just lost, I am burying myself in my own children to block out memories of time spent in that other family.

I wonder what will happen the next time I date a man with children…. I suspect that I will not be so unguarded, so open to his children.  I suspect that I will begin — maybe already have begun? — to construct the walls that protect us from future grief.

And I wonder if I will ever see them again.  Possibly, but probably not.  Maybe for me they will remain frozen in time… captured in my photos from this hot summer that we spent together.   Locked in my heart forever.

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why every mom in america needs to quit

I rarely do this, but today’s post is a complete plagiarism of a column that a friend (a male friend, I might add!) sent me last week.  I love it and I hope you do, too.

Happy Mother’s Day!

______________________________________________________________________

WHY EVERY MOM IN AMERICA NEEDS TO QUIT
By Mel Robbins

Ladies, it’s quittin’ time.  Since when is a year’s worth of laundry worth a store-bought bouquet of flowers? And three hundred dinners prepared rates only a breakfast in bed?  Yes, your husband and kids are fantastic and you love them madly, but we deserve more – we deserve help!

This Mother’s Day, don’t stop at taking the day off. Just quit.  That’s what two women in my life did.

In 1978, Judie Robbins stood up at the dinner table in front of her husband and three sons and said, “Effective immediately, I am resigning as Chairman of the Household.” My husband is her youngest son — he was 8 years old at the time.

For years, she’d been asking for help from the family. She tried using an allowance as an incentive; she tested out becoming a tyrant.  Finally, she just settled into a long stint as a silent, resentful domestic servant. But Judie woke up one day and took a step that too few moms dare — she decided to assert her right to the pursuit of happiness.

No more laundry, no more dishes, no more making the beds – no more of any of that daily drudgery: packing the lunches, cleaning the house, taking care of the dog or organizing everyone’s social life. “I’ll buy groceries and make dinner on weekends,” she announced, “but that’s it.”

What followed was silence … and some nodding of heads. After a moment, everyone simply resumed eating, totally unfazed. They’d seen this kind of thing before – playing dumb was the best strategy. The boys cleared the table, sure that, once their mom calmed down, they wouldn’t have to repeat the chore.

But Monday morning, there was no breakfast ready, no lunches packed, and no clean uniforms ready for a week of football and soccer practices. Judie wasn’t even home to hear their complaints – she’d gone for a walk with a friend.  By day four, the Robbins household was gripped by absolute panic. You could see it in the boys’ eyes as they ate Cheerios again for dinner.

Judie volunteered instruction, teaching the boys how to run the laundry and the dishwasher, but she never took over. She stuck to her guns.

Every few mornings, the boys crept down three flights of stairs into a dark, damp basement to run another load of laundry. They packed their own lunches, made their own beds, and kept their rooms tolerably tidy. On weeknights they took turns cooking very mediocre meals for the family.

When I first heard the story, I thought my mother-in-law was a monster.  How could she have done that to her boys?  How selfish! I thought. A third grader doing his own laundry?  I’d never be a mother like that!  I’d take care of my kids!  I’d bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan!  I’d do it all.  How wrong I was.

Being a mom has always been tough. But when four out of five families have both parents in the workforce, motherhood is a thankless treadmill. There’s very little upside. Even as women improve their incomes, and outnumber men in the workforce and professional schools, we’re still stuck with the second shift at home. Only 20 percent of men share housework with their wives in dual-income families!

Why do we do it? Because for a while, our husbands and our kids truly need us. In the early days of starting a family, being a mother really does mean nourishing, cleaning, caring. It feels deeply satisfying, but we hang on far too long to what’s safe, familiar and common.  There’s also the fear if we’re not doing it all, we won’t be needed.  The fear is real, but the reality is that as moms we’re needed for much more than folding shirts.

Quitting isn’t about staying home versus working; it’s about living in a modern world and getting what you deserve.  Once our kids reach school age, we can afford to ditch the 1950s ideal of motherhood for something a little more 2011 – collaboration and empowerment.

Last year, I stopped saying I was fine and I quit. I’d just discovered a pile of clothes in the closet that my youngest said he’d put away. When I confronted him, he looked at me with the deadpan honesty that only a 6-year-old can pull off and said, “But mom, I like when you do all the work.”

The fact is, your kids (and husband) can help a lot more than they do. When I quit as Head of Household, I learned just how capable my kids really are. For my Lego-obsessed son, sorting and folding laundry is a game.  Turns out, my 10-year-old loves to cook dinner and my 12-year-old can create a family calendar while texting, doing homework and weaving a friendship bracelet. The hardest part is letting go of how you want everything done. The best part is once you do, you have a solid team in place and time to be with everyone, instead of slaving for them.

When I thought about it, I realized my mom, Marcia Schneeberger, quit too.  When I was in ninth grade, she announced that she was opening a business with her best friend and would need my younger brother and I to pick up the slack.  I put up a fight, layering on the guilt, but my mom stuck to her guns and we kids got it done.  When my mom’s kitchen store opened, I remember feeling so proud that Mom owned it and I forgot about the pile of laundry at home with my name on it.

Quitting made me a better daughter, a better wife and it has let me become the kind of mother who isn’t ticked off and cranky at the slightest problem. My kids are more responsible, and I’ve gained their respect, because they see me as someone who won’t let people run her over.

You need to be honest with yourself and your family.  You aren’t fine doing it all.  It’s driving you crazy, it’s turning you and your spouse into roommates, and it’s making your kids lazy. This Mother’s Day, why not get what you really want?

When your family wakes you up this Sunday with breakfast in bed and the promise of a “day off,” just take a moment to prop yourself up with some pillows, gather everyone around and make the following announcement: “Thank you very much for the gesture, but this Mother’s Day I don’t want a day off.  I want the year off.  I hereby quit as Head of the Household.  Thanks for making breakfast.  Now what’s for dinner?”

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my headlong tumble into “tween”-hood

Last week, I had one of those mothering moments that I know with certainty I will remember when I’m 90.  It had the kind of clarity that makes you feel like you’re watching your life from the outside, like it’s a movie.  And it represented a turning point in my life, my daughter’s life, and our relationship.

My eldest daughter, who is 10, has been being a real brat for the last couple of months.  I’m sorry, I know name-calling isn’t nice, but there’s simply no other word for her attitude and behavior.  I knew that part of this brattiness was due to the inevitable tricks nature is playing on her body and hormones right now, but I could also feel, deep in my gut, that it was more than that.  For weeks I struggled with what could be going on with her, trying to figure out what had happened to my sweet little girl.  Friends told me not to worry; that her behavior was normal and to be expected.  But I just plain knew better.

So one night last week, as we were sharing the final minute of our day together as we do every night before I kiss her and turn out her light, she unburdened herself.  Her little face scrunched up, and big fat tears began to fall before she even spoke.  And when she did speak, the words tumbled forth with barely a breath in between, as if seeking the freedom of the air and the solace of forgiveness.

She had been keeping a secret from me.  Lying to me.  For six long weeks.  It was the first time she has ever done this.  And it was killing her.

When her face began to crumple, before the first tear spilled, my heart froze and the breath caught in my throat.  I knew something bad was coming, but on what magnitude?  How awful and life-changing were the words that were about to be uttered?

As secrets and deceptions go, it wasn’t a horrible one.  Her father and I had forbidden her from getting her own email account, and on her 10th birthday, one of her friends, knowing of our prohibition, had helped her create an account anyway.  Since then she had been emailing with various friends, including one little boy who, apparently intent on proving that he’s not a nerd (because he is a nerd), had been using some pretty vulgar and sexual language, which made her uncomfortable and a little frightened.

My first thought was how relieved and blessed I am that she felt that she could tell me.  That I didn’t have to discover this some other way.  That this little transgression hadn’t resulted in harm to her or anyone else.

My second thought was:  But she’s only ten.  Are we really here already?

I hugged her and thanked her for telling me.  I reassured her that she would not be in grave trouble because she had been forthcoming instead of allowing us to find out in some other way.  I told her she would receive some kind of consequence for disobedience and lying, but that I would have to consider what that would be.  I outlined for her the much harsher punishment she would have received if her dad or I had discovered the truth on our own.  Lastly, I explained, in graphic and scary and clear terms, why young girls are vulnerable online and why we hadn’t allowed her to have a private account.  Finally, I kissed her and held her and let her cry it out.

Then I went downstairs, poured myself a drink and called my ex-husband to tell him the news.  He was as stunned as I.  This daughter of ours is so naive, so innocent and trusting and guileless, that her 7-year-old sister is cooler and savvier than she is.  We were in uncharted waters with an ill-prepared sailor, and we were both scared.

I went to sleep that night feeling the full force, once again, of the weight of being a parent.  There are these moments in parenting — these milestones or benchmarks — that signal loud and clear that the game has once again changed.  All the rules that applied yesterday no longer apply, and all the certainty you had about the future is gone.  Instead, you stand in the middle of the vast uncertainty, peering desperately into the haze, and clinging to the hope that you are capable enough and strong enough and good enough to sail your child through this challenge and pass them safely to the other side.

Hopefully, I have a few more years before drugs and alcohol and pregnancy become realistic fears.  Or maybe not.  On my daughter’s tenth birthday, we crossed a line, into that gray and murky area where children begin to do things that we don’t want them to, and lie to us about those deeds.  Natural behaviors, to be sure.  But that is small consolation to a mother lying awake in bed at night, praying that her little girl stays little just a bit longer.

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