Margot Merrill on modern parenthood and the writing life


Four and One

I crawl  into the last month of 2011. My back's out. I'm all tweaked. Many things are going beautifully and just as they should. But I'm uneasy. Perhaps it's the month that's dragging me down. F'ing December. Always a time for introspection. And holiday madness. But it's not just that.  It's trying to understand and support the small people living in our house. And I try too hard.


Alejandro Marcellus is four going on fourteen. He's kind. Articulate. Extremely logical. Persuasive. His interests include: Fighting. Star Wars. Things that get blown up. "Walking skeletons." Lego video games on the Playstation. His scooter and new bike. Playing with action figures, particularly those with guns, light sabers, knives, swords, scythes, axes, cannons, or other weapons. (You know. Right? Ahem.) He gets shy when he walks into a room full of people. Alejandro's also very into us, his family. He gives great hugs and kisses to mommy and daddy. He high-fives most everyone else.

But I worry that I don't understand him enough. Because, seriously, I've never been into pretending to shoot people. I remember a lot of talking stuffed animals in my childhood games.

And our wills can collide. Alejandro doesn't give up. He will ask and ask and ask and reposition his request and ask again. It drives me crazy. I don't know where he gets it.

All of this adds up to the fact that I'm in awe of the boy. I try to keep calm, and yes I'm in therapy, but he just seems so shockingly bright I'm confounded. I just love him so much, I hope I can give him what he needs.


Story Jane Fernandez. A girl named Story. Oh yes we did. She's now a year old. A beautiful girl–the name fits her perfectly. She's rather magical. Good natured and outgoing. Her first "sign" was dog (panting) and her first word was "hi." "Hi" is a constant. She says it waving to strangers: "Hiiiii!" It's delightful.

She started walking at 11 months, and since then she is EVERYWHERE. Holy heck! She's bashing into everything. Falling down. Into everything.  It's like scattergories in our house and in my brain. Hard to keep up. And of course she doesn't sleep through the night that often. She has the same dumb parents as Alejandro. While we've done much better on the sleep training front, it's still so hard to let her cry. Why does listening to a baby cry for twenty minutes seem much harder than "just" getting out of bed to return a pacifier? I don't know. Sleep-addled habits don't die.

So that, my friends, is why I'm crawling into December. I'm trying to keep up with a two-foot tall wobbler and a three-foot tall teenager.

And it's winter. Shouldn't we all be hibernating?



Returning to work

The return to work was rough, mostly because it coincided with my husband being out of town for like, two months. Sure, he was back for a week here and a few days there, but it was intense. With a five-month old and a three-year old, plus a half-assed plan for childcare, it really sucked. There. I said it. No, wait, I'm not done! It REALLY REALLY SUCKED. But since we're not planning on having more kids, at least I can say: Well then. I won't have to do THAT again.

I have the option to bring Story Jane with me to work since Hot Studio has a formal, and awesome, babies-at-work policy for returning parents. It's a great benefit, and it helped the first few weeks, but I couldn't swing it any longer. I was a single parent returning to the workforce in a new role. After being off for almost seven (!!) months, I was ready to just get back to work. And frankly, I'm not the most chill mom in the world. More specifically, I freak out when my kids aren't sleeping. So trying to get Story to take a nap–while meeting new people and setting up new processes at work– was a recipe for a mommy meltdown.

The ongoing identity crisis: I didn't say "I'm a mother," but "a mommy." I also have a full time job and a fancy new title. Transitioning between these two roles is what's most awkward. I can get so into work, and so fulfilled by it, to be honest, I don't leave at 5:30 as planned. I probably haven't pumped at the designated time. My commute home is super stressful, 'cause I know I'll miss my daughter being awake. My husband, if he's home, has to cover for me. We haven't made dinner plans. Even leaving at 6:00, I'm too late. I've f'ed it up, and I'm not even home yet.

When I walk in, I've got to be on. I want nothing more than to squeeze my boy. Usually Alejandro doesn't have pants on and he's doing ninja moves. He desperately wants someone to decapitate action figures with him.

I give him a big hug and many kisses. That's the best, for both of us. Then I deny his requests to play. I may make dinner, or feed Story, and put her to bed if I'm not too late. That means patting her back and singing and letting her cry. I walk out of the room for five minutes at a time as she screams. I give Ali a Popsicle, then return to pat her back some more. I hear Ali stomping towards their bedroom. "Mommy!?" His Popsicle has dripped all over his privates and the hallway, and as soon as Story hears him, she wakes up and cries louder. She's frustrated she isn't part of the violence in the living room.

It's really fun. No really, it's not.

I don't know why I expected it to be "fun." What Kool-Aid did I drink, way back when I was envisioning myself as a super chill, relaxed, loving and art-inspiring parent? And can I please have some more?

I wouldn't change anything about my life, of course. It's my design, rough edges and fuckups included. I wouldn't trade our two gorgeous babies or their amazing dad who has a creative job at which he excels (but requires him to travel)–not for anything. Or give up my job, for that matter. I love it. I love going to it, and I can't deny that.

So here I am, a modern parent.

My friend Katrina, who writes the profound workingmom'sbreak blog, told me long ago that she and her husband sometimes said to one another: "There's just not enough to go around." It's a sad state, but a good reminder to avoid the blame game between partners. It doesn't seem like enough, but it has to be.

Experienced moms tell me that it'll get much easier when the kids are in elementary school. "It's just five years away," my boss and friend Maria told me tonight. Just five years. Only a parent would be crazy enough to say that.

Only a mommy like myself would accept that decree with a bowed head. And then mourn those years' passing.


Mommy, Get Your Gun

It was bound to be bad. The gun in the trunk. The toy gun I mean. That Star Wars-branded, two-foot-long bastard of a "blaster." Unopened, it remained in its disintegrating Target bag since Christmas. It was a moral issue, a parenting issue, a marital issue...and just a hunk of molded plastic. But by leaving it there, I was not just tempting fate. I was baiting it.

I'd posted the question on Facebook: "Should Santa bring weapons? Specifically toy guns."  The conversation with friends and family was great. It ranged from "Boys will be boys, no big deal as long as you're teaching him to be nice" to "No way, you're teaching him the most violent weapon is okay" to my second cousin's comment that her boys hunted, and had been taught from an early age about respect for the gun and for the animals. Of course here in Oakland, the closest we come to hunting is going to the Farmer's Market and handing over a debit card in exchange for a humanely raised hunk of cow. I don't have the option of teaching Ali to hunt. So what, then, with the toy gun?

Rafael-as-Santa bought it, he said, "so we could talk about it." We did, and decided not to give it to Ali. I definitely had a moral objection to it, namely WHY? He's not lacking for means of entertainment. Or toy weapons, for that matter. He could, and did, make guns out of blocks whenever he wanted. My objection was also selfish. "I don't want the thing pointed at ME," I said."Not to mention the annoying noise. And why is there only one? I can't even fight back!" Therein lay the second moral dilemma: if you have one toy gun, shouldn't you really have two?

Lastly, the third morale issue: what to do with the damn thing? We lost the receipt. I thought of donating it to charity. And then I was thinking, in the worst example of class-ism yet: "So I'm going to arm the less fortunate?" Not only did I not feel good about any kid having it, maybe I fear an apocalypse, just a little bit. In which case I want MY kid to be comfortable with firearms. So f'ed up.

Of course, Ali found it. I was packing up both kids to take them, and myself, for a sleepover at Raf's parents'. Rafael had been out of town for more than a week. Maybe it was my first foray into solo parenting for two? Anyway, I was exhausted. I'd been up all night and since 6:00am, juggling. Ali deconstructed my kinda-organized piles of crap as quickly as I was losing my mind. I was almost done packing the car when I heard a squeal. I saw Alejandro's feet sticking out of the open trunk. My heart sank. Acute anger at my loving, gift-giving and absent husband spiked with a rush of adrenaline. Ali's head emerged with a face-splitting grin.

"IS THIS FOR ME???" he shouted, brandishing the box.

"Yes." I said with all of the enthusiasm of a cyborg. "It is."

"WHO is it from?"

"Your daddy. It's  a surprise. Let's go."

"I can keep it???????" He is high with delight now. He's pressing buttons. Pew! Pew! Pew! Tattatattatattattata. "Can you open it??"

"I'll open it when we get to Gigi's." His cousin Jack will be there, and I am now anticipating listening to them fight over it for the next 20 hours. I send a bitchy text message to Raf, load the kids, and start driving.

I look up the address of a Target on the way. I think I have to stop to buy Jack a Star Wars blaster of his own. I am seething with the idea of walking into a Target with the two kids. I can almost smell it, and I hate it. And how, I angrily think, do I find myself buying a toy gun? Because there is only one? I'm so occupied with the internal debate that I miss the exit. I turn the car around to go back. Pew! Pew! Pew! I hear from the backseat.

"You can press that ONE more time, Ali."


"Because Mommy's going crazy."

"Okay." He's not sleeping, of course, and I'd been counting on the drive to make him nap. I'm crying behind my sunglasses, and I realize I'm quite unstable. To my credit, I pull over. I get my shit together. I fake a call:

"Oh, so you don't have a Star Wars blaster? Are you sure? Okay, well thank you!" I explain to Ali that he will have to share his gun with Jack. They will have to trade off shooting one another. And if I hear them arguing about it, I'm going to take it away.

Pew pew pew! "Okay, Mommy." he sweetly replies. "I will share."

I drive to Grandma's. The boys share pretty well. Grandpa runs to Target and returns with new guns for both of them. They are happy. I go upstairs and lie down with Story while they run around like violent beasts in the backyard. I've given up. I must do that earlier, next time.

The blaster now sits in a broken laundry basket in our bedroom. Ali couldn't care less about it.


Going Back

My sister and I spent at least a couple of weeks every summer at Grindstone Lake in Minnesota. We gorged ourselves on sugared cereals, cherries and grapes, Saltine crackers and shiny American cheese. We fished from the dock, catching the little “sunnies” and walleye. Hooking them and letting them go. We took the canoe out, usually sticking close to “our” side of the lake. We argued less than we usually did. Sometimes we paddled across the lake to catalog the other cabins, or to crash someone else’s float: a wooden deck atop four creaking and rusting oil barrels. We’d tie the canoe up to it and jump in, then sun ourselves on the rough wooden planks, wary “they” might come home and look out to see someone’s kids–not their own–playing on their family’s float.

We’d return to the cabin with wet bathing suit butts. (“Close the screen door! No sitting on the couch in a wet suit!” Our grandpa Al, who moved from his chair in the living room only for fishing or golf, frequently had to re-remind us of The Rules.) We'd go out in the mosquito- and taxidermy-infested garage to the big white freezer. Dig out another big Ziplock bag of ginger cookies our grandma Ruth had made, and bring them into the small kitchen with its avocado-green appliances and the wooden table around which we’d drink milk, eat more and more cookies, and play cards. Maybe later we’d watch the Price is Right, guessing how much a can of tomato soup or a washer-dryer set cost, and willing the poor fools to pick the door with the car or RV behind it.

The lake: in the early morning, a quiet and gray light upon it, the water was glassy and cool, waiting for the heat. By late morning the sun would be shining brightly, the orange day lilies by its side were moist and open, and the water sparkling and inviting us to wade. We’d find clams the size of our hands, and organize them into families, only occasionally killing them by leaving them on the dock too long. We’d swim out past the drop-off, where the sandy ground under our feet suddenly leapt into darkness, and the water turned ice cold and black. Turn around quick! Get back to the warmer water! We didn’t want the big fish our grandpa and uncles caught in the middle of the lake to catch one of us.

Twilight: the pink and purple hues of sunset, the cooling-back-down again, the buzz of insects coming out to get us. The spraying and re-spraying of Outdoor-scented, DEET-laden Off over our already bitten arms, legs, and feet. The rinsing-out of bathing suits. Perhaps a little walk to check for newly ripened raspberries by the mailbox? An early dinner inside prepared by our grandmom and aunts. White rolls with butter, some frozen corn or mashed potatoes, also with plenty of butter. (Though more likely it was margarine.) Ham or freshly-caught fish dipped in egg, flour, salt and pepper, then fried. More cookies for dessert.

It was crazy to arrive back at the lake now, at age 37, with my own two-and-a-half year old son, and a baby in my belly. Though my grandparents have passed away, the cabin is still well-used on weekends and maintained by my aunt Sue and uncle Freddie. It's frequently visited by my cousins Abbey, Kyle, Matt, and Tia. It was as open to me as it’s always been. And while there was a new TV and couch in the living room, the swirly green-and-blue wall-to-wall carpet, which has hid decades of cookie crumbs and lake drips, remained intact. Alejandro and I slept in my grandparents' room, which I’d never done before, since one or both of them was always there. But everything else looked, felt, and smelled the same as it had when I was little. There were even ginger cookies in the freezer, thanks to Sue.

I felt loved.

I’d forgotten what family feels like, my family, my mom’s family. Ali and I were accepted, whoever we were. I didn’t have to try to be anyone. In my modern life, in my pursuit of independence and identity, I’d forgotten what that was like! My uncle Loren and my aunts–Sinde, Sue, and Sondra–all engaged Ali, drew him out, laughed with me at his funny little phrases. My cousin Abran took him fishing, gave him his very own bucket of night crawlers. (Which as we all know in Minnesota, is truly a sign of love.)

And all I had to do for a week was to care for Alejandro–which wasn’t half as hard as it is here, when I’m working and constantly running around–and to show him the small things I remembered: the dock, the clams, the constant need for life jackets and bug spray.

He was completely happy, himself, and like me, surrounded by love and the gorgeous quiet green beauty of the lake. At night the baby moved in my belly as I lay in my grandparents’ bed next to my sleeping boy, and I knew I was blessed.

I saw my cousin Abbey get married on Saturday. She looked radiant and gorgeous. I watched her new husband put his arms around her as they danced. Everyone said they are right for one another. Having held Abbey as a baby, I felt even more blessed to have witnessed one more circle completed, as it should be, in Minnesota. Our grandparents would have been so proud.

Going back was exactly what I needed. I’ll never forget this week, this suspended moment in time.


the Technology Kid

Alejandro’s heard us tapping away at our computers since before he was born. As a baby, he was propped in my or Rafael’s laps as we worked on creative or work-related docs; answered emails; or surfed the internet. He’s seen the interfaces of YouTube, iTunes, FaceBook, and email since he could focus his eyes. Raf and I are both immersed in technology–it’s the age we live in, and the professions we’ve chosen. And Ali’s our son.

When he was about ten months old, he located the “play” triangle on the remote control to the TV. I was sitting on the floor with him (he couldn’t even walk yet) when I realized that in a few short years, I’d be a babbling idiot when it came to operating our household appliances. I’ll turn to him. “Duhhhhhhh.” I’ll say, slack-jawed and drooling as I hand him the remote, desperation in my eyes. “Me want play. Muuuuu-sic. You can, Ali? Peeeeese?”

By age one, he could operate an iPhone. I’m not kidding. He’d slide his finger across the screen to unlock it. Locate the orange iPod icon. And select the video he wanted. Yo Gabba Gabba, it was most frequently. A show created by parents perhaps somewhat like ourselves–West Coast-based lovers of music and storytelling. To all of our devices, the creators of Yo Gabba Gabba deliver the tall, thin host “DJ Lance Rock;” guest stars like Jack Black and Elijah Woods; musical acts by the Roots and the Shins; and a tribe of trippy characters who encourage dancing and recycling. On my iPhone Ali, aged one, could find, and play, the episode he wanted.

Yesterday he was on my laptop (you can tell me I’m a negligent asshole a bit later, after I’ve explained myself), and I saw he’d learned how to use a mouse. Moving it around, finding the spot he wanted. Clicking only that side of it, as I’d showed him. He was playing little games on yes, you guessed it, (So I’m a brand whore as welll as a technology whore. If only we’d envisioned that goddamned franchise ourselves.) That said: in less than two weeks of playing around with those little Flash-based games, he had control of his mouse. And hence his technological destiny, muah ha ha! He's two and a half now.

How could I be okay with all of this? First of all, it’s not like we’ve got him locked in a basement surrounded by buzzing devices all day long while the sun shines or rain falls outside in beautiful Oakland. Every day he’s at home is an insane mix of thousands – okay, maybe twenty – activities. Art projects. Puzzles. Books. Chasing. Playing with cars. Constructing and destroying train tracks. Imagining we’re dinosaurs. Imagining we’re firefighters. Digging in the garden. Playing ball. Play fighting.

And then, yes, because we’re goddamned exhausted, and have emails to answer, or want five f’ing minutes to talk between ourselves, there’s the computer. iPhones. TV. Cable, DVDs, you name it. And the PlayStation–don’t get me started on that.

I’m not proud of it. It’s not what I’d envisioned, having grown up with a stay-at-home, earthy mom who didn’t let us eat sugar. It just IS what it is. It’s our lives. He’s growing up in the 2000’s. I can’t change when he was born. And I can’t change who we are.

I can only–sometimes, when I remember–turn my iPhone to “airplane” mode before handing it to him, so his little brain is a wee bit less fried by the wireless signals that are giving all of us cancer as I type and post these thoughts.

You are likely receiving this data wirelessly, in your home or business, perhaps even via a smart phone yourself. You live in this era too, and these are our children. They’re standing on our computer-crunched shoulders.

Let’s pray that their little bodies can adapt fairly painlessly to all of the technology that surrounds them. Let’s pray they don’t treat us too poorly for being unable to comprehend and operate the things they will create in our lifetimes.

May they still dig in the dirt, and feel the joy of almost-bursting lungs as they chase balls gone out of bounds.

May they still spend time under trees, looking up at the branches and leaves and fruit unfolding.

May they take what we’ve given them, and create more wondrous and beautiful things than we can imagine.



Wouldn't you rather be sleeping right now? C'mon, if you could. Would you curl up on your couch, hug a pillow, close your eyes? Or go straight to bed, draw the blinds, and absorb the hum of your heater? Yes, my darling, yes. Sleep.

In the last two years I've been broken, humbled, and hobbled by lack of sleep. While generally a decent person, I've found myself at times a raging maniac. My bursts of uncharacteristic assholishness typically occur after 3:00am and are directed at objects on the floor, the cat, my husband, or my son, in that order. When the sleep deprivation's been extreme, despite (or perhaps because of?) the gallons of coffee I drink, it comes out at work. My best friend's mad at me. Grargh! Rarh. Ruff.

Sorry. I didn't know it would be like this.

Some folks get sleepers, we got Alejandro. We wouldn't trade him for the world of course, not for some lazybags dope of a kid who couldn't do half the things our little brainiac can do. He's two and he has a larger vocabulary than my husband. (Just kidding Raf.) He can throw rocks into puddles! Catch a ball! And you should see him play games on the iPhone. Dude, the dexterity of his thumbs and index fingers! He's gonna be SO prepared to survive in the wild. He's happy and bright as the sun. He occasionally gives unsolicited kisses. But he (until recently) just could not sleep through the night.

He woke us up between 1-7 times. A night. For two years. I know you think we're idiots. "Have you tried the ole "cry it out" method?" Yes, you jerk, we have. But you haven't met Alejandro after midnight. We're talking hours and hours of crying, folks. For days. The expensive sleep consultant told us to give up for a bit. Her plan B was completely unworkable, involving my husband sleeping on the floor of his room for eight weeks. We gave up. We prayed to the temple of our own bed, but left it to comfort him. 1-7 times a night. Oh yes. I said that already.

Not surprisingly, a two-year-old has the fortitude to force two sleep-deprived zombies to obey his mad demands. Because we were always hoping it was a "just once" kinda night, we'd slip into a pattern of crazy disbelief, one of us slipping out of bed at a time, doing a tuck, giving a pat, saying good night...Rinse and repeat. And again. Please let this be the last time.

I can't explain how this type of interrupted sleep affects one's mental state. After a 3+nighter I always felt slightly deranged. It was a subtle shift, a shadow on my character. It wasn't even working for him–he still couldn't go back to sleep on his own. We couldn't help him, and we were losing our minds.

Until 2010! This year has been awesome because thanks to an amazing woman on the Internet who gave us a plan for $45, he's sleeping through. It's all about the door: he gets to keep his door is open if he's quiet. It was hard for about two weeks as we introduced it but then, holy moly, he's sleeping though! And even if he wakes up, he's quiet. It's crazy. He's like in there doing macrame or something. We're getting consistent sleep and I'm a happier person.

Now that I'm getting rested, I just have to resist my urges to burn the candle at all ends. I have to resist my own night owl tendencies, and go to bed. If I can't sleep, I'm the only one to blame. But I feel lucky for that. It's a beautiful thing.

Now drift off...
Love love,


Let’s Fight!

“Let’s fight!” he’ll say, growling as he advances. He’s two. I’ve just walked in the door from a long day at work. He holds a plastic golf club like a rifle, which is pointing at me.

I say, “Mommy doesn’t like to fight. Give me a kiss, honey, hello!”

“It’s just pretennnnnd,” he says, wheedling so softly, sweetly, as if he can convince me of anything. “It’s not real, mommy.” Up goes the golf club again, poking dangerously close.

I put my stuff down and offer to play chase instead. We can both growl and roar and run around the house. Once I start chasing, he runs and laughs his head off. It’s awesome. I can awkwardly tackle-hug him, and actually make contact with my dear little boy. He never does give me that kiss I asked for. After a couple-ten minutes of the chase, he runs off in search of daddy, who might actually (play) fight with him. I sit down, dejected by his quest for a true fighting partner.

I grew up with a sister. I grew up with the idea that fighting meant repeatedly pressing the triggers of your opponent’s most deep-rooted insecurities. Verbal and psychological warfare. We were both great at it, and boy did it hurt!  I’m sure fighting is healthier when you just get it out. And I know Alejandro's not really thinking about fighting the way I know it. There’s no ill will on his part – he just wants to play, like a puppy or lion cub or something. (Oh right: like a small human.)

I boil water for pasta, pick up the remnants of our living room. I try to forget the psychotic face he was making as he brandished the golf club, and remember his arms around my neck in a hug. His hair smells sweet when he simply says "Mommy."