One summer day, Mother and Daughter went for an impromptu swimming lesson at a family member’s pool. Afterward, flushed from the exercise and some yelling (AURA, YOU NEED TO LET GO OF ME! THE SWIM BUBBLE WILL HELP YOU FLOAT! IF YOU GRASP THE FRONT OF MY BATHING SUIT AND EXPOSE MY BREASTS ONE MORE TIME I AM SO ABANDONING YOU HERE IN THE DEEP END SO HELP ME GOD) and some screaming (MOMMY HOLD ME HOLD ME MOMMY I AM GOING TO GO UNDER DON’T LET ME GOOOOOOOOOOOO), Mother and Daughter decided to stroll next door to the neighborhood mall. It was a quiet stroll, given how neither was speaking to the other, but a stroll it remained.

Lunch at the food court was had, conversation was resumed, and many a ride in the mall’s glass elevator was taken. All in all, life was good. Which is why Mother and Daughter should never, ever have stopped into the mall toy store. For that is where Mother was exposed to the stuff that will haunt her nightmare for decades to come. (For the record, Daughter seemed wildly unaffected. Mother questions this. Mother feels that maybe less sheltering needs to take place.)

Without further ado, The Stuff That Will Haunt My Nightmares For Decades to Come, also known as…

BABY DOLLS.

Horrible Horror #1: The Man Baby

You can dress up that sucker in all the pink in the world, but that won’t change the fact that she looks like George Burns. Or possibly Nick Nolte on a really youthful day.

Horrible Horror #2: The Assassin Baby

The manufacturer can swear up and down that this is the “Sleepy Time Dreams” baby, but I for one know the eyes of a killer when I see them. It’s a free country, so, of course, buy this for your kid if you want. But I’d frisk that moon for the world’s tiniest sniper rifle first. Maybe the little yellow cap, too.

Horrible Horror #3: The Opera Baby

Now here’s a doll I can almost get behind. Does he let mere cardboard packaging and the possibility of living for all eternity in the World’s Worst Toy Store get him down? No, indeedy! He flings his chubby plastic arm out with the kind of flourish normally reserved for opera singers. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear him: “Figaro! Figaro! Fiiiiigaro!

Horrible Horror #4: The Sumo-Politician Baby

Leave it to the close-minded world of toy sales to make the one non-white baby in the store a cross between a sumo wrestler and an infant with a penchant for Hitler’s gestures. Plus the indecency of the high-waisted, polka dot diaper! I almost bought the little bugger just to put him out of his misery in the trash can outside the store.

Horrible Horror #5: The I’ve-Given-Up Baby

Poor little gal. Not even that plastic cable-tie-type thing they tried to lasso her neck with can contain her—or her despair. I thought you only saw such hopeless eyes in those photos of refugees that Time always publishes, but obviously I was mistaken.

Horrible Horror #6: The Morning-After Baby

Now, the box tells us that this is “Baby Sleeping Beauty.” Yet I beg to differ. Last time I saw Aurora, she was shying away from spinning wheels but otherwise hale and hearty. This Sleeping Beauty? Well, let’s just say that she doesn’t look like the type of girl who shies away from anything. It’s spooky, actually. It’s as if she’s taking fashion pointers from Lindsay Lohan but learning how to sit in public from Britney Spears.

Needless to say, Mother will never be the same.

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Apparently, the planets have aligned, the stars have crossed, and a ritual sacrifice of a Polly Pocket or two (RELAX, one of them was already missing her left arm and the other one bore an off-putting resemblance to Mickey Rourke) has been made, for we have a babysitter. This is a rare occurrence, so rare that Adam and I are downright stymied by how to fill a full six hours of evening. All day, as we’ve been in the car or at the grocery store or eating lunch at the kitchen counter, we’ve been trying to make a plan, yet it’s as if the sheer abundance of options has somehow stifled our decision-making ability.

I think we’ve settled on where to eat, since we finally identified a place that meets both our Date Restaurant Requirements. For Adam, this means the establishment employs a bartender whom he can merrily pester and badger and try to stump with his requests for arcane gins and boutique bitters. For me, this means there is not a child in sight. I am nothing but easy to please. Maternal, too.

It’s been so long since we’ve been out alone that I had forgotten that there is more to Date Night than the Date. Wearing something besides jeans, for instance. I wandered upstairs a while ago and started pushing hangers around and pulling open drawers, ever hopeful of finding a fantastic outfit that I already owned but had totally forgotten about, kind of like happens on the makeover shows except that those people are models anyway and reality television continues to screw with me.

I was rifling through one of the drawers when my fingers suddenly tangled in the straps of something. It was only after cocking my head to the side and squinting really hard that I recognized it for what it was: a push-up bra. After gently removing the layers of dust, I tried it on and found it does indeed improve the shirt I was hoping to wear. There is also a slight chance that it makes me look like an overage teenage hooker, but I choose to ignore that part. If anyone at the restaurant says anything, I plan on knocking them flat on their back with my cleavage. Especially if it’s a kid.

As summer sets in, Aura and I are enjoying a rather fancy-free season. Freed from the September–June preschool, etc. schedule, we’ve been sort of meandering, hitting a beach here, an amusement park there, an ice-cream shop or twenty over there. Since it is widely known that I’m allergic to overscheduling (seriously, there are hives involved; BIG ones), this suits me just fine.

What doesn’t sit so well is something I’ve encountered during our recent expeditions, and it is called The Mean World of Playground Graffiti. I never thought I was an out-and-out prude, but I may have to reevaluate. Either that or call the city’s Department of Public Works to request a little scrub-down. Here, let me show you.

It all starts semi-innocently enough. I mean, generations of teenagers have challenged authority. That being said, I myself may have issued such a challenge a little more eloquently. For instance, I would have scrawled “the police” instead of “The Police,” since otherwise it kind of looks like someone is screwing with Sting. But whatever.

Then the first mention of reproductive organs is made and both grammar and decency go all to hell.

Once you get past the fact that we’re talking about a lobster penis, not a “horse penis,” or a  “bear penis,” or peni of any other animals larger than a lobster, another thought jumps out at you. Our friend Spencer does not just have a lobster penis—he IS a lobster penis. Which seems like a pretty bad insult, especially when it’s all underlined like that in Sharpie marker. It’s one thing to have genitalia like a crustacean; it’s another thing indeed to BE the genitalia. I know not who Spencer is, yet I pity him.

However, Spencer is not the graffiti artistes’ primary target. Nope. That would be the much maligned Kristen:

I feel for Kristen. Not only is her alleged sexuality pronounced for all the world to see (the arrow helpfully explaining her sapphic tendencies), the one compliment offered is scratched out and refuted. Suddenly, one senses disagreement among the ranks of this particularly nasty little group of homophobic middle-schoolers.

Yet their differences do not get in the way of their constant need to elaborate. In case we still do not understand what Kristen supposedly enjoys in relationships, there is this charming clarification:

By the time I saw this gem, I didn’t know what I would do first if I got my hands on the graffiti culprits. Would I lock them in a room for a day-long seminar on verb-object agreement and words that sound the same but are spelled differently (words that are called GOD HELP ME homophones)? Or would I simply beat their insensitivities out of them with an especially spiny lobster penis, such as Spencer? I still haven’t decided.

One thing I have decided: This has got to stop. I can be fancy-free and laid-back and all that good stuff with the best of ’em. But then a few days ago Aura pointed to the following and asked, “Why did someone draw an alien on the playground tunnel?”

She’s three. I’m 32. Neither of us needs that drawing to be anything other than an alien. But to be on the safe side I’m so calling the city tomorrow.

Guess what? A month and a half ahead of time, I have already researched, chosen, and purchased my own birthday present. On August 3, I will turn 33, an age I have decided to be excited about because it involves a double digit and therefore bodes of Good Things, much like a four-leaf clover or photos of Kellan Lutz with his shirt off. Then, on August 6, I will roll merrily into New York City, where I will attend BlogHer ’10 with approximately one zillion other women.

I have big hopes for this BlogHer-for-birthday plan, though many of these hopes are thrashing and drowning in my pre-conference anxiety. Do they have a special seating section for people who own Eensy Weensy Blogs? Are women who write content that awkwardly straddles the mommyblog/humor blog/whoknowswhat blog shunned, or encouraged to skip the nightly cocktail parties? When I close my eyes and try to visualize the conference, all I can imagine is a throbbing mass of women, 30% of whom are skinnier than I am, 70% of whom have better shoes, and 99% of whom have better known blogs.

See? THEY'LL ALL BE WEARING THESE. EVERYONE.

Thankfully, wonderful, splendid Taryn is also going and has sworn to shield me from the waves of success emanating from Christian Louboutin-shod Amalahs and Finslippys and Chookooloonks. I’m hoping she’ll also warn me of any impending fashion mistakes. At the last conference I attended, a huge writers’ affair where I knew no one and was totally outranked, I chose to wear a bright-blue patterned shirt, which I thought perked up my black pants nicely. I was feeling fairly self-assured when a woman standing near me said, “Wow! Nice shirt!

“Thanks!” I said, thrilled to be speaking to someone finally.

“That color blue is so…brave,” she replied. Then I think she may have snickered.

Suffice it to say, I will wearing all black at BlogHer. THE ENTIRE TIME.

(Anyone else going?)

So! I came down with a slight cold this week! And guess what I suddenly remembered!

!!!

SUDAFED IS THE GREATEST CREATION EVER!

Seriously, you guys. Have you had a Sudafed lately? The real stuff, with the actual pseudoephedrine? The thing is like a miracle drug. My appetite, normally a raging monster that can sense refined sugar within two miles, has virtually disappeared. And while I still may be unable to smell anything, or even, you know, breathe that well, MAN DO I HAVE ENERGY.

I was down to only one dose when the cold set in, so a trip to the drugstore was in order. As I was showing my driver’s license to the pharmacist (you know, so they could record my name and track my Sudafed purchases and OH GEORGE ORWELL WERE YOU ON THE MONEY), I leaned toward her conspiratorially. “I don’t blame you for being careful,” I murmured, drumming my fingers on the counter while bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet. “This stuff is SO GOOD  it’s no wonder people buy it to make crystal meth.”

Luckily, she had just handed me the box when I delivered that last line, so I didn’t get to see the worried look on her face, or witness how she ran out to the parking lot to copy down my license plate number. I just drove on home, one hand on the wheel while the other popped those beautiful scarlet tablets from their cozy foil-wrap enclosure. “NO MORE FOIL FOR YOU, SUDAFED!” I howled at top volume. “IT’S ALL ME NOW!”

Sadly, the cold appears to be on its way out, so I’ve only had a couple of doses today. But I knew there was still a little bit of the magic coursing through my veins this afternoon, while attending Aura’s class pool party. Another mother casually asked if Adam and I were planning to have any more kids, a query that usually produces a frenzied mishmashed reply of GOD NO NEVER AGAIN WHY WOULD YOU EVEN ASK. But today, hyped on the good stuff and harboring enough energy to power a reactor and potentially take care of two children, I answered, “Maybe. It might be nice.”

On second thought, perhaps Sudafed should be illegal.

THE TOP TWO WAYS I KNOW I’M NOT A GIRLY ENOUGH GIRL

 #1: Facial Hatred

Sometime last month, I scheduled a long overdue facial, determined to finally use the spa gift card I had received two Christmases earlier. As I was leaving for the appointment, Adam innocently said, “Have fun!”

“LIKE THAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN!” I hissed, giving the door an extra firm slam on my way to the garage.

It occurs to me that I may have a genetic mutation in my girl code, some tangled bit of DNA that makes it impossible for me to enjoy any kind of spa service. I still go, because I’m vain and shallow and self-absorbed, yet it feels off somehow to pay someone else to clean my skin, to have another woman frown sternly at the same pores I frown sternly at every night in the bathroom mirror.

And then there’s the conversation compulsion. Sit me in a reclining chair and slap a eucalyptus mask on me and I am suddenly the World’s Chattiest Person. I suspect this is connected to the weird guilt thing—someone else is sloughing off my dead skin cells and I should therefore reciprocate any demonstration of personal interest.

In that chair, I put Pulitzer-winning investigative journalists to shame, following up on every conversational lead, ekeing out gritty details I never really needed to know. At this last appointment, I determined where the aesthetician’s daughter went to school, the location of her son’s girlfriend’s cousin’s bakery, her preferred choice of seafood markets, and also her biggest pet peeve about her husband (damn snoring). If I had tacked on a bikini wax I would have had time to get her Social Security number, but that would have used up the gift card entirely and I’m too cheap for that.

By the time I was done, I was exhausted. Honestly, I’m not sure a well-maintained T-zone is worth all that.

#2: Choice in Sleepwear

Once every so often, perhaps while walking by a Victoria’s Secret or watching a lingerie-centric scene in True Blood, I’ll ponder why it is that I own so little delicate nightwear. How is it that my drawers are so light on the lace, yet so heavy on the fleece and practical cotton? At what point in my 32 years did I abandon all pretense of femininity after 10:00 p.m.? I fear this is further proof of the girly-girl gene gone wrong.

Don’t believe me? Fine,  photographic evidence it is. I present to you tonight’s sleepwear, in all its t-shirty glory:

Sigh. I TOLD you. Now I’m off to paint my toenails or pick wildflowers or something else…girlish. Obviously, I need the practice.

I admit: I haven’t been the brightest ray of sunshine around the old homestead as of late. There are probably all kinds of small and inconsequential reasons for this, although I think much of my mood stems from the fact that Aura has been battling one small illness after another these past two months. She always gets better, thankfully, but I can’t help but feel that the two of us have spent more time in doctors’ offices than playgrounds recently.

I know that the getting-better is the important thing. And of course I know that a healthy-happy-Aura is the essential part. Yet sometimes I get so…tired. At the risk of repeating about 500,000 other momblog posts out there, this staying-at-home thing is often (for me, at least) bone-numbingly tired. I have edited entire teacher-edition textbooks, stayed up until all hours of the night planning conferences and writing sixth-grader-friendly recaps of the American Revolution. But nothing compares. Nothing.

And sometimes the exhaustion translates into times when I allow myself to wallow in self-pity, in these absolutely disgusting woe-is-me moments where I dwell on the time, the energy, the dedication required to raise a child all day, every day—and to do it the Correct Way. I listen to other mothers talk about how they can leave their children with nearby relatives, and I envy. I hear about husbands who never travel for work, and I sigh. I read magazine articles about children who can play by themselves for a full hour (happily! while dressed in designer corduroys!), and I rub my eyes out of sheer frustration.

Yesterday, that familiar overwhelming feeling of OhGodItNeverStops started to slither through me again. I was on the phone with Adam, who was regaling me with tales of the highbrow cocktail bars and restaurants he’s been sampling while down in New Orleans for a conference. As he was describing what he had ordered for dinner the night before, I was trying to get the vomit out of Aura’s sheets, since a coughing fit had triggered her delicate (read: pain-in-the-ass) gag reflex the night before.

While I balanced the phone between my ear and loaded the detergent into the washer, I found myself tearing up. I interrupted Adam. “This is not the life I pictured for myself,” I said. Adam paused, then said he understood. He said we’d work on making it easier. I sighed, said to ignore me, and wished him good luck in the talk he was about to deliver.

I left shortly after that to retrieve Aura from her two-and-a-half hours at preschool, making a quick detour to the Chamber of Commerce to pick up an end-of-year gift card for her teacher. I had to park a couple of blocks away, and as I was making my way to the office building, my shoulders hunched and head drooped, an enormous gust of wind came out of nowhere. I looked up in surprise, and at that moment a very large, mercifully empty Dunkin’ Donuts cup came flying at me, clunking into the side of my head with admirable velocity and commendable force.

Then the wind died down. The cup rolled to a stop at my feet. As I bent to pick it up and toss it into a nearby trash can, I heard myself laughing. I chuckled a little more when I got back into the car, snickered as I drove to Aura’s school, and mustered up a fully genuine chortle as I parked. And when I walked into her classroom, on the last day of school in what was her first-ever year of preschool, I smiled again.

Because as Aura, completely healthy and completely happy, reached out her still-small arms for a hug, it struck me: Maybe all anyone needs is to be hit in the head once in a while. I tell you, it snaps you right out of it.