Monday, December 28, 2009


The temptation is to hand down a final decision. To slit open an envelope sealed with wax, allow for a preganant pause, and tap out a drum roll on these well-worn keys.

Absolute silence, and suddenly there it is: Indelible. Permanent.

But after learning last week that my non-profit might go under in a matter of months,
and I could potentially lose the job
that has given me the luxury of doing the work I love,
from the comfort of my home,
with Sophia always nearby.
My awareness of how quickly things can change is heightened.

Nothing is indelible. Nothing is permanent.

So this decision is really just for now. For as long as for now lasts.

When I strip the shoulds away. You should have a baby before you get much older. You should give Sophia a sibling. You should think about how you would feel if God-forbid, something happened to Sophia.

When I quiet all the voices around em, turn my ear inward, and listen to my own.

All that remains is the fact that I don't want to have another baby right now. I can list out a hundred reasons why. But the reasons are all just that. A lawyerly case to convince me of what I already know vicerally.

I don't want to have another baby right now.

When we were trying to conceive Sophia, I wanted nothing more in the world than to have her. I would have gone thorugh any procedure, any amount of pain, and any number of repeated failures just to hold her warm mewing body, fresh from my womb, to my chest.

How, how, how could I bring another child into this world with a desire any less intense? This would be the earliest communication: That I was unsure. That I felt pressure. That I had him/her not because I wanted another one more than anything in the world, but because of fear.

In truth, I didn't need time alone and away to figure this out. I simply needed to focus my attention on the core of my ambivalence, to stop trying to make this a fact-based decision and make it a heart-based decision.

I don't want to have another baby right now.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The (Un)kindness of Strangers

I’m sick. Dizzy-head, molten throat, pinched sinuses, kind of sick. Sophia and I have been over at Nan’s house, playing outside for 2½ hours and, being coldblooded, I’m nearly frozen through to boot. Sophia, too, is in fine form. She’s crying, first that her fourteen Mardi Gras necklaces are tangled, then that her be-loved Snakie-Pie has fallen on the car floor, out of her reach. Tears and snots are flowing freely.

If I don’t get cold medicine, I am going to die. Just a little Phenylephrine HCl and I’ll be able to make it through dinner. We drive from Nan’s house to the pharmacy. I scoop Sophia out of the backseat, who protests as she clutches her knotted mass of bling, “My necklaces! My necklaces!”
“Necklaces stay in the car,” I say wearily, “they’ll wait for you until you get back.” She drops the necklaces, and I carry her into the pharmacy. Once inside I set her on the floor and she makes a break for the Seasonal Items isle. Her hands are a blur, pulling items off the shelf, discarding some and clinging to others. I semi-patiently pick them up, replace them on their shelves, pry the others from her cleptomaniacal clutches, and usher her over to the Cold Remedies section. As I’m searching for the right mix of OTC poison to hold my symptoms at bay, Sophia grabs hold of some ruby-red Cloraseptic spray and declares, “My Drink!”

“No Sophia! Not for you!”

“For Daddy! For Daddy!” She cries as I wrestle it away and set it back on the shelf.

I’m begging now, “Please Sophia. Please let mommy get the two things she needs and I’ll take you home.”

But Sophia is not in a generous mood. She takes off down the isle and hops onto a plush rocking horse. (Now CVS is selling rocking horses? What new parental torments will they think of next?) “MY HORSEY!” Sophia cries, as I lift her off. “You have a motorcycle to ride on, back at Grandma and Grandpa’s,” I remind her. I grab some oatmeal off the shelves and give it to her to carry. This distracts her for about 8 seconds, before she rolls the oatmeal down the Greeting Card isle, and attacks the shelves of birthday wishes. “READ A BOOKY!” She exclaims, grabbing a sparkly one.

“We’re not buying cards for anyone right now,” I say, an edge forming in my disappearing voice. At this, she throws herself down on the floor and sobs at the injustice of it all.

I’m done.

I hoist her into my arms. She is a feral beast, bucking, twisting, and screaming at the top of her little lungs, “Put me down on the floor mommy. I WANT TO GO DOWN. I WANT TO GO DOWN!!!!”

I join the checkout in front, forgoing the really good stuff that I want and need—the Sudafed they sell behind the counter of the pharmacy—because I’m done.

There are four people ahead of me on line. Sophia continues to scream and fight. I must look as exasperated as I feel. One would think that these folks would take pity on me, and let me go ahead. One would think that they’d want me and my screaming child out of CVS as soon as possible. But no, they avoid my eyes and silently wait their turn as Sophie continues her tirade.

I think for a moment of asking for the favor of going ahead of them. But I am too proud to ask for help. Instead, they become the target of my frustration. I quickly decide that I hate them. How could they be ignoring me? What could possibly be going through their minds right now?

Schadenfreude: (Smirking) I remember those days. Her turn now.

Judgment: (Shaking head) What kind of mother drags her poor, tired child out into the cold at dinnertime?

Disgust: (Frowning) Why doesn’t she just pop a binky in that brat’s mouth and be done with it? (

Absolutely Nothing: (Singung along with the muzak) Hey now, hey now, don’t dream it’s over. Hey now, hey now, when the world comes in…I love this song! I wonder who sings it…

I cough, hard, and envision my germs taking wing and landing on each of these unkind strangers. A pox on all of you!

In this moment, I am angry, but I also feel terribly alone.

Mommy takes care of the boo-boos, the boom booms, and the ut ohs. But when mommy’s sick, who takes care of mommy?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What She Has to Say

It is 6:57 and Sophie’s voice wafts into my room via the central air ducts:

“I woke up!”
“Sophia is SO funny.”
“Where is mommy?”
“Mommy is sleeping.”
(The sound of her throwing one of her stuffed animals overboard.)
“Puppy fell down.”
“Sophia is here.”
“Mommy is NOT here.”

I climb out of bed. She hears the floorboards creak under my feet.
“Get out. GET OUT!”

I make my way to the bathroom. The play-by-play continues.
“Mommy is going potty.”

I open her door. She is all exuberance and smiles.
“Hi, Mommy. I woke up!”

I wonder, hoisting her out of her crib, burying my face in the warm, fragrant curve of her neck: Will there come a time when I stop marveling at the miracle of all of this…that I made this person…that she is talking, articulating thoughts that are completely separate from my own? Years down the line, when the novelty has worn off and I don’t like what she’s saying…

“But Spike says that condoms ruin the experience for him.”

Or “God, Mom, it’s not like I’m an addict. Didn’t you ever experiment?”

Or the simple, but effective, “I hate you! You’re the reason my life sucks!”

…will I be able to recapture the wonder of this moment then?

She hones her new skill, chatting incessantly about anything and everything around her. And with it comes the blessedly beautiful mistakes.
“All aboard, Kumbaya.”

My own words, recycled:
“DON’T touch it. Just LOOK at it.”

Constant demands:
“Talk about farm animals!”
“Mommy sit RIGHT HERE!”
“Read a book-y! Read a book-y!”

“Diaper is FINE! No diaper change!”

Dizzying repetition:
“What’s that? What’s that? What’s that? What’s that?”

And sentiments so innocent and sweet, they fill the cavity of my chest:
While eating dinner: “Rabbits eat grass. Prairie dogs eat food, like Sophie.”
Looking out the car window, “I see the moon. Sophie touch it. Grab it.”
Noting our separateness, “Mommy’s foot hurts. Sophie’s foot does NOT hurt.”

When Sophia was just a cooing infant, I remember staring down at her, wondering what she would sound like when she finally spoke: Sophia’s voice is squeaky, full of elation, and without-a-doubt, the most beautiful thing I have ever heard.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Schpilka Baby

Every Saturday Sophia and I go to a Mommy and Me Spanish-immersion class. I would very much like to give Sophia the gift of a second language, but unable to speak one myself, I decided we’d tackle bilingualism together. The Spanish class is wonderful—highly engaging, hands-on, entirely in Spanish, and the language-rich activity changes up about every five minutes which is just about right for a toddler’s attention span. I’m learning a lot.

I would love to be able to say that Sophia sits attentively, compliantly responding to the teachers requests and interacting with the class. But this is how this morning went:

Teacher (in Spanish): Sophia! My heart! How cute you are! Welcome! Sit down please. You have your baby doll with you! Fantastic! Take off your shoes.

I remove both Sophia’s and my shoes. Sophia immediately slides her feet into my clogs and proceeds to clod around the room.

Me (in English, whispering): Sophia, please take the shoes off (and then my attempt at Spanish) Sientate!

Sophia begrudgingly takes off the shoes and sits down in my lap.

Teacher (in Spanish): So! Today we are going to begin by washing our dolls. Sophia, look at your doll’s hands. They are dirty. Yuck! Phew! (There was a Spanish exclamation for this, but it eludes me.) Let’s wash them! Wash them! Wash them! (Then she sings a song while Sophia, delighted, washes her doll’s hands. The only words I catch are “I wash my hands.”) Okay, Sophia. Now dry them! Dry them! Dry them! Very good! Okay! Who’s next? Alex, your monkey’s nose is so dirty! Look at it…

Sophia is already across the room, climbing on top of a chair and grinning at me. I ignore her, and she returns to my lap.

The teacher moves on to the next student, “Oh, Miguelito! Your elephant has dirty ears!”

Sophia is trying to pry the doorstop up off the floor with her 16-month old accomplice, Alex. I ignore her, and she returns to my lap.

The teacher is now with Juan, who is crouched behind his mother. “Juan! Come over here! Look how dirty your bear’s mouth is!”

Sophia has opened a small wooden cabinet and is reaching for some electrical wires inside. There comes a point where the behavior cannot be ignored. I silently redirect her back to the circle.

The teacher moves on to the last student, Mateo, who is deliriously rolling around on the floor. “Mateo, sit here! Come sit on your mother’s lap. Is this Goofy? How did he get so dirty…?”

Sophia is now embracing her co-conspirator, Alex. This has drawn the attention of the entire class. In English: “Look at Sophia and Alex! She goes for the younger men!” “I hope this isn’t any indication of what she’ll be like as a teenager.” “Sophia. Wait until after class. The other boys will be jealous!” etc. Sophia, relishing the attention, commences kissing Alex…on the lips. Before I can make it over to them, he’s kissing back, and the two of them are going at it. I pull my little cougar off of her prey, and try to hold her down in my lap. She twists expertly and, before long, is out of my grasp. Choosing my battles, I allow her jump up and down squealing “Salto!” as we wait for Mateo to have his turn. At least she’s being disruptive in Spanish.

Sophia is the only niña in this class. The other students, the niños, have a fraction of her activity level. They cling to their mamás, only gradually migrating out of their mothers’ laps over time. Occasionally the niños will shyly follow Sophia’s irresistible example…but it’s my girl leading the boys into temptation—not the other way around.

After class, I apologize profusely. “Lo siento, Adriana! I’m just never sure if I should let her go, or bring her back. On the one hand, I don’t want to feed into the behavior; on the other, I don’t want her to be interrupting your class….” Adriana reassures me that it’s fine. Sophia is doing what she should be doing at this stage. She’s not being naughty, she’s being a toddler. Well, okay, but then what are the other kids doing?

My mother’s long-term significant other, a.k.a. Grandpa Bernie, has nicknamed Sophia Schpilka-Baby, derived from the Yiddish word schpilkas, which roughly translates to “Ants in your pants.” From the moment Sophia wakes up (leaping into a standing position and shouting, “Get Out! GET OUT!” at the top of her lungs) to her last moments before bed (fighting Kevin and I like a feral cat as we brush her teeth) the child is in constant motion, heat radiating from her body, hair matted with sweat, cheeks flushed and a broad smile plastered across her face.

One might think she is months away from her first dose of Ritalin. But, as much as I long for the 3-hour nap her little friend across the street bestows upon her mother, there are is no speed in Sophie’s immediate future. ADHD according to Russell Barkley (the It-Boy of ADHD) is about three things: 1) impaired impulse control; 2) excessive task-irrelevant activity; and, 3) poorly sustained effort.

But when Sophia and I approach a street, she holds my hand, stops and looks for moving cars. And if there are a stack of books nearby, she will bring them to me, one at a time, listening to me read for at least an hour (if I have the stamina to do it). And recently, she learned to put on her shoes through persistence and sheer determination to go outside. These are not the behaviors of a child with ADHD.

Here’s what I wish more people understood: activity level exists on a continuum from the lap sitters to the wall crawlers. I have seen way too many kids diagnosed with ADHD or hopped up on drugs when they simply have high activity levels. A true child with ADHD simply can’t help him/herself. It is painful to watch. There are no internal controls. The child longs for limits and can’t find them.
The Sophia in Spanish is curious, she’s on the go, wanting to examine every little thing, (“How works it?”), see how I’ll react (“Mommy doing?”), but will only venture out as far into the world as I’ll let her (“Don’t touch it. Mommy says no.”)

In the womb, around 11 pm each night, she kicked as if her intent was to come busting out of my abdomen just as soon as she gained the fetal strength to do so. The challenge will not be to dull or curb these passions, but to ensure that this energy is used for good (and not evil).

Que Dios me ayude!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Where Does She Get It From?

I think I’m a fairly tolerant person. I can handle waiting on lines, even with an antsy toddler. I can deal with getting up far earlier than my circadian rhythm dictates each morning. I can cope with Sophie’s daily I-don’t-want-to-wear-a-coat flip out. But I CANNOT tolerate whining. It grates on my very last nerve. When I used to teach, I declared my classroom a “no whining zone” and was not above whining back at my students to demonstrate just how annoying and obnoxious it is. I was also a fan of telling them that all complaints must be submitted in writing.

Sophia, I am afraid to say, is a natural-born whiner. When she doesn’t get her way, the crocodile tears start flowing and she announces with great dramatic flair, “Sophie CRYING!” I like her to be precise with language, so I’ve taken to correcting her, “Sophie is not crying. Sophie is WHINING.” So now, when she does not get her way and the crocodile tears start flowing, she declares, “Sophie WHINING!” To which I respond, “Yes you are, and you’re doing it in a no-whining zone. Use your words and tell me what you want/how you feel/what’s wrong, etc.” Which is invariably met with…

…more whining.


It is one of those mornings when I have gotten up far earlier than my circadian rhythm dictates. My mother needs a ride to the shop to pick up her car. I have long metabolized every last drop of caffeine I knocked back yesterday, and I am swiftly going into withdrawal. The coffee can is in my hot little hands, but my mother shoos me out of the house before I can get the percolator going. “Mom, I NEED coffee,” I insist.

“We’ll stop along the way." She replies. "There’s a Dunkin Donuts down the road.”

As with most addicts in need of a fix, I become perseverative. My only thought is that I must get to that Dunkin Donuts. We’re driving down one of the most strip mall-flanked roads in the nation, and I’m on high alert for the pink and orange sign. My mother is singing to Sophia in the backseat, in a voice that is threatening to split my head open:


She’s very into this song, as is Sophia, who gleefully suggests new animals, “Bear! Snake! Penguin!” And I am growing deeply concerned that we are going to drive right by the Dunkin Donuts. This is untenable.

“Mom, where did you say it was?

“It’s a little further down the road. I’ll let you know when we are getting close.”

“Is it by where dad used to work?”

Melissa,” says my mother, growing exasperated with me, “relax. We’re almost there.”

“Mom, I NEED coffee. I DON’T want to pass it while you two are carrying on in the backseat.”

Another voice responds to me from the back seat, “Mom! Stop WHINING!”

Touché, Sophia. Touché.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Hard Habit to Break

There are probably some thoughts that are better off never put into words, let alone on paper. Ones that are too intensely personal, not for public consumption. The kinds of thoughts that inspire judgment even before they have left your lips.

And yet, I feel compelled, not just to speak them, not just to write them, but to share these most personal thoughts with whomever is willing to read them. And so, whether this was a tantalizing prologue or a thinly veiled caveat, I’ll just say it:

I cannot bring myself to give up breastfeeding.

If you ever wondered what is going on in the minds of those women who hoist 8-year-old children into their laps to suckle at their empty-sock boobs, you might get a little insight here. This is how it went down last night:

We fed Sophia too late, again, which meant that she was almost comatose by the end of dinner, alternately staring off into space, giggling hysterically, and begging for bed.

We went through our usual routine: I tried to pin her down long enough to remove her clothing as she gleefully rolled all over (and occasionally off of) my bed. Once caught, Sophia lay rapt, as Kevin sat at her head, narrating the events of the day, while I did the dirty work, meticulously cleansing each crease. Next, Kevin wrestled her into her monkey pj’s, while I left to get the implements of torture: her toothbrush and toothpaste. Upon my return, I recited a reworked line from Shel Silverstein, “Mommy’s a little bit crazy; she thinks a babysitter is supposed to sit upon the baby.” And with that, I straddled Sophia and brushed each quadrant of her mouth for a count of ten, amid tears and protests. Dismounting, I grabbed her fluoride drops, or what I have deemed “Screamy Mimi” (screamy, because she screamed bloody murder the first hundred times I tried to give it to her, mimi because that’s her word for medicine). Sophie stood up on my bed, wobbling and falling into me, opening her mouth like a baby bird, and sucking the medicine down. Then, she turned to her father and ordered, “Bye bye daddy,” shifted her gaze to me and announced, “Milky time,” hyperventilating with joy, as she has done since she was an infant, when I unhooked my bra.

Finally calm in my arms, Sophia drank a little and, in between draughts, chatted a little. On this night she was counting, “five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” and surprised me by continuing on, “eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen,” she paused, “eleventeen?” she asked. “Twenty,” I whispered, and she resumed her counting, “twenty-one, twenty two….”

This is bliss. My baby, both as she was and as she is. Infant and child. Dependent and wild.

I have read accounts by some mothers who have kept breastfeeding because they were afraid their child would not be able to cope without it. Or because it was easier than facing the repercussions of not breastfeeding. Or because they felt guilty taking it away. I have heard women complain that their bodies are no longer their own. That their children lift up their shirts in public demanding num-nums. And I have witnessed children, in the flesh, take full advantage of their mother’s open shirt policies, children who feel entitled to take a nip when they please (or whenever they need soothing).

This is not our story. In the beginning, when it hurt like hell, every day I had to recommit to breastfeeding Sophia. And even after eight weeks, when it finally no longer hurt but I was still feeding her every 2-3 hour around the clock, I continued to take it day by day, with a shining goal of six months.

Then one day, Sophia looked up at me and smiled with full recognition that I was the one connected to the breast. It was a smile of gratitude, pleasure and love. A rare, transcendent moment.

By the time six months rolled around, Sophie and I had established a rhythm. Breastfeeding was an oasis of calm in our day. I decided to continue exclusively for two more months. When I started her on solids at 8½ months my supply instantly dropped, and I panicked. I wouldn’t feed Sophia “real food” until after I had nursed her. I pumped. I took fenugreek until my sweat smelled like maple syrup. If only I could make it to a year. And then we hit the year mark, last November. The holy grail of breastfeeding; when all women finally have permission to stop. But by then, I was in it for the long haul. The guidelines said we should do it as long as it was mutually satisfying…and it was. It is.

So now, the two year mark looms before me. The date I set as the end, the very end. But as the end approaches, my sense of reluctance grows. I am still waiting for a twinge of resentment to surge forth. For it to feel like a chore. For me to want my body back.

I don’t. Breastfeeding remains a precious time between Sophie and me. A time when she stops. When I stop. And we’re both fully present for each other.

I’m sure we’d be able to find another way of capturing this time together. But why? Other than my fear of what everyone thinks about it, I can’t think of a single good reason.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Read the Baby

Some people go with their gut. Others prefer to follow popular opinion. I research obsessively.

When I was pregnant, hardly a day would go by that I wasn’t pouring over a book about what not to do, what the clump of cells in my womb was doing, or what to expect when I was done expecting. I received weekly email updates preparing me for parenthood. I attended earthy, anti-intervention Birthing from Within and standard, medical-model hospital-birthing workshops. I took Breastfeeding and Baby Basics classes. I interviewed every woman I knew who had given birth about her birth experience.

But nothing I read or heard about prepared me for my post-birth trauma, my breastfeeding difficulties, and my utter feelings of incompetence when it came to caring for an infant. Much in the way that love can feel totally new…as if no one could have possibly ever felt this way before—the process of becoming a parent felt invented. Every new caretaking experience was like a high school biology experiment. What happens when I submerge her body in water? What happens when I feed her solids? What happens when she gets a fever?

And with each experiment, I scoured the Internet looking for answers, trying to do whatever it was the RIGHT way. But I was always doing something wrong according to someone: Letting her cry herself to sleep. Not feeding her enough. Hovering on the playground. Still, I couldn’t stop reading articles, as if I just hadn’t found the ONE.

I was telling one of my dearest friends this when he turned to me and said, “Melissa. Stop reading the books. Start reading Sophia.”

I wanted to pretend like I didn’t know what he meant. But I did. She’s happy. She’s healthy. (Not to mention: She falls asleep as soon as her head hits the pillow. She’s is growing and developing fine. And she wants me to accompany her on the slide.)

This is what the books should say: trust yourself, but take cues from your baby, If she’s sleepy, put her to bed. If she’s not hungry anymore, stop pushing food on her. If she’s resisting another layer, maybe she’s too hot. If she wants to be carried, maybe she’s tired of walking. Stop trying to impose your beliefs about what she needs on her. You with your head filled with voices that aren’t your own.

I think there’s such a fear among parents of indulging…or letting the child run the show. But there’s a real difference between reading a child’s desires and reading a child’s needs. It requires listening to both the child and your own instincts.

I feel like I have wallpapered over my intuition so many times with pages from Leach and Weissbluth and all the other “experts,” that my instincts are barely audible. I'm working on listening to that voice deep within. But it is Sophia who is peeling these layers away, telling me what she needs with every giggle, every smile, every satisfied sigh.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Time Out!

I’m so sick of there being a right way of doing everything. And that that right way changes on a week-to-week basis.

Currently, there is a strong backlash against behaviorism, and I have to admit, it’s throwing me into a bit of a tizzy. Mostly, because I, a self-proclaimed behaviorist, agree with a lot of what is being said against the practice of time out, rewards and punishments. But not all the time, not with all kids, and not under all circumstances.

Alfie Kohn, author and progressive education advocate, wrote what turned out to be a very provocative essay in the Times last week, “When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do As I Say’.” His main point was: you should not make your love for your child conditional, that is, contingent upon whether or not your child exhibits behaviors that you consider to be appropriate (giving praise when a child does something the parent considers to be good and withdrawing attention, e.g. “time out” when your child does something you perceive to be “bad.”) He cites research that this “love withdrawal” does not lead to compliance, instead it breeds resentment (we won’t delve into the quality of that research here). Kohn suggests that parents should "take a stance of unconditional acceptance accompanied by 'autonomy support'", i.e., giving rationales for your requests, allowing your children to make choices, being supportive but not manipulative, and seeing situations from their point of view. In a follow-up column, Kohn makes it clear that simply saying, “I love you, but not your behavior,” (something I have always said to kids) is not as easily separated in the mind of a child. How does a child address the philosophical question, who am I, outside of my behavior?

I agree with Alfie in spirit. I am a firm believer in what I’ll call proactive parenting. If Sophia is having a meltdown, gets into trouble, or does something “naughty,” I pretty much consider it to be “my fault.” Not in a masochistic, guilt-ridden way, but in a should have saw it coming…I’ll know better next time kind of way. For example, if I’m trying to get her shoes on to get her out the door and she’s resisting me, begging to “play downstairs,” but I haven’t explained the necessity of getting out of the house ASAP to make it in time for (insert activity) I have no right to get angry with her or punish her for her “resistant behavior.” She doesn’t understand my concern about being late. She doesn’t feel the need to be doing anything other that what she wants to do right now. I immediately see a need for "behavior modification"—but not of her behavior, of mine. I need to change the antecedent…the thing I did that preceded her resistant behavior…instead of asking her to put her shoes on, I needed to explain what is going to happen next and WHY she needs to put her shoes on. This is not indulgent; it is considerate.

(Not to mention it takes a lot less energy to engineer for calm than to later deal with the storm. I would rather explain than yell at Sophia, give her choices than have to follow through with imposing an undesirable option, and empathically soothe her frustrations than withdraw from her, frustrated.)

However, I do believe that with some children who do not or cannot understand your rationale, either because they do not have the language or the cognitive ability to make sense of it, that rewards and punishments can be helpful until they do get it. And then, you fade back those rewards and punishments back just as fast as you possibly can. Case in point: I had a wonderful non-verbal preschooler with autism who came to me with all sorts of maladaptive behaviors—biting, hitting, spitting. He resisted any demands that were placed on him (get dressed, eat, come here, etc.), and he lacked both the receptive and expressive language for me to be able to communicate my expectations. I started off concretely and slowly with him. I lined up a set of pictures that alternated images of what I wanted him to do and what he wanted to do. The intervals of what I wanted him to do were short and the ones of what he wanted to do were long, but gradually…almost imperceptibly…I reversed this. And once a mutually respectful relationship was established (this is key), I was able to teach him language, which came more quickly than I ever could have predicted. And then I was able to give him choices. And when he flipped out, which he still did, I gave him a time out, letting him rage until he calmed and then we went back to whatever it was we were doing. You can do this with love. You can communicate “I love you, but I don’t love it when you hit me.” You can give particular children, under certain conditions a time out to calm down…and not have it be a withdrawal of affection, but a withdrawal from unproductive engagement until you are both ready to try again.

Sometimes, my husband and I take “time outs” for this very same reason.

So far, I have not found a single reason to time out Sophia…or yell at her for that matter… and, to be frank, I have a hard time picturing one. I’m not ruling out the possibility, but for me, right now, the most important thing to remain mindful of is that her behavior occurs in the context of our relationship. The regulation of her behavior seems inextricably bound up with the regulation of my own.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Nothing to Be Ashamed Of

Sometimes, the only way to reduce a stigma is to bulldoze over it, flattening it with personal experience and truth, encouraging others to come out and share their truths.

And so, I’m coming out of my personal bedroom tonight. My “personal bedroom” because it is mine and mine alone. Not mine and Kevin’s. And DEFINITELY not mine and Sophia’s. Just mine, all mine.

I wasn’t always comfortable with the fact that Kevin and I slept in separate spaces. In the beginning, when love was raw and young, I thought couples in love were SUPPOSED to sleep together. Wasn’t it an indicator of their level of intimacy? Of their willingness to share the most private parts of themselves? Of a desire to never be apart, even in sleep?

So when Kevin told me that he really had a hard time sleeping with me, that it made his poor sleep even worse, I took it very personally. I felt rejected and unloved. Why doesn’t he want to sleep with me? I wondered. But it wasn’t me. It was any living being who snored, changed positions or simply inhaled and exhaled, including our cat. So, when we first decided to cohabitate, we sought an apartment that had two bedrooms—one for Kevin and one for me.

In our first apartment together (the second floor of an aging, subdivided mansion that was once owned by one of the Johnsons of Johnson and Johnson), my room was grand and capacious with a windowed turret and a marble fireplace. The cat and I lived in fairytale splendor. Kevin slept in the adjacent room, an elongated closet, its windows packet tightly with egg crates and tapestries to block out every last photon. This was an arrangement I could live with, and did, for three years.

It got so, eventually, I couldn’t sleep with Kevin. When forced into a co-sleeping arrangement on a vacation or family visit, both of us would toss and turn with one of us inevitably winding up on the floor or in the bathtub or simply awake all night. Sleeping alone worked for us. And after awhile I came to realize that I actually preferred sleeping alone. I liked the silence. I liked the freedom of being able to keep the light on as long as I liked. I liked not sharing the covers. I liked not being woken by his alarm or when he got out of bed. Our time together is precious. And so is our time apart.

When Sophia was born, having two separate rooms served us well. I kept the baby with me, waking every two hours to feed her, and Kevin slept undisturbed in the room on the other side of our high-rise apartment. It allowed him to go to work each day and function. I had the luxury of staying at home and catching sleep when I could, he did not. But eventually, Sophia and I no longer made good bedfellows. It was time for both of us to have rooms of our own.

So, we went looking for a new domicile, one that had at least three bedrooms—one for each member of our family. We found an ideal situation that had a separate mother-in-law suite on the first floor and three bedrooms on the second. Kevin transformed the first-floor room into a light-proof, sound-proof cave. I claimed the master bedroom (along with the king-size bed and BOTH of the his and her closets), and Sophia landed in a sunny corner room that shares a wall with mine.

It wasn’t until I started showing people around the place that I realized there were those I could tell about our sleeping arrangements and those I actually felt ashamed to tell. Of course, most of my friends and family have known about it for years. But when it came to the babysitters, our new neighbors, gosh even the cable guy, I found myself leading them past “the computer room” or “the guest room,” but never “my husband’s room.”

Which got me thinking: What Sophia is going to tell her friends? Will our sleeping apart make her feel weird and different? Will she accept it as normal and be surprised to learn that her friends’ parents sleep together? Will she worry about the state of our marriage based on the status of our living arrangements? Will she campaign to “bring us back together?”

Will she lie, like I do?

Then I read “Do You Sleep with Your Spouse?” on The Motherlode, Lisa Belkin’s blog on the New York Times website in which she reflects upon the intersection between research and real-parenting. She wrote about the fact that more and more couples are sleeping apart…23% of all couples in 2005, up from 12% in 2001. Okay, not the majority, but a sizeable chunk of the population. She then cited studies on couples who sleep apart v. those who sleep together which yielded an unsurprising finding: those who sleep apart, sleep more soundly. What was most remarkable about the blog was not the facts and figures, but the response to it…parent after parent wishing he/she (mostly she) had a room of his/her own.

So, if I’m gossiped about or considered to be weird by Sophia’s friends’ mothers (which, I have to admit, is one of my fears) maybe, just maybe, those (imaginary) gossiping moms are envious.

And at the end of the day, what’s going to affect Sophia is not whether Kevin and I sleep apart, but how comfortable I am with the arrangement, how I communicate the reasons why we do it, and that I’m a refreshed, well-rested mom instead of a cranky, sleep-deprived one.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Girl Who Mistook Her TV for a Vacuum

Vacuum (n): 1. A space entirely devoid of matter.

It’s not easy to avoid television in America. They're in our cars, our grocery stores, our hospitals, our airports, our restaurants, our shops, our homes. They have migrated from the living room to the bedroom and the kitchen. Some even claim their own “entertainment rooms.” I recently went to a mall near my mother’s house, where they had just installed televisions that hung from the ceiling at 50’ intervals. Just when one had escaped the assault of one TV, another took over, ensuring that, as you shopped, you couldn’t take one step without a commercial blaring at you. A neighbor informed me about a local restaurant that has a television at every table. Now, no longer beholden to watching whatever is on the communal restaurant TV set, you can choose your own programming. Home away from home.

Nielsen reports that the average American watches 5 hours of television a day (Three Screen Report, 2008). The average child watches about 4. And, true to my word, Sophia watches none.

This has been one of the greatest challenges in parenting Sophia. I specifically shop at stores that don’t have TVs. I have rudely asked my friends to turn off the tube when we come over. I have, on occasion, made Sophia face the wall when there was no other option.

Yes, I know you all think I’m nuts. No, I don’t think a ten-minute exposure is going to turn her into a fiend. Yes, I worry that depriving her will make her in a TV junkie by the age of five. Still, I can’t bring myself to allow it…even just a taste. That's the irrational part of me. The thinking part of me is concerned about brain development. Here’s my theory: Years ago, fewer kids were diagnosed with ADHD (From 1997 to 2006, alone, diagnosis of ADHD has increased by 3% each year, CDC, July 2008) . Certainly, the uptake in ADHD diagnoses could be attributed better diagnosis—or even over-diagnosis, with children with high activity levels being mislabeled.

But I think it might have something to do with TV. Hear me out: Three decades ago, when I was a child (and doing my part to contribute to those 5-hour/day stats), shots were long and steady. The camera stayed trained on Mr. Rodgers for what felt like an eternity, (probably at least a good three minutes at a time) occasionally panning to follow him into the kitchen, the front door or the fish tank. But for the most part, there was very little editing.

Fast forward 10 years to 1980. Enter MTV. Music videos spawned a novel, highly visually appealing approach to film making: strobe-like editing. Suddenly, images lasted on the screen for no more than a second at a time. What used to be one cinematic point of view was transformed into hundreds, even thousands of points of view over the course of a few minutes. But here’s the rub—we no longer had to sustain our attention for more than a split second at a time. The images were constantly changing.

Many times a parent with a child with ADHD has said to me something like this: “He can’t sit and focus on his homework for more than a few minutes at a time, but he can sit and watch TV or play video games for hours.” Yes, it is only anecdotal evidence. But I believe there is a reason. I believe that these children are not sustaining their attention for hours at a time when they watch TV or play video games. I believe they are being reinforced for their lack of attention, rewarded with new image after new image.

I would even go so far to assert that the TV is the egg and our children are the chickens: In growing up watching these constantly changing images, I believe the TV actually trains our kids' brains to crave constant stimulation. Why not? Doesn’t every environmental stimulus contribute to a child’s cognitive development? We know that if a child is denied stimulation during critical periods, he/she will be cognitively impaired. So, if a child is over-stimulated during these critical periods, it’s quite possible that a very different sort of cognitive impairment cold result.

I’m operating on a hunch. I’m conducting an experiment. I’m delaying the introduction of TV because, it certainly can’t hurt. And it might help.

Sophia and I were looking at pictures of every-day objects while she was eating her breakfast. She new most of them…jar, elephant, even ice cream, but when she came to a picture of a television set, she paused. “Vacuum?” she guessed.

“In a manner of speaking.” I told her, and we moved onto the next picture.

Monday, September 7, 2009

At the Maul

I am giddy with the purchase of Sophia’s first black pair of Mary Janes and in the mood to do more damage. I push her stroller into Gymboree, and park it next to racks and racks of expensive, adorable clothes—brown crinolines, striped leggings, bright jumpers. Fingering a polka dot hat on sale, I ask, “What do you think, Sophia? Is it you?” Her face breaks into a wide grin, and, like the Cheshire cat, it’s all that’s left of her as I pull the hat down over her ears. I poke through the display table, picking up pieces, glancing at the price tag, and then, aghast, putting them back down again.

There is a family standing a few feet away: The mother is in her early 30’s. Her blond hair is exhausted from too many bleachings. Her t-shirt and shorts are at least one size too small, the former riding up, the latter riding down. She’s talking to her mother in a voice loud enough for everyone in the store to hear. “Isn’t this cute?” she demands of her mother, an older version of herself by about 16 years. The woman nods. Her son, who is lounging in the store’s display window, whines, “Can we go now?” The women ignore him. The young mother is grasping a toddler's hand such that the child has to hold her arm straight up into the air. This little girl is impeccably dressed in pink and gold from head to toe. Her hair is braided in neat cornrows, a matching barrette, sealing off each one. I can tell she’s also had it. Her weight is shifting from foot to foot. Her eyes are pleading and tired. She tugs at her mother’s hand and lets out the mildest of whimpers. “Knock it off!” the mother warms, in her cigarette-roughened voice. She’s picking up the crinoline and admiring it. “Would you look at this?” she says to her mother. The girl whimpers again, and her mother turns to her and threatens, “If you don’t shut up, I’m going to rip your arm off.”

I am stunned. My eyes widen. My jaw slackens. I feel all my blood rush to my head; my body is immobilized. I’m reminded of the moment when Sophia threw a stuffed animal down the stairs and dove after it. She turned a somersault in the air, while I watched, helpless and screaming at the top, but doing nothing. Kevin had appeared right at that moment and caught her, miraculously, before she hit the ground. She didn’t have a scratch. But I was dismayed at my inaction, and it left a permanent stain on my parenthood.

“Is this who I am?” I asked Kevin. “Do I freeze in times of crisis?” Kevin assured me that we all do different things in different situations. “She was okay. I caught her. It takes two.”

But here I am again, appalled my inaction, yet somehow frozen. The sentence that marches through my mind is, “There is NEVER a reason to say something like that to a child.” But I know that this sentence will not save this child and might only result in my arms being ripped from their sockets. I can’t think of a damn thing that would change this woman’s ways. Or alter what I now imagine is the course of this child’s life. So I let them walk away and hope that the horror on my face somehow registered in their minds.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Why I Will Let Sophia Watch ABDC*

*once I let her watch television

ABDC, for those of you who don’t know, is not part of the educatainment empire. It’s not a beginning phonics program. It does not comprise 30 minutes of Sprout's 24 hour programming for babies and preschoolers.

It’s on MTV.

Yes, you heard me right. Once a large chunk of her neural pruning has taken place and I feel fairly confident that the strobe-like editing won’t rewire her brain to attend to a stimulus for no longer than 1/10 of a second …a process, I am convinced, is the root of all ADHD. I…will…let…Sophia…watch…America’s Best Dance Crew.

In a miasma of reality TV shows in which participants are selected on the basis of their poor mental health and then exploited for profit, ABDC’s greatest fault is that it errs on the side of sentimentality. Dance crews, often from underprivileged backgrounds, battle other dance crews for the chance to be named Amercia’s Best Dance Crew and win $100,000. Much like other talent shows of its kind, there is an elaborate elimination process, much of which occurs off screen. But unlike its popular predecessor, American Idol, contestants are not humiliated for sport or amusement. Instead, its competitors are celebrated. The time between dance segments is devoted to spotlighting how crew members have transcended difficulties in their life, recounting how the crew came together, and explaining where they come from and what they represent.

On a show, where there is certainly a great deal of pressure and probably some degree of arguing—conflict never makes its way onto the screen. Instead, collaboration and teamwork is emphasized. You see the participants brainstorming and problem solving together. And then you watch them realize a collective vision as they dance in the weekly competition.

Not only do the crews dance—they choreograph their work. Given certain parameters, they come up with a concept and generate a 45-second segment. They are judged as much on their creativity as they are on their technical skill. The judges provide thoughtful, critical feedback, in a way that is meant to help the crew’s grow and improve. Similarly, the audience is respectful, cheering for all the competitors.

And when a crew is eliminated, they conduct themselves with dignity, grace, and great sportsmanship, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to be on the show, reflecting on how far they came, and commending their competitors on their success.

The show has featured crews of different sex, race, ethnicity gender identification and body-type. There have been a variety of styles of dance included: latin, roller skating, b-boying, stepping, country/western, even clogging—each treated with equal respect. And whereas the comments of the judges aren’t always politically correct, you watch them struggle with and become aware of their biases.

ABDC is about more than dance. It is about dedication to a dream and realizing that dream. It’s about being open to feedback. It’s about working effectively with others. It’s about acceptance. It’s about pride. It’s about “bringing it hard” every time. It is a model of behavior I would like Sophia to aspire to. Oh yeah, and its fun.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sophie Do It

Lightening tore fresh holes in the sky. The thunder was so loud it shook the foundation of our house. I woke suddenly and bolted upright, heart pounding. Meanwhile, Sophia, who rouses whenever I step on a creaky floorboard, slept unperturbed in her crib next door.

I didn’t want to be. I knew it was irrational. But I was terrified.

I debated running downstairs to Kevin, who was sleeping (or not) in his insomnia-resistant cave, for reassurance. And then I got to thinking about dependent and independent states, which turned my thoughts to Sophia.

In the last few weeks, Sophia has transitioned from a rather docile, mostly obedient, and largely dependent creature to a little girl with a will of her own and a distinct lack of coordination to execute that will.

Example #1: We are in a buffet-style salad restaurant in Florida with my sister, her husband, and my nephew. In an effort to be more flexible parenting-wise, I squirt out a white chemical concoction from a shiny aluminum machine which claims the stuff is frozen yogurt. I set it down in front of Sophia, who eyes it suspiciously, but after one orgasmic mouthful is hooked. She encircles the bowl with her right hand, and digs her spoon into the food-like substance with her left. The bowl wobbles precariously on the table, threatening to spill down her bib-less body. “Here, let me,” I offer helpfully, stabilizing the bowl. “NO! SOPHIE DO! SOPHIE DO!” she shouts, pushing my hand away with surprising force. “I’m just trying to help you,” I insist, now just letting my hand hover over the bowl. Even this is too invasive for her. She slaps my hand away, “SOPHIE DO IT!” With a look of great concentration, she successfully scoops out a spoonful and awkwardly twists her wrist 180 degrees to aim it towards her mouth. The melting, viscous yogurts slides and hangs off of the edge of the spoon. I am waiting, albeit at a safe distance, napkin in hand as she drags the spoon into her mouth, leaving a creamy trail across her cheek. I resist the impulse to wipe it clean.

Example #2: Sophia has never liked costume changes, but suddenly it’s an all out battle to get her out of her play clothes and into her pj’s. As I try to pull on the bottoms, she protests loudly and rolls around on the bed, eluding me. I grab a leg, try to insert it into the pants and she cries out “SOPHIE DO! SOPHIE DO!” reaching for them. Ripping the pants out of my hands, she attempts to put them on upside-down. I resist the impulse to reorient the pants as she tries repeatedly to aim her foot into a small hole. I try talking her through turning the pants around, and she listens. With one leg finally in, she claims success, abandons the project, and resumes rolling. Bracing for a fight, I guide her other leg into the pants and pull them up. Furious with my audacity to improve upon her work, Sophia endeavors to rip the pants off, pulling them back down over her diaper. There is a struggle. The pants are up. I am victorious. Sophia is pissed.

It is the hardest thing to stand back and let Sophia do for herself. I am not sure if it is because I am not yet ready to let go of her earlier phase of absolute dependence. Or if I'm the one who can’t tolerate her frustration at not experiencing immediate success. Or if I simply just want things to move along faster. It’s probably some combination of the three. I know she needs to do it and that I have to take a step back. It is the hovering that conveys a lack of capability. That breeds helplessness and fear. And so, I’m trying—but, still, it’s difficult to resist the impulse to take over.

Outside, the storm continued to punish the earth. Wide awake, I picked up an article by Michael Pollan about the pending extinction of cooking . A line from the page jumped out at me. Pollan derived this lesson from Julia Child, who, he explained, “took the fear out of cooking” for many women: “The only way you learn to flip things is just to flip them!” So simple. So true.

I didn’t go downstairs to Kevin. Sophia eventually did wake, cried out, and almost immediately went back to sleep. I didn’t go to her. I didn’t have to. She soothed herself. The storm subsided, and I, too, soothed myself and went back to sleep.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

In Training

Neither of my parents followed sports, nor were they particularly athletic themselves. My father had played handball as a boy in the upper west side projects; my mother had a passion for Jackie Sorensen aerobics, which she did with other leotard-clad middle-aged women in a stinky Catholic school gym on Tuesday and Thursday nights. And both of them had a mean side-stroke, which they could do for hours on end along the perimeter of our town’s man-made lake. But, in my household, intellect, art and culture were valued over blood, sweat and tears. My mother took me to piano and ballet lessons. My father took me to jazz clubs and foreign films. As a family we went to galleries, museums, and festivals.

Not surprisingly, I grew up a wimp. A cultured wimp, but a wimp just the same. While playing bombardment, I hid behind every other player until I was the only one left, a slight, but easy target for the sadistic, ball wielding maniacs on the opposing team. In the outfield, I linked dandelions to form golden chains, which I used to adorn myself. In gym, I was picked last (or nearly last) for every team…from elementary school straight up through high school. And when, in a gesture of cruel generosity, my friend Stephan, who was athletic, picked me to be on his all-star volleyball team senior year, I single-handedly destroyed the team’s hope of being number one. I can still hear Stephan yelling at me, frustrated as I, once again, dropped the ball, “Use two hands, Melissa. TWO HANDS.”

I began running in spite of physical education. In spite of my parents. I began running by accident.

It was my 16th summer. My parents were fighting. Again. I can’t remember the specifics. (Was it over how much my mother had paid for a grapefruit? Whether or not she had placed a fork next to my father’s plate?) Somehow, I was brought in. (Was I trying to restore peace? Was it me who set the table?) I hit a breaking point and sprinted from the house. I ran without destination. My legs carried me across the street and into the woods. I ran until my lungs burned. I probably went a mile…or less…but it was enough to generate a sense of freedom. Of release. Of escape.

After that one night, I was hooked. I kept on running. After my freshman year of college, I ran through my first real break up, exhaling anger, pounding out despair. From there, I ran through dysfunctional relationships, job stress, writing a dissertation. I ran through wedding planning, my isolation in Asheville, and one very bitchy boss. I ran away from stress and anxiety…and ultimately towards health and strength.

And now that I have a daughter of my own, I want to be a model of this strength. I want her to experience the self-confidence that comes with athleticism. I want her to be proud of her body and what it can do.

There is a fine line between encouraging your children to pursue the options open to them and living out your own dreams through them. The latter requires a lot of money tossed into the therapy jar. I don’t want push Sophia into running…or any other sport, but I want her to know that she can. That it doesn’t have to be brains or brawn, art or athletics. I’m still trying to figure out how that works.

Yesterday, when I woke at 6:00, it was pouring rain. I snuck up to the attic to knock out 12 miles on the treadmill before Sophie woke up. She roused at about 7:30, and Kevin took her up to see me. Sophia, who had never witnessed me run on the treadmill before, stared, wide-eyed and intrigued. “Mommy’s running,” Kevin explained. I finished up, showered, and joined them in the kitchen. “Upstairs.” Sophia told me. I followed her first to the second floor, and then up to the attic. The room was still cool from the air-conditioning I had cranked during my run. She made a gleeful beeline for my treadmill, and climbed aboard. Hopping from one foot to another on its stationary belt she said proudly, “Sophie running!”

Off and running, indeed.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Rock Star v. Rock Solid

This morning, after the blear of sleep had lifted, and Sophia had her draught of milk, she looked at me and inquired, “Daddy?”

And, later, when we got out of the pool and flip-flopped our way through the chill of the air-conditioned hallway to the family changing rooms, Sophia said hopefully, “Daddy?”

Then in the afternoon, as we returned from our trip to Target, laden with bags of big box booty, Sophia pushed past me and careened towards her father exclaiming, “Daddy!”

Kevin is a rock star.

When he’s not home:
She swoons over his picture. She pulls his shoes out from under the bed, and tries to stand in them. She says reverently, as she bangs her little fists together in sign language, “Dada working.”

When he comes home:
Like a cat, she hears his key in the lock and is at his feet before he can cross the threshold. She whines and hops from foot to foot, begging “carry me.” And when he does, she throws her little arms about his neck and rests her head on his shoulder, a dreamy look in her eye.

Whatever battle Sophia and I have been engaged in is suddenly forgotten.

And we have been engaged in a battle because, every day, there are battles to be fought. I have spent hours reading to her, encouraging her to eat salmon and soycatash as the floor grew littered with my failures. I’ve grasped her ankles and pulled them up towards her head, turkey-style, trying to mop her twisting soiled tushie before she wiped it on my rug. I’ve dumped water over her head, attempting to rinse the soap out as she clung to me, soaking us both in the process.

I have picked her up when she’s refused to walk downstairs, fallen and doesn’t want to get up, or has unilaterally decided that now is not a good time to leave the playground. I’ve held her through her fears of the lowing cow in the Fairytale Garden, the neighbor’s yippy dog, and the strange man in the grocery store whose silly faces were more odd than amusing. I’ve suffered through endless plays of Raffi singing, “Must be Santa,” Gwen Stefani asserting, “I ain’t no holler back girl,” and the Fridge DJ reciting the ABC’s.

Kevin may be a rock star, but I am rock solid.

And though, at times I want to cry… like when she’s getting sick, but I don’t realize she’s getting sick, and she wants to be held ALL day long. Or when she wipes lox and cream cheese in her hair, right after I washed it, challenging me with a smile…I know that she knows that I’m always there.

Remarkably, Kevin and I are both satisfied with our traditional roles: they suit our personalities, the stage of our careers, and our child-rearing skills. And sure, he would like a little more time (and, sometimes, I’d like a little less). But each is equally important, equally valid. And in Sophie's eyes, we are both heroes.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Memory and Peaches

It was a bright, hot morning at the farmers’ market. The booths were crowded with people. Corn, picked fresh that day, sold out before we could push our way to the table. Guitar music floated through the air. Babies lay supine and sprawled in their strollers, hair plastered to their foreheads with sweat. We planted ourselves in the plastic chairs in front of the musicians. Sophia climbed Kevin, begging for ice chips from his lemonade while I enviously watched others take plump peaches out of their eco-friendly mesh bags and eat them lustily: dirt, pesticides and all.

I asked Kevin for some money and purchased a couple peaches…one for me and one for Miss Sophia. They were take-a-bite-and-the-juice-runs-down-your-arms peaches; fleshy and ripe. I sunk my teeth into one and Sophia looked on longingly. “Peach! Sophie! Bite peach!” she cried, reaching for my succulent fruit.

Sophia was looking pretty darn cute that morning, sporting a pink seersucker dress (my choice), layered with a tutu (her choice). The last thing I was going to let her do was take a bite of that peach and sully her beautiful clothes. So, I bit off a piece for her and tried to pop it in her mouth.

“NO! Mama! Sophie’s peach!” Translation: I want the whole damn thing. Give it to me now.

“Sophia,” I reasoned. “If I give you the whole thing, you’re going to get very dirty. Wait until we get home.” She threw herself down on the ground and sobbed for about 10 seconds. All in all, I think she took it quite well.

We piled into the car. Made a pit stop for bagels and wine. Unpacked the car. I was setting the produce down on the counter when Sophia reminded me, “Mama, peach.”

Now, I know that she has object permanence, but this really took me by surprise. As parents, we bank on the fact that our kids will soon forget unfulfilled promises, changes in plans, and minor insults. But, this child has tenacity. She had to hold that peach in her consciousness for at least ½ an hour.

And, oddly, she hadn’t mentioned it since we left the market. There was no obvious “rehearsal” of the promise of the peach.

Now, home, I was able to strip her down to the tutu, cover her in a bib, and restrain her in the high chair. I let her maul the peach to her heart’s content. She handed it to me, ten minutes latter, bitten and battered, with deep wounds that went all the way to the pit.

I quickly put the fruit out of its misery.

But the whole thing got me wondering: what can children remember? And what does the development of memory look like? I did a little Internet research, and here are a few things I learned:

  • “The fundamentals of the human processing system are in place at birth or earlier.” I don’t know how researchers figured this one out but in the 40th week, a fetus can remember a stimulus ten minutes later with a lasting memory for up to 24 hours (we’re born with “memory equipment”)
  • A baby’s long term memory can be for a long as 24-hours at six weeks old and up to four months at 16 months old (the good news is that although she remembers the time you dropped her on her head when she was 13 months old, in another month, she won’t)
  • “If provided with a nonverbal mode of reporting, infants can show robust recognition and recall of stimuli and events” (pointing, re-enactments, etc.)
  • “Young children show superior recollection of naturally occurring events compared to poorer recognition of standard laboratory lists of words and pictures” (personal relevance and context matters)
  • “Developments in neural structures and processes in the infant and toddler years play a key role in facilitating memory performance” (as kids develop, so does their capacity to remember)
  • “As rapid growth of critical brain structures levels off, subsequent improvements in performance are attributable largely to advances in strategies, knowledge, and metamemory” (you CAN improve your bad memory)
  • “Children’s memory reports can be remarkably accurate but are also vulnerable to the effects of suggestions of others” (why it’s so hard to interview children about abuse)
  • “Memory is not context free, but operates in part as a function of the world in which we live” (did I mention that context matters?).

Source: Courage, M.L. & Cowan, N. (2008) The Development of Memory in Infancy and Childhood

So, yes, at this age Sophia is perfectly capable of remembering that I promised her that peach. And the mere act of setting the bag of produce down on the counter might have been enough of a contextual prompt that there were peaches to be eaten. It was also lunch time, so simply being hungry might have activated the memory of the peach.

The takeaway? I need to be careful what I promise, because, chances are, Sophia will hold me to it.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Bribe

It’s what you call a win-win situation. I get four days away to myself to think long and hard about whether or not I want to add another human being to our family, and Kevin gets four solid days of Sophie-and-Daddy time (and a better idea as to whether he’s ready to double the pleasure).

I’m going on a cruise. By myself. I booked it this week.

When we first came up with the plan, I was straddling the fence and Kevin had scaled it and jumped over to the other side. He was standing there, in greener pastures, beckoning to me (nay, begging me) to come and join him. According to Kevin, in the expanded vision of our family we would:

  • Have more love in our lives
  • Have a playmate for Sophia (and teach her, for once, that “sharing” does not mean I give you the thing that I have because you want it)
  • Add more people to the world who would do good things.

I don’t think he is wrong about these, but I added that we would:

  • Have less time for each other
  • Have less time for Sophia
  • Risk having a child that, due to my advancing age and disintegrating eggs, would require more than we quite possibly have to give.

So, you can see how the conversation went. And how we both came to the conclusion that I needed to go to the Caribbean: I needed to pull back for a little metacognition on the subject and Kevin…well, consider the following illustrative anecdote:

At a function for my work, we were speaking with one of my colleagues. I shared with her my ambivalence about having another child and the fact that Kevin was sending me on a cruise to make a decision. Kevin leaned in and added, nonchalantly, “It’s a bribe.” I laughed at the time, and I know he intended it as a joke, but I couldn’t help also feeling a bit surprised. How much was he joking? Is it a bribe? How would he feel if, after I took this lovely trip while he slaved over a busy toddler, I said I didn’t think I could do it?

Since that time, Kevin has swung with the pendulum back to dead center, where we stand together united in our divided minds. I continue to vacillate on a daily basis. My current thinking is that perhaps we don’t have enough data. Maybe we need to wait until Sophia is old enough to weigh in on the situation.

But how long can we wait? As we speak, the sand is running out of my not-so-hourglass figure. I’m one year away from 40, when approximately 50% of my eggs will be chromosomally abnormal. The cruise is in December. Even if I came back and got pregnant immediately, I still wouldn’t have the baby until October—two months after my 40th birthday.

Funny how we treat these numbers—how I treat these numbers as magic milestones. As if 20% of my eggs will be absolutely fine until August 24, 2010 when they’ll spontaneously combust and leave microscopic piles of ashes in my ovaries.

I know it’s not true. They could all already be bad. Or, I could be one of these women who is able to conceive at 60—too old to have hopes of watching him/her graduate…take on a life partner…and have children him/herself one day. There’s no way to know. Kevin wants to roll the dice…shake up those ovaries and hope for a lucky egg. He thinks the odds are good. I think it doesn’t matter what the odds are if we are the 1 in 66 who has a problem.

At which point I would have another decision to make that I don’t want to be in the position of having to make.

Back to the cruise: my plan is to sit on my balcony, gaze out at the water, and write daily. To channel every thought and feeling out of my head and heart and onto the page. To allow my intuition to serve as my guide.
And then, to take a leap off this damn fence.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I Walk the Line

Any parenting book will tell you, a toddler’s cry in the middle of the night can mean one of a jillion things:

  • Teething
  • An ear infection (or other illness)
  • A nightmare/night terror
  • Normal sleep cycle waking coupled with an inability to self soothe back to sleep
  • A painful encounter with a bed rail
  • A lost toy, blankie, pacifier, etc.
  • Fear of the dark
  • A dirty diaper
  • Stressful events (a new home, a new room, family discord)
  • The realization that his/her parents are doing something much more fun than sleeping

It follows that how one reacts to mid-night wails very much depends on what’s going on.

For example: If Sophie’s got a dirty diaper, I’m going to go in and change it. If she’s got an ear infection, I’ll give her medicine and love. But, if she simply wants out of the crib, I’m going to stuff ear plugs in my ears and do my best to ignore the cries.

The problem is, I often don’t know which it is until I run down the possibilities (e.g., go in and sniff her bottom, feel her forehead, scan the floor for members of her stuffed animal menagerie, etc.) which means going in.

I’ve always been wary of going in. It’s the behaviorist in me. A little voice inside my head says, you go in once and the behavior will escalate. Don’t reinforce! Let her cry it out! Give her an inch she’ll take a yard!

But buried under my training exists my instincts. Weak and muted they plead: “She needs you. Wasn’t it reassuring when your parents responded to your cries? What does it cost you to go in there?”

And there is the physical pain of listening to your child suffer—like the blood being wrung out of your heart.

So, about a week ago, when Sophie started waking in the middle of the night—my heart and mind fought a fierce battle over what to do.

Day One
The first time I went to her. She stood in the corner of her crib, real tears streaming down her face, hair damp and matted to her cheeks. Baby in one arm, bear in the other. “Mama! Out! Out!” she cried. I lifted her and felt her body shaking in my arms. She threw her little arms around my neck and burrowed into me.

Are you scared? I asked.

Yeah, responded Sophie.

Did you have a bad dream? I wondered.

Yeah, replied Sophie.

Are you an apple pie? I tested.

Yeah, affirmed Sophie.

I was not going to find out what was wrong. At least not by asking her. Within a minute or two, her body grew limp in my arms.

“Bed,” she told me. So I laid her in her crib, sang a made-up lull-a-bye, and backed out the door. She fell back asleep

She woke an hour later. This time I decided to wait out the screams. She’d cry out, five minutes would pass quietly, and then she’d cry out again. Thirty minutes passed. An hour. Two hours. There was no sign of her stopping. I moved to the attic where I could no longer hear her and slept for two hours. When I came back down, she was fast asleep…but at what cost? How long did scream and sob until she finally passed out? O, the guilt.

Day Two
She slept like a (proverbial) baby.

Day Three
On the third night, she was up at midnight again, wailing. I went in, held her a minute or two until she asked for “nap,” and put her back in her crib. I felt relieved. It seemed like the right decision. She slept through the night. I thought to myself, perhaps one size does not fit all…maybe this is what Sophie needs.

Day Four
Wrong. She first woke at a quarter till midnight. I comforted her; she fell back asleep. And hour later she woke again. I comforted her; she fell back asleep. When she woke for the third time, an hour later, I started to feel like I was getting played. I resisted going in, and she fell back asleep after ten minutes.

But…the next day Sophie was listless, ate poorly, and tugged at her ear. O, the guilt. I called the doctor and made an appointment for the following day.

Day Five
Sophie woke only once, cried for five minutes, and resettled herself. Later that morning, the doctor peered in her ears and down her throat, and concluded, “She’s fine.”

“Then I AM getting played?” I asked.

“Well, its possible she has a virus that’s making her uncomfortable. I’d give it seven days. If she’s still waking…THEN you’re getting played.”

“Seven days from today?” Kevin asked,” or from when it started?”

“When it started,” replied the doctor, raising an eyebrow.

So now Sophia has two days left of 24-hour full-mom access. After that…it’s tough love, ear plugs, a bloodless heart and a well-rested mom. Some days, it seems that parenting is a constant struggle to find and walk the line between indulgence and neglect.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pick Your Battles

I believe in picking your battles. As a teacher, and later, when I was in private practice as a psychologist, I used to dispense this advice regularly. You have to decide what is most important to you, and then stick to your guns when it comes to those things. The other stuff you can let slide.

But as with most parenting issues, it is one thing to be childless and degreed. It’s another thing to be the parent whose child is screeching in a restaurant because she wants out of the high chair, or throwing her food on the floor because she doesn’t want to eat it, or is trying to walk out of the library with a monkey she lifted from the lost and found and who clings to said monkey and screams “Share! SHARE!” when you gently encourage her to put it back.

The public battles are, perhaps, the most difficult to deal with because you have the humiliation factor. And they know it.

So how does one pick one’s battles? How does one decide what’s most important? What gets “ignored” and what gets a “no” and what gets a “time out?” As a behaviorist, it used to be my job to analyze what was motivating the behavior, identify the antecedent and the consequence, and think about how to manipulate either of these to change the behavior. In other words, I had the luxury of time and brain space to think through these issues. But, today, when groggy from lack of sleep and before caffination has taken place I am wrestling my child down to the ground to remove her 20-lb soggy diaper, and she’s screaming “Babies, BABIES!” (translation, “Mother, I won’t let you change my diaper unless I can watch video clips of myself on your Treo.”) do I show her the videos so she’ll lie still for the 2 minutes it will take to change her or do I decide that diaper changes are a fact of life and she shouldn’t get a reinforcer for something she should just naturally do.

Yes, pity me. I really do think about these things.

I choose not to have the dirty diaper battle, so I hand over my defunct Treo and Sophie compliantly lies down on the mat. Babies it is. Sophie: 1 Mommy: 0.

The day continues in this way, with me wearily deciding at ever turn whether to take away an object I told her she couldn’t have, make her pick up something I just told her to pick, make her come to me the first time I call not the thirtieth. I fear the long term—what happens if I don’t follow through—a spoiled, defiant child who doesn’t clean up after herself—and it is my motivation to bite the bullet and have the battle.

But will she really? I mean, is it sooooo terrible if I give in and let her eat a raisin bread and cream cheese sandwich on the floor instead of her highchair (that I just spent five minutes trying to strap her into as she arched her back and screamed). Cause we’re already late and I want her to eat and the floor isn’t THAT dirty.

Okay, maybe it is. (But, remember, the NYTimes says its okay.)

I let her eat on the floor. Sophia: 2. Mommy: 0. She gets a little food in her. Sophia: 2, Mommy: 1. We get out of the door in 15 minutes instead of an hour: Sophia: 2, Mommy: 2.

Finally in the car, and headed North, Sophia demands “E O! E O!” (Translation, “Please, mother, could you play Raffi singing, ‘Old McDonald Had a Band,” on a constant loop for the next 45 minutes?”) At first, I try to ignore her, but the kid has staying power. “EO EO EO EO! Mama! Song! EO!”

As I reach for the CD player, I think about something that I learned in couples therapy: there is no malice; only competing needs and desires. I think of Sophia’s need to be independent. To exert her will and make choices in this world. To hear a little music while strapped to a chair in a five-point restraint.

I press play. Raffi’s dulcet tones replace my toddlers piercing cries.

I catch Sophia’s eye in the mirror. Signing, she extends her hand from her mouth towards me, “Thank you,” she says and smiles. The words are spontaneous and genuine.

Friday, June 19, 2009


Do not allow me to operate heavy machinery.

Do not permit me to get behind the wheel of a car past 6 pm.

Do not let me have that second glass of wine.

I have post-baby sleep disorder.

They say that the restless last months of pregnancy—when there is no comfortable position to sleep in and, try as you might to sleep on your side, you wake 40 times/night to find you’ve rolled onto your back again, a full-term baby pressing against your spine—prepare you for the early months of parenthood. And it is true. Long before I had Sophia, I fell into the nocturnal rhythm of waking every two hours. I wouldn’t say that rousing to feed her every other hour was easy, but my body had grown accustomed to it, like a shift worker snatching a few moments of deep sleep before shuffling off to labor in darkness.

And if the third trimester is training for the first months of infancy, then infancy is training for life.

I have not slept soundly since Sophia was born. Once the kind of person who could sleep anywhere, whose eyes closed seconds after her head hit the pillow, I am now the kind of person who fantasizes about mowing down the cheerful chorus of birds who greet the dawn outside my window every day at 5:30, who wants to throttle my neighbor for warming up his car at 6:00 in the summer heat, and who is ready to give a piece of my mind to the teenager who, waiting for her BFF, impatiently honks her horn at 7:37 every morning.

If Sophia takes an uneven breath, I stir. If she cries out, I am rigid with deliberation over whether to go to her or let her soothe herself back to sleep. If she makes no sound, I fret that she has finally succumbed to sudden infant death syndrome.

And so, I am perpetually tired, maintaining alertness only by keeping a constant level of caffeine in my veins. I am comforted by the thought that I am not alone. I walk among 100’s of thousands…maybe millions of zombie mommies (mombies?) who run on coffee and crazy baby love.

Today, at the playground, when my yawn at 6:00 pm triggered a chain reaction among my exhausted mompatriots, I said to no one in particular, “this is why I don’t think I can have another child. I’m ALREADY too tired.” One nodded her head in agreement. Another with two children added, “It’s exponentially more work. Don’t think for a second that it’s not.” I turned my eyes to her two tow-headed children tumbling joyfully down the slide. “But it is worth it,” she added, her voice trailing off, as if the words sapped her of her last ounce of strength.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Saturday: Kevin, Sophia and I are lingering in bed, enjoying the morning. Sophia, feeling under the weather, allows us to hug her in short bursts before she restlessly climbs down to the floor. We are high on family happiness when suddenly Sophia starts cursing, “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

Kevin gives me his I’m-disappointed-in-you-look, and I immediately start defending myself. “I swear, I haven’t been swearing! Or at least not saying THAT.” We both peer over the edge of the bed to look down at Sophia, who is pointing to an object as she continues to spew her verbal filth.

It’s a fork.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

What's in a Name?

Recently, Sophia graduated from saying “mama” to “mommy.” This change is interesting to me because I did nothing that I know of to foster it. As she became able to put two unlike syllables together, “mommy” became my preferred title. She must have picked it up from the ether, which is impressive because no one else calls me mommy. If she saw other children calling their mothers’ “mommy,” she had to have understood the gestalt of momness and generalized the word to me.

I’ve always liked the sound of “mommy” over “mama.” “Mama” makes me think of rigid rubber dolls with staring eyes and creepy monotone voices—or that short old lady who carped on her deadbeat son Francis in the comics. But not me. That is, until Sophia came along. And then, mama, her first word, was perhaps the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard.

Now I mourn it’s disappearance as I do all things associated with her babyhood. Mommies hold their little girls' hand as they cross the street; mamas push carriages. Mommies make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and mac n’ cheese; mamas mash up bananas and avocados. Mommies empty potties; mama change diapers. How is it that I am already a mommy?

But before I had any time to adapt to my new title, Sophia called me a name that really took me aback.

When Daddy pointed to me one morning and said, “Who’s that?” Sophia replied, nonchalantly, “Mee-sa.” Kevin was charmed and made her repeat it over and over again. I was not amused.

Of late, Sophia has been interested in knowing everyone’s name. Mornings, I hear her reciting them to herself as she waits for me to retrieve her from her crib: “An-drew. AN-drew. Aa-bee. LEE-ah. EL-la. Er-i-KA. Pa-pa.” Apparently, she has discovered my true identity.

I used to be one of those people who thought it was cool when kids called their parents by their first names. I thought it signifed respect and equity. I wanted to do it with my parents, ("Hi Judi! What's up Lenny?") but I could never actually make myself say it. Now, hearing my name on my daughter’s lips, I instantly changed my mind. Not cool.

I am Melissa to everyone. But there is only one person in this world who can call me mama. Or mommy. Or mom.

To me, this is sacred.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


I’m feeling like a free woman. Speeding up 295, headed to Princeton to see another emancipated mom, NPR blaring and no baby on board. It’s almost feels like I’m not a mother. I’m not anything to anyone. I am alone, blissfully alone.

And then I tune in to Terry Gross, who is interviewing Bob Morris, author of Assisted Loving, a memoir about double dating and finding love along side his 80-year-old widowed father. Morris is charming and witty, but it’s not his lighthearted banter with Terry that has me leaning in to the dashboard. It’s what he has to say about how this experience transformed his relationship with his father.

He stopped fighting back.

It’s not easy to do. I know. For years, at then end of each visit, my mother would kick the Jewish guilt into high gear. “When are you going to come see me again? You never come to see me. You’re always running. Off with your friends.” Or worse, not saying this to me, but saying it to whoever happened to be standing next to her…a relative, a colleague, a stranger. And me, always taking the bait, “MOM, I’m here right NOW.”

It’s quite a thing to be able to stand there, and smile, and say, “Mom, you’re right. It HAS been a long time. I’ll be back next week.”

Motherhood has changed my daughterhood. Permanently.

I have never appreciated my mother like I did the first week after I gave birth. My vaginal hematoma rendered me unable to sit, barely able to stand, and incapable of holding my child. My mother lay next to me in bed and woke up every 11/2 hours to hand me Sophia to nurse. She undressed her, changed her diaper, and roused her when she was too sleepy to feed, moving her little limbs chanting, “Exercises, exercises, babies need their exercise.”

She did without being asked. She anticipated what I didn’t know I needed. She taught me without condescension. And when I cried tears of gratitude she said simply, “Melissa, I’m your MOTHER. It’s what a mother does.”

She bore me. She raised me. I loved her. I left her. And now I’m back. The arc of daughterhood.

I see Sophia’s trajectory laid out before me…and I can picture myself framed by the doorway to our house, watching her walk away, and choking down the question of when she’ll be coming back.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I Swear

I’m driving through Philly, headed South on 12th Street. To the right of me, there’s a UPS truck stopped and standing. To the left, a full line of traffic. There’s no room to swerve and by the time it registers that my passenger-side mirror is going to smack the truck, it’s already flying into the air and shattering into a million shards of glass on the street. “Shit SHIT SHIT!” I exclaim.

From the back seat I hear, “Oh no! Fuck! FUCK! FUCK!”

That isn’t my husband, back there, with a mouth like a truck driver. That’s my 18-month old daughter.

I need help. I can’t stop swearing.

Motherhood has not changed me in this regard. I have always loved to swear. I love words in general, but cuss words, with their taboo meaning, their vaguely onomatopoetic quality, their infinite permutations of usage, I find them to be so incisive. So perfect. So deeply satisfying. I have not been able to give them up. I’ve tried replacing them with other things, but in moments of anger, pain, frustration, or shock…there’s nothing like good fuck. Or a good shit for that matter.

Part of my problem is I don’t feel a strong enough impetus to renounce this portion of my vocabulary. I don’t get what’s wrong with swearing. Why is it so bad for children—for anyone—to swear? Sophia seems to find it just as pragmatic and satisfying as I do. Why do these words evoke such horror? Why do they imply ignorance or poor parenting? Don’t we need profanity to describe important slivers of human experience? As long as one does not swear at another person (which, I’m vehemently opposed to and never do), how is it harmful?

Kevin, who does not think it’s okay to swear in front of Sophia, posed this scenario: Imagine Sophia goes to nursery school. She falls down on the playground and says “O no! Fuck! FUCK! FUCK!” in front of her friends. Then all of her little playmates go home and stub their toes (or have some similar mishap) and exclaim (perfectly appropriately), “O no! Fuck! FUCK! FUCK!” in front of their parents. The parents are angry that after all this time of resisting the impulse to say “fuck,” someone else has gone and said it in front of their kid. So, enraged they demand retribution from the teacher, who has no choice but to expel Typhoid Sophia. She gets blacklisted from preschool and never learns appropriate 3-year-old language.

Perhaps, in order for Sophia to grow up conforming to societal norms and getting invited to play dates, I’ve got to kick the habit. But I haven’t a clue how to do it. And I’m afraid it might already be too late. Fuck.

Monday, May 18, 2009

In Transition

I can’t relate. I’ve never been a napper. If I allow myself the luxury of some afternoon reverie…I pay for it later on in wide-eyed insomnia. And I could never do 20-minute power naps. If I fall asleep in the afternoon, I go deep, my brainwaves slowing to a standstill. And when I finally rise, I’m groggy, disoriented, and cranky as hell. So, no napping, unless circumstances are dire.

Kevin and Sophia, on the other hand, both relish their naps. Kevin, who is utterly incapable of nocturnal sleep, seems to have little problem dozing once the sun breaks through the horizon. And Sophia has been known to beg for a nap when we have kept her up longer than three hours at a pop, reaching out for her crib as we carried her towards it, plugging her mouth with her thumb and assuming the head down, butt up position.

But now, at 18 months, Sophia is beginning to consolidate her naps, meaning the two hour-long baby-free periods I had each day are collapsing into one fitful siesta of indeterminate length. Everyone tells me this is better—that you can get more accomplished…and enjoy more of your baby during your wakeful time. I’m sure that one day this will be true, but right now we are in that no-man’s-land where two naps are too many and one is not enough. My formerly sweet, docile child is more like…well…me after a nap. Cranky. Clumsy. And wanting to be held.

And if it isn’t enough that Sophia's mood is darker, her poverty of sleep during the day is now affecting her sleep at night. As Kevin always says (and is living proof of this axiom), bad sleep gets bad sleep. And so, we are back to crying it out. Only this time, she’s more tenacious and more aware than ever before. She cries with the confidence that we are partying downstairs…without her. We sealed the crack under her door with a stuffed snake to muffle the sounds of us having a wild time washing the dishes, living it up sorting the laundry, and rocking out while we recycle.

On the first eve of the one-nap days, she roared her terrible roars for a good 45 minutes. Kevin, sick of watching me cringe, decided he would go to her. I heard him through the monitor say, “Oh you made a poo,” and Sophie sniveling, “Poo! Poo!” We felt badly that we had let her go on for so long when clearly the poo was the issue, but we were relieved that there was something wrong—and that she wasn’t regressing to her infant ways. But later that night…around 3 am…I heard a tiny voice call out, “Poo Mama, Poo!” And, though I knew I was being had, I felt compelled to check.

Sure enough, no poo.

So now, Sophia has become the girl that cried poo. And sometimes there is a poo. And sometimes there’s not. Either way, neither one of us is getting much sleep these days. I know, like all things, this too will pass. But I feared that if I didn’t write about it, this would be the sort of memory that fades with time. The quotidian disturbances that mean so much to us in the moment, that stress us out, that we rant to our friends about, but that leave no permanent markings. We are always in transition, always moving on to the next thing. "Everything becomes something else and slips away (e.e. cummings)." But this moment, even this moment, is precious.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


We have been held prisoners in the Jiffy Lube waiting room for over an hour. Sophia has briefly manipulated and discarded every toy that I brought along, we’ve scoured OK! magazine for shots of celebrity babies, and I’ve exhausted my supply of organic cheddar bunnies. She is wilting. Sophia looks up at me, or rather that area just below my neck, points to her own chest in an invented sign and pleads, “mi, mi, mi.”

Not just yet, I whisper, feeling the eyes of all four men in the room upon us. When we get home. Soon.

My name is Melissa, and I am an extended breast feeder (EBFer). For those unfamiliar with the term, this means that I have chosen to continue to breastfeed Sophia beyond a year.

There is some irony in this. I can remember years ago, before I was a mother, before Kevin and I were even married, I ran into an acquaintance on the street who told me she was headed to a La Leche League meeting. Because she from Spain, I assumed it was a ex-pat mothers’ support group. But when I mentioned the encounter to another friend, she rolled her eyes and said, Oh, THOSE PEOPLE. They’re the ones who believe in breastfeeding ten-year-olds. And we agreed, if a baby could ask for it, it was probably time to give it up.

Years later, but still before I had Sophia, a very respected colleague and dear friend of mine confided that her four-year-old was still breastfeeding. I know the shock registered on my face. I am ashamed to say I made an inappropriate joke, because I didn’t know how else to react. I didn’t understand why someone would even consider this. I assumed that it was attachment parenting gone wild.

Now, here I was, 17 months post-partum, in the Jiffy Lube with my hyper-verbal toddler requesting the goods. How did I get here?

1. I don’t mind sharing, in fact, I feel compelled to share that breastfeeding was a hard-won success for me. As “natural” as it may be, in the beginning both of us had no idea how to do it. Certainly, it didn’t help that I hemorrhaged after the birth, developed a rare hematoma, and lost a ton of blood. Because of the trauma, my milk came in late, and Sophia lost over 10% of her bodyweight before things got flowing. Throughout this period, I pumped to stimulate production, which led to a surplus that rendered me able to feed every hungry baby on the block. When she nursed, Sophia choked and sputtered as the milk shot down her throat. She clamped down on my nipples to stem the flow until I was cracked and sore and bleeding. I cried every time she latched on, with pain and frustration that I was unable to do this very simple thing. It required every bit of tenacity I could muster to see it through.

One saintly lactation consultant and eight weeks later, Sophia and I found our groove. When the pain finally lifted, it was one of the most deeply satisfying experiences I have ever had. I was feeding my child with food produced by me. When Kevin would come home at night and we would exchange stories of the day, I would begin with, “I kept our baby alive with my body. What did YOU do today?” I take great pride in the fact that I stuck it out for her sake—not in holier-than-thou martyry sort of way, but in a I-kicked-breastfeeding-ass kind of way.

2. I would never continue breastfeeding simply for my sake, or jut because I worked so hard to get to this point. I’ve always thought that if Sophia initiated weaning, I’d go with the flow. And so, as she’s grown busier with life, she’s generally less interested in breastfeeding, and we’ve cut back. I don’t whip out the boob every time she gets a distressed look on her face. I don’t nurse her to sleep. It doesn’t replace food or all fluids. And I very rarely initiate. She generally asks first thing in the morning, once during the day, and once as part of her nighttime routine, and I oblige. Fact is, she likes it too. Sometimes, as she’s drinking she pulls back and exclaims, “Mmmmmm!” I like knowing that she thinks my milk is delicious.

3. It’s also about health. I was sick with chronic ear infections throughout my toddler and preschool years. So was Kevin. I wound up having three myringotomies. We both had our adenoids removed. The mantra we heard in our birthing and breastfeeding classes was that breastfeeding reduced the incidents of ear infections. Ditto for diarrhea. We hope that Sophia will not have to go through what we did.

4. And then there’s vanity. You just can’t beat the calorie burn.

So, as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, Sophia and I will continue to breastfeed as long as it is mutually desirable, which might be next week or it might be months from now. But one thing I am certain of: I am sorry for having judged others for the choices they made.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Pig Says Ah-choo!

I’m not a germ-a-phobe. In fact, after the NYTimes published an article citing research that eating stuff off the floor builds babies’ immune systems, I just recycled the pieces Sophia flung at the ground, blowing on them and sticking them back on her plate. Each time my husband cringed, I cited the Times—much to his annoyance. Still, we sailed through the first 17 months, relatively illness free.

That was, of course, until this week when Sophia got the diarrhea. Five straight days of it, during which, she barely ate or drank. On the fifth day, a Sunday, when Sophia, who ordinarily has no time for cuddling, hoisted herself on top of me and sagged over my body, lovingly limp, I called the triage nurse. Nonplussed, she instructed me to “call the doctor when it’s been two weeks.”

“TWO WEEKS?” Sophia, my baby, would desiccate and blow away by then.

“Well, is she producing at least three wet diapers a day?” She isn’t.

“Does she have a fever?” She doesn’t

“Start giving her Pedialyte. Or Gatorade. Two teaspoons every ten minutes.” This, for the baby who will eat or drink next to nothing.

“But she won’t eat or drink.”

“Then you’ve got to force feed her. And if she doesn’t wet her diaper in 12 hours, you’ve got to take her straight to the emergency room.”

I sent Kevin off to Rite Aide to purchase every flavor of Pedialyte and Gatorade he could find. He came home with five bottles of neon-colored liquid.

The Pedialyte was colorless, like water. I tried that one first. Sophia took one sip of it, gave a look of disgust and threw her sippy cup on the floor. I poured a glass of the iridescent orange Gatorade. She regarded the drink with suspicion. “Juice,” I ventured, and quoted from an alphabet book, “J is for juice, how thirsty are you?” She took a sip, scowled, and then took another. I turned, so my face wouldn’t betray my relief.

I called my mother for help. “It sounds like the swine flu,” she said.

“The what?” I hadn’t seen or heard the news for days.

“The swine flu. That bug that everyone’s sick with in Mexico. You were just on a plane right?”

“Out of Illinois.”

“I’m telling you. It’s the swine flu. It’s everywhere. She’s got the symptoms”

“Mom. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Nausea, diarrhea, fever….”

“I’m looking this up….”

“Fine. Look it up. Then get back to me.”

Kevin barely glanced up from his book on the history of obscure, ancient British kings. “She DOESN’T have the swine flu. Aside from the swine flu being a respiratory illness, there are no confirmed cases in the area.”

So I did what I always do in times of doubt. Internet research. Lots of internet research. Of course, he was right. But the more I read, the more I was able to visualize the swine flu stretching out across the country. Inhabiting. Infecting. And suddenly in our home, like a purple miasma rising up from the basement, engulfing our daughter, as I try, in vain, to get an appointment with the pediatrician.

Fear is virile. It spreads with the passage of misinformation, far more insidious than any germ.

The next morning, after another dry diaper, I called the doctor’s office again. “I’m freaking out.” I told them. “Bring her in,” they conceded.

Sophia, of course, did not have the swine flu. Nor did she have celiac disease, as the nurse practitioner suspected. Nor did she have a case of an over-reactive mother. She had a double ear infection, which can, I’m told, also lead to diarrhea.

After several days on amoxicillin, she was eating and drinking again. And not like she was before the infection. She was ravenous. Oh, she still flings bits and pieces on the floor (which, by the way, I’ve stopped recycling). But a fair portion of it winds up in her mouth.

Now hear this: I resolve to stop counting calories and bites. I will measure Sophia's health by how she looks and acts, not by the numbers on a scale. You are all my witnesses. I'm done. I will not live in fear.