Saturday, March 28, 2009

Reality Check

Last night a well-meaning person, okay, my therapist, not-so-gently pointed out to me as I sobbed about Sophia’s disorderly eating:

“You’re obsessed with having the perfect child.”

“That isn’t quite right,” I corrected him (something I do frequently), “that would put undue stress on Sophie. I’m obsessed with creating the perfect childhood. That just places the undue stress on me.”

Cognitively, I know there is no such thing—that I’ve set up an impossible ideal and an impossible task for myself. And, in setting up this impossible ideal, I’m stressing myself out, which fosters anxiety in Sophie and ultimately takes us further and further away from what I’m seeking to achieve.

Case in point: Dinner last night.

Just a day before, my babysitter had wild success in coaxing Sophia to eat a nice sized portion of the calzone I had made. So, anticipating an easy dinner, I set the calzone before us, poured myself a glass of wine, and cut off a tiny bite for her to chew. The first two pieces went in fairly easy. The third was rejected outright.

“No.” Sophia announced as she held out the nibble, unclenched her fist, and it dropped in slow motion to the floor. I took a swig of the wine and grabbed her pretty kitties book. “This pretty kitty has long fluffy hair,” I read, and tried to pop another bite into her mouth.

Sophie spit it out, narrowed her eyes and repeated, “NO!”

“C’mon, Sophia,” I reasoned, “you loved it just the other day. It’s the same thing.” I placed a bite in her hand, for her to feed herself

“NooOoo.” This time the word had three syllables, the second, high pitched. Again, she chucked the food on the floor.

“Oh for heaven’s sakes, Sophia.” (My attempt at not swearing.) I sighed, exasperated and narrowed my eyes. “It’s either this or yogurt. What’s it gonna be?”

Sophia returned my fierce gaze. “DOWN!” Now I’m sorry, but three bites does not a meal make. And I had just read in my weekly parenting update that Sophia should be eating 40 calories for every inch of height. That meant 1160 calories to fuel all 29 inches of her. So, calculating that she had eaten a maximum of 15 calories, I started to freak out.

“I’m going to the bathroom!” I announced, and removed myself from the situation, to regain some composure. I took a couple deep breaths, reminded myself that this was one meal, in one day, of a lifetime of meals.

Okay. I’m going back in.

“What did you decide, Sophia?”

“Down!”

“Down is not an option.” I offered the calzone one more time. It joined the other bits surrounding her chair. “Okay…yogurt it is.” And I fed her the same meal that I feed her every night, plain full-fat organic yogurt, two tablespoons of flaxseed, and fruit. Total calorie count: 215.

I saw the pediatrician in a little bubble over Sophia’s head, chastising me, “too healthy. More fats. Too healthy.”

***********************************************************************************

My friend Stacey and I are enjoying a leisurely stroll along the Cooper River, pushing our respective strollers, her baby fast asleep, mine wide awake. I’m sharing my concerns about Sophia’s eating habits and my undying commitment to feeding her a nutritious diet, when, a man walks toward us, pushing a tricked-out stroller, his toddler obscured by a snack tray laden with Wendy’s: hamburger, fries, and what looks mysteriously like soda. After he passes, I give Stacey “the eye.” My judgmental, disapproving eye.

“Look, “Stacey says to me. “Maybe there’s a middle ground. I mean, there are some parents out there giving their kids Mountain Dew and Snicker bars for a snack. You’re at the other end of the continuum. A little yogurt with fruity gel or a nutrition bar with a little sugar might not be so bad.”

As she talks, I feel ridiculous. Of course, she’s right. And who am I kidding? I’m ADDICTED to sugar. I need at least one sweet a day. Preferably chocolate. Preferably dark.

Yes. I am a hypocrite. I know that’s not at all what Stacey was pointing out. She was simply saying, everything in moderation. But it’s true.

When I was pregnant, I held my breath when I passed a smoker. I didn’t have a single sip of wine. I exercised everyday. I wanted to be perfect host. To give her the very best start. And now that she’s here, I feel an overwhelming sense of duty to make sure she is as healthy and happy as can be.

But I still experience a little thrill when I hear the music from ice cream truck wafting down the street. I haven’t forgotten the joy of my first taste of chocolate chip pancakes at IHOP. And don’t even get me started on Halloween. We’d stay out long after people had turned off their porch lights ringing bells and knocking on doors in hopes of extracting one more bar of candy from our neighbors.

The truth of the matter is, being as happy as you can be takes a little sugar. And a little fat. And even a little processed food

Perhaps I am equating perfect with happy. Perhaps perfect and happy are not the same thing. And perhaps, just perhaps, happy is the goal. That does seem more attainable.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Power of No

Was it really just a few months ago that Sophie could only say yes?

We were amazed when she began nodding her head in assent:

Do you want more broccoli?
Yes, nodded Sophia.
Do you want to go up?
Yes, nodded Sophia.
Is it time for bed?
Yes, nodded Sophia.

It was a glorious time when no was absent from her vocabulary. She seemed to embrace every new food, every new experience, every suggestion I made. I made a point of using the “n” word very judiciously. My friends had cautioned me, if you use it to much, it loses its power. And so, aside from a gentle “no-no” as she attempted to pop another fuzzy from my comforter into her mouth, I seldom evoked it.

Then, as Sophia began to experiment with her autonomy, shaking the glass doors to the fireplace, caressing the plastic fa├žade of the space heater, poking a curious finger at the outlet, I allowed myself a very firm, very loud “no” as a deterrent. The first couple of times I raised my voice in this manner, she immediately shrank back and cried, stricken.

It was shocking to me that not only did she obey my “no,” she was distraught at my disapproval. I watched her sob as if I had slapped her against the face, and agonized over what to do next. Console her or let her feel the full force of my condemnation? I tried to find some middle ground, letting her absorb this new information, then gently steering her in another direction.

After she had recovered, I watched her internalize the new rule. She approached the forbidden object, reached out to it, told herself, “no,” and retracted her hand. She did this over and over again until, ultimately, she abandoned the thing for good. I was satisfied. The “no,” it seemed, had served its purpose.

Then, one fateful day, I asked if she wanted a diaper change.

“No!” she told me, her eyes narrowing in a familiar gaze of fury.

It was my angry look. My “don’t touch that” expression. And now, it was being used against me.

When I told my mother the story, she said, “Your first mistake was asking her. Don’t ask. Tell.”
So, I’ve tried really hard to avoid these rhetorical questions that beget the same answer each time. But even if I say, “It’s time for a diaper change.” Or “P.U! You need a diaper change,” Sophia still exercises her right to reject my proposal.

Kevin received this information gleefully. “That’s my girl!” he chirped. “You two are really going to butt heads,” he added, still smiling.

And yes, I’m glad she has opinions. I’m glad she has harnessed the power of no. She’ll need it as one of her weapons against Spike, the sperm-doner or the “friend” who offers her a first taste of heroin. But for now, I want my sweet-tempered, agreeable little girl back. I want our days to be joyful and free of confrontation.

I want a few more months of oneness, before having to face the reality of two.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Extreme Mothering

I really wish I had thought of this title on my own, but I didn’t. Nan (my friend and hero, raising twin boys and now pregnant with her third) called me excitedly one evening, “Turn on 20/20—they’re doing Extreme Mothering!”

What images does that conjure up for you? I was expecting to see raw footage of me in the bathtub, teaching my 15-month-old baby the letters in her name…or surreptitiously nursing her in the isles of Stride Rite…or “wearing” her, as the attachment parenting folks like to say, on a two-mile round-trip walk into town.

Yes, guilty as charged, I am an extreme mother.

My problem is, I still don’t know where the lines of demarcation exists between questionable parenting, good-enough parenting, awesome parenting and extreme parenting. I think, on any given day, depending on what you’re observing (Holding her down and prying her mouth open to brush her teeth—questionable or good enough? Fixing her a perfectly-balanced, low-sugar, chemical-free homemade meal—awesome or extreme?), I probably fall at different points on the continuum; the object being to land somewhere in the middle, 90% of the time. But then there is this punishing little voice. It's the same little voice that used to pop into my head when I taught (and was staying until 6 every evening, preparing lessons), the same when I was caring for my ailing cat (and running home to give him shots of insulin twice/day). The one that says:

You’re not doing enough.

Like, is emptying the dishwasher and letting Sophia putter around in the kitchen drawers negligent or necessary? How much time should I expect her to play on her own…and when am I illegitimately using these free moments to check my friends’ status updates on Facebook? How much should I be labeling everything we see, and when is it okay to leave her alone to think her baby thoughts, or observe her surroundings, or practice our alien language as it trips off her tongue in delicious neologisms (e.g. g –g-gorkley)?

Yes, guilty as charged, I am obsessing again.

But I go to extremes because I don’t know what’s sufficient. What should be my benchmark? A day without bloodshed? Or one that ends with an invented lullaby, Sophia’s small arms thrown around my neck, a quick kiss, and her reverent whispers of “mamadadamamadada” as I lay her in her crib? A day where I know I spent a solid hour pretending to eat plastic cake and fabric toast or one where I spent five minutes eating said meal before rushing out the door to a meeting? And how do I measure how I’m doing? In smiles or tantrums?

I envy my husband’s comfort with his parenting—the deep satisfaction he derives from giving what he can, not fretting over what he can’t. Kevin says that this is because he has confidence in what I’m doing as a mother…I relieve him of this anxiety. I am grateful for his faith in me. It is reassuring. Yet, I wonder: What will it take before I begin to trust my instincts they way he trusts my instincts?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Bragging Rights

We’ve all been in the room with her.

She parades her baby around like a trained monkey. “Look,” she says to her captive audience hunched together on the couch, “She pounds her chest like a gorilla!” She turns to the baby. “I’m a gorilla, and I can thump my chest!” she models as her daughter squirms off to chew on a coaster, loathe to the task. “She doesn’t always do it when there are other people around,” the mother apologizes. So she moves onto the next trick, “She can identify herself in pictures!” She shoves a photo in front of the baby’s face singing, “Who is it?” The baby grabs at the picture and crumples it in her grasp. “I don’t know what’s with her today,” the mother mumbles, feeling her embarrassment. “Well, watch this…she just loves books,” she pulls out “Goodnight Moon,” which, she claims, her daughter can recite half of. The mother points to the moon and says, “Goodnight….” the sentence hangs in the air and every observing adult has the urge to complete it. “Bah!” says the baby. “Moon! IT’S MOON. You KNOW this,” says the exasperated woman. At this, the baby smiles.

This annoying woman is me. For some of you, this did not take much guesswork.

I guess when I do it, I don’t think of it as bragging, exactly. I’m just so excited about every new development I want to share it with the world. So listen to this, world—two days ago when Sophia pooped her diaper and I asked, “Sophia, where’s the poo?” she patted her behind! The kid’s a genius.

I wonder why my friends rarely brag to me about their kids. Do they think I wouldn’t care? (I would) Does it not occur to them to do it? (Possibly) Do they have much better self control? (Probably)

There’s really only one person I can brag to without feeling a little sheepish about it. (Bragging to Kevin doesn’t count, or, rather, doesn’t count as bragging as Sophie is as much a product of his genes and parenting as she is of mine. With Kevin, it’s more like… gushing. And gushing about Sophie is our number one topic of conversation these days. I admit—we’re disgusting. On the other hand, we’re far more tolerable than when we spoke this way about our cat.)

That person is my mother, who also has a bragging issue. When she’s having a cringe-worthy conversation with, say, the guy at the checkout counter of the 7-11, it’s as if she’s holding up a full-length, three-way mirror to me that betrays every unflattering angle:

“This is my granddaughter, Sophia. Sophia, can you say, ‘hi?’ Say ‘hi.’” (Brief pause for Sophia to oblige.) “Can you believe the way she’s talking at only 15 months? She (indicating me) talked early, too, of course, but not like this one.”

Mom,” I tug at her sleeve with the hand that is not wrapped around my baby.

“What? Can’t a grandmother brag a little about her baby?”

Can she? Does grandma have bragging rights? Do I? And if so, to whom?

This is one of the unspoken rules of parenthood that eludes me. Am I allowed to be proud? When does pride cross the line into arrogance? Am I provoking competition? Are my motives pure? Is bragging like sexual harassment—mattering less how it was intended than how it was received? How is it being received?

Do I really want to know?