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.