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.