Sunday, December 26, 2010

Seize the Present

In my observation, children in the midst of unwrapping Christmas presents bear a close resemblance to piranha during a feeding frenzy. They make staccato, carnivorous tears at the paper, sending bits of it flying in every direction. And once they have picked one present clean, the move onto the next in the pile until they have all been devoured in a manner of minutes.

It makes me sick.

Yet, I believe that this is a natural, instinctive behavior of a child beset with a feast after months of famine. Gifts are to be inhaled, consumed with great appetite and pleasure.

This is not my way.

I am a hoarder. The kind of person who would prefer to have chocolate melting in my hand than dissolving in my mouth. (Which calls to mind a memory of being in Latvia, where Western sweets were scarce. When my companions and I finally came upon some chocolates, a few of them immediately tore into our lucky find. I squirreled mine away for a more desperate moment of need. A rock-bottom, depleted-soul craving-for-chocolate kind of moment. I knew it would come and when it did I was ready. One of my companions was incredulous—why was I not seizing the moment, consuming it like the rest of them?

We lived in two completely different worlds.

I do not mean to say that the others were not grateful. They were…and there was something lovely about their shared enjoyment of the chocolates. Their estatic exclamations, faces bright with joy. I actually felt very much on the outside of things. Still I could not bring myself to join them, because I could not bear the absence of the chocolate I knew would follow.)

Holidays are the same way for me. Unwrapped presents mean the magical period of giving and getting is over. I could hold a wrapped gift in my hand for an eternity and be satisfied with my anticipatory pleasure. Like a meal not yet eaten, whole and beautifully laid out as opposed to the aftermath of a dinner consumed: plates littered with orts and crumbled napkins. I believe the reality is never quite as good as the fantasy.

So, of course, it pains me that Sophie is not an aberrant creature like myself. She wants the immediate gratification that every child her age wants. She rips one open and asks, unabashedly, “where is my next present?”

“Slow down,” was my refrain, as the Christmas morning passed with breakneck speed. “Let’s take a break,” I’d suggest, my words falling on deaf ears, all the others eager to reveal the secrets laid beneath the tree. “Say ‘thank you’ to grandpa. He gave you that game.’” was my last-ditch effort to restore some degree of decorum and gratitude to what looked simply like greed and a lack of appreciation.

To my adult eyes it doesn’t seem like she is appreciating each individual gift. And it is true, in the absence of my interruptions, she wouldn’t note who it came from, thank the giver, watch with excitement as others took pleasure in their own gifts. In other words, she would not adopt my grown-up, learned, behaviors of restraint and propriety.

I realize I can judge this way of being as somehow less…right than mine. But if I take an honest look at both Sophia and me…she is the one who is happy…and I am the one who is anxiously trying to transform the moment into an ideal in my head.

In retrospect, I can see that there was sheer joy in the act of unwrapping. That the feeding frenzy isn’t unchecked materialism at all…it is a joy of discovery, of continuous surprise, a literal relishing of the present.

Oh. I get it.

I unwrap this gift and stare at it, savoring the surprise.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Worth the Fight

Kevin has Sophie in what might look to the rest of the world like a chest lock, as I try to wrestle her pants onto her body.


She is writhing and kicking, fighting us with everything she has. She bends over and bites the pants.

“No, Sophie. Biting is bad,” says Kevin.

Sophie’s eyes gleam and she cranes her neck to bite me. I whip my forearm away, just in the nick of time.

“YOU DON’T BITE,” I say in my loud, firm, angry teacher voice.

“I want to bite you!” I’ve got one leg in, but she’s trying to work it off with her other leg. Kevin has both her arms pinned to prevent her from slapping, biting or scratching me.

“We are going to the zoo and that’s THAT!” I say.

How did it come to this? We need to rewind this moment to about five minutes ago.

Sophie is curled up on the couch with her father, who is now reading the 17th Dick and Jane story in the Complete Dick and Jane Reader.

“Sally goes down. Down. Down. Down. Funny Sally. Sally is down.” Or something like that, utterly devoid of content, written for the sole purpose of drilling sight words, ignorant of the importance of phonics as a critical component of early literacy programs. Though, the pictures are charming. I particularly like the ones of Father, who resembles Don Draper.

“Are we going to the holiday light display at the zoo or not?” My mother asks.

“How cold is it?” I ask back. Anything below freezing and the answer is no. Mom pops outside in her blue velour track suit and a few seconds later announces, “It’s 40 degrees and no wind. If we don’t go tonight, we’re not going to get an opportunity like this again. I’m going.” She’s lying through her teeth. I eye Sophie’s tights.

“Okay. But I don’t want Sophie walking around in just a pair of tights. She’s going to have to wear a pair of pants over them.”

“NO! I WILL NOT!” Sophie protests. “No pants over my tights. It will be very comfortable.” I know that she means uncomfortable, as she makes this mistake virtually every time I dress her.

“No pants, no zoo.” I tell her.

“Then no zoo,” Sophie shoots back, challenging me.

The gloves are off.

“Well, Grandpa and I are going, whether you’re going or not.” My mother adds to the pot.

“I want to go too,” it comes out a little like a whine.

Kevin points out, his lids at half mast, “You three should go. When you come back and tell her all about it, she’ll learn from the consequences of her actions. The toddler should not make decisions for the family.”

My mother makes a crack about Sophie being raised by two psychologists.

I offer my evaluation: “She’s just being stubborn. If we get her there, she’ll have a great time. I vote we break her will.”

I go to the bedroom and re-appear with Sophie’s hot pink leggings.


And now we’re back where we started. We wrestle the pants on. Next the shoes, which are slightly too large, and she easily kicks across the room as soon as we jam her feet into them.

“Forget the shoes,” I say. “We’ll put them on in the car.” We force her into a pint-size cherry red down jacket. Sophie is crying real tears and snot is running into her mouth. Her hair is matting with sweat from her effort.

“Get me a tissue,” Kevin instructs, as he lifts Sophie up, who is all limbs and teeth and nails. I am back in a flash with the tissues, opening the front door, then the car door, clearing a path for Kevin and the whirling dervish in his arms.

Grandma and grandpa follow in disbelief.

Kevin straps her to her chair. “I NEED SNAKEY-PIE!” Sophia moans…she is showing signs of weakening. Grandma returns to the house for Snakey-pie. Kevin dabs her cheeks and Sophie fights him anew.

“I don’t want to go to the zoo! I don’t want to see the holiday lights!”

With snakey-pie in her arms and her thumb in her mouth, she relaxes. It’s quiet in the car for a few beats.

“I am going to knock down ALL the holiday lights!” Sophie says with conviction. Her last stand. We smirk in the darkness.

By the time we reach the zoo, Sophie is pointing out the decorations she sees on the way. Once we park, she compliantly dons her hat, scarf and mittens. As we push her through the entrance, she gasps with joy. Before long she is exclaiming over luminous images of zoo animals, begging to ride the carousel, staring in wonder at the wolf who glows strangely white in the light of a waxing moon. We run into her friends Reid and Mitchell. Sophie grasps Reid’s hand and the two of them walk through animal exhibits, transformed by this electrified night. Many of the few animals that are visible are asleep. An exception is the great python in the reptile house, his head lifted from the thick ropes of his body. Sophie puts her face to the glass and he touches her lips with the tines of his forked tongue.

“He gave you a kiss,” I tell Sophie. “I got a snake kiss!” Sophie exclaims. And she puts her face down for another.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mommy, Please Drink Responsibly

We are on the road, headed to nursery school, when we pass a Corona (La cervesa mas fina) truck. Sophie gets all excited and stutters to get the words out: “Mommy! Look! Is just like what’s on your drink at home!”

And though I don’t often crack open a beer, she’s right. Kevin just came home with a case of Corona Light the other night. Guilty as charged.

After hours, at nursery school, when Sophia gets the run of the place and the toys she’s had to share all day become exclusively hers, she usually plants herself in the housekeeping corner. Often, I’m recruited as a playmate. Sophie hands me a blue bottle of pop, “Mommy, this is your vino.” I blush in front of my mother’s teetotaling teachers. “Sometimes we have wine with dinner,” I stammer by way of explanation.

And then, when I make a pit stop at the Wine Legend to pick up some adult beverages for a party, Sophie looks around the room replete with bottles of alcohol of every shape and size and says, loud enough for all to hear, “MY DADDY LOVES VINO!”

A few passers-by chuckle to themselves.

Sophia is well-aware of our drinking. I have mixed feelings about this. My parents were never drinkers, so I don’t have a positive (or negative) model of how to go about doing this. She has not, and it is my intention that she never will, seen us drunk. Nor will she ever witness me taking a drink and then stepping into a car. (Nor will I do it.) But I have to wonder what is the impact of seeing me engage in social drinking? What messages is she taking away about alcohol?

Is there such a thing as modeling responsible drinking?

Kevin and I have talked about this. We are aligned on this issue…when something becomes taboo, it is that much more desirable. Think prohibition. Think abstinence-only sex education. We don’t want to hide our drinking, as if it is something shameful. But we also don’t want her seeing us come home and have a drink to “unwind.” Even in jest, I don’t want her to hear the words, “what a day, I need a drink.” I don’t want her to perceive drinking as a solution.

By the same token, I don’t want her to think that a drink is necessary to have fun. I want it to be peripheral, not central to celebrations. And 'tis the season for such things.

So what to do? How do we establish such a balance? Research says, talk about it. Eat dinner together. Know who your child is with and, perhaps more importantly, let them know that you know who they are with. All useful (if not commonsensical) findings, and, with the exception of the family dinner, beyond her. Thing is, she doesn’t yet know that the drink has an effect on us. She doesn’t know that we drink it for the effect. And if this is the case, is there a conversation to be had? Maybe not at the present time. But, I know I need to remain vigilant. That I need to be alert to her evolving cognizance, because any day, she might be curious as to why these are adult-only beverages. When it happens, I’ll need to be responsive to her questions and accountable for my actions. And the thing that bothers me most is that I’m not quite sure what I’d say.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On the Second Day of Hanukkah...

On the second day of Hanukkah, Sophie and I were making our weekly pilgrimage to nursery school. Sophie held her brand-new plush menorah with removable candles in her hot little hands and was singing to herself, “Hanukkah is my fav-or-ite holiday….” Silently, I thought, “until December 25th rolls around.”

The night before we had a small holiday dinner at my mother’s house. It was the first year that Sophie “got it.” She knew we were celebrating, she knew it was somehow related to the fact that we’re Jewish, she knew it meant we’d be eating latkes with people we loved, lighting the candles on menorah, and opening gifts. She wrapped some books from her room in tissue paper, handed it to me and told me, “this is a gift for the Macabees,” which my mother has repeated to anyone who will listen.

As she unwrapped her menorah, her face lit up and she cried, “ooohhhh,” and immediately began inserting the candles. “Remember,” she reminded me, “there are EIGHT days.” “Yes, I remember,” I told her, wondering if she was just charmed by the numbers or if the subtext was that she is expecting eight gifts over the course of the holiday. That night, she begged to sleep with the menorah. I convinced her that it would be nice to put it in the window for everyone passing by to see that we are celebrating Hanukkah. “It’s our holiday decoration,” I told her.

Just a few days earlier we had been driving through our town. I was pointing out the colored lights illuminating many of the homes near ours. Much like the town I grew up in, it’s very Christian and hence, well-decorated. When we were young and out for a drive in December, my sister and I used to make a game of counting the holiday lights on our side of the car…seeing who had the most on the way to our destination. I was hopeful that I could engage Sophie in a more basic form of the game.

It was quiet in the backseat. Then Sophia asked, “Mommy? Can we have holiday decorations?” She said holiday decorations because that was the phrase I used. I have been consciously avoiding the word Christmas. Its not that I’m hiding Christmas from her. We will be celebrating it this year when we go out to visit Kevin’s father in Illinois. I just wanted her to have a clear sense of her own religious culture and traditions before the very-hard-to-compete-with Christmas took the foreground.

I know Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday, as much as it is a way for Jewish kids to not feel left out, or worse, seduced away from their own religion by the very sexy Santa Claus. And that is precisely how I am employing it now.

“Let me talk to Daddy about that,” I stalled. Perhaps we could do a garish electric menorah. Or maybe she would be satisfied by the more colonial-looking single-candle in each window.

I was pleased that, at my mothers, the toy menorah sufficed.

“I am going to show my menorah to all my friends,” Sophie said, “we can count the candles. Remember: there are eight.”

“I remember.”

“Can we listen to some music?” I cringed at the thought of listening, once again, to our Music Together albums.

I got an idea, “How about some holiday music? Holiday songs will be playing on the radio now.” I turned on Lite-FM and sure enough, Sarah McLaughlin was singing, “and so this is Christmas….” Sophie’s eyes lit up at the mention of Christmas. It was NOT my imagination. She smiled, listening to the music.

Next was the theme to the Charlie Brown Christmas special. I thought about how much I loved those Charlie Brown specials. How could I deny her the things that I loved and enjoyed? Hadn’t I come to my sense of religion and culture, despite the visits from Santa, the Christmas specials, even the faux 4-ft tree we perched atop dad’s stereo speakers each year? “I bet I could learn to play this,” I told Sophia, pretending to play the cords with one hand as I steered with the other.

“NO! I’m going to play it on my piano at Grandma’s,” she told me.

And then Santa Clause is Coming to Town came on. Sophia looked concerned as Sinatra sang about Santa seeing you while you were sleeping. “Where is Santa?” she asked.

“I’ll tell you when the song is over,” I replied, stalling again.

Do I tell her that Santa is not real? That he’s a character like the ones she reads about in books? Or do I give her the whole schpiel, how he lives up at the North Pole and that we’ll see his helpers everywhere for the next month, trying to get a read on what all the consumers…I mean kids…want for Christmas this year?

The song ended.

“Santa Claus is a little like Cat in the Hat,” I began. “He’s a character that you can read about and think about, and we’ll start to see images of him everywhere.” Just then, we passed a flag with Santa on it on the side of the road—“See? There’s a picture of him right there!” “You’re Jewish, so you celebrate holidays like Hanukkah, and Passover, and Rosh Hashannah…there are people who are Christian, and they celebrate Christmas. Daddy grew up Christian and celebrated Christmas. Now we get to share holidays. We’re Jews and we can share Hanukkah with daddy. He’s Christian and he can share Christmas with us.” That felt right. I didn’t really solve the Santa issue, but the idea of sharing holidays is the foundation. Then Santa becomes okay for me. It’s about appreciating difference in the context of feeling the primacy of her Jewish identity.

Yes, I know this is heavy for a three-year-old. But I tend to aim high, and hope that some kernel of what I say lodges in her brain.

“Oh!” said Sophie. “Hey look! There’s Santa again!”

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Doll's House

My aversion to dolls is not a product of my adult, feminist mind. Nor can I confidently link it to the creepiest Twilight Zone episode ever in which Telly Savalas repeatedly tries to dismember his step-daughter’s doll, Talky Tina, only to have the doll survive and eventually murder him…. "Hi! I’m Talky Tina, and I’m going to KILL you.” No, my distaste for their molded plastic bodies, their vacant eyes, their unmanageable synthetic hair dates back to the day my mother brought my sister home from the hospital.

Mom got a new baby. A living, breathing, screaming thing that redirected her attention away from me. And I got a doll. A stiff, inanimate, indifferent thing meant to turn me into a nurturer. Mommy’s little helper. I was all of 19 months, and not yet keen to take up a parenting role. By my mother’s own report, when she returned from the hospital, I tossed off a bitchy, “Who dat?” in her direction and then didn’t speak a word to her for a week. She finally bribed me out of my silence with coffee ice cream.

The doll suffered from neglect from day one, and later, abuse. I took away her clothes. I chopped off her hair so one tuft protruded from the top of her head. I banished her from my bed, where my treasured stuffed animals comfortably slumbered, and hid her away from view. I don’t think I even gave her a name.

My sister, who was very much like a living doll herself, skinny with a big head covered in curls, adored dolls. In later years, Barbie was her favorite. I would delight in grabbing her Barbies away, flicking off their heads with my thumb while saying, “Mama had a baby and her head popped off.” This never failed to trigger her protective maternal instinct, and like a lioness, she would charge me, roaring and scratching.

Eventually I kept to verbal abuse. It proved to be my forte. I delighted in generating withering insults attacking their character, their physical appearance, their intellect (or lack thereof). And like the vacuous creatures they were, they still invited me to their birthday parties.

When I was pregnant, I might have been uncertain as to whether I would have a boy or a girl, but I was sure I would have a doll-free house. I fantasized about having a house where I could pass freely from room to room without fearing their steady, reproachful gaze. But give birth to a girl, and they come marching in. A little plastic army, ready to do battle and win the affections of my daughter. The first seemed harmless enough; she was made of cloth and rattled when you shook her. Sophie named her “Baby.” In the morning, I knew Sophia was a wake when I heard her slamming Baby around in her crib. Baby went everywhere with Sophie, and fearing that it had become her transitional object, I ran out and purchased an identical replacement. We did, briefly loose Baby, and so I produced Baby II, to whom Sophie (who recognized it as a replacement) gave the name Baby MmmMmm. Sophie easily transferred her affections to this doll. And when Baby resurfaced, we took to calling her Original Baby, as Sophie fickly went back and forth between the two.

When we finally did receive Sophie’s first official Stepford doll, I quickly and silently regifted it. (Yes, I’m sorry gifter and recipient, I did!) But then, on Sophia’s first Hanukkah, my sister (finally exacting her revenge) gave my daughter her first “real” doll. She had blond hair and blue eyes. Kevin and I jokingly referred to her as, “The Arian.” And Sophie, mishearing us, called her “Karen.”

During her first year in residence, Karen was relatively in obtrusive. She joined the masses that flanked the side of Sophie’s crib…the nameless entourage that swallowed her up each evening.

But, overnight, Karen rose from relative obscurity into the number two position, second only to Snakey-Pie (now the official transitional object). Sophie took her down to breakfast. “Karen wants breakfast too.”

Was Karen grinning at me?

Begrudgingly I gave Karen a plastic pink bowl and spoon. “No! She needs cereal.”

“It’s in there. Pretend cereal. That’s what Karen eats.”

“Oh,” replied Sophie, buying it, and spooning pretend cereal up to Karen’s frozen pout.

Then Karen spoke. Her voice was creepier than I could have imagined, a high pitched, scratchy sound, “I like cereal, ma-ma!” Not sweet and angelic. More like the voice of an old crone.

“Sophia, a little less for Karen, a little more for you, please.” I redirected her back to her breakfast.

It was only the beginning. Snakey-pie might still be at the top of the heap while she slept, but during the day, Sophie belonged to Karen. There was no place the doll was unwelcome. Karen was soon accompanying us to the grocery store, the babysitters, the bath. Sophie would insist on holding her over the toilet and wiping Karen’s butt before going to the bathroom herself.

And then Karen began to make demands. “Karen wants a high chair for my birthday,” Sophie told me. “And a crib.” Though I resented the fact that Karen was going to be the ultimate recipient of the birthday present, it was what Sophie wanted, so I acquiesced. On November 15th, Karen came downstairs to find a swing, a stroller, a high chair and a cradle with matching pink-checked upholstery waiting for her in front of the fire place. Sophia was charmed and immediately set to feeding and caring for her baby.

That night, putting Karen to sleep in the cradle alongside her own her own bed Sophia told me, “I do all the mommy things, and she does all the baby things.”

Then, suddenly I got it; the evidence was everywhere:

Like on the morning, weary from combat, I was sprawled out on my bed, waiting for Sophia to calm down so I could go in for round two in the Fight to Get Her Dressed. Sophia emerged, contrite and half-naked, holding out her shirt. “Can you help me put this on?” she asked in a tiny voice.

“Sure,” I said, pulling it down over her head.” Sophie disappeared into her room, and returned with a naked Karen in tow.

“Sometimes Karen has a fuss and doesn’t want to get dressed.” She told me.

“What do you do when Karen doesn’t want to get dressed?” I asked.

“I put her clothes on, because she needs to listen when I tell her to do something.” Sophia replied, matter-of-factly.

“That’s true.” I said, “You are her mommy.” Sophia nodded.

“And I know that you don’t want Karen to be cold and you want her to be ready to go out and enjoy the day.”

“Yeah,” said Sophie. “I’m a good mommy.”

I glanced down at the undressed Karen. Was she winking at me?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

How to Cook a Turkey

Every year Thanksgiving takes me back to the same place…the Internet. I rely on the information super highway to quickly school me in the intricacies preparing and roasting the turkey: How long should you thaw a frozen turkey (one night is NOT enough)? How do you truss it? At what temperature do you cook it? How often should you baste it? What if it starts to brown too quickly? How do you know when it’s done.

Well, this year, I didn’t have to Google the answers, and thanks to the 4-year-old class at Grandma Judi’s preschool, The Children’s Workshop, neither do you.

How to Cook a Turkey
(By the 4-year-old class at Miss Judi’s Children’s Workshop Preschool)

1. Shoot a turkey with a bow and arrow. If you don’t have an arrow, buy a turkey at Shop-Rite.
2. Put your turkey in a seat belt and drive it home.
3. Give the turkey a bath. (No soap.)
4. Dry it with a towel.
5. Put butter on it; put mayonnaise and cheese on it.
6. Heat up the oven really hot. Really really hot. Super hot.
7. Put the turkey in for at least one minute, but maybe 4 or 6 minutes.
8. Don’t forget to stuff it first. You can use pudding, ice cream, strawberries, blueberries and chocolate.
9. Take it out of the oven, cut it up, put it on a plate, say “Enjoy!” and eat it.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Disclaimer: Any follower of this recipe (or guest at the table of the recipe follower) holds Melissa , Grandma Judi and the four year old class at the Children’s Workshop Preschool harmless for any damages, including illness or death, that result from following any and all of the above instructions for cooking a turkey.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Brilliant Today

On her third birthday, Sophia was already planning her fourth. “We’re going to have a pajama ball…and then for my fifth birthday….”

“Hold up a second.” I interrupted, “that’s a long ways away. By the time you are five, what you like is going to be very different from what you like now. Why don’t we wait a year before we start making plans? Hmmmm?”

Why not let her dream? The fact of the matter was I couldn’t bear the thought of her fourth birthday. Or her fifth. Of course, she is just enamored with the newly grasped concept of a day when all her friends come over to celebrate her. But I see those years flying by with breakneck speed. I feel us stepping into the future and climbing over the brilliant today.

You know how when you go on a vacation, the first day feels full of possibility? You’re excited about all the things you might do (or, if you’re my husband, don’t have to do). Then, by the middle of the week you’re already dreading the end. In fact, you begin to emerge from your relaxed state, prematurely, with the anticipation of what awaits you when you return. And then, suddenly, your vacation is over, and you’re pissed off at yourself for not enjoying it more. Okay, maybe that’s only me, but you get where I’m coming from. .

That’s how I think of these early years. Three marks the official beginning of “my favorite stage.” Through teaching, I have discovered that I love the years between three to seven, when every day is filled with the thrill of discovery and children are not yet ground down by the monotony of school, the pressure of friends, and the ugliness that exists in the world. Still innocent, still wide-eyed, still full of unbridled emotion, mostly joy. The years when they crack the code of the written word and they realize that anything they want to know or experience is open to them through the pages of a book. The years when they tell you what they think as it occurs to them, without censorship—good and bad. The years when, without an ounce of self consciousness they throw their arms around you and tell you how much they love you. It is a magical time.

That is how I found myself, on the eve of Sophia’s first day as a three-year-old, lamenting it’s advent to Kevin. In my mind, the hourglass was already half-empty. “Three years,” I sighed. Kevin nodded. Neither of us could believe she was already three. Kevin had recently viewed a few the videos we have made since Sophia was born. “You’ve got to see that footage,” Kevin told me. “It’s remarkable how much she’s changed.” “So I can cry my lungs out?” I replied. “No thank you.” I do want to see it, but it will evoke an exquisite sort of pain I am sure only the Germans have a word for. It’s all going to blow by so quickly,” I said for the nine-millionth time. Kevin assented. “It will. But it’s all wonderful.” I wish I could feel that way…that every stage, every age has it’s own gifts. But I dread the tween years, the teen years, the separation and individuation every child must undergo to become an independent self. I watch young girls who still hold their mother’s hand with hope and longing. And when she throws a fit, raging against me, I fear this is a glimpse into the future, of the opposition and resistance to come.

The myth of negative parent-teen relationships looms large.

“Don’t worry.” I’m told. “Not every child is like that.” And the evidence is all around me, in my neighbors’ sweet kids, my impressive young cousins, and the responsible, caring, passionate teens I’ve encountered in my work and moving about in the world. Even, I, despite the arguments we had and the clandestine ways in which I rebelled, cherished the closeness I felt with my parents.

But, truth be told, if I could, I would hold us here in this known and splendid today.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Incidental Eco-Cook

This blog is inspired by Myra Goodman’s cookbook, The Earth-Bound Cook. The Earth-Bound Cook is a November selection of the fabulous online bookclub, From Left to Write.

I have a confession to make. When preparing meals, my first priority is nutrition, not the environment. I try to buy as much organic as possible and frequent the farmer’s market not out of a larger concern for the future of our planet, but for the immediate future of my family. Truly organic edibles contain none of the commercially produced pesticides, growth hormones or antibiotics present in so much of our food, despite the fact that we know very little about the impact of these chemicals on the human body. And local foods are so much fresher and vitamin-rich than those that are grown and shipped from far away places. But reading and cooking from The Earthbound Cook this past month, I felt a little less guilty about my lackadaisical attitude towards eating “green”, for the book illustrates that cooking in an eco-friendly manner and eating healthy are almost always synonymous.

I was not always the health nut I am now. In fact, there was definitely a time in my life I subsisted off of refined sugar, hamburgers, French fries, meatballs and spaghetti. It’s called childhood. But when I turned sixteen, my best friend handed me the book, Animal Liberation. It was exactly what the title suggests. And though I didn’t actually read it cover-to-cover, I did peruse the photographs of industrial farming stuffed between its pages, felt ethically ill and became a vegetarian overnight. A couple years later another friend showed me an article in the Utne Reader about how eating lower on the food chain, i.e., plants, conserves resources. Though it certainly contributed to my sense of self-righteousness, disgust remained the driving force behind my meat-free diet. At 21, I studied abroad and learned that in some countries they will laugh at you and call you a privileged American if you refuse what you are offered at the table. Ashamed of the luxury of vegetarianism, I became more flexible adding fish and chicken to my diet and now…I admit…the occasional red meat, though still well below the American average of 8oz of meat per day.

Today, I struggle with what to feed Sophia from the meat department. For me, she is the point at which all of these issues converge. Making nutritional choices, cultivating tastes, inculcating a food ethic, if you will, are all inextricably entwined in the question: What’s for dinner? I have decided that I want to start with her at the point where it took me 40 years to arrive—by feeding her a diet rich in a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy products, and protein sources thoughtfully produced and distributed. For me, “thoughtfully” incorporates a variety of things…raising animals humanely; maximizing the nutritional content of food (not by genetically altering plants or adding nutrients to livestock feed, but by rotating crops and grazing animals); avoiding adding pollutants to our soil, water and air; eliminating the need to pump animals with hormones and antibiotics by allowing them to engage in their normal activities in a natural environment. And, on my end, supporting the farmers invested in making this effort.

Kevin and I have consciously made a decision to put a substantial portion of our income towards good food. It means that we spend less money on other things, including eating out. It also means that we have to apportion a good deal of time to the procurement, preparation, consumption (you want to savor what took some time to prepare) and cleaning up of this food. I have come to think of it as an investment in our health and well-being. Yes, it is true that modern medicine is keeping us alive longer than ever and even people with atrocious diets live to see triple-digits. But, I do wonder about the relative quality of life, health-care costs, and, yes, impact to the planet that eating “normally” has.

The Earth-Bound Cook was provided to me by the publisher free-of-charge through my participation in the online book club, From Left to Write. I was not paid to write this blog. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Mother's Motto: Be Prepared

From the time Sophia sprouted teeth, she has rejected our attempts to brush them. I suspect it is not so much the sensation of brushing, as it is the sense of violation that irks her. Either way, it is a daily and nightly battle that I wage in the name of oral health.

So, in part, my insanity about limiting juice and sweets is intimately related to her resistance to brushing. Until she is cleansing those teeth herself, taking responsibility for the consequence of her actions, I’m going to have some say in how much sugar crosses her lips. Go ahead. Call me a hypocrite. Yes, I eat a lot of chocolate. I also floss every night.

My family has a history of bad teeth. My father, the child of depression-era parents, tells me he did not own a toothbrush (nor had he ever seen a dentist), prior to adolescence. His poor dental hygiene (coupled with some other bad habits) has eroded his smile. He has more bridges than Madison County, and frequently calls me, deliberating the choice to try to build in supports to save a tooth that is on its way out, or to save a few bucks and just have it pulled.

“It’s your teeth, Dad.”

“Yeah, but it costs me a lot of f-ing money.”

“Exactly, what are you saving your money for? Dentures?”

So I understand the importance of good dental hygiene. After losing my first adult tooth (gum disease, the component of my dad’s dental problems that might be genetic), I got serious. After years of my dentist pleading with me to floss, I finally broke down. And now, I bask in the praise of my dentist who acknowledges that I am a truly dedicated flosser. Not like those hacks who only floss the night before they go to the dentist and come into the office the next day their gums a shredded, bloody mess.

A necessary evil, I have long feared Sophia’s first trip to the dentist. Best case scenario—she throws a royal fit for us and we have to retrain her. Worst case scenario—she throws a royal fit for us and we have to restrain her as the dentist drills her 20 cavities-ridden teeth. So, I was terribly relieved when my pediatrician said to take her when I thought she could sit through it. (Of course, I had read elsewhere that you should take them as soon as they get a tooth. I say, when you hear conflicting advice, go with the thing you want to hear. Um, I mean, trust your instincts.)

Kevin and I have tried everything, and I mean everything, to get Sophia to brush her teeth—cute brushes, silly songs, modeling the behavior, a toothbrush that spins, vibrates and cleans your teeth just by holding it stationary in your mouth…pinning her down and forcibly prying her mouth open. Oh yeah, and begging and pleading. The only thing that has proven to be successful is to distract. Distract. DISTRACT DISTRACT. So, in the morning I let Sophia do a paltry job herself, and in the evening Kevin and Sophia lie side-by-side as he holds a book up over her face, while I hover over her, invading her mouth and sawing away, quadrant by quadrant, with the determination to keep her cavity free.
It works for us.

As her third birthday approached, I knew it was time. The last vestiges of babyhood were fading fast. The diapers went, then the high chair, the baby fat from her cheeks…and she could sit and focus, at least while I wasn’t making the demand that she do it.

Together, we went to the library to take out some dentist books. I found a whole shelf full of them, untouched since 1984. Two of them were a photojournalistic trip to the dentist’s. Perfect.

Sophia was enchanted. She made us read the books over and over again. And pretty soon, I was performing complete dental exams in the basement. She would lean her head back and open her mouth as wide as it would go. Still, I would quote from one of her books, “Open wider, Sophie. I can’t stand on my head.” We counted her teeth with a spoon, polished them with a plastic cake server, and then took x-rays by placing small folded pieces of cardboard in her mouth as I ran out of the room to push the button. Then, I’d come back and draw pictures of little teeth on them with black spots. “Oooh,” I’d say, “bad news. It looks like you have some cavities. We’re going to have to clean out those teeth.” And then I’d drill them with my little finger, as I made a high-pitched whirring sound.

When I was finished, she simply said, “Again!”
Still, fantasy is one thing, reality another. I really wasn’t sure how this was going to go down. When D-day finally arrived, Sophie was so excited she could hardly contain herself. Now I was really worried—what if she felt cheated by the experience. As if I had made something really awful into something really wonderful. What if our trip to the dentist made me a liar in my daughter’s eyes?

In the dentist office, Sophie shrieked with delight when she saw the toys in the waiting room. She dove in while I poured over the paperwork. We both looked up when the hygienist stood at the door: “Sophia?”

Sophia leapt up and ran for the door. “Are you my dentist?” she asked. No, she was not, but she would take us back to the room and the dentist would be there soon.

Sophia sprawled out on the red pleather dentist chair and opened her mouth as wide as it could go. “Not yet,” laughed the hygienist. “We need to wait for the dentist.” I made her shut of the television at the foot of the chair. “We won’t be needing that, “I told her, hoping it was true. I read a book I pilfered from the waiting room until the dentist walked in. On cue, Sophie’s mouth dropped open again. The dentist was charmed. “You may be my best patient yet today,” she told Sophia. Sophie beamed and then she opened her mouth again. “We’re not ready for that quite yet, honey. I want to show you my instruments first.” And then, just like in the books we read, she patiently showed Sophie each instrument and explained how it worked. Sophie was rapt. And compliant. She let the dentist count her teeth, polish them, scrape of the plaque (yes, she had a little, despite my best efforts) and paint them with fluoride. And when she was done, she left the room and re-emerged with a princess crown and a fairy wand.

Sophie almost passed out.

When we finally walked out of the office, Sophia burst into tears. “I want to stay!” she tantrummed.

I stood there and let her throw a fit, proud to be her mom.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

After All I've Done For You

My Jewish grandmother leans over her kitchen table (covered in three layers of table cloths) and says, quietly, so my mother doesn’t hear:

“You think there’s a Santa Claus?”

My seven year old sister and I nod our heads.

“Feh! There’s no Santa Claus. That Santa Claus you love so much is your mother. It’s your mother who buys presents for you, with her own hard-earned money. Your mother who gives you the things you ask for.” She pauses, letting it sink in before delivering the final blow, “And this is the way you treat her?”

We look down, our faces burning with shame.

“You girls have no idea how much she does for you,” she added, regarding us with disdain.

We must have committed some sin, some infraction to deserve this terrible truth…probably we were fighting, as we often did. We looked at each other. No Santa Claus? How does grandma explain all the ho ho hoing in the upstairs hallway? The jingle of bells? The missing milk and cookies? Was all of that our mother?

When mom found out that grandma kicked the goyishe fantasies out of us (we told on her, of course), she was livid. I’m sure grandma was shocked that mom was upset. Or at least she feigned shock, “But Judi, darling,” I can hear her saying, “I only wanted the girls to appreciate what you do for them.”

Grandma, you see, was a pro. She knew how to wield guilt like a ninja wields his sword, slicing through sibling rivalry and misbehavior. And my mother, well, she learned at the foot of the master. She used it sparingly, but when I was a brat, mom could kick my ass with the withering, “This is the way you treat me? After all I’ve done for you?

So, no surprise that these words would rise in my consciousness and bubble up to my lips when my own daughter lacks gratitude for the very…life...I gave her! Take, for example, last weekend when I took Sophia to see Curious George, LIVE! Now, I know that it is unfair to expect at not-quite-three-year-old to sit through an hour and a half long performance by a singing and dancing monkey, even if said monkey is her HERO and I spent over an hour in traffic to get there, and paid you-don’t-want-to-know how much for nosebleed balcony seats. Still, after the first half, when Sophia lost it, dangling herself over the aforementioned balcony, asking to repeatedly go to the bathroom (only to swing her legs from the potty and say “no, I don’t have to go.”), and using the handicapped access railing like monkey bars…I was tempted. It was a conscious effort NOT to say those thirteen little words.

But I refrained…because I also know that these words can breed resentment, shame, anger and the general sense that nothing you do can or ever will be good enough.

It is at once so easy and so difficult for me to shift my perspective. To not feel personally affronted by my child’s behavior, but to understand that she is learning how to be a decent human being and it’s my job to help her along.

Recently, at my mother’s house, Sophia was in her high chair eating dinner. She was suffering some injustice (I think I was making her eat a carrot), when she drew back her arm, prepared to hit me. I caught her arm, midair and told Sophia, “Use your words. Say: Mommy, I’m angry at you. I don’t want to eat this carrot!”

“Mommy! I’m angry at you!”

“That’s okay,” I say, an ocean of calm. “It’s okay to be angry with me when I’m asking you to do something you don’t want to do. But I tell you what. You eat this carrot and then you can have more cous cous.”

“Okay,” Sophie agrees. She eats the carrot. I dole out some cous cous.

My mother, watching this scene, said, “If I ever told my mother I was angry with her, she would have never let me hear the end of it.” I think I detected a note of admiration in her voice. And all at once I understood how she tried to swallow down these words too, words that she had heard many more times growing up then I did. I was awash with gratitude.

Parenting is a thankless job. But you don’t do it for approval. Or for gratitude. Or for love. And when it’s not expected, it comes much more freely.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Who Is That Evil Dictator Living in My House? Oh. Wait. That’s My Daughter.

I had been duly warned by friends and strangers alike that “Three is the new two,” in other words, either the terrible twos aren’t quite so terrible or the threes are getting worse. But still, I developed a false sense of security as I witnessed Sophie’s occasional flip outs. They went a little something like this:

“Sophie, it’s time for dinner.”

“NO! I want to play downstairs with daddy.”

“Climb into your chair.”

“I WON’T CLIMB INTO MY CHAIR! Run away! Run away!” And she’d make a beeline for the living room couch, throw herself upon it, sob uncontrollably for about a minute, then walk back into the kitchen and say in an eerily sing song voice, “I calmed myself down, and I’m ready to eat dinner, Mommy.”

The whole thing was just weird. But manageable.

As we edge closer and closer to three (that’s the magic number), Sophie has become increasingly willful, naughty, and something of a bully.

Willful: “No! Don’t put on my shirt! I want to do it myself!” She rips off the shirt I just pulled over her head. But, instead of dressing herself, she begins to prance around the room. “I’m naked! I’m naked!” "Sophie, put your shirt on now." “No!” she retorts. “I want to read a book.” She pulls A is for Art Museum off the shelf, thrusts it towards me and orders, “Read it!” “There will be no books until you get dressed. If you don’t put your shirt on by the count of three, I’m putting it on you.” Blatantly ignoring me, she thumbs through the book. I then yank the shirt over her head. She screams and tries to pull it off as I struggle to pull it on. I am the victor. She throws herself on the floor and sobs.

Naughty: “Mommy, I’m taking my shoes off,” Sophie taunts from the backseat. "Sophie we are almost home. Please do not take your shoes off." “I’m taking them o-ff,” she replies in her evil twin sing-song voice. Since there is nothing I can do, short of pulling over onto the shoulder of the highway and risking certain death, I ignore her. A shoe goes whizzing by my head. Now, I’m pissed. “SOPHIA! YOU DO NOT THROW THINGS IN THE CAR WHILE MOMMY IS DRIVING! WE COULD GET IN AN ACCIDENT AND GET VERY HURT.” Still defiant, she takes the other shoe off, but doesn’t throw it. In my rearview mirror I see her dangling it off of her pointer finger. And smiling.

Bully: “Que fortunidad, estamos perfectos aqui….” “No Mommy! You are not allowed to sing. I LIKE this song. You cannot like this song.”

This behavior has excited my insecurities as a self-proclaimed perfectionist mom (and a psychologist). Like, shouldn’t I have a better behaved kid? I mean, shouldn’t she be absolutely perfect ALL the TIME? What am I doing wrong that she flouts my rules, mocks me, and bosses me around?

And then the pea-sized part of my brain isn’t governed by emotions and self-doubt whispers…she is doing what she is supposed to be doing.

She is developing a separate self.

She’s testing the waters.

She’s trying to see when I will break my resolve and where I stand firm.

She’d like to throw a shoe at my head.

She wants to be reassured that I am trying to keep her safe.

She wants to assert her independence from me.

She wants to see what kind of emotional impact she can have on me as an affirmation of my investment in her.

She wants to do what she wants to do.

She doesn’t want to have to listen to me warble along with Dan Zane.

She wants to be in charge for once in her life.

She wants me to reassure her that I am in charge.

Okay. Fine, but it’s freaking exhausting.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Very Superstitious

I am very very very superstitious. I was busy knocking on wood the other night—I think Kevin deigned to mention something about Sophia being healthy, and I started thumping away, ready to put my fist through the table to counteract the ill effects of his positive words.

Kevin, whose grown accustomed to such peccadilloes (and usually ignores them), looked at me with mild interest and said something intelligent about ancient pagan rituals surviving modern faiths. People still do engage in them, even if it’s contrary to what they now believe.

(I was sure that knocking on wood was a Jewish thing to do. But it turns out grim, fatalistic, magical thinking actually predates the Jews. We wikipediaed it.)

Thing is, if Kevin’s theory is correct, I’m an outlier. I really believe this stuff. I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop, terrified of saying something good, acknowledging the good things in life for fear that tragedy will immediately befall. And because I have this mindset…I actively exercise “confirmatory bias.” That is, I look for evidence that supports my way of thinking, and ignore evidence to the contrary, thus solidifying my position.

Bad things come in threes.
Step on a crack, break your mama’s back.
Knock wood.

So, you can imagine how hesitant I am to commit what I am about to say to paper. And I’m trying to see if I can simultaneously knock on wood and type at the same time.

Sophia has pooped in the potty for nine consecutive days. Notice, I didn’t say Sophia is toilet trained. That would be far too audacious, inviting the wrath of the gods. No. I am simply stating the facts. I realize our winning streak is subject to change at any moment. I am prepared for accidents at all times. And I do all that I can to prevent them.

I am the gnat in her ear: “Do you need to go potty?”
I am the PR director, “Sophie, tell grandpa the BIG NEWS!”
I am Miss Manners, “We don’t poop on princesses….”
I a cheerleader, “Mommy is SO PROUD that you are pooping in the potty like a big girl! Go SOPHIE!”

Here’s how I finally did it. Fed up with the pull-ups, I got rid of them. I told Sophie (much as a friend had suggested at least a month ago) that we were done with diapers. From here on in, it would only be big girl underwear. My neighbor sagely suggested buying lots of cheap underwear and treating them as disposable. (Hence the princesses panties.) Granted, I had some misgivings of how not green that was. (But neither are pull-ups or constantly laundering underwear.) And after just two accidents (the Discovery Museum incident) a bed-wetting fiasco that was completely my fault (forgot to toilet her before the nap, gave her a ton to drink, didn’t pick her up the minute I heard her stir because I was too busy chatting it up with my friend Elisa) and a lot of mortification on Sophia’s part (oh how she cried at the shame of having wet the bed), she’s been clean and dry.

What it simply boiled down to was: she was ready. Physically, emotionally and intellectually ready. And when she was, she basically trained herself.

So now I’ve done it. Tomorrow, I am sure, I will wake up to find my baby distraught, her bed soaked with urine (she insisted she didn’t have to go before bed), and the gods laughing at me, because I had the hubris to announce to the world that Sophia is done with diapers.

Perhaps some sort of burnt offering will appease them. Is it illegal to burn Pampers in your backyard?

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Case for Siblings (continued)

I read The Kids Are All Right, by Diana, Liz, Amanda and Dan Welch as a participant in the online bookclub, From Left to Write. The following blog is not a review of the book, but a blog inspired by this absorbing memoir.

Siblings are the only true witnesses of our childhood. They experience what we experience. They see what we see. They hear what we hear. They know what it was like. Whenever I have questioned a memory of my childhood, I can check it out with my sister, Jennifer. Whenever I feel like I’m exaggerating or minimizing something in my mind, I can rely on her to validate my perception.

This is something that Sophia may never have.

That thought was present for me, as I read The Kids Are All Right, a memoir of a difficult childhood (sudden, mysterious death of their father and the subsequent slow, painful loss of their mother to cancer) told in four, alternating sibling perspectives. It was an engrossing conceit; I took in these tragic events from four different angles: sibling position, age, and individual resources each playing a role in how The Kids experienced and coped with the death of their parents. Most of the time, their memories matched up…but occasionally, they contradicted one another or were completely different in content and feeling. It got me thinking, what would it be like to write about my childhood memories alongside my sister? What insights might come of it?

So, I turned to Jennifer and asked if she would participate in a little writing experiment with me. This week, my sister guest blogs as we recall a slice of our childhood.


Almost every weekend after brunch, a spread of bagels and lox and the occasional six layer chocolate cake (my father had a sweet tooth), we would venture into NYC to spend the day.
Both my parents enjoyed exposing us to the arts, culture and rich experience no other place like the city had to offer. I loved strolling the Lower East side and the Village with my family. Melissa gossiping and in step with mom, and me skipping next to dad, my father's warm hand reaching for mine. I had a feeling of great security and contentment. We would window shop, visit a museum or park and then usually have Chinese. I liked the warmth and steaminess of the restaurant inside as I people watched. After dinner I would have pistachio ice cream and Melissa, chocolate. Jazz would play on the car radio lulling me to sleep. Home would come too soon.


Though my parents disagreed on nearly everything, from how much one should spend on a grapefruit to whether or not my mother should work…they were united in their love of the arts. My mother was an artist in her own right. She had studied fine art in school, and took a job in commercial art after college, drawing pillows for Comfy. By the time I was in school, her portfolio was moldering in our unfinished basement, though she still incorporated art in her nursery school teachings. My grandmother displayed my mother’s self-portrait (in oil) prominently on the far living room wall. I would study the painting--my mother’s face, forever young, her ponytail pinned in a “plotch” on top of her head--for traits that resembled my own. But I was the spitting image of my father. Dad was less a practitioner of the arts than an aficionado. He loved jazz, antiques, modern art, flea market finds. There was nothing pretentious about his tastes. He liked what he liked. So our forays into the City were wild and varied. I remember, one time, Mom and Dad took us to the Guggenheim. There was a transgender exhibit going on. Paper dolls had swinging sex parts affixed with paper fasteners. Jenny and I gawked, less intrigued by the fact that there were male dolls with female sex parts and vica versa than that there were sex parts on display at all. Dad suggested releasing a bag of marbles at the top and letting them roll down the spiral museum promenade. We either giggled or were appalled, the way we either giggled or were appalled at most of my father’s behavior. Whereas other dads might joke about this, our Dad might actually do it.

My mother was usually appalled. We always drove into the City. Dad had a Dodge Daytona that he drove like it was a Ferrari. He would weave in an out of the traffic, while my mother clutched at the sides of her bucket seat, arms tense, body lifted several inches into the air. “Lenny! Slow down!” she’d beg/nag as, Dad would cut off three lanes of traffic, making a beeline for the shoulder, which he’d speed down until his intuition would tell him we were getting too close to a cop. Jenny and I were wedged into the backseats and mercifully couldn’t see much of what was going on. We had to divine from the increasingly tense exchange when we had narrowly avoided disaster. “You almost went into him!” “Will you relax and let me drive?’ Once, the arguing got so bad that Dad jumped out at the light, just as we emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel. I was stricken. Where would he go? How would he get home? My mother, seething, was determined to carry on with the day. We went to the Museum of Natural History and communed with animals long dead. When we got home, Dad was there. I never found out how he made his way back.

When we managed to make it through the day without someone bailing, we went to Chinatown to get dinner at Hong Fat’s. (No longer there, and what has been described on Chow Hound as “one of NYC’s legendary bad restaurants,” though, to it’s credit, many came out in defense of this comment). Afterwards, Dad would prefer to drive through the city streets than to take the West Side Highway back to the tunnel. Jazz on the radio, neon lights bleeding in rivulets of rain on the windows, it was soothing. Invariably, though, I would get sick in the tunnel on the ride home. When I got old enough, I blamed it on the MSG. More likely it was a combination of family drama agita, too much grease, motion sickness, and fear of returning to school the next day. I think Jenny doesn’t remember this because, mercifully, she had fallen asleep.

It’s probably hard to believe, but I do share her nostalgia for these trips. I think it’s because they were formative. Like Mom, Jennifer became an artist, coaxing graceful sculptures out of clay. Like Dad, I developed an appreciation for beauty in odd corners. If I dug far back enough, to the time when I was as old as Jennifer during these trips, I might have had sweeter, more harmonious memories of the four of us together. But that period is blank. Empty for me. And so I rely on Jenny to fill it.

As a member of the online book club From Left to Write, I received The Kids Are All Right from the publisher free of charge. I was not paid to write this essay. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

We Don't Poop on Princesses

Who is responsible for the invention of pull-ups? Wherever you are, I have a bone to pick with you. These objects of modern convenience are the bane of my existence. They are the limbo of toilet learning—not quite diaper, not quite big girl underwear, they do nothing to promote pooping in the potty.

The fantasy:
1. That pull-ups would allow Sophia to be more independent as she learned to toilet—pulling them up and
down herself
2. I would avoid the unpleasantness of “accidents.”

The reality:
1. It is much much harder to clean a child who has pooped in a pull-up than one who has pooped in a diaper. It has to do with removing and containing the hazardous waste. In fact, I am contemplating writing up a step-by-step process to post for first timers as a public service.
2. A friend related this story, which basically sums up my main beef with pull-ups. Her two-year-old daughter, who is quite verbal, would ask before she eliminated: “Am I wearing a pull up or underwear?”

Yes, pull-ups allow our children to wallow in their own filth as long as they please, which, in the case of my daughter is “until I’m three,” as she announced yesterday. Once again, I assert, if a child can tell you when she is planning on being toilet trained, he/she is perfectly capable of doing it.

So, I bit the bullet. I went to Target, and—against my better judgment and all my principles—I bought the damn princess panties. I am very tempted to go into a princesses rant here, but I’ll save it for another day. Suffice it to say that I have nothing against royalty in general, I do have an issue with Disney marketing their products to my daughter from infancy and that she, along with every other girl I know, is able to recognize the brand pre-lingually. But I digress. She carried her precious princess panties all the way to the register and set them down gently on the conveyor belt. The whole time I babbled alongside her, “Now Sophia. On Wednesday we are DONE with diapers. That’s it. No more pull-ups. You are going to wear your princess panties from here on in. And there is a rule associated with wearing princess panties: We don’t pee or poop on princesses!” I was rather proud of myself. This seemed fairly straightforward and sensible. Sophie repeated what I said, internalizing the rule: “No Pooping on Princesses!” “That’s right,” I reinforced. “Very good. Starting Wednesday, we are just going to pee and poop in the potty.” “I will do my poops in the potty like a big gurl!” Sophie declared.

If this does the trick, it will be worth the sacrifice.

Of course, she wanted to put them on right away when we got home. I thought it was wise to build the suspense a little. “Nope.” I said, “we’ll start on Wednesday.” A tantrum ensued. “I want my princesses!” “Wednesday,” I repeated. “You know what you have to do.”

The next morning, she woke up dry, peed in the potty, and told me, “Mommy, no pull-ups. I’m done with pull-ups.”
“Really?” I asked.

“Yes!” She said. “I want my princess panties.”

“Okay,” I relented. Pulled them out of their hiding place. She chose Cinderella. The blue-eyed blond. I felt another pang of liberal guilt.

Sophia donned the panties. She stayed clean and dry throughout the morning, her nap and her time at the babysitters, gleefully whipping her pants down to display her hidden treasure for anyone with a pulse.

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

I picked her up from her babysitter and announced that we were going to the Discovery Museum. “Hooray!” she said. I reminded her that no matter what we were doing, if she felt the urge to go, she needed to tell me. “There will be plenty of time to play, but we also have to make time for the potty.” “Okay,” she old me.

I tried when we got there. She obliged, but she didn’t have to go. I checked in with her at multiple points. Each time she insisted, “I don’t have to.” We were in the diner and I was serving her a strawberry milkshake when she assumed sumo position.

“SOPHIA!” I shouted. “WE DON’T POOP ON PRINCESSES!” Oh yes. I did.

But it was too late. There was no stopping her now. “I’m pooping! I’m pooping!” she cried, as I lifted her, still in squatting position, and ran with her to the girls room. As I pulled down her pants, one errant poo dropped down and rolled across the floor.

“Damn it!” Whoops. Did I say that aloud? I did my best to contain the mess and myself. I silently cleaned her up. Sometimes, it’s best not to say anything at all. Still anti-pull-up, Sophia went commando.

As with all things, there are many roads to the same goal. I suppose I could keep her in pull-ups until she turns the magic number of three. I could allow her to soil the princesses, one by one and then tell her that’s it, there are none left. (And then improvise, because I have no plan for what would happen next.) My plan should be based on the function of the non-pooping in the potty behavior. Only, the function eludes me.

Is it a control issue? Is it a fear? Does she want to keep herself a baby a little bit longer? She’s clearly uncomfortable when she does it. She talks about wanting to be a big gurl.

Someone said to me that there comes a time when it feels wrong to be changing your child’s diaper. For me that time has come. Perhaps what it boils down to is Sophia has to feel it too.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Postponing Pets

“Mom?” I could tell from Sophie’s tone that she had been mulling something over.

“Yeah, Soph?”

“We don’t have any pets,” she observed.

This is true. Max, my beloved cat, died shortly after she was born. At night, when I was pregnant, I would listen to his raspy breathing emanating from where he sat in the doorway to my bathroom. He had diabetes and an enlarged heart. I spent more money that I care to admit trying to extend his life, unable to say goodbye.

Only recently have I felt ready for another cat. Just the other day I was needling Kevin about getting a black one with green eyes. Such a cat would not resemble any of my former cats, and therefore I would be freed of the guilt of “replacing” Max. Kevin rolled his eyes, “An all black cat? So it can shed on everything?” As if the color of the cat had any bearing on how much it shed. Still, I knew what he meant. Max had a talent for being able to shed black hairs on white clothes and white hairs on black clothes. I’m fairly certain he could release them at will.

“Do you want a pet?” I fished, feeling somewhat ambivalent about her response. On the one hand, I miss the heart-slowing effects of having a warm ball of fur in my lap. On the other, cats—ALL pets—are work. Kevin has sensibly asserted that we should get a cat when Sophia is ready to take care of it. I am in perfect agreement with this. I received my first cat when I was five. I saw her at a garage sale just up the road. I begged and pleaded and made all kinds of promises I lacked the ability to keep at five. Against my father’s better judgment, my mother took me to get the cat. She was so tiny—all claws. The very first morning of her 16-year stay, she scaled my mother’s nightgown all the way up to her shoulder, mewing for her breakfast. I do believe my mother fed her (and cleaned her litter box) that day and every day henceforth.

“Yes!” Answered Sophie, pulling me back to the present.

“What kind of pet?”

“A kitty cat!” Thank god she didn’t say dog. Sophie recently overcame her fear of dogs. The Boyfriends (my friend Nan’s twin boys) have a lovely, sweet, obedient dog named Sally, whom Nancy describes as an 8th generation mutt. Sophia has been terrified of Sally from the day one. Nan believed that through gradual exposure, Sophia would master her fear. So, each time we went over, she brought Sally in the room. At first it was for a short period of time and Sally remained on leash. Nan barked commands at her and Sally sat, gave her paw, and played dead. Gradually, Sally stayed longer. And finally, Sally was off-leash. It was quite a triumph when Sophie asked Nancy if she could pet Sally. Nancy held Sally while Sophia stroked her fur. Emboldened by this, Sophia quickly graduated to attempting to cut Sally’s hair, grabbing her ears and smacking her on the head. I was appalled, but Nancy was cool. She’s feeling her power, Nan told me. We worked on gentle touching. There’s still more work to be done.

Still, I don’t want a dog. Ever.

Sophia has been around cats because her grandmother has two. Far less patient than Sally, my mother’s cats hightail it out of there when they see Sophia coming. They are both obnoxious: one by nature, one by nurture. Casey Cat loves Sophie’s grandpa and ONLY her grandpa. He regards the rest of us with scorn, sneering at me when I walk past. I can say this with authority, as a cat-lover, this cat is wholly unloveable. Thus, it was no surprise that he freaked out when Sophie’s grandpa rescued a 3 lb stray—Maggie Magoo. Maggie Magoo was a threat to Casey and Bernie’s inseparable bond, and so he did what any male cat does in this situation. He sprayed the joint. I am quite sure he has covered every inch of the rug in my mother’s finished basement. It smells like NYC on a hot summer’s day down there. Having won the pissing match, he reclaimed his man and left Maggie Magoo, skittish and untrusting, out in the cold.

This feline drama is off Sophia’s radar. Only recently as she walked through the basement did she note, “It stinks down here!” I think she has yet to connect it to the stinker.

I report this conversation to my friend and neighbor, who shudders at the thought of adding a pet to her brood, adding that her seven-year-old son is dying for a dog.

“How about a hermit crab?” I suggested.

“We got a couple of gold fish at the school fair this summer. Remember?”

“Oh yeah,” in my mind’s eye, I could see him holding up a clear plastic bag with a flash of gold inside, “whatever happened to those fish?” I couldn’t recall seeing them around the house.

“Oh they died within a couple of days. Thank god.”

Animal lovers, be assured this was not the heartless remark of a cruel woman. It’s the honest reaction of a mother whose household has reached maximum capacity. Where feeding the goldfish (and changing its water and whatever else you have to do to maintain goldfish health) is one more task that will fall to her, despite her capable brood.

Sophie is awaiting my reaction. “I want one too, honey. But we need to wait until you’re a big girl and can take care of it yourself.”

“Okay,” says Sophie cheerfully, popping her thumb in her mouth. Thank god, indeed.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Motherhood Necessitates Invention

When I first received Room by Emma Donahue, a selection of the online book club, From Left to Write, I flipped open the dust jacket and found myself crying as I read the synopsis. Room is the fictional account of a five-year-old, born in captivity to a young woman who had been kidnapped and imprisoned in an 11x11 foot shed for seven years.

I put down the book, afraid to read it. My imagination is morbid enough without feeding it new horrifying possibilities. Now, finished, I am so glad I scaved it (inside joke, read the book). Though the subject of the novel was dark, there was so much to draw inspiration from: 1) the intensity of MotherLove that enables one do things that would otherwise seem impossible; 2) the utterly remarkable resilience of children, even under the most dire of situations; 3) that which is necessary to be an effective parent and that which is superfluous; 4) how children construct a concept of the world around them; 5) the process of separating and individuating both as child, and as parent… (I hope I’m tempting you to read the book); and what I choose to write about: 6) how limited conditions can inspire boundless creativity.

Puppets from socks; bowling from vitamin bottles; pencil rubbings of common objects, a labyrinth out of toilet paper rolls. The mother of Room engages, teaches and entertains her child with discarded objects, memory, and fancy.

It’s a familiar scenario: We’ve all been trapped in a situation with our children, maybe not a kidnapper’s shed, but something not easily escaped …a delayed flight, an interminable dinner out, a car repair shop…stranded without the necessary tools of distraction (books, puzzles, crayons, etc.) and we have to get creative. Desperation necessitates invention: we tell stories; we mold snakes out of straw wrappers that come alive when we drip water on them, we whip out a sewing kit and a medicine dropper and perform a delicate surgery on our child’s worn stuffed snake (with our child joyfully administering the anesthesiology via the medicine dropper). And, it turns out, these are the activities that delight our children the most, that really get their juices flowing.

But we need not be desperate to invent games “from scratch.” We can set aside the toys, turn off the television, save the amusement park for another day.

Inspiration is everywhere.

My mother tells me to give Sophia a paintbrush and a bucket of water and let her paint the sidewalk. She’s enthralled. My friend Nancy sets up several tubs of water in the backyard and let the kids throw in objects to see if they sink or float. They keep at it for hours. My father (who doesn’t have a single toy in his house) sits and willingly eats a meal of stones, served to him on a set of bongos on his front porch. She cries when it’s time to go. My husband reclines and opens his mouth wide as our daughter examines his teeth with a spoon. Shortly after, I’m called in for a check-up as well.

I love hearing about what other parents come up with to amuse their children. I’ve stolen idea after idea, much to Sophia’s delight. In a world, surrounded by conspicuous consumption, I believe it is possible to do a lot with a little.

So, in yet another breech of the wall between author and reader, I invite you to share the homegrown activities, the homemade toys, the made-up stories and games and things you do with your kids that we can all learn from and come to enjoy.

As a member of the online book club From Left to Write, I received Room from the publisher free of charge. I was not paid to write this essay. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Selective Hearing

Sophia did you make a poop?


Sophia, I asked you if your diaper is dirty.


My toddler is stonewalling me. She heard me alright. I’m only a few feet away. But she seems to think that if she doesn’t respond, I’ll let up with this line of questioning.

No dice.

Sophia, I’m going to check your diaper.

NONONONONONONO. You are not allowed to do that!

Ah hah! I have my answer.

I thought selective hearing was the domain of teenagers. As if puberty somehow temporarily hijacked one’s ability to process requests to come downstairs for dinner, clean your room, feed the dog, do homework, etc. Turns out, it’s actually a skill that is honed over time, taking root in toddlerhood and reaching full maturity at about age 12. In fact, in a survey of parents who conduct psychological research on their own children, some parents reported that their children began ignoring them as early as 2-4. However, the majority of children appeared to listen to their parents approximately 75% of the time until the onset of adolescence, when the percentage of children who listened to their parents precipitously dropped to 15%.

I conducted a little off-line, anecdotal research of my own. I started with my friend Nancy, mother of three. She reported that there does seem to be a significant change in listening ability that occurs between the ages of one and two. Her 12-month-old still hangs on her every word, eagerly watching her mother's mouth as Nancy speaks and responding in kind. Whereas her baby will not always comply with requests to say “hi” or “bye” Nancy feels quite certain that her daughter’s reticence is not due to ignoring, but rather a nascent form of performance anxiety. Her twin toddler boys are a different story. Recently, at a fair, the boys each won a large ball. Completely enamored with their big balls, the boys began to bounce them on the spot. Nancy wanted to move the boys along, but her requests for them to keep walking fell on deaf ears. The boys continued to bounce their balls, oblivious to their mother’s entreaties.

What can we do as parents to combat this powerful strategy? We can repeat ourselves till we’re blue in the face, but frankly, I’m not a fan of repeating myself. And it doesn’t seem to get me anywhere to 1) say it again (I asked if you have a poop in your diaper.); 2) say it louder (I ASKED IF YOU HAVE A POOP IN YOUR DIAPER!); 3) say it meaner. (Listen to me when I talk to you! I asked if you have a stinky poop in your stinkin’ diaper!!!!!). No, we need to fight back. So, today I am encouraging all parents to engage in selective listening with your kids. I know; this seems completely out of character for me. I’m all about empathy and hearing what your kids have to say. I’m talking about selective listening…if they ask to watch TV, have dessert, buy them a new DS, IGNORE THEM. Act like you just didn’t hear. That’s right. They can beg, they can plead, but show them you’ve got stamina. Tell them: Game ON!

All right, maybe not. But no more Mr. Nice Melissa. I resolve to not ask twice. I will ask once and then I will peek in the back of that diaper. Enough talking—I will move to act.

Who’s with me?

Monday, September 13, 2010

My Lifelong Dream

This blog was inspired by Karen Bergreen’s Following Polly, a selection of the online book club, fromlefttowrite. One must look beyond the tabloid-like cover of the book (Or do as I did and remove it altogether. Yes. I am a snob.), as it is in no way representative of the quality of writing within. I finished the book annoyed that Alice Teakle, the protagonist, was a fictional character, as I felt sure we could be friends. The reader (okay, me) accompanied her through the most universal struggles—that of discovering one’s lifelong dream. As someone who fairly recently realized she had a lifelong dream, I thoroughly enjoyed Alice’s journey towards discovering her own.

I can’t say having a baby was a life-long dream, exactly. I didn’t like playing with dolls—their staring eyes and frozen expressions creeped me out. I wasn’t maternal like Christina Hartley, who, when I was crying inconsolably in kindergarten for the 267th time that year, encircled my shoulders with one small arm and said, “It’s okay, honey. It’s okay.” And when I thought I might be pregnant when I was 19, right after my first real boyfriend broke up with me, I was at first terrified and then deeply relived to watch only one pink line form on the pee stick.

Yet, I always adored working with kids younger than me. When I was in middle school, my bus driver, Janice Hall, would tell me stories about people who spontaneously combusted as she drove me to the elementary school where she’d park the bus and my mother ran the aftercare program. I’d join my mother and spend my pre-adolescent afternoons organizing games with the kids and lusting after Graham, my mother’s seventeen-year-old assistant. And, when I aged out of Brownies and was the only middle schooler uncool enough to want to continue on in Girl Scouts, they made me a junior counselor in my sister’s troupe (much to my sister’s chagrin). As soon as I was old enough to get working papers I was a camp counselor, watching over the little kids who belonged to the troupe leaders at Jockey Hollow Day Camp. I held the smallest children over the hole in the outhouse so they didn’t fall in. Important work.

When I was in high school, I told my mother that I wanted to teach emotionally disturbed children. We were standing in the foyer of my grandmother’s apartment (which Grandma pronounced: foy-yay), pulling on our coats to take a walk down snowy Pelham Parkway. Both my mother, a teacher, and my grandmother, who, to my knowledge, had never fulfilled her lifelong dreams, immediately squashed it. (“What? And let your brain go to waste? You should be a doctor!” This isn’t vanity. This is EVERY Jewish mother/grandmother’s lifelong dream for their kid…I have to admit, it’s now mine.)

I don’t think either of them was disappointed when I actually did become a teacher. True, teaching doesn’t have the prestige or financial compensation of being a doctor. But it is among the most noble of professions. And I loved it. I loved my students. In fact, I believe it was a love of teaching that kindled my desire to be a parent. I only got to have my students for six hours a day, but a child of my own would be a 24/7 deal. I think it was in my early twenties that I realized I did have a lifelong dream. I wanted to be a mother.

So, when I found myself swiftly approaching my 30’s, without a partner, let alone a child, I started to contemplate the possibility of having one on my own. I was absolutely 100% certain I wanted to have a child…but I wasn’t quite as sure about having a husband. I wasn’t sure men and women were meant to cohabitate, let alone bear and raise new people. Not long after I began to think this way, I met a man five years my junior. Which basically meant that he had all the time in the world to have a child, whereas I did not. I know I pressured him to have kids, even before we were married. I finally promised, during one particularly tense evening at his parents’ house, to wait until I was 40. What the hell was I thinking? Probably that his mind would change. And it did. I don’t think he even remembers that night.

So what happens when all the stars finally align to make your lifelong dream come true…and you are 37 and your body won’t cooperate? You get depressed. You despair. You resent everyone who has co-opted and is fulfilling your lifelong dream around you. You spend lots and lots of money, time and brainspace trying to figure out why, now that you have finally settled on a lifelong dream, you can’t make it come true.

And you become more and more sure that this is the one thing you want to do before you die.

Not because you want your genes to survive you. Not because you want to kick fate in the face. Not even because you think you’d be good at it. Even though you do. But because you suddenly realize that every lived moment—good and bad, sweet and savory, painful and real—has led you to this conclusion: you are a mother. All that's missing is the baby.

So we tried. And we tested. And we tried. And I stressed. And we tried. And I used acupunture and progesterone.

And then, in her own good time, came Sophia. The baby that made my lifelong dream come true.

As a member of the online book club From Left to Write, I received Following Polly from the publisher free of charge. I was not paid to write this essay. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Call Each by Her Right Name

We are standing in line at the grocery store and the cashier asks my daughter her name, “So—FEE—ah,” Sophia sings, with evident pride and joy.

“Oh that’s a beautiful name,” says the woman standing in line behind me, “I’ve always loved that name.”

“Me too,” I respond. And then I say what I always say, “I think Sophie is adorable for a little girl, and Sophia sounds so mellifluous and sophisticated for a woman.” The woman standing in line behind me nods and adds, “My niece’s name is Sophia.”

Such is the boon and the curse of Sophia’s name. It is universally hailed as beautiful…. I can see the powerful associations it has for people—and how quickly they project those associations onto my daughter when I tell them her name. Names have an impact on how we perceive others.

And: Everyone and her sister (or niece) is named Sophia.

We knew this would be the case. The day my friend Emily told me she was pregnant she also announced that, if the baby was a girl, she would name her daughter Sofie. It was hot and we were dangling our feet in a pool. I had to choke back a sob. I had just lost a pregnancy. A pregnancy I had hoped would result in a Sophia. Now, Emily wanted the same name for her daughter. Silly for me to mind or care, I minded and cared. The juvenile, “I wanted to name my daughter Sophia first!” came to mind, but I held that back too. After all, Emily had every right to name her daughter whatever she chose. But I was jealous. Probably more so of the pregnancy than the fact that she had selected a variant of the name I loved. Probably because she would get to use it, and I doubted I ever would.

Another cruel twist of fate. Later that summer, when Kevin and I sat in a pew in Pittsburg, watching a friend from grad school marry a lovely, intelligent and extremely pregnant woman, the priest revealed the unborn child’s name in his homily.

No! Really? Yes. It didn’t much matter that I cried then, as I wasn’t the only one in the church shedding tears.

That February, still reeling from my third pregnancy loss, I had just completed a three-month impregnation hiatus. We took the break at the suggestion of my fertility doc, who said it would allow my uterus to recover from the D & C used to remove my fetus. The fetus who lost her heartbeat at 11 weeks. I was in a restaurant in New York with my husband and friends of his from college. It was underground, dark, and cave-like. I was sipping water under some stalactites while the others drank wine. My cell phone rang. It was Emily. She had just given birth to Sofie. I expressed whatever joy and congratulations I could muster and then quickly hung up and excused myself. In the bathroom, I held my head in my hands and cried. I wanted to lie on the cold tile floor. I wanted to disappear. Not only did I feel wretched, I was deeply ashamed of the envy that prevented me from being happy for my friend.

I didn’t know that, at that moment, I was already 12 days pregnant with my Sophia.

In the months that followed, we agonized over names, as many parents do. A name has to perform many jobs—in addition to the impression that it creates in others, in Judaism a name reflects both where the child is from and our hopes for who the child will be. Ashkenazi Jews name their children for someone who has passed away, creating a continuity of family history, an inextricable, metaphysical bond between souls. The child is said to be imbued with the positive qualities of the deceased. I really wanted to name Sophia for my grandmother, Ruth, which, I hoped my mother would feel honored by and would channel some of my grandmother’s independent, free-thinking spirit. But, we couldn’t find a single “R” name we liked enough to be saying for the rest of our lives. We toyed with “Razia” for a little while...”Razie” while she was still young…but Kevin never really took a shine to it. We even briefly considered, Zofia, for my Great Aunt Zona, Ruth’s sister, who was like a second mother to my mother, made the best chocolate chip cookies in the world, and had stoically died from throat cancer. Both Razia and Zofia names with under-developed associations. What would others think of a Razia? Is she a raven-haired vixen or does she wear too much patchouli? And Zofia, is she the kind of woman you can’t get out of your head for all the right reasons, or does she tell your fortune for five bucks?

Without dispute, we both loved the name Sophia.

But at this point two of our friends had named their daughter Sophia, and surely there were scores of other parents, who similarly had bestowed their child with this beautiful word that meant “wisdom.” She was doomed to be Sophia M., sitting behind Sophia L and in front of Sophia N., in homeroom.

We already know how the story ends, for this is Life with Sophia, not Life with Razia or Life with Zophia. She emerged from my body and with the wisdom of DNA that has survived and evolved for tens of thousands of years, she took to my breast and sucked vigorously. It was then that we knew no other name would do.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Does Technology Enhance or Interfere with Parenting?

Sophia and I were eating breakfast. She was humming to herself and I was glued to my iPhone, trying to get the weather (and a side of dopamine) with my morning coffee.

"Mommy, put down the phone and talk to me." Shame hijacked all neurological functioning as I set the device gently down on the table and apologized to my daughter.

Oh, I'm not worried that my inattention caused any lasting psychological damage to Sophia. I am generally attentive and attune to her needs. And, in my defense, I was checking the weather to figure out how to dress her and what we should do that day. But in that moment, I felt like I had been caught. Like an alcoholic taking a drink in a closet, the door flung open by my toddler, exposing my folly.

The fact is: my technology addiction is getting out of hand. I want to stop, but I’m finding it difficult to do. I have become a habitual Internet checker. I am plagued with mights: I might have a response to a resume (at 11 pm? Only 5 minutes since your last check?). I might have more hits on my blog (Another hit! Oh wait, that’s my sister again.). I might have heard back from that former classmate, okay boyfriend, I contacted out of the clear blue on FaceBook last week. (Why do I care?). All of these mights are far less important than the human being sitting before me. And yet, I check.

Psychology offers a neat explanation for my behavior: Intermittent reinforcement: On occasion I HAVE received a positive response to a job inquiry, a touching comment on my blog or a regretful note from an old love. In these moments I am rewarded for my frequent and faithful checking behavior. And because I never know when it's going to be one of these moments, if this is the time I'll get the big payload, I keep checking. Not unlike the elderly, gambling away their social security checks on slot machines.

This is how bad it’s gotten: I go online in bed, when I first wake up in the morning. I do it on the toilet. I do it while stopped at red lights, throughout my workday, while my husband is doing the dishes and can't hear me over the faucet, and just before I go to sleep at night. I’m about to do it right now.

I have incurred the disgust of my husband, the incredulity of my mom, and now this, the pleading of my daughter.

I am struggling with where I should draw the line between attending to screens and participating in real life. After all, technology has enhanced my experience of parenting in many ways. When I was in the middle of Illinois, Sophia newly weaned, and I developed painful swollen milk ducts, anonymous moms immediately responded to my listserv pleas for help and got me through those awful three days. The best purchases I’ve made—from a car seat (one of two) that was able to withstand side-impact at 70 miles per hour (Consumer Reports was only supposed to test it at 35 MPH and made a mistake) to the velvet curtains that I hung in the basement to create a theater, are thanks to the Internet. And Skype has made it possible for Sophia to call Grandpa Ben and show him her latest invented ballet steps. So, I do believe that there is a place for technology in parenting.

But how capacious a place? When does my Internet habit become problematic, interfering with my relationships, my productivity, my happiness? At what point am I substituting connectivity for connection? Right now my daughter’s plaintive expression clearly says.

And then there is the issue of me being a hypocrite. How can I, a mother who refuses to expose her daughter to television before she turns three, justify that I carry a screen with me ALL DAY LONG and--shameful but true--sleep with it safely tucked in next to me at night. How can I be so restrictive with her screen time when I have been unable to limit my own? When she finally asks why is what's good for the goose too good for the gosling, how will I explain myself? (“Honey, mommy has a problem....”).

Daddy, however, does not have a problem. I envy my husband, the Luddite, who uses technology, but is not a slave to it, who does not worship at the temple of Apple, who is able to go an entire day without checking his email. He resents the fact that when we are sitting together after dinner, if there is a lull in the conversation; I will pick up my Smartphone. It is righteous resentment. I can remember being equally resentful of an ex-boyfriend's SportsCenter addiction. He watched it every free moment, looking over my shoulder at the streaming scores when I spoke to him. Taking the dinner I made for the two of us in front of the game so that he didn't miss one precious moment. I clearly did not learn my lesson. I am making the same mistake with my dear attentive husband who wants nothing more than to listen to me and be heard.

Dare I unplug? It is hard not to get caught up in the online peer pressure. It seems like anyone who is making a success out of being online has to be online ALL THE TIME. Tweeting, Facebooking, updating their blog, sending out newsletters. It’s exhausting, and not just virtually exhausting, really exhausting. Just how is it that so many successful mom bloggers are constantly online—how have the reconciled doing so and still being a present parent?

I haven’t figured it out. But I guess if I had to choose being the most popular mom online and the most popular person in my own home; I’d choose the latter.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Transforming from Teacher (of Children with Autism) to Mother

The following blog was inspired by the memoir, Cowboy and Wills, in which Monica Holloway shares the touching story of her son's (Wills) diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder and the golden retriever (Cowboy) who coaxes him into the world. Cowboy and Wills was the August selection of the online book club From Left to Write.

Much in the way that when I was a teenager I was fairly certain I knew what it felt like to be an adult, when I was a teacher of children with autism I thought I knew what it was like to be a parent.

I loved my students. I was fortunate enough to work in a system where continuity of care was valued, so the babies that came to me in preschool, barely verbal, developmentally delayed and whirling dervishes of frustration remained with me through their primary years. Across this span of time, I saw children who could not make sounds in imitation learn to speak, students who could not tolerate getting a drop of glue on their finger participate in art projects and kids who would eat nothing but plain bagels expand their palate. For many of the kids who were fortunate enough to receive early intervention, their progress was at once miraculous and a lot of hard work.

There were methods behind the miracles:

  • Discrete trial teaching—breaking down tasks into their smallest component parts and introducing them with painstaking repetition. Keeping data on every single trial and only moving on to a new skill once the child had “mastered” the task and “generalized” it across settings and situations. Teaching, not only was this picturing of a white fluffy Persian a cat, but so was this Calico, this Maine Coon, this Manx, this Scottish Fold.
  • Backwards chaining—taking a simple task of everyday living…something most people do without giving it a second thought…breaking it down into steps, and gradually fostering independence by fading out ones “prompts” backwards, step by step: wet the toothbrush, put on the toothpaste, brush the right upper quadrant, the left upper quadrant, spit…etc.
  • Social stories—scripts of how to conduct oneself during everyday events, demystifying the process for those who didn’t understand “neurotypicals” bizarre social rituals: When I meet a new child I smile, say “hello” and ask his (or her) name, looking into his (or her) eyes.

All of which had to be taught with great patience and hope.

As a teacher, great patience was my job. I had nothing else I needed to focus on. I could say something once and make a child follow through. I could environmentally engineer the room to minimize overwhelming stimuli. I could help a child take a jacket on and off over and over and over again, without the press of having to get out the door.

And, I could do it all without the great pain of thinking, this is my child: Will he ever tell me he loves me? Will she ever use the bathroom independently? Will the sound of the fire alarm always cause him great physical pain? Will she have a happy and meaningful life? I did wonder and care about these things, but not with the intensity that the parents did. How could I? I had my kids on loan for six hours a day. And even worse, one day they would leave me for another teacher, another class, another school. My time with them was limited. I was attached, but I knew that one day I would have to let them go.

So, if my students were every to achieve the goals we set for them, their parents would have to become teachers as well. They would have to set aside their frustrations, their disappointments, their sorrows and persevere. It is hard, as a teacher who is not yet a parent to understand that divorcing emotion from experience is an impossibility.

It took having a child for me to get it. If Sophia refuses to eat…how deeply panicked it can make me feel. If Sophia refuses to sleep…how everything is made more difficult by our mutual exhaustion. If Sophia lashes out at others…how deeply embarrassed I am. Her tenacity is unlike anything I have ever experienced. The pressure to give in to her demands is enormous. And when I make a decision, I often question whether I am doing the RIGHT THING.

Like me, the other teachers turned parents I know have had to learn how to let things slide. For example, that one can’t necessarily make a resistant child say “goodbye” to a friend…and is the fight, which won’t result in a genuine expression of affection, really worth it? How do you decide what to let slide and what to enforce? What is the magic formula that results in general compliance and healthy development? When do you cross the line into spoiled brat territory?

It isn’t quite as cut and dry as I once thought it was.

Life outside the classroom is messy…filled with the unexpected.

As a member of the online book club From Left to Write, I received Cowboy and Wills from the publisher free of charge. I was not paid to write this essay. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.