Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mommy's Sad

I am depressed. I cannot contain it. Tears leak out of me while I am driving, cooking,—whenever my back is turned and she can’t see my eyes.

On this particular evening, I am bent over the sink, weeping over mushrooms, when I feel Sophia’s small arms encircle my legs. She leans in and kisses my thigh. I look down, and she’s laughing. Empathy, a nascent emotion…her kisses are compassionate, but her eyes are amused by my red, twisted, tear-stained face. As if it is a mask and the real mommy, the happy one, will suddenly pop out and say peek-a-boo from behind these sad sad eyes.

I do not want her to see me this way. Kevin comes in, offers a kiss, and draws her away, leaving me to my salty mushrooms. "Mommy's sad?" I hear her ask him. "Yes, mommy's sad, " he affirms.

I do not want her to know that I am suffering. But I am even more concerned about putting my daughter in the awkward position of having to comfort her mother. (In the tunnel of my memory, I can hear my mother sobbing behind a closed door. I feel its magnetic pull, urging me to go in and hold her, reassure her. But it is my resentment that keeps me from unlocking my arms wrapped around my knees. From getting off my bed and going to her. Anger, guilt and fear compete for limited space in my heart.)

I have talked to others who disagree with this. One who says that in the act of holding and kissing me, Sophia is revealing a sweet and compassionate nature. Another who thinks it is okay to know that their parents experience a whole range of emotions—positive and negative. And still others who treasure such gestures in their own children.

But another friend, also sad, understands. She shares a moment, during which, utterly frustrated, she broke down and sobbed in front of her children. We both wondered at (and worried about) what their experience of our pain might be. What feelings it engenders. What memories they will be left with.

Every day, I push past the pain. I drag my sleep-drugged self out of bed to fetch Sophia from her crib. When I retreat back under the covers, she drops book after book onto my head, imposing consciousness. She crawls in next to me, and I recite the stories from memory until the blear lifts from my eyes and the words snap back into focus. We migrate downstairs, and I drink cup after cup of coffee until I feel something that resembles energy. On our days alone, we go to all the places she loves—swimming pools and nursery school, museums and music classes. I operate under the assumption that if I force myself to stay active, I might be able to trick my brain’s chemistry back into homeostasis. But it is her infectious smile, not these outings, that calms my mind and quiets my ruminations.

I do not want to be healed by her attentions. But her love is healing. I do not want to be her burden. But she doesn’t seem weighted down by me.

I have only the awareness of the virulence of my misery to prevent it from spreading. That and a sincere desire to regain happiness and, once again, be the content and lighthearted parent she deserves.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Curious George Takes a Beating

The Man with the Yellow Hat places said yellow hat on the ground. An unsuspecting primate, “George,” ventures near, inspects the hat, and is suddenly netted and captured. Whisked away from his family and natural habitat, the monkey soon finds himself across the Atlantic in an American metropolis. His captor introduces him to all sorts of addictive pleasures… pipe smoking, heavy food, and frequently leaves him unsupervised in his home. During one of these periods, the monkey unwittingly dials the fire department, and is once again captured and then jailed for making a “false report” of a fire. Our hero escapes, only to be imprisoned again, this time in the city zoo.

In later adventures (it is never explained how he is finally released from the zoo and comes to live with the negligent Man with the Yellow Hat), “George” (once again, unsupervised) ingests a puzzle piece and has to be hospitalized; gets into a bike accident, is picked up by a couple carnies and is persuaded to perform in an animal show; and is sent into space without the proper training (by a professor at a museum of natural history, mind you, not NASA) and nearly fails to eject himself when instructed. He is compensated for risking his life with a worthless medal.

This is what I’m reading to my child. This is what she begs me to read. Every. Day.

I have nothing against Curious George. I, too, once identified with his impishness, his insatiable desire to explore, his complete lack of impulse control. But I’m reading it on a whole new level. One that makes me wonder: what is being communicated to my child when I read to her?

It is the classics that make me the most uncomfortable. The books that have been around for decades. Take Babar the Elephant. On page three, Babar’s mother is shot dead by a hunter. He runs off to the city and finds a wealthy benefactress who recognizes his longing for a fine suit and indoctrinates him in a world of gentility and materialism—supplying him with nothing an elephant needs: cars, dinner parties, an elite education, stylish clothes—and it is these things, not his prowess as an elephant, that earns him his place as king, once he returns to the jungle. Or, in A Fly Went By, in what is quite possibly a Cold War analogy (I credit Kevin with this analysis), a fly is pursued by a frog, who is pursued by a cat, who is pursued by a dog…etc. etc. each animal erroneously believes he is being chased by a larger animal —but his fear is unjustified, for the thing that has set it all in motion is a lame lamb whose foot is stuck in a tin can. The chase is instigated by a man with a gun, who jumps to conclusions when he hears the thud of the lamb—he is the first to run. The story has the appeal of repetition and rhyme, but it is the presence of the gun that stops me. Does Sophia need to know what a gun is? What killing is? Does death have to enter her psyche just yet?

And, do we have to kill off the mother quite so early?

I have to admit, I take some editorial license with these stories. Babar’s mother is “hurt.” I omit mention of “guns” and “killing.” And sometimes, I add my own color commentary, speaking out against the exploitation of George and chiding Babar for forgetting his elephantness. Each time I do, the liberal in me is at odds with the liberal in me—what right do I have to censor these stories? To adapt them to my own sense of morality? But what’s worse? To adapt these stories or not read them at all? To what extent do we shape our children’s understanding of the world by the books we select to read to them? And where do we draw the line between imposing our own interpretations and letting our children formulate their own understanding? Conversely, to what extent is this an obligation of a parent—to impart our values and help guide our children to a higher stage of moral development?

I know my days of censorship are numbered. It won’t be long before she discovers violence, and injustice, and hate. But I’d like to preserve her blissful ignorance as long as I possibly can. And then, when it feels right, to help her think critically about what she reads and arrive at her own complex understanding of the world and what has been written about it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

No Control

One morning, over coffee, my mother related a dream she had the night before:

You were shot to death and bleeding on the streets of New York. If that
wasn’t upsetting enough, after you were dead, Kevin moved back to his hometown
and took Sophia with him. I realized that he could just make this decision
without me. I had no right to her, and I lost both of you at once.

Sweet, in gruesome kind of way. But she got me wondering: What if I died tomorrow? What would happen? Would Kevin take our baby back to the Midwest to be near his family? Or would he stay here, continuing to live the life that we had begun to build together? It was a timely question, as Kevin and I had decided to do some estate planning and were about to meet with a lawyer to discuss the what-ifs.

Like my mother, I have a very morbid, over-active imagination. I often play deadly dramas in my head—if I see a car start to drift into my lane, I don’t simply worry about Sophia and I being in a car accident. I see our car spin out of control from the impact; I watch us plough into a truck; I feel the impact; I hear myself scream and Sophia’s awful cries. But I am unable to imagine what happens next: life beyond me.

Not to worry. The lawyer delighted in presenting us with worst case scenarios:

Consider this: you and your husband spend a night out on the town in
Atlantic City (already, implausible). Heading back home, you’re in a
terrible car accident and both of you die. When you don’t come home, your
babysitter doesn’t know who to contact and she calls the police. Sophia is
taken into custody by DFYS (I start to cry at this point. Silent tears so
the lawyer can’t hear.) You have a long-term guardian in place, but
he/she’s too far away to swoop down and get her immediately. So Sophia
languishes in a group home until the paperwork goes through and your long term
guardian can finally get her.
(Sold on the document for assigning short-term guardianship.) Okay. That’s if both of us, god-forbid, should be struck down at once. But what if it’s just me?

I ventured to ask the lawyer a question, “Kevin, don’t get offended when I ask Sam* this, but, what if it’s just me who dies…can I leave any directives that Kevin has to follow. Like, that he has to take my daughter to see my mother a certain number of times each year. Or he has to make sure she eats her vegetables every day.”

The lawyer paused (trying to determine whether I was serious) while Kevin had a field day with this, “So you don’t trust me, huh? Well maybe I’ll take her to Mexico! Or no, maybe I’ll force her into child labor!”

“Kevin, STOP it. I’m serious. I want to hear what he has to say.”

The lawyer, I think, thought I was a little nuts. “You can put whatever you want into writing…but, you won’t be able to enforce it.”

Kevin danced around, gleefully. And that’s when it hit me: I have no control after my death. I get no say.

This was a lot for a control freak like myself to digest.

All the things that I believe in, that I do…no tv, meals from scratch, books since birth, Spanish, staying at home, my mother’s nursery school…they might still happen, or they might not. Kevin might stay, or he might go. He might remain single, or he might remarry. Sophia could have another mother, one who, over time, she’d come to know better than me (audible gasp).

This is a very good reason not to die. I suppose there are others. But this one is up there.

I will eat right. I will exercise. I will drive cautiously. And I will parent every day as if it was my last.

Monday, January 11, 2010

This and That

I am reading essays about the “singular joys and solitary sorrows of growing up solo,” when I come to a passage that I find thought-provoking:

A biographer discovers that embedded in most lives, especially literary ones,
there is a dialectical principle—two poles with an opposite charge that behave
like force field, shaping a subject’s sense of self and view of the world.
In the case of Isak Dinesen, these poles were Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the
aesthetic and moral imperatives [stay with me here]. In the case of
Colette, they were the Pure and the Impure—categories that helped her understand
her culture’s too strictly assigned notions of gender; the ambiguities of
self-exposure and concealment in her writing; and the condition of an
inveterately needy woman who, just as inveterately, yearned for autonomy.
In my own case, and perhaps for many only children, those antipodes are
“normality” and “uniqueness,” the former an unfamiliar state that one idealizes,
yet also obscurely mistrusts and disdains; the latter a neat description of the
predicament and privilege of being the lone egg in the basket. (Judith Thurman,
“Minority Report,” in Only Child)

I look up from this passage and stare blankly for a moment, processing these words and wondering about the polarities that have shaped my self and view of the world. A synapse embraces the charge of its neighbor and the thought is there: secrecy and candor.

Silently, I assess all the ways in which these two opposing forces have played a significant role in my life. As I do, I suddenly feel the compulsion to share the truth; to enumerate all of my family’s dirty little secrets both to illustrate my point and (not without malice) to expose, expose, expose. Lay bare my thoughts, as I do when I write, butting against the code of silence in which I am complicit. But I cannot betray my parents, my sister, and all those I love. So they stay locked inside and I feel resentful, torn between my will to truth and my respect for the privacy of others. This dichotomy has turned me into a blurter. One who speaks her mind and immediately feels shame and regret glowing in her cheeks. It has created a need to hoard secrets of my own, keeping a part of me forever inaccessible to everyone I love. It has made me a writer, both brazen and careful as I select words to combine into thoughts and stories. As a parent, it has made me cognizant of the line I walk between telling too much and telling too little.

I turn my thoughts to Sophia’s struggles:

Again, at Hanukkah as she did after Thanksgiving, she asserted her innate social propensities, “I like EVERYBODY,” she told me, gazing down the table flanked with fourteen adults and one baby. She meant this, not as a general acceptance of the varied personalities present, but more broadly to mean, “I like having lots and lots of people around me. All the time.” Or, more simply, “I like HAVING everybody here. With me.” However, Sophia rejects the anonymity that comes with being part of a crowd. She does not want to be lost among others. She dances through parties, commanding focus. She greets guests a he door, not with “hello” but with the words, “I’m SOOO pretty.” She throws books down in the lap of anyone with a pulse demanding, “READ a book-y.” Nor does she want to share the spotlight with others. When her grandmother held and cooed over another baby, she pulled at her velour pantsuit and whined, “Grandma, play with me.” I am having a hard time finding language to describe these poles—with and apart, perhaps? She wants to be surrounded by people, but they may do nothing but adore her. But perhaps this is every two-year-old’s great wish, not just that of an only child or of Sophia.

I am aware of the reductionist dangers of attributing too much of who Sophia is or who I am to a “dialectical principle.” And yet, I’m tempted to explore my antipodes and the role they play in my parenthood…and to apply Thurman’s theory to my daughter, taking a glance at how Thurman’s two articulated poles might apply to Sophia’s solitary condition.

In moments, I fear Sophia. She has the clearness of sight and the cleverness of mind to expose me (as I am tempted, at times, to expose my parents). She is always listening—whether I’m chatting on the phone with a friend, muttering under my breath in anger, or telling her something she doesn’t want to hear. She drinks it in and later repeats it with surprising accuracy (to her father, to her toys…and sometimes, to me). This has made me cautious…speaking in code, spelling things out, or simply not saying it at all. Of course, not all things are fit for little ears. But when does secrecy become dangerous? How do I make the distinction between what gets buried and what gets discussed? When is the truth more toxic than an omission of the truth? As for candor, I know a parent can also make the mistake of saying too much (or at least too much too soon). Every act of sharing must take a number of factors into account—is this something she needs to know? Is she developmentally ready to hear it? What are the consequences of hearing this? What are the consequences of not hearing this?

But isn’t this something, as parents, we all wrestle with?

As for Sophia, I’m not sure that she, as an only child, has a lock-down on the struggle between normalcy and uniqueness. I mean, isn’t this too, a more universal struggle? Don’t we all think that the family on the other side of the fence (with four kids or no kids or one kid) is more normal than our own? And don’t we all have the experience of (and ambivalence about) our uniqueness? Feeling that nobody is loved the way we are loved (either poorly or wholly by our families).

These dichotomies are fun, but I think they are only useful to a point. It seems that the moment we say I am “this” or my child is “that”—the case can be made that everyone is “this” or every child is “that” We are not so very different from each other, by virtue of our family constellation or any similar construct, as we appear to be.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Last Breakfast

Each time I broached the subject, she chose to ignore me.

“Sophia, in a few days mommy is going on a trip. She’s going to take an airplane to Florida. You’ll stay with daddy (this evoked a broad smile). But during this time, mommy won’t be giving you milk. And when I come back we’ll be all done with mommy’s milk.”

I know she heard me. The kid doesn’t miss a trick. She can be deeply engrossed in playing drama queen, coloring her hands, or reading a book…but will recite back to me bits of overheard conversations had with other people.

“Do you understand what mommy is telling you?”


I wanted it to be a mutual decision, but the way things were going, it didn’t look like that was going to happen anytime soon. Oh, there were certainly times when she woke up and didn’t immediately ask for my milk:

“I woke up. I want to paint!” Or

“Play with pegs! Play with pegs!”

And there are times when her babysitter or her father puts her down and she knows they have no milk to offer her.

But, if she was tired, sick, or just looking for a little snuggle time…she’d ask. It had been my rule for the last couple of weeks to only give when she asked. And, she WAS asking less than she used to. But still, she asked.

So, on that final morning, when I fetched her from her crib, head buzzing from a sleepless night, I took her into my bed and told her it was the last time.

“I want milky.” She told me.

“Okay, Sophia, but this is the last time.”

I had a romantic notion of what the last time would be like. Full of emotion. A sense of heightened connection. The bitter-sweetness of saying goodbye to one phase of our relationship and the dawn of a new one.

But for the first few minutes she kept slapping at her legs as she drank. It was distracting.

“What are you doing?” I asked her.

“I’m playing with my legs,” she said, matter-of-factly, carefully putting words the together to form a sentence.

I tried to focus on the thought of it being the last session and my mind wandered, the way it always does when I’m feeding her. Where were my sunglasses? Did I leave Kevin the emergency phone number? She pulled off, and I snapped back to the present.

“Another one,” she demanded, sitting up and pointing to my other breast. Oh yes. It’s time, I thought as we switched places in bed.

And it ended just the way it always did. Abruptly. With Sophia sated and ready to move on to the next thing.

I, too, am ready to move to the next thing.


Epilogue: Lean, Mean and (finally) Weaned

Sophia spotted me at baggage claim from about sixty feet away, in a cinematic moment she ran to me, arms outstretched, face a-glow, “MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY.” We embraced tightly.

Oh how I missed her. Oh how that hug pained me. Tears sprang to my eyes as she crushed my engorged, sore breasts to my chest.

Later, I checked in with Kevin, “Did she ask for…you-know?”

“Not once.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. It had been Kevin’s fear that she would tantrum for the one thing he could not give her while I was gone. But no, she had understood that both me AND my breasts were absent, and settled for the water and cows milk he gave her. I had hoped that there was no turning back at this point. That she was ready to move on. But that night after she had changed into her pjs, brushed her teeth, and read a book, she turned to me and asked for milk.

It was the moment of truth.

“We talked about this Soph. There’s no more milk. Milky went away.” A little white lie. Actually, I read that your breasts can produce milk up to six months after weaning—which wasn’t doing much for my resolve. Neither was the pain of engorgement.
She burst into tears! “Mommy! I want milky! I want MILKY!” My heart ached. My breasts ached.

I looked to Kevin for direction. Kevin was Switzerland. “I’ll support whatever you want to do.” And then he was my psychologist/husband, “but you did tell her no.”

Ugh. The worst thing you can do to a behaviorist is to suggest to her that she might be sending mixed messages. It was all I needed to hear.

To Sophia, “I love you, Sweetheart.”

To Kevin, “Could you put her to bed for me?”

Sophia and I both sobbed as he lay her down to sleep. She was quiet within two minutes. It took me about two hours to pull myself together.

“I don’t know why I decided to stop!” I told Kevin. And it was true. I couldn’t pinpoint a reason. Was it because of what I was afraid everyone else was thinking? Was it because I had set an arbitrary deadline? Was it because I was ready?

Damn reason.

It was a full two weeks before my body reverted to its original form. I agonized through clogged ducts, fear of mastitis, and more waffling. But, I remained committed to my decision, and one day I woke up and was staring at my pre-pregnancy-self in the mirror. Deflated. Oh yeah. That’s what they looked like.

Sophia tried one last time when we were cuddling in bed and reading, activities that have replaced the first feeding of the day. “I want milky,” she tested, gesturing to my chest so there would be no mistaking what she meant. I tried a new angle…something I had read somewhere. “Soph, when you were a baby, mommy made special milk that’s just for babies. But you’re a big girl now. You’re two years old. You can do so many big-girl things like drink milk from a cup, eat with a fork, walk….” I listed off all the things she could do as a big girl.

This time there were no tears. From either of us.

Sophie silently digested this information, slid of the bed, suggested, “Play, downstairs?” And we both moved on to whatever was to come next.