Monday, February 22, 2010

Keeping Score

At the end of each day, I take stock of my “accomplishments,” which sounds harmless. But it isn’t.

Yesterday was a banner day:

  1. Read to Sophia (Sophia: "Read this book!" Wham!)
  2. Bathed Sophia (Sophia: “Mommy, how do you spell “Kevin?)
  3. Cooked breakfast: (Me: “Just one more bite and you can get up from your chair.”)
  4. Took Sophia to Spanish: (Me: “Sophia, ven! Come back here! Sientate!”)
  5. Picked up farm delivery: (Sophia: “You bought me my eggies?”)
  6. Read to Sophia: (Me:“ No. NOT the Dora book. I’m throwing that book away. I’d be embarrassed to GIVE it to someone.” Sophia: “YES DORA!”)
  7. Cooked lunch: Me: “Just one more bite, and I’ll sing you a song.”
  8. Practiced Spanish with Sophia: (Me: “Dame el circulo mediano, por favor.”)
  9. Read to Sophia: (Me: “It’s time for us to get snuggly.”)
  10. Ran 10 miles (Kanye: “Work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger)
  11. Cooked dinner (Me: “Just one more bite and you can have some ice cream.”)
  12. Did crossword with Kevin (Kevin: “What’s a six-letter word for “histrionic?”)
  13. Read 40 pages of my book (Louise DeSalvo: “If my husband had his way, I think he wishes I wouldn’t have written about our life, wouldn’t be writing about it now….”)

This act of keeping score is how I measure my success as a parent, a spouse, a friend, an employee and a “balanced” human being. If my list meets with my approval, I feel somewhat self-satisfied. If not, I beat myself up about it, focusing on where I think I fell short that day of some invisible ideal that matters to no one but me.

I already know that today is not measuring up: I haven’t exercised (the pool was closed due to a swim meet), I didn’t bathe Sophia (I do it every other day, but I still like a slacker on the days that I don’t), and I haven’t so much as kissed my husband (who had a stomach virus yesterday that I really, really don’t want to catch). There have been some accomplishments, but they are overshadowed by what I deem my failures.

Failure is not doing something poorly; it’s simply not doing. There’s nothing I hate more than a day of doing nothing. Laying around, letting the laundry pile up, letting the kid run wild, letting the minutes pass without getting a single…thing…done. It’s not because I don't enjoy it. It’s because I feel so…guilty. And yet, the truth of the matter is I’d love to be able to fail in this way…fail without the guilt, that is. But I am relaxation-impaired. When I have free time, I fill it.

In contrast, Sophia has nothing but free time. As far as I can tell, she experiences no compulsion to complete a task; she has no obligations to meet. She fills her time pursing happiness and acting creatively. If it is quiet, she’ll fill the air with song. If I turn on music, she twirls. She invents new purposes for objects, new narratives for books. She plays, she dreams, she dances through life.

My demands creep in…take a bath, eat this, put your coat on…and these are moments of resistance, for they seem unnecessary to her. They interrupt her flow. I’ll suggest a new activity, “why don’t we go out and play in the snow?” And she’ll decline, “No, mommy. I want to stay right here.” She sees no need to go anywhere to do anything other than what she is doing in this very moment.

I don’t mean to romanticize Sophia’s way of living in the world. It is not always practical. We do have to eat, and take baths, and occasionally put our coats on, and she probably doesn’t do enough of any of these things.

But when I think about balance, as an adult, I fear I am valuing the wrong things. Balance is traditionally thought of as managing a family, a career and self. But when “self-care” becomes yet another chore, another obligation…it is drained of all its pleasure and restorative properties. When I need a checklist to determine whether I should feel good about my day, I have sacrificed the joy of doing for the joy of getting it done.

I want to stop keeping score. I want to mentally burn my lists. I want to play and dream and dance through life as much as I possibly can…and not be concerned when I can’t.

I want to be more like Sophia.

Monday, February 15, 2010

If You're Scared of a Cow

Over a bowl of oatmeal one morning, Sophia composed a song (sung to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down):

Daddy will pick you up
Pick you up
Pick you up
Pick you up
Daddy will pick you up
If you’re scared of a cow.

She wasn’t just being silly, nor was this her typical morning tribute to Daddy…Sophia is terrified of cows. I’m not quite sure how it started. I think it has less to do with their heft and size than the fearsome sound of their lowing. My sister sent us a puzzle mat that had several buttons you could depress to hear the sound of an animal. Pushing the cow button immediately sent Sophia flying to the other end of the room. We tried some exposure therapy…Kevin or I holding her at a distance while the other pushed the button, but in the end we wound up putting the rug away until she outgrew her fear.

But so far she hasn’t. If we go somewhere new she’ll ask, apprehensively, if a cow will be there. And on the rare occasion that there is a cow—even an inanimate cow facsimile, such as the one you can pretend to milk at the local children’s museum—she will beg us to avoid it.

Sophia also has a fear of dogs. We are flanked, on either side, by neighbors with yippy dogs. Mostly harmless (one of them actually did bite the 14 year-old girl who mows our lawn) they’re brash, excitable, and bark their lungs out at Sophie (or a leaf caught in the wind, or their shadows, or my middle finger). So now every time we go out, Sophia makes a break from the house to the car, pleading, “The doggies won’t hurt you?”

This is something I can relate to. I am afraid of dogs. But unlike Sophia, who has never been attacked, the origin of my fear is quite clear (and justifiable) to me.

The first and most severe of attacks took place when I was in third grade. Jan, slow, overweight and outcast, sat behind me in homeroom. He invited the entire class to his birthday. Out of the 25 or so kids in that class, I was the only one who showed up. My mother dropped me off at a ramshackle ranch with a dirt yard and a gravel driveway. To the right, a large dog was chained to a stake in the ground and complained loudly upon my arrival. Jan was very pleased to see me. Together, we made a dent in the trayful of cupcakes his mother had baked, and I (a nerd in my own right) gave him a Little Professor calculator. With bruised pride, Jan told me that his dog was really dangerous, but he could pet him and did I want to see? (Even at eight, preserving his ego was more important to me than my own safety.) Sure, I did. I followed him outside and stood at what I figured was a safe distance. I must have miscalculated the length of the chain. The dog flew out from under Jan’s hand, which hung in the air, poised for petting.. He leapt on top of me, pinned me down and gnawed at the area above my right armpit. As in similar moments of crisis and great stress, everything slowed down. I was outside of myself, watching it happen: My own mouth opening to form a scream of terror. Jan’s mother, running out of the house to come pull the beast off of me. And what had Jan been doing? Screaming? Silently looking on? I don’t remember.

Ever since that day, I have not trusted dogs. I’ll cross the street to avoid them, ask my friends to put them away when I come to visit and scowl at those who let their mutts off leash in the park where I run. So it is hard for me to say whether my own tensing and hyperarousal has provoked fear in Sophia. Or if, independent of my own reaction, she has drawn her own conclusions about the trustworthiness of dogs. In an effort to ally her fears, I have become counter-phobic. I pet dogs. I say how cute they are. I point to their wagging tails and other indicators of friendliness. But, despite these efforts she retreats behind the safety of my thighs whenever there is a dog in our midst.

I have to wonder, if I was just honest about my fear, would she be as afraid? Is it my duplicity…or the fear itself that fuels her anxiety?

How does fear form? How do we come to understand that the world is a dangerous place—hazards at every turn. Car accidents. Poisons under the sink. Cows that moo. Dogs that bite. Is it a sudden confrontation with our mortality, our vulnerability? What provokes it? Early traumatic experience? Taking clues from parental anxieties?

Fear is anticipatory. It is of what might happen, not what is. Not even of what was.

It is a movement, then, from living in the moment, to a future orientation where bad things might happen? Perhaps the development of fear relates to an understanding of the linearity of time. Sophie often says “last week” for the past…whether something occurred months, weeks, or days ago. But I know she’s “getting it” that some things DID happen, that other things WILL happen. Those things that WILL happen are unknowns. She likes rehashing the past, or having me recount something that has happened, affirming her memory of the event, deriving comfort from the familiar.

But the future looms large and uncertain.

Which begs the question: Why does it have to be a dark future? Why can’t it be a happy future? Why doesn’t Sophia perceive a cow’s moo or a dog’s bark to be an expression of their essence, of their joy, as she does the roar of a lion or the hiss of a snake?

A friend recently postulated that perhaps death could be the best thing that happens to us.

Fear by its nature is irrational. Sometimes its “justified,” rooted in past experience and validated by neurotic parents and we can arrive at a satisfying explanation.

But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you’re just afraid of a cow. Whether it’s evil, good, or none of the above.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Shared Madness of Two

Once again, we are driving, making our two-hour commute to (or from, for the trips bleed together) my mother’s nursery school. Sophia is clinging to her beloved Snakey-Pie, who appeared in my closet one day before she was born (A county fair win? An abandoned toy? A misguided gift?) and somehow insinuated himself in our lives. He is an unlikely choice of transitional object—made of cheap velour (I’ve already repaired him twice), reptilian (What’s cuddly about a snake?) and of dubious background. But Sophia lovingly strokes his fluorescent orange fuzz as she sucks insistently at her left thumb, eyes blissful and content. I, of course, named him for all the ironic reasons that are self-evident. Which is completely lost on Sophie, because his name is adequately captures his dearness to her.

I am singing Snake-a-licious, or what I deem Snakey-Pie’s rap:

He’s snake-a-licious.
He does the dishes.
He likes your kisses.
He’s snake-a-licious.

Sophie pops her thumb out of her mouth long enough to shout, “again!”

He’s snake-a-licious.
He swims with fishes.
He grants your wishes.
He’s snake-a-licious.

Anyone, with perhaps the exception of my husband, who has come to accept that I personify most inanimate objects and occasionally pay homage to them with rap songs, would probably think I’m a tad embarrassing. And maybe a little strange to boot. But Sophia (at least for now) thinks I’m wonderful.

Together, we don our “boa” boas, do “like maniac,” to explicit Gwen Stefani lyrics, and run through sixteen dramatic permutations of uttering the words, “I’m in BIG trouble.” (Say it angry, Mom moms, now say it sad, now say it to the sky…). We act out scenes of pettiness and jealousy with her dress-able wooden dolls, practice toileting her babies (giving them baths when they fall in), and paint her two-year-old toenails gold.

There is a disorder still on the books of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders known as Folie a Deux or "the shared madness of two":

  1. A delusion develops in an individual in the context of a close relationship with another person or persons who have an already established delusion.
  2. The delusion is similar in content to that of the person who already has an established delusion.
  3. The disturbance is not better accounted for by another psychotic disorder, mood disorder with psychotic features, effects of a substance or general medical condition.

I don’t mean to make light of a psychological disorder (which is reportedly so rare that there is no prevalence or incidence data available on it), but I think it’s a terribly accurate description of what the joy of parenting is about for me. Because of Sophia, I am once again able to inhabit worlds of fancy and enjoy her as my companion in these worlds.

She transforms me into a whole barnyard of animals with the touch of her fairy wand. I can look at the sky and ask Sophia if it’s cloudy with a chance of meatballs, and she will answer gravely, “No, it’s cloudy with a chance of tomatoes.” We can call each other on banana phones in the produce section of Wegmans. Anything can and does happen.

This is the stuff real life is made of.