Sunday, March 28, 2010


Everything takes twice as long as it should. Should? Well, twice as long as when I do it for her. I suppose Sophia is not on a schedule.

I am.

I lift her up into her highchair. “No Mommy. No lifting Sophia! I want to do it. I want to do it!” Tantrum ensues.

I buckle her car seat. “No MOMMY LET ME LET ME LET ME! I do the TOP and you do the BOTTOM.” I have to unclick the seat belt and wait as she does it herself, before I am permitted to check if it is secure.

I wash her body. “NO SCRUBBING SOPHIA. Back Away, Mommy! BACK AWAY! THIS IS MY BODY! YOU HAVE YOUR OWN BODY!!!” Believe me: I would be perfectly happy to go back to washing one body each day. The only problem with this is that Sophia is not yet able to wash her own body. Left to her own devices, she would contentedly sit in the tub for hours, without ever lifting a wash cloth, singing and putting cups on her toes. The bath devolves into a wrestling match.

This scrubbing protest, in particular, really captures the sense of invasion she feels as I perform these daily activities of living for her. I try to imagine what its like to not only have no control over these things that happen to you, but to know that even if given the opportunity you can’t do them as well. The body simply has not caught up with the brain. If it had, Sophie would be in the driver’s seat.

Literally. For it was just the other day she said, “Mommy, you sit in my chair [car seat] and I’LL drive.”

Most of the time, I can approach sit back and admire Sophia’s independence. Her take-charge attitude. Her aspirations of competence. I can approach the situation with humor. I can be five minutes late to where-ever we are going. I know that this is a phase. It will be short-lived. As a friend pointed out: The more they do for themselves, the easier it gets. A little frustration now is worth less work in the long run.

But there are times when I get impatient. When I can’t wait those extra three minutes. Maybe I’m short on sleep. Maybe there have been too many incidents of its kind that day. Maybe I feel some inexplicable need to exert my parental authority. Regardless of the reason, these are the moments I regret—either because of the Wrath of Sophia or because I am engaged in battle with a two-year-old. A battle hard fought and rarely won.

We’re on the same team. I was never going to take her for granted. I love her, damn it!

But I’m human. If there is a secret to not getting triggered, I haven’t found it. But if this is any indication of what thirteen is like, I better start looking for the answers now.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Three Little Words

In every professional setting I have ever worked, it has been essential to remember the names of others, and not just a few names, but scores of names. This is particularly challenging for me, because I don’t consider myself to be a social animal. I’d much rather keep to my small circle of cherished friends (or simply be alone) than be surrounded by large groups of people. Nevertheless, when I was a teacher, I prided myself on not only knowing the names of my students, but of all the students I came in contact with, whether it was in the halls or on the playground or in the cafeteria. Doing so, personalized each interaction; it made the kids feel known in a way that I never did; it shrunk the school. Later it was essential for me, as a professional developer, to know the names of my trainees and to use them during the training, whether acknowledging a participant’s or thanking someone for their input. Again, it made the room feel like an intimate community.

But the fact is that I had to work at it. Hard. In addition to being an introvert, I am simply not good at remembering names. When we first moved into our home, the former owner gave us a “cheat sheet,” naming all the adults and kids on the block that they knew. Two years later, I still refer to it. And I’m perpetually embarrassed when someone will walk up to me, start chatting, use my name…and I can’t remember theirs. But because I cannot tolerate the anxiety of not knowing, I never play it off. I always ask.

The way I’ve learned to compensate for this weakness is to use someone’s name three times upon a first (or second or third) meeting to commit it to memory and sounding robotic. “That’s really interesting, Amy.” “Where did you say you were from, Amy?” “I’m really pleased to meet you, Amy.” But, I suppose sounding robotic is better than getting caught not knowing.

My skill deficit is Sophia’s forte. We are driving to ShopRite to pick up a few things and I’m chatting away about plans for the week.

“Oh,” I say, “why don’t I give Daddy’s friend a call…the one we met at The Little Treehouse …who had a son your age. What was his name? Not Elmo…not Aldo….”

“ARLO! Yes! You’re right!” Sophia interrupts me, recalling his name and reversing her pronouns in the process.

“That IS his name. Sophia. Good remembering. Yes, let’s see if Arlo and his mommy are free next Tuesday.”

This was not a fluke. As soon as Sophia could name objects, she was interested in knowing the names of people. MORE interested in knowing the names of people than objects. We would pass random individuals on the street, and as young as a year she would demand, “NAME!” It was impossible to explain that though everyone HAS a name, I don’t necessarily know it. To Sophia I must appear to be omniscient as I point out the names of all the things that surround us.

Now older, Sophia El Curioso, is no longer satisfied with my not knowing, she simply approaches each person she meets and, before she even says hello, asks “What’s your name?” with a little upturned twist of her hand that I used to couple with my verbal prompts to ask a “what” question. Then, later, out of the clear blue, she’ll talk about this person we met at the park, or the Shop Rite, or in the doctor’s office. “Talk about Hudson!” she’ll demand as I struggle to remember exactly who of the 150 people we met that day was Hudson.

She says it louder, “TALK ABOUT HUDSON,” as if I’m deaf, not stupid.

Oh yeah. He was the kid on the scooter at the ice cream shop.

This one, simple question, “What’s your name?” says more about who Sophia is than anything I could convey in a paragraph, an article, or a book. She is sociophilic. She has an unspoken mission to meet every person on the planet. She has an innate understanding that everyone deserves to be acknowledged. That everyone wants to be known.

And the impact on me is immeasurable. Sophia forces me out of my shell. I wind up talking to others who, without her, I never would have made contact. We talk to boys, girls, men and women. We talk to kids, teenagers, and the elderly. We talk to people of every color and every ethnicity. We talk to people who never would have talked to ME if Sophia wasn’t around. And, almost without exception, everyone leaves these interactions with a smile on his/her face.

Sophia has shrunk my world.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Stolen Moments

Sophia is asleep in my friend’s basement. Her son is hooked up to Wii and the timer has been set for 30 minutes. She grabs us some coffee, we lean into each other conspiratorially and race to catch up. Ever since she emailed me a shot of her with a strange man, I’ve been dying to hear the news. But it’s impossible to talk on the phone with Sophia around. For as soon as I pick up the phone Sophia does one of the following three things:

1. Whines and pleads for my attention (what my mother used to refer to as being “mommed” as in “stop ‘mom’ing me”)
2. Tries to grab the phone away and have her own conversation (“Hi, Daddy?”)
3. Throws a royal fit for herself (“IT’S NOT YOUR PHONE. IT’S MY PHONE!”)

All of which are really, really annoying for all parties involved. So, as long as Sophia is awake I generally avoid phone conversations. (Truth Be Told: I’ve never really liked the phone anyhow—I need the facial expressions, the body language, the intimacy that comes with being in the room with another person. It is a relief to have an excuse to not be able to talk.)

What’s more, I can remember from my childless days just how frustrating it was to get on the phone with a friend and listen to:

1. Her child’s plays for attention
2. Her child’s attempts to talk into the phone “Say hi….(silence) c’mon, say hi to Aunt Melissa (silence). You wanted to talk to Aunt Melissa, so now say something!” [Friend takes the phone away from his/her child, “NO! I WANT TO TALK TO AUNT MELISSA!” is heard in the background.]
3. Or, my friend as she tried to divide her time on the phone between having a conversation with me and having a conversation with her child. “He really said that to you?!?! Without taking a breath: No, so and so, I told you, PLEASE STOP ANTAGONIZING YOUR BROTHER AND GIVE HIM THE REMOTE!”

So, knowing this, I try not to inflict these fragmented conversations on my friends… But that means that adult conversations are largely restricted to post-bedtime hours or naps. Though I adore my friends, I’m reluctant to spend the only break that I get during the day on the phone. The naps are chock full of activities that can’t be accomplished any other way (work, bills, household chores). Which leaves the evenings, when I feel too limp to accomplish anything.

Fortunately, all my friends have the same damn problem. So (I think) they understand when they don’t hear from me for weeks on end.

At least this one does. The one I’m leaning across the kitchen table from, poised to live vicariously through her dalliance.

She starts to tell me about the mystery man…when I get a rare phone call that I absolutely have to take. It’s news related to a recent tragedy in my life. I make the mistake of saying this. Being a friend, she makes me talk about it before spilling her own beans.

And before you know it, the timer has gone off and I still know nothing.

My friend goes in to check on her son. I hear her pop on the TV and tell him that he can watch one show. She rejoins me at the table and smiles a smug little smile. Which is precisely when my Sophia appears in the doorway.

“Sophie! Did you hear us? Did we wake you?”

“No. I heard a poop.” I sigh. Such is life. I change her. I read Curious George Feeds the Animals. I coax her back to sleep. And by the time this is accomplished and I’ve settled back into my chair, the television show is over and my friend’s sweet little imp is in the kitchen hopping up and down. “MOM!” He says excitedly. “You can buy this sand…and when you put it in water its WET and when you take it out its DRY!”

“Young man,” I tell him, “you have just been taken in my Madison Avenue.” My friend leads him by the hand, back to the television. “Let’s see if there’s anything else on….”

A moment later she appears in the doorframe, jubilant, arms triumphantly raised above her head. “OH, SO AND SO! IT”S YOUR OTHER FAVORITE SHOW! HOW LUCKY ARE WE?!?!” She gives me the thumbs up and races back to the table.

I feel guilty that we’re parking him in front of the virtual babysitter to grab a little us time, but not guilty enough to stop her. Or even to stand on the ceremony of stopping her. So I don’t.

And then I get the full story. Every naughty detail, made more precious by the effort it took to hear it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Committing to Memory

There are the memories I have that I can’t help having. They’ve stuck in my brain, though I’d sooner forget many of them: Being watched by my neighbor (who sat in a tree) as I peed surreptitiously next to my wading pool. Vying with a classmate for the lead role of a sickly giraffe in the school play with the line, “By dose is all stubbed up,” (only to really get sick and lose the part). Getting dumped on a dark highway by the straight-edge, skate-punk boy to whom I lost my virginity (“Remember Melissa,” he had the audacity to say, “there are alternatives to water towers and razor blades.”)

And then there are the moments that I consciously commit to memory. The scenes I rehearse in my mind until they are locked in the folds of my gray matter. They capture something about a person, a time, an experience that is defining. They are the moments worth writing about, worth airing on an empty day. They have the power to evoke a smile or a tear when it has felt impossible to conjure either.

I do this with all people who are dear to me. I do this with Sophia.

When Sophia was first born, Kevin and I played Dreamland, a compilation of world lullabies, over and over. We all found it soothing. Poignant. The first song off the album is Naima, written by West African singer Angelique Kidjo for her daughter. It is achingly beautiful—I wish I could play it here—it captures the gratitude, relief, and deep pain I felt in those first weeks after Sophie was born. After I healed, when I finally could, I picked Sophia up and danced her around the room to that song, tears streaming down my face. Now, hearing the music unlocks the memory. It is almost too much to bear, so I rarely turn it on. A few notes and I am right back in my living room, twirling across the industrial beige carpet, Sophia light and warm in my arms, her head against my shoulder and the overwhelming joy that I had my baby at last.

Two years later, a second, musical memory is forever etched in my mind. Sophia and I take a Music Together, a parent-child class that is founded upon the belief that all children are musical and all children can achieve basic musical competence. We thoroughly enjoy it. The teacher exudes a particular calm that has a powerful effect on Sophie; she is exuberant (yet well behaved) from the minute we walk in the room. There is one song, Bound for Glory that Sophia routinely requests. It is an old spiritual, made new by a rhythmic chugging, evocative of a train. The teacher distributes bands of jingle bells to the kids and Sophie dons them like bracelets all the way up to her armpits. As soon as she hears the music, she is up, chugging along the perimeter of the room with a look of determination and no awareness of what anyone else is doing. There is a complete lack of self-consciousness, total immersion in the music. The teacher starts the class in place, eventually following Sophia who is already off on her invisible track, bound for glory. I love watching her so focused and full of energy; I am reluctant to start moving around the room myself. The other day, I had to conceal my tears as I followed in her path, hoping a little of that confidence might rub off onto me.

So much of my past is fuzzy; I know the memories I have are each salient for a reason, but few are positive. These memories, these special times with Sophia, I will not lose. I have guaranteed their survival by writing about them.

This, I will remember.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Napless in NJ

First, a little back story:

Every Wednesday, Sophia and I drive two hours north so that she can go to my mother’s nursery school. It’s a win-win-win situation. I get a little time to work, Sophia gets a stellar pre-school education, and my mother gets nachas [Yiddish: pride/extreme joy from one’s children or grandchildren]. On these nights we sleep over. I crash out in a twin bed of steel, and Sophia sleeps in a used pack n’ play next door. For months this situation has served us well…

Fast forward to a few weeks ago:

Outside my door, I hear the pitter patter of little feet scampering towards the living room. Then Sophie’s voice rings out, “Where is everybody?” I check my watch. 6:10. Eighty minutes before I must get up. Fifty minutes before Sophie usually gets up. I rub my face vigorously, and step out into the hallway. My mother’s boyfriend is out there as well, in a t-shirt and boxers, looking stunned.

“Oh, did you get her out of the crib?” I ask, hopefully. This is a highly plausible scenario, given that he adores Sophia, is a light sleeper, and would go to her in a minute if she cried out.

“No...,” he said, “I was wondering if you did.”

The awful truth dawned on us simultaneously, as we turned to face the scene of the crime. Sophia had climbed out of the pack n’ play. Life as we knew it was over.

“Sophia, come here.” I called to her.

“No! I want to read a book on the couch.”

“Come here first,” I insisted. She skipped over. “Sophia, how did you get out of bed?” Sophia was all too happy to demonstrate. I put her back in the pack n’ play. Like an Olympic gymnast, she grabbed a hold of the side and vaulted over the thin netted wall that separated her from her freedom.

“Oh crap.” (Did I just say that out loud?)

“I jumped out!” she told us, proudly.

“I can see that,” I muttered. Fear rushed in. All the stories I heard about my friends’ children haunted me. The one who learned to open the door and climb into his parents’ bed. The one who climbed out of his crib, fell to the floor and hit his head. The one who appeared at the top of the stairs, crying, after her parents attempted to put her to sleep.

Some call it the jack-in-the-box syndrome. The child learns to climb out of his/her crib. No longer imprisoned, the child can torture his/her parents all night long—refusing to stay down, making unwelcome appearances, and engaging in a battle of stamina that no sleep-deprived parent can win.

I’ve heard of the parents who move their child to a toddler bed too soon. Because the child has always relied on the concrete boundaries of a crib and does not yet understand (or honor) the invisible “boundaries” of a bed, there’s nothing to keep the child inside. Mayhem ensues.

I am all for captivity. I still strap Sophia into a high chair (similarly, she won’t stay seated in a “big” chair, and it’s hard enough to feed her when she’s immobilized). And I love love love the crib. I have no problem keeping her in there until she’s at least three. In the morning, when Sophia wakes, she sings and talks to her army of stuffed animals while I attempt to squeeze in another few minutes of sleep. I finally drag myself out of bed when she starts screaming, “Mommy, where ARE you?” And not a moment sooner.

But now, with Sophia out of the crib, I have to get up. My mother’s house is rife with danger: a sharp-edged glass coffee table; scissors left casually on a desk; bleach under the kitchen sink; medication samples strewn about the bathroom. And my daughter, who has given herself the moniker “Curious Sophia,” is not to be trusted.

It sucks. But at least she generally sleeps until about seven. It could be worse.

Fast forward to last week:

I put Sophia down for her nap when we get back from nursery school, as I always do. Generally Sophia, lies down in her crib, sticks her thumb in her mouth and instantly goes to sleep. Oh, she doesn’t sleep long. She only needs about an hour to recharge and then she’s good for another five hours. But for those blissful 60 minutes I can run, make a phone call, go to the bathroom. Think.

But this time, just as I’ve finished putting on my running tights, the door pops open and Sophia makes a beeline for the bookshelf. “Read THIS one.”

Oh crap. “Sophia. It’s time for your nap.” I tell her.

“No! I’m not tired!” she protests.

I know that fighting her will only activate her further. I cut a deal. “How about we read that book in the rocking chair, and then you lie down for a nap?” She looks at me sideways. “Okay.”

We read the book, and I say, “It’s time for you to go to sleep.” She protests. I put her down. Sing a song as I back out of the room and wait. Within a few minutes, I watch in horror as the door knob turns. She’s back.

This time we read two books on the couch. I settle her in the pack n’ play, sing a song, and wait.

She’s out again.

I confer with my mother. “What would you do if you were home?” she asks.

“I’d put her in her crib and let her scream it out. She needs to nap.”

I try a fourth time. Maybe she knew I meant business or maybe she was just exhausted, but this time she stayed down.

When Sophia doesn’t get at least 13 (cumulative) hours of sleep, she is miserable: aternately giddy and tearful, cranky and manic. Any demands send her over the edge. If she was routinely like this, I'd seek professional help.

So, looking back, I have to wonder how many children I assessed and treated were suffering, not from behavioral disorders, but from sleep deprivation. How many might have looked like different kids with earlier bedtimes, regular naps uninterrupted slumber? Why didn’t I ever ask about sleep? Could it be that parenting is making me a better psychologist? Not the other way around.

It seems so obvious to me now: sleep is essential to health. And I’m going to make sure Sophia gets it.

Even if I have to buy another crib for my mother’s.