Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Benign Neglect or One is Enough

A departure from my usual style, this post is inspired by the SVMoms book club choice for this month, Just Let Me Lie Down by Kristin van Ogtrop. The book is an “alphabetically arranged dictionary of terms, observations, lists, complaints, questions, musings, and the occasional diatribe about the little joys and major nonsense” of being a “half-insane working mom.” I have chosen to focus on her entry “benign neglect,” which Ogtrop defines as “the Bad Mother habits you eventually allow yourself to fall into once you’ve gotten all of the hypervigilant, 100 percent-organic goody-two-shoes-ism out of the way with your first child (p. 107).”

This is not the first time I have heard this sentiment expressed. I hear it everywhere…, “oh wait until you have your second,” “I used to be like that, too. You’ll loosen up after the first one.” “She’s your first, right?” And so on.

I realize I run the risk of sounding na├»ve…but here goes…the way I’ve chosen to raise Sophia, what I believe Ogtrop is referring to as “hypervigilant, 100% organic goody-two-shoes-ism”…without television, computers or video games before three, without processed foods, pesticides, and additives, without Wiggles and Barney and SpongeBob SquarePants, …these are my values. Why, oh why would I change my values upon having a second child? And, if it’s because I would no longer have the time/energy/financial resources to adhere to these values, why oh why would I decide to have a second child? If it was good for the first, why is only good enough good for the second?

Is this why first children make earlier gains in language development, have higher IQs, and do better in school? Because second children get second best? Research says: yeah, maybe.

I decided to ask a dear friend of three (twin boys followed by a girl) if she’s doing things differently, the second time around. I expected a true confession. She surprised me by saying she wasn’t…and she had a very good rationale for why not. First of all, she had learned a lot from the first go around…that it was important to keep to a sleep schedule, to actively engage them, to speak to and acknowledge their early attempts at speech. And with this experience came responsibility. How could she do less? Sure, it’s hard, she told me, exhausting…but its her job. And now, she’s reaping the benefits of her early efforts with the boys—they are articulate, well-behaved, healthy, and have amazing attention spans for two year olds. “I’m motivated by them to give her the same.” And, as a dedicated, stay-at-home mother, she can.

But I think she’s in a minority. Not only does Ogtrop have three children, she’s the editor of Real Simple magazine. I imagine, something had to give. But I do wonder if this tendency to belittle the attentiveness of the first-time mom (or what she deems “less experienced” fellow moms) is really a sort of defensiveness against anxiety that she has lowered the bar in order to retain the half of the sanity that she has left.

In other words, do most people really think it’s okay to plop their 2-5 year olds down in front of the TV for 32 hours/week (I didn’t pull that stat out of thin air. It’s the national average for this age group.)…or do they do it because it’s easier than entertaining them/allows them to get work done/is better than listening to the kids whine? Are their claims that “their kids are learning so much;” “they derive so much joy from watching the Wiggles;” “I could never expose them to the variety of things they see on TV” thoughtful observations or guilt-minimizing rationalizations? Do these parents feel good about these choices or are they trying to feel good about these choices?

This isn't an accusation. It truly is a question in my mind: What contributes to the shift in attitude from baby one to baby two? At the core of my question is fear. I still think about having a second child, but I already feel so stretched. And I'm not the editor of Real Simple. I'm a stay-at-home mother with a strong network of support. What if I have a second child and wind up yelling more and explaining less? What if I have a second child and I have to shortchange one to meet the needs of the other? What if I wind up doing a poor job with both of them?

It may be that the only thing these second, third, and forth-time mommies have let go of is guilt. Because, I can admit, it isn't simply benevolence and love that motivates me to cook dinner from scratch or read the same book 20 times. There are times when I feel guilty if I think I'm not living up to who I want to be as a parent. That's what I'm trying to grapple with here. And if having more children leaves less time for the guilt, maybe I DO need a second child.

However, I remain unconvinced that there is such a thing as benign neglect. I think every child deserves our best effort, however we define it, whether they are first, last or somewhere in between. But until I can figure out a way to make that happen, one is enough for me.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Parentified Child

Is a two-year-old capable of making a Freudian slip? I hope not. Because, if she is, I better start plunking some change into the therapy jar.

We are, once again, in the car, headed to my mother’s house. Before we get on the road, Sophie asks for a book with which to occupy herself.

“I got books about numbers. I got books about letters. I got books about babies. Whatdya want kid?’ I hawk to Sophie.

She makes a special request: “I want a book about 'Babies Who Take Care of Their Mothers'.” I look in the rearview mirror, searching her face for a smirk…some hint of irony. Her eyebrows are raised in earnest.

“You’ll have to catch that one on Oprah. How about a book about ‘Mothers Who Take Care of Their Babies?’”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Sophie replies in a rehearsed voice that indicates she’s quoting me to me. I pass back a well-loved copy of Babies Everywhere. She thumbs to her favorite page and points out mother giving a baby a bottle of milk (NB: A mother taking care of her baby). I drive…eyes on the road…my mind a million miles away.

Or, rather, a million years away, back to when I responded to the opening for a parentified child:
Must behave and speak in a manner generally associated with adult
psychotherapists, be willing to empathically listen to each parent impartially,
provide sage advice and a shoulder to cry on. Required to mediate discussions,
broker peace and occasionally break up fights. Should have excellent
communication skills, as the role will entail acting as a go-between, relaying
messages, frequently with negative content. Ability to self-manage (make own
dinner, do own laundry, set own bedtime) preferred.

I performed the job well. And because the rewards (attention, feeling needed) outweighed the hazards (resentment, abbreviated childhood, depression), I stayed in the position for almost a decade—until I got to college and was left to figure who I was without my parents. (There cannot be a parentified child without a childified parent. One, perhaps, who was never properly parented his/herself.)

It took years to extricate myself. To gradually recognize my meddling behavior when I see it, reject the role, and throw the mantle of responsibility back where it belongs. Even now, on the precipice of 40, I’m not always successful. I still get sucked into listening to things I shouldn’t hear, saying things I shouldn’t say, doing things I shouldn’t do.

It still makes me feel so strong (and yet so weak).

Much to their credit, as I found a new way to be with my parents, they found a new way to be with me. I demanded daughterhood, and they demanded less.

I have come to the conclusion that parenting is made up of two things: Parenting the way you were parented and parenting in opposition to the way you were parented. What can I do now, as a parent, but move forward and try to do some things differently?

My goal is to allow Sophia to be a child. My worries are not hers to bear. My depression is not hers to fix. My arguments are not hers to resolve. Her responsibilities are few and essential: to wonder, to play and to discover.

We have an unspoken deal: I expect her to follow my lead, and she expects me to lead.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Fungus Among Us

It was not long after we had just finished a course of eye drops and oral antibiotics to address Sophie’s eye infection that I noticed the red spot, just above the line of her diaper. I chalked it up to chafing, and ignored it, assuming it would go away.

That was a mistake.

A week or two later the spot had grown to a large reddish circle with a ring around it. I had seen this circle before, on Kevin. Back when we lived in North Carolina.

Ring worm.

Ring worm is one of those childhood diseases that has a major ick-factor. First of all, you get it from playing in the dirt. I immediately flashed back to the two of us playing in the sandbox. It was just after a rainstorm, on an unseasonably warm day. The sand was wet and cool. Sophia had laid belly-down in it and thrust her arms deep into the pile, luxuriating in the sensation. I had turned away for a moment, and when I turned back her face was heavily freckled with grains, and sand was drooling from her mouth. “Oh Sophie! Don’t EAT it!” I told her. I pulled her from the box, rinsed her mouth out, wiped her down, and sternly reminded her not to eat the sand. But five minutes later I was pulling her from the box again, this time for good, her lips coated.

And then flashing back even further, about a year ago. Sophie was at another playground poking in the sandbox with a stick. Another mother said to me, “I never let my child play in sandboxes anymore. Cats. It’s like one big litter box to them.”

And yeah, maybe that’s true. But there are germs all around us. I’m not one to squirt anti-bacterial goo into Sophia’s hand every time she touches something. I think it’s important to be exposed to germs and build up one’s natural immunity. Okay, maybe not the germs in cat poo, but I’ve never actually SEEN cat poo in the sand box. I wouldn’t let her play in it if I did. I do have my limits.

So, hat in my hand, I called the pediatrician who prescribed an anti-fungal cream. Contrary to what the name might imply, ringworm is a fungus not a worm (which, in my opinion, is the only thing grosser than a fungus). We dubbed it the “tickle cream,” because every time I tried to apply it to the spot on Sophia’s stomach she wriggled and laughed hysterically. Better than screaming and crying, perhaps, but equally difficult to manage. For two weeks, Sophia and I suffered through the twice daily application, when I noticed another spot, this time south of the diaper line.

I felt awful. Like somehow I was failing Sophia. And a bit ashamed of her having contracted what I consider to be a dirty disease. And then, despite my diligence, another one appeared, this time on her chest. I called the advice nurse, and she told me to bring Sophia in. Apparently it can get worse…enter the hair follicles, create bald patches. And then you need a particularly invasive course of anti-fungal medication, with routine liver testing to make sure it’s not building up toxicity in the system. Sounds like just the kind of thing I want to give to my organically-fed baby. Then the pediatrician pointed out two other lesions that I hadn’t noticed. My heart sank. She prescribed Diflucan…an oral anti-yeast/anti-fungal. “Maybe a double hit will knock it out. This is so gentle, they give it to infants when they have thrush,” she assured me. But it was little comfort, knowing that in addition to the fact that the ringworm was continuing to spread, I was going to have to force yet another medication on Sophie.

I know I should be grateful that it’s just ringworm. She’s not chronically ill. She doesn’t need invasive procedures, and terrifying treatments. This WILL go away. But you never want to watch your child go through any amount of suffering. When I was sick, my mother used to quote my grandmother saying, “I wish I could take away your pain. That it was me, not you, going through this.”

I get that now.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Necessity of Conflict

Well, I did it. I yelled at Sophia. It was one of the things that, before I had her, I swore I would never do. But, turns out, I am human after all.

I have long held that most contention, most negative behavior can be effectively prevented if you have the time and energy to do it. But this was a day on which I had neither.

Sophia had just finished her morning at my mother’s nursery school, and as usual was utterly exhausted, having had less than her standard twelve hours of beauty rest and spent two hours in the car to arrive at school by nine. She collapsed on a giant stuffed frog, plugged her mouth with her thumb, and stared at the ceiling as she stroked his green fuzz.

My hard-working mom was having a down day, and I wanted to cheer her up. “Go ask grandma if she wants to come out to lunch with us,” I whispered into Sophia’s ear. She popped up, galloped over to my mother and shouted down the parents surrounding my mom. “Grandma, will you come to lunch with me?” My mother scooped Sophia up, beaming. “Excuse me,” she told the crowd, “but I was just asked to lunch by my grand-daughter.”

It took us awhile to collect our things, pile into the car, and get over to the luncheonette, but when we arrived we were the only customers, so I wasn’t terribly concerned that we were swiftly approaching nap time. Somehow, our three sandwiches took over a half-hour to make. By which point Sophia had fallen out of her chair several times, was transitioned to a high chair, protested adamantly, rejected every toy and chotchke offered, had grabbed every sharp and fragile object off the table, and had thoroughly irritated the couple having an adulterous rendez-vous at the next table.

I got half of a greasy grilled-cheese into her before she really started to lose it, whining, dropping her milk on the floor, and running her oily hands through her freshly-washed hair. (She knows this really gets to me). We asked for the check and high-tailed it out of there, leaving shredded napkins in our wake. In the car Sophia announced, “I want to go to sleep. I want my crib.”

“I know, darlin’.” I assured her, “I’ll get us home as fast as I can.” It was ½ an hour past her naptime. Most kids would just nap in the car. Not Sophie.

Forty red lights later, we arrived at my mother’s house, Sophie’s diaper bulging. I forgot to change it at the nursery school. If I let it go, she’s was going to leak. At best, she’d smell like pee. At worst, she’d soak the pack and play that she uses for a bed. I decided to change her.

Bad decision. She squirmed out of my grasp and made a break for it. “I just want to be with these two rabbits,” she screamed from across the room, clutching two stuffed rabbits to her chest defiantly. I approached her slowly, brandishing my iphone. “Hey Sophie,” I coo, “you want to look at animals?” I tapped the toddler flashcard app and held up a picture of a pig and snorted. “Look, it’s a pig!”


“Come on, Sophie. I just need to change your diaper and then you can go to sleep.”


“I know you don’t, but you do have a very wet diaper, and I need to change it. I would be remiss as your mother if I didn’t make sure you were clean and dry before I put you down for a nap.”


I decided that negotiations were over. I laid her flat on the changing pad. She began to buck and kick me. I would pin one part of her body and another part would wrench free and take a shot at me. I managed to rip off her soaked Pampers. I was grabbing a wipe when she clocked me in the jaw with her heel. That was it. I lost my cool.


My guilty conscience answered: Because she’s exhausted. Because you woke her early. You kept her up late. And now you’re subjecting her to her least favorite activity in the whole wide world. How would you like to have someone pin you to the ground, rip off your clothes, and vigorously wipe your vulva when all you wanted to do was sleep?

I took a deep breath. I forewent the wiping, slapped a fresh diaper on her, and carried her off to bed.

“I’m sorry for yelling, Sophia. I love you. I was just frustrated.” I closed the door. Then, I got a cup of coffee, put my head in my hands, and berated myself for an hour.

When she woke up, all seemed forgotten. We didn’t talk about the incident.

That night, over dinner, Sophia told my mother, “Mommy and I had a fight.”

“Oh?” says my mother.

“Yes. Mommy yelled at me, and I was squirming too much.”

I felt the weight of my guilt lift a little. I was deeply impressed that she acknowledged her role in our struggle. She didn’t simply feel victimized by my yelling; she accepted responsibility for the co-creation of our fight.

Most adults can’t do that.

Here, I was thinking that as her parent, I need to be the one who exercises self-control for the both of us, the one who engineers the environment for harmony. But what I didn’t realize, is that Sophia is becoming her own person, a person with a nascent understanding of what makes me angry, what hurts me, what pleases me. And she is beginning to be able to make choices about how she acts in the world. It is only through the context of a real fight that one learns the impact that one has on another. It is only through processing of these incidents that one understands contrition. Empathy, taking personal responsibility, and making a meaningful apology are skills that need to be learned in the context of a relationship where safety is guaranteed. And all is forgiven.

I cannot make any promises that I won’t yell again. I will. And it won’t be rational, or fair. But I’ll continue to try to do my best to respect Sophia’s needs, to pick my battles and to admit when I’ve done her wrong.

And to take her to the carpet, when necessary.