Saturday, May 29, 2010

Playing Favorites

The whole family is in my bed…Sophia, Kevin and I...spending a few intimate moments before we deposit Sophie in her crib for her requisite 12 hours of sleep.

It’s five minutes past her bedtime, Sophie is giddy in an over-tired, second-wind kind of way. She’s rolling between us, taking turns asking us for a specific number of hugs. “Daddy give me five hugs,” and Daddy obliges. “Mommy give me seven,” and I give her seven staccato squeezes, counting them off. Sophie, less than an inch in my face, so close I have to squint to focus on her, says, suddenly serious, “You are my favorite and Daddy is YOUR favorite.”

Fascinating. Kevin attributes this statement to a healthy resolution of the Oedipal Conflict. I’ll try to translate this psycho-analytic jargon into plain English: According to Freud, the Oedipal Conflict arises from unconscious desires to possess the parent of the opposite sex (Kevin) and eliminate the parent of the same sex (me), manifested in declarations such as, “I want to marry daddy.” (Sophie actually said this, while fingering his wedding ring on more than one occasion.) Resolution of the complex takes place when the child beings to identify with the parent of the same sex and rejects the parent of the opposite sex, which (according to classical analytic theory) is the key to the development of gender roles and identity. It’s a theory, which, like any theory, is an attempt to explain a process based on observation. Though it fits nicely with the storyline of Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Rex, and, it does seem to be a dynamic that is occurring in my household, I don’t wholly embrace it. For one, unsuccessful resolution becomes a disease model of homosexuality, which I reject wholesale. And two, it’s only part of the picture.

I think Sophie’s fantasy was/is more along the lines of fundamental Mormonism—that somehow we could become sister-wives, both married to the man we love, living polygamously ever after. I don’t think she ever wanted me out of the picture. This isn’t hubris. I have evidence. There has not been an evening where she hasn’t wanted me to carry her to bed, a boo boo where she hasn’t looked to me for comfort. I think she has always seen Kevin and me as fulfilling two very distinct and necessary roles in her life. It is rare that I can evoke a belly laugh from her like Daddy can. But there are times when only Mommy will do. Her preferences seem to have more to do with personality than they do with sex.

So how do I read her complex interpretation of our familial relationship to one another? “Favorite” is a new and delicious concept for Sophie. It comes with the understanding that she has agency and choice. These days, she is constantly asserting her own “favorites” and expressing curiosity about mine: While reading Curious George takes a Job, “Mommy this is my favorite page; what’s your favorite page?” Holding up the round duplo pieces she has deemed “her lollipops,” “Mommy this is my favorite lollipop; which one is yours?” Interestingly, she doesn’t want us to have the same favorite. She wants us to have shared interests, but separate likes. She is looking to define herself as other than me, while still maintaining a deep and abiding connection. And, perhaps the most moving aspect of all of this is that she is AS interested in my interests as I am in hers. She understands that I have unique thoughts and preferences different from own. She cares about what I think. She cares about what I like. These are the building blocks of empathy. Her statement, “You’re MY favorite and Daddy is YOUR favorite,” is not globally true. It is true in this moment. She might as well have been saying, “I love you, and you love daddy.” We both love, and we love differently.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Sophie’s regression started with a simple request: “Mama, carry me like a little baby.” I obliged because, quite frankly, this is a fantasy I like to indulge in myself. Further evidence of our folie a deux.

“My tired little baby,” I whispered into her sweaty mop of hair, “do you need a kiss?”

“Yes, ma-ma,” she answered. I took all 28 pounds of her into my arms, planted a kiss on the crown of her head, and carried her off to bed.

We both felt a deep sense of satisfaction. The perfect ending to a day of eternal struggle. A mother-toddler battle-of-the-wills smackdown, which goes a little like this.

After a gentle request to climb into her carseat: “If you don’t climb into that carseat by the time I count to three, I’m putting you in. 1…2…. Good listening!”

After an invitation to sit down to breakfast: “If you don’t climb into that highchair by the count of three, I’m putting you in…1…2…3. That was pushing it, Missy.”

After notification that it is time to leave the park: “If you don’t climb back into your stroller by the count of three, I’ll put you in, myself…1…2…2 ½…3. (Sounds of a struggle…”NO! I’ll do it myself!” “I gave you the opportunity to do it yourself, now I have to do it for you.” “Daddy said I can do it myself!” “Daddy is at work and said no such thing.” “Waaaahhhhhhh!!!!”)

We are both wrung out.

The next day, I am fixing breakfast and Sophie is playing on the floor beside me. “Look, ma-ma. I’m a little baby crawling to you.” She crawls over to me and puts her arms up in the air, “uppy!” (NB: Even as a baby, Sophie never said “uppy.” This babytalk is based on her observation of other children, a modeling of iconic baby behavior, rather than a true reversion to her younger self.) I lift her up; she rests her head on my shoulder and places her thumb in her mouth.

She needs me less and less.

The awareness of her independence triggers an existential crisis that makes her want me more, “I want to be separate…oh no, I am alone in the world…I want to merge.” And then the cycle repeats. I do a careful dance of trying to foster her sense of self-efficacy and offering the reassurance that I am there to take care of her. It requires a great deal of attunement, empathy, and memory. At times, more than I can manage (e.g., I must retain the knowledge that she likes for me to begin to peel her banana, but not remove the peel entirely so that she can then peel the rest of it herself and hand it off to me for disposal. NOT following this sequence, i.e., peeling the banana entirely and then handing it to her runs the risk of triggering a tantrum.)

One could make the case that I should not give in to toddler whims. I am the parent. The control should rest with me. But I believe in giving her control within the limits of behavior that is acceptable to me. Letting her have a sense of autonomy, of agency, of importance. It is no skin off my nose to let her peel the rest of the banana. Saving a few seconds is not worth a battle. Safety issues, such as holding my hand when she crosses the street, are non-negotiables. I save my strength for these fights. I have no desire to lord over her, bend her will, break her spirit. Somehow, I believe, she understands the fairness of this, the inherent respect. She listens when it counts.
By the same token, I have to reel in the impulse to baby her, not just to do things for her, but to coddle her and hover over her like the helicopter parent I am. I try, really try, to make sure that babying takes place on her terms, when she is feeling frightened of the chasm forming between us her new, more competent self, when she wants assurance that she’ll always be my baby. (“Carry me like a little baby.” “Uppy.”) This is not to say that I don’t constantly reach for her, kiss her and tell her I love her. I do. But if rejected in the moment, “No Mommy! Don’t kiss me,” I back off, knowing the less I push, the less she’ll resist.

None of this is easy because it’s not about what I want or need. But I find that if I follow her rhythms…the ebb and flow of her desire to be connected and separate, the rise and fall of her longing for agency and care…I get exactly what I want and just what I need.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Private Parts

This blog has been re-titled, due to the crazy number of hits I've been getting, having previously used "vagina" in the title.

Quite possibly a new regular feature of Life with Sophia, this post is inspired by the SVMoms book club choice for this month, The Body Scoop for Girls: A Straight Talk Guide to a Healthy, Beautiful You by Jennifer Ashton, M.D., OB-GYN. The book is promoted by its publisher as “girlfriend-friendly health book for teen and tween girls.” I would add that it’s a girlfriend-friendly health book for privileged teen and tween girls who not only recognize “Tory Burch boots” but care that the author wears them as she serves “lattes” (caffeine-free, I hope!) to her adolescent patients in her spa-like Englewood office. Despite its uncomfortable efforts to sound “cool,” the book did inspire me to think about how I, as a parent of a toddler, am already trying to foster a healthy attitude towards body image and sex through straight talk.

Please note: The identity of my friend has been disguised/fictionalized to ensure her anonymity.

Sophia and I in the living room of a friend who has a five-year-old boy. Sophie is happily playing with a remote-control train along-side Josh, when my friend wrinkles her nose and announces, “Someone doesn’t smell so fresh.”

I have been blessed with the inability to smell poop. I simply lack the receptors. This weakness of mine has several consequences—1) Sophia, who is not disturbed by the presence of a poop in her diaper, nay, DESPISES diaper changes, does not admit to her elimination and remains in it probably longer than God and Pampers intended; 2) every other parent around me who CAN smell it secretly thinks I’m being negligent; 3) other children eventually begin to disburse, often shouting, “EWWWW, SOMEONE POOPED!” Thus, my friend, who knows about my poop-smelling disability, has aimed this observation at me, which I translate into, “Melissa, it’s time to change your daughter’s diaper.”

Yes, this is embarrassing.

So, much to Sophia’s chagrin, I lay her out on a changing pad, wrestle her pants off and begin my meticulous 4-wipe cleansing ritual. My friend, who is simply unable to let any sort of a teachable moment pass, tells her son, “Come look at Sophie’s vagina. This is her VA-GI-NA.”

“Actually,” I correct her, “It’s Sophie’s vulva. Vulva on the outside; vagina on the inside.” I DID know about the vagina/vulva distinction before reading The Body Scoop for Girls, but as the book was fresh in my mind and we were using Sophia’s nether region for an impromptu lesson in anatomy, I figured it was important to use the correct terminology. Josh can be the first boy on the block with this little tidbit of information.

After rolling her eyes, my friend repeated, “Vulva…Your Grandpa Bob drives a vulva. Can you say vulva?”

“Vulva,” her son repeated obediently, and then went off to play with his cars. Sigh. I just love those teachable moments.

I wholeheartedly believe in a matter-of-fact, shame-free approach to sex education. Granted, it’s pretty basic at this stage of the game, but I think the comfort with which I talk about my body and Sophia’s body is delivering an important message: There is no question you can’t ask me. I will not be embarrassed. You will get answers: Those are my breasts. That’s my vulva. Yes, I have hair down there, and you will too one day. I credit my parents with this, who were pretty matter-of-fact and shame-free about my sex education. Nothing was off limits. And so I came to them when I had a concern or a problem.

It helps that Kevin, my husband, is right there with me on this, even honoring my request to please change the terminology in Once Upon a Potty to the proper words for the protagonist’s body parts. (But that’s all I’ll say about Kevin with regard to this subject, as I do not want to embarrass HIM.)

I realize that this could backfire…and Sophia might wind up being the prude, blushing and acting appalled whenever I say clitoris or orgasm or something she deems equally embarrassing. But I’m willing to take my chances on this one. Because I want her to come to me for candid conversations about sex, not the gynecological correspondent for CBS news. Oh, I’m all for her reading comprehensive guides about sexual health and having access to as much information as possible…but I don’t want her to have to be told by said guide that it’s okay to talk to your parents about sex. I want her to know it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

If Mommy Says No...

The psychological term is splitting, more commonly known playing one parent against the other. All kids do it, my husband reminds me. Even Sophia.

Sophia and I are at the supermarket. I’m comparing prices of little boxes of organic milk. (Though expensive, it’s cheaper than buying a new fresh half-gallon each week we go up to my mother’s and stay overnight. And, I’m suspicious of the “Skim Plus!” she buys. Just the thought of drinking milk with a thickening agent to make it taste more like whole milk makes me ill. But I digress.) Sophie spies the milk in the red boxes…vanilla-flavored organic milk. The one that has a whopping 29 grams of sugar per serving. A treat she once had while we were out to dinner with friends. "I want THAT ONE!" she demands, pointing to the box. I say something to the effect of, “over my dead body,” (not a verbatim quote, but similar in sentiment).

Had she not been in the grocery cart, she would have most definitely thrown herself on the ground sobbing and cursing my name. Confined to her seat, she merely wailed and lamented her vanilla milk-less fate. Only two strategies work in a situation like this: ignoring and distraction. Ignoring is hard in a grocery store at 5:30 pm when you and every other mother within a 10-mile radius is shopping for dinner. I can’t just leave her there and continue to peruse the isle…and it IS a little embarrassing to have her go on in this way. So I go for distraction. I pull a bottle of lemonade off the shelf and say, “I’m getting daddy lemonade. Perhaps I will let you have some as a treat, sometime [watered down, of course].” The tantrum comes to a screeching halt and Sophie grins, “Daddy lets me have LOTS and LOTS of lemonade.”

This comment comes on the heels of an early morning confession. When Kevin and I went to pull her out of her crib today, the first thing she announced was that she ate dinner at the neighbor’s house and had lemonade to drink with her daddy. I glanced at Kevin, who admitted, it was true. She did.

Perhaps this requires a little backstory: A less rigid parent than I might be wondering, “What’s wrong with lemonade?” I have a couple issues with juice. First of all, there is the sugar content (the particular variety I pulled off the shelf has 32 grams per serving). It is near impossible to brush Sophia’s teeth. Only recently have I stopped sitting on top of her, prying her mouth open and doing the best job I can while Kevin reads Curious George Takes a Job (or another ultra-sexy book). So, I fear the day we go to the dentist and he has to sedate her while he drills every pearly little tooth in her mouth. Then there are the empty calories. Back in the day, when Sophia ate very poorly, I was loathe to have her fill up on any kind of drink and then refuse a more nutritious meal…so it was water, milk or nothing. Since she’s been eating a variety of healthy foods and is solidly in the 10th-25th percentile for weight, I’ve relaxed…but I still prefer her to drink bone-building milk or plain-old hydrating water. And then there is cultivation of taste. I know that kids who don’t drink milk, don’t develop a taste or appreciation for it. They are less likely to select it as a drink option on their own later in life, and therefore tend to be more deficient in the nutrients it provides. So it goes beyond the here and now for me. It has to do with laying a foundation for healthy life choices.

That evening, at home, I told Kevin what Sophia said. I related the story with a knowing grin that communicated, “I know you’ve been giving her juice behind my back.”

Kevin was offended. “She’s splitting us.” He told me. “She’s telling you what she thinks will manipulate you into giving her more juice.”

I still didn’t believe him. I believed her. After all, her impulse to report her experience these days was so great she’d save up a detail…like having juice at the neighbors…all night long and blurt it out with pure joy at the first sight of me.

Kevin read my skepticism and explained why it was so offensive. “It’s true that left to my own devices, I wouldn’t be as restrictive as you are with the juice. But I think your rationale is sound, and I’ve bought into it wholesale. I fully support you on this. When we’re in our own house, I do exactly as you wish. But occasionally, when we’re somewhere else and if everyone is having juice…and another parent gives it to her, I don’t force the issue. We’re guests in their home. I’m not going to push back.”

I listened to him. And it’s true. Kevin does support me on this. And not just on the juice issue but the unprocessed, organic food issue. And the tv issue. And countless other issues/ preferences I have when it comes to raising Sophia.

I consider myself to be lucky on this. Because what it comes down to it’s not the individual issues that are important, but the united front that we present on these individual issues. The power resides with us, the parents. Sophia is not a wedge between Kevin and I, but a shared joy. Sophia feels secure in knowing that there are rules consistently enforced.

So the next time Sophia pulls out the divide and conquer strategy and tells me that daddy gives her lots and lots of juice (or ice cream, or lollypops) with the very high hope that I will “follow suit,” the knowing grin will be directed at her, not Kevin. And I’ll probably say something like, “Daddy and I talked about this and we agree….”

Saturday, May 8, 2010

What a Mom Wants

I can’t speak for all mothers. Just me and my newest mommy mentor/friend (“Why make happy children happier?”) from across the street. We spoke about our secret wish in hushed tones at a birthday party last night over some really good beer.

We want to be alone.

It’s not that we don’t love our kids or relish the homemade gifts we will be showered with tomorrow morning (before we would actually rise on our fantasy Mother’s Day). We do. Very much. It will warm the cockles of our hearts. We will be touched.

But the Mother’s Day brunch…the trips to the playground, the shore, the museum…or whatever we…you…have planned that day will still be work. There will still be bodies to wash, mouths to feed, diapers to change, sunscreen to apply, clothes to don, wills to battle, books to be read, car seats to be fastened (and unfastened and fastened and unfastened again).

It might appear to the untrained eye that we do get breaks—naps, evenings, an hour here and there while our husbands or babysitters or parents are pinch hitting for us. But these breaks are either teases, a few stolen moments infused with the anxiety of getting stuff done and getting back on time, or marred by exhaustion. Case in point: I went to sleep at 9 pm last night.

This is what mother’s day would look like, if I ran the world:

Kevin and I would swap bedrooms (see Nothing to Be Ashamed Of) so that he woke to the sound of her voice in the morning, and I woke whenever my circadian rhythms dictated. I would take a shower. A long, hot shower. I would blow dry my hair. I might even put on a little mascara. I would come down to breakfast where Sophia and Kevin would be curled up on the couch reading with each other. Sophia would be changed, dressed, fed and content. They would both kiss me goodbye on my way out the door.

And then—I can’t believe this—I’m drawing a blank. What is wrong with me? In my fantasy, I’m standing on my front porch, thinking, “Where am going without Sophia?” Wait. That’s my guilt talking. There is no guilt allowed in this fantasy.

Take two:

And then, I’m out the door, the whole wide world around me, a whole day before me, with nothing that has to be done. The day is perfect. I hop into my car and drive fast. Much faster than I ever would if I had Sophie in tow. I drive to the ocean and swim in it. I run along the beach. I read a book. I eat too much ice cream. I watch the sun set and the stars come out. One speeds across the sky. I make a wish that will come true.

I jump back into my car and drive back home to my family, not with a sense of obligation or duty, but with joyful anticipation.

They are waiting for me. They have missed me. They are happy and have survived my disappearance without incident. Mother’s day is over, and I am ready to be a mother again.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Other Mothers

I was one of the last of my friends to have children. If you have not had a child yet, wait. Be the last one. The benefits far outweigh the drawbacks: Closets full of hand-me-down clothes, a basement full of hand-me-down toys, shelves full of hand-me-down books; motherhood mentors who, when you are freaking out because your child won’t eat/contracts her first really bad illness/gets on your last nerve, will tell you 1) it’s perfectly normal and 2) exactly what to do; instant playmates/peer leaders/role models for your child (i.e., if your friends’ apples haven’t fallen far from their trees)

It’s not like I waited on purpose. I met Kevin a little later in life. We were both in grad school and had yet to establish our careers. He was younger than I was and needed a little more time to be ready. And then there were the miscarriages, all three of them. Suddenly, I looked around and 90% of my friends were already on their second when I had yet to bear my first. It was hard in that they were immersed in the world of parenting, and I was not. I loved their kids as I would a niece or nephew…but I did not yet understand the vital importance of hour-long conversations about diaper quality. I was sympathetic to their struggles…but I did not feel their pain. When I asked one friend what it was like to have a child of your own, she couldn’t explain it. “Its crazy love,” she said. “There isn’t anything like it.” I felt Sophia’s absence, but I didn’t yet know it was Sophia I was missing. It was a generalized sense of childless malaise.

When I finally became pregnant—lastingly round, persistently growing—to my great joy, so did one of the last of my childless friends. It was a miraculous conception, through which not one, but two deeply desired children would be born. We went through our pregnancies, side by side, dreaming, anticipating, worrying, confiding, always in awe of the great gift finally bestowed upon us. I can’t imagine this time without her. It was a twinship born of an identical internal experience.

And then when the time came for Sophia to make her debut, another of my dearest friends, full of calm and poise, who had brought two children of her own into the world, assisted at her birth. Afterwards, when I was whisked away for emergency surgery, Kevin at my side, it was my friend who took Sophia, looked after her, made sure those early hours were spent ignorant of my dire situation.

It still takes a community in this age of alienation to raise a mother. In Philadelphia, I tried to find such a community in mom’s clubs, libraries, online, and though I met some wonderful women…I couldn’t replicate the tight knit network of friends I had cultivated over the last thirty years. The ones who, despite living one state away, always manage to be there when you need them.

What I love about the moms with whom I have longstanding friendships…those who predate my status as mother…is that the common denominator is NOT our children. I love each of these women for who they are…not who they’ve born. We’re very different as people, so we’re very different as parents. But I have found something valuable in observing each and every one of them:

You can take your child anywhere; having a child doesn’t have to limit your experience….Any moment can be a teachable moment….Speak softly. Listen carefully. Respond empathically….Children are remarkably resilient. They will survive an hour, a day, a week without you….Play. All the time. And sing a lot….Perfect is the enemy of the good.

I carry their voices in my head; I call them in the midst of struggle; I am so very fortunate to have these other mothers in my life.