Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Good Babysitter is Hard to Find

On the last day Katherine was with us, she was putting Sophia down for a nap as I was on my way out the door for a run. I paused at the bottom of the staircase, caught by Katherine’s voice drifting down from the landing. She was singing a sweet, unfamiliar lullaby as she closed the door to Sophie’s room. Her voice was filled with affection and reassurance. I stood, transfixed, suddenly struck by the fact that she was singing to her for last time. That’s how Katherine found me, in spandex, rooted to the floor, wiping tears from my eyes.

It saddens me to know that Sophia will not remember Katherine. I am sure she left an impression on Sophia, the invisible imprint that all significant people leave on our lives. Impressions that live on as lessons, values, beliefs, schemas and ways of perceiving. Imprints that persist long after the memory of a face fades. But one day, should she run into her on the street, she will not know Katherine. Once so close, they will be strangers.

(Sighing) A good babysitter is difficult to find.

It is a leap of faith, putting your child into someone else’s hands. We do it regularly in our culture…babysitters, nursery schools, day care. But as evidenced by school web cams, nanny cams, and I-caught-your-nanny websites, we do it cautiously. We know that no one will ever care for our children exactly like we do…

…though perhaps that’s a good thing. Kids need exposure to a variety of different styles. They need to learn adaptability. And let’s face it…as parents, we get tired. We don’t always want to pull out the paints, play outside in the blaring sun, listen to the Elmo song 32 times in a row. Still, we hold the expectation that the babysitter will intuit our child’s needs; be loving but firm; engage them and protect them. It’s a tall order for barely a living wage (e.g. Philadelphia is $9.05 an hour).

(Matter-of-factly) A good babysitter is hard to find.

We had a string of loving, highly competent graduate students who worked for us for a summer or a semester, but wanting more stability I decided to look for a longer-term option on Craigslist. The first babysitter came for a time and was fine, but one day she didn’t show up. And then the next day she didn’t show up. No notice. No explanation. Didn’t return my calls. So I hired a replacement, perhaps a bit too quickly. She often came late or cancelled at the last minute. She asked a million questions, but never retained what I told her. I tried to be flexible and understanding, but the final straw came when I checked my facebook newsfeed and saw that she had just posted, “I’m SO bored,” WHILE SHE WAS WITH MY CHILD, ONE ROOM AWAY. Intolerable.

(Frustrated) A good babysitter is hard to find.

They say that the litmus test for goodness-of-babysitter is whether or not your child is happy to see them. But since Sophia is happy to see just about anyone who walks in the door, including the guy who checks the electric/gas meter, I had to rely on other evidence. Thus I put up with behavior I shouldn’t have, for longer than I should have.

When Katherine walked into our lives, I couldn’t believe our good fortune. She was playful, caring, and bright. She aspired to start schools in developing countries. She spoke fluent Spanish (and Chinese). She read with inflection and voices. She pulled out the paints. Played the Elmo song 32 times in a row. Went to the park in the blazing sun. And she loved Sophia like family. She let Sophie wear her jewelry. Built her lego thrones. Read her Jorge el Curioso en el hospital. Cooked her quinoa. Katherine was loving but firm, intuited Sophie’s needs, actively engaged her. Sophia was not simply safe in her care, she was loved and happy.

(Appreciatively) A babysitter like her is a rare find.

But, of course, someone of her caliber cannot remain a babysitter for long. She has more children to impact. More joy to spread. A greater calling in the world. And, similarly, Sophie is ready to be with her peers, exchange the quiet intimacy of her one-on-one relationship with Katherine for the boisterous, bustling energy of nursery school.

We had a farewell get together at the zoo. It was a bittersweet goodbye. After visiting the big cats, Sophia spontaneously turned to me and said, “I’m having a great day!” Though I felt weighted down by the sadness behind our excursion, she did not. Despite our attempts to prepare Sophie for this moment, she didn’t seem to grasp the finality of it. As we parted at the trolley, Sophia casually tossed off a “good-bye! See you soon.” I had to turn away: I was crying again.

I am grateful for the time we had with her. There will be other babysitters, good ones I hope, but there will never be another Katherine.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ode to Dad

I could not do what my husband does.

Most of his nights are restless. He gets up, showers, dresses and comes upstairs for a dose of Sophia before he leaves for work.

She is elated to see him. She asks him to read to her. To play with puzzles. She hands him pretend lollipops. She shares her stuffed animals. “This is YOU, daddy,” she tells him, handing him a large panda. “This is me,” she says, snuggling a smaller one.

Whether he has slept 8 hours or 8 minutes, he turns it on for her. He reads her a book, between bites of his breakfast. He combs her hair, while I wash my face. He puts on a tiger puppet show, while I change her diaper.

And then it’s time he should be leaving. She begs, she bribes; she wheels and deals.

But he has to go to work, so she lets him go.
Yes, he has to go to work, so he lets her go.

And Sophie and I are left to our devices (vices) for the day.

Her father is never far from her thoughts. If I point out a mother and baby in a book, she corrects me, “Actually, that’s the DADDY penguin.” I am not offended. I am touched. I am pleased.

After her nap, her expectation begins to rise. If he has walked to work that morning, and his car is still in the driveway, she’ll exclaim upon seeing the car, “Daddy’s HOME!” And I’ll have to correct her, “Actually, he walked to work this morning. His car is here, but he is not.”

She is disappointed. She consoles herself with thoughts of what she will do when daddy comes home. “When he comes home, he will play doctor with me.”

“Yes,” I say, “he will play doctor with you. You will lie on the couch and pretend to be the patient. He will examine your leg and find that it is broken.” (I’m not being morbid. She loves this.)

“Because I was doing this,” Sophie fills in, spinning around the room, dizzying herself. “And I fell down.” She mock-slumps to the floor.

“Yes,” I continue, “you fell down.” I scoop her up and lay her on the couch. “And so you need a needle shot.” I aim the medicine syringe at her knee and pretend to give her the shot. (Not medically accurate, perhaps, but it makes her happy.) “And he’ll wrap up your leg,” I add, winding an ace bandage around her.

She leaps up from the couch, satisfied with the promise of future medical attention by Doctor Daddy, and we get absorbed in some other meanwhile activity. Something that fills the time before Kevin comes home.

It is six thirty. He comes in through the back door while I am cooking dinner and Sophie is stealing slices of pepper off of the cutting board. “Pepper thief!” I exclaim.

He has had a hard day. I see it in the curve of his shoulders. The circles under his eyes. He’s tired. He’s sweaty from the walk home. He’s in a t-shirt, his work shirt wrapped around his waist. His face breaks into a smile. “Who’s a pepper thief?” he asks, grabbing her.

“I am!” she shrieks gleefully. She follows him into the bedroom to watch him change, and I can hear their sweet conversation from the kitchen.

“How was your day, Daddy?”

“Hard. How was yours?”

“Good. Mommy played doctor with me. She said YOU would play doctor with me when you get home.”

“Are you all healed?”

“No. I fell down. I need a needle shot.”

They go to the living room with an energy that has long left me, he plays with her. They pretend, they chat, they read until dinner is ready. I call them to the table.

He wrestles her into her high chair. He brings her a glass of milk. He sets the table and pulls out a bottle of wine.

“Can I have some vino?” Sophie asks. “No,” we both answer in unison. “Its an adult beverage,” he adds.

“Oh! That’s sounds good.” Sophie replies.

When we try to talk, sharing bits from our day…news heard, the “That Baby” report (as in, “you wouldn’t believe what that baby said today…”), our own experiences, Sophie interrupts, “Mommy, Daddy talk to ME, please.” (What we have trained her to do, rather than have her whine for attention.) He finishes his thought, turns to her, and incorporates her in the conversation.

“We are a whole family,” Sophie observes, happy to be included.

After dinner, I march us upstairs. “Let’s go, maggot,” I bark at Sophie, “Hup two three four, hup two three four.” And she marches up the stairs, her daddy at her heels.

“Read me a STORY, Daddy,” Sophie begs. The day has come full circle. We are all in my bed. I am changing Sophie out of a soggy diaper, her legs flailing in the air, as Kevin reads to her, holding the book over her head so she can see the pictures. I go to get the toothbrush and I hear Kevin tickling Sophie who alternately cries, “NO STOP TICKLING ME!” And, “MORE TICKLELS PLEASE!”

Part of me could be exasperated. It’s bedtime and he’s working her into a frenzy. But it’s THEIR time. And they are so happy together. I used to interrupt these moments. Now, I try not to (except when its really really late, or we have to wake up early the next day; then I play the heavy), because I have all day. But he has this.

We talk about work-life balance as if it is a female issue. As if we women have cornered the market on a divided self. Men are squeezed out of the debate by our resentment. It is assumed that they are fortunate to have the defined role of provider. It is assumed that they will accept their lot, working a second shift, playing second fiddle to mom, parenting around the edges of the day. As if they didn’t care every bit as much as we do about being present for and being a part of our children’s lives. As if they don’t feel that ache every time they walk away. As if they don’t wish they could “have it all.”

I appreciate your struggle.
I love who you are as a father.
I admire all that you do.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Work of Parents is Play

Sophia and I have fallen into a relaxed routine in the morning. I make breakfast and she plays beside me. It allows me to have subtle input into her play, without actively directing it. I can help her sustain the play activity, adding voices, suggesting ideas, while taking care of some necessary tasks.

I never thought this day would come.

I have long been Sophia’s playmate. I’ve sat through countless (and endless) pretend meals served by the surly waitress at Sophie’s café. I’ve received questionable health care (and been charged outrageous co-pays) by Dr. Sophia at the hospital. I’ve been turned into a cat, a cow, and a car, under the spell of The Great Sophini and her magic wand. Sophia didn’t come up with these activities on her own (though she was always an enthusiastic participant). I taught her how to engage in these possibilities, to inhabit these fantasies, to pretend. And then she ran with it.

One might think that play comes naturally to children. And it absolutely does. Children imitate in play the activities they observe in the world around them. It was no surprise that Sophia’s first attempts at make believe involved talking on a cell phone and food preparation, two things I do on a daily basis, multiple times a day. Play is how children begin to make sense of the world and their place in it.

But there is so much in our society that serves to inhibit play, that squashes and replaces innate play impulses: two of the biggest offenders, I believe, are toys and television.

Here is my beef with modern toys: they have become so sophisticated that they have essentially put children out of a job, rendering imagination obsolete. A kitchen that sizzles, a ball that giggles and rolls on its own, frogs that have several pre-recorded rote responses in English and in Spanish—the very toys that appear to inspire play, in reality, wind up subverting it. They play FOR the children. Kids merely have to push a button to get a response. Parents may notice that these toys are not played with for any length of time. They are picked up, admired momentarily, and discarded. They fill basements, playrooms and garbage dumps. They do nothing to inspire creativity, wonder, and discovery (except perhaps in a few future engineers who disassemble them to see how they work). At best, they are boring. At worst, they’re annoying as hell.

I find TV particularly insidious because, at first glance, it appears that it inspires ideas for play. In reality, television is a thief of imagination. Kids become the characters they see. They act out scenes from their favorite shows. They indulge fantasies of other worlds, other ways of being. But if you listen carefully to this kind of play, you come to realize that the children are working off of scripts. They have no imagination outside of the images they have been fed. They don’t know how to develop a unique character, a novel world. This phenomenon, in turn, feeds the toy industry that produces all the figurines, props, and costumes that allow children to recreate what they’ve observed on TV.

This is not to say that all toys (or even all television) is bad. In fact, many low tech toys that are facsimiles of real objects—or better yet the REAL OBJECTS themselves—are great props for the imagination.

Case in point: Sophia is obsessed with all things medical. Perhaps she’s trying to master her fear of needle shots. Perhaps she is trying to emulate her grandfather, who is a doctor. Or maybe it’s simply inspired by her great love for Curious George, who often finds himself in the hospital with a broken limb or an ingested puzzle piece. Regardless, as medicine is her current interest, I decided to try to find her a doctor’s kit. I quickly became frustrated with the expensive packs of molded plastic I found even in the best toy stores. Nothing looked “real” or remotely worth the money. I decided to look online and found a blog written by a mom who shared my frustration. She said that real stethoscopes and blood pressure machines could be purchased for less than what some toy companies charged for the fake stuff. Turns out, she was right. I quickly assembled a doctor’s kit that consisted of a light pen, a real eye chart, a stethoscope, a blood pressure machine, an old ace bandage, a pin that read Dr. Sophia Moore, a medicine syringe that looked satisfyingly like a needle shot, a child-sized lab coat, and a tendonitis elbow brace—all for under $30. I haven’t brought out all of the pieces yet, but already, the ace bandage is the number one utilized “toy” in our house.

That ace bandage was sitting in my dresser drawer for years. It only became a toy when it was introduced as such.

Play is a life skill; it brings joy into relationships, transforms work into passion, makes life worth living. Those who know how to play have the ability to think and act creatively. They are fun to be around. When I watch Sophia initiate a play activity with a peer, I can see the foundation of leadership skills taking hold.

But like most life skills, play needs to be taught. There is nothing simple about being a teacher of play. It requires a certain lack of self-consciousness and a lot of silliness, a willingness to get down on the ground and become everything you’re not, an ability to transform the everyday into the extraordinary. But of all the responsibilities I have as a parent, it is the one in which I take the greatest pleasure and reap the greatest rewards.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Pop Goes the Weasel

Despite the fact that Sophia averages three tantrums per day, I maintain the belief that most tantrums are due to exhaustion. Like today, during the opening of the ABC Games at the Please Touch Museum, in front of every other mommy blogger in the Philadelphia region, Sophia threw a hairy one. This instance was particularly embarrassing as I feel like I’ve got a rep to live up to.

We head over to the cafeteria after two and a half solid hours of play (working out at the new health and wellness exhibit, shopping in the grocery store, caring for sick babies in the hospital …) Sophia is visibly tired…shoulders rounded, eyes glassy…but hungry. It’s one hour to nap time. I should be leaving, but we still have carousel tickets. We venture into the café in search of something non-processed to eat. I successfully steer her away from the chemicals posing as food, and we select a lunch of tuna salad and a hard-boiled egg. Sophia sits down in a big-girl chair and compliantly eats the tuna fish, silently staring at the murals on the walls.

Suddenly, she asks to sit in a high chair. This is where I should have said no. But, not wanting a fight, I lug the high chair over and bend to lift her into it. “NO NO NO, I do it myself!” she chastises me. Then she explains her complicated scheme of how she intends to do it herself. “I’m going to pull this chair over, “she begins, gesturing towards the big person chair, “climb onto it. Stand up, and then get into that chair,” she indicates the high chair. “Sophie. That’s dangerous. I will either lift you into the chair or you can sit in the big girl chair.” “NO!” she yells back, beginning to scale the high chair. Again, I probably should have intervened, but I allow her to climb, and, as predicted, she bangs her knee. She begins to wail.

I can feel the eyes of the other mothers (Judging my parenting skills? Relieved it wasn’t them? Curious to see how it plays out?) studying me as Sophia works it. “Sophia. That is why you can’t climb into the chair yourself.” She wails louder. “If you can’t calm down, we’re going to have to leave.” Sophie continues to sob, shrieking “POP GOES THE WEASEL!” as she does when she’s very upset. (Likely an odd association to the anticipatory dread she feels as she cranks the handle of her Jack in the Box.) “I can put you in the high chair or you can sit in the big girl chair.” “No no NO!” “Then we are going to have to leave.” Not wanting to waste any of the lunch, I shovel the tuna fish into my mouth with one hand, holding my struggling toddler with the other. “It’s such a shame,” I go on, “that a day this nice day had to end so badly.” I’m feeling sorry for myself, that I am not going to get that ride on the carousel. “No it’s NOT A SHAME!” Sophie counters, just for the sake of being contrary. Still holding Sophie, I clean the table, gather up our things, and carry her, squirming and screaming out into the hallway.

“Look,” I say in a last-dash attempt to salvage the carousel ride. “I’m going to take you to the bathroom and change your diaper. If you calm down, we can go on the carousel. But if not, I’m taking you home.” I was planning on riding the cat. The one with the fish in its mouth. I stare at her and wait.

“Boop!” says Sophie. And then she laughs like a madwoman.

Clearly, the kid is overtired.

“Boop!” I say, and she laughs again. Tension is diffused. We manage through the diaper change. Then, at last, we have a really nice ride on the carousel…side by side, each on our own fish-eating cat.

Afterwards, I carry her out of the Please Touch Museum in my arms, like a little baby.

“Toddler down?” outside, a fellow mommy blogger asks me, eyes full of empathy. She’s on break from an interview in front of the museum.

“Nap time started half an hour ago,” I explain, “without us.”

“Been there,” she nodded knowingly.