Sunday, July 25, 2010

Diapers are Forever

I think that any two-and-a-half-year-old who knows the sound each letter makes and can decode 3-letter words should be able to pee in a toilet. Alas. Turns out one can develop reading skills before mastering bladder control. Apparently the former is not a prerequisite for the latter. Who knew?

So, although she is academically ready to attend school, Sophia is barred from the local preschool program. I got the call from the director two days ago while aimlessly wandering the streets of Target.

The call took me by surprise. A month ago the director told me that the school had been filled since last January. I had only half-heartedly placed Sophia on the waiting list, figuring we'd just have to wait until next year.

I could feel her smiling through the phone. “We’re pleased to let you know that we have an opening, and Sophia was the next one up!” This is a school that is several blocks from my house. One that has really flexible scheduling options. One the neighbors have been raving about.

Sophia was dismantling a display of sun block. “Really? That’s wonderful!” I shot Sophie a look and mouthed PUT THEM BACK.

“So, as long as she’s toilet trained by September….” And then lightening flashed across the ceiling and it started to rain. Right there in Target. I think someone was playing an organ over the loudspeaker.

Six months ago...

It had all started out so promising. We bought her a potty. There was a picture of a girl on the box who looked very much like one of her friends, a bigger girl she looked up to. Sophie nicknamed it the “Callie Potty.” She sat on it. Put her dollies on it. Even made realistic sounds as she pantomimed their toileting behavior. Then, while we were out to dinner one night, the babysitter called, ecstatic, “She peed on the toilet.” We cheered in the restaurant, called my mother and almost missed our movie.

She went again, once or twice, and then…nothing. Worse than nothing. Flat out refusal. If I casually suggested that she sit on the toilet before a bath, she’d screw up her face so that her lips stuck way out and her eyes got all squinty and she’d shout, “No. I. Don’t. Want. To!”

I adopted a “just ask, don’t push” policy, hoping that when she was ready, she’d go. But secretly, I worried that I missed my window of opportunity. Now, her heels firmly dug into her general oppositional 2-year-old stance, she declares, “I do not want to pee on the toilet. I want to go in my diaper like a little baby.”

Again, if you can articulate that…shouldn’t you be able to sit on a toilet and do your business? I am convinced it is not a matter of skill, but of will.

And without the will, she won’t. Regardless of how much one can spend in pursuit of potty training.

For those who are not there yet (and others who were in my shoes many years ago) you will not be surprised to learn that potty training, like all other aspects of child development, is an industry. There are small, free-standing receptacles children “go” in that you have to empty into the real toilet and clean, adaptive rings that you can set atop the real deal so tiny tushies don’t fall in, and folding travel seats that have been known to pinch babies’ butts. There are potties that praise, cheer and sing. There are toileting books, videos and dolls. There are how-to manuals and charts and stickers.

And the programs. Oh the programs. Three-day Potty Training. Potty Training Boot Camp. The No-Cry Potty Training Solution. Early Start Potty Training. And yes, even Toilet Training in Less than a Day.

But, according to research (and, anecdotally, parents I know) you can push and cajole and praise and reward and work at it. Or you can wait. Apparently, left to their own devices, children will train themselves. Free of pressure and expectations they typically wake up one day and decide, that’s it. No more diapers for me. This usually happens around three years of age—give or take. I have even had parents of these children tell me that their kid never had an accident…and they never looked back.

This method (or lack thereof) is really appealing to me. No confrontations. No M&Ms. No props. No programs. No sweat.

But it also means…no local nursery school. At least not this one; not for now. Well, so be it. I was prepared to wait another year anyhow. Let's just hope it isn't that long before Sophia decides she's ready to ditch the diapers.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Wanting to Not Want

This post is inspired by This Is Not the Story You Think It Is... by Laura Munson, the choice-of-the-month of new online book club, From Left to Write.

Laura Munson begins her 335-page Summer of Discontent, This Is Not the Story You Think It Is..., with the declaration that, although her husband left the previous night to go to the dump after announcing that he no longer loved her and that he hasn’t returned or called since, she’s “choosing not to suffer.”

She claims epiphany…the end of wanting: “That’s how it finally happens—in a blink.” It is a brave proclamation. A brilliant discovery: one’s happiness should not depend on things beyond one’s control. Only it’s fleeting. Munson suffers throughout the book. She ruminates. She reminisces. She moons. She waits. And she wants.

Freedom from wanting. I have felt the switch—brief moments of transcendence when my perspective has shifted. When I say to myself, I could be triggered by this or I could choose to not feel (responsible, defensive, resentful, etc., etc.). These moments are liberating. But they are ephemeral.

Freedom from wanting is a constant practice of drawing attention to the wanting, the emotion, the things we hold dear and noticing our deep, tortured investment without judgment. Taking the “how interesting” stance. It's at once unbelievably simple and impossibly hard. Particularly when it comes to my daughter, Sophia.

There are so many things I want for her. Safety. Kindness. Joy. Health. Intelligence. Friendship. Most of these things are beyond my control. I can create the conditions but I cannot determine the outcome.

When she trips on bump in the hardwood floor between the kitchen and the living room, falls and bleeds, I suffer . When she is restless with fever and barfs in her crib, I suffer. When she runs up to another child on the playground, asks to play and is rebuffed I suffer. Another parent said to me the other day that she must have these experiences, as we all have had, in order to learn caution, appreciate wellness, understand the distinction between right and wrong.

Ugh. Really? Isn’t there some other way?

But I recognize that torturing myself doesn’t do anyone any good. It doesn’t make her better, less clumsy, more likeable. It doesn’t bring me satisfaction. It is a trap that keeps me from being happy, and may even stand in the way of Sophia’s resilience.

My own, internal dialogue around this is tedious. It does not make for good literature, or even a good essay. It is rumination, not revelation.

I long for a quiet mind. One in which I am not judging/kicking/fighting myself. Wanting not to want. I read something extraordinarily helpful in this pursuit. Change the have to’s to get to’s. I get to soothe my sick child (read: I have a child to care for).

I do not claim to do this well. Or to be able to help others attain personal freedom. But, hey, it’s a start.

Ooops. I did it again.

The book, This Is Not the Story You Think It Is…, was provided to me free of charge by the publisher as part of the former Silicon Valley Moms Group and the new From Left to Write Book Club. I was not paid for this review. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Feels Like the First Time

I hardly slept a wink the night before Sophia’s first day of camp. Larvae squirmed in my intestines. Butterflies hatched and struggled against the walls of my stomach in a desperate attempt to push their way out. At least, that’s how it felt as I lay there, sleepless and anxious.

It’s not like I haven’t had her out of my sight before. She’s been with a babysitter from infancy, though it’s always been someone in the home, while I worked a few feet away in our study. The arrangement allowed me to breastfeed and be a constant, semi-unobtrusive presence.

I had control. I knew what was happening. I had relationships with the people caring for her. Even at my mother’s nursery school, where I sent Sophia two days/week this past year, I was downstairs, working out of the church basement, on hand for diaper changes, “look what Sophia just did” moments, and preschool productions. I had known the teachers for years—some since I was a preschooler, myself. And, of course, there was my mom just one classroom away, a frequent-peeker who couldn’t resist the lure of her granddaughter so close.

But this was different. Earlier that day we had orientation at the camp. I walked into the room and was surprised to count off twenty toddlers. Yes, there were five “counselors” as well, two certified teachers and three smiling college students. But the chaos—the noise—it felt like a baby warehouse.

I couldn’t stomach the thought of leaving her alone there. Three days a week. Three hours a day. During which, I had no access to what she was feeling or experiencing. Or how she was treated. Or how she treated others.

This feeling was familiar. I hadn’t felt it in years, but I recognized it right away. It was the same feeling I had before MY first days of school. Every year. As long as I could remember. If I’m really being honest with myself, it’s the same feeling I had every Sunday night—the anxiety of having to return to school. A place I dreaded, where I felt anonymous and alone.

I still don’t have a lot of insight into this. I’m not sure if it was simply separation anxiety, my introverted personality, a degree of social unease, jealously of the one-on-one time my mother was spending at home with my younger sister, extreme boredom, the gradual grinding down of the spirit that school seems to exact on most children, the family discord that leaked into all corners of my life. But it was persistent. Intractable. And now it’s back.

After my restless night, I fetched Sophia, changed her diaper, coated her with sunscreen, snapped on her bathing suit, dressed her, fed her and secured her in her carseat. She proudly held her new pink polka-dot backpack and was smiling broadly. As we drove the 10 minutes to camp, I verbally prepared her, with fabricated enthusiasm, “Today is your first day of camp! You’re going to have so much fun. They’ll be swimming, and other kids to play with. And that beautiful kitchen you played in yesterday. Mommy will drop you off and I’ll pick you up in a couple of hours, OK?”

“OK!” said Sophia, completely unperturbed.

“I want you to listen to your camp counselors and do what they say, OK?” I hate how I end every sentence in OK?

“OK” said Sophia. Did I detect a note of adolescent exasperation in her voice?

I felt the familiar sting in my eyes when I pulled into the parking lot. Holding back the tears made me sneeze. “Let’s go!” I hoisted her out of the car with more false enthusiasm.

I walked into her “bunk” and instantly felt overwhelmed. There were toddlers milling about, some crying. Parents were coming and going. I helped Sophia hang up her things, reminded her counselors to please reapply the sunscreen, and bent down to kiss Sophie good-bye. “Mommy’s going to go now, OK?”

“OK,” said Sophie, distracted by the considerable activity in the room.

“Love you.” I walked out the door and hung around for a minute, peeking in. Sophie just stood there, surveying the scene. I imagined her feeling the way I did. Abandoned. Scared. Unsure how to join in what was swirling around me.

I left just as the tears started flowing. I called my friend Nancy first. She could barely understand me through the sobs. She was reassuring. Not in a bland, “she’ll be okay” way, but in clear, specific ways that really did make me feel better—reminding me of what other friends have said about the program. That I’ve left her before. That Sophia is generally happy everywhere, with everyone.

Then I called my own mother, who recalled her experience of dropping me off at nursery school for the very first time. She had cried too. I hadn’t even looked back. What happened to me between that first time and Kindergarten? When I resisted crossing the four-lane highway in front of our house to get on the bus in the morning and my mom had to drive me to school. Where, she would leave me, both of us sobbing; Mrs. Kuzma gently taking my hand, assuring my mother that I would be fine. I remember she once said to me, “Melissa, you’re going to cry so much you’ll fill the classroom with water and all the kids will float away.”

On this, the fourth day of camp, as we were eating breakfast, I asked Sophia if she liked camp. “Camp is amazing!” she told me. And later, after camp, she sang me the “balloon song” they had learned, and said she took turns with her friends on the slide, and that they swam in the indoor pool, and ate pretzels without cream and sprinkles. And it occurred to me that she might actually be having a good time—no matter how large or chaotic it seemed to me. And maybe the separation anxiety was mine and mine alone. And maybe it should stay that way. And maybe I have nothing to be anxious about after all.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

If You Knew Mary Evelyn (1943-2006)

If You Knew Mary Evelyn… is inspired by If You Knew Suzy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Reporter's Notebook by Katherine Rosman, the choice-of-the-month of new online book club, From Left to Write. It was difficult to read this keenly-observed, beautifully-writ memoir without reflecting on my own relationship with my mother. How would I eulogize my mom? What do I treasure and remember about our relationship? What do I know about her and what remains a mystery? I sat down, prepared to write an essay that addressed these questions, but a very different essay poured out of me—a processing of and meditation on the death of my mother-in-law, Mary Evelyn, who died four years ago, on July 5th, 2006. Following the lead of Rosman, I have written a letter to Mary Evelyn that is part eulogy, part a preservation of memory, and part a communication that her legacy lives on.

Four years ago this weekend, my husband’s mother passed away. Though she had suffered from MS for decades, it was ultimately not the MS that stole her, prematurely, from us. She was preparing for a Fourth of July picnic--I can picture her in the kitchen, sitting on her stool, impossibly deep dimples framing her smile as she cooked for the people she loved—when suddenly she got the worst headache of her life. She went to the couch to lie down. Moments later, her husband couldn’t rouse her. He called an ambulance.

The aneurysm in her brain had already ruptured and was hemorrhaging, leaking blood into the surrounding tissue. She did not regain consciousness.

Halfway across the country, we received the call from his father. Still childless, we quickly made the decision to get in the car and drive. I drove all night, not wanting my distraught husband to take the wheel. It rained, making a dark night even darker. Mist, blackened hills, and sadness. We listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland.

Losing love is like a window in your heart.
Everyone sees you’re blown apart.
Everyone hears the wind blow.

And now, I cannot hear that song without thinking of her. Without remembering the feeling of that night, the wind blowing through the hole in my heart. Driving, hoping, fearing. Viscera clenched with anxiety.

When we arrived around 6am, it was already too late. The operation to stop the bleeding—an endovascular coiling—was unsuccessful. Her body was still alive, kept so by a respirator that rose and fell with mechanical breaths beside her, but her brain was not. In the hospital bed, she was a doll-like version of herself, her muscles flaccid, limbs flopped to the side, facial features bland. It was all that I could do to look at her. She was no longer Kevin’s mother. Her life force, her capacity for joy, the light in her eyes was gone.

We wanted proof before we made any decisions. They gave her an EEG and showed us the evidence that Mary Evelyn was gone. “Okay,” I remember saying.

She had made it easy for us, preparing a living will with a do not resuscitate directive. She wanted to be an organ donor. And so, different parts of her were shipped across the country to anonymous recipients. Her body was incinerated, the ashes given to us in a box.

The next day, friends and family members came to spread her ashes over the lush, vibrant gardens she had lovingly cultivated. They reached into the box with their bare hands, scooping out what physically remained of her. I couldn’t do it. I felt sick. I sat on the sidelines and watched, remembering my mother-in-law.

Dear MaryEvelyn,

I remember the first time I came to visit. You showed me every photo, every scrap book, and every video of Kevin that you had recorded and catalogued over the years, thrilled to have found an interested audience at last. I remember how, that first Christmas, you gave me my own stocking, a felt angel. And how I wrote on it, “Melissa, the token Jew.” I remember our talent show, your beautiful, wordless signing of “Morning has Broken,” by Cat Stevens and your completely unselfconscious improvisational dance that you paid for later in pain. I remember driving away and thinking that I felt like I was leaving home. I cried as you waved goodbye.

I remember when you showed me your dissertation. Telling me how you, the child of a dirt famer-turned insurance salesman, a little girl who hunted squirrels with a stick, became a professor of speech and language pathology. I remember when you told me how difficult it was to spend years apart from Kevin, when he was only 11, as you pursued your doctorate in Indiana.

I remember your devotion to Kevin. Your unrelenting desire to know every detail of his life, and the frustration you felt when he painted pictures of his days in wide swathes. I remember how I could bring you such satisfaction, sharing these details, when we talked on the phone.

And I remember all the things Kevin told me about you. How you read him feminist, gender stereotype-free fairy tales. How you dressed him up as a leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day when he was home sick with the chicken pox—and then took photographs. How the days you spent at home with him when he was young were some of the happiest days of your life.

I remember your voice that sang words more frequently than spoke them. I remember you holding your tongue when agitated, your mouth a thin line. I remember how you could toss of a musical “oh well” with a graceful gesture of your arm. I remember never really knowing how you felt about anything.

I remember your last visit to us in Philly. How you asked me if we were “trying” when I didn’t have wine with dinner. How I lied and said that we weren’t, and that I wasn’t drinking because I was driving. I remember your look that said you didn’t believe me. I hope you didn’t. I wish you had known. I wish I had told you about the miscarriage I had just suffered. I wish you had been there for the two subsequent miscarriages that followed our conversation. And I wish you could know that I did carry a baby to term. And that you now have a grand-daughter, Sophia, who is so much the image of you. She dances, not walks, from point to point. When she smiles, her dimples are holes that go all the way to China. She embodies joy. She speaks with a fluency and clarity that would have made you proud.

I feel a kinship with you as a mother. I sense that what I value as a mother, you valued as a mother (minus the leprechauns). I have wanted to call you—to ask you a question, to share something amazing Sophia just said, to hear the ways in which Sophie reminds you of Kevin at that age. But I can’t.

Nevertheless, you are here with us. Every time Sophie smiles, every time she dances, every time she speaks with a clean Mid-Western dialect, we are reminded of you. And we keep you with us. We tell Sophia she has two grandmas. One who she can see in real life, and one she can only see in pictures. Both of whom are very much a part of who she is.



The book, If You Knew Suzy, was provided to me free of charge by the publisher as part of the former Silicon Valley Moms Group and the new From Left to Write Book Club. I was not paid for this review. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.