Monday, September 27, 2010

Motherhood Necessitates Invention

When I first received Room by Emma Donahue, a selection of the online book club, From Left to Write, I flipped open the dust jacket and found myself crying as I read the synopsis. Room is the fictional account of a five-year-old, born in captivity to a young woman who had been kidnapped and imprisoned in an 11x11 foot shed for seven years.

I put down the book, afraid to read it. My imagination is morbid enough without feeding it new horrifying possibilities. Now, finished, I am so glad I scaved it (inside joke, read the book). Though the subject of the novel was dark, there was so much to draw inspiration from: 1) the intensity of MotherLove that enables one do things that would otherwise seem impossible; 2) the utterly remarkable resilience of children, even under the most dire of situations; 3) that which is necessary to be an effective parent and that which is superfluous; 4) how children construct a concept of the world around them; 5) the process of separating and individuating both as child, and as parent… (I hope I’m tempting you to read the book); and what I choose to write about: 6) how limited conditions can inspire boundless creativity.

Puppets from socks; bowling from vitamin bottles; pencil rubbings of common objects, a labyrinth out of toilet paper rolls. The mother of Room engages, teaches and entertains her child with discarded objects, memory, and fancy.

It’s a familiar scenario: We’ve all been trapped in a situation with our children, maybe not a kidnapper’s shed, but something not easily escaped …a delayed flight, an interminable dinner out, a car repair shop…stranded without the necessary tools of distraction (books, puzzles, crayons, etc.) and we have to get creative. Desperation necessitates invention: we tell stories; we mold snakes out of straw wrappers that come alive when we drip water on them, we whip out a sewing kit and a medicine dropper and perform a delicate surgery on our child’s worn stuffed snake (with our child joyfully administering the anesthesiology via the medicine dropper). And, it turns out, these are the activities that delight our children the most, that really get their juices flowing.

But we need not be desperate to invent games “from scratch.” We can set aside the toys, turn off the television, save the amusement park for another day.

Inspiration is everywhere.

My mother tells me to give Sophia a paintbrush and a bucket of water and let her paint the sidewalk. She’s enthralled. My friend Nancy sets up several tubs of water in the backyard and let the kids throw in objects to see if they sink or float. They keep at it for hours. My father (who doesn’t have a single toy in his house) sits and willingly eats a meal of stones, served to him on a set of bongos on his front porch. She cries when it’s time to go. My husband reclines and opens his mouth wide as our daughter examines his teeth with a spoon. Shortly after, I’m called in for a check-up as well.

I love hearing about what other parents come up with to amuse their children. I’ve stolen idea after idea, much to Sophia’s delight. In a world, surrounded by conspicuous consumption, I believe it is possible to do a lot with a little.

So, in yet another breech of the wall between author and reader, I invite you to share the homegrown activities, the homemade toys, the made-up stories and games and things you do with your kids that we can all learn from and come to enjoy.

As a member of the online book club From Left to Write, I received Room from the publisher free of charge. I was not paid to write this essay. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Selective Hearing

Sophia did you make a poop?


Sophia, I asked you if your diaper is dirty.


My toddler is stonewalling me. She heard me alright. I’m only a few feet away. But she seems to think that if she doesn’t respond, I’ll let up with this line of questioning.

No dice.

Sophia, I’m going to check your diaper.

NONONONONONONO. You are not allowed to do that!

Ah hah! I have my answer.

I thought selective hearing was the domain of teenagers. As if puberty somehow temporarily hijacked one’s ability to process requests to come downstairs for dinner, clean your room, feed the dog, do homework, etc. Turns out, it’s actually a skill that is honed over time, taking root in toddlerhood and reaching full maturity at about age 12. In fact, in a survey of parents who conduct psychological research on their own children, some parents reported that their children began ignoring them as early as 2-4. However, the majority of children appeared to listen to their parents approximately 75% of the time until the onset of adolescence, when the percentage of children who listened to their parents precipitously dropped to 15%.

I conducted a little off-line, anecdotal research of my own. I started with my friend Nancy, mother of three. She reported that there does seem to be a significant change in listening ability that occurs between the ages of one and two. Her 12-month-old still hangs on her every word, eagerly watching her mother's mouth as Nancy speaks and responding in kind. Whereas her baby will not always comply with requests to say “hi” or “bye” Nancy feels quite certain that her daughter’s reticence is not due to ignoring, but rather a nascent form of performance anxiety. Her twin toddler boys are a different story. Recently, at a fair, the boys each won a large ball. Completely enamored with their big balls, the boys began to bounce them on the spot. Nancy wanted to move the boys along, but her requests for them to keep walking fell on deaf ears. The boys continued to bounce their balls, oblivious to their mother’s entreaties.

What can we do as parents to combat this powerful strategy? We can repeat ourselves till we’re blue in the face, but frankly, I’m not a fan of repeating myself. And it doesn’t seem to get me anywhere to 1) say it again (I asked if you have a poop in your diaper.); 2) say it louder (I ASKED IF YOU HAVE A POOP IN YOUR DIAPER!); 3) say it meaner. (Listen to me when I talk to you! I asked if you have a stinky poop in your stinkin’ diaper!!!!!). No, we need to fight back. So, today I am encouraging all parents to engage in selective listening with your kids. I know; this seems completely out of character for me. I’m all about empathy and hearing what your kids have to say. I’m talking about selective listening…if they ask to watch TV, have dessert, buy them a new DS, IGNORE THEM. Act like you just didn’t hear. That’s right. They can beg, they can plead, but show them you’ve got stamina. Tell them: Game ON!

All right, maybe not. But no more Mr. Nice Melissa. I resolve to not ask twice. I will ask once and then I will peek in the back of that diaper. Enough talking—I will move to act.

Who’s with me?

Monday, September 13, 2010

My Lifelong Dream

This blog was inspired by Karen Bergreen’s Following Polly, a selection of the online book club, fromlefttowrite. One must look beyond the tabloid-like cover of the book (Or do as I did and remove it altogether. Yes. I am a snob.), as it is in no way representative of the quality of writing within. I finished the book annoyed that Alice Teakle, the protagonist, was a fictional character, as I felt sure we could be friends. The reader (okay, me) accompanied her through the most universal struggles—that of discovering one’s lifelong dream. As someone who fairly recently realized she had a lifelong dream, I thoroughly enjoyed Alice’s journey towards discovering her own.

I can’t say having a baby was a life-long dream, exactly. I didn’t like playing with dolls—their staring eyes and frozen expressions creeped me out. I wasn’t maternal like Christina Hartley, who, when I was crying inconsolably in kindergarten for the 267th time that year, encircled my shoulders with one small arm and said, “It’s okay, honey. It’s okay.” And when I thought I might be pregnant when I was 19, right after my first real boyfriend broke up with me, I was at first terrified and then deeply relived to watch only one pink line form on the pee stick.

Yet, I always adored working with kids younger than me. When I was in middle school, my bus driver, Janice Hall, would tell me stories about people who spontaneously combusted as she drove me to the elementary school where she’d park the bus and my mother ran the aftercare program. I’d join my mother and spend my pre-adolescent afternoons organizing games with the kids and lusting after Graham, my mother’s seventeen-year-old assistant. And, when I aged out of Brownies and was the only middle schooler uncool enough to want to continue on in Girl Scouts, they made me a junior counselor in my sister’s troupe (much to my sister’s chagrin). As soon as I was old enough to get working papers I was a camp counselor, watching over the little kids who belonged to the troupe leaders at Jockey Hollow Day Camp. I held the smallest children over the hole in the outhouse so they didn’t fall in. Important work.

When I was in high school, I told my mother that I wanted to teach emotionally disturbed children. We were standing in the foyer of my grandmother’s apartment (which Grandma pronounced: foy-yay), pulling on our coats to take a walk down snowy Pelham Parkway. Both my mother, a teacher, and my grandmother, who, to my knowledge, had never fulfilled her lifelong dreams, immediately squashed it. (“What? And let your brain go to waste? You should be a doctor!” This isn’t vanity. This is EVERY Jewish mother/grandmother’s lifelong dream for their kid…I have to admit, it’s now mine.)

I don’t think either of them was disappointed when I actually did become a teacher. True, teaching doesn’t have the prestige or financial compensation of being a doctor. But it is among the most noble of professions. And I loved it. I loved my students. In fact, I believe it was a love of teaching that kindled my desire to be a parent. I only got to have my students for six hours a day, but a child of my own would be a 24/7 deal. I think it was in my early twenties that I realized I did have a lifelong dream. I wanted to be a mother.

So, when I found myself swiftly approaching my 30’s, without a partner, let alone a child, I started to contemplate the possibility of having one on my own. I was absolutely 100% certain I wanted to have a child…but I wasn’t quite as sure about having a husband. I wasn’t sure men and women were meant to cohabitate, let alone bear and raise new people. Not long after I began to think this way, I met a man five years my junior. Which basically meant that he had all the time in the world to have a child, whereas I did not. I know I pressured him to have kids, even before we were married. I finally promised, during one particularly tense evening at his parents’ house, to wait until I was 40. What the hell was I thinking? Probably that his mind would change. And it did. I don’t think he even remembers that night.

So what happens when all the stars finally align to make your lifelong dream come true…and you are 37 and your body won’t cooperate? You get depressed. You despair. You resent everyone who has co-opted and is fulfilling your lifelong dream around you. You spend lots and lots of money, time and brainspace trying to figure out why, now that you have finally settled on a lifelong dream, you can’t make it come true.

And you become more and more sure that this is the one thing you want to do before you die.

Not because you want your genes to survive you. Not because you want to kick fate in the face. Not even because you think you’d be good at it. Even though you do. But because you suddenly realize that every lived moment—good and bad, sweet and savory, painful and real—has led you to this conclusion: you are a mother. All that's missing is the baby.

So we tried. And we tested. And we tried. And I stressed. And we tried. And I used acupunture and progesterone.

And then, in her own good time, came Sophia. The baby that made my lifelong dream come true.

As a member of the online book club From Left to Write, I received Following Polly from the publisher free of charge. I was not paid to write this essay. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Call Each by Her Right Name

We are standing in line at the grocery store and the cashier asks my daughter her name, “So—FEE—ah,” Sophia sings, with evident pride and joy.

“Oh that’s a beautiful name,” says the woman standing in line behind me, “I’ve always loved that name.”

“Me too,” I respond. And then I say what I always say, “I think Sophie is adorable for a little girl, and Sophia sounds so mellifluous and sophisticated for a woman.” The woman standing in line behind me nods and adds, “My niece’s name is Sophia.”

Such is the boon and the curse of Sophia’s name. It is universally hailed as beautiful…. I can see the powerful associations it has for people—and how quickly they project those associations onto my daughter when I tell them her name. Names have an impact on how we perceive others.

And: Everyone and her sister (or niece) is named Sophia.

We knew this would be the case. The day my friend Emily told me she was pregnant she also announced that, if the baby was a girl, she would name her daughter Sofie. It was hot and we were dangling our feet in a pool. I had to choke back a sob. I had just lost a pregnancy. A pregnancy I had hoped would result in a Sophia. Now, Emily wanted the same name for her daughter. Silly for me to mind or care, I minded and cared. The juvenile, “I wanted to name my daughter Sophia first!” came to mind, but I held that back too. After all, Emily had every right to name her daughter whatever she chose. But I was jealous. Probably more so of the pregnancy than the fact that she had selected a variant of the name I loved. Probably because she would get to use it, and I doubted I ever would.

Another cruel twist of fate. Later that summer, when Kevin and I sat in a pew in Pittsburg, watching a friend from grad school marry a lovely, intelligent and extremely pregnant woman, the priest revealed the unborn child’s name in his homily.

No! Really? Yes. It didn’t much matter that I cried then, as I wasn’t the only one in the church shedding tears.

That February, still reeling from my third pregnancy loss, I had just completed a three-month impregnation hiatus. We took the break at the suggestion of my fertility doc, who said it would allow my uterus to recover from the D & C used to remove my fetus. The fetus who lost her heartbeat at 11 weeks. I was in a restaurant in New York with my husband and friends of his from college. It was underground, dark, and cave-like. I was sipping water under some stalactites while the others drank wine. My cell phone rang. It was Emily. She had just given birth to Sofie. I expressed whatever joy and congratulations I could muster and then quickly hung up and excused myself. In the bathroom, I held my head in my hands and cried. I wanted to lie on the cold tile floor. I wanted to disappear. Not only did I feel wretched, I was deeply ashamed of the envy that prevented me from being happy for my friend.

I didn’t know that, at that moment, I was already 12 days pregnant with my Sophia.

In the months that followed, we agonized over names, as many parents do. A name has to perform many jobs—in addition to the impression that it creates in others, in Judaism a name reflects both where the child is from and our hopes for who the child will be. Ashkenazi Jews name their children for someone who has passed away, creating a continuity of family history, an inextricable, metaphysical bond between souls. The child is said to be imbued with the positive qualities of the deceased. I really wanted to name Sophia for my grandmother, Ruth, which, I hoped my mother would feel honored by and would channel some of my grandmother’s independent, free-thinking spirit. But, we couldn’t find a single “R” name we liked enough to be saying for the rest of our lives. We toyed with “Razia” for a little while...”Razie” while she was still young…but Kevin never really took a shine to it. We even briefly considered, Zofia, for my Great Aunt Zona, Ruth’s sister, who was like a second mother to my mother, made the best chocolate chip cookies in the world, and had stoically died from throat cancer. Both Razia and Zofia names with under-developed associations. What would others think of a Razia? Is she a raven-haired vixen or does she wear too much patchouli? And Zofia, is she the kind of woman you can’t get out of your head for all the right reasons, or does she tell your fortune for five bucks?

Without dispute, we both loved the name Sophia.

But at this point two of our friends had named their daughter Sophia, and surely there were scores of other parents, who similarly had bestowed their child with this beautiful word that meant “wisdom.” She was doomed to be Sophia M., sitting behind Sophia L and in front of Sophia N., in homeroom.

We already know how the story ends, for this is Life with Sophia, not Life with Razia or Life with Zophia. She emerged from my body and with the wisdom of DNA that has survived and evolved for tens of thousands of years, she took to my breast and sucked vigorously. It was then that we knew no other name would do.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Does Technology Enhance or Interfere with Parenting?

Sophia and I were eating breakfast. She was humming to herself and I was glued to my iPhone, trying to get the weather (and a side of dopamine) with my morning coffee.

"Mommy, put down the phone and talk to me." Shame hijacked all neurological functioning as I set the device gently down on the table and apologized to my daughter.

Oh, I'm not worried that my inattention caused any lasting psychological damage to Sophia. I am generally attentive and attune to her needs. And, in my defense, I was checking the weather to figure out how to dress her and what we should do that day. But in that moment, I felt like I had been caught. Like an alcoholic taking a drink in a closet, the door flung open by my toddler, exposing my folly.

The fact is: my technology addiction is getting out of hand. I want to stop, but I’m finding it difficult to do. I have become a habitual Internet checker. I am plagued with mights: I might have a response to a resume (at 11 pm? Only 5 minutes since your last check?). I might have more hits on my blog (Another hit! Oh wait, that’s my sister again.). I might have heard back from that former classmate, okay boyfriend, I contacted out of the clear blue on FaceBook last week. (Why do I care?). All of these mights are far less important than the human being sitting before me. And yet, I check.

Psychology offers a neat explanation for my behavior: Intermittent reinforcement: On occasion I HAVE received a positive response to a job inquiry, a touching comment on my blog or a regretful note from an old love. In these moments I am rewarded for my frequent and faithful checking behavior. And because I never know when it's going to be one of these moments, if this is the time I'll get the big payload, I keep checking. Not unlike the elderly, gambling away their social security checks on slot machines.

This is how bad it’s gotten: I go online in bed, when I first wake up in the morning. I do it on the toilet. I do it while stopped at red lights, throughout my workday, while my husband is doing the dishes and can't hear me over the faucet, and just before I go to sleep at night. I’m about to do it right now.

I have incurred the disgust of my husband, the incredulity of my mom, and now this, the pleading of my daughter.

I am struggling with where I should draw the line between attending to screens and participating in real life. After all, technology has enhanced my experience of parenting in many ways. When I was in the middle of Illinois, Sophia newly weaned, and I developed painful swollen milk ducts, anonymous moms immediately responded to my listserv pleas for help and got me through those awful three days. The best purchases I’ve made—from a car seat (one of two) that was able to withstand side-impact at 70 miles per hour (Consumer Reports was only supposed to test it at 35 MPH and made a mistake) to the velvet curtains that I hung in the basement to create a theater, are thanks to the Internet. And Skype has made it possible for Sophia to call Grandpa Ben and show him her latest invented ballet steps. So, I do believe that there is a place for technology in parenting.

But how capacious a place? When does my Internet habit become problematic, interfering with my relationships, my productivity, my happiness? At what point am I substituting connectivity for connection? Right now my daughter’s plaintive expression clearly says.

And then there is the issue of me being a hypocrite. How can I, a mother who refuses to expose her daughter to television before she turns three, justify that I carry a screen with me ALL DAY LONG and--shameful but true--sleep with it safely tucked in next to me at night. How can I be so restrictive with her screen time when I have been unable to limit my own? When she finally asks why is what's good for the goose too good for the gosling, how will I explain myself? (“Honey, mommy has a problem....”).

Daddy, however, does not have a problem. I envy my husband, the Luddite, who uses technology, but is not a slave to it, who does not worship at the temple of Apple, who is able to go an entire day without checking his email. He resents the fact that when we are sitting together after dinner, if there is a lull in the conversation; I will pick up my Smartphone. It is righteous resentment. I can remember being equally resentful of an ex-boyfriend's SportsCenter addiction. He watched it every free moment, looking over my shoulder at the streaming scores when I spoke to him. Taking the dinner I made for the two of us in front of the game so that he didn't miss one precious moment. I clearly did not learn my lesson. I am making the same mistake with my dear attentive husband who wants nothing more than to listen to me and be heard.

Dare I unplug? It is hard not to get caught up in the online peer pressure. It seems like anyone who is making a success out of being online has to be online ALL THE TIME. Tweeting, Facebooking, updating their blog, sending out newsletters. It’s exhausting, and not just virtually exhausting, really exhausting. Just how is it that so many successful mom bloggers are constantly online—how have the reconciled doing so and still being a present parent?

I haven’t figured it out. But I guess if I had to choose being the most popular mom online and the most popular person in my own home; I’d choose the latter.