Sunday, October 31, 2010

After All I've Done For You

My Jewish grandmother leans over her kitchen table (covered in three layers of table cloths) and says, quietly, so my mother doesn’t hear:

“You think there’s a Santa Claus?”

My seven year old sister and I nod our heads.

“Feh! There’s no Santa Claus. That Santa Claus you love so much is your mother. It’s your mother who buys presents for you, with her own hard-earned money. Your mother who gives you the things you ask for.” She pauses, letting it sink in before delivering the final blow, “And this is the way you treat her?”

We look down, our faces burning with shame.

“You girls have no idea how much she does for you,” she added, regarding us with disdain.

We must have committed some sin, some infraction to deserve this terrible truth…probably we were fighting, as we often did. We looked at each other. No Santa Claus? How does grandma explain all the ho ho hoing in the upstairs hallway? The jingle of bells? The missing milk and cookies? Was all of that our mother?

When mom found out that grandma kicked the goyishe fantasies out of us (we told on her, of course), she was livid. I’m sure grandma was shocked that mom was upset. Or at least she feigned shock, “But Judi, darling,” I can hear her saying, “I only wanted the girls to appreciate what you do for them.”

Grandma, you see, was a pro. She knew how to wield guilt like a ninja wields his sword, slicing through sibling rivalry and misbehavior. And my mother, well, she learned at the foot of the master. She used it sparingly, but when I was a brat, mom could kick my ass with the withering, “This is the way you treat me? After all I’ve done for you?

So, no surprise that these words would rise in my consciousness and bubble up to my lips when my own daughter lacks gratitude for the very…life...I gave her! Take, for example, last weekend when I took Sophia to see Curious George, LIVE! Now, I know that it is unfair to expect at not-quite-three-year-old to sit through an hour and a half long performance by a singing and dancing monkey, even if said monkey is her HERO and I spent over an hour in traffic to get there, and paid you-don’t-want-to-know how much for nosebleed balcony seats. Still, after the first half, when Sophia lost it, dangling herself over the aforementioned balcony, asking to repeatedly go to the bathroom (only to swing her legs from the potty and say “no, I don’t have to go.”), and using the handicapped access railing like monkey bars…I was tempted. It was a conscious effort NOT to say those thirteen little words.

But I refrained…because I also know that these words can breed resentment, shame, anger and the general sense that nothing you do can or ever will be good enough.

It is at once so easy and so difficult for me to shift my perspective. To not feel personally affronted by my child’s behavior, but to understand that she is learning how to be a decent human being and it’s my job to help her along.

Recently, at my mother’s house, Sophia was in her high chair eating dinner. She was suffering some injustice (I think I was making her eat a carrot), when she drew back her arm, prepared to hit me. I caught her arm, midair and told Sophia, “Use your words. Say: Mommy, I’m angry at you. I don’t want to eat this carrot!”

“Mommy! I’m angry at you!”

“That’s okay,” I say, an ocean of calm. “It’s okay to be angry with me when I’m asking you to do something you don’t want to do. But I tell you what. You eat this carrot and then you can have more cous cous.”

“Okay,” Sophie agrees. She eats the carrot. I dole out some cous cous.

My mother, watching this scene, said, “If I ever told my mother I was angry with her, she would have never let me hear the end of it.” I think I detected a note of admiration in her voice. And all at once I understood how she tried to swallow down these words too, words that she had heard many more times growing up then I did. I was awash with gratitude.

Parenting is a thankless job. But you don’t do it for approval. Or for gratitude. Or for love. And when it’s not expected, it comes much more freely.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Who Is That Evil Dictator Living in My House? Oh. Wait. That’s My Daughter.

I had been duly warned by friends and strangers alike that “Three is the new two,” in other words, either the terrible twos aren’t quite so terrible or the threes are getting worse. But still, I developed a false sense of security as I witnessed Sophie’s occasional flip outs. They went a little something like this:

“Sophie, it’s time for dinner.”

“NO! I want to play downstairs with daddy.”

“Climb into your chair.”

“I WON’T CLIMB INTO MY CHAIR! Run away! Run away!” And she’d make a beeline for the living room couch, throw herself upon it, sob uncontrollably for about a minute, then walk back into the kitchen and say in an eerily sing song voice, “I calmed myself down, and I’m ready to eat dinner, Mommy.”

The whole thing was just weird. But manageable.

As we edge closer and closer to three (that’s the magic number), Sophie has become increasingly willful, naughty, and something of a bully.

Willful: “No! Don’t put on my shirt! I want to do it myself!” She rips off the shirt I just pulled over her head. But, instead of dressing herself, she begins to prance around the room. “I’m naked! I’m naked!” "Sophie, put your shirt on now." “No!” she retorts. “I want to read a book.” She pulls A is for Art Museum off the shelf, thrusts it towards me and orders, “Read it!” “There will be no books until you get dressed. If you don’t put your shirt on by the count of three, I’m putting it on you.” Blatantly ignoring me, she thumbs through the book. I then yank the shirt over her head. She screams and tries to pull it off as I struggle to pull it on. I am the victor. She throws herself on the floor and sobs.

Naughty: “Mommy, I’m taking my shoes off,” Sophie taunts from the backseat. "Sophie we are almost home. Please do not take your shoes off." “I’m taking them o-ff,” she replies in her evil twin sing-song voice. Since there is nothing I can do, short of pulling over onto the shoulder of the highway and risking certain death, I ignore her. A shoe goes whizzing by my head. Now, I’m pissed. “SOPHIA! YOU DO NOT THROW THINGS IN THE CAR WHILE MOMMY IS DRIVING! WE COULD GET IN AN ACCIDENT AND GET VERY HURT.” Still defiant, she takes the other shoe off, but doesn’t throw it. In my rearview mirror I see her dangling it off of her pointer finger. And smiling.

Bully: “Que fortunidad, estamos perfectos aqui….” “No Mommy! You are not allowed to sing. I LIKE this song. You cannot like this song.”

This behavior has excited my insecurities as a self-proclaimed perfectionist mom (and a psychologist). Like, shouldn’t I have a better behaved kid? I mean, shouldn’t she be absolutely perfect ALL the TIME? What am I doing wrong that she flouts my rules, mocks me, and bosses me around?

And then the pea-sized part of my brain isn’t governed by emotions and self-doubt whispers…she is doing what she is supposed to be doing.

She is developing a separate self.

She’s testing the waters.

She’s trying to see when I will break my resolve and where I stand firm.

She’d like to throw a shoe at my head.

She wants to be reassured that I am trying to keep her safe.

She wants to assert her independence from me.

She wants to see what kind of emotional impact she can have on me as an affirmation of my investment in her.

She wants to do what she wants to do.

She doesn’t want to have to listen to me warble along with Dan Zane.

She wants to be in charge for once in her life.

She wants me to reassure her that I am in charge.

Okay. Fine, but it’s freaking exhausting.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Very Superstitious

I am very very very superstitious. I was busy knocking on wood the other night—I think Kevin deigned to mention something about Sophia being healthy, and I started thumping away, ready to put my fist through the table to counteract the ill effects of his positive words.

Kevin, whose grown accustomed to such peccadilloes (and usually ignores them), looked at me with mild interest and said something intelligent about ancient pagan rituals surviving modern faiths. People still do engage in them, even if it’s contrary to what they now believe.

(I was sure that knocking on wood was a Jewish thing to do. But it turns out grim, fatalistic, magical thinking actually predates the Jews. We wikipediaed it.)

Thing is, if Kevin’s theory is correct, I’m an outlier. I really believe this stuff. I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop, terrified of saying something good, acknowledging the good things in life for fear that tragedy will immediately befall. And because I have this mindset…I actively exercise “confirmatory bias.” That is, I look for evidence that supports my way of thinking, and ignore evidence to the contrary, thus solidifying my position.

Bad things come in threes.
Step on a crack, break your mama’s back.
Knock wood.

So, you can imagine how hesitant I am to commit what I am about to say to paper. And I’m trying to see if I can simultaneously knock on wood and type at the same time.

Sophia has pooped in the potty for nine consecutive days. Notice, I didn’t say Sophia is toilet trained. That would be far too audacious, inviting the wrath of the gods. No. I am simply stating the facts. I realize our winning streak is subject to change at any moment. I am prepared for accidents at all times. And I do all that I can to prevent them.

I am the gnat in her ear: “Do you need to go potty?”
I am the PR director, “Sophie, tell grandpa the BIG NEWS!”
I am Miss Manners, “We don’t poop on princesses….”
I a cheerleader, “Mommy is SO PROUD that you are pooping in the potty like a big girl! Go SOPHIE!”

Here’s how I finally did it. Fed up with the pull-ups, I got rid of them. I told Sophie (much as a friend had suggested at least a month ago) that we were done with diapers. From here on in, it would only be big girl underwear. My neighbor sagely suggested buying lots of cheap underwear and treating them as disposable. (Hence the princesses panties.) Granted, I had some misgivings of how not green that was. (But neither are pull-ups or constantly laundering underwear.) And after just two accidents (the Discovery Museum incident) a bed-wetting fiasco that was completely my fault (forgot to toilet her before the nap, gave her a ton to drink, didn’t pick her up the minute I heard her stir because I was too busy chatting it up with my friend Elisa) and a lot of mortification on Sophia’s part (oh how she cried at the shame of having wet the bed), she’s been clean and dry.

What it simply boiled down to was: she was ready. Physically, emotionally and intellectually ready. And when she was, she basically trained herself.

So now I’ve done it. Tomorrow, I am sure, I will wake up to find my baby distraught, her bed soaked with urine (she insisted she didn’t have to go before bed), and the gods laughing at me, because I had the hubris to announce to the world that Sophia is done with diapers.

Perhaps some sort of burnt offering will appease them. Is it illegal to burn Pampers in your backyard?

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Case for Siblings (continued)

I read The Kids Are All Right, by Diana, Liz, Amanda and Dan Welch as a participant in the online bookclub, From Left to Write. The following blog is not a review of the book, but a blog inspired by this absorbing memoir.

Siblings are the only true witnesses of our childhood. They experience what we experience. They see what we see. They hear what we hear. They know what it was like. Whenever I have questioned a memory of my childhood, I can check it out with my sister, Jennifer. Whenever I feel like I’m exaggerating or minimizing something in my mind, I can rely on her to validate my perception.

This is something that Sophia may never have.

That thought was present for me, as I read The Kids Are All Right, a memoir of a difficult childhood (sudden, mysterious death of their father and the subsequent slow, painful loss of their mother to cancer) told in four, alternating sibling perspectives. It was an engrossing conceit; I took in these tragic events from four different angles: sibling position, age, and individual resources each playing a role in how The Kids experienced and coped with the death of their parents. Most of the time, their memories matched up…but occasionally, they contradicted one another or were completely different in content and feeling. It got me thinking, what would it be like to write about my childhood memories alongside my sister? What insights might come of it?

So, I turned to Jennifer and asked if she would participate in a little writing experiment with me. This week, my sister guest blogs as we recall a slice of our childhood.


Almost every weekend after brunch, a spread of bagels and lox and the occasional six layer chocolate cake (my father had a sweet tooth), we would venture into NYC to spend the day.
Both my parents enjoyed exposing us to the arts, culture and rich experience no other place like the city had to offer. I loved strolling the Lower East side and the Village with my family. Melissa gossiping and in step with mom, and me skipping next to dad, my father's warm hand reaching for mine. I had a feeling of great security and contentment. We would window shop, visit a museum or park and then usually have Chinese. I liked the warmth and steaminess of the restaurant inside as I people watched. After dinner I would have pistachio ice cream and Melissa, chocolate. Jazz would play on the car radio lulling me to sleep. Home would come too soon.


Though my parents disagreed on nearly everything, from how much one should spend on a grapefruit to whether or not my mother should work…they were united in their love of the arts. My mother was an artist in her own right. She had studied fine art in school, and took a job in commercial art after college, drawing pillows for Comfy. By the time I was in school, her portfolio was moldering in our unfinished basement, though she still incorporated art in her nursery school teachings. My grandmother displayed my mother’s self-portrait (in oil) prominently on the far living room wall. I would study the painting--my mother’s face, forever young, her ponytail pinned in a “plotch” on top of her head--for traits that resembled my own. But I was the spitting image of my father. Dad was less a practitioner of the arts than an aficionado. He loved jazz, antiques, modern art, flea market finds. There was nothing pretentious about his tastes. He liked what he liked. So our forays into the City were wild and varied. I remember, one time, Mom and Dad took us to the Guggenheim. There was a transgender exhibit going on. Paper dolls had swinging sex parts affixed with paper fasteners. Jenny and I gawked, less intrigued by the fact that there were male dolls with female sex parts and vica versa than that there were sex parts on display at all. Dad suggested releasing a bag of marbles at the top and letting them roll down the spiral museum promenade. We either giggled or were appalled, the way we either giggled or were appalled at most of my father’s behavior. Whereas other dads might joke about this, our Dad might actually do it.

My mother was usually appalled. We always drove into the City. Dad had a Dodge Daytona that he drove like it was a Ferrari. He would weave in an out of the traffic, while my mother clutched at the sides of her bucket seat, arms tense, body lifted several inches into the air. “Lenny! Slow down!” she’d beg/nag as, Dad would cut off three lanes of traffic, making a beeline for the shoulder, which he’d speed down until his intuition would tell him we were getting too close to a cop. Jenny and I were wedged into the backseats and mercifully couldn’t see much of what was going on. We had to divine from the increasingly tense exchange when we had narrowly avoided disaster. “You almost went into him!” “Will you relax and let me drive?’ Once, the arguing got so bad that Dad jumped out at the light, just as we emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel. I was stricken. Where would he go? How would he get home? My mother, seething, was determined to carry on with the day. We went to the Museum of Natural History and communed with animals long dead. When we got home, Dad was there. I never found out how he made his way back.

When we managed to make it through the day without someone bailing, we went to Chinatown to get dinner at Hong Fat’s. (No longer there, and what has been described on Chow Hound as “one of NYC’s legendary bad restaurants,” though, to it’s credit, many came out in defense of this comment). Afterwards, Dad would prefer to drive through the city streets than to take the West Side Highway back to the tunnel. Jazz on the radio, neon lights bleeding in rivulets of rain on the windows, it was soothing. Invariably, though, I would get sick in the tunnel on the ride home. When I got old enough, I blamed it on the MSG. More likely it was a combination of family drama agita, too much grease, motion sickness, and fear of returning to school the next day. I think Jenny doesn’t remember this because, mercifully, she had fallen asleep.

It’s probably hard to believe, but I do share her nostalgia for these trips. I think it’s because they were formative. Like Mom, Jennifer became an artist, coaxing graceful sculptures out of clay. Like Dad, I developed an appreciation for beauty in odd corners. If I dug far back enough, to the time when I was as old as Jennifer during these trips, I might have had sweeter, more harmonious memories of the four of us together. But that period is blank. Empty for me. And so I rely on Jenny to fill it.

As a member of the online book club From Left to Write, I received The Kids Are All Right 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, October 10, 2010

We Don't Poop on Princesses

Who is responsible for the invention of pull-ups? Wherever you are, I have a bone to pick with you. These objects of modern convenience are the bane of my existence. They are the limbo of toilet learning—not quite diaper, not quite big girl underwear, they do nothing to promote pooping in the potty.

The fantasy:
1. That pull-ups would allow Sophia to be more independent as she learned to toilet—pulling them up and
down herself
2. I would avoid the unpleasantness of “accidents.”

The reality:
1. It is much much harder to clean a child who has pooped in a pull-up than one who has pooped in a diaper. It has to do with removing and containing the hazardous waste. In fact, I am contemplating writing up a step-by-step process to post for first timers as a public service.
2. A friend related this story, which basically sums up my main beef with pull-ups. Her two-year-old daughter, who is quite verbal, would ask before she eliminated: “Am I wearing a pull up or underwear?”

Yes, pull-ups allow our children to wallow in their own filth as long as they please, which, in the case of my daughter is “until I’m three,” as she announced yesterday. Once again, I assert, if a child can tell you when she is planning on being toilet trained, he/she is perfectly capable of doing it.

So, I bit the bullet. I went to Target, and—against my better judgment and all my principles—I bought the damn princess panties. I am very tempted to go into a princesses rant here, but I’ll save it for another day. Suffice it to say that I have nothing against royalty in general, I do have an issue with Disney marketing their products to my daughter from infancy and that she, along with every other girl I know, is able to recognize the brand pre-lingually. But I digress. She carried her precious princess panties all the way to the register and set them down gently on the conveyor belt. The whole time I babbled alongside her, “Now Sophia. On Wednesday we are DONE with diapers. That’s it. No more pull-ups. You are going to wear your princess panties from here on in. And there is a rule associated with wearing princess panties: We don’t pee or poop on princesses!” I was rather proud of myself. This seemed fairly straightforward and sensible. Sophie repeated what I said, internalizing the rule: “No Pooping on Princesses!” “That’s right,” I reinforced. “Very good. Starting Wednesday, we are just going to pee and poop in the potty.” “I will do my poops in the potty like a big gurl!” Sophie declared.

If this does the trick, it will be worth the sacrifice.

Of course, she wanted to put them on right away when we got home. I thought it was wise to build the suspense a little. “Nope.” I said, “we’ll start on Wednesday.” A tantrum ensued. “I want my princesses!” “Wednesday,” I repeated. “You know what you have to do.”

The next morning, she woke up dry, peed in the potty, and told me, “Mommy, no pull-ups. I’m done with pull-ups.”
“Really?” I asked.

“Yes!” She said. “I want my princess panties.”

“Okay,” I relented. Pulled them out of their hiding place. She chose Cinderella. The blue-eyed blond. I felt another pang of liberal guilt.

Sophia donned the panties. She stayed clean and dry throughout the morning, her nap and her time at the babysitters, gleefully whipping her pants down to display her hidden treasure for anyone with a pulse.

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

I picked her up from her babysitter and announced that we were going to the Discovery Museum. “Hooray!” she said. I reminded her that no matter what we were doing, if she felt the urge to go, she needed to tell me. “There will be plenty of time to play, but we also have to make time for the potty.” “Okay,” she old me.

I tried when we got there. She obliged, but she didn’t have to go. I checked in with her at multiple points. Each time she insisted, “I don’t have to.” We were in the diner and I was serving her a strawberry milkshake when she assumed sumo position.

“SOPHIA!” I shouted. “WE DON’T POOP ON PRINCESSES!” Oh yes. I did.

But it was too late. There was no stopping her now. “I’m pooping! I’m pooping!” she cried, as I lifted her, still in squatting position, and ran with her to the girls room. As I pulled down her pants, one errant poo dropped down and rolled across the floor.

“Damn it!” Whoops. Did I say that aloud? I did my best to contain the mess and myself. I silently cleaned her up. Sometimes, it’s best not to say anything at all. Still anti-pull-up, Sophia went commando.

As with all things, there are many roads to the same goal. I suppose I could keep her in pull-ups until she turns the magic number of three. I could allow her to soil the princesses, one by one and then tell her that’s it, there are none left. (And then improvise, because I have no plan for what would happen next.) My plan should be based on the function of the non-pooping in the potty behavior. Only, the function eludes me.

Is it a control issue? Is it a fear? Does she want to keep herself a baby a little bit longer? She’s clearly uncomfortable when she does it. She talks about wanting to be a big gurl.

Someone said to me that there comes a time when it feels wrong to be changing your child’s diaper. For me that time has come. Perhaps what it boils down to is Sophia has to feel it too.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Postponing Pets

“Mom?” I could tell from Sophie’s tone that she had been mulling something over.

“Yeah, Soph?”

“We don’t have any pets,” she observed.

This is true. Max, my beloved cat, died shortly after she was born. At night, when I was pregnant, I would listen to his raspy breathing emanating from where he sat in the doorway to my bathroom. He had diabetes and an enlarged heart. I spent more money that I care to admit trying to extend his life, unable to say goodbye.

Only recently have I felt ready for another cat. Just the other day I was needling Kevin about getting a black one with green eyes. Such a cat would not resemble any of my former cats, and therefore I would be freed of the guilt of “replacing” Max. Kevin rolled his eyes, “An all black cat? So it can shed on everything?” As if the color of the cat had any bearing on how much it shed. Still, I knew what he meant. Max had a talent for being able to shed black hairs on white clothes and white hairs on black clothes. I’m fairly certain he could release them at will.

“Do you want a pet?” I fished, feeling somewhat ambivalent about her response. On the one hand, I miss the heart-slowing effects of having a warm ball of fur in my lap. On the other, cats—ALL pets—are work. Kevin has sensibly asserted that we should get a cat when Sophia is ready to take care of it. I am in perfect agreement with this. I received my first cat when I was five. I saw her at a garage sale just up the road. I begged and pleaded and made all kinds of promises I lacked the ability to keep at five. Against my father’s better judgment, my mother took me to get the cat. She was so tiny—all claws. The very first morning of her 16-year stay, she scaled my mother’s nightgown all the way up to her shoulder, mewing for her breakfast. I do believe my mother fed her (and cleaned her litter box) that day and every day henceforth.

“Yes!” Answered Sophie, pulling me back to the present.

“What kind of pet?”

“A kitty cat!” Thank god she didn’t say dog. Sophie recently overcame her fear of dogs. The Boyfriends (my friend Nan’s twin boys) have a lovely, sweet, obedient dog named Sally, whom Nancy describes as an 8th generation mutt. Sophia has been terrified of Sally from the day one. Nan believed that through gradual exposure, Sophia would master her fear. So, each time we went over, she brought Sally in the room. At first it was for a short period of time and Sally remained on leash. Nan barked commands at her and Sally sat, gave her paw, and played dead. Gradually, Sally stayed longer. And finally, Sally was off-leash. It was quite a triumph when Sophie asked Nancy if she could pet Sally. Nancy held Sally while Sophia stroked her fur. Emboldened by this, Sophia quickly graduated to attempting to cut Sally’s hair, grabbing her ears and smacking her on the head. I was appalled, but Nancy was cool. She’s feeling her power, Nan told me. We worked on gentle touching. There’s still more work to be done.

Still, I don’t want a dog. Ever.

Sophia has been around cats because her grandmother has two. Far less patient than Sally, my mother’s cats hightail it out of there when they see Sophia coming. They are both obnoxious: one by nature, one by nurture. Casey Cat loves Sophie’s grandpa and ONLY her grandpa. He regards the rest of us with scorn, sneering at me when I walk past. I can say this with authority, as a cat-lover, this cat is wholly unloveable. Thus, it was no surprise that he freaked out when Sophie’s grandpa rescued a 3 lb stray—Maggie Magoo. Maggie Magoo was a threat to Casey and Bernie’s inseparable bond, and so he did what any male cat does in this situation. He sprayed the joint. I am quite sure he has covered every inch of the rug in my mother’s finished basement. It smells like NYC on a hot summer’s day down there. Having won the pissing match, he reclaimed his man and left Maggie Magoo, skittish and untrusting, out in the cold.

This feline drama is off Sophia’s radar. Only recently as she walked through the basement did she note, “It stinks down here!” I think she has yet to connect it to the stinker.

I report this conversation to my friend and neighbor, who shudders at the thought of adding a pet to her brood, adding that her seven-year-old son is dying for a dog.

“How about a hermit crab?” I suggested.

“We got a couple of gold fish at the school fair this summer. Remember?”

“Oh yeah,” in my mind’s eye, I could see him holding up a clear plastic bag with a flash of gold inside, “whatever happened to those fish?” I couldn’t recall seeing them around the house.

“Oh they died within a couple of days. Thank god.”

Animal lovers, be assured this was not the heartless remark of a cruel woman. It’s the honest reaction of a mother whose household has reached maximum capacity. Where feeding the goldfish (and changing its water and whatever else you have to do to maintain goldfish health) is one more task that will fall to her, despite her capable brood.

Sophie is awaiting my reaction. “I want one too, honey. But we need to wait until you’re a big girl and can take care of it yourself.”

“Okay,” says Sophie cheerfully, popping her thumb in her mouth. Thank god, indeed.