Monday, March 28, 2011

Surprise Day

This post was inspired by Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes, the March selection of the online book club, From Left to Write. I received a complementary copy of the book from the publisher, but was not otherwise compensated to write this piece. Find out how other writers were inspired by the book here.

In the memoir, Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes, Elizabeth Bard likens her first date with her husband to the pseudo-snow days of her youth. Growing up, each year her mother let her choose her own snow day. The two of them would take the day off, sleep late, have a “backwards breakfast,” (ice cream first), and pretty much do whatever their hearts desired the rest of the day.

What a lovely tradition. It brought a favorite family memory of my own flooding back: My sister Jennifer and I were crammed into the backseat of Dad’s creamy Dodge Dart. Our parents, uncharacteristically happy, were giggling in the front. It seemed like we had been driving forever. “But where are we GOING?” we begged. They were silent on the subject and smirked in the rearview mirror.

An hour later we rolled into heaven. Until that day, I had not known a place called Hershey Park existed. It was like winning the golden ticket and stepping into Wonka’s factory. The street lights shaped like Hershey kisses. I imagined shimming up their poles and unwrapping the foil—but that’s about all I can recall. I don’t remember actually eating much chocolate that day, or even the amusement park rides I went on. All that remains with me is the wonderful spontaneity of the day—the liberty my parents took with reality. The message they sent that life doesn’t have to be just one way all the time.

I am excited, now, thinking of the possibility of creating my own “surprise day” ritual with Sophia. I don’t think I want her to pick the day, as Bard did. I want her to feel ambushed by me—the way I did by my parents the day we went to Hershey Park. I want her to realize, years later, that I secretly planned the day for her pleasure. That, though I make her eat her vegetables and take her naps and brush her teeth, I can also roll down the window, throw out all my rules, let the wind rush in and carry us away.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cold Fish

I am the demonstrative sort. Perhaps not always in the physical sense, but when it comes to words, I can’t help but say what I feel.

Years ago, when I was teaching, a lovely human being came to work in my classroom for the summer as an aide. She was remarkable with the children—it was just something she exuded—a deep calm and radiant warmth. There was an instant connection between us, an effortlessness, a simpatico that went beyond words. Not long into the relationship, we met for dinner. We spent hours sharing stories, hopping restaurants for drinks, then dinner, then coffee and dessert. As we sipped our lattes, I felt a welling inside, and, though I knew it was odd, I leaned in and said, “I just have to tell you.... I love you.” I waited for her to be completely weirded out and ask for the check. She smiled and said, “I feel the same way.” It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I believe it is important to not only tell the people you love that you love them, as frequently as it occurs to you, but to show them—by listening intently and being fully present, helping when help is needed, and expressing gratitude for what they bring. I know, at times, this can seem over-the-top, particularly to those recipients who return my affections in more subtle ways. But I’d rather have those I love be quite sure of my love. No one will go to the grave wondering if I truly cared about them.

My relationships are the most important thing in my life, and Sophia, of course, is among the most cherished.

Despite my own ambivalent relationship to physical affection, I am compelled to manhandle my child. I want to pet her head, trace the outline of her face, plant raspberries on her belly, pinch her tushie, and hold her close.

Some children love to be held and cuddled. They thrive on the attention. They beg to be picked up. They snuggle on the couch. They freely hug and kiss. Sophia is not one of these children. She never has been. Even as an infant, she would rather be exploring than held in the confines of my arms. Now, I scoop her up for a hug, and she wriggles out of my grasp. If I ask for a kiss, I get a flash of a peck. I eye my friends’ more affectionate children jealously. How did I wind up with such a cold fish?

It is actually one of the hardest things about being Sophia’s parent. I would love nothing better than to embrace her and whisper confectionary words into her hair, but the only way I can get her to stay nestled at my side is by reading her piles and piles of picture books. And if she is hurt, rather than reaching out for me, she pushes me away, bearing her pain on her own, recovering quickly, and returning to the world.

What do I do with my unwanted affection? “That’s why you need to have another,” my mother says in an unveiled pitch for a grandchild. I remind her that there are no guarantees. “That child could also have my prickly genes. No thank you.” I will stick with the devil I know. The one who refuses to hold my hand or lounge with me in bed. And I will continue to flood her with torrents of my emotion, unable and with no desire to dam my feeling, hopeful that, invisibly, it feeds her in important ways.

Yet, despite her obvious discomfort with caresses and nuzzles, I am quite sure of her love. The signs are everywhere. It’s in the music in her voice as she calls for me when she wakes; it’s in the comfort with which she leaves my side to be with others; it’s in the bright smile she casts my way when we are reunited. And then there are the subtle, sacred articulations of her love—an adoring look in my rearview mirror, “Mo-mmy,” said with a deep, satisfied, sigh, a small hand that sneaks onto my thigh as I tell her a story.

These moments sustain me, but, in truth, I’m always hungry for more.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Of Children and Monsters

I don’t like to be scared. When I was ten, the PTA put on a haunted house at the local municipal building. Terrified, I refused to go inside, even after it was explained to me that the “monsters” were just other kids’ dads in costume and the eyeballs you had to touch were really peeled grapes. I was still walking the hazy childhood boundary between fantasy and reality, unclear about what was possible and what wasn’t. Perhaps, because I was already a fearful child and hated being this way, I couldn’t understand why anyone would intentionally seek out this sensation.

I still don’t quite get the fear-as-amusement industry. I don’t watch horror films. I don’t read Stephen King. And I don’t do amusement park rides that involve dropping from great heights, turning upside down, or scrambling my internal organs. My overactive imagination presents me with enough frightful scenarios to maintain a steady flow of adrenaline in my bloodstream. Another jolt just might push me over the edge.

Sophia, on the other hand, seems to enjoy the feeling of fear. On our way to the library this week she said, “Mom (note, no longer Mommy), I want some SCARY stories. Stories with monsters. And stories about crazy families.” Her desire to chase down what scares her is a thing that separates us. A way we live differently in the world. Sophia is seeking to gain mastery over her fear, and I do what I can to avoid mine.

It all started with a book about monsters that Kevin read to Sophia at a neighbor’s house. The next morning, Sophia told me, excitedly, that there were monsters in her closet. I’ve had experience with this. There were never monsters in my closet, but my sister had some rather tenacious alligators under her bed. Initially, they were kept at bay with special weapons that my father supplied, but eventually, Jennifer made peace with her alligators, even came to embrace them. She drew pictures of them and collected alligator chotchkes.

Perhaps I could have used a monster or two.

I peeked into Sophia’s closet. “Oh yes,” I said. “I see them. They are having quite a time of it.”

“What are the doing?” Sophia asked.

“It looks like they are having a party. They’ve dressed up in your fanciest clothes and they are eating cupcakes.”

“Really?” Sophia’s eyes widened.

“MmmHmm. Yes, oh, and what’s that?” I cupped my hand to my ear, “they want to thank you for such a lovely time. They say they really appreciate you letting them have your closet for the night, but they have to be going.”

Sophia looked apprehensive. “Are they friendly?”

“Hold on a sec. Let me ask them. Excuse me, monsters, but are you the friendly sort or are you mean monsters? Okay. I’ll ask….They say they are very friendly and would like to know if they can come back some time.”


“She said yes,” I told the closet, and then I waved goodbye to the monsters as they walked out the door. “Come back soon,” I called after them.

“They were very friendly,” Sophia shook her head approvingly.

“Yes. They were exceptionally nice monsters.”

At the library, we discovered, there were volumes of unscary monster books. We took out about five and have been reading them obsessively ever since.

Okay. So this particular bugbear was easy to tackle. What haunts me now is her fear yet unformed. How do I walk her through fear of bullies, fear of war, fear of disaster, and fear of death—what do I do when she encounters the real things there are to be afraid of? How do I help her to understand the dark side of existence? As a parent, you want to always be able to protect your child, to be able to magically transform the malignant into the benign. To make sense of the senseless.

But we can’t.

I fear the day when Sophia faces something ugly that I won’t be able to turn into a happy fiction.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why I Love Restraints (For Sophia. Not Me.)

As a culture, we tend to be very anxious to move our children onto the next stage…transitioning them to a bed, a booster seat, underpants, walking independently at our side…as soon as possible. I think it’s simply part of our independent American ethic. We want them to be self-sufficient, capable people.

For some kids, good sleepers, good eaters, go-with-the-flow, kids or I’ve-got-an-older-brother-or-sister-I-seek-to-emulate kids, it works. They easily and readily make the switch. Then, there are the parents who have to do it out of necessity, e.g., a new baby is coming and they need the crib for the soon-to-emerge infant. For these parents, the transition may be difficult, but the need outweighs the difficulties.

But for the other group of kids…the ones who don’t eat well, who don’t sleep well, who are in constant motion, and/or who don’t have a positive sibling model to look up to...these are kids who tend to not do well with early transitions. At least not without a period of teaching and gradually fading back supports. For example, a child who does not eat well and who seeks to escape mealtimes will GROSSLY take advantage of being placed in a booster seat without a seatbelt.

I know this from personal experience.

It was Sophie who told, “Mom, I don’t want a high chair. I want to sit in a BIG person’s chair like you and daddy.” I know, one would think that if she is capable of articulating this, it probably is time for her to stop sitting in a high chair. Well, that’s what I thought, too. So, Sophia and I went shopping for a booster seat. She selected a portable, hot pink one that suctioned nicely to our chairs. Have I mentioned it didn’t have a restraint? We tried it out that night.

It was an unmitigated disaster. She was up. She was down. We put her back up, She slid back down. Our dinners grew cold and our patience wore thin as she enjoyed the novelty of her freedom. The next night was no better. Nor the night after that. We gave it several weeks, but no degree of prompting her to stay in her chair, engineering the environment to keep her in her chair, or reinforcing her for staying in her chair was working.

Now, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal, if it wasn’t so important to me for all of us to sit together at the table for meals. But it is. That’s our sacred family time, when Kevin comes home from work, and we all share what’s happened that day. Some of my fondest memories of growing up are the conversations that took place over dinner—it was a place to pontificate, argue, discuss, and listen. Kevin’s family also valued the ritual of dinner together. We want to carry on the tradition.

And then there is the issue of eating. I know that we place too much of an emphasis on food in our culture. I know that Sophie’s picky eating is, in part, a result of the fact that I have made eating such a big deal in my home. Perhaps she would have eaten a variety of foods, however limited, had I not insisted from the get-go that she at least try a bite of everything I put before her. Perhaps, I could just let her go hungry every now and then, rather than wait out her stubbornness at the dinner table. But, I’m not convinced that I would have been successful at getting her to try kale and sushi, artichokes and shrimp, crabmeat and asparagus had I not been insistent. Had I not held her there (in that high chair) and withheld more desired foods until she took a bite. Had I not repeatedly introduced these foods time after time until she was eating them volitionally, with gusto. Had I not rewarded her with praise and an intermittent dessert for eating healthy food.

I’m not saying it’s the way. It’s just how I did it. And, quite frankly, this is how it is basically done in professional feeding clinics, successfully.

Sometimes, like when my mother says, “You still have her in the high chair?” I’m afraid keeping her in it appears to be cruel. That I’m strapping my kid down. Forcing her to sit, pushing food on her, laying the foundation for an eating disorder later in life. Or that others simply think I’m loony, still fretting over healthy, three-year-old Sophie, convinced she is still the underweight child she once was. When do my methods become overbearing?

I believe Sophia will tell me, herself.

It’s taken me a while to stop insisting she take “one more bite” and start listening to Sophia when she says me, “Mommy, I’m full,” or to let her go when, she has eaten her fill and asks, “May I please be excused from the table?” I’m not forcing her to finish, just to try. I’m not forcing her to sit interminably; just until dinner is over, just until she can sit on her own.

I’m hoping that it will go something like toilet training, which Sophie did when she was ready. And when she did, it wasn’t a gradual process. It was an all-at-once kind of thing: she put on underwear and never looked back. Maybe, one day, she’ll climb onto a chair and simply sit and eat.

Until that day, I am grateful that I’ve got a way to make her sit. Yes, to save me the aggravation of repeatedly fetching her and putting her back in her chair, but also to ensure that she sits long enough to understand what’s special about sharing a meal. And, it remains my hope that the thing that makes it special will one day be enough to keep her pinned to her seat.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dreaming in Yankee

The following post--which is about Life Before Sophia--was inspired by the book, Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, by the March selection of the online bookclub, From Left to Write. I received a copy of the book from the publisher free-of-charge, but was not compensated to write this essay. Read other posts inspired by the book here.

I made a promise to my husband. After spending five long years in graduate school in New Jersey together, I would follow him down to North Carolina. To live. Forever and ever.

My husband has a deep love of the South. His parents both came from Georgia, and though he was raised in Illinois, he felt more deeply connected to the South than the Midwest. I, on the other hand, was a diehard North Easter. I ate fast, I walked fast, I slept fast, I talked fast. Though I knew I had neighbors, I rarely spoke to them. And I like bagels, preferably with lox.

At the time of The Promise, I was terrified, but game. Having never been able to escape the throes of New Jersey (outside of four years of college in New York), I was ready for a change.

I went in good faith.

We moved to Asheville, a funky little town situated on the French River overlooking the Smoky Mountains. It was a liberal artist-haven oasis surrounded by rolling, rural country-side of staunch conservatism. It had a thriving center with steep, angular streets flanked by galleries, shops and restaurants. We rented a house in the historic district that was so huge (we couldn’t believe what we could get for our money), I’d have to call Kevin on his cell to find him. We were minutes away from phenomenal hiking and outdoor sports of all kinds—kayaking down the Natahala, mountain biking on rugged trails.

I was miserable.

I became a joiner. I joined a thriving group psychological practice—and was never at a loss for meaningful work. I joined a local gym and worked out for hours each day, getting into the best shape of my life. I joined a book club with so many participants you had to fight your way to be heard. I joined a knitting group and made small talk with hippie moms as I wrested cables onto a hat for Kevin.

I participated, but I could not assimilate. In fairness, I am told it takes time. At least a year. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I literally kept one foot in NJ, flying up there once each month to conduct trainings for curriculum I designed in alone in that big house in Asheville. I loved those whirlwind weeks—filled with friends, family and the familiar. I mourned a little every time I stepped back on the plane for Asheville and left what still felt like home.

Or perhaps it was simply that I was too identified with my Northern persona. When I left the house, I’d first peek out the windows, scanning for my neighbor with the 16 cats. If he caught me, I’d be drawn into a half-hour conversation about how much he adored Maxwell (my cat). I dreaded trips to the supermarket, where I was sure to be interminably stuck on line at the register as each person had a very lengthy conversation with the cashier about the weather. I’d squirm uncomfortably as women would discuss people they didn’t like while smiling and saying things like “bless her heart.”

No, I much preferred the place where it was socially acceptable to say, “sorry, but I’m in a hurry.” Or, “could you please open up another register?” Or, “She’s a real b****.” without raising an eyebrow.

I am a blurter. I have no filter. I say what comes to mind. I was exhausted at days end from holding back. My cheeks hurt from smiling too much. I felt like, in the South, even in Ashville, I couldn’t be my authentic me.

As fate would have it I didn’t have to stay there for long. An irresistible job opportunity opened up for me in the North, and we moved back. For ever. And for the first time, I really understood what Kevin was sacrificing.

Fortunately, we managed to find a place where we both felt at home. A place where we love our neighbors, and it’s okay to tell them we’re in a hurry. Now, I look back on the days in Asheville with some fondness. I’m glad I had the unsettling experience of living in another place. It helped me to understand how much place is a part of who we are.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

She Feels My Pain...Sort Of

The first day I hobbled around on crutches, Sophie brought me home a card “for my foot.”

On the second day, she stepped on it.

Sophie’s sense of empathy is ephemeral. One minute she’s gently patting my orthopedic boot, cooing “awwww,” (a sound she reserves for picture of kittens and babies). The next minute she’s demanding that I get her some dried apricots “right now!” She can’t seem to hold it in her consciousness that I’m hurt. At this point, I am so used to her general obliviousness to my emotional state, it’s the kindness that surprises me.

So, as she’s looking up at me and saying, “Oh, Mommy,” in the affectionate tone that I use with her when she’s ailing, I smile and my eyes well. It doesn’t take much.

“Mommy,” Sophie observes, “you are crying, but you’re smiling. Are you touched?” Kevin and I have educated her in the physical markers of this complex feeling—another concept she is on the cusp of grasping. One day, after throwing a fit, she declared, “I need calm down time,” and ran to her room where she sobbed into her snake. Minutes later she returned, truly calmer. Through her tears, her face broke into a smile. “Look, mommy, my eyes are wet, but I’m in a good mood. I’m touched!” (Nice try.)

But in this instance, she has hit the mark. “Yes,” I tell her, “I am. You are being very sweet and kind to me, and I really appreciate it.” Sophie smiles to, and I am encouraged to see that she feels proud of her ability to touch me. Perhaps she will not grow up to be a serial killer.

There was a time when it was believed that parental warmth was a critical factor in the development of empathy, the ability to both understand and enter into another’s feelings. But studies conducted over the last several decades have determined that warmth alone is not enough. In fact, parents who are warm but shy away from setting limits may actually foster self-centeredness. Turns out, it’s all about love and boundaries. To be able to focus on and empathize with another, children need to understand that it’s not all about them.

Certainly, modeling empathy, encouraging children to recognize and acknowledge the emotions of others, and pointing out when they have had an impact on others, good or bad, helps the process along through “external” means.

Internally, children must develop a “theory of mind,” the cognitive component of empathy. Theory of mind is the ability to take the perspective of another—to understand that other people have thoughts different from one’s own. Though some children will attempt to comfort others as early as 18 months, theory of mind typically doesn’t emerge until about four years of age. So I guess I can forgive Sophia for stepping on my foot. For now.

Next year, I expect an apology.