Sunday, June 26, 2011

Just Like Heaven

As a member of the online book club, From Left to Write, I received a copy of The Unexpected Circumnavigation from the author, gratis. I was not paid to write the following article, which was inspired by the book. You can read other members’ musings and impressions by clicking here, on June 28th.

It has been almost four years since Kevin and I have taken a vacation alone together. We’ve had a stolen moment here and there, but nothing quite as indulgent as the four-day trip to Vermont we had planned.

When I first attempted to broach the subject of our long-weekend get away to Sophia, we were all seated at dinner. “Guess what!” I began. Kevin, intuitively knowing where I was going, shook his head no, his hand stretched out before him as if to stop me. I shot him a questioning look.

“I don’t want her worrying about it,” he said, just above a whisper. Sophie shoved in a mouthful of lasagna, oblivious to our interaction. “Okay,” I shrugged. I was fine deferring to his judgment, though I less concerned about this possibility. My mother had generously offered to take her for the duration of our trip. Since we have been driving up to and staying with my mother every week for the past two years, I felt pretty confident that Sophia would be okay with the arrangement.

But, just to be on the safe side, I introduced the concept with a story. A couple days later, we were alone at breakfast when Sophie made her usual request, “Mommy tell me a story with you, me and Curious George.” I seized the opportunity to paint an idyllic vision of a “vacation” with her grandparents.

“Once upon a time, Mommy and Daddy and Sophia decided to take a vacation.”

“And Curious George,” she reminded me.

“Who’s telling this story?” I asked, “Curious George is going to make a surprise appearance.”

“Okay,” said Sophie cheerfully.

In the story, Mommy and Daddy leave Sophie at her grandparents for a vacation, while they go on their own vacation for a couple of days. Grandma and Grandpa take her to visit some relatives who have a boy Sophie’s age and a beautiful glistening pool in their backyard. When Sophie arrives, she discovers that the boy has also invited his best friend (you guessed it) Curious George. The three of them frolic in the pool together, eat mac n’cheese n’ peas for lunch, take a nap in one big bed, and wake to an ice cream treat. I forgo the Curious George formula (George innocently causes a stir that has unintended positive consequences, which ultimately allow everyone not only to forgive his naughtiness, but to hail him as a hero.). Instead, I appeal to Sophia’s idea of heaven. By the end of my “story” she is grinning ear to ear.

Later, I overhear her telling her beloved stuffed Snakey Pie the story. “Once upon a time, we all went on vacation,” Sophia begins. Snakey Pie stops her, “What’s a vacation?” he asks. “It’s when we go to Grandma and Grandpas and Mommy and Daddy go on a very long date.”


I know that, in reality, despite the inclusion of Curious George, I have not created an unreasonable expectation. My mother has big plans: the zoo, the Jersey shore, relatives with pools, a Chinese restaurant, the play ground, the library, ice cream and intense periods of pretend play. Sophie will not be disappointed.

When we arrived at my mother’s, Sophie sprang from the car. I quickly transferred her things to the house, and within minutes my mother was whisking her away to the zoo. “Good bye, Sophia. I love you. Mommy and Daddy will see you in three days. And we’ll call you every night.” I held out my arms for a hug. Sophie shrank away from me into grandma’s side.

She was mad at me. So be it. I was a little sad that our parting wasn’t sweeter, but she was entitled to feel the way she felt. After all, we were ditching her.

As we climbed into the car and started up the engine, Sophie came running back. “Mommy! Mommy!” I rolled down the window and leaned out for a kiss. My mother held her up to me and we touched our puckered lips together. As soon as her feet were back on the ground, she scooted off towards Grandma’s car for her trip to the zoo.

This time, she didn’t look back.

Neither did I.

I’d like to think it’s not because either one of us is cold hearted, or even relieved to finally get a breather from the other, but because we share a secure attachment. She is sure of my love. She understands it’s permanence, whether I’m present or not. She knows I’m coming back. I can remember, as a teenager, babysitting for a 10-month-old boy. He would cry bitterly when his mother left. Instinctively, I whispered into the soft down of his head, “Mommy will come back. Mommy always comes back.” This soothed him. In a similar vein I have reassured Sophia time and time again, “I will always be here for you.” And, in moments of nascent empathy, Sophia has echoed this sentiment back to me, “Mommy. I will never leave you. I will always be in your heart.”

Once in the car, Kevin’s first order of business was to remove all the kids’ CDs from the car stereo. We drove the five hours to Vermont listening to music that has been idling in storage for the past four years. We enjoyed sustained conversations with each other during which we were able to complete, not only entire sentences but entire stories without interruption. We made a pit stop that did not involve 15-minute machinations of removing and returning a child to a car seat. We ate a dinner that did not require feeding anyone “like a little baby,” or reminding someone 47 times to “please sit in your seat.” We made out without having someone climb between us. And that night, there as no one to get ready for bed other than myself, nothing to listen for other than the lake gently lapping at the shore.

Just like heaven.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

(Too) Great Expectations

I am watching the dress rehearsal for the end-of-the-year show at Grandma’s nursery school. Sophie is a pink pig, along with one of her classmates (we’ll call her Laura). The children are shouting the words to “Down on Grandpa’s Farm”


Sophie and Laura stand up, put their heads together and coyly say, “Oink, oink.” Think Marylin Monroe, as a three- year old, portraying a pig.

No one told them to do it this way. Laura, who is innately shy, naturally tilted her head, tucked her chin in, and whispered “oink” into her chest. Sophie, who found the gesture amusing, aped her. The two made eye contact as they did it and smiled faintly, aware of the drama playing out between them.

Cute as hell.

So, given this performance, and that Sophie announces, every evening prior to dinner, “Show tonight!” And that after dinner she drags a stool out onto the kitchen floor, perches on top of it and proceeds to recite angry poetry (“No. I. Don’t. Want. To! You. Go. A-way!”), or act out scenes from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (“Daddy, you be Willy Wonka, and I’ll be Charlie Bucket.), or sing songs from her nursery school repertoire (“For it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out to the old ball game!”), I had great expectations for her stage performance.

That morning, I dressed her in a hot-pink eyelet dress my sister had sent to her weeks before. When we got to school, Sophie quickly noted that Laura was dressed in the same shade of pink. “We’re twins!” she shrieked excitedly. Laura smiled and said nothing.

Grandpa’s Farm was the opening act. First the cows went, blowing the audience of smiling parents away with their thunderous moo’s. Next, the ducks, who looked discombobulated and had to be reminded to stand up, and then reminded to quack. Finally, it was time for the pigs. Laura looked terrified as she stood and sucked her dress into her mouth. Sophie, not to be outdone, picked up the hem of her dress, exposing her cutie-saurus underwear to the world, and sucked HER dress into her mouth. Neither oinked.

“Sophie!” I said in a stage-mother, stage whisper, “PUT YOUR DRESS DOWN.” She smiled and continued to suck. So, more adamant, I pantomimed taking her dress out of her mouth and pointing down sharply at the ground, “PUT IT DOWN NOW!” Sophie removed her dress and, in a near perfect imitation of my angry face and gestures, mouthed my words back at me.

And then she resumed sucking her dress.

For the rest of the show, it was Sophie’s goal to try to catch my eye and mimic me. My mother, who saw everything whispered, “Ignore her,” in between bars of The Wheels on the Bus.

I tried, but it was hard. I was disappointed. Afterwards, I said so to my mother.

“Melissa,” my mother said, “she’s THREE.”

It is a fact I easily forget. I expect her to sit nicely in her chair for all of dinner without getting out once. I expect her to bathe, get dressed and brush her teeth without a fuss. I expect her to say thank you and please without being prompted. It frustrates me to no end when she acts like a three year old. Squirming. Tantrumming. Forgetting her manners.

This is very unfair of me. I know. Not that I should allow her to stand on her chair, or to pinch me when I’m trying to work the toothbrush in her mouth, but it’s all part of the path to maturity. It’s what three-year-olds do.

High expectations are good. When you hold the bar just out of reach, children invariably rise to meet it. It’s what Vygotsky, the brilliant Russian developmental psychologist called the Zone of Proximal Development—the difference between what a child can do independently and what he/she can do with assistance. By giving children experiences that are within their Zones of Proximal Development, providing a model and appropriate supports and then fading back those supports, a child learns novel skills.

It is only when my expectations are too great, trying to coax adult behaviors out of a small child that I am setting myself up for frustration, conflict, and disappointment.

But still, would it have killed her to say “oink, oink”?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

You Be Me, and I'll Be You

Kevin, my bearded husband, is curled up in Sophia’s toddler bed, thumb in mouth. Sophie is carefully tucking her pink blanket around him and nestling Snakey Pie in the crook of his arm.

“Here’s your Snakey Pie, baby.” She tells him. “It’s time for you to go to sleep now.”

“Okay, Mama,” Kevin says, “good night.”

“No,” Sophie says, slightly annoyed, “you’re me. You’re supposed to say, ‘But what if I have to go to the bathroom?’”

Kevin plays along. “But what if I have to go to the bathroom?” he whines.

“You have your potty and your toilet paper right here.” She instructs in a voice that sounds eerily like my own. “Now say, ‘Remember to turn on the hall light and crack the door,’” she directs.

“Remember to turn on the hall light and crack the door,” Kevin parrots.

“I will, baby. Don’t worry.” Sophie climbs on top of her art table and flips the light switch. “Good night, baby.”

“Good night, Mama.” Kevin replies.

“And now,” says Sophie, as she slips out the door, “I will sing the good-night song entirely as a duck. Quack quack quaaaaaak. Quack quack quaaaaaak,” she sings to the tune of “Lullaby and Goodnight,” her voice fading as she walks away.

A few seconds later she is back in the room, turning on the light, and saying cheerfully, “Time to get up, baby!”

She could play this game for hours. Being me. Controlling her. Who is really a him.

She is at once internalizing me: my rules, my boundaries, my affections and expressing a need to feel autonomous, to gain some control over herself. Through play, she works out her conflicted emotions about who’s in charge. She can at once recognize me as the one that holds the power and identify with me, enjoying some of that power herself. I believe this kind of play is essential for building self control.

It happens a lot now…three to four is the age for it. We can be in the car, driving, when Sophie says quite plainly:

“You be me, and I’ll be you.”

“Okay.” I say. “What should I do?”

“Turn on my music. I’ll start to sing with it. Then you tell me not to.” This is something she does to me, all the time. It’s really annoying. If I’m forced to listen to Music Together for several hours, why can’t I at least be allowed to sing with it?

I turn on her CD and she begins to sing with it, “Oranges, Lemons say the bells of St. Clemens….”

I know my part well. “NO!” I interrupt, “this is NOT singing music. This is LISTENING music.”

“Sophia,” Sophia says to me, “if you can’t be quiet, I am going to turn off your music and put on traffic music.” That’s what she calls anything that I listen to on the radio. NPR. XPN. Actual traffic.

“Noooooooooooo! I don’t want traffic music. I want MY music!”

“Then BE QUIET and LET ME SING!” she resumes singing with the music.

I let her sing, because I love the sound of her sweet little voice. “No mommy,” she tells me, annoyed, “You’re supposed to tell me to stop.”

“But I don’t want you to stop. I like listening to you sing.”

She starts to turn red, “But that’s not the way it goes!” I guess she has internalized my control-freakiness as well.

“I don’t think I want to be you, anymore.” I tell her. I don’t. I don’t like this game of being mean to her, so that she can boss me around. It’s not a dynamic I’m enjoying now, or when the roles are reversed and we are ourselves.

“But I want to be YOU!” Sophie cries.

I know, Sophie. I know.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Tiny Encounters

As a member of the online book club, From Left to Write, I received a copy of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating from the publisher, gratis. I was not paid to write the following article, which was inspired by the book. You can read other members’ musings and impressions by clicking here, on June 6th.

Imagine being so ill and debilitated that the simple act of a friend bringing you a snail for company would overwhelm you—the towering sense of responsibility that accompanies having another life be put in your charge.

When I read this in Elisabeth Tova’s Bailey’s beautifully crafted book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, I was reminded of my daughter, Sophia’s arrival into the world.

True, I was not simultaneously suffering from an acquired mitochondrial disease when she appeared on the scene, but I was recovering from the trauma of an internal hemorrhaging while learning to care for her. Somehow, she survived those early days, when I was confined to a bed and could barely lift her to my chest. But I think any mother, healthy or sick, could relate to the bewilderment of those first weeks. The sudden duty to keep another person not merely alive, but cared for and safe, with little inkling of how to do so.

Like Bailey, who did not know what to feed her snail, I agonized over how much milk my daughter was getting, whether she was putting on weight, if what I had was sufficient nourishment.

Like Bailey who became a careful observer of her gastropod companion, I watched my daughter with great curiosity and took copious notes on her bodily functions with scientific precision.

Like Bailey, who sought to understand her snail’s microcosmic world by nocturnally reading all things snail-related, I became an information junky, pouring over parenting books during sleepless evening hours. I wanted to understand her interior life. I wanted to provide her with an optimally hospitable environment in which she could thrive. I wanted to marvel at the miracle of growth and development.

And also like Bailey, who learned so much from a snail, I discovered that it was Sophia who would ultimately teach me what I needed to know, who would serve as my mentor as I let my life slow down and began to relish the joy of existence.

It is often the tiniest encounters have the greatest impact.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

There's Just Something about Poop

I was in a library with Sophia, my friend Paula*, and her three boys.

“Tell Paula your new joke,” I goaded Sophie.

Sophie smiled, and with a twinkle in her eye, said, “Knock knock,”

“Who’s there?” asked Paula in a delighted voice--just one of the reasons she’s a fabulous preschool teacher.


“Centipede who?” Asked the unsuspecting Paula.

“CENITPEDE ON THE CHRISTMAS TREE!” Sophie shouted, euphorically.

“Remember, we’re in the library,” I reminded her. “Quiet voice, please.”

Paula’s jaw was hanging open. “Melissa!” she said, scolding me, “that is NOT funny.” I was surprised by her reaction, and, a little bit embarrassed. Was the joke that bad? Should I not be teaching Sophie toilet humor?

According to Paula, no. She explained that once her boys got going, there was no stopping them. It was inappropriate. And she didn’t want them taking it to school.

Okay. Fair enough. (But I thought it was funny.)

I know a lot of people are bothered by the toilet humor…parents, teachers, people in restaurants who suffer the misfortune of sitting too close to our table. And granted, it can be grating to hear your three-year-old say “poopy toilet butt” thirty times in a row. But, as far as I can see, it seems to be a universal developmental phase, inklings of the understanding that poop is private and something that shouldn’t be talked about in polite company. As with all things made taboo, the fact that it is forbidden gives rise to the compulsion to shout “stinky tushie” from the rooftops, or, at least the table tops.

Let’s face it. There’s just something about poop. It’s got that je ne sais quoi. Today, at the farmer’s market, two alpacas, freshly shorn, were penned next to several tables laden with alpaca wool products. One sat neatly, his front legs curled under him. The other stood ruminating a mouthful of hay. They stared placidly, with soft brown eyes, at the urchins who stared back from the other side of the fence, when suddenly, the one that was standing squeezed out a fistful of alpaca pellets.

“Look, this one is POOPING!” one kid shouted pointing at the alpaca’s rear end.

“It’s shooting out his butt!” another noted with glee.

Hysteria ensued.
“Mommy! Do you see the poop?” Sophie asked me. As if I could miss it with all this excitement.

“Never fails to get a laugh,” noted one parent.

“Endless entertainment,” another agreed.

“Everybody does it,” I said casually to Sophie, “What goes in, must come out.” I have a sneaking suspicion that reacting to toilet talk is the thing that encourages more toilet talk. In fact, I like to go in the other direction. I actually initiate it. I’ll sneak up on Sophie and say in her ear, “Guess what?”

“What?” Sophie asks.

“Chicken butt!” I shout, laughing and running away. I was taught this excellent joke by Jan, the then-five year-old son of my friend Emily.

“Chicken butt,” Sophie snickers. And then she moves on.

*Not her real name.