Sunday, April 29, 2012

I Look Like a Boy!

This is a story about two things:
  1. The power of everything that comes out of your mouth as a parent.
  2. Family photos

 Kevin has been campaigning for us to take a family picture for months now.  His argument makes all the logical sense in the world:  he wants to preserve this period in family history, before Sophie grows and changes.  And though I generally dislike all posed pictures (the tight forced smiles, the artificial arrangements, the staged environment), I am glad that we have several envelopes full of pictures that have frozen Sophia at various points in time.  These images capture her in ways that I cannot conjure on my own.  They provide me with the illusion of memory, something I can attach my narrative to. 

And because these pictures are taken of a child who is genuinely happy to be placed in front of a camera, who is easily coaxed into joy with a series of funny faces and sounds, Sophia beams a big beautiful smile each one. 

But taking a picture of me in this way is an entirely different story.  A camera pointed in my direction makes me tense.  I forget how to smile.  Every muscle in my face says I’m trying.  I look strained and miserable.  My left eye closes more than my right. The effect is wholly unattractive.  This is not merely some poor self-image rant.  In real life, I think I look fine.  In posed pictures, I look like a hostage. 

Needless to say, I was dreading our trip to the Picture Place.  After several months of weekly reminders from Kevin, I had finally made an appointment.  The day snuck up on me.  Though I had an outfit in mind for Sophie, and had strategically napped and bathed her so she’d be her freshest for the photo, I hadn’t put the same amount of time or thought into me.  A half-hour before we were due at the studio, I still hadn’t picked out something to wear. 

I suppose the main reason I wasn’t dressed yet was because, though I had carefully scheduled out the afternoon, I had not built in a cushion for meltdowns.  Apparently Sophie was not pleased with my choice of outfits for the photo shoot.  It had something to do with the fact that the fluffy pink confection I selected was monochromatic and “boring.”  She had jumped into bed pulled her covers tightly around her, and was refusing to get dressed. 

I left the scene to throw some clothes on my body and to allow her some time to cool off, but when I opened my closet I felt completely overwhelmed.  Pants or dress?  Pattern or solid?  Color or black?  I called for backup, and Kevin was completely unhelpful:

“Wear whatever.  You look good in anything.”  In another mood, the vote of confidence might have been touching.  In this instance, the general nature of his feedback was hysteria-inducing. 

“No, I don’t!”  I insisted, throwing on a pair of black palazzo pants and a blue shirt with lots of gathered stitching that I like.  “How about this?”

He studied me for a second, “Well, I don’t know how that shirt will look in the picture….”  Couldn’t he have lied?  I’m sure, in the next moment, he wondered the same thing.

I looked at myself in the mirror and saw my wild eyes surrounded by short spiky hair. 

“I LOOK LIKE A BOY!” I lamented. 

“You do not look like a boy,” Kevin refuted. 

“I do.  I DO!”  I wailed

Kevin was about to beat a hasty retreat.  “Where’s Sophie?”  He asked.

“She’s in her room, refusing to get dressed.  Can you do something about it?” 

Kevin took off for what he thought might be the lesser of two evils.  Two minutes later I hear Kevin trying to coax Sophie out of the covers to put her dress on.

There was a scuffle.  Then I hear Sophie cry out, “I can’t wear this, Daddy.  I LOOK LIKE A BOY!” 

I do not think this is what Kevin had in mind when he suggested preserving this moment forever.

A few more minutes pass and Kevin emerges carrying a struggling, but dressed, Sophia in his arms.  “I’m taking her out to the car.”  He tells me.   This is my cue to hurry my ass up. 

I decide to wear the blue shirt.  “I’m wearing this shirt.”  I tell him. 

“Fine.”  Kevin, at this point, would not care if I had wrapped myself in a sheet.  As long as I put something on and followed him out of the house.

At the Picture Place, we were a miserable bunch.  Sophia, with her face pinched and red from crying, her hair still wet from the bath, and her pink cardigan unbuttoned, displaying the ratty white t-shirt underneath.  Me, my sense of discomfort growing as each minute brought us closer to the photo shoot.  And Kevin, who despite feeling exasperated and had a few raindrops flecking his deep blue oxford, looked ridiculously handsome as usual.  It is not possible for Kevin to look bad in pictures.  He’s just got that kind of a face. 

I bore the experience.  Allowing the teenage photographer to wrangle us into a number of poses we hadn’t asked for.  Sophie basked in the limelight, obliging and obedient as the photographer had her sit, kneel, lean, and climb. Each time the bulb went off, I felt my left eye squeeze half-shut. 

Afterwards, we reviewed the pictures on a widescreen monitor.  I wished they had something smaller, so my lack of photogenicness wouldn’t be broadcast across the entire store.  Each photo was more disappointing than the last.  The photographer, with apparently days and days of experience under her belt, seemed to catch us just before or right after each photo opportunity, as we were slipping in or out of smiles. 

Still, we managed to let ourselves be persuaded into buying several sheets of several different family configurations. 

Sometime after the shoot, I told Kevin I regretted my comment about looking like a boy.  Mostly I regretted that I had made a negative comment about my appearance, which Sophie immediately adopted as her own.  After the care I’ve taken never to make a denigrating remark about my body [in her presence]—why, I even went so far as to ask Sophie’s babysitters when she was an INFANT not to say things like, “I feel so fat,” in front of her—I call my femininity into question. 

“Yeah, that kind of took me off guard,” Kevin says.  He didn’t know I felt this way.

I do and I don’t.  I mean, in some ways, I think my short hair is a perfect expression of who I feel like I am on the inside.  A little tomboyish.  A little tough.  A little quirky.  But there are moments when I miss my fluffy curls and coquettishly peeking out from behind my veil of hair, distinctively feminine. 

Do we ever measure up on the outside to the image of ourselves on the inside?  Can a picture ever accurately capture who we think we are?  What does this family photo say about who we are, right now, in this phase of our familial development? 

With a little time and distance from that day, I gaze at the photos we were roped into buying.  I am surprised to find they don’t look all that bad.  Outside of the heat of that moment, the insecurity fades.  What is this thing that grips me in these moments?  My own mother’s voice?  Messages from the media?  I only know that I never, never want Sophie to experience it.  And so, I tell her what I now know to be true: 

The only one who looks like a boy is Kevin. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The End is Near

Last night, Sophia didn’t fall asleep until 8:45.  We could hear her stomping around, probably to renew her supply books, which I know she tries to read in the dark.  The sound of her footsteps gave me agita, so in an effort not to have to listen, Kevin and I retreated to our sound-proof attic to watch Mad Men on-demand. 

And then this morning, my husband told me grimly, Sophia woke him at 5:30 am.  He sent her back to bed only to have her reappear at 6:30.  And then again at 7:00, when her Tot Clock finally turned yellow, signaling that she was now allowed to wake him up. 

I know what’s wrong.  Sophie is ready to give up her nap.  At four, she only needs 11-13 hours of sleep per day.  So, if she grabs two hours in the afternoon, it makes sense that she would only sleep nine at night.  There are still days when she’ll sleep a good 11 at night and two during the day, but they are fewer and further between. 

She may be ready to give up the nap, but I am not. 

The nap has always been that midday break when I could catch my breath.  Make phone calls.  Complete essential tasks.   Reconnect with my husband.  And, rarely, to take a nap myself, if I’m not feeling well or will be the only parent on duty that day.  What will I do without these spare moments to myself?  When will I get my blog written?  Why is the thought of spending 12 straight hours with my child so overwhelming?  Is this why Philo Farnsworth invented television?

I have no desire to try to wean Sophie from her nap.   And it will have to be a wean, because unlike so many children I’ve heard about, who started to refuse napping around two, Sophia also enjoys the respite offered by her midday snooze.  Just a couple hours ago, she whined, “Can I please have lunch after my nap.  I’m just too tired to eat.” 

Of course she was tired because she got less than nine hours of sleep last night.  It’s a vicious cycle.  I suppose if I kept her up all day, lived through the monstrous afternoon, and set her down early, that, in time, she would adjust to this new routine.  But I so dread the crankiness, the meltdowns, the battles that I fear will ensue that I am all too happy to coax her into eating a little lunch before I settle her down for her sweet siesta. 

When raising a child, you are constantly learning to live with new normals.  Just when you get used to the way things are, when you feel like you’ve found your grove, something changes to shake it all up again.  A reminder that nothing is constant. 

I know I won’t be able to keep this up much longer.  At her school, the children are snatched out of the napping room and join the elder children for a second round of preschool as soon as they turn four and a half.  For Sophie, that’s next month.  Undoubtedly, this transition will force the issue one way or another.  She’ll either be so exhausted on the days she’s with me that she’ll crash, or, she’ll slip into this new routine of all day wakefulness, to which I will have to adapt. 

I am told that there are other joys to be had once the nap ends—no more rushing home from fun events, spending the whole day at the (beach, park, with friends, etc.), getting to see 2:00 matinees. 

But I can’t help but mourn the loss of this little time to myself:  Will Sophie be the one who becomes cranky, melting down, provoking battles or will I?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

To Hit or Not to Hit

That is a difficult question.

My parents hit me on two occasions, both of which are branded in my memory. These incidents are two of the few early memories I can trust, because there are no pictures of these happy events, no evidence outside of several biased witnesses.

I was about to turn five, and we were moving from the only home I had ever known, a tiny 4-room house in Lake Hopatcong, NJ on a dead-end street. There were about ten other kids my age living on this street, so there was always someone to play with. We traveled as a pack, roaming the block alone, our parents knowing that as we moved from yard to yard there was always some mother at home, watching.

We were moving into a larger, older, more isolated home. An Eastern Orthodox church to the right and a farm house tucked into the woods on the left and no other neighbors for what felt like miles.

I didn’t want to go. I was happy where we were.

My mother told me that I had to clean up my room because the Hambugers—that was their name—were coming to look at our house, and possibly, to buy it.

I sprang into action: cutting up bits of paper and strewing them on the floor. Dumping as many of my toys as I could into my sister, Jennifer’s, crib. I was surveying my handiwork, quite proud of myself, when my parents walked into the room.

That was spanking number one.

Now of course, my parents were probably totally stressed out. Here they were trying to sell the house, scraping their pennies together to bring me to a town with the best school district their money could buy. I don’t blame them for being angry.

But, had they been attune to what I was feeling in that moment, there might have been a conversation that took place. Something about me being sad, or scared, to move away. Something about all the great things that awaited me in our new home—my own room, new friends, a big backyard to play in with large rocks for scrambling and hickory trees for collecting nuts and a big sandbox for digging.

I see it, now, as a moment where we really missed each other.

The second time I was spanked was in the new home. I was probably about seven or so. Jennifer and I were painting in the dining room, a room, I should add, in which we rarely ate, when Jennifer spilled the red paint on my mother’s straw rug. Now, a straw rug probably isn’t the most practical decorating choice for a dining room. All sorts of things were probably embedded in that rug. And I’m not sure why we were painting in the dining room in the first place.

When my mother came in, she freaked out, “Who dropped paint on my straw rug?” she demanded to know.

“Not me,” my sister and I replied in unison. Only when I said it, it was THE TRUTH and when she said it, it was A LIE. Mom summoned dad (the big guns) to try extract the REAL STORY from us. We continued to blame each other. Since it was not clear to them who was telling the truth (though Jenny was quite skilled in the art of deception and I sucked at it, somehow they didn’t know this yet), we both were spanked raw.

I say raw, because by the time dad was done and had sent us to our rooms, our tushies were glowing red. We snuck out, got wet washcloths, and gently laid them on each other’s butts. Five minutes earlier we were ready to sell each other out, now we were joined in solidarity against our common enemy.

But I still tell my mother that it was Jenny, that I didn’t deserve that spanking, and can work up a lot of righteous rage, 35 years later.

Okay, so maybe I’m not scarred for life, but in my mind, neither of these spankings was justified.

So is spanking every justified?

I think I would have smacked Sophie across the bottom if, unknowingly had ran out into the street as a toddler, (like my husband Kevin did, though, he tells me, the spankings were unsuccessful in deterring him from future breaks and eventually his parents just decided to move so he didn’t wind up eviscerated by the tank-like cars that were made in the 70s). Or if she tried to stick a wet finger in a socket, or engaged in a similar life-threatening behavior where I wanted to draw a quick association between the dangerous act and pain.

But Sophie never did these things. I told her to stay away from the road, and she did. I told her “no” when she went near things she should touch, and she’d look stricken and move away.

The moments I am most tempted to strike Sophie—because I have been tempted, and I think I would have to be a saint not to be at least occasionally tempted to hit her—I am angry. Frustrated. I JUST WANT HER TO LISTEN.

But what I know in my heart of hearts is that spanking will not accomplish my goal. Not with Sophie. Simply raising my voice induces her to escalate. And, once she does, she is not beyond using her own fists, nails, and teeth to get her point across.

When Sophie is angry, she channels me using my angry voice, my angry words. I can only imagine what she would do if I hit her. Suddenly, in her mind, physical violence would be justified. Self-defense.

Your honor. She hit me first.

And where does it end, really? I try to play it out in my mind—through to its completion. Do I think a spanking would end the incident? That she would discover some new corner of respect and apologize. Oh no. She would rise in indignance, cognitions fueling emotions fueling cognitions fueling emotions in a whirlwind of growing ferocity that would result in some thing like this:

“Mommy! You are not allow to hit me! I am just a little girl! You are the parent! You are supposed to teach me the right thing!” (She really does make such accusations.)

And either I would be more steeped in my anger, or worse, I would be overcome with guilt, “Sophie, I’m sorry. Mommy lost control. I should have never hit you.”

“THAT’S RIGHT,” she would scream, now confident that she has the upper hand, wielding guilt as her weapon.” “YOU HURT ME. I’M GOING TO TELL DADDY.”

I know that some people believe hitting can inspire fear, and what I think they would deem a healthy amount of fear and might even translate as respect. Maybe they feared their own parents in this way and thought it was an effective parenting style—they behaved or they needed it because they didn’t behave.

In order for me to respect someone, I need to think that person worthy of my respect. There needs to be something about that person that I admire, that I seek to emulate, not that I fear.

And even if spanking does inspire fear and cessation of bad behavior in the short term, research has found that children who are hit tend to act out more in the long term. A recent study of 2,500 children published in Pediatrics found that those who are spanked more frequently at age three were much more likely to be aggressive by age five.

More aggressive? Oy vey. No thank you.

And so, l remove myself from the situation. I take deep breaths. I swear a blue streak in my head, but I keep my hands to myself.

At least today I did.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easier Said than Done

Parenting is an ever-humbling endeavor. Everything you think are is good at is called into question. Maybe people considered you to be a patient person, or admired your spotless home, or assumed you were decent psychologist, before you had children. And then came along the person to shake things up. This tiny being that would, unwittingly, unravel years of growth and hard work. Who would simultaneously bestow you with a new identity and cause you to wonder who the hell you’ve become.

Kevin and I have been implementing Sophie’s behavior plan for well over a month, perhaps two at this point. She loves her rules and can identify, by number, exactly which one she is breaking.

“I can’t get a star because I didn’t do number two, Mom.”

(Rule Number 2: Get dressed [when I #!@$% tell you to].)

Initially, there was a honeymoon period. When one first starts to implement a plan, one of two things happens. Either the child comes at you ten times harder, trying to find your breaking point, or she behaves beautifully, lulling you into a false sense of security, at which point she comes at you ten times harder, successfully reaching your breaking point much, much sooner.

Perhaps the honeymoon period could be attributed to the fact that, in the beginning, I, too, tried to do everything “right.” I talked about my expectations. (“Staying in control means, if you start to get angry you either go somewhere by yourself to calm down, or you tell me how you feel.”) I tried to keep her motivated through the difficult moments with the promise of earning her reward. (“If you earn all your stars, we’ll get to watch Charlie and Lola!”) I allowed her to select her own rewards. I made sure these rewards were only accessible when she earned her stars. I kept the bar low, so she could have success early and often. And, perhaps most importantly, I kept up with the chart, reviewing her behavior and doling out stars each night before bed.

But then, just when things were going fairly well (and, most likely, because of it), I started to slack. I verbally awarded stars, but didn’t record them on the chart until days later. I raised the bar too quickly, putting of the potential to earn her reward by four days at the earliest. And slowly, Sophie started to slip backwards.

Sophie has always had pretty bad melt downs. Since she was two she viciously fought against all impingements that interfere with her MO: that is, to play all day. So, whether I’m simply trying to brush her teeth or ask her to put her shoes on, if she does not want to do it, she will rapidly morph into a vicious animal—hitting, biting, kicking, scratching. Now that she’s more verbal and physically adept, she has graduated to using cruel language and ripping the curtains off her windows in fits of rage.

I have learned that the best approach tends to be to disengage until the adrenaline stops coursing through her veins. At which point she is generally contrite and willing to make amends. This is fine if we don’t have something we absolutely must be doing or if we’re at home. It’s a little more difficult if we are out in public. But I’m still strong enough to overpower her, remove her from the situation, and shackle her to her car seat, should the need arise.

Upper body strength is an essential for effective parenting.

But Sophie made a recent discovery that has me over a barrel. She’s figured out how to undo her car seat.

The first time she undid it, she was in a rage because I had the audacity to take her home from nursery school when she didn’t want to leave. She had already threatened me with bodily harm (“Mommy, if you don’t let me stay, I’m going to hit you.”), had succeeded in scratching me until I bled, and had somehow ripped off her tights and underwear, while buckled into her booster, and was threatening to pee in the seat.

For the record, my mother says I was never like this.

In retaliation, I turned on NPR and told her I was not going to turn off the “traffic music,” until she calmed down. (Negative reinforcement.)

So, she did what any evil mastermind would do. She upped the ante, unclicking her five point restraint and shrugging out of the top portion. All of which occurred, just as I was about to pull on the highway.

She had me there. What could I do? I had to pull over to the shoulder and wait her out, which I did.

The second time it happened, we were on the highway, doing about 70 (not 87, because punishment works with me). With each exit seven miles apart, the next rest stop about 13 miles away, and no shoulder during construction, there was little I could do. I reached back into the seat. First I took away her books. Then, I turned off her music. Finally, I ripped Snakey-Pie out of her hands and I announced she would get nothing, NOTHING, until she re-buckled that seat belt.

It took a few minutes, but she did.

That afternoon I googled seat belt locks, which, I learned, they make for regular seat belts, but not for car seatbelts.

I can’t believe I’m the only mother who has ever dealt with this. Haven’t other people given birth to rageful evil geniuses?

The third time it happened, I still didn’t have a device.

I had taken Sophie to a bookstore to purchase a birthday gift. She was tired and hungry after a long day at school so I told her we could get a fruit snack at the coffee shop within the bookstore once we had found our gift. Sophie brightened at this, and though a bit cranky, was compliant in the store.

I, of course, had made the cardinal parenting sin of promising something I wasn’t 100% sure was available. When we got to the coffee shop: no fruit snack. It was close to dinner, so I casually said, “Let’s just go home, Soph, and I’ll give you a little something to tide you over when we get there.”

She was not having it.

Just as we were exiting, she grabbed a Dora the Explora book-like substance and demanded that I buy it.

“Sophie, I am not buying that. We are going home.”

She lay down on the floor.

“That’s it. I’m carrying you to the car.”

A man who was also trying to exit the building (having difficulty because we were in the way), held the door for me, as I carried her out thrashing and threatening. He did not mask his irritation.

Almost to the car, Sophie kicked off her sneakers. “Crap.” I said. I hate that word, but it seems to be the first thing that comes to mind in these situations. I let the sneakers go, but I had to set her down as I pulled out my keys. As soon as I did she made a break for it. In the parking lot.

“Damn it.” I muttered, and made chase, catching her just as she hit the next row over. I managed to open the door while still holding her, tossed her inside, ran and got the shoes, and returned to put her in the car seat.

But oh, how to contain her?

I grabbed the blue stuffed rabbit she had been carrying, which has with elongated arms, and lashed it around the seat belt, tying it in a double knot.

Sophie was beside herself; she screamed bloody murder.

I was pleased and a bit relieved that I had found a solution, albeit temporary. Now granted, this wasn’t the safest way to go—if our car was to get into an accident, it would be difficult to remove her. But I had to weigh the relative risk and opted for the bunny restraint. We were only about a mile from home.

The whole way back, she protested and I ignored her protest:

Mommy, you have two ears, I know you can hear me.”

Mommy, step one: listen to me. Step two: TAKE OFF THE BUNNY!

As I pulled into the driveway, Kevin happened to be coming up the walk. I calmly stepped out of the car and warned him that Sophie had gone nuclear. Then, I tried to release Sophie and realized: I couldn’t untie the bunny. All of her frantic efforts to remove it had only served to pull the knot tighter.

In the time that it took to run into the house to get a pair of scissors, Sophie managed to rip the cover off her car seat and tear at the EPA foam underneath, utterly destroying her nemesis. I restrained her while Kevin severed the rabbit’s arm.

(I did feel kind of bad about that.)

Kevin took Sophie upstairs and left her there to get back in control. For a while, there were sounds of destruction and dismantling. And then it got quiet. I tiptoed upstairs to survey the damage. The entire contents of her closet were on the floor and Sophie was fast asleep, in bed.

That night, Kevin and I had a heart-to-heart. It is his sense that she can do better. That there needs to be consequences for her behavior. That if she can use her power for hurling insults, tearing at my flesh, destroying her car seat and trashing her room, she can use them to reel herself back in. “It is never okay to hurt people,” he told me, “we need a consequence that is of the same magnitude as her behavior.”

Though I agree that Sophie should not be allowed to draw blood, I am less sure that more severe consequences are the answer. I know I have not been implementing my plan faithfully. I believe she is on the path to developing internal controls, but doesn’t yet have them. These rages, I think, are one part developmental, one part genetic, and one part skill deficit. It’s my job to teach her, and to be her control until she grows into or something finally clicks.

I resolved to redouble my efforts. In the days that followed, I prepared Sophie better. Gave her more warnings. Praised her effusively. Rewarded her more immediately. And her behavior improved. I’m not sure we have the solution yet. The only thing I am sure of is that it is a lot easier to teach behavior modification than to do it.