Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Road Not Taken*

She asks me the question on a daily basis:

“Mommy?  Can you have another baby?”
“Mommy?  Can we please have more people in our family?”
“When will a baby come out of your belly?”

Each time she asks, I feel a pang of sadness.  It is the first time I have reconsidered our decision to have one child.  I know it’s foolish to have a baby simply because Sophia asks for one. 

(She can get her own baby—in a couple decades, if she still wants one that badly.) 

Yet, I sympathize with her desire to have a sibling.  I know that she feels lonely, at times.  I watch her study larger families with longing.   I admire her gentleness with younger children, and the absence of jealousy when I pick up or make eyes at an infant.

I do love those babies. 

For one week, I allowed myself the fantasy of having another one.  I did it quietly, not sharing it with anyone.  I went deeply into it, imaging myself getting pregnant and going about my daily routine with my growing belly.  I pictured swimming daily, as I had done with Sophie.  Remembering the joy of being large and weightless in the water.  I saw Sophie delighting in the expanding reality of a sibling.  Touching my stomach, squealing when she felt a kick.

Oh no, I am crying.

I am crying because this will not happen.  Because, in my heart of hearts I do believe that we are best as a threesome.  That Sophie is enough for me.  That I am living the life that I want.

I would like to be able to walk both paths.    To divide myself.  To straddle two universes.  One in which we retain our peaceful intimacy.  Another in which there is a fourth dimension—impossible to imagine—but adding a new layer of richness to what we have. 

But I can’t.  I—we—must choose. 

I find myself trying to convince Sophie that this is the “right” choice.

“You know, Soph,” I tell her, “a baby wouldn’t be able to play with you for a long, long time.  And by the time it could, you might not be interested in playing the same games.” 

“I know mommy,” she counters, “but I would feed the baby and dress the baby and make the baby smile.  You would have to change the diapers though.  I wouldn’t do that.”

“And,” I go on, determined to find the rationale that will sway her, “just because someone is in your family, doesn’t mean that you’ll be their best friend.  Some brothers and sisters get along great, and others don’t.” 

This possibility is beyond her.  “I would LOVE a sister,” she insists. 

I cannot deter her.  But maybe the “right” thing to do is to let her feel the sadness, as I have allowed myself.  Let her live with the disappointment that life cannot be all things.

*Listen to Robert Frost read The Road Not Taken here.  

Friday, September 21, 2012

Away from Her

This weekend, for the first time since I went on my do-I-want-to-have-another-child cruise almost three years ago, I am away without Sophie.

It is so quiet, so peaceful.  Last night, I slept eight continuous hours.  Today I made breakfast for no one but myself.  And then I sat down here to write, without having to make Sophia a lunch, brush her hair and teeth, and drop her off at nursery school before having the space to do so. 


And yet, my thoughts keep turning towards her.  Not in a worrisome way.  But feeling her absence strongly.  In the little house where I am staying, there is an extra room off of mine with a single bed and a slanty ceiling and a tiny closet/crawl space just perfect for lining with blankets and hiding out.  I want to climb inside it with her.  At the beach, I gathered up well-worn stones, sanded to smoothness by the water that I want to give to her.  Yesterday, I saw a tiny crab, laboriously carry his oversized claw, walking sideways. I was reminded of last weekend, when Sophie and I watched The Little Mermaid together and the sea gull called Sebastian a “silly side walker.”  At the time, I had explained what it meant.  Now, I am sorry I am not able to show her.

As happy as I am to be alone, I know I would also enjoy having her at my side, sharing this with me, delighting in her every revelation that comes with a new experience.  Her gasps of surprise.  Her dances of delight.  The way she rushes toward each new thing with enthusiasm and intensity.  The looks on the faces of others watching her.  Knowing that she spreads joy everywhere she goes.  The pleasure of being her parent. 

But, to my surprise, there is no ache in my heart.  No sense of regret.  No sorrow.  This vision is simply a fantasy, a wish to have her here with me—not guilt-driven intrusive thoughts intended to punish myself for going away alone.

It might have been that a year ago.  I might have felt badly that I was going off to rest and renew, while saddling Kevin with the evening and morning routines and leaving Sophie in school for a full day.  I might have struggled to justify it—to Kevin, to others, but mostly to myself. 

“I haven’t taken a vacation in years.”
“Kevin’s going away to Ireland in October.”
“I work hard.  I’ve earned this.”

No.  I simply want this.   It is a secret that I am no longer afraid to speak.  And I say it with great joy. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Back to School

August spoiled me.  With my teacher’s manual completed, a few proposals in the works, and everyone in the world on vacation, I took a very welcome hiatus from my zany work schedule. 

September was a slap across the face.  Everything has suddenly switched into fifth gear.  Once again, I have somewhere I have to be in the morning. 

So does Sophia, though she refuses to believe it. 

I honestly believe I could cope with almost any behavior, if time wasn’t a factor.  I could exercise infinite patience, if I didn’t have such a finite period in which everything must be accomplished. 

Time pressure turns me into a nag.  It turns Sophie into mule.

The stubborner Sophie is, the naggier I become.  It is a perfect, positive correlation.

For example, if I have a train that I have to make, which is contingent upon me dropping Sophia off at school by a particular time this is what happens:

Sophia, who is up at the crack of dawn on the weekend, will still be asleep at 7:30.  So then I have a choice:  wake her up and face her wrath, or let her sleep and have an even tighter time frame to work with.  I choose the path of least resistance.  I open her door, turn on the light, and create as much ambient sound as I dare.

At last she wakes, one angry eyeball peeking out from behind her pink covers.  I can tell that I have my work cut out for me. 

“Mommy, read me a book.”  She says, still in bed. 

“I’m sorry, Soph, but we don’t have time for me to climb into bed with you right now.  I’ll read you a book while I’m brushing your teeth.”

“Then play a game with me.  You be the baby, I’ll be the mommy.”

“Soph, I just explained we don’t have time.  Maybe we can pretend that at breakfast if you get dressed first.”

“I want to wear my princess dress.”

“You can do that after school.  Right now you have to put on clothes.”

“I’m not ready yet!  Give me a minute!”  (I think she stole this line from me.)

“Okay, I’ll give you a minute while I’m making breakfast.  But I want you downstairs and dressed by the time it’s ready.”

“OKAY!” She yells at me, shrilly, making no move to get out of bed. 

I have learned that it is better to go than to stay.  It’s a gamble.  You never know what she’s going to show up wearing.  But hovering over her only prolongs the process. 

I go downstairs to make oatmeal, but 10 minutes later she has still not emerged. 

“Sophie!  Breakfast is just about ready!”  I call to her.

“I am coming!”  She screams back, much to my relief. 

But then she appears, wearing the most impractical of clothing. Outfits two sizes two small that she has dug out of the bags of hand-me-downs I have stowed in the guest room.  A velvet party dress from last year’s holiday season.  Clothes layered on top of pajamas. 

Stuff like that. 

“Sophie…”  I begin.

“I’m wearing this.  I’m already wearing it!”  If it’s not too heinous, or too small, or too out-of-season, I let it go.  Not all battles are worth fighting.  However, if it is any of these things, I have to march back upstairs with her and, reminding her of what she’s earing her stars for, select something slightly more appropriate. 

Time keeps on ticking. 

Then there is breakfast.  She sits down, already grumpy, takes a bite and declares she’s not eating it.  She runs into the living room, dives into the couch and burrows into the pillows. 

Kevin counts to five.  I am not sure what he plans to do if he ever reaches five, but she comes back and eats her oatmeal.

Now there is packing the lunch.  She wants input into what she eats.  “I’ll pick my yogurt!” she announces. 

“Fine,” I reply as I cut up her strawberries.  But she stands in front of the open refrigerator, just staring at her options. 

“Sophie, you can have a turkey sandwich, raspberry yogurt or mango honey.”

“I want egg salad.”

“I don’t have time to make egg salad.  I’ll make it on Thursday.” 

We have to be out the door in less than five minutes.  Finally I explode.  “What’s it gonna be?  Turkey sandwich or yogurt, or should I make the decision for you?”

“Turkey sandwich! Turkey sandwich!”

Kevin leans in to kiss me goodbye.

“Fine.”  I am huffy now.  I make her lunch, grab her comb and tooth brush.  We are officially running late.  I start to comb her hair and she shrieks, “OW! You are hurting me.” 

“I wouldn’t be hurting you if you sat still.” 

“You promised me you would read me a book.”

“Sophie, you took so long to do everything, we don’t have time for a book.”

“I want a book.”

“I will read a couple pages if you will sit still, but I am not reading a whole book.”


Five minutes late.

She gets the book, I read several pages as I untangle her hair and scrub the oatmeal out of her molars.

“Okay.  Let’s go.  Out the door now.  Pick up your lunch box.”  I hate the way I sound.  Harsh.  All business.  This is not how I like to start the day. 

We march out the door. 

Then I realize I forgot my keys…purse…work.  I run back inside to get it. 

“Hurry up, mom!”  Sophie calls from the car.  “We’re going to be late to school.  I don’t want to be late.”

I look at her and sigh.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Letting Go

Sophia just told me that she wanted to go to the pool, which—in my mind—justifies the fact that I am holding her down and vigorously applying sunscreen to her tender baby flesh. 

New skin is perfect.  Smooth, poreless, incredibly soft.  I would stroke my child all day long if she let me. 

It is my duty to protect this skin!

I am half sitting on her, one hand gripping her arm, the other smearing white sticky goo up and down it, intent on my mission, deaf to her protests. 

Then, from beneath me she cries.  “I AM NOT A TOY.  I AM A PERSON.  STOP TREATING ME LIKE A TOY!”

Is this a ploy?  Is she trying to arouse my guilt for trying to shield her from the searing North Jersey sun?  Or could this be how she feels?  Manipulated, like a doll, as if she is not real.  As if I have no respect for her feelings.  Her humanity. 

I feel sick.  I let go of her. 

She is still livid with the injustice.  Clawing at me.  Hitting me. 

Unfortunately, we are not alone.  I have an audience.  My friend Pam is there, along with some of the other parents and kids who share our cabin at camp. 

Pam says calmly, “What do you usually do?”

“Give her a time out until she calms down, but how do I do that here…?”  Here, at camp where no space is private.  Pam acts swiftly, picking Sophie up and depositing her into an adjacent room full of bunk beds.  It’s where the adult campers with disabilities have been sleeping.  But right now it is empty.  As Pam closes the door I hear the thud of Sophie’s sandal against it.  Pam chuckles. 

This is the second tantrum Pam has witnessed.  The first was in the shower, when I tried to wash Sophia the other night.  As I soaped her up, she squirmed away, as slick and slippery as an eel.  Pam held her and told me, “You know, you’re much too thorough.”

It’s true.  Whether I am washing Sophia’s body, brushing her teeth, wiping her butt, combing her hair, or applying sunscreen, I make sure I get every nook and cranny.  It feels obsessive as I’m doing it, but I can’t bear the thought of missing a spot.  It rises from my gnawing perfectionism.  From the fear that I might be remiss as a mother—any pimple, cavity, snarl or sunburn evidence of my failure. 

But the truth hurts.  I couldn’t hear her.  Not then, in the moment, frustrated and overwrought.  “Can we talk about this later?”  I asked her, not kindly.  In that moment, I just wanted her help, her extra hands.  The patience every mother has for a child that is not her own—not her advice.  Pam got it.  She gave me what I needed.  We got through it.

And now, my daughter is raging in the other room, and I am ready to listen.  I need another pair of eyes.  An objective, unemotional view.  Wisdom from someone who has been there. 

She tells me that she used to fight every battle, until it was killing her.  She tells me how she has learned to let things go.  I’m listening.  I believe her.  I have known her to be every bit as hardcore and unyielding as I am. 

She suggests that I let Sophia do more on her own. 

You mean, give up control?  Let a four-year-old wash herself?  Brush her teeth?  Comb her hair?  I have tried to let Sophia do some of these things, with less than stellar results. 

I would have to be okay with that.  I try it on.  I feel the muscles in my arms and chest tighten with resistance. 

Then I hear a voice inside my head telling me to question anything I hold dear. 

“Okay.”  I tell Pam, “Thank you.”  She hugs me.  We check on Sophia.  She has fallen asleep.  I have not learned the lesson my broken foot was meant to teach me. 

She was exhausted. 

When we get home, I give Sophia a bath.  I hand her a washcloth and tell her that we’re going to try something different.  This time, she’s going wash herself, and I am going to help.  She likes the idea, proudly soaping her chest and legs—letting me get the hard-to-reach places, like her back.  She still dilly-dallies.  She still resists me.  But it’s less combative, more collaborative.

And now, a few weeks later, I realize that Sophia has not asked me—not even once—to wipe her butt after using the toilet. 

More importantly, I haven’t offered.