Sunday, October 28, 2012

Big, Small Decisions

I first overheard the rumor at a birthday party.  “People,” I heard one mother say, “will start lining up around 5 am.”

“But why so early?” another mother replied, looking alarmed. 

“There are only twelve slots,” the first explained, her forehead creased with concern.  “It’s first come, first served.” 

I felt the seductive pull to freak out about this, so I moved to the other side of the room.  Fear is contagious, and I have a weak immune system.  

Because I didn't want to believe the hype, the next morning I walked into the director’s office.  The two women who run Sophie’s nursery school always have their door open.  They greet every child by name.  On this particular day, the sound of Billy Holiday was wafting out of their office. 

“So, are the rumors true?” I asked, without offering up a context. 

Her face broke out into a half-smile as she rolled her eyes.  “I’m telling everyone to get here around 6:15.  We’re not opening the doors before 7:15.  And then, it’s in the order that you came.  One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.  People are respectful.”

“But then why wouldn’t I get here at five, or earlier, if it’s in the order in which we arrive.”

“You can,” she shrugged. 

Ugh.  Parent pitted against parent in a race to be first.  These are the parents I have come to know over the last couple of months.  Parents of Sophia’s friends--lovely people.  

Parents, like me, who work outside the home and need full-time kindergarten. 

You see, our town has half-day kindergarten.  I am told by that the teachers pack a lot of learning into those two and a half hours.  But almost as soon as you drop your children off (or they walk to school, there are no busses), it’s time to turn around and pick them back up again, rendering it virtually impossible to work.  Even from home.

The parents I know who work outside-the-home full time are fairly irate about the half-day situation.  Many have had children in day care since they were babies.  A half-day program feels like a step backwards to them.  They are resentful that they have to pay double to get the hours they need (taxes plus tuition) after having paid their dues for the past four years.  Particularly when in the Northern part of our state full-time kindergarten is the norm. 

I am fortunate.  I have options.  Not everybody does. 

Thing is, I really want to send Sophie to her public school.  There are a million reasons she should go—the quality of the education…to be with her friends from our block… to ensure she has a spot in our neighborhood school…she’s dying to… our taxes pay for it…but all of this is trumped by the fact that you blink, and the school day is over. 

I know that Sophia’s future does not rest on the quality of her kindergarten experience.  She will adapt to and thrive wherever she goes.  The anxiety that surrounds this decision, like all things, will become something that I smile at one day—the time I pitched a tent in front of Sophie’s nursery school to get her in a coveted slot. 

And yet, if I increase my hours next year because I enjoy my work, I have the opportunity to do some good in this world, and it will help pay the bills, I want to know that this decision has the lowest level of impact on Sophia.

I am not sure what that means, really.  Maximizing her comfort by minimizing change, perhaps.  Or maybe it’s about my own comfort.  Staying with what’s familiar, in a place where its homey and safe. Where I can leave Sophia for seven hours at a time, and when I come to pick her up, she begs me to stay longer.

So, ridiculous as it is, come November 13th, you can find me, parked in my Subaru, hands pressed against the vents for warmth, as the sun creeps into the sky.  

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Alone Together

On my run, yesterday, I listened to an interview with a psychologist about the phenomenon of being “alone together.”  How our gadgets are fostering a culture of distraction, a poverty of social skills among youth, and an inability for people to be comfortable being alone.

Online—offline is the new balancing act.  How much should we engage through technology and how much should we engage person-to-person?  

I am struck by how much my gadgets give me the illusion that I’m participating—that I’m connecting with people.  Shooting a message to a old friend on Facebook that I may not have otherwise reconnected with, texting a quick note to my husband during the day, laughing with Sophia over an old Muppets clip on YouTube.  

But tonight I called a cousin I hadn’t spoken to in years, and I was struck by the fact that there is no substitute for hearing each other’s voice.  We never could have had the conversation we did in an email or a PM, listening to the nuances of emotion in each other’s voices, walking down a meandering path into the past, each of our shared memories triggering a new one.  

Another friend called me to say that he wouldn’t be able to see me next weekend.  I immediately felt dismay because there is no substitute, not even voice, for seeing someone in person.  To observe being listened to, and be observed doing the same.  What we fail to communicate in words is conveyed through the eyes.  

Even Skype and Facetime, with the video experience it offers, deprives one of the ability to look into another’s eyes, unless you do the unnatural—staring into the camera instead of the other person before you.  

So when Kevin asked me this evening what I objected to about screen time for Sophia, I found myself having difficulty articulating my fear.  I do think there is such a thing as quality television/movies/computer games, etc.  With the assistance of on demand, the public library, and YouTube, we can monitor the content and limit the commercials—the two things I’m most concerned about.  

I also know that complete restriction will only backfire.  At this point, she has about ½ hour of computer time, 1½ hours of movie time (or two half hours of tv time), and a couple YouTube videos thrown in per week.  Kevin suggested that this was not enough, given the fact that at a birthday party this weekend, she was the only child with her eyes glued to the television set between getting up to bowl.  

The source of my fear is that I don’t know where the tipping point is.  When do we pass that magical number of minutes where she will no longer stare at the video advertising sushi at Wegmans, hungry for it’s glowing image, but do not venture so far over the line that it becomes a substitute for real life.  For real engagement.  

I don’t know where that line is.  I struggle with it myself.  I feel naked without my cell.  I have felt shame when Sophie has asked, “Mommy could you please stop looking at your phone?”  I have had to consciously put it in the trunk of my car while on a date with my husband, so as not to be tempted to interrupt our time together with a Saturday night email check.  

Who is trying to get in touch with me on a Saturday night?  No one.

As a result, I don’t know how to teach Sophia how to find the line without providing some boundaries around it.  Without having a time to be on and a time to be off.  

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sibling Revelry

 I am dreading Tuesday morning, when Sophia and I will have to put my sister, Jennifer and her son, Kevin, back on a plane to Florida. 

It had been two years since we had seen them.  Before they arrived Sophia confessed, “I don’t remember what Aunt Jenny looks like.”  By the way she burrowed into my leg as they approached us in the airport, I could tell they were essentially strangers to her. 

How did we let so much time go by?  We had tried to visit in the past, but we had such different lives, such different schedules it would have required a lot of bending that neither one of us was terribly willing to do.

Jennifer was the first to bend when she suggested coming here instead.  It was a step towards me, and am a firm believer that when someone takes a step towards you, you move forward to meet her halfway. 

We both pulled our kids out of school.  We both took time off from work.  We both invested financially and emotionally in coming together again.

After greeting me, Jennifer bent down to say hello to Sophie, who refused to face her. 

“She has to warm up and get to know me,” Jennifer acknowledged, pulling back, not disappointed. 

But it took Sophie no time to warm up to Kevin.  Within seconds she was chasing him around baggage claim.  The two of them shrieking. 

Come Tuesday, I will be sad.  But, Sophia will be heartbroken.

In no time, Jennifer and Kevin became integrated into our lives.  We found a rhythm—or maybe it was a rediscovered rhythm—something revived from our childhood.  Waking together, dining together, playing together.  Oh, it hasn’t been without its bumps—the same bumps that have always been there, but even the bumps are terribly familiar. 

Sophia and Kevin found a rhythm too, not unlike ours.  He has extracted giggles  from so deep inside her belly, that listening, I am aware that she is experiencing a new dimension of joy. 

They have developed private jokes.  The words “guacamole” and “room service” send them into hysterics.  He has played endless games of tic-tac-toe with her on his DS, though he’d much rather be playing skeeball.  And when he has beckoned for her to come sit next to him, the child who will touch no one climbs right into his lap, puts her arms about his neck, and hangs on his every word.
He is the big brother she will never have. 

He has taken up this mantle.  As an only child, Kevin knows what it is like to be alone, siblingless, living in the world of adults.  There is a tacit agreement:  you be mine and I will be yours. 

I am aware of my own sibling privilege—the taking for granted I did.  I do.  Paying little attention to my sister because she was there to pay little attention to.  Fighting with her because I experienced her as a rival, not an ally.  Letting years go before we saw each other again because she is, has been, will always be there. 

Through Sophia and Kevin, I see us more clearly.  Kevin’s generosity with Sophia—so much younger, hardly a peer—makes me wonder whether I had been too stingy with my own affections. 

We were at our best when we were at play:  writing songs (e.g., “I feel so sad because hay is for horses, not for children.”) and performing disco dances to them; pretending to be two ladies, Joonyurn and Joanyurn who lived in a hotel on the 44th floor (rooms 4444 and 4443—four was my favorite number); celebrating Barbie’s birthday on a daily basis, wrapping unwanted and broken toys to give back and forth to each other. 

Now, we are still at best when we are at play: crawling into an earthquake tunnel together at the Franklin Institute; teasing each other mercilessly as we vie for the worst score while bowling with the kids; singing pop songs to Sophie as she raises the roof. 

It can be easy to forget this, locking horns over our differences.  Judging or being judged.  Feeling hurt.  Becoming indignant. 

I have Kevin and Sophia to thank for reminding me of the gifts of having a sibling. 

Monday, October 8, 2012


Another ordinary day.  Another two-hour trip in the car.  Time to play Stump Your Mother.

“Mom?  Where did the first babies come from, I mean, before anybody was here?” Her voice is faint amid the roar of the traffic.  Did she just ask what I think she asked?  Did my 4-year-old daughter just pose the metaphysical question between exits 8 and 7A on the NJ Turnpike.?

“Are you asking where did we come from, like how the first people got here?”

“Yes!” her eyes are round and eager, waiting for my response. 

What I wish I had said: “What do you think?”  A golden opportunity to hear her unbiased, relatively clean-slate thoughts, gone.

What I did say: “Big bang…blah, blah, blah…matter and energy expanding….blah, blah, blah…gravity...blah blah blah…formation of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans…blah, blah, blah….single-celled organisms…blah, blah, blah…evolution….”

I bumbled and fumbled my way through our prevailing scientific theory, speaking over her head, saying too much, doing my best to satiate her curiosity. She was rapt, despite my convoluted tale.  And each bit of explanation begat several more questions:

“What’s evolution?”
“Why aren’t there any more dinosaurs?”
“When was I a monkey?”

I finally said, “maybe we should go look for a book about this at the library.” 

Saved by the library. 

Or so I thought.  Turns out there aren’t a lot of books on how it all began at least not picture books.  Much of what I found was far too sophisticated for a four-and-three quarters-year-old. 

Of course, the next day she asked again.

“Mommy, please tell me the story about the big bang and how our planet was born.”

This time, I decided to put another spin on it.  “In the beginning, all matter—everything that exists was one.  I like to think of this as God.” 

“What’s God?”  I asked for this one. 

“Hmmmm.  Well, I think God is the perfect in every living thing.  In me.  In you.  In that tree over there.”  I pointed out the window.  “When the Big Bang happened and matter started expanding in all directions, God—the perfect—was in everything.”

“Oh,” she smiles and looks deeply satisfied with this.  I continue, repeating a somewhat simplified version of my earlier attempt to answer her question. 

I also suggested that she ask her father.


Saturday morning, after breakfast, Sophie does just that:  “Daddy,” she says as I’m clearing the plates and he’s doing a crossword. “Tell me the story of how the world and people began.”

I forgot to warn Kevin. 

I smiled at him bemused.  “I’ve taken a shot at it. Twice,” I told him.  “Your turn.” 

He recovered rather quickly, as Kevin relishes these meaty questions.  He began with the Big Bang and Sophie interrupted him.

“What about God?” she asked him.

“God?” He looked at me for help.   But, Sophie was already there.  “In the beginning there was just God.  God was everything.” 

“Okay,” Kevin ran with it, “In the beginning there was just God. Then, all matter began expanding from this one tiny point to form the universe….”  I felt grateful that Kevin did not dispute this.  He went on to give a detailed explanation that was pitched directly at her level of understanding, complete with multimedia and little details that I, who had actually studied biology at one point, did not know.  He provided a rationale for the saltiness of our blood.  He called up pictures of Homo Erectus on his iPad.  Sophie was fascinated.  And even if she wasn’t getting it entirely, her curiosity was stoked. 

Sunday, after bagels she asked, “Daddy, can I see Homo Erectus again?” 

I was back at the sink, scraping bits of lox off of plates.  “Look, Mommy,” Sophie insisted, thrusting the iPad in front of me.  “This is Homo Erectus.  They came before us.”  She turned back to her father.  “Were the Indians here with Homo Erectus?”

Is there any way to be prepared for the difficult questions?  They come without warning, inexplicably out of nothing, like our own existence.  My responses feel thin—a little of what I believe, a little of what I want her to believe.  A lot of uncertainty.  I feel her great trust, her absolute belief in whatever it is that I have to offer.   I am aware of my awesome responsibility.  These early conversations, I know, will shape her beliefs and biases for the rest of her life.