Sunday, June 30, 2013

Breaking in the Babysitter

We had a new babysitter come last night, a sweet tattooed 20-something with an asymmetrical haircut and a sense of ease about her.  

I had been facilitating a training that day.  When I pulled into the driveway around five, she was watching Sophia tool around the blacktop on her Disney Princess scooter.  They were so absorbed in their activity, I had to honk so they would get out of the way of my oncoming car. 

A good sign, I thought.  Either that, or I can put off that oil change for another week. 

I stepped out of the car and shook her hand.  She held mine loosely, as if she was caught by surprise, unaccustomed to formal greetings. 

“I see Sophie is getting you acclimated.”

“Oh yes.  I’ve already had the grand tour.  She showed me every dress in her closet.”  I pictured all of them on the floor. 

“Mom!” Sophie ambushed me, running into my arms full force. 

“Hey you.  Having fun?”

“Yes!  Can I have a snack and take Helen to see the dinosaurs?”  She meant the memorial created by the local boy scout troop that marks the site where the first full dinosaur skeleton was discovered.  It’s a few blocks away.  People have left a variety of plastic dinosaurs on a picnic table there, which Sophie likes to set against each other in prehistoric battles.

“Its almost dinner time.  No snack, but you can go see the dinosaurs.  Put some bug spray on first.”

“Mo-om!  But I’m starving!”

“Great, then you’ll be hungry for dinner when you get back.”

“But I want something now.”

“Fine.  Then you can come in the house and have dinner.”

“I don’t want to eat dinner.  I want to go see the dinosaurs.”

“Either you go see the dinosaurs without a snack or you eat dinner now.”  This was my final offer. 

“O-kay,” Sophie backs down, “C’mon,” she says to Helen, who has wisely stayed out of the negotiations.  And they scoot away. 

Dealing with Sophie, 101. 

When they return, I tell Helen I want to give her the full orientation.  As I’m leading her around the house, showing her the exact location of the Yummy Bunny pasta and frozen peas that has become a date night staple, she nods, “Yep.  Sophie told me.”  I lead her to the bathroom, and give her the low-down on the night routine.  “Yep, she told me that too.”  It seems the only thing Sophie hadn’t told Helen was the number for poison control and my preferred choice of emergency room. 

The babysitter, it seemed, was in good hands. 

As we headed out the door I kissed Sophie and told her, “Take good care of Helen.  Make sure she eats her vegetables.”

“C’mon mom.  She’s supposed to make sure I eat my vegetables.”  Got that right, sister.

One luxurious dinner and dusky walk down by the river later, we headed back to the house to relieve Helen.

“How was she?”  I asked in a stage whisper.

“Great,” Helen said cryptically. 

As much as I’d like to believe her, I didn’t trust Sophie with fresh meat.  She convinced her last babysitter to give her whipped cream sandwiched between two bagels for dinner.  “It’s a whoopee pie,” Sophie told her.  “Mom let’s me have them all the time.” 

When I grilled Sophie about the Whoopee Pie the next day, she admitted that she had read about it in Ivy and Bean.  “I wanted to try it, Mommy.  I didn’t think you would let me.”  My skepticism was justified. 

“Yeah?” I asked Helen.  “How was dinner?”

“She ate everything.  Mac Cheese and peas and Yonanas for dessert.  It looked so good I had it too.”   

“How about bedtime?”

“She got into her pjs.  Read while I brushed her teeth.  Instructed me to give her cough medicine, and went right to bed.  I’ve really never seen anything quite like it.”

That makes two of us. 

Sophie, it seems, broke in the babysitter all by herself. 


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Moving On

I have been dreading this moment.

I am sitting in a room full of metal folding chairs.  The kind that protest loudly when you open them, and when not open, they lay stacked at the back of the church basement in precarious heaps.  You touch one and they all slide down, like an avalanche. 

There is a sign hanging over the stage, Congratulations!   Each letter is a separate piece of glittering cardboard.  It is the only thing festive about the room. 

No, that’s not true, because now the room is filing up with mothers and fathers and siblings and aunts of the preschoolers who are about to graduate.  They are dressed in their best and brightest clothes.  They come from all over, South of the United States.  Mexico, Columbia, Guatemala, Venezuela.  The room is filled with color and rapid fire Spanish, punctuated by shrieks of recognition followed by “Hola!  Como estas?”  Everyone here knows each other. 

Except me.  I am sitting on top of a sheet of paper on which my mother has written Reserved.  I am loaded down with three recording devices—an iPad, and iPhone and my mother’s camera, because she doesn’t trust the first two.  She has a healthy suspicion of technology. 

She has charged me with the task of making sure no one stands in the aisles, which I am not doing.  Instead I am smiling politely at everyone and fiddling with the cameras. 

My father comes and sits down next to me.

“Dad!” I exclaim.  When we last spoke, he was on Cape Cod.  He told me the weather had been “just awful.”  Rainy and cold.  It can be like that on the Cape in the summer.  Some years, we had to break out our winter jackets.   “If this keeps up, I’m coming home.”  I told him if he did, that he should try to make it to the graduation. 

And here he was.  He sat down in the chair next to me.  On another Reserved sheet of paper.

“So the weather never cleared up, huh?” I say.

“No, it got beautiful just before I left.”  He told me, sighing and handing me a box of fudge and a smaller bag for Sophie.  He drapes his arms around my shoulders. 

Mom enters the room.  She’s anxious.  I can tell by the tension in her face.  She gets anxious every year.  Even though, no matter what they do, three- and four-year-olds on stage are impossibly cute.  She is shushing the kids, who are lined up in the hallway, in a stage whisper that reaches over the low murmur of the parents. 

“Hit it, Maestro,” my mom tells Ms. Ruth, who was the aide when I went to my mother’s school, 39 years ago.  The first few notes of “Trot, My Pony, Trot” fill the room as the children gallop in on homemade hobby horses. 

There is a lump in my throat and tears form around the edges of my eyes.  This is it.

My mother has already told her teachers that I am going to be hysterical.  I know she thinks that the kids will have to project their tiny voices above my first-row wails.  So, I am determined not to cry.  I want to enjoy this, not watch it through tear-streaked eyes. 

The best thing to do is to not perseverate on the fact that today marks the end of my weekly trips up to my mother’s.  It marks the end of packing our bags every Monday night.  Stashing a bag full of new library books in the front seat that I can pass back, one-by-one to Sophie over the course of our two-hour drive.  It marks the end of working in a room adjacent to my daughter’s classroom, and being able to pop in and see what she has made, read to the class, or help my mother with the computer that she is unable to make bend to her will.  The nights of staying at my mother’s house, eating egg salad for dinner, their standoffish cats slipping in and out of our rooms as we sleep, are over. 

But the thing I am trying to avoid thinking about the most as the children silently sign “The More We Get Together, The Happier We’ll Be,” and then belt out “Todos Los Amigos Estan Aqui” is all the people we will no longer see—my family, my friends, mom's staff.  Not on a regular basis, anyhow. 

And as much as I have tried to avoid taking these relationships for granted—the certainty of their presence in my and Sophie’s life—when faced with their yawning absence I feel light pangs of regret.  How will I maintain these deep connections, for me and for Sophie?  How can I avoid our love being pulled and stretched thin across this new distance? 

I think about my own intrepid mother, who drove us into the Bronx every weekend to see her own mother.  After a lunch of tuna salad and lettuce leaves dripping with corn oil and Spike, they would gossip about family members my sister and I did not know.  We would sneak off into the bedroom that was once my mothers, find her childhood Ginny dolls, and carelessly break them.  Or we would sit at my grandmother’s desk, drawing on the backs of the Parents magazine order forms that my grandmother sold door-to-door.  It was both comfortable and boring, and a ritual I missed terribly once Alzheimer’s eroded my grandmother’s memory. 

I am in a gap between rituals.  Feeling acutely this loss of a precious period in my life.  Wondering what the memory and significance of it will hold for Sophia.  Longing to find a satisfying, easy way to hold everyone close, to stave off separation.

It is the final act.  “Nice and loud,” I whisper to Sophia, as she takes a seat in one of the metal chairs set facing the audience.  She swings her legs with eager energy as the rest of the class takes the stage. 

“Nice and loud,” my mother whispers in her ear as she hands Sophie a well-worn copy of Brown Bear, Brown Bear. 

With great confidence, Sophia pulls herself up in her chair, faces everyone, and announces, “Our children’s preschool is going to put on a play called Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See.” 

And then her voice fills the room, escaping through the windows and spreading to the world all around.  I watch her with dry eyes and a swollen heart. 

She is ready to move on. 

I wish this were true for me too.  Days later, I am grateful to be alone in the house.  So no one can hear how loud I’m sobbing, or how pinched and red my face become from crying over loss and grief.  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Blessing and a Curse

Back in the early days of nursing Sophia, when she wasn’t choking on my milk, she would clamp down so firmly with her gums of steel that my tender nipples soon became red and sore.  Feeding her was excruciating, and since I was doing it every 2-3 hours, I spent most of my days in pain.  I met with a lactation consultant who discovered that I had an oversupply of milk, which I had made worse by pumping at night.  I could fill a 10-ounce bottle with one breast.  In fact, I could have fed a whole army of babies.  Ironic, because, let’s just say I don’t know where I was storing it all.  To look at me, you’d think I was a 2-ouncer. 

Poor Sophie was overwhelmed by my milk, which shot down her throat like water from a fire hose.  She bit me to stem the flow.   It was self-defense. 

I went to a breastfeeding group in need of a little sympathy and advice.  But when it came my time to talk and I told the other moms what I was going through, I was met with incredulity.

“You mean you have too much milk?  Wish that was my problem.”

“I might have to stop because I can’t make enough.”

“How is that a problem, again?” 

Most women, it seemed, had an under-supply.  I might be in pain, but at least I could feed my baby and in less than five minutes. 

I shut up.  And I didn’t go back, lest they think I attended these things to gloat about my highly productive mammary glands. 

So, I don’t expect anyone to have sympathy for me, when I reveal my current parenting issue. 

I’m just going to lay it all out there.  Sophie is an early reader.  She was decoding three letter words before the age of three, and, at five, she can read passages from Kevin’s history books with relative ease (though not with the comprehension that she can read Ivy and Bean).  I am not saying this to brag, but to provide context. 

I don’t take full credit either.  Now, I read to her from the day that she was born, and I talked about the different sounds the letters made, and I gave her “educational toys,” like the Leap Frog electronic doohickey on our fridge that sings “A says /a/, a says /a/, every letter makes a sound.   A says /a/,” in the most maddening way.   But reading is a unique and mystifying skill.  You can give a child all the tools to be able to read, but the “glide,” the smooth blending of letter sounds to form a word, is automatic and developmental.  And as development is uneven and chaotic in young children, different children develop this skill at different times.   

Ever since Sophie was able to make the glide, she has been a voracious, irrepressible reader.  I say irrepressible, because, as of yet, I have not found a way to restrain it.

Why restrain her? 

Sophie becomes emotionally threadbare when she doesn’t get enough sleep.  She is subject to fits, hysteria and odd emotional outbursts that have her cackling one minute and hurdling her lunchbox at me while I’m driving the next.  She has always struggled to rein in intense emotion, but any grip that she has on her feelings is loosened by exhaustion.

Tonight, at dinner, the mere act of calling her to the table has her on the floor. 

“I don’t want dinner.  I’m not hungry.  I just want to go to bed!”

Kevin says bluntly, “Sit in your seat.  It’s time for dinner.”

She drags her body up from the floor, slumps into her seat and glances at her plate.  She is galled.   “What is this?  Gak!  It’s disgusting!  I will not eat it.  Not ever!”

“It’s the delicious dinner Mommy cooked for us tonight.  You’re eating it.”

“If you make me eat it, I’ll never sit in this room again!” 

“Take a bite, Sophie.” It’s said as a warning. 

She takes a different tact.  “My head hurts.”

“My heat hurts, too.”  I say.  “Must be all the noise in here.”


“Sophie, take a bite.”  Kevin says again. 

And so it goes.  Dinner takes an hour.  I hustle her up to her room.  She changes, we brush teeth, read half a book, and review the stars she’s earned for the day (one). 

“Mommy, can I leave my book in the hallway?” she angles. 

“No.  Give the book to me.”  I hold out my hand. 

“No.  I won’t read it.  I promise.  I just want to put it in the spare room.”  The spare room is where we have placed all of her books, having removed them from her room two nights ago.

“Okay,” I relent.  “But you are NOT to go in here and get this book.  You are to go to sleep.”

“Yes, mommy.”

“I trust you,” I say with great emphasis on the word trust. 

“Thank you, mommy,” she replies and hugs my leg. 

Kevin and I retire to the attic, where we veg out in front of the television.  An hour later, we hear the pitter patter of feet on the stairs and the light goes on.

“Sophie?  What are you doing out of bed?” Kevin says in a stentorian voice.

“It’s too hot in my room.”

“Then turn on the air conditioner.  Good night, Sophie.”  We have to be firm. 

“Have you been to sleep?” I interrupt, suspicious.  “Have you been sleeping or reading?” 


“Sophia!  Did you go in the spare room?”

“No.  I went in your room and got the fairy book we were reading this morning.”

A loophole.  She finds every one. 

“I told you to go straight to bed.”


“No buts.  Go downstairs and go to bed.  Daddy and I will discuss your punishment.” I feel like I’m channeling my own parents. 

My eyes widen as I give Kevin my most exasperated look.  This is the cycle we have fallen victim to:  She sneaks books at night and stays up all hours, reading.  The next day it is impossible to get her out of bed, which makes both of us cranky.  She’s exhausted by the afternoon and becomes a bruin.  We battle our way through dinner and bedtime, and then the whole damn thing happens all over again.

And it’s not just bedtime either.  It’s hard to get her anywhere because she’s too busy reading.  I have to rip the book out of her hands to get to get dressed, get in the car, get out of the car.  She begs to bring books into the grocery store, to school, to the shower. 

Books have become the bane of my existence. 

It felt cruel to remove her books the other night—the piles that have formed in every corner of her room, the shelves packed tightly, the stash underneath her pillow, a couple forgotten ones under the bed.  But she was chipper as I carried them across the hall and stacked them on the floor.  Her mind was probably already working on a plan to buck the system. 

What do you do with a child who reads too much?  Is there a support group out there?  A book written?  An easy 12-step process to releasing your child from the grips of literature? 

Must we lock her books in the basement?  Barricade her door?  Patrol the hallways?

You can have too much of a good thing. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

We Can Work It Out

I love my husband.  He is—above all things—my beloved friend, and since the day we’ve met, we’ve enjoyed talking to each other for hours on end. 

But, as in any marriage, there are times when communication breaks down.  When anger rises within me, overtakes me and makes me want to say mean and nasty things to the one I love:

“You never…”
“You always…”
“I don’t understand why you just can’t …” 
“If you would only…”

These moments are always the product of competing needs and mismatched perceptions.  Each of us has a valid point of view that we are willing to die for.

Over time, I have learned, that it is best in these moments to bite my tongue and give myself a time out.

The draw to be right, to win, to pummel the other into agreement with one’s own perspective is great.  Sometimes, if I’m really incensed, I return to mutter stuff under my breath. 

But more and more, I make an effort to take a step towards Kevin.  To swallow back all the brilliant, witty, caustic remarks that seep from my mouth, and get curious.  Probe deeper.  Try to understand where he is coming from.  Acknowledge his point of view.  Own and apologize for my own wrongdoing.

It is at once, the hardest and most simple thing to do, setting aside your ego, but it is necessary for preserving the relationship.  Ultimately, that is what I want—not to be right in this particular argument, or to get my way, but for us to live peacefully and happily as possible.  To get away from this place where we have become monstrous, and return to love. 

It’s hard because my parents fought viciously.  At some point, they lost their way and could not find the path back to where they started.

I rarely saw reaching out.  Resolution.  Repair. 

Which means that it took me that much longer to learn how to do things differently. 

Yesterday, we spent a lovely day with friends who also have one child, a boy, Sophie’s age.  Together, the kids played in the pool and frolicked in the spray ground, while we idly looked on, chatting.   I quietly observed that, personality-wise, Sophie and Jacob were evenly matched.   I am always amazed when Sophie meets a child equally intense as herself and, rather than butt heads, they inspire each other.  Sure, there were rubs, taunts, and a moment where one pushed the other under a bucket that dumped a torrent of water on the other’s head.  But the desire to enjoy each other’s company clearly trumped any bump in the road.  Hurt feelings were quickly smoothed over.

Riding in the car, on the way home, Sophie suddenly announced, “I want to kiss Jacob.”

Kevin beat me to my question, “How come?”

“Because I love him.”  She was beaming with the memory of their day together.  “I want to marry him,” she added.

I thought about all the other girls and boys who had suddenly got bumped from the future spouse list.

“Why do you want to marry him?” I asked, genuinely curious. 

“Because he’s fun.  We had five fights today.  But even when we fight, we find a way to solve our problem.  Then we have more fun!” 

At five, she’s already got it.