Monday, January 30, 2012

Is you is or is you ain't The Baby?

I'm Two!
The other night, I stood at the sink washing out a drinking glass. I grabbed a dishtowel from the drawer to spread on the counter to set the glass to dry when I was overcome by a hot rush of déjà vu. I was looking out at myself, weary and bleary eyed, blankly setting on a dish towel the too many parts of the anti-gas bottles we used for The Baby when she was an infant. Next to the bottles, I set the numerous pieces that made up that torture device of a breast pump. The shudder of consternation at the remembrance of the round the clock ritual of washing and drying brought me out of my head.  And standing there, attempting to block out and at the same time to recall it- the memory became a blur. Did that time really happen? Did we really have another baby?

I had wanted so badly to speed through those dark days when she was so painfully inconsolable- stuck to me so that I didn’t know where my skin ended and hers began. The days ran on without the promise of a new dawn and with the same blues song playing on a loop, ‘My Baby Done Me Wrong.’ Exhaustion broke me- spun me into a perpetual state of vertigo. Where did those days go? Where did that baby go?

The Baby turned two last weekend. The Baby. Will we always call her that? When she turns sixteen will we say, ‘The Baby is getting her driver’s permit today’? Princess Commando was the baby of the family for 8 years. But, she was the first girl, so ‘little girl’ stuck to her over the distinction that she was the baby of the family. The universe just knew that Princess Commando wasn’t really the last chapter- there would one last installment years later- when everything and anything that a baby might need had been given away.

We had a small celebration for The Baby’s birthday with family and without much fanfare. But we still tried to get her excited for her special day.
‘Is it your birthday?’
‘Yeah. I have cuckcakes?’
‘How old are you going to be?’ I hold up my two fingers and make a peace sign. The Baby imitates my gesture; but she is having trouble keeping just the two fingers up and inadvertently keeps flipping me the bird. Maybe she really is the wise child I illustrate in my work- knowing full well that I will overlook her gesture as a ‘mistake’ because she is, after all, the baby.

But, she isn’t anymore. A baby does not know how to count to ten when climbing up the stairs for her bath where she reminds you with her chastising finger, ‘No pee pee in the tub.’ A baby doesn’t come over to you and pat you ever so gently on the arm and ask, ‘Mommy what wrong? You okay?’ when there is a look of defeat painted across your face after realizing that your 15 year old son ate the three dozen Christmas cookies you struggled to bake the night before and which were supposed to be your contribution to your family’s dessert buffet. A baby doesn’t behold the flaming candle on her birthday cupcake and wave her hands in front of her face, just as the family is about to break into the birthday song, screaming, “Away. No! No! Away fire!” realizing that her family must have done gone crazy. (After all of that preaching to stay away from fire,  ‘Fire bad. Fire burn. Fire hot,’ we idiots present her with a flaming number two candle. She is smart to pass on fire cake).

I draw pictures of her- tracing her face with my pen, with my eye. With each stroke, each line, I feel like I am trying to trap her, freeze her as her face swiftly changes somewhere beneath my finger tips and right before my eyes. I do not see a baby anymore. I see… a kid. I want to take my camera and snap a billion pictures to capture every expression, every subtle glance, every little detail that makes her who she is right now. I am not the only one who is grappling with the opposing feelings of pride in her achievements and the despair at the inability to slow down time, to keep her small. Princess Commando sighs and wells up with mourning at each revelation of her little sister’s growing independence, “Mom, look at her. She’s growing up too fast.’

You must be careful what you wish for. I wished to speed through her infancy and now it is but a little smudge, a tiny fingerprint in my memory. I think that pleading and wishing so hard for one thing made the wish so powerful that it affected all the days to come.  I am going to blink and she will be in pre-k- just as I will blink and Princess Commando will be in middle school, and Henry in 8th grade and First Born Son in junior year. You can’t have your flaming cuckcakes and eat them too. And yet, that little waxy number 2 candle burns fiercely in my heart-leaving an indelible mark-answering my question. Yes, she will always be The Baby.

Friday, January 20, 2012

At Mamalode Today

The Potty Train is on the move- to Mamalode, that is. Mamalode has been generous enough to run my essay about the trials of early potty training on their blog today.  You can read the whole sordid story again here. If you haven't already, you should subscribe to Mamalode's quarterly magazine. For $30, you get the most gorgeously written essays, poems, anecdotes and beautiful photographs and artwork (an added bonus, you get a feel for what it would be like to live in lovely Missoula, Montana through fabulous advertisements for local businesses).

I haven't been able to write much this week as, I've been working on one of my volunteer projects- The Olmsted Wisdom, the quarterly newsletter of the Frederick Law Olmsted School at Kensington (my kids' school). But next week I will be back with a post about being malleable :-)

Have a great weekend!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Hair Empathy

Each morning, I run the green bristle brush through my daughter’s long, silky hair- so many fascinating colored strands weaving the singular determination of ‘brown.’ I invariably snag a small snarl and she yelps. I apologize and instantly recall the smarting sting of each catch in my childhood mornings as my own mother dragged a brush through my brambly locks. My mother with her fine, smooth hair was in uncharted territory with a child who was encumbered by frizz. Each day she’d brush until there were tears. And, each day she would marvel at how combing out my curls added so much girth to my tiny frame. On the days my mother was not merciful enough to wrangle my hair into thick braids, I walked around with a kinky Liberty Bell on my shoulders- the constant chime of self-consciousness dinging between my ears. I knew from an early age I would never be a news anchor because news anchors didn’t have bristly thatches or dreaded locks.

Those with satin hair could never understand the plight of confronting knotty coils each morning. ‘Let it grow! Let it flow!’ My family pressured. Only my hairdresser, who had known me since I was twelve, offered sympathy as she, too, had naturally curly hair which she masked with straighteners and flat irons. ‘Don’t listen to them. They do not know how fortunate they are!' I vowed that if I had a child who inherited my frizzy spirals, I would be supremely empathetic, making certain that proper smoothing creams were administered daily. Fortunately, the universe was kind to my offspring. Only my oldest with his rich copper cap received the frizzle. But, he keeps his hair short so no one would ever know. Still, my heart bled for children sentenced to a lifetime of battle with rebellious hair.

A few years ago when I was employed as a long term substitute teacher in an inner city 4th grade classroom, I was handed a class list with asterisks marked next to 6 names. ‘What does this mean?’ I asked another teacher. ‘These are students that we have identified as challenging.’ Amber*, a 9 year old with abysmal brown eyes, feral auburn hair, and indignant shoulders pressed to her ears, had a mark next to her name. So, it was no surprise that she was belligerent. She was crude- interrupting lectures to let loose sonorous belches or to announce, ‘I have to fart!’ She was unfocused- feigning narcolepsy to escape having to complete class assignments. She was angry at the world and lifted a fist to anyone who looked at her sideways. She was all scowl and gruffness. For a little thing, she acted quite burly. She was her own worst impediment-her churlishness getting in the way of her success.

Since the start of the school year, there had been an archive of substitute teachers that came and went while the beloved permanent teacher recovered from an illness. The high turnover left little opportunity for the comfort of routine. I knew Amber was testing me. During one typically uncooperative Math lesson, Amber kept her head on her desk, ‘I can’t think. My head hurts.’
            ‘Do you want to go to the nurse?’
            ‘No. It’s not really my head.’
            ‘What is it then?’
She pulled me close so she could whisper in my ear, ‘It’s my hair.’
            ‘Your hair?’
            ‘Yes. Feel.’ She brought my hand to her ponytail. I tried to run my fingers through but they were ensnared by a MASSIVE mat. My own hair ached for her.
            ‘Have you told your mom?’
            ‘She’s never around. She tells me that I am old enough to figure it out on my own. I keep trying to brush it out, but it keeps getting bigger.’

 My heart pinched at the outward sign of neglect, at the pain greater than a million snags. I knew from past attempts at trying to communicate with her mother (of fair and silken hair) that she was unresponsive, uninterested in her daughter’s ailing academic performance. It was not surprising that she would be oblivious to her child’s difficulty with grooming.

Here was the moment I had been preparing for my whole jungle haired life. But, sympathy alone would not untangle her tresses. I was at a loss. Short of cutting her hair I did not know how to help her. I sought the advice of Mrs. B, a compassionate aide. ‘Tell her to come to me tomorrow morning. She has kinky hair like my grandkids. I think I can help her.’ After Mrs. B. worked her magic for 45 minutes, most of the nest was loosened and striking auburn locks cascaded down her shoulders. ‘Feel,’ Amber instructed- lifting my hand to her head. My fingers ran through glossy strands. ‘So pretty,’ I said. ‘So soft.’

We arranged for Amber to meet discreetly with Mrs. B each morning- to work through the tangle. Each day her asperity dissipated a little and her countenance and carriage became more relaxed. She even began to joke with me (albeit inappropriately). She also decided there was no great harm in giving one’s self up to learning; and, she started to complete her work and participate in class discussions. We wouldn’t be able to fix all of the raw wounds in her spirit; but she was learning that she could let go of some of her anger while in our care.

On my last day with the class, the students lined up to say good bye. It was Amber’s uncharacteristic affection that left the biggest imprint. “Thank you,” she said as she squeezed me with all of her might. At the beginning of my assignment, I never could have imagined that all it would take to breach the fortress around this nettled girl was a little hair empathy, the ability to recognize the briery burden of a fellow knappy haired child. Sometimes it doesn’t take the whole village to raise a child- just a hamlet, understanding,  a hair brush and miracle serum.

 *Names have been changed.

Friday, January 13, 2012

don't take your kids to the pet store

The following piece of paper was presented to me after a trip to the pet store on which Princess Commando accompanied The Mr. It appears he let the girl linger a little too long in the reptile aisles.

My Killjoy Mom response:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Monday, January 9, 2012

Don't Grow Up

The Baby is turning 2 years old at the end of the month and it is tugging at Princess Commando's heart. She worries that The Baby will magically change over night- become a rabid brat; a sour, unlovable demon who will no longer yearn for her older sister's attention or delight in the special moments they have always shared. I am working on a little project for Princess Commando, a book maybe, about an older sister's plea for her little sister to stay little. Here's what I have so far:

Thursday, January 5, 2012

the potty train

Having been at this parenting thing for a while, having gone through various trials that have tested my resolve and my will to carry on,  I have decided that potty training, while eventually yielding a most favorable outcome, is my least favorite challenge of toddlerhood.

While humans around the globe have determinedly been dreaming up their visions for 2012, planning for how they can be better, know better, do better; giving up old, objectionable habits, The Baby has made known her immediate New Year's resolution: she is going to give up using diapers. When The Mr. was returning our Christmas decorations to the attic, he found Princess Commando's old potty seat. He knew that with her second birthday approaching, The Baby would soon be in training for a marathon of dry drawers. He brought the tiny throne downstairs, gave it a proper disinfecting and presented it to her. The Baby said, 'Oh,' cocked her head to the side as if she understood its purpose, and then filled it with Lego bricks (that is not a metaphor for little Baby poop). She carried the bricks from room to room in her plastic jerry, punctuating her steps with her little voice, "Poop. Poop. Poop. Poop."

Her frog hat, much like a thinking cap, helps her concentrate on the task at hand.

Of course this day was coming. I welcomed its arrival (no more diapers? hells ya!). And, she has been quite congenial about testing out her potty chair's intended purpose. Each time she hits her mark, we are one day closer to closing out another chapter of baby hood. But, nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. Perhaps, 'fight' is too harsh of a term. We are facing a struggle for balance. Her greatest incentive for using the potty has not been the stipend of mini marshmallows we give her at the successful completion of her tasks- but, instead it has become the act of being bare bottomed. And thus the struggle has begun between the allowance of naked times and the reinforcement of non-naked times. We do not agree on when either should be instituted. Up until now, she has not seemed at all interested in the freedom one enjoys from shedding garments and running in nude-y circles around the living room. But, as soon as I gave her permission to be bare bottomed (with the stipulation, of course, that the bare bottom be hovering over the potty) she became a different creature. She's developed an obsession with stripping. Her eye gets the glint of the devil as she stares straight at me, shucking off her clothes- no longer looking for my approval, skittering away from my grasp like the Gingerbread Baby. "Ha, ha! Run, run as fast as you can. You can't catch me. I'm naked!" It's true- without clothes she is much lighter on her feet.

Potty training is exhausting business. 

There is an exhausting amount of diligence in monitoring a disrobed child's potty signals- when she is just beginning to accommodate them herself. Part of learning the Way of the Chamber Pot- as in developing any new skill- is allowing for mistakes and learning from them. She recognizes, now, the instant she is 'going' in her training pants and says apologetically, 'Oh no, I pee.' And she frantically struggles to remove her wet training pants because she is learning it is more comfortable to be dry. 'Pee inapotty,' she corrects. She would rather be naked all of the time and only hit her mark in the potty seat some of the time then give herself the chance to feel that disagreeable sensation of a wet diaper against her skin. This has added a new challenge to nap time. My sister once asked me why I still dressed The Baby in a onesie beneath her clothes. I told her that at The Baby's age, each of her older siblings had taken to undressing down to their birthday suits during nap time. And, on more than one occasion, I had walked into a mess of monumental proportions which left me to decide what to clean first, the kid or the crib? The onesie was one more barrier between tiny exploring hands and the diaper's safety latches. The other day, this memory was still in the back of my mind when I transferred The Baby, who had uncharacteristically fallen asleep on the couch, to her bed. 'Nah, she's out cold. She won't even know she's not wearing a onesie.' I reassured myself. She was so quiet during her nap that I was able to visit with the older children when they returned home from school. She was so quiet, that I had to remind myself to not let her sleep too close to the dinner hour. I went into her room, which was now darkened by the veil of evening, to wake her. I made out her figure, so sweet, so content-sleeping soundly, wrapped tightly in her blanket. I gingerly peeled the blanket from her body to reveal...

a totally naked baby. Not only was she naked, but she had peed in her sleep on everything in her crib- including the stuffed animals which belonged to Princess Commando and which I promised she would not be able to sneak through the bars of the crib from a basket on the floor. 'I'm nakey!' She exclaimed with pride when she saw me hovering over the crib. 'Oh, no I pee! Pee inapotty!'

It is not so bad when you have a day marked with Pee, Sweat and Tears (I only shed two little ones- one for my finger bent backward when tucking a fresh crib sheet into an awkward corner; and one at the acknowledgement that this was just the first of many messy afternoons to come during this phase of her toddlerhood). But, it was yesterday's experience, marked by three other words, that reminded me why there are almost 8 years between Princess Commando and The Baby. Poop Smeared Crib. During yesterday's nap, I paid closer attention to the noises emanating from the second floor so that I would not miss the faint sound of velcro fasteners being relieved of their grip. I thought I heard her voice. I went to her room to investigate. I was immediately swallowed up by one of those moments when you can't turn back and pretend you didn't see anything and you say something you never imagined you would ever say, something that is so absurd when taken out of context: 'No! You do NOT play with your poop! Poop is NOT Playdoh!'

It is a new year. We strive to be better, know better, do better. Today she is napping in a onesie, with her diaper fastened backward. She'll figure out how to take it all off soon enough.

Happy Friday! I hope y'all have a wonderful weekend.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

home alone

The older children returned to school today. It was so quiet this morning- it was as if they had not even been confined in the house for ALL of their winter holiday vacation. With the usual players missing, it was easy to become confused by the change in circumstance:

In reality, the only thing the morning silence fooled The Baby into was sleeping in. I checked on her at 9:00AM and she was still sprawled out in her bed- arm and leg through the crib bars, mouth pursed in a perfect cupid's bow. Part of me was drawn back toward the door- "If she is sleeping, you can get some work done. She'll never know you were here." But another part of me- the part which is much more vulnerable to the lure- the kitten softness, the tenuous threads and the baby's breath of the fleeting moments of toddlerhood encouraged me to stay by her bedside. "She won't be still or mild or peaceful like this when she is awake. Drink in this image a little while longer and let it fill your maternal reserves. Draw upon this vision when she tests your patience later on."

She was actually quite congenial today. I am sure she was happy to have her Mom-meeeee all to herself.