Friday, December 26, 2008

Fluffy Fingers

The only thing more fun than making the kid laugh is discovering a new way to make the kid laugh. My latest find is nibbling on his fingers. It has to be with bare teeth -- lips or lips over teeth are not nearly so hilarious, apparently. And part of the fun for him seems to be his ability to control the action: he presents the fingers and gets to yank them away once they've been bitten. Uproarious.

Some other things that make him grin, giggle, or squeal:

1. Pinching his fat little thighs. Fingers and thumbs have to be on opposite sides of the femur, but at almost any location so long as they oppose.

2. Saying "peas" while drawing out the long e.

3. Making a noise like a suction cup being pulled off.

4. Rib and belly tickling, especially with long, anticipatory wiggly finger swoop-in. Referred to in our house as fluffy fingers.

5. Classic for a reason: This Little Piggy.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Trimming the Tree

What with the ice storm blackout last weekend and my general inclination to procrastinate, we didn't get the tree up until yesterday. We were being thoroughly buried under snow (Friday night and Saturday delivered about 18 inches, and then Sunday brought nearly a foot more), so Andy was out shoveling the driveway most of the afternoon while I unwrapped ornaments and hung them, with Ben overseeing from his throne on the dining room table.

Trimming the tree is always a little emotional for me -- at least for the last few years, since we've owned a house and had a tree and Christmas there, rather than doing all that at my mom's, and especially since Mom transferred custody of the family ornament collection to me. There's a lot of history in those ornaments, a lot of joy, and a lot of loss.

There are the ones that have always been my favorites: the blue horse and yellow elephant, vaguely North African in design; the plastic whirlygig that used to turn if you placed it over a bulb but no longer does because bulbs don't burn as hot as they used to; the disco ball. These are not the prettiest ornaments, and they wouldn't be my favorites now, but they were my favorites as a child, and so they still take pride of place.

There are the oblong painted mirrors from my grandmother's childhood. Victims of a basement flood the first year my mom and I lived in our new house after my dad died, these have had their painting mussed and mostly ruined, but they are far too precious to abandon for mere lack of design integrity. My grandmother was always surprised to see them when she came for Christmas; we never treasured the things she thought we would, or should. That we made a fuss over these things which must have been cheapo trinkets in their day mystified her. A pill to the very end, she died this summer at 96, my last surviving grandparent, the only great-grandparent Ben got to meet.

There are the doves. My parents the atheists, the peaceniks, had lifelike doves for the top of the tree. There were three of them, and they were refugees from a store they owned that went belly-up rather disastrously. Their store Christmas decoration was flocks of these doves hung at different altitudes from the ceiling. I don't know what happened to the three -- my guess is one dog or another -- but I bought some myself last year.

There are the velvet ovals with gold cord that I know came from the first Christmas of my parents' marriage. I imagine them young -- younger than I am now -- starting their lives together in New York City in 1968 in a four-floor walk-up. It's been longer now since my dad died than the length of their marriage, much longer.

There's the plain glass ball that my mother painted, painstakingly, with watercolor scenes of the house we lived in when I was a small child: the deck from outside, covered with snow; the fireplace with the Christmas tree beside it. It's another flood victim; the scenes are clearer in my memory than on the ornament.

There's the dalmatian and the bear, ornaments I bought Mom years ago, meant to represent our two dogs at the time, now long dead.

There are the nested crystal bells, three and five, that were my dad's favorite ornaments. He liked to supervise the trimming of the tree. Mom and I would unwrap, exclaim over new-remembered trinkets, and Dad would look up occasionally from his book, from the depths of his massive leather chair, and point to empty spots on the tree. He liked the Christmas albums with lots of brass. I liked the Muppets. I've come around to his preference, and I was listening to the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble -- we had it on vinyl back in the day -- on the iPod yesterday.

I don't think about him often. He's been dead since I was twelve. But this first Christmas of Ben's, trimming the tree, I thought about him a lot. I thought about how much he -- raised Jewish -- loved Christmas: the music, the tree, going to all the recitals, picking pretty things for Mom from the Metropolitan Museum store. I thought about how delighted he'd have been with his grandson, and how unfair it is that Ben is missing one of the people who would have been most in love with him.

And, for good measure, how unfair for Mom, and for me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Physical Pleasure

One of the zillion or so things that would never have occurred to me about parenthood before I became a parent is how much physical pleasure my kid affords. I love squeezing his fat thighs and blowing raspberries on his belly. I love kissing and inhaling his sweet baby neck. I love the weight of him on my hip (for a while, anyway). I love the snuggly embrace of nursing him. I love the way his cheek smooshes with a smooch. I think my favorite is when I nurse him late at night and he falls asleep, and I rearrange him so that his head and elbows flop on my shoulder, and he weighs half again as much limp with sleep, and his cheek is warm from nursing, and he breathes close to my ear, and I feel half drunk with the pleasure of being close to him.

It used to drive me nuts when he was a newborn and people would tell me to cherish this time because it's all downhill from here. And I know full well it's not all downhill from here (I really look forward to, say, being able to converse with him), but I am consciously cherishing this physical closeness. He won't always be such a convenient armful. He won't always let me this close for as long as I want, as often as I want. There's a big part of this intimate physicality that can't but be fleeting -- it would be incredibly creepy if it weren't.

The fact is that we don't really share pleasurable physicality with other people apart from sexual partners. I guess people who play certain sports do. I can't really think of other occasions for adults to be appropriately, non-sexually physical with one another, though, except for hugging -- and hugging, nice as it can be, just doesn't hold a candle to snoozling a sleepy six-month-old. I'm sure there are cultures in which some kind of collegial physical pleasure is common, and the lack of it suddenly seems like a sad emptiness in ours.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Toys in Babeland

"Playing" with toys at Ben's age (six months) is still largely a matter of his acquiring a target and working to bring said target to his mouth and gum it, with maybe a little passing the object from hand to hand and examining it a little. But some objects are clearly preferable to others -- these are the ones he will retrieve from the box most often.

1. Ikea nesting/stacking cups. He doesn't stack or nest them, but the cups themselves are of great interest. At $2.49, without question the best value of any toy so far.

2. Ikea stacking rings. Again, he doesn't stack them, but the discs themselves are favorites for handling and gumming.

3. Measuring cups and spoons. I took them off the rings they came on (which looked like they might pinch little fingers or lips) and put them onto those ubiquitous plastic links, so he can work at separating a spoon from its cousins.

4. Baby cups. The dented sterling baby cup that was mine and a plastic one with two handles. Good for gumming, bashing, and throwing, especially the silver one, which makes a much better noise.

5. This thing (Haba Pipapo) and another precious European wooden toy from Oompa that I can't find now -- it's a rattle shaped more or less like a lean mushroom, with a natural stem and a red cap, and four different colored beads on top and bells inside. It's such a hit that we keep it on the changing table to occupy him.

6. Classic for a reason: baby keys.

Honorable Mention: Dad's favorite toy is the Skwish by Manhattan Baby.

Extra credit: How many of these toys have been replaced because Hugo has eaten them?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Phase vs Pattern

Ben's been having another bout of bad sleeping. He goes down fine -- like a ton of bricks, actually -- at his normal bedtime, and generally sleeps soundly or resettles himself easily until around 10:00, bedtime for the rest of the household. Then I nurse him again and either he falls asleep while nursing or I put him down drowsy, and, again, he has no trouble getting to sleep. But he's up again an hour or two hours later and repeats the hour- or two-hour-interval wake-ups for the rest of the night most nights.

The last time he went through a bout of this, about a month ago, we tried to Ferber through it, leaving him to cry for increasing intervals to remind him how to settle himself. In theory, anyway. In practice, he just wound himself up into hysteria, and even if he wore himself out and fell asleep for a while, he'd be up again in no time, hysterical again. This time, we decided to treat it as a phase and not a pattern, and comfort him through it with nursing instead of teach him through it with Ferbering. It feels like the right thing to do. My suspicion is that what's behind the sleep troubles is his working overtime on sitting up and crawling.

This phase vs pattern debate is a great way to make yourself feel like a shitty parent. If it's a phase and you make the kid suffer to learn something irrelevant, you're a big jerk. If it's a pattern and you coddle the kid into an unhealthy habit, you're a big jerk. And you can't possibly know until the damage is done. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Whisper Connect, We Hardly Knew Ye

I can't remember why I picked this particular baby monitor for the shower registry. Probably my friend S. had recommended it in her long, annotated baby gear list (inherited from a friend of hers). It wouldn't have occurred to me then, or even until this week, that there was much difference between baby monitors, or which features would matter to me.

Until I dropped the receiver until last week, and it stopped working.

It was an Evenflo WhisperConnect Two-Way 900MHz. Not Sensa. Not Pro. And they don't make it anymore. And nothing else has all the features I came to require. Oh, why didn't I cherish this monitor? Why didn't I protect it and keep it safe in all its specialness? I was wrong, so wrong.

It had great sound quality. Sure, it got staticky sometimes, but don't we all? But you could hear everything in Ben's room with perfect clarity: the softest little pre-waking whimper, the mylar crinkling in one of his crib toys, the ping of the steam heat in the pipes. Several other monitor models boast that they filter all non-voice noise. Why would you want that? I want to hear if he's rolling around or playing with toys.

It had a rechargeable battery. And, ok, the sound was crappier when the receiver was plugged in, but leaving it on for hours on end was just an inconvenience and didn't require three new triple-As every time.

It had a dozen or so lights, not the five that seem to be standard, which, combined with its senitivity, meant that with the volume turned way down (when we're watching tv, for instance), the slightest peep registered a light or two, and grabbed out attention. The replacement monitor's first light only hits with a pretty solid cry.

It only had two channels, but that was plenty. More channels just means more confusion if you accidentally hit the channel button while the kid is sleeping. It had a walkie-talkie function, which we almost never used, but I bet Ben would have enjoyed playing with it in a couple of years.

I can't begin to understand why Evenflo would have changed the design of this monitor, given its Amazon ratings, which were head and shoulders above all others at a comparable price. They added some stupid pet motion detector ("Sensa"), and the ratings for the new model are significantly lower.

I've been shopping (online) for a better replacement for a couple of days now, and my success has been such that I'm now considering finding an electronics repair shop -- if they exist anymore, that is -- and paying someone the cost of a replacement to fix it.

And then I'll take ever such good care of it! I'll never drop it again! I promise!

Edited to Add: "Two-Way." Key descriptive title phrase I left out. And the difference is apparently more than just whether or not it has the walkie-talkie function. The two-way monitor got significantly better reviews than the same model without two-way -- which probably means it wasn't the same model at all.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Me or Your Lying Eyes

I was raised Santa-free. Obviously I therefore have no basis for comparison, but Christmas sure seemed plenty magical, and I never had to get over the weirdness of discovering I'd been pointlessly duped by my parents. I did have to protect the innocence of the duped children, though, a duty I honored by total neglect. I told everybody. The ones who were only holding on in creepy obligation to parents wrapped up in the myth believed me. The ones who really believed thought I was nuts.

Anyway, I don't get it at all, which is to say I think nasty thoughts about parents who force their kids to believe in Santa. Parents and grandparents seem to derive some kind of sick glee from the deception. They always say it's about creating magic and wonder, but do they invent other jolly home invaders and insist maniacally on their existence? Generally no. I think kids would be a lot better served if the adults in their lives put some of that effort and enthusiasm into fostering delight in actual wonders -- in which this universe, thank God, abounds -- rather than lock-stepping along with this same hokey tale.

We all ask our kids to take our word for it that some things are not what they seem. Sometimes it's because our vision is simply wider: the stars are not little lights; they're huge suns far away. Sometimes it's because there are things in which we feel strongly they ought to believe: God, justice, the fundamental superiority of the Philadelphia Eagles to the Dallas Cowboys. But when you ask a child to believe you and not his lying eyes, you'd better have a damned good reason for it. You'd better believe it yourself, or no matter how cute, how precious, how magical the myth is that you ask that kid to accept, one day he's going to understand that you deceived him and feel like a fool for believing you. And then you're just an asshole.

(Edited to clarify meaning. Also to note that Andy Photoshopped the t-shirt -- it really reads "If Mommy Says No, Ask Santa.")

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cartography: Never Stop at Once

We'd been in sort of a limbo, cart-wise. The kid used to stay in his baby bucket, which would be snapped out of the carseat base and clicked onto the metal seat-back of the grocery cart (trust me, it works great) to be wheeled around Target or the grocery. But then he outgrew the bucket (actually the weight of him + bucket just got to be too much for my wrists) and we switched it for the Britax giganto carseat which does not snap out because it weighs four million pounds and is the size of a Volkswagen. So then he had to be carried, put in the Ergo, or strollered -- none of which work terribly well for Target and the grocery, especially when the adult is flying solo.

But then he started sitting up, and we thought, "Woo-hoo! He can sit up in the grocery cart like a little kid!" Except he hated it and made his feelings known in no uncertain terms (the terms in question being sustained screaming). Until today, when suddenly the cart was A-OK. He sat up, looked around, chewed on the cart a little (T-minus a cold's incubation period ... ), and was perfectly content to be wheeled around in state as befits an adorable despot.

Which just goes to show: never stop at once. The first time for everything almost always goes badly. Hell, the second and third time probably goes badly. But at some point, without warning, the kid will change his mind, and suddenly the avocado/grocery cart/cloth blocks will be a big hit.

Essential Bookshelf: Kid

These are some of the books I really enjoy reading to the youngster.

Caps for Sale
I like to do the salesman's lines in a broad Italian accent, and I also make all the gestures and shout when the salesman gets furious at the monkeys, which makes Ben twist himself around to look at me as if I've taken leave of my senses.

Hondo and Fabian
LinkThis is a gentle little story about a dog who goes to the beach and a cat who stays home. I can't quite put my finger on what I like so much about it, but I absolutely adore it.

Does a Kangaroo Have a Mother, Too?
Ah, the Eric Carle hegemony. I love books with lots of animals, and this one is a jackpot. Not only does it have lots of animal moms and babies, the last page gives the names for adult breeding pairs, offspring, and collective nouns for all the animals -- so cool. This is my favorite Eric Carle book.

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes
Generally I resist explicitly messagey children's books (as well as explicitly educational ones -- my infant doesn't need to learn to count or have the virtues of tooth-brushing extolled to him, thanks), but this one is so sweet that I don't care that it's about tolerance. Nine times out of ten, I'm a little choked up by the time I get to the end.

The Story of Ferdinand
Only some kind of humorless jackass could resist Ferdinand.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Not Gross Enough

My friend A, holding Ben (in what he would later reveal to have been his first experience holding a baby), remarked on having survived his first instance of being drooled on by a baby. And even though he's a potential member of Club Parent I desperately want not to freak out, before I could clamp my lips back over them, the words had fled: "Drool! Buddy, that's the least of your worries when it comes to baby goo."

I remember my friend T, father of four-year-old twins, describing to Andy and me when I was pregnant the stage of parenthood in which one observes a spot of dried baby poop on, say, the back of one's arm, and just goes about one's business, not feeling any kind of rush about washing it off. At the time, I was pretty sure he was exaggerating for effect.

Ben used to be a spectacular spit-up machine. One time he spit up directly into my cleavage, probably about a quarter cup of warm, milky saliva, which pooled in my bra. I did not have a burp cloth in reach. And, yeah, that was gross. But the regular spit-up, the everyday spit-up, which probably would have made me shiver with revulsion seven months ago -- whatever. It's an inconvenience. Changing diapers, unless we're talking about an amazing shitstorm (which does happen: the gooey, oozy, largely-liquid poop of the milk-only baby that's filled the diaper and then crept up the spine, saturating the onesie, which somehow has to be removed without spreading the damage), is no more gross than wiping my own ass -- and even the amazing shitstorm is basically noteworthy for the amount of tedious work it creates rather than for gross-out factor.

I've never been a terribly squeamish person, but I was a little afraid that I might be too squeamish to parent well. When you're five and you've just thrown up all over your comforter, the last thing in the world you want is a parent who's too grossed out to deal. I haven't dealt with a pukey five-year-old yet, but I now have confidence that I'll be able to do it without shuddering -- maybe even without hesitating.

Mostly the goo is just drudgery. It's not even gross enough to be exciting.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I was reading T. Berry Brazelton the other day -- the six-seven month "touchpoint", I think -- and he talks about mothers who resist introducing solid food because eating something other than breastmilk reduces their baby's dependence on them, and honestly, that just strikes me as sort of psychotic. I mean, sure, when Ben starts kindergarten or gets his driver's license, I am positive I will shed a tear for the baby who was. Even when we wean, whenever that happens, I'm sure it will make me sad no longer to share that very sweet and intimate thing with him. But I'm sure as hell not going to resist weaning when it's otherwise timely because I'm enjoying his dependence on me too much.

There's a lot I enjoy very much about motherhood, but having a tiny, precious someone wholly physically dependent on me isn't among my favorite aspects. I love nursing him because it's essentially a squirmless, fuss-free cuddle, and who could not love that? And I wouldn't consider weaning yet because I know breastfeeding continues to be the best thing for him nutritionally. But it will be nice to be able to leave him with his father for a whole day without the bother of pumps and bottles. I love holding him and squeezing him and kissing his delicious fat cheeks, but I look forward to his being able to move himself across the room.

I celebrate all his small movements towards independence because I'm proud of him and I'm fascinated by the process, but also because every one brings me closer to independence, too. Today he sat in the crook of his Boppy and smacked at cloth blocks and plastic cups and righted himself when he listed too far to starboard, and it was a huge pleasure to watch him entertain and sustain himself.

And it was a huge pleasure to sit within arm's reach but not touching, and read a book.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Essential Bookshelf

I keep meaning to grab the parenting books I like a lot and do reviews of each. And I'll get around to it eventually.

For the time being, though, I thought I'd just list 'em, and open up the floor to parent-readers to comment or list their own favorites.

Burton White, The New First Three Years of Life
American Academy of Pediatrics, Caring for your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5
Penelope Leach, Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five
Ellyn Satter, Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense

Thursday, November 13, 2008

How Is it?

My friend A, whom I hadn't seen since long before Ben was born, asked me this weekend, "So, how is it?" "It" being parenthood, life with a baby, the Brave New World. Perfectly rational, normal, polite question, right? But I don't think anyone had asked me before -- or if they had, it was back in the severely sleep-deprived first few months, and I don't remember.

I found myself flummoxed for a second. How is it? How do I even begin to evaluate? It's like asking me how I enjoy being an earthling, except of course I can remember a time when I wasn't a parent. But it's that level of all-encompassing experience, all but impossible to have the perspective to take a critical position. Which is pretty much what I said.

But I've been thinking about it. How is it? Big picture, broad strokes.

It's exhausting. Not nearly so much now as it was when the kid was around eight weeks, but still. Then, I hovered between functional and not, and the combination of the exhaustion and frustration brought me to tears several times a week at least. And I'm jinxing myself by saying so, but it's been some time now since I've felt anything but functional or parenting has made me cry. But I'm tired a lot, and I almost never wake up feeling fully rested.

It's full of joy. One of the things I've always loved about my dogs is how happy they are to see me. A beaming baby, half his face opened by a grin, puts all dog greetings to shame. And all his small accomplishments of development are sources of pride and wonder. He can pass an object from hand to hand! He can smack! He can blow raspberries! Every week there's a new tiny miracle that bowls me over not just with love and delight for him, but in the amazing and complicated process of becoming a person.

It's full of tedious work. I have to do laundry pretty much every day to keep up -- and that's with disposable diapers, which is why I'm not using cloth. (And I don't feel guilty because of this.) Changing diapers and dressing a squirmy little person and lugging him around and around the kitchen because he'll fuss if I don't -- these are not fun parenting tasks, and they occupy a big part of every day.

It connects me to the world in a new way. I have something in common with a staggering number of people, something really big and important in all our lives. This is both lovely and brutal. Lovely is the depth of fellow-feeling between me and random new parents at the grocery, the ease with which I can fall into meaningful conversation with other mothers of babies, the new richness of my relationships with friends who are or are about to be parents. Brutal is all the news stories that suddenly kneecap me, the starving and abused and lost and terrified children who are all Ben.

It is and is not what I expected. I think this is what my friend really wanted to know. He's only recently come around to the idea that maybe he wants to be a father after many years of believing strongly that he did not. You know it's going to change your life. You know it's going to be hard. But you can't really picture it, and no one can really describe it in a way that makes it real.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I think it was Penelope Leach I was reading -- anyway, the author of a parenting book was exhorting parents to talk to their babies, and to overcome feelings of embarrassment or weirdness if talking to an infant didn't come naturally to them, and for a moment I couldn't figure out what she was talking about. Embarrassment? About talking to another human? Does not compute.

But it was only a moment, and then I remembered: oh, yeah, I am a compulsive talker. I talk to my dogs. I talk to myself. A solo trip to the grocery is likely to provoke half a dozen comments to no one in particular along the lines of, "What kind of crap outfit runs out of organic yellow mustard?" Not muttered under my breath, but spoken aloud, with gusto, as if talking to an imaginary friend who might be ten or fifteen feet away. Occasionally actual humans are nearby, and assume I'm talking to them, and respond, which always takes me aback a little. I wasn't talking to you, buddy -- what am I, a crazy person, to talk to random strangers? That's not strictly true, either: I'm running a monologue, but in fact I'm delighted if strangers bust in.

So I'm happy to know that this borderline-creepy mania of mine is positively encouraged by experts in child development. Apparently language acquisition has a lot to do with general capability, and the more different words a kid hears before age three, the more likely he is to be good at things like algebra and holding down a job. In fact, this is why experts want people to read to their kids; it's not so much about books or reading per se, so much as it's about exposing the kid to words that may not be in the parents' vocabularies.

My "conversations" with Ben these days are maybe one part thinking aloud slash grocery list, one part description of what's going on (recommended by parenting experts as the sort of talk babies develop an interest in soonest), one part babble, and one part conscious use of multisyllabic, big-vocabulary words. Viz: "We're at Ikea, Ben. Mom loves Ikea. Mom misses Ikea since we moved to the damnable hinterlands. We're walking past glasses, Ben: wine glasses and juice glasses and beer glasses and I don't know what those glasses are for. Those glasses are preposterous, Ben. Those glasses are absurd and improbable. Mom needs to find table lamps, Ben. Yes Mom does. Yes Mom does. Yes Mom does."

One of these days, a tiny person -- not a stranger -- is going to bust into this monologue and turn it into a conversation, and I'm going to be so delighted I might just be speechless. For a second.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


I was in Philadelphia this weekend visiting friends on the other side of the gulf. For Sunday, the only full day I was to be in town, I had made plans to meet friends for two events: coffee at La Colombe followed by walking around in Center City, and early dinner at Pho '75.

For both events, the friends meeting us were about 45 minutes late. Under normal circumstances -- normal, in this case, being me pre-Ben, the me they're all used to (I moved away whole pregnant) -- no big deal. I might have noticed and been concerned about their safety or about confusion over location, but that's about it. With the baby in tow, though, those 45 minutes meant something else, something bigger, something I wouldn't ever expect them to be able to anticipate and so can't in any way blame them for not avoiding. Which is to say, I want to talk about it because it's an excellent example of the gulf, but I don't want any of the people involved (who constitute a significant proportion of my reading public) either to think I'm pissed off at them or to be pissed off at me.

So let me break it down. I want to be a calm person, capable of interaction and fun, and I want my kid to be happy and pleasant to be around. The best way -- in fact, the only way -- for that to happen is for the interaction to take place as soon as possible after A) a nap and B) a meal. From the moment the kid wakes up and comes off the nipple, the clock is ticking on his mood. The first hour is gravy: almost guaranteed great mood. Smiles, self-entertainment, total propaganda baby. He is at his most pleasant and, if even pleasant babies aren't your cup of tea, his most ignorable during this stage.

After an hour, things get iffy. Sometimes I can turn the crab around by nursing him, but nursing itself can make plenty of childless people uncomfortable, and my aim here is to make things more comfortable for all of us. After two hours, even if I've managed to nurse him, keeping the crab at bay requires active intervention: walking, bouncing, holding and retrieving toys, etc., and even those things may not work. And even if they do, I can't help but be aware that though he may be distracted from his discomfort, my kid is now uncomfortable.

If we're in public, especially in a place like a restaurant, where my kid pitching a fit has an impact on other people trying to enjoy themselves, I am constantly aware of the impending need to decamp suddenly, interrupting the meals of everybody in my party, if the crab becomes without warning a full-on hysterical scream-fest, the likelihood of which increases with every minute.

If it happens to be bedtime, then this kind of distraction and prolonging of wakefulness is also just about guaranteeing that he's not going to fall asleep easily, or sleep well -- which means I may not have the two or three hours of evening freedom his early bedtime allows me, nor the luxurious four-hour stretches of sleep between feedings that come with undisturbed sleep for him.

So the bottom line is those 45 minutes bit a significant chunk out of my ability both to enjoy those visits and to be myself enjoyable.

All of this is hardly news to anyone who has ever parented a five-month-old. And none of it would have occurred to me before I had one myself. And more than that, even after hearing the (tedious) explanation, I'm not at all sure that my reaction wouldn't have been a little impatient and judgey: uptight parent, can't just go with the flow a little, what a drag. Which is exactly what I don't want my friends to think I've become, which is exactly why I picked times and places carefully and shaped naptimes and nursings as best I could to avoid a situation in which I would have to become uptight parent who can't go with the flow. What a drag.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


The sad truth is that I was a lot less engaged this time around. Partly it was because I felt burned the last two elections, after putting quite a lot of time and effort into volunteering and campaigning and paying close attention and getting my hopes up. Partly it was because my focus shifted substantially to being pregnant and moving from Philadelphia to upstate New York and giving birth and parenting an infant. Most of which, I'd like to point out, is also the world's work, not that that lets me off the hook.

I voted for Obama, and I'm delighted that he won. Mostly I'm delighted because he strikes me as intelligent and kind, the two qualities I prize most in both the people I love and the people I want to follow. That he's also funny, handsome, and a hell of a speaker is delicious gravy.

I'm also delighted and moved that my son will not remember an America in which an African-American had never been president. It's an unalloyed pleasure to mark so happy a milestone in history, to know that we as a country have made a step forward that can't be undone, and that rather than making us all angry -- as irrevocable steps forward in history often do -- it's made most of us well up with tears of joy.

However. There's an element of unexamined smugness and complacency in some of the celebrations of victory that bothers me. As if all that needs done to climb out of the giant mess we're in is to elect this charismatic fellow and give ourselves a nice pat on the back. There's work to be done, everybody, and Obama can't do it alone. Prejudice has been dealt a body blow, but then, well, Proposition 8 passed in California. We're still mired in two bloody wars and a terrifying economic collapse, and, as Jon Stewart so eloquently said, "Hope don't park your motherfucking car."

And another thing: please don't say it's the first time you've been proud to be an American. It's not zero-sum. There's no balance sheet proclaiming that pride must outweigh shame in order to count -- and even if there were, do you really think that one election wipes out everything on the wrong side of that balance? And if you've never been proud to belong to a group whose members have produced The Simpsons for nearly two decades, made more charitable donations than most of the rest of the world put together, invented most of the things that make modern life fun, and got up from their television sets the morning of September 11th and got in line to give blood, well, go ahead and shove your pride where the sun don't shine, because you have no sense of what to be proud of.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Unkind Sympathy

My friend Carrie has a son and daughter in grade school and three-month-old triplets. When they go out in public, they turn heads, and uncomfortable as that may be to a family of (mostly) introverts, it's nothing compared to the rude and unthinking things people say. When they went as a family to their polling place yesterday, one woman told Carrie she spoke for every woman in the room when she offered her condolences. Condolences! On a passel of healthy children! And we're not talking about a whisper to Carrie alone -- no, we're talking about loud enough that not only the children could hear, but others around could take note of how the stranger assumes their mother wishes they'd never been born. On another occasion, a woman told her she'd have killed herself if she found out she was having triplets.

I'm sure it makes quite an impression, the young mother dealt three of a kind in five card draw. I understand the impulse to reach out, to offer support and sympathy for the sort of extreme parenting most of us never have to contemplate. But finish the thought, people! It is possible to offer support and even sympathy without implying -- let alone stating outright -- to the children that they're an unduly onerous burden.

May I suggest "God bless you," a gold standard among things to say to mothers of babies for a very good reason: it conveys all of "you poor thing" while also bestowing an actual blessing. Or, if you're an orthodox atheist or have some other reason to resist invoking even the most metaphorical almighty, you could just tell her they're beautiful and she's clearly doing a great job, which is always true, even if it isn't.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Happy Halloween!

He's going as a vegetable garden because it occurred to me a couple of weeks ago that his green Zutano cozie overalls look like grass, and we happen to have a set of baby vegetable toys to pin on. The only thing I had to buy was the pumpkin hat.

I resist store-bought costumes. It's not because I had a childhood full of perfect creations whipped up my mom on the sewing machine. She probably did at least once or twice, though she worked full-time, and certainly I remember my grandmother being pressed into service as a seamstress for a marvelous 18th century ("Martha Washington") dress that didn't get the exposure it deserved because it was one of those razor-blade-crazy, Halloween-is-canceled years. Mostly I remember Halloween costumes as more-elaborate dress-up. I was a gypsy more years than I can count because it meant wearing, like, six skirts layered and half my mom's costume jewelry, which was just about as great as a bagful of candy. Some years I left off the jewelry and added a shawl and kerchief and was a pioneer girl, which meant that I could carry one of my mom's good willow baskets over my arm -- I always liked when I could incorporate the candy receptacle believably into the costume. More important than the authenticity of the bag, though, was finding a way to make lots of layers essential, so that I didn't have to wear a jacket over my gypsy or pioneer or whatever else gear and thus ruin the whole thing.

If when Ben is older and can exert his own will about costumes, he wants to be a store-bought Spiderman or whatever, I'm not going to argue. Less work for mother, as my mother always used to say. But I'll be happy if, at least some years, Halloween means raiding all our closets and finding the fantastic in the familiar.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

48 Nicknames

The ones based on his name: Ben, Benjababy, Benjababyman, Benjamanius, deBenjamanius, Binyamin.

The ones based on animals of varying cuteness: Bunny, Bunny-Pie, Bunny-Bear, Baby-Bear, Monkey, Monkey-Baby, Baby-Monkey, Monkey-Dunk, Monkelly-Dunk, Monkey-Pie, Cheeky-Monkey, Kitten, Chicken, Fresh-Young-Chicken.

The ones based on his physical attributes: Cheeks, Cheeky, Cheeky-Cheeky, Baby-Butt.

The ones based on his age/status: Kid, Kiddo, Baby, Baby-Child, Baby-Face, Boy, Baby-Faced-Boy, The-Boy

The ones based on foods of varying deliciousness: Pumpkin, Pumpkin-Pie, Muffin, Pumpkin-Muffin, Dumpling, Apple-Dumpling, Honey, Honey-Bunch, Honey-Pie

The ones based on usual endearments: Sweetheart, Sweetie-Pie, Love, Little-Love

The one from before he was born (ret.): Spike

The one based on his father's inability to distinguish him from one of the dogs: Person-Hugo (as opposed to the dog, who has acquired "Dog-Ben")

When I write them all out, we sound like crazy people. In Andy's defense, at least 90% of these are mine exclusively.


I'm in the midst of figuring out how to outfit my kid for winter in upstate NY. Born the last day of May, Ben has spent his entire life barefoot, and I am just now figuring out that, for instance, socks only stay on a baby's feet with shoes to anchor them -- and that's if the baby in question plays ball.

Anyway, I've been looking at outerwear of various sorts a lot in the last couple of days, trying to guess what size the kid will be by the time he needs some kind of climber's bunting, and I've noticed that a surprisingly large proportion of baby cold-weather headgear comes with ears. Well, OK, I've noticed that all of Zutano's "cozie" hats come with ears, and so do L.L. Bean's fleece coveralls. They're even the same kind of ears.

I'm not immune to the appeal of babies with animals ears. One of the only items of clothing I bought before my son was born, long before he was even conceived, in fact, was a hat with bunny ears. I just find it a little strange for manufacturers to decide an entire design run of a fairly basic item needs -- or would sell better with -- ears.

Let me put it this way: why not tails?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Gulf States

It's a touchy subject for everybody, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

Is there anything more patronizing than "You couldn't understand"? I don't think I was actually ever told this by a parent back when I was childless, but that's probably because my only friend with children for years and years was far too thoughtful to say such things. And for what it's worth, I haven't had to bite my own tongue to keep from saying it to any of my childless friends, but that's probably because they're all too nice to criticize my parenting.

And yet. I feel the gulf opening, widening. There's the innocent suggestion we all go out to dinner. Yeah, unless you're talking about Cracker Barrel and an exit strategy, no, just no. There's the expression on their faces when I hit a certain level of detail about my son's sleep patterns. There's my sudden impatience, best unexpressed, that they get the hell on with it and have babies already (Chromosomal abnormalities! Difficulty conceiving! There's no good time! I need someone else to talk to about nipple pain!), as I now wish I had done five years earlier, knowing now what I blithely ignored then. There's my dread that I'm turning into one of those people who can only talk about parenthood (Did I blog any of my previous interests? I did not.), even though I'm perfectly aware that I still care a lot about important things like foreign policy and Top Chef.

The pleasant thing about the gulf, though, is that those of us on this side of it do cling together with new warmth and understanding. I never felt any particular solidarity with other childless adults, but I grin stupidly at other parents with babies at Target and wish them well from the bottom of my heart. There is a new depth and complexity in my relationship with Carrie, my best friend. We've been BFFs for more than half our lives, and I feel closer to her now than I ever have before.

I'm not afraid of losing the friends on the other side. The gulf is more of a crick; we can still reach across it for RPGs, for gossip, for family drama, for history, for bitching about Battlestar Galactica's absurdly long hiatuses. And I'm confident that the gulf will matter less when parenting isn't such a raw experience, when my kid spends more time in school than in my arms, when I've had a little more time to get used to the whole idea of being somebody's mom.

Plus, I hear a lot of talk lately from certain quarters about plans to ford the gulf. I promise to be patient. I just want you to know I'm waiting on the other side with a towel and dry clothes and lots and lots and lots to say about nipple pain.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Your Mama Wears Birkenstocks.

Whither Mommy? It's all Moms and Mamas these days, or so it seems. My own mother ("Mom," but "Mommy" back in the day) referred to me as "Mommy" to my son a bunch of times before I had to say something. I figured she'd catch on eventually that that's not the word I use for myself, but I found it grating enough that I couldn't wait.

I'm Mom. And for some reason that I can't pin down, being called "Mommy" really bugs. I mean, if Ben starts calling me "Mommy," I'm not about to correct him, and I imagine I'll think it's pretty cute, given the preponderance of evidence that I think nearly everything this child does is cute. But until then, I resist. And if I have to come up with a reason, the closest I can come is that it's infantilizing -- which I recognize is ridiculous, since my child is an actual infant. But it strikes me as icky, syrupy, like talking to your spouse in baby-talk.

But as "Mom," I think I'm in the minority, at least among mothers I know. Most of them are "Mama." It seems to be a phenomenon of the crunchy left, but maybe my sample is just skewed. The first person of my generation I noticed calling herself "Mama" was my friend Michele, who, tragically, isn't around to ask about it. I'd place her on the fringes of the range of crunchy, and probably leftish though not very political. I thought it was maybe a family tradition or a selected bit of quirkiness, like how she had her daughter call female family friends "Tante."

But then it started cropping up all over, this Mama thing. It didn't acquire a patina of ew for me until I started occasionally rubbernecking (via this thread at TPW) at the train wreck that is the Mothering Dot Com Forums. To be fair, most of what's there is perfectly sensible and well-in-the-range-of-normal discussion, but the outliers are a doozy. (Don't bother looking for the carnage if you're an outsider: the juicy threads are in folders to which only trusted users have access.) It's your basic crunchy parenting stuff (cloth diapering, breastfeeding, big love for Dr. Sears) with forays into the mildly icky (family cloth), the might-be-ok-if-not-practiced-by-idiots (unschooling), the science-averse (refusing to vaccinate), the disturbing (advice about how to keep CPS off your scent), and the truly terrifyingly stupid (UC VBAC). From the mildly crunchy to the wildly unhinged on this board, though, they nearly all call themselves "Mama." It's a kind of shibboleth of adherence to principles of crunchiness, and it's this connotation of the word that grates on me.

Otherwise, it's a perfectly cromulent word. It seems of a piece with "Mommy," though not nearly so treacly, in its embrace of the infantile: "ma-ma," after all, is among every baby's first words. Mommies grow up to be Moms, though, which I suspect Mamas do not. "Mama" suggests something vaguely European, which may be part of its appeal: both babyish and strangely sophisticated. Nobody would accuse Mommy of belonging to the cosmopolitan Old World.

Some part of the adoption of "Mama" is the rejection of "Mom," of course, which used to be -- and still is in lots of places -- the gold standard. So what's wrong with "Mom"? Too mainstream? Too attached to apple pie in that oft-cited American twosome? For what it's worth, Dad doesn't seem to have been replaced. Dad is still Dad.

I find amusing the Baby Boomer Grandmother's agonizing search for a term for herself other than "Grandma." She's no "Grandma"! She's too hip, too rockin', too full of vim and verve and zest and other things that mean life and contain unusual letters. She's Nana or Oma or the word for grandmother in other various languages. (I shamed my own mother with this argument into accepting "Grandma," and I think she's ok with it.) But I wonder whether it isn't the same forces at work on BBG's daughter: "Mom" is simply not awesome enough to contain her.

Kate Quinn vs. Carter's

I got two Kate Quinn baby bodysuits at my shower, and they were absolutely my favorite of the first batch of clothes Ben wore. I ordered him a couple of outfits recently, and of all the clothes in his still-too-big drawer (most of which, at this point, I picked out myself), they're the ones I'm most eager for him to grow into. The colors are lovely, the cotton soft and sturdy, and best of all, there's nothing cutesy or over-embellished: just solid colors, some with contrast piping.

Why doesn't a company like Carter's follow this lead? I've been very pleased with the quality (softness, sturdiness) of Carter's footie pyjamas, for instance, but it's a matter picking the least objectionable cartoon creature appliqué with the least objectionable caption ("Daddy's Lil So-and-So," etc.), and while I'm sure Carter's has done the market research necessary to determine that a significant majority of their customer base wuvs da widdle dinosaws, could they please, please consider throwing a bone to the rest of us? Surely even fans of the appliqués might also like just a nice, plain -- or go crazy: stripy! -- footie pyjama, too.

Because, hell, while I'm a huge fan of Kate Quinn and absolutely support the use of organic fibers, at $19 a pop, I just can't talk myself into many long-sleeved kimono bodysuits, no matter how much I adore them. I sent the link to Kate Quinn to my mother and mother-in-law, hoping to direct some of their considerable generosity in this happy direction, but I'm not holding out a lot of hope. After all, it feels more satisfying to get five items for your fifty bucks than to get two, whether gift or not.

Edit: Target's Circo brand does actually have very nice unembellished footie pyjamas in various stripes and prints. Sadly, their biggest size is 9 mo., which Ben is already outgrowing.

Further edit: I had no idea Carter's was heading into what looks like a major consumer product safety brouhaha over its tagless tags, which are apparently giving a small number of babies reactions ranging from contact dermatitis to severe chemical burns. Thanks, Kathy, for alerting me to the news.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hope and Promise

From the time Ben was a few weeks old, he has found the outdoors pleasurable and soothing. Sometimes when he's particularly fussy and refuses to be content with me sitting anywhere else, he's completely at peace if I sit on the stoop with him. I don't know if it's the air or the sense of space or the clouds and trees or some other thing I haven't thought of.

Recently it's become chilly enough that heading outdoors isn't as simple or quick as it was a month ago, but we've found that he likes to look at the bird feeder through the window every bit as much, and finds it just as soothing. It helps that the feeder is only about six feet from the window, so the birds (and squirrels and chipmunks) are large as life. He'll stare at the little woodland scene for twenty or thirty minutes at a stretch, completely content, utterly absorbed.

Some day he'll be happily successful as a wildlife biologist or painter of trees or bird handler to the stars, and he'll roll his eyes when I trot out this blog post and say, "See? I knew it all along!" It's fun to play "What Will the Kid Be?" because the possibilities are limitless, and it's a wonderful meditation of hope and promise.

The obverse of that notion is something I had never thought about before having a child. Everybody you've ever known, everybody you've ever heard of, was once a baby. Somebody burped Julia Child. Alan Greenspan was somebody's precious little muffin. Keith Richards stopped somebody's heart with gummy baby smiles.

I mean, of course, right? I didn't think Mr. Beitman, principal of my middle school, burst from his father's head full-grown or stepped ashore wave-kissed from a clamshell. But it's about as easy to imagine him arriving as a Greek goddess as to imagine him as the very embodiment of hope and promise, let alone with smoochable toes.

Downhill from Here.

Now that Benjamin is in his Ergo or his umbrella stroller when we're out, now that he looks (apart from the absence of teeth) like an eight- or nine-month-old, strangers seem generally content to bless us or remark upon the cuteness of his cheeks. But when he was in his baby bucket stroller, one of the things people said to us most often was, "Enjoy this! It's all downhill from here."

It was really hard not to slap them.

For one thing, we were so sleep-deprived and frantic that it was a miracle we appeared in public at all. The idea that this hazy, half-drunken state of barely functional uprightness represented the apex of parenting joy was so thoroughly disheartening that a few times I came this close to bursting into tears. In more rational moments, I chalked up the substance of their comments to amnesia or inexperience: they either didn't remember what six weeks was like, or they'd had those babies who slept.

But what kind of asshole picks, among all the things in the universe to say to new parents, that they will never enjoy their child as much again? Even if it were true! It's as if upon hearing that you were heading off to college, people invariably told you that orientation was great, but classes and dorm life and research and independence? Garbage. What do you say in response? Um, thanks for the heads-up? I was often tempted to condole them on their sad, unhappy relationships with their children. You'd think that was presumptuous, but it's kind compared to telling someone she's facing a lifetime of misery.

I wish they could say what they really mean. Not "It's all downhill from here," but "He'll never be this tiny little creature again." Time only goes forward. Even if time moves you from sleeplessness and agonizing incompetence to something considerably more rested and happy and secure (which, thank heavens, it does), there's a kind of tragedy in not being able to visit, even for a moment, a stage of your child's life that will never come again.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Advice #1: It's Just a Phase.

I am 35, and yet, astoundingly, I have only one close friend in my age cohort with children. Carrie got married right out of college, and had kids when I was still closing bars and bouncing checks. Her children are smart and happy and pleasant to be around, and so it's not just because I love her that I seek her advice on parenting.

She gave me lots of great advice during the hellish and wonderful (but hellish) first three month's of Ben's life, most of which I immediately forgot because of the sleep deprivation. At some point I floated the bazillionth theory about why the boy was having another episode of horribly short sleep stretches, and she said, basically, "It may be that. But one of the things I've learned as a parent is that a lot of the time, it's just a phase, and it's not something you can explain or solve." She went on to encourage me to keep attempting to explain and solve, because at least it's good practice, but not to feel that every problem has a solution, nor that failure on my part to find it is, well, a failure on my part.

What a relief.

We Ferberized Ben about a month ago, and for the most part, it's been an astounding success. But last week, we hit a new snag. He would wake up sometime between 2:00 and 4:00 AM and be absolutely unable to go back to sleep for an hour and a half. One by one, we eliminated all the theories and solutions: it was not because he had a cold, because he'd had his four-month vaccinations, because I'd started doing a dream feed at 10:00, because the room was too cold or too hot, or because he was hungry. We changed the timing of naps, the timing of bedtime, the timing of the dream feed. We turned on (or did not turn on) the plinky-plink-music aquarium toy to keep him company while we attempted to steal back fifteen minutes of sleep. No matter what we did or didn't do, the kid woke up sometime between 2:00 and 4:00 and couldn't get back to sleep for an hour and a half.

Last night we ran out of stuff to try. We made up our minds: we were just going to have to power through it, however long it took, doing the best we could.

The kid woke up once at 1:00 AM to nurse and then slept through to morning (albeit a very early morning) -- our very first night of only one wake-up.

It's a Blog!

Very soon after my son was born I found myself with lots of opinions and advice, and too few people in my real life upon which to bestow this bounty. I am clearly not alone in this feeling; there are a lot of mom blogs. There may well be more mom blogs than people who read mom blogs.

By nature I am not a bloggish writer. I tend to obsess and edit and re-edit and go on at great length over-explaining and giving too many examples. Maybe the blog form will teach me a thing or two about letting go and being terse.