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.