Friday, January 29, 2010

Themes Cornball and Otherwise

I remember being offended, before I had a kid, at the idea that I couldn't possibly know what it was like to have a kid. I'd been a kid. I'd been in love. I'd had vulnerable and beloved creatures in my care. And I had powers of empathy and imagination. So, sure, I couldn't know exactly what it was like, but surely I could imagine something close enough that my opinion wasn't totally discountable, right? The thing is, now that I am a parent, I really can't remember what I thought it was going to be like, so I have no idea how close my imagination got. My sense is: not very.

For one thing, loving my child is simply not like any other love I've felt before. It's not just a different flavor; it's a totally different food. Sure, it has things in common with loving a spouse, loving a parent, loving a pet -- it's still love. But it's profoundly different. Nobody else's suffering or delight could come close to affecting me the way his does. He belongs to me and I belong to him in a way that's nothing like the connection I feel to other people I love. (And that's not to disparage my other relationships. I have good, close connections to the important people in my life.)

I'm also responsible for him in a way that's unlike any other relationship. It's a responsibility that's hardwired, that I actually feel physically. The sound of him crying out in genuine anguish (as opposed to frustration, discomfort, boredom, or any of the other smaller unhappinesses that are immediately distinguishable from real trouble) isn't just a sound; it's like a klaxon in my spinal cord. But it's not just that. It's always being aware of him, even if we're not in the same town, even if I'm not actively thinking about him. It's like I have radar in the back of my mind, and the little blip that's Ben is always there, blinking.

Being a parent also connects me to the world in a new way, and more profoundly. Partly it's just having a bigger stake, I think, though you'd have thought being alive was a pretty big stake to start with. But it's really not -- not compared to being responsible for a small and completely precious person. For one thing, I don't think it would even have occurred to me to consider what my stake in the world was before I had a kid. So it's that, and it's sharing a deeply meaningful experience with the majority of humanity. In a very real way, I have something in common with parents in Khartoum, in Osaka, in Helsinki. For that matter, I have something in common with leopard mothers and chickadee mothers and coyote mothers. And I'm not talking about some goofball intellectual exercise; this is something I feel pretty deeply, something that's changed the way I exist in the world. And there's something else, harder to define: when it comes to passage-of-life stuff, there's a sweet in the sad and a sad in the sweet that I never felt before. German probably has a word for this mournful joy, but I don't. It's a bit like stepping back so far to see the forest that suddenly you see that joy and mourning are part of the same thing, a connectedness, an investment in the world, an expression of love.

It's tough to talk about any of this without sounding pretty colossally cornball. But I find that I don't care all that much about whether I sound cornball. And I really have no idea whether other parents feel the same way. I imagine there are as many different ways to experience parenthood as there are ways to experience romantic love, if not more. But we all hear about romantic love all the time. It's in every song, in every book, in every movie. People talk about falling in love and falling out of love, and we all have lots of words to describe the stages and problems and joys and minutiae of romantic love. And yes, we talk about parenting, one parent to another, and there are books of advice and instruction, and God knows there are blogs. But it's not the same.

My friend C., the domestic theologian, was looking for examples of literature about motherhood. Can you think of any? It's difficult to think of examples of mother characters, let alone examples where the mother is the protagonist and motherhood is a dominant theme. Kristin Lavransdatter was pretty much the only real example anyone could come up with. For a profound human experience, that's a pretty big gap in the market. I think talking about the big-picture, major-theme stuff of parenthood feels corny because it's been more or less exclusively the province of greeting cards and inspirational wall-hangings. Which I just so fundamentally don't understand. I look to literature to help explain my world, and it's like I just fell in love for the first time, and no one had ever written a book or made a movie about romantic love. And worse than that: that the very idea of taking romantic love seriously as a literary theme was kind of laughable and embarrassing.

So, a couple of things. First, everybody should immediately read Kristin Lavransdatter, which is a great (and I mean Great in the sense of Major Work of World Literature, as well as great in the sense of really wonderful) book, apart from being the only book I've ever read in which the protagonist's breast-feeding matters to the story. Second, and I mean this seriously: What the fuck? Why isn't there a canon of literature on the theme of parenthood to match the theme of romantic love? Is it as simple and stupid as the lack of female authors? And the fact that until pretty recently, women who wrote books tended to be women who didn't have children? I can sort of accept that explanation, except that fatherhood is pretty profound, too, so where are the themes of fatherhood in our glorious literature of the patriarchy?

It's a head-scratcher.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Evolution of a Shower

1. Pre-baby. A shower is a shower. When pregnant, it bugged me not to take very hot showers, which I prefer. (Lots of heat is supposed to be bad for the baby.) I am a homebody and a slob, so my usual shower routine is Day 1: shower; Day 2: no shower; Day 3: shower (but only if I have to leave the house). The upshot of which is I'm not the sort of person whose nose is going to be out of joint over two or three days without a shower, nor am I the sort of person who would generally choose to shower before, say, watching another episode of not-terribly good TV.

2. Newborn. Suddenly a shower was the holy grail, especially once Andy went back to work after two weeks. He would come home from work and I would head up for a shower, and it was untold bliss. It wasn't just that the shower itself was pleasant. It wasn't just that it was time alone. It was that if the baby was crying, not only was it not my problem, but I couldn't even hear it. Bliss! I still remember the sensation of turning the water off and listening for crying, and the relief when there was silence.

Some babies like being in the room while you're showering. They like the white noise and, apparently, the steam. Not Ben. I tried it once or twice, putting him in his laundry-basket bassinet or his bouncy seat, and he shrieked his baby head off. Oooooooh-kay, then.

3. Settled Baby. Now that the kid was napping reliably, I could put him down and then take the monitor with me into the bathroom. The trouble was, his nap time was my only freedom, and I hated to waste it on showering when I could be watching mediocre television or reading the Intertubes. Once he was crawling, I tried bringing him into the bathroom again, this time unrestrained, with all hatches battened of course, and an armload of toys. No dice. He'd be fine for a little while and then he'd get upset. I think it was the steam that bugged him. Mean mommy that I am, I still did it to him about half the time, alternating with naptime showers.

4. Toddler. When Ben was around 12 months and her son was around 18 months, I asked my friend S how she handled showering. She said she left him running around free while she showered. That had not occurred to me. I don't think I moved to free-range showering for a while -- certainly not until he was a well established walker -- but that was where we ended up and where we've stayed. He has access to the bathroom, his bedroom, and the upstairs hallway that connects them. If he wants me, he can come get me, and he can't get far enough away that I can't hear him if he's yelling.

At first he found that upsetting, too. He'd come stand by the tub and scream and cry for a minute or two, then get distracted by some mischief and disappear. It took maybe half a dozen iterations before he was totally fine with the routine. One time I heard his door slam and so had to leap out sopping wet and rescue him from his room. After that, I learned to block all doors. He went through a (mercifully brief) phase of bringing books and toys and trying to chuck them into the shower with me. He went through a (long, but now sadly over) phase of running down the hall as soon as the he heard the water stop to come stand in the doorway and applaud.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Toy Story

Hasbro Playskool Busy Gears

This probably isn't in his top five anymore, but it's notable because I can't get over how evergreen it has been. His Grandma Kath sent it to him about a year ago if I'm not mistaken, and it has been among his favorite toys since the day it arrived. I'd say his interest in it peaked around 15 months. I would never have pegged it as an engine of inventive play, or a toy that would have unfolded over the months with different ways of interacting with it. It looks so one-dimensional!

You push the button, and music plays while the center cog turns, which turns the other cogs. The center one is attached to the toy; the others are removable (and stackable, though that doesn't seem to add anything to his enjoyment).

When he was tiny, he just liked taking all the cogs off and chewing on them. I would push the button for him occasionally, and he liked that well enough that he learned to do it himself. (And the music isn't bad, for a mass-market kid toy -- it might be the least annoying music-making toy in the house.) He then went through stages of mastery of manipulating the cogs in various ways: putting them back onto their nubs, sticking his fingers in the way so they can't move (it makes a different noise when the cogs are blocked), etc. Lately his interest is in putting things on the main cog so that they spin around or fall off. He's been experimenting with that for a while now.

Peg Puzzles

It's like he woke up one morning about a month ago and suddenly had peg puzzle mastery. He'd had a couple of the really big chunky ones for a few months, which mostly got handled and chewed and their pieces misplaced, but he never showed much interest in "solving" them. Then one day I got out of the shower and found him poring over one of the 8-9 piece puzzles (also presents from his Grandma Kath) that had been sitting on a bookshelf in his bedroom for month unnoticed. That was that. I found the others -- I'd put them away months ago -- and suddenly he was solving them in a flash and yelling for more.

Melissa and Doug, who made the four we had at first, seem annoyingly to be have added sounds or music to their classic 9-piece puzzles (like the one above), when one of the best things about puzzles as far as I'm concerned is that they're quiet! So we hit Target and found an armload of Circo puzzles instead.

Cars, Trucks, and Buses

Since his colossal interest in all things vehicular first manifested a few months ago, he's built up quite a collection in various materials and scales, from Matchbox cars to a wooden dump truck that was mine as a toddler and probably weighs ten pounds. He has the fabulous little Plan buses with smooth-running rubber wheels at left, and he has a seriously irritating Fisher Price schoolbus that makes a dozen different noises that all make you want to kill yourself. (And, wow, did Little People ever get super-lame.)

It's hard to say which among these are his favorites. He has affairs with certain ones for a few days and then casts them aside for others. He does in fact take them to bed -- the smaller ones, anyway. At bedtime and naptime, he picks one or two to take upstairs. He doesn't cuddle them, but they do appear to be essential to the going-to-sleep process somehow.

My favorites, of course, are the ones that don't make noise and don't have pieces that come off and need to be incessantly replaced.

Friday, January 15, 2010


I hear these rumors of toddlers who eke out an existence on a couple of crackers and a fish-stick per day. Not my kid. Ben is and has always been a food enthusiast.

I've been giving him portions of what we eat for dinner fairly regularly, sometimes supplemented by a cup of steamed broccoli or peas if a green vegetable isn't on the menu for the adults. I'm constantly surprised by the things he decides he loves. Like chili. I make fairly spicy chili, and it might be his favorite food. Generally he's not a big fan of meat, but if it comes in the form of chili, stand the hell back. He will yell for more so long as we're still at the table.

Mostly I'm happy with how he eats. He's open to new things, he has a lot of favorites that include mom-favorites like broccoli and veggie burgers, and he's thoroughly engaged by food, so he's pretty easy-going at restaurants. His pediatrician approves, so I'm not concerned that he's overeating. A worry pings me now and then, though, that he doesn't have an off switch. If he likes something he's eating, he wants to go on eating it well past when he must be full. He will go on clamoring for chili until physically removed from the table -- though, at that point, he is perfectly content to give up his demands and move on to the next thing.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Co-Sleep / No-Sleep

We didn't co-sleep. Ben slept in a co-sleeper until he was around four months, then we moved him to his crib in his room. (For those of you who haven't geared up an infant in the last ten years, "co-sleeping" is putting the baby in bed with you, and a "co-sleeper" is a bassinet with three sides that attaches to the side of your bed so the baby is in reach but not actually in bed with you.)

I'm not philosophically opposed to co-sleeping, but it wasn't an option for me for a couple of reasons. One, I love pillows and blankets, and the recommendation for safety when co-sleeping with a newborn is not to have either. It seemed to me that the comfort offered by co-sleeping would be significantly reduced by stripping our bed. I didn't relish kicking out the dogs, either. Also, I like very much to read or watch TV in bed. At some point, I assumed, this child would be going to sleep before 9:00, and what was I going to do, headphones and booklights? This is my time to unwind, and the furtiveness would have bugged me. Possibly the biggest con for me, though, was the stories I'd heard of people trying to get toddlers or big kids into their own beds and having a hard time with it. Discipline and making big, uncomfortable, "for-your-own-good" transitions are so very much not my bag. It seemed easier, even during the hell of a sleep-resistant infancy, to buck up and Ferberize rather than buckle and co-sleep.

I had friends at the time who were co-sleeping, and whose babies (and therefore whole families) slept great. I envied them their rest. Now, though, while Ben reliably sleeps through and requires at most a brief redirect (usually a cuddle in the rocking chair), most of those kids are having a tough time with the transition to their own rooms, which in a few cases corresponded unfortunately with the arrival of a new sibling. I also know former co-sleepers whose transitions were seamless, though it seems less common, just like I know families who transitioned to a crib and sleeping through without incident. (I should say I'm more or less conflating co-sleeping with other forms of not sleep training. If you, say, lie down with your toddler in his room for an hour so that he can fall asleep, I'm lumping you in with the co-sleepers.)

So it seems to me that it's a trade-off. At some point, presuming you eventually want the child in her own room, she will need to learn to put herself to sleep there, and put herself back to sleep when she wakes up there. No matter when it happens, whether in infancy or later, it is a tough lesson to learn, and it's tough on the whole household. I think you should do what works for your family, but it seems to me that there's a positive benefit to getting this unhappy stage over with sooner rather than later, especially if another baby is going to enter the scene.