Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year's resolutions: But first a word from our sponsor

Sometimes your resolve just isn’t strong enough, and a resolution is in order ...

Dear Ittybit,

All the books say BABIES should NEVER under ANY circumstance watch TV before they are the age of two. NEVER!!!! And while there are ample studies to show early television viewing is rewiring our kids for the worse, new studies are showing we parents are using it more and more.

And so it is with complete mortification that I add the bane of the 20 and 21st centuries to the list of colossally bad parenting skills I’ve adopted in raising you: Television is sometimes your babysitter.

Your first friend — Elmo (who you quickly jilted for Ernie, and then Clifford, and now Curious George) — knocked on the door asking if you could come out to play when you were only one. I let him in.

While I hated his syrupy cloying voice, his insane giggle and his megalomaniacal insistence on referring to himself in the third person, I loved that with him around I could unload the dishwasher, fold laundry or use the bathroom in peace.
When you were sick, he comforted you. When you were sad he cheered you. When you were done with him, you moved on.

Did I teach you to be fickle, too?

Sure, there are a lot of hazards one might surmise that might come from television viewing, the least of which include eye strain and an insufferable urge to pester parental units into purchasing a veritable fortune of otherwise forgettable merchandise.

The television can literally kill them. This is not a joke.

On average, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, six children die each year as a result of televisions falling on them and thousands more are injured from falling furniture. Not surprisingly, 85 percent of the parents whose children were injured in this manner didn't know it was possible.

Let's face it, although serious and tragic, few of us parental unit-types are worried about a 40-lb hunk of plastic, metal and glass flattening our kids.

We're concerned with whether television viewing will lower your IQ while increasing your waistlines and violent tendencies.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, however, we're also worried about whether we'll have to miss Sopranos because of Sesame Street.

And to that end, we're putting television in our kids' rooms so we can watch our shows.

This just makes me want to throw out our TVs ... All seven of them.
Some, like your dad, blame their adult television addictions squarely on the shoulders of their parents, or more accurately their upbringing, which forbade television viewing early on and restricted it later in their development.

Yet, your father takes pride in his resourcefulness in overcoming the boundaries keeping him from pre-teen zombification — ruses which included writing a lengthy, scholarly paper to plead his case on "Why I Should be Allowed to Watch Television for the Good of My Education" and fashioning a replacement cable when his mother removed (and hid) the power cord while she was at work.

I imagine you will have some of his talent in this area when you grow older, Ittybit.

I, on the other hand, hail from a family of television connoisseurs — hearty people who relished every second of "Barney Miller," "St. Elsewhere" and "My So Called Life." Our television set was on non-stop whether anyone was watching or not. Oddly enough, television doesn't often hold my interest. I find myself turning it on as background noise so I can safely get lost in the warm glow of my computer. The computer, as you know, is my addiction.

The truth is, neither of us is good at pulling away from any form of media once our interest is caught, be they magazines, books or even the mail. ... But we're working on it, I promise.



Sunday, December 24, 2006

With a blink and a nod, Merry Christmas

I was reminded recently of all the earthy-crunchy, we-are-parents-hear-us-roar mantras that swirl around raising children these days when I read a story about a woman whose sister-in-law refused to lie to her children about the existence of such a being as the jolly old elf, Santa Claus.

"How can I expect my children to trust and believe in me if I tell them lies about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy?" she wondered with a tone that implied superior parenting prowess.

The worst part was that as the sister-in-law's children grew up, their mother's distain for lies made it imperative for them to tell their younger, Santa-believing cousins the "truth."

I could only imagine the dread of attending family gatherings after it becomes clear there's always someone waiting in the wings to rain on the parade. It's almost as though kindness must take a back seat to honesty at every turn, and "I'm just telling you the truth" are the magic words that erase the onus of responsibility for hurt feelings.

I have to be honest. I never gave too much thought about whether or not we'd tell Ittybit about Santa.

A benevolent grandfatherly gentleman, who, against the forces of nature and with the help of eight tiny reindeer, each year somehow manages to circle the globe on a single day delivering presents to children everywhere ... chimney or not ... milk and cookies or not. What’s not to love?

My mother told me once that she remembered seeing Santa Claus from the top of her staircase one night when she was a child. She told me how magical it felt to know, really KNOW, that Santa was real. Back then I thought she was probably the luckiest kid in the world to have seen the great and powerful Claus.

I never SAW the "real" Santa for myself. I knew that the men in the 70's era pictures with me and my sister perched on their laps were all stand-ins. The "real" Santa was much too busy at the North Pole getting ready for his big night to be sitting in a fir hut at the mall. But I believed.

I don't remember when I learned the truth about Santa. I think that must be because I never really felt Santa’s lack of DNA veracity was in fact proof a lie had been told.

At the age I found out that the portly man in a red suit I had previously known as Santa -- a guy with snow-white mustache and beard, not to mention that iconic twinkle in his eye -- didn't actually come into the house via the chimney to bring me and my sister toys was also the day I learned about metaphors.

It was the day I learned that the truth was colored with many different shades of gray not to mention all the colors of the rainbow.

Far be it from me to tell people how to raise their kids; For some Santa only means revenue for retail and they’re just not that interested.

But to call Santa a lie, and lobby against the retelling of his lore, seems to me lacking imagination. Perhaps what this world needs are more benevolent lies rather than fewer. Maybe we need more held tongues and gazes of kindness than glares of derision. We need to realize that sometimes our realities aren't always shared, and that one's lies are another's truths.

The truth isn't some inalienable object, it's not even static. But when we boil it all down into one or the other -- the truth or a lie -- we might as well throw away fiction and fantasy and dreams.

Why bother with metaphor at all? It's a tricky business and some people just never get it. Imagination, what's it good for anyway?

No, I'll always believe in Santa Claus -- the spirit if not the man.
And for those of you out there who believe, too: I wish you a Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The mother of all fears

It's official. According to a Danish study, motherhood can make you crazy.

The study, based on medical records of 2.3 million people over a 30-year period in Denmark, found that the first three months after women have their first baby is riskiest, especially the first few weeks when the tremendous responsibility of caring for a newborn hits home.

In addition to postpartum depression, the analysis also found first-time mothers were more likely to experience bipolar disorder, with altering periods of depression and mania; schizophrenia and similar disorders; and adjustment disorders, which can include debilitating anxiety.

The study further notes that fathers are largely unaffected by mental illness as a result of the birth of a child, primarily because they are not likely to experience debilitating sleep depravation, tsunami-like hormone surges, isolation and a complete shift in identity.

Whew. I'm glad someone finally blew the lid off of that one.

Seriously, though, what surprises me is that it's taken this long for a "landmark" study to be conducted.

There's enough anecdotal information about mothers struggling with depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness to fuel lively debates among friends, but few scientific studies that can help put the issues in perspective. Lo and behold, the stigma of mental illness persists.

From Andrea Yates and Christine Wilhelm to Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields, we participate so fervently in the dialogue about the consequences of maternal depression that I think we forget that not much is really known about the condition itself. We take sides. We bring forth our own experiences to prove our points, but we don't really know anything about what makes these women different ... if they are at all.

Many women, luckily, will never understand the astonishing depths of mental illness. They will never understand how a woman could hurt an innocent child or herself, because such abhorrent acts are so alien to their way of thinking, feeling and reacting. There will always be those who will say their "mother raised eight children and never complained, so grow up already."

Yet there will always be people, like me, who say "finally, some answers."

You see, I have on occasion suffered from bouts of prolonged sadness. And though manageable, I fully expected to descend into a full-fledged depression once Ittybit made her entrance.

But, I didn't suffer from postpartum depression. I had what I like to think was the opposite: I had an overall feeling of well being. It wasn't mania, or euphoria, it wasn't even worrisome. It was just a soothing little voice inside that made me believe everything was going to be just fine.

It wasn't until 15 months into my new life as a mother that the real adjustments took place.

Ittybit got sick and had to be hospitalized.

We didn't know at the time that her ailment wasn't going to be life altering. We were just petrified, as any parent would be. I handled the stress in stride. Aside from the few hours of internal turmoil between the car ride to the hospital and the assigning of a room, I was calm, collected and hopeful. The hardest part of the four-day stay – I recall now – was seeing other people's children who weren't as "lucky," and feeling the full weight of my helplessness as a parent.

After we got home and our lives returned to normal I noticed that that "good feeling" I'd once had was gone. And it wasn't coming back. Worry had taken its place and eventually overtook my place as a mother. It wasn't just run-of-the-mill anxiety. It was more of a not-wanting-to-leave-the-house fear. Only the darkest thoughts were permitted to take residence in my head. I was losing the struggle to keep them at bay.

I eventually sought help and was lucky enough to get it. I know others who did not (or could not), and I mourn them and the people they left behind, people who will always wonder: ‘What should I have done?"

Being a mother isn't easy, but just because it's a choice we make doesn't mean we are beholden to endure pain with grace and stoicism. It doesn't mean you're weak or defective; it just means sometimes you need a little help and support. The medical community is getting that message, it's time the rest of us do, too.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

We've got another mouth to feed -- and it's king sized

We recently purchased the first REAL bed of our together life.

IT'S HUGE. HUGE I tell you.

See, my husband's been itching to get a king-sized bed ever since he woke up one morning balanced on the edge of his side of our newly purchased queen-sized mattress and fell off with an unceremonious thud!

He's made no secret of the fact that I am a bed hog, cover thief and whatever other crimes come with the unconsciousness of slumber. Although I think we are polar opposites of our waking selves in the dead of sleep - I turn into a cuddler and he turns into a mollusk - I don't argue with his reasoning that even though I constantly feel cold, my body emits the heat of a furnace. It's probably true and I blame whatever crazy endocrine lottery I won for this dichotomy.

So when one of his buddies needed a bed to sleep on he eagerly volunteered our six-year-old mattress set. As he wrung his hands and told me of his plans, I could envision the football field-sized bed he was anticipating replacing it with.

"Do you realize this means at least two sets of new sheets and a new comforter?" I ask, exasperated. "They cost at least twice the price of queen-sized sheets you know."

"Sleep is a precious commodity; you can't put a price on it," he assures me.

Since we were biting the bullet, we decided we might as well buy a bed frame to boot. You know, finally get ourselves off the floor and into civilization. (We're not in college anymore, right?) So we spend a long hour and a half perusing a local furniture store, bringing with us our expert toddler bed bouncer to test stability, and with her help we decided on a mattress that will allow one side to do back flips and half-gainers while the other side is able to snooze, undisturbed, with a glass of wine balanced perfectly upon his chest. (I'll give you two guess as to who usually gets to corral the kid in the mornings.)

We also selected a terribly inexpensive sleigh bed to cradle the luxury sheep-sold mattresses.

The furniture store's people delivered the beast about a week later and had it set up in minutes. I never thought I'd say this, but the darn thing makes our GIGANTIC room feel more like a cave. Seriously, if any room should be able to accommodate a king-sized bed easily it should have been that one. After all, it was the one room in the entire house that we both agreed we could live in if the rest of the place became uninhabitable as a result of piecemeal construction projects or natural disasters.

I'm still a little surprised by the feeling of claustrophobia that came over me as looked at it from the doorway. My huge bedroom with seemingly unending space was gone. All I could see was a bed. It just got worse when I climbed up and tested it out. Not only did my feet not reach the floor sitting upright, but when I stared up the ceiling I felt as if it were closing in on me.

The man in our life even had to admit the new bed is a bit of a monster.

"Uhm ... Honey. ... The bed just told me he'd like steak and eggs for breakfast ... and possibly one of the dogs."

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Spirit of the season ... or something

My husband and I don't really speak to each other in transit.

We could sit side by side in a car for four hours and the only words uttered would be "look, here comes our exit."

As odd as it sounds, it's one of those "healthy" relationships in which we are able to completely ignore most angst by merely willing the potential for strife into non-existence, and take pleasure in Car Talk or Prairie Home Companion instead.

I learned early on that reacting to the road hazards from the passenger seat was, in effect, calling into question his driving skills and would lead to nothing but hurt feelings. He learned that suggesting alternative routes from the one in which I had my heart (and my trip odometer) set was going to earn him the withering "if-you-wanted-to-drive-why-didn't-you" stare.

It's just that simple.

In the car, especially, we tend to shy away from all the party banter that gets non-habitating folks into trouble: politics, religion, the state of the environment, home maintenance, yard work. ... You name it, we’ve made an art form out of ignoring it.

The quarters are just too close for any sort of discomfort.

So, as we headed out to go hiking last weekend, (And for the record: Yes … hiking with a toddler is more like walk four steps, pick up leaves and rocks and yell Mama, UP-Y every fifth step, which has an appeal all its own, but I digress.) ignoring the first viable shopping day of the holiday season, I have NO idea what possessed me to break the traditional tranquility:

"So, what are we going to get your mother for Christmas?" I ask and then take a long drink from my coffee cup.


I looked over toward his side of the car. He was sitting there with his mouth hanging open.

"With that one sentence you have made the whole Christmas shopping season thing real for me."

He wasn't irritated, just stunned.

And his stunned silence brought the whole thing home for me, too.

I've spent so much time kvetching about the early marketing of Christmas that it's just now occurred to me – counting only the days I could feasibly get out and shop before Dec. 25 (discounting days that have been blocked off for other holiday chores) – I've only got five shopping days left.

Since I have typically done most of the actual selection, wrapping and shipping of items for both sides of the family, I should mention that the question I asked of him was elaborately rhetorical.

I ask for his input but I don't ever expect to use it.

He'll say "let's get the family to chip in and we'll get mom a riding lawnmower" and I'll say "oh, a posh tea kettle sounds perfect."

But this year, with a toddler-turn-preschooler who refuses the comfort of a stroller and insists upon leisurely strolls (not to mention hiding underneath clothes racks and juggling the breakables at Bed, Bath and Beyond) I don't have the energy to shop.

It's true: I've dropped before I've shopped.

If he had said let's get her an automatic car wash with a seven-head attachment I would have ordered it from the internet access of my cell phone that instant. Our "Buy Local" mantra be damned.

Truth be told, I've recently done a single scouting mission to The Mall to see what's what, and sadly I didn't even remember what's where, not to mention the confusion caused by some of my favorite stores falling off the directory.

We didn't come to any conclusions about our shopping list during the outing, and the car returned to its usual silence. And even though the clock is ticking down and the stress is rearing up, it occurs to me I wished I hadn't mentioned a word about the holidays. Maybe then I could have staved off Christmas (shopping) until next year and this year, just enjoy the season.


UPDATE: I received a letter from Edmay Mayers this week, thanking me for my contribution to her toy drive for Iraqi children and for getting the word out about the need for gently loved toys in that war-torn country.
I mention this because in the real spirit of Christmas and Eid ul-Adha, I want to remind you that Ms. Mayers is continuing her efforts to bring a little joy to children of Iraq and that your donations are still needed.
Again, please send gently used toys and clothes as well as hard candies and other non-perishable treats to her at:
Edmay Mayers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Gulf Region South (GRS) APO, AE 09331.