Sunday, January 27, 2008

Electing new Mayor of Toyland proves toxic

I couldn't contain my excitement. The birthday present was perfect: a feat of modern engineering; juvenile genius. Any child worth their weight in Hershey's Kisses would love it. The kid's parents were going to erect a shrine in my honor, to be sure. We would have dinner invitations for months.

That's what I tell myself, anyway.

And yet, somehow, amid the chaos of the day's events, the gift gets glossed over. Sure its wrapping paper is ripped away with rapt glee, but the present itself, tossed onto a pile with all the others, seems just another flop.

Am I alone in thinking picking presents for other people is more torturous than deciding on a candidate for a presidential election?

I mean, you can’t just stop in a drugstore on your way to the party, pick out some little novelty item and be on your way. It takes planning. And research. And, sometimes, shipping and handling.

Oh sure, my sister can get OUR kid a battery-operated cheerleading doll that sounds off her inane cheer, mysteriously unaided, in the middle of the night. That’s her job as a sister and aunt: to annoy the bejeepers out of her only sibling while truly engaging the inner wonderment of her niece. After all, what child actually likes the least annoying toy in their collections?

But getting a toy for your kids’ friends is nothing short of a complicated political undertaking.

In fact, the entire parent-parent RELATIONSHIP can come to a grinding halt the moment one shopper lets down their guard and buys the other’s kid a Bratz doll or a Tease-My-Hair Barbie or any other popular plaything one might rather see filling landfills than inhabiting their child’s toy box.

See, when I'm buying a birthday present for Ittybit's playmates, I try and think the way I would if I were electing a new mayor of Toyland. I don't want some creepy-looking plastic talking doll to wreck the party with its battery-guzzling accessories.

No, I try to make sure I'm getting a socially-responsible toy that looks fun and is fun to play with, but that also just screams "Educated Voter!" You know: "Such class, such good taste. ... Such knowledge of what a four-year-old not only really wants in life."

Yet, inevitably, the exercise is like pulling the lever for Nader. No one really gets it, especially the kid who is supposed to play with it.

I might have eschewed China this year and given my nod to Germany and its Playmobile figurines, but parents still scratched their heads: "You gave my child a pirate set? You chose a genre of criminal known for raping and pillaging, not to mention scurvy and drunkenness? And oh, look, it even comes with a bottle of RUM! Niiiiiiiiice."

Not to mention: "You gave my child a Haz-mat set? They are cleaning up NUCLEAR WASTE? How is that fun?"

Not even cute little smiley faces, it seems, can undo the damage of unlike minds.

My husband tries to make me feel better about my blown chances at new coalitions. "Well, you're better off. This just wasn't a coalition of the willing, is all."

He even tries to lighten the load. When he reminds me of a last-minute birthday party we'll have to attend separately – him with the kids, me after work -- he also tries his hand at retail reassurance: "Don’t worry, I’ll get the gift.”

I suppose it shouldn't surprise me in the least when I get to the party, scoop up my children and find out he's managed to top my faux pas in the gift-giving department.

"Mother," Ittybit informs me, "daddy got Luke a Fart Machine at the drugstore. It's gross. I told him you wouldn't like it."

"No, but at least we’re both on the same wavelength, kiddo. We're both giving out toxic waste.”

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Losing the plot as the play progresses

I'm not sure when it happened. I’m not sure when I gazed at my oldest child and wondered how she would eventually look back on her childhood.

Here we are wading in the thick of it -- immortalizing it all in pictures and prose, even -- and I start wondering if this "you-won't-let-me-do" thing or that "I-don't-wanna-do" thing will be one of the many things sending her off to therapy some day.

There are scads of things I'm doing right now, and next week, and next year that will influence her future self.

Perhaps she will tell her currently nameless, faceless counselor that it all felt like a theater performance. One in which, at some point during an intermission, all the players changed and she became second fiddle?

It's not really the daily mom job that’s so hard. Sure logistics have to be mastered; there’s getting to school, and work, figuring out how to get from Point A to Slot B without folding, spindling or mutilating anything in the process. In this role of parent, one finds an infinite number of things that will never get done or will always need doing. Sleep gets stolen and with it disappears a fair chunk our patience and what’s left of our youth. And yet it is, the daily being -- mom or dad – is what shapes their childhood.

It is here that size matters.

Like many people in my generation, I accepted the Schoolhouse Rock-themed family, and for a few years three was a "Magic Number." But then baby-itis takes hold. And you think … just one more would be nice.

The guilt of leaving an only child to fend for itself after your gone gnaws at you. Until you give in. And then when the deed is done and you are incubating a sibling the guilt of ending that special time gnaws on the part of you that was, and still may be, a little unsure of its decision-making abilities.

I know during most of my pregnancy with The Champ, especially at the end when I thought he may have special needs, I worried about the implication it would have for Ittybit. How would another child affect our relationship as mother and daughter? How would her life change now that she had to share.

After he was born and one day led into another just trying to juggle a new act with an expanded cast of characters, I nearly forgot about the anxiety that had led me to worry.

Ittybit was so good with The Champ, and so generous in sharing OUR time, I was able to push any guilt of splitting my affections aside.

As the baby grows into his personality, however, there are tiny clashes -- storm clouds erupt over who sits where at the dinner table, or who’s playing with whose toys and who sits on my lap when they’re too big or squirmy to share.

When my anger builds and the "you should know betters" and the "why are you being so means" stream from my mouth aimed at the big kid, slowly the guilt comes back.

Perhaps the thing that makes me feel the worst is that, as a parent, I am more relaxed with The Champ than I was with her. I feel as if I'm enjoying his baby days a more than I enjoyed hers. And in the figuring out of that equation I can only conclude that it shouldn't be right to enjoy one baby more than another.

I know I love them both the same. It is strange how that works: Like an elastic bubble opening up and letting them both fit snugly inside.

Only one will always be first; the experiences new and worrisome while the other will always be second, familiar and comfortable.

I can tell you The BEST thing that's happened, though, is that it HAS happened and now it IS.

Ittybit is still happy to have a brother. Happy not to be alone. And when I see The Champ watching her with rapt joy, I know that she needed someone to look up to her. She needed someone who is smaller. But I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if she had a sibling to look up to when she was just a wee thing.

It's so easy to lose the plot as the players change. I suppose I need to remember that she may yet have that experience. After all, while he'll always be younger he won’t always be smaller.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Can't dress 'em yet must take 'em out

Recently, I presented Ittybit with a timely gift: A flouncy dress and matching tights. Timely because not only was it nearing her birthday but the laundry doesn't get a second thought, let alone a chance to suds up, when all the preceding weeks are filled with parties and other holiday merriment.

She didn’t remember that she'd picked it out last fall by tearing a picture from the Hanna Andersson catalogue and presenting it to me as a dress she would most definitely wear when she reached the ultimate milestone a three-year-old could reach: Turning Four.

There have been a lot of missteps on my part in the clothing department, I'm afraid. As she and her tastes "matured" to scoopnecks and soft pinks, I continued to buy purple things with turtlenecks and loud prints.

You see she has extremely particular taste in clothes. So particular, in fact, that it's hard for even the initiated to make successful purchases on her behalf.

She is partial to pants made of soft, jersey material. She likes them best if they have pockets. She also likes T-shirts made of brushed cotton. She won’t wear wool or pullover sweaters ever, and she's not a fan of jeans. Except on one day two weeks ago when she pulled on a pair of embroidered blue jeans, wore them all day and threw them in the trash at bath time.

Regardless of her stated preferences, however, the design, color or button-count could be a lets-get-dressed-by-ourselves deal-breaker on any given day.

"No stripes on the fourth Monday of August, but no solids if it snows," is pretty much how I've come to understand the selection process.

I used to pull my hair out trying to discern her preferences. I'd hunt and peck through her dresser drawers for things I’d know she'd wear, and then wash them the second she swapped them for pajamas. I started buying the favorites in multiples of four so I'd have a few days leeway.

And just when I think I'm catching on she throws me curveballs.

"Mother," she’ll tell me (she calls me that because she's decided she likes the way MOTHER sounds) "I don't want to wear what I don’t want to wear, but I want you to pick out something for me that I don’t want to wear. And I'll know it when I see it. Okay?"

See my dilemma?

A year ago, I would also have gladly given up a week's wages to get her to wear some kind of matching bit of designer fashion so I could pretend I was a skilled and talented shopper. So I could see myself as a hip mom whose child looks clean and impeccably clad at all times.

Instead she insisted on wearing stripes with dots of non-matching hues to her first day of school. She wore purple snow boots with a swimsuit and pajama bottoms to the museum. She wore a purple tutu with a red, three-button Henley t-shirt to the ballet.

And each time she insisted, I became that much less worried about how others perceived me. After all, it wasn't about me, now, was it?

So now, when she puts on the dress I bought at her bidding - a dress two sizes too large (thanks to my skin-flintyness and inability to translate European sizes) – her skepticism comes brimming up.

"Mother, I think it's too big."

"Well it's a little big, that's true, but it just has more room to grow and more room to flutter when you twirl."

"Ok ... but are you sure I'm four?"

"You are four, Ittybit. I can hardly believe it myself."

Sunday, January 06, 2008

And this too shall pass ... or so I hope

She was standing in the parking lot of the dental office naked from the waist up, crying.

The wind was blowing cold all around us, and it was snowing.

She had just vomited in the car.

That's right, vomited. All over herself and everything within (pardon me) spitting distance — all from fear of the dentist.

Fifteen minutes earlier we had left a local pizza establishment with a happy, chatty little girl filled to the brim with a deep dish pepperoni and spinach pie.

Perhaps I was a little too heady from a successful trip to the pediatrician earlier in the day. A little too giddy over the girl taking to heart the instructions for drinking more milk ... "You know you can have milk with your cookies," her doctor suggested. … "Everything in moderation."

Perhaps the heavy meal right before the most-agonized over appointment in her whole little life — the dentist — was just too much.

I couldn't believe how fortunate it was that his job ended early and he was able to meet us for the second half of our medical professionals day.

"Whatever made me think I could do this alone," I grumble to myself as my husband wrapped our daughter in his new Thinsulate coat and handed her over to me.

"I'll get The Champ," he says, happy to be handling the boy, who, even with a poopy diaper, smells like flowers compared to the hot, steamy mess of a girl he was handing off to me.

A wave of nausea came over me as I hoofed it toward the warmth of the office. The reality of parenthood was hitting me in the face like a soggy sock.

It was almost the same revelation I had the first time I found a tick on my cute and fuzzy puppy. "Um ... Why did I ever decide to get a dog? This is pretty gross."

But there I was, dragging a crying, stress vomity kid into the swinging doors of a pediatric dental clinic — thinking only about the return visits we'd be making thanks to two cavities and a lifetime of hygiene — and wishing I were the auntie ... not the mommy.

I further occurred to me, as I was searching The Champ's diaper bag for the Ittybit-sized clothes I never packed, that it was entirely possible I had erred on the side of over-preparation, and brought this scourge upon myself.

All those books I read to her about what to expect; all the times I helped her practice opening wide by counting and flossing her teeth; even having her sit in as I got my own teeth cleaned. ... They all converged into one understanding that would haunt me and possibly her forever: "This dentist thing is gonna be BAD!"

Once inside the play-land-like atmosphere she ignored the video games and playhouse and wrapped her skinny little legs tightly around me, sat in my lap and demanded I read to her.

Every book in the place was about going to the dentist. We plowed through one book and she asked for another and another until the hygienist came out and called her name.

The woman led us back through the bright and colorful office into a small room in the back.

There was a television screen hovering overhead playing some delightful little cartoon where a rabbit couldn't get to sleep without his rubber elephant.

It really made me wish my dentist would replace the hot air balloon poster above his chair for a little flat screen wonder.

But I digress.

In a few minutes the dentist arrived with a high five and a surprise: stickers to whet the appetite and the promise of more surprises if she’d cooperate.

In no time she was painlessly examined, discussing verboten foods and she even let the hygienist demonstrate proper flossing techniques. By the time we left she was happy and chatty again, and almost looking forward to the next appointment.
Almost, but not quite.

"OK. Mom! So! If the first doctor said I CAN have milk with cookies, and the second doctor said I CAN'T have lollipops ... maybe I should just go to that first doctor. Would that be good?"