Sunday, April 27, 2008

When first they practice to deceive

"Mother says I can't marry Elias. I have to marry Jacob," Ittybit protests over a dinner of steak and broccoli.

My husband's mouth drops open as I fix my vacant stare in her general direction. We haven't slept in months; neither of us trusts our ears.

"What?" I ask, wanting to be sure I heard her correctly.

She stuffs another green tree-like vegetable into her mouth and chomps away under a chorus of mmmmmmmmmms, ignoring my question.

"I want to marry my best friend and MOTHER says I can't," she exclaims in the direction of her father, defiantly waving a fistful of steak. "SHE says I have to marry another best friend."

She has a flair for the dramatic, my daughter. And true to parental cliché, I have no idea where she gets her inspiration.

"What are you talking about? We don't have arranged marriages in this house," I laugh, knowing full well rhetorical questions and sarcasm are useless on most children.

"And we're not cat people either," she responds accusingly, taking a sip of milk.

She's not most children.

I suppose this accusation she’s leveled in my direction is what some folks would call a lie; a blatant disregard of actuality for the purpose of ... Oh, who am I kidding? I have no idea. Maybe this is some strange form of pretend play wherein she's the script writer and we’re the clueless actors. She’s balancing tightrope between pretending and deceiving.

"Look here," she bellows standing behind my husband, now clearing dishes and loading up the dishwasher. "This is completely unacceptable. We cannot have little children playing around this. Some one could get hurt. ... I’M TELLING YOU YOU ARE REALLY GOING TO BE IN TROUBLE MISTER!"


"Why are you yelling at me," he asks her.

"Oh, I'm not talking to you," she says sweetly and darts away singing a little scat number she made up; a soundtrack for her off-scene pursuits when she's supposed to be getting ready for bed.

By the time she's corralled and coaxed into brushing her teeth, I swear I can hear the theme from "Jaws" emanating from my husband’s ears. I know it's time to whisk her away before the tinny sounds of "Psycho" overtake them.

She makes a grand exit, bowing deeply and kissing the air: "Thank you, thank you, thank you," she tells him. Then, with me in tow, she leads the way to her bedroom; knees reaching the height of her hips as she marches. "This way, please. This way."

She wiggles into her pajamas, gathers her bedtime stories and scoots into bed. But before I can begin reading from them a new play has opened.

"Mother. I want to be a veterinarian," she says brightly. Her mood darkens. "... but dad won't let me." She starts to cry. "He says I have to be another kind of doctor and I just don't want to. He said I have to go to college and leave home and get a cat. Well, I do want a cat but I don’t want to leave home."

The crying, although exaggerated, seems strangely genuine.

"Aw, Ittybit. Daddy doesn't care what you become so long as you are happy."

"I'd be happiest if I had a cat."

Sunday, April 20, 2008

There’s still time for sleep ... someday

Any parent will tell you children and sleep are the chemical equivalent of oil and water: they don't really blend well.

We didn't start out this parenting gig thinking about sleep styles. Ittybit slept in a crib next to our bed for her first 11 months. She occupied her own room by the time she was a year-old when she attained the holy grail of milestones: Sleeping Through The Night.

Contrary to familial belief, however, we didn't look down our very long noses at folks we knew who were still sleeping (or not sleeping as the case may be) with their school-aged kids because they had adopted the Family Bed sleep style in their offspring's infancy.

We didn't eschew the idea of sleeping like puppies from the start. In fact, with Ittybit, I had hoped to sleep in the same bed at least until the round-the-clock feedings spaced out.

But it was clear quite early that she wasn't comfortable with the puppy arrangement. She fussed and fidgeted until I laid her in her own bed, where she instantly relaxed and fell into a restful sleep. Maybe it was because I didn't "room in" with her in the hospital. Who knows? Having never really babysat or changed diapers before her birth, I was afraid to be alone with her at night. It’s also possible that she just sleeps better solo. I know with my snoring soul mate I would.

The Champ’s early days were different. When he was born, three and a half years later, I wasn't petrified of motherhood or of a tiny child.

Unlike the staff that cared for his sister, the nursery staff on duty during his stay had to come and find him for weigh-ins and examinations. Usually they'd find us both sleeping, him in the crook of my arm in the hospital bed.

The sleep custom continued after we got home because of nerve pain that came with his birth. It was just too hard to get out of bed to nurse around the clock. It wasn’t much of a hardship; he was calm and comfortable, hardly moving a bit.

We were all somewhat comfortable back then, no doubt helped by my husband's insistence on getting a king-sized bed after numerous late-night visits from the sleep-master-flash herself in the months prior to The Champ's arrival.

He's been very patient, my husband, even though I know he's wishing for the day when we can clear the cribs and changing tables and plush toys from our bedroom and install a lock.

I, however, am in no rush.

I know there are days when I should have more sleep. Not only is my disposition more similar to a rabid beast without ample shuteye, having to drive upwards of 100 miles a day makes sleep deprivation a potentially dangerous condition for everyone around me, too.

But I also know that my children are small for only a little window of time. And sooner than an blink they'll be sleeping like logs and locking their own doors. ... (Well, not The Champ, poor guy, since he won't really have a door to lock. He’s been relegated [by birth order] to a closet-size cubicle that only fits a bed and dresser).

It's just that waking up before the kids do and watching them toss and turn during their sleep may indeed be the best part of my day. I can see their personalities from the first eye open: Ittybit wakes like a lion and the Champ wakes like a lamb.

There is nothing better than to watch as The Champ opens his eyes and notices his sister has crawled into beside me during the wee hours of the morning. He screams in delight and claws his way overtop of me to get to her. A little brother wake-up call.

It even makes my grumbly husband a bit misty: "Do you think they make a bigger bed than king sized?"

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Boys don't have to be sons of bitches

Can you have a crush on a baby? Your own baby? Is that weird?

Because the way The Champ lights up at the sight of me, and that his first word was "Mama," even the way his face twists into a painful prune if I don't go right to him when I get home from work, could make the coldest of hearts melt.

Yet when my husband jokingly called him a "Mama's boy" I froze. With that one two-word phrase, everything I thought I knew about being the mother of a son turned upside down.

From that precarious position I was just a hop, skip and jump from the oldest vulgarity in the American lexicon: "Son of a bitch."

Because, honestly, it's not the son we're all thinking about in that turn of phrase it's the mother. And I tell you what, for the first time I could see my own unflattering picture inset next to the dictionary definition (yes, Webster's defines it).

People tell me all the time that a girl will travel the Earth to be as unlike her mother as she can be, but a boy will hold up all future women in his life to the light of her image.

Even if he's not the proverbial "Mama's boy," boys still love their mothers.
So why is it the nebulous they also say: "A daughter is a daughter the rest of her life, a son is a son until he takes a wife?"
I was thinking about this as a friend, the mother of two boys, told me she was buying keepsake ornaments for her sons each year for Christmas. She planned to give them to them when they left the nest.

"But, don't you worry about stepping on the toes of your future daughter-in-law," I asked.

"What do you mean," she replied, slightly irritated at my inability to remain gender neutral.

"Well," I said, digging the hole deeper, "I was thinking that when you give your sons these keepsakes you’ve collected for them it's really their wives who are expected to adopt things that, in essence, are really YOUR memories of your kids’ childhood."

Silence. Deafening silence.

None of us really wants to think about our sons marrying women who want only their own memories on the family Christmas tree. We don't want our sons to fall in love with some brazen hussy who doesn't cherish his family, too. And having HIS things displayed equally on the tree PROVES that she is a good and deserving daughter-in-law. For a mother-in-law, having the keepsakes accepted seems like the ultimate test of devotion.

I can't help thinking that all this rivalry might really be over all the wrong things.

Perhaps it does show my own errant perspective on gender, but I assume girls become the keepers of their family's sentiment while the future wives of boys become the unwitting collectors of junk that has no meaning for them.

Perhaps it's all futile really, this stuff we hold dear. It's not really the things but the memory of times that things recall. It's mine not my children's. And yet it is theirs because it’s about their mother: The cradle that they slept in, that their father slept in; the cup that bears her name, and her great, great grandmothers' name; the ancient spoon they were fed their first foods from; the sweater their auntie wore.

We get hung up on these things because they are tangible.

We can't watch our children change and grow and move away from us without some degree of sadness. Yet we can't really hold on to a memory.

Everyone has a way that differs from another, from the way we look to the way we think. Everything has the potential to cause strife. Our minds explode when our helpful mothers-in-law come for a visit and, on the premise of being helpful, re-arrange our utensil drawers.

We imagine it's because SHE wants it HER way. She is engaging in a power struggle because she thinks things SHOULD be different. Maybe she thinks her son (or daughter) should have married a different person; a better person.

The rivalry between a mother and daughter-in-law can spin out of control over things.
But what if good-old-mom just GUESSED wrong? What if she put the knives where the forks usually go because the drawer was empty and she couldn't remember where they'd been when she set the table the night before?

Why do mothers have to lose sons as that old saying goes? Why can't they gain daughters? After all, we may be more alike than we admit.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Death takes a holiday

Whenever it’s Ittybit’s turn to lead circle time at the Marilla Cuthbert Academy for Unspeakably Charming Children there are problems.

It always starts out fine; she counts how many children are in class, duck-duck-goose style, and chooses the correct weather face from the bulletin board to match the environmental goings on outside without hesitation. She recites how many people live with her now with the added joy of being able to talk up her little brother. (He’s cute, but he eats paper.) She tells the class that she’d like to own a cat but that her parents “really aren’t cat people.” She explains that she will be able to get a cat of her very own when she lives in her very own apartment. “That’s what my Mommy told me,” she says proudly.

When Ittybit goes on to describe how many pets ACTUALLY live at our house, though, it gets tricky. It’s always the pets we DON’T have that are the problem.

The teachers know it, too. They try to quicken the pace, hoping to circumvent the inevitable by will and speed. They even try to skip the part about pets all together, but she can’t let it rest.

“Well, we USE to have TWO dogs – Maddy and Maggie – but Maggie died and now we only have one dog, Madeline. That’s her long name. She’s kind of a jerk when she knocks me over. She also likes to lick my brother.”

It’s been a year since our old dog — one of two canine companions — passed away and still Ittybit counts her as part of the family, once removed.

Death is a delicate subject. No one really wants to think about it let alone discuss it, which, of course, is why Ittybit brings it up on a daily basis.

“MOM!!!! Champ ate some paper. He’s not going to DIE is he? ... I. Don’t. What. Him. To. Die,” she stammers in distress.

“Why is she so fixated on death,” my husband quizzes me accusingly, wondering if his wife’s less than sunny outlook on life has rubbed off on our perceptive little girl.
“She’s four,” has become my standard answer. “It’s a natural question.”

I was just about four the first time I realized the world wasn’t such a wonderful place.

There I was, happily unaware, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ Buick when the radio news reported a story about a mother who had murdered her children.

I understood the words but not the situation. My brain turned over more words: “People kill people? Not possible.” I took a long look at my mother in the front seat and wondered … “Could she?” But I never uttered a word. I just sat there and wondered. Eventually I started asking questions about people from history who HAD killed other people. I made my parents explain why John Wilkes Booth would want to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, asking the same questions over and over again. I wanted to know all the gory details.

But now, a year after we laid Maggie to rest, Ittybit is catching on that death visits others, too.

“Why do people have to die?”

The curtain opens and the spotlight shines in my direction, blinding me with its light.

All I want to do is say: “I don’t know.”

I don’t want to explain that eventually everyone’s body fails them and they go back to the earth. I don’t want to tell her that life is unpredictable. I don’t want to think about it myself now that she’s such a big part of my life.

No, I want to tell her that life is such a wondrous, amazing thing even if you are sick or weak or old; even when it’s raining outside, or when your parents send you to your room, or when you think there’s nothing to do and you’ll never have any fun ever again. Life is grand even if you have to eat brussel sprouts.

I curse my husband’s visible shrugging off of the concept of an afterlife. I don’t want to tell her that some people believe the spirit lives on but that we don’t. The End is too final a thing, and I don’t want to think about any world without her in it.

So I put it off.

I tell her that she doesn’t have to worry about any of that now, and I hope it’s true.