Sunday, July 27, 2008

Don't read this ... it's probably wrong

Raising children offers nothing but lessons in failure.

I had no idea how many times I could be wrong in a single day until I became a parent. And my highly critical child is only four.

I start making mistakes usually around the time the alarm sounds in the morning and wander sleepily into the room occupied by my night owl, bedtime-cheating daughter and try to cajole her from sleep. When I manage to rouse the little bear from her bed, it is always the WRONG side.

Of course sometimes the mistakes start well before the clock’s infernal bleating, in the middle of the night when she is awakened by some arbitrary need that I didn’t foresee before kissing her goodnight several hours beforehand.

“Mama! YOU didn’t read me the last few pages of the book we were reading!”

“But I didn’t want to wake you after you’d fallen asleep!”

I can see her lower lip quivering even in the pitch black.

When the sun finally does make its return and we start sifting through all the possibilities, I still can't seem to do anything up to her exacting standards.

The clothes I offer are always the WRONG color or the WRONG style; the breakfast I pour from the box is never enough or else it's too much, and usually the milk that sloshes around it is either inadequate or in error. When we get out door and head to the car there's always something WRONG with sequence: she wanted to drive in her father's car, or stomp in the puddles, or pick some flowers. If it's snowing she wants to make snowballs or catch flakes on her tongue. At least twice before the car stops at its first destination, she wonders if I've not gone in the WRONG direction. Of course the music I turn on while we drive is not what she was hoping for, nor are the word games we substitute for the WRONG songs ever exactly right. I never can seem to follow the rules she makes and changes.

When we get to the destination -- let's say a doctors' office, where we have an appointment -- she wonders if I've gotten the WRONG time. By the time we leave, I know I was WRONG to worry.

Eight-gazillion choices in the day, usually hers, and every one of them WRONG. The furrowed eyebrows and pointy eyes always looking at me.

"Why did you get me the pink marker? I wanted the purple one?

"I didn't want four blueberries, I wanted six.

"I always like the small pieces of watermelon ... unless I want the big one.

"I don't want to take the stairs I wanted to take the escalator.

"I do not like Green Eggs and Ham ... "

I tell you, by the time she's eaten the WRONG dinner, brushed her teeth with the WRONG flavored toothpaste and taken a shower with all the wrong toys, I'm ready to throw in the WRONG colored towel.

Even reading three WRONG books the WRONG way, one might think I'd be able to just laugh it off and call it a day.

But of course there's always just one final question at the end of every day that gives me a chance to redeem myself. Usually it has to do with kittens or goldfish or one of her toys, and usually all I have to do is name the item or tell her a story about how it came to be.

I wasn't prepared to answer how babies are made.

Sure she knows about mommies and daddies being important components and all of that. She's not really interested in the twittipation that starts the whole thing off; she's interested in just how it is a person like her could live inside a being like me.

I know since I can't ever be right, I might as well make WRONG really interesting ...

"Do you know, that when I was pregnant with you my body grew an entire organ all on its own?

"It's called a placenta.

"Can you say placenta?'"


"That's pretty good."

"What is a pla-sment-a, mama?"

It's an organ that grows with the baby to make sure it has food and oxygen and can get rid of waste that could be bad for it."

"Food? Like ice cream?"

"Well, sorta like ice cream."


"Yeah. Wow."

"Thanks mom. That was really nice of you to do that. I guess you did something right."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Dancing into mommy time

“Did you see me? Did you see me, ma?”

I wasn’t looking.

“No, darn it! I missed it! Can you do it again?”

“Oh, Ok,” she says with the same disappointed tone I use with her father when he forgets the ONE thing I sent him to the store to get. “This time watch, okay.”

She had on her best dress and her new tap shoes. She was excited to be taking a dance class. Perhaps even more excited to FINALLY have her mother all to herself. Finally, it would be her mother, and not a daddy or grand parent or babysitter, cheering her on from the sidelines.

She twirled around on one heel, her dress revolving around her with a flourish. But there wasn’t a perfect finish. The taps slipped out from underneath her and down she went. On her bottom with a thud.

“Whoops! That wasn’t supposed to happen,” she says with a laugh. I laugh, too, happy that the unceremonious fall wounded neither her body nor her ego.

She doesn’t even wait for me to tell her how lovely she looks or what a wonderful listener she is for the teacher before she disappears back into the room.

This is our “mommy time.”

But somehow, standing outside of the studio, taking turns with the other moms peering through the glare of the glass window in the waiting area, didn’t much seem like “mommy time” unless you define the term literally.

Dance class was something I had put off. I knew Ittybit would LOVE to dress in pretty things and pirouette around a dance floor, but I wasn’t ready for all the things I thought formality would bring.

Would the tights and leotards and learning of steps take away from her free spirit? Would it warp her sense of self? She would have to tame her wild hair and her wild style to play this role.

“You are really thinking about this too hard,” my husband said. “Little girls LOVE to dress up. To her this will be fun. And really what’s wrong with letting her learn about an art form the way it was intended to be taught.”

He was right.

I wasn’t really afraid of the tutus and the leotards.

I was worried about the other mothers.

I knew most of them had been through the drill: Kinderdance on Tuesdays, Kindermusic on Thursdays, Kindergymnastics every other Saturday.

What would they be like? Would they think I was odd? Would they wrinkle their noses because my kid was the ripe old age of four and some has never really been to a formal “class” of any kind? Would they like me? Would I like them?

Ittybit and I are early: the kind of early only anxiety can explain.

As the dancers start trickling in, I can see the parents sizing each other up. Such is human nature. I am sizing them up, too.

Their kids have sweet little dance outfits of all variety. Some are dressed in shorts and sneakers. No matter how many times they’ve been here before they counseled their tiny dancers to stand in line and wait until their names are called before entering the dance studio.

When the class starts, we all gather in front of a picture window in the wall for a glimpse of our kids waving at us from the other side.

We all have cameras and jockey for the best positions to avoid the glare, but we take turns. There’s just not enough space for everyone to camp out there.

We can’t really do much else, so we introduce ourselves. We chat about our kids, which leads to chats about ourselves. We learn of similarities. We laugh. Eventually we get so loud in our individual conversations that I’m sure at any moment the teacher will come floating out of the studio to shush us. I imagine she will close the door, and we will feel chastened until our kids coming running out to grab us around our legs, telling us how fun dance is and how they really LOVE their mommy time.

Little do they know, so do we.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

An ocean of time in a drop of water

The girls are sitting on the seawall, brown skinned and shiny. I can almost smell the imitation coconut of their suntan lotion. They have bottles of water and brightly colored towels artfully placed near the car they came in: a new Cabriolet. I presumptively imagine the compact white convertible is the most impressive gift one of them got for graduation, and the girls are showing it off along with their long limbs and summer sleeked outfits. Their clothes, although decidedly beach attire, were never meant to touch sand or surf.

They are here to be seen.

As are the boys, roughly the same age, who parked their Vanagon five spaces away.

The male delegation, however, has made no pretense of being at the beach. They have neither towels nor swimsuits. They take off their shirts and talk to each other in loud voices; the kind that want to be overheard. They walk on the sea wall in the girls’ direction but never get close enough to share any conversation. They punch at each other’s chests, trying to knock one another off balance. They are trying to establish who will be king of the seaside.

I remember this awkward dance of adolescence wherein being noticed is important. Each gesture is carefully choreographed for optimum effect.

I focus on their bodies, their beauty and youth; for a moment I am wistful.

I suppose none of the adults who walk by headed to the beach a few yards away — as I was doing just then, carrying a baby in a pouch and dragging umbrellas and bags of sand toys — give the teenagers much thought other than to briefly brood for their own youthful bodies, now weighed down by time and responsibility.

We are too busy keeping our little ones from eating fistfuls of sand or mouthfuls of seawater. We are trying to do whatever it is adults with families do when they’re on vacation: Mom reads a book under the shade of an umbrella as Dad builds an elaborate sandcastle that resembles the car in the James Bond movie viewed last night by the light of the computer after the kids were tucked into bed. Our children run off to collect mussel shells and sand dollars, pasting each one carefully onto the dashboard with water and sand.

I’m sure the teens aren’t thinking much about us either. The idea that they will look like us one day has no place in their minds. How can it? They haven’t been to college, or seen the world, or met their special someone. They are still looking. Their job, right now, is to stand beside that seawall and be discovered just as my job is to make sure the sun isn’t discovering my children’s tender skin.

We are where we are supposed to be; to each their own frivolity. And yet I can’t help but look over at them as I pretend to read my book. Wasn’t it only yesterday …

When we’ve finished our sandcastle and our beach-gritty peanut butter sandwiches, we pack up our things and head to the car. Sand is everywhere, which is why I didn’t bring my camera. There will be no pictures of the Aston Martin we carved into the ocean’s driveway. Soon the tide will come and wash the sand car away, and there will be only memories of the children sitting in the deep well of its cockpit, uttering the profoundly satisfying sounds of the pretend engine: “Vroooom-vroom.”

The sound echoes into reality as the girls and boys up above us on the seawall pile into their respective cars and drive away. They head in the same direction, and I wonder if their parallel play will continue at the clam shack or the pizza joint. I wonder if they will muster the nerve to speak to each other before the night is over.

I smile at the thought of this, a not-too-distant memory. I know they will see it too one day: How the days go by like years but the years go by like days. Cameras cannot capture it the way the mind can. Soon, the teens will be looking at their reincarnations at the beach wall from their place amid sand castles and beach shovels and tubes of SPF 55. I hope they smile, too.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

What am I forgetting?

I should be packing.

I should be thinking about what clothes I will wear for the next seven days, find them and put them in a suitcase.

Instead I’m standing in the middle of the room looking at a pile of laundry, half expecting it to get up and walk across the floor by itself.

It’s that time of year again: Summer vacation. It is a week in the life of a family during which the strict schedule of the workday transfers onto the itinerary of leisure.

Soon my husband will be breathing down my neck: “Are you ready yet? Are you ready yet? It’s time to go. ARE-YOU-READY-YET??? … WE-SHOULD-GET-GOING!!”

It used to be simple in the days before kids. I’d pack my bag days before departure. When it was time to head out all I’d have to do is toss it in the car and go.
But after the kids come something dark happens.

All the organizational skills I once took for granted have disappeared.

I am not one of those mothers whose bag typically contains the magical panaceas known to cure preschooler ennui. “Hmm,” I say during any given public meltdown, “Our crayons and coloring books must be in my other bag.”

I’m not exactly sure what happened. Perhaps it was the understanding that the baggage of children is more than figurative: travel with children includes packing most of the possessions they own. That pretty much sums it up.

You can try to take five books, but invariably it will be the one you leave behind that they’ll pine for.

You may THINK you need seven changes of clothes, but because you will be away from home and potentially away from laundry facilities, you will more likely need seven times that amount.

Once you’ve gone from room to room, gathering all the toys and books and clothes, you must not forget to empty the bathroom and the kitchen. Eventually the kids will have to wash and brush their teeth, and that doesn’t just include a tube of paste and a toothbrush but also every single bath toy that’s ever floated in the tub.
Who has the baggage to pack that?

Where will you pack your own clothes? How will you fit it all in the car?
Simple. You try and cut back on what you pack for yourself.

You wear the same three things anyway, why bother bringing more? Do you really need an alternate pair of shoes? Toiletries are really overrated. The motel provides miniature versions of things you can’t afford to buy anyway. And the kids’ tear-free suds will do in a pinch.

That book you planned on reading? Forget it. Save the bulk. The minute you sit down to read, one kid or another will be climbing in your lap clamoring for you to read all about Goldilocks or some silly bear that went over a mountain.

You fling as much bulk as you can. But the weight wins out.

What vacation can be had without cameras and computers and cell phones? We can’t really unplug in these high-tech times. A vacation from modern conveniences is really no vacation at all. Can we really get that far without the portable DVD player and 120 hours of animated bliss?

It’s funny how normally we get from place to place accompanied by word games and music on the radio. The kids nap and we talk. Those are short trips, though, where time somehow seems more of a premium.

I look out the window my husband, who is throwing the travel crib and the bikes in the back of the “van.” I can’t even remember what I’ve packed in my almost-full bag. I know it won’t be long until he’s going to be trying to round up the troops and head out. It’s just me and my bag he’s waiting for.

“Are you ready yet? Are you ready yet? It’s time to go. ARE-YOU-READY-YET??? … WE-SHOULD-GET-GOING!!”

I know I’m forgetting something. But now I’m fairly certain it doesn’t matter.