Sunday, February 22, 2009

Running away never gets you that far

I didn't even know she was upset; she was chattering away as I was poking around in the paper bags my husband had brought in from their trip to the store.

Milk …

Orange juice …

Bread …

Eggs ...

She walked past me in her usual flair, with a kind of brisk pounding of feet and a dramatic flounce of hair as she trudged down the hall to her room.

"She's packing ... " my husband informed me a few minutes later as I was still putting away the groceries. "She says she wants to leave."

Before she stormed out I had heard her voice chirping away, flittering between octaves — "Ip ip ip ip ip ..." as I opened and closed the refrigerator door, "ip ip ip ip ip ip" as I folded another emptied bag and stowed it beneath the island with the other recyclables … "ip ip ip ip ip ip ip."

I really hadn't been listening.

I sigh and roll my eyes. It’s been a long day and I don't want to deal with another tantrum.

I finish stowing the food and found my way to her room. We bumped into each other at the door.

I was going in ready for a fight and she was coming out ready for flight.

She'd slung my old drawstring backpack over her shoulder, filled to the brim.

The bag was bigger than she was.

Her eyes will filled to the brim, too. The fight had gone out of me when I saw her eyes. She was earnest and upset.

I asked her to talk to me, to sit in her room and discuss what had happened. I took the pack from her shoulders when she tearfully agreed.

As we sat on her bed, a tiny lifetime of upset streamed out with her tears. Upset that seemed to go back as far as the hospital ... when she was born.

"I remember another mother — not you — a mother who was nicer to me. Who listened to me. Who didn't just SAY she was going to do something she DID it. That's the mother I'm going off to find."

I listened as the story brought her to my pregnancy with her brother, and how she really wanted a girl. ... How she wanted to share her room and her toys, and talk about girl things, and sing girl songs ... and how she got a boy.

"But I was happy because everyone else was happy. I wasn't happy though. I wanted a sister and YOU GAVE ME A BROTHER! My real mother would have given me a sister."

For a moment I felt sorry for her.

Poor unloved little waif who waits (somewhat) patiently for her mother to get up from behind her computer and get her a glass of milk, only to have to ask 13,000 times ... or 18,000 thousand, depending on whom you ask.

She was right. Everyone wants to hug The Champ.

They all say how cute he is, how funny, how patient, how loveable.

She feels invisible.

I look over at the bag she filled with clothes. There’s not a single toy. She's serious about leaving.

"I'm just a rotten egg," she wails.

It's difficult to assert yourself when you’re five.

I was five once, too. I even ran away twice. Neither time, however, did I get further than the mailbox on the edge of our lawn.

I wasn’t allowed to cross the street.

Ittybit isn’t as timid as I was. I suppose she’d find her way to Timbuktu if she has it in her mind to do so.

"You're not a rotten egg. You know that," I tell her ... hoping something brilliant will come to me as I'm feeling around for an answer that will make everything all right.

It doesn't. All I can tell her is I'm sorry she feels the way she does, and I'll try to do better. I remind her of how her brother lights up when he sees her ... not when he sees us but her. And I admit that she has every right to feel sad, and to even demand attention. Fair is fair.

"Why don't you come with me to the store. Your father forgot the lemons. You come with me. We'll get a special and some time to ourselves."

"O.K.," she said unsteadily. "I'll go, but what about my bag?"

"We'll just leave it for when we get back. I'll help you unpack."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Home (show) is where the heart is

Sundays used to be all fun and games around our house. But to hear them tell it, the day had not gone well.

It had started out fine: She’d gotten up early to play computer games in the dinning room as her father busied himself with making breakfast and brewing coffee in the kitchen.

When I finally emerged, puffy-eyed from my down comforter-wrapped cocoon, at the late hour of 8 a.m. — drawn out by the dark, rich perfume of hot caffeine not the high-pitched shriek of excitement as computer animated teamwork had my husband and first born on the brink of breaking their all-time “Smooth Move” record — she had made a decision. She was going to spend the day with daddy.

But almost as soon as she’d decided to hang out with her dad instead of going on errands with me and her brother, things started to go downhill.

After all, her father wasn’t going to be sitting around the house all day playing games in Webkinz World or making mad scientist milkshakes from whatever was leftover in the refrigerator. He was planning on going to The Home Show to get ideas for the new house.

Still, he was optimistic. He thought the long trip from the parking lot to the arena would be made bearable by the promise of pizza and popcorn. He thought, as most men do, that toys big people like – such as car-tire sized shower heads – should have a magnifying effect on children.

“WOW! Ittybit ... LOOK at that flapper valve ... We’ll need a bigger flange to adequately address the inconsistencies in that flue baffle.”

But he is an adult who had been a child once, too. ... He could understand why her eyes might glaze over as they moved on to laminated flooring options, and why her voice slipped into a distinct whine as they passed one hot tub after another.

Father-daughter outings, especially if they are centered around home improvement activities, tend to have their bumps.

Both of them were disappointed, he hadn’t found the show useful in our endeavor to renovate a house … we didn’t need a hot tub or a high-end shower unit with surround sound and steam bath options. And the little miss didn’t really understand the joy of windows and gutter systems.

When they got home the complaints came fast and furious.

“It was boring.”

“She wasn’t cooperative.”

“They didn’t even have balloons.”

“It was packed with people.”

“He never took me to get pizza.”

“When I asked if she wanted pizza, she wouldn’t go.”

“Well I wasn’t hungry just then.”

“You were just being difficult.”

It was as if I wasn’t even standing there, pretending to referee.

“Well … was there ANYTHING about the day that you did like?” I asked, hoping to change the direction of the conversation.

“I did like that pet.”

“What pet?”

“You know, that weird pet thing that was black and white and looked like a squirrel but that guy was holding?”

“Oh yeah … that was weird. Do you remember what they said that thing was?”

“I don’t remember, but it looked like a lemur.”

“It DID look like a lemur, but it had a crazy name that sounded made up.”

And as they were laughing about why people were trying to sell exotic pets at a home show, they forgot about the whining and the dragging of tiny feet through a sea of sales kiosks. They forgot about the forgotten junk food and the lack of balloons, and they fired up the old computer to end the day as it started: all fun and games.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Motherhood magic: Being in two places at once

A small room in the Time & Space Limited warehouse contained all the magic a one-year-old could want: Crayons, markers, bottle caps, paper plates, wooden sticks, cardboard cylinders from spent toilet paper rolls and fistfuls of uncooked lentils that just begged to be tasted.

We were there to make musical instruments out of the recycling, however, not to play test kitchen.

For what seemed like hours, The Champ had been happily perched on a makeshift stool, drawing purple and red magic marker lines in an EKG-like pattern all over the paper-covered table in front of him.

When he’d filled his canvas, including the palms of both hands, he abandoned his instrument-making station — where his sister was still busy making guitars, kazoos and maracas — and moved into the corner where a handmade sand table offered tiny test drives of toy cars as well as fistfuls of fine-grain sand for the tasting.

With her own projects completed, Ittybit flitted from this room to the next, a larger open space where the band was setting up for its gig. She was so beside herself that she and herself were having some spirited conversation about what they would wear to the “rock show.”

Ittybit was still wearing tights and leotard from her dance class that morning, while Herself was itching to get into the pink flouncy dress, which had been packed for just such a special occasion. Though, neither could be still long enough to change.

I, however, was straddling both rooms, trying to take pictures and keep an eye on my progeny.

Her brother didn’t want to leave his little piece of heaven until he did leave it. When I poked my head into the room after snapping a few pictures of his sister waiting on the band, he was gone. I hadn’t seen him going past me so I head in the other direction: Toward out.

He wasn’t there either, thankfully.

I went back into the main space and stood staring blankly into the crowd of tiny jumping beans and their accompanying parents. It wasn’t until I looked above knee level that I saw somebody else’s mother raising her hand and pointing it downward.

She knew where he went.

As did the grandfatherly fellow who pointed in the direction of my little escape artist the next time I found myself without him.

I really miss the days when he’d happily hang out in the sling watching the world go by.

I digress.

Neither of my children want to miss anything these days, yet their interests never seem to be in the same room.

“When are the rockers playing,” Ittybit bleated impatiently as I tried to wrestle the popcorn away from her whirling dervish of a brother who is, in turn, trying to wriggle his way back to the floor and the trail of snacks that his sister accidentally spilled.

“Soon,” I tell her, using the word that has become my catch-all response for all queries beginning with WHEN.

I sweep the kernels into the box and hide it as The Champ moves back toward the sand table.

She sways back and forth when Uncle Rock bursts onto the “stage,” a cleared triangle of concrete in front of a bistro set-up of a dozen or so carpet remnants. She clapped her hands, wagged her hips and jumped up and down on her little piece of green shag.

Next Ittybit was up and running; out of the room and out of sight. When she returned she had her new best friend, a girl she’d met while I had been chasing her brother; the “Kitars” they’d made from a paint sticks and paper plates; and a desire to be center stage.

It’s a good thing the band didn’t mind sharing the limelight.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Holding back isn’t leaving behind is it?

February is an angst-ridden time for parents of the soon-to-be post preschool set.

In February, kindergarten registration looms large. It marks the beginning of a new era in the parental experience: The time when the real-deal school, now only two seasons removed, mandates its way into the lazy days of our lives. This new life will dump boatloads of homework on our kids’ (and, by extension, our) laps the weekend we plan on visiting the grandparents. It’s inevitable.

Our priority as a new human herder will shift from active learning to passive education.

Some of us were lucky and were able to stave off that initial march into the schooling factory because of a timely cutoff. Our kids just barely missed the arbitrary date of readiness. Others of us wrestled with the question and corresponding decision: Is my kid ready? Should wait another year?

We researched and researched. We stood, pencil poised, over checklists …

Can my daughter listen to stories without interrupting?

Can my son recognize rhyming sounds?

Do they understand actions have both causes and effects?

Does he understand there’s a morning, an afternoon and an evening?

Can she cut with scissors? Follow the rules? Share her toys? Manage the bathroom? Button and zip?

Do people understand when she speaks?

Can he look at pictures and make up stories? Identify the beginning letters of words? Sort by color, size and shape?

Does he recognize simple words like STOP and MOM when he sees them written out?
Can they count to 10?

We agonized over societal norms: Is it better to be older? Will they get bored? Am I holding them back? Am I coddling them? Am I giving them an advantage or am I pushing them out?
We parents also wonder if our kids are ready to be the one sitting on the bus or in the cafeteria alone? Will our kid be the one who gets tripped up by the outstretched leg of the bully? Will our kid be the one doing the tripping? Will our kid be forced to toe the line and color within them, or will they be allowed to use their imaginations? Will they be encouraged to question authority or kowtow to it?

Will we be THOSE kinds of parents who fight THAT unbeatable fight at every turn? Will we be the thorn in the side of the teacher? Will the teacher be one who has invested in her role or just playing a part? We’ve all had bad teachers. We know they exist in larger numbers than anyone cares to admit.

In these simple details do we hover? Do we let go?

We’ve all heard stories about members of the five-year-old set being reprimanded for not using green when they color in their trees.

I know. I know. The teacher has his reasons. There’s always reason. There’s always a test to gauge performance.

But it always makes me wonder what it is they’ve proved.

Kids seem to know better than most adults about rules and how to follow them even when they don’t. They have a strangely acute sense of fairness, even when they aren’t playing fair. They know tree leaves are usually green … unless they’re red or yellow or orange.

We are not the first parents to send our kid out into the world. Yet as I read through the checklist, I got the feeling that once our kids are ready for formal education, they’ve already learned all the things that Robert Fulghum explained in his book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”

Perhaps the revised version, which keeps being rewritten by my mind — “All I Really Need To Know I Learned Before ‘No Child Left Behind’” — is what really has me frightened.