The things that will never make it in the baby books and other musings from a stay at home mom

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The question of God

It wasn't just the free babysitting that lured me to stick around at the temple this morning after I had dropped Julia off at school. Sure, Evan was excited about the prospect of a morning spent playing with other kids and unfamiliar toys. But it was the topic of the rabbi's discussion group, so timely given some of the things I've been grappling with lately, that made staying irresistible. "Talking To Your Children About God," the flyer had advertised when it came home in Julia's backpack a few weeks earlier and I immediately though "wow, I wish someone could teach me how to do that." And so there I was, with Evan happily deposited in the playroom and Julia painting pictures down the hall, ready to talk about a subject that I'm not even sure I believe in at all.

I dutifully jotted down the names of the authors who were mentioned as being particularly good at handling this subject with young children and I nodded my head as each of the rabbi's suggestions and ideas were laid out. Plenty of useful tactics to get kids talking about God, to be sure, and plenty of lovely ways to frame the answers to complicated questions. But at the end, when the time came for questions, my hand went up. The subject I really wanted addressed, and the one which hadn't been touched on at all yet, was how to handle a situation where the children are the ones who seem abundantly clear in their ideas of what God is and how their faith should be incorporated into their daily lives, and it is the parents who have all of the questions.

As I type this entry, Julia is upstairs in her bedroom, singing Hebrew prayers at the top of her lungs and instructing her stuffed animals in the correct way to celebrate the Sabbath. When she performs puppet shows, the villains are always characters like Haman and Pharoah, two of the most notable "bad guys" in Jewish holiday tales. The stories and ideas of our religious heritage permeate even the most unexpected aspects of Julia's daily life. I don't know why this surprises me so much, given the fact that we have chosen to send Julia to a Jewish preschool. Julia is a very teachable child, and her school has taught her well. For the most part, I embrace and celebrate the wonderful ways that she is learning about and experiencing Judaism. I'll happily light Sabbath candles every week and read countless Jewish picture books, if that's what makes her happy. I love sharing my culture with Julia. But the one area in which I feel a little uncomfortable is where the whole God thing is concerned.

I first realized that Julia had an awareness of God and a clear vision of who and what a God might be at a Tot Shabbat a few months ago. Following that day, I asked Julia what she knew and understood about God. "God is everything and it's all around us," she replied promptly. "God is in me and God is in you and in the flowers and the trees and the ways we love each other and live our lives." Her response, so automatic and clearly learned, was as matter-of-fact as her answer to a mathematical equation. God is everywhere. 1 + 1 = 2. What's for lunch? The conversation took my breath away, in part because what she was expressing was such a beautiful notion, but in larger part because it was something I wasn't sure that I myself believed to be true.

In securing for my daughter a religious education, I have offered her exposure to a set of ideas and ideals that are her heritage and her birthright, and I've given her an opportunity to develop her own faith. But at the same time, I have exposed her to a set of explanations and beliefs which her father and I, to differing degrees, both find to be problematic. And those concepts have been presented to her not as ideas but as facts. I think it's lovely that Julia has such a pure faith in her religion and her idea of what God is. But truth be told, I also think the whole thing smacks of rote memorization and sounds almost frighteningly cult-like when recited back to me by a 3 year old.

I've been very on the fence as to whether I should challenge some of the ideas that Julia's been taught or simply support her beliefs. It would be so easy to say to her "you know, there are many different ideas about what God is, and some people don't even believe God exists at all. It's up to you to decide what you believe. I think that the God you describe is lovely, and I'd like to believe in something similar, but not everyone would agree." But it seems unfair to prematurely challenge what she's been taught when she seems so happy and comforted by it. There's no harm in a young child believing in God, even if her parents don't. There could be harm, however, in not teaching a child to think for herself. Which value do I hold more dearly -- supporting my child's faith or encouraging her to question?

The rabbi nodded when I asked presented my dilemma (in a far more concise way than I've presented it here). "That's the crux of the problem," he agreed as parents all around me nodded their heads and whispered "good question." His advice, in the end, was to continue to provide an opportunity for Julia to talk openly and honestly about God and to increase my own level of personal opinion and invitation to question as she grows cognitively. "She'll ask the questions on her own one of these days," he told me, "provided you've created an environment where she feels comfortable voicing her ideas and doubts. That would be the ideal time to share the questions you're grappling with yourself." It's good advice, both from a religious leader and a more experienced parent who's been down this road already, and I'm inclined to take it. So for now, I'm going to stay quiet and wait for Julia to grow up a little bit. I look forward to the day we'll be able to have a more interactive conversation about God, but I'm pretty sure it would simply be confusing to start that discussion now.

I must confess, there's a large part of me that hopes that Julia will continue to hold onto her faith even after she matures enough to question it. I envy the way she believes so completely. I wish that I could feel it, too. Maybe when the time comes, she'll be able to teach me how. But if not, hopefully I'll be able to show her that one can question and doubt, yet still identify strongly as a Jew. However temporary it might turn out to be, my daughter's faith has made me more connected to my religious roots. And now that I've come to know this part of myself again, I suspect I'd miss a lot more than just the challah if we stopped celebrating Shabbat.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The yin and yang of empathy

On the heels of Evan's little aha moment this week, I must note -- with great frustration -- that Grover falls down a lot. And the tears, so charming only a few short nights ago? They are getting old fast, as are the endless discussions about clumsy monsters who are really just fine which must follow each sobfest.

As I see it at this point, I am left with 2 options. I can either rent out my child and his Sesame Street videos to drought-stricken countries and put the bucketloads of tears that will surely ensue to good use, or we can move on to greener pastures and simply avail ourselves of slightly less disquieting children's television around here. A simple decision, one would thing, given the vast array of children's programming from which one can choose these days. However, Evan still refuses to watch anything in which his beloved Cookwah is not prominently featured. And truthfully, I don't think that "solve the world's drought problems" idea is really all that realistic either. Regrettably, the bottom line appears to be that until this stage passes, my little hour-long refuge from hands-on parenting during which I used to be able to make dinner and recharge for the bedtime routine is a goner.

And so we are at an impasse. Many tears. Much discussion. No break for Mommy. No end in sight. As Evan's empathy phase rises to a fervent pitch, I find my own empathy beginning to wane frighteningly in response. Ironic, aint it?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Know my blog, know me

My brother and his wife spent the night here last week before we all headed up to my parents' house for Thanksgiving. It was the first time they had been here in several years, and I'd been looking forward to their visit and to the opportunity for my kids to connect with their oft-mentioned, seldom seen aunt and uncle. After several hours spent devising unusual uses for ordinary toys with Julia and tossing a "ball ball" back and forth with Evan, we packed the kids off to bed and cracked open a bottle of wine. As we were sitting and visiting, my brother happened to look up at my kitchen wall, where some of Julia's artwork was taped. "Hey," he exclaimed enthusiastically. "It's the Dogs At Home project!"

"Do you feel like know my kids better after reading about them in my blog?" I asked him as we laughed together at the picture. "Definitely," he replied. In truth, after an afternoon of watching him interact with them, I already knew that. He and Jordan had handled Julia's slow warm up style just right. They had managed to engage and entertain Evan without alienating Julia. Despite the miles and the months that separate us, they had clearly done their homework here before they arrived. They knew exactly how to maximize a visit with my kids, and Julia and Evan were madly in love with their aunt and uncle in no time as a result.

As happy as I was to see that my writing had helped to bring my brother and sister in law closer to my kids, the rest of Dan's answer caught me off guard. "It helps me to know you better, too, you know," he told me. "I'm tired watching you do all that you do with the kids. And I understand more about what you're really doing and how it affects you after reading your blog."

I wasn't frankly so sure, back when Dan first stumbled onto my little corner of the Internet, how I was going to feel about him reading what I write here. Was it going to be like a little brother stumbling on his older sister's diary? Would it feel awkward when we talked about things I'd written about, things I knew he'd read? Would I feel the need to censor myself, or at least to think a little more before I hit the "publish" button? It did feel a little funny at first, but I trusted that it would all work out and it has, better than I might ever have imagined. Completely by chance, blogging has brought me closer to my brother than I've been in years. It makes me wonder, even as I weight the privacy issues and the potential that I might lose my voice or my freedom of expression, which other relationships in my life might benefit from a well timed Google search or even a directly shared link. I'm still working it all out in my mind, but I'm beginning to think that online anonymity (not that I've tried so hard to preserve mine here or Dan would never have found me in the first place) might just be overrated. Stay tuned as I figure out just what that might mean.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


I was upstairs folding laundry this evening when I heard Evan burst into tears, the serious, heart wrenching kind. Nothing too disastrous seemed to have happened and I could hear Paul downstairs soothing him, so I stayed upstairs and finished what I was doing rather than rushing down to intervene. I was concerned about the intensity of his hysteria, however, and even as I carried piles of clothing to my kids' rooms, I was mentally trying to figure out what might have caused him so much misery.

The answer turned out to be one I never would have guessed. Evan's tears were sparked by an episode of Sesame Street. Grover, it seems, had fallen in his typical pratfall way and Evan had instantly broken into empathetic tears.

Empathy. That's no ministone... that's a milestone.

I had forgotten until this evening Julia at the same age, crying at a Sesame Street episode in which Elmo fell off of a stone wall or at a book in which a little boy had dropped his drink. The stage in her life when she developed empathy was the beginning of a powerful and exciting leap in her cognitive and emotional development. It was, quite simply, when she ceased to be a baby and began to be a person -- a real, interactive, participatory member of this family. And now, here was Evan, on the cusp of the same evolution.

"Mommy, Grover down," Evan kept repeating over and over again when he came upstairs after the program had ended. "Grover uh-oh," he continued to explain as I helped him into his pajamas. And then he burst into tears as I helped him into his crib and left the room. "Grover down," he whispered softly and sadly as I returned to see what was the matter.

I sat down in the glider and took him in my arms to rock him like a baby, noticing as I did so how incredibly large he suddenly seemed to have grown. A lullaby wasn't going to cut it anymore, I suddenly realized. Switching to Plan B, I still rocked my little boy, but instead of soothing him as I would a baby, I explained to him rationally the reasons that I knew that Grover was OK. He stopped crying, comforted by my words, and agreed that it was time to go to sleep. And so I helped him into his crib, kissed him goodnight and tiptoed out of the room, entirely aware of -- and both awed and saddened by -- the fact that I had just kissed my son's babyhood goodbye.

First word, 2 syllables, second word, 3 syllables... what's the symbol for holiday greeting?

When I think of my family -- the family I grew up in, not the one my children are growing up in now -- I always think first of Thanksgiving, the one day of the year that we have always, nearly without fail, been together. It's not exactly Norman Rockwellish, our family Thanksgiving. On the surface, we may look the part; a room full of rosy cheeked Americans gathered around a bountiful feast. But one only has to listen in on the revelry that follows the festive meal to catch a glimpse of our eccentricities.

We're not big football fans, so we've always filled the hours after Thanksgiving dinner with large group games -- Charades and the like. When asked to describe my family, I often use a Thanksgiving game story as a classic illustration. I was a college student at the time, home for the holiday, and my brother was still in high school. We had a particularly full house that year, so we'd teamed up into pairs to play Skattegories. The game was reasonably simple; a letter of the alphabet was selected and each team had to come up with a word that began with that letter for each of a series of categories. As usual, my brother and I, who had joined forces, were engaged in a fierce rivalry against my parents. And this time, we were sure we had won. The letter was D, and we proudly displayed our answers, among them "dildo" in the category of "something you hide." Everyone laughed and we congratulated ourselves on a truly original answer. And then my father read aloud my parents' answers, revealing first their answer to "a piece of sporting equipment." You guessed it -- "dildo." The secret to our rosy cheeks, it turns out, has far more to do with liquor and bawdy senses of humor than good clean American living.

I look forward to Thanksgiving all year long. It's a mini reunion every year; my brother and sister in law fly in every year for Thanksgiving, as does my father's sister. Though my parents live only an hour and a half away, I always end up finding an excuse to spend the night at their house after the Thanksgiving meal and a myriad of reasons to stick around and prolong the holiday well into the following day. There is something about hanging out in pajamas well into the day, helping ourselves to leftovers, talking about nothing in particular and lazily contemplating a 3rd cup of coffee that I just can't resist. As usual, this year did not disappoint. From the unbelievably yummy chocolate pecan pie to the Charades game capped off with a rousing interpretation of The Vagina Monologues, from the incessant teasing of family members to the sight of my children bonding with the aunt and uncle they rarely see, I was surrounded with reminders of all I have to be thankful for. And so I helped myself to that extra cup of coffee and that last bite of pie and I stuck around a little longer. With family, you can pick up where you left off regardless of how much time has passed between visits. With family, you can really be yourself. I can't think of a better reason to be thankful.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Scary smart

Scary smart. It's a term I hear often when Julia does something unusual or supposedly beyond her years. Generally, it's said by a well meaning friend, and I try to take it in the complimentary way I honestly believe it to be intended. But even as I glow with typical parental pride at my daughter's accomplishments, in the back of my mind every time, there is always a nagging doubt. Is she really so smart? And if so, should that really be scary?

It's not particularly scary to me that Julia is starting to read. Paul and I both taught ourselves to read at a young age -- I was 4 and he was 3 -- and so it stands to reason that our offspring might just have inherited the early reading gene. Given that fact that we have both, despite our high IQs, turned into completely ordinary adults, it's hard to think of Julia's newest skill as indicative of anything other than an early ability to decode letters on a page. She's not going to Harvard tomorrow (or ever if she also inherited our collective lack of academic motivation). She's just... reading.

And doing math in her head -- the kind that involves negative numbers. And reciting poetry. And writing elaborate sentences (provided someone is willing to assist with the spelling). I don't know for sure, but I suspect some of these things are a little unusual for a kid who's not yet 4. And I also suspect that right now, every parent with a child around Julia's age who is reading this either thinks I'm a braggart or a liar or both. Probably both.

Every kid is born with some sort of innate talent or skill. Julia has friends who can flip easily and gracefully over a parallel bar while Julia can't even get her feet up in the vicinity of the thing. She has friends who can kick a ball clear across a regulation sized soccer field while Julia's lucky if she can get her foot to connect with the ball at all. She has friends who can keep time to music effortlessly while Julia's clapping along to a completely different -- OK, nonexistent -- beat. I don't worry that my kid isn't doing those things, because physical aptitude is genetic, and my poor kids got my genes. I think it's cool that some kids can do things like that, and I'm the first one to compliment a parent whose child has such a skill. But I don't waste any time on comparing Julia to those kids. It wouldn't be fair to Julia.

And yet, when people say something about Julia's skills, I often feel like there is an underlying unease about the exchange, like other parents are comparing and they're bothered by the fact that Julia is doing a few academic things before she's "supposed to." I feel as if her particular talents are viewed as less "natural" than her friends' physical ones, as if I'm being silently accused of running flash cards with my kid or coaching her to get ahead. Nothing could be farther from my reality, and yet I always end up feeling defensive. She's not so different. I know plenty of kids her age who are doing things like this. It's not so great. And that feeling sucks. Because it is great when a kid learns to read -- no matter what age she might be -- and it is great when she grasps a new concept or articulates a new idea. And yet every time I share a story about my child with another parent, I worry about how it's going to sound. I'm pretty confident that no one else is afraid I'm going to be upset that the kid standing next to Julia can hop across the room with out falling over. But I'm always afraid that other parents might be bothered by the fact that Julia can read the word "hop."

It doesn't scare me at all that Julia's natural talents appear to be academic in nature. But it scares me that I might alienate my friends if I talk too much about her accomplishments. And it equally scares me to think that I might actually be making too much of her milestones. Maybe most kids are doing these kinds of things and I'm just the foolish mother who can't keep her mouth shut about them. I'm scared that Julia's different, and I'm equally scared that she's not. There's plenty of scary going on around here, but truth be told, it has little to do with Julia and everything to do with me.

Is Julia scary smart? Maybe, maybe not. Is it all just plain scary? Absolutely. But when it comes right down to it, what about parenting isn't?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Go, Julia, Go

It can be hard to know what Julia knows sometimes. She's not a kid who likes to perform, and if she sense that you're too interested in something she's been working on, she instantly refuses to discuss it any further. A year ago, when she was surprising us daily with words she was able to decipher, I predicted that she'd be reading fluently by now. And then, as soon as I'd gone and said that, she promptly lost all interest in learning to read. Other interests and pursuits took precedence and I was frankly a little glad to see her intensity lessen a bit, at least where reading was concerned.

There have been hints, though, that Julia's been steadily working on this reading thing when we're not looking. I can hear her sounding stuff out in her room during quiet time sometimes, and occasionally she'll let slip something that makes me think she's reading a lot more than she lets on. So today, just for curiosity, I suggested that she be the one to read a book before quiet time. "I'll start if you'll finish," she responded, and I promptly agreed. I purposely selected Go, Dog, Go, both because I thought the words would be simple enough for her to sound out and because I knew she hadn't seen it in over a year and wasn't likely to have it memorized like so many of the books in our collection. I thought maybe she'd read a page or two before she lost interest, if I was lucky. And in classic Julia style, she proved me wrong once again.

21 pages into the book, I'd helped her sound out only 2 words; the rest she'd done completely on her own. Some words she knew by sight, some she sounded out on her own and a few she inferred based on the pictures that accompanied the text. She was clearly reading, and she seemed far less impressed by that fact than I was. "It's your turn now," she told me mater of factly, and I happily read her the rest of the book. "I promise that no matter how good you get at reading, I'll still always want to read aloud to you," I told her as I left the room. From the smile she gave me, I suspect that our bookshelf is going to get a good workout in the coming months.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The perfect gift

The first year that Paul and I were together, I put an enormous amount of time, energy and thought into his birthday gift. We'd been dating for about 10 months when his birthday came around and things were pretty obviously getting serious, but I still felt the need to impress. I wanted his gift to reflect how well I knew his taste, his interests, his needs and his desires. I wanted it to be perfect, and in its perfection, I wanted it to reflect how perfect I was for him.

I hit the mark that year with a wristwatch which was both elegant and filled with cool gadgets and gears to entertain him. An accompanying set of Rangers' tickets ensured my status as both a good gifter and a serious life partner candidate. A year later, when his birthday rolled around again, I scored again with a prepaid cell phone. It was 1997 and he was the first of our group to actually own such a thing, hard as that is to believe now. He loved that gadget to distraction, and me along with it. Years of great gifts followed, and the ring, the house, the family and all of the trappings of our life all followed, too. There are certain things you just come to expect from someone you've spent a decade with. And among the things Paul expects from me are perfect birthday gifts.

On Friday night, after we'd cut into the lopsided cake, I presented Paul with this year's gaily wrapped package. Inside, he found 3 new pairs of dress pants. "I'm so sorry it's so boring, I kept repeating. "There's just nothing you want or need this year. We've been spending a lot of money lately and you do keep saying that you need new work clothes. This just seemed to make so much more sense than spending a fortune on some random thing you don't even really want." He brushed off my apologies, repeatedly telling me that I was right and that the pants were the perfect gift. I still felt awful that it was such a boring birthday for him.

Twenty four hours later, we entered our friends' home for what Paul thought was going to be an intimate dinner party. And as he came face to very surprised face with his real gift, I knew immediately that I'd scored yet again. Paul buys himself everything he wants and needs, and he has every toy and gadget and device he could ever desire. But what he cannot buy for himself is what he craves the most, and that's time with his friends. One of the things that I loved the most about Paul when I first met him was his devotion to a tight-knit group of friends he'd known since childhood. Before the days of strict bedtime routines and expensive, hard to book babysitters, there was plenty of time to enjoy those friendships, and dinner parties and nights on the town with the gang were the norm. But such occasions are few and far between these days, and despite his happiness with our current life, I know how dearly Paul misses them. Surrounded by those people last night, holding court and enjoying himself as I've rarely seen him do in the past several years, Paul just glowed. And beside him, so did I, secure in the knowledge that I'd once again given my husband the perfect birthday gift.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Humming a Sheryl Crow song and Happy Birthday at the same time as I try unsuccessfully to make the frosting come out even

Thirty nine years ago today, my husband was born, just 11 months after his older sister. The fact that he was a teenager before he realized that he wasn't planned never ceases to make me wonder about the validity of that high IQ he claims to posses.

Thanks to my inlaws' inability to wait the requisite 6 weeks after the birth of their first child (an amusing idea since they have long since gone their separate ways), I have a life partner who balances me and completes me so effortlessly that I never even appear to be unbalanced or incomplete. He tames my boisterous side and quells my overanalytical side and somehow keeps me laughing in the process. My kids have the most natural father I've ever seen, one who teaches them and giggles with them and cares for them not just because he's supposed to but because he genuinely loves to do it. Paul makes our lives rich and he makes them fun. There are days when I still wake up and look around at the house and the kids and all of the "adult" trappings of my current life and I wonder what the hell I'm doing here. But then I look over at Paul and I realize that it's OK, because we're doing it together. And none of this would ever have happened if that old wives' tale about not getting pregnant while you're nursing hadn't turned out to be complete bunk.

Happy birthday to my favorite mistake. I hope you feel the same way about the lopsided cake Julia and I will present you with tonight as we feel about you.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Packing it in

"Just throw stuff out," many of you said in response to my shelving saga. In my heart, I know you're all right. But I just... can't.

It's long been established that I'm a pack rat (unsurprisingly, that drawer is a total nightmare again 5 months later). I fully admit my failings in this area and I really do aspire to improve. On occasion, I even get as far as entering the playroom with a garbage bag and as much steely resolve as I can muster. But then I stand in front of the sea of toys and I can picture my children playing happily with each one and I start to feel a nostalgic ache in my heart. I think about how happy they were to receive these things, about the good money that someone -- usually not me -- spent on them and my heart twists even more. I think about all of the creative ways that we could use these toys in the future, all the joy that they still hold in them, and my heart leaps at the thought that maybe there is still a reason to keep them. And at the end of all of this drama, I find that I have not stuffed a single thing into the garbage bag.

Not the stacking cups which I know both of my children have long since outgrown but which make such lovely color teaching toys and props for tea parties. Not the See And Say which no one has touched in two years but which might, I now realize, be the key to teaching Evan that not every animal says moo. Certainly not the Little People dollhouse which holds as many happy memories as dust mites. Not even (and this last one even I am at a loss to explain) the container full of small plastic toys collected from birthday party favor bags and that basket of crap they give out at the pediatrician's office. I'm too attached to all of it. It all has meaning and value. It all must stay.

I imagine there must be a 12-step program for people like me, or some sort of alternative shock therapy treatment. But in the end, I think it's probably just cheaper and easier to build more shelves. Lots and lots and lots of shelves.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I need to be committed

No matter which way you read the title of this post, it's still applicable. I love to commit myself, and for that, someone probably ought to lock me up.

There are two types of people in this world: committee people and non-committee people. I am a committee person.

It probably sounds better to say that my participation bug is fueled by my inability to say no to anyone, and in some small part that's true. But I suspect my nosiness and my need to always be in the thick of things are far more to blame. It doesn't matter if I'm in a professional setting, a volunteer organization or even a group of friends, I can not for a second stand back and let other people run the show. Every time I enter a new situation, I promise myself it will be different this time, that I will let others do the heavy lifting for a change. And every time, my genuine (though likely misguided) belief that I really can make a difference in an organization and that my skills would be an asset to the group takes over. And before I know it, the job (any job, every job) is mine. I'm a pretty lousy delegater, but I'm damn good at biting off more than I can chew. This is a lethal combination, and it's one that has gotten me into trouble more times in my life than I can count.

For the past four years that I have been home raising my children, there have been precious few opportunities to get myself into this kind of deep water. Apart from organizing playgroups (check) and mommy get-togethers (check) and group vacations (check) and birthday parties (check) and acting as the general repository for information about everything from local preschool registration dates to the "correct" order of vegetables to offer when starting solids (sigh... check), I haven't encountered too many situations that require -- or even make room for -- my "organizational expertise." I've been aware of this absence in my life and I've mourned it a bit, even halfheartedly made some attempts to locate some local volunteer opportunities and organizations that I might commit myself to. But the logistics have been daunting and the kids have been too all-consuming and for these reasons, plus a host of silly excuses on my part, it just hasn't happened.

And then somehow, this fall, things started to change. The increased demands of my nearly-4-year-old's social schedule now require frightening amounts of organizational skill on their own, but her absence from my house so much of the time frees me up a bit to do other things. And when those other things involve free babysitting for Evan, the lure of the committee siren song is just too great to resist. Suddenly, I am coordinating up the wazoo... creating forms and writing newsletters and organizing Picture Day and maintaining spreadsheets and setting up conference calls and thinking about events. I can feel myself falling into my old committee rhythm, and it feels good. It feels like me again. There's a swing in my step when there's a file folder in my hand. "I'm doing something other than wiping noses," my heels happily click out as I walk down a hallway.

There's only one problem with all of this, and that's my kids. Remember them? Yeah, they're still here and someone still needs to wipe their noses. And they get damn pissy when I'm not around to do it or when I'm distractedly swapping at them while I answer an email or talk on the phone. As happy as volunteering makes me, that's how unhappy it seems to make them. They're not interested in sharing me with anyone else yet. And the more I try to squeeze things in and the more those things impede their Mommy time, the less flexible they get about such things. To keep the peace around here, I'm starting to realize, I need to start doing less and simply being with them more. And I'm frankly not sure how I feel about that.

Four years into this Mommy game, I do feel entitled to a little piece of my old self, to the freedom to explore a few pursuits beyond the care and feeding of my children. Most of the things I'm currently involved in relate indirectly back to them through their school, but I've been bitten by the volunteer bug again, and now I'm itching to delve further into organizations completely unrelated to my "day job." At the same time, I'm realizing that if my priority is still going to be raising my children, I'm going to need to pick and choose how and when I extend myself. In other words, I'm going to have to learn to think long and hard before I raise my hand in a meeting. And I'm going to have to learn to say no.

Doing so goes completely against my nature, and it's contrary to everything I've ever known about myself. But as a parent of small children, my life is no longer fully my own. I do believe I can make room for some committees in my life, but I need to be damn careful that they don't take over my life. Most of the hours of my day are already spoken for, and I don't want to lose sight of my kids' needs in the process of meeting my own. And so I'll go slowly, or as slowly as I can. And perhaps, in the end, the lesson of moderation will be one of them most important things I'll end up learning from my children.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Good tidings to you and all of your toys

It's that time of year again and right on schedule, I've become a crazy person.

No, it's not the prospect of holiday shopping that's getting to me or the family logistics or the cooking or the wrapping, though now that I'm actually think about all of those things, most of them will probably make me crazy before the year is through, too. But for now, I'm completely preoccupied with the thought of where I'm going to put the avalanche of gifts after the holiday season is over.

The triple whammy of Chanukah/Christmas/birthdays which assaults us each winter, while a windfall of molded plastic delights for my children, is a veritable nightmare from an organizational perspective. The house, it is only so big. The toy shelves, they only hold so much. And they are already very, very full. So where to put the very thoughtful whatchamacallits and the not-so-thoughtful boxes full of itty-bitty pieces and the what-were-they-thinking-but-oh-boy-do-the-kids-love-it items which will arrive by the boatload in the next several months from well meaning friends and family?

Last year when the reality of what was coming sparked this same kind of hysteria, I frantically rearranged my family room, and in the process of doing so, I thought I'd completely given myself over to the Fisher Price Gods. A year later, with that room full to overflowing with last year's bounty, I'm forced to come to grips with the fact that my family room was in actuality only the earliest sacrifice we would make to the toy gods. The toys have, in reality, only just begun in their quest to take over my entire home.

Ever the optimist, I enter each holiday season with a great game plan to stem the spread of stuff. This year, I've turned my attention to our basement where, I reason, not only can we can store an infinite number of toys, but I will rarely if ever actually have to look at them. When we bought this house, one of the selling points was our giant finished basement, which was lined with shelving and filled with the toys of the two preschool girls who lived here before us. "What great play space," we said when we saw it. But we had no children for our first few years here, and despite the fact that we expected them soon, we were possessed with an unprecedented lack of foresight where play space was concerned. The shelves in that huge room came down and in came the pool table and the stereo system and the poker table and the beer fridge and in the end, we'd built ourselves a great playroom all right, but not one for children. What I'm left with for my kids down there is a much smaller room which we used to use as an exercise room. (Ha! Good riddance to you, evil Nordic Trak!) It will be an adequate, albeit small, playroom for Julia and a playdate or two to escape to on their own, but only if the toys do not take up valuable floor space. And thusly began our weekend quest to fill the closet in that room with kid-friendly shelves.

If Paul isn't ready to divorce me after this past weekend, he's clearly in this for life. He went to Home Depot no less than 6 times on Saturday and Sunday, in part to scope out shelving suggestions and in part, I suspect, to escape my lunatic "you must get this done YESTERDAY" rantings here at home. I had a vision of how I wanted the shelves to look. He had a completely different vision. In the end, we compromised, and we now have a closet full of shelves that neither of us love but neither of us hate (and most importantly, neither of us caved on). There is still work to be done to get the room ready for children to play in it, but thanks to my single-minded obsession and my husband's hard work, we now at least have a place to put the toys. Hallelujah. Or so I thought.

"Where in this house is MY stuff supposed to go," Paul grumbled as I piled up all of the sports equipment that used to live in that closet and sent him off to find a new home for it. "Don't be silly," I told him cheerfully as I began to place baskets of toys on our new shelves. "There are only two rooms besides the kids' bedrooms with toys in them. The rest of the house is still ours." But then I stood back and I looked carefully at the closet. I'd just put a few things we already owned on the shelves, and already they were about 1/4 full. I mentally started calculating exactly how much space I was going to need for the spoils of a 35-child birthday party. And as I carefully dusted off the remaining shelf space that I would be saving for those gifts, I silently acknowledged the sad truth. Come next year, I will almost certainly need to expand and find a new target for my pre-holiday hysteria yet again. Yesterday, the family room, tomorrow the basement. And next year? I have no idea. A modest addition, perhaps?

Friday, November 11, 2005

If she were 14 and not nearly 4, I'd be calling the authorities

A quote from today's playdate with a favorite male friend:

"It's OK, Mommy. He only put one thing down my pants."

I can't say as I feel greatly reassured.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Too close for comfort?

It goes without saying that we are enormously fortunate to have in each other the kind of friends who are truly family. That she and I were roommates before we were married and so were our husbands is a fun coincidence. That we have equally strong friendships with each other's spouses is a rare gift. That our kids are just as close as we are is just plain lucky. We're blessed and we know it. Countless daily phone calls and weekend get-togethers and "family" holidays and times when we lend each other a hand remind us how much richer our lives are because of each other.

But when I receive in my mailbox an advertisement addressed to a hybrid person -- someone with her first name and middle initial and my last name and address? That, I have to say, is a little too incestuous even for us. Sorry, my friend... I'm keeping the coupon for myself.

Things you never want to hear when you're trying to squeeze in a quick blog entry

"Mommy, is this stuff washable?"

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The opposite of a drive-by

It had been a long day, but the last hour of it had seemed the longest. I had spent the better part of the past twenty minutes trying to hustle Julia through a post-swimming lesson shower at the Y and my nerves were all but shot. After waiting through the whole lesson and the shower that followed, Evan had been sitting in a stroller for far too long and he wasn't afraid to tell me so. Julia was tired from her class, a situation that was manifesting itself in some of the most difficult behavior she knows how to display. Every one of my requests to participate in the shower process had been met with a flat "no." The simplest tasks were taking her five minutes to complete. She was being whiny and stubborn and altogether unpleasant. The temptation to simply leave her naked in the locker room and walk out of the building alone was frighteningly strong. I frankly wasn't even sure I wanted to bring Evan with me.

Child abandonment clearly wasn't an option, so I had no choice but to grit my teeth and finish getting Julia dressed. After her hair was dry (a nearly impossible task since she refused to stay within 10 feet of the blow dryer I was trying to aim at her head), I handed her coat to her and started to help Evan put his on. As I struggled to get his arms in the holes without releasing him from the stroller that I knew I'd never be able to get him back into if he escaped, a woman I'd never seen before caught my eye. Her kids were years older than mine, and she was simply sitting on a bench waiting for them to get dressed. If I'd had the time to think about it, I would have been incredibly envious.

"You're very patient with them," she told me.

I couldn't hide my shock. Hadn't she heard me snapping at Julia and begging Evan to stay put? Here I was entertaining fantasies of leaving my children alone to fend for themselves in this world and a stranger was lauding my patience? "Are you KIDDING me?" The words were out of my mouth before I could even consider them.

She smiled. "The way you talk to them..." she began. "You're very patient," she repeated as her kids appeared from their dressing rooms, all ready to go. And with that, she was gone.

I finished getting everyone into their coats and we all headed for the car. Julia was still whining and Evan was still squawking, but all of the sudden, I had a smile on my face. I heard myself thanking Evan for waiting so nicely for Julia and promising Julia a snack as soon as we got home. They both perked up a little bit. I was listening more to what they were really saying, I realized, and responding more to their needs. All of the sudden, I was being patient with my kids. And all because I was trying to live up to a stranger's perception of me.

Judgment flies fast and furious among mothers of young children. "Can you believe she's giving that kid a pacifier? He looks like he's almost THREE," we whisper to each other in the grocery store. "Do you know how much SUGAR is in that muffin she just gave her child," we mutter in coffee shops. "Thank God it's not my kid screaming like that," we think to ourselves as we silently watch other parents trying to calm tantruming two year olds in restaurants. As mothers struggling with unfamiliar situations, unreliable youngsters and more than a bit of uncertainty to begin with, these critical looks and comments often wound more than they should. However innocent their origin, such judgments can make us increasingly doubtful and defensive about our parenting decisions and skills, and that self-doubt can translate to some really lousy parenting. But in that moment in the locker room, I saw clearly how easily the opposite can be true. If we build each other up instead of cut each other down, if we show each other a bit of the respect that we all deserve for our work as parents, maybe we've got a better shot at being our best. And maybe our kids have a better shot at getting the best we have to offer.

I don't know what it was on my face or in my words that made that woman decide to compliment my parenting instead of judging me for my kids' misbehavior. But in doing so, she made me a better parent. I'd like to think that if she thought at all about the exchange when she went home that day, she recognized how much her words meant to me. And I hope she felt inspired to be a better parent herself.

Monday, November 07, 2005

I'll love you forever, but I'll try not to show it quite so much

OK, I'll admit it. I bought the book in large part because it sounded so cute when Joey read it on Friends. Yes, I'm a terrible pop culture addict. But how wrong could I go with a book about a parent who loves a child?

Uh, pretty wrong. I mean, have you read this book? The mother drives over to her adult son's house, climbs into the window and scoops him out of his bed to sing him a lullaby and rock him in her arms. A grown man. In, may I add, really geeky pajamas. The first time I read it to Julia, Paul and I were literally convulsing on the floor with laughter, tears pouring down our cheeks. Julia learned all sorts of new words that night, among them "psychotic" and "certifiable." I don't think she'd ever seen either of us quite so hysterical. It's possible we'd never seen each other any more amused.

After that first reading, I started to giggle every time I so much as looked at the book. I couldn't come near to getting through it with a straight face, to the point that I finally had to hide it because the weird choking noise that came out of my mouth every time I tried to get the words out without laughing hurt my throat and seemed to freak Julia out a bit. So much for celebrity endorsements.

This book's subject is clearly the pinnacle of crazy, over-involved mothers who can not let go of their sons, but her obsession is not all that unheard of. I know plenty of women who fawn all over their adult sons, indulging their every whim and calling them "my baby" and generally treating them like small children instead of grown men. It's a phenomenon, I've noticed, that rarely seems to happen with daughters, only sons, and it's made 100 times worst if a son also happens to be the baby of the family. To say I've always been scornful of such behavior would be rather an understatement. But can I keep up that stance now that I have an adored son of my own?

This weekend, Julia found the book tucked away in a hiding spot that apparently wasn't good enough and brought it to me to read. I giggled again as I sat down to indulge her, promising myself to find a much more permanent hiding spot for the book as soon as she'd gone to sleep. But as I flipped the pages and watched the son grow and the mother try to communicate her love to him, I started to get a little misty eyed. "Maybe this is how it is with a son," I thought. "Maybe I'll be this way with Evan, too. Maybe it's not so awful to call your grown son a baby."

And then I got to the page where the mother drives over to her son's house to cradle him in her arms, and the tender tears that had been in my eyes started rolling down my cheeks as I convulsed in laughter once again. No way. Not me. I'll love my kid from a safe, healthy distance, thank you very much. I'll happily hug him on holidays and at family get togethers, but I won't be scooping him out of his bed to croon him any lullabys. I don't know when he'll outgrow my public displays of affection, but whenever it happens, it's hands off for me. I'll let my kids grow up and move on some day, even if it kills me to do it. And I'm keeping this book to remind me how crazy I'll look if I don't.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Julia Mysteries Presents: the case of the dogs in the pumpkin patch

Back To School night was this week, and Julia's preschool class created special "Who Am I?" projects for the parents to enjoy when we visited their classroom. They each designed a pumpkin patch using orange fist prints for the pumpkins and green marker for the vines and pasted a digital photo of themselves in the middle of their patches. Then they taped construction paper pumpkins on top of their pictures to hide them. In each corner of the page, their teacher wrote one of their favorite things -- color, food etc. When the parents arrived in the classroom on Wednesday night, we were supposed to find our children's projects based solely on their answers and then lift the construction paper pumpkins to see if we were correct.

This should have been a no-brainer for us, but Paul and I were confused. Julia's favorite color has been yellow since she was 15 months old, and there were only two kids who had named yellow as their favorite colors, so we could immediately narrow our options down to two projects. Only one listed pizza as a favorite food. Done. Except in the lower right hand corner, it said "dogs at home." We don't have a dog, let alone multiple dogs, so surely this project belonged to a different kid. But none of the other projects looked even remotely like they could be hers. Finally, we lifted the pumpkins and peeked. The "dogs at home" project was Julia's.

"Did you tell Miss Sherry that you have dogs at home?" I asked Julia the next morning when she woke up. "Of course not," she replied. "Maybe you said that you wanted to get some dogs," I probed. Again, she shook her head. I shrugged and decided to let it go. There are a lot of kids in the class. Maybe Miss Sherry was listening to someone other than Julia. Maybe Julia was parroting another kid. Maybe she was so flustered by the one-on-one attention that she'd said the first thing that popped into her head. It didn't really matter. It had been a cute project.

I picked up a bit that morning while Julia was at a playdate and when she came home that afternoon, the project was lying on the kitchen table. She went immediately over to look at it. "It's my pumpkin patch! Did you get this at school last night?" I told her that I had. She studied it for just a second and then looked at me, confused. "Why does it say I have dogs at home?" she asked.

Miss Sherry laughed this morning when I told her the story. "The question was what they like to play with at home," she explained when I asked. "I swear she said that she had dogs. Wait... did she read that herself?"

And there, in a nutshell, is Julia at nearly 4. Mature enough to do some simple reading on her own, but not yet mature enough to answer a simple question in class. I would hasten to wager that the exact opposite could be said about virtually every other kid in her class. Leave it to my kid to be the one barking up a different pumpkin vine.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The write stuff

I have a little confession to make. I made a halfhearted attempt at becoming a published author this winter.

I'll never know what gave me the chutzpah to risk putting myself out there that day, but what started as a whim turned into a great writing exercise for me. I read a call for submissions for a series of anthologies about raising boys and girls on Andi Buchanan's site and I realized that a blog entry I'd recently written might be a good starting point for an essay that could be a good fit. I queried Andi via email, she responded immediately requesting a draft and, after 24 frenzied hours of editing and revising, I sent it out to her.

In the end, my essay didn't make the cut. Andi was incredibly gracious and complimentary about my writing and went out of her way to impress upon me that it was the flow of the essays in the book, rather than the piece I'd submitted, that ended up leading to its rejection. "It's good enough," she told me, and she encouraged me to submit it elsewhere and to keep writing. I was a little star struck, having so enjoyed her Mothershock book, to get such positive feedback from a writer whom I admire so much. I made immediate plans to start shopping around that essay, as well as several others I've been sitting on for a while now. "I'm not going to let fear of rejection or apathy hold me back this time," I told myself. And then I let a week, two weeks, a month pass by and I did nothing more about it.

I'm not really sure what's still holding me back from getting serious about a writing career. But while I'm dithering around making excuses and procrastinating, other women are writing some really fabulous stuff and it's getting published. This week, Andi started a blog book tour to promote the "It's a Boy" anthology and today she posted the first essay from the book. It says what I've tried more than once to say better than I could ever say it. So go check out her site. Maybe even buy the book if you're into that kind of thing. Just save a little of your money, because someday I really am going to get my act together. And when that happens, I want to make sure you've got some cash left to buy the book or magazine where my work finally finds a home.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

On raising an enlightened male

This morning, Evan not only noticed my new shoes immediately, he complimented them profusely.

Some day, his future wife (or husband?) will thank me heartily.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Note to Seuss: please time your rhyme so it sounds fine

I imagine that my habit of editing children's books on the fly as I read them aloud to my kids is not all that unusual. Plenty of parents probably substitute or omit words to make the content of the tales they tell their children appropriate, or at least a little more palatable. But how many of us do you think there are who re-word things to make the rhymes more melodic or to make sure that the cadence comes out right?

Dr. Seuss may have made a mint, but sometimes it literally hurts me to read some of his stuff out loud (if a good percentage of your words are going to be made up anyway, the least you could do is to get the syllable count right). Ditto hundreds of other children's authors whose words -- poetry or prose -- simply do not flow correctly. Sometimes, I don't even realize that I'm "fixing" their sentences until after the words have left my mouth. I'm generally pretty liberal about the ideas and concepts I'll read about with my children. But I draw the line at bad writing, and there is an astounding amount of bad children's literature out there.

Am I a terrible snob? Or do other people notice this stuff, too?