Cargo Bike Hooray

Isn’t that fabulous? Thanks to our friends at Alternabike and Velohangar, I can now bike both kids at once. And groceries too. Preschool is less than a mile away, so I never have to drive there again. Beach parking? No problem. Finding time to exercise? I just turned all my commuting into exercising. And, next year, other people will have the headache of waiting in long lines of cars at elementary-school dropoff while I bike right up to the door. I don’t mean to boast, but I am excited. My new bike is awesome. She’s stable, too, just a hardy giant caboose of a bike.

The only drawback is that I haven’t yet found an infant-sized bike helmet; they all seem toddler-sized. But I feel pretty safe in my neighborhood & in my biking skills, so today I just dressed Ev in that European-style beret and off we went for our first family bike ride. He seemed more bewildered than thrilled, but he tolerated it, and I am pretty sure that soon he will be enjoying it as much as Sophie.

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Even at 7 am

My experience of parenting veers between feelings of isolation and connectedness. Not isolated from Sophie — she’s sick this week, and wants me to hold her absolutely all day long — but isolated from adults, from anyone who can speak more than three-word sentences.

I live 70 miles from my work and the biggest problem with that is not the long commute (a prius, a pleasant drive, and plenty of podcasts of ThisAmericanLife make my twice-a-week commute almost bearable). The biggest problem with that 70 miles is that it precludes socializing with my coworkers. Nobody wants to commute 70 miles on the weekend, no matter how much we like each other. Thus, I’m relegated to finding friends on the playground or at yoga class and I’m not too good at that. I’m still nostalgic for the activist community I left behind in New Haven.

This week, though, was a week when I felt connected. T came over Tuesday evening with her daughter and the two girls played together so long that they ended up taking a bath together, which was adorable. Then after the girls both went to sleep, Ben had a great little good-bye party. It might have been the simplest party ever: I got him apple pie, he got pizza, someone else brought donuts, and lots of people brought British beer. It was the perfect low-stress say-goodbye-to-America-for-a-while event. It reminded me that, actually, I love my new San Diego community almost as much as the old New Haveners.

Then on Wednesday, my mom-friends astounded me.

Short story: On Wednesday, Sophie was too sick for daycare but I had to go to work.

Longer story: I realize that “have to go to work” is a relative term. I could have called in sick; no one will die if I don’t teach them American Studies. Still, on Wednesday, I had four one-hour meetings with grad students that were important to each of those students, and had already been overly-postponed. I also had to teach a once-a-week three-hour-class that I hate to miss. I have a work ethic. And I also have a need to get out of the house.

Usually, when Sophie is sick on Wednesdays, I take the morning off from work, then Ben takes the afternoon off. Almost every other day of the week, I can take the whole day off, but not Wednesdays. This Wednesday, Ben couldn’t get the afternoon off. It was his annual performance review meeting, it is three days until he leaves the country for six months, it just wasn’t a time when he felt he could miss work for a child’s cold.

So I emailed my mom-friends. They emailed their mom-friends. It was too early for phone calls, but email alone launched a web of support. Between 7 and 8 am on Wednesday morning, Jane’s nannie’s friend, Tori’s daycare-teacher’s-daughter, and Raquel’s sister-in-law all tried to rearrange their schedules to watch Sophie on Wednesday afternoon. Jane even offered to leave her two children with her husband, to cover the last hour before Ben got home, when the nannie’s-friend couldn’t.

Eventually, Sophie’s daycare-teacher also offered to take in Sophie, since Sophie had already spread her germs to everyone anyway, and afternoon is mostly nap-time. So I chose to leave Sophie in the most familiar space. She sat in a chair by herself, sleepily watching the birds, coughing and staying separate from the other daycare kids, calling out for Momma & Daddy. I feel terribly about leaving Sophie there, but grateful that Sophie’s daycare teacher allowed it — and I am beginning to recognize that most of parenting entails feeling guilty for one thing or another.

And my Wednesday classes and meetings were the best they’ve been all semester. Exhausted, getting sick myself, but still able to teach, perhaps because my haziness made my students step up their thoughtfulness.

Then all day Thursday, I got to hug Sophie, and procrastinate grading the 127 midterms I ought to be working on. I felt lonely again on Thursday, so it’s worth remembering how many folks are there to help me, even at 7 am.

Ben leaves on Sunday, and Sophie and I will have six weeks alone together, until we join Ben in Britain. In the next six weeks, I think, we’re going to be needing that network of help even more.

Eyes

Sophie has pink-eye. Fortunately, she loves the taste of antibiotics (disturbingly so), and Ben and I were able to juggle our schedules to be home with her during the day when she was too infectious to be allowed into daycare. I wonder, yet again, what do parents do when they have jobs that are less flexible than ours, which is pretty much every job?

While Sophie has pink-eye, I have 127 finals to grade. So I will end this post now.

Fathering

"I know she's soft and cudly cute and studly"

"I know she's soft and cudly cute and studly"

When I got home today from a too-long work meeting, I saw that Ben had picked Sophie up from daycare, colored with her, played, fed her, and then presumably gone out for a walk. He’d left a note on her coloring table. I guess she was enjoying watching him write letters, so he just kept writing whatever came into his head. This is going to embarrass him, but here’s his note, in purple crayon on yellow construction paper, decorated with Sophie’s squiggles:

I think Sophie is the prettiest girl I know. She’s soft & cuddly, cute and studly. She’s my little buddy. I like to take Sophie for walks on the beach and dance on the rug when it’s dark out. When Sophie is sleeping, I like to watch her dreaming. I think she is super de duper and hop we can play awhile.

Aww.

Can you do me a Sara

Sophie tends to overextend any new vocabulary word that she learns, so that “ball” means anything circular, “moon” means anything white in the sky, “kitty” means any four-legged creature. Lately, “Sara” means anyone who is about to help her.

Sara is the name of Sophie’s daycare teacher. When Sophie wants to say, “Can you please help me with this?” what she actually says is “Sara?”

I answer, “My name is Mama.”

So Sophie re-phrases her question: “Sara, Mama?”

Ben keeps laughing at this. He has started saying, “Can you do me a Sara?” He even tries calling me “Sara-Mama,” trying to take the sting out of that phrase.

I am trying to tell myself that it’s a wonderful thing that Sophie thinks of her daycare teacher as nurturing and helpful. It IS a wonderful thing. But it also hurts my feelings. Fortunately, I assume Sophie will grow out of it soon enough.

I mentioned this to another friend, a stay-at-home-mom whom we were visiting. “Well, that’s the choice you made,” she said. As if choosing to put Sophie in daycare three days a week meant choosing to lose my name.

I actually had trouble responding. I haven’t really talked to that friend since. It was a Friday, she had had a long week home alone with her kids, and was snapping at them, too. I think I just changed the subject. I tend to take a while to express hurt feelings, and even to question whether I should even be hurt.

So on Saturday I asked T, another mother who happens to also use daycare. “Are you sure that mother you saw on Friday was really your friend?” she said.

I had hoped that the supposed “Mommy Wars” had ended, that there was no need for jealous competition between moms who work outside the home and moms who stay at home. I had assumed that we respect each other’s choices and recognize that each choice contains its drawbacks. But I was wrong. Partly because my feelings can be hurt so easily by someone blithely announcing that putting a child in daycare means being replaced in your child’s affections by the daycare teacher. Partly because anyone would ever presume to say that.

I know that for both Sophie and me, her thrice-weekly daycare is a terrific arrangement. She has learned so much, felt so nurtured, made such close friends, and given me the chance to rejuvenate myself with other adults, not to mention earn a paycheck and do a job I love. But there is guilt, there is defensiveness, and it’s a strange thing.

So I keep telling Sophie, “My name is Mama, not Sara.”

And I tend to gravitate towards other mothers who also use daycare, in a self-segregation that has nothing to do with schedules (I’m home with Sophie on Thursdays and Fridays, so I could easily have playdates with the stay-at-homes) and everything to do with avoiding trampling on overly-senstitive feelings.

Choices

Sophie is thirsty, but she wants milk, not water. She wants it in the blue cup, not the yellow cup. But — and here come the tearful screams — she absolutely does not want the sippy-cup-cap on the cup. She doesn’t want the cap off the cup, either. She wants that cap to be precisely halfway on, halfway off.

And then she wants help cleaning up the dribbled milk.

All of this gets communicated in whining grunts, escalating quickly into desperate screams, despite my repeating, “Use your words, please.”

I used to subscribe to the parenting philosophy of offering a kid limited choices. Not, “Do you want to go to bed now?”, but “Which pajamas do you want to wear to bed?” I thought this was a nice way of giving young kids some sense of control and sense of consequences.

That was the theory. In practice, Sophie takes this to extremes. She wants to wear her gray socks, not the white ones. No, she’s changed her mind: she wants to wear her black shoes without any socks at all. And she wants those shoes on the wrong feet. No, mama, not that foot, this one! THIS ONE! She will whinefully scream, clawing desperately at her shoes, sometimes progressing to banging her head on the floor (or on my collarbone: that’s a favorite of hers, ask for a hug and then bang her head on my chest) until she gets her way.

I have actually let her go an hour or so wearing the left-sneaker on the right foot. It drives Ben crazy.

Sophie has had a cold for a week, her little nose is red-raw, she’s not sleeping soundly, and last night she didn’t eat much dinner, so — of course — being hungry, tired, and achy-sick, she’s been irritable lately. She doesn’t know it’s because she’s sick. She thinks it’s because the sippy-cup-top is not perfectly balanced between on and off the way she wanted it. We’re trying to keep her warm, rested, and satisfied, but yesterday the only thing that accomplished that was baby-tylenol, which I only give every six hours.

In between the drugs, I tried teaching her how to take a deep breath. I tried just hugging her. I tried teaching her the phrase, “It’s not a big deal.” I tried telling her that her whining was getting incredibly annoyingly nerve-wracking. I tried laughing at her. I tried letting her do as much as she can herself. When none of that worked and she lashed out, hitting my face, clawing mad over a sippy-cup top, I just walked away.

Of course I come back, 30 seconds later, hug her again, and we start over, mopping up the spilled milk. It may be me who has to work on remembering to take a deep breath.

I hope this cold passes soon.

The alphabet already

At dinner the other day, I said to Ben, “Do you think our kitchen fan is making a funny noise? It sounds to me like ‘Beeeee’.”

Sophie looked up brightly, eager to join in the conversation. “B,” she said. “A, B, C.”

I had no idea she knew the alphabet.

We tried out other letters, and, yes, someone has taught her to repeat letters. She can’t get much past “D” yet — she is only 20 months old, after all or maybe 21 by now. Honestly, I’ve lost track of how old Sophie is. She’s a few months short of 2 years old: I can say that for sure.

I ought to be proud that she knows “ABCD” already. I ought to be happy that her thrice-weekly daycare teaches her so much. I asked Daycare Teacher Sarah about it this morning, and she said, oh, yes, after Sarah cooks the healthy warm lunch that she makes every day (while watching 7 children under 2, including a 4-month-old, incredibly calmly!), then she has all the kids sing the alphabet song while waiting for their hearty soup/casserole/delicious-whatever to cool down to a temperature that toddlers can eat. Sarah is kind of perfect like that. Throughout the day, she creates teachable moments within a comforting routine.

Sophie has started calling all adults, “Sarah.” Including me.

Maybe that’s why I’m jealous. But I think it goes beyond wanting Sophie to remember that my name is “Momma,” not “Sarah.” It’s that I wasn’t in a hurry for Sophie to learn the alphabet. I myself was a late reader. My kindergarten teacher even suspected I was retarded, and it wasn’t until second grade or so that I became addicted to books. My friends with kids at the Waldorf School tell me that there’s no advantage to being pressured to read before age 7, that earlier isn’t better, that there’s plenty of other things that kids need to learn first, like how to play in a sandbox. Because I was a late reader myself, I’m inclined to agree.

But I think even Waldorfians and Montessorians would admit that when a child starts spontaneously reciting letters, it might be time to pull out the alphabet books, to nourish that curiosity, following the child’s own lead.

I guess this is the first of many regrets at how fast Sophie is growing up. She learns things from people other than me. She’s learning the alphabet far before I thought she would or should. She’s brilliant and wonderful and already growing up too fast.

Overparenting

A few weeks ago, the New Yorker reviewed a couple books about overparenting:

 

This used to be known as “spoiling.” Now it is called “overparenting”—or “helicopter parenting” or “hothouse parenting” or “death-grip parenting.” The term has changed because the pattern has changed. It still includes spoiling—no rules, many toys—but two other, complicating factors have been added. One is anxiety. Will the child be permanently affected by the fate of the hamster? Did he touch the corpse, and get a germ? The other new element—at odds, it seems, with such solicitude—is achievement pressure. The heck with the child’s feelings. He has a nursery-school interview tomorrow. Will he be accepted? If not, how will he ever get into a good college? Overparenting is the subject of a number of recent books, and they all deplore it in the strongest possible terms.

Most of us have heard of people who pipe Mozart into their child’s room….

Overparented children typically face not just a heavy academic schedule but also a strenuous program of extracurricular activities—tennis lessons, Mandarin classes, ballet. After-school activities are thought to impress college admissions officers. At the same time, they keep kids off the street. (In the words of one book, “You can’t smoke pot or lose your virginity at lacrosse practice.”) When summer comes, the child is often sent to a special-skills camp….

 

A year ago, I would have agreed: these ridiculous parents shouldn’t center their lives around their kids. Now, I’m not so sure. How else should a child be soothed to sleep, if not with piped-in music? We tend to use Juana Molina instead of Mozart, reflecting my own taste, but I’m sure someone will soon mock the new-agey multiculturalism of that choice, if they haven’t already.

Later, when Sophie gets older, should we avoid camps all together, or choose a bad overly-basic summer camp, to avoid being accused of the obnoxious snobbery of “special-skills camp”? Around here, the big thing is lifeguarding camp, where kids learn beach-safety while playing with a lot of other kids and many surfboards. Really, I don’t see anything wrong with that. I myself spent the best summers of my childhood working at the kind of camp that this article mocks.

The article actually makes many interesting points: an uncertain economy, the overcompensation of mothers who feel guilty about working outside the home, and the ridiculously escalating concerns about children’s safety and self-esteem are all blamed for the latest iteration of overparenting. There’s more here.

I hadn’t known that the idea of “brain plasticity” (the more you stimulate an infant’s brain, the more you help aid brain development) is mostly a crock, since almost all infants receive enough stimulation anyway, without mobiles and special polka-dotted mirrors and all the other infant toys for sale. According to the books reviewed in this New Yorker article, the best brain stimulation is self-stimulation, initiated by the child when the parents finally let that child alone.

I’m all for kids having free time and I’m all against centering a child’s life around college admissions, but I also see myself accused in this article about overparenting. Sophie already has so many toys that it’s hard to think what to get her for Christmas. Sophie has already graduated from infant-swim class and infant-sign-language class. She already owns a half-dozen CDs of kids’ music that are supposed to enrich her, not to mention a small jungle-gym, water-table, dollhouse, lego-table, a half-dozen musical instruments (the kazoo is her current favorite), a shelf-full of books, another shelf-full of stuffed animals, and more blocks than she can use.

Worse than all those toys, Sophie isn’t great at independent play. She wants to have me close by, watching her. If I start to read a book or talk on the phone, she gets upset. I’m working on teaching her to enjoy alone-time and to give me my own alone-time, but I am embarrassed that I have to work on it. I hovered so closely in her first few months, overpersuaded by attachment parenting theory, that now I have to wean Sophie from expecting hovering.

It’s not that I’m obsessed with her future college. She doesn’t have to go to the same elite college that I went to — but I do hope for her that she’ll have a sense of curiosity and a sense of adventure, and I want to nourish that already, giving her as many opportunities as I can to explore her world. I want to pass on to her all the advantages that I had as a child. It’s not about college, alone: honestly, it’s about class. I want to pass my class status on to my daughter. I’m high-class enough to think that that goes beyond college.

So here’s the part of the article that really bothered me: 

Sooner or later, all critics of overparenting get to the problem of morals—the sheer selfishness of these parents and of the children they produce. Even the pragmatic Marano makes this point. Why, she asks, aren’t parents “manning the barricades,” demanding benefits for all children? Why do they care only about their own? And doesn’t it bother them that the extra help they can buy for their children—the college-admissions courses, the tutoring—is tilting the playing field? Hovering, as most of these books acknowledge, is largely the preserve of upper-middle-class parents, and these people want their children to prosper as they did, fairness be damned.

This bothers me because I have been worrying about it ever since I was pregnant with Sophie and Ben started sneaking extra protein-powder into my food because our birth-class declared it was good for her brain. If every thing that we do for Sophie that is rumored to help her development, actually does help her development, then equal-opportunity is a lie. America only thinks that it’s an equal-opportunity employer. From even before birth, we were giving Sophie advantages — at least trying to. 

It’s not that it takes a lot of money to have careful nutrition during pregnancy, enough support to give birth without pain medication, extensive breast-feeding, stimulating toys, daily trips to the park, daily book-reading, lots of organic vegetables, no tv or movies, weekly trips to the library, quality childcare, and all the rest that Sophie has — not to mention the infant sign-language class and infant swim-class. None of that is expensive, really (even the classes were at our local Y), though it does add up, and it requires a baseline of having healthcare, money for groceries, and a neighborhood with parks and libraries (not to mention terrific used-toy stores here in my rich neighborhood). That baseline excludes far too many Americans. Still, more than money, it takes time and knowledge to give Sophie this upper-class life. And I know far too many families don’t have that time, let alone the baseline of healthcare and parks. 

Maybe they don’t need the knowledge, since so much of this style of upper-class-parenting is so mockable. I’m not about to impose this style of parenting on them. But I will work to create the necessary infrastructure. I sign petitions at momsrising. I try to vote for better libraries, parks, schools, healthcare, parental-leave, flex-work schedules, and all the rest that seems to me to be a prerequisite for decent parenting. I would do more, if I knew how. 

So I resent the accusation that because I provide for my child, I am selfish. Taking her to her doctor’s appointments doesn’t preclude supporting healthcare for all children. 

I think I resent it because I see how close I am to it.

Sick

Saturday morning I was too sick to stand for very long. Sophie couldn’t understand why I couldn’t hold her. I was too sick to eat, almost too ache-y to even breastfeed Sophie. Ben watched her all morning.

Then he got sick. 

I was better enough that I could watch her in the afternoon, but this watching involved lying in bed while she stood at the end of the bed, announced “Uh-oh” (in Sophie’s language, that means, “Something is falling,”) and then flung herself backwards onto the bed in a beautiful solo trustfall. Then she giggled at her own joke, scrambled up again, and did it again. I tried to teach her to say, “Timber,” but she was happy with “uh-oh,” and I was mostly napping anyway.

Fortunately, our neighbor Katie came by Saturday afternoon to take Sophie to the park, to give her some more interaction.

On Sunday, Sophie played scramble-over-daddy-while-he-sleeps-on-the-living-room-floor.

She even tried reading him a book while he slept. P1000376

The saddest part of that photo is that I was so tired, I didn’t actively engage her either. I just snapped a photo.

Sophie’s one outing for the day was when her dad woke up and took her to the supermarket.

I asked my mother, “How do single parents get sick?” and she said, “They don’t.”

I’m slightly better today. The house is clean, the laundry is done, and we already went for a walk with a friend — but my students’ exams aren’t graded, my lectures for this week aren’t planned, my research-agenda is slipping behind-schedule, and I think I need to spend the whole day outside with Sophie, to make up for her weekend cooped up with two sick parents. Thank goodness that tomorrow is Veteran’s Day, so my classes are cancelled and I can catch up on work.

Growing up

The other day, Ben had just returned from his Cross Vegas adventure, so he was still asleep when Sophie woke up. She looked at him groaning in bed, then toddled into the living room and hurried back carrying Ben’s favorite toy: a Bicycling magazine. She burbled as she handed it to him, then toddled away again to fetch him her favorite toy, too, which at the moment is handfuls of practice golf balls. I was so impressed. She’s sixteen months old and she already has empathy, she already has strategies for attempting to cheer up her dad, she’s already got truly astounding social skills.

I can’t claim much credit. I think that daycare taught her to share toys like that. When I drop her off in the mornings, the other children usually rush up to her, each with a toy in their hands, eager to be the first to get to pass a toy to Sophie. Sharing toys, waiting turns, accepting not being the center of attention: these are all skills that Sophie has, all skills that are astounding for her age, and all skills that we don’t really teach at home. She learned them at daycare. I can’t believe that I still sometimes feel guilty for leaving her at daycare three days a week.

Daycare has not only taught Sophie to be a decent human being: it’s also at daycare that she usually eats her most nutritious meal of the day, since Daycare Teacher somehow not only watches five toddlers all at once, she also cooks them hot meals for lunch, turkey stew and vegetable casserole and other foods far beyond Sophie’s at-home diet, when sometimes all she’ll eat are frozen mangoes, plain yogurt, and toast. Daycare is cleaner than home (I don’t know how Daycare Teacher does it), surrounded with lush greenery and a sense of calm, and when I come to pick Sophie up, they’re often deeply enthralled by some engaging task: counting stuffed monkeys or singing a song about tortillas or learning to throw balls to each other or even just getting their hair brushed, lovingly.

Really, it’s the perfect daycare. We looked a long time before we found it. Still, I feel guilty leaving her there. Work has been particularly busy lately, so Soph has been in daycare four days each week for the past two weeks, and they’re long days, too, 7:30 am to 5 pm. I feel like I’m missing out on Sophie time.

So here’s a list of Sophie’s recent skills, the ones that I’m almost-missing and want to hold on to:

  • Sitting in a grown-up chair at restaurants, not a high-chair
  • Dancing to country music, or any Prairie-Home-Companion-style music, in an awkwardly-cute arm-flapping way.
  • Going down the scary-fast tunnel-slide at the park.
  • Growing a mullet . When is it time to cut a baby’s hair?, I wonder. When she grows a mullet, I would have answered before this month, but I swear that Sophie’s mullet is cute and curled and will grow out soon.
  • Climbing onto the couch herself. Also the parent-bed and the top of her Lil Tikes picnic table. Fortunately, so far, she also knows how to climb down safely. I realize that “She hasn’t hurt herself yet” is a particularly stupid way of thinking, but I keep thinking it.
  • Saying “shoes,” “uh-oh,” “yes,” and a babbly version of “all done,” “I love you,” and a couple others, in addition to her stalwarts of “momma,” “daddy,” “hi,” “bye-bye,” “cat,” and “ball.”
  • Telling me what shoes she thinks I should wear. She wanted me to wear my crocs, because she was wearing hers. I thought I had another decade before I’d be getting fashion-advice from my daughter, but I thought wrong.
  • Giggling even more than she used to.
  • Hearing her dad come home almost before I do, and running to the door, squealing.
  • And, as already mentioned: bringing her dad his magazine in bed.