The Things We Say

August 19, 2014 § 4 Comments

Last week, Max and I went to an exhibit called The ABC’s of It: Why Children’s Books Matter at the main branch of the New York Public Library. We went with my friend Ana, and her baby Isabella. I loved seeing children’s books of yore, and how the art and the language of books have evolved. You can really see what a culture values through the fables it directs at children. I was especially struck by how books from the 1940s and 50s differentiated between girl behaviors and boy behaviors. I smiled, as I walked through the exhibit, and marveled at the subtle, quaint sexism of another era. 

Max1

After a while, the babies got restless and wanted to crawl. The floor at the library is cold and marble and walked on by a great many feet, so it didn’t seem fit for our purposes. Outside, it rained. We had to think of something else. 

So we took Max and Bella across the street to another branch of the library–one with a children’s section and carpeted floors. The kids had free reign over an entire aisle. Bella pulled books from the shelves and she zipped up to standing. Max army crawled his way to Ana’s purse and tried to empty its contents… into his mouth.

At some point, Max and Bella got into some baby roughhousing, and Bella pulled at Max’s hair. At first, he didn’t seem to mind, but eventually she made an overzealous grab, and he let out a loud cry, his lips wide and vibrating.

Max2

I comforted him for a while, but he wouldn’t stop wailing. So I said, “Be a man.” 

And then I wanted to go home and crawl into a dark corner and self-flagelate. I felt stunned: I’ve never said those words before, or even thought such a thing. It’s just not how I see the world. Men can cry, especially 8 month old men. What do I care? 

I would’t have said anything like that if Max were a girl. What would I have said? “Be a woman?” It’s a damn shame that our culture treats the genders differently in this respect. But I won’t get into that. All I’ll say is, I was mortified by how easily I slipped into the assumption that boys shouldn’t cry. And I was ashamed that I said as much–out loud!–to my son. 

Max3

As I walked home, I thought about a Huffington Post article by Lisa Bloom I read a while back. In it, Bloom talks about how often we engage in gendered speaking, especially to little girls. The article pointed out the common impulse to complement female kids on their hair and clothes. I’ve noticed this in myself, even though I purport not to make looks a headline. But still, I tell the little girls I meet: “I love your shoes!” Or, “You have such pretty hair.” Bloom suggests that we check this impulse (no matter how adorable the cowgirl boots or pigtails) and ask instead about what the child is currently reading, or what books she likes best. You’d think that would come naturally to a mom who brings her yet-illiterate baby to the library for playdates. But obviously, I have work to do.

I don’t want to be a person who reinforces certain tropes, especially not the ones that insist that girls look nice and boys act tough. And I have to be careful because, even at eight months, Max is a sponge. And we are both forming habits. 

Who knew that it can be so challenging to address infants and kids? Do you have any tips on how to talk to little people without resorting to discussions of looks or brawn? I’d love to know! 

Month 8

August 15, 2014 § 3 Comments

Max has officially graduated to big babyhood. When the light is just right, I see the shadow of a toddler behind him.

8 month 'baby'

He has 5 teeth, makes wordish gurgles, takes assisted walks and enjoys a robust sense of self. Sometimes I can see him trying out new poses or postures and actually getting a little scared–he looks at me with imploring eyes, like “Is this okay?” And, I’m like, “….No?”

ohhello

Because I do not think it is okay for him to grab onto the coffee table and reach for whatever adult things are resting upon it and then eat those things. But at the same time, a very big part of me wants to applaud his inquisitive spirit. I mean, it is hard to stand. And he never gives up. And I love that about him.

bedbeads2

I remember this experience from when I used to teach elementary school kids to garden: some of them engaged in ‘unacceptable’ behavior, (climbing trees; smearing mud on the mean girl; pulling carrots from the ground and eating them directly) but a big part of me wanted to say to these misfits “Go, kid, go,” because whatever mischief they were into was an obvious display of creativity and intelligence. There is a fine line between disciplining a child and allowing a child to explore his independence. But that job was bookended by hours (2-6pm) and those kids went home to other people. Now, I have to walk the line with my own little man–and this tension has come upon me sooner than expected. I didn’t realize that babies had so much agency. Or that they could get into so much trouble.

bedstraight8mos

Max accomplishes most of his mischief by crawling. Currently, he has a sort of dual mobility system, which consists of dragging himself across the floor on his belly. But, sometimes he’ll get up on all fours and rock back and forth and take some ‘steps.’ The combined effect of these forms of movement is a baby with his puffy diaper butt up in the air, whisking himself around with rapidity that belies his goofy pose.

sly

Yesterday, I sat at the kitchen table (centrally located) and read the newspaper. I must have read about a paragraph when I noticed that Max had disappeared. I went looking for him: behind the table, behind the cabinets, in front of the oven–he likes to gaze at himself in the reflection on the stove door. But he was nowhere. I might have searched for about 10 seconds, but it felt as though time had stopped.

Finally, I found Max hiding in a dark corner behind the front door, chewing the tassels of a rug with delight.  I have also found him in the bathroom, about to chew the rim of the garbage can; I have found him behind the big ottoman, holding himself in a standing position; I have found him emerging from under the bed. And always, he has this little look on his face: like, “Oh hey. Took you a minute.”

bedbeads1

And I can tell that Max loves the attention he gets when he’s found. Really, I think, attention may be the thing he’s most after.

Nowhere is his extroversion more apparent than on the subway. He kicks at my sides with excitement as we descend the stairs. He has learned already that train cars = captive audiences. I make a few apologies to whoever is seated to my left or my right, but most people lean in. He extends his arms, glad-handing anyone close by. He’ll try to extricate himself from the carrier and into the arms of anyone who engages with him. Several times, I’ve seen him gently stroke a stranger’s face with the back of his hand. And I don’t know whether to say, “No, Max, no touching the strangers,” or whether to smile and let it happen. I want him to be open and curious and kind to all types of people. Then again, there will come a time when randomly face-stroking a stranger might be misinterpreted. I should prepare him for that.

 

First-Ever Family Vacation

August 8, 2014 § 4 Comments

I am happy that we’re back from our first family vacation, because I think we might actually get some rest.

The Way to the Beach

On our way to the beach

A week-long vacation with just a Mom a Dad and a Baby is a big deal. All of the schedules and routines are gone and the great new world is eminently explorable. I have two things to say about our trip, both of which I have heard from other people: a day as a full-time parent is a day with the highest highs and the lowest lows. And every day (as a metaphor for childhood itself, I guess) is the longest shortest time.

6am Walking by the Foggy Shore

6am: walking by the foggy shore

Our week on Nantucket was equal parts fun and exhausting. With the exception of one evening, we had no babysitters (or grandparents) on board to help. Also, Max got a tooth. We spotted a tiny white spot on our first morning, a tiny death knell of sleep.

 

Out to Dinner

Out to dinner

And, all of a sudden, Max discovered his legs. He uses them to scoot with alarming rapidity across the floor and can lift himself to standing if there’s something to grab onto. If there isn’t, he’ll scoot until he finds a table or a foot stool of the appropriate height. If there’s nothing like that around, he’ll reach for your hands so you can help him up. When he stands, he sways and grins his 4 1/2-toothed grin like a drunken Elvis impersonator. His eyes shine with excitement all the time. Sometimes, he won’t go down until 9:30pm because he’s working on standing in his crib. He’s just not interested in rest. Unlike his parents.

The vacation has me asking this vexing question: why are people so sweet and sympathetic when you have a newborn? Is it just because you’re being initiated into the club of new parenthood? Because, frankly, I felt like our first family vacation was a dramatic hazing ritual.

Little Man, Big Hat

Little man, big hat

My newborn was a trifle of a thing compared to my 8 month old. Yeah, okay, Max didn’t sleep through the night when he was first born, but he doesn’t do that now, either. I’ll tell you what he did do, though: he lay around all day in his travel crib or his chair, basically immobile. It was an exciting thing if he opened his eyes. Sometimes he made a few peeps, but those could be addressed by feeding or changing. That was life for about 4 months. If my Max behaved so pacifically now, I’d take him to the ER.

Dad's Glasses

A perfect beach day for Max entails twisting out of a lap and swallowing fistfuls of sand, then pooping the dunes back out again. He delights in grabbing at cups, especially the ones that grown ups like best–those full of tequila or coffee. Max envies nothing more than a pair of glasses, which he’ll pull from your face and mouth and manhandle so that there are a hundred greasy prints on the lenses and threads of drool along the frames. If there is a thing of danger, it emits a small honing sound in Max’s vicinity. Knives, boxes of nails, sharp sea shells–they all send him a tiny signal, imperceptible to adults. If you are missing your ice pick, invite us over. Max will locate it for you.

A Highest High

You can tell we’re tourists by the onesie

Today, I offer my deepest admiration to parents who raise kids 100% by themselves–no baby sitters, no ‘breaks.’ It is a whole different ball game when you know you can take that 1 hour nap or put down your defenses and focus on something adult for a specified period…like going to ‘work.’ I fall on bended knee to the parents who do it without a partner–especially when there is more than one child involved. Where does that energy physically come from? Please tell me.

Max Waits for Dinner

Max waiting for dinner

So there was exhaustion and there were a few panic attacks (when did he start chewing on that old bandaid and where did he find it?) but there were also the highest highs: ingredients for meals collected at farm stands and fishmongers and prepared while Max drummed the floor with his wooden spoon; sandy bare feet out the car window; soft yellow light through Max’s John Bon Jovi hair, which fluttered gently behind him in his breezy car seat. The little man in a big man’s baseball hat on the beach. I especially love his tan and the pale crevices between his fat rolls. And, because we had no babysitter, we finally brought Max out to dinner with the grown ups. He was so proud to sit in that little chair and participate! And I was so proud to keep a hold of my margarita and my butter knife.

After The Fall

July 30, 2014 § 4 Comments

The fall was my fault. I put Max on an ottoman while getting ready to leave a friend’s house, and as I did it, I thought to myself, “I shouldn’t put him on this ottoman.”

But it was only going to be for a minute–just while I strapped on the waistband of the baby carrier. And I was watching him. He was right there in front of me.

And then the phone rang on the table behind me, and I looked back. And in the second I took to turn my head, Max rolled. I reached out and grabbed his waist in mid-air, but I did not stop his head from hitting the ground.  I heard a sharp thud. It wasn’t the sound of a crack or a break, but it was sharp. It sounded mean. 

The tears were commensurate. Max doesn’t cry a lot, and he’s generally consolable. But this was different–this was real pain. And suddenly, I became aware of a whole new host of feelings of my own.

I felt abusive. I might as well have thrown him on the floor myself, knocking his head against the ground. 

We rode the train home. Max didn’t cry much, although he started to fuss at 14th street–the halfway point of our trip. I sang to him and let him chew on the corners of my magazine. And then he relaxed and became limp. And then I thought, of course: He’s in a coma. 

It was an especially deep sleep, which was not inappropriate, since it was already 7pm. But still, I felt my heart fluttering and that cold feeling of adrenaline running to my fingertips as I climbed out of the subway. Max drooped out of the Ergo all the way home.

Naturally, while I walked the two blocks home, I did some urgent, cursory googling of ‘baby concussions.’ In addition to reading about the physical symptoms, I went straight to the panic-inducing comments section. This one in particular was a real treat: “No matter how gentle the fall, take your baby to the ER, ladies, mine had internal bleeding and needed neurosurgery…Thank God I listened to my woman’s intuition.” What is the difference between cortisol and intuition? I wondered. Fortunately, I lost service in our building stairwell. 

I hurried up the the apartment, trying to wake him as I went. Nothing. I tried to wake him while I turned the key, but his head only slumped to the side. At this point, I could feel the rapid, hard thump of my heart against his body. Finally, I got into the bedroom and slid him out of the carrier onto the bed. He opened his saucer eyes and smiled. 

We did some of our ritual tickling and he laughed; he had a bath and tried to stick his fingers in my ears and nose as I bent to wash him. All good things. Plus, his pupils were the same size and he had no clear fluid running out of his ears, two of the gorgeous symptoms babycenter.com had me searching for.

I put him to bed and called the doctor. We had a simple and sensible conversation, where she asked me details of the fall. “The ottoman was approximately 18″ high?” “He fell onto a carpeted floor?” “You broke the fall?” Her reception of these details indicated that she’d seen worse. She told me keep an eye on him through the night–checking every hour or so for signs of lethargy or unresponsiveness. “The first 6-12 hours are the most critical time,” she said. Waking up every 60 minutes felt like an appropriate penance, frankly, for my gross negligence. 

And this morning all is well: except that I realize just how vigilant I have to be from now on, and I wonder–will I start to see the whole world as a minefield? Every corner in my house, every table and plug, has taken on a new, sinister aspect. There’s also this unpleasant new reality: no matter who’s watching Max, or how careful we’re being, I will feel a horrible, sinking and pervasive sense of personal failure when anything bad happens to him. This is the shadow of what people mean when they say, “You never knew you could love someone so much.” 

Chicken Cacciatore

July 24, 2014 § 3 Comments

I am calling this chicken cacciatori  because I like the way that title sounds, catching on my tongue. Cha-cha-cha-Tori! 

Cacciatori

But if you are a purist of any kind, please forgive me. This recipe is almost entirely improvised, (every time I make it) and was not passed down to me from a Nona or a friend’s Nona or even from a Batali cookbook. It’s really just simmered chicken thighs in tomato broth with vegetables, wine and olives. 

But, oh, it’s so much more than that. The ingredients really mingle and dance. When I cook it, I want to spin around and say its name over and over and over: Cha-cha-cha. Tori! The urge to  sing its praises gets stronger as the days go by, so its best to make a bit ahead. 

This meal has become a favorite in our household for a few reasons. First, it requires just one pot. Second, it’s virtually foolproof. Cooking this is like painting with acrylics: you can make a few mistakes and fix them as you go. Also, it’s excellent in any season. As a stew, it’s comforting in the cooler weather, but it’s also brimming with summer vegetables, and is great for those overwhelmed gardeners with zucchini coming out of their ears. (Emily!) 

Generally, I try to make something more interesting than poultry when guests come for dinner, but this is an exception. If you spoon this over polenta with melted blue cheese, as I did on Tuesday night, you won’t feel at all ashamed of serving something as quotidian as chicken. You might only be ashamed of not making enough for seconds or thirds.

Chicken Cacciatore 

Serves 4

Sauté 2 pieces of bacon or pancetta over medium high heat, and set aside. In the renderings, brown 2 pounds of chicken parts (I like thighs… yeah). You could also use butter, or olive oil, or a combination. When the skin is brown, (after a few minutes on each side) remove the chicken with a slotted spoon, and set it aside.

In the same pan, Sauté 1 chopped red onion until soft. Add a few chopped cloves of garlic. When the garlic is just softening, add a couple of chopped peppers (I used red and orange) and a couple of chopped zucchini. (You may want to add a bit more fat, or wine or liquid from the tomatoes to keep things moving.) When the vegetables are softening, pour in a 28oz can of crushed tomatoes and 1 cup of white wine and bring to a simmer. It never hurts to swirl in a tablespoon of tomato paste, if you have it. Throw in a handful of chopped parsley and a couple of bay leaves.

Before the vegetables get too soft, add back the chicken, skin side up. Throw in a generous handful of olives–I use a mix of Castelvetrano and Gaeta, but any olives will do. Cover the pan and let the chicken and vegetables simmer for a great long while–longer if you’re cooking chicken breasts whole. (Often, I remove the chicken from the pan after a while and shred it with a serrated knife. I might then use the bones along with some garlic and onion to make a chicken broth in which to cook my polenta.) Season the dish as you go–sometimes I like to add red pepper flakes. I throw in some torn basil at the very end.

I like this over polenta cooked in chicken broth with melted blue cheese. If I used pork at the start (either bacon or pancetta) I add it to the polenta before pouring the cacciatori on top. 

The Long Arc

July 17, 2014 § 4 Comments

The arc of parenting is long, but it bends towards…regret? Reexamination? Redemption? I hope the latter.

Getting dirty

I’m remembering the sleep training– how I said that I could tell the difference between a cry of distress and a cry of complaint. I am hanging my head now. I am prepared to admit that, actually, I cannot tell the difference. And, there’s more. In general, I have no idea what I’m doing. Even though, at other times, I’ve thought otherwise. Things work, and then they don’t. Or maybe they never did, and I only believed they did. I muddle through, I mess things up, I feel bad. Max is happy anyway, lucky us.

For example, I thought that sleep training was the greatest thing a few months back. We worked our way up to 12 hours of solid sleep! But then summer came, and traveling happened–new rooms, new beds, new smells. There was a pretty incredible emotional event that shook us all. Max picked up on that, no doubt, in his baby way. Gradually, we were waking up 4 times a night again.

Floating

So I did what had previously worked. I let Max wail and wail. For 3 days this went on. And then, he started sleeping better. But on the morning of the third sleepless night, I noticed a little spot of white. A tooth had broken through. So all of those nights he had been crying in pain. And I had lain in bed, thinking I will not give in to your demands, you squirming worm. Well, shit.

Also, Max has become so mobile at night that he frequently gets wet: we’ve tried every kind of diaper (including bigger ones) but none stands up to his crib-time athleticism. I’ve gone into his room on a number of occasions only to discover his little body wet and cold. Even so, he might cry in that gentle, complaining way, not with all-out shrieks of misery. And that just about confirms it for me: no more sleep training. 

In fact, the sleep is pretty good. I can’t complain. But there have been so many shifts and changes and teeth and new types of acrobatics that I feel like I’ve just got to cut the kid some slack. So he wakes up once a night, so what? Frankly, it’s easier for me to be awake with him for 10 minutes than to worry about whether he is suffering.

I have to laugh at my earlier convictions and confidences. And I have to assume that this kind of cycle will play out for us again and again over the course of his childhood. Mom knows what’s best. Ooops, no she doesn’t. Just don’t tell him I said so.

The Existential Baby

July 8, 2014 § 4 Comments

Do you ever have the feeling that something is missing? Even when things are going exactly right? I do: it’s dogged me since early in high school… around that time when I became achingly self-aware. Often, I feel like I’m looking for something, as if something is wanting, even when everything is in place.

The Ambling Sailor

The Ambling Sailor

I woke up yesterday and looked around my apartment. By all accounts, I had everything–I good things at that instant and good things just ahead. There was my hot coffee on the table and the promise of breakfast. There was the promise of a day with Gisela, (Max’s wonderful babysitter) which meant that I could spend hours doing things for myself, like writing and exercising. There was the promise of a cooking with Mom at the end of the day. And, of course, there was Max in that moment, on the rug, looking at me with a two-toothed grin, reminding me that love is bottomless. Still, I felt a niggling vacancy. It’s not ennui, because I don’t feel at all bored, but it’s a feeling that I ought to be struggling or fighting more than I am.

Then again, when I am struggling, I always wish myself out of that, too. For example, in law school, I couldn’t wait for graduation. When I was studying for the bar, I wished it would be finished. (Not the best example, maybe, because who wouldn’t?) If I were at the DA’s office working right now, I’d be wishing I were at home with Max. Parenting has been the only experience I’ve had since my own childhood when I have felt totally present. But even when I am with Max I find myself fretting sometimes about my other goals and ambitions. And then there’s a terrifying, gut-wrenchingly non-event:I realize that I am already, in this moment, fulfilling my purpose. It’s just that I am programmed to keep looking for more. I am programmed to feel dissatisfied because it helps me evolve.

If only always

If only always

This first occurred to me when Max was on my lap this weekend. He had everything an individual his age could want: a clean diaper, a full belly, a recent nap, and a set of adoring arms wound around him. But still, he fussed and mussed and he squiggled and squirmed. And I wondered why he had to be grabbing for this or that thing, and why he couldn’t just be settling happily into the moment.

And poof! Just there, in my arms, I saw myself. This is exactly what I do. Comfort and stability are always what I’m after, but when I have them, I feel a need to upset the balance. Little man reminded me how very human this preoccupation with preoccupation is. It must be an evolutionary thing–after all, if we stop feeling curious, we stop learning, and if we stop learning, we stop forging ahead, and if we stop forging ahead, we get eaten. Or something like that.

But there is a difference between curiosity and dissatisfaction, and I don’t want to be a malcontent. I don’t want to be addicted to the struggle–to the drama of a rise and fall of cortisol and adrenaline. I want to be here, and satisfied with that, especially because in this moment, I have what I want. There are some things I think I can do to ground myself more fully in this happy time. Then again, those things (meditating, becoming more spiritual, volunteer work, finding time to see a shrink, etc.) strike me as their own set of aspirations. It doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing, it just amuses me that my solution to getting more present is to create a new to-do list.

Please tell me, fellow humans, how do you manage with the insatiable creature inside your head that yearns for something more, even in the middle of the very best?

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