The men that make us who we are

My mother did all of the housework and childcare. My father worked long hours at a physically demanding job. My mother often worked part-time, to supplement the family income. My father worked a lot of overtime. My mother still frequently bore the brunt of the housework and home management. We were never for lack of things we needed, like food, shelter, medicine, or love. Even when my parents’ money belt was tighter than was comfortable, every holiday was a moment for celebration. Even  religious ones, like Easter, were celebrated despite none of us ever attending church or talking about religion. A small stuffed bunny and a card. On Valentine’s Day, a small box of chocolates and a card. Cards often.

Holiday cards given to and by my family have always carried weight to them. My father, who struggles to put words to his emotions. He was the byproduct of a childhood with a father who offered few vocal expressions of love, a man who thought tough love was the best kind of love, because tough love benefited his sons the most. So when holidays came around, or birthdays, or anniversaries, he spent a not-insignificant amount of time on a hunt for just the right card — one that perfectly captured what he struggled to say. He still does, because he knows that verbal affirmation is important to a great many people, his wife and children included. Because of him, and my mother’s matching enthusiasm, they eventually grew to mean as much to me.

Quinn’s family, well — our childhoods were quite different. “Cards are dumb,” he told me once, very early into our relationship.

“Cards are important in my family,” I said.

He shrugged. “What’s the point?”

I dropped it. Is that why he hadn’t said anything about the card I gave him on his birthday? I wasn’t going to force sentiment on someone that didn’t want it. Inside, though, I was gutted. I haven’t bought him a card since. He’s an acts of service kind of person. That is, he shows his love by doing things for the people he cares about. Like fixing my car countless times, to save me money. Like doing the worst diapers because the smell makes me gag.

My dad sent Quinn a father’s day card this year. I saw the envelope in the mail, and as I handed it to Quinn, I warned him, as I had six years ago.

“Cards are important in my family,” I said. “I know you think they’re dumb, but throw him a bone.”

He smiled one of those Sorry, I goofed up smiles. That card was not signed by my mother. Only my father. Just man to man. Dad to dad. Family to family. Nothing sentimental — they haven’t reached that point in their relationship — but humorous and thoughtful. We’re family now. You’re a good man. Thank you for loving my daughter and grandson. Inside (because he is a dad, after all), he tucked a photo of me when I was 18, in my senior prom dress.

Thought you’d get a kick out of this, it said.

“This is great,” Quinn said. “I love your parents.”

Toddler Birthday Parties are Pointless

Not long after I talked about the pressure to have more kids, we were invited to a two-year old’s birthday party. All of their extended family (both sides), pizza, cake, lots of kids, and us, the only guests not directly related to the birthday boy. Ben ran around and ate junk food. I held a teeny little baby. Quinn drank beer and talked about fantasy football. The birthday boy ate cake when instructed, cried when people sang, and didn’t pay much attention to the gifts his mother helped him open. He was more interested in playing push car outside with his cousins.

It was fun, noisy, and — as pre-k birthday parties go — more for the benefit of photo-ops and grandparents than for the birthday boy himself, who was perfectly content to play with his push car the entire time. Nobody has been able to explain to me why birthday parties for non-verbal age children are a thing. The only birthday party I clearly remember from my childhood was the one where I had a huge sleepover in third grade and I ended up in my bedroom crying. My poor mother put so much work into my first big party and I played drama queen over hopscotch.

Maybe it’s guilt rearing its head, but my thing — the thing I wish was everybody’s thing — is that birthday parties for toddlers too young to speak in clear sentences should be for the parents. Congratulations! You survived another year of toddlerhood! We bought you scotch to celebrate-slash-commiserate.

This is a thing I think everybody should do: bring a small gift for the parents when attending a toddler’s birthday. We’ve done this for the last handful of kids parties we’ve been invited to. In exchange we receive gratitude, and often and a laugh. No, a bottle of wine or homemade cookies doesn’t lessen the intensity of parenthood. But the gesture — I see you, fellow parent. You’re doing great. — might relieve just a bit of the constant and overwhelming pressure that looms over the head of every parent.

It’s not everything, but it’s something. The villages that raise our child are only as strong as the support they are given.

The sleep thing, part 2: no more bottles

*Old lady from Titanic meme*
“It’s been 84 years…”

We were down to one bottle in the house. I thought Ben might be able to taper off bottles and night feedings. “It’s for emergencies,” I told myself. I told everybody and, bless them, nobody had the heart to tell me it was a terrible idea. I thought having an emergency “tantrum-stopping” bottle on hand was a good idea.

It was not a good idea.

A bottle was my trick to get through the end of a restaurant meal if Ben was getting squirmy. Restaurant time goes like this: sit down, order food, one of us takes Ben outside to walk around until the food arrives. It’s not ideal, but Ben gets excitable in new places. He wants to explore. So we compromise. He can explore until the food comes, then he has to sit down with the adults while we eat. As he’s not even two, I consider this a win-win compromise. Only a couple of times have I had to break out a bottle to finish off a meal.

We had to break out a bottle last month while finishing up dinner with friends from out of town. It was closing in on bedtime, which only added to Ben’s frustration. Long story short: Ben’s very last bottle was set on top of the car and lost forever when we drove off.

“We wanted to get rid of the bottles. Guess we’re going cold turkey. On a Tuesday.”

It took a few days of “BA-BA! BA-BA!” and 30-minute tantrums, but Ben conceded and took to sippy cups and straws and (get this) even open cups with enthusiasm. The tantrums I’d previously had no patience for suddenly became fewer and shorter. They last barely a minute now.

The problem:

  • Ben still isn’t sleeping through the night

What I have tried:

  • Everything Google can throw at me

What I haven’t tried:

  • Black magic, bribes, begging

What’s working for now:

  • Nothing

What bottle weaning didn’t do, however, is stop the night wakings. It reduced them, coinciding with his newfound appetite, but didn’t eliminate them. There’s no schedule to his wakings, which makes me feel like his need isn’t physical (hungry, wet, cold/hot) but emotional (nightmares, separation anxiety). But… we’ve bed-shared a lot in Ben’s life. If I tell him “It’s time for bed,” he — get this — goes to our bedroom, climbs onto a pillow, and pulls up the blanket. So, you know, he gets it. He gets bedtime. He even knows how to stay in bed. He stayed in our bed after tucking himself in for over an hour while Quinn and I watched TV in the living room. He gets it, the little butt head.

What we’re trying next:

  • Skipping straight to a twin bed, because one of us will inevitably end up spending the occasional night in there

Fast-forward one IKEA trip on a random Wednesday night, two days waiting for the mattress to arrive, and one toddler with a drill and — voila! No more crib. Ben loves new things. He almost burst with joy when we let him loose in (a very empty) mattress display at IKEA to see what works for his little legs. And… he slept through the night. Twice.

Last night was night three. And guess what? He can open doors.

Fuck.

 

So Mother’s Day was last weekend

Within a span of eight weeks in the spring we have four birthdays, one anniversary, and Mother’s day, a day which I’m told that in some places mothers get to do this thing called… re- re-lax? I think that’s it. Anyway, Spring is hectic. But it means I get to buy presents. Lots of presents. Are love languages still a thing? Because I guarantee you gift giving is mine. What does that say about me?

I don’t even need the excuse of a holiday to buy someone a gift. Quinn, however, stalls out when an occasion arises that calls for a gift. There’s a lot of pressure in gift buying. I get it. I kind of like that pressure. Gift giving is a way of acknowledging the ways in which we value relationships. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not buying Quinn thousand dollar watches. It’s a way of saying I care about you, and so I’ve done this thing that I feel is reflective of the person you are. But over the past few years, I’ve started asking for donations

For my mom this year, I made a donation to Every Mother Counts in honor of my own mom (don’t worry, she also got a commemorative plate celebrating the royal wedding). We make modest donations at Christmas to women’s shelters in our area. For my birthday this year Quinn made a donation to Lambert House, an LGBT youth center in my hometown that I’d never heard of before. It was perfect, thoughtful, and a reminder that Quinn not only understands my values, but shares them.

It’s a tradition I hope to keep as Ben grows older, one that teaches him that giving is more than toys or trinkets — it’s consideration and compassion. In my dream future, summer vacation will be dotted with a few volunteer hours. Christmas will involve picking out toys for kids on the giving trees around town.

Time is not something we have in excess of these days, but we are fortunate to be without significant debt; giving money is the next best thing we can do, for now. That, and working towards raising our child to be conscientious of the needs of others. Kindness, and compassion — that’s what I want for him.

In Defense of Mom Jeans

We had friends over for an impromptu play date last weekend, and a friend lamented to me: “He (her husband) was giving me grief over my mom jeans. Look at where my jeans hit.” She held up the hem of her shirt, revealing jeans that hit right at her hip. “Rose, are these mom jeans?”

“Please. I wear jeans that cover my belly button.” Something was also said about telling him to pull his pants up.

“Exactly,” she said. “Does he want to chase a toddler in low-rise jeans?”

I realized, in that moment, what I look like now.

The most frustrating thing my mother ever said to me during my teenage years, those delicate, hormone-fueled years of insecurity and self-doubt, was that confidence, the thing I so desperately sought, would come with age. I hated hearing that. But… she was right.

When I was young — even up through my 20s — I caught myself spending too much time in changing rooms, too much time fidgeting with the hem of my dress, too much time fretting over non-existent bulges that were “unflattering.” Every aspect of my appearance was subject to scrutiny: my hair in profile (too flat), my cuticles (ever ragged), my thighs (why are they so round on top?). It was exhausting.

Fast forward a decade. You know what my mantra is now? Fuck flattering. My God, is it a liberating way to live.

I have no great ( or witticism to insert here, and no funny commentary about letting myself go, “coin slots”, or the sheer lack of care regarding fashion trends these days. Give me 15 minutes and I can whip myself into something presentable, clean, and toddler-chasing ready. That’s about as good as you’re going to get.

Guess you’ll just have to settle for a good conversation.

I forget things. A lot.

When I was pregnant, we set up an email address for Ben. Only Quinn and I have it. I had the intention of writing Ben letters from time to time, with the hope that he would someday read them when he’s older and be able to understand his mother for the person she was, both before he was born and when he was too young to form lasting memories. As we approach Ben’s second birthday, I have written three of these letters. I keep forgetting he has an email address.

I keep forgetting a lot of things.

Eight months ago: an expectant first-time parent asks me about my postpartum experience. I can’t recall any details beyond exhaustion and a deep sadness.

Two months ago: a friend points out that Ben’s large birthmark has faded entirely. I forgot he ever had a birthmark.

Last night: I catch myself being surprised that Ben’s eyes are brown now. How long have they been brown? They used to be blue.

The idea of having another child at this stage in my life, when my first is approaching two and I am nearing approaching 34, seems like the worst idea in the history of everything. Quinn and I will be in our 50s by the time he’s graduating high school. So as someone with both feet firmly in the one and done camp, I feel a lot of pressure to get everything right this first (and only) time around. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled my eyes when other women have cooed at complaints of nights spent cluster feeding or comforting a sick toddler. “Cherish it!” they chirp. “It goes by so fast!”

Right, I think. I’m definitely going to cherish memories of being pissed on and kept awake for days on end.

Like so many other days, today I can only seem to focus on the exhaustion I feel after a weekend of clingy, congested tantrums. When I talk about my frustrations, I can only recall how many nights he hasn’t slept well, how many nights he refused to sleep in his crib, how many times I have had to leave the room during an inconsolable tantrum. I manage to forget — like always — the many, many ways Ben has improved. I forget that bedtime is a breeze 90% of the time, that he can drink from an open cup without spilling, that he will try a bite of any food at least once. I forget all the nights he sleeps 10 hours straight.

I worry about all the things I will forget. Big things. Important things.

But mostly I worry about forgetting the little things, like the sound of his belly laugh. The weight of his big little head on my shoulder, or the warmth of his body when he climbs into my lap to watch cartoons. The way he says “beep!” when I unlock the car. The way he pats everybody on the back when he gives them a  hug.The knowledge that there are so many things that will be forgotten lingers at the back of my mind. I worry so much about forgetting that I don’t doubt that there’s at least some bit of self-fulfilling prophecy at work.

Don’t Make Me Do This Again: The Pressure to Reproduce

“When are you going to give him a sibling?” a complete stranger asks. It’s maybe the dozenth time I’ve been asked this question. When someone offers to be my pro-bono, full-time nanny, I think.

There’s a kind of unspoken expectation in America to have multiple children. Only children, or kids who don’t grow up with a sibling in the home, are seen as self-absorbed, maladjusted, unhappy loners lacking in social skills. I have an issue with  the way these assumed behaviors are referred to — only child syndrome — and how it suggests that being without siblings is a disorder of some kind: all children that grow up without a brother or sister are subject to this same set of negative stereotypes, with little or no regard for the environmental factors that influence characteristics like adaptability, agreeableness, empathy, and resiliency.

IMG_2647-EFFECTS.jpg

The unspoken assumption is that parents of only children do little or nothing to encourage or facilitate socialization with age-mates, or that only children are treated as little adults, isolated from situations that allow them to develop critical social skills that will allow them to flourish as they become old enough to interact with the world independent of parental guidance.

To tell parents that only children are in some way worse off places an excessive amount of pressure on parents to reproduce — even if they lack the financial stability or mental energy to do so. The decision to expand (or not expand) the family is a deeply personal one. More worrying, this pressure entirely disregards the possibility that many couples are unable to expand their family, whether due to fertility reasons, a lack of resources to pursue adoption, or other equally personal reasons. How does a parent compensate for the multitude of ways they are told their child will suffer for their solitude? Can they compensate?

Of course they can. I’ll be damned if I let strangers and ill-proven theories about stunted development persuade me to put my body through the difficult, painful, year-long process of conception, pregnancy, and newborn period. I’ll be double damned if my son isn’t going to be the happiest, most well-adjusted kid ever. The common factors that are most often pointed to as being causes of only child syndrome are things that can be significantly influenced through the active and ongoing evaluation of the child’s environment, relationship with caretakers, and various social outlets.

Ben is in daycare three days a week. We get a little report card telling us how he’s doing on his interpersonal skills, like listening to directions, table manners, and waiting patiently during hallway time. We also get a note on what we need to work on at home. Right now (surprise) it’s listening ears. Ben has a mind of his own, but I’m pretty sure kids his age have maybe a 50% return rate on listening the first time anyway.

From the time Ben was old enough to be aware of the world around him, I made an effort to get him out of the house and into the world on a daily basis. While I’m sure this started as a way to relieve myself of the monotony of caring for an infant, it eventually grew into a much-needed reprieve for Ben, who becomes restless if he’s been cooped up inside all day. We have a large yard and two active dogs, but this isn’t enough stimulation for a vibrant, giggle-happy toddler. Our daily outings to the park or grocery store or a friend’s house for play time allow Ben ample time to interact with the world and other children outside of the structured routine of daycare.

So here, friends, is my deepest (and newest) fear. What if I do everything in my power, but my everything turns out to not be enough? What if my family history of depression ensnares him as it did me? How much of his adult self is determined by  nature vs. nurture? The truth at the heart of it — the same truth at the heart of everything we do — is that only one outcome is ever guaranteed to us. So I’ll do my due diligence and hold onto the hope that our efforts won’t be for nothing or in vain. The rest is a combination of chance, effort, timing, and love.