Monthly Archives: September 2010

Put Your Hands Up and Step Away From the 5-Year-Old

So it’s almost two weeks into Kindergarten and I was getting kind of frustrated.

Every day I meet her at the doors where the teachers release them, expectant smile on my face as she rushes into my arms. She pops her thumb into her mouth and as we walk home, I start in with the questions. “How was your day? What did you do? Who did you play with? How was lunch? Did you write/do math/go to the library? Who did you talk to? Do you like it?”

Looking at it like that, all written out, I realize I might seem a bit pushy. Fine … desperate. But she tells me nothing. Well, hardly anything. The first day I heard that she made a friend, Arianna, which she was really excited about. I heard about Arianna’s hamster. The second day, Friend Count was up to 2 — she added Savannah and was proud of making the first move. Third day, Friend Count hit 3 — Calla. Great! I enthused. And then, she clammed up. Every afternoon, I ask about her day, and all I get is the vigorous suction sound of her little lips becoming re-acquainted with their long-lost partner, her thumb. I plead for info (“Just tell me if you’re comfortable yet,” I caught myself saying today) and all she gives me is a little cock of the head, a thumb slurp, and turns up her nose.

The thing is, I need to know. What was it like in the Kindergarten bathroom — can she reach the sink by herself? Did she play ball at gym? How are her new Mary Janes performing on the playground? What were her thoughts on the Pledge of Allegiance? Did she liked her dried peas? What tone does the teacher use when they act up — serious but loving, or edgy and frantic? Because no one should get edgy and frantic when you’re talking about Kindergarten …

Then, tonight while I was searching for a book I misplaced, I came across some notes I took about a year ago at a parenting talk given by Dr. Wendy Mogel, who wrote “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” a parenting guidebook. Basically Mogel argues that as our children have become more sophisticated and needy, we as parents have become overprotective and indulgent. Or vice-versa, chicken-or-egg thing, whatever. “Kids today = bubble-wrapped vs. wind-in-the-hair,” I wrote in my notebook.

As I skimmed through these notes, something jumped out at me, something I underlined and penned a thick star next to: “We are teaching our children that what we are most interested in is suffering,” Mogel said. “DON’T interview for pain.”

Oh my god! I’m interviewing for pain! Subconsciously I’m worried about her making friends and liking school and finding her place, so I’m trying to allay those fears by giving her the psycho-mom shake-down every afternoon. If this were a bad cartoon strip, now is when I would hit myself on the forehead with a frying pan.

Thankfully, according to Mogel, there’s an easy answer to this helicopterish behavior. Instead of “interviewing your children for pain” at the end of their day, she says, tell them about an interesting part of your day. Tell them what you saw, what you did, what you heard, she says, and hopefully, your kids will do the same.

I love getting a parenting tip I can actually use, one that isn’t hypothetically or ideologically good but actually, truly, doable. I can do this. I can swallow my panicky curiosity about the details of her mysterious day and instead recount the highlights, and lowlights, of my own. While she sucks her thumb and studiously jumps over the sidewalk cracks, I will talk to her about my trip to the grocery store, my especially foamy latte, the plans for our Thanksgiving trip to San Francisco, my productive writing time, my sore knee, the nice note her dad sent me.

I’ll just make sure not to mention the many times each day I wondered about how her neoprene lunchbox is holding up, whether her classroom water bottle needs a cleaning, if she got knocked off the monkey bars at recess or got lost on her way to the school assembly, whether she’s wearing her sweater so as not to get chilled, if we should go ahead and register for extracurricular Spanish, if the boys teased her about that little wart on her knee …

Confessions of a Selfish Mother

I’m ready to confess. Not everything. God no. But this one thing — I think it’s time.

Here goes: Sometimes, I dream about sneaking off to a hotel. Just for a night or two. by myself, no kids obviously, but no husband either. Just me, an empty bed with high-thread-count white sheets, a large and lovely bathroom, and room service. I don’t even tell them where I’m going — there’s no time. I just disappear.

I know, on the surface this doesn’t seem like much of a confession. Silly woman, you’re mumbling. What’s the big deal? you’re thinking. Every mother has this fantasy. Perhaps even daily. Hey, Mrs. Punkernoodle — you’re not that bad.

But wait. I haven’t told you when I had this fantasy for the first time. Because that’s the bad part. The selfish part.

Punkernoodle One was about four months old. I can see her now in my memory: Puckered red lips; blond silken wisps curling about her soft, soft head; lucent skin glowing in the winter light. Holy crap could she scream. She’d start around 3 p.m. and cry until 1 or 2 a.m., when she finally fell off into an exhausted sleep. The crying came in fits and starts, a persistent and pitiful bleating cry, each squeal punctuated at its tail end by a shrill exclamation point of misery that left her redly vibrating in my panicked arms. 

Mr. Punkernoodle would switch off with me as soon as he got home from work, but because the baby needed to eat so often, and because I was home all afternoon and into the evening before he arrived, I held her much more. Only the exercise ball partially worked to ease her reflux, and I would sit and bounce in a rhythmic motion for hours on end while she whimpered or drank between screams. I felt so bad for her, in her tiny, upset body. And I felt bad for myself. As evening drew near I would begin to panic, glancing at the clock to check the time in order to map the coming chaos out in my head. I did mental math all the time: How many hours until Daddy gets home? How many minutes ’til the next feeding? How much sleep will I get tonight?

One night, after a particularly frustrating day during which we both cried all afternoon, I cradled Punkernoodle One in my arms and stared out the front window of our small house. The December sky was inky black. Cars and buses streamed by on our busy street. It was almost cold enough to snow. The baby was finally quiet in my arms, that post-milk sheen over her cheeks, slowly sinking into a delicate sleep. And that’s when I thought it. I could just leave, I realized suddenly. I can put her in her cradle, slip on my boots, and make a dash to the car. Where will you go? the rational part asked. To the airport, of course, said the selfish mother. I will get on a flight, not too far away, but far enough so as not to be bothered — San Francisco, maybe, or Colorado. I’ll get a hotel, just for a night or two, and sleep the whole time. 48 hours of sleep, by myself, in a soft white bed. Then I could get through it, I thought, staring up into the dark sky, then I can come back and do this some more.

This morning I was talking to a mother I know, who told me that for her birthday recently she told her husband that all she wanted was a night at a hotel, by herself. Go for it, he said. So she grabbed an icy beer and a slice of chocolate cream pie and checked into an upscale chain hotel in some no-name outer Seattle suburb. The bed was very white and comfortable. She slipped in, finally away from the baby who still wakes in the night and needs her always.

Was it great? I asked her with more than a casual curiosity. Of course, it wasn’t. She forgot the bottle opener and couldn’t drink the beer. In the bed, she lay awake for two hours, thinking about how she had better fall asleep right away or her night would be wasted. She did the sleep math in her head. And in the morning, after just a few hours of rest, she rushed out to follow through with family plans.

I never went. I never put my own baby down and slipped away with a suitcase the way I’d momentarily dreamed of. But I think often of that night, my baby and I at the front window, locked together by her needs and my exhausted love. The sheer possibility of it, of detaching myself from my children as though we are all just a family of perforated stamps, grounds me. Even if I didn’t do it, the knowledge that I could have was enough to keep me there.

The Music Sounds Fine From Here

Dear Old Self:

I miss you sometimes. I think about the nights out, the concerts and shows and bands and bars. I miss the sticky familiarity of a dive bar, his exploratory hand on your backside, guiding you through a crowd to a spot near the band or a dark corner somewhere. I miss sneaking down to the floor section of the Sting concert with your girlfriend when you were 13, sitting outside a ticketbox all night for good Dave Matthews seats, pushing forward through smoke and crowds to get to that lit-up place right in front of all the action. I miss how you finally kissed him on a bench just outside a swanky lounge after that L.A. band played the first set and you downed a couple of memorable martinis. I miss not being worried about jostling and groping. I miss relying on that fake I.D. I miss the first time you heard the folksy twang of Barenaked Ladies and the live roar of Pearl Jam. I miss that icy winter night on my first trip to his hometown, stumbling into that college bar, eating corn-on-the-cob, trying to salsa. I miss that night at Kinky when you jumped and danced and let that music echo pink and red inside your chest and didn’t even know a little seed was planted somewhere deep within, shaking like a baby rattle in a bean hopper, taking root to change it all.

Dear New Self:

I’m proud of you. I’m proud that you guys decided to take the kids to the music festival after so many years safe at home among playpens and nap times. I’m proud that even when the open, grassy green where you arrived two hours early for the show began to fill up with excitable youth, you held your ground on the spread-out blanket, feeding your children curly fries and smiling nostalgically at him. I’m so glad that when the excitable youth started to feel boisterous and pushy, you glanced at him questioningly and hovered over the children but stayed to claim your spot. And I’m proud that when the concertgoers kept coming and coming, overcrowding the grassy green until there was no more than an inch of cool air around anyone and the whole crowd swayed and lurched with threatening abandon, you stayed, a pressed-in blanket-bound family just waiting for the music. I’m proud you told the mouthy youth who mocked your blanket set-up behind your back to shut up and go back to middle school. I’m proud that a teen-age boy next to you gave your man “props” for holding ground and the twentysomethings  nearby said they’d buffer your little family with their determined bodies. And I’m proud that when Alex Ebert called into his microphone asking if any little ones were there that night, you held up your little girl high into the sky, and their dad held up your other girl, and those little girls pumped their fists and swayed their heads in the night and took in the music along with you. So what if they maybe got a little contact high? So what if it got kind of sketchy in the jostling heart of the crowd for a while? You made it. They saw their first concert. You’re back in the mix. Sort of. The music’s different now, from over here. But it’s still good.

Top Ten Reasons Why I Might Flunk Kindergarten: No. 10

Yep, I know — I don’t really have to pass Kindergarten, because it’s actually Punkernoodle One who’s about to start school. But if the past few weeks have shown me anything, it’s that grade school is secretly a test for the parents. Remember having to complete your homework, learning to study, doing book reports and science fairs and navigating the scary things like the playground and lunchroom? And you thought that those days were past, that you paid your dues and learned all the life lessons and would never have to return to those squeaky hallways or answer to the teacher and principal again? Hah! Not. Just kidding. Countdown until I am officially back in school for another 15 or so years: two days. So in honor of this milestone, I thought I would explore, in a series of blog installments, the reasons that I might become the gossip topic of all the other organized and everything-is-taken-care-of mothers. So, Reason #10 why I might flunk out of Kindergarten:

Paperwork. The god-forsaken paperwork just keeps coming. It’s like the onslaught of the 11th plague, right behind swarms of locusts in terms of my ability to stem the tide. It started about 4 weeks ago, taking me by total surprise. First it was a letter from the school district welcoming us, confirming our school assignment, and requesting a few signatures. No problem. Then it was another letter from the Infectious Diseases department mentioning that Punkernoodle was missing her newest installment of tetanus, the vaccine booster required by the state between ages 4 and 6. Uh, ok — she just turned 5 a couple of weeks ago. We have, like, a year. But before I could rush her to the doctor to get stuck and sign on the dotted line, another packet comes from the Washington State is Last in Education Funding Department, kindly reminding us that if we want our child to go to full-day Kindergarten (thereby getting the social studies, handwriting, music and physical education lessons saved for afternoons) we had better cough up our $207 per month extra tuition. Um, excuse me — don’t I already pay for public education??? It’s called taxes. 

But I digress. Almost daily now, between Punkernoodle One’s Kindergarten business and Punkernoodle Two’s new Montessori preschool (field trips, Sharing Schedule, Orientation alert, CPR training calendar), the wave of School Mail has come. I am not an organized person by nature. My mother will tell you this. She will tell anyone this. I do laundry twice a month, in a good month. If it wasn’t for Mr. Punkernoodle, the mortgage might not get paid. How am I going to keep track of all these dead trees they keep sending to my house??? I am overwhelmed with anxiety thinking that I am going to show up on the first day, and on every day after that, and the infinitely organized Kindergarten teacher is going to look at me expectantly, raising a slightly alarmed brow, as I fumble with a clusterfuck of crumpled papers for the one form or document I was supposed to have come prepared with. And that of course I will cast a mark upon my poor child that will hobble her for the rest of her school days. In order to address this looming problem, this tidal wave of paperwork, I went out and bought some devices: a mail box thingy for the kitchen, a binder for each kid, a three-hole punch, labels, sticky tags, fancy colored gel pens (ok, I know that has nothing to do with it but they didn’t have all this cool stuff when I was in school!). Of course, it’s all still sitting in the bag somewhere.

Maybe this is my chance at a fresh start. Maybe I need some kind of ceremony, to open my mind to organization. Maybe I can make a voodoo doll of my disorganized self and symbolically stick a needle right into the heart? Hey, I know! I can go find all that paperwork the schools are waiting for and papier-mache a graven image of my disorganized self. Then I can burn it in effigy.