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Archive for the ‘Parenthood’ Category

If you thought that we could return to fret-free normalcy now that the dinner party is over, you were WRONG.

Let’s move right along to the next fretworthy topic, shall we?

My husband and I are going on a trip. Just the two of us. We are not calling it a second honeymoon, although I suppose that’s what it is; it’s our tenth anniversary gift to one another.

We are going to Europe and we are both VERY EXCITED about it.

But.

We are leaving Carla behind.

She will remain in our house in the loving and capable hands of my parents. She will be continuing with her regular routine of school and extracurricular activities. But I am FREAKING OUT about leaving her.

Firstly, the longest I’ve ever been away from her is a week.

Secondly, the longest my husband and I have together been away from her is two days.

Thirdly, I am really worried my husband and I are going to die in a plane crash and leave her an orphan.

Fourthly, I am FREAKING OUT.

So I am hoping you have some advice for me as we prepare to leave our beloved baby behind.

We have mentioned the trip several times, with increasing frequency as we get closer to the trip. So Carla knows it’s coming. I don’t know if this is a good strategy or not; my concern is that we’re making her think/fret about it too much in advance. But I also don’t want to spring it on her. That would be awful and cruel (at least, for my particular kid), to wake up one day and say, “Bye! See you in ten days!”

I have been making a ridiculous number of lists for my parents, so they know everything from the foods she will and might eat to how to walk her into school each morning to what she needs to bring to ballet class.

I have talked things over with her teachers, who seem very unconcerned with the whole thing. (Bless Carla’s teacher: when I told her recently that I thought our being gone would be rough, she immediately said that I can email her or call her ANY TIME. When really I meant that things would be rough on Carla, not on me. She knows me to my CORE, apparently.)

What else can I do?

When my mom went to Russia for a week or two when I was… five? ten? she recorded herself reading Nancy Drew books, so I could play them on cassette tapes at bedtime. What a kind and loving thing for her to do! Maybe I need to do something similar?

When I was in California for a writing conference, and the time difference made phone calls difficult, I made little videos for Carla each morning that my mother-in-law could play for her after school. I think Carla liked those, but it seemed like they may also have made her upset and teary at bedtime? But maybe she would have been upset and teary anyway? I don’t know. I am wondering whether my husband and I should try to Facetime her every day, or if it would make her miss us more?

How else can I make Carla more comfortable about our leaving? How else can I make ME more comfortable about our leaving?

And how are we supposed to say goodbye to her, when she then has to go to school while we prance off to the airport? Do we drop her off and say goodbye in her classroom? That seems awful, but also her teachers would be Right There to distract her. Do we say goodbye at home and let my parents drop her off? DO WE CANCEL THE WHOLE TRIP?

Have you and your spouse ever left your child for a longish time? What were some things you did to prepare yourself/your child? Were there any things you wish you had/hadn’t done?

It’s going to be okay, right? RIGHT?

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The day is not off to a good start.

Part of it is actual, part of it is mental, part of it is diet-al.

Part the first: I have managed to make my child simultaneously hate school and believe that her teachers are going to be mad at her if she isn’t perfect. We had parent teacher conferences last week, and her teachers mentioned a couple of things Carla needed to work on. And I mentioned those things to her, and we talked about some strategies, and she got really cranky and irritable with me and then we moved on. We had a lovely weekend. This morning, she waltzed into my room in one of her signature amazing ensembles (purple pants, pink shirt, faux leopard fur vest, sparkly headband) in a happy mood and snuggled with me until my alarm went off. I reminded her this morning about what we had discussed, and it was like flipping a switch. All of a sudden she was hot and would I take her temperature. No fever. She was really tired and naptime at school is way too far away so she wants to stay home. She doesn’t want to go to school. She’s NOT going to school. I tried to figure out what the deal was – she LOVES school; over the weekend, we drove past her school and the parking lot was full and she said “No fair! Those kids get to be there on the weekend!” – and eventually got out of her that she thinks she won’t be able to do what we discussed and her teachers will be mad at her. So. No school. She’s done.

Well shit.

I tried everything in my Mommy Toolkit to persuade her: Assurance: We don’t expect you to be perfect, we expect you to try your best. Your teachers love you. Here are all the wonderful things they told me about you at the conference. Here are all the things for which your father and I are so proud of you. Bribery: If you go to school today, you get to do X! I will let you bring your horse in the car on the way to school! If you still feel bad at school, you can go to the nurse and she will call me to come get you! Logic: School is your job, you have to go. If Daddy didn’t want to go to work, what would happen? It’s a law that kids your age have to go to school. Mild threats: If you don’t go, here are all the fun things you will miss. If you stay home, you will be bored; no TV, I have work to do so I can’t play with you. And – bringing out the big guns – I will make you go on ERRANDS with me. She was undeterred.

Finally, after assuring her for the ten thousandth time that neither her teachers nor I would be mad at her, that none of us expects her to be PERFECT, that we just want her to TRY… After singing her the Daniel Tiger song about “your best is the best for you”… After coming up with some specific strategies to try with her teachers… FINALLY, I got her out the door. We were thirty-five minutes late.

And then, when I was telling her teacher about the strategies we had discussed and explaining what had happened, I of course burst into tears. Because nothing makes a Bad Parenting Morning worse than leaking it all over your child’s poor teacher. The only saving grace was that we were so late, there weren’t many other parents lingering in the halls to see me blubbering.

Man, I really screwed things up. And I don’t know exactly HOW, or exactly how to fix it, or how to do it differently. And she still needs to work on the things she needs to work on, although obviously they are not DIRE. (Though I managed to get poor Carla to feel that they ARE dire.) And my heart just feels so RAW for her, because she is working so hard at growing up – so, so hard – and she wants to please us and her teachers so badly, and she is so much more sensitive than sometimes even I realize. And of all people in the world, I should be the one who KNOWS what she needs and understands how to get through to her without screwing her up and I DON’T.

So that’s the actual.

The mental is the crushing certainty that I am the absolute worst choice of person to be a parent. And that nonetheless I have to do it anyway. And at stake are my child’s PERMANENT HAPPINESS AND WELL BEING.

There is also the outward spiraling, wherein I begin to feel that everything else in life is terrible too: our house is falling apart, I can’t keep up with the to-do list, I am failing as a writer. You know. One bit of the scaffolding gets knocked in and the whole structure comes tumbling down.

Then there’s the diet-al, which is stupid and I should just QUIT because it’s making me miserable. I have a constant headache. I feel nauseated and my brain seems to be going at half speed. I am not particularly hungry or missing foods all that much, but I do have a rather abnormally intense fixation on Diet Coke.

You can see how this all adds up to a bad morning so far.

Two things I am using to try to pull myself out of this negativity quicksand:

  1. The diet is over as of Thursday morning. I will be celebrating with a big bowl of pasta and a thick slice of cake.
  2. I have a pedicure scheduled with a friend for Friday, which should be relaxing and my friend and I will get to chat and catch up.

And between me, my husband, and Carla’s teachers, we should be able to figure out how to redirect her perfectionism… somehow? Right?

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Poor Carla is just off  lately. Saturday she ate practically nothing – some bacon and a tomato from her BLT at lunch, a handful of fries; a peanut butter sandwich at our friends’ house that night – and then she ate a great lunch yesterday but literally NOTHING for dinner. Not a single bite. She requested instead to go to bed. But then she woke up at 11:30 and could NOT fall back to sleep. She was up until well past two. Two a.m. in the morning. And if by “she was up” you are assuming that maybe I was sleeping, no. I was reading Harriet the Spy and playing YouTube “spa music” and fetching water and taking her temperature and reading old favorite picture books and giving her Tylenol because her “neck” hurt when she swallowed and making a “nest” in my room beside my bed and lying quietly in the dark and hissing at Carla in my most soothing way to just be STILL and close your EYES.

No surprise that she was dragging this morning. She didn’t eat as much for breakfast as I thought (hoped) she would – most of her smoothie, one French toast stick – and was just kind of slow. Which could be tired slow. Or not-feeling-great slow. Or just plain old Kindergarten Slow. Who knows.

Why is so much of parenting so unknowable? That’s what I’m bemoaning this morning. I mean, I get it. There’s no handbook. No two kids are alike. Yada yada blah. But I have had this particular kid for nearly six whole years so you’d think I’d at least have the hang of dealing with her by now. But you’d have thought incorrectly, I’m sorry to say. (Mainly sorry for me, not so much for you and your misplaced faith in my supposed parenting “ability.”)

There are so many QUESTIONS. And I have answers to SO FEW of them! Sure, some things, like “should she be holding that sharp knife?” and “should I give her a hug?” have simple answers. But so many do NOT.

Some of the questions for which I do not have answers just TODAY:

  • Is “not eating dinner” a totally acceptable thing once in a while, or does it indicate something is WRONG?
  • Does a repeated claim that a child has a headache indicate an actual headache… or is it a bid for attention… or is it a parroting of my own not-infrequent headaches and therefore a cautionary tale against complaining too much about my own minor aches and pains… or is it a way to divert attention away from the not-eating?
  • And if there IS a headache, is it a normal Everyone-Gets-Headaches-Sometimes headache or does it indicate something is WRONG? And how do you know the difference?
  • How in the world do I stopper the effervescent frustration of Slow Child Not Moving Quickly Enough When We Need to Get to School on Time FOR THE LOVE before I burst forth with a Mean Mom snarl of PUT YOUR COAT ON OMG?
  • If there is no fever, and no REAL reason to keep a child home – especially when everyone seems to think that a snow day or two is imminent this week, based on predicted temperatures – is it really okay to send her to school? Even though this guilty feeling keeps nagging me like a staticky sock stuck to a pant leg?

This is not to mention all of the day-to-day questions I have, including but not limited to:

  • How much screen time is REALLY acceptable? And if my kid squeezes it all into the weekends, does that make it better or worse?
  • How am I ever going to get her to tie her shoes? I don’t want to buy shoes with laces until she knows how to tie them; cod knows I’m not going to tie them for her. But how is she going to learn until I buy her shoes with laces? DILEMMA.
  • Should we be FaceTime-ing with relatives more often?
  • Is my kid’s behavior around other adults totally typical of her age, or something I need to be more on top of correcting? (Things like not answering when being spoken to, sticking out her tongue or otherwise being playful, ignoring them totally and wandering off…)
  • Am I preparing her well enough for Real Life? While still allowing her to enjoy the freedom and innocence of childhood?
  • Is she really going to lose ALL her teeth? And how am I going to handle the horror that is a piece of my child’s bone hanging by a slim bloody tether from her gums MORE TIMES?
  • Do I read to her enough?
  • Do I play with her enough?
  • Does she have enough time to play?
  • How many stuffed animals are too many stuffed animals?
  • Are my expectations too high? Not high enough?
  • Am I giving her enough intellectual stimulation? Social? Physical? Creative?
  • Am I teaching her good eating habits?
  • Am I a good enough role model?
  • Is she getting enough sleep?
  • Is she happy?
  • How many ways am I failing her?

I don’t know if you are aware, but this parenting thing is EXHAUSTING. It’s like taking a midterm exam every single DAY and knowing that you haven’t studied enough and you are pretty iffy on big chunks of the material. But you don’t get a grade now  – oh no, you have to take 4,560 more exams just between now and when your kid presumably heads off to college. And they’re really important but there’s no way to know if you’re just squeaking by with a C average or totally bombing. That’s the hardest part, right? I could be TOTALLY SCREWING HER UP and I won’t know until she’s an adult.

I am going to go treat this bout of parenting angst with some melted cheese and maybe consider a nap. How’s that for being a role model, hmm?

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I had no idea that one of my biggest side hustles as a mom would be trying to find a babysitter. Maybe this isn’t true for everyone – especially if you have nearby relatives who are happy to take a kiddo for a few hours – but man it has been true for me: I spend a ton of energy trying to find and keep babysitters.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to feel comfortable leaving Carla with a sitter AT ALL. Our first regular sitter lived down the street. She’d just graduated college, she had a bunch of siblings and a history of taking care of kids in the neighborhood. Plus, she was a former lifeguard so I knew she was a) CPR certified and b) schooled in handling emergencies.

At one point, she was always busy when I asked her to watch Carla, so I stopped asking. (Who knows – maybe she really wasbusy. But if she was just uneasy telling me she no longer wanted to babysit, I wanted to take the hint.) That was a sad loss.

I tried one of those websites where you can find a sitter… but I have to be honest. I freaked me out. Too many options, and too much potential risk, I guess? I know many people have used those sites with great success. But it’s not my thing.

A neighbor mentioned that her high school son would be interested in sitting for Carla. But… Carla is scared of him for some reason. Maybe not scared, but totally apprehensive at the idea of having him watch her. So that’s off the table. (And, I’m sure, so is asking his older sister; talk about insulting!)

Finally, we found a sitter who worked at Carla’s old daycare. Again, I was delighted! She and Carla knew and liked each other. She’d been vetted by a place whose very business was taking care of kids. Plus, I just liked her. But she moved out of state. Before she left, she recommended one of her former colleagues from the daycare, who was also a great find. But then she had a baby and I never heard from her again.

Just a year ago, I felt flush with an abundance of sitters. Carla’s swim instructor was happy to babysit. And one day when she was unavailable, she recommended a friend who is a speech pathologist and works with high-needs kids. We met her and she was excellent. So that’s TWO sitters to call on if we need it. But they are both really expensive, which is a factor.

So when Carla literally picked up a sitter at camp this summer, I was over the moon. (I showed up in the car line on the last day of camp and Carla dragged this young woman over, and the young woman said, “Hi! Can I give you my number so I can babysit Carla sometimes?” Um. YES.) She was Carla’s swim coach at camp. She was a high school student, so she commands a lower fee than the two adult professionals we’d been using. And she was wonderful. Full of energy and obviously deemed capable of wrangling a bunch of five year olds – in the water, no less – by Carla’s school. We had her over to watch Carla and Carla had a blast and keeps asking when she can come over again.

My husband and I haven’t been on a date in MONTHS, so I am ready for one. And I want to sign up for this Sur la Table class so I can cross it off my to-do list. So I texted the sitter… and she hasn’t responded. I am going to give it until this weekend to follow up (she’s in class during the week, obviously), but I am worried about how best to contact her. I could email her… but do kids these days email? Or I could call her… but do kids these days use the phone? (I doubt it. I don’t use the phone and I’m a billion.) Probably I’ll just text her one more time and then if she doesn’t respond I will begin the grieving process. Because I don’t want to badger her.

Did I ever tell you about the horrible babysitting experience I had in grad school? I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it here. As with most of my past (a phrase that makes my earlier years sound unnecessarily mysterious; they were not), the incident is kind of fuzzy. I have a truly dreadful memory. But the broad strokes and the pervasive dread have stuck with me.

I had a professor that I loved. He taught a class on my all-time favorite author, and we spent the semester reading books I loved and delving into the author’s craft and I loved every minute of it. Much of the reason I loved it was the professor, too. He was engaging and smart and he seemed to value my contributions – slim though they were; I once got an A- in a class I otherwise excelled at simply because I didn’t speak up enough – and I really liked him.

One day, he asked if I would babysit his two young kids. I can’t remember if he put the request out to the class or if he asked me specifically. But I said yes and gave him my cell number so he could send me details. I sat for the kids one time and it was… rough. I’m not much of a kid person as it is; I don’t really know why I said yes in the first place. I have a very blurry recollection that maybe the professor was in a bind and I said yes reluctantly just to help him out. I’m pretty sure I told him right then that it was a once-in-a-while deal, that he should not count on me as a regular sitter. But maybe that’s one of the tricks your mind plays on you, after the fact, filling in what youshould have done. Maybe I was eager to help out, at the time.

So I sat for the kids and then I was done. Once was enough. Again, I don’t have anything specific to hang that reasoning on. Maybe the kids were unruly or mean or fought a lot or cried a lot. Maybe I felt overwhelmed or realized, yeah, I don’t like kids. Maybe the parents were late coming home or I felt uncomfortable in their house. I have no idea.

But he asked me again and I said no, I couldn’t do it – blaming it on some other commitment, feeling horrible for leaving him in the lurch.

(A little part of me can empathize with him, now that I’m well-versed in trying to find a sitter for my own child. You find someone you like, and you want that person to be Your Person Forever. When you have no other options, you might be a little more willing to be annoying in pursuit of getting what you want.)

And then he called me again, to ask me to babysit. And I declined again. And then he asked me again. Did I go back and sit for the younger kid, one more time? I think maybe I did, but maybe I wanted so badly to say yes and stop the badgering that I invented that memory. In any case, he called again. And again. I stopped answering my phone when he called. I felt guilty about not wanting to help, and uncomfortable about lying about my other commitments, and awkward about having to see him in class.

And then, in class, he started telling us stuff that struck me as really inappropriate. Stuff that maybe you shouldn’t share with your students. But it sounded like he and his family were going through a really rough time – my memories here are more specific, but I don’t want to share the details because a) they aren’t mine and b) if I ammisremembering, that makes sharing them even worse; suffice it to say it was really, really disquieting stuff – and so I can understand that he might have been so consumed by what was going on that he lost his sense of judgment about what he should and shouldn’t share. Or hey, maybe it was perfectly reasonable for him to tell us what he was going through, and my particular high-boundary personality coupled with my strained relationship with him is what made it seem out of line.

He would talk about these things they were going through, and how desperate he and his wife were to figure them out, and how they had all this time they had to spend away from the one kid while they were struggling to help the other kid.

In any event, it made me feel awful. Sad for him and his family. But also like he was guilt tripping me about not babysitting for them. In front of the whole class. He and his wife neededsomeone to help them out. The younger kid neededsomeone to be there for them, while her family’s lives were in a tumult. And I couldn’t even be bothered to babysit???

I realize that a lot of this is my own personal interpretation. And you weren’t there, and you aren’t getting his side of the story. But I hope you believe me when I tell you I felt a tremendous amount of pressure. And I felt I couldn’t do anything about it, either. I couldn’t drop out of the class – it was too far along in the semester by that time. I didn’t feel that couldn’t go to anyone in the department, because it’s such a small department and he had such standing in it that I didn’t think anyone would believe me that it had become a bigger issue than a stupid babysitting request. I didn’t even tell my closest grad school friend about it, because I was afraid she’d say something and I’d get blackballed by the department.

Writing it out even now, it seems ridiculous. How could an entire semester be ruined for me because someone wanted me to babysit his kids and I didn’t want to? And of course, I’ve lost (or blocked) the details so I can’t lay it out for you to fully examine. Instead, you get these shards and fragments. How can I expect you to form a clear enough picture that you understand?

Well. This is all I’ve got.

And it did ruin the semester for me. Worse, I haven’t picked up a book by my once-favorite author since.

Like I said, I do have some empathy for him. Now. After the passage of many years has softened the anxiety and discomfort I felt at the time. And knowing what I do about the singular desperation a parent feels in the face of losing a perfectly good babysitter.

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Look what we found in our yard yesterday!

Three deer

Don’t water them; they proliferate.

We have an over-abundance of suburban deer in our neighborhood. They roam the yards, eating trees and plants. Yes, they are very picturesque. And I know and understand that we humans are trespassing on THEIR land, and not the other way around. But even knowing this, and even feeling guilty/sad for the deer and their lack of forest/meadow land, I find them irritating. They eat our trees down to the bark. They eat any vegetables I dare to plant. They poop all over our yard.

My husband has taken it upon himself to chase them away whenever they take up residence in our yard. He went out to this trio last night, waving his arms, and they COMPLETELY ignored him. He must have gotten within five feet of them and they didn’t care. So he turned the hose on them. They all stood up, but that was the extent of their botherment. And rather than shooing them away, he sort of ended up watering them instead.

***

We recently spent a few days at the house of some friends. We had a wonderful time. The kids all played splendidly together, with maybe one or two small sharing issues and nothing at all beyond that. The grown ups had a delightful time, chatting and catching up and generally ignoring the kids, who were completely occupied by each other.

Our friends cooked several meals for us, which was so lovely. They are excellent cooks and they put in the kind of attention to detail that makes you (me) kind of well up with love and appreciation. For instance, they made this delicious baked brie with a completely decadent topping of honey and nuts and raisins and sultanas. And my friend made these little heart cutouts in pastry dough and put them on top of the baked brie before she baked it. It was so sweet and so lovely. I wish we lived nearer to them.

Spending time with another family in their house, you get a good sense of how differently families can run. First of all, I love that little glimpse at other people’s lives, just on a voyeuristic level. I am fascinated by how Other People Do Things. Secondly, you can get some good ideas for how you can do things better/differently. For instance, they spend almost the entire weekend outside. Instead of using that time to run errands and loaf around the house doing laundry, they go to the petting zoo and then they go hiking and then they go to the beach and then they find a parade to watch and then they go to the farmer’s market. While that is, to me, Super Expert Level Activity, I really like the idea of doing it on maybe a Beginner’s Level. I can do errands during the week and then we can all go out and have fun over the weekend. (My husband and I were better about doing that when Carla was younger, because she needed physical activity or she was bouncing off the walls. She’s more mellow these days.)

But the other thing that’s interesting is seeing what kind of household rules another family has. And, while interesting, there’s also some potential for conflict, when you are trying to reinforce family rules that might be different from your friends’.

Can we stipulate that there are all sort of things that a particular family might find important or not important? And that every family is different, and values different things? And that just because I value one thing doesn’t mean that I am secretly judging you for not prioritizing that same thing?

In general, I feel that if you are a guest at someone’s house, you follow their rules. Like… if there’s a house rule that you take your shoes off at the door, you do that, even if you think it’s ridiculous. If there’s no eating food in the living room, you don’t eat food in the living room. Right?

And that’s all well and good… but what if the other family has a VOID where your own rules are?

Here’s an example. At our house, one of the family rules is that you stay at the table until everyone is finished. But when we were at our friends’ house this weekend, they let their kids sort of wander off whenever they felt like it. So… what am I, as a parent, supposed to do? Because we’re at someone else’s house, we operate under their family rules… even if the rules go directly against what we do in our own family?

We also have a rule that you don’t start eating until the whole family is sitting at the table. So when Carla grabbed a piece of bacon off the tray and started eating it while my friends were still cooking breakfast and while my husband and I were still setting the table, I scolded her. And she was outraged, because, she pointed out, my friends’ daughter had ALSO taken a piece of bacon from the tray! She was just following her friend’s lead! And my friends (the parents) just shrugged. Oh well, they said. They’re kids. They’re hungry. We shouldn’t have put a tempting tray of bacon on the table like that. (At that point, I felt like an asshole. Like I was one-step-removed chastising their kid, and also them, for not having the same rule.)

There was a LOT of this kind of thing, over the weekend. Where Carla would do a thing that I would normally not let her get away with. Climbing on the furniture, for instance. Or eating candy at breakfast time. Or not holding a grown up’s hand in the parking lot. But when I pointed out to her that she was breaking a rule, she would get all incredulous, because she was just doing what our friends’ kids were doing!

I don’t know what to DO in that kind of situation. Part of me wants to shrug and say something like, “When in Rome.” Or, “We are on vacation, so we can relax the rules a little.” But another part of me shrieks, “Consistency!” and then I get probably a little bit self-righteous, alongside my confusion. I’m not teaching Carla anything earth-shattering.  But these are things I want Carla to learn, and want her to do even when she’s at another family’s house. Even when other kids are doing the opposite. (Right? That’s why we teach our kids things! So that when they grow up or are away from us, they still behave in the way we deem best.) And I also want her to understand that she needs to be responsible for her own behavior, even if other kids are behaving differently. At some point, it starts feeling Big and Important and Critical. Like, if I don’t crack down now on her saying “Well, I’m going to eat candy because Pearl is eating candy!” that in ten years she’ll be saying, “Well, I’m going to try cocaine because Pearl is trying cocaine!” and “Well, Isla thinks it’s okay to send nude photos to her boyfriend, so I’m doing it too!” and “You weren’t there to tell me not to rob this bank, but Emmett was robbing it, so I did it too!” and then her life is ruined.

Maybe what needs to happen is a Pre-Visit Conversation, where I anticipate this kind of thing. And I sit Carla down and remind her that families are different, and have different rules and values, and that we mustn’t forget to abide by the rules that are important to our own family.

But even that feels… sticky. Because some rules are just naturally not as important as others. For instance, if the other family DOES wear shoes in the house, I am fine with Carla wearing shoes in their house. Even though we have a “no shoes in the house” policy. In that case, I’m fine with going with the other family’s way of doing things. Same with… watching TV at meal times. Or eating in the living room. Or whatever.

Why do those feel different to me than the “sitting at the table until everyone is done” policy? Hmm. I suppose there are many categories of rules, and some are important and immoveable while others are more flexible.

Let’s see. The “holding hands in the parking lot” thing is a safety issue, so that’s easy enough to categorize: Don’t put yourself or others in danger. Well, it’s easy for me to categorize, although it may be much more confusing to a five-year-old.

The “don’t eat until everyone is at the table” thing seems to me a matter of manners. So maybe that’s another category: make sure you still maintain your manners at someone else’s house. Say please and thank you, even if the other kids don’t. Pick up after yourself, even if the other kids don’t. Stay at the table until everyone is done, even if the other kids don’t (well, unless the parent says specifically that you can be dismissed). And it goes the other way, too — if the other family has manners-specific rules that you don’t have, you should adhere to them too. I had an elementary school friend whose family rule was that you eat every thing on your plate at meal times, which seems like a manners issue to me. And so in cases where “manners” are involved, you defer to the “good manners” option. I’m describing this in such a clunky way. I think what I mean is, it would be considered impolite to the other family, if you didn’t clear your plate. So in that case, you do the polite thing and clear your plate, even though there’s no “clear your plate” rule in your own family. (Man, that was the WORST rule for me. You may recall that I am super picky eater. It made me never want to eat at my friend’s house.) This is probably an Intermediate Level type of rule following, because it requires the ability to infer the other family’s reaction to following or not following the rules. I mean, if you go to someone’s house and they all say grace before dinner, but that’s not part of your own belief system… I don’t think you should have to say grace out of fear that the other family will find you rude. (You do have to be still and quiet and respectful during grace, like, not grabbing a handful of bacon while grace is being said.) But that’s something that you might not know/think about when you’re ONLY FIVE. I know, I am getting way ahead of myself on some of these things. And also this whole paragraph is confusing me even though it came from MY brain and I’M writing it so I’m going to move on.

Can I say how HARD it is to talk about this, without sounding/feeling judgmental? I know we made all sorts of stipulations at the beginning of this post, but maybe you, like I, have forgotten that. Or maybe you are, like I am, feeling a little uncomfortable about spelling out all these things that other people may or may not do. I am feeling a little panicky that you might be thinking, “Oh no! I never make my kids wait until everyone is done eating before they leave the table!” and worrying that that disqualifies you from Friend Consideration. No! No no no! I cannot express how much I DO NOT CARE if your children are required to stay at the table until the meal is over. They are kids. Let them go play while the grown ups linger over wine and second helpings of zucchini. It’s not a big deal. You would think that, because it is a rule in my own home, I would have strong feelings about it. But I do not. I think we made it a rule to help encourage Carla to develop the skill of sitting and doing something she finds boring. It’s a skill that will help her in many situations, from the classroom to the line at the bank, and I think her pediatrician or a teacher recommended it some years ago, and so it has become part of the family custom.

Similarly, we have the “no shoes in the house” rule, but that’s almost purely because I do not like to wear shoes or socks and I hate the feeling of grit on my feet that comes from people wearing their shoes in the house. If you like wearing shoes in YOUR house, great! My parents wear shoes in their house, and it works for them, and I wear shoes when I visit them and all is well.

And I know I made a big deal, earlier, that “holding hands in the parking lot” is a rule that falls into the “Things That Are Dangerous” category. And so I must be thinking that you care nothing of your child’s safety if you don’t hold her hands. No! Of course not! Some of my friends have children who walk calmly and slowly next to them at all times. Some of my friends have children who are extremely cautious and point out a car coming several blocks away. My particular brand of child is able to spot a roly-poly on a leaf fifty yards away but will not see a car barreling toward her down an otherwise empty street. I also have the brand of child who is prone to dashing and leaping and twirling, with no consideration for her surroundings or the presence of motor vehicles. So for HER, the holding hands thing is really important.

On the other side of the fence, I do NOT have a rule that you have to try every food that the host provides. Or even that you have to try every food on your plate. But if YOU have those rules, I get it! Those are GOOD rules! I see their value! If I could persuade Carla to try a single bite of every food without a Drawn-Out Epic Battle of Wills, I totally would institute that rule at our house. Or maybe I wouldn’t, because I am super picky and I would never want to have to try something like a stewed tomato, so I wouldn’t want to have a rule that I would be in danger of breaking.

I do not think anyone is inferior OR superior for having different rules than I do, is what I’m saying. They’re just different.

Sometimes, I worry that I have too many rules. It’s possible, I acknowledge that. But I had a lot of rules, growing up. And I turned out to be very good at following rules, which doesn’t seem like a bad thing. (And I still maintain a level of independence and creativity and ability-to-question-rules, I hasten to add!)

My parents had a Good Living Room and a Good Dining Room that we weren’t allowed in, except for special occasions. And I wasn’t allowed to have my door shut if there was a boy in my room. And I couldn’t leave anything on the stairs. And I couldn’t leave the doors open (unless there was a screen door in its place). And I had to turn the lights off any and every time I left a room. And many others. It’s kind of funny to think back, to all those rules, and think about which ones stuck and which ones I threw immediately to the wind once I moved out of my parents’ house.

These days, I shut the door to my bedroom ALL the time, even though there’s almost always a boy in here! I am so getting away with things!!!

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Posting has become harder for me lately. The kinds of things I want to talk about in this space – cooking for my family, planning for the holidays, complaining about ridiculous things – seem so glib and frivolous what with the state of the world. I don’t want to ignore the grief and fear and outrage so many people are feeling so acutely these days. But nor do I want to post about those things; I am fully aware that my existential dread is not worth discussing in depth, and I don’t feel like I have anything substantial to contribute to the existing conversations around All Of This.

When I seek out content online, it is typically to distract me from what’s going on in the world. Yes, I try to stay informed, but I can’t linger too much or I want to crawl into bed and sob forever. Instead, I want to spend my free time reading blog posts about baby names and holiday gift suggestions and how people spend their day and what people are doing with the veggies from their latest CSA and what it’s like to send a child to college. Things that are fun and, sure, sometimes, important, but maybe not important important, you know? (Are you blogging these days? Leave me a link. I want to read your posts.)

So today I am trying to push through the resistance that comes from not wanting to be too cheerful in the face of (another) tragedy and talk about something frivolous and unimportant.

I want to talk about phases.

Carla is at the intersection of several, shall we say, “challenging” phases. The phase where she is four, so she obviously knows MUCH better than me what she should be doing at any given moment which results in me asking her to put on her shoes fifty times and then just putting them on myself because we are already 14 minutes late for school. The phase where she screams when she (perceives she) is Deeply Wronged. (She has NEVER been a tantrum thrower, so this is startling and I am Not A Fan.) The phase where she eats nothing (we have been here before, at least). Mornings are especially fun around my house, is what you should take from all this.

It is so very difficult, when you are in the midst of a phase, to see it as A Phase rather than The Way Things Shall Be Until The Bitter End. I am only looking at these as phases because I was complaining to my friend the other day and she very calmly said, “Gosh, phases always last about two weeks longer than you think they should.” And all of a sudden, I realized that yes! These were phases! They will not last forever! (Also: Two weeks? Hahahahaha, friend.)

Sure, I want to “enjoy every minute” and I certainly am not trying to wish time away. It goes by fast enough. But also sometimes being a parent SUCKS and I wish these phases would end more quickly.

Of course, the trade off is that one phase ends only to usher in a new, perhaps equally challenging phase.

BUT there is a bright side. An annoying bright side, for those of us who are Not At This Particular Stage Yet. But a bright side nonetheless and I am grasping at anything to keep me upright here people. The bright side is that once this phase passes, it will (probably) cease to seem that bad.

This must be biological, right? The way I sometimes think fondly of pregnancy and daydream about being pregnant again. When pregnancy – for me – was not just smiling strangers and baby hiccups and cute maternity clothes. Oh no. It was twenty-five weeks of all-day-every-day morning sickness. And sudden onset crying. And it lasted for FORTY-TWO WEEKS. It was NOT GREAT. Stop rose-coloring those pregnancy glasses, me.

But the same goes for challenging childhood phases! And I know it’s not just me. My mother and mother-in-law have this rosy vision of their own children and how perfect they were. It’s kind of dispiriting – almost insulting – in a way, to have your parent look at your child, shaking her head in utter disbelief, saying, “Boy, I never went through this with my kids! They were perfect!”

Okay, okay. I am exaggerating for effect. When they talk about how perfect their kids were (and you realize “their kids” are me and my husband, right? so perhaps there is a little creative license based on audience going on here), they are not doing it in comparison to how un-perfect Carla is. (Obviously, she IS perfect.) They are not jerks. And my mom even has a story about how she once took me to the doctor and asked him what was wrong with me, because I was driving her so absolutely crazy. But it doesn’t seem like she remembers the specifics of that particular challenging phase, just that it happened.

(And, to be fair, I haven’t yet asked her about the Challenging Teen Years. I am still too close to them to hear her discuss them without dismay and chagrin. So there could be some doozies awaiting me. Let’s get through the early childhood years first, shall we?)

What I’m saying is, it’s one thing to be smack in the middle of a challenging phase and another thing entirely to be looking back at it through the gauzy mist of the past. Perhaps it would be therapeutic to take a good hard look backward at some phases and remember them as they were, rather than as the dewy memories of an idyllic babyhood they have somehow become. And then remind ourselves that those phases ENDED and today’s phases will too.

The Pumping Phase. Worst. Ever. I produced a lot of extra milk, and the only way to not choke my baby was to pump before feeding her. And then, because she got enough nourishment from just one side, to pump the other side, again, afterward. I spent what felt like most of the day attached either to my child or to that horrific breast pump. It was a Very Challenging Phase but it ended.

The Spitting Up After Every Meal Phase. Oh. My. Goodness. That was so frustrating. And wet. I’m sure it had to do with all the extra milk. But I still had to feed the child, you know? And she spat up every single time. We got some of those cloth diaper inserts to use as burp rags, and then got a huge pile more, because we went through ten or more a day. And we had to buy huge stacks of pajamas because I’d have to change Carla after every feeding. (Which, if you recall, was every two hours at some point. EGADS.) I lived in tank tops and nursing bras because I could rotate them out every time the spit up landed on me. That phase sucked. But we eventually got through it.

The Refusal to Sleep on Her Own Phase. Oh, Carla. Until she was… two? Older? (See, how quickly I have forgotten?), Carla would not fall asleep unless my husband or I was holding her or at the very least in the room with her. My husband spent portions of many nights asleep on the floor in front of her crib. Because I could not fall asleep on the floor, I remember singing her endless verses of lullabies and then trying to back very slowly out of the room without her noticing. Very rarely successfully. UGH. That was rough. But it’s over now!

The Reckless Disregard for Personal Safety Phase. There was a time when Carla had the speed of a cheetah and the caution of those wild squirrels that leap out in front of your car as you drive through your neighborhood. There was one incident where she dashed into a PARKING LOT and I almost died right there, so certain was I that she would be crushed by a car. She used to run pell-mell down the halls of her school, completely oblivious to things like commands and other people and immovable obstacles. There was a memorable heart-stopping few moments at Target when she took off down an aisle and out of my sight. Now, at least, she has some sense that streets and parking lots are dangerous and that she needs to keep me in sight at all times. The phase ended, and I no longer have to carry her everywhere for fear that she will escape and fling herself off a cliff.

The Putting Everything in Her Mouth Phase. Yuck. I was not a fan. My floors were much cleaner, but still. I am glad this one’s in the rear view.

The Potty Training Phase. This one is partially my fault, because I got it into my head that she should potty train at age two even though I don’t think she was quite ready. And then it’s partially her daycare’s fault, because the classroom teacher decided she was going to potty train the entire class at the same time (why? WHY????), and then a few weeks later she quit. In any event, I am SO GLAD THIS ONE IS OVER.

The Postpartum Phase. This really has nothing to do with Carla, but when I look back on it, I wonder if I had some form of PPD or post-partum anxiety. I was so afraid to leave the house. There’s a picture of me and my husband and Carla together in a park when she was twelve days old. It’s super cute, and one of the first of the three of us together. But I don’t really like it because it carries with it all these bad feelings. I remember so clearly how awful that trip was, how afraid I was that something would happen to her, how hyper-aware I was of how soon we’d need to head home so I could pump and feed her, how upset I got when Carla started to cry. It seems as though she and I stayed in the house pretty much the entire time I was on maternity leave, even though she was a summer baby and the weather was (presumably? I don’t remember.) great. I was so fixated on all these potential horrors, constantly worrying that she was sick or there was something wrong with her, so afraid to put her in the car, afraid even to let her spend time alone with my husband or my mom, just in case something happened to me or her at that very moment. I needed to be there. I couldn’t miss out. Add that to the endless pumping/breastfeeding cycle and it wasn’t the happiest time. So very glad that ended.

Of course, there are other phases that I truly miss. Like when Carla was learning to talk, and every day meant a few new words to practice and delight over. Like when she was a snuggly, happy six-month-old who stayed in one spot. Like when she called me Mama.

And there are other phases she’s in the midst of now that I never want to end: The Wakes Up Singing Phase. Or the Phase Where She and Her Friends All Compare Outfits and Jewelry the Second They See Each Other at School (it is ridiculous and adorable). Or the Phase Where She Wants to Help Me in the Kitchen. Or the Voice-Texting Daddy Super Sweet Things Phase. Or the Just Learning How to Read Phase. Or the “I Love You So Much I Never Want to Live Anywhere Without You” Phase.

She is a joy and a delight and I am glad to hold on to the good phases and let the bad ones fade into the detritus of memory.

What are the childhood phases you really miss? The ones that couldn’t have ended soon enough? And the ones you are not looking forward to? (Me, I’m just trying to focus on getting through TODAY. I am not even thinking about the Door Slamming Phase or the Boy-Crazy Phase or the Upsetting Report Card Phase.)

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Carla has decided that, when she grows up, she wants to be a zookeeper. A zookeeper with a cat for an assistant.

This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Carla. She loves animals more than anything in the universe. She chooses videos of animals whenever I give her the chance to watch something on my computer. She prefers stuffed animals over dolls, and her favorite game of late (read: past year and a half at least) is playing “Kitty,” wherein I count to ten, she hides, and then she pretends she’s a cat and I have to bring her home and teach her to do tricks. (The reward for the tricks is Goldfish crackers, obviously.) If I hand her my phone in the car or in the grocery store, she will keep herself busy googling pictures of whatever animal is most on her mind (mountain lion, giraffe, porcupine, praying mantis, armadillo). She has no innate fear of animals: she loves snakes and lizards and insects as much as she likes the fluffier, cuddlier critters.

If I had to choose her FAVORITE animal, though, I’d say dog.

She claims she likes cats best – and maybe she does; that’s certainly the animal she pretends to be. She seems to play with her stuffed cats most often. Cats star in her favorite online videos. But she hasn’t had much real-life experience with cats.

Dogs, on the other hand…

Dog

I don’t actually know this dog. But it hasn’t gotten the memo that I am firmly and forever A Cat Person. It’s very cute, though. 

Carla’s first experience with a dog was at her great grandmother’s funeral. Well, to be more accurate, the reception after the funeral; this wasn’t the type of mortuary that has dogs wandering around, although that sounds like it would be quite comforting. She was not quite a year old, and she fell in love with the dog who lived at the house where the reception took place. And she followed it around the ENTIRE TIME we were there. It was some sort of golden retriever and so it was big enough that it could knock her over with a wag of its tail. She loved it and I think it launched a passion for dogs that has so far only continued to blossom.

My parents have a dog, and Carla has been OBSESSED with him since she first met him. She will follow him around constantly. She has to be touching him at all times. Whenever she’s not with him – even if that means she’s sitting at the table eating breakfast and the dog is on the other side of the room – she has to know what he’s doing. Even though we were all in the same room together, she would insist on narrating what the dog was doing. “He’s licking his paw!” she would crow to my mother, who was sitting several feet away from the dog. “He’s sleeping!” she would announce to my father, who was literally at that moment petting the dog. When we are away from my parents and Carla mentions them – I miss them, I love them, I wonder what they’re doing – she never omits the dog. When we talk about members of her family, she lists the dog right up there with her uncle and aunt and grandparents and cousin.

We are lucky to live on a quiet cul-de-sac that has MANY dogs. One dog lives next door. Another lives across the street. Another lives across the street and three doors down. There are four others that live at the north end of the street, and three more that live at the south end. Plenty of dogs in close proximity.

Which is great!

But it’s also raised previously unknown-to-me etiquette concerns. What is an ideal Dog Neighbor Relationship supposed to look like? What are the appropriate Dog Neighbor Boundaries? How can we be good and non-irritating Neighbors to Dogs?

To make matters more complicated and uncertain, I do not like dogs.

Perhaps this changes your mind about me. I’m sorry if it does. But dogs are not my thing. I do not like how slobbery they are. I don’t like the licking. I don’t like the idea of picking up another creature’s excrement. I don’t like the hair or the scent or the forced walking.

Listen, I’m not going to be mean to a dog. I will say hello to a dog as I pass it on the street. I will happily look at your dog pictures. I will even, on occasion, pet one. I can appreciate a dog. I certainly want YOU to love dogs.

But I bring this up because I don’t really know anything about what it means to HAVE a dog. To be a Dog Owner. I mean, I grew up with dogs… but they were outdoor-only dogs and they had the run of our many-acre property so there wasn’t any pooper-scooper action or even any walking to be done. I never went to a dog park. My parents were responsible for the brushing and the feeding. They kind of existed at the periphery of my attention.

This means that I’ve had to learn, from scratch, how to interact with other people’s dogs. I’ve always sort of thought of Dog People as sociable types, who enjoy being outside with their dogs, who bask in sharing their Joy of Dogs with other dog lovers. So when Carla learned to walk, and we’d be out and about in the neighborhood, I thought nothing of allowing her to pet our neighbors’ dogs.

(Note for the concerned: I have always taken great care to teach Carla about Dog Safety: asking the dog’s owner before touching a dog; allowing the dog to sniff your hand first; preferred places to touch the dog; steering clear of dogs alone on their lawns, protecting their homes; being alert to signs that the dog is frightened or upset – ears laid back on the head, tail between the legs, growling.)

At first, it was easy enough – and, frankly, tiny Carla was adorable enough – to get away with a lot of dog attention. Our neighbors were very indulgent. But as Carla’s gotten older and more autonomous – and ever more obsessed with dogs – it’s gotten more uncomfortable. For me, I guess I should say. I have no idea how the neighbors feel. I am just assuming that their patience with Carla and our constant Dog-Related Interruptions is wearing thin.

For instance, Carla would see a dog in its yard as we walked past and would call out to the owner, “Can I pet your dog?” Or she would see a dog passing the house and would run to the door shrieking after the owner, “Can I pet your dog?” Or, worst of all, she would see a dog owner arriving home, and would call out, “Can you bring your dog outside?” Anytime we glimpsed one of the dogs on our street, Carla would make a beeline for it. And then she’d foist attention upon it – to the exclusion of all other things, like neighbors asking her kind questions about what she’d done in school that day, or like her mother noting that we’d need to leave in two minutes to go eat dinner – until the point where I would physically extract her from the situation, sometimes with accompanying tears and/or screaming.

Delightful, right?

Our kind, patient neighbors would usually acquiesce to her doggy demands with gracious kindness. But it makes ME feel like such an imposition. And an over-indulgent parent. And a person who doesn’t understand proper Dog Boundaries. AND a Bad Neighbor.

In maybe the past six months, we’ve instituted a new “rule,” which is that we only ask if we can pet someone’s dog if we encounter it on a walk. As in, if the dog is walking with its owner and we are walking. If we are on a walk and we pass by someone’s house, even if the dog and its owner are sitting outside on the lawn, we will not bother them. The rule is accompanied by a stern reminder that we need to pet the dog for short time, and when the dog owner or I say it’s time to go, we need to leave immediately and with no tears.

So I am trying to teach her about privacy and boundaries and all the things that are important to me. And we’re having success!

But it’s HARD. Because she LOVES THOSE DOGS. And sometimes, before I can remind her of the rule, she calls out – across the street, down the block, out of a car window – “CAN I PET YOUR DOG?” And then the neighbors feel obligated to comply.

In those cases, I usually explain to Carla that it’s not the right time, remind her of our rule, etc. And guide her away from the dog. But occasionally, the dog owner will say something like, “It’s okay,” and then Carla gets to pet the dog anyway. And I die quietly of humiliation.

Because I never know what’s appropriate, you know? I never know if I am being too strict with my own boundaries, or if I’m reading the situation correctly, or if I am totally overthinking things, or if I am being way TOO lax with what I allow Carla to ask and do.

The other day, we walked a few blocks to the post office. On the way, we noticed that our neighbor was walking his dog – about half a block in front of us. I reminded Carla of our rule, and told her if we crossed paths, she could ask if she could pet his dog. So Carla took off running. I had her stop and come back, but of course she wanted to catch up to the neighbor dog. At one point, the dog stopped to sniff a tree and we were within a few yards. So she yelled, “Hello, Mr. Neighbor! Can I pet your dog?” (I am also trying to teach her to acknowledge the person and not simply the dog.) But he was wearing earphones and didn’t hear.

I knew he had seen us though; we’d exchanged a wave. And I also knew that he KNOWS Carla and her dog obsession. I wondered if he was purposely staying ahead of us so he didn’t have to deal with Carla. And then I began to panic that he might think we were following him. No! We were just going in the same direction! Fortunately, he veered off one way and we went the opposite direction to the post office.

But of course, on the way home, we spotted him. I told Carla that we would probably cross paths and that she could say hello and ask to pet the dog. But he STOPPED, on the other side of the street. I don’t know why. To avoid us? Perhaps. (Panic, panic.) But we had to cross the street anyway, and then he was maybe five yards away, and she had been so patient and so rigorous in sticking to the rules, so I let her go up to him and say hello and pet the dog. Our neighbor was very pleasant about it. But sweet amaryllis did it make me anxious, intruding on his walk like that! If it had been up to me, I would have assumed that he was keeping his distance on purpose, and then I would have waved, stayed on my side of the street, and walked briskly to my house.

As an introverted person with, shall we say, Very Strong Boundaries, it is extremely uncomfortable for me to try to navigate these types of situations appropriately – and even worse when I have to teach my boundary-light daughter how to do so. What’s the right thing? What’s overstepping? What’s too much Dog Joy vs. not enough?

I think Carla is going to win lots of friends in the neighborhood when she gets old enough to be a dog walker. But until then, I guess I will just keep bumbling my way through Neighbor Dog Relationship Issues.

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