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I have been feeling a little melancholy the past few days. I think I’ve pinpointed some of the sources: It’s that odd time of year, between holidays, where I am sad and exhausted after my full-of-family house emptied out, and the pressure of All Things Christmas is already hot and heavy. I have been rewatching The Closer, which is one of my favorite television shows, but I had forgotten how dreadfully stressful and sad the final season is. I haven’t been writing (paid work and then company/Thanksgiving), which always makes me feel unsettled and off. I read a well-written and deeply sad article in The New Yorker about dementia that hasn’t left me. My husband and I are going to see a lawyer to (FINALLY) do our estate planning. And, of course, the clouds have settled in for what promises to be many months.

It all adds up to feeling extra sensitive to silly things – a probably offhand but seemingly poignant comment from the checker at the grocery store; the way Brenda’s team is so loyal to her on The Closer; having to throw away gobs of carefully, lovingly made Thanksgiving leftovers that no one will eat; that sort of thing – and feeling a little mopey and down.

One of the other sources of my broodiness is a current heightened awareness of the juggernaut of time.

The retail sector is at least partially to blame, I think. All the frenzied emails about Christmas began what feels like months ago and have only increased in intensity. I get anxious just checking my email – all those companies yelling at me to hurry! Going fast! Don’t wait to get in on this! Shop more, save more! Ends tonight! Extended! Don’t miss out! Such a ceaseless cacophony of urgency that I am somehow unable to ignore.

Hanukkah is early this year, which makes me feel like I’m already behind.

My parents were looking at retirement homes when they were here for Thanksgiving. While I am grateful to them for preparing for their old age, and for being so open and frank about the subjects of aging and infirmity and death, it makes me sad and panicky. I may be nearly middle-aged, but I still feel like I’m somewhere in the big swirl of age twenty-to-thirty, and I’m not ready to think seriously about my parents being old.

As I literally just mentioned, I am rapidly approaching middle age, with its attendant anxieties. My skin has frequent eruptions of pique. I vacillate between feeling delighted about my middle-age invisibility and feeling angry about the fact that my husband grows increasingly attractive while I do the opposite and feeling depressed that I am fading into the wallpaper and winding inexorably toward death.

Plus – and, although it may seem like the least important item on my list, it is not– my child has her first loose tooth. As with so many childhood milestones, this feels remarkable and significant. Her little face will change so much once she loses teeth. Teeth she’s had since she was a BABY. And I’m suddenly hyper-aware that she’s five-and-a-half, which is almost six. And while five felt So Big – kindergarten!!!! – six seems practically ancient. This loose tooth has me all in a tizzy of Childhood Is Fleeting and I am simultaneously frantic about making Christmas Special While She Still Gets So Excited About Everything and mooning over all the times I failed to Cherish Every Moment. And now her babyhood is really and truly GONE. She’s practically a GROWN UP.

Of course her growing up is tied inextricably to my own mortality. It all comes down to this: This feeling that I want to keep my baby little – even while I love, LOVE how she is growing. The knowledge that it’s impossible to do so. The desperate need to take in everything – soak up every little bit of her – all the time, and watching as the moment steamrolls past even as I grasp for it.

Last night, I went in to her room to take her to the bathroom before I went to sleep. Usually, she climbs out of bed – she’s really getting too big for me to carry – but this time, I picked her up. She turned her little face up to mine for a kiss, and then draped herself over my shoulder. I stood there for a moment, just holding her. The weight of her in my arms. The warmth of her body, the baking-bread scent of her skin, the gentle sound of her sucking her thumb. Just a minute ago, she was small enough to fit in the curve of my neck. Now, her long legs dangle down to my knees. My big girl. My baby.

Well. Melancholy.

There’s a fresh layer of snow on all the trees, and a steady soft flurry. I got a bright assortment of bell peppers from the grocery store yesterday – the bright green and yellow and orange and red are a nice contrast to the grey. I’ve gotten my meager “fall” décor put away, but am allowing myself a few days before I put out the Christmas stuff; there’s no hurry, and I want to stave off that closed-in feeling I get after too many weeks of Christmas Everything Everywhere I Turn. But because I am a woman of contradictions, I put on a Christmas music station – and Mariah Carey and Tony Bennett and Wham! have done a lot to help chip away at the glum. I have coffee planned with a lovely friend. Just now, I have answered the door to find a beautiful wreath from my mother – it smells like Christmastime and is now hanging proudly on my door. It all helps.

Wreath.jpg

So too does the knowledge that this feeling shall pass, and the hope that maybe someday I will be able to enjoy the present moment without mourning its eventual passage.

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Do you remember, way back in May, when I vowed to change my car’s air filter?  Probably not. It may seem like an odd promise to make to oneself. But I grow weary of having to depend on others for things. (Funny that this is a completely mercurial feeling. I have no issue with having people come mow my lawn and clean my gutters.)

Anyway. My promise. My dad told me I needed a new air filter; fine, I needed a new one. And I was going to change that air filter all by myself, because I am A Capable Woman who can choose to do a menial automotive repair anytime she likes.

The first hitch took place online, in my search for the air filter. My father had directed me to one specific filter, available on Amazon, but instead of buying it without asking questions, I clicked on some sort of link that said “is this the right air filter for your car?” or maybe I read a review of the filter excoriating the product based on the reviewer’s failure to determine whether it was the correct filter for his/her car.  However I got there, it seemed like the filter my father had recommended was not, in fact, appropriate for my car.

But then I couldn’t find the right one. I found something that SEEMED right. But my dad (the person with Actual Car Knowledge) was skeptical. And my car manual was NO HELP AT ALL. The only thing it had to offer was a single rather poorly-rendered drawing of the air filter with no specs or anything.

I was stumped.

My dad suggested that I go to my local auto parts store and ask someone there; they’d have some sort of computer database to consult. Which was a good suggestion. But I, Serious Introvert, would have preferred ordering my air filter online without ever having to interact with another human.

So I did nothing.

Time passed.

A couple of weeks ago, Carla and I went to buy new tires for my car. The tread was worn down to nearly nothing and it was time for new tires, and my local Tire Place had a good deal running. So we set out for an Exciting Excursion together and sat in the Tire Place waiting room while the tires were installed.

The Tire Guys – the two gentlemen working the front desk – were very, very nice. They seemed delighted by Carla, who is, objectively, delightful. They told us, proudly, that their waiting area had a large selection of toys and books. (I was glad I’d thought to bring my own books and a matching game for Carla AND my Lysol wipes because the entire waiting area, including the books and toys, was FILTHY. You have never seen a dirtier waiting area in all your life.) (They had a tiny coffee table in the center of the room, probably two feet by three feet, if that, and it took scrubbing roughly with FOUR antibacterial wipes to get it to a level of cleanliness that I was okay with.) They kept coming into the waiting area and offering us juice and water and coffee (the latter not directed to Carla), and one of them whisper-asked me if he could give Carla a yo-yo, and they just in general thought she was the bees knees.

When I was checking out, a process that seemed like Tire Guy had sent my credit card via courier turtle to the home office, I noticed that one of the services offered by the establishment was “change air filter.” So I asked if he could look up what kind of air filter my particular car required.

He looked at me curiously and said that no, he couldn’t. But there was an auto parts store right next door and they would be able to do it for me.

“We offer an air filter change service,” he noted. And I nodded.

“You’re just trying to save money?” he asked, implying that I should have just had them take care of it.

I could have said that I really wanted to do it myself. That I wanted the satisfaction of doing something on my own, of proving to myself that I could do it. But I didn’t know him, and he didn’t really care, and Carla was running back and forth across the showroom (is that what you call it, when what’s being “shown” is stacks of various brands of tires?) and flinging herself – with no regard for bodily safety – against one of two armchairs on the far side of the room, much to the consternation of the only other customer, who was sitting in the other armchair, so I simply nodded.

“Sometimes the auto parts guys will just put it in for you,” he mentioned in an offhand way, returning to whatever turtle coaxing he had to do to get my credit card processed.

I nodded politely. The checkout process dragged on interminably. I encouraged Carla to find an alternate way to amuse herself. She busied herself by climbing onto a very high stool and coloring in the book I’d brought her in the most precarious way possible.

Finally I signed my bill, collected my child, and left. We admired the new tires on my car, and then hoofed it over to the auto parts store which was, indeed, right next door. There, I purchased an air filter. We headed back to our car. Very easy.

As I buckled Carla into her car seat, the Tire Guy strode toward us.

“Did they have what you needed?” he asked. I nodded and smiled and thanked him for directing me to the auto parts store.

“We can put that in for you,” he said.

“Oh, that’s so nice of you!” I said, “but that’s not necessary!”

He ignored me and walked around the to the front door of my car, which he opened. He reached inside and pulled the lever to unlatch my hood. He opened the hood, looked inside at my engine, and then closed it without latching it. Then he grabbed my new air filter off of the passenger seat and opened the box, carrying it with him as he walked back toward the tire center.

“Pull it up here,” he called, pointing me toward the garage.

I laughed uncomfortably. But at this point, he had the air filter and… he was being kind, I thought. What was I supposed to do? Demand he hand it back to me?

I got in the car and drove into the garage. Carla caught on to my discomfort and asked what was happening, what were we doing? I told her that the man was being very nice and had offered to change our air filter to help us out. The Tire Guy handed our air filter over to a younger man – a boy, really; he couldn’t have been more than twelve, although I am probably wrong – and went over to a desk on the side of the garage.

I unhooked Carla from her carseat and held her up as we watched the young man change the air filter. (Which is, in my car at least, the EASIEST THING I HAVE EVER SEEN. He literally unscrewed three or four screws, lifted off the filter cover, lifted out the old air filter, dropped the new filter in, replaced the cover, replaced the screws. I definitely could have done it myself.) Then I tipped the boy $5 and we were on our way.

The whole thing left me feeling so conflicted.

On the one hand, what an act of kindness! Generosity in action! Great customer service! What a thoughtful thing for the Tire Guy to do. It saved me time, it saved me money (probably; he asked what I paid for the air filter and shrugged and said he would have charged me $6 more to do the whole thing, so I came out $1 ahead). Maybe it was an act designed to give me warm fuzzy feelings about that tire center, and make it my tire center for life. Or maybe it wasn’t about me, at all, but about the Tire Guy: maybe I reminded him of his wife or sister or daughter or niece and he treated me with the same kindness he’d want for her; maybe he remembered what life was like with an active child Carla’s age and decided to spare me the time and exasperation of trying to make an automotive repair with her in tow; maybe he likes to do random acts of kindness; who knows?!

But I also felt… deflated, I guess, about not getting to do the thing I wanted to do myself. And anxious, because I was unsure how to assert myself in that situation. (Why did I get so flustered? I should have donned one of those breezy confident smiles of the kind that are so easy to imagine and so difficult to execute and said in a breezy confident voice, “Oh no thanks! I’ve got it under control!” Or “I’ll take care of it – thanks!” Or “no need! I’ve got it!”) And frustrated with myself, for not being able to assert myself and for feeling more concerned about a stranger’s feelings than my own. And worried about what that meant for what I was modeling for Carla. I also had an overall feeling of ickiness, that I wasn’t sure how to attribute. Was it a result of the combination of deflation, anxiety, and frustration? Or the nagging feeling that I’d just been “rescued” when… I was not in need of being rescued? (I mean, if my husband had been there instead of me… he almost certainly would have purchased the air filter and been on his way, right?)

Most of all, I felt confused about what impression the whole experience would leave on Carla. I don’t want her to feel like she has to depend on other people. But of course I want her to feel like she can. I want her to feel warmly about society, and community, and to grow up wanting to help others and to not be afraid to ask for help if she needs it.

And do I want to begrudge the tire center man his small act of generosity? Certainly not. Do I want other women, who might feel wholly, unadulteratedly grateful and relieved about this unexpected gift from the automotive gods, to feel guilty or ashamed for accepting this kind of help? HELL TO THE NO.

But I am also weary of this kind of thing – kind hearted, well-intentioned or not – that gradually chips away at a woman’s sense of capability, of strength, of self-worth. The automatic assumption that I would need or want help. I don’t want Carla to feel like she can pull a damsel in distress act anytime she feels like it and A Man will swoop in and save her. Moreso, I don’t want her to feel like that’s what she SHOULD do. That she shouldn’t try things, because men can do it better/more easily. (Is it different, that I let my father tell me when to get new tires and when to change my air filter? I hope it is. I hope that is the non-action of a lazy child rather than the helpless spinning of a delicate girl.)

Ugh. I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill. Am I doing that? Maybe that’s what I’m doing.

Would I feel the same sort of conflicted confusion if the whole situation were the same, but the Tire Guy had been a Tire Woman?

And I don’t want to see misogyny where there is (probably) only kindness. I mean, if the Tire Guy had been my dad, well, he might have done the same thing. (Or not. My dad at least would have walked me through how to do it myself, for next time. Possibly he would have even made me do it, while he stood there and offered instructions. I like to think he would have done the same for a stranger, too.) I don’t want to be so hyper-aware of potential discrimination that I find it in places where it isn’t. I don’t want to project bias onto situations where it isn’t.

But I can’t help feeling unsettled about the whole experience, including — maybe especially — my reaction.

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Thank you all for your kind words on my last post. It’s so easy for that feeling of discomfort and awkwardness to spread until it’s stained every bit of me with self-loathing. I seriously never thought to consider my attempts to be friendly as… progress. I will try to do so from now on.

In the month since I wrote it, well. Life has gone on. Some of it good, some of it bad, some of it heartbreaking, the regular amalgam of living. And, listen, I don’t really want to talk about any of the reasons I might have needed comfort during that time period. (It’s nothing serious, although it felt like it was. In any event, everything is fine.) Today, I just want to talk about the comfort part.

What I turn to, when I need comfort, are distractions (reading, writing, TV) and comforting food. And the food is what I’m most interested in today, because I find it fascinating (and soothing, in itself) to learn what kinds of food people turn to in times of stress or grief.

Sure, food is primarily for sustenance. But it can also carry so much emotional weight. (No moral weight, though; I feel strongly about that.) (Unless you are killing endangered species because their XYZ is a delicacy. Then I’d have a moral objection.)  For instance, my first helping instinct is often related to food. When a neighbor lost her husband earlier this year, I immediately wanted to give her a meal. That just seemed the most useful, reasonable thing I could do, to provide some modicum of comfort to a person I know but don’t know well, a person who was likely reeling with shock and heartache and visitors and logistics and grief.

I looked online, as one does, and was surprised – probably naively so – to see what a wide variety of options people recommended. I always thought a casserole was the appropriate thing to give. A nice, hearty macaroni casserole. Or a lasagna. Something like that: easy to heat, carb-heavy. But the recommendations spanned everything from veggies and dip to cookies to fried chicken to stew.

(I ended up making a stew. It was delicious, and hearty. The death happened in the winter, and I thought it would be good for freezing or ladling out to visitors.)

Lately, after needing some comfort myself, and then remembering that stew, I got to thinking about Food As Comfort in general, and how my idea of Comfort Food might be totally different from yours.

When I am in need of comfort, I turn to the carb-heavy stuff. Chicken paprikas is my go-to favorite. It’s creamy and noodle-y and spicy, and it just makes me feel warm and cared for. It’s kind of weird that it should be my top favorite comfort food, I think, because I didn’t grow up eating it. Instead, it’s something my husband and I started making together back when I was in grad school. Well, maybe that’s the reason: I associate it with him, with cozy dinners at home together with the one person who comforts me more than anyone else.

Sometimes, though, the comfort I need is more primal – a bear returning to its cave to weather the icy winds, a newborn nuzzling up to its mother to nurse, a caterpillar spinning itself a chrysalis. I want to retreat to childhood, which was safe and loving, during which I was free from the horrors of the world. And there are many foods from my childhood that surround me with that kind of basic, fundamental warmth.

One comforting favorite is spaghetti with meat sauce. That’s the first meal I learned to make for my family, back when I was a kid. It reminds me of my childhood and of my own self-sufficiency.

Most recently, I turned to bagels. Another longterm favorite, my mom used to toast Lender’s bagels for me when I was a kid. Dripping with butter, they taste both decadent and simple, life’s complications reduced to its elemental truth: Warm bread. Melted butter. Sometimes honey, making its way in sticky rivulets down my wrist. When I was pregnant with Carla – and horribly sick for twenty-five weeks (I first typed “months” and yes, that’s how it felt) – I subsisted on bagels and pizza. The bagels would stay in my stomach when nothing else would.

Grilled cheese holds a special place in my heart. It was my mother’s go-to Miserable Wintry Day food. A crust of butter on each slice of bread. A thick molten heart of Velveeta. A glass of classic Coke on the side. The unbeatable combination of gooeyness and crunch.

And I’ll always have fond memories of Lipton noodle soup. My mom swears by chicken noodle soup; Lipton did the job just fine, and (a plus for me), has no unappealing chunks of white Styrofoam masquerading as chicken. I tore open many a paper packet and watched the tiny freeze-dried noodles plump up in a swirl of boiling water.

The comfort may not be permanent. But it does help.

What are your go-to comfort foods?

 

Chicken Paprikas 3

This is a ridiculous photo, but it’s the only one I have. I never eat this little. I eat a FULL BOWL, primarily full of sauce, which is the best part of any meal. 

Chicken Paprikas (adapted from Joy of Cooking)

Ingredients:

Approximately 6 servings

1 to 1½ pounds of boneless skinless chicken breast, chopped into bite sized pieces (pre-cooked is ideal; I’ve included a modification below in case you want to use raw chicken breast)

1 Tbsp vegetable oil

1 white onion, chopped roughly

1 Idaho potato, chopped roughly

1 to 3 Tbsp paprika

1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)

½ to 1 tsp salt

4 cups low-sodium chicken stock

1 8-oz container sour cream (I use the fat free sour cream from Trader Joe’s)

3 to 4 Tbsp flour or cornstarch

1 package egg noodles

Directions:

  1. Heat vegetable oil in a stock pan over medium-high heat.
  2. Add onion and paprika (and optional cayenne) to vegetable oil, stirring occasionally, until dark red and glossy.
  3. Add salt, chopped chicken breast, and chicken stock. When the mixture comes to a boil, add the chopped potato. Simmer for 15-20 minutes until you can stick a fork into the potato chunks and they slide off easily. I don’t know how to say this a better way; make sure the potato is cooked.

* If you have raw chicken breast pieces, you can do this step slightly differently. Add the raw chicken together with the salt and stock. Then, once it comes to a boil, simmer everything for 15 minutes until cooked through. Then add the potato and cook for another 15 minutes.

  1. Whisk flour/cornstarch and sour cream together in a small bowl.
  2. Add a ladle full of the stock mixture to the sour cream mixture and whisk until incorporated. Do this three times.
  3. Add the tempered sour cream mixture to the pot. Stir.
  4. Serve over egg noodles.

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The Pre-K year, for us, has been The Year of Play Dates. We maybe do one or two a month, but that’s a 53,008% increase over previous years, so I’ve been devoting a LOT of energy to them.

Does everyone find playdates unbearably awkward? Well, I do. My personality – introvert, people-pleaser, awkward in general – is just not suited for focused encounters with other parents and children I may or may not know.

This is not to say I don’t want to do playdates with my child! I do! I want her to have friends. I want her to build the kind of social skills that playdates seem suited for. I want to get along with other parents. Hell, I want to make new friends.

Some of the issue, maybe, is that playdates are relatively new to me. For the first three years of Carla’s life, my husband and I both worked full time outside of the home. So playdates on weekdays were a no-go. And because we spent so much time away from Carla during the week, we typically spent weekends together, just the three of us. If we had anything resembling a playdate, it was a get together with our friends and their similarly-aged children.

But this year, we’ve had many. And by “we,” I mean me and Carla because my husband obviously still works full time outside the home. I cannot tell you how anxious these stupid playdates make me. Well, I’m going to try, I guess, considering I’m writing a post about the topic. Let’s see if I can break down the awkwardness into a few categories.

Initiating a Playdate

I don’t really know how to go about arranging a playdate. I mean, it seems pretty obvious, right? But I am shy and I am deeply afraid that the other parent won’t want to hang out a) with me or b) with my kid. There’s been a little bit of the old, “Oh, we should do a playdate!” kind of thing that never results in anything. And that kind of thing totally feeds my own self-consciousness/despair. When, in fact, the other parent could be feeling just as awkward/nervous as I am and/or could just be BUSY with LIFE as people tend to be. Also, the phone works two ways, Me.

Previous to this year – last year, Carla and I went on a whopping three playdates, two with the same friend – the other parent and I would suggest the playdate. But now, Carla and her friends have figured things out. And they seem to be scheduling playdates at school, without their chauffeurs in attendance to record the details. Once, Carla’s friend’s mom came up to me and said, “Carla said she wanted to do a playdate with my child. Let’s get together!” and then, miracle of miracles, we actually did end up getting the kids together. That’s my ideal, right there. A sort of mutual mention that results in an actual playdate.

But that ideal was a one-time thing. Usually, Carla comes home ALL THE TIME saying she wants to have a playdate with so-and-so and I get overwhelmed. Do I pick up the phone and call them up? What about the moms who have additional small children – will they even be interested in getting/able to get together? And what if I’ve never said more than hello to the parent at drop off? Some of the other parents seem to get their kids together all the time, but it also seems like those parents are friends. Would they welcome a suggested playdate from me and my child? Would they recoil in disgust? WHO’S TO KNOW?

The Playdate Location

This fills me with dread, too. First of all, who suggests where the playdate should take place? It’s the playdate initiator, right? That makes sense to me but… it hasn’t always worked out that way. Anyway, when I suggest a place for the playdate, I am always at a loss. I have gradually come to be okay with having Carla’s friends over to our house (listen, I’m an introvert and having people in my space is always nerve wracking), but… is that too forward? Is it too boring? Should I be presenting an option that’s super stimulating, like a trampoline park or a museum? And, if I DO suggest something like the latter, who pays? Am I supposed to pay for everyone because I suggested it? I am HAPPY to do that, but I don’t know what the protocol is! Summers are easier, at least, because you can just go to a nice, free, stimulating playground. But it is NOT summer and summer feels a million years away and I need to know what to do now.

I do love having playdates at other people’s homes, though. I love to see other people’s houses, and how they decorate, and the level of neatness they have (it is SO refreshing to see some clutter). But then there’s the awkwardness/stress of my child not eating anything they offer, or possibly breaking something, or bothering the dog, or whatever. And I always feel super self-conscious: how should I sit, what should I wear, do I trail after my kid or sit here like I expect to be entertained. Blah blah blah.

What to Do on the Playdate

So far, my playdate experience has been that the kids run off and play, and the other parent and I stay pretty much in one location and chat, intervening with the kids in case of an argument/injury/extended silence. Is that the expectation, universally? I mean, it is pretty ideal for friendship building. But what if you aren’t interested in/meant to be friends? Carla has a friend who is darling and wonderful and whose parent is someone I think is lovely and very nice, but we just aren’t clicking the way friends do, you know? It’s all small talk, and I find it exhausting. The PARENT is wonderful and does a marvelous job of keeping the conversation going, but I find it so terribly draining to be “on” with a person that I don’t feel 100% comfortable around. (This is the introvert thing again, I fear. If you are an extrovert, you may be furrowing your brow right now, trying to understand why ninety minutes of chatting leaves me feeling like I’ve just completed a biathlon.) I suppose I could just tell the other parent they could leave their kid with me but… that fills me with new layers of terror. And do I need to feed people? So far, when we’ve had playdates at my house, I’ve tried to have some kid-friendly snacks on hand and then I’ve offered the other parent coffee or tea. But is food expected? I certainly don’t expect it, when we go to other people’s homes. But that’s because Carla and I are both super picky, so eating at other people’s homes is additionally fraught with anxiety.

What If the Playdate Goes Sour?

And then there’s the other worry, that the kids won’t get along, or that something bad will happen. My daughter’s teacher gave me a Hot Playdate Tip, which I now pass along to you: groups of three are a bad idea. If you have three kids (at least, Pre-K-age kids), one of them will inevitably end up feeling left out. Okay, so as long as I’m the playdate initiator, that’s easy enough to control for (and egads I have enough trouble working up the nerve for a one-on-one playdate, let alone a playdate involving more kids!). But what if your kids start fighting? Or are bored? Or want to do completely separate things? How do you salvage a) the playdate and b) the potential for future playdates? Do you just throw in the towel? Write it off as normal kid behavior? WHAT DO YOU DO?

How Do You Get the Playdate to End?

You know how most birthday parties are about two hours? I tend to go by the Birthday Party Rule for playdate length, too. Carla has a playdate threshold of about ninety minutes. Sometimes she’s good for two hours. Other times, she’s done after an hour. And I can tell she’s done because she starts wanting to be alone and there is an increased level of pouting/irritability. Fine; she knows her boundaries, and so do I. But how do you communicate that to another parent, whose children may have no limit to how long they can be together? I have usually just said from the beginning, “Carla’s good for an hour or two but not much longer than that.” And when I am in control of the planning, I try to say things like, “We’ll meet you at this indoor park for an hour and a half and then we’ll split for lunch.” Or whatever. But sometimes the other parent wants to extend it! Or they’ll invite us for an open-ended playdate! Ack! We had one of those open-ended jobbers at our house recently, and I was able to close it out with my need to prepare dinner. But it can be tricky! Especially if the kids are getting along really well (as was the case at my house recently). (Although, believe me, “getting along really well” can transform into “the world is ending tears” in a matter of moments.) And, okay, sometimes it’s really just ME who needs the playdate to end. I guess this is a lesson for me to always have something to do immediately after the playdate, whether it’s going to the grocery store or making dinner or whatever.

How Often Do You Do Playdates?

I really think two playdates a month is my limit. But I think other parents and their kids are getting together once or twice A WEEK.

Okay, I am back after taking some deep, restorative breaths; the thought of two playdates a week made me a little dizzy. I think that’s my answer right there: two playdates a month. Sorry, Carla.

 

I do wish I could put less pressure on the whole situation. It’s a playdate, for goodness sakes. The way, for me, to make playdates the most palatable and least stressful is to have them out in the world. My preference is for going to parks in the summer (although, as I noted above: NOT CURRENTLY SUMMER DAMMIT). That way, you can be outside in the fresh air. No one has to cook (although I do bring enough snacks for everyone). No one has to clean. You can take breaks from chatting to push your kid on the swing or the merry go round or the teeter-totter. It’s free. The kids get worn out pretty quickly, so it’s easy to not spend seven hours together. If I could do a playground playdate every time, AND if I could get over my crippling dread of initiating the damn things, they might not be so bad.

I am holding out hope that the awkwardness will fade with time. Either that or Carla will develop a deep and lasting friendship with a mom who turns out to be my Friend Soulmate.

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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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Unrelated to the title of this post: Carla has recently begun speaking with what I can only describe as a Baltimore accent. We do not live in or near Baltimore.

Now to the topic at hand.

You know how sometimes there are good things going on in your life – good, or at the worst, neutral – and you know you should feel happy and grateful… and you DO, you do feel happy and grateful… but also they are kind of stressing you the cluck out?

Yes. That.

It’s kind of like saying that you have an exotic luxury cruise coming up, and you are so stressed about whether the new bathing suit you ordered is going to give you weird tan lines but you may not have enough time to get the strapless version shipped to you from Milan… and you are having anxiety about making sure that your Ferrari is going to be driven once a week while you’re gone… and you’re hosting a welcome party for Beyonce’s twins but the caterer isn’t very responsive and you’re not sure if she was able to get the live baby lobsters you wanted to give out as party favors.

Why are you complaining about something that is a) voluntary and b) positive? Why are you expending energy on being anxious about THIS when there is so very much going on in the world to which you could direct your worry? CAN YOU NEVER BE HAPPY?!?!?!?!

I mean, I’m not saying I’m going on a fancy vacation or that I even have a Ferrari. (Nope. My turn-of-the-century Honda doesn’t even dress up as a Ferrari for Halloween.) And Beyonce and I are just not that close. But… good things, nonetheless.

[Edited to add: This is nothing crazy out of the ordinary, by the way. It’s more along the lines of — but not quite — buying a new house: great! But accompanied by lots of meetings with the mortgage broker and dealing with home inspections and packing and learning the new neighborhood. Or like — but not quite — getting a promotion, where you may get a raise and a new title but you have added responsibilities and maybe need to take a management class and also now you have to give presentations to the whole company. That sort of Good Thing with Added Stresses.]

So. Good things. And yet… I am stressed out.

There are so many logistics! And planning! And phone calls! And Unknown Things!

My face is breaking out from the overwhelming weight of Copious Junk Food and Excessive Anxious Thoughts (not to mention the heat, that awful old-dish-sponge heat that lies on you in a stinky, sticky, damp layer). I cried on the phone to a stranger this morning. My sentences tend to begin in my head and end in speech, leaving the person I am speaking to feeling confused and a little concerned that I am in need of medical attention. I am forgetting things, and having to re-do things.

Part of this is because I have not had an uninterrupted night’s sleep in a week, instead spending the wee hours of the morning staring at the ceiling fan as all sorts of horrific tragedies play out in my brain in Game of Thrones style gore.  Waking up at every hour like clockwork solely to watch the ticker tape of Things That Have to Be Done scroll across the bottom of my mind screen while a wide-eyed newscaster screeches Breaking! News! of Things That Are Making Me Anxious one right after another. Sitting straight up in bed in a panic about something ridiculous, like the well-being of the (now two) baby deer who live part time in our yard. And when I am sleeping, I am having nightmares of the trying-to-save-my-child-from-a-shooter variety.

On top of everything, Carla is turning FOUR, which means that I am also smack in the middle of my annual Mooning About the Relentless Passage of Time and also Having Strong Feelings About Carla’s Birth because that will apparently never stop being a hot topic for my brain to stew over.

Also, there was a centipede in my kitchen this morning.

[Edited to add: Not five minutes — MINUTES — after I posted this, I went into my bathroom and there was a giant silverfish lounging on the floor, all, come at me, bro.]

To combat the stress, I am: A) Making lists. B) Reminding myself, in a stern but kind way, that the stress is in service of a positive outcome. C) Working out as often as possible (which makes it sound like I am at the gym multiple times a day, when really I am trying to get back up to the baseline of multiple times a week), because there is something weirdly soothing about sweat and working-out-related pain. D) Writing it all down in great melodramatic whiny paragraphs, then deleting it. (This post is, um, the not-deleted part.) E) Telling you, in hopes that you Get It and/or will distract me with something, anything. F) Trying to take some of the creative energy that is currently going toward catastrophizing and redirect it toward my actual writing. G) Keeping caffeine to a minimum. H) Reciting the things I am grateful for in a loop while in the car, in bed, in the shower.

Are any of these things working to keep the anxiety at bay? Not so far, no. But these are early days. And what do I know? Maybe they are keeping the stress at a lower level than it would be otherwise. WHAT A FUN THOUGHT THAT IS.

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Carla will be attending a couple of different camps this summer. It’s our first experience with camp, so, if you imagine my mind like a large industrial size gas stove, with pots of worry on each of the burners, the camp pot is currently set at a low simmer. With each passing day, though, it comes closer to a boil.

Part of that, I think, is that there has been little to no communication from the camps. We got emails right away that they processed our payments… and then… nothing. One of the camps required some sort of something that I’ve forgotten, to take place in April, and eventually I just contacted them myself to get it taken care of. (Would the camp administrators have ever reached out to me?) One of the other camps did send out a sort of welcome email, which promised to send more information in the coming weeks (it has not). The welcome email also included three attachments, two of which were forms that didn’t apply to Carla and one of which was a welcome letter (why couldn’t the content of the letter be part of the email?) that mentioned camp t-shirts and where to buy them, and also gave the date of a… something. I don’t really know what to expect, but I guess we get to go see where the camp takes place and… maybe meet some of the camp staff? It’s very unclear, and I have read it several times to make sense of it.

So the lack of communication is concerning. And it feeds into the part of my worry that derives from the fact that this is a Total Unknown. I never really did camp as a kid. We had a nanny when I was growing up, and my brother and I spent our summers at home. I think there were several years of swimming lessons, and maybe a few visits to a local park that offered face painting. But mostly, we played in the vast wilderness surrounding our house and tried not to get bitten by a rattlesnake. (It was a pretty idyllic way to spend a summer, I have to admit. I have fond memories of riding my bike over gravel and over twin ruts in the prairie that counted as a path; of inspecting ant hills with great care and interest; of swinging for hours in the sun; of swiping a handful of oats from the horses and planting them and watching them grow; of writing messages on pieces of birch bark from the wood pile; of playing with kittens in the hayloft; and so many other outdoor pursuits. I feel like I spent all summer long outside, but memory may be playing tricks on me.

The one childhood camp I remember attending was a sleepaway camp, and the first night I was there I developed pneumonia and had to be sent home. In any event, I was much older than Carla is, and plus this was a million years ago, so I have no idea how camps work anymore. The paragraph-long descriptions that persuaded us to enroll Carla are, from an information perspective, very slim. What does it actually mean to be “exploring the natural world through art” or “mastering new sports skills”?  What will the kids be doing all day?

One of the things I am fretting about is Carla’s reaction to camp. I think she will love camp, based on the broad understanding that the kids will be outdoors a lot and that there will be art and sports. But transitions are challenging for Carla, and I am a little concerned that it will take her so long to adjust to camp that she won’t get much out of it. Also, I have this nagging worry that the camp counselors will be… lacksadaisical, and I have scary visions of Carla running off and getting lost in the forest or something.

Okay, breathe, breathe. It’s going to be okay, yes? The camps will eventually send me some real information, right? I will know more than the dates and location of the camp, preferably before the first day of camp, yes?

I keep opening emails to the camp director, wanting to ask in a cheerful and not-overly-eager-or-bothersome manner whether we can anticipate any details in the coming days… or if there is a welcome session to introduce Carla to the camp venue… But then I chide myself about being patient and close the emails. I don’t want to be labeled as That Mom until they get to know me.

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