30 April 2008

How Old Are You, Anyway?

At the park yesterday, the older brother was giving the 3 year old a hard time. She, having none of it, was ignoring him and playing with another girl, about her size, whom she had just "met."

Sam: "Why are you playing with that little girl?"

Ellie, to Sam: "She's not little!"

Ellie, to new girl: "How old are you, anyway?"

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Sometimes, I hafta check her birth certificate to confirm that she is really only 3.5.

26 April 2008

A Good Night's Sleep

I haven't slept in 9.5 years.

I do not remember what it feels like to have enough sleep. I am tired all of the time. I used to have a reputation for being an impressive napper; I reveled in a lazy afternoon nap, the kind that you fall slowly into and rise slowly from, the kind that leaves you warm and relaxed and the purest kind of happy. I have a very vivid memory of walking into my room as a kid -- I was probably around 10 -- and seeing a pile of folded blankets on the floor. They looked so comfy, so inviting, just like that. I sat down and put my head down on them. Not bothering to unfold them and cover myself up, I simply drifted off to sleep sitting against them. The most vivid part of the memory is of waking up, of piece by piece returning to the waking world and being utterly delighted by my unexpected trip to dreamland.

I miss those days.

Over the past few years, I've heard more in the news about the effects of sleep deprivation, specifically on memory. I am a naturally scatter-brained person, and when you add 9+ years of no sleep, well, it's a wonder I remember my own name on most days. I really am quite forgetful. I forget to turn in permission slips; I forget to return library books; I forget to bring deposits with me to the bank. I forget the last batch of pancakes almost every time I make pancakes. I forget what I went upstairs to retrieve.

About a half hour before I pick the kids up from school, I gather up the items I need to bring with me -- maybe we have someone's uniform sweatshirt by mistake, or I have to turn in a parent hours form to the front office, or one of those ever-late permission slips, or progress reports -- and put them on the front seat of the car. Then, when I get to the school, I walk in and forget to bring those items with me.

When I do happen to get a decent amount of sleep, I immediately notice a difference in how I feel the next day; amazing, right? Now, if I could just string together about a month's worth of those nights, maybe my brain would start working again, which would be nice, since it seems to have been on vacation for the past several years. Once, while I was listening to Talk of the Nation, the host was giving a promo for the next day's show on sleep deprivation and memory. I planned on listening to it...but I forgot.

Sigh.

But sleep is alive and well in my household. At least five of us are, as I type, sleeping like babies, which one of them actually is.







Someday, I will sleep again. Someday, I will wake up rested. Someday, I will reclaim the title of Grand Napper.

Someday. For now, I'll have to settle for watching the little 'uns breath in and out, peacefully, contentedly, noisily sometimes, beautifully always.

25 April 2008

Free Range in Baby Steps

We are inching closer to having Free Range Kids. Clap now.

We are dog-sitting our favorite (living) dog in the world, a beautiful, sweet Golden Retriever named Silka. She is awesome. She's exactly like our own beloved Chelsea, who passed on to Dog Heaven 3.5 years ago, and Silka fits right in with our family.

And she needs to be walked. So we are now letting our two boys take her for walks around the block with the following guidelines:

  • Around the block only. No street crossing -- which is for Silka's safety more than for their own, actually.
  • If you come across anything or anyone who makes you nervous or uncomfortable, RUN HOME FAST.
  • And because Silka is with them: bring a plastic bag and clean up after your pet. Do not put the bag in anyone else's garbage can but our own (that last bit was added out of necessity after the first walk).


It's worked out great. They go around, they check in, they go around again... And the world has not stopped spinning. They, however, love this tiny taste of independence.

And then today, I ran a couple of errands and let the boys stay home by themselves. Ground rules:


  • Do not open the front door. Not if someone knocks and not to go outside on your own. You have full access to the back garden and the entire house. You may not go out into the front garden for any reason whatsoever. (I actually put something in front of the screen door, so I could tell upon my return if the door had been moved. Barrier was still there when I got back!)
  • Don't answer the phone; screen the call and pick it up if it's mom or dad calling.
  • Call me if you see blood.


Again, earth still on its axis; boys happy...mom happy because I didn't have to drag five kids (2 of them grumpy) on a few simple errands. The girls are young enough that a car ride is still a fun adventure for them.

They did call once. Not to tell me about blood, but to tell me that they had made me a treat. "I hope you don't mind, Mom, but we had to sample it a little." I came home to a sweet note and a sweeter treat. The note said: "Dear Mom, We hope you enjoy this treat. We call it The Cookies With Iceing and Sprinkles. love, Samuel and Vincenzo."

In the bowl, which was wrapped, there were 2 Chips Ahoy cookies, covered with chocolate jimmies, chocolate chips, two or three different colors of cake icing, whipped cream and a cherry. Yum! Actually, it was overly sweet, to the point of being pretty gross and hard to finish...but I muddled through. They helped, of course.

Anyway, I like this Free Range Kids thing. I'm calmer, because their lives are more varied, they get to do more things, and I don't feel like they are completely underfoot all day. While Silka has been here, if they get too crazy or loud, I can just say, "Hey, you two, take the dog for a walk!" I'm sure 17 walks per day are actually good for the dog, right? They are calmer because they get some time without me watching their every move. It's a win-win. Yahoo.

This is one of those times on the motherhood path that I get to stop, breathe, and realize that things, and children, and moms, change. If I'm having one of those days that seem like just another piece of stale popcorn on an unending, unvarying string, I can rest assured in the knowledge that before I know it, the string will indeed be transformed. My days will not always be about sheparding small children through the day, solving arguments, changing diapers, cajoling them to eat, and desperately seeking a little peace and quiet. And knowing that makes me treasure the time I have now, instead of dreaming up new ways to escape it.

All of this just because I let the boys stay home? Shoulda done this a LOOOOOOOOOOONG time ago. Like when they were 2 and 4. Just kidding.

note: I am borrowing my label for this post (and related posts) from the blog of Lenore Skenazy. Check it out for yourself!

18 April 2008

Questions of the Day

"Mom, how come your weiny feels so weird when you drive down a hill?"

--------

"Mom, can you get expelled for saying all the curse words in alphabetical order in the talent show?"

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Mom's answers:

"Well, sweetie, I'm a girl, so having never experienced that particular sensation, I can't really tell you the reason."

And this: "I don't think they'd approve that act in the first place!"

17 April 2008

Author! Author!

Lola has written her first book. I asked the kids last week to draw pictures for my aunt, whose birthday is today. Because Carol likes cats, Lola decided to draw one for her. One drawing became two, became three, and then she added a...well...narrative might be stretching it a little, but a lovely little five-year-old story. Here it is:

The Little Cat, by Lola




It got sunny and the cat ate grass
and the cat was thirsty.



The cat went to drink milk and then it started to rain.



And the proud author.



Happy Birthday Carol!

16 April 2008

Life is Funny That Way

"Mom, you know what's so funny about life?"

"It's funny when parents try so hard to get their babies to talk, and then six years later, they're trying so hard to get them to sit down and shut up."

14 April 2008

Sisyphus Had It Easy

What a wuss. One boulder. One boulder, folks. That's all he had to contend with. Ha! I should be so lucky!

One boulder vs:

• My laundry pile: THIS could put Sisyphus to shame all by itself. But wait, there's more.
• One toddler: ...who removes her shoes and her socks over and over and over and over. Add 3.5 minutes to any outing to (a) find where she threw them in the car and (b) put them back on while she giggles wildly. At least one of us is having fun.
• Three squares a day: I push food down their throats each and every day, only to wake up the next day needing to do it again.
• 50 fingernails and 50 toenails...I finish clipping the last of the 100 nails and it's time to start over. And that's not counting my own.
• The toilet paper roll: Makes me wonder if Sisyphys ever grumbled to himself: "Am I the only one in this family who even SEES that this boulder needs to go back up the hill? Am I the only one in this family whose LEGS aren't broken?"

Today's reflection brought to you by the RRRRRRRRRIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIP! sound I hear every morning on the way to school, or en route to whatever errand is at hand:

09 April 2008

Looking for a Little Confidence

And Talk of the Nation has me blogging again today. This time, the guest was Lenore Skenazy, an op-ed columnist at The New York Sun. She wrote a column, also on her blog, called Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone. You may remember my post on my own family’s struggle with this urge to let our children “out to play” and our fears for their safety; you can read it here. The interview with Skenazy has me brooding on the topic again, as do my son’s more frequent pleadings for permission to ride his bike down to the local park to play soccer.

The link to Skenazy’s article above also takes you to her website, Free Range Kids, which looks like a meeting place for parents who are, or who want to be, raising kids who are safe but not overprotected, healthy but not sanitized.

I have a friend who has a now-adult daughter, whom I first met when she was around 12. Even at that age, the girl was confident, poised, gracious with new people…an all around impressive young person to meet. I remember once asking my friend, half in jest, what she did as a parent because I wanted to duplicate her efforts so that my own children would grow up to be as fantastic as her daughter, “E.” I’ll never forget her answer; she said she tried to do everything she could to give her daughter confidence. When faced with a choice she wasn’t sure how to make, she would try to consider which option would give “E” the most confidence and go with that one.

And aside from this issue of how much freedom and autonomy to give my kids, I am crystal clear on my desire to raise them to be confident in their own abilities, in their brains, their bodies, their relationships. But boy do I find it hard to translate that desire into letting the kid ride his bike to the park. Concerns? Oh, there are many.

Dogs. There are stray dogs, sometimes pit bulls, in my neighborhood. How often do I see them? A couple of times a month, I would say.

Cars. Let’s face it, people are idiots. Especially when they are behind the wheel of a car. Absolute idiots. How often do I notice idiot drivers in my neighborhood? Practically daily, I kid you not.

Bullies. I have a vivid memory of being at a park with my brother; we were probably 8 and 11 at the time. While playing basketball, he started having trouble with another kid. The trouble escalated, and before I knew it, my brother was getting beaten up and I was running home to get my dad. It was scary to witness as a child, and I think it stayed with me in such a way as to make the prospect of this happening to my kids especially scary. Even still, this happens, right? I mean, kids get beaten up sometimes by other kids. In some cases, it’s just a right of passage; in other cases, it can be a truly dangerous event.

Kidnappers. Actually, I’m not as scared of this as I am of the dogs and cars; it seems so much less likely. Even though the thought of having a child snatched is awful and terrifying, I can talk myself through this one as -- statistically speaking -- extremely unlikely.

One of Skenazy’s points is that the media is doing us a disservice by covering the sensational and scary stories that create and perpetuate fearful parenting. So what we need, then, are ways to help parents hear the other side of the story and venues for fearless parenting to be more visible in our culture. Sites like Free Range Kids can help. And the national conversation that Skenazy sparked with her Op-Ed will help too. I hope this topic gets more attention.

As for us? Will Sam get to ride his bike to the park? I don’t think we are quite there yet, but again: I’m trying, Ringo.

07 April 2008

Numbers: 4012 and 70

Talk of the Nation today was fantastic. Both hours had me riveted to my radio – too bad I had to run errands and visit a doctor in the middle of the program. This is one broadcast I will be tuning into at its later time tonight.

The first hour featured an interview with Chris Jones, a writer who followed a soldier's body from Baghdad to its final resting place in the soldier's hometown of Scottsburg, Ind. Jones discusses the long journey in "The Things That Carried Him" a detailed article in Esquire magazine about the transfer of remains. (Edited on 4/11/08 to add a link to the article...) If you know the incredible book The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, the title of Jones’ article has even more resonance. Jones talked about the very personal homecoming of one soldier who was killed in Iraq and who returned to a small town in Indiana. As it happened, as he was telling parts of the story to Neil Conan, I was driving my daughters to their doctor's appointments, through a part of the Bay Area that features a hillside covered in crosses: one for each American soldier killed in the war. It’s a controversial hillside around here, with some people seeing it as a way to honor the dead and their ultimate contribution to our country and other people seeing it as an unpatriotic and therefore intolerable expression of dissent.

Because of the interview I was listening to, I was hoping I would see the crosses; not driving this road all that often, I wasn’t certain where to look, but I wanted to see them while hearing about one of people that one of those crosses was planted for. At a moment when Jones was describing the final journey of Joe Montgomery’s body through his hometown, my daughter saw the crosses. I was listening, captivated, to Jones describe how the procession of family, honor guard, military attendants, motorcyclists, three miles long, effectively closed down the highway. About how farmers, and shop keepers, and families, and everyone who could lined the road and packed the overpasses to show their respect and welcome Joe home. My eyes and my throat were full, when I heard from the backseat: “Mommy, what are all those crosses for?” It took me a minute to think about what I should say to her. She’s only 5. Why fill her head with war and death? But then, I realized that she already knows about death. She knows what it means. And she may not know what war is, but she could at least be aware that we are in one. So I told her: "That hillside has one cross for every American soldier who was been killed in the Iraq war.” It was hard to say, both because I was near crying in the first place and because she’s only 5. She took it in, but didn’t ask any questions. I continued listening to the interview until we got to the doctor’s office. And today, I’ll be purchasing a copy of Esquire magazine for the first time in my life.

On the hillside, the tally: 4012 casualties.

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Out of the doctor’s office, a decidedly different topic! The second hour featured a conversation with Pamela Paul, author of a book called Parenting, Inc., with a kick-ass subtitle: “How We Are Sold on $800 Strollers, Fetal Education, Baby Sign Language, Sleeping Coaches, Toddler Couture, and Diaper Wipe Warmers – and What It Means for Our Children.” This book sounds great – all about the industry that has mushroomed around parenting and babies, convincing moms and dads that they need this, that, the other, and the extremely other in order to keep their children safe, make them brilliant, ensure their success, and dress them to the nines. As parents, we are easy marketing targets for all manner of products and services. The effect is overwhelming. The baby-proofing aisle alone is enough to make a fearful mom stuff that kid back up the birth canal rather than expose him to the dangers of the average household.

I especially enjoyed Paul’s riff on baby sign language. Now, baby signing is certainly a wonderful and useful tool for many families (especially but not exclusively those with hearing impaired children). But I thought her perspective was important. One of the ways baby sign is promoted is by telling parents that signing will reduce their baby’s frustration around communicating with others. Paul suggested that we should not be so quick to reduce frustration, a source of learning, creativity, and progress. Yes, we can teach them to sign, but what if the frustration of not being able to communicate leads them to learn something else on a particular day? What about the importance of both a baby and a parent learning to experience and handle frustration? Again, I think baby sign language is totally cool – but I loved her take on it, too. I think I would love this book and hope to find it in the local library sometime soon, as I long ago realized that I prefer the simpler (fewer gadgets), messier (less convenient) method of parenting over the truly expensive, pander-to-our-fears, drive us to buy-buy-buy in the name of children kind of parenting.

And another stunning statistic: American children receive 70 new toys per year. Let that one sink in for a minute, folks. Wow. No wonder we are in a clutter crises in this country. I wonder how many new toys a child in Nicaragua receives each year; can you provide us a comparison, Kelli and Michael?

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Numbers are fascinating. Today, they had me in tears and in indignation. 4012 American soldiers, giving their lives to maintain a culture that provides 70 new toys a year to the average American child. It’s a crazy world.

05 April 2008

Sometimes

Sometimes when childless people ask me how my sick child is, I can tell that they do not really care what the answer is. Or at least that they are completely unaware of what it's like to have a sick child. They are just being polite. I guess that's OK...I mean, they have no experience to inform them. But it's a strange sort of empty conversation. Only sometimes. Not all childless people.

Sometimes when I drop my daughters off at daycare I feel bad about leaving them there. I feel bad because as I hand them over to the extremely capable Peruvian grandmother who loves and cares for them, I feel like she is better at this motherhood thing than I am. And I feel guilty as a wave of relief rushes over me because someone else will be attending to their needs for a little while. And I feel bad because being productive while they are at daycare would justify their being there and yet I have a extraordinarily difficult time achieving that productiveness.

Sometimes when I get to watch my children without their knowing, I am rendered speechless at the incredible gift they are to me. The only gift in the world to come with an endless list of burdens and responsibilities...but still a gift that absolutely floors me with its goodness. I look at these little beings and am amazed by their words, their actions in the world, their pure potential, their simple approach to a complicated world. And this in turn often makes me think about how we all started out as children. Moms who yell at their kids, men who hurt children, people who steal, people who lie, cheat, damage, destroy. I know all the stuff about how to best prepare children to be successful and happy adults. But sometimes it seems like pure luck -- or pure gift -- that anyone makes it into adulthood whole and operational. How will these five people make it? We are trying to be good shepherds; will that be enough?

03 April 2008

Seeing Stars

Setting sunlight is streaming through the living room window. Elizabeth, in a fever induced haze, is mesmerized by the dust motes floating lazily in the air.

"Mom, are these stars, or just stuff from my socks?"

Pause. She thinks about it, and then:

"I think we should call them stars."

Stars they are, then. Much more appealing than stuff from socks.

I'm No Martha Stewart, But I Get By

So Lola has been sick all week. She was feeling better on Wednesday, and REALLY wanted to go to school. I was wavering about whether or not to let her, but her cough was still bad, her fever had JUST gone away, and she still had that pale waif look. So I said no.

What does one do when one has a semi-sick child who wants to be more active than I want her to be? Make something sugary of course! Maybe not the most responsible idea I've ever had, but she was so disappointed about having to stay home again that I decided to delve into her new cook book. She got this at the school book sale recently, and we had not yet made anything from it:



So she made a selection, and we luckily had most of the ingredients. We ran to the store to get the rest, and then tried our hands at this:



I learned some things. I learned that milk, sugar, and cornstarch are extremely sticky when combined. I learned that Elizabeth LOVES electric mixers. This recipe did not require me to use mine, and she had a melt down because she wanted to use it so badly. I learned that Tallulah knows how to move our step stool across the kitchen to exactly where she shouldn't be, climb up on top of it, and try to spill sticky liquid on her sister's head. And that she's getting heavier and I can't quite sling her around like I used to.

If you can't tell from the photo, the recipe includes a little ark of mini-marshmallows stretched over the top of the glass. I didn't have a way to string the mallows over the glass. And since I am indeed not Martha Stewart, I didn't spend much time mulling it over. We opted for the ring around the top of the parfait instead. Here's what we got:



Pretty fun, no? My kids were perplexed about my need to photograph their dessert before they could dive in. Overall, the whole project was easy and enjoyable. Next time, I must remember to stash Tallulah someplace so I don't have to baby-wrangle while simultaneously stirring the heating milk to prevent it from sticking to the pot.

Hosed down the girls; now I just need to get the sticky film off of my kitchen floor.

Wasn't this little diversion fun and food-crafty of me?

And Laura, don't worry, I am not crossing over to the other side...

01 April 2008

Ingratitude, Thou Marble Hearted Fiend

Here's how I spent Easter vacation with my children.

First of all, we planned a delightful little Easter Day, complete with friends over for dinner...a fabulous Easter egg hunt in the garden...chocolates aplenty...cute baskets with thoughtful gifts for each child...Rick took the older ones to the three days of Easter evening services, and culminated the experience with a late night trip to Barnes and Noble's cafe for hot chocolates.

And the activities! One day, I took the three older kids to the park so they could ride bicycles. Another day, I took all five of them to a BBQ at a park next to the Beach, again with bicycles. I took the boys to the Zoo. I let them go to a Cal baseball game with a friend. We had movie nights almost every night -- and introduced them to the Wizard of Oz.

We had ice cream cones. We made home-made lemonade.

I actually took them to McDonald's, and if you know me, you know that this is a big deal. The last time Rick or I took the kids here was October of 2006; it was Samuel's birthday meal choice. This time, I took them there because they filled the bean jar. The one they get beans for if they clean up without complaining, the first time I ask. It has taken them FOREVER to fill the bean jar.

I took them all to a Trip Through Time event, where kids displayed their history projects in a church hall and had interactive exhibits that visitors could get involved in. My boys, especially, loved it. One boy had a DaVinci exhibit, and my 7-year old spent LOTS of time here, making models from toothpicks and beans, creating a DaVinci model parachute, and playing with a prism/perspective contraption. My 9-year old really liked the History of Chocolate exhibit, and the History of Written Music exhibits. At the last one, he got to write with a quill and ink -- so cool. And since we were out and I had not packed lunch, we went to Nation's Giant Burger and then to a park to play play play some more, where Vincenzo got to climb a big ole tree, Sam got to play soccer with a huge pack of big boys, and the girls got to swing to their hearts' content.

***********

Suffice to say that I bent over backwards to give them a fun and interesting Easter vacation...and I thought I did a pretty fantastic job.

***********

Fast forward to today, in the minivan on the way home from picking them up from school. First, the boys asked me to take them to get something to eat. They ask me this EVERY DAY. They think food at restaurants is better than food at home. Nations and McDonald's notwithstanding, we don't actually take them out that often, but they still jones for restaurant food. Anyway, I said NO, like I usually do, and they got very mad at me. Apparently, I never take them ANYWHERE and they never get to do ANYTHING and I am SO MEAN. This quickly transformed into AND I DIDN'T EVEN HAVE A GOOD VACATION WE DIDN"T DO ANYTHING FUN AND WE NEVER DO ANYTHING FUN.

Ingratitude! thou marble-hearted fiend, More hideous when thou show'st thee in a child Than the sea-monster.


To say that motherhood is a thankless job doesn't quite express the jaw dropping, speechlessness that this reaction left me with. I was just unable to speak. At least for a few minutes, after which I spoke plenty. And loudly. And forcefully. Gave those little ingrates a piece of my mind, I can tell you. The only problem is, if I keep giving them pieces of my mind like that, I will definitely give them some pieces I actually need. Screaming like that must chip away at the brain and shave minutes off of a life span. Anyway, I about burst a blood vessel in my strenuous attempts to impress upon them how distasteful such ingratitude is.

I think I brought home my point. They were actually subdued for about five or ten minutes. Amazing.

Whew. This was BEFORE the dinner time fun when I actually -gasp!- made them all try the beef stew I had made. But that particular episode will remain untold for now. Describing one all-out battle between me and my kids is enough for one day.