Little lessons learned

Things Moses has taught me

  1. I apparently have a wretched memory for lyrics, demonstrated by my fraught desire to sing hymns to him while he drifts off to sleep. I can only get through a verse before I start making up lines.
  2. I have, perhaps, idolized having a sense of “control” over my daily life.
  3. It is therefore hard to have one’s idols toppled.
  4. I consistently miscalculated how hard this would be.
  5. It is silly to be frustrated with a baby.
  6. Babies cannot be reasoned with.
  7. But I will still try, and I will drive myself to the edge of madness trying to apply reason to the baby’s behavior.
  8. I thus become comfortable with living on the edge of madness.
  9. This edge of madness seems like a new (albeit claustrophobic) home.
  10. So I settle in to this new habitat, congratulating myself for showering, remembering how to drive, and speaking a full sentence in the morning without mixing up any of the nouns.
  11. The new habitat also reveals that kissing babies is extremely delightful.
  12. It is best to do it as many times as possible on any given day.

. . .

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I have an iPhone 5 (yeah, I’ll brag about it); this is the best I can do.

As I suspected, I continue to be very interested in dogs, but I am also more interested in babies on the whole, babies as a universal concept and lived experience. This I did not expect. I even find other people’s babies pretty interesting now. I want to stare and them and find out what they know.

. . .

Pyrrha, our German shepherd, has been a silent angel during these past two months of life with Moses. I wasn’t sure how she’d behave, and I’ve been impressed and grateful for her calm acceptance of this new, often bewildering, creature. She greets him in the morning with a gentle lick to the back of his head or feet, and then she quietly lies down on her rug in the hall, waiting for someone to give her a little attention. She doesn’t stress when he screams (making her the calmest family in the moment).

The other afternoon, I was in the kitchen when he woke up from a nap, and I swear Pyrrha had the purest Lassie moment. I didn’t hear his cries at first, and so Pyrrha got up from her post in the hall, walked up to me in the kitchen and looked me in the eye with concern. She then walked back down the hall toward the baby’s room and stood in front of the door, glancing back at me, as if to say, “Lady, the baby needs you! Please follow me and perform your God-given duties before I have to intervene.”

She’s a good girl.

. . .

During my maternity leave, I was a little depressed to learn that reading is rather difficult while nursing. I can do it if I have a lightweight and semi-floppy paperback that I can hold with one hand, but because Moses has been a rather high-maintenance feeder, I’ve only read a few books during my leave, which is almost up. This has been a bummer. (And no, I don’t want a Kindle. I hate reading on them so much that I’d almost rather not read anything at all.)

As a consolation, I’m really into email newsletters right now. Nicole Cliffe’s has been a daily delight, along with her wise and often hilarious advice column at Slate, Care and Feeding. (Leah Finnegan’s Leah Letter is my other favorite newsletter, but she only writes once every few months. But when she does, it’s worth the wait.) I just wanted to give some public thanks to Nicole Cliffe for getting me through much of my maternity leave with amusing ideas and great articles to add to Pocket and read during that long 3 a.m. feed.

. . .

My esoteric titles are a holdover from my moody days as a teen blogger, which is a real shame, but I can’t help it. I don’t often write posts focused on a single topic, and so choosing some title that could have been a tantalizingly vague AIM away message, circa 2005, well, it continues to appeal to me. No regrets.

To raise a little boy

In my current state, I am not to be trusted with basic tasks. I rarely know the day of the week. I was once very adept at remembering names, and now I have a hard time recalling the names of people with whom I’m casually acquainted, people whose names I really ought to know. The burners on the stove have been left going for an uncomfortably long time. Four or five times since Moses was born, we’ve left the front door either (a) slightly open or (b) with the keys in the lock all night long. It’s amazing we’re all still alive, unmurdered, safe in our beds. We may have all of our limbs, but we do not have all of our faculties.

I am also strangely clumsy, in a way that I was not before. I trip over things; I stub my toes; I catch myself going up and down stairs. Moses has been an unfortunate victim of my clumsiness as well. The other day, I dropped the small portable sound machine on his face while trying to put him down for a nap. He released that scream of betrayal, winding up with soundless rage and then releasing a florid wail; it’s such a genuinely heartbreaking sound. I bumped his legs against the outdoor umbrella. I caught his foot under the arm of a rocking chair. I somehow scraped his temple with the prong of my engagement ring. Guion watches me do all of these things and looks at me with silent (but still gentle) reproach. I know, I know; I don’t know what’s wrong with me either.

Despite these notable declines in my ability to function, I have become extremely efficient in simple domestic tasks. In the hour or so of free time I get between feeds (if I’m lucky), I run around the house, possessed. I can finish a small calligraphy print in half an hour. I can clean both bathrooms in 10 minutes. I can unload the dishwasher, get dressed, and make our bed before the little dragon wakes.

I am not sure how to relax. Everyone tells you to “sleep when the baby sleeps,” and I’m all for that between the hours of 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., but I can’t seem to master the art of daytime napping. I’m too distracted; there are too many (little, meaningless) things on my to-do list. To sleep in the day seems to squander what little productive time I have. It is difficult to give up this mindset. Perhaps I am not meant to be productive right now. I have already done a hell of a lot of producing. See example below:

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He is six weeks old now, and while we are still in the thick of it, I feel less afraid. I no longer dread nights. (By all accounts, for his age, he seems to be a pretty good sleeper. Some nights are much better than others.) I do not spend my waking hours wondering if he is OK. I am pretty sure he is OK. He will live. One day, he will be a small boy, and then a man.

. . .

I loved reading this column by poet Sabrina Orah Mark in the Paris Review while pregnant, and it has taken on a greater resonance now, now that I too have a son. She writes beautifully about fairy tales and the intersection of these long-held fables with her work raising boys.

This passage, from her latest essay “Sorry, Peter Pan, We’re Over You,” stuck with me particularly:

I dropped Noah home, and ran off to Target. I pass the girl’s department, and a T-shirt flashes at me: THE FUTURE IS FEMALE. Sorry, Nibs, Tootles, Slightly, Curly, Twin One, and Twin Two. Sorry, John and Michael. Sorry, my sons: the future is female. Sorry, Peter Pan, we’re over you.

I think a lot about boys. About raising mine to be sensitive, and effective, and strange, and lovely, and kind, and funny, and brave. I want them to be boys who keep their shadows on, and who belong to a future. Boys who understand the difference between a thimble and a kiss. Worry picks at me like Hook’s metal claw. I want their boyness to bloom. I want to keep them safe.

In our well-intentioned desire to give girls as much chance and confidence as boys have been historically given, I sometimes fear that we have swung too far. Our feminism for our daughters is notoriously shallow, rooted in empty slogans and engineered to pit girls and boys against each other. These days, among adults of our social order, girls are better; girls are prized. Boys are difficult; boys are troubled.

I’m guilty of buying into it myself. While pregnant, I wasn’t shy about expressing my hope that our baby would be a girl. Everyone else seemed to want a girl too. Girls are marketed as easier to raise and temperamentally superior.

Now, of course, I feel differently. I want to openly reject this paradigm; I lament that I was seduced by it. Girlhood ultimately does not profit by our denigration of boyhood. Both girls and boys must be allowed to blossom in free, natural ways, ways inherent to their natures. Specifically, I reject this expectation that boys, if they are to be labeled “good,” should conduct themselves — in play, in public, in school — like girls.

I don’t know anything yet about raising a child. I’m still figuring out how to keep a baby and myself fed every day. But I want to be more thoughtful about raising a boy. I want to start pondering that work now, to consider how I can help Moses’ boyness bloom. The future is his as well.

A happy haze

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Looks can be deceiving. This little darling looks so gentle and calm, but he is extremely demanding. He does a fabulous interpretation of the demon possessed between the hours of 6 and 8 pm; really, you should stop in for the show. My most common nickname for him is Little Dragon. This is not news to anyone who has had a baby before, but it still feels like news to me.

I am tremendously needed right now, and I can’t say that I perceive it as fun. I would like to be less necessary. From my nursing chair, I watch people walking and biking and running along our street, and I feel envious of all of them. All people who don’t have to worry constantly about a newborn. How carefree and happy all other humans must be! This is a thought I have every day. The other day I think I had three total hours, out of the 24, during which he was not attached at the breast. He is five weeks old now, so we’re apparently in the trenches of baby care, with the expectation that his murderous rages and constant feeding will start to taper off soon. Some days it feels more relentless than others.

We’ve had an army of wonderful support, and I don’t know how we would have made it without our generous community: Family who came and stayed and cooked and cleaned and held Little Dragon while we slept. Friends who brought and keep bringing us food. Doulas who made us feel sane and guided us on all aspects of postpartum life. Neighbors who check in on us regularly. A dear friend who babysat for us so we could go out for dinner. Unbelievably generous mothers who donated their own milk during the week we had to supplement his feedings, so I could work on my own supply and avoid formula. And of course, Guion, always and forever Guion. I knew I liked him before all this, but now I know for a fact that I could not live without him.

Things I am trying to treasure up and ponder in my heart: How frequently the mothers of older children tell me, “Oh, I miss this phase,” when gazing upon my squalling infant. And I think, “You must be insane, lady. I can’t wait until this creature can tell me what he wants and sleeps more than a few hours at a time.” So there is some shift that happens. Perhaps it’s simply that everyone recalls and longs for the seasons past, because they always seem easier than the one you’re currently in.

But there are lovable aspects, which even I can discern in my incarcerated, sleep-deprived state: His milk-sweet breath. The smell of his little head (now beautiful and round, after looking like an old potato right after birth). Wearing him in a wrap. Cuddling with him on my chest while he naps. Getting eye contact. His small animal noises while he nurses. These are lovely things.

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He has no idea how much he’s in charge. But look at that face. Would you dare cross him?

Heart lifting

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Baby Abby and baby Guion, engaging in favorite activities. (Photo from a sweet baby shower.)

The joys of spring are so apparent that they’re almost not worth naming. I part the curtains with anticipation every morning, noting the growth of my long-nurtured perennials and the return of familiar weeds. We continue to walk every day, observing how quickly the trees shed their blossoms and mature, how insane the songbirds have become in courtship and competition. I walk slowly now, but I am still walking. This seems to be what counts.

I have always tended toward loving home and domesticity, but this instinct seems to have kicked into high gear, now that I’m nearly nine months pregnant. I don’t want to go anywhere or do anything. My first instinct at any invitation is to say no, definitely not (much to my extroverted lover’s chagrin). I am staying put. I am waiting here, where I have been planted for the time being.

. . .

Perhaps one of the strangest sensations I’ve encountered, poised on the brink of motherhood, is the fact that even though I am reading copiously about babies and parenthood, I don’t know anything more than I did before. All of this knowledge hasn’t transformed into preparation or prediction. I still have no idea what it will be like. In almost every other realm, I can read dozens of books and walk away with at least some increased knowledge. This does not seem to be the case concerning child-rearing. It’s all still a grand mystery. Maybe it always will be.

These days, most people ask us, “Are you ready?” And I always say no, of course not. Who is ever really ready for this?

I skimmed an interview with a designer, a mother of two, who used this metaphor for the voyage from childlessness to parenthood: You lived on Earth, very happily, for many years. Then you’re packed onto a spaceship and sent to another planet. You can always see Earth from your new planet, and you know you can never return. Sometimes this stabs you in the heart. This other planet is very different and strange at first, but you come to love it. It has its own joys and pains and secrets and pleasures. You accept it as your new home, remembering Earth as a distant, fond memory.

. . .

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.

— Susan Sontag, lecturing on Nadine Gordimer, quoted in Brain Pickings

Parents as human beings

Turkey time
Dad and Mom, Thanksgiving 2011.

One of the strangest things I know about my mother is that she lists “The Untouchables” as one of her all-time favorite films.

If you know my mom, you know how bizarre this is. This movie is about gangsters in the Prohibition Era; it was not written by Nora Ephron and it does not star Meg Ryan. There are no flowers in it (to my knowledge).

I’ve been thinking lately about the secrets parents keep. And how well do we actually know our parents?

I’ve also been thinking about the act of getting to know one’s parents as people, not as these infallible authorities or these emotion-free caregivers. Because we often think of our parents this way, as childrearing machines. At least, I do. I don’t think I’m alone.

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3 October 2009.

Do you remember the first time you caused an emotional reaction in a parent? Most of the time, we were probably too young. But I remember vividly and painfully the first time I hurt my dad’s feelings. It was so startling to me. I felt wretched, but mostly I was just astonished. It was as if I really didn’t know he even had feelings to be hurt.

Obviously, I haven’t had any kids myself, which is why this slow realization of my parents as individuals is still occurring. But I have always been very interested in parents, in general. (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on mothers, after all.) With parents, I am fascinated by what happens to their personhood, to their personalities and desires, when they have children. For mothers, in particular, this personhood is often obliterated. You become a physical and emotional slave to your children. And this is often done willingly and joyfully, but you are no longer responsible for just yourself.

I remember when I was 10 and I was tasked with writing the family Christmas letter. I went around and polled everyone on their hobbies. Grace was obsessed with playing dress-up; baby Sam hoarded sports equipment (which he still does now, come to think of it); Kelsey loved gymnastics and jumping off of furniture; Dad played tennis and built model airplanes. And then I asked Mom what her hobbies were. “Raising you kids,” she said, standing at the stove, making dinner for the six of us. “That’s not a hobby!” I protested. “What do you do for FUN?” She got this far-off look in her eyes. She didn’t answer me for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said. I sighed, irritated with her for ruining my perfect holiday epistle. “Fine. I’ll make up a hobby for you.” And I did. I wrote that she liked scrapbooking.

But this is one of the joys of growing up: getting to know your parents as people. They start to tell you things they would have never told you before. They confide in you. They might even cuss in front of you now. I like this stage. I like knowing that I actually like my parents as people. I like hanging out with them. I’d invite them over to dinner at our house even if they weren’t related to me. This is great. And this is why, sometimes, I am afraid of becoming a parent. It’s because I am really enjoying being a child.

On not being the golden child

Mom and Sam
Mother with the sleepy golden child, Christmas 2010. Source: Me

TIME magazine’s cover story from this past week was a selection from Jeffrey Kluger’s new book, The Sibling Effect. The article, titled “Playing Favorites,” documents the phenomenon that is well-known to everyone with siblings: Mom and Dad have favorites. The basic premise of this article is that if your parents tell you they don’t have favorites, they’re lying. We’ve always protested this was true in our family, but now we have psychology and science on our side.

The general consensus of psychologists quoted in this research is that moms tend to favor the first-born son and dads tend to favor the last-born daughter.

In our family, this theory works out. Sam is a flawless demigod in my mother’s eyes; he is incapable of wrongdoing. Grace, on the other hand, has been the beloved of my father since she arrived as the beautiful, sassy blond angel. It’s not that Kelsey and I were unloved or ignored. Far from it. Kelsey became my father’s prize thoroughbred, the champion athlete, and I was my mother’s ongoing project. Since I was little, I always felt that she disciplined me the most because she saw herself the most in me. (And besides, even if I’m not my mother’s favorite child, I’m definitely my grandmother’s favorite grandchild.)

The child hath returned
Father with his favorite, who hath returned from the vast expanses of the Earth. Source: Me

We are lucky in that our parents’ favoritism tends to shift around from season to season, though. We commonly joke about our standing on the parental totem pole. Dad even once made a list of his favorite children and he likes to remind us where we rank (Dublin is almost always #1, followed closely by whomever is spending the most time at home). This shifting around in ranking does make it difficult to pinpoint who is the favorite, and in that way, I think we avoided the insecurity complexes that might have come from having parents who were obvious about their favorites.

I never believed Mom when she told us that she didn’t have a favorite, because I felt like it was impossible. You have four kids, four very distinct humans. How could you not like one just a little bit more than the others? I remember finally getting her to yield slightly on this issue. “I don’t have a favorite,” she once told me, “but I love all of you in different ways.” “Aha!” I said, triumphant. “But then you do have to love some of us a little more than others! If you love us all in different ways, then it is impossible to love us all equally.” She rolled her eyes and went out to putter around in her garden. We constantly bug our parents about this, because all we want is for them to admit it, so we can each justify all of the perceived, minute injustices we suffered for the sake of parental favoritism.

The only thing I’m worried about when/if I have children is this: What if I’m not very skillful at hiding my favoritism? What if it’s evident that I love one kid more than the other? At the end of the article, Kluger gives some practical advice: Just lie about it. Tell the kids that you love them all the same. And then maybe they’ll believe you.

What about you? Are you the golden child? Do your parents still deny that they have a favorite?

(P.S. I think these photos I’ve shared are deeply revealing and provide strong proof for my long-suspected hypothesis.)

Family love: Mom

I’m writing a series of simple posts about why I love my (immediate) family. That’s all. This is the first installment, because today is my mother’s birthday! Happy birthday, Mom! All quality photographs courtesy of Meredith Perdue.

Mother Teresa

Happy birthday...When people hear about all of the things my mother did when we were growing up, their common response is, “Is she superwoman??” And our common answer is, “Yes. Yes, she is.”

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Throughout our young lives, the four of us never had any doubt in our mind that we mattered to our mother. She stayed home, but she wasn’t merely a “stay-at-home mom.” She was a full-time teacher along with being a managing partner in a successful gift store. She cooked every meal and cleaned every room. She taught us how to read and how to be kind to others. She led our family Bible studies every morning. And she never seemed weary.

165/365I knew she was special when I was a child, but now that I am out of the house, I realize how seriously exceptional she is. There’s no one else like her. I don’t know anyone who could have done everything she did without caving, snapping, or surrendering. She sets an extremely high bar for motherhood, one that I am already anxious I will never be able to meet. But she never credits herself with her shimmering maternal abilities; she always says that God gives her the grace to accomplish everything she does.

Mom and I have always been close. I was her firstborn, after all. Sometimes I wonder if our closeness was dictated not only by temperament and birth order but also by our physical similarity. My mother and I share almost identical bodies. I was the only child who got her curly hair. If something weird happens to my body (like your left leg throbbing in pain when your period is coming), I ask her, because there’s a 95 percent chance that she has that similar quirk, too. Though our coloring differs slightly, we’re built like mirror images of each other. If I had a daughter who looked like my twin, I’d probably pay careful attention to her, too.

When I was a super-dramatic and volatile teenager, I complained about this careful attention that I received from her. I was probably the most parented child among the four of us. Kelsey and Sam were born good-natured and sweet; I was not. Grace was (and still is) as stubborn as a mule, but she yielded to instruction and adapted quickly. I was not so malleable. I didn’t take kindly to correction. And so, for most of my young life, I was my mother’s project. I needed (and still need) a lot of guidance, discipline, and stark reminders. I vividly remember those hour-long lectures I’d receive from her in my bedroom. Parenting was not a passing duty to my mother; it was her entire life. She wasn’t content to let us slip by with half-hearted morality. Where most parents might spend an hour disciplining a child for an egregious mistake, my mother would spend six.

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She’s very beautiful. I often wish I looked more like her. Strangers often ask if she’s our sister. We roll our eyes, having heard it so many times, but these people are serious. She looks 10 or 15 years younger than her actual age. I think this is because she has a good heart and because my father keeps her young.

I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as she is. But I can keep trying. At least, that’s what she’d tell me to do.

Happy birthday, Mom! I love you!