23 May
2014
Posted in: Photos, Regular Entries
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Oh, the Places You’ll Never Go!

I realize now I dished out a lot of potentially bad advice to new and expectant parents for several years–not on purpose and with sadistic, BTDT glee but because Wombat was a ridiculously easy baby/toddler/preschooler and we simply had no idea. I mean, we had an idea that he was easier than other kids in a lot of the traditional OMG-having-a-baby-is-SO-HARD ways, but we had no idea what it was like to actually parent those other kids, and now that we do, I imagine there have passed under the breaths of a handful of misguided-by-me friends some choice, grade-A words as they attempt to, for instance, enjoy a nice, calm, quiet family meal in public, only to realize much to late that yeah, nope, not gonna happen.

If it makes anyone feel better, as penitence I curse my own name when we let foolish optimism override experience and good sense and find ourselves thinking we can enjoy a nice, calm, quiet family meal in public. When we went out to eat on Mother’s Day, Wombat managed to spend most of the time sitting on things that were neither his butt nor his chair, and Fox had to be removed from the scene no less than five times, for offenses ranging from violence with and toward his crayons, illegal booster-seat acrobatics, and violating the local noise ordinance. Happy Mother’s Day to me! Count your blessings on one hand and your failings on the other!

Now, I’ll still go on record saying that it’s important for us to go out to restaurants so we can teach our kids how to behave in restaurants, rather than just avoid the challenge and the lesson by staying home, even though sometimes, sigh, we probably should just stay home. (It helped that the place on Mother’s Day was practically empty, although I count myself in the number of offended patrons, which perhaps skews the data.) I guess my point is that just because some smug friend with an easy first baby tells you you can do things with kids like travel, eat out, and attend music festivals and sporting events doesn’t mean you should, or that you will want to, or that you will have a good time doing it.

My revised stance is this: You can take your kids to restaurants, but you might not enjoy the experience, and you might not even be able to eat. Definitely order something you can manage with one hand, a lapful of wriggling babyfat, and peas in your hair. Maybe eat before you go. And do a shot.

I was thinking about this because our big summer plans were to attend a family reunion in Michigan for eight or nine days, and although the chances of that happening dropped like a myotonic goat when we added up the cost of flights and car rental and hotel rooms (no, this family of four is not sleeping on the couch in your cousin’s basement), the real kicker was adding up the hours and hours (and HOURS and HOURS, on into star-streaked eternity) of travel it would take to get us to the appropriate intersection of threads on the Michigan mitten. Twenty-four hours of travel is a lot for anyone, and I can only think of two people for whom it would be worse than for a five-year-old and a two-year-old: their parents.

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But we took a bath last Sunday!

So, in the interests of not orchestrating our own rapid mental deterioration via “vacation,” we’re not going. And it’s sad and I’m bummed, although *ding* not as sad and bummed as I would be if we did go, only to realize too late it was the Worst Decision Ever and we didn’t have the clout to make the pilot turn the plane around. I mean, YOUR toddler would probably never take advantage of thirty seconds of parental inattention to strip down to his nubies and streak the aisle of the aircraft while his brother presses for detailed answers to personal questions posed of strangers in surrounding seats, but past experience tells me mine might. Seriously, life with [these] two kids often feels like marathon avoidance of what the online community would call, with a cutesy little nose-wrinkle, “bloggable moments.” As for myself, I feel–contra the prevailing trend to chase these disasters and then use them to forge connections through shared humiliations–much better when I end the day with zero mortifying-in-the-moment-but-hilarious-in-retrospect stories to report.

What use is surviving to tell the tale if the tale itself is oppressively boring? I don’t have an answer for that, but it’s been forty-six hours since my kid yodeled into the echo chamber of the indoor swimming facility, “MOM, I SAW YOUR FART BUBBLES!” and the way you all just took a step back makes me think I didn’t earn any camaraderie points just now.

In closing, here is my new, improved, updated-with-the-wisdom-of-experience, incontrovertible advice to new and expectant parents: Enjoy the blissful two years of blaming your own farts on the baby because once they can talk, you can NEVER FART AGAIN.

13 May
2014

Adventure

So my dear, sensitive Wombat is filled with trepidation when forced to choose among several breakfast cereals, but throw him in a barrel and kick him down a hill and the kid’s in heaven. (It’s worth watching through the end, I promise.)

The name of the place is Adventure Playground, but I affectionately call it Tetanus Park because, well, look at it.

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Now check yourself for splinters because you probably got some just now.

This is a real thing that happens there: Kids who collect ten nails, rusty or otherwise, can trade them in for tools and scrap wood, with which they can build their own un-permitted temporary dwellings with not-to-code second-story railings for other children to play on. It’s a phobic parent’s worst nightmare and/or the perfect place to go when you need to balance the universe for all those times you made your kid wear a helmet while painting.

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Wombat at daycare, 2010.

At Adventure Playground, the equipment isn’t necessarily safe, the paint isn’t washable or nontoxic, and the most official supervision I’ve seen has been a person handing out optional not-very-strongly-enforced liability waivers at the gate and another person trading kids nails for hammers. Regular, adult-sized, finger-smashing, head-bashing hammers. I don’t know whether to describe it as soooo Berkeley or not Berkeley at all, because while yes, you have the free-living, unschooling hippie types of Berkeley parents, you also have the helicoptering, bubble-wrapping types. I guess the best word for it is “unAmerican,” in the sense that we are a country obsessed with safety railings and worst-case-scenario signage and microfont waivers to protect interested parties from the real present danger: litigious scofflaws.

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This scofflaw is not litigious.

And maybe that’s why I love it so much. At Tetanus Park, people are expected to be smart and take care of themselves and their children. If you’re okay with your five-year-old flinging himself down the zipline, have at it. If you’ll let your toddler navigate a spiral staircase built out of discarded cable spools by a group of sugar-high fifth-graders, by all means. Feel free to have fun. Feel free to get dirty and fall off of a ladder and smash your eyebrow bone against a post and pinch your fingers in a rusty hinge and ruin your shirt and get splinters in your rear end. You’re a kid; go get some bruises.

I mean, be smart and make sure your tetanus vax is up to date, but otherwise don’t come home until your hair is full of sand and you tried something that maybe scared you a little. <---Good life lesson, that.

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8 May
2014
Posted in: Regular Entries
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Parenting Myself

Wombat is a naturally confident kid who navigates most situations with can-do candor and is, within the range of my limited experience of children, quite possibly the most easy-going guy who ever…easy-goed. (Easy-went?) But, holy crap, ask the kid to make a decision–even a minor one with no negative consequences–and you can practically see his gray matter blanch in terror. Picking between a grape or cherry popsicle becomes a dramatic reenactment of Sophie’s Choice, and his mental paralysis is so earnest and intense and completely, comically out of proportion with reality that I might find it a little endearing if it weren’t also freakin’ annoying. It’s frozen flavor-water, not a life partner. Just pick one, dude. It’s melting.

“But I can’t! I can’t choose!”

“Well, then I’ll choose for you.”

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO*breath*OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

“But either choice is good! You get a popsicle/book/T-shirt either way. And you can choose the other option next time. You can’t lose this game.”

“But what if I make a mistake? What if I’m wrong, Mom?”

Oh, hello miniature version of myself. I didn’t recognize you standing three-foot-eleven with brown eyes.

It’s hard to say whether I’m more sympathetic or less so when I see troublesome (or should I say “bothersome”?) traits in my kids that are aaaaalllll me. You should have seen me trying to decide between two similar wire baskets at Ikea last weekend. “Well, this one is a little bit cheaper, but this one has straighter sides, which means slightly more storage volume, and whereas this is more trendy, that means it will look dated in a few years, yet it is more fitting to the style of the surrounding furniture, but, hey, maybe we need to diversify when it comes to accessories and–” JUST PICK ONE, FOR THE LOVE.

When I get frustrated with my kids, how often am I also (and maybe mostly?) getting frustrated with myself? Eureka.

As we parent our kids, how much are we parenting ourselves at the same time? When we see ourselves in our children, are we gentler with them because we wish we had that gentleness for/with ourselves, or are we less patient because we can call out the absurdity of our kids’ hangups more clearly than we can our own? When it comes to something like popsicle-flavor anxiety, are we more sensitive to our like-minded littles (“I understand why this choice is hard for you, sweetie”) or less apt to indulge what we’re afraid might develop from a minor quirk into a permanent hindrance, or maybe even a crippling disorder (“It’s not a big deal. Just pick one and be done [or else dire things will happen/you'll end up like me]“)? I usually find myself wading uneasily between those two banks, hoping that if I’m not helping I’m at least doing no harm. On the one hand, I want to meet my kids where they are, but on the other hand I sometimes want to steer them away from certain places, you know?

It’s true that the things that bug me most about other people are the things that bug me most about myself, and that’s especially true with my kids. I wish I were able to make decisions without turning my brain into a three-ring circus, and I wish I weren’t so gratuitously stubborn. (Hello, Fox.) When my kids are like me in good ways, I know just how to praise and encourage and cheerlead with vibrant neon pompoms the size of full-grown chow chows, but with the not-so-good stuff I’m never quite sure how to handle it. Do I share my coping tools (for Wombat: make a pro/con list; reason out each decision to its logical end and realize that neither option results in you and everyone you love dying a slow and painful death; spend weeks researching a decision online so when it’s crunch time you can just pull the trigger), or is that, in its own well-intentioned way, just enabling behavior I’d rather eliminate altogether? I mean, I want to be helpful while still honoring who my child is, but I also want him to be able to just choose a damn Otter Pop without needing to chart out likely consequences on a sheet of graph paper.

What do you say to your kids? Do you say, “I understand because you’re just like me,” or do you say, “Stop it right now because I don’t want you to be like me”? Do you do your best to overcome your own troublesome/bothersome issues and model good behavior, hoping that’s enough, or do you talk about your own struggles and work through them in tandem with your kid?

I just now realized that in looking for one right way to parent my children through these situations, this post has become a Möbius strip: I’m terrified of making mistakes in how I tell my kid not to be terrified of making mistakes.

Eureka again.

When I try to talk Wombat through making a decision, my usual approach has been to show him how likely it is that either choice will be a positive one. All my reassurances are that he will choose wisely, that he’ll be a success, that he won’t make a mistake, that he won’t be wrong. But what if he is, Mom? What if he is wrong? What then? The stakes of raising a child are much higher than the decisions my five-year-old grapples with, but I see now that we’re swimming in the same waters. We’re both afraid of messing up. And we’re not even afraid of what will happen when we mess up so much as we’re afraid of the messing up in and of itself. And we shouldn’t be. Because, let’s face it: we will mess up, and, letting my reason override my fear here, I’ll even say out loud that we should mess up now and then. We need it to remind us that we’re human but also to show us that messing up isn’t the end of the world. We are not the sum of our bad decisions. We can mess up and still be okay.

This is what I should tell him. (This is what I should tell myself.)

As children (as parents), we should all be told, loud and clear and with direct eye-contact (even if it’s from a reflection in the mirror), that it’s going to be okay. We should be told that we’re okay. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to make choices we later regret. It’s okay to not be perfect. It’s okay to be just okay. It’s okay to just be okay. It’s okay to just be. Okay?

Okay.