Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Crap-y Diem: On Not Cherishing Every Moment

When I started writing my dissertation, I used to freak out every time I read an article or book that touched on my topic. I would start hyperventilating, panicked that every new idea had already been published, every conclusion already drawn. Those were the glass half empty days, and luckily after about four months, a lightbulb popped on, and I entered a short blissful period of seeing the glass as half full: if someone else had already published it, I didn't have to! And I got to cite it! And include it in my labyrinth of footnotes as proof that my topic was timely and viable because at least one other person also thought to write about it! Sweet validation! Ah, but those were joyous days.

Sort of.

It's ten years later, and not really the same situation at all, but still I had a similar epiphany as I struggled with a post that I've been trying to write about the fleeting and conflicted feelings I have about cherishing every moment - or not - with my daughter.  I find that one of the hardest things for me as a parent is knowing, at the very moment that I am furious/impatient/exhausted/bored with some parenting-related issue, that I probably will miss this moment some day.

I'll be freaking out at my daughter for smearing yoghurt/poop/chocolate all over herself/the floor/the TV remote, and all I want to do is be somewhere else/by myself/writing/drinking a mimosa and yet a tiny voice reminds me "this too shall pass - and that passage will make you improbably sad."In the moment, it certainly makes me feel guilty.

I think what the sadness boils down to is the way that nothing marks out the passage of time like having a child. Years used to slip into each other, days and weeks rolling into themselves, with little to suggest how much was changing. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, the changes of seasons: all provided annual opportunities for celebration, reflection, and taking stock. But with children, there is a sense that things are always changing. New words or skills or milestones appear at breakneck speed. Clothes are outgrown in what seems like seconds. Favorite colors and friends flicker in and out of favor in a matter of minutes. Just as soon as I think I've gotten my bearings, I realize that my daughter is moving on, waiting for me to catch up with her.

And the guilt? Well, for one thing, I know I'm lucky I've been able to spend so much time with her, chasing her around, watching her grow, and thinking about who she is and who she will become. I know it's unreasonable to expect to enjoy every moment as a mother, but I just can't escape the sense that I should be enjoying more of them. Or at least enjoying some of them a heck of a lot more.

Thank goodness someone else put all this into a blog post before me, so I don't have to. Thank you, Glennon Melton for writing this post: Don't Carpe Diem.

And a big thank you as well to whoever originally shared that link with me. I cannot remember who you are, that part of my brain having been fried by watching too many episodes of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. But if I had footnotes on my blog, I would totally put you in them.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Another Reject Quiz: Are you a Bad Parent?

Those of us who have kids all worry about it from time to time: are we bad parents? The answer is probably yes.

Kidding! The answer is probably no, but it can't hurt to do a little quiz.

If you don't have kids yet, feel free to check out the virtual parent in you by picking the answers you think would best describe your parenting style. Or try Are you Ready to Be a Parent? Already know you don't want kids but feel like taking a quiz? How about Japanese Snack Food or IKEA Product or Serial Killer vs. Stay at Home Mom.

1.) How many children do you have:
a.) not enough
b.) too damn many
c.) not entirely sure, but I think a couple are playing outside
d.) not entirely sure, but I think a couple are playing with kerosene and a box of matches

2.) My main reasons for becoming a parent were:
a.) children are a joy without which life would be bleak and incomplete
b.) tequila and questionable judgement
c.) dishwasher is broken, hate to do laundry - little hands are built for chores!

3.) If my parenting style were represented by an animal, it would be a:
a.) tiger
b.) sloth
c.) brown-headed cowbird

4.) My approach to discipline is:
a.) innocent until proven guilty
b.) guilty until proven innocent
c.) Kaspar Hauser

5.) My feelings about children are:
a.) mostly positive
b.) mostly negative

6.) Your twelve-year-old son asks to sleep over at a friend's house. Your response:
a.) sure - so glad the kid has friends - but check in with the friend's parents before giving permission
b.) whoo-hoo! there's a "Say Yes to the Dress" marathon and chardonnay don't drink itself!
c.) our kid has been living with friends since the age of eight

7.) Your kids call you:
a.) mom or dad
b.) by first name
c.) rarely to never

8.) Your nine year old daughter is:
a.) a star athlete and excellent student
b.) insecure but kindly
c.) pregnant

9.) Finish this phrase: Ain't nobody happy if _________
a.) My kid ain't happy
b.) Mama ain't happy
c.) Mama ain't got weed

10.) If others had to describe your relationship to your children in terms of a moving vehicle it would be:
a.) helicopter
b.) bulldozer
c.) clown car

11.) At the end of the day, there is not enough ______ in the world to make me consider ______ more children.
a.) money, not having
b.) Vicodin, having
c.) rope, hanging...wait...I meant "having"...that's like a thought typo. Freaky! Is that Freudian?...but who started talking about rope, anyway?...heh heh...burp...want a tipple?

12.) Bullying:
a.) Is offensive, damaging, and completely unacceptable
b.) Is like nut allergies: something incomprehensibly (and potentially contestably) on the rise
c.) Gets results

13.) I put my children to bed with:
a.) a story, warm milk, and a kiss
b.) a stuffed animal and a firm goodnight
c.) Benadryl and bourbon

14.) If people tried my life, they would think I was:
a.) a lucky, lucky schmuck
b.) a martyr or saint
c.) a schmuck

15.) The best gift my kid could give me would be:
a.) anything they made or chose would be a treasure
b.) silence
c.) figuring out how to light my cigarettes without burning their fingers

Mostly A's - you either don't have kids, don't spend much time with them, or got really lucky. You may also be lying.

Mostly B's - well, at least you're honest.

Mostly C's - maybe you should be a little less honest. Or a little more worried. You need a break. And a plan. Pull a cowbird for a bit and contemplate how to find the joy in your lineage.

Mostly D's - did you really take this quiz?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Here's the Poop: This Time Without the Plastic Wrap

For those of you wondering if there is an update to my earlier post Every Parent Has to Pull Plastic Wrap Out of a Kid's Butt at Some Point. Or Not.  Well, yes, in fact! There is!

We were the hosts of a guest dog this weekend. And now we know exactly why, in the words of Taylor Swift's current hit: "we are never ever getting a dog."Or back together. Whatever. Like I have time to listen to the radio or even know what Taylor Swift's latest single is. I definitely don't know that she's thinking about buying a $5 million dollar property across from the Kennedy Compound on Martha's Vineyard. Or that her friends are worried she moves too fast and smothers guys.


I've never had a pet. The fish from an ex that died the day after he called to dump me from a movie theater in Minnesota he had driven to on a road trip he was taking in a car he had just bought with his new girlfriend doesn't count. Nor do the two weed-addled hamsters - one blind, the other cruel - that I inherited in college. I think the cruel one killed the blind one and then died from boredom with no one else to torment. Or the blind one may have killed the cruel one as payback for years of torment. Or maybe I'm making this all up. College was a long time ago.

Either way, fish and hamsters and barely pets. You can spend time looking at them, or buying little plastic trunks of fake treasure for their aquarium, or researching cedar chips for their cage if you want, but they are pretty much as low maintenance as it gets with pets. At least in the poop department. Even cats use a litter box. Unless they are mad at you or old or sick. I plan to use all these excuses to poop on someone's bed before I die. (That quilt was made by your great-grandmother? Guess you shouldn't have stood me up for lunch last week! And that pile of urine in the corner? That's just my midlife crisis flaring up.)

Dogs, on the other hand, are high maintenance. They jump on things. They bark. They follow you around and chew on your shoes. They lick lotion off your legs. They eat giant, plastic-wrapped blocks of aged cheddar cheese. They escape and make you chase them like a crazy, frenzied manic all over your neighborhood. And they poop. And they poop. And they poop. And it smells bad. Like, way worse than any human poop. It's not their fault, really. I mean, have you smelled dog food? But still. It's pretty gross.

To be fair, I should admit that poop is pretty much what my life is about these days. Which is why I feel entitled to blog and whine about it all the freaking time. Asking if a certain three-year old someone has to poop, or has just gone poop, or wants me to hold her hands while she takes 2 1/2 hours to poop (I am not even kidding about this - that's what it took yesterday) and cries "ouchie" and looks like she's having a seizure, well, this is what I do.

But I have never once stepped in my daughter's poop. Not one time in the nearly 1,072 days she has been on this planet, and during which she has probably pooped roughly the same number of times. Possibly more. That special pleasure was reserved for this weekend, when our guest dog laid down a load the exact size and shape of a bratwurst in the middle of one of our kitchen rugs. (My husband keeps asking how I didn't see it. My answer: the rug is dark and patterned. Like poopouflage.)

If we are friends on Facebook, and you have not yet figured out how to block my status updates, you probably know what I now know: if you step on a fresh pile of dog poop, it explodes like a wet, overstuffed sausage. Don't tell me I've never taught you anything useful! And if you happen to be barefoot? It is hard to capture the full revolting magnitude of the smellsation (smell + sensation).

Here's how it went down.

I'd just let the dog out. Nothing. He runs back inside. I say "something smells like poop." The words are hanging in the air like a premonition when I step in it with my bare right foot. (Now I wish I'd said "something smells like a crisp new pile of hundred dollar bills!" or "something smells like diamonds!")

I freak out and yell at the dog. The dog hunkers down and pees all over the kitchen floor. I yell at the dog again and start to hop toward the patio door to open it (this situation's equivalent to locking the barn door after the horse has escaped) managing to step in the poop again with my bare left foot. The dog runs outside. My legs are spackled in poop.

Luckily our babysitter, who has a dog and is used to things like this happening, brings me a pile of old towels, with which I attempt to de-spackle my legs. She then distracts my daughter while I mop the floor. Our floors are made of Mexican tile, possibly the same hard, cold tile that Meg Ryan's character never had sex on with her ex-boyfriend in When Harry Met Sally. I can't be sure, but if so, I don't blame her. I know we haven't used them for this purpose, either. Hello bruises!

In addition to being hard and cold, these tiles are a pain to clean. They are handmade and the surfaces are uneven with divots that can hold pools of water for well over an hour after mopping. So I'm on my hands and knees, trying to dry the floor with more towels, totally pissed off that THIS is how I'm spending my time while I'm paying a babysitter (because I totally don't deal with enough crap - literal and figurative - on a minute to minute basis in my own life: thanks guest dog!) when my daughter decides she has to use the potty and takes off like a shot (because she never walks anywhere when she can run), hits one of those lingering wet spots, and wipes out, just like in cartoons where she flies up in the air and lands flat on her back, her head hitting the floor with the dull thud of a dropped melon.

It's a pretty sickening sound.

Luckily she is okay, her head (apparently) intact. Not so her dream of dog ownership.

Our plan on the dog front has always been to wait until our daughter was old enough to beg for one so that we could appear to give in. Now it seems we will have to revert to my parents's diabolical scheme. Whenever I would ask for a dog they would say I could have one "when I was my sister's age." My sister is four years older than me. Always has been, always will be. I will never be her age. Too bad I didn't take logic until college.

Of course, I say this now. Now that I have pulled plastic wrap out of a dog's butt AND stepped barefoot in fresh dog poop. It is hard to see what would better equip me for dog ownership. I already spend large chunks of my day chasing a wild animal around the house. She still chews on shoes, too, and makes a lot of noise when I leave, and wakes me up every morning begging to go outside. Recently, she started running into the yard and peeing in the grass. She likes to take walks. She's not a big fan of leashes.

But one miraculous day she will wipe her own butt. Here's hoping that I won't be standing in a pile of her poop when she does it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sleep Training

"Is your kid sleeping through the night yet?" "Are they a good sleeper?" "Did you try crying it out?"

These questions, tossed out at the playground like loose change into a deceptively placid fountain cause a sinking feeling each time I hear them. The answers - no, no, yes (me not her) - frequently inspire surprise in others, frustration in me, and a general feeling of confusion. When did the ability to sleep for 12 straight hours (her, not me) become the measure of good parenting - or good children?

Before having a child, I didn't realize how much time would be consumed by sleep: worrying about it, reading about it, talking about it, encouraging it, waiting for it...anything but actually doing it (me or her).

Of course, I should have been prepared. When I was pregnant, I received plenty of ominous warnings from other parents - get ready for everything to change - and alarming prognostications - you'll never sleep again - as well as smug questions delivered with a slightly sadistic gleam in the eye - are you banking sleep? cause you're gonna need it! It was like the prelude to some not-so-secret parental hazing ritual.

But things never go as you expect. My daughter was actually a great sleeper as a baby. She was big - 9 lbs - and able to snooze for long stretches even the first few weeks after birth. When all the dire predictions didn't immediately come true, I thought I had hit the slumber jackpot. I had a great sleeper! It didn't occur to me to worry about her sleep until I joined a playgroup when she was about 4 months old. All the mothers in the group were talking about sleep training. I didn't know what that was, much less what it entailed. It seemed like a lot of work, and sort of superfluous in this whole parenting gig. Wasn't sleep supposed to be something that humans just...did? Kind of like eat and poop and watch too much Project Runway?

Apparently not. Apparently there were a lot of rules about sleep. Things like: don't hold your child while they are falling to sleep, don't rock them to sleep, don't lie down with them, don't do anything that they might come to rely upon to fall asleep that you don't intend to do for the rest of their lives. Always put them down to bed awake. Don't rush in to comfort them if they wake in the middle of the night or they will learn that night time is fun time and start to wake up more just to play with you. If they do wake, rub their back or their belly. Don't talk to them. Don't tickle them. Don't stick thumb tacks in their toes.

Okay. I made that last one up. But it seems like good advice.

There were also a lot of theories, and no shortage of experts peddling advice on websites and DVDs and in magazine articles and a seemingly endless parade of books: The No-Cry Sleep Solution; The Baby Sleep Book; Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child; Secrets of the Baby Whisperer; The Contented Little Baby Book; The Happiest Baby on the BlockSleepless in America...the list goes on and on. (FYI: The Happiest Baby on the Block and Sleepless in America were the most reassuring, useful and reasonable book, IMHO.)

I held out as long as I could from either reading about or trying my hand at sleep training, partly because I am lazy, but also because it seemed that the tenor of sleep information aimed at today's parents frequently takes on a pressured, threatening tone enumerating the dire consequences of not training your kid to be a good sleeper - or at least not training them properly. Shirking this critical parental responsibility will apparently lead to a whole range of ill effects going well beyond chronic tiredness and irritability, things like depression, obesity, learning disorders, diabetes, and ADHD. I'm hard enough on myself without taking on that kind of recrimination.

Still, at one point it seemed like everybody's kid was sleeping through the night except mine. Most families I knew had tried one method or another or, more often, a whole variety of methods. The training metaphor still bothered me (why training? and for what? the sleep Olympics? would Ralph Lauren design the team's line of nautical themed footsie pajamas?) but I was ready for my daughter to be a better sleeper and figured I might as well see what the fuss was about.

The "fuss," as expected, drove me bonkers. So many of the authors present sleep as a kind of imperative gift given from parent to child that if not given, or given sloppily wrapped, or only partially opened, will lead few places but jail, illness, despair, or therapy. This seems a bit puzzling - not to mention disingenuous. I'm not a particularly good sleeper. Neither is my husband. And yet, neither of us have ended up as obese, hyperactive felons. Not yet.

Indeed, we have had some of our best conversations and most hilarious giggle fits in the middle of the night, lying in bed, waiting for the return of that elusive gift our parents failed to give to us, and still I am reluctant to see that as evidence of either lack of love or abdication of their parental responsibility.

The "sleep is a gift that parents give their children" metaphor also bothers me because it seems the reverse is actually far more true - sleep is a gift that children give their parents - and also because it is frequently used to justify or gloss over the unpleasantness and struggle that the process of giving this gift can entail. As it turns out, our daughter did not respond well to pats on the back or tummy rubbing. She can out-wail us until she pukes and we do not have the heart to "lock the door, put in ear plugs, and let her sleep in it" as some experts advise. That may indeed help her to learn a lesson about sleep but it is not one I particularly want to teach. Bourbon or Benadryl, not to mention duct tape and a whap on the head with a fry pan, would knock her out and stop all that annoying whining, too. But I still wouldn't necessarily conclude that this is reason enough to advocate any of those particular methods.

What did parents do on the frontier? Or in caves? Or as serfs living in thatched huts? Did they co-sleep? Probably. Did they cry it out? Probably. Did they leave their kids with nannies if they had the means? Probably. I can't ask those mothers how they handled sleep issues, and I don't have the energy to mount a huge search on the history of sleep training through the ages (although if you do, I would be extremely interested to hear what you find). But I did consult with what resources were readily available to me.

In talking with my mother, mother-in-law, and other women of their generation, they do not recall following any particular sleep training methodology - in fact, they do not recall sleep being such a big issue at all. This may just be the normal erosion of parental memories, in which the devil of the details is replaced by the halo of hindsight. It may also be because when we were kids, there wasn't such a big debate about leaving kids to cry it out - our parents did it and didn't fret about it. But there also weren't dozens of books on child-rearing, either. There was Dr. Spock. End of story. (Not to be confused with Mr. Spock, of Star Trek, whose parenting advice would probably not be so different from many of the books I have read.)

With so many methodologies and sources vying for sleep training supremacy, trying to sort out good advice from bad is exhausting, not to mention confusing: so many of the "experts" seem to base their advice on questionably scientific justifications, somewhat rigid schedules, and/or chatty vignettes. I am no sleep expert, but I do know from my former life in the world of cognitive neuroscience that when behavioral modification programs start talking about "brain science" or "neurons," they often get it wrong - in whole, or in part. Just because it takes neurons three days to form new branches doesn't mean that's the window for acquiring any new behavior. Rigid schedules work well for for some families and situations and not so well for others. And chatty vignettes make for entertaining reading but typically highlight the best case scenario, like the before and after photos for weight loss programs, rather than the more typical results.

In talking with other parents, the bottom line seems to be that some kids are good sleepers, some kids are not, and some are sort of in the middle. The good sleepers generally respond well to minimal training, the bad sleepers do not respond well even to intensive training (at least when they are very young), and the ones in the middle (depending on temperament) can usually be swayed by one method or another. So while you might be able to turn a mediocre sleeper into a good sleeper with the right combination of patience and methodology, no matter what methods you use, a good sleeper will probably still be a good sleeper, and some bad sleepers will always be "bad" sleepers.

And even when parents say their kids are sleeping through the night, this can mean a lot of things. Frequently (especially the younger the child) this may mean that they have done this once, or that they do this once a week or a month, or that they can sleep for 5-6 hours at a stretch, not 10-12. And even if you have a good sleeper, just when you get into a good rhythm, things like teething, sickness, vacation, or family visits can set you back. It's like being back in school, with the kind of kids who lied about how much they studied for a test so they seem smarter when they get a good grade. Only sleep isn't a subject and how well our children do it shouldn't be part of any parental report card.

As a child, I remember lying awake in bed, worrying about not being able to sleep until I finally tip-toed downstairs to ask my mom for warm milk with cinnamon. This went on for years. And every night when my parents tucked me in, I begged them not to leave me with a plea of "I'm lonely and afraid." (Looking back, I have to admit that I am sort of impressed with the bleak and manipulative beauty of this declaration, and proud that my 4 year old self came up with it.) It didn't cause my parents to climb into bed with me or to abandon bedtime, but it probably made them feel terrible.

At the end of the day, in every family, there is some kind of sleep training going on. You may have read the books, but you didn't necessarily get the memo: no matter what method you choose, the person most likely being trained Trained to care whether your child sleeps - and when and how much and for how long. Trained to hear their calls in the middle of the night when they are sick or scared, trained to respond to every little whimper or request - or not, trained to do more with less sleep for some stretch of time, whether months or years or decades, trained to be tired.

So put on those jaunty nautical pajamas, parents. You can do it.