Monday, December 29, 2008

This, that, and the Other Mom


Rowan has taken to calling me and Rachel by our first names. It happened suddenly — and pretty much wholesale — about a month ago. “Good morning, Susan,” he said to me one morning as I stumbled into the kitchen. “Did you have a nice sleep?”

“Why yes, Rowan,” I said, slowly. “I did. Did you?”

“Yes, Susan,” he said. “I did.”

Some things are not worth processing before caffeine.

The processing post-caffeine hasn’t been particularly intense, either, at least for me. “Why do you call me ‘Susan’?” I asked him, a few days into the new regime.

“Because that’s your name,” he said, predictably.

I left it at that. For some reason, it doesn’t overly bother me, this shift in nomenclature. After the initial, jarring, effect wore off, I don’t really notice any more, unless someone points it out to me. Maybe it doesn’t bug me because, well, “Susan” is my name.

I should also point out that, for the past two years or so, Rowan has called me “Uh-mum,” which is short for “Other Mom.” The “other” being in relation to Rachel, who scored the coveted title of “This Mom” in the great toddler name shakedown of 2006. I have mostly come to terms with being (at least on paper) the second-string mother, have even come to embrace my title and its short form. But perhaps it is fair to say that being “Susan” is no better or worse than being Rowan’s other mom.

This Mom, however, begs to differ. Rachel has had a harder time with the new, first-name basis. “My name is ‘Mommy,’” she tells Rowan. “Or ‘This Mom.’ Or ‘Mom.’”

“Okay, Rachel,” Rowan will say.

“You and Isaac are the only people in the world who get to call me ‘Mommy,’” she continues. “That’s your special name for me. That’s what I like you to call me.”

“Rachel, do you want to play trucks?”

I can see why it’s frustrating. But here’s the thing: whatever they call us, it doesn’t erase the fact that at 6 a.m., when we hear a small body slide out of bed, pad across his bedroom floor and the hallway, and open our door, we know that it can be nobody else but Rowan (and, eventually, Isaac). Nobody else but Rowan and Isaac will ever stand, small and pajama’d, at the foot of the bed and say, “Rachel, will you please come cuddle me in my bed?”

At that moment, really, what’s in a name?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

In the battle of the sexes, we may all have lost

Overheard in the living room yesterday afternoon, 4:50 PM:

Rowan: Where does toe jam come from?

Rachel: It comes from fuzzy socks.

Rowan: Robyn doesn’t have toe jam.

Rachel: Oh. I guess Robyn doesn’t have fuzzy socks.

Rowan: No, girls don’t get toe jam.

Rachel: Girls totally get toe jam!

Rowan: No, they don’t.

Rachel: They do so!

Rowan: And womens don’t get toe jam either.

Rachel: Oh yeah? Look! See? I have lots of toe jam! See?

Me: Excuse me while I go blog about you.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Pajama daze

So, it’s pajama day at school today, where all the kids are supposed to get a thrill out of wearing their nighttime clothes during the day.

Predictably, Rowan wasn’t interested. He just looked puzzled when we suggested that he could wear his new Thomas the Train pajamas to class. “But I want to wear my daytime clothes,” he said. And really, who can blame him for not seeing the point? Pajamas are pajamas, and wearing them to school just seems odd to him, not some big special treat

And, frankly, I’m not so disappointed. It’s not like we haven’t spent the better part of the last three years trying to convince him to take off his goddamn pajamas in the morning and put on his daytime clothes. I’d hate to have one morning at school unravel all that work.

Still, we packed up the pajamas and stuck them in his backpack, just in case he had a change of heart once he got to school. And we picked the Thomas PJs, an early Christmas/Hanukkah present from Rachel’s mom. That is, we chose the “boy” pajamas. Instead of the pink-and-green striped pajamas that he’d been wearing happily for the past month or so, underneath the fuzzy pink fleece set we got him for cold nights.

Yes, after getting on my high horse about why boys should feel free to wear pink, I am actively steering my son towards leaving the pink at home and entering the public realm in some nice, serviceable navy blue. With trains on it.

Why? Good question. Partly because we don’t want him to come home telling us that “those are girls’ pajamas.” He loves them, and we want him to keep loving them, untainted by any potential preschooler peer group disdain. Partly because we don’t want to open him up to unnecessary bullying or ridicule. Don’t get me wrong: if he insisted upon wearing the pink and green ones, we’d let him. But if he’s indifferent, which he is, we’re going with Thomas for the time being. Because, sometimes, pajamas aren't just pajamas.

I’m a bit torn about this decision. Am I letting fear steer me toward entrenching gender norms I don’t necessarily agree with? Maybe I am. It’s just that I don’t think I’m ready to send him out in the world without me. That is, when my four-year-old son wears pink pajamas in public, I feel that it’s my duty to be there with him — just in case anything comes up. He’s just a bit too young to stand on his own as his parents’ gender spokesmodel.

Just in case you think I’m a complete sellout, however, I’m being interviewed today by the local CBC about my book, which will essentially involve me using the word “dyke” about a hundred times as I talk about how queers like me are choosing to have kids with known donors and parenting partners and the like. The part of me that isn’t a media whore is worried about getting a rock thrown through my window. But I can take it — I’m a big girl.

Monday, December 15, 2008

With apologies to a certain credit card company, and original thinkers everywhere


Meccano toy? $29.95.

The hour spent with Zaidie putting it together? Priceless.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bianca’s here for a reason

Have you seen the movie Lars and the Real Girl? If not, go rent it right now, and not just because you shouldn’t put off for even a moment more the chance to see the smokin’ Patricia Clarkson in all her awesomeness.

In L&TRG, Clarkson manages to eat up the screen in every scene she’s in, even in her understated supporting role as Dr. Dagmar, a widowed family physician/therapist in a wacky little town in northern Minnesota. Her patient, Lars, played by Ryan Gosling, orders Bianca, an anatomically correct, life-size doll over the Internet, and then the entire town helps him to perpetuate his delusion that she’s a real, live (if sickly) girl — the wholesome girl he’s going to marry, once she’s well enough. In the meantime, Bianca gets a job, joins a church group or two, and accompanies Lars to his office Christmas party.

Clarkson’s character is charged with “fixing” Lars, by way of covert weekly psychotherapy sessions while Bianca receives “treatment” for her unspecified illness. But what I love most about the movie is the fact that, while she takes Lars seriously, Dagmar doesn’t seem too worried about the whole imaginary friend thing. In her consult with Lars’s frantic brother and sister-in-law, she’s cool and unruffled. “Well,” she says, “Bianca’s here for a reason.”

And that, my friends, sums up the attitude I aspire to as a parent (and as a person in general). Yes, I know she’s a fictional character and all, but Dr. D. just exudes the kind of competence, compassion, acceptance and unflappableness that I would like to exude around my children. (And if I happened to resemble Clarkson physically at all, well that would be a bonus, now, wouldn’t it? I’m just saying.) Even at 5:30 in the morning. Even as the boys shriek “No!” back and forth at each other. Even as Rowan melts down over who gets to lift Isaac out of his crib or walk down the stairs first. Even as I try to make dinner, one-handed, with a clingy McClingypants toddler who wails if I try to put him down. Even in the face of a four-year-old who has appointed himself household dictator.

They do strange things, these children, but they do them for a reason — even if those reasons seem a little, well, unreasonable. And who am I to assume those reasons, however frustrating, aren’t valid?

Well, of course, I’m their mother — one of them, at least — which means that it’s also my job to gently steer these children towards increasing levels of so-called reasonable behaviour. Here’s hoping that my methods and my standards are adequate to the job. In the midst of chaos, I am trying to channel my internal Patricia Clarkson, muttering to myself, “She’s here for a reason. Bianca’s here for a reason.”

Thursday, December 4, 2008

So it’s not quite Lord of the Flies... So sue me.

Until Tuesday, Rowan’s best friend at school was Robyn. Robyn with a Y not an I, as Rowan tells me, repeatedly. Robyn, who sits on the Q on the alphabet rug, right next to Rowan on the Y. Robyn, who we saw one time at the swimming pool with her mom and her baby brother. Robyn, who once showed up miraculously at the public library while Rowan was there and was all he talked about the rest of the day. “If we go to the library, will Robyn be there?” he now asks.

When I dropped him off at school a few mornings ago, Robyn was waiting for Rowan in the junior kindergarten courtyard. They stood, silent, facing each other in their snowsuits, smiling shyly, rapturously, for about a minute. Then they ran off to play together. And a little piece of me melted inside.

But yesterday, yesterday Robyn got mad at Rowan for pushing her. “But I didn’t push her,” he tells me. I am the recipient of enough flying hugs and inadvertent head butts to know that Rowan isn’t always necessarily aware of the degree to which his body, his actions, can affect others. I’m fairly sure he didn’t mean to push, and I have no doubt that she could have easily misinterpreted his clumsy puppy love.

In any case, Rowan is a bit forlorn. He told the story to me and to Rachel. He and his babysitter drew a picture for Robyn after school. And during last night’s bedtime story, when Rachel got to the line in It’s Okay to Be Different (which you should buy, by the way, and not only because it’s been banned by several uptight school boards) that reads, “It’s okay to make a wish,” he said, “I wish Robyn were my friend again.” I nearly cried when she told me that.

Internet (as Dooce would say), it’s taking a lot for me not to swoop in and fix this. All I wanted to do for a few minutes last night was to get hold of Robyn’s phone number and call her parents, explain the situation, and get the two of them back together. I wanted to write a note to their teacher, asking her to intervene, to make that little girl be friends with my little boy again. I imagined walking Rowan to school tomorrow, waiting for Robyn, and brokering the peace.

But I will do none of that. I will stand back and offer support judiciously, quietly, when asked or when it truly seems that Rowan is in over his head. I will let Rowan give his picture to Robyn himself. I will talk to him about his feelings. And I will see what happens. And I am sure that I will do the same thing over and over and over, when Rowan is 12, 14, 17, when his heart is broken and he broods silently in his room for hours, playing ballads on his guitar, writing bad existential poetry. Here’s my pledge: I will watch, and I will ache, and I will listen, and I will nod and cluck and — if permitted — hug. And I will not interfere.

But, man, it’s gonna be hard.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The best eleven minutes of my life


Less often than I’d like, I do yoga in our bedroom, where my mat is a permanent fixture on the hardwood floor. Hanging out upside down in downward dog gives me a whole new perspective, sometimes too much perspective: it’s its own exercise in Zen just to accept without judgment the dust bunnies and clouds of cat fur and other assorted detritus collecting under the wardrobe and in the corners rather than stop my practice and grab a Swiffer.

Yesterday, as I was doing a seated forward bend, my meditation on the state of my toenails (verdict: could use a pedicure) was cut short as I notice the state of the bedroom door. At about ankle height, I noticed a few spots of what on closer inspection appeared to be dried blood.

Yes, absolutely — dried blood.

Awesome.

It’s my blood on the door, one last relic from Isaac’s birth, likely splattered there as I squelched, stunned, across a bridge of towels from the bathroom to the bedroom carrying the seconds-old baby, still attached to me via umbilical cord. Isaac was born after approximately 11 minutes of hard labour, which had been preceded by a lazy day’s worth of intermittent, mild-ish contractions, never less than 12 minutes apart. “Call us when they’re lasting about a minute each, five minutes apart,” our midwife told us. Never happened.

The plan — not my plan — had been to labour at home and deliver at the hospital. Rowan, a breech baby, had been delivered by planned C-section, and our community standards did not allow a woman with a previous C-section to deliver naturally at home. Which pissed me off, especially after the OB/GYN with whom I was required to consult to get the green light on the natural birth started rhyming off all the reasons why a second C-section would be infinitely preferable: pain, incontinence, and all kinds of “damage” to my pelvic structures (which he would then have to repair, no doubt heroically), not to mention uterine rupture, the chances of which, according to the research, doubled from less than 1% to about 1.5% for births following a caesarean.

“In my career, I’ve seen that happen twice,” he said, looking at me coolly over the tops of his glasses. “Both times, the baby died.”

If I needed any more reason to want a home birth, this guy sealed the deal: the thought of him being on call when I went into labour was enough to make me contemplate heading to the woods at the first contraction.

So, when our incredulous doula, Tara — who had come over, ostensibly, to help out while Rachel fed Rowan dinner and put him to bed — said, “Hey, are you pushing?”, and I realized that I was, I was thrilled. “You’re not going to any hospital,” said Tara. “You’re having your baby right here.”

I looked up at Rachel, who no doubt was envisioning my uterus rupturing, and said (apparently a little too sternly), “Don’t cry — this is good.” She paged Lillian, the midwife. Seconds later, Isaac’s head appeared. Behind me, Tara was talking: “Okay, one more push and this baby is going to come out. One more push — it’s gonna be a doozy — and I’m going to catch the baby. I’m going catch the baby.” I thought she was talking me through the birth; later, she told me she was talking herself through the delivery. By the time our midwife arrived, nine minutes later, Isaac was lying on the bathroom floor on a towel grabbed from the home birth kit I had put together, hopefully, on the sly.

“Baby’s out,” said Rachel. “So I see,” said Lillian. Still on my knees, I pushed aside the umbilical cord. “Oh, look,” I said, “it’s a boy.”

I cut the cord myself. The baby nursed. Lillian stitched me up by the light of the bedside lamp. One of the cats stretched out on the bed next to Isaac as we went through the newborn checkup. We called our families. Rachel changed diapers. We spent a sweet, mostly sleepless night in our own bed, Isaac nursing and snuffling between us. And when Rowan woke up the next morning, we introduced him to his baby brother. “I take her downstairs,” he said. “I read her a book.”

Someone — Tara, I assume — threw in loads of bloody laundry and wiped down the floors. But she missed a couple of spots on the door, apparently. And I will never, ever wash them off.

Yes, Rhys, there is no Santa Claus

“Mom?” Rowan asks at the dinner table. “Mom? You know who Santa Claus is?”

The hand lifting the fork to my mouth doesn’t even tremble.

“Well, yes,” I say, slowly, evenly. My eyes meet Rachel’s across the table. “I do.”

Inside, however, I am moving into crisis mode, trying to quell the five-alarm siren that my son’s question has set off in my head. It’s okay, I remind myself — you’re prepared for this.

“He brings you presents,” says my four-year-old.

“Well,” I say, choosing my words carefully, trying to remember the script. “Some families tell a nice story about Santa Claus, and how he brings presents. But not all families tell that story. Our family tells a different story.”

“He comes down the chimney,” says Rowan.

“Yes,” I say, “that’s part of the story. Some families — okay, lots of families — have a holiday called Christmas. And they tell a story about how a man named Santa Claus comes down the chimney and brings presents. But we have different holidays. We have Hanukkah and Pesach and Rosh Hashanah. So we don’t tell the Santa Claus story.”

Rowan looks at me, eyes wide, absorbing my carefully thought out, painstakingly rehearsed presentation on “How Families Are Different (Or What It Means to Be the Only Jew in Your Junior Kindergarten Class).”

“And he brings you presents!” he chirps after a moment.

Oy.

There are benefits and drawbacks to living in a small city. One of the hardest things — more than even the Safeway cashiers who talk too much, way more than being queer — is trying to raise Jewish children in place where they are a rare species. There are fewer than 30 Jewish families here, total, most of them older couples, many of them (like us) interfaith. There is one synagogue, with a tiny but active core, and a handful of children (one of whom, by the way, was born in the wee hours of this morning — we got a call at 4 a.m. and Rachel went over to take care of her older sister while her parents went ever so briefly to the hospital. Mazel tov!) Everywhere we go, well-meaning people ask Rowan if he’s excited for Santa to come. And this year, he’s old enough to know what they’re talking about.

I’m torn. It’s not that we don’t celebrate Christmas in some of its forms — I draw the line at a tree or wreaths, but we have hosted and attended lovely Christmas dinners. The kids get Christmas gifts from Rachel’s family and from their dad’s. And this year — right after doing Hanukkah with my side of the family — we will spend the holiday with Rachel’s sister in full-on Christmas mode. But I just can’t get it up to get all ho-ho-ho for the guy in the big red suit. Especially not in the absence of other stories.

So, what’s a Jew to do? In a couple of weeks, I’m going into Rowan’s class with a Hanukkah book and a menorah and some dreidels, and tell the kids a story. It won’t even things out, but at least I’m making an effort. What would you do?

Monday, November 24, 2008

One crucial step away from that visit from the CAS

I was in a client meeting last Thursday when I suddenly noticed the time on a colleague’s watch.

“Excuse me, but it is really four o’clock?” I asked him, panic already flooding my veins like ice water

It was.

“Would you be kind enough to excuse me for a moment?” I asked, backing away from the table as the panic escalated into a five-alarm siren. I grabbed my phone, dialed frantically, and, in my haste, misdialed.

It was my day to pick Rowan up from school — at 2:30.

I tried our number again, and again it didn’t go through. Where was he? Had Rachel figured things out and gone to collect him? Dial again, hit the “4” twice by accident. Dammit — slow down. Dial again — hit the “8” instead of the “4” — idiot! Idiot! Idiot! Idiot! Should I just run over to the school now? The client, a round, middle-aged woman with greying hair, looked on, concerned. “I forgot to pick up my son from school,” I announced to the room. I dialed again, with shaking fingers — okay, got the correct sequence — and a recorded voice telling me to please hang up and try my call again. “Isn’t there a goddamn phone that works in this office?” I yelled. He could be wandering the streets by now. “Here,” I said, shoving the phone into the hands of the big-eyed receptionist: “Here. You call for me.” I dictated the numbers, and she punched them in, and still nothing happened.

“I left my son at school,” I wailed, punching at the phone, the numbers shifting out of my reach. “I left him at schooooooooooooooooool.”

And then Rachel woke me up.

As someone who nearly lost her mind, twice, from sleep deprivation — as documented here, here, here, here, and here — I never thought I’d say this, but here you go: sometimes, sleep’s a bitch.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

And you can spread it on your toast

It’s a good thing Rowan has discovered the sock fuzz between his toes, because it has been far too long since we’ve discussed body fluids in this forum. Not that toe jam — and yes, Rowan has learned the proper term for it, courtesy of Rachel — is, strictly, a body fluid. It’s more of a byproduct of new, fuzzy winter socks. But perhaps we’re getting too technical here. In any case, Rowan is fascinated. “Oh! Gotta check my toe jam!” he’ll announce, dropping to the floor and peeling off his socks. “Not much today!” he’ll say, after a quick inspection of both feet. I think he’s planning on carding, spinning, and knitting a sweater with it. Or maybe just taking it to junior kindergarten for show-and-tell. Which should make parent-teacher interviews all the more interesting.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A million little washcloths


video

Get out your Shop-Vacs, your Hazmat suits, your chisels — the toddler has discovered cutlery and wants to feed himself. Will accept no help. Will in fact strenuously reject help. We are reduced to sitting quietly by, keeping one hand as subtly as possible on his breakable pottery bowl — this being the month we wisely chose to rid the house of plastic dishware, bless our earnest green souls — washcloths at the ready, while he shovels food into his pie-hole.

His expertise is — literally — hit or miss, mostly a function of the food’s solidity. Yesterday, he daintily polished off an entire piece of French toast, handling his fork with dexterity that would rival the Queen’s. This morning’s oatmeal? Not so much.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Four legs good


We are living the cliché that says that when you have kids, your pets plummet on your list of priorities. When we brought Rowan home from the hospital, our beta-cat, Creemore, briefly saw him as an opportunity for advancement in the pecking order. Within seconds of us laying our newborn son on the sofa, she attacked. Twice. Imagine a flash of grey fur and extended claws covering your brand-new baby. Rachel threw the cat across the room, twice, and then locked her in the office for hours as she seriously contemplated euthanasia. And this is the cat we used to take with us — on the airplane — when we went away for long weekends.

We expected trouble when Isaac arrived, but by then Creemore had learned her lesson. As the midwife conducted the newborn exam on our bed, the cat stretched out next to him, curious but respectful. Since then, she’s mostly stayed out of the kids’ way.

Today, the cats seem more like innocuous roommates than cherished pets. Except that they are woefully behind on their rent. Every so often I will see one of them sleeping on the bed or descending the stairs and be mildly surprised. It’s an odd thing, really, to have animals living with you, right in your house. Think about that: we have two animals living right inside our house. Crazy. Why cats and not, say, squirrels?

And then there are the times when I watch the boys and think, why children and not cats? I watch as Rowan runs shrieking through the dining room as he unspools the retractable cord from the vacuum cleaner. I watch Isaac empty a cupboard of pots, break into impromptu little dances, bestow kisses on my knees, treat the other parents in the Kindermusik lobby to impassioned gibberish soliloquies. And I think, who are these strange creatures with their strange rituals who live in our house with us? And how did they get here? And why children and not, say, order, sleep, trips to Venice?

I’m convinced, actually, that the cats are thinking the same thing. Maybe not that part about Venice, but they must wonder about these two loud little beings with their sudden, jerky movements and oppressive love. Isaac first word was “cat.” For as long as he has been sentient and at all mobile, he has gravitated toward the wee beasties. “Caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat,” he’ll say, lurching toward one feline or the other. Creemore just runs away, but Lola, our big, black, snarky queen, has proved remarkably tolerant. She’ll lie quietly as the baby mauls her and covers her with kisses. In the last week or so, he’s become much more skilled at the art of petting her. “Niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiice,” he’ll say, over and over, as he strokes her fur. “Niiiiiiiiiiice.” Rowan scratches her behind her ears, “with four fingers. See, Mom? You do it with four fingers. Like this” — and he holds up his hand to show me. “See?” I swear I’ve even heard Lola purr as they descend upon her.

As Isaac sheds his babyhood, marching on two feet inexorably towards language, molars, cups without lids, I notice his almost daily capacity to surprise me. Just the sheer presence of this grinning little boy standing up in his crib at the end of his nap, answering my questions when I expect only silence, pointing, spooning oatmeal into his mouth all by himself, is a bit of a revelation. Each day, he becomes more and more his own person and less (dare I say this?) pet-like. Each day, he becomes more deliberate, a part of the family with his own opinions, his own preferences, his own rituals. One day in the next year or so, he’ll sleep in a big-boy bed, just like his brother. And one day I will go into his room to check on him and find, as I did the other night when I went to check on Rowan, a grey cat curled up next to him. Purring.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The gratuitous, if late, Halloween 08 shots



Super Why and his amazing dinosaur friend. I didn’t know who Super Why was, either, but apparently he’s some PBS character who teaches children how to read. And that’s who Rowan wanted to be for Halloween. How cool is that? I would love to pat myself all smug-like on the back and say it’s because we don't have a television, but of course Super Why is a television show ... mini Skittles, anyone?

Actually, the mini Skittles are all gone. Everything is gone. Not because we ate it all but because Rachel took it in to work and unleashed it upon the unsuspecting there. After the initial dressing up and trick or treating, the candy itself became a supporting character in a series of family dramas that involved Rowan negotiating nonstop (Now? Now? Now can I have candy? Now?) and Rachel and I trying to do our best to curb the intake of pure sugar that left him irritable and bouncing off the walls. At one point over the weekend, I was so annoyed that I ate a bunch of his candy purely out of spite. Not so good. So now it’s gone.

Next year, I'm debating just letting him gorge to his heart’s content for 48 hours — will the absence of arguing compensate for the attendant sugar high? That's a question only Super Why can answer.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The writing on the wall

Here's a parenting dilemma for you:


Should I be proud that he knows how to write my name, or annoyed that he used the wall as his canvas?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Brown-bagging it

Rowan is home from school today with a hacking, spewing cough that would have rendered him the Typhoid Mary of the Junior Kindergarten set — assuming, of course, that he didn’t pick up the cough from one of his classmates in the first place. He’s asleep on the couch right now. And the silver lining to the cloud of having a sick child (two sick children, actually), to having to rearrange our work schedules and to forfeiting sleep and downtime, is that at least we didn’t have to make him lunch.

I don’t know what it is about the lunch thing, but I’m always relieved when it’s my turn to put the kids to bed rather than clean up the kitchen and make lunches for the morning. Anne Lamott writes about the emotional baggage attached to school lunches, how they can stand in for everything, edible microcosms of the social order:
If code lunches were about that intense desire for one thing in your life to be Okay, or even just to appear to be Okay, when all around you and at home and inside you things were so chaotic and painful, then it mattered that it not look like not look like Jughead had wrapped your sandwich. A code lunch suggested that someone in your family was paying attention, even if in your heart you knew that your parents were screwing up left and right.
Okay, so that’s a little over the top for JK. But she’s on to something. It’s not that I’m worried about what other kids will think of his lunches (Lord knows, if I wanted to worry about things that other kids could potentially tease my queerspawn, half-Jewish, television-less kids about, I don’t have to stoop to lunches.). It’s just that it’s just one more bloody thing to do at the end of every day. You can’t skip it. And you have to get it right, more or less: something nutritious yet appealing, easily opened by fingers that can’t yet reliably hold a pencil or fasten a zipper, and simple to eat. There are twenty-two kids in his class — we can’t assume he’ll get any help with the meal. It’s a tall order for a child who will not eat bread and can’t yet open a Ziploc bag (yes, we use them — but we wash them and then reuse them, so we’re not entirely evil). Oh, and no peanut better and no fish.

I have cut myself a great deal of slack by deciding at the outset of the school year is that it is a perfectly acceptable thing to send Rowan to school with the exact same lunch every single day. I mean, how many winning combinations can a parent reasonably be expected to come up with? We’re still honing the mix, but the current standard lunch plus snack includes a zucchini-carrot muffin (made with whole-wheat flour), a banana, a container of plain yogurt (this one’s hit or miss), some chunks of cheddar cheese, egg salad on a pita, cucumber (generally ignored, but one has to keep up some appearances), and the milk (white) provided by the school. Sometimes almost all of it comes back, sometimes the bag is empty. We don’t know why.

Rowan just walked into my office, pantless, refreshed from his nap and looking healthier than he has all day. Fingers crossed he’ll be over this cough by Thursday. And on Wednesday evening, I will gather together the ingredients and, in some small way, hope that they will add up to everything being Okay.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Linus

Who’s a blankie boy? Who? WHO? Nar nar nar nar snuffle.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Book club

Another crazy thing about Rowan starting school: Scholastic Books. I didn’t even know they still existed. I mean, the idea of filling out a form with a pen, writing a cheque, sticking it all in an envelope, waiting your four to six weeks, and then — boom! — your books arrive ... it just all seems a little archaic, like ordering Sea Monkeys from the back page of an Archie comic.

And yet, Scholastic Books are — to the best of my knowledge, at least — alive and kicking, and I am making up for the lost opportunities of my youth. We weren’t a Scholastic Books kind of household growing up, which always rankled a bit. That’s not to say that we didn’t have books, books by the hundreds, just that we weren’t the kind of household that was generally organized enough to remember to fill out the forms and write the cheques and stick things in envelopes. When the Scholastic orders arrived, it didn’t matter that I was never short of reading material. As the teacher distributed those rubber-banded piles of books to the class, she may as well have been handing out engraved invitations to a birthday party to which I wasn’t invited. (Yes, yes, cry me a river, child of the middle class.)

So when Rowan came home with his order forms that first week, I pounced, form-filling and cheque-writing and envelope-sticking my little third-grade heart out. Now, we are (or, at least, I am) eagerly awaiting the arrival of My First Ramadan and Stone Soup. And 30 years from now, Rowan and Isaac will write blogs about how we never got them an Xbox.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Squirts


These are just a sampling of the dozens upon dozens of medicine-dispensing syringes that we have acquired — and, for some bizarre reason, saved — over the past four years or so. They are the result of teething, the gazillion ear infections that Rowan developed during his second and third years, the Motrin and Advil and Tempra Rachel and I dispensed to help him (and us) cope with said infections, the boys’ several bouts of bronchitis, Isaac’s first ear infection (circa two weeks ago), and a potentially questionable but ultimately satisfying (especially at 3 a.m.) parenting strategy that Rachel and I have developed that says, “When in doubt, medicate.” It’s how we show love.

Fortunately, both children have embraced our stance on drugs. “He loves love pretty much anything dispensed in a syringe,” I once told our family doctor once as she wrote out yet another prescription for Rowan. “That might not be such a good thing down the line,” she commented.

Normal people would, of course, use a syringe once (or, perhaps, for the duration of the lifespan of a particular bottle of medicine) and throw it away, but we’ve found it comforting to have 30 dozen or so of the things stored in a glass in the cupboard (plus several more hidden in bathroom drawers). And they do come in handy, especially when you are giving a toddler three doses of antibiotic plus attendant pain medication throughout the day. Or when he is inconsolable with a fever and won’t drink and the only way to calm him down and keep him hydrated is to use a syringe to squirt water into his mouth. We have devoted an entire section of the dishwasher cutlery rack to used syringes. It’s a wonder the RCMP hasn’t found a way to shut us down.

It occurs to me that the bucket-o-syringes will be, eventually, just another relic of Rowan and Isaac’s early years, as they graduate from squirty, bubblegum-flavoured penicillin and liquid ibuprofen to spoons and chewable, cherry-flavoured pills. All the more reason to immortalize them on the Internet, where all things ridiculous go to never die.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Plan B

Sunday was one of those days, those middle days of the long weekend when you realize you have no plan and that you desperately need one. When you wake up at 3 p.m. from your 20-minute nap (also desperately needed) because the baby has woken up from his, scoop him out of his crib and carry him to the basement, where your spouse is watching your nearly-four-year-old son bounce off the walls in his underpants, and start racking your brain for something to do in the four hours until bedtime.

What we came up with was the farm. One of the several hobby/working farms in the area that offers up fall pumpkin festivals — hay rides, petting zoos, haunted pumpkin patches, ponies, candy apples, hot dogs, and so forth. We piled into the car (after changing Isaac, sticking sweatpants on Rowan’s resistant little stick legs, throwing snacks and diapers and camera and hats into a bag and a stroller into the trunk) and headed out.

This particular farm is about a 25-minute drive from our house, past the airport, past the pulp and paper mill, into the last of the fall colours and the hopes of seeing wildlife. Isaac kicked his legs happily in his car seat while Rowan kept up a steady chatter about petting bunnies and hay mazes. Then the two of them started their yelling game, where they shrieked back and forth to each other, with increasing hilarity, until Rowan abruptly fell asleep. We kept Isaac content by putting in a CD at low volume and passing the occasional grape back toward him; he also found a stash of stale Goldfish crackers that no one ever bothered to clean out of his car seat, and munched on those for a while. And Rachel and I chatted all the rest of the way to the farm, through the gates, and up to the 15-year-old girls who told us they were closing in 45 minutes — although we were welcome to pay our $21 and go ahead. Perfect. We turned around, Rowan still sleeping, Isaac staring contentedly out his window, and chatted and enjoyed the fall colours all the way home. Rowan opened his eyes as we pulled into the driveway. “Where are we?” he asked. “Where’s the farm?”

It was, as the writer Anne Lamott writes, “like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.” We needed to get out. And we didn’t need to be any place else but where we were.


Drew Barrymore’s mother, are you reading this?

If Rowan ever becomes really famous I’m going to kick myself for throwing away most of his childhood artwork. When I’m purging, though, I’m not usually thinking of the future value on eBay of a papier-mâché cat or a toilet-paper-roll spider with woolly legs. Mostly, I am frantically trying to ensure that we don’t drown in a sea of finger paintings and macaroni collages.

It’s Clair’s fault. Since the age of 13 months, Rowan has had the grand privilege of being taken care of by the wonderful Clair, master of all babysitters. From about day one, he was smitten. And so were we. Not only because she took great care of our son, but because she opened up Rowan’s world, and our own. She took him on all kinds of adventures that we — new parents, new to the city — hadn’t thought up, hadn’t known were possible: to the pet store, to the bowling alley, to the old-age home, on a city bus, to a rehabilitation centre to watch the people swim, to pick raspberries, to the aquarium, the library, to visit her sister-in-law’s parrot, to coffee shops, to collect and polish rocks. She packed up his lunch, bundled him up warm, and they set off together, happy as clams.

And Clair and Rowan crafted. Oh, how they crafted. The very first week, Clair presented us with Rowan’s first piece of art, probably a finger painting or a crayoned drawing. We were thrilled — what parent wouldn’t be? We loved watching her nurture his creativity, loved that our son was getting an arts education instead of being parked in front of the television. We loved how much Clair loved creating stuff with our toddler. “He’s definitely very artistic,” she told us, presenting us with yet another collage.

But the truth of the matter is that Clair is the real artist. If something, anything, can be repurposed as an art supply, Clair will use it in her work. She and Rowan press fall leaves between sheets of wax paper, glue pinecones onto old take-out containers, cover empty bottles with layers of papier-mâché and pipe cleaners, create books, paint rocks, collect feathers and buttons, create elaborate paintings and collages and mobiles and dioramas.

And when she’s not with Rowan, Clair is painting, carving intricate scenes out of tree bark, taking photographs, knitting. Recently, she handed me a bag full of children’s stories she’d written and illustrated a decade or so ago. She’s passionate about fossils and rocks and spends long chunks of her weekend hunting for interesting specimens that she can cut and polish — once, on our way out of town, we drove by her poking through the piles of rock at the side of the side of the highway.

In another life, Clair would have been a geologist, a painter, a writer, a full-time artist. In another life — one without seven siblings and not much money in a northern Ontario town. I don’t know how to reconcile my feelings about this, about my need and desire for quality childcare, my enormous happiness and relief that we have found such a creative and caring person to look after our kids, and the fact that we pay her (not enough, never enough, despite the fact that childcare is our single biggest household expense, bigger than food or the mortgage) to look after our kids so that we can pursue academic and artistic careers. Liberal white guilt has never been a particularly useful emotion, in my books, but I am at a loss when it comes to my feelings about our babysitter’s — what’s that word? — oh, yeah: potential.

In a much less profound way, I am occasionally also at a loss about what to do with all the art Clair creates with Rowan. We simply cannot house it all in our current quarters. I’ve hung some of our most treasured pieces with clothespins on long lines of twine in our basement. I use a lot of them as birthday cards. And then, I’ve taken to photographing the rest of the pieces and, well, throwing them in the garbage or the recycling bin. In editorial terms, it’s called, appropriately, “killing the babies.”

And then, a couple of weeks ago, at the end of Isaac’s first week with Clair, I was going through the a batch of paintings fresh out of the kids’ lunch bag when I came across Isaac's tiny fingerprints, floating across a white page, balloons held together by red ribbons:



It’s beginning again. The deluge is going to double. And I’m thrilled — and still a bit confused.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Wake-up call

So, at 4:30 a.m., there was Isaac, awake, crying, my responsibility. I staggered into his room, where some nursing happened, a blanket was retrieved, and he thunked back down to sleep in that solid way that babies do.

And then his snooze button went off. Cue repeat performance from Rachel (minus the nursing) nine minutes later. And nine minutes after that, I went in again, armed with a sippy cup. Nine minutes after that, after some philosophical frippery from Rachel about “acceptance,” I hauled Isaac out of bed and took him downstairs for some breakfast. “Yup,” he said, as I stuck some cold oatmeal in the microwave and then topped it with yogurt and applesauce. I just stared at him, not unkindly.

At 6 a.m., I took a fed, dry-bottomed baby back upstairs, handed him his blanket, and lay him down in his crib, where he promptly went to sleep. Not a nanosecond after my head hit my own pillow did Rhys wake up.

Next morning: same thing, except Rachel’s turn to get up. “But it’s too early,” she moaned from under the covers. I practically bit my lip to refrain from saying anything at all about acceptance, and after a long moment she hauled herself out of bed and went to get the baby.

We can speculate as to why — the cold that turned into an ear infection? Teething? A growth spurt? Possession by Satan? — but we’ll never know exactly what provoked Isaac into this spate of doggedly early mornings. All I can say is that by Saturday morning, after two weeks of this pattern and three days of solo parenting (and telling my wailing 16-month-old, in the wee hours of Friday morning, to do something that rhymes with “duck off”) I decided that enough was enough. He did not need to be awake that early, and he certainly was not benefiting from my deteriorating version of early-morning parenting. The kid woke up at 4:32 and proceeded to cry for precisely a full hour (seriously, he stopped at 5:32) before conking out until 8 a.m. Rhys crawled into bed with me at 6:21, and we cuddled and then got up and had breakfast and played in the basement until I heard the baby, happy as a clam, laughing in his bed. And then we went to the farmers’ market and then — yay! — to the airport to pick up Rachel.

The following morning, same thing.

The morning after that, he slept until a perfectly reasonable if slightly unpleasant 6:04. That was Monday. Yesterday, 6:21.

Today? 5 a.m. I sucked it up and we spent a perfectly lovely couple of hours playing together, him retrieving balls in the basement and playing patty-cake in my lap while I read the Sunday New York Times. “Are you my cuddly boy?” I whispered to him, not expecting an answer, as he put his arms around my neck and buried his face in my shoulder. “Yup,” he whispered back.

Tonight? I’m sleeping in the basement.

Monday, October 6, 2008

You can take the (apparently perimenopausal) girl out of Toronto ...

You take your chances at the Safeway checkout in Thunder Bay. Today, I got Donna Mae and a whole lotta conversation.

“So,” she said, swiping through my six litres of yogurt, “I was reading this book last night? On the menopause? And how you have to eat for it?”

“Uh huh.” I smile and nod.

“It’s like you can’t eat anything!” she continues. “I’m reading this and thinking, ‘What can you eat? Nothing!’ You want your milk in a bag?”

“Oh, no thanks,” I say.

“And calcium. Calcium is very important. I mean, I drink a big glass of milk every day, but some of the food you eat has cheese in it and that, too.”

Nod and smile.

“You’re supposed to take a multivitamin every day,” she tells me. “ But I don’t do that. I just figure you should get your vitamins from what you eat, right? If you eat good?”

“Uh huh.” Nod and smile. Four years after moving to this town, I am no longer surprised by the friendliness of the cashiers, their propensity to comment on the food you buy. “Leeks?” the woman behind the checkout counter will say to me. “What do you use them in, anyway? I’ve never tried them.” Or, “That’s a lot of apples! You making pie?” One time, a cashier told the woman in front of me, who was reading People in line, “Excuse me, Miss, this isn’t a library.” I looked up, horrified and slightly thrilled, at this unprecedented display of unfriendliness, and both women burst into laughter. Turns out they were friends.

“And nuts!” says Donna Mae, shoving a case of soda water back underneath my cart. “You’re supposed to eat a lot of nuts. But” — and here she pauses to take my credit card — “how much is a lot of nuts? A handful? And nuts have a lot of fat in them. So, I don’t know. You know?”

I love a lot of things about living here. And there are a lot of things I don’t miss (amidst the lot of things I really miss) about Toronto. But I’m still not quite resigned to the Thunder Bay supermarket checkout confessional. I just want to buy my yogurt and my milk and my leeks and my apples and get the hell out of there with a little Toronto surliness to let me know I’m still alive. Is that so wrong?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Stuffy

“Mama?” Rowan asks as we cuddle in his bed on Friday night. It is a time for Big Questions. “Mama, do we ever go over to Mrs. S’s” — and here he names his junior kindergarten teacher — “house, and ... break all her stuff?”

The look on his face is a mixture of curiosity and horror, as, I’m sure, is the look on mine. What?

“No,” I say. “We would never go over to Mrs. S’s house and break all her stuff.”

As I’m saying the words — and, also, trying not to laugh at the sudden image of me and Rowan arriving unbidden at Mrs. S’s house and ringing the doorbell: “Hi! We’re here to break all your stuff!” — it hits me, what must have happened: kids in the class destroying a toy or some such object, and the teacher saying, “Would you like it if I came over to your house and broke your things?”

I asked Rowan if that’s what happened, and he nods. “Some kids were breaking boxes. But not me.”

Mystery solved. A lesson in empathy, although it’s doubtful that it had the intended effect on Rowan, who has been mulling over a world in which people appear at your door to trash your place. Which is, I suppose, is what does happen to people as a regular occurrence in Iraq certain parts of the world, but Rowan doesn’t need to know this just yet. It’s bad enough that Isaac — nicknamed King Kong — lives to knock down towers of blocks and destroy intricate train tracks. To introduce the spectre of a roving band of JK teachers imposing vigilante justice on the stuff-breakers of the classroom is more than he can process just now.

Not that I am unconvinced that Rowan wouldn’t be capable, given the right conditions, of gleefully breaking plenty of other people’s stuff. Lately, we’ve been having lots of conversations about his body, the spaces it takes up and the ways in which it moves and how these can hurt other people and make them uncomfortable. He can clear toys off a surface with a swing of his arm, run into you full-blown to hug you and be surprised when you totter, insist that there is space for him to sit behind you on the couch or in your dining-room chair. He reaches for a dish on the table and knocks over his milk. He misjudges how much Isaac weighs as he tried to lift him, and lets go. He raises his voice to be heard over our requests, and then our reprimands. On Saturday, we played the Goldberg family classic game of “Grabber Machine” (which, if I described it here — and maybe I will, one day — would sound utterly creepy but is in fact entirely innocent and hysterically funny) and he accidentally butted me with his big, rock-hard head and left me with a fat lip. And then in an effort to make me feel better, he kissed it too hard and made it hurt more. “Slow down,” we keep saying. “Watch your body. Be gentle.”

I’m so intent on raising boys who grow into men who don’t take up too much space — who don’t impose their wide-legged bodies and their opinions and their activities and their conversations on the rest of the world without regard for other people’s “stuff” — that I’m hyper-aware sometimes of how much space Rowan can take up, how much is appropriate. I forget that empathy, the consideration of others, are learned skills, that he’s really still just a baby and utterly vulnerable. I reminded myself of that as I watched him sleep with his head on Rachel’s lap on the couch yesterday — a much-needed nap for an overtired junior kindergartener with a cold that seems to be settling into his chest. I would have taken a picture if I hadn’t been afraid of waking him up.

So, stuff. The breaking of other peoples’. We go through it, and I try to explain his teacher’s comment to him. And while we’re on the topic of mind-blowing revelations, I decide to tackle another one.

“Rowan,” I say, “you know that Mrs. S lives in a house, right? She doesn’t live at the school.”

“Her house is the school,” says Rowan.

“No,” I say, “she lives in a house away from the school. A house like our house. She lives with her family. She’s married. She has a partner. And she has kids.”

“She has lots of kids,” says Rowan.

“No,” I say. “Not the kids at school. Mrs. S has her own kids. Two boys. Like you and Isaac. ” And then I add, for emphasis: “She’s a mom.”

“She’s a mom?” Rowan is incredulous.

“Yes,” I say, “a mom. Like me.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I don't think he's ready to date yet

One of the cool things about Rowan going to school is that we get to talk to him about his day. So far, he’s still interested in telling us about what goes on in and out of the classroom, although I’m sure we’ll eventually descend into the “how was school/fine/what did you do/nothing” dialogue. And Rachel and I are fascinated by it all, even when it’s not that fascinating. Take his recounting of his lunchtime conversation with Trinity (she being the little girl who would not hold his hand on that first, doleful, day):

Rowan: “And I ate lunch at the table...”

Rachel and I in unison: “Really? Who did you eat lunch with?”

Rowan: “I ate lunch with Trinity. I talked to her.”

Rachel and I in unison: “Really? What did you say?”

Rowan: “I said, ‘Hi, Trinity.’ And Trinity said, ‘Hi, Rowan.’”

He pauses to eat a bite of chicken. “And then I said, ‘TRINITY, WHAT YOU SAYING?’”

End of conversation.

And you just know that Trinity’s thinking, WHAT A SMOOTH OPERATOR.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The good morning song


video

Rowan agreed to perform the junior kindergartners’ good morning song on camera for me as long as I agreed to let him play with the camera afterwards. But the real beneficiaries of our deal? You, dear reader. Note the sticker on Rowan’s right cheek (“for doing some jobs,” he explained), and be sure to sit through all 30 seconds of him just humming, with commentary from Isaac in the background. Now, imagine imagine an entire classroom of three- and four-year-olds intoning the song together, along with the Solid Gold dancer arm movements. There’s so much to do in a world full of cuteness.

Monday, September 15, 2008

BFF, with an extra F


I thought I was taking Rowan to a play date with Ben yesterday, but, apparently, we stumbled upon an open casting call for three-year-olds interested in playing opposing gang members in West Side Story.

Ben is Rowan’s best friend, by virtue of the fact that his mother, Karen, and I are friends, which — in a chicken-and-egg kind of way — has to do with the fact that our children are the same age. At the local farmers market two winters ago, we each spotted the other, pregnant and hauling around a two-year-old boy, and things grew from there. Now, we get the boys together at fairly regular intervals, with mixed results. Sometimes, they get along like stink, rough and tumbling about in games of flashlight tag and Go, Diego, Go! Sometimes, one or the other is tired, hungry, on the verge of a cold, or just plain ornery, and I or Karen gently try to redirect.

And sometimes, both kids just kind of act like jerks to each other the whole time.

Yesterday’s get-together started off auspiciously enough. In the car on the way over I had listed the rules: 1. Share with Ben and his brother; 2. Listen to me and to Ben’s mommy; 3. Remember to pee.

“Well,” said Rowan, “I don’t like to share. But I will share with Ben.”

As we drove up, Ben emerged from his front door, radiating with excitement. Karen told me that he had refused to sit at the table for his lunch and had instead stationed himself at the window to watch for his friend. Rowan, who had been gapping out in the backseat on the drive over, slowly uncurled, a huge, shy grin spreading over his face.

The two disappeared into a bedroom almost immediately, and almost immediately the complaining and tattling began.

“Ben’s not sharing with me, so I’m not sharing with him.”

“I want to go to sleep, but Rowan won’t have a nap with me.”

“Ben rode into me with the tricycle!”

“Rowan hit me with the dinosaur!”

Things came to a head when Ben emerged to complain that it was, “... 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, BLAST off!” and not “... 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, FLAST off!” like Rowan was saying.

From there, they began to engage in a junior kindergartener’s pissing contest:

“I’m first.” “No, I’m first.”

“I’m swinging higher than you.” “Well, I’m swinging higher than you.”
“It’s my turn to ride the bicycle.” “No, it’s my turn!”

“My hand is bigger than your hand.” “No, my hand is bigger than your hand.”
I got them to hold their respective right and left palms together to measure. In fact, with the exception of Ben’s slightly longer index finger, their hands are identical. Which adds weight to my theory that Rowan and Ben are clones, and that their conflicts stem from the fact that they are two bodies vying for the same soul.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Fallout



This is what happens when your older brother refuses to acknowledge that YOU KNOW HOW TO WALK ALL BY YOURSELF, DAMNIT, and tries to pull you in one direction on the sloping sidewalk when you want to go the other way.




Thursday, September 11, 2008

Cycle path


Maybe it was the German couple (him from the East, her from the West) Rowan and I met in the park a couple of weeks ago, cycling across Canada with their two-year-old daughter. They had two fully loaded bikes — front and back panniers, more gear neatly bungeed on top of racks, handlebar bags — and they were towing their toddler in a single Chariot carrier. With a child’s bike strapped to the top of it. They had started in from Vancouver, and, over the course of four months, made it through the Prairies and into Thunder Bay. Now, they were trying to decide whether to take the (very) non-scenic logging road up to Armstrong and catch the Via Rail train to Toronto, or risk the heavy traffic and narrow shoulders of the TransCanada on their bikes to catch the gorgeous views of Lake Superior.

I wish I had known to tell them to cycle Superior, cross the border at Sault Ste. Marie, and take the Amtrak to the Big Smoke. Whatever they decided, I hope they made it to Toronto in time to catch their flight home. They plan to return to Canada next summer and pick up where they left off, cycling to the easternmost point of Newfoundland.

I can barely tow Isaac and a diaper bag up a hill in our double Chariot without getting lightheaded.

But I digress.

Maybe it was the German couple (did I mention they spoke perfect English?) that sparked Rowan’s interest in his bike, the one my father bought for him in June and that has remained in the garage, mostly untouched, since then. But two weeks ago, he asked to get it out and cycle to our weekly brunch at Judy and Jill’s.

(Another digression: Did you know that, for the past year, Rowan and Isaac’s godmothers, Judy and Jill, have had us and our children over for brunch every Sunday morning? As in, just when we realize that the weekend is — depending on your perspective — already half over or only half over and Sunday stretches before us like this great yawning chasm of time in which to keep children happy and occupied, we are treated to coffee and muffins and eggs and back bacon and blueberries and two adults who dote on — and entertain — our children. It’s heavenly. Just in case you didn’t know that.)

So, the bike. If Rowan were cycling across Canada, he would take a lot longer than four months, because:

a) he can’t steer and would probably end up in either Montana or the Yukon
b) he tends to get off his bike every 10 feet or so to examine more closely a pothole or a rock or a tree
c) midway through each trip, he decides he’d rather walk, leaving me to push his bike along, the equivalent of leaving it somewhere in Saskatoon.

Still, we persist, because my theory is that, for Rowan (for anyone, really), any and all bike time is good. The more he pedals, the further he goes, the better he’ll get and the more he’ll enjoy cycling. So I walk along beside him, holding the handlebars gently and lifting my hands when he’ll let me (“Hold on, Mama! You need to hold on!”), urging him to LOOK WHERE YOU’RE GOING, adding to his forward momentum, and waiting as he pops off to explore again and again. “Ready to hop back on?” I’ll ask after a few moments. And sometimes he does, and we set off again.

For Rowan, cycling is so completely about the journey and not the destination that there’s no point in being anything but patient and accommodating. And besides, I’m loving it. I love watching my kid ride a bike, love walking or jogging beside him holding the handlebars, love letting go, love the idea that one day, we might ride our bikes together. I love how riding his bike seems to make Rowan more attentive to the outside world.

And I love being around to hear him say things like, “Mama, if you get me a basket for my bike, I can put flowers in it.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

One day ...

I will check my email one last time before shutting down, and something magical will have arrived.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Jonesing for a nannycam

Last night Rachel dreamt that she and Rowan were boarding a plane together, only when she took her seat he was nowhere to be found. “I tried all kinds of things to stop the plane, but to no avail,” she says. “Last thing I remember we were heading for the runway and I was convinced Rowan was in the luggage compartment, or worse.”

Welcome to Rowan’s first day of junior kindergarten.

Things started auspiciously enough, when he wandered into our room at 7 a.m. and said, “Buenos dias! Good morning, Mamas!”

But then, once he realized that today was the first day of school, it kind of went downhill. He spent much of the morning in tears, trying to convince us not to send him. In the end, I carried all 40 pounds of him the four blocks to his school, him mostly wailing along the way. Neighbours drove by in their minivans and honked and waved and smiled mournfully at us. The playground monitor shook her head kindly but knowingly.

When we got to the classroom, he calmed down a bit, and began to explore. He even played for a while with another kid, every so often letting out a post-meltdown shudder. By the time the teacher got the boys and girls (my son has entered the realm of being addressed as “Boys and girls”) to sit down, cross-legged, on the circular carpet, he was red-eyed but mildly interested. I felt kind of bad for his lovely teacher, surrounded by a gaggle of innocent three- and four-year-olds — and then a wider circle of anxious, hovering, camera-toting parents. “Could you all sit down?” she asked us. “I’m feeling a bit intimidated.”

The kids went on a tour of the school, checking out their own private playground, the gym, the library, the computer room. Poor Rowan tried to grab the hand of a little girl as they walked, but she stuck her hand behind her back. I saw him smile as the teacher got all the JKs to run “as fast as you can!” to the end of the gym and back. He wandered all over the library by himself, and skipped back to the group. As we circled back to the classroom, he started looking for the locker with his name on it. And then they all sat down and read a story about a little raccoon’s first day of school. They practiced jumping up and down five times. And Rachel and I slipped out of the room quietly. And I tried to calm the tide of rising nausea in my stomach.

We came home to Isaac, jolly as could be, hanging out with über-babysitter Clair, who was just about to take him on a walk. Shortly after they left, the phone rang. I grabbed it. It was Clair, on her cell. She had walked to the school to see what intelligence she could gather, and had talked to a set of parents just leaving. “They said that Rowan was fine. His eyes were a little red, but he was playing with another kid.”

So Rowan is gonna be okay. He isn’t going to be his classmate Owen, who skipped into the room by himself, raised his hand, and proudly told the room that that was what you did when you wanted to talk while the teacher was talking. Owen, whose mom showed up halfway through the tour, carrying a coffee. “Yeah,” she said, “he came by himself on the bus this morning so I followed later on.”

But Rowan doesn’t have to be Owen. Rowan is Rowan, and he will be fine — good, great, wonderful, even — at school. And we get to go pick him up in two hours. Keep me company until then.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Countdown

Rowan starts junior kindergarten tomorrow. We’re mostly ready. We’ve got the backpack, the lunch box, the indoor shoes, the haircut, the vaccinations. We’ve read library books with Rowan about the first day of school. We even made an appointment with the teacher to discuss the fact that Rowan Has Two Mommies (she was cool, had a kid with two dads last year). Weirder probably to her in Thunder Bay is the fact that he’s Jewish, but, no problem, more or less. “Oh,” she said, “I don’t do much for Christmas. Just the tree, and stories about Santa.” (I am now committed to showing up on major — and likely some minor — Jewish holidays with some activity for the kids.)

Rowan’s teacher also told us that the first thing she does is teach the kids how to line up. Which kind of seems terrible, as though the entire purpose of elementary school and beyond is about corralling unruly children and making them conform to society’s rules and expectations.

But — and perhaps I am exposing myself for the tyrannical parent that I am here — really, although we hate to admit it, doesn’t that make up a good chunk of the parenting we do at home? It’s just that we would never admit that it’s one of our primary activities — and, with only two instead of a dozen or two children to deal with, we don’t have to state our intentions as baldly.

Still, it’s those kinds of statements that get me fantasizing momentarily about just skipping the whole school thing — until I realize that I’m just not cut out for homeschooling. Which means I don’t want to. In any case, I know lots of homeschooled kids — and their parents seem to want them to know how to line up, take turns, speak politely to other people, and share, too.

So, we’re mostly ready. Except for how we’re not. In the last two days, two different parents on two different occasions have told us, “It’s a terrible day. A terrible, terrible day.” One of them paused for a moment. “Terrible.”

I have a sneaking suspicion they may be correct. Not because I’m paranoid (no, really), but because when we took Rowan to Winnipeg Beach Day Camp in July, he melted down in a fit of tears and screaming and kicking every single day when we left. And then, when we picked him up, he said over and over, “I don’t want to go to camp. I don’t like it when you leave me.”

With that in mind, we’ve been talking a lot about school. And, slowly, we’ve been hearing less about how Rowan doesn’t want to go, how he wants us to stay, and more about circle time and painting and toys and snack. So I’m hopeful, or slightly less unhopeful.

But I’m also prepared for all hell to break loose tomorrow.

And, not prepared at all.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Closer

Rowan is finally up to date on all his vaccinations. He won’t need another needle for a good ten years. And this is a good thing, given his latest doctor’s appointment.

We’ve been reluctant but resigned passengers on the vaccination train — the result of a certain amount of neurotic over-education that kept us researching the ideal way to balance the risks and benefits of shooting up your kids with altered versions of serious illnesses.

On the one hand, we were suspicious of Big Pharma’s agenda to sell as many drugs as possible to doctors, parents, and governments, as well as unhappy about the idea of assaulting a six-week old baby’s immune system with four or five different strains of disease.

On the other hand, we weren’t happy about relying on other children’s immunity to protect our own kids. And in the absence of any convincing literature that suggested that vaccinations were inherently dangerous, we finally decided on a compromise: wait until at least a year, and/or until the kids were weaned or weaning, and do one vaccine at a time until done. It also helped that our vegan, home-schooling family doctor had vaccinated her kids. Although, apparently, our midwife hadn’t. To each her own, and we made our decision.

Since embarking on project immunity, we have spent a small fortune on Emla patches, in order to minimize the pain for our little hothouse flowers. Two Saturdays ago, we took the boys in for the latest round of sticks. Isaac had been napping during the Emla applications, so he was patch-free. I took him in, while Rachel and Rowan watched Thomas videos in the waiting room. He didn’t even flinch.

Then Rachel took Rowan, while Isaac and I waited outside. And waited. And waited. And waited. Just as I was beginning to wonder, Rachel emerged. “Your turn,” she said, taking Isaac from me.

I went in. Rowan sat on the examining table, a lipstick case in his right hand and his left palm planted firmly over his left thigh where the Emla patch had been. “I want lipstick but I don’t want a needle,” he told me. I looked at the doctor, eyebrows raised. “Well,” I began, “they’re not mutually exclusive...”

Apparently, Rowan had stated quite firmly but calmly that he was having no needle that day. They had discussed why he was getting a shot, that it wouldn’t hurt, but it would keep him from getting sick. “But I not sick,” he had said. Rachel had rooted through her handbag to find something to distract him, and had come up with lipstick (usually a winner). I tried to lift Rowan’s hand from his thigh but it wouldn’t budge. “He’s been pretty focused on not moving that hand,” said our doctor.

Finally, I climbed up on the table, and pulled him, facing me, onto my lap so that he was straddling me. “Close your eyes. Hide your face in my shoulder,” I told him. Then I pried his hand off his thigh, tucked the hand under my right armpit, held his head into my shoulder with my left hand and his left leg down with my right hand and our doctor gave him his needle. He didn’t feel a thing.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

After


So I picked up Rowan from his babysitter on Tuesday, quietly buckled him in to the car, and casually started driving in the opposite direction than we usually go.

“Hey!” said Rowan. “Where are we going? Are we going to the barber?”

“Why, yes,” I said. And then, before he could say anything else, I added, “And then we’re going to the ice cream store!”

Still, he protested. But he got out of the car, helped me put money in the meter, and walked into Sam the Barber’s shop — the real deal, a one-room, one-chair establishment complete with stripey pole outside and a wood stove to keep warm in the winter. The chair is so old that it has an ashtray built into it. Things are held together with duct tape. Sam is a nice old Italian man with infinite patience. Rowan saw him and flipped. Tears, kicking, wailing, flailing, snot, running out of the building, the whole bit. “I don’t want to go to the barber,” he repeated. “I don’t want ice cream!”

Still, I managed to wedge him into the chair as Sam turned the TV to Treehouse — and, miracle of miracles, Go Diego, Go! was on. Rowan almost immediately sank into a television-induced coma (complete with drooling), and Sam went to work with the scissors. When he was done, we had to stay and finish watching Diego and his cousin Alicia rescue the pygmy marmosets.

And then we went to the ice cream store, where Rowan got a twisty cone and I got to look at his new hair.

“Hey Rowan,” I said, “that wasn’t too bad, was it?”

“No,” he said, carefully licking his cone, “that was good.”

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hairstyle of the gods

So, Rachel and I kind of made this pact not to cut Isaac’s hair. No particular reason, just an effort to preserve his strawberry blond babyhood a few moments more, let him get all ringletty and wild.

Fortunately, our pact contained a clause that stipulated that, in the event that the baby began to develop a mullet, I was free to take out the scissors and even things up a bit. At least, that’s what I thought we agreed.

And so one day last week, when I decided that Isaac was starting to look just a tiny bit like Carol Brady, I sat him up on the bathroom counter and got out the scissors. I thought I did a pretty good job, all things considered. (The things considered would include the fact that Isaac tried to look at the scissors every time he caught a glimpse of them in his peripheral vision. I’m thankful that he still has peripheral vision.) In any case, my technique has certainly improved since Rowan’s first haircut, when one of our friends witnessed the clear-cut that was the nape of his neck and stage-whispered to him, “Don’t ever let your mommy do that to you again.”

Rachel wasn’t so sure. “He doesn’t look like a pretty little girl any more,” she wailed, when I brought our smiling little newly shorn lamb downstairs. For about a day afterwards, she moaned every time she saw Isaac and his big-boy ’do.

What the haircut made abundantly clear, though, is that Isaac, like me, is probably doomed to a life of difficulty finding hats that fit. He has what is known in the millinery industry as an “elongated oval,” which, loosely translated, means he has a big, weird, alien-shaped head. It’s a family curse: my dad recalls having to buy a fedora (to go with all those three-piece suits) when he was hired at IBM in the 1960s. The hat maker charged him $60 — probably something like his weekly take-home pay — for a custom-made number, because nothing in the store fit. I maintain the elongated oval is storing all that extra brainpower that makes us so smart.

As for Rowan, any day now I'm going to take him into the barber and erase the mop-topped evidence of the last summer of his life before entering the school system. Part of me hates to do it, sees it as the symbolic curtailing of all his freedom and creativity.

Part of me can’t wait.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Nothing but flowers

Sometimes, it feels less as though we had children than were infested by them, this riot of small bodies (are there really only two?) inexorably altering our environment, working their way deeper, deeper, into every crevice, step by tiny step.

Rowan is a small but powerful magnetic force, instinctively able to set the default language on my iPod to German, alter the task bar on my computer, or switch Rachel’s homepage to Google. The clock radio in our bedroom seems always, randomly, set to the wrong time — each morning, a small boy comes into the room and propels us continually into the future, trying to get the numbers to 7:00, which he knows is “wake-up” time. Each evening, we set the clock back again.

But it’s a losing battle — all of it. We put away the blocks, the trains, the cars; sweep up the crumbs; fold the laundry and put it in drawers; try to find homes for the craft projects and paintings and pieces of plastic that arrive, amass, multiply, gather dust. I make 48 zucchini-carrot muffins, Rowan cracking the eggs and helping measure out the flour, and, five days later, we make 48 more muffins. Every night, without fail, it’s dinner time again, and after that we have to clean up. And pack up lunch for the next day.

We go to bed to find Rowan asleep in our bed, clutching my pajama bottoms like a security blanket. We carry him back to his bed. Morning comes, and he is back, either crawling into bed with us or knocking on his own door until one of us stumbles into his room and his bed with him. “Cuddle me,” he says, to which a couple of days ago I replied grumpily, “I will cuddle you if you lie still and don’t stick your feet and elbows into my back.” “I won’t,” he said, but he did. Because he does, he expands to fill the space that you might take up. This morning, he climbed in with Rachel and me, and then swivelled his way around like the horizontal bar joining the two vertical strokes of a letter H, pushing my head off my pillow. He wanted to see the clock, he explained. Or he sits at the dinner table and plays footsie, his foot nudge, nudge, nudge, nudge, nudging my thigh until I move it. “Why?” he says, and I say, “I don’t like how it feels.” “Yes you do like how it feels,” he responds. Okay.

The CDs no longer play — they are covered in scratches and fingerprints. We lose things — water bottles, keys, fridge magnets. We find them later, behind couch cushions, underneath the fridge, inside the wardrobe. I open a drawer and Rowan appears, pulling out underwear, T-shirts: “Wear this one — this is the one I love.” Food disappears from my plate, my hand, as a child walks or toddles by and spirits it away. Isaac at my feet, reaching up, twining his hand into the hair at the back of my neck, exploring my mouth and nostrils with his fingers. He buries his face into my shoulder when strangers speak to him, drools down my arm, laughs and tries to eat my nose. He agitates for a bite of whatever’s on my plate, and then tosses it on the floor. I sit, and suddenly, two children are playing in my lap.

It’s summer, and I am continually struck in Thunder Bay by how easily we could slide into wilderness. The house is filled with spiders and bugs. There was a skunk in the garage the other night. We drive minutes to get out of the city and discover frogs and leeches (shudder), go berry picking with friends and take their dogs to ward off bears. We are covered in bites. Alone for a moment, hunched over a blueberry bush, I think of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, and briefly consider going deeper into the bush, disappearing.

But I would never survive, not without those small bodies to keep me warm.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

My subconscious has a fairly enlightened parental leave program

I have this recurring dream in which I realize that, for some ungodly reason, I have committed to being a counselor at my childhood sleepover camp. Me and the seventeen-year-olds. Apparently, I still have unresolved issues about my stint as a camper (1982–86) and, subsequently, as a counselor (1989–90).

Back then, the highlights of my summer were nights off spent drinking to get drunk on margaritas at Earl’s in Kelowna and winning the mini Maccabiah games — a Zionist camp’s answer to the colour wars; I wrote the team song each year, Jewish-themed lyrics to classic tunes such as the theme songs to Fame or Cheers or “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” (“Our team is tzedakah — charity — that’s what we stand for; We make the world a better place by helping out the poor...”). Not to mention the drama that breeds in a closed society where teenagers are mostly left to govern themselves.

But, twenty years later, I have other commitments. In my dream, I try to explain this to the camp directors, but they are curiously unresponsive to my plight. I explain to them that I have clients; that I really cannot afford to earn just $800 for nine weeks of work; that I don’t remember applying; that the idea of spending a summer taking care of other people’s children with a bunch of horny, self-absorbed teenagers as my closest colleagues was just not what I had in mind. And besides, as always happens in these dreams, I have no luggage.

Somehow, it never seems possible (maybe because I have no wallet? no access to a phone?) to simply, politely, explain that there must be some sort of mistake and quit. Instead, I plead with the powers that be in the dream to release me from my apparent obligations to them. Which they never do. But last night, last night in my dream, I suddenly slapped myself on the forehead and said, “My God! I have two little children! I have a baby! I can't leave them for nine weeks! I have to go right now!”

And the powers that be said, “Oh, okay.”

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

And you asked because...?

Rowan is dropping his toothbrush down the back of his radiator, collecting it from his scungy bedroom floor, and dropping it behind the radiator again.

Me: “It's time to get pajamas on.”

Him: “I can't. I'm playing a game.”

Me: “Oh, really? What game are you playing?”

Him: “I’m playing the toothbrush behind the radiator game.”

Monday, July 28, 2008

If they’re happy, drive fast. If they’re unhappy, drive faster.

It is safe to say that Isaac made no lasting friends at the Dryden Best Western. Not that he cares, but one day he’ll realize that waking up screaming at 4:24 a.m. and refusing under any circumstances to go back to sleep will not land you first place in a popularity contest with the people in the rooms on either side of you. To say nothing of the people in the room with you.

But because we are such adaptable, make-lemonade-with-lemons sorts, Rachel and I decided that we might as well take advantage of the early morning to get on the road. And so we packed up the car and the children, hit the Tim Horton’s on the side of the highway, and drove the rest of the way to Winnipeg Beach, Manitoba, Rowan and Isaac conked out in the back seat.

We made good time.

My father just laughed when I told him we had booked a last-minute cottage rental and were driving to the Beach. He is a veteran of many such drives — each summer, my parents hauled the family in our Ford sedan from Toronto to the cottage we shared with my mom’s sister and her family. (Apparently I nearly drowned in a hotel pool in Thunder Bay.) The moms and the kids stayed out all summer, while the dads showed up on weekends or, in the case of my father, for a couple of weeks at the end of the summer. The kids went to Winnipeg Beach Day Camp, the moms kept house and played tennis and picked us up at the end of each day and took us for ice cream and to the beach. At least, that’s what I remember.

Now my aunt and uncle still own the cottage, which they’ve renovated entirely to accommodate the new generation. My cousin Jill spends a month there every summer with her three kids, her husband driving the minivan from Toronto to the beach, and then showing up at the end of the summer for a couple of weeks. My mother’s brother and his family summer in another place, also recently renovated to accommodate their next generation.

And our cottage? Not so much with the renovations. Which was totally fine with me. “It’s been in our family for 90 years,” said the woman renting to us. I loved it because it smells like the Beach, a sort of chlorinated mildew, with a touch of fish fly. I’m guessing they last touched things up circa 1950. I did a little photo essay of the decor, and thought long and hard about the ethics of permanently borrowing the vintage Pyrex cookware and the fabulous three-tiered dainties tray. Even if I bought them replacement bowls at Sears? Come on.














Our second day there, Isaac took his first steps in the kitchen of my aunt’s cottage. He stood, surrounded by cooing, clapping adults, and burst into tears at the sudden attention. Rowan spent hours and hours playing with his second cousins, holed up in the bedroom I used to share with my cousin Jason, who was also visiting that weekend from Toronto. He’s still mad about the time I bit him on the ass when we played puppies. Isaac fell in love with his Great-Auntie Sheila, my mom’s sister, reaching for her and nestling into her arms, lighting up when she walked into the room, sitting on her lap while she fed him bits of cookie. Rowan went to day camp, albeit reluctantly. The camp is smaller now, a sign of the times, now that the moms work, too. The mosquitoes were terrible. We ate lots of ice cream and played on the beach with the cousins.

Our last night there, we went out with a bang at Boardwalk Days, where Rowan went on every ride he could while Isaac, who met no height requirements, screamed in frustration from the stroller until Rachel took him home and put him to bed. I idiotically took Rowan on the pirate ship ride. He loved it, but I almost hurled, and then sat with my head between my knees, trying to recover, while he, oblivious, rode the toy train. Staggering home, I was just starting to wonder if I would make it when old family friends, Sharon and Eddie, drove by and scooped us up and took us back to our “holiday house,” which Rowan keeps calling our “Halloween house.”

video

I spent every summer at Winnipeg Beach until I was 12, when, wanting to spend time with my own friends, I chose sleep-away camp for eight weeks. Then, bored, disillusioned, I swore I wouldn’t come back.

And then I did, and it was perfect.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Brothers in arms

Rowan has taken to carrying his baby brother around the house by hooking his arms under Theo’s armpits and sort of goose-stepping him forward. It’s a good thing Isaac loves it, because he has absolutely no choice in the matter. He’ll be sitting there, absorbed in a toy, or crawling along happily, when Rowan will swoop down, scoop him up, and drag him away. “I’m helping him walk!” he says, and, indeed he is: Theo’s feet and legs start going crazy. (For those of you familiar with Ian Falconer’s Olivia books, think of Olivia moving her cat. That’s what it looks like.) And the two of them march off together, the big one cooing, the little one grinning madly, forming an eight-limbed mass of childhood symbiosis.

“See ya,” we say.

(Okay, we don’t say that — we follow the two of them closely, calling out, “Don’t go too fast!” and “Okay, gentle! Put him down gently!” and “Not on the stairs!”)

I can just picture the same dynamic, applied to different situations. In about (kill me now) 14 years, it’s going to be the car. Rowan will have his (hopefully heavily graduated) driver’s licence, and he’ll scoop up his bro and the two of them will drive off to get Slurpees, the stereo blasting, Isaac grinning madly, Rachel and I standing in the driveway, calling out, “Careful!” and “Don’t go too fast!”

I love that they love each other. More than almost anything, I want them to love each other. I just hope they don’t kill each other — or me — in the process.