Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Coat of arms

Picture it: Thunder Bay, Ontario. Early March. Seven degrees below zero. 8:30 a.m. Sun rising over Lake Superior. Air crisp and cold — I can see my breath. Sky rosy and bright. Rowan and I walking to his babysitter’s. We march along briskly, me in my down coat and mitts, hat on head, drinking a travel mug of hot tea. My three-year-old son wears his green Thomas the Train T-shirt, snowpants, boots — and nothing else.

It’s the culmination not just of one morning but of an entire season of struggle. Now that he can dress himself, Rowan prefers to wear only sweatpants, short-sleeved shirts (often three at a time; he rotates through a small selection of favourites that includes Thomas, a stripey polo shirt, and a rainbow tie-dyed number), and a purple acrylic V-neck sweater knitted for him by his great grandmother. Long sleeves are generally offensive, as is all outdoor clothing, especially hats, mittens, a fleece hoodie, and — today —his coat.

Every morning, it’s the same thing: the screaming, the chasing around the house, the distractions, the reasoning, the bribery, the attempts to “make it fun,” all in the name of getting the clothes on and getting out the door.

And today, I gave up the fight. After some extended negotiations, Rachel managed to get snowpants and boots on the boy, who then followed me around the kitchen repeating, “I’m NOT wearing my fleece. Umom, I’m NOT wearing my fleece. I’m not playing with YOU any more. I’m walking away. I’M WALKING AWAY.” I kept repeating, “I’m not talking with you about it any more, Rowan. I’m done.”

And I was. I walked out the door and fetched the stroller from the garage. Rowan walked out the door hatless and coatless. “I get warm in the stroller,” he said. “No way,” I said. “Only people who are wearing their hats and coats can get in the stroller. You’d better start walking.”

And so we walked, Rowan with his arms jammed down the sides of his snowpants so that he looked like a performer in Riverdance. Every so often, I’d say, “You look like you’re getting cold. Would you like to put on your coat?” And he’d say, “No THANK you. But thanks for answering!” Or he’d comment, “My ears are cold.” And I’d say, “Oh. Would you like to put on your hat?” And he’d say, “No thanks!” And I’d say, “I like your manners!”

Actually, it was a very pleasant walk. Rowan, armless, kept up a patter of conversation next to me — about the ice, how far we had walked, the forklift that drove by, how he would get warm at his babysitter’s, that Isaac is a baby — punctuating our occasional silences with, “It sure is a beautiful day, isn’t it?” He pulled his arm out of its little snowpanty cocoon to hold my hand at intersections, and then put it back.

It was also a very efficient walk. Because he couldn’t — wouldn’t — use his arms, Rowan couldn’t pick up stray sticks or clamber over every snowbank the way he usually does, activities that generally test my Zen ability to “be here now” as opposed to where I feel we’re actually supposed to be. Plus, I think he needed to keep moving in order to stay warm. We marched along briskly, me pushing the empty stroller, my three-year-old son chattering along beside me. Quality time. Cars drove by, and whenever I caught the eye of the driver, he or she invariably smiled, as if to say, “been there, done that.”

Oh, for summer. When we can swap fights over winter clothes for fights over sunscreen.

Monday, March 10, 2008


The soose saga began shortly after Rowan’s birth, when it became clear that he was what the textbooks referred to as “a sucky baby.” In layperson’s terms, this meant that he liked to suck. A. Lot. And that he was kind of cranky when he couldn’t.

“Just give him a soother,” my father — who had arrived to help out for two weeks — kept saying. I’m sure he thought we were insane. Because we were. (This is the same man who recently put an end to end to our dithering about whether to let Rowan watch cartoons in the middle of the family visit by saying, rightly, “Just turn on the television! He’s sucking all your energy!”)

But we didn’t give Rowan a soother. We were anti-soother at the time, for reasons involving the “unnaturalness” of an infant sucking on a piece of plastic rather than a human nipple (or, in a pinch, a finger) and some cockamamie idea that a pacifier might interfere with his ability to express himself or explore the world orally. What amazes me now is not the relative merits of these arguments but rather that we actually had the time and energy — not to mention the desire — to form them in the first place.

So, instead, when he wasn’t nursing, Rowan spent countless hours in those first few weeks sucking on our fingers. At night, he would lie between us, bright-eyed and wide awake, and we’d take turns letting him suck voraciously on our various digits. This isn’t as easy as it might sound. It involved holding hands and arms aloft at strange angles for extended periods of time, which hurt after a few minutes. “Your turn,” I would say to Rachel, easing my index finger out of Rowan’s mouth and rubbing my shoulder or shaking my arm in order to ease the pins and needles.

Given that we already weren’t getting any sleep, this didn’t seem sustainable. And yet, we couldn’t quite admit it. Plus, we had taken a stance against my father’s parenting advice, and so we were committed. But I was quietly plotting. Pretty much the moment my father left for the airport, I offered Rowan a pacifier. He took it immediately and loved it. And we were all happy.

That is, until, it became clear that Rowan had become absolutely addicted to the soother. He couldn’t sleep without it, and yet lacked the skill to replace it when it fell out of his mouth during the night. Which meant that Rachel or I needed to replace it for him during the night — sometimes as often as every 45 minutes. Somewhere around five months, the situation deteriorated to the point where we slept in shifts, one of us in our bed, and one of us in Rowan’s room, where — when he wasn’t nursing — we lay next to him in the guest bed, holding the pacifier in his mouth while he settled and slept.

In short, the “passy” had become what for Rowan sleep experts referred to as a “negative sleep association”: he assumed he needed it to fall asleep. And, they all said, if we ever wanted our son to sleep through the night, we’d have to break that association. We opted for a “no-cry” method of weaning him off his addiction: getting rid of the ubiquitous soother during the day and then, at night, faithfully easing the pacifier from his mouth as he fell asleep so that he would learn to conk out without it. Although the book promised improvement within a few days to a week, Rowan did not improve. Finally, after much negotiation and heartbreak too tedious to detail here, we opted for the “cry” method of weaning him off his addiction. Which meant putting him down for the night without his pacifier and letting him cry himself to sleep until he learned how to sleep without it. This was much more effective, if gutwrenching.

And so we muddled along, moving from the insanity-inducing realm of no sleep at all to the merely exhausting and cranky-making realm of getting up once or twice a night to the bliss of sleeping through until morning. Somewhere along the way, though, we (okay, Rachel) gave the soother back. In spades. Rowan, who by now had the manual dexterity to pop the pacifier into his own mouth, ended up sleeping with five or six of the things scattered in the crib, one always at hand in case of emergency. In the mornings, we’d go in and pick up stray pacifiers from the floor and between the crib and the wall.

Oh, and he developed an equally passionate attachment to his security blanket.

Things continued pretty much along these lines for a couple of years. “Soose and blankie” — always together, like chocolate and peanut butter, Scotch and soda — became fixtures of Rowan’s sleep. They also provided us with leverage (“Come upstairs for soose and blankie!” “You can have soose and blankie after you eat lunch!”) and a good source of comfort for boo-boos and scary situations. Every few months, we’d shell out $8.95 for a new package of two to replace the lost and the worn-out pacifiers, all the while telling ourselves that one day (but not today) they would have to go.

Eventually, the inevitable happened: much to the grief of toddlers and preschoolers across North America, Playtex stopped making Rowan’s brand of choice. I picked up a package of the closest reasonable facsimile thereof, and offered one to my son. He spat it out like some kind of wine connoisseur: “That’s not a real soose,” he said disdainfully. “That’s a baby soose. Give me my soose.” And I did.

Eventually, we were down to just one “real” soose. And it was getting kind of grotty. That, coupled with the fact that his dentist reported that Rowan’s jaw was slowly moulding to the shape of the plastic nipple convinced us. And so, one night, a couple of weeks ago, I cut the tip off the nipple with scissors. There would be no going back. The idea was to cut back the soose a bit more each night until it was gone.

Rowan took one suck and spat it out.

“My soose is broken,” he keened, over and over, covering his eyes and rocking back and forth like a professional Greek mourner. “My soose is broken. Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy is my soose broken?”

I explained that that was what happened: that as little boys got bigger and bigger, sooses got smaller and smaller, that they broke and went away.

He didn’t seem to find my explanation particularly comforting, but he didn’t flip out, either. Bedtime proceeded fairly normally, punctuated by the occasional moan of “My soose is broken.” And then he fell asleep.

He slept with the soose under his pillow for a few nights after that. And then Rachel threw it in the garbage. And that was that. It’s the end of an era.

Isaac — God bless him — has never been interested in pacifiers. Instead, he cuddles up with a blanket and sticks his thumb in his mouth and goes to sleep. And, twelve years from now, when we have to shell out for the orthodontic work to repair the damage that thumbsucking has wrought, I will do so happily. Remind me of that.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Nobody will love me like this ever again

I took Isaac to a baby shower over the weekend, and everyone wanted to be his friend. He was immediately whisked away by the host of the event, who handed him off to a baby-crazy teenage girl, leaving me to indulge in guacamole and tiramisu and open-faced Finnish sandwiches and bocconcini. Eventually, the teenage girl wandered into the kitchen, where I was enjoying the use of both my arms. “How is he?” I asked her. “Great,” she said, just as Isaac caught sight of me, his face crumpled, and he began to sob.

Month the ninth, and separation anxiety has set in.

Suddenly, the outside world is a doubtful place for Isaac. Suddenly, the easy, open, automatic grins are reserved for me, Rachel, and Rowan. Strangers get solemn looks — what we refer to as “the baby stare of death” — and the occasional small smile, if they work really hard. Suddenly, jolly little Isaac is adept at “the lean,” that baby manouvre that indicates he’d much rather be in a mother’s arms than, say, yours.

If both his mothers are present, Isaac is starting to show his preference for me, the one with the milk. Personally, I don’t think it’s as marked a preference as Rachel does, but then again, I’m not the one on the receiving end of infant rejection, actual or imagined. (At least, not the moment. It’ll come, if big brother Rowan is any indication.) “I was thinking about this age,” Rachel said yesterday, after she and Isaac had spent the afternoon together. “I have so much more fun with them when ... you’re not there.”

Baby love. Inasmuch as it’s tiring, it’s addictive. I can see why so much of the rest of the world — at least, that segment of it not already occupied by or recently liberated from its own clingy children — wants a small piece of the action, wants to be wanted by the baby. I remember that fierce longing myself, for the adoration of my fickle childhood cousins, to be the object of their toddler desire. I watch how grown men stoop to make funny faces at Isaac, how arms involuntarily reach for him — and how his own arms, like Rowan’s used to, instinctively wrap around my neck, or Rachel’s. No thanks, he says, the classic pint-size kiss-off.

They love us so fiercely not because we’re fabulous people, or, for that matter, fabulous parents (although I like to think we are both), but simply because we show up. Again and again, day after day, well into the nights and early mornings, we show up. Often grouchy, often not entirely present, but we come back again and again, and this is our reward. For a brief, shiny window of time, we and no one else are perfect in the eyes of the children. Sometimes I think that Isaac would be happy forever perched on my left hip while my arm slowly goes numb, or standing on my lap, holding on to the skin of my neck and trying to eat my nose. But he won’t be. And that will be okay, too. I hope.

I’m not advocating having children in order to be loved so purely. But it is an unexpected perk in the midst of the madness. Even if it means less guacamole for me.