Saturday, May 31, 2008

A thousand words

This post originally appeared in the Globe & Mail's “Facts and Arguments” column on May 30, 2008.

About five years ago, I decided to organize the thousand or so baby pictures that my parents took of me and my older brother in the early 1970s and then tossed into a huge cardboard box in the basement.

Of those thousand baby pictures, approximately 850 were of my brother, and the rest were of me. Or, of me and him.

Of course, the injustice of the situation was not lost on me, especially given the fact that I was newly pregnant with my first child and full of resolutions about how I would raise that baby and its subsequent siblings, assuming they ever arrived.

The injustice of the situation was also heightened by the fact that my parents devoted so much film — remember film? — to their firstborn despite the fact that he was not, shall we say, the most beautiful of babies. He did grow into a beautiful toddler, and is today a very good-looking man. But to this day, at least one close family friend still likes to torment him by telling him what an ugly baby he was. It is abundantly clear, however, from the number of photographs that my parents took — and the glowy way they look at him when they are present with him in those photographs — that they thought otherwise. “We just thought you were beautiful,” my mother used to tell him in the face of such cruelty. “We didn’t know what they were talking about.”

I vowed that I would not perpetuate this injustice with my own children. And by that, I mean I vowed that I would not deprive my second child of his or her fair share of photographs. There would be parity. No one would feel left out.

And now, if you look through the archives of my computer, you will find a couple zillion baby photos of, Rowan, and perhaps a million or so photos of, Isaac.

To make matters worse, when Rowan was a baby, we booked time with a photographer and had a series of slick, black-and-white photos taken and framed. We have yet to do the same now that Isaac has joined us.

I’m not quite sure how this happened. I mean, I try to take photos of Isaac, lots of them. I really do. And not simply because that would be the fair thing to do. I try to take photos of him because, simply put, I am madly, soppily, sloppily, heartbreakingly in love with Isaac. Isaac is, at 11 months, a perfect little ripe plum of a sweet baby, just on the verge of falling into what I am sure will be equally adorable toddlerhood. It’s not that I don’t gaze at him a hundred times a day and ache at his beauty, long to record and preserve each moment of his gorgeous, smiley, bow-legged, thumbsucky, crawly, screechy, hand-clapping, babbling little self.

It’s just that there’s this three-year-old around now. It was easy to take thousands of pictures of Rowan when he was the only, non-mobile child in the house. But now, leaving the room to grab the camera — let alone finding the camera amidst the toys and sippy cups and the like — is just more complicated. Plus, if I do get out the camera around Rowan, I have to fend him off because he inevitably wants to take pictures of the floor or his thumb or our legs.

Hence the disproportionate number of photos of my big brother, and the disproportionate number of photos of (and blogs about) Theo’s big brother. It’s not about more love, even if that is what my brother told me when we were children. It’s about time, and energy. And the fact that Rowan, at the moment, tends to take up more space. And that he’s just been around longer. And, possibly, realizing that no amount of photography will keep Isaac from inching out of babyhood into something else, so maybe I had better just soak him up a bit more instead of searching for the camera.

But what will Isaac make of all this? Hopefully, by the time my sons are old enough to notice such things, there will be slick black-and-white portraits of both of them on the walls. Maybe, we’ll achieve some form of photographic parity — and maybe we won’t. Maybe Isaac won’t even care. If he does, however, maybe I can show him this entry. Or, maybe, he’ll just have to wait until he has children — if he has children — of his own. When he does — if he does — I know this much: they will be gorgeous.

As I sorted through all the baby photos at my parents’ house all those years ago, my mother began to sift through the pictures. She shuffled through the 90 dozen or so photos of her firstborn as an infant and then looked at me, genuinely surprised, and said, “You know, now I can see it. He wasn’t very good-looking, was he?”

She paused for a moment, looked down at the photo in her hand, and shook her head. “But we still thought he was beautiful.”

Monday, May 26, 2008

Just when I thought I had nothing to say...

... Rowan, thankfully, obliged me by throwing a monster tantrum in Robin’s Donuts. We went, as is the custom, before his Kindermusik class at 5:15. He picks out a doughnut, eats the frosting and some of the other slightly healthier fare we bring along, we go for a pee in the only slightly disgusting washroom, and then we walk across the strip-mall parking lot to music class. It’s a beautiful ritual.

Today, things started well enough, except that the woman behind the counter gave Rowan the vanilla rainbow-sprinkled doughnut at the end of the row, and he wanted the one in the middle. I managed to distract him long enough to get us seated at our usual table, and placed the offending pastry in front of him. “I don’t want this one,” he said, sinking his teeth into the frosting. And I thought he was done. He nibbled at the rainbow sprinkles for a while, ate some goldfish crackers and a dried apricot, and then remembered that he was not done.

“Not this one,” he said, poking at the hunk of fried dough in front of him. “I want the other one.”

“I’m sorry, sweetie,” I said, completely irrationally. “That’s the doughnut we have.”

We repeated this exchange a couple more times with only slight variations, until he swept the doughnut off the table with the back of his hand, and it flew about ten feet in the air and landed on the floor near the display case. Then, to really drive home his point, he ran over to his vanilla rainbow special and kicked it several times before falling onto his knees, sobbing, in front of it, and shredding it with his hands. “What’s he doing?” a little girl at the next table kept asking her mom.

I came over, picked up him and the doughnut, and carried both over to the garbage can, into which I managed to drop the latter.

“I want my doughnut!” shrieked my son. “I need a new doughnut! I need a new one! Huhhhh-huuunh-huunnnh-huuuu-uh-uh-uh!” (“What’s he doing?”)

I held him and nodded and shushed him as he sobbed and snuffled and railed against my chest (“What’s he doing?”), smiled and rolled my eyes at the other patrons, and gathered up our stuff. No visit to the washroom. Never even made it into the Kindermusik lobby, although Rowan did make a spectacular welcoming committee as he sat sobbing in my arms on the stairwell as his various classmates filed past him. (“The exact same thing just happened at our house,” one of the mothers whispered conspiratorially as she guided her daughter down the stairs.)

And then we drove home, Rowan shuddering and eating goldfish crackers in the back seat.

“Mom?” he said, and I steeled myself for another round of doughnut talk. “Mom? Patrick,” — the little boy with whom he shares a babysitter, with whom he’s spent almost every weekday for the past two years and whose dad just got a new job — “Patric is moving to a different city and I don’t want to miss him.”

Poor guy.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Maybe the past four years haven't taken the toll I thought ...

A woman knocked at the door the other day, and when I answered she looked at me and said, “Is your mom or dad home?”

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

There be hormones

Rachel and I watched a movie, Children of Men, a couple of nights ago. It’s a post-apocalyptic, dystopian (is that redundant?) flick set about 20 years into the future. In that world, for reasons no one can fathom, no child has been born for the past 18 years. Until, that is, we happen across Ki, a young woman who is miraculously pregnant. Clive Owen’s character, Theo, is charged with her safety — and, eventually, that of her newborn daughter (whom, of course, he delivers) — against the hordes of evil plotters out to claim Mary and Jesus Ki and baby for their nefarious purposes.

So, the baby is born. The baby is sheltered from gunfire and car crashes and collapsing buildings and the entire British army. Mom and baby finally escape to the forces of good when Theo secures a dinky lifeboat and rows them out to sea to meet some mythical organization called The Human Project. This all takes up about the last 30 minutes of the movie.

During pretty much that entire 30 minutes, the newborn baby cries. Cries in that mewly, urgent, newborn way that newborns do when they are, oh, hungry. She cries and cries and cries, and Ki, the mom, never, ever feeds her. When they're in the rowboat, finally safe, when I'm thinking I can finally relax, Theo suggests to Ki that she might want to pat the baby’s back.

I don't know about the experience of non-breastfeeding folks watching the movie, but for me this was torture. There’s no way to put this delicately: my nipples were going crazy. “Feed her," I hissed at the screen several times: “Feed her.” Finally I told Rachel, “I can't stand it any more. If she doesn't feed that baby soon, I'm going to rip it out of the screen and do it for her.”

Were there no mothers on the film crew that day? Did it occur to anybody in the continuity department that the entire human race depended on this baby’s survival? Have I inadvertently stumbled across a new school of film criticism?

Friday, May 16, 2008


Rowan, as he often does, climbed into bed with me this morning to cuddle. We lay there quietly for a while, me dozing, him singing songs and chatting to himself under his breath (“Clair is my BABYsitter. Clair is my babySITTER. Clair is MY babysitter…”) as he tossed and turned and generally wound his body over and around me and the bed. We did that for about twenty minutes, until he finally turned to face me. He gazed deep into my eyes, took my face gently between his two little hands, regarded me solemnly for a minute or two, and whispered, “What I have in my lunch today?”

Thursday, May 15, 2008

In which sleep “training” takes on a different meaning

Continuing along with my current theme of “bribery,” we seem to have hit upon a solution to Rowan’s night fears. Remember those monsters? The ones that were waking him up at night? So that he woke us up at night — four, five, six times? So that we were so strange with fatigue it felt like we had a newborn in the house again?

What do you do about monsters? I asked. What you do about a three-and-a-half-year-old boy who wakes up frightened in the night and wants his Mommies?

The answer: give him a really good incentive to stay in bed. This occurred to me suddenly on Saturday evening as I lay, dazed, on Rowan’s bed as he jumped onto it from his dresser and back. We had to make staying in bed more attractive than getting out of it, even in the face of monsters.

I racked my brains for that kind of incentive and came up with the jackpot: James. As in James the red train. James of the pack of Really Useful Engines of the Island of Sodor. As in James the toy character who was recalled last year because he was covered in lead paint. Which is why he has been sorely missing from Rowan’s ever-expanding portfolio of Thomas trains.

But now, James is back in production. And, I figured, he just might be Really Useful in this situation.

I ran the idea past Rowan: if you can stay in your bed for five nights — and not wake up Mommies — then James will come to your house. He stopped jumping. A slow smile spread across his face. “Okay,” he said.

We went downstairs to get paper and crayons, and I put my considerable artistic skill to work, copying a picture of James from one of Rowan’s books, and, underneath, drawing pictures of Rowan, Isaac, and Mommies all asleep in our beds. Smiling. We taped the drawing to the wall above Rowan’s bed. And then I drew the numbers one to five above James.

And crossed my fingers. I had no idea whether this would work, whether he had actually grasped the whole concept. We talked about it a lot — how everyone needs to sleep, how Mommies get tired when he wakes us multiple times, things he could do (cuddling his stuffed animals, telling the monsters to go away) to make himself feel better if he woke up at night. But I was skeptical: did he really get it? Even if he did, would he be able to stop himself from coming to get us when he woke up?

That night, we heard him whimpering in his sleep at about 10 p.m., but he quieted on his own. He got out of bed just once, at 4 a.m. — not perfect, but a marked improvement.

Next night, same thing.

Night number 3? He slept through. At 7:30, he called from the top of the stairs “Mom! It was three nights I slept in my bed!”

Same with nights 4 and 5. And this morning, James was waiting for Rowan at the breakfast table. And Rowan was thrilled. And so were we. (In a tiny bit of cosmic coincidence, Isaac — uncharacteristically — slept through as well last night. Yee-ha!)

I know I’ve been talking a bit about bribery in these posts, but in all seriousness, this one strikes me as a bit different. It’s the first time I’ve seen Rowan figure out and work toward a long-term goal. It’s the first time I’ve seen him really empathize with us and change his behaviour accordingly: “I won’t wake you up. I’ll let you sleep.” If a twenty-dollar (unleaded) toy train buys us a good night’s sleep, it’s worth it to me.

People can debate forever the merits and drawbacks of rewarding kids with material things. Used judiciously, I think it’s a fine parenting strategy. In any case, if you want to see some poor parenting strategies, why don’t you just come on over to our house after we haven’t slept for five nights straight? Cuz we’re marvels of parenting then. All aboard!

Friday, May 9, 2008

There be dragons

So, apparently, Rowan got his hands on a stray copy of The Little Kids’ Guide to Archetypal Behaviours and flipped to the section on night terrors. “Ah, monsters,” he must have said, running his finger down the list of chapter headings. “Time to be scared of monsters.”

And so it began. Four nights in a row now, Rowan has woken up multiple times. On Tuesday, I lost count after six times (not including the time when his crying woke Isaac as well). Sometimes, he whimpers and cries out in his sleep; when we go in to check on him, he tosses and turns, sits up and lies down repeatedly, mutters things like, “It’s not my turn,” or “Why are you chasing me?” Other times, he wakes fully, gets out of bed, and pounds on his bedroom door for one of us. “Mommy! A monster blew down my bed!”

We rub his back, tuck him in, go back to bed, and then repeat the entire scenario anywhere from ten minutes to two hours later. Finally, last night at 2 a.m., Rachel said, “I’m sleeping with him. I can’t take it any more.” And that seemed to do the trick.

“You’re having such a hard time sleeping,” I said to him this morning. “What’s wrong?”

“Someping … yes, someping is wrong,” he said, tiny and matter-of-fact in his stripey pyjamas. “I am scared of someping.”

“What are you scared of?”

“I am scared of monsters,” he said.

Monsters. Specifically a monster that shoots fire at him.

“Sounds a lot like a dragon,” I commented.

He nodded. “Yes, a dragon.”

So, what do you do with monsters? There’s no point, I think, in telling him they don’t exist, that the nearest thing in this house to monsters are the zombies that Rachel and I have become after four nights of pretty much no sleep. The monsters aren’t real, but the fear is. And how do you engage with the fear without simultaneously reinforcing the monsters? We’re working on it.

“Are you scared of the monsters?” he asks.

“No,” I’ve been telling him. “I’m not scared of monsters. I have you and This Mom and Isaac to keep me feeling safe.”

In the meantime, I’m so tired that when I tried to write something today, the words on the page sparkled and shimmered like fireworks. Add to this Isaac teething and Rachel coming down with some kind of stomach bug. Our proposed solution, makeshift though it is, is that Rachel will sleep with Rowan until we have enough energy to think about it more clearly or until he grows out of it. Which do you think will happen first?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Baby blues

Rowan is wandering around the house, quietly singing to himself, “Nobody knows the troubles I've seen ...”