Tuesday, May 31, 2011

When Three's a Crowd

Naturally in any triangle of human relationships someone is bound to feel left out. When it came to my relationship with Stewart and Max, however, it never crossed my mind that this concept would directly apply to me! When I am alone with Max he gazes at me like I am his one and only. But whenever Stewart enters the room, I suddenly become chopped liver in Max’s eyes and he only has time for his papa. At first, I championed Max’s fondness for Stewart. I loved that Max would smile, get all giddy, and make his way immediately over to Stewart when he came home from work. First off, Stewart is an excellent dad and deserves all the recognition that Max can give him. Secondly, it is an easy way to pass Max off to Stewart at the end of the day so that I can have some time for myself.

Over the past month or so though I’ve lost my benevolent attitude towards Max’s behavior, because his preference for Stewart has grown beyond my limits! These days, when Stewart tries to hand Max over to me after they have spent time together, Max starts wailing and reaching out for his papa. When Max is with me in one room of the apartment, and knows that Stewart is somewhere else in the apartment, he will crawl his way to whatever room Stewart is in. And there is a game that Max likes to play that is particularly disheartening. When Max is being held by Stewart and people come up to them -- family members, friends or even random strangers -- Max will reach out his hands, motioning them to take him from Stewart; but, just as they are about to do so, Max turns into a big tease, yanking his hands away and turning in the opposite direction. I used to think this game was sort of entertaining, until I became the main target!

I will admit that my feelings get hurt, especially given that I am the stay-at-home parent who spends all day with the kid, entertaining him, feeding him, changing his diapers, soothing him and looking after his many other needs. I had been in a complete state of denial that Max would ever favor one of his parents over the other -- but especially over me given how much of this daily love and sacrifice I dispense! I mean, come on folks, how many kids get to spend their days with a cool fun dad like me?!

Fortunately, Max’s favoritism of Stewart is not personal, but rather a perfectly normal phase of childhood. In a recent poll at Parents.com, more than 90 percent of mothers and fathers said that their children favored one parent over the other at some point.  Indeed, favoritism is considered healthy behavior for an emerging toddler. According to Parenting magazine:
Playing favorites is actually a sign of emotional and cognitive growth. It helps your child explore relationships and intimacy, exercise her decision-making skills, and assert her independence.
It is also not unusual for a one year old to favor the working parent, who is not with the child all day, over the stay at home parent. In other words, all of my nurturing of Max that I thought would beholden him to me is apparently working against me! Basically, he’s taken me for granted – a good way for a baby to feel, for sure. Stewart, meanwhile, leaves Max at least every weekday morning, so Max is naturally more clingy to him when he is around, since Stewart’s companionship is not as much of a given in Max’s mind.

I’ve also learned that a child will go through phases of favoring one parent for a spell, and then switching 180 degrees and preferring the other parent instead. For example, check out these mothers in an on-line parenting forum complaining about their husbands being favored when their kids were one year olds, and the encouragement back from other moms to wait it out because soon enough the shoe will be on the other foot!  And I have to admit that this has been our experience. When Max was three or four months old, Stewart used to come home from work and complain that Max would only look at me and not him. I would say I think you’re imagining things, but secretly I was a little happy about it since I was spending all this time with Max and appreciated the recognition from him.

I hope Stewart is more mature than me and is not secretly enjoying the current period of time of being the favorite, however long it might be. Because it isn’t fun. Despite knowing in my head all that I mentioned above about why I shouldn’t feel shame about being the odd man out with Max, I still do. I am not exactly sure why, but it is probably because I spend most of my days with Max and still feel a little rejected by him. All I can tell myself is that just as it is a natural phase for him to sometimes act as he does, it is also natural for me to sometimes feel disheartened by it. But I am not complaining, because one thing that is constant throughout all of Max’s temporary phases is how much I love him, and how much I know he loves me back.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Complete Tales of Stew and Pooh

In my last post I wrote about Max’s affection for board books, and promised a future post about our favorite books to read together. But one book stands out so much that I thought it made sense to dedicate an entire post to it.

As you can surmise from the post’s title, I’m talking about Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh and I have had a long relationship. I was a dreamy child who would happily while away countless hours alone in my bedroom concocting elaborate interactions among my dozens of stuffed animals. They all had names and they all liked to play games with me. But first of course they had to go to school, which consisted of rows of desks I fashioned from hardcover books laid sidewise. They each had homework that they wrote on scraps of paper that they kept under the front covers of their desks. I was the teacher and homework-grader, and while some of the stuffed animals were better students than others, they loved school and their teacher and they especially loved recess.

So naturally as a young child I gravitated to books about personified animals. I loved The Velveteen Rabbit, The Wind and the Willows, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and of course Winnie-the-Pooh. I certainly related to Winnie-the-Pooh’s Christopher Robin, who in the books bemusedly oversees the foibles of his menagerie of stuffed animals and is always there to swoop in at the last moment to extract them from their usually self-made predicaments. I was the Christopher Robin for my own collection of stuffed animals and they were just as lovable and prone to pickles as Pooh, Piglet, Roo, Tigger and the other animals roaming Hundred Acre Wood. (As an aside, I will admit that I was completely confused as a child as to why Christopher Robin wore a blouse and wore Mary Janes on his feet. I couldn’t decide if it was more likely that a girl was named Christopher or that a boy actually dressed and went out in public like that!)

While, like any child, I eventually outgrew Winnie-the-Pooh, the series has periodically re-surfaced in my life in delightfully unexpected ways.

When I was in high-school I took a class about the world religions. The teacher took great pains to tout the wisdom of the Eastern religions to us over what he considered to be the oppressive nature of the Western religions -- much to the consternation of his entirely Judeo-Christian class of students, who had yet to reach the level of maturity required to appreciate the pedagogical benefits of an alternative point of view. We thought he was a witch-doctor. In that class our teacher introduced us to the Tao of Pooh, a book by Benjamin Hoff that endeavors to introduce the principles of Taoism to Westerners through the accessible vehicle of the Winnie-the-Pooh series. As explained by Wiki:

Hoff uses many of Milne's characters to symbolize ideas that differ from or accentuate Taoist tenets. Winnie-the-Pooh himself, for example, personifies the principles of wei wu wei, the Taoist concept of "effortless doing," and pu, the concept of being open to but unburdened by experience. In contrast, characters like Owl and Rabbit over-complicate problems, often over-thinking to the point of confusion, and Eeyore pessimistically complains and frets about existence, unable to just be. Hoff regards Pooh's simpleminded nature, unsophisticated worldview and instinctive problem-solving methods as conveniently representative of the Taoist philosophical foundation.

Who knew? Given that my world religions class was in a permanent state of near-rebellion, assigning the class the Tao of Pooh was a brilliant move by our teacher. What teenager could resist reading Winnie the Pooh at the dinner table and sassing back to his exasperated parents that he’s simply finishing his homework?

But my academic foray into the House at Pooh Corner did not stop there. In college I took a small freshman seminar on existential literature. We read Sartre and his lover de Bouvier; we read Camus. The class just screamed “college” and I loved it. For our final paper we were tasked with applying existential theories to some form of popular art. One classmate applied existentialism to Pink Floyd’s The Wall; another to Madonna’s “Material Girl” video. I applied it to Winnie-the-Pooh -- or, more specifically, a poem by A.A. Milne that featured the classic Winnie-the-Pooh characters. (Sadly I cannot remember the title or find it on-line). My paper was ominously called “Childhood: Enter at Your Own Risk,” and was about how while the popular conception of childhood is of care-free frivolity, in actuality, for the child, it is an anxious time of fear and uncertainty -- and thus childhood is like existential literature (cue eye-roll, I know, but work with me here!) Exhibit A for my paper was a Milne poem from a dusty tome I found in the Vanderbilt University library in which the Pooh characters were experiencing their typical angst over some pickle they had gotten themselves into. The kicker was that the poem ended with the characters bemoaning their fate and how they wish Christopher Robin would come bail them out . . . but the poem just ends and he never shows up! (Just like Waiting for Godot!). You’ll have to trust me, but the paper was brilliant and I got an A.

Fast forward to commencement weekend 3 years later. My roommate and I are in our room packing up our gear to head home. Lo and behold on my bookshelf I find the very book of poetry that I had checked out freshman year and that naturally had never made its way back to the library. Upon seeing it, I bragged to my roommate about the wildly successful Pooh paper I wrote freshman year, and cracked open the book to show it to him. My roommate began reading the poem, with me reading over his shoulder, and when he got to the end of it he tried to turn the page -- but it was a little stuck to the next page. He slid his pinkie in-between, dislodging them, and flipped over the page. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the poem continued on the other side! I had completely missed the final stanza due to the sticky page! I read along with him in dawning horror as the poem concluded with Christopher Robin indeed coming to the rescue of his little animal friends. In other words, the poem that I had proudly made the centerpiece of my freshman paper about the hopelessness of childhood completely undermined its central thesis. Not to mention that I had defrauded my professor. My A grade instantly turned from a source of pride into a mockery. I was seriously unnerved, as I was graduating that weekend with honors in English and a not small part of my self-esteem at the time was wrapped up in this accomplishment. My roommate just laughed. He was a mechanical engineer. Coincidentally, the English Department was having a cocktail party that evening for all of the senior classes’ English majors and their families. I knew my seminar professor was going to be there and I debated whether or not to tell him. I hadn’t officially graduated yet. Could he change my grade ex post facto? Strip me of my honors? Prevent me from graduating? Absurd through and through, of course. My professor was an incredibly nice man and would have gotten a kick out of it. But still . . . I didn’t tell him.

Now fast-forward 15 years. Your surrogate is pregnant with your child and suggests that you and your husband read aloud to the fetus. A natural reaction to this suggestion might have been, “Say What?” Mine was: Let’s choose Winnie-the-Pooh! You see, we learned very early on in our journey with our surrogate Christie that she knows what she is talking about when it comes to pregnancy (and a lot of other things) that we just . . . don’t know. Christie told us that our baby could hear voices from the outside world starting around six months in utero, and would be able to recognize them once he was born.  So she suggested that we tape ourselves reading a book that she could then periodically play aloud for the baby for the remainder of her pregnancy so that he would feel comfortable with our voices once he was born.

It was a very sweet and thoughtful gesture that Jacob and I enthusiastically embraced. We bought the Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh, a digital recorder, and -- get this -- “belly buds” for Christie, which are headphones designed specifically to be adhesed to a pregnant woman’s stomach so that the sound from them is targeted directly into the womb. Seriously. I have learned not to be surprised by anything I see that is marketed towards hormonal pregnant women. That Christie humored us and agreed to use them should alone qualify her for sainthood!

Jacob and I had a great time taking turns reading Winnie-the-Pooh to Max via a digital recorder and emailing the files down to Atlanta for Christie to download onto her ipod. I got surprisingly emotional during the process, and several times had to stop the tapings. Even though Max was over 700 miles away, reading to him was an incredibly intimate experience and brought Max right into our apartment with us. I felt like a parent for the first time, and that is a feeling that Jacob and I had been dreaming about for a long time. That Max’s very first story from his daddies was Winnie-the-Pooh completes a special circle for me that started when I was a little child with a room full of stuffed animals. I know I’ll be romping in Pooh’s Hundred Acre Woods with Max for many years to come, and I hope he gets as much out of the series as I have.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Number Sixteen

My good friend Joy wrote one of the most popular -- and important -- posts to be featured on Gaddy Daddy, so it was a no-brainer to invite her back to share more of her insights on parenting.  Naturally, her new post is once again beautifully written and thought-provoking.  Thanks Joy, and to my readers: enjoy it!

When I went into labor, I packed a bag full of entirely useless things: a few of my nicer maternity outfits to wear at the hospital when guests came to visit; makeup, so I’d look my best in the first picture of me with my son; shampoo for the shower. Needless to say to anyone who has ever had a baby, I didn’t use any of these items. I did not change out of the hospital gown until I went home, and if I could have worn it on the streets of New York City and into the car, I would have. Not only did I not wear makeup in the hospital, my mascara had dried up by the time I unscrewed the cap again months later. As for the shampoo, I didn’t shower for nearly a week, and from the look of my fellow patients on the maternity ward, neither did they. I could hardly stand upright, let alone consider washing myself. And after a while, my hair was so dirty that it naturally molded itself into a ponytail on top of my head. I hardly even needed a rubber band.

I did bring one right thing, though: my grandmother’s diamond earrings. I put them on before I left for the hospital, and I wore them for nearly the entire year after my son was born. Before becoming a mother, I was a dangly-earring kind of person. Because I’m tall with a long neck, I always thought larger earrings helped balance me out. And even though I knew a newborn wouldn’t have the coordination to reach up and pull a big earring, it just seemed more practical to wear studs. I think it also occurred to me that my grandmother’s earrings might bring me some of the strength for which she was renowned.

My grandmother was not a “grandmother” in the traditional baking-cookies sense. And by that I mean that she did not like children. It wasn’t something her ten grandchildren were meant to take personally; from my mother’s reports, she hadn’t particularly liked her four daughters when they were children, either. “I think she liked me better when I got a driver’s license,” my mother has told me. “Because then I could be useful to her.”

My grandmother wasn’t a mean or neglectful mother; she just wasn’t particularly warm and cuddly. She didn’t negotiate with children; her word was the final word. My mother and her twin sister were dressed identically until they were fourteen years old, despite their different heights, appearances, and tastes. They were not allowed to have their own friends because once while my mother was on a playdate, my aunt cried for the entire time she was gone. My mother has told me many times that she would sit at the piano practicing for hours while my grandmother was in another room, presumably listening. My mother would call out, “Was that good, Mommy? Was that good?” hoping for the praise that rarely came.

My grandmother was entirely unsentimental. She thought toys were dust collectors, and when my mother and her twin sister were ten years old, she forced them to give their prized china dolls to their young niece. My cousin Marcy had no interest in dolls; she was a horse girl. My mother mourned the loss of her beloved Linda, whose lashed eyes closed when you tilted her back and who said “Mama” when you tiled her upright. My mother’s own grandmother, who was the warm and cuddly type, had made a wardrobe of clothes for Linda, which my mother packed up one day at her mother’s order, along with Linda, to give to Marcy. I can only imagine that my mother (also the warm and cuddly type) was devastated to part with Linda, and her pain was compounded when, a few weeks later, on a visit to my cousin’s house, she found Linda lying in the front yard. Linda was naked and her china face was cracked because she had been left out in the sun.

Given these and other stories about what I perceived to be my grandmother’s heartlessness (Pinky, my mother’s pink bear that went missing one day, blamed on the housekeeper; the Ginny doll, there one morning and gone when my mother returned home from school), and my own experiences with her when I was a child (which largely consisted of her coming to visit on weekends and going shopping with my mother while I was left at home with my grandfather, who chain-smoked and watched the Red Sox at top volume), I had never really sought to emulate her. But now that I have become a parent, I find myself doing just that.

My grandmother never freaked out. Ever. She rarely if ever complained. She was rock solid. My grandmother was honest. She told it like it was; she didn’t worry about other people’s feelings, even though sometimes her directness hurt people. One time it hurt me. I was riding in the car with my parents and my grandmother when I was in college. My grandmother was talking about the beauty of a cousin of mine. “My Joy is beautiful, too,” my mother said, to stroke my ego, or her own. It was meant to be a rhetorical statement, but my grandmother didn’t let it go. “No,” she said, shaking her head back and forth. “Joy has other attributes, but Rachel is the beautiful one.” She didn’t seem to realize—or care—that I was right there, in the seat behind her. My grandmother didn’t say things just to be nice. She said what she believed. To my mother, beauty is the ultimate goal. “You look like a model,” is her highest praise. To my grandmother, beauty is just one thing a person may or may not have.

When a member of the family was going through a hard time, my mother would often tell me she and her sisters had decided not to tell my grandmother, in order to spare her the worry. I always thought the energy they put into protecting my grandmother was wasted. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about us; she just didn’t express that care by agonizing.

When she was older and started experiencing health problems, I would often ask her how she was feeling. Ask my mother or me how we are feeling when we’re unwell and you’re in for a detailed explanation of our symptoms, what the specialists say, what treatments we have done and what we plan to do next, and so forth. But my grandmother never provided much detail. “I’m doing what the doctors tell me to do, dear,” she would say. And then she’d move on.

Moving on was, in my opinion, the key to her longevity. She lived into her nineties. She never had a career. She didn’t have many hobbies, although when she was younger, she had knit each of her daughters a blanket (same pattern, different colors). Ours was brown, yellow, and orange. For some reason, it always surprised me to see its red, white, and blue twin at my aunt’s house.

She wasn’t a particularly effervescent person, but she wasn’t a morose person either. She was consistent and steady. She liked what she liked: round tables at restaurants so she could see everybody; hair pulled back from the faces of her granddaughters; lipstick, both on herself and on all other women; butterscotch candies; really hot tea.

Last week I removed by grandmother’s earrings from my ears and put them back in the cloth-covered red box in which they were given to me. I replaced them with little silver circles, also studs. They were a Mothers’ Day present, and I think I’ll wear them almost every day for the next year, maybe longer. They’re more “me” than the diamonds were, really. But I’m glad I was wearing my grandmother’s diamonds when my son came into the world. He would have been her sixteenth great-grandchild (she called them her “grands”). She softened in her older age and to her grands, she was kinder and more accessible. They even called her “Grammy,” which always struck me as odd since she was really more of a “Grandma,” or even “Grandmother.” I think if she had lived to see number sixteen’s heart-melting smile, it would have melted her heart, even just a little.

My son is just about to turn one year old, and I hope as he grows I can weave some of my grandmother’s fortitude into my own parenting style. I don’t think I’ll ever make him give away his beloved stuffed dog Woof Woof, but I want to be strong for him. Unbreakable.