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Monthly Archives: January 2012

It Takes a Village

“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

Maya Angelou

***

Fucking carrots.”

I rarely find myself cursing out vegetables, but this is what happened to me two nights ago at 2 AM as I paced the halls, furious at Eliana’s near-hourly night waking.

In Husband’s absence, I’m short on a lot of things: friendship, love, company, sympathy, patience, entertainment. I’m also, as it turns out, short on a scapegoat. And at 2 AM, well, the carrots I fed her for the first time that night, they would have to do.

With Husband away on a business trip, the girls and I are “vacationing” at what my siblings/nieces/nephews and I fondly call “CampGram”, my parents’ home about five minutes away from where we live. For the week that Husband’s gone, I’ve decided to take advantage of my parents’ goodwill (it’s a hobby, really) and the fact that a year and a half ago, we moved out of New York City to New Jersey to be closer to my parents, sisters and their families. This week turns out to be just one of those incredible times that I’m grateful to be so close to “home”.

It doesn’t matter that the house no longer looks the way it did when I was a child—the sounds, the smells, the experience of living with my parents is the same, and I admit enthusiastically, I’m loving re-visiting my childhood and adolescence without the drama of puberty. Staying with my parents is like staying at the Ritz Carlton for the mommy-and-kids-set; the food is outstanding, the accommodations top-notch, the toys phenomenal, and the staff is incredibly friendly, warm, and loving. The turn-down service is impeccable; “Pa” puts Lila to bed, with stories, songs, and cuddles included. Oh, and you can’t beat the rate!

There’s something nearly magical about sleeping in my childhood bedroom again while Lila and Eliana sleep across the hall in my sisters’ old rooms. When I close my eyes at night, the covers conjure memories of other nights I’ve spent in this room: nights before sleep-away camp where I was so nervous and excited I could barely sleep, the night before my wedding, when I consciously remembered it would be my “last night in the nursery” like Wendy in Peter Pan, the nights I snuck my phone into bed with me as a teenager, hoping my parents wouldn’t catch me and my muffled conversations. As a child, I can remember tucking myself under covers, hoarding books, toys, and flashlights, the same way Lila does at my parents’ home, where she has recently fallen asleep clenching a plastic Buzz Lightyear, a barrette, and a necklace. I remember many nights when, after my parents thought we were asleep, Sister #2 and I would throw our stuffed animals across the hall, back and forth to one another, tucking secret written messages into their shirts until our parents noticed that we weren’t sleeping and demanded that the game end.

And as I fall asleep at night here in my childhood home, the sensory experience of the house is even the same as it was when I was living alone with my parents after my older siblings all went to college; CNN blares on the TV, my mother snores softly on the couch in the den as my father enjoys a clandestine rendezvous with ice cream. The heat turns on and off throughout the night, and my mother—the night watch—continues to pace the halls at all hours of the night, the mother of four always on the look-out, even as an “empty-nester” (Let’s face it—with eight grandchildren all in spitting distance, their “empty nest” is more full than it was with four children living in it. I mean, you don’t get the moniker “Camp Gram” by playing mah-jong and getting your hair colored purple in your free time.)

While I enjoy time-traveling to the eighties and nineties of my old life, Lila adores being cradled in the warmth of Gram and Pa, who are able to enjoy my two girls without the chaos of all the other grandchildren around, which is how it usually is. My parents get a kick out of Eliana’s constant kicking—the girl is obviously training for The Chorus Line, pounding her legs in delight in her crib with the enthusiasm of a three-hundred-pound tap-dancer, every morning at5:30 AM sharp. My parents get to see what I see: Eliana as a chatty baby who always wants to be involved in the conversation and tries to shriek her way into it, and Lila, a constant negotiator, who can disarm you with charm and people-savvy. Eliana is getting to know my parents, and my heart just about melts when I see either of the girls snuggling enthusiastically in their arms.

There’s a tinge of sadness, too—I see how much Lila loves being with my parents, and I can’t help but think about the grandparent they girls will never meet, my husband’s mother, whom I never met either. Sometimes I’ll see an expression in their faces that I don’t recognize and wonder, do my children act like her? Are their mannerisms the same? Are these personality quirks or facial expressions ghosts that linger in their genetic codes? What would she think of them? Or me, for that matter? As a wife?  As a mother?

She is with us, even when she’s not.

Because a mother-child relationship is fraught and complex, no matter the age of the people involved. Even as a thirty-one-year-old woman, in living back at “Camp Gram,” I have slipped back into my childhood roles like they are old coats that already know the shape of my body. As a child, I craved my mother’s attention, sought her advice eagerly, laughed at her inability to operate a VCR, relied on her to fill in the gaps and come up with solutions.

And here we are again. She has made my lunch for school. (Yes. Seriously.) She has set a vitamin out on my plate. She has reminded me to get dinner together for the night that she and Dad are going out. She can’t figure out how to get on Facebook despite at least fifty lessons. Truly, Lila can use the computer with more competence than Gram can. That’s not even a joke. Next year, we might have Lila do Turbo-Tax for us.

Technical difficulties aside, though, Gram is ready to stick her hands into this sleep training business, with sleeves rolled up.

***

“Fucking carrots.”

These are the words I mutter as I drag myself down the hall to Eliana’s room to respond to her millionth night waking.

Though the week at Camp Gram had otherwise been an Ellysium of multigenerational love in every other way, Eliana’s sleep was turning out to be a nightmare. Eliana was waking up at night, but instead of ignoring her and shoving earplugs deeper into my ears as I would at my own home (where a good night for her goes from 6:30-4 until she needs to eat again before returning to sleep), I ran to her cry like I was her little bitch so as to avoid waking my parents, who had welcomed us with open arms into their home, but probably not into their REM cycles.

And genius baby that she is, Eliana figured it out.

The night-time wakings began increasing. First every four hours. Then two hours. Was it the fucking carrots that were making her wake up like this?

Suddenly, I’m nursing every two hours or two and a half hours, and it’s like Eliana is six weeks old again.

In the mango glow of the nightlight, here, in my oldest sister’s childhood bedroom, I feel my eyes well up with tears, partly from exhaustion and partly from anger at my own self-sabotage after all Eliana and I have worked through together with sleep training. You can’t please all generations at once, I guess. Out of three generations under one roof, I’m the only one suffering, so I guess I’ll just have to take this one for the team.

Except that all the sleep training I’ve done will be undermined. And then we’ll be back at home, and Husband will be home, and he will go to her because he always goes to her more than I ever did, and we’ll be back at square one, and I’ll have to do it all over again…

I want to cry.

Eliana drifts off into sleep, and as I bring her to the crib, slowly, slowly lowering her body into it, my body aching to go back into bed, her eyes blink wide open, like one of those creepy dolls in a horror movie. Add shrill-like screams.

Awesome.

Nothing, no, nothing could make this worse.

Except, that is, the fact that I’ve woken up Mom.

Shit.

Here we are: both of us awake at 2:45 AM, Mom still in a nightgown reminiscent of the ones I remember her wearing when I was a child. The house feels the same, but instead of my running into my parents’ room with a nightmare or stomachache, Mom is coming into my daughter’s room in her own house.

Legitimately, this feels like the sort of nonsensical, surrealistic dream I would have if I had the luxury of sleeping right now.

Mom’s forehead creases into a “T” between the eyes. “Ariel, what’s wrong?”

“Mom, please. I can handle this. Please go to sleep.” There is begging in my voice.

“It’s okay. She didn’t even wake me.”

“Then why are you awake?”

“I was already up.”

“I didn’t want to wake you.”

“I’m up already.”

Right, Mom, because people just troll the halls at three in the morning looking for a good time.

“Ariel, what’s wrong with her?”

I sigh and try not to cry, but I know Mom can hear it in my voice. “Being here is totally derailing all my sleep training. She knows I’m coming now—she’s expecting me to come any time she whines. I’ve ruined everything.”

Used to my drama, Mom reassures me, “You haven’t ruined everything. She’s not even bothering us, Ariel.”

“She is, I know she is!”

“Just let her cry, Ariel. Honestly, it won’t bother us.”

“I can’t—that’s not right. We’re going to go back home tomorrow.”

“That’s ridiculous! Just stay and LET. HER. CRY.”

Eliana has been listening intently to all of this. Her eyes jump from mine to my mother’s; she is awaiting the verdict.

“And give her Mylicon, Ariel. Did you give her Mylicon yet?”

“No, Mom, she doesn’t need Mylicon—”

Before I can finish my sentence, Mom has already opened up a bottle of Mylicon that has materialized out of thin air and shoved the dropper in Eliana’s mouth. No measurement necessary, apparently; Mom pretty much just dumped a liter straight into Eliana’s mouth, and she is gobbling up its minty goodness with gusto.

“Now put her in the crib, Ariel.”

“She’s going to cry. You’ll see.”

“Then LET. HER. CRY!”

“Are you sure?”

“YES. And tomorrow, we’re putting the bumpers back in the crib. This no-bumpers thing is bullshit.”

I take Eliana and place her into her crib because only a fool battles with a mother at three in the morning, or, more specifically, only a fool battles with my mother at any time of the day, since she is eternally right no matter what.

As I lower her body into the crib, Eliana gives me a look that probably translates to, “Wait—seriously…you’re LEAVING?”

But this ain’t no joke. As I walk out of Eliana’s room, my mom closes the door behind me and puts her hand on my shoulder.

“Now go to sleep and don’t go back to her. Do what you would do at home.”

“Are you sure?”

“YES.”

And the night passes. Miraculously, Eliana doesn’t wake up again. Was it the Mylicon? The last nursing session?

Or was it simply that Eliana finally understood the tenet that governs much of our family’s life: It may take a village, sweetheart, but at the end of the day? You just don’t fuck with Gram.

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Through a Glass Darkly

The house is silent.

Too silent.

And it’s not because the girls are asleep: it’s because Husband is away on a business trip. He left just this afternoon but already, it feels like he’s been gone for two weeks.

The girls are sleeping peacefully upstairs, and I am blissfully alone. Eliana isn’t reaching for my hair with the intent to pull each individual curl out of my skull, which is her most recent hobby. Lila isn’t asking me to help her with a puzzle or how to spell something. There are no sixth graders begging for my attention, no seventh graders making excuses. There are no dishes beckoning me to the sink— I’ve already cleaned up the crusted-over oatmeal bowl, the jar of pears, the plate of half-eaten kid dinner, the eight wrinkled napkins. All the toys are put away. I’ve even cleaned the desk.

I am completely and totally alone in the quiet.

And while I have been waiting for this moment—secretly craving the silence, in fact, for several weeks now—I can’t enjoy it the way I want to. Ironically, in spite of all my wishing for a moment alone, all my bitching to Husband about how I just want to be alone for a little bit, the reality is that right now, all I really want is to hear the sound of Husband walking through the door, to feel the rush of cold air following him as he comes up the stairs inside to our home—a home that suddenly doesn’t feel that much like home at all without him in it.

After his amazing month and a half hiatus from business trips, I’d grown used to—and spoiled by—the comfortable new rhythm of our family’s life. Having fed the girls, bathed them, and having put Eliana to bed, Lila and I would savor a luxurious long bedtime routine together as we waited for Daddy, like clockwork, to come through the door at 7:15. At 7:16 each night, Husband would shed his suit for jeans and come into Lila’s room, and we’d pass her off, from me to him, like she was a baton in a race. Our eyes would catch one another’s for maybe a second before I eagerly headed downstairs to enjoy my only fifteen minutes to myself all day. From downstairs, I’d relax, “doing nothing” as Husband routinely requested, listening to the Norman Rockwell sounds of Lila and Husband’s voices upstairs as they chatted together contentedly about each other’s days. If I could bottle one sound in my life and return to it forever, the sound of their voices at bedtime—even without knowing what they’re saying—that’s it. It’s the sound I’d keep.

So now, the irony isn’t lost on me that finally, FINALLY, I am alone for more than fifteen minutes, but as it turns out, fifteen minutes is really all I ever needed.

***

            There is no doubt that having a baby—one, two, three, four, nineteen—changes a marriage. More specifically, in my opinion, having children makes the marriage more of what it is. Children are the magnifying glass to your marriage that suddenly enables you to see all of what your marriage is and all of what it isn’t. Under magnification, what was once merely beautiful becomes radiant. Suddenly, minor irritations become open wounds.

As we look back, Husband and I often “joke” (in quotations, because, well, is it really a joke?) that the six months after Lila was born were impossible. Lila’s sleep was a disaster, and we both quickly learned that with only two or three consistent hours of sleep a night, neither one of us was very pleasant. Life moved at a staggeringly slow pace; even as we truly enjoyed Lila’s babyhood and tried to get our heads around the fact that we had created this completely amazing human, each moment seemed to last about ten minutes long because we were so tired. By the time Lila turned six months old, we both felt we had aged about six years in the same time.

BUT.

We had done it together. One of us had always come to the rescue when the other parent was sucked into a feeding that was taking too long. When Lila was upset for reasons we couldn’t figure out, we both tried to sleuth our way to the answer. That first time we had to shove a rectal thermometer up there, we were standing side by side, lubing up the thermometer with Vaseline, laughing and repulsed together. When she explosively shat all over the changing table and the floor right after, neither one of us ran away.

As we grew into Lila, we grew into each other as parents, and our marriage became more of what it had always been.

Before Children, I had always been outgoing, always craving the spotlight. I was organized, resourceful and anxious with a penchant for exaggeration, a flair for drama and an inclination towards hypochondria. (To the amusement and irritation of Husband, I have never had a broken nose, a concussion, or hearing loss—due to what I felt was an earplug I shoved too far in my ear—though I have seen doctors and even specialists—for all three.)

Before Children, Husband had always been upbeat, open-minded and optimistic. His face has been in a perpetual smile since we first met when we were seventeen. He was messy, yes—clothing has never once remained folded. Generally speaking, he lived life quickly. He was always on the go, learning something new, trying something different. He was pragmatic. Practical. A people-person to the umpteenth power. Always ready with a solution or an idea.

Before Children, I was merely neurotic. I have become significantly more neurotic as a parent: about routine, bedtime, sleep-training, introducing foods, packing things, being prepared. My fixation with doing things EXACTLY as I envision they need to be done can infuriate Husband; he is not a mind reader—he doesn’t know how to cater to my neuroses, how to anticipate what needs to be done. (In my defense, a full laundry basket, I think, is pretty self-explanatory.) And even if he could anticipate and read my mind, he wouldn’t do chores the way I want them done. Which means I am setting myself up for irritation and frustration with him and him with an understandable reluctance to try and inevitably fall short. It’s a losing scenario that I suspect many husbands find themselves in.

And on the flip side, Husband’s messiness has multiplied with the existence of our children. The messes that once were contained behind closed doors and closed drawers have increased because now there are two additional people to deal with, and there is little time for Husband to remedy his own messes since “free” time is generally filled with meeting little people’s needs. And while I don’t feel that Eliana and Lila’s messes should be solely my responsibility, if I can’t handle the way Husband cleans up, then I can’t really complain about it, can I? Oh, rest assured, I can!

Enter angry fight about seemingly nothing, stage left. Drizzle in some resentment; add a healthy spoonful of silent seething. Half a cup of general irritation and frustration. Enjoy leftovers for days!

At moments like these, the ugly versions of ourselves become manifest, highlighted under the magnifying glass of children.

But thankfully, the magnificent parts of who we are become magnified, too. Both Lila and Eliana have perpetual smiles on their faces; this is from watching Daddy, who never stops smiling, no matter what life throws him. When Husband comes home from work and I’m exhausted, he is cheerful and enthusiastic, swooping in to lift Lila off her feet, metaphorically and literally. I crave the spotlight, yes, but as a parent, this means that we have some pretty phenomenal finger puppet theater here on a near daily basis. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen my fingers working Bert and Ernie finger puppets through a thrilling—and yes, I’ll say it, titillating—rendition of “The Heat is on in Saigon” from Miss Saigon; my work with a finger puppet bear-prince version of Valjean singing “Who Am I?” from Les Miserables is nearly as impressive.) Even my hypochondria has come in handy, as we rightfully ended up at a pulmonologist lately, who diagnosed Lila as asthmatic—and thank god, she is finally sleeping through the night without coughing now that she has medication. (God bless Albuterol.)

Children make us more of who we are, for better or for worse.

And, now, here, in my free night, my first night entirely alone in longer than I can remember, I can’t help but miss Husband– the person who makes me more of who I am as much as my children do, and who loves me in spite of– and maybe just a little bit because of– my flaws.

Only one week until he gets home.

 

 

 

Life in Endor

I have begun to dress like an Ewok. And I’m pretty sure it is a direct result of childbirth and motherhood.

I only really had the epiphany about my Ewok-status about two weeks ago, when I realized that every shirt currently in my wardrobe has the distinct asymmetrical bag appearance that those Ewoks’ hoodies had. It doesn’t matter what store the shirt came from—all the shirts I have purchased since I Eliana-ed are basically big, bulbous asymmetrical bags in a various assortment of colors, occasionally with bat-wing-like arm-holes. I wear them with leggings and boots. When I’m not teaching, this is my uniform.

As it turns out, it’s hard to coordinate date night for us, but I’m usually dressed and ready to go to a bar on Tatooine.

If you are reading this, it’s likely that you or someone you know has recently had a baby. It is also likely that, no matter how far away that woman is from childbirth, she has been struggling with her physical self-image in some way, usually in the dark of a closet somewhere or behind closed doors, when she has all of three minutes to look in the mirror as she dresses herself before a baby or child needs her to do something super important like de-booger a nose or find an obscure, piece-of-shit toy that she should’ve thrown out because it’s probably made in China and covered in arsenic and lead paint. When she looks in the mirror, desperate to get dressed because motherhood does not afford the luxury of getting dressed slowly, she notices that shirts that were once normal looking have inexplicably become shrinky-dinks. Pants that used to fit and look good are mocked by the smug sneer of persistent muffin top that—due to karma—is resistant to sit-ups. And don’t get me started on the somewhat fitted normal shirts we once wore. Au revoir. Personally, I’d rather filet myself than wear one (and, if I did filet myself, they might actually fit me better).

It’s not even the number on the scale that upsets me; I am only 3 pounds up from pre-pregnancy weight. It’s the look of it on my body, in spite of going to the gym and in spite of training for and running a 5K.

This happens to be a very sad, solitary way to start the day each morning, this spotlight on the body. Mercy, in fact, is provided only by a schedule that necessitates less self-indulgence because there are little people who need breakfast, help getting dressed, their beds made, and to have fights with about why they cannot bring four types of Chapstick to school or why it is socially unacceptable to wear thirteen barrettes in your hair. But yet somehow, every day, in the eight minutes I have to myself to get dressed each morning, I find myself shaken by how different my body looks. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I supported life. Yeah, yeah, nine months in, nine months out. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you do the crime, you do the time. Yes, I know: I’m really unspeakably lucky to have had not one child, but two—and so easily!—and yes, I know, this is just a really bitchy, selfish, entitled, spoiled and horrid thing to think about.

But still. I think.

And when I see myself in the mirror—and see the pudgy tummy that once so proudly held babies in it—the weight stares me down, pulling me down with it.

Just this morning, I patted the softness of my belly before I pulled on some tights. To Husband, I said, “Seriously. Look at this.”

To which he responded, “Yeah, well, look at this,” and patted his belly the same way.

Nothing like belly-fat camaraderie between two lovers.

Tilting my head in the mirror, I sighed, “I just hate the way my stomach looks.”

Lila walks into our bedroom and sizes me up. She tilts her head just as I tilted mine and asks, “Because it’s just a little big, Mommy?”

THANKS.

In fairness, I have no interest in taking physical body/fashion critique from a three-year-old who chooses to wear a clip-on feather in her hair, but still. Not yet savvy in social nuance, the girl can’t lie about what she sees and what Mommy looks like to her.

Meanwhile, muffin top or not, life goes on, and the irony is not lost on me that as I ache for my body to look better, I relish watching the numbers going up on the scale for Eliana as she grows into a real person.

Because this week, Eliana turns six months old. She is now a full-fledged fabulous baby: the gurgles are constant, her endless babbling of consonants giving us a steady stream of baby consciousness that is probably more lucid than Faulkner ever was. As Eliana babbles “Da-da-da-da-da-da,” Lila smiles and jumps with delight but then says, “Hey! Stop calling me Daddy! I’m LILA!”

And in spite of Lila’s frequent chastisement and the distinct similarity of Eliana’s baby cereal to spackle, Eliana seems to be enjoying every second of life. And every time I feed her cereal, though its pasty, glue-y appearance forces me to fight the urge to drywall something, I enjoy watching her enjoy food for the first time.

In the coming weeks, we’ll teach Eliana how to eat more than cereal-glue. And if Lila’s babyhood is any indication, Eliana will savor apples and explore the moisturizing effects that squash can have on her scalp. She will shove her whole hand in her mouth and squeal with joy as she devours those first peaches, licking each finger as she samples their summer sweetness. She will channel William Carlos Williams as she enjoys plums, her face suggesting they were “so sweet and so delicious”. She will guide my soft-tipped spoon into her mouth quickly, eagerly pulling the spoon closer in anticipation of what new treasure will tickle her taste buds. And I will smile, thinking ahead to all the meals we will share together as a family, looking forward to all the delicious moments ahead of us, both gustatory and emotional.

But as I continue to feed both of my girls, I’ll also be reminded that while they see the food on their plates, they will also see me, Mommy, and my reaction to my food on my plate, my body, and how I look. And like it or not, they will do what they see. So when Mommy frowns at her reflection in the mirror, this too will become a learned behavior. When Mommy tries something on and throws it to the floor in self-loathing, that too will be internalized by my perennial peanut gallery.

I may not like how I look, but the idea of creating that kind of legacy is a much harder weight for me to bear.

Which means from this day forth, I am sad Ewok no longer.

Muffin top or not, if it will enable my girls to have positive body images, I’m going to be the proudest Ewok in Endor.