Party Boy

We threw a first birthday party for Owen on Saturday.

As usual, he was a gracious host, all smiles and giggles. I must confess that I didn’t spend that much time with him at the party. He was so surrounded by loving adults, teens, and children, that I felt free to chat with my friends and family. At one point, my dad asked me where Owen was, and I confessed I had no idea – but I wasn’t worried. He was among friends:

What I think I was most impressed with was that he took the time to look at and smile at every present that came his way. I would have expected him to grow bored with the barrage of bags and cardboard boxes, but he was engaged and delighted with his new toys. He even took great pleasure in a picture frame, spending a couple of minutes cooing at the stock photo insert.

He ate cake (not quite his first time, since there are birthday parties at daycare, but almost). He quite liked cake.

It was a great day.

A Second Childhood?

When we have babies, we fully expect to have to take care of them, right? To change their diapers, to feed them, to calm them when they’re grumpy or sad, to make them laugh, to shield them from harm (as much as we can). But as I have been discovering this week, the expectations are really different when it comes to looking after the elderly.

Duncan’s elderly relative (whom we love dearly) fell on Saturday and couldn’t get up by herself. Her neighbour sounded the alarm when she noticed that she hadn’t picked up her newspaper by the regular hour. She was sent to hospital, where she was diagnosed with a cracked elbow and a broken hip. Or, should I say, misdiagnosed – since as it turned out the next day, no bones were fractured. She was also pumped full of an opiate that caused her to hallucinate dogs and cats in the emergency room and to confuse the floor with the ceiling.

Too weak to walk by herself, she was sent to a temporary rehabilitation facility, a beautiful place that looks more like a hotel than a hospital. The whole family breathed a sigh of relief: finally a place where she could rest and get stronger and (we thought to ourselves and discussed amongst ourselves) where she might be convinced to move to a senior’s residence.

This woman has no children. She has nieces in B.C. and Nova Scotia, but Duncan and I are her nearest relatives. As we quickly discovered at the rehab facility, that means we’re “family” – responsible for buying her toiletries, for bringing her clothes from home, and for answering the doctor’s questions. It’s a responsibility we are willing to undertake, but it’s complicated by the fact that we know so little about her or her affairs, and because we lack the strong, tough love of immediate families.

Fiercely independent all her life, She has become increasingly frustrated with her lack of control. She declared to me this morning (I had dropped by to bring her some mail, some more clothes, and her cane) that she would only speak to blood relatives from now on. Then she proceeded to talk to me for an hour about how she was going home (by 4:45 today). That if it meant that she climbed the 12 steps to the second floor for the last time, she would do it. That she would do it with or without my help. That she would rather lie in the same clothes in her own urine and feces than to stay in this place. Her imagery.

And I get it. I do understand what she’s saying. I tried to explain that I know that she wants to go home, yet I don’t think she’s strong enough to walk out the door of her room. Is it her right to go to a familiar place to die? She’s not even dying, though she certainly might if left in her apartment by herself.

Yesterday she offered to pay Duncan to look after her (I don’t think she understands how much help she needs), but Duncan’s not willing and, frankly, doesn’t have time. In trying not to be a burden, she is being (unwittingly) selfish. But does she have the right to go and die on her own if she really wants to? Apparently not. I’m just so confused and frustrated.

I told the head nurse on my way out that if she needs it, I have the key to her apartment. But I told the receptionist that if she sees an old lady in a hospital gown trying to leave, to please stop her.

We try to keep our children safe because they don’t know any better. But what of the elderly? What if they don’t want to be safe? Do we let them fall?


Dear Owen,

Whew! You made it! You’re one. One of the most marvellous things ever to enter our lives. You shook your father and I out of our complacency, gave us another reason to try and fix the world, opened up channels of compassion and communication. You are one. One transformative little fellow.

When you were born, my very first thought was Oh my God I gave birth to my father. You were hairy, really knew what you wanted, and seemed determined to get it. Then, as we introduced you to people, they all reported different resemblances: you looked like my brother Luke, Duncan’s dad Jim, Duncan’s granddad Tom, Duncan himself, and me of course. I would sit in our nursing chair upstairs and compare your fingers to mine. Your toes to mine. Your chubby legs to mine. I learned to appreciate my own legs for the first time by loving yours so much.

But gradually, of course, we realized that you are none of those people. You are unmistakably yourself, a perfect mix of everyone who came before, forged into the new and wonderful bundle of Owen. You are more gregarious than either of your parents and have made us friendlier. You find joy in everything around you and your crooked grin is incredibly infectious. You have made us realize that we are better parents than we thought we would be (because you make it so easy, so fun). You have made us into a family. Thank you.

I so look forward to your new words, steps, gestures, and discoveries. I can’t wait to see what the world will look like through your deep brown eyes (just like mine, only with a vision all your own). I am excited to watch you and to help you grow.

Happy birthday, my munchkin.


You Say Goodbye and I Say Hello

Owen’s first word is “bye-bye.” Not Mama, Dada, Ball, Book, Cat, or Hippopotamus. I actually had a guilt pang about this yesterday (does he feel like we’re always leaving him?), which I quickly got over (he says and/or waves bye-bye for hello as well as goodbye, and says it repeatedly as he crawls across the room, turning around for a confirmation “bye-bye” before grinning and crawling another couple of feet.)

I was at a party on Saturday night with a whole bunch of childless people. I don’t know if they want kids or not, but there seemed to be a lot of apprehension over losing your entire life if you happen to be caught in the black hole of  parenthood. (The unknown can be a scary place for a grown-up*).

One question that came up (as it so often does) is whether I like being back at work. The answer: an unqualified YES. This answer shocks people. Really? But you must have a good daycare. Yes, I do. But don’t you miss him? Not really… I don’t. I don’t miss him when he’s napping or down for the night, either. I don’t miss him when Duncan takes him out for a run. I feel weird about this, because it seems to be taboo to admit that you don’t pine for your baby when you’re away from him. I look forward to seeing him, but I don’t think that’s the same thing.

I went back to work when Owen was 7 months old. Was I ready any earlier? Absolutely not. Was it difficult at times? Of course. But overwhelmingly, my return to work was a relief. It was a return to the person I was before I had Owen, a person I had, quite frankly, missed. I enjoyed teaching, reading, talking to students and colleagues, and I also enjoyed picking Owen up from daycare at the end of the day for a jaunt to the park or a walk or an hour of playtime before dinner.

At my staff party last week, a couple of my colleagues admitted that they’d felt the same way. Another friend of mine has always insisted that she is not cut out to be a stay-at-home mother. And of course I know others who love spending every day with their kids. For me, though, daycare has been miraculous.

I still want to clarify that I love having a child and that I am not racing to be away from him every day. Owen is a giggling, squishy bundle of sunshine who radiates joy onto his surroundings. I think I could spend every single day with him (and never crave daycare’s breaks) if I had another adult around all the time. Part of what I found difficult in the early days with Owen was the profound isolation I felt. The good days were always the days I’d had coffee with a friend, or lunch with family. The difficult days were the days I spent alone with Owen. Some days I would go to the drugstore just to have a conversation with a grown-up. It didn’t even matter if Owen was having a good day or a bad day. It was just the long lonely stretch of having only a baby to talk to. It’s not the baby. It’s the loneliness – it’s free time that you can’t occupy with any of the normal things you do to relieve boredom.

Owen is at daycare as I write this. He happily waved goodbye when I left… because I think he knew he would see me soon.

* Scaredy Squirrel… again!

The Art of Accidental Parenting

The Baby Whisperer does not approve of what she terms “Accidental Parenting.” I do not approve of the Baby Whisperer.

I think there is a kind of beauty in the accidents of parenting. I became a parent on purpose, but it could just as easily have been a happy accident. I certainly make use of whatever works in parenting Owen. To get him to sleep, I’ve gone through phases of nursing him, of walking him up and down, of lulling him in the swing, of giving him a bottle, of reading him a story or three, of letting him cry, of going back to lay him down, or of picking him again up to calm him down. And I change what I am doing when it’s no longer working. (I am sad to report that the bedtime story routine that I was so proud of – Owen likes stories! Stories put him to sleep! – has failed for the past 3 days. He’s become squirmy, possibly because he’s figured out that storytime means bedtime. I am fighting this particular accident).

I think it’s natural to do what works – BECAUSE IT WORKS! – and just as natural to phase something out when it’s no longer right.

I had a horrific beginning to breastfeeding. I’m sure it was not as bad as some people’s, but it was bad enough that I winced in pain at the thought of Owen’s approaching mouth and once worried that I would squeeze his head too hard. I was that tense. But after the first 2 weeks, it got better (it only hurt a little!), and after the first couple of months, it was not painful at all, and after more months, it had become pleasant and convenient. My plan was to nurse Owen until he was one. I pumped once a day until he was nine months old so he could have breastmilk at daycare. At some point, though, this arrangement wasn’t working for me anymore. So I stopped. Then Owen got 2 ear infections and the second doctor we took him to suggested that it might be because I wasn’t breastfeeding. I had just stopped pumping the week before and was nursing him in the morning and at night. I was, after all, working full-time. I thought I was doing pretty well. But inevitably, guilt kicked in, and I eliminated formula on weekends, trying to make up for daycare. I lasted about 3 days. I couldn’t do it anymore. We were past that point, ear infections notwithstanding.

One day last week, at eleven months old, Owen refused the breast for the very first time. He pushed it away, grinning. He bit me. Twice. I put him to bed and I cried a little. I hadn’t decided whether or not that meant the end. The next day, he seemed to want it. So I fed him. And two more days after that. But my heart wasn’t in it anymore. So we stopped, and it felt right.

It was accidental, but mutual, like so much of our developing relationship. If it’s good for him, and good for me (and good for Duncan), then we proceed. If it’s not working, we try something else, until another accident becomes the solution. Individually and as a family, we’re trying things on to see if they fit. Sometimes they’re too big, sometimes they’re too small, but sometimes, they’re just right. At least until you outgrow them.


When I had Owen, the one thing I was not prepared for was the fear that something bad would happen to him. I guess I knew on an intellectual level that I would love him, but I did not realize how much his limbs would become an extension of my limbs, and that I would almost feel his pain in my body (or heart?). Not quite daily, but often, I find myself terrified that something will go wrong, and when things happen that could have been worse (like he falls down two stairs and cuts his lip, or I let go of the stroller and it almost rolls off the front porch), they run through my mind for days.

For example, last week I was mowing the lawn. We have a manual mower that can’t even cut through a twig (or a dandelion stem, if it’s at the wrong angle). And I had Owen standing at a bench with some toys on the other side of the lawn. He was smiling at me, and I said hi periodically, checking in with him to make sure he was OK. And I mowed that lawn! But then, for some reason, all evening long, I had visions of his limbs caught in lawnmower blades. I had to shut my brain off, but for days, this image kept creeping in.

Before we had Owen, Duncan and I both had our fair share of cynicism. We didn’t understand why children were presumed to be more important than adults. We would roll our eyes at certain (fictional) shows where children were always the victims of crimes (think: CSI Miami). And the bad guys were worse guys because they did bad things to children. OK – I can still muster an eye roll at that show, but I have also become one of those people who can no longer watch bad things happen to a child. I wasn’t before. It hurts me now to see a child separated from a parent. Last night, I was reading a wonderful book (small spoiler alert if you click on the link). And when the mother’s child is taken away from her, possibly forever,  I had to put the book down. I couldn’t go back to it until the next day. When I hear news reports of children who have gone missing, who have drowned, who have been hit by cars, I crumple inside. For me, having a child has opened up a connection with humanity. Owen has been an antidote to cynicism.

The other day, we were out walking with Owen (in his big, fancy, expensive stroller) and a teenager came up to us to ask first for a cigarette (we don’t smoke) and then for some change (we’d left the house without our wallets). The boy could have been anywhere from 14-19. He was slight, had sores on his face, and looked like he was having a really rough time. I realized then, as I’ve acknowledged so many times since Owen was born, that we need so much from our parents, from society, and from life. Owen is so so lucky to be loved and held and laughed with. When he was just starting to smile, I remember thinking: what would happen to a baby who didn’t get a smile back? What would happen if a baby kept flashing toothless grins and no one was there to mirror those smiles? I know that people can surmount all kinds of difficulties, and I’m certainly not trying to draw any easy conclusions here. I don’t know how long our lucky streak will last. And I can’t keep Owen from hurt. Life is full of hurts, small and big.

So all I can do is hug him and love him and smile back … and hope we stay lucky. I am so scared of the alternative.