Whirling Dervish of Home Organization

I’ve spent the week cleaning, sorting, getting rid of, boxing, trashing, sweating, drooping, reviving. I don’t know why I got this bee in my bonnet, but I think it might have something to do with the guilt of having Owen in daycare full time while I have no real work in the summer, so I had to create a job in order to feel like my days were meaningful.

This morning as I backed out of the driveway at 8:30 to take Owen to daycare, my neighbour and her mother were on the front porch. And in my head they were judging me for taking him to daycare and then coming home. They don’t know how busy I am going to be today! I thought to myself. I am not just going to sit around and watch tv or update my blog. OK – they don’t know about the blog, but anyway.

This week, I organized the bathroom drawers, my underwear drawer, my wrapping supplies, the winter scarves. I ironed napkins. I hung pictures, dusted shelves, vaccuumed and mopped under the couch. I threw away expired cold medication, vitamins, and a pregnancy test (no one wants to risk that emotional roller coaster… you’re pregnant – oops, no – the test expired in July 2010 – OR – You’re not pregnant and you go drink half a bottle of wine – except you are because the test expired in July 2010).

Aaannyyyway.

I have spent so much time justifying to people why daycare is so awesome – and it is – when I’m working. But right now, I am kind of craving a daycare vacation. Fortunately, in a little over a week, we’ll be off to Nova Scotia and free of schedules and at least that kind of guilt. Does anyone feel guilty about leaving their child with his grandparents? Surely not!

What I have done this week is the nesting that was supposed to happen in the third trimester of my pregnancy. A nesting phase that I tried to force. Well, here it is – in response to daycare, not impending childbirth. It got so bad that earlier this week I was cleaning up Owen’s play area while he was still playing. I think I took his train out of his hand to tidy it up.

Duncan is afraid he will end up in a box in the basement, tidied away.

I’ve finished the house and am now itching to go get Owen, but he’s still napping. Soon I will kiss those scrumptious cheeks (after I’ve scrubbed them and rearranged his hair).

Some Birds Are Like That

Have you ever ignored a child? A child who was grinning and waving at you? I’m not sure. I think I might have, in black days past when I was fuming at something or other and I didn’t want to be cheerful to anyone, for anyone. But I’d like to hope that I didn’t ignore a child’s beckoning glance. That I cracked a miniature smile, looked back into small, trusting eyes.

Owen is a pretty gregarious kid – he grins and waves at everyone, soliciting grins and waves back (most of the time). But it was strange and kind of sad to see one woman who, on the S-Bahn back from Bad Homburg, ignored Owen’s multiple attempts at communication. He didn’t seem fazed by it at all. It looked like he thought she mustn’t have seen him yet, so he kept trying – every five or ten minutes or so – to make her crack a smile. And she wouldn’t! For almost an hour she stared in our general direction but without a glimmer of recognition for the little boy trying so hard to make friends. She looked to be in her late twenties, was well put together, quite pretty. And I guess I keep thinking about her because I remember a time (not too long ago) when I was a little like her. When I didn’t really get kids. When I was broody and self-absorbed.

My former roommate Janet used to tell me that when I was feeling miserable, the best cure was to smile. And I hated hearing that when I was moping and glowering – but of course she was right. And I think that is part of why Owen has cured so many of my bad moods – because I can’t help but smile when he’s around (especially at his latest trick, which involves pointing at Duncan or me and then applauding vigorously: “Hooray for Daddies!” or “Hooray for Mummies!” we shout).

One of our favourite books lately is called Lost and Found, by Oliver Jeffers. It’s about a boy who finds a penguin on his doorstep and tries to bring him “home” to the South Pole. In a way, though, it’s also a classic tale of misunderstanding, misreading, and miscommunication. When the boy is trying to figure out where the penguin comes from, he asks some birds – but they don’t answer him. “Some birds are like that,” comments the narrator. Indeed. His rubber ducky is similarly silent. All the while, the penguin follows the boy around trying (silently) to make friends, while the boy is so intent on returning his new friend to the South Pole, that he fails to notice that the penguin just wants some attention. Isn’t that clever? The boy is a little like those birds! Fortunately, the boy realizes his mistake and the book has a happy ending.

And then they hug.

I guess all this to say that I think we all risk ignoring each others’ wants and needs, when sometimes that need is just a smile, an acknowledgment, a nod. And I hope I will never again be one of those birds – you know – the ones who are like that.

The Kindness of Strangers

Owen and I just got back from Germany, where we visited my sister Erin, her husband Nico, and their “child” Bagel the dog. It was my first solo trip with Owen, and I was quite nervous anticipating the plane ride and jet lag with a one-year-old. Well, leave it to Owen to make me want to take him anywhere, anytime. Er ist sehr freundlich! He waved and grinned his way through check-ins, security checkpoints, crowded planes, trains and streetcars.

But still, I did get tired. It was new for me to be the only parent, and as much as Erin and Nico helped, I was on bath duty and bed duty and feeding duty (and the mum is generally the one to calm a fussy child… Aunts and uncles are fair-weather stand-ins).

One beautiful evening, after a wonderful day meeting up with some of my friends at the zoo, Nico drove us to Würtzburg. We stopped in at the Residenz, a Baroque palace with spectacular gardens. As it happened, there was a wine festival, and since it was a lovely evening and we had to eat anyway, we decided to stay. Despite the glorious surroundings and the sunset and the cool wine and cool breezes, I was a heart-thumping stress case. There were only benches to sit at, so I couldn’t use my fantastic portable fabric high chair. I tried sitting Owen on the bench beside me, but he was topply and squirmy. Then (before I noticed what was happening), Owen started feeding Bagel some of his flammkuchen and Bagel, excited to get something to delicious to eat, snapped Owen’s fingers along with the crust, leading to tears and more maternal stress.

Erin noticed that I was kind of losing it, so she took Owen across the table, and already it was better. I could see his smiley face and interact with him without being “responsible” for him. Owen started grinning and waving at our neighbour at the end of the table, a middle-aged gentleman with a very kind face who grinned back and started holding Owen’s hand and making faces. My quick-thinking sister then handed Owen over to this man, who graciously accepted the charge. He kept him entertained for about an hour, poking his finger through a hole in a wooden tray, making funny sounds and faces, and dancing (with Owen) around the jazz band that came by. His wife was also delightful; she commented that they have sons in their early twenties, but that her husband certainly looks ready for grandchildren. We separated Owen from his temporary grandpa, and I left the garden refreshed and happy. I will repeat this over and over: full-time parenting is exhausting, and it takes just little breaks to make an otherwise arduous responsibility into a real pleasure.

Owen continued to make friends throughout our trip. An American man carried him (in his stroller) up several flights of stairs in 35C heat so we could reach the castle in Heidelburg. Also memorable were our neighbours on the plane ride home: a lovely Indian grandmother played with him while I filled out our customs forms, a middle-eastern gentleman played peekaboo and held Owen on his lap for about 15 minutes, and a young German woman walked Owen around the whole plane, allowing him to grin and wave at everyone as he passed them.

I don’t know the names of any of these people, but thank you, thank you, thank you!

Listmaker, Listmaker, Make Me a List

My mother is a list-maker. When I was growing up, there was always a list on the kitchen counter: lists of things for her to do and lists of things for the rest of us to do. My mother took great satisfaction in crossing things off her list, so much satisfaction, in fact, that most new lists included several things she had already done so she could cross them off immediately. My intense, uptight adolescent self used to get annoyed at her for this. It seemed dishonest – though my mother always maintained that it gave her a feeling of accomplishment – and with 4 children and a full-time job there was a lot to accomplish.

Now (since the apple sometimes falls close to the tree) I am a listmaker. I make lists because if I don’t write stuff down, I forget, and also because lists prevent me from procrastinating as much. If it’s still on the list waiting to be done, it bothers me until I can check it off. My intense, uptight adult self prefers to draw little boxes and to place check marks in them when a task has been completed. It looks tidier. Weird, no?

This listmaking obsession of mine and of my mother’s is also reflected in one of my favourite story books from childhood: Frog and Toad (and their volumes of adventures). In one particular story, Frog makes a list of things he wants to do that day and proceeds to cross them off as he does them. He (like my mother) likes to write things on his list that he’s already done, in this case “Wake up.” Unfortunately, just after he has crossed off “Meet Toad” and “Take a walk with Toad,” an errant gust of wind blows the list out of Frog’s grasp. Paralyzed without his list, Frog and Toad wait around listlessly (hee!) because they cannot remember what they were supposed to do next. Finally, Frog remembers that the last thing on his list was “Go to sleep.” They write it in the sand, cross it out, and fall into peaceful slumbers.

All this to say that my energetic (listful?) mother  remembered my childhood love of this story and created one of her marvellous toys for Owen’s birthday present. And, of course, Frog has a list in his pocket, partially crossed out.

I imagine that my mother had a list somewhere in her house last week that read somewhere on it “Make Frog and Toad Puppets for Owen” and then crossed it off.

My mother makes all kinds of wonderful and magical toys. You can find them here.

My most recent list was a list of things to do before I leave for Germany, with Owen, to visit my sister. And now, with tidy boxes ticked off and a less tidy suitcase packed, I am off for about a week.

NOTE: About an hour after writing this, I added “update blog” to my list and ticked it off. My adolescent self would not be pleased.

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?

One

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.

Mum

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.