On Using Children for the Provision of Discourse

“On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse.”

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Austen means it ironically, of course. A child ought not to be one of the party on every formal visit. Elinor and Marianne are irritated by the presence of children, yet these children really are the only thing to talk about, since society in their new neighborhood is so dull. Leave it to Jane Austen (in a novel not about children at all) to alert me to how I use my child to deflect attention and responsibility away from myself.

I visited my grandmother on the weekend, and while in most ways it was a better visit than usual, the things that made it better also made it worse. I never know if she knows me. I know I’m supposed to ask her if she knows who I am, but it seems insulting (in case she does) so I always just assume she knows and provide some introduction (i.e. “I brought Owen to visit you”) and hope she fills in the rest. Sometimes she is lost, in a world far away in the past. Once she was waiting for her father to take her home (from boarding school, I presume) and she was so sad, really like a young girl. Other times she seems distracted, uncertain, claiming that no one ever comes to see her. I’m not a regular visitor, certainly, but I know that my father and my uncle are there once a week at least.

Today, when I arrived, she was on her way out of her room to sit in the public area of her nursing home. We went together to find a seat. Owen found a rocking chair (to his great delight). There are always lots of ladies on that floor who seem lost. One woman kept asking me “What should I do?” and I, not having any idea, suggested that she go find a chair somewhere and sit down (since this is what the ladies seem to do around there). She was persistent (and, frankly, kind of annoying), and I saw my Nana go all white and quiet. She looked angry. She told this lady to go away. To go and find somewhere else to be. And then she turned to me and said “You can’t let her start or she won’t leave you alone.” I was hit with the realization that she has to live with this woman, that she is part of the landscape of her everyday, and that saddened me. Later, the woman came back. “I’m lost,” she said, and “Am I going to be alright? Do you think I’m going to be alright?” I could answer only with platitudes. “I think so,” I said.

Owen made friends with another woman, who was pleasant enough, but whose voice was screeching. She sat in “Owen’s” rocking chair and when she realized she’d done it, she switched seats, having to be helped up in the process. “What’s that lady’s name?” Owen asked me, so we asked her together. “It’s Mary,” she said. So Owen proceeded to serenade her with “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” (He’s been keen on naming everyone lately. At daycare, he asks what everyone’s name is, and if he’s forgotten, he will ask again. The other day we bumped into Melissa, who had replaced Owen’s regular teacher the week before. “Hi Owen!” she said as we were dressing to go. “I no remember that lady’s name,” said Owen. “I think it’s Melissa,” said I. “I like Melissa,” said he.)

Later, I gave Owen a snack and he climbed onto one of the chairs. His grubby shoes hadn’t made it over to the front of the chair yet, and my grandmother told him to get his shoes off the chair, sit still, and be quiet (!) It was fantastic. Here was exactly the Nana who used to reprimand me for putting my elbows on the table and asking “what?” instead of “pardon me?” At the same time, though, I was afraid that by bringing Owen I had disrupted her day. I haven’t been to see her without him since he was born. On the one hand, I assume she wants to see her great-grandchild; on the other hand, I must admit that I am bringing Owen partly because I know he will act, as Austen suggests, to give us something to talk about. It’s not like you can ask my Nana about her day. Even if she remembers it, her day has consisted of sitting in a chair, interrupted by meals.

We use Owen in a similar way when we visit Duncan’s great aunt. Duncan won’t go if Owen can’t accompany him. The thing is, cute as Owen is to us, with his serenading old ladies and begging for food (“Owen wants an Aunt Joy cookie“), ultimately, he’s just a distraction. And he allows us to escape so easily when the conversation has ground to a halt (“Owen’s tired. We’d better go.”)

I’m not saying that I shouldn’t bring Owen on these visits. There does seem to be a magnetic draw when elderly people see a small child walk through the door. But I wonder whether I am allowing his presence to overshadow everything else, and whether a quiet and receptive visit might, at least some of the time, be more to the point.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this question.

Sweet Music to my Ears

Owen has been able to say “Mama” for the past couple of weeks, and I never realized how much it would make me swoon. When he names me “Mama!” and I react, I jump, I answer “Yes, that’s me!” He’s been saying Dada for what feels like forever, but now he calls us all out, his little verbal family, Mama, Dada, and Oooooo (morphing into Oooooowe but not quite Owen).

It’s like he is corralling us together with his limited words. When it’s just the two of us together, Owen will keep asking about Dada? Dada? making a little “don’t know” hand gesture. I will tell him that he’ll see him after supper or that he’s on the train, and Owen will nod and say “Wooooo” (which is what comes after choo choo choo choo). When the three of us are together he goes from one to the other, naming, pointing, naming, pointing, uniting us as the little family that we are starting to be. In a weird way, I didn’t feel like we were a proper family until Owen kind of called us one – until he registered our togetherness and hailed us as his two necessary parents. Owen’s recognition of us as a family made us one. And we weren’t complete until he got Mama… and Ooooooo.

A Stitch in Time

My mother has always been a very talented sewer, knitter, crocheter, and inventor. Before I was born, she and my aunt Su had a toy company called December and, as they are very proud to point out, they sold toys to all kinds of upscale department stores, including Holt Renfrew.

One story has them going to “visit” their toys wearing their everyday shabby hippie clothing. Dissatisfied by the quality of the display, they began to rearrange their toys to showcase them better, but were quickly approached by a supercilious saleslady who asked whether she might help them? Hmmm? In other words, they didn’t look like they could afford the toys, so they had best leave the très chic department store. When they told her that they had made the toys, she was a little taken aback.

When I was small, one of my favourite photo albums to look through was the December Toys “catalogue” – composed of photographs of the toys they had made together: an Alice in Wonderland stuffed doll, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, lions and elephants and bears, oh my! Of course, Mum had also made some of these toys for us. I had an elephant family and my sister a bear family. We had a crocheted train with the cars held together with velcro. I also had a quilt my mum made that Owen now uses. My mum also made a gorgeous wall-hanging for Owen (of animals from all over the world – but very special Mum-animals who stand straight and wear clothes… there’s a bull in a kilt, complete with sporran). My aunt made a beautiful wall hanging for me (another group of animals) which is also hanging on Owen’s walls, and she made a new one for him too (of birds in a tree). And Owen sleeps under a quilt made for him by Duncan’s mum. He is seriously indulged in the handmade toy/blanket/wall-hanging department.

My mother stopped making toys for a while, but since she retired, she’s been back at it, and she has a little etsy shop where she peddles her wares. So because her creations are so extraordinary, I thought I’d share her talents with you. You can visit her shop here: http://www.etsy.com/shop/meoneil

Here are a couple of my favourites:

A Vietnamese “Orphan” Doll, up for adoption. I’m in love with her little face.

Emma the Elephant, in a chair made for me when I was wee.

My little monster in his cookie monster hat

The Cheshire Cat

And a Judy Blue Eyes Hippie Doll…

So… do you see where I get my anxiety from when I’m trying to make a Halloween costume? More on that later.

Halloween Guilt

If you’ve been reading along, you’ll know already that almost every area in my life is riddled with guilt – or potential guilt. Well, Halloween is no exception.

In this case, it is my bizarre idea that if I don’t make Owen’s costume myself, I will have failed as a mother. My mother always made our costumes (though sometimes we went as gypsies in oversized skirts and tops, with a dollop of lipstick). Also, I am not a particularly clever sewer, so I have to make something really creative without resorting to a pattern. And because I am likely to make something vaguely makeshift, I should really spend as little money as possible. Luckily, one of the most amusing recent trends (to me) is to upcycle — take scraps and turn them into treasures. This satisfies the environmentally conscious (recycling and reusing in one! No added pressure on the planet!) and the inherently cheap. Scraps of fabric may be found in one’s fabric bin, in the fabric store reject bin, at the second hand store … and they cost pennies. I spent $4 and have reams of fabric left over.

I had this idea that Owen could be a turtle. I thought I could make a breast plate and a shell out of fabric and an old cushion I had hanging around. I could quilt on the shell pattern. And put Owen in some green and/or brown clothes (and some green makeup maybe) and voila! Instant turtle.

Like many of my plans, this one is turning into more work than I was hoping, with less reward. Duncan, my only judge on the project so far, looked at my creation and asked if I could make it look less like Owen was wearing a pillow on his back. I cut open the “shell,” added a book – it still looked like a pillow – just heavier and less comfortable. We went back to the original plan. Now Duncan has suggested painting the quilted pattern so it will look more like a shell. I entirely agree with his suggestion, only unfortunately, it means I’m not finished yet – and I was really hoping to be finished this costume in 2 hours.


So I will (next weekend) get out my acrylic paints and try to make shell-like shading on the quilted pillow backpack. This is a lovingly made costume that will be awarded lots of points for trying – but it will never be nice enough to merit a professional photograph. Oh well, at least I will have avoided commercialism this Halloween. That’s a little less guilt for me.

I will keep you all updated on my progress and will include pictures once the costume (such as it is) is complete.


I have been thinking lately about the relationship between independence and loneliness. Both qualities are related to solitude, but one is desirable and the other is not. We aspire to independence but no one craves loneliness. Solitude may be desirable, but only in small doses (for me at least). And loneliness can strike even if other people around. I was pretty lonely when Owen was first born, though I had a small person attached to me most of the day (and night)

Owen is growing more and more independent, able to play for longer periods without intervention. The other day I was making dinner (for at least 30 minutes) and he was playing away – with trains, lego, a puzzle. I’d check on him every now and again and sometimes he’d come to me, but it was quite lovely to see him becoming so self-sufficient. Of course, I was right there, and he showed me what he was doing, but he was so focused and so content in his own person. This quality was something I wondered about at the beginning of his life, when he didn’t want to be put down and I had to hold him lest he wailed.

On the other hand, I have pulled him away from other kids on the playground, enforcing a kind of solitude, if only because of his age. Though Owen wants to join the crowd, he is really too small to play with rough three or six-year-olds. So Owen mostly plays with me (or by himself), but wants to hang out with the other kids, share the ball, share the slide. I am eager for him to be able to join in.

There was a video going around the internet recently about the pleasures of being alone. And I remember the days (the long days and weeks and months) when I was alone. Perfectly alone. And I would take myself to the movies alone (and quite enjoy not having to compromise) and off to cafés and restaurants alone. And I liked being able to be independent and willing to spend time alone and not mind it. Not that I never minded it, but I sometimes liked it. Doing a PhD is full of solitude (and a little too empty of life and love). I was fortunate to find Duncan near the end of that process, and I actually wrote most of the actual words of my thesis with him around. I think it’s crucial to have someone to share ideas with. You need to be alone to think those ideas sometimes, but if you can’t share them, you miss so much of their depth and potential. And I think the ideas stop coming, too, after a while.

When I was little, I think my Mum craved alone time, sometimes. Four children and a husband meant that she didn’t have that much time for herself. And she cooked marvellous meals and made lots of our clothes and worked full time… so she was certainly accomplishing a lot. But I have a memory of one time that my mother was flooded in the house and we were flooded out (our driveway had a river running through it, with a bridge that flooded sometimes in spring). I think Mum was in the house for 24 hours or something (I hope I am remembering this right) – and she was happy to have the time off from us, so she could read and do crossword puzzles (and probably, knowing her, accomplish a bunch of items on her ever-present list). I remember finding it surprising at the time, that my Mum would want to be apart from us, but I completely understand now. My mother had many fewer alone years than I ever did, since she married and had children so much younger.

Independence seems to be a quality we need – but not too much lest we isolate ourselves. I hope Owen grows into a strong, independent person who is able to thrive on his own. But I hope he is never crippled with loneliness. At the end of a long day of solitude, I hope he always has someone to talk over his day with.

Our Adventures

We’ve been in Nova Scotia for about a week, and it’s been full of new experiences. We’re doing a lot of things we wouldn’t necessarily have done without a child, but having Owen makes us remember what it was like to be kids again.

We’ve been to the beach:

And we’ve seen dinosaurs (or at least models of them):

We’ve visited the Toyota dealer (I know… what fun!):

We’ve investigated pigs (who are all nose) and have been spooked by BAAAAAing sheep:

We contemplated the ferris wheel:

But in the end decided that the merry-go-round would be more fun:

The merry-go-round made Owen a little nervous…

until he started looking for Daddy:

Owen’s granddad taught him how to eat cherry tomatoes whole…

until he looked a little like a vampire:

And we went to a parade:

As you can see, we’re having fun!

Idle Parenting?

Here’s an article referenced by Dana in response to this post by Rebecca Woolf of Girl’s Gone Child:

Idle Parenting Means Happy Children.

Tom Hodgkinson’s tone is slightly tongue-in-cheek, but he voices real enthusiasm for leaving your children alone to develop their imaginations. I’m kind of torn on this one. I think I aspire to be a bit of an idle parent, but Owen’s still too young to be left on his own entirely out of sight. He can play by himself without tons of stimulation, though I still get down on the floor to play with him if he seems to be bored or fussy. I build lego animals, he destroys them. I hide balls in boxes, he finds them (or throws them). I say “mama,” he says “baba.”

I grew up with a healthy amount of neglect. My mother, at her wit’s end, would often yell “Go play outside!” And we would grumble and head out wondering why mothers didn’t have to play outside too? But then of course we would discover something – a ring of rose-shaped weeds? A fairy garden! Or we’d build a snow fort. And then we’d forget our griping and come inside only when our fingers were numb and our snowpants wet through.

My friend Stephanie’s house bordered a fairly large river and we played IN the river on a fairly regular basis. Most of the time, we just skipped from rock to rock (once we did this in Parisian party dresses). We got in trouble, but we thought it must have been because we were wearing our party dresses, so the next time, we changed into ballet leotards (which is exactly like a bathing suit, perfect for rivers!). This time we waded to an island in the middle of the river, up to our armpits in fairly fast-moving water, losing our footing occasionally. We were genuinely shocked when we got in trouble again.

Another time we decided to walk from her house to my house, through the woods. We hadn’t planned it, but we were playing in the forest and got so far in that we figured it was closer to go to my house than to hers. Our houses were 2-3 km apart. And again, we got in trouble! We were so surprised. I think we expected the accolades of explorers discovering a new continent.

That our parents punished us for these escapades I guess indicates that we weren’t supposed to play in the river or hike through the woods without telling anyone. But that we did, fairly often, means that we were left to our own devices, and that no one missed us for hours at a time. These memories of play remain, when the memory of punishment has faded.

Duncan has similar memories of childhood freedom: exploring World War I forts near his home in Halifax, tobogganing and almost falling into the harbour, or playing with a real hammer and whacking his thumb.

We want to allow Owen to have these kinds of memories, and I’m curious to know what my response will be when he’s old enough to understand the concept of danger. I’d like to think I’ll allow him a good deal of freedom.

Then again, I burst into tears yesterday after hearing on the news that a one-year-old had drowned in the bathtub (left unattended for just a couple of minutes) and hurried around the house trying to childproof whatever still caused me anxiety – the cupboard doors under the bathroom sink, a tall bookshelf in Owen’s room not yet attached to the wall…

My lazy side is going to have to do battle with my anxious side. I’m just afraid my anxious side will win.

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.