Fear and Bat Ears at the Biodome

On labour day Monday, Owen and I took off to the Biodome. He had visited before with his uncle Adam and auntie Val, but this time it was just the two of us, in “nature.”

I should point out, if I’m being honest, that Owen didn’t love it there. From the moment we arrived inside the tropical forest (the very first “room”), he was trying to get out, wanting to go home. But we persevered, and he started to see why we were there.

Look up there!
Flamingoes, I think. I couldn't read anything because Owen moved so quickly through the environments.

I think Owen was a bit afraid that something would bite or swoop at him. He was nervous even about the fish, until I assured him that they couldn’t come through the glass.

“Can’t come out,” he repeated, over and over, about the fish, the frogs, and the bats.

He tried on bat ears. That was fun.

We found a slide, too, which was hard to pry the boy away from, especially now that he’s figured out how to say “One more” and (a very crisp) “Not yet.”

He absolutely adored following the bird footprints, and started doing a little dance in order to step on every single footprint in the room.

Spinning around this post was also much more fun than looking at sea urchins.

Owen loved the puffins, also safely behind glass.

And I do think the snack at the end might have been his favourite part of the whole experience.

xo Anna

Baby Book Club: Where the Wild Things Are

So this post is kind of cheating because everyone knows this book, right? But it’s such a perfect tie-in to our trip to the zoo…

It was a favourite when I was a child, a story that never left me, full of the possibilities of being disobedient and dreaming and going somewhere else in your mind where you actually had a say… and then (of course) getting lonely in your huff-and-puff I’m always right state of mind and returning home again to forgiveness and warmth and love. (Max is punished for “mischief of one kind and another” and sent to bed without his supper; however, when he returns to “his very own room” after visiting the land of the wild things he finds his “supper waiting for him … and it was still hot”). The last line appears all by itself on the last page, without any illustration to keep it company, but the line itself is crucial, because the supper has to be hot to show that Max hasn’t been away that long, and also to show that he is cared for and loved. And isn’t that the whole point of a bedtime story anyway, to show your children that they are cared for and loved?

Anyway, on Tuesday, for Owen’s birthday, my parents took us to Parc Safari. We were all convinced that Owen would love the animals but (as usual) underestimated how much huge, furry, strange creatures can frighten a toddler. He was OK with the animals in the distance. He liked the elephants, and was excited by the monkeys and lions (all at a clear remove). He did not much like the animals that got any closer. The thing about Parc Safari is that you drive right through the animals and can feed them out of your car window. My dad tried to feed an ostrich but was worried that the ostrich would peck his fingers off (one had snapped at my mother 3 minutes earlier) and so kind of threw the food in its general direction. Well, the ostrich didn’t understand that there was food on the ground. To it, a car clearly meant food, so the bird tried to stick its head in the window to get something out of my dad. My dad rolled up his window to keep it away from him, but the ostrich started pecking at Owen’s window as if to say “feed me, feed me!”

Owen was not impressed. “No big bird. No big bird. Away! Away!”

He was spooked by a lot of other animals, too, especially when we opened the minivan door so he could see better. The more glass and steel between Owen and the animals, the better, he thought… Especially when a rhinoceros peed. “Stinky stinky diapers!” said Owen.

Unlike Max, Owen was unable to charm the wild creatures with a magic trick. Most of what he seemed to feel was fear and wonder (a fear and wonder that’s present in the book, of course). He seemed relieved when we got through our “safari.”

After we finished looking at animals, Owen took a dip in the wading pool and when he got out his Nana gave him the rest of her ice cream cone.

… and it was still cold.

P.S. Rebecca Woolf of Girl’s Gone Child has started a storytime series on Tuesdays as well. I love her. Check it out (here’s a link to the first book profiled: Iggy Peck, Architect)

Mother-Hearts

Their mother-hearts beset with fears,

Their lives bound up in tender lives

(from Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”)

I’ve read “Goblin Market” about a million times (OK, more like 20), but I noticed these lines only recently. I used to dismiss the domestic conclusion of the poem as predictably Victorian, with the nearly-fallen woman redeemed through childbearing and child rearing. But of course, there’s a wrenching truth to these lines, too, a truth that is impossible to get away from once you are a mother. Those tender lives that are our children do have a way of binding themselves around our hearts, constricting them with fear even as they expand them with love.

It wasn’t until I became a mother that I noticed that there is an attentiveness to mothers that makes them sometimes seem absent-minded. Their eyes are so riveted on their children that they may miss punch lines, news items, and gossip, but their hands will almost always be the first to reach out to catch a falling toddler (or the dish he throws), as though each mother’s very body is in tune with her child’s.

My child is still very young. He still needs catching. The other day he wandered from the grass to the edge of the sidewalk near a residential but fairly busy street. I was too far away to grab him but I yelled louder than even I expected, and he stopped in his tracks until I got to him. I felt a surge of mothering-adrenaline in me at that moment – my yell was primal, and my boy heard me. Yesterday I saw him start to fall down our outdoor steps (he was trying to put my sweater over his head and it toppled him). I was across the yard, so I wasn’t fast enough to prevent him from hitting his head on the first step or rolling onto the second, but I did catch him on the third (still two from the ground). Poor munchkin. He wasn’t badly hurt… mostly scared.

I’m not there yet, but I think in some ways it must be harder to feel that maternal pull when your children are no longer children. My mother has mentioned on many occasions her desire (or need) to reach out to us (her children) when she feels that we are falling (not falling down so much, but away from her, away from her dreams for us, away from her expectations of us). I am sure her maternal reach is as visceral as my cry to Owen to keep him from the cars. How difficult it must be to let go. I hope I manage with as much grace as my mother has.

To all the “mother-hearts” (biological and adoptive mothers, stepmothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, special aunts, godmothers, and guardian angels) whose lives are “bound up in tender lives,” have a very happy mother’s day.

At the Car Wash

When I was little, my Nana would let her car get extra dirty on purpose if she knew her granddaughters were visiting. She knew that my sister and I preferred the car wash to the mall. Whenever we visited, we would beg to be allowed to sit in the car and watch the soft, soapy brushes whir and polish the surfaces of her 80s sedan.

I get our current car washed far too seldom, but decided that today it was due for a shine. I had the option of going before I picked Owen up from daycare but, armed with memories from my own childhood, I thought it would be a treat for him to watch as the car was sprayed, scrubbed, rinsed and blow-dried.

Oh, my, was I wrong.

He was terrified. I guess I underestimated the claustrophobia and anxiety that the car wash would cause in my little boy. He wailed and reached out his arms to me as I pointed to the multicoloured soap streams and exclaimed that the car was taking a bath!

Sigh. We had a similar experience last Sunday when I took Owen tobogganing and he got his face and neck full of snow and didn’t want to walk up the steep slope. After our third (and last) time down the hill, I asked Owen if he would like to go down again or go back to the car. He pointed quite firmly to the car. On our way off the hill,  we got hit by a kid on a rubber tube and went flying down (together) into the snow. Then he sobbed, poor guy. I must confess I was laughing (that sad laughter of a day gone awry).

I guess I have to acknowledge he really is still (kind of, mostly) a baby.

Baby Steps

One of the things I’ve learned since having Owen (and this is probably something I should have figured out a long time ago) is that people can learn new things. To watch Owen learn and develop has been very heartening for me, not just because of his own upward path but also (oddly) because it has given me back some faith that I, too, can learn new things… Now, I won’t necessarily be as quick as a baby to progress in my skills – how many of us as adults move from baby steps to (almost) running in 2 months? – but I can try to get better at things. I can learn new skills. If it takes months and years, that’s OK. I have time.

I joined the gym recently. The gym and I have a fraught relationship going back to elementary school when I used to (sometimes) forget my clothes on purpose, in mortal dread of things like high jump. I’m still terrified of high jump, come to think of it. Anyway, I was always terrible at most sports and (therefore) never tried to get better. For many people, there’s no therefore in their equation, but in my case, I only ever tried to be better at things I was already good at.

I started taking yoga classes right before I got pregnant with Owen. I took an “Introduction to Yoga” class, because (though I had done yoga from CDs) I was scared of arriving in a class where I looked out of place, and figured it was best to start at the bottom. It was a small class, and a gentle introduction. I discovered that I was pretty good at certain things (like flexibility); pretty bad at other things (like balance); and able to improve in everything in between.

When I was pregnant, I switched to prenatal yoga, with a very enthusiastic teacher who encouraged us to “feel how it feels.” The class was at a mother and baby centre called Belles Mamans, a warm and welcoming place with cups of tea on winter evenings, and where I met my lovely friend Rebecca. At the beginning of the classes, our teacher would ask us to go around and share a thought about our pregnancies, our fears, our desires. These sessions were often useful for feeling like we were not alone, but more frequently seemed to slide into self-pity sessions (Oh woe is me, I am gaining weight; or My hips hurt; or I am getting stretch marks). During one of these classes, I suggested that our fate as healthy pregnant women was a lot better than old age (I had recently visited an elderly relative in hospital), and that we should probably stop complaining. Then I spent the whole class worried that everyone in the room hated me.

I did prenatal yoga up to week 38, and 6 weeks after having Owen I was back for Mama and Baby yoga, thinking that it would be much of the same – angelically sleeping babies allowing their mothers to climb their way back to strength and fitness. Ha ha. Ha. Owen was a hungry boy, meaning that he basically needed to be eating all the time. In a 1 hour class, I often fed him twice (mostly to make him stop whining). I even invented a new pose… Savasana-while-breastfeeding! (Savasana is the death pose at the end of yoga). Baby-Mama yoga was not a success, so I stopped. Went back to work. Summered. Went back to work again. And I wondered if I could fit some yoga back into my schedule.

Now I am taking 3 yoga classes a week, and I am treating it like a learning experience. I am listening to my teachers and I am trying to move mindfully. Just today a teacher tweaked a move I’ve been doing wrong (I knew I must be because the way I was moving didn’t feel right and I was always readjusting) and all of a sudden an entire sequence made sense. I am stronger. I can do four yoga push-ups without any problem! Four!

See? Baby steps.

Little Hands

I was staring at Owen’s little hands the other night as he was drinking his nighttime bottle. Perfect little hands with perfect little nails. Unbitten. And an idea crystallized that I’ve been pondering a lot lately – that the anxieties I have for him are about all the things I can’t control. None of us can predict our lives. I can’t prevent him from becoming a nail biter – at least, I can’t prevent the troubles that might cause him to start biting his nails (as I did in grade three). This is not about aesthetics nor does it project a denial that he will grow up.  It isn’t the same as knowing that my smooth-skinned baby will one day be a hairy (or not so hairy) man, will need to wear deodorant, or will have bad breath. Those vague awarenesses of his adolescent and adult future don’t reflect his state of mind the way nail biting might.

But of course, I don’t want him to stay a child. I want him to grow up and become someone whose life I can’t control or protect. I want him to learn from his mistakes, fall down, get up, fall down, get up again. I want him to fear responsibility but take it on anyway and learn that it’s not that bad. I want him to discover what he likes by figuring out what he doesn’t like. We don’t all bite our nails, but we must all experience some anxiety, surely. I just hope it doesn’t paralyze him. I hope he can acknowledge it and move on.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, we took a family vacation. At one intersection, my mother instinctively took my hand to cross the street. I reacted violently: I shook my hand away from hers, with a teenage horror of being perceived as a child. I don’t remember the whole exchange. I think my mother and I both ended up apologizing – she for taking my hand, I for my visceral overreaction. I sure hope I apologised. I’ve thought about this moment a lot over the years, maybe because it was one of the first times I could see both sides of the parent-child relationship. Now that I’m a parent, I am all the sorrier for my reaction.

Owen and I walked to the park together yesterday afternoon. He walked most of the way by himself. He’d hold my hand to steady himself, then let go, taking as many shaky steps as he could. I tried to keep my hand close to him in case he wanted to grab onto it. Sometimes he did hold on to steady himself. Most of the time he didn’t. Often he fell. And then I’d pick him up and put him back on his feet, giving him my hand again, to steady him.

And I just realised that it’s a pretty good metaphor for parenting in general: my hand will be hovering over him for a long time, there if he wants to hold onto it, but also his to release.

Fear

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.