Category Archives: Family

My bed is in a small town

It should not have come as a surprise that it gets dark earlier in New Jersey than it does in Los Angeles, yet somehow this phenomenon caught me off-guard.  Even after experiencing the pitch-dark London winter afternoons, I somehow had forgotten that moving north moves up December evenings rather dramatically.  It is dark here early.

In Los Angeles, I never noticed the nighttime like I do here.  There were streetlights and store lights and so many homes close together with car doors slamming and teenagers laughing.  Night was never really night because there were always sounds and sights to break into it.

Here, in this little town, they have night.  Real night, disturbed by relatively few streetlights.  The Christmas lights on most of the houses break up the visual silence right now, but the cars are few and far between after 7:00.  People are home, and there is no place to go.

I am living in a small town.

Not since I was (as they say) knee high to a grasshopper have I lived in a place like this.  I spent my teen years in a busy suburb that at the time seemed dead to me, so I set off for an urban campus and never looked back.  For almost twenty years I have lived in or very close to cities, as long as the likes of Chapel Hill and Charlottesville can be called cities.  They can be, I think, because they have that intense walkability, where ice cream shops and bars are all a quick stroll at the end of a busy day.

It bears repeating: this is a very small town.  There are no bars or, come to think of it, ice cream shops.  There aren’t any coffee shops, book stores, toy stores, Gymborees, Gaps, sporting goods shops, or gelaterias.  Of course, those things are all a quick drive away, either one town over or just up the highway.  We are not, after all, in the Himalayas.  It is weird, setting out along the highway and entering the world of commerce, because here in town there are the following businesses: one sandwich shop, one restaurant, one car repair shop, one hair salon, one dentist, and one Lionel train enthusiast store.  That’s it.  People who live here have chosen a life without quick access to the flotsam and jetsam of American commercial life, and so they come home at night and stay at home.

Urban life affords a certain anonymity that I had come to take for granted.  Not so here.  Dropping Zach off at kindergarten the first day, the aide looked up and smiled.  “Oh, you just moved in down the street from me!”  Recalling the previous day’s bike ride, which featured me hollering repeatedly at Benjamin to stay to the side of the road, I tried my best to smile in return.

After that first kindergarten drop-off, I drove the 27 seconds down the road to Benjamin’s preschool.  If we buy in this town, we hope to buy closer to the elementary school so that I can walk that short distance.  Yes, I mean to use the definite article here, as there is only one elementary school.  And two preschools.  Dropping off Benjamin, I see many of the same mothers I have seen just moments before outside the elementary school.  Because they are almost all mothers.

I took Benjamin into his classroom.  His preschool teacher smiled at me.  “You just moved in down the street from me,” she remarked.  Fuck.  Note to self: stop yelling at the kids in public.

We have chosen this town because it allows us to slow down.  Despite being an hour from New York City, this town is a throwback to a quieter time.  There is a town Christmas tree lighting, featuring Santa arriving on the fire truck.  A week later, as a nod to the changing times, the town has a menorah lighting.  Mid-morning, if I am out driving or walking, the dog-walkers and joggers wave, just in case I am someone they know.  Across the street from our rental house is a boy from Zachary’s kindergarten class.  It is charming, but I fear it will start to chafe.

No, I know it will start to chafe.  There will be a long period of discomfort, after the novelty has worn off, when I realize I have intentionally denied myself the energy and vitality of the urban life.  Yet, I believe, I truly do, that once we get past that period, we will find something less glittery than urban conveniences that is nonetheless worth putting up with everybody knowing our business.

Unclear on the concept

“I am NOT wearing a coat,” Zachary exclaimed.  “I am NOT cold.”

“Dude, that’s because you’re inside,” I explained.  To my child, this was faulty logic.  If it is warm enough inside, it is most likely warm outside.  Welcome to the reasoning of the five-year-old transplant from Southern California.  He complains bitterly about wearing a coat in the car or even to go outside.

His brother, on the other hand, has embraced cold-weather fashion.  Having inherited Zach’s old pink mittens from London, Benjamin insists upon putting them on every time he leaves the house, even in the middle of a mild afternoon.  He also wants a hat, a coat, and – if we would allow it – his snow boots.

Lilah, wisely, has figured out that a coat means she gets to go outside.  So she has stopped fighting it.  But the hats?  She is pissed about the hats.  And mittens restrict her thumb access, so you can probably figure out how well those go over.

Imagine my surprise when – the second day of school – Zachary informed me that he had worn his coat all morning.  “You wore it all day?” I asked, glancing up at the teacher.

She shrugged.  “We asked him several times if he wanted to take it off.”

“It’s cozy,” Zach explained.  So, let me get this straight.  He won’t wear a coat in the car, bitches about it outside, and yet wears it all morning in a public school that is comfortably heated to something just under tropical.

I think my kids are a little confused by the move.

The other thing that seems to be causing trouble is this whole multi-level house thing.  Having lived in a little ranch house, they think the tiny three-floor rental is a goddamned palace.  A dangerous palace, however, as they keep tumbling down the stairs.  I have provided them with slippers, but they seem to think those work better as weapons than as protection for their feet.

Zachary scored the best room in the entire house – the attic.  Seriously, if there were a way to get the king-sized bed up there, I would totally switch rooms with him.  He is delighted to have his own space, and he has meticulously laid out trinkets, toys, and books on perfect angles.  Unfortunately, he is also totally freaked out by being up there alone.  Both boys, in fact, seem to be terrified of being on a different floor by themselves.  Like twenty-something women on their way to a restaurant bathroom, they require company every time they go upstairs to get something.  Which can be awfully complicated as they inevitably get into a fight and end up falling down the stairs once again.

It’s all so confusing to them.  The kids pull out their umbrellas at every chance in the house, but then they drag those umbrellas behind them, upside down, in the rain.  Benjamin, having learned from his teachers that December has started and snow will be arriving, keeps asking, “It’s December yet?  Is it snowing out?”  Since he is looking out the window and there is clearly no snow falling, the only thing we can determine is he has absolutely no idea what he’s looking for.

I’ll bet you can guess which book I read eight times today.

Where they have to take you in

The kids and I have been staying with my in-laws for eleven days now while J finished up at his Los Angeles job and a truck with all our worldly belongings traveled across the country.  J is now up in New Jersey, meeting with movers, registering for school, waiting for the cable guy, visiting the DMV, and generally being useful.  He will drive down to meet up with us either late today or early tomorrow, which means he’ll be traveling just before Thanksgiving along with 97% of the other vehicles on the West Coast.

All I can say about how staying with my in-laws is going is that we are damned lucky they haven’t thrown us out yet.  The house is filled with all sorts of exotic accents that are irresistible to my children.  Like stairs.  Lilah, not used to having stairs around, is obsessed with climbing yet not necessarily particularly skilled at the return route.  Fortunately, her grandfather took it upon himself to give her some tutelage on how to descend the steps, somewhat alleviating my anxiety.

Another fancy touch they have here is the toilet paper.  At child-level.  We don’t really keep toilet paper anyplace children can reach it in our house, so all three of my kids think it is some sort of newfangled toy.  At one point, Benjamin and Zachary removed all the paper from all three rolls of paper in the powder room and also emptied the box of tissues, while at the same time their sister was upstairs diligently unraveling another two rolls of paper in the hall bathroom.

Slightly more unusual is the laundry chute.  I, myself, think it is kind of cool.  The boys cannot get over it.  There is a lid they can lift plus a hole they can throw things in.  It’s basically begging for experimentation in the laws of gravity.  We have learned thus far that a box of diaper wipes does clog the chute while board books and sippy cups slide right on down.  Envelopes with paid bills in them only get stuck in the chute if inserted after the box of diaper wipes, whereupon my mother-in-law spends an hour-and-a-half trying to find the envelope she knows she left sitting on her bed.

Unfortunately, because we have so diligently enforced “yellow let mellow” in our own house, flushing the toilet is also a novelty.  So, Benjamin decided to test the mettle of the toilet by flushing down his toothbrush.  Plumbers are much more expensive on Saturdays, in case you were wondering.

He is lost, my Benjamin.  He cannot understand fully that he is going to a normal place with a normal school and lots of nice children.  He just does not have the cognitive ability to comprehend that the world is not flat, and we are not about to jump off the edge.  All he knows is he has been ripped out of one place, is only temporarily in this other place, and there is a big void in front of him into which he is about to be shoved with absolutely no warning.  So, while Zachary verbalizes his anxiety and Lilah suddenly learns how to talk and walk, Benjamin acts out.  We have swept up one glass and one bowl, loosened all the light bulbs in his bedroom, and – it goes without saying – revoked all unsupervised toothbrushing privileges.

This Thanksgiving, I will be grateful for many things.  We are back on the East Coast.  We will be heading up to our new home on Friday.  The kids will be starting school on Monday.  Our family is entering a new situation that could really improve our quality of life.

Mostly, however, I will be grateful that J’s parents haven’t thrown us out on our asses.

EST

We spent last week in an empty house, sleeping on borrowed air mattresses.  I say “we,” but my husband was away on business – the last such obligation for the old job – so it was me and the three kids in a house pretty much devoid of belongings, save a couple of sippy cups.  To make matters more complicated, there was no school on Wednesday.  Too much of a wimp to face an entire day alone with three kids in a completely empty house, I took all three to Day Out With Thomas.  We had a blast.  I looked around for the t-shirt that said “I survived Day Out With Thomas alone with three small kids,” but I couldn’t find one.  Apparently, I’m the first to make it out alive.

Lilah felt it the most.  She’s at that age when she is exploring things, but there were no Things to explore.  Plus, Benjamin was alleviating his boredom by punching and sitting on her.  I tried to give him time-outs, but where the hell was I supposed to sit him?  In the middle of the living room floor?  I tried the empty closet.

“Close the door,” he commanded as I turned to walk away.

“No.  I am not going to shut you in the closet.”

“Why not?” he wanted to know.

“Because it’s dark and scary in the closet with the door closed.”

“Close the door,” he repeated.  I stood outside the closet as he opened and shut the door from inside, turning the only possible method of discipline into a game.  I guess at least he found something to entertain himself.

The airport hotel Friday night was only marginally better, mostly because J was there.  We were awfully relieved to get to the airport on Saturday.  We rushed through security and made a potty break.  While J went to buy the water we’d need for the flight, I had the boys play a running game that we do before every flight to get the wiggles out.  They did fine with running and touching a sign down the hall.  Then I told them to run around a group of chairs three times.  I forgot to give Benjamin the crucial instruction to look ahead of him while he ran.  Which is how, on the second go-round, he ran straight into the corner of a public telephone.

Head wounds bleed a lot, as we have discovered on several previous occasions with this child.  But we had 20 minutes before our flight.  The flight we were taking to move a family of five across the country.  If the child wasn’t vomiting and there were no bones sticking out, we were getting on the damned plane.  We scored a Band-Aid from the woman at the gate and figured we’d deal with it when we landed.

Five hours later, he had definitely bled through the Band-Aid.  My father-in-law bought us a new Band-Aid as we made our way towards baggage claim, while my mother-in-law emailed a plastic surgeon she knows.  Two hours later, we were in the ER, getting Benjamin’s head sewn back together by a top-notch plastic surgeon.

So, here we are – bunking with relatives while our stuff travels across the country and waiting for Benjamin’s head to heal.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Sweeter than sugar

We have always been a low-sweets household, but we’ve not wanted to be the parents who say their kids can never have sweets.  We all know how those kids turn out.  I have tried to ferret out the hidden sugar in breads and processed foods so that we can surreptitiously cut back on the kids’ intake of partially hydrogenated corn syrup and sugar without them recognizing our tight fist of authority.

Recently, we came to the conclusion that Benjamin has a bit of an issue with refined sugar.  Namely, he cannot seem to control himself.  I don’t mean he cannot control himself around sweets.  I mean he is totally insane.  I often suspect he misbehaves not because he wants to but because he simply cannot help himself.  We decided to limit his sugar intake even further to see if that would allow him to remain in control.

But, not wanting to be those parents, we figured there should be exceptions for birthday cakes and occasional nights out for ice cream.  Both of which he had last week.  And after both of which we found him pissing all over the bathroom floor, cackling with glee.

OK, maybe no sugar at all for awhile.  Cutting sugar from my diet has made a huge difference in my mood swings, so we think he may have similar trouble processing it.  I informed his teachers, since he gets most of his sugar at school.

Let’s pause for a minute and review that statement.  Does anyone see anything wrong with that?  His school is giving him sweets.

Whenever I have brought it up, albeit tentatively, the response has been, “You have to give kids treats now and again.”  To which, sure.  But shouldn’t the right to hand out sweets be reserved for the person who is also doling out the broccoli?  Why does the school get to give out all the treats and Mommy has to be in charge of vegetables?  That hardly seems fair.  I think teachers should hand out sugared stuff in a one-to-ten proportion to nutritious food.  If all the snacks are asparagus and fava beans, sure, go for it, pour the kid some grape juice now and again.  If, however, snacks are regularly Goldfish and graham crackers?  Well, you’ve kind of already used up your allotted portion of empty calories and partially hydrogenated anything.  You don’t get to hand out sugared sweets.

Between the birthday celebrations (and why are parents encouraged to bring in cupcakes for that?), classroom parties for Grand Day and the umpteen Jewish holidays the children must celebrate, and the regular use of Cheerios as snacks, there is a hell of a lot more sugar flowing out of that preschool than there ought to be.

Hence my comment to the teachers last week.  “We’re trying to severely limit his sugar intake,” I told them as Benjamin attempted to climb the built-in cubbies.  “For obvious reasons.”  I reminded them on Friday, when I was in the class for Shabbat, another “special occasion” that falls every week and seems to call for cup after cup of grape juice.

So, imagine my surprise when I walked into the classroom yesterday and saw packs of Oreo cookies on the table.  (And why is a Jewish preschool using Oreos instead of Hydrox?)  “Are you feeding those to him?” I asked.

“We’re making edible dirt today!” the teachers gushed.  “Crumbled up Oreos in chocolate pudding with gummy worms.”  Oh.  Because that’s so much better.

“I told you we’re trying to keep him away from sugar.”

“Well, we won’t let him have much.”  OK, that is so not the point.  The point is that we are trying to see if completely cutting out sugar helps him to control himself.  We are doing an experiment here.

And so, when I picked him up at school and was handed a cup of “edible dirt,” it took all my self-control to keep from flinging it at the teachers.  Now, I can either be unfair to my kid by telling him he cannot eat it or by putting him in a position where he cannot control his behavior and then gets punished for it.

For the record, I chose Option A.  I’m OK with being Mean Mommy.

Halloween is coming, and we’re going to have to get creative.  We’re also skipping as many birthday parties as possible.  But, ultimately, it won’t matter, since clearly the teachers plan to keep slipping him the stuff on the side.

Hunchback of West L.A.

“Stand still,” my husband told me, staring hard at the back of my head.  “Lift up your hair.”  He ran his hand along my spine at the base of my neck.  “I think you need to see a doctor.”

“Why?” I replied in my can-we-be-paranoid-some-other-time-I-am-sorting-laundry voice.

“Osteoporosis.”

“I don’t have osteoporosis,” I told him, handing him cleaning rags to put away.  “I’m thirty-five.  I take a calcium supplement and drink milk.”

“Yeah, and it’s all going right back out to her.”  He indicated Lilah, our third child and a dedicated nurser.

The next day, I decided it was all the fault of the Baby Bjorn, which was Lilah’s preferred method of transportation/nap position.  I pulled out the back carrier, gave away the Bjorn, and figured I had heard the last of old Hump on My Back.  Except that the bump did not go away.  Over the next month, it remained, all the more visible because I never have time to wash my hair, which is perpetually pinned up.  Fine.  I’ll see the doctor.

Don’t worry: I do not have osteoporosis.  I merely have an acute case of Carrying Children Around.  It probably doesn’t help that I contort my body to reach my laptop with one hand while breastfeeding the baby.  How else am I supposed to get any writing done?

I’ve been juggling writing and children for over five years.  I revised my dissertation in Philadelphia when my first child, Zachary, was seven weeks old.  I would put him down for a nap, then rush into my study, where I would pump because everyone told me I had to make him take a bottle so that I would not be tied down.  Then, I’d ferry the milk down to the fridge, race back up to my study, pull out my dissertation director’s list of comments, implement three changes, and then go back in to get the baby who somehow needed to eat once again.

Perhaps I would have gotten more done had the child actually ever taken a bottle.  Instead, he would scream until my breasts appeared.  One memorable conversation with my dissertation director featured me whispering so as not to disturb the nursing infant while I took notes with one hand.  Now, that’s the way to makes a professional impression.

I started writing creative non-fiction in London while my second child, Benjamin, was still taking morning naps.  I’d drop Zach off at preschool, then skedaddle home, all the while hoping Ben would not fall asleep in the stroller and thereby deprive me of 45 minutes to write.

And what was I writing about?

My children were my muse.  I was learning so much about them and me and parenting that everything they said was an inspiration.  The time I spent with my kids was the flip side of my writing time.  Parenting and writing were part of the same creative act, inextricably linked with one another as I developed both my writer’s voice and my maternal identity.

It is two years later, we live in Los Angeles, and I have three children.  Firing off an essay before the children get up in the morning is no longer invigorating.  The days are long enough already, with far too much to fit in.  Every time I try to write, I am torn.  When the youngest two are napping, I could force out half-processed thoughts or I could work with Zachary on his reading.  When the boys are at preschool, I could revise lusterless prose or I could actually focus on their sister.  And sometimes, when I sit down to nurse, I don’t want to look at a laptop screen and type with one hand.  I want to look down at my last baby.

Even if I had the time, what would I write about?  I don’t go anywhere or see anyone, unless the playground and the preschool count.

My children have made my breasts limp, my stomach flabby, and they have given me a hunchback.  They are gorgeous, but their beauty has come at the expense of my own.  I do not begrudge them my youth.  I have passed it along to them willingly.  But, some days their young minds seem to be growing only by draining my own intellect, and that stings.

My lovelies, you may not be sucking all the calcium from my bones, but there are moments it feels as though you are drinking my creativity for breakfast.

Lines written as I wait for my three-year-old to come running out of his room at bedtime

I worry about Zachary, who is so up in his own head sometimes that he makes his life more complicated than it needs to be.  I have a vague suspicion of where that trait may have come from, and I feel sorry for a child who over-thinks everything from the play dates that he builds up in his little head to the reward he wants for his sticker chart.

I worry about Lilah physically.  I was never one to run to the doctor, but with this little girl I am there every other week.  Perhaps it is because she got Benjamin’s pathetic immune system (thanks to Daddy) combined with Zachary’s diminutive stature (thanks to Mommy).  Or perhaps it was the pneumonia last year that landed her in the hospital for a week as a newborn.  Or maybe she really does get sick a lot.

But the one I worry the most about is Benjamin.  Because I just don’t get him.

He seems so heedless of rules and other people’s opinions that it’s easy to believe he is actually heedless of rules and other people’s opinions.  He runs off laughing maniacally when asked to brush his teeth, he makes his body go limp when we try to get him into the house, and he screams loudly just to hear the sound of his own voice.  On Sunday, I caught him sitting on top of his baby sister.  I think he was trying to ride her.

I suspect, however, that he actually does care.  I think there is a bravado there, covering a sensitive kid with a desire for constant stimulation.  He wants to rocket around the house, but he wants us to find a way to stop him before he hurts himself.  He wants us to be engaged in his game, even though his game is getting us to stop him from scraping his fork over the table.  And we cannot find an effective way to stop him.

Stop right there, because I know you are going to offer advice.  If you are going to suggest any of the following, don’t bother, because we’re already doing it:

  • sticker chart
  • yelling
  • not yelling and talking firmly
  • taking away television privileges one minute at a time
  • removing the fork from his hand
  • time outs
  • praise for good behavior

I’m also not interested in hearing any suggestions that we give him some special time each day just with a grown-up unless the suggestion comes with an offer to babysit the other two kids while I am patiently playing knights with Benjamin.  We do the best we can to give him individual attention, but it seems the suggestion that we spend time alone with each kid each day never comes from people with three kids five and under.  (What I am looking for in posting this, in case you are wondering, is commiseration.)

Benjamin is the kind of kid who, if he lived in a house of spanking, would try to get himself spanked, just to push the envelope a little further.  He loves rules, because without them there would be nothing to break.  He is charming, he is smart, and he is loving.  He will make a mighty fine adult some day, if we can keep him alive that long.

But there are going to be some mighty tough teen years in the middle.  Perhaps I had better alert the police department now.