Monday, April 21, 2014

monday makes it

When I was pregnant I worried mostly about Frances and Gabriel, and how I would surely neglect them when the new baby came. Only occasionally could I muster up sufficient imagination to wonder whether or not I'd have enough to give this new mystery person inside me. I didn't know her yet, so I didn't sweat it too much. I joked that she'd have to roll with things, she'd have to be adaptable; otherwise she'd really cramp our style.

But then she came and I loved her so much, just like the others, and she's not adaptable - if by adaptable I meant easy - because she's a baby. She yells. She insists on having her own bowl and spoon at the table and then after two bites flings them to the floor, sending yogurt or avocado flying. She slaps on the sliding glass door and hollers til someone takes her outside and pushes her in the swing. But oddly enough, because she is our darling baby, most of the time we understand all this as part of her charm.

She is the one I left to go to work with someone besides Mike. Four days a week she goes to Danielle's house, where she plays with Danielle and her kids (they are like her second family, her little blonde almost-siblings) and their friends. Then the weekend is busy: chores, playdates, T ball games, neighbors, church, Taco Sunday, backyard play. Beatrice comes along for the ride, missing naps, eating things like cheddar bunnies way before her brother and sister had made their dazzling aquaintance, logging lots of time in the car, and being generally exposed to all kinds of action. Occasionally Mike and I look at each other and ask: do we indulge her too much? does she eat too much sugar? Would she be walking and talking if we spent more one-on-one time with her? Is the chaos of the week too much?

But then, but then, while many people end their Sunday evenings feeling a bit of reluctance, even dread, about the work/school week that will begin in the morning, I think about Monday and smile. Monday is our day. Monday is the day I pretend to be a stay at home mom, and it feels so good.

I recognize that if I sat in the sandbox with Beatrice, chased her with a washcloth while she dodged and yelped, covered in hummus, and had no one but her to talk to everyday, I'd probably be pretty itchy about now. But since I only get to do it once a week, it feels so fleetingly delicious. Today we did an errand in the morning, played outside, brought dinner to Jess and her sweet new baby, picked up Gabriel at school where the weather was perfect and he begged to go home with a friend, nursed on a playground bench and then went home, sat at the table over mango smoothies with Frances while she and I played Uno, and finally walked with Frances in the fine spring air to pick up Gabriel at his friend's house. We ran into Mr. Dan, the world's most beloved gym teacher, and his wriggly seven month old pitbull puppy who jumped and made Beatrice cry. We met up with Mike at home, and he and Gabriel had a catch in the yard while I got dinner ready and Beatrice watched them, mesmerized.

Dinner was great. Afterwards the house was a crazy mess and I couldn't clean up a thing because Beatrice wanted to play a game where I crouch nearby and she fall-walks into my arms. Oh, so very close to walking! It was joyful and marvelous, the way she lurched forward, led by her big belly, and laughed every time she made the six or seven inches safely into my arms. Heaven.

Happy Monday, happy spring!

Monday, April 14, 2014

moving parts

On any given day, so many things can happen to five different people living together in one house. 

It's 9:15 on a Monday night, and I just got off the phone with a very nice man named Eric at Maryland Poison Control (a terrific public service that I have never, incidentally, called before). He reassured me that the broken CFL bulb shattered all over the rug in Frances's room was seriously - no, seriously - not a problem. 

Did I clean it up? Yes, yes, according to the EPA website's recommendations, yes. 

Well then, you're fine. 

I am? What about how Gabriel apparenty picked up a piece and tossed it in the trash?

Fine.

You're sure? 

Ma'am. None of your children are poisoned.   

Well, that's one worry to check off the list. I mean, if this guy Eric is trustworthy. He did sound rather authoritative. But can you blame me if every bit of something or other on the floor that glitters in the light has me breaking out the duct tape, back on my hands and knees again?

Before Eric, I was leaving messages for the two babysitters I am coordinating for tomorrow, as it is spring break and each day brings a new creative arrangement for the older children. And before that I was duct-taping every inch of Frances's floor while she cried that I was scaring her and did she have mercury poisoning (I wasn't sure at that point) and why couldn't she just go to sleep already? And before that I did Gabriel's bedtime routine - after we finished Pinky Pye and immediately, per the dear boy's request, began Ginger Pye all over again because he can't bear to be separated from Jerry and Rachel Pye after spending so much delightful time with them.

And before that? Beatrice's bedtime, after she had hollered through dinner. And before dinner? I gave Beatrice a bath, in the hopes that she'd chill out and stop being such a big fuss, and during said bath she pooped. That's right, pooped. In the water that was intended to make her sticky, sandy, chubby little body clean. With Gabriel by my side, yelping and laughing. And so between the bath and the dinner there was a massive amount of clean up, disinfection, and a second bath for the pooper with terrible timing.

I could keep going, but I won't. It happens to be Monday, and Mike teaches on Monday nights, leaving me to handle mercury vapors and the like on my own. After a 5 or 6 hour run like this, a person needs to sit down and ... what? Breathe, I guess.

Oh readers, today was pretty great. It began at Kinder Farm Park with friends, a snack food free-for-all, and piglet sightings. The weather was gorgeous. The kids were happy, and generally kept on being happy as the day continued. In the scheme of things I have no complaints whatsoever. Nonetheless ... this great day? It wore me out.

Monday, April 7, 2014

big girl

A little over a month ago, the skin around my mouth started looking red, raw, and irritated. I thought it might have to do with a new moisturizer, so I stopped using it and waited. The redness spread. Turns out the technical name is perioral dermatitis and it can happen for a number of hazy reasons, typically to women around my age. I finally made it to the dermatologist last week and I've been duly applying medicated cream twice a day, to no discernible positive effect as of yet.

I think talking about one's medical problems is terrible form, and nearly always boring (apologies!), but I bring it up now because despite my best efforts to ignore it, weeks of having an unsightly rash on my face is really bringing me down. It's stirring up my inner nine year old, a girl who hunches her shoulders and cringes a little before the camera.

I had a quite a few inches in height and probably twenty pounds on nearly all of my friends in elementary school. I could wear my mother's shoes in the second grade. (My size 11/12 feet remain the one extraordinary remnant of that time, still amazingly long on my more moderately-sized frame).  When I was a younger kid, I often liked being 'big' - I could pick up all my friends and was unstoppable at Red Rover, Red Rover (which, incidentally, may have been outlawed since the wild and free 80s - have you ever heard your kids mention it?). But by the time I was nine or ten, I was terribly self-conscious. No one had yet caught up with me, and my mother's insistence that my roundness was simply a case of persistent 'baby fat' just wasn't persuasive anymore. I can hear my grandfather's authoritative voice at the long Thanksgiving table around that time, ringing out after an excruciating back-and-forth between my incredulous relatives about - can memory truly serve here? - my shoe size, clothing size, and good gracious, weight. "What do you want??" he boomed. "She's a BIG GIRL!"

Well, that settled it. End of discussion.

When I first had Frances, I felt a sense of relief when it came to my own worries. I focused so much energy on the baby, there wasn't much left over to dedicate to the kind of little self-critical things that can set up shop in one's mind: everything from past failings to squishy thighs. I couldn't do a lot of self-directed hand-wringing because I was exhausted. It seemed like a good thing; a break from myself.

After settling into parenthood, all those discomforts did quiet down and find new footing. I focus my attention on others now more than ever, but sometimes that small insistent voice that says there is something wrong with you, and people can tell just by looking pipes up. As if the flaws of my body, or clothes or shoes or skin, are clues pointing to something deep and shameful about me. Most of the time I'm too connected to others, too caught up in the richness of life, and too dang busy for that voice to really undermine things, but every so often it finds an opening and takes it.

Sometimes I use my children as a shield to protect myself from that voice. (This is occurring to me for the first time now, nearly nine years into motherhood.) The thing is, I find them so perfectly beautiful. Their bodies, their faces, everything about them delights my eyes. I have a tendency to stand behind them in photos. It's a weird thing. My children arrived by way of my body, but they are most definitely not me. Yet maybe I would rather people associate their grace and beauty with me than my own face with me. It's strange, it's long, it's asymmetrical; it's the face of a big girl. Why not look at this dependably sweet mug instead?
Today was one of those days when the defenses were down. It rained and rained, the baby yelled and screamed for no reason and refused to nap, Frances and I got into a fight after school, and my red chin kept catching my eye in the rearview mirror. Ugly, ugly.

I think it's hard to be honest about how we think of ourselves, especially body image stuff, after a certain point in life. On a mama blog, indulging in concerns about beauty should be capped with some hard-won wisdom about how family life is indeed more sustaining and real than flawless skin, right? Or maybe something about how bad things were until I found a juice fast, or Pilates, or meditation? But the sad truth is I have no happy tidy ending to all this! 

All I can say is it was bad, and hard to shake, until it was better. Here's what made it better: stumbling on Belle and Sebastian in the car on the way to church this evening, singing along to those songs from another era as we inched across the Severn River, and then spending open unstructured time with kids and teens and adults in the Parish Hall while Frances practiced with the choir and Gabriel crafted with his favorite octogenarian. Somehow the best part was after dinner, settling an exhausted and sticky Beatrice into the lap of one of the sweetest girls in youth group while I gathered our things and chatted with her mother. Simple, easy, genuine connection. Perioral dermititis be damned.

Grace? Maybe grace.   

Saturday, March 22, 2014

giving everything

The other night I wasn't ready to settle into my novel. (War and Peace, can you believe it? Gabriel was born halfway through; nearly six years later, I am trying again). So I casually started flipping through the New Yorker and ended up reading Anthony Lane's profile of Scarlett Johansson.

At first I felt mildly disoriented by the tone, but found I couldn't stop reading, despite a mounting sense of unease and vague moral ick. By reading the profile I was participating in Lane's drooling objectification of someone that I assume has thoughts and feelings of her own. Oh, it was so weird and unsettling. Later Mike told me he'd read a critique in Slate so I guess I wasn't the only one to pick up on his "inappropriate uncle-creepiness."

Anyway. The beginning of the piece described the photographer directing Johansson to "give me nothing...absolutely nothing." As in, wipe the expression from your face. Empty out your eyes. Lane admires her ability to instantly vacate and muses that in giving nothing, she in fact gives everything.
What does that mean? Gives all the power to the viewer, and the viewer's fantasies? Suddenly I began seeing models in magazine ads who had been directed to give nothing all over the place. Parted lips, staring eyes, completely expressionless. 

And I am just about the least sophisticated cultural critic you'll find, and I guess this is old news to you and your dog too, but Lane's version of "giving everything" makes me want to cry. It's violence, it's dehumanizing, and once you start to notice, it's everywhere. Why do we like to look at women with nothing behind their eyes? Don't answer, I know, and it's awful. 

When my children fight I tell them to apologize while looking at each other with love in their hearts. When they aren't ready to make up they can't look at each other at all, because their eyes are, like most people I know, the windows to their souls. 

Their faces register a thousand feelings, and especially with new little Beatrice, when we lock eyes her heart is wide open. Such a penetrating, unguarded stare! She really does give everything, and without a thought one freely gives everything in return.
But I think that is because she is human, and because she is loving and loved. Asking her (or anyone) to affect deadness where there is so much overflowing life would be to make her less human. 

Am I making too much of this? Mike is away this weekend and I am coming off a beautiful warm spring day spent outdoors with my kids, followed by a lovely evening in which I decided to just say yes and let them stay up too late watching a movie (My Neighbor Totoro, we adored every minute). I am finishing this day with a blessed sense of connection and gratitude. So I might be extra sensitive to the cultural forces that work to separate us and encourage us to perceive women as husks, as less-than-human. But at least tonight, I am determined to sheild my daughters (and my son!) from all the pictures of nothing people, at whom you cannot look with love in your heart.