Tuesday, July 15, 2014

ever farther, ever closer

About a week ago, Beatrice started responding to me with a funny little affirmative expression that sounds like yeppie. As in, Beatrice, would you like to come outside with me? She nods vigorously and grins, saying Yeppie! It's most often used when she really, really wants the thing that I am proposing: a song at naptime, a nurse, some water after coming in from the hot afternoon.

Was she making the already casual "yep" into a diminutive? Did her little toddler brain somehow get that putting "ie" on the ends of words makes them cuter? Maybe it was just her own odd little made-up word.

But then the other day, as she toddled through the house while calling Mama? Mama? Mama! (as she is wont to do) and I heard myself respond Yes? Yeah, Bea? Yeah, Bea, I'm here (as I am wont to do) - it finally hit me. Yeppie is Yeah Bea. It is the reassuring response she gets every time she calls my name as she ventures farther and farther afield. It's her toddler sonar. Mama? -Yes. Another step. Mama? -Yeah, Bea. Four more stairs. Mama? -Yeah, Bea. Top of the stairs ... then a hurtling chest-first veer into her big sister's room, where she finds chapstick and jewelry and stickers and becomes quiet in her focused destruction.

Yeah, Bea. It's okay. Keep going, keep coming back. I'll be here waiting for you.
Her language is exploding; her cognitive breakthroughs astound us. With every new word she acquires, it is as if the world becomes sharper, brighter, more vivid and alluring. Everything has a name; everything is more extraordinary than she ever supposed! Tonight she identified the backs of some children in a book we were reading, then wanted to rub all of our backs. Back, back, back! After we said our goodnights I brought her upstairs, where we settled into our rocking and nursing and singing routine. She kept pulling off, looking at the door, looking at me, and smiling. After awhile, she lifted her top arm and waved towards the door, pulling off to smile and say Night night, Papa, and then turn back to nurse. It was as if she was putting it all together: even though we're in a different room,  I know Papa and Gabriel and Frances are still downstairs, and even when I sleep, they are nearby. How about that, Mama? Isn't that terrific?

Along with all her new understanding and independence - her utter delight in running away from me -  has come unprecedented fear and anger when I leave her.  The agonies of separation anxiety are nothing short of awful, for everyone involved. I never leave the house unaccompanied by screams of protest. We are in the thick of extraordinary, fascinating, delightful rapprochement - and it can be harrowing. (Especially when faced with coming up with a new child care arrangement when work resumes in about five weeks - oh dear, oh dear - but that is for another post). 

Mike thinks yeppie is, in fact, yes please. It might be. It might be yeah, Bea and yes, please, depending on the context. She is that smart, that subtle! Or maybe the manners/social cues part of her brain is starting to come into focus and the phrase is shifting in meaning. Things happen that fast around here. A sixteen month old person is a wonder!  

Monday, June 9, 2014

for that we came

Mike has been participating in a faculty study group on poetry these past weeks, and I often hear him repeating a line in the next room, or bouncing down the stairs on feet that fly in iambic pentameter, providing emphasis to a verse that he is quietly reciting to himself. But when it comes to this Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, long a favorite, he tends to belt it out, complete with poetry slam stylings.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is -- 
Christ -- for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

On Saturday afternoon we brought the kids to Swarthmore. Its not a big reunion year for either of us, but it is for the institution (a sesquecentennial! how often does one get to use that word?), which attracted two of our most dear far-flung friends, which in turn attracted us. 

The campus is unbelievably beautiful. There were trees that had magically sprung up since our last visit, lush ferns and hostas spilling over in their shade as if they had been there forever. There were new clumps of native plants swaying in the June breeze along Magill, and gardens that seemed to be extensions of the grand trees of the Crum Woods, only but slightly more formal and forthright in their sense of invitation. I know there is a lot of money and planning behind these wooded areas, but on an emotional level the spaces felt inevitable in their particularity, abundance, and beauty. The trees selved. Like kingfishers catching fire, so was the movement of their limbs, the greenness of the canopy they formed. 

On Sunday we stayed at Mike's parents' house in nearby Wilmington and that afternoon, went for a long walk through a neighborhood that was formed as an artists' colony long ago. It was full of unusual gardens, old trees, and brilliantly bumper-stickered cars. There was sculptures tucked into thickets of ferns, walls painted bright colors, and houses that had clearly been built on and creatively added to more than once. Each space was deeply personal, yet connected to neighbors and community spaces so gracefully. How was it that I'd never walked those quiet streets before?

I felt like myself with those friends, in those spaces. It was a reminder of the importance of beauty - something that can get neglected in the hubbub of everyday life. Kids need to get fed, transported, bathed, clothed - who has time for beauty in this constant whirl?  But this weekend I experienced people, places, nature, and art that were stunning in their strangeness, their expression of something perfectly personal and full of grace. 

A split level in one of Annapolis's sprawling neighborhoods cannot exude the same sort of beauty and weight that I responded to so deeply over the weekend, but that's okay. It can have it's own. It seems to me a question of discerning what kind of self wants to be selved, and nurturing that process along - not only for the garden, the interior spaces, the trees in the backyard, but for each other, for our children. What they do is them; for that they came!

It's loose, I know - a hazy sense that the creative and nurturing work of growing a family and a home is simply allowing things and people to continue becoming what they are (the result of which is unavoidably beautiful) (and the enemy of which is doing what one does). But it inspired me in a broad range of activities today: picking arugula and radish flowers for the table, procuring unexpected paint samples for Beatrice's room, and thinking more about protecting the children's time so that they can do things like build fairy houses by a brook (which is exactly what they did on Sunday, with rare peacefulness and cooperation).   

Monday, June 2, 2014


Hello! Hello, hello. Remember me? I used to have two little kids, and I would occasionally write here about parenting quandaries having to do with things like school, discipline, food, community, friends, and naps. Then you all would comment and inquire, and conversations sometimes unfolded, and I loved the clarity, support, and solidarity that emerged. 

Remember that?

Now I have one baby, two medium-sized kids, and one part-time job, and somehow the time to reflect and bring my questions and insights, triumphs and disappointments to you proves elusive. It's not just about a busier life though; something about having school-aged children changes things. Their voices become ever more distinct and independent; the family conversation includes them in a new way. It's no longer me and two little irrational creatures figuring out what to do all day; it's me and four other people with countless needs and expectations, navigating a busy kitchen where we reconverge most days around 4 pm.  

But! Perhaps in anticipation of Summer, tonight I harken back to the days of yore and bring you a simple story about the latest development in our historically patchy and inconsistent efforts to get our kids to behave. Nicely. I present to you - the Marble Jar.
One day a couple of months ago I was meeting with my social work supervisor, completely distracted by how mean Frances had been to her brother that morning and how clueless I felt about how to help her behave with kindness. So I asked for her help. She works with a lot of kids and families and suggested something so concrete and so simple that we never would have thought of it in a million years.

Gabriel doesn't actually need much help on the kindness front, but I didn't want to single out Frances, and he does need to do a better job of putting his things away, so they both got a jar. Every morning I put five marbles in each jar. Five marbles just for waking up in the morning and being their own excellent selves.

Marbles are removed or added depending on behavior throughout the day. If Gabriel remembers to put his shoes away, or cooperates cheerfully when I ask him to clean up or set the table, he gets a marble. If Frances volunteers to help one of her siblings with something or is spontaneously supportive or kind, she gets a marble. 
There is a line duct-taped one-third of the way up the jar, and then two-thirds of the way up. These lines represent smallish rewards, and then once the jar is entirely filled there will be some kind of amazing and awesome and as-yet undefined experience in store, not to mention (I hope) a sense of accomplishment. 
Gabriel filled his jar to the one-third line first. He debated requesting a family bike ride. He considered a special night-time swim. Then he settled on the very best possible reward: an epic battle. Every knight and dragon and horse in the house vs. our family (minus Beatrice, who just wouldn't get it - so we battled during her naptime). 
Gabriel wanted Mama and Papa to help him set up every stray plastic knight, forming them into one ragtag (yet formidable) army, arrayed across the playroom floor. Standards were flying, dragons were spitting fire, and a dopey wooden king sat on the battlements and watched it all. 

Then, once it was perfect, Gabriel explained we would be using crossbows and catapults to knock every warrior to bits. Not a single knight would remain standing! Frances, who was unwilling to involve herself directly, agreed to play the musical accompaniment on her recorder while we shot and threw things at the army, eventually heaving plastic toys across the room, sending the bigger figures flying. Shock and awe, people.
In the middle of it all Gabriel looked up at me and said, Mama, I've been thinking about this battle since I was three years old. And now we're finally doing it. Let's do this every Sunday afternoon!

It was the perfect reward for him, our dear boy who wants nothing more than time with his family.

Does the marble jar system work? I'm not sure. I do think Frances has been more mindful about how mean her words can be, and she has definitely been more cooperative and willing to help out around the house. It's striking how meaningful a physical representation of positive reinforcement can be - these days, the clink of a marble dropping into a jar is a powerful sound.

Indulge me, friends, for old time's sake: now you. How is everyone behaving in your house? Has a sticker chart/marble jar/gold star system ever actually worked for anyone? And does anyone have the discipline and commitment to have actually stuck with one of these behavior modification techniques?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

greener grass

On occasion, Mike (and other friends with multiple kids) and I have thrown each other knowing looks, chuckled with the satisfied been-there-done-that confidence of middle age and said, "Remember when we just had one? And we thought it was so hard? We had no idea! One was a breeze! Ha ha ha!"

Maybe that's why I thought making the transition from working during the day to mostly being at home with Beatrice would be pure, unadulterated, leisurely heaven. No more returning home at 4:30 pm to bits of breakfast left on the table, coffee grinds scattered on the counter, jackets piled by the door where a kid left them after searching for one particular item on the way out that morning. No more of the mad hurtle towards dinner: overseeing homework, loading the dishwasher, fetching snacks, chopping onions, listening to two big kids talk at once, wondering if I did the right things at work, all with a clingy baby on my hip who cannot bear to be put down.

Well, of course she couldn't bear to be put down! I had missed her all day, too.

At first, after the semester ended, I felt odd. The relentless pace quieted down abruptly, leaving space for me to wonder about things like the threadbare, stained couch cushions (couches - where does one get couches?) and the eternal problem of finding a lunch Frances will eat at school. I began checking out new cookbooks at the library again, and thinking about strawberry picking. Creative domestic energies flowed in to the small spaces that working life had dominated for so long. It's a pleasure to re-inhabit that pace and focus.
However. It turns out one baby actually is hard. Did I really look back and laugh at my hand-wringing first-time parent self, wondering what all the fuss was about?

She never wants me to put her down. She sees me all day and she never wants me to put her down. She adores Mike and Frances and Gabriel, but if she is playing with them and I leave the room she shrieks and hightails it after me. I can make an after-school smoothie with one hand, I can maneuver the stroller full of library books and backpacks with one hand - but I don't enjoy it.

I remember a good talk, years ago, with a fellow social worker who had decided to stay home full time with her son after having worked full time. She told me staying home was the right thing for her and her family, but sometimes she felt as if all she did was move things from one room to another, all day long.

I didn't get it then, but now I do. I spent at least an hour of precious naptime today moving things around my house: laundry from the basement to the kids' rooms, dirty sheets from their rooms back to the basement, a stray Lego to the Lego box, a bottle of vitamins that had been kicked to the corner back to the cabinet, a stack of old homework to the recycling bin, a stack of dirty dishes from the dining room table to the dishwasher. And one has to spend naptime moving stuff from one room to another when the baby cannot bear to be put down, because it is too hard to stoop repeatedly with only one hand free and 24 pounds of baby on your hip. So I kick and nudge things out of the way instead.
Friends, acquaintances, readers - if I ever laughed in an annoying way and suggested to you that life with a baby is way easy - I apologize. That was total baloney. 

(I say baloney now instead of bullshit. I really do.)

The Blue Angels have been flying around overhead the last couple of days. It's been a few years since they have flown during Commissioning Week here in Annapolis. I first saw them fly low, in a dizzyingly tight formation of four, while sitting with Beatrice in our backyard sandbox yesterday. She nearly leaped out of her skin. It sent me right back to being outside, watching them with Gabriel, who at two thought they were nothing short of amazing. I feel his little boy thrill when I see them today.  

And I remember all the open space we had together, he and I, in the early days of Homemade Time. I had to learn to hold onto my own agenda but lightly when I first forayed into staying home, and I am slowly remembering how to do that now. On Monday Gabriel and I took Harry Potter and a blanket outside during Beatrice's nap. It was glorious weather. As soon as we settled down he asked if we could have a conversation together instead of reading.

We stretched out in the sun and talked about everything and nothing, the sun soaking into my brain, making me feel lazy and close to my boy. Then Beatrice woke up way too early, and I felt annoyed at the interruption. But we brought her outside with us, and she climbed over her brother, showed off her new walking moves, pointed and yelped at the caterpillars he held - and it was just as perfect as it had been when she was asleep.
It could never have happened if I had been at work.