A brief illustrated history of an unimportant piece of furniture, or, I really bought quite a lot of that fabric
Today I dismantle the co-sleeper. It's the same one Charlie used, the single piece of baby furniture we had in the house when he was born. The first time we were told he was to be discharged from the hospital — oh, how we all did laugh — Paul made the drive from Connecticut to set it up. When we finally did get home, Charlie slept in it (and elsewhere as well) for a couple of months, always with one of us at his side. We were far more vigilant than his condition strictly required, but it took a long time for us to be sure that he wouldn't stop breathing just to screw with us. Charlie may have weighed only five pounds at homecoming, but four and a half of those were dastardly.
He moved down the hall to his crib, built and delivered by my father, when he was a few months old — a great relief to me because I slept very lightly with him nearby. Every unconscious grunt woke me. Every quiet sigh in his sleep. So aware was I that I'm pretty sure I could hear his cells dividing. And he performed an awful lot of mitosis. He might have looked relaxed, but on a cellular level he was actually very busy.
After Charlie finished with the co-sleeper, I sent it to Jo to use with Sophia. After she'd finished, she sent it to Ollie, who used it with Lauren. And then it came back to me just in time and in perfect shape. (Okay, it was completely encrusted with deadly, deadly girl cooties, but a diligent scraping with a putty knife restored it to near-mint condition.)
So I set it up for Ben. But two months in, he's slept everywhere but. For the first ten days, when I was nursing, I slept next to him every night in the den. Then once Paul and I began splitting the overnight shift, Ben's spot was a pallet on one sofa while the parent on duty slept on the other. (Or rather Ben would start the night in his nest, then inevitably end up with his head nestled in a grown-up armpit.) Then, because I missed, in no particular order, my husband and my Egyptian cotton sheets, we started putting him in the crib, first for naps, and then at night.
This morning I realized the extent to which I've been using the co-sleeper as a repository for the items I like to have at my bedside. It was one thing to lay my glasses there at bedtime so that I didn't have to fumble for them in the night when Ben wakes. It's another thing entirely to have to paw through a tube of hand lotion, a pot of lip balm, a box of Kleenex, a water bottle (sport cap, alas, left open), a tawdry Regency romance novel, a set of car keys, a sheet of $.37 self-adhesive stamps, a dog-eared map of the Paris Métro, a white Christmas, a blue Christmas, and an eggbeater to find them. (About the eggbeater: Hey, don't knock it 'til you've tried it.) It's time to put the co-sleeper away.
This doesn't pack the sentimental wallop that certain other transitions have had. (Already Ben has outgrown several of the hand-me-down treasures I loved first on Charlie, then on him. Gosh, it all goes so fast when you're not wishing you were dead.) I just don't have much of an investment in the co-sleeper. After all, like poor Bart Simpson in the bed his father built [WAV], Ben never slept all that well in it anyway.
Probably too young to be tried as an adult
Julie, falsetto: Iiiii know a boy who's stuck in Folsom Prison! Yes, I do! Yes yes yes I do! Who is it? Who could it be? Let's guess! Let's guess! Is iiiiit...you? [Index finger on the tip of Ben's nose.] Who shot a man in Reno just to watch him die? Was it you? Was it? [Gasp.] It was?!
Paul: You think he looks like he belongs behind bars?
Julie: I do! [Falsetto, to America's youngest jailbird.] Iiiii surely do! You know you had it comin'! You know you can't be free! No, you cannot! Cannot! [Normal tone.] You don't?
Paul: No. I really see him more as a Hamburglar in training.
You can be active with the activists or sleep in footed sleepers
Hi! So! That was awesome, huh? Glad you liked it, because as it happens, I have a lot more to say about abortion, politics, and the upcoming elec—whoa! Hey! Was that a picture of a cute baby?
All right. Now what was I going to...? Wasn't there something I...? Huh. Well. That's strange. I seem to have completely forgotten what I was going to write.
Oh, well. I'm a little incoherent right now, anyway, given the four overnight wakeups we had last night. (Ben: 2. Charlie: 1. Cat licking my face, like, goddamnit, cat, I know where you put that tongue: 1.) Paul is off at a class so I'm savoring my first taste of solo parenting. It hasn't been nearly as grueling as I'd expected it to be. Why, Charlie's much more skilled at using the stove than most almost-four-year-olds, not that you'd know it to hear the way the people at the emergency room were carrying on, and Ben holds his liquor even better than I do.
Kidding. Kidding! Three shots and he was under the table. Lightweight.
Next real post in a couple of days.
Traveling and unraveling
Whoa, hey, that was kind of a long hiatus, huh? Sorry about that. I got a little sidetracked, what with holding the first-round auditions for performers, renting a fleet of chauffeur-driven bumper cars, and doing exhaustive background checks on ponies for Charlie's birthday party.
Thanks very much for all your helpful advice about that. We'll be keeping it simple: no more than five guests, no longer than two hours, no structured games, no clever theme, and no motherfucking goody bags. Eat some cake, pop some balloons, wreck my house, and go. Doesn't that sound like fun?
Actually I spent the last week in Louisiana. My mother has moved down there to take care of my grandmother, who had a stroke two days before they were slated to visit me. (Planning a trip to my house? I must say I don't advise it.) It was a difficult eight days; Charlie was on unfamiliar turf, and acted out most outrageously, so much so that even the cleaning lady was darkly advising me that I don't spank him enough. (From an anti-rod-sparing perspective, I guess "none at all" would pretty much be the very definition of "not enough.") Mom succumbed to an agonizing toothache the evening we arrived, which put her completely out of commission for the first few days. And Grandma has started, alas, to lose it.
From moment to moment when talking to her, you can't easily tell which effects are from the stroke and which are from encroaching Alzheimer's, which runs in our family — not that it matters when the result is the same. Although it's wrenching and sad, I know it could be much worse; still true to her nature, she's happy. There is even sometimes a surreal humor to it: watching her and Charlie attempt to talk to each other, all non sequiturs, impatient repetition, and puzzled looks, was funnier than Waiting for Godot. (Of course, perhaps I'm not the best judge, since I happen to think dropping an anvil on my foot would be funnier than Waiting for Godot.)
So it was a difficult trip to take, but utterly worthwhile. When Charlie wasn't busy inspiring strangers to comment on how richly he deserved a wallopin', he was a real delight, sharing his innate gift for joy with anyone who needed some. Ben was only delicious, spending the vast majority of his time on some lap or other discovering his fingers, snoozing peacefully, or laughing, and holy Jesus gay, nothing could have been more welcome. I loved seeing my mother and witnessing her relationship with Charlie, which he and I both treasure. And Grandma — well, as off-kilter as she is, it helped me to see she's okay, where "okay" is, of course, relative.
I still have two suitcases to unpack, phone calls to return, and three pairs of underpants to launder from yesterday, when Charlie apparently decided that depositing his urine in the appropriate receptacle was optional. (Gosh, I'm glad he brought his acting-out home. I'd have hated to leave that behind.) More pressingly, on the baby monitor I hear Ben criticizing his mobile in decidedly acid tones. So I will leave you now with the announcement that I'll have a really great giveaway here this week — do check back — and a compelling photographic example of why children are not permitted to sit in the exit row on airplanes.
Make with the presents or Mrs. Claus gets it
Dear Santa Claus,
Please bring me a tape recorder. And maybe some other stuff. [Pause.] This note is to remind you. [Longer pause.] Now do what I say.
— Charlie, dictating his 2008 letter to Santa (first draft)
Christmas kicked my ass. Oh, it was a magical whirl of childlike wonder, to be sure, but that whirl was brought about by a great deal of work indeed. It wasn't so much Christmas itself that did me in; it was Christmas plus the day after, when we had sixteen people over for two roast turkeys, two kinds of dressing, three vegetables, five kinds of cookies, one hopped-up preschooler, one freaked-out infant, and one dinner napkin on fire.
Flaming damask aside, everyone fervently agreed that it was the best family Christmas in years. It was worth it to see Paul's high-strung sister drink a glass of wine without touching it with her lips. To hear Charlie, a genial host, conversationally ask the group the next morning, "What do you think you'd like for breakfast, guys?" To know that I could lob Ben into the festive crowd and know, whoever had him, that he'd be happy and well cared for. To miss the Christmases we used to have, but not, all things considered, too much.
But it was hard. This was only our second Christmas at home, and the first was determinedly low-key. Without any practice, then, we didn't really know how to do it without fumbling through many of the details. I muffed the cookie-baking, forgetting a life-threatening nut allergy. The present I was happiest about giving Charlie fell flat. And because all my energy had been focused on the feast we'd have the day after, our Christmas day lunch — "Oh, yeah. Uh, lunch. Well. Huh." — prominently featured Annie's Shells and Cheddar.
So the holiday wasn't perfect. But then it didn't need to be. I learned really good is really great. And if Christmas nearly felled me, I got in a few licks, too. "Christmas kicked my ass," I told Paul, sagging against him when the last guest had left sometime Saturday afternoon. "I don't know," he said, and rubbed my back. "I think Christmas limped away with a few broken bones itself."
Charlie did get the tape recorder he so sweetly demanded of Santa. (Why, yes, we do lie to our son about a big sloppy stranger who invades children's homes on the holiest night of the year and tempts them with expensive playthings. Doesn't everyone? I have no regrets. The bigger Christmas whopper by far was the one I told just before bedtime Christmas Eve: "Hm, Charlie looks like he might have a bit of a rash. Do you think he needs some Benadryl, Paul?")
In the grips of a giddy muse, Charlie immediately sprawled on the rug and laid down a Christmas track [.MP3, 524KB]. (His trusty sideman, who might otherwise have accompanied him on bells, was, alas, napping at the time.)
I hope, if you celebrate, that your Christmas was a good one. And I hope, if you don't, that you got a good laugh out of us foolish bastards who do.
It was a point of honor with my dad to save his shopping for Christmas Eve. In the early years that meant scouring the nearly-stripped shelves of Sears for the few things that hadn't been bought. (Dad: "Do you think your mom would like this spice rack?" Julie: "Well..." Dad, a little desperately: "But it comes with a jar of fenugreek!")
Now, of course, all the stores are open and thronged. In more recent years he'd pick up his keys and ask, "Who wants to go on a run?" And I always went, happily but rolling my eyes, knowing him to be not thoughtless but clueless. I wanted to go, but I had to, as well, if my mother weren't to receive, say, the biggest gift box of whatever cloud of celebrity perfume my dad first stumbled through upon arrival at the mall. ("Ohhh, Janet Reno's Incursion! How nice! Thank you!...And the dusting powder. Lovely...And the bath oil. Thanks...And the deodorant? Hmm...Aaaaaand the greaseless antifungal salve.") It's a tradition I miss, this mad Christmas Eve dash, but one I don't care to carry on, since the heart of it was my dad.
The tradition that sprung up alongside it was the Christmas Eve meal of chili. My mom would make a big pot, and it sat on the stove and simmered all through the afternoon and evening, to be eaten when we were ready, between trips to Radio Shack — "I wonder if your mom needs a new pocket-sized digital multimeter...But, look! It even does capacitance testing!" — and frantic eleventh-hour present-wrapping. That one I do miss, for everything it signified: not only warmth, bounty, and easygoing hospitality but the graceful accommodation of a family's longstanding foibles.
We want our own traditions, but haven't figured out yet how to make a start. What are your most beloved traditions? Do you mind if I steal a few? Because listen up, Christmas: next year I'm coming out swinging.
When I picked Charlie up from day care a couple of days ago, the kids were out on the playground. He and two particular friends can usually be found raising a low-grade preschool kind of hell, and that day was no exception; the three of them were rocketing around in the snow brandishing impotent bendy twigs. "They're not allowed to run with sticks," a teacher explained, "but we didn't think those qualified."
They did qualify, however, as mighty badass weapons in the kids' imagination. (The effect was spoiled only a little by the borrowed girls' purple snow pants Charlie was wearing, his own having been forgotten at home. It was spoiled much more by the fact that he hadn't bothered to slip his arms through the straps, so that the pants billowed around his ankles, hobbling his maneuvers considerably.) Turns out they were playing army. What that means, I'm sure Charlie and his friends don't truly know. But they knew enough to point their sad little branches at each other and get all shouty about it. I'll admit it: it was actually kind of cute, this fumbling aggression, in a "he thinks he's people" sort of way. But we don't use weapons, I reminded him, and we don't even pretend to hurt other people. "But what about bad guys?" Charlie asked in an aggrieved tone, as if I had just demanded that violent criminals be allowed to roam free, gaily marauding their way across the countryside, unhindered by a four-year-old poking them tentatively with three inches of flexing newborn pine. But while I am soft on crime, I'm notoriously tough on refusal-to-drop-stick-as-directed. I confiscated his weapon, hustled him along, and tried not to laugh as he told his friends sadly, "This army has to go home now with its parent." Stand down, Corporal Greenwood. Stand down.
All well and good for Charlie to want to participate in this paramilitary youth movement, but it baffles me. Military service entails two of the things I most abhor: getting up early in the morning and being shouted at. I'm pretty sure if Charlie ever tries to enlist, they'll run a blood test, examine his DNA, and find my laziness and lack of respect for authority so entangled in every strand that they'll laugh him out of the recruitment center. Or maybe tell him to try the Coast Guard.
Speaking of being shouted at, I gave Charlie a time-out a few evenings ago. He'd stalled and protested and argued about washing his hands before supper, which, I mean, kid, what the hell? We do it dozens of times a day. "You'll never make me wash my hands!" he declared, refusing to be led over to the sink. And, hey, if this is the colorful plastic stepstool you want to die on, fine. "No supper until you do," I told him in a tone of polite regret.
And then the shouting. At...at me! A barrage of what would have been invective if the poor kid had known any. (Note to self: Have mercy. Teach the child a darn or two.) Feeling fairly zero-tolerance about the whole hollering-at-adults thing, I delivered a harsh and unforgiving justice in the form of a time out, three minutes' hard time to be served on the back stairs.
The worst part for Charlie was that Paul and I started eating without him. He could see us from where he sat, and it drove him bats. I am trying very hard to raise a polite child: he may end up an unregenerate stick-poker, but by God, he will be courteous in the stabbing. So it amuses me to think that he was at least as offended by the rudeness as he was by the ostracism. "You never start eating until everyone is at the table and ready to begin," he raged, a young Emily Pissed-Off Post. I have to remember this, I thought, next time I'm flailing around for consequences. Next time, if I really want to make him crazy, I'll have him compose a handwritten invitation to some function or other. And then I won't acknowledge it. No, I know, even worse: I'll tell him maybe.
And! Speaking of getting up early in the morning! Which we were not, really! But I wanted to talk about babies. A baby. Ben specifically. Now, babies in general, however enchating they may be, are also an enormous pain in the ass. (I know, stop the goddamned presses: LOCAL MOTHER DISCOVERS BABIES INCONVENIENT, CUTE.) But as babies go — as wake-you-up-cry-a-lot-oh-God-please-stop-its go — Ben is easy. While he is not yet sleeping through the night, he usually naps nicely during the day. He's smiley, playful, and easygoing. He visibly enjoys things: baths, meals, seeing the cat, being taken out in the cold, lunging unexpectedly for my coffee mug. And he's gotten very good at a little game I like to call There's Something on Your Head, in which someone puts something on his head and he utterly fails to notice it. Easy.
Ben's babyhood is making me a little bit wistful about Charlie's. I have a keener sympathy now for the baby Charlie was now that I see how pleasant infant life can be, socks on head notwithstanding. Charlie was miserable for the first several months with colic and reflux, sick and sad, tended by anxious parents who didn't know how to help him. I wish he could have had it easy, too.
And! Speaking of didn't have it easy! Charlie has known for some time now that his birth was somewhat irregular. We've taken him by the hospital in Norwalk where he was born. We've shown him some pictures of his NICU days, the ones where he's sporting a simple feeding tube or nasal canula — none of the hardcore arm-board bili-mask times, but the less upsetting ones. He knows he was born early, and that he spent more time in the hospital than most babies do, and I thought that was pretty much it. I thought we'd been matter-of-fact.
But then at breakfast the other day, we were talking about my coffee and how highly I prize its mild but noticeable stimulant effect, and how caffeine isn't generally good for children, because let's face it, nothing wonderful ever is. "But you were given some when you were a tiny baby," I allowed, and explained why he'd needed it.
"Because I'm special," he concluded, not smug like that sounds but sweetly. And, ohhhh, did I jump on that. You are special, I told him, but not because of that. You're special to us, just like every child is special to his or her parents, and there's no one exactly like you but we are each unique and marvelous, and blah blah blah until hello, Fred Rogers, you magnificent sweatered son of a bitch, now put down that sneaker and help meeeee.
I think — I hope! — I did enough to convince him that the circumstances of his birth weren't anything but an accident, and his recovery from same anything but the best, most random luck. But it made me wonder how other parents in similar situations handle it. Because while I do in many ways believe what I told him, there's a secret part of me that feels that he is special for it, even if only to me, in my awareness of how close he came to not-being, and my gratitude that he is. So how do you tell your kids their stories while keeping them from twigging? Because I'm pretty sure that "special" shit won't fly too high in the army. And probably not in the Coast Guard, either.
Hope swings eternal
Won't you sign in, stranger?
And then it got even weirder:
"It says dead because there is a poison tank under the floor," he explained, "and it's filled with poison. If you step on it you'll diiiiie." Which meant it got a little comical as I tried to convince him to pose for a picture with his project. "But it's poison," he protested in a tone of Witness! This bitch is crazy. So there he was, sensibly maintaining a safe distance from the 55-gallon drum of fugu toxin I keep in the basement for when I want to make homemade Lunchables. And there I was saying things like, "Charlie. Charlie! Go. Sit on. The poison!"
Some people want kids so they can tell a small person, "I love you." What can I say? I zig where others zag.
But our alphabetical brush with the Grim Reaper was just a funky little variation in my usual morning harangue, and I don't want to get distracted. I wanted to write a bit about the weekend. Paul took Charlie on a camping trip with a bunch of friends of his — Paul's friends, not Charlie's, although, hah, I am enjoying that mental image, calculating exactly how long it would take for the whole thing to go all Lord of the Flies, and I believe the relevant unit of measure is the zippy little picosecond — and I took Ben to Boston to see Steely Dan. Or more accurately, I took Ben to Boston and entrusted him to the tender mercies of a stranger while I went to see Steely Dan. Not only a stranger to him, but a stranger to me.
I'd said to my friend T. a few months back that they were playing in Boston and I was going to figure out a way to go to the show. The camping trip was already on the calendar, so I knew I'd need to come up with child care for Ben, possibly involving Paul's sister who lives an hour from there, possibly asking my Bostonian friends inside the computer for sitters you'd vouch for, possibly seeing if Ben could secure a one-night internship with the hotel's valet parking outfit. It wasn't entirely clear how it was all going to shake out, but shake out it surely would. And it did! Because it turns out I love Steely Dan enough to leave my child with someone I'd never met.
When I was telling T. about the concert, she said she'd be in the area and could spare a weekend, and asked if I'd like company. Now, there are many, many advantages to spending time with her. She's funny and she's game and she loves good food — oh, we went to Formaggio Kitchen, which some of you recommended a million years ago when I went to Boston with Julia, and thank you for the pointer, because although Ben didn't much care for the wedge of Vieille Chaussette or the blob of Funque Affreux, we did, oh, we did — but one of T.'s defining characteristics is that she's effective. And as soon as she was along for the ride, she was on the sitter tip.
We ended up with a college student, niece of one of T.'s friends, with whom I spoke only briefly before Saturday night. She showed up at our hotel room exactly on time, a cheerful, clear-eyed, nicely groomed young person who inspired confidence in me immediately, if not in my small son, who clung to me like a baby howler monkey to the chest fur of its mother. (No cracks about my own chest fur. It may be less luxuriant, but it is also free of vermin.)
Ben didn't want me to leave. Of course he didn't want me to leave. (He was perfectly happy for T. to leave, as he saw her quite narrowly as That Lady I'm Left Alone with While Mama Is in the Shower and Who Will Not Let Me Clamber Sobbing into the Bathtub After Her, That Perfidious Whore.) Although I'd spent almost an hour with Ben and the sitter while they got acquainted, and she got down on the floor and acted all peaceable and non-threatening-like, and she even presented him with some French fries, which is kind of like...well, kind of like giving me expensive pâté and cheese, which is to say I will happily spend the night with anyone who does it, Ben wanted absolutely no part of it.
He cried as we were leaving. He cried, the sitter reported, while he was going to sleep. That would have been before the first thrusting beats of "The Royal Scam," which opened the show. Before the nice little surprise of "Any Major Dude," a song with a lyric that felt like a lifeline now and then before our kids: "Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again," which has indeed proven true. Before I stood there among 3500 other fans, every one of us openmouthed, not believing I was hearing "Dr. Wu" live — y'all, they just do not play that song live.
(Sat there, not stood. T. and I were admonished during the concert when, moved by the music, we stood to dance. I expected this based on the last time I saw them; T., whose live music taste runs more to Springsteen, was shocked. But the only widespread dancing before the encore was a stiff little bob of the neck, about two degrees off vertical, then safely back to the upright and locked position. We are all so old and white, we Dan fans. No wonder we don't dance. Someone could break a hip.)
It's a strange feeling, leaving your kid unhappy, knowing he's going to be unhappy until he sleeps, and doing it anyway, and...not really worrying about it. That night in the hotel room, while the final encore still circled around in my head ("Dirty Water," and now that I think about it, what an incredibly unpleasant metaphor I chose, huh? That there is writing, folks), I thought about it all.
I left Ben with someone I'd never met, someone not even my friend had met. Friend of a friend of a friend, pretty much. And I didn't feel a moment of disquiet about it. I don't even know; do people even do this? (I know a surprisingly large number of people whose kids are three or four and have never been left with a sitter at all, much less someone unknown to their children, muuuuch less someone unknown to themselves.)
I started to ask why many of us don't, but instead I'll say why I did — beyond the obvious, the selfish and voracious desire to enjoy myself that must be satisfied at all costs. I did it because I trust that people are, with rare exceptions, generally good. And that I believe a good friend of my good friend wouldn't recommend her niece if she'd had any reservations about her abilities. That network of faith is, right at the moment, strong enough for me. If I think of it as a web, I can imagine putting a finger onto one ray of it, giving it a pluck, and finding it reassuringly sound. Other rays might be weaker, other fingers more sensitive, other plucks more jarring. But for the purpose I needed it to perform, this one strand held nicely.
Charlotte dies at the end, by the way. I can only blame society.
And I was also thinking about Ben crying. He cried when we left, and I knew he would; I warned the sitter that he'd probably cry at bedtime, even as he does at home with me. (90 seconds, every night, no matter what. But why? Maybe it's the toys in his crib.) And although I'm sorry in a general way that he has moments of sadness or dissatisfaction, I found myself largely unconcerned by the knowledge that he was having them in the arms of someone he didn't know, without me there to comfort him. If I'd been there he wouldn't have needed comfort — but that would have meant I wasn't out doing something that really mattered to me.
T.'s theory, and it is one I'm considering, is that it may be a mistake to overcomplexify — is that a word? — the emotions of babies, that they're not as complicated as they will be once the child has more experience of the world. That babies cry when they don't get what they want, in this case the presence of a parent. That we don't always indulge their desires, and we need not feel bad when they cry because of it. If a baby can't distinguish between wants and needs, we adults generally can, and it's up to us to make a reasonable judgment based on that. If we're good parents, we fulfill their needs. We're not bad parents if we sometimes leave their wants unsatisfied.
Ben didn't have what he wanted, but he did have what he needed, a kindly person to see him to bed and to keep him safe while he slept. If he'd been sick or laboring under a significant upset, I wouldn't have left him. If the babysitter had been scary, I would have sent her away. (The idea that he found her scary is not a reliable indicator. Sometimes he finds the meow of the cat scary. And then he cries, which freaks the cat out, so the cat runs and then hides and then keeps caterwauling from whatever sub-sofal crevice he's wedged himself into, trapped, traaaaapped, then Ben's sad that the cat is gone, like, kid, I don't get it, you were just crying because he was here, and everyone is freaked out and howling and I am left wondering why I didn't just get a nice carnivorous plant instead. I am told they cannot weep.)
Where I am going with this, I think, is that although I recognize it is self-serving for me to feel this way — because it's possible that when it comes to Steely Dan, I'd let a Venus Flytrap babysit my child, as long as it didn't show up drunk or high — I am fine with the idea of Ben being sad with a stranger for a few hours. And whoa, hey, it only took about 1500 words to say so! I must be really fine with it! Brevity really is the soul of conscientious parenting!
Now you need a breather. I need an editor. So let's go here:
Yes. Oh, yes. Whatever you say, if you'll just please God stop spelling.
Keep it simple, sweetheart
This morning Tertia wrote about how much easier it was to have a newborn the second time around. What she left out was a description of all the panicked messages she sent me before Max was born and my affectionate soothing reassurances. I didn't save any of the sessions, but I can reconstruct them pretty effortlessly:
Tertia: OMG freaking out about having newborn! Suck suck suck suck suuuuuuuuck!
Julie: Oh, please. This time around I can do it in my sleep, of which I am getting a perfectly adequate amount.
Tertia: what if i hate it?
Julie: You won't. Well, you will, but even as you do, you'll know you're full of shit, because I promise it'll be easier.
Tertia: babies cry! loudly! for no apparent reason! is inconvenient!
Julie: Only if you actually think you have to do something about it.
Tertia: magnificent mother.
Julie: Don't you have an ibex to milk or something?
It is easier this time around, everything about babyhood, exactly like everyone told me it would be. That's true for a lot of reasons, most of them obvious, all based on prior experience: you know the tough parts end; you know that one day you'll have more time to yourself, more sleep, more sex; you know how to take care of a baby; you know that even if the baby runs a high fever, develops a full-body rash, and suddenly sprouts a third eye just so he can cry more, it's probably just a virus. That experience is much more persuasive than anyone else's assurances, so while the drudgery — I mean the endlessly repetitive daily blessings, hallelujah, lo, how I love skimming vomit from the bathtub! Blueberries, aweigh! — of keeping a baby alive is the same, my feelings about it are altogether different this time. (This time I think, Could be worse. Could be hot dog.)
Only in the last couple of weeks has another aspect of this occurred to me. This may apply only to people with children spaced as mine are, but this time around I know how simple it all is. Not easy, not simple in that sense, but uncomplicated.
It's totally a matter of contrasts. Ben cries because his gums hurt from teething. Simple. But Charlie cries because...well, I don't even fucking know. Sometimes it's because he's tired and needs to go to bed. Sometimes it's because he's not tired but needs to go to bed. Sometimes it's because he's in bed and tired but he can't find the Soledad O'Brien bookmark that he has adopted as a younger sister. Sometimes it's because he's in bed and tired and Soledad — whom he has rechristened Annie, I suppose in recognition of the laudable work she's done illuminating the ethnic experience in America, like, Ellis Island much, kiddo? Kunta Kinte ringing any bells? — is lonely. And needs a friend. And a drink of water. A fresh white pantsuit straight from the dry cleaning bag. And perhaps, if it's not too much trouble, a story read to her...? Which is absurd, because Soledad O'Brien is an established television newsperson who's won several awards for her incisive work as a journalist. She can read her own damn Frog and Toad.
Or this. Ben takes a toy from another child at playgroup. I get another toy and deftly trade with Ben, returning the first toy to its original owner, before it's even occurred to the child to whimper. (Babies are kind of slow.) Ben doesn't quite absorb the extent of my treachery, and plays happily with the substitute toy. (Babies are also kind of dumb.) Simple. But when Charlie prefers not to share a toy, there's this long and delicate diplomatic procedure to follow, a tedious and intricate gambit I read about in Foreign Affairs called Ohhhhh, Yes, You Certainly Will. Explaining that we share. We take turns. We have more fun when everyone's playing nicely together. We apologize when we hurt someone's feelings, because...I said, we apologize when we hurt someone's feelings, and here is why. We listen when we are being spoken to. We come back here right now, mister. I haven't yet completed this sophisticated coup of diplomacy.
And I didn't know, when Charlie was a baby, how simple things were. Again, I don't mean easy, because it certainly wasn't. But many of the things we agonized over were problems with easy solutions. Wasn't sleeping? Endure it or change. Late walker? Work with him and wait. Ready for day care? Try it, then watch him, and see. A lot of our situation with Charlie was legitimately challenging, from the sequelae of prematurity to my own fucked-up postpartum whaddyacallit. But a lot of it, too, we made harder than it strictly needed to be. And the contrast — the simple baby affairs versus the altogether more complex preschooler ones — now makes that obvious. And easier, because it does get more complicated, and therefore quite a bit harder, and, lordy, do I have proof. So I'm not going to hurry to make it so.
To be fair, the rewards with Ben are rather simpler, too; it's not that hard to make him smile. Any cheerful idiot with a dinner napkin and a rudimentary understanding of the rules of Peekaboo can do it. (Standard American, please; he's got Blackwood down cold but he screws up the Jacoby Transfer every time.) But with Charlie, after a day when I know I've done right by him, when he leans against me at bedtime and says with a sigh, "Today was a happy day," well, you know, it doesn't get any better than this. Until, of course, we crack open that six of Old Milwaukee I keep under his bed for just these special moments. So I'm not saying that the simplicity is preferable overall; just that this time around, I recognize and appreciate it for what it is. Because I'm not exactly looking forward to teaching Ben that when I tell him not to throw things in the house, I also mean toss, lob, hurl, fling and, oh, good Christ, whatever nonsense word he invents to describe the action of propelling a body through the air, the better to knock over my coffee. Child, I need that coffee.
The problems Ben currently poses are simple. I even know what to do about the fact that he will willingly eat no vegetable: exactly what I find hardest to do, which is absolutely nothing beyond putting it on his tray. (Other ideas? Strategies? Excuses for me to continue to harass him at meals? Enable meeeee.)
For now, it's easy. It's good. I am satisfied that right now, the most complicated Ben gets is his ironclad determination to reach down and twiddle his business when I'm changing his diaper. And I know why that makes him cry, and what to do about it. Note to Ben: next time put down the tiny plastic styracosaurus first.