The rule of three
Oh, age three! You lovable rapscallion! You adorable imp. You sly little devil, you. You Hello, Kitty!-style Beelzebub. You sparkle-eyed Fisher Price My First Enema Bag™! You fresh-faced son of a two-bit whore. You—
Wait, I should clarify here. I'm not saying any of you parents of three-year-olds are two-bit whores. (That's just me, and I'm told [buffing nails] I underprice.) And our children are lovely people, delightful people, when three doesn't have them in a half-nelson, choking the charming little bejesus right out of 'em. What I mean is, at our house three has come to roost, and we're ankle-deep in its guano.
It's an exercise in deep discombobulation to be Ben's parent these days. Much of the time he's so lovable that I honestly feel it in my body — a curl of the toes, a wiggle of the fingers as I lunge in to poke him, to make sure he's real. To pick just one example, there's his current obsession with family. I don't mean us, his family, but the abstract idea of it. Everything's part of a family: people, animals, inanimate objects. If he decides to pretend to be a farmer, then he is the Dad farmer and one of us adults gets to be the baby farmer. (Make up your own joke.) Any variation in size results in the assignment of a family role, unto the generations; we have not just Mama, Dad, and Baby Elmo, but enough dupes in graduated sizes to go back to Piltdown. He makes these — I don't know, adorable? unnerving? undoraving! — tableaux of families:
A family of Batmans. …-Men. …-Mobiles. (No one's told the putative father Mama got it on with a Chevy.)
Potatoes…I…guess. Yes, I know one's an onion. I'm assuming they adopted.
Rabbits. From left: Mother, baby, father, brother. ("The brother is big! He wears underpants!") How do I know the white hand puppet is the mother? Simple:
[Running feet, eager voice.] "The mama bunny has a pouch! Yook! She can carry her baby!"
Whoops. Sorry. Next time I'll warn you: bunny junk. NSFW.
So a lot of the time he's doing endearing stuff like that. But he's never just okay, never neutral or pretty good. The rest of the time he's nigh on intolerable. He likes things the way he likes them, our Ben, with a fervor that borders on compulsion.
You know. "Borders on."
When things don't go the way he wants them to, he loses his potato-loving mind. If he has the idea that he's going to set the table, for example, and instead we have Charlie do it because Ben couldn't be persuaded to drop the goddamn tuber, first he does this flamenco of outrage, beating his heels so fast that it makes his screams of protest judder. "I wanted to do it! I wanted to do it!" But, Ben, we remind him reasonably, we asked you to do it twice, and you didn't come when we said to, so you missed your chance to help. And then he wigs out a little more, unable to believe how much natural consequences suck, and then tries to gather the cutlery, return it all to the drawer, and, I don't know, spool back time so that events unfurl correctly. Rewind and redo. It's like Run Lola Run in little orange Crocs. With dinner knives. On angel dust.
These meltdowns are just that. You can watch his circuits just fry as he tries to make sense of what has happened, why he doesn't like it, and how he could possibly change it. We try to forestall them by involving him as much as we can in decisions and choices and plans, but, Jesus, sooner or later you just want the table set, and the cost is a one-kid supernova.
And I realize by now I've characterized my kid as a catastrophic explosion, a drug-addled knife-thrower, and a furious little Time Lord who stole the keys to the TARDIS. (Also, in case you'd forgotten how appalling I can be, an enema bag figured, way back there in paragraph one.) But there are also the rabbits, the Batman…s…es, the things that are sort of potatoes. And because three is so mercurial, you have no idea from moment to moment which one you're going to get.
I was talking on Twitter the other day with Alexa about this series of books — I've mentioned them here before — put out by the Gesell Institute. Although I actually like the books quite a bit, finding their information on developmental phases to be reassuringly bang-on, they're amusing, too. I'm not going to steal a march on Alexa, who may write about this herself, by quoting extensively; I'll just say that the authors' suggestion to encourage a three-year-old to give up his blankie by cutting it in half strikes me as rather, you know, old school. Good work developing that independence, kid! I'll just reward you with a few snips here…a trimmed thread there…There! I have OBLITERATED ALL YOU HOLD DEAR.
Anyway, the three-year-old volume is called Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy. And although the title makes me snort, I have to say it's fitting. Because these days with Ben we just never know which of those we'll get. Friend or enemy. Batman or Satan. Lovable bunny or unauthorized upskirt. (Look, I lost control of these metaphors about 600 words ago.)
I remember with Charlie three was much harder than two ever dared to be. It's shaping up the same with Ben. Charlie is living proof, though, that somehow we made it through. And so we will with our current friend and enemy, Ben. Enema-frienema-Benemy. May Batman protect us all.
God, it's been so long since I wrote here that I had to enter my TypePad login and password using cuneiform. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but only a bit. Actually it was hieroglyphs. It took me a while to get in, too. I kept typing Severed Arm-Severed Arm-Snake-Zigzag-Thing That Might Be a Pelican instead of Severed Arm-Severed Leg-Ditto. And in fact it was not a pelican, but a carrion bird of prey, and I was almost overcome by the majesty of it but managed to click "Log In" before it went for my eyes.
So here I am, many ages later, and I think I am best served by going in reverse chronological order, see how far I get. Here we go.
Yesterday Charlie came home with a note from his teacher saying he had written the F-word at school. No, wait, I'm going to give her credit: She didn't get prissy. She wrote that he had written "fuck." (You know you're through the looking glass when someone using unvarnished profanity in a professional communication increases your respect for her, but that, it seems, is parenting in a nutshell. Through the F-wording looking glass, six ways from Sunday, sideways. And also the horse you rode in on, wearing its underpants backwards.)
I always laugh a little, if weakly and self-consciously, when he does stuff like that. It's so normal. There's enough of his behavior that's...let's just say outlierly...to worry about without getting all freaked out about a swear word. Even if he did write it on his nametag, like, HELLO MY NAME IS MATTER OF FACT I DO KISS MY MOTHER WITH THIS MOUTH. I don't know, I guess I think it's a little bit funny, and even almost sort of sweet, this eager lurch toward big-and-badness. My goddamn baby is growing up. Sunrise, sunset, bitches: This shit is going too fast.
Halloween was pretty fantastic. Charlie wanted to be a pirate, and Ben wanted to be Charlie, so I bought — yes, bought — two flimsy pirate costumes and considered it $4,678.00 well spent. This isn't a good picture of Charlie, but it's the only one I have of the two of them in which he did not appear to be menacing his brother with his gimcrack plastic flintlock:
...I said appear. Sure, he might have been about to cold-cock Ben with the stock of the thing, but actually he probably wasn't. At first glance Ben might look a little Adam Ant, but I see a baby Jean Lafitte. Would you try to steal his candy?
I bought the costumes instead of making them because I had some travel planned and knew I wouldn't have time. Charlie and I went to Julia's to surprise her for her birthday. Because apparently I can't travel without the whole trip turning into some unholy mashup of The Amazing Race and The Most Dangerous Game, the six hours of padding I'd built into our schedule shrank, thanks to a Philadelphia snowstorm, to an uncomfortable 20 minutes, and we arrived at the restaurant with just enough time to knock back a glass of wine (me) and three cupcakes (Charlie) before Julia arrived.
I wish I could show you how she looked as she scanned the room to see who was there, and then noticed me. Watching the ...Wait, what? change into recognition was — well, it was just wonderful, and it made it worth the trouble we'd taken to be there, a thousand times over.
Okay, maybe nine hundred times over, because afterwards, as soon as I started driving — Charlie had gone with the babysitter earlier, and Julia rode with me — she started to look a little peaked. Later I would tell anyone who would listen, "I knew she wasn't drunk-sick, because she didn't have that much," not realizing quite how creepy that made me sound, as if I'd been counting from across the room. (I was much too busy making an ass of myself at my end of the table, where I complained loudly about the amount of friśée in the salad — "Frisée is nothing but bitter, curly bullshit" — without knowing that the restaurant was owned by a guest's parents. The moral is, never complain about anything, ever. Or, from the other end, have friends with better manners, because, damn, I am still embarrassed.)
Julia tried to make conversation, but we both gave it up rather quickly. I thought she must be carsick, an impression that was bolstered by her rolling down the window and tilting her head out like a coonhound, and as she barrelled out of the car and sprinted straight for her room, I assumed she'd be fine the next morning. She wasn't. All night Saturday and all day Sunday she was ill, and Edward along with her. She made a few heroic attempts to join the rest of us, but it never lasted long; no sooner would she settle on the couch — draped for vomitproofing with a quilt I made — than she was making a break for the easy-mop bathroom tile, or Edward was.
I talked with Steve and Julia's mother and brother; I admired Caroline; I thought appreciative thoughts about Patrick, who was entertaining Charlie handsomely. I folded some laundry. I washed some dishes. And I was grateful. No, I didn't actually get to see my friend, but I have her. I have a life that let me drop everything to go spend time with her, or at least her washing machine. It wasn't the weekend I'd hoped for — especially not at 4 AM Monday, leaving for the airport, searching for the rental car keys in the gravel of her driveway, thinking Shit shit SHIT, did I lock them in the trunk? — but I am glad I went, just for the look on her face.
So that was just Charlie and me; Ben stayed at home, and a very good thing that was. The week before, see, we'd gone to my mother's. This is a feat that can be accomplished in no fewer than three flights. Our closest airport is small, and so is the one on my mother's end, so you leave early, carefully plan your connections, and pray. (There are no atheists in the Atlanta airport. Satanists, perhaps.)
The trip down there is mercifully a blur now. I thought at the time about writing about it, but I knew the resulting screed would be incomprehensible: Noose-Knife-Angry Eye-Rearing Cobra-Chupacabra degenerating into Spittle Fleck-Tic-Tic-Seizure. I will just say that contrary to the plan, which had us arriving at my mother's at a very civilized 1 PM, our day — our first day— began at 4 AM and reached its nadir, though by no means its end, at midnight with me weeping in the lobby of the Dallas airport Grand Hyatt. (Its end didn't come until an hour later, after we'd called a taxi, gone to another hotel, checked in, undressed, and gotten into bed, when I yelled at Charlie in the loudest, most furious whisper I could muster, "STOP TALKING AND GO TO SLEEP. NOT ONE MORE WORD. NOT ONE.")
But that was just day one. The next morning began with Ben losing his mind in the hotel corridor at 6 AM because I had thoughtlessly pressed the elevator button instead of asking him to do it. Screaming. Thrashing. Throwing himself on the floor. So I did the sensible thing and gathered him up in my arms, leaving Charlie, six years old, to drag the suitcase and the car seat into the elevator. That all worked about as well as you'd think, plus I fell. On the marble floor. While holding my three-year-old child.
I...am remembering why I didn't think it was a good idea to talk about this. I'm not coming off so well.
Anyway, we eventually did arrive at my mother's, at a completely different airport than originally planned and with a stack of, no lie, two dozen different boarding passes — delayed missed cancelled rerouted cursed plaguey Noose-Noose-Noose — and had a wonderful time. Four generations carved pumpkins together, and my kids wore shorts in October.
The trip back — oh, God, the trip back — took four airplanes and a Xanax. Ben. Lovely, lovely Ben. As Sideways Guy in Tennis Skirt and Snake Hat is my witness, I am never again taking him any farther than the grocery store downtown, and only then if I can't find a sitter. Oh, I don't blame him personally; he was exhausted and anxious and three, and he had every reason to be. He had every right to be. But that didn't make it any easier when he decided to lie down keening in the middle of the line for Delta Airways' Special Services. (Translation: Please Stand By for a Full-Price, No-Frills Fucking Oh Wait Did We Accidentally Say Please?) Or when he went boneless during the mad sprint from Terminal A to Terminal Ω via a thundering corridor of taxis that did not stop for pedestrians, no, not even a little, and I am not exaggerating. Newark, or Laguardia, or JFK — I don't even remember which airport it was. I don't even know what city it was, actually. Does Mordor have an airport?
Nor did it make it easier during, oh, many of our 38 flights when he decided to kick the seat back in front of him. I don't mean he idly bumped it with the toe of his shoe; I mean he went totally Riverdance, usually because I'd made him stop slamming around the tray table or muscled him back into his seat belt for landing or asked him to put out his cigarette or something — legitimate airplane business, non-negotiable stuff. He was mad as hell, and some stranger's lower back and kidneys were gonna pay. Or, I was going to hold his legs to prevent it, which is pretty much what I did.
This may be the first trip when I've had to deal with that kind of onboard outburst. So far as I remember, my trips with Charlie, even during his most challenging phases, were always uneventful in that regard. I was less embarrassed than I'd have expected; I didn't care for the looks I was given, but my conscience was pretty clear. Seemed like an easy choice: Either you let the kid hammer the seat for everything he's worth, or you keep him from doing it and treat the entire plane to his enraged screaming. You consign a single passenger to extreme unpleasantness, teaching the kid nothing in the process, or you subject the entire plane to it, but you also impart a lesson. (You hope. Oh, God, you hope.)
To me, there wasn't even a choice. Still, I'm honestly curious about what you might have done in a similar situation. I've read enough online articles about travel to know that about 75% of the American childrephobic public would answer, "Jettison both parent and child after setting them on fire," but F-word that. Excuse me, Ankh-Ankh-Dung Beetle that. I don't care about them. I want to know what my fellow parents and "When I'm a parent"s think.
And I want to know how your Halloween was, and what you do about kids swearing, and the things you pick out of a salad, and, oh, you know, just everything. I've started a new job that's taking a lot of my time, so I'm around even less than before, but I miss you. And I Heart-Tear-Harmless Garter Snake you, and that's the fucking truth.
Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way...turn.
I just opened my TypePad dashboard and I swear to God a cloud of bats flew out. In fact, I'm being swarmed even as we speak, so if this post contains more than the usual ration of guano, that is the reason why. Not because I'm out of practice blogging, or because I'm in a hurry, or because I'm the lone still point among a roiling crowd of toddlers clattering around in ski boots. More on that in a minute, if rabies doesn't claim me first.
Hello! Hi! It's been a while. Here is what I have to report: Nothing out of the ordinary. Business as usual. Walk in the park. Bowl of cherries. Piece of cake. No, wait: cheese. No! Pie!
Huh, I guess I can do better than that, or at least longer. To bring us up to date, more or less:
I took a picture on January 4 of our Advent activity calendar. I'd painstakingly written up 24 beautiful handmade cards promising 24 thrilling holiday-themed activities, and tucked each one into its respective pocket. I was going to do Christmas right, I resolved, even if it killed us all. And it would have. By day 4 neither kid was interested in Make a special ornament and give it to a friend! or Use a big chunk of your carefully hoarded cash to buy a gift for someone less fortunate, probably a stranger! or String popcorn and cranberries on...a string...so that you end up with a...string! Full of...shit that has been strung! Frankly, neither was I. After my inexplicable fever of intensity abated, it was rather restorative to sit back, snooze through several repeated viewings of what Ben called The Grinch Who REALLY Hates Christmas — "Ben, why is every toy you own heaped at the playroom entrance?" "I was being the Grinch."
Aaaand now we search for the cat to make sure no one made him wear antlers — and enjoy the blessed respite of happy mediocrity. So half-assed was I, in fact, that I never posted that picture. Just imagine it instead. Long after Christmas, 3 slots empty, no one gave a good goddamn. And, man, did it feel fantastic.
What also feels fantastic just now is that Ben is finally, finally making some tentative moves toward toilet-training. He's to the point where he can perform, ahem, the urinary act unassisted, though he does so only on a whim; on occasion he's even managed -- oh, let's call it the laborious excretion of solid waste from his bowel -- where it is most desirably done. Of course, he brings to this business an impeccable sense of timing. He waits to ask for assistance until I'm in the middle of an uninterruptable task: applying a tourniquet to someone's severed limb, say, or just putting the last batch of ortolans in the deep-fryer riiiiight before we sit down to dinner. But I am happy to jump when he says dump, and am feeling semi-sanguine that this will mostly be sorted by the time he attains his majority.
And Charlie. God, y'all, Charlie. Apropos of the toddlers in ski boots, Charlie is taking lessons. There's an outfit not far from where I live where you can just...give them your child, and I'm pretty sure they give you back a three-time Olympic gold medalist. (I admit I'm not entirely clear on this, as I did not read the fine print. I was too busy calling our insurance company and making sure we're covered for Acts of Folly; i.e., me signing Charlie up for ski lessons.)
The thing is, he's not very good at all. That's what I expected, since his coordination is rather poor and his joints are awesomely flexible. (I mean "awesomely" in the formal sense: Jaw-dropping. Eye-widening. Listen-for-the-ambulancing. Let me put it this way: Have you ever seen a kid W-sit...on skis?)
But what I didn't expect is how it would move me to watch him. See, he's not very good, and it's possible he knows that. (It's also possible he doesn't. When it comes to self-esteem, low is not our problem.) And it's hard; I can tell just by watching, when I do. (Right now I am tucked safely in the lodge -- safely meaning Charlie's safe from my help. When I stand out there during lessons, it's nearly impossible to refrain from calling out my expert advice...I, who have never been on skis in my life and frankly never hope to. Come to think of it, if I stay in here it's safer for me, too; I'm so awful that an exasperated instructor would be completely justified in zhhhzhing right on over and ski-poling me in the throat.)
It's heartening to watch him try. To my great surprise, he's remained undaunted. I mean, he falls simply standing still. (That's my boy.)
But, y'all, he gets up and just keeps...okay, falling down, but also trying. And improving incrementally. Pico-incrementally, but it's something. It's one of the first times he's shown real determination in the face of his own incompetence, and it knocks me out.
He knocks me out. And I hope this all comes off more as celebrating him than mocking him, because I'm honestly not in a position to criticize. You see, I have started doing...Zumba.
(Charlie's ski lesson is over. I'll pick this up again tonight, which should give you ample time to see to the muscles you just ruptured laughing at the very idea of my uninhibited shimmy.)
I know, everyone else discovered and subsequently discarded Zumba three years ago, but I live in the second-least-likely place on Earth to embrace such an invention (the first, of course, being Brazil). So this is newish here. I've taken two classes now so I'm something of an expert, but the first time I went in I embarrassed myself mightily. Everyone else knew exactly which suburban Mamita the lyrics were addressing; dutifully shook whatever it was they had been commanded to shake — I don't know what it was, as I don't speak Spiraling Butt-Tasselese; and knew the routines well enough to anticipate when and how to make their rodizio undulate credibly.
I, on the other hand? Well, because I normally insist on being addressed as Dona in fitness classes, it might have seemed like I was ignoring Papi's gentle lyrical encouragement. (I go to the gym to escape people calling me Mami and demanding that I do things.) But I was honestly just befuddled by hypoxia; that same cardiovascular insufficiency made it impossible for me to squawk, "Zzzzuuuumbaaaah!" along with the class on cue. Frankly it was all I could do to gasp out where my survivors should look for my last will and testament.
And yet I'll go again. It's hard; I look stupid; I like it. Let's just say I feel a kinship with my awkward, determined son.
So that's some of what's new around here. Thank you for being concerned about my long hiatus. I feel pretty sheepish about it at the moment, considering that...nothing happened and everything's normal, which is to say mostly fine, except of course for the days when I stand in the shower crying, convinced that I'm failing at pretty much everything. (Ben — even Ben! He got in bed with me this morning, snuggled close, gazed up at me in presumed adoration, and then marveled, "There is a lot of fur inside your nose!" Et tu, goddammit, et tu?)
But more about that later this week. The inadequacy, not the nose fur. I'm saving that for special.
Comes with the territory
Ohhh, I just had a day. Two incidents of note:
- We'd been out in the car, and Ben's window was down because I make him open it while he smokes. When we got home I pulled into the garage; before I stopped the car, he asked me to roll up his window. That's how things are done when you're Ben: What was open must now be closed; what was askew cannot go unstraightened; and we have to do it the other waaaaaaaaaay or his little brain explodes. (Earlier on the ride, he'd happily chirped, "Wouldn't it be nice if all the cars lined up? The red cars would all go in the red line! Then the green cars would all go in the green line! Then" — chortling now at the wicked delicious fun of it — "the gray cars would all go in the gray line! That would be great, right, Mama?" I dared to offer a variation on his pattern by suggesting that the bicycles could make a line, too, and he was suddenly silent, as if struck mute by my heresy. "The bicycles don't go in these lines," he said carefully, as if explaining something very simple to someone very stupid. You know, "as if.")
Anyway, he wanted the window back up. Sure, I said; I turned off the ignition, and pushed the button for his window. Now, in our car, even though the power is off, the driver can still operate the windows unless someone opens a door. Paul opened his door, so Ben's window stopped a few inches short of closed.
As soon as Paul's door winged open I knew what the problem would be, and, sure enough, Ben immediately protested. I told him I would fix it, and turned on the car. I closed Ben's window. Riiiight on his fingers.
- Twice this afternoon we'd given Charlie some sort of treat or privilege, which resulted in him complaining about it. I don't even remember what the issue was, except that whatever we'd done wasn't treat-y or privilege-y enough, like, this housebroken turbotronic robotastic Pegasus unicorn only shits vanilla ice cream, "and besides, I wanted a liger." The third time it happened, I had pretty much had it. I really lit into the poor kid; although I didn't raise my voice, let us just say that I offered a frank and forthright disquisition on just how insufferably entitled he'd been sounding, and how I was I-didn't-quite-say-goddamned if I was going to let that continue. I gave him to understand that at that point I'd sooner hunt, slaughter, butcher, cook badly, and make him eat that liger he so admired than listen to another complaint about the nice things we give and do for him. So effectively did I develop my theme, in fact, that the poor kid was crying when I'd finished. And I thought, well, you know, good.
And both of those things were kind of awful. Ben's little fingers! Charlie's tears. But coming off each event, I examined my conscience and decided…it was pretty much fine.
Several times a day I let my kids down because of specific flaws unique to my personality. (Several times a day I am awesome ditto ditto.) But other times these things happen that are, I don't know, not about me but the job. So normal. So that-could-happen-to-anyone. Things that any mother might do — and either blame herself for, even while thinking, Jesus, kid, you knew I was going to roll up the window, or not, when I have had it up to my musky magickal beasthole with your snotty complaining, child.
What I am basically saying is that I had this day of feeling really connected to other mothers, aware of what comes with the territory, beleaguered but not especially, just ordinarily wrung out at the end of a long day's failures. And hungry — starving! — for liger, so Charlie? Yeah, don't push it.
Grandma goes to Washington
We spent last week in Washington, DC and it was, like a lot of things we do as a family these days, about 80% wonderful and 15% how-come-the-human-race-didn't-die-out-long-ago? (The other 5%? Cortisol, trace elements, and mechanically-separated chicken.) I find it very easy to travel with Charlie; he rises to the occasion beautifully, given liberal access to electronics on the long car ride — check! — and strict adherence to his pharmacological regimen — check! Oh, believe me, check. Ben, on the other hand, is tough these days. I lost count of the number of times we had to yank him away from this attraction or that: Ben, please don't put your hands on the glass display case. Ben, see that sign? It says, "Don't touch." Ben, there's no touching here. Ben. Hands in your pockets, please! Ben, if you touch the glass again we'll have to go out.
Repeated reminders because it was all so stimulating that I could see how he'd forget, and because I really didn't want to leave. But then invariably he'd touch again, with a sly look: You mean like this?
Here he is touching the picture of a mother monkey yelling at her children, immediately prior to my yelling at him, and if that's not recursive, I don't know what is. Yeah, Mr. Darwin! Yeah, evolution!
Now, I'd thought we were past this exasperating toddler bullshit where he tests us to see if we mean what we're saying, but apparently not. Since nothing rockets me across the room faster than a child intentionally defying me, I spent a lot of time chugging across public spaces, clean-and-jerking him from the scene of the offense, and then hustling him to wherever his howls of outrage would echo the loudest and disturb the greatest number of appalled tourists. (Wherever we go, be assured we're Ambassadors of Awesome.) At the Museum of Natural History I halfway expected an opportunistic team of curators to leap out from behind the leathern scrotum of the elephant in the atrium. They'd seize my preschooler and whisk him away to the taxidermy room, where he'd be summarily stuffed, mounted, and encased in glass, to be showcased in an upcoming exhibit: Why Humans Should Eat Their Young.
Tell me he wouldn't be tasty.
Okay, yeah, I'd miss him. But I did buy a membership to the Smithsonian, so I'd get 10% off at the gift shop plus discounts on IMAX tickets plus the monthly magazine, so, you know, there's that.
While we were in Washington, I attended RESOLVE's Advocacy Day. This year we asked Congress to support the Family Act of 2011, which would institute a tax credit for out-of-pocket costs associated with IVF. I met with staff of my state's three members of Congress and told my story — briefly, with no swearing, and I was wearing a slip. The other advocates and I outlined the provisions of the bill, and asked that they support it.
What a simple idea, to ask that our elected representatives do their job and...represent us.
This year I was taken, as I was in the past, by how empowering it can be to do just that. This time I felt more strongly than ever that one person really can make a difference, just by showing up and asking. During a meeting with one of the aides to my House member, she said that even if my rep fully supports a measure, he won't co-sponsor unless he hears from a constituent. Oh, hey: that's me. Or you.
If it's important to you that people have affordable access to the most appropriate treatment for the disease of infertility — Well! When you put it like that... — you can help make it happen. It takes 90 seconds to customize and send an e-mail message to your senators and representatives — 45 if all you add to personalize it is baby baby please please please I just want a chance to try. It takes 15 minutes to follow up with a phone call. Or, even better, schedule a meeting with your rep in your district; RESOLVE will help you do it.
Anyone who's been through the social isolation of infertility already understands that no one's going to do this for us. I could say RESOLVE will, but in fact they are us — us as a collective, us at our most forceful. At the event last week I watched the staff of RESOLVE manage it all so smoothly, and with such perfectly channeled passion, that it would have been easy to feel complacent; us is in good hands, and I'm grateful for all they do. But the framework's just that, a scaffold. Now it's our job to build on it.
One essential part of the story I told the staffers is that we started trying to conceive when I was 29. See, these aides are all so young, no more than 25 or so. While their competence is impressive, and frankly a little shaming considering how I spent my 20s (glug-glug gesture, energetic pelvic thrusts, slide whistle SFX re: my credit score), their life experience probably hasn't given them much exposure to infertility or its repercussions. It sometimes feels tough to connect, so I tried to emphasize that infertility affects even young, powerful, well-educated cute people. To say without saying outright, "This could be you in five years."
And in ten years? Why, you, too could have the unequalled pleasure of having a complete stranger ask you if you are your three-year-old's grandmother.
I shoved my walker up her ass, tennis-ball feet and all.
Whoa. My truss must have cut off the blood flow to my brain, because I can't think of a clever segue. Loosening it now with my button hook and taking a deep whiff of sal volatile. Ah, that's better. Now I remember the Hoover administration.
Charlie's ADHD meds work okay to curb his problems with impulse control and keep him on task when necessary, but we still work a lot on behavior modification. The latest innovation is the bonus video as reward: when he gets ready in the morning in a timely fashion — visual timer with abrasive audio cues, reinforced by hoarse-voiced maternal haranguing — he gets to watch a quick video on my phone. This is kind of genius, if I do say so myself; it's quick, it's finite, and it happens right at the table without stepping out of routine.
Right now we're working through Simon's Cat, but we're about to run out of those. I wonder if you have suggestions for similar: short, gentle, funny, and appropriate for kids. Ben would be happy to watch the same clips over and over again — "The one where the cat gets a baseball bat haaaaaaahahahahaaaa!" [Lusty sigh.] — but novelty motivates Charlie, so we're ready to move on. Do you have any ideas?
Did you mean "retaliation"? I don't know, iTunes — did I?
Oh, my Hell, if school doesn't start soon I am going to run amok. Although it's been a full summer — five different camps that I can think of right offhand — in the last week and a half until the kids go back, Charlie's been home all day. Oh, he's good-natured and not outrageously high maintenance, especially since we've temporarily relaxed any and all rules having to do with the use of electronics, up to and including the one about not making Ben bionic. But there is this unabated thereness that's kind of cramping my style. (Did you know this about having children? They are often around. And they want things. Food and company and love and my laptop so they can play Minecraft. Consider yourself warned; if this comes as some sort of shock, please get a cactus instead. And water it once in a while, you monster. And give it the wifi password, and a recent version of Java.)
He's hilarious, that kid, and cooperative, and game. The days wouldn't be a big problem if we didn't also have the nights. See, Charlie doesn't sleep. He's regularly awake past 10 PM, and often past 11; a few nights ago Paul and I each paid him a courtesy call — okay, spoke to him lovingly but sternly — okay, attempted to smother him with a pillow — at midnight and half-past. Almost eight years in, I have to conclude he's simply not wired for it. (It pains me to acknowledge this because there is nothing I love better than what Wodehouse called 8 h. of the dreamless, except maybe 10 ditto ditto, and I'm pretty sure he's supposed to be like me, or else I've grievously misread the point of this whole parenting gig.)
No sleep, and we've tried everything: an unvarying routine. Reading aloud. Reading silently. Music. White noise. Guided relaxation...
...yeah, hey, iTunes, thanks for the help.
Where was I? Ah: warm milk. Three good thoughts. Snack. Herbal tea. A warm bath. A verbal ritual. A viciously tight tuck-in. Massage. Melatonin. A higher dose and a lower dose of his stimulant meds. An additional dose, then minus a dose, then a different drug as a downer. Meds six ways from Sunday, to the point where I'm mouthing a silent apology to poor dead Judy Garland as I split a pill in half.
The kid just doesn't sleep. His racing mind can't slow down. ("I don't have anything to do," he protests from his darkened bedroom. "There's nothing you should be doing," we answer, "but lie there and wait for rest." And then:
I'm tempted to thunder, "Contemplate your sins," but I love him too much to fuck with him. I mean, in that one particular way.)
It's sad that Charlie can't sleep; it makes him anxious, because it makes us anxious. He can't help it, and I have a lot of sympathy, but to my shame, I also get mad. When I can, in the moment I cling to my mantra, a single lifesaving phrase I heard once from a wise friend: "He's not doing it to you; he's just doing it." And in fact, he's grown accustomed to being left to his own devices and stays in his room alone. He's usually not unruly; he's just...awake, and present, active in my consciousness, even if on the fringes. And at 10:30 at night, after a long day of, oh, just basically everything, the relentlessness of it leads me to a weird kind of outrage and impotent defeat. Like something important's been stolen, with no hope of getting it back.
So between the unstructured days and the unrelieved nights, I've been feeling a little hemmed in. I work at home, but I'm not especially disciplined, so when there's an interruption in my routine — kids leaving later than usual, someone home sick, the jarring sound of unauthorized breathing, child sidling in and draping himself across me like a sweaty human Slanket "juuuust to get a liiiiittle bit closer" — I struggle to recover lost focus and time. As a hardcore introvert, I need time to recharge alone, but that's been impossible; in these last five days without preschool, Ben has easily found every hiding place I know, which can mean only one thing: preschoolers can, in fact, smell fear.
I can't work well. I can't unwind. And forget about time with Paul. There is always someone around. I'm finding this all very stressful. It's bad enough that I struggle to get my job done, and that I've developed an elaborate series of tics that throws me into a spastic macarena every time I hear Ben call, "Maaaaaaamaaaaaaa." And forget an amicable nooner with my also-work-at-home husband — even a midnighter's tough knowing Charlie's lying there awake. All discouraging, no doubt, but what's bothering me most just now is this: There are two unwatched episodes of Breaking Bad on my DVR, and if these fantastic kids, these impossible miracles, these drippy little hearts walking around outside my body don't go to school soon, how will I find out once and for all whether making meth is wrong?
Tomorrow they'll both be off. I'll send them out in style, wearing matching shirts and shy smiles, holding up cute signs, backpacks slung on skinny shoulders; I'll snap an unforgettable picture or two, and I may even get a little teary as I reflect on how far they've come and yet how small they sti — Oh, come on, people: save that shit for Pinterest. Not me. No, I'm going to work all morning, possibly shag my husband, and then spend two whole hours watching TV about drugs, betrayal, arrogance, the corrosive power of thwarted genius, the fallibility of the human soul, and — wait, I know! — man's inhumanity to man (but mostly drugs), and I'm going to watch it loud so I don't miss a single swear. Maybe first, though, I'll go buy a cactus. You know, in case I get lonely.
Four: the arguments against
At high volume, in full cry:
"I didn't want a kiss! I can't just wipe it off! Now there's something unpleasant on my cheek!"
"I was watching the swirl in the bathtub as the water went down the drain and you distracted me and now it's gone forever!"
"When you make up my bed you do it wrong! I want you to make a list of the way my blankets should go so you'll make it up right all the time."
[Gnawing on a Sugar Daddy snagged at Halloween, after my warning that it would be hard and chewy.] "I need some help eating this candy!" [You don't have to finish it if you don't want, but that's not something I can help you with.] "But if someone doesn't help me I'll starve!"
"I wanted to high-five someone and Charlie went away! No, I want to high-five someone else! Someone who's not you! And I can't high-five the cat because he has sharp claws!"
Four: the arguments for
Several weeks ago Ben decided to change his name and asked that we address him as Superman.
Naturally, for Halloween he was...
...not Superman. (I'm pretty sure he's also wearing Spiderman underpants. All the bases covered, that kid. Job worth doing, worth doing thoroughly.)
But I'm in no position to cricitize; apparently my identity is also somewhat fluid. I didn't change my name when I married, which is kind of weird when you think how utterly surrendered I am in every other way, but when Superman says the word...
...I eagerly snort the pixie dust, even if he does have cartoons on his ass. Because he has cartoons on his ass.
...hey, at four he's got plenty of time.
A dream is a wish your heart makesDidgeridon't
Charlie's been practicing his accents. Unhampered by ever having heard, say, a real live Australian, he nevertheless lets out long strings of conversation that make him sound like Crocodile Dundee and Eliza Doolittle had a baby and taught him to talk by playing "Electric Avenue" on repeat. And then grafted on an extra tongue, removed many important teeth, and replaced his epiglottis with a swim fin. And then stabbed the poor kid in the brain stem with a souvenir icepick. Feyncegggh soom oice enh yo tay, meeight?
Sure and begorrah, kiddo, is all I can say to that.
...Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone
As Ben played happily with his dog school, he noticed I'd slipped in a cat. "No cats allowed," he boomed, and enforced this new rule with vigor.
The cat. Down there. To the left. On the lonely side of the fence.
I'm totally going to fuck with him by gradually removing the dogs and replacing them with Lego Gollums.
...I was not compensated in any way for writing the following review, which will shortly become obvious
I took the boys to Walt Disney World for a surprise trip to celebrate Charlie's birthday. If you're looking for expensive ways to find out your children don't give a shit about theme parks, well, friends, look no further. Five stars!
I don't know; I sort of lost my mind. (One night Paul told me there was a special on JetBlue — kids fly free to Orlando. "Should I take them, you think?" I asked him. He said, "...Someone has to go with them?")
Shortly after booking the trip, I was fairly gripped with remorse, but airlines have rules about these things, including HA HA FUCK YOU NO WAY LADY YOU'RE GOING, so the morning of Charlie's birthday found us getting up before dawn, casually revealing to him that he didn't have to go to school that day, and then trundling off to the airport. Normally I like JetBlue, but, y'all, they let a lady onto the plane wearing a Buzz Lightyear hoodie. I don't mean it had a logo on it, or a tasteful low-key portrait on the front; I mean this, in grown-ass-woman size:
...which she naturally wore hood-up. Given current TSA regulations I assumed her LASER button had been disabled, but since you can't be too careful these days, I spent the duration of the flight nervously searching the flight safety card for info on what to do in case of a giant plastic lady toy sweatshirt space attack. (I mean, when I wasn't watching HGTV on my seatback TV screen.) Alas, I searched in vain. One star, JetBlue, for your cavalier approach to passenger safety. Five stars, Lady Lightyear, for keeping the galaxy safe.
We stayed at the Dolphin — nice hotel, notably devoid of any egregious Disney magic. I like to think I paid extra for that. Otherwise, it was fine: the requisite number of beds, hot and cold running television, and numerous opportunities for my children to come to blows over who got to push the elevator button. My only complaint is that although the JetBlue promotional package included free dining for the kids, I was disappointed to notice that the menu offered no bottlenose, not even on seafood buffet night. Three stars, but only because I was eventually able to get a whaleburger from room service.
As for the parks themselves? Well, everything at Disney is very well done, clean and efficient and carefully planned to deliver a satisfying — if somewhat sterile — guest experience. Charile was left largely unmoved, though, by almost everything but Mission: Space, which he liked well enough that we did it three times. Ben was most struck by the three nanoseconds on the Little Mermaid ride that featured the Sea Witch, a flash of terror that he continues to relish and relive weeks later, allowing me the pleasure of his company at the gently starlit hour of fuck-you-mouse-o'clock.
So it was fine, but overwhelming, I think; by three o'clock each day, Charlie asked nicely if we could go back to the hotel then, a request I was happy to grant — good God, I didn't need another trip through It's a Small World, after all. Not when the first had been such a delight: I swear on Walt's frozen corpse that the man behind us in our boat was singing along the whole time...in accents. As we rounded the curve to France, for example, he started singing, "Eet's uh smohl world ahhhftair all! Eet's uh smohl, smohl, wohrhrhrld!" But that wasn't enough. Then he'd embellish it, replacing some of the lyrics: "Eet's a world of fromage and a world of berets..." et ainsi de suite.
I froze in my seat when he started this, thinking, Surely he's not going to... Ah, mais oui, and don't call me certainement: he did. And it got better, by which I mean it got worse. As we sailed on through Indeterminate Asialand, he changed his lyrics to, "Ching chong, ching chong..." I'd been darting meaningful looks over my shoulder the whole time, but at this point I stopped, afraid to see whether he was making slanty eyes with his fingers. But when we entered the harbor at Generica Panafrica, and he began — forgive me, forgive me — chanting, "Ooga booga, ooga booga," I really did turn and stare openly. I don't know what I'd expected, but in my everyday life I'm so insulated from overt bigotry that it startled me to see just a plain old normal-looking guy there, seeming mildly surprised to be whirled upon. One star, park planners, for not installing a "You Must Be at Least >This Racist< to Ride in That Guy's Boat" sign at the entrance. Five stars, Imagineers, for figuring out a way to make my head explode in a crowd-pleasing cascade of sparks at no expense to Disney.
I don't know, so many people love going to the parks, but the charm of it largely eludes me. I confess I was secretly pleased to see the same was true for my kids. They had a lot more fun playing on the hotel's "beach," and I use the term loosely, than they did at the parks, and in fact we did it every evening and one afternoon. (I had more fun, too, once I discovered the poolside bar would make me a cocktail to go.)
I love that I have kids who get excited about landscaping — "Look, Ben! Look! It's topiary!" — and armrests — "This seat has a place where I can rest my arms!" The animals at Animal Kingdom left Ben momentarily speechless, but then so did the little shampoo bottles on the hotel bathroom counter.
I will recommend one experience without reservation and mostly without snark. There's this thing, this one ruinously expensive activity among many, that kids do at the parks: they exchange Disney-themed enameled pins. I knew about this from the last trip I took there with Charlie, so we went prepared; Charlie had a lanyard from before, and I'd bought Ben an assortment of pins, weird, obscure, and cheap, from eBay. (Seriously cheap. They must add extra lead to those...and pass the savings on to you!)
The idea is that you see someone with a pin you like and you invite them to trade with you. Last time we did it, Charlie was extremely reluctant to approach anyone, so I expected the same this time. But it was different. I'd see a kid with a lot of pins and suggest he go over and say hi...and he would! Overhearing the resulting conversation, the "What's your name?" and the gruff "Pleasure doing business with you," the normal-kid normalcy of it — that alone made the trip worth it.
...Okay, no, it didn't. (Do you know how much whaleburgers cost at that place?) But it did make the trip great when otherwise it was just good. Five stars, Charlie. Five stars, social learning program, to which I give much of the credit. Five stars, Blinc mascara, which didn't run even a little.
...It's not about me, except the part of it that is
On his birthday in November, Charlie turned eight. I'd say I don't know where the time went, but that's not true: when I look at him and Ben I see every second of it. I've changed so much myself, am still changing every day. When women talk about the birth of a child, they say they became a mother. It's not some finite thing, though. I just keep becoming.
The thing I couldn't know while we were still trying to have children is that what you think you wish for is different from what you'll be thankful for. There is no happily-ever-after, not exactly. Or rather, the happily ever after and the sadly — the good, the hard, the unendurable, the amazing, the can't-face-another-day and the please-let-this-time-pass-slowly — all coalesce in a slow unfolding of luckily ever after.
Songs of Innocence and of Experience
You know, Ben's morbid bent doesn't surprise me anymore. Over spring break we rented an apartment in Boston, the better to let Charlie mingle with his people. As Ben and I explored the neighborhood together, he noticed a cemetery."It's convenient that our apartment is near a graveyard," he said conversationally, "in case one of us dies during this vacation."
He wouldn't drop the subject until I promised to take him there — but not that night, I told him, since we needed to get back for dinner.
"Tomorrow," he specified. Sure, I said. "In the morning," he insisted. "First thing."
So to Auburn Cemetery we went, chilly, rainy, and early.
He was disappointed to realize, after I'd patiently read about two dozen epitaphs, that there was a pattern — name, birth date, date of death — with no gruesome details on offer, but don't worry! He perked right up when we came to a row of tiny children's headstones.
We only left when he fell to the ground, thrashing in misery. If passersby had seen him, it would have looked like he was flinging himself about in abject woe, perhaps over the loss of a loved one — too soon, too soon! — but actually he was raging. "WHY would they want to lock off the MOST INTERESTING PART of this graveyard?!"
I don't know, kid, but may I say I approve of your choice of mourning attire?
So knowing his fascination for what other people might consider, you know, kiiiind of creepy for a six-year-old, I wasn't concerned yesterday by the heap of Playmobil bodies in the playroom. It did give me pause that they were situated right next to where the digging happens...
...but that mild concern was forgotten once I noticed they'd all been scalped.
"Ben," I asked him, "where'd their hair go?"
"Wig dump," he said nonchalantly...
...and went about his ghoulish business.