Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The New Baby and Joys of Language

            “Daddy! Look! It’s the kitty!” Celia excitedly picked up our black cat. “Kitty scratched me and it was bleeding,” she said to no one in particular, and part of me wondered if she was, in fact, addressing our household cat. Finally, it was confirmed.
            “Kitty, can you say ‘bleeding’?” Celia asked.
            I laughed, then thought to myself, it kind of makes sense. Kids mimic what their parents say as part of their language development, and I’ve been saying that phrase a lot to Celia recently. A few weeks ago I asked her, “Celia, some cats are wild, but ours is domesticated. Can you say ‘domesticated’?”
            “Do-meti-cated.” Celia said proudly.
            “That was pretty good,” I patted her on the head.
            I’ve used her mimicry to our family’s advantage. One day I secretly took her aside and said, “Celia, the next time your mother gets angry, say this to her, ‘Mommy, are you having a fit?’ It’ll make her laugh. Can you say that?”
            When she did actually put that last one into practice, it had the exact intended effect. Michelle was starting to get upset, and I whispered to Celia, “Now’s the time! Ask Mommy if she’s having a fit.”
            Celia walked over to Michelle and asked, “Mommy, are you having a fit?”
            Michelle suddenly laughed and turned to me, “You told her to say that, didn’t you!?”
            I laughed. It was too obvious. I couldn’t help but grin at the well-planned success of our mission. Kids are little sponges sucking up everything we say and teach them. I am continually delighted with Celia’s gentle, unpredictable, and charming spirit.
            Yesterday, my sister-in-law finally gave birth to a little baby boy. Everyone showed up and crammed into their house to see the little guy. The whole way over, as over a dozen of us marched from the grandparents’ house with pancakes and sausages, Celia kept declaring, “We’re going to see the baby! We’re going to see the new baby!” She was one of the first to kiss the little guy.
            I held him, a light little feather, in my hands and marveled at the miracle of life. This little fella came from nowhere – and suddenly there’s a brand new soul to enjoy. Child-rearing is probably one of the most difficult, but also most rewarding, things a person can be involved in.
            And let’s face it, it’s not often in an adult’s life journey that we get to come across the delightful nuances and unpredictable applications of our language. Not to mention hearing things such as the wonderful sage advise from Sesame Street’s Ernie: “Never ask directions from a two-headed clown.”
            Nope. I don’t think I’d know about that one without my little ones around. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Baby Kisses, Boys and Girls

            The parenting books say that a good precursor to potty training is to let your child watch you use the toilet. I suppose it helps them get the general idea, and inspire them to try it on their own someday. So, occasionally, when I’ve already got Joshua in my arms, I’ll pop into the bathroom and pee while he cranes his neck down to see what exactly I’m doing that’s making all that interesting noise.
            Of all the times I’ve done this, yesterday was the first time I allowed him to hold something in his hands.
            It was the baby monitor.
            And yes, it took a plunge.
            I’m quite amazed, really. Celia hasn’t learned to throw things until the last couple of weeks, at two-years-and-eight months, and Joshua isn’t even one yet. I even held him as far away as possible, so that there was no possible way he could possibly throw it into the toilet, of all places.
            In shock and with a sense of urgency, I awkwardly leaned over, still peeing and holding Joshua on my hip, to retrieve the monitor out of the toilet. I instantly thought about how absurd I must have looked before examining the destroyed $45 electronic device and thinking, “Another one bites the dust.”
            Having one child is a pretty big surprise. Having two kids is, in some ways, an even bigger surprise, because we figured we knew what to expect with the first one. When Celia was eleven months, she loved reading books, playing with dolls, and sitting in people’s laps. With Joshua, it’s a completely different ball of wax.
            I think what fooled us is that all kids develop similarly – learning to walk, learning to talk, learning to stack blocks. But it’s where they differ that throws me for a loop.
            Joshua is definitely a boy. He loves playing with cars and trucks and anything mechanical. He loves looking at whirling fans, and running around with sticks or anything long and hard so he can hit things with it. He is riveted by percussion. He doesn’t have much patience for books. And as I discovered yesterday, he can already throw as well as his big sister.
            I was telling our friend, a naturopathic physician, about Joshua’s throwing skills, and she made everyone in the room stand up and put their arms at their sides, palms facing forward. I was surprised to see that the arms of every female in the room were significantly further away from the body than the arms of the males. This, she explained to me, is why males are generally better throwers than females.
            “So,” she explained, “It’s built in that females will ‘throw like a girl’.”
            Ah ha.
            It’s been surprising and enjoyable to watch my kids develop differently. Joshua is now walking, although still unstable, but it’s opened up a whole new world to him. I simply love watching the world through his eyes. He grins from ear to ear at the simplest things, and it lights up my day just being near him.
            I love his kisses, which are basically big open mouthed face plants. Eleven-month-old baby kisses are one of the best things in this entire world. I’m looking forward to getting another one, just as soon as I get back to the house.
            As far as the other challenges with raising a boy, I’ve already given up the idea of having a perfectly clean, controlled home. And the way we spend money on diapers, I’m not overly upset about losing a $45 baby monitor. This is all part of the adventure of parenting.
            My son is at a wonderful age, where all of life is fresh and interesting. Before I had kids it was easy for me to take things for granted, and get sucked into routines. Now, I find myself fully engaged, fully aware, and fully immersed in this thing called parenting.
            And that makes me fully engaged, aware, and immersed in this thing called life.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Date Night and the Prayer of St. Francis

            “I don’t know why you’re taking so long,” I said to Michelle, and walked out the door. It was a vigorously windy night and the moon beckoned me to gaze at it until I needed to put a jacket on, then sit in the van thinking until she finally emerged from the house.
            We don’t have date nights nearly as often as I had originally wanted. Before having kids, I figured we should get out once a week. Now, with two kids and the realization that it’s $50 to $120 when you factor in the babysitter, I’m thrilled if we get out once a month.
            We drove downtown, but didn’t get out of the car for well over an hour. We had so much “stuff” to deal with – three days of child-rearing erosion – I was asking for more empathy and she was asking for more understanding.
            Ironically, it was just last week I was sharing with Michelle the Prayer of St. Francis, one of my all-time favorites. The key line I’d highlighted was in the second half, where he prays that he may be able “to love more than be loved, and to understand more than be understood.” If every relationship in the world took on that motto, the world would be a better place.
            One of the deepest desires we all hold is to be loved and understood. Yet, if we go into a relationship with that as our goal, we set ourselves up for failure. We become self-focused instead of reaching out and striving to understand the other first. These types of relationships develop routines and monotony, strangling the human spirit. Slowly, over time, the relationship will build a mine field of quiet frustrations, disconnection, and boredom.
            It is absolutely critical to love and understand the other first, before ourselves. This will lead to fruitful, long-lasting relationships, where desire to learn more about the other always uncovers new mysteries and adventures in life. Plus, it helps when the other person isn’t in a great place, and needs some extra support.
            It turned out, on that windy night sitting in the mini-van hashing out our feelings, that neither of us felt understood. We both felt burdened and tired (no surprise there), and needed some time to know the other cared.
            Thankfully, we had just enough time to listen to each other, meet up with friends, and dance for a few songs before we got the call from the babysitter with a shrieking baby in her arms, and hurtled back to the house.
            Date nights are important. I’ve always believed that. But what lies behind date nights is even more important – our marriage relationship. If Michelle and I aren’t doing well, nobody in the family will do well. It’s absolutely critical that we guard and protect our marriage, and care for the other deeply.
            When all is going well in life, this can already be a challenge. When two kids and life’s messiness wear at the system, it can sometimes seem impossible.
            But it’s not.
            It’s always possible.
            It just takes that little extra effort, especially when I’m feeling tired and ready to relax, to keep my mind and energy guarded and remember that my goal is to love Michelle first.
            To ask her how she’s doing.
            To sometimes kick her out of the house so she can simply get out.
            Away from the kids.
            Get some perspective.
            And come back refreshed and ready to tackle all cries and messes with vigor.
            And hopefully, maybe, if I’m doing it well, she might do the same for me too.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Unexplored Bits

            Bedtime for Celia has disintegrated. What was once a stable, regular, reliable routine has now faced complete deconstruction by my daughter’s brilliant and hyper-aware two-year-old mind.
            It’s shocking what she’s aware of. She had me laughing for almost an hour one bedtime when I’d tried to avoid reading her a particular book that Michelle said she didn’t care for. It’s called Millions of Cats, and I suppose Michelle didn’t like that all these millions of cats kill each other near the end of the book.
            I had a huge stack of books next to our bedtime story chair, and I pulled the first one off the top, “Would you like to read Dr. Seuss’s ABC’s?”
            “No,” Celia said definitively.
            I set it aside and reached for the next one, “How about Peter Rabbit?”
            “No.”
            I slowly lifted each book and read the title before tossing it back onto a second pile. I saw Millions of Cats at the bottom, and disguised it by reshuffling the pile and throwing all the titles I’d already read on top of it, so that it was completely out of sight.
            I got through the stack of two dozen books and said, “Well, I suppose I can go to the bookshelf and get one. Which book do you want to read?”
            “Millions of Cats!” Celia declared.
            I laughed, and laughed, and while I read her the story about the old man who went out and found millions of cats, which in the end all killed each other, I laughed some more.
            Maybe at the heart of the two-year-old mind is an inquisitive desire to explore all the unexplored bits of life. I can just imagine what she was thinking: “The book that Daddy’s avoiding? That’s the one I want to read.”
            The challenge is, her new explorer energy has taken her not only on fantastic learning sprees, it’s also encroached into her bedtime, and we’re not exactly sure what to do about it.
            In the past, if she was resistant to going to bed we’d sing her songs and help her calm down. If she got out of the bed, we’d put her in the crib and let her “cry it out”, which usually took a couple of minutes at most. But now her little brother has the crib, which forces us to figure out alternative solutions.
            It all started to get more difficult a few weeks ago. She would climb out of bed after we’d turned out the lights and gone downstairs. We went through many phases in trying to deal with the behavior – discipline, showing her angry faces, then being straight-faced and simply putting her back without a word. We even developed an underhanded form of bribery: “Big kids get treats, and big kids can put themselves to bed. If you want any treats, you need to show us you’re a big kid.”
            Every time, the change in tactics seemed to have the intended effect, but never for more than a few nights. Which brings us to last night.
            Celia had her excuses – a cough keeping her awake, achiness all over – but really, she was just trying her best to stay up. Her bedtime is supposed to be 8pm. By 9:45pm Michelle and I had a “loud” conversation at the dining room table as Celia sat at the top of the stairs.
            “What do we do with her?” I asked.
            “You know, I think she needs to learn to put herself to bed,” Michelle said loudly. “That’s what big kids do. They don’t need parents to put them to bed at all.”
            “Well, that’s true,” I said. “I suppose we’ll just have to let her figure out for herself that if she doesn’t get her rest she’ll be tired and get sick more often.”
            Celia came downstairs. We ignored her and I continued, “One thing’s for sure, I’m not going to put her back in bed again. She had her last chance with me. From now on, she’s going to have to learn to put herself to bed.” I nodded at Michelle, then turned suddenly, “Oh! Hi, Celia.”
            Celia tried to climb into Michelle’s lap. Michelle said, “If you’re going to choose to stay up, that’s your choice, but you don’t get to be with us. You can sit at your table over there.”
            As Celia sat quietly at her little table, I thought, “Perhaps she’ll get bored quickly.” But then, my brother and his girlfriend showed up with a bottle of good wine.
            At first they gave her attention, then we explained the situation and we all politely ignored her until finally, at around 10:30pm, Celia stood up and went back to the stairs. “Good night, Mommy. Good night, Daddy. Good night, Uncle Abe. Good night, Auntie Caitlin.”
            We all said goodnight and continued our conversation. Michelle and I quietly gave each other a high five with big, goofy grins.
            I don’t know what we’re going to face tonight, but I’ve decided I’m not going to struggle with her. If she wants to stay up, hopefully, she’ll figure out sooner than later that it won’t do her much good.
            I feel like I’m in a parenting crap-shoot. We’re figuring things out as we go, with no idea of how well it’ll all work. I like the fact that we’re giving her some freedoms to figure this stuff out on her own. If it’s done well, I think she could have the ability to grow up into a mature, self-disciplined person who doesn’t need anyone breathing down her neck to help her make the right decisions.
            There’s always the risk that it won’t work, and we’ll have created a monster. I suppose only time will tell.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Tenacious Twos

            We ran circles around the yard with two soccer balls and Joshua happily yammering in the middle with a third ball, the one with a leak, that he would climb onto so that his belly was on it and he could put out his arms like he was flying. Celia kicked her ball over to the compost pile, which thankfully mostly consisted of freshly cut grass, because she promptly changed course and plopped herself directly into it.
            I stopped dribbling and watched my kids for a moment, enjoying the sun on my face and feeling thankful to be out of the office for the day. Celia was picking up dead grass from the pile and slowly covering her entire body with it. Joshua saw me looking at him and gave a bright-eyed giggle before crawling over to me.
            With Michelle off exercising, it struck me that I’d better start cooking dinner.
            “Celia! Let’s make dinner!”
            Celia pulled herself out of the grassy mess and ran inside as I closed the door.
            “What do you want for dinner?” I asked her.
            “Lunch!” Celia declared.
            I laughed. Celia grinned at me, not knowing what exactly she’d said that I thought was so funny, but proud that she’d managed to do it again.  
            “Alright. I’ll make a parmesan b├ęchamel sauce with pasta like I did for lunch. Only this time I’m going to use mushrooms! Are you going to help?”
            “Yes!” Celia was bouncing and eager.
            But mere minutes later both kids were wailing at me, wanting to be picked up, given attention, cuddled and coddled and loved. For awhile I’d pick up one of them, but then the other would get jealous. Cooking with one arm is tough enough, but with two arms occupied, it was hopeless.
            I mused to myself, “How exactly does one cut a mushroom with one arm?” I began to appreciate one-armed people in the world, and tried to figure out what possible strategies and methodologies would be most helpful. I thought back to the popular book from the 1920s called something like Cooking Techniques for the One-Armed Housewife. That could be very helpful indeed.
            I finally gave up and put Celia in front of her favorite cartoon, Dora the Explorer. With one kid out of the room, cooking became manageable, and I was able to finish and plop Celia’s food in front of her before she complained of hunger. Every time I’ve let her eat in front of the TV, I feel somewhat guilty, but the practical side of me is so thankful at how easy it is.
            I watched Celia happily eat and thought back to how wonderful she’s been this week. “Maybe the “terrible two’s” are over for her?” I mused. Or maybe they never existed at all.
            Michelle and I were talking about it, after a man I’d met playing soccer said his kid was in the terrible twos from two till four. Michelle said, “You know, I think it’s not properly labeled. It should be called the ‘tenacious twos.’ That way, you still think they’re doing great when they’re exploring life’s boundaries.”
            I wonder if, rather than the kids being so terrible, we look at it as an opportunity to use proper parenting techniques to help them get out of the phase more quickly. Michelle and I were discussing it last night, and how our goal has been to focus on how good Celia is, not how bad.
            There was one day where she wanted to build a fort out of cushions. I had to work, and Michelle was exhausted from a night of waking up with Joshua too much, so instead our two-year-old was put in front of the TV. Within twenty minutes, she had ripped important papers, pushed her brother and peed on the floor.
            Michelle called me, exasperated, and told me what had happened. I said, “Well of course! Nobody made her fort with her! You’ve got to get her out of the house and do something positive. Now.”
            Michelle hung up and did exactly that, and they all had a marvelous day at the end of it all. But it could have easily gone the other way. When a kid is acting up that much, it’s tempting to want to punish and reprimand them, tell them they’re bad, and make them want to express themselves in a way that will be responded to – more negative behavior.
            It’s up to the parents to break this cycle. And more often than not, when we do break it, the negative behavior vanishes. At the end of the day, Celia really is a good kid, and wants to do the right thing. It’s our job to help her live up to that, and to not get too picky about the little things.
            This morning, I was rushing the kids out the door to take Celia to daycare, and my brother’s dog came running out to greet us. He was confused, because we were already in the car and just rolled down the windows to say hi instead of petting him. My brother made him sit as we drove off, and Celia said, “Daddy! He’s like, ‘What?! I haven’t eaten yet!’”
            I smiled and furrowed my brow. Why the heck did she just say that? It seemed so odd, coming from the mouth of a two-and-a-half-year-old. But then I thought back to the last few minutes and realized, she was just repeating me! I’d said that very thing right before her, but my muddled early-morning-brain had already forgotten.
            I laughed and said, “You know Celia. That’s probably true.”
            I was struck that she’s a little sponge, soaking up everything we send her way – the words and sentences, as well as actions, attitudes, perspectives and habits. All that we’re doing right now, whether it’s our reactions to her, or our ways of showing affection, are being noticed.
            She’s recently started the nasty habit of getting out of bed at bedtime. At first, we made a big deal about this, and gave her stern faces and fiery eyes when we put her back in bed. But then, Michelle and I talked about it and realized, that’s not going to help. We need to be straight-faced, no emotion showing, and quietly put her back. If it takes ten times, we do it ten times, but eventually she’ll sleep.
            We tried it, and have had enormous success. The first night, it did take eight times, but after that it’s never been more than one or two, and now, every time we put her back in bed, we tuck her in nicely, give her a kiss, and say we love her. We didn’t wait for her to grow out of the bad behavior, we broke the cycle ourselves with our calm, rational, loving actions.
            When she acts poorly, or however she acts, it’s in our best interest as her parents to not get angry or do anything aggressive. We’re the parents here. We need to be in control, calm, and loving. All the negative behavior and emotion that comes out of her needs to stay with her. And so far, when we do it this way, we’ve found that she grows out of it much more quickly.
            I was telling Michelle that these are wonderful days. We need to cherish them, because they pass quickly. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the crying, midnight wakings, and negative behavior, and want to get the whole thing overwith. But it’s a delightful time in the kids’ lives and in ours. We need to appreciate it today.
            My friend’s mother just passed away a few days ago and it reminds me that life is precious and short. Kids are only kids for a short while. Tenacious or terrible, I’m going to cherish whatever it is my kids are going through. It’s the only thing that makes sense.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Younger Brother Blues

            I’m amazed how time has slipped by. Nearly a month has passed since my last entry, and it’s hard to say exactly what happened. These days I finish work and want to squeeze in a few hours with the kids before we rush them off to bed. We wrestle and dance and dream up new adventures, mostly inside up till the last few weeks, often involving some stuffed creature or other who needs to be rescued.
            Celia and I will dash from one room to the next as Joshua tripod-crawls after us with a huge grin on his face and the occasional squeal of glee. Turn my back for a minute, and Celia may be “hugging” her little brother, or worse, kicking him. Joshua’s head has a ring of black-and-blue bruises circling all the way around, but those mostly originate from self-inflicted walk-attempts. For the most part, he seems to truly enjoy Celia’s rough antics, whether it’s because he’s a boy or simply a younger sibling, I may never know.
            If I start dancing with Celia, Joshua shrieks and scrambles up my pant leg bouncing and calling out, “Aaaaah!” until I hold him in my free arm. If I’ve engineered a towering fortress out of couch cushions for Celia to land her flying horses, who will show up and want to tackle our tower but Little Brother.
            It seems he’s always discovering un-baby-proofed locations, always fitting something new into his mouth, and always banging his head against something undeniably solid. And although I distinctly remember Celia getting into pickles at his age, either my memory gets awfully foggy in parts, or this little boy of mine is even more of a handful as he tries to keep up with his older sister.
            When Celia was his age, she couldn’t get enough stories. We’d sit her down with a pile of two dozen books from the library and quietly read through all of them in one sitting. Joshua can barely make it through one. But turn on that bathtub, and no matter where he is in the house, he’ll be hopping up and down at the edge shrieking happily within seconds. And leave a door or drawer open a crack and he’ll open and shut it until either his fingers get crushed or his head hits an edge.
            I remember Celia at this age crawling into things, getting stuck, and crying till rescued. Joshua seems to crawl into precarious situations as well, but instead of calls of help, we hear first the tell-tale “Thud!” of his head hitting the ground, then the cries.
            If I had to pick a genre of music that best describes life as the younger brother, I’d definitely pick the blues.
            There do seem to be benefits to being second-born. He’s never short of entertainment, and he seems to be learning all sorts of developmental traits from his big sister as he tries to keep up. He’s much more patient than Celia ever was. I imagine it’s because he’s always playing second to his big sister – if there’s a new object in the house Celia could wear it into the ground before Joshua finally gets his turn.
            Overall it’s not so bad, but I’d still pick the blues. If not for the undeniably less-privileged place his sister puts him in, then it’s for the bruises that compete for space all over his temple. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he’d been in a huge accident or something.
            But I do know better. He’s totally fine. He’s just got a case of the Younger Brother Blues.