Tuesday, August 31, 2010

To Nap or Not to Nap, That Is the Question!

Mollie writes:

I'm sitting here, in my advancing years, laughing.  I remember when my own two year olds were asserting themselves.  Going to bed at night was no problem once they stopped napping.  They were exhausted by 7 p.m..
The problem was, so was I.  It was hard to find common ground.

Napping was debatable from age 18 months through age 21.  Now the opposite is also the question, the problem being, "Can Mollie Stay Awake Long Enough to Answer This Question."

My first was Peter, who is now deployed somewhere in the Middle East.  When he was 20 months old, the question of napping was front and center.  I was pregnant with baby #2, Roger, and on bed rest.  Pete had been premature, and once I started experiencing early dilation during my second pregnancy, taking it easy wasn't an option, it was a mandate.  It's hard to get a wee one to take five when he's discovering the physics of life.  

Once Roger was born, I was able to chase Peter again.  I'd snuggle the baby down for a nap and then mention to Pete that napping was now an option, not a command.  Invariably, Peter would opt for no nap, being 2 1/2, but I was on the mend and could keep up with him.

One day, in September of '84, I snuggled Roger down and offered Peter a nap.  He declined in his own special assertive way, so I took him outdoors with me to the front yard to weed the flower beds (yes, weeding and laundry are constants in my life).  He played with the sprinkler, peed in the flowers, and did all sorts of things that a 2 1/2 year old does when he has free reign of the yard. In no time, he was tired.  But he wouldn't go down for a nap.

I was getting ready to mow the lawn and was heading to the shed to get my mower.  When I looked up, Peter was gone.  The back yard was fenced, his only escape was to get past me, and I was certain that hadn't happened.

I went into the house, and there, on the third step of the staircase, was Peter, sleeping up a storm.  The poor little guy didn't have the pep to walk up the seven steps to the upper level of our split entry home!  So I closed the front door, picked him up and set him on the bottom bunk of his bunk beds.  He slept for 2 hours.  But he didn't go to bed that evening until 10 p.m.

Kids hit an age where they can't just nap, but will run themselves (and you, of course) ragged.  All I can suggest is that if the kid won't sleep, create a quiet space.  When Roger was 2 1/2, and refusing naps, I'd build him a 'nest' in the basement with a bean bag chair, his blankie and a video of Dumbo.  Then I'd find something to do that was quiet, and in no time, the little guy would be fast asleep.  I'd do laundry, get Peter off the school bus (by then he was 5 and in kindergarten) or, miracle of miracle, read a book.  It was heaven.

I don't know what the dynamics of your home is, but opting for and afternoon quiet hour might help.  If you have more than two kidlets, they also can do quiet activities (art, reading, polishing mom's toenails?).  Your little anti-napper may not get much sleep, but you all might get a little peace.  But in the end, your wee one will get sleep.  

Meanwhile, focus on the teen years when they sleep in to 11 a.m.   You won't be able to get them out of bed without hand grenades and two toy poodles.

Trust me.

Millie writes:

The whole subject reminds me of Bill Cosby's bit about arguing with HIS toddler: “They know how old you are, and they know how old they are, and they know they're gonna live longer than you.” There is not much point in arguing with a two-year-old.

That being said, nap time is the duct tape that holds a mother's day together; not only that, but even if a two-year-old seems to be able to run forever without a nap, he will need one again when he's three. A daily nap is a very worthy goal. For the sake of your sanity, here are a few things to consider.

Try letting the kid go feral for a couple of days and make note of the time he collapses on his own like Mollie's Peter. It may be that his nap time is scheduled for an hour before he's sleepy. You may also find that he won't nap at all, but he'll be ready to sleep through the night at 6 p.m.

There should be a predictable nap time routine, just as there is a predictable bed time routine. This signals to the child that it's time to shut down for an hour or two. The routine need not be as elaborate as the night-time one; an after-lunch story, trip to the potty (if you're working on that), tucking-in and kiss should suffice. You might also try having a special “lovey” that only makes an appearance at nap time.

Try putting a radio in the bedroom (out of the two-year-old's reach) and turning it to a classical-only station. Some people can't sleep if there is any sound at all, but some people sleep better with background noise. You can buy or make recordings of frogs, crickets or crackling campfires, too. White noise can work just as well; use a humidifier, a fan or air conditioner, or that same radio tuned to static.

Everyone sleeps better when the room is dark and cool. Draw the curtains, turn off the light and turn on the A/C or the fan. You might also try a little lavender spray on your child's pillow, if you're sure he isn't allergic; the smell is supposed to make people sleepy, and you can always say it's magic dream spray.

Quiet Time
If all else fails, tell the child that it's MOMMY'S nap time so he will have to play quietly in his room for a while. Again, having some toys and books that are only available then can be helpful. You could try playing a children's CD (they're available at the library, too, for more variety) and telling the child he can come out when the music stops, or get a timer; for some reason kids NEVER argue with a timer. You'll have to avoid making noise or he'll know you're awake; but then, eating bon-bons and reading People magazine is a pretty quiet activity, right?

Good luck!

Maggie writes:

Alright, my friends. I admit it: I was the one pleading for help. I am currently trying to convince my two year old, Elaina, that sleeping is a GOOD thing. As of yet, she is still unconvinced.

Elaina is actually taking her nap as I write this. Napping, while still a bit of a battle, is not nearly as tear-filled as our night time skirmishes. The little stinker is our third child to go through this drama, and I'm still at a loss for what works.

Because not ONE thing works for every child.

My husband and I were waging war with her the other night. We both happen to employ spanking as a disciplinary method. Elaina is a smart little girl and knows that when it is bed time, she is to remain in her bed, close her eyes and go to sleep. If she gets up and comes out into the living room, she knows she will receive a swat. This particular night, she came out nearly every five minutes.

Now, no parent likes to see their child cry. Even though we spank, we don't LIKE to spank, you know? So about every fourth go around, I'd break down and take her back to her bed, cuddle and love on her. This practice would frustrate my husband, who said we must must MUST be consistent: it is worth all those spankings for the time mommy MIGHT go back there and love on her. He pointed out a study in which monkeys were observed as they chose between two buttons. One button would give them a bit of cocaine every fourth time they pushed it. The other was set to randomly deliver the cocaine. Soon, the monkeys grew bored of the consistent one and would only go for the other, even if that meant it would take longer to get the cocaine, more often than not. It was the thrill of "maybe THIS time...!" that kept them going for that second button.

I would be the cocaine in this instance.

We're in the middle of rebuilding this house; the children don't have a door in their room. Instead, they've got a door curtain... and at night, doubled up gates. This has been what we've decided to do, and it has begun to work. She'll Scream It Out (a toddler version of Crying It Out) for a bit, but then she gives up and lies down for the night. This is what worked for us before we moved, back when we had a door to keep our oldest daughter in. Our son never really had a problem going to bed, because he was just happy to be near his older sister. He is still our best sleeper, though at four years old has given up his naps.

Elaina will probably be giving hers up soon, too. I do mandate quiet times for the ones not sleeping, though, as to maintain my sanity. Right now, the oldest two quietly play Wii Mario Kart while Elaina naps. Once she's given up those naps I'm going to send all three of them to the back rooms to have a quiet time.

Because even if THEY don't need naps... I do! And I'll be taking advantage of my baby's afternoon nap while it is still a pleasure--not a battle!

Remember, consistency is key. If they know what to expect, they'll eventually grow bored of pushing your buttons (sorry, couldn't help myself) and start to comply.

We're Not in Kansas Anymore!

Mollie writes:

Where to start????  !!!!!

Our son, Roger, and his precious wife Joy, are just beginning to think about buying a house.  They are saving money, watching interest rates and learning about mortgages.  This is exactly where John and I were 33 years ago, but this is where the similarity ends.

I have another Mollie-friend, Muffy,  whose adult kids are getting into the game, and you wouldn't believe what they are facing.  In the midst of this new housing market, you need character traits of biblical proportions.  You need the wisdom of Solomon, the wealth of David and the patience of Job.

I am not kidding.

Thirty three years ago, my husband qualified for a Department of Veteran's Affairs loan.  As a result, we were able to buy a home just after we were married.  The principle amount of the loan was limited, so we just couldn't choose to buy the biggest place on the planet, simply something that, with the down payment we'd set aside, would meet our housing needs.  We settled on a new house in Gresham, Oregon, a split entry with an unfinished basement and no yard.  We figured we would landscape it ourselves (we did) and finish the basement ourselves (we did).  But once we moved into the house, we realized that we needed to replace the new single pane glass windows with new double pane glass windows.  The house was in the East County of Portland and faced The Wind.  Our first new investment postponed any other work we wanted to do.  We hated seeing the curtains float with the wind inside the house AND our $400.00 power bill our first month in the basic piece of housing we'd bought. THAT was fifty bucks more than our house payment!

And so begins homeownership.

These days, home purchase ain't so simple.  First, with the economy the way it is, buying a home forces you to decide how you want to lose money.   Buying a house is a joke with the current interest rates and the roller coaster home prices.  It's impossible to choose to lose money by saving it or by investing in real estate.  In our day, you made money by saving it, savings interest being above 3% and home prices being stable.  You could pretty much assume that you'd at least get your down payment back if forced to sell.  That option is now only a mirage.  Bankruptcies, foreclosures and short sells rule the market, and for the dewey-eyed innocent, only make the prospect of buying a home an endless, triggered mine field.

(What IS a short sale?  It's a real estate transaction where a homeowner owes more on a property than what the current market can bear as a selling price, but the mortgager must sell or lose the property.  In a short sale, the lender must approve and accept less than what they are owed.  This means that they could possibly accept $150.000 as a full payoff even if the mortgage was for $190,000.)

Muffy's dear ones, Adam and Eve, had been reading the Multiple Listings Service (MLS) on line and came across a house that filled their needs.  It was priced well below comparable homes in the area, had a new roof, kitchen and heat pump.  It was kiddie friendly with 3 bedrooms 2 1/2 baths, a family room, and a sports court complete with hoop.  And with both of them working, financeable.  They had saved up a chunk of money and were ready for a home of their own.

They contacted their real estate agent and had their hopes crushed.  Although the MLS listing didn't mention a short sale, that's what it was, which is what accounted for low price.  And there was already an  offer on the house.  The bank hadn't decided to accept the offer, but it was still out there, hovering.  If Adam and Eve managed to come up with a better offer, it probably would be taken.  But there is no way to tell what that offer was.  The bank was holding their cards close to their chests and their faces were blank.

Adam and Eve chose to keep looking.  There is no right or wrong decision here, the bottom line here is that their offer could be accepted, declined, or, most likely tabled for as long as the bank thought they could hold out for an even better deal.  It's unlikely that the bank will ever see the principle amount of the mortgage they had so confidently issued to buyers at an earlier date, but they were choosing to cut their losses as much as possible.

At the peril of the bidders who are now dangling.

Checking out the MLS is a good idea.  It keeps the future buyer informed on what the seller THINKS the house is worth.  But with money tight, banks keeping their eyes on turning a profit someday, and the stress of buying a piece of property tough even in the best of situations, buying a home in a buyer's market is an exercise in patience.  The individual couple will earn medals of honor for sticking through this process.  The land mines of short sales, etc. really bring the reality of home ownership for the next 30 years to the forefront of your purchase.

John and I have no regrets for buying our own home.  After 33 years, we own our own home free and clear.  It's a hybrid of our original house, a ranch with a finished basement, an acre or so of land, and a lovely view of Puget Sound.  But that didn't happen overnight, and it didn't happen without a lot of angst, struggle, grief and compromise.  While we were making house payments, we were deducting our interest from our income taxes, and when we sold one house, we rolled over our investment into another home to avoid property gains taxes (now just a silly concept).  You have to live somewhere, and in the right situation, you will, if nothing else, get a tax write-off on the interest as opposed to rent where there is NO tax write-off.  And, once home prices bottom out, you might actually make some money if you buy at a low price and then sell when prices are better.

But you'll need the patience of Job.

More on home ownership later, I've just scratched the surface here.  But don't lose sight of home ownership, just gird your loins, put on your army boots and flak jacket, carry a first aid kit and a bottle of  booze.

You'll need it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Working Teens

Millie writes:

Every other Friday night is “Pizza and Movie” night around our house, so that's what we were doing last Friday, cozily zoned out out in the living room with our slices, watching $5 a Day. The front doorbell rings, so we pause the movie and Lance answers the door. It's a local band (yes, the whole band) that plays at street fairs and Saturday Market – they came over to ask Jack if he wants to be a backup singer.

Two weeks ago, Sassy – who has put in more hours as a volunteer at our branch library than many people who are employed there – was told by the Teen Librarian that they love her work so much, they created a part-time job for her – all she had to do was say “yes.”

Well, I'll be the first to admit that my kids get around; but though it may be unusual for employment to seek them out, it's not at all unusual for a teenager to have a job. It's a great milestone, good for the kid (they learn responsibility, budgeting and people skills – not to mention they get cash) and good for you (someone ELSE is teaching them responsibility, budgeting and people skills – not to mention giving them cash). However, like everything else, it's going to mean an adjustment for you.

In the first place, employed or not, if they're under 18 they're your responsibility. You have an obligation to know what's going on, even though you want to do it is unobtrusively as possible (for example, I'm gonna have to check out these street fairs and the people who drive the double-decker bus that transports the bands). Though it may not be apparent from their attitudes at home, teenagers can be reluctant to stand up for themselves and unscrupulous employers may take advantage of that by making them work hours or handle tasks that minors shouldn't be doing. (When I was in high school I worked as a housekeeper in a nursing home, and in retrospect I probably should have told my parents about some of the chemicals I handled and some of the diseases to which I was exposed without even gloves or a breathing mask.)

What you must NOT do is to confront your child's boss yourself, unless it's a question of the kid being in immediate physical danger. In the first place this is a humiliation from which the kid would never recover, but more importantly a part-time job is a major step in the growing-up process and your child needs to learn to handle his professional responsibilities in a professional manner. You may listen, advise and strongly recommend – but even when you're itching to march down to that kiosk and give that manager a piece of your mind, don't. Bite your tongue, sit on your slapping hand and let the kid handle his business.

Something that's been a major adjustment for me, now that EVERYONE is old enough to have their own lives, is that I must consult people before I make family plans. I had an outing all arranged for Saturday, but – sorry, Mom, the singer has band practice 'til 2, the new evening manager was out until midnight, the barista has an 11-hour shift and the junior librarian never gets up before 1 anyway. Lance and I were still on call, of course, and there was just enough overlap that we couldn't actually go DO anything . . .

I'm awfully proud of all of them, though. I suppose washing their smelly work clothes but never actually SEEING them beats an empty nest!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Empty Nest Syndrome - Part Trois

Mollie Writes:

Well, I'm off to my little l.3 acre yard on a mission to undo all the damage done in July and August.  For MS'ers, July and August are the worst months for gardening, and all the blame goes to the heat.

On Whidbey Island, where I live, we have not had much of a summer.  We had a few wild and crazy days of heat, followed by a few days of wild and crazy rain, ad nauseam.  And John and I, when there were no small craft warnings, have been trying to sail on moderate weather days.  This left my poor yard a distant ten on my list of top ten things to do in the summer.

And the weeds are everywhere. The paths carved out in the back yard by my gardening partner, John, have been eliminated by our pup, Bos'n.  He has worn out his puppy self by running crazily up and down the terraces fetching frisbees, chasing tennis balls and swimming in the pond.   And he's taken to eating trees - not a good thing at all.  And the foxglove and lupine are in desperate need of deadheading.  The lavender needs to be harvested and the list goes on.

Gardening is another good fill in for the nurturing soul whose children have flown he coop.  I can get absorbed by soil and weeds and pruning and feeding and watering . . . oh man.  I can fuss over the rose with black spot just as easily as I can fuss over a kid with an ear infection.  I can spruce up flower beds as nattily as I can dress up a child, and weeds, I can eliminate them with a little digging and a quick tug, much like a mom helps a kid break a bad habit.

When the fledglings are off on their adventures, there's nothing like an absorbing hobby to replace the persnickety absorption of a retired mommy.  Sewing, gardening, reading, writing and cooking are just a few of my new interests since moving north five years ago.  These were all things that I wanted to do years ago, but had neither the time or the budget to indulge myself.

So if you are a frustrated new mother, keep a list of the things you want to do when things quiet down.  They will, although not anytime soon.  If you are the parent of a school age child, try to introduce them to the things that you love (although this went over like a lead balloon with my boys when it came to sewing and gardening).  Some day that list will come out, and in the beat of your heart, you'll be compensating for all those years of unfulfilled  interests.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Staying Human

Speaking of nieces (which Mollie was, yesterday), this morning my niece Beth posted the following status on Facebook: “I can't wait for the day that the word Human describes me again.” Beth is a twenty-something divorced single mom of a 1-year-old boy and she's going to school full-time; like the rest of us, there simply aren't enough hours in her day to take care of everything she needs to do and take care of herself, too. She's running herself ragged; fortunately she has a lot of support from her family and friends, who won't let her suffer TOO much.

We all need backup like that. You know that saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”? The village is not for the kid - it's for you.

I can't stress enough the importance of staying close to your husband (or wife, or whatever flavor of significant other with whom you've launched this parenting adventure) during the kids-at-home years. It's fatally easy to fall into the trap of seeing each other as merely “Dad and Mom” until, exhausted by the myriad demands of small children, you become nothing more than roommates passing in the hallway between shifts. This person—whom you once swore to love, honor and respect—may become just the person with whom you swap dirty-diaper duty if you don't make an effort to stay connected as a couple.

I know you don't want to leave the baby, I know Junior needs his inhaler, I know there are soccer games and ballet recitals and besides you signed up for that pottery class. None of this actually matters as much as keeping your primary relationship alive. You were together before the kids, you are standing together hip-deep in kids now and you'll be together after the kids move out (inconceivable as that may seem to you today)--you need to make sure that you still know each other before you find yourselves alone together at a breakfast table one morning without a clue what to say to one another.

Have and keep a Date Night once a week, even if all you can afford is a milkshake at McDonald's and a dollar video rental. Trade kids with another couple every month; you keep them all overnight one weekend so they can have a night alone together, they'll return the favor next month. Put the kids to bed early enough that the two of you can have an hour to talk, watch a movie or play a game alone; you need that re-connecting time. (When your kids get old enough that they can stay up later than you can, go ahead and go to bed – together – before they turn in. You're setting a good example.)

It takes a lot less time to stay connected than it does to find your way back to each other again after a major disconnect, so keep at it a little bit a day. If you can, send text messages or emails once or twice a day if you're apart; save up the bits of news and the jokes you hear during your separate days and share them when you're together again. You may think that this sounds like too much work on top of an already overfull to-do list but believe me, you'll both work better and more efficiently if you're feeling happy, loved and supported by your sweetheart.

If you're a single parent you MUST find the time to be an adult (or, as Beth puts it, “a human”). I know the buck stops with you and only with you where your child is concerned and that knowledge can be overwhelming at times, but you won't have anything to offer the kid if your own well is dry. Sneak in bits of “Me Time” where you can by being mindful of leftover moments. Find a pocket park and brown-bag it on your lunch break every day, load your MP3 player with all your favorite tunes, or check out books-on-CD from the library and play them during your commute. Find a reliable sitter (or trade sitting with another parent) and go out with friends every two weeks; you don't have to spend a lot, just see a matinee, go biking or have a beer. This time will rejuvenate you in a hundred ways - it's time as yourself (as opposed to time as Mama or Employee or Student) that keeps you human.

I am very, very lucky that my husband is a partner in every sense of the word. There is no question in our household that Mom and Dad are every bit as much a couple as we are parents. It's great for us, but it's also good for our kids – they feel secure knowing that we are a solid team. They also know that I have my own resources and interests and am not living vicariously through them, which is important too.

I'm learning a lot from watching how Mollie deals with her “empty nest.” Raising my kids has been (and is) my vocation and my avocation for a long time, but I'm no longer afraid of reaching retirement. I am extremely lucky, having married my own personal version of Superman with a side of David Bowie and a sprinkling of Sean Connery, and you can bet your bottom dollar I won't be taking him for granted – Daddy Bird and I are staying close, so there'll still be billing and cooing in our nest long after the last chick has flown.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fighting Empty Nest Syndrome, Part Deux

Mollie writes:

My niece is here visiting before she starts her junior year at college.  Lots of fun will be had today, including lunch out, a little shopping and dinner with friends this evening.  If I've mentioned it once, I've mentioned it a thousand times, but life for this diva gets a little boring with nothing but boys around.  So a niece is a good thing to have.

Amy is a lot of fun and allows me to indulge my feminine side.  Although she's in her twenties, she didn't become a presence in our lives until she was twelve.  She lives in the heartland with her family, and for a few years, other than brief family reunions, we seldom saw her.  She was a cutie, with red hair and big blue eyes.  And that kid could play piano!

Just about the time she hit adolescence, my two were entering their twenties.  It's really hard to back off - but the boys needed their space.  Late teens and early twenties is a good time to practice making small mistakes without your parents micro-managing every move you make, and Amy was there for us, absorbing our attention while Peter and Roger maneuvered their way into young adulthood.  The boys dyed their hair, lived to regret driving and texting, finished college and moved into their independent lives while we were happily sidetracked and amused by our niece, in her early teens.

As it is now, Amy is needing her own space, being a young adult herself.   But John and I were lucky enough to share in her teens, her trips to New York, her exploration of different career possibilities, the whole gamut.    When we were dealing with two young adult sons, we had a willing niece to go camping with us, learning to navigate with the GPS, fishing, and just generally enjoying her summers out of high school.  She would arrive by train and John and I would exchange phone calls and e-mail with her parents until her arrival to Everett Washington, the closest train station.  It was a good growth period for all of us.

Now that she is establishing herself as a young adult, the pains of empty nest are less acute.  In this intervening period, I've learned how to amuse myself without kids in the menagerie.  I've carved out a a life that doesn't include parenting.

Amy starts classes next week, complete with her own shared apartment, and we are enjoying watching from afar.  I've packed up old dishes, new towels, and properly mussed rags (so she can clean without using her new towels).  We'll be around for the next two years, but not hovering.

If you are dealing with empty nest, consider including another youngster in your life.  That person won't replace your other kids, but will fill that empty space that all of us experience when life moves on.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Doctor's Office Survival Kit

Millie writes:

Our son-in-law was practicing his super powers last weekend and wound up in the emergency room. He's fine now, with a great new story to tell and six stitches in his scalp; but the entire episode brought to mind how much time a parent spends waiting in various medical offices.

It starts with the New Baby Checkup and continues until – well, Joy is 24 and I still put in a little waiting-room time with her, so it continues for quite a while. If you have a kid who's prone to ear infections or strep throat or breaking bones, your annual waiting-room time can easily double.

If you have six kids . . . well, never mind. I don't want to depress you.

Anyway, I found out early on that I needed to be prepared to entertain the little darling while we waited; first to get called into the Inner Sanctum, then for The Great and Powerful Dr. Oz. Waiting rooms themselves are not always too bad if you can overlook the fact that every other sick kid in the place is drooling on the toys. There's almost always a copy of Highlights for Children, so you can while away an interesting quarter-hour looking for the hidden pictures if some brat hasn't already circled them; then there are those fascinating waiting-room toys, like the bead-on-a-wire sculptures and the elaborate train tables. Once we get called back into the exam room it's a different story, however.

I don't know whether you've noticed, but there's just not much to DO back there except try and keep your kid from playing with every piece of medical equipment in the room. If it's a scheduled appointment and you're a plan-ahead sort of person, you can bring a hand-held video game, a coloring book or a couple of favorite stories. However, my kids are usually not considerate enough to schedule their E/R visits in advance, so I have learned that as long as I have a pen in my purse we'll be fine. Here are some of our favorite devices for whiling away the time.

Tic-Tac-Toe, Hangman and Dots and Boxes
I think all six of my kids learned to play these games in one doctor's office or another. What makes it work is that you play them on the paper that covers the exam table. Your child will think you're being quite daring for marking up this paper, but the medical staff doesn't care; they're just going to rip it off and throw it away after the exam so you might as well use it!

Puppet Show
If you are really desperate (like the time they forgot we were waiting, closed the office and went to lunch), you might do a little exam-room raiding yourself. You can make a very entertaining “puppet” by drawing a funny face on a tongue depressor; if you have gum in your purse you can even stick a cotton-ball wig on it.

Balloon Face
The doctor has several boxes of balloons hanging right on the wall there, disguised as rubber exam gloves. Blow one up, tie it off and the wrist and bat it around a bit (careful for the breakables, though). You can also draw a face on this and wrap it up in the kid's discarded shirt to make a balloon baby.

Guessing Games
These games are good anywhere you have to sit and wait, and require no equipment at all. Simply choose something in plain sight, select a defining characteristic and say, “I'm thinking of something blue” (or tall or fluffy or whatever) and let your kid guess what it is. When they get a little older this game can evolve into “Hot and Cold,” where you select an item and they ask questions about its location. If the guess is way off you say “cold,” if it's closer or further you say “warmer” or “cooler” and if they're right on top of it they're “hot.” This game sets the stage for the classic 20 Questions. Warning: if you've been training your child on a steady diet of logic games, they are liable to kick your butt at 20 Questions.

Diversionary Tactics
If your child is nervous or in pain, they may not have the attention span necessary to play anything as organized as a game. If they're in pain you're in the right place and there's not much to do but hold them close and wait it out—and by the way, a really little one might become instantly calmer if YOU climb up on that table and pull them onto your lap. If your exam room contains paper cups, get them myriad little sips of water – that's always diverting, especially if the paper cups are the conical type (which, by the way, make excellent puppets as well). If the child in question tends to the hysterical or drama-queenish (not that I know any of those, ahem), that's a different matter altogether. I can tell you how I manage it, but since sarcasm is one of my super powers I don't necessarily recommend this approach for everyone.

What I do is to assume my most serious, scholarly face and begin describing in lurid detail the probably courses of treatment and how the doctor will use each obscure piece of equipment in the exam room. The secret to successful gaslighting is to start small. Well, yes, you say, you might get a shot this time; if you're lucky it won't be with that needle over there (pointing to the coat hook on the door). Mom! That's not a needle! your child may indignantly retort; to which you reply, oh yes, it is; a doctor's office is so small that everything in it must be usable for two or even three things, and that coat hook is the handle for pulling the Big Needle out of the door. Of course they hardly ever use the Big Needle because the doctor has to stand out in the hall to get it into the patient . . . well, you get the idea. Start off small and draw them in, until by the end of it you're telling such blatant whoppers that even the whiniest child will start to laugh. Only try this approach if you can keep an absolutely straight face.

This worked on all of my children except for one – and he turned out to be so gullible that he believed an Army recruiter.

Come to think of it, the other five are a little twisted, as well . . .

On Asking Questions

When Millie first approached me to contribute to this blog, I was quite flattered. Here was this wise woman, asking me to add my two cents to a parenting blog, when I've only had six years of experience!

I obviously accepted her invitation, and have even written up an article!

I still ask far more questions than I answer, though. And that's a good thing! So many parents think they know everything, or feel that they need to appear to know everything. I'm here to encourage every parent out there to ask questions, even if you think they're silly.

Your children are going to ask you at least 1.2 million questions in a one month period--and that's just a rough estimate. You've got to be willing to let them know you don't know everything. That's when you get to have the jolly good fun of discovering new things together. "I don't know, Sally, let's find out together!" Some of these (okay--most of these) questions are going to be something they ask over and over again. That's how they learn! Yes, it will drive you crazy at times. And that's okay, too! We could all use a little more crazy in our coffee, I suppose.

Just a little more, though.

So ask questions. Get dirty. Find answers. Discover. It'd be awfully dull to think I know all there is to know about everything. Let's face it, what I don't know far outweighs what I do. Just means there's that much more out there to uncover and revel in. Question everything, don't assume the status quo offers all there is on any given subject.

There is a feast of possibilities out there. Time to tuck up and dig in!

Monday, August 23, 2010

"Playing Married"

I have a question for you.

How old is too old to be mouth kissing between opposite gender siblings? Scenario: my six year old daughter and four year old son always play marriage. Right now, their version of married life consists of kissing and lounging around together. Sounds lovely, if you're actually married!

Am I just being too sensitive to this? I know their intentions are innocent, but where do we draw the line? I may be extra paranoid in this area because I had to be on high alert around a certain family member who had a hard time keeping his hands to himself, if ya catch my drift. So are these "red flags" being thrown up simply because I was so strongly geared toward guarding them against being molested, that now even innocent "play pretend married" has me seeing the potential for horrible situations? Or is there a legitimate problem here that I need to squash? I've even had my son asking what "sexy kissing is--is it when you have your mouth open?" My husband and I are not shy about showing each other (appropriate) affection in front of the children. I know that's a GOOD thing, but trying to explain that kissing on the lips when you get older is just for married people (don't even want to start thinking about dating, ugh), soo... are they "older" now?

Cautious of the Curious
Millie writes:

First of all, congratulations. Your children view married life as two people being affectionate and loving with one another, not screaming at each other or going their separate ways . . . ya done good, Mom and Dad.

Issues like this are tough on parents. On one hand, something our children are doing is making us uncomfortable because we are viewing it from our adult perspectives; on the other hand we don't want to rip away any of their childish innocence either. I think that you have exactly the right instincts here, both about how you want to modify your children's behavior and about keeping a reign on your own possible over-reactions.

I think most of us probably had “a certain family member” or friend with wandering hands, and those of us whose parents prepared us for handling such situations probably fared much better than those of us whose parents felt too shy or awkward to handle loaded topics. Even a very small child knows that his behind is much more interesting than his ears, and that talking about it will make some adults turn red and look funny, too. I recommend that you do talk to your children about married kissing, but that you do it in a general way so they don't perceive the “thou shalt not” as a punishment.

It's obvious that at least your son is curious about how adults show physical affection, and if he's brave enough to ask you about “sexy kissing” then he deserves a truthful answer. The beauty of this is that he's asked you, so you can gear the information to his age and your family beliefs. The trick is not to spook him; because you also want to be the one to answer his questions later about dating and sex, you don't want him to feel ashamed of asking. After all, his questions are perfectly normal — face it, don't YOU think love and sex are about the most interesting things there are? - so you want to answer them as calmly as you do his questions about why is the sky blue and where do butterflies go in the winter. Be calm and friendly, even if inside you're shrieking, “AAAAAIIIGHHHH!” They will take their cue from your attitude, so if you don't make it into A Big Deal they won't see it that way either.

I don't think you're being paranoid, and I do think this is probably a good age to draw the line while they are still innocent. Sometime when they are not playing the Married Game, steer the conversation to different ways that people show affection. You might talk about how Mr.-Green-next-door mows old Mrs. Smith's lawn for her every week, which is one way of showing neighborly love. In your house you kiss the baby on the cheek to show you love her, and pat the puppy on the head to show you love him; Mama and Daddy kiss each other on the mouth, and that's one way that married people show love. Ask them if they can think of other types of love. Talk about this as long as they are interested and then move on to something else.

Watch them, next time they're playing the Married Game, and if you see them kiss each other on the lips, say something like, “Honeys, remember, mouth-kissing is only for people who are really married. If you want to play this game kiss each other on the cheeks instead.” Be calm and matter-of-fact about it and don't say anything else. If they ask, “Why?” just repeat “because that's only for grown-ups who are really married.” Then distract them by proposing a snack or a walk or a board game.

Remember, children's play is the way they practice for their grown-up lives. Help them be good adults by gently and wisely explaining to them the rules of the games they will be playing. Teaching them to show affection appropriately as they get older is no different than toilet-training them or teaching them to dress themselves. Once you explain that they're growing up and they're old enough to learn what the big people do, you can softly mold their behavior without bruising their spirits.

Oh, and . . . be sure the lock on your bedroom door is in good working order. Some parts of the Married Game should stay private!

Mollie writes:

Ditto all of the above.  But I can't stress too much about talking with your kids.  If they are kissing at school (even pre-school) you need to find out what context started this new behavior.  I couldn't imagine my kids ever kissing anyone on the mouth until they were teenagers, but I have NO doubt that they talked about sex with some of their friends from grades K-8.  Acting out on kissing shows a preoccupation with sexual contact (in my opinion) and I'd want to know more about what my pre-schooler, grade schooler and middle schooler were experiencing when they weren't with me.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

How Young is Too Young for Makeup?

Millie writes:

The makeup question has been raging between mothers and daughters since Egyptian queens began lining their eyes with kohl.

It seems like such a little thing on the surface, doesn't it? The girl is growing older and wants to take “dressing up” to the next level; she wants to start acting like the Big Girls act. This simple desire can set off just about every alarm in the motherly arsenal, from “I can't believe my baby's growing up” to “children are becoming sexualized earlier and earlier” and sometimes even, “wait . . . I'm the woman here, not her!”

I've seen self-described Crunchy Granola Mamas completely at a loss when faced with daughters who study at the Tammy Faye Bakker School of Eye Shadow, and women who wouldn't be caught dead bare-faced in public equally flummoxed by having given birth to girls who won't even touch a Chapstick. What are the guidelines?

As is so often the case in parenting, the unbending rule about makeup is: it depends.

Partly it depends on what is “the norm” in your neighborhood; if you're on the fence about your 12-year-old wearing mascara and other girls in her class are wearing it, it's probably okay. Nail polish is usually acceptable even for elementary-schoolers, though not those Dragon-Lady talons.

The biggest factor to consider, though, is what you think about the whole thing. Even if makeup is acceptable in her school and in your neighborhood, you are her parents; if you don't think lipstick is appropriate on a 14 year old girl, then it isn't – end of story.

For what it's worth, I decided about two decades ago that if it washes off, grows out or fills in eventually, I'm not going to sweat what the kids experiment with adornment-wise. I draw the line at tattoos or piercings (other than earlobes) and other ritualistic disfigurements, but I think wacky haircolors, cuts and other statements of that nature are kinda cool. I've been known to shave hair into a question-mark-shaped Mohawk upon request; though I do insist that however shaggy the hairstyle, it MUST be clean.

By the way: Girls aren't the only ones who want to wear makeup, so don't be surprised if you have this conversation with one or more of your sons, as well. Try not to freak out. Our Rocky was going through his black-fingernail-polish phase when he met my parents for the first time; I just smiled and thought about the fashions that were prevalent during THEIR teen years. I think I prefer Preppy Goth to a Duck's Ass any day.

My general makeup guidelines are thus:

Fingernail polish: Girls, elementary school; boys, probably not until late junior high unless they are VERY confident in their own personal “style”

Lip gloss: 11 years or or fifth grade (By the way, this is also when I have the Shaving Talk, unless the girl herself brings it up earlier; I don't think you should have to be hairy if you don't want to be, once you become aware of it.)

Eye makeup: 13 years or middle school (I know this seems early and before I had daughters I'd have thought “high school,” but girls this age have so much FUN with eye makeup; I'm reminded of one little redhead who wore glitter so thickly on her eyelids that it flaked off in clouds when she blinked. It takes so much time to put on in the morning when you're unused to it that eye makeup was usually reserved for parties, anyway.)

Full makeup: High school

Of course what I'm talking about here is fairly regular lipstick/eye makeup/ blusher/ foundation female makeup, but there are a lot of other options out there. So far none of the boys have shown any interest in wearing manscara or guyliner but if they did, my guidelines would be about the same as for the girls (with a little extra time spent on the “be aware of the impression you're making on people” talk). If one of my kids wanted to go Goth or another extreme style, I would probably insist that they wait until their high school years simply because of the hassle it will cause them in public. Younger psyches are just not developed enough to buck the system as much as they think they'd like to.

If the idea of your child as a Goth makes you despair, talk to them and – more importantly – listen to them. It usually isn't about drugs, devil worship and despair but if it is, you need to know it so you can get your child the help he needs. Extreme makeup, jewelry and clothing can actually be as sign of a very strong developing self-image and the need to stand apart from the crowd, which is certainly something we can all support – and if it's about Shocking Mom and Dad, well . . .

I can tell you from experience that nothing will take the wind out of a wannabe Morticia Addams like somebody's forty-five year old mom shrieking, “Oh honey, I LOVE those boots! They're thigh-high Doc Martens, right? I have a pair just like those!”

Hee hee hee.

Wish I did though – those are some really sexy boots.

Mollie  writes:

Somedays I just despair that I never had a daughter, then someone asks "How Young Is Too Young For Makeup" and I see the light.  Boys do crazy things, but really, my two never wore eyeshadow (unless it was for a play).

Of course, I, myself, put on my overlay, cover, foundation and base coat every day.  But only after I get out the sander and smooth away all the dents and pits.  That's what we fashionistas do.  Then I put on my makeup: a minimum of blush, lip liner, lipstick and eye shadow.   I clean my face every day, use a toner and then moisturize before I even start the overlay process.  Once a week, I give myself a facial, paying extra attention to exfoliants, then I steam my face.

And you're worried about make-up?

Ok.  For general purposes, I'd let my grade schooler do her nails, but only if she does mine first.  Nothing else is appropriate for anyone younger than 12, except chap stick (and remember, that's for medicinal purposes only).  Once my daughter was in middle school, I'd probably let her graduate to lip gloss and blush, but that's all.

Girls do have a problem with acne, so all bets are off if your daughter gets zits from time to time.  Sometimes your daughter will want to use foundation or some other goop to hide a flaw, but it has to be removed before bed. I know more chicks who exacerbated skin problems with cover-up.  So keep this in mind when you talk to your little Elle about foundation.

 Millie is right, each situation is unique, and a lot has to do with your community.  During middle school, girl relationships get intense, and it simply isn't prudent to make your own child stick out just to support your own feelings of what's proper and what's not.  If all the other girls are wearing blush, I'd push the envelope a bit, but I do think that Nefertiti eyes can wait until age 16, and then only for special occasions.  But as long as the make-up looks fresh and natural, I'd relax.

I never had to worry over the Goth look.  One boy dyed his hair YELLOW in high school and I just looked the other way.  But once your Elle has hit sixteen, I'd stay out of the make-up discussion.  At some point you have to let your kids learn to make decisions for themselves, and I think sixteen is a good age.  One caveat, make her buy her own make-up.  This will keep her experimentation under some control.

For boys, I say let 'em choose their own hair styles.  I say it from the perspective of a woman whose kids let their father shave their buzz cuts until age twelve.  Once they hit middle school, they went a little long, but it was ok.  Long hair on a middle school boy is kinda sweet.

John and I weren't much into tattoos or piercing, so neither were the kids.  If my kid wanted a tattoo, and it wasn't horrible or huge, I'd probably let a high schooler get a tattoo, but they'd have to negotiate site and subject.

NO TONGUE PIERCING!!!  When they are paying their own bills, they can put a hole in their tongue, but while living under my roof, eating my food, etc. tongues remain pristine.  The same goes for noses, navels and other body parts.  I just hate the idea of taking a kid to the pediatrician with an infected tongue from a piercing.

Keeping wardrobes under control is something else, too.  I'm so glad that girls are covering their navels again.  I suspect that anyone in my household under age sixteen (boy or girl) would have to keep their privates private, and that includes navels, even in swimsuits.  I understand that there's therapy for this aversion, but frankly, I'm not interested.

So, that's this old lady's opinion.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

To Visit, or Not to Visit?

A Gentle Reader asks: “We have some friends who just had their first baby. We are DYING to go and see the new arrival, but we feel shy about just showing up on their front porch. What is the etiquette in a situation like this?”

Millie writes

This is one of those times when communication is a MUST, because whether a visit will be welcome or dreaded depends entirely upon the new parents.

Some people (especially with their first babies) are extremely anxious in those few weeks at home with a newborn; they worry about germs, the baby won’t sleep when they think he should, and they’re concerned that their house is a mess. Even laid-back parents will be tired, and they may be very busy trying to incorporate nursing and diapering into their old schedule.

On the other hand, many – probably most – parents want to show off the new baby, too. Even if they seem to be sending out “stay away” vibes, they may be hurt that no one has come to pay their respects to the new prince or princess. The first thing to remember is that the new mama and papa are walking bags of surging hormones and sleep deprivation, so don’t let yourself feel insulted by anything they say (or don’t say) right now! In addition, they may be trying very, very hard not to become “THOSE parents,” the couple who only talk about their baby – so they may be too shy to ask you to come over.

I’m interested in what the other ladies think about this, because: Mollie always knows the right thing to do, Maggie has a one-month-old, and May has reached the age where her friends are having babies. Meanwhile, here are my guidelines!

• Call first. Never never NEVER just drop in on brand-new parents. They may have just gotten the baby to sleep or dropped off themselves – and as anyone who’s ever had a newborn knows, there is NO other feeling of accomplishment like the one you get when you finally get a baby to go to sleep. (If they are sleeping they’ll have probably turned the phone’s ringer off, so calling is okay.)

• If they’re not up to a visit right now, don’t feel insulted. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you, it just means they are stretched so thin they can’t handle even ONE. MORE. THING right now.

• Don’t show up empty-handed. A baby gift isn’t necessary, especially if you already gave one at a shower, but a casserole, a loaf of home-made bread or a handful of movie-rental coupons might really make their day. Oh, and there is one thing I always do if the baby has older siblings: I bring a present, but for the older kids, NOT for the baby. Big brothers and sisters get overlooked a lot at a time like this. The baby won’t care if they get a present and he doesn’t, but you can bet it matters if the situation is reversed!

• Don’t stay long. Twenty minutes is probably long enough during that first couple of weeks. That’s enough time to coo over the baby, ask to hold him if you think the parents will let you (and you want to), leave your gift and go. This way you get your baby fix, they get to show off a bit and no one gets tired out.

What do you think, Ladies?

Mollie Chips In Her 2 1/2 Cents Worth

Well, you asked!

I have a very good angel and a very bad angel sitting on my shoulders, helping me write this.  The very bad angel says "Swoop on down, hug that baby, genuflect to the parents, and then share every moment of your own labors and deliveries with the mom."  Like I said, a very bad angel.  But isn't that what we all do?

It's what I wanna do!

"Here's what you might do" says the very good angel.

You know where the baby lives, so send flowers to the mom, a Teddy bear for the other sibs, and a bottle of Jack Daniel's to the father.   Just because he doesn't drink now only means he hasn't raised teenagers yet.

If you live out of town, call nearby restaurants, etc. to see if they deliver.  Then have food sent.  Food is always appreciated, especially when you're nursing.  Go for a deli platter and a case of sparkling apple cider.  Oh, and beer helps the milk let down . . .

Send a packet of redeemable coupons to the parents.  They should be for things like HazMat services, babysitting, a weekend away when the baby isn't nursing anymore, that sort of thing.   Use your imagination, silly.  What did you really need help with when you were sitting on your episiotomy, nursing a baby, dealing with mastitis, and just generally wondering why there are only 24 hours a day?

If you have a buck or two, start a college fund for the wee one.  The parents will think you crazy, but $50.00, compounded at 1.5% for 18 years is probably an art history book when the princess is 18.  And, yes, in college, every book is a gift from God.  Ok, so maybe a laptop or whatever small pittance it will buy then, but you get my point.  If that kidlet decides to spend the money on something other than higher education, that's fine, because you love him/her.  But having a little nest egg started is a good thing!

Check the parents Facebook page daily and respond appropriately.  Appropriate responses might be "Oh, Sweetie!!!!" if it's something related with new mommy frustration, or "Oh, Sweetie!!!!!!!" if has something to do with something positive.  "Oh, Sweetie!!!!!!!!" pretty much covers it all.

Find out, via Facebook or e-mail, when a visit might be arranged.  Start the correspondence with "I need a baby fix, when can you accommodate me!"  If you are really nice, you can insert a "?" for "!".  Telephones can rattle a nursing mom, e-mail will remain in a holding pattern 'til the mommy is ready to respond.

And remember, once that baby is here, that little person is #1 to the parents.  If it seems like you are being ignored, it's because someone else is probably getting every drop of tender attention the parents have to offer.  This is a good thing.  This also won't change.

So, glorify in the beauty of birth.  A new person has arrived here, all new and perfect, just waiting to be loved.  So love away - but let the parents call the shots!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Thinking Outside the Box

How old does my son need to be before he gets his own bedroom? I really hope we're not in this house by that time, and that we'll be blessed with a four bedroom house... until then, he's sharing a room with his sisters. Thoughts on when it is appropriate for him to move to his own room?  He is 5, his sisters are 7, 2, and newborn.  We currently have a three bedroom house.

Mollie writes:

At age five, he can still be with his sisters, especially if they all get along.  Sure helps keeping the toys corralled.  

I understand that you have a three bedroom house, with three daughters, a son and a hubby.  When I was growing up, we had multiple homes (my dad got transferred a lot).  At maximum, we were eight strong, a daddy, mommy, four daughters and two sons.  There's something funny about how 'creative' big families can be!

When I was almost nine years old, I had two older sisters and a baby brother.  We had just moved to Eugene Oregon and my parents purchased a three bedroom house.  Mom and Dad were challenged to find a comfortable way to organize bedroom allocation.  What they did in that house is they moved the three daughters into the master bedroom, complete with a separate bathroom.  The room was larger and could accommodate 3 beds and the usual paraphernalia accumulated by a 12 year old girl, an 11 year old girl and a 9 year old girl.  And it was interesting - the oldest was thinking boys were cute, the middle one loved her Barbies, and I lived for dogs.  Mom and Dad had a second bedroom, and our baby brother had the smallest room, but it was all his own.

Two years later, we moved again when Dad was transferred to Portland Oregon.  My folks bought a four bedroom tri-level house, with three bedrooms and a bath and a half bath upstairs, a kitchen, living room and dining room on the main level, and another bath, family room and bedroom on the lower level.  What they did, then, is they put the two oldest kids in the master bedroom, the baby brother in the smallest bedroom and I GOT A ROOM OF MY OWN!  This only lasted for a few months, as #5, a daughter, was born and was moved into my room with me.  But it was fun, the baby was a novelty and I learned how to change diapers like a pro by the time my 12th birthday rolled around.

But, best of all, Mom and Dad got the downstairs bedroom.  Privacy at last!

A few years later and we moved again, just in time for #6.  By then, the oldest daughter was on her way to college, and we juggled bedrooms a lot.  The two babies, a girl, aged two, and a boy, newborn, shared a bedroom, another sister and myself shared a bedroom, and, once again, the oldest boy got a room of his own.  Eventually, Dad built a fifth bedroom in the garage, complete with a bathroom to accommodate the older siblings comings and goings.

Big families have to think outside the box.  My husband came from a family with five kids and his parents started out with a 2 bedroom house with an unfinished upstairs and unfinished basement.  Eventually, John's dad finished the upstairs with one big bedroom for the three girls, and a smaller bedroom for John.  The baby had a downstairs bedroom, and John's parents had the fourth.  And John's dad did the same as my dad, he put in a fifth bedroom and a second bathroom in the basement (not the garage) for kids as they came home from college, military duty, etc.  How they coped with one bathroom for 20 years defies logic, especially with three teenage girls.

Peter and Roger always had rooms of their own, although for several years, they chose to sleep in the bunk beds in Peter's room.  When Roger hit 2 1/2, we moved him into a big boy bed in his own room and he just would NOT sleep in it.  So he slept in his brother's room, on the bottom bunk, but he still played in his own bedroom.  He didn't start sleeping alone until he was five years old.  I think it was just a natural progression.

I'm interested in Millie's input as well.  She has six kids, four of them still living "at home."  I have no doubt that she has also been creative with kiddy bedroom allocation.

Anyway, that's it for me.  Now that I'm old and retired, I have a four bedroom home on an island and I'm loving it.  I already have a room ready for grandkids when they arrive, a guest room, and the fourth bedroom is actually a sewing room.  Lots of space - but no kids to fill it.  I find it endlessly amusing that when you need the space the most, you can't afford it, and when you can finally afford it, the kids are grown.


Millie writes:

In our house we have always segregated by gender, but I think it depends a lot more on the individual children than on their sexes.

The older a child is the more privacy he will want, especially if the younger sibs are still in the "putting small things in their mouths" stage. When we have bedrooms that don't allocate "evenly" (i.e., enough for everyone to either share a room or have a room of their own), we give the "lone" room to the oldest child on the theory that the oldest will be gone the soonest and then everyone can move up a rung.

In the "Full House" days we were sometimes flexible as to what, exactly, constituted a "room." In our last house there were not quite enough bedrooms but there was a massive multi-roomed basement, so once Rocky got old enough that we were sure he could get himself out of the house in case of fire or other calamity he was allowed to make over one of the pantry rooms into his own private space. Jack and Red shared a room that wasn't technically a bedroom either (no closet), but it was a funky little nook with space for a bunkbed, a bookshelf, a desk and a bunch of gear (usually on the floor).

Our girls each had a fierce need for privacy and the age span was so great that they always had rooms to themselves - though if we'd had to put them together at some point, I'd have divided the room so they'd have each had a place to retreat.

Some kids just aren't a good fit for room sharing, no matter how well they get along otherwise. If one gets sleepy at 9 p.m. and the other wants to chatter and read until 2 a.m., don't put them together if you ever want to get any peace at night yourself. On the other hand, sometimes sharing a room is the best way for two seemingly disparate personalities to bond if their habits are fairly compatible; Jack and Red are four years apart but they are inseparable, probably because they shared a room until just a year ago. They were there for each other during those dark hours that make heart-to-heart talks possible.

Of course the big question is Boys with Girls, and that can be a thorny issue. If they're close in age (or old enough to remember the other being diapered) they've already seen everything there is to see, but they will start to really understand the differences as early as 7 or 8. Some kids start masturbating at around that age as well, or even earlier. You'll have to deal with that sooner or later anyway, whether they're sharing a room or not; make it clear to everyone that activities of that nature are natural, but personal and private.

If you don't have enough space for everyone to have their own rooms (and who DOES?), see if you can make a private "nook" for each child in other parts of the house. A lone boy with three sisters would appreciate a lock box where he can store a few treasures away from girls' prying eyes, especially if you can find a place to hide it. We once cut away a section of paneling in the basement wall so Red could hide his coin collection between the studs; when the panel was replaced you could hardly see the seams, and he felt like a pirate with a hoard.

If you have a lot of room somewhere else, carve out a little personal space for each child. You can go all-out by building little "offices" in the garage using stacked boxes as walls and outfitting each cubby with a chair and a basket for books, paper and pencils, or you could just designate a corner of the sofa as their personal "spot." Everyone needs someplace to sit and dream dreams.

As for me - I have a kid getting ready to launch, and if he ever does it, I will get an office out of the deal!


Here's to a whole bunch more!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The First Day of School

Without exception, the day one of our kids started school for the first time was harder on me than it was on the kid. This parenting gig is a rough one: you start letting go at birth and from that moment on they are moving away from you step by step if you're doing your job right. School is a big milestone for both of you.

If you have a child who's getting ready to take this step – whether it's preschool, kindergarten or first grade – it will be easier on him if the first day of school is not his first day in the classroom. Go to the Kindergarten Roundups and the preschool Open House so he can get a peek inside The Room and meet The Teacher. I always took it one step further (which is kind of my trademark, come to think of it) and set up a casual appointment with the teacher-to-be.

Teachers go “back to school” at least a week before students, to set up their classrooms and attend endless mind-numbing meetings. Call the school during this week, ask who your child's teacher will be if you don't already know and arrange for you and your child to “drop in” on her for 15-20 minutes during this week if she's agreeable. (It's polite to offer to help her while you're there – she may need someone to run some copies, cut out bulletin board letters or arrange information packets.)

Talk to your child ahead of time to find out what (if anything) he's worrying about, and when you're meeting the teacher you can ask the questions. What happens if someone needs to go to the bathroom? What if I don't know the answers? What if someone gets hungry or bored or homesick? This is not the time to launch into your “my child has very special needs” speech; save that for an adults-only meeting or the Parent-Teacher Conferences. This time is for the child to gain some familiarity with the teacher and the room.

It's also a time for you to begin to gauge the interaction between the teacher and your child. Is she kind or commanding, patient or authoritative, creative or regimented? None of these traits are necessarily bad (though keep in mind teachers, like other people, may behave differently when there are no other grownups around); each of them is something you can work into conversation with your child to help him process his new environment. “At home I only let you paint outside, but I notice your teacher has a protected area in the corner with an easel,” or “Did you notice how your teacher has a shelf for every different kind of book in her library? I'll bet you will learn a lot about organization from her!”

Note: saying something like, “Wow, she was really anal-retentive, wasn't she?” would probably not be helpful, even if true.

Some kids have terrible separation anxiety at first, no matter how well you prepare them. Some parents bridge the gap by staying in or near the classroom for a while until their child calms down, and some give a quick kiss and scoot. Many schools have the teacher collect the students at the building entrance rather than have the parents walk down to the classroom, but the theory is the same – either you stay for a while as a sort of “security blanket” until your child feels stronger, or you drop, hug and run. Which way you choose depends in a large part on how much you trust the teacher; definitely, if the anxiety continues, the two of you should talk about how to deal with it. Ask for a meeting, though; don't try to discuss it just before or just after school.

One thing that we tend to forget is this: preschool and kindergarten are OPTIONAL. Your child doesn't have to go, and if he isn't ready, he shouldn't go. There's no reason to force a three-year-old to play dress-up and make paste-and-glitter pictures in a community-center classroom if he hates it. Try again in 6 months or a year.

If you are home-schooling you may not have to deal with the separation anxiety, but a little preparation is still a good idea. Mom and Dad the Teachers may be a little different than Mom and Dad the Parents, and the transition between “playing all day” and “now we're learning math” can be a bit of a bump. Yes, you've been teaching math by measuring flour into cookies for years; but now you know that eventually they're going to be sitting in a room being tested on how well they know their fractions, and your attitude shifts a bit!

Not many homeschoolers have the luxury of a whole separate classroom, but most do have at least a bookshelf or filing cabinet that is dedicated solely to home-schooling materials. Let your child help you sort through these materials, adding fresh paper and sharpening pencils or whatever it is you do to prepare for a new year. Talk about your learning plans and ask him for a few ideas of his own. You may decide (as we did) to have a special “school uniform” for your child to wear on your learning outings to forestall those “shouldn't you be in school?” questions that can take up so much of your time.

Older homeschooled children may be entirely self-directed, but very young children often find at least a little structure to be exciting as well as comforting. Brainstorm together to find something that signals the beginning and end of your school day, whether it's putting on a special shirt, sitting in a particular spot or ringing a bell. You know and I know that learning goes on all the time, whether or not you're in a classroom – but showing them that you take it seriously will make them take it seriously, too.

Finally, there's something we all need to remember: most young children love the idea of school and are eager (at least on some level) to start. They can't wait to do what the Big Kids are doing . . . so don't be surprised if your baby walks into that building without a backward glance.

If he does, and you shed a briny tear or two, don't worry, Mama; he still needs you.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pain and Couture

Mollie writes:

Just when you think you've entered the nirvana years, old age, disease, poor lifestyle choices and gravity settle on a poor body, reminding you that once you've passed through your childbearing years, you are pretty much washed up.

I suspect this is why so many women postpone motherhood for so long.  I held out until age 29, and, bingo if I wasn't diagnosed with MS eleven years later.  In cave man terms, my youngest was ten-ish, so mother nature pretty much assumed that I was finished with reproduction, lactation, diaper duty and ready to enter the work-force again.  So, she put the skids on my personal body maintenance and redirected her efforts to those of us younger and still actively mothering.

I was left with not simply a little anger, but a lot of anger.  What does the forty-something do when diagnosed with a disease, that, if it kills her at all, won't for many years later.  I suppose I could join a nunnery like William the Conqueror's wife, Mathilde, and spend the rest of my life celebrating my husband's achievements via tapestry . . .

. . .or I could go shopping.

What I love about the internet is that you can virtually shop 'til you drop (or maybe that's literally?).  In any event, I just spent the last 24 hours in excruciating pain.  And since my liver doesn't appreciate the smorgasbord of pain-killers I could take, I was left to my own devices of dealing with my pain through internet therapy.

I went to http://www.chanel.com and did some imaginary shopping. I currently weigh somewhere in the 160's so haute couture really isn't an option.  But if, suddenly, my body reverted to age 17, when I weighed 95 pounds dripping wet, I could wear anything I wanted (not that I could afford it - couldn't then and can't now).

But I did come up with a spiffy little outfit from the Chanel collection.  I combined some hats and boots from the Shanghai line with some really splendid frocks and britches.  And in my virtual world world, all is now in alignment.

How does this translate to motherhood?  What life would we mommies have if we didn't have an active fantasy life?  Mine wold be in the hamper, with my size 14 fleeces and DD bras.  Life just tosses you some rotten fruit, sometimes, and the best way to deal with it is to pretend you are somebody else for a while.

So at whatever stage you are in your life, practice a little escapism.  Leave your plastic in your safe, but let your imagination run wild.  In no time at all, you'll be prancing down the catwalk with me, decked out in thigh-high boots, a Chinese straw hat in basic black, and a sweater that drags the floor . . . with accessories dripping off your wrists.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Life's Embarrassing Moments

Mollie writes:

Maggie is nursing up a storm, and I have to laugh because I have managed to embarrass myself multiple times as a nursing mother. With my first, I was constantly pumping milk to take to the NICU for my preemie, and couldn't go anywhere without my hand pump, bottles, nipples, lids and wipes.  I had nursing bras that looked like they were from the middle ages and there was absolutely no way to nurse my baby in public without giving the world an eyeful.  I'm normally a DD, but as a nursing mother, my size was "to infinity and beyond."

But the most embarrassing situation involved driving and a hungry, crying baby.  Peter was four months old, and I was still experiencing milk letdown any old time.  A friend had loaned me a preemie car seat (extra small) and by May, I was ready to return it.

So into the car goes the new car seat, in goes the preemie car seat, in goes the baby, then in goes the diaper/nursing bag.  I was just driving a couple of miles, to a friend's house, but you'd think I was going on safari.

I went to Kathy's house, returned the preemie seat, chatted, showed off my baby, nursed him, and had a nice cup of tea.  After about two hours, we were ready to go home, so I loaded Peter and his accessories and headed for the barn.

We were driving up Towle road when Peter started whimpering for food.  Whimpers changed to demands, and of course, my milk started to let down.  We were only a few blocks from home, so I sped a little.  My milk let down and I could watch the dark circles form on my chest.

Unfortunately, I didn't notice the traffic cop pointing his radar gun at me.  Whoop whoop goes his siren, and I obediently pull to the side of the road.

This cop would be lucky if he were 21.  He was wet behind the ears and looked like it.  I'd be surprised if the boy shaved.  But here we are, at the side of the road, with my baby screaming, my milk letting down, and a look of utter confusion on the cop's face.

I guess he didn't know that nursing was a spontaneous kinda thing.  His eyes grew bigger as my milk circles grew bigger.  I burst into tears, and Peter just screamed away.  What a way to get a speeding ticket.

I eventually made it home, fed the baby, and resolved to go to court to fight my ticket.  On the court date, I went in to plead my distraction, I wasn't going that fast (35 in a residential 25 zone).  But I took one look at the judge and realized that nursing and speeding just don't mix.  I paid my fine and went home.

So a word to the wise.  Let the little guy scream his head off.  You can pull over and nurse him, or he can just wait the additional 5 minutes for grub.

But don't drive when under the influence of oxytocin.  That's the mother of all hormones!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

For New Husbands: How to Interpret Your Wife

Having been a woman for several years now, I know that it's an unfortunate trait of our gender to not say what we mean. Unfortunately, this habit doesn't seem to go away once you're married, so I thought I'd offer a few common phrases and their real meanings, just in case. These are obviously not 100% universally accurate, but it’s a good place to start. (Readers, feel free to add any I may pass over.)

- When we answer "Nothing" after our snarky retorts, sullen silences and door-slamming finally prompt you to ask what's wrong
I know that answer is frustrating and unhelpful, but believe me, it’s not because we think you’re stupid or easily fooled. OBVIOUSLY something’s bothering us. Contrary to popular stereotype, it can be just as difficult for women to talk about their feelings. “Nothing” can usually be loosely translated to one of two things; either “Something that I feel stupid for being upset about” or “I don’t know and I don’t feel like talking about it until I DO know.” When faced with a response of “Nothing,” the best thing you can do is let us know that you’ll be there to talk when we need to and then let the subject drop. Pressing the issue will just aggravate her more.

- “I think these pants make my _______ look gross. Would you look and tell me what you think?”
This one is a little counter-intuitive, because it sounds like an overt plea for automatic compliments, but at least among the women *I* know, it means “I feel like these pants make me look like someone stuffed a watermelon into a Ziploc baggie and I’m afraid I’m going to embarrass myself if I go out in public like this.” I know it’s a terrifying prospect, but if the offending article of clothing is really unflattering, be honest with your spouse. Even if her feelings are hurt, it will be fleeting and ultimately she’ll be grateful.

- “Do you think I’m pretty?”
Conversely, this one really IS fishing for compliments, but usually it’s less an issue of vanity and more “I feel ugly.” Obviously we know you think we’re pretty, you love us and you have to! We’re looking for specifics, hoping to be waxed rhapsodic about for a few minutes. A simple “Of course!” isn’t going to cut it.

- “What are you thinking about?”
Let’s be honest here; when we ask that question, most of us are hoping that the answer will be that you’re thinking about us, or our future, or some conversation we had earlier that we ourselves have been mulling over. That’s why sometimes we look put out when you say “Nothing,” or “video games.” It doesn’t mean that you’ve done anything wrong. It probably means that your neutral face looks very deep and contemplative.

- “Would you please shave/change your shirt/comb your hair?”
This is not our less than subtle way of telling you that you’re starting to smell funny or that you look like a rumpled hedgehog; most women are pretty straightforward about telling you that. The point there is that we like to feel as though you try to look presentable for us, even on your days off. Nothing big, but . . . if you don’t wear a beard, shave off the stubble so you don’t give her rug burn when you kiss her. If you’re going to sit on the couch and snuggle, don’t wear a shirt that you’ve dug out of the laundry three days in a row. Small things, but they show consideration and effort, which mean a lot to us when they’re present and are conspicuous when they’re absent.

- “What do you think?”
Somehow, many MANY men misinterpret this as “Tell me what you think I want to hear. Don’t say “Whatever you want is fine,” don’t say “I dunno.” When we ask that question we want to know that you care about the issue, which means thinking about it and telling us what you REALLY THINK. If you really don’t have an opinion, at least tell her you’ll think about it. Even if you agree with her, say that instead of “whatever you want,” because that says that you were listening.

I’m sure there are more that have yet to occur to me; I’d love to hear some more!

Swami Millie

Millie writes:

Whether you're up to your elbows in strained peaches and late for your “Mommy and Me” classes or writing against a deadline and packing for an 8-person camping trip, parenthood is all about juggling. We keep so many balls in the air that we are very reluctant to add even one more, especially if the new ball isn't something that will directly benefit our family.

Sadly, a ball that very seldom makes it into the juggling rotation is “time for ourselves.” In an ideal world there'd be a Parent Spa where we could go once a week (secure in the knowledge that our kids were being lovingly cared for, of course) to rest, read, chat, and pamper ourselves. Frankly, there've been times I'd have settled for a half-hour nap.

What gets me through is having a rich inner life. No, I don't mean sex fantasies (though that helps too, of course); I'm talking about what the life-coach-and-yoga set call “mindfulness.”

Back in the days when I had the time to read things that were more complicated than “Lather. Rinse. Repeat,” I delved into different philosophies for fun. (I know.) Mindfulness is a cornerstone of Buddhist meditation, and simply put it means paying close attention to your body, thoughts and emotions.

Of course, as a parent you can't focus your senses completely on the sensation of the bubbles in the dishwater or the sound of Dvorak's New World Symphony. As soon as you do, a toddler will decide that his diaper would make a fine paintbox or a teenager will do something that she will later try to explain away with, “Well, you never told me NOT to do it.” This is where the Attention Duality Super-Power comes into play.

You know what I mean: Before you had kids you couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time, but after you became a parent you discovered that your mind can multi-task. You can be up on a stepladder, busily scrubbing root beer off the chandelier, and yell “Quit picking at that!” to an unseen kid 3 rooms away without even having to THINK about it. You can be deep in REM sleep, enjoying a scholarly dream involving Jensen Ackles, a paintbrush and a bucket of Hershey's Syrup, and know exactly what time your teenager inserts his key in the lock of the back door. There's a part of your mind that's permanently set on “Kid.”

Since you now know you have this power, use it to sneak a couple of extra hours into your day by standing outside yourself and becoming aware of what you're doing. Yes, on one level you're sweeping the kitchen floor again; on another level, you're clearing obstructions out of your path and calming your mind. When you're weeding, don't spend the time anxiously going over the rest of your to-do list in your head: feel the earth under your fingers, bask in the warmth of the sun and smell the flowers. Don't just scrub your face before bed: Notice the smell of the soap, the warmth of the water, the texture of the cloth. If you're kept waiting in the dentist's office, don't tense up; be grateful for the extra gift of time alone in your own mind, and focus on how much you like that color of blue on the receptionist's shirt.

Mindfulness may be the seventh step along the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment, but it is also what separates us from the animals: nothing more nor less than consciousness. You may be cleaning the toilet, but you are also following in the mental footsteps of all the great philosophers before you – you are thinking, and therefore you ARE. Inside your head, you choose the landscape you see.

Another way to phrase it is: These moments going by are your life. Don't forget to live them.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Congratulations, Beka!

Welcome to the world, Conner Timothy Bergquist!

Back to School Shopping

Millie writes:

For me – and I suspect for many other people, as well – that dramatic affair in January is nothing but a party; the REAL New Year comes when it's time to go back to school. Even though it's been years since I've been a student myself, there's something about early September that promises a new start. Post-Labor Day is when I make my real resolutions, just as when I was an earnest fourth-grader: this year I will stay organized from the very beginning, this year I will do my very best, this is the year I'll RULE!

Of course even though I'M not in school anymore, in my house September still means “back to school” in a literal sense. Since Joy started preschool I've gotten each of six kids ready for a new year a total of 71 times, and I've learned a few things along the way.

Don't invest a lot of money in a binder. Your child may fall in love with that complex, inordinately expensive organizational system (with a pocket for everything, separate sections for notebook and graph paper and a built-in calculator) only to find out on the first day of school that they're not “doing” binders this year and are instead being required to have a manila envelope for each class and are forbidden to bring binders into the room. Unless you can get your hands on a Classroom Supplies List ahead of time, send her to school with a spiral notebook and a pencil that first day. Wait to buy a lot of supplies until you know exactly what she needs.

Don't personalize bulk supplies. In these days of deep budget cuts many teachers add general necessities such as Kleenex and crayons to the classroom supply list, so when your child brings in his package of #2 pencils it may be added to the general fund of pencils in the closet. Unless you know the things are for your child's personal use don't put his name on them.

DO personalize their own items. Schools are chaotic places and many coats, hats, lunchboxes and backpacks look identical. Label things clearly and plainly by writing your child's last name, school name and classroom number on the inside of the item with permanent ink (white or metallic if the item is dark). Don't use the full name or your home phone number or address.

Speaking of backpacks, buy the sturdiest backpack you can afford. Kids are incredibly rough on their backpacks, and one of those cute plastic packs will be ripped to shreds in no time flat. Look for canvas or tough rip-stop fabric, double seams, padded shoulders and zippers with fabric tapes and metal teeth. It should have adjustable straps so that it can sit high on your child's shoulders with the bottom hitting the small of her back at the lowest. Kids in middle-school age and above will have a heavy load to carry (despite the constant warnings from the medical community about how bad that is for their backs), so see if you can get them to agree to one of those wheeled packs with a handle that you can roll like a piece of carry-on luggage. I never could; sometimes they'll go for an across-the-body bag, though, and that relieves some of the strain.

Don't buy a lot of clothing. Yes, everybody needs new socks and undies, and it's nice to be wearing “new” from the skin out on that all-important First Day of School – but sure as you're sitting there, if you buy your kid ten pairs of Levis in August “They” will only be wearing Gap in September and you'll have ten pairs of jeans hanging unworn in your kid's closet. Pick up a couple of good basic things over the summer but give your kid a week or so to look around, see what people are really wearing and decide what he actually wants. Then buy him about a third of that, because he's going to be having another growth spurt before December.

Take your child with you.
They might hate it, you might hate it, but you won't hate it as much as forking out thirty bucks for a Scooby Doo lunch box you think they'll love and having them refuse to take it to school. Actually I've always kinda loved back-to-school shopping and I think my kids do, too; we either make it a gala sort of occasion complete with lunch out, or turn it into a competition. One particularly lean year we had a contest to see which kid could put together the cheapest back-to-school outfit; Sassy won by spending $3.39 on the cutest little skirt and t-shirt combo you ever saw (that kid is the best bargain shopper I have ever met). I forget what she won but I'm pretty sure it cost more than her whole outfit.

Shop late unless you're shopping early.
Another advantage to waiting until after school starts to do your shopping is that most everything goes on sale after Labor Day. However, you should keep an eye on the ads from the 4th of July on; each week in the “Buy Now for Back-to-School!” frenzy there should be a loss-leader that you can't afford to miss. Yesterday we found spiral notebooks for 15 cents, and last week it was 4 glue sticks for a dollar – you can do a lot of stocking-up at those prices.

Finally, include a treat. I am the Tradition Queen, and so we have traditions for the first day of school like we do for everything else. One tradition is that each student gets a tiny back-to-school gift on his breakfast plate, something like a fancy pencil or a goofy eraser or a teensy notebook. This way they start their day with a smile, and that bodes well for the entire year.

We also take their picture by the door that morning, backpack, new outfit and all; because a New Year deserves documentation!