Saturday, May 29, 2010

What I Wish I Had Known....

It was the kind of news so good it brings a tear to your eye: word that a childhood friend and her husband were expecting their first child. We've shared so many special times, from middle school sleepovers to European adventures, from caps and gowns to wedding veils and gowns. Now we'd share this as well. Given that our 20th high school reunion is right around the corner, we also share the fact that we both waited until a wee bit later in life to take this step. But despite advanced degrees and successful careers, nothing makes you feel like an imbecile like your first child. So in honor of my dear friend, here are the Top Nine Things I Wish I Had Known Before Having Kids (feel free to add your own #10).

1. Leaving the hospital will be awful. When you're surrounded by a round-the-clock staff of doctors and nurses, caring for that wriggly, needy creature seems almost doable. But without them? At home? It hardly seems legal, much less possible. But just remember: you have everything you need. And...

2. You don't need much. Babies R Us is a terrifying place, filled with 8,000 varieties of sippy cups and strollers with more options than my first car. Or my current car. You really don't need every gadget and gizmo that happens to be branded "baby." Save your money for diapers because...

3. Poop will consume you. And I don't just mean quantity-wise. Who knew that when color, consistency and frequency all align it could be such a truly beautiful thing? You will likely find yourself obsessing over the contents of each diaper, and if things stray from the gold standard of mustard yellow, cottage cheese, 6-8 times/day it can be panic-inducing. You may even find yourself Googling "7-week old baby poop brown with flecks of green" at 4am. And you may find comfort in the 3,095,726 results that match your search.

4. You'll want to unpack your baggage. Do what you can to check your emotional past at the door and start fresh. So you weren't hugged enough as a child? Heal yourself by doing better for your own children. Make peace where you can, including with yourself. Forgive and be forgiving. Your kids deserve it, and so do you.

5. Time doesn't always fly. Sometimes it drags, sometimes it leaps out of control. Take for instance the 27 minutes of an episode of Thomas and Friends which seem to last 8 years. But then one day you will look down and all of a sudden that floppy little head will be holding itself upright and before you know it the head is yelling "Look at me, Mom!" as it attempts to cannonball off the couch and then you're signing it up for preschool. It's probably best to just take off your watch and go with it.

6. Not all help is created equal. My extended family greeted our first child with a huge vegetable tray, 6 pounds of apricots and a 4-pack of pita chips with a giant tub of hummus. As I clumsily tried to nurse my son, hormones surging, I looked out over his fuzzy little head at a hospital picnic. The subsequent offers of "help" I received all came in edible form, usually on gigantic platters, which for someone with a history of disordered eating is not particularly helpful. Food is their love language, but it isn't mine. I am a confessed control freak, and getting back in the kitchen after the baby was born was one of the few things that made me feel like myself. Real help should make your life better, not someone else's. It's taken 3 years but I now know what I most need help with: the ability to go for an early morning run, to drink a cup of tea in peace, and one hour, once a week to lie in bed and watch The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

7. You will pray. If you're a person of faith, nothing will strengthen it more than that tiny, innocent, baby-shaped blessing. And nothing will test it like taking that blessing to church when that blessing hits about 18 months old and runs up and down the pews, shouting "YAY!!!!" at the end of each solemn hymn.

8. You will find your own voice. Cloth vs. disposable? Breast vs. bottle? Pacifier vs. thumb? Everyone (family, friends, strangers) will have an opinion, but ultimately yours is the only one that matters.

9. Everything really does change. My shoe size increased to 7.5, and we won't discuss my waist size. That much I expected, but I didn't know how much my capacity to love would grow as well. The night before my son was born I stayed up all night, worrying about what was about to happen. Did I really have the ability to nurture another human being? Could I possibly offer him the emotional nourishment he needed to grow, to develop, to thrive? And then before his sister was born I worried once again: could I ever love another child as much as I'd come to adore that little boy? Was there room in our hearts for someone else? I still don't know much when it comes to raising children, but this I am sure of: the heart is so very, very flexible. It is everything you need.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Tornado Season

The year: 1979.

The season: late spring/early summer.

The location: my family's basement.

The reason: a tornado warning.

The feeling: bliss. At least that was my feeling, as a 6-year-old who didn't know enough to be worried about the storm raging outside. And that's OK, because my parents did enough worrying for all of us. Severe weather was not something they experienced much of in their native Egypt unless you count the occasional sandstorm, so whenever the forecast indicated the slightest chance of a twister heading our way, we headed down to the basement.

Under normal conditions, I did not like the basement at all. It was dark and dreary, all corners and no comfort. This was well before the age of basement-chic, prior to the dawn of "man caves," media rooms or tripped out playrooms. In the late 70s the basement was more like hospice for old, beat-up furniture. In ours, a faux-leather sofa was living out its last days alongside a ping-pong table with no net. On shag carpet. And if that wasn't scary enough, there was the terrifying back room, where only a thin wood door separated us from giant machines that hummed and whirred at random. It was not a place to go alone.

But when severe weather threatened and my dad said "Let's go downstairs," I was the first to head south. I'd boldly lead the way down the 12 steps into that otherwise frightening place, and make sure our Storm Survival Kit was in place.

Candles? Check. Battery-powered radio? Check. Secret prayer that this time we'd be able to spend a long, long time in the basement... Amen. Bring it on, Mother Nature. Because it was then and there, in the basement, during a storm, that I knew I'd have my dad's full, undivided attention. No distractions, no diversions. No chores, no work. Confined to the basement until that undetermined time the weatherman gave the "all clear," we would sit in semi-darkness and play game after game of Chutes and Ladders and Candyland. The AM radio hummed, the lights flickered, and we sat and played. And when it was over, when we had the green light to climb back up to that other world, the place where phones rang and other forms of duty called, I'd see the worry leave his grown-up eyes and I'd play along, pretending to be relieved as well. But secretly I wished for more. Tornado season was my favorite time.

Fortunately, we never experienced the devastation of an actual tornado. Just watches and warnings, each one sending us to that isolated world down below. Today, more than three decades later when I see the skies darken and the winds start blowing I can close my eyes and go back to that spot. Booming thunder and flashes of lightning will forever bring back the smell of the room where we spent so many hours- the dampness of the basement and the earthy scent of rain mixed with Dad's Old Spice and Brylcreem.

Recently I opened up a brand new Candyland game, my little boy's first board game, and I held those familiar plastic pieces in my hands. He reached up to grab one with his smooth, chunky toddler fingers and when I looked down and saw our hands intertwined, I could have sworn I heard a tornado siren blare.

Parenting little ones is challenging on multiple levels, but I find one of the toughest parts is staying present. Life pulls us in so many directions and we've all become masters of multi-tasking. I can feed 2 kids breakfast while folding a load of laundry, texting my husband, listening to a podcast and reading online reviews of summer vacation destinations. But to sit down and play a game? That's a whole lot tougher. And it shouldn't be that way.

The older I get the more I've come to fear tornados. Not necessarily the ones outside, but the ones that blow through our lives and threaten to take us down. The winds that whip around us now carry names of diseases like cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's. We know they could rob us of what we've been given and yet we still don't always heed the warnings. We don't always take cover and hold on dearly to what we have until it's too late. Sometimes we choose to bury ourselves in our work and other responsibilities and ignore the storms brewing just outside. Sometimes we choose to simply pretend the storms aren't there, that maybe if we don't talk about them, they'll go away. But they won't.

It shouldn't take a tornado to get us to slow down and focus. All day long I feel my kids pulling at me, and yet I admit I don't always stop to give them what they need and crave most: my undivided attention. No, we can't play games all day, and yes, there are things around the house that need to get done. But there's has to be time that's all their own. No storm required.

And so it came to be that on a bright and sunny, picture-perfect day I sat inside with my little boy, tears occasionally gathering in the corners of my eyes, playing game after game of Candyland. We can't afford to wait for the tornado because this time, it might come without warning and when it does, even the shelter of the basement may not be enough.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Crocs: Why I hate them and bought them anyway

Hate is an ugly word. It's a nasty, 4-letter word I strive to keep out of my vocabulary and out of my house. But I warn you, I am about to use the "h" word as there's just no other way to express how I feel about this particular topic. Because I hate Crocs. Really and truly I do. And it's that time of year when sure as dandelions are popping up on my lawn, those ugly, clunky plastic shoes are popping up. Everywhere.

I remember when Crocs first hit the mainstream several years back. "Shoes with holes?" I thought. Who would wear these? What kind of person would purposely make their foot resemble a duck-billed platypus? This trend won't last, I predicted. You probably shouldn't take my stock tips, either.

Today Crocs are everywhere, they've become as acceptable in our sloppy new world as PJ pants at the grocery store. Men wear them, women wear them (a red flag right there- unisex shoes?), and it seems like every child in America wears them. And of course they must be accessorized with those little knick-knacky "Jibbitz" things. And if that wasn't enough personalization for you, the folks at Crocs have come up with an assortment of products to fit every facet of your life. Holiday-themed Crocs for those festive celebrations. College logo Crocs to honor your alma mater. Nice warm fur-lined Crocs for winter. Hey Crocs people, I have news for you: shoes for winter already exist, and we call them boots.

A few years back my Croc-wearing in-laws gave my husband a pair for his birthday. I'm not sure if this was intended to be a gag gift or not, but it did certainly make me want to gag. The offensive footwear was quickly removed to an undisclosed location.

Recently a Croc-o-philic relative (who also happens to be a lawyer) argued in defense of the plastic shoes that they should be considered a sandal alternative, and thus should be tolerated if worn to places where sandals would be appropriate. Perhaps if Crocs had stayed at the park and the playground I wouldn't have such an issue with them. But those nasty plastic things have shown up in offices, at "nicer" restaurants, and even (may the good Lord have mercy on your soles) at church.

Given my strong feelings about Crocs you might find it odd, perhaps even hypocritical, to hear that I recently purchased a pair for my son.

Not actual Crocs, as I am far too cheap for that, but Target's in-house brand of Colorful, Ridiculous And Plastic Slip-On Shoes (we'll call them CRAPSS for short).

It was partly a move born out of potty training, which has made me see the potential merits of a hose-friendly shoe. It was partly because my almost 3-year-old son has entered the "I Can Do It ALL BY MYSELF" phase, and while he can in fact put on regular shoes by himself, it requires setting aside 45 minutes to accomplish. But it was mostly because while walking past the rack of CRAPSS my sweet little boy yelled out "Mommy! Look at those shoes!!" and rattled off the names of all his CRAPSS-wearing friends. "Aidan has those shoes and Carter has those shoes and James has those shoes and Sophie has those shoes and Nicholas has those shoes!" Yes, at the tender age of 2.5 I found myself dealing with my child's first case of "I want what everyone else has" and I caved.

I have memories of waging this war with my own parents (remember Jelly Shoes?), having grown up in a brand-obsessed suburb of Detroit. As a result I can't stand the sight of anything with an obvious logo emblazoned upon it. Burberry plaid makes me dizzy. Louis Vitton emblem-covered bags? Gross. I've spent 3 years trying to convince a well-meaning grandparent that the designer clothes she insists on buying for my toddler (hint: they feature a man on horseback playing a game with a stick) are neither well-made, well-fitting, nor well-worth the ridiculous cost.

Now I'm staring at these silly shoes and wondering what happened to my resolve. It's just one pair of bright blue shoes but with that $9.99 purchase I know we've entered new territory: a minefield where peer pressure threatens to explode with every step. How do you know where to draw the line? Of course we all want our children to be happy and well-adjusted. But how do we teach them in an increasingly consumer-driven, materialistic world to value what truly matters? Which battles are worth fighting and which ones don't hold water any better than a plastic shoe with holes?

Parenting is full of tough decisions and every single one, no matter how big or small, whether a matter of the heart or the foot, comes with consequences. If anyone tells you otherwise... well, it's a crock.