I’m Leaving Home

I’m leaving home this Tuesday and I’m not bringing my family with me. It will be the first time I’ve left Stump overnight. I’ll be flying out of Seattle to go to a four-day work-related conference in—-wait for it-—Utah.

I was invited in December and I thought that of course by then Stump and I would be ready for the separation. By then, of course, he would be sleeping though the night, and not crying every time I left the room. Oh, and I figured he’d be toilet trained, able to dress himself, and feed the dogs. And while it’s true that he’s grown and changed in the last six months, he hasn’t achieved any of the goals that I just named. He can now say “Mom-meeeee” while he’s crying. And twice in the last month he’s slept until 4 am without waking up and demanding milk. That’s about as far as we’ve come.

This is how we sleep.
This is how we sleep.

So I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that I’ve been dreading this trip, entertaining the worst-case scenario as the most likely scenario.

In the worst-case scenario, Stump barely sleeps for the three nights I’m away. He wakes up screaming and refuses to be consoled. Kellie loses her mind from the sleep deprivation, and when we talk on the phone, she makes sure that I know how miserable they are. I am miserable in Utah. It’s hot, and the pool is scummy, and everyone at the conference wears suits. I come home with bedbugs. Stump, upon seeing me, bursts into tears of anger and relief. Everyone is exhausted, including me. We never catch up, and Stump never forgives me. He grows up to be a convict, or an author of short stories that always feature neglectful mothers.

http://www.universitygames.com
http://www.universitygames.com

This worst-case scenario has been turning over and over in my head. But there have been a few brighter moments where I’ve entertained a best-case scenario.

In the best-case scenario, Stump is easy because I’m gone. He’s a little fussy the first night, but settles with a some comforting. He gets it that nursing is not an option, and the by third night he’s learned to sleep soundly. The hotel in Utah has a beautiful pool, and there’s a convenient place to hike. I eat good food and drink some wine with colleagues. I come home refreshed to a house of pleasant people who have had a good time without me, and a baby who is happy to see me and who now sleeps through the night.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Source: http://kentuckysportsradio.com
Source: http://kentuckysportsradio.com

Leaving Colorado Part 3: Long Stretch of Nothing

Image Credit: Doug Kerr www.flickr.com/photos/dougtone
Image Credit: Doug Kerr http://www.flickr.com/photos/dougtone

I should have stayed in Brigham City. From what I saw, it was a friendly little place. I sat with my kids at a Panda Express watching my baby throw noodles on the floor while my four-year-old reclined on the booth. It was six p.m. and we’d been on the road since four in the morning. I had traveled 450 miles with two kids and two dogs. A rational mom would have called it a day.

But I didn’t want to spend the night in Utah. This was an ungrateful attitude considering the events of earlier that morning, but Utah had always ranked high on my list of Places that Gays Should Avoid. It was kind of a silly fear, I reasoned with myself. It’s not like I was wearing a t-shirt that said “DYKE”. Without my partner at my side, I looked like any other run-down parent. But I couldn’t get past my uneasiness.

I should buy this hat to wear when I'm traveling.  source: http://www.zazzle.com
I should buy this hat to wear when I’m traveling.
source: http://www.zazzle.com

Besides, the sun was still high and Idaho was only sixty miles away. Driving on was a commitment though; from the TripAdvisor map, it looked like we’d have to drive deep into Idaho before finding a sure place to spend the night. I bought myself an iced tea and loaded everyone back into the Honda. The dogs, who up until this point had reliably ignored the snack box, had finished the last of my chips and left the car smelling like a fart.

By the time we reached the freeway, the baby was already crying. A summer of long car trips had trained me to recognize the cry of no return. He wasn’t tired, he wasn’t hungry, he was pissed. The nearest listed motel was in Burley. I watched the road signs, translating miles into minutes: 120 minutes of crying, 112 minutes of crying. I prayed for a better option.

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As we approached Snowville, the last town in Utah, the baby still screamed and my fuel tank had fallen to E. Though the road had been quiet, the gas station was full of travelers. Just a few feet beyond was the town’s one motel, set behind a lot full of dying weeds. I nearly cried with relief when the clerk told me she had a room. The baby, red-faced, snotty, teary, nuzzled into my shoulder as I paid.

The moment we settled into the room, fear kicked in. Who did I think I was anyhow, traveling alone with two young kids? What if someone climbed in through the window while we slept? What if the motel owner was a psycho and let himself in with a key? What if my fear kept me up all night and tomorrow I’d fall asleep at the wheel? What if I never made it out of Utah?

But then I remembered: the dogs. Until now, I had seen them as two more beings who took up room, requiring care and food and space. But now they were protectors who would bark like crazy the moment they sensed a hand on the other side of the doorknob. Oh how I loved them for that.

I slept soundly for six hours, which was all I really needed. When I woke up, I poured warm tap water over two green tea bags in a Styrofoam cup and let the dogs out to pee in the brisk morning air. Then I loaded my tribe into the car, and left Utah, kind Utah, behind me. There was just enough light in the sky to make out the shape of the mountains, and also the glow of a few remaining stars.

What’s in this picture?

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This is a recent illustration by Smoke. It might be my favorite picture he’s ever drawn. I’m guessing you might need a little help understanding the story, so here goes. The drawing takes place at Smoke’s best friend’s house, where there is a particularly steep flight of stairs. This staircase is an endless source of fun and fascination. Currently, Smoke and his best friend like to build forts at the landing. They’ve also been known to slide down these stairs on a sleeping bag. This picture features, from left to right, me, Smoke, and Smoke’s best friend shouting “No!”

Me, Smoke, and Smoke's best friend saying "No!"
Me, Smoke, and Smoke’s best friend saying “No!”

Who are we saying “No” to? Of course it’s Stump.

Stump saying "BYE!"
Stump saying “BYE!”

Stump is climbing the stairs because this is the first thing he does every time he enters this house. In fact, before we even the enter the house, he lights up in anticipation of these stairs. What I love most about this picture is that it so perfectly captures our dynamic. Look at all of us with our No’s, how ridiculous we are, how utterly powerless in the face of Stump’s determination. And then there is Stump, cheerfully oblivious, getting ready to surpass us all. His left hand, sword-like, points to the top of what I know is a staircase, but might also be seen as a mountain. Is he leaving us or leading us? Either way, the three of us stand with our arms in a gesture of helplessness, a trio of suckers.

Snapshot of the Week: Life with a Bobcat

This is a video of Stump who, at fifteen months, has figured out that if you swipe at the iPad enough, something will happen. I’m not sure how he managed to play this song by Phoenix, but apparently he likes it.

There’s something about Stump that I’ve been meaning to tell you. When I was pregnant, I thought he’d be one of those babies who might sit in a corner and play with a toy tractor for half an hour. I thought he might be uncomplicated, simple even, slow. He would live in the shadow of his older brother who is thin as a rail and smart as a whip, but we’d love him for being the easy one in a family full of strong personalities.

Do you hear that? It’s the gods. They are still laughing.

When Stump was about eight months old, as he was just beginning to acquire mobility, I asked my partner to dress him one morning. I had just finished changing his diaper and I was sick of wrestling him, trying to get him to hold still as he arched his back and bucked. Kellie had been out of town for a few weeks, and she wasn’t ready for these new tactics. “Oh my god,” she called out. “It’s like dressing a bobcat!”

Now that Stump is fifteen months, it’s like living with a bobcat. He is 100% wild. He throws his food. He poops in the bath. When he’s tired, or when he doesn’t want you to leave, he’ll scratch at your face. If you put him down when he wants to be held, he’ll channel all his feline strength and arch his back, daring you to drop him on the floor.

This morning he was standing on the kitchen chair doing squats and shouting maniacally. I said to Smoke, who was quietly finishing his Lego project “Are you watching this?” Smoke nodded. “He won’t do that when he’s older,” he reassured me. I hadn’t been seeking reassurance, but I appreciated it all the same.

Though Stump is wild, I don’t mean to suggest that he’s only a brute. I’ve never met another baby who so fully understands what it means to hug. “Hug your bunny,” I tell him in the morning, and he holds it to his chest and rocks it back and forth. Pick this bobcat up, and he wraps his arms around you, leans his head against your shoulder, taking you in.

But my point is this: he’s not the easy one. In a family of characters, he competes. At the end of the day, I often look back and wonder how I made it to bedtime. He climbed on the table at least two dozen times; there is food on the floor; my neck is scratched. But he is cute, and also he dances.

Meow! Image Credit: http://www.bigcat.com
Meow!
Image Credit: http://www.bigcat.com

 

 

Five: a study in perspective

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From the time my son could talk, the first word out of his mouth every morning was Mommy. When he was two, he called it from his bed. He was little then, and needed me to fetch him; he couldn’t conceive of leaving his bed alone. Always, he insisted on taking my hand as we crossed the threshold from his room to the rest of the house. As he grew older, he gained the confidence to rise on his own, but still he’d find me in the kitchen and call my name—Mommy!—his arms stretched wide for a hug. I recognized that such greetings wouldn’t continue forever, and I wondered when they’d end.

My son is five now and those greetings have ended. These days, he walks into the kitchen rubbing his eyes. He cocks his head and smiles at me, a little sheepishly. I open my arms, and he walks into them. He doesn’t invoke my name. I rub his head. I bend over and smell his hair: shampoo and sweat.

My son has entered the stage where whole days can pass, and I don’t see much of him. There are mornings where I leave for work just after he has woken. I may pick him up from preschool at 5:30, his baby brother in tow, and listen to him chatter for an hour as we make and eat dinner. That hour of half-attention is sometimes all I have before the baby melts down and I attend to his bedtime while my partner takes care of the rest. And then, on the weekends, people now offer to take him from me. He gets invited for afternoons at the park, trips to the movies, sleepovers. I send him off on these adventures, and entertain fears about him falling down a staircase or slipping on a rock. Clearly my worry is disproportionate; it is my mind’s sneaky way of grieving his independence.

On the day my son was born, when the nurse placed his naked body on my chest, I was amazed by how firm and warm and actual he felt. I had imagined something squishy and barely human, not this long, fully-formed person. As he began to grow, I recalled that moment every time I took him out of the bath. I’d hold him against me and look at us in the mirror, the back of his long body, his skin still warm from the water, and connect it in my mind to the body I held that first day.

When I do that now, the connection feels distant. My son’s legs dangle; they reach for the floor. It all makes sense, I suppose. My son once lived inside of me, and then, once he was born, he depended on my milk and the warmth of my body for survival. As he grew older he ate more and nursed less, until finally he drank water from the tap or juice from the fridge. So it’s right that his limbs should reach beyond me now. But I hadn’t counted on these feelings, not so early anyway. I thought I had until puberty at least to maintain my status as the Center of his World. But already, after just five years of raising him, I feel acutely that he will leave me again and again in ways that I haven’t yet accounted for.

In Response to the article “Baby Dies While Sleeping in Car Seat”: Fear, Smoke, & Mirrors

Over the past few days, the following article has appeared several times in my Facebook news feed: Baby Dies while Sleeping in Car Seat. Though the article is dated 2006, it seems to have recently gone viral. Whenever I see this kind of title (which is often),  go through the same process: 1) My heart rate rises. 2) I want to click. 3) I try to convince myself not to click. 4) I click.

 ImageImage from: http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=711452

The article begins with a photo of the exact car seat I currently use. It’s a popular car seat. It tells a very sad story of a baby girl who died while napping. Her caretaker had detached the seat from its base and brought her inside so that she could continue to nap undisturbed. I, like most parents of this generation, am familiar with this practice; in fact I’ve probably done it twice this past month.  The article goes on to mention a study, based on nine infant deaths, where researchers found that car seats allow babies to sleep with their heads tilted forward which can then, in worst case scenarios, restrict their airways. The article concludes with this paragraph:

While it’s not safe to let babies sleep for a long time in the car seat out of the car, we want to make it clear: while in a car, it’s a different story. There is no question that infant car seats save lives and researchers say may reduce car accident injuries by as much as 90%.

There’s a kind of ambiguity here that troubles me—an ambiguity that seems to be present in so much of the safety advice I read. What does the author mean by “long periods of time”? Forty minutes? Two hours? And why does the article suggest that napping in the car seat “outside the car” is more dangerous than it is inside the car? Unless I’m missing something, if car seat napping is risky, it’s risky wherever it happens.

In fact, on long drives my baby’s hour-long car seat naps are probably more dangerous than his car-to-house naps. When my baby naps in the house, I check on him every few minutes. (Is he still breathing? What about now? Still breathing?) On long trips in the car though, when he’s quiet, I can entertain these fears but I can’t do much about them.

In any event, it seems that the author of the article and the experts he consulted are performing a risk-benefit analysis on my behalf, and they’ve concluded that the benefit of the car seat while driving outweighs the risk of my baby not breathing. While this is a sound conclusion (yes indeed, I will continue to use my car seat), I resent the smoke and mirrors. In my reading, the article tries to pretend that somehow napping in the car seat—which was so risky in the preceding paragraph—magically becomes safe in the car.

I complain about the smoke and mirrors now because I see it as a trend in parenting literature. Authors and experts prefer to offer hardline advice rather than simply offer me the data, or admit that they don’t know. Case in point: take this video on alcohol consumption during pregnancy, a typical example of the limited data that is typically shared with pregnant women.

March of Dimes is unequivocal in their advice that women should absolutely never consume any alcohol during pregnancy. Compare this advice to this more balanced assessment here: we know for sure that binge drinking leads to birth defects, but there is no conclusive evidence on how moderate drinking affects a fetus.

Personally, I’d like to be trusted to make my own decisions for my body and my children, to perform the risk benefit analysis myself, rather than being insulated from the data.

At the end of the day, there’s no avoiding this truth: babies are fragile and living has risks. I’d like to monitor my one-year-old’s breathing every moment of the day, but the fact is that sometimes I do need to sleep, sometimes I choose to drive somewhere several hours away, and sometimes, as my baby naps in his crib and I finally get a few moments to myself, I choose to believe that he’s all right. I’d like to systematically eliminate every possible risk from our lives, but I’m worried that for each risk I manage there are more sinister risks over which I have no control.

I often think about parents in earlier times when infant mortality was common. Did they listen for their baby’s breath many times in a day? Did they sometimes tiptoe to the cradle, waiting to see any sign of motion? I imagine they did, that the fear of losing something so precious haunted them in the same way it haunts me. But I wonder also if they were less obsessed by the details, the logistics, if they engaged in daily risk-benefit analysis or if instead they lived their lives with their babies on their hip or at their side and simply prayed for the best.

I Will Probably Stop Breastfeeding Someday

ImageI breastfed my first son until he was nearly three. I had felt ready to quit for about six months before we actually quit, and once he was fully weaned I relished the freedom. I could wear dresses again, and put my son to bed with just a bedtime story and a hug, but most of all I enjoyed being in my body and not having to share it all the time.

When we decided to have a second child, I wasn’t so excited by the prospect of starting all over again—buying the nursing tanks, setting up the pump, drinking all that water, leaking all over my shirts. And, if I’m going to be honest here, what I truly dreaded was the feeling of being sucked on all the time. And so, I made myself a promise: if I wanted to, I could wean the baby at twelve months. I live in a community that supports extended nursing, and I’m a believer in its benefits; but I also believe in paying attention to my own limits, so  I decided that a year was good enough.

However, my son is twelve months now and we still nurse all the time. In spite of the fact that I have my own permission to wean him, we seem to be going strong.  Right now, as he sleeps, I’m taking stock of the various ways I feel about that.

1. Stretchy: Now that my baby is strong and mobile, nursing sometimes has this acrobatic element. In the mornings, he often wakes at five and I nurse him to see if I can get another hour of rest. Sometimes it works and we doze together, but just as often he squirms and pulls. I am both impressed with and horrified by how far he can stretch me.  I’m thirty-seven years old, which means that my self-image depends on maintaining some illusions about my own body. I try not to take stock of myself when I’m in unflattering positions. But when the baby is able to stretch my left breast to the next room, my vanity dies a little bit.

2. Lazy: One of the major reasons I won’t wean this month or next is that nursing is just too convenient. When the baby bonks his head, or just decides to be cranky we can plop down on the couch and check out for a minute or two. Bedtimes are easy. My partner can put the baby to sleep, but it takes actual work for her—twenty minutes of crying and rocking. For me it takes ten minutes of nursing while I sit on bed and scroll through my Facebook feed on my iPhone. And on the rare occasion when it doesn’t work, I have this excuse: since I nurse him, he won’t go to sleep for me any other way. I get to hand him off to my partner for Bedtime Round 2.

3. Tired: It’s true that I might be sleeping better if I night-weaned. Two months ago we moved the baby from our bed into his own crib, and surprisingly he seems to love it there. Still, he wakes up to nurse as soon as I come to bed, and then sometimes wakes me up a second time, reminding me to move him back to his own crib. Often there’s a third time and a fourth time. I’m willing to believe that he would now sleep through the night if he knew there was no milk in store for him. But refer back to #2. I’m too lazy to take this on.

4. Totally Awesome: I have plenty of shortcomings as a parent. There are days when I’m distracted, and days when I let my older son eat gummy bears with breakfast because I don’t feel like putting up a fight. The baby can’t tell me if he’s too hot or too cold, and so I tend to assume he’s just fine when maybe I should worry. But nursing is something I can do, and I like to think that it’s a trade for all of the things I can’t or don’t do. On the days I don’t offer the baby broccoli, at least he got some nutrients from my milk. On the days I don’t make him wear a hat, at least my milk will help him fight the cold we’re about to catch. And on the days I stay at work too late, or get annoyed because he’s whinier than usual, at least I can pull him up against me and together we’ll have one of those long nursing moments where we look at each other, and then off into space, and then at each other again.

enhanced-3642-1391392838-15image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/82329524@N00

Lessons I Learned During Puke Week

Over the weekend, the baby and I came down with the stomach flu at virtually the same moment. I was sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor eating my dinner, when the baby came over to snuggle. I thought that was sweet so I put down my plate—then he nuzzled into my neck and threw up all over the front of my shirt. A few minutes later I noticed that I didn’t feel so great myself, but it was hard to tell if I was genuinely sick or just grossed out from being puked on. By midnight I was running to the toilet.

There are advantages to being sick at the same time as your baby. Misery loves company. You can snuggle together, nap fitfully together, and whine in unison. By morning we had both stopped puking, but my joints ached with a vengeance. The baby looked teary-eyed and babbled with a raspy moan. My partner felt his forehead and asked, “Shouldn’t we give him some Motrin?” I had my answer ready. “No. He’s sick, so I want him to feel sick. If he doesn’t feel sick he won’t rest.”

But by noon I took pity on him. Or, to be honest, I think I just wanted him to sleep for longer than twenty minutes. In any event, I gave him the Motrin. A half hour later he was scaling the bathroom stepstool, pulling himself into the bathroom sink, and taking apart the soap dispenser. He was crawling maniacally from one end of the house to the other, looking for stray Legos to stuff in his mouth. He was squeezing himself into the gap between the shelves and the wall to better examine the array of electrical cords there. In short, he wasn’t feeling bad at all.

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Meanwhile, all I wanted was to curl up on my bed in the fetal position. I became acutely aware of how much energy it takes to leap out of the chair and extract the baby from the broom closet, or remove his hands from the toilet bowl—stuff I do every day without noticing.

Lesson #1: When the baby is sick, let him feel sick, especially if you are sick too.

Two days later, just as our world was returning to normal, I woke up and noticed that my five-year-old son’s bed had been stripped.  This is never a good sign. Apparently, my son is genetically wired to throw up all over his sheets. He has never—not once in five years—woken at night and successfully vomited into a container, or even aimed away from the bed. When I know he is sick, I implement the following strategy: 1. I cover his bed in towels. 2. I lie in bed next to him all night, barely dozing so that when he starts to stir I can lift his head and aim his mouth at the bucket.

But this time I hadn’t seen it coming. At six am my partner heard him retching and discovered that he had puked in the crack between his bed and his wall. This is even worse than it sounds. My son’s bed is nested in an alcove and the fit is so tight, we had to remove the trim from the baseboards just to wedge it in there. Hence, there is no moving the bed for easy cleanup, there is only crawling underneath it with a flashlight.

Lesson #2: If there’s an upside to getting puked on by a one-year-old it’s this: you can watch your partner crawl under your older child’s bed with a flashlight, a sponge, and a bucket, and feel only a small twinge of guilt.