spoiled fruits of empire

tales of hyperbolic parenting

What do toddler teachers really think?

The relationship between us parents, and the people who take care of our children, is complicated.

For example, for five days out of every seven, I entrust Poppy — the person I love most in the world (ahem, aside from Walter) — to someone who is not me. As I drive away to my grown-up life, I expect paid professionals to socialize my child, to wrangle her tantrums, and to teach her the words to songs I long ago forgot.

I expect them to ensure she wears her hat on the playground, to evacuate her to safety if there’s a fire, and of course, to bathe her in all the love and kindness that my sweet little girl deserves.

Naturally, I also expect teachers to be amazed by Poppy’s brilliance.

Moreover, I hope that teachers have quietly attributed Poppy’s brilliance to my general excellence as a mother.

Go on. Admit that you hope this about your kid too.

(Please, admit it!)

In fact, as I watch Poppy and her friends dart around the playground, I imagine all the parental hopes, expectations and egos that accompany each child.

Grappling with the delicate politics of mom and dad must surely require diplomacy?

In a bid to learn more, I waylaid some toddler teachers and begged them to tell me what they would never say to a parent’s face. They humored me by dishing a few secrets, and I in turn have dished them here on Time.com:

By the way, I’m honored to have started writing a monthly column for the parenting pages of TIME.com. My first article, about the dilemma of salutations (should Poppy call you Ms. Poppins or should she cut straight to Mary?) is here.

The best part? I got to interview Peggy Post of the Emily Post Institute. The worst part? Adults I’ve known for years are now calling me Mrs. Jones, a greeting loaded with a little bemusement and a lot more mischief.

A mother gives thanks to her prison guard

Tomorrow it is American Thanksgiving, which means that it’s customary to say what you’re grateful for. Mainly I’m thankful that I’m not a turkey. However, my brain’s chemicals dictate that there’s something else I’m glad of too.

You see, being two and a half now, my daughter thinks she’s too mature for an afternoon nap. After all, there are songs to be sung and toys to be strewn about the house.  But I’m not ready for her to be awake all day. After all, when else am I supposed to blog about her not taking a nap?

This Sunday I had an inspired idea.

Perhaps if I lie with her in my bed, I told myself eagerly, I would model the sleeping behavior I’d like to see in her. Of course I won’t fall asleep — after all, I’m very busy. Yet though my mind will race with clever, productive thoughts, my body will be still and Poppy will be tricked into falling asleep.

It was foolproof.

So my toddler and I slipped into the crisp cool sheets of my and Walter’s bed. Poppy was luminous with excitement. She’d never slept in our bed before. A mellow autumnal sun cast a cozy light upon mother and child as they lay next to each other on their matching pillows.

Poppy turned her little face to mine. It radiated delight.

“Shhhh,” I said gently.

“Shhhh,” she replied gently. We closed our eyes.

Two seconds passed.

“You’re my friend,” Poppy whispered, her eyes open again and her smile in full-beam. I beamed back, and then modeled the slack-jawed face of someone falling asleep.

“I’ll look after you,” murmured my child, resting a chubby hand on my shoulder.

Three seconds passed. I began to feel my body tumbling into that delicious precursor to sleep.

A fishhook halted my descent. “Mummy, are these cherries?” a little voice whispered into my ear.  I flicked my eyes open to see her finger pointing at the floral pattern of her pillow.

The voice insisted, louder: “Are these cherries?”

“No, those are flowers,” I whispered, “shhh, sleepy time.”

I could feel a querying fingernail move now onto my pillow.

“Is this you, Mummy?” she whispered. I opened a groggy eye to see her pointing at another flower on the pillow. “Is this me?” she asked, stabbing a smaller flower next to it. “Is it Mummy and Poppy?”

Poppy was using her outside voice.

I ignored her. She closed her eyes. So did I.

Four seconds passed.

Then Poppy tossed her body violently onto my pillow. Two fingers began to creep ever so carefully across my face.

“One nose,” chanted the fingers’ owner, “Two ears, one mouth, a chin, two eyes.”

Suddenly, a small scientific finger stabbed me in the eye socket. “Ouch!” I shouted.

I stared in outrage.

“Your eyes are the color of blueberries,” cried Poppy with delight.

“Go to sleep!” I begged, desperate, my body still tingling from having been in the hinterlands of sleep.

Poppy sighed, rolled off my pillow and plopped solidly back onto hers. She began to tug the blankets carefully but noisily: the bed-sheets rustled aggressively. A few seconds later I felt depressions in the mattress further down the bed and opened an eye to find Poppy doing the downward facing dog. She performed her yogic poses with such Zen calm that I allowed myself to start sinking again into that delicious….

THUMP! A 35-pound weight landed heavily on my back.

“Go to sleep!!” the weight yelled at my shocked body.

Poppy bounced onto my pillow and pressed her face into mine. “Go to sleep, Mummy,” she said in her bossiest toddler voice.

I noticed that beneath her pile of flaxen curls, my tormenter’s eyes were the color of blueberries.

Neurochemicals fizzed in my doting brain and in an instant, my prison guard’s sins were forgiven.

Happy Thanksgiving all y’all.

An irresponsible mother worries about lethal gas

Dear reader, I reach out to you from these two months of blog silence to rant about carbon monoxide. Not that it’s a lethal gas (you already know that), or that responsible folk have CO monitors in every bedroom of their house (you’re so responsible that you even checked the monitors’ batteries last weekend), but that this household danger is yet another thing I must thwart with motherly Kung Fu.

You see I hadn’t thought to buy a device to protect Poppy from this colorless, odorless gas. I’d assumed that I was an excellent mother simply for having smoke alarms. It had never occurred to me that excellence is only relative to what other safety gear is on the market.

This is a dangerous and possibly expensive situation.

I first knew I was too relaxed about odorless gas when I read this post in the New York Times. It’s about a mother, marginally more responsible than I am, whose carbon monoxide alarm rang but she switched it off because she thought it faulty. Minutes later, the fire brigade came crashing through her door, shouting that windows must be opened and children woken at once.

It turns out that a neighbor’s carbon monoxide alarm had gone off too and this person, even more responsible than the author, had called the fire brigade and saved the day.

I read this article in a state of shock. Poppy has lived for two and half years in our monitor-less home but could she survive another night? My lips trembled as I ran into Walter’s study. “Husband,” I cried, “we must buy six state-of-the-art carbon monoxide monitors and have them rush-delivered to our house today!”

Walter, busy annotating a big equation on his screen, couldn’t bear to turn his head.  From the side of his mouth came a smattering of phrases, including “they cost what??”, “disproportionate response”,  and “when’s dinner?”

I ordered two middle-of-the range monitors. I was in a state of high alert until they arrived. Immediately upon delivery I installed one in the guest room and the other next to Poppy’s crib and, in sacramental tones, assured my tot that the blinking zero meant she was being protected. The toddler and the dog absorbed this news with the gravity their father lacked.

I felt relaxed until I suddenly understood that the lethal gas problem was just an emblem of my larger dilemma. Safety mavens urge one not to travel without a portable smoke and CO alarm. I suppose this means that I shouldn’t step out of doors without a fire retardant blanket too? And how about a first aid kit, an epi pen, a copy of my will, and some pepper spray just in case?

Of course, I’d have to conceal these things from Walter because I know he’d think I was crazy. But these things are heavy, and he carries my suitcase, so I’ll have to pack a back support belt for him too. But how to conceal the gear and get him to wear the belt without raising suspicion?

Reader, overcoming obstacles to keep one’s family safe is a full-time occupation.

I hope my diligence hasn’t made you feel inadequate.

Where to dance Texan honky tonk and who not to invite

Everyone has a superpower. My husband’s is that he can have fun anywhere. He can have fun at a traffic stop. He can have fun during tax season. He can have fun at a funeral (he’ll definitely have fun at his own). But when can Walter not have fun?

When dancing Texan honky tonk.

After four years of marriage, I’ve finally found the dead zone in my husband’s cloak of mirth. Here’s what to do to find it:

  1. Drag that man to a gussied-up cow shed.
  2. Surround him with men wearing Stetson hats.
  3. Cue up some anthems about hard times on the ol’ farm.
  4. Bust out the fiddle.
  5. See a hero collapse.

Yes, despite his best efforts, Walter had a terrible, horrible, time at Austin’s legendary honky tonk dancehall, The Broken Spoke.

Maybe the chicken fried steak set the tone. After all, the flimsy cutlery that came with the meal was more effective at rousing ire than slicing meat. The draught beer, tragically, was weak. When our dance coach’s exhortations that “a man is born to lead and hates a women who pulls” failed to elicit a smirk, I knew I was in for hard times on the farm.

We learned the rudiments of the two step. You’ll have to believe me when I say that it’s an enormously cheerful way to to dance (“quick, quick, slow, slow, and throw her under your arm”).

Walter executed his moves with the grimness of a man asked to unblock a toilet.

After trotting dutifully across the floor for three (hateful to Walter) songs, he withdrew to the side with a beer. I was keenly disappointed and not a little alarmed for it’s usually my job to be the sourpuss at a party.

Furthermore, with a dismaying quantity of opportunism, our accompanying friends retired to the margins too. In retrospect, their smiles had flat-lined at roughly the same rate as Walter’s so I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was.

I was very surprised.

After all, what’s not to like about honky tonk?  The Broken Spoke had a live band and a wooden floor and a roof so low that cowboy hats grazed the ceiling, making their inhabitants seem Texan big. Men with mustaches capered here and capered there. Young and old danced together as if they were at a family wedding. Half-way through a set, the band played a song that was so patriotic that all revelers stood to attention, some with glistening eyes. Moreover, the Broken Spoke was almost like a theme park for Texas, only much more authentic. Indeed, every patron, from women with reupholstered cleavage (my unscientific guess: many) to supporters of Planned Parenthood (my unscientific guess: few) were having a rousing time.

Everyone had fun except for Walter.

And my friends.

And eventually me, who slunk home feeling so self-pitying that I could have plucked a ditty on my hillbilly guitar.

So next time you’re in Texas, I wistfully suggest that you get yourself to Austin and go flick a hoof at the Broken Spoke. But please heed this crucial advice:

Don’t invite my husband.

Will the real British Airways please step forward

Walter and I were tired. We’d been trying to get to Zimbabwe for days but British Airways cancelled one flight, then another the next day. Now, after a midnight landing at Johannesburg International on the third day of our journey, it became clear that one of our bags was on the lag. “Not to worry,” said a man named Geoffrey. “Ask for me tomorrow and I’ll find it.” We allowed the man to shepherd us into the dark African night where, on BA’s account we checked into a half-decent hotel and where, on BA’s account, we slept without pajamas. The next morning, we returned to the airport to find our fixer.

No-one had ever heard of Geoffrey. Instead a gate agent patted Poppy on her head. People sucked their teeth at the thought of a lost bag. A cheerfully incompetent official led us to a grimy and unmarked door. “Go through there,” he said with confidence. We did, dutifully descending an escalator that creaked and gnashed its gears at us. At the bottom, we found an upwards escalator. We took it. It glided us back up to the official who had now lost interest in our plight. He worked so hard at pretending not to see us that we felt sorry for him, descending the escalator again and this time, spying an unmarked door we’d missed before. We went through it.

Mistake!

It turned out to be a one-way valve into the transit hall. Low ceilings glowered beneath dim, dirty lights. Passengers coming off international flights shuffled through the atrium like prisoners en route to the gulag. At intervals, grimy doors issued more captives into the crush. It was impossible to go back, only forward in that shuffle, shuffle, shuffle of tired people who don’t care how bad their hair looks. Passengers coagulated into a crowd that was forced into a snaking queue that went round and round a roped barrier, heading towards an X-ray machine manned by two angry security staff. It was clear that we’d be there for hours and, because we’d come through a one-way door, we couldn’t go back. Panic bubbled at the prospect of missing another flight to Zimbabwe.

Then, in the far corner of the hall, the angels sang hosannah for we saw something beautiful. It was a British Airways desk! And behind it sat a customer service representative: a woman who gleamed in the pork-pie hat and little aeroplane badges and blue and red necktie of the British Airways uniform! We waded through the crowd to reach her, relief almost bursting our hearts.

Our saviour was shrill when we got there. “I don’t know why people keep asking me stuff! You all think I’m British Airways or something.” The bow around her neck quivered crossly. “But you’re at a British Airways desk wearing a British Airways uniform,” I reasoned with the woman who looked like a middle-aged version of my old sports mistress. Our gift-wrapped lady sighed till most of the air left her body. “Ugh, they never tell me anything. What do they expect me to do?” The self-pitying whine in her voice made clear that she felt herself to be on the wrong side of history. “Just use that phone to call Menzies!” With a frustrated flap of the wrist, she indicated a receiver on the far wall. As we huffed away, she shouted to our receding backs: “It’s not my fault. Only Menzies can help.”

We dialed the number for the only man in Johannesburg who could help.

Menzies turned out to be a fax machine.  

Throughout our brief yet absurd stay at Johannesburg Airport, Walter and I never did find Menzies or Geoffrey or a British Airways representative happy to own the title. Yet in a bid to catch our flight, we performed that universally distasteful crime: we jumped the queue. Luckily for us, the transit passengers were too tired to put up a fight and the security agents too angry to get any angrier.

Hours later, we arrived in Zimbabwe where we, puzzlingly, found our bag and where we, not so puzzlingly, went on to have a glorious time.

What shall we do this weekend?

‘What shall we do this weekend,” he said.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “How about we go to the airport?”

“To watch planes take off?”

“No. To board a plane ourselves.”

“Hmmnnn.” He looked thoughtful “How about we board four planes?”

“Four planes?”

“Yes, four planes stopping in four different countries over two days till we get to a teapot-shaped country in southern Africa.”

“Zimbabwe?”

“Zimbabwe. Exactly. And let’s bring a toddler too.”

===

Which we have done. We’ve packed: a toddler, countless toys from the dollar store, the king’s ransom in goldfish crackers.

And some Benadryl.

(And of course, lots of kutundu because I can’t help myself).

We’re off to Zimbabwe to see Poppy’s grandparents.

“And a giraffe too,” our excited toddler hastens to add.

===

Though really, the grandparents are a bigger attraction than the giraffe.

(Promise!)

Let strange flowers bloom

It was grisly. The instant I used my husband’s Moroccan slipper to resoundingly thwack a roach, goo splattered everywhere. Legs that just this morning had skittered over apples now lay freed from life on the floor. A disembodied head, feelers still intact, stared with insectish placidity from the wall. Pulpy mass stuck to the shoe.

I shook with loathing for the cockroach, for my violent ways and for Texas having turned me into a killer of bugs. Meanwhile, my toddler observed it all with without a blink.

“What are you doing?” Poppy asked quite reasonably, eyes darting from the Moroccan slipper to the grisly scene of death on the floor. “Oh, nothing,” I replied with as much breeziness as one can muster after murder, “Eat your oatmeal please.” She did.

But I know that this scene will come back to thwack me. You see, I’ve been a parent for two years now and like to think that all my actions disappear down the infant’s telescope of time. Indeed, before Poppy turned one, I marveled at how a baby’s inconstant attention meant that Walter and I could still talk in non-child-proofed ways.

But recently, someone flicked a switch and now nothing is secure. Oh no. Without warning, there’s a disturbing permanence to what that kid does and sees.

Here’s a scary example. Months ago Walter and I took Poppy to a rally at the Texas Capitol so that we could protest the erosion of women’s rights. Like the right-on parents that we are, we coached our toddler to shout: ‘My body, my choice!’. She refused. Instead our independent minded tot chose to stick it to the politicians by trampling on their flower beds. The state troopers were cross. We went home. Time moved rapidly on.

Then, this week — many, many months later — Poppy resisted taking a bath by proclaiming loudly: “My body, my choice!”

Of course, her battle cry was pure, hilarious chance — a phrase grabbed at random from the sack of words she’s been collecting since birth. But how can I relax when I know that that Moroccan slipper is in the sack, along with political slogans and the decayed pineapple I’d discarded behind Walter’s back? Unguarded gossip, un-child-proofed words and all the cringeworthy things I have and will do, are also there and will come back to thwack me.

As Poppy becomes more proficient with words, it’s clear that nothing Walter and I do will ever go away. Instead, seeds planted from our random human exploits will lie dormant in Poppy’s mind. Then, on an ordinary day when we least expect it, our child will open her mouth and strange flowers will bloom. There’s no doubt that much of it will be revealing.

Walter, this is going to be embarrassing.

How not to start a road trip

This week, Walter and I celebrated four years of marriage. Rather than buy each other fancy gifts, we honored our love the Texan way by burning up some gas. That is, we went on a road trip.

Now, it wasn’t an ambitious road trip. Rather, it was notable for its modesty because we were only heading 50 minutes out of town. (Most Texans drive much further for a barbecued rib.) Yet to pootle along winding ranch roads, to drink in the charm of gruff country folk, to spontaneously leap into spring-fed creeks, etc. — that stuff takes plenty of planning.

Thus I woke up early to pack. My husband, knowing that I can’t go far without kutundu, kept a respectful distance from the piling luggage.

But Poppy, being two, couldn’t stop herself from getting involved. “We’re going on a road trip,” she told the dog, whose mournful chops sagged in the knowledge that she wasn’t invited.

As I busily stuffed road-trippy things into bags, Poppy unpacked them behind me.

Meanwhile and most irrelevantly, Walter spied that the microwave was flecked in dirt. With the vigor of a much younger man, he grabbed a cloth and began to scrub. And scrub. And scrub.  Soon, it sparkled.

“Let’s go!” I cried with rally rousing cheer though none save the dog appeared to have heard. Instead, I found Poppy unstacking dirty plates from the machine and Walter declaring war on stovetop grime.

Time passed. I packed an extra bag. I smeared sunscreen on Poppy’s face. I made coffee for the road. Still, Walter scrubbed the stove.

Tick tick tick. Soon it was 11 am and our road tripping morning was on the wane.

So I went outside with all the luggage. Suddenly, Walter bounded up behind me with a mouthful of words about windscreens. In a blur, he’d driven the car to the gate and then pitted his strength against dusty glass with a hosepipe. Steppenwolf got over-excited, Poppy began to whine and I noted solemnly that my coffee was getting cold.

So braving the spray, I tried to coax my child into the car. She refused … until I’d replaced her shoes with another pair … that turned out to be caked in mud … so I had to run inside and give them a good scrub. Meanwhile, my coffee cooled further on the roof of the car. When I emerged, I found Steppenwolf crouching on the back seat, Poppy at the apex of a tantrum and Walter foxed by how to restrain a dog, command a toddler, drive through the gate and not spill my coffee.

As we eased into late morning traffic with an empty tank of gas — and an unlocked house behind us — peels of manic laughter echoed through the neighborhood.

Mine? Walter’s? It doesn’t really matter. After 4 years + 1 toddler + 1 dog + Some Crazy Times, we’re definitely in this together.

(And in fact, we went on to have a glorious day).

STOP PRESS: Child bewilders mother

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in possession of a child must be in want of some sleep. Fortunately, since my daughter is no longer a baby, slow blinking doesn’t count as sleep. Yet despite this, there are still times when an undisturbed night is beyond my reach.

For the last few nights, for example, Poppy has cried out every two hours as if she’s being devoured by coyotes. Anxiously, I stagger into the nursery, only to find her fast asleep in her crib.

Fast asleep in a particularly boastful way, with hands under head and feet casually flexed like a 1 percent-er floating in her Malibu pool.

Confused, I stumble back to the hinterlands of sleep.

Last night, the sleep-crying started at 8 pm and Walter and I knew we were in for another bad night. We asked each other that universally futile question: “Why is our child crying?”

Just as one strives for meaning in a random universe, so us parents seek patterns from what is opaque. Thus, in riffling through my memories of Poppy’s previous sleep-crying jags, I confidently declared: there’s a disruption in her life!

Except that there isn’t. Walter’s not traveling. We don’t have house-guests. Since our home was sprayed in coyote urine, those pesky mice never came back. So what can it be?

Scanning Poppy’s life again, I landed on a potential clue. We’re approaching the end of the school year so Poppy’s peers are transitioning to new classes. It’s called “moving up” and it happens by order of age. Poppy is sweetly attached to the older kids, and I now wondered whether anyone had told her that her friends weren’t vanishing, just moving up?

Probably not. She’s only two. People don’t tell you stuff when you’re two.

Or five.

Or seven.

With a rush of clarity, I suddenly recalled how it felt to be seven and confused.

Scene: I’m in my classroom when a twitchy teacher herds us kids to a hall, makes us learn the words to a silly song, puts us into a forced march that snakes about in a circle, and commands us to clap and sing as we go. Time concertinas. I’m wearing crisp whites and my tennis shoes are stiff with starch. We’re marching in a circle on the school stage and we’re singing that silly song. A roomful of proud parents applaud. Someone takes a photo. No-one had told us that we’d been practicing for a concert. I wouldn’t have been so bewildered if I’d known.

Bingo! Poppy was similarly bewildered by this moving up business. Diagnosis complete, I resolved to clarify things in the morning.

So today, drooping tiredly into my coffee, I asked Poppy about her friends who were moving up. Her eyes caught mine, hinting at understanding.

“It doesn’t mean they’re going away, just moving to another classroom.” I explained that she’ll move up too when she’s bigger.

Poppy stared, seeming to digest this new, crucial, clarifying information. After a long pause, she replied: “You’re not wearing a hat.”

Huh?

Children don’t have the monopoly on being confused it seems. Stop the presses. I need to tell someone.

Potty training: it’s complicated

In many societies, once you’re older than five (+5), it is no longer polite to speak publicly about your toilet habits. I’m a very prudish individual so this taboo suits me well.

However, I am also the mother of a child under five (-5). Poppy is in the witching zone between total diaper coverage and full-on toilet use. The only thing to get her from one side to the other is mature encouragement from people like me.

The problem is — people like me hate talking about toilets. Even writing that word makes me feel dirty.

Toilet. Ugh.

Anyway.

I’m in a confusing situation. Though it’s taboo to discuss scatological matters, it’s imperative that Poppy’s relationship with lavatories is so straightforward that she learns to use them without developing a toilet complex that’ll take years of expensive psychotherapy to undo.

My toddler may think that she’s under pressure but I think you’ll agree, I’m the one to pity.

Thus, I bought a book to help me. It’s called Potty and though it’s aimed at children, I found it very useful. In bold pictures it shows me how to encourage my toddler to watch other creatures using the potty.

Now, whenever I spot our dog doing her business, I drag Poppy to the window to bear witness. Aping the tone of the Potty book, I give an upbeat commentary about poop, pee and lavatories.

My Potty book also shows how good parents exhibit delight at the triumphs of their potty-training child. Life imitates art as Walter and I whoop around the house when Poppy leaves something in her potty.

But conflict arises when Poppy wants to see what her parents do when they’re alone with their thoughts in the bathroom. There’s nothing in the Potty book to help me with this.

“I want to watch,” cries Poppy, kicking the door open with one small, determined foot.

“What are you doing?” asks she, waiting for upbeat commentary about poop, pee and lavatories.

If we don’t wish to pay the fees of her pricy psychotherapist, we must tell her.

Now, there’s the breeziness of the potty trainer, and then there’s the discrete silence of one observing the toilet taboo. Walter doesn’t mind toggling between these two worlds but I find the incongruity hard to process.

Thus, when a traumatizing potty incident occurred last week, I got stuck between +5 and -5 language. Here’s what happened:

Poppy didn’t make it to the potty on time.

Something happened.

I tripped over it.

I had to be calm and breezy.

But I didn’t feel calm and breezy. I was horrified.

A week later, Poppy continues to talk about the incident in a chipper, matter-of-fact tone.

I keep having flashbacks.

But I can’t discuss it because I’m +5 and so are you which means that we must both observe discrete silence.

Motherhood is very hard.

Incidentally, Walter claims that I’m lying about the incident because you can’t trip over it. He tells me that you can slip in it, you can step into it, but it’s simply not possible to trip over it.

Except that I did.

Or maybe it was language I tripped over.

Talking about potty training is very complicated. Why did nobody warn me?

[Photo credits: Andrej Troha/Stock Xchng; Potty by Leslie Patricelli]

It’s Mother’s Day. What do you want?

It’s Mother’s Day. What do I want? Apparently I want cards, flowers, brunch and a pedicure. Also, my local supermarket is offering a discount on six cheap bottles of Chardonnay. Thank you. I’ll take them all. However, what I really want is this: a year, a week, or gosh — maybe just a day — of guilt free parenting.

How would that work? Hmmn, let’s look at how it works now.

The Current State of Motherhood
It’s 7.22 a.m. on any given Sunday. Poppy calls querulously from her crib. Even though it’s my morning off, my eyes flick open and I’m alert. Next to me, Walter continues to sleep. His eyes are sealed shut, his cheek nestles into the pillow, the duvet rises quietly with his breathe. Despite being on duty, he is asleep.
‘Walter!” I hiss at his peaceful face.
“Hmmm?”
“Poppy’s awake. It’s your turn.”
“Hmmm.” He turns slowly away from me, winding the duvet with him. After a moment, a muffled and unhappy voice says: “How long do I have her for?”
I contemplate the domestic book of accounts. Yesterday, I rose at 6.43 a.m. which means that, at 7.22 am today, he’s already done less work than I have … then, I took her for the whole morning, fed her lunch and put her down for her nap at 12.35 p.m. … which means that …
“You have her till nap time, and you can’t put her down a minute before 1 p.m..” Walter rolls out of bed with a sigh.
“I have her the whole morning?” he says, falling slowly and miserably into his clothes, “what am I going to do with her?”
I pull the duvet over my head and affect not to care.

But it’s impossible to fall back asleep. Not only can I hear my husband and daughter having fun in the nursery, but my long list of domestic chores starts to make me twitch. There’s food to prepare, laundry to fold, emails to write and overdue thank you notes to get in the post. There’s hair to be washed, books to be read, paying work to get done and a dog to be fed. And speaking of dogs, there’s so much dog hair pooling in the corners of our home that I simply must get up now and vacuum the whole house.

But this is supposed to be my morning off …

Suddenly I feel cross and resentful.

Walter and Poppy emerge from the nursery and I instantly feel guilty for seething. My child is the cleverest, cutest, funniest (etc.) human being and my husband isn’t bad himself. Warmth embraces my cockles.

Then Walter says: “Can you watch her for 15 minutes while I [shower/answer an urgent email/undertake a domestic chore].”

No way! I’m outraged — this is supposed to be my morning off. Walter, the love of my life, looks crushed.

“Okay,” I relent, “but I get an extra 20 minutes this afternoon.”

I spent the rest of ‘my morning off’ cleaning the house and feeling guilty for chiseling my husband out of 20 minutes and trying to avoid being with my daughter (who is the cleverest, cutest and funniest child on earth).

The Ideal State of Motherhood
Now, I could write at length about the ideal state of motherhood but I suspect that you have vacuuming to do. So, I’ll just show you this cover from the New Yorker magazine and imagine what’s not in the picture.

“Mother’s Day” by Chris Ware. For New Yorker Cover: May 7, 2012

What’s not shown are the mothers who, while kids & dad play happily in the park, are wrapped in duvets at home enjoying deep, innocent, guilt-free sleep. In the non-picture, their fridges are loaded with fresh veggies, the clothes are laundered and ironed, and the thank you notes were sent a month ago. All questions about the gendered division of labor within the home have been resolved with calm and big-hearted good sense. For these mothers, love, marriage and parenthood have been successfully negotiated. Everyone is calm. No-one dodges the people they love.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of my readers who ever had a mother.

Cheap glass of Chardonnay anyone?

Postcard from 1952: old house makes owners seem cool

Anyone who knows me will testify that I am not cool. So imagine my neighbors’ surprise when, late last December, our home was invaded by very cool people. For two days, skinny jeans that tapered into pointy shoes stalked back and forth along our picket fence. Women with asymmetrical haircuts hovered on our porch.

But they hadn’t come for us. They’d come for our house.

Or, more accurately, they’d come for Peter Simonite and Annie Gunn, the film directors inside our house who were shooting a music video for Austin band, Explosions In The Sky.

Now, I’m not hipster enough to have heard of this band, but Simonite and Gunn were so compellingly likable that I couldn’t possibly have said no.  And besides, who wouldn’t want their home to become a film shoot in the week before Christmas, just as visiting family arrive for the holidays? It’s obvious of course.

Of course.

By 7 am on the first day, 45 human beings had crowded into our home, trailing as much cable and light equipment as would fit into a lorry. Busy people busied themselves with blacking out our windows and moving our furniture onto the street. The nursery became a staging room, our study held the talent. Flat capped, grizzle-cheeked people in plaid flooded every room of our home.

Walter had staggered into this crush before he’d had his coffee, and it took all my wifely skill to steer his bewildered frame out of the house. The barking dog and the tetchy toddler had thankfully fallen into the capable hands of my in-laws — hands so capable that they were soon dragooned into being part of the shoot themselves.

Meanwhile, I milled about my home like a stranger fresh off the street. No-one knew I was the chatelaine so I drifted from room to room like many of the folk who really had just arrived fresh off the street. Scores of feet ran up and down our stairs, and voices echoed across the floorboards as if the house were suddenly alive. It was as if our home were breathing, its lungs exhaling cheerfully in every room.

For two days, our lives were chaos and floodlights, and I marvel still at the patience of Walter’s imposed-upon parents. Then, the crew was gone and our house returned to an impeccable pre-shoot state, only a great deal cleaner.

Am I glad that our home was the scene for a music video? Yes, especially for the first half hour when it all seemed terribly glamorous. Would I offer our home for such a thing again? Certainly not. Who’d be so naive? Do I feel honored to have seen the calm, fierce focus of Simonite and Gunn as they made their beautiful vision come to life? Yes. Walter and I are in awe of what they did. It was a privilege to watch gifted professionals at work. Here’s what they made in our house  …

“Postcard from 1952″, the music video for Explosions in the Sky, created by the immensely talented Peter Simonite and Annie Gunn. Enjoy.

Today is another country, especially for parents

Anyone with a child has no doubt discovered that parenthood is like being in a foreign land. Local customs are obscure. The humor’s not humorous. The native dialect is hard to understand. In my case, as both a foreigner and a parent, I have a double dose of strangeness. There are many things about raising a child in the U.S. that confound me yet, whilst it seems okay to puzzle over the cult of parenthood, it seems less gracious to criticize my host country’s culture. Sometimes I don’t know who or what to blame.

As a purely random example, let’s discuss teacher appreciation week.

Poppy’s daycare has asked us to create a bulletin board in the hallway to show how much we love our teachers. In principle, I have no problem with that. After all, Poppy’s teachers are magus-like in their ability to calm my child. Without making it look hard, these two tantrum-wranglers are socializing her in a way I’d never have the confidence to do myself. I more than appreciate Poppy’s teachers, I depend on them. Yet doesn’t an appreciation week sound a bit contrived?  Surely I won’t be the only person scribbling a note of appreciation at the last possible moment, turning my genuine admiration for them into a hollow gesture? Doesn’t the whole thing sound a bit, well, twee?

On the other hand, the appreciation drive is also a great opportunity to teach Poppy about gratitude. I want her to be a decent, warmhearted little girl and though she seems to be lost in the tunnel-vision of toddlerhood, perhaps she’ll also be receptive to these character-forming prompts? Moreover, if I don’t partake of appreciation week (I probably will) and if I don’t share this blog post with Poppy’s teachers (I definitely won’t), they’ll never know how much I think they rock.

So is Teacher Appreciation Week corny or constructive? This bemused foreigner doesn’t know what to make of it.

Of course, my bemusement may also arise from the fact that I’m three decades out from my own experience of childhood. Perhaps my parents dashed around my nursery school with demonstrations of love for my teachers … and I simply forgot. After all, that the past is another country is as true to a native-born American as it is to an African-born hybrid like me.

Indeed, it would be grounding for me to find parallels between my upbringing and Poppy’s, but that seems impossible. To compare my childhood in the civil war politics of Zimbabwe to Poppy’s childhood in America’s economic gloom of today, is as futile as comparing marmite with peanut butter & jam (PBJ).

Thus, as I venture into this strange new land of parenting without a cultural compass to guide me, I don’t know whether my opposition to certain things are because I’m foreign, I’m new to parenting, or I’m just a colossal grump. Am I the only one, for example, to resist holiday-themed clothes, to dislike that toddlers exchange Valentine cards, to dread the day that I’ll have to be a room parent, to hate the thought of putting my first grader on a school bus by herself, and to think know that PBJs really are vile?

Or do all parents in all cultures and in all epochs feel that they’ve woken up in another country, one that’s unfamiliar and very far away?

The dog is okay

It’s a quiet evening and I sink into my armchair with a sigh. Poppy’s in bed, Walter’s out for the night and my pile of unopened New Yorkers can finally have some love. Ah, bliss! A few hours to myself. It’s a house of perfect calm.

I position the lamp at an optimal angle behind my right shoulder. Without having anyone else’s legs to consider, I pull the coffee table toward me, then rest my feet upon it with a smile. As gilded evening light reflects off the magazine pages, my glossy dog lies glossily at my feet.

All is right with the world. Conditions are perfect.

I cast another look at my dog. She’s still motionless at my feet and all four paws point stiffly at the wall. She looks like a toppled-over mannequin. That is, she looks normal.

Yet her eyes are open and she’s staring glassily at the wall.

‘Is Steppenwolf depressed?’ I wonder as I look back at the magazine. Stiff paragraphs about the federal budget float before me. I crinkle my brows at the density of the page.

‘Do family dogs have fulfilling lives?’ think I, last month’s magazine falling limply into my lap. The idea of Steppenwolf’s raison d’etre suddenly weighs heavily upon me.

‘I should let her sleep in our bed,’ I realize, suddenly glum.

And then I hear it.  Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz. Now it’s faint, now it’s loud. Bzzz. Bzzz.

Steppenwolf’s body remains motionless but her eyes roll madly in her head. Bzzz, bzzz. It could be a commercial for flies, the sound is so clear. Bzzz. The villain weaves about the room like a stunt pilot. It zooms above my and Steppenwolf’s heads then rests tauntingly on the lamp.

“I’m going to fix your wagon,” I shout, unwittingly parroting my father who has always threatened flies thus. I reach for the fly swatter and assay a few dainty swipes.

Bzzz. Bzzz.

Enraged, I charge into Walter’s office and grab his electric tennis racket — a grisly device that electrocutes flies with Texan ruthlessness. Walter once swiped me with this thing when I was holding a newborn Poppy. I’ve never let him forget the pain. I’d hate for him to see me using it now.

But, bzzz, bzzz.

I leap about the room with the electric racket. Its grill goes crackle as I swipe here and swipe there. In front of my uncovered windows, and for the benefit of my street, I put on a grotesque ballet.

Bzzz. Bzzz. Snap!

Steppenwolf’s body is exactly where it was before but she’s moving her lips as if she’s swirling with mouthwash. Then, a small black item falls to the floor.

It’s the fly.

Steppenwolf gives it a solemn look then flops her head onto the rug. All four feet point stiffly at the wall. Her coat is glossy. Her eyes are closed.

I return to my magazine with satisfaction. Steppenwolf needn’t move into our bed just yet. Our dog, it seems, is okay.

This, too, is Texas

If you can hate Austin whilst eating tacos beneath a shady oak, if your heart stays cold when this verdant city rings with birdsong, if your eyes aren’t dewy at miles and miles of bluebonnets, then maybe Texas aint for you.

I, on the other hand, think it might be right for me.

Okay, I accept that springtime is a blessed time in any part of the world. And yes, I know that soon I’ll be moving my bed into the air conditioning vent. But just for now, please indulge my smugness about being here rather than anywhere else in America.

Why? Because my recent personal dramas have forced me to step out from that comfy place behind my white picket fence. For the first time since I moved to Austin, I’ve thought about weighty things like the kind of society I want to live in and the sort of community I want for my child. Though Rick Perry and his woman-hating lieutenants cast a shameful light upon our whole state, their scornful views are hard to find in the Austin I actually inhabit.

I’ve already waxed liberal about the broad-minded charity of my community when Walter and I made our controversial choice. Never for a moment did I feel judged, despite what Mr Perry might say.

So when I think about the world I want Poppy to grow up in, I want it to be just like the Austin I know now, minus bad politics.

And in everyday life, it’s the small things that matter. It’s the young man at the supermarket checkout who, with handlebar mustache and tragic eyes, educates me about President Bush’s tax cuts. It’s the mums on my neighborhood block who come up with a hundred creative ways to make it safe for us to cross the road into the park. It’s the chic Texans who live downtown and discuss hopeful things with a southern lilt. It’s the fact that, on varying civic levels, every Austinite cares.

Thus, though the eyes of Texas may weep at the dismal state of our politics, the capital of Texas is still a very fine place to live.

Or at least, on this glorious day in spring, that’s how it feels to me.

A sinister afternoon at the supermarket

Since I published my article in the Texas Observer, I’ve never felt so much under scrutiny. While most feed-back has been astonishingly kind, some is less well-intentioned and I’m mightily relieved that I won’t meet my critics in person.

Nonetheless, it won’t surprise you to hear that I’m feeling a little, um, vulnerable.

Thus, imagine my alarm when, at the local supermarket today, I was verbally attacked by a woman wielding a birthday cake.

Now, I accept that my overloaded trolley seemed intimidating. I concede that I may have charged towards her at a faster clip than I’d intended. And I agree that my face in neutral is not the friendliest face in the world.

But still, I swerved long before I hit her, and no physical harm was done.

Regardless, the cake-bearing lady took umbrage and she began to holler. She told everyone in Baked Goods that I was bad, she followed me to Fresh Produce to condemn my soul, and she trailed me into Beer & Wine to remind me that I’m an ugly woman.

“You’d better hope I’m not waiting for you in the parking lot!”, she warned with as much menace as a lady holding an elaborately frosted cake can muster.

I hurried away to Canned Goods, wondering whether a missile of tinned carrots was about to hit me in the temple.

“Hey, you!”, my pursuer yelled, “You can’t get away from me, you ugly b****”

I redoubled my efforts to get away.

“You! Christina Aguilera! Come back!”

Nope, she looks nothing like me

Fascinated shoppers twisted their necks in search of a runaway blonde bombshell. All they saw was me: someone’s pale and anxious mother, not quite sure of her footing yet deathly afraid of being slain by a stranger in Frozen Vegetables.

(For those readers who don’t know me, I’m afraid that I look nothing — nothing — like Christina Aguilera.)

I scuttled to the check-out, paid for my groceries and then — being a sensible person — asked for a security escort to my car. Two burly gentlemen with mild smiles walked me out. The angry lady with the cake had vanished and I found myself sounding improbable, even to myself, as I explained the situation.

Now I don’t know how much of this incident can be attributed to one’s random encounter with a loon, how much to my emotional fragility, and how much of this is Texas’s fault. Yet somehow, it just seems emblematic of the bizarre world I’ve glimpsed of late.

Luckily for me, this strange new world is also peopled with bemused friends willing to be burly gents if they have to. In an uncertain world where even normal-looking folk holding teacakes can be dangerous, that is an enormous relief.

[Post-publish note: after causing some consternation within my family, I should emphasize that this incident had nothing to do with my article.  She really was just a random lady at the supermarket.]

When politics becomes personal

Two days ago, The Texas Observer published an article I wrote about my experience with Texas’ new sonogram law. As I write this post, there are 772 reader comments at the end of the piece.

I shouldn’t be surprised. During the heartbreak of losing a baby we also bumped up against one of the country’s most divisive political topics: abortion. Our very personal story is now part of a bigger conversation and, like the debate itself, not all of the voices are civil. I admit that it was scary to step into the fray, especially when our own grief is still so raw. However, as a friend to many magnificent women in Texas and, most importantly, as the mother of a daughter, I feel that I must say something.

Since the article went live, my inbox has been inundated with messages of support from men and women all across the U.S. Some have suffered pregnancy losses themselves, many feel angry about the current state of politics, and all have humbled me with their kindness. In the face of so much that is sad and bad in this situation, there is much to feel hopeful for.

Readers, I know that you come from all parts of the political spectrum and it’s not my intention to use my blog as a soapbox.  However, if you’re interested in reading the piece, you can find it here.  Thank you, as ever, for the warmth and empathy you’ve shown me on these pages.

How to enjoy SXSW when you’re two

It’s SXSW again and our town has been overtaken by foreigners, hipsters and malnourished-looking folk carrying guitars on their backs. The muffled roar of music travels 40 blocks from the festival’s epicenter to our quiet little home on a leafy street. As my child sleeps, the collective thud of hundreds of bands funnels across the humid night air and makes itself politely at home in the nursery. Poppy doesn’t seem to mind. Like every other night of her life, she lies still in her crib dreaming of the things that really matter: how the dog drinks water from a dish, the impossibility of putting on socks, the sublime perfection of the taco, and the sheer delight of stringing one word onto another. Politics or heartbreak or the earnest striving of all those musicians downtown mean nothing to the little girl who sleeps in polka dot pajamas with her bottom in the air. What a serene way to enjoy a festival. Frenetic SXSW badge-holders, take note.

Why do people run?

Last Saturday morning, Walter and I propped ourselves up against our pillows so that we could sip our coffee in silence. My husband’s face had taken on a hue of pale displeasure that said: “Why am I awake at dawn?” Poppy, the cause of our being awake at dawn, played contentedly on our bed, now and then shoving books into her father’s face or jumping on his crotch. Poppy was enormously happy to be alive. Outside, cheerful birds went tweet.

Suddenly, caffeine hit my bloodstream and I was filled with energy.
“My friends invited me to do an obstacle course adventure run.”
I showed him a picture of spandex-clad women running earnestly through a stretch of tires.
“I’m going to say yes.”

I hadn’t actually decided to do it, but was just airing the thought to see how it sounded.

Unexpectedly, my husband, who likes to remain corpselike till noon, became convulsive with glee.
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!”. His smile began to radiate through his body until presently even his toes seemed happy to be awake. I could see his eyes raking over his wife in her tatty pajamas, imagining her as she rope-swung above a mud-pit. I saw too that the ridiculous images pleased him greatly.
“This is the last thing I’d expect you to do!” he added with enthusiasm, “Don’t worry, I’ll help you train.”

Help me train? I hadn’t even intended to do this darned thing, never mind take it so seriously that I’d need to change my sedentary ways. Yet I’d been naive. Walter’s true calling in life is to be a sports coach; he loves nothing better than to educate and encourage and drill. This man runs for fun and he assumes that the rest of don’t do so, not because running is Not Fun, but because we just don’t know how. I can’t believe I hadn’t remembered this before I’d opened my stupid, coffee-filled mouth.

So reluctantly, last night I allowed Walter to ‘coach’ me into finding my running shoes and going to the park to ‘train’. All the way there, he explained with energetic precision the way in which my muscles would combine with oxygen or whatever to help me fitten up. I bit my bottom lip and tried to pay attention, but was more interested in the fact that my running shoes are, genuinely, from the last century.

“Are you ready?” asked my husband once there, his eyes beading with the dark passion of a zealot. “On your marks, get set, go!”
And go I went, with fear (of disappointing Walter) in my heart and crusted dirt (from 1998) in my shoes.

You won’t be surprised to hear that a sack of rocks being dragged along the ground would’ve been more graceful.

Luckily my family made up for what I lack. Poppy jogged behind me, her bobbing torso providing extra locomotion for her legs, and her heart so filled with joy that she had to do jazz hands as she went. Walter ran abreast in great, elegant, springing strides. And Steppenwolf, that happy mass of dogginess, streaked past like a sleek, black arrow. On the sidelines, an old man and his dog sat on the grass and watched. Both laughed, but whether it was at me or with me was hard to tell.

The Diva Dash I’ve signed up for describes itself as “the most fun you’ve had in your running shoes.” Yet for me, that sets the bar absurdly low. As I type this today, every muscle in my body — even ones that have no business to do so — are seizing up.

Though my physical frame is weak, my mind is clear: unless you’re running for the bus or away from a charging elephant, why bother running? I really don’t know. Do you?

What you need when you’re sad

Reader, I hope you are never unspeakably sad, but if you are, you might want to get hold of a toddler. I have one running around my house and, for a fee, will rent her bright and intense disposition out to anyone who needs a hand.

You see, if you’re like me, the temptation of sadness is to lay on the sofa all day while listening to beautiful music. Both, in themselves, are sensible past-times and often the only way to climb grief’s ladder. Yet, for wives, mothers, and people-whose-job-it-is-to-feed-the dog, this is not always practical.

Thus, I was surprised to note that in the first days after my world upended, Poppy’s flashing tempers brought relief. To be dragged from the numbness of my world and into the passion of hers was more restorative even than chocolate.

For example, before my pain meds wore off, I was fascinated to observe how toddler tantrums rise and recede. I saw how vexation first builds in the toddler chest and, without a mother to intervene, how quickly it intensifies. An incoming tantrum is expressed with cautionary overtures that, if unstemmed, turn quickly into a full-blown howl. (Imagine, if you will, those first strains of an air-raid siren, before one grabs a helmet and ducks for cover.) But, if the child is allowed to shriek with rage for anywhere between four to seven minutes, anger soon subsides into an epilogue of disgruntled sobs. Then, thumb-sucking, lap-sitting and head-stroking is permitted and presently, peace is restored to the world.

Magic! I’d never have learned that without Vicodin.

Sadly, my meds didn’t come with a refill order, so tantrum-watching quickly lost its appeal. I allowed myself to get lost in the deep play of block-building instead, and that escape is almost as good. Also, at the risk of sounding like a sentimental fool, there’s nothing so curative as the sight of something cute. Poppy — with her mischievous and curly haired enthusiasm for life — is (I’d argue) rather cute.

As it turns out, my child is also perceptive and I’ve come to appreciate this when I’m feeling fragile. At the park, she puts her arms around my knees and tells the other mothers: “Mummy’s sad.” My tangled appearance probably already conveys this, but still, it’s comforting to have a spokesperson. Less comforting is when that spokesperson casts shade upon my character, as when she held up a discarded wine cork last night and announced: “Mummy’s happy!”

Well, yes, it is true that red wine makes me happy, but then so does chocolate, and phone calls, and notes in the mail. Also, food on my porch and flowers on the mantel and the many hundred kindnesses that have flown my way of late.

But mostly, it’s those loud, naughty, exuberant children who dominate the present moment. To live in a toddler’s world is a welcome relief. Thank heavens for temper-prone tots.

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