It takes a village: a roundup of readers’ comments

There have been a lot of wonderful comments left on Growing Sideways recently.  One reader recalled the moment when her mother, dripping wet in a skirted bathing suit, lost her “myth” status.  Another talked about his earliest memories leaving wartime southern Illinois in 1945.  Martha wrote about why it’s important to her that her kids learn to play the piano better than she ever did.  Nick explained why he does Kumon with his daughters. Andrew reflected on how immigration changed his parents’ view of family. My dad told me he’s not sure what’s going on in Ann Arbor, because he never had any trouble getting Jay down to nap.

If Wally looks excited, it's not because I'm dangling a granola bar wrapper in front of his face. It's because I just read him a month's worth of amazing comments on Growing Sideways.

Anya, in response to That thing around the corner

As someone who is at the age of the kids you described, this post was very interesting for me. The last line seems to sum up how I feel when I read your blog: I’m aware that we’re at different stages in our lives, but I see my own future in your posts. It’s something that I’ve had to think about more now that I’ve started college because there’s more of a domino effect. (I need to take these classes because I want this degree, and I need to do well in them because I want to go to graduate school, and with graduate school comes the idea of starting a family.) Your blog makes the idea of being a married-adult-with-children seem less distant and scary.

Marnie, in response to That thing around the corner

I’m so intrigued that we live in a world where the first comment to your post is from a nineteen year old. I was very far away from thinking about the domino effect or being married with children at nineteen. And now I’m twenty-eight and I wish I’d been better counseled about the real world. I am a former teacher as well (in urban schools), and it’s always heartbreaking in some ways to have students illustrate the statistics. A friend’s former student had twins in eighth grade. So many low-income kids never truly get to have a “childhood.” I enjoy your voice and your blog.

John B. in response to That thing around the corner

And, to add a voice form thirty years n the future, nothing prepared me for this either. It’s fun to watch you wander through the minefields I’ve already picked my way through and reliving that period of life again by watching your trials. But every period of life has had the same wonder of exploration. Not enough fires to gather around and listen to the elders any more.

John C. in response to What it might really mean to learn to be a parent

You can’t imagine the depth to which your self-observations reverberated in me as I read your latest on “parenting”. I could change the characters from Jay and Wally to J and D and all the rest of the words would hang perfectly about my neck. Of course I am not that father of so many years ago but now the grandfather to J and D’s children. As I read your piece I found myself musing, “What would I do differently now in those situations that used to get me ‘disproportionately worked up’?” Then it occured to me that these days I tend to start each day self-orienting – checking out the world and my place in it and then consciously deciding how I will deal with what may come. This usually entails a moment of gratitude. That’s all it usually takes – just a moment – just acknowledging how thankful I am… and then the latent anger that has haunted me for so many years is defanged and I am allowed to go about my day easier. I think the Buddhists call it Mindfulness. It doesn’t matter what its name is… it works.

Ingrid in response to Fade Out: What happens to a toddler’s memories?

I often wonder about the capacity of memories at different ages as well. I’m sure there is a brilliant study on the matter. I will say that I still hold memories of my pre-school that I attended at the age of 4. I recall the room set up and the way the play-dough smelled and the names and faces of a few friends that i kept through grade school. I get flashes some days, and will remember a birthday party at the pool when I was three. Of course, I don’t really know if it’s a true memory or a story I told myself from a photo. But i will say that a smell, or a view, or a taste will bring bad some very old memories. So happy for your move, but so sad you wont be on the streets of Philly anymore.

John C. in response to Fade Out: What happens to a toddler’s memories?

I left our wartime home in southern Illinois in the fall of 1945 when I was just 4. We returned each summer for a week or two vacation until I was almost 9. The combination of those visits, the Kodak pictures carefully pasted into the white leather album, and my mother repeating the stories that went with those pictures all laid down new neural pathways thus creating a rich new set of memories. I believe that is what family does. These stories thus become the oral history of my life. These beautiful and insightful stories that you are writing will be the stimuli for Jay to lay down new memories of old expereinces.

Bob in response to Let me wrestle you down to sleep

Not sure what you were doing wrong, Kevin, but when James was with his Grandpa during Hurricane Irene, I got him down for naps each day you and Caroline were gone. I did lay down on the floor in his room, so maybe that helped. Or was it that I fell asleep first? And that is my bigger point. Here is a young boy with an alotted time for napping, and he chooses not to use it. I would love a nap each day, but there is no alotted time.

Anne Sullivan in response to Myth making

I distinctly remember both instances when my mother and my father lost their “myth” status with me. My mom approached my friends and me at the local swimming pool in her old fashioned skirted bathing suit with a rubber swim cap adorned with plastic flowers on her head. She was soaking wet, and as my friends barely suppressed their laughter at the sight, I was mortified. With my dad, the situation was worse—I was working in his office after college, and I overhead a subordinate of his discussing a major mistake my dad had made that cost him a promotion. I enjoyed this post of yours because it reminded me of the times when I did view my parents as heroes, and even though they “fell from grace” a bit, they did provide a lot of comfort over the years with their reassurances that everything would be alright.

Martha in response to Do all parents fall into two categories? One leading sociologist says they do.

I pay for the piano lessons, I pay for the extra spanish tutor, and I make sure my kids never miss Sunday school because I have found that whenever I run into someone who does something very well, or has a passion for a hobby unlike no one else, or their faith is pervasive in their lives, it is because they were exposed in childhood. They didn’t just take a few classes, read a single book, or observe someone else, they dived in deep. I was also a latchkey kid, and my parents cultivated what they could in their spare time, and the outcome was beyond what most would call decent. Nonetheless, my list of mediocre talents is long. So given the good fortune to provide my kids with the opportunity to make their list a little shorter than mine is an opportunity I find difficult to pass up.

Nick in response to Do all parents fall into two categories? One leading sociologist says they do.

I was not cultivated at all. I was a latch-key kid. My parents’ stresses left little room for planning of any kind, and yet I ascribe to them my love of art and knowledge. I am fulfilled enough to wish even some portion of my happiness on my three children, and I wonder deeply what fraction of genetic predisposition and experience, what ratio of ease and strife, what presence and what absence of resources led to my good fortune. If I could reproduce my childhood I do not trust my children would exit it similarly endowed, because I am used to seeing my trajectory as anomalous in a sea of pessimistic demographics. So I pay for the piano lessons, I do the Kumon (at home, I mean), I go to all the museums, stabbing blindly at the hope of passing on the opportunity of happiness, but stabbing nonetheless with vigor and zeal and even a little frightening uncertainty if any of my actions can lead to another’s happiness and virtue. I find it hard to take no action when the stakes are high. Maybe we are each passing on to our kids what we think we should, not only in order to inherit our own happinesses, but also to inherit something better?

Andrew in response to Hit me: Jay, Wally, and The Tree of Life

as the friend in question, i wanted to add some color to the anecdote that might make it seem less odd. my entire family (myself included) immigrated to the US and settled in a fairly homogeneous area, so that comment of his was informed by our collective family experience as outsiders struggling and working to acclimate. i think that the normal “alone-ness” that envelopes the adult lives of children after their parents pass away is multiplied exponentially for immigrant families, particularly for those – like us – who leave behind the entirety of their non-nuclear family support structure in their home country.

the other nuance worth remembering is the vast change in technology over the intervening years. today, when we’re constantly connected by facebook, skype, email and phone to our families around the world, the notion of being alone seems cutely outdated. but i doubt anyone in the 80s and early 90s, let alone my parents, would have predicted these advances, certainly not when it cost dollars per minute to call foreign countries and our phone successfully connected maybe 20% of the time. that shroud of uncertainty over our futures must have been frightening to them.

the contrast is made even more poignant when i think of the stories they heard from their preceding generation, of branches of the family which boarded ships in the early 20th century for far-flung places like brazil, australia and detroit, and which weren’t reunited for 40 or 50 years. this, in turn, almost certainly biased their own expectations and predictions for how isolated we might be as adults.

it all turned out fine in the end, but deliberating about all of this reminded me of something else i loved about the movie, which is that as much as we believe ourselves to be agents of our own fate, our behaviors, fears, aspirations and expectations are vastly and unconsciously influenced by the circumstances of the age during which we live. it seems to me that one of life’s major projects is understanding when one is acting as an individual and when one is acting as the ultimate terminal effector of larger, ageless cosmic processes.

Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize you were there.

[Growing Sideways now has its own Facebook page.  “Like” it here.]

Just after Jay, Wally, and I left the house this afternoon to get Caroline, Pearl Jam’s Better Man” came on the radio.  I could hardly believe my luck.  My favorite band, one of their best songs, playing at a time of the day when the boys and I otherwise would be stuck listening to “Pumped Up Kicks” yet again.

As we waited at a red light I let it loose:

She lies and says she’s in love with him, can’t find a better man…

She dreams in color, she dreams in red, can’t find a better man

The light turned green.  I turned the radio up, sang louder.  In the back of my head I wondered: “What does Jay make of this?  What is it like for him to see his dad overtaken by music? Does such passion surprise him? Scare him? Intrigue him?”

Then the song came to an end and I looked at the backseat.  Jay was sitting there, staring out the window at a gas station.  I’m pretty sure he basically didn’t even know I was there.

Enjoy the song.  Sing it loud.  Tell Jay his dad is cool.

Things we cannot change

Over the weekend the New York Times ran a wrenching essay by Emily Rapp, a mom whose 18-month-old son has the genetic disorder Tay-Sachs and will likely die before he’s three.

The essay, which has circulated widely, is about what it’s like to care for a child when there’s no reason to plan for his future.  “Our parenting plans, our lists, the advice I read before Ronan’s birth make little sense now,” she writes. “No matter what we do for Ronan — choose organic or non-organic food; cloth diapers or disposable; attachment parenting or sleep training — he will die. All the decisions that once mattered so much, don’t.”

And because happy endings are not possible for her son, Rapp says that she’s had no choice but to find a different way to value the time she has to spend with him:

I have abandoned the future, and with it any visions of Ronan’s scoring a perfect SAT or sprinting across a stage with a Harvard diploma in his hand. We’re not waiting for Ronan to make us proud. We don’t expect future returns on our investment…

But the day-to-day is often peaceful, even blissful. This was my day with my son: cuddling, feedings, naps. He can watch television if he wants to; he can have pudding and cheesecake for every meal. We are a very permissive household. We do our best for our kid, feed him fresh food, brush his teeth, make sure he’s clean and warm and well rested and … healthy? Well, no….

Our experiences have taught us how to parent for the here and now, for the sake of parenting, for the humanity implicit in the act itself, though this runs counter to traditional wisdom and advice.

I don’t understand what it’s like to be Emily Rapp any more than I understood what it’s like to love a child before Jay was born.  But I do know that the day Jay was born my worst fear in the world became losing him.  After finishing the essay I sat in my chair, not doing anything.  I wanted to share it with Caroline but for a moment it didn’t feel right to speak.

Caroline and I may have a bias against infant yoga classes, but we do plan for Jay and Wally’s futures.  For most of Jay’s first year, in fact, it felt like all we did was plot: How to get Jay to nurse, how to get Jay to stop cruising and start walking, how to get Jay to sleep through the night.   This preoccupation with problem solving made parenting feel very thin at times.

Which brings me to how we’ve recently found a measure of grace in an unexpected place.  Our prompt has been nothing as devastating as a terminally ill child; Rapp’s is the kind of wisdom I hope I never have.  But in dealing with Wally, who doesn’t sleep these days, Caroline and I have been talking about what it’s like to stop trying to make our children into something more or better or different than they are right now.

(I should say first that it’s unfair to Wally to have his bad sleeping be the first specific thing I write about him in weeks.  Because he’s the sweetest little guy.  He seems to have only two speeds: tired, and irrepressibly happy.  He smiles so easily that sometimes Caroline and I want to say to him, “This is the real world, buddy!  You have a big brother!  Things aren’t that great!”)

Still, as sweet as Wally is there’s no sugar coating his sleep habits.  And at 2am when one or the other of us is pacing him around our bedroom again, it feels like we can’t let another day pass without fixing the situation.  We’ve considered cry-it-out sleep training, supplementing with formula, turning off the nightlight, moving his bassinet closer to our bed, moving it farther away.

But in the end we’ve decided to do nothing, at least for now.  Caroline’s right when she says Wally’s too young to “sleep train” – he’s four-months-old and this is who he is at the moment.  We could go crazy trying every little sleep permutation or we could just accept that this isn’t the season for a good night’s sleep.  This acceptance doesn’t make it any more pleasant to get woken up in the middle of a dream, but it does make it easier to enjoy the warmth of Wally’s head against my chest as I walk him through the night.

Related Posts from Growing Sideways

The feeling you get when a baby is born

Tonight to fall asleep

That thing around the corner

Yesterday I became Facebook friends with an old student of mine—a girl I’d taught in Philadelphia when she was in 8th grade.  She’s about 19 now and as I looked through her photo album it seemed that she’d been having a lot of fun as a teenager: pictures of her with her friends, dancing and laughing at one party after another.

Then, there she was in a maternity dress, pregnant and smiling at her own baby shower beneath a big pink banner that read, “It’s a girl.”  The juxtaposition in the photo album was stunning.  Fun, fun, fun, fun, baby. It was like someone had turned the lights on in the middle of the party.

Later that day I left the house with Jay and Wally to pick Caroline up at campus.  As we walked out the door Jay yelled, “Buckle Wally in first,” which he says every time we get in the car.  I did as instructed, and while I was busy with Wally Jay climbed into the driver’s seat and closed the door.

After I’d finished with Wally I went to get Jay, but just as I was about to open the driver’s side door, Jay locked it.  He looked up at me through the car window with an impish little grin on his face and for a moment I didn’t know what to do.  Then I remembered the car key in my pocket.   “Better luck next time,” I thought, as I unlocked the door and carried his disbelieving little body off to the carseat.

Our route to school is the same everyday: left on Independence, right on Packard.  It’s a short trip, only about 3 miles.  The first mile passes by bland commercial storefronts—a tutoring center, a pizza place, a liquor store—but the scene changes as we get closer to campus.  Uncared for student houses line the streets. The sidewalks thicken with undergraduates.

I always feel a little conspicuous driving through campus.  No one notices we’re there of course, but still I feel self-consciously old amidst all the students, on my way to pick my wife up from work with two boys in the backseat.  As we sat at a red light I looked out the window and saw a fresh-faced kid carrying a case of Rolling Rock, and two pony-tailed girls jogging, and what looked like part of the men’s soccer team on its way home from practice.

Part of me wanted to yell out the window, “This isn’t really me!  I’m not as different from you as you think!” Then the light changed and we moved on.

As we drove the final blocks to Caroline’s office I thought about my student who’s now a mom, and I thought about the Michigan undergraduates who’d just crossed in front of my car.  In one sense their lives are very different: She’s a teenager waking up each day and probably all night to the responsibility of taking care of a child; they’re students at one of the best colleges in the country, and for now at least they don’t owe allegiance to much more than their own whims.

At the same time, it struck me that wherever you are at 19, adulthood comes sooner than you expect.  The bigger surprise for that kid carrying the case of Rolling Rock is probably not that I used to be like him, but rather how soon he’ll be like me.

Related Posts from Growing Sideways

Life in the trees

Does having kids mean giving up on your dreams? (One dad thinks it does)

What it might really mean to learn to be a parent

Last night Wally woke up every 90 minutes. This is a trend with him—not sleeping—but it’s been even worse of late on account of a stuffy nose.  He lies on his back, nurses to sleep, but before long his congestion causes him to cough or choke and jolts him awake.

At 6:30am this morning when Jay was beginning to murmur in his crib and Wally was awake again, Caroline said almost in disbelief: “It feels like I nursed him all night.” My night of sleep hadn’t been great, but it hadn’t been a disaster, either, so I told Caroline I’d take the boys downstairs so she could sleep.  Even though I knew it was the right thing to do and I was glad to be able to give Caroline more rest, I still wasn’t in great spirits when I threw back the covers and put my bare feet on the cold floor.

Jay was chipper, though, as he is almost always in the morning when his battery’s fully charged.  Down in the family room I sat with Wally on my lap while Jay moved his cars around on the small white table we bought him at a yard sale a few weeks ago.  He’d line the cars up and drive them from one side of the table to the other, narrating the activity with lines like “This is a good parking spot” and “It’s raining, time to go inside.”

After about half-an-hour the sun was just beginning to show in the sky outside the window. There was a magazine on the floor, left there from a few nights earlier when Caroline had tried to read it while watching Jay play.  I flipped it open and started to read a short piece about something important—a dry cleaner who specializes in getting stains out of expensive fabrics.

I should have realized it was a bad idea to read the magazine while I was watching Jay, and not just because, as I wrote last week, I want to try and interact with him more when we’re spending time together.   The real reason is that reading a magazine or the Internet creates a bad dynamic between me and Jay: I become absorbed in whatever I’m reading and Jay sees that he’s lost my attention so he starts to do annoying things to get it back.

Which is just what he did this morning.  I’d been reading the magazine for less than a minute when Jay, who’d been entirely happy playing with his cars only a moment ago, came over to my side.

I didn’t look up from the article, so Jay started to crumple the page I was trying to read.  I brushed his hand away.  He crumpled the page again.  I brushed his hand away.  He crumpled the page again.  This time he got to me.  I grabbed his hand hard.   “Stop touching the paper,” I said angrily.  Jay gets reprimanded 1000 times a day, but not usually out of anger, and he knew the difference. He started to cry.

As the first tears fell I managed to say, “You shouldn’t have done that,” but it was a weak reply.  I knew immediately that I was the one who was wrong.  Getting angry at Jay like that doesn’t do any good—it’s too unpredictable to be instructive; all it really does is scare him, and I don’t want to scare Jay over a crumpled magazine page.

Jay recovered within ten minutes, but the rest of the morning I was dogged by the queasy feeling that comes with having treated another person badly. Around 9am Caroline woke up and we all had breakfast.  After eating I took Jay and Wally outside to rake leaves that had been knocked down by an overnight storm.

I raked with Wally in the carrier on my chest and Jay working with his little plastic rake and I continued to think about what had happened that morning.

It occurred to me that there are two ways to think about what it means to “learn how to be a parent.”  The first way, which is the way we most often think about it, has to do with skills and techniques: learning how to soothe an infant, learning how to set boundaries, deciding the number of cookies Jay can have for dessert or how much TV he’s allowed to watch, figuring out how to teach him right from wrong.

These are all important skills, but as I raked I thought that maybe they’re less important than the second way to think about “learning to be a parent,” which has nothing to do with skills and everything to do with learning how to be the person my kids need me to be. 

For reasons I’d have a hard time accounting for, I’m prone to getting frustrated by small things: I’ll be measuring flour and Jay will bump my arm, or we’ll pull out of the driveway and I’ll realize I forgot the shopping list.  These can be enough to make me angry and frustrated to a degree that seems ridiculous when I sit here and think about them and write them down.

I don’t always get disproportionately worked up.  Sometimes a crumpled magazine page is just a crumpled magazine page.  Other times I react the way I did this morning.  As a result, it can be hard for Jay and Wally to know what to expect when we’re together.  Is this the day Dad doesn’t care if I spill apple sauce on the floor, or is this the day it drives him crazy?  It’s not the kind of environment I want them to grow up in.

Jay and Wally didn’t create the hang-ups and weak spots in my personality, but they do make them more consequential.  It seems to me that whether I can figure out how to make my doubts, insecurities, frustrations, and fears compatible with my responsibility to Jay and Wally will go further in determining whether they have happy childhoods than just about anything else I control.