Jay likes his coffee black and his sippy cups green

On Sunday morning Jay had his first cup of coffee.  For that he can thank the movie Winter’s Bone, which Caroline and I watched the night before.  It’s a grim, slow-boiling thriller set in the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri, and it’s most notable for the excellent lead acting and for the exoticism of the modern hillbilly culture it depicts.

But on Sunday morning, as I made pancakes on the stove and Jay stood beside me on a chair, the part of the movie that had me thinking was the kids.  The main character is a 17-year-old girl named Ree, who’s left to take care of her younger siblings when her mom goes crazy and her dad goes missing.  Ree teaches her brother and sister how to shoot a rifle and gut a squirrel, all the while battling gap-toothed ne’er-do-wells in search of her dad and generally outperforming conventional ideas of what a teenager is capable of.

Thinking about Ree and her siblings made me wonder whether maybe Jay isn’t capable of more than we give him credit for.  So, after pouring some pancake batter into the non-stick pan, I asked Jay out of the blue, “You want some of Daddy’s coffee?”  He did a double-take, and then he said he sure did, so I poured him a thimble full of decaf.  After he drank it down I poured him another, and for half-an-hour while Caroline and Wally slept upstairs, I enjoyed imagining what it might have been like to raise Jay in a different time and place, where they called pancakes flapjacks and dads and sons drank coffee together from the womb.

Overall, I have a hard time getting a precise read on Jay’s maturity level.  Sometimes I overestimate what he’s capable of until some inexplicable deed reminds me that he’s only two, while just as often I find myself taken aback when he displays a complexity of interaction I didn’t think him capable of.

That same Sunday morning, for example, after the four of us had stuffed ourselves on pancakes, I loaded Jay and Wally into the car for our fourth trip to Trader Joe’s in as many days.  Just as I’d strapped Jay into his car seat he told me, “I’m thirsty.”  I wasn’t sure whether to believe him (Jay’s gotten pretty savvy recently about using “I’m hungry” or “I’m thirsty” as a way to put off things he doesn’t want to do), but I’m particularly vigilant about dehydration, so I went back inside to get him a sippy cup of water.

No sooner had I walked back out of the house, though, than Jay burst into hysterics.  I opened the car door, sippy cup in hand, and tried to get him to explain what was wrong.  At first his words were inaudible through the heaving and gasping.  Finally, he calmed down enough to state it clearly: “I wanted the dinosaur cup,” he said a deep, pitiful whine, referencing his green metal water bottle with the brontosaurus on the side that both of us knew was sitting on the kitchen counter at that very moment.

Jay: Young enough to freak out if you give him the wrong cup, old enough to sweep storm water down a drain.

Standing beside him I could barely believe what I was hearing.  I thrust the blue sippy cup at him and said with a great absence of sympathy, “If you want a drink, this is the best you’re going to get.”  Then I got into the driver’s seat and backed down the driveway.

Now, irrational tantrums are nothing new from Jay.  What’s different, though, was the way he acted next.

As we drove the short distance to the store, Jay got real quiet in the backseat.  I glanced back a few times and saw him sitting there with what I took to be chagrin on his face.  The third time I looked back he caught my eye and said, “Hi Daddy,” in a sweet, soft voice.  Then he reached down into the folds of his car seat, produced a Matchbox car, and offered it to me.

“Hi Jay,” I said glancing back in the rear view mirror, my heart breaking a little at the sight of his hand, up in the air, holding a little white sedan, and at the thought that he cared so much about regaining my favor.

That same type of scene has happened a few times. This morning I went down to the basement to put clothes in the dryer and when I came up Jay was crying because I hadn’t asked him to come with me.  I ignored his tears and instead went over to unload the dishwasher.  After a minute Jay came over to help me. “Here Daddy” he said in his most chipper voice, handing me a fork and two spoons while flashing a grin that was so sweet it nearly hurt my teeth.

In both these instances—the scene in the car and the scene by the dishwasher—I’m tempted to chalk Jay’s behavior up to his particular stage of life.  But at the same time, and what strikes me more, is how universal to any age his actions are: He has desires, he’s frustrated when the world doesn’t meet them, he feels shame when he doesn’t act the way he knows he should, he covets the favor of the people closest to him.

In that way, you could say that even at just a hair over two-and-a-half feet tall, the pieces of a full-blown personality are already in place.


Duty, Wonder, and Love

In Ann Arbor, at the far edge of the Eastern Time Zone, the sky is still gray long after the day has begun back home in Maine.  After two weeks here Caroline and I have carved out a small routine for ourselves: At 9am Caroline heads off to campus on the #5 bus as our nanny, Nicole, arrives.  I work until 2pm, when Nicole leaves, and then the boys take a nap.  A little before 5pm I load Jay and Wally into the car and we head north, through rush hour traffic, to pick up Caroline outside the Institute for Social Research.  It feels strange to carry out our routine in a place where we are virtually anonymous: If a family goes about its days and no one sees them, are they really there?

On Friday afternoon, on the way back home, we stopped at a market to buy ingredients for dinner.  Caroline and I split up, each taking a boy—she got Jay and the produce, I got Wally and the shrimp and the cheese. We reconvened at the checkout line, where Jay told the cashier he’d like some stickers and I told Jay that not every place works like Trader Joe’s.

Back at home, Caroline stayed with the boys in the driveway while I went inside to cook.

Greek shrimp with tomatoes and feta

I opened a bottle of Kennebunkport Brewing Company IPA, because it was Friday, and pulled up some music I’d been meaning to listen to—the songs of Biet Simkin, a distant acquaintance’s girlfriend, whose music has just the right sound to make the world feel more expansive than it seems sometimes.  I listened to the music, chopped an onion, cubed the feta, sautéed the shrimp, and drank my beer, and for thirty minutes enjoyed the feeling of being by myself.

But then Jay came running through the front door.  I admit that when I saw him my heart fell just a little.  I wasn’t quite ready for my little sojourn in the kitchen to be over.  He wanted to be picked up so he could see the food bubbling in the pot.  I set him on my hip and I felt a swell of love which mingled with my prior melancholy to create a state of confusion.

This weekend I’ve been thinking that there are three things which make for a good day: to love, to wonder, and to fulfill one’s duty.  It’s hard, though, to fit them all into 24 hours and often I find they work against each other: Wonder happens alone, love needs other people, and duty can flatten both of them. Lately, I guess, Caroline and I would both say that our lives have been heavy on duty—duty in service to the family we want to build together, but duty all the same.

There are other times, though, when duty, wonder, and love reinforce each other.

This morning at 11am Caroline and I were loading the boys into the car for a trip to the playground when our neighbor came over to say hi.  We chatted about the pleasant weather and she told us she was about to go pick raspberries at a farm a few miles down the road.  She said goodbye and we got in the car.  As we backed out of the driveway we realized that we wouldn’t mind picking raspberries, either.

Berry picking, it turns out, is just about the perfect activity for a family.  When we arrived at the start of our first row Caroline told Jay that he only wanted to eat the dark berries.  She picked two from a bush—one white and unripe, the other a deep red—and asked Jay which one was darker.  He pointed to the white berry, so they tried again.  After a few rounds, though, Caroline felt that Jay had it figured out, so she set him loose to pick.

I carried Wally on my chest and did my best to keep his be-socked feet away from burrs when I leaned in for a berry.  Caroline worked across the row from me.  For twenty minutes we didn’t say anything, and then just as I was about to ask Caroline to estimate her ratio of berries picked to berries eaten, she asked me the same thing.  I put mine at 3:1.  She put hers at 5:1 but then, in apparent recollection of an eating binge a few bushes back, revised it down to 4:1.

For his part, Jay was largely content to work the bushes by himself.  He lifted the leaves, tugged on the berries, pulled out the stems, stained his face and fingers red.  From time to time I’d lose sight of him but it was nice to know that he was flanked on two sides by a dense wall of pricker bushes, and that the only way out ran by me.

After Jay had eaten his fill he came and found me and announced that he was ready to contribute to the family effort.  “This one’s for the bucket,” he said, showing me a dark red raspberry that he’d crushed in his fingers nearly to the state of jam.  He prepared to drop it into my bucket but then thought better of it and put it into his mouth.  “I’ll go get another berry,” he assured me, and took off.

For the next hour we worked like this, Wally on my chest, Caroline and I talking here and there, Jay visiting us both at intervals.  Overhead the sun was hot like the summer, but the breeze said fall, while down among the berries, between the four of us, everything felt just right.

Do all parents fall into two categories? One leading sociologist says they do

This summer I wrote an article called “The Perils of Parenting Style” about a University of Pennsylvania sociologist named Annette Lareau.  Lareau is one of the top qualitative sociologists studying American families.  She made her name with a groundbreaking ethnography conducted over the course of three years in the 1990s that was published in 2003 in a book called Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.

To conduct her ethnography Lareau embedded for a month each with 10 families arrayed across the socioeconomic spectrum.  She spent the night with each family, went to doctor’s appointments, soccer games and parent-teacher conferences, watched parents get their kids off to school and put them to sleep at night, observed siblings at play in the backyard before dinner.  Her study constitutes the most intimate, sustained look any sociologist has ever taken of American family life.

After the observations were over Lareau spent several more years sifting and synthesizing her data.  Finally, she concluded that all American parents fall into two broad categories:  poor and working class parents who raise their kids according to a style she termed “natural growth,” and middle class parents who raise their kids according to a strategy she called “concerted cultivation.”

The two parenting styles are what they sound like.  Lower income parents, Lareau argued, tend to trust that their kids will grow up fine without any overt parental intervention.  A roof over their heads, food on their plates, and a bit of love- that’s all kids need.

Middle class parents, on the other hand, think their kids’ proper development requires a lot of intervention.  They think kids need to be read to as early as the womb, raised in a language-rich environment, given lessons in everything.

Lareau focused her analysis on three areas where she found the poor/middle class divide to be particularly sharp: organized extracurricular activities, the use of language in the home, and the willingness of parents to intervene in school on their kids’ behalf.  As I wrote in the article, ” In all three of these areas the middle class approach can be described as  more: more activities, more frequent and sophisticated chatter around the dinner table, more parents ready to step in to get their kids assigned to specific teachers or enrolled in special programs.”

Before I get into how writing about Lareau made me think about raising Jay and Wally, there are a couple things to say. First, Lareau’s book, Unequal Childhoods, is a great read.  It’s accessible, clear, and even gripping in places, particularly where Lareau narrates scenes from the families’ lives.  Here’s one interaction she recorded in the home of Alexander Williams, a black middle class boy, that Lareau took as evidence of the dynamic by which middle class parents provide a linguistic advantage to their kids:

Terry (Alexander’s father): Why don’t you go upstairs to the third floor and get one of those books and see if there is a riddle in there?

Alexander: (Smiling) Yeah. That’s a good idea! I’ll go upstairs and copy one from out of the book.

Terry: That was a joke—not a valid suggestion. That is not an option.

Christina (Alexander’s mother): There is a word for that you know, plagiarism.

Terry: Someone can sue you for plagiarizing. Did you know that?

Alexander: That’s only if it’s copyrighted

The second thing is that Lareau doesn’t think there is any sense in which parents choose their parenting styles.  Her work is heavily influenced by the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who theorized that socio-structural forces like education and wealth stratification dictate the shape of people’s lives all the way down to the way they think.  So, as I wrote in the article, in Lareau’s view “to be middle class is to practice concerted cultivation almost as surely as to be Christian is to believe in Jesus.”

Which brings me to Jay and Wally.  As a well-educated, middle earning couple, Lareau would argue that Caroline and I can’t escape practicing concerted cultivation.  She would say it’s in our social DNA.  And certainly the way we talk with Jay is consistent with the patterns of middle class language use she details in Unequal Childhoods: We play verbal games with him, we use reason when correcting his behavior (“you’re getting timeout for running into the road because running into the road could hurt you”), we read to him every night.

At the same time, in disposition I don’t feel like a “concerted cultivation” kind of parent.

What would be the point of trying to practice concerted cultivation with a nut like this?

As I said in my post about how Jay wasn’t getting a $200,000 playhouse, we haven’t enrolled him in any of the swim, dance, yoga, or music classes that are popular with our neighborhood peers in Philadelphia and Ann Arbor.  And as Jay gets older I’m sure he’ll participate in extracurricular activities to a much greater degree than poor and working class parents.

But, in our conversations Lareau explained that it’s not just the fact of the activities that matters—it’s the intent behind them.  She argues middle class parents emphasize extracurricular activities because they see them as a unique and powerful developmental tool.  In my view, though, I want Jay to play sports because they’re fun.  And that is one reason why I’m not quite willing to accept the “concerted cultivation” label that my social class position would ascribe to me.

The other reason I don’t think of myself as a “concerted cultivation” parent is that fundamentally I don’t think concerted cultivation is possible.  My one, big, final hope for Jay and Wally is that they grow up to be happy adults.  But what combination of parenting strategies and tactics produces a happy adult?  Who the heck knows.

And because the blend of experiences that turn a babbling toddler into a contented middle-aged man are beyond my comprehension, I think tinkering too much with Jay and Wally’s development is likely to do them more harm than good.

Either that, or I’m trying to justify not wanting to jump with Jay into the frigid pool at the YMCA so he can learn to swim.

The strange appearance of a child

For two years I have been watching Jay, and in that time I’ve noticed that I see him differently than I see anyone else.

Just this evening, for example, he was in his pajamas, standing at the bars of his crib in dim light, when I went in to give him a hug goodnight.  I stopped about five feet away from him and studied his face.  No matter how hard I stared, I couldn’t quite get a straight look at him.  He’d flicker in and out of focus like a hologram, or he’d shift just a fraction to the side of my line of sight.  No sooner would I reset my gaze then he’d move again, making it impossible to pin down where exactly he stood.

My understanding is that the brain has all sorts of mechanisms that shape visual data into the movie we see in our minds.  There’s the process of stereopsis, for example, by which the brain takes images from the left and right eyes and melds them into a single picture, thereby giving us depth perception.

And, according to a mind-bending profile of a neurobiologist in the New Yorker last April, it takes the brain a very brief amount of time—a few milliseconds—to combine all the sensory data it receives into what manifests as our view of the world.  Because the brain requires this processing time, we’re always living in the very (very) recent past.  Or as the article puts it, “Reality is a tape-delayed broadcast, carefully censored before it reaches us.”

The details of these processes—which I’ve surely simplified and probably misrepresented—are not the point. Rather, the point is simply that there are all sorts of factors that play a role in how we see.  After watching Jay closely all his life, I think there are some specific conditions at work between a parent and a child that make me cognize Jay in a way unique among all other people I’ve ever looked at.

The first distinction is that Jay (and Wally) are the only two people I’ve ever watched closely from the very moment they were born.  I asked Caroline what she thinks it is about Jay that makes him appear to us in the strange way he does.  She thought it had to do with the fact that while he changes imperceptibly from one day to the next, he’s also changed an extraordinary amount since he was born.  So, looking at him is like looking at a drop of water poised on a glass—you strain, but you can’t quite tell if you can see it moving.

I wasn’t just present at Jay’s birth, of course.  I made him. It’s hard to understand how a piece of knowledge—“I made Jay”—assimilates into the sensory experience of looking at Jay. But there’s no doubt that that knowledge is inextricably bound up in my image of him.  When I look at him, like I did tonight when I stood in his room before bedtime, sometimes I think I’m looking at myself.  Or not quite myself.  Rather, I see him as something that is connected to me in a manner that goes beyond the ways we usually think of things as being connected, and that maybe begins to explain why it is that when I look at him, he flickers.

PS- Trying to pin down the way I see Jay has me wanting to know how other parents think about the experience of looking at their children.  If any readers would like to share, I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section below.

Suburban Boys

Our new neighborhood is a network of quiet residential streets that was founded in the 1950s.  Many of the homes are split-levels, like ours, and there’s a modest middle class feel to the place.  Newish Hondas, Toyotas, and Fords in most driveways—nothing fancier than that.  The lawns are neat but not fetishized.  The speed limit on our street is 25mph.  It takes some concentration to adhere to it, but I’ve tried hard on account of wanting to make a good impression on our neighbors.

Speaking of our neighbors, we met most of them over Labor Day weekend thanks to Jay, who’s wandered our block with complete disregard to property lines and personal space.  On Saturday our immediate neighbor Rick was out shoveling leaves that had accumulated against the curb.  Jay ran over and commandeered Rick’s blue shovel.  For twenty minutes he scooped street debris and tried with half-success to dump it into Rick’s compost bin, while Rick and I talked about our move and his family’s recent driving vacation through New England.

We had a similar encounter when Jay ran across the street to help an older woman named Ellie weed her garden, and when he ran into the garage next door in pursuit of a 9-year-old-boy named Kurt who’d just pedaled home on his bike, and when he followed 6-year-old Megan who was out with her mom on their way to a yard sale.  A toddler, it turns out, is as good for meeting your suburban neighbors as a puppy is for getting a date in Central Park.

Jay and Wally are the junior members of the block, and it appears that Caroline and I are too. There are some empty-nesters, retirees, and widowers sprinkled about.    All the parents we’ve met are in their 40s, with elementary or middle school-aged children.  Caroline and I are not all that far away from that stage of life ourselves, but I guess my self-image hasn’t caught up with reality: I see a Dad with a beard and a paunch standing before a garage filled with tools and recreational equipment and I don’t feel much closer to being that person now than I did when I was 10.

It may be taking me and Caroline some time to get our legs under us, but Jay has taken eagerly to our new surroundings.  He still can’t get over the fact that our car, which was often parked blocks away in Philadelphia and which he only saw every few weeks, is now parked right outside his front door.  He wants to play in it all the time, opening and closing the doors, announcing that he’s “going to the supermarket to buy fruit bars,” turning the flashers on and off.

And he’s not exactly a “leave no trace” kind of visitor. Last night I had to run out to buy milk.  I got in the car and found the driver’s seat in the complete recline position and the rearview mirror pointing down towards the ground, and when I turned the ignition it was like a carnival come to life: radio blaring, wipers going full speed, a sleeping toddler’s masterwork.

Jay seems like a good fit for the suburbs in other ways, too.  For example, he seems inclined to keep tabs on other people.  Last night at dinner he was sitting in his booster seat telling a story,  “I made a circle with a marker and I use the yellow paper make a card for Mama and I saw a squirrel,” when all of a sudden he whipped his head towards the window.

“What’s that?” he exclaimed, pointing his finger towards the street.

We turned and looked.  It was neighbor Tom going out for a drive. (And after dark no less!)

Before we left Philadelphia I was talking with my good friend Rob about what the transition might be like for Jay.  He made an observation I liked, which was that because so much of Jay’s world is Caroline, Oscar, and me, it’s relatively easy for him to transplant his life into a new place.  After a week here, I’ve found the relationship runs both ways.  There are times, when I’m running after him down the sidewalk to keep him out of our neighbor’s flowerbeds, or I’m cajoling him into the bathtub, that life doesn’t feel much different than it did a month ago.

But there are other times when it does.  Last night I read Jay two books, put him in his crib, and then went downstairs to the kitchen to wash the dinner dishes.  I was scrubbing a pot when I looked out the window above the sink.  It was dark and drizzly outside, and I was seized with the feeling that I didn’t know where I was.

After the flood and the move, it’s good to see you again

Two Sunday nights ago flooded roads waylaid Caroline, Wally, and me on our way back to Jay.  We’d left him for the weekend at my dad’s house in upstate New York after he’d been deemed (by us) unfit to attend a friend’s wedding near Poughkeepsie.  In the interim Hurricane Irene had raged, and so it was that at 11pm on Sunday night, after hours of detouring around fallen trees and washed out roads, we pulled into a gas station only 19 miles from my dad’s house.  There a woman fueling beside us delivered the unwelcome news: “Ain’t no one going to Cobleskill tonight,” she said dourly.  Later we’d learn that 24 hours of hard rain had caused the Schoharie Creek to overrun its banks, swamping every highway, road, and cow path in and out of my dad’s county.

We spent the rest of that first night trying in vain to find a hotel room before settling gratefully on the floor of a high school gymnasium that had been converted into an emergency shelter.  The next morning, after it had become clear that we weren’t traversing those final 19 miles that day either, we retreated to a friend’s parents house north of Albany, where the power was out but the roads at least were open and a guest bedroom awaited us.

For two days the flooded Schoharie Valley stood between us and Jay

That night at dinner the conversation turned to raising children, particularly in times of duress. Our hosts had a lot to say on the subject.  They’re Lebanese, and they’d spent their first six years as parents amidst civil war in Beirut in the mid-80s.  They talked about huddling in the basement of their apartment building with their two young sons when the bomb sirens would go off.

The father told us that during those years, before he and his family moved to the United States, his kids’ safety had always been on his mind.  He implied that the presence of such an overriding concern had shaped his relationships with his children in ways that would have been different had they been born into calmer times.

I had that idea in mind—how circumstances shape how I interact with Jay and Wally—over the next tumultuous week.

On Tuesday morning we made it back to my dad’s.  The expression on Jay’s face when he saw us step out of the car made it clear that while he talks a lot, he feels a great deal more than he can say.  For nearly a minute he stood still on the porch, looking at us down the walk with a wary expression on his face that said, “What business do you have showing up after I’d finally come to terms with the idea that you weren’t coming back.”

We spent that afternoon and evening swapping stories from our respective sides of the creek: Caroline and I talked about the kids who’d run around all night at the emergency shelter playing tag; my dad and little brother Andrew (who also took care of Jay while we were away, and whose attentiveness and caring were exemplary for a person of any age, let alone for a 15-year-old boy) told us that had we been gone any longer they would have started making plans to enroll Jay in the local pre-k.

The time for reflection was short lived, though.  Early the next morning we set off on the 600-mile drive to Ann Arbor.  Jay managed to spend less than an hour of the twelve-hour trip asleep which means in toddler time he must have felt like he was in the car for a year (and he let it show).  We arrived in Ann Arbor at dusk, with only frozen dinners from Trader Joe’s and an air mattress to see us through the night.  When Caroline and I finally got Wally and Jay stowed in their portable cribs, we surveyed our empty house and wondered where exactly we went from there.

The answer, of course, was that we unpacked boxes; found our way to the grocery store; harangued my sister twice a day to check our email (Comcast was bogged down by undergraduate move-in and couldn’t get to our house for a week); and generally tried to balance the somewhat antithetical tasks of maintaining two little kids while trying to find our way in a new town.

The hardest part for me was not knowing where anything was.  As in, for four days every single time I needed to change one of the boys’ diapers I’d spend five minutes trying to locate the right supplies, before giving up and yelling to the heavens (or to Caroline), “Where are goddamn baby wipes!”  On one occasion I got a reply.  It came channeled through Jay who told me, “We get wipes at the store.”

Ah yes, my son, but where the hell is the store?

After 12 years of urban living, a front yard to call our own in Ann Arbor

Aside from that exchange, the only thing I recall saying to Jay during our first days in Ann Arbor was “no.”  “No you may not go out the front door without us.”  “No Daddy won’t sleep in your bedroom with you.” “No don’t unpack that box.” “No don’t open that closet.” “Nooooooooooooo don’t touch that vase!” In an unfamiliar environment, out of our routines and with our belongings strewn about, it felt like we were managing Jay every minute of his waking day.

But sometime in the last few days we began to find our footing, and as the chaos of the move subsided, there was Jay, waiting for me.

This morning, with Caroline and Wally still asleep, he and I went downstairs for breakfast.  We sat in our respective chairs, eating peanut butter toast in the quiet of the dim Michigan morning.  I looked over at him, chomping away, and told him that I had a secret to tell him.

“Did you know you’re the rascal, Jay?”

He smiled and pointed his finger back at me.  “No Daddy, you’re the rascal.”

As we laughed I thought to myself, “It’s really nice to see you again Jay.” I imagine he was thinking the same thing about me.