Wally 2.0

A couple weekends ago Wally lost his curls.

In the late afternoon the four of us went upstairs to the bathroom.  I took Wally on my lap.  Caroline had the clippers.  Jay played the part of court jester, jumping up and down and making funny faces to keep his little brother entertained as the sweet, soft curls fell to the tile floor.

Wally was a boy transformed with his close-cropped hair.  It was a reminder to me and Caroline of how much he’s changed over the last ten months.

All along, the line on Wally has been that he’s smiley and cheerful, a boy with just two moods: happy and tired. It took two tries, but on the second infant we got one thing Caroline had been hoping for three years ago: a baby we could bring anywhere.

This was the simple story we told about Wally and just as it is with many narratives that parents tell about their children, we continued repeating it long after it had ceased to be true.

A couple months ago Caroline and I started remarking to each other that Wally seemed to be whining a lot and that he’d become more demanding.  He was always scampering across the floor and pulling up on our pant legs or complaining loudly when we put him down.  He’d started to become possessive, too; more than once he melted down when I pried a fork out of his hands.

And each time our once placid Wally expressed his displeasure, Caroline and I asked each other: Is he teething?  Tired?  Does he need to eat?  What’s wrong with Wally?

A few nights ago Caroline and I were in bed and we admitted to each other that Wally had started to feel a little like a stranger.  He clearly was no longer the simple, smiley guy we’d known since his birth.

The new Wally—the one Caroline likes to refer to as Wally 2.0—is more spirited and energetic.  Spunky is a word we find ourselves using often to describe him.  At mealtimes, in his booster seat, he creates a cacophonous racket when he spies bits of food on other people’s plates he’d like to try.  And sometimes, when he’s done eating, he’ll rock back and forth in his seat so hard we’re afraid he’s going to tip the chair over.

As I’ve written before, Wally gets around pretty well.  He’s quick on his hands and knees and he pulls up like Spiderman scaling a building.  He’s also got a good sense of balance.  I love watching him on the floor.  He’ll go from crawling to sitting up on one knee and then pick something up, turn around, and crawl back the other way.  It’s all very fluid and controlled.

Wally’s favorite obstacle is the dishwasher.  After mealtimes he makes right for it.  He climbs up on the opened door and grabs hold of the tray.  Then with one hand hanging on for balance, he uses the other to send dirty silverware scattering across the floor.

When Caroline and I talked in bed the other night we also realized that we haven’t been paying very much attention to Wally. It’s rare—in fact, incredibly rare we realized—that either Caroline or I, or the two of us together, spend time alone with Wally.  Jay is around for pretty much all of Wally’s waking hours and Jay is pretty effective at controlling our attention when the four of us are together.

So over the last few days Caroline and I have each made an extra effort to spend time just with Wally.  Yesterday afternoon I set Jay up in the playroom and then brought Wally upstairs for his nap.  But instead of putting him down right away the two of us played for half an hour.  Wally spent a lot of the time crawling on top of me.  Then he crawled out of the room, turned around, and crawled back in. He had to do it two or three more times before I realized he was playing a game.

Even when I can’t get time alone with Wally I’m trying harder these days to see him—to make sure that in the thrum of our days I let my eyes and thoughts rest on him a little longer than I might have.

And what I’ve realized so far is that Wally is still cheerful and smiley—but that’s just not all he is anymore.

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A Way to Remember: Celebrating Grandma Jane’s Birthday

Today would have been my mom’s 56th birthday.

Every year on this day for the last six years I’ve tried to figure out how best to remember her.  The first year after she died I placed a picture of her in the breast pocket of my shirt before I went off to work.  Another year my brother, sister, stepfather, and I each went out and bought yellow flowers.  Three years ago I made zucchini bread, my favorite of all the things she liked to bake.

None of these gestures ever felt right to me.  I think the problem was less in the pictures, the flowers, or the bread than in the nature of the day itself.  Anything I could do in honor of her birthday felt insignificant compared with how much I missed her.  That insignificance had the effect of accentuating her absence and I worried that I was failing to commemorate her in the right way.  As a result, I always felt a small sense of relief when my mom’s birthday had passed.

But today, for the first time since her death, I woke up eager to celebrate her birthday.  In fact, for more than a week I’ve been talking with Jay about how Grandma Jane’s Birthday is coming up soon.

A little before 8am I propped Jay on his changing pad and tried to tell him a few things about his grandma.  It was hard to know what to say so instead I demonstrated how hard Grandma Jane would have hugged him and I told him that she would have given him so many kisses he would have never been able to wipe all of them off. (Jay relishes wiping off the kisses that Caroline and I give him.)  Then I tried to explain just how much Grandma Jane would have loved him if she were still alive.

After dinner we sang happy birthday and Jay got a cup of ice cream.  While he was eating it Caroline brought over a photo that we keep on the fridge, taken just before my sister’s rehearsal dinner in 2006.  Caroline asked Jay to point out Grandma Jane, which he did.  Then a few minutes later, as he was scraping up the last of his ice cream with his spoon, he picked up the picture again.

Jay doesn’t understand, I don’t think, what death means, but he does know it’s something serious and outside the realm of his experience.  I’ve thought hard about how to describe the look on his face whenever he brings up the fact that my mom isn’t alive anymore.  It’s seems to me like a combination of bravery and an intent desire to understand.

After ice cream we opened presents.  A few years ago my sister initiated the tradition of exchanging gifts on our mom’s birthday by sending Jay an illustrated version of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, a lullaby our mom sang to us when we were young.  This year we sent her one-year-old son Peter his first Grandma Jane’s Birthday present: A paper punch that makes cutouts in the shape of a butterfly.

Caroline, Jay, Wally, and I sat on the floor in the living room.  We opened Wally’s present first.  It was a book about animals that has textured pages, so you can feel the deer’s rubbery nose and the baby bunny’s soft fur.

Then we opened the box containing Jay’s gift.  It was a kid-sized chef’s toque.  I thought it was cute and appropriate given how much my mom liked to bake, but Jay, after a week of eyeballing the sealed box, was underwhelmed.  He discarded the toque and grabbed at Wally’s book.  Several times during the rest of the evening I heard him say to himself, “Why did I get a chef’s hat?”  When I called my sister tonight to tell her about his reaction we laughed so hard we cried.

I know there’s only so much I can do to make my mom a part of Jay and Wally’s lives.  If it’s hard as a kid to comprehend how much your parents love you, it’s close to impossible to appreciate how much someone you never met would have.  To a large extent Grandma Jane will always be an abstraction to Jay and Wally, someone they see in photographs and hear their dad talk about but not more than that.

Jay and Wally may never know how much their grandma would have loved them but that doesn’t mean she has to be completely absent from their lives.  Joining her memory to the giving of presents and the eating of ice cream seems like a good start.  I hope her birthday will become a family holiday and that the force of tradition will help Jay and Wally keep in their lives a person who by every measure but physical proximity is an essential part of who they are.

For me, celebrating my mom’s birthday with Jay and Wally has meant something else: A chance to think about her in joyful terms that let me feel closer to her than I can when I try to approach her memory directly.

It’s close to bedtime in Ann Arbor but I don’t want to turn out the lights just yet.  It feels good to be able to say that I’m not quite ready to see my mom’s birthday go.

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Jay believes completely in a dad he cannot see

Last Thursday and Friday Caroline was away giving a talk at the University of Western Ontario.  (You can see the poster for her talk here– she’d probably prefer I not post it, but I’m too proud.)  While she was gone the boys were good, but after I’d gotten them into bed on Thursday night I slumped on the couch, imagining myself as a superhero who’d exhausted himself in the process of exercising his superpower.

Sitting on the couch, I noticed how quiet the house felt. Most nights are pretty quiet around here, but there’s something different about being the only adult in a house—the stillness is denser, heavier.  It more closely resembles what it’s like to be alone in the woods. Altogether, I don’t mind the feeling.

Fifteen minutes after the boys had gone to bed I was still sitting on the couch when Jay called out from his crib: “I want my blankets on.”

It’s funny: For two-and-a-half years Jay slept every night in a completely empty crib. But a couple months ago he was sick and we gave him a pillow to elevate his head. Since then he’s filled the crib with just about every soft thing in his room: the pillow, eight stuffed animals (that he refers to somewhat creepily as “pets”), four blankets.

As I walked upstairs to his room I thought about a conversation I’d had the first semester of my freshman year of college. It took place in the stairwell of my dorm and maybe six or eight of us were there.

The topic was whether the certainty you have that someone exists changes depending on whether they’re standing right in front of you or are on the other side of a door. A few times over the course of the conversation someone would walk out the front door of the dorm to dramatize the point: As soon as he disappeared from view, the argument went, the people inside had to downgrade the likelihood, even just a little, that he still existed.

The conversation lasted until dawn. Even at the time I remember thinking that it was almost too classically the type of thing you’re supposed to do your first year of college, though I loved being a part of it anyway.

When I got to Jay’s room I found him lying on his back with his hands behind his head. He repeated his request. I layered the blankets on top of him like strips of phyllo dough. Once the last blanket had been placed he looked up at me. “Is this a nice bed?” he asked. We both knew the answer to that one.

As I went back downstairs in the quiet house, it occurred to me that when Jay calls to us from his crib he has not a single shred of doubt that we will be there to hear him. You can tell by his voice—there’s not a tremble of uncertainty, not even the hint of a question. He’s no less certain of his own name, or of the existence of his right hand, than he is of our presence in the house as he sleeps at night.

This is a wonderful thing to give a child. There’s something in it for me, too.  I think Jay believes in my existence even more than I do- and his confidence has a way of fortifying my own.

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Teaching Jay to throw a Frisbee

Ever since the weather turned Jay and I have been spending time outside each morning before the day gets going. Yesterday we went outside and found a Frisbee lying in our driveway—almost certainly left behind by the 8- and 12-year-old boys who live next door.

Jay picked up the Frisbee and wanted to throw it. I told him I preferred we kick the soccer ball back and forth, which is actually fun as long as I position Jay uphill from me. But Jay was stuck on the Frisbee.

He’s encountered Frisbees a few times before. He doesn’t take naturally to them. Yesterday morning he tried a few times to throw it like it was a baseball, and once to push it through the air like a shot-put. A badly thrown Frisbee is just an ugly sight to behold and no fun to be on the receiving end of. After a few more minutes of his dead-duck throws I gently raised the issue of the soccer ball again. He still wasn’t interested.

The obvious question at this point is: Why don’t you just teach him how to throw a Frisbee? And I thought about that as we stood in the driveway. When it comes to teaching the boys small skills like throwing a Frisbee my default response tends to fall into one of two categories: “They’re too young to be able to do that” or “They’ll figure it out on their own.”

Now, I don’t think these are necessarily good attitudes to take. In one niggling corner of my brain I’m aware that often they’re just a cover for laziness. After all, it takes more effort to teach a kid something than to sit back, watch them fail, and trust fate and time to set things right.

So I decided yesterday morning to try and teach Jay to throw a Frisbee. I wasn’t confident it would work but I had also begun to feel too guilty not to try.

First I worked on his grip. He’d been holding the Frisbee with four fingers on top. I showed him how to turn his hand over so that he had four fingers on the bottom of the Frisbee. Then I guided his wrist into the backhand position. I turned his shoulders so they pointed in the direction he wanted to throw in. And then, standing over him I guided his arm through the throwing motion: Bring it back, sweep it forward, let go right HERE!

Jay’s first throw was better than I’d expected. But after the short-term muscle memory of doing it with me wore off he went back to doing it the wrong way. So I guided him through the motions again. Then again. And again.

By the end of 20 minutes he’d gotten pretty good at getting his body into the right position. His throws were erratic (one almost decapitated Wally, who was actually sitting a couple feet to the side of and behind Jay) but every now and again he’d throw it straight with enough spin to sustain flight for as far as ten feet.

Jay hadn’t turned into an Ultimate Frisbee pro in a morning (and believe it or not there is now such a thing as a professional Ultimate player) but he’d made a believer out of me: As we walked inside, I knew that if we practiced everyday it wouldn’t be long before he had it down.

Kids grow up so gradually and how they turn out depends on so many variables that are beyond a parent’s control. It’s hard, on a day-to-day basis, to make out specific ways in which I influence Jay. He’s so uniquely his own person that it’s easy to think he’s going to be who he’s going to be regardless of what I do.

But then there are other times, like yesterday morning, when the forks in the road are clearer. Yesterday Jay could have learned to throw a Frisbee or he could have not, and which path he took was entirely up to me. It’s a good reminder, I think, that what’s true about teaching Jay to throw a Frisbee is probably true about many of the more consequential things I might teach him as his dad.

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Six ways to tame a toddler

Yesterday afternoon a little after 3pm, Wally was asleep upstairs and I was lying on the guestroom bed working on my computer.  Jay had been playing quietly in the family room but then I heard him begin to walk in my direction.  I snapped my laptop shut, dove beneath the covers, and pretended to be asleep.  Jay paused in the doorway for a few seconds, assessed the scene, and went back to whatever he’d been doing.  When I was convinced that Jay had gone, I sat back up and recommenced to write.

I knew that if Jay saw me awake, there was no chance he’d leave me alone.  We’ve established a naptime routine where I lie in the bed and Jay has the option either to join me or to play by himself.  He knows, though, that whatever he chooses to do, he has to leave me alone so I can sleep. If he’d seen me awake and working, he would have concluded that naptime was over, and that he had a legitimate claim on my time again.

This situation points, I think, to the power of routine to shape how kids behave.  Most of the time when I tell Jay to go play by himself, he only tries harder to get my attention.  But there are a couple times in our daily routine where he’s expected to be on his own.  One is naptime.  The other is first thing in the morning.  When Jay wakes up we take him out of his crib, hand him an alarm clock (set for 8:05am on weekdays, 8:30pm on weekends), and remind him of the deal: He has to play quietly by himself in his room until the alarm sounds, or else he has to go back into his crib.  Stunningly, improbably, against all odds, it works.

There are other ways to get kids to do what you want them to.  The other afternoon Caroline and I were at the playground, pushing the boys on the swings, and we came up with six ways to coerce Jay and Wally:

  • Routine. “You need to go upstairs and get your pajamas on because we always go upstairs and get our pajamas on after dinner.”
  • Bribes.  Yesterday I really needed ten more minutes to finish writing an article.  I told Jay that if he left me alone he could have a Girl Scout cookie.  For the price of a box of Thin Mints it seems possible we could do away altogether with hired childcare.
  • Threats. “If you don’t go upstairs and get your pajamas on right now we’re not going to read books tonight.” We use threats more than we’d like to, and though Jay almost always relents in the face them, the victories feel hollow and unsustainable.  I’m just waiting for the day Jay replies, “Oh yeah?  Well I don’t give a #$&@ about reading time anyway.”
  • Moral Suasion.  “Be nice to your brother because it’s the right thing to do”—that kind of thing.  We try this sometimes with Jay but invocations of right and wrong seem to bounce off him.  I’m hoping he develops the capacity for guilt sometime soon so that we can replace some of our coercion-through-threats with coercion-through-moral-principles.
  • Parental Authority. This is related to Moral Suasion—“You need to wash your hands because I told you to”—and like Moral Suasion, it hasn’t really worked for us with Jay so far.  I can’t tell if that’s because Caroline and I are feckless, because we’re raising a spoiled middle class American child, because Jay’s a sociopath, or because he’s just not old enough yet for this kind of coercion to work.  I’m hoping it’s the latter.
  • Anger.  I’ve written before about the downsides of anger as a coercive tool: It’s often uncontrolled, it scares Jay more than it teaches him, and it has diminishing returns: I have to yell louder each time to have the same effect.  That said, I think there is a place for anger in the parental repertoire. When Jay throws his food on the floor and I yell at him, he’ll often just snap back at me.  But when he runs into the street, I think my angry reaction helps to reinforce just how important it is that he not do that again.

My favorite of these is definitely Routine.  Routines are so neat and clean and easy to manage once you invest the time to get them up and running.  And when our routines really start clicking, it’s like family life runs on autopilot.  This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, Caroline and I look at each other and think: Why not have four more?

Escape fantasies: thoughts on living alone

First a confession: A couple weeks ago I was driving back from Trader Joe’s when I pulled over to the side of the road two blocks from home.  There was a bag of lettuce sitting in the passenger seat.  Caroline was home with Jay and Wally.  I opened the latest issue of The New Yorker, which I’d grabbed from the mailbox on my way to the car, and commenced to reading about the goings on at Davos.  After a long day I wasn’t quite ready to rejoin the family fray.

Recently I wrote about “priming effects”—the ways in which Caroline and I influence each other’s attitudes towards Jay and Wally.  When I reflected on my roadside detour, it occurred to me that maybe I’d been primed to want to spend some time alone by the book Going Solo, which I’d recently reviewed for The Christian Science Monitor.

Going Solo was written by NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg and it details “the extraordinary rise and surprising appeal” of living alone in America.  Today, 28 percent of all American households are single people living alone – or “singletons” as Klinenberg dubs them – which, is more than triple the rate of fifty years ago. As Klinenberg writes, “People who live alone … are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type – more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational home, and the roommate or group home.”

In Going Solo Klinenberg uses interviews to sketch what solo living looks like for people at different stages in life: 20-somethings, middle-aged people who divorced or never married, and the elderly whose partners have died.  The interviews are engrossing and reminded me all over again why I love good ethnography so much.

I won’t get too into the interviews here (my review has more detail and I’d certainly recommend reading the book which isn’t too long and reads quickly).  But I will quote from one of Klinenberg’s subjects, a 52-year-old Manhattan singleton named Charlotte who maybe was in the back of my mind as I pulled to the side of the road. “When you live alone, there’s no compromising,” she said.  “I do everything I feel like doing.  And it is totally self-indulgent.  It’s just all about you…I don’t think I want to tend to a living thing ever again.”

I spend a good number of hours each day tending to two living things.  And for the most part I don’t find myself yearning for more time alone than I have.  I get five mostly quiet hours to myself each morning when the boys are with their nanny, I get an hour in the late-afternoon to run, and I get 15 minutes at the end of each day while waiting in bed as Caroline goes downstairs to dream-feed Wally.  It’s this last little block of alone time that I enjoy the most: the day, done, and a few quiet minutes to myself before lights out.

That said, I still struggle sometimes with the more general need that arises as part of a family: the need to compromise when making major life choices.  The other night Caroline and I were watching an early episode of Breaking Bad in which the main character, Walt, argues with his wife after revealing to her that he has advanced lung cancer.  Walt wants to opt-out of treatment altogether, saying that he wants to feel as good as he can during whatever time he has left.  His wife responds by saying that Walt owes it not only to himself, but also to her and to their son to do everything he can to beat the disease.

As Caroline and I watched this together I found myself identifying strongly with Walt.  It seemed to me that at this most personal and pivotal moment in his life, he should get to decide for himself how he lives and dies.  Caroline had a different take.  She thought that as a husband and a father, Walt had obligations to other people, and that the choice was not entirely his own to make.

So it’s hard for me sometimes to accept that compromise in the context of a family means more than meeting halfway on the type of milk we buy (I’d opt for 2%, Caroline would prefer skim):  It also means compromising on more fundamental issues, too, like how many kids you have, or where you live, or how much time each partner devotes to his or her career.

Of course it helps when both partners in a marriage and all parties in a family share common views about what’s important in life.  But no alignment is ever perfect.  A few months ago Caroline and I spent an evening talking about our “escape fantasies”—the lives we’d choose for ourselves if all of a sudden we didn’t have any family obligations.  Caroline imagined she might move to Manhattan and rent a small apartment.  I said I’d abscond to the Himalayas.  So, our underlying dispositions are different even as we meet on the common ground of family life in suburban Ann Arbor.

I’ve written previously about how I value the friction that comes from being a part of a family.  Getting married and having kids means adding friction and giving up complete freedom of choice in exchange for the opportunity to share in some of the most meaningful relationships one can have in a life.

I’d take that trade nine ways to Sunday, even as I have moments like the other week when I’m not quite ready to go home yet.

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When to enforce rules and when to let things slide

Last night as I walked out of his room after saying goodnight, Jay said something that at first I didn’t understand and which later made me feel about two inches tall. “If I’m sick and I cry, will you sit with me?” he asked.

To explain why Jay’s question caught me the way it did I need to share a little background on his sleeping habits.

Jay is a good sleeper but every so often he wakes up in the middle of the night and starts into a low-level cry. Caroline or I go into his room and try to find out what’s wrong but he’s never very communicative. We offer him water, or a blanket, or to rub his back, but sometimes he gets into this groove where nothing we say gets through to him. On those occasions we take him out of his crib and sit with him for a few minutes until he calms down. When this happens we generally consider it a failure that we weren’t able to get him back to sleep on our terms.

All things considered Caroline and I find this routine a little annoying. Jay knows how to sleep and in these situations there’s nothing discernibly wrong with him. It seems to us that he gets into this whiny rhythm and won’t let go of it. The net result is he derails the night’s sleep for both of us and sometimes for his brother, too. Not good.

To combat this tendency, Caroline and I began reminding Jay at bedtime what we expect from him: “If you wake up tonight, remember, no whining and crying.” The first night we told him this Jay acknowledged the new terms but didn’t seem very happy about them. The next morning he woke up and very proudly reported (correctly) that he’d made it through the entire night without crying.

The first test of our new rule came a few nights later when Jay woke up and started whimpering. I threw off the covers and went into his room. Beside his crib I told him softly, “Remember we said no whining and crying.” It felt a little cold to be invoking a rule as my son cried in his crib in the middle of the night, but Jay seemed to remember the deal he’d agreed to a few nights earlier. He went back to sleep much faster than usual.

But last Thursday night Jay started whining and the new strategy failed.  I reminded him he’d promised not to do this anymore, but on that night he only cried harder when I mentioned the rule. As the minutes dragged on I got increasingly angry. At one point I’d gotten back into bed and Jay started crying again. “Everyone else in this house is asleep and you need to go to sleep, too,” I barked at him down the hall, so loudly and angrily that I could feel Caroline recoil beside me in bed.

I think one of the hardest practical parts of parenting is figuring out when to stick by the rules and when to make exceptions based on particular circumstances. I feel like I’m always striking the wrong balance in this regard—bending the rules about dessert when, despite his pleas, there was really no need for Jay to have a cookie; or blindly enforcing rules about not shouting when it’s clear Jay’s tired and really just needs a nap.

Last Thursday night turned out to be an example of over-enforcement. The next morning at breakfast I noticed that Jay had a runny nose and watery eyes. Slowly it dawned on me: He was getting sick; that was probably why he hadn’t been able to fall back asleep on his own. I recalled the tone of voice I’d used with him the night before and stared down into my cereal bowl in shame.

So last night before bedtime when Jay asked me, “If I’m sick and I cry, will you sit with me?” I realized he was referring to Thursday night when he was sick, and he did cry, but I didn’t know it and so I threw the book at him instead.  He’s too young to rub it in when I get things wrong and not clever enough, yet, to exploit parental guilt.  But he’ll get there soon.  I can only hope his sense of forgiveness develops just as fast.

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