Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Death of the Delicate Chicken

Valentine's Day has just passed, so in retail terms, that means it's Easter season. And for three-year-old Livie, that means it's Delicate Chicken season.** This week we were at Party City with friends, helping them pick out b-day party supplies, when we spotted a six-pack of those two-inch high furry, fragile, yellow chicks -- only $1.99. Last year's D.C. had long since perished, so I bought a new pack. Livie gave one to her little boy friend, and then proceeded to name the other five: Willum, Willie, Nini, Cheesey, and Lee.

My friend and I began to debate whether or not we could top cupcakes for her barnyard birthday party with the chicks, or if the kids would try to eat them. By the time we got to the parking lot we had our answer. Her son had bitten off and chewed up both the delicate chicken's plastic legs. Livie promptly -- an uncharacteristically -- gave him another of her precious chicks (Cheesey Chick), leaving her with four. It's five days later and all but one of the remaining delicate chickens have either been lost or perished. It's a bit sad.

Not nearly so sad, but definitely poignant for me, is the death of the appropriateness of our favorite nickname for Liv. Soon after she fell in love with her first plastic Easter chick, Daddy nicknamed our daughter the Delicate Chicken. It was our code, so we could talk about her timid personality within her earshot without doing psychological damage. Livie was afraid of heights particularly; she wouldn't go on swings, slides, or in bounce houses. She wouldn't climb playground ladders, or even walk down certain flights of stairs. She was afraid to stand anywhere near the ocean, or jump to us in the pool. Any new experience was an experience to be feared. This was in stark contrast to our fearless first-born Sophia.

But in the last month, a change has occurred. Besides growing an entire inch in the month of December, Livie has grown chutzpah as well. She's scaling playground equipment, swooshing down the twistiest of slides, and this weekend, yelled from inside a bounce house, "Mommy, look, I'm bouncing on my feet!" I took her to the beach last week, and she was playing chicken with the surf and got soaked to the skin.

It's bittersweet. The sweetness: I love seeing my kids go at life full throttle. Mama doesn't raise no sissies, friends. As a kid I loved being the kind of girl who would pick up a lizard or jump in the ocean; as an adult, I love karaoke bars, bodysurfing and fast roller coasters. My neighbor calls me if she needs a spider squished or a lizard caught in her condo. So I'm so glad if I can raise girls who are up for adventures.

But the bitter part is that I had Livie so pegged as my "timid" child. I even blogged about how my kids had labeled themselves, and had come out of the womb with their distinct personalities. That's still true--the distinctness anyway. But the humbling truth is that it's way too early for me to be thinking I've got these kids figured out. I knew better. I know even better now.

My mother in law often repeats a saying to me: "Kids will make liars of you every time." Just as soon as you say, "Oh, my kids love cauliflower," they refuse to eat it at Grandma's house. Though no one studies my kids closer than I do, spends as much time with them as I do, cares for them as much as I do, sometimes I can get too close to them to see them for what they are. And I never want them to hear me saying, "Oh, she won't do that, eat that, go there..." etc., because I might be wrong. And I'd hate to hold them back because I think I know everything there is to know about them.

So, back to the sweetness in the bittersweet death of the Delicate Chicken. I'm proud to watch her grow braver and bolder. And I'm happy to say that -- instead of making a liar of me -- she can always still surprise me.

***If you've been reading this blog since it started in July, you know that my daughter Livie fell in love last Easter with a tiny, fragile chick made of pipe cleaner-like material. I told her to be careful of it, because it was very delicate, and she in turn named it The Delicate Chicken.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

My Big Girl is Still Little

On Monday, reality hit me at the Mat Hatter’s Tea Party.

Grammy and Auntie surprised my daughter Sophia with a ticket to Disneyland for her seventh birthday the night before, and Hubby gave me one so I could go with them too (we left her little sister at home). I was actually a little worried that Sophia would rather I not go, so she could have the day with her two baby cousins, her grandma and her super fun aunt without big mean mommy getting in the way.

Imagine my surprise when what she wanted all day was to be with me. Hold my hand. Sit next to me on Thunder Mountain. Be in my row on Pirates of the Caribbean.

At four o’clock, our family went home to dinner, and Sophia and I were left totally on our own to ride roller coasters till we were queasy. We ran straight for the Matterhorn, and then, still pumped full of adrenaline, got in line for the Tea Cups. At the front of the line, I asked some European tourists if they would take our picture, and lifted Sophia up on the railing for the shot. She threw her arms around me, and pressed her little cheek against mine, knocking her Mickey Mouse ears askew. I felt her joy at that moment – and her love.

Suddenly, I looked at her and realized: I am her mom. The only one she has. The only one – God willing – she will ever have. I’m the one she’ll complain to her girlfriends about from age 13 on. And right now, I’m still the center of her world.

All day I had been seeing Sophia in the context of her baby cousins (one is two years old, one three months), and she looked huge, mature, self sufficient. If I’m totally honest, in a way I’ve been thinking of her that way since she was three and a half, when her baby sister was born. I sometimes sniff with nostalgia that my first born is growing up, but in the next moment treat her like she's older than she really is, expecting her to have the emotions of a much older person. But now, holding my hand, in a sea of grownups, waiting for the giant purple tea cup to become available, I saw her as small, vulnerable, innocent, and desperately attached to me.

I’m sad to say that I sometimes forget how much this darling girl needs me. Even more, how much she wants me – my attention, my affection, my time. It took standing with her in fantasy land to shake me into reality. The biggest thrill of her day at Disneyland was having me all to herself.

This revelation could have engulfed me in a sea of regret. The last three years flashed before my eyes and I saw all the moments I missed this about Sophia, or worse, realized it, but was too selfish to give it to her. The center of her world often treated her like a peripheral concern! I know revelation is kind of an overused term, but I think this really was one. Because immediately after I glimpsed the potential regret, I saw the solution. I haven’t blown it! There will be plenty of moments that I can choose make her feel like a precious, chosen person. This was one of them!

Still, just to clarify, “Do I seem like a mom to you?” I asked her before I could stop myself.

“Uh, yeah.” Puzzled look on her little face.

“Do I seem like a grown up?”

“Yeah. Duh.” Eye roll under the mouse ears.

Wow. I’m the mom, not even a newbie mom wearing a holy halo of sleep deprivation, but a full-blown adult mom who helps with homework and signs permission slips. My daughter is done with diapers and baby food; she goes to school and has slumber parties. But at the same time, thank God, I thought as we twirled around under the Mad Hatter’s Chinese lanterns, seven is still just a little, little girl. I’ve still got time.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My Funny Valentine

Seven years ago, yesterday, Sophia entered my world, and rocked it! Our firstborn came four days early, on Valentine's Day, a possibility I had not been excited about when I first heard my due date. But like so many things about motherhood, I changed my mind when I saw her little face, topped with the red and pink beanie the nurses had dressed her in. What a sweet day for our heart's desire to be born.

Hearts have become a big thing to our family ever since. We chose for Sophia the life verse: "Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desire of your heart." I had heard that sometimes mothers don't immediately bond with their newborns, and I was apprehensive before she was born. But from the first moment, I felt that I recognized her; there was an instant simpatico between us, and around her, I felt the light of blessing. I know that sounds cheesy, but it's true. A deep need of my heart was filled, and she seemed completely magical to me, impervious to the work-a-day world around her.

On the second day of her life, a nurse came in to tell us that they had found an irregularity while checking her heart, and the doctor would come in a few minutes to explain. Longest few minutes of our lives! But then the doctor explained she had a heart murmur, the most common form of birth defect, and one that would be easily treated with surgery when she was 18 months old. I honestly was not scared. Again, Sophia seemed to have a light around her, that nothing was going to disturb. This turned out to be true as far as the murmur was concerned; the fervent prayers of her grandparents' were answered, and despite the fact that the doctors said her condition wouldn't improve, it has improved steadily since birth and they now say she will never need surgery. We've explained to Sophia as she takes her antibiotics pre-dentist (the only medical treatment necessary to protect her swishy little pulmonary valve), that she simply has a special heart.

When she was nine months old --cutest of all baby stages in my opinion -- I remember telling my friend Josie that she was exactly the baby I would have designed for myself. Outgoing, funny, sweet, smart. She was talking at 10 months, I swear. She could cluck like a chicken on command. And she was telling jokes wordlessly even sooner. She used to have the supermarket line behind me completely engaged while I unloaded the shopping cart. People would say to me, "Your baby really likes me." I stopped saying, "Oh, she's like that with everyone," after I saw a few crestfallen faces and realized how that sounded.

Now at seven, we think she's the bravest, funniest, smartest kid on the block (we being her parents and four doting grandparents). If you ever can't find Sophia, check the nearest tree or boulder. She's at the top. Hanging upside down. She doesn't like having her hair done. She likes shirts with hoods. She dislikes socks. She dislikes blouses with frills or gathers. Give her a t-shirt with a peace sign on it, a pair of Crocs and a walkie talkie. That's the perfect ensemble for conquering the world, and she looks good doing it.

My daughter is physically fearless. Watch her jump off that high dive, or dive into that wave. Sure, she'll pick up that bug, or catch that lizard. She can run as fast as those boys can. She'll try to jump off that curb on her scooter. But at the same time, she's such a sweet little mother. I love watching her care for her favorite doll, decorating and redecorating her tiny bedroom, making her little homework assignments, tying her hair up in home-made bows.

Sophia loves to read. To her mother's chagrin, however, she rarely finishes a book. She's usually two chapters into four or five books at a time. I have a theory that once she proves to herself that she can read a particular book, she wants to go on and check to see if she can read the words in the next one. Meanwhile, she's a gifted writer. Truly, when her teacher told me, "We have a little author on our hands," it was like telling a former Heisman trophy winner that his son has one heck of an arm.

Sophia is a brave defender of the weak and marginalized -- as much as she might encounter in a suburban playground, that is. I've seen her verbally take on kids twice her age when they were calling some little kids names. Her sense of justice makes me fiercely proud. (I just wish she wouldn't apply it quite so passionately whenever she catches her sister in a misdemeanor, but you have to take the bad with the good sometimes.)

Words of affirmation and quality time -- she'd like to spend it talking -- are her love languages. Boy can I relate. Ironically, it's sometimes hard to give her those; I never thought I could run out of words until I spent a day at home with my daughter! She wants to hear countless stories about my childhood, about her uncles and aunts, and her grandparents. And she wants to tell me stories too. Even when she's not talking, she's humming little songs to herself. At least she's humming in tune.

While my second-born Livie has always seemed like the Other to me (she's so very like her dad), Sophia has always been the Familiar. We joke that she and I are the brown-eyed team in our family of four. She looks like me (only blond), feels like me, thinks like me -- up to a point. So naturally we can go head-t0-head in conflicts as you can only do with someone who mirrors your flaws. Boy can that girl push my buttons.

But it's a beautiful thing to relate to your child of the same gender. I feel I can understand her concerns and anxieties, and having learned to deal with my own, am capable of helping her work through hers. Nothing has ever made me feel prouder than I do of the fact that my little girl brings her worries to me, believing I can alleviate them. When she comes home from school and tells me of a playground conflict, following it up with the question, "Did I handle that right, Mom?" I try my best to do her faith in me justice.

I know my days of being a treasured confidante may be numbered, so I want to lay the groundwork for her teen years. As much as I relate to Sophia, I know that someday she'll need to distance herself from me, reject some of my qualities, and go on to become her own kind of woman. I pray that when those conflicts come, underneath it all she will still remember who she is to me: the child I would have designed for myself, the desire of my heart.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Can I Get a Witness?

According to European folklore and Wikipedia, the witching hour "is the time when supernatural creatures such as witches, demons, and ghosts are thought to appear and be at their most powerful, and black magic at its most effective. This hour is typically midnight or the time in the middle of the night when magic things are said to happen."

When, I would like to know, did this term start to apply to the last hour of the day when moms are home alone with their kids and trying to get dinner on the table? I'd like to find the person who first re-appropriated the phrase and congratulate her on her profound understanding of life with children. I'd define the witching hour as the time when temper tantrums appear, hunger pains are most powerful and whining is at its most effective. It seems no matter what kind of a day my kids have had, and how efficient a house manager I have been,at 4:30 the children are irritable, I'm ineffective, and the kitchen is a mess.

It's at this time that I often call up a neighbor and fellow mommy and say, "Can you come outside with me? I need a witness."

I find the most effective tool I have in my arsenal at witching hour is my desire to be thought well of by other people. So even if my neighbor mom isn't available for an outdoor romp, if I'm out in the front yard with the kids, where every word I say will be echoed into the living rooms of all my neighbors, I'm a much more patient and sweet mommy. It's good for the kids, too, because they can climb the trees, collect leaves, and generally make noise and messes that are much more appropriate outdoors than they are in my 12-by-15 foot living room. But mainly I do it because I know I won't commit any crimes against my own sense of right out here with all these people watching.

Recently one of my neighbors told me she looks up to me as a role model, because I'm so calm and deal with my daughters so intelligently. Which proves the system is working, and also proves that the insulation in my house is much better than I thought it was. She's obviously judging me based solely on what goes on when I know I'm being observed.

I have another group of witnesses in my evening ritual. Across the sidewalk from my condo, my neighbor runs an at-home daycare center. Often, around five, I'm sitting in the doorway of my house, with a cup of herbal tea in my hand, or even a glass of wine (it shows I'm not abusing alcohol if I'm drinking right there on my porch, right, because if I had a problem, I'd be drinking in secret). When the beleagured working moms are walking up to retrieve their kids, they probably look at me and think, "What a life that stay-at-home mom has, lounging away while I'm just getting home from work!"

This is funny from my perspective, because in actuality, this might be the first time I've sat down all day. And I'm not necessarily soaking in the beauty of the fading winter sunshine so much as trying to take deep breaths and not yell at my savage daughters as they decapitate all the association's blossoms with a soccer ball.

On the other hand, seeing myself in the daycare clientele's eyes actually works better than the deep breaths when I consider it. I often feel slightly sorry for myself around 4:45, when the works of my hands have been drown in a sea of clutter and my kids' behavior is at it's most challenging. These hard-working women walk by, and I start to feel better, realizing how much of their mommy duties are going to get squeezed into the next two hours, while I have had the luxury of pacing myself. I have all kinds of little freedoms in my days-- from going to the park with friends, to popping into Old Navy on a whim, to actually seeing my little girls in daylight.

I suddenly feel less like a woman escaping her padded cell for a few brief minutes, and more like the person I actually I am: a blessed woman with two healthy daughters, dinner simmering on the stove and a husband who loves and provides for me who is about to walk through the door. And just like that, I find there's magic in the witching hour after all.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Just Call Me Nosy

My best physical feature may be my cute little pointed nose. It is also, however, my Achilles heel.

In high school, my friend in the dramatic arts told me if she was an actress playing me, she would make the character's signature gesture wiping her nose. It's true. My nose runs. Constantly. Since high school, obviously. One close pal of mine calls me her Drippy Nosed Friend. It also turns very red when I'm cold, when I'm crying, or when I'm about to cry -- like a beacon to let onlookers know that some intense emotion is fothcoming. And, worst of all, it is prone to cold sores. Inherited from my father, the mostly latent virus always shows itself on the end of my nose, usually in times of stress or illness, and ironically almost any time I have to get up in front of people or have a formal picture taken.

Whenever I have a cold sore breakout, Hubby, understandably, keeps his distance, and calls to me affectionately from the other side of the room, using the nickname he has coined for such occasions: Nosey. It's not a pet name of which I am particularly fond. I am a bit of a nosy person (it's what made me a good journalist once upon a time). But the strongest association I have with the name is a yellow stuffed lion that my baby brother had when we were kids. He was a big, jolly puppet, with a huge snout punctuated with a round brown nose. Nosey was much loved and extremely bedraggled, and he is still living in my parents' house today.

At least one member of our family has been sick since January 4th. I remember the date specifically because I was congratulating myself on our healthy Christmas season, and then got a killer virus the day my first grader went back to school. I have not been well since. My nose took me down: a cold, allergies, a sinus infection, and then, this Saturday, a major cold sore. In the meantime, the other family members have had one or two colds per person, fevers, and Livie had the stomach flu.

So I am feeling much like Nosey the lion. Bedraggled and loved to death. I thrill to the touch of my little children, truly, but I've been caretaking and handling sick children for so many weeks, that if I was covered in fuzz I think it would be rubbed off me like the Velveteen rabbit's by now. None of the fur has been cuddled off by Hubby, however, since he fears to contract viruses from me, so the sustaining affection from the one source I'm allowed has been denied me.

The wear and tear is beginning to be psychological as well. In the last month, I have been with other adults in the daytime a total of three times, excepting the checkers at Trader Joe's and Target. I've gotten so lonely for companionship that leaving messages for the advice nurse at the pediatrician's office feels like adult interaction, even if she doesn't call me back. If the time number still existed, I would probably call it, just to hear the recorded voice.

But I can congratulate myself on one point. The Nosey of three years ago would never have born the illness and isolation so well as the Nosey of today. I'm finding it pretty bearable. Sewing helps. (I made myself a consolation purse this weekend, along with an unholy mess of thread and fabric, but it was worth it). Blogging is therapeutic too, likewise roaming around on facebook.

And, lovely discovery, I'm finding my three year old Livie is actually lovely company. She is completely happy to stay home all day, every day: rummaging around in her room, dressing stuffed animals in doll clothes, gluing sequins on things, scattering sequins throughout the house. She entertains me with her quaint speeches, and has taken to telling me long, rambling stories about what her favorite stuffed cat Cupcake dreamed about the night before. Yesterday she drew a menu of potential new haircuts for me: five disembodied heads on a sheet of paper, three of which had mohawks -- and then administered my new style with her Barbie beauty set. I guess what I'm trying to say is, in the new year, so far, I'm finding that I actually really like being a mom, illnesses and all.

Today, my nose is almost healed, and is mellowed to a rosy shade of pink, as opposed to bright red. My six year old's fever has broken, and Livie's tummy is all better. God willing, we may be back in the world by Monday, noses and all.