Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Musings on the "sweet spot," invisibility, and mindfulness

I read two blog posts linked to by friends on Facebook recently that rang true to me.

The first, The Sweet Spot from the blog Rants From Mommyland, talks about finding a good place in parenting, in a family, where everything is coming together and running smoothly. I had a therapist when I was struggling with postpartum depression when Adriana was small, who talked about “hitting your stride” as a parent. I hit my stride early with Adriana, I felt. I could handle a baby, no problem. I understand how it is a struggle for new moms sometimes--the change of self, the change in routine, the demands of a small baby. But I felt good at something for the first time in awhile. It wasn’t until Adriana got a little older, approaching toddlerhood, that I began to feel out of step. I was overwhelmed by the idea of a child, not a baby, confused by the idea that her demands might seem fewer but would be so much more complex. Then I had Lyra, and I once again had a baby and thought I am so good at babies. But then I was negotiating the sibling relationship, learning what it was like to have a preschooler instead of a toddler, coping with how to manage the needs of two little people who didn’t always need the same thing at the same time. Now, though, we’ve sort of hit our stride again. The kids are older, although not as old as the kids of the writer of the post. They’re manageable because they don’t need to be managed so much. Adriana has her backpack of snacks and activities. Lyra still takes off running but at least now she knows enough to look back. They squabble with each other, talk back to me, and ask complicated questions that I struggle to answer.

Still, we’re reaching a point where I think that sweet spot is close, or even here. “You flew with two kids on your own?” people ask in surprise when I talk about recent trips, and of course I did. They’re kids, awesome kids, not babies. I flew with them on my own, and I even got to read my book and watch a movie. Even at home there’s an obvious difference: they play on their own while I cook dinner, and Adriana can even be a real help with cooking when she wants to be. I hear Adriana offer to read Lyra a book, and notice when Lyra puts away the blocks she just finished playing with.

There are even just “sweet spot” days, though, as the writer of the post says. The days when everything seems to go right. We get to a morning activity on time. The kids don’t fight too much. When they do fight they work it out on their own before I have to step in. When I do need to step in, I stay calm.

The second post I read was called The Invisible Mother, an anonymous post on the Whatcom Families website. The writer sees herself as invisible to her family even as they are asking things of her: she is a pair of hands, a car service, a crystal ball, but she is not herself. But then a friend gives her a book about the builders of the cathedrals of Europe, making the analogy that as a mother she is like these dedicated builders who devote their lives for no credit, who pay attention to little details that only their god sees.

I’m not religious, but the post still struck a chord with me. It’s poetic, yes, but it’s also useful: it can be helpful  to me to think of the kids and of our family as something we’re building. Maybe I’m stretching the analogy a bit too far, but instead of thinking of us as a magazine-perfect family and household, I can think of visiting La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.* Parts of it are certainly beautiful and it’s already amazing, but there’s scaffolding and cranes and dust all around. There are a lot of people who have designed it, influenced it, built it. Our family is part of a community and is a work in progress.

*I love that the picture at the top of the Wikipedia article says that the cranes are digitally removed. Some days there are some digital touch-ups I’d like to do on my life.

There’s something beautiful in thinking about all the little particulars that add up to a beautiful whole. I find something attractive about thinking that even if my work isn’t recognized as work (which is another topic to write about another day) it’s important. I believe that invisible behind-the-scenes actions can be magical and important. But there’s another part of me that cringes at the analogy, not for worry of coming across as trite, but for keeping the builders of families, women in particular, invisible. Behind the scenes, not getting credit, being taken for granted? How unlike our culture to treat women that way! As much as I love the idea of a family being a work in progress, as beautiful (and even accurate) as the inscription in the book the writer of the post received was (‘With admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.’), I think to not recognize the work of the individuals is problematic. Perhaps the idea is that the builders of the cathedrals are appreciated in some way (although then I think of the political prisoners who built the Valle de los CaĆ­dos, so maybe not) as a group, and mothers should be as well. And perhaps I wouldn’t struggle with this if I were a religious person. In that case I might be able to appreciate more the worker who pays attention to fine details because even if no people will see it, his god will. But maybe I should pay attention to the fine details because those are what make the whole even better. Because I am the one who knows what goes into the whole. Maybe I need to do these things for myself. Even if no one else knows, I do. And because someday, hopefully, the little details will be what come together to make these two little girls competent, happy, kind adults.

Trying to fit the analogy into my own life makes me think of a yoga teacher I had, back when I was relatively serious about my practice. She often spoke of mindfulness in our practice but also in every day life. She encouraged us to be mindful of even the little things we did--washing dishes, fixing a bike tire, preparing food, pulling weeds--and to value those things. I suppose in talk of mindfulness there was a Buddhist component that I cannot really address and that does perhaps parallel the discussion of god in the comparison to the cathedral builders. Thinking of mindfulness makes me realize, though, that it’s not just the “sweet spots” that are important. Yes, it’s important to be grateful for those blissful moments where I’ve hit my stride, the kids are getting along, and we’re happy and having fun together. But there is something to be said for being mindful of the not-so-sweet spots--the weeks where everyone’s squabbling, no one’s sleeping well, and the house is a wreck. If I can be mindful of those times, then maybe I’ll be less likely to feel defeated by it all. Because the struggles are part of motherhood, part of family life, part of Life.

My yoga teacher also talked about “observing without judgment”--she meant observing what we were feeling in our bodies during the poses without condemning ourselves for what we might feel as weakness. I’m trying to do that now in parenting. At the end of a rough day, I want to be able to look back at the things that happened and recognize what I could have done better but remain gentle with myself, so that the next day I can be gentle with all of us. Maybe that’s the sweet spot for me and my kids: tuning in to one another, letting go when we don’t manage that, and knowing that the little things we do add up to something bigger that’s never quite finished.

Saturday, July 13, 2013


Adriana turned 6.5 this week. Unlike her sister, who wanted nothing to do with this half birthday business, Adriana had Plans. Because she is a girl who makes lots of plans, and writes them all down and talks about them and revises them and then moves on to making plans for something else. So we were going to have cake and go ice skating and it was going to be amazing. I talked her down from throwing a party (sorry, sweetheart, your mama is lazy) and gifts (dude, you have so much stuff).

So on Thursday we celebrated the half birthday of Adriana, Lyra, and their friend Makena with a cake. Makena is also a January baby and that day we figured out that July 11 was the average of the three half birthdays (Lyra was born on the second, Adriana on the 11, and Makena on the 20th), because Adriana likes working things like that out. The last time we were at the library she picked a bunch of books about animals, and after we’d read about Monarch butterflies, cobras, and fireflies, she finally asked “but what does ‘on average’ mean?” I was surprised both that she didn’t know (I forget she’s only 6.5!) and that it hadn’t occurred to me that she didn’t know. So we’ve been working on averaging things this week, and it’s been fun. We weighed all the peaches I bought at the farmer’s market and found that they weighed six ounces on average, but the plums I’d bought had an average weight of four ounces. We took a ruler and measured a set of markers and then decided that was boring because they were all the same size. When she averaged out the birthdates, she was quite pleased to see that her birthdate was the average of the three, because she’d noticed that the average wasn’t always one of the numbers she’d added up. It’s so fun to watch her understand things like that. We get books from the library on how magnets work, and we make a compass out of a cork and a needle. And sometimes I still don’t know quite why it works, but it’s fun exploring with her.

Mostly I love reading with her. I’ve read her Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series and now she’s making her way through them on her own. She reads Magic Treehouse books with ease, and can read any of the books we have at home that Lyra asks to have read to her, because even if it’s above her reading level, she’s familiar enough with the book to figure it out. It was interesting to watch her struggle with a book from the library the other day. I’d picked up a book by Barbara Cooney, one of my favorite children’s authors, that I hadn’t run across before. Adriana started on Hattie and the Wild Waves while I was putting Lyra to bed that night, but when I was finished, she gave it to me. “It’s a picture book, but it’s so much work!” she said in frustration. I know the Ramona books take her time to read, but she doesn’t seem as frustrated. I told her that even though it had pictures and it was a harder book, and I got to cuddle up and read it to her. Most nights we read our own books side-by-side in her bed until she’s ready to fall asleep, and now it seemed nice to actually get to read to just her again.

I wrote those three paragraphs last night and then stopped, stuck. As the kids get older it becomes harder to write about them. They do  more interesting things, and are so much more fun to watch, but writing something that summarizes the personality of a complex little person is so much harder than listing a baby’s milestones and preferences. But the temptation is still there. I want to have a way to remember her at this exact age. And writing about her helps me figure out more about who she is, forces me to put into words the abstractions that I notice about her each day.

It was interesting this year for me to watch Adriana in her classroom. In preschool I was there with her occasionally, but at those times she stuck closely to me, so I didn’t observe her the same way I get to now that she’s in a parent-participation school and I’m not there just to be with her. I knew that in preschool she was one of the quiet kids in the class, and I expected that of her--and I understood her, I thought, because I was that way myself. But I also saw that she did raise her hand to volunteer for things and that she could speak in front of her teacher and classmates with confidence in a way I don’t remember ever being able to do myself. I also found myself watching her from a distance on art days, either in her own classroom of kindergarteners or in a mixed-age art class. I saw the way she would stop what she was doing sometimes and gaze into space. I had to resist the temptation to tell her “Dude. Focus.” And I also wondered what was going on in her head. What does she think about when she’s gazing at the wall instead of focusing on her sewing and painting? Is it related to the art? Is there something else on her mind? Sometimes I would ask her later, but I never got an answer. I didn’t know if it was because she didn’t remember or didn’t want to tell me.

I like watching her play with her friends. It’s interesting to watch them negotiate what they’re going to play. She was reluctant to go to the homes of school friends without me this year, even when she knew their parents pretty well. A few times, though, I pushed her to go ahead, even if she was uncomfortable. And then I would find her up to her elbows in mud in a friend’s backyard when I arrived to pick her up, or in the midst of dressing up and putting on a play with another friend. When she invites a friend over now, they disappear into her room. I hear them playing make believe games or board games. I hear them squabble sometimes (especially if it’s a friend she’s known since toddlerhood), but they tend to work it out on their own. When Lyra has a friend over, Adriana plays with them, enjoying the chance to be the big kid, set the rules, boss them around a bit. When we’re with older kids she is quieter, does what they suggest; it’s interesting to see how consistent kids are in things like that.

Adriana’s shyness doesn’t surprise me, but it does worry me sometimes. I know what it’s like to be painfully shy. That’s why I was so pleased to see her speaking up in the classroom. And it’s why I’m happy that she no longer hides behind me and refuses to speak when someone asks her name and age. Her solution to the shyness seems to be to lie: any stranger that asks gets told that her name is Magnolia and she’s 17 years old. Everyone knows she’s making it up, but it gets a smile, and at least she’s feeling brave enough to talk. One day this spring we visited friends we hadn’t seen in a while. She was shy at first, not speaking to my friend or her kids, but then my friend’s older daughter invited Adriana to play outside, and they took off together. After twenty minutes of running around outside and climbing trees with a girl three years older, Adriana came back into the house more comfortable and talkative. It was an interesting tranformation to watch. I’ve said for a long time that she is the kind of person who just needs time to warm up in a new place or situation, but it somehow continues to surprise me (and sometimes, I confess, still frustrates me) when it happens.

She can be so stubborn, which frustrates me pretty much every single day, but I know that in some ways it serves her well: she learns new things, figures stuff out. Still, there are days when I just find myself wanting to explain that she might be a happier person if she could learn to let certain things go. I watch her lose her temper and find myself identifying with her. In a way I envy her: she’s 6.5 and can throw a fit. I’ve got her same short fuse, but I’m the grown up. I have (to try my best) to keep it in check.

I used to worry about whether she was empathetic enough. Other toddlers in our playgroup seemed much more concerned about why another kid was crying or whether someone was sad. Adriana didn’t seem to notice. Now I think that sensitivity is there, but she keeps it hidden a bit. Brian and I talk about how we don’t know what’s going on in her head as she processes things. With Lyra, we know everything on her mind, because she just won’t stop talking. Adriana has never been like that, and if we question to closely she gets even more withdrawn. That’s a struggle for me. I think I am like her in that respect as well, but I also feel that as her parent it’s my responsibility to help her process complicated things and talk to her about her feelings. I try not to question her too much, though. I ask her what she’s feeling, and when I don’t get much response, I tell her how I feel and talk about other ways a person might feel about it, and try not to press any one issue for too long, make myself stop before I start to feel her resist. I don’t know if what I’m doing is “working,” if she notices it at all, if it makes any difference. I just cross my fingers and hope.

She keeps lists that I find around the house: what she’s going to be for Halloween for the next 10 years, all the animals and insects we see on a hike, everything she knows about trees or fingerprints or the solar system. One night after the kids were in bed, I found myself locked out of my bathroom and a sign on the door warning me about “bad robots.” Another morning I raised the blinds in the front window and found a sign there facing the street advertising a “Poop Celebration,” for which she was apparently charging a $6 admission fee. She tells jokes that still don’t make any sense, but it starting to appreciate puns. Her glee when she jumps out at me and makes me jump almost makes up for the fact that she likes to try to scare me.

She loves scary things. I didn’t realize until I watched Lyra that Adriana has always had a good sense of what is real and what is pretend. She likes to go into the haunted house at the Boardwalk. She likes movies that some of her friends find too scary--The Wizard of Oz is her favorite, and when she saw Brave, her favorite parts were the scenes with the witch or with the bears. When she declares that something is scary it’s with a tone of joy.

Adriana thinks about being older. She tells me she wants to be a “bug scientist” or a jewelry maker when she grows up, but that maybe she’ll also write some songs and build some roller coasters. She says she won’t be a mom because babies at little kids are way too much work. She’s getting a certain sense of independence, wanting to walk down the street to see if her babysitter can play with her own, asking when I’ll let her walk across the neighborhood without me. On our trip to France, she carried her own backpack with her every day, and at home this summer she’s continued that most days, packing it herself with a water bottle, a snack, her book, and her notebook and pens. But she also wants me right there with her a lot of the time. She wants to buy something from the ice cream man all by herself! But with me right beside her. She wants to go to the market to get something for me! But when we get there she doesn’t want to run in on her own after all. She craves the familiar, always wanting to go back to the same places, see the same people. She’s testing her limits, my limits, in a way I guess she has since she was a toddler, crawling away from me at a playgroup and then coming back to check in. Now she needs just needs a moment of eye contact, a squeeze of her hand.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


"I wish I was still in Paris with Toby," Lyra mumbled as she came into my room. Then I guess the sound of he own voice woke her up, and she couldn't stop taking, "Mama, remember when Becca gave me Abigail's dress that didn't fit her anymore? Can I have a tortilla? Folded in half with cheese melted inside? Cinderella's cat is even meaner than our cat. I have a joke. Why do chickens sit on eggs? Because they don't have chairs!  But I need to make up my own answer to make it harder. My nose makes a funny sound.  Does it sound like it's tooting? That's funny.  My nose thinks it's a bum! Mama? You want a hug, Mama? You just love my squeezes. Do you remember that day at the park when my ball went in the river that didn't have any water in it so it didn't float away? But I bet the fishes and frogs were so sad without water in their habitat. We should get a big bucket and fill it back up and they would say ribbit ribbit hooray! Maybe we should have a snack. If we were in Paris we could just walk out to the boulangerie. Why aren't we in Paris? I miss Toby. Someday he can sail to Australia with me. And then if someone does something we don't like at the playground I will tell Toby we can say stop it instead of arret because you know what, Mama? In Australia they don't speak French. And the Australian children are sometimes nicer. But.  But.  No boulangerie. I think that might be sad. Queso means cheese when it's with a tortilla you say queso-dilla! How do you say tortilla in Spanish? Do they have tortillas in Paris? Has Toby ever had a tortilla? Emily Brown is very smart.  Can we read Emily Brown now? I hope the queen's secret commandos don't ever sneak in and get Teddy. But I will roar my terrible roar and protect him. And then kiss his nose.  You want a nose kiss now Mama? You are my favorite person who I love the most. Maybe we should make croissants. We didn't take a flashlight to the caves but I wasn't scared. Do you remember the caves?  There were no witches in the caves. Do you think witches are real? I bet if they are they live in caves on the moon.  When I'm an astronaut I won't go to the Moon. I'll leave the witches alone.  I will go to the stars like Erin McKeown. But not in my boat. Boats don't fly. That would be a good joke. Maybe my boat will be magic. And it will turn into a space ship. That would be good because then I could be a sailor and an astronaut. And also maybe a rockstar and a baseball player. And a boulanger so I can have croissants wherever I go. Hey, are you awake, Mama? Are you writing onyour phone? What are you writing?  Read me a story.  No more writing!"

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Do they teach about the IRB in first grade?

I heard the door to the garage bang shut and then a few minutes later heard it again, but I didn’t get much chance to wonder when the kids would learn not to let it slam behind them because I saw Adriana dart by with a roll of duct tape.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Looking for a pair of kid scissors,” she said, and she was indeed rummaging around in the drawer where her scissors would be, but I still thought she was avoiding my question. I waited, but instead of telling me what she was working on, she called out, “Okay, Lyra, come on, I’m ready!”

Lyra came running and Adriana instructed her to stand on a small step stool against the wall. As Lyra began to oblige, I asked again.

“She’s going to stand against the wall, and I’m going to put the tape on her arms and legs. Then I’ll move the step stool and see if she sticks!”


“But it’s science! It’s to see how much tape it takes to hold a little girl to the wall!”

“That’s not science! That’s...” Okay, fine, it was science. And it was hilarious. My entire body was shaking as I tried not to laugh. “Sometimes even some science experiences are bad ideas.”

“It’s okay, Mama. I’m going to measure how much tape I use. And I’m writing it all down.”

“And it means my legs won’t get tired!” Lyra chimed in.

And really, how can you argue with logic like that? 

(Don’t worry: I totally argued with their logic. And took back my duct tape.)

Monday, July 08, 2013


We were sitting in a cafe, resting our legs, having a snack, noticing that after spending much of the day walking around in the pouring rain, we were going to be lucking into some lovely weather for a pre-dinner walk. The kids finished their hot chocolate and Adriana pulled a book out of her backpack and began to read to Lyra.

I love the National Geographic Kids early readers. Adriana reads them with ease, and they’re about animals so Lyra loves to listen to them. Which means I get to read my own book in peace for almost ten whole minutes. This one was about wolves and included a lot about pups, so Lyra was particularly pleased.

In the back of the book were some quiz questions and vocabulary lists, and I heard the girls begin to argue about the word “litter.” Lyra was insisting that “litter” meant trash, and Adriana was launching into a lecture about synonyms. Their voices were rising, and I was about to cut Adriana off by telling her some arguments weren’t worth having with a three-year-old, when suddenly Lyra interrupted herself.

“Oh, I get it! Wolf pups make a mess. Just like baby peoples! That is why they are called a litter.”

“Exactly!” Adriana agreed. I don’t know if she was just pleased to have Lyra stop arguing or whether she believed Lyra was right, but some arguments aren’t worth having with a six-year-old either, so I went back to my book and they went back to theirs.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

I'm smart at breastfeeding propaganda

“I guess dad’s the smartest one in our family,” Adriana said from the backseat. I’m not giving you context for her statement, because I didn’t have any. I thought we were just on our way home from gymnastics class. I’d been half-listening to the kids’ conversation about forward rolls versus somersaults while figuring out what I could do to make dinner for the quickly when we got home.

“Um. Why?” I asked. I wasn’t offended, just curious, but I sort of dreaded her answer. I suspected I knew the answer, and Adriana confirmed it immediately.

“Because he goes to work,” she said. And then she added, “And because he’s an engineer.”

Marveling at how spectacularly I was failing at feminism, I began preparing a speech about different skills, different jobs, different kinds of intelligence, and the value of working hard, when Lyra piped up.

“I don’t think dad is very smart. Not like mama. He doesn’t even know how to make milky!”

I gave my speech anyhow. And then requested Mothers Can Do Anything from the library when we got home.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013


At three o'clock this morning, Lyra came into my room. She sobbed, "You need to give me one hundred kisses and let me sleep in a hug!" as she climbed into my bed and cuddled against me. She rooted around to nurse, and then settled back to sleep. In the morning, she woke up all smiles, but when I told her she was officially three-and-a-half years old today she stomped her foot and argued, “No, I am not. I am just! Three! I am never going to be any other number ever!”

She is such a cuddler, this one, wrapping around her arms around my neck and resting her head on my shoulder when I lift her up, pulling me or Brian or her teacher or the mother of one of her friends closer for a kiss. She proclaims her love for me, for Brian, for all of our relatives and friends.

But she’s also my wild thing, my goofball. She sees me with a camera and begins to make silly faces, or shove both her fingers up her nose. She makes up silly songs and rhymes, making sure to use the word “poop” as often as possible. She speaks in funny voices and does funny dances. She jumps off of things and onto things. She crashes into people and furniture and walls. She has mastered the Mini Kick scooter that used to belong to her sister, except for the brake; she insists it’s easier to just jump off of it or crash it into any nearby pole, fence, or tree if she needs to come to a quick stop.

I have to tell her things that I never imagined one had to be told. The other night I found her lying on my bed naked doing something weird with her feet and she told me (when I asked what she was doing) "There's this hole in the middle of my bottom, so I'm trying to put my big toe in it." Upon further questioning she told me "I can put my finger in it, but not my elbow." So I talked to her about not putting things into her bottom, made her go wash her hands, and thought that would be enough. Then she was naked this evening (it's hot here) and we were having curry and rice for dinner, and I left the table for a minute and found her sticking rice to her butt. It was very sticky rice, so apparently she had to see if it would stick to her bum? That seemed to be her logic anyhow. Also: "But it's on the *outside* of my bum! Not in the hole that the poop comes from!" Which I guess was meant to be good news. I laughed until I cried.

She’s rarely shy. One day last week she turned to a teenage girl in line at Starbucks and said, “You are so pretty. Do you want to be my babysitter?” She’ll tell anyone who asks her name and how old she is and what she likes to do. In France last month she hammed when she caught anonymous tourists snapping her photo and jabbered away in English when little old ladies pinched her cheeks and spoke to her in French. She seems to be a true extrovert, thriving as the center of attention, really needing to be around people, coming home from birthday parties and playgroups energetic than she’d started out. That can be a challenge for me, but we try to find a balance and both manage to have fun.

She still seems to easily blur the line between reality and pretend. It’s amusing to me that she can be brave about so many things--going new places, jumping off of things I wish she hadn’t climbed in the first place, and running full speed ahead--that it surprises me how easily frightened she can be. She doesn’t like games in which someone pretends to be a monster. If I walk away from Adriana throwing a fit in public, Lyra believes I am truly leaving her sister behind and then she falls apart too. I have to be careful about what I let her watch. There have been episodes of Go Diego Go that were too frightening for her. We watched Cinderella together and she was nervous about the shrill stepsisters and absolutely petrified by the cat who chases all the mice. It was interesting to watch her watch those parts of the movie and then to watch her pretend she was that cat when she was in a foul mood the next day. I also let her watch Milo and Otis, which I remembered as a sweet, mild movie. I was desperate to take a nap that day, and I thought it would be a good distraction for the girls. But I ended up sitting with them watching it because Lyra was so frightened (but also curious enough that she didn’t want to turn it off) that she needed to be in physical contact with me throughout the entire movie. Her fear began as the kitten was floating in a box down a river while a bear cub followed along on the shore. The worst part was when the cat was walking along train tracks, oblivious to the approaching train. As the train drew near, Lyra through herself against the back of the couch, arms wide spread out, eyes glued to the screen, and mouth wide open in a silent scream. (Spoiler warning: the cat was FINE.) It was sad, but also, honestly, hilarious.

Adriana sat for long stories from a very early age and was usually pretty good at entertaining herself. Lyra still can’t sit for an entire chapter of a Winnie-the-Pooh book (I remember reading an entire Pooh book to Adriana in a single sitting when she was this age), but she is getting better at playing by herself. She’ll get out blocks to build a tower without even my encouragement. I find her playing some sort of house game with dolls and stuffed animals. She sings little songs while she plays, just like Frances I sometimes think, but she scolds me and shoos me away if she catches me trying to listen. She memorizes books easily and then will sit and “read” them to herself.

I remember when Adriana was about 2.5 and I realized I wasn’t writing my monthly posts about her development anymore. I thought then of a couple of sentences to sum her up. I would periodically think up new little descriptions, and now I find myself doing it for Lyra: She loves trucks and animals and baseball. She is small and cuddly and full of energy and giggles. And she is my baby who is not a baby anymore but is so perfectly herself instead (and also still totally my baby).