Tuesday, March 28, 2006

to London to look at the queen

I was relieved to wake up this morning and find myself in bed rather than in a jumbo jet about to make an emergency landing on a remote, tree-lined highway somewhere. Airplane trips gone awry have become a recurrent theme lately as the departure date of our trip to England approaches. I don’t know how I became such an anxiety-ridden basket case but I suspect motherhood has something to do with it.

If I could get past the visions of irritated passengers, a sleepless infant and a whirling dervish four-year old high on Gummi Bears, I might actually look forward to the trip. It might help if I hadn’t recently heard the story of a friend of a friend flying with her toddler son who whined, “out, out, out” the whole way to Chicago. We do, according to Esther, have quite an impressive itinerary.

“Are we really going to see the queen?” she asked this morning, her mouth filled with Gorilla Munch. “Well we probably won’t actually see her, but we can see where she lives,” I said. “But I want to see her,” she insisted. “The queen has guards at her house and they don’t let just anybody in,” I explained. “Will she say to her guards, ‘go and kill that little girl?” she asked, her expression turning serious. “No Sweet, she could tell you weren’t dangerous by looking at you.” “Well we can just sneak around to the back door of her house then.” “That’s an idea.”

“What does a Queen do all day? Just go to balls and wear long fancy dresses down to here,” she said, reaching down to her feet.

She pensively ate a few more spoonfulls of cereal, then continued, “So we’re going to see the Queen, Mary Poppins and Madonna in England.” “Well, Daddy told you Esther, Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) lives in New York City even though she is from England.”

“And Madonna lives in England, even though she is from New York City,” she said proudly, connecting the dots. “Well yeah, something like that.” “We could go to Trafalgar Square and feed the birds, like in the “Tuppence” song,” Ian chimed in, hoping to get the conversation on a more realistic track. Dear old Daddy.

The Madonna saga continues. I made the mistake of telling Esther that Madonna lived in England, that she has horses and children. We have been discussing it daily ever since. “Can we go to Madonna’s house?” Esther asked in the car the other day while we were listening to “Jump” for the fifth time. “No Sweet,” I said. “We don’t know Madonna and you don’t generally go to people’s houses unless you know them.” That was the wrong answer. “But I do know her,” she said, getting angry. “ Well you think you know her Honey, but you don’t really do you.” “But I want to see her little daughter and her hair and her shoes,” she pleaded.

You would never know that I was a tomboy, completely indifferent, if not averse, to all things girlish until I discovered preppy hair ribbons at age 12. My little girl, on the other hand, is preoccupied with fashion and femininity.

It started early. I still recall the day I first recognized I had a fashionista on my hands. She was in the mudroom, throwing a tantrum about how her jeans were fitting over the tops of her shoes. She whined and tugged at the hem of her jeans. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “My pants won’t come down,” she sobbed, her eyes full of tears. “Last time they went over my shoes like this, but now they don’t.” Suddenly it hit me. Yesterday she was wearing the girly bootleg jeans, handed down from her friend Samantha. Today, she was wearing the Old Navy boy jeans inherited from her cousin Rudy. She may have been just 2 and a half, but she knew the difference. And she wasn’t having it. Off came the straightleg jeans and out of the hamper came the bootleg jeans.

“I don’t even know where Madonna lives,” I continued, trying to get myself out of this conversation quick before Esther burst into flames of frustration. “Well, we could just drive around, we might see cars,” she whined. “Okay Sweet,” I relented. “I’ll tell you what: We can ask Camilla (Essie’s teenaged British cousin) if she knows where Madonna lives and maybe, if we are lucky, we can see her house.”

To think of all the wholesome, cultural things we might do in England and we are planning to stalk Madonna instead.

Friday, March 24, 2006

baby delusions

This might sound weird but I love bringing babies to regular checkups at the pediatrician's. It is an opportunity to bask in the glow of dutiful parenthood and show off your exquisitely healthy baby to the medical community. I particularly like the part at the end when the doctor says what a beautiful baby I have. Sure, they say this to the hundreds of parents a day, but I will suck up any bit of praise I can get.

Sometimes the doctor visits can have the opposite effect. As the nurse went through the checklist of baby skills and behaviors at Isla's recent four-month appointment, I descended lower and lower with each question until I was deposited gently on the ground to walk with the parents of all the other four-month old children the world over.

It's fun to imagine that your baby is doing something special, something that no other baby is capable of doing, no matter how mundane. “Oh, look how she makes such direct eye contact, she understands us.” or, “Do you hear her talking? She just said, ‘hi’, did you hear that?” “She laughed, did you hear that? Can you believe she is laughing already?” “Look at how she holds her head up and looks around.” “Look at how well she can hold and shake that rattle, she is so coordinated.” “Look, she is bouncing to the music. She's got rythym.”

Sound familiar? Then, you go to your check up and the nurse starts asking questions. “Is she holding her head up while on her stomach?” “Yes” “Holding toys?” “Yes.” “Is she smiling, laughing, cooing, squealing and wiggling?" "Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. "Does she get distracted by noises while nursing?” “Yes. How did you know?”

Because it’s written in an early childhood development text book somewhere. The exact description of my baby’s skills, skill by skill, month by month, year by year. So each day I consider so special, so unique to just us, is being repeated throughout households around the world, again and again, like clockwork since the beginning of time.

Then, to make things worse, the pediatrician comes in and asks how it is going. I tell her that the baby is bubbly, happy and delightful to be with for the most part. “Yeah,” she says. “Babies are great at this age.” "Babies?" I think. "We're talking about my baby, not all babies." As if all babies were equally great. How could she imply such a thing?

Well no matter what the professionals say, I'll go on considering my children to be extraordinary. I find it particularly clever how Isla gets her bearings before settling in to nurse. When her little blue eyes lock into mine I could swear she is trying to say, thank you. And then at night, in the darkness of our bed, the way she takes a second to let her eyes adjust, to make out the outline of my face to be sure I am not some imposter. I can sense her taking me in, her round head bobbing back and forth, her eyes wide as she slowly hones in on the waiting milk dispenser that is my engorged breast. Then she turns her head at the sound of her daddy’s ragged breathing behind her to make sure he isn’t really a wild animal waiting to pounce on her when she is distracted. Only once she is absolutely sure of the situation will she commence to nursing.

I'm sure this behavior has been written about in some text book or other but it doesn't make it any less remarkable. Any less cool.

suburban renewal

There is only so long a country family can survive on mornings by the fire reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books and taking nature walks spent hunting for creatures that just aren’t there. “Mummy where are the salamanders?” They are sleeping deep under the ground honey.” “How come I don’t hear any birds?” “The birds have flown south to find the sun. They’ll be back any day now.” “What about the toads and the slugs?” “Umm, they’re sleeping too, they don’t’ like the cold so they crawl under rocks and stay there until spring comes. Kind of like us,” I mutter half under my breath. “What did you say Mummy?” “Oh nothing sweet. I just realized how much like reptiles we really are.”

I hate to admit it but sometimes the only way to beat cabin fever is to drive 70 miles to the nearest settlement of big box stores. I don’t know exactly what comes over me, but when it hits it’s undeniable. I need, need , need to walk among other aimless lurkers, mostly women, through long , fluorescent lit aisles of brightly-colored consumer goods.

The drive in itself is appealing. The children are strapped down in the back seat, visible only through the rear-view mirror, and trained not to “bother” mummy while she is driving. When Esther finally gets tired of asking questions and requesting her favorite song over and over again, she resigns to quietly looking out the window or taking a cat nap. Since she discovered her mirror, Isla is content with talking and smiling at her cute little baby friend that always seems to appear when she gets in the car. Once again, I have found a way to keep my infant entertained and stimulated with minimum effort on my part.

Most times I agree the beauty of living in Vermont lies in the fact that there are only two malls and no Target stores. Some days I feel the problem with living in Vermont is that there are only two malls and no Target stores. Yesterday was one of those days.

Since the closest mall and selection of big boxes is so far away, I have to create a reason that will justify wasting that much time and gas. That’s easy. We need art supplies. Can’t get those at the supermarket. Guess we’ll have to go to Target. We also need more diapers and wipes. We can get those at the supermarket but they are oh so much cheaper at the big box stores. Okay, reason enough, we HAVE to go to Saratoga. Just like that, we are out of the house and into the car, toting a bag full of snacks and a diaper bag full of enough diapers, wipes and extra outfits to last us a week lost in the woods.

The good thing about Saratoga is there’s a Children’s Museum. So any guilt about subjecting innocent children to the unsavory environment that is shopping malls and big box stores can be assuaged by a few hours spent perusing the edifying, hands-on exhibits.

When we got to the museum, it was filled with other families just like ours. There I was, chasing Esther around with Isla strapped to my chest in the Baby Bjorn looking at at least seven other mothers, babies strapped to their chests, eyeing pre-schoolers. I couldn’t help wonder how many of them were hoping to end their outings in Target or Barnes and Noble as well. It could have been my imagination but many of them had that glazed look in their eyes mothers get when they are not entirely present or sharing their children’s joy at playing “ride the trolley” or “pioneer tea party” for the umpteenth time.

After I whined our way out of the museum and in to the mall by telling Esther how hungry I was, I really perked up. I let myself dream of bargain fashions I might find at H&M with its wide selections of hip-length shirts that are just the thing this post- natal mom needs to keep her poochy belly from peeking out above the low-rider, stretch jeans that allow her to actually button her pants despite being still 15 pounds overweight.

Once at the mall, I threw a sleeping Isla, car seat and all, into the Snap'nGo, grabbed Esther by the hand and swept them towards my favorite Swedish department store. As soon as we set foot inside I was overwhelmed by color, possibility and bargains. I began grabbing things left and right, anything that looked remotely suitable, and hanging them off the stroller. All the while promising Esther we would end up in the kids department so she could find some things too. Esther whined the whole time about it not being fair that I went first, so I had to move fast. We whisked into the kids department and found some cute skirts for Essie and headed for the fitting room. We got situated in a fitting room and I whipped off my shirt and pants. Then Isla started to wail.

Determined, I sang and cooed to her, all the while frantically robing and disrobing at high speed, like a supermodel backstage at a catwalk show. Finally her little baby dino cries got so insistent I picked her up, sat down on the bench and put her to my breast. Seeing myself in the mirror like that, topless, belly drooping, bare-legged, white and blotchy under the unforgiving lights, was enough to put a lid on my retail fantasy. Just like that, reality hit. “We’re supposed to be saving money. I could be getting so much done at home. Why am I still so fat?” I thought to myself.

“What are we doing?” I said out loud to my reflection and to Esther, as if a four-year-old could fully comprehend the question. “We’re playing dress up,” she answered, posing in the mirror, eyes fixed onto her own reflection. “Oh yeah," I sighed. "Dress up." "Couldn’t we be doing this at home?" I thought. "Better yet, we could be reading a good book by the fire, or taking a nature walk."

"Let's go home," I said. "Just a few more minutes mum," Esther bargained. "I really like the way this lovely skirt twirls."

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Hello Madonna goodbye Julie Andrews

Isla is four months old today. It has been four months since she arrived through the passageway, sort of like coming through the wardrobe. I imagine that this world so far is as strange and magical to her as Narnia must have felt to Lucy and Edmund. I wish life could stay that magical for my children forever. Too bad about the White Witch, that would be me.

There is no danger of Isla’s bubble being burst any time soon but Esther is another story. With her growing capacity to grasp concepts comes the gradual seepage of reality into her otherwise fantastic world. She heard a friend of mine talking about a mammogram the other day and said, “Mummy what is a mammogram?” “It is a way for doctors to take pictures of your boobies to see that they are healthy,” I said. “Why wouldn’t your boobies be healthy?” “Well sometimes people can get sick and it starts in your breasts,” I answered. “Boobies can get sick?” she asked. “ What kind of sick?” I was already at a loss for words. Ian jumped in with the word “disease.” This only started a whole new set of questions. “Dis-whats?” she asked. “What are they?” “It isn’t something you need to worry about Sweet,” I interjected, trying to put an abrupt end to the conversation. Must she know at age four about the ravages of disease ? No, I think not. I should have simply said that a mammogram is a message that comes from a place called Mam and left it at that.

Speaking of breasts, our penchant for dancing has inevitably led to Madonna. Esther loves her. Esther carefully studies the kaleidoscope of images of Madonna on her CD covers from her “Like a Virgin” days to her tantric “Ray of Light” stage. She is mesmerized by the chameleon that is Madonna in the photographs. She is intrigued by the daring lipstick and the way Madonna’s hair can change from short to long, black to platinum to red. I tell her that when you are as rich as Madonna, you can have any color hair you like at any given time of the day. Esther thinks this is funny.

I feel like we have turned a corner that I wasn't yet ready to turn. Where once our evenings were spent singing along with Mary Poppins, the Sound of Music and My Fair Lady, they now find us gyrating and posing in front of a throbbing loudspeaker. Who needs Julie Andrews when you can have Madonna?

My four-year-old has gone from worshipping a nun and a nanny to emulating a hyper-sexualized, self-promoting queen of reinvention. Hey, I buy her albums and admire her biceps just like anyone, but, now that I am the mother of girls, I am conflicted. On the one hand I think that Esther is just being exposed to a bold woman who has the world by the tail and molds it to suit her needs. On the other hand I see a questionable role model whose most impressive achievement is having the discipline, and free time, to work out four hours a day to keep her 47 –year-old body looking like that of a 20 year-old’s. I'm not exactly sure what Madonna is doing, if anything, to advance womankind but she is certainly helping us get through those tedious, late -winter afternoons.

Perhaps I am reading too much into all of this loss of innocence, but it is hard not to want to expose your potential-filled little girl to all the right things and none of the wrong things. Granted, Barbie is in the house, but she doesn’t walk, talk, or sing. Esther does this for her rather imaginitively. Madonna leaves no room for the imagination. Her message is loud and clear. And Esther responds to it by strutting around the house in her leotard and dress-up heels singing, “ I don’t want to hear, I don’t want to know, please don’t say your sorry, I’ve heard it all before, and I can take care of myself.” And, scarily, it looks as if like she can.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Hey You

It just occurred to me that the reason Isla is so vocal is because she knows that if she doesn’t make noise we might forget she is there. She’ll be sitting in her little bouncy chair on the kitchen table, or swinging slowly back and forth in her swing, looking nervously around for us, these faces that entertain her. And we, her family, are all too enrapt with the tasks at hand, cooking dinner, playing make believe, bringing in wood and building the fire, to notice her. It kind of reminds me of that vulnerable feeling of being alone at a party and finding yourself just outside of a group of chattering people. You try to insert yourself-- get "taken in" per se-- without seeming too desperate. There is that awkward moment when you are just floating out there, smiling nervously and eavesdropping. If you fail to bridge the gap in a matter of minutes, you have to just suck it up and move on to the next group and hope nobody noticed you standing there like a fool.

I need not worrry about Isla's social skills. Or maybe I do. She has devised a foolproof solution to being ignored. She screams, real loud. Out of nowhere this sweet, patient little girl will let out a high-pitched, baby Teradactyl screech and all heads turn to look at her. Mission accomplished. Then she smiles and coos as if to say, “Just checking to see if I really do exist.”

The plight of the second born. She is so appreciative of the smallest amount of attention. And if you really stop to talk to her, read to her, stroke her cheek or, better yet, give her a baby chair massage, she is your slave. Just showing her a picture book makes her arms wave about wildly and little gurgly sounds come from her throat. And the chair massage elicits baby ecstasy. She stretches her arms up over her head to let my hands slide underneath her shoulder blades, arches her back and flashes her gums. As I work my hands down her back, describing to her what I am doing all the way down to her toes, which I squeeze one by one, she rocks her head wildly from side to side.

It seems so rare that I take, or make, the time to do this. That I actually let myself stop for a second and focus, really focus on the blossoming little human in my midst. In those fleeting moments when I can resist the pull of domestic minutia and surrender I am always duly rewarded. I don't get that kind of full-body reaction from the clothes I fold or newspaper I stare at or from the dishes I wash, or for that matter, from Ian when I stroke his stubbly face.

And then there's her newfound laugh. She has this little laugh, so suppressed, like air escaping a balloon in small spurts. It comes from somewhere deep in her chest and she makes you work for it. Usually fake sneezes do the trick but sometimes I have to resort to vigorous, under-the-chin tickling.

I think we are formally out of the murky forest that is a baby's first three months. Isla has developed a new flavor of cuteness. She can sit up and lean back a bit when we hold her. She turns her head and rests her cheek against my jawbone and looks around quietly in my arms. The feel of her, so substantial and strong, so safe in her high perch, is pure baby bliss.

Grow up mom

Isla is three months old. She slept eight hours straight the other night. She was an angel. It won't last.

Now she is the devil. She is upstairs yelling while I crank Jimmy Cliff “The Harder They Come” down here in order to drown her out. I have tried everything: sling carrying, diaper change, nursing, massage, singing, reading, fresh air, dancing. Nothing satisfies. Her crying is so high pitched and insistent our house sounds like the set of Scream III. She hasn’t slept more than 15 minutes at a time all day. I don’t know what is the matter but it is making me crazy.

It's no surprise that Esther is now walking around the house reciting her newfound phrase, "I just can't take it anymore." Ouch. Somedays I am honestly just not capable of being the adult. Being mature 24/7 in front of my children is the hardest thing I will ever do. It makes me realize it isn’t just kids who fall apart without food and sleep. I become an instant child when I am hungry or overtired. I am impatient, petulant, petty, irrational and aggressive. And, just like a child, I can only think of myself. I hate Isla right now for not being soothed by my breast or my words or my touch. I hate her for interrupting my plans, for interfering with my agenda, for being a helpless baby. She is so incredibly sweet one minute, smiling playfully up at me, then her little face contorts and twists into a grimace, her skin grows red and the high pitched, indignant scream comes pouring out of her throat like a skill saw. And I am powerless. Relinquishing control, it seems, is not my strong point. I have been watching the clock since noon. Where is my relief pitcher?

I find myself really having to work on the patience thing lately. I have been losing it daily. Esther always asks me, “Why are you talking with the mad voice?” She picks up the nuances in my voice so readily. According to her, I also have a “tired voice” and a “fusterated voice.” She told me the other day that I was being grumpy when I brushed her hair as we were rushing out the door to go skating. “I know,” I said. “Mummy gets stressed out when we are trying to leave the house.” “But you’re always grumpy,” she shot back. Nothing like getting a mirror held up so you can behold your imperfect self day after day.

Turns out, I am sick. I have been nursing a raging sinus infection since Christmas and have tried every "nursing friendly" holistic remedy from acupuncture to Neti Pots to no avail. I knew I wasn't operating at 100 percent capacity but didn't realize just how much it was affecting my job performance. Finally, my boss, that would be my four-year old, had to call a meeting and point out that something wasn't right. How many times have I witnessed her displaying erratic rage or irrational behavior only to find out within 24 hours that the poor girl was sick? And it took two months of this to recognize it in myself. How old am I?

Up the road

It's another balmy Sunday morning. We walked to the Fenton farm after breakfast. It was beautiful on the way. Dark dramatic clouds and black trees were lit up magically each time the morning sun poked through. It was the kind of morning that reassures you that living 10 miles from the nearest supermarket is not a sign of insanity. When we reached the farm, we went inside the dairy barn to watch the milking. Inside the long, low milking parlor, it was dark and warm with the heat of live animals. The aisles were filled with water from the extended January thaw, yet it still felt cozy inside. The milking machines hummed and the cows chewed.

Matthew, the three-year-old farm boy, jumped off his Big Wheel and proudly led Essie up a little splintered wooden ladder to the stall where he kept his new pet, a two-week-old calf. Esther was impressed with the litte farm boy and his older sister who get to spend every morning in the barn surrounded by warm and fuzzy animals.

I love knowing that we have this small family farm, the last of a dying breed in our part of the world, at the end of our road. Yet we rarely go there. Instead, we drive miles and pay admission to sterile tourist farms like Billings Farm or Adams Farm when the real deal, the true essence of Vermont, is just up the street.

It's been a going joke in our house since I was first nursing Esther that whenever we hear the milk truck come grinding down the road at six a.m. we pretend it's coming for me. But, honestly, the sound of that truck passing our house each morning has become a source of comfort and I dread the day I no longer hear it.

I’m not sure why it takes having kids to appreciate small farm life but I can see how it takes having kids to access the world of farms and animals. I never would have dared to ask the farmers to come inside to watch them milk if I didn't have my kids with me. It would have felt too weird, them slaving away at their livelihood, me watching like it's a spectator sport. Going to the zoo in my single years just made me feel sad for the animals. though I still find animals in cages a bit disturbing, our most recent trip to the zoo in Stuttgart left me stunned and amazed, like a child, at the diversity of the animal kingdom. I also couldn't help noticing how similar our family's behavior was to the chimpanzees.


Esther has so many questions lately. Hard to answer questions. Questions that I can only reply with, "That's a good question." Questions like: “How does glass get colored?” “How does Julie Andrews make her voice go away?” (I'm still trying to figure that one out but it has something to do with the concept of Julie Andrews the actress vs. Julie Andrews the nun and nanny.) “Why is Sara in the Little Princess’ hair curly then straight, then curly?” “What are teeth made of?” ‘What is paper made of?” “How do you make a newspaper?” “What are bones made of?” “How do you make metal?”

Then there are the more delicate questions:“How did Isla get in your tummy?” Or the simply unanswerable questions: “Why do men like to fight and kill each other so much?” (Perhaps we are listening to a bit too much NPR.)

I love my daughter's mind at work, but with each question I feel she is stripping away at the omnicient facade that makes us the grownups and her the kid. She is gradually getting the picture that Mommy and Daddy don’t know everything after all. And by the time she is ten she will realize that Mommy and Daddy know nothing. How disillusioned she will be.

Sometimes, when the stars are lined up just so and the earth is tilting at that perfect angle between day and night, Esther and I are almost like lovers. She strokes my hair and asks me to read her a book. I tell her I will, just after I check on Isla to make sure she has fallen asleep. I lean in to kiss her nose as I rise and she grabs my left arm to feel the moles that grow on its fleshy backside. Those moles that have been her security blanket since she was a baby. She clings, I linger, breathing her in, all of it, her , me, us. She says, “Mummy I want you.” I say, “ I know Essie, I won’t be long.”

I can’t help thinking about young lovers going through the ritual of goodbye again and again before it sticks. They keep coming back for one last kiss, one last lingering, swaying embrace, one last whispered endearment. This is nice. I love how close we can be without smothering each other. It is not often that two people can be so comfortable with each other. It will fade, I know. It will end. I am not like this with my mother. Esther won’t be like this with me forever. We will become physical strangers someday. I will annoy the crap out of her with my incessant questions, constantly trying to pry information out of her. And she will shut herself up tight as a clam, for fear of being misunderstood, judged, criticized. Our love will become more obligatory, more cerebral, less passionate. If I am anything like my mother, it will be something that is unspoken, always there so as to go unnoticed, taken for granted. I am not looking forward to that time. In the meantime, I will enjoy this little passionate love affair of ours.

The other afternoon Essie was playing, “nap.” She had applied copious amounts of lipstick to her face and climbed into bed this way. She propped herself up on pillows like some sort of movie star. When I went to kiss her, she smiled and turned her head, presenting her cheek so I wouldn’t mess up her make up. This move was so natural and unscripted, I am convinced she was a Hollywood actress in her past life.

Her ego is so strong. She was waiting for her boy cousins to come over last week and it was as if she was starring in her own movie. She had the perfect outfit picked out and was rehearsing arrival scenarios to pick the best one she wanted them to find her in. She ended up perched on the arm of a chair with her favorite music of the week, Brigid Boden, playing like a soundtrack. She crossed her legs and placed her hands in her lap, looking lovely and aloof like a grown woman in the body of a four-year-old girl. Watching her wander around the house, so immersed in the music and the emotions it conjures, I see a teenager. I see myself. yikes.


Esther is officially a pre-school dropout. She told me she hated school one too many times so she doesn’t go anymore. Why should a kid learn to hate school when she is just barely four? She shouldn’t start hating school until she is at least 12. So far, she hasn’t really noticed that she doesn’t go anymore and I don’t know if she will. She was so proud to be a schoolgirl the first week she went, but the novelty wore off quickly when the reality that there were strict rules, a tight schedule to follow, and a "time out chair" set in. The harshest reality was that she was hustled out of the house by her dad in the early-morning hours while Isla and I stayed curled up in front of the fire. Esther, good surrogate mother that she is, doesn’t want to miss a moment of Isla’s development. She likes having a say in what happens with her little sister.

So she spends her three flexible mornings a week at Martha’s house where most of her friends are anyways. Martha’s is four-year-old heaven. Martha has raised just about everyone in this town under 42. She has forty years worth of dress-up clothes and walls lined with books begging to be borrowed. All the rooms of Martha's old home are child-friendly and open for roaming. Martha has a record player with lots of records and an old piano in the living room but no T.V. Martha has enough Legos to make a tower that reaches the ceiling. Martha takes the kids outside for fresh air everyday no matter the weather. I want to go to Martha's. So do all the other mothers in town. You can tell by the way we linger during drop off and pickup, hoping to soak up some of the wise sage aura that is Martha. They do plays like Peter and the Wolf and Firebird and Three Little Pigs at Martha’s. I can’t think of a better place for my daughter to be. School can wait.

Isla has really turned a corner and is now the great smiling baby. She no longer ends each nursing session in tears but instead pops up off the boob to smile at me and coo and gurgle and mouth words unknown to us both. She is happy. Thank god she is happy. I have been worried, after all the anti-emetic drugs I had to take during my pregnancy from hell, that she would come out all wrong. I have been afraid that she was going to be a whiny, serious, fussy baby who was easily upset and who didn’t smile. I've never felt comfortable with seriousness. Without a certain degree of silliness in every situation. But smile she does. She flirts. She squeals with glee when I bend down to her and let my hair brush across her face. Her little arms and legs wave madly about and her smile turns on and off like a neon sign with a short circuit. It makes life here alone with her so much more pleasant. I am not longer pacing the floor with a crying, joyless baby. I am dancing around the house with a happy, appreciative, comfy baby.


I was thinking last night about how my passionate relationship with Esther was forged from the first few weeks she was here. I can remember walking the floor with her, dancing, waltzing, swaying, bouncing her little fussy body around well past my bedtime while she was going through what we liked to call her “witching hour” thing. Every night, just as Ian would be getting home from work, she became maddeningly inconsolable and we, neophyte parents, became baby jugglers in our very own family circus trying to find some way to get her to stop crying. Of course each of us thought we had the secret touch but in all actuality, neither of us had a clue. Ian would be convinced she needed the daddy "football hold," and I would try my lounge singer routine, going through my sad repertoire of old Bonnie Rait, CSN and Bob Marley songs again and again.

I can remember one night when I was seeing double with exhaustion and Esther wouldn’t settle down. I paced back and forth in the bedroom like a drill sergeant using heavy steps and abrupt turns. My rage was palpable. Ian luckily intervened and I all but slammed her into his arms and ran downstairs crying and ashamed of myself. I then had to go outside and take deep sobbing breaths of icy January air to still the demons. Even then I had to keep my hands over my ears to stop the sounds of her car alarm wail.

I think of this night, and many other similar nights, and how Essie and I have a tinge of anger flavoring our relationship. Her anger towards me this summer while I was pregnant was extreme and I can’t say I didn’t feel it too. Then Isla came into our life and her effect was like a gauzy veil of peace had been draped over our home. The yelling stopped, the arguing stopped, and the anger dissipated. Isla, it seems, is our little peacemaker.

I took her out in the front pack on snowshoes this morning. I might be imagining it but I think she likes the sound of snow crunching underfoot. She seems to smile and get all peaceful as soon as she hears it. Her little cheeks grew pink as we walked. Stray snowflakes floated down to meet them. In the front pack her face is always turned up towards mine, so all she sees is mummy's face and sky and snow.

Star Housekeeper

Another Christmas has come and gone.
Esther didn’t realize it was Christmas day when she woke up. She came into our room to show me her freshly- painted fingernails, another new obsession, and I asked her if she thought Santa had come in the night. She raised her eyebrows and said nothing. Then she ran downstairs to check and came running back up to say the very same words I said so many times as a child, “He came, Santa came.” She topped it by adding, “It’s a splendid Christmas.” and “How wonderful.”

Isla’s eyes are growing bluer each day. She is also talking to us more and more. The whites of her eyes seem blue as well. Her eyebrows have a lovely arch which makes me try to picture her as a grown up girl. She has a persistent furrow in her brow, the look of constant consternation, that makes me worry she is going to be a serious child. I asked Ian the other night what we would do with a serious child. I can’t imagine it really. She is so different from Esther in many ways already.

Esther handles her quite roughly in the guise of giving her hugs and kisses. She also plays dangerously close to her. I had to read a chapter on siblings in “Girlfriends Guide to the First Year” to realize that this could be a passive form of aggression towards the baby. Duh. Meanwhile I have been bragging about how completely seamless it has been introducing Isla into the family. “Esther isn’t jealous at all. She just adores her baby sister.” Maybe so, but she also takes pleasure in making her cry. She has mastered the art of passive aggression at age four.

I went to my six-week postnatal checkup yesterday. Esther came along and watched the midwife give me an internal exam. She had this look of sheer naughtiness on her face as if she knew this was a rare opportunity to see someone putting their hand up mummy’s “booga wooga” and after a few seconds of watching this, her eyes big and round, she said, “Does it tickle mummy?”

I weighed in at 171 pounds and was kind of depressed by this. I read that the longing that most women have to get their old self back is an illusion. There is no old self left to retrieve. That girl; single, childless, lean and wild, is gone forever. I am the mother of two now. The mother of two. Mother.

I have developed a strange habit. The more time I spend cleaning this house, the more obsessed I become with celebrities. I find myself thinking about Jennifer Aniston or Kate Winslet each and every time I vacuum. I imagine what it must be like to lead a life completely free of dust and dander and clutter. To travel through this life without ever once having to plug in and push around this cumbersome machine that sucks up the dirt and debris of everyday life. I definitely need to get out more.

Heigh ho Sister

I read an article in the NYT yesterday about kids and technology. Over-zealous parents are hooking their 8-month-old children up to computers in hopes of cultivating their technological skills early and increasing their intelligence. This is alarming. What got me the most was the line about how the marketing of these educational products for kids feeds off parents assumption that their children are more intelligent than the average child simply because they can point and click or recite the alphabet when they are only one. I saw myself in that description and cringed at the thought that I was no better than the masses, so tempted to consider my offspring advanced, gifted, above average.

It is hard not to do this, I suppose, when their little minds are so incredibly retentive and our minds are so spent. I mean, on most days, Esther is Einstein compared to me. Especially right after a nap where it seems as if she went to Harvard while she was sleeping. She wakes up filled with stories and memories of things that happened months and months ago in great detail. "Remember in Maine when we got to the beach just in time because we are so clever and all my cousins were on the steps waiting for me and said, 'Esther's here, Esther's here' and just as we got out of the car the ice cream man came and I got that disgusting bubble gum flavored ice cream that stuck to my teeth and for the rest of the time you ordered me that brown ice cream on a wooden stick instead?" Woah.

It's hard not to hear this stuff and think, "oh my, the mind on this kid." It's so hard not to see them learning and growing and drawing and thinking in that fresh and new way they have and not believe that they know something we don’t. That they are capable of things we were never capable of. If only we just nudge them, nudge nudge, along lest they lose focus.

Ian and Isla are upstairs in our bed. She is asleep on his chest, snorting away through her congested little nose. His large hand looks so lovely resting gently on her back. His hands look especially strong and comforting when they are anywhere near his children. He often holds Isla’s hand when I nurse her in bed and the contrast between tiny and vulnerable and big and safe is so stark. It reminds me of when Esther was obsessed with the difference between men and women and kept saying, "Daddy's a man." "How do you know he's a man?" I would ask. "Because he has big hands and a scratchy face."

Watching Ian together with his daughters, I have to wonder if he finds the experience of being father to two girls as moving as I find the sight of it. He doesn’t communicate his feelings much, okay not at all, so I am left to guess.

We have colds. Esther was barking last week and spewing yellow snot from her nose. Isla has no chance of escaping the germs. I keep catching Esther with her nose and lips in Isla’s mouth. She says she likes the way it feels when Isla sucks her lips.

I must be the most permissive parent in the world. If anyone could witness Esther manhandling her baby sister on the couch, pulling her out of her basket and into her lap for some serious loving, they might accuse me of being neglectful. I don’t have the heart to stop her. She loves her little sister and her little sister loves her. She just doesn’t know it yet. I have also found that the more I resist and squelch and scold, the more she desires to do what I have forbidden her to do. If I just show her I trust her, within reason, she comes away more confident and less likely to seek attention by abusing the baby. Yesterday Essie had Isla on her knee (on the floor of course) and was playing, “This is the way the ladies ride, this is the way the gentleman ride.” Isla was contentedly bouncing up and down, mouth open wide, on big sister’s knee and Esther was laughing ecstatically. She is overjoyed with her new plaything.

It takes the stress off me as well, having someone else to play with Isla when she cries. Esther always gets there first. She is the better mommy here. Much more attentive, less distracted. I love seeing them together. Esther lay down next to Isla on the floor and told her that she loved her. There is no quantifying that moment. It will stay with me until the next time Esther makes Isla cry. That should be any minute now.

Domestic Servitude

Isla and I are like secret lovers forced to steal moments together without being found out by my first born. I find myself suppressing the urge to coo and fawn over her in the presence of Esther for fear of making her jealous. This is not fair to Isla, I know, yet the thought of spending countless hours with my eyes glued on her, talking nonsense with my ridiculously high-pitched baby voice on, makes me sad. Sad because to keep my infant stimulated involves a certain amount of ignoring my first born and leaving her to play make believe for hours on end while mummy tends to the baby. I have noticed that her penchant for make believe has grown more elaborate as if she knows she needs to tune out and leave us alone. I appreciate this but I sometimes feel like I am missing her childhood. Yet I also feel the powerful pull of this sweet infant, dying for some up close and personal attention and not always getting it. Is this the way it has to be? Am I being too sensitive of Esther’s feelings? What of mothers of three, four, five or six children? Did they feel this way? Did they feel torn? Did they have time or energy to care?

This is made all the more distressing by the fact that Esther has grown and matured behind my back somehow. She glides around the house saying “please” and “thank you” and “okay mom” with a nod of the head that is just so unlike her. She still has her moments when overtired or frustrated beyond reason yet mostly she is some alien child from another world come to replace the little whirling dervish of a demon who lived here while I was pregnant.

The best quality time I get with Isla is during the night when we are up nursing. We lie in bed or sit in the enormous chair in the corner by the light of the Christmas candle and she slurps and snorts and sucks and gulps in an ever-increasing frenzy until she passes out from sheer elation or lack of oxygen, I am not sure which. Then she buries her sticky face into my breast or belly and goes all quiet and peaceful and lovely. I pick her up gingerly to my chest and try to coax a burp from her and she instinctively curls up her legs like a little tree frog. Her sticky frog hands feel warm on my neck. Her little fingernails scratch me. She feels so vulnerable and tiny at these times. My little creature, my little limpit, my baby, my child.

The power of a princess dress

The neighbors came by today and brought Essie a hand-me-down princess dress complete with tiara. Esther snatched the bag then disappeared upstairs to put on the dress and tiara and never made another appearance again. Instead, she spent most of the day in front of the mirror or in her bed, fully immersed in the role of fair maiden. She needed very little supervision or input from anyone.

Like any woman who knows she is wearing the perfect outfit and looks great, she was floating above it all. She was brimming with confidence and potential and nothing could bring her back down to earth. She played make believe all day, discussing who was the loveliest in the land, where her prince was, where the evil queen was and who would kill the dragons. She ruled her own land in which all was as she wished. No one could touch her as long as she was wearing this dress.

How telling. The reason I am feeling so down and insecure is mostly because I can’t fit in any of my clothes, too small for maternity, too big for my usuals. No amount of self coaching and positive thinking can help change the reflection in the mirror that screams, “vulnerable, unattractive, woman in ill-fitting clothes.” Thus I am rendered powerless despite the fact that I just pulled off one of nature’s most powerful feats, giving birth. Until I find my princess dress, I cannot properly rule my world.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Little Plastic Bracelet

While stealing a little snuggle with husband this morning before he jumped out of bed and ran away, I felt that familiar stirring that results from simply feeling the warmth of his skin through his pajamas. Funny, I vaguely recall he used to sleep naked when we were first married. I was shocked really that I could feel this way so soon again and any thoughts of acting on them were quickly erased by three things. The first was the fact of my still swollen belly, paunching out so blatantly, hanging off to one side like an appendage, between us. The second was the sheer hugeness of my pendulant, leaky breasts. More like loaded weapons than play things. And lastly, baby Isla, fussing in her basinette at the foot of the bed as if to rescue me from having to face the demons that are my poor body image. It is a burden, really to be married to such an impossibly lean and unencumbered man. My husband has the stomach of a 16 year old, still, at age 50.

My mom called yesterday to tell me that she was cleaning out her bedside table drawer and came upon a tiny plastic hospital bracelet with the inscription: Baby girl Shaw, 12.20 65, 7:39 p.m. My I.D. bracelet. As she relayed this, she went silent several times. She kept repeating, “it’s so tiny,” bringing herself to tears each time. She then threatened to hang up out of sheer embarrassment. I loved this conversation. I had just been thinking about how my mother can't bring herself to say “I love you” because it makes her feel false and embarrassed. How I have never heard her say this to me, yet I have never once doubted that she does. That very same day, she inadvertently showed me that I was right.

Last night, as I tiptoed past Esther’s room where Ian was purportedly putting Esther to bed. I saw a very different scenario. Esther was sitting up reading Ian a story while he lay, snoring, in her bed. Poor, overworked Daddy finds it impossible to stay awake while reading children's books. He falls asleep mid sentence, nods a bit, then continues again. Esther gets really frustrated by this and has apparently figured out a solution. Her little voice was chatting away happily, telling the story of Snow White almost verbatim from the book we have read to her a thousand times over. Little minds are so retentive. She remembers words she doesn’t even know the meaning of. "And they were so enchanted by her beauty that they let her sleep.When she awoke and saw the dwarves she felt very frightened." This might be exactly how Daddy feels when he wakes up to find a four-year-old reading to him.

reality t.v.

Changing Isla’s diaper, a task that should only take a few minutes often stretches into half hours involving frequent handwashing, changing of the entire changing table linens, doing a load of laundry, and changing three different pairs of diapers and outfits before we are finished.

I am still fat, tired and alarmingly squishy in the middle. Esther stepped on my stomach in bed the other morning and I screeched like a child and doubled over crying. It is hard to describe the feeling of a sharp blow to the empty womb. It’s like my insides are totally exposed. My womb is an open wound where once it was a blossoming, rock hard, life-carrying vessel. I remember this same empty feeling after giving birth to Esther. It is as if there is just this big, vacuous space, and my insides are in danger of falling out if I don’t’ tread lightly. I am so happy to have baby on the outside, yet I feel as if I have lost something.

Speaking of losing something...
A substantial piece of my placenta came out the other day while I was peeing. I examined it for a few minutes while standing over the toilet, unsure of whether I should save it, show it to Ian or just flush it away and forget I ever saw it. I ended up flushing it. I opened my hand and let it drop into the water, flushed it down and washed my hands. Gone. The last remnant of my little Isla living inside of me just swirled down the toilet and flowed into the earth. How bizarre, really. I called my midwife to make sure I hadn’t given birth to an alien and she reassured me that this was normal and I wasn’t in any danger as long as I didn’t have any fever or excessive abdominal pain.

I am trying to get to know this new little person in my house, but she won’t stop sleeping long enough for me to learn who she is. I suppose it has only been a few weeks yet I am anxious to understand her, to know her. She still sleeps so much. When awake she is just quietly alert, taking it all in. A pretty peaceful child so far.

It is coming back to me now. Being the mother of a little baby. The details, the small things. Pushing a stroller down the dirt road, determined to get some fresh air, some exercise, some sanity, but the stroller is empty because you are carrying your infant child who is crying. You are miles from home because she was sleeping and the walking felt so good. Now she is awake and crying, and your back is screaming, yet you continue to carry with one arm, and push with the other.

Ian and Esther are now dancing in the living room to, “I Could Have Danced all Night,” from My Fair Lady. We listen to this soundtrack again and again. It gets us through the dark November evenings. Whenever this song comes on, Essie grabs Ian’s hand and they go to the living room and dance romantically. A little girl and her daddy. A father and his daughter. I am jealous sometimes of their easy way with each other. I feel that tingly scalp, heart squeeze thing when I watch this and resist the urge to hunt down the video camera and miss the whole moment in the process. Will Esther ever forgive me for having so little to show her, any moving pictures to prove to her that she and her daddy had the greatest love of all when she was too young to remember?


Today I told Esther that Daddy was photographing a wedding where two men were marrying each other. She made a very funny face, looking alarmed, and finally said, “Men can’t wear dresses.” That’s it. It all comes down to the dress, the fancy shoes, the princess outfit.

The other morning in a rare moment of alone time, Esther asked me what it was like when she was born. I did my best to describe it to her in the greatest possible detail and I eventually started to weep. We sat on the floor and I held her and told her the story of how beautiful she was and how amazing it was to meet her for the first time and I couldn’t stop crying. Just four years ago, I gave birth to this child. Now she was sitting in my lap, asking me grownup questions and understanding grownup thoughts and emotions. Or at least she is doing a great job of humoring me.

Baby Isla continues to sleep and I continue to write about Esther as if the new baby didn’t exist. We are still in the honeymoon stage of things here. Isla just sleeps. When her little eyes do open she looks around like a curious little monkey. Her small round head rests on my chest after nursing and her wide eyes calmly take it all in. It makes me wonder what in the world is going on in her little mind. What is she thinking, feeling, seeing, experiencing? Something is so animalistic about her manner. She reminds me of a frightened little bird, taken in by the warmth and gentle touch of the human being that is caring for her but still scared shitless about the vastness of the world around her, the foreignness, the newness.

I can’t stop writing about Esther. She has miraculously transformed into a delightful, verbal, interesting, spontaneous, relaxed, humorful, happy, helpful, loving, gentle, borderline patient-child. Praise the lord.

She is almost four and the change has been phenomenal. I am convinced that all the pre-Isla unrest had to do with her being unsure of what would happen once we had another baby. She kept hearing about this “new baby” and perhaps she thought that she was being replaced. That she was going to be sent back, traded in, recycled. Once she realized we would live here together in relative harmony, she relaxed and let her true, lovely personality shine through.

Mornings, when we are all in bed together, Esther revels in the scene of the “us”. She takes such comfort in that and so do I. I am really liking this, the newly-expanded family, so far, though the darkness that comes this time of year is never far away. Having a small baby in the house can be so completely life-giving then extraordinarily energy sucking and isolating at the same time.


It’s happened. The baby is here. Isla is here. Though briefly poignant, the first meeting between Esther and her new baby sister was far from magical. When Esther first came in the room she wore the strangest expression on her face. It was sheer conflict. There she was, dressed like a princess, mouth turned down, calm and curious. She got right up on the bed with the baby and me and wanted to hold her, but her face and eyes showed ambivalence. As if she knew she was supposed to feel elation but only felt confusion. After a tension- ridden hour of visiting, tug of warring and walking on eggshells to avoid setting this fragile four-year-old into tantrum orbit, we decided it would be best if Daddy took her home. She left in tears, clicking down the long hospital corridor in her plastic high heels and flowing dress, sobbing “I want to stay with Mummy” over and over. Had I been less exhausted, I might have cried too.

We have been home for five days and I am having that post-natal anticlimax thing going on. I want to go back to the hospital, to the intensity, to the contractions, to the immense focus it took to get this new child into our world. I want to revisit her birth again and again and again. She is beautiful. More like Ian than Esther was. She is calm and subdued, a tired little girl.

Esther loves her and hates her all the same. She is mostly very good with her but gets possessive and bossy and controlling. She keeps trying to wheel the bassinette, with baby in it, into her room because, as she frequently reminds us, she is her baby, not ours. The other day after we had a little spat, she came to me as I was nursing Isla and said, “I’m going away to another land because you are so mean. I would rather be with George Bush.” Hmmm.

I struggled to keep a straight face when she said this because if she detects that I am laughing at her all hell breaks loose. She is having such a hard time with her emotions and so am I. I have cried so much since we brought Isla home. Though I know that my hormones are in flux, it is more than that. I feel enormous guilt about doing this to Esther.

She looks so big to me now, like she doubled in size while I was in the hospital. She grew up while I was pregnant and I missed it. I am still too weak to pick her up though I promised I would as soon as I wasn’t pregnant anymore. Her hands and feet are huge compared to baby Isla’s. And her urge to control me is stronger than ever.