Thursday, April 27, 2006

happy travelers

We’re home from our trip. Ten days of lollygagging about the green meadows and narrow streets of Great Britain. Ten days without pushing a vacuum cleaner or folding laundry or going to the supermarket. Ten days free of the pressure to keep my children intellectually stimulated because, in a foreign land, just turning on the light, the faucet, or the radio can be a learning experience.

I realized before we left just how difficult it is for a child to grasp the concept of time. The day before we left for England I finally made it clear to Esther that we were leaving “tomorrow.” “Tomorrow?” she said. ”How old will I be then? Will I be five then?” “No Sweet. You’ll be one day older than you are today. You’ll go to bed tonight after you eat supper and when you wake up, that will be tomorrow,” I said, not sure I wasn’t making her more confused. Then she got it. Her eyes got big and she said, “Just one more sleep until we go to England?” Then she turned to her little baby sister and said, “Isla, you’re going to learn how to say vitamin.” (think vittles, that’s the way her daddy says it.)

I’m still amazed at how smooth the whole trip went. The prospect of a six-hour Transatlantic flight with a five-month old and a four-year old had been looming huge and scary over my world for months. I lay awake each night with Isla at my breast as all these twisted thoughts about the irresponsibility of taking small children so far from home, and so high in the sky, buzzed around in my head. There is no worse time to ruminate than in the middle of the night when you’re surrounded by the kind of endless darkness that sucks all rational thought right out of you.

Now here I am back home, staring at the mile high pile of dirty laundry and the parched houseplants, wondering where we can go next. Okay, it wasn’t stress free by any means --and the ultimately bad decision to surpass downtown London to see a few lions and a giraffe at the zoo will haunt us for months--but the whole car, taxi, airport, airplane, train routine wasn’t so daunting after all. In fact, I might even feel inclined to pat myself on the back for being such an adept traveling parent if it weren’t for the couple on our flight (significantly younger and calmer than us) who were traveling with four children. As with athletic prowess or artistic talent, it’s good to remember the art of parenting comes naturally to some people.

If I had to attribute the success of our trip to one thing, I would say………snacks. To narrow it down even further… string cheese.

Like magic, the plane pushed off from the gate just minutes after we settled in and we were in the air quickly. Esther was fascinated by all of it, especially the flight attendants shoes, and sensing her wide-eyed excitement helped me to focus on the wonder rather than the horror. She did fall apart briefly after dinner and started to exhale violently out of her nostrils, like a dog with a bee up its nose, in response to the dry air. This snorting is an annoying little quirk of hers that I would rather keep at home. Luckily most passengers were wearing headphones. She started whimpering for me so Ian and I switched seats and I got her to put her head on my lap and fall asleep. Just two hours into the transatlantic flight that had filled me with anxiety for weeks, we had two sleeping children, some trashy magazines to read and no turbulence. In short, bliss.

Three hours later Esther woke up refreshed and still excited. Most of the passengers were asleep and it felt like we were floating along in this quiet, slightly humming little bubble. “Why does it feel like we’re not flying?” she said. “ I have no idea,” I said. “But isn’t it cool.” “Are we in Londond?” she asked adding that extra “d” that she thinks belongs on all words ending with “n.”

The sky grew lighter and pinker as we hurled towards the rising sun. As we descended into London I saw Windsor Castle, the Eye, the neon lights of Picadilly Circus, and the river Thames winding its way like a dark ,glossy snake across the landscape. As we neared touchdown, Esther had her arms outstretched like wings as she watched the screen that showed a pixilated plane inching towards the land. The plane heaved and shook as we touched down and I checked Esther’s face to see if she felt even the slightest bit of apprehension. “That was the earth that made that noise,” she said. “That was us hitting the earth.” Nothing but sheer awe in that little four-year-old brain. As it should be.

Arriving in London after being in Boston is like going from nobody to royalty overnight. That is, of course, if you are traveling with small children. As soon as we got off the plane velvet ropes dropped, secret doors opened and official looking people waved us past the throngs to the front of lines. How simple this is, yet how novel. Obviously no one wants to hear screaming babies while waiting in long lines to go through customs so why not just let them all through first. Would they ever think of this in America? Not in the airports I have traveled through.

As soon as we got off the airplane and into the long corridors that led to the baggage claim I began searching for a place to change Isla. Just a few hundred steps later a sign appeared in front of me saying “Mother’s with Babies Room.” I opened the door to find a big clean, tiled room with a chair for nursing, and a long, clean changing table complete with clean pad, a clean roll of paper liner and a clean sink and garbage bin within arms reach. Ahhhh. Did I mention how clean it was? I soon learned that these mother havens are all over Great Britain. They even have family bathrooms so you don’t have to play the logistical children juggling game when trying to get everyone, and yourselves, to the toilet.

On the way to baggage claim, we passed the family with the four kids and saw a still sleeping four-year-old riding on top of a crying two- year -old in a one-child stroller.

Ian’s mother was delighted to finally meet little Isla and have her quiet house filled with noise and clutter for a while. Within ten minutes Isla was in Granny’s arms happily sucking her thumb and Esther was down on the rug playing make-believe just like she does at home. The only difference was how often she used the word “quite” and “rather”, words she apparently picked up in the short car ride from the airport with Ian’s sister Jenny. ‘The queen was quite angry and her horse was rather wild,” she said to no one in particular as she cantered her My Little Pony around the living room.

Would it sound bad if I said the best thing about the English, besides their respect for families, is pubs? There were two of them within walking distance from where we stayed. This meant that Ian and I had our first date since Isla came into our world and it was as easy as putting the children to bed, putting Granny on alert, walking out the door and down the brick footpath. I told Ian’s older sister about our date, the next day and she asked, “And did you find something to talk about?” Funny she should say that because it was a bit dicey in the beginning , coming face to face with my husband and feeling a strange awkwardness of not having children around to keep us from focusing on each other and not immediately having a lot to talk about because we are soooo out of practice. But we soon got onto the fruitful topic of the queen. God Save the Queen.

Friday, April 07, 2006

agony and ecstasy

Isla grew again when I wasn’t looking. I’d like to keep her under constant video or photographic surveillance to see it actually happening like you do in those frame- by -frame images of a plant sprouting from seed. I noticed last night as I transferred her into the crib --yes I finally admitted that it was time to say goodbye to the bassinette before I needed a shoehorn to get her into it. I stooped over to slide my hands underneath her ever so delicately and once my hands were in place, ready to lift, I froze. She lay there on her side all chubby and long, calves and forearms bulging out beyond her pajama hems. I felt like I had never seen her before. Honey I blew up the kid.

She has also grown cheeky and squirmy. Three a.m. can find her regularly manhandling me in bed. She sucks vigorously away while pushing off her legs again and again, using my stomach as a stairmaster. She is cocky with my breasts. I can sense it in her body language. The way she plays with them, turning her head away for long periods of time then zooming back in like an owl on a field mouse. No longer mere sustenance, they are objects for manipulation. Most of all, they are hers and she knows it. Isla has grown so confident in her status as boobmeister that she has become nonchalant about nursing. She sometimes gets me to whip them out then makes a show of sucking her hand instead. Other times she is more discreet. She slides her hand up her face while nursing, covering her mouth and nose, shielding my vision, then slips her thumb in, leaving my nipple cold and rejected in the open air.

I read somewhere that four-year-olds can tend toward obnoxiousness. Be it the power of suggestion or be it human development, but we are certainly resembling that remark around here. They say that this is the age of humor. Esther has always been a giggler. But her giggling is more goofy, slapstick kind of humor, or just plain giddiness, rather than any intellectual perception of something as funny. The thought of us all having a similar sense of humor is encouraging. I was delighted to hear Esther burst out laughing while we were reading Pippi Longstocking the other night. “We’re going to the Circus,” little Thomas and Annika tell Pippi. “Do you want to come?” “I don’t know,” Pippi replies. “Does it hurt?” Esther even repeated the punch line at breakfast the next morning. “Does it hurt?” she said, cracking herself up all over again.

We laugh a lot around here. But sometimes we cringe. Esther’s blossoming identity isn’t always funny. It often entails trying out new personas, complete with voices and body language, and ends up as a frightening mixture of all the characters she has ever seen or heard before. Let’s see, a dash of Veruca Salt, a pinch of Violet Beauregard, a half teaspoon of baby sister Isla, a heaping tablespoon of the BFG, a quarter cup of Snow White’s vain stepmother and two cups of every demure princess she has ever read about. Mix that together with a good dose of older boy cousins’ megaphone volume and obsession with the words “poop” and “stupid” and you have a major personality train wreck.

Fun and games are good. When you know the rules. Dinner time, which used to promise a bit of civilized conversation, is now, apparently, game hour. Not just any games, these games are Esther’s games. Conceived of and moderated by Esther. Her newest game is a guessing game. She talks into her hand then we guess what she said. No context, no clues, no hints, just pure guessing. She buries her face in her hands. “Guess what I just said,” she says, mouth full of chewed up chicken tender peeking through grinning teeth.
“Uh, I’ve really no idea Essie,” I say.
“Mum, you have to guess okay,” she says sternly, looking as if she might be imitating me. “I’ll say it one more time.”
Her face disappears again. No sound, not even mumbling.
“Can you guess?”
“Umm, you said you can’t wait to take a bath and get into bed,” I venture.
“Nooo, silly. Guess again”
“Did you say you love your baby sister?”
“Did you say you want to mop the floor?”
“Noooooo. Keep on guessing,” giggle giggle.
“Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Macrament.”
“Nooooo. Guess again.”
“Eat your dinner Esther. It’s getting cold,” I say, cringing at my own motherese. “Muummmmm. Guess what I said.”
“I have no idea what you said Essie,” I bark. “This is kind of a silly game don’t you think?”

Food-exposing grin disappears, giggles stop. It is like that moment in a movie when the overly sweet character you had a bad feeling about snaps and the true, nasty person comes out. I feel instant regret. “It is not a silly game you BAD mummy,” she screeches as she pushes back her chair, hops down and runs across the room to sulk on the couch. “Esther come back,” we both say at the same time. “You haven’t touched your dinner.”
“ I’m sad," she says. "I wish I never had any parents like you. I never should have choosed you. I’m not going to be your little daughter anymore.”

High pitched, pleading, back pedaling damage control ensues. “It’s not a silly game. I’m sorry I said that," I say. "Maybe we could just change the rules a bit so it is easier for us to play?"
I feel so whimpy doing this. Having to take back every insensitive, but often true, thing I say. Nothing in life prepares you for this. Except maybe, dealing with your moody, teen-aged older sister when she has just woken up from an afternoon nap. I can remember trying real hard not to make my voice sound “funny” or, heaven forbid, look at her just a second too long.

Things can go from swimmingly grand to wretchedly wrong in a heartbeat when you’re four. That is what happened the other day as we gaily traipsed through the woods to grandmother’s house. Esther was breezily chasing our dog Ruby around in circles, giggling, falling down, getting up and running again. We were moving along at a good pace, a miracle in itself, when, all of a sudden, fate intervened. She ran too close to me and hit her head on the metal frame of the backpack I was carrying Isla in. Game over. She shrieked, collapsed into a heap and started to wail. I felt for her. I know what it is like to hit your head. It hurts. There is a direct neural pathway between the skull and the brain. When your skull is fondled, inner peace results. When it is thumped, rage and irritation rise up and roar. Yet the screeching, the writhing, the waterworks coming from my four-year-old are a bit too high pitched. A bit too dramatic. I wasn’t prepared for this. I am still stuck in the delightful levity of the moment directly preceding this one and I want it back. I want to hold the pain and frustration at bay, so I try to dismiss it.

“Whoops, I bet that hurt,” I chirp, doing my best to kneel down and hug her without tipping over from the weight of Isla on my back. “I am so sorry you hit your head but it is still a beautiful day and we’re still having fun.” Of course the baby starts fussing at this point, so I get up and start walking. “I’m tired,” Esther says, testing my concern for the baby vs. my concern for her. “I want to sit down right here on this rock, she announces. I can't go any further. ”
“Here we go,” I think. Resist, dismiss. "We're almost to Papa and Zsa Zsa's. They’ll be so happy to see you.”

She sits down and takes her shoe off, like she is challenging me to a duel. A battle of moods. I keep walking, desperate to keep Isla from throwing her own fit. Esther puts her shoe back on and trails behind at a glacial pace. Every time I stop to wait, she stops too. I can see the little wheels turning in her brain. Should she continue the downward spiral or let it go? “Let it go,” I coach under my breath. “Let it go.” Just then we round a bend in the trail and Papa and Zsa Zsa’s cozy little house comes into view. I can see my mother sitting on the front steps reading the paper and I can hear my father’s chain saw buzzing up on the hillside. Esther runs past me towards the house. Towards her grandmother. We’re out of the woods. For now.