There’s this thing that happens at our house: Ted gets home and wants to play with Rebecca while I finish making dinner. Rebecca howls for mommy. I’m not going to ignore Rebecca for very long, regardless of who the parent on call is. I’m often not successful directing her back to her dad, either, so she ends up cooking and snacking with me while Ted does something on his computer. It works out, except that I feel bad for Ted and occasionally jealous.

I want Rebecca and her dad to have a good relationship. I don’t care how often she goes to him for comfort or whether he can put her to bed at night, but I want them to enjoy each other’s company and seek it out. What do I do? They already have daddy-daughter dates for three hours on Saturday morning. Most other advice I’ve read suggests that if I’ve still got a mommy-focused kid after that, my options are to see it as a phase and ride it out, or else that I need to stop responding and strong-arm her into staying with her dad. I don’t believe in ignoring people I love, if there’s an alternative, so that’s not going to happen.

I’ve wondered if nursing and spending so much time with me were hurting her relationship with her dad. I’ve wondered if Ted’s just less fun, because he’s not as quick to figure out what she wants–he doesn’t have the context–and maybe he’s less likely to say yes to it–at least if it involves reading a book more than three times or starting something they won’t have time to finish. I’ve wondered if I should say “no” more often to make him look fun by comparison. I’ve wondered if I need to stop having so many boring grown-up conversations when Ted’s around, because maybe that makes him seem like the gateway to boring. In any case, I was stuck on the idea that our situation was someone’s fault, mostly mine.

Then I remembered something: love isn’t a zero sum game. Rebecca can have good relationships with both her parents, just like I can have more than one good relationship at a time. None of us are automatons who always go to the person we have the most intimate relationship with. When Rebecca’s relationship with her dad isn’t working right, that’s not about me unless I’m making it about me.

So no more guilt about being too awesome, at least not right now. I don’t know where the idea comes from that too much maternal attentiveness shuts out the father, but I think the reason it felt plausible to me was that it had a familiar emotional structure. It played on the fear that if you do something too well, you must be showing somebody else up. Typical schoolgirl socialization BS: Be careful how brightly you shine. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is exhorting you to do your best and do something amazing. You feel bad if you hold back, and you kinda bad if you don’t hold back, too. But none of that needs to apply to parenting.

The second thing I realized, once I got guilt out of the way and started thinking more clearly (and with some help from Playful Parenting again), is that Rebecca talks a lot about her dad during the day, as well as telling and requesting stories about father figures–but when he comes home, she distances herself. I’d thought it was bad luck that they were so out of sync, but it’s not. Rebecca spends enough time missing her dad that she’s standoffish and groggy with longing when they finally get together. She can’t reach out for the connection she couldn’t have without tromping back through all the pain of not having it. That’s when she insists on mommy instead.

Now that I know what’s going on and I’m not busy worrying about my role in things, I’m better at gently insisting that Rebecca and her dad connect. I know that’s what they both want, and that Rebecca needs a nudge. Now more and more often they’re giggling together or making off with the Doritos while I cook dinner, and everything’s just about how it should be.

The third thing I realized is, maybe Rebecca’s already hungry when her dad comes home, and when she’s hungry, she wants me. The whole transition would go more easily if we consciously incorporated a pre-dinner snack into our evening routine. Sometimes I overthink things.

Snake on a Plane / Notes on Mental Processes

The plane was coming down, on our last flight of the day. Your dad buckled you in. You wanted your seatbelt off, and you started to shout and fight against it. So I told your dad, pass me the rainbow snake! And I snapped it like a collar on my own neck, “Oh no! Get it off me, get it off!” You couldn’t quite reach the snake with your seatbelt on, but your dad helped rescue me. Then snake curled around your own leg and you took it off and on. Disaster-uh-verted.

One of my friends said that you’re a lot easier to redirect than her kid was at that age. I remembered that on the plane and decided it must be true. But if it is true, what business do I have being the one to redirect you, playing the heroic mom who rescues the dad? Wouldn’t it be better for him to solve it himself?

But Ted wouldn’t know it had to be the snake. Now, I couldn’t say why it had to be the snake–not a new toy, not a favorite toy–but it seemed to me that the snake would work, and none of your other toys would. I often feel that way when I’m redirecting you, and who can say if it’s true? Maybe I just surprised you by putting down my book and starting to play, and it was such a surprise and change of tone that you forgot all about the seatbelt.

Then yesterday afternoon I was reading Playful Parenting and eating chocolate cake, when I realized something: Having a snake around one’s neck is a lot like wearing a seatbelt. Get it off, get it off! Where you’d been powerless about getting buckled in, now I was powerless to the snake, and it was up to you and dad to rescue me. Even if you were stuck with your seatbelt, you could take the snake off and on, and that’s just what you did. That was why it had to be the snake.

It’s a good thing I’m so smart, eh? When I’m with you, sometimes I speak the language of dreams, but half the time I couldn’t tell you what I’m saying. It bothers me that much of what seems to make my parenting style work is invisible to Dad and me. I haven’t seen any experts list analogical thinking or ritualization as important skills for parents to cultivate, either, and I doubt that wrapping a snake around my neck looks particularly smart from the outside. When these communicative feats poke into the waking world, I’ve been naming them maternal charisma or toddler redirectability, but I suppose those factors are the tip of things unseen.

NB: For my later thoughts about the same situation and advice on how to do similar tricks, look here.

Parents Are Different

We don’t use time-outs or other kinds of punishments; most people do. Whenever I get into a conversation about toddler discipline, the conclusion seems to be that kids are different, and different kids respond better to different parenting approaches. It’s true that kids are different! And aside from being true, it’s a way of giving other parents the benefit of the doubt and affirming our diversity of styles. All of those are good things. So why do I find the line that all kids are different so unsatisfying?

For the first year and a half of Rebecca’s life, I heard the same rhetoric about a lot of differences that were unambiguously more practice-based than kid-based. When Rebecca was six months old, she ate grown-up food instead of baby food, rarely cried at night, and often peed or pooped in the potty when given the chance. A year later she was potty-trained. It’s not because she was special; it’s because we did babyled weaning (i.e. self-paced finger foods instead of baby food), cosleeping, and part-time elimination communication with her. I know there are kids who have different experiences with the same practices, because yes, kids are different, but I also know that these practices can work for most kids. Variations on them were the norm in a lot of times and places, before disposable diapers and before breastfeeding was discouraged.

Elimination communication, cosleeping, and babyled weaning were a good fit with me and my lifestyle, too. When Rebecca was a baby, the moments when she and I were in sync, sharing food or peeing at the same time or whatever–those were moments that fed my spirit and gave me the energy to take care of her all day. Even if they look like more work, the boost I got made them easier than the alternatives. Instead of saying Rebecca’s special, it would make more sense to point to the oddities of life as the stay-at-home mama to one babe, and how that brings out the side of me that gets excited about synchronized peeing. The same practices aren’t going to suit every other parent the same way they suited me, and that’s fine.

I suspect that something similar applies to discipline practices for toddlers. In Guatemala, for example, there are no Terrible Twos. According to Mosier and Rogoff’s research, as summarized here and here, Guatemalans tend to follow discipline strategies that maintain harmony with their toddlers–i.e. letting them do what they want–and rely on social modeling to grow them into cooperative people. Their approach emphasizes interdependence and group harmony more than we do, individual rights and independence less, and that’s what’s transmitted through their discipline style. Other traditional cultures with similar values apparently have similar results with their children. The fact that our culture has so many emotionally explosive and rebellious toddlers by contrast is evidence that our toddlers are ending up in more situations they can’t cope with, and that our typical combination of practices and social structure is hard on a lot of kids / parents / families. (Yeah, who knew?)

If different cultural practices mean different apparent temperaments, then practices matter more than a lot of people give them credit for. It’s silly to reduce all the differences in kids’ behavior and parents’ responses down to the kids’ temperaments. But this is where it gets tricky to talk and write about, because no one who says “kids are different” actually means that practices don’t matter, and all of us wonder about the differences between our kids and maybe the differences between ourselves as parents.  If those differences were the starting point for a discussion of discipline instead of its endpoint–if we talked directly about different personalities and values and motivations and how they play out–then I think I’d be more satisfied. I’m skeptical that things like time-outs really are best for most families, but when it comes down to it, all I know for sure is that they’re not right for us.

But what can you do practically with the knowledge that things are different in Guatemala? Reading these research summaries from the viewpoint of discipline makes them sound like an endorsement of positive parenting, but if positive discipline isn’t your thing, then maybe you notice other differences. For example, I’m thinking that Mayan children probably spend more time in mixed-age groups, which provide a richer context for observing pro-social behavior and trying it out. I’m going to analogize behavior learning to language learning now, because I’ve read that Hmong adults don’t talk to their babies. The babies learn how to talk anyway, because they’re surrounded by spoken social interactions. Most American mothers and other caregivers are more isolated or ghettoized, and so the amount they talk to babies makes more of a difference. Does that mean we need to be more explicit about our behavioral expectations, whereas kids with a richer social life would just pick them up? Maybe.

In any case, even if my childrearing has elements in common with various non-Western ones, the same practices mean something different when Rebecca and I spend most of our time alone with each other (and with maybe some uninvolved strangers), than they would in a context where she constantly saw people taking care of each other and deferring to each other’s needs. In my context, listening to Rebecca and looking for points of compromise says less about group interdependence, more about respecting her as an individual–and I hope ultimately about respecting other people as diverse individuals, too.

What I draw from the anthropology of parenting is a sense for what’s possible. Sometimes, when a conversation indirectly sends the message that one or the other of you must be doing it wrong–that it’s okay to have different parenting practices insofar as kids are different, but that it’s best not to talk about the differences in what you believe or in what nourishes your spirit–then it’s a relief to see how much diversity really is out there. That’s why, when I feel awkward about nursing my 2.5 year old in public, I remember this piece on “extended” breastfeeding in Mongolia and I feel better. Looking at anthropology also renews my focus on how parenting strategies transmit values. Nearly everyone behaves well enough eventually, by their culture’s standards, so maybe the real question is the one Alfie Kohn asks in Unconditional Parenting: Beyond how to behave, what are our kids learning about themselves and the world as a byproduct of our discipline approaches?

In Process

An addendum to The Two Year Old Thing:

A year ago, Rebecca was in her magical communication phase. She wasn’t talking much yet, but she used things around the house to lay out her ideas or convey what she wanted to do. I called it magic because it invoked patterns via imitation and association, following the same principles Frazer laid out for magic in The Golden Bough. It was also hard to classify otherwise, since it combined play, communication, instrumental action, and quasi-scientific exploration.

Rebecca’s current insistence on proper procedures is the descendent of that sort of magical play, with the addition that she’s more interested in binary oppositions than Levi-Strauss. She’s still focused on enacting patterns: on the steps and the ritual, on the aesthetics and experience, and most of all on acting in harmony with the order of the world. If I interpret Rebecca’s requests as primarily instrumental or goal-oriented, the way I’d understand an adult request–if I approach them as prose instead of poetry–then I’m translating them poorly, and it’s no wonder I’m getting frustrated.

To a grown-up it’s obvious that who gets you your ice cream or puts you in your car seat doesn’t matter, because the end results are the same. But I’m wondering, should that be obvious? What if the only reason it’s obvious is that my mom insisted that those things didn’t matter? What if the only reason it’s obvious is that we’re swimming in the culture of consumer capitalism, which obscures the ways that process shapes product? So, what if Rebecca’s right? What if it isn’t just anthropological wankery to insist that the structures of meaning we draw through our actions are as important as their intended outcomes?

Products basically are congealed processes. If you want a particular outcome, you’re selecting a snapshot taken from a much longer sequence of things that happen before and after, and it makes sense that a toddler would have to learn which moment of the sequence is supposedly the important one. I keep having my own moments, too, when the project of separating things into ends and means seems silly. It’s osmosis from living around someone who’s so focused on process, and it’s the result of spending all day reading her What Do People Do All Day. It’s the effect of being a stay-at-home mother, too, because my hours and audiences aren’t segmented the way they were in grad school. Rebecca and I follow the days from beginning to end and back again, and I enjoy watching slow changes over time.

There’s something reassuring about that point of view. Sometimes the house is cleaner, sometimes dinner has just been plated, sometimes you’re really tired–but it’s all steps in a dance, and the aim is to make the whole process graceful and good, not worry about getting the perfect shot of it. And lately I keep thinking, I need to pay more attention to the ethics of where my food comes from.

Things I Like: Fairview Gardens’ Community Supported Agriculture

We and our housemates joined the Fairview Gardens CSA at the beginning of last year, which means that we get a share of the farm’s produce. Once a week they set out boxes with a variety of vegetables, and we grab some of each or stick stuff we don’t want in the trade box. Then we pull stems and blemished stuff out of the discard box and go feed them to the goats, which is Rebecca’s favorite part of the experience.

I’d been trying to buy more things at the farmers’ market pretty much forever, but that never clicked. Getting a share of food at the farm every week clicked big time, and it changed the way I cook. The first thing is that I got more creative. I have trouble coming up with dinner ideas out of the blue, with the whole world of cuisine to choose from, and anyway, I don’t have time to be consulting recipes constantly. That means that when I got most of my vegetables from the grocery store, I ended up defaulting to the same meals a lot. Having a fixed set of vegetables I need to incorporate gives me a different starting point for menu planning, and it’s one that makes it easier to think creatively.

The CSA also pushed creativity via culinary boredom. After the second or third week of beets, I got tired of eating them in salads and started integrating them into stirfries and curries like I normally make. Now, I’d been worried about just that kind of situation–what if I get sick of having the same vegetables all the time?–but it turned out it wasn’t so much the ingredient I was sick of as the meal I was putting it in. So I started to really think about the flavors and textures of the produce I was working with, so that I could do new things with it. Even when I fucked up a meal, I still felt relatively okay about it. I mean, I was working with constraints, people! I had to use these beets. Most of the dishes I made were good, though, because I’d learned the ingredients’ properties in the course of getting bored with them. One time I made a pumpkin stew that was a cross between curry and mole–both stews thickened with nuts and using some of the same spices–and I have no idea if anyone else has done it before, but it won’t be the last time I make it. The CSA has also gotten me hooked on ingredients I rarely or never used before, like fava greens, turnips, and celery. A lot of new dishes came out of last year, and I’m looking forward to revisiting them this year.

As I become more aware of what my vegetables are doing in meals, I enjoy cooking and eating them more. CSA produce is tastier than grocery store produce maybe three quarters of the time, but I think that the level of attention I’m bringing contributes to my enjoyment more than strict quality difference. That’s probably why farmers’ markets didn’t convert me before.

Then there was another set of changes. Once I started cooking from the mindset of “I have this, let’s see what I can do with it,” I started using radish greens, leek greens, fennel and chard stems, even carrot tops–all vegetable parts I would’ve discarded before. I’m not sure this is always an improvement, per se, but it’s a change in aesthetic. Food from recipes and from restaurants, with their expectations of uniformity, is starting to seem oddly neat and controlled to me, like running into formal gardens when you expect a forest. Being a mother has gotten me less fond of orderly institutional structures and more interested in following processes, in watching the quirky ways things grow. And that points to another way the CSA has changed me: I’m starting to approach vegetables as plants (!) instead of as standardized products that fit into standardized recipes. I’m starting to become much more interested in gardening, too.

I feel silly that I’m only jumping on this bandwagon now, when I have friends who’ve been there for years. On the other hand, I’m not sure that joining the CSA earlier would’ve had the same effect on me. Ever since I was pregnant with Rebecca and then started nursing her, my body has been more particular about its dietary needs, and that (plus the difficulties of childcare) makes the high-end restaurant food I used to idolize less appealing. If a meal doesn’t satisfy me nutritionally, then the flavors are just a gimmick. I’m also more patient with restricted choices now, whereas before I used to bridle at the idea of not getting whatever kind of vegetable I wanted whenever I wanted it. So I see my experiences of motherhood and cooking from the CSA as connected, but the irony is that I’m not sure the CSA is working for Rebecca. I mean, she likes the goats, but she doesn’t eat leafy green vegetables. I really need to be better about remembering to warm up frozen peas and broccoli for her.

Anybody else see resonances between the way you approach cooking and the way you approach other parts of your life? If you’re part of a CSA, has it affected the way you think about cooking?

The Two Year Old Thing

My hands were covered in raw chicken when Rebecca asked for ice cream, so Vernon grabbed it for her. Rebecca was not happy. She doesn’t want the ice cream unless we follow the proper procedures. Likewise she’s unwilling to shortcut off the path to get down to the park more quickly. She wants Mommy to sit on Mommy’s couch and Daddy to sit on Daddy’s couch. And she always takes off her jacket when she gets into her playhouse, no matter how chilly it is at 6 AM, because houses are categorically warm. Getting the world to line up with her ideas about it is important to her.

Meanwhile Ted’s started getting up earlier so that he can see more of Rebecca and do his share of the parenting, but when he gets up Beckybean and I are already in a bubble that it’s hard to wiggle into. He offers to do things with Rebecca and for her, and I try to tell her that he can do them, but when they don’t fit with the kid’s worldview, our success is mixed.

I want to fight off Rebecca’s ideas about who should do what, because I’ve had a rough month and it would be nice if she didn’t scream when the wrong person tries to comfort her or get her out of her car seat or put on her pajamas. I want to fight off her ideas about who should do what, because a lot of them represent nascent gender roles that I don’t want to give her. And I want to fight them off because it makes Ted feel like she doesn’t like him.

But I also want to treat her desires respectfully. It’s hard to stick to saying no to her when she’s screaming for me to do something simple that I’ve done a zillion times before, and anyway, I doubt she’ll feel good about her dad helping her with her pajamas if he has to put them on her by force.

The fact is that Rebecca’s been weird lately. She’s wanted to stay at home most of the time, nurse a lot, sing silly songs and hear stories about how we took care of her when she was a baby. We’ve also been reading What Do People Do All Day? and a couple other Richard Scarry books for two to five hours a day, every day of January. She generally has a punishingly long attention span for things she gets interested in. It hasn’t coalesced into much externally, but on the inside her head must be exploding. On days when she doesn’t want huge amounts of physical contact with me, she’s been increasingly independent in her play, so I suspect that she’s also feeling challenged by her own independence and figuring out how she fits into the family.

I want to reassure Rebecca that I’m still there for her when she wants me to be, which means maybe now isn’t the best time to insist on challenging her ideas of how our family should work. I’m tired and sometimes jealous of Ted, but I can live with this situation and I probably won’t regret it. What’s galling is that we’re not turning out to be quite the kind of feminist parents we wanted to be or thought we should be, and I’m starting to hear that I’m over-attached.

When I decided to be a stay-at-home mom and also do the night parenting, I didn’t realize how much those habits would carry over to other times. I probably should’ve, but I didn’t. I didn’t realize how thoroughly Rebecca would get in the habit of asking me for things and I’d get in the habit of answering without redirecting her to Ted. Sometimes everyone else thinks my conversations with Rebecca look like C3PO talking to R2D2, while I wonder why I’m the only one who’s answering her. And I definitely didn’t realize how much Rebecca would fight to maintain an idealized division of labor. Or just now, how she’d need a mommy recharge midway through my Saturday morning writing time. We ate noodles and read together, and it wasn’t really a problem, but it keeps on surprising me how important those recharges are to her. How do you gently transition a toddler into accepting basic care and comfort from someone else?

Or maybe that’s not the right question, since she used to be happier to have her dad take care of her than she is now. I suspect that it would help Rebecca if we got back into more of a routine. We never had a strict schedule, but the holidays demolished what we had and then we (mostly me) and our friends got sick for most of January, so we haven’t been going on regular playdates, either. Maybe if the rest of her life is super orderly she’ll cling less tightly to family order? I also suspect that Ted could choose a particular task that he’s always in charge of when he’s home, talk to Rebecca about it ahead of time, and then try out the new order when Rebecca’s not too tired.

But what I really want is for our lives to be flexible and our presences interchangeable. Bah.


When the nights are longest and you wake up at the watching hour, the way your ancestors did on nights like this, and there’s no way that you’re going back to sleep any time soon and you and your mama are both sick of trying, then it’s time to snuggle in the dark and tell stories about the sun (modified from Circle Round), and maybe even make cookies afterward.

Because the Sun’s been getting tired lately, I’ve noticed, waking up later every day and going down earlier, until the nights have gotten so long that you’re having trouble sleeping through them. I think the Sun’s problem is that he’s feeling bored and hopeless about how things are. He misses the summer, when he felt so strong and hot and everyone laid down on their beach towels to enjoy his warmth. But no matter what the sun does, he can’t seem to shine the way he did last summer, and it’s very frustrating.

So the Sun curls up in the arms of Night, who’s his mother. For a long time, everything’s still and quiet, and the Sun rested. But then Night started to sing a song in the dark, the same song she sang long ago while she was waiting for the Sun to be born. It’s the same song I sang long ago while I was waiting for you to be born, too, on a very long night when the whole world seemed to change.

And there in the darkness, the Sun started to dream that he could be something else, that he didn’t need to light up the same things he’d always lit up before. Maybe he could be a red sun or a green sun–or, what color do you think he could be? He could be a purple sun this year. Maybe he could feed new plants with his light, and feed some new projects for people, too. He dreamed and dreamed, hundreds of dreams, thousands of dreams. Maybe he could turn into a cookie. When the Sun thought about it later, some of the dreams were ridiculous and not all of them were things he really wanted to happen anyway, but he still liked dreaming them.

When the Sun woke up the next morning, he had some of his energy back. He felt like he’d been reborn, a whole new sun. He was excited about shining again, and each day he saw something new and interesting to shine down on, and each day he shone longer and longer.

Now, if you’re still not feeling sleepy, the next thing to do is make cookies. You’ve got to bake your sun cookies during the night or they won’t be real sun cookies. We use a cookie press, because it’s simple, and because some of the flower patterns that come with it look passably like the sun. And you’ve got to decorate your sun cookies during the night, too, though probably not the same night, because then you won’t have anything to do the next time you wake up. We decorate them in the most colorful and fabulous ways we can–this involves squeezing out some decorating gel and then dumping on lots of colored sugar–because the more fabulously you decorate them, the more fabulously the sun dreams. But when it comes to eating, you can eat them any time.

I don’t think we’ve got the Sun’s story in its final form yet, but it’s got most of the themes I want to celebrate at Winter Solstice. This time of year is about the dreaming dark, about staring into a fire shooting the shit until you start spinning fantasies and naming ambitions that you wouldn’t normally confess. Saying them out loud is magic, though, because then you’re ready to grab them when the chance enters your life, and you can see where they might mesh with other people’s fantasies and what practical kernels of desire you might draw out together.

The idea that Winter Solstice is about dreaming involves thematic migration from both Christmas–when you might get what you want, even if it takes magic to bring it to you–and from New Years, with all its resolutions. It resonates with the more general American theme of holding onto your dreams, too. But Yule involves more open communication about our desires than Christmas does and does more to support our best selves. It’s less stern and flagellatory than New Years, and it’s more madcap and free flowing than “hold onto your dreams” usually is. In the pregnant night, everything seems possible, and that’s what I like best.

I’ve only been to a Yule ritual with other pagans once, and it mostly involved rewritten Christmas carols. When I fall into Solstice-style thinking at Christmas parties–it’s where my head is–people usually don’t know where I’m coming from and look at me oddly. But this year our household sat around the fire pit a few days before New Years and talked about things we wanted, and it was wonderful. That’s what family feels like for me.

I’m pleased with making Sun cookies in the middle of the night, too. Rebecca still talks about it, even though she doesn’t like to eat cookies much. But what I’m most proud of here is that I spontaneously transformed a glum situation into a ritual that was perfectly tailored to its participants and their circumstances. That’s the kind of pagan I want to be and the kind of mother I want to be. It’s not what we usually do at 4 AM, but sometimes, deep in the long night, something new can happen.

Spoiled Rotten

My mom used to wear slim gold necklaces. People whispered to my dad at his office Christmas parties, that surely, being a doctor, he could afford to buy some nice jewelry for her. So he did, more than once. But she never liked it.

For years and years my dad wore a shoddy leather coat from Sears. People whispered to my mom that he was a doctor, and surely he should have a better coat. I don’t know if she ever got him one, but I don’t remember him wearing anything but the leather one.

My parents had working class roots and cheap tastes, and the culture of consumption they’d moved into never quite absorbed them. Buying things for their kids was different, though: lots and lots of Christmas gifts, not to mention Easter gifts, tooth fairy gifts, birthday gifts, and anything particularly good that came through the church rummage sale. Plus there were books, craft supplies, clothes, and candy whenever we wanted. We got allowances, but we hardly ever spent them, because sooner or later my parents would get us what we wanted.

Anything we stayed interested in for more than a year mushroomed into a collection, then a mammoth collection. I had a bookcase full of Breyer horses, shelves of nesting dolls and dragons, a top bunk full of stuffed animals, and so on. The problem was, the bigger a collection got, the less satisfying it was. That’s not because I was diluting their quality; technically I got nicer and nicer things the longer I collected them. But I never bonded with the late additions the way I had with the earlier ones. My collections got unwieldy to curate and overwhelming to play with.

Over time I wanted less and less. I’d come up with things to put on my Christmas list, because a Christmas list had to be made, but I was less and less eager, because manufacturing desire is work. The rituals of affection via gift-giving seemed more and more contrived, and more and more often I found myself not feeling so thankful. Eventually a funny thing happened: My brother and sister and I all grew up to have tastes and consumption habits nearly identical to our parents’. I buy myself virtually nothing (besides food and toilet paper and such), because I already have what I need, and I’ve had it for years. And though the three of us kids love each other, we frequently don’t bother exchanging presents.

Now, confessing to privilege and then saying “but it totally wasn’t a big deal” is always a dick move. I wanted the toys I got when I got them, and I was lucky not to have to worry about money. It would be disingenuous to say that I could’ve done without all those toys, because I know that I didn’t get my current values in spite of my background, so much as I got them because of it. Counterintuitive? Sometimes I hear about people raising their kids to be non-materialistic by not giving them many toys, or raising their kids to be healthy eaters by rationing their consumption of sweets. I suspect that strategy backfires if the kid feels deprived. Scarcity and lack of control over the things you want usually make people more obsessed with those things instead of less. Make what they want available consistently and undramatically, and you generally take away the craving. If we could afford it, I’m not sure I’d choose a different strategy for raising Rebecca (though the moral / environmental issues with consumption mean that maybe I wouldn’t).

Nevertheless, it’s a crapshoot whether that strategy would work again, because values are more complicated than a behavioralist account of scarcity and demand. It made a difference that my parents modeled fairly minimal consumption and happiness with what they had, but it wasn’t determinative. For example, my current food habits have little relationship with how I was raised, and more to do with a series of people I’ve shared food with: discovering ethnic food with Ted in Chicago and high-end cuisine when we started watching Iron Chef with our geek friends a few years later, then learning about locally grown food from my friends in grad school. You could tell the story of my other consumption habits the same way, as a history of the consumption cultures I spurned or joined up with in high school, in college, and in grad school.

The anomaly is my current purchasing habits. I’m out of step with almost everyone I know–and I know some of them find my lack of investment in home decor off-putting–and I’m conflicted about giving and receiving Christmas gifts. I take Rebecca shopping so that she can have the experience of thinking about someone and what they might like, because that’s important, right? I like the idea of showing your affection by getting people things that’ll make them happy. But most of the time I can’t get that account to stick to the actual things I’m getting and receiving. It’s not that we’re lousy gift-givers, though, it’s that we’ve been set up to fail. The scale of the holiday kills it, the same way it did when I was growing up.

Anybody else want to do some navel gazing and tell me the history of your consumption habits? How do you feel about the number of gifts you’re giving and receiving?

Something New

I started writing in this blog seriously when Rebecca turned one, because I wanted to feel like I was accomplishing something tangible– something I could point to and say “hey, look at me!”– and I needed to scry into the murk to see what exactly I was doing, parenting a little toddler.  I vowed to post something every month until she turned two, and I pretty much did.  Some months I posted a lot more.

Now that Rebecca’s two, she’s making patterns out of everything around us, and I’m looking at the underlying structure of our lives and thinking about how we can get them to line up more transparently with our values.  The things I want to write are increasingly about questioning and exploring our lives, less about “hey, look at me!” or defining what I’m doing as a parent.  They’re increasingly small and specific, less about parenthood in general.  They’re more like chewing with my mouth open while I talk, less digested.

What I want to do now isn’t a good fit with the long-form essays I’ve been writing.  My new plan is to write a dozen bite-sized pieces, whose topic matter will be whatever I’ve been thinking about lately, plus maybe a few more on older things that I’ve been trying to find time to write about.  That should be enough to figure out what I think of the short format and whether I can live with less finished writing.

See you soon!

Sad Story

The last two times I’ve left Rebecca with someone outside our extended family, she’s gotten so anxious she’s puked. The first time was in August, and I was perplexed and not sure what had happened. The second time was in October, right after she turned two, and I felt like a failure as a mother. The mom friend who was watching her was incredibly gracious, but what two year old can’t spend an hour at a friend’s house while her mom has coffee or gets a haircut? Everyone’s always said I had an easy baby, the kind who’s easygoing and adaptable. When she got nervous enough to throw up, I felt like I’d broken her. My poor kid.

Later I remind myself that I’m not in charge of Rebecca’s existential struggles and that her emotional life is hers first, not something I should be using to measure of my own success. Bad parenting 101: If I’m preoccupied with how my toddler’s emotional outbursts reflect on me, then I’m likely to complicate her attempts to express and deal with whatever she’s feeling, and I’m likely to miss what’s actually going on.


It was supposed to be an innocent Christmas story about a little owl who wanted to go sledding. His only problems were that there wasn’t any snow and that he was the tenant of a second-hand pop-up book with a few pieces missing.

I read that story maybe twice before discovering that Little Owl had a much bigger problem: his mother was missing. Maybe he liked living by himself, I suggested, like in One Was Johnny? Nope. Rebecca rejected one explanation after the other, until I facetiously threw in, “Or maybe his mama was eaten by a fox.”

That answer Rebecca supported. But what do you do when your mama’s eaten by a fox? I remembered how I’d dealt with my parents’ deaths and gave Rebecca the short sanitized version, about feeling sad and adjusting to it and moving on with the story. Little Owl could learn how to be happy even without a mommy. The next page had him sitting on a sled.  So maybe he needed to do something fun, like go sledding? That wasn’t the right answer for Rebecca, of course, because it dodged the thing that interested her.  But I remember bursts of madcap elation nestled into every grief I’ve known.

Rebecca told me that Little Owl needed to find a new mommy.  So he did, with Rebecca prompting further adjustments to the story along the way. She called the new version her “sad story” and she asked to read it several times a day for a while. Most often the requests came was I was unloading the dishwasher or not being present the way she wanted me.  I suspect her concept of death is something along the lines of “unresponsive”–we’ve looked at dead bees–so going from “Mama’s ignoring me” to “what if Mama died?” isn’t such a jump. The “forever” aspect of death won’t make sense until she understands time better.

She’d grin in anticipation and didn’t seem sad about any of it.

Telling the sad story is part of a broader process of learning about feelings. All through October and November, Rebecca loved reading books about feelings and when she got upset, she started narrating what she felt–Baby cry! Sad! No take mine scarf! Baby cry!–instead of crying much of the time. I’m proud of her for that. But you get interested in learning about feelings because you’re feeling them, and it doesn’t take a child psychologist to tell you that the tyke’s worried about being separated from her mother.

My mom would’ve thought I should protect Rebecca from the idea that something could happen to me. She was scandalized when Bambi’s mama died. I not sure she’d approve of me mentioning her death to Rebecca, either, but I mention it anyway, especially around Samhain. I worry that not treating death as a normal part of life will make it more horrific when it happens. I don’t mind knowing our lives can be up-ended, because I’ve seen how we can be reborn again and again when we get knocked over.  I’d rather teach Rebecca that.

Maybe that’s not the right move for a toddler who’s already gotten anxious enough to be puking, though.  Or maybe the problem was that I was afraid I shouldn’t be talking about any of it, so I “mentioned” death and separation instead of explaining what had happened, and that opened up more space for anxiety.  And maybe telling the sad story helped resolve it.

What I know is that representing your emotions or seeing them represented in stories usually makes good of them, and not representing them usually makes them hurt more. Now, toddlers have big emotions, but they get stories that are disproportionately small and safe, which is supposed to protect them from the really big stuff until they’re ready to face it.  But if toddlers are already dealing with big stuff emotionally, how much sense does it make to keep their stories small? If toddlers have overwhelming emotions about things that seem small to us, would those emotions be better conveyed through catastrophic images, like houses destroyed and people gone missing?

Keeping the stories small and safe isn’t necessarily as backward as it sounds, though, because feelings love the symbolic.  Little things can stand in for big things or broader situations, and carry their emotional weight.  That’s one reason that toddlers sometimes freak out over things that seem comically inconsequential to adults.  It means that maybe stories about small problems are just fine.  I worry that if I introduce bigger problems, maybe I’m just going to intensify Rebecca’s fear.

However, when children’s books turn big feelings into little images, it sanitizes them for the adults reading the books, so that we can brush them away with a simple explanation. That’s what I initially tried to do with Little Owl’s missing mommy. But when you try that move on big disaster imagery, you start to see that what you’re doing is ridiculous and that the right move may be to focus on it instead.  The scale of imagery in children’s books may be more important for what it elicits from its grown-up audience than from its toddler audience.

In the end, I don’t suppose there’s a “one size fits all” answer to how to talk about scary topics with a toddler, and there doesn’t need to be.   What tells me that we handled the sad story well was Rebecca’s reaction. Not only is the sad story exactly what she wanted to hear, but she’s fascinated and eager when she hears similar stories. Some kids will tell you outright that they don’t want to look at the scary stuff, and that’s not her.


In the last month and a half, the wheel’s turned again. Rebecca’s linguistic abilities exploded and at the same time she started playing more independently. She’s been saying “Come too” whenever Shayna leaves the house, and she’s disappointed when she can’t go to work with her dad. If she spends more than two or three hours away from me, she goes on a boob binge when she comes back, so I can tell it still stresses her out. But that’s okay; she’s dealing with it. The next time we try leaving her alone with a friend will be for something she wants to do, so that she can meet the challenge on her own terms.