The power of a theme song

You start these things, like most all of your parenting, as an experiment. You're in the middle of something - aren't you always? - and you see a need, an opportunity.

Or maybe you begin carefully, after much research and forethought. You've read the books, trolled the vast corners of the internet, Googled your way into oblivion in search of The Answer or The Next Step or By This Age Your Child Should....

Either way, you take a breath and throw it out there.

"Hey, let's try clearing your own plate!"

The plates are plastic, the floor already sticky and littered. You know she is capable of it. You try to be nonchalant. You try to make it fun.

She balks.

For some reason, you chose to sing the wordless theme from Rocky, imagining your toddler in grey sweat pants running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This isn't a chore! This is a parade!

She clears her own plate.


(The - internal, completely fictional - crowd goes wild.)

Then, comes the next meal.

She balks again. No can do, no parade, NO MAMA! NO WANT TO!

You remind her that she did it last time, that it's no big deal. You prance a little wilder, smile a lot harder. Then maybe you hiss, just a little. Finally, you"help" her, carrying the plate yourself with one hand, dragging her behind you with the other.

This is stupid. Why am I fighting this fight?

Another meal.

You worry about it throughout the meal. Will you ask? Will you force? Will the scars from this be some of the worst from her childhood or just a footnote in her eventual therapy sessions?

She picks up her plate unbidden, carries it to the counter, up on tippy toes to reach. The egg remnants and cracker crumbs scatter around her feet to join the rest of their crew but you ignore that and cheer your little parental heart out.

Yet. Another. Meal.

She balks again. You cajole and almost, maybe, beg and then go silent before you remember.

The Rocky Theme Song.

You start the song from the top and you give it all you've got. She's not sure she wants to give in. It feels good, this fit, and she likes the power of stopping everything around her with her wails.

But the Rocky Theme Song is calling her. And she must answer.

It still calls. Every meal.

You imagine it will stop, one day.

(We're going on two years of the Rocky Theme song.)

(Perhaps she'll still sing it to herself, in college, to her roommates, to her own children.)


When blogging worlds collide

I am proud to say that I am the one who found the luxurious house where we stayed in Jamaica, though I can't actually take any real credit since I found it through Amalah. She went there last year with her family (gratis of the company) and wrote about it during what was a particularly snowy and bleak winter. I clearly remember sending CG, who gets hundreds of work emails a day and prizes brevity, a brief email that included just a link to one of her posts and the words START SAVING NOW.

So save we did, for a trip that would hopefully prevent the four of us from the succumbing completely to February, ie. The Darkest Days. By the time we were seriously planning, my parents were just coming out of my dad's latest round of radiation and were ready to celebrate and relax. So we joined forces, invited my brother and his family, and made it a whole famn damily trip.

Though we were all sad when my brother and his family were waylaid by a stomach bug and couldn't make it, Z was truly bereft as she misses her cousin deeply and had been looking forward to seeing her for months. Staying in a rented house was perfectly private for us antisocial adults, but Z really longed for other kids to play with. (E couldn't have cared less, she was either clinging to me or trying to climb out the window.)

So we did something we NEVER do: we went to the Bluefields Villas cocktail hour. WITH STRANGERS. Who presumably would want to TALK TO US. And we brought the girls.

(That last part was not our brightest idea ever, in case you were wondering. E was just too clingy to leave with the nanny and Z didn't want to be left out.)

We hoped there would be a nice family with small children staying in one of the other houses, perhaps even ones close in age to our girls. Dare to dream right?

Did we ever hit the jackpot.

Upon entering the cocktail hour, we met J and S. With no other kids in sight, I immediatley assumed they were newlyweds, they looked too refreshed and bright-eyed to be parents. But lo! I was wrong! Their daughters, ages 4 and 6, were upstairs with their nanny (perhaps this explains the "refreshed' and "bright-eyed" part)! And they were friendly! And nice!

My first question, I'm not sure why but maybe I have some deep intuition I'm completly unaware of, was just how they found and chose the house. S said "Oh, from a mommy blog I read...." and I said "Amalah?" and she said "YES".


We chatted for a while, until Z started whining about being bored, guzzled her smoothie and insisted on pulling the hem of her skirt up over her head while laughing manically. (*Ahem* Time to go!)

It wasn't until later that we each admitted that not only did we read mommy blogs but we EACH HAVE ONE.

Now, I have met a blog friend in real life (Holla B!) but this was brand new territory. Stephanie and I exchanged blog addresses and made plans to meet on the beach with our girls later in the week.

As CG and I sat in bed that night and checked out S's lovely blog, the bizarre nature of the time we live in blew me away. It's crazy to be sitting on a bed in Jamaica, reading about the private world and thoughts of someone who lives many states away, someone I had just met. To be able to read the private thoughts and feelings of a virtual stranger, things that they have never directly told you themselves, and then see them in person the next day...it's odd, right?

The Luddite in me wants to hate this. To find it wrong. Backwards.

But honestly? It was lovely.

Here we are in the water with our girls. I think this was when we were discussing how she checked out my reading list from last year and had read at least half of the books. I mean, HELLO. IT'S A FREAKY-DEAKY, SMALL WORLD we live in, my friends.


I think I might be too neurotic to go on vacation

For months, I was too terrified to speak of our big family trip to Jamaica in anything above an internal whisper. To do so would surely invite a giant hubris fueled smack-down from above. So in the weeks before the trip, as more local friends fell to a four day stomach bug, I squirted both girls' hands with sanitizer at random intervals and gave stern lectures about keeping their fingers out of their noses/mouths/BOTH. I checked the weather forecasts hourly and only packed at the last moment. Mostly I kept my fingers crossed, feverishly hoping that the planets would align to allow us all to make the journey.

In the end, we managed to line up two of the three planets. My girls stayed well (until a cold caught them at the end of the trip). After two bouts of pneumonia and a prolonged hospital stay, my dad was just barely strong enough to travel. Luckily, no monster snow storms thwarted our departures.

But my brother and his family, who were supposed to join us from California, were hit by a stomach bug and forced to cancel their trip. The luck of the draw was not on their side and we were struck by how it could have just as easily been any one of us that didn't make the trip. On each day in Jamaica, we struggled to balance our joy at being together in this beautiful place with mourning the obvious absence of my brother's family.


When we arrived in Jamaica, a driver was waiting for us. He loaded us into our rental car and drove us to the house my parents had rented, right on the ocean. Bumping along the road, we gazed out at lush greenery sprinkled with roadside stands selling fruit and fish, clusters of people awaiting informal taxis, and tiny shops selling biscuits, beer and cell phone cards.

There also seemed to be a lot of nightclubs, and every one featured pictures or photos of voluptuous women in profile. One squat cement building the size of a small one car garage was emblazoned with the words "For Your Guilty Pleasure" in script on the side next to lurid drawings. I was desperately glad that Z was looking out the other side of our van. Later, when we met a Peace Corps volunteer who told us he was disturbed by the rough, sexual dancehall scene, I tried not to think too much about the fact that I didn't see a single window in that building.


When we got to the house, we found we had a full staff. A "headman", two nannies, a cook and assorted other people to fetch us fresh towels, sweep sand off our floors and restock our drink coolers. This was, of course, part of the draw of this house; we wanted to relax, not have to work, be waited on. Nevertheless, I spent much of our time there deeply uncomfortable with this. Our first night at dinner, I noticed a metal bell in front of my place at the head of the table. I was supposed to ring it, I guess, to get someone in from the kitchen. At one point, we needed something and someone suggested I give it a shake. It was quickly set aside, never to return to the table.

I should have been reveling in having someone else working at the stove, clearing plates, scrubbing stains from tiny t-shirts. But whenever I caught myself enjoying the beautiful surroundings and glorious infantilizing comfort of being waited on, I feared this was surely evidence of my moral bankruptcy. Of course, any time I spent brooding about this, or worse, annoyed at the staff's slow pace or vague answers to pointed questions, I felt stupidly ungrateful and joyless.

Is there any way to make this much coveted type of travel feel guilt-free and morally okay?


On our last full day, CG and I slathered on bug spray and sunscreen, picked up our binoculars, hats, water bottles and sunglasses, and went on a hike. We wanted to see more of the beautiful birds of Jamaica, maybe a few unusual plants and spectacular views too, as well as work off the plentiful food that we'd been stuffing in our faces all week. Our guide took us up a wide, overgrown path, pointing out plants that shrink when touched, tiny birds with long forked tails and woodpeckers with bright red heads. We learned which herbs are used for which ailment and held crushed leaves to our noses that smelled like exotic cousins of our basil, cloves and rosemary. It was a glorious, clear morning.

As we picked our way through the trash strewn path, I almost stopped to pick up an empty bottle and crumpled wrapper at my feet. After all, when hiking at home, I always clean up litter. But I quickly realized that I would need several large trash bags just to make a dent and I had nothing but my hands. So I left it all there.

About half way up, we came to a village of tiny wooden and metal homes. Goats bleated from their rope leashes, open trash fires burned, women squatted next to plastic wash tubs and children walked about in holey t-shirts and stained underwear.

I instinctively tried to hide my binoculars behind me and smiled my nervous smile. Did they need my water bottle? Shouldn't we have brought something for them: clothes, food, water? Should I be able to look upon this village and not feel wrenching guilt?

I smiled at the people we passed and waved or offered a small "hi". But we picked up our pace just a bit, uncomfortable I guess, and ready to enjoy the easy scenery on the other side.

Once past, we asked our guide about water, sanitation, schooling, which were all ways to get at our essential questions: "Are they okay? Are they happy? Shouldn't we do something?" And the one I could never ask: "Should we feel sorry for them?"

Perhaps they should feel sorry for us, with our Pr0zac and our concave therapy couches.

Perhaps this all sounds hopelessly privileged and paternalistic.


We are home now, washing and putting away bathing suits and shorts, scratching fading mosquito bites and shaking sand out of our shoes into the gray snow outside our back door.

As I pull out my morning pills- fish oil, multivitamin, vitamin D, Pr0zac- I think about the twice daily fresh fish, the papaya smoothies, the plentiful sunshine and soothing sound of lapping waves and wonder if I'd need these pills if we lived in a place with views of the turquoise water.

And as I carry the loaded laundry basket to our cluttered basement, I imagine the village's women, bent over wash tubs, high in the hills overlooking that blissful sea.


Where I've been

Please don't hate me.

Yeah, never mind, I'd hate me, too.


Aim high

"Mama, I'm not going to have a job when I grow up, I'm just going to be a mommy," Z announced one morning at the breakfast table, apropos of nothing.

I sat in stunned silence because... how do I even begin to respond to that?

Luckily, CG was there to quickly and firmly respond, "Being a mommy is the hardest job there is." And I promptly forgave him for any perceived slight, minor or major, in nine years of marriage.

"I know, I just mean, I'm not going to have a JOB job," Z persisted.

I still didn't know how to respond to her. I know I should be flattered that she wants to emulate me and be at home with her children but that realization is after some reflection. My initial instinctive reaction was something approaching horror. Rising up from below was a desire to say "No! Dream big! Aim high!" with the undeniable implication that being a stay-at-home mom isn't dreaming big enough, aiming high enough.

You could say I'm still ambivalent about being a stay-at-home mother.

In the last year, as I struggled to fit in here in Virginia and weather the many concurrent transitions, I often turned to a fantasy that "going back to work" would solve my every problem. There were several problems with this line of thought, the first being that there is no clear job for me to "go back" to, let alone one that could pay for daycare for two kids.

But maybe part time, on the weekends? Just to start? Problem was, I kept butting my head against a clear, heartfelt truth: I didn't actually want to go to a job outside the house right now, what I want is to stay home with my kids, while they're little, and be happy about it. I haven't given up working ever again, I just know that my heart is here, now.

Maybe I haven't lost all ambition after all. At the moment, I can't think of a loftier personal ambition for myself than staying put for a few more years and being happy about it.

So. Here I am. A suburban stay-at-home mother, in therapy, on Pr0zac. So many aspects of that sentence are temporary. It helps to remember that.


We had some work friends of CG's over the other night for dinner and what originally was going to be a relaxed dinner with people I know can talk about things other than science turned into All Scientific Workplace All The Time because one of our guests invited a couple of visiting work people we didn't know. It's important to note that while we had an equal mix of men and women, all our guests were unmarried, childless scientists, so I wasn't exactly expecting to have a ton in common with these people. As I struggled to contain the frantically social Z ("Attention! Attention everybody! My dancing show will start in TWOOOOO minutesssss!") and the clingy, antisocial E, I felt invisible as these highly educated, highly employed people chatted all around me, seemingly oblivious to my existence.

During a lull in the conversation, and, thankfully, the dancing show, one kind friend turned to me and asked, "So can you explain Alvin Ailey to me? We saw a poster for his company and I still don't understand what they're all about." This friend knows I was a modern dancer in my previous life. He was being kind, trying to include me in the world of conversing adults. As I took a breath and tried to compose a coherent opening sentence about the history and significance of this pre-eminent African-American dance company, one of the visitors, who perhaps hadn't seen him address the question to me, jumped in, "Well, since I live in New York, I see them all the time and....."

I dropped my gaze and listened to her give an accurate account of their history and significance before finally rising, toddler firmly suctioned to my side, and set the table.

I've been with CG for 11 years now, so I'm used to being surrounded by scientists chatting about things I can barely understand. Not being included in the conversation used to be a mild annoyance, but it was one that we both endured at regular intervals as we used to work in our own separate worlds. Now it's skewed, CG is never surrounded by a group of my people, unable to follow the lexicon of my world. Not that I would ever hope to make him feel invisible, but the inequality of this, the fact that he alone has a whole intellectual life outside of our home, coupled with a craving for that experience myself, is a major motivator for me to get a job.

One day.


The evening after Z declared her intention to be a stay at home mother over her Cheerios, I brought it back up with her.

"Z.....you know.... I love that I can be home with you and E right now, while you're little, and I do eventually want to get a JOB job." I practiced in my head beforehand to make sure I said "and" not "but".

"You do? Why?" she asked with the guileless simplicity of a child.

"Well, I have lots of things I'm interested in, lots of ways I can contribute to the world, and one day, sooner than we both realize, you and E won't need me around quite so much."

"Oh," she said. "Okay," and went back to her coloring book.

This was, of course, only the beginning of a lifelong conversation with my girls, and with myself, about the many, many ways you can aim high as a mom, a woman, a human.

This is mine, right now.


You see a snow day, she sees a business opportunity

On the first of three snow days last week, Z's general interest in earning money went turbo. After brainstorming a bit, she decided she would create a school where parents could drop off their snow day kids for $1 so they could still go to work. She made a sign for the front window of our house and settled into her "classroom" to wait for the flood of students.

Not surprisingly, none came. (Cue plaintive wails.)

CG and I are a little perplexed by Z's new obsession with earning money. Long time readers will remember that she gets a weekly allowance, to teach her about handling money from an early age AND to tame her persistent begging for trinkets during every shopping trip. (Every errand, really. On one memorable trip to the post office, Z threw a fit because I wouldn't buy her her own stamps. STAMPS.)

But it's not enough. She wants more money, though it's not entirely clear what she wants to do with it. She periodically gets excited about spending her allowance on something in particular but with only one dollar a week to spend, there's not much out there to buy. So most of the time she will go weeks without mentioning it. It seems she's just interested in the process of earning money.

CG and I don't tie her household contributions (it's fussy, I know, but the book told me not to call them chores) to her allowance but we have talked about giving her extra tasks to do when she's older to earn extra money. In my opinion, she's much too young to really do any real work well enough to warrant folding bills.

So we try to turn it into play time, though she stubbornly insists that she doesn't want to play store, she wants to "MAKE REAL MONEY". We are trying to focus her general interest on entrepreneurship, using it as a chance to teach her how to count money, what certain things are worth, how businesses need to pay for supplies and labor and other start up costs.

But even this may have been too encouraging because the girl will not let up.

The day after "Z's School" there was "Z Restaurant", where she hoped to sell grilled cheese and peanut butter and jelly. That she expected me to make, of course.

Snow day #3 found our front door announcing "Z's Drink Sale" featuring a "mystery drink" that she stirred up in our kitchen with approved ingredients (OJ, cinnamon, water, salt, and sugar) (Hey! She reinvented Gatorade!)

Snow day #4 brought "Z toy store" where she hoped to sell off her old unloved toys. This was the day that, despondent over a lack of customers, Z had to be repeatedly talked out of going DOOR TO DOOR selling toys and/or hot chocolate.

Then, today, Z hit on the one idea I can get behind.

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