What sort of participant am I?

Despite my massive collection of participant ribbons from my failed attempt to become the youngest star athlete in the world without ever practicing, I am not a very good participant. Clubs, teams, groups, box socials, and all manner of gathering make me shudder. Having been obsessed with cool as a teenager, I was petrified of doing the wrong thing, the gauche thing, the foolish thing. As a result I missed out on a lot of terrific stuff, including, but not limited to, Kelly Clarkson, learning to drive, and doing as well as I could have done in high school.

There are many ways in which I have matured since then. I buy groceries now. I have five functional keys on my key ring. I even have enough pairs of socks to make it from one laundry day to the next. Cringing at the thought of a team, however, has held firm in my adult brain, and although I am a rational person and I know that humanity depends on co-operation, clubs give me the heebie-jeebies.

An unexpected by-product of getting pregnant and having a baby is you receive an onslaught of invitations to join various groups. Everything from breastfeeding to yoga to the very vague activity of mom-hood has some form of club dedicated to it. I’ve proudly resisted every newsletter, flier, and e-vite sent my way, putting on my best and most practiced scoff; rolling my eyes like a professional adolescent.

Swimming lessons. It was swimming lessons that chipped a small nick out of my stubborn aversion to participation. Avoiding drowning is the obvious reason to enroll Joanie in weekly lessons, but the broader reason is that I want to nip that fear of clubs in the bud before I pass it down to my impressionable, sweet, unsuspecting daughter. What kind of ding-bat mum would I be if I didn’t take my kid to swimming lessons because I don’t like groups?

The result: last Saturday I put on my big girl bathing suit, wiggled Joanie’s squirmy little body into a water proof diaper, and entered the pool to bob in a circle, mumbling along with the lyrics to some French song about how fun water is. At first she clung to me, leaving little crescent nail marks on my arms, but it wasn’t long before my daughter, far more daring than I, started twisting around in an effort to release herself from my arms, instinctively kicking, albeit with no coordination, determined to swim. She spun her head around to look at all the other babies, splashing with joy at the sight of their fun. Joanie, all of ten months old, doesn’t give a hoot about looking silly and not knowing what to do. She’s not afraid of doing exactly what the others are doing, but she’s willing to learn from them. She’s bold, and curious, and fascinated, and eager, and much much better at participating than her mother.

What if I can’t raise a reader?

My mum reads every night before bed. Without fail, even after the longest day, even if it’s only a paragraph, she gets cozy under the covers with a book perched on her ribs. Lately, she reads from a Kindle, which she’s insistent I buy, but my materialist side is intent on pages, spines, and margin notes. I’m getting off track. The point is that my mum reads a lot. And, growing up, she read to me every night, took me to the library, and enrolled me in young writer’s camp.

Like my mum, I really want my daughter to be a reader. I’m from a family of readers. Books are the topic at every family dinner, though it mostly consists of us screaming titles across the table. “MIDDLESEX,” an aunt will yell, while everyone else audibly sighs in agreement. I want Joanie to be part of that tradition. I want her to raise her bottle in the air with confidence and say, “but have you guys read The Gruffalo?”

Of course there are a million reasons why reading is good for you, and I won’t bore you with a review. I will however explain the two additional reasons why having a bookworm of a daughter is important to me.

The first being that I like that loud camaraderie my family has achieved over books. Yes it’s abrasive, and no, it doesn’t lend itself to criticism, but by knowing what my family is reading, I can keep tabs on what’s going on in their minds. For instance, I know that if someone’s reading Knausgaard’s My Struggle, that person is feeling heady and perhaps over-analytical. To have an idea of the lens through which a family member is currently seeing the world, and to be able share that lens is a priceless bonding tool. Who doesn’t want that advantage with their kids?

The second reason is that I don’t know how to relate to people who don’t read. Maybe I’m a bit of a snob, (If you ask my mom, she’ll tell you I’m a huge snob.) but for me, reading is like eating and sleeping and drinking and babbling with Joanie. It’s just something I do without thinking. I believe that if you’re not a reader, you’re missing out on a tradition that’s much older than you are, than Twitter and television are, than silly swiping games are. Reading has been around before screens and it’ll be there after. (I hope. I think.)

I say these things, but of course I’m realistic. I can read out loud and point out all the dogs on all the pages all I want, but Joanie will still be a person complete with her very own agency. She may hate reading. She might be bored by it, or she might find some other way of devouring information, or she may have troubles with the technicalities of words on a page. Sure, there’s something to be said for nurture, but who knows if I’m doing the right thing, or if Joanie even cares. I’m not going to stop trying simply because no one knows what will happen, but I need to be prepared. She’s my daughter, and I’ll figure out a way to communicate with her, if not through books. That being said, I must admit, I’m terrified by the prospect. What if I can’t raise a reader?

To end on a positive note, because I’m hopeful Joanie will end up having some kind of relationship with the written word, given the way she likes to put the pages in her mouth, I have included a list of books that I love reading with my daughter.

  • The Wind and the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • Olivia by Ian Falconer
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • Lousie Loves Art by Kelly Light
  • The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson
  • Mister Seahorse by Eric Carle
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
  • Esio Trot by Roald Dahl

I’m always looking for new books or to be reminded of old ones, specifically ones with strong female characters. Please please please leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Also please note that I am rethinking my love of Shell Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

The Crazy

I kicked a coat yesterday. I kicked it right in its stupid, uncooperative coat face.

For the past few days, I’ve been fiddling with a post about The Crazy, but I’ve been having trouble articulating exactly what it’s like. Our family, as far as sleep and eat and health and temper goes, has enjoyed a patch of relative smoothness. Thank goodness yesterday happened so that I can fully impart to you the feelings that lead up to a coat ass-kicking.

The Crazy feels a lot like bombings in war movies. There’s an explosion, and tinnitus-like ringing, and the camera tilts back and forth until you’re dizzy.

The real life example I was going to use for this had something to do with being awake at 4am after trying every conceivable thing to stop your child from crying and telling the dog that you will “end him” if he doesn’t stop barking. That example is a vague amalgamation of several nights. It is far more useful to imagine yesterday morning’s scene to fully grasp The Crazy.

Friday night, my neighbours had a party. They were whooping and running around playing, what I imagined to be a midnight game of thunderball, a popular game on Planet Leigh’s Pissed Off Imagination. Between their screaming, and Joanie’s cough, I slept three hours. Saturday morning, I was due to leave for Ottawa to visit my dad, but when the time came to start packing, it dawned on me that I hadn’t showered in three days, that I still had to do groceries, laundry, and the weeks preparatory cooking, otherwise this family would be eating pizza every night. As much as I want that, I’m a full grown adult now. I don’t say that to boast of my maturity, simply to say that my tum tum doesn’t like that yum yum. Point being, I let everything pile up, emotionally speaking. Joanie was having one of those days where she was only happy in my arms, so I was doing my chores one handed that day, and as a result doubling my work load with all my clumsy mistakes. Nothing particularly bad happened, but lots of little things weighed me down, or rather pushed me to the point of madness when I tried to zip up my coat. Joanie, who hates her baby sling, was screaming as loud and as close to my ear as she could. Frank was barking, as he’s expected to do in such a situation, and my zipper, which I cannot see below Joanie, got stuck just above my waste. I took a deep breath and tried to wiggle it free but it didn’t budge. I tried again, but this time with more force. It didn’t move. Joanie, still screaming, was getting hot, transferring her body heat to me, as we both sweat in my parka. Panic washed over me, and I tugged on the zipper as hard as I could. Nothing happened, so I took hold of each side of my coat and Hulk-shredded my way out of it, pushing it down over my waste, then in a fit of fury, stomped and kicked and raged against what it, my mother who’d purchased the coat, and the God-foresaken manufacturers who made it, did to me. Then I grabbed another jacket, threw a blanket around Joanie, and went out to walk in any direction until we both stopped crying. It was only minus 4 or 5 out and there were kids playing in the park. Birds were chirping. There wasn’t any wind. With renewed calm I strolled into the grocery store, and, like the totally normal person I am, did my shopping. Joanie was perched in the children’s seat of the cart and we smiled at all the other shoppers. I remembered everything on my list, bought myself an extra sweet treat, and returned home to make soup, have lunch, and clean the living room.

The Crazy is losing a plot. The Crazy is being unbound. The Crazy is not a cataclysmic destruction. We move through our day, being piled upon by little obstacles, by broken zippers, by barking dogs, by chores, chores, chores, and then something happens. The Crazy happens. We get hot. We sweat. A noise comes out of our chests and ekes through our teeth until they spread apart and release it in rage. The Crazy happens and then, before we know it, we’re outside. The air is fresh. We’re walking fast. We’re breathing deep breaths, the biggest breaths we’ve ever breathed.

That’s The Crazy, and I wish I could offer advice as to how to deal with it, but I don’t know any, and this isn’t really an advice blog anyway. Generally it passes rather quickly. Take solace in that, I guess.

Fine, Loverboy, I’ll Work for the Stupid Weekend

Joanie is napping. I’ve just finished half the dishes, filled the slow-cooker, put the groceries away and found the first few minutes I’ve had to write this blog (with the exception of Friday night’s Grey’s Anatomy hour), in months. I took a hiatus from my weekly posts when I started working full-time in order to ease back into my usual overly ambitious list of projects. It seems fitting that my first post back should be about going back to work.

My intention was never to be a stay-at-home mom, but I did want to relish the first few month’s of my daughter’s life and to be physically present for as much of that time as I could. At least that was the way I approached the prospect of maternity leave during my pregnancy. After four long months of preventative leave and two months of maternity leave, I felt the walls absorb me as they did that poor woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall Paper.” Okay maybe not to the extent that. No one was oppressing me, but I was feeling terribly anxious. To combat the cabin fever I picked up two shifts at a restaurant. Twice a week I’d serve brunch, meet new people, wax baby with other young couples, and make a little cash to help support my family. The walk to work was my favourite part; ten brief minutes under the early morning sun, with no one around, no crying, no chatting, not even another pedestrian. It was magical. Then winter came and the stroll became a trudge, so nuts to that.

When Joanie was four months old, a spot opened up at the daycare. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to let her go, but there was a time limit on the offer, and, as you’ll note in previous posts, it ended up being the right decision. Any job prospects I had weren’t due to start for a few months, so apart from my shifts at the restaurant I was suddenly flush with time, beautiful, luxurious to the point of naughtiness time, time which I used to tidy my apartment, write short stories, prepare lavish meals, and read the first three volumes of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. This was magical too.

Then January happened. I picked up four more shifts, then quickly changed to a new job, overlapped the two positions for about a week and watched the tidiness of our home erode and the vibrant green of my houseplants turn to a crispy brown. I now write in short unproductive spurts, have abandoned the dream of a clean sink, and order pizza more often then I should.

I can deal with a chaotic life. A woman at the daycare recently said to me, “It’s amazing what the human body can put up with.” I repeat that phrase in my head a lot, usually when I’m pushing a baby carriage through six inches of snow and stifling all sorts of horrible words. It helps me stay proud of what I’m doing and of all the good things I’m able to manage, even when so much is left unattended. The one thing it doesn’t ease, the one thing I can’t deal with, is the amount of time I spend away from my daughter. Today is the first day in months that I’ve spent a full day with my daughter. We woke up, drank some milk in bed, read some books, folded and unfolded the laundry and played with blocks. It’s been the best day I’ve had in ages and I wish it would last for several more, but I have to work tomorrow. Joanie will go to daycare. I will rush home from work to pick her up, push that damn buggy through a blizzard, and make it home with just enough time to shove dinner into her face, sing a couple Journey songs in the bath tub and put her to sleep.

I finally understand that stupid Loverboy song.

Note: All this is to say that I will now be posting every other week. Sorry for the long winded explanation.

If not a saucy baby, than…

Before I had one of my own to deal with, I’d never thought much about baby personalities. The idea had always been abstract. Babies were babies, akin to dogs in my mind. I was that person at dinner parties interjecting with stories of how silly, smart, dirty my dog can be. Babies were flat cartoons of themselves doing baby things like pooping and mimicking cuss words at inappropriate times.

Even now, after socializing primarily with an infant for seven months, I’m finding it difficult to grasp the concept of baby personality. There’s a thin line between what I perceive to be a trait and that which I have projected onto her, rendering her a white canvas. Of course her life has been short and she has little experience to draw upon, but Joanie is definitely not blank. There are specific tendencies she displays that are undeniable, despite my skepticism on the subject.

Joanie is first and foremost a sociable baby. She’s fascinated by faces and comfortable in anyone’s arms. Usually she’s very sweet, except for earlier this week when she grabbed another baby by the cheek and wouldn’t let go. I’m sure she meant it as a gesture of friendship, or at least an exploration into the world of other humans. Her caregiver couldn’t discipline for this act because Joanie did it with her big toothless smile, the very same that has won her the title of Favourite Baby at Daycare. Which leads me to her second trait: Joanie is cheerful, ecstatically so. When the other babies start to cry, following each other’s cue until they reach a crescendo of wails, Joanie remains smiling if not slightly confused. “Why are all you dummies crying,” she seems to say. They, those that wrote the ubiquitous baby manual, say one shouldn’t compare babies, but how else will I know which characteristics are specific to my daughter and which are just general baby qualities.

Joanie’s personality isn’t the only one I’ve noticed. There’s Shane and his excitable hops. There’s Tare, always striking a pose. I like to call her saucy baby. And there’s Siobhan, who screams when the attention is shifted from her, little narcissist that she is. Can a baby be a narcissist? Aren’t all babies narcissists? Is it narcissistic to call a baby a narcissist?

As for being blank, Joanie is anything but. She has her father’s scowl, her mother’s evening grumpiness, and her own urge to stand up and dance. Though I’d like to think I can shape her, and I’m not discrediting the value and efficacy of nurturing, my daughter’s personality will develop on its own. It’s odd, if not unsettling, that I have to remind myself that babies are little humans with agency, rolling, crawling or walking through the experience that will determine who they become.

Joanie is not a dog. I’m not imagining her smile, but I can’t presume to know why it’s there.

Cave-Ladies and their Little Cave-Babies

“It is assumed that our bodies will ‘know,’ even if we don’t, what pregnancy is like and what it is for; that we are, on some cellular level, wise, or even keen on the reproductive game.”

Anne Enright skeptically writes in Making Babies about the innate sense mother’s are presumed to have about pregnancy, bodies and parenting. If it were true that this sense exists, and I’ll say right now that I have only the slightest inkling of that inborn faculty, then why are there so many texts written about the subject? Why does the What to Expect conglomerate have its own movie? Why are there endless online discussion boards that contradict internally and whose sheer length render them useless? Aside from the obvious profit, I think the answer lies in a real need, one that combats the idea of a natural knowledge.

Before I go any further I want to assure everyone that I don’t deny the existence of a nurturing instinct. Lots of women find they know exactly what they’re doing as soon as that sneaky sperm weasels its way into the egg. I for one was astounded by the confidence with which I held my daughter on her first day in the world. But the notion that I should know my body, my daughter and what to do with both of them is laughable to me. It applies unimaginable pressure.

Despite my reticence towards mantras, I have one: “If cave-ladies can do it, so can I.” My relationship with the mantra is complicated, largely because of my tendency to over think it, rendering it useless. While it has occasionally helped with some of my more insurmountable anxieties, more often than not it leads to a series of questions. What did cave-ladies know about pregnancy and motherhood? At what point did a cave-lady even realize she was pregnant? Was it when the urge to push became undeniable? Terrifying. I imagine the infant mortality rate among cave-babies was significantly higher than it is among their twenty-first century counterparts. It likely took a lot of trial and error to successfully raise a child to fifteen and cave-mums would likely benefit from some warning regarding what to expect. While suggestions of what music to play to a fetus are useless to the average neanderthal, I’m sure they would have appreciated some instruction about labour and delivery.

As much as Heidi Murkoff’s patronizing tone annoys me, I needed her books. Although I forgot everything I’d read as soon as I felt Joanie’s wriggling, slimy body for the first time, I’m thankful that I am not a cave-person, and that I can refer to a vast library of resources for advice about baby sign language, poop taxonomy, and chapped nipples. I have no innate sense when it comes to the aforementioned topics and I challenge anyone who implies that I should.

Note: If you’re like me and you don’t feel like being placated by TLC (the channel not the girl group. If T-Boz, Chilli and Left-Eye want to placate me they’re welcome to) or Heidi Murkoff or Vicki Lovine, then I recommend Anne Enright’s Making Babies. Enright treats her readers like the intelligent, mature and thoughtful people that they are. Her book is an island of reality in a sea of schmaltz.

At The Children’s Hospital (The only title that wasn’t too glib)

Preamble:

Joanie is fine. She had a complication from a virus that landed us in the hospital under observation for four days, but she has since recovered fully. So nobody freak out… for her… feel free to freak out for all the other parents and kids still there.

The Children’s Hospital in Montreal, like any children’s hospital is a terribly depressing place. No matter how many Despicable Me t-shirts the nurses wear or how many broken mobiles hand from the particle board ceilings, it’s still wreaks of sorrow. Tragedies are behind every curtain. Across the hall from our room a boy no older than thirteen recovered from a tracheotomy while escaping periodically to smoke. A mother was shipped off to the general hospital because she collapsed. She was, as I overheard, “non-responsive.” Walking down the hall of the seventh floor, I couldn’t help but peer through the windows at the rooms that looked a touch too lived in. Large sofas, cots made up with sheets from home, framed family photos on side tables; these comforts suggested a ramshackle make-shift permanence instead of the home all the kids were missing. Amidst all this weighty chilling sadness shine tales of unbelievable bravery.

On the other side of the curtain that separated our room, I heard the high pitch gasps of an infant struggling to inhale enough air into her too tiny lungs. It was constant but the rhythm was irregular. I listened, trying to intuit the kind of illness that would cause the squeals, until the second morning when Jim, her father, said from behind the curtain, “don’t worry, the team here is really great.” I couldn’t see his face but I could tell from the cheerful timbre of his voice that he wore a soft grin.

“They’re very nice,” I added. Without having much more to say I sat in silence.

Then his face, gaunt and stubbly appeared smiling from the other side of the curtain. He was clutching a mug with a picture of a baby boy printed on it. “We were here with my older son last year. He has a lesion in his brain. One in two thousand babies have it and he needs neurosurgery. We’ve been here for a month with my daughter. They transferred us from Ste. Justine a couple of days after she was born. She was diagnosed with down syndrome,” he said with a boggling degree of detailed nonchalance. “Everyone here is really great,” he repeated.

“I’m sorry,” I said, stupidly. Again, I was at a loss for words, and blurted something, anything out, when I probably should have said nothing.

“Don’t be sorry,” he corrected, “this was determined when she was only eight cells. She couldn’t be any other way. She wouldn’t be her if she wasn’t this way.” He had rehearsed this speech, but it was still so heart-warming. Maybe it was that it was rehearsed that made it so poignant.

For the following two days I listened to Jim and his wife Ella work together as a practiced team. They scheduled appointments, shared research, alternated the questioning of doctors and found time to chat excitedly about the hockey game. Despite having a daughter in the hospital, recovering from a cesarean, and planning another surgery for their son, Jim and Ella remained positive and proactive.

Could I do that? I wondered. Yes, I think eventually I could, but I imagine it would be tough. Much tougher than saying I could do it. Jim and Ella were professional parents in control of everything. I marvelled at the almost super-human qualities they displayed in the face of life’s most difficult trials.

Over the four days and three nights Joanie, Eric and I were in the hospital, I barely left the building, and when I did I felt distant from all the people around me. They were bustling to and from work, school, the gym, library, shops, doing their every day duties while I had slid off into this otherworldly space that is the hospital. It was as if I was very far away from the humanity of everyday, while simultaneously so close to the extremes of it: a mother desperately searching the halls for her missing son, a father collapsing at the sight of his daughter’s blood, families decorating hospital rooms, trying to make a dire situation and a sterile place seem like home.

Everyone there is really great.