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.

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.

Next week… Next week… Wait… Next week, I promise

Standing in the middle of my living room, up to my knees in stuffed animals, discarded socks and receiving blankets, I remember a time when my apartment was tidy, minimal except for the alphabetically organized books. I might even venture to call it sleek. Order was maintained with little effort, but since Joanie’s birth, when we returned home and collapsed in an explosion of wipes and forms, pills and bottles, I have been frantically scrambling to catch up with all the annoying chores that compose my life. No matter how many post-it memos I leave myself I can’t pay my bills on time, I always forget items at the grocery store, I order pizza too often, and I still haven’t written my will.

On weekends I serve brunch at a restaurant in my neighbourhood. At the end of my shift on Sunday I slump onto the couch, order pizza and watch an episode of Gossip Girl, despite my promise that I wouldn’t watch that stupid hallow show anymore. In my state of exhaustion I say to myself, “next week I am going to be on top of everything.”

This affirmation reminds me of a similar pronouncement I would repeat when I was twenty. I was living in an apartment with my best friend, a performance artist, an international student, and a university professor whom I never met and would never meet. Most nights I’d work the overnight shift at a diner, then meet up with bartender friends for breakfast, go home and sleep until three or four in the afternoon. For an entire winter I didn’t see sunlight and on days I didn’t work I’d go to a carpeted bar to drink and dance. It was loads of fun, but outside of work and drinking I didn’t do much. My bills were left unpaid, the floor of my room was littered with pizza boxes and Lord help you if you expected me to respond to an email. And just like I do now, I’d wake up once a week and say, “this week I’m going to get my shit together.”

When friends hold Joanie on their knees and watch her wobble on her six month old legs, they laugh at a joke I’ve heard time and time again: “she’s like a little drunk person.” Babies may stumble through life as it they were intoxicated but I assure you it is the parents who live as drunks do. We’re sleep-deprived, we walk into doors, and we insist on talking about gross things nobody wants to hear about (see my other posts on poop). Most importantly, parents are constantly trying to catch up with their own lives, wishing there were twenty-eight hours in a day. Even as I write this, I should be calling Canada Revenue to wade through some bureaucratic nonsense. But it’s Friday. Tomorrow I work and I’m sure, come Sunday evening, I will make all sorts of promises about the week ahead.

Be a Little Afraid

Donald, a young and fair-haired coworker, reads my blog. Hi Donald. After my recent post about getting caught at the airport covered in Joanie’s diarrhea, he told me that I have scared him away from ever having babies. I cautioned him about the efficacy of condoms then got to thinking about my readers. Hi readers.

In response to Donald’s feedback and in anticipation of a few friends’ due dates I want to clarify my goals with this project.

Dearest reader, I don’t want to scare you. Well, maybe a bit. What I’m trying to say is: be afraid, but know that you can do it

One of my goals is to combat the silly tone of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and other texts of that ilk. It’s unrealistic and patronizing and it makes the whole affair sound like a magical frolic through a meadow of cotton candy and pillows. I’m a grown woman. Give it to me straight.

The idea for this blog came to me while sitting in the back of a birthing class, trying to eat my carrot sticks quietly. It was the first day and we were watching The Movie. You know the one with the very close and graphic view of a birth. Eric and I watched it the same way we watch that show Hannibal. I cover my eyes and he tells me when the gross parts are over. When they finally were and our enthusiastic teacher turned the lights back on, I was surprised to find all of the other couples crying. All of them. Not the fearful crying you might expect but one of joy in the face of true beauty. My reaction was very different. I wanted to jump on my chair and yell, “That box got torn apart!” Luckily I was pregnant and it was unsafe for me to stand on chairs. Was I missing something? Am I colder that most people? Maybe, but perhaps it has something to do with an image of motherhood that’s been blurred of its gory details, like the picture of the woman with angel wings and perky boobs on the box of nursing fenugreek tea in the back of my pantry.

The tone I want to use is closer to my first impulse. It’s hard and painful and gross but I’m very happy about it. That’s the paradox I want to address.

The first day at home with Joanie I was astonished by how impossible parenting appeared. I was tired, sore, and emotional and my life had quickly flipped from quiet anticipation to frantic action. It was amazing that people had been doing this since the beginning of humanity, but they have and so would I. I’ve recovered, I’m used to sleep deprivation and I have a firm grasp of the basics: diapers, boobs, etcetera. I’ve trudged through the worst of it, and the troubles are probably not over, but I’ve reached a point of happiness amidst all the gross parts.

My reward: Joanie.

I finally get to know what unconditional love is. Even if she becomes a thief or an arsonist or uses the word adorbs, I will love her. Maybe that’s why people create those images of winged women. My intention is to be an alternative to her, one who acknowledges the hair and blood and poop but remains encouraging.

So be afraid, but know that you can do it.

The Magnificent Exploding Baby

Dedicated to the very nice lady with the mystery novel and the red bookmark.

When I started this blog I wanted to stay away from poop humour, because it’s gross but also because everyone already equates poops with babies. There’s nothing more to learn. Nothing, except the extent to which parents are acquainted with poop. No honest account of motherhood would be complete without a poop story.

Last weekend was Joanie’s first excursion into air travel and despite the stigma of terrible babies on planes, and aside from a few spats of tears, she was quiet and well behaved. The horror show was the lead up to the flight. On our last day in New York Joanie and I came down with a cold. I struggled through a fever, headache and runny nose to pack while she wailed. We had done some shopping and had acquired a whole new bag of stuff. We were also running late as people with young babies perpetually are, something my previously maniacally punctual self has recently come to terms with. Frantically, I packed, crawling on the floor to find socks (I celebrate the minor victory of all our socks returning in pairs), throwing all of Joanie’s accessories into whatever bag was closest.

We arrived at Laguardia airport with a large bag on wheels, a diaper bag, a computer bag, a canvas bag of souvenirs, our coats, Joanie and the car seat she refused to sit in. On top of all this I am a nervous traveler who insists on having my passport and boarding pass in my hand where I can see and feel them. Immediately after checking in Joanie started crying her long loud hunger cry. “Let’s just get through security and then I’ll feed her at the gate.” I figured that as long as we were there with our bags checked and our passports ready everything would be easy. We would have time to feed her and ourselves. We’d board early and comfortably. We would only have an hour flight and short cab ride. Then we’d be home. Boy was I mistaken. The great explosion of 2014 was awaiting me at Gate 15.

As soon as we got to the gate, Eric left to find us some tea and sandwiches while I settled in to feed Joanie. Just as she started to feed she looked up at me with wide eyes and then surprised herself with the thunderous noise that came from her little innocent looking bum. Everyone looked as I smiled and continued feeding her. I couldn’t take her to the bathroom until Eric got back to watch our bags. Anxiously I waited, until another thunderclap cracked. This time I felt wet seeping in my hand. Joanie, uncomfortable for obvious reasons, started crying. I sat her on my lap and streaks of greenish brown appeared on my jeans. I grew more and more impatient as the mess in her diaper became unbearable. “Oh hell,” I said loud enough for everyone to hear, unfolded a mat and started to undress my gross little daughter. Joanie, who loves having her diaper changed, smiled wide as I struggled to remove her shirt without smearing anything onto her face. She reached up to put her poop-covered fingers in her mouth and I fought to keep them down by her sides. A very kind woman in the seat next to me took notice of my catastrophe and offered to help. Embarrassed, I declined but she knew better and insisted, grabbing Joanie’s hands and entertaining her with silly faces. Together, in a frenzy of poop and limbs and diapers, we were able to wipe her down using the rest of the wipes I had and a few tissues I’d stuffed in my pocket. The woman, her heroism complete, left to wash her hands that were now covered in a stranger’s bodily fluids. Just as I was strapping Joanie into her diaper and singing her changing time song, Outkast’s So Fresh and So Clean, Joanie let out her third and final thunderclap. Without any more wipes I used the diaper to clean her up and dressed in her last diaper, the others I had brought were stupidly stored in our checked luggage.

Eric came around the corner to find me holding his naked smiling daughter with my elbows, my fingers spread wide and away from her. He put down the two camomile teas and two sandwiches he had brought for us and took over while I left to scrub my hands and clothes. When I returned Joanie was shaking her stuffed Elmo and babbling away as if nothing had happened. Eric borrowed a spare diaper from a family nearby and we ate our sandwiches.

In the end it was just another day.

That’s my poop story.

The “I Dropped My Kid” Club

This week’s installment is a day early as Joanie, Eric and I are off to New York for the weekend. All our fellow passengers on the plane are in for a real treat.

My friends watch me with what I think is unease as I flip Joanie around with much more calm than I did when she was first born. All the photos of her and I in the first few days of her life feature my tensed shoulders and thin nervous smile. As I grasped my new baby I would think, “just don’t drop her.” Although I have since become significantly more comfortable holding my daughter, I still fear the inevitable first drop.

Everyone has a story about accidentally hurting his or her kid. My parents have both independently told me the story of pulling my brother out of the baby carrier on a plane and smacking his little head on the overhead compartment to the shock and chagrin of all the other passengers. Oddly enough they both take responsibility for it and can’t agree on who actually did it, which is a nice thought in a weird way. It implies that they were a  parenting team.

While the idea that every parent has dropped their child at some point creates a sort of club of commiseration, it is still terrifying. My initiation is both daunting and horrifying.

As I watch Joanie struggle somewhat successfully to roll around on my bed, I am tempted to leave her there I while run to the W.C with some certainty that she isn’t mobile enough to make it over the edge. The fear of her falling stops me because she is only incapable until she is capable. Who knows when that will be? It was only recently that she couldn’t pick things up. Now her favourite activity is putting stuff in her mouth. All of a sudden I have to be vigilant about the little bits and pieces that find their way to my floor.

The same goes for the words I carelessly drop here and there. When Joanie was still in her first weeks we didn’t pay much attention to the language we used. Both Eric and I have a touch of the sailor’s tongue and have since had to retrain our speech idiosyncrasies. We’ve replaced all curse words with foods. I might exclaim, “Oh Hamburgers,” or Eric might complain about some Muffin Fluffer Nutter. If Joanie is accidentally privy to a violent scene on T.V we are sure to say, “he’s spilling his ketchup everywhere.” We know that she doesn’t speak yet and she probably won’t for some time, but who knows when she’ll start understand if she hasn’t already. I would be mortified, but also perversely proud if her first words were “I’d fucks with that.”

Twerp, You Know Nothing

“It’s like a baby pops out of you and you immediately become an uptight bitch,” the girl with the round sunglasses decreed. “Have you read Rilke?” she diverted, handing a copy of Letters to a Young Poet to her sparsely bearded boy toy whom dotingly carried a stack of oh-my-god-you-haven’t-read-yets.

The girl with the round sunglasses continued to tell of her sister who refused to wake her sleeping baby daughter when her mother arrived fifteen minutes after bedtime. During the whole of her story I stalked her, holding Joanie in my arms facing outwards so the girl with the round sunglasses could see our indignation. I’d hoped that from our disapproving scowls she would discover her mistake, that she was in fact wrong to complain about her sister’s bedtime choices, that her sister probably hasn’t slept more than two hours in a stretch for months and that the 7:30pm deadline was the only way that this poor exhausted woman has found to ensure a four hour period of sleep for her baby. She would then infer that the folly of her ways, the sunglasses in door for instance, were a ridiculous play for attention, and that she, amidst all her calculations of image, should have found the time to consider the plight of others and become less of an ill-informed judge. “You’re right, intelligent and respectable woman with the bright-eyed baby, I was acting the fool,” she would admit, removing her sunglasses and at once shaving her boyfriend’s scraggly beard.

All of this would be the result of my scowl.

In reality she just smiled at Joanie and paid for her books, leaving me to my brooding, ineffectual discontent. I’m a little ashamed of imagining so much about a girl I know nothing about. Who knows, maybe she lost her glasses and only had her prescription sunglasses while she waited for new lenses to be set in a stylish vintage frame that cost more than her parent-funded-rent, but there I go again.

Before I had my own small one I could be terribly critical, admittedly I still can be, but I have since learned to temper my judgments through understanding and my own experience. I once would have admonished a father for having his daughter in front of the T.V to give himself a break, or a mother for having her son on one of those harnesses. My new reaction is closer to: “yeah, I could see that,” followed by a shrug. It may not be my style of parenting but motherhood is exhausting, especially in the first year. In the words of my friend Julia, looking back on the first year of her son’s life, “that was insane.”

When I was leaving the Jewish General Hospital with my new baby girl I was given a brochure and worksheet to fill out on shaken baby syndrome. The worksheet, created by the Sainte-Justine Mother and Child University Hospital Centre and adopted for use at many other hospitals in Montreal, asked for a list of a few things I could do when I feel overwhelmed as well as a list of people I could call if I needed help. At the time, fueled by adrenaline and dewy-eyed baby wonder, I quickly dismissed the pages as well as the faceless parent that might need them. It wasn’t until I spent my first night at home in the throws of those ugly and chemical post-partum feelings that I began to see the brochure’s use. While I would never shake Joanie, the place that impulse comes from is no longer quite so preposterous in my mind, and that worksheet I mocked so openly in front of the well-meaning nurse seemed suddenly to bare some necessity.

I think the reason I was so furious with the girl in the round sunglasses is because I recognized in her a part of me that so carelessly criticized parents. I still find myself scoffing at other moms every once in a while, but when I do I try to remember all the times I let Joanie sleep in the bed with me, or the moments I allowed her to stare blankly at the moving faces that say things she doesn’t understand while I take some time to watch The West Wing. I remember that just because people have been parenting since the beginning of human existence doesn’t mean that it’s not absurdly difficult.