On coming naturally

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If there’s one negative subject that always comes up at parent-teacher conferences at Laurel’s schools — which are usually lighthearted hour-long lovefests about cognitive development and socialization and caring about her classmates — it’s about how she deals with frustration.  Like a lot of bright kids (e.g., say, both her parents) she loves when things come naturally.  Things that don’t can be tough to approach.  It’s something you contemplate a lot in the abstract as a parent – you want things not to come too easily, because kids need to learn to struggle, manage disappointment, persevere, etc.  Despite which you also feel good seeing things come readily because, well, just look at my smart/capable/athletic/etc child and this thing she can do.  Beth and I had our own issues with doing hard things as children — I tended to avoid anything that didn’t come naturally and missed a lot of learning opportunities, plus making learning to struggle with difficulty harder later on.

Laurel and I ride together on my bike a lot – she has a seat in front of me, which has really worked well — it’s safe, you can talk to each other the whole time, it’s in easy hugging reach, everyone fawns over you on the street (she’s also outgrowing it, and there’s no way whatever follows it will win me the same smoldering looks from San Francisco’s population of available elderly women.)  She’s had a balance bike of her own for a while too, which has helped her learn balance – though it’s not practical on SF’s hills, and sees most of its mileage riding around in circles in our garage (sometimes with the lights off, the bike lights all set to flashing mode, and Giorgio Moroder playing on the stereo.)

So this weekend we got her her first real bike.  And so today she and I went out, prepared for an epochal bout of frustration management.  I’d done a ton of management of expectations, warning her that falling down was to be expected, that she’d have to take calming breaths and try lots of times — she knows all that by heart but applying it in the heat of the moment is tougher.  She brought a stuffed animal “to snuggle after I fall down, so I can try again.”

In the actual event, little progress was made on the frustration-management front because this turned out to be an easy one.  Half an hour of trying, and she had it.  Most of the half hour was actually convincing her it was okay for me to let go.  Not a single fall other than steering into walls trying to read signs posted on them and the usual starting/stopping learning curve.

Well, okay.  She didn’t learn to ride the emotional roller coaster.  But she learned to ride a bike.  Independent of wanting her to learn to struggle for her goals, I did actually want her to learn that.  For the moment, I’ll take it.  I’ll even leave the post-processing on this photo in gratuitous Thomas Kinkade-esque mode for the occasion.

– Devin

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Assorted pleasures and miseries

Self-suctioning

We’ve had the flu. Or a really awful cold. Or something in between — the two end up merging somewhere inbetween in a sort of continuum of misery. There’s a temptation to say that it must be a cold because our flu shots didn’t prevent it, but those aren’t perfect either, and there’s the lurking suspicion that apart from the flu vaccines this might have been worse — some of our friends who’ve picked up this lovely ailment have been down for weeks. Beth and I are both headed for around a week each and improving.

Laurel, damn her, was mostly recovered in only two days, only one of which coincided with our own, so we’ve been lousy parents this week. Not to the point that we’re letting her shoot heroin or watch commercial television, but bad enough to make a lot of messes, open and poke her fingers into many more toddler-accessible jars of things, or stream domestic animal footage off YouTube far more than usual — so long as it involved letting Mommy and/or Papa lie quietly on the couch and not move around very much or have to read Charlie Parker to her again.

Considering that she was cooped up in the house for about five days with no breaks longer than trips to the corner store for tissue paper and brief woozy toddles around the flat parts of the neighborhood, she held up well. She’s made some progress conversationally — she manages four-word sentences pretty often (usually missing the prepositions, conjunctions and articles), and can have back-and-forth discussions with several round trips before either she says something indecipherable or gets distracted. That was okay once my sore throat cleared up, though less okay once I started coughing instead, since she doesn’t have the attention span to sit out a lengthy bout of hacking without losing whatever I said beforehand (or more usually, carrying on with whatever she was going to say next.)

With the magic wand

At one point, miserable with congestion, I plugged in the Hitachi Magic Wand and started pressing it into my face to loosen things up in there. This actually works, by the way — not as well as huffing acetone or a suction pipe, but it’s less flammable and more readily obtainable in domestic contexts, and even if the effect only lasts a few minutes the only damage is from the electric bill. Seeing me doing this, however, Laurel wanted to try too. Once she got over the initial tickling, she couldn’t be separated from it — she’d press it to her feet, then drop it and squeal with giggles, then pick it up by the head so it vibrated her hand, then drop it and squeal again, etc. It was like having a fourteen year-old girl all of a sudden, except with all the salient details replaced with cute toddler ones.

Since I recovered enough to take her out for longer ventures, we’ve been on a gradual quest to revive the XO-1 I bought years ago, back before OLPC became a giant mass of politics, corporate sabotage and feasibility issues. That’s had us tramping around in search of a compatible lithium coin cell to run the RTC, without which it can’t boot. Laurel likes batteries — she greatly likes going to the store to buy replacement batteries for her toys, then turning the toy over and helping put new batteries in. Indeed she often wants to do this when it’s not needed, and gets quite excited when she finds a loose cell lying around that she feels should be put into something. The word itself is usually enough to thrill her. Less immediately thrilling has been trying to actually find the proper battery. The distinction between an ML1220 and MR1237 lithium cell seems about as subtle to her as it does to the benightedly undereducated louts staffing your typical drugstore or electronics retailer. The staff at our local hardware stores are a good deal better, but equally devoid of actual stock in the right sort. Not that Laurel’s really going to be ready to use a laptop anyway, even one designed for children, but it’s durable enough to let her try. She gets ahold of Beth’s laptop quite a lot, and happily presses keys, switches windows, adjusts the audio controls, etc. So she may well enjoy the opportunity, unless the relative drop in bling factor between OSX and Sugar doesn’t kill her enthusiasm.

I’m headed back to work tomorrow, virus or not, lest I forget how to go about my career entirely — one more slightly sniffly office worker amongst a whole horde of them, especially the ones with kids. It’ll have to do. They claim that getting sick enough as a kid helps you later on — but with this infection rate, not even having started daycare or preschool, I trust it does something for the parents too, down the line anyway.

– Devin

Picking Peppers

This has already come up once or twice before, but in feeding Laurel we’ve been trying to ensure that she gets accustomed to variety in her food, and to explore lots of tastes. The basic thinking is that children grow up liking whatever they’re fed early in life. Kids raised on the sort of bland, flavorless pap that comprises the bulk of the American mainstream baby diet (even leaving aside the gradual slide of western baby feeding into the same nutritional wasteland of adult consumption) aren’t getting any real excitement or depth of experience in their food, and they may well grow up with that expectation. It’s certainly possible to reverse the acclimation — most people I know who enjoy unusual foods discovered them in early adulthood — but why start down the route of strained veal and mashed peas at all if it’s avoidable? This isn’t a nutritional concern so much as an aesthetic one; food should be a positive experience. Eating new things should be a pleasure.

One aspect that I’ve been particularly enthusiastic about is spicy food, so it’s been very gratifying that Laurel’s taken to spices so readily. This morning, after eating a helping of curried cauliflower and most of the sesame/soy/rooster sauce I’d been intending for myself, she started in on some shredded chicken. Now, chicken’s not an exciting meat. I’ve read that it was better before mass production of poultry, but I doubt it’s ever been radically different, and this certainly wasn’t. She kept taking fingerfulls of the stuff back out of her mouth and trying to feed them to me; that’s sometimes a sign of generosity, but often a sign that she prefers something to be in someone’s mouth other than hers. So I started dipping it in a vaguely jamaican hot pepper sauce. This improved her feelings substantially. She still took the chicken back out of her mouth, but this time in order to dip it in the sauce again before resuming chewing. We finished the last of the bottle that way, and after running out of pourable sauce I simply gave her the bottle, whereupon she spent the next ten minutes trying to extract as much from it as possible.

Y’know, you find yourself taking pride in your kids in all sorts of unexpected ways.

– Devin

Three-way banter

Me: Laurel, play with your Papa.
Devin: (speaking for Laurel, who was climbing up on me) Nooo! I only want to play with someone who has breasts!
Me: You just had the boobs.
Devin: See, Laurel? Knockers. Knock-ers. Or we can call them sweater cows.
Me: Can’t we just call them breasts?
Devin: You don’t. (Pause) Here, Laurel. Knocker Number One and Sweater Cow Number Two. You like cows. They go, “moo.”
Laurel (enthusiastically): Moo!

— Beth

Edited to add:

This interchange arises from a couple of different lines of conversation we’ve had over the past several months. First, there’s the matter of what to teach babies to call the breasts they’re nursed with, or breasts in general. It seems to be pretty common that the learn to refer to them before they stop making regular use of them, so it’s not an impertinent issue. The most common term self-applied by the moms of the babies I know has been “boobs,” probably because (a) it’s a pretty common term amongst western/American/Californian women generally, (b) it’s widely accepted and largely unoffensive, and (c) it’s an easy word for babies to learn. However, bothers me in a couple of respects.

First, Laurel’s eventually going to have breasts herself, and when it happens it’ll be amidst a lot of other body developments and rediscoveries. If we’re really lucky, she might not despise and feel ashamed of her body throughout or after that process, but the social deck isn’t stacked in her (or any girl’s) favor. Western culture is loaded up with sexual hangups and body-resentment issues; whole chunks of our economy are based on inducing and then exploiting feelings of bodily inadequacy; and, there are going to be hordes of adolescent boys and girls out there simultaneously assessing every feature of her eventual anatomy and finding ways to encourage her to feel bad about them. It’s going to be a rough ride. Meanwhile, I worry about seeing parents teaching their kids euphemisms rather than words for the various parts of the kids’ bodies (or their own). Even if it’s just a matter of endearment and not done out of shame or embarrassment on the parents’ part, the euphemisms may eventually cause trouble. Kids will be taught to keep parts of themselves covered, unmentioned in public, etc. It’ll be obvious that the euphemism was employed to avoid saying something else or to avoid something at least a little bit shameful. So they learn to be embarrassed or ashamed themselves. They’ll be working against that most of their adolescent and adult lives — we shouldn’t be setting them up by making it harder.

Second, come on. Most every baby is learning to say “boob.” It’s overused. Set amongst the cavalcade of baby-product brands it sounds like something fluffy and made of cotton you use to absorb spills. If we’re struggling to prepare our children to express individuality and uniqueness, breast terminology’s an easy place to start. Personally, when not making principled stands for body acceptance I’ve been trying to teach her to call them “gazongas.” It’s enthusiastic, meaningless, and it’ll be a hit at playgroups.

– Devin

Of family vacations, sore asses, and Folsom Street Fair

We’ve had a family week. I took a week’s vacation time to spent with Beth & Laurel — something I’d been planning to do since before she was born. Actually, I’d been planning to save one of my parental leave weeks to take at or around the six month mark, to spend extra time with the various developmental stuff that goes on around now. As it happened, I screwed up the dates on the form and ended up taking all my leave up front, somewhat to the discomfiture of my employer’s HR department. Oh well — I took some vacation time instead.

September/October’s a good time for time off in the city — for those that aren’t accustomed to our weather, the usual June/July/August months are one of San Francisco’s two winters (the other occurs in the more conventional Californian winter period). So if you’re looking for moderate weather and nice sunny days, this is the time for it. Everyone seemed to know it, because half the city seemed also to be on vacation this week. It’s also the trailing edge of Leather Pride Week and the start of the SF Love Fest, both of which raise the number of people found on the streets in unexpected costumes or states of undress above the usual baseline levels. Plus, there are music festivals, street-food events and other frivolity — it’s a good time to live here.

One thing I hadn’t planned on was everyone getting sick — first Laurel & Beth, then myself; probably just a cold, though it made Beth miserable for a week, me lightly symptomatic for days, and Laurel both congested, drippy and with a case of diarrhea which then kicked off an ugly and protracted bout of diaper rash. By the time of Folsom Street Fair, she was sporting angry red swathes all over her nether regions, complete with little dark welts and other unpleasantness. Meanwhile she converted from her usual enthusiasm for diaper changes (during which she can most readily grab her feet) to sobbing dread and screaming disapproval. Plus, owing to the diarrhea, she was getting tons of these occasions, and hating everything about it. If you didn’t catch her in the act of soiling herself she’d let you know seconds later, either because it hurt to poop or because she knew we’d take her in to clean her off, which clearly hurt a lot. Eventually we started doing diaper changes on the floor rather than the changing table, because everything was going to get kicked off the table onto the floor anyway, and that way you could use legs & shoulders to hold her down, or at least keep her in the vicinity.

The standard remedies for diaper rash are cleanliness, air exposure (i.e. diaper-free time), patience and zinc oxide. In addition to the frequent changes, we provided the cleanliness via baths, which went fine and are sufficiently uninteresting as not to be worth going into. Air exposure is another matter when dealing with a diarrhea-afflicted baby capable of moving on their own — I diligently tried it, for a period of about ten minutes, one morning after an especially loud and misery-inducing diaper change. By late afternoon I’d finished washing the ten or twelve different things she managed to poop on, gotten a price quote for rug cleaning exceeding the value of the rug itself, bathed Laurel to deal with her innocent, cheerful willingness to crawl around in whatever happens to be in the way no matter how pathogen-laden, and written off diaper-free time as a remedy suitable for those who live in one-piece fiberglass bathrooms lacking textiles and with an abundance of drains. While we’d started with the typical leftist organic & herbal remedies of calendula creams and balsam pastes, after a few days of screaming and general unpleasantness I’d lost patience with the all-natural approach and opted for the strongest over-the-counter option modern pharmacology had to offer, which worked significantly better. We also shifted her to disposable diapers for a couple days, though motivated less by any faith that they’d help (they didn’t) as by the fact that we’d run out of cloth ones.

Naturally, faced with a baby with an intensely sore butt and a tendency to go apoplectic with fear & pain at any rectal/anal activity (be it solid, liquid or gaseous), plus a partner too sick to leave the house, the obvious recourse is to head off to Folsom Street Fair. Folsom’s a lot of fun, even if it’s being watered down by the relentless flood of heterosexuals who keep showing up to what is basically a five-block S&M party oriented around gay men (and, so a somewhat lesser and historically antecedentory degree, women). Laurel was the youngest postnatal attendee I noticed — the fair doesn’t actually forbid bringing kids, and usually there are one or two each year. It’ll almost certainly be her last for a couple of decades — by next year she’ll recognize too much of what’s going on to let it all slide, but far too little to actually understand. Leatherfolk are, by and large, a warm & accepting group, but I’m too busy preparing toddler-compatible explanations for the laws of thermodynamics to come up with one for why post-operative women are whacking one another with leather paddles on the sidewalk. I’m also unprepared to convincingly and comprehensibly argue that while fellatio is a splendid activity for loving participants, it’s customarily done in private, and cases where grown men are doing it to one another in the middle of a street are the exception, provided for by a lengthy history of psychological probing, self-acceptance, civil rights battles, social adaptation, public adulation and finding someone to hold your beer so you can properly attend to the task.

For those convinced that she’ll be subconsciously scarred anyway, she slept through the entire thing, and had a happy afternoon clambering around on the floor and laps of friends who live just slightly off Folsom St. People react to men carrying babies in slings in various ways — setting indifference aside, I’d say that the most common reactions in normal public settings are endearment, followed by amusement. At Folsom, indifference still predominated, but surprise dominated the remainder, followed by discomfiture, confusion and, rare but still significant, endearment & delight. She got pretty much the usual number of cooings and fawnings-over, despite being, as I say, sound asleep and with a hat over her head (it’s often noted that for some reason, an event where one wears forty pounds of black-tanned leather is nonetheless held outdoors in the sunniest, hottest part of SF’s year).

One group that didn’t react one way or the other to her presence was the people running the Fetish Tots booth, which we spent several minutes giggling over. Despite a strong desire to see a copy of their business plan, I doubt they’ll make it to the 2010 fair, just considering the Venn diagram of their prospective clientele.

Folsom aside, it’s been a fairly domestic week of babyproofing, calls to the pediatrician, a truly absurd number of diaper changes, and playing with the baby. Laurel’s still trying to learn to use her body — she’s been hoisting her (now significantly healed) butt in the air on hands and feet, trying other ways to get around. She’s still not crawling, per se, but scoots around all over. She pulls herself along and grabs at everything by clawing with her fingers, so she breaks her fingernails a lot. She has no interest at all in sitting, although she’ll hold a seated position pretty well if we put her in one. I did get around to the various mom & baby groups — an odd social dynamic being the only man in a group of women whose husbands & partners have all long since gone back to work. I haven’t encountered any unseen or underappreciated developmental milestones — even back at work I’ve been closely enough involved to experience them all — but it’s been a good week regardless.

– Devin

Fathering, travelling, and korean food

Laurel and Kochu Karu

I haven’t written much since Laurel was born. Mostly because I’ve had virtually no spare time, and when I do, I don’t have enough cognitive function left. In small part it’s been because while Beth has found it easier to find things to say about Laurel now that she’s here, I’ve found it somewhat more difficult, or at least harder to find good ways to describe her and how she’s doing. The natural conclusion was that the prospect of having a baby amounted to a tremendous ego trip, and now that the baby’s actually here and turns out to be an individual person with her own qualities incompletely molded to my will, my ego is no longer fulfilled. If so, at least I’m admitting it now, whereas some fathers won’t admit it until their kid drops out of law school. In any event, Beth offered to trade dishes for blog posting, and since I spent the whole afternoon in the kitchen already, I may as well try.

I’ve been a father for a bit less than five months now. I like it — it feels good, and it’s easier to get into than I suspected it might be (that doesn’t mean it’s easy, just easier to stay involved in). I’m also a “working father,” a phrase not part of the common lexicon because, demographics and history and social trends and anatomical tyranny being what they are, it’s so close to ubiquitous that we don’t really have a word for it. I’d still rather be home with the baby, or at least I’d rather be home with the baby until around 11am or so. Coincidentally, it takes until around 11am each day to get through my email. Hmm.

Being a “working father” does mean that by the time you get home at night, the baby is already heading into the evening fussy period and no longer as perfect as the day’s text messages from her mother would have led one to believe. Mornings are Laurel’s best time, and since she tends to wake and need feeding shortly before I’d normally get out of bed, we usually get some time to hang out in bed and play or make faces at one another in the mornings. In the evenings I catch the tail end of her presentable period, deal with some portion of the less presentable period, then put her to bed for a presentable-but-hard-to-see-in-the-dark period. Then we’re together all weekend, of course, when I try to cram in all the fatherly playing, going out, napping together and so forth we missed out on earlier.

Going out with Laurel is a high point. She likes the sling, and now that she’s got good head control she can face forward, which makes our excursions into giant show-and-tell sessions. She’s very visually engaged with the world these days, and spends these trips looking wide-eyed at everything. It helps that there’s a lot to see in the city, and on weekends especially, ample time to stop and explain it to her in the hopes that she’s secretly recording everything I say with the intention of going back and replaying it once she learns to understand English. We also stop to let her smell flowers, touch things with interesting textures, or get fawned over by all and sundry.

The fawning is pretty impressive, actually. Fathers taking their babies out seem to be magnets for 40- to 60-year old women especially, though it works on a lot of different age ranges and gender combinations. But the middle-aged women don’t seem attracted in nearly the same volume when her mother’s around — even though I’m still the one wearing Laurel. Maybe it’s the backpack full of baby supplies that does it — when Beth’s there too she usually carries that. Perhaps carrying both baby and diaper bag somehow announces “suave and confident hunk of burning fatherly man-love” in a way that just the baby herself doesn’t.

Laurel’s also in a good period where we don’t need all that much equipment to go out running errands — it all fits in a half-full backpack and could probably pack smaller on tighter rationing. The only thing that really needs to be close to hand is a rag for graceful dabbing at her chin, since she’s decided that on balance, spitting is easier than swallowing and there’s always more saliva coming anyway. This enables one to stand there feeling quietly smug about the harried parents who haul giant strollers onto Muni buses, festooned with toys and bottles and clothes and blankets, whose kids fuss a lot and need to be entertained the whole way because they can’t see anything interesting down there. I’ll probably change that tune when watching out bus windows stops interesting Laurel so much, but it works pretty well for the moment. In the meantime, she’s entertained so long as she can look around, and I can keep her warm and comfortable merely by zipping my jacket around her when the wind blows. It’s a lightweight way to travel.

For the last few weeks, Laurel and I have made excursions oriented around learning to make kimchi. I like the stuff, and took a notion to try to learn to make it, so we’ve made a number of trips in search of ingredients and implements. First to Noe Valley, where strollers outnumber even the Priuses, and where I found a book on the topic (Laurel got a book out of that too, although it’s mostly about children becoming older siblings and relevant to her only insomuch as it’s got cute pictures of a mouse family and she might be into cute mice at some point). Then to a mostly-Chinese grocery in the south mission for Napa cabbage and shrimp paste (Laurel got cooed at by various shoppers, and some sympathetic looks when the bad pop music played over a half-broken PA system got the better of her and she started fussing.) Then a long trip out to a pair of Korean markets near Japantown for seau chǒt and kochu karu (Laurel got fawned over by lost tourists on the 44, enthusiastically chatted up in Korean by elderly women wielding chili peppers and enormous daikons, and tickled by the counterman in a mercado on 16th.) Then one further trip downtown to buy a suitable jug (Laurel got fussed over by a guy with a skateboard and a bright red sweatshirt, who tried to get her interested in the artwork on his deck but didn’t manage to draw her attention away from the shirt.)

Then we actually made kimchi, which took the afternoon to do (kimchi is labor intensive to make, mostly from all the chopping, plus I didn’t really know what I was doing and so had to do half of it over.) Laurel was largely indifferent to the whole process until the kochu karu came out, at which point her interest was thoroughly engaged. Kochu karu consists of bright red ground chili peppers. I’d bought half a kilo in an equally bright red bag. She followed it everywhere it went in the room, to the point where I eventually resealed it and gave it to her for a while. Then we couldn’t get it away from her again — if we pulled it away, she’d lean way forward in her chair, whimpering and reaching urgently for it with both arms, until we let her have it again. She liked the smell, too, when I opened the bag so she could sniff it. Later she watched me make up the chili paste, and coat the vegetables, and had the same reaction — lurching forward in Beth’s or my grasp, both arms outstretched trying to get ahold of the bowl.

Laurel and Kochu Karu

It was all pretty gratifying.

– Devin

About the car

Remember how we discussed whether to get a family car? So far, we haven’t felt any need.

Laurel had her first BART ride when she was about a week old — to go to the Department of Public Health to apply for her birth certificate. She was remarkably unfazed. Since then, she’s ridden BART at least twice a week, and buses at least once a week. She’s been on some of San Francisco’s most notorious bus/trolley lines, including the 38, the 22, the 44, the N Judah, the 14 and the 49. So far, she’s liked them all. Her uncle Tyler says Laurel has ridden the bus more times in her life than he has in his many years of living in San Francisco.

Lately, Laurel loves staring at people on the bus, which is OK when you’re four months old and have huge, glowing blue eyes. (We’ll teach her about staring and politeness later.) On long trips, she stares and smiles at people for ages, and then the swaying/swerving/wallowing motion one associates with San Francisco buses — and their kamikaze drivers — eventually lulls her to sleep. Last week, she fell so deeply asleep that her neck totally relaxed and I had to hold her head; it looked a bit like she was broken.

I’ve taken her twice in our Del Sol when I had to make a long drive to a medical appointment on the Peninsula. And she’s been in cars we borrowed from carshare a few times, mainly for long trips to see her grandparents in Sonoma County. Once, we rode in a minivan with another couple and their baby. She sleeps in her car seat at freeway speeds and tends to wake up and watch out the window when we’re on surface streets. But, for the most part, her babyhood has been a low-car existence.

It’s important to add that we’re not using a stroller yet. When she goes out with us on public transit, she’s either in the Moby wrap with me or the sling with Devin. So we’re taking up very little space, relatively speaking. I’m usually able to fit myself, Laurel, and our bag (and often a shopping bag!) all into one seat on the bus or subway, which is a point of pride, considering how many people hog two seats.

I do, occasionally, worry that we’ll be in a bus or trolley that happens to collide with … something. BART hasn’t had any crashes in its history that I’m aware of, so I’m comfortable standing when we ride the subway. When we’re on the bus or trolley, though, I sit down and hold on.

Meanwhile, our car has been driven so little that one night when I had to go to the ER for a sudden infection, we had to jump the battery because it had run down. Seriously, it has made zero sense so far for us to buy a car. We’ve made the right decision, so far.

— Beth

Learning curves

It’s funny, but I never thought much about what kind of mother I would be. Once I discovered that I was about to be SOME kind of mother, I tried to clear my mind — as best I could — of preconceived notions, hoping that I (and we) could let our child show us the kind of parents we needed to be. Sure, we had some ideas in mind: we wanted to be loving and encouraging, not let her off too easily, try to avoid too much mass advertising or junk food (and educate her as to why), that sort of thing. But, I don’t know yet whether I will be one of those moms who’s deeply involved in her child’s school, for example, or how I will frame my willingness to listen as she copes with emotional and social problems as she gets older. I’m trying to keep an open mind.

This week in yoga, the teacher reminded us at the beginning of class to bring our thoughts to the present moment. She said, “Babies are really good at teaching us to do this — to forget everything else and just be here in the moment.” That got me thinking about what Laurel’s been teaching me so far (and what I’ve been struggling to learn, by following her lead):

1. Patience (I’m terrible at this one)
2. Letting her struggle to figure something out on her own
3. Not taking it personally, or thinking it’s my fault, when she’s upset
4. Being present
5. To keep working away at something, even though it’s frustrating, because once you master it you feel really good (nursing her was like this for me)

After a few months of exhaustedly wondering who I’d become since Laurel’s birth, a lot of things feel like they’ve come together for me in the past few weeks. I’m starting to have physical energy again, which helps immensely. With that has come mental energy. I’m having ideas for writing projects again, also a huge relief — and helps me feel more like “myself” again. But I’m not the same old self anymore; a big part of my focus is on mothering, and on learning what kind of mother I am.

Right now, I’m applying myself more to various parenting projects, such as Project Figuring Out How To Get Laurel To Nap and Project Nursing In Public (both of which have been really difficult lately). Historically, I haven’t been at all good at plugging away at something when it’s not going well, but somehow with these I’m undaunted — maybe because they’re things I have to figure out how to do. This willingness to persevere is new for me; it feels a little like an alien part of my personality, but I accept that I’m going to feel that way as I shift into this new role.

At the same time, I’m treading into some difficult emotional territory by reading Hope Edelman’s “Motherless Mothers: How Mother Loss Shapes The Parents We Become.” So far, she has confirmed my suspicion that having a midwife helped me overcome that need for a knowing maternal presence during pregnancy and childbirth. She also writes about a specific kind of body memory in a way that was very comforting for me:

According to psychoanalysts such as Melanie Klein and Nancy Chodorow, the memory of being lovingly cared for as a newborn — assuming one was lovingly cared for as a newborn — remains encoded inside us all until our own children are born, when it’s then summoned up and transferred into action. … “We remember in so many different ways, not just in words and images,” Maxine Harris explains. “We also remember with our bodies. If your child squirms and you lean into her and cuddle her a certain way, that bodily expression is actually a memory. You can feel tremendously comforted by a sensation that really is a connection to a mother you may have only known for a couple of years.”

Granted, mothering is still relatively easy at this stage — I don’t have to decide how to discipline her for sneaking too many cookies or figure out how to talk to her about sex. And, for the most part, I haven’t had to make any sudden mothering moves; I’ve had time to think before I act. I’ll be curious to see what skills and traits emerge when I have to act quickly.

Devin can speak for himself (or not) on this topic, but so far he has been a wonderful father, more than I could have imagined him to be. He’s so loving and compassionate with her, but also encourages her to work hard when she’s trying to learn something. I’m learning from him, too, because he’s set a great example so far. I feel lucky to have two such good teachers as my core family, and I’m trying to take as many notes as possible.

— Beth

Lessons from the Vietnam War

Devin, to Laurel: So remember, if you should ever have to set up a puppet government, choose a charismatic leader who will take orders effectively, and have a backup charismatic leader who also takes orders effectively in case you have to assassinate the first one.

Laurel: *spits up*

— Beth

Going Back

Tomorrow morning I’m going back to work — my leave is up. Laurel’s seven weeks and a day and a half old, and sleeping on a blanket next to me on the sofa.

I have a novel and challenging job, but my enthusiasm for going back to it full time is muted. Looking after a baby is exhausting and frustrating and sometimes tedious, but it comes with a lot of built-in rewards that make it feel good when you’re doing it. We had almost two months to orient ourselves towards being a family and get accustomed to what taking care of a child is like. We got to spent most of our waking hours watching Laurel develop in lots of little subtle ways that you can see when you spend that much of your time and energy watching. It’s been really rewarding.

The subtleties of development worry me a little, because they’ve been important in appreciating Laurel as a growing person, who’s gradually acquiring abilities instead of just switching from lacking them to possessing them. They’ve also been, in part, why it feels good spending time with a creature that’s otherwise just a small bundle of almost constant needs. My job’s going to take a big chunk of my Laurel-time directly, and require me to defend another chunk from her needs when I’m around so I can get enough sleep to do my job adeqautely. In what time is left, I can be with her, and with Beth, and tinker with gadgets, and tend the garden and work for the Debian project and the other hundred things I overload my time with.

I had more time to spend at home than most fathers get, and went to quite a few parental events where I was the only man in the room, or walked around on streets where I was the only man carrying a baby. I got to obstinately carry a pair of testicles into events described using the word “mom,” and was for the most part accepted and encouraged. But it wasn’t going to last, largely for the same reason that there weren’t any other men in those rooms; most of those moms had partners supporting them (or, this being San Francisco, had inexplicably weird careers you can pursue from home or cafe in small snatches of time and a lot of cellphone conversations.) Income distributions, workplace patterns and biology being what they are, most men don’t have the option to reduce their work load that far.

All of which points to the part which bothers me the most about going back, namely that Beth and I will be playing an unavoidably asymmetric role in Laurel’s life for a while. She won’t see me as much, won’t have me involved as much of the time, which makes maintaining my own importance a bit harder than it would otherwise have been. Doable, but harder. I’ve heard plenty of perfectly reasonable arguments that young children focus more on their mothers regardless of who’s around, that things even out a bit later on, etc. I’ve heard a couple of quite touching stories of kids spending years looking to their mother for care and nurturing before one day turning to their father for guidance on how to grow up and deal with the world. So I don’t mean to sound fatalistic about my prospects; the downside just looms a lot closer right now.

With all that being said, there are some obvious positives. The extra adult-time will be nice. The excitement of my job will be good, at least once I re-learn how to deal with it. The prospect of feeling like a provider could be a good one. I’ll have a good reason to leave work at reasonable hours. I have a short commute, and my family will be right on the other end of it.

This seems as good a time as any to note some things that I did get to do while on on leave:

  • Helped deliver Laurel, obviously.
  • Learned how to keep her fed, comfortable and not smelling too horribly like spoiled milk
  • Carried her through the Castro just before midnight on a Thursday night
  • Wore her everywhere, thus getting fawned over by women of all ages
  • Logged her first hundred or so public transit miles (and three zipcar rentals)
  • Gave her her first diaper change, bottle feeding, spoon feeding, pouring-from-a-little-bowl-and-making-a-huge-mess feeding; her first bath, first change of clothes, first walk around the block; saw her first smiles, heard her first cooing sounds.
  • Let her sleep on me lots of times
  • Worried over something that was wrong with her, worked on a solution, fixed the problem, stopped worrying
  • Took a lot of pictures
  • Got on friendly terms with our neighborhood UPS man
  • Kept her out of the hospital (as a patient, anyway)
  • Introduced her to all her nearby family
  • Introduced her to heavy metal, industrial/EBM, synth-thrash and NPR comedy programs
  • Watched her focal range expand so that she’s now fascinated with the world rather than continuously screaming about it

It was a good seven weeks.

– Devin

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