Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Santa with the Dark Cheeks

This is a post I did for the Fussy Baby Site. I'm re-posting it here because I think it makes for a good Christmas post. Enjoy!


As I mentioned in a previous post, fussy babies often make for amazing children. Don’t take my word for it. If you look at the literature out there, you’ll see that you’re in for a real treat. But don’t go supposing amazing means easy.

Forgive me for saying, but I liken a spirited child to a smart dog. Yes, that Border Colly will delight you alright with his amazing intelligence, but unlike the dummer breeds, he’s going to drive you absolutely mad with his intense energy and need for stimulation. I know, because we have a Portuguese Water Dog. We should have bought a Bulldog.

But I digress.

One of the amazing personality traights of a formerly fussy baby (i.e. spirited child) is their acute awareness and perceptiveness. At three, Chloe is so perceptive that we have to be very careful what we say around her. She knows when what we say doesn’t jive with what she knows, so we can’t lie to her. She’s acutely aware of when anyone says anything critical about her. And she understands what seem to us to be relatively complex concepts – like life and death. One day, for example, I decided that it would be a good idea to be honest with her about where some of her relatives have gone. She asked, so I said:

They died honey. We all live and we all die at some point. We don’t live forever.”

She broke down in tears and said, “But that means I’m going to die too. I don’t want to die.

In one move I had just gotten my 3 year old child thinking about her own mortality. Way to cut short her innocence Dad! I had no idea she would make the connection to her own life that easily. Kids aren’t supposed to be concerned about dying, right?

But connections are what perceptive children are all about. It’s not the noticing that matters – although that helps. It’s making the connections to everything else they know that makes them perceptive. Which leads me to yesterday.

Chloe was at her skating lessons with Mommy and, it being close to Christmas, Santa made a surprise appearance. Except, this wasn’t the Santa she was used to seeing. He had, as Chloe put it “dark cheeks.”
Mommy,” she said, “Why does Santa have dark cheeks?” She was the only one staring at Santa, giving him an uncomfortable look. The other children didn’t seem to pay any attention. Julie, caught off guard and not knowing what to say, just said she wasn’t sure and quickly distracted her.

I didn’t know any of this little story when I put Chloe to bed that night. I asked her about her skating lessons, and she told me that Santa had come to visit, but that he had had dark cheeks.

Really?” I said. “Well that’s nice.”

“But Daddy,” Chloe said, “it couldn’t have been Santa if he had dark cheeks. I’ve already met Santa and he didn’t have dark cheeks….”  Then there was a pause (where I didn’t have a clue what to say) and Chloe went on, “There must be more than one Santa. There must be lots of Santas.

My cue: “Chloe, I think it’s just that sometimes Santa has helpers because he can’t do it all by himself. This must have been one of his helpers.” “Oh,” said Chloe, looking only semi convinced. Meanwhile I’m thinking, great, I just made Santa’s helper the visible minority – how white of me!

Julie and I have resigned ourselves to accepting that when it comes to Santa and Christmas, Chloe’s not going to be one of those kids who still believes at 10 years old. I think we’ll be lucky if she makes it to 5. She’s just too quick at adding 2 and 2 together. She likes to know how everything fits so her world makes sense.
And as colour blind as we all pretend to be, let’s face it, we’d know if our biggest hero just up and changed colour one day.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The baby of the family - already!

Emily is now a toddler. When did this happen? It seems to have sneaked up on us. Part of it is that she's not quite walking yet (she could be if she wanted to, but she's a bit of a chicken). But she is talking. She has a real knack for sounds and can mimic almost any vowel, if now always the consonants. We know what she's saying, even if no one else does.

We've had a tendency to project age and maturity onto Chloe as she's grown. She's so smart, so mature, so responsible (a little she-devil too, but we make allowances). Look at what she's accomplished now. We've been putting a whole load of expectations on her shoulders without even realizing it. Our enthusiasm gets the best of us. But it's hard to help. She's the first child. Onto Emily we project youth, cuteness, sweetness. We've made her the baby. It's her role, her position. How unfair for both children.

As Philip Larkin wrote, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do."

Tonight, I had to rock Emily to sleep. She was having trouble settling. And though she'd just been cruising around the house, laughing, playing, and throwing many tyrannical tantrums (a habit of hers lately), to me she was a beautiful little baby all over again in my arms, cuddling in, looking up at me, and drifting off to sleep. We have to recognize Emily's development, nurture her independence, encourage her desire to explore. But we all need to be held sometimes too. We just need to be able to recognize when we're comforting our children and when we're indulging ourselves.   For fun, I'm including all of Larkin's poem below. But please don't take it as gospel. Enjoy!

Philip Larkin - This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
  They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
  And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
  By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
  And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
  It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
  And don't have any kids yourself.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

In case you were wondering - yes, you can text before you can talk

The other day Julie dropped the two kids off with me downtown. I was at work and she needed to go to an appointment, so I offered to take them both out to a coffee shop around the corner from my office for half an hour.

It turned out to be a  much more surreal experience than I had imagined. I kept getting strange looks from everyone - on the sidewalk, in the buildings, in Starbucks. It hadn't occurred to me until then that kids never went downtown - at least not the part of downtown with all the office buildings. I'm pretty sure I'd have received a milder reaction had I brought them to a pub. I kept expecting someone to approach us with an, "excuse me sir, children aren't really allowed in office buildings."

We ordered a coffee, a milk, a yoghurt and a scone (I thought Emily could make do without a snack but I badly miscalculated and had to watch her eat more than half of my scone). As we sat down I thought I had better check my blackberry to make sure nothing urgent was going on (as if what I do could actually be defined as urgent). As I checked it, Emily started reaching for it and crying out. I looked at her, shrugged my shoulders, put the phone on lock and handed it to her, recognizing that we still had quite a bit of time to kill. Whatever would keep her entertained in a Starbucks full of shirts and ties worked for me.

To my astonishment, she started thumbing the keypad. And she had a clear pattern to her thumbing. Left, right, left, right, purposely hitting individual keys. Next she put the phone up to her ear and started a one way dialogue. "di si ma ti sa kin chi an. No, no, no ma chi ma. Mm hmm. Ala co." She brought the phone back down and started thumbing again. This kept her entertained for at least 10 minutes.

I've noticed recently that Emily is growing up quickly... too quickly. But this took the cake. Boy, I'm apparently doing well at modeling the benefits of the digital age. But somehow I'm convinced that texting isn't  1-year olds. I think I'll try to be more discreet from now on with my more anti-social behaviour. And maybe I'll take the kids downtown more often - to let the locals get used to seeing something different.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Chloe the perfectionist

This morning Chloe and I made banana oatmeal pancakes for Mommy (who was still sleeping) and Emily (who was entertaining herself by cruising along the furniture). Chloe loves to help out in the kitchen. We make everything from cereal to muffins to lunches for daycare together. I wouldn't say that her help speeds up the process exactly, but it sure makes it more interesting.

So, fast forward half an hour and Mommy, Daddy, Chloe, and Emily are all sitting down eating our pancakes when Chloe asks for another. "Chloe," I say, "finish up the last few pieces of that one first please." "But I don't want it," she says.

Daddy: Chloe, what's wrong with the pancake on your plate? Do you not like the chunks of banana?

Chloe: No, I don't like the banana.

Daddy, laughing: Well Chloe, you'll have to mush up the banana better next time.

A few minutes pass before Chloe speaks up again. "I don't want to make pancakes anymore," she says. "What, Chloe?" "I don't want to make pancakes again because I don't mash the bananas right."

Julie and I quickly assured her that she mashed the bananas just fine, and that Daddy actually likes the chunks. "It's just a taste preference Chloe. If you don't want chunks, you need to mash more. You didn't do anything wrong."

This seemed to allay her concerns for the time being, but not ours. This wasn't the first time Chloe had shown a strong tendency to internalize what she's told and to blame herself when something doesn't go right. She places a lot of responsibility and expectations on her shoulders, and takes most criticism to heart. She doesn't allow herself room for error, doesn't just shake things off very well.

I could give countless other examples of the unreasonable expectations she puts on herself and about her tendency to internalize everything (she won't draw in front of Mommy, for example, because she can't stay in the lines). I'm not sure where she gets it from, and it naturally occurs to me and to Julie that perhaps we're putting too many expectations on her. But I don't think we are. We're not trying to push her towards competition. We just want her to explore, to be a kid. We're not asking her to be anyone but herself... or are we?

One of the byproducts, perhaps, of having a high-needs child - an intense, active little girl, is that we must voice our expectations more often - not expectations of perfection or high-achievement, but the very basic of expectations for acceptable behavior, such as not throwing tantrums, not attacking a dog twice her size, going to bed and getting up at a reasonable hour without hysterics.

All of these things must be taught. It's our job to ensure she understands basic social expectations so that she can get along in the world. But for Chloe these expectations are more difficult to meet than for many other children. And so we voice our expectations more often and more forcefully.  The result could be that she feels as though she doesn't meet our expectations as often as she or we would like.

Julie and I have been talking about strategies for helping to increase Chloe's confidence while acknowledging that there are times - more than we'd like, when we have to express our expectations for certain behaviors. We've especially been focusing on telling Chloe when we make mistakes and apologizing to her when we haven't met her expectations.  

Fast forward to later on the pancake day. Chloe is whining and crying for a glass of milk. I keep telling her that she'll have to ask nicely. Finally, I loose my patience and raise my voice a bit. "Chloe, you have to stop whining. There's no reason for you to be whining and crying all the time. You know what you need to do if you'd like some milk."

I hate when I do this, because it never helps, and of course she started crying all the more. I lead her over to the couch so we could sit together. She cried for another minute and then turned to me and said, "Daddy, sniff sniff, I was whining because I was frustrated" (this is a term she's been using lately to express when she's not able to bring her emotions under control). "I know, honey," I say. "Thank you for telling me. Listen Chloe, Daddy shouldn't have gotten angry. It was a mistake. I was frustrated too. I shouldn't have gotten mad. I'm sorry honey for getting mad at you. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes." "Yeah," said Chloe, "everyone makes mistakes sometimes."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I could have been someone. I could have been a contributor!

Wait, I am! I've begun contributing to the fussy baby site. It's a wonderful site full of shared trials and resources for mothers dealing with fussy babies and high need children. I'll be contributing a posting every two weeks or thereabouts. Take a look!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Shit my kid says - September

Chloe: Daddy, let's play hide-and-seek.

Daddy: O.k., you count and I'll hide.

Chloe: O.k: 123456789 10.Where are you Daddy?.......

.... I found you!

Daddy: Oh, you did. O.k., your turn to hide.

Chloe: O.k., Daddy. I'll hide here, where you were hiding.

Daddy: Chloe, you can't hide where Daddy hid. I'll know where you are.

Chloe: Yeah.

Daddy: But that's the whole point of hide-and-seek. You have to hide and I have to find you.

Chloe: Yeah. I'll hide here and you can find me.

Daddy: Ah.... O.k. 1..2..3..4..5..6..7..8..9..10. Ready or not, here I come!

Chloe: He he he

Daddy: I found you!

Chloe: O.k., my turn to count. You go hide in the closet over there Daddy.

Daddy: Chloe, I'm not going to hide where you tell me to hide. You'll know where I am.

Chloe: Yeah. So I can find you.

Daddy: O.k.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Happy birthday Emily

I'd been meaning to get to this entry earlier, but it's been a rough week. First Chloe came down with hives for no apparent reason - they lasted several days, and then Emily became very ill with a virus that has made her miserable with a sore throat, a nasty cough, and frequent vomiting. She's still sick, but she's already seen a doctor twice. We're hoping that by tomorrow we'll see improvement.

If there's one glimmer of light to have emerged from all of this, it is that Daddy has been able to spend some very good time with Emily - sick as she's been. I stayed home with her yesterday and this morning and it's been an unexpected treat.

Emily loves to be happy, and at the right moments, when the Advil was at it's maximum effectiveness, Emily would become who she is at her best, the most innocent, tentative, loveable of creatures. She would follow me around the house, peeking around corners with her coy smile. When I would respond to her in kind, she would give me whatever was in her hand. This is a little game she likes to play - her way of interacting without words. She asks that I take something from her, often a stuffed animal, and then turns to crawl away. After a few steps, she turns back and reaches for what she gave me, naturally expecting me to return her gift. In this way, I assume she's learning how to share and how to trust. She never looks happier than when she's giving something up, or getting something back. It's a connection between us, a give and take relationship.

This is all part of what I learned about Emily these past few days - that is, that she has a subtle, gentle way of imposing herself on us, very unlike her sister who attacks like a bear. I was also reminded of how innocent childhood can be. She's so protected right now, and so it follows, open, honest, sincere. She has no need yet to be any other way.

Most of us with loving, caring families started off this way, I suppose, and it's worth reflecting on the fact that the walls, the defenses, the careful armor we've built around ourselves since very early on wasn't always necessary and certainly isn't our natural state. In our interactions with each other we've built a world that seemingly requires us to be only partly ourselves, sometimes even with the people closest to us. Sometimes this makes sense, and believe me, I don't have any interest in learning the personal intricacies of everyone's lives. But there must be a time and place, now and then, to be as we once were - open, human, beautiful to those who love us.

Happy 1st birthday Emily. May I always remember how you sparkled, even at a year.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Minimalism - an update on our progress (or lack thereof)

A number of people have been asking us about our attempts to simplify our lives by getting rid of stuff. Others have been understandably silent on the matter. The whole notion, after all, can sound a bit preachy or, cringe, trendy. But hey, it's my blog, and I'm not forcing anyone to read it.

The truth is, the whole movement can get pretty extreme, almost religious in its zeal, and we're not the religious types. But like most religions, there is at least grain of human truth, of wisdom at its core. Taken to its extreme, the minimalist movement is a rejection of modernity, a rebellion against consumer culture, a search for something more, well grounded, rooted, natural. And well I appreciate the sentiment, humankind has been searching for ways to return to what is simple and true for a long, long time.

The desire to get back to something more real, more true, is nothing new. Neither is the idea that we're extraordinarily alienated in our modern, secular world, worshiping false idols in the form of consumer goods or celebrities or sentimental tragedies. As Leonard Cohen sings, "everybody's got this aching feeling like their father or their dog just died." But we don't even need it to be our own dog any more, it can be our neighbour's dog, or the dog's puppies who are being left without a mother. Or it could be some drunken singer or a flighty princess - it's all tragic.  But what about dear old Dad? Well, if a dog can evoke such strong emotions, how much can be left to elevate Dad's tragedy. But that's o.k. The dog, the princess, the singer, it's all so tragic. 

But I digress. What I'm trying to get at is that I completely agree with the perspective that the world is full of lost souls trying to find their place, their meaning, their identity, and eventually a little internal peace. And in the absence of these, they languish in sentimentality, abnormal devotion, and mass consumption as an alternative. I can't help but agree, because I'm one of them (every day I'm tempted to buy one more coffee, one more muffin, whatever little thing will pick my day up a bit, even though I know it won't last). But the search for meaning, for truth, for beauty and simplicity, has been going on for years, since long before mass consumerism, capitalism and television. Just look to the Romantic poets - perhaps the minimalists of their time.

What inspired Julie and I about minimalism was the idea of getting rid of some of the noise, the static in our lives. We thought about our house, the toys everywhere, the stuff that just kept coming in, the difficult time we had keeping the place clean, and how much we wasted - how little we actually used. And we saw that it wasn't good. Moreover, we saw that it was a bad example to set for Chloe and Emily (it's funny how their clutter of toys was what brought us to our realization - not our stuff). We saw that the empire of crap we were creating was not fulfilling, was not helpful in our lives. In fact, it took away from the time we had to spend with each other, with our kids, with ourselves. It was, at best, a distraction. At worst, it was controlling what little free time we had. My Grandfather has said for years, "if you don't rule over stuff, the stuff will rule over you. And you don't want to be ruled by stuff." Maybe this is the best argument there is for a more minimalist lifestyle.

I agree that consumer goods do become false idols when they're owned simply for the sake of owning them; when they're guarded and kept close out of some fear of losing them - as if by loosing our stuff, we loose ourselves. But not buying what we don't need, is that all we require to discover truth and fulfillment?  I don't think it's quite that simple. Of course not. But once we're no longer quite so distracted, we might have more space to pause, to think, to reflect, and that's probably a good start.

By turning down the noise, slowing down the blur of  things in our daily lives - the empty calories, maybe we'll discover a few joys that have been right there in front of us all along. In the end, maybe it's not as much about evil modernity as it is about freedom of choice and self-control. After all, we all created this world we live in - this world of mass-consumerism, and we continue to create it everyday. We can change it too, and we don't need to start cooking over campfires to do it.

So, back to where we're at. How hard can it be to throw stuff out? Well, it's surprisingly hard. And I don't mean making the choices. That part has been easy for both of us. But in a household with a two bag garbage limit and just one car to take things to the Salvation Army and the garbage dump, it takes a long time to get rid of stuff. I'm absolutely stunned to find just how much stuff we've been accumulating during the 5 years we've lived here and how long it takes to go through it. We're taking a one room at a time approach, and we're getting there.

Meanwhile, and this is the most important part, we're both being careful not to bring anything new into the house until we've talked it over and established that we either really need it or really want it. The result is that very little is actually entering the house. It's a start, and we are starting to notice a difference. But what we thought we'd be able to pull off in a month will probably take a few years. On the upside, we're making our next move, whenever it comes, a heck of a lot easier.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Shit my kid says - August

Chloe has quite a vivid imagination. She's always playing games with her dolls. She takes them to daycare, on holidays, to the splash pad. And she's often making up crazy names for them, like Pinu or Chara, or Chacha. I can't even remember them all, there are so many.

So one morning Julie came out of our room and heard Chloe playing in her room with her dolls.  She was putting them to bed, tucking them in, as she often does, when she said, "There now. It's time to go to sleep baby Accident." She went about the rest of the day taking baby Accident to all of the various activities with which she was involved. Julie and I couldn't stop laughing all day.

For the record, she didn't have a clue what she was talking about, but I think she has the name all ready for the next one.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A child's voice

The moments of my childhood appear to me now as lost treasures. I can't remember the bulk of them. I couldn't for the life of me, for example, explain how I got from there to here - what I was like as a two year old, a five year old, even a teenager.... not really. And yet I believe my adult life, for better or for worse, has been shaped by who I was as a child. Isn't that irony for you. I can't recall most of the innumerable defining moments in my life, and yet I can't escape them either.

My earliest memory is of falling into water. Missing the mark while trying to step from a dock to a boat. That's it - the dock, the boat, water. That's what I remember. Just flashes. My parents have filled in the rest. I was following my father. It was Kingston harbour (the horror). I apparently sank like a stone and Mom jumped immediately into the dark, murky water, trying to memorize where she'd seen me fall. She flailed her hands about in the water until she found me.

After the incident in Kingston harbour, my memories become a blur for a while. I remember my Grandfather telling me I had to go to school all day - that it was the law of the land. That was when I was entering Grade one. I remember, later, Mom having snacks ready for us when we got home from school each day. I remember having to face Dad when I was suspended for smoking at school. He said nothing for a long time. That was the worst part.

For years and years our lives are confined, to a greater or lesser extent, to the parameters our parents set up for us. And all of that time all we want to do is free ourselves from their hold. The boundaries our parents establish for us provide safety, security, comfort - a Garden of Eden of sorts. But let's face it, they also represent tyranny in the fullest sense of the word. But then so does the Garden of Eden. Is there any greater tyrant than God with his father-knows-best rules and expectations? All she did was eat a fucking apple.

But of course it wasn't about the apple for Eve, just as it wasn't about the cigarette for me. It was about asserting individuality - about saying, "hey, I'm here. I exist, I'm autonomous, and I can prove it. - I smoke, therefore I am." For Eve's sins, Man (and woman) was tossed from God's enlightened despotism. Just what Eve wanted, I presume, until she found herself having to make all of her own decisions and deal with her own mortality - nice touch God. "You don't want to play by my rules, you can figure out how to light a damn fire to keep warm, pay your own tuition, find yourself a job and oh, by the way, you're going to kick the bucket some day." Sound like Dad? Dads never pull any punches, and neither does God.

Of course there's nothing wrong with any of this - at least the parent part. Our most important role as parents is to a) keep the kid safe, and b) prepare her for a world without us - a world where she can assert her individuality and, by that assertion, achieve an identity and... freedom.

And for all that, as adults we have complex, often highly charged feelings about our parents. We long to be under their protection again. We're angry because we know we can't go back. As in the Garden, with knowledge innocence is lost but a certain freedom is gained. Freud, Milton, and many others have all explored these themes. We resent our parents for being less than perfect - after all, if they're human, how can they truly protect us? We're furious that one day they'll die and abandon us here. We resent that they brought us here but can't protect us from the one thing that matters, our eventual demise. And as we grow older ourselves, we soften and gain a more tender view of our parents. They are our the link, crucial to our story. Their humanity no longer angers and frightens us. It informs us. And for the first time, if we're lucky, we may eventually start to form a true relationship with each parent - one not based on power, protection or mentoring, but on two human beings who share an important bond, and a common understanding. It's not easy - lots of baggage, but it's possible. And it seems to me that it is an important step in growing up. That's the part that's missing with religion. God, the church, Mother Mary. They don't allow us to grow up. They continue to shelter us and direct us. 

I look at Chloe and the many trials she must face each day - both with us and the world, and it gets me thinking of our relationships with our parents. Everyday she's growing up, but most of the fears, the comforting, the little battles (and there are so many of them right now), she won't remember. She'll struggle one day, as I am now, to remember the details of a childhood that will so clearly inform who she is as an adult. She won't be able to go back, to be that child again. But she won't be able to escape it either. How many times a day do we tell her what she has to do to be a "good girl" or a "big girl." We tell her what she can't do, what she shouldn't do. She wants to please us (for now) and we exploit that desire to please in order to ensure that she has the right socialization to get along in the world. We have no choice. It's our job. But oh, how much she tries already to assert her individuality, to say, "I'm here, and I matter." And it's our role too, to acknowledge this assertion.  I don't remember all the childhood moments that have come to define me, but I do remember always being able to speak, to have a voice.

Monday, July 4, 2011

And one day blurs into the next

 June was a tough month - a month of difficult transitions. I started back to work, leaving Julie to continue working part time with no daycare for Emily. Emily decided that she no longer wanted to take an afternoon nap and gave her parents tremendous anxiety over her sleep in general. Chloe couldn't understand why the sun went to bed so late and got up so early and, as a consequence, she neither went to bed early enough nor slept in late enough. And I was frustrated that I couldn't get any time to work on the basement, which is a half renovated mess right now. All-in-all, nothing to be too concerned about. You might even consider us lucky to be burdened with such mundane crises.

Still, the incessant demands, the lack of personal time and the daily obligations - both at home and at work, do take their toll and I find myself at times wondering when things will let up a bit. Last week Julie and I watched Date Night, with Steve Carell and Tina Fey, and were surprised that we didn't find it as funny as we ought to have. The basic premise is that this bland couple from the suburbs, who have no time to love each other properly or to do much else other than to take care of their whiny, needy, energy and creativity sucking children, accidentally get themselves involved in a high stakes crime drama on one of their pre-planned date nights. Talk about holding a mirror up to ourselves. Shit, for us, it wasn't a story, but more of a documentary,  minus the high stakes crime drama - ouch, even more depressing.

As I write this, I'm conscious of the fact that Julie and I are trying to schedule a babysitter so we can have our own scheduled date nights. Mabye we can go out in Vanier to make it more exciting (for Torontonians, think Scarborough - no, not that bad but the best we can do in Ottawa).

Ah well, I remind myself that this will pass. While we'll always be parents, we won't always be parents of young rug rats, and we should appreciate the small moments of magic - several per day, that come with the mind-numbing neediness.

Today I came home, opened the door, and Chloe was there to greet me. "Hi Daddy, how's it going?" she said, with her best-behaved voice. "Great Chloe, how are you?" "I'm doing well. How was your day at work today?" "It was good Chloe. I sure missed you. Can I get a hug?" "Yes. Daddy, let's play games together quietly while Mommy's putting Emily to bed." "O.k."

These moments almost make up for the the trying times, and with her wonderful welcome tonight I almost forgot that she pooed in her underwear this morning right before we had to go out the door. Yes, pooed, and yes, she knew what she was doing.

I have to admit it. I'm looking forward to date night.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chloe - my fickle friend

The children did not know Levin ... but they did not show towards him any of that strange shyness and hostility children so often feel for grown-up people who 'pretend'.... Pretense about anything whatever may deceive the cleverest and shrewdest of men, but the dullest child will see through it, no matter how artfully it may be disguised.
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

I knew that when I went back to work I would see less of the girls, and that this would be an adjustment. What I didn't bargain for was my oldest girl completely ignoring me when I was home. She's mad at me, and she lets me know - daily. She doesn't want me to help put her to bed, I'm no longer allowed to share in the nighttime ritual of talking about our favourite parts of the day, and in the morning I'm not allowed to get her up. It has to be Mommy.

As might be imagined, this is crushing for me. Oh, I try to convince myself that it's no big deal.  She's just having a hard time adjusting - no surprise with Chloe. But try as I might, I can't help but care a great deal. And of course it shows. I try too hard. I have big colourful greetings for her when I get home (to which she responds by looking at me as though I'm from outer space). I ask her all about her day and tell her how much I've been looking forward to seeing her. I even ask her if she's missed me (I know, pathetic). Who knew I'd need to feel liked so much by my kid. Of course the more I try, the more she calls me on my insincerity - my acting, and the less she wants to do with me.

The best inroads I've been able to make so far have been on the weekends. I tell her first thing Saturday morning that I'm going to be home for the whole weekend and that we'll be able to spend the day together. This slowly melts her heart, and until Monday morning we're friends again. But come Monday.... ah, I guess I'll just have to weather this until it passes.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The end of a chapter

Nine months seemed like such a long time when Emily was first born. Emily has grown from a high-needs newborn to a little less high-needs baby. She's her own person now, and ready to take on the world - at least her small world. When I saw her this morning, for the first time on all fours and springing forward, about to crawl, I pictured a baby bird being booted out of the nest for the first time. Except with Emily, we don't have to push. She's finally sick of being in one place and wants to move around now.

Tomorrow I head back to work.  A number of people have asked me how I feel about that. Am I nervous, stressed, scared? No, not really. But I am embarrassed and frustrated that someone will have to sign me into the building tomorrow because I can't find my damn pass. I know, a little thing. But it's not the way one wants to start back.

Work is work, just one aspect of life, albeit an important and necessary aspect.  I'm actually looking forward to the change, the challenge, the variety, the stimulation and, most of all, the different relationships I have at the office. But I like to think that spending all of this time with my kids has given me more perspective on where work fits in the hierarchy of responsibilities and obligations. I must not get carried away with the usual dramas and crises at work to the point where I'm missing out on my kids' lives.

It's not heroic to choose work over family - especially young children. I'm painfully aware that every minute, every second of their lives that I miss is gone for good. But of course I don't want to be there for every second. People that tell you they loved every minute of their children growing up are lying, deluding themselves, or have a history of heavy Prozac use.

Life is a balance, and it's not healthy for a person to sacrifice any one aspect of his or her life completely for any other aspect. It can only lead to longing and regret down the road. I'm finding that a healthy attitude to take is one that appreciates that there is a time and a place for both family and personal fulfillment. And each stage in one's life allows for more or less of one or the other. But the one should never be entirely sacrificed for the other. That's easier said then done, of course. I'm finding that it's been an awfully long time since I've picked up a guitar - something I used to play every day. And I don't anticipate that the coming days and weeks will afford me any more time for music. But I am making time for this blog and, as a result, for self-reflection and reflection on my family and relationships.

When I started this blog, my main goal, along with giving myself the pleasure of writing, was to try to speak some truths about childrearing. I didn't want to add to the myths, because lord knows there are plenty of them out there. I also didn't want to whine about every little day-to-day struggle and triviality. I did want to share the difficulties, the fears, the pleasures, the rewards, and the humour that comes with raising a young family, and I hope that I've struck a reasonable balance.

What frustrated me the most with our introduction to raising children was all of the mythology and assumed wisdom that permeates the experience for young mothers and fathers. The words like, "I loved every minute of being a mother," or "Enjoy it. They grow up so quickly."  These words are all well-intentioned, but not very useful. Memory has a way of filtering out what we don't want to remember and emphasizing everything we loved about an experience. It's why we say, "you'll laugh about this one day." And it's true, we will. But it takes time. In the meantime, the last thing a new parent wants to hear is how magical parenting is supposed to be, and how wonderful it was for everybody else who has already gone through it. It makes new parents, especially new mothers because they start out from a Peter Pan world of unreasonable expectations about the joys of motherhood, to feel guilty that they aren't getting everything they're supposed to out of their new roles. A recent study, and unfortunately I can't quote it here, but I'll see if I can dig it up, found that new parents are the exact opposite of happy and dreamy. They're stressed, exhausted, fighting with each other, and continuously trying to convince themselves and everyone around them that parenting is magical - and of course they would, it's not like they can change their minds. They might as well talk themselves into liking it.

Reward, fulfillment, meaning, and richness are not necessarily synonymous with ideas such as happiness and comfort. I'm happy when I'm eating ice cream, watching a good movie, enjoying a nice beer or, especially, taking a walk in a beautiful garden or forest. But the thing about happiness is that it's always just momentary. Nothing you can do in life will "make you happy," although it can make you comfortable. Happiness as an end-goal is a rather silly idea when novelty more than anything else provides those surges of happiness with which we're all familiar.  I'm reminded of a line from one of my favourite Shaw plays. "I no longer desire happiness: life is nobler than that."

We shouldn't be searching for happiness, but for knowledge, understanding, and connection with those around us. Curiosity, respect and empathy is what should drive us. What better reason is there for having children? We get to learn about them, and at the same time about ourselves. And let's not forget how much we, as parents, come to appreciate our own parents' experience of raising children.

My parental leave is coming to an end but not, thankfully, fatherhood. I have a lot left to learn - and to share, for those who care to keep reading.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Emily at 9 months

It's been easy to tell from the start that our two girls have very different temperaments.

Chloe is a blaze of energy. From the moment she burst out of Julie like a firecracker, she's never stopped moving. As she approached the crawling and then the walking stage, she became frustrated that she couldn't move around as quickly and easily as she would have liked, and she let us know it. She's also constantly engaged with everything the world has to offer, which exhausts her. She doesn't know when to take a break, give her mind a rest. She doesn't miss a beat and doesn't want to miss out on anything. Her interests tend to the wide but shallow. She's constantly making connections between everything around her and wanting to learn as much as possible about as many different things as possible. Of course, with so many things to learn, she can't possibly concentrate on one or two for any length of time.

Emily has shown some very different tendencies right from the start, and now I'm taking the greatest pleasure in getting to know her better as she begins to really reveal herself to us. Emily is curious and engaged, like her sister. But she's more focused. She takes information in constantly, but never seems to get overwhelmed by it, as Chloe does.

I'm only guessing, of course, but it seems that Emily's a little better at choosing what she wants to learn instead of trying to learn it all. When Emily approaches a task or problem, she devotes herself to figuring it out. And this has been on display since the moment of her birth. When she came out and I caught her (a great privilege for a father), I put her on Julie's stomach and she immediately crawled up to Julie's breast and started to eat. She continued to breastfeed for two hours straight. Little else was of interest to her at that moment. She knew what she needed and went straight for it. The midwife and assistant hadn't seen anything like it.

Now, when eating solids, she shows this same determination. Emily only wants to feed herself, and she doesn't want anything mashed or pureed. We had so much trouble getting her to eat anything on a spoon that she wasn't gaining enough weight. So one day Julie just handed her a piece of banana. Emily held onto that banana, looked at it, tasted it, frowned at it, and finally figured out how to bite pieces off of it. Chloe never would have had the patience for this and she certainly wasn't feeding herself at 8 months old.

We see the same approach to learning in every area with Emily, from toys to books to understanding her crazy big sister. She focuses, she contemplates and she engages with life, one piece at a time. The most endearing aspect of this single mindedness is her interactions with us. While Chloe would have time for a two second hug or kiss with her parents, Emily's happy to cuddle, hug, smile and coo with Mommy or Daddy for long periods of time. She's not a mover like her sister, and it's interesting to note that while Chloe was an early crawler and walker, Emily's likely to be late in both areas. If you give Emily something that interests her, she's happier to stay where she is and try to figure it out.

Emily's becoming a lot of fun, and it's unfortunate that soon I won't be around as much to see her progress daily, to share in her struggles and triumphs. I've often thought, with much guilt, that what I've been able to share with Chloe these past nine months I won't be able to share with Emily.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The winter of Emily's discontent

Emily is normally a very happy baby. Her nickname is smiles, and it's fitting. She loves to smile at everyone - her parents, her grandparents, even strangers, and especially her sister. In fact, were it not for a slew of problems that have plagued her for several months now, I might have been persuaded to call her the happiest baby on the block. But the poor girl has had a number of issues that have dampened her spirits over the past little while, and I can tell you - if baby ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

The first of her problems started about a month after we arrived in France. Emily picked up a gastro (from who knows where) and was sick for a good week (incidentally, the rest of us caught it too). From that point on, one problem after another seemed to keep Emily from feeling at her best. Her teeth started coming in aggressively, we found out the hard way that she's allergic to Advil, her skin started flaring up all over with eczema, and at least in part as a result of these issues, her night wakings kept increasing.

There wasn't much we could do about the teeth, except to treat with Tylenol.  We were amazed to see her in so much pain. Chloe had barely blinked with the onset of teeth, but Emily was behaving as though she had a mouth full of cavities. As for the eczema, it's been an ongoing struggle. We and various doctors are now fairly sure it's related to something Julie's eating and then passing on to Emily through her breast milk. So Julie's now off wheat, dairy, soy, corn, and eggs (a depressing number of restrictions). At least it our efforts finally seem to be paying off. Emily's skin is doing much better than it was just a few weeks ago.  

But the frequent night wakings were the worst for all of us. Emily was waking several times throughout the night and her sleep got so thrown off that we were no longer sure why she was waking. Was it because she was in pain, or itchy, or just because she had gotten used to it and needed to be trained to go back to sleep on her own again. Eventually, after many nights of anguish and soul searching, we eventually became confident in our suspicion that most nights habit was leading her to wake, and we got tough for the sake of all of our sleep. But the night wakings, the crying, the chronic fatigue all took their toll on us as parents.

I'm beginning to think that after both Chloe's and Emily's sleep problems, I'm suffering from a touch of post traumatic stress. Lately when Emily wakes at night my heart beat increases, my breathing shortens and my anxiety goes through the roof. "What time is it? Is it time to feed her? No. Shoot! Will she go back to sleep on her own? Maybe I should go in and tell her to go back to sleep. But what if that just makes her more mad. We should wait to see if she settles on her own. But what if she's kind of stuck in the corner of the crib? Could her teeth be bugging her? Maybe she's starting to get a cold." At this point, my adrenalin's racing and I know I'm not getting back to sleep right away. I turn to Julie: "What should I do? Should I go in?" Julie: "I don't know." We both lie there grinding our teeth, biting our nails and praying that our little girl will go back to sleep.

Do I sound crazy, irrational, obsessive? Oh, probably, but being awakened 5 and 6 times a night by cries of anguish (put on, I might add. Babies throw as many tantrums as toddlers. We just don't call them on it) does that to you, or at least it did to me. Now days, Emily usually goes back to sleep on her own in very short order, so the response triggered in me by her night crying is completely over the top. But I'll be damned if I can talk myself into seeing it that way at the time, and I find myself looking forward to when both girls sleep peacefully through the night.

We can always tell when Emily's not feeling well because she stops smiling. For many months now she's been feeling less than herself, and it's been difficult both to see her not happy and to deal with the toll these issues have had on all of us.

But things are slowly improving. Her teeth have finally started to push through (and no wonder they hurt. They're huge - like Chiclets on a hamster), her itching is settling down, and she only wakes once a night to eat. And yes, she smiles most of the time again now.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Back in the NCR

Yes, we've been back three weeks, and yes I haven't written yet. The thing is, for a long time I couldn't think what to write.

When we first got back to Toronto and made our way from the airport by car through the fields of brown and the miles of cookie-cutter houses and lawns, the setting seemed surreal. Just that morning we had left vibrant colours, beautiful flowers, actual architecture, and salty ocean breezes. It was a stark change, and I for one couldn't reconcile the transformation. So, as the brain often does to cope with such adjustments, it made one thing real and the other simply a picture, an idea, an exotic memory. I had spent 3 months in Nice, but suddenly it seemed as important and as familiar as a two week vacation. Inside I wanted to scream, "I was there, I lived it, ate it, drank it, smelled it." But suddenly I didn't really feel it anymore. I knew right away that I could slip back to my own life as easily as putting on an old pair of slippers - pardon the cliche, and that didn't sit well with me. Hadn't this trip changed us? Hadn't we learned from such a different experience? Of course we had. But we were - are still processing it all.

One of the drawbacks of being able to jet-set between continents in less time than it takes to drive across Ontario is that your mind and body do not adapt well to the change. It takes time. For me, and I think for Julie too, it has taken all of the three weeks we've been home to start to recall moments and experiences from our trip with any sort of emotion. Now we're starting to realize that these two worlds, lived very separately, each have significant meaning for us, even though there is little to connect them. What does connect them is us - our little family of four. We all know we were there - thank God, and we're the only ones who really understand each others' attachment to that period of our lives. The importance of shared experience cannot be overstated. Without it, no one else knows and understands pivotal moments and episodes of our lives.

Now that I'm writing this post, I'm struck by the intensity of the response I'm feeling to what I'm writing. It seems as though this post has been waiting for me to be ready to write it.

The hardest part about being back will be watching Chloe's memories of our adventure fade. Already it's begun. If we're finding it hard to recapture experiences from so far away, just imagine how difficult it is for Chloe to make connections to experiences that don't inform her day-to-day life anymore.

When we were in Nice, Chloe used to play a game, virtually everyday, where she would board a city bus for Cannes and Monaco, in whatever order pleased her. "Mommy, first we're going to take the bus to Cannes, and then we're going to go to Monaco." At the time, we laughed about how we hoped she would stop saying this soon after we got home, as it would make our family seem quite pretentious. Now that she doesn't play the game anymore, I wish with all my heart that I could hear her say those words again.

We try to remind Chloe regularly of things we did in France. At some point, it will become impossible for her to tell which memories are real and which memories are simply the result of stories being told over and over. That's o.k. It doesn't really matter, does it? Some part of France will remain part of her experience, and that's what counts.

And some part of our trip will remain part of our experiences too. As with any trip, we've all learned a lot. The trick is to apply what we've learned now that we're back home. After all, we should be cautious of old slippers that fit a little too comfortably.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Shit my kid says - May

Chloe: Daddy, where's Mommy?

Dad: She's at work right now honey.

Chloe: Oh, she's at work so she can get money?

Dad: Well, yes. She's working so that we're able to buy food and clothes and other things we need.

Chloe: And you're not working because you have lots of money. You have lots of money so you don't have to work. You can stay home with me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Nissa Bella

This is it. Our last night in Nice. Julie and I have each taken a walk tonight through the old streets, along the sea, and by Place Massena, the main square. Our time here has come and gone. Tomorrow morning we head home.

When Chloe, Emily and I went for breakfast this morning (Julie needed a little extra sleep), the lady at "our bakery" said, "Bonjour Chloe, comment ca va ce matin?" Each time she does this, Chloe smiles and gives a little wave. It's taken nearly the entire time we've been here for the various people working at the "Grumpy Baker," as we've come to call the place, to acknowledge us a regulars. It started last week. Strangely, our butcher started to recognize us as regulars around the same time. In France, relationships between shop owners and customers begin very much as they do at home, but over time they grow and deepen. You see, it's not simply about commerce, it's about artisan pride and customer loyalty. When I return time and again to the same butcher, to the same baker, we're forming a bond, an understanding, a trust. Now the butcher shakes my hand when I come in, tells me about his day, his latest vacation, whatever is on his mind. I'm a regular. And here we thought, with the children and their needs, we weren't really getting to live in the place. As it turns out, it takes three months for that to start to happen, regardless, and it started to happen right under our noses.

Saleya Flower Market
When I think of Nice, I think I will most often relive my walk through the Saleya Flower Market, along the Promenade des Anglais,  and past the Old Port. It was one of my favourite walks, because it shows Nice in all it's beauty and colour.

Today Chloe was trying to adjust to the idea that she's leaving Nice tomorrow. She said to us, "but we'll be coming back to Nice soon, right?" Mommy told her, "honey, I don't know how soon we'll be back. Nice is a long ways away and involves a time change. You can't go for a short time because it's hard on your sleep." Later, when Chloe and Mommy were walking along the Promenade, Chloe said goodbye to the ocean: "Goodbye Ocean. I won't see you for a while, because if I come to visit I won't be able to sleep."

Nice is a noisy, hopping, busy, and crowded city. It's no simple seaside resort. It takes some getting used to. But the longer we've been here, the more it has grown on us for the same reason. This is a place with its own people, its own culture, its own language, for heaven sakes. So on that note, I'll leave off with a section of Nice's anthem, Nissa Bella. We heard it sung by a group of school students to end Carnaval this year. It seems to be known by a good portion of Nice residents, and in its original dialect. For you, dear readers, and for me, I provide a translation:

O my beautiful Nice
Queen of all the flowers
Of your old rooftops
Will I always sing.
Sing of the mountains
The landscape so fine 
Your green countryside
Your golden sunshine 
Always will I sing
Underneath your arbours
Your sea of azure
and your skies pure
And always I'll proclaim
In my refrain,
Viva, viva, Nissa Bella!
Ciao, Nice
Au revoir, la France

Monday, April 18, 2011

Thoughts turn to home

"I don't want to go back to Aylmer," Chloe has told us on numerous occasions. And who can blame her. With the beach, the playgrounds, the marry-go-rounds and the baked goods all at her door step, why would anyone want to leave?

Chloe: Why doesn't Aylmer have a beach?
Mommy: Well, it does honey, just not a beach like this, on the ocean.
Chloe: Why not the ocean?
Daddy: Because although oceans make up two thirds of the world, we don't happen to live near any of them.
Chloe: Oh.... I want to stay in France.

Of course it's not just the allure of France, of Nice, of the ocean that makes Chloe long to stay where she is. She knows that going home means going back to more mundane routines, like work, daycare, the perfectly good park down the street. There's nothing wrong with going home. At some point most of us have to go home, and Chloe seems to get this. But it's still a little sad having to admit that the adventure is almost over, that the merry-go-round is slowing down.

Julie and I have felt very much like Chloe these past few days. A few weeks ago, we were actually looking forward to getting back to regular life. There's a certain comfort in the mundane after all, especially with two young children. But as we've approached our day of departure, we've begun to long for just a few more days, a couple more weeks, to appreciate where we are.

Of course it doesn't help that Ottawa isn't anything like Nice. Their similarities start and end with population size. Ottawa is the city that never should have been. When Voltaire mused about a few acres of snow, he may well have been picturing what is now the National Capital Region. How a small lumber town became a city - our capital is, of course, a question more of politics than economics or geography, and it shows.

Oh, I'm not meaning to knock Ottawa too badly. "It's a fine place to raise a family" after all. And besides, home is where you live, not where you would live all things being equal. Actually, in the 6 years we've lived in the Ottawa area, the place has rather grown on me - somewhat unexpectedly. It's a young city (even by Canadian standards) that ebbs and flows with the tides of changing governments. But it's maturing all the time, becoming more dynamic and cosmopolitan. To think, before the Trudeau era of big government, Ottawa was a pretty small place.

We do look forward to going home. The region in which we live is beautiful, even with the long winters, and the community of Aylmer is hard to beat. We love the culture and the people on the Quebec side of the river - our wonderful neighbours, for example, who are looking after our house, and we miss family and friends. We long for the familiar, for a place that we know through and through. We long to get back to our life paths, wherever they may lead. And Chloe wants to get back to her friends, and to playing with others (lately she's taken to trailing kids at the beach like the paparazzi).

Nonetheless, it's always hard to leave the beautiful places in this world. The allure of the exotic meshes with the longing for the familiar, and when we head home it will not be with regret, yet with a heavy sigh.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Child's Play 6 - Chucky goes to France

It started Tuesday night. Both kids were in bed, I was talking on the phone, and Julie was tidying up in the kitchen, when we started to hear moaning. "Is Chloe awake, I asked." I was puzzled, because Chloe usually sleeps soundly, especially during the first part of the night. "I think so," Julie responded. Then, suddenly, we heard banging, as if someone were bumping into the walls. Julie rushed into Chloe's room to find her sitting on the floor, still asleep, on the opposite side of the room. She put her back into bed (she didn't wake up), came out of the room, and said to me, "Sean, I think she was sleep-walking." Oh, well, I thought. We'd heard of this happening. Maybe it would only be the one night. Little did we know, our night's adventures were just beginning.

Around three in the morning, we were awakened to terrified screaming and crying from Chloe's room (o.k., Julie was awakened first - I had ear plugs in).  Julie went in and I soon followed, but Chloe was impossible to console. Eventually, we learned that she'd had a terrible dream, and that she was absolutely terrified of going back to sleep in her room. "I want to sleep in the living room," she kept repeating. "I won't have a bad dream in the living room." We kept explaining to her that she can't sleep in the living room, as there isn't even a bed there, and that it didn't matter what room she slept in when it came to dreams. But she got up, walked out of her room and plopped herself down on the living room floor. I finally managed to coax her into our bed, where she tossed and turned without sleeping the rest of the night (as did we).

When morning came, we reassured her that what she'd had was just a dream and that she'd be fine. She seemed to be in better spirits now that morning had arrived, and we proceeded to start to get breakfast ready like we do every morning when suddenly she broke down in tears again and yelled, "no, not baby. Get rid of baby." She'd obviously seen baby on the table. Julie and I looked at each other, alarmed and curious. "Honey," I said, "was your bad dream about baby." Yes, baby was ripped, baby is broken. I don't want to see baby." "O.k.," I said, "we'll put baby up in our closet for now."

We're not sure what happened with her doll in her dream, but baby's days in our home turned out to be numbered. Chloe wouldn't go anywhere near the closet that held baby, and always wanted the door to the closet kept closed. Then, after seeing baby in the closet by mistake once, she wouldn't even go in our room. This is, of course, the same baby that she's taken everywhere with her for the past 4 months. Eventually, with Chloe's fear so palpable, even I started getting scared of baby. A couple of days after the bad dream, and with Chloe still afraid to go to sleep at night, Julie and I decided it might be better if baby were put out to pasture. But we didn't want Chloe thinking that what had happened in her dream was real, so we brought baby out for Chloe (who immediately started going into hysterics), and carefully showed her that there was nothing wrong with her - that it had just been a dream. "But, we said, "if baby reminds you too much of your bad dream and you want to throw her out, that's o.k." "Throw her out," Chloe cried, "throw her out."

So, without ceremony or further thought, baby was tossed in the trash yesterday. Chloe was so anxious to see her go, that she kept asking me to take the garbage outside, because she could still see baby in it. I explained that it couldn't be taken out until evening. And her first question this morning? "Is baby gone now. Did the truck take her away."

I'm not one for superstition but I'm happy to see that doll gone too.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Shit my kid says - April

Chloe comes out from her bedroom with a pen hanging from the top of her shirt (as if she has a pocket in her shirt) and a big grin on her face.

Chloe: Mommy, Daddy, guess who I am. I'm Great Grampa Sutton.


Daddy (singing a teasing song): Chloe bear's got no hair....

Chloe: Yes I do have hair Daddy, see?

Daddy: Oh sorry.... Chloe bear's got no eyes, Chloe bear's got no eyes, no eyes

Chloe: Yes I do have eyes, Daddy!

Daddy: Alright.. Chloe bear's got no tail, Chloe bear's got no tail, no tail.

Chloe: Yes I do have a.... no, I don't have a tail.

Daddt: Who has a tail, Chloe?:

Chloe: Oliver has a tail.

Daddy: That's right.

Chloe: Not me, not Mommy, and not Emily. Oliver has a tail... and you have a tail Daddy.

Daddy: ahh...., I do?

Chloe: Yeah, when you go pee.

Friday, April 8, 2011

I threw up on Grandpa in the Verdon Canyon

A few weeks ago, we decided to take a day trip to the Verdon Canyon with Grandma Pat and Grandpa Ron. We'd been told that it rivals the Grand Canyon in Arizona, so we thought it was worth the trip despite the logistics headaches. So with a rented station wagon jammed full with 4 adults and two kids in car seats, and me singing the theme song from European vacation, off we went on a 3 hour drive to the Verdon Canyon.

The trip started off relatively well, with only the odd grumble about hungry tummies and squished legs, but slowly Chloe got crankier and crankier. We wound our way through beautiful mountains and valleys and along beautiful cliffs until, finally, we were entering the canyon. By this time, Julie and Pat were not feeling so well, so I was taking the curves as carefully and gently as I could. At the same time, Chloe was complaining constantly in this half moan / half cry that usually means she's really tired and can't cope. We started to put it together that Chloe might be feeling the same car sickness as Mom and Grandma (apparently it runs in the family). We asked Chloe if she felt sick, but got no response. I started to look for a place to pull over, but on a narrow road full of twists and turns, this is not an easy feat.

Suddenly, we heard it, that dreaded noise we all hate to hear, that can only be one thing. Chloe had started to vomit - just a little at first. Ron was sitting beside her and Pat quickly passed him a towel to protect himself and the seat. But when she started to throw up again, instead of getting the towel in front of her, Ron reacted by pulling the towel back with a "oh, oh no" and the rest is the making of great family trip stories.

Vomit was everywhere; all over Chloe, some on Ron, a little on Pat and all over the seats. The stench was foul, and the rest of us had a difficult time keeping our own cookies down. I managed to pull over on a narrow patch of grass and everyone quickly vacated the car.  Julie lowered her head and said, "Lets just go home. We have no change of clothes for Chloe, the car stinks so much we can barely ride in it, and Dad's been thrown up on too." I looked up, imagining our 6 hours of driving being all for naught, and the spirit of Clark Griswald suddenly came to my aid.

"We are not going home now! We're already here. Let's put a coat on Chloe (she was sitting shirtless on the side of the road playing happily with rocks), use the towel to clean everything up as best we can, and drive with the windows down. We came to see the canyon. We're here, so let's have a good time."

So off we went to see the canyon. At first, we cringed at every stop sign, as the fumes would once again surround us. But eventually, the puke dried, the smell dissipated, and smiles returned to our faces. After all, we were on a great family adventure. No little bit of car sickness was going to stop us.

The canyon was gorgeous and so was the weather that day. We had a wonderful time. And we'll always remember having to explain to the waiter at the restaurant why Chloe was the only one on the patio wearing a coat zipped to the collar on a warm and sunny day.  Ah, memories...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

"We'll meet you at the beach with a picnic"

These were my words to Sean this morning as he left with Chloe for their morning adventure, and I stayed home to put Emily down for her morning nap. We'll meet up for a picnic lunch on the beach (how French!). We've become real beach bums lately, and it's not hard to understand why!

The weather has been amazing here lately. It's been 17 degrees and sunny (but feels much warmer, particularly on the beach). Chloe has even been enjoying putting her feet in the water, filling up her little watering can and splashing in the waves. Yesterday, she even wore her bathing suit. Emily loves watching the waves and the other kids playing on the beach. She even laughs at the pigeons who waddle by! Sean and I, while we need to watch the kids, don't have to provide the constant entertainment that we do in other situations. Everyone is happy, and we can truly relax as a family. Add a picnic, and everyone is even happier! We've realized that parenting is much easier on a beach. A good friend of mine has told me in the past that "there are no vacations when you're a parent, just trips". I think though, that the beach comes the closest to a real vacation as you can possibly get with young children.

I think when I look back on our trip, some of my favourite memories will be of just hanging out on the beach as a family. While we've had a fantastic time visiting new towns and tourist attractions, the most relaxing, fun family time we've had has been the beach time. And let's face it, 3 months of spending every day on the beach would get boring very quickly!

Yesterday at the beach we were preparing Chloe for the fact that we would be leaving this paradise at some point. She said "why do we have to say goodbye to the ocean?" and "why is the ocean not in Aylmer?". I would have to agree that it will be the hardest part for me to say goodbye to as well.

Okay, better get that lunch packed :)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Casting off the shackles

So we've decided. We're doing it. We've been talking about it for months, years, but haven't been very successful. Now we're inspired. We are going to become minimalist parents. Don't know what the family will think. Don't know what everyone else will think, but we're sick of tripping over, picking up, moving, cleaning.... junk! We're slaves to stuff, servants of clutter, making up for our boredom, uneasiness, emptiness, mortality - put whatever label you want on it, with material crap. No more! Henceforth, we will throw off our shackles, face our daemons head on, and cruise across the living room without stepping on toy cars. We will no longer clean the counters before cleaning the counters. We will deal with our mail and dispose of it upon receipt. We will gleefully slide hangers back and forth in closets. Lately, I've been having a recurring dream that our house burned down with everything in it. I was ecstatic. It's time.

And what has provided us with this new inspiration? It is my pleasure to introduce all aspiring minimalists, closet horders, and weary parents to the Minimalist Mom.

I don't know whether we'll ever go as far as this mother in getting rid of stuff we don't need. But we're going to try.  During parental leave, before we came to France, we had already gotten rid of quite a few things. But not enough. Our immediate logic for cleaning up was quite simple: The less stuff we own, the less we need to clean. With two small children, this is incentive enough to live with less. However, as we've managed to clean a room here and there, we've come to realize something else: The more we remove, the more comfortable a room feels. The more room we have to breath and move and claim the space for ourselves.

 For me, the hardest part will be getting rid of books. As a lover of literature, getting rid of a book is hard. I imagine it's like throwing away a stamp collection (if that's your thing). But even books I don't need. We have a library down the street and bookstores galore to sell me virtually anything I want to read. I'll still have a bookcase, but it will be small and it will contain my most important treasures.

So when we get back, we're going to get started. It won't be easy, and it will take a lot of time and energy. But we're going to purge our house of everything we don't use regularly - hopefully much of it before we start back to work full-time.  Our goal is to gain time, space, comfort and perspectie. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

Monday, March 28, 2011

So the kid likes churches

I'm finding it strange, on a trip like this, to find how few of my expectations have been met, both positive and negative. We had all sorts of assumptions about this trip, some verbalized, most probably not, but very few of them have turned out to be correct. One such assumption was that Chloe, being two, would have no interest whatsoever in museums, churches and architecture. We figured we'd have to drag her to see these things or visit on our own, individually.

Well, I was right about architecture. She might as well be walking around Scarborough for all her interest in her surroundings. I'm not sure she even notices that buildings here are quite different from home. Maybe she will when we go back. But churches and museums, they're another story altogether.

Chloe likes museums and she loves churches. Of course she enjoys these things only as a two/three year old can, in 30 minute blocks. But I can't think of very many other things that can keep Chloe interested for a whole thirty minutes, besides Dora the Explorer.

When we go into a church, as we did again yesterday (I can't pass any of them by anymore. She points each one out and asks to go in), Chloe always asks, "is it o.k. Daddy? Can we go in, or is there a mask going on?" I check and let her know whether indeed there is mass to worry about, and then we proceed inside (as with every other building in town, she has no interest in the exterior).

Once inside, Chloe has questions about everything she sees. "Why is it dark. Who's the man hanging there, why can't I go up there where the man usually speaks? Where's the mask?" While answering each question, I become palpably aware of two things: my own interest in churches when I was younger (and again when I traveled through Europe for the first time), and the amount of stale air and ghosts that fill the churches over here. The history and the richness of the cultural and religious baggage that fills these places is both awe inspiring and stifling. It all utterly fascinates me. Renaissance paintings adorn the walls, paint chips off the roofs and off the frescoes. No one is usually there, except a few tourists and, sometimes, the odd of faithful who looks to be from another time and place. Dishes are left for donations, so that the chipped paint might one day be fixed. So many churches, so few faithful left. These temples stand as lovely but nearly abandoned monuments - hollowed out skeletons of power and influence.

Apparently, it all fascinates Chloe as well, at least on some level. She looks up at the high ceilings and the buttressed arches with her mouth open, just gawking - too young to appreciate the hours, days, weeks and years men toiled to build these shrines. One day, I can't wait to talk to her about Michelangelo's devotion to his maker - the beauty of a man giving everything, his love, his art for what he believes. That type of human devotion, accomplishment holds surprising sway over me, regardless of my own views on God.

Our family is not religious, and Chloe had never set foot in a church until we arrived in Nice. So I'm left baffled when trying to answer her questions about the man hanging on the cross, or why we have to be quiet, respectful. It must all seem so strange and mystical to her - hence her interest, I suppose. I tell her that we try to respect what other people respect, especially when we're in a place that's important to them. I try to explain to her that these churches are places of peace and security for the people who attend them. One day, I'll be able to talk to her of faith and fear and mortality. But I think three is a little young for that. Funny though, I realize I can't begin to have her understand faith until she can understand death - the two are so inextricably linked.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Mommy Wars - this father's perspective on what drives some mothers to compete, and to hurt

Julie is part of a facebook group hosted by her local baby store in Ottawa. It's one of her favourite stores to shop for baby supplies because it carries items that are more difficult to find elsewhere. By joining the group, Julie figured she'd be kept up-to-date on new products and events in the community. She also hoped to gain a little general support and information from the store's owners and other mothers in the group. What she didn't bargain for was a direct link to some of the useless, self-righteous and audacious chatter that constitutes the Mommy Wars, and she really didn't expect to find that the owner of the store herself is responsible for sparking most of the chatter.

The owner of the store has the habit of posting links to anything and everything that supports her notions of good parenting, regardless of its credibility. In the past, this has frustrated Julie, and she's added comments to the effect that we, as parents, need to refrain from generalized assumptions and judgments when it comes to the "right" way to parent a young child. But she has remained in the conversation, until now.

Last week, she opened a message from the owner of her favourite baby store that read: "This article explains how crying-it-out leads to sleep in infants -- it's not because it 'teaches' them to sleep!" The article, entitled, Why I no longer believe babies should cry themselves to sleep is, at best, uninformed drivel and at worst a set of arrogant assumptions that, when read by new mothers, can greatly heighten anxiety and make their decisions more difficult. I'll let you read it for yourself, but it essentially argues, with no reference to supporting evidence, that "the implicit message an infant receives from having her cries ignored is that the world -- as represented by her caregivers -- is indifferent to her feelings." He also writes that when parents allow their children to cry themselves to sleep, "the short-term goal of the exhausted parents has been achieved, but at the price of harming the child's long-term emotional vulnerability."

I won't pretend for a moment that Julie and I don't have a vested interest in and a particular sensitivity to this topic. We were left with no choice with Chloe but to let her cry herself to sleep. She had wicked colic, and it was the only way to allow her and us to sleep and regain our sanity. Before sleep training, the girl looked like a wasted heroin addict (think Trainspotting). After sleep training, her mood improved dramatically and she started to smile regularly. She was happier because we had managed to get her some sleep. As for co-sleeping? great if it's working for you. It didn't for us.  One thing I'm confident of with both girls (and as a nail-biting, nervous father, believe me I looked for it), is that they very rarely cried because they felt abandoned or they needed us in any real sense. A mother and father get to know their child's cries the longer they know their child, and although there were a few times we wish we had gone in sooner because we detected distress in a cry, most nights our children only cried in frustration at trying to fall asleep or out of frustration at being told they had to go back to sleep.  When I go in at night to tell Emily she must go back to sleep, she protests in anger. She knows what I'm asking, and she'd rather not. Yet every morning, Emily wakes up smiling and cooing. She is the happiest baby on the block.

Do I have any concrete evidence to back up my sense that my kids don't feel abandoned when I let them cry? No, of course not. But fact isn't apparently what counts in these battles. They are battles of "you think, I think.' And, let's face it, they are really battles of who thinks who's a better mother.

The editors at the Globe and Mail must have been enamored with the 'MD' following the author's name at the end of the article. Otherwise, I can't fathom why a respectable newspaper would publish such rubbish. As the good doctor has demonstrated, a man of science need not feel compelled to back his assumptions with evidence before sharing them with the world. Other doctors who, for example, argued that schizophrenia is the result of "refrigerator mothers" also come to mind.

I won't dwell on this article, as it's not the point of my entry. People may write whatever they choose, and newspapers will continue to publish all sorts of silliness. But the danger this type of speculation poses can be very real when it is passed to new and sometimes vulnerable moms as something akin to gospel. Julie opened the article, not just to stick her tongue in a sore tooth (which is unfortunately an all too human temptation), but to see if there was some new research that might make us take pause when it comes to our approach to sleep. What she got instead was a link to baseless opinion, cloaked in supposed medical expertise. And the babyshop owner / mother who shared it? What was her motive? I can only guess some sort of self-gratifying vindication of her own mothering approach.

For our own mental health and confidence as parents, we've done everything we can to steer clear of the so called Mommy Wars. Our friends don't judge, at least not publicly (I suppose we all chastise ourselves for judging privately). We've made it pretty clear to all of our family that we methodically research most of the big decisions we make and that we're not really that open to advice - and they've been wonderful in respecting that. In short, we've done everything we can to minimize the doubt we feel as parents on a daily basis. Right or wrong, decisions must be made each and every day, and swaying this way and that on the winds of a plethora of advice doesn't make the decisions easier.

So why is it that some mothers feel the need to share their unsolicited opinions on parenting so openly and vehemently? (I've been harangued myself on the street and in parks by mothers too willing to tell me what I'm doing wrong). Really, parenting is as sensitive a topic as politics or religion, except that we don't talk about politics and religion in polite conversation.  I propose, and I invite comment on this, that mothers who tell other mothers how to parent do so out of a deep insecurity about their own parenting abilities - a sort of, see, I'm doing it right because you're doing it wrong. I suspect I'm not the first person to suggest this, but I'd like to suggest it, strongly, as a father, to mothers out there because I feel that it has led to a very unfortunate and detrimental environment for many mothers.

As a father on leave now for most of a year, I can tell you that there is no job I have ever done or entertained doing that is as much work as parenting. It is exhausting, mind-numbing and totally disheartening - at times.  I have no idea how a mother can look after a toddler and a new baby, for instance, all day, 5 days a week. I'm not sure I could do it for long and I hate to admit that. This week, Julie's been laid up with a bad foot and I've had the care of both children, plus do the cleanup and cooking all week. It coincides with a challenging stage for Chloe, and I've snapped at her several times these past few days. I feel awful about it. I've wanted to ask Chloe, "could you please just let me breathe - just mentally breathe. My head hurts so much honey." I regain my energy, my equilibrium by being alone, and there is no way to be alone with a toddler and a baby.

I appeal to all mothers to stop competing. Stop saying to yourself, "oh Jenny has a 12 week old baby who sleeps through the whole night, what's wrong with mine, what's wrong with me?" Tell Jenny what a rough time you're having. She may share with you how last week her baby was up all night for no reason, or how she constantly has an ear infection. Or maybe Jenny's kid is just that good. Other kids aren't, I'm sure. And if you have a habit of sharing all of your ideas and opinions on parenting with anyone polite enough to listen, in the future try to refrain from blessing others with your pearls of wisdom unless you're asked. Don't spout off with cocky confidence what's good for a child and what isn't when you've pulled it out of your you-know-what. Stop, pause, ask yourself, are you really helping your fellow mothers or simply trying to confirm, publicly, your own worth as a mother.

Sure, I know, this is all easy for a father to say. Fathering doesn't have the years of baggage mothering comes with. I hear that, and I'm only stating what I see. Mothers have a tough job, and they need to start working together to talk about how difficult a job it is and what anxieties it provokes. Some mothers have a difficult time sharing their obstacles and their setbacks out of a fear of how others will see them as mothers. But they need to start sharing their fears and their failures, to laugh and cry at the tough times together and to rejoice together in their triumphs. No child is easy to raise, and we need to be able to count on the support of others to succeed.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How can two months be over already????

It's Julie again....

How can time pass so quickly? When we first arrived in Nice, 3 months seemed like an eternity. And the first few weeks did pass fairly slowly. We were getting used to being in a new place. But now, all of a sudden, we have two months behind us and only one month left.

Chloe will be three on Monday, and Emily (my baby!!) will be 7 months on Sunday. Chloe is turning into such a little girl. When we visited the oceanic museum in Monaco the other day, she was interested in learning all about pollution and how it affects animals. She was able to tell me about how the "dirty stuff" is called "pollution" and it hurts the animals. She is quite the little preschooler now. Emily has started solid food and is loving it. We were not able to start her on the typical cereals like at home (unless we wanted to give her chocolate or honey-flavoured as they do here!!!) so we dove right into avocado and banana, chicken, pears (her fav) and apple. I had a momment of sadness today when I changed her diaper and it was no longer the typical "breastmilk" poop (you mommies and daddies of infants will know what I am talking about).

When we get home, I will start looking into going back to work on a part-time basis. We will look into putting the girls into daycare again. Sean will go back to work the end of May. Slowly, the amazing family leave we've had and our adventures together will come to an end.

I am so grateful that we've had this time to spend together as a family. We have all benefitted from it. I've been able to be a happy, fairly well-rested mommy, Sean's relationship with both girls has really flourished, Chloe's gotten oodles of attention from both parents to help her adjust to having a younger sibling, and Emily has gotten to know both parents well early-on. And we all basically escaped winter!! We really are very lucky.

Anyways, we still have one month left in our little paradise. It's going to be quite an adjustment getting back to real life, but we'll try not to think about that for now :) We'll try to enjoy every last momment while we are here and have this amazing time to spend together (even the sleepless nights and endless preschooler questions!!!).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Shit my kid says - March

A typical conversation with Chloe (this morning in the Old Port area of Nice).

Chloe: Daddy, where's the boats?

Dad: They're in the harbour, just over there.

Chloe: But where's the boats?

Dad: Just over there, behind those buildings.

Chloe: But where is they?

Dad: Like I said, just behind those buildings. We'll see them when we go around the corner.

Chloe: Where's the corner.

Dad: Just up here.

Chloe: But where is it?

Dad: Straight ahead of us.

Chloe: But where is it?

Dad: Stop asking me that. We'll be there soon. You can't see it yet.

Chloe: Why can't I see it yet?

Dad: Because it's too far up.

Chloe: Oh....

Chloe: Are we at the corner yet?

Dad: Yes, this is the corner.

Chloe: Oh, Daddy, you can't cross on the red man. Where's the boats?

Dad: There's nobody coming and Daddy can tell when it's safe to cross.

Chloe: Oh... where's the boats?

Dad: Right there Chloe. Do you see the big boats?

Chloe: Oh, those are the big boats?

Dad: Yes

Chloe: Why is they not moving?

Dad: Because the people in the boats don't want to go anywhere right now.

Chloe: Why don't the people want to go anywhere?

Dad: Because they're visiting the town.

Chloe: Oh, like Grandma Pat and Grandpa Ron are visiting Avignon today?

Dad: Yes, just like that.

Chloe: We should call Grandma Pat and Grandpa Ron to see if they're in Avignon yet.

Dad: That's a great idea, but they don't have a phone with them.

Chloe: Oh, why?

Dad: Because they left it at home?

Chloe: They could take ours?

Dad: No, because ours is plugged into the wall.

Chloe: No. Phones aren't plugged into the wall.

Dad: Ours is.

Chloe: Why's it plugged into the wall?

Dad: Because some phones are plugged in and some aren't.

Chloe: Oh.... why?

Dad: Are we there yet?

Monday, February 28, 2011

Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why...

Tennyson wasn't talking about French bureaucracy, but he might as well have been. Why war, why me, why are we all here on this earth? It's all so absurd. And when it comes to absurd, why the hell are there so many useless rules in France for which no one can explain the logic.

Spend much time in France, as I have, and you quickly learn not to make reply or reason why you have to do this, or can't do that. But I keep doing it anyway. It's my damn anglo mind. A case in point:

During our second week here, we decided to spend the afternoon in Antibes, which is just a few train stops away from Nice. Emily would nap at home in the morning while Chloe and I would hang out at the local park. We would all meet up at the train station at around eleven.

Well, Chloe and I arrive at the train station a little bit early, as I desperately need to go to the bathroom. If you've never been to France, there's a whole make-work project here that rivals toll booths. In France, most public washrooms are minded by a gate keeper - a man or a woman who takes your 50 centimes to let you use the facilities. Now don't get me wrong; although I think the money collector could easily be replaced by a simple coin slot, I don't mind at all paying to use the washroom. Anyone who's ever tried to use a free washroom in Europe will understand why. And to be fair, the gate keeper is often the person who keeps the facilities in a clean condition.

The problem with the washroom gate keepers (besides that they can be touchy  at parties when asked what they do for a living - o.k., low blow, but they're not on my good side right now) is that they wield so much power, albeit within very confined parameters. You can't go to the washroom until Saint Peter has let you past the gate. End of story. And on this fateful day, Saint Peter wasn't letting me or my Peter by. And why?

Well, Chloe and I arrive at the washroom with my 50 centimes ready to hand to Lav man and Miss Tinkle (yes, there were actually two guards at this washroom) when we're told that Chloe will have to remain outside of the washroom. "Non non Monsieur. You cannot bring your child into the washroom with you. She is female....." (appreciate my pause here).

Me: But she's two years old. I can't leave her outside of the washroom by herself.
Miss Tinkle: Oh, don't worry sir. We are professionals. We'll watch her.
Me: Ah... I don't feel comfortable leaving my toddler with anyone she doesn't know.
Chloe: Daddy, don't leave me here (clutching my wrist).
Lav man: It's fine. Your girl will be fine here.
Me: Look, she's only two. Can't I bring her with me.
Miss Tinkle: Absolutely not. A girl cannot be allowed into the men's washroom.

At this point I'm right ticked off (I know, I should be thinking of Tennyson's quote). I march right up to the customer service desk at the train station and tell the gentleman behind the desk what's been going on. He gives me the strangest look (as if to say, are you kidding me) and starts making calls on his walkie. Finally, I think, someone's taking me off this crazy train.

Well, before long, Chloe and I are being escorted by an SNCF (train company) official back to the washroom. Great, I think. Let's let the loo duo have it. So the train guy goes up to the guards, removes his hat (like he's entering a church) and asks very nicely why Chloe and I can't go in. The bathroom guards give the same answer, naturally, and the SNCF official turns to me and says, "well sir, that's apparently the rule. But leave your child here with me and I'll look after her."

Me: Pardon me? I just want to take her in with me.
SNCF: Well that's just not possible. I haven't got all day, so you had better make up your mind what you're doing.
Chloe: Daddy, don't go (crying)
Me: Well I guess I'm not going to the washroom.
SNCF: You're very stubborn sir.
Me: Stubborn! My little girl is going to cry her eyes out.
SNCF: Then let her cry. A little crying won't hurt her.
Me: I will not let her cry for no good reason. This is absurd (getting on my high anglo horse). There's no good reason in the world for not letting her in. You're the ones being stubborn. It's a ridiculous rule.
SNCF: You're just stubborn sir (quite mad).

The crazy part is, in French culture, nobody ever wants to leave a person without a solution. It's a duty to find you an answer and fix the problem. But at the same time, roles and responsibilities, turf so to speak, are clearly defined, and SNCF didn't want to trample all over the the loo duo's domain. So the SNCF official was left just as frustrated as I. In the end, it was really quite funny, although I didn't find it so at the time.

One last funny note to this story. I went back to the customer service desk to vent my frustration. By then, the gentleman who had seemed to be on my side at first had already been radioed about my stubbornness. He said, "I'm sorry sir, there's nothing more we can do. Apparently it's a state law in France. You'll have to speak to the police if you have a problem with it."

As you can imagine, there's no state law (this is a country where people pee freely everywhere). But since it's impossible to explain some of the sillier rules in France (Chloe goes with me into every other washroom in the country), the French will often simply try to give the rules more authority, e.g., telling me that lave lady's bathroom rule is a state law.

The moral of the story: Break the rules, ignore the rules, try to get around the rules. The French do all of these things daily. I found out during this fiasco that had I simply said that Chloe needed the washroom, we could have used the private kids washroom (this would be a family washroom at home). But once I said it was for me, I was told that I couldn't use that one. It's only for kids.

But never ask why a rule exists. It's as existential a question as, why am I here?