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?