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.