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We’re toilet training my three-year-old son, Eddie, and this morning, I took a new potty out for a test drive. Our third, to be exact. We figure if the child is not taking to the toilet, there must be something wrong with the potty.

“This one was Grayson’s potty! And Vincent made pee pee in it when he was here,” I said, as if knowing all of his friends had urinated in it would make it more enticing.

This potty seat is too hard.

This potty seat is too hard.

My son sat on the new potty, and as I read him a book about Big Bird and the Snuffleupagus going camping, he kept lifting his butt off the seat to readjust. I noticed he had a red circle on his buttocks.

“You sure you don’t want to use your old potty?” I asked.

“No. This is good,” he says, as he lifts himself up briefly and sits down again.

After we read for a few minutes, I put him in the bath and asked him if he wanted his usual banana and chocolate shake, or if he wanted pancakes.

“Pancakes. With blueberries and chocolate chips,” he said.

“Okay. Then I’m going to run downstairs just to get them started,” I said.

I knew that by offering pancakes, we might be late for school. When we’re late, it means the side door, which is closer to his classroom, has already been shut and you have to use the front door, which is on the other side of the building. I also had a yoga class starting at 9:15 a.m., and I didn’t want to miss too much of it. I ran downstairs to throw the pancake ingredients together and noticed my husband had put all of the ingredients for a shake into the blender: the frozen banana, strawberries, chocolate syrup, Nutella, peanut butter, and the Flintstone’s vitamin we sneak into the mix. All I had to do was press the button. I paused, knowing my son would be disappointed but also knowing it would save me a lot of time. I then pressed the button, and the shake was made. As I walked back upstairs, I thought about how I was going to break the news to Eddie about the shake. As I walked back into the bathroom, I decided to tell him the truth.

Daddy did it.

Daddy did it.

“I was fully prepared to make you the pancakes you wanted, but daddy had already made your shake,” I said. And in case he didn’t hear it, I said it again. “Daddy did it.”

“Nooooooo! I don’t want a shake!” he screeched. “I don’t like shake!”

The truth is, the child has every right to hate shakes. He’s had one almost every morning for the last year. It’s no wonder he doesn’t like them anymore. I was actually surprised he’d lasted this long. But I didn’t want to throw the shake out. It seemed a waste. And I didn’t want to drink it. I had yoga. And of course I knew that giving him a shake, rather than pancakes, made it more likely we’d be on time to school.

But I looked at my son, who was now weeping. A lot of parents at that point might think their child was being manipulative. Me, I saw my child in pain, and I just wanted to make it stop. I tried to assuage him, saying something I’d read in a parenting book: “I know you must feel disappointed.” My empathy did nothing. Nor did telling him it would be the last shake he’d ever have to drink. I knew lecturing him on the ills of waste and the virtues of recycling and conscious consumption wouldn’t have any affect. It barely has an effect on adults. Instead, I said, “Fine. I’ll make you pancakes.”

I got Eddie dressed, though I left off his diaper and pants as part of our new potty training regimen. Breakfast is prime pooping time, and in the potty training book I’m reading, they recommend going diaper free as often as you can. The theory, I guess, is that the child is not likely to poop or pee on the floor – much – so they’ll begin to notice that sensation of having to go to the bathroom – and may even ask you to take them there. We need him to notice that sensation because our current stage of potty training isn’t fruitful: we put Eddie on the potty, to practice, when he doesn’t have to go, and when he does have to go, he’s nowhere near the potty. And he does nothing to get himself closer to one. And why should he? With a diaper on, he can poop anywhere.

I escorted Eddie downstairs in just his shirt, while I carried his diaper, a pair of pants, and his shoes and socks. As we headed to the kitchen to have breakfast, he ran ahead while I stopped in the living room to put something into my knapsack. Eddie suddenly came out of the kitchen and said, “Mommy, I have a birthday present for you.” For a split second, I thought, “There’s no way he just peed on the floor and is calling it a birthday present. No way.” I walked into the kitchen, and there on the floor was a huge puddle of pee.

“Really?” I said. “Really?”

I'll fix your Christmas tree up there, and then I'll bring it back here.

I’ll fix your Christmas tree up there, and then I’ll bring it back here.

My first thought was, “I don’t have time for this! We’re already late.” Because you don’t just clean up pee with a paper towel, not pee and not in a kitchen. You use a scrubbing brush and soap because you at least want to give yourself the illusion that you could eat off your kitchen floor. This is going to be time-consuming, not what I needed when I’m already running late and volunteered to make pancakes. I must have had that look that the Grinch had when little Cindy Lou Who came out of her room and said, “But why, Santee Claus, why are you taking our Christmas tree?” and the Grinch rubbed his stubbly little chin and said, “There’s a light on this tree that won’t light on one side. So I’m taking it home to my workshop, my dear. I’ll fix it up there. Then I’ll bring it back here.” I looked up at my son, and before I could stop myself, I said, “Well, that’s it. No time to make pancakes now.”

I knew what I was doing: I was using my son’s minor indiscretion to get out of doing something I didn’t want to do anyway. Now that’s manipulation. And I told my son that next time he has to pee, blah blah potty, blah blah lesson, blah blah consequences to his actions, blah blah his fault. I felt like a heel but continued to seize the opportunity. He wailed. “I want pancakes! I don’t want shake!” As I’m cleaning up his urine, he’s just standing there, his face red, tears streaming down his cheeks, and all I keep thinking is I just wish the morning was longer and yoga was later, so I could just give this kid what he wants, and he’ll be happy, and I won’t have to see him cry. But there was a part of me that thought, he needs to take a lesson here, and I can’t give in to him every time he cries, because then he’ll know all he has to do is cry, and I’ll give him what he wants – which is basically pretty accurate.

And then he said one of the worst things he could have said: “I want my daddy.” I don’t know how I looked at him, but it must have been with deep seated sadness because he added, “…and my mommy.” I hugged him and kept telling him it will be the last shake he ever has to drink, and that he just shouldn’t pee on the floor, and that I’ll make him pancakes when he comes home from school.

Huh-yah!

Huh-yah!

He wound up drinking part of the shake, and I took him to school, but when we got to his classroom, I could see his eyes still looked puffy and red from crying. When Eddie ran off to get the Ironman costume out of the costume box, I whispered to his teacher, “Eddie may be a little sensitive this morning. We had an incident with the potty training, and he’s still a little raw.”

And with that, I burst into tears. I told her everything that happened, and what I did, and how I felt bad, and she told me to buy him plastic underwear and pick my battles.

“A lot of the boys in here aren’t toilet trained yet,” she said.

I stood there in his classroom for a while, helping my son get into his Ironman costume and then standing next to him as one of his classmates, dressed at Thor, came over and leapt into the air, and thrusting a fist out in front of him, shouted, “Huh-yah! Huh-yah!” I hoped that by standing there, my son might forgive me for all the indiscretions I’d already made and was likely to make in the future.

“I don’t want to skate,” my three-year old son said, kicking the tip of his skate blade against the rubber flooring.

“Why? I thought you liked skating?” I said.

“It’s boring,” my son said, boldly.

Skating is boring

Skating is boring

I had an English teacher in high school, a short little man with an effeminate lisp, who, when students would proclaim something was boring, would say, “Bored people are boring.’ At the time, I thought he was being wise, even helpful, saying that if you were bored, it had something to do with what was inside you and that you could change it. In retrospect, I think he was just annoyed with the arrogance of youth, and he was just calling us “boring” out of spite.

I wasn’t going to call my son boring, but I was getting annoyed. I’d enrolled him in ice skating lessons two months ago after we’d gone skating with friends, and he’d enjoyed it. I wanted him to be involved in some activity, any activity, not so he could go to the Olympics or an intramural hockey team but so he could have a feeling of achievement. He has knock knees and doesn’t run very fast, and I see it frustrates him. I wanted to show him that sometimes people aren’t good at one thing but they’re good at another. I was giving him something to be good at.

It took some cajoling and repetition, but I convinced Eddie to rejoin his class on the ice. He made his way over to them holding on to the wall. He hadn’t needed to hold the wall since early on in his lessons, and it surprised me. I wondered if he was saying he was bored because he was afraid. Maybe that is how we learn a skill — not linearly but in a series of loops, where just when someone is about to move forward two steps, they go back one-and-a-half steps out of fear.

The skating teacher tried to pry Eddie off the wall, but he held his grip. She then backed away and held her hands out, asking him to skate toward her. He was reluctant at first but slowly let go of the wall and began marching in her direction, slowly, arms out like an airplane, knees bent, just as he’d been taught. She backed up a bit, and he moved toward her again, but he then fell on his butt. Bam! He looked over toward me.

"I'm just watching!"

“I’m just watching!”

“Everybody falls,” I said.

The teacher helped him up, but I knew he wasn’t happy about it. He began skating toward me. He was done.

The class only had two children in it, and Eddie was one of them. The other was a two-and-a-half year old named Zachery. As Eddie skated away from the class, Zachery stood on the ice in a big black helmet, his skates bowing out to the sides, yelling, “Eh-dee! Eh-dee! Eh-dee!” I thought, if anything is going to get my son to rejoin his class, it’s this kid. He really, really wanted Eddie to come back. But no chance. Eddie turned around and walked away on his skates, leaving Zachery screaming his name across the ice for a solid five minutes while my son stood at the edge of the rink, kicking his skate blade against the wall, and I stood in the opening where he would get out.

“Stay on the ice until the lesson is over. I don’t want you to come off yet,” I said.

“But I don’t like ice skating. I want to go home,” he said.

“You’re not coming off the ice until your lesson is over,” I said. “When your cousin, Cade, wants to skate with you, you’re not going to be able to skate. When Uncle Steven wants to skate with you, you’re not going to be able to. Is that what you want?”

I must sound like such an asshole, I thought. One of the other mothers who had been standing next to me, watching her own child skate in another class, turned and walked away. There’s a fine line between scoffing and giving someone privacy.

A really stubborn piece of lineoleum

A really stubborn piece of lineoleum

As Eddie continued to stand at the entrance to the ice, I turned around and walked away, thinking maybe if he couldn’t see me, he might go over and rejoin his class.

The instructor was not his regular teacher. She did not seem to have anything invested in the lesson – nor did she know my son and how in every other class he skated fine. I wished she would skate over and get my son, or at least look in our direction, but I think she was happy to just be teaching one little kid rather than two, who were at different levels anyway.

I inched a little farther away from the rink, near the benches where we put on my son’s skates and out of his field of vision. I was still hoping he would go back to his class, but he just stood there. He knew I was still in the vicinity, even if he couldn’t see me. I decided to take it a step further. I walked right in front of him and said, “Go back to your class. It’s over in five minutes. Go on. Go,” and I walked out the door that leads into the hallway.

I stood outside the doorway to the rink for several minutes. Through a window in the door, I could see through to the ice. I could see my son’s helmet and his two hands on the glass barrier that surrounded the rink as he just stood there. It was one of those parenting moments where I had no idea, whatsoever, what I was doing and whether it was the right – or a very wrong – approach. It was potentially a pivotal moment in my son’s life that will either have helped him through some block or created one for which he’ll seek therapy. Regardless, I’d already started something, and if I was going to move forward in the direction I’d chosen, it didn’t help to just stand there staring at him through the glass. Either I was committed to this silly exercise or I wasn’t. I turned my back to the ice and started to watch two rink employees trying to lift sheets of linoleum tile with a pry bar so that they could replace them with the more traditional rubber tiles that fit together like puzzle pieces. The two men had gotten halfway across the floor but were stuck on one particular tile. They hit the pry bar several times with a hammer, to wedge it further under the tile, but every time they would then try to peel the tile upward and off the floor, it wouldn’t budge.

“This one is never, ever going to come up,” said the younger of the two men, clearly frustrated.

I turned around and walked back into the rink. My son was still standing at the entrance to the ice.

“Go out there,” I said, pointing to his class. “Go on.”

“I’m just watching,” he said and turned around and started to walk on his skates slowly toward the group. As he got closer to them, I could see the teacher turn around and talk to him. I then heard my son’s voice across the ice. “I’m just watching.” As the instructor tried to engage him in the lesson, he yelled, “I’m just watching!”

He stood in the middle of the ice for a few minutes and then headed back toward me. Small as it was, he’d made an effort. If I pushed him anymore, I thought I might wind up doing some long term damage. It would certainly make it harder to bring him back for his lesson next week.

As we left the rink, I saw that the two workmen were finally able to pry off the stubborn piece of linoleum and were now halfway done getting off the old floor. I wondered if maybe the learning process isn’t like loops but rather like clearing a clog in a plumbing pipe. Some will see a block and quit while others will keep slamming into it, like a battering ram, until they break through. I hope my son turns out to be the latter. Because like Oedipus, you can’t change fate. I’d sent my son to skating lessons to give him a feeling of achievement, and inadvertently, I’d fostered his sense of failure.

Every morning as I lie in bed and hear my three-year-old son begin to rustle in his crib, I vow that today, I will get down on my hands and knees and play with him. Soon, he’ll be going to school, making friends and playing soccer and video games, and at that point, he won’t want to play with me. And then I’ll miss him and feel regret. So when he says, “Mommy, will you play with me?” I vow to say, “Yes,” and grab one of his trucks or Thomas the Tank Engine and drive it around his ringed track saying “Chuggah, chuggah, choo choo. I’m a useful engine!”

The spaceship we don't fly

The spaceship we don’t fly

And yet every afternoon, as my son drives his cars on the floor right next to me or runs his trains around the track, I not only fail to make good on my vow, I’m barely in the room. Instead, I keep checking my email, thinking about stories I want to pitch, essays I want to write and sometimes taking notes for my parenting blog on raising a toddler — except I spend more time writing about raising him than actually raising him.

“Mommy, who are you talking to?” my son says, as I whisper into my tape recorder to remind myself how when he had his hands covering his eyes yesterday at the playground, I thought he was crying when it turns out he was only playing hide-and-seek.

“I’m, um, talking to myself. I’m trying to remind myself of the funny thing you just did,” I’ll say.

The trucks we don't drive

The trucks we don’t drive

I realize this is bizarre, given that he doesn’t understand what a tape recorder is, what a memory is, and why his mommy no longer has one.

I know I should savor this time with my son, like a peppermint, but I can’t help myself. If I’ve experienced something noteworthy, I want to write about it. And so I walk that tightrope all writers must walk: to live in the moment in order to experience life or to come out of the moment in order to write about it. So when my son does something funny or interesting or smart, my default reflex is to reach for my pen instead of my son.

Sometimes I can’t write it down fast enough, so I scribble on my hand, the back of coupons, inside book jackets – sometimes even library books – or I’ll grab my iPhone and type a note or record a phrase. But when it’s time to turn these experiences, notes and recordings into prose, I fall asleep, and all those pearls of wisdom just fade away like penning a great poem and then leaving it out in the rain. And then the next day comes, when I hear my son rustling, I vow to play with him, and then spend half the day taking notes on what it’s like to half play with him, and the cycle begins anew.

I’m not just distracted from playing with him because I’m a writer. I’m distracted because I’m struggling with the fact that I’m no longer working full time. I had my son at 47 so I’ve spent the last three decades building a career as a journalist, but since I had him, I’ve cut my workload and my paycheck by a third – not to mention the fact that his needs and moods and demands and incessant chatter has destroyed my ability to focus. Stories take five times longer to write, naptime dictates when I can schedule interviews. Worse, I now have severe mommy-brain and can no longer hold a thought for more than a minute. The instant my son interrupts me, which happens all day long, my focus runs off the track like a Thomas train.

My husband’s job, however, has changed little. Except for coming home early one night a week so I can go to yoga, his work hours and job title remain the same, though his office wall is now covered with photos of our son.

The crafts we don't do.

The crafts we don’t do

There’s a lot of talk about this social dynamic: couple has child, man keeps career, woman watches hers unravel, at least until the child goes to school. First, there were books and articles about how women can have it all: motherhood and a career. Then everyone admitted women really can’t have it all. And there are cries of sexism and how something has to change. I agree it’s sexist, but at the same time, I’m a beneficiary. I’m glad it’s acceptable for me to put half my career on hold while I spend time with my son in his formative years. My husband could have said he wanted to stay home while I continued to work full time, but he didn’t, and it’s not just because he earns twice what I do and his workplace is less flexible. It’s because underneath it all, despite our liberal beliefs and cosmopolitan sensibilities, like old wallpaper you might find underneath plaster, we still believed boys go to work and girls stay home. And I feel lucky for that. I get to be with my son in these delicious but fleeting formative years. If I could only stop working long enough to enjoy it.

This morning, when I went into my son’s room, I said, “I want to play with you.” My son looked surprised but broke out into a big wide smile and hugged me. His response warmed me so deeply, I thought, “This is it. This is what it’s all about. It’s not about awards or accolades or money. It’s about this. Loving and being loved. Wanting and being wanted.” The experience was so moving, I grabbed a notebook to jot it all down.

February 8, 2014 The Circus

My three-year old son, Eddie, has had a love affair with super heroes for more than a year now. Batman and Superman top the list. Whenever anyone asked him what he wanted for Christmas, he’d say, “BatmanZoopaman,” as if it were one word. The fact that he meant any kind of doll, car, game, shirt, sticker or book related to BatmanZoopaman was implicit.caren's camera jan 21 2014 596

So it didn’t surprise me that when I took him to a small circus at a local high school gymnasium, he looked right past the stage and the red, yellow and blue curtains, didn’t even see the tightropes strung overhead or the huge stage lights indicating something important was about to happen, and ran right to the row of concession stands and shrieked, “Batman!”

“We haven’t even sat down yet,” I said, lugging a knapsack on my back and a food bag and diaper bag over each shoulder.

“I want Batman, Mommy. Mommy, I want Batman,” my son kept saying.

I wanted to first find the couple we were supposed to meet there. They had a daughter, Meara, who was just a little older than Eddie. But more, I wanted to find a seat so I could put down my coat and my gear. But I knew there was no point. Either I was going to get Batman immediately, or I was going to suffer an endless stream of “I want, I want” until the item of his desire was in his hands. I walked over to the nearest concession stand and bought an inflatable Batman. I also bought my son a popcorn, even though he didn’t ask for it.

We walked over to the bleachers and quickly found our friends. Eddie and I sat down on a bench near them, but before long, he and Meara were running on the gym floor, playing in a valley created by a gap in the bleachers. Eddie was waving his Batman around, pretending he was flying, while Meara was swinging around a glow-in-the-dark sword.

Soon the gym lights went out, the stage lights went on, and the show began. There was a family that rode around on bicycles and unicycles, followed by a contortionist, a girl who could keep 20 hula hoops aloft as she wiggled her chest and hips, and a man covered in brown tubing that moved back and forth across the stage like a slinky.

As I watched the acts, I would glance over at my son, who seemed more interested in the glow-in-the-dark sword his friend, Meara, was holding. Just then, the lights went out and all the children who had glow-in-the-dark swords began waving them.

“Mommy, I want a sword,” Eddie said.

“I already bought you a Batman,” I said. “You can’t have both.”

“But I want a sword,” he said.

“Listen, you could have had a sword or a Batman, and you wanted Batman,” I said.

“I want a sword, Mommy. I don’t want Batman,” he said.

“You don’t want Batman?”

“I want a sword,” he said.

“You’re telling me you don’t want the Batman anymore?” I asked.

“I don’t want Batman. I want a sword,” he said.

I knew there would be no peace until I gave him what he wanted.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“I want a sword, Mommy,” he said.

I grabbed the Batman and walked back to the same concession stand from which I’d bought the Batman and, doll in hand, sheepishly asked the woman if she would exchange it for a sword. I thought I would have to explain why I had chosen so hastily and that I was sorry and wouldn’t do it again, but she snatched the doll from my hand and replaced it with a glow stick, as if she’d done it before. I thought I might get some change, given that the Batman was $10 and clearly a much more sophisticated toy, but she didn’t give me any, making me think, “Of course she was happy to switch the items. She made out on the deal.” I walked back to my seat with the $10 glow stick.

My son’s eyes lit up. He grabbed it from my hand.caren's camera jan 21 2014 598

“Thank you?” I said.

“Thank you, Mommy.”

He began brandishing it and play fighting with Meara, and I knew I had made the right choice.

The gymnasium lights came back on, and there was a lengthy intermission, where some of the circus celebrities came out and members of the audience could have photos taken with them. Meara had her photo taken with two women who were scantily clad and what clothing they did have on was covered in feathers, making them seem more fitting for an act in Vegas than a small-town circus. Soon, the lights went out and the second act began.

About halfway through, a young boy walked by our row of bleachers carrying a Batman doll. My son turned to me and said, “I want Batman.”

“Are you kidding me?” I asked.

“Mommy, I want Batman,” he says, and leans in toward me and gives me a hug.

“Sorry, dude, you got a sword now,” I said.

“But I want Batman,” he said.

“Then you chose unwisely,” I said.

I knew he didn’t know what I meant, but he seemed to take it in for a moment. He then responded, “I want Batman.”

“Nope,” I said.

“Mommy,” he said. “May I please have a Batman?” he says, using the phraseology I’ve been trying to get him to say. He was pulling out all the stops.

“Sorry,” I said.

He began to cry.

“Oh. My. God,” I said.

I imagined going back to the woman at the concession stand and asking her if she would give me the Batman back and her laughing at me. I then imagined a bird’s eye view of myself, where my son is pulling me by the nose first one way, and then the other, and then back again. I simply could not give in. This was not a behavior I wanted to reinforce.

“No!” I said.

It only made him cry harder. Now his nose was starting to run.

I turned to my friends who were seated next to us.

“Okay, reality check. What would you do?” I asked them.

“Um, I would get him the Batman,” the husband said quietly, so my son couldn’t hear. I turned to his wife. She nodded her head in agreement.

“Dammit,” I said. Oddly, it was actually what I wanted to hear. I hated to see my son cry, and I wanted to give him what he wanted, not because it would make him stop crying but because it would make him happy, if only for a moment.

I walked back to the woman at the concession and asked if I could have the Batman back. She made the exchange without saying a word.

As I walked back to our seats, I could see my son’s eyes light up, and I knew I had made the right decision. So he chose unwisely, I thought. I’ve made plenty of bad decisions. I couldn’t help but fear I was opening up some door that would now be hard to close, that I’d shown him some sign of weakness that he could now exploit. But he was smiling now, and that made me smile.

As we watched the remainder of the circus, my son held the Batman doll on his lap like it was a child. When the lights came on, he turned the doll around to face us. The two of us sat for a moment, staring at the doll. It was a funny looking Batman, with a flat face and squinty eyes.

My son looked up at me and said, “I’m afraid of Batman.”

I pretended not to hear him.

I knew her as “the lady who let her kid play in the middle of the street,” until our annual block party, when I learned her name was Summer, she was a single mom with three kids, and she is probably a better parent than I’ll ever be.

Summer let her three-year-old son, Devin, climb their tree like a monkey. He’d sway back and forth from a hand-made wooden swing and then leap to the ground like Tarzan, sometimes landing in the road. She would let him go to a skateboard park and ride a half-pipe. She would let him take his boogie board so far out into the ocean that she was vexed as to where to stand in case he needed her: way out in the water, or way up on the beach. In either place, she was going to be really far away from him at some point in his ride. And that’s all before he turned four.

“I never told him, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ And when strangers tell me he’s going to get hurt, I say, ‘No, he’s not. He can handle it,’ “ Summer said. She then sings her son’s praises with enormous pride, for all the world to hear. “You know that kid rode a wave all the way in from 30 or 40 feet out in the ocean, at three years old?”

One day, Devin climbed so high up the tree in front of their house that he found himself just outside a second-floor balcony. He leapt to the balcony and walked into his mom’s room. Summer says it alarmed her but never forbade him from doing it.

“I knew that was never going to work. I saw it in his eyes. So I said, ‘Oh my god, Spiderman! Don’t ever do that when I’m not here! I want to be able to see you do it,” she said.

Devin is now 10, and the only emergency room visits he’s ever had were in the last few months: one for gas and another for an eye infection. And he has a strange quality you don’t often see in kids these days: joy.

Summer wasn’t just liberal with Devin. She let all her children splash around in dirty puddles, throw mud pies and play in paint. She’ll take her 15-year old daughter, Raven, and a friend to Atlantic City for her 16th birthday because she found a nice hotel with an indoor pool. When she booked it, she asked about interesting activities for 16-year olds and the clerk said, “You do know this is an adult playground, right?”

“I know that,” she told me, “but it’s a night away, somewhere different, in a hotel with a pool. How is that not fun for a kid?”

My husband and I play it a little loose on the parenting rules as well, though on a much smaller scale: We’ve always let our son, Eddie, who’s nearly three, eat with an adult fork and play with scissors. We leave knives out on the island in our kitchen, sometimes within his reach. And I let him stand on a chair near the stove so he can watch me cook. We’ve never covered the electrical outlets with plastic or cleared the room of small objects for fear that he’ll swallow them. And when he started saying, “Dammit!” and “What the heck,” we let it slide, figuring nothing makes a kid want to do something more than if you tell him not to. We view bad behavior like a bad smell, feeling it’s better to leave the front and back doors open and let the odors pass right through.

Our approach is a bit too loose for some. We had a regular weekly play date last year with a child a little older than Eddie, and every time I picked my son up from their house, he’d say he’d been given a time out. His infractions were minor – throwing blocks, or failing to share — but it got so that going to this friend’s house became synonymous with going for a time out. After a while, I found that if I asked him not to do something, he’d sit himself down on the floor near the front door, and when I’d say, “What are you doing?” He’d say, “I’m in a time out.”

“Time-out mom” is a bit controlling for my taste. Hearing “No” and “Don’t” all the time might start to make you feel like you can’t do anything…right. Sure, there are times when we should say “No,” and they’re obvious: “Don’t chew razor blades.” “Don’t play with daddy’s gun.” But the pendulum seems to have swung toward “No,” and “Don’t do that,” with time-outs becoming epidemic. In any given day, I can find a thousand reasons to say, “Don’t do that,” from telling my child to stop playing with the jam packets in a restaurant to telling my husband not to use the last piece of toilet paper without replacing the roll. But I don’t. I pick my battles. Because to dole out “No’s” like playing cards can’t be good for the soul.

Imagine a world in which all we heard was “Yes.” It would feel like a salve. Summer’s house is the closest I’ve seen, and it’s given Devin the freedom to grow and explore and be who he is rather than who she is. Sure, time-out mom’s child is well-behaved, but he’s going to grow up to be, well, time-out mom. Me, I have so many fears, of heights, of waves, of going downhill too far too fast, that my child would be better off not turning out like me. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I say if you hold on too tightly, the apple won’t fall at all.

My son and I actually saw the inside of Summer’s house yesterday. We went over there so Eddie could play with her kids. Devin answered the door holding a rabbit. It was a strange looking rabbit, with a mane like a lion.

“What’s that?” Eddie asked, beaming.

“It’s a bunny,” Devin said.

Summer’s house looked like a scene from Alice in Wonderland. The door was turquoise, the living room walls were color-washed gold, and the kitchen was periwinkle. The dining room chairs were covered in a big, bright floral pattern. The couch was covered in a sheet made of a zebra pattern, and there was a pillow the color of peacocks. Everything in the house seemed vibrant and alive, making other houses seem black and white in comparison.

We stayed for about an hour as Eddie played with toys, drank hot chocolate with a big puffy marshmallow, and sat on the couch with Devin watching television. My son cried when we left.

Yesterday morning, Eddie and I were doing our new routine: he’s not yet potty trained, and I don’t want to push him for fear he’ll dig in his heels, so he just sits on the potty, like it’s a chair, and we read a book. The book I plucked up was “Little Bird, Biddle Bird,” which starts out, “Little bird, Biddle bird, time for your snack. Mommy is busy and hasn’t come back. Little bird, Biddle bird, mother has flown. Is it time you were finding some food on your own?” For the next 10 pages, the bird ponders what to eat. He eventually finds a worm, struggles to pull it out of the ground but finally does, and he is then full and happy. When his mother returns, she commends him for his ingenuity and then sings his praises with enormous pride, for all the world to hear.

“Read it again, Mommy,” Eddie said.

And I did.

As I drove my son home from school the other day, I said, “Guess who’s going to be at our house when we get there?”

“Who?” he asked.

“Gary,” I said, referring to a dear friend of ours whom my son likes a lot.nativity 4

“But where’s the baby Jesus?”

“The baby who?” I asked.

“The baby Jesus. Where is he?”

Being a Jew, I’m not an expert on the whereabouts of the baby Jesus. We lost track of him somewhere between the crucifixion and resurrection.

“Um, the manger?” I said.

There actually is a manger not far from our house. We live near a little park that the local fire department decorates every Christmas with colored lights, a red sleigh and a big white star that hangs over a Nativity scene. It’s your run-of-the-mill creche, replete with Mary, Joseph, a baby Jesus, some wise men, a couple of sheep and a donkey.

I wasn’t shocked my son was inquiring about the baby Jesus’ whereabouts. We send him to daycare in a church. While I’d rather he be in a Jewish-run daycare, there isn’t one near my house. I actually like the daycare he attends. He learns good, solid values like sharing and getting along with others. It’s also two blocks from my house. I’ve learned to accept the fact that along with the pumpkins, candy corn and pilgrims they paint at school, they’re also painting pictures of Noah’s Ark, the tree of knowledge and the creation.

But I still wince when he talks about God and Jesus. Jews were persecuted for so long, many, like myself, have developed a bit of an ‘us and them’ view of the world. Jews like chicken fat and kneidelach, for instance, while Christians eat deviled eggs and brown bread out of a can.

“Jews don’t wear canary yellow,” I once told my husband, after returning from a trip to Nantucket.

But if I’m going to be standing on one side of this great divide, I want my son next to me, not on the other side of the chasm. So it’s hard when he comes home from school saying or doing things that are overtly Christian, like when he came home a few months ago with a big cross covered in purple paint, and his name, ”EDDIE,” emblazoned across the front of it in purple glitter. “That’s it. They’ve got ‘im,” I thought, feeling like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. While I usually pin all of the art work he brings home from school onto a wall in my kitchen, the cross remained on the passenger seat of my car for two weeks, until my neighbor shamed me into bringing it inside.

I bribed him on Chanukah with lots of presents.

I bribed him on Chanukah with lots of presents.

“That’s a part of him, too, you know,” she said.

And it is. Whether we sent Eddie to daycare in a church or not, he’s only half Jewish. My husband, Bruce, is Christian and so by default, half of Eddie is Christian – not because of any agreement I reached with my husband about how we would raise our child but because intentionally or not, parents impart to their children what they, themselves, learned as kids, and kids absorb it, the way someone standing near a fire will start to smell like smoke.

When Eddie began daycare at the church, he wasn’t yet two. I took it for granted that he wouldn’t take the program’s religious content on board, sort of like walking a blind child past an ice cream store without worrying that they’re going to scream for a cone. But this year, he’s nearly three and can hear what they’re saying. I know this because he regurgitates it at home.

Some nights before dinner, he says, “Thank you, God, for this good meal, and thank you for our lunch.”

And lately, he’s been singing “Happy birthday, Baby Jesus, Happy Birthday to you.” After they lit the Christmas tree in our town, he yelled out, “Je-sus!” And the other day, when I asked him, “Who’s your favorite super hero now?” he said, “Mary and Joseph.”

“Mary and Joseph?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“How about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? What about the Maccabees? Are they your heroes, too?” I asked.

 “They’re soldiers,” he said.

 “Yeah, the Maccabees are soldiers. That’s pretty heroic,” I said.

 “They don’t have capes,” he said.

 “Well, Mary and Joseph don’t have capes, either,” I muttered.

 The other day, my son and I were walking through the park by our house and stopped by the Nativity scene.

“Where are the bad guys?” my son said, pointing to the crèche.

“Bad guys? I don’t know that there are any in there,” I said.

 “That guy’s the bad guy,” my son said, pointing to one of the three kings.

 “Which one?” I asked.

 “The red one,” my son said.

 “The one with the red coat?” I asked.

 “Yeah.”

 “He’s a bad guy?”

 “Yeah,” he said.

He was a sheep lamb doggie.

He was a sheep lamb doggie.

“Well, you’re probably right. You see that box he has in his hand?” I asked. I paused for a moment and then uttered, “He stole that box. Those two in the manger, there, they were talking to him, and as soon as they turned around, he grabbed that gold box that was lying on the ground in front of them, and he stuck it under his coat.”

I couldn’t help myself. This Jesus thing has been growing slowly and steadily in our house over the last few months like an inflating balloon. I needed to let some of the air out before he turned into a full-fledged Christian.

It’s hard to compete with Christianity, particularly at Christmas time. For Jews, it’s like going to a carnival and watching all your friends go on the rides. I tried to make Chanukah enticing, making a big deal out of lighting the candles, showing my son how to play dreidel – a game that needs high-stakes wagers to make it interesting – and giving him gifts on almost every night. But no matter how many Batmen I bought him, he still came home singing about the baby Jesus.

It’s no mystery why. My son is in his daycare’s Nativity play, and they’ve been practicing their songs almost daily since before Thanksgiving. It would probably bother me more if the whole thing weren’t so damned cute. He sings, “No room at the inn,” with his little index finger wagging, like he’s saying, “No.” He sings, “We wish you a Merry Christmas,” and then after one verse shouts, “Cha, cha, cha, cha!” and throws his hands in the air – because in his play, that’s when they shout, “Joy to the World!”

But it’s the way my son says “Baby Jesus,” that keeps me from wincing. Eddie has a slight lisp that makes “Baby Jesus” sound like ‘Baby Jethuth.” It sounds so cute, I smile every time he says it. It reminds me of Linus and his soliloquy in the movie, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” where he tells everyone the true meaning of Christmas but in a voice that’s so nasal, he surely must have a back drip or deviated septum. I once lived in London and used to ride the subway at night without fear because even the most menacing characters had that perky little English accent and looked like at any moment, they could burst into a verse of “Consider Yourself,” from “Oliver.”

On the morning of Eddie’s Nativity play, my husband and I took seats along the center aisle. As the play started, the children began to file down the aisle toward the stage, starting with the youngest class. Throughout the room, when a parent would spot their child, they’d shout out their name, wave wildly and take photos. Christians and their Nativity plays, I thought.nativity 2

After the youngest class went by, I began to see faces I recognized from my Eddie’s class: his friend Lana, dressed as a leopard, his friend, John, dressed as a cow. And then I spotted my son. He was wearing a pelt of fur that looked like a headband, but it had two little flaps of fur coming down the sides to simulate ears. There was another piece of fur draped around his shoulders like a cape. As soon as I saw him, my heart leaped up. Soon, I was shouting his name, waving my hands wildly and taking photos, just like all the other parents, and for one beautiful moment, the chasm between us disappeared.

 

As I put my two-and-a-half-year old son, Eddie, into his Buzz Lightyear costume and took him outside to go trick-or-treating, I thought, why can’t I be the one out there to collect candy? I’m the one who loves sugar. He still likes carrots. I can’t remember a single costume I wore on Halloween, but I do remember the excitement of having that huge bag filled with candy. I loved sugar as a child like a crack head likes cocaine. I’ve always loved sugar. Pop tarts, coffee cakes, yodels. I could eat a whole rack of chocolate cookies or Oreos with one glass of milk. M&Ms, Reese’s peanut butter cups, Milky Way’s, 100,000 bars, I will eat them one after the other until I get worms.

To Infimity And Bee-yom!

To Infimity And Bee-yom!

There are only a handful of things in life that make me mourn the loss of my childhood like one might mourn a beloved dog and one of them is surely Halloween. I loved carving the pumpkins and roasting the seeds with salt, even though the shells would sometimes accumulate in your mouth like wood chips. I loved the smell of a wood fire as the air turned cold, even though if it got too cold, it meant you had to wear a jacket over your costume. I loved bobbing for apples even though it was scary to be underwater, and I love candy corn, even if it looks better than it tastes.

But in the end, my love of Halloween was all about my love of candy, and the utterly orgasmic notion that you were carrying around a sack of chocolate bars, lollipops, toffee, taffy, wax bottles filled with juice and plastic tubes filled with colored sugar. There was so much booty, I didn’t even mind that my father would go through our bags and pluck out the Nestlé’s crunch bars, saying things like “I think this one has poison. I better test it.”

I thought about throwing on a cowboy hat and taking my own bag to collect candy, but I know how I feel when an adult, with a costume that took almost no effort, comes to my door and thrusts their empty pillow case forward.

“Really?” I think.

It pained me, but I decided to let my son have his day. It’s his turn, I thought. I’ll just ransack his bag later.

The problem was, he had bad taste in candy. As we went from door to door, and the homeowner would hold out their basket of candy from which my son could take a piece of candy of his choosing, I’d watch his hand hover over the basket and pause over the worst confections in there.

Caren's iphone October 31 037

Scary clown giving it out? I don’t care. I’ll take it.

“No. No. Not the Twizzlers. Keep your hand moving,” I’d think, but I didn’t want to intercede. I’d be grateful when his hand would continue on past the Twizzlers and head over toward the peanut butter cups, only to veer off at the last minute as he’d reach for a packet of Sweet Tarts or Nerds or some other crappy choice.

“You don’t even know what Sour Patch Kids are. They suck,” I said as we walked away from one house.

“You already have Twizzlers,” I said, a few houses later.

One woman whose house we visited allowed my son to take a piece of candy, and then after he dropped it into his bag, she said, “And what does Mommy want?”

“Reese’s!” I said.

Eddie’s hand once again hovered over the woman’s basket.

“Go on. Take the Reese’s,” the woman said to Eddie. He reached toward it, and then said, “No,” and started to go for another pack of Twizzler’s.

“Mommy wants a Reese’s, dear,” the woman said. She surely must have been a saint in a past life.

My son reluctantly dropped a peanut butter cup into his bag.

Not far into our trick-or-treating, my son wanted to start eating the candy. I let him have one piece, and then another, and then after a third, I said, “This is the last one.” He finished a Snickers bar and then dug his fat little hand back into his sack.

“No more,” I said.

“I wanna eat one now. I wanna eat one now. I want this one,” he said, pulling out a rack of sweet tarts. “I just want a little bit,” he said, accentuating the word, ‘bit,’ as if it were so inconsequential, no one would mind if he had six.

As I watched his excitement about the candy, I knew that as much as I like chocolate bars and caramel, I would never find them as titillating as I did when I was young. Even if I put on a costume and collected candy, I could never recapture that feeling. We go back to Boston every year around Christmas because my husband and I both went to school there and loved it up there in our college days. But every year, I’m disappointed anew when I realize it’s not the place I want to visit but a time period, and that’s simply not possible.

As the last trick-or-treaters came to our door last night, I dumped the last of our candy into a basket and held it out to them like an offering. But as I looked in the basket, I noticed we were giving out the same seven or eight candies that everyone else was, probably because we all bought our candy bags in the same store. So we were actually going through this laborious process of walking from house to house, knocking on doors and saying, “Trick or Treat,” only to collect the very candy we already had at home. It made me think we weren’t really collecting candy. We were just switching it. And if that was the case, we’d might as well just sit at home and eat our own stash. It would save a lot of time and effort.

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