Don’t Make Me Come Up There

L has been learning some Spanish. His new favorite word is amarillo, yellow. Last night, in the car, he was holding a yellow truck and we heard him say, “Amarillo truck!” and then, in a voice that could have been mine, “That’s right! Amarillo!”

“Man,” I said to B. “That kid must hear my voice in his head all day long.”

Turns out I’m right. There was a This American Life episode a while back–I can’t find it now–about how kids whose parents talk to them and read to them have a distinct advantage over kids who don’t; they do better in school, in part because they have many more words (and more positive words) than kids whose parents don’t read to them or actively teach them language. By Kindergarten, kids who are read to and talked to are miles ahead. Experts think this accounts, in part, for multi-generational poverty and illiteracy. It’s very sad. Anyway, I knew this–but I didn’t think so literally about it, like, that the actual words I say to L are bouncing around in his head.

This made me think that I need to be more careful about what I say. I don’t even mean because, say, L was running around last week yelling “Get off my fucking vest! Get off my fucking vest!” (oops; and what does that even mean?). More because he is obviously picking up not only on what I say to him–but also on what I say to others and to myself. And lately, I have not been very kind to myself. I’ll just come out and say it: I have had a really difficult couple of weeks. My anxiety has been so uncontrollable I have almost wanted to head straight (back) to therapy and a bottle of something. It’s been caused, undoubtedly, by what I think of as bourgeois American problems: we have now extracted L from his current daycare and are about to transition him to another one, and for whatever reason the whole thing has felt very sanity-testing. I hate not being liked, and now people are upset with me; the voices asking if I’m making the right decision have been pretty loud; the financial piece of it is stressful; etc. Perhaps worst of all, the whole experience completely derailed the month of January, which I’d planned to use for my own writing. I got very little done.

So, anyway. My friend K asked me to go to a yoga class with her the other night, and the invitation could not have come at a better time. The class was restorative yoga, which means it’s not exercise at all but you lie around propped up on pillows with an eye bag. At the beginning, the teacher asked us to set an intention for our practice (if you’re not familiar with yoga, know that this is basically a…well, an intention, a place to put your energy. It’s quasi-religious, and I love it). Make an intention: into my head popped the words, love yourself as much as you love your kid. I nearly started to cry. I realized that there I am, saying to L, “Amarillo! That’s right! Good job, sweetie!” While in my head I am saying to myself, “You suck. You made a big mistake with this daycare and now you have to clean it up. You suck for not being able to finish your book. You suck because you will never get published. You suck, basically. And did I mention you suck?”

Okay, I’m being a little extreme, but it’s not too far off.

So, resolved: be nicer to myself. Because little pitchers have big ears. And even if I’m not saying it out loud, little pitchers are pretty perceptive.

On a lighter note, here’s a very funny This American Life clip about talking to kids. Well, yelling at them, really. Enjoy.

The Simple Life

I am sitting in one of those West coast coffee shops that sells T shirts with phrases like “Death Before Decaf!” emblazoned on the front, and I just noticed, in the bathroom, this great 1950s-style mock movie poster that’s advertising a fictitious movie whose plot is that under-caffeinated people are so lethargic they can’t save the world. Okay, coffee shop, you have made your point. A few months ago I mostly gave up caffeine, but the past couple of mornings I’m dragging so low I’m starting to wonder if a relapse is in order. A good strong latte might just solve all my problems.

Why am I so wiped out? Hmm. I’ll get to that in a minute (I’m at that stage in this blog post where I have two distinct ideas rolling around in my head, and I’m trying to draw a few threads between them before I lose everything).

A couple of months ago I had the good fortune to hear the great poet Gary Snyder read with Larry Ferlinghetti in North Beach, in San Francisco. Ferlinghetti is the more famous poet, but to my mind Gary Snyder is the more lasting and brilliant. A devout Buddhist, at age 81 he lives up in the Sierra Foothills, off the grid, where he has to haul water and shovel snow and fix generators and probably harvest his own food. In the course of his telling his audience about this at the reading in November, an audience member yelled something like “hooray for the simple life!” and Snyder said, “The simple life? Don’t call it that until you’ve tried it. The simple life is living in a studio apartment above a deli, with a big bag of dope.” The crowd roared. I did, too, because it was funny–but it was also undeniably true. Living off the grid in the mountains is anything but a simple life–I know at least one reader who does it, and the busyness of her days could boggle the mind.

And yet, lately I get why one would think to call living out in the sticks “simple.” Here, in the northern California city where I live, we have a car, a washer and dryer, trash pick-up, electricity, heat…all kinds of things to make life comfortable, easier, safe. But life in the city doesn’t feel simple at all lately. My head is so…full. L is having trouble at daycare, again, and I have been trying to make some very non-simple decisions about what to do about it. This entails two to three visits a week, to other daycares and preschools, plus emails and phone calls in between. In the meantime I am in the midst of a last revision of my book, a revision I swore I would not do until I went to proof it for typos and encountered some nagging doubts about its viability. This has me deeply exhausted, quite frankly, in a very complex and non-simple way–it’s an emotional and logistical stress, hard to explain, really. Then there are the acupuncture appointments, the babysitting co-op meetings, the earthquake preparation groups, three+ playdates a week, friends’ performances to attend. And then there is our attempt to live the “simple” life; we cook every night, we have a garden, we generate so much damn compost and recycling, we feel guilty about using the dryer, we walk to the store, we try whenever possible to leave the car at home and bike L to daycare. And school hasn’t even started yet; in two weeks I have sixty students to attend to, plus all this other…stuff.

I have lately found myself wishing that I lived in a studio apartment above a deli where I ordered in all my food and sent out all my laundry–or even on a farm in the Catskills, where I had to milk the cows every morning but didn’t have to write this Goddamned book and there was only one preschool to choose from (if that). I’m not complaining, I’m just noticing. I think a good 2012 resolution for me would be this: be less busy. Say no more. Get off that earthquake committee. Give yourself a break from the book if you need it. Or start drinking coffee again.

Here is a Gary Snyder poem for today. It’s about the simple life, don’t you think? I find it terribly romantic and wonderful, but then, you know that’s the mood I’m in today.

Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

(From Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions, edited by Robery DiYanni (Random House, 1987).

Kid Kid Kid

Hey, thanks to everyone who, after reading my post last week, called or emailed to send love and hope I had a good weekend. We did. I was still kind of uptight, and L had a high fever again, but now we’re all on the mend and the mountains were gorgeous (if snowless).

So last night I went to a Moms’ group that I had been invited to by my friends S and E. Neither of them could make it, so it was me and a handful of others I’d never met before. We all went around in a circle and talked about our days, our kids, whatever needed discussing. It was interesting because even though I’d never been there before people just talked–about the decision not to have another child, about anxiety over any number of things–personal stuff you might not share with a stranger. I felt honored to be included, and it came on a good night since I’d had a difficult couple of days with L, who has been by turns cranky as all get out and emotionally fragile about daycare, both of which are wearying and concerning. I had a good time last night, and I’m glad I went.

But I have to admit.

In the middle of someone talking about birth trauma and how it still comes up when your kid is two, which is true for a lot of women, sure, this little voice said to me, what are you doing here? Why, after having spent the entire day talking to your two-year-old and to others about your two-year-old–and given that there’s a babysitter at home–why are you not out drinking margaritas with a childless friend? Or reading a book? Or seeing a movie? Or doing anything that doesn’t make your eyes glaze over with kid, kid, kid??

It was an excellent point. Earlier that day, S and I were out with R, from England, who said that one of the things that struck her about American parenting is how involved we get, both with our children and in our own philosophies about parenting. (At the time, L and S’s son were wrangling over a truck, and S and I were involved in the negotiation somehow, using all our best tools.) R said that in London people would be much more apt to just say, “Hey, you need to share” and turn back to their own conversation. Here, she pointed out, we tend to give choices to our kids; talk about discipline styles with each other; engage in our kids’ disputes and encourage them to be good sharers; etc. It was an honest and smart observation. I have participated in some playground conversations that were so intricate and esoteric on the finer points of two-year-old psychology I felt I could have been doing dissertation research. Then you turn that lens on your kid, and sometimes the intricate psychology works and sometimes you can almost feel your kid thinking, Mom, this isn’t really that complicated.

This came up again today, when an Argentine friend and I were hanging out at the park. She told me that when her child was young she had joined a Moms’ group but left after one session, because she realized that mostly she was pretty happy to have a baby and didn’t need to discuss everything all the time.

Wait, so, both of my international friends think we Americans overthink and overprocess our children.

Do we?

Yes. We do. I think we do, anyway. I have prided myself on being able to straddle a pretty good line between a) being able to discuss politics, art, cooking, shopping, travel, writing, music, etc. and b) succumbing sometimes to the need to just talk talk talk talk talk about my kid and my issues as a parent. Which is to say, it makes sense to me that people need to discuss their parenting a lot, because even if you have a pretty awesome kid (I count myself in that camp), being a parent is a difficult job. Punto. And on the other hand, amen for having some time when you don’t have to discuss potty training and all its nuances (BOring).

It occurs to me that this is why childless people get so fed up with people with kids, because they feel we can’t talk about “real” stuff anymore. And because we tediously overthink everything. Over the weekend, one such friend made a snide remark when B and I were trying to get L to do something. “Why don’t you not give him a choice, and just tell him what to do?” Ah. Yes, that is the remark of a non-parent. I’m happy to try to order L around, and watch the afternoon get FUBAR because he feels he has no control and is just a puppet of the parental state (he might have different language for his feelings in this situation). There are times when I only want to hang out with other parents, because they have a clue of what our days our like.

But at other times, I’m desperate to come up for air and forget I have a child for just an hour or two. I’m lucky to have a lot of friends who don’t have kids, and I want to maintain those friendships, because it feels invaluable to me to get some perspective, sometimes. Sadly, some of my friendships are not as strong since I have had a baby. Childless friends want me to meet for drinks at ten p.m. They call at 4:00 p.m. and prattle on. I admit I am now the one who needs to call the time and place. A couple of my wonderful dear friends have gracefully accepted this, for which I’m grateful. I know I’m a pain in the ass since I have a two-year-old strapped to my leg all the time. So sue me.

What’s my point, exactly? Well, that next week maybe I won’t blog about parenting again. Politics, anyone? Art? Cooking? Anyone want to get a drink at 8:30 some night or call me between 1:30 and 4:00, when L is sure to be snoozing?

Boiled eggs and Behavioral Psych 101

I’ve had kind of a tough morning.

L was sick yesterday. I knew because my kid, who, unlike other dear lovely children, would rather sit on my head or jump on the bed than nestle next to me in the mornings and fall back asleep (curses) declared yesterday morning that he would rather “snuggle and read books” than go to the playground. Bam: fever, lethargy, 3+ hour nap, and asleep again by 7:30 last night. We had sort of a lovely day; lots of book-reading and snuggling, an hour watching a video about trucks, a brief period in the sandbox in an Advil-induced better moment. He slept through the night, and woke up ravenous: he ate two whole pieces of toast plus a boiled egg. He even started to eat the toast crusts, which is an indicator that he’s really hungry. So, then the decision needed to be made: was he better? Could he go to daycare?

In the meantime, we’re trying to get packed for a trip to Tahoe this weekend. We all overslept; I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you we oversleep every morning, lately, but still. Unshowered, I was bustling around trying to get breakfast for everyone as B was frantically throwing last-minute things in a bag so he could get to work on time, as L was demanding to be held/more toast. It got late and B really needed to go but I also needed him to help me pack the car since I have a cracked rib and carrying heavy boxes is not advised. So B was a little impatiently trying to pack the car as I was badgering him with questions about whether or not we should do daycare (B voted yes) and L was still demanding more toast and I started to feel like a scene in a movie where the clock starts ticking louder and louder and the phone rings and the baby starts crying and it comes to a fever pitch and AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

But, see, I’m fairly used to this. I have been anxious since I was a little kid, and every time I go away for the weekend or do something more than slightly out of routine I get a little wound up. I start anxiously asking too many questions, and my brain is like a yoyo going boing boing boing. Last night I was already fretting about whether everything would fit in the car and whether, if there IS any snow, I would make the cracked rib worse if I fell while skiing, and whether we would need chains for the road, and whether L would be up to going–and when I woke up and L was better, there was this very simple decision to be made about daycare.

Simple decision? You’d think I was agonizing over where to go to college.

When I was pregnant with L, I had to decide whether or not to do some basic prenatal testing. A wise friend said to me, “Just make a decision. It’s going to be one in a long line of decisions you make about your kid, and at some point you just have to decide something and not look back.” Excellent point, I thought, and in the moment she said it I could see this future of mine as a non-anxious, in-control, self-actualized sort of mom who made confident decisions and didn’t worry that they were wrong. Three years later I’m not fooling anybody. Eventually I decided he would go to daycare, but I worried about it all through getting us quickly dressed and out the door (what if he got the other kids sick? What if he needed to just stay home and be held all day, sweet love? What if what if what if?). I thought maybe I’d ride him on my bike instead of driving; part-way there he said he was cold and I nearly turned around. There was this other voice reminding me to put on a good face for him, because if he caught wind of my apprehension daycare was going to be a lot more difficult today, plus I wanted to seem confident with R, the daycare provider, so she wouldn’t know how borderline the situation really was (100-degree fever). AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!

Then this little voice said to me: drop him off. Go get a cup of coffee and mull things over a while. If you need to go get him in an hour, you can.

And here I am, mulling.

It is hard to be this person. I trivialize it, I joke about it, but the truth is, it sometimes really sucks to be so tethered to worry. I would think after 30 years of this…illness I’d have some basic tools to cope with mornings like this, but I don’t. I’m reading this book right now, a young adult novel B loved as a kid, called The Bronze Bow. And Jesus is a character in this book, and he heals people who want to be healed. In the chapter I read last night the main character is talking about how Jesus can’t heal people who “don’t want to be healed.” I’m not sure where this is going to go, in the book (and no, I have not found Jesus) but the question resonated. I have many times wondered (and I know my husband has wondered) if I can’t somehow just deal with this anxiety problem of mine and be done with it, or whether anxiety has traveled with me for so long–like an abusive, dysfunctional friend–that we’re inseparable. Like maybe I don’t even want to let her go.

This got sort of heavy, didn’t it? The truth is, I feel much better for having written it down.