More briefs

– I had to go to work for part of Tuesday evening last week, during an overstuffed, frantic week of work, and the following night, I needed to attend the Wilde Awards, since I was a voting theater critic for the awards and was going to take part in the ceremony early in the evening.

I was already worried about making all my deadlines for the week, and I hated leaving Lily for a second night in a row. And as if she sensed this, Lily got the saddest, most crestfallen look on her face when I told her I’d have to go. (Just before that, Joe had offered to take her outside to play, and she’d said, “Mommy take me.”) Standing in our kitchen, dressed up in a party frock and high heels, I felt the pull of my obligations crashing down on me. And I started to fall apart a little bit.

“I’m sorry, sweetie,” I said, crouching down, my voice breaking up. “I wish I could. I really do. But I have to go.”

Then something amazing and completely unexpected happened. Lily patted me and said, “You go, Mommy.” And she gave me a hug and kiss. “Bye, Mommy.”

I laughed a little, taken aback by the mature response of this little person. We all want our kids to develop an ability for empathy, but I didn’t even hope to see flickers of it in a two year old.

Yet here was Lily, who saw me feeling sad and conflicted, and thus decided, in that moment, that my pain was bigger than hers. And I’m so grateful to have witnessed this early spark of compassion – even if I still had to gather my things, and myself, and head out the door.

– We got Lily out a bit early this morning, and the weather was pretty darn near perfect, so I couldn’t resist squeezing in a short run before heading to work. But early on the route, I realized that for many in my neighborhood, this was the first day of school. I saw a man in a suit, sipping coffee from a steel cup, and a more casually-dressed woman doing some last-minute primping on a small girl with french braids and a Catholic school uniform, who was obviously waiting for a bus; I ran past parents and kids who were walking to the nearby public elementary; I saw a woman posing her son in front of the school’s sign and wondered if she did this on the first day of every year; a mother held a baby low for her big sister to hug and kiss goodbye; young kids were queued up in lines on the basketball court, behind orange cones taped with a sheet of paper that listed a teacher’s name; and a convoy of buses blew past me on a street with no sidewalk, forcing me up onto the curbs.

I remembered for the first time how much thought I’d put into what I’d wear on the first day of school, hoping to wow my peers with my, uh, style (never happened – I still don’t know how to dress myself all that well); how excited I got about returning to school each year, feeling once again like my days had a defined shape and purpose; how I savored the clean newness of my school supplies; how riding the bus to and from school were regularly two stress points of my daily life for years, since each seat generally had an occupant when I got on, and no one wanted to share a seat, particularly with me, until they were made to (usually they refused and said something insulting, or they rolled their eyes and sighed petulantly before reluctantly letting me in); how the changes in my growing body far outstripped my understanding of them, often resulting in humiliation.

The run brought all this back to mind, and I thought, before I know it, Lily will be going, too. I’ll be that woman placing her child by the sign, clicking a camera, hoping that the love and support provided at home will sustain the kid through the inevitable growing pains and disappointments that happen within the crucible of school life. For education isn’t just about the books; it’s also about finding your place in the larger world – maybe even learning that sometimes, you have to fight for it.

– Recently, we were riding in the car, and Lily was asking about various places passing by her window. I listed them off. That’s a Target. That’s a TGI Friday’s. Then we drove past a Panera – which Lily has dubbed “The Smoothie House,” because that is her favorite thing on the menu. In order to avoid having her urge us to stop there and get a smoothie, I simply said, in the midst of naming these places, “Aaaaaaaand that’s a place I’m not going to mention.” Then she pointed out her window and said, “Smoothie House!” My mouth fell open. What the … ? She must have recognized the chain’s logo on the building. “Whoa!” said Joe, laughing. “You are too smart for your own good, little one,” I said.

Fortunately, she was so distracted by our shocked response that she didn’t demand a smoothie.

– In my February post about “sneak attacks of grief,” I talked about how, occasionally, something suddenly pulls you from your day-to-day life and makes you mourn a loss. This kind of random event happened on Saturday, at U-M’s seasons opener against UConn, of all things. I’d read about Brock Mealer – the brother of a current U-M player who’d been paralyzed from the navel down in a car accident that killed his father and his brother’s girlfriend – and how, after years of physical therapy, he was going to try to walk across the field and lead the team out. But it wasn’t until I watched him walk on the video screen on the scoreboard that it hit me: with braces on his legs, canes on his arms, and a gait wherein he flicked his legs out with each labored step, he reminded me of my mother, who, because of post-polio syndrome, had had to use these same instruments to get around during the final years of her life. Because I needed to say it out loud to someone who’d understand, I said, “It’s like watching my mom walk.” And then the tears flowed. It seemed a mixture of missing my mom and also wondering at how something we take for granted – the ability to walk a few yards – can be the culmination of years of effort for someone else.

Mealer had been told by doctors that there was only a one percent chance he would walk again; doctors had told my mother something similar when she was diagnosed with polio. So they have that in common. They’re part of a pretty exclusive club. And while Mealer may have some sense of what his walk meant to the crowd in Michigan Stadium on Saturday, he may not know that it also gave this over-scheduled woman a rare moment to re-visit, mourn, and celebrate a lost mother, as well as remember that parent’s own inspiring triumphs. 

– One day, we were walking home from downtown when a car pulled up, leaving a nearby bank’s parking lot. She stopped and waved us across on the sidewalk. Lily, who I was carrying in my arms, said, “What’s the car doing?” I said, “The nice lady in the car is letting us go.” “Thanks, lady,” Lily said – which cracked Joe up.

– Something I forgot to mention in my “Vacation II” post is that while at Camp Michigania, Lily tried, and LOVED, boating. Specifically, we took out a kayak a few times, and she had a great time. The morning after her maiden voyage, in fact, she woke up saying, “I want to go in a boat.” OK, little sailor.

– It seems patently unfair to have to make this second child decision when pig-tailed Lily is at her cutest – as if to fool us into thinking a child just pops out asking to read books and eat chocolate. (Joe was going to the store once recently and said, “Would you like anything?” and she said, “Uh, chocolate!”) Babydom seems a distant, faded memory at this point – which is exactly how they get you. Like, oh, we survived, it wasn’t that complicated to deal with it. But it is, of course. And doing it with another little one around would be only more difficult.

And on Friday night, Lily – for the first time in a long time – threw a fierce, raging tantrum that just would not end, making me think, “All right. The one we’ve got is throwing everything at us that we can handle. That’s it.”

Things started off fine. I played with her at daycare, brought her home, and she sat down to eat dinner. She claimed it was too hot and spit it out, which frustrated Joe, who thought we were already coddling her by giving her mac and cheese yet again (I need to write an entire post about the eating issues). Then she whined that she wanted water, not milk, though she said she’d wanted milk before dinner. Joe, losing patience by the second, rinsed out the sippy cup and put water in it. But then she almost immediately whined that she wanted it in the purple sippy cup. 

“No,” I said. “This cup is fine, and we’re not going to follow every whim you have.”

The whining grew louder and worse, and Joe started raging around the kitchen, grumbling about Lily being spoiled and throwing things. 

“Why don’t you go outside, or go upstairs? You need to step away a minute. I’ll take this for now.” I said to him.

We argued, Lily continued to whine for a purple sippy cup, and I thought, oh, this is hell.

“Great. I was alone all day, why shouldn’t I be alone all night, too,” Joe said, slamming the door to go into the backyard.

He was right. He’d stayed home from work to clear out junk from the basement to make a play-space for Lily. So here he’d been slaving away on a “day off” for his beloved daughter, and she was whining and screaming at him. He’d been anxious to spend time with her, and here she was, literally pushing him away from her. 

I try to remind myself in these situations that only one of us can lose it at once. The other person has to be the back-up. Has to sit in that seat next to the high chair and say “no” repeatedly as your daughter screams the same unreasonable request again, and again, and again. I closed the kitchen windows so Joe wouldn’t hear Lily’s raging wails as much.

And eventually, I took the tray off Lily’s seat and lifted her down onto the floor. A rope of spittle hung from her mouth, and her face was red and contorted. She didn’t collapse in grief on the floor, as I’d seen her do before, but rather stood there, pathetic and miserable.

Remembering how I’d lie her on the carpeted living room floor when she was a squalling baby, I moved her by her armpits into the living room, dropping her onto the floor. I sat in a nearby armchair. “Stand up,” she started saying.

“No,” I said, remembering that Joe’s always saying that we don’t want to teach her that screaming and throwing a tantrum will get her what she wants.

“Stand up,” she cried, desperately.

“No. Why should I?”

This went on, and she kept screaming until she swung her arm out at me. With that, I picked her up and took her to the time-out seat, where I counted out a couple of minutes, to no effect. She was too weak to fight me physically, but kept right on screaming and crying. “Stemamie,” she said.

“Miss Stephanie?” (This is a caregiver at daycare). “You want to see Miss Stephanie?”

“Yeah,” she whimpered.

“Why?”

She just cried in response before saying again, “Stand up.”

Oof. Back to square one.

But then I realized that I could barely remember what the starting point of this whole tantrum was. And if I couldn’t remember, there was no way that SHE could remember what she was fighting for. So the whole “getting what she wanted” thing was a pretty moot point, emotional baggage aside.

And I remembered then, too, that in the past, she wants me to stand up and hold her as a means of calming down. She wants this tantrum to end, too, I thought, but in her mind, there’s only one way for this to happen.

“Stand up,” she cried again.

I asked her to say please, then I stood and picked her up. Pretty instantly, after about 45 minutes of being angry, she got quiet, hiccuping and moaning her way back to herself.

Finally, she did get calm. And we ended up visiting a boy her age who lives across the street, and they played while Joe and I chatted with his parents, slowly getting out from under our own cloud.

And I’d like to say this was the happy ending. But it wasn’t. Just as Joe got upstairs with Lily for bed, she asked to go back downstairs to flip the stairway’s lightswitch. Joe said, no, she couldn’t go back downstairs, but she could flip on the one upstairs. And she completely lost it again, screaming herself to sleep in the end. Oy.

An ugly, ugly night. And if there’d been an infant around, how would that have contributed to the chaos? Hard to imagine.

But then, of course, immediately following this harrowing night, we had a lovely few days with Miss Lily, going to a Michigan marching band rehearsal, the zoo, hanging around the house, etc. I’m as lost as ever on the second-child question.

Of course, no equation works the same way for everyone, and having a child – whether it’s the first or the second – is a maddening, thrilling, high-risk gamble on many fronts. For me, casinos hold zero appeal, because I’m a pragmatist to the core, and it feels like the slim chance for success at a casino is profoundly undercut by the potential for great loss and pain.

This might be true in creating a human being, too. But somehow, it feels entirely different, making the decision much harder.

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