Monday, December 21, 2009

"You're Ugly"

She's sitting on my lap, facing me as we rock. I pull my face close to hers, her big blue eyes filling my vision, my fingers wrapped up in her wet hair, one hand on her bare back. I'm crying, a little, which is really surprising me and upsetting me.

"Tell me more about Kathy and Patti," she asks.

Kathy and Patti used to bully me when I was a kid. They were the cool girls, and I wanted to be their friend, but they were cruel to me. "You're not our friend," they would taunt, spitting their words in my face. "You're ugly." I cried a lot, then. And I'm crying about it now, in this desperate context of trying to teach Munchkin ... something. Empathy? Kindness?

In the tub, she told Pynchon about how she and Queen Bee at daycare were playing a game where they told the other kids "You're ugly." Pynchon tried to talk with her about it, but she wasn't taking him seriously. A major tantrum and all around blowup ensued. It was in the aftermath of this that I found myself both comforting and being appalled by my naked, wet, puffy-eyed little girl, this kid with the streak of ... mischief? In her eyes. Listening to me tell her what it feels like to be told "You're ugly" by girls you want to be friends with. But what she hears, apparently, is a story of two girls she wants to know more about. "Tell me more about Kathy and Patti, do you have pictures of them?"

I have dropped entirely out of the narrative, thirty years later once more pushed aside by the Queen Bees who draw everything in to themselves.

It's insane. I'm crying and suddenly feeling rejected by my preschooler, the little girl who wraps herself around me in desperate, passionate love. It's not her job to prop up my quite fragile ego, but her schoolyard games terrify me.

I was a terribly smart little girl, with almost no sense at all how to relate to my peers. Not in a charmingly awkward way, but just awkward: I was shy and arrogant, needy and sarcastic, bossy but desperate to please. Munchkin is experimenting with her own social skills, and already seems to be a lot better at peer relations than I ever was. So she experiments on me, tonight, telling me that I'm not ugly, that I'm beautiful, but also that she doesn't have a hug or a kiss for me, turning her back on my look of hurt surprise.

When she was a squalling colicky baby, lying angry and flailing on her back for nearly 10 months without even sitting up on her own, I longed for these days. When she would be a person. When I could talk to her, teach her, engage and interact with her through language, socially.

It's harder than I thought, but this, I know, is the real work of parenting. We will both be doing some growing up in the years that are hurtling so fast towards us now.

"You're ugly," she tells one of her toys, just loud enough for her father to hear her say it, corners of her mouth turned up a little as she peeks sideways and up, through her eyelashes, to see who is listening.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Fun, Old-fashioned Family Christmas

Like Clark Griswold, I tend to overdo it on the holidays. I say yes to too many parties, I bake too many cookies, I play too many Christmas CDs, I get too wound up from the end of November on--to the point that I redo my whole living room to look better in the Christmas morning photos. Obviously, I drink too much bourbon and eggnog.

What can I tell you? I just want to create and to experience a good old fashioned family Christmas. Hell, Christmas is even a favorite blog topic.

This year, the snow was slow in coming. Our social plans have gone a little ... awry. We missed one party because of sickness, we've had two sets of guests cancel on separate festivities at the last minute, my department is having a faculty-only party that spouses and families aren't welcome at, and tonight (because of one of these cancellations) I'm going to a Christmas party in a fancy dress and red accessories and with a box of cookies by myself.

Oh well.

Stuff happens, right? A lot is going right, actually. My sister came again this year (two weeks later than planned, but whatever!) and we baked for five hours. Munchkin helped.

We put up the tree, and Munchkin is actually old enough to put ornaments on the tree by herself, and to dig through all the decorations boxes with glee.*

The snow finally came (several weeks later than expected, but whatever!) and today we all bundled up and headed outside together. We shoveled and played and pulled Munchkin on the sled and threw snowballs in the brilliant sunshine. Wonderful.

So I think I'll focus on the things that we are doing, rather than the things that we're missing. With photos.

"Hope it enhances your enjoyment of the holidays."

* please notice! The living room looks better in the Christmas photos ALREADY. Renovation WIN!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Contract and Expand

You know, we have probably the biggest house on the street--there's a couple of big renos going on that are increasing the average square footage behind the 1917 facades in the 'hood, but we've got easily the biggest property ... and the smallest family on the block.

When we were so desperately hunting for a new house I was focused on the kitchen: my first house had a big, square, open kitchen with a pass-through and a breakfast bar. This kind of feature is very rare in these old places around here, and it was one of the things I liked best in the house that I never wanted to sell. So I searched and searched, panicked, and I got my big square kitchen. It wasn't until we moved in that I noticed just how much bigger this house is, overall, than the last one. Than a lot of other ones of this vintage, in this area. I will admit that I have tended to crow about it: 1800 square feet of living space, not counting the full attic or basement! Backyard 55 feet wide! Attached garage and full-height basement! Try to get that in the suburbs, bitches! But I looked at the bedrooms with a critical eye: this seems small, for a master, right? Munchkin's room has a small closet, doesn't it? Shouldn't the guest room fit a queen-sized bed? Wouldn't it be better if the main bathroom had a tub and a free-standing shower?

Honestly, I have no idea where I got these ideas. I grew up in a four-person family family in probably a 1200 foot house, with no attic and a basement with a six-foot clearance. Of the three bedrooms, only one could hold anything larger than a twin bed.

I started to question my own expectations for a couple of reasons. First, like a lot of you, probably, I have been sucked into the HGTV aspirational quicksand. The renovation shows devised a new normal, and every time I clicked the TV off, my house looked a little dingier, a little less attractive--less adequate--to me. But then, the real estate shows, with single secretaries sniffing at anything less than detached, three bedroom, steel appliances, granite countertop, dual vanities, three car garage, crown moldings! It started to seem out of control and hubristic. And then of course, the United States real estate financing market completely imploded. Goodbye credit-funded granite, hello second job linoleum. That was sobering.

Second, though, more personally, I learned a little more about this house's history. I may have mentioned that the house has had two owners: the family we bought from had been here since the 1950s. There were six kids, and a widowed mom. Where on earth did they put all those kids? Well, some of them obviously went up in the (uninsulated, unheated, barely electrified) attic. What about their stuff? Every available surface is covered in nails and racks and shelves and hooks, all built by hand, much from scrap. Closets are carved out of overhead spaces, accessed by--I kid you not--a drawbridge over the stairwell. Six kids in this house? Yeah, you'd need to maximise your storage.

We are only three (and a cat). The comparison is sobering.

More sobering? It turns out (two old ladies pointing at my house and laughing about the olden days tell me) that the first owners had--wait for it--ELEVEN children. Yes, they were Catholic. Yes, actually, five of them went into the church. Thirteen people in this house.

Thirteen people in this house.

Where in God's name do I get off turning up my nose at the bedroom dimensions? The guest room is bigger than my Mom's master when we were growing up; Munchkin's room is much larger, actually, than my own bedroom growing up. Why do I suddenly feel like I need so so much more than I ever knew growing up? Maybe it's the TV, maybe it's the decorating and lifestyle magazines. Maybe it's because all of our stuff needs so much more closeting than was ever required before in history. Maybe it's bigger and more fridges, bigger and more TVs, bigger stereos, bigger and more things that make noise / take up space.

Families are getting smaller. Our houses are getting bigger. Where does it stop?

I'm grateful for what I have. I don't need anymore. Really I don't. And in any case, in our family, more often than not, we all seem to find ourselves hanging out together, within arm's reach--or as Pynchon expresses it, "All the family, on one piece of furniture." I should be glad there's not thirteen of us on this couch right now.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Rhythm, breath, flow

We are catching our breath, collectively as a family after a long term, a long fall, but individually, too as we figure out every day what it means to be a family. As soon as we figure it out, it changes again. It has changed again, for the better.

I'm doing a lot of yoga lately, so I'm tempted to liken it to that: are we managing more balance all together, one pushing down through bottom of the feet to let another reach higher for the sky? No, not quite. Maybe--aha!--it's that we're balancing the front body and the back body, acknowledging and leaning into the universal, the communal, while pushing forward and celebrating our individuality.

Yes, that's it.

I'm doing a lot of graphic design lately, too--or at least prepping courses in graphic design--so I'm tempted to describe in those terms. You know, if yoga analogies don't suit you. So: we have, as a family, more white space. White space gives the eye a space to rest, allows the text or images that are the point of the composition to shine in the full glory, unpenned by visual clutter. In visual arts, white space is 'negative space'--where content is, well, not. But negative space makes positive space work.

Yes, that's it, too.

White space, openness, balance. What it means is that as Munchkin becomes more and more herself, we too are allowed to become more and more (once more) our own selves, too. To move through our days with our movements woven like a cat's cradle, but the strings suddenly with a lot more play. This weekend, yes, I've wiped her butt because she's not quite cleared for solo bathroom trips, although she can get the gist of it. But. She makes up stories to tell herself as we unpack the nativity scene together. She hangs ornaments by herself, with me. She sits still and 'reads', wrinkling her forehead in concentration, for twenty minutes at a time. She gets up on her own, walks calmly into our room, and crawls into bed for a family snug. She is at once a lot less work and a lot more fun.

We have a new rhythm to our days now: today, Pynchon was working in the basement and garage, and I was doing some renos upstairs and Munchkin sat on the living room floor, happily playing with her dollhouse, for nearly half an hour. Then we all came together and played. It was nice not to have to hypermanage the handoff of custody from one hypervigilant parent to another. It made coming together so much nicer, moving apart so much less stressful.

A new rhythm. I like it.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

"You're not my friend"

Pynchon and I were animatedly discussing our respective workdays at the dinner table last night while Munchkin demolished her plate of cheese, breaded tofu sticks, and pears. As she finished eating she began to clamour for a turn to talk, to tell us about her day.

That's what family supper is all about, right?

"So, Munchkin, what did you do at preschool today?" I asked her

"Great!" she replied, I guess to a question I didn't ask her. "We had a librarian read books! About community helpers! Like a fireman!" And here she paused to consider, "And also? We had naps!"

Pynchon and I looked at each other over our forks: could this be any more adorable? Aw, look, the three year old is trying to make grownup conversation. How innocent and lovely.

"Did you go outside today, Munchkin?" Pynchon asked.

"Yes, and we played and played ... it was a game called 'you're not my friend.'"

And that's when my heart stopped. 'You're not my friend' is a game I remember well from my own youth, generally with me as its target, at the centre of a gaggle of girls pointing and frowning and testing the authority and heft of their voices. Me, lined up with all the other kids in the classroom for a walk to the gym, as all those girls moved off the white squares in the tile and onto the orange ones to distinguish themselves from me.

I looked at her closely: no signs of hurt or worry on her face. I was relieved, for a moment, to think that maybe she was in the in-group rather than the excluded one. Then horror at this flash. Then wondering what to do? What to say? I'm not ready to deal with this yet!!!

Isn't that always the way, though? We--parents--aren't ready when some new developmental milestone hits us in the face? It's rather easier to be surprised by crawling and talking, though, than by the development of a differential social awareness in your preschooler.

So I just smiled and made a note to talk to the teacher this morning. Apparently, 'You're not my friend' is sweeping the preschool rooms, and the teachers are putting the anti-bullying pedagogy into full gear, with stories about friends and lessons about kindness. But I should still do something.

I know that I'm lucky that Munchkin is unable to realize that some information is better not shared with Mom and Dad: I don't want to jeopardize her openness with us by immediately jumping on her disclosures as a reason to lecture or chastise her. But I don't want to just smile when she tells me about hurting other kids' feelings, either.