Thursday, September 27, 2012

An Ode to Curiosity...and Learning...and Peregrine

Forgive the red eyes. And the goofy expression. But this was a fairly accurate representation of Peregrine from about five weeks to five months.

I noticed when it happened. It was a matter of days, maybe even hours. But when Peregrine was about five weeks old, he opened his eyes.

Not that they hadn't been open before. But something changed, really changed, around the five-week mark. It was like suddenly, he could see, and his eyes popped wide open, and he started looking at the world, and studying it, and eating it up, and drinking it all in.

Peregrine has the most insatiable curiosity of any child, and possibly any person, I have ever met. He reminds me sometimes of some little wild creature, all of his senses so incredibly keen and honed and alert. He'll be playing away happily and then just sit up, tense, his eyes huge and all his muscles ready for action. I will have heard nothing, but if I pay attention very closely I'll eventually find out what caught his attention. A dog barking several blocks away. A siren up the hill in town. A little bird on the deck. Andrew's car pulling into the driveway.
Maybe it's the teacher in me, but it absolutely fascinates me watching Peregrine learn. It blows me away with amazement. He has such a readable face, and he does everything with such intense zest and zeal, that I can all but see the wheels turning in his brain. He eats up every new experience and stores it in his memory, and hones it and refines it and figures out what it all means.

He's in a very steep learning growth spurt right now, especially when it comes to language. He's always been pretty vocal and verbal, and he has a substantial vocabulary, but it's his understanding that has amazed me lately. How does he do it? How can someone who has been alive for such a short time pick up on the things I say as quickly and eagerly as he does?

He absolutely loves "assisting" me with housework. I've always encouraged it, because I think the best way to teach children to work is to include them early and make it fun. So I give exaggerated thank yous when he hands me silverware out of the dishwasher or picks up stray socks from the laundry basket. And I always tell him what a wonderful helper he is, how much I need his help, and so on. Now all I have to do is say "I need your help!" and he dashes across the room, ready to save the day by closing a door or retrieving a fallen spoon. Yesterday he shut himself in the bathroom, and then opened a drawer in front of the door. He couldn't get out, and I couldn't get him out because of the drawer. I knew the only way he was coming out was if he closed the drawer, but I had no idea how to tell him this. Then I remembered that closing things (drawers, washing machine doors, etc) has been one of his favorite ways of helping lately, so I told him I needed his help--could he be my helper and close the drawer? He started hyperventilating with joy at coming to my rescue again, and the next thing I knew, the drawer was closed and he was free. A month ago, a week ago even, he would have had no idea what I meant. It floors me how fast he picks up patterns and learns what things mean.
He watches and analyzes constantly, and he is always making connections. When he hurts himself, he wants a quick snuggle, and then he immediately returns to the site of the injury and tries to figure out exactly what went wrong. When I tell him no, he wants to know exactly what I meant. No ripping the toilet paper? No touching the toilet paper at all? No approaching the toilet paper? And he never forgets anything. He knows every off-limits item in the house. (In fact, he can't get away with anything, because he tells himself no loudly, even when I'm not nearby). I took something away from him this morning, and explained to him that it wasn't for him, it would make him choke. He looked at me with big, earnest eyes, and then started coughing and gagging. Oh! Choke! I know that one!

He's noticed lately that I throw the compost off the side of the deck. So, helpfully, he's been carrying all the crumbs and dirty utensils he can find outside. He wants to know the system for everything, how it all comes together, and what we do when. He's always been very attached to schedules and routines, something I always have to remember and impose on my attachment to spontaneity and flexibility. And right now, it's to my advantage. No matter how mad he is about having to take a nap or stop doing something, he can't help but be excited at going through the ritual of whatever it is we're doing. And excited is putting it mildly. He pants like a puppy. He speed-crawls as fast as he can from one spot to the other, because he knows where teeth get brushed! and after that we read a story and he knows where those are too! It never gets old.
I know he's my first, and that's a learning curve for me, too. But it's one of my greatest joys right now, watching him learn. It's immensely satisfying for me as a teacher and as a mother (and, as a nerd in general). The human brain amazes me. Peregrine amazes me. I know he'll grow and change, and one day, the fact that shoes go on your feet and you put on one and then you put on the other!!!! will just be a fact, and not a reason to hyperventilate and bounce up and down with anticipation. But I hope he never loses this joy, this intense curiosity, this drive to know and do and experience and understand. I hope it's a part of him I'll always nurture, always revel in, always encourage. Because it's incredibly wonderful. I want to be like that when I grow up.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Common Advice, Amended

I've gotten quite a bit of parenting advice since I became a parent. It has ranged from the life-changing to the absurd, from the practical to the laughable, from the that's-a-good-idea-in-theory to the who-knew-that-would-work. But I've been thinking lately of pieces of advice I've given, over and over and over again, and that I see given to practically every new mom. They've never sat exactly right with me, so I've decided to pick them apart a bit, and amend them to make more sense in my mind.

1. Don't Watch The Clock

Why it's good at its core: Babies don't come out of the womb understanding clocks the way adults have been conditioned to. It would be amazing if they slept 12-hour nights and ate three meals a day from the get-go, but they don't. And that can be very, very frustrating. No matter how well you know that your schedule is going to be blown to pieces with a baby's arrival, it still comes as a shock. And sometimes, the best way to cope with it is to just kick clocks out of your life for awhile. Ignorance can be bliss when you've been awake for hours nursing and rocking and diagnosing your baby's lack of sleepiness. Or at least it's more bliss than knowing that you woke up at 1:15, it's now 5:47, and usually you're asleep during those hours. Going with the flow, catching sleep when you can, feeding the baby when he's hungry and not stressing about how long (or short) it's been since his last feeding, can save your sanity and help keep your expectations realistic.

Why it doesn't quite work for me: Well, first of all, I had a baby who preferred eating his hands to nursing. So, right from the start, I had to watch the clock. But, in the long run, here's what I found out. My baby, and most babies I think, do eventually fall into rhythms. And observing those rhythms, and figuring out what they are and what clock-times they usually correspond with, can make for a much, much more peaceful household. I was told many, many times to just watch my baby's cues and meet his needs as he expressed them. But here's the deal: sometimes I just didn't know. Sometimes I thought Peregrine was hungry, and would feed and feed and feed, and wonder why on earth he was still hungry, and then realize he had been tired, exhausted in fact, all along. I think this happens to most parents. Reading a baby's cues isn't always as simple as it sounds. And I found that watching the clock--not stressing about the clock, just watching it--helped me predict what needs he would have when. Since I knew he often became tired about an hour and a half after waking up, for instance, I could predict that time and put him to bed before he became miserably over-tired. Far from tying me to clock-time and making me ignore my baby's needs, watching the clock actually helped me anticipate Peregrine's needs and meet them before he became desperate.

So here's what I would say: Don't stress about the clock. Ignore it when your baby is new. But as life starts to develop some rhythms, use it to watch them. Always be flexible. But use clock-time to help you figure out when, generally, your baby tends to get hungry or tired.

2. No One Ever Regretted Holding Their Baby Too Much

Why it's good at its core: I've heard this one a lot from grandmas and from people whose kids are grown. And I've heard it as a response to the whole "you'll spoil your newborn by holding him!" position. The truth is, you can't spoil a baby, or child, or person, by showing them genuine love. Lavishing children with love, or being spontaneously extravagant, or stopping your work just to play and laugh and be silly--odds are, you won't  regret doing those things. Odds are, your children will remember them and love you for them. And it's always helpful to remember that your newborn just emerged from a uterus, where she was warm and snuggled 24/7. No, you won't spoil her by holding her. Even if you hold her a lot.

Why it doesn't quite work for me: I don't actually think many people of my generation believe they can spoil babies by holding them. In fact, I think the opposite is true; I think a lot of us believe we can hurt our babies, emotionally or otherwise, by not lavishing them with constant attention and closeness. I think there has been a definite swing for the better in terms of baby-raising philosophies, but, like any philosophy, I think it is unwise to take it to an extreme. No, I don't think anyone regrets showing love to their children. But I think people do regret not caring for their own emotional and physical health. Feeling as though you must, at all times, be engaged with your baby (or older children!), can lead to a lot of false guilt and burnout and be incredibly unhealthy for your family.

So here's what I would say: Hold your baby as much as you want to; you won't spoil her. But if you feel consistently trapped by having to hold her, don't just consider it a necessary sacrifice. Go to the bathroom, take a shower, run an errand. Give her to your husband, or mother, or a neighbor you trust. Put her down. She will be okay, even if she cries a little. Even a small break can clear your mind and make you much healthier overall.

3. Sleep When The Baby Sleeps

Why it's good at its core: Having a baby knocks most of your priorities around, and makes it virtually impossible to do all the things you used to do. And since newborns  often don't sleep when you are used to sleeping, you end up losing a lot of sleep that you desperately need. I also know a lot of new moms (myself included) who feel the need to use the baby's sleeping hours (or minutes!) to catch up on all the housework that hasn't been done. It's tempting, because it's the only peaceful time you get. But when you spend the baby's waking hours caring for the baby, and the baby's sleeping hours caring for your neglected work, you can burn out pretty quickly. It's good to remember to slow down and shift priorities toward caring for yourself and maintaining your basic physical health.

 Why it doesn't quite work for me: Well, for one, I can't nap on command. In Peregrine's first few weeks, I was so exhausted I could. But usually, I just don't nap. I didn't, even when I was pregnant. And if I do nap, I am out cold for hours. Cat-napping for twenty or thirty minutes just doesn't refresh me at all. It's exceedingly frustrating to settle myself down for a nap, only to be woken up twenty minutes later by a needy baby. I'd rather just not try. Also, this isn't very practical advice for anyone who works, or who has other children (especially toddlers!). And finally, I feel like this is often marketed as the end-all for having a peaceful relationship with a baby, when in reality it's a lot more complicated than that. It can help, sure, but you're still going to be tired. And that tiredness is not your fault, or the result of you not being flexible enough to just sleep when your baby sleeps.

So here's what I would say: Use the baby's sleeping hours to refresh yourself, whatever that means. Take a nap, read a book, play quietly with another child, even clean your house if a few minutes/hours of quiet cleaning do actually refresh your soul and make your life more peaceful. Try to do things you can't do when your baby is awake (I could always put Peregrine in a carrier and wash the dishes; I couldn't sit and read). Also, take time for sleep in whatever way works for you. Go to bed early. Sleep in if you can. Or, if it works, nap when the baby naps.

4. Trust Your Instincts

Why it's good at its core: Mothers know their babies better than anyone else in the world. We spend more time with them than anyone else and even in the first few weeks, come to be experts on their various cries, facial expressions, and body language. Besides, maternal instinct is a powerful thing. It's ingrained in us to know our children. And when other experts (doctors, mothers, mothers-in-law, friends, etc) give us advice, however well-guided by knowledge, experience, and science; the fact remains that they still don't have to live with our specific babies 24/7. Sometimes it's easy for both us and our advisers to forget that.

Why it doesn't quite work for me: I have two problems with this one. The first is that I have almost always encountered this piece of advice in conjunction with other pieces of advice. As in, say, an article  urging mothers to co-sleep, and telling them to trust their instincts and ignore the people who are telling them their babies need their own beds. It doesn't matter what the advice-giver wants people to do (not picking on co-sleeping, it's a wonderful thing!); the message is that whatever it is ought to be instinctual. That of course all mothers, if they could just blot out The Other Voices, would be doing it without a second thought. I feel like it's often used more as an emotional argument than a reassurance. And secondly, I don't always trust my instincts. Sometimes my instincts are misinformed. Sometimes they do odd things simply from habit. Sometimes they tend toward absurd paranoia. Of course my basic maternal instinct is a good thing. But it's not a perfect thing. It needs information, and assistance, and reality checks, from other reliable sources.

So here's what I would say: You know your child better than anyone else, and you (and your household) are the only ones who have to live with him day in and day out. Don't forget that when others are giving you advice, even if they are well-informed. Surround yourself with people, and sources, that you trust. Allow your natural, wonderful maternal instinct to be influenced and guided by them. (And please trust an actual doctor instead of Dr. Google!)

Well, there it is. I'm sure the people giving these pieces of advice probably don't read this much into them. But since they are so ubiquitous, I thought it was worth amending them a little. Take my amendments for what they're worth.

Monday, September 3, 2012


So, I've been thinking of the "soulmate theory" lately.

Part of it was this post on the impossibility of everyone having one theoretical soulmate in the world. Part of it was the amazing song the article linked to. Part of it is simply that it's a theme constantly running in my mind.

I love Andrew dearly and I hope to love him more and more with each year and day and hour that we spend married to each other. But I do honestly believe that I would find a marriage to any number of men equally satisfactory and wonderful--in some ways even more so, in some a lot less. Andrew and I fell in love and dated and married, but I don't think we were destined for each other, or that there is a possibility I picked the wrong one and I am actually destined for someone else. I think we chose each other, pure and simple, and vowed to be stuck with each other, for better or for worse.

I think the idea that love and marriage are matters of fate and destiny and hoping to find the Right Person is a pretty deceiving one, and permeates a lot of the way we think about relationships. But that's another rant and one I've had plenty of times before. What I've been thinking about lately is that we often approach parenting in the same way.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to raise my child; probably too much time, to be honest. And it's a vortex that is easy to be sucked into, because there is so much information out there. It's a double-edged sword, I think. We are incredibly lucky to have such a wide range of research and experience to draw on. We don't have to do things the way they've been done, simply because that's all we know. But on the other hand, the information can be overwhelming. And the opinions can be even more overwhelming.

It goes deeper than just the ever-present Mommy Wars. Underneath the sometimes-uplifting, sometimes-petty debates about clothing and feeding and sleeping and teaching, we all truly want what is best for our children. And I think that sometimes we are searching, perhaps without even knowing it, for our parenting-style Soulmate, so to speak. For the way of parenting, whatever it is, that we can start dating, and eventually marry, that will be compatible with us and make our journey with our children smooth and peaceful and make everything turn out right in the end.

I think we all know, in our hearts, that it isn't that simple. We know that every relationship involves real people and is therefore much messier than it looks on paper or computer screen. But we keep looking anyway. We may know, and believe, that there is no One Right Way of Parenting. But we want the best. We spend a lot of time trying to find the best. And when new research comes out, or new people influence our lives, we feel guilty for not having known, for having given our children less than the best.

But you know what? I don't think there is a Best Way, any more than there is a Right Way. I think the way we parent is dependent on hundreds of factors--our personalities, our children's personalities, where we live, what kind of support systems we have, what kinds of stress we are experiencing, to name only a few. We will grow and change as time goes on, and we won't parent the same way all the time. And that's okay. I do think, when it comes down to it, that I am doing a good job mothering Peregrine. But I also think I could have made hundreds of different choices and still be doing a good job. Just like I could have married any number of men and had a good marriage. It doesn't negate the beauty and wonderfulness of the marriage I have. It just puts it into some perspective.

Of course I want what is best for my child. The vast majority of mothers do. But I'm learning it's more complicated than that. There certainly isn't a right way to raise a child. There may not be a best way either. But there are many, many, many good ways to raise a child. I hope I will always seek after the good for myself, and always recognize it when it is present in others.