Monday, December 20, 2010

The Grape's Holiday Newsletter

I've always been somewhat suspicious of holiday newsletters. My knee jerk reaction to them is that they provide an excuse for people to trumpet their children's triumphs large and small. Often in a stunningly verbose manner. Which, when I think about it, isn't all that different from a blog. So, in the spirit of the season, and because I don't feel like trolling the net for gifts while the Grape naps, here's the Grape's holiday recap.

Dear Friends,

As 2010 winds down, I write to you from chilly Boston, where the Grape's sled sits waiting for the promised snow that stubbornly refuses to fall.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it: the beginning of our year basically sucked. The Grape felt lousy, and neither slept nor ate during January, February and much of March. What did the poor little guy do, you might ask? He screamed. All the time. For good reason: Although he had recuperated from his surgery, he was still in pain from the issues that had plagued him for the first months of his young life. I embraced the glamour of motherhood, meaning I put on make up, cashmere and jewelry to clean up vomit six to ten times a day.

R. and I nearly killed each other last winter, even though we were fortunate to have great help. I emerged from our season of discontent and insomnia in utter awe of single parents.

I honestly don't know how they hold it together, and I realized that next time I see an utterly exasperated parent start to unravel in public - or give up on correcting her unruly kid - I should probably cut her some slack. She may not have slept for more than one consecutive hour since becoming a parent.

Then, luckily, the Grape started to feel better and the sun came out and little Disney birds sang all around us. Things were on an upswing by April. R. started a new job, selected in large part because the company offers excellent health benefits. I realized something is really wrong with our society when I heard myself answering inquiries as to how R.'s new gig was going with the breathless exclamation, "He has Blue Cross!"

Because R. and I must be mentally limited, we decided to mix things up in May, when we accompanied the Grape on his first beach vacation to Bermuda. I say we accompanied him, because while the Grape enjoyed the sun, sea and sand, we ferried his gear, prepared his meals, slathered his sunscreen and prevented him from ingesting more than his weight in sand each day. Instead we fed him crab cakes and veggie burgers. He loved vacation. I, being a rookie, brought a book to read on the beach. I got through one chapter before the Grape tossed it into his inflatable pool.

Even though R. and I spent our one nice evening out on the town sitting inside the restaurant in shifts, the Bermuda "test flight" inspired us to take the Grape on a trip to Finland.

Because Finland can be either eighty and sunny or fifty and rainy during its short summer, we packed for every possible weather eventuality. We also decided that we needed two strollers - the small one for the airport and the serious one for long, idyllic walks on country roads - none of which lasted more than twenty minutes due to the steroid-freak type mosquitoes who were hellbent on sucking every drop of blood from the Grape's veins, even after we practically bathed the poor little bugger in Deet. Hopefully he won't grow a third arm or anything.

Because we brought as much luggage as an Emirate princess leaving a shopping holiday in Paris, we had to upgrade our rental car. This involved waiting in the alley next to the Avis office, which shared an entrance with a peep show and porn shop. Being Scandinavia, the wares were proudly displayed in the window. The Grape didn't notice, while R. and I learned that some buttoned down businessmen do pretty strange things on their lunch hours.

In a rerun of our fine dining experience in Bermuda, we sampled one of Helsinki's three Michelin starred eateries. Note: this was NOT our idea. My aunt insisted it would be fine; we could wheel the Grape inside without disturbing his stroller nap. In her defense, the Grape was snoring loudly when she said this.

It wasn't fine. The Grape comes equipped with special sensors that trigger his meltdown function when faced with any overly adult, refined environment. We left after paying thirty euros a piece for unfinished appetizers, because I couldn't stand the shame.

It kills me that we couldn't take the wine to go.

The Grape was a trouper about visiting museums and marketplaces. He schlepped through castles, splashed in the lake and sampled the local cuisine, especially the pear ice cream, like a seasoned traveler. R. and I flew home thinking we should travel more often, not realizing we'd (by dumb luck) hit the perfect pre-walking window.

Because once we returned to Boston, and I shoveled us out from under two weeks' worth of laundry, the Grape started to get really mobile. Which meant we had to get serious about baby-proofing. We spent a disgraceful sum on various gates because none of standard ones fit the non-standard stairways in our place.

In August, we celebrated the fact that we'd kept the Grape alive for a year with a family party, to which nobody brought a camera. The Mother of the Year people crossed me off their list.

As soon as we pronounced our apartment kid proof, we put it on the market. In addition to sending four car loads of crap to storage, the realtor insisted that we de-baby the place for all showings. The crib moved back into the bedroom. Nobody slept well. Everyone got bitchy. We cleared out for painters. We unscrewed and re-screwed the gates so many times that the screws got stripped. We folded baby jail away and stashed it on the roof. We removed all evidence of human habitation and turned the condo into a showplace, displaying only Nobel winning works of literature and fresh flowers. We sent Lucy the Kitten and Siren the Cat to camp at my mom's. It was a horrendous ordeal.

One that lasted five days. This wouldn't be a true holiday newsletter if I didn't brag a bit. Chandler Street, my home for almost a decade, went in five days, for significantly more than the realtor wanted for a listing price. Having already put our new home under contract, I let my head swell with the new sensation of being a real estate genius.

A genius who decided to move on a holiday weekend. R. and I spent Thanksgiving weekend packing and unpacking, sending sofas out the window and Grape proofing a new apartment - one that required entirely new baby gates because none of the five we already owned fit.

Besides the fact that we lived with the Death Stairs for a week while Fosters and Smith shipped the desired barriers, the move went freakishly smoothly. So smoothly that I felt a bit let down. Things were in fact so quiet that we did the only logical thing: we adopted Lila the Dog. Lila came from a rescue that pulls from high-kill shelters in the deep south, so she had a long journey.

I prepared for her arrival by buying dog food, a leash and a nice big bed and reading articles about introducing cats and dogs.

R. started tweeting so he could follow the dog on Twitter.

Lila is thrilled to have a home for the holidays and the Grape is in love. Like L-O-V-E love. He follows her around the apartment chanting, "Lila! Good girl!"

We all went out to buy a tree from the Berkeley Street tree lot. Some recent parolees obligingly schlepped it home for us. R. wrestled it into the stand and Lila and the Grape have been bonding by destroying ornaments while listening to Frank Sinatra sing Jingle Bells.

Aside from a minor ham calamity, and the fact that I've yet to purchase any gifts, we enter this holiday week with all right in the world.

Warm wishes for a festive holiday season and all the best for the new year,

Mari, R., the Grape, Siren, Lucy and Lila

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How much time do YOU and your family get off for the holidays?

Here's a wild and crazy idea: The elected representatives of the people should be working at least as hard as the people who voted them into office. Being a senator or congressional representative is sort of like having a well paid salaried position with a lot of professional responsibility and discretion.

Call me crazy, but in my experience, people in those kinds of roles in private companies don't tend to be the first ones out the door night after night. They don't get to fall off the grid for weeks at a time.

Besides teachers, professors and students, until yesterday I couldn't think of a single soul who gets a week or more of paid vacation in December and January just because it's Christmas. And I suspect many professors spend a chunk of their time off reading term papers, doing research and catching up on professional reading. The United States is the only western democracy that mandates no vacation time for workers, under the laughable argument that to do so would interfere with free enterprise.

Fine. But shouldn't our elected leaders then tow the line? If it's bad for business for rank and file employees to have time off, isn't it then bad for the country for Congress to take as much vacation as the average French factory worker?

I find Senator Kyl's sobbing over a "war on Christmas" both intriguing and disgusting. Intriguing because, even if we knew he and many of his colleagues were out of touch with reality, this latest piece of absurdity leads me to suspect they're operating in some parallel universe. Disgusting, because, as Brigadier General John Adams said yesterday:

"We have one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand US warriors doing their job over Christmas and the New Year, the U.S. Senate should do its job."

Never mind that we haven't seen Mr. Kyl sob about the thousands of lives (soldier and civilian) lost in armed conflict. Shouldn't the fact that we're at war (and it's not going all that swimmingly) shame Congress into acting like reasonable adult professionals?

Put aside for a moment, the fact that we're at war. What about regular, average citizens? Mr. Kyl, along with Mr. DeMint and Mr. McConnell, got all teary eyed about the prospect of working this coming weekend. You know, the one that starts on December 17th.

Anyone want to go crying to their supervisor that you must have from tomorrow through the New Year off? With pay? Because to work as we ramp up to the commemoration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth would be sacrilege?

No takers?


Yet doesn't the thought of two to three weeks off at year end seem deliciously, nostalgically appealing? Think about all the time you'd have to roast chestnuts by the open fire, sing carols off key, bond by the tree over cookies and cocoa, assemble toys that come in roughly 478 pieces. You would even have over a week to recuperate from the o-dark-thirty Santa Claus wake up.

Wouldn't it be nice to have more than one measly day off to do up the biggest holiday on most Americans' calendars? Hell, yeah, as Speaker-elect Boehner (who has, to his credit so far remained silent on the war on Christmas circus) would say.

So here's a handy phone directory for the U.S. Senate:

Why not call your Senator and tell him or her that you're willing to support them in skipping town this weekend, so long as they promise to introduce legislation allowing ALL Americans to do the same.

After all, as Senator DeMint brayed yesterday, working so close to the Christmas holiday would constitute "sacrilege."

Tell that to the folks working in retail. Or catering. Or emergency services. Or the war.

Or wait. Isn't the real sacrilege that we have out-of-touch twits like Mr. Kyl and Mr. DeMint running the country?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Giving and receiving, for the fortunate and the less so

I am sure that by this time next year (or if we're super lucky, two years from now), I'll be well aware of the season's must-have-or-life-won't-be-worth-living toy. This year, however, I get to luxuriate in ignorant bliss of the commercial orgy occurring around us, confident that the Grape would be thrilled to receive a large cardboard box which he could transform into a fort or freight train.


Not so much about his love for boxes, but about getting him one as a Christmas gift. Obviously R. and I will try to do better than corrugated packaging materials.

In case you're worried, please rest assured that The Grape is also fortunate to have plenty of first degree relatives who love buying things for small people. As far as I can tell, grandparents live for gift giving moments, and if they go a little overboard, who am I to take that away from them?

If their holidays are made brighter by the joy of giving, then that's more than fine with me.

I'm guilty, too, of course. It would seem unthinkable to show up at the family Christmas celebration without gifts for my nieces. Luckily I love our neighborhood toy store (a charming shop called Tadpole) and they probably love me too. Let's just say they don't need to ask my name when I present myself at their counter.

Although last time I was in there, I thought those of us who experience a lack of self restraint in the face of adorable children's merchandise don't have to overdo our own celebrations. Many children in our country wouldn't receive any gifts without the good work of organizations like Toys for Tots and the Salvation Army (among many others). It's not too late to donate new, unwrapped toys for their annual drives. Their websites will direct you to a drop off spot convenient to you.

These organizations are really hurting this year, and donating affords a golden opportunity to teach late-preschool to elementary-age children about charity. Kids are more likely to remember buying toys for the needy than watching mom or dad give online.

Kids slightly senior to the Grape can enjoy choosing gifts for family members. When I pressed my brother about what my two and a half year old niece might like for Christmas this year, he suggested art supplies. Or books or puzzles. L. loves stories and puzzles these days. Easy enough, I said. I can totally handle this.

It took me a second after we hung up to realize what L.'s wishes have in common: they're not merely things. The gifts he listed on her behalf provide experiences. That's what makes them so great.

Paints, puzzles and books don't, like so many flashy, noisy toys, do all the work for the child. Let's be real for a second. I don't care if it's marked "educational," any electronic device that belts out letters, numbers and colors in a nonstop barrage causes more than enough irritation to cancel out any minor learning benefit it might bestow.

Art supplies, puzzles and books allow the child to create something, or see the world of the story in her imagination. And isn't that the reason certain books are cherished long after the whizzing, bleating, chiming must-have widget of the year has been packed off to some charity yard sale?

A 2010 study at San Francisco State University found that people garner far more happiness from experiences than from material purchases. Which to me means that concert tickets, museum/zoo/aquarium memberships, sporting event tickets and perhaps even (depending on the age and interests of the child) various kinds of lessons make fabulous gift ideas.

I don't want you to roll your eyes and call me a Grinch, so I want to be clear: I'm not suggesting children shouldn't receive things to unwrap; the unwrapping of holiday surprises conjures wonderful childhood memories for many of us. I'm merely suggesting that maybe the kids could get one or two fewer packages in favor of some experiential treat that keeps giving for months after the holidays have faded into distant memory.

If you want to buy electronic educational toys, just be honest and admit they're primarily made to entertain your kid. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Though, since the Grape and most of his contemporaries seem to have come into the world with such an uncanny knack for technology that I doubt they'll find such watered down versions interesting for long. I suspect getting the Grape his own "computer" would be a colossal waste of cash. At the ripe age of sixteen months, he's smart enough to know that my iPhone is the gadget he really desires. And he's not keen to accept any phony phones. Nor will he receive his own treasure from the Apple store, in case you were wondering.

While I'm on the subjects of gadgets, let me digress for just a second and suggest that any toy whose decibel output competes with a Rolling Stones concert should not be allowed to advertise itself as a player of lullabies.

I'm laughing at myself a little as I write this, because I know that the Grape is years away from learning the joy of giving, or the merits of an experience compared to a thing. But it's not too early to start modeling what we preach, which is why my nieces will receive a zoo membership along with the their packaged presents.

And don't worry about the Grape. He'll make out just fine. His stocking is already hung with care, ready for Santa, alongside the ones marked for the Siren the Cat, Lucy the Kitten and Lila the Newly Arrived Dog, who checks diligently for tasty developments because she's seen Lucy do so.

For now, the Grape thinks they're some new decoration. Won't he be surprised when, less than two weeks from now, those over sized red socks yield something fun?

Not as surprised as the kid whose parents told him Santa wasn't coming this year, because they needed the money for heat, medical bills, rent or food.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Going it alone

After I posted my dating diatribe about denying the loud ticking sound, I received several emails from single women closing in on that scary birthday that starts with a four. They all basically asked the same thing: "You have a kid. Would you recommend doing it alone?"

Hardest question ever. I've quipped more than once that I wouldn't wish single parenthood on my worst enemy. I love the Grape, but he's exhausting. And I don't have to parent him alone, or anywhere remotely close to alone.

But my frank response seems - inevitably - to yield the follow up question, "What if I really, really want a baby? Shouldn't I'm go for it on my own?"

I'm going to channel my inner politico and say it depends.

Because it truly does. Everyone knows that having a baby changes life as you know it, but I doubt anyone fully internalizes the seismic force of that change until they've spent the first weeks home with the new bundle of joy.

So I'll garner my share of hate mail for writing this, but I would advise women driven to distraction by the ticking noise to take a serious look at their resources.

I don't mean just money, though having some helps. Money may not buy happiness, but it absolutely purchases choices.

It's reckless to assume everything will go swimmingly. Who could you bring in to help if you have complications, or your child has problems, or you get an infant who, for whatever reason, never ever sleeps? What if you conceive twins?

Can you miss work for child-related crises? Can you afford child care, and back up child care? Help with other household tasks?

On an outwardly more frivolous level, can you handle the hit to your social life? Because if you want to see your kid and you need to support your kid on your own, your nights out on the town will decrease (if not vanish). As, I suspect, will your romantic prospects. I'm not saying that you won't be the yummiest of mummies, it's that you'll have scheduling issues and a child much of the male dating pool will regard as baggage.

There are other ways, of course. Single girlfriends sometimes ponder freezing their eggs. Unfortunately, any reasonably good reproductive endocrinologist will admit that eggs don't freeze nearly as well as sperm. Plus you have to inject hormones for weeks before they can harvest your eggs to determine if your body gave up any worth saving.

What strikes me most about the whole quandary is that never have I heard a single woman over thirty-five ask whether she should settle. I don't mean for any old loser, but for a good and kind man who might make a great dad, but who doesn't do it for her in every other way. Lori Gottlieb, herself a single mom, had this to say about settling for Mr. Not Quite Right:

Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)

Ms. Gottlieb's advice won't sit well with many women. We're conditioned to hold out for what we want, to make no compromises in the mating game. But if what you want above all is a biological child, then it seems that dismissing guys who don't check every box on your list might be a tad self defeating. She never suggests that settling is ideal, but she argues emphatically that parenting is a better experience with a solid teammate on your side. I can't argue with that.

I don't, however, subscribe to the dated notion that a child will suffer in a single parent household. Sometimes a parent dies and the survivor has to fend for everyone. I know a couple of single moms by choice who have charming, happy, well adjusted children. They themselves have no lives, and that's not an exaggerration.

Families come in countless functional forms, and plenty of single moms and dads do a fantastic job. But I do think it's easier on any parent to have consistent adult support.

Here's the link to Lori Gottlieb's piece:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pariah of the New Millennium: the stay at home dad

I overheard two guys in suits talking about a stay at home dad acquaintance of theirs the other day. I didn't catch most of the conversation, but I got the gestalt.

Guy A: Did you hear? Joe's a stay at home dad now.
Guy B: No way. Lucky bastard.
Guy A: I'd kill to hang out at home and do nothing all day.
Guy B: Must be nice. My wife would divorce me if I turned into a mooch.

Before tackling the social stigma of stay at home fathering, let me just say that we have a massive social problem if the career types in our society truly feel that the contribution made by the child minders is so worthless.

If you are a parent of a young child, and you have a career that takes you away from home for long and/or unpredictable hours, or one that features regular emergencies, or one that requires a super human level of devotion in order to secure advancement, you could not have that same career without the time and dedication of some other adult.

Whether that adult is a paid employee or your life partner doesn't change this fundamental truth.

It's another fundamental truth that the grass always seems greener in the adjacent pasture. So, if you've ever said, or thought, it would be so nice to be home with Junior and do nothing all day, I have a challenge for you.

Take as many consecutive personal days as your employer permits. Send your sitter, spouse or regular child minder away. Really away. And no calling to ask for help unless the house is on fire or the child is bleeding from his eyeballs.

Run your household. Alone. This is not a weekend drill.

Face the bully at the park, the interminable line at the post office, the spluttering, wheezing clerk at the grocery store. Make sandwiches. Prep dinner, shower and pay bills if your kid will consent to nap. Wait for plumbers who arrive two hours late when your child is crazy with cabin fever and demands to go outdoors. Take forty-five minutes to get out the door. (If you live in Boston, the gem of a line in The Christmas Story, about getting ready to go outdoors being like preparation for extended deep sea exploration rings awfully true).

If you need to buy holiday gifts, navigate the packed mall with a stroller and an over bundled toddler scattering Goldfish crackers in her wake. The department stores love that. Look for bathrooms in the least convenient places you can imagine. Wait in interminable lines with a screaming, over tired kid.

Bandage scrapes. Clean up spills. Cut up fruits and vegetables to bite size bits. Change diapers. Administer baths. Brush teeth. Sing songs and do art projects. If applicable, get everyone bundled to take the dog out, at least four times a day.

Teach him to catch a ball or ride a bike. Sign her up for skating lessons and then get to the ice on time. Sing the alphabet song eighty-seven times. Enforce bedtimes.

Don't let the kiddies watch TV. Not one show. Not if the primary care giver doesn't allow it.

Report back to me if you think, at the end of the experiment, that you - the full time career person - still have the easier job. Because I'd like you to author a guest post.

You'll of course notice that the primary child minder gets perks the office goer doesn't. He or she witnesses all the milestones and spontaneous moments of pure joy that happen in the course of keeping the kid alive and entertained. He or she gets to decide the order in which tasks get tackled. He or she can decide to blow off cleaning the bathroom in favor of baking cookies.

Remember though, that the restaurant meals and adult social interaction in which many office goers routinely indulge look like perks from the stay at home person's view point. I know many moms who fantasize about spending three minutes in the bathroom without anyone hammering on the door. The greener pastures adage works both ways.

I don't know any stay at home dads personally, though I see them once in a while at music class or at the playground. Theirs seems a lonely lot. Stay at home moms, and nannies for that matter, tend to develop social support networks among their contemporaries. Sometimes it's really nice to grab a coffee or a sandwich and have an adult conversation while watching the kiddies enjoy a play date. I'm not saying that stay at home dads never get invited anywhere; just that I've never seen it happen.

I have however, overheard more than one father admit to stay at home dad status with an uncomfortable chuckle and mumbled apology. It's always a "temporary situation," often "just until" his partner gets past whatever career milestone.

And who can blame these dads for apologizing, if, like the guys on the sidewalk, their friends and colleagues see them as less worthy?

The sidewalk small talkers might not recognize their remarks as sexist, but that's exactly what they were. I suspect their fundamental issue with "Joe" was that he was doing what our society generally regards as women's work. Which rendered him more feminine and his contribution less valuable.

I don't expect such attitudes will change, at least not for another couple of generations. I'd love it though, if the sidewalk dudes could walk for just one full day in Joe's shoes. At least then they might stop thinking of the care givers in their lives as freeloading leeches.