Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Grape came, he ate bread, he stole toys

The Grape loves to visit people and attend parties. The trouble is, he's not the world's greatest guest. It's as if he has some secret personal code of party behavior to which he reverts when faced with an assembly of more than three people.

For example, the Grape is an adventurous eater. At home. He likes his food with a bit of kick, he's never met a sauce he doesn't like and he enjoys a vast repertoire of fruits and vegetables. The kid ate sushi the other night. Evidently, the child who won't eat hot dogs has a taste for raw salmon.

This is what he eats in other people's homes: Bread. White bread, to be specific.

Of course he'll stay alive on the occasional evening of bread and water, but frankly, his refusal to eat veggies mashed up by someone else's mom, or pizzas ordered from a foreign restaurant, or jars opened by someone outside his immediate nuclear family, is embarrassing. Especially since I've usually assured our host in advance that he's a good little eater. After all, he does remarkably well in restaurants. He eats off my plate all the time - no need for a kiddie menu.

But there's just no reasoning with the Grape in other people's homes. If I press a seemingly reasonable position, such as "you like pasta at home," he'll fling the offensive food offering back at me and howl, "YUCKY!" at the top of his little lungs. So I do the cowardly thing and feed him before we leave our apartment, whether he's hungry or not, and let him snack on bread when we get wherever we're going.

When we visit someone who has purchased particularly good bread, the Grape carries on like R. and I never, ever feed him. He squirrels it into every nook and crevasse of their home. People have mentioned weeks later that they've found hardened crusts stashed under stuffed animals, inside radiators and between the pages of picture books. One time this past winter, he managed to wedge the better part of a baguette into a printer/fax machine and press send.

The Grape, like most of his contemporaries, wears diapers. He's usually a fastidious little fellow. He almost always tells us when an unpleasant diaper event is imminent. This weekend, he and his cousin were running around the lawn and splashing in the wading pool au naturel. They were giggling and squealing and having a grand old time. Until the Grape, without pause or warning, did number two on the slide. I tried to explain to him that it's rude to poop on other people's playthings, but he laughed in my face while R. ran to the house to procure clean up supplies.

The Grape also has sticky fingers. His life of crime started when he spirited a toy tractor out of the nursery at my gym, and he's been getting progressively bolder and stealthier with his heists. Now I practically have to strip search him when leaving someone else's house. If the resident child has a toy with wheels the Grape hasn't seen before, he will try to sneak it out with us, usually in his shirt or under his stroller. The other day, I found part of a toy train in my handbag. We don't own such a toy, and I didn't put it in there. God knows where the Grape pilfered it from. Or when. Or for how long he's been gloating that he slipped this tiny treasure past me.

He has an uncanny sixth sense about social timing. The Grape isn't a reliable napper, but if we're due someplace in the afternoon, he'll snooze for three hours. R. and I, stunned by his sudden somnolence, will waste the gift of extra quiet time (which would be so very welcome on the average rainy weekday afternoon) fretting that he's making us late.

Still, I suppose things could be worse. The Grape shows no tendencies towards willfully destructive behavior. Nor does he incite other kids to riot. He'll run after bigger children, but he's never the one who gets everybody else riled into a frenzied stampede. Indeed, when he's not criticizing the cooking, fouling the playground equipment or stealing the toys, he's a good little guest.

Our chances of being invited out again before the summer ends seem decent.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

One for the "What's Wrong With People?!?!" File

Anyone else tired of fear mongering? I'm not talking about politics, though there's plenty of fodder there. I'm talking about rampant fear mongering on the micro scale.

Put bluntly: Why are so many people who live in nice places scared of their neighbors?

Over the weekend, an alert reader of The Little Grape brought a post from Boston's ever popular GardenMoms to my attention. The poster, mom to a girl pushing two, was concerned by other parents striking up conversations with her at the playground.

After I finished smacking my forehead in disbelief I took a deep breath and read the replies.

The original poster had a second question about bigger kids plowing down toddlers, which a handful of moms addressed. To their credit, the responders who weighed in on the politics of yelling at other people's amok offspring pretty much ignored the inane stranger danger question.

A few things hit me as I considered the woman's fears.
First, it must feel debilitating to live in a surreal bubble wherein every person you don't know is a child abductor/exploiter/torturer/killer. And a ballsy baby killer at that - I would assume the average opportunistic child victimizer doesn't engage you in smalltalk about the rain and the Red Sox before spiriting away your kid.

Also, how is it possible that an educated adult can't trust her ability to read people and situations to the extent that she feels unable to handle idle chit chat around the sandbox? Thinking ahead: Kids model mom's behavior. Does she really want to raise her daughter into a teen or adult who jumps at every shadow and crosses the street to avoid every passerby?

I'm pretty sure the police would tell you that most child killers aren't other frazzled moms of toddlers, prowling the jungle gym to swipe someone else's darling. Law enforcement professionals will also tell you that neighborhoods where people know their neighbors experience less crime. Humans, despite our reclusive impulses, remain herd animals. In the best manifestation of this basic phenomenon, the group looks out for the whole.

One of the best and easiest things this nervous nellie of a mom could do for her security is the one thing she's hellbent on avoiding: getting to know some of her neighbors.

My second thought upon reading the original posting was, how on earth high is this woman's boredom threshold?

I'm going to say something un-pc: playing with babies and toddlers all day, every day, is not all that exciting. Watching the Grape push around some dirty broken truck in the sandbox for hours is, frankly, less than riveting. And I know I'm not alone in feeling this way. Plenty of stay at home moms have told me they love being home with their kids, but though the weeks fly by, sometimes the days drag on forever.

I was super lucky to have mommy friends before having the Grape, but for a lot of women, and certainly for most stay at home dads, the big shocker of parenting a small child is that it's isolating. Painfully so at times, particularly for those of us accustomed to lots of adult interaction.

I can't imagine not talking to other parents on the playground. Have I met my best friends there? No. But it's nice to be on a hi-how-are-you basis with many of the neighbors. And it's never crossed my mind that the other moms might view me as a threat to their children's persons. Paranoid mamas, rest assured: the Grape is all the toddler I need.

The third thought to cross my mind while considering her fears was: Have we reached a point where we're hard wired to assume strangers mean harm? To accuse first and ask questions later? I'd like to believe it's still okay for a parent to step in to save another's child from imminent harm. Without incurring wrath, questions or blame.

Years ago, on the beach in Italy, the unusually strong surf knocked a wading toddler underwater right next to me. I grabbed her arm and fished her out before her parents (sitting about three yards away) realized she was in trouble. They thanked me profusely while their three-year-old girl coughed up a surprising volume of salt water.

It says something not very nice about our society that I think many parents, gripped by irrational suspicion, wouldn't be as gracious. And that fear of good Samaritan backlash would stop reasonable adults from acting when they see a child in a perilous situation.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I heart my cleaning lady. And I'm not sorry.

Last week, a blog post by mother of five Meaghan Francis created enough buzz to rate a mention in The New York Times. Ms. Francis wrote about the volume of commentary generated by her recent admission that she employs an eight-hour-a-month cleaning lady.

Her piece started a robust discussion about whether and when it's "justified" to hire help. People, mostly women, wrote in with gems like, "I have a weekly cleaning lady, but I work full time!" Or, "I have a cleaning service come every other week, but my kids both have special needs." As Lisa Belkin asked, Why are otherwise thoroughly modern women squeamish about hiring household help?

Why, indeed? I hate housework. Sure, I could find time to do it, but I'd rather employ someone else to do the major cleaning. (With two cats, one of whom sheds like it's her job, a largish dog and a toddler, I haul the vacuum around at least every other day.)

I've had a biweekly cleaning person for most of the time since I cashed my first paycheck as an associate in a law firm, many moons ago, when I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with a single geriatric cat. My current cleaning lady, D., is one of the last things I'd cut in any family austerity program. (Sorry, R., the cable TV would go well before my beloved D. As would the second car.) I get a lot more joy from coming home to a gleaming apartment twice a month than I do from the offerings of our 300 channels.

While some teeny minority of humans might enjoy scrubbing bathrooms, dusting knick knacks they hate but can't toss because they came from Great Aunt So-and-So, and vacuuming upholstery, most of us aren't hard pressed to devise more fulfilling uses for our time.

In a way it's a pity the piece ran in a parenting column. Plenty of women who aren't mothers hire cleaning help. Why should they be deemed self-indulgent snobs?

Nobody looks askance at a bachelor who hires a cleaning lady to do everything from mop the floors to fold his underwear. Why are women (single, partnered, mothers, or otherwise) expected to do all their own chores while men get a pass?

Consider, for a moment, if Ms. Francis were instead Mr. Francis, stay-at-home father of five, writing about his use of eight hours of housekeeping help every month. I would bet the annual cost of a professional cleaning service that the comments would have questioned why he didn't hire more help, and they would have congratulated him on getting by with so little assistance.

Do the same women who "can't justify" household help feel the same unease when they hire someone to paint their walls, shovel snow, mow their lawns or change the oil in their cars? Do they feel self-hatred when they send shirts to the cleaners?

(Aside: My late grandmother, who ran a spotless house and who couldn't afford help in her prime parenting years, advised me NEVER to learn to iron men's shirts. I took her words to heart. To this day, I own no iron. If that makes me a self-indulged twit, I'm fine with that. More likely it makes me an occasionally wrinkled woman.)

But I digress. None of those commonly outsourced home maintenance projects require a great deal of expertise or specialized equipment. If you pay someone to mow the lawn, what on earth is wrong with paying someone else to clean the bathroom? So long as you pay a fair wage, in both cases you're doing a good deed by providing work to someone in a lousy economy.

Had I seen the discussion earlier, my only comment would have been, if Ms. Francis dislikes cleaning and can afford it, why not outsource more housekeeping? Because, as I've said many times before, there is no prize at the end of motherhood for having the least help.

Here's the link to the piece by Meaghan Francis:

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

In which The Grape attempts to defy the laws of physics

You cannot put an elephant in a Lamborghini.

I attempted to explain this to the Grape while he paused for oxygen during a recent 28-minute tantrum over just this issue. He has a red matchbox sports car. And an elephant from an unrelated safari play set, which coincidentally matches said toy car to nearly perfect real life scale.

The Grape, unfortunately, appears disinclined to yield to the most basic laws of physics. You see, one of his favorite books features a nursery rhyme wherein a pachyderm drives a convertible. Because the book is targeted to toddlers, a whimsical illustration accompanies the silly little poem.

After marching the offensive toy Lamborghini to the kitchen trash, The Grape wiped giant tears from his reddened face and toddled to his bookshelf. He showed me the page as evidence that I was wrong, and he, the Grape (or Tantrum King, as I've taken to calling him this week) was therefore justified in his meltdown. When I made some wholly ineffectual stab at explaining fiction to a 21-month-old, his tantrum escalated.

After seventeen more minutes I couldn't take it any longer. I hauled the thrashing, wailing Tantrum King to his crib and deposited him in it for a nap. Even though he wasn't due to snooze for at least another couple of hours. He slept for a record three hours, on an empty tummy at that, spent from his extreme over reaction.

Fast forward to this morning. The Grape staged a pre-dawn fit because these (utterly infernal) train carriages he received as a gift connect by magnets. Therefore, according to the laws of magnetic polarity, they can't be thrown together in just any old fashion because like poles repel. Try explaining that to a hysterical toddler. Before having even one teeny sip of coffee.

Those trains, which delighted him yesterday afternoon, caused enough grief this morning to buy themselves a one-way ticket to the next charity toy drive that crosses my radar.

"You cannot give in to tantrums," my mother counseled after the elephant/Italian sports car incident. Which I know. I've been around enough kids to understand that when they behave like rabid Tasmanian devils on a sugar high, you, the adult, must stick to your guns - under peril of having the undesirable behavior repeat with increasing frequency.

And I don't give into regular, garden variety tantrums. I physically wrestle the child into his stroller at least two or three times everyday. I refused this morning to let him play on the patio in a rain storm, though he howled and banged various toys against the glass door for the better part of an hour. I don't let him eat chocolate for dinner, even if he screams for it and flings his actual meal into the waiting chops of Lila the Dog.

But what about tantrums sparked by frustration with the natural order?

What guns can I stick to, when the problem involves a demand for something physically impossible? The Grape now routinely freaks when his toys don't perform to his expected standards. And he cannot be distracted. Once he locks in on accomplishing something, he's not swayed by the old, "Hey! Look over here!"

"It's the Italian genes," my mom said, her tone striking an admirable balance between sympathy and schadenfreude. "They're dominant. There's nothing you can do."

She meant my father's mother's family's genes. The progeny of the Cicatelli line are legendary for staging what I've learned to call "disproportionate reactions."

My sister, in a less charitable spell, coined the family phrase "Vinny Moment," in reference to my father. As in, "The cable people called at the end of the six hour window, after I waited home all day, and said they weren't going to make it, and they wanted to schedule another six hour window for the day after tomorrow. So I had a 'Vinny Moment' with the customer service rep."

A kind observer would say the family has a passionate nature; a person on the receiving end of a disproportionate reaction might use the word crazy. Friends who see the Tantrum King in action remark, with pinched smiles, that The Grape has a will of steel.

"In time, he'll learn to keep it -mostly- in check," my mom added. "Hopefully." Indeed, other members of our family function well in society. By which I mean, for the most part, we've learned to gage whether staging a Vinny Moment will produce desirable results, because let's be honest: at least in my experience, it can. I certainly don't want to train all the fire and edge out of my kid.

But I did ask mom if there was anything I could do to ramp up The Grape's learning curve in regards to controlling his temper. "Pray that R.'s [restrained Connecticut WASP] genes diluted the Cicatelli ones," she said.

Thanks, mom. I'm lighting a candle right now.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Quitters sometimes win (or why your little league coach was wrong)

A mother of two recently admitted that her obligation to a certain civic group makes her miserable and frustrated. The group does a lot of fundraising, for causes ranging from the worthy to the sublimely goofy.

Much of her fund raising commitment involves the planning of black tie events, or as a family friend once brilliantly dubbed them, Let Them Eat Cake Parties.

Don't send me hate mail. I understand that high profile events highlight important causes and can educate the public about certain needs in the community. I get that people like to dress up and toss back drinks. Some even secretly enjoy the rubber chicken that all charity balls seem required by statute to serve.

But let's be real: you can do more good by sending cash to XYZ charity than by buying a table for the same dollar amount and then deducting the costs of a snazzy affair before forwarding the remainder to the nonprofit in question.

Anyway, my friend spends hours every month obsessing over chair covers, cocktail napkins and gluten free hors d'oeuvre options. She does this work mainly in the company of women who annoy her, to put it mildly. Everyone knows one: the women (and yes, they are mostly female, at least in my experience) who approach volunteering like a profession, yet fail to see the hypocrisy when their outfit for the event costs more than their net contribution to the cause.

"I'd like to just quit," she told me last week. "Honestly, I feel like I'd be doing more by writing a check to XYZ charity. I could post a solicitation for small donations for them on my Facebook page and probably raise more than I would busting my ass to sell these [bleepety bleeping] tables."

"So quit," I advised. "I don't see the big deal. You don't like the people in the group and you don't think you're making enough of a difference for the sweat and tears you put in. This seems like a no-brainer."

She cut right to the crux of her dilemma. She doesn't want to quit because she's concerned about the example she would set for her kids, who are pre-school and early elementary age.

I don't see the quitting question in black and white. Reasonable people try things and find, sometimes with great surprise, that they dislike them. To me, it seems foolish to make a child, or an adult for that matter, stick with something that makes them unhappy. Life is too short.

The key distinction I see is that kids (or adults, for that matter) shouldn't feel free to quit something before they give it a fair try. This goes for everything from broccoli to Little League. My friend with the volunteer commitment has done everything short of professional counseling to make herself feel good about the organization she joined several years ago. It's time for her to pull the plug.

If she were to quit in favor of an activity (volunteer or otherwise) that she found more fulfilling, I would bet her family would benefit from a happier mom. And her kids would see a great example: something wasn't working and she fixed it.

There's a dad who forces his elementary age son to play baseball every night in a park by or place. This has been going on every night since we switched the clocks in March. The kid has never, to my knowledge, made contact with the ball. Or even come close. He's not a coordinated child, and he's clearly fighting back tears night after night while the dad chatters an inane stream of unrealistic encouragement. "It's okay! You'll get the next one."

It's clear to a casual observer that this particular kid has zero aptitude for, or interest in, the game of baseball. Last week, when I was walking by with Lila the Dog, the kid finally threw his bat down and screamed, "I hate you!"

The dad said, "You hate baseball?"

"No. I hate you, daddy."

The father, who must have done too many drugs in college (I mean, can anyone be this dense otherwise?), launched into the tired speech about how winners never quit and quitters never win.

Nonsense. "Winners" become winners because people gravitate to things they're good at. Clearly this man's child does not have a bright future as the next David Ortiz.

I quit ballet as a kid, a decision that no doubt delighted my instructor. At the bar, I had the grace of a drunken dairy cow. Staying on board a horse came more naturally to me. I gravitated towards riding lessons, stuck with riding through injury, puberty and higher ed, and became a lifelong horse woman.

My brother quit a long parade of musical instruments. Three or four years in, even our mother, who dreamed that someone, anyone, would learn to play the piano in her upstairs living room, conceded that my kid brother, for all his other wonderful qualities, was tone deaf. He hated practicing the guitar/saxophone/clarinet/piano. Why torture the poor kid? He was obviously happier in physical pursuits. My mom schlepped him to all kinds of distant towns to play soccer.

My sister, by contrast, quit soccer at the start of the first practice. This flew because my father drove her that day. She took one look at the kids chasing the ball around a huge field and announced she wanted to go home.

My mom would have made her stay, probably for several practices. But if she couldn't find any joy in the game, she would have been allowed to quit.

Some people like to go on about kids' commitments to their team mates. I'm going to venture a guess that no team wants a member who hates being there and drags everyone else down. Little kids don't do so well at feigning enthusiasm.

I didn't always feel this way. I regret quitting the violin (practice took time away from my beloved horses). Ditto for French. I quit at the point where I can pretty much understand what people are saying, but by the time I formulate a response, the conversation has moved on. But I regret quitting these things because I actually liked them. I thought I didn't have the time or bandwidth for everything.

Now that I have the Grape, I know I don't have enough hours in my day. Ever. It's made me focus on what things really make me happy, and yes, it's made me a bit more of a quitter. I hardly ever abandoned a book halfway through before becoming a mom. Last week I started a novel by a famous author whose other works I've enjoyed. This one, a hundred pages in, bored me to sleep. I put it aside and picked up something else. I also no longer spend hours on experimental cooking projects. If I'm going to whip up dinner, it's going to be a proven winner.

But I still make time every week to write, and move my novel, The Hazards of Hunting While Heartbroken, towards publication. I make time to exercise because it helps my head as much as my body. And I'm trying to figure out a way to sit on a horse again, maybe just once in a while, before this year is out. Selfish pursuits for the mom of a nearly two-year-old? Perhaps. But they make me happy, and I believe parental happiness trickles down to little kids.

I hope my friend finds the chutzpah to disengage from the Let Them Eat Cake ladies. She gave it better than the old college try, and there's no shame in saying her energy is better allocated elsewhere.