Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How to replace an irreplaceable gem?

I have what fair minds could describe as a high class problem. Our beloved regular sitter, M., is leaving next week. I knew this day would come. She was here in Boston because of her scientist husband's research. He has wrapped up his multi-year project, and they're understandably eager to return back to their real lives, their own home and their extended families, in Brazil.

I'm not sure who's going to be more shattered next week, me or the Grape.

I understand that countless children grow attached to their paid care givers. I also understand and appreciate that the ability to hire any private care giver is a luxury not available to the vast majority of American mothers.

But I swear on all that's holy that M. is special. First of all, she holds an advanced degree in social work and child development. At home, she manages the adoption program at a large orphanage. She has two teenage kids of her own. She possesses an inimitable grace and serenity, and a seemingly endless reservoir of patience. Her mere presence brings calm to the chaos of our household. She's worldly, charming and for lack of a less loaded word, classy.

To say she's overqualified to watch my kid is not unlike saying that a space shuttle pilot is overqualified to drive a city bus.

She's spent 15 to 20 hours a week with the Grape since he was eight weeks old. They Skype on weekends. He tells me, when she returns him from a day packed with adventures, "It was so fun with M." He asks when she's coming to see him next. To put it bluntly, I believe he's in better hands than my own when he's with her. She's really that fabulous.

When I tried to explain that she will leave on a big trip soon, he ran up to the bedroom closet and used all the strength his little body could summon to haul out a large suitcase. He wheeled it down the hall to his room and started assembling his toys. And diapers. He told me, over and over, that he was going to go on an airplane with M. I don't blame him. It's been a privilege to know her.

I've been slowly, reluctantly, seeking a replacement.

The candidates seem to fall in two camps: earnest, sweet girls recently graduated from college and looking to earn extra money for a year or so, while they figure out what to be when they grow up; and grandmotherly types, mainly recent immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America, who have no significant education to fall back on, and who desperately need the income, because they struggle every week to make ends meet.

I see pros and cons to both types. The college girls tend to have tons of energy, but they often lack experience in being out and about with a toddler. Their babysitting experience tends to be of the watch-the-kids-in-the-living-room variety. They tend not to have kids of their own, and therefore are understandably at a disadvantage in dealing with all the setbacks in a toddler's day: nonsensical tantrums, sandbox scuffles, hunger strikes. From what I've seen at the playground, many young sitters are uncomfortable setting boundaries or making rules. Another issue is availability: if they're also in grad school, their schedules may not mesh with my needs.

On the plus side, they tend to have varied interests and talents they could share with my child. From what I've seen, they also tend not to mind Lila the Eighty Pound Slobbery Dog. On the minus side, more than one newly minted twenty-something has flinched upon hearing that the Grape watches zero television. Presumably that cuts into Facebook time.

Sadly, hiring some clever and lovely student to watch the Grape while I supervise doesn't work for me, because I work from a desk at home and because I believe that the Grape should get as much fresh air and exercise as possible. Sure, many of these candidates would be up for expeditions, but it seems clear that I would need to plan and manage each day's activities - something I never thought about with M. She found all the great parks and the best fountains, and she knew about all the kid centric community sponsored activities. She knew when he needed to eat, or have quiet time, or chase after other kids.

On the other side of the spectrum, the grandma types have decades of experience, but I worry that many of the women I've met lack the physical stamina needed to keep up with a two-year-old, particularly outdoors. The Grape isn't a rowdy boy, but when he runs, he runs fast. He's also a little monkey - he'll climb anything remotely inviting and he's not intimidated by playground equipment designed for the late elementary set. It's inevitable that his sitter will need to run after him, physically stop him from running into streets, muscle his protesting form into his stroller, and perhaps fetch him from high heights when he climbs too close to the sky.

On the plus side, it would be nice for the Grape to have daily interaction with an older person, especially since neither grandmother lives in Boston.

But it's also not a stretch to hypothesize that many women with twenty-years-plus of child minding experience are set in their ways. They have expectations of how the Grape should behave that might not always mesh with mine. One candidate remarked that he holds his fork incorrectly. I told her to not interfere - he was eating - something he hadn't done for most of the day.

What I love most about M. is that she lets the Grape be himself, and when he's with her, his only task is to have fun and be a little kid. I hadn't thought about it before I met M., but this Mediterranean/Latin American view of children (basically that little kids should be able to play and do whatever they want, within reason, because life is short and there will be too much structured time in their not so distant futures) appeals to me.

M. and I share a distrust of overly regimented schedules. The Grape's nap and mealtimes fluctuate and nobody makes a big fuss over it. We cheer when he shares, finishes his spinach, or puts his toys away, and we don't sweat it when he acts like a typical two-year-old.

If I'm being completely honest, however, I will concede that letting kids just be kids at all times is another luxury of the upper classes, and it's therefore somewhat foreign to sitters who desperately need that paycheck to eat. Where I see joie de vivre, they might see indulged precocious brat.

I'm also wary of those who seek to accelerate the Grape's natural learning curve. Regular readers know I'm not a fan of "educational" toys or gimmicks, and I'm not interested in over scheduling my kid. (He goes to one hour of music a week, a revelation met by a stern frown from one candidate, who thought a child of two years of age would benefit from at least two structured group experiences a day.)

So where does this leave me?

R. keeps telling me that nobody will ever measure up to M. And I agree it's unlikely I'll find anyone half as wonderful. M. herself suggested I enroll the Grape in play school or day care a few mornings a week. That's not a realistic option, because I should have been on the wait lists eighteen months ago.

R. half jokingly suggested I just decide whom I'd prefer to fire first (for the unpardonable sin of not being M).

I hope it won't come to that. All transitions are stressful, and I'd like to make this one, unavoidable change and have it stick until the Grape goes to nursery school, probably in another year. Maybe the Grape and I need a week or two without M. to regroup, to get used to life without her reassuring, quietly smiling presence.

Maybe when I get nothing accomplished, the applicant pool's perceived flaws will start to look less consequential.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

You aren't a failure if your kid hates broccoli

I say this in the most supportive, constructive manner possible: Some moms have way too much free time.

How else to explain the hordes of moms to tots who waste hours of their lives beating themselves up over nonsense?

A recent sampling, overhead during various visits to the playground: "I feel like I'm failing and my kid is going to suffer from malnutrition and be stunted." This from a mom to a two-year-old whose diet was heavy on carbs, fresh fruits and milk.

The list of things her son would consent to eat was far more varied than what a lot of toddlers ingest on a daily basis, and apparently included an assortment of fortified cereals. I felt like butting in and telling her to chill. You cannot, without medical equipment and expertise, force feed a two-year-old, and besides, a kid who eats fortified cereal and drinks milk isn't going to wind up stunted. My younger sister spent her second year eating nothing but milk, buttered pasta, honey nut cheerios and the occasional berry. She grew up into a woman of above average height and intelligence.

Indeed, the Grape eats like a giant snake. Some days it seems like he's on pace to put away his weight in food, much of it flavored to adult tastes. But two to four days a week, he prefers to subsist on crackers and milk. He went on a month-long produce strike in June. Then one day in July, he launched himself out of his stroller to lunge for the vegetables at the grocery store. I literally couldn't get them in front of him fast enough.

I could have told the mom at the park not to sweat the hunger strike. I could have passed along a theory I heard from a nurse about toddlers and food: you look at what they take in over several weeks instead of during the course of a day. But she would have either freaked out on me (she looked awfully close to a nervous breakdown) or found some other perceived failing for which to blame herself.

I read a couple of internet message boards about motherhood. Smart, educated, accomplished women literally drive themselves half insane over everything from the "right" bottles, bath tubs and sleep sacks, to the "best" Halloween costumes and birthday party venues (for kids who won't remember these events). It's as if our endless choices, chat boards and product reviews have paralyzed a generation's ability to set aside the marketing and noise in favor of trusting our instincts. I can't imagine trolling cyberspace for reviews of every diaper and toy. Who really has (or wants) the bandwidth for that?

Moms who obsess over ridiculous items like wipe warmers and bath water thermometers might be happier if instead they read a book or did some exercise. And their children would be no worse off.

Even more perplexing to me are the women who beat themselves up other their "failed" birth experiences. It's as if they're eager to get a head start on the excessive guilt that all too frequently seems to come with motherhood.

Here's a successful "birth experience": An internal baby becomes an external baby. Baby and mother emerge from the ordeal without medical complications such as hemorraging, cardiac arrest, clinical exhaustion, oxygen deprivation or death.

The mode of delivery speaks to one's fitness as a mother about as much as the cost of the wedding predicts a couple's chances of success at marriage. Childbirth isn't an end goal unto itself; it's the beginning of a long journey.

A woman in a pilates class I attend semi-regularly scheduled a c-section because her baby was breech. A couple of women from my mom's generation actually seemed stunned that she didn't want to try to deliver naturally.

First of all, how her baby exits her womb is nobody's business but hers and her doctor's. But from a practical standpoint, if I knew I was likely to need abdominal surgery, I would want to show up for the operation as well-rested as possible, and have it proceed on a civilized schedule with a fresh surgeon. I would not wish to labor for endless hours and endure the stress of a last-minute procedure, possibly in the middle of the night, a probably with a tired physician.

But's that's just me. If any of you want to give the breech birthing thing a whirl, I'm not a doctor and I'm certainly not going to stand in your way.

I will say this, though: The self-flagellation rampant among mommies (often of very privileged children) isn't healthy or productive. Stressed out moms make for stressed out kids. Your two-year-old won't be worse for wear for rejecting his broccoli, but he might actually get a complex if your head explodes from the stress of trying to coax him to eat his veggies.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sometimes fundamentalists are funny (or sad)

Generally speaking, I agree with the premise that we shouldn't tell toddlers that someone is crazy. Or stupid, for that matter. Tolerance is a virtue.


But sometimes, as they say, if the shoe fits...

I carved out my first exception to the basic rule as soon as the Grape became both verbal and aware of strangers: I feel no shame in telling him, when he sees someone smoking, that it's stupid.

Thanks to my remarkable luck yesterday (I hopped on the treadmill just in time for a recent re-run of The Colbert Report), I found another group I see no harm in labeling crazy and stupid - even if little kids might be listening:

People who shell out anywhere between $10,000 to $50,000 per person for a six to twelve month stay in one of these goofy doomsday bunkers some salty California real estate developer is building - in lovely places like the outskirts of Omaha and the middle of the Mojave Desert.

When Colbert first showed the bunkers, I thought it was a made up story. Not so. Media outlets from NPR to ABCNews to Forbes magazine have covered the shelters in recent months.

People have been predicting the end of the Earth for thousands and thousands of years. Nothing newsworthy there. And every society has its share of religious yahoos willing to seize upon their erstwhile "prophet's" end of times edicts. We've always had weekend warriors among us - those usually bearded, badly dressed men who stockpile canned goods and ammunition in the event of a global meltdown.

But never before have the most paranoid and narcissistic among us had the opportunity to throw away so much money on their special brand of insanity.

While I haven't seen the company's registration and payment procedures, I'm going to march out on a limb and wager that the bunker developer gets his cash upfront. After all, one of the oft-cited doomsday scenarios is a complete collapse of the financial system, an apocalyptic event that will render the dollar worthless.

I imagine the developer will want to spend his bucks before that happens. He may be creepy, but he's clearly not a total dumb ass.

A few other questions crossed my mind as Colbert went to commercial.

Assuming the world ends with inferno, earthquake, flood and whatnot, how are these chumps who plunked down their life savings supposed to get to the bunker? Won't the end of the world cause air travel delays? Or hazardous road conditions?

And assuming you're willing to plunk down $150,000 to save your family of four, do you feel obligated to spring for less well-off extended family members as well? Is it alright to put your in-laws in the Spartan "economy class" bunkers for a paltry $10,000 a nose?

Another interesting nugget: The company aggressively markets its bunkers to members of the fundamentalist Christian movement.

How can people who claim to look forward to the end of the world, so that they can be with Jesus while drinking non-alcoholic punch and watching the rest of us roast on spits, be so afraid of that same end of the world that they're willing to spend a small fortune to hide from the second coming in a subterranean vault in the middle of nowhere?

My church going lapsed some twenty-five years ago, but I'm still pretty sure it would be more Christian to give your hundreds of thousands of dollars to the poor, sick and helpless (Somalian babies, anyone?) than to spend it cowering in a concrete bunker. Self-described "Christians" with no sense of charity have always made my blood boil. The doomsday bunker buyers just kick my contempt up a level.

I see no reason to hide that contempt from my kid. Thankfully, he's too young to know about the apocalypse crowd. But if and when he does ask, I'll tell him exactly what I think about them: They're selfish, sanctimonious, idiotic, and often hypocritical, twits.

And no, I don't think it's bad parenting to say so.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Kid free restaurants and movie theaters? Bravo!

Not so long ago I wrote about travel with children and advised those who don't want to fly near small kids to purchase their own planes. I stand by that sentiment. Commercial air travel is mass transit, and in countless instances, the only practical way to move from point A to point B.

In that post, I also said I would never in a million years take the Grape to a five star restaurant.

If a new trend picks up steam, I won't have that option much longer.

A number of restaurants and movie theaters across the country are doing what hundreds of small hotels have done for decades: they've banned children. And I say, Hooray!

I love my kid. I love eating in restaurants. And I'm blessed with enough self-awareness to understand that other people don't find the Grape as charming as R. and I do. We've bolted from neighborhood restaurants because he was disturbing other patrons. But we've also left restaurants without ordering more drinks or dessert that we would have otherwise purchased, because someone else couldn't (or wouldn't) shut up and/or remove their brats.

Parents often say, we need to practice dining out, so Junior learns to behave.

Absolutely. We're with you. A hundred per cent.

But may I suggest that certain establishments are more suitable "practice restaurants" than others? And that if you need to ask if a place fits the bill, you already know the answer.

We take the Grape out to eat often, and we tend to choose places with children's menus. Because let's be real. Last Friday night, we ate out with another family. It was duly early, around 6 p.m. The place offered an extensive kids' menu, plenty of high chairs and even crayons. The Grape and his little friend (who will also celebrate her second birthday soon) had a ball smearing butter into their hair with their spoons, while her parents and R. and I tossed back a couple of beers and pleaded with the waiter to bring out the kids' meals pronto.

Here's the thing that gets me: I'm okay with this kind of behavior before seven p.m. in a self-described family restaurant. I am not okay with seeing it, even from across the room, in a fine dining establishment. Every once in a while, in response to an innocent request for restaurant recommendations, some SanctiMommy or other posts on GardenMoms about how she takes her less than two-year-old to a five star place after nine p.m., and "It's totally fine!"

Let me be crystal clear: It is NOT fine.

People who shell out upwards of fifty bucks a nose for dinner aren't just out to get fed. They expect a certain ambiance with their food and wine. One that does not include children of a certain tender age. Even if they're relatively quiet. And yes, it's still obnoxious if your kid is watching a movie on your iPad in an establishment of white linen caliber. Especially after the blue hair and high chair hour.

Why? Because the kid with the movie or Angry Birds or whatever isn't learning to behave in a nice place; he or she is learning that mom and dad must provide kid centric entertainment at all times and in all places.

Sometime last year, an indignant world-revolves-around-my-kid parent attempted to incite a boycott of a wildly popular sushi bar because they refused to seat her and her (under three-year-old) children at eight o'clock on a Friday night.

R. and I immediately added the place to our date night rotation.

I also expect that movie theaters offering adults-only screenings at evening show times will rake in more money. Wouldn't you pay a teeny bit extra to avoid the dolts who think it's okay to bring their newborn to a late night action flick? It's kind of the same concept as the restaurants: If you go see Winnie the Pooh, you should be happy to sit among squirmy, chatty children. If you're there to see the latest Oscar winning picture, you're within your rights to expect an audience mature enough to sit quietly through a two hour feature.

This really shouldn't be controversial. At least not in my humble opinion.