Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Halos and Horns

My mom used to say that as a toddler, I was like the little girl from the nursery rhyme, the one with the curl on her forehead. When I was good, I was delightful and when I was bad, I was rotten.

Really rotten.

I used to think the girl in the rhyme and I were remarkable because of our mercurial, no-middle-ground personalities.

Then the Grape hit the toddler years, and his disposition developed two distinct and opposite modes: angel and demon. Perhaps other people's preschoolers don't display such maddening Jekyll and Hyde characteristics. But with the Grape, I hardly ever have a clue from one moment to the next, as to whether he'll be sporting his horns or his halo.

It's possible this could be a genetic flaw in our family line.

More likely it's another one of the long list of things friends with children never mention to their childless friends.

Until it's too late. By the time your cooing bundle of joy morphs into an opinionated, tantrum pitching tiny tyrant, the time for refunds or exchanges is well past.

Little kids have no middle speed. This trait, coupled with their well-known ability to cycle through the full range of human emotions in under ninety seconds, can make life with a toddler resemble nothing so much as a visit to a lunatic asylum.

A lunatic asylum full of terrorists, with whom you must negotiate to get through the day.

And parenting a small child, even for the most authoritarian among us, is full of negotiation. I bribe my kid a lot more than I ever thought I would, because it works, usually in a fast-acting manner. And I admit it's gotten sort of ridiculous: more mornings than not, the Grape extorts some minor treat in exchange for getting out the door in an organized, calm and timely fashion.

This is my fault. I routinely make the judgment call to employ carrot instead of stick, because it helps me have a smooth day.

Besides, there are only so many times the neighbors will watch me drag the Grape's howling, kicking, screaming, boneless (like a protester under arrest) form up the block so poor Lila the Dog can pee, before they call child protective services.

What they don't know is that by the time they witness this unsavory spectacle, the dog has waited almost an hour since asking to go out; I've explained, calmly and rationally, at least a dozen times that we need to go outdoors before she bursts; I've given him the five minute warning that he needs to stop what he's doing and get ready to go outside; I've yelled and screamed and threatened to take away all the Grape's toy cars; I've pleaded fruitlessly with him to be a team player; and I've likely tweaked my back or knee or some other part of my not juvenile person whilst wrangling the Grape into his shoes/stroller/jacket.

I've discovered that threatening my kid with consequences works less reliably than bribery, unless the consequence can be administered relatively immediately. The Grape's demonic mode includes an utter lack of interest in loss of privileges. He not infrequently decides that his pointless meltdown is worth the loss of whatever future treat I'm threatening to eliminate.

Yesterday, he was a demon. He gave me a hard time about everything from the moment breakfast hit the table until the lights finally went out for the night. We had a three hour battle of wills over his nap, which he refused to take even though he had bags under his eyes like he'd just flown here from Asia. After the bust of a nap, he moped and sulked and fussed until bedtime. Nothing makes Demon Grape happy. Even if he just gets to ride in the stroller or play with his beloved cars, he will find something about the experience that displeases him.

"Low grade fuss" may not sound bad of you don't have kids, but I almost prefer the Grape's full blown tantrums. At least his meltdowns are so cataclysmic it cannot be sustained for hours on end. Low grade fuss, on the other hand, is like listening to the neighbor's fire alarm go off, for twelve to sixteen hours. It's not eardrum shattering, and you can work through it, but you're not going to be happy or productive, and you are likely to end the day, as I did yesterday, with a twitch and a migraine.

The other key things I've discovered about mercurial toddler dispositions are that the extremes are so disparate that it's hard to wrap one's brain around the simple fact that Angel Kid and Demon Kid are one and the same. Equally importantly, the human tot seems wired to sense the primary caregiver's breaking point. When I feel that I'm teetering close to the brink, the Grape whips out his halo and turns on the charm.

Yesterday was a brutal endurance race from one fussy freak out to the next. Today's Angel Grape has been cuddly, amenable, smiley and sweet. We had a fun morning, playing and running by the river with Lila the Dog. We ran a few errands like normal, civilized members of society. He ate lunch and went down for a nap without comment.

All I can do now is hope that when he wakes up, he won't have switched out his halo for his horns.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Firing the pediatrician

I am considering switching pediatricians, even though we haven't seen ours in a year.

I recently called her office to make an appointment for the Grape's three-year-old check up. The receptionist asked for his name and birth date, and I heard typing on the other end, and finally she asked, "When was he last here?"

"For his two-year-old check up."

A long silence, then: "Really?"


"Is he in day care? Or school?" More typing.

"Yes. Thanks for reminding me. The preschool needs his shot records."

"You didn't bring him in for anything during the school year?"

"Um, no. Is that a problem?"

"No," she said.

I heard tone. Lots of tone. And more typing. I wonder if she's writing a snarky note on the Grape's file, or if she's merely an adept multi-tasker.

As I made the appointment, I wondered whether the receptionist would feel better if I told her we had one emergency room visit during the past year. Complete with 911 call and ambulance ride. And firemen showing up at our place, one of them armed with an axe.

Then there was a case of hand, foot and mouth that I, posing as my alter-ego Dr. Google, diagnosed on the eve of our trip to Italy.

I hung up with the pediatrician's office feeling like some kind of lax weirdo because I don't haul my kid in there for every sniffle. Indeed, I don't bother with the doctor unless something is really wrong.

Maybe because the Grape spent plenty of time with doctors during the first year of his life. Renowned specialists puzzled over his symptoms, and after he was finally diagnosed and operated upon, we dutifully went to follow up appointments with a variety of surgeons and GI doctors.  I was grateful to live in a city with such a depth of medical expertise at our fingertips.

But I can't help thinking about those early months - the Grape writhed and screamed in pain, never slept more than sixty minutes at a stretch, and refused to eat more than a couple of ounces a day.  He screamed all the time. I spent literally twelve to fourteen hours a day trying to get food into him, a routine that  doesn't leave much time for anything else when a newborn is supposed to eat every three hours.

This went on for four months, pre-diagnosis, and because the problem was caught and corrected relatively late, we endured another four and a half months of familial misery and sleep deprivation while the Grape's gut re-learned how to push formula along.

The pediatrician thought R. and I were overwhelmed new parents, unaccustomed to sleep deprivation, and saddled with a standard issue colicky baby. To her credit, she was very apologetic and conscientious about follow up once the Grape landed in the hospital. On a surgical floor, even.

That was almost three years ago, but I haven't been able to shake the thought that my instincts are better than hers.

I knew he wasn't colicky. I'd seen friends' colicky kids. Those babies fussed and screamed and ran their exhausted parents through the ringer. At least one colicky kid in my acquaintance pool caused a divorce. But they didn't drop off the weight charts. And eventually, they would give up the fight and sleep. At least a few times a week.

So if I, rookie mom, could tell the Grape wasn't colicky, why the heck couldn't she?

I know this isn't entirely fair. Doctors see many patients in the course of a day. They are human. They miss things.

But because she was dismissive then, I find myself dismissive of her input now.

At the two-year-old appointment it occurred to me that maybe the doc and I just don't click. Our relationship, while always cordial and respectful, has gone toxic. I don't want to have to deal with her for another decade, or however long kids stay with their pediatricians.

But almost a year has passed since our last interaction and I haven't gotten around to writing the Dear John letter. Maybe because so many friends rave about the practice.

Last month, the Grape and I both had congested chests and a junky, raspy cough. I probably should have hauled him in to see the doctor, even though he freaks out when we so much as walk by the  building. I can thank the lab for this. The blood techs are truly AWFUL - one reason I'm contemplating changing practices instead of merely switching doctors. (If the Grape ever needs another blood test before we switch doctors, I'm going to schlep him to Children's Hospital and let their folks stick him, even though that's a huge, day eating hassle.)

Instead, I waited it out, reasoning she wouldn't do anything for him any way, and that he'd be exposed to all manner of other nasty things in her waiting room, thereby rendering the whole exercise at best a waste of time and at worst a liability.

The cough went away on its own. But now that he's all better, I wonder whether the pediatrician could have prescribed something to alleviate some of his symptoms.

It's time. The doctor, with all her peer accolades and her unbelievably fantastic office geography (five minutes from our front door), must go.

Friday, August 17, 2012

High class problems, green pools and the dog days of August

Several years ago one of the office supply stores ran a commercial wherein a mom and dad coasted through the aisles, ecstatically buying pencils and paper, to the tune of the holiday song, It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Two sour faced kids sit sulking in the cart during the parental happy dance.

I never found the ad funny until this year's calendar rolled to August, most of our friends disappeared on family vacations, R. started a new job, I fell weeks behind on the promotion schedule for my upcoming novel, The K Street Affair, and I caught myself asking, "What the heck am I supposed to do with this kid for four more weeks?"

In the city. In the wet, sticky heat. Without friends.

This is a high class problem. We took a great vacation at the start of the summer, and I don't begrudge friends who wait until August to enjoy some family beach time. But I'm starting to think that kids too young to appreciate summer vacation perhaps shouldn't have three whole months of it.

The Grape asked me every day, for all of June and July, whether he could go to school. Now that re-entry is nearly upon us, he's over the whole thing. He's come down with a nerve-jangling case of anticipatory anxiety and I'm bracing myself for a string of tearful mornings and clingy afternoons.

The Grape, Lila the Dog and I could pack up our household show and re-locate to my mom's house for the duration of the summer. She has a pool, albeit one green with some indestructible strain of bionic algae at the present moment, and better: she lives near the beach.

It's tempting, even with the verdant pool. But if we head down there, I will get zero work done before the week after Labor Day. On the other hand, does delaying the start of my third novel by less than a month really make a difference? Answer: I could argue both sides.

Maybe I should have enrolled the Grape in some kind of toddler day camp, but I liked the idea of spending the summer with him. He just turned three, and he's suddenly this fully interactive, really fun little human. I like going on adventures with him, and I know I'm extremely lucky to have the choice to do so.

Most American women do not have the luxury of choosing to stay home with their kids. Even if they sacrifice life's little extras. It's still a choice reserved for a small minority of us.

I'm also fortunate because the Grape can entertain himself, but only if I don't try to accomplish anything important while he does so. If I am chopping vegetables or folding laundry, he's content to play alone with his cars, but as soon as I even think of approaching my desk, he wants to be in my lap. It's like he's wired to sabotage the book "baby," my other labor of love, and therefore the Grape's arch rival for my attention.

When I ask author friends who are also mommies how they do it, I almost always get the reply, "My kids are older than yours."

They are right. The Grape won't be little for much longer. Maybe I should stop stressing and go build sandcastles, eat chowder  and swim in the green pool while he still prefers my company to anyone else's.

Monday, August 6, 2012

You don't get a medal for parenting your own kid, Katie Couric hits a home run, and other reflections on my first ever blogging conference

Before last week, it had never occurred to me to attend a bloggers' conference. I'm an author, first and foremost. This blog is a side show, albeit one I enjoy very much. So when the stars aligned (Blogher, a huge gathering of women bloggers, crossed my radar at the same time as R. took off a few days before starting a new job), I left the boys to their own devices, scrambled to devise some business cards and hopped the next train to NYC.

I was blown away by the sheer size of the conference, Blogher12, and by many of the women writers I met at the welcome event. Katie Couric's keynote (more on that below) hit on several important themes.

So I was sorely disappointed, and honestly more than a little peeved, when I ventured into the first break out session. I decided, along with roughly a thousand other women, to attend a panel on something I knew nothing about: blogging and branding.

I walked out ten minutes into the discussion.

Why? This conference was all about promoting women bloggers and their work. It was called BlogHER. And what did they feature? A guy from a household name diaper brand (I'm so annoyed I won't plug the company, though I will say it was NOT Pampers), holding forth on their underwriting of a blog about a stay at home dad who changes diapers because he got laid off from his "real" job!???!!

Um, thanks but no thanks.

In a room packed with mommy bloggers, the panel really had to patronize us by leading off with an ode to a dad parenting his own child? As I was attempting to digest this bitter nugget, it got worse.

The diaper brand evidently designed a whole national ad campaign around dads who parent their own kids. Because obviously they deserve some kind of medal. The underlying message to the assembled women: such men are a rare breed, one to be celebrated. You ladies are a dime for ten dozen. Good luck to you.

How depressing.

R., like many dads I know, is a great, hands on parent. Here I was, operating under the happy delusion that we women had evolved to the point where we expect dads (and most certainly dads who don't work outside the home) to share the duties of parenting, without asking for special recognition, medals, trophies, sky writing, etc...

But no. Big diaper company celebrates the guy for sucking it up and doing what they perceive as "women's work" with a smile. Cue eye roll.

I walked out and attended an excellent panel on blogging about social, economic and political issues. Best take away: A white man approaches life believing he can be an expert on anything. When asked to hold forth on any topic, he's likely to jump at the opportunity. We women too often pigeon hole ourselves to the "lady topics." Lesson learned. Be more assertive, and don't shy from topics that interest you just because some guy says it's his turf.

Katie Couric's speech was a huge highlight of my first conference experience. She lamented the lack of television content for smart women, and said she looks forward to tackling big socio-economic questions in-depth on her new program. Amen, sister. I can't remember the last time I watched TV for a thoughtful discussion of anything, and I'm hopeful she'll be able to deliver.

She took questions, and was immediately asked the big one about work-life balance: "How do you do it all?"

Her answer: Don't look at me for instruction on how to do it all. I'm not a typical American working mom. I have live in help. I, like Anne Marie Slaughter, the tenured Princeton professor with the cover article on working moms in this month's Atlantic, have choices and resources most working women can't even dream of.

I.e. It's not all that constructive to look at how the most successful of the wildly successful "manage."

Indeed, doing so takes oxygen away from the really hard questions, like how to make quality child care available to more middle and low income moms, or how to extend mandatory paid parental leaves.

It's not enough to have women like the amazing Sheryl Sandberg tell us they leave the office at 5:30 every afternoon, come hell or high water. I find Sheryl Sandberg inspiring. She's a vocal positive role model for young women.

But she doesn't need to work another minute of her life if she doesn't want to. She serves as COO of Facebook for the love of the game. Most workers, male or female, cannot dictate their hours to their employers without expecting serious repercussions, including termination.

A fact that should automatically disqualify Ms. Sandberg from dispensing work-life balance advice to those moms living paycheck to paycheck, or even those with a normal mortgage and a modest economic cushion.

Katie Couric nailed that disconnect in her remarks. I hope the 4,500 women in attendance noticed.