Friday, December 2, 2011

Boys and girls

While the eloquent 19-year old who assures Iowans that he hasn't been harmed by his lesbian parents has gone viral on Facebook, we have more prosaic concerns: Little Bug is currently denying the actual existence of girls.

We noticed that he was signing "baby" for every kid under 12, and we thought he needed more signs. So we tried to teach him signs for "boy" and "girl." He learned to do them on the plane back from Tucson, as I pointed out a girl and a boy and he repeated my signs back to me. They seem dated an ancient: "boy" involves drawing an imaginary cap above your forehead, and "girl" is signed by drawing a bonnet string along your chin.

Tonight we were at a tree-lighting in Amherst, complete with the UMass marching band playing religious Christmas carols--a tad strange--and he was "signing" away and otherwise communicating nonverbally in a carrier on my back. Clapping for the band, signing "more" every time they stopped, making "woof" noises for the dogs. And signing "boy" every time he saw a kid older than two. Some of them were clearly girls, and Jennifer would laugh and sign "girl" and say "no, that's a girl." Gendered sign language was not working well for him. He'd make his mock-frowning face and grunt in disagreement (for a kid with few words, he gets his important thoughts across with surprising clarity). Then he would sign "boy" again. "Girl" Jennifer would say and sign. "Boy" he would sign in reply. Then he'd point to himself and sign "boy."

And the anti-gay parenting folks were afraid he'd grow up confused about his gender. Nope. Just other people's.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Moo, Baa

Little Bug is a la-la-la kind of guy.

There's a book by Sandra Boynton, Moo, Baa, La La La, that is hugely popular with the toddler set. I've read it to lots of little kids, and it has something for everyone--animal sounds, silly drawings, and opportunities for personal creativity. By far the most popular line in my experience--which was extensive when I was a daycare teacher--is "No, no, you say, that isn't right!" This generally makes toddlers shriek with joy. "No" is pretty much the most fun word you can think of.

But not Bug. In the picture above, he is responding to his second favorite line: "Rhinoceroses snort and snuff." He pouts his lips out and snuffles, which generally makes his mamas laugh out loud. He sort of stares into the middle distance when you get to the "no no" part. He likes to make the cow sound, and the sheep sound, but then when you say, "Three singing pigs say la la la!" that's when he shrieks. "La la la la la la!" he says, "la la la!" until he falls over giggling.

That seems to be how he makes his way through life.

Earlier this week, when the power was out and and the house got to be down to 55 degrees, Mama Jennifer and I were starting to get kind of stressed. Little Bug thought the whole thing was a riot. Snow falling on his face made him tilt his head back, stretch out both his arms, open his mouth, and laugh and laugh. Lights out...well, that seemed kind of weird--he kept pointing to the light switches and reaching up, like, if were just taller I could help you out with this. You really should think about putting the lights on. Flashlights got a big grin, especially when he could hold it, and everyone curled up under lots of covers in the bed was just about as good as it could get. The only thing he really minded were diaper changes, never his favorite, and having his butt naked in the cold didn't improve his feelings about them. But all and all the whole thing didn't trouble him much, despite the fact that he didn't even own a warm coat. Friends had their baby tucked up in a sort of tailored blanket thing, like Bug is wearing above. We badly wanted one. Now that the heat's been on at our house for days (although we still have relatives and friends without heat, now 5 days after the storm), the snow is melting, and the roads are becoming passable again, we have a winter coat, a snow suit, and two warm blanket things. Now we are prepared for the last disaster, and almost certainly not the next one.

But Bug isn't trying to protect himself from an unpredictable future. We went to the mall and looked high and low for boots that were warm and fit. Finally, just as we were getting ready to give up, we found a guy in a scary Halloween costume--looking all hangman-ish, in black with a long lanky haired wig--to fit him for boots. They looked warm, they fit, they weren't funny we put them on him while he sat in my lap. When I set him down and asked him to walk, he didn't. He answered his own question instead: he started to dance. Funny boy just wanted to know if he could dance in those big boots.

That's my la la la guy.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Learning to communicate with Little Bug as a toddler has its ups and downs.

A few nights ago, I was trying to get him to clean up his room. We put on the clean up songs, and I went to work, but everything I put on top of his toy bin he knocked off as soon as it got there. I picked up 26 alphabet blocks and put them in their tray, and down they came. I organized stacking rings on their posts, and off they went. The more I cleaned, the more mess we had.

I stopped and tried to figure out what was going on. I did consider the entirely reasonable question of whether he wanted his room clean--but I think he did, since that always comes before the bath, which is the high point of his day. I turned to him, and asked with some exasperation what was wrong, looking across the disturbing clear top of the toy bin, and the wreckage all around us--beads on wire toy, stacking cups, great piles of overturned blocks. What do you want? I asked. By now we had gotten to the up-tempo salsa "Hora de limpiar" song, and my son was vibrating with the beat. He picked his way to the bin and launched in an amazing drum riff, head down, hands dancing.

Ah, I thought. I see toy storage, he sees a really big, beautiful drum. Of course cleaning up means clearing it off.

It's hard to get on the same page when you are reading from different books.

I saw the 5-year old version of this in a conversation on a crowded path near the beach in Maine.

"Look, mama, dog poop," said a little girl.

"We need to walk quickly," said her mom, unwilling to acknowledge the dog poop but noticing the people piling up behind them.

"Poop, mama!" said her immoble daughter.

"Come on now, we need to keep going."

"POOOP!" she shrieked.

By this time, only the knowledge that I never want my parenting critiqued in public kept me from telling the mom that she was going to have to talk about poop if she wanted her daughter to move from the spot where she was fixed.

This tells me that impossible communication with a youngster with a different, essentially unrelated agenda should not be considered an isolated event. This is going to go on for years.

Sometimes, though, the toddler brain is not just on a different wavelength. It is completely incomprehensible.

For example, Bug hates getting pants on. There is no reason for this that I can discern; he's happier once they are on, warmer and better protected from scrapes. But getting them on is a major wrestling match. Once we were in a parking lot with a messy diaper, and it took two of us to get new pants on him--one to hold his flailing, hollering body up in the air, the other to position the pants so he could be dropped into them. The Neilds have a song about this--one that only the parent of a toddler could understand. The enemy called pants, pants, pants, the lyrics go. If you put those pants on me, I will cease to be so sweet...if you pull those to my waist, I will make a nasty face. The enemy called pants, pants, pants.

This tells me that the problem is not limited to our toddler. It's from someplace we could call planet toddler.

Another planet toddler moment: he has started to whine. He points to something, then engages in a high-pitched, super-annoying whine to tell me that this is what he wants. I was trying to talk him out of it.

"Little Bug," I said brightly, "what could you say instead?" I understand this is not totally fair. The kid has I think 5 words and about a dozen signs. If he could say, "I want to flip on the light switch," he probably would have. But the whine is going to make me start banging my head against a wall.

He considered my question gravely for a couple of seconds. He pointed at the light switch, and then blew in my face twice. I almost fell over laughing. I carried him to the light switch.

But then there are these moments of communication so perfect it breaks your heart.

Yesterday, his Mama Jennifer called to him that it was time for his nap. He got up from a book on making paella that he had been sitting and contemplating, and ran over to the stairs. Then he saw me and ran back to give me a hug good-bye. Then he very seriously and carefully crawled up the stairs, and got back on his feet at the top. Then he ran down the hall, waving his arms in the air and shouting "Na-na, na-na, na-na" (nurse) and got into the bed.

It turns out, though, that the maternal brain has moments as incomprehensible as the toddler brain. I missed my recalcitrant Bug.

As I watched him organize and plan all these different steps to get to his nap, all I could think was, who is this big guy, and where did my baby go?

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Little Bug said, or signed, his first sentence today. Jennifer and I were planning to take a long walk with the dog, and debating stroller vs. baby carrier. Bug piped up and said, "Na na" (nurse) and then signed "eat" (and then go to) "sleep."

It's bad when your toddler is nagging you for more naps.

He also has instituted nightly baths, which I felt he could go one or two nights without. But how do you answer someone who is 13 months old and signing "bath" and “more”?

It is of course possible that this baby signing thing is over-rated, that it just makes them bossier sooner. For instance, the baby books all say that sometime between 12 and 18 months they can start to follow two step commands (pick up that block and put it in the bin), which he can. But nobody says--because most folks sensibly don't give their toddlers strategies to talk at that age, when their mouths still can't do it--that they can begin to GIVE two-step commands at this age. But I got up today into the greyness of a rainy morning, and Little Bug paddled over to his room in his feet-y pajamas (because he was sleeping in our bed, natch), looked at me and signed (turn on the) "light" (then the) "music."

Ridiculous. (Dancing boy made up his own sign for put on the music: pumping his little hands back and forth by his ears. Gotta dance, mama, gotta dance.)

He has the most astonishing desires for the very things toddlers are supposed to hate. This morning he rejected pancakes for breakfast in favor of black beans, soy milk, and gorgonzola cheese.

It's now becoming clear what direction his terrible twos will take. He will be throwing temper tantrums at the co-op for more vegetables. Stomping angrily down the hall demanding to go to bed earlier.

All of this is not to say he is incapable of real mischief. He is ever ready to throw a shelf full of books on the floor, and he approaches getting into the car seat with a great grin, prepared to drive mamas to distraction with his ability to resist every effort to strap him in. He has faked me out in a store, engaging in misdirection and then darting through strangers’ legs to take off running, shrieking with laughter.

He also seems to have suddenly noticed the existence of other, mostly younger babies. He is riveted by them, staring and signing “baby” so enthusiastically that the swinging of his arms threatens to knock him down. He carries dolls around, handing them to me for a cuddle and signing “baby” at me. Did you know, he seems to be saying, that there are other babies in the world—little babies—and it’s not actually all about me? And I’m not really all that little any more?

But he is still pure sunshine, that boy, even as he is making astonishing leaps into toddlerhood. He certainly is more often a pain than he was when he was still at the potted plant stage. But he is also ever more himself, achingly wholesome and square one minute, so charmingly trouble the next that it’s almost impossible to keep from laughing. But above it all, able to concentrate more joy in every minute than I would’ve thought humanly possible.

Monday, September 5, 2011

If I can't dance....

If we leave Little Bug alone with the music playing, he dances.

He’s always liked to listen to music, and recently he’s started lifting up his arms and moving his whole body in response to us. But this dancing alone thing, not so much social as personal, is new and fascinating.

We discovered it when we left him in his room and put up the gate, and Jennifer was checking on him every couple of minutes. She was peeking in, and then waved me over silently but urgently, smiling broadly. She pointed, and there he was, lifting his feet and pumping his arms. We stayed and spied, trying not to laugh out loud and disrupt him. His face was full of joy.

We took him to a concert the other night, local bands in a park doing covers. He kept us laughing from Bohemian Rhapsody to Purple Rain to Heartbreak Hotel, throwing himself into a whirlwind of turning and shaking his head back and forth and shifting really fast from one foot to another. Always his hands were high in the air. Sometimes he sang when they were finished, la la la la, just so the music wouldn’t stop. He’s still so little he would lose his footing in the sharp slope of the amphitheater, but he never stopped smiling.

He’s as sensuous as a cat, and will arch his neck if you stroke it. Rhythms and music seem to be the same sort of thing, something he feels in his body that make him move.

It’s tempting to think of his enjoyment of music as something about the species, since he’s so young and seems to have always had it. But I think that’s wrong; he’s steeped in an environment full of us and others. “Isn’t it amazing,” said Jennifer tongue-in-cheek, “he has the exact same interests we do!” He listens to the same music we and the people we know do; he has dance moves he’s seen. But certainly there is something about music and dancing that is close to the bone of how humans build a world; having such a rich and very long tradition of loving it as we do.

But it’s rewarding to watch him interact with texts and music, especially because I teach college students to do something like that, at least the texts part. When something bad happens to Little Bug—he tumbles and does a face-plant—he acts it out again and again, telling us the story over and over until he feels better, making it narrative, assimilating what happened and moving on. He uses bedtime stories to build ways to use words and thoughts. In What’s Wrong Little Pookie?, Mommy asks Pookie if he needs a drink. Pookie didn’t, but Little Bug did the other night; he picked his head up when he heard it and started urgently signing “more.”

We make meaning in our world through stories and music. I knew that about adults, and how critical that is. Someone in my new office has posted the words women sang in the Lawrence “bread and roses” strike in 1912: “hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses.” At almost-13 months, Little Bug has found already that music fills his heart. Maybe it’s nurturing that contagious joy that is so much a part of him.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

No matter how small

I don't think when we look back over Little Bug's childhood that we will recall the last week as among the best.

Moving's been hard on him, full of missed naps, fussing, and not enough time with moms. It's hard to play with the baby or hold him when you need to spend every waking hour packing and then unpacking boxes and organizing the furniture. Fortunately friends and family have been amazing--friends drove the car out from Tucson to Northampton and then stayed to help; grandparents have entertained him and unpacked us. When there was no safe place to put him in the house, folks put him in the stroller and took him on walks everywhere; he's seen more of Northampton than we have, and met half the population. As my mom said, "He has such lovely manners. He greets everybody with a big smile, and does something to make them feel special."

Even so, I confess that for the first time in his life, I've found myself annoyed by him and his endless needs, his crying, his very presence. I had no empathy, no ability to distinguish between his legitimate complaints and what might be "extra" fussiness from all the upheaval. Not that the days have been without magic, laughing, or smiles over how delightful he is, but only that there have also been lows where the best we could do was make sure he was safe and fed, not necessarily appreciated or nurtured.

But Monday night, our sixth in the house, I suddenly realized we were going to be alright. Friends from here had brought us dinner, and we took a real break to share it with them and enjoy their company. Most of the random and sharp stuff was gone from the first floor, and even though there wasn't yet a safety gate on the stairs (tricky space, requires special gate--of course), after they left we set him down and let him run around for the first time.

Bug found a box where I'd been collecting a few things to take down to the cellar and gravely carried it into the living room. Then he unpacked the things in it and took them all to the kitchen. Then he went to work in the play space, carefully taking down all the big pillows against the wall and making a pile of them in the middle of the squishy letter tiles. Then, as we watched all this with growing amusement, he slowly backed up to survey his work, in such a perfect imitation of Jennifer checking out her organizational work that we were shouting with laughter.

All that time he was stuck in his play pen he was watching us. And there he was to help, if only we were open-hearted enough to appreciate his work. Somehow, I'd forgotten that he wasn't just a baby, full of needs and a bundle of work. He's a person, no matter how small (as Horton said), generous, funny, loving, trying at times, but fully a human in his own right.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Signs and Wonders

Little Bug was discharged by the cardiologist today--the hole in his heart has closed completely. Thank God.

The hole in his heart was the last trace in his body of the complete mess that was his breathing and circulation when he was born--he had PPHN, or Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension of the Newborn. When he was born, his heart and lungs didn't make the switch from fetal circulation to baby circulation; he remained a hybrid, an amphibian, not quite ready for life as a land mammal, ready to dip back into amniotic fluid and resume life as a fetus.

If it hadn't been completely terrifying, there might have been something fascinating about the coming into the world of our liminal boy, the way he walked between the worlds--of life and death, of fetus and baby. It also made me realize what an astonishing series of events take place inside a neonate's body, just as much as inside the mother's body, the switching over of heart and lungs, digestion...everything.

But then babies are always in between, in some astonishing process of becoming. They grow at a rate their first year that is scarcely human, more plant-like than mammalian, except that all mammal babies do it. Little bug's leg is about as long as his whole body was eleven months ago. The first year is a fast-forward blur of milestones, rolling over and grabbing stuff, focusing the eyes and attending to social interaction, then suddenly sitting, standing, walking, running.

The most startling to me is the leap into language. When I worked in daycare, we would watch the inevitable process by which they would start to communicate with words around 12-18 months. As the director said, it was as if your cat suddenly started to speak. Here are these little beings who go through being a jumble of incomprehensible smiles and cries to older babies who have begun to make sense of their own needs and desires and can communicate them pretty well to you. And then, suddenly, they talk; they are so much more than hungry or tired or in need of a diaper change. They are little people; unformed to say the least, in-process, but unmistakably human.

Bug has started calling me "Raura," or 'Mama Raura," or just some version of "Mom." The "Raura" startles me, because it's so nearly what everyone else calls me, a casual, friendly name. I got him up to go to the doctor this morning, woke him before he was ready, and he wailed, "Roooora!" to complain, a plaintive sound, so eerily like what any adult I know might have said in the same situation.

Aside from a few words--names for us and a word for nursing, "na-na" which he says with such deep pleasure he can't help but smile--he has some signs. Like a lot of parents of our social location, we've been teaching him a little bit of American Sign Language, because it turns out that the major obstacle to speech is what you have to do with your mouth and tongue, not what you have to do with your mind. It's still mostly the sign for "more"--more food, more tickling, more kitty, more game, more singing...always, give me more of life!--but he's added a few here and there: change my diaper, pick me up, fan. Like most babies, he loves ceiling fans; the first thing he does when we go somewhere new is scan the ceilings for fans.

They say that you need language before you can form memories, because language abstracts and symbolizes things, and you need that to store them in memory.

I also notice that these bare beginnings of language make Little Bug more self-conscious, more aware of himself as different from other people. It's a concept he's been wrestling with. I see it flash behind his eyes when I tell him to stop and he gets a wicked smile and takes off in a different direction. "See!" he seems to say. "I am my own person. I have different desires than you do!"

Recently, he saw Jennifer start to cry and he cried too. "It's okay, Bug," I said. "You're a different person than Mama Jennifer." Something about that clicked for him, and he suddenly stopped.

Language requires self-consciousness. Not only do I have different desires from you, but I understand that what I am thinking is opaque to you, and I will communicate it to you. You live in a different consciousness. Even little babies must have some understanding of our separateness, because they are so social, always trying to bridge the gap between us. But Bug at 11 months, more and more, is aware of himself.

He took this to a new level a couple of days ago. I said to Jennifer, with him sitting a few feet away, "You should get a picture of him signing 'fan'." She picked up her camera, and he posed, apparently having understood exactly what I had just said. He put his hand in the air in his sign for fan, and got a super-fake smile on his face. Jennifer snapped it, and when we saw it--the picture above--we laughed and laughed, unable to believe the evidence of our eyes, that he had the ability to pose, to act, to be false, to project an image of himself for others. He leaned in, grabbed the camera, looked at himself, and joined our laughter. He found a digital image of himself pretending to sign "fan" hilarious.

Liminal boy crossed another threshold, imagining seeing himself from outside himself. With each day, he's a little more of a person. And it happens so fast it makes my head spin.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Tool Using Bug

Last night Little Bug discovered how to really make use of the telephone.

It was after midnight when he woke up wanting to nurse. He started to fuss, but quieted when I woke up and called for Jennifer, whom I assumed was in the study. When she didn't answer, he frowned and looked like he might really holler, but I said, "Come on, let's look for her," and reached for him. He understood me better than I expected, and crawled over to be picked up. We went to Jennifer's desk, and I realized she must have gone out to copy one of the billions of documents that constitute our move, which can only be worked on in the middle of the night, when Bug is asleep. Poor Jennifer was at Kinko's, and I tried to think what I was going to do with what was soon to be one very unhappy Bug. I got him a cup of water and took him back to bed.

That's when he realized that I had failed. He screwed up his face and let loose with a heart-rending cry.

"Wait, Bug," I said, with only a slight edge of desperation in my voice. "We can call Mama Jennifer." And so I did, as he once again held his wailing in hopes I could do something useful for him. I put Jennifer on speaker phone, and we talked for a minute: she had to send a couple of faxes but would be right home after that. "Bug," I said, "do you want to talk to Mama Jennifer?"

"Hello little love,"she said.

Then Bug had his say. He let lose with the saddest, most wrenching cry ever, all the grief in the entire world compressed into one single piece of communication with his Mama J.

"I'll be right home," she told him.

Bug had mastered the use of the phone.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Not worrying

  I'm not particularly worried about Little Bug.
  This, I think, makes me strange. Strange to other parents and even to myself. When my daughter was younger, I worried non-stop about her. I still worry about her at 23, despite all my efforts to let go and let be. She seemed perpetually to demand worrying about, to the point where worrying seems intimately entwined with loving her.
  At almost-ten-months, Little Bug and his age-mates are starting to do more things: stand up, clap hands, babble, wave, maybe use some signs (for the sign-language inclined parents) or take steps. Among the folks I know, there's a constant checking, a look of worry when their child seems slower than another on these markers. I read a lot about the competitiveness that drives parents of young children (over the edge, the New York Times always seems to say, like in this article.) But mostly what I hear is worry--is this little one I adore going to be okay? Am I doing something wrong that is going to make him or her not be okay?
  Worrying about your children, a lot, from developmental milestones to car seats to bike helmets has become part of the American odyssey of parenting. This is relatively new, from I think about the 1980s, when we first passed laws mandated the latter two things. Sometimes I forget this and think Little Bug's grandparents must know how to operate a car seat, but they don't, or have only learned from their grandchildren. Jennifer and I grew up in an era more relaxed about accidents and injuries--for better and for worse--with more space to find our own adventures, less supervision, and more opportunities to try things and make mistakes.
  Writers as different as Michael Chabon and David Brooks have argued that children lose something in all this worrying. Chabon writes about the closing down of what he calls "the wilderness of childhood," kid-controlled spaces and time, and asks what happens to imagination and adventure when children are chauffeured from one adult-organized event to the next. David Brooks calls this year's graduating class part of "the most supervised generation in American history," and suggests they are not prepared for the wide-open spaces of adult possibility.
 So if it is normal for the parents I know, normal for my generation, and normal even for me, why don't I feel that familiar space of worry about Little Bug? I keep turning it over in my mind, feeling for what is absent, the way the tongue finds the space of a missing tooth. One of my theories is that it is just experience. He's my second, and I experienced first-hand the futility of all that worrying the first time around. It took all my time but didn't accomplish much. Alternately, and relatedly: I'm just too old. I can put aside parental worrying and enjoy Little Bug because he is the surprising, unlooked for child of my late forties (all right, I'm a lesbian, he's not exactly an accident. But if you'd asked me 10 or even 5 years ago, I wouldn't have predicted his presence). Somehow, this just makes him a pure gift; whatever he is, is perfect.
  On the other hand, I didn't start here. His birth was difficult, and he spent his first 11 days on a respirator, hovering between life and death. We heard a great deal about the possible consequences of the time around birth when he didn't get enough oxygen. I would look at his bright, alert eyes and think someone was definitely home, but especially those first few months, it was hard to tell how much that was true. Each new sign--the ability to hold something, to focus, to nurse, to tune in to us--was reassuring, but never quite enough. Or rather, it reassured me that he could develop that far--but how much further remained an open space of worry.
  But somewhere along the line, it feels like it was Bug himself who taught me how to hold the future more lightly. He laughs easily and often, finding joy in everything. This week, the new thing that cracks him up is something akin to conversation--he does something and we reply, or imitate him, and he dissolves into helpless giggles. Last night I was trying to amuse him with "Uh-oh" and the reply of my childhood: "Spaghetti-O." (Yes, Gil, the revolution will not be televised and I get how crassly commercial that is. But it stirred up from the depths of my unconscious and I was trying to entertain a baby in a play yard while I did the dishes, and I wasn't feeling desperately creative.) Little Bug got it right away, and while he can't say "uh-oh" he could say "uh" and I'd say "spaghetti-o" and he would laugh his head off. Or he'd make a sudden loud noise and I'd pretend to jump. Over and over and over, but each time brought peals of laughter.
  So he was quick to sit and on the early side for pulling himself up and now cruising around a room. I felt like it was part of his program of reassurance, his effort to calm neurotic fears. Just laugh, mama. I looked away from him in the shopping cart this morning to find something on the shelf and felt someone tickling my belly. Look at me! that gesture meant, but what a gentle way to say it. The more I love him, the more drawn I am into his world. He lives effortlessly in the present, having, we presume, little ability to conceptualize past or future. If my oldest is perenially anxious, a child who feels most loved when there is worry for her, Bug doesn't seem to have a lot of space or use for it. I'm not much worried about him, I think, because he doesn't really allow it.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Lady Gaga

Photo: Trixie Karinski
  I thought I was raising a jazz man. He's always been interested in Louis Armstrong's trumpet, and before he could sit up he would stop and pay attention when Hugh Masekela came round on the iPod. But I wondered today if we could have different ideas about music.
  Jennifer and I just got Lady Gaga's CD, Born This Way. We liked the drag-queen presentation, the startling aesthetics, and her voice. But when we put it on, we were unanimous. After a couple of songs, we just didn't like it that much.
  But then we looked over at Little Bug, standing in his playpen, looking adorable and a little rakish in just a T-shirt and a diaper. He was hanging on to the top of the play yard with one hand--he can't stand up on his own yet--and was listing seriously to the side, like a small drunk, resting his head against his arm, singing along with his eyes closed, at the top of his voice, "Da, da, da, da, da, da," lost and blissed out in the music.
  I thought we had a few more years before our musical tastes parted ways...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Truffle aioli

   I'm a foodie, and have the waistline to prove it. Highbrow, lowbrow, it doesn't matter--I have an adventurous palate and like to try new things. But Little Bug makes me look boring by comparison. The happiest time in my life as a cook and fan of good food has been the last three months, as Bug has discovered food. Watching him try something new for the first time is virtually cinematic--he gets a surprised look as he realizes he hasn't tasted it before, and then a frown as he concentrates on the flavor. When he was a little guy (say, two months ago) his whole body would jerk as he used his entire nervous system to register all the new parts of a taste. Now he just screws up his face, looking like you've just fed him something really foul. Then he relaxes and makes a decision about it. Sometimes it takes two or three tries before he comes to a conclusion about what he thinks. A really fine food can win drumming on the table, clapping, and a smile that lights up the room. Bad is when he pouts out his lips and rubs his face. I can watch his pure sensuous joy about food for an entire meal, sometimes realizing that I've forgotten to eat myself. He shouts and claps and gets wildly excited while we laugh.
  Tonight we went out with his godparents, and you can see from the picture what he thought about chocolate cream pie. He's got some whipped cream on his nose, and he's clowning around and grabbing the fork. I can't remember that I've ever experienced such pure joy in chocolate as he did tonight, which was I think was his first. But while pie was definitely the favorite, it certainly wasn't the only new food he expressed real appreciation for. Carmelized onions got a table bang of approval, and sweet potato fries with yogurt sauce won applause. The most exotic flavor of the evening was truffle aioli, which got serious approval. The one that surprised me the most, from earlier this week, was arugula, which is a startlingly bitter green that made him clap with delight.
  He's definitely what my mother would call a good eater, and there's a lot of comfort that comes from knowing he's breast feeding and it doesn't really matter what he eats, or doesn't, for nutrition. But still, I'm puzzled  in retrospect about most of what I read in the baby books about introducing your baby to solid foods. Brazelton tells you that they have total control of whether they will eat or not, and warns you not to get into power struggles with your baby. Really? People get into power struggles with babies? My mother's generation's Dr. Spock talks a lot about table manners. Say what? I read books about making your own that were full of carefully calibrated information about nutrition that made me anxious, and cookbooks that were very specific about when you could move from single food "meals" to mixed flavors. For the first couple of months we carefully followed the pediatrician's advice about introducing only one new food every three days so we could watch him for signs of allergies, but now he's got so many foods and no sign of allergies that we've stopped being vigilant about it. Besides, when we read Jerome Groopman's article in the New Yorker  about how allergists were no longer sure that delaying introducing certain foods to babies to prevent them from developing allergies wasn't causing the skyrocketing allergy rate, we decided we didn't know enough and stopped worrying. I'm sure there are babies that are picky about consistency, but when I read in What to Expect that you can start them on finger foods at 8 or 9 months, I was totally perplexed about the point of the baby food industry, if it's really just a matter of weeks that they need pureed foods. I ate ground food for longer when I had braces.
  I'm not sure where the sheer amount of anxiety we are being schooled to bring to feeding babies is coming from. But certain things Bug has taught me. Like that babies are astonishingly sensuous little beings, and food is fun. Especially when it's new, and you can put it in your hair.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Boy oh boy

   We went to the playground at the mall last night--a godawful, consumerist place to put a playground, I admit, but the only place to play indoors on a summer night in the desert--and I love meeting the other kids and parents. I was watching two little boys, about five or six, and liking them because they were gentle with Little Bug, sweet and friendly. Then I saw them hold hands out of their sheer enjoyment of each other, and one stroked the other gently on the arm. My heart lurched for them, as I looked around for the dad or the bigger boy who would beat them up. Nothing happened, but I learned something from my fear. Even--or I think especially--for little boys, masculinity precludes showing affection for each other. In fact, I thought as I watched them, this is why boys learn to hit each other--the only way they can legitimately touch each other is if it's shrouded in roughness.
   I find myself surprised at how much I want to shield Little Bug from the expectations of early childhood's version of masculinity. I remember the time Jennifer came home from looking all over town for a dress-up party outfit for Bug, and reported that there were endless opportunities to put him in camouflage, but almost nothing else. "Apparently little girls go to parties, and little boys go to war." I don't want him to go to war, especially not at nine months.
    One time we were talking with a developmental specialist about how our Little Bug was doing, and we told a favorite story about how he was. He was visiting his cousin, and he took his cousin's piano and investigated it fiercely--threw himself at it, flipped it over, gave it a bear hug. His cousin watched the entire proceeding with growing alarm, and finally his mom said, "Hey, little guy, do you want to show Bug how you play with it?" And his cousin crawled over, and using one finger, showed him how to plink a  key. We laughed as we told this, and the developmental specialist said, admiringly, "Yes, Little Bug is all boy." I wanted to say, as opposed to what? They're both boys, one bold, one mild in this particular interaction; the next time Little Bug is afraid, or gentle, or loving, will you say he is less a boy?
   In the rest of my life, gender has grown more complicated. Women who work out can show off their muscles (like Little Bug's tia in the picture)--female masculinity is no longer terrifying or subject to pop Freudianism, whether the women in question are lesbians or not. The men I ride bikes with worry out loud about whether they are fat. Transgender folks, especially youth, seem to challenge binary notions of gender without even fairly conventional folk getting too bent out of shape, at least in the southwestern city where we live. When I lift weights at the gym, it's still pretty much a boy space, and I get to overhear all sorts of fascinating conversations. Like the butch boy student who worried out loud to his friend about whether a young woman he met at a party had given him a wrong number on purpose or by accident, all vulnerable and hurt, and his friend asked him if had asked his mother what she thought. Some college students describe their gender as always needing enunciation ("my name is Chris and I identify as male.") Men I know embrace the concept of metrosexual, and have discovered that wearing flower prints and carrying a man-bag is a sure-fire way to pick up women.
   But in the pink and blue world of early childhood, it's still frighteningly about boys growing into the most caricatured versions of men. A whole slew of books--The Dangerous Book for Boys, Raising Cain, The Trouble with Boys--sell us a complex mixture of how young masculinity can be toxic and cruel together with an insistence that boys are completely different from girls. If I talk about how Little Bug likes to look at books again, apparently having reached an end, for now, of his perpetual motion phase, folks tell me that this is unusual for a boy. As good consumers of this literature of boyhood, we seem sold on the idea that boys can't accomplish the literary and attention-based tasks of childhood. Boys naturally play with guns (even in the historical period before there were guns? I want to ask), run wild, struggle to learn to read, and need frequent recess; girls are verbal, relational, and settle down easily. Despite all the good feminist scientific work debunking it, the difference between boys and girls turns out (surprise, surprise) to be all about brain structure.
   The thing I worry about, even beyond what we are doing to boys and girls, is that we are smuggling back into the wider culture really fixed notions of the relationship of male and female to masculinity and femininity. How, after all, are these youngsters who are so rigidly masculine or feminine supposed to grow up into the metrosexual men, the queers, the strong, jocky women, the gender-bending intellectuals and transgender folk I know as adults? When I was young (when I was a boy, as Dar Williams says in her song of that title) in the 1970s, movies and television featuring the likes of Kristy McNichols, Tatum O'Neal, and Jodie Foster, together with the flowering of a Free to Be You and Me feminism made it clear that  girls and sometimes boys fit really badly into the gendered expectations the culture had for them, and that there was something wild and fun about that. Despite the anxiety about homosexuality that lurked behind all this (remember that in Free to Be, it turns out that William wants a doll so he can be a heterosexual daddy some day), boys and girls had more space forty years ago to be complexly gendered, at least until they hit adolescence.
  I want better for Little Bug than camouflage and the expectation that he will hit people and struggle to learn to read on schedule. I want better for all our boys, and girls, than the belief that we know what's important about them from the minute we identify their genitals on an ultrasound. True story: when Jennifer got the 20-week ultrasound, the tech said: "There it is! We know the gender! He's a boy!" Jennifer replied, without missing a beat: "We know the sex. We won't know his gender for a long time." As the tech retreated into puzzled silence, I thought, yes, exactly. Let's hope gender is something he can feel safe to live out in complicated ways throughout his life.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cuteness, family, and food

  Little Bug works at being cute. I used to think this was just something babies were, not something they did, but the more I watch him, the more convinced I am that he's doing it on purpose. Every time a camera comes out, if you can get him to stop wiggling and look at it, he smiles. I've seen him work a crowd, like the time he practiced his walking up and down an airplane aisle, and caught the eye of every single passenger. He wouldn't take no for an answer--if someone didn't look at him and smile, he'd stop, stare, and coo until he caught their eye and got a warm look from them. Last night, he stood on my lap on the porch of a pizza place and got every single stranger who walked by on the sidewalk to greet him. He's got a dimple, and he knows how to use it.
  Some of this seems poignant to me. Babies, in their physical helplessness, are built to draw affection and help to themselves. It's a reminder that nature, in her wisdom, never thought that parents were enough, that the nuclear families we imagine we raise children in are not sufficient.
  Kathleen Parker, in her Washington Post column this week, argued that the federal government didn't need to set standards for food quality or school lunches for children, because "as with most problems, the solution is family."
  Really? The answer to food quality is family? We're fanatical about food quality--Little Bug was exclusively breast fed until six months, and now is mostly so, but that was made much easier for us by class, and the fact that we've ducked the worst of the household impoverishment of the recession--we were able to afford Jennifer stopping working. We make a lot of organically grown, local food. But when we go out to dinner, Little Bug wants to be part of the fun, and we went out a lot last week when his grandparents were in town. So last night he ate chicken and artichoke pizza (mostly the cheese), and the night before it was a California roll with cooked scallops on top and a lot of miso soup. What do I know about the cucumber, the scallops, nori, miso, the cows and the artichokes? A lot less than I would like to. Or rather, I would like it if someone besides me would ensure that our food supply is sound and healthy, regulate factory farms, pesticide use, and regulate the antibiotic use and unsanitary conditions that may be affecting Little Bug's health when he eats, and certainly water quality in nearby communities. Some suggested that the swine flu pandemic of recent years began in the "manure lagoons" of pig farms operated by Smithfield farms in La Gloria, Mexico. What, exactly, are families supposed to do about that?
  And what about schools? When my oldest was diagnosed with diabetes ten years ago, in eighth grade, I was puzzled that she would come home with high blood sugars when we helped her pack healthy lunches and worked with the school nurse to make sure my daughter could follow her insulin regimen. After many trips to the endocrinologist and a lot of head scratching, her teacher finally figured out what was going--my daughter was persuading other kids to give her money so she could buy candy and soda at the store at school. While I shared her teacher's anger with my daughter for the  begging, bullying, and cheating on her diet, I was equally frustrated with the school: what do you MEAN candy and soda are being sold on a middle school campus? Shouldn't parents have some reasonable expectation that schools are at least not actively working against our efforts to get healthy food into our kids? But what are schools supposed to do, her teacher asked, albeit apologetically. We don't have enough money for classes, and soda and candy sales help. Kathleen Parker goes on about the "nanny state"--I worry about a state that has abandoned our kids.
  I learn a lot from Little Bug, smiling and making friends with strangers. I love all the casual conversations he gets me into, with people I would never have met otherwise. He also reminds me, though, of the disappearing civic art of relying on each other, and realizing that our fates are entwined.