Thursday, September 9, 2010

Making Contact

Ava and I have worn both Pip and Polly since each was old enough to handle life in a baby carrier. While neither kid could ever settle into an infant sling, the moment their necks were strong enough to keep their heads from falling to the side, I threw a carrier over my shoulders and used it to strap them to my chest. For Pip I first used a standard black Baby Bjorn, then a purple wrap, and finally a black and purple Beco Butterfly. I carried him around when I did housework, during trips to the grocery store, and just about anytime a stroller might be in order. As he got bigger we got a backpack for me to carry him. I used that to take him hiking, to mow the yard (with a mechanical mower), and to make frequent trips to the zoo. When Polly was born, Ava bought a brand new Beco with an infant strap that allowed me to carry Polly around even earlier than I had with Pip. It was wonderful because I could drop her in there and still be able to move around with Pip. I still use it every day to put her down for naps and to get her to sleep at night. Eventually, Polly also took over Pip’s position in the backpack and this spring she probably spent as much as two hours a day riding around slung across my shoulders.

All of this baby wearing and baby carrying has turned the physical act of touching Pip and Polly into one of the more important tools in my parental toolbox. At a purely functional level, it has made me aware of how much information a simple touch can transmit. I frequently use a light hand on the shoulder to remind Pip of something I told him earlier. He often puts his leg over mine during meals as a way of letting me know he needs a bit more attention. Sometimes Polly will do the same. Each of these gestures is wordless, and their relative subtlety is key to their effectiveness. It is tough to feel nagged when you are the recipient of a soft touch.

There is a feedback loop at work as well in these gestures that adds to their effectiveness. To be in such close and frequent physical contact with someone is to obtain an certain intuitive understanding of that person. For me, it means I gain an extra layer of sympathy for Pip and Polly. Our daily contacts - from roughhousing, to rubbing their backs as they go to sleep, to having them playing around my knees, to holding hands when we cross the street- give me constant input on how they’re feeling and what state of mind they’re in. And, just as important, they get the same information from me. When it’s all working well, this back and forth exchange helps keep us all going in the same direction.

This connection is subtle and often times not really noticeable until its gone. Every once in a while Pip and I have passed through periods when we haven’t been in contact as much as normal. It usually is not a conscious choice. It’s just a change in life patterns that we have to catch up to. When these periods occur, I usually notice that Pip is acting out in some way. He’s louder than usual. He’s more aggressive. He’s less patient. And I am more easily frustrated by all of it. The combination makes both of us unhappy. During these periods, we lose the ability or the willingness to work together, and it just makes every task we need to accomplish that much more difficult. I viscerally feel the lack of contact in much the same way that I feel it when I forget to brush my teeth. I get a nagging sense of missing something important before I even know what it is. Once I realize it, I make an extra effort to rub his back or have him sit on my lap while reading in order to get ourselves back in sync.

As I still get to carry Polly on a daily basis, this kind of conscious effort has not yet been necessary with her. But, I can feel the end coming. Since moving to Lexington, Polly has been in the backpack only a couple of times. Much of this is because Peter rides his bike every day now, and I have to put her in the jog stroller to keep up with him. But there is also the factor that as Polly wants to be more involved in everything, she is less willing to be tied down in a backpack or carrier. Throw in the reality that in the next year she will probably start going to sleep without being walked in the carrier, and I can see the end of the line for my child wearing days. This makes me aware that my days of frequent contact with them are numbered as well. The hugs, the kisses, the random collisions, the quiet back rubs will all diminish as Pip and Polly get older. It makes me sad to think about it.

And so, I’m already thinking about substitutes, ways to literally stay in touch with them without being awkward or overtly smothering. In this, I have come to recognize the value of the high-five.

I employed high-fives frequently when I used to play basketball and soccer. It doesn’t seem like much, just a simple slap of the hands or even just a quick tap of the fingers, but that contact often had the effect of creating a bit more connectivity between me and my teammates. A quick high-five after a good play made me feel more invested in them and enabled us to transmit the accomplishments of individuals throughout the team as a whole. This investment in each other seems like a decent approximation of what I’d like to maintain within our family.

Pip learned what a high-five was from our neighbors in Cincinnati. As a two-year-old, he was not ready to shake hands with people when we would stop and talk with the folks who lived around us. Some of the men introduced him to the high-five, and he liked it immediately. The opportunity to joyfully slap hands with adults thrilled him. He quickly developed a technique whereby he would straighten out his right arm and swing his hand through the fullest possible arc before making contact. His intent in doing this was to make a really loud pop. If it didn’t happen the way he wanted, he would swing his arm again and again until he got it just right.

Polly learned to do a high-five from my dad during my parent’s visit to our house last spring. I imagine she had watched Pip closely because it only took Dad a couple of tries to get her to open her fingers and hold her hand up for him to tap it. She was so proud of herself that whenever Dad entered the room for the rest of the weekend, she would hold up her little open palm for him to give her a high-five.

With both kids getting a kick out of doing high-fives, I started using them to dole out praise and to acknowledge their accomplishments. At first it was just another fun way to connect with them, but now I am thinking strategically. I’ve started trying it out in various situations – at the playground, during meals – to see where it will work best. I hope that as other points of contact start to disappear, the high-five can slide in and provide me with that little something extra that makes our family a cohesive and functional operation. It’s certainly no replacement for the kind of contact we had while I was carrying the kids around on my chest, but every little bit of extra knowledge, every little bit of extra trust that we can glean from each other can do nothing but help us live more happily together.

1 comment:

  1. Love your blog. Keep writing. I like your style and your insight about how to deal with melt downs and the like. Started incorporating it into my own parenting style. Reading their cues is something I do naturally, but you brought a new light to my eyes.