Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Shifting Tides

Since Christmastime, there has been change afoot within our household. I have felt it come to my attention gradually, like when the ocean tide reaches its lowest ebb and, even before the waves begin crawling up the beach again, you can sense a new flow of activity around you. Things that used to go in one direction, now seem inclined to follow another.

Polly and Pip have started truly playing with each other. Our world will never be the same.


Two recent moments have brought this imminent change to my immediate attention.

First, the week after New Year’s Ava went back to work and Polly, Pip and I spent a couple of days engaged in the kind of undirected play that helps the kids ease back into the familiar patterns of life after all the excitement and unpredictability of the holidays. On Thursday morning this meant goofing around in Polly and Pip’s bedroom. For much of the morning Polly played amongst the blankets and pillows on Pip’s bed – alternately burying herself in them, hiding beneath them, pretending to sleep among them, and rolling around on top of them. Pip took this time to collect all the Cabbage Patch dolls and stuffed animals he could find into a pile at the foot of the bed and then proceeded to roll, slide, and fall into them in a number of creative ways. Every once in a while the two of them would take a break from their respective endeavors to perform a series of synchronized belly flops into the sky blue sheets that had become bunched up in the middle of the bed.

At about 11:30 I got up from my assigned spot along the fringes of all this commotion and went in to the kitchen to cook up the grilled cheese sandwiches we were going to each for lunch that day. Usually when I do this, Polly and Pip will play for a few moments longer and then make their way into the kitchen with me – Pip likes to find ways to ‘help’ me make lunch and Polly likes to beg for pinches of cheese from whatever pile I’m using to make the sandwiches. This time however, they stayed in the room. After about five minutes I stuck my head out of the kitchen doorway and around the corner towards their room to see what they were up to. It wasn’t anything new. They were just rolling around together in the middle of the bed and laughing about something. Figuring they were just finishing up, I slipped back into the kitchen and continued making the sandwiches.

Fifteen minutes later I was done, and they were still playing. I carried the sandwiches out to the dining room table and then headed back to their room. When I walked in, they were still situated in the middle of the bed, though now they were laying side by side in the rumpled sheets and blankets while looking up at me with big smiles. I’m still not sure what they were doing during those twenty minutes, but whatever it was they were reluctant to come out for lunch. They were having too much fun to be interested in food.


The second moment that caught my attention happened last week. I was doing some dishes in the kitchen while Polly and Pip were playing in the living room. Earlier in the day I had pulled a long thin strip of wood paneling out from the basement for the kids to use as a ramp, and now the whoosh of matchbox cars, fire trucks, and LEGO vehicles repeatedly rolling down the incline and across the hardwood floors filled our apartment. In between one of the rounds, Polly’s voice came calling around the around the corner:

“Daddy, help.”

There was no urgency in her tone and I guessed that she probably needed some assistance with one of the LEGO figures she likes to play with. One of her favorite games is to pull the hats, helmets, and hair off of these figures, but sometimes she has trouble putting them back on. I called back to her that I’d be there in a minute and went back to washing the soap off the casserole dish in my hand.

As I turned off the water and set the dish on the drying rack, Polly called to me once again:

“Pip help Polly, Daddy.”

This was said with such casualness and nonchalance that I chuckled a little bit as I walked around to the living room to see what had taken place.

In the living room I found Pip setting up his fire truck for another run down the ramp and Polly, as I expected, fiddling with some LEGO figures on the floor near the base of the ramp. I smiled at Pip and told him thank you for helping Polly. Then I turned back into the kitchen to finish the last few dishes.

Standing back at the sink it struck me that while this was certainly not the first time Pip has helped Polly with something, it was the first time that such a scenario had played out in this way. Usually Pip would come running to tell me about Polly’s difficulty – either before or after helping her – in order to receive some positive attention from me for the help he did or was about to render. This time, I guess, helping Polly out generated enough of its own positive feedback that Pip did not feel the need or the desire to seek this out from Daddy. While this development came as a surprise to me, neither Polly nor Pip found it remarkable. It was such a natural act that they didn’t even look up when I first stuck my head out of the kitchen to tell Pip thank you.


This changing flow in the patterns of our life is a bittersweet experience for me. On the one hand, it is very exciting to see Polly and Pip start to build a more substantial relationship with one another. Through actions like playing together in their room, helping each other work out different problems, and even just talking directly with one another during meals, they are engaging in the kinds of shared, everyday experiences that are fundamental to developing bonds of trust and understanding between them. They are learning what it means to share the world with another person and are beginning to discover the joys and compromises this entails.

Unfortunately, every ‘us’ needs a ‘them’ against which to define itself, an external other which demarcates the boundary where ‘us’ begins and ends. This means a slight change in identity for Ava and me. Up to this point, Ava and I have been in the middle of everything Polly and Pip have done. We have been playmates as well as parents. While this positionality is sometimes a burden, it has enabled us to really know our kids, to keep track of what they are up to, to understand how they are feeling, to anticipate what they are thinking. This arrangement is still largely intact, but Polly and Pip’s growing relationship has given me a glimpse of what is to come, of the time when being a parent most often will mean being on the outside looking in. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong about this exclusion, but it still makes me sad. I love the level of intimacy I have with the kids right now and hate to think of it drifting away into the realm of memory.

One of the very few universals in the world is that today will be different from yesterday and tomorrow will be different from today. In all this difference there is some gain and some loss. Parents feel this persistent state of change with particular acuteness as our children constantly develop new capacities and leave behind old patterns. Polly and Pip’s growing interest in one another is an exciting development for Ava and me, but I can’t help mixing this excitement with a splash of nostalgia. Their time as babies is coming quickly to the final curtain, and I will miss it when its gone.


  1. I felt a pang of sadness reading this post. Realizing you'll be on the outside looking in must be tough. I've just been catching up on your blog and it's so great to get an inside look into the lives of your children and your life as a parent. It makes things feel a little less distant, Dad. :)

  2. This is sweet. It is also sad. It is also right. I believe that one huge mistake that parents make is think they can be the friends or companions of their children. They can't. A parent child relationship is one of power and authority as well as love and affection. You must make decisions for and about your children. What is right for them, not what they want. Your success will be when they leave and don't need you. Then they must stay in touch because they want to.