Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fire and Ice

Tracking the growth and development of children can be a tricky business. There are plenty of physical traits you can measure with rulers and scales – height, weight, the progressive increase in clothes and shoe sizes – but the intellectual, psychological, and emotional ones are much less accessible. Once you get past basic things like speaking and eating, tracking these traits requires a lot of extrapolation from ad hoc events. Every once in a while, however, you do get some definite indicators regarding the kind of growth that is taking place. Saturday morning brought me one of those moments.


Pip fears thunderstorms. For reasons that he cannot articulate, thunder makes him exceedingly nervous. I think it has something to do with the deep and ominous intensity of the sound and the way it makes things vibrate as a clap rolls through the house. Whenever he hears this, Pip makes a beeline for Ava or me and will follow us around from room to room until he the storm has passed and he feels safe.

On Saturday morning, we had a line of thunderstorms blow across our region just after breakfast. They weren’t bad. There were no severe weather alerts or tornado warnings; just some rumbling and a bit of rain. Pip was handling it pretty well until we went back into the kids’ bedroom to make the beds and put on some daytime clothes. While Pip was pulling up his sheets and blanket, I opened the curtains in the room. He took a peek out the window and immediately collapsed on his pillow. When he looked up at me, his bottom lip was quivering and his eyes had the droopy, searching quality they take on whenever he is about to cry.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“The ice scraper,” he said.

I looked out the window and saw laying along the path that runs beside our garage and into the backyard the black bristles and foot-long yellow handle belonging to one of the snow and ice scrapers for our car. Its presence there on the path was something of a surprise, though not because of the obvious seasonal disjuncture (both Pip and Polly have found our pair of scrapers to be highly versatile and entertaining toys). Instead, it was unusual for us to leave something out like that. We are usually very good about cleaning up all the playthings before we go inside for the evening. This scraper, however, was tucked far enough back along the path to have escaped our notice the day before.

Thinking Pip was concerned about the scraper getting wet, I said to him,

“Don’t worry, a little rain is not going to hurt it.”

To which he replied, “Yes, but it’s going to get struck by lightening.” Then he resolutely jammed his face back into the pillow. It was one of those incongruous moments with kids that are at once painful and downright hilarious. Even as his anguish resonated in my heart, I had to take a second to avoid laughing out loud.

The thing is Pip has a very clear idea of what happens to something when it gets struck by lightening. This idea is linked to a very specific experience. In the spring of last year, we had a line of brutally severe thunderstorms go through our area just before midnight. These storms brought with them a number of tornados and copious amounts of lightening. The storms were strong enough that we spent a good hour or so huddled in the basement that night sitting on blankets and checking the weather radio periodically to see when the danger had finally passed. The next morning we learned that during the storm lightening had taken down a local landmark in spectacular fashion. Up the highway from us, one of the new mega-churches had, a couple of years back, erected a building-sized sculpture depicting the arms and head of Jesus rising out of a small lake that sits in front of the church. As the highest object present in the open field in which the church was built, the sculpture was probably a magnet for lightening. Surely, it had been hit before. But this time it was different. Whatever defenses were in place were not enough to dissipate the massive amount of electrical energy the sculpture had to absorb. And, as it turns out, the styrofoam substance from which it was made was highly flammable. As such, the whole thing caught on fire, and once the sculpture was ablaze there was little to do but take pictures of the black clouds of smoke billowing up into the sky.

Pip and I saw some of those pictures the following afternoon. While he did not appreciate the variety of darkly funny suggestions these images presented, he was fascinated by the fact that lightening could create such a scene. He asked me to tell him the story of what happened over and over again that week and for several months afterwards one of his favorite ways to liven up a boring hour was to ask me about the “statue that got struck by lightening.”

Now, in Pip’s mind, the storm this past Saturday morning presented a similar threat to the yellow ice scraper. Lightening could strike it at any time, and the resulting fire would burn until all that was left was some blackened shards of melted plastic. The thought of this was just too much for him. To help him gain some relief, I talked him through a list of things that were different between the sculpture and the ice scraper. There were the obvious differences in size, the fact that the sculpture had been in an open field while the scraper was tucked away between numerous taller objects, and that, while the sculpture had a steel frame, there was no conductive material of any kind in the ice scraper. By patiently going through this list a couple of times, I began to calm him a bit and to release some of the tension from the position of fetal curvature his body had assumed.

While all of this was going on, Polly had been running back and forth between the living room and the bedroom, playing with some finger puppets and a fire truck. She finally came over to us as I was running for the third or fourth time through the list of reasons the ice scraper was not going to be hit by lightening. Looking over at her I saw that her bottom lip was protruding significantly out and downward, and I was grabbed by the sudden fear that she would be following her brother’s lead into barely contained distress.

I hesitantly asked her the same question I asked of Pip.

“What’s wrong?”

She looked up at me very seriously and, while holding that bottom lip firmly in place, said,

“Polly want to be upset, too.”

I stared at her for a moment wondering if I had heard her correctly, wondering if I had not understood what she was trying to say. Then, from down in the pillow, I heard Pip start to laugh. The laughter seemed to push his face upward, and as he turned toward us his teary eyes sparkled with glee. Seeing Pip, Polly’s face also changed. The bottom lip slipped back into its normal place, and a small grin began to emerge in place of her frown.

With this transformation I finally realized what was going on as well. Polly was obviously not upset. She had not wanted to be left out of whatever Pip was into. So, she had decided to follow his lead. For his part, Pip had picked up on the absurdity of Polly “wanting” to be upset before I had, and found it to be extremely funny. He found it so funny in fact that the ice scraper melted from his memory. He didn’t mention it again until that night at bedtime when, looking out the window, he once again saw it laying on the path by the garage. This second sighting precipitated a flashback and another small breakdown that was finally brought to an end by Ava’s going out and putting the thing away.


A month ago this whole scenario would not have been resolved in the way it was. Polly would have come in to the bedroom with her bottom lip stuck out and not been able to tell us exactly why she was doing it. Pip would not have understood the humor embedded in her act even if she had been able to tell us. That they both did what they did on Saturday morning is an indication of the kind of growth and development that is happening right now with them. It is amazing, hilarious, and unnerving all at the same time.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A week away...

I don't have a new entry for this week. I've spent much of my writing time helping Ava edit an article she is putting together. As it's now almost done, I'll have something new for you next week.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Training Day

It may not seem like it, but holding one’s pee and knowing ahead of time when a release of that pee is forthcoming are sequential, not coincidental, skills. This is something I did not appreciate when Pip was making the switch from diapers to underwear. As he started to show interest in using a toilet and began acquiring the ability to hold his pee for longer and longer periods, I expected him also to be able to tell me when he had to go. That he didn’t was a cause of much frustration for me. I didn’t understand the sequence and, as such, every time he wet his pants it sent me into all kinds of confused deliberations. I couldn’t figure out whether I was doing something wrong or he was just trying to antagonize me. This ignorance on my part made the whole toilet training experience much more difficult for Pip than it had to be.

What I understand now is that the tired line, “Toilet training a child is really about training the parents,” is true. The sequential nature involved in developing bladder control means that even after a child has learned the first step, a parent still has to be pro-active in order to get this child to deposit their waste fluids in a toilet instead of on the living room couch.

This is where Polly and I are at this moment. She can hold her pee long enough that wearing underwear all day is a viable proposition. We can go for a long walk and not worry that she will be wet before we get home. We can even get down to the park and back on most days, though this does push us up against her limit. But, as she can’t yet tell me ahead of time when her seal is going to break, I have to make sure she gets to the bathroom on a regular schedule. If I do this, she will stay dry all day. If I fail, she will plow through four sets of clothes in an afternoon.

So, Polly’s bathroom visits are a normal part of our everyday domestic life. She goes after breakfast, before snack, after snack, before lunch, after lunch, after nap, before dinner, and usually twice between dinner and bedtime. This pattern is so regular, I barely have to think about it when we’re at home. The challenge arises when we venture away from the house. Then, the regularity of our schedule breaks down and things get more difficult. On these trips, it becomes my responsibility to keep track of how long it has been since her last bathroom visit and to make a calculated guess as to how much longer we can go before we will need to find a restroom again. As there is no visible gauge by which to measure how much pee is currently residing in her bladder, this calculation is fraught with all kinds of uncertainties. Plus, my ability to keep track of these details is frequently hampered by the plethora of additional variables that come into play when we are out and about.

Our trip to the public library last week presents a prime example of the dynamics involved in this process:

First, I love taking Polly and Pip to the library. There are books to read, computers to type on, and stuffed animals to carry up and down the aisles. And the kids always seem to run into something new and interesting. Last week it was a massive globe overlaid with a contour map that allowed them to feel the difference in elevation between our home, the Rocky Mountains and the Tibetan Plateau. They were enchanted by this globe and wanted to keep spinning it round and round.

At the same time, managing both of them and their disparate interests in this setting can be a challenge. It requires a certain amount of hedging, a certain amount of gambling, and a certain amount of willing ignorance as I keep bouncing back and forth between them. In short, I have to pick my spots and choose at any given moment which pull or request is most important to handle. Within this flow, monitoring Polly’s toilet timing doesn’t always stay at the forefront of my mind.

There is also another variable at play for me in a place such as the public library. I am very self-conscious about the counter-normative nature of my role as a full-time father. What I mean by this self-consciousness is that I know people are watching me, and I feel it is my responsibility to demonstrate what fathers are capable of. Despite the hordes of skilled and accomplished fathers out there, the bar of expectations regarding men’s parenting abilities remains set pretty low. I am reminded of this each time some stranger sees me out with my kids and says in passing “You’ve got your hands full today.” This is supposed to be a friendly and innocuous comment but, as with most pleasantries, it communicates more than the speaker necessarily intends. In this case, it says “I see you are out of your element. Good luck holding it together until you can pass those kids back to their mother.” Again, I know that the people saying this to me are not trying to be mean. They are trying to be sympathetic. And yet, they are basically saying that I, as a man, am largely incapable of handling small children, that when it comes to parenting I am a temporary stand-in, good mostly for providing the kids with some entertainment while the real experts, their mothers, get to take a well-deserved hour away.

For many men, this implication is fine. It allows them to be distanced and distracted when watching their kids. It gives them some leeway to screw up without incurring any real social penalty. It enables them to be little better than a third-rate nanny and still be praised for their efforts.

But I hate it. I don’t want to play the overwhelmed father. I don’t want to have my efforts devalued and brushed aside. And I don’t want other men to get away with shoddy parenting because that’s all that is expected of them.

As such I constantly strive to show how much fathers can handle. I work to stay calm regardless of what Polly and Pip do. I pay close attention to their questions and seek to help them with whatever needs they have. I avoid appearing frazzled or overwhelmed even when I’m tired and frustrated. I inject care and confidence into my interactions with Pip and Polly. I do all of this because I am a good parent but also as a way of demonstrating to those who may be watching that I am fully capable of parenting my children; that, no, my hands aren’t full today.

Then last week, as I am juggling the kids’ various interests while simultaneously trying to select a couple of books the kids will find fun and I will not mind reading repeatedly over the next two weeks, Polly says to me, “Polly needs to pee.” Unfortunately, what she means by this is: “I am currently hosing down my drawers and you may want to get me to the nearest bathroom forthwith.” So, I quickly scoop her up, call for Pip to follow us, and head for the restroom where I can switch out her wet pants and underwear for the dry set I always carry in my backpack.

No problem. Polly and Pip handle the whole thing very well. Polly doesn’t get upset about being whisked up and away and Pip follows us without hesitation. In the bathroom, Polly stands still while I take off her soiled duds and replace them with a clean set of pants and a pair of blue rocket ship underwear. Pip takes the opportunity to relieve himself and wash his hands. In less than five minutes we are back out on the library floor and heading back to our respective places.

I’m feeling pretty good about the whole situation until I get back to the bookshelf where Polly and I were standing. There I find a wet spot on the carpet. It’s not large but it’s clearly fresh and is certainly not water. I walk over to the spot and rub it a bit with my shoe. It does not fade any.

And now, I begin to ponder an ethical question: Do I tell anyone about this?

The proper answer would have been “yes.” It’s the children’s section of the library. Kids pee on the carpet from time to time. I could have told the librarian at the desk twenty feet away from us and she would have called someone from the custodial staff to come and spray it with some disinfectant. Then it would have been done.

But I chose to go with “no.” I didn’t want to face the female librarian and tell her that one of my kids pissed on the floor and then have her give me the sympathetic, that’s-okay-you’re-just-a-dad look. So, instead I stood on the spot for a few moments and then moved Pip and Polly to another section. I rationalized this action by saying that the spot wasn’t very big and probably would vanish soon anyway. Then I could walk away with nothing harmed and no one the wiser.

In retrospect, I realize I botched this situation in two major ways. First, there was an obviously right thing to do, and I didn’t do it. Instead, I acted like a temporary stand-in and took the easy way out. In the process I undermined my own internal credibility when it comes to all those good parenting exhibitions.

Second, I missed two demonstration moments. One of them was the opportunity to demonstrate for Polly and Pip how we should collectively care for and maintain our public spaces. While I don’t think they knew about the spot on the carpet, by not bringing it to their attention and then going to talk to the librarian about it, I missed the chance to act out the kind of responsibility that I would like for them to take on as they get older. Similar sorts of opportunities will come around again but it’s a shame to waste such a good one.

The second opportunity was a bit more ephemeral. By not bringing the spot to the librarian’s attention I missed the chance to make an active performance of what a father is capable of. All my efforts to exude confidence and care with the kids in public are done in the hopes that others are observing us and recognize on some level how well that father is doing. By going over to the librarian’s desk, I could have made a more direct and immediate demonstration of these same ideals.

The parent who handles problems well is even more impressive than the parent for whom there are no problems at all. Sadly, in this instance I was neither parent and for that I am truly sorry. It looks like I have a bit more training to do.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Power of Eating

Why do we eat what we do when we do? Humans may be the only animals in the world for whom sustenance is not the first and final answer to this question. The events surrounding Pip’s hunger strike brought this reality home to me. We don’t just eat to eat. Food – making it, serving it, eating it, cleaning it up – is wrapped up in power. All of these processes are enacted through the social relations in which we exist. We don’t just eat because we’re hungry. We eat for entertainment. We eat to show love. We push food on others in order to gain attention. We refuse to eat for the same reason. Eating is never just about getting food into our bodies. It is simultaneously and inescapably about shaping, producing even, the array of relations in which we live.

I know this because I have done all of these things. I’ve purposely eaten three helpings of turkey at Thanksgiving to impress Ava’s family. I’ve consumed stupid amounts of pizza or hamburgers or rolls or buffalo wings in order to elicit astonished laughs from my friends. I’ve pushed my homemade mac and cheese on people at numerous picnics and pot-lucks because I wanted them to make some fuss over me. I’ve eaten discernibly less food than usual when I’ve been upset with someone or something.

While these acts are sometimes consciously pursued, more often they just happen in the course of things. The strategic manipulations involved are so well-established and naturalized that I don’t even realize what I am doing. They are part of the socio-cultural inheritance that I acquired long ago.

And now, for better or worse, I am passing them on to my kids.

Like most parents, Ava and I want our children to eat well. This desire spurs a series of actions on my part that from a distance seem odd. For example, I constantly find myself telling both Pip and Polly what good eaters they are. I do this strategically in hopes that the positive-reinforcement will over time instill in them a feeling of joy when they eat sufficient amounts of healthy food. But, I wonder, shouldn’t one’s body give you that feeling on its own? Is this behavioral training really necessary? Am I doing more harm than good by pushing Polly and Pip to pay more attention to the amount of food on their plates or the reactions of the people around them than to the signals from their body?

Then there is my all-too-common practice of trying to coax one more spoonful of something into Polly and Pip. Why does it matter so much that Polly gets down two spoonfuls of spinach instead of the one she willingly ate? It’s not like the second bite is going to make one bit of difference to her body. Nor is there a real down-the-road consequence. She already happily ate one bite. She’ll eat more another day. And yet, I prod her lips. I make the spoon fly like a helicopter around her head. I keep her at the table until she sweeps the spoon clean. Then I am satisfied.


As far as I can tell there are at least a couple of diabolical impulses going on here. At one level, there is the desire to have Pip and Polly demonstrate their appreciation for the work that went into preparing food for them. Ava and I work hard to make meals that are both tasty and healthy. We avoid prepackaged food and seldom get take-out from a restaurant. Given the labor involved in preparing and cooking their meals, it is gratifying to see them cleaning off their plates and incredibly frustrating when they pick and nibble. While it’s just food, these actions feel more substantial to us. They are like validations and rejections of our labor and our love.

On another level, Polly and Pip’s food consumption becomes a venue for me to reproduce my position of authority as a parent. I know that Pip and Polly sleep better when they have eaten a good dinner. I know that Polly and Pip get cranky when they don’t eat enough. I know they poop more regularly and easily if they eat the vegetables we prepare for them. Ultimately, “I know what is good for them” and mealtimes provide an excellent opportunity to remind them of this. If I think Polly should eat two spoonfuls of spinach then I am justified in pushing the second spoonful on her. (This is, of course, a trap because Polly is her own locus of power, and she rightfully pushes back against me in these moments. Caring authority is earned not imposed.)

One other force at work is my own desire to feel useful as a parent. If I am not actively involved in directing the consumption of Pip and Polly’s food, I start to feel unneeded, unnecessary even. It is a strange and awkward feeling. When this feeling is coupled with the idea that a good parent has a child who eats well, I feel like I have to stick my head in there and make sure that they eat. Their (supposed) dependence reinforces my identification as a parent, and their eating well justifies the sense I have of my own ‘goodness.’


Dr. Bill Sears, the guru to whom we turn when we have child-related questions, promotes the idea that children should be allowed to eat as they choose. He suggests that early on in their child’s life parents should prepare an array of healthy foods, serve them in ice cube trays, and allow the child to nibble as much or little as she likes. The idea is that the parent can control the available selection of foods, but the child chooses what tastes good and how much of it she wants to eat. In the process, the child learns to listen to her body’s signals and avoids some of the confusion that comes from the dynamics of parent-directed eating.

While I could not quite accomplish the ice cube tray trick, I have been working hard to keep my interfering impulses at bay. I have become much better at letting Polly and Pip eat what they want from their plate and not getting worked up when they leave something untouched. I’ve also learned to bring out from the kitchen only as much of a given food as I want them to eat. With these two gestures we have been able to significantly reduce the number of struggles that take place during meal times. The power of eating remains in play, but by shifting its flows we have created happier and more enjoyable meals for all of us.