Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On Wildness and Sharing Our Space

In the midst of a busy and complicated part of the summer for our family I decided to take an impromptu break from my weekly blog writing. It started out as just another delayed posting, something that had become frequent over the summer. But after spending ten days in late July visiting with my parents and three of my closest friends and then taking another three days or so to recover from it all, a few items arose with the house we have been trying to sell. After more than a year, a potential buyer had finally emerged, and we made a push to make sure the house was in great shape for their decisive walk-through. In order to handle those details, I decided to let another week slide by without a blog entry. Since then we have undergone a multi-week frenzy of real estate selling and real estate shopping that continues to soak up more of my life than I wish. It has been difficult to think about anything else, including putting together a blog post.

During this frenzy, a touch of wildness has entered the play of Polly and Pip. While they have always enjoyed tracking back and forth along the straight-line that runs from their bedroom through the dining room and into the living room couch, now each run ends with an airborne child crashing face first into pillows and cushions. In addition, they have started adding odd sound effects to their lives: grunts, buzzes, and growls fill any quiet moment at the dinner table, in the bathroom, or outside playing. Stomping across the creaky hardwood floors of our apartment has also become a regular form of entertainment. One day last week they pulled out every doll and stuffed animal they possess, piled them on the floor in their bedroom, and proceeded to slide, crash, stomp, and jump on the pile.

In and of themselves these actions are not particularly new, but the energy with which Polly and Pip pursue them has intensified. The reasons for this intensification are multiple. For one thing, Polly is growing more physically adept every day. She can now jump down from 18-24 inches above the ground and land on her feet. She can slide headfirst off Pip’s bed without hurting herself. She can copy all the noises Pip makes. In all, she can do an increasing number of the things that Pip can do. This means they are playing together more and engaging in a type of mutually reinforcing play that takes Pip’s energetic ideas and ramps them up to levels I wasn’t prepared for. Ava and I have approached this development tentatively; we are thrilled that they are playing together and want to stay out of the way as much as possible but at the same time we’d like them to maintain some semblance of self-control. Figuring out when to stay aloof and when to step in has taken some time and experimentation.

Also, much of August was so hot that we were unable to get in our customary evening walks. For most of the summer, we took the kids out after dinner, put them in the double jogger and rolled them around the neighborhood for a half-hour or so. This gave us a regularly planned activity that headed off some of the end-of-the-day squirreliness that the kids get as they grow tired and gave Ava and me a few minutes to catch up with each other. Without these walks, we found ourselves at loose ends for the hour or so between the end of dinner and the start of the bedtime routine. This open, unstructured time works okay in the morning when the kids can direct themselves. But in the evening, it generally leads to craziness.

It hasn’t helped that our real estate frenzy has sucked away time that Ava and I normally spend with the kids. Over the last couple of weeks I have spent multiple hours talking on the telephone with Ava, my parents, and real estate agents while trying to cook lunch, to get Polly through the bathroom process, to take the kids to the park, and to do any number of other basic activities during which the kids usually have our undivided attention. At first they thought our distraction was fun. It was something new for them to figure out. But now that this curiosity has worn off, they quickly become unhappy and demanding whenever the phone rings. It has been a stressful experience for all of us as Ava and I know exactly what is happening but feel compelled to continue with our conversations anyway.


With all of this swirling around us, I’ve come to appreciate the attraction of having a larger living space than the one we currently occupy. Our apartment consists of a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom for Ava and me, and one for Pip and Polly. Within this configuration, there is really no place the kids can go play without having to constantly negotiate with their parents. Their bedroom presents some opportunity for separation, but between the two beds, a rocking chair, a set of shelves and a dresser, there is very little floor space available for energetic play or multi-day toy arrangements. This leaves the dining room and the living room for these kinds of things. However, those are spaces which we all share together, meaning the kids cannot have primacy in either for extended periods of time.

When I was younger, my sister and I were fortunate to have two such spaces. One room was a storage room running under the eaves of our house that my parents turned over to us for a play room. We had shelves, a record player, and a dresser to stuff with our things. Toys remained strewn across the floor for weeks at a time. We also had a full, finished basement that was lightly furnished. It was an excellent space to get away from our parents’ eyes and have a pillow fight or eat a bit too much candy. It also gave our parents a place to send us when we got too rowdy upstairs in the nicer rooms of our house.

And, in truth, I had a third space that fit this characterization: my own bedroom. In many respects I was not as free to do with this room as I was the playroom or the basement – it wasn’t the place for rough play and it had to be kept relatively neat and clean – but it was a place for me to retreat to, a room where I could close the door, where I could decide who would come in and who would stay out. It was a separate space of my own, one that facilitated my own individuation.

Pip and Polly do not have that kind of space (and, frankly, neither do Ava and I) in our current apartment. While I don’t think all of this shared space creates a necessarily better or worse experience than my own, living here certainly hasn’t been meaningless. Sharing this apartment for the last year has shaped the way we relate to one another. I think and talk more about ‘family’ as my primary social unit than I used to – there’s a lot more “our” and “we” in my speech than “I” now. I have also slowly peeled away the time I have designated for myself as the demands of keeping the kids and the house together have increased. Part of this is the reality of having young kids and performing my role as their primary caretaker. Part of it has to do with the shared nature of the apartment space. With an extra room or two we’d probably just designate an area for kid craziness and send Polly and Pip there when they want to bounce around. Instead, we have to constantly negotiate with one another, finding a way to accommodate our different needs for the space we have and our different ideas about what the space can and should be used for. It would seem like a recipe for frustration – and sometimes it is – but ultimately I think it has been good for us. When there is nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide, you have to talk with one another; at the very least you have to tell each other what you are up to or what you are planning to do. With all that talking we get to practice communicating with each other. We’ve had to figure out how to make requests and demands of one another in respectful and conscious ways. All that practice has been valuable when real problems have arisen.


And yet, even as I write this, Pip has started carving out little bits of personal space around the apartment. Now whenever it is time to clean up and put things away, it is common for Pip to identify some creation or arrangement of things he would like for us to leave in place for the next day. Yesterday it was a fire truck by the bathroom door. Today it was a pile of LEGO pieces he had collected in a little cup and left by his seat at the dinner table. More often than not he never returns to these items. They get forgotten over the night and reintegrated into the play of the next morning. The regularity of this pattern makes me see these acts as a way of staking a more permanent claim to our shared spaces, as a way of exercising some control over them even when he is not present in them. It is his way of asserting his own individual place amidst the communal swirl of our family. I imagine there will be many more instances of this kind of activity headed our way in the future.