Friday, December 10, 2010

I Believe in Dog

(for Kelly, who recently lost her dog Hailey)

I was seven years old when I first understood, and promptly questioned, the concept of heaven. Mémère was reading me a bedtime story about people who died and went to heaven. The story made heaven sound, well, heavenly. I needed to know all about it and quickly posed a barrage of questions.

“Will Mommy go to heaven if she dies?”
“Will you go there if you die?”
“I hope so”
“Will I go there if I die?”
“Certainly. But that will not be for a long time.”
“Will Skippy go there when he dies?”
“Because Skippy is a dog. Dogs cannot go to heaven.”

This didn’t sound right. No. This didn’t sound right at all. How could such a wonderful place exist without dogs? Heaven sounded like a nice place to go, but who would want to go there if there were no dogs? I cried. I worried about Skippy. Where would he go? Was there a dog heaven? Would he know anyone there? He didn’t have any dog friends that I knew of.

The sadness dissipated and was replaced with anger. I was mad. It was unfair that Skippy couldn’t go to heaven. He was just as good as any person I had ever met. It was unfair that I had to go a place for eternity where there were no dogs. I thought heaven was supposed to be perfect, but the no dogs policy was clearly a huge flaw!

Skippy has been gone a long time now. So has Shadow. And Kiowa. The dogs I have loved and lost. It makes my stomach cramp to think of it, but I know some day I will lose my beloved Gosh as well. I can’t claim to know anymore now than I did when I was seven regarding where they have gone after death. Did they crumble to dust? Certainly. But did part of them live on? Certainly. Maybe they haven’t gone on to heaven or an afterlife, but they will always be present in my thoughts, memories and actions. My dogs have helped shape my life. They are my family members and my friends.

I wish I could believe in heaven. That is, a heaven that includes dogs. There would be sunny nooks for lounging, an abundance of tennis balls, and plushy, squeaky toys would grow on bushes. All of my dogs would meet up there and form one pack that would eventually welcome me with wagging tails, happy barks and slobbering tongues. I would get to be happy with them once again. But I am far too cynical to believe in such a post-life Utopian existence. I will simply have to be content with the simple truth: I get to share my life with dogs. That, on its own, is extraordinary.

I believed it when I was seven and I believe it now. Life is not complete without dogs. And my dogs have made my life, well, heavenly. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Folsom Prison Blues and Other Lullabies

I am fairly certain that every childcare book on every bookshelf in America says that singing to your baby is an excellent thing to do. I submit that the authors of these books have never heard me sing. Nor would they want to. However, one day I decided to take their advice and broke out an a cappella version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for my baby daughter, Devi. It was horrible. I am positive that my voice sounds like a squirrel trying to impersonate Minnie Mouse and the whole exercise made me entirely self-conscious and uncomfortable. Not at all the warm, fuzzy musical experience that I was hoping to offer to my daughter.

I went back to the books and was reassured to read that babies don’t particularly care if their parent’s singing voice is displeasing. In fact, it can still be comforting because it is a voice they are familiar with. This was excellent news as it meant that my rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle” hadn’t irreparably damaged my new relationship with my daughter. But this didn’t help me get past the fact that I felt completely weird singing in a silent house to an infant. Since I was pretty sure that singing to my baby was an obligatory part of being a mom I had to figure out a way around the weirdness.

Maybe if I had music to sing with I would feel less self-conscious about singing aloud to someone. After all, I always had music on in the house and I had turned it off to try to sing these lullabies in the first place. I looked through my music collection and, not surprisingly, found that the closest thing I had to baby music or nursery rhymes was the Charlie Brown Christmas CD. Breaking out the Christmas music would only make me feel weirder.  So I chose something that would be easy for a baby to listen to, that I knew all the words to and that I could sing along to. I chose Johnny Cash.

I am aware that songs about prisons, cocaine and shooting a woman named Delia might not be everyone’s first pick when choosing music for an infant. But I needed music that I was comfortable with. Besides, Devi was too young to understand words yet and it couldn’t possibly be any worse than singing her a song about falling down out of a tree in her cradle.

I sang. And she listened. I didn’t feel self-conscious anymore. I didn't care how bad I sounded. I felt relaxed and she seemed to enjoy the singing. Folsom Prison Blues. Ring of Fire. Sunday Morning Coming Down. I was on a roll. I was enjoying myself and I felt like I was really bonding with my child. I started to introduce a half-hour of singing and dancing into our everyday routine. I would put on Johnny Cash or the Smiths or the Cure or any other depressing songs I happened to know by heart and I would sing to her as I danced her around the kitchen. Smiling. Laughing. Singing.

It turns out those books are right. Singing to my baby was an excellent thing to do.

Devi is three and a half now. Sometimes she will ask to listen to Johnny Cash in the car and she will smile and say “You used to sing this to me when I was a little baby”. Ten years from now, when she can understand the lyrics it will sound more like “You used to sing THIS for me when I was a little baby?” But maybe someday, if she has kids, she will find herself walking around the house with an infant, singing Folsom Prison Blues and will say “Your grandmother used to sing this to me when I was a little baby”. The words in the song won’t matter. The fact that I cared enough to sing to her will.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Two-For-One Special

“One and done!” I must have said it two hundred times. It was my stock answer whenever anyone asked me if we were planning to have any more children. “No. This is it. One and done.” I was not planning to have more children. I had my hands full with one and felt I was at maximum capacity with the amount of life (work, marriage, child, house, dog, cat, yard, bills, misc.) I could possibly handle.

But you know what they say about the best laid plans.

My husband was away on a business trip when I had The Dream. The Dream that I was pregnant again. I got out of bed, consulted the calendar, determined that at most I was only a couple days late and returned to bed. But I could not sleep. I arose in the morning promptly at 6 AM when my 18-month old alarm clock, Devi, sounded her wake-up call. I couldn’t shake the dream so I decided to buy a pregnancy test kit when we went to Target that morning. I would take the test, see the negative result and be able to get on with my life, unencumbered by the “what ifs” that had taken up residence within my thoughts. I took the test (while feeling ridiculous for giving in to the suggestion of a dream) and awaited the negative result. Positive. Wait, I did the test wrong. Better do it again. Positive.

I was in complete shock. This was not part of my plan. I fumbled through the day as best I could. But I couldn’t stop myself from remembering just how hard the pregnancy and first year with a new child was for me. I didn’t want to go through it all again and worse, I didn’t think I could get through it all again. I tried to hide the fear in my voice when Bryon called from the road, but he could tell something was wrong. I burst into tears and announced “I’m pregnant again”. He later told me that he smiled at that moment. The idea of another child made him happy.

We talked it through and I slowly adjusted to the idea. Sure, it wasn’t part of the plan, but it would be nice for Devi to have a sibling. After all, I had brothers and loved playing with them when we were younger. And I could suffer through another pregnancy.  I would hate it (again) but it was only a short term thing. I began to see the possibilities. I knew it would be harder in the short term to take care of a new baby with a 2 year old running around, but once they got older they could play together, have tea-parties and make blanket forts. All those fun sibling things. By the time we went to the doctor for the first ultrasound, I was really beginning to believe that I could handle being a mom to two children.

And that’s when my re-laid plans went awry.

“Twins” the doctor announced. No, that can’t be right. Check again. “There are definitely two”. I started crying. I was shocked. Overwhelmed. Confused. I had barely adjusted to the idea of coping with another baby. How could I possibly handle adding not one but TWO children to my daily to-do list!!  I didn’t see how it was possible. How would I manage? How could I be a good mother to 3 children at once? How could I even get things like grocery shopping done? Did we need a new car? Every thought overwhelmed me. I could see only obstacles and no solutions.

I muddled through. My husband supported me. My family supported me.  My doctor supported me. My boss supported me. And I needed all the support I could get. It was a high-risk pregnancy and it was a complicated and anxiety-ridden pregnancy. I had weekly ultra-sounds. I had 3 MRI’s. I was tested for pre-eclampsia 4 times. Oddly, the overwhelming stress of the pregnancy made me let go of the anxiety over actually having three children. I focused on making it through- getting us all to the finish line and bringing them into this world. Finally, after 36 ½ weeks of stress and anxiety it was over. 

I was foggy from the medicine, but I remember Bryon bringing the boys to me and I smiled, overcome with happiness. I was surprised by how completely I loved them at that moment. I had struggled so hard for months to bring them into the world. I had been weighed, measured, tested, poked, prodded and endured many other demoralizing medical inquiries for them. And here they were: Stirling and Crawford. Healthy. Whole. The two babies that I had not planned for.

I am not a person who believes in God or fate or some grand master plan of the Universe. I do not believe that “everything happens for a reason” or that “life only gives you as much as you can handle”. I have no delusions that I had these babies for a greater purpose, like they are going to be the first twin Presidents of the United States.  What I do believe is that my boys have been the biggest, most wonderful surprise of my life. I believe that I love them utterly and absolutely.

And I believe that my life would have been twice as empty had it gone according to plan. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

My First Child is a Bit on the Hairy Side

Almost everyone thinks I have three kids. They are wrong. I have four, and no, I am not referring to my husband (in fact, I cringe every time I hear a woman make that remark).

I am referring (of course!) to Gosh, the best dog in the world. We got Gosh, our fur-kid, 2 years before we had a human kid and I have loved her as a child ever since. Because Gosh is the eldest, I started referring to her as the “older sister” after Devi was born. It was very cute when I would ask Devi “where’s your sister” and she would run over to Gosh. However, I will admit that this concept became a bit confusing for Devi and when she informed me that Gosh would get hands “when she grew into a people” I knew I had some explaining to do. It took months before I could convince her that Gosh couldn’t grow into a “people”.  Her honest little-kid mind doesn’t see Gosh as a dog, but simply as a member of her family. 

However, Gosh is a dog, and as a dog she does have limitations that my other children do not have. Though I try my best, I cannot always include her in all of the outings with the kids. She cannot go to the library, playgroup, or Museum of Science. However, she can go for walks, hikes and to the park and it is for that reason that I routinely take all my kids to the neighborhood park.  It is a place that they all can enjoy.

I have been going to this park on almost a daily basis to play ball with Gosh since she was a puppy. Now that I have the other three kids we get there a bit less often, but still 3-4 times per week to play and run around. At the park, I tend to get one of two reactions from the other parents who see me with my crew: either they are impressed and think I must have it all together to manage so much or they think I am crazy. Their attention is usually caught when it dawns on them that the three kids (age 3 and under) all belong to me. This invariably prompts comments such as “Boy do you have your hands full!” The not-so-subtle translation of which is: “I am so glad I am not you”. And then they see Gosh and say “You have a dog too? Wow, I could never find a way to bring the dog even with one kid”.

I get it. I do understand how someone could feel that way. Trust me, trying to watch 3 kids and a dog requires a lot of energy and I would seriously need 20 eyes to watch them all properly.  However, I simply do not feel the same way. If I am going to take my kids to the park, then I am going to take ALL my kids to the park. I can’t just leave one home unless there is a good reason. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when Gosh does have to stay home. But I can list them on one hand:
  1. There is a playgroup at the park and there are just way too many kids that would be chasing her or scared of her or otherwise interfere with her ability to enjoy the park.
  2. She has already had too much exercise during the day and it would be bad for her knee (she has a luxating patella)
  3. It is too hot or cold and she would be miserable.

On all other occasions I bring all four kids to the park. And I love it.

I love that Gosh enjoys playing with all the neighborhood kids. I love exposing the other kids (especially those who were previously scared of dogs) to a very sweet, playful, good-natured pup. But mostly I love the fact that my children, all my children, can play around outside with each other. Chase. Tag. Fetch. Fun! It makes me happy to watch them play together as inter-species siblings.

Because in my mind, that is what they are. Siblings.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Things That Go Bump In the Night

Admittedly, I like the creepy-crawlies. Those things that go bump in the night. Monster movies, bats, spiders and Edgar Allan Poe. Spine-tingling, goose-bumping, scary fun. But that is me, and I am not 3 and ½ years old.

When I had my first child almost four years ago, I tried to do everything right. I ensured that she had all the right nutrients in exactly the right amounts for healthy growth. I made all my own baby food with organic vegetables purchased at Whole Foods. I showed her black and white picture cards to stimulate cognitive development and taught her sign language for milk, diaper and bird. She really picked up on the sign for bird and I was proud that my little baby was signing bird whenever anything (bird, leaf, or random piece of garbage) fluttered past on the wind. In short, I obsessed as every new mom does.

It was while I was in this state of obsession that I began to think about issues that might arise as she got older. I thought about things like potty training and nightmares. I had no clue on potty training, but I was pretty sure that my creative mind could conquer childhood nightmares. And thus it began. I created my own stories and lore to tell my daughter so she wouldn’t be afraid of monsters. I imagined her telling me she was scared of monsters under her bed, to which I would explain “Of course there are monsters under the bed!” I would then explain to her that monsters can only come into the house with permission and that we choose to let the good monsters in because we know the secret question. Oh, what’s the secret question you ask? Simply ask the monster what his favorite food is and you will know by his reply if he is a nice, friendly monster or if he is a nasty baddie. Is his answer ice cream? Excellent! We have made a new friend and you can invite him in the house. Did he answer toadstools or kitty-cat whiskers? Uh-oh! You can rest assured that you have a bad monster on your hands and he must be told that he is not allowed into our house.

Naturally, the day came when she was scared of monsters. I explained monsters (my version of monsters anyway) and …… it worked! Monsters quickly moved from the scary unknown to a normal ingredient in toddler life. I taught her how to draw monsters. Monsters with 2 eyes or 6 eyes, arms, legs, tentacles, horns, hooves, teeth, claws and strange, striped antennae! We made play-doh monsters, designed monsters on the computer and gave our monsters names like Harry. We were having fun AND I was some sort of super-mom capable of defeating such a common childhood problem!

Or was I? Umm, no, as it turns out, I was not.

My grand monster story couldn’t explain away witches. So I told her that witches are scared of foxes and gave her a stuffed silver fox to keep witches away. But that didn’t stop lions or tigers. So I told her that lions and tigers are scared of rhinos and her blue stuffed Mr. Rhino would poke them with his horns if they came near her. But that didn’t stop sharks. Or alligators. Or t-rex. Or the dark. My grand monsters story worked on monsters. Just monsters.

It slowly dawned on me, as I tried to chase away all those things that go bump in the night, that I was waging a hopeless battle. I wasn’t merely trying to protect my daughter from monsters (and sharks, alligators, even peacocks one night), but I was actually trying to insulate her from the emotion of fear itself. I wanted to protect her from feeling scared, afraid and helpless. Well, of course I did- I am her mom after all! But could I? Should I?

Of course not! There are reasons people experience childhood fear. It helps us to grow and develop into adults who can cope with new and unknown situations. Eventually my daughter will learn not to be afraid of sharks, alligators and all the other creepy-crawlies and she will learn to understand the emotion of fear for more tangible and real reasons. Sure, in between now and then there will be sleepless nights, bad dreams and many flashlight searches to ensure nothing is sneaking under her bed.  And I will comfort her as I open the closet door to make a final check for lions. I am a super-mom who taught my daughter not to fear monsters, but I am not destined to be the conqueror of all childhood fear.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bats, Babies and Bedtime Stories: A Bloggy Beginning

I love bats. And babies. And bedtime stories. And …… blogs?

Well, that remains to be seen. But on the other three, I am one hundred percent sure: I love them. And if this blog turns out to be the perfect way to tie them all together, then I will love blogging as well.

I never thought I would be a happy mom. In fact, for a very long time I didn’t think I would ever have children. Just pets. Mostly dogs. Maybe some cats. Or a tea-cup pig. But no kids. Then, life changed, as it is wont to do.

I met a guy, fell in love, changed universities, moved to Wisconsin, got some cats, moved back to Boston, got married, bought a house, fell out a window, got a dog and then had not one, but three kids. Pretty standard stuff (except for maybe the parts about Wisconsin and the window).

When I had Devi, my first child, it was soon obvious that parenthood could easily become all-consuming. I wanted to be the perfect mom: apple pie and Toll-House cookies, stories at bedtime and all the warm fuzzies that go along with it. But what did that mean for the “me” part of me?  I didn’t want to lose myself in parenthood. I still wanted to be me: a little goth (well, maybe a lot), a little punk, a little bit of life on the darker side. Would I have to sacrifice myself to become the perfect mom? Would I have to get a short haircut, wear mom jeans, practical shoes and drive a mini-van while rockin’ out to Raffi? Did I have to read her ‘Goodnight Moon’ or could I lull her to sleep with my own stories about the Bat King? Couldn’t I be June Cleaver AND Lily Munster at the same time?

The answer is obvious. I am who I am and the essence of “me” couldn’t simply change because I became a mom. To let parenthood change me in such an all-consuming way would not only sacrifice everything that I am but would also portray a false ideal to my children- the very children who I want to raise to be independent and unique. I realized that by being myself I AM being a good mom. The best mom I can be.

Sure, my children may have some unconventional notions. They will assume that all their friends have gargoyles to protect their houses and that they know the secret questions to ask monsters. But I am pretty sure that when I was five I thought every grandmother spoke French and everyone’s mom danced along to ‘Dance Fever’ each week. Somehow or other I managed to survive both French and disco to become my own person. I am sure my children will survive the skeletons and the bats and manage to eat some apple pie along the way.

And they will be them. And I will be me. Part soccer-mom, part boogey-mom, but always me.