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Mind and Media Meet

charlie_and_lolaOur three year old, requesting more videos: Other ONE!

R: Is it time for bed? Let’s see…

Three year old (waving finger at R.): No, no, no, Papa: don’t think.

The videos in question are the brilliant and not-irritating-to-parents, Charlie and Lola, a British series based on the books of the same name about a little girl and her big brother – the most patient big brother in the history of, well, probably ever. Clever and visually interesting, and, crucially, not the usual nerve-crushing fare produced for the under-four-feet crowd. Ahhhhh. Thanks, Lauren Child!

(To have a look, I Will Never, Not Ever, Eat a Tomato, the very first book.)

 

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The (New) Rules of the Road

A_towerWhen A. was small and sitting facing backwards in her car seat while I drove, I began to curb my cursing at other drivers on the streets of San Francisco. Let’s be honest: the drivers here are the worst. The WORST. And I grew up in Boston and learned to drive on the BQE, so that’s saying something. I swear a lot here. Or I used to. With a passenger unaware of the rules of the road and unable to see their violators crossing my path, I had to take it down a notch: I didn’t want her thinking I was swearing at her. And right, yes, the swearing itself was probably out of order too.

“Dude,” started to permeate my ‘conversations’ with other drivers instead. As in, “Dude, what the [expletive now omitted]…?!” Or just, “Duuuuuuude#$)(#$! [expletive implied by tone and duration]”

Pretty soon, A. started asking in her new small voice, “See dude?” Short of mounting her in one of those rotating artillery nests on the roof of the car, that wasn’t going to happen. (Artillery isn’t for kids, no matter how many lanes ‘dude’ cut across to make an illegal turn.)

As her syntax evolved, her question did too: “Where’s ‘dude’?”

She’s lagging in her understanding of exactly how one should drive a car in heavy traffic (my way) and how rage can be compressed into sarcastic asides, but I applaud her curiosity and interest in the conversation at hand. She will make an excellent dinner party guest and a wonderful best friend.

At the playground the other day, it became clear that I may have to further curb my outbursts. A. was “driving” one of the play structures, spinning the wheel on the side of one of the towers and craning her neck around to the left and right and looking behind her.

“What are you doing, sweetheart?”

“Looking for ‘dude’.”

Hilarious, yes. Also:

They say that children imitate our behavior much more readily than they take the advice we so explicitly lay out for them. This is, in my experience, completely true. And it is a handy tool for revealing the hypocrisy in us all. While she is still just trying to identify this mysterious and always irritating ‘dude’ – before she realizes that ‘he’ is everywhere, not just a representative of the terrible drivers of my adopted city but of my unprocessed anxiety at the errands un-run, the laundry un-folded, the forgotten to-do, the breaths untaken, the pieces unwritten, and that international fame for as-yet-unspecified feats of selfless glory which has eluded me thus far, of all the hanging chads in the life of a full-time mother in a city that doesn’t quite suit her, before A. perceives the length of his reach with her child’s insight – the ‘dude’ has to go.

Because what I want her to see – in me and on the road ahead – is not an obstructing distraction, but a deliberate focus: for the moment, on the fun we’re having getting where we are going and how little it matters if we get there five minutes later. Five minutes is one more poorly-executed song in the car with her and me, our small team crossing a big red bridge on an adventure. I am no new age Polyanna (are there any where I come from?), but this drive – today’s and everyday’s – is so much more luminous and gratifying than anything I’d ever thought it would be that it silences me some days.

So I’m going to goddam well focus on that while I’m the one driving, and A. will come across ‘dude’ in her own time, later, well-equipped with all the joy and resilience and extra singing I can provide today.

And any stray profanity she’s picked up, which can, on occasion, be enormously, cathartically helpful too.

Quick Note to Nannies Interviewing with Me To Take Care of My Three Year Old

Do not tell me you spontaneously learned to read when you were three.

I say this for a couple reasons, neither of which is that I’m jealous.

First, you did not.

Second, that is 100% not true, and no, you did not.

And third, oh right: because I will not hire you. So there’s that.

Lord Almighty, applicants, get some game.

10 Tips for Nannies and Babysitters

Mary_PoppinsWe’re just coming out of another round of hiring a part-time nanny/babysitter, and I’m struck again by how challenging and sometimes ridiculous the recruiting and ramp-up process can be. Unless you’re paying a service upwards of $2000 to help you find the right, professionally trained and background-checked match or are on the market for one of the round-the-clock celebrity super nannies who make more than you do, you’re navigating the process on personal recommendations and instinct and then leaving your most precious possession in their charge while you’re not there. Harrowing.

Of course, the match-finding and settling in with a new family can be a challenge for the nanny too, and usually with very little context: kind of a worst case for starting a new job. So with both sides doing their best to find the best fit and then fit in, what are some of the things that a nanny can do to make the process go more smoothly? (I have some thoughts for the families too, also based on my errors and successes – those are for a future post.)

Just a quick caveat: I know a number of these suggestions fall into the category of “basic professionalism” but I’ve been surprised by how often they’ve come up as issues. Maybe it’s because the job feels highly personal and therefore casual, or just because the basics are often overlooked over time so they bear repeating. Whichever it is, I hope this is helpful!

Interviewing

1. Be honest in interviews. This process is already difficult enough without the addition of interviews with candidates who have misrepresented their availability or are really looking for something different than what we’re offering. This isn’t to say you should never interview for a job you might not keep forever: we happily hired a wonderful sitter over the summer knowing she would be taking a teaching job this fall. We loved her and, knowing she would only be with us briefly, we were able to set our expectations accordingly. Just try to be clear about where you are in your search and plans. It’s a good place to start with a future employer.

2. Be someone I will want to hang out with. I know this sounds a bit vague and personal. What I mean is, “Be interesting, attentive and courteous.” Don’t misrepresent yourself, but, assuming you are not naturally an offensive jerk, your best bet is to be sincere, focused and have a real conversation with me at the interview. You’ll be hanging out with me and my child, after all: we want to like you, so show us what there is to like. (See here for more on this point re: hiring. We also heard this from an admissions director of an exclusive preschool recently, so I’m definitely not alone in prioritizing this vague qualification!)

Punctuality and absences

3. Be on time. Bonus points if you can be 5-10 minutes early. Babysitting is not one of those new-industry jobs where showing up approximately on time is fine. This is a job where I am counting on you to show up on time so I can show up somewhere else on time. I will absolutely book enough buffer time to get my little one settled and me out the door and where I’m going, but I will not continue to hire a sitter if I have to book (and pay for) the extra time his/her chronic lateness requires to make sure I get there on time. It is just too hard on my nerves, those ten minutes of wondering if you are going to show up at all! It just starts the shift and the day off on the wrong foot.

4. Texting to confirm your shift ahead of time is a great habit. We’ve recently had two sitters who confirmed by text every time they were scheduled to come. It is wonderfully reassuring. Of course, if you’re the full-time nanny, this isn’t necessary but for one-off date nights or part-time nannies where schedules seem to be constantly shifting and parents may be juggling a couple of different caregivers and two parents’ schedules, it is a huge relief to get a, “I’ll see you at 5PM this evening,” at 10AM that morning.

5. Get in touch the minute you start to feel ill or think you won’t make your shift. This is a personal pet peeve of mine, and it’s now an upfront policy with everyone we hire. Calling ten minutes before you were supposed to be at work to say that you’re feeling unwell and won’t be coming makes me nuts! It’s not that I don’t believe you – I do – but I’m betting you felt ill an hour ago, three hours ago, or last night the way I do when I’m getting sick. Call or text with a heads up as soon as you start to feel sick so I can move things around in case you aren’t able to come. If you feel better in the morning, great: I’ll still be happy to see you. If you don’t, I’m still minimally covered.

To be very clear, it is not a courtesy to follow the logic, “Well, I might feel better in the morning, so I’ll just wait and see and not bother anyone.” Bother me. Period. I would so much rather be bothered now. Really. If you can’t afford to not get paid for the hours and that’s why you’re taking the risk, let’s talk about sick time (or make-up shifts if you’re not full-time).

Communication

6. When in doubt, ask. I would rather answer a quick, “Does A. like mayo on her sandwiches?” than hear that she skipped lunch. I know some parents may differ with me on this, but my policy is, “I would rather field a question now than a crisis (even a small one) later.” All parents want our sitters to be self-sufficient and competent, but, especially early on, I expect to provide some guidance and course correction: it’s how we all ease into new jobs and situations. Caring for my child is a team effort and that means you should feel comfortable reaching out when you need a hand. (I also don’t want you going without caffeine because you don’t know where I keep the coffee. Ask me about things for yourself too.)

7. Related: don’t spare me the bad news. I expect things to go wrong. They go wrong for me all the time! Really. I want to know where and how she got that scrape on her knee or that something weird happened on the bus. Trust me, now that she can talk, she’ll tell me herself. Before that, I’d probably hear about it from someone else, and that is the worst case for employer/employee trust. I will trust you more for giving me the bad news as well as the good.

And, corollary, I want you to consult me immediately when things really go off the rails rather than being shy about bothering me. I trust your judgment, but this is my child, so if you’re stranded at the park with a dead battery at nap time, call me. I can help. Really. You aren’t on your own.

8. Provide notes of what happened and when. This is most important when nannying for an infant: how many ounces the baby drank and when, plus when and how long she slept are essential to a parent’s planning after you leave for the night. (A Post-It will do.) I like to get those updates on my preschooler as well. If she didn’t eat much lunch, I’ll plan a big and early dinner; if she didn’t nap, an early bedtime, and so on.

9. Related, texting during your shift to confirm that things are going well is a nice touch. It’s enormously reassuring to me, as the parent of a child who can get anxious easily, to know that everything is going smoothly or just to know what she’s up to.

10. Be tactful with parents and their guilt about leaving their child in your care. Some parents are super well-adjusted about their career and care choices and bravo to them. But many aren’t. These are some of the things I’ve heard from other moms: “I want him to be happy with you – but not happier than when he’s with me!” “I want her to miss me but not to the point of being unhappy,” etc. You see what I mean? I had one nanny tell me she just skipped telling one parent about missed milestones because the mom took it too hard. The baby would just do it again on the weekend and that was that. Most parents don’t need that kind of extreme care, but regardless, it’s a tightrope for you, the caregiver, I know. Just do your best to help a mom out where you can. Provide details but don’t brag too much about a child’s wonderful days without his beloved mama!

And finally, keep in mind that some people just aren’t a good fit with each other and that’s OK. No harm, no foul. Follow your best judgment, and know that sometimes things don’t work out and you just have to cut your losses and call it a day – by giving plenty of notice in the most professional way possible, of course.

Nanny Withdrawal

So our nanny left. Not because I’m crazy and never mow the lawn or yell obscenities on Thursdays or something, thanks for asking. She got a better offer – more money, more kids, full-time – and we didn’t counteroffer. (Because we didn’t want FT help. Also, we have no other kids. Or money.) When this came up six weeks ago, it seemed like a brilliant idea to go it alone. A. is two and a half now, by the way, a barrel of laughs and she and I are great together. Like cream cheese and jam. Peanut butter and honey. And other combinations of sandwich fillings found in New England in 1978.

We could also use the money we were spending on the nanny for things like more tiaras for me.

I find my tiara really sets me apart from the other moms at the playground, especially when I pair it with track pants, but I need more than one in the rotation to seem truly chic and on it.

Photo by Shelley Panzarella, Flickr Creative Commons

At the end of week one without a nanny, I will admit that I am having some doubts about my cold turkey approach to the transition away from having time to myself every week to work and do other important things like drink a cup of coffee not at 6:30AM or run twelve errands in 45 minutes.

First of all, I have no extra tiaras yet, which is a big disappointment. It turns out that having a toddler in tow = very little time to peruse the goods at Bejeweled Bejunction.

Second, I have gotten no writing done. OK, like an hour the other day, but that’s it. This is not good for anyone involved. I get crabby when I don’t write and was getting a little foggy at the edges by Wednesday. It’s Friday now and by this evening I’m going to need either a.) seven cocktails, or b.) some (*&$! time to write already.

I’ll grant that this week hasn’t been the best one to make generalizations about how it’s going. A. got one of those inexplicable little kid fevers on Tuesday that led nowhere (good) but kept her up and periodically hysterical when she was supposed to sleep (bad) but down and listless when she was supposed to be awake (also bad). I feel for both of us.

On top of that, I started reading a book about OCD last night at about 9:30. This is the bedtime equivalent of going on WebMD with “headache” as your primary symptom. It wasn’t the best choice I’ve ever made, I’ll admit, but I’m interested in brain research and psychology and when the hell else am I going to read this stuff? In bed at 11AM with my bon bons and Pomeranians? Yeah. It turns out I both do and don’t have OCD, by the way, which is very confusing and makes me want to wash my hands several times and check all the doors because I’m so anxious about it.

So all in all, a disruptive first week on the full-time-no-nanny train. Next week’s plan: skip The Daily Show and go to bed early so that I can work in the early morning. Here’s hoping I don’t start writing about the glories of the dishtowel or take up triathalon training or other it’s-still-dark-outside delusional activities, God help me. Stay tuned.

The Bébé and the Bathwater

In case you haven’t come across any of the reviews or comments or coverage in the press about Bringing Up Bébé over the last month since it was released, here’s the basic outline:

American journalist Pamela Druckerman moved to Paris to live with her British husband. They had kids. She noticed that French children behaved differently than American children, was curious about the apparent differences in parenting that led to that, and she wrote a book – Bringing Up Bébé  – about her semi-formal investigation into the question. American parenting being what it is – always on the lookout for the next thing and let’s charitably call it, “not very laid back” – there has been a defensive uproar to the charge (not made by Druckerman) that French parents are better.

I happen to like the French – and their country, their cheese, their fully-funded daycare system, and, er, their cheese – and have never really understood the American love (Paris!)/hate (The French!) relationship with them. Maybe that’s why I remained engaged and un-offended while reading the book.

Or perhaps it’s not the French thing. Perhaps, as so often happens, the loudest yelling got the most press and the subject at hand, namely what was actually in the book, was lost in the fray.

Here’s the thing: I liked the book. I think you could too. So let’s clear up some of the basic arguments that have been leveled against it so you can get on with enjoying it.

First and foremost, nowhere does Druckerman state that French parents are better nor does she stage an attack on American parents. The defensiveness and anger of journalists, reviewers and commenters about what a great nation America is, how much better than France, and what amazing parents we all are feels irrelevant to me: no one said we weren’t. (It probably hasn’t helped that the book was introduced by The Wall Street Journal in an excerpt inaccurately titled – by them, not the author – “Why French Parents Are Superior.”)

Druckerman is no more “tell[ing] American parents that we’re doing it all wrong” than any other pregnancy or parenting book on the market, most of which highlight what you might do instead of what you are doing. If anything, Druckerman is less hard on American parents and more ambivalent about which path is best than many American books. Have you flipped through the page after page of rigid, judgmental suggestions in What To Expect When You’re Expecting or Super Baby Food lately?

The frustrations Druckerman expresses – out of control children in public spaces, the incompatibility of toddlers with restaurants – are ones we stateside parents express all the time. So why are so many mothers taking issue with her looking for a way to address some of those issues? Perhaps because we are instinctively defensive when we feel an outsider is taking issue with us. That is, it’s OK is we dish about our own relatives (or gender or race) but we bristle when others do. If that’s the case, let’s keep in mind that, although her thoughts are about the French, Druckerman is an American too. She is not taking sides against us.

Or perhaps it’s critics’ basic dislike of the French model she observes. To them, I would say, “It’s OK that it’s not your cup of café au lait. Move on. But mischaracterizing the book or the author as having done something reprehensible in even suggesting that we might consider a foreign alternative is like picking a fight with your boyfriend to justify moving out. Just go. It’s all right that you don’t want to take any of this advice. God knows there’s plenty more out there.”

Second, Ms. Druckerman having written a piece several years ago for Marie Claire on sorting out a menage a trois for her husband’s 40th birthday seems irrelevant to me.* On the contrary, that piece too displayed a clarity and candor (and a refreshingly domestic tone, unlike most American journalism on the subject of sex) that I found appealing. Having a sex life and being willing to write about it doesn’t, to my mind, disqualify a writer from also writing about parenting.

The furor over Druckerman having asked Marie Claire to remove the most prominent links to that piece only validates her apparent concern that readers would be so distracted by her having a racy (but not very) sexual past that we would be unable to judge her book on parenting on its merits alone. It’s just not that big a deal.

Third, the charge that Ms. Druckerman is focusing on the upper middle class of Parisians and that the book is therefore not a comprehensive representation of all parents in France is silly. I would encourage critics to produce any book on parenting that surveys and speaks to an entire nation’s population.

You can get back to me. I’ll wait.

Nothing? Yeah. I figured.

Let’s keep in mind that the audience for Bringing Up Bébé is of the same class in America: parenting philosophies self-select to the upper classes on both sides of the Atlantic. If you have the time and resources to develop a philosophy of anything (let alone write extensive comments or a book on them), you are in the middle and upper classes. Working two jobs and barely getting by do not allow for a lot of time with Dr. Sears or Ms. Druckerman.

Fourth, Forbes, among others, published a “rebuttal” calling into question the wisdom of French parenting based on America’s higher incidence of entrepreneurialism and billionaires. (I use quotes because a rebuttal implies that there was an initial attack, which I don’t believe that there was.) Again, this seems like a red herring to me. Within this kind of casually anecdotal logic, you might suggest that, given the US’s infant mortality rate – a stunning and embarassing 34th, behind Cuba and Japan – we should reconsider communism or acquiring an emporer to correct our childbirth problem. (France placed 9th, by the way.)

Yes, French schools are notoriously rigid. Yes, it is possible that that rigidity does not lend itself to the inventive, realize-your-dream thinking that is foundational to America’s national character. Yes, French parents’ early childhood focus on a “cadre” (or “frame”) may feel too impersonal or strict for many American parents. On the other hand, that same school system provides well-regulated, affordable childcare and preschool, something shamefully absent in the United States, and that cadre appears to produce better-behaved small children

The ongoing argument between Europe’s educational model (best typified in the semi-socialist Scandinavian countries where taxes are exorbitant but everyone is educated and no one carries student debt) and the American model (where education is uneven at best, providing amazing opportunities for self-realization for some and no meaningful opportunities or funding for many) will continue. It’s a difficult problem and a complex comparison. But it is not the subject of this book. Druckerman’s observations are limited to pregnancy and early childhood: the playground, home life with small children, day care and preschool.

(The mischaracterizations in these pieces of what Druckerman actually says does not aid their case.**)

Finally, and importantly, Bringing Up Bébé does not pretend to be a comprehensive socio-psychological survey of French and American parenting. Much of the criticism suggests that many readers believe it is – or ought to be – before they’re willing to consider any of the author’s input.

Bringing Up Bébé is part autobiography, part anecdote and part ad hoc research. Druckerman interviews doctors, caregivers, researchers and parenting experts (such as they are), in addition to parents themselves, but the book does not pretend to be more than an informal survey. She falls somewhere on the spectrum between Malcolm Gladwell (aggregating, filtering and commenting on other people’s research, see: Outliers, The Tipping Point, and Blink) and Adam Gopnik (Paris to the Moon’s essays on life with children in Paris).

As a mother and journalist, Druckerman does, I think, an admirable job of teasing out the unspoken but accepted cultural principles of child-rearing in France. That her book is not the footnoted final word on all matters of difference between the two countries’ systems of child-rearing – and which is definitively better – does not make it a bad book, an offensive one or disqualify it from my bookshelf.

Likewise, I did not reject Tina Fey’s autobiography for not providing me with a concrete, research-based roadmap to success in television comedy, nor am I offended that Gladwell draws his own conclusions about the research he relates. Yes, these are lighter weight approaches than primary research might present (which would have its own slant on things and, I venture, also draw critical bile from disagreeing parents). Yes, sometimes I disagree with their conclusions, but I didn’t go into reading these books with an expectation that their observations would be comprehensive, fully backed up and agreed to by experts or line up exactly with what I have observed or would have done myself. On the contrary, it’s the differences and subjectivity in their observations – their humanity – that makes them readable, interesting and potentially useful.

Bottom line, all this publicity is great for the book, so it probably needs no defense: people are talking about it, and buying it, and, as writer myself, I’m glad of that, and I’m sure Druckerman will brook the mischaracterizations just fine and laugh all the way to the bank (such as it is these days in publishing).

For those of you who have not read the book but are considering it, please do. Despite the many vocal and offended critics, there is nothing irresponsible in it, nor does it  prescribe a whole-hearted embrace of all things French, from formula feeding to fromage. I don’t believe, nor does Ms. Druckerman, as evident from her own choices, that raising children entirely in the French model is the correct choice. Primarily, Bringing Up Bébé is a bright, interesting read and and there’s quite a lot of insight in it that I’ve been glad to have. Especially the part about a cheese course every day at lunch. We’re definitely starting that tomorrow. There are some things that, as a responsible parent, you just have to do for the good of your child.

____________________________________________________________________________

Footnotes and References

*Slate’s Rachael Larimore on Marie Claire and her follow-up.

**A piece in The New York Times: “The French leave their babies crying on their own if they’re not sleeping through the night by the time they’re 4 months old.” On the contrary, Druckerman notes that this wait is brief – very brief: a “pause” she calls it – and nothing like the “cry it out” solutions that many American parents publicly eschew but privately take on in desperation after a year or more of interrupted sleep. 

Erika Brown Ekiel’s article at Forbes.com deliberately – and provocatively – mischaracterizes an entire segment of the book with, “Most of the parents Druckerman profiles discourage their children from standing out, speaking up or getting in the way of their parents’ good time. The advice they dole out is focused on keeping one’s child in his place, rather than enabling him to imagine and construct one of his own.” Again, on the contrary, Druckerman’s subject parents provide a structure within which children are free to stand out and imagine, albeit without the constant, hovering assistance of their parents. And the “good time” she references escapes me: Druckerman writes about French mothers’ efforts to transcend guilt about being a bad mother for, say, having a job, or time to eat an adult meal. 

An actual interview with Druckerman at the Huffington Post – unlike much of the coverage. 

A more balanced write-up at NPR.com.

Versatility


I’ve been on a quest of late to find A. the best fire engine, short of getting her a real one, which, let’s face it, we just don’t have the parking space for at our current place. It’s making me really re-think the decision not to buy that firehouse last year. That would’ve been the perfect 4.5-million-dollar solution to our 25-dollar problem.

I found what seemed like a decent FDNY truck at a toy store last week but decided to check it out on Amazon to see what reviewers said before anteing up.

Good thing. The description sounded dangerous.

Irrelevant, but dangerous:

“This 3 piece skewer set is ideal for creating delicious kabobs, roasting marshmallows for smores and cooking hot dogs right on the grill. Each skewer has a wood handle with metal finish. Comes packaged on a blister card with hanging hole. Measures 15″ from end to end. Handle is 3 1/2″ and skewer is 11 1/2″.”

I’m not an expert in either automotives or machinery, but I’m pretty sure a fire truck equipped with skewers isn’t all that safe. Or realistic. Athough I admit I might’ve missed the skewers the last time I saw one go by. Skewers can be pretty thin.

That aside, it strikes me as tactless to mention cooking smores and kabobs when people’s lives are at risk. That doesn’t send the right message to the youngsters, does it?

I checked back today to see if matters with our fire truck had improved.

They have.

“Add some color to the table with this bright and colorful placemat. Featuring a bright print of butterflies and flowers, this placemat is a nice compliment to the table that’s also easy to clean.”

Now the truck sounds pretty flat. But very cheerful. And not sharp. So that’s two steps forward to one step back.

I’m not sold yet, but I do like the product’s flexibility. Multi-purpose is the wave of the future right? It’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping!

Cross-dresser

This is our daughter’s doll. His name is Cailin because that’s what his box said. He’s French and wears a fetching shorts playsuit year round, regardless of weather or what any particular event calls for. No black tie, no jacket. Ever.

This policy has started to take its toll on the striped suit and is causing a minor gender issues dilemma.

Let’s start at the beginning. Cailin joined the household – we don’t say he was “bought” because that demeans him – from a local toy store. A nice one too. One of those ones where they have a lot of wood toys that cost $150. The choice was between him and another over-dressed, flouncy version of him, so we went with him. He was sleeker in his cap and suit.

(The hat is a thing of the past. There was no keeping it on him. I’m not clear if this was his choice or A.’s, but the hat has been put in storage for the day when sleeping caps make a comeback among the hipster crowd, and it will be cool again to wear it. Sadly, Cailin did not arrive with a full beard or a fixie. If he had, maybe the cap could have stayed as a fashion-forward ironic statement, but on it’s own, it was just too 1850’s.)

The holidays are coming, and I’m sprucing things up around here, so I washed the… let’s call it a pants suit, shall we? And it looks cleaner but still not very interesting. So I did a minor search for a replacement. Turns out Cailin might have to become a girl. Or a cross-dressing boy.

There are two exceptions to the all-girl outfits available for Cailin: a pair of denim overalls retailing for $64 and an MC Hammer top-bottom combo that, with your eyes crossed at an Iranian night club, might suggest “male” or at least raise some questions about the issue. Given that Cailin himself cost less than $40 (shhhh), $64 seems extreme for some tiny glorified jeans. (I know I will be having this argument with A. herself in not so many years, but let’s save later for later.)

All the other choices are some version of a pink dress. So the question is, will transitioning Cailin to being a girl suddenly undermine A.’s confidence in her ability to distinguish the genders or will it be a nice kickstart to her gaydar? (Which she will not have inherited from her mother by the by. I don’t want to get into it, but I’ve all but been on a date before realizing I was being hit on.) Although cross-dressing doesn’t necessarily mean “gay.” Hoover was a fan of the angora cardigan and he wasn’t gay. Creepy, yes. Gay, no. Eddie Izzard loves the ladies and his high heels. So OK, maybe yeah: Cailin just switches back and forth.

On the other hand, maybe Cailin is transgender. In that case, we would, of course, support his decision to make the shift, and we’d have to ramp up to the new outfits by giving him hormone shots. Which, in turn, would make him really moody and hard to be around for a few months. And then there’s the cost of counseling. Huh. That route is starting to look more expensive than the $64 overalls.

Maybe I’m overthinking this and throwing Cailin into a gender crisis he’s not actually experiencing. Maybe he’s just a boy who wears the same clothes day after day after day and has no sense of style. There are boys like that. In that case, I guess my responsibility as his grandmother extends only to making sure he knows how to do his own laundry. The rest is just a lifestyle choice.

You can see how this gets confusing. What to do, what to do. Parenting is so complicated sometimes.

Bag Lady

birkin.jpgI’ve never been a handbag girl. I don’t know anyone who is, but I have the impression that there are a lot of them out there, these ladies who spend crazy sums on the latest bedazzled clutch or giant slouchy shoulder bag and store them carefully wrapped in tissue on their own special shelves. (Who has that kind of space?) I feel like I’m always reading magazine articles or chapters in breezy books about these women searching for Birkin bags or extolling the wonders of some awful clutch they won’t be caught dead carrying in a year.

The last one I came across was Laura Bennett in her mommy book, Didn’t I Feed You Yesterday?, in which she described how her Birkin bag was her diaper bag for her five young boys and we should all follow suit. To make sure we know she’s a real DIYer and down-to-earth woman just like me, she assures her readers that she got her Birkin from a consignment shop and could never pay retail.

Well that’s a relief. I was trying to save up the $75,000 the antique one was going to cost me on eBay, but that felt like that might be too much for a diaper bag, so I downgraded my aim to $4,500 for the modern equivalent. It’s such a weight off to think that if I spend my copious free time ingratiating myself with my local consignment shop workers, they’ll ring me when one comes through for a mere $2,500. Whew.

Let’s be clear: I have never spent more than $250 on a bag, and that was only once and for a bag I have taken around the world. I don’t think I – or my budget – are cut out for the bag acquisition team. I have my own indulgences but the only thing I think I’ve ever bought in that price range is a laptop. And a college education.

Each to their own though: I have spent $95 on a single bag of groceries at Whole Foods, so I guess we all have our financial blind spots.

I am, however, on my third diaper bag, so maybe I should’ve considered an incredibly expensive, crocodile Birkin instead. Perhaps it does have everything I need. My first diaper bag couldn’t stand up to my overpacking and my skinny Air kept falling out of it, so I had to upgrade to a doctor-bag type. That lasted six months until A. got really fast and heavy: you can’t keep upright on our stairs with a bag on one shoulder and a shifting 25-lb weight on your other arm. The bag lost all the time, which must have been discouraging for it, so, out of concern for its feelings, I retired it and, with severe reservations, cut over to a backpack.

Don’t get me wrong: the backpack is the right tool for the job. But much like the hacksaw you pull out to whittle down your Christmas tree every year, it is not chic, and I look uncomfortable in it. (Don’t ask me how I end up wearing the saw. It’s none of your business.) Sherpas and small children are the only people who look good in a backpack and I am neither. The one advantage to it, besides its carrying utility, is that I have my hands free to hit anyone who tells me how silly it looks.

Not that that happens. Handbag Moms are too refined to call out their derision verbally. But I’ll bet when Junior needs a granola bar right this very instant, I can get to mine faster than they get to theirs. Now that I see that in writing, it does seem like a small win. But I’ll take them where I can get them until I can get back to my cool, green world-traveler bag which holds my stuff and only my stuff. In the meantime, I’m hands-free and my kid is cuter than all the others anyway. So there.

Bad Habits

I write on my hand.

Well, my palm. Yes, like in 5th grade, I jot things down on my hand. I write down to dos, reminders, notes. In ink. On my hand.

It’s only on my left hand because, really, how would I write on my right hand since I’m right handed? That would be implausible. And illegible. Come on. Think before you ask a silly question like that.

And OK, yes, while we’re admitting things, I do think there are silly questions. I’m not saying the person asking is silly, just the question, so don’t get your non-judgmental knickers in a twist.

(What are those knickers anyway, while we’re talking of it? Nonjudgmental ones. Sensible bum-covering ones? Brazilian thongs? I’m not sure which way non-judgment would go. Comfortable? Impractically sexy?)

Sorry. I’m a little on edge: I can’t read what I wrote on my hand. It’s kind of stressing me out.

As habits go, writing on your hand isn’t that bad. It’s not expensive or hurtful. Juvenile, maybe. But it is called “handwriting,” right?

OK, fine, yes, it is a little irritating for everyone involved. R. shakes his head when he catches a glimpse of my blackened palm. When we’re watching TV and I reach for a pen, he reaches for a piece of paper to insert between pen and palm. I think he thinks it makes me look, if not deranged, then at least a little obsessive. Or disorganized maybe? I should ask him. I think I already have but I’ve forgotten the answer because it didn’t make sense to me, like how I’ve forgotten everything I “learned” in high school physics. It certainly doesn’t make me look elegant, but then an 18-month-old accessory has pretty much taken the legs out from under elegant already.

I have been thinking about breaking the habit though. Not because it makes me just a tiny bit more like Sarah Palin and attracts sidelong glances from dinner companions but because I think it might be making me a little crazy, in itty bitty tiny increments. See, I wash my hands a lot – dishes, showers, toddler life – which leaves me with notes like the ones I’m trying to decipher now:

“Email moms” Fine. I know which moms I mean and why. Good.

“Take A. to lasers.” Less clear. What lasers? We have lasers? For kids? It probably doesn’t say “lasers.” What it does say washed down the drain with the pancake syrup.

This happens a lot. I hold my hand up close to R.’s face and say, “What does that say? That – there – below, “Tape gnomes.” That. See it? Is that an “f”?”

I can see how this would be annoying for him. It’s annoying for me. And stressful. The lasers probably aren’t important, but not knowing is stressful. Probably more stressful than if I’d just not bothered to write it down at all and assumed that the lasers would present themselves when Laser Time rolled around.

Sometimes, to save myself from splaying my palm out yet again in our most brightly lit room trying to decipher, “Not my rabtyz,” into something English (“rabbits”? “raisins”? why aren’t they mine? I like both of those things…), I just wash my hands and call it a day. It’s not satisfying, but it is an unequivocal resolution.

The other reason to quit is for the children. Well, “child,” but “children,” sounds more magnanimous and We Are The World-y. A. learned a while ago how to pull the cap off the black Uniball pens I leave lying around everywhere in case I need to write something down suddenly. Last week she uncapped one of them, spread out her tiny palm until her fingers bent back, made an unintelligible black mark on it and proudly held it up for me to see.

This habit was not at the top of my list of legacies I wanted to leave my daughter. I was hoping it would be more along the lines of “world domination,” or, “Nobel Prize.” Or, “cheese lover.”

So I might try to quit.

Maybe instead of going cold turkey, I could switch to invisible ink. I’m sure that would make the whole illegibility issue go away too. I might even forget I wrote anything on there at all. It would be like it never happened. And isn’t that next best to it actually not happening?

Anyway, until I decide what to do, I’m going to go have another look around for those lasers. I mean they’re lasers – how well can they hide really?