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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Domestic Wars

It feels like my three kids are constantly at war with each other.
Since becoming a parent and witnessing the intense rivalry between my three children, I am always surprised—and a bit envious—when other parents gush about how delighted their firstborn is to have a younger sibling.

My 7-year-old twins have still not forgiven me for bearing their younger sister, now 4. They already had each other to compete with. And so, from the beginning, Georgia and Griffin viewed Jane’s birth as the gravest offense I could have committed against their well-being.

Jane, for her part, takes full advantage of being the youngest child and fiercely guards her place of honor in the family. When I recently kissed her goodnight and told her I loved her, Jane demanded, “Do you love me more than Georgia and Griffin?”

And although my three children frequently engage each other in boisterous games, sometimes playing together for the better part of an afternoon, just as often it seems they are fighting. They constantly vie for attention, air their jealousies and weigh the inequities they feel surround them.

I have learned the hard way that when Georgia and Griffin return from elementary school, I should portray the days I spend out and about with Jane in only the most tepid tones.

“Where did those books come from?” Georgia, fresh off the bus, will demand. “You took Jane to the library without me?!”

Not to be outdone, Griffin, too, sees injustice lurking around every corner.

When he asked the other day when his younger sister’s preschool began, I said, “Not until Monday.”
“No fair!” Griffin cried. “We’ve already been going for a week!”

I pointed out that when Georgia and Griffin were Jane’s age, they attended a different preschool, which had a 15-minute shorter schedule than hers. All those 15-minute increments probably added up to more than a week, I reasoned, though this explanation barely dented the burden of Griffin’s perceived injuries.

So, at dinner that night, Griffin reminded Jane, “You know you have school tomorrow.”
“I know,” she said. “I like school!”
“Well, you’re going to do hard work,” he retorted.
“We don’t do work!”
“That’s not fair!” Griffin exclaimed.

My children cling to the belief that they are somehow being shortchanged, constantly sparring over who has the most or the best or the biggest. Their incessant bickering has become an unpleasant white noise whirring in the background of our days.

Georgia, Griffin and Jane fight over who is first in line for sunblock. They argue about whether to watch “Peter Rabbit” or “The Berenstain Bears” until I switch off the TV. I even had to confiscate the throw blanket and pillows from our couch because my kids kept shoving each other out of the “cozy corner.”

When I recently complained to my friend, Tippi Aronson, about my children’s spats, she told me that her 4-year-old daughter learned to count early on, just to make sure her 7-year-old sister wasn’t getting more jelly beans than she was. Another friend, Megan Cahill, said her 4-year-old daughter insists these days on wearing garish princess costumes everywhere so that she will be “prettier” than her 7-year-old sister.

So I try to console myself that I’m not alone. But now even Jane, who used to putter around, oblivious to the palpable anger of her older siblings, has gone to battle.

Jane used to accept Georgia’s hand-me-downs, delighted to wear the cast-offs her big sister once wore. And if Jane occasionally complained that I never bought her new clothes, I painted her acquiescence in heroic terms. “You’re recycling,” I’d say. “You’re saving the earth.”

But since she turned 4, Jane no longer succumbs to these tricks.

“I only have one pair of sneakers,” Jane whined the other day, staring down at Georgia’s scuffed-up old shoes.
“You only need one pair.”
“Well,” Jane said, “they’re not very pretty!”

And when Jane’s brother and sister’s soccer jerseys—a present from my husband who got caught up in the World Cup frenzy—arrived in the mail before hers, Jane sniffed a conspiracy.

“Georgia and Griffin’s stuff always comes before mine!”
“I don’t think ‘always’ is quite accurate.”
“Well, it’s not fair!”

“Life’s not fair,” I find myself repeating on a loop with little effect.

But the other day, I suddenly realized that salvation might actually arise from the cinders of my children’s strife, when Jane, on the way to her first morning of pre-kindergarten, asked, “Can you just drop me at the front door, and I’ll walk in like Georgia and Griffin do?”

Though heartbroken that my “baby” no longer felt she needed me, even if just in this small way, I experienced a simultaneous thrill of liberation. I understood that Jane’s wanting to have exactly what her older siblings had—her desire to emulate their growing independence—might very well soon set us all free.

Missives and Missiles

Note that my daughter crossed out "mommy" and added "daddy."
In recent months, my 7-year-old daughter has developed a curious habit of communicating with my husband and me via missive.

At times, this has proven to be a rewarding experience, such as a couple of weeks ago when I discovered this note from Georgia, decorated with drawings of flowers and stars, buried beneath my bedcovers: “Dear Mommy, I love you and please tell daddy I will miss him.”

Jeff was going on a trip, and Georgia was already pining for him. But I decided to take the bubble letter extras she had added to the page—including, “You Rock!” and “You Are The Best!”—as directed toward me.

Encountering this short letter among my sheets that morning gave me a shimmery feeling, inspiring me to share Georgia’s love via text with my husband later that day.

As pleasing as it was, however, this communication was not nearly as delightful as a card Georgia left last summer folded between the pages of my old copy of “War and Peace,” a tattered tome that had been lying on my bedside table for the past several months—and actually still is.

Despite its awkward syntax, run-on sentences and misplaced capitals or lack thereof, I found my daughter’s epistle much easier to digest than Tolstoy’s eloquently sprawling novel.

“dear mommy + daddy,” Georgia’s letter read. “Thank you for paying the money so we could go to new hamphsire also thank you for driving the car daddy and For being the best parents Ever!”

Then Georgia had added some leftover Valentine’s Day heart stickers, as well as some teacher stamps, including “Super Job!” and “Excellent!”

“Wow,” Jeff said, when I showed him the card. “That’s really cool.”

If I recall correctly, my husband even clutched his chest, as if his heart was so full it ached.

I, too, felt like we had just won the Parents of the Year Sweepstakes. Our daughter was so appreciative, so polite. And it was all our doing.

So imagine my thrill when this trend continued, and Georgia left me several weeks later a page adorned with hearts, a “thank you” sticker she had peeled off of a case of toilet paper (the kind of sticker that indicates you’ve paid), and the note, “dear mommy thank you for the kids dictonary.”

I was so overwhelmed by Georgia’s expression of gratitude that I didn’t even mind that she had been too lazy to test run her new resource—or even examine its cover—to find out how the word, “dictionary,” was actually spelled.

It was the sentiment that mattered. I really had, I decided, trained this kid well. And so I stowed her note along with the others in a special box for safekeeping, a sacred stash I was starting to peruse from time to time, whenever I felt down.

But as I was busy congratulating myself on Georgia’s appreciativeness, her ability to express her feelings in writing, her recognition that it was important to acknowledge the sacrifices of others, I started to notice a disturbing trend. My daughter was beginning to direct more and more of her loving letters to her father, and I was starting to get only the complaining ones.

“I need HELP NOW!!!” Georgia wrote on a slip of paper that she slid under my door when she was supposed to be in her room, thinking about her refusal even to try to put on her stubborn soccer socks all by herself.

A few days later, Georgia informed me, via another missive, that her 4-year-old sister had gotten “really mad” at her. “PS,” my older daughter added, “I think Jane needs a N-A-P.”

Like she did with the previous memo, Georgia shot this communication under the door to my bedroom, where I had temporarily barricaded myself for some peace and quiet and where I was disturbed to receive this unwanted dispatch from the outside.

To my further dismay, when a week or so later I spent 27 precious minutes scribing Georgia a loving response to another one of her notes, using her multi-colored pencils to give each letter its own hue, my daughter wrote back a terse, “pleas do not EVER use my pencils unles you ask me.”

What I was beginning to find even more irksome was the fact that Georgia had started leaving my husband elaborate letters in which she tumbled over herself to compliment him. “Dear Daddy,” read one. “On a scale from 1-10 about how good a daddy are you I’d give it a 10! You are the best dad I could ever ask for...thank you for being the best dad in the universe. I LOVE YOU. Here’s your plack and ribbon.”

There followed Georgia’s drawing of a plaque reading, “The best dad award goes to Jeff Bond” and a ribbon bearing the emblem, “#1 dad!”

On another page, Georgia penned a touching picture of herself and her father holding hands and the words, “dear daddy I LOVE you! This is for you!” And when Jeff returned from a football-spectating trip with college buddies, Georgia spent at least one full hour of his four-day absence—an absence during which I tended to our three children, making meals, doing laundry and breaking up fights—a giant “WELCOME HOME FROM TENESEE” [sic] sign that she taped to our front door.

Truthfully, I do not begrudge my husband our daughter’s affections. I know at Georgia’s age, girls usually develop passing crushes on their fathers as part of their normal development. Plus, her twin brother, as is a boy’s want from about 5 to 7, tends to favor his mother. Griffin just isn’t very literary about it.

But despite my rational overview of the situation—and even though I’ve developed a pretty tough hide through seven years of caring for three children—I must confess that my ire rose near the boiling point when I stepped into the kitchen the other morning and discovered the following note: “To mommy,” Georgia had written and then crossed out, on second thought. “To daddy,” it now read. “happy any day!”

“Georgia left you another card!” I hollered loudly enough to wake my slumbering husband, deciding that he could digest his daughter's loving message along with the breakfast he was about to be making his children.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

What's in Your Lunch Box?

My daughter recently made me buy her this Hello Kitty thermos.
From the time he was born at 4.2 pounds, five weeks early, now more than seven years ago, our son was a picky eater.

Told by doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to supplement Griffin’s meager intake of breast milk with formula, I tried six different brands—all of which either constipated him or caused the opposite problem—before finding one that brought my tiny son’s gastrointestinal tract to an uneasy equilibrium.

When he was old enough for solid foods, Griffin enjoyed spitting his mashed peas and carrots all over the kitchen floor. And as a toddler and now elementary school student, our son has refused to veer, even slightly, from a diet of milk, chicken nuggets and bagels and cream cheese, complimented by an occasional apple.

Griffin’s twin sister, on the other hand, has historically been a pleasure to feed. Georgia sucked down her breast milk and formula, slurped up a wide variety of mashed fruits and vegetables, and has heartily partaken in adult dishes at dinnertime, gliding smoothly, unlike her twin brother and younger sister, into dessert.

But with her recent entry into second grade, Georgia seems to have undergone a transformation in tastes that is causing me intense frustration. She has decided to exert her independence in the form of controlling her menus—an area I prefer she avoid, since I’m already overwhelmed trying to nourish her traditionally much finickier brother and sister.

It all started with a thermos.

“I think for second grade, I need a thermos,” Georgia informed me several days before school started. “You know, to bring soup or noodles in.”

No. I didn’t know. And those food items she listed were two of the only meals I could get everyone to agree on for dinner.

So, like any practical mother, I ignored my daughter’s request.

But Georgia remained undeterred, bursting into tears on our walk home from the bus after the first day of school, wailing that lunch had been “terrible.”

“Why? What happened?” I cried in alarm. “Didn’t you have anyone to sit next to?”
“No, nothing like that,” Georgia retorted with a sniffle. “The cream cheese you put on my bagel got all over my lunch box and my shirt!”

And for the next couple of hours, instead of telling me about her lovely new teacher, how she had arranged her supplies in her desk and what books she had checked out from the school library, Georgia aired her newfound culinary complaints.

“No more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” she said. “I don’t like carrots in my lunch, unless you have those little packages of dip. And I don’t like my apples cut curved anymore. I like them cubed.”
“Don’t you think you’re taking this a bit far?”
“Maybe,” Georgia said, conceding at least on the apples. “But I still really need a thermos.”

As frustrated as I was by my daughter’s headstrong behavior, I also sensed that Georgia was working through an important though mysterious developmental issue—taking the form of dictating her lunchtime menu—the cause of which I would never unravel but that I instinctively understood I should try to respect.

So I spent a weary evening circling the crowded aisles of the Target off City Line Avenue, searching for one of those old-fashioned thermoses that I had had in the 1970s. But instead of finding plastic jugs encased in plaid, all I could see were rows of insulated coffee mugs in a myriad of shapes and sizes and an alarming array of water bottles with straws, spouts and spigots.

I was about to give up when I spotted a preteen in a school uniform, who directed me to the camping section, where she nostalgically caressed a squat Hello Kitty thermos I had somehow missed in my meanderings. “My mom used to put soup in one of these for me,” the girl said.

Georgia was ecstatic when I brought it home.

“Jiayi has this exact same one!” she exclaimed. “What are you going to make for me tomorrow?”
“Soup?” I limply offered.
“Yes!” Georgia said, triumphantly declaring the next afternoon that Hello Kitty had kept her chicken noodle warm.

As I hovered over the stove boiling pasta for my daughter at 7 the following morning, I noticed to my dismay that Griffin—who I had always been able to count on to demand only a cream cheese bagel, applesauce and milk for lunch—was eyeing the Spider Man thermos that I had felt compelled to buy him to match his twin sister’s.

“What could you put in that?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, sighing, overwhelmed, caving in. “Chicken nuggets?”
“But where would I get ketchup?”

Griffin shook his head.

“I know!” he proclaimed, offering a sudden epiphany. “You could put ice cream in it!”
“Maybe on your birthday,” I said.

Then I neatly tucked away one of the offending thermoses in a bottom drawer for what I hoped would be the rest of the school year.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Should've Been a Plumber

I gladly handed my husband the plunger as soon as he returned.
When I picked up our groggy 8-year-old Havanese from the vet—where he had had yet two more teeth pulled for a price tag of more than $300—the technician instructed me to feed him soft food and dose him with anti-inflammatory pills for the next several days.

This post-op plan had proven effective last summer, when Buddy suffered through not just two but 12 extractions. He slurped up his mushy meals, benumbed to his recently mined jaw. But for some reason, this time, Buddy’s recovery progressed less smoothly—a realization that hit me smack in the nose as I lay in bed trying to unwind after a long day with our sick dog, twin 7-year-olds and 4-year-old.

Gorging on a Netflix binge session of the third season of “Homeland,” I began to detect something pungent in the air. Ignoring it didn’t work. The stink only gained muscle. And finally peeking down from my pillows, I saw that Buddy had defecated, not once, but three times, on our rug and bathroom floor.

“Jeff!” I hollered, leaping out of bed, not caring if I woke up the children. This was an emergency I needed my husband to resolve. So, like any sensible yet squeamish housewife, I handed Jeff plastic grocery sacks and Lysol wipes and then hovered in the doorway to Monday morning quarterback.

“You’re smooshing it into the rug,” I cried. “Just pick it up and dab!”
You want to do it?” my husband turned to me and asked.

Instead, I darted outside for some fresh air. I should’ve taken a few extra gulps. During that endless night, Jeff and I awoke every few hours to the sound and stench of our dog unwillingly relieving himself on the bathroom floor.

“This is more exhausting than having a newborn,” my husband said, as I doled out more disinfectant wipes.
“And much grosser,” I added.

But the sun was shining the next morning when the vet granted permission to discontinue our dog’s medication and suggested I feed him rice, which gradually began to bind Buddy up. The future even seemed to brighten a little—that is until, in my sleep-deprived haze, I heard my 4-year-old daughter yelling that the powder room potty wouldn’t flush.

So I trudged upstairs for the plunger, which I half-heartedly pumped up and down in the bowl before deciding I had failed. Then I made the passive-aggressive move of sending my husband a detailed text at work about our crisis at home and asking if I should call the plumber.

“Wait till I get there,” Jeff wrote back.

And though I had little faith that he would meet with victory in that stinky little water closet—and that we would awake on the morrow with a still clogged and even more offensive situation—I gladly closed the bathroom door and stuck a fluorescent green Post-It on the knob that read, “DO NOT USE!” I also told the three children to run to the upstairs loo when nature called.

Despite these unmistakable indications that our powder room was out of order, my 7-year-old son, who can hear and read, soon reported that he had made a “terrible” mistake.

“I accidentally went in the bathroom,” he said, “number two.”
“It’s OK,” I sighed. “Your dad will fix it when he gets home.”

And I returned to the more pressing task of releasing our dog yet again into the yard and trying to pick up as much of his excrement trail as I could gather into another one of those plastic sacks.

As soon as Jeff crossed our threshold that evening, I turned over not just a collection of these bags and the responsibility they entailed but also the toilet plunger.

“Did you get it unclogged?” I kept asking, lurking outside the powder room door.

My husband soon emerged, waving the dripping instrument in the reckless abandon of his pride, and declared, “I should’ve been a plumber!”

I considered this statement.

“Yes, you should have,” I decided, suddenly realizing that were Jeff to leave the tangled fields of education and enter the leaky water-world of fittings and pipes, we would actually be richer and have fewer problems than we seem to have now.

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