Month: August 2014

Kindergarten Journal, Episode 1: I Worry

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My son Smoke starts kindergarten in less than a week. I should be ready for this. Because he has an October birthday, he’s had to wait until he’s nearly six to start. His friends with March birthdays and August birthdays have, in his eyes, beat him to it and ever since he turned five, I’ve been answering the question “When does kindergarten start?”

Smoke was still in diapers when I learned about the official cutoff dates, and at the time I thought it was a shame that he would have to start so late. I knew that many parents these days were holding off on kindergarten, intentionally waiting until their kids were older, or as they called it “ready.” At the time, I saw this practice as overprotective. For some reason, I was eager to begin my son’s formal education, to watch him learn to read and write, to forge his own way in the world. Also, I’ll just say it: I was looking forward to free childcare.

But over the past year, the year that would have been my son’s first year of kindergarten if I had petitioned for early entrance, I’ve come to question all of my assumptions about his readiness. Now that he’s nearly six, and should be more than ready, I wonder if he’s ready at all.

I wonder if he’s ready for a class of twenty-two students.

My son has gone to preschool since he was two and for a long time I assumed that this meant he’d be amply prepared for kindergarten. Then one day it hit me—his preschool had pretty much the same cast of eight kids for three years. In kindergarten, he’ll share a room with twenty-two kids. For six hours every day. That sounds emotionally exhausting to me, and I guess I should know. I teach groups of 28 college students for two hours at a time, and when I come home my brain is fried. I can barely form a coherent sentence. Sharing one space with that many personalities is work.

I wonder if he’s ready to follow instructions.

I know I’m biased, but I find my son brilliant. He uses big words, tells elaborate stories, and spends hours focused on building tiny sculptures out of Legos. For a while I took for granted that my son’s intelligence guaranteed that his school experience would go smoothly, but I’m no longer sure. Smoke likes to do what he likes to do. His brilliance lies in his ability to concentrate. But this ability, paired with his constant insistence on following his own agenda, will likely be at odds with his ability to learn at school. He’s not so interested in pleasing adults.

I wonder if he’s strong enough and kind enough.

I worry about the pecking order in kindergarten, about the small groups that form, the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that shift and evolved. I wonder how my son will fare. I worry of course that someone might be cruel to my son, but I worry more that my son might participate in cruelty. I picture those smaller kids, those genuine five-year-olds, the ones with snot bubbles in their noses, or the one who pees his pants on the first day. I sure hope he’s kind to them.

*This post kicks off a new series on Goodnight Already that tracks my son’s transition into kindergarten. I’d love to hear from other parents who are entering the same era. Please consider sharing and commenting if you are so inspired.

In which I learn that my lactation superpowers have limits

I never wanted to be that parent on an airplane, the one with the baby who screams and won’t stop, and up until yesterday I hadn’t been. I thought I had it figured out, that my choice to practice extended breastfeeding meant that I always had the proper tool to quiet my little ones. But if there’s a cardinal rule of parenting it’s this: the moment you get cocky about anything is the moment you dig your own grave.

Yesterday we flew from Seattle to Boston—a five-hour flight—and Stump, who is currently eighteen months, screamed for an hour straight. I’m worried that an hour sounds unimpressive, so allow me to add a little detail.

It began only a few minutes after we boarded, probably around the time that Stump figured out the airplane was going to be his temporary prison, that he would be loosely confined to my lap for an indefinite period. It was nap time, and he’d already been confined to the car seat and later the stroller since he’d awoken at six. And so, he began screaming and thrashing with all of his bobcat strength.

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“Ten minutes,” I told myself, trying to restrain him so that he wouldn’t kick or head butt the large elderly man who shared our row—did I mention I was traveling sans partner? I figured once the plane started moving, Stump would settle. I’d nurse him (awkwardly, hiding from the old-man-neighbor), and he’d easily fall asleep. Whatever passengers he was annoying would calm down, wipe their foreheads and think: that baby’s not so bad.

The plane started moving. I tried to nurse him. He complied for a moment, then bolted away, arching back and screaming. I rushed to cover up my nipple. We repeated this at least four times until I gave up on the power of lactation to calm him. In my world, this is the sign of a serious problem. I held him and rocked him and begged him and shushed him and tried not to break down and cry. “You have to go to sleep,” I hiss-whispered.

“He’ll give it up eventually,” the old man reassured me. I wondered: what if he didn’t? What if he cried for the entire five hours and eight minutes? I told myself that even if this happened, the flight would end eventually, but I knew that every hour would feel like a decade. Those five hours would add up to longer than I’ve even lived.

The old man got up to use the restroom, and on his way back I overheard a woman offer to trade seats with him so that he could relax. He told her “Oh no; it’s fine.”

Stump was still screaming when I felt him fart through his diaper. It was an especially stinky fart for a baby, and it wafted right up into my face. It was then that I began to suspect that I understood the problem. Minutes later, I checked his diaper, and saw a tiny brown turd. He leaned into me crying. His crying was different than his screaming—it contained a hint of relief. He leaned into me, pooing, just letting it all go.

You see, Stump is a guy who poops on the move, not in his car seat, not in his stroller, and definitely not while his mom is force-nursing him. I wanted to get on the PA system and announce: “Fellow Passengers. He Just Had to Poop. Everything is Going to be Fine.”

Instead I dug through my bag for a diaper and wipes. Red-faced and sweaty, I carried my stinky baby to the bathroom and changed him on top of the toilet while he continued to scream. He screamed as I washed my hands and he screamed all the way back to his seat. But when I offered my breast he took it and instantly melted into a puddle of sleeping baby. My fellow passengers wiped their brows and collectively thought, That baby has issues.

Signs that you are the primary caretaker in your household

  1. You are the only person in the world who can accurately sort your children’s socks.
  2. You have difficulty scheduling a shower.
  3. On any given day, you can report how many times each kid has pooped.
  4. You know how to fold the stroller so that it fits in the trunk.
  5. When your partner approaches the baby, he screams “No!” *
  6. When you leave your partner in charge of the kids, you feel a need to explain what’s available for them to eat.
  7. You use the phrase “leaving my partner in charge of the kids”; for your partner, the term is just “leaving.” **

*True story: When Kellie watches Stump, she usually takes him on a long walk in the stroller. The other day, Stump was looking out the kitchen window and he spotted Kellie taking the stroller out of the garage. He shook his head emphatically and cried “No! No! No!”

**Note: Should Kellie ever decide to start a blog, she could easily write a similar list about being the primary home maintainer. I have no idea how to change the line in a weed wacker and I haven’t mowed the lawn once since our first son was born.

I’m sure this list could be longer. What did I forget?

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How we Made our Family (…with a little help from our friends)

I’ve written on this blog about some of the ways I didn’t get pregnant.

This week in Mutha Magazine, I’ve got an essay about how we did.

Here’s a teaser:

It had been nearly a year and we still weren’t pregnant…There had to be another way.

Kellie reminded me that there was. If we could find the right man, we could move this operation into our home. We wouldn’t pay doctors. I wouldn’t have to lie on the cold exam table every month; there would be no clamp, no stirrups. Somehow, my desperation gave way to optimism. Maybe he was out there.

You can click on the link to learn how Smoke and Stump came to be.

http://muthamagazine.com/2014/08/jennifer-berney-on-how-a-village-made-our-family/

Truth be told, this essay is a highly condensed version of the full-length memoir I’m currently working on. For me it’s the story of how a single act of generosity has shifted my definition of family. Thanks for reading!

This is my Dream: No Parenting After 8pm

Several years before I had children, I attended a panel discussion that featured five successful authors. I remember next to nothing about the main event, but I do remember that when the moderator asked for questions from the audience, someone spoke up. She asked:

For those of you who are parents, how do you find the time to be creative?

Four of the five panelists were parents, and their answers were surprisingly similar. They woke up early. By early, I mean four in the morning, or five. But the most striking response came from poet Frances McCue who also woke up early, but added, simply: “I don’t parent before nine am.” This got a laugh of course, but she meant it. Her daughter was nine years old at the time, old enough to get herself dressed and pour her own cereal. If she wanted something at 8:45, she was reminded of the policy.

I believe there’s a reason I’ve been remembering that for the last ten years.

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Currently, waking up early and enjoying time to myself isn’t an option. These days, Stump sleeps relatively well between 8:30 pm and 5 am, but between 5 and 7, he insists on sharing the bed with me. If I get up, he gets up.

Smoke is demanding on the other end of things. Lately he stays up past nine most nights, in part because it’s summer and light outside until ten, and in part because his bedtimes are still elaborate affairs. We can’t simply read him a book and kiss him on the cheek. He wants to read a little, and talk a lot, and read a little more. Then he wants one of his moms to lie with him until he falls asleep. We grant him this because it is the only hour where he doesn’t have to share our attention with his wild and willful little brother.

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It’s no wonder then that I stay up late most nights. It’s often 10 pm before I catch a moment to myself, and the moment is too precious to sleep through.

This summer I visited a friend with one child, a baby who goes to sleep before seven each night. I tried to imagine what that would be like, to have a quiet house at an hour where it was conceivable that I still might have some energy. I decided that would feel sane. I decided that was something to strive for.

And I will; I will strive for that. It won’t happen next week or next month, and I don’t think that seven is our hour. But I’m imagining the day when Stump is just a little older, when I can read both of my boys a book or two in bed together, then say goodnight and leave them to keep each other company. I will turn out the light and close the door, claim two glorious hours to myself and still wind up in bed at ten.

Please. I’m telling myself that this can happen. Allow me to dream this, okay?

Gender Identity, Parenting, and Thank God for Frozen

I have an essay in Brain, Child today about how I’ve found the topic of gender identity to be both interesting and challenging to navigate as a parent. Here’s a clip:

Now that my son is old enough to dress himself, his drawers are filled with Spiderman shirts, Star Wars pajamas, and Transformers underwear. It seems the best that I can do is just embrace and love his boy-identity while trying to make room for balance. Right now balance means that we snuggle in Star Wars pajamas, encourage him to cry when he is sad, and have a “yes” answer on the ready if he ever asks for a pink bike or a Barbie—two things that I’m pretty sure will never happen. (read the full essay here)

I wrote this essay a few months ago, and things have shifted ever so slightly. My son has fallen in love with the princess-movie Frozen. I won’t go into analysis of gender roles in Frozen. I’m not going to claim that it’s a feminist film, but I am grateful for it. I speculate that my son loves Frozen for the following reasons:

1. Lowbrow Humor: Frozen does a great job of balancing comedy and drama. No matter how many times my son and I watch the film, we chuckle when Kristoff takes a bit of his reindeer’s slobbery carrot, or when Olaf the Snowman sings longingly about a day at the beach. We like that these princesses–or, Anna at least–don’t take themselves too seriously.

2. The Universal Theme of Childhood Loneliness: What kid (or adult) can’t relate to the Anna’s longing for companionship, her continual rejection, and her frustration in trying to solve the mystery of that rejection? Elsa too grapples with a universal conflict: she has a gift that she is told to hide from the world. I love that these princess characters are given meaty conflicts, and I suspect it is one reason my son finds the film compelling.

3. No one Holds Back: When I watch Frozen, I often feel like I am bearing witness to a small miracle of synchronicity that happens when all the right people were hired and cast for a particular project. This is how I feel when watching The Wizard of Oz or The Shining.  It feels clear to me that everyone who was hired for this project–the screenwriters, the songwriters, the actors, and the animators–gave it their all. That makes it so infectious, that even my ninja-wannabe son sings along to “Let it go” without self consciousness. Everyone in the world, it seems, sings along to “Let it go.” We just can’t help ourselves.

Frozen has opened a door for my son, and now he’s interested in watching The Pirate Fairy. This might seem like a small thing, but it has larger implications. Some months ago, he dismissed girls as potential friends because they “only care about princesses, not awesome stuff like ninjas.” Now that he’s in on the princess phenomenon his world is a little larger.

So, um, thank you Disney Corporation.  (That is a sentence I never thought I’d write.)

The Magic of Bikes

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“This is amazin’!” my son calls out as he coasts away from me. He’s been riding for two weeks now, and still he says it every time he hits an easy stretch, when the sun is shining, the road is straight and carless, and the slope is ever-so-slightly in his favor.

I know the feeling. My first bike was my trusty companion for years. Sometimes it was my only companion. I was an awkward child, one who couldn’t whistle or cartwheel or kick a ball. Other kids and their ways were a mystery to me. Often, at the end of my block, the neighborhood boys played street hockey; my best friend’s older brothers led the game and sometimes they’d call out to me, “How’s it going Berney?” If I was on foot, I hung my head and kept walking, unsure if they were friendly or teasing.

But when I rode my bike, I moved through the world with ease. I rode an old-school Huffy with a yellow banana seat and handlebars that dipped low. When the road was quiet, I’d zigzag up the street, then turn onto the sidewalk so as not to disturb the street hockey game. “How’s it going, Berney?” one of the brothers would call out, and I’d nod and keep riding. My only destination was the quietest road.

There were times I wasn’t alone, times when kids I recognized from school cruised out of driveways and rode alongside me for a while. On our bikes we were equals, and together we owned the neighborhood. No one would tease or torment. We just rode in figure eights, up and down hills, easily passing the time. We lost ourselves this way.

On the way back to my house there was a gentle hill and I’d lean back and rest my ankles on the handlebars, letting my wheels and gravity carry me. I trusted my bike.

My son is not an awkward child like I was, but he has his moments. There are times when he’s too shy to say his name, and times when he is so lost in his thoughts that he walks into a wall. So I was surprised to notice the ease with which he took to his bike.

Last week he rode the long straight road to our neighborhood middle school. I walked behind him, calling out reminders for him to stop at every corner, my voice nearly lost in the distance between us. Miraculously, he heard and complied.

When we arrived, a boy his age rode up and down a long stretch of pavement on a pink bike. My son joined him and they were instant friends, friends of the moment, racing and circling each other. The boy’s father called out “It was his sister’s bike!” I nodded and smiled, hoping that my gestures conveyed that I was not the sort of parent to judge a little boy for riding a pink bike.

My son isn’t one to judge either, and I held my breath as they challenged each other with near misses, the boy on the pink bike swooping in front of my son, my son steering away just in time to avoid a collision. As I watched, I tried to summon that same trust that I had when I was a child gliding down the hill with my feet on the handlebars.

They rode that same strip of pavement for nearly an hour, sharing the grace of easy friendship. It was long past our usual dinnertime and the sky was growing dark, but I let my son ride until he was sweaty and weary. I was comforted to learn that even in this age of helmets and curfews, of iPads and Netflix, bikes can still amaze.

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This post was featured on Half and Half