Month: July 2015

The Objects We Hold (and the ones that hold us)

When Smoke, my first son, was one year old, I wanted him to attach to a lovey. I had read somewhere on the internet that it was a useful thing for your child to develop an attachment to an object, that it would help him feel more secure when you couldn’t be physically present. I pictured him taking comfort in it when I left him at the daycare center. I pictured him snuggling with it as he slept.

I bought a special lovey for the purpose, as if none of the stuffed animals or blankets we owned would do. It was a small velvety toy, a cross between a blanket and a doll with a wooden ring to hang onto. I would put it between us as we nursed, hoping that it would take on smells and associations, that it would transform into something magic, but it never did. Smoke never gave a shit about his lovey.

Nearly two years later, I met with a new therapist and mentioned that parenting a toddler sometimes exhausted me. She asked me about my bedtime routine with Smoke and I explained that I read him a few books, turned out the light, and then lay in bed with him until he fell asleep. She cocked her head, furrowed her brow, and commented, “Oh, so you’re basically a human teddy bear.” There was contempt in her voice, as if I should have known better, as if I were letting my kid pull one over on me.

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I carried her comment around with me for days. I still carry it. It seemed she thought that the teddy bear was the real thing, that my body was the substitute, and not the other way around. I never went back to her.

Stump attaches to objects in ways that Smoke never did, but they are never soft things. He attaches to plastic Nerf guns, to measuring tape, to wooden hammers, to a golf ball that he found in the middle of a field. He attaches to things he can throw or things he can use as a weapon. He takes these items to bed, and cries in the middle of the night if he wakes up and discovers they’ve left his grasp.

These items don’t replace me. Instead, they seem to provide yet another layer of security; they give Stump a sense of dominion. The message is: I can defend myself at any time.

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I’ve been wondering what it means that when it comes to object attachment I am more like Smoke than Stump. If you ask me what three items I’d save from a fire, I will draw a blank. If you ask me how attached I am to my current home or my childhood home—the two places where I’ve spent over a decade of my life—I’d say “not very.”

I say this about myself, and yet—and yet—I have a hard time letting go. Sometimes I still think about a tank top that I left behind at a hotel in France fourteen years ago. It had no sentimental value, but it was flattering. There’s an envelope with twenty-five dollars in cash that I misplaced somewhere in my house long before I had children. I still keep an eye out for it.

This house that I live in, the one I claim I’m not attached to, seems to also be a house I cannot leave. I spend energy daily resenting this house for its shortcomings. The bedrooms are tiny. There’s no storage, no privacy. Our kitchen table seats three people, and we are a family of four.

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But so far I haven’t found a house that I will leave it for, not easily at least. For years, Kellie and I have looked at homes, toured places with guest rooms and built-in drawers. But the yard is always too small, or the neighborhood’s not quite right, or the living room floor is Pergo, or there’s no good place for the dogs. I start to wonder how anyone buys a home ever, how anyone with kids manages to upend their life, pack all their stuff, and move to the other side of town.

I often blame Kellie, who is openly attached to every single thing she owns, for our lack of action. But if I were being honest I’d tell you that something in these walls must have a hold on me.

What About the Wheel that Doesn’t Squeak?

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Stump, plotting world domination in his sleep.

Stump, who will turn two-and-a-half next week, has become a tyrant, and I am afraid of him.

If you sit on the left side of the couch, he will point at you and scream, “That’s my spot!”

If you sit on the right side of the couch, he will point at you and scream, “That’s my spot!”

If he wakes up in the middle of the night, and you crawl into his bed to comfort him, he will kick at your legs and tell you, “Go away!”

When you get out of bed and step towards the door, he will cry, “Mommy, no go!”

In the morning, when you’re making pancakes, he’ll get excited and want to help. He’ll grab a wooden spoon and stick his fingers in the batter. When you go to pour some on the pan, he’ll shriek, “No! No cook it! I like it cold!”

He will say the same thing about frozen tacos.

When you are trying to write an email, he’ll sit in your lap, cuddle sweetly, and ask to see pictures of sharks. When you bring up a picture of the ocean, he’ll point and insist, “Go there! Go there!” and then he will collapse against you in tears because you cannot transport him into your computer monitor.

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Smoke

All of this puts Smoke, my going-on-seven-year-old, in a somewhat precarious position. “Not you too!” I find myself saying to Smoke any time he gets dramatic or pouty. Because Stump’s demands are impossible to meet, I call on Smoke to be easy. For the most part, he complies.

When he whines that he’s hungry I say, “Get yourself a snack—you’re capable!” and then he does it. When he cries over a lost Lego piece, I say “I’m not helping you find it until you calm down.” He takes a breath and wills away the tears.

I’m not sure how guilty to feel about all of this. I value the skill of self-containment. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I wanted Smoke to have a sibling in the first place—I wanted him to have the companionship of siblinghood, but also to learn the challenges of deep sharing, of splitting the resources of time and attention.

But there is another part of me that wishes I could create a force field around my older son, or that he could get vacation from siblinghood, from sharing, from being told to control his behavior because he’s the one who knows how.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor right now there’s no force field and no vacation, but the jelly bean jar is coming in handy. Originally, I created it to help motivate Stump to learn use the toilet: a jelly bean each time he tried. Smoke (who of course has been diaper-free for years) would also get a jelly bean for using the bathroom—the idea was that Stump would see his brother earning treats and imitate him.

But so far it hasn’t worked out that way. So far, Smoke pees, and then asks me for his jelly bean while Stump is busy tearing up some other corner of the house. So basically I’ve created a system to reward my almost-seven-year-old for continuing to use the potty.

I’ve decided this totally works for me. Because in the end I think Smoke totally deserves a reward for being the one who can control his elimination needs, the one who can share the couch, who understands that frozen tacos need to be heated, and who accepts that you can’t always get what you want.

On Coming Home

I just returned from leaving my children for what felt like a year.

Actually, it was only a week. I was gone for seven nights exactly, but while I was away time opened wide like a yawning mouth.

I went to Big Sur for a writing retreat, and the goal was to settle into my own rhythms, to have time to be quiet, but for the first three nights I was stiff with worry. I worried that someone needed me, that my children were crying, were in pain, that they might stop breathing at any moment, or fall down a flight of stairs. I worried that my phone would ring in the middle of the night, that someone would call with unbearable news.

On the fourth night, upon learning that both of my boys were happily eating and playing and sleeping, I finally let go. In my temporary bed, I settled into a deep and solitary sleep, slept for many hours, and woke when my body told me to wake. I walked a quarter mile to the lodge, filled my coffee cup, sat by the window and believed that all was well.

blue In letting go, I became truly separate from my children. That I had another life away from the ocean kept surprising me. I had a life of wandering, of writing, of staring out at the ocean, watching the pelicans fly in a row towards the water, and then away from it. I had time to start a thought and finish it.

This feeling of separateness was exactly the purpose of my trip, and yet it disturbed me. When I called home I asked Kellie: Does Smoke miss me? Does Stump even remember me? Do they ask about me?

“You haven’t been gone that long,” Kellie reminded me.

She passed the phone to Smoke, whose voice surprised me. Disconnected from his body, his voice sounded small, like his might have been three years old. I couldn’t make out his freckles, couldn’t see his long and narrow waist. “I can’t hear you very well because Stump is yelling, but I love you,” he reassured me, and then hung up.

On the eighth day I drove and flew towards home and arrived just after bedtime. All the lights in the house were off, and I unlatched our old screen door. Past the roaring fan, I found Kellie asleep next to Stump in the lower bunk, both of them on top of the covers. Stump wore just a diaper, and a pair of Spider-Man underwear over the diaper. I climbed up the bunk bed ladder just to glimpse Smoke, asleep in the dark wearing only his pants.

In the morning Smoke woke too early and I heard Kellie whisper to him, ushering him into our bedroom where I lay half awake. His hair was stiff from swimming and sweat. It stuck up in all directions. I called his name. “Mommy!” he said, and it was all he said. He climbed into bed and into my arms. I listened as his breathing slowed, my own mind drifting back to the ocean, how thick and still it looked on my last day, how three dolphin fins cut through the water, how two whales that morning slipped up for a moment and then back under. I drifted under too, my arms around my son.

Some time passed, and I surfaced again at the sound of Stump’s feet walking the distance from his bed to mine, knowing where to find me, knowing somehow I was home. He climbed in too, and settled on the other side of me, his head just above my armpit, and though he was wide awake he rested a moment before launching into chatter, and in that moment, resting, half-awake, I thought about how being a mother sometimes just means being a body, or even a place, like a wolf in her den, holding space for her cubs to rest against her heat, her smell, to feel her breath and know that they are home.