Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Most Wonderful Lie of the Year?

Out of the blue, three weeks before Christmas, Diva suddenly had a terrible thought. “We don’t have a chimney!” Both Daddy and I knew exactly what she was saying, but we let it play out. “How will Santa get the presents in without a chimney?”
Lit by the dangerous glow of the same hot, colored light bulbs that adorned the Christmas trees of my husband’s childhood, I maintained my nonchalance, barely glancing up. “I guess I always thought he came through the window nearest the tree,” I said. “I mean, that’s where the presents end up.” A pause. “What do you think Daddy?” He concurred, of course. And thus, once again, lying to our daughter came as naturally as breathing.
Funny thing for those who celebrate Christmas: during this season of grace and love and human kindness, it’s like lie-a-palooza, at least where children are involved. Santa as we know him is a hybrid beast—a Coke ad overlaid on top of a German myth sprinkled with the legend of a Greek monk, and the whole thing wrapped in flannel. If you think about it, he’s kind of a creep, really: a leather-booted stranger who sneaks into your house at night with a list of family members he likes to observe in their sleep. If that story was invented today, there’d be a restraining order involved. The part that wins people over to Santa is presents—people like presents.

In theory, it’s not the gifts themselves but the spirit of giving that Santa represents. Our children, we hope, will want to give to others because they have been inspired by the best—the man who practically invented the art. But methinks there’s more to it for parents: Santa allows us to give more than we should, more than our kids actually need, the kind of toys we always wanted and maybe didn’t get but now have an excuse to buy. And we all know that no present from Dad and Dad is ever as good as one delivered by reindeer direct from the North Pole.

So we lie. And lie and lie. Last year, Diva asked about all the “extra” Santas. She had seen the real one at Macy’s in Times Square—she knew he was real because they said so on TV at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—and had stood in a long line for the privilege of sitting on his lap and whispering her request for a robot dog (a toy she had never once mentioned to us). To then see ersatz Ole St. Nicks at malls and banks and the local cable company lobby was confusing, so she turned to the expert, Papa, who loves Christmas like a pig loves muck. “How can they all be Santa?”

I know, the honest and intellectually-sound approach might have been to use this as the first window into easing her out of the Santa myth, and we have at least one friend who would have jumped at such a chance if she’d been his daughter. But I turned her query back around and asked if the Santas all seemed real. No—she was firm—the true item was the one she’d met. So if they weren’t all Santa, why did she think they dressed like him? She came to a peaceful resolution herself: These guys were his helpers because he couldn’t be everywhere at once when all kids needed to get their requests in. I praised her powers of reason. And thus was the lie of Christmas preserved another year.

This week, a friend’s 7 year-old daughter grabbed her mom’s face and pulled her startled mother in close for a piercing look. “Mommy,” she said, teeth bared like fangs. “Are YOU Santa?”

The mom didn’t hesitate. “Of course not! He brought you nine presents last year! I never buy you that much!” The mom later confessed to me that she'd known she needed to stop there, but hadn’t been able to contain herself, and had overshot, goading her daughter, “And you know who is friends with Santa? God. God is!” (I would like to hazard a guess that she has now pretty much guaranteed a two-for-one faith collapse sometime within the next few years.) The mom, red-faced as she recalled her overzealousness, explained to me, “I just want another year, you know?”

I do know. We hang on to this story because it’s a touchstone of too-brief childhood, something special truly just for kids. Yet we know that the outcome is the eventual revelation that not just one’s own parents but, by extension, all grown-ups know how to lie with straight faces. This can occasion any number of reactions from a child, from a shrug to horror to anger, but we roll with it because we think even a bad reaction will be—as are all things with children—short-lived.  In this way, we make a permanent contribution to the process by which the proverbial blinders fall off; our children will never again implicitly trust everything we say, nor will they think that lying to us in return is inherently a problem. I may recall this ruefully when Diva is 16 and throws out a claim like, “When I said I was in my room, I meant a room which felt like mine, which is true in a way, right?”

Honestly, it’s hard to imagine another myth so widespread, so well-embraced, which is designed to be proven untrue as one’s rite of passage into maturity. As far as I know, there is no Amazon jungle tribe which tells its young that there is a Guardian Bird who brings good boys and girls an invisible cloak that makes them impervious to fire, a story the kiddies love right until they burn themselves on an open flame for the first time, only to be told that the blistering welt is proof that they are now so much smarter than those silly little kids with unblemished skin who still believe.

I don’t want to Diva to get burned by Santa—really, I don’t.  At least not this year. Maybe next year or the year after she’ll have thick enough skin for that. But this Christmas, Santa’s bringing her a Barbie dollhouse the size of a Smart Car, a purchase her dads might be somewhat embarrassed to admit they’d made. And if she asks how the jolly old elf got such a big present through the window, I’m sure to have a good lie ready. Tis the season after all.  

Thursday, December 2, 2010

To Still a Mockingbird

           Diva: “I don’t WANT to go to a tree-lighting!”

           Papa: “I don’t WANT to hear any more whining!”

           Ah yes, the fine art of mimicking one’s child with horrible sing-song precision. It’s such an elegant parenting strategy, that I can’t imagine why more experts don’t recommend it. Oh sure, it’s rude, juvenile, and patently ineffective but you can’t beat it for ease! Or so it seemed when the mockery popped out of my mouth during a long car ride just after Thanksgiving.
            It was late afternoon on what had already been a full day. We’d woken Diva before the sun was up, earlier than she has to rise for school, so that we could bundle her in the car and head four hours north from Boston to where my mother lives in a small Maine town. Diva, a go-go-go kid, hates to ride in the car; all the stillness plucks her last nerve. Even videos—the opiates of the backseat masses—will only tide her over for so long. She gets a little crazy and the crazy rubs off.
            If the travel issue itself wasn’t enough, there’s the fact that we were headed to an Assisted Living facility, which is not exactly a kid-friendly place. To be honest, my mom isn’t entirely kid-friendly to start with. Even with other adults, she can only handle conversation in limited doses, and it’s been decades since she knew how to engage a child. More than a year had passed since the last time we’d brought Diva to Maine. On that visit, she’d immediately seen my mom’s collection of stuffed animals and had eagerly picked one up.  Mom had panicked; her first words to my four year-old were, “Can you put that back down?” This greeting had made Diva clam up for the rest of the visit, and when a neighbor stopped by, my mother complained—within Diva’s earshot—that her granddaughter “was good at not talking.”
Not surprisingly, we did not have high hopes for this recent excursion. But I had come up with a strategy to take the edge off: after we finished our visit, we would make an overnight stop in a city halfway home. I had booked a place with a pool because hotel pools are nearly an obsession for Diva; she’s a girl who would choose a visit to Trenton over Disneyland if Trenton offered a pool and Disneyland did not. On the way to the hotel, we would stop at a Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony, because I am a helpless Christmas fiend. (I finished this year’s holiday i-pod mix a month ago, back when store clerks were still packing away their skeletons and witches.)  The plan was to end the evening at a restaurant with poutine; for the uninitiated, poutine is a dish of French fries topped with brown gravy and cheese curd, which sounds a little disgusting but is like crack for The Hubby. In my mind, all these eventual treats would make the day feel less like a slog, and I assumed Diva would feel this way too.
The Hubby and I shuffled our increasingly-bored gal from locale to locale: first the Assisted Living facility, then to a restaurant that caters to elderly Mainers who like their bland food served in very large portions, followed by a trip to Wal-Mart to buy sundries for Mom, and then a stop at the home of even older relatives whom Diva has never before met. By midday, my daughter was rightly feeling that no one was especially paying attention to her interests. Unfortunately, my mother and I were having such a terrible time finding things to talk about that my own tension was rising as steadily as mercury in July. So even though I could sense that Diva was unhappy, I couldn’t make myself feel any sympathy for her and, indeed, I resented her inability to be more long-suffering. I was thinking things like, “If she had been a pioneer child, not only would she have gone willingly to whatever wilderness we dragged her to, she’d have had to chop down trees once we got there!”
When at last we parted from my mom, Diva didn’t want to give her a hug, or a kiss, or even a wave. She actually hid inside The Hubby’s coat. This pushed me over the edge. Because my mother has never accepted the validity of my marriage, it has always been insanely (and pointlessly) important to me that she recognize the goodness of my parenting. Instead, here was proof that my daughter had been raised by boors: she was a girl with no manners and a heart so hard she wouldn’t give an old lady a kiss.
As would have been clear to a rational person, what was really transpiring was that a tired girl, largely ignored for hours, felt shy around a woman whom she barely knew and who had said little more than “hello” to her all day. But I wasn’t feeling rational. As we headed south toward the mini-escape I’d planned, and Lily said she didn’t want to go to any tree-lighting, my mocking reply was instantaneous—which only ramped things up. She said she WASN’T going and I couldn’t MAKE her, and I replied that she was wrong on both counts. I may even have said something like, “Just try me, lady.”
When I said to The Hubby that I thought Diva needed to get better at doing whatever her dads told her, he admonished me, gently. “Maybe we didn’t do our job as dads today.” He pointed out that we’d never warned her that so much of the day would be un-fun, that hours of driving would be followed by hours of tension before more driving. We hadn’t explained how many boring things she would have to suffer through before getting back into the car for another dreaded drive. And after holding out the carrot of pool time all day, we’d never conveyed that the tree lighting would have to happen first. The Hubby was right and I knew it. In essence, I had expected my five year-old to be more grown-up in the face of the same long day that had taxed me to the point of acting like a bratty kid. When I came to understand this, I let out a long sigh as something unwound inside me.
But there was still the matter of what to do next. We could have just skipped both the tree lighting and the dinner, letting Diva revel in the long-delayed pool time and calling it good. And that would have been a defensible choice in many ways.
Instead, we did something else—everything else, actually. We’d already blown one chance at good parenting that day, no need to blow the next. Rather than suddenly backtracking, so that only her wants and desires were going to be met, and thus sending a message that whining (even if understandable) was indeed the way to get what she wished, we decided to stick to our original plan. But this time, we talked it through.
We had a conversation with Diva about the whole day, how we knew it hadn’t really been that much fun so far, but how important it was to look out for each other. Most of the day had been about the needs of her grandmother, but now we were going to focus on each member of our own little family, not leaving anyone out. We would go to the tree lighting for Papa, then to the pool for her, and then to the restaurant for Daddy. We talked about how all of us needed to do our part to make sure each person truly enjoyed the event that they’d been looking forward to, on the premise that making each other happy as individuals was a way to make us happy together as a family.
She sang lustily all through the tree-lighting, swam like an especially splashy nymph in the pool, and then mowed her way through a cone of French fries like a high Belgian. As we walked back to the hotel, she exulted about our triathlon of fun. “We did EVERYBODY’s thing!” she crowed, happily. And when she announced that she had LOVED this night, I didn’t mimic her—I simply agreed: I loved it, too.     

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

It's On the Tip of My Tongue

The stranger purses her lips and then shakes her head sadly. Well, I guess I didn’t make an impression on you.”

When she says this, we are standing in the busy playground across from Diva’s school. I’m happily passing a sunny late fall afternoon chatting with other parents I don’t yet know. Except that this one insists that I do know her. I suppose she may even be right.

Diva’s bumpy transition into kindergarten is long behind us; in fact, she now has so many friends that she somewhat intuitively splits them into camps, playing with one set one afternoon, and another set the next. But as she ricochets from swing to slide to playhouse and back, a ping pong ball of joy, I find myself playing a game of my own. I call it “Who Am I Talking To?

In theory, I should be good at this game. I’ve always been a people person by nature, the boy who joined eight or nine clubs in high school and spent as much time socializing as studying in college. To this day, I’m a living Chatty Cathy, maintaining running jokes with the barista at my local Starbucks and making sure to ask my favorite cabbie how his kids have been doing since I saw him last six months ago.

So why am I so nerve-wracked now as The Hubby and I dive into this community of elementary school parents? Because I can’t remember any of their names.

Maybe it was after I turned 40, or maybe it was about the time I taught my 2,000th  college student, but some kind of fullness has overtaken my cranium. If doctors were to do an MRI of my temporal lobe, I’m convinced they’d find it illuminated with a blinking sign: NO VACANCY. I can get around this problem with my students more easily, because the university provides me a handy list of their names, accompanied by teeny little photos. But I have no such cheat sheet for my fellow parents, nice folks whom I’ve presumably met at my town’s playgrounds, libraries, concerts, puppet shows, matinees, flu clinics, and fireworks displays in the five years leading up to Diva’s entrée to Kindergarten.

I’m not entirely hopeless; I can do reasonably well if I meet someone with an unusual moniker, like the mom I know who has an apostrophe smack dab in the middle of her first name. But the Susans and Mikes of the world have a significantly harder time claiming their places in my mental rolodex. If you’re a Bob, I’m just as likely to call you Scott or Paul, unless you have some helpfully memorable disfigurement for me to cling to. If I can associate a name with a particularly vivid visual—say you have a third eye, or an exoskeleton like a lobster—I’m sure to remember it forever. Otherwise, not so much.

I have tried discreetly typing the names of fellow parents into my i-phone as soon as they walk away, but I find that when I later review the list, some of my clever notes call to mind no picture at all. It’s like my brain is mocking me: nice try, mister.

What makes it worse is how many parents seem to remember my name. I try to tell myself that there are good reasons for this discrepancy. For one thing, I’m a Room Parent (one of three who organize fundraising events for Diva’s class), so the other parents all get e-mails from me. Moreover, The Hubby and I are the only two-Dad pair in our daughter’s school, so we do stand out a bit—and not just because we attended Parent Night with him clad in a leather biker jacket and me sporting a Parisian scarf.

Some folks, of course, are in the same recall-deficient boat as I am, and there are others who simply don’t mind at all, wisely not taking my forgetfulness personally. But because there are just enough people who do mind, I’m always a little on edge when I approach the playground. There’s Hip Mama, for instance, who makes sure to greet me by name every single time she sees me…and then every single time adopts a slightly wounded look when I don’t use her name in return. In longsuffering fashion, Hip Mama reminds me who she is week after week, yet I’m always so busy cringing, I go deaf with embarrassment and miss whatever she’s saying. In the end, she hasn’t taught me her name at all, but has inadvertently trained me like Pavlov’s pups: at the mere sight of her, I gorge on my own shame.

At least Hip Mama seems forgiving—not everyone is. This particular afternoon, the stranger/not-stranger, who insists that we have in fact met more than once, isn’t going to let me off so easily. “I don’t look at all familiar to you, really?”

She sees me struggling and reluctantly trots out her name, though she clearly feels I should have been able to come up with it on my own. “Now, does that ring a bell?”

In the ensuing silence, I swear you can hear a whistling wind right out of a Western. Cue tumbleweeds.

There is a part of me that wants to list for this woman all the details claiming the spot where her name would go: what time we need to leave the playground in order to be home for a playdate, what size Diva’s feet are now, which snack she no longer likes and will refuse to eat if I put it in her bag, which tights she’s outgrown and thus need replacing, which friend’s birthday party we have to get a present for by this weekend, which grandma sent a present for which we still haven’t written a thank-you e-mail, and how long it will take to get today’s homework done, once we factor in tears and supper.

Instead, I rack my brain—trying to place the pretty face and elegant clothes, envisioning this woman at parties or Diva’s recitals or maybe Groovy Baby Music Class 2007. Nada, zip, zilch.

For a moment, I consider faking it, going with something like, “Oh, right!” followed closely with “How are you?” the emphasis masking that I still have no clue. But then I ask myself: is false cheer any less rude than true forgetfulness? I decide to fess up, abjectly admitting my own failures. “I’m sorry,” I say, because I am.

Pained expression marring her lovely features, she repeats her name and I vow to remember it.

It’s Laura.

Or maybe Lauren.

Lila? Lois? Lee? Just one little name and still!

NO VACANCY blinks the sign I can’t see. No room left at all.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Age of Reason

“So when, exactly, does the ‘threat and reward’ period end?”

When I asked this innocent question two summers ago, I was sitting in the home of The Hubby’s cousins, The O’s. The O’s have four school-aged children, and they always make the whole damn process of parenthood look so manageable that it makes me feel a little deficient. The question arose because I had just threatened to send Diva to bed without any more razor scooter time. At this point, I don’t even remember the nature of her infraction—I only recall my threat, which was a good one because the scooter was to her like crack is to a cokehead. She complied instantly with my request—whatever it was—because nothing trumped scooter time.

I wasn’t that happy to have won the battle because, really, what I wanted more was for her to be able to listen to me—no, obey me—without threat of punishment. I mean, that’s what children are supposed to do, right? And yet it seemed the only way to get Diva to do anything that was not immediately thrilling or delightful was to either threaten her (with the removal of some activity, object, or privilege) or to bribe her (with the return of the same things). I was sure that her age—Diva was only three—had something to do with her recalcitrant streak, and I couldn’t wait for a more reasonable era to begin.

With The O’s being so experienced, I looked to them for signs of relief. “So when, exactly, does the ‘threat and reward’ period end?”

Daddy O looked at his wife, smirked, and shook his head. “You heard that it ends?”

Mommy O joined in. “Let us know when that happens.”

I was horrified. “Don’t they get to a point where you can just reason with them?”

Daddy O laughed. “My friend, consider the grown-ups you know. How many of them can you just reason with?” He clapped one hand on my shoulder in a gesture somewhere between mock support and true pity. “Good luck with that.”

This story came to mind this week as I tried to get The Diva to accept her flu shot. Some background: she had asthma as a baby and ended up hospitalized overnight three times for breathing-related issues. Though we still do nebulizer treatments in the winter, she hasn’t had an episode in a few years and we like to think she is (or will be) one of those kids who outgrow childhood asthma. Even so, her pediatrician likes to make sure she gets her flu shot to cut down on the risk of any lung-compromising illness. That’s fine, but because of the past illnesses, Diva can’t get the gentle flu mist that is squirted up the nose. No, no—it has to be the shot.

I’m hard pressed to believe that there is a child alive who enjoys a shot. I mean, what is a shot after all but someone intentionally breaking your skin and sticking something sharp inside your flesh? But there are children who are completely stoic, children who swear it doesn’t hurt, and children who only cry a little but recover quickly. The Diva is not any of those children. She dreads shots, all shots, and it doesn’t matter whether it is quick or not, a pinprick or a drill bit, she is going to howl like the damned being consumed by flames.

This year, I was tasked with getting her to the fateful jab session. Last year, The Hubby did it, and he had to pin her arm down to accomplish the task, letting her cry it out afterwards. I was prepared to do the same, except we got Nurse Dour, who saw Diva’s trembling lip and barked, “I can’t inoculate any child who isn’t perfectly still.” Children don’t like criticism any more than they like shots, so our gal’s trembling soon gave over to full tears. I rolled up my sleeve and let Nurse Dour take a stab at me, to show Diva that it wasn’t so bad—and, indeed, it wasn’t. Unpleasant though she may have been, this nurse was a pro: I really did not feel it at all. I said so to Diva, but she couldn’t hear me over her wailing.

Nurse Dour stared us down. “I’ll be here all evening, but I can’t help you till she’s still.”

I suppose we could have just left. But I had myself convinced that if we didn’t get the shot done that night, it wouldn’t go easier any other time. So I immediately went to the playbook of the grandmother who raised me; to use her expression, I brooked no nonsense.  I should have paused to consider how much I resented my grandmother’s tough side when I was a child. But instead, I took Diva off to a corner and firmly explained that the flu shot was not optional. The doctor had said she had to have it. This logic had no noticeable effect and, indeed, only ramped up the tears.

Before I knew it, out came the threats. “This lady is really good but if you won’t let her do it tonight, you might get someone really bad later who makes it hurt more.” Waaaah! “We might have to use the Shot Nurse at your doctor’s office and you know how bad she is.” Waaaah! “If you don’t get the shot now and get the flu, you’ll hurt all over and miss school and won’t be able to play with your friends.” Waaaah! “We’re going to have to sit here all night until you’re ready and you’ll miss supper and not be able to do bedtime stories.” Waaaaah. (Pause for hiccup of grief) Waaaah!

This was not my finest moment as a parent.

From the outside, it certainly looked like I was doing things right. I was sitting with Diva in my arms the entire time, talking in a soft voice and rubbing her back. Nurse Dour commented at one point, “You are a model of patience. I’m impressed.” What I wanted to say to the nurse was, “If you’d let me just pin her like a World Wide Wrestling pro, I could go home.” Instead, I smiled a wan smile and hoped someday my daughter wouldn’t need therapy because I had emotionally scarred her as a child.

We had been there 40 minutes—yes, 40—when The Hubby arrived to see what was going on. He took the bribery route. “I have a present for you that we’ve been saving, but it’s at home and we can’t get to it until you’re done here.” Five minutes after he arrived, we walked out with our daughter in tow, still wailing, but now also inoculated. I was relieved, though a little chagrined to have just been Good-Cop/Bad-Copped by my own husband.

This is where I’m supposed to put the life lesson: the important nugget I took away from the experience. Except that I don’t have one. We try to talk through a lot of things with our daughter, and sometimes we manage to be calm, thoughtful, and wise. But we still end up at threat and reward more often than not. There are days when I don’t care, when it feels like any solution will do. After all, any day that both parent and child survive is a good day.

But I aspire to more than mere survival. I still hope that an age will come where there is at least a higher quotient of rational discussion, not just cajoling and browbeating. And I know that’s got to start with me. As much as I want her to mature into a child who can be reasoned with, I want to age into being a more reasonable parent myself. I suppose, that with even more insane eras like Diva’s adolescence ahead, I may someday look back on this wish as being a little naïve. But, for now, a Papa can dream, can’t he?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

On the Nature of Tears

Diva burst into tears.

Normally, I would follow those four words with something descriptive like “…when we told her it was bedtime” or “…when she lost her ‘My Little Pony’ unicorn” or “…when the bear attacked.” But this week, it hardly seems worth categorizing why she was a yowling mess; to do so would suggest a rarity about the condition, a need for a special cause. And, trust me, it wasn’t that kind of week.

Diva has always had a dramatic personality. When she’s happy, she absolutely sparkles; when she feels angry, she glowers blackly. And when she cries, she likes to go for full-wail lamentations. Her cries do not bespeak sadness, typically, but injustice: the howl of the wronged. It is amazing how explicit in meaning a seemingly inarticulate shrieking “waaaaa” sound can be: “WHY is the universe so CRUEL as to stick me with EVIL dads who insist that my FAVORITE sandals do NOT qualify as sneakers for gym class?”

Thankfully, our gal isn’t prone to tears most of the time. But this week the tears seemed to wait around every corner. In the span of a half hour, we might face her blubbering dismay over being asked to swap dirty clothes for clean pajamas, followed soon after by a round of hysterics because the bedtime reading selection was too short, capped with the sobs of the misbegotten because her do-rag fell off in bed, exposing her beautiful new braids to the elements. If there was a soundtrack to the week, it was the Eurhythmics: Here comes the rain again.

Thankfully, I have now been a dad long enough to know that all emotional bursts come in waves. The Mildly Terrible Twos are followed by the Actually Terrible Threes and the Banshee Fours. In each case, we’re not talking about solid year-long periods of extreme behavior so much as months-long clusters of madness, during which physical growth, newfound mental discoveries, and burgeoning willpower transform otherwise adorable children into mini-Kraken. I have not yet nicknamed age 5 because, on the whole, it has been a lovely time; but I must note that when Diva does plummet from the sunny heights to disproportionate grief, the combined power of her lungs and her vast reserve of stubbornness well outpace any stockpile of reason she might otherwise possess.

The goal for her dads is to resist the urge to try and fix every situation that causes tears. If you set the precedent that each cry is equal, every single howl worth your undivided attention, it won’t be long before a keen little mind has figured out that she can control your behavior, turning you into Pavlov’s Parent reacting on cue. Learning when to respond most profoundly, to comfort when it’s really needed, helps both parent and child. Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I cannot work up much sympathy over her total devastation that an especially enthralling episode of Curious George has come to an end.

The Hubby has a theory that I like: Crying is a child’s re-boot button. All the processes of her little life—emotions, impulses, senses—can simply feel like overload. So if the wild keening that make us crazy is actually the control-alt-delete of Diva’s system, fair enough. Alas, the computer metaphor breaks down in one regard: I still haven’t found the settings for volume control.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Color Me Mommy

When Lily’s first hand-drawn family portrait came home from Kindergarten, it contained a little Crayola surprise: it contained what appeared to a little girl, her poodle, her dad, and, um, her mom. By “dad,” I mean that one of the two grown-up figures was bald and had long legs; by “mom,” I mean the other had long hair and seemed to be wearing a dress.

Casually feigning ignorance, I asked Lily about the drawing. “That’s me walking Sasha,” she said, pointing at the two smaller figures. Then she indicated the bald character. “That’s Daddy.” My husband is indeed a cue ball, so that seemed fair enough, but that also meant I was missing from the picture. I held my breath a little as I waited to see what she had to say about the skirt-wearing usurper in my place. She sounded perfectly pleased with herself as she finished her narration. “And that’s you!”

Now, I admit to some conflicted emotions here. On one hand, my existence in the family had not been erased—which is good, since I rather like being a VG. On the other hand, I had been depicted as a woman, which I’m fairly certain Lily knows I am not. I have nothing against the female gender, mind you, and I’ve always had more female friends than male ones. (Hell, I had two bridesmaids to one groomsman at my wedding). But I am male, really truly, and Lily has never come down to breakfast to find me in a dressing gown and marabou mules. So how did I end up in drag in the picture?

I played it cool, indicating the knee-length red shift. “What am I wearing there?”

She looked at me like I was cretin, “A big shirt!” Her tone was clear: Well, duh, Papa.

I was not convinced. “My hair looks awfully long.”

The words were out of her mouth in an instant. “I just forgot.”

“Forgot what?”

The gist was this: She’d forgotten that the mom in our family doesn’t have long hair like she does in most. You see, in making her portrait, she hadn’t been choosing between including me or a mom at all: I was both.

It doesn’t matter that she has only ever known life with two dads. Or that she knows gobs of two-mom families, a smaller number of all-dad households, a three-parent family, and a household led by a single mom. (That’s the one she finds mind-blowing—one parent, really?) She has nonetheless correctly intuited that all of these families combined are still the minority. TV shows, books, movies, cereal box packaging, and even the calendar (thank you May and June) all feature one dad and one mom. And you bet every sample family portrait at daycare, preschool, and kindergarten do, too.

There’s no point in getting worked up about it. Children are more capable of negotiating a little cognitive dissonance than they get credit for. By first grade, I had started trying to figure out which of my male schoolmates I would marry when I grew up, yet whenever I drew pictures of weddings (and I loved to draw of pictures of weddings), I still always showed a bride and a groom. In fact, I was kind of obsessed with brides: I didn’t plan to ever have one myself but they were way more fun to draw. I mean, really: brides all had long dresses and tiaras and flowers. Grooms were just men in suits—total yawn. But it was social fact, not nuptial fashion, that truly dictated the content of my drawings: I kept brides in the pictures because I knew that was the norm.

Thirty years later, the same is true of my daughter. Diva had been asked to draw a family portrait, and she knew that usually means a mom and a dad. With her task clear, she completed her illustration in the traditional way, with all the standard distinctions: “dad” was taller than “mom” and “mom’s” hair fell to her stick shoulders. And I’m betting Diva didn’t hesitate for a moment when deciding who was who: I’m so the mom.

Though neither of her parents particularly fits the old school stereotype of a dad (car-fixing, football-watching, wielder of power tools), I do in many ways resemble the moms my daughter has seen on TV shows or in movies: I’m a playdate-going, costume-sewing, decorator of holiday cookies.

But wait—why didn’t she pick Daddy for this gender-bending caricature? My husband cooks almost all the meals and does all the laundry, and he’s hooked on romantic comedies with Reese Witherspoon in them. If stereotypes alone are the definitive guide, you could argue that Diva has two moms.

In reality, many parents (and not just gay ones) exceed the old gender roles these days; indeed, with every passing decade, fewer and fewer of us are willing to conform to the outdated notions that still surround us. Just in our circle, we know straight dads who eschew sports but rule the kitchen, as well as straight moms who travel for business while their husbands stay home with the kids. Regardless of gender or orientation, our fellow parents in the 21st century are freer than ever to choose upon which of their own strengths and interests they wish capitalize. But the first few drawings of kindergarten are unlikely to show this.

Subtleties are hard to illustrate when you’re five. Then again, Diva did get a few things exactly right, including one little detail which made me feel enormously better: Dad may be bald, but Mom still has his hair.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Invisible Friends

“I played with two girls today at school.” Diva told me this with an air of casual confidence as we walked down the street to her dance class. I asked the girls’ names and my daughter shrugged; she’s terrible at names, and offered instead only this vague description. “One of them is the girl I played with yesterday.” With it being her first week of Kindergarten, I was just so glad she was already making friends, even nameless ones.

Except that she was lying.

Just days before, when we’d taken her up the hill for her first day of school, all three of us were thrilled and anxious. When the classes lined up on the playground, she didn’t complain that all of her buddies from preschool had been assigned to the same other class instead of hers. And when her teacher announced it was time to head inside, Diva seemed ready. Parents could walk with the children all the way to the school doors or just let the kids go ahead, and when I asked my daughter what she wanted, she was clear: “I’m good—you can go.”

Every day after school, when Daddy and I casually asked how school was, we’d go right to questions like “have you made a friend yet” or “did you play with anybody new?” On the first two days, she said, yes, that there was a girl whose name she didn’t know; on the third day, the two of them were joined by another girl whose name was also a mystery. As friends and family asked how Diva liked kindergarten, I trotted out the nameless playmates as examples of how smoothly it was going.

Apparently, I just fell off the turnip truck. Based on my complete overconfidence about the transition, you’d never guess I have been a parent for five years already, someone who should know better that big moves—say, going to a new school, six hours a day, five days a week with 20 complete strangers—might be exhausting and unsettling. But, no, I wanted to hear that she was happy and surrounded by friends, even “Miss Fill in the Blank” or “Little Somethingorother.”

The truth came out on the fourth night when Daddy asked how her two new friends were. She was matter of fact. “Oh, I made them up.” He was dumbfounded. Hadn’t she been telling Papa about these imaginary girls for days? She agreed that this was true.   

Go ahead, put on your parent hat and decide which issue needed to be addressed first. That she had no friends at school? That she felt compelled to tell us that she did, so we would be happy even if she wasn’t? Or that she was so comfortable just lying outright to her dads?

It is possible, of course, that she had made friends after all. But if so, then she was lying about lying, which is very meta and would make an excellent conceit for a novel, but still meant that we wouldn’t know which stories to trust about her life at school. So Daddy settled on starting with the truth issue.

He reminded her that telling an untrue story is lying and that we aren’t supposed to lie to each other. He assured her that we want her to be able to express how she really feels, and that her Daddy and Papa are the two people she should trust the most. She tried to reposition things a bit, saying that she had only been “joking” about having friends. Later, when I tried to remind her that she really does know the difference between a joke and a lie, she remained adamant: it wasn’t a lie if she didn’t mean it to be.

Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to flash ahead to when she is 16. Just imagine the apocalyptic wreckage of her fathers’ nervous systems as she employs that logic in other settings. (“College is going just fine, Papa, and the sounds you hear in the background are not a huge biker rally in South Dakota that I dropped out of school to attend.”)

To be fair, she was actually showing a sad kind of maturity here: she had already learned that grown-ups ask many questions with a set answer in mind, so intuiting the desired answer allowed her to perform well in conversation. If her dads asked every single day if she had made friends, then not yet having made any must not only be scary to her but be bad and disappointing to us, so she gave the response that would please 2 out of 3 people in our family. She might not have been answering in the best way by offering up a lie, but we hadn’t exactly been asking the best questions either.

Over the weekend, I noticed how much the pattern repeated in her interactions with adults. On Sunday alone, three separate grown-ups asked Lily if she liked (or in one case loved) Kindergarten. She said yes all three times, and added nothing else, while the grown-ups filled in the blanks, exclaiming about how excited she must be and what a big girl she was. I could see the stillness on my daughter’s face, her lack of enthusiasm masked by her absolute awareness that only one answer would do.

I tell my college students that research never begins with a question that can be answered “yes” or “no,” because you always end up squeezing your results to fit. True learning comes from an open-ended question, with the information you find shaping an outcome that may well be complicated and not easy to boil down. This is going to have to be my task as a parent as well, remembering to ask the open question, instead of shoehorning the data into the desired result. Instead of starting with “Did you play with someone today?” I need to try the less-leading, “Tell me about recess.” If her answer involves a specific classmate, perhaps even one with a name, excellent; but if she focuses instead on her monkey bars progress, then I guess we’ll talk about monkey bars.

Last night, at bedtime, I told Diva that she can feel any way she likes about Kindergarten. If, when questioned by a grown-up, she wants to say she enjoys school, great. But if she doesn’t like it very much that day, she should say that, too. And so she said something I knew she meant, at least for this moment: “Kindergarten is boring. Except recess. That’s the best.

Ok, so that may not be the happiest sentiment she’s ever expressed, but it contains the one thing I do want to hear: the truth.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

IN THE NAME OF LOVE (Diva's first crush)

It was the last night of the last vacation of summer, and my husband and daughter were snuggled up for bedtime story when she dropped a bomb. “Daddy,” she said, “I love someone here.”

My hubby tried to play dumb. “You mean Daddy and Papa?” Nope. She shook her little curls and waited, wanting him to guess. But he didn’t need to; he already knew.

Though there were six families sharing the rental house, not all the kids were created equal in Lily’s eyes. She was clearly smitten with Cole, a boy her age who boasted all sorts of magic qualities: he ran as fast she did, needed to be active just as constantly, and was willing to play Baby Cheetah, a chase-and-growl game that she’d invented and never wearies of. All weekend, she had maneuvered herself next to Cole at the table or at the beach. And when nine kids settled in for a movie viewing, she snagged the spot nearest him on the floor.

She’s 5.

Let me pause for a moment here to hyperventilate. She’s crushing out on boys at five?

Thankfully, it was her Daddy on the mattress and not her Papa. I might have been tempted to tell her that it’s not appropriate to chase after members of the opposite sex until she’s, I don’t know, 25. And then I would have changed the subject to puppies or cheetahs or something.

Her Daddy went the gentle, liberal parent route instead: asking what she meant by “love” and what she thought people did when they felt that way. Even when she said boys and girls who love each other kiss on the lips—demonstrating that the girl has to turn her head sideways—Daddy did not leap up off the floor shrieking, nor immediately start shopping online for future scarlet letter sweaters. He softly explained that kissing is for older people and that she could show her love in lots of other ways (all of them lip-and-hand-free). He was a model of parental calm.

Of course, as soon as she was asleep, he poured himself a stiff drink.

When he recounted Lily’s bedtime confession to me, we were both flummoxed. How did we end up here? We don’t have cable. We limit her TV viewing largely to PBS and Disney. And she sure as hell isn’t seeing a lot of girls tilting their heads to kiss boys in our house.

We began to second-guess ourselves, considering all the exceptions to our careful media monitoring—we had after all, let her watch High School Musical, and, ok, she may have seen Hannah Montana once. Even old Disney movies might have been the culprits, what with smooth operator Tramp using his artful lies to woo Lady, or Mowgli following a human girl into her village after she summoned him with that horrifying come-hither gaze.   

Or maybe it’s just the age. When my husband sounded a note of disbelief that a five year-old could actually have a crush, I reminded him that I knew I was gay when I was six. I knew because I got caught playing an elaborate kissing game that I had orchestrated with a neighbor boy, Coty; the older kid who discovered us called us pansies. While that was the day I got a name for what I felt, I had been convinced for months that I would marry this particular boy next door. Which means, yes indeed, my first crush was also at age 5.

This is not comforting exactly, since I never relented in my ardor. The object of my crushes changed but there was always some boy I adored, from grade school into high school, and on into college and grad school, where I could finally date guys instead of worshipping them from afar. When I got married, my husband stood at the end of an aisle I started walking down two decades before. So I can be forgiven for already obsessing about my daughter’s romantic inclinations—can’t I?

I know, I know: what all this really means is that I need to learn to breathe out and accept that she’s going to keep growing up, no matter how much each new stage startles and unsettles me. Freaking out, overreacting, and nakedly quashing her emotions will just make me the reincarnation of my grandmother, who washed my mouth out with soap when I told her I loved a boy. I must instead resolve not to be afraid of my child’s very natural feelings.

At least that’s what I’ll tell myself until we buy a mountain compound with a nice perimeter fence and a cozy guard house, where any suitor who wants to pass will have to get by Papa first.