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.