Clean Slate

Welcome. Welcome back!

I love fresh starts, and new beginnings. There’s nothing quite so appealing as the promise of a New Year, with 365 pristine days spread out before us, all holding so much potential.

This year, I always think, is my year. I’m definitely going to get it right this time! I’m going to get enough sleep, start exercising, and stop stuffing my face with Chicago Mix at midnight. I’ll study another language, plan exotic travel and become the most amazingly serene parent ever. I’ll finally finish that book I’ve been working on for, well, ever, and while I’m at it, I’ll declutter the house.

2019. It’s amazing how, with a pop of a cork and the whizzing of fireworks, we are suddenly in an entirely new era. We kick the dust of 2018 from our feet, and leave our sorrows behind us, marching forward into the New Year with all of our resolutions shiny and intact. Until the end of January, anyway.

As much as I love this new-leaf feeling, I also know that something not-so-great can lurk under that promise of fresh starts. I can’t do all the things at once, and when, by mid-February, the daily yoga practice has dropped off, and many a project has fizzled, it’s easy to think, “Oh well, this year’s broken. I guess there’s always 2020!”

So rather than taking off like a rocket, this year I’m making some really small, daily changes. I am actually going to try to get more sleep.

I was very tempted to just scrap this blog altogether and start a sparkling new one for the ultimate clean slate. Instead, I’m doing some tinkering, and clean-up, putting in some work and making some changes.

I’m wishing you all a very happy 2019. I hope January is off to a beautiful start. This can be your year too. Come back and visit me often. There are many exciting things to come!

The Feral Child

“I’m not a human!!! I’m a girl!!!” – Lark, aged 35 months

My daughter is an animal.

As I write this, she’s lounging on the couch in her undies, eating cream cheese straight out of the container. With her hands.

In some ways, she’s right. She’s not a human being just yet. She’s a toddler. Toddlers are really teeny wild beasts that we adults have to mould into full-fledged humans. Homo sapiens have all of these great ideas; like manners, culture, inventions, et cetera, et cetera. These are the things that set us apart from the other animals, yes?

As a result, from the second our offspring are born, we begin the process of trying to teach them the rules around this humanity stuff. To start with: don’t hit, don’t yank things away from other kids, say please, keep your clothes on in public, bathe at regular intervals, don’t pick your nose, eat nicely, and so on.

Lark’s had a very different kind of childhood from my son; one that has allowed her many freedoms that he never had. Because of this, I’m more inclined to let her spend a bit more time being an animal. She’s got the rest of her life to be a human.

On some fronts, she’s already well ahead of the game. She’s ridiculously polite. She seems to come by it naturally, without ever having been prodded to say please or thank you. She’ll say things like, “Thank you for making us such a lovely dinner, Daddy.” Or, “I’m so glad you bought me a ballet skirt Mummy, thank you SO MUCH!”

Unlike most other parents, Craig and I haven’t  focused too much on the manners end of things. Frankly, we’ve had bigger fish to fry than to remind our son to say please at every juncture. We model good manners (mostly) but don’t insist upon them. But we’ve ended up with one kid who makes rude demands and forgets his thank-yous, and another who acts like she’s attended an etiquette seminar for preschoolers.

However, in some other aspects of her journey to becoming a full-time human, she’s definitintely still a wild thing. Since the time Lark figured out how to get her clothes off on her own, she’s almost always nude at home. She just finds clothes unnecessary and restrictive. She peels her offending garments off, shouting, “I just want to be mak-ed!” accompanied by the cutest bum wiggle. She literally has no shame. AND NOR SHOULD SHE BECAUSE SHE’S TWO. The rest of the world, for various reasons, feel that she should be properly clothed. Admittedly, as the months have passed, and she approaches the wise old age of three, she’s started to become less likely to strip off in public, which is a relief, as I don’t have to field the looks-like-you’ve-got-a-nudist-on-your-hands comments from passers-by.

I don’t have any issues with her running around rudie-nudies 24-7. But secretly, I fear I’m failing her in the bathing department. Oh, she loves having a bath or shower. She’s not noticeably smelly, with flies revolving around her head or anything.

But. She despises getting her hair washed. Like screaming, kicking, tries to climb out of the bath hates it. This has been going on since forever. I now have a mild case of PTSD in relation to washing her hair. I’m surprised that no one has called emergency services to our door because of the sheer volume of hair-washing screams.

None of us need that kind of stress in our lives, so what ends up happening is that the hair wash doesn’t. Happen, that is.

You don’t want to know how long we go between washes. Her hair always looks amazing, a kind of silky golden baby-curl that salons the world over would love to replicate. Maybe there’s something to be said for not washing your hair, like, ever?

And just when you think something’s going to continue the same way for the rest of your life, your kids go and change or grow up or become a little more human. Last night, after writing this, when she was in the bath, I asked her if I could wash her hair.

“Sure!” she said. Amazingly.

“Really?” I asked, holding the shower a decent distance away from her head.

“Yes,” she said firmly. “But no shampoo.”

Baby steps.

Rifle Celebration

We’ve all been on the receiving end of nosy questions from perfect strangers. Right? Personally, my life is a mostly-open book – I mean, I write a blog about me and my family that is read by actual dozens of people, so obviously I’m not averse to sharing. But, even I have wondered what is going through other people’s heads when they inquire about some intimate detail.

In the age of the overshare, there are still some things you just shouldn’t ask other people – particularly, strangers. We’ll start things off with the basic stats: “How much do you weigh?” “How old are you?” “Have you ever had plastic surgery?”  Fact-seeking inquiries all, yet questions about our physical properties are considered rude by most people over the age of 12.

Moving on, direct questioning about finances: “How much money do you make?” No need to elaborate. For most of us “not enough” suffices as a response.

So, those are bad. But what’s the absolute worst question you can ask someone? You know. If you’re a woman, you know. The worst. Wait for it. Drumroll. Ready?

Are you pregnant?

I hope I’ve never actually asked anyone this. I tend to err way on the side of caution on this one, even when I’ve just encountered a woman rubbing her giant watermelon belly, and lamenting her cankles, I probably won’t bring it up unless she does. Because, what if she has some insane glandular condition or similar? What if – gasp – she is pregnant but she’s one of those women who doesn’t know that she’s pregnant, until she goes to the hospital and the doctors inform her that it hasn’t been digestive trouble but in fact a small human that’s been bothering her all of these months? (You may laugh but I’ve known in my lifetime two women that this has happened to.)

I have an unfortunate amount of personal experience in fielding the are-you-pregnant query, which is why it’s my policy to keep my mouth shut when faced with a suspiciously rotund abdomen. If Possibly Pregnant is a friend of mine, she’ll eventually tell me in good time. She has her own reasons for keeping it quiet. And if she isn’t a friend of mine, then, obviously, it’s just none of my business, is it?

I’ve been asked this question a total of three times. The first time was definitely insulting, but not meant to be hurtful. Perhaps I’d been eating a lot of bread? The inquirer genuinely thought that I had that special glow. In fact, being pregnant was THE furthest thing from my mind or uterus.

The second time broke my heart. I found myself walking away from the person who asked me, with tears in my eyes. This, I thought. This is why you don’t ask.

The third instance – which was actually the second time – was a communication breakdown of the finest calibre.

Long ago, when I taught ESL for a living, I’d just started working at a private language school in downtown Toronto. The majority of the classes there were mixed-demographic, meaning that the students came from all over the world and ranged in age from teens to retirees. Because of that, teaching these classes was challenging, but a lot of fun. Throw some Brazilians, Koreans, a smattering of Europeans and a couple of Saudis in a classroom together and hi-jinks will inevitably ensue.

A couple of weeks after I’d started there, a school group of teenage girls arrived from Japan. For reasons unknown, the director decided not to disperse these students amongst the regular classes, but to segregate them in a group of their own for the few weeks of their stay. As the newest hire, I was volunteered to teach this group of giggling school-girls, who were around 16 years old. And they were quiet. Very, very quiet.

I was tasked with teaching them to speak English, but getting them to actually form words proved to be a formidable task. My most “fun” lesson plans crashed and burned, and without the usual different nationalities to balance things out, our Conversation classes resounded with the gentle chirping of crickets.

One day, I mentioned in passing that I was engaged. This information galvanized my class. They actually applauded. They wanted to know everything about my future husband and our wedding plans. This was the most I’d heard from them in weeks.

As we chatted, I noticed one of the girls saying something to the friend next to her in Japanese. Nodding in agreement, they whipped out their electronic dictionaries and consulted them. Those dictionaries were a useful piece of technology. However, much like Google Translate, they were also prone to errors. Subtleties or levels of appropriateness were lost.  Earlier that year, one of my students was horrified by my reaction – uncontrollable laughter – when he’d used the word horny to describe his hands after a weekend spent doing yard-work. A more accurate translation might have been rough or callused, yes?

At any rate, the girls put their heads together and came up with something they wanted to ask me. Calling me over, one of them looked up at me, smiling and asked hesitantly, “You and your fiancé…um,” and here she paused, pointed at the dictionary and read out the words, “Shotgun wedding?

It took me a moment to twig to what she was asking.

Then I realized that she thought I was pregnant. I flashed through several emotions in quick succession ranging from irritation to amusement – I mean, it’s hilarious, right, SHOTGUN WEDDING?? I could only turn to her and simply say, “No. I’m not.” She blushed beet to her hairline and gasped out an apology between giggles. I imagine that the phrase she chose in Japanese was rather more polite than the English translation, which conjures up images of a rifle-totin’ dad forcibly marching his future son-in-law to the altar.

Nothing more was said. I was used to students from other cultures thinking that I was fat, so I let it go. During the break, I relayed this story to my co-workers, who fell off their chairs laughing whilst examining my stomach for signs of a baby bump.

The girls eventually went home to Japan, hopefully to go on to even more scintillating English conversations like the ones we had together.

For a little while, shotgun wedding became code amongst the teachers for any communication snafu or epic lesson-fail.

If you’ve read to the end of this tale, here’s a simple infographic on the topic to take with you:

 

 

TEN

When I was about 10 years old, this kind-of-epic event occurred in our family. My parents went away for around four days, and my grandmother flew in from Toronto to watch me and my two hellion siblings for that half-week, as we lived in New York state at the time. She cared for us well, and we all survived, despite the fact that she almost drove our enormous, 80’s, maroon station-wagon off of the road on a couple of occasions.

My parents went to the Caribbean for the first time, and they came back with stories of impossibly turquoise water and swarming-rainbow fish. Mom and Dad were both relaxed, giddy, and laden with souvenir T-shirts for us kids. Looking back, they weren’t just jazzed about their first trip down south, it was also their first getaway from us, their darling children.

Yes, my parents had not both spent a night away from the kids in 13 years of marriage.

I bring this up because Craig and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary last month. (Thanks, it’s a nice, round, number.) Of course, like most couples these days, we’d spent a fair bit of time together before getting married, so it’s actually been 15 years, but who’s counting? Our relationship has spanned the journey from our youth at 24:

This is what passed as a “good” photo pre-Instagram.

To where we are now, which is (gulp) middle-age at 41. I know they say 40 is the new 30. It’s not. It’s actually still 40.

erica-and-craig_ten
A few more wrinkles. And well-earned grey hairs.

Quite a few people around us also happen to be celebrating their 10th anniversaries, with varying levels of hoopla and big gifts. Good friends of ours organized their first getaway from the kids after ten years of marriage, and strongly encouraged us to book something too. It was amazing how much we managed to do in two days, they said. When we wanted to go somewhere, we just walked out the door and went, without having to organize all these diapers and sippy-cups.

With this glowing report of uninterrupted conversations in mind, I booked a one-night break for us that took place last weekend. It was the first night that I had spent away from Lark since she arrived on Earth, and I was fearful as to how she would react to having a sleepover at my parents house. Would she be inconsolable, weeping for Mummy all night? On the contrary, that afternoon I received video footage of her dancing with my niece, garbed in a sparkly tutu and shouting, “It’s party time!!” That’s my daughter. When we picked the kids up to go home, she cried the whole way, begging to go back to Bubby and Da’s house. My son was equally unperturbed by our brief separation, as I imagined he would be, given that he is now 8.

Our overnight stay was fab. We went to a spa and lounged in hot tubs, we drank bubbles, looked in shops, had a hike, an enormous dinner, got a massage and had a lunch in a country pub. Not necessarily in that order. In 24 hours. There was no screaming or bickering or refusing to get into car seats. There were no demands for snacks and sudden pleas for water. We just did stuff without a lot of fuss. It was insanely liberating. And we talked about other things. Things that we used to talk about, like music and books and current events and articles we’d read. Things which were not reports of the weekly schedule and who has to do what when, and requests to fold the laundry or pick up milk on the way home. Things which were not shouted at each other in an effort to be heard, over the constant cacophony of our loudmouth offspring.

We’d realized not too long before that it had been four years since we last spent a night child-free. How did that happen? It wasn’t that we didn’t want to have a short holiday without them, but Time just somehow gets away from you, and before you know it, you’re reminiscing about your honeymoon on your 20th anniversary. It strikes me as so very essential to the success of a relationship to be able to spend time together, apart from the children, yet finding that time can prove elusive.

Timing and life make it not always possible to get away from the kids. We won’t always be able to find the funds for overnight escapes, and not everyone has someone in their life with whom they can leave their children for the night. Which is why I propose mandatory, government-sanctioned and sponsored child-free holidays, complete with registered overnight care. They must already have this in France, oui?

After 15 years, let’s face it, many marriages are foundering on the rocks. Couples come unstitched at the seams for a variety of reasons: work, money, careers, compatibility, affairs, stress, illness and renovations. I mean, God, if Brad and Angelina couldn’t make it, can any of us really expect to?

I’m obviously not a marriage counsellor, but here are a few things that I think are good ideas when trying to keep it all together:

  1. Give your partner a clean slate every day. A dear friend who is much wiser than I offered me this one a while ago. She talked about how we never hold grudges against our children, but we start each day fresh with them, full of unconditional love, despite the fact that they were behaving like little a**holes yesterday. If we could try to approach our partners with the same attitude, rather than holding on to resentment, we’d be much happier.
  2. Don’t pigeonhole your other half. No one likes being told that their own, complex personality fits into a neat little category, or what they “always” or “never” do. You may think that you can accurately predict what your partner will do or say, (and often you probably can) but never forget that we all, always, have the ability to surprise one another. And we have to be okay with it when our partners do surprise us.
  3. Book the escape. Or the afternoon together. Or the date night. Whatever time you are able to find is worth something. And if you know a person who struggles to find that time, like a parent to a special- needs child, or a friend who is dealing with illness in the family, be the person who offers to help.

Ten years – hell, 15 – have gone by fast. In another ten years we’re going to be parents to teenagers, and ten years after that, we’ll be 60, with tonnes of time on our hands, and we’ll be sighing, and wondering what the kids are up to tonight.

 

 

 

Toddler Addictions

I want hockey stickLark, 420 times a day

No, my daughter doesn’t have dreams of playing in the NHL. She just has a charming habit of pronouncing her “p’s” like “h’s” some of the time. Hence, pillows comes out more like hellos, and hockey stick is actually code for Pocky. (stick.)

You may be asking yourself, “What is Pocky? That sounds vaguely familiar but I’m not sure what you are talking about.” This is Pocky:

pocky

 

Pocky is a chocolate-covered biscuity treat with questionable ingredients. (e.g. sodium hydroxide, the primary ingredient in Drano) In our house we prefer to call them hockey sticks, or perhaps Satan’s sticks, depending on how the day is going.

As an adult, I’m well aware of my own addictions, and let’s face it, being a grown-up is really about finding a balance between our pleasure-seeking behaviours and the reality of the responsibilities we have to shoulder on a daily basis. Having structure and societal rules around these things helps to keep us on track. Which is why we say no to the second piece of cake and don’t get drunk before work. We try to impose limits on ourselves when we know what we’re doing isn’t good for us. “I’m only going to watch one more episode, then I’m definitely going to bed.” “I’m quitting smoking this weekend. No, for real this time.” I know you know.

Toddlers, though. Toddlers are just figuring it all out. They’re putting two and two together, and they’re discovering that the world is full of delicious and delightful things that parents have been maliciously hiding from them, for like, their whole lives.

After Lark’s first taste of ice cream, she was completely amazed that we don’t eat this stuff all the time. So she started to ask for it all the time. At breakfast. Forget oatmeal. “I creem? Mummy, I want. I creem?”

At the end of the school year in June, I went to pick up a treat for Bean and his classmates to share on one of the last days of school. In a moment of desperation, I grabbed this jumbo pack of Pocky that was sitting helpfully by the checkout. As it turned out, only a few of the kids stuck around to play that day, and I was left with 50 chocolatey sticks to bring home and stash in the cupboard.

In retrospect, I could have just thrown them out. But that seemed incredibly wasteful, despite the fact that a closer inspection of the ingredient list made me cringe. I thought they would soon be eaten by someone around here – I just didn’t imagine that it would be Lark.

We all have that parenting moment that we look back on with regret. If only I’d never shown her Frozen in the first place. If only I’d never bought him those Pokemon cards. You recognize it with extreme clarity, the moment when the addiction began. And it’s all on you. There’s no group of bad kids that peer-pressured yours in the playground. YOU are the one that opened the gates, and there’s no turning back.

Lark had seen the big kids eating the Pocky at school. When we got home, she quietly watched me put them away in the pantry cupboard. She quickly summoned her cutest, most appealing voice and said, “Mummy, I have hockey stick?” head tilted adorably, eyes doe-like in the extreme. I melted. I guess one won’t hurt, I thought.

From there, the requests for hockey sticks started to escalate. She began to respond to the pantry door opening with Pavlovian regularity. I doled them out, one by one, wondering when we were going to come to the end of our supply. At one point, I tried pretending we’d run out, but she was too clever for me. I didn’t hide them well enough, and she stood on a step-stool to peer up into the cupboard. “There they are!” she shouted triumphantly, pointing to the shiny red package nestled next to the peanut butter. (And still I didn’t throw them out. What’s wrong with me?)

Finally, though, they were really all gone. I could tell her in truth that there were no more, and show her the empty spot on the shelf. The Pocky days were behind us, or so I thought.

A couple of days later, another packet suddenly appeared in the cupboard. I brandished the offensive sticks in my husband’s face, “Where did these come from?” I demanded, accusingly. “I bought them,” he said mildly. I was aghast. Why would he feed our daughter’s addiction like that?

So the near-daily dose of hockey sticks continued.

Until last Tuesday, when the most epic Pocky-tantrum of Lark’s life occurred. As I was making dinner, she began asking for a hockey stick.

“Not now,” I said absently,”You can have one after dinner.”

“No, NOW, Mama. I want hockey stick, NOW,” she replied more forcefully.

“No, sweetheart. Mummy said no,” I said gently.

Clearly, she thought, I wasn’t getting it, so she was going to explain what she wanted so that there was no doubt. I was treated to a wild display of tears, foot-stomping, rolling on the floor, incoherent shouts, and demands for hockey sticks in a volume that had to be heard by our friends in Australia. Craig arrived home from work and dinner was half-made, as I struggled to chop veggies with a weeping toddler wrapped around my leg.

To make the evening even better, I’d forgotten all about the appointment we’d made with a builder, who was coming over to chat about a project we’re doing next year. He showed up at the door right at that moment, looking a little apprehensive at the amount of noise emanating from the kitchen.

“Uh, do you want me to come back another time?” he asked.

“No!” I said with what I hoped was a cheery and not-completely-manic smile. “It’s fine. Really, it’s fine!” This, despite the fact that my daughter was attached to me like a barnacle and still sniffling, “I want hockey stick,” under her breath. And it was fine. Because I parked her in front of the iPad with her brother for the duration of our talk, thereby lining up the next addiction, obviously, but that was a worry for another time.

I guess the most difficult part for toddlers, is understanding why Mum and Dad say no when they should undoubtably be saying yes. Why is it okay to eat a Pocky stick after dinner but not before? Why can we not watch unlimited episodes of Caillou? Why can’t we go outside to play at 4:30 in the morning? To a toddler, these demands are perfectly reasonable, and being stymied in their desires seems to be the most base cruelty.

If toddlers ruled the world, it would be ice cream for breakfast and maple syrup for dinner. And Pocky sticks for everyone! At any time of day – convention be damned. No one would have to drink out of a wrong-coloured cup or wear a bib with objectionable sleeves.

Thankfully though, in reality, we are spared the anarchy of a toddler-administered society, and grown-ups (or pretend grown-ups like myself) call the shots. We need to be the ones to rein in the toddler addictions, and say “no” even though it’s one million times easier to say “yes.”

Lark is still asking for Pocky every day, but not going as completely mental when she gets a “no.” Thankfully, the well is running dry, and we’ll soon be free of them forever.

Seriously, this is the last pack. I swear.