Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Red Maple and the One Year Old.

It's one thing to be a mother.
It's something entirely different to be a mother of a one year old.

I'm not exactly sure how to articulate what I mean when I say that. When Opal was born and throughout those first months of her life, I can recall thinking mothers with one-year-olds (and older) had passed some sort of rich, complex initiation that I was just beginning. What will the weather be like on the other side of that milestone?

Well, here we are and the weather happens to be lovely.

The maple in the front yard is flashing the same construction-paper, deliciously faux-appearing leaves (the kind where the pencil-drawing marks are still showing) as it did this time last year. Many of which are curling on the ground in heaps as earthy shag carpeting due to a wild windstorm yesterday. The leaves, when the sun turns them like a thousand paper lanterns, are a daring shade of coral that out-yell every other tree on the block. On a cloudy day, or at twilight, they appear more wine-stained.
This maple has adorned itself to celebrate Jesse and I's wedding anniversary (October 28th) for the last three years since we've lived here and it will now don it's technicolor finest for sweet Opal's birthdays (October 22nd) for as long as we stay.

I distinctly remember last year's autumn, specifically those few days before she was born. I'd stopped working by then so I was surrounded by long breezy fall days. I was terrified of expending my energy in cheap ways, mis-using the allotment I had saved up for the labor and delivery. I remember thinking (and journaling) about how I really wanted to go for an outing, a stroll or a trip to Whole Foods, perhaps. But I knew I could go into labor at any moment and when that time came, I'd be wishing I'd saved my resources for more virtuous pursuits. So, the main things I gave myself permission to spend hours upon hours doing were writing and reading. Scribbling into my precious Stuff On My Cat journal or typing out essay after essay that never saw the light of day. Reading the current and optimally distracting issue of the New Yorker, and—what turned out to be an uncanny manual for pregnancy—John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley.

I nestled into our crimson couch, my enormous belly buttressed by pillows like an egg in the carton, feet propped mercifully, with my laptop on a pillow on my thighs, with only my pre-mom thoughts, my dog and the vermilion tree out front. It stood like a watchtower and was totally comforting in its permanence. The amount of time I spent in in that very position was measurable in allotments longer than hours, it was chunks of day. Between-meals. Spans. And, inside the forced repose was a combination of necessary-anxiety and outright bliss. I don't remember the last time I've had anything that comes close to a between-meal-span to spread my thoughts out onto paper like soft butter onto bread. I'm so thankful I had that time.

But the payoff for a lack of those timely recesses, for the lists and sub-lists of items to squeeze into a tiny opening that is called nap-time, for trading in the prerogative of thinking of myself and my needs first, is enormous.
The version of myself that is a mother to a one year old—along with being the wife of an amazing father to a one year old— is someone whom I admire. My priorities are lined up like a harvest of fruitful crops.
My daughter is, in short, astounding.

This child uses her time like a master investor. Not a second is wasted, not a moment is missed.
I marvel at the things that can be accomplished by a little being who
1. Has a mind that is utterly free of doubt, concern for past and future, fear.
2. Has no responsibilities
3. Hears only affirmations, acknowledgements and validations.
4. Achieves everything on her list through play.


The main benchmarks worthy of noting are her developments in language, physical skills and interactions. She is scrambling to catch-up to the other conversational walkers in her world.

I recently read in the Dr. Sears Handbook that by the age of one, babies understand almost everything but can express very little. This is certainly the case for Opal. She has quite a collection of words she can say, and even more that she can copy, but the vast majority of
topics continue to be out of her reach. The result of this predicament is pretty straight-forward. When there is a word she can say, nana for example (banana) that not only gets the message across but also gets her the outcome she desired, she does a sort of wiggle-kick jolly dance, reveling in the satisfaction of communication. However, often there is a word she can say, no for example, that we understand but when don't comply with the result she hoped for, (Honey, you still have to get in the car seat—) she responds with a flailing, arched-back tantrum. Ahh. The dissatisfaction of unsuccessful communication. The same dissatisfaction comes from when she desperately wants to impart something but doesn't quite have the words to say it, which also results in a major upset.

She diligently practices the words she does know. I can hear her in the carseat reciting the following to herself as she flips through the pages of her book: dada, wadoo (water), bee (bunny), hi (with a long I-sound), nana (banana), meal (milk), slight giggle, boo (book), roar (sound a lion makes), squeal, bye-bye. This is essentially the word bank available for direct recall in her little brain.

There are also many words that are prompted by visual cues around the house and the larger world. Eash, eash, eash (leash, always repeated a number of times) is prompted by me getting out the coats in the morning to take the dog for a walk. Nanananananananana to infinity occurs when she spots a banana on the counter until we give it to her. (We try to remember to hide the bananas but often one slips through the cracks.) Poo (poofs )when the poofs come out. Momo (more) at a meal when she wants more and ada (all done) at a meal when she is finished. She calls her doll baby and is quick to point out buttons (butta) and noses (noo, with a long O-sound). She recites the sounds a lion, sheep, horsey and kitty make when asked, roar, baa, neigh and meowmeow, respectively. She also calls out meowmeow when chasing after the cat. She names many of her toys: ba (ball), ba (balloon), bee (bunny), baby (baby doll). She often tells the dog dowe (down) while pointing at the ground. She says whoa when something shocking happens, which is one that endlessly cracks us up.

She totally recognizes Ama and Papa on Skype and says their names clear as could be. Hi Ama! Hi Papa! This, the toothy grin and the waving visibly melts their hearts.

She greets passers-by without discrimination and hollers bye-bye when anyone leaves the room, even just for a moment.

In spite of her impressive repertoire of vocab words, she spends a decent amount of time whimpering and pointing when she wants something she doesn't yet know how to ask for.

She understands many instructions, like "say hi to the butterflies" (she has a string of butterflies on her wall). She will turn to look up at them and say "hi B" and smile at her own comprehension.

Her ability to copy words is astounding. A few days ago during a walk, I asked if she could hear the birdies chirping and she said birdies chirping clear as day. O-meo (oatmeal) and appo (apples) for oatmeal and apples. If a word is too challenging to copy directly, she whispers an abbreviated version to herself, pa for pizza for example, as if storing it in her little mind to work on later.

Her physical abilities are improving continuously. As of a month ago, we were celebrating the fact that she was able to stand on her own for a few seconds at a time, using something to climb up as a prop to get her there. Since then, she's figured out how to stand up from a seated position without the need of any bolster—what a sight that is to behold!! She understands how to first sit back into a wide-legged squat with hands on the floor, then to a squat with no hands, then to standing. What a feat! She's been able to do that for a few weeks and still squeals with delight each time she executes it without a plop (whoa.)

She loves to walk with her push-cart walker. Her little feet get going underneath her like blurry animation, scrambling onward, leaning forward, breathing audibly, until she hits an obstacle. There, she either hollers with frustration or sighs with the relief of an out-of-control skier having hit a stalling fluff-pile of snow.

Last week, she took a few real steps! The moment took me completely by surprise. She was standing a few feet away from me, as per usual, giggling and sideways-grinning. I scooted back a bit and held out my arms, also as usual, but this time she took three solid steps to get to me! I think she was just as shocked as I was! A moment of that caliber has happened only a few times since that then, but she is clearly becoming more and more steady on her feet. Standing is a piece of cake and cruising from thing to thing can be done without conscious thinking.

On another note, between 10 and 11 months, Opal weened herself entirely (see the previous blog, Farewell to Breastfeeding). When I returned to work part time in August, my body produced less and less milk, so we supplemented with formula. It was a not-so-slow progression to transition entirely to formula, as my supply dwindled. Now, she happily takes her formula from her sippy cup four times a day as she snuggles with either daddy or I in her rocker.

She loves to eat real food and has an obvious aversion to most baby foods. Her Ama (my mom) always comments on how impressed she is with the foods Opal dines on (and likes!). Her current favorites consist of steel-cut oats with plain yogurt and pureed raisins and bananas for breakfast. Soft-roasted sweet potatoes and beets, grilled chicken bits, spinach balls and avocado for lunch and dinner. Smashed squash with a little nutmeg. Muffins are a hit, as are eggs and most kinds of fruit. We took her out for pizza on her actual birthday and she adored it. She hasn't tried macaroni and cheese yet, but I anticipate that when she does, she'll be a goner.

Still only the two bottom teeth, but she is presently working on a third, on the bottom. Drooling, rubbing the area with her tongue, diaper rash and runny nose. It's amazing how much teething throws everything for a loop.

Opal is becoming very affectionate with her closest loved ones. She puckers up and gives us kisses (complete with little kiss-smacking noises!) and often wraps her arms around our necks when she is sleepy. It is a very common occurrence for her to give the dog a big bear hug and kiss. She kisses Bee and her Baby Doll several times a day.

She is incredibly friendly and social in most situations, especially once she's had the proper time to acclimate. She'll holler "HI" to any passer-by, a stranger in a restaurant, a passing bike, a fellow shopper. But often when men who are not super-familiar enter the scene, Jesse's brother Dave or his best friend Eddie, for example, she gets visibly shy. With Eddie, she showed clear signs of intense emotion, really wanting his attention and approval, and yet shying away from him and protesting more than usual in his presence. She acted like a teeny-weeny little teenager.

Play-time includes some of the most precious interactions that could be imagined. She is so curious and so focused and full of discovery that sitting next to her, if just for a little while, is like visiting the bottom of the sea. Enamoring. She unpacks her toys from their respective baskets in a presumably-strategic manner. Sometimes she wants to make noise. Sometimes she wants to silently put things in and take them out of a container. Sometimes she wants you to give her instructions, other times she wants to deconstruct the room entirely on her own. She loves sitting in the middle of a heap of books, like a bird in a nest. She adores her finger puppet collection and makes a near-daily tradition of taking them out and returning them to a receptacle of some sort. She loves opening and closing drawers and doors. Playing peek-a-boo is always a hit. Her wooden animal puzzle is almost always pulled out (we are currently missing the cow and the pig and have contacted the proper authorities). And her new Schroeder-sized piano is an absolute knock-down, drag-out hit. It sucks her to it like a vacuum.
Bath-time is also extraordinarily brimming over with cuteness. There is nothing in the world like a naked baby, splashing and squealing with delight. (Hurray for the squirting froggies!)

Making her laugh is my (and I can speak for my husband, his too) life's work.
Whether it be gleefully surprising her in a game of peek-a-boo, making faces, funny noises, dancing around the dinner table or kissing her armpit, hearing the sound of her laughter, shockingly spirited and powerful for her petite stature, mutes out every other detail that could possible exist in that moment. Reset. Clear. Recharge. Carry on.

What else to say?
This is my attempt to, if ever so slightly, illuminate this cascading baby-inspired world that surrounds me. Feels a little like pressing leaves between the pages of a book with the intention of looking back on them years from now. I've got my own veritable flattened tree right here. The first chapter of, god-willing, many.
I can hardly remember what I spent my time collecting before she came.

Love love love that Doodle. Happy First Birthday, Angel.

ps: Since I didn't mention it earlier, Opal's first birthday celebration lasted for an entire weekend. Opal-palooza. We took her out for pizza on Friday, which was her actual birthday, to a super-cool local pizza joint called Lucky Pie. My mom flew in from Ohio on Saturday morning to join the festivities, which we continued with a gathering at our house for friends and close family (see the photo up top of Opal digging into her birthday muffin. No cupcakes this year. But don't you worry, kiddo, that will happen soon enough.)—complete with balloons and party hats and pink princess plates. Sunday we ventured to Denver to celebrate with GG and the family, where Opal was in rare form, performing a one-baby show with minimal props and a captivated, squealing audience. It was a wildly jolly time for one and all.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Farewell to Breastfeeding.

Ode to the things we get used to as mamas and then the subsequent things we get un-used to.

For the better part of a year, I became deeply accustomed to considering how everything I put in my mouth would affect my child.

What to eat. What to drink. How would the sugar I just sucked down affect my tiny daughter. It's been a constant consideration.

And it will presumably take a very long time to train my brain to un-think in this way, to adapt to the fact that the child at the end of my breast is now a fantom limb while the real child scurries off to her toy corner, hollering follow me shrieks of glee.

As with co-sleeping, the magic number in my head had been a year.
I figured (based on who knows what) that I'd breastfeed for at least one year and then, in all probability, for longer.
And when the time would come to ween my daughter, I expected to have some say in the process. I envisioned sharing a few lengthy chats with Jesse over dinner, prompted by the feeling of needing a change and accompanied by a notebook and pen to aide in the planning/decision-making process.

Alas, not so much.

It all transpired in the matter of exactly one month.
Opal began to sleep through the night at the tail-end of August (see A Simple Plan: Revisited)—still a notable luxury— and it took less than a week for my body to no longer require me to wake up and pump in the middle of the night. Then, days later, I didn't even need to pump before I went to bed, many hours after Opal did.

She started her day-care (two half-days per week) the first week of September. At that point she was nursing four times per day—in the morning first-thing, before bed, and before two naps. (This included pumped milk for Jesse or her Daycare mama to give her from a sippy cup.)
Flash forward another week and I was no longer producing enough milk for one of her two naps! Enter Baby's Only Formula as a new character in the cast of pantry-fillers. By the following week, I needed Formula for both naps and to supplement bedtime. (Eeek! It's just happening so fast!) By the last week of September, I was nursing Opal one time per day, first thing in the morning, hanging on fiercely to those uninterrupted moments between she and I as we nestled in the rocker in her room.

I've heard of many mama's who comfort nurse, which is essentially allowing your child to suck on your breast when there is very little to no milk to offer. This particular option just didn't jive for us. As my body slowed in milk production, Opal's independence increased exponentially: the teeth, the inadvertent (or occasionally deliberate but never malicious) biting, the kicking, the squirming, the reaching, the popping off to smile or point or practice a sound that tickled her throat to get out. I tried once to offer her an empty breast for comfort when she was sick, but she seemed not only uninterested, but vaguely insulted.

So there it is.

The last day came without warning. I awoke on the morning of October 4th, the day of my Mighty Licensing Exam, without any milk to offer. The bar was stone dry. Zero inventory. The previous day was the very last day she was to nurse and I didn't even know. (Not sure what I'd have done differently had I known—likely an increase in sentimentality over ceremony.)

Two weeks exactly have now passed.

In all honesty, I'm not at all enjoying the option of eating or drinking whatever is put in front of me with no one to consider but myself. It doesn't feel like freedom yet, though I'm sure soon enough I'll imbibe on a regular Chai and enjoy every sip as well as the frenzied vibe that follows. (I bravely attempted to drink regular Chai tea only twice during the year since Opal was born and let's just say the outcome was ugly and seemed slightly cruel in it's effects on the tiny body of my girl.)

Most people respond to my news of no longer breastfeeding with something along these lines: Isn't is great to have your body back? and How wonderful that you can go away for as long as you want now!

To these ideas, I will speak frankly. Never once did I feel a desperate desire to get my body back. I didn't at all mind sharing for that short period, that just wasn't my experience. (Now, to the mother who was on Dateline NBC because she continued to nurse her 7 and 8 year old daughters, I would be totally on board with the sentiments of demanding your body back.)
As for going away, well, I've been able to go out until late at night—at least plenty late for my needs!—since Opal was 4 months old. Either I'd nurse her right before bed and make sure I was home by the time she was hungry again, or when she got a bit older, Jesse could put her down with milk in a sippy-cup. As a matter of fact, I could've gone out for many more solo-movie nights and ladies' wine nights than I did. I clearly wasn't chomping at the bit to head for the hills.

On the other hand, I'm not feeling a particular yearning to go back in time or to force my body into a state that it's organically finished with. (By taking herbs or pumping excessively to stimulate the mammary glands.) I don't feel a longing for the connection that was so exclusive in breast-feeding, I suspect because Opal's daddy and I both bond with her all over the place. It's not as if removing the puzzle-piece of breastfeeding leaves a gaping void in it's wake.

The thing that takes the most getting used to, if I may speak candidly, is learning how to gracefully vacillate between supporting my daughter in her developing autonomy while also feeling a deep and honest ache as I watch her grow.

An ache that lives in the very organs that, at one time, scooted over to make room for her tiny body to grow.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Sickness and a Bit of Rambling

It's been an impressive week.

The author would like to be begin with an apology for her recent absence. She wont bore you with a list of excuses because the list consists of a single distracting item: The State Licensing Exam for Massage Therapy.
The test actually took place nearly a week ago (hallelujah I passed) and for the two months prior, all pockets of free time were dedicated to re-filling my head with intellect of the anatomic and physiologic variety, force feeding my brain as if attempting to fatten it up with smartness.

Believe-you-me, my out of shape writing-muscles were chomping at the bit and I've been dying to write all week, but Opal and I have been battling a full-body bout of a food poisoning/flu bug combo. Up until today, the only appealing way to spend nap-times was horizontal and reading the new Franzen novel. So, pleased to report that I'm feeling as if my insides and my outsides have re-establised a general sense of alignment—poor little Doodle threw up a few times this morning, but she also seems to be improving—I feel it's time to initiate a reunion with my blog.

Hi. Hi.
Nice boots.
You, too.

So far so good.
Anyhow, what shall I say about the world from inside the vantage point of my trusty noggin?
Which words to choose and which route to take? Again with the sore muscles.

Let's touch back in on the sick stuff.

Monday night, I was sicker than I can remember being in my entire adult life. (Rivaled only by a blurry recollection of spitting into a bucket due to a throat infection from Mono when I was in the 8th grade.) I puked. I shat. I did both at the same time. There were accidents. I was unable to stand without my knees threatening to collapse and my skin going cold and damp. It was a solid 12 hours of wild physical elimination with no reserve, no abandon. It was a fast-track cleanse. And the following two days were a blur reminiscent of the grand partying escapades of my youth.

By the time the brillo-patch of smoke cleared, days later, Opal came down with the pukes.
Thankfully, her version was a much softer, gentler one. But even still, if given the option, I'd have easily taken on her two hours of puking for my twelve. No questions asked. I'd have just perched myself over by the toilet, pleased to be doing my time for some higher good, while she remained healthy and continued to amuse herself by putting balls of tiny socks into the egg carton and discovering various angles from which to harass the dog who slept on the chair.

But clearly, I wasn't given that option and that's not how it went.
Jesse was sleeping downstairs to prepare for leaving on a trip to Halifax in the morning where he was to lead a program of 150 people.
So it was the dog and I who heard her through the baby monitor—a cough followed by gagging followed by the evident and liquidy audio signals of vomiting. I raced into her room to find her sitting with her impeccable baby-posture and heartbreaking vulnerability, covered in a putrid, rejected combination of what she'd eaten that day along with mucus and sprinkled with hundreds of tiny kiwi seeds (her new favorite food). Nothing in the crib escaped unscathed. The sheets, the down comforter, the stuffed animals (thank goodness for the fact that we made an unsolicited yet concerted effort just one week earlier to find a back-up for her favorite stuffed animal, her lifeline B the bunny—), not to mention her jammies, her hair, her hands. The look on her face as she turned her water-dish eyes my way, crying, was a combination of shock and something-is-totally-wrong-here-and-I-need-my-mama-bad.

Within moments I'd stripped the baby and the bed, cleaned and re-dressed both in fresh, unsullied goods, and snuggled next to an unsure little Doodlebug along with B's understudy (everything about the replacement stuffed bunny is the same, same size, brand, shape and texture, though the original is noticeably more worn and has whiskers while the other is clean shaven and has finger-digits inexplicably sewn in) and Opal's favorite book with the pop-up rainbow. By the third or fourth page, Opal was grabbing to help me turn the pages and by the time the book was complete, she looked up from inside her nestle in my armpit, flashed me a big just-two-gals-up-late-reading-books sort of grin, gently poked my face right about my lips and said, noh. (nose).

As I write this, I am remembering a line that came from an Alzheimer's training I took a few weeks ago. The instructor described how folks with this kind of dementia have no ability to put on airs in any way and so they respond best when genuineness shows up before them. What a gift, she said, to work in a field that challenges you to remain connected with the truest version of yourself. (I work giving massage to residents with Alzheimer's and dementia.) It was something that to that effect, though the exact words may have been slightly different. She talked about how the elders often became agitated when someone came at them with their own agenda, not taking a moment to check in or inquire about what they may be needing. Interpretation and translation of these needs often requires nothing more complex than simply slowing down and clueing in. Babies are strikingly similar.

As I rocked with my daughter in the same chair we've shared for nearly a year now, reading speedily and strategically skipping words to keep up the pace with her rapid page-turning, kissing the top of her head again and again, able to smell a faint sniff of lavender from her bath that night in a spot of hair in the back that was left untouched, I had the overwhelming desire to thank her.

She does this, unwittingly, and all the time. She calls on me to show up in front of her with 100% of my finest mama self, the prime cut, the cadillac. And, in so doing, leave what it is I think I would rather be doing in a drawer somewhere with the lighters and twistees and moist hand toilettes. Those arbitrary ideas, e.g.: sleep, are most likely not to be visited again because once I get to where she calls me to be, I would almost always prefer to be exactly there.

The rest of the night wound up being quite merciful. We spent a few hours caving up in her low-lit room, wading through the minutes as we read her favorite books, sang my favorite songs, rocked and cleaned up a few more bouts of vomit, until sleep was close enough to touch. She was eventually able to fall asleep (in spite of a strangely timed, uber-lengthy and wall-shaking thunderstorm that arose just as I was leaving her room) and slept through the night. I'd have slept in her room or with her in my arms in the rocker (or curled up with her in her crib!) if it seemed the most comforting for her, but she is a girl who needs her space to sleep. So I lied in my bed across the hall with my eyes slitted like mini-blinds, prepped and ready to leap to her side.

These last few days have passed quietly and spent close to home as we both healed up. (It took until yesterday for me to be able to eat real food again without feeling devastatingly nauseous.) No day care or work. No meetings with friends. No long list of errands. We've clocked in many slow and mindful walks together with the dog, often more than once per day. We've spent hours sifting through the depths of the toy bins in the living room, discovering long lost items we hadn't thought of in months (Hello Baby Einstein Pelican that plays a Beethoven symphony in four parts! How we've missed you!). No agenda and no particular place to be.
Grandma has payed us many welcomed visits, bless her heart. The two of spent many meals at the table with Opal, marveling at her ability to say the words purple, mirror and oatmeal with unmistakable precision. We applauded as Opal pushed her little walker back and forth in front of us, proud as a peacock, with teeth brimming like tulips from her bottom lip as she grinned so intensely she pushed out rivers of drool. We shook our heads at the mention of what Opal was wearing on that particular day, as if the beauty of it all was just too much to bear. Stacks of undistracted sweet moments.

The days have felt deliciously loose-waisted and elastic, edgeless and fluid, a lot how we passed the time when Opal was much younger. These kinds of days don't work so well as the norm now that Opal is older and more mobile and longing for the things that stimulate her to continuously change. But as for now, post-test and post-sickness, spending time with her (and her grandma) in this way feels about as medicinal as it gets.