Monday, August 24, 2009

Weird

The children stayed with their grandparents at the beach last night so that hubby and I could go out for a date. (Italian sausage ravioli followed by Inglourious Basterds, if you're interested. I recommend both.) When we returned home from the movie, almost everything felt just a little bit weird. Instead of getting an update from the babysitter and then tiptoeing to bed, we found the house in darkness. We turned on all the lights, and I kept catching myself whispering unnecessarily, the absence of sleeping children an alienating, strange condition, something that made my house just a little bit odd, almost like the Other Mother's world in Coraline. It was weird being able to talk about the movie in normal, audible tones before turning out the light. It felt strange to wake up to find curtains open in every room, beds already made.

It was not always so. When I brought Bub home from the hospital as a baby, one of the most daunting thoughts in my wound-up, sleep-deprived state was that he just wasn't ever going to go away. Day and night, the baby was always there, and I knew that even when he was old enough to sleep through the night he would still be there, breathing in the next room. I would never get a good night's sleep again. The kind of deep, unthinking sleep that had characterized my pre-baby life was gone forever, and gone with it was a certain feeling of home as a refuge from disturbance and stress. My home had turned into the epicentre of stress.

I slept well last night. But to sleep in a childless house no longer felt comfortable and safe the way it did before I had my babies. Part of me can remember a time when I was free to turn on any light in the house at eleven o'clock, when I could watch TV as loud as I wanted and sleep in late. But that's no longer a norm my children are disturbing - that seems like a weird, alien way of life. I actually set the alarm last night, but I didn't need it - I woke up to a sun-filled room at 6:56, and the deep stillness of the house felt not peaceful but empty.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Body Memory

Wanna hear about the dream I had last night? (That has to be the worst opening for a conversation ever. The answer is universally "no," and yet people are usually too polite to say so.)

I was out shopping when I suddenly noticed that I was about to have a baby. How lucky! I thought. I haven't had a single contraction, and the baby is crowning already! The store clerks were somewhat alarmed when I pulled off my shorts, right there in the store, and announced that the baby was coming NOW, but I was as cool as a cucumber, confident that I could deliver this baby without complications, with or without medical assistance. Some panicked person called 911 while I relaxed on the carpeted floor, wondering how many pushes it would take.

I'm all done having babies, and that is a decision I made easily, happily, with virtually no trauma or conflict. I have no desire to be pregnant again; I don't miss the baby stage. But all day today, as I've been settling fights and picking up toys, I've flashed back to the intensity of that body memory. The pain of childbirth I can't recall, but the sensation of a baby's head pressing down urgently on my cervix ... My body remembers that.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Winning and Losing

"I have to win!" Pie panted as we ran along the beach last weekend in an impromptu game of tag. "I have to win, or else I might ... lose!"

Winning and losing is a concept that dawns gradually for preschoolers, I find. Pie's first exposure to it was in our games of Dora Uno last summer. At first she was thrilled just to be playing with me, but gradually her expression started to turn sour whenever I happened to win. From there we built up some strategies - if you lose, I explained, just play again. Maybe you'll win next time. In recent months, Pie has become simultaneously more competitive and a slightly better loser: instead of sulking or refusing to play, she dives into the next round with a renewed determination to beat me.

Sore losing is like an allergic response - it doesn't flare up on one's first exposure, and each additional exposure prompts a more intense response. There is a stage in toddlerhood where games are pure activity; children are too young to understand the rules or even the object of the game, so instead of taking turns catching fish and then counting their catch to see who wins, they simply cooperate, arranging the fish into families and then taking everyone on a picnic.

Once children are able to play organized games, competitiveness begins to emerge, but it's still focused on process rather than the end result. Three-year-old soccer is a perfect demonstration of this principle. Not all the kids have grasped the concept yet: many of them are still wandering off to pick dandelions or enthusiastically kicking the ball into their own net. But even among the most competitive, the ones who consistently and skilfully score all the goals, there is no urge to keep score, no need to find out who won at the end of the game. By age five, though, the scorekeeping urge has begun to take over. "You guys are really good!" one of the parents said at Bub's last soccer game.

"Yeah," the goalie replied modestly, "the green team has all the best players."

One of the things I enjoy about Bub is his excellent sportsmanship. Sportsmanship is, perhaps, the wrong word, since it implies someone who is actually willing to participate rather than lying down in the middle of the field or gathering kids from the opposing team to show them the workings of his Ben Ten Omnitrix. But Bub has a genuine and disarming ability to rejoice in others' success. "You won!" he'll exclaim excitedly at the end of a game, adding as an afterthought, "I guess that means I lose!"

I was thus a bit surprised the other day when he was playing a game of roll-the-dice with Pie. It was Balderdash, actually, but without the cards or definitions, a simple game of moving pieces around the board to see who would reach the letter Z first. Bub won the first round and Pie, a veteran of numerous rounds of Dora Uno, cheerfully proposed a second game. When Pie won the second round, however, Bub melted down with startling rapidity and abandon.

Bub is a less experienced game-player than Pie, having until recently resisted activities that involve being told and/or shown what to do. He has yet to acquire the strategies that Pie has developed to cope with the agony of defeat. This was by no means his first experience of losing a game, however. I think what is new is his realization that the alternative to winning is losing, and that the person who loses is the loser.

All of this is developmentally normal and no cause for concern, but what I am struck by is the evidence of my own maternal naivete. In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the autistic narrator explains, "I do not tell lies. Mother used to say that this was because I was a good person. But it is not because I am a good person. It is because I can't tell lies."

It's a comical moment in the novel because Christopher's mother is such a cliche, crediting her son with virtues he does not really possess. This passage takes an attribute that sets Christopher apart from the norm and combines it with a maternal response that is nearly universal. What is more, readers almost universally share Christopher's mother's naivete. It doesn't matter how clearly Christopher explains his condition - readers are still willing to credit his innocence to him as righteousness.

It's something we do with our children as well, a biological imperative perhaps, an interpretive error with direct ties to the continuation of the species. We are charmed by the honesty of toddlers, even when technically we realize that they are not yet old enough to engage in deliberate deception. We delight in a two-year-old's capacity for living in the moment even though it merely reflects her inability to anticipate or conceptualize the future.

Bub has in some ways remained innocent longer than other children his age - longer, even, than Pie whose social awareness is acute. He hasn't learned yet to be jealous, to compare his possessions with those of his neighbour. He hasn't learned yet to temper his enthusiasm, to crack jokes at others' expense. He will learn these things, I know, just as he has already begun to learn the power of the words "I hate you" or "I don't want to be your friend." Like all other children, he has to learn to be worse before he can learn to be better. But in the meantime there is something shining and irresistible about his excitement when someone gives him candy - Bub hates candy, but he loves giving it to his sister. "Do you think Pie will like this?" he'll ask excitedly as he hurries over to give it to her, and I can't help admiring in him the purity of heart that so few adults are able to achieve.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Notes From the Beach

  • My grandmother raised two sons in a house as big as this cottage: two bedrooms, one bathroom, a sitting room, and a kitchen just big enough to fit a table in the middle. It is, technically, all that a family of four needs, and both the best and worst thing about it is that you can hear one another all the time.
  • Taking a four- and five-year-old to the beach for the weekend is significantly easier than taking, say, a two- and three-year-old, mainly because they no longer want to be on the beach every single second of the day. They can dig in the sand beside the cottage while I wash up the breakfast dishes without succumbing all at once to the siren song of the lake and flying down the path down to the water, their pyjamas fluttering behind them.
  • Bub, while out for a sail with his grandfather on a windy day: "There's nothing in the Bakugan handbook about GIANT WAVES!" (Bub is capable now of original speech, but he still thoroughly enjoys the opportunity to pull an apt quote from a book or TV show when the opportunity arises.)
  • The children gave every evidence of enjoying themselves on our beach holiday, diving into their sand-digging, ice-cream-eating, and wave-jumping duties with gusto, but Bub nevertheless kept a careful eye on the schedule. "We're going home tomorrow, Mama!" he informed me Sunday morning, "and then we're never coming back here again." I half suspected him of missing his TV and computer, but when asked what was so great about home, the best he could do was to say, "We got a new house, and we pretended that it was our home, and we called it, 'The New House.'" This time last year, we sent the kids to the cottage with their grandparents while we unpacked from the move. I think Bub was enjoying himself this year, but he was anxious, wanting to check that his home was still here, the same as ever.
  • This is the first time since we moved that I've been away from home long enough for the house to feel a bit strange and new upon my return. I am enjoying afresh the softness of the carpets under my feet, the quantity of space and silence as we settle in today to a day of doing absolutely nothing.