Starfish Normal

We spent this Saturday afternoon at the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 in San Fransisco. We had gotten a free pass through our local library’s Discovery Go program and headed out to San Fran for a little fun in the unseasonable cold and fog.Jellyfish

With everything we’ve been dealing with,  it’s easy for me to get wrapped up in the issues and forget to see my daughter for who she really is, a vibrant, smart, energetic, enthusiastic three-year-old.

Saturday helped. We watched sardines swim in glittering schools that turned and spun and flickered in the sunlit tanks. We watched them open and close their mouths, which is both freaky and cool. My husband and I watched Fiona try to unhinge her jaw to make the same faces.Jellyfish

We all loved the jellyfish exhibit. Their beautiful translucent, membrane thin bodies and delicate long tentacles rippled through the water as they moved. Opening and closing like an umbrella, if umbrellas were made of semi-liquid membranes infused with the exquisite grace of living water. We watched Fiona’s face light up as she tried to mimic their graceful motion.  Arms up and down, trying to ripple with the fluid grace of a creature that lacks the constraint of bones.

(Looking over my shoulder, Fiona says, “The jellyfish were awesome!“)

We walked through the underwater tunnels, between schools of swimming fish. We stood for a long time in the shark tunnel watching the sharks and the manta-rays glide in their graceful, predatory way across and over and around us.

And then there was this guy. Starfish

He clung to the plexiglass above our heads with thousands of tiny suckered feet.  Walking slowly across. Never letting go with too many feet at a time, he moved almost ploddingly. Constrained by a protective exoskeleton, the starfish’s slow cautious stability seemed to me a perfect counter-point to the jellyfish’s fluid grace. As beautiful as the jellyfish was, I felt more like the starfish.

My normal is clinging on with as many feet as I can, picking up just enough to move forward.  I cling to the moments where Fiona is doing a jellyfish dance, where my husband and I are sharing a conversation over dinner while she enjoys a homemade dessert, earned by eating enough bites of dinner, where Fiona and I share a snuggle, a joke, an idea, an experience. And I use all those little moments to move forward, slowly.

My normal isn’t the exquisite graceful jellyfish, much as I might wish it was,  my normal is cautious, careful and protected. Mine is a starfish normal.

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When Nothing is Enough

What do you do when everything makes your child scream? What do you do when being told that they can’t climb on the desk makes them curl in a ball and sob? When being told that they can play with blocks, or color, or play with My Little Ponies, while you do something makes them throw the crayons and try to bite you? What do you do when being gently picked up and placed on their bed to calm down makes them shriek, and sob, and bite themselves?

I thought that getting out of the house might help. I thought that being outside might make it better. So, yesterday, after about three hours screaming, I took Fiona on a walk.

I was wrong. She fought the walk tooth and nail. She refused her socks. Refused her shoes. Clung to the couch, as I literally dragged her out of our house. Screamed at the top of her lungs as I shut the door behind us.

I shudder to think what our next door neighbor thinks of us. She looked out her door and said hello to us with worried eyes, as I gently pulled Fiona down the sidewalk. I wish I could explain to her, but what do you say? “Hi, we don’t even know each other’s names, but I promise that I’m not actually torturing my beautiful, perfect looking child.”

Less than a block up the road, she suddenly darted ahead and pressed her face to a fence, “Mommy,” she said brightly, “We should go there! There are other kids! We could make friends!”

I cringed at the phrase ‘make friends’, because over the last few weeks I’ve heard it so many times. Every time Fiona sees another child, or hears them, she becomes frantic with the need to talk to them and make friends. No amount of playtime with them is enough though. On those occasions that the children she sees are outside and she does get to play and make friends, no amount of time is enough. Not an hour, not two, not even three. The end of every playtime, regardless of reason, is marked with utter hysteria and screaming.

I could hear children laughing and splashing through the fence. A pool full of mostly older children at a different apartment complex.

I looked at her. I considered the weather, which was a touch on the cool side. I decided that it wouldn’t hurt, “Fiona, would you like to go swimming? I asked. “We can’t go here. This isn’t our pool, but we could go to the pool at our apartment.”

She looked at me skeptically. “Will there be kids?” She asked.

I shrugged, “I don’t know.”

Twenty minutes later we walked over to our pool. As we crossed between the trees, and stopped to smell every flower, I realized that this had already taken us farther than our walk. We were walking in the same direction and there was no screaming, crying, or whining. If nothing else, we had won back these ten minutes.

We unlocked the gate to the pool and found a quiet oasis. Utterly empty and surround by trees, the pool was filled with scattered leaves and sticks and sun-dappled water. We dropped our towels on chairs and dipped our toes into the cool water. We dabbled our feet in and splashed. Fiona insisted that we splash in the 8 foot and the 5 foot and 3 and 1/2 foot. She read each depth aloud to me. (When did my girl learn fractions? Probably while we were baking…)

We jumped in and then back out again. We floated leaf boats. We sat in every deck chair. We smelled all of the flowers around the pool. We splashed each other with our feet at the edge of the water and watched little birds flit from tree to tree. We let go of the anxiety and the anger and the screaming and the frustration.

Eventually, she was shivering and I talked her into heading back to the house and taking a warm shower with me. We wound our way back through the trees. Stopping at every flower. Spinning around the posts. Watching birds and squirrels.

Once we were home, we bought a half hour of peace with a shower turned bath, then another with PBSkids.com games, then an hour with Mighty Machines on the Kindle. And interspersed were problems and tantrums and about a half hour of being asked if there was a spider on her back, but that little oasis of fun, of pleasure, of peace, bought us, me, the patience and endurance to continue.

What do you do when your child screams? What do you do when nothing can comfort them?

I buy peace and patience ten minutes at a time. I purchase islands of hope in a sea of frustration. I pay with time, and heartbreak, and fear. And I fight. I keep trying. I keep picking myself and her up and I hold us against the storms, because, really, what else is there to do?

Ninja Brownies

BeetpicFiona is three. She likes sugar. She likes chocolate. Some days, she flat refuses to eat anything resembling nutritious food. She is actually pretty typical for a kid. She’d like a steady diet of gummies, cookies, and juice. Punctuated with the occasional piece of heavily sugared cinnamon toast.

With that in mind, I wish I had my camera in hand when I’d opened a can of beets yesterday.

She had been very excited to come help me cook and I think she thought that I was pulling a dirty trick. (Actually, she burst into tears and declared that she’d never eat those, they were yucky!)  Like I explained to her, though, beets are sneaky. Beets are the ninjas of the root vegetable world. They can hide in some pretty yummy food and you’d never even know that they’re there.

After all, that can of beets helped make this plate of brownies. BrownieBars

Given that she ate about four of them before I cut her off, I’d say that they’re yummy and that she will indeed eat beets.

(This recipe is one that I created.)

Ninja Brownies

Preheat oven to 350F.

  • 1 Can unsalted Beets (Drained throughly and mashed)
  • 1/3 Cup Crisco
  • 3/4 Cup granulated Sugar
  • 1/4 Cup packed brown Sugar
  • 2 c. flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 c. cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup chocolate chips

Grease and flour square baking pan. Set aside.

In a large bowl cream the Crisco and sugar. Blend in the beets and mix until well combined.

Without stirring, add the flour, salt, baking soda and cocoa powder. Mix until soft dough forms.

Add chocolate chips and mix until combined.

Flour your hands (so the dough doesn’t stick to them) and gently press the dough into the baking pan to form a level surface.

Bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Cool, cut into squares, and watch with amusement as your family enjoys the nutritious addition of beets to their diet.

Paper Apples

“Mommy, do you like me?” She asks for the 348th time today. paperapples

I close my eyes and count to ten. There is no answer that I can give her besides yes. “Yes,” I say, “I like you so much! You are a great kid and I love you.”

I say it knowing that it doesn’t make a bit of difference. I say it knowing that her brain will cover that answer with fear and doubt in just a few minutes or the next time something feels off to her or the next time she misbehaves in even the slightest way.  I say it knowing that she will ask me again in three minutes, or one, or ten seconds. I say it knowing that in this second she truly feels that I might not like her.

“Okay.” She says, though her eyes still hold doubt.

I search for a way of explaining to her that this doubt, this anxiety, it’s not real. It’s just her brain misfiring. It’s just anxiety, there’s nothing to fear here.

I pull her into my lap, “Fiona, have you asked me today if I like you?”

She nods.

“Yeah.” I smile at her. “You asked me a bunch of times, right?”

“Yeah,” She says sadly.

“Did I tell you that I liked you?” I asked.

“Yeah?” She says, but her voice is more a question than anything else.

“I did.” I assure her, “I like you SO much. But your brain keeps telling you that I might not like you, right?”

“Yes.” She says, and her eyes fill up with tears.

I want to cry with her. It’s so hard. I want her to be happy. I want her to feel confident in my love  and all she feels is doubt. It breaks my heart. I smile at her, even though my throat feels tight.

“Your brain is lying to you. See, sometimes you have thoughts that are scary, like ‘Mommy doesn’t like me’, and your brain says that they’re true thoughts, but they’re not. They’re like…” I search my mind for something that could be false currency to a three-year-old, “They’re like paper apples.”

She giggles, “Paper apples?”

“Yeah.” I grin. “Paper apples. They look like apples, but they aren’t apples. You can’t eat them. They’re not real.”

“Paper apples.” She repeats contemplatively.

“Yep.” I nod. “But when your brain makes paper apples it can be hard to tell them apart from real apples. So, I’m going to help you.”

She looks surprised, “You are?”

“Yep.” I say. “From now on, when you ask me a question the first time, I’ll answer it. But when you ask me over and over, I’m going to tell you that thought, that worry,  is paper apples. That way you know that it’s a lie that your brain is telling you and you shouldn’t believe it.”

She shakes her head, “Because you can’t eat paper apples?”

“That’s right.” I smile.

She giggles and climbs down from my lap.

I glance at the clock. And wait. Because I know. I know what is going to happen. I’ve done this before. Hundreds of times today.

She tugs on my shirt, her face is clouded with doubt again, “Mommy, do you like me?”

“Fiona,” I smile, “That thought is paper apples.”

She looks at me seriously. “Paper apples.”

“Yes.” I nod, “That thought is paper apples. You know the answer.”

She smiles at me a little. “You like me, Mommy.”

“That’s right.” I smile and feel it fill my face and eyes with love.

I lean down and hug her and she head back to her Legos.

A few minutes later we repeat the whole process. And again a few minutes later. But over the course of the day the “a few minutes” get longer and longer and she stops asking.

Next time it will be a different question. A different worry. A new paper apple. But we have a word for them now. We have a way of talking about these irrational, overtaking fears. A way of labeling them for what they are and moving past them.

We don’t eat paper apples.

2:00 a.m. Toast

ToastIt is currently 2:00 in the morning. It’s a special time of day; my body cannot decide whether it thinks 2:00 a.m. is way too late at night or way to early in the morning. What it eventually settles on is that either way it objects to being awake. With a faint sense of nausea, and an overly bright-eyed peppy feeling that are at odds with eyelids that want to droop and muscles that ache slightly and also feel sluggish, my body is telling me that it would rather be asleep.

Yet, I’m awake.

I am making toast.

I do not want to eat toast. I do not want to smell toast, even, but I am making toast. I am making toast for Fiona. Who after tossing and turning in bed beside me for an hour finally opened her eyes very wide and said, “We forgot to do any of the stuff!”

I forced my eyelids (the incorrect number), to unglue themselves from my eyes and mumbled, “What stuff?”

She’s clearly very awake, “All the before bedtime stuff!”

She frowns and then accuses me, “You didn’t even feed me dinner.”

My eyes try to close of their own volition and I laugh softly, “You’re right, Baby. You were so tired that I put you to bed before I could feed you dinner. Are you hungry now?”

“Yes,” She sits up and sounds surprised that I would come to this conclusion all by myself. It’s probably fair. I’m usually quite stupid at 2:00am and sometimes I don’t even understand her in the middle of the afternoon.

I try not to groan, “Do you want toast and to watch My Little Ponies on the Kindle?”

She tips her head to the side and thinks about it for a second. I think she was trying to gauge if I might be willing to do more than just make toast. I would have been. If she’d said no to toast, then I would have also happily peeled her a banana. I’m generous. Finally she nods.

I settle her on the couch and set off to the kitchen to perform the feat of placing bread in the toaster and pressing a lever.

The kitchen could probably be labeled a health hazard. Last night,  I left dirt pots, dishes and general disaster behind me in the kitchen and surfed the web and played FTL. I’m a big fan of taking my downtime where I can get it. Especially on days like yesterday.

Yesterday started with the task of dropping my husband off at work. See with our move to the Silicon Valley we lost a few peripheral benefits, one of which was a company provided second car. So, as my big plans for the day had included taking Fiona to the park and grocery shopping, I needed the car.  As I walked to the car carrying Fiona, I had a moment of doubt. Maybe it would be better, I thought, if I just sent him in now and got him to come home for lunch and I’d get the car then.

One day I will learn to listen to my instincts.

On the way, Fiona stared listlessly out the window. After a while she whimpered that her tummy hurt. A few minutes later she told me she was going to throw up.

One day I will learn to  listen to my daughter.

After my husband was safely out of the car and off to work, as we were pulling out onto the road she began to vomit. Smacking the button for my emergency flashers and pulling to the side of the road, I quickly unclipped her top seatbelt buckle so she could lean forward. A handy empty Starbucks cup was sitting in the drink holder and we made good use of it, after the first volley. I am nothing if not resourceful.

That was where yesterday started. So, when Fiona voluntarily headed off to bed at 6:30 yesterday evening, I decided that I was done. Eleven hours of whining, fevers, and trying to convince my girl to sip on pedialyte and water, were enough.  However, that decision meant that I had left my kitchen a disaster area.

Yesterday also explains my generosity towards my very awake daughter at the in-between hour of 2:00am.

As I wait for the toast to pop, having glared suspiciously at the toast for a few moments before realizing that the deceitful thing wasn’t plugged in and remedied the problem, I begin to tidy. I carefully place spices in the fridge and lettuce and parsley in the cupboard, then reverse them. I throw away left over food and slump dishes into the sink. My desire to clean up is rapidly extinguished and I smear the last of the butter on the toast, put on My Little Ponies and settle here at the computer to try to force myself into wakefulness.

I give her a shower, as her fever has broken.

Write more.

Provide more toast.

And am finally graced with the grumpy announcement that, “Mommy, I’m tired now. I want to go back to bed.”

So now, as I type these words she is sleeping peacefully again. My body has settled on a kind of twitchy, edgy, sick sense of alertness which will gesture at the promise of sleep. A promise tha will only be kept if it is less than 30 minutes until the alarm sounds to wake my husband.

Still. I’m going to go lay down. Maybe this will all look better in the morning. Or rather, later this morning.

Do You Have the Correct Number of Eyelids?

“Mommy,” Fiona asks from the back seat, “When will I grow more?”

I smile at her in the rearview mirror, “You’re getting bigger every day.”

“No!” She yells, “When will I get more. I don’t have enough!”

“Enough what?” I ask, feeling understandably bewildered.

“I need more.” She says, pointing to her face.

I can feel myself start to grow nervous. I’d rather not deal with a tantrum while we’re in the car, especially for reasons that I can’t fathom. I try to keep my tone light, without the frustration I feel, “Baby, I’m trying to understand, but I’m not sure what you mean. Do you mean more hair, more eyelashes, more what?”

“More eyelids.” She says with obvious frustration at my obliviousness and a healthy dose of what I think of as teenage attitude.

“Uh,” I stall, “You, uh, have two. Isn’t that enough?”

“No, Mommy,” She says with exaggerated patience, “I need two.”

I feel slightly as though we’re having two different conversations. I laugh a little, “You do have two, Sweetheart. You have one for each eye.”

“But I need more.” She says.

“Why?” I ask. I honestly want to know why she things she needs extra eyelids. I just can’t even fathom this one.

She stares at me as though I must be trying to irritate her, “Because, Mom, it’s not right!”

“One eyelid on each eye isn’t right?” To my own ears I sound bewildered. I feel a little off-balance.

Again with the teenage attitude she replies, “No, Mom.”

“Okay,” I say, fighting the riptide of crazy I’ve found myself thrust into, “What would be the correct number of eyelids?”

“Two!” She says emphatically.

“Two on each eye?” I ask, wanting to be sure that I understand.

“Yes.” Her relief at my understanding is palpable.

“Oh.” I say.

I’m not sure what to say to that statement, or to her desire to grow extra eyelids. I picture my beautiful daughter with a cats nictitating membranes (their second eyelid) and it creeps me out. So, I sit patiently for a moment while I try to gather my bearings.

“When?” She asks again.

I struggle to follow, “When what, Baby?”

“When will I grow more eyelids?” She screams from the backseat. Her patience with clearly lacking listening skills at an end.

I reel for a moment. “Um,” I hesitate, “You won’t.”

“I won’t?” She is incredulous, as though I’ve told her that she will never grow up.

I wait. I don’t want to jump in and reassure her if she can adapt to this bafflingly unexpected information.

“But why not?” She asks, sounding deeply offended.

“Well, uh, because, uh,” I stutter, “Uh, humans only have one eyelid per eye. And you’re a human.”

“Are you sure?” She demands.

“Yes.” I answer emphatically. Both are utterly, unequivocably true.

“No.” She says, “I’m not human. I’m a Fiona.”

I laugh, “Yes, you’re Fiona, but you’re also a human. It’s like being a dog or a cat, only you’re a human.”

“Oh.” She says.

There is a long pause, and I try to catch my breath while she digests this new information.

“It’s all wrong.” She says with disgust.

“Yeah?” I sympathise.

“Yeah.” She sounds annoyed. “We should have more eyelids. Even if we’re human. We should have four.”

“Ah.” I say.

And we got home and blissfully exited the car and were distracted by life and toys and all the myriad of things that make it possible to live with the fact that we have the wrong number of eyelids.  So, I leave you today with this simple question: Do you have the correct number of eyelids?

A Fight Broke out

A fight broke out on the playground over who got to hold Fiona’s hand. Complete with screaming, yelling, body blocking and shoving. Fiona wasn’t pleased by any of it and the boy who lost his temper most severely was abandoned in her affections, despite her initial friendship with him.

She announced that, “I have two hands!”

He refused to hold her other hand, insisting instead that, “You belong to me. You were my friend first.”

She replied, “No. I belong to me. You can be my friend though.”

He cried.

I cheered.

She’s been listening, when I tell her that she can make her own choices and that she belongs to her. And though, truth be told, the conversations I’ve had were aimed at making her safe in our world, it turns out that they also insulate her against aggressive and jealous children. With any luck, it will carry through to her teen and adult years.

Women in our world need that confidence. The world tells us in a million little ways that our bodies, our hearts, our selves belong to others. We’re supposed to be sexy.  (The implicit message being that we only have value if we’re pleasing to the male eye.) We’re supposed to be giving. We’re supposed to be nice. (We only have value when we fulfill the needs and wants of others.)

All of which is a load of unrefined horse manure. We, each of us, belong to ourselves. We have needs and wants and desires and we also have hands to hold. But we don’t belong to anyone. We are not possessions. We are the sole arbiters of who gets to hold our hands. No exceptions.

I hope this sense of self-possession lasts.  I hope that the million iterations of “You’re so cute.”  and “Look at those curls!” don’t draw her into the belief that her value is derived from others pleasure in her appearance. I hope that I can say that enough times that we value her sense of humor, and her fierceness, and her quick mind, and creative drive often enough to provide a sturdy wall around her developing sense of self. I hope that she continues to belong solely to herself, because in this world of ours that would be a major victory.