Monday, January 28, 2008

The Payback Kid

Whenever I gave my own mom an especially hard time, she used to say to me, "You should have three just like you."

Though sometimes it feels like I do -- with demanding twin three-year-olds and a neurotically needy, if adorable, cat -- the reality is that only one of them lives up to the moniker, "The Payback Kid."

One of them at a time, that is.

Within two weeks of being born, my daughter clearly held the title. That's because she came down with a mysterious virus, developed a high fever, and had to be hospitalized for ten days, undergoing two spinal taps, giving us all a terrific scare that she had meningitis (she didn't, and I'm still awaiting an apology from anyone responsible for the mix-up at the hospital's lab). I was forced to shuttle back and forth between Thing 2 at the hospital's neo-natal intensive care unit (AKA the NICU) and home, where Thing 1, like his sister, was in need of feeding and cuddling.

But a funny thing happened during Thing 2's hospital stay. Thing 1, who seemed to begin life as my mellow, Zen baby, turned into a needy Thing indeed, refusing to calm down without near constant holding, swaddling, and swinging. Thing 2 returned home healthy but more independent, content to snuggle into her swaddle blanket and settle down without much fuss. Thing 1 continued his demanding ways for months on end. It looked as if Thing 1 was going to lay claim to the title after all.

Smash cut to about two and a half years later: Thing 2 learns to say no, refuse to go to bed, stamp her feet in vehement protests. Thing 1 picks up a few of these tricks from her. They both throw tantrums when they don't get what they want, whether it's ice cream, another ten minutes of Baby Einstein, or the ability to wander off into a busy street unattended. But while Thing 1 can be easily distracted, or at least we can wait him out (he recovers from blowing his top quickly), Thing 2's temper proves longer lasting. Her fits are tougher to squelch, her desire for limit-testing seemingly insatiable. The title has been swapped again.

Six months later, Thing 2 seems determined to retain her crown.

Bedtime is her battleground. But then, I recall, it was mine too. One of my most vivid childhood memories is being put out into the hallway of our New York City apartment -- not an internal hallway, I mean the one where people got on and off the elevators -- with my pink blanket and furry bunny. Apparently, mom had had enough of my refusal to go to sleep. I'd been banished.

Today you might call child welfare if you saw an unattended kid curled up with a blanket and a bunny in the hallway of a New York apartment building, but in those days, when we knew all our neighbors and nobody got by the doorman without being buzzed in, I was safe.

I was also undoubtedly a pain in the neck.

Sadly, my mom isn't around to see me struggle with getting Thing 2 to bed. One of the hazards of being a late blooming mom is that all the grandparents don't necessarily come with the package(s) that took so long to arrive. Mom never got to see Thing 1 and Thing 2.

Despite the temptation to do what mom did to me, I've never put Thing 2 outside the condo with her striped blanket and cherished toy ducks. That's one childhood memory I don't want her to have. But I've lost my temper, I've yelled, I've stormed out of her room -- I've basically lost it in front of her. I've run the gamut of stuff a good mom is not supposed to do in this situation, and vowed to do better.

Whenever I've had enough sleep to get some perspective on it, I laugh.

That's because somewhere, I know my mom is laughing ... at me and my payback kid.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Some Way Cool Late Blooming Moms

There are plenty of well-known late blooming moms these days, but a few meet my criteria for way cool, because they've managed to do some amazing things while being late blooming moms too ... and that's no simple stunt. Sure, the ones below have an edge on the rest of us: they probably have staffs. Or at least, I know they can AFFORD staffs -- staffs to take care of themselves, let alone their kids.

But nevertheless, I consider them worthy poster moms for our growing club (and growing we are, to the point where one in five women have their FIRST kid after 35, and I'd also count the ones who wait to 35+ to become repeat moms).

J.K. Rowling, creator of HARRY POTTER, is the world's most successful living author (the series has sold approximately 400 million books), and she's performed something even more magical: gotten lots of kids to love reading. The British writer has lately become a big philanthropist -- you go, girl. Though she had her first baby in her late twenties -- the one she cared for while on welfare and writing the first POTTER book in coffee shops -- she became a late blooming mom after marrying her second husband. She had a baby at 37, then another at 39 -- during the same period she was writing of many of the books. No easy task for a mere muggle. (Potter fans raising kids will no doubt enjoy my pal Jen's blog, Julia, Harry & Me and btw, Jen's a late blooming mom too.)

Actress/activist Susan Sarandon is great on screen in everything from BULL DURHAM and THELMA AND LOUISE to the recent Disney hit ENCHANTED ... but here's what she says about being a later-in-life mom: "I had my kids late. I didn't think I could have them and I didn't expect to have them. But they are my best work." Considering how good her acting is, the kids must be stellar. Their dad, actor/director/activist Tim Robbins, is no slouch either. Susan has worked on the part of more good causes than I can count, and is an unabashed, proud progressive.

And speaking of politics ... Elizabeth Edwards is a lot more than the spouse of former senator/onetime VP candidate/2008 Democratic presidential primary contender John Edwards. She's a lawyer, educator, author, active in all sorts of charities, and the kind of gal who keeps on keeping on, even through breast cancer: hence her campaigning for her man even after being diagnosed with a recurrence. But what I find most impressive about her is that she found the courage and strength to have kids again after one of her children died in a tragic accident when his SUV overturned in high wind (for more on the questionable safety of SUVs, read Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker Archive) . She also established a computer lab and an ongoing scholarship fund in her late son's name. Her daughter's in law school and she's busy raising the two young kids she had in her late blooming mom-hood ... while campaigning. Me, I'm tired just reading this.

I was just a kid when ANNIE HALL came out, but even though I didn't quite get all the relationship stuff, I knew Diane Keaton was the funniest woman I'd seen on a modern movie screen, and a direct artistic descendant of the great screwball comedy actresses -- Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Myrna Loy and Carole Lombard. Keaton continues to elevate whatever movie she's in, even if the scripts aren't so great. (Someone write a better movie for her, please?) She continues to work even though it's tough to land roles when you're over fifty in Hollywood. And though I'm sure she can afford the staff I mentioned above, whenever I've spotted her out and about with one of her kids in tow here in Los Angeles, she's doing it solo. She goes to the park or the mall with her kids like any other mom. Diane came to motherhood via adoption, but aside from avoiding the wear and tear of pregnancy on an older body, she's a late blooming mom like the rest of us. And unlike other celebrity moms, she seems to have avoided the weird celebrity trap of showing off kids as the latest fashion accessory. Clearly she's too real for all that. Yay.

Emma Thompson is the only person to have won Oscars for both acting (HOWARD'S END) and screenwriting (SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, adapted from Jane Austen's novel -- how's that for a screenwriting debut?). She's as versatile as they come, brilliantly playing two different Jane Austen heroines, carrying suppressed torches the way only the Brits can (THE REMAINS OF THE DAY), showing up in salient contemporary works like ANGELS IN AMERICA, smartly written romantic comedies (LOVE, ACTUALLY) and unafraid to do stuff that's just plain silly (ever see THE TALL GUY?). She's part of the HARRY POTTER series too (playing Professor Sybil Trelawny) and she even popped up in an uncredited role in I AM LEGEND, because the producers probably realized her very presence would lend credibility to an otherwise hard to swallow plot point. She's seemingly ubiquitous, happily for us ... yet she must take SOME time off, because she went and had a baby at forty, and later had this to say: "I have periods of intense activity, then stop. My ideal is to work hard in the morning until I pick Gaia up from school. Just putting an empty square in my diary seems to make a space in my head, too. You have to be very good at saying no." Like Emma, a lot of us established careers before a baby showed up. She may not need the paycheck as much as we do, but she knows she needs the work to keep sane: it's an integral part of who she is. A lot of us can relate to that, and we, too, have to be good at saying no.

Helen Fielding , another British woman writer like J.K. Rowling, wrote the hilarious best-selling BRIDGET JONES' DIARY and its sequel, giving voice to the angst of "singleton" women everywhere. Even though I was already married when I read BRIDGET JONES, I'd had plenty of singleton years and could still relate. Before being a bestselling writer, she used to make documentaries on poverty in Africa for Comic Relief. Her longtime boyfriend/father of her kids is a writer for THE SIMPSONS. As my own husband, who is a huge SIMPSONS fan, would say, how cool is that?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Stop The Preschool Insanity!

It was around this time last year that I exhaled a sigh of relief so great it was probably heard by every toddler mom in the greater West Los Angeles area. Thing 1 and Thing 2 had been admitted to a preschool for the following fall.

It wasn't just any preschool, but one that came with qualities I'd found elusive in most. It took kids for up to a full day, up to five days a week, during the hours that a working parent might logically be expected to be on the job. It was accredited, not just by the state, but by the NAEYC, a respected national organization whose stamp of approval is considered the gold standard by such sources as Parents Magazine. It was developmental -- meaning the learning was supposed to be play-based, rather than accomplished by putting kids way too young for academics through sit-down desk learning. It was safe, clean, and staffed by caring people, many of whom had or were pursuing degrees in early childhood education.

The cost: a little more than what my college tuition was twenty years ago.

Why don't you take a moment to pause and revel in the sticker shock. I know I did.

Insane tuition is but one of the screwed up things about preschool. Another is that women here in Los Angeles have been known to show up on preschool tours when they're pregnant.

Getting your kids into a preschool you'll feel good about -- by which I mean a place they will be safe, happy, stimulated, and able to get socialized before kindergarten, rather than a full-of-itself preschool that boasts its "graduates" will one day go on to Ivy League schools -- doesn't sound like it should be crazy-making.

But it is. I pride myself on being a rational, down-to-earth, Late Blooming Mom who has the maturity and good sense to know that getting my kids into preschool isn't about getting my kids into "the right" college. But I still wound up researching dozens of schools, taking tours of twelve, applying to eight. I know it sounds excessive. But as a twin mom, I knew I was playing a cruel numbers game: I needed two slots at the same place. I often found myself wondering, though, if by applying to so many, I was part of the very problem that was pissing me off.

Here in L.A., as in many parts of the country, there are far more parents trying to find slots for their toddlers in preschool than there seem to be slots for them. (For more on how our society shamelessly fails to support working moms with good, affordable childcare, check out Judith Warner's "Perfect Madness;" you'll find a link below right among the scrolling featured books on this blog). Now I know preschool isn't considered absolutely necessary. When I was a toddler, I went to something quaint called "nursery school" a few mornings a week until I started kindergarten. It wasn't much more than a safe place mom could drop me off to play so she could get a break. But I'm a working mom, and I need a much longer break than my mom did -- an eight-hour work-day, plus. And there's plenty of research (which I won't repeat here) that proves kids who attend preschool are better prepared socially as well as educationally for kindergarten. So for these and other obvious reasons, I think it's a good thing, and for my kids, a necessity.

Maybe that's why, a year after being put through the ringer of the preschool admission process, I'm still steamed about the lack of good options, the competition for those that are good, and the do-it-yourself, wildly time consuming process of finding one that'll suit.

Word of mouth is key, but not always reliable: just because a friend of a friend's kid goes somewhere someone likes, doesn't make it right for yours. The web is vital but also inaccurate and outdated. I found myself reluctantly buying a book with the unfortunate title COPING WITH PRESCHOOL PANIC, because there was no easily accessible, comprehensive directory of preschools in my area. (The book's a decent starting point for those who live in Los Angeles, but not at all comprehensive; my kids wound up at a school that wasn't listed in it).

Even when you narrow down the list of the schools you want to check out in person, you find the tour schedules are staggered, and so are the dates by which they'll tell you if your kid is admitted, so good luck trying to save a place at one school when you haven't heard from the others. Directors of some preschools laughed at me when I called inquiring about admission more than a year and a half before I'd want my kids to attend; they were already full and so were their waiting lists. Other directors laughed because I was calling so early. To combat Westside L.A. wackiness, they'd instituted a no-tours-until-a-year-before-you-want-your-kid-to-start policy (bless them for that). Then there were schools where the directors insisted my kids would have to be potty-trained before they started, even though most parenting books say kids have to do that on their own schedules, and forcing the issue creates medical and psychological problems. Those schools were the first I took off my list.

I can't tell you how many late nights I spent on the web, how many hours of work I had to make up because I was out during the work day visiting prospective schools, how many phone calls I made or emails I sent to school directors and other moms. But I can tell you this: it was a good thing I bothered to apply to eight schools. In the end, my kids were admitted to two.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason why they were rejected from the others: only one of the schools actually required us to bring the kids in for a face-to-face meeting. On the tours, some school directors mentioned the importance of fund-raising and how much families might be expected to donate over and above tuition, and I often got the feeling, when I mentioned that I had twins, that some of those directors wrote me off right then. After all, admitting my kids meant one less family in the pool of prospective donors. All these places collected application fees ranging from twenty-five to seventy-five dollars, and one school even required us to attend and pay for a four-week toddler program at their center before we could even apply. In the end, when the kids didn't get in to most places (including the one where we attended the toddler program), the reason we were officially given was always the same: they just didn't have enough space.

My kids didn't wind up attending that first preschool to which they were admitted, mostly because another one proved cozier, friendlier, and offered more of a community. But another reason was that this latter school didn't have a cumbersome admission process. The school invited us to take a tour about ten months before we wanted our kids to start, and then asked for a hefty deposit to reserve each spot. If we wanted our kids to go there and were willing to commit soon after taking the tour, they were in -- no waiting lists, no nerve-wracking wait for a call or an envelope to arrive in the mail. The school didn't mess around, which took a lot of the crazy-making out of the process.

Five months after starting, my kids are clearly thriving in preschool (aside from the colds they can't seem to avoid bringing home -- see my January 1/08 post, Welcome To Cold-Of-The-Month Club) . Every day, when I pack them up to go, and again when I pick them up at day's end, I breathe another sigh of relief. It all worked out. But making it happen pretty much sucked. It shouldn't have.

I don't know who is more to blame for preschool insanity: anxious parents, obnoxious, stuck up school directors, or the lack of political will to make good, affordable preschool universally available. But I know if we fix that last problem, the others will go away.

Here's hoping.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ten Ways Younger Moms Are Different From Us

Literary legend has it that F. Scott Fitzgerald told Hemingway, "The rich are different from us." Literary legend has it Hemingway replied, "Yes. They have more money."

But aside from the obvious difference between younger moms and we late-bloomers -- they're, um, younger -- how are they a different species, exactly? Here's how:

1. They get tired. We get exhausted. And we do it before ten a.m.

2. They wash or discard any piece of their child's food that falls on the ground. We practice the "ten second rule." If it wasn't on the ground more than ten seconds, it's good eatin'.

3. Sometimes we practice the "twenty second rule."

3. They still think it's called a "vacation" when the kids come.

4. They can buy a pair of pants that fits over their hips without trying on, oh, say, twenty pairs.

5. Their kids wear pajamas. We encourage our kids to sleep in their school clothes. Trust us. It's a helluva time saver in the morning.

6. They make nutritious, home-cooked, free-range, organic dinners. We maintain an extensive file of take-out menus.

7. They write lengthy holiday letters documenting their famiy's doings, and add hand-written personal notes to all their friends and relatives. We're lucky to get an unsigned photo card in the mail by New Year's.

8. They are perky. We are not. Even on caffeine. Especially on caffeine. You don't want to be around us on caffeine.

9. Their kids wear brand-new matching outfits. We think hand-me-downs are gifts from God -- they cost nothing, and they don't involve a trip to the mall that inevitably results in you being the parent everyone else walks by pitying when your child is having a fit because it's time to leave and you didn't buy the kid a (FILL IN THE BLANK HERE).

10. When given the choice of sex with their partner or sleep, younger moms still choose sex.

What's that like?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

"I Want To Sleep With Daddy!"

Back in freshman psychology class at Brown, I vaguely remember reading about the Elektra complex (in which, according to Carl Jung, the daughter is temporarily in love with the father), and how it peaks sometime in early childhood.

At Late Blooming Mom's house, we appear to have entered the height of my daughter's Elektra phase -- and while not a Greek tragedy by any stretch, it brings with it no shortage of pain.

When deprived of Daddy's presence, even momentarily -- say, when the poor guy has to go use the can and would like a mere moment or two of privacy -- Thing 2 explodes. You moms and dads no doubt have seen the like of it: a feet flailing, throat wailing, wake the neighbors tantrum. Sadly, nothing Late Blooming Mom does or says can stop it. Nothing can end it save Daddy's eventual, though reluctant, return.

Tempers are flaring. Nerves are short. Words are uttered by my just-turned-three-year-old girl that hurt, and hurt deeply. She didn't learn to say "Go away, mommy" and "I don't like you" from us: we don't talk like that around here, though for sure there are moments when we give in to our worst instincts and say stuff we regret. But it's no consolation that she may have picked up these hurtful phrases at school. They still hurt.

You'd think being a Late Blooming Mom, I'd have some emotional maturity and experience to bring to the table in a situation like this, so it might not bother me the way it would other moms. I'd be more resilient. I'd be able to see it as the healthy, though not pleasant to endure, sign of a normal developmental stage. I'd take it in stride, not let it keep me up nights.

No such luck. Being rejected by your toddler sucks, no matter your "maturity" when it happens.

But damage to Late Blooming Mom's psyche aside, it's Daddy who is the parent suffering the most. Our pint-sized Elektra won't let him alone. Bedtime -- when separation from Daddy is imminent -- is her biggest trauma of the day, and thus, ours.

During one of her bedtime tantrums some weeks ago, we let Thing 2 come into our bed -- not something we do often, as we decided long ago the "family bed" concept wouldn't do our marriage any favors . That particular night, though, we were tired, we were desperate. We ignored the advice of every credible parenting book, website, and blog. We caved.

But we quickly realized our mistake. The very next night, when we'd rested a bit and were better able to maintain our parental resolve, we refused our daughter's request for a repeat. Fortified by the memory of her previous success, yet now denied the same privilege, she wailed those telling words: "I want to sleep with Daddy!"

I tried to re-assure Daddy, who was immediately beset by visions of nightly bed incursions, "It just shows how much she loves you." To which he replied, in a tone devoid of humor: "She has a funny way of showing it."

Recognizing that our daughter may be facing genuine anxiety at this nightly separation -- even though she shares a room with her twin brother, so she's never alone in there -- we have recently decided on a compromise. In an effort to meet her very real need, but keep our own bed our territory (barring the occasional need to console a child after a nightmare), Daddy will lie down in her room next to the crib each night, until she falls asleep.

Maybe it's a Hail Mary pass. But we're not above the occasional Hail Mary (even though we're Jewish ... but then, come to think of it, so was Mary).

We're about a week into the new strategy. Some nights it works, but it's not perfect, as was demonstrated tonight when Daddy had to leave She-Who-Will-Not-Be-Appeased to go to the john, and promises of his quick return were not sufficient to avert a melt down.

That was about an hour ago. Tonight's fit is slowly fading into memory. Thing 2 is now peacefully asleep.

Daddy is out having a beer.

Late Blooming Mom is feeling like a third wheel. But I suspect I'll be the one in need of alcohol soon. If only I could remember from freshman psychology: just how long will it be before my son's Oedipal Complex is due?

Friday, January 4, 2008

At Least We Know She Won't Break Under Torture

Wrestling my recalcitrant daughter into her car seat is NOT what I had in mind when I was just aspiring to later-in-life momhood, still in the throes of a long campaign against infertility, and bucking myself up with visions of sweet babies dancing in my head. But as Hillary Clinton's lately been saying, "You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose."

Or in my case, curses muttered in furious frustration that come back to haunt me seconds later when my son, in the adjacent car seat, gleefully repeats them.

"Goddamit!" my son blurts, with a delighted look on his face as he tries out this new, clearly naughty, and therefore deliciously fun to utter, turn of phrase. Meanwhile, I continue a desperate struggle to secure Thing 2 into her car seat for her own safety, a point that is entirely lost on her. As she has on other, similar occasions, Thing 2 proves as expert at arching her back as a Santa Monica yoga instructor. She screams with the lung power of a Wagnerian opera heroine.

But what's really, truly, astonishing in a creature of less than thirty pounds, is the size of her will.

My girl does not give in.

Writhing, kicking, twisting and contorting, she keeps it up as she wears me down.

Other late-blooming-moms I know -- admirable, steadfast, capable women who know a thing or two about what it takes to be a wife, mom, and working woman in this world -- assure me that my daughter's having a strong will is a quality that will stand her in good stead later in life. But in the midst of the great car seat battle of '07, the way I put it -- to my neighbor, who happened to be passing by in our shared condo garage -- was this: "At least we know she won't break under torture."

My friends are right: persistence and determination are going to make my daughter a force with whom to be reckoned some day.

I just hope it's day she's in her garage, wrestling her own daughter into her car seat.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Welcome To The Cold-Of-The-Month Club!

Who knew that by starting Thing 1 and Thing 2 (son and daughter, respectively) in preschool last fall, we'd be automatically enrolled in this heinous club? Since beginning school, Thing 1 hasn't met a germ he hasn't liked ... and I mean liked enough to bring home to mom.