Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween At The Mall? Sounds Lame, But It Didn't Suck

Last year a neighbor of mine told me she was taking her toddlers to trick-or-treat at the local mall, rather than traipsing around our neighborhood in the dark.

I was skeptical of the whole idea. The mall is already a place we visit too much. And why skip the festively decorated houses on the blocks south of our condo building? (Condos, it must be noted, are rotten places to trick or treat -- they rarely have a critical mass of kids and enough apartment dwellers willing to open their doors and give out treats).

But then I realized, hey, my kids are afraid to go out in the dark, especially on a street filled with costumed people, most of whom are bigger than they are. They also tire quickly, and I'd be forced to carry them home or schlep around strollers, making it hard to hold their hands when crossing the street or just to keep a close watch on them. They're ready to trick or treat as early as four o'clock, yet in most neighborhoods, the fun isn't even getting started by then, as not enough people are home.

I wasn't sure what happened at a mall trick-or-treat, but I was willing to give it a shot.

Sadly, however, when Halloween rolled around last year, both kids were suffering from bad colds, and they'd barely made it through their preschool day. They'd heard about trick-or-treating from classmates, and were determined to do it, despite being tired, cranky, and probably breaking out in low-grade fevers. Only one was willing to don a costume -- Batman pajamas. Yet they wanted to know what all the Halloween fuss was about, and refused to go home until they got their dose of it. Since it was the first year they were actually cognizant of something called Halloween, and some vague notion of what it is, I felt I'd be a lousy mom if I didn't oblige them and satisfy their curiosity, at least a little.

So for about twenty-five minutes, I schlepped them to a mall where most stores had already run out of candy, having been over-run with costumed kids in the first hour the place began its Halloween festivities. I wound up having to go to a candy store in the mall and letting the kids pick their own candy. They were exhausted but at least they felt they hadn't totally missed out.

This year, I vowed it would be different.

I adjusted my work schedule so I could pick them up early from school. I got them to a bigger mall, about half an hour after the proceedings began, so there was still plenty of free candy to be had. And I managed to convince both kids to don costumes, with the explanation that if they wanted candy in their plastic Jack-O-Lantern buckets, they had to wear them. (They picked the costumes, though -- Lightning McQueen Pit Crew Member for Thing 1, Butterfly for Thing 2.) We met my neighbor and her kids, and we were off and running.

I gotta say, it was much more fun than I imagined, if frenetic. There's something very sweet about a three-level mall packed with roaming bands of costumed cuties, mostly under four feet in height. Whole families were dressed up, adults and kids included (I even spotted two grown-ups in Dr. Seuss Thing 1 and Thing 2 outfits, toting a kid wearing the hat from the Cat In The Hat). There were plentiful costumed babies -- a pea in a pod, a lion, a tiger, Superman (or should I say "Superbaby?"). My kids were admired and cooed at by twenty-something sales associates at various stores, all in costume and giving out candy from baskets and buckets. One, in a witch's hat and striped red and black tights, just couldn't get over my son's adorableness: his sweet, plaintive face looking up at her from under his red Pit Crew hat/headset combo, his wee little voice politely and softly intoning, "Twick or tweat?"

We took a couple of candy-eating breaks, and managed to cover all three levels of the mall in an hour. Thing 2 then decided there were too many "scary kids" with "white eyes" (ghost masks), and it was time to go. We drove back to our neighborhood, where quite a few houses had done it up for the season, and clutches of trick-or-treaters, led by parents, were wending their way through the area. But Thing 2, when invited to get out of the car and continue the candy acquisition, declared it was all too scary. So after a brief drive-by of a house with an inflatable witch tending an inflatable cauldron (the kids called her "Witchy-Poo because dad had dubbed her that in honor of Thing 2's witch hat worn on Thing 2's very first Halloween), it was home to dinner, a showing of IT'S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN from our DVD collection, and one more piece of candy before tooth-brushing.

All in all, it was a much more satisfying treat-or-treat experience than last year, and I didn't mind the mall so much. We didn't buy a thing while we were there -- which has got to be a first for us -- and for a couple of preschoolers who clearly aren't ready for the in-the-dark, house-to-house trolling for goodies, it proved a safe and relatively non-scary Halloween haven.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Who Says We're Older Moms? Where I Live ... Not So Much

Yesterday I attended the Halloween picnic of my local parents-of-multiples club.

There were tons of new moms, and moms with two, three, four and almost five-year-old twins. Lots of us were over 35 when we gave birth.

I live on the west side of Los Angeles, a relatively affluent area, where multiples -- naturally occurring and "assisted" (in the parlance of the infertility world) -- are plentiful. Older moms are more likely to have twins than young moms, and then there are moms with fertility issues who are fortunate enough to be able to shoulder the expense of assisted reproduction. Our club has plenty of both.

My kids attend a private preschool, where nearly all the moms are at least over thirty, and many are my contemporaries.

And when I go to kid-friendly restaurants, local parks and museums, I often see moms who are clearly my peers.

I know this is far from the norm in many parts of the country. But I'm comforted to see I'm far from alone around here: I have plenty of moms with whom I can trade notes, compare war stories, and commiserate.

When I hang out with moms who were born AFTER 1973, I find that some of them can be more overwhelmed more easily; they seem equally exhausted, though they don't have age as an excuse; and they look to me for advice even if their kids are the same age as mine. It matters not that I've only been doing motherhood as long as they have. I'm older, therefore they figure I oughtta know what I'm doing. Either that, or being a mom of twins makes me a more seasoned veteran in their eyes.

In truth I'm plenty befuddled by motherhood at times, even though I deign to blog about it. Though I've obtained a wealth of information about it in a short but intense period of time, I'm still making rookie mistakes at each new phase.

But I do feel something I think many younger moms don't. I feel the days are simultaneously long -- when I'm tending to my kids' incessant needs and requests -- and ruthlessly short when I'm savoring the rare quiet moment snuggling with them before bed. I feel pressed for time and wanting to stretch out the good stuff -- the golden afternoons when the sun glints in their hair and a few strands fall just so over their foreheads, when they're in dad's arms, turned upside down and giggling with abandonment, when they're having earnest conversations in the bath about what kind of cake they want at their upcoming fourth birthday -- or just now, when their dad called me into their bedroom to show me what Thing 1 had done. He'd gotten up from bed and taken out every pull-up in the closet and arranged them in two arcs fanning out, sorted by the ones that feature Lightning McQueen and the ones that feature Lightning's pal Mater (characters in CARS). Sure I want the boy to go to sleep already, but his late-night mischief is cute and he knows it: he smiled through his binky as I came in to inspect his project.

I have a sense of the temporary, the ephemeral, the way it's all slipping by so fast -- and feel a lot less fresh and immortal than my younger mom pals.

Here on the west side of L.A., there are a lot of us dragging our feet trying to slow down the gears of the "circle game," as Joni Mitchell called it. We're late blooming moms, and that means we feel that carousel going round a little faster than others. Sure, I was impatient for Thing 1 and Thing 2 to be toilet-trained, and I long for the day they'll give up the binkies already. But yet ... not so fast, please. I like the ride and I'm far from ready to get off.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Everything Really Is Beautiful At The Ballet

I hated ballet.

My mother made me go until I finally begged her to let me stop.

I didn't like dressing up. I despised the tight shoes. I was a klutz when it came to leaping gracefully across the floor. And to this day I get first, second and third positions mixed up.

So it comes as a surprise that my daughter loves ballet.

It started with a book she found one day at Barnes and Noble. It was called, aptly enough, "I Love Ballet," and was chock full of photos of a real little girl going to ballet class.

We read the book again and again. It probably helped that on one page of the book, the mom sits and reads fairy stories to her daughter, and the daughter's pink striped floppy-eared bunny is cradled in her arms ... the very same pink striped floppy-eared bunny we have at home. But for whatever reason, it became a favorite, particularly at breakfast. (Some read at bedtime. My daughter prefers to read at breakfast.)

Next she requested a tutu. I told her we couldn't get her one unless she went to ballet class.

That was all it took.

For the past eight weeks, she has been ecstatically enrolled in a class at a local ballet school. The class itself isn't really ballet; my daughter is only three (well, nearly four). It's pre-ballet, and it's called "Expressercise." But it does teach a few preliminary ballet moves, in between learning how to prance around the room pretending you're a butterfly. Best of all, as far as my daughter is concerned, you are required to wear pink ballet shoes and a pink leotard/tutu combination.

Perhaps the most amazing thing to me is that I, forever a tomboy who got through much of my childhood in Danskins (remember them, with the matching shirts and pants?) -- am now the mother of a girl who wants to be, for lack of a better word, girlie.

After class, she watches other kids in other ballet classes -- the kids a bit older than her, and the big kids too, who are doing the real deal -- and she can't get enough. She keeps asking me questions: "What are they doing? Why do they have hair in pony tails?" (She means a bun but doesn't know the word for it.) "What's that music? Can we stay a little bit more?" She pays more attention to the other classes than she often does in her own, where her mind seems to wander a bit. (I get up every so often and watch her through the window to see how she's doing.)

I don't fool myself into thinking I've got a future NUTCRACKER cast member in the making here. But I'm happy that she's discovered something she likes, all on her own, with no pressure or prodding from me. For however long it lasts. And I know I get a thrill every time we go into the changing room before class and get her ready. All the girls look cute ... precious ... approaching angelic. But mine, well, to me, when she smiles in her ballet regalia, she looks simply and sweetly beautiful, and I realize that maybe I don't hate ballet after all.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Surviving The Road Trip

Somehow Late Blooming Mom -- and Dad -- just survived taking two preschoolers on a 380-mile car trip from Los Angeles to the Bay Area on Friday night -- and back on Monday afternoon. It was a quick trip to visit family, and I'd dreaded the transit portion. Surprisingly, it wasn't so bad.

We drove through wild fires (well, we drove by them; the car still smells of smoke). We endured meals at Denny's and the Iron Skillet (where, I kid you not, all the greasy meals are served in mini-skillets instead of plates). And we gave in to the convenience of the portable DVD player strung between the front seats, so the kids could view hours and hours of DVDs when they weren't sleeping, snacking, or kvetching.

I wholly recommend the portable DVD player, but just one. See, the kids are going to fight about which DVD they want to watch, but I'd still rather they learn how to take turns and compromise than not. And not have to spend money on TWO portable DVD players.

Some would ask, isn't looking at the scenery good enough for them? We all grew up pre-DVD players and survived.

I did try to interest the kids in the scenery... cows and farms and cow poop, which was quite potent.

But when it got dark, or the kids got cranky, that DVD player was pure gold.

The other item I found essential was the portable potty I'd bought from a mail order catalog. On two drives, this little item proved a lifesaver, because Thing 2 simply could not wait until the next rest stop. We still had to pull over to the nearest exit, get out and set the thing up by the side of the road, using the car as a privacy shield. But it was sure better than the alternative.

Keeping the troops fed and hydrated, yet able to pee when necessary, was a bit of a logistical challenge, and the bag of snacks was larger than some of our suitcases. Thing 1 would eat breakfast bars all day if he could; Thing 2 wants nothing to do with them, but will devour blue corn chips and pretzels.

New stickers and little drawing books with favorite characters were given out. Pop-up books and pads and crayons were distributed at meals. Glow sticks were presented in the home stretch.

All in all, it was a very successful road trip, much better than I'd hoped for.

Except for the aftermath.

On arrival home, an overtired Thing 2 and hyperactive-after-being-cooped-up-in-a-car for six-plus hours Thing 1 behaved impossibly, in their own ways. Thing 2 took a full hour to have a fit and refuse to get ready for bed.

It's three days since our return, and Late Blooming Mom is still tired from that homecoming.
Maybe a "stay-cation" next time?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Not Exactly Kodak Moments

She's proud of herself that she wipes from front to back when she goes to the potty. She wants to show mommy how she does it. But when she finishes wiping, she sneezes ... and decides the toilet paper she's just wiped with, and hasn't yet flushed, makes a perfectly fine tissue with which to wipe her nose.

He's proud of himself that he can use the urinal at preschool. He wants to show mommy how he does it. He takes her into the bathroom there and whips it out ... neglecting to pull his underwear and pants out of range. He pees all over himself.

She learns about nail polish from a teacher at preschool and her new thing is getting her nails done, by mommy, nanny, the obliging babysitter. Not one to be left out, even though this is traditionally a girls' activity, he insists on getting his nails done too -- toenails included. The color he chooses? Black. My three-and-a-half-year-old son has unwittingly gone Goth.

We're rolling cookie dough into balls to make "thumbprint" cookies: the idea is to push your thumb down in the cookie's middle, creating a whole for jam. Daddy shows him which finger his thumb is; he happily joins in a rendition of"Where Is Thumbkin?," a song he knows since age one and a half. When presented with the ball of dough and asked to press down with his thumb, he pokes it with his pointer.

She sees daddy feeding jam straight from the makeshift pastry bag he's created out of a plastic bag, straight into her brother's mouth. She insists she wants to try the same thing. She gets the jam in her mouth, and spits it out onto the table where we've been working the dough.

He sneezes all over the dough.

I know what you're thinking: "You must be so proud."

Here's what I'm thinking: I've got great material with which to embarrass them someday at their weddings.

I even got the jam spitting on video.

What was the slogan back in the '70s? "Celebrate the moments of your life."

Though maybe I'm glad I didn't get footage of that tush-to-nose toilet paper moment.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Insidious Reach Of The Brand

This morning I took the kids to Preschooler Story Time at one of my local libraries. After the story was read, BINGO was sung, and we colored some hand-outs with crayons, it was time for me to let the kids find some books so I could read to them.

The good news is that they grabbed a lot of books and sat there with great interest while I read, pointing and asking questions, thoroughly engaged.

The bad news is that more than half the books they selected and asked me to read for them were basically non-books: in book form, they were advertisements for Disney's CARS and ALADDIN, and the TV cartoons SPOT, CLIFFORD, and MISS SPIDER'S SUNNYPATCH FRIENDS, which began as books, but which my kids didn't get into until they saw the characters on TV. The books were not particularly creative, smart or fun. The few books we read that had no movie or TV tie-ins were a heckuva lot better, though not exactly the classic children's books I remember from my own childhood. If I'd had more time at the library to browse, it would've been all about MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS and other picture books I remember fondly.

Eventually the kids got ancy to leave; they'd already seen the library-adjacent playground by the parking lot, and needed to get their playground groove on. That was just fine: I've learned well how you've gotta let the kids get their energy out in the morning so they'll be primed for lunch, then tired enough to nap.

But I couldn't help feeling I'd done the kids a disservice introducing them to so many branded characters already. I'm not saying I don't adore CURIOUS GEORGE in movie and TV form (it IS on PBS, and technically educational), but I'm glad that's translated into the kids wanting me to read them actual CURIOUS GEORGE books, some of which I do remember from childhood. I've used TV out of desperation when I needed to shower, make dinner, or just rest for a bit, and I've also watched it with the kids because there are shows and DVDs for kids I genuinely enjoy and want to share with them. I've also read to them since before they "got" what a book was, and spend at least some time reading to them everyday. I just wish the books weren't so tied in to making my kids want to buy merchandise.

My daughter's awareness of the whole Princess phenomena is uncanny. I plead guilty to having taken her to the Disney store in the local mall a bunch of times to kill time and keep her amused, though I really think peers in preschool somehow exposed her to the names of every single Princess in the Disney canon before I'd even gotten her a single DVD featuring a princess. (In fact we only own one such DVD, "THE LITTLE MERMAID," and Thing 2 has watched it once through just one time, refusing to view it again because of the brief presence of a scary shark). Somehow she's gotten Princess-bonkers anway, and has a toy tiara, clothes with princesses on them, the plastic play slippers festooned with Ariel's visage. I guess now that modern Disney heroines aren't shrinking violets, make bold choices, and are partners in their own rescues, it's not so bad for girls to be into princesses. But the whole thing still feels too pre-Feminist creepy for me. (I don't think I was EVER in a princess phase, even when I was cast as one in a James Thurber play at summer camp. I don't even remember identifying with a female character until well into fifth or sixth grade, when I became aware of Mary Richards on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and wanted to fling my hat into the air (even though I didn't own one) and make it after all.)

For my son, it's all about cars from the Disney/Pixar movie CARS. He's got a dozen toy cars from the movie, or maybe more at this point (I've lost count). He has CARS stickers, books, shirts, socks, pants and light-up sneakers. He wants to be LIGHTNING MCQUEEN for Halloween, AND when he grows up (even though Lightning McQueen is a car, not a person). Now as movies go, CARS is a pretty good one -- even exposing my kids to the voice of the late, great actor/humanitarian Paul Newman (who plays DOC HUDSON) and the dulcet tones of singer/songwriter James Taylor (who sings a Randy Newman-penned song in the movie). It teaches the value of having friends and helping them when they need help. It has no scary, nightmare-inducing villain (for a movie with DISNEY in the credits, that's huge). And it's pleasant and fun. But the merchandizing tie-ins are, well, endless. I challenge anyone to show up at any preschool in America and find one where the boys aren't clad in at least some CARS wear.

I know it's my fault for giving in to all this and buying the crap. But the thing is, when you don't want a fight in the morning about getting the kids to get dressed, having character-themed clothes means those clothes go on -- and fast. Sometimes the kids seek them out and dress themselves before I even have to ask. The other thing is, Disney, thanks to China, makes the stuff cheap. Now we've probably spent enough on it all, cumulatively, that it isn't really cheap; but only now do I realize the insidious way Disney has lured me into turning my kids into customers.

I'm probably not gonna stop buying the crap anytime soon either; the kids genuinely love it. And what the hell, why shouldn't the kids be reading a book called WINNE THE POOH AND THE HANUKAH DREIDEL, even if I know damn well Christopher Robin and his friends are good English Protestants by origin (somewhere in heaven, A.A. Milne is saying "Oy!"). But what I AM going to do, at least when it comes to reading time, and to buying books or reading them at the library, is try to steer them, as much as I can, to stuff that ISN'T a TV show or a movie... stuff they can imagine coming to life themselves without a team of animators to do it for them. I've probably done a fair amount of this already, but now that I'm more aware, I'm going to try to do it more and more often.

The library had a corner window on which words were etched: sentences lifted from children's books, sentences like, "Let the wild Rumpus start!" and phrases like "Some pig!" Each one brought back a vivid memory for me, and the images that came to mind weren't taken from movies or TV shows. I hope I can share those memories with my kids by turning them on to books for books' sake -- so what matters is the story, not the wearable/watchable stuff it inspired.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Extinction Method Ain't Fast Enough For Me

Lots of parenting books recommend something called the "extinction method" as a way of getting rid of bad or unacceptable behavior. The basic idea is, when your child commences the unacceptable behavior, you immediately withdraw all parental attention from the child. Do this often enough, so the thinking goes, and the unacceptable behavior will cease; it will become extinct, much like dinosaurs.

Well, maybe it works ... eventually.

But it sure isn't working around here, or at least it's not working fast enough for me.

Thing 1 has lately been going through a rebellion worthy enough of adolsecence, even though he's only three and a half. Contrarian when it comes to ... well, nearly everything, he balks at whatever he's given to eat or drink, or asked to wear, and wherever he's told we're going, he declares with stubborn, foot-stomping intensity, "I wanna go somewhere ELSE!" It matters not to him that he has no idea where "else," only that he register his refusal to go along with whatever's planned, even if the planned destination is a birthday party that will undoubtedly feature pizza, cake, and the parting gift of goody bags. Hell no, Thing 1 won't go ... unless bodily picked up and carried, arms and legs flailing (usually aimed lethally at daddy's private parts; what the hell, we weren't planning on giving him another sibling anyway).

When this phase first began, we tried reasoning with our Little Dictator. Clearly that was a mistake.

Then we simply told him "no," he could NOT have whatever thing he wanted, but must comply with our request.

That only resulted in more high-pitched, ear-grating whining, or worse, an all-out fit.

There have been time-outs where possible, and there have been sessions where clothes have been taken off against his will (when it's time to change for bed and he's refusing), or occasions when he's been carried out of wherever we are, howling to the Gods of preschool about his unjust fate.

Once in a while, dad has been able to turn a whining session into giggles. Or mom has succeeded in distracting, changing the subject, bribing with a promised treat or toy.

But those have been brief respites. Sir Whines-A-Lot continues his dread reign.

The best method seems to be to ignore the whining, fit or protest in whatever form it takes, by leaving the room and ignoring him altogether.

Eventually, he seems to tire of his protests.

The problem is, "eventually" takes too long. It takes too long on each occasion, because the whining and protesting either goes on for what seems like an hour but is probably just ten very annyoing minutes, or it goes away briefly, only to reappear moments later when the next parental request is issued and met with refusal.

Ignoring one fit hasn't yet eliminated the next one.

And until it does, I remain about skeptic about the much-lauded "extinction method."

Still, I'm desperate. So today I told his dad, it's gotta be Zero Tolerance: at the first whine, we've got to start ignoring him. Perhaps by continued repitition, he'll finally get it: the whining gets him nowhere ... except stuck with himself, and without whatever it is he wants.

Let the ignoring begin.

(But I'm not holding my breath.)