Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ah, the Life of a Grandparent

Grandparenthood has become a more complicated business today than it was in the past. The last of mine died before my tenth birthday, leaving my parents to fend for themselves in their early forties. Memory of those four strangers has left me with momentary glimpses and a handful of photographs. My first french fry, spinning on a stool at a coffee shop, bulging veins, a scratchy beard, a spongy lap. My parents, on the other hand, lived a lot longer. They participated in their grandchildren’s weddings and saw three great grandchildren become teenagers. Why didn’t Erikson fully explore this phase of human development? I suspect he was baffled by the prospect as much as I am. Whatever fantasies I had about the idyllic life as a grandparent have been supplanted by the reality that it’s a complex, challenging experience.

I currently juggle five different family dynamics with eight grandchildren (soon to be nine) all of whom present a potpourri of personalities, perspectives and experiences with an exponential factor of 200 variables in rules, expectations and discipline. And I thought these would be the golden years.

Relationships between parents and children continue to evolve far into adulthood. Just because a thirty year old has a baby doesn’t mean that any difficulties he had with his parents disappear. In fact the opposite often occurs as childhood issues are revisited as the baby matures.

Daughters- and sons-in-law create additional complications because they’ve got their own family inheritance to deal with. Partners have to merge their experiences into their parenting with very little awareness of each other’s early history. Since grandparents also know only one side of the story, they need to respect and appreciate differing viewpoints while the young family forges its own path.

Sometimes grandchildren arrive in the middle of a catastrophe. Zoe was born the same week her Uncle Ben’s ALS diagnosis became final. I was fortunate to be present for her birth, but too numb to appreciate the gift. My heart closed up, afraid to risk the embrace of another baby. Zoe spent this past weekend alone with us and for the first time in nearly five years, I felt powerfully connected to this energetic, intelligent, creative soul.

Because isn’t that the essence of grandparenting? Being connected to the future through the generation that carries our essence and light? I love watching my children parent their children as they relive experiences they most enjoyed, develop their own parenting style, and teach their children to embrace values of integrity and responsibility.

At the same time, I’m a bit jealous of my children. After all, they enjoyed their grandparents' influence long into their adulthood and have a fine grasp of that relationship, while I’m still threading my way through the labyrinth. If it's true that childhood experiences guide our parenting expertise for better or worse, it may also be true that our relationship with our grandparents provides the foundation for this final relationship. Nevertheless, I trust I’ll find my way.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Terrific or Terrible Toddlerhood

Imagine life as a two or three year old. Your world view is eye level with table tops and adult knees. No one explains the rules until you make a mistake and then they expect you to remember it the next time. Your fingers drop spoons, spill juice and can't pull on a sock. When you speak, no one understands except your parents and even they often miss the point. Asking for a cookie can become downright aggravating. You ‘toddle’ when you walk on unsteady legs making skinned knees a daily occurrence. On top of that, you have to remember to say ‘potty’ about ten times a day or you wet your pants. So it’s not surprising that you find creative ways to have your needs met like the little boy in this next story.


Nothing prepared me for life as the pregnant mother of a toddler. Oblivious to the humiliation ahead, I parked our station wagon in front of Hull House on Belmont Avenue in Chicago, hopeful the tot-lot program proved worth the effort. By the time I pulled Matt from the car seat, I was winded. Mounds of snow blocked the sidewalk. I grasped his hand in mine as we inched our way towards the front door.

“Doesn’t the snow look like frosting?” Drifts covered the gothic roof spires. Matt didn’t answer as he tracked a flake with his tongue.

Inside, the entryway smelled like burnt toast.

“It’s out of order.” A scrawny woman sprawled on a sofa pointed to the elevator, sniffed and flipped open a newspaper. “Stairs’re over there. Four flights.”

I should have followed my instincts and gone home. But no, I had parked and fed the meter. Playtime was important for Matt. Who knew how long we’d be stranded inside after the baby was born.

On the first landing, Matthew reversed direction and tried to slide down the banister. I hoisted him onto my hip and continued the climb. We reached the second floor dripping from the heat and lack of oxygen in the narrow stairwell. I stripped off our coats and rolled them into a bundle. Matt’s hair was plastered to his scalp, his cheeks flushed.

“This’ll be fun. Promise.” Could there have been a more inconvenient place for a children’s play group to meet? “Just a little further.”

We pulled each other up the last flight and entered the remains of a ballroom. Parquet flooring splintered underfoot, dirty white paint flaked off the walls. Huge grimy windows provided the final touch of gloom.

A dozen children sprinkled among tricycles, blocks, and toys jostled each other. I dropped into a folding chair and helped Matt pull off his boots.

“Go play,” I sputtered, wheezing.

Matt tottered into the morass. When I finally took a deep breath, the room smelled like the monkey house at Lincoln Park Zoo. Not one face looked familiar. Toddlers coughed and sneezed. Did the paint chips that littered the floor have lead in them?

Before I could find a water fountain or open a book, a shriek shattered the room. The kind of scream reserved for lions and tigers. My boots left puddles as I charged into the chaos, worried that Matt was hurt, relieved when I saw him steady the handle of a Big Wheel Bike and climb onto the seat.

The other mothers had formed a protective shield around the victim, kissing and soothing the ‘good’ child, who, between sobs, pointed at Matt. I avoided eye contact with anyone and focused on the victim’s hand. A dental impression of twelve small teeth encircled swollen blue flesh. I tasted fermented orange juice.

“I’m so sorry. That’s horrible. It’s okay, I think.” No blood, thank god. I whipped around, gripped Matt under my arm and hustled towards the stairwell. “How could you bite that child? You’re a bad boy. You hurt him. Did you hear him scream? That was a bad thing to do. We’re never coming back here!”

Someone behind me said, “Good!” but I didn’t look back. In two strides we were out the door. Matt hung like a dishrag while I railed at him from the fourth to the first floor. “Biting is bad. You can bite food – bite a toy – but not a person, not a little boy. Ask when you want something. NO BITE!”

I stuffed Matt back into his snowsuit, tied the scarf too tight, slammed boots onto his feet.

The woman on the sofa grinned. “That was quick.”

Matt’s feet stumbled and flew as we marched to the car. Within minutes he was strapped into his car seat while I strangled the steering wheel. Snow covered the windows, transforming the car into a cocoon. I turned on the motor, hoping the hum and vibration would soothe me.

How many snarls did a bite deserve? True, Matt lost the big wheel. We left. He didn’t get to play with the other children. But did he understand this could not happen ever again? When I turned around to scold Matt one more time, he was asleep.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Tales From the Trenches

April is Child Abuse Prevention month. When I worked at the Family Resource Center of Iowa County in Wisconsin, we tied blue ribbons on the tree in front of the county court house, one for each reported case of child abuse or neglect. The last year I was there, we had to cut over 200 strips. Where were my allegiances as I attached bows to the branches? With both the children and their over-stressed parents.

I haven’t forgotten those moments of my early motherhood, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted when too many responsibilities and not enough support pushed me to the brink. What kept me from stepping over the line? I was lucky enough to be born into a family with competent parenting skills but realized early on that my instincts had limitations. I also recognized that in spite of my teaching experience, I knew very little about how best to parent my own children.

I read dozens of child development books, discussed options with other parents in support groups, and sought counseling from teachers and friends. I stopped worrying about what everyone else thought about my parenting skills or my children and focused on developing good coping mechanisms. I learned how to set limits and establish appropriate consequences. I took time outs for myself, asked for support from family and friends, gave myself days off and made my expectations clear. Most importantly, I developed a set of responses that I could implement before I reached code blue. Because no matter how challenging a child’s behavior might be, it’s the parent who is ultimately responsible for what transpires and for the quality of the relationship that evolves.

During the next few weeks, I'll be posting stories like this one from my early years as a Mom.

Tyranny of a Toddler

By the time Matt was a year old, I’d forgotten the sleep deprivation, labor pains and nursing fiasco to the point that a second baby seemed like a good idea. I was getting at least six hours sleep a night and we’d reached the golden moment in childhood before toddlerhood hit full throttle. Not that I understood or could verbalize any of that. At the time, I operated under the assumption that a two year stretch between babies was a good idea and had no idea how terrifying toddlerhood could become.

On a steamy spring afternoon, a month before my due date, we rambled off to the local Chinese Restaurant, Rocky's Hong Kong. Matt dozed in his stroller. We rolled right up to the table. I squeezed my ample body into one side of the booth, perspiration dappling my forehead. Matt climbed into the toddler chair next to his Dad. We ordered our favorite plate lunch special with a vegetable fried rice side for the three of us.

Matt played with the packets of sugar and the salt shaker, sprinkled the table, kicked the red plastic booth. I caught the soy sauce jar before it sprayed brown dots on his red, white and blue striped shirt. He'd shimmied half-way under the table when the waitress placed our meal on the table. Matt leaped back into his chair and grabbed the platter. “Mine!” he proclaimed.

I pried his chubby fingers loose, then slid the dish of egg roll and chow mein out of his reach. Gravy sloshed onto the table. Matt knocked over the sugar bowl and banged his fist against the wall. A dollop of rice plopped into Steve’s lap. A water glass tipped. Steve leaped from the table and into the back of another customer. I wriggled out of my seat and scooped Matt under my arm.

He thrashed against my chest and screamed “Mine!” as I hobbled past the other customers. His legs kicked my thighs. My ears burned fuchsia. I gritted my teeth as I dragged both of us outside. Matt was berserk and I was two nanoseconds behind him. He slipped to the pavement where he flung himself against the cement walk and wailed. When the monster stopped moving, I thought the worst was over. Perhaps the egg roll was still warm. Wrong again. Crazy baby resumed his hysteria and shrieked as if he was being beaten.

My neck prickled as I stared at nothing over the heads of strangers strolling past, clucking their tongues and twisting their necks, grimaces and smiles fastened to their faces. My dress stuck to my back. I folded my arms across my chest and shifted my balance. Wild boy simmered to a whimper, then hiccups. I braced myself against the concrete wall in case it was another intermission.

“Are you finished?” I was all business. Speckles of dirt and sweat smeared his face, palms and knees. Matt held up his arms, sighed and sputtered.

I hoisted him onto my left hipbone, bouncing his bottom firmly into position, my arm strangling his waist as I marched to the bathroom. His legs hung limp like a rag doll. The mantra in my head blasted, “I do love this baby. He’s not a devil child.”

The sight of my face in the mirror was more than a little frightening. I splashed soapy water on Matt’s cheeks and arms. We walked back to the table together holding hands. Steve, slumped in the booth, offered me a sympathetic glance as he helped Matt settle in his booster seat.

“You’re up next.” I crammed myself into the booth and polished off a glass of water.

Matthew touched the edge of our cold lunch platter with one finger. “Mine?” He sounded hopeful.

And even though the sight of the congealed mass of chicken, noodles and sauce had obliterated my appetite, I said “No, we’re going to share,” and waited for Matt’s response.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Happy 65th Birthday to Steve!

We met when he was nineteen, forty six years ago, on a cold November evening. He was cute, a little crazy like me, and someone who expected a lot from life. Sometimes it seems like we met a zillion years ago, other times it feels like yesterday. The journey together has been rocky, amazing, exhausting, frantic, fun, devastating, and exhilarating. I suppose anyone can say that about their life because no one gets a sweet ride. Everyone experiences bumps. It’s the size of the bumps, the texture, the smell, the density, the shape that differs. We’ve celebrated nearly 550 birthdays together, if you count all of our children, their spouses and our grandchildren. And we’ve got dozens ahead of us. I no longer expect or entertain the thought that the last of our life together will be a slow meandering on paved roads. What I do know is that whatever lies ahead, however steep the curves, I’ve got a great driving partner by my side.

Great Review of 'Indestructible'

So next up was definitely the most fearless and personal (and also the best) documentary of the festival. "Indestructible" is the story of Ben Byer, a struggling actor/filmmaker and an energetic, reasonably athletic 31 year old father of a beautiful son. And then he was struck with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka ALS, aka Lou Gehrig's disease. So he turns the camera on himself, and over three years, with the help of his family and friends, documents his deterioration. The result (and by the way, he's still alive, was at the screening and could still be filming and editing today if they didn't decide they needed to just finish it and get it out there) is amazing. His journey takes him to China for an herbal cure, which is semi-successful (at least it seems to slow the progression). He stays in China for an experimental spinal operation that ranges from useless to dangerous. Back home to recuperate he realizes that the operation was a failure, and documents his daily home life--ranging from hilarious (most of the time with his adorable son) to heartbreaking (a family fight which to me is the key to the film). Ultimately his journey takes him back to his Jewish roots and a trip to Israel to find religious meaning, which ends it on a nicely poignant note. I just have to say one more thing about the family fight. It wasn't anyone's best personal moment, but without it everyone in the movie is a saint and no one's a real person. This movie stretched my emotional limits in only two hours, I can't imagine how everyone involved suffered through this for 2 years (at the time, 5 years now). And watching someone who can barely stand up get up and storm/stagger out of a room, only to stagger back just to tell everyone off is a truly extraordinary sight. Oh yeah, and he owned a doggy and keep watching through the credits--there's a bonus doggy scene at the end.

This posting was taken from Jason Watches Movies. Read this and other of his reviews at