Seeing and loving a serious child

IMG_8780My kid can’t fake it.

When she encounters new people, Serafina is quiet, cautious and observant. She is not the kind of child that leaps into a new social dynamic with abandon or dashes off to see what distraction has captured a group of children. She sticks close by, silently and seriously, and often stays put. Parents and big kids can cajole her, try to lure her or bribe her to participate, but she’s resolute and so solid in her resistance, that they often give up, feeling deflated or even offended.

I sort of hate it.

I sort of hate it because this is not the child I know. At home, Serafina is an exuberant goofball who races around the house and screams with delight when she is surrounded by the people she knows and loves best. She is a downright boss, demanding with such force that we follow her precise orders when we play, eat or read books. She loves to hold court, performing her “ballerina,” singing her own songs or speeches she’s memorized from Daniel Tiger.

I have felt a sting, a sense of judgment when we get together with a group of parents and kids. Everyone else’s offspring is running through a sprinkler while mine is trying to fuse her body with me again. The other kids will giggle if you tickle them, but mine will scream “nooo” and scowl at you. (On two separate occasions, kids in her pre-school cohort have asked me, without any prompting, “why does Serafina only ever say ‘nooo!?'”) Are people asking what I did to make her this way? Are people liking her less because she will not engage?

But she is my child, after all. And this is very much who I was in my young life and now, after years of therapy and reflection, who I still am but now with the capacity to understand it and see how it appears to others. I could never do small talk easily or comfortably. I had no pretense of glee, but when it was real, it was very apparent. I was an introvert in new environments and an extrovert in my comfort zones. I thought for a long time that this is just how I was because I was queer and didn’t “fit” in most spaces neatly. Maybe that was true, or maybe it is/was just who I am. Today, I am a 38 year-old woman married to a woman with three daughters and thanks to brushes with life and death, I have a clear picture of what matters. It is easier now to be who I am than it ever was. The dark, weird, tall girl who did not smile is still there, but she is happy to meet new people and curious to interact with the world.

In this way, I have not loved the praise we give exclusively to the more “outgoing” traits a person might have, especially in children. We celebrate the kids who “flirt” with everyone (a descriptor for kid behavior that I, maybe in my weirdness, feel very funny about). We find it easy to love the kids who are puppy-like and bold. Why don’t we adore introspection and reserve in young people? Sensitive children are brave in their honesty and their vulnerability. Serious children are unique in their thoughtfulness. They are harder to get close to, but they are that much more wonderful perhaps because of what they hold back.

Part of why I love Serafina’s school and her teachers is because they are very intentional about seeing children, listening to them and loving who each child is. Her teachers have helped me feel better and even feel good about her assertiveness (screaming “no!” at boys twice her size) and her deadpan. And Darry too has reminded me that Serafina comes from a long line of spicy, brazen and in-charge ladies, like my fierce Nana, my mom, my aunties and maybe even me.

I want to be so careful to not impose character on Serafina, because her character (like everyone’s, really) is a such work in progress. I resist the way some parents might say “she loves this! and she is *this* way!” because I think children will respond to what we perceive in them, and tell ourselves and tell others. I don’t want to put any pressure on her. I want to work hard to see clearly what she is showing me and to love the wonder of discovering her unique self, every day.

Dining haul

Sitting down to share food together. This simple, beautiful, essential act was the thing that defined my relationship with Darry in all of the years that we were together before children. It is how we found and nurtured our most important relationships with our dearest friends. Nearly 10 years, this twice daily act (always breakfast, always dinner)  grounded us, kept us healthy and in the moment for the duration of each delicious meal.

We are working so hard to keep that foundation present now that we have three children. It was challenging but manageable when Serafina arrived. Every day of her first two years was reliably book-ended by a hot meal at the start and finish of each day with both of us next to her. In the mornings, she would nibble on our eggs. In the evenings, she would often crawl into my lap and gobble up a bit of whatever we were eating. She was a remarkably tidy eater, even in her baby phase, and the post-bedtime cleanup was minimal. In this way, she was a weirdo and she fooled us.

Needless to say, mealtime these days is not the luxurious, deliberate and often artful act that it once was. We are still eating twice daily, always breakfast and always lunch, with all of the children together. We are still preparing hot meals, miraculously made from mostly whole foods. But the time spent seated at the table is now a total fucking circus that generates up to an hour of cleanup after every meal.

When it’s time to eat, Serafina gets a head start on everyone else and often vanishes mid-meal to collect toys from another room, make mischief somewhere, demand that she is tired and ready for bed, etc. The twins cease their clockwork pre-meal whining (they are very conditioned) while finally stationed in their chairs — always with food already placed on their trays so they don’t attempt a premature escape. (At 9 months, Mairead started standing up in her chair and it was terrifying.) Darry and I shuttle all the necessary accoutrements to the table, attempt to sit down, both of us with one eye on the children as they start to inhale food. And then, instead of eating, one of us is continuously tearing up and throwing more and more food to the babies, who are consuming it faster than we can keep up. Meanwhile, the other is trying to keep Serafina engaged and present, and making sure she eats at least a couple of bites of the more important parts of the meal.

When we are done, usually 15 to 20 minutes later, the space around the table is a crime scene of food waste, suggesting that the twins did not actually ingest anything we gave them and that, instead, 100 percent of the tiny pieces we lovingly ripped up and tossed to them, were redirected to the floor. The babies themselves are covered in food, with bits of stuff somehow penetrating their onesies and digging in deep into their cloth diapers. (These will spill later on the bathroom floor, when they are stripped for a tubby.)

I know many families have their kids nibble on their own kid food separately and wait until after bedtime to eat in a more relaxed way themselves. I appreciate that, but I honestly don’t know how those parents can wait so long to eat dinner or when, if at all, they eat breakfast. Darry and I are also very conditioned and always very hungry.

But we are hoping the investment we are making at our mealtime circus now will nurture the same love and graciousness Darry and I have with each other, and the same love and gratitude for food. I like to fantasize about years from now, when the girls count on their time with us in the morning and the evening as a space to share how they’re feeling about the day ahead and about the day behind them. I also like to fantasize about them cooking entire meals for us, many years from now.  And I am proud of us for persevering and committing to the hard work required to procure good food, to prepare it and to share it, religiously, around the table as a family.

Not staying at home and parenting

“I stayed home because I didn’t want someone else raising my kids. That’s not why I had children.”

I overheard a mom saying this once at preschool drop-off. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard other mothers saying it in other places too. I may have even said something like it myself, before I had kids, though I am not sure what the hell I was thinking if I did. Because the truth is, and always has been, I am a working person.

I work because it is compulsory, because it is crucial to my survival. I do not have parents who support me. I do not hve a safety net. Everything I have, I have because I had to work (and so I did) and the same is true for Darry. And even though we, too, don’t prefer to have someone else raising our kids, it’s not presently an option, given our mortgage, modest standard of living and desire to build some semblance of long-term security. Also I work because — and here’s a tricky bit  — neither Darry nor I want to be home full time with three children. We both know that is the hardest job of all and we’ve been over this scenario and feel certain it would disrupt the sense of balance and equity we have in our relationship and in our co-parenting.

I don’t think all proud stay-at-home moms make “I wanted to raise my own kids” claims self-righteously, and I seriously question how many stay-at-home moms are resolute about their decision to stay home. But I do think statements like “I wanted to raise my own kids” over-simplify what is probably one of the most complicated and heart-wrenching realities a person can ever experience: being a parent and being a person with a job at the same time.

It is a fundamentally incompatible thing. Working and raising children, at least the way I personally conceive of both roles. Since Serafina was five months old, and I slowly and sadly and certainly made my return to work, my heart has been broken in a million tiny ways, pretty much every time I say goodbye to her. And especially on those days when the goodbyes are difficult.

This summer Serafina is in camp for the month of July. She’s with her beloved teachers and her buddies from preschool, but in a different setting, which is outdoors for most of the long, hot day, and the transition from school to camp has not been perfectly smooth. She’s the youngest kids attending, one of the few kids who still naps and arguably it’s a little too much for her. She comes home pretty beat and most mornings she says she’d rather stay at home. (That was never the case during school.) And every morning for the past week, she has panicked when it’s time for me to say goodbye and howled as I walked back to the car.

This is basically the worst sensation a working parent can experience. Leaving your child in someone else’s care as they look you in the face and beg you to stay because they want to be with you. This is not a scenario that plays out in your head when you decide getting pregnant is a good idea and that, when the time comes, you’ll work out some kind of child care plan so you can keep your income flowing. But here we are.

We are lucky our kids have amazing, nurturing care from wonderful, loving caregivers. We are lucky we have jobs that compensate us fairly. So much luck makes it seem wrong somehow to still complain that this combo of good fortune is hard, all the same. But right now and for the foreseeable future, every day is a circuitous path of exhaustion (getting up and getting out “on time”), grief and guilt (handing the kids over to someone else while they sometimes protest), anxiety (racing from one thing to the next, most especially to pickup), relief (when we finally get to see the children, happy and in tact at the end of the day) and more exhaustion (when we get a couple more hours caring for them while they are tired, often grumpy) and gratitude (when they go to sleep and give us the sweetest hugs imaginable as we’re tucking them in).









Secretly healthy homemade pouches

As first-time parents, we were militant about keeping fruit and veggie pouches out of Serafina’s hands. When visiting with friends with kids, it could get awkward. They would generously offer a pouch while their child sucked one down, and one or both of us would politely decline, not wanting to say out loud, “hey, we think those things can go rancid and they will never touch our baby’s lips.”

Fast forward to a 2-year-old Serafina, who is able to ask directly for a pouch, and articulate very clearly that she knows exactly what they are and how to use them. When we asked how, she explained that her grandma buys them for her sometimes. Joke’s on you, mommy and mama.

We’ve been more lax with babies #2 and #3 — they’ve had a couple of pouches, and we’ve even bought them. But we still have reservations about the shelf life, the sugar content and the packaging. Thus, we’re experimenting with our own, reusable pouch.

It still strikes me as weird, kind of gross and the antithesis of the kind of eating habit we hope to establish — a long, slow, luxurious appreciation of all flavors, shapes, colors and textures — but the fact is, kids seem to like their food when it’s delivered in plastic. And for the moment, it’s still a challenge to get certain (green) vegetables in Serafina’s diet and a desirable balance of fat, protein and fruit or veg.

We ordered the Little Green Pouch on Amazon (a 4 pack). They are actually easy to clean, though the spout is a bit tricky and requires a narrow bottle brush. If these are a hit with all three kids and we find we need to order more, I’m going to try the WeeSprout brand, because the loading zone on these looks wider.

Here are our first two recipes:

Protein pouch

Serafina, naked and happily sucking down a protein pouch.

1 medium sweet potato (roasted)
1 medium ripe banana
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon chia seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons of peanut butter

^ This one was surprisingly tasty and the right consistency (not too liquid). It filled two pouches.

Green pouch
1 cup of (raw) spinach leaves
5 strawberries (we used frozen)
1/2 cup frozen mango
1 banana
2/3 cup Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon of peanut butter
1/2 cup water

I’d recommend going lighter on the water and heavier on the peanut butter, to make the end result thicker. This one was tasty, basically like a smoothie. It made enough to fill three pouches.