Friday, September 26, 2008

Imaginary siblings

In the last couple of weeks, the population of my family has exploded. It seems we've suddenly gone from a humble family of three to a hearty family of eight. And I'm not quite sure how it happened.

Last week, Josh informed me that Eric was sitting next to him in the car on the way home from preschool. Since he is always desperate for someone to sit with, I thought he was pretending that his dad was back there. "No, not Daddy Eric, my brother Eric!"

I tried to tread lightly. "Brother Eric? Reeeaaaaaalllllyyyy???"

"Yes!" he insisted. "And my sister Robyn is on the other side." Uh-huh. I see.

Later that week, he told me he was playing catch in the family room with his brother Chocolate. Again, I paused. Chocolate? But evidently, the new kid can throw a tight spiral.

Then a few days later when he returned from a morning at Grandma's house, he mentioned that he had taken his brother Macaroni and Cheese with him. By this time, the names were killing me. First Eric and I had no imagination by naming Josh's first siblings after ourselves, and then we were evidently thinking way outside the box by branding the next two with comfort food classics.

When I was putting him to bed the other night, I dug a little deeper into this new imaginary family, trying to determine whether Josh is simply embracing that imaginary friend developmental milestone or suffering from severe schizophrenia and in deep need of intensive therapy.

It turns out that he and his siblings all sleep in a five-bunk bed in Josh's room. Josh sleeps at the top, of course. Then comes Chocolate, Macaroni and Cheese, and sister Robyn. And brother Eric sleeps at the bottom. Brother Eric likes to eat yogurt and apple juice. And Chocolate likes to eat — you guessed it — chocolate. He was fuzzy on the eating habits of the others, but I would put down money on what Macaroni's favorite meal is.

According to the creator, the siblings are all three years old, but with varying degrees of threeness. And the ages seem to fluctuate by the day. But it's safe to say they are all "three-and-something." How convenient.

Another interesting tidbit about these five kids (one real and four imaginary) is that they are all racecar drivers. I had no idea. I guess they have been sneaking out to the track for dry practices to improve their lap times. They all sport different colored cars with unique racing numbers. But it came as no surprise when Josh told me he always wins.

Yesterday when I was tucking Josh in for a nap, he was talking about his siblings again. I quietly asked him if he really just wanted a real baby brother or a sister to play with. He seemed to consider this question for quite sometime before saying, "No thanks." And I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

Then he added, "Baby Leah is already sleeping in her crib downstairs."

No wonder I'm so tired.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Learning to swim

As we enter the local swim center, we are immediately met with the unmistakable scent of chlorine and mold. A smell reminiscent of library books crossed with Clorox. A musty-meets-antiseptic odor that brings my own days of swimming lessons — some 30 years ago — bubbling to the top of my memory. The woman at the front desk directs us toward the waterslide, where we join several shivering preschoolers and their moms, anxious about their first class.

Josh has been excited about this all week. And once he gets into the pool, he's thrilled to find that he can stand up by himself in the generous two-and-a-half-feet-deep shallow end. I take my seat on the bleachers and watch six wet heads blow bubbles into plastic rings, reach underwater for rubber fish, and scoop pretend ice cream with both arms. The teacher then takes each minnow-in-training for a solo swim, first on their stomach with a kickboard and then on their back with their head resting on her shoulder. Some are more graceful than others. And some are definitely more comfortable in the water.

Josh thrusts his bottom underwater yet tries to kick during his back float. He ends up looking more like a clam than a fish. But he tries every exercise, no matter how proficient. And after class, we go out for ice cream to celebrate a successful first lesson.

The next week starts with a half-hearted protest about the temperature of the water and something about not being ready yet. I plop him into the pool and hurry to my seat, hoping he'll suck it up until he remembers how much fun he had last week. He starts selectively dropping exercises. He refuses to blow bubbles in the ring but merely touches his lips to the water. He won't reach for the rubber fish his teacher holds just low enough that he has to get his face wet to reach it. Instead, he lifts her arm up with his foot to bring his prey to his grasp. He swims his solos but only kicks occasionally, and he won't relax his head for the backstroke. Between structured activities, he spends all his time holding onto the side of the pool and pleading with me to let him get out. Needless to say, we do not go out for ice cream this week.

Eric and I try to practice with Josh between lessons. We take him to the pool in his grandparents' neighborhood and urge him to blow bubbles, get his whole face wet, kick, float, scoop. Some days we are successful. Other days we are not. Such is life with a three year old.

The following lesson is a little worse, and by the final session, I can hardly keep him in the water. The teacher takes each student through the required minnow skills, evaluating their progress. The other kids demonstrate remarkable aptitude — even the ones who cried through the first lesson. But while they progressed, Josh regressed. I try not to cringe as his teenaged instructor hands me the small yellow report card with nary a check on the list of class requirements. At the bottom, it cheerily proclaims, "Congratulations, your child is now qualified to enroll in the Minnows" which is, of course, the very same class he's been taking. Or should I say avoiding.

So I decide to sign him up for a different version. One that meets twice a week instead of once a week so he can hopefully sustain some momentum between sessions. The first day brings an unlikely surprise — a male teacher. Josh thinks this is a huge bonus. And with the help of a rubber duck wearing a farmer's hat, the new instructor lures my timid swimmer into the pool. Winston works slowly, carefully gaining Josh's trust before leading him into uncharted waters. And Josh begins to cautiously follow him, first moving off the stairs (or "his office," as we like to call them), then almost getting his nose wet, and finally kicking all the way to the deep end on a kickboard sporting the aforementioned duck.

As I root his tentative progress, I am reminded of how difficult indeed it is to learn to swim. A couple years ago, he was just learning to walk, figuring out how to steady himself on solid ground, awkwardly scooting around the coffee table on his newfound legs over and over again until one day he accidentally walked all the way across the family room floor while firmly grasping the remote control for imaginary balance. Now I have thrust him into a completely new world — one that doesn't follow any of the same laws of physics or aerodynamics — and I'm somehow expecting him to swim from end to end after a handful of half-hour lessons.

It is suddenly clear to me that he will learn to swim the same way he learned to walk: One small step at a time, with fits and spurts of progress followed by inevitable setbacks and eventually culminating in an unexpected surge of success after what seems like weeks of failure.

And the more I think about it, the more I recognize this path. It is the same one I follow as a mother. Prudently taking two steps forward and then inevitably one step backward. Striving to walk away from my more naive, less sacrificing younger self and swim in the deeper waters of the more responsible, less impulsive, wiser souls who came before me. Learning the new strokes of nurturing and often running out of breath as I brave new depths. Misplacing my confidence with every new challenge. Making mistake after mistake before finally achieving an unlikely breakthrough.

It is slow-going, this process of becoming. And it is rife with setbacks. But it is also full of promise and possibility. When Josh and I are finally able to embrace the true weightlessness of swimming, we will be rewarded with the unique freedom that comes only from perseverance and growth. In this moment, as we both kick and choke and splash our way through our respective lessons, that's what I'm truly counting on. That, and the celebratory ice cream.

Friday, September 5, 2008


When Josh was four months old, I joined a local playgroup. When I was pregnant, people were always telling me how easy it would be to meet other moms once the baby was born. But one of the things I remember most about those first few fuzzy months of motherhood was the persistent feeling that I was alone.

It's not that I didn't get oodles of support from my husband, parents, in-laws, and friends, but everyone worked full-time. So five days a week from morning until evening, I was alone with this tiny creature whose needs fluctuated on a daily basis and whose psyche I was convinced I was permanently damaging with every small choice I made. So I went online, found the mom's club in my area, sent a check to an anonymous PO box, and a few weeks later I was in a playgroup with three strangers who happened to have babies Josh's age. And at first — I'll be completely honest here — I wasn't so sure it was a good idea.

Perhaps it's a natural phenomenon when you gather two or more sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden, intensely insecure new moms together, but those first few meetings were awkward, to say the least. Each week, I would leave and think up creative excuses to skip next week's meeting. But for some reason, I kept me showing up each week. Maybe it was the comfort of knowing that I had a real appointment to get ready and leave the house for, or perhaps it was the morbid curiosity of watching other people's train wrecks — such as blow-out diapers or the meltdown of all meltdowns in the middle of a Starbucks — that made me feel better about my own lot in motherhood. Whatever the motivation, I persisted.

Within a few months, we lost a couple original members and gained a couple more, and somewhere in the middle, we found a nice equilibrium. We didn't always share the same interests or parenting philosophies, but we did share one universal commonality: We were all suddenly doing the hardest job we had ever done, and we had no idea how.

So we faithfully met each Thursday morning at nearby parks on nice days and coffee shops on rainy days. We'd all pull up in our assorted baby mobiles and spend the next 20 minutes heaving our enormous strollers out of the trunk; loading them up with the diaper bag, a purse, assorted toys, and snacks; and then clipping the infant carrier snugly in place, being careful not to wake the just-now-napping baby. Then we would navigate to the chosen meeting place, often en masse, struggling to manage all our gear. Inevitably at least one baby would wake up and promptly start screaming that I'm-either-about-to-be-eaten-by-a-wildcat-or-maybe-I'm-just-hungry cry, just as we were figuring out how to fit four SUV strollers between two easy chairs and a leather couch.

For the next hour and a half, we would compare notes. Does your baby ever sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time? How often does your baby nurse, and for how long? Do you feel like you want to kill yourself at least once a day? Are you laughing one minute and sobbing the next? Oh good. Me too. We'd whine and complain about all the things all those family members and strangers never told us when they were so busy telling us exactly what it would be like to have a baby. And we'd complain about all the unsolicited and mostly untrue nuggets of wisdom we were randomly granted in line at the post office, the grocery store, or the ATM. But mostly, we would sit in comfy seats or on plush park blankets and try to relax for a moment or two before our never-ending shift started again.

While the babies did nothing more than roll around on a blanket or smile at one another from their infant seats and grab their own fuzzy rattles, we moms bonded in a way only soldiers who've been to battle together can. And miraculously, many months later we found one more member who instantly gelled, as if she had been with us from the very beginning. She also brought a much-needed daughter into our group that had previously been composed of three rough-and-tumble boys and one petite girl.

We have stuck together as a playgroup longer than most. A few other moms have come and gone over the years, trying us out for a while and then moving on, but the core remains solid. As our lives ebb and flow with activities and commitments, illness and new babies, one of us may be scarce for a few weeks here and there, but we always come back together, weathering schedule changes, vacations, pregnancy, and preschool. And now that the kids are old enough to really play together, they are great friends. Each child has his or her own distinct personality, talents, and quirks, but they truly love each other. In the last year as they have all gotten so good at expressing their emotions and communicating clearly, I have been touched and amazed to see how strong their bond has become. For they didn't chose one another any more than we did. We were all brought together by a combination of administrative randomness and fate. And it seems both forces knew exactly what they were doing.

So what, you may wonder, inspired this ode to friendship? Last week, we found out that one of our founding members is moving to the East Coast. Her family has an incredible new opportunity that happens to be across the country, and while we wish her well, we are sad to lose one of our own. Her departure has only reminded me how finite our little group is. I have tried not to think about it in the past, but even if the rest of us stick around, in less than two years our kids will be in kindergarten, potentially signaling the end of the weekly play date. And while we all live reasonably close to one another, we are all in different school districts, so seeing one another can only happen extracurricularly.

But imagining life without my weekly dose of chaos and fun is depressing. I'm not sure what I will do if I don't get to see what clever T-shirt Bradley is wearing or find out which words Lauren learned to spell each week. And while I now have no choice but to find out via e-mailed pictures from East Coast servers how tall our resident pro basketball player Alex is getting, I refuse to go more than a week without hearing Sami call me Rockin' Robyn. So how in the impending school-age era do I plan to fix this? There's only one solution: Those kids will just have to move in with me. And they better bring their moms, too.
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