Baby, I’m yours

My little guy loves to stroke my arms. And snuggle his face into my neck. “You smell good,” he says, looking up at me with his liquid brown eyes, “Your skin is soft.” His apple cheeks lift up as he grins at me.

His little nose sniffs at me whenever he can – as I help him into the car, he leans toward me a little. When I sit on the couch looking through a magazine, he comes up and smells my shoulder. “I like your smell,” he says with a smile, and runs off. Jo Malone Red Roses. Tide laundry detergent. Just plain old soap. It all coalesces into eau de Mommy for him. Powerful potion.

He rubs his small hand on any length of my exposed skin he can find.Over and over, with gentle, repetitive four-year-old rhythm. My neck, my forearm, my shoulder, my shin. I know he likes the feel of his mommy’s skin – which is soft because it’s getting older, losing elasticity, wrinkling a little bit. I used to love feeling my grandmother’s neck for the same reason – turkey skin she would say, and I’d giggle thinking of her as Granny Turkey, but also because I didn’t know how else to respond, it was like turkey skin! He loves to feel it because it’s soft but also because when he touches his skin to my skin, catches a whiff of Red Roses, it means I’m really his mom, and I’m here, right next to him, for now and for always.

But I hate being touched like that, by anyone. Those featherlight fingertips running up and down my arm make my skin crawl. I can stand it for barely two minutes, before I take his hand in mine, pull him into my lap for a squeeze and suggest he build a Lego tower, or go find his brothers. “Okay,” he says cheerily, all smiles and brown eyes.

He’s my baby, the youngest of four over an eight-year-spread. We didn’t really plan on having four kids. As the story goes, I thought we’d kinda start talking about it… right when I discovered I was pregnant. We didn’t feel we were quite done with three (don’t ask me why, I really couldn’t answer without sounding like a kooky, mystical palm-reader trying to earn a fast buck), but theoretical exploration of having another seemed like the right thing to do. Let’s talk about it.

Ha! Man plans, G-d laughs… 

Even while I knew we were in for a wild ride, I could never have predicted the extent to which adding another beating heart under our roof would drive me over the edge! And he wasn’t a difficult heart to care for – easy baby, no issues with eating, sleeping, developing, growing. Thank G-d. But he was another live being, needing something, many somethings, from me.

Thankfully we all doted on him, took turns playing with him, feeding him. His brothers and sister adored him. Even if I wasn’t available, there was always someone taking care of him. And in a big family, the youngest has to learn to roll with it – more than anyone. Sometimes I couldn’t feed him right when he woke up, because his siblings had to get to school. Or his afternoon nap would last no longer than ten minutes as they and their friends noisily pounded past his bedroom.

And almost five years later he still rolls with it. If there’s nobody in the kitchen, he fixes his own snack. He learnt to dress himself way earlier than his siblings. There’s usually someone to play with him, but he’s more than happy to enter the world of Ninjago alone. As he makes himself tea in a sippy cup, I jokingly say there’s a fine line between independence and neglect – but he has learnt to be independent because there’s not always somebody there to do it for him.JedTea

And most often, that somebody not there is his mom. I am schlepping the others. Or helping them with their homework. Or making one of the 800 school lunches I will make this year. Or being a mom to a 12-year-old, which is very different to being a mom to a four-year-old. Or I’m writing. Or reading. Taking a break from the chirping cacophony of “Mommy.”

Often I have no patience for him: his sister is upset or his brother is stressing about his paragraph on Mark Twain, and I don’t feel like watching the ninja move for the tenth time. Or I’m running late, and I shoo him out the door, but he wanted to go round the back and meet me at the car, and now he’s crying because he really, really wanted to do that. But I don’t have time for a tantrum right now, just get in the car. I don’t even listen to him as he wails, “You never let me do what I want to do.” I couldn’t be further away from him.

But he is always here for me. Urging me to be present. When the house is too quiet (it happens on occasion), and I can’t listen to my own thoughts any longer, I wander into his bedroom, and watch him happily playing by himself. He looks up, all smiles and brown eyes. I sit down on the floor and he climbs into my lap, buries his face in my neck. He strokes my arm for two minutes, and then I hold his little hand in my slightly wrinkly one.

“You’ll always be my baby,” I tell him.

“Not when I’m a dad,” he says, laughing.

“Even when you’re a dad.”

JedNicki2

 

What I learned today in second grade

She could’ve been talking about her spelling test, she described the story to me so matter-of-factly, her little face betraying no sadness or hurt. “At recess, Mom, she said I was too small to play. So I just sat on the stairs and watched.” It was the third day in a row that she’d been told she wasn’t wanted, for one reason or another. She was used to it.

There’s always a Queen Bee, buzzing busily in the circles of female friendships. Her role is subtle in younger years, she hasn’t yet been crowned. But by the age of six, there she is her Royal Highness, cape flowing regally from her narrow shoulders, sparkling crown planted on her head – giving her free reign to determine who gets to be friends with whom, what games they will play at recess, whether your new boots are hot or not. If you are in her favor, you are golden. She casts her royal glow on you, and you feel that you are walking on air, that the chariot the two of you ride together will actually sprout wings and soar above all the lowly subjects on the playground. There is nothing you can’t do together. There is nothing you can’t do alone! Until you are no longer in her favor – one day you’re in, the next you’re OUT. Yes Your Majesty. Curtsey. Exit.

Nobody dares to unseat the Queen. It’s as much the order of things on the playground as it is in the beehive. The perception is that without the Queen – this Queen – it would all fall apart. And the industrious second grade she-bees need hierarchy and order as they buzz about their busy days of school, recess, hip-hop, birthday parties, sleepovers.

“Sage,” I say in a barely-controlled pseudo-calm voice, “why didn’t you tell her she can’t say you can’t play, and that she hurts your feelings?”

“Mom,” again so deadpan, expressionless, “you know I have a hard time saying that. I wanted to, but I just can’t get those words out.”

Ugh. Yes, I do know. I know exactly how she feels. I know how uncomfortable confrontation makes me. I know she’s worried that if she speaks up, expresses her indignation and hurt at being excluded, Queenie might alienate all the other bees from her, and she’ll be all alone at recess with no prospect of a buddy to walk with to hip-hop and no hope of a sleepover ever.

My heart breaks into sharp shards as I look into her no-longer-innocent green eyes. I imagine picking up one of those shards and piercing Queen Bee’s fuzzy little body with it. You can’t say you can’t play! Preschool 101.

Worst of all, my little bee is afraid to buzz.

Every day there is another exclusionary incident. She wouldn’t let Sage tell a story. She sneakily lured Sage’s friend away from her at lunchtime. She told Sage she wasn’t good at basketball.

Sage and I role-play: what would she say next time QB told her she couldn’t play? You don’t get to tell me I can’t play. What would she say when QB told her to stop telling her story? That hurts my feelings.

I encourage Sage to eat lunch with different girls, to share her stories with somebody else. I imagine her little heart beating loudly in her chest while she tries to muster the courage to speak up to QB, to tell her that the things she says don’t feel good – because, 32 years after being in second grade, my own heart pounds in my throat when I try to do the same. Do we ever really leave the playground?

I stop hearing about QB for a while. Sage seems happy, talks about school and friends, no drama, no incidents. On parent-teacher day, I sit down at the little desk, and there screaming up at me from the self-assessment each child writes, in her still-developing-but-perfectly-formed-no-2-pencil letters, are the words: One friend is mean to me all the time.

There are those shards, so real and sharp I make a fist around one. I look up into her teacher’s kind, unwavering gaze. “Do you know what that’s about?” It bubbles out of me, unfiltered, heated, sticky. I hear myself say, over and over, “She just doesn’t want to tell her how it makes her feel. She’s scared she’ll be alienated from all the other girls.”

Wonderful Teacher quietly nods. She knows exactly what I’m talking about (of course, she’s not a second grade teacher for nothing). “It’s important to teach the children that if being around a friend doesn’t make them feel good, that’s not a friend.” I simply stare at her. I feel like she is my second grade teacher. “Friends are people you want to be around, and who want to be around you. If it feels bad, it’s not a friendship.”

The bees start buzzing excitedly. Life 101.

Sage spent the next weekend with a different friend, an awesome friend. All weekend. Back-to-back sleepovers. Smiling faces for 48 hours. They were inseparable, happy, busy, together-bees.

I’m never too old to learn the lessons taught in second grade.

Back on the playground, QB looks anxiously about for a few new subjects.

Hashtag Facetime

My boys were playing a game on Sunday that involved a lot of shouting and leaping off beds and onto beanbags – nothing out of the ordinary. Usually I don’t pay attention at all, except to wish they would do it a little more quietly. But then I became aware that their language of play went something like, “Hashtag-jump-higher!” Followed by, “Hashtag-shut-up!” And then, “Hashtag-look-at-me!” Etcetera, etcetera. By the time we went out for the day, the older three were actually calling the four-year-old Hashtag. Talk about Damaging Life Events.

My kids have too many electronic gadgets, are too connected to their ipods/ipads/tv/wii/instagram/internet, and too disconnected from Real Life. I have to remind them daily not to turn on the TV until after dinner, please don’t play Minecraft even if your homework is done, go outside and ride bikes with your brother, it’s a beautiful day! I tell the little one he can watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse after his bath, and at 3.30pm he asks if he can take a bath now.

The kids groan and say, “But Mooom.” Yet with my gentle insistence they slowly venture outside, find the pogo stick and the frisbee, and eventually get up to good, ol’fashioned, outdoor fun (actually, it’s when I yell at the top of my lungs, “DON’T ASK ME AGAIN AND GET OUTSIDE RIGHT NOW” that they hightail it to the basketball hoop).

And now “hashtag” has made its insidious way into even their non-electronic imaginative play. O.M.G. When I hear it, I see Jimmy Fallon and JT’s hilarious Hashtag Sketch – they have an entire conversation using the word “hashtag” accompanied by a hand movement signing a hashtag. It demonstrates how ridiculous we’ve become ascribing all our experiences to a phrase #allinoneword, and also pokes fun at how connected to cyber-world we all need to be. I cried real comedic tears watching my two favorite celebs play that scene, laughing at myself in it all – but now I realize even my baby boy knows what a hashtag is, and also, he taught his preschool teacher how to use her iPhone! Not. That. Funny. Now.

I ban the kids from anything that has a screen for the rest of the day. We go to the beach. They’re still calling J the H-word but at least they are looking into each other’s eyes while they wrestle in the sand and chase seagulls instead of angry birds.

In the afternoon, I receive a text from my friend in Christchurch, New Zealand. She tells me our sons are FaceTiming right now. I heard talking from the boys’ bedroom, but figured it was to each other, not to friends a day away! So much for my screen ban. But I can’t be mad or indignant. My son was crushed when his good friend moved to New Zealand, yet they get to talk to each other every week. And not only talk – interact as if they’re in the same room.

Hashtag

Grandparents live half a world away. Friends come and go. Cousins don’t really know each other. But before my grandmother died, she got to see her youngest grandson on Skype – she never held him in her arms, it’s true, but she saw him move, and open his eyes and she knew what he looked like when he cried and smiled.

My parents and in-laws visit us at least once a year. It’s heartbreaking when they leave. Nothing replaces in-person, physical proximity when it comes to building relationships. On the day of departure, I can’t help but think of our grandparents leaving Lithuania and Latvia in search of better in South Africa, how they left their families behind, really knowing that they would never see them again. And they didn’t.

My kids’ grandparents watch them grow on Skype. We send videos of hip-hop performances and karate gradings. My mother-in-law sends me photos of Jacaranda trees blooming in Johannesburg because she knows how much I adore and miss them. My daughter has been known to text her grandmother in the middle of the night during a sleepover. We feel connected to friends who have moved away, and even to people who live nearby but life is busy and we just don’t get together.

Is it necessary for a preschooler to know how to take photos with an iPhone? Of course not. But how lucky he is to be able to see his Grampa whenever he wants, even though they are continents and time zones and miles apart.

Yes, we are terribly connected to our iDevices – and so are our children. But we are connecting with each other too. I don’t want my son to be known as Hashtag, but #ilove21stcenturycommunication.

Aunts are always awesome

She doesn’t know it yet… I’m going to be her first confidante, her strongest ally, her biggest fan, and the one who takes her to cool rock concerts! When her mom is bugging her, she’ll vent to me. When her dad won’t let her go out with a boy, I’m the one she’ll send the “wtf” text to. I’ll take her shopping and out for lunch, and she’ll drink her first beer with moi.

But for now, she’s two. She lets me pick her up only when her mommy is not around. Which is hardly ever – first-time moms with only one kid don’t let the kid stray too far for too long! When we’re together, she only has eyes for my daughter, and sometimes for my sons. She wants to play with her cousins and chase the dog and draw pictures. And she prefers her Granny to me. For now.

G-d knows I’m not a toddler-whisperer anymore! Having had four of my own, I don’t really ‘do’ two- and three-year-olds these days. I will hold and snuggle a newborn baby (that smells good and has just been burped) for at least an hour – okay 45 minutes – with all the love and patience in the world! Or I’ll gossip about school and friends and irritating brothers with second grade girls at the kitchen table all afternoon.

But two-year-olds… not so much – even if they are related by blood, and have a cute fountain ponytail on the top of their heads. They have no attention span, they throw tantrums, they make a mess, they don’t kiss you when they’re supposed to, and worst of all they need snacks in little tupperwares – I loathe little tupperwares: the lids always go missing and they take up unnecessary room in the fridge.

My sister is an amazing aunt to all ages. She engages her nephews and niece in activities, conversation, fun no matter what. She bakes them cakes on their birthdays, and has instilled a love of art in at least two of them that they never would’ve received otherwise. I’m a reader, not a drawer. They do all love to read. My own aunts are pretty awesome too – one cooks all my favorite dishes whenever I come over, and she and I will share a love of the written word forever.

My mother’s sister is eight years younger than my mom, so she was cool before she even knew she was cool. Actually, she always knew she was cool. She took us shopping for writing paper in an off-beat store in Johannesburg just before the writing paper craze hit third grade. So cool. She showed us how to put on eyeliner – a skill she learnt from watching her sister, our mother, but it was way better when she did it. Friday nights were much more fun when she came over for Shabbat. She listened to me worry about my friends, delighted in my talk about crushes, nursed my broken 16-year-old heart. And she’s still cool. She’s like a mom, but she’s not my mom. She’s my friend-mom. My mom-friend.

Most days I feel like a shitty mom for one reason or another – too impatient, no milk in the fridge, signed the homework without really looking at it – but I’m not a shitty aunt. Oh, I know I’m not super-engaged with my niece right now but she always wants to go to “Nicki’s house.” She can already feel the lure, the promise of fun, the intoxicating appeal of rules bent for a little while. That’s my siren-call. And my rocks are padded. It’s enticing, but still safe.

I don’t have to tell her she can’t have ice cream before dinner. I’m not the one to drag her away from the TV. I don’t care if it’s her nap time now, so we can’t go to the park. We’re going! I have my own kids to create those boundaries for. She is my happy, jump-on-the-bed, no-rules-for-now kid. She’s mine, but she’s not mine.

stella

I don’t have the attention span right now to chase after a two-year-old, but when she throws her little arms around my neck for the briefest of hugs I feel the promise of the years to come. “Nicki,” she says, with a little smile on her lips. She’s precious in her not-mineness – she trusts me completely, knows I’m not her mommy but I sound like her mom, and for a moment she buries her face in my neck. I feel like hers, and she feels like mine.

I lift her up with her belly on my legs, and she holds her arms out for just a few seconds before grabbing my hands again… the two of us engaged in a perfect balancing act of laughter and boundless flight.