Way hard

A friend of mine with children almost the same age as mine responded in her jounral to the question, “How is it with two?” meaning, two children. I read the entire posting with a grim, knowing smile, my head nodding up and down like a jester toy on a spring. Her bottom line answer is the same as mine – “Way hard” though Dawn bears the brunt of it.

The English speaking world has not lived in extended families for generations. Our language lacks words for relationships that are valued in other cultures, but I think we are moving in that direction. I was thinking of my step-mother-in-law.

She raised four boys in the rural west and has helped out with numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She is nuts about babies and children in the same way certain men are nuts about cars and guns. Her experienced opinion was that two children is as hard as it gets. Or rather, after the second child you can have as many as you want because “it don’t get no harder.” She told us this after Samuel was already born, so this was nerither useful nor comforting information. We had already decided to stop at two.

It is not just way hard. It’s way rewarding. It is also a fascinating education. I’m especially aware of several lessons I never knew I would learn.

The first is that children have unending needs and wants, and I am learning to differentiate between the two. Children will commandeer all your available time if you let them. Consequently I have become far more efficient with my time than I have ever been in my life, and have whittled my extra-curricular activities to a smaller set of the highest priorities than I thought possible.

The second is that children are inherently selfish and know how to push buttons without even trying. I have watched my older child, when told “No” once too often, fall into a mass of loud, flailing limbs in the most inconvenient, public places. That’s usually where I am doing the worst job of meeting her needs. I have observed my fifteen month old son studying her at these times with an alarming intensity. Just today, Rose screamed “NO! NEVER! NEVER EVER EVER!” before stomping into her room, and Samuel turned to Dawn and said with a happy, proud smile on face, “Doh! Dever!”

The third lesson is that my mellow, non-judgmental, pacifist outlook on life is a poor sham. Burrowing underneath my staid exterior is a volatile array of anger, frustration, and disappointment. This is a positive if embarassing thing. As a bearer of an over valued Y chromosome, I have discovered a wider range of emotions than society usually permits me. It forces me to choose most every day whether I still want to practice being a better person or not. Life isn’t over at middle age in this regard.

The fourth and most important lesson is something I could have learned from the CIA if I had been paying attention. The quickest way to alter a person’s behavior, get under their skin, and ultimately have them begging for mercy is sleep-deprivation. Unlike many parents we know, Dawn and I are pretty much on our own, though fortunately we have each other. There are no cavalry of grandparents five minutes down the road, or even five days for that matter. At the time Samuel was born, we were relatively new to town and had little opportunity to meet people since I worked at home and Dawn was and is a fulltime Mom. We are on call 24/7, Dawn more so than me since I must work my forty hours and occasionally take business trips.

Today, for the very first time ever in his fifteen and half months of life, our Samuel fell asleep by himself. The entire family was having lunch when Dawn quietly called my name and pointed at him. I looked up from my grilled cheese in time to catch his eyelids slowly lower and his body slump sideways into the enclosing plastic arms of the high chair. It was adorable and precious, but there was also a thick overlay of Redemption. It was well past time for him to do this. He often falls asleep fairly easily, but never by himself before. Perhaps his two and a half hour screaming performance in the middle of last night had something to do with it, but (and this is the crucial point) this is not an unusual occurrence for him. Usually he splits his nighttime waking into several smaller chunks rather than a single extended performance.

Rose was different. When Rose was a baby, she slept deeply but getting her down to sleep was a major endeavor. I remember months of dark Alaska winter evenings, long hours spent leaning over the crib railing patting Rose’s back, avoiding eye contact, and laying her down each time she stood up. The crib railing was low enough for me to accomplish these maneuvers, but only just, which put the greatest possible strain on my middle back. Imagine leaning over a post office counter to lift up and flip over a wiggling, twenty-pound package. Gift wrap a raccoon, try to mail it at your local post office, and you’ll have a sense of what I mean.

When Rose’s breathing quieted and her fingers stopped twitching, I would sit on a pillow placed on the carpet next to the crib for just this purpose. I would count my breaths to ten and if she hadn’t woken herself up again, I could leave the room. Then Dawn and I could get a reasonable eight hours of sleep ourselves.

True family story: When my oldest brother Jon was a baby and an only child, living in an apartment in New York, my father came into his room one night when he was asleep. By accident, Dad knocked the crib, and Jon stirred in his sleep. More resourceful than graceful, Dad jumped into the closet and quietly closed the door, hoping that Jon would get himself back down. He might have succeeded but unfortunately Mom chose this moment to retrieve something from that same closet. She saw the silhouette of some large, mysterious, heavily breathing creature, and her panicked scream brought nap time to a crashing halt.

When Samuel came along, we mistakenly assumed the second child would be similar. We were not prepared at all for Mr. Wake-Up-Four-Times-A-Night-And-Party-Party-Party. He fell asleep easily enough, but for the first year of his life, he woke two to four times a night. Even today he will still wake once in the middle of the night as often as not. The only other parent I know with such a child is fond of saying, “You’ll notice we didn’t have a second [child].”

There were many reasons for his waking. Certainly hunger, wet diapers, and creaking furniture were all culprits at various times. He also had numerous food allergies that gave him blood in his stool and made his bottom sore, but eventually Dawn sorted those out through a meticulous elimination diet. He started teething early and incredibly slowly. Some teeth popped out in a couple days, but most have literally taken months. We have no air conditioning, so during the sweltering weeks of summer (as in right now) we keep the windows open at night which lets in all the neighborhood noise and the occasional whiff of nocturnal skunk. There was a bout of anemia that took a while to diagnose. His first winter, Rose brought home lots of colds and viruses from her Montessori pre-school, which he lapped up like fresh milk to a kitten. He got a chronic ear infection that prevented him sleeping for more than three hours at a time until we had tubes put in his ears. In short, he was a light sleeper assailed by the forces of nature, with parents too sleep-deprived to figure out his needs in a timely manner, and too committed to “Attachment Parenting” to let him cry himself to sleep.

Despite all this, he was and is as strong as an ox. Whenever he is bored at mealtimes, he bend spoons. The metal and plastic ones stick out at odd angles like compound fractures. The silicone spoons bend more easily but do not stay bent. Samuel quickly learned that if he bent them all the way in half and stuck it in his mouth over his erupting teeth, it brought him some relief. At least until they sprang out and smacked us in the side of our heads. He has ripped out our hair, mangled our glasses, and left pinching bruises during hugs. And at the same time, he is perky, perky, perky! One of his earliest words was “Happy!” The nurses at the doctors office have nicknamed him “Smiley Boy,” which, considering how often they see him, is a strange comment on both his disposition and constitution.

Rose, now four years old, is no dummy. It quickly became clear to her that Samuel was getting the lion’s share of attention, because his needs were greater. She knows Samuel is not to blame for this. She loves him, plays with him, gives him hugs, makes him laugh, sings him songs she has invented like, “Baby Sam is a Merry-O.” The only time she gets upset with him is when he takes her toys, especially the discarded ones she has abandoned, forgotten, on the floor. But even this angst is diminishing as her understanding of basic Capitalism has grown. Like the European settlers who purchased Manhattan Island from the natives with beads and trinkets, she knows that Samuel’s scheme of Relative Worth is different than hers, and she can usually arrange a swap.

On the other hand, whenever she feels truly left out of the Katinsky family community, she has developed increasingly sophisticated methods for getting our attention. It involves an unpredictable mix of tantrums, toileting accidents, nightmares, non-cooperation, and selective hearing and amnesia. It is not a crude and constant barrage, oh no, no, no, no, no, no! She is a Professional! She paces herself with an uncanny ability to predict which technique will most push our buttons the hardest at any given moment.

I exaggerate of course, but perhaps you can forgive a father’s pride in her daughter’s accomplishments. In my calmer moments, when I reflect on those relatively few difficult times of the day, I am fascinated by her advanced coping skills, her creative problem solving, and her command of human psychology.