Friday, July 23, 2010

Drop and Roll

Nicole set herself on fire yesterday. Over the last year, she has begged to take on more duties in the kitchen, graduating from mixing and measuring to working with the oven and more recently the stove. Mac and cheese has become her signature recipe, with variations added each time she makes it as she tries to expand her repertoire of recipes. But yesterday, while making ice cream, she wanted to take on the job of stirring the milk mixture in the pan while it cooked on the stove. I hesitated for a moment, but since she has been boiling the noodles for pasta for months now, I didn’t see the harm in letting her stir while the pan was over an open flame.

As she stirred, I insisted that she hold the pan so that she didn’t accidentally knock the mixture off the stove and onto herself. Having done that once when I was younger, I remember being so thankful that I had decided to wear jeans that day and that the pot of hot cream sauce hit my pants and not my bare skin. But since that day, my rule has always been, hold onto a pot when you’re stirring it. But the pot handle was hot, so Nicole used an oven mitt so that she wouldn’t have to touch the pot handle directly. I turned my back for a second to get another ingredient and that’s when it happened. And it happened very quickly.

I smelled it first – it was like the faint smell of bad incense. But then the smell grew more intense. I turned around and saw that the oven mitt Nicole was still holding in her hand was on fire. The odd thing is, she continued stirring, not realizing that it was burning. I couldn’t even speak – it seemed to happen so fast. A thousand thoughts raced through my brain in an instant…Fire, fire, fire, get it out of her hand, don’t let the pan spill on her, don’t let her hair catch on fire. I think I yelled. I’m not even sure. I know I kept saying, “The mitt, the mitt…” unable to form a full sentence. As I was babbling, I reached for the mitt, trying to take it out of her hand, but since she didn’t realize it was on fire- because she was looking at her mother going beserk instead of looking at her hand- she pulled her hand, with the burning mitt on it, away from me, trying to keep me from taking it away from her. She pulled the mitt back towards her shoulder, setting her shirt on fire.

At that point, I started hitting her arm, trying to squelch the flame, then the fire drill practice I’d been taught in second grade kicked into gear and I threw her onto the floor and started rolling her around. It was all I could remember them telling us to do as a kid, “Don’t run if you’re on fire, it will only make the flame grow. Fall to the ground and roll.” So that’s what we did. Natalie walked into the kitchen to see what all the commotion was about and saw Nicole and I rolling on the floor, trying to put out the fire on Nicole's shirt sleeve.

It was over in a second. The mitt was totaled. Nicole’s shirt slightly singed. Nicole is perfectly fine. The funny thing was, she didn’t even realize she was on fire. She thought I was jumping on her and couldn’t figure out why. I couldn't stop shaking. Even after it was all over and everything was fine, I had to sit down because my legs were shaking and I didn't let on how upset I still was thinking about what could have happened.

When we told my husband the story at dinner later that night, Nicole proudly showing him her shirt and the burned oven mitt, David looked at me and said, “You tried to put out the fire by rolling around on the WOOD floor?” Maybe he has a point. I don’t know. In an emergency, you act by instinct. Hopefully, that instinct is correct.

Natalie listened while Nicole finished telling what happened, finally interrupting to say, “After all that, that ice cream better be good.” She’s right, it better be.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Brain Drain

I want my pre-baby brain back. The brain that could remember a list of things that had more than two items on it. The brain that could remember the names of people I met for longer than ten seconds. The brain that wouldn’t force me to stop mid-sentence because I had completely lost my train of thought. I want the brain that allowed me to explore theories, understand the intricacies of language and behavior, and vigorously debate my passions with facts and figures that I had stored in my head. Instead, I struggle to remember my children’s names. I look one of them in the face and call them by the other’s name. I’ve started doing it with colleagues as well. Last week, I called a woman I was working with by the wrong name, not once, not twice, but three times in the same conversation. She probably thought there was something in my coffee until I told her that I did the same thing to my kids. She said, “Yeah, my mother did that, too.”

So it is parenting that has sucked my brain dry. I don’t know if there is any scientific research to support that conclusion. I don’t really care if there is. Anecdotally, everyone who has a parent and then became a parent knows that it is true. I used to HATE it when my mother and father called me by any name but my own. My father would call me Shirley (my mother), Karen (my cousin), Brian (my brother), before finally getting to me. I used to think that they should just rename me Shirkarian and make it easier on themselves. My mother was no better and I could see the frustration in her face as she looked at me, wanted to call me by name, but couldn’t find the name in her brain even though I was her own daughter. I vowed I would never, ever do that to my children. And then I did. When it first happened, I laughed, thinking it was just an occasional lapse in memory or that my mind was moving so quickly in an effort to get a thought out that I didn’t see it as an ongoing problem. But it was. I did it more and more. My husband does it, too. Not only were we becoming our parents, we were developing their feeble brains as well. David and I tried to turn it into a joke. Now, when we call a child by the wrong name, we follow it up with the name of someone who isn’t in our family. So if we call Natalie by Nicole’s name, we say, “Natalie…Stuart Murray, whatever your name is…” It’s become a running family joke which always makes our kids giggle and hopefully they won’t hate us for not being able to remember their names until one day they grow up and find that they are doing it themselves.

I like to think that the brain drain happens because parenting is the last straw before your body decides that you have taken on too much in life and something has to give - that something being your razor sharp memory and clear thinking. Once you become a parent, the number of things you have to think about, big and small, multiply exponentially, and your brain just decides, “I’m done.” I began to suspect that was the case when the naming issue developed into the inability to say the appropriate word in the heat of the moment. It first happened one morning while rushing to get the kids dressed and off to school. I had been up since 4am, on a conference call back east at 5, wrote a few notes until 6 and then starting the wakingthemupgettingthemdressedpackinglunchesfeedingthembreakfast routine. In the middle of trying to get a shirt that was obviously too small for her over Natalie’s head -because she insisted that at age 7 she could get one last wearing out of a size 4 shirt - Nicole ran into the room, frantically trying to tell me about something that was anything but urgent. Finally, I blew up at her and instead of yelling, “Go in the other room and brush your teeth,” I said, struggling to complete my thought, “Go in the other room and BREATHE!” Later, after both girls had recovered from laughing at me for misspeaking, Natalie came up beside me, patted me on the shoulder and said, “Poor mommy, she’s losing her mind one piece at a time.”

Maybe Natalie was right about me losing my mind. Sometimes, particularly when names and words escape me, I wonder if I didn’t have a nervous breakdown but somehow I was too busy to notice. I hoped it was something dramatic like that, rather than just admitting that parenting had in some ways left my brain depleted. The breaking point came when I felt embarrassed recently because someone asked me what the last book was that I read which wasn’t something I had to read for work. I struggled to remember and couldn’t, finally blaming it on my drained brain.

So a few months ago I started a concerted effort to exercise my brain by going back to doing the intellectual things I loved to do but put aside in favor of the more immediate needs of parenting, work and family. I have a 94 year old cousin whose mind is sharper than most twentysomethings, who swears by the crossword puzzles she’s been playing daily since she retired over thirty years ago. The women on my block with older children are devoted to their book club and read things that don’t have to do with parenting or self help. Several couples we know make it a habit to go to concerts and lectures once a month. My friend whose daughter is about to go to college has returned to reading the newspaper from front to back every day. I remember doing all of those things, but it seems like a lifetime ago. And in many ways it was.

In the past few months I’ve been to three plays – Cousin Bette, King Lear and In the Heights. I had only been to the theater periodically in the last nine years of raising children and going again felt like I was exercising my brain. Trying to remember how to listen to Shakespearean language alone was a real brain twister. I actually felt more alive and more stimulated by seeing the plays than I have by anything in ages. After one of the shows, I drove my friend home and we sat in the car and discussed the themes in the drama and how they related to our own, infinitely more simple lives. I confessed to her how I was finally feeling like I was coming out from under the fog which I feel has been clouding my brain since the day I left Cedars with a newborn in a car seat. Maybe I will be able to look my children in the face and call them by the correct names one day soon! I hugged my friend and as she started to get out of the car, I said goodnight, unfortunately, calling her Nicole.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Meaning of Things

I sometimes forget that children are born without knowledge. Everyday, they acquire information through experience. They form impressions, develop understanding and attach meaning based on sensory information, social involvement and direct and indirect teaching. It is an acquisition of knowledge that is constant, rapid and in some ways so subtle, that it is easy to forget that it is going on until you probe deeper to see what is being learned. The process of attaching meaning to things struck me like a stray firecracker last week when we took our daughters to Tucson for the Fourth of July. Given my previous rants about Arizona and my strong feelings about their immigration law, I went with great trepidation. But my husband’s band was performing there and rather than have him drive the 14 hours round trip on his own, we tossed the entire crew in the car and went.

As we walked around the neighborhood near the hotel and observed preparations for the evening fireworks display, my kids talked excitedly about America’s birthday party. Their conversation made me wonder exactly what they thought the celebration was about.

“America’s turning another year older,” is what my seven year old said, lamenting the fact that there was no birthday cake involved in this party.

My older daughter added with the certainty and wisdom that only a nine year old can have when trumping their younger sibling, “It’s a celebration of our country’s independence.”

I asked them who we were trying to be independent from and they both looked at me, confused, knowing they should know the answer, but realizing in that moment that it was a fact they just didn’t have in their heads. Then the wild guessing began.

“Independence from George Washington!” Natalie shouted.

“No, don’t be silly,” Nicole said, dismissing Natalie’s theory for her own. “Europe. Independence from Europe.”

Well, at least she got the continent right. David and I gave them a mini history lesson, which I swear we have given them every year prior on the same day to explain the same holiday. But for some reason the fireworks and pool parties which have come to dominate the celebration made more of an impression in their memory than the story of a bunch of guys in white wigs back in 1776, sitting around a table and signing a document saying that they no longer wanted anything to do with an English king and his increasingly unfair tax codes.

But what the exchange reminded me, other than the need to watch more programming on the history channel, was that kids get meaning from what they see around them and unless we give context to the meaning, they can go on for years, for lifetimes with impressions and ideas which neither inform or serve them well.

We were at a movie screening recently and a father with his two young children in tow, was trying to get into the event early to get the best seats, even though his wife, who had the screening passes to get them inside, was still parking the car. After being told that he needed the passes to enter, the father became angry and started swearing at the usher, eventually bullying his way in after using a few unprintable words. It was bad enough that his own children had to witness his behavior, but I didn’t appreciate mine being subjected to it as well. I know what I thought about pushy dad, but I wondered what meaning they attached to the incident. My older kid, knowing better, but also catching the disapproving mom look on my face, talked about how and why his behavior was bad – the curse words he used, breaking the rules for his own purposes, being impatient and rude. But my younger daughter pointed out that he got what he wanted while we were still waiting outside of the theater. She learned from his bad behavior that if you act up, you get what you want. That was the meaning she walked away with from the experience. She saw the exchange in a completely different light, in a way that makes perfect sense for a young child, but in a way that if I hadn’t corrected her impression, would have been behavior that she would have thought was acceptable and adopted as her own.

Both incidents reminded me of the tremendous responsibility that we have as parents to give background and meaning to what our children experience in the world around them so that they grow up with a deeper knowledge and understanding of things and the ability to be open minded, interpret interactions and ascribe their own moral and ethical compass to them. And if we don’t, I guess we can be like the mom I heard the other day on the news. Trying to explain away her son’s fifteen years of criminal activity, she finally threw up her hands and said, “Well, I did the best I could.” In the end, I guess that’s all any of us can do.