Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Weekend Getaway

Weekend Getaway

I have banked so much PTO this year that, if I play my cards right, I may not have to work a 5-day week all summer long (though my boss may have something to say about that). Last week I took a few days off so Chef and I could take the kids to the Children's Discovery Museum in Sausalito, which is now featuring an elaborate Sesame Street 30th Anniversary exhibit. We could simply have driven there from home, as we have done many times, but I thought it would be fun to spend the night in Marin for a couple of days, just to have a change of scenery and feel like we were really on vacation.

I booked reservations at the Novato Travelodge, figuring we just needed an inexpensive place to crash. On the website, it looked like a cozy white inn surrounded by greenery, with a sparkling blue swimming pool. In reality it was a dingy, unkempt building next to a lumberyard, with a few sorry-looking trees planted here and there. Looking back, I really should have upgraded to at least a Best Western or Holiday Inn or something - at least a place with decent linens instead of those threadbare, washcloth-sized ones you inevitably get at lower-end motels. But it was probably just as well, anyway, because the moment we walked inside the kids began trashing the room like a tiny little rock band. They ripped the styrofoam coffee cups to shreds, flung the stir sticks gleefully in the air, and tore open all the sugar packets so it looked as though we'd all been snorting coke for days.

The museum was wonderful, as always. The exhibit was housed in one of the old army buildings, where they essentially rebuilt a replica of the Sesame Street Set. The kids could climb up the stairs of the 123 Sesame apartment building, sit in Big Bird's nest, or relax in Gina's Day Care. They could watch themselves on a TV monitor with Elmo, play Sesame computer games, or watch classic segments in the mini-movie theater. What they liked even better, though, was the new outdoor play area, built to resemble a woodland habitat. There were animal sculptures to climb on, tunnels to crawl through, a teepee made of sticks to hide in, and best of all - at the top of the hill, a redwood puppet ampitheater with tree-stump seats and a plethora of plush animals - beavers, owls, woodchucks, bear cubs - to perform with.

The kids romped and played all day, until Bee practically collapsed in my arms, and then we drove to Mollie Stones and ate sandwiches and heirloom tomato salad in the car while she slept peacefully in her car seat. I even got Bug to eat the upscale organic alternative to those Oscar Meyer convenience lunches - meatless turkey slices, vegan string cheese, and Oreo-style cookies made from wheat flour and evaporated cane juice.

Saturday we had the most wonderful breakfast at the Easy Street cafe in San Anselmo. The coffee was strong, the Crab Cake Benedict was outstanding, and most importantly, the restaurant had a built-in playhouse in the corner, where the kids happily entertained themselves, leaving Chef and I to enjoy a rare hot meal with no kids in our laps.

Of course, little things went wrong here and there - we got stuck in traffic coming back from Sausalito, the crummy motel was further away than I realized, the kids were so rambunctious at Jennie Low's the first night that we had to eat most of our dinner while shivering on the stoop outside, watching the kids run up and down the sidewalk pretending to be airplanes. But in the end none of that really mattered, just like it didn't matter that our room in Downieville was so small the bed hardly fit, or that we couldn't get tickets to the holiday ice show when we stayed in Guerneville last winter.

What we will remember - and what I hope Bug and Bee will remember - is a joyful, relaxing time spent being a family.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

The Mommy Myth

Ever since I read this book I have been quoting it ad nauseum. I knew I would love it as soon as I read an interview with the author on Salon, so when my Bitch Magazine arrived shortly afterwards with an article on the book, I ordered a copy the very next day. In short, the book is about how the media have idealized motherhood in a way that makes the average mom among us (especially those of us who dare to admit that we don't absolutely relish the experience one hundred percent of the time) feel hopelessly inadequate.

I have never considered myself a completely unquestioning consumer of popular culture, so some of the points were not new to me. For example, I ALWAYS roll my eyes whenever I read yet another gushing "celebrity mom" profile, knowing that I, too, could appear well-rested and attractive - even sexy - while waxing beatifically about the profound joys of parenthood, if only I had a SWAT team of nannies and maids and stylists and personal assistants and the endless budget to cover them. When you have to run frantically around the house each morning, corralling the kids and shoving oatmeal into them and changing diapers and hoping they will stay glued to their Wee Sing video long enough for you to brush your teeth and throw your wet hair in a scrunchie so you will meet a minimum standard of presentatibility for your monotonous 9 to 5 job, it does take a bit of the glamour away from the experience.

But the overall message of the book - that there are more pressures on mothers in our society than ever before - really struck a cord. It seems that, no matter what you do, it is never enough. If you work to keep a roof over your kids' heads, you are neglectful, selfish and materialistic. If your kids have enough food to eat, you still need to question whether you are trying hard enough to provide nourishment which is nutritious, organic and doesn't contain too many additives or refined sugars, or else you are personally contributing to the epidemic of childhood obesity. You can buy the best car seat on the market, but chances are you haven't installed it properly. You can vaccinate your kids, but you will be accused of putting them at risk for autism by being an unthinking pawn of the medical industry. Or you can choose NOT to vaccinate them, but then you will be charged with placing your children and all others around them in danger of contracting of a fatal disease because of an unsubstantiated (and scientifically discredited) theory. And on and on and on, until you can drive yourself crazy questioning every decision you make.

Mostly I try to take the common sense approach that there are as many ways to parent as there are parents, with no objective "right" method. Still, it is sometimes hard for me not to feel sheepish when J's daughter Peanut clamors loudly for broccoli and green beans while Bee regularly asks for hot dogs and ketchup (often washed down with a couple of cookies). And sure, I cringe a bit when I hear that Peanut has never watched television - in comparison, Bee can instantly identify Dora and Boots, name every character on Sesame Street, and even correctly pick out the "cuuuutte!" Wiggle.

But I guess J. is affected by the Mommy Myth too, even though from my perspective she embodies so many qualities of the "ideal mom" I find so hard to live up to - she quit her job to stay home with the baby, did natural childbirth, and - most amazingly - provides stimulating activities for Peanut above and beyond sticking her in front of the television. I loaned her the book last week, and yesterday she called me raving about it - she has bookmarked numerous pages with Post-it notes, typed out lengthy passages to post on her moms' forum, and is planning to buy her own copy so she can mark it up with highlights and return to it again and again. I guess I will have to let her on to my secret antidote to the often overwhelming pressures of being a mom . . . Erma Bombeck, a mother much more like me.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Bug Says His Blessings

I decided to start saying prayers with Bug before bed. It isn't really because of any newfound religious fervor, though I do think that it is a nice way to end the day, with a traditional blessing and good thoughts about loved ones. Rather, I am hoping the whole bedtime process will be smoother if we have a simple, consistent routine to follow. And just as Bug gets very excited whenever we say the Hamotzi each Friday at Shabbat dinner, knowing that my mom's famous fresh-baked challah will be served immediately after, I hope that the very sound of the Shema will become synonymous with deep, restful sleep each night.

To make the process a little more meaningful, I added some prayers at the end for his family and friends. This is how it went:

Me: God bless Mommy and Daddy.

Bug: Blah Blah Mommy an' Daddy.

Me: (enunciating) GOD. BLESS. Baby Bee.

Bug: BLAH. BLAH. Bay-ee Bee.

Me: (attempting to keep from laughing) Okay, try to pronounce it with me. GOD! BLESS! Grandma and Grandpa.

Bug: (trying very hard) BLAH! BLEH! Gamma an' Grappa.

Me: Oookay. Should we say a blessing for anyone else?

Bug: Hmmmm . . . Ernie an' Bert!

Because Muppets have needs too!

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

School Daze

I am still having trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that, come September, I will have one child in nursery school and one in kindergarten.

For a while now I have been very torn about Bug's placement for next year. I always thought that when he reached school age, I would be 100% in favor of mainstreaming him completely into a regular classroom. But with the school year just a few months away, I started to have my doubts. His birthday is in November, which means he just *barely* meets the cutoff for kindergarten, and even without the Down Syndrome I would be concerned about sending him to school at such a young age. As it is, I fear he would be lost in a class of typical 5-year-olds even if the school provided a full-time aide.

When it comes to decisions like this, it is so hard to separate my gut feeling about what is best for my son from my heart-wrenching apprehension about letting him take his first tentative steps into the real world. Would his needs really be best served in a special day class tailored to his skill level, or would he be more challenged and inspired by his typical peers in a regular classroom? Am I truly making the best choice by keeping him in special education, or am I just chickening out of fighting the powers that be within the school system? Is it okay to pick the option I think is most appropriate for him RIGHT NOW, or am I dooming him to be shuffled through a completely segregated track for the next twelve years?

Last week I visited the new school he is assigned to, and met with the teacher and the principal. I have to admit, I liked what I saw and heard. Woodside Elementary is a regular public school in a quiet, leafy suburban neighborhood not far from our home. There are bright, colorful play structures outside and cheerful murals in the hallway. Bug's class will have nine students in all (including his best friend from his current school) and four aides. The curriculum includes a strong emphasis on basic reading and math skills, like counting and letters and word recognition, with lots of time for stories and music and dancing and messy crafts projects. The students join the other first grade classes for P.E., music, recess, art and library time, and both the teacher and the principal assured me that, should we desire even more mainstreaming for Bug, they will arrange for him to participate in additional scheduled activities with the regular kindergarten class.

I am sure there are those who think I am selling out by not demanding full inclusion from the start, but I am comfortable with my choice. When it comes right down to it, I don't want to spend all my energy fighting for Bug to be stuck in an understaffed and overcrowded class of 30+ kids when, instead, he can have what every parent dreams of - a small class with loads of personal attention and a individualized lesson plan that is written specifically to address his academic goals and learning style.

I am all for inclusion, but to me - that has to mean real, meaningful inclusion in every sense of the word. I have no doubt that Bug could learn to sit quietly and behave himself and appear as though he belongs in a regular kindergarten class - but will the other kids play with him at recess and invite him to their birthday parties? Will the teacher call on him and challenge him and make sure he participates fully in class? I can't be sure of that - but I DO know that in Mrs. Fong's class next year he will be totally accepted by his fellow students, he will have solid goals he is expected to meet (and will experience a real sense of pride when he does achieve them) and he will have plenty of staff and faculty to help him focus on the little things - hanging up his backpack, tying his shoes, making straight lines with a crayon - that a busy, harried teacher might overlook.

I still think that Bug can and does benefit from lots of inclusion with his peers, and that is why I am trying to make sure he participates in Sunday School and summer camp and outings to the park and the zoo and frequent play dates with our friends and their kids. Maybe I will hit upon the perfect combination - or maybe there is no perfect, right-or-wrong answer, just a mom doing the best she can.