I love Christmas. Or, if we’re being technical about it, I love the Christmas season. Christmas itself is like the sparkly royal icing on a really well-made sugar cookie. Or maybe it’s more like an extremely good piece of peppermint bark, since everyone knows deep in their heart that sugar cookies kind of suck.

Now that I’m a mother, I have a brand-new appreciation for this time of year. Yes, watching Aura painstakingly unwrap every present in her stocking is camera-worthy. Of course listening to her make up her own never-ending lyrics to the tune of “Jingle Bells” is worth the price of admission. But what I’m really talking about are THE OPTIONS. Man. You can spend every single day of the Christmas season doing a new activity and never once hit up the Rainforest Café or the H1N1-ridden children’s room in the library or the toy section of the Dollar Tree. There are tree-lighting ceremonies, holiday-themed storytimes, crappy craft fair upon crappy craft fair–it’s like a never-ending parade of pine-scented events. And that, folks, is the true meaning of Christmas: ways to burn time.

Exhibit #1: Hanging garland on mailbox. If one is armed with the proper plastic tool, this activity can take at least 10 minutes. Maybe 12.

This may not seem like much to parents who work outside the home (although I know you all definitely have a deep appreciation of the subject on weekends), but to stay-at-home parents, discovering new reasons for getting out of the house and away from the morning’s ninth game of Chutes and Ladders is like crack. Really good crack, I imagine. Like if this was TV, you’d be buying it from the astonishingly good-looking drug dealer in the VIP section of the club, not the skeezy guy on the corner near the car wash. That’s how good.

Anyway. Moving on.

I discovered all this last year, when Aura and I began what I like to think back on as the Month of What It is Surely Like in Hell, or At Least the Really Undesirable Section of Purgatory. Shortly after Thanksgiving 2008, Aura and I came down with raging colds and prolonged cases of pink eye. Just for fun I also developed an inner-ear infection, whose single redeeming factor was that I could totally gross out strangers with its existence.  Before that, I had no idea how easy it is to freak out a grocery-store cashier. You mention “rupture” and “eardrum” in the same sentence and it’s like every single person in a Stop & Shop apron goes pasty. This is very satisfying when they’ve forgotten to scan your frequent-shopper card again. Makes you forget all about the knives stabbing you in the ear.

We interrupt for Exhibit #2: Shopping for and buying holiday socks. Easily takes up another 20 minutes, maybe 25 if you suggest putting on the good patent-leather shoes, too.

Between the two of us, Aura and I were pretty much blind and deaf for two-thirds of December. Yet we adjusted. Though it frustrated her, Aura got used to yelling into my good ear. I slowly became accustomed to wearing glasses instead of contacts, albeit glasses with a prescription four years out of date. Most days we weren’t fit for hobnobbing with others, so every fever-free evening I would plunk Aura in her car seat and we would drive around for an hour, trying to spot new Christmas light displays. It was a merry time, Aura announcing inflatable snowmen at top volume in the direction of my right ear, me weaving on the road, squinting wildly so as not to hit any carolers.

On days when we were feeling particularly frisky and non-contagious, Aura and I would truck on over to Target, where we would ooh and aah over the displays of moving wicker reindeer and point out the artificial Christmas trees we would have bought if Daddy hadn’t been so cheap and insisted on the shortish one with wonky boughs. Then we’d head to a nearby ice-cream shop and take out heaping cups of peppermint-stick ice cream.

It was during these quiet, nearly blind times that I began to fully appreciate the depth and breadth of the Christmas season.  So much to do! So much to experience together! If only we weren’t walking, breathing clouds of plague!

And so, in the throes of a rare spell of non-preschool-tainted good health, I enter Christmas Season 2009 with high hopes. Perhaps a little too high, since I believe Aura and I are scheduled to witness 12 tree lightings and pay visits to approximately 36 mall Santas. Such carousing will no doubt tax our immune systems to the brink. But, hey, we have all of January to lie in bed.

Exhibit #3: Riding the Holiday Express, aka decked-out commuter rail train. Meeting Elmo and then talking about it gets you 60 minutes minimum.

There’s nothing like having a child to make you suddenly aware of all your weaknesses, failings, and general inaptitude for being a human being. Yes, I know that everyone is tasked with a few bad habits. In Aura’s case, it’s the constant evaluation of the cleanliness of the ground around her. She can spot a dust bunny five rooms away, an errant piece of sock lint from thirty yards. It can be disconcerting, leading a person to develop a Dustbuster dependence that will surely and eventually lead to tequila shots at breakfast.  And don’t even get me started on parking lots. I can’t count how many times I’ve found myself splayed face-first on asphalt because Aura pulled up short while holding my hand to pick up random litter. I tell you, I am practically hoarse from screaming “Not that filthy napkin! Please, NOT THE DISCARDED HYPODERMIC NEEDLE!”

As if it's my fault the floor is rife with PixOs. Who invented PixOs, anyway? I'd like to track them down and, um, converse with them firmly.

And then there’s Adam. His cocktail habit (making them, not necessarily drinking them, although he’s pretty good at that, too) is completely destroying my kitchen organization plan.  (You know, the one in which I imagine tidy cabinets and then wish really, really hard for them to happen.) He now has so many bottles of esoteric rums and vermouth that the essential stuff is being shoved aside to make space. Sometimes I swear I can hear the flour canister muttering to the boxes of pasta, plotting unspeakable revenge on the encroaching bourbons. One of these days it will get bloody, I fear.

I could fit at least 50 boxes of Reduced Fat Devil Dogs in this half of the cabinet alone.

But I’m the one brimming over with non-commendable behaviors.  Some habits are minor and rather inconsequential. I often speak at warp speed.  I have a sweet tooth that could crush Manhattan and my Diet Coke habit just can’t be healthy. And I’m obsessive about laundry.  Other habits are the kind I’d rather jump into oncoming traffic than inspire Aura to mimic. For one, I worry way too much, often overprioritizing the smallest of stuff. I can be judgmental, overly sarcastic.  The list goes on.

I’m working on remedying all of these things, but hoo boy, this maternal determination thing is FATIGUING. Some habit-breaking promises have turned out better than others, though.  One day, as I was filing Aura’s  tiny fingernails, I laughed and showed her how much longer her nails were than mine. When she asked me why this was, I told her, a little sheepishly, that I bit my nails.  When she then asked me why that was, I paused. How do you tell your adoring three-year-old that you gnaw your fingernails because it’s the best way you know of to deal with stress over work and commitments and family and embarrassing episodes of “The Office”? That they’re bitten to the quick because you sometimes get terrified of the what-ifs?

So I didn’t tell her any of that.  I just made her a promise, then and there in her fairy-themed bedroom, that I would try to have nice nails, too. And you know what? I’m doing pretty well. I have my moments of weakness (the combination of the upcoming holiday and a weekend screening of “New Moon” did not help) but I have yet to nibble off an entire nail. I’m not convinced that having actual thumbnails also means that I am learning to be a calmer soul, but I figure it’s a step in the right direction.

Of course, there was another part of the promise. I told Aura that once my nails were long enough, we’d both get manicures. I already have alarming visions of fidgeting and poison glares from nail technicians and possibly the largest spill of glitter nail polish any salon has ever seen.

But I refuse to worry about it.

The Second-Child Decision

November 19, 2009

When I was a wee whippersnapper, I daydreamed complex fantasies in which I was not an only child. Instead, I had two siblings. The first was a strapping older brother who would surely introduce me to his handsome friends once I got to high school. I think maybe he could fly, too. I also was blessed with a delightful older sister, a girl whose laugh was like the gentle yet powerful tinkling of a fountain (think Rainbow Brite mixed with a little She-Ra, Princess of Power), who would braid my hair with unconditional love and smooth my foray into seventh grade.

Instead I had a dog, a terrier mix positively overflowing with unconditional love who nonetheless chewed my glasses almost beyond repair. Needless to say, wearing duct-taped glasses is not an entrée to the In Crowd.

Over the years, I adjusted the dream. If I was not to have brothers or sisters, my children would.  It would be shoulder-to-shoulder in my house, the children (all ruddy-cheeked and delirious with siblinghood) merrily fighting over turns in the bathroom and the chance to help Mommy wipe down the kitchen counters. To be clear, each child would have no need whatsoever for orthodontia and would excel at academics, sports, and the creative arts. If one fell a little short of expectations, I would simply sell him or her.

I harbored the Five Kids or Bust! dream well into adulthood. As my immediate family grew smaller and smaller, the idea of a full house retained its appeal. I wanted a packed dining room on holidays, complete with mini-wreath napkin holders and tastefully mismatched candles in varying heights. (I get a lot of catalogs.)

MarthaStewart.com swears that I can whip this up in seconds.

Then I got pregnant. As it was, Adam lost the power of speech for five full days after I showed him the positive pregnancy test, so shocked was he that we were going to have a baby after a mere seven years together. (It was a quiet, peaceful time, during which I had complete control over take-out options, it being tricky to voice your opinion on pizza vs. Thai when struck mute.) But when a very early fetal screening showed that we had stunningly high chances of having a baby with Down’s Syndrome, my full-house idea was shuffled off, somewhere else. I suddenly knew what every other parent-to-be has realized at some point or another: To have a single healthy child is a blessing, a stroke of amazing luck unmatched by any scratch-ticket win or raffle prize.  Of course we were happy and excited to meet our baby girl. She was ours and she would be perfect in her own way, whatever that might be. And later screenings failed to show any worrying markers. Still, when Aura popped out screaming and healthy and perfect in her own way beyond any description we could have come up with, we thanked God and the stars above and anything else we could think of. It was unspoken that we would try not to be too selfish; we had one healthy child and perhaps that was just enough.

Even more perfect when asleep.

And the work. GOOD GOD, THE WORK. Forget abstinence promotion or sex-education classes.  All people need to do is paste a teething baby on the back of birth-control packages and no one would ever go off those suckers. The sleep issues, the cleaning, the mind-boggling amount of patience required. If it’s this numbingly exhausting with one child, how do people do it with more? When I attend my mommy potlucks, I always sidle up to the mothers of two or more, furtively eyeing their Chinet plates in hope of locating clues to their stamina. Does an extra helping of broccoli-slaw salad help? Perhaps three stuffed shells instead of two? I have to actively resist the urge to pat these parents on the back or at least bow down before them.

I really, truly don’t know if I have enough Momness in me to do it all over again. I think it is very possible that I give nearly everything I have to Aura and that a second baby would just be screwed. Aura agrees with this hypothesis. The other day, on a whim, I asked her what she would do if she had a baby brother or sister. She thoughtfully sucked her thumb, toed a Polly Pocket on the floor, then announced, “I would leave it upstairs.” And, honestly, I’m afraid I might, too.

We could, however, search for the forgotten sibling with these Bendaroo glasses.

Because when you get right down to it, we’re happy. Really happy, actually. The three of us get along fantastically, except when we don’t and that’s of course Adam or Aura’s fault. Off and on, I undergo bouts of stabbing guilt that Aura has also been born into a small family. Now and then, I worry that she too will sometimes regret her only-child status and long for more people in the house, more noise, bigger Thanksgiving dinners. I look at all of our friends who have had a second or third child and I understand that it is doable, even wonderful. But for right now, Aura is enough; more than enough. She is still perfect beyond description. And really, that’s all we want and need.

Except when she wakes up at 2:00 a.m., again, to “chat.” Those are the times I stumble downstairs, power up the laptop, and research the going rate for a three-year-old. Turns out we could get at least enough for a week-long vacation in Jamaica and maybe a used Volvo.

Tempting.

(So much better than One-Third-Life Crisis.) 

As if that whole reminder of impending death wasn’t enough, the towering stack of evidence that thirties is the new twenties decrepit is beginning to unnerve me. I present three pieces of ultimately damning proof.

1. The Alumni Interview

This weekend I conducted my first alum interview. The entire time I was sitting there, listening to this honestly impressive teenage boy tell me why he wanted to attend my alma mater, all I could think of was how, with a little more talent in the slutty-dressing department and a lot more skill in the Catholic-school dating arena, I so could have been his mother. A young, after-school-special-aged mother, but still. When I offhandedly mentioned the year I graduated high school, he actually blurted out “Wow,” quickly attempting to cover what will most certainly be an enormous mark against him in my interview report with a big swallow of the coffee I bought him. When it appeared that he had burned his mouth, I admit: I snickered. Kind of loudly.

2. The Pill Organizer

So shiny.

 

In my defense, I bought the above on a whim, the same sleep-deprived night I purchased the Blessed Thermometer. We take a lot of vitamins, plus I’m lazy. (Hmm. Rereading the last sentence, I am thinking that perhaps I am taking the wrong vitamins, the lazy-making kind. Some research may be in order.) The pill organizer seemed to hold such promise, making it possible to only have to lug out all of those heavy vitamin bottles once a week. 

Honestly, I didn’t think much of it until I came downstairs the next morning and found Adam staring at it and making the same face he does when I’ve accidentally left Aura outside all night again or suggested he vacuum. The more he stared, the more geriatric the box seemed. The purple and blue that seemed so cheery and optimistic in the Health & Beauty aisle now seemed reminiscent of funeral flowers. You know, the ones that will lay atop my coffin, presumably any day now. Belatedly, I’ve realized something. You buy a pill organizer, there’s no going back. It’s like a one-way ticket to Old.

3. The Catalog

For those with similarly failing eyesight: The tagline reads "Support, Comfort, Independence."

If that photo isn’t the final nail in the aforementioned coffin, I’m not sure what is. Granted, there is a slight possibility that my purchase of the pill organizer triggered some crafty marketing mechanism in the Use Your Credit Card and Have No Privacy Whatsoever Universe and resulted in this catalog. But who am I kidding? It’s a sign. You don’t receive the Support Plus catalog unless your time is almost up. Healthy, virile individuals simply don’t need to order supportive velour wedge slippers. And those with many arthritic-free years ahead of them will never have even heard of the Knork®, the fork that cuts like a knife.

And with that, I give up.

Once upon a long, long time ago, there was a princess named Aura. Princess Aura, newly introduced to the world of solid foods, loved fruit. Sure, sweet potatoes and minutely diced chicken were fine, but fruit! How could one love anything more than FRUIT? The kingdom rejoiced at the princess’s fondness for such healthy snacks, and the serfs down in their little fiefdoms worked harder than ever, intent on growing the princess as much overpriced organic produce as possible. Back at the castle, the royal fountains ran pink with watermelon juice. Spit-out raspberry seeds crunched underfoot. The king’s scepter was perpetually sticky from the bananas it mashed, and the queen’s robes bore mango stains that would never come out. Princess Aura flourished and noshed and all was well.

Blueberry face!

The serfs were particularly handy at growing blueberries.

And then one day shortly after her first birthday, Princess Aura suddenly declared herself All Set with fresh fruit. Her subjects were shocked. Teeth were gnashed and garments were rent. Rumors began running rampant throughout the kingdom. Did the fruit suddenly taste different to the princess? Feel different in her masterful pincer grip? What kind of “naturally occuring fertilizers” were they using down in the fiefdoms, anyway? Amongst themselves, the princess’s ladies- in-waiting murmured suspicions about the overabundance of cake at the first-birthday extravaganza, pointing to Her Highness’s newfound love for anything iced, frosted, or containing ganache.

Too much cake

So delicious. So much better than fruit. So coma inducing.

The King and Queen tried everything to re-whet Princess Aura’s former tastes. Elaborate and gravity-defying fruit sculptures were created, including one smiley face with cherry-slice eyebrows that really should have been documented by court photographers. Smoothies were produced by the gallons, the Queen stealthily angling her body in such a way as to hide the strawberries or bananas she was blending. Alas, nothing worked. The princess could sniff out a fresh berry from twenty feet. The mere suggestion of fresh-squeezed orange juice caused gagging so horrible that the kingdom’s subjects were forced to hide under their beds until the noise stopped. In the end, the only fruit allowed near the royal high chair was dried fruit, and so the princess’s exhausted parents became the best customers the kingdom’s Trader Joe’s had ever seen. Ever.  

Eventually, the King and Queen surrendered. They told themselves to be thankful that the princess agreed to accept zucchini, still ate asparagus with a flourish, continued to demand her own half of an acorn squash. And life continued, with the princess growing and thriving, if perhaps at a heightened risk for scurvy.

Then, one weekend, the King, Queen, and princess left the castle for a little family bonding in the royal orchards. Princess Aura romped ahead of her parents, traipsing down rows of strawberry plants and frolicking amidst the blueberry bushes. Suddenly, a miraculous occurence occurred. Princess Aura stopped, squatted, plucked a strawberry, and popped it into her mouth. A royal press release was immediately issued, grandmothers were telephoned, and general jubilation echoed across the kingdom. Sadly, the magic ended by the time the princess returned to her car seat.

First taste after picking

Seriously. They only tasted good in the orchard. Enough with the in-car force feeding.

Yet the King and Queen were heartened. If only for a handful of days a year, their darling little monarch WOULD eat fresh fruit. It was simply a matter of driving all over the kingdom to find orchards and then camping out in them for a few days at a time. With this knowledge, the royal family and their subjects went on to live happily ever after.  Well, most of the time.  Primarily on days that involved naps.

Important to walk with a purpose

When you eat fresh fruit only five times annually, it is pertinent to walk with a purpose.

apple

{sound of serfs breathing a collective sigh of relief}

Okay, so bad news first: I talked to our financial adviser today and he informed me that I was not immortal. This, right as I was shoving my mouth full of lard and scheduling my next base-jumping trip.

The good news? Nope, no good news. Just bad news tidbit #2: Not only am I mortal, my child will not be able to grow her own money in the case of my untimely demise.  (Of course, you can’t grow anything in a backyard made out of granite, but really, that’s besides the point.) 

According to this guy, the life insurance policies Adam and I have (which, for the record, I thought were fairly sizeable and definitely enough to keep an orphan well-fed and consistently shod in fur-trimmed knockoff Crocs) will barely keep her out of debtor’s prison**, never mind undermine her chances of going to an Ivy League college. For, as I was just informed, an Ivy League education will cost (wait for it) a whopping (wait a little longer) $550,000  by the time little, parentless Aura starts mailing in her applications.

Apparently, kicking the bucket is rather pricey. By the time you get the dying over with and pay off the mortgage and put that crapload of college money aside, there really is very little left. Which begs the question: Has it always been this way? I know I’m a little late to the Hey, Let’s All Be Adults and Do Adult Things Like Have Life Insurance As Soon as You Have a Child party (took us…umm, a while), but seriously. It makes me wonder.

But, obviously, until I am done wondering and actually force Adam and myself to make a decision about revising the policies, I will not fly, drive, cross a street, or plug in any appliances within five feet of a sink. I might also refrain from cleaning, since I hear too much activity can tax the heart.  Oh, and I sent away for some glossy admissions brochures from a few community colleges.  I plan to sprinkle them unobtrusively around the playroom, just to get Aura used to the idea. As the financial guy intoned upon ending our phone call, “It is always smart to be a good planner.”

**After I typed “debtor’s prison,” I found myself questioning whether such places existed any longer. Not surprisingly, they have mostly gone the way of many of my other favorite concepts, such as the original Beverly Hills, 90210 and the heterosexual marriageability of Jon from New Kids on the Block. HOWEVER. If you live in the United Arab Emirates, you had better get your finances in order. Stat.

Really, it should be no surprise to me that Aura is not the bravest kid on the playground. In fact, if derring-do is hereditary, she’s pretty much downright screwed. Her father does not have a very athletic past and I…well, I was kicked out of ballet class at six years old. My foray into elementary school soccer was not much more successful, but my mother paid the season fee so they couldn’t very well boot me out of there. Actually, they might have tried, but my mother keeps very hush-hush about these things, since I tend to get hung up on personal embarrassments like that. As it is, I have to restrain the urge to trip little girls dressed in tutus, including my own. Don’t even get me STARTED on how I feel about the third position.

Bug in tutu

I swear. She was already sitting down.

Annnyway. I fully understand that it is ridiculous to want to urge Aura to take more risks at the playground, to egg her on until she decides to tackle the big swirly-whirly slide. And I really do acknowledge that the fact that she was talking at eight months and knew the alphabet by 12 months (thanks, refrigerator magnets!) is completely separate from her prowess on the wobbly bridge or the low monkey bars.

Standing at playground

I refuse to go near the big swirly-whirly slide. At least while you are watching me.

But then I remember how fervently I believed that being a soccer star would have improved my abysmal junior-high experience and I find myself prompting loudly, “Come on! You CAN climb that (really not very intimidating) ladder by yourself!”  I think of how well Aura does at so many other things and I’m suddenly bribing her with a trip to the bakery for five brownies if she mounts the see-saw without a boost from me. When, really, all she wants to do is go at her own pace, climb through the tunnel, and maybe track down a few pine cones over by the swings.

And you know what? I’m finally realizing that doing what she does is fine. Absolutely fine. I’ve seen her go down the big slide, so I know she can do it.  And I’ve also seen plenty of other kids her size refuse to put one fingertip on the monkey bars. For all I know, she’ll hit four and transform into the biggest little jock this town has ever seen. Or maybe she’ll hit four and just continue to love dancing in the living room and reading her books and building the most elaborate magnet-block towers this side of the Atlantic.

Either way, sometimes a kid just needs to go outside, sit on a duck, and simply be three years old.

So happy

Hugging duck

So happy at playground