Thursday, February 16, 2012

What Kids Don't Know

When you're pregnant, people say vague things: "It's so hard!" and "It's so awesome!" and "You'll never sleep again!" The third one isn't true. Mostly. But nobody ever tells you about the mystery of child's knowledge--or lack thereof.

At first, what your child knows is survival: She knows how to drink, sleep, pee, poop, cry, and occupy your every thought. She knows how to get you to do a lot of things you don't want to do: wake up many times a night, stop showering, nurse round-the-clock, and give up your social life for an extended period of time--unless you count "chatting up other moms in the pediatrician's waiting room" to be social life. It's a good and clever system because if she weren't so lovely and fabulous and heart-stealing, you'd probably return her to the baby store.

As she grows, she reveals how wildly and rapidly her brain is growing: She learns how to roll over, sit, stand, walk, talk, eat, feed herself, tell you what she wants, entertain herself for short bursts of time. We didn't instruct Hadley how to do any of these things. We helped her, sure, but we never said, "Hadley, here's what you need to know to walk." She just figured it out. Tucked in her DNA was this knowledge, and it sprouted forth just when the time was right.

I assumed that this would be how most of her development would be. She would know things about herself and the world when it was time to know them. I would watch her unfold like a little flower that I just had to water regularly with love and attention. I was wrong.

Once kids get basic skills under their belts, they turn into wandering maniacs who seem totally ill-equipped to function in the world. (I say this with deep and abiding love for my daughter, who is the cutest and funniest little maniac I've ever met.)

I have a good friend who has three great kids--twin seven-year-olds and a five-year-old. Before I was a parent, she said to me, "Kids don't know anything unless you tell them." I thought, "Really? That can't be true. Surely they come with some set of functional knowledge." She was mostly right.

Case in point: Two-year-olds don't know that it's a bad idea--for their health and their social lives--to lick another person's face. Who would have guessed?

Hadley and I were playing pretend the other day, and she decided to be a dog. She crawled around the floor and then right up to me and slurped my cheek. I love her desperately and deeply, and I was disgusted. My first thought: "Ah! I have the kid who licks! She's going to be the outcast at pre-school! The licking kid! I HAVE THE LICKER!"

But I kept my cool. "You may not lick other people's faces," I said, thinking, "Given a billion years, I could not have guessed that I would have to make a rule about licking." She replied, "Can I lick their arms?"

It's a valid question, if you show up in the world with absolutely no knowledge of licking etiquette.

"No, no licking other people's arms or feet or anything. No licking at all."

"Can I lick dogs?"


"But dogs lick me."

"Yes, that's how they kiss."

"That's how I kiss, too."

"No, people kiss with their lips."

"But I am a dog."

"You are just pretending to be a dog."

"I can lick because I am pretending to be a dog."

"No, Hadley. No licking, even when you are pretending to be a dog."

"Do cats lick?"

[At this point, I was thinking, "Wrap it up, Hilary! Wrap it up! The longer this goes on, the more loopholes she's going to find!" Kids show up knowing how to find loopholes, even if they don't know that licking is gross. But because I was trying to be patient and instructive, and because I want Hadley to ask me questions about how the world works, I answered.]

"Cats mostly lick themselves."

The neon light that sometimes flashes above my head went off: ROOKIE! ROOKIE! ROOKIE!

She licked her own arm.

"Hadley, you may not lick yourself."

"But I am a cat."

"No, no licking. No licking you. No licking anyone else. People do not lick. Do you understand?"

"Why can't I lick?"

"Because it's yucky. And that's the rule."

So, readers, I did it: I pulled a variation of the "I'm the Mommy and I said so" card. Because the alternative was to talk about microbes and sickness and that cats only live about 15 years, which is probably related to their self-licking.

Our days are full of dozens such conversations, and I'm frequently amazed at how often I have to say the most ridiculous stuff, like it's totally normal:

"Please don't put boogers in your belly button."

"No, rocks won't get cold in the snow. Please leave them outside."

"Yes, you have to wear pants today." [Insert Hadley's objection that has something to do with legs being "too sick" for pants.] "Wearing pants will help your legs feel better."

"We don't put flowers in our mouths."

"You may look at yourself in the mirror, but please don't kiss the mirror." [A rule that applies only to mirrors at places other than our home, which is apparently very confusing and impossible to remember.]

"What are you eating?" [Random answer.] "We don't eat [whatever it is that she has found to eat in the nook of her car seat or from the couch cushion]. We only eat food from the kitchen or a restaurant."

So tell me, how exactly are two parents--a mere TWO PARENTS--supposed to cover all of the rules of life? We cannot cover all the things Hadley needs to know. Who would ever have thought to mention to "no licking" rule? It's a given, like gravity, old men in Speedos, and the chaos of the Whole Foods parking lot. It's part of the way the world works.

When Hadley was a baby, I was thinking big thoughts about teaching her to love, to have faith, to seek truth, to be honest. I still think about those things in the still, quiet hours (all eight of them a month)--when I'm not worried about whether she has boogers stashed in her belly button.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Extraordinary

My mom sent me an email last weekend--which is kind of funny, really, because I see her at least twice or three times in a typical week. But she sent this little email to say, "I bet normal feels pretty good right now."

I had chucked the book manuscript to my editor around lunchtime on Friday. Of course, I just attached my 300+-page wonder to a cheery email and hit "send." But in truth, it felt like heaving off 700-pounds of paper and watching it fly far, far to the east.

I almost cried when I finished.

My logical self knew it would be done one day, but all those nights away from Jason and Hadley, all those interviews (thousands!), all those hours writing and revising and obsessing (I am gifted at obsessing), all those days of wishing I hadn't agreed to do the work--they made my more emotional self wonder if I'd ever really finish. I was like Sisyphus and his stupid rock. Every time I finished a chapter, a new one waited to be written.

And then I returned to "normal," to being a wife and a mom and a daughter, sister, friend--and having time and energy to spend with the people I love. Of course, this isn't normal at all. It's extraordinary.

I will always wonder if I should have turned down this project. It was very, very hard on our family (in part because my original timeline shrunk from about 16 months to about nine). It broke my heart often, and it brought us a lot of stress. I mean, I know stress almost as well as I know chocolate--both are specialties of mine--and 2011 was the most stressful of my life. I missed days with Hadley, days I will never, ever get back. I can't think about this fact too much because first, there's not a thing I can do about it now, and second, letting myself wallow would only leave me in the emotional muck.

There is no Hollywood ending here. Some people will love the book. Some people will criticize it. Some colleges will be furious that they're no longer included. Some will be delighted to discover they've been added. Matt Lauer will not call me to share my hard-earned wisdom on the "Today Show." I will have made very little money for a whole lot of work.

I don't belong to the club of people who jump to the cliché, the Hallmark-ish ending. Sometimes, I think we're left to wonder. God doesn't promise us answers to all of our questions, and he makes it pretty clear that His work is sometimes (often) mysterious to us. I have to be okay with that right now.

But if there is a pretty little bow to tie to the end of this tale, it's that I see the extraordinary in the mundane. I longed for it for a year. When I snuggle up Hadley at the end of the day and she sings her made-up songs (in her "princess falsetto" voice), I am deeply grateful. When she won't eat her dinner or she becomes a one-woman wrecking crew or she runs away yelling "naked baby" as soon as I pull off her pajamas to dress her in the morning, I feel the sweetness of those moments in ways I might not have if I hadn't lost a few (a lot) of them last year.

I'm not a soul easily settled, but I feel settled now. I hope it lasts. If so, the hardness and sadness and exhaustion of last year will have been worth something far, far better than my name on a book.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Mom Lens

[Editor's note: I started this post while on the road. I am no longer on the road, but it still applies, particularly the part about love being like a marshmallow. I'm a poet, obviously.]

Every once in a while, when I'm visiting a college campus, I'll have an encounter that blasts me forward 16 years, to the days Hadley is a college freshman. I'll meet a girl with light brown hair and hazel eyes and mischief in her smile, and my heart will pull for just a second. Somewhere, I hope, that girl has a mama who is both thrilled that her daughter is a college kid and who aches a little, knowing her child won't be home for dinner until Thanksgiving.

Or a guy (calling him a "young man" makes me feel like an old woman) will say something in passing: "I wanted to be at least a plane ride away from home," or "I stayed on campus last summer to do research." What? I want to say. How did your mother handle it? Do you miss her, even a little? Have you no compassion, child?

Three years ago, I would have identified with these students. I went to college 750 miles and four states from home. I jumped at the chance to study in France, where I lived with people my parents had never met and trekked around Europe with a rail pass on weekends and breaks. ("Mom! I'm in Florence!" I'd email or, "We went to Nice for Carnivale!")

And when I graduated, I married Jason and we doubled my distance from home by moving to Chicago. Peace out, Mom and Dad.

In theory, I believe in the axiom about roots and wings. I know the line about parenthood being a process of letting go. But right now, I can't help looking at those college kids and seeing them not as peers or people like my younger self, but as somebody's kids. "You don't know how much your mom loves you," I want to tell them when they roll their eyes about how much their parents call. "You left a hole in your house bigger than the whole world."

If their parents are wise, they don't tell their kids this stuff. It wouldn't matter to them now. But if those kids become parents one day, they'll realize that it takes a lot of self-control for parents to fight the urge to hold their kids tight. I'm not much into sentimentality, but someone told me once that having a child is like watching your heart walk around all on its own. She is right.

One night, when I was in college and home for the summer, I babysat for a family down the street. I came home early enough to go out for a few hours--it was 9:30 or 10:00, and I had a midnight curfew, I think--but it was raining hard and my dad refused to let me go out. I was furious, indignant, offended. It didn't help that my 16-year-old brother had gone out already, so he was tooling around town in the very same raindrops that would blanket my route.

I didn't speak to him for three days. Gracious child, I was.

But now I get it. Sometimes that love just gets messy--like you've rolled in a giant marshmallow of it--and you can't quite contain it. And it's easy to want to hold on too tight because it feels so good and so scary to love somebody the way I love Hadley.

So it's craziness: On one hand, you love someone like you've never loved before. (It's true: Before you have a child, you think you've experienced all of the human loves: your parents, your siblings, a few friends whose lives you share, your spouse. And then your child comes along and you think, "How did I know so little of love?") And on the other hand, you're suppose to raise your child up to leave.

I feel like Hadley came along just when I felt like I had figured out a few things. Jason's and my life together was organized, lovely, predictable. I slept in on the weekends. Jason and I began our love affair with new restaurants and skiing and vacations. We talked late into the night and went out whenever we wanted. (The thrill!) Then--POW--she arrived and changed us. It wasn't very comfortable at first; it felt like growing a new appendage and trying not to trip every time I walked. What have we done? I thought. What just happened?

Oh, but then, something magical happened, and I fell in love, and the waking up early and the no-vacation policy and the frantic hunts for burp clothes stopped mattering. And then she transformed into this little person who is the most lovely company--honest and funny, creative and curious, loving and a little sassy.

And one day, she will leave and--POW--we will change again. It won't be comfortable; it will be like losing an appendage and trying to remember how to walk. What have we done? I will think. What just happened?

I've been sort of hating my project lately. (A friend sent me Winston Churchill's spot-on description of writing a book: "To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out into the public.")

BUT this project has stirred in my heart perspective that I lose some days when Hadley is being so totally two years old. It has reminded me that we're growing together, but she's also growing up so that one day, she will be an 18-year-old and off to college. I won't tell her that she has left a hole in our house bigger than the whole world. But she will.

Friday, September 23, 2011


Jason and I taught first-grade Sunday School for a year when we lived in Chicago. We didn't have Hadley, but we both love kids, and we thought: Really, how hard can it be?

Oh. My. Gosh.

One week, the toilet in the bathroom upstairs overflowed and water came gushing down one wall from the ceiling. I flagged down a well-intentioned adult (who clearly had not spent more than 2.5 seconds with anyone under the age of 12); he came into our room and announced, "Oh, the toilet upstairs must be leaking." Out loud. I spent the rest of the hour trying to get back to the lesson at hand. I failed. Every time there was a lull in the hysteria, one kid would scream, "Pee-pee water!" and they'd all start rolling on the floor again. I overheard a mom say to her son, "What did you learn in Sunday School?" He replied: "Pee-pee water can come through the walls!"

Potty humor: 1. Jason & Hilary: 0.

Then there was the day when we had to teach about the walls of Jericho falling down. The lesson plan called for the kids to make trumpets--a la the Israelites--and then march around the room. We had cardboard blocks we had stacked up in a small circle and while the kids marched around it, we knocked the blocks down.

If you've grown up hearing Bible stories--or even fragments of them, softened to be slightly more palatable--you can forget how hard they are. God flooded the world? God asked Abraham to do WHAT to Isaac? Mary and Joseph huddled in a stable when their son was born? Hard. Like life for most people in most of the world.

I'm not saying they shouldn't be taught. I'm just saying it's not as easy as making paper trumpets and a lot of noise. This particular story might appeal to kids because kids want things to fall down. I'm pretty sure that until you turn, say, 16, you are wired almost exclusively to knock things over. But the questions around this story are hard, as my little students quickly discovered: What happened to the people who lived in Jericho? Where the mommies and daddies there? Did kids cry when the walls fell down? If I can't hit my sister, why can grown-ups fight?

Touché, little people. Touché.

So after we marched around our little Jericho (so loudly I think the kindergarten Sunday School teacher in the next room gave me the evil eye for the next three months), I spent 20 minutes answering questions for which I still don't have good answers. Finally, I said "Let's play 'Jesus Loves Me' on your paper trumpets!" Because the other prevailing instinct in children is to make tremendous amounts of noise, it worked. But I learned an important lesson that day: Explaining God to children is a tremendously tough task because God is complicated. When we dig into Bible stories, it gets messy and it feels uncomfortable and we see images that are really, really hard to understand.

You know, like real life.

Fast-forward four years. One of my biggest anxieties about having a child was how I'd teach her about my faith when it includes a God who let the walls fall down on the mommies and daddies and kids at Jericho. (Or, you know, Jacob with his two wives, the first of whom he married because he got tricked by her father. I'm not sure I want Hadley watching Disney Princess movies because of the things they say about girls and women, but Disney's got nothin' on the Old Testament.)

So I can spend a lot of time in my head, worrying about these things, but for now, we're sticking with the basics: God made you. God loves you. God gives us good things, and we give thanks. And when it comes time to deal with the tougher stuff, we'll be honest and deal with it as a family. That's the only way I know how to do it.

Because of our year in first-grade Sunday School (where the parable about the mustard seed ended with a kid saying, "I like ketchup better"), I'm curious about what Hadley is learning about God, and I am encouraged by any sign that she's learning, no matter how tenuous those signs are. For example, Hadley is really interested in her Bible (perhaps because it's very big and she thinks that we'll read it all at once, thereby postponing bedtime indefinitely). Yesterday morning, we read about Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem and Jesus being born there.

She was really into it. I was thinking, "This is so good!"

Not so fast.

Yesterday afternoon, the three of us were in the car and she said, out of the blue, "When it's Christmas, Santa will bring me presents for my birthday!"

And I said: "Actually, Christmas is Jesus' birthday."

And she replied, without missing a beat: "No, Mommy. I'm having a baby and it's Jesus in my tummy!"

So just to recap: Christmas is Hadley's birthday because she's pregnant with Jesus, who hasn't been born yet.

I've read a fair share of parenting books. I like to learn about child development. I babysat 10,000 hours when I was a teenager. None of it matters: I had no idea how to respond to Hadley. So I didn't. I ignored her comment until I looked over at Jason, who was shaking as he tried to contain his laughter. He failed and so did I, so now I'm pretty sure Hadley is going to repeat her special brand of blasphemy a million times in public places. So that will be awesome.

It was actually a great lesson in chilling out and having faith that Hadley will learn what she needs to learn when she needs to learn it. We're still responsible for her development in every way, but I don't have to sweat the small stuff so much. She's only two, and one day, she'll find this story funny, too.

And I bet if I ran into any of our old Sunday School students now, they wouldn't remember the pee-pee-water story or the ways their teachers wondered how to help them understand such big ideas as God's sovereignty, but perhaps they'd remember the way it sounds when a dozen six-year-olds make a joyful noise unto the Lord. With paper trumpets.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Yummy Bread and Poopy Doops and Chicken Crackers

That's a seriously gross title.

Anyway, we had company a few weeks ago--my cousin, his wife, and their nine-month-old girl, Avery. And until you have people living in your house with you, you don't realize how strange your life looks to someone who's not dealing with the minutia of it. Watching our family through our beloved company's eyes made me realize: We say some weird stuff.

And I think it's mostly Hadley's fault.

I'm very sure that before Jason and I had Hadley, we didn't have our own secret language. But now, we have a whole new lexicon. I have no idea whence it came, but it's robust. And in case you come to our house and would like to translate for yourself, here's a quick dictionary:

Chicken Crackers: Homemade chicken patties. Etymology: Hadley is a typical toddler. (Read: picky eater) She loves crackers and regards chicken with much skepticism. So when Jason tried a new recipe of chicken patties with apple, onions, breadcrumbs, and a few mild spices, she turned up her nose when we said it was chicken. Then I said, "Oh! I think they're chicken crackers!" Viola. She ate them all.

Yummy Bread: Banana bread. Hadley thought we meant we were going to put bananas on her bread when we mentioned "banana bread." Chaos ensued when she couldn't actually see the bananas.

Caterpillars: Peas on a toothpick. Apparently, it's far more fun to eat caterpillars than it is to eat peas.

Poopy Doops: Exactly what you think they are, but less gross-sounding than the real thing.

Bunny Bear, Bah-Bah, and Lovie: The bedtime trifecta. When you become a parent, you learn quickly that you have to give names to things you'll refer to frequently--for the sake of your sanity and your spouse's sanity. (Otherwise, your conversations go like this:

Me: Where's that bear?
Jason: Which bear?
Me: The pink one.
Jason: Which pink one?
Me: The fluffy pink one, with the gingham ears?
Jason: What's gingham?
Me: Nevermind. I just need that bear!
Jason: Which bear?)

Bunny Bear is a bear dressed as a bunny. (No points for creativity, I know.) Lovie is a small square of pink fleece. Bah-Bah--named by Hadley, actually--is a blanket with a lamb's head on it. (Less weird than it sounds.)

Tubby: A bath, made to sound much more fun than "bath."

Dress: Anything that isn't shorts or pants. Skirts, long shirts, or actual dresses fit into this category.

Little house: A fort made from couch pillows. Sample usage:

Hadley: Let's go to my little house.
Me: [pulling pillows off the couch] Okay, can I visit?
Hadley: Sure! But you have to ding-dong first.

Ding-dong: Noun: Doorbell. Verb: Ring the doorbell. Sample:
Hadley: I can ding-dong at Mumsie's door?

Cozy pants: Any variety of long cotton pants that Hadley prefers to wear during her nap. Derivative: Cozy shorts, less popular than cozy pants but occasionally acceptable on hot days.

Naked baby: Adjective: A state of undress. Usage note: Anyone can be naked baby, regardless of age. If Hadley walks into my room while I'm changing clothes, she says, "Oh, Mommy! You naked baby." When applied to a toddler, "naked baby" can refer to a completely naked child or a child running around in nothing but her diaper.

Happy birthday: any individual's date of birth. Usage: "Mommy, when's your happy birthday?" Note: I really like this one. It presumes birthdays are always happy, which they should be.

Moves: idiosyncratic movements. Sample usage: Jason has two dance moves he uses all the time when we have dance parties in the living room. Hadley mimics them and then says, "Those are Daddy's moves." I make one particular silly face at Hadley. Jason tried to mimic it the other day, and Hadley said, "Daddy, those are Mommy's moves."

So there you have it: The incomplete guide to figuring out what in the world we're talking about at our house. I know the day is coming when Hadley corrects me: "No, Mommy. It's a bath." So for now, I'm going to enjoy the made-up language of love Hadley has given us.

Five Things You Should Know About Toddlers

5. They learn so fast. Case in point: Hadley beat me to "listening" speech I usually give when she's teetering on the edge of disobedience:

"It's time to listen. Mommy not going to ask me again. If I no listen, I go to timeout. Make good choice."

4. Just because they learn it, doesn't mean they'll apply it.

She went to timeout.

3. The first time they embarrass you in public, it's accidental.

"Mommy! That man have a baby in his tummy!" in church. During prayer. In the stage whisper that's no whisper at all.

2. The second time they embarrass you in public, it's because they saw your reaction, and they liked it.

"That guy have a baby in his tummy? And that guy? And that lady have a BIG baby in her tummy!" At the pool. While pointing and yelling. Awesome.

1. You've never felt so humble as you do the minute you realize your two-year-old is out-smarting you.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Pride Comes Before the Fall (Asleep)

I think there's a secret force in the world destined to keep mamas humble. It goes by many names: the common cold, picky eating, middle-of-the-Gap disobedience, and--my personal favorite--explosive diapers in public places.

It strikes me when I'm feeling most proud of my mothering: when Hadley is finally eating green vegetables, when I give other moms tips on helping their kids sleep through the night, when I cruise the aisles of Whole Foods with a happy, chatty kid who wants to hold the broccoli. (Certainly there is a nutritive osmosis by which the broccoli actually seeps into her body, right?)

Just when I think I've figured it out, something happens.

This week, "something" is a nap strike.

I'm taking it personally. Silly, right? But I love nap time. I love the sudden quiet of our house and the knowledge that I get to do whatever I want for two whole hours! Exciting babe that I am, that usually involves cleaning, laundry, bill-paying, and writing. But it's MY time...and if I wanted it to include a private karaoke session with the entire "Thriller" album, it could. Because I know all of the words. (When Hadley is 14, she's going to think I'm so cool that she'll let me drop her off only a block from the movie theater.)

And it's just not the same when Hadley is not sleeping, particularly because nap strike sounds like she's working very hard to keep herself awake. It's hard for me to relax while she puts on a tiny one-woman Broadway show. She sings all of the tunes she knows at the top of her lungs, pausing in between to ask Bunny Bear (her sleeping companion), "You like it? You like it? What I should sing next?" Girlfriend is taking requests.

Then she builds a fort with her blanket and tiny pillow, practices her baby yoga moves, or steamrolls Bunny Bear. (I hear her say, "Steamroller!" and then she giggles.)

After about two hours, she hollers for me and when I walk into her room, she says, with her biggest, most charming grin, "I waked up!"

"You didn't sleep," I say.

"But I try hard!" She pretends to be earnest.

I know what's coming: 5:00 meltdown because we can't find the Little People princess or the marker cap doesn't go back on right away or we didn't go swimming today! And before I can wish for a fairy god-nanny, Hadley falls to her knees, hangs her head, and cries big, no-nap tears.

It does no good to say what I want to say, which is: "Hey, kiddo. This is what happens when you don't nap. You feel lousy. I feel lousy. And when Daddy walks in the door in a few minutes, I'm going to give him the evil eye because he's 7.3 seconds late getting here."

Frustration makes me a street philosopher, so here's what I've decided: Parenting guarantees nothing. Just because your kid ate peas yesterday does not mean she'll eat them today. In fact, there's a good chance she'll put them in her pockets and you'll find them gummy and soggy when you pull the wet laundry out the of washer next Tuesday. (Okay, maybe that's just my kid.)

But just like life doesn't guarantee the simple things, it doesn't guarantee the big things either. Nobody promises me she'll do and learn all of the things I hope she does; I don't get to presume she'll always be healthy or happy; there's no assurance that tomorrow, my biggest worry will be whether she will sleep in the afternoon.

So if the nap strike has taught me anything, it's the futility of trying to control the things I cannot. Hadley is her own person, alive and exposed in the world. I cannot make her do everything (or sometimes, anything) I want, nor should I. And more frighteningly, I cannot make the world the kind of place it ought to be, for her or the billions of kids who wander its edges. And most of their parents would be so happy to trade worries with me for a day.

It's all so...humbling. (If I had a nickel for every time I thought that since Hadley was born, girlfriend could go to any college she wanted.)

I'm going to remember the goodness of this life we live the next time Hadley's one-woman show fills our house with song at 2:00 p.m. Maybe I'll try sitting back and listening to the sounds of a joyful, satisfied child.

Or maybe I'll put on my own show. Where did I put that "Thriller" CD?