Mommy Chronicles

A funny look at motherhood and the mayhem it causes.

July 30, 2001

Lucy learns a lesson

The strangest thing is happening.

Lucy is starting to understand words – and not just single words, like dog, biscuit and daddy. She understands entire sentences. Just yesterday morning, while sitting on the couch, I said, “Lucy, where is your ball?”

Lucy left her spot in front of my knees (she fights the dog for this prime bit of real estate) and swiveled her head until she spied the squishy little soccer ball she’s been playing with lately. She crawled to it as fast as she could, then dribbled it back to me.

I just about dropped my cup of coffee. Lucy plays fetch!

Perhaps this shouldn’t have flipped my wig. Fetch is a logical progression for a creature that can sit up, beg and roll over, which she does religiously when I am trying to change her diaper. If only I could paper train her, she would make a very fine little dog.

But she isn’t a dog, of course. She is a person, and much more complicated to train. And so I will not be able to apply all the wisdom of the Monks of New Skete. As I teach Lucy, I will have to use techniques that work on humans.

This makes things so much more complicated. With dogs, you can guarantee obedience and fidelity – even happiness – with a pocket full of kibble. Although Lucy would dearly love to eat pet food from the bowl, I don’t think a taste for it is going to get her into Harvard.

“Lucy, if you finish this Calculus problem, I will give you a liver snap,” is an offer she will, in all likelihood, refuse by the time she gets into high school.

So, how can I be a good teacher, if most of my teaching experience is limited to keeping the dog off the couch – something I’m not very good at, anyway?

I don’t know. But I’m doing my best, and there are some results.

For example, Adam and I have taught Lucy how to find our noses. When I ask, “Lucy, where is Mommy’s nose?” she points to my nose almost 100 percent of the time. She sometimes sticks her finger up my nose, so I have to take off points for this. And she has not yet managed to locate her own nose, which means I still have to remove her boogers for her. Still more points off the total. But this is a fine accomplishment for a child who is not yet 11 months old. She has an entire lifetime to learn how to pick her own nose.

She is also learning to recognize that quintessential barnyard animal, the pig. Using her stuffed pig as a reference, she can point to the pig on the page of Barnyard Dance most of the time. This piece of knowledge will be essential if she is ever to appreciate Charlotte’s Web, Babe or the world’s finest breakfast meat, bacon.

The juxtaposition of a lifestyle that loves both the living pig and its meat will, no doubt, help her understand the concept of hypocrisy. When she understands that, she won’t protest when I tell her that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, while I skip it for a skull-sized mug of coffee and one of last night’s brownies.

But I would be wise to focus first on simpler concepts.

For starters, the concept of “That Hurts Mommy.” This applies largely to my nipples. Biting and twisting hurt. So does using the nipple to pull oneself up into the standing position. Lucy does not yet grasp this concept. If she did, she would stop grasping me where it hurts. I hope. Perhaps she’s trying to teach me something about the irony. If this turns out to be the case, I will have much to write about later on, when her vocabulary is larger.

I would also like her to understand the difference between laundry that has been folded, and laundry that is OK to wave like a flag. For some reason, Lucy finds stacked and folded laundry the most seductive, and she spends a little time every day unloading the napkins and placemats from their little cupboard.

Her technique has improved steadily. She is now agile enough to unfold things faster than I can get them folded, which leaves her plenty of time to crawl into the kitchen to eat cat food while I am refolding. Ultimately, though, the unfolding enterprise is counterproductive. If she spent less time unfolding in the first place, she would have more time to plan a successful cat food caper. The usual outcome, unhappily for Lucy, is that I swoop her up just before she sinks her mitts into the bowl. Time management, Lucy.

Adam wants her to learn another lesson in the food category. He calls it, "That's Lucy's Food." When Lucy eats bananas, for example, she likes to give some to me, some to Adam, some to Misty, a little gobbet to the cats and a meaningful offering for the Floor Gods. She also likes to spackle the cracks in her high chair with it. This is very generous of Lucy, but it also means she hasn't eaten, and the room and all its inhabitants needs cleaning – again.

But this lesson is probably less important than “That Is Dangerous!” I can tell this phrase only confuses her lately. Every time I say it, she continues to play with the lamp cord underneath the desk. Would it really be safer for me to work by candlelight? The world is a strange place when that is true.

Perhaps she’s not confused, though. I’m starting to suspect she’s ignoring me. I have these little curtains in my office, with long cords that are a known strangling hazard. Lucy loves playing with them. Every time I say, “Lucy, that is DANGEROUS,” she turns and twinkles her eyes at me, with the throat-sized curtain pull in her mouth. She actually uses it as teething toy, which is why “remove curtains from office” is on my list of things to do.

While we’re on things Lucy should learn, but won’t, I will add: “Don’t You Think It’s About Time for Bed?” I am really getting into fantasy territory here, I know. Lucy hates going to bed. She hates naps. We can no longer get her anywhere near her crib without starting off a shriekfest. (As breakfast is the most important meal of the day, shriekfest is the most important communication device.)

When I think back to the time I could lay her gently in the crib, and she would turn her head, close her eyes and float off to sleep, I have to bite my fist. Little did I know then that Lucy would later fall in love with the world, and would fight hard to stay conscious every minute of the day.

She is showing some signs of improvement in this area, thankfully. This morning, just before 3 a.m., I was tucking her back under her blanket after a little drink of milk. As is my habit, I stroked her back, waiting for her breathing to grow slow and regular. It wasn’t happening. Lucy kept jerking her arm up, fiddling with the covers.

What’s she doing? I thought. And then it hit me. Lucy was trying to cover her teddy bear. I slid the blanket over both of them, and Lucy turned to the bear and said, “Hi,” with the sweetest little voice in the world. Then she fell right asleep.

It was the most loving thing I’ve seen her do, and it hit me right then and there that Lucy already knows the only lesson that matters. Walking back into my room, with a lump in my throat, I thought, “Where did you ever learn that?”

As it turns out, putting Teddy to bed is something she learned from Adam. Why am I not surprised?

July 23, 2001

Baby's first word: It's for the birds

I have discovered another myth of parenthood. At last I think I have. And that is the myth of baby’s first word.

According to the myth, baby’s first word is pronounced clearly and loudly. It is often accompanied by the music of harps floating down from a sky lightly padded with clouds. And it sounds like this: Mama.

What I have learned is that baby’s first word doesn’t really go like this at all. Rather, it sounds more like this:


At least I think it does.

Allow me to explain. About three weeks ago, our babysitter came back all breathless from a trip to the park. “I may be crazy,” she said. “But I think Lucy is trying to say bird. She keeps pointing at birds and saying boowee.”

Yeah, yeah, I thought. You’re not crazy, Laramie. Just insane. There’s no way Lucy could be saying bird right now. She’s not even 10 months old. She hasn’t babbled the way she is supposed to. And I’ve been paying her to practice saying Mama, all to ensure that on the glorious day when she says it, my position as the center of her universe is sealed.

What I said was, “Hmmm. Even if she is making that sound, it’s unlikely that she’s connecting it with an actual bird.”

Nonetheless, Lucy and I started spending a lot more time staring at the bird’s nest outside the kitchen window – the one she has been staring at, at the expense of my efficient baby-feeding program – for several months. (I finally had to turn the high chair the other way a while back so Lucy would stop looking at the birds, and start respecting the spoon.)

Then, a few days after the boowee incident, something interesting happened. Lucy, Adam and I took a little vacation to the San Juan Islands. As we were barbecuing a couple of steaks and some corn, a seagull the size of a terrier landed on the deck rail right next to the grill.

Lucy pointed to it and said, “B-b-b-b-irddddhhuh.”

This touched off a major debate between Adam and me. Did she say “bird”? Or was it, as he claimed, “bickie”?

The one thing we did not debate, however, was the fact that Lucy had pointed to the giant seagull, and she had uttered a word very close to the one we English-speaking adults apply to winged, egg-laying creatures with feathers.

As unlikely as it was, Lucy had said her first word. And the word … was bird.

More or less, anyway.

My brother-in-law, Michael, clued me in to the fact that unlike what I was expecting as payoff for all those hours where Lucy and I rehearsed the fine art of saying “mama,” a baby’s first word pretty much happens when parents decide it has happened. Lucy was pointing at a bird, saying something that sounded an awful lot like bird. As far as Adam and I were concerned, it was time to get out the camcorder and send her application tape to Stanford. Birdbrain nothing!

This baby is clearly a genius. We have proof. And it sounds like bickie.

After that, Adam and I became overbearing parents and presented Lucy with far too many opportunities to say bird. I think she got bored with it. Either that, or self-conscious, because half the time, her eyes would get wide and she would press her lips into the line necessary for producing the “B” sound … and then she would exhale quietly, tentatively. Buhhhhh.

The message was fairly clear: Quit pressuring me, Mom and Dad. Wait ‘til next week, when I’m 10 months old.

Only she doesn’t have the words to say this. She had to use the word she had and modify her delivery. Clever baby.

And no, I am not reading too much into the situation. If that were the case, I would also claim that Lucy can now say “kitty,” even though the most that has come out of her mouth in the vicinity of the cat is a sloppy khehhh.

I might also claim that she can also say “bye” because she once waved and said a tiny “bye” to Laramie a minute or so after Laramie left the house. I’m not saying that. All I’m saying is she might be able to say bye.

Put two of those “byes” with her other word, bird, and she’s got a good start on a Broadway career. (Of course, my own Broadway career ended shortly after my tap-dancing lessons began. I was about 10, but was blessed with the grace and flexibility of an 80-year-old woman. Or maybe a chicken. Or maybe an 80-year-old woman standing on a chicken’s shoulders. The bottom line is, Lucy is unlikely to be genetically equipped for Broadway, even if she can almost say Bye Bye Birdie.)

More important, Lucy doesn’t need Broadway because she has added a new word to her repertoire, a word that could lead her to a career in broadcast journalism: hi.

And this time around, I am certain she means it. When she sees the dog, she says, “hi.” When I’m lounging on the sofa, having a moment of denial that my day largely consists of crawling very fast after Lucy, she pulls herself up, breaks into a huge smile and says ... “hi.”

She’s even taken to greeting the small baby who sometimes grins at her from the mirror. It’s utterly delightful.

No, she is not saying Mama, which means I am nobody’s hero. Nowadays, when I even practice the Mama sound with her, she fakes me out by making the “m” shape with her lips, then curling it upward into a silent Mona Lisa smile.

It makes me realize that Lucy knows a lot more than she’s letting on. She knows, for example, that n-o means, “Stop taking CDs out of the holder and throwing them around the floor.” Or “The dog dish is not your personal spa.”

She just looks over her shoulder and keeps on doing whatever naughty thing she was doing. And if she happens to look up and out the window, she might flip me the one word that started it all, a word that is oddly appropriate, given her defiance: bird.

July 16, 2001

The truth about cats, dogs and babies

What’s the difference between pets and children?

If you had asked me this two months ago, I would have said, “Easy. One kind sheds fur; the other kind dirties diapers.”

Adam and I are the sort of people who, before we had a baby, treated our pets as if they were children. We traded a nearly new queen-sized bed for a king early in our marriage, just so we could accommodate the dog and the cats with us at night.

We continue to do this, even though Adam is horribly allergic to both cats and dogs. The nighttime ritual goes something like this: Take anti-coughing pill. Huff on flying-saucer-shaped inhaler. Spray allergy medicine up nose, twice. Kiss goodnight. Sink into cloud of fur.

We love the animals. They’re part of the family, even if one cat is a surly bastard, the other cat is dumb as plankton, and the dog has a heavy-breathing problem that would get us arrested if she knew how to use a phone. None has the slightest respect for a sleeping baby. They’ve wakened Lucy more times than we can count, to the point where we’ve wondered, Is this their revenge against us, for bringing the small, hairless pet into the family?

Their faults aside, home wouldn’t be home without them. There’s something about the clicking of dog toenails following you about and the thwurr of a cat on your lap to remind you that your life is full. As full as your vacuum cleaner bag — and then some.

Before Lucy crawled her way into the world, I thought I knew how much you could love an adorable creature that depended on you for its survival. I took Misty with me everywhere I possibly could, and to a few places I probably shouldn’t. (Once, an anonymous colleague in a newsroom I worked in accused her of infesting the place with fleas. Impossible!)

When Misty had a tumor in her chest, and I had one in mine, hers came out first. Every time I had to tie her up somewhere — outside the grocery store, for example — I could feel my heart banging in my chest. What if someone stole her? What if some world-hating teen taunted her cruelly with a stick of jerky? What if? What if?

I was not completely insane in my fears. Misty is a superlative beast, more human than canine. She has a beautiful white face and Cleopatra eyes, and she can’t help but grin at everyone she sees.

When Misty, Lucy and I are out for a walk, passersby are as likely to say “Beautiful dog!” as they are to say “Beautiful baby!” (Why is it that no one ever says, “Wow, you’re one hot mama!”? I don’t think I really want to know.)

I had and adored Misty for eight years before Lucy came along. So it was fascinating to realize that as much as I love Misty, I love Lucy even more. It’s like Misty’s love for dog kibbles vs. her love for baked goods. Dog kibbles are great to have around every day. But the baked goods ... they’re enough to make a girl do crazy things.

And the truly strange part was that I felt this way, even early on, when Misty and the cats both showed a lot more affection than Lucy did. While Lucy lay on her back, blinking, the cats would both rub their faces on my shins. And while Lucy demanded special favors with my breasts, Misty would bring me gifts. Sometimes unwanted gifts, such as dirty diapers. But it’s the thought that counts, even if it’s a doggie thought.

Lucy’s rapid-fire development for the first nine months of her life helped her catch up somewhat to the pets. No, she didn’t amuse us by contorting into funny positions and licking herself. Nor did she fetch, purr or warn us loudly about the vicious deliveryman at the front door.

She could sit, roll over and gnaw as well as any of the animals, though. And she showed significantly more excitement than the cats at our presence, and almost as much as Misty did.

So, even though she was the favorite pet, she was still a pet. One who even shared Misty’s bad habit of begging for food. Once she started on solid foods, Lucy would scoot up, grab my knees, hoist herself to the standing position, and crank open her mouth every time I sat down for a meal.

I swear she learned this from Misty, whose first words were, “Hehh hehh hehh hehh heehhh,” which translates to, “No one ever feeds me. Won’t you help?”

The thing is, I feed both the baby and the dog quite regularly. But, suspicious beasts that they are, they believe whatever I’m eating is better, just because I’m eating it. So, I’ve taken to tossing them scraps. A little burrito for Misty, a little wad of rice for Lucy. No pie for either of them. It’s mine, all mine.

Recently though — just a few days shy of her 10-month birthday — Lucy has demonstrated that she is rapidly leaving the cats and dog in the dust. Her days of being the fourth pet, I am realizing, are over.

My evidence of this, not surprisingly, relates to food. While the cats and dog have never once let us forget a meal, while they hound us constantly for bites — beaming their sorrowful eyes straight in our direction — Lucy has started doing something quite curious. She has started sharing her food.

She takes great delight in taking handfuls of whatever she’s eating — pita bread, Cheerios, beans — and thrusting them upward. “Here,” the gesture says. “Eat this.”

Could this be altruism? Love for us? The desire to take what is hers and make it ours? Is she, I wonder, giving something back?

The pets have never done anything like this. If Adam and I died, they’d gnaw the flesh right off our bones, and then complain that we tasted stringy. (Except Misty. She would look doleful, and then thump her tail in solemn thanks afterward. But mostly because we finally didn’t stop her from eating the delectable thigh bone.)

Lucy’s gesture, I learned, after taking a bite of the very soggy hunk of pita she had thrust in my direction, had nothing to do with altruism. As soon as I ate it, she laughed and laughed, not unlike a cartoon hyena.

And that, I realized, was the really big difference between pets and kids. Your pets might eat your very flesh when you’re dead. But your kids do something much, much worse.

They recognize you for the hapless fool you are, so much in love that you’d eat their already chewed-on food.

And then they laugh at you.

July 02, 2001

The age of the Cheerio

This is the dawning of the age of the Cheerio.

I had no idea what that would mean, until Lucy was capable of eating them. But, as I am learning, it means everything.

Lucy’s Cheerio-readiness means she has finally progressed past the stage of early infancy known as “mitten hand.”

Babies with mitten hand can’t pick up tiny objects, because they use their fingers as one, clumsy counterpoint to their wee thumbs. As developmental limitations go, this is not a bad one. Babies with mitten hand cannot grab your nipple and twist it slowly, as you might when you’re trying to pick up radio signals from such faraway countries as Japan.

But all parents, even ones with sore nipples, want to see their children gain full use of their fingers. How would Lucy ever learn to run the washing machine otherwise? She’d never be able to run a delicate cycle or clean the lint trap with mitten hand; that was for sure.

Once I was confident in Lucy’s pincer grip, as the next stage is called, I started giving her Cheerios, just two or three, to tide her over while I prepared her breakfast. She put one in her mouth right away. Not because she knew it was food, but because she puts everything into her mouth: briefcase straps, shoelaces, zipper tabs, cat fur, dog fur, sunglasses, remote controls, CDs, magazines. It’s her way of saying hello, I guess.

This time, though, she liked the taste of what was in there. She crunched. She swallowed. She went back for more. And so began a new ritual of giving Lucy a heap of Cheerios before every meal. While it’s true that her diet now consists of more oat fiber than such a small body can handle gracefully, at least I know she’s not eating the equivalent of a heart attack on a highchair tray.

Lucy is as happy as can be when she has her mouth full of Cheerios. While I do the microwave dance (to pass the 18 seconds her mushy food requires for warming), she laughs and shows me how well her four teeth can pulverize the oaty O’s.

And because I have been at this parenting thing for nine months now, I have learned to take something that makes the baby happy and abuse it for as long as it lasts.

I used to do this with the Gymini, then the Baby Van Gogh video. When all else failed, those tools would pump Lucy full of happy. These days, it’s Cheerios. When she starts getting fussy in the late morning, boom! Out comes a handful of Cheerios. When she can’t be consoled in the afternoon, but won’t go down for a nap, Cheerios ride to the rescue.

The only time Cheerios have failed me is on the way home from Costco, where we bought a giant box of them. Lucy cried for 10 miles, which is a very difficult thing to take when your husband is driving and taking all the red lights we were getting as personal insults. I dumped a huge handful of Cheerios in Lucy’s car seat, hoping they’d work their crunchy magic. But they didn’t, and we had to stop at a café and give Lucy a little floor time so she could come down from the overstimulation that happens to all of us, baby or not, when we warehouse shop.

In just three weeks, we have gone through that coffin-sized box of Cheerios, a box so large we have to keep it in the basement.

Of course, only a small portion of these has been eaten. By Lucy, anyway. The dog has had a ton. She always has Cheerio breath lately, but this is an improvement over the era of cat-box breath. And, it’s the first time in 9 months that the dog had a reason to be glad Lucy’s here, instead of resenting her every inch. Now she sleeps in the baby's room, instead of ours.

Another 42,000 or so Cheerios have perished underfoot. It’s a sickening sound, not unlike that of a bug being crushed. And it means I have to sweep the kitchen several times a day. It’s either that, or say I’m decorating with a beach theme, because a graveyard of trampled Cheerios looks an awful lot like sand. The bright side is that it would finally give me a use for the festive sun hat that’s sitting in the basement next to the Cheerios box.

The rest of the uningested rings have all become part of the grand biology experiment known as the Cheerio life cycle. When they are born, Cheerios are puffy and pale — the lovely color of coffee that’s been heavily laced with milk. A Cheerio that has been loosed from the box may die young and beautiful, whether eaten or trampled.

Or, it may die a slower death, trapped in Lucy’s clothing or worse – her diaper. These Cheerios tumble out far from the kitchen, and at the most unexpected times. Once, a whole handful poured out of Lucy’s onesie when Adam was changing her.

Though the dog might find one of these stray Cheerios and put it out of its misery, more often they just pick up hair and start to shrink. Compare a fresh Cheerio to one of the more worldly ones and you start to wonder what’s going on in there that makes them start to shrink as soon as they hit the free world.

The worst Cheerio death happens to the ones that have been in Lucy’s mouth or wet hands. These dampened circles shrink, prune up, and eventually turn as dark as mahogany. They’re the shrunken heads of the cereal world, grim reminders of the fact that a Cheerio’s life is not as cheery as the name implies.

But what would you expect from a cereal that once gave out fake Confederate money as a toy surprise? (And that’s not all: Cheerios also gave out toy guided missiles and won a citation from the U.S. Army.)

Now that I think about it, I realize that the Cheerio experience, with all the grimness that it brings to mind, is a little like what it’s like to be a parent.

You start out round, plump and beautiful –- full of nutrition and cheer. And then, over time, you get dark and shriveled. Definitely worse for the wear. You may find yourself chewed, sprawled on the carpet, stuck to the kitchen floor, or a lot closer to the inside of a baby’s diaper than you ever expected to be.

But somehow, you know this is your destiny, and that you’d give your life for this baby, a thousand times a day.

Too bad, though, the job no longer comes with a toy surprise inside. There’s a festive sun hat in the basement that I would really like to blow up.