Friday, April 27, 2012

Don't Tell Mom, The Babysitter's Texting

My daughter uses two small tree branches to drum on the pavement.  A playground full of everything imaginable to climb on and she is content in the corner.  She counts herself in
"One, two, three, four!" Drumming a beat only she can hear among the chatter of the other kids.  A little blonde girl about her age sits quietly, playing with her shovel and bucket a few feet away.  My daughter spots her and decides to take five. 

The little girl extends her hand, giving my daughter the shovel.  "Look she is sharing," I say, encouraging her to take it and say thank you.  I instruct her on how to take turns.  She reluctantly hands it back and the exchange stops there.  "Oh! She no sharing!"  my daughter observes and I marvel at her immediate mastering of the word. I kneel down to facilitate what has now turned into a standoff. 

I look around for the parent to approve of this interaction and hopefully help me out.  A young woman with dark hair, maybe in her early thirties, stands behind the little girl, looking at her phone.  She looks at me, nods to indicate the child is with her, and goes back to texting.  Its very obvious that she'd rather be anywhere else but in this park.

I do my best to keep my boundaries with someone else's child while trying to help them play together.  The little girl gets up and moves towards the center of the playground where my daughter follows her. Her sitter maintains her stance at the fence.  It seems like this would be a perfect time to be supportive as this child is so nicely, yet cautiously interacting with my daughter. Perhaps it would also be a good time to get her away from the group of boys rough housing close by that are making me nervous.  But its clear this babysitter's goal of the day is just to keep this kid alive until 6pm.

This child's parents are likely miles away, sitting in a boring meeting or drowning in paperwork.  They are probably daydreaming about their little girl outside playing and happy she is being well cared for.  I can't help but think about what well cared for means these days.  How do we as parents define that?  What are our expectations of those who watch our children?  Is it a sitter's job to literally just watch the kid or to aid in his or her development by interacting with them? 

I'm certainly no stranger to the look in that woman's eyes.  The desire to be anywhere but watching Sid the Science Kid or stacking blocks.   But I'm getting paid for this job in lifetime fulfillment and occasional kisses.  Not actual dollars.  And unless grandma and pop are around, I never get a day off despite going to work.  While parents don't pay others to do the actual job of parenting, there has to be some kind of responsibility on the primary care taker to be more than just a pair of watchful eyes.  This little girl's parents are in their respective offices giving their 100% to their jobs so they can put food on the table.  And because this sitter isn't necessarily being supervised she doesn't put on a happy face or get involved, which in turn, can affect this kid's emotional and cognitive development.

Women like these are always around near my office.  Most often the child is screaming or crying while the woman pushing the stroller is on her cell phone, talking to someone else nearby, or just staring vacantly ahead.  It takes a lot of self control for me not to go over and put the kid's fallen shoe back on or give him a hug.  The obvious physical characteristics indicate adult and child are not related, but its more so in the behavior.  The lack of fear as they maneuver the child by hand through a busy crosswalk and inability to understand the kid is clearly pointing to and wanting his sippy cup, that creates the distinction between  the parent and the paid help.  

I'm fortunate that on any given day my husband will send me a photo of our daughter having a dance party in our living room, or text me an update about what she ate or when she slept.  I love hearing stories of what they did together when I come home and seeing performances of new tricks she learned throughout the day.  I'm sad that I have missed out on these things but thankful he is the one providing the nurturing, education and fun for her for 50 more hours a week than I can.  He is the only other person in this world who has as much invested in her well being as I do.

We say good bye to the little girl and gather our things.  The babysitter doesn't flinch as we walk away, leaving the child alone in the center of the playground.  I tell my daughter how polite she was while buckling her into the car seat.  She repeats her new favorite word "sharing" while stuffing her face with goldfish crackers. 

I check the clock, counting the hours before bed time and gear up to push through my fatigue.  Thankful to have this day off and time with my daughter I'm still looking forward to my husband coming home.  I see the woman and little blonde girl leaving the park.  A boy with blonde hair joins them and the woman still looks less than enthused as she pushes the stroller to the parking lot.  I'm sure she too is counting the hours.  Wondering how long it will be until she is relieved of these quiet, well behaved children to go home and unwind from such a stressful day.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

New Mom Seeks Tired Parents

The woman is very pregnant, waddling over to the counter to order her bagel as my husband I watch her from our table.  We glance back and forth between her and her husband who is outside the cafe, playing with their young son.

"You ask her." My husband motions to me with his chin.
"No you ask her," I say.
"I can't ask her, I'm a guy. It looks creepy."
"You have a kid with you, its not creepy. You're a dad."
Our eyes lock, waiting for the other to concede.

We want to know how old this woman's son is, but know our objective isn't to stop there.  We really want to drill her for answers.  My husband and I will seek out a conversation with any fellow parent, be it at a playground, restaurant, or store.  We lay out all of our feelings and thoughts about parenting and somehow expect that in return.  We can't help it, we are excited to be parents and eager to connect to other people who are just as obsessed as us.  And frankly on those days when we are feeling most isolated by our fatigue and stress, we just want to talk to someone else whose shirt is on inside out and clearly hasn't showered.

After trying to make contact with  other parents over the past 19 months, we've developed a fail proof strategy.  If my husband and I are together, one of us will watch our daughter while the other strikes up a conversation with a neighboring parent. The icebreaker is usually something about the kid's age, their outfit, or a comment about something they just did, to which we can chime in with, "Yeah that happens with us too."  Then bam! We're in.  Once a discussion about sleeping patterns, bottle weaning, and discipline starts, we tag team the conversation.  Bouncing back and forth between watching our daughter and listening to our new friend, one of us will pick up where the other leaves off. Transitioning nicely through topics to be sure all of our questions are answered.

Its an interesting sociological experiment.  This conversion from being the person who casually makes friends in social settings to a desperate, information seeking sleuth whose ears perk up at the sound of a haggered father with one kid on each leg in the grocery store.  Its because you know conversation will come easy with this person and you see your own wavering faith in their eyes as to whether or not you will survive until the child's fifth birthday.

The major challenge in meeting other parents is how much time you have to talk before either one of your kids runs off and you have to go chasing after them.  When my husband and I are together we're able to manage this like a well rehearsed dance.  When we are on our own, we reconsider that child leash.

I'm usually the one to feel out the other parent to see if we should "seal the deal."  Never one to pick up guys in bars or be picked up, I've no real experience with getting someone's number.  So as I hear the other parent say, "Okay I guess it's time to go since you're ready for a nap,"  I panic and look around frantically for a pen and pad.  My hands are usually juggling toys and snacks so programming my phone isn't an option. I've actually considered carrying business cards for this purpose.

Often the other parent is enthusiastic about exchanging information. I tell them it was nice meeting them and say, "We should make plans for a playdate," and really mean it.   My husband and I walk away feeling confident and then wonder if we were too friendly, too inquisitive or too annoying, praying they didn't give us a fake number.

The pregnant woman gathers her bagel and coffee and makes her way to the door.  My husband's eyes widen with urgency as we are letting her get away.  She passes our table and joins her family outside.  My husband shakes his head.  I tell him not to worry.  From the size of her belly and the tantrum of the little boy, they won't get too far down the block before we casually and stealthy walk up behind them and ask about their stroller.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

There's No Place Like Home

We just about pull out of the driveway and my daughter is already asleep in the backseat.  Though we have a few errands to run, my husband and I exchange a glance, knowing we are now car bound for the next two hours and pull out our phones.  He checks the list of houses north of our neighborhood on Zillow.com and I tell him I want to check out a school nearby.  I take off my coat, adjust my seat, and prepare for what has become our new weekend hobby:  scouting the area for potential places to live.

Buying a house has been our main objective for as long as we have been together.  We thought we'd have one before our daugther was born but life didn't turn out that way.  Thankfully we are about to embark on this adventure that we only used to talk about in future terms. Naturally my husband is convinced this will begin a new chapter of angst for our marriage.  That I'm naturally going to be the less flexible and unrealistic one, making the entire process a giant headache.  Though I get annoyed whenever he reminds me of this,  I can't completely disagree with him.  Our approaches are just different.  While he is making sense of practical things like taxes and potential renovations, I'm waiting for the clouds to part and a rainbow to shine down on the house that is ours. I'm the sensory type, finding my way through anything visual and emotionally based.  That's how I gather information and in turn make decisions.   So compiling data on fixed rate mortgages, school districts and important information I can retain from "Property Virgins" on HGTV is a challenge.

We pull up to a house with a "For Sale" sign and argue about which one of us is going to get out and scan the barcode on the sign.  I lose and quickly jump out.  In effort not to look creepy, I do this with lighting speed and scurry back to the car.  We look at photos of the house online and make note of the school across the street.  A woman is walking her dog. We decide she looks normal and try to look for kids playing or any other signs of community.  After circling a few blocks, stares of people outside their homes make us aware that our black, large car with tinted windows isn't the kind to conduct neighborhood research in.

An hour passes and we find more properties for sale.  We stretch our necks to estimate the size of a yard and if a swing set would fit; identify healthy looking trees for tree houses; consider the street traffic; and whether or not this looks like a safe place for our daughter and her future siblings.  We talk about what we would do differently and come up with expensive renovating ideas that sound more like nickels and dimes falling out of our mouths than actual words . As we drive around my chest feels tight.  I see my husband check his pulse on his neck, something he does whenever he is stressed and feeling his blood pressure rise.  " I wish we knew where we belonged," he thinks out loud.  I sigh, realizing this really isn't as much fun as we imagined.

When you're a kid you think you'll have it all figured out by the time you have kids.  But as any adult knows, we are all as clueless as we were when we dreamed up that myth.  A myth that kept us believing we'd be able to imagine a house that would magically appear in a place where we'd be happy to live forever.  Reality tells us we have a price range, a need to be near mass transit, good schools and a wish list whose items will not likely be checked off.  Reality has also taught us that long term decisions are often hard to make. We may know what we want right now, maybe five years from now, but how will we know what we want five years from then?

I moved into a house from an apartment when I was ten.   It was a good move for our family in the long run,  but I had a very difficult time adjusting to a new neighborhood and school.  The experience of being pulled from everything and everyone I knew affected me for the rest of my adolescence.  I don't want to do that to my daughter and so I feel pressure to make "the right decision."  This house has to be permanent enough for us to want to stay for a while but also meet our immediate needs. And if we have to uproot years from now, I can only hope our family tree will be strong enough to withstand such a replanting.

We visit a few more towns.  My husband falls in love with a property along the bay.  I feel the streets are cramped.  We assess our findings for the day and realize we are not on the same page.  I'm a little more optimistic than he is, but he decides its time to stop.  We pull into the grocery store parking lot to put this decision making process on hold and pick up dinner for the week.  My daughter is still sleeping so I stay in the car, browsing realty sites on my phone.  I feel like I ran a marathon and haven't moved in two hours.

There is silence in the car except for the myriad of thoughts buzzing through my head.
"Mommy?" a small voice pulls me back to reality.  I tell my daughter where we are and give her her sippy cup.  As she babbles an entire story to me I remember when I got pregnant.  I was scared, uncertain and unprepared for everything that came with parenthood.  But I now know that as soon as my daughter took her first breath in this world, things started to fall into place. 
She rubs the sleep out of her eyes and I think how she won't ever know the hours we spent with her asleep in the car, trying to figure out our future.  Driving around aimlessly, hoping something would pull us in the direction we belong. Not knowing that with every turn of the wheel, every discussion at every red light, and every frustrated realization that something was out of our price range, we were traveling the right path.  The path we always seem to travel at different points in our life.  The one full of turns, twists, and bumps that somehow always lead us right to where we are supposed to be.