Friday, November 30, 2007


Now that Genevieve has moved from her babysitter on an island in the middle of the Mississippi to a Montessori school in midtown, my afternoon pickup routine has changed as well. Part of the new arrangement involves a block of open time between 2:30, when I am allowed to leave work, and 3:15, when the older kids are dismissed from school, since the baby is now the last stop instead of the first. That 45 minutes may not seem like much to you, but to me it means time to run an errand or two without four kids in tow. After the holidays I plan to use it to (gasp!) exercise a few times a week.

Yesterday, I used my precious child-free time to get the few groceries I needed for cocktail hour tonight. A few times I've made a mad dash from work to the midtown Schnuck's, which is not far but in the opposite direction from the way I need to go to pick the kids up. And if you've ever met me in person, there's a good chance I managed to slip in a rant about how much I loathe and despise every single thing about that store. Even if we met for, like, five minutes. Because that's how much I hate it. So yesterday it dawned on me that there is a closer grocery store: the Crazy Kroger at Poplar and Cleveland. That's right. Kroghetto.

For those of you not from Memphis, let me give you just a few pieces of information about this Kroger and its location.

1. Prostitutes work Cleveland in the daytime. Ones that should really only be seen at night. Without the benefit of streetlights.

2. A few years ago, my Dad's business contracted to redo the bathrooms in this Kroger. When they pulled out the panels from the dropped ceiling, they were hit with a rain of food wrappers placed there by junkies who steal food and take it into the bathroom of Cleveland Kroger to eat it.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. In the past year or so, I chanced to visit this Kroger a couple of times, with all four kids, to grab lunch supplies for us before heading over to my parents' nearby (temporary) midtown abode. I went with a "get in, get what you need, and get out alive" mentality, but even so, I sensed a realization hovering around the edges of my consciousness. And yesterday, with time to walk the aisles unfettered by bolting toddlers or begging kindergartners, it hit me full on: I like the Crazy Kroger. There, I said it!

As I walked in the front doors, I found myself in a produce section very similar to the one in Poplar Plaza Kroger, which is where I grudgingly spend about $700 a month on food. Except for two things. Wait, three things. It was cleaner, less crowded, and there was the cutest little floor display that comprised three bins. Guess what was in the bins. Go on, guess! You'll never guess. In the first one were little cans of Vienna Sausages. In the middle one were bottles of $.49 Kroger brand hot sauce. And in the third were Ramen Noodles. I can't really explain it, but that display filled me with a sense of comfort. And I don't even like Vienna Sausages! I think it was just the thought that someone who runs that store was in touch enough with the client base to put together a display that could have borne a sign reading "You don't have to starve even if you are broke as hell." It kind of reminded me of shopping at the midtown Pig back in my college apartment days, when $45 was an extravagant amount to spend on a week's worth of groceries.

I continued on through the store with that warm, secure feeling, looking around me and marveling at how truly clean the store really was. And it was so empty of people! The things I hate so much about Schnuck's are that it is tiny, extremely crowded, and organized like blind chimpanzees chose where each item should go. This Kroger was big, clean, well-laid out, and at that hour of the day, devoid of Patty-the-daytime-hookers and junkies and just about anyone else. It was the perfect grocery store!

As I checked myself out at the U-Scan machine, the attendant let another customer know that she did in fact have a little change left on her EBT card after paying for her stuff. "That's alright, " she called out cheerfully, "that's another meal. You could find you something over there for that l'il bit of change." I think I may start doing all my shopping over there. Seriously.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Sharpest Crayon

We just returned home from our mostly-annual Thanksgiving trip to Georgia to see the most immediate portion of BD's enormous Italian maternal family. On the way there, we stopped at our usual McDonald's with the giant playland just this side of Birmingham, Alabama, to let the kids take a break from puking into plastic grocery bags and also stretch their legs and throw away some food.

While waiting in line, we found ourselves behind three honest-to-goodness teenage farm boys. As they talked and joked with each other, I marveled at their almost-unintelligible Alabama drawl. I hear all kinds of Southern accents right here in Memphis, from the ultra-urban to the suburban to the transplanted Louisianans, but this was a whole other, extra-special kind of country accent. And just as I caught myself thinking snide thoughts about how ignorant they sounded, one of the boys flashed his calloused, blackened-though-scrubbed palms, and jokingly said that next time they all worked together, he was going to pretend not to know how to do anything as the others had done. One of his friends turned his equally grubby hands palms-up and protested that he had done his fair share. So, I thought, Miss Smarty Pants, these boys work. They know how to do things. And what do you know?

This thought threaded itself like a ribbon through the remainder of our meal. It was there when I took Somerset to the one-seater family bathroom and watched her sit on the rim of the toilet without noticing that the seat was flipped up, and when she stood in front of the hand dryer with her hands up and wondered aloud "How does it turn on?" in spite of the doorknob-sized, shiny silver button, and when she could not figure out how to open the door, and again back at the table when the box containing her chicken nuggets buckled slightly at the back, making it refuse to stay open and causing her to wail in dismay. It was there when we noticed that Joshua was running around the playland in only one sock, and when he admitted that he'd left the house that way because he couldn't find a matching pair, even though a giant brand-new package of socks was sitting right there in his sock drawer when he got dressed that morning.

All this prompted me to wonder what the hell is wrong with my children. They do well in school; two of them are even in the gifted program! Our house is full of books and art supplies and empty of cable cartoons and video games. I couldn't help compare my supposedly-brainy kids to those supposedly-ignorant farm boys, and wonder who would come out on top in the end. But then I started remembering things about myself as a child. Things like walking upstairs to wash my hands for dinner but brushing my teeth instead because I'd forgotten, in an instant, what I was supposed to be doing. Things like my Mom calling me "the absent-minded professor" and my dad's less patient responses to my mindless goofiness. And I thought, you know, I do OK. I'm not the most organized, together person on the planet, but I'm not the least, either. I hold down a respectable job, keep a reasonable grip on my household (with much pitching in by BD, of course), keep my kids dressed and fed and in school. I function.

Sure, there are things I don't know how to do that I really believe I should. I think it's sheer folly that most Americans have no skills when it comes to growing, making, or building things that meet our most basic needs for survival, and I'm not much better than most. I feel that I should know these things and that I should teach them to my children. So that's something to work on. That's a more constructive way of looking at it, I think, than just shaking my head at the baffling cluelessness of my children, or, worse yet, losing patience with them. They're only little kids, after all. Just like I was once.

Monday, November 19, 2007

One Day At a Time, Baby Steps, and Other Cliches

I have said it before, and I'll say it again: I don't believe there are many experiences, at least in Western culture, more hellish than the first year of parenting the first baby. Yeah, yeah, the baby is precious and cute, and of course you love the baby and would not change your decision to become a parent for anything in the world. Whatever. Most of it still sucks.

Wait, let me narrow that down. What I'm really talking about is the decision to become a mother. I don't know what it's like for the average Dad that first year, but you'd be hard pressed to convince me that it's as hard for them to adjust as it is for mothers. Let me not pretend this is about all parents. It's about mothers, and motherhood, and the impossibility of the whole entire deal.

I know someone who is really struggling with this whole adjustment issue right now. She's struggling with sleep deprivation and information overload and guilt and self-questioning and unsolicited advice and feelings of inadequacy and feelings, I would imagine, of "holy shit, what have I done to my life?" I believe that she feels anxious and possibly depressed and it is impossible for her not to believe, right now, that this is all her fault. That it's not supposed to be this hard. That other women do this every day, and better than she can ever hope to. And she's had a string of bad luck and other circumstances that have just intensified all of those feelings. And we don't know each other that well, so I don't claim to understand everything she's feeling or dealing with, but I think I have an inkling. And like all the other well-meaning, misguided Mothers On The Internet, I want to be able to help, and make her feel better, and offer her some magical solution to all the problems she's facing. But I know I can't do that.

Believing that there is one right way, or that there is a magical solution that will make everything work the way it's "supposed to" is the fastest way to insanity. Every baby is different. Every parent is different. The combinations are infinite, and even within each parent/child combo, time brings variation in the needs of each party. If I had to put my finger on the thing that makes that first hellish year of parenting so hellish indeed, I would tend to put it on the belief that we should not "give in" or surrender to the fact that we are parents now, our lives are never going to be the same, we are never going to be the same, and we have to fight parenthood and the changes it brings tooth and nail. Because parents are boring, aren't they? And maybe we need to believe that our regularly scheduled lives will be back after these messages from the very pissed-off baby. But they won't. They just won't. And for me, at least, accepting that and moving forward with my new life, my life as a mother, was the only thing I could do if I wanted to survive. I can't help but suspect that this is true for everyone. Because that's how that works, right? A little experience goes straight to our heads.

If I were going to speak directly to this struggling friend, here is what I would say: The things you are dealing with are every bit as shitty as they seem to you. They are real. But they are not unique to you. You are not the worst mother ever, nor are you the only mother you know right at this very moment who feels that she does not know what she's doing. We all feel like that. It may be delayed for some of us, that feeling, but it comes to us all sometime in the first year or two. I would say that I understand the temptation to seek out information and hope that the magical answer is out there if only you read one more book or article or website or forum, but you have to stop. Seriously. You can't keep doing that to yourself, and it's not going to help. It's just not. There is no answer that anyone else can give you. I could tell you that sleeping with my baby and sleeping right through feedings worked great for me. Our other friend could tell you that Ferberizing and religiously sticking to the crib worked great for her. It doesn't matter. I'm not you. She's not you. Our babies are not your baby.

Listen to me. You are a good mother. You love your baby and you have done everything that could possibly be expected of you. You would not expect yourself or anyone you know to walk into any other new situation and instinctively know exactly what to do at every given moment in order to achieve the most desirable result. Would you? This thing that you've signed up for? It's really, really hard. It's the hardest thing you've ever done. That's not going to change, probably. The difficulties will take on new shapes as time passes, but they won't really get easier. In fact, they will make you look back at this time, later, and laugh at yourself. What can change, and what has to, is the way you deal with the hard parts. You have to stop beating yourself up. You have to stop believing that everyone else is more qualified to mother your child than you are. You have to find a way to step back a little bit, center yourself as much as you can manage, and just accept that you are doing the best that you can. There is no reason at all for you to believe that if you were doing things differently, things would be different. That logic applies in other situations, but not this one. Love your baby. Love yourself. Get both of you up and dressed and fed every day. Get both of you in bed every night, one way or another, and eke out whatever precious sleep you can manage, and in the morning know that you are one night closer to this part of it being over. Trust me on this one thing: that is all you can do. Really. Accept that this will suck, and then one day, when you've forgotten to think about how much it sucks, you'll realize that it has stopped.