Friday, March 20, 2009

In Defense of the Only

Here's a scene from my past:

“Time for another one,” my mother-in-law quipped as I strapped my 2-year-old in his carseat to head back to the airport and our home on the opposite coast.

“Oh, no,” I said firmly, disabusing her early of any idea of a swelling brood of new grandbabies populating any nest I was to be in charge of.

She gasped. “He's going to grow up ALL ALONE?”

“All alone,” I confirmed, kissing the wretched island of a boy on the forehead and shutting the door.

There is much talk and even more tacit agreement among parents and non-parents alike that one just isn't enough. They turn out selfish. C'mon, everybody knows that. Spoiled. Not to mention, they'll miss that close relationship with another sibling when they're older. This is just common knowledge. Right? I mean, word on the street is a sibling is the “greatest gift you can give your child.”

Yawn. Sorry. That was just me, tiring of the standard line of thinking, weary from continually pressing my face up against the glass of the Status Quo Shoppe. I'd like to propose something radical – the idea that just maybe, being or having an only child isn't so bad after all.

The duos and trios and foursomes have had their due, and clearly there are many advantages to these tribes. Now let's examine – a little differently – the singleton.

Allow me to first err on the side of sanity. When I got pregnant, my first thought wasn't “Whew! Now I'll have two more hands to help on the farm!” Things moved more along the lines of “I only have two hands and no family close by and how am I going to raise this child without help?” Add subsequent human beings to this daily craze of isolation and death-defying speed? I chose no.
One child means if that child needs to nap, he gets to. And when one child is napping, mama can relax. One child is not hauled off to big sister's field hockey game or little brother's doctor's appointment, spinning along in the car from one thing to the next that's not about him.

I also firmly believe that single-child homes build social skills. You may think this counter-intuitive. However, one child, in the safety net of the home can successfully practice and see reflected back through modeling, manners, sharing, and other basic social interactions since they get to do these things with parents. No, no parent is a perfect model of any of these, but for those of us that are conscious parents, we at least have the chance to present what we want them to see on our better days.

Experimental play has greater possibilities for the only. I can let Isaac do things and carry his imaginative ideas further than I ever could if there were a younger sibling crawling around, for reasons of safety or just chaos control. We don't worry about small pieces, and I know that I can handle one child “cooking” with water, granola, and anything else I'll let him have at the kitchen table, let's say, but if it were two or three? I fear the mob.

There is great value in focused attention and uninterrupted solo play, as well. Celebrated writer John Updike, whom we lost just two months ago, said, "I'm sure that my capacity to fantasize and to make coherent fantasies, to have the patience to sit down day after day and to whittle a fantasy out of paper, all that relates to being an only child."

But I believe the greatest gift – if I can steal a phrase – gleaned from the social puzzle that the only child enjoys is bigger even than those pieces. He/she knows early on the necessity of reaching beyond our own home to people we have to work a little harder to know. Circumstances create the opportunity for them to reach out for connection. What could be a more important a skill for our world today? What could be more basic in terms of human need? Connecting with and appreciating connections with others is one of the most dire needs we have, something we will work toward all our lives. My kid has a jump start.

Remember that “wretched island of a boy?” Since he doesn't have to compete with anyone else for time, attention, food, or toys, our primary work is about hearing each other and connecting with other people.

I'm the first to admit that the young only child is a challenge for the parent who is asked to play on a continual basis – speaking hypothetically, of course (eh-hem...). And it's often at those times – when my boy is begging for a play date that can't happen, or I'm having to decide whether to sit down and play demolition blocks or try to have a moment with my own thoughts – that I question my wisdom. But I also know I'd not do anyone any favors if I went through the infant stage again with another baby. I was not good at it. I did not like it. I'm not supposed to admit that. Too bad. It sucked. And here we're right back in the sanity argument. I think my son deserves a mom who knows her limitations and can stay on the sunny side of them.

Besides, those fabulous siblings? You don't get to choose them. And despite parents' attempts to write a rule book on this, there are surely no guarantees about siblings becoming best buds as adults. All of us can think of multiple examples of siblings we know or we are that don't share this rumored unbendable bond.

I grew up the youngest of four. With eight years separating me and my closest sibling, however, to a large degree I experienced the situation of the only child. There is no doubt that I didn't always prefer it. I have memories of unwelcomed alone time and of times when I pleaded futilely with my oh-so-grown-up sisters and brother to play with me. And I also learned the value of reflection, solo play, and the immensity of inner worlds.

I entered the larger world with a better understanding of my own inner world. To this day, there is nothing I value higher than connecting with others.

Recently, we visited friends who have a single child – a daughter about six months older than my four-year-old. We hadn't seen them in three years and the kids didn't know each other at all. Immediately after walking in their house, our friend's daughter announced, “I have lots of toys!” She waited, wide eyes fixed on my Isaac. The tone of the statement was not gloating, nor was it that kind of arbitrary information that kids frequently offer. It was quite clearly an invitation. During our stay she shared readily, and when we said goodbye, presented Isaac with her largest teddy bear to borrow when he left.

Certainly every child has his or her own personality. Some might even say that this little girl's eagerness was a sign of loneliness. However, I have another take on it. What if even as children we regularly had to reach out to the larger world to find the kind of strong connections that sustain us?

In the end, of course, we deal with whatever we are handed.

But just here, just this once, may we hail the only, who thrives perhaps not despite his circumstances, but because of them.

It's a big world out there.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

the making of a vegetarian

Here's another book post that was just too big for the sidebar.

For Isaac's birthday last month, our sitter got him the book First Thousand Words in Japanese, a picture dictionary, essentially. Isaac is obsessed with it. We must read it at any nap and every bedtime. "I can't find the 'kai,'" he'll say at the beach scene, searching diligently for the boat oar. We don't put the oversized purple volume back on the bookshelf anymore. It just lives by the bed.

It has also become an unlikely forum for discussing the inevitably complicated world of food choices. We've come across the butcher on the professions page, and the various kinds of meat on the food page. Isaac studies them with the ultimate in consternation, or, some days, simple curiosity or confusion.

We are vegetarians. Let me revise. Isaac and I are vegetarians and although Mike hasn't eaten any meat to my knowledge for years, he rejects the title. Whatever. The only animal product that Isaac consumes is fish oil vitamins. For now, it is easier to break with our morals on this one point and get some important stuff in him.

Even more interestingly, our sitter is a vegan. And yet here we are, among the bikes and boats of the book, the scenes from the countryside, the living room furniture labeled in Japanese, stuck on a couple pages that provide us with a new education and, can I also say, just a bit of torment for parent and for child.

Here are a few of the encounters we've experienced lately:

Day One: Professions

We open the book to where Isaac and his dad left off the day before. It's the professions page. Before I can get started on anything, Isaac zeros in on the butcher slicing ham. Pointing he looks up at me and reports seriously, "Pig."

"Hmm, yeah, pig."

He stares at the picture, not ready to move on. We are quiet.

"That would be ow-y for the pig if it got cut like that."

"Yeah, Iz, I think it would be."

Day Two: Food

"Pig," Isaac announces pointing at the ham.

"Chicken," he says, mashing his finger into the picture of the headless, roasted bird.

His dad beat me to the punch again.

We look at the whole page - the words for toast, rice, honey, circling back again and again to the meats - Isaac's choice. He insists on calling the ham "pig," which is fine with me since I have this crazy idea about honesty.

My kiddo is in deep contemplation, then, "Mama, maybe they eat the eyes too."

"What do you think, Isaac?"

"I don't know," he says accompanied by a troubled look. "Probably before they caught the pig, the pig tried to run away."


"But they just had a gun and they shot the gun at it."

"What do guns shoot?"

"Candy, mostly."

"Hmm. So what do you think of all that?"

My heart nearly breaks waiting through the pause, heavy with what is maybe the weightiest thing his four-year-old mind has had to sort...

"I think it's not very nice."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Donald Hall

Here is a link to an audio interview I did last month with poet Donald Hall.
If you go back to the homepage, at least today, there are also a couple additional intro paragraphs.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

dollar store book part II

I'm still reading this book and laughing so hard I could rupture something.

What you need:

18- or 20-gauge tin
Rubber cement
Aviation snips
Drill and drill bits
Jeweler's saw
Abrasive scrubbing pad
2 feet of copper pipe
Soldering gun or propane torch
Spray enamel
Large glass jewels
Scrap of red glass
Epoxy glue

...If you're like me, maybe you're looking at this list thinking "What You Escape Alcatraz?" In fact, it's all you need to make a whimsical cat craft for your garden, silies!

Monday, March 16, 2009

the dollar store and messing with the parent market

This post was originally going to be part of an updated books sidebar for the blog, but I quickly realized it needed its own post.

File it under Lessons from the Dollar Store. There are always reasons. There are always reasons something is being sold at the dollar store, for a dollar. The end.

We may credit Obama for re-inventing hope, but truly, people, it's been there all along. So full of hope is the human race, that time after time, we *hope* the spatula we buy at the dollar store will not break in the first week we have it. We *hope* the socks we get there will feel like cottony clouds and outlive the tired feet they cradle.

File it under people screwing with the market niche for parents.

Perhaps it goes without saying that Mike and I have little time together these days, that the precious few dates we get, we must savor, revel in, that the average day sees us say not more than a sentence to each other that doesn't involve our offspring and ends us in exhausted heaps. This would clearly explain why we found ourselves recently, together, without our son, at the Dollar Store. As part of this intimate and fulfilling journey, we discovered a book. It's called Making Crafts from Your Kids' Art by Valerie Van Arsdale Shrader. We debated over it. Hemmed and hawed and wondered if we'd employ the know-how hidden within the colorful volume, until we looked at each other and exchanged those fateful words: “It's only a dollar!”

Come to find out, there was a reason.

My first clue was the lists of things you needed for each project. Some started out with things like

graphics software program
color laser printer

Whoah. Hold up. Um. Well, okay. I guess. I mean, which graphics program? Nevermind, 'kay, sure. Then, just to reassure you, the list would continue this way


Oh, right. Okay. Yeah. I get it. Well, heh-heh, can't do much without a computer these days, can ya? And look, here we are: scissors and glue, ah, the comforting world of crafts. Then it would go on to

color photocopier

Whaa? Well, you say, still wanting to make sense out of what you've come upon, no problem. That's what those monster stationery stores are all about – I can just pack up my scissors and glue and head on down to the self-serve color copier! I'm with the program. No sweat.

In following projects, however, certain items would steal my balance without warning. Beside things like “paper” and “Popsicle sticks” came other things, like band saws, or, plain metal lunch boxes. Huh?

Things really heated up once I got to the “picture sweater” - a child-sized sweater stitched with the charming landscape your child drew and signed with her name. It wasn't so much the items on the list that got me, but what wasn't mentioned. The list of what to have goes something like this:

simple sweater pattern
knitting needles
graph paper
colored pencils

She forgets to kick in that you might also need THE ABILITY TO KNIT.

In keeping with its good cop/bad cop attitude, the book departs from the sweater to show how to get your kid's drawings onto normal-ish things like wrapping paper and post cards. Then it comes out with this one: the clay tile project. I'll reproduce the actual list of “ingredients” here followed by my editorial comments.

What You Need – sadly, I can't quite recreate the cheery font of this line.

Photocopier – alright.
low-fire red clay – can manage.
rolling pin (optional) – got it.
fettling knife – no idea what this is, but reasonably confident I could find out.
Plastic – uh...? more direction, please.
Slips, in colors to match the artwork – like the kind we used to wear under dresses? I hope the artwork is white, black and taupe.
Paintbrushes – with ya.
Pencil or sharp tool – this causes me some nervous laughter, but, okay...
loop tool - ??? I might still have that plastic loop for making cool ponytails that I bought years and years ago from the “As Seen On TV” store.
low-fire glazes – okay, there is likely a source for these around.
Kiln - WTF?????????????????????????

I could go on to other examples, but I think you probably get the idea. This chick's next book is going to be titled Walk To Anywhere In the World! (If You Have the Time).

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