By the Seat of our Pants

Recently, a social worker visited our house to evaluate how Penelope was handling her new environment. I tend to make Bernadette nervous before these visits because I threaten to say things like, “Well, I’d love to show you the basement but I’m afraid the other orphans are down there rolling tobacco leaves into cigars.”

During this visit, the social worker spotted our copy of the book “What To Expect From Your Toddler” sitting on the coffee table besides an assortment of toy musical instruments and asked me, “So, what have you learned?”

“I’ve learned I no longer have time to read,” I said.

OK, that’s not entirely true. Recently Bernadette returned from the library with an armful of books with titles like “Parenting With a Purpose” and “The Secret of Parenting.” Occasionally, I will flip open a book and leaf through it as if I expect some ephiphanic phrase to leap off the page causing me to leap off the couch and exclaim: “That’s it! That’s what I need to do to guarantee my kid will always behave in every situation no matter where we are or how much (or little) sleep she has had!”

Needless to say, that hasn’t happened, nor will it ever. I think experience is the great teacher in parenting. Well, perhaps not experience itself, but what we do with what we experience. (I guess you can say that about anything in life.) We’re lucky because overall Penelope behaves well. But, like any child, she has moments when she acts bratty, antagonizes the dogs, or decides her play stove is boring and wants to play with the real one. When Penelope crosses the bad-behavior line, she winds up in her room or sitting on the family-room steps thinking about what she did wrong.

Lately, we’ve been struggling with Penelope’s unwillingness to nap. One Sunday afternoon, Penelope absolutely refused to nap, even though she had Samsonite-sized bags drooping below her eyes. We eventually threatened her with canceling our planned pool outing (swimming, not billiards!) if she didn’t rest.  Nothing worked. The minute we left the room, Penelope would climb off the bed to read or play. This went on for much of the afternoon, leaving Penelope even more exhausted, Bern on the verge of tears and me pulling my hair out. Although the day was a scorcher, Bern and I agreed that we couldn’t give in and take her to the pool.  Then, we discussed whether we needed to wean Penelope off naps anyway — she starts afternoon pre-school this fall — and how best to go about doing so.

But I think in this and the hundreds of other instances that have popped up, we’ve learned that parenting by the seat of our pants is a perfectly natural approach. You can read all the books you want, call all the friends and family members whose parenting skills you respect, but it all comes down to relying on your experience and common sense to make an intelligent, quick decision. And I hope and suspect that as long as Bern and I support each others’ decisions and keep the lines of communication open, that it’ll all work out. Somehow.

Bern and I do our best to do the right thing. We’re vigilant about teaching her manners, and can honestly say that it’s less and less often now that we need to remind her to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you,’ or ‘excuse me’ if she needs to interrupt a conversation. Sometimes she gets the phrases mixed up.

The other day Penelope was drinking a glass of milk at the dinner table when she let out an adult-sized belched.

“What do you say?” I asked.

“Thank you!” she responded.

So, she’s learning . . . well, we’re all learning!

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Lead stomach in Leadville

The inevitable happened in Leadville, Colorado earlier this year. I was walking along the main street in the city with the highest elevation above sea level in North America when I heard a gurgling noise, a distinct splat and a startled yelp from Bernadette.

Penelope had succumbed to altitude sickness: The orange, Grape Nuts, egg, and granola bar our daughter had eaten for breakfast beat a hasty retreat from the bottomless pit of her belly. During the drive to Leadville, Penelope fussed and screamed in the car, but we took this as a sign of her being tired, not a warning that it was Sayonara cereal time.

To make matters worse,  Bern was carrying Penelope in the back pack, which meant she was now wearing Penelope’s breakfast like a bad hat.

The episode was remarkable to me for two reasons. First, we had recently celebrated our sixth-month anniversary with our daughter and except for a minor incident involving  too many blueberries on an empty stomach, she hadn’t vomited yet. So far, she has endured a 15-hour plane ride from Beijing to Newark, and exposure to other young children carrying unfamiliar germs, and devoured vast quantities of offerings from the seven seas, an organic farm and nearby restaurants with barely a belch.

The second surprise was this: Penelope’s vomiting failed to set off a bizarre chain reaction. I can visualize it in slow motion: Bernadette diving her head into the nearest trash can while Penelope holds on to the backpack for dear life; me reeling before collapsing to my knees and retching in the gutter; my college friend Dina  looking down on the whole mess, puzzled and wondering why she ever invited us out to Denver.

One of the many things that terrify me as a parent is knowing little kids can do some really disgusting things. They jam their fingers inside their nostrils and pull out green goo the size of  a marble. They crap three times their weight in one sitting. They find a week-old hunk of cheese mashed between the couch cushions and think it’s a perfectly appropriate mid-afternoon snack.

I know little kids can do disgusting things because I used to do them all the time. When I felt sick as a child, I would climb the stairs, walk into my parents’ room, announce my illness and then proceed to throw up all over the throw rug. Never mind that my bedroom was next door to the bathroom. Maybe I thought the odds I’d get to stay home from school improved if my Mom had to scrub the floor that night. Regardless, the problem was that seeing myself sick only made me more sick.

If I could barely stomach my own illness, I sure as well couldn’t handle someone else’s. And that meant college would prove challenging  because I would witness classmates overindulging on Saturday night and paying for it Sunday morning. At times I hear the prayers of those who didn’t make it to church bouncing off the ceramic tiles in the men’s room, and pause for a moment wondering whether I could stomach what would surely be an ugly scene.*

So I always figured I was the wrong person to ask for help if you got sick. The few times Bern has been ill since our marriage, I’ve done the concerned husband thing: planted myself firmly about two feet from the partially closed bathroom door and asked if she wants a glass of water. I thought when Penelope gets sick, I’d say to Bern, “Why don’t you go clean her up and I’ll . . . ah . . . who’s thirsty?” But when Penelope foiled my strategy by not only getting sick but also using Bern as a target, I had to think fast.

I volunteered to run into the nearest luncheonette to grab some napkins. Hey, at least I was standing on my own two feet and not rolling around in the gutter.

I always knew I had it in me . I just never suspected I could keep it there.

*Just for the record, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy one or two or 10 adult beverages on a given night while in college. But somehow I was pretty good about not crossing that point of no return between just feeling fuzzy headed the next morning and wanting to cut my head off and tossing it down the trash chute.

{This blog entry has been sitting around for a while collecting cyber-mold. Maybe I just didn’t have the stomach to publish it!}