Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Parental Holy Grail

As a parent of a three-and-a-half year old, my Holy Grail has always been a job that I can do while raising my child that doesn't take me too far away from my parental responsibilities, and not only helps my child, but also makes the world a better place. I thought such an ideal was a myth, but it turns out that a hobby was my Holy Grail in disguise.

Before trying to conceive at 39, I might have said my ideal work was performing, especially Shakespeare. Communicating a story to an audience thrills me - ever since I can remember, I wanted to act. I put on plays in my Arlington, VA living room, wrote skits for my elementary school PTA, spent my childhood performing with Children’s Theatre of Arlington (now Encore Stage and Studio), Washington Lee High School, and then James Madison University.  I co-founded Cincinnati Shakespeare Company in 1994 and then moved to NYC, traveling for performances around the country.

After 10 years of shows on the road and writing two full-length plays, I realized that theatre is like a Ferris wheel – you get on, rehearse, do a show, repeat, and, if you’re lucky, the wheel never stops. But if I wanted to have a child, I had to get off the wheel to make it happen. My husband had a day job, and theatre happens mostly at night; it's kind of hard to make a baby if you're not in the same room with your partner! So I hopped off the wheel with a slight amount of trepidation, but the knowledge that theatre would be there when I was ready to return.

Miracle of miracles, I finally became a parent in 2012, at age 41. After my son was born, I knew I wanted to go back to work, but I wasn’t ready for the time commitment of a theatre production, and I didn’t just want to do something that would be meaningless to me and take away from the time that I was spending with him.

During my pregnancy, I had been on bed rest for 10 weeks, and I reconnected with art. Other than watching the Summer Olympics non-stop, I painted two canvases of “Bears at the Beach” for our nursery. My mom had done paintings for me and each of my sisters when we were small, and we treasure them. I loved passing on the tradition of making images my child would see all the time, and was proud of my work, but I never connected my fun with art to a job as an illustrator – I thought my style was too “cartoony.”

When my munchkin turned one, I had another burst of creativity and painted two decorative wall murals the night before his first birthday party. I’ve always been a night owl; I have a knack for working quickly, staying up all night, and still functioning the next day (with the help of lots of chai lattes).

Out of the blue, my sister Rebecca P. Cohen, author of Fifteen Minutes Outside: 365 Ways to Get Out of the House and Connect with Your Kids, asked me if I would be interested in doing an initial illustration of the main character for her children’s book concept about outdoor play and the world. It would be an experiment to see if I enjoyed illustrating and to see how we worked together. It was like a light bulb clicked on – I was drawn to illustrating something that would be a legacy for my child, the type of work played to my “cartoony” strengths, and I could do it when my son was asleep or at school.  I immediately set to work, and PJ came to life.

Now, two and a half years later, it turns out that illustration has been my Holy Grail. The second book in the PJ’s Backyard Adventures series, Play at a Paris Playground was just released. Once a week, I talk or Skype with my sister. If a family obligation comes up, we easily adjust. The bonus is that the book series has helped my son recognize letters and words; he loves to turn the pages and tell me the story. He plays with PJ word cards, and loves to take a cut out of PJ on his outdoor adventures (think of PJ as Flat Stanley for outdoor play). He even wanted to dress up as PJ in his pajamas, fireman’s hat, and boots for the open house at our local fire station. The illustrations I did for the second book fueled my little guy’s obsession with the Eiffel Tower and a gleeful zest for recognizing continents and individual countries on the globe.

I have a shirt with the quote, “Don’t ever waste your days not doing what you dream to do.” It brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw it. That quote even inspired my sister to leave the corporate world to start her business when her children were my son’s age.

What do you dream to do?

My priority now is to show my son joy in the smallest details of life, and sharing my PJ illustrations with him helps me do just that. In March, I’ll be back in rehearsals for my first stage production in five years – since before I “got off the wheel” to make time to bring my little one into the world. I adore being with my son. I don’t like the thought of missing our bedtime routine six nights a week, but both he and I are ready for it now. When I’m at work, he’ll have PJ to keep him company, and I’m grateful for the support of my family in helping to make what I dream to do – my Holy Grail – possible.

Marni Penning Coleman is an actress and illustrator of PJ’s Backyard Adventures: Who is PJ? and Play at a Paris Playground. She recently produced and starred in Sonnet 77, a short film for the Sonnet Project NYC, and will appear March 2016 as Mae in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, MD.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Put. The Phone. Down.

It took me over a month to write this post. I'm not even sure I'll finish it in one sitting. I'm writing it on my laptop, which is different for me, as I usually blog on my phone over my son's head while he's nursing to sleep. Lately, however, I can't seem to find the concentration to do anything except troll Facebook, play games, and refresh my email on my phone. Constantly. It keeps me up late at night when I should be sleeping. It robs me of the time I should be doing things like writing blog posts. It consumes almost all my waking hours when I'm not playing with, dressing, or feeding the Munchkin. And I hate that it does.

I knew I had a problem when I was soothing my son to sleep one day, and my phone was sitting next to me. He was nursing, I was singing softly, rocking back and forth, and with my free hand, I was scrolling through Facebook, "Like"ing people's photos, going through my notifications, seeing who had commented on what, how many people liked my links to this or that, and not paying any attention to my son whatsoever. He was going to sleep, right? He was sleepy, I was doing my job, end of story.

Except that I wasn't doing my job, and he sensed it. I wasn't really there. My body was, my milk was, but my mind was a million miles away. Finally, at just under a year old, he was noticing. And he got me back for it by not falling asleep. Eventually he got restless, so I let him play with the white noise machine while I surfed Facebook a while longer. I figured he was tired enough, he'd get bored eventually, and we'd go back to what we were doing. 20 minutes later, I was still mindlessly swiping my screen, and he was playing with the bedsheets, no closer to napping than when we started.

When it finally dawned on me that I should be PAYING ATTENTION TO MY SON, I felt deeply ashamed. Now don't get me wrong; when he was brand-new and barely cognizant, my phone got me through many a sleepless night while feeding my boy. But now... he saw. He was learning. What was I teaching him? That my stupid phone was more important to me than he was? I pulled him close and hugged him and apologized, and we went back to nursing and rocking, nursing and rocking. My phone was next to me, but off. And I had to fight every second to keep myself from turning it on.

What the hell?

What kind of a person have I become that I can't keep my phone off for 20 freaking minutes to give my undivided attention to the most important person in my life? Oh my god, I thought, I'm addicted. I'm completely and utterly addicted to a tiny jumble of metal and glass. And I'm not alone.

My son is obsessed with my phone. Mostly with eating it, right now, because he's teething, but also with having it. He has to have it. If it's out, in my possession, or anywhere in the room that's available, he makes a beeline for it. It's no wonder; that's exactly how I feel, too. I have to know where my phone is at all times. Right now I'm keenly aware of its weight in my left pants pocket. When my husband leaves the house, our mantra is, "Wallet, Keys, Phone." If we leave it somewhere that's not on our person, the first thing we want the other person to find for us is our phone. My husband had to email me from his work account today frantically asking if he'd left his at the house (he had - I could hear it vibrating in the other room - a noise to which I'm freakishly attuned). If I go dashing in to comfort the baby because he's awakened, I always grab my phone first, or have my husband search it out for me.

All babies that I meet these days are obsessed with phones. Because we are obsessed with our phones. But phones in our time aren't just phones; they're everything to us. They're organizers, and notebooks, and calendars. They're cameras, and video-takers, and entire libraries. They're a quick search for the answer to just about any question you could ever have. They're directions to anywhere you want to go. They're a quick chat with a friend without opening your mouth. And do you know what we look like to babies when we're using them? We look like a giant idiot staring slack-jawed at our hands. It takes our concentration and our focus away from whomever we're with and directs it at a teeny screen with no nerves, or flesh, or feeling. Whenever we're using our phone for these or a bazillion other uses (I believe that's the exact number of apps now listed in the App Store) we're not there. It's like the meme photo says: "What's the point of being afraid of the zombie apocalypse when you're already a zombie?"

A quick glance around any playspace confirms it - "Look at me!" screams a beaming child performing some awesome act of childhood derring-do while the parent in question, head bowed over their smartphone, says, "Great, hon," or worse, nothing at all. Pre-verbal children, of course, either just scream, or gaze intently at their mom or dad, huge grin on their face, knowing that their Big One must be doing something so important with that little gadget in their hands, that someday they'll be able to do it, too. Meanwhile, all that's occurring is a mind-suck into Facebookland or Words with Friends or texting another someone about something or other, while missing the fleeting minutes of their children's lives. If don't want my son to emulate this behavior as a teen, I thought, I'd better start setting an example now.

So I'm trying. I'm trying very, very hard. No more phone usage while he's going down for naps; I stare at it occasionally, but I keep telling myself, "You can do it. You don't need it right now. He needs you right now." I wait to post Facebook statuses until he's *actually* asleep. In the morning, if I'm up before he is, I check my email and Facebook feeds. When he wakes, my phone goes in my pocket, and I don't bring it out unless we're calling someone *together,* or I'm using it as a camera to take adorable pictures of him. If I happen to see that someone has texted me and needs answers right away, I say what I'm texting out loud, and to whom it is going, and look up and into his eyes every few words. If I have to check an appointment, or make a note, I include him in it, by telling him everything I'm doing, and pointing it out on the phone. But I try to touch it as little as possible. It's agonizing.

I feel like such a hypocrite - I've broken my own rule and done it three times in the course of writing this post already. At least I'm catching myself at it now, and stopping myself sooner. But from here on out, I vow to do better: I'm trying to erase the example I've been setting that the phone is a crutch, a necessity. That the phone is almighty and all-important. Because when I've had my head down in it for too long, and I look up to see him watching me, smiling, I wonder, "How long has he been looking at me like that, and how many of those smiles have I missed?"

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"Click," I said...

I found a Seatbelt the other day. Not one of those things you use to strap yourself into your car, but a "Seatbelt" only my sister and I understand.

I was born with an incredible sense of direction, and one of my favorite games is to drive around and try to get lost, then find my way back home again. I've done this all over the country, and have great memories of the things I find on these driving adventures. When trying to get home, I usually come out in an unexpected place on a road I know very well, and it suddenly *clicks*, "Oh - I can get here from there!" That joining of ways - an unfamiliar road that links back up with a very familiar area - in that one sudden realization is what I call a "Seatbelt." My sister is the only person, to my knowledge, that knows of this term and its meaning to me. I'm weird like that.

But I said it out loud at the time ("Huh! A Seatbelt!"); and though he doesn't understand me now, I know I'll pass this on to the Munchkin. This got me thinking - with what other bizarre sayings, only germane to me and a few others, will I be filling up his growing vocabulary?

A very good friend of mine, who is an opera singer and the eldest of four girls (as am I) got stuck in a seatbelt (a real one) after a car ride with her three sisters. As the other women chatted and exited the car, she struggled and vented, "I can't get out," but no one heard her. They blithely continued toward the house, and she cried out, "I can't get out, I said!" At which, one of the sisters who had stayed behind poked her head in the car and mimicked, "I can't get out, I said!" Then, "No one's paying attention to my needs, I said!" And thereafter, "I said" was attached to everything. "I'm eating a ham sandwich, I said!" "Turn the channel, please, I said!" "'Bye, I said!"

Well, she told me this story, and I ran with it. I was doing a play at the time, and got a friend of mine in it saying, "I said" after every statement, which she still does to me to this day. When the two of them finally met at my wedding, there were "I said"s flying. The same sister that knows about the "Seatbelt" knows about this, too. And, to my knowledge, no one else uses it. But the Munchkin will. I already tell him, "I love you, I said," all the time.

There are many more examples of my "isms," with which I'm going to seriously either flesh out or mess up his collection of idioms, including, "I wouldn't want it in my wedding" (referring to something that seems generically nice, but isn't to your tastes - from my youngest sister), "Well, the sky is spam" (which is said when someone has spoken what, to you, sounds like complete gibberish, derived from "Well-disguised spam" at a Cincinnati bus stop with the Seatbelt sister), and on, and on, and on.

He probably won't even think these are "weird" sayings, since he's going to grow up with them. And I'm sure we'll discover many more together. I'm just finding it amusing thinking of him being in his 20s, and his friends having no idea what he's talking about when he announces to them that, the other day, he found a Seatbelt on the drive home. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013


I may not survive this phase.

My cute, sweet, innocent, angel baby has discovered screaming. Not the, "Oh, he's just testing out the limits of his vocal range," screaming, but purposeful, "I don't like what we're doing right now and I don't want to be doing this anymore, so I'm going to show you my displeasure by balling up my fists and shrieking as loud as I can," screaming. And it's driving me mad.

I don't want it to drive me mad. I want to have the patience of a saint. I want it to not hurt my feelings when women in the locker room at the pool whom I can't see say, "Whoa, the lungs on that kid!" or, "Some of these kids' voices can really shatter glass, can't they?" even though they don't realize I'm just on the other side of the locker bank and I can hear them. I want to have a magic wand that will turn him back to happy, smiling baby when he screams in the face of his swim instructor and it echoes off the far walls of the massive natatorium. 

Because I don't want him to be THAT baby. No one wants to have THAT baby. And generally, he's not THAT baby. He's a good baby. An easy baby. Except lately, and always around other people. And I don't want that.

I want to have him respond with calmness when I lower my voice and take deep breaths and whisper to him with a great big loving look on my face after his shuddering and sudden shrieking has nearly pierced my eardrum. I want him to have the hand control to use the sign language he's beginning to understand so he doesn't feel the need to scream. I want to crawl into a hole and die from mommy-failure embarrassment when his repetitive screams in a restaurant turn an entire table of new-mom friends towards us wondering what it is I'm doing to my son to make him freak so loudly. I want, I want, I want.

But of course, it doesn't matter what I want. He's not me. He's a completely separate human being, with his own set of wants, and he isn't in control of them, yet. Unfortunately for me, I can only do what it is I'm doing - love him, show him attention, and don't give in to the screaming, so that he'll see it's not the screams that are making me play with him, it's not the screams that bring me running (unless they're screams of terror or pain, which are different), it's not the screams that will make me stop what it is that I'm doing and do what he wants to do. The battle of wills has begun.

So for now, I'll deal with a shrieky dinner if he's done and we're not; I'll sing through the screaming diaper change when he feels he doesn't need one and clearly is mistaken, and I will apologize profusely to friends and family who are on the wrong end of his high-decibel outbursts when they appear to be completely unwarranted. "It's just a phase," I'll tell them... tell myself, really. 

And I hope I'm right.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Daddy's Day

My kid is fairly contented, most of the time. People always tell me how "good" he is, which is sweet; it kind of bothers me in some ways, though, because no kids his age are "bad." He is, however, a very easy baby in most respects. At least, when he's with me.

Munchkin is 10 months old now, and he's seriously hit the "stranger danger" phase. He wants Mama and nothing but Mama, 24/7. He'll grin at people and do the flirty, shy, back-and-forth smile-then-look-away-then-look-back-to-see-if-you're-looking thing with my family, friends, even strangers if you catch him at the right moment, but only if he's in my arms. He'll pretend like he wants to let Grammie or Nana hold him, only to turn back around, crying for Mommy, in the next split second. You'd think that he was just a Mama's boy, but lately, there's one person who makes him happy like no one else can: his dad.

When my husband comes home from work, it doesn't matter what our son has been doing - his attention is all about Daddy, and he beams like he's got a 100-watt bulb in his head. I wish I could make him smile that broadly. I just took a picture of the two of them that I know will become one of my most prized possessions: my husband has just returned from a business trip, and is wearing the boy in our Ergo for the first time in months - both of them are looking at the camera, and the utter joy in both their faces, particularly our son's, brings tears to my eyes. They both love each other so much, and it's undeniable in that captured moment.

I'm ashamed to say that sometimes, I pull the mom-card with my husband. I don't trust that he's holding the boy properly, or watching him closely enough, or diapering effectively - I hover, and critique, and second-guess. I'm a new mom - I'm nervous. Our son is the most important person in the world to me, and I'm scared that if something were ever to happen to him, no matter who was watching him at the time, it would all be my fault. I'd blame myself; I know I would. 

I'm trying to do better. If I catch myself being unnecessarily overprotective, I apologize right away; try to breathe deeply, and think, "Trust..." to myself. I wouldn't do this with just anyone - if a random acquaintance is holding my boy, you'd better believe I'm spotting him, ready at a moment if Mr. Wiggle-worm decides to wriggle free while their attention is diverted. But my husband is trustworthy. Just because he wasn't born a mom doesn't mean that he has any less of the boy's best interests at heart. That boy is his life. If anything were to happen to him - he'd be more heartbroken than I would.

The best indicator of how much his daddy means to him is the length of time that the boy is calm in his presence. Whenever my husband and I go out for a date night, or I have an appointment or a job where I can't take the Munchkin, his grandparents stay with him; the reports I get back from Nana and Grammie are either a) he was fine for about an hour, but then began crying hysterically and exhausted himself until he crashed to sleep, or b) he began crying hysterically the second I was out the door and exhausted himself until he crashed to sleep. A couple of weeks ago, I left Munchkin with the hubby while I went for my Mother's Day gift: a 90-minute massage. It was amazing, but I was nervous -  would I return to a blubbering mess of a baby, thereby undoing all of the hard work my amazing massage therapist had undone from me? When I returned three hours later, it was like I had never left. My husband and child were playing happily together on the living room floor, and the hubs said the boy groused minimally when I left, but my loving man successfully distracted him, and was fine for the duration. I was so happy, I was almost in tears.

This morning I went for my six-weekly haircut, kissed the boy and man goodbye and skipped out the door. At my return, the scene was the same - both of them on the living room rug, smiling and playing. I can't tell you how much a relief this is for me; to know that leaving them together will be a pleasurable experience for them both, and giving my loving husband bonding time with our son. 

I still may seem unkind from time-to-time when I get frustrated that his parenting decision isn't one that I would have made, or if a hard-won nap is interrupted by a rough Daddy set-down of the carseat. I'm working on that. What will keep me on the kinder path is to remember that we're both new at this - my husband is just doing the best he can, as am I. All I have to do is look at my son's face as he lights up every time he sees my husband turn the corner, or when I say "Daddy's home!" and he starts to squawk, or when he cranes his neck to watch Dad pass by, to know that he loves his father with every fiber of his tiny little being, and he thinks his daddy's doing an awesome job. I think so, too.

Friday, June 14, 2013


June 15th marked our first bite with teeth. During a feeding, that is. My son has two teeth 1/2-way in on the bottom, and one tooth just coming in on the top. I screamed. It hurt.

I wasn't quite sure how I'd react, when the time came. He'd clamped down before, but with gums only. That hurt, too - I think I said, "OW! DAMMIT!" really loud, and passed him off to my husband while I walked it off in another room. When he did it again later, I'd say, "No bite. If you bite, it goes away." Then I'd give him to hubby, or set him to play by himself for a while before trying again. I was always very careful to watch his face and look him in the eye to make sure he didn't think it was funny.

The day of the teeth-bite, however, was a whole 'nother animal. He didn't just bite. He locked his jaw down around the nipple, and pushed against my chest with his hands while pulling his head back as if he were stretching taffy. His teeth scraped painfully against the flesh, and I screamed. Not proud of it, but there it is.

The look on his poor little face - he had no idea what he'd done, and of course it wasn't malicious. At 10 months, my son can do many things, but hurting anyone on purpose is not in his nature. He looked like he might cry. I quickly said, "No bite. That's called biting, and it hurts Mama. I can't let you bite me. If you bite, it goes away." Then, I used the same drill I'd established before, to give him to my husband, or have him play by himself. 

Now, the problem was, he nurses to sleep, and this was happening at bedtime. I was torn - I needed him to see the consequence of the action, but he was also really tired and needed to go to sleep (which wasn't helping)! I let him play for a bit, then brought him into my lap to nurse again. He did it again, this time, clamping down and turning his head really fast. (OW!!!!!)

This time, I had tears in my eyes. It was getting really hard not to take this personally; I knew, intellectually, that he was not aware he was causing me pain, but it hurt so bad! I repeated my admonishment, and redirected him, this time to books.

As we read the story, he kept diving for my boobs. I put him off and put him off, saying, "Since you bit Mommy, we have to wait," and went back to reading the story.

By the third time (yes, I am a glutton for punishment)) I think he got it. I said, "I can't let you bite me, but you can bite this teething toy." He went back and forth, nicely nursing, then stopping to bite the toy, then back to nice nursing! Every time he went back to nice nursing, I'd thank him, praise him, and kiss him. (He loves to hear, "Thank you.") Then he went to sleep. Whew.

I feel bad for babies: teething has got to suck. Pain in your mouth so severe it makes you cry, and an incessant need to bite, and chew, and grind, and drool - I don't envy them that. I'm so glad it happens in the time when the data banks are erased, before memories are fully formed. I don't remember any pain when my baby teeth fell out, nor when the permanent teeth grew in - the holes were already there. The new teeth just popped right into their places. The pain he's feeling now, as each new tooth makes its appearance through gummy tissue; well, I know how I feel when I get a canker sore or accidentally cut my gums with my toothbrush, and it's no fun. To have that kind of pain constantly gnawing at you without an explanation or clear understanding of why it's hurting you has got to be torture. It's a wonder they can sleep at all.

It's now June 24th, and we've made it nearly 10 days with only one or two biting recurrences. Each time, I repeat my, "I can't let you bite me" mantra, and I set him aside, giving him something else it's acceptable to bite on. If I can feel his jaw about to tighten, I give a warning, "No bite..." and he'll relax, and I say, "Thank you..." and we go on from there. I really do think he's getting it. I sincerely hope so. One hears horror stories of mothers losing part (or all) of their nipple to a ravenous toddler, and I'm just not that into body modification.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A List

33 (totally normal) things my son does while nursing, from the cute, to the awwwww-inducing, to the painful, to the mildly irritating:
  • Pat my other breast with his free hand (As if to say, "Good boobie, nice boobie...")
  • Gently run his fingers over my skin
  • Punch me in the face
  • Pound on my other breast with his free hand
  • Try out his pincer grip on the underside of my arm
  • Rotate the opposite nipple with his free hand like a dial
  • Snap my bra strap
  • Watch the ceiling fan
  • Remain latched while pushing me away with all his might (usually while sound asleep)
  • Knead the breast he's on (like a cat)
  • Roll his eyes back in his head
  • Pull down on my lower lip
  • Reach into my mouth, hook his fingers on my teeth, and pull my jaw downward with all his might
  • Take tiny bits of my skin and try to rip them off with his fingernails
  • Grab and squeeze my love handles over, and over, and over...
  • Take a sip, pop off, then pop on again for another sip, then pop off and look around, then pop back on (repeat)
  • Pinch a small section of the opposite nipple between his fingernails (this is new)
  • Feel around to make sure the other breast is still there
  • If nursing in a carrier, reach out and try to touch doorknobs, open refrigerator/freezer doors, or flip light switches off
  • Hug the breast like a stuffed animal
  • Put both hands on the boob so it looks like he's blowing air into a beach ball
  • Latch on, then turn his head to lay it on my chest and close his eyes (I love this)
  • Grab the breast while lying down and pull it into his mouth so I have to follow (instead of leaning toward me)
  • Discard one breast in favor of the other
  • Sitting up on my lap, go back and forth between sides
  • Burp with the breast still in his mouth
  • Strum his fingers across the boob like he's playing a guitar
  • Look around at everything except me
  • Self-latch while still asleep
  • Throw his arm over his eyes and rest it on the boob (to block out the light)
  • Rake his teeth across the nipple (we're trying to stop this)
  • Rest his hands gently on either side of the breast
  • Gradually fall asleep, relaxed and contended. :)