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. :)

Friday, June 7, 2013


My dad got down on one knee and proposed to my mom again tonight. This time, it was outside of a restaurant, at the corner of a busy intersection, 45 years to the day after they were married.

My parents have always been the epitome of romance for me. Forget movies and television; give me something real. A real husband who writes his wife sticky notes every day and leaves them on the front door, so she'll see them when she arrives home from a hard day at work. A real wife, who writes her husband long, heartfelt missives in actual cards for every holiday in her perfect penmanship. A real couple who still holds hands on walks and hugs and kisses and slow-dances in the kitchen, even when there's no music playing. Who say, "I love you," to each other at every opportunity. That kind of real.

Growing up, this was the behavior that was modeled for me. My dad would often turn to us and say, "Isn't your mother beautiful?" and Mom would blush like a schoolgirl (he still does this). They had their disagreements and fights, like every other couple, but there was never any question that my parents loved each other. While it seemed more and more of my classmates' parents' marriages were crumbling, no threat of that kind existed in our household (though curiously - and yay for this - almost all of my closest friends' parents are still together, too!) "For better or worse," they said - and took it to heart.

My father has had years of health issues, including the last ten years with Lyme disease, and my mother has been there for him every step of the way. ("In sickness and in health...") Her patience and love for him have gotten them through trials that would have easily broken lesser mortals. But their love always prevailed.

Their story is unique - they met as teenagers, who went to sister Catholc schools in the same town (Mom to the all-girls half, Dad to the all-boys). After high school, my dad entered the seminary, and was all set to become a priest; he had all but taken the vows, when he decided he couldn't do it - he had to be with my mother. (I imagine the screenplay for this all the time... meeting on a dark, rainy evening; my dad in his robes behind barred gates; my mom outside not able to talk to him or touch; the music swells as she turns away and he watches her go; it's all very Nicholas Sparks.)

My three sisters and I are super-glad he decided against celibacy, of course. So are his children-in-law, and his grandsons. "All because two people loved each other," so the saying goes, their little twosome has grown to 14 in family photos, all the smiles beaming in reflection of the love between this husband and wife.

When I came of age for dating, I expected the kind of treatment from boyfriends that I saw in the behavior of my father, and I rarely found it. I would watch the love between my parents, and think, "That's what I want." Four years ago, on my parents' wedding anniversary, I finally found it. And now, here I am, four years later, lying next to a beautiful little sleeping boy, the product of that amazing love. The first time my husband said to our son, "Your Mommy's so pretty," my heart melted, and I'm sure I blushed like a schoolgirl, too (and yes, he still does this).

Is there something magical about June 6? Perhaps there is. Maybe it's just the influence of a radiant couple, who projects their shining love out into the world for all to see, even on a busy street corner, 45 years after their wedding day.

I love you, Mom and Dad!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Arlington County, VA is about to lose one of its best educators. My mother, Mary Ann Templeton Penning, is about to retire, after 29 years at the head of her classroom.

My mom has taught me everything I know about... well, almost everything, I suppose; but in particular, she's shared her love of students, and her love of teaching. I've only been lucky enough to visit her classroom while school was in session a handful of times, but I've seen her outside the classroom talking with kids on innumerable occasions, and you will not find a more kind, gentle, extroverted, giving soul anywhere. And the kids adore her.

My mom can become friends with nearly anyone in seconds, child or adult. She has no fear of walking up to people and starting a conversation with a bright smile, excited eyes, and a genuinely interested observation about whatever it is they are doing. People warm to her immediately - it's an amazing gift. She can put any child almost immediately at ease; it's totally guileless, too - she really does want to know more about what each and every child is reading, how they enjoy school, and whether they've developed a passion for mathematics (her favorite subject. Mine, as well.)

Don't cross her, though. I remember, growing up, being terrified of my mother's face when she got serious. Her eyes, which she describes as "hazel," are actually a beautiful, bright yellow with dark-rimmed irises - I've never seen any other like them. When her smile drops, and she opens her eyes so wide that you can see the entire ring around the iris, you are in BIG trouble. 

My favorite punishment that she devised for students who weren't getting along was to make them go on "lunch dates;" the offending parties would have a private lunch together, with my mom, in the classroom, and discuss their differences. I love this idea - I'm sure the kids were terrified of it, but hopefully, it set them up for a lifetime of airing their grievances in a constructive manner, rather than explosive conflict-without-consequence.

My mom also works harder for more hours than anyone I've ever known. Anyone who thinks teachers have an easy schedule never met my mother. It's not unusual for my sisters or I to call her house well into the evening, and hear my dad say, "Mom's at school." Her classroom is a well-stocked playspace filled with books, games, scientific experiments, and posters of historical events, much of which she has acquired herself over the years at her own expense. Her house is constantly littered with papers upon papers to grade, and it seems she's always "working on report cards." She also taught summer school for many, many years, and even tutored my sister in law with her college-level math. All of this while making less of an income than an entry level executive almost anywhere. (About which she has never, ever complained.)

She also went back to school - nights and weekends while teaching, mind you - and got her Master's of Education in 2002 at the age of 56, afterwards becoming a "math specialist" in addition to her regular teaching load. I've never understood why people say that girls aren't interested in math - because of my mother, I've always loved it. But no matter the gender, I know she's done yeoman's work to make sure all the kids in her classes love math, too.

As if she weren't cool enough, she was also selected by NASA, out of hundreds of applicants, to attend Space Camp (how many people do you know that have actually been to Space Camp?) A couple summers ago, she worked as a docent in historical garb in the blistering heat at Jamestown and relished the experience, and a few years prior, at age 60, spent two weeks on a NOAA fishing vessel studying (and shucking) scallops far out in the Atlantic Ocean in the coveted position of Teacher-at-Sea! (We had a scallop feast in her honor at my sister's house upon my mom's return to shore.)

Add all this together, and you get the woman who was very deservedly honored as Randolph's Teacher of the Year in 2012. She had been nominated thrice previously. For those of us who know her, the honor was long overdue. But each time it wasn't her, she was genuinely happy for, and had nothing but nice things to say about, the person who did win, as well as her fellow nominees. When it was finally her turn, you would never find a more humble winner. My mom never gloats about anything.

I have no doubt my mother will enjoy her retirement; my dad says she's been coming home from those marathon nights in the classroom exhaustedly declaring, "It's time." But do I think she'll be idle? Hardly. She's a longtime member of the Blessed Sacrament Bells in Alexandria, and long-standing board member of the Arlington Outdoor Education Association, which runs The Outdoor Lab, and a past President and member of the teaching sorority Delta Kappa Gamma for many, many years... she won't be sitting around. I think she and my dad may get the chance to travel more, something they've always wanted to do. And do I think she'll actually stop teaching? Never. Education is her lifeblood. Besides, she's got four grandsons now, and her four daughters rely on her to teach their children (and them) everything she knows.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Mission Accomplished

Well, I did it. My friend Traci at A Star in My Own Universe was doing a blog-a-day undertaking, which inspired me: I hadn't written anything longer than an email since before I became pregnant with my son, now 9 months old. I challenged myself, on May 2, to start this blog, and write every remaining day in May, which I'm very proud to say I actually did. Thank you so much to all the people who have said they are enjoying my writing - you've inspired me to keep going!

I may not be so hard-core as to force myself to stay up every night and finish a daily post from here on out, but when something is important, or silly, or funny, or touching, you'll hear from me. My friend Sarah said my blog is helping her "not feel so alone" as a new mom, and that was certainly my aim; to share stories that won't be so embarrassing that my son will hate me when he grows up, but personal enough to tell other moms that might be going through whatever I'm experiencing that they're completely normal. And not alone.

I so appreciate each and every one of you reading my words. Thank you from the bottom of my heart! I think I'll reward myself by actually getting some sleep for once.

Talk to you again soon.

The InsomniMama