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The Mother of All Gifts. Literally.

If I think about who, what, where and when I am, the answers usually involve being a mother.  The why and the how do as well; however, the responses are much more intricate.  I’m unsure as to whether I’ve always wanted to be a mother, but I seem to have been born with a hyperempathy that has compelled me to want to care for and protect people, to hug complete strangers, to feed them, to wipe their tears away.

When I was younger, I couldn’t count myself among the little lasses who dream of jumping on the back of that prince’s white horse or who fantasise about walking down a petal-lined aisle.  I do remember, though, reading about Josephine Baker and her melting pot of adopted children, and it made me smile.  I thought what a beautiful life it would be to be surrounded by life.

The first time I became pregnant, I was 32.  From the time I read about Miss Baker until then, I knew I wanted to have children.  Not just one or two, but a lot.  I used to say I wanted at least as many as the offensive line-up of an American football team.

When I met my ex-husband, he made it clear that he did not want to have any children.  After he said this, I questioned my desire to have my own brood, asking myself if I really wanted to be a mother or was I only interested in children, or if there was a difference.  For me, there was a difference, and I was sure I wanted both.  I didn’t only want to work with children, teach children or be an aunt or godparent; I wanted to mother as only a mother can.  But because my ex-husband was adamant about not wanting children, and because I was in love – a love that I had never known up to that point in my life – I agreed that we wouldn’t have children.

Love was not the only factor.  Fear was another.  And in retrospect, I think I used love as an excuse to mask my fear of becoming a mother.  I knew that the razor-sharp emotions of a mother, steeped in unconditional love, ran so deep so as to render me raw at any given moment.  When one is raw, one is exponentially more susceptible to pain and sorrow.  Yes, one is simultaneously extremely vulnerable to overwhelming bliss, pride, and affection, but even then, I would be raw, my heart aching with positive sentiments.

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Raindrops Keep Fallin’

For the most part, I like the rain.  I like the sound of it, the puddles, the unpredictability of which way a downpour will sometimes blow, and the fact that it gives me an excuse to stay inside all day with my little guy and play games, pretend we’re superheroes and paint.

And I like rain accoutrement – the wellies, the coats, and the umbrellas.  After watching Mary Poppins as a child, I had a fascination with umbrellas that lasted a few months.  I’d borrow my granny’s black umbrella, open it up at the top of the sloped driveway, hold it up high and run down, waiting for the umbrella to works its magic and elevate me.  On several occasions, I slipped on the oil-slicked surface – with the bruises and cuts to prove it – but I continued nonetheless, hoping that one day that umbrella would bump me up to the skies.

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Five Favourite iPad Apps for Munchkins at the Mo

I used to travel heavy.  By heavy, I mean when my son and I travelled to the US last year, three of the carry-ons were full of his toys, books, markers, stickers, and puzzles.  It wasn’t that I thought he actually needed all of this for the 11-hour flight, but I was concerned for the welfare of our fellow passengers.  I didn’t want any of them to be privy to a meltdown in the skies.

On the way to the flight gate – a beast of burden carrying my son and these huge bags (so colossal that they didn’t fit in the handy “check if your carry-ons are small enough to be considered carry-ons” guide near the check-in counter, but I winked and smiled at the counter attendant and managed to finagle my way through) – I vowed to find the toy of all toys.  I was on a quest for the ultimate all-in-one little darling’s doodah that didn’t require me carrying half our home, the toy that came complete with bells, whistles and foghorns, with cry-proof gadgetry (for the little guy and me), with harm-proof gadgetry (for passers-by and passengers in the seats near us), and with educational gallimaufry.

A few months after this trip, my son was in hospital and a friend of his let him borrow her iPad.  Complete with games, books and movies, this little rectangular piece of technology became the Apple of his eye (amusing myself with that pun, I am).  This book-sized piece of modern machinery was the toy I had been searching for, the holy grail of playthings.  This extraordinary curio eliminated the need for me to carry 30lbs worth of child amusement accoutrement.

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Itchin’ To Write This One

Common.  Usually mild.  Typically requires no special medical treatment.  All this was lost on me, for as a mother, I dreaded chicken pox more than weaning, more than potty training, more than the bedtime routine gone bad because some little fella has decided that bedtimes are overrated, and he’s opting out of the night-night nonsense. 

I’m no good with bumps, red and blistery or otherwise.  I get the itchies when I see protuberances on noni, lychee and particularly craggy squash.  When I noticed three suspicious varicella-zoster virus spots rearing their ugly little heads on my son’s groin as I changed his nappy/diaper, I felt the urge to scratch my forearm, and then my wrist became a bit itchy, and then my left heel started itching, and then my ants in pants dance commenced. 

In denial, I decided that it was nappy/diaper rash.  Or possibly a sudden allergy to our washing soap/laundry detergent.  Best to give him a bath, google a good cognitive behavioural therapist who could help me control my impulse to scratch the non-existent bumps on my own body, and get some sleep. 

But I had difficulty sleeping.  I woke up every couple hours to check whether any new bumps had surfaced on my wee prince.  I didn’t find any until my son woke up, complaining that his back and belly felt “scratchy”.  I lifted up his shirt and was astonished how three bumps could turn into about 100 in a matter of hours.  

I called my son’s doctor as soon as I knew she was in and asked if we could come in for the ol’ verification of chicken pox.  A few hours later, and Dr. Make Sure made sure.  She prescribed some calamine lotion and said I might consider giving my lumpy lad some ibuprofen, acetaminophen and/or Piriton for children and bathing him with Aveeno body wash with colloidal oatmeal. 

Unfortunately, neither the calamine lotion, nor the Piriton or Aveeno baths were effective in eliminating any discomfort.  I sought other remedies and was fortunate that both recommendations proved successful.  A friend suggested “pouring a bunch of bicarbonate soda” (baking soda) into warm bath water and letting the little guy soak in it for as long as he wants.”  I was giving him four or five baths a day.  And my husband read that a particular homeopathic remedy, rhus tox, seemed to work for several situations of the swellies.  He picked up some of the stuff, which is apparently extracted from poison ivy. 

I asked my husband, “So, you want to seriously harm our son and put me into itchy overdrive?  He already has chicken pox and now you want to give him poison ivy, too?”  He responded by explaining how these things work – inject chicken pox to prevent chicken pox.  Chew a rhus tox (aka poison ivy) pill and prevent the itching and restlessness poison ivy presents.  I understand it all, but for whatever reason still find it difficult to grasp that the chickenpox vaccine, which contains a weakened form of the chickenpox virus itself, works by causing the body to reproduce its own antibodies to protect against the disease. 

Rhus tox worked though.  I told my son they were “magic chocolate pills” that erased chicken pox, and he went for it.  He was asking for the pills like Ashley Cole asks for his nude photos or Charlie Sheen asks for his “goddesses”.  

I also made sure to trim my son’s nails as I knew he would be tempted to scratch.  I trimmed my own nails while I was at it and decided an antihistamine for mama would be a good idea considering her own skin tickles. 

Unlike some parents I know who buckle under the quarantine pressure and let their munchkins roam freely, with the possibility of infecting all the other children who come in contact with The Itty Bitty Infector, I was Queen of the Quarantiners.  Luckily, we lived in a large apartment complex at the time, and while we stayed inside all day – admittedly driving each other crazy with respective cases of cabin fever – in the evenings we turned into nocturnal creatures lurking in the dark and running up and down the long hallways.  And on the two occasions when someone appeared in the hallway, my son became Blanket Jackson’s twin.  I held his blankie over his head and ushered him to the nearest exit. 

I had to inform our friends that they may have been at risk of being infected, and one mom asked if I would be having a chicken pox party, and if so, could she please RSVP.   She was among the parents who believe that purposely exposing their youngsters to the virus allows the kiddos to acquire some immunity to the disease in a safer and more effective manner than using vaccines.  No pox parties, no measles merrymaking, or flu flings coming from this camp.  I couldn’t bear the thought of knowing I was responsible for inflicting any sort of pain or discomfort – not to mention physical and possibly emotional scars – on a child. 

One dad who didn’t know whether he ever had chicken pox called his mom to find out, and she said she couldn’t remember.  Not remember?  What in the name of all that is holy?  I told him I felt it was particularly important for him to steer clear of us as according to the Mayo Clinic, chicken pox can affect male fertility.  A high fever associated with the pox can temporarily decrease sperm production.  And, the virus is also capable of causing inflammation of the testicles, which can result in testicular shrinkage and infertility.  This is more common with mumps but still occurs occasionally with chicken pox.  Bulging balls and no more babies is serious business, I told him, so he needed to dodge the chicken pox bullet. 

I have one mom friend who contracted chicken pox and then two weeks later, her son woke up with the irritating knobs.  And another mom whose poor older son has had chicken pox twice.  As we walked together, she told me she was on her way to get her younger son the pox vaccination. 

I’m grateful that my little fella had chicken pox a couple years ago and remained relatively unscathed.  He didn’t really have a fever, abdominal pain, sore throat, or headache – common symptoms that appear alongside these bothersome bumps.  And he didn’t develop any bacterial infections or other complications.  Phew.  

I’m not sure I could handle a case of the horrible humps again.  Even writing this and thinking about the bumps on my son’s eyelids, his scalp, behind his ears, and in the folds of his bum cheeks gives me a bad case of the itchies.  He has two barely detectable scars, and I’ve tried to explain to him that these scars represent a rite of passage.  He asked, “You mean like the grazes on my hands and knees are a secret passageway?”  I respond, scratching my head, “Um, ya, that’s precisely what I mean.”

Bibliofeelia

There’s the usual bit of bibliophilia going on in our home.  My little softcover savant and we bookworm begetters have been doing eye and mind gymnastics with our latest nightstand reads.

My husband’s reading a Ford Madox Ford book and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, among a handful of other tomes.  I’m reading a book similar to those I imagine a lot of my fellow parents are reading, a guide to understanding the monsters identified as toddlers.  And when I’ve read a few pages of that and am feeling like I understand a tad better the human being known as my three-year-old son, I move on to either John Carey’s What Good Are The Arts?, Andrew Oldham’s collection of poems Ghosts of a Low Moon or a book a friend recently gave me, Conversations with God.  My most recent conversation with God consisted of my asking him how I can end my husband’s latest fascination with the Brothers Grimm because it really has me spooked, and I don’t know how much longer I can sleep with one eye open.  I’m still waiting for God’s response.

My little guy’s folio fare of late seems to be more of the creative and emotional variety.  These handful of books have quickly become my favourites, and every night I ask him if we can please, please, please read one of these.  Sometimes he indulges me, but last night he said, “Let’s give it a break, ma, it’s pirate book time.”

The first of the five I recommend reading with your munchkins is Zen Ghosts by Jon Muth.  Muth created Stillwater the panda, who features in Zen Shorts, Zen Ties and now Zen Ghosts.  The book is a tale adapted from a writing included in a collection of 48 koans by a Chinese Buddhist monk in the 13th century.  These koans are defined by Muth as questions that one has to answer for himself/herself and which appeal directly to the intuitive part of human consciousness as opposed to the intellect. 

I think the best children’s books are those that strike a chord with both children and adults, and Zen Ghosts certainly fulfills that criteria.  Kids may not understand what Muth is trying to convey, but they will appreciate the characters and the beautiful illustrations throughout the book.   Parents might be pleased that not only is this an intriguing ghost story, but also that their bambinos will learn more about duality – the people they are with their parents, the people they are with their friends, the people they are with their teachers.

While we’re on Buddhist books, another current favourite is Buddha at Bedtime.  Seem as though I’m some sort of ringing endorsement for Buddhism?  I’m not Buddhist, and this is purely coincidental (although in Buddhism, there is no such thing as a pure coincidence, so you can cue in the Twilight Zone theme now).  A friend gave the book to Enlai as a gift, and it really is the gift that keeps on giving – our own little written, illustrated and bound philanthropist.  The subtitle of the book – Tales of Love and Wisdom for You to Read With Your Child to Enchant, Enlighten and Inspire – says everything.  Author Dharmachari Nagaraja retells some of the narratives believed to have been told by the Buddha himself – the Jataka Tales – in 20 stories. 

The colourful illustrations depict a particular scene in the tales, and little ones are sure to recognise the images of animals and nature.  While Nagaraja says the stories are aimed at children six to ten years old, my three-year-old enjoys them, particularly The Prince and Sticky Hair, a tale about words being more powerful than weapons, and The Small Bowl of Rice, which teaches that generosity is its own reward.

And travelling from Buddhism to art, another favourite book is Beautiful Oops!.  Author Barney Saltzberg is my hero, teaching children and adults alike that when you think you’ve made a mistake, think of it as an adventure in creativity and an opportunity to make something beautiful.  The very colourful, 28-page board book – complete with flaps, different textures, and an accordion-like pop-up – naysays blunders and instead teaches that spills, smears, smudges and crumbled-up paper can “make magic appear”.

If I had a choice to buy one book for little ones, this would be the one, regardless of whether or not they have an interest in artistic endeavours.  At any age, it’s worth being reminded that a tear in a page can literally be turned into a smile.

Another current favourite book, which happens to be in the same vein as Beautiful Oops! is The Scribble Book issued by Tate Publishing.  Surprise, surprise, the book is about scribbling and allows for freehand drawing by prompting little ones to turn scribbles into blooming flowers, a dinosaur’s breath, snail shells, smoke from chimneys and hair on already-provided faces.  We’ve had so much fun with this book, giving shy scribbles friends with crayon squiggles of our own, colouring in the loops created by scribbles, drawing scribble spaghetti, and sketching trails in the snow left by skiers.

Within the 64-page book, little ones are encouraged to scribble dust (“otherwise the vacuum cleaner will get bored”), scrawl over the Mona Lisa, scribble on monsters as hard as they can, and decide whether their doodles should make calm or choppy seas.  And for parents who may want to borrow their budding artist’s book, it’s worth noting that art therapists have utilised the “scribble technique” as a method to lessen inhibitions and release spontaneous imagery from one’s unconscious.

The final recommendation from our three-member We Feel The Need, The Need to Read Book Club is Oliver Jeffers’ most recent piece of brilliance, The Heart and the Bottle.  With thought-provoking themes of loss, longing and loneliness, the book is admittedly geared more toward adults than children, but the way Jeffers addresses mortality through both his words and his illustrations is honest and poetic regardless of the age of the reader.

In books, I appreciate when the author leaves space for interpretation.  Jeffers does this.  He hasn’t spoon-fed me or my little guy with this book; instead, he has given us a starting point for discussing death and the emptiness that often follows.  I realise I may be different from other parents in that I have not chosen to shield my little prince from unhappy thoughts of loss, but in the same token, I know a three-year-old is, well, a three-year-old.  He won’t understand it all, but I hope he will find some poetry in the story, poetry in how an empty chair doesn’t have to stay an empty chair.  For any poetry buffs, this book brought to mind what I believe is one of the greatest poems ever written, Wordsworth’s ode “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”, and I think that for a 32-page book to do that says a lot. 

Now then, sashay to your local library or bookshop for your dose of bibliofeelia!  Or, if it’s too chilly outside, check out the Oomphalos Bookworms Bookshop.

Gift Ideas Ring, Are You Listening?

Here is a transcript of a conversation I overheard at the playground a few days ago:

Mom A:  “I haven’t even started my Christmas shopping yet.  What are you getting little Janey Jane for Christmas?”

Mom B (who is sincerely sweet, always looks amazing, whose children are little angels, and who is apparently very well-organised):  I finished all my shopping, and little Johnny John’s presents are all wrapped and hidden away until Christmas.”

If you lie somewhere between Mom A and Mom B and are looking for gift suggestions for your own or other children, you’re in luck!  Here are some just-waiting-to-be-wrapped-and-put-under-the-tree ideas that might appeal to you.

If they’re toys you’re after, look no further than Petit Chou in London W1, an itsy bitsy toy shop that could’ve been plucked from a scene in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, packed wall-to-wall with wonderful toys.  Some of my favourites in the shop include the life-size abacus, wooden shape and size sorters, and the perfectly tuned xylophone.  For those of you not in London, Petit Chou offers worldwide shipping.  

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An Open Letter To My Son, on His 1096th Day

Here you are, close to celebrating three years under your belt, my sweet Enlai.  And just as I wished for you the moment I first saw you as a tiny dot on a screen, I wish you love.  A love that you know and feel.

I wish you more running through sprinklers, rolling down hills, and making sand and snow angels.  Perhaps this year I will consider building some sort of stick, leaf and rock repository so that you no longer have to leave behind your park souvenirs.

I wish you more jumping on beds.  And I hope you never lose your love of blankets and pillows – lots and lots of pillows.

I wish you more somersaults and the mastering of a cartwheel.

I wish for you to be sincere and for others to be sincere to you.  And when you’re with someone, really be with that someone.

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Buy Buy Miss American Pie

Ladies and gentlemen, I have become that mom.  We’ve been visiting family in the States for the last few months, and I have become the mom who frequents the McDonald’s drive-thru.  The other day, while hollering into the microphone to the invisible McOrderTaker, I found myself asking whether she could throw an Incredible Hulk into our Happy Meal because we already had Spiderman, Iron Man, Human Torch and Wolverine.  

When we drove up to the first window to pay, the woman kindly told me that she couldn’t find any Hulks, to which I responded, “Oh, okay, well, how about Silver Surfer or Captain America?”  She said to give her a minute to check.  Minute up, and neither of these superheroes was available.  I told her that we would not actually be wanting the Happy Meal after all because we really don’t want any duplicate superheroes.  I left empty-handed.  She was probably annoyed.  And as we hightailed it out of the driveway, my son let me know he was still hungry.  There was no happy in this meal; this non-existent meal turned out to be sad.  Very, very sad. 

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We Had a Ball

Artwork by Tony Aquino

“Go ahead, share with her, pumpkin,” I told my son as he held his ball while staring at the little girl approaching him, eyeing the ball.  He threw it to her and so began a game of catch between them.  When she left, another tiny tot barely able to walk came along for his turn of tossing the ball back and forth.  As they played, two other kiddos watched, ogling the ball. 

What is it about a ball that seems to connect children, and by extension, their respective parents?  I’ve seen these spheres of magic lead to parental introductions at playgrounds and parks, and they seem to bring together entire countries as witnessed during the recent World Cup matches.  These roundies also seem to serve as peace offerings and aid in reconstruction efforts, through organisations like Operation Soccer Ball and Kick for Nick.

Could the explanation be found in the fact that the sphere and its cousin the circle are considered symbols of unity?  Are there sphere conspirators working behind the scenes to assist in our bonding efforts?  Are all the balls at Toys R Us and Lillywhites singing a chorus of “come together right now over me” when the doors close and the lights go down?

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All Aboard

“Would you be interested in reviewing the BRIO Little Forest Train Set?” asked the folks over at Baby Direct, to which I responded, “But of course.”

It has to be said: Brio rocks!  What’s not to like about a toy manufacturer that has its own Declaration of Independence which states:

There are those who say that you can’t eat out once you have children.
That you’ll never have time to read.
That you can’t travel.
That you’ll never dance on the tables again.
There are those who say that you’ll never wear white.
That you’ll put on a track suit every morning and never buy another pair of stilettos.
There are those who say that the future looks bleak.
We beg to disagree.
We know that it isn’t always easy to juggle family life with work, friends, ball games, shopping and everything else you want to do. But at BRIO, our goal is to make that life easier, fun-filled and joyful.

Any company that says it will assist me in my quest to dance on a table again has my vote.  Oh, that time at B.B. King’s Blues Club, listening to and watching the man himself with a belly full of fried pickles and too much wine.  Ahem, I digress…

This train set represents everything that is great about BRIO and about many of the toys which are conceived and/or manufactured in Scandinavian countries.  Contrary to Bergman films created in the same region, the toys are uncomplicated.  Similar to his films, they are beautiful and require imagination.

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