Friday, August 29, 2008

The Upside of Addiction

Back in our child-free days in Boise, Idaho, George and I invited a couple of friends—let’s call them J and B—for dinner. Before she entered our lovely home which I had spent hours cleaning, B pointed to the weeds growing in the front mulch-beds and said, “You need to pull weeds.” Later, during dinner, she stared at the chandelier for a minute and said, “You need to clear out those spider webs.” J shushed her and seemed embarrassed by her honesty, but it was a revelation to me. This was the moment I realized that no one notices what you DO clean, only what you DON’T clean. You simply cannot win. Ever.

When I took the plunge into stay-at-homeness, I learned that there are lots of chores to do, and they are never done. That toilet will get dirty again—and faster than it did back in the old days when you used the facilities at work 40+ hours a week, and an unseen janitor got paid a pittance to clean up your mess and the messes of all the other, higher-paid employees who sat in cubicles all day when they weren’t in the restroom taking care of business.

As a stay-at-home parent, the janitor looks back at you in the mirror every day, and you don’t get paid even a pittance for all the toilet-scrubbing you do.

All chores grow in size and time required to do them when you stay at home: dishes (you no longer eat breakfast out of vending machines or “do lunch” at Schlotsky’s), laundry (oh, Lord above, the laundry), vacuuming (crawling babies actually eat stuff you never even noticed off your floor), taking out the trash. There’s just MORE of every chore, and no one notices unless you don’t do them.

I quickly found that if I wanted a truly clean house, I had to spend all my time cleaning. Cleaning all the time, however, turned me into a grumpy nag whom my husband, baby son, two dogs, and I despised. I concluded that to be happy with my new life, I needed to reconcile myself to dust bunnies and clutter.

This was difficult because I’m an anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive, goal-oriented intellectual who feels that all problems have a solution if only you think about them enough, and messes are a problem to me. Short of hiring a maid, however, this problem wouldn’t yield to any amount of intellectualizing or goal setting. I distracted myself from the dust bunnies and clutter by starting a hobby.

It began innocently enough. I wanted to learn how to do calligraphy and illumination…medieval book arts. Ostensibly, this was research for a novel I’ve been “not writing” for twenty years now. (By the way, stay-at-home mothers never get to use words like “ostensibly” in real life. Aren’t blogs wonderful?) After a few months of so-called research, I had a dozen or so little illuminations and no way to display them. So I taught myself another hobby, bookbinding, to have a place to put these little works of very amateurish art.

That was when I got a tiny bit addicted. In a matter of months, I bought enough paper and supplies to make illuminated books until I die of old age. When I came across a book on making greeting cards, I thought, “Oooh, another use for all these supplies!” I started making my own cards simply to use all the pretty paper lying around my house. It seemed practical at the time.

It’s Amy’s fault that I got hooked on the serious stuff. She asked if I had tried rubber stamping and introduced me to Stampin’Up!, a diabolically clever rubber cartel that sells a coordinated product line of stamps, ink, paper, ribbon, and accessories. I was already so deeply deluded that the typographical cuteness and egregious exclamation point in the company name didn’t even bother me.

I now own an undisclosed (because it’s simply too embarrassing) number of rubber stamps, most of them very well used.

Don’t judge me. Please. It really is an illness, and I can’t help myself.

Once I realized how addictive stamping is, I vowed to ignore completely the siren’s call of my paper-pushing friend Claire, a Creative Memories consultant, to start scrapbooking. There wasn’t enough time in my life for calligraphy, illumination, bookbinding, and cardmaking as it was. I had a baby to raise, a house to keep up, a long-established reading habit, and a husband.

Then the Twin Towers fell, and I had another baby, and my husband went off to war, and preserving memories seemed like a really good idea all of a sudden, and I’m now the proud creator of hundreds of scrapbook pages.

While I haven’t turned my husband into a paper addict (he has his own, even more expensive addictions, I mean, hobbies), he has become an enabler for me. He looks at my scrapbooks and says things like “I had forgotten all about this! I’m glad you scrapped it.” This warms my heart because initially George opposed my “cutting up pictures.” When we’re old and in the nursing home, my scrapbooks will give us great comfort. More importantly, our boys appreciate looking at the scrapbooks and seeing their own lives unfold in lovingly documented detail. Nothing says “I love you” like a scrapbook.

At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Compared to nasty and illegal addictions that result in midnight raids on your house by uniformed law enforcement in riot gear, paper crafting is really pretty benign. In fact, it has done so many wonderful things for me personally that I hardly know where to start. Consider these benefits:

1) I get feedback, and it’s not about weeds and cobwebs. People tell me what they think of my creations, and mostly it is good. One nice lady wants to sell my cards in her boutique in Cincinnati. I find this very satisfying. Maybe my need for praise is a bit pathetic, but everyone deserves to have a pat on the back every now and then, don’t you think? You get it at work, in the form of evaluations or pay raises or stock options, and you get it at school, in the form of grades. You don’t get it staying at home scrubbing toilets.

2) I don’t have to do the same thing twice. My cards are all different. Ditto for the scrapbook pages. The variety spices up my life and balances out the drudgery and monotony of chores nicely.

3) Once a project is done, it does me the courtesy of staying done. I don’t ever have to do it again. I can come back to look at it, months later, and it still doesn’t need to be redone. Not like toilets or weeds at all. As former jailbird Martha says, that’s a good thing.

4) I found a medium for creative self-expression that adds color, texture, and joy to my life. The value of this is inestimable. Not to mention the absolute coolness of so many gadgets and doodads involved. I mean, have you ever SEEN a
Bind-It-All? Click the link, and tell me if it isn’t the coolest gadget ever engineered.

My house now contains a whole room dedicated to my hobby, and I spend time in that room almost every day. Yes, there are giant, golden-retriever colored dust bunnies in the corners of my wood floors, dirty dishes in my sink, and toys scattered all over my house, but I’m happy, giddily happy. Isn’t that worth something?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Mommy

Part 1

I know what you’re thinking: what can classical rhetoric have to do with me, a modern mommy? Do I, as a mommy, need to know what topoi, ethos, dispositio, litotes, and sentence euphony mean? Isn’t it all Greek? Or is it Latin?

My friends, you may not know all the Greek and Latin terms used in classical rhetoric, but you encounter classical rhetoric every single day in what you say and what is said to you. Bear with me for a moment while I explain.

Generally speaking, classical rhetoric is poorly understood these days because it is no longer taught as a separate subject but integrated invisibly (and watered down) in standard English courses. This is one of the great tragedies of modern education. Most people define rhetoric, when they think of it at all, as language that is empty, misleading, overly embellished, or false. It is equated with doublespeak, jargon, political lies, and advertising.

In reality, rhetoric is all this and much, much more.

Consider the following useful definition:

Rhetoric is the deliberate manipulation of language to bring about a desired effect, action, or emotion in an audience.

Pretty neutral, isn’t it? Rhetoric can be used for good or evil, but it is neither. A person can manipulate language to persuade someone to get a colonoscopy (for good) or to choose an adjustable-rate mortgage they can’t afford (for evil). Rhetoric can be used to rivet your attention or bore you to death; to make you laugh so hard you pee your pants or cry like a little boy who just dropped his ice cream cone; to make you mindlessly spend gobs of money on useless crap or give gobs of money to find a cure for cancer.

Classical rhetoric, or the rhetoric taught in ancient Greece and Rome, is the systematic study of how language can do all this. There are lots of terms which have come to us in a mix of Latin or Greek that may seem complicated at first, but really, it all makes perfect sense.

Let’s consider the following statement: “My son is not the quiet type.” This is an example of litotes, or understatement, which often uses a negative to state a positive, as in “Beowulf did not lack courage when he ripped Grendel’s arms off.” He did, however, tick off Grendel’s mother with his “no lack of courage,” but that has nothing to do with rhetoric and I digress.

My point is, “my son is not the quiet type” sounds nicer than “my son can’t keep his mouth shut,” which is an example of hyperbole, or exaggeration. You might use litotes with your child’s teacher—you don’t want to prejudice him/her against your child but can’t lie, either, because he/she will figure out the truth eventually. Hyperbole, on the other hand, works well as a statement of complaint to your best friend, who does not hold your child’s future college prospects in her hands and will no doubt lend a sympathetic ear to your suffering.

See what I mean? You’re already using classical rhetoric without knowing it, but just imagine the power you could have if you knew enough to manipulate language deliberately to bring about a desired effect. And if you can consciously manipulate language, you will readily spot its use by others who wish to manipulate you.

Our little darlings can be amazingly skillful rhetoricians at a very young age. My own 8-year-old Odysseus* is a lovely example of a child who, left to his own devices, would have become master of the universe long ago if not for my ability to counter his devious rhetorical skills with very non-rhetorical discipline. Now that he is too big for me to pick up and carry to his room, however, my rhetorical skills are more important than ever.

Consider this real-life example of heuresis, or the discovery of multiple arguments, also referred to by the Latin term inventio. My little ones are not allowed to drink soda except under very special circumstances that involve unpleasant bodily fluids. Even then, they are limited to non-caffeinated options. One day recently, my son saw me drinking a can of coke that was labeled “decaffeinated.”

He can read now, which really complicates life, doesn’t it?

I saw his brain process this snippet of information and knew what was coming. In the chirpy tone of a physicist who just solved a sticky problem with string theory, he delivered the opening salvo of this rhetorical skirmish:

“Mom, that coke is decaffeinated. That means I can drink it!”

In this statement, we see logos at work. Logos, or an appeal to logic, is one of three types of appeals used in argument. In this particular case, however, my darling son’s logos fell to pieces in the face of my syllogism:

“Soda is bad for you. Decaffeinated coke is a soda. Therefore, decaffeinated coke is bad for you.”

Honestly, this syllogism is seriously flawed. “Bad” is a weak word, too vague to stand in court. What does it mean that soda is bad? Who determines soda is bad for you? But as sophisticated as he is, little Odysseus did not yet recognize this vulnerability in my argument, so he displayed his talent for heuresis and simply flexed to a different appeal. He came up with this beauty:

“Mommy, every time I see you drinking a coke, I feel really left out, and it hurts my feelings.”

Ahhh. Pathos. The appeal to emotion. Let’s hear it again because it really shows a genius at work. Savor each word out loud in as pitiful a voice as you can muster:

“Mommy, every time I see you drinking a coke, I feel really left out, and it hurts my feelings.”

Note the shift from “mom” to the more child-like “mommy.” Nice touch.

Some of you may have fallen for this verbal knife to the heart, but not me. The armor of rhetoric shields me from such attacks. I deflected his thrust with a hard-hitting combination of the “deliberative topic of the disadvantageous” (“soda rots your teeth and makes you fat”) and a somewhat unconventional reverse-psychology ethical appeal (“I hope you are smarter than your mother when you grow up and don’t drink soda”).

This rendered little Odysseus speechless. After all, mommy just implied that she isn’t smart, didn’t she? Hmm. He was stumped. For now. Eventually, these “shock and awe” tactics will no longer work, and he will find a way to use them against me, especially when he is a teenager and fully prepared to believe that mommy is more than just “not smart;” she is a complete and utter idiot.

Until then, I’ll brush up on my classical rhetoric in hopes of staying a step ahead of my little Odysseus. And since the benefits of classical rhetoric are not limited to parenting, I’ll also strengthen myself against the marketing folks trying to convince me I need an iPhone, the politicians vying for my vote, and my darling husband who, for some reason, doesn’t understand why I need to spend more money on rubber stamps.

As you can see, classical rhetoric is enormously useful for the modern mommy, and I hope you’ll stick around for periodic essays that explore the devious strategies our children use to manipulate us and even more devious strategies we can use to manipulate them.**

*Classical character of Greek epic poetry made famous to modern high school students by Homer, the blind—and completely fictitious—poet. Odysseus cunningly talks his way out of many a nasty scrape.
**If you have any examples of your children’s rhetorical skill, please email them to me for possible analysis on this blog. We can have A LOT of fun with this.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Motherhood Teaches You Stuff

Part 2

Last week, we explored interruptions in the life of a mommy. This week, because I’m feeling strong enough to address the subject (it’s been a pretty good week), let’s take a good look at what motherhood teaches us about Time.

Before children, Time was my servant. Time bent to my will. Time allowed itself to be organized—by me—into nice, long chunks in which I accomplished big things. The long chunks were vital to my success. For any writing, editing, or syllabus-planning project, I knew I needed at least three hours of uninterrupted Time to make good progress. I have (well, I had) amazing powers of concentration and focus for three to four hours. After more than four hours, I would need to take a break and do some shorter tasks for mental refreshment, such as grading a few papers, planning meetings, attending meetings, making phone calls, reading a few chapters of a novel. Then I could get back to the big tasks.

As a goal-oriented person, I thrived at academic and corporate jobs in which multiple projects needed to be initiated, organized, supervised, and finalized. I was happy and fulfilled. It all made sense. I was successful at managing Time.

After the birth of my first child, Time turned on me. It no longer bent to my will, but rather to the will of a weak and helpless infant who could not read a clock or even tell day from night.

I felt betrayed, confused, lost, ambushed.

To some of you mommies reading this, my reaction may seem perfectly silly. Not all mommies are the same, thank Heaven. There is plenty to adjust to in those first radical days of motherhood. Losing sleep, dealing with leaky (or cracked and bleeding) nipples, or being spit up and pooped and peed upon daily may have been much harder adjustments for some of you. For others, the main problem with Time may have been that you no longer had enough of it to feel properly clean and groomed, or to eat a meal, or to go to Starbucks for a mocha. Or maybe you really wanted Time to stand still and ended up mourning the passing of the toothless grin.

I totally understand if any of these (or some other not listed here) were harder adjustments for you. They did affect me, too, but not traumatically.

For me, Time would never, ever be the same. I could not control it. My son was not a project to be managed and completed by a deadline. I had work to do, certainly, but no amount of planning or organizing or list-making would ever take into account all the variables that had just entered my life. My formerly tidy and organized mind could not make sense of this chaos, not one tiny little bit.

Where had my four-hour chunks of Time gone? Now, I only had lower-case time. I had ten minutes here, forty minutes there, three minutes over there. How could I possibly be productive, get the “big” tasks done?

Don’t ask what “big” tasks I expected to do. I didn’t know then, and have only recently begun to realize because I can be really, really dense about some things, that there are no “big” tasks to do in Stay-at-Home World. Well, not many, at least. Most of the “big” tasks I’ve encountered in the last eight years related to having a child diagnosed with a disability. That was HUGE, but only in the beginning. It’s now a million little things that can easily overwhelm and confuse me, just like everything else in Mommy Time.

In Career-Woman Time, each task is worth a lot because there are not many of them, comparatively speaking. Let’s use my time as a college instructor to illustrate my point. I generally taught four classes each term. There were lots of details to manage in teaching four classes, especially the two quarters during which I taught four different classes at three colleges. But all those details fit into a ten-week quarter. The relationship between the big picture and little details was my responsibility, but I got paid for the big picture, not each tiny little detail.

Mommy Time, in contrast, has no big picture, or only a very fuzzy, long-term picture created by fantasies of meeting your adult son at a classy restaurant for lunch and enjoying lovely grown-up conversation and seeing how nicely he learned his table manners and realizing he’s cutting his own food and dressed himself appropriately without any help from you. Oh, he also picks up the check.

In Mommy Time, each task leading up to that fuzzy, out-of-focus, in-the-distant-future big picture is small and not worth much in and of itself, nor is it always easy to see how each small task benefits the big picture. Nevertheless, the mosaic of hundreds of thousands of small tasks—many of which are repetitive and dull, but entirely necessary—makes up the enormous big picture that is motherhood.

God and moms are in the details.

Many mommies, myself included, fail to appreciate this. We don’t have patience enough to see that the mosaic is a long way from being finished and want it to be coherent here and now, like it was in Career-Woman Time. Because we are conditioned to believe that only the big picture has value, we make the small tiles big in our minds so the big picture is easier for us to see. After all, CEOs make the big bucks, and the McD’s employee who serves up 400 drinks a day makes minimum wage. This paradigm (God, I hate that word, but it works here) is wholly unsuitable for motherhood.

Without realizing it, many women erroneously come to see the big picture in our lives as the daily control of every aspect of home and children right here and right now. Every small task looms large in our imagination. We spend hours cleaning, organizing, shouting, rushing to “get things done.”

And you know what? They never, ever are done.

When we do this, we have no time for ourselves or for hobbies or for friends. We are exhausted and overwhelmed (though some of us can hide it well), and we have a very bleak future because, one day, our children will leave home, and all those small tasks we think are so large will disappear. We will have no purpose in life, no tasks to do, and will feel lost and confused and sad and pointless.

When the mosaic is finished and that glorious lunch with our child happens, we’ll be too busy feeling sorry for ourselves to appreciate the moment. All we see is a chaos of huge tiles that don’t make a pretty picture at all.

I was lucky. I could not maintain even an illusion of control for myself, much less for my children, from the very beginning (I didn’t have big chunks of time, remember?), and this made me feel like a failure, grouchy and irritable.

I am not by nature grouchy and irritable (except when I have PMS, and then it’s not my fault), so I started problem-solving pretty quickly and took up a hobby that became an obsession which conveniently knocked me out of the rut I had created for myself. Now there’s this blog to get me writing again, even though I still don’t have big chunks of time. One day, in the future, if Karen D and Pastor Suzanne have their way, I may become a Stephen Minister. Or I may go back to teaching. Or I may finally write my novel. My point is, I have options, and so do you. I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments.

For now, let’s just say that, though it has taken eight long years, I’m embracing fragmented, small-task Mommy Time as valuable, worthy, and important. I've learned patience, to wait and pray for the big picture of tiny tiles to unfold in its own Time. This patience has, ironically, given me a serious case of mommy ADD, and my days of concentrating for four hours at a time may be gone for good.

But that’s okay. Really. Because one day, Nick and Jack will pick up the check, and I’ll know in that moment those million little tasks were worth it.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Motherhood Teaches You Stuff

Part 1

Making the change from working woman to stay-at-home-mom required some shifts in thinking. Big shifts. Some were fairly easy for me, such as letting go of a work wardrobe, but then, I’d never been what you call “stylish” anyway. Clean and tidy are better descriptors of my personal fashion sense. And as a life-long insomniac, the frequent wake-up calls from a hungry, wet baby didn’t feel exactly new either.

Two aspects of stay-at-home motherhood surprised and shocked me. Maybe next week we’ll deal with the subject of time, if I feel strong enough…. Today, let’s talk about interruptions.

Interruptions are de rigueur for moms, and I just don’t do interruptions well. They make me, shall we say, testy. I did not know this about myself, having never experienced them before, and found this shortcoming in my personality terribly disturbing. Motherhood teaches you things. Not all of them are flattering.

Interruptions take an ordinary task and turn it to chaos. Consider the standard procedure for laundry when the dryer stops:

1) Remove clean laundry to a basket.
2) Take basket to living room and fold laundry while watching Oprah or HGTV.
3) Put folded laundry into basket.
4) Carry basket upstairs.
5) Put contents of basket away.

You wouldn’t think of this as a mine field, would you? But every step is fraught with peril. At any moment, you might be called upon to respond to a crying baby or toddler, to answer the phone, to put the dog out. This simple interruption, in and of itself, isn’t a tragedy. It’s what happens when you’re distracted that can be disastrous if you’re anal retentive/obsessive compulsive. Like me.

It starts once a baby can crawl. A laundry basket of clean clothes attracts a crawling baby like a leaky pink nipple. In a microsecond, crawling baby will spread the clean laundry ALL OVER the living room, which, of course, has not been vacuumed in a month and is heavily coated in dog fur. (You don’t realize this, of course, until you see the newly mobile baby putting a furry dust bunny in his mouth. This is disgusting and will motivate you to make more of an effort where the floors are concerned.) Baby will have more fun if you have folded the clothes first, thus undoing even more of your hard work.

This "laundry interruptus" continues beyond early childhood into the school years. My 8- and 5-year-old boys recently dumped a laundry basket full of folded, clean clothes on the family room floor so they could use the basket as a rocket ship. I was upstairs in my craft room taking a few minutes to make a card for SSgt Daisy, a US soldier in Iraq who isn’t getting mail from her family or friends (or so I’m told by someone I met on the Internet). When the boys started fighting—loudly—over the “rocket ship,” I came out of the craft room onto the catwalk and looked down into the family room: a bird’s eye view of the disaster.

Will it ever end?

Please don’t answer that purely rhetorical question.

It was my own fault for leaving such a tempting toy in a public place (though in the past, even laundry baskets high up on my bed have not been safe). No, I should have put the clothes away immediately. But I didn’t because the children interrupted me and asked for a snack. Being hungry myself, I left the basket in the living room. During the snack, I remembered my commitment to send a card to SSgt. Daisy and went to the craft room, forgetting completely about the laundry basket. Years of interruptions have given me a mommy form of ADD.

After this rocket disaster, I resolved to make my children put their own clothes away. Soon, they will get their first lesson in folding clothes because I will stop doing even this much for them and just put the clean clothes on their beds and lock them in their rooms until the clothes are folded and put away. At least I’ll get some peace from interruptions for a while. And they will learn responsibility and good citizenship in the family.

Generally speaking, cleaning doesn’t bother me. RE-cleaning, however, drives me completely berserk. Cleaning isn’t a fun task, just a necessary one, and I’m not one to whine about stuff that simply must get done. I just do it. (Well, most of the time.) But to do it all over again, especially when I’ve already started is maddening. That takes precious time, time better spent moving on to the next necessary thing that has to get done, or making cards for soldiers abandoned by their family and friends, or reading, or playing, or doing fun stuff with your children, or talking on the phone with your family and friends (because you rarely see anyone anymore). Or doing nothing. Nothing at all. Because sometimes, that’s just what you need.

Speaking of phone calls, I now understand why my friend Karen H. couldn’t talk to me on the phone when we were in grad school. She had two small children who kept interrupting her, and of course I was a perfect pre-mommy in those blissfully interruption-free days. I thought she was so rude to let those girls keep interrupting our very important phone conversations about the latest English department gossip. Now it’s karmic pay-back time.

What sort of magnetic energy emanates from me when I pick up the phone? I mean, really, my children, who mere seconds before are happily engaged in setting off toy bombs in other areas of the house (not real bombs, of course, since we keep the explosives locked up—safety first!).…Where was I? Oh, yes, the boys seem totally occupied in making huge messes in other parts of the house, and I answer the phone, and they just appear, loudly yelling, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” They rarely want something specific, except my attention. As soon as I hang up the phone, the magnetic pull magically dissipates, and the children disappear back into the toy-bombed nether regions of the house again, as if they were never there.

We’re working on this. I have told them that the only time to interrupt mommy when she’s on the phone is if someone is bleeding. So far, the magnetic field is still too strong, but one day, as God is my witness, I’ll have an interruption-free phone conversation. And an interruption-free shower.

For now, you must understand that this essay was written with a total of 28 interruptions. Please excuse any grammar errors, misspellings, punctuation problems, and stylistic gaffes. I’m doing my best.

Thank you for your tolerance.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bad Karma

Do you believe in karma? I do. What you send out into the universe comes back to you. You judge: you will be judged. Karmic paybacks are a bitch, but we can’t say we didn’t earn them. And I earned a big one. Boy howdy.

Before I had children, I was the best mother ever. My future children were perfect. They slept through the night at a ridiculously young age, ate the food put in front of them without complaint, were potty trained easily and with no accidents, and could write their name legibly by three. I had it all figured out.

Because of this, I believed that my Sister-in-Law, who preceded me into motherhood by a decade, was completely out to lunch. Here are some examples of my perfect pre-mommy responses to her “bad parenting”:

-What do you mean she walks the hall with her baby son because he will not go to sleep on his own? Why doesn’t she let him CRY IT OUT?????

-What do you mean her five-year-old brings her a diaper when he needs to poop. He won’t poop in the potty? You’ve GOT TO BE KIDDING!?!?! He’s FIVE FREAKIN’ YEARS OLD!!!

-What do you mean she makes a separate meal for her son because all he eats is mac and cheese? WHAT IS SHE THINKING!??!?!?

We perfect pre-mommies shout these things in our heads because we are experts at incredulous derision as well as excessive use of punctuation.

And my Little One #1 lulled me into thinking I was right. He slept through the night at 6 weeks, self-weaned from the breast at 9.5 months, and at least tried any food put in front of him. He potty trained easily and at the reasonable age of just-turned-three. Instead of realizing that he was an easy baby, I naturally assumed that I was a perfect mother.

You real mommies out there know what’s coming next. I was ripe for a karmic bite in the butt, and my tushy has been smarting ever since.

My Little One #2 did not sleep through the night until 8 months because he deeply loved my breasts and could not go more than five hours without having them. Mothers, I learned the hard way, have a physiological response in their brains to crying babies and simply cannot “let them cry it out” without massive support, so I deliberately waited until my Darling Husband had returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom to do this. “Welcome home from the war, dear. Guess what we’re doing tonight!” We let Little One #2 cry three hours the first night (oh, the horror!), an hour the second night, and ten minutes the third. Little One #2 got the point. But I already knew things were . . . different.

I forced him to give up booby for the bottle. Then I forced him to use a sippy. But he still refused to drink from a cup until recently. Why was this so hard? His food choices were frighteningly limited and freaked out the pediatric intern at his 24-month well-baby check, so she insisted we spend twenty minutes drawing enough blood to make sure he wasn’t anemic. Yeah, that was fun, and no, he wasn’t anemic. As chubby as he was, I knew he was getting enough. But put a green pea on his high chair tray and he’d scream as if I were trying to poison him.

He’s now approaching six, and I still make a separate meal for him each night. Often, it’s macaroni and cheese. (What kind of kid crack does Kraft put in that unnaturally orange cheese food substance anyway?) If we even casually suggest he take a bite of something not on his personal and very short list of edible foods, the immediate response is “NO!! NO!! NO!!” He does incredulous derision and excessive punctuation as well as I used to.

Darling Husband wants to make an issue of this now, to make Little One #2 eat the same food we eat. I find myself on Little One’s side because mommies also have some sort of physiological response to making children happy with food.

Besides, I’m just too tired to take up arms in the food fight because potty training took almost two years. “I don’t want to poop in the potty,” he said. “It’s too dangerous for me.” Where, in the name of all that is good and holy, did THIS come from?

Finally, at age 5.5, Little One #2 came into the light. I now hear choirs of angels singing back-up for his shouts of “Mommy, I pooped on the potty!”

Let’s recap. First, I scorned my Sister-in-Law for walking her son up and down the hall to soothe him. Then God gave me a baby who needed booby every night at 2:00 am. Second, I scorned my Sister-in-Law for letting her son bring her diapers at age 5. Then God gave me a son who did the exact same effing thing. Third, I scorned my Sister-in-Law for fixing separate meals for her offspring. Then God gave me the pickiest eater on the planet.

Hmm. Methinks I spy a pattern here.

My Little One #2 taught me just how wonderful a mother my Sister-in-Law is. He taught me that mothers cannot take credit for their children’s perfection, nor should they take the blame for the children’s issues and problems and quirks. Children are what they are: little people with big personalities and generally bad manners. A precious few enter this world agreeable, amiable, eager to please, and easy to please. Most make us wish (at least once or twice) that Dr. Spock had authorized duct tape and sound-proof cages as appropriate parenting tools.

Furthermore, children are all different and not one of them comes with an instruction manual. All we mothers can do is fumble through as best we can and hope they don’t hate us when we are old and need them to choose our nursing home.

My Sister-in-Law recently sent me pictures of her two boys. Her first born graduated from high school this year, and his senior picture was perfectly handsome, in that airbrushed and soft-focus sort of way senior pictures are. He’ll attend university in the fall, is well on his way to successful adulthood, and will choose a very nice nursing home for her when the time comes.

The picture of her second born was smaller. He was wearing his wrestling uniform and sporting a completely ridiculous blonde Mohawk flopped over one eye.

After I stopped laughing, I realized that my Sister-in-Law is an absolute genius, and I want to be her when I grow up because she is a damn fine mother and a model for us all.

She chooses her fights carefully and knows that embarrassing hairdos are a lovely substitute for more dangerous forms of teenage rebellion, like drugs or smoking or knocking up random girls. She also, at least as I see it, is making a strategically brilliant move in giving her son just enough freedom to incur a karmic debt to be paid at some unspecified time in the future, such as when he brings the love of his life home to meet the parents. Ah, the good time she’ll have.

As for me, I’ve paid my own karmic debt and learned my lesson. Thank you, dear Sister-in-Law, for putting me in my place. I needed that.