Saturday, December 24, 2011

MERRY CHRISTMAS, DAMMIT!

This is from my "other" blog. http://j9kovac.livejournal.com/28795.html

It's from last year, but I came across it again today and discovered that I rather like it. I have a theory that I was a better writer back when I didn't write as often and I must say that this post proves the point.

Begin post:

Maybe it’s just my corner of the world. We say things like “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.” But no one will wish you a “Merry Christmas.” We just don’t talk like that in these parts. But I mean, we all know what those greetings of the season are, right? They are “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year.” So why can’t I just say that instead of alluding to it? It’s like calling your Uncle Benny “you know, fastidious.” The man has a life-size cut out of Barbara Streisand in his sewing room. It’s ok to call him gay. He knows.

I get that not every one celebrates Christmas but so what? I don’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo but you don’t see me yelling at drunk white people on May 5th telling them “Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16th, huero!” I let them have their fun. I let it go.

I get that there are other important religious holidays in December. Certainly, Hanukkah, which gets billed to non-Jewish kids as “but they get presents, too,” (Because it’s very troublesome to think that there are some kids who are neither on Santa’s nice list nor his naughty list.)

Ramadan is around here, too, although I know they have a different calendar system that doesn’t always match up with the rest of the December religious holidays (much in the same way that the World Series doesn’t always match up with Halloween). Ramadan used to get a lot of press back in the 20th century, back when it was a priority to be culturally sensitive to Islam. Not so much these days when the Koran is talked about as if it’s synonymous with “al Qaeda Instruction Manual.”

Then there’s Kwanza. I have no idea what Kwanza is, or who celebrates it. Judging from the Kwanza stamps at the post office, it seems to be a holiday for black people, who, as far as I know, celebrate Christmas.

Listen folks, I live in a place where election ballots are printed in six languages. (English, Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and Korean). We’re no strangers to different cultures celebrating different ideas. And yet, I have never met anyone who has celebrated Kwanza. Maybe it’s like the “Santa” of the holidays—we pretend it exists, but it really doesn’t. Yes, Virginia, there is a Kwanza.

But if someone wished me a Happy Kwanza, I’d be tickled. (Especially if it were celebrated with the doling out of candies—you know, like the rest of the American holidays: Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Halloween, and Ch..ch..ch..christmas.) And hopefully, if I wished that person a Merry Christmas (and offered ‘em some candy), they’d smile and be tickled, too.

Because all of it—“Happy Hanukkah,” “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Kwanza Day,” “Have a Cheerful Winter,” etc—are all euphemisms for what we called in my day, Christmas spirit. A way to connect, human to human about wonderful human things like love, cheerfulness, gratitude, generosity, selflessness, bliss, and gratitude again, independent of the origin stories of virgins or lamp oil or the Kwanzanese. A way to say, “hey, the joy in me salutes the joy in you.”

Which, ironically, is how we end every yoga class.

So if I can’t say “Merry Christmas” without causing offense, I’ll just play it safe.

Namaste, everybody!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Que Sera, Sera

Last night Chiara was playing in her room. She had arranged four chairs and a stool to make a little living room. Her favorite baby doll was asleep in a little makeshift bed made out of two of the chairs. The lawn chair was arranged like a Lazy-Boy.

When I peeked in, she informed me: “I’m taking care of my baby. I’m a grownup. I’m eating ice cream for dinner and watching T.V. and enjoying a glass of wine.”

I’m not sure what to make of that.

She’s four.

I wonder what she will be: this little person who thinks of grownups as people who allow themselves ice cream for dinner. 
I wonder if she will ever learn how to count properly. 
I wonder how her face will change and which parts of her chubby body are just chubby and which parts are baby fat. 
I wonder when she will switch from being a light little fairy so full of life and curiosity to a sullen teenager or jaded adult. 
I wonder when life will weather her face. 
I don’t wonder if I’ll still be around to see it. I assume that I will be.

And the boys. It just occurred to me that soon they’ll be talking. Really talking. And then they’ll be five people in this house expressing ideas, invading the space in my brain that is closing in on itself like the walls of my living room. They’ll bargain and negotiate and complain and whine. 

Just today Michael was asking where his pajamas bottoms were, but since he was asking by looking instead of saying, “Hey! I know I have matching pajama bottoms with rockets on them and I’d really like to wear them. And I know you hid them around here someplace,” he just wandered around the living room with his palms up, saying “eeeehhhhh-ehh?” and I could pretend that I had no idea what he was asking as I held up the pants I wanted him to wear.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Easier Than it Looks on Paper

Life at our house is really loud. And messy. We have a lot of poop, snot, muffin crumbs and dust bunnies (although not in that order. We have far more dust bunnies and muffin crumbs than we do poop or snot).

What's amazing to me is that 1) noise and chaos do not drive me into a homicidal rage the way it did 5 years ago and 2) in spite of said noise and chaos, that every day things "fix themselves."

Like today. Matt has his first law school exam--a take-home that he has the weekend to take. So we sat down and blocked off times for him to nap, study, go to a review at school, go to Nutcracker rehearsal, etc. (I really have "Matt Nap" on our family Google calendar). Today we blocked off as a "Matt day," meaning that I had the kids all day. Not a big deal except that today was the first time I'd tried to take all 3 of them to Mass by myself.

Mass with the twins is...interesting. They are so loud. Not crying-loud. Laughing-loud. They play peek-a-boo with each other, they smack the pews and cackle. So then we started bringing books (our parish has a book box for kids). That actually didn't cut down on the noise much because they spend the hour looking at books, pointing at pictures and saying (loudly) "Moon!" "Star!" "Apple!" "Pumpkin!" (the boys are big into pumpkins.) Or they thrust the book in our faces and demand that we read. Last week Matt and I decided--no more books.

Flash forward to today. Raining cats and dogs. Which means it takes 35 minutes to drive to a church that's 4 minutes away. Raincoats on, boots on. Umbrellas. The boys HATE any new footwear, but somehow we got the boots on. (only to have them fall off as Michael was ascending the stairs: "Wet!" he said, pointing to his sock.) The good news is the boots really slowed the boys down, and they stayed in the pew the whole time. (Michael was afraid to move his feet at all).

In lieu of books, I brought those little magnetic pencil drawing boards. And somehow the boys even made THOSE loud. I don't know how it's possible to scratch so loudly, but the boys know. At one point Wagner got upset about something or other, and I had to leave with him. He was screaming and kicking so much that I couldn't take both boys with me, so I just left Michael there in the pew in his over-sized rainboots, scratching on his magnetic drawing board. I thought he would freak out when I left, and I kept watching through doors to sanctuary, but he was fine. I couldn't see him, but I could see the people in the pew behind us, I figured that if he started crying or walking they would look around, like, "What terrible mother has left this kid behind?" They were paying attention to the homily, which meant that whatever Michael was doing, he was quiet about it.

Chiara was in the Children's Liturgy at this point. Mass would have actually been easier had she stayed behind; she would have been able to watch Michael while I was out with Wagner, or come get me if something bad happened.

Meanwhile, Wagner had thrown himself on the floor of the foyer, kicking, crying, red-faced. I just stood there and watched him. After five minutes, he was fine. He picked himself up, dusted himself off, smiled and said, "up?" We went back in. Chiara came back from the Children's Mass and we switched out of our rain boots into our regular shoes to do the Communion procession--always a disappointment for the boys because each Sunday they hope that today's the day they get one of those little crackers instead of just a hand on the head.

It was all very manageable in a weird way.

Then we all came home, had lunch, and then everybody napped for two hours. (Including me.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Our Daughter is Gone - Woo Hoo!

Our daughter is gone for ten days. Nonna took her to Texas last Friday and will bring her back next Monday. I’m sure I’ll miss her eventually, but it’s been heaven so far. Mornings are completely without drama (unless you count the boys clinging to my legs when I drop them off at daycare—something that never happens when Chiara is there to play with them).

Bedtime for the boys is 7:15 and then Matt and I have the rest of our nights to ourselves. Last night Matt went to the daycare board meeting (during which they watch your kids AND feed them dinner) while I got sushi to go. When he and the boys got home, we put them right to bed and ate makimono by candlelight. It felt like a date night. (And then he stayed up for another four hours studying)

Meanwhile Chiara is doing puzzles and playing games and giving ballet performances. Tomorrow she will fly to Austin with my dad & stepmom to visit Jackie, Jeff, Liz, Maria, & David. Sunday she flies back to EP. Monday she flies home.

It’s true that it’s quieter (and cleaner) without the force of nature that is Chiara Noelle, just as life is always quieter and cleaner without little people around. But quieter and cleaner doesn’t mean better. After all, laughter and singing always trump quiet. It’s hard to remember what merits messes may have, though. Perhaps they are just the byproducts of playing just like krypton is a byproduct of uranium extraction.

At any rate, quiet and clean is nice and refreshing for the moment. Pretty soon “quiet and clean” will become “dull” and by that time Chiara will be on a plane back to visit us.


Monday, October 3, 2011

The Last Letter

This Thursday is a NICU Partnership Council meeting. I know because they emailed the meeting agenda to me. They emailed the meeting agenda to me because I conveniently forgot to tell them that I wasn't going to be on the Partnership Council anymore. So I sat down and wrote a  letter. And I cried. I cried because they have helped me so much and I cried because I cannot wait to get outta there and I cried because there are things I cannot say.

But here's what I did say. It goes in the mail today and I hope they get it by Thursday.

(If you've been following along in the blog you might like to know that I did "First Thing Monday" back in August, tell Alison, the nurse manager and friend who brought me on  board, about my decision to leave. We talked for about an hour. A week later I talked to the Family Advisory Council in person. I just haven't said anything to the Partnership Council people yet.)

Dear Ann, Pam, & Jack,
(and Peggy & Alison & Nicole & Rita & Luella & Alex & Mina & everyone else who make time for Partnership Council)

About six weeks ago, an amazing thing happened. The boys--25 wkrs who will be 2 at the end of December--"caught up." Suddenly they were climbing ladders (and bookcases). They were stacking blocks and kicking balls, drawing on walls and saying ,"MINE!" They aren't "micro preemies" anymore.

I am so eager to embrace my new identity as "Just a Mom of Twins Who Climb Bookcases" and so unexpectedly relieved to shed my identity as a "Micro Preemie Mom." It's like our family grew wings. Sadly, grasping our "present" means (at least for right now) leaving the Partnership Council.

It makes me so sad to write this card, even though I know you folk understand better than anyone. I loved being a part of the council. I learned so much from all of you--your strength as a group, your collaborative spirit, your thorough problem-solving (even problem-solving how best to solve problems). You are truly integrative, inclusive, and compassionate. You bring your "nurses' hearts" to the table (even those of you who are social workers, pharmacists, and doctors!) Thank you for this last year as a member of your inspirational team.

I look forward to the day I can remember my days at the NICU without reliving them. And when I can, I hope you'll still have some empty seats at the table.

With deep regret,
and even deeper appreciation & gratitude,
janine





Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Separate Peace


We have started trying to take the boys to church with us on Sundays. It's a little crazy. They used to laugh maniacally and thump things. They’re a little better now but they’re still loud. And of course they want the same book at the same time, or try to sit in the same chair at the same time (we have rocking chairs in the back of the church.) It’s just chaotic.

Chiara is better for the most part, but sometimes it’s only marginally so. Today she cried (SOBBED) and begged me to go with her to the childrens' liturgy. Each week is headed by a different volunteer parent. They don't know the kids or their names. It's a mixed crowd ages 3 - 9. There are a couple of boys who are just monsters. I don't blame Chiara for not wanting to go by herself--I don't want to be there either! I couldn’t just leave her there sobbing uncontrollably but at the same time I don’t want to make a habit of literally holding her hand through a situation that’s uncomfortable, but not terrible. Besides, I wanted to hear the homily. I like this parish; I like this priest. I wanted to hear him.

I’m feeling guilty because my daughter is quietly sobbing inside the classroom. I’m feeling anxious and trying to justify leaving (it’s good to work out situations in which you are uncomfortable, right?) And I don’t know what the right thing to do is. I ended up just staying right outside the door until Chiara was comfortable enough for me to leave (which was when they started the craft). I decided that if I really wanted to hear the homily I could email Father Mark for it. I think there’s a podcast, too. I don’t need to be in such a hurry.

When I went back to the main church I saw that Father Mark wasn’t giving the homily after all. One of the parishioners was talking about how he’d come to his faith and the 26 years that he’s been sober. Interesting, yes, but I’m glad I didn’t hurry and leave Chiara before she was ready.

Then it turned out that two parish members were recently married in their home country (W Samoa) and wanted to say their vows again here at the church. So Father Mark asked all married couples to stand and renew their vows.

There we stood, Matt and I, at the back of the church—“Do you, Matt, take Janine…” amidst the boys dropping Cheerios like a trail of breadcrumbs and banging their heads and tripping on imaginary steps. I was laughing and crying at the same time.

It makes me think, this is what it must be like to take yoga in India. India is so famously crowded and loud and hot and in your face and our idea of yoga is the opposite: it’s complete silence and stillness.

I used to go to church to get a little bit of that peace and stillness and take it back with me for the week. Now that we’re bringing the boys, church is just as chaotic as the rest of our day. So I have to find peace in a different way. Like being the eye in the storm.

Today, waiting in the doorway, watching Chiara until she was so absorbed in her activities she didn’t notice me anymore, and then later, holding Matt’s hand promising to have him and hold him until death divides us, I got my brisk wind of peace. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bye-Bye NICU

In the last post I talked about how leaving the NICU Partnership Council would be unthinkable. Then I spent a week (at Squaw) thinking about the book I’m trying to write and what I want to say and WHAM-O I decided to forego my responsibilities with the NICU (Partnership Council and Family Advisor Council) without thinking twice (I bet there’s a cutesy “unthinkable” tie-in there).

The boys are nearly 20 months and for the first time in 20 months, they’re acting their age. It seems like a miracle, but that’s really just what supposed to happen. They’re supposed to catch up by two years. We still have some language delays. If he could, Michael would tell you that he has about 20 words. But since each word sounds like “bah” or “doo,” it’s hard to get an accurate count.

Those are just words—they communicate now, something they didn’t do a few months ago. They know how to get your attention (for example, Wagner is particularly good at conveying the message that he has been treated unfairly by his brother). And they “get it.” Michael will try to help unload the dishwasher and if the door is open, will stuff silverware into drawers. Wagner will try to blow his nose.

Aside from having to brush teeth every 2 ½ hours, it really is like they are “normal” kids.

I want to enjoy this. I want to be present for this time. I want to be a “normal” mom (of a preschooler and twin toddlers) as opposed to a mom of kids who need special treatment. And as much as I am grateful to the hospital for their care, I don’t want to have one foot in their world and one foot in ours. Not now. Maybe later.

In about thirty minutes I will drive down to the hospital and tell the Family Advisor Council in person. I will tell them about the twins, thank them for the year I was able to spend with staff as a member of the Partnership Council, and wish them well.

Dear God, I think I just grew wings. I think I might fly to the hospital instead of driving.


Our "Normal" (albeit half-naked) Life

Friday, August 5, 2011

Repaying a Debt

I keep hoping to make it through a Partnership Council meeting without tears.

Partnership Council is a council for the NICU made up of doctors, nurses, social workers, pharmacists, nurse managers and one parent. We meet monthly to discuss how to make the NICU a better place.

The meetings are awesome. I’ve been sitting on the council for about a year now, and it’s really broadened my understanding of our healthcare system and the people who work so hard to make it so good.

At the same time, it deepens my understanding on topics I wish I could forget about. Such as, that micropreemies are in a high-risk category for pressure ulcers. Or: how many micrograms of phototherapy that can be safely given to micropreemies without also giving them brain damage. (Answer: nobody knows for sure.)

I really wish I could forget what happened to our little guys. The three months of intensive care, the heel pricks, the intubation meds, the gavage feeds, and on and on and on. I wish I could just pick up where we are now, with their favorite “blankies” and their favorite spatulas (yes, spatulas). I wish that all that remained from our NICU days were our special Weleda bathwash and our penchant for brushing teeth five times a day.

But, no. I have a debt to pay. So twice a month I drag myself to the hospital. I offer advice on how we can educate parents about HIPAA compliance and remember why electrolytes are a twice-checked additive but human milk fortifier is not.

I’m free to walk away at any time. This is strictly volunteer work. People would understand. But that would be unthinkable. I have healthy, happy sons because of these people. I look around the table—Rita showed me how to cut a little sponge swab and put drops of breastmilk on it for the boys to suck on when they were just a few days old. Janet promised me that my boys wouldn’t go to kindgarten with “toaster heads.” Ann was part of the surgical team for Wagner’s ligation. Luella was the nurse who first made it possible for me to hold my babies (and she was just meal-breaking that day!). Monica gave us a baby CPR refresher. And John, who we did not meet until the boys were almost ready to go home, shared stories of his own twins, who are now in their 30’s. Peggy, the NICU manager, Alex, who tracks the boys’ progress at the follow up clinic, and of course, Alison. I used to think of her just as someone who was passionate about her job. Now I think of her as one of my friends.

I think that’s all worth a few tears. Don’t you?


The first time I held either boy -- thanks to Luella & Margaret

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On the Road, Family Style

We took a road trip on Sunday, arriving in El Paso late last night. So of course I didn’t write and now I’m finding all kinds of excuses not to.

The road trip was great—especially for blog material. For example, I discovered that my friend’s husband is my emergency contact in my cell phone. I found out because when the restaurant in Arizona found my purse, that’s who they called. That would have been a great blog post.

Then there’s the concierge that I pelted with mind bullets because he wouldn’t let Chiara use the restroom there. He insisted that we did not have a reservation, even though we called early in the day and got a confirmation number. (He was right, actually, but I’ll save that for the blog post.) In response to his refusal to let Chiara in to the bathroom, I told him, “Then my daughter is going to pee in your parking lot.”

Nothing much happened yesterday on the excruciatingly long drive from Sedona, unless you count the discovery that my tank holds at least 18.9 gallons of gas. A quick Google search today and I see that it’s actually a 21-gallon tank, so I’m glad I didn’t freak out when I saw the empty light blink on when we were in the middle of the desert. At night. With 3 small children and a (nearly) dead cell phone.*

I guess that’s about it unless you count the little tidbits one learns on a 3-day journey. Such as: you can fit two 18-month-old toddlers in the same pack-n-play for the night. And: 4-year-olds sing loud lullabyes. Don’t forget your crayons in the car in the summer desert. Rest Areas: California has beautiful sparkly ones, but 3 out of 4 are closed. Arizona has your run-of-the-mill rest stops that you can smell from the I-40 on-ramps. Not many billboards in Arizona, which is nice, especially when you are driving through Red Rock country. New Mexico has tons of billboards, which is also nice, especially when you are looking for the next gas station.

* Marian drove with us and points out that it was dusk, not the middle of the night and while my cell phone was nearly dead, hers was charged.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Speech Delays Update

Here’s the update on the boys’ speech delays. They are talking up a storm!

Wagner has a few signs: “hi,” “bye,” “eat,” drink,” “more,” “want it,” and “please.” Michael has several signs, too, but has added his own interpretation to them. The signs themselves are the standard gestures for “eat,” “drink,” “more,” “help,” and “want it,” but they are used interchangeably, regardless of context, to mean, “Do that thing I want.” Which means that sometimes he uses the “eat” gesture to mean, “help” or the “more” gesture to mean, “put my shoes on and take me outside. SNAPPO!”

But he has more words than Wagner. They are:
bye (pronounced “buh”)
ball (pronounced “bah”)
up (pronounced “bup”)
banana (“bah”)
apple (“bup”)
pumpkin” (“bah”)
socks (“bah”)
jacket (“buh”)
teeth (“buh”)
blanket (“bahh!”)
Mama (pronounced “mama”)
Baby Mum-mums – the best baby treat EVER because it melts in your mouth, not in your hands (also—sigh—pronounced “mama”)
and hat (“baah” – it’s a little different with the long Danish “a”)

He also has some phrases:
• “Bah?” (followed by a smile where he bears his teeth and flutters his eyes)
Translation:  May I have some of your delicious Frosted Flakes?
• “Baaaaaaa!” (accompanied with the stomping of feet and the waving of hands)
Translation: What is WRONG with you?
• “Baah!” (emphasis on the first “a”)
Translation: Kiss me again.
• “Bah?” (cocks head and smiles bravely, not as fake as his “feed me” smile but not as sincere as his “kiss me” smile)
Translation: Let’s go to the park! (this is often followed by “Baaaaaaa!” and stomping and waving)
• “Baaa-AA-aaaa!” similar to What is wrong with you? But the extra syllable changes the meaning slightly to: I hate you! You're the worst mother ever! You have ruined my life!
And finally
• “Bah!”
Will you read me this book, please?

In short, Michael has several signs that all have the same meaning and one sound that means several different things.

And of course, they talk to each other all the time. Completely unintelligible conversations that only they understand.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Happiness Nut

My family thinks I am some kind of happiness nut, like I’ve joined some kind of kumbaya cult and spend my days playing a tambourine in the park. Or the subway. The family that’s in the Midwest shakes their heads. Only in California. The family in California shakes their heads. Only in Berkeley. Of course I’m defensive. This isn’t “hippy Berkeley!” This is U.C. Berkeley! This is empirical science!

Of course I look like some kind of blissed-out wingnut. Last August I started a google group called “Sharing Happiness.” The idea was to create a place where people all over the world could share things that made them happy. I forced family members to sign up (well, I didn’t really force them, I just signed them up myself.) Usually it’s just me writing about some great thing that the twins did, such as smile or burp, or some absolutely fabulous thing Matt did, like take the 5:30 a.m. shift again. I’m aware that it could look more like Janine procured an audience for herself, more like “Blaring Narcissism” rather than “Sharing Happiness.” But that’s not the intent. The intent is to share stuff that makes us happy.

I’m not the only one who posts. My mom posts frequently, as do a couple of my sister-in-laws, a cousin, and every now and again, an aunt. In the beginning there was a discussion on “bragging.” At what point did sharing what made us happy become bragging? The group decided bragging was in the eye of the beholder. If you couldn’t brag to your own family, who could you brag to? And if you couldn’t be proud of your own family or happy for them, then maybe you should work on that. (Sidenote: we also closed the group to outsiders so that it is 100% private and off the radar.) I also pitched the idea to the Greater Good Science Center and it got picked up as a community gratitude journal that posts every Friday.

“What a fabulous idea!” was the initial response.

“Why don’t you be in charge of this?” was the next response.

And with that I was given a username and password and access to the Greater Good Science Center’s website. Every Thursday evening around 11:30 p.m., I format the contributions collected throughout the week (my mother, always hoping for a better grade, can usually be counted on for two or three thankful quips) so that the post is ready for Friday morning.

I always add a gratitude signed with my first and last name as a way to take ownership of my thankfulness. I want to set an example. Many people post anonymously as “grateful mom” or “happy dad.” Sometimes I post anonymously, too. These gratitudes are the ones that I’m really thankful for, but don’t really want to take ownership of, such as: “I’m grateful that our downstairs neighbors are sound sleepers.” Or “I’m grateful that the bank didn’t return that overdrawn check.” Still other gratitudes never get posted anywhere. Such as, “I’m so happy that Wagner’s O.K. after falling down the stairs.”

The impression I give is that I’m just a little too loopy from taking care of all these small children and that I float around like a Stepford Wife or some kind of Forty-year old Pollyanna.

But the real reason I have the community gratitude journal and the sharing happiness group is because when the twins wake up at 5:30, Matt gets up and he changes their diapers and reads them books and then when Chiara wakes up an hour later, he feeds the three of the breakfast and gets them dressed and two hours after that, at the reasonable hour of 8:30, I crawl out of bed, look at my lovely, clean, fed, and dressed family and say to the man who made them so, “Wagner’s wearing the wrong socks.” And then before his head can explode, I usually add something like, “Can you work from home today? I want to go yoga.”

And then it dawns on me that if Matt’s head does explode, I will have to raise three kids by myself. And I will have lost the husband that I love so, so dearly—a wonderfully funny and caring person who makes Mary Poppins look like a cracked-out slacker.

So I thought that maybe, just maybe, if I started consciously thinking about how grateful I am—if I wrote it down and shouted it out—that I might wake up in the morning and see my beautiful, clean, dressed, and fed family and say, “How can I help?” or “Thank you, Matt. Sleeping in until 8:30 makes such a difference.”



Sunday, July 3, 2011

Just Another Ambulance Ride

I love buried leads. They’re so exciting to me.

SO – biggest disappointment of the day. There were two. One was a book we bought at the bookstore: The Name of This Book is Secret. Which is just a disappointment because it’s waaaaaaaaaaay over Chiara’s head. We just finished The BFG by Roald Dahl (I’d never heard of it, either) and before that we’d read James and the Giant Peach and Chiara’s really into chapter books now. Regarding the Name of This Book..let’s just say that I agree with the review from Commonsensemedia.org:

Commensensemedia.org, in an average review, criticized the similarity to Handler by saying "Apparently trying to take a leaf from Lemony Snicket's books, he gives incessant warning about how dangerous it is to read this book; this, combined with the utter lack of anything that justifies the build-up, comes across as lame at best and annoying at worst."

Chiara didn’t like the book, either. We decided to shelve it and read ABC Peas instead.

The other disappointment today was not being able to see the ending of this teeny-bop movie on the Disney channel. It’s about auditioning for Twinkletown, the musical. There’s a mean, blonde Nellie Olsen-type named “Sharpay” and a sweet underdog protagonist, Gabrielle Montez (apparently “Latina” is the new “smart brunette”). I’m pretty sure I knew what was going to happen with callbacks. Although right when the RN called us out of triage, the basketball teams was trying to convince Troy Bolton to play in the champion basketball game instead of showing up for the audition.

I wanted to go back the ER waiting room to see the end of it, but Wagner was really wailing and by the time he fell asleep, he was twenty minutes into his IV feed, so we were kinda stuck in our room until the blood tests came back. And of course, by the time the doctor cleared us for discharge, the show was over. I guess I can be grateful that I didn’t drive to Children’s Hospital; if I had, I would have missed the beginning of the show. That ambulance showed up 3 minutes after the 911call. Such efficiency.

It was a very surreal day. Five hours at the hospital because Wagner had a fever of 105 degrees and the anxiety I felt was because a) I couldn’t update Matt; there was no cell phone reception and b) I was missing the undoubtedly climatic ending of "High School Musical."

I guess this is what too much hospital life does to you.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Writing it Out

I’m submitting a piece to an anthology about sharing—women helping women. How women have inspired me, listened to my ideas, encouraged me, etc.

I found out about it through litquake. I wasn’t going to do it because I didn’t think I had enough time to come up with something before the deadline. Then on deadline day, Jane Ganahl (one of the co-founders of litquake) sent out another email about it. I love this kind of stuff—it’s right up my alley with the sharing thing. I still felt stumped on what to write but the email seemed to suggest that it might be more of a soft deadline, and felt obligated to inquire about it. Jane wrote a very nice introduction to the anthology’s editor for me, and the woman agreed to let me submit two weeks after the original deadline.

Still no inspiration for a specific story.

I wanted to write about my writing partner Rachel, because I think we work really well together, giving feedback, accepting feedback, even when we’re both applying for the same grant. But we’ve only been writing partners for a couple of months, so I don’t feel like I have enough material.

Four days before Deadline II…

When I’m stumped like this, I often take it as an indication that I’m trying too hard. Trying to fit the idea-peg into the wrong sized hole. It’s corny, but I usually fall back on a “what does your heart tell you?” way to jigger the lock. (I’m pretty sure that’s not the word I want to use.)

Three days before Deadline II…

I’ve decided to write about Cathy Coggins, the infant development specialist at Alta Bates, the one who helped us with the twins’ language delays. I spend a couple of days trying to figure out how the idea will play out.

The day before…

It’s a 1700 – 3000 word limit, which used to be nothing for me back in the day, but with writing so many blog posts that max out at a 600 word limit, my condensing skills are better than my story-telling ones. I end up with a skeleton essay that kind of works but mostly makes me cringe. It sounds so fake.

The day it’s due…

We’re going to the Tuesday playgroup and Chiara and I have a little habit of going to buy coffee/milk with a straw before it starts. We get to the front of the line and that’s when I discover that I have left my wallet at home.

After the playgroup, we go back home and the babysitter comes for a five-hour shift, my writing time. A quick phone call to the bank lets me know that my wallet has been stolen and between my three credit cards, over $600 has been charged in gas and BART cards. I also have to go into the city to pick up our camera, which I left at a friend’s birthday party over the weekend. And I have to pick it up because the next day we are flying to Florida.

I spend my writing time cancelling credit cards, closing my checking account, opening a new one, driving into the city to pick up a camera, and engage in three different litquake meetings, although I did fit in some writing when I was waiting at the bank and then later between camera-pickup and database meeting.

Long story short, I do not finish the piece or submit it.

The next day we fly to visit Matt’s parents in Florida.

The day after that is Matt’s dad’s birthday.

The day after that I work on it for a bit and submit a story that doesn’t make me wince but it also feels…broken.

I figure that’s the end of it. I’m just glad that I got it off my plate and can go work on something else. I felt obligated to follow through on my commitment, didn’t want to drop the ball completely. And I’m OK with ending up in the slush pile.

Then today I got an email encouraging me to keep working on it and submit again. I get the feeling that the editor didn’t read my first draft, I think she just doesn’t want to bother with something incomplete and has a little time to wait for something better.

So now I have to go back to the broken piece and fix it.

This has been such a weird boomerang of extenuating circumstances, both on the side of interfering with the completion of the essay and the submission of it.

And now, since baby pictures are cute, a picture of Wagner having Under the Table Teatime.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Insides Out

My scar still hurts sometimes. The one from the c-section. Although, to be more specific, I should say that one of my scars hurts. There are five—one for each layer that the surgeons have to cut through to reach the baby and avoid cutting through other things—such as your bladder.

I am often amazed at the nonchalance at which c-sections are sometimes viewed. Almost as a convenience because you can schedule them. Never mind the recovery time and the risk involved. Five layers of stitches!

Of course, there are many women who have no choice. For their safety—or, as in our case, for the baby’s/ies’ safety—that’s just the way it’s gotta be. And I certainly understand that. Just as in our case, the best of course of action was to keep our babies in plastic boxes for a couple of months. But just because our babies turned out “okay” (if you don’t think about the teeth part), doesn’t mean that a six-month pregnancy is the optimal way to go.

This morning one of my internal scars deep, deep inside, the one that has always bothered me the most, felt puckered and tucked. I can feel it when I run my hand along it. It’s several inches above the scar that is visible from the outside.

Matt remembers that day differently than I do, of course. Rushing to the hospital from work, arriving in time to see me wheeled into Labor & Delivery, barely having enough time to call my parents (the people taking care of Chiara that day) before the surgery began. While I was in my moments of Zen, he was trying to put on scrubs a million sizes too big. I couldn’t see what was going on, but he could. He said they put my guts right there on the table. Well, maybe not on the table, but they were outside my body, a big jumble of them. Some of my blood squirted out and landed on his shoe and for days afterwards, he’d look at it and remember seeing that side of me that he had never seen before (the inside). Much like when we went to Rome the year before and he spent the next week at work looking at his shoes, looking at the dust from the Coliseum—real Roman dust here in Mountain View!

For me it felt exactly like two pairs of hands rummaging through your insides looking for a couple of babies on the run.

My guts were touched. They saw the light of day. How weird. They were handled and juggled and (carefully?) put back. I wonder if my organs have fingerprints on them, a frontier where no person had gone before and traces left behind, like those astronaut footprints on the moon.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Letter to Parents of Micro Preemies

(This is just a rough draft of something I might say to a parent who’s about to deliver a micro-preemie)
Dear Parent,

My twin boys were born at Alta Bates at just 25 weeks’ 3 days’ gestation. Prior to that, I spent 8 days in the antepartum unit. During that time, my obstetrician asked the doctors who care for premature babies to talk to me.

My husband and I had very different attitudes about how we wanted to receive information. I wanted information on a “need to know” basis, based on what was happening with my particular babies, not what might happen to a baby similar to mine.

I don’t know what you’re going through, but I know what I went through.

If you’re a parent of a preemie, this is what I want you to know:
I want you to know that they have perfectly shaped fingernails.

I want you to know that it is possible to feel love for something that doesn’t look like a baby.

I want you to know that when they cry, it squeaks and it breaks your heart.

That sometimes they grab your finger like they know who you are.

That sometimes they look like they’re in pain.

That sometimes they look like they’ll never get better.

That sometimes they are more resilient than you can ever imagine is humanly possible.


If you’re a parent of a preemie, this is what you need to know:
You need to know that you might have to hear the same information 4 or 5 times before it sinks in.

You need to know that you might have to make work sacrifices that you didn’t think were possible.

You need to know what kind of things will help you during stressful situations.

You need to know that your mental well being can affect your physical well being and even the well being of your baby.

You need to know that sometimes more information makes you feel even worse.

You need to know that sometimes ignoring information can leave you unprepared.

You need to know that, whatever happens, this experience will change your life forever. Now that I am on the other side, I feel that I have a wisdom, a patience, a reverence for life, and intense feeling of happiness and gratitude that I never imagined were possible.

You need to know that not everyone feels this way.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Toddler Math

Oops.  So much for posting once a week.


My sister was here last week. On the first day she babysat, following the twins from room to room as they systematically pulled books off of shelves, clothes out of drawers, and Tupperware out of cupboards. At first she took pictures because baby messes are cute if it’s the kind of thing you see less often than Halley’s Comet. But quickly my sister discovered that in the time it took for her to straighten up one room, they had already messed up four others. And with the head start they had gotten with the impromptu photo shoot, she’d never catch up unless she strapped them down.

Of course, this is just because my sister cannot do Toddler Math.

Toddler Math is the ability to determine things like the number of snacks plus grown-up breakfasts yielded by 2/3 of a box of Cheerios. Or the ability to divine how many errands (including looking for parking) one can fit between the morning nap and the afternoon nap.*

Other kinds of Toddler Math include knowing how many wipes you need to last until Wednesday, how many times your baby will scream bloody murder before he means really means it, and knowing when to feed your kid so that his first poo happens on the babysitter’s watch.

On the day my sister babysat, she was faced with the kind of Toddler Math parents knows as Clean Up Factorization: the amount of time it takes to make a mess divided by the time it takes to clean it up. Obviously we’re shooting for a 1 or higher. Throwing a sippy cup from the highchair is a .93 whereas opening a jar of honey is a number in the billions. Some messes vary depending on the context and circumstance. For example, giving a child a bath can be any number between .12 and 28, depending on the length of the bath and your tolerance for wet spots that will eventually dry on their own. A laundry basket full of clean clothes is pretty close to 1 unless the clothes are folded. In that case, it’s like dividing by zero—the time it takes to empty it a basket of clean clothes is 2.6 seconds; the time to finish filling it up again with folded clothes can sometimes span decades. That’s why moms with kids under the age of 26 don’t bother to fold clean clothes.

* Answer: Exactly 1 errand. Unless you have twins, in which case the number errands is .3895. (Taking into consideration that the errand likely involves a minivan double load-up to start, a minivan-to-stroller double unload/load arriving at the destination with a stroller-to-minivan double unload/load to head back home, and closing with a minivan double unload, plus looking for parking on either end.) If it’s a walking errand involving one stroller double load and one stroller double unload, you can complete exactly 1 errand between the morning and afternoon naps.




Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sharing as a Family

Today we had our first Family Advisory Council meeting.  Alta Bates, our hospital in Berkeley, practices what is known in the medical world as “Family Centered Care” (sometimes also known as Patient Centered Care).  It means that rather than treating conditions and diseases, the doctors and nurses treat patients and families.  In the old days, doctors learned specialty: stomachs or livers or cancers or birthin’ babies.  They learned about ideal cases and exception cases and various treatments, etc.  And of course, they still do.  But it turns out that people get better faster when they understand what’s going on.  This does not necessarily mean more information; it means better communication.  And that’s what Patient Centered Care is all about.

The first item on our agenda was to get to know each other’s stories.  We went around the room, giving each parent as much time as he or she needed (there are five of us).  The designated speaker was usually the one holding the Kleenex box.  Many of our stories started way before the birth, sometimes even before the pregnancy.  We told it all.  We unburdened ourselves: our guilt, our regrets, our gratitude.  The frequent scares and unexpected joys.  Then and now. 

Then: the moment when we all thought, “Oh my God.  My baby is going to die.” 

Now: the profound debt of gratitude we feel toward all the other people in the room: doctors, nurses, the hospital staff that thought it was important to have a council like this to begin with.

Which reminds me, a year ago today we brought Wagner home from the hospital. 





Friday, March 25, 2011

Tales from the Teeth

Wagner said his first word, “hi,” (old news) and he waves when he says it.  It’s really cute because he says it in a higher pitch than his normal speaking—er, uh, babbling voice, presumably because when we say “hi-i!” we also say it in a higher-than-usual voice.  Michael waves at “hi,” too, but hasn’t really said anything yet.  Wagner has also said “peek-a-boo” (breaking news).  It came out “eek-boo.”  The wheels are really starting to turn for Wagner regarding language.  I think it will still be slow going, but we’re starting to get there. 

And now the bad news—the boys are missing quite a bit of enamel on their top teeth.  Enamel is something that forms in the third trimester of pregnancy and while the Internet estimates that 80% of preemies born this young have enamel hypoplasia (fancy tooth talk for “not enough enamel to go around”), we don’t know of anyone in our small circle of preemie friends that suffer from this condition.

It literally looks like a coat of paint is missing on their top teeth.  It’s white on the sides and near the gum, but the center of the tooth is yellowish and a little mealy looking.  The enamel on the sides of the teeth is a little raised.  It reminds me of a halved section of garlic that has sprouted.

I noticed it last Friday (March 18) and on Monday we made an appointment with the dentist who fit us in on Tuesday (there happened to be a cancellation). 

Yes, the boys have enamel hypoplasia.  No, the enamel won’t grow back.  Yes, their permanent teeth will be similarly affected.  The most we can do is aggressively work to prevent cavities.  When they are older they can get sealant, and if they get cavities before then we can get crowns, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to apply sealant now when they have only 3 and half top teeth apiece.

The pediatric dentist showed us how to brush their teeth (with a little finger glove that has bristles) and how to floss their teeth (with a little plastic flosser called “Mr. Flossman).  She told us all about xylitol, a natural sugar that kills bacteria (“Why didn’t you tell me!” you are thinking) and gives you diarrhea if you have too much (“Thanks for telling me!” you are thinking).  Oh – and don’t give it to dogs.

Then she gave the boys an iodine rinse and a fluoride varnish.  We go back in three months for more of the same.

We went home armed with xlylitol toothpaste gel called “Xlyitots” for twice a day brushing, xylitol drops called “Xyliteeth” for twice a day rinsing and little antibacterial tooth wipes called “Spiffies” for twice a day tooth wiping. 

Next up:  Brushing Your Toddler’s Teeth

Monday, March 21, 2011

Speak, Boy!

Nearly a month has passed since I first noticed what the boys weren’t noticing—their names, our names, simple commands such as “Come here,” “Look!” and “No!”  Since then folks have given me some great anecdotes about someone in their family (always an uncle, strangely enough) who never said a word until they were 3 or 4 or 5, at which point they spoke in complete sentences.

Perhaps if the families of these uncles had fish eye lenses installed in every nook and cranny like this guy, they’d be able to determine just what their kids were communicating, even though they weren’t using words to do it.

One of the great reliefs of our early intervention playgroup, particularly the one with the speech therapist, was that, while the boys only say unintelligible things, it doesn’t mean they only think unintelligible things.  The playgroup facilitator (for lack of a better title) and the speech therapist were able to point out many efforts that the boys make to communicate—Wagner in particular.  They were able to conclude this after “a dialog” with Wagner that involved patting. 

Cathy, the most wonderful early intervention specialist ever (also known as the playgroup facilitator) started a game with Wags.  Securing eye contact with Wagner (it’s called joint attention), she patted her leg.  Wagner watched her and then he patted her leg.  She nodded and smiled and said something to him and patted her leg again.  He responded by smiling and patting her leg again.  It sounds simplistic and non-deterministic, but this is turn-taking.  These are the real building blocks of communication. 

Before you and I can have a conversation, I have to know that you are listening to me.  If you look me in the eye and nod (or cock your head to the side), I know you are listening.  I say something and when I’m done, I pause and it’s your turn to say something.  This is established in the patting game.  It’s an interchange that’s easy take for granted until you see another baby how doesn’t get the game—like Michael. 

When we went back the next week, Wagner remembered the patting game with Cathy and they repeated it.  Michael was still uninterested in the patting game, but he had other signs of budding intelligence.  He was appropriately startled by and curious about the hungry cries of the one-month old who was also in attendance.  And he and Wagner engage in their own form of “conversing” with each other—joint attention and taking turns patting and squealing.

That’s why you go to the experts (good experts, not just degreed ones).  They can point out this or that gesture which is actually meaningful—not just in your imagination.  And once you know what to look for, you can repeat it and reinforce it.

Other things the speech therapist recommended to help with speech production.  Lose the bottle, push the sippy cup.  Sucking is easy (that’s why newborns can do it).  Drinking from a cup is hard.  It involves a more sophisticated coordination of motor patterns.  Trying to get them to drink from a regular cup will help, too.  Michael’s been drinking from a cup for a while (with assistance, of course).  He insisted on it (more communication!!!!) ever since an ear infection made bottle sucking impossible.  But for some weird reason, the sippy cup just mystifies and frustrates him.  Wagner’s better with the sippy cup.  We are also trying to be better with the sippy cup, since the bottle is easier for us, too.  Just fill and serve and put ‘em to bed. 

But bed bottles are bad for their teeth, so we’ve got to lose the bedtime bottle (or at least brush their teeth afterwards, which defeats the purpose of bottle feeding as a means of sedation).  Tomorrow we go to the dentist for the first time, and we’ll get better information then.  It turns out that the boys have some enamel problems—such as, it’s not forming on some of their teeth—a condition that according to the all-knowing Internet, affects 80% of preemies born at their weight and gestational age.  (Younger than 28 weeks and less than 1500 grams.  The boys were 25 weeks and 860 g & 720 g).   Stay tuned, gentle readers!

OH MY GOODNESS!  I ALMOST FORGOT!!!!  WAGNER SAID “HI” TODAY!  COMPLETE WITH WAVE!  There I go again, burying the lead. 




Tuesday, March 15, 2011

When Experts Speak

I haven’t yet written about my current work with the hospital, but part of it involves looking pamphlets and brochures and explaining why this or that phrase will not resonate with the intended audience.

For example, my most recent work involves a flyer on breastmilk. The NICU hosts two different kinds of Moms: the Moms who envisioned nursing their newborns every two hours while a choir of angels sang in the background, and the Moms who think, “Euuuuuuuuuuewwwwwwww.” One group pumps diligently, the other group needs a little prompting.

Breastmilk is better than formula for all babies, but for healthy babies, the difference between babies who are nursed and babies who are fed formula is negligible. Repeat: negligible. You may have to read that sentence twice, because the La Leche League would have you believe that formula is poison, but formula is nutrition. But if you want a baby that healthy, strong, and smart, it’s better to be rich than to be nursed. So if you’re stressed out because you have to go back to work and pumping is making you so crazy that you’re losing hair in patches, pull out the powder instead; your baby will be no worse off because of it. Really.

If, on the other hand, your baby is a NICU baby, suck it up and pump, Mom. Your baby needs you. Breastmilk has amazing properties that modern medicine can barely identify, let alone replicate. The best it can do is to invent ways to get the milk out more efficiently in the event that your baby cannot.

Spending forty-five minutes tethered to a hospital grade pump is a real drag, especially if you have to do it eight times a day. I know. I bribed myself with candy bars to make myself wake up in the middle of the night to pump. I took a prescription drug that made me depressed, panicked, and exhausted (I sleepwalked through six weeks of last year’s winter) just to improve milk supply. It sucked. But sick babies need breastmilk and Moms are the only ones who make it. Breastmilk improves digestion and decreases risk of terrible diseases such as NEC. (Diseases to which preemies are susceptible. Healthy babies need never even know that these things exist.)

The NICU staff’s hands are tied, in a way, because the last thing they want to do is pressure a stressed-out NICU mom into pumping breastmilk for her baby and at the same time, they need that breastmilk more than anything. (They can use banked breast milk. Our boys were on breastmilk when my supply was inadequate, but it’s not the same. In fact, the constitution of a mother’s milk changes as her baby grows. The milk of a mom whose babies are twenty-five weeks’ gestation is different from her milk when her babies are twenty-eight weeks’ gestation.)

In an effort to gently get all Moms pumping, the NICU staff put together this flyer informing parents about the benefits of breastmilk.

And that’s where I come in. I look at the flyer and tell them why it doesn’t say what they think it says.

The breastmilk flyer that outlines 10 major benefits to providing breastmilk to babies ranging from decreased risks and increased benefits for the baby to decreased risks and increased benefits for the mom. (They can’t say “breastfeed” because in most cases, these babies are unable to nurse yet).

The trouble is, the flyer’s list of risks and benefits list multisyllabic medical terms that make even my eyes glaze over—and I know to what these terms refer. I can’t imagine an uneducated mom (the target audience) hanging in there past the second sentence.

The flyer makes a number of fatal assumptions, but one that stands out is that the flyer assumes that 1) mothers know that breastmilk is powerful and 2) mothers know that they are the only ones who can provide the breastmilk. To this end, one of the changes we made to the flyer is to call breastmilk “medicine.” Comparing breastmilk to medicine introduces an aspect of the liquid that these moms might not be familiar with. Now it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t know what necrotizing enterocolititis is. She understands that it’s a medical condition that can be treated through the medicine of breastmilk.
The gist of the recent breastmilk brochure is the recurring problem of education and communication. If you believed what I have to say to you, I wouldn’t have to say it. Given that you don’t believe it, then I have to say it a different way. In other words, those moms who already pump milk morning, noon, and night (along with early morning, late morning, early afternoon, late afternoon, late night and wee hours) know that the constitution of milk has special properties that can treat specific conditions. Skipping over that fact and listing just risks and benefits doesn’t the moms who may just think of milk as milk.

I know that information is only understood within contexts and that to change minds, you have to find the right context.

So I was very surprised to find myself resisting the advice of the speech therapist who told us that we must bombard our language-delayed babies with words and gestures. I looked at her, nodded at her dutifully, and decided that I know better.

Me—who has had one semester of Language Acquisition. What do I know that she doesn’t?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

My Name is Nobody

So just to recap, the boys are showing multiple signs of language delays, starting with the fact that they make no inferences about the world around them and ending with the fact that at 10 ½ months adjusted, they still do not know their names.

Granted, twins in general are usually slower at learning their names. This is not surprising, since identical twins are so often confused with each other. Our house is no different. Half the time Chiara calls Michael, “Wagner” and Wagner, “Michael.” The other half she calls Michael, “Isabel” and Wagner, “Jack.”

I’m no help, either. I call the boys “Sweetie,” “Buddy,” Dude,” and “Puppy-puppy.” Sometimes the boys are “Mister Michael” and “Mister Wagner” and sometimes the boys are “Mikey” and “Waggy.” For a time Matt called Michael, “Tiny Elvis” and Wagner was simply, “Spaceman.”

This lack of consistency no doubt adds to their name confusion. In fact, if Michael were to go on probabilities alone, he would assume that his Christian name is “Owbegentle,” as that is the utterance that is most frequently directed at him.

I’m starting to get concerned. I haven’t yet been able to talk to the speech therapist from our NICU Early Intervention playgroup because the boys have not been healthy enough to attend since November. They haven’t been that sick (except for this week—this week three out of four ears are infected and we have just been given a fancy 3-day second line antibiotic. Last night Mister Jack Wagner ran a 104.5 temperature). It’s just that the playgroup is all NICU grads—in other words, babies with fragile immune systems. To even think of attending when all three of us are less than 100% healthy isn’t just bad form; it’s dangerous for the other babies.

I talked to the speech therapist that is associated with our new developmental playgroup (one run by Chiara’s daycare). She’s very nice and very respected but had never met our babies before two Fridays ago. Her suggestion was to “bombard them with language” and she previewed for me a storm of sounds and “power signs” to help jumpstart our wordless tots.

And I decided that I didn’t want to take her advice.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Speech Delays Part II

Context teaches babies a lot. “All gone” is consistently said at the end of a meal. “Uh-oh” after something is dropped. “Bye-bye,” “look!” and “night night” are all said in the same sorts of contexts.

Babies are also incredibly good at determining intentionality. That means they can tell the difference between when Dad looks at Baby and says, “There’s your bottle!” and when Dad looks at Baby but is really saying to Mom, “There’s your cell phone.”

In one of my favorite studies (interpreted as a harbinger of empathy), a researcher drops her pen. Sometimes she drops in a very intentional way (the control). The babies sit and stare (or continue playing with something else). Sometimes the researcher drops her pen (seemingly unintentionally—I think she says something like, “oops!”) and struggles to reach for it. Babies as young as nine months will crawl over pillows to pick up the pen and hand it to the researcher.*

* I actually tried this with Chiara. And it never worked until the one day when I wasn’t trying to do anything; I just accidently dropped the remote. Chiara was about fifteen months old and she crossed the room to hand it to me.

So babies learn language through inference, repetition, and acclimation to certain sounds, although exactly how is still anyone’s guess. The Neural Theory of Language (proposed by Jerry Feldman and George Lakoff, both of UC Berkeley) has some really cool answers to this question. But we’ll save that for another day.

Back to the boys. The boys do not understand intentionality. They do not react to mood. In other words, on the very few occasions when they have been the object of someone’s wrath (read: Chiara’s wrath), they do not react appropriately. They are not startled; they do not cry. If anything, Michael will laugh, which incites our little Type A Angel even more. Five/six months is the point when babies should react to anger with fear. Our babies really haven’t witnessed any anger other than their older sister’s temper, so it’s hard to say that they are delayed when they simply haven’t been exposed to it.

On the surface, it sounds great that our little boys have been raised in such a happy family that they have never witnessed screaming and fits of rage; and it is. I, too, am happy that we can provide such a peaceful environment for them. But it also means that our even-keeled home life gives us, the parents, few opportunities to determine just what the boys can infer from their surroundings. Reacting to anger with fear (as sad as it sounds to think of scared little babies) also means that the babies have interpreted and reacted to an emotion they have witnessed.

Partly because of their early exposure in the NICU to incessant noise, the boys do not get startled. Sudden noises do not startle them or surprise them or scare them. Again, this is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it makes them calm little Zen babies. And it makes them generally quiet. On the minus side, it means they do not attend to an audio change to their environment. This is really freaky to see. For example, if you stand right behind them and clap your hands loudly, the twins will not turn to see what the sound is until after about five or six loud claps. (If they can see your hands, they attend immediately).

We know that they can hear; that’s not the problem. We know they can hear because we have to tiptoe around when we’ve put them down to sleep. Further proof is that they turn their heads in the direction of music when it starts to play, and my favorite, once when I had put them down for their naps and went into an adjacent room to talk to Caitlin, the boys pounded on the shared wall between the rooms when they heard our voices. Plus, they’ve had hearing tests. It’s not their ears; it’s their brains. Their brains don’t say, “Hey! What was that? See what it was!”

I suppose you could say that if you boil it down to its most crucial elements, intelligence starts with noticing things. You can’t learn about things if you do not first acknowledge their existence. In this respect, the boys are like quiet, fat, simpletons. It’s a concern, but I’m not sure yet what to do about it. Drop books on the floor behind their backs? Pick fights with Matt? Yell at them?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


Monday, February 28, 2011

Speech Delays

It’s official. The boys have language delays. They are nearly 14 months old (10 ½ months adjusted) and they still don’t know any words. By 10 months, Chiara had already said her first word* and was started to sign regularly.

* “Bye-bye” to a very disgruntled airline passenger. When I told the woman that my daughter had just said her first word to her, the woman brightened and oohed and ahhed and cooed at Chiara.

I don’t mean that the boys don’t say any words; I meant that the boys don’t understand any words. They don’t turn to me when someone says, “Where’s Mama?” They don’t know who “Daddy” is. When you say, “Look!” and point, they don’t look. They don’t even know their own names, a milestone that is usually reached around six months of age.

What does this all mean? It means that the boys have significant speech delays, because, of course, before you can speak you must first understand. By 15 months most babies understand just about everything that is said to them (or at least, they can intuit fairly well what is expected of them). We are way off that mark.
Even the experts don’t fully understand how we acquire language. They just know that it happens. If you’re around it, it will come. When babies are born, they can attune to every phonological sound that happens in every language. This is a little difficult to explain without a remedial lesson in phonetics, but it’s like this: different languages have different sounds. For example, Japanese has one sound that for us can be either an “l” or an “r.” Spanish has a “b-ish/v-ish” sound that is written as “b” but is neither like an English “b” or “v,” as in the word “cabeza” or “calabacitas.” (To make things more confusing, Spanish also has a “b” sound that is written as “b” that does sound like an English “b.” Confused? Just wait til I get going! 
This back story is just to say that there are about 200 different consonant and vowel sounds, but you only hear 45 of them unless you are completely fluent in another language (using native consonants when speaking a foreign language is part of what makes a foreign accent). Newborns hear all 200 of them. In other words, at birth, all American babies can hear both Spanish “b’s” just as all Japanese babies can hear the difference between “l” and “r.” Then, as babies acclimate to the language around them, their brains attune the sounds of what will be their native language. Around nine months, American babies will no longer hear the difference between the [b] in “bonita” and the [b] in “calabacitas” and Japanese babies will hear “lake” and “rake” as the same word.
As babies start to tease out the sounds of their soon-to-be native language, they also start to figure out that strings of speech sounds correlate to certain meanings. Around the six-month mark, most babies figure out that there is a string of sounds that correlates to them. You know this because around six months, you can call your baby’s name and she will turn her head to look at you. It is also true that your daughter will turn her head to look at you when you call her, “Potato Head,” but the difference is not only that (hopefully) you call her by her Christian name far more often than when you call her, “Potato Head,” but your reaction is (hopefully) very different when she turns her head in response to her name and when she turns her head in response to “Potato Head.” This is how she figures out her name. 
This is important because once she learns her name, she can use those sounds as a “token.” We imagine that spoken words have pauses between them in the same way that we have spaces between written words. That is a figment of your imagination. (You might have experienced this phenomenon if you have ever tried to learn a foreign language). 
So how do babies do it? How do they figure out where the beginnings and endings of words are? How do they figure out that sounds are words in the first place? How do they figure out that sounds are referential and not just exclamations of joy and/or poop? 
Well, for one thing, we don’t talk to our babies in the same way that one would, for example, defend his dissertation. We modify the way we speak (experts call it “Motherese”) and we modify what we say. Motherese refers to the tendency of all people, in all (studied) cultures, and all languages, (even of all ages; Chiara speaks Motherese when she talks to the boys) to speak slower, higher pitched, and more exaggeratedly when speaking to babies. 
Ooh!!! Are those your toes, Michael? Michael, those are your toes! Michael, look at your toes?
You know what I’m talking about—it’s that stupid way that people talk to babies that you vow you will never do. Then you have a baby or you see a baby or you think about a baby and you open your mouth and out tumbles Motherese, as if your were a native speaker. Good thing, too, because Motherese really helps babies learn language.

Wagner after a tortellini dinner

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

If You Give A Preschooler A Party

At the end of last week’s episode, our proud heroine was bragging about the no-frills party she was going to throw for her daughter. Let’s tune in today to see just how that party really went.

It was a dark and stormy night…

My original vision was to have the party guests bring baby clothes to donate instead than birthday presents. There’s a hair salon up the street which exclusively cuts kid’s hair and is also a drop-off point for gently used (or new) clothes for babies in their first year of life. The clothes are carefully packed in 12-inch by 12-inch boxes with an even distribution of sizes from newborn up to one year. The boxes are then labeled for gender and doled out to Bay Area maternity wards to Moms who will need them the most. (Alta Bates NICU is also a recipient). For the curious or for those buried under piles of tiny Baby Gap onesies, the organization is called Loved Twice and you can read about them at http://lovedtwice.org.

I thought the kids could help decorate the boxes with stickers and then we’d all parade to the hair salon where we would exchange the clothes for some heavy praise and helium balloons. Then we’d walk back to the house for the rest of the party.

The problem was that it would most certainly be raining cats and dogs that day. Besides, no one had any hand-me downs anymore. So we scrapped that part of the party. Instead, I made an appointment for Chiara and a friend to get their hair cut and “styled” (glitter and princess braids) early that morning and we’d drop off our boxes then (we have LOADS of baby clothes to pass on.) Good thing, too, because it was the kind of rainy day that makes you wonder why we still have to take three-minute showers. Those reservoirs must be pretty full by now.
The party itself went very smoothly, but I was surprised at my lack of foresight in some key areas. Here are ten nuggets of After-the-fact Wisdom:

1. Get a noise ordinance.
Little kids are really loud. And for every party guest, the decibel level increases by a factor of two. One more kid and we would have been louder than a 70’s Deep Purple concert. I’m surprised that our downstairs neighbors didn’t march through the door and throw all the kids out the window. If you invite more than two children, consider earplugs.

2. Sometimes four-year-olds act like little kids.
Somehow I thought I’d invite four of Chiara’s friends and it would be like having five Chiaras sitting playing quietly until dinner. But here she was, running around and screaming—just as loud and rambunctious as the rest of them.
When I came into the twins’ room and shouted, “Everybody get out of the crib, NOW!” she responded with, “We heard you tell us not to jump in the crib but we misunderstood.”

3. If you give five preschoolers a raw egg to hold, at least two will drop theirs within the first ten seconds.
We had this brilliant idea of having the kids make and decorate cupcakes. Chiara and I had a blast baking the cake we brought to daycare for snack time and I thought that cupcakes would be a nice activity during the party. So while I finished making dinner, Matt and the kids made cupcakes. Let’s just say that messes were made.

4. You can’t make kids eat green beans.
And there ain’t nothing nobody can do about it. All four guests politely turned down my green beans with a lovely, “No, thank you.” I had even sautéed them in bacon grease to make them extra appealing. Only Chiara took a healthy helping, possibly because she was afraid I’d deny her a birthday cupcake if she didn’t eat some vegetables.

5. Make sure you feed everybody.
If there were one thing we would have done differently, it would have been to only invite one child to the party. If there were two things we would have done differently, it would have been to have the twins’ babysitter come to take care of the boys during the party because I’m sure she would’ve remembered to feed them. We thought they were screaming because they wanted to be like the other party-goers. Turns out they were just really, really hungry.

6. Cupcakes are hard to frost.
Who knew? While five kids consumed approximately four green beans and sixteen pounds of macaroni and cheese, two dozen pink and chocolate cupcakes cooled. Then while Matt fed the twins, the kids and I decorated the cupcakes. We had three different colors of frosting: white, pink, and chocolate, and a shaker with six different kinds of sprinkles. The trouble is, the frosting has to be spread with the slightest touch. If you bear down too hard, the cake comes off with the frosting. This was frustrating for some of the kids. One went through four cupcake tops before I caught on to what was going on. In the end, I frosted while the kids waited patiently for their turn for the shaker. This is actually very sweet.

“F,” one would ask, “Can I have the sprinkles when you are done?”

They kept careful tabs on who was next in line for sprinkles, cordially passing the shaker around the table like little Stepford children.

7. Excited children pee a lot. Sometimes all over the sofa.
Actually, it wasn’t the sofa. It was the upholstered bench of the breakfast nook. Chiara, the kid who only needs to pee three times during daylight hours (balanced by seventeen times between the hours of 8pm and 10pm) had an accident of Hoover Dam proportions. She was hysterical over the accident. Absolutely inconsolable.

“I’ve never seen so much pee in my whole life!” she sobbed.

Neither had I. While Matt gave Chiara an impromptu bath, I cleaned up the mess while the other kids played “daycare,” putting one of the kids behind the safety gate and telling her not to cry and that her parents would come back for her soon. Luckily, when the twins heard the bathwater being run, they saddled up to the tub to cheer Chiara on (they really did!), leaving me to clean without having to worry about where they were or who else might be trying to pick them up.

8. Sometimes, just sometimes, you can tell five kids to put on their pajamas and put their day clothes in their backpacks and they will do it.
It’s true.

We also were able to get each kid to bring his plate and placemat to the kitchen and even got them to help Chiara clean up her room! The only trouble was that they had no way of knowing what went where. But all in all they did a great job. I almost had them help me clean out the pantry as well.

9. If you decide to show a 24-minute cartoon, make sure it’s actually only 24 minutes, and not the one Backyardigans episode that is really a ninety-one-minute movie.
Yeah. Our bad on this one. Three Backyardigans disks from Netflix and we open the director’s cut of “Robot Repairman.”

10. If you forget to bring out the party hats, for God’s sake don’t bring it up when you are kissing your child goodnight.
‘Nuff said.

Overall, everyone had a blast. This little video captures a bit of the magic.