Apr 26, 2007

Poop Story

Years ago, I walked out of a movie called The Road to Wellville because it was about a bunch of people analyzing each other's poop. Yuckville. It was not my kind of humor. That was before I had children.

Now I'm a mom and poop has become a huge part of my life. First, there was the revelation (why had no one told me?) that giving birth feels a lot like pooping--that when they're yelling "push!" to the woman on tv, she's flexing that muscle. Then there was the bizarre public interest in my own poops immediately after I gave birth--a lot of "have you been taking your stool softeners?" and "have you pooped yet"s. There was that creepy pediatrician talk where you have to use that awful word 'stool.' And there was even my love affair with the buttery poop of my breastfed babies--it smelled exactly like gravy from Kentucky Fried Chicken (which, I suppose, I should admit is a positive thing for me).

The boundaries I used to take for granted aren't the same anymore. In fact, these days there are no boundaries. My two small children follow me into the bathroom (when my eighteen-month old daughter actually nods permission for me to go, that is...) and sometimes even onto the potty. My daughter likes to throw bits of toilet paper into the bowl behind me. She also likes to flush--a lot--while I'm sitting there, creating an unpleasant updraft. Sometimes I'm saddened by the realization that it'll probably be years before I'm allowed to poop alone. And then sometimes, lately, I wonder what the big deal about pooping alone is anyway.

My son, who's three and a half, likes to poop with people present. “I want privacy with you and I want privacy with Daddy and I want privacy with my sister (or whoever's in the house).” He calls it 'privacy with company'.

Then there's what he calls his poop...

It started with potty training, and these sweet stories he'd make up while I sat--keeping him company--on a little blue chair next to the grown-up potty. His whole mid-section would be below the rim of the toilet--only shins and chest (superman logo) and head and shoulders sticking out. (Once he lowered the toilet lid onto his back and said “Look Mommy, a turtle on the potty!” --the image was perfect--smooth round plastic shell atop a splay of limbs).

“Peepee and Poopoo are friends.” he said.

That was the first installment. He made this announcement on a grubby toilet in a graffiti-filled stall at a restaurant two months before his third birthday.

I smiled and said “Oh, really” and repeated the revelation to my husband when we returned to the table.

That was all the encouragement he needed. Slowly, regularly, after-breakfast by after-breakfast, the story began to take shape.

“Sometimes Peepee makes bubbles, sometimes Poopoo says splash.”

“They're yucky friends.”

“Poopoo says I want to come out! and Peepee says “Me first!”

“Sometimes Peepee is running away from Poopoo.”

“They talk to each other but they don't have faces, or mouths, or eyes.”

“My body is the house for Peepee and Poopoo. Peepee and Poopoo come out of the house to go to the Potty Playground.”

"Poopoo doesn't want to come out at school. Only Peepee wants to come out."

It would be impossible to recreate the little grunts and strains that stretch some of his words out into multi-syllabic testimonials. But they're there, too--adding emotion, sometimes even desparation, to the little watery dramas.

Poop-reading came next. Once he'd exhausted the basic motivations and orders of departure for Peepee and Poopoo, he began to turn to the poop itself, studying his characters. He'd poop. I'd wipe. He'd scamper off the toilet and describe what he saw. Then he'd flush. It was basic classification. There were snake poops, broken snake poops, family snake poops (mommy, daddy, baby), snake poop parties. There have been tiny rock poops and garbage poops. There was a man poop and some vegetable poop. Once there was a witch-melting poop (he'd just seen the Wizard of Oz, and the water was low in the potty that day).

Lately though the story-lines have been returning and the poop readings are becoming more involved. The other day he pointed out the "daddy going into the backyard poop". And there was a baby snake poop that was hiding (a lot of the poops hide).

We had poop therapy recently when, shortly after an unpleasant evening in which he and his father had to wait for me on a cold, dark sidewalk (while I was caught behind a semi doing an impossible turn from a side street into a parking lot), he discovered “a daddy poop and a baby poop but the mommy poop isn't there because she's stuck behind a truck.” We both gazed into the toilet and shook our heads in sadness. He needed to work out his feelings of abandonment somewhere, why not work them out in the bathroom?

This morning we had the exciting "daddy-going-to-talk-to-mommy-and-falling-apart poop!" which involved one section floating towards another and then breaking off before our eyes. I've been to Alaska and witnessed the calving of glaciers, but the calving of this poop was even more exciting since it was so unexpected. An action-packed poop! The surprise offered a dramatic twist--who'd have guessed daddy could fall apart on his way to talk to mommy? It's hard to believe most folks just go to the bathroom and don't stop to appreciate the drama going on inches beneath them.

I'm guessing some people will think this is extremely deranged (I know I would have-- back in my pre-children movie-going days), and I'm sure others will think this is perfectly healthy (aren't anal people the ones who haven't come to terms with their own poop?). I don't care. I enjoy it. I could listen to my boy describe his poop forever.

I liken poop reading to tea leaf reading. I don't know much about reading tea leaves but I do know that they swirl around in water before being studied intensely for clues to the future. I don't think that he is really looking into the future when he's peering into the potty at his poop. But I hope I'm looking into his future when he does. I hope that his imagination is always this incredible. I hope that he remains unashamed and fearless. I hope he always strives to find creative solutions to puzzling questions. I hope that he looks for and finds the bright and funny sides of everything--even things that are yucky.

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't like Hollywood-style bathroom humor any more now than I did before I had kids. But I do know that I can say poop, and write poop--and I'm raising a child who can read poop. I am as shocked about it as I am thrilled. I'm in no hurry for all of this business to disappear behind closed doors. Someday we'll all be pooping alone again, flushing away all of the excitement. And I suspect I just might end up missing privacy with company.

Apr 20, 2007

Regular Women

A good friend overheard my six year old daughter refer to herself as chubby in a conversation with my friend's eight year old daughter. And then the friend said that she thought she was chubby too, and that she’d be the fat girl if she was on a tv show.

These are not chubby girls.

We had just taken them to a dance performance by a group of women called Lava. The women were normal-looking in every way. Sturdy, large, more than one size twelve--one that may have been more than that. There were two regular types, one thinnish, one smallish, and the smaller one had a bit of excema that you could see on her belly when she hung upside down on a trapeze--and it made her smallness seem flawed in a really wonderful way. Not in an oh-good-she’s-not-perfect way, but sort of in an oh-good-she’s-not-perfect kind of way.

The performance was intimate--about a hundred of us in a circle, if that many. The performers smiled at us, and whispered secret numbers in our girls’ ears, and made prolonged eye contact with us longer than felt normal--longer certainly than my husband and I have done in years. If ever.

They poured their bodies through hoops without touching the edges, did amazing things on the trapeze, supported each other in all sorts of ways, not the least of which was a sort of upside-down-pyramid thing where one woman stood on the ground holding everyone else up.

The music was cool, the women were cool.

They wore regular clothes, jeans even. We could connect with them. They were slightly stronger, better trained versions of ourselves. They were who our daughters could be if they believed in themselves, if they took care of themselves.

We were all exhilirated by their strength and presence. We gushed about the whole thing as we walked out. So much of it felt special.

But then we stopped in a Claire’s Accessories in a nearby mall to buy hair things. It seemed like a nice way to round out the day out with these girls. And that’s when our daughters compared notes on being chubby.

Had we undone everything?

Could three minutes of browsing in the Mary Kate and Ashley’s leopard-print hair-bow section really erase ninety minutes of powerful real-life women?

I’ve got my work cut out for me. And I've got to pay better attention.

Apr 12, 2007

Painting Faces

I was walking down the block with my pregnant belly and my two children when a neighbor called me over to introduce me to his friends--a stylish Euro-couple with a sour-looking blonde boy in a stroller.

Number three? the woman asked me nodding dryly at my tummy.

Yes, I replied, number three.

Wow you must really love children she responded, incredulously.

Love children? Yikes, I thought. I don’t think I do.

I remember loving children. I love some children. I love my own children. I used to love other people’s children--you should see the essays I wrote back when I was applying to masters programs in education. Children this, children that... I could go on forever about how important and interesting they were. I used to volunteer (volunteer!) to teach school groups who came through a local zoo. I worked at FAO Schwarz. I collected children’s books. I wrote children’s books. You could say I was child-centered.

Before I had kids of my own.

Before I had kids of my own--I was the fairy god-grownup, always stealing away from my friends to spend time with their kids, planning puppet shows, inventing games, reading books. Their parents would say to me oh don’t feel like you have to do that, or to their children, maybe she doesn’t want to do that right now. But I always did want to ‘do that.’ No matter what it was. I loved kids, and often preferred their fresh unbiased company to that of adults.

One of my special gifts was that I didn’t see them as small creatures. I refused to condescend to them in that awful sing-songy way we all pull out on occasion. I had that awful sound in me--an incredibly unfortunate ‘well hel-LO there!’ popped out one time when I discovered that the customer service woman at my bank was a dwarf--I leaned way over the counter and addressed her in the most ‘well aren’t we adorable’ kind of way--not one of my finer moments and certainly not wise in the midst of what was a pretty serious complaint about my checking account. But I never did that with kids. Part of my schtick was that I recognized them as being their own individual people deserving of nothing but no-nonsense eye-to-eye peer-to-peer treatment from adults. I understood them like no one else could.

I couldn’t wait to have nieces and nephews. I used to bug my sister and my sisters-in-law. Would someone have a kid so I can be an aunt? I was so ready to be the revered aunt, the grownup ally to kids sick of their boring old parents, maybe I’d even be eccentric like Jan’s lookalike aunt on the Brady Bunch. I begged my siblings to multiply. And they did, eventually. The problem is, I beat them to it, and got consumed by my own kids first.

Once mine arrived I was done with everyone else’s.

My distaste for other people’s kids grew gradually. I adored the other tiny babies in our life but suddenly couldn’t be in the same room with them once they’d pooped. My baby’s poop didn’t stink--even when it did. Snot was honey on my babies’ upper lips; poison on the noses of others.

Ever the kid-lover, I’d search the other babies for signs of what kinds of adults they’d become, and discover that they were all destined to be easily agitated, neurotic, and grabby. Only mine seemed reasonable, compelling, headed for greatness, worthy of thousands of photographs and seven hours of videotaped footage before they could even lift their heads.

When Amos was seven days old I stared into his milky eyes for several minutes and then burst into tears at the thought of anyone EVER picking on him in a playground (in the future I envisioned he was holding a violin case in the midst of this taunting, which was my brain working overtime since no one in my family has ever ever played the violin). Unbearable. Instantly all of the other babies became his potential aggressors. I’d have to keep an extra eye on them...

Now that I’m raising my own wonderful creatures, I seem hard-wired to notice other kids’ faults. And even though I’ve fallen in love with several of the neighborhood kids--the less complicated playdates who do come and go, the children of friends, the playground chums--it’s a love that has proven to be shockingly conditional. One minute I’m thinking now there’s a fabulous kid and the next minute, after I’ve discovered they’ve bossed my kid around, broken something on purpose, or hissed some nasty threat, I’m done with them. Completely and unemotionally done. In my mind they’re reduced to just bad parts.

Amos is in kindergarten now and is not headed the violin case route. But he is getting picked on by the same group of boys we’ve delighted in all year long. One part of me wants to implore Amos to see the good in these mostly friendly friends--to see them as whole and flawed and to avoid writing them off for the kindergarten kidstuff they’re engaging in (you’re on the little dude team was the latest scathing insult from his tall pal)--but most of me just thinks I knew it, I knew it was too good to be true, I knew that kid was really awful, and wants to counsel Amos to keep away.

The unexpected but not surprising product of all of this is that other people’s kids don’t adore me anymore. Even though I have been steadily souring on them as a population I never considered that my magic touch on them would wear off. It had been as much a part of who I was as my shoe size or my sense of humour. Five foot three, Sagittarius, adored by kids. No more.

My first hint at this slippage came several years ago when I walked into my son’s playgroup with a mom named Suzy and the kids all started shouting--Suzy’s here! Hooray! Suzy! Suzy!--and no one said anything about me. I hadn’t been looking for their approval, but didn’t realize
how much had changed until I saw someone else getting it. I’m not even sure these kids knew my name, knew me as anything other than Amos’s mom. The fact that Suzy has been able to raise her own kids and remain interested in and attractive to this flock of other women’s children baffles me.

I accepted it--like accepting less sleep, less time to thumb through magazines (all those sorts of mom-specific things that involve the word 'less'). It didn’t really bother me. It became a curiosity--something to mention in an offhanded way to other moms--hey you know kids used to LOVE me--so they wouldn’t see me as purely self-consumed and apathetic.

Then the other day the strangest thing happened. I got roped into face-painting at my three year old daughter’s school fair. I plopped down to turn Amos into a vampire (the self-consumed and apathetic mom whose job it really was announced it was her break just as he reached the front of the line) and kids began to queue up behind him. Two hours and twenty-three faces later I had a different take on these terrible children.

Two dozen trusting little faces turned up towards me, following my chin-up, chin-down instruction, provided me with a new view of these otherwise bratty kids. They are small and they rather like being talked to in a loving voice. Moving a brush over their strange and severe features--those upturned noses and impossibly tiny chins, tender crepe eyelids and smooth cheeks--was interestingly intimate. Each time a child plopped down into the chair across from me we entered into a creative and trusting partnership that reminded me of the old days when I actually sought out the company of creatures like these.

Do you want to be an orange dinosaur or a green one?
Shall we paint a mean-looking scar on your cheek?
What color spots should your butterfly have?

Later in the day I watched as a pirate and a rattlesnake I’d created played an unfair game of keep-away with my vampire son. My dalmation daughter and her cat friend fought over who was going to stand closest to me as I put the finishing touches on a butterfly that none of us knew. I enjoyed the scene for awhile and then the bad taste came back. Within an hour I hated them again.