I can't tell you about it because you're a grown-up. Grown-ups can't know about these things.

Let her be... Let her be

I want one with blue and pink flowers. Not little ones, big ones. But not too big and with no freckles or bumps.

When we first arrived in Hong Kong, Kate was still pretty malleable in terms of fashion. Yes there were certain “itchy” or “yucchy” items that she refused to wear, but basically whatever I put on her stayed on her. I thought that I was an old hand at these quick-change days in Toddlerville, but I was completely surprised by the arrival of a pint-sized Valkyrie swooping down to her closet in full screech. Overnight Kate has become a snarling fashionista – somewhere between Anna Wintour and Stevie Nicks - rivaling a full-blown tween in her fierce unwillingness to allow certain pieces of clothing anywhere near her body. Strangely for me, her fashion taste is decidedly, well… weird. She likes things to be “close” to her body and she prefers very bold statements. This roughly translates into tight, garish, flowery summer dresses with no shirt underneath. Cold weather does not threaten these choices. Kate does not mind suffering for her beauty ideals.

Living in the market, we have instant access to a mouth-watering array of discounted children’s clothing. I have no idea what Gap truck pulls into these windy streets, but there are name brands at deep discounts literally hanging from the trees here. I know I’m feeling more at home because I recently balked at paying US$8.00 for a beautiful corduroy Oshkosh dress - an item I would have paid at least $20.00 for at home. It’s a good thing I balked, because Kate is not interested in the nice stuff – if it’s pretty or classy it’s not for her. Splash a day-glo rainbow or a giant rose on the front, plop a pink-tongued Japanese doggie in repeating patterns down the side, and she’s patting down my pockets panting, “buy that, I wanna buy that…”

She is starting to stand out at the playground. So many of the children here come from moneyed homes and their deliciously swank clothes are a reflection of this. Ever the label conscious New Yorker, I have become wincingly aware of my daughter’s incredibly odd-looking get-ups. Ever the aching-to-be-perfect parent, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with my uncharitable thoughts. Should I compromise her iconoclastic tendencies so she’ll fit in better? Should I force the matching tights, the pretty ponytails, the imitation Burberry skirts? It’s not like I would go broke outfitting her beautifully here. It’s not like I couldn’t just insist that she wear what I choose. I am the parent, I do rule.

Lately these irksome thoughts are starting to spread into other areas. Like when her meltdowns attract the clucks and stares of the Chinese grandmas and the Filipina helpers. We have always tried to ignore her typical toddler fits – staying calm but slightly detached when she loses her emotional cookies in public. We know that this is a necessary evil, and she usually bounces back very quickly. These days she is going to school during what used to be her nap-time, and she is a bit more irritable than usual. I’ve decided that she’s a cross between a raging lunatic and Shirley Temple. The fun part is that I never know who I’m going to pick up at school. I try to be prepared with snacks and sympathy. Often Shirley accompanies me to the playground, chatting or singing merrily away, holding my hand or sweetly popping grapes into her mouth. Unfortunately, it’s usually Chuckie who walks home with me. A snarling, wheedling, wildcat who, at a moment’s notice, can throw her possessed little body on the ground in despair at whatever fresh horror I have provoked by asking her to keep her voice down.

I’m slowly realizing that we live in a bit of a fishbowl. It’s an incredibly friendly place but we are swimming by the same fish and the same fake sea castles every day. I’m just beginning to notice how upset everyone around us gets when I don’t immediately peel Chuckie/Kate up off the ground. I have to fight all my self-conscious, good-girl instincts in order to just let her be. It looks and sounds and feels so much worse than it is. Or, that’s what I tell myself, over and over… We’re an attractive pair, while she’s frothing on the ground, I’m muttering to myself above her. Once she gets it out, she’s usually much better and we can walk home in peace. Now that I’m confessing, I’ll admit that sometimes she trips and falls in the market and I don’t rush to pick her up. If we lived in the suburbs, the same thing might happen in the backyard and I wouldn’t even notice. I’m pretty sure that those who witness these falls think I’m a heartless heathen who should have her motherhood license revoked. Though they look dramatic, most of her falls are pretty harmless. 95% of the time she jumps up and continues on her way. Now I wince when she falls, but it’s not for her, it’s for me. I know I am going to be the subject of gossip and whispers and, ever since 7th grade, I’ve always hated that feeling.

I am trying so hard to let my daughter be her own person. Trying so hard not to let my inner control freak spoil her fun. But, every time I see another mom check out one of Kate’s bizarre outfits, I am transported to 7th grade Social Studies and Barbie Alfieri’s withering gaze. Every time some well-meaning person leans down to pat my yowling, prostrate daughter, they might as well be handing me a report card with a big red “F” on it. And I really want to be the good girl, the best girl, the one with the gold stars for extra credit whom everyone wants to be friends with. How can I be that person with this unpredictable child clinging to my legs?

Today we went to the local cafe after music class. Some of the other moms from the class were there and they were chatting while their kids played. I bought some drinks for Kate and me, I turned around and found I couldn’t breathe. I was back in the High School cafeteria, emerging from the food line with my tray, goofy smile on my face as I desperately tried not to look desperate. One of the moms smiled at me and gestured for us to join their merry party. Relief washed over me. They like me, they really like me. Then I noticed that Kate was heading up the stairs. I tried to get her to turn around and come down. I patiently explained that we were going to sit with these nice, friendly folks from our music class who had INVITED us to have some fun together. I guess my voice got really high and squeaky, because she turned to me and said, “I want a mommy with a regular voice. Read to me upstairs. I don’t want to sit with those babies.”

We never even apologized. I’m sure those moms think I’m incredibly rude. I probably am. We read three books, upstairs, and talked about what happens when you lose your baby teeth. She is who she is. I am who I am. I just have to be her mom.

Holding on

We cannot hold them. Our children. We cannot hold them tight enough. That terrible tsunami stole so many children from their parents’ arms and parents from their children’s hands. I know how tight I would have held my daughter. I hope those parents who lost children find some solace in the knowledge that their strongest grip was no match for the strength of that seismic wave.

I have been thinking a lot about holding Kate close. Today was her first day at Montessori school and she ran right into the teacher’s arms, forgetting to kiss me goodbye. I’m sure that next week when she realizes this is an every day gig, she’ll have some tears. But today she flew from me and started the beginning of a (hopefully) long life of leaving me and her dad behind.

On Sunday morning Kate and I were playing outside when she looked up at me and said “I miss Dada. I’m tired of Mama and me.”

I know exactly how she feels.

Peter’s hours are very long right now and often demand his weekends as well. I miss him too. I’m also tired of “Mama and me.” Actually, I’m more than tired, I’m exhausted. I keep reminding myself that we only get this time once. That soon she’ll be at school and playing with friends, and I’ll look back longingly on these endless hours of having to pretend I’m Flounder, the Little Mermaid’s best friend. But today, it feels like a very long time that I’ll be pleading, prodding, provoking and placating for hours every day. I want motherhood to be a joy, not a job, but some days it feels like the worst kind of drudgery.

I’d be lying if I wrote that I wasn’t envious of the freshness that Peter is able to bring to his parenting. He and Kate have magical adventures – filled with stories, games, weird food and new friends – in the very same places she and I have been dully plodding about all week. We go to the playground often, and very occasionally meet another kid who plays with us for a little while. Mostly we try to steer clear of the bad boys who mistreat their babysitters and take apart the swing-set, and the chic girls who don’t like anyone to touch their hair. (Kate is as annoyingly persistent as the most flame-obsessed moth when it comes to girls with long, silky hair and cool barrettes.) Peter goes to the same playground and meets the Brady Bunch. Some law-abiding, short-haired, family of five whose children all play with Kate and hug her when she has to go.

Peter and Kate’s relationship gives me great joy, and I am always thankful to have such a committed and loving partner in parenthood. But they seem to be having a lot more fun with fewer conflicts. I feel like the two of them are in one of those ads where the people always look so happy and frolicky, and I, the annoyed consumer, am left wondering why that same product doesn’t make me as happy as it makes them. I’d be lying if I wrote that I wasn’t envious of their new intensely close relationship.

Before Kate and I arrived in Hong Kong, while we were together for six weeks in California, I was the prince. Now Dada is Aladdin and I am the monkey. Abu. The sidekick. Since the joyful reunion with Dada, I’m no longer Shrek, I am Donkey. Some days I get to be one of the Fairy Godmothers from Sleeping Beauty, but if I don’t act fast and do something really magical, I am demoted to the role of the Owl. I used to have this shtick that worked really well. I told “Kate and Her Magic Ballet Slippers” stories. Every story had a lost or hungry animal that Kate saved by donning her magic ballet slippers and leaping through the air with the animal safely tucked in her tutu. Those stories are now as outrĂ© as Barney. All the really good stories come from Dada. And, infuriatingly, the man can spin a fantastic story at the drop of a hat. When it’s clear to Kate that I don’t know which story she is referring to,

Mama, can you tell the potato man story?
Okay, do you know the suspicious hippo one?
What about the puppet-head mother who eats breakfast?

she sighs and wearily instructs me to tell a Barbie story. These are all the same and have to do with a gorgeous Barbie who lives in a castle and has lots of clothes and some magic ponies. It’s the infomercial of kiddie stories, and she can tell that I’m phoning it in….

The indignities don’t stop there. I often have to run through the house while “mice” nibble on my “tushie.” When I feel the first nibble, I have to scream in the exact high-pitched scream that made her howl with laughter the first time she “nibbled” on Dada’s tushie. “DO THE GOOD SCREAM, MAMA – THE GOOD SCREAM.” I can’t remember the repertoire. I can’t make the good boy noises. I’m just mama, the one who makes her wear a jacket and combs the knots out of her screaming head of curls. I recently showed Kate our wedding album because I know she likes brides. Lost in a nostalgic haze, I didn’t realize that she was getting quieter and quieter. Finally, she whacked the book shut. Seeing pictures of her father on every page just made her realize who was missing. “Where’s Dada?” she cried, “I just want to be with him….” And then she buried her head in his pillow like a love-struck teen.

This afternoon when Kate came running out of school, she grabbed me so hard I thought I would suffocate. She refused to leave my arms and spent the next 5 minutes pressing her forehead tight against mine as if she wanted to inhale me. What I clearly need to remember is that while I’m busy trying to balance Kate, and my work, and my own increasingly desperate needs, Peter doesn’t get any balance at all. His scale is constantly unbalanced. In this time of tragedy and loss, I will try to put my better, smarter self forward and realize how lucky I am to be able to hold my sweet girl so tight to me.

Mama & Kate

Mama & Kate
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