Friday, April 21, 2000

Vacation anxiety

It's finally here: Come Monday, we leave for our vacation in Orlando, Florida. Going to visit Mickey. On the busiest theme-park week of the year. With a hyperactive boy and a whiney girl. On an airline so small I've never heard of it. With a stopover. Can you tell how much I'm looking forward to this carefree family getaway?

It'll be fine. The timeshare is nice. There's a lovely pool. Of course, I'll have to wear sweatpants while sitting by the pool so that my thighs don't scare the children, but I'm sure the temperature won't be higher than 90 or so. Maybe I can sweat off some of inches. Fun, fun, fun.

Last year, we didn't go on vacation at all. By the time I got around to making timeshare reservations for April, the place was booked. We moved in August, which pretty much cancelled our plans to go to California that month. So I haven't been on a plane in quite some time, which of course exponentially increases my anxiety. For a while, we thought about taking the train from New Jersey, and though it was less comfortable, less timely, and more expensive, I'm kind of regretting our decision against it.

But it'll be fine. Travelling with kids is never what you'd call relaxing, but we're bringing along our best friends to act as second-string parents, so maybe we'll get a break here and there. Certainly we couldn't have a more trying time than the first time we brought the kiddos to Orlando; our son started the week by hitting his face on the side of the bathtub and going to the hospital for stitches, and ended it by jumping in the deep end of the pool and almost drowning. Good times! If only the ER sold souvenir T-shirts.

We won't go there this time. It'll be fine. We'll navigate the endless lines. We'll withstand the Florida heat. We'll swim and sun and sightsee. Or maybe we'll just sit in the air-conditioned condo and watch "TV Land." Hey, relaxation's where you find it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2000

Family matters

There's a strong opinion these days among my kids that our family needs a new member. My daughter is desperate for a sister, but would settle for a puppy. My son would like a brother, or a cat, or maybe a cow. The necessity for a new addition is a given, but its species appears up for debate.

Their dad and I are so far resisting all suggestions. The care and feeding of pets is something neither child is really ready for. And the care and feeding of siblings is something we're probably not ready for, either. To say that our two little bundles of love and neurological impairments fill our days to the brim is an understatement. I'd like to think we have enough affection and energy left to fit a fivesome instead of a foursome, but you can't exactly return a child if it doesn't work out. You can't really even return a puppy, if it turns out not to fit my daughter's stringent criteria of "a dog that likes me."

I've always thought we would adopt again one day, and it's always on my mind, somewhere, in some small, nagging place. I see the billboards around New Jersey inviting people to adopt, and even though I know I've called the number and left my address and never heard from them again, the images tug at my heart. I see the posters at Wendy's during their annual adoption campaign, and even though I know the National Adoption Center's failure to match us up with kids is one of the reasons we eventually turned to Russia, I can't help but look at those little faces and wonder which one is meant for me. I read about efforts to place boarder babies with foster families, and even though I know I can't afford to quit my job right now, I think about how much I'd love to give one of those little fetal-alcohol-affected infants the loving start my son didn't have. I hear about programs that place Russian orphans with American families for the summer in the hopes of finding them permanent placements, and even though I know we could never take the time away from our existing kids to go to Russia and finalize another adoption, I know how much my two would love to have an in-house playmate for even a month or two.

Still, for every reason my heart gives for adding on, my head can think of two reasons not to, and my gut kicks in a third. If the thought of handling a puppy or a kitten fills me with exhaustion, how would we ever juggle a child? I've always thought that if God wanted us to have more kids, He'd show us a sign. But what qualifies as that, exactly? Does seeing a billboard count? Does picking up a newspaper that happens to have an article about boarder babies? Does tuning in just as Rosie O'Donnell is talking about adopting out of foster care? A baby in a basket on the doorstep would be so much easier to interpret.

For now, I guess, we'll stand pat.

Well, maybe a goldfish.

Monday, April 17, 2000

Happy birthday

Today, my daughter turns 10. We passed the landmark of with-us-as-long-as-she-was-in-the-orphanage last year at age 9, so this birthday is mostly significant for the double digits and the extreme nearness of puberty. The latter worries me especially because she is nearly as tall as I am already, and the thought of an insolent teenager towering over me is a tad terrifying.

So far, she's been nothing but a sweetie, and maybe that gentle disposition and useful eagerness to please will extend into her adolescence. She's two years behind in school--thanks to language delays, learning disorders, and several years frittered away in self-contained special-ed classrooms before making it into a mainstream group this year--so she may well hit her social transitions, if not her physical ones, with her now-2nd-grade classmates. Socially, emotionally, behaviorally, she's barely at an eight-year-old level.

And yet I feel the hot breath of approaching puberty on my neck. It's not just her size and her rapidly blossoming shape. It's not the fact that she already has her 12-year-old molars, a startling sign of physical advancement in a girl who's delayed in just about everything else. It's not even the Backstreet Boys and Brittany Spears CDs she's demanding, or the way she now prefers Nickelodeon to Nick Jr. and "Zoom" to "Barney."

It's more of an attitude thing. We're getting a little bit of sullen, a little bit of pouty, a hefty dose of "You talkin' to me?" She's more likely to argue with "no" and take our refusal to grant her every whim as a grave social injury. We are currently engaged in the battle of the "I must have a wheeled backpack because everybody has a wheeled backpack and if you don't give me a wheeled backpack you must be the meanest mom in the world." It's like a sneak preview of the world of inappropriate clothes and inappropriate activities and all those things teenagers have to do or suffer social death. I don't like it. Don't like the backpack, either.

Yesterday, though, I saw the first sure sign of hormone activity. Not body hair, not body odor (though goodness knows we've had that for a while), not body growth in significant spots. No, it was nothin' but the blues. My little girl had one of those weepy, blue days where you can't explain why you're crying but the tears keep coming anyway. Her father was annoyed that she kept tearing up for no good reason, and insisted that she was just holding back on the reason to tick him off. But I recognized the signs, all right. There is no reason. It just is. It's a girl thing. No--it's a woman thing.

Today, as she turns 10, we'll go to the pediatrician and get a more reliable ETA for the onset of adolescence. But I'm braced for it now. Time to start digging that moat, laying in those alligators, adding those bars to the windows and chains to the doors. She's going to be one big, beautiful teenager, and a mother's got to be prepared.

Friday, April 14, 2000

I hate homework

My daughter is a champ about homework. She knows just what she has to do, gets it all out of her folder and sets herself up on the kitchen table and polishes it off with minimal supervision. No nagging needed. She may have a learning disability, but she loves the trappings of learning. She's proud to be a homework self-starter.

And so I have always been a little smug about homework. I'd listen to other mothers complain about hours-long screaming matches, endless monitoring of assignments and enforcing of homework time. Those moms hated homework, and wished the teachers would do the teaching on their time so that the family could just be a family during family time, and not a sweat shop. But I was happy to have my girl bring work home, so I could see what she was doing and how she was doing with it. Yep, we just love homework here.

That is, we did until my son hit first grade.

No one doubts this boy's ability to learn things, but his ability to put what he's learned down on paper is severely compromised. He has some good reasons for this--low muscle tone makes it hard to hold a pencil, delays in fine motor skills make it hard to move the pencil around. I liken it to being asked to do paperwork while running on a treadmill. After a while, the physical exertion may not seem worth the trouble.

But he also has some bad reasons for refusing to do homework: On a basic level, he just wants to do what he wants to do, and what he wants to do is not worksheets. He's dogged in the pursuit of his own desires, be they for lining up cars in rows or counting keys or jumping up and down or staring out the window keeping tabs on the neighbors. Spelling words? Math problems? Gee, mom, I'd love to help, but I'm busy here. Getting him to sit and write involves varying degrees of yelling, screaming, threatening, and bribing. Then, of course, when he does a quick and lousy job just so he can get up again, you have to erase and start the yelling all over again. Not a fun way to spend an evening.

Then the spirit of "How dare you give him this homework" come upon me. Why should a kid with such fine motor problems have to write his spelling words three times each? Shouldn't he be able to do it on the computer? Shouldn't he be able to just say them to me? Isn't the purpose of the assignment spelling, not penmanship? Then why do his papers come back marked "Write Neater!" if I yell a little less and let him write the way he writes, without constant do-overs. Does the teacher want to come to my house and yell at him so that our family relationships are not marred by constant conflict? Or are these writing-intensive assignments her little bit of revenge for having to spend the whole day with this busy little guy?

The most frustrating thing is that, really, he can do it. He'll struggle with the writing, but he knows the spelling, and could polish it off in a short span of time and be back to playing or whatever odd pasttime he fancies. Instead, he spends all his time and energy fighting, fighting, fighting. It's exhausting, and makes me see the point of all those moms who complain. At least I know, as I browbeat my child to make him do that work already, that I'm in good company.

Wednesday, April 12, 2000

State of the states

A few weeks ago, we reported on the World Health Organization findings that, although American teenagers are trying valiantly to have world-class bad habits, they lag behind other nations in such categories as smoking, drinking, and eating french fries. Now comes a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that analyzes the bad habits of grown-ups, pitting the 50 states (plus Puerto Rico) against one another for best- and worst-behaved honors.

Because the survey was conducted to determine the success of prevention-promoting programs, and not just to please people with Web sites who like to make fun of surveys, the questions included everything from seat-belt use to health screenings. Did your home state make the finals? Take a look:
Wisconsin had the most drinkers per capita, and the most drinkers who admit to downing five or more drinks in one sitting. Maryland had the lowest number of five-at-a-timers, but Puerto Rico had the fewest total drinkers. Utah also, predictably enough, rated low for liquor, and perhaps as a result, the state's residents also called themselves the most physically active.

Least physically active? Those would be Georgia residents, more than half of whom described themselves as sedentary. That doesn't stop Georgian women from looking after their health in other ways, though--they were the most likely to have had a Pap test within the previous year. Women in Puerto Rico got tested the least. In other health-screening results, Maine residents were the most conscientious in getting colorectal cancer screenings; folks in Mississippi were the most avoidant.

Though one would hardly say that California has the safest roads, it did have the safest riders: more people buckle up there than anywhere. Health insurance may become an issue for Texas Governor George W. Bush--his state had the highest percentage of uninsured residents. Hawaii had the highest percentage of policy holders.

Then there's Colorado, where residents either have the best self-image, the highest self-esteem, or the most inclination to lie on surveys: Less than 12 percent said they would call themselves obese, giving their state the sveltest figure in all the land. How do they do it without being the most physically active? Must be that thin, thin air.

Monday, April 10, 2000

One lousy summer

It's that time of year when my thoughts turn obsessively to finding the Right Camp to keep my kids occupied over the summer. We're not to the point of sleepaway camp yet--frankly, though my kids might one day be ready, I don't know that I ever will be--but finding the right day camp is challenging in its own right. It has to be willing to accept my daughter's still sometimes sketchy language skills and my son's complete lack of interest in marching to anyone's drummer but his own. We've had our good camp experiences (the fabulous and fabulously expensive special-needs camp that crammed more different types of activities in a week than I do in a year) and our bad camp experiences (six weeks in which my daughter did little more than sit in a corner, ignored). This year, I'm looking for someplace close to home and close to our budget. And I'm looking for someplace that won't send me more little campers back with my kids at the end of the day.

That's right, last year my daughter hosted that curse of the camp, that scourge of the school, that day-care disaster--head lice. And not just any head lice. The Arnold Schwarzeneggar of head lice. Head lice with attitude. We washed her hair with the super-toxic shield-your-eyes chemical shampoo, and as we combed her out afterward, lice were crawling up the comb and onto our arms. I think I heard them taunting us. Ha, ha! We laugh at your shampoos! We move into your beds! We suck your children's blood! Ha, ha!

My daughter wanted nothing more than to go back to camp, which of course she couldn't do with an honest mother and a head full of bugs. She submitted to mayonnaise in the hair, vegetable oil in the hair, elaborately uncomfortable plastic-shower-cap head wraps, endless comb-outs, constant nitpicking. She has exactly the sort of longish, fine hair that lice must love, and exactly the sort that it is impossible to find lice eggs in. I tried as best an inexperienced nit-spotter could, but it was no use. The camp nurse searched through her hair and declared that her mother hadn't done a good enough job. Thank you so much for placing the blame for missed camp days squarely on me.

Of course, the camp never acknowledged that they were the louse enablers. She certainly couldn't have gotten them there! No other campers have had it! Which only served to convince me that other campers do not have honest mothers. And sometimes the camp nurse doesn't do such a hot job, either.

Eventually my daughter was de-loused, and made it back to the fun. But the whole thing left me a bit buggy. I am on constant rodent red-alert. The pillows I put in plastic nine months ago are still in plastic; I've gotten used to hearing the rustle beneath my pillowcase. The bedspreads that got bagged are still in bags in the basement, and we've made do through the long winter with a mish-mash of blankets. We've given up all our exotic-smelling hair-care products for Tea-Tree Oil Shampoo, which purports to be a real lice turn-off. It makes our hair smell like shoe polish, but if lice hate shoe polish, I prefer it to perfume.

My husband thinks I'm overzealous, but I've got zero tolerance for head lice. And as camp approaches, I'm mapping out some new strategies. Shaving my daughter's head--now that would thwart the little beasties. Sending Tea-Tree Oil Spray in her backpack and requiring the counselors to spritz her regularly. Keeping her head covered in mayo all day so no bugs can get through. Sending her in dirty, smelly clothes so no one wants to get close enough to spread the bugs in the first place.

Then again, there's a lot to be said for just staying home.

Friday, April 07, 2000

Bad sports

A recent survey by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education shows that kids just aren't getting enough of the latter. Only 44% of youngsters ages 12 to 17 reported going to PE every day. Schools are dropping the ball, so to speak, spending all their time on exercising children's minds and neglecting their responsibility to exercise their bodies.

And what I want to know is, how come they couldn't have done this when I was in school?

Athletics was my Achilles' heel all through my academic career, the blemish on my otherwise spotless record, the one thing I couldn't master or bluff my way through. How I hated phys. ed. Hated it in elementary school, when I'd hide on the opposite end of the soccer court from all those hard little patent-leather shoes furiously kicking at the ball and my shins. Hated it in junior high, when everybody seemed to get those President's Physical Fitness stripes on their shorts but poor pathetic slow-as-molasses me. Hated it in high school, where I once had to fashion an entire gymnastics routine out of the one measly thing I could do--a somersault. The teacher bumped me up a grade for that one just because my fellow students made so much fun of me. I thought if I did it fast enough, it would look like a flip. It didn't.

That was a low point, but the lowest was undoubtedly the time when my junior high school gym teacher called my mother in and told her I would get a D in PE if I wouldn't go across the bars--you know, the ones that look like a ladder placed sideways, the one that the tiniest child on the playground can swing across effortlessly. Not me, and the teacher was ready to torpedo my GPA out of spite. I have gone across those bars exactly once in my life--the once I had to do for that teacher to get my grade up. Never been able to do it since. I think it was the same sort of situation as a mother lifting a car off her child.

The only gym class I ever excelled in was folk-dancing, which was the mercy elective for the terminally unathletic at my high school. Almost made me look forward to gym. Except for the fact that there were never any boys within 1,000 feet of that class, and so the girls had to take turns partnering each other, it was a little slice of phys. ed. heaven. Unfortunately, you could only take it once a year, but what a fine part of the year that was. A chance to feel coordinated for ten weeks! If they'd have had a competitive intermural folk-dancing team, I'd have lettered.

So though I'm certainly concerned with the state of children's fitness and the need for kids to exercise and the importance of sports yada yada yada, I can't say I'm too upset when my two don't get their share of school-induced athletic activity. The survey found that 81% of parents wanted their children to have phys. ed. in school every day, but I wonder if they don't just secretly want their offspring to suffer like they did. My kids get it twice a week, which is plenty in my book. For the past three or four weeks, the gym teacher has been sick, and no sub has been in attendance, so--darn the luck, no PE. I should be calling the school to complain about this. I shant.

Now if they wanted to offer folk dancing on a daily basis--that would be another story entirely.

Wednesday, April 05, 2000

No visible means of support

A discussion today on an e-mail support group has got me thinking about, well, e-mail support groups, and why I so prefer them to the real thing. What does it say about me that I'd rather type notes to strangers from the comfort of my home than sit with flesh-and-blood women and bitch and moan in person? Does it mean I'm antisocial, hostile, unempathetic, too selfish to actually be there face to face for another person? Does it mean I don't take enough time for myself, don't get away from the kids enough, don't have the social skills to enjoy direct interaction? Personally, I suspect it means I'm too lazy to haul my butt into the car and drive somewhere, and so I use the excuse of not wanting to take time away from my kids. Fact is, I have no problem taking time away from them to stare at a computer screen. Hey, I'm at least physically present, and even when I'm sitting in my desk chair, my lap can be crawled into.

The only sit-in-a-room support group I've been involved with since we adopted our kids was the one that went with my son's early-intervention group. The kids would toddle off to their therapy and we moms were supposed to sit on couches and share our problems and lend one another support. Sometimes a social worker would be present to facilitate the process. Sometimes salespeople would come in and try to sell us Discovery Toys or Avon. And sometimes we'd just walk down the street to Dunkin' Donuts and try to facilitate some weight gain.

I sat through a lot of discussions with these ladies, but I can't say I ever felt particularly supported. We may have all had kids with special needs, but our own special needs were different. Most of them were still grappling with the fact that the children they had given birth to were not perfect, and would need serious help. One had a daughter who was disabled due to medical malpractice, and the regret and second-guessing that went along with that were particularly painful. I, on the other hand, had adopted children with known special needs just a few months before, and though I was just feeling my way into what sort and magnitude of help would be needed to move them along, I was feeling no shock or regret. The fact that I would actually seek out something that they were experiencing as a tragedy--the parenting of special-needs kids--made them see me as a saint or insane, neither of which I was.

Then there were the endless, endless, endless stories of their respective childbirths, in which of course I could not share. Why is it that when two or three fertile women are gathered in one place, the talk always turns to labor and epidurals and episiotomies and water breaking and all manner of greatly detailed pregnancy talk? Does no one ever think, "Gee, I wonder if the infertile woman in our midst feels uncomfortable with this?" I'll tell you what, when I think of all the things I put my heart, soul, and body through trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant, I can't feel too terribly sorry for anybody who managed that feat, no matter how much you whine. I'll be polite, and let you talk, but geez, shouldn't about five minutes be enough?

One woman in the support group brought an audiotape of herself in labor, and everybody seemed greatly interested. It made me wish I had taped the four weeks my husband and I spent in small rooms in Russia waiting to go home, playing solitaire and reading books left behind by other people and watching bad American TV, badly dubbed. No one was as interested in my adoption story as they were in delivery minutiae.

And so it was up to me to find a group that was interested in adoption, interested in post-institutionalized issues, interested in how much juice my daughter drank or how many times my son hit his head against the wall. I found one--on the internet. I've joined several more since--some on parenting issues, some on more specific topics like fetal alcohol effect or sensory-integration disorder, some on job-related topics, some for ranting and raving. I like being able to participate where and when I feel like it--at 3 a.m. in my jammies, if that's what works best. I like knowing I will always be able to ask my questions without having to wait for a break in the conversation. I like being able to disappear or drop out without explanations or recriminations. And I like being able to quietly delete messages from people who annoy me or go on and on about subjects that don't interest me.

Now if only I could find a way to do that with family members.

Monday, April 03, 2000

Killer fashion

I've always found long fingernails to be somewhat disturbing. Not nicely manicured natural ones of a manageable length--no, you know the ones I mean, the ones that make it impossible to type or operate small machinery, the ones with jewels glued on them or maybe little charms, the ones that precede their owner into a room. As with so many things that others find fashionable--tattoos, spike heels, dresses that require glue to stay on--I just can't figure out how they could possibly be worth the trouble.

Maybe I'm just resentful because my own nails are such stubby little broken things. I've never been into nail polish because I've never had enough nail to polish. The only thing worse than stubby nails is stubby nails that are bright red. Now that I'm a mom, I can imagine that I need my nails trimmed super-short so I can keep up with my rough-and-tumble kids and perform all the different varieties of child and toy first-aid that are required of me. A co-worker gave me a gift certificate for a manicure for Christmas, and I just have never felt a desire to use it. A nail person I'm not.

But I think my problem with the ultra-long talons is more deep-seated than that. I think it goes back to a childhood friend who grew her nails so long they curled at the ends. She would gob on the nail polish to keep them strong, and if they broke, she would reattach them with Scotch tape and then gob some more nail polish over that. They were quite impressive, in a Tim Burton-ish way. One evening we were playing a game that required grabbing an object from the other person, and when I grabbed the object from her I grabbed a tape-encrusted nail off, too. I don't think we played much after that. And I don't think I've ever looked at long fingernails in quite the same way.

Now, though, I have a more solid reason to believe that the things can't be good: They're killing babies. To be more exact, bacteria residing on the extra-long or artificial fingernails of two neo-natal ICU nurses in Oklahoma City was found to have been a factor in the deaths of 16 extremely premature babies. Thirty more preemies were infected but survived. Now, the hospital spokespeople are quick to point out that the bacteria in question is commonly found in hospital nurseries, that the babies' immune systems were significantly compromised by their too-early births, that the nail bacteria was only one of many factors in their deaths, and that nails or no nails, the babies would probably have died anyway. Yet the rules for all nurses in the hospital have now been changed so that only short, natural nails are allowed.

I heartily applaud--with hands unimpeded by extensions--that decision, and wish that it could be extended into other fields where a few extra inches on a fingertip is a liability. That means fast-food workers--get those things off my burger. Cashiers? If it takes you three times as long to ring up my order because you have to maneuver your hands in awkward contortions to put some skin on the cash-register keys, you're gonna get clipped. Educators, if you've ever hesitated to help a child because you might break a nail, you need to break them all. And moms, moms, moms--how are you ever going to be able to utter such classic mom lines as "You're going to poke your eye out with that!" if you look like Edward Scissorhands? Time for a trim, everyone! Then, when your nails are all as short and stubby as mine, I'll feel a lot better, thank you.