Thursday, August 30, 2007

Mothers-in-law: a love story

Don’t hate me.

But the fact is I really love my mother-in-law.

I’m not sure how I got so lucky, given the plethora of mother-in-law horror shows apparently rampant in other families, but I thank my lucky stars I have such a warm, helpful person who lives only five minutes (yes a real five minutes and I don’t even mind!) away.

Now that I have a son I realize there’s a good chance I will be a mother-in-law myself one day. And this has led to a lot of thinking about how I will handle the inevitable day when some other woman waltzes into Graham’s heart and claims the top spot.

Will I know the interloper the moment I see her? I like to imagine that I will. I think about it a lot actually – enough that my husband thinks I’m decidedly weird when I try to explain to him exactly how I think it will be.

I imagine it will be a rather routine family dinner. Graham’s coming, his father will say, I think he’s bringing a new girlfriend. And she will walk in the door and she will be impossibly fresh and youthful. And she will do just enough appropriate flirting with my husband to produce a goofy smile and a seal of approval before turning her attention to me. We will make small talk. We will take each other’s measure and I will smile and nod and try not to notice that my son is looking at her with an expression I’ve never seen before.

And heart will soar for him, but it will break a little bit at the same time because I know that later they will share kisses and cuddles and they will bond over jokes about how his father has always been obsessed with making the gravy just so and how his mother always turns into a bit of a ham after her second glass of wine – it’s just the way she is.

And just like that my little boy will be someone else’s treasure. And all I will be able to do is stand back and be as gracious and accepting and loving as possible and hope that this woman appreciates how special my son is. That she loves him enough. That she understands that I don’t want to intrude – it’s just that the very cockles of my heart will always be deeply, inextricably tied to his well being.

I hope that I will have the strength to be the kind of mother-in-law that any future partner of Graham’s deserves. I don’t think it will be that easy.

So I know that some of you out there do have bat-shit-crazy mother-in-laws and if that’s the case you have my sympathy. But if you just have a mother-in-law who's maybe a just little clingy or needy or intrusive, look at your darling son, imagine how you will feel that day when his future walks in your front door and cut the woman some slack.

And if you are lucky enough to have a mother-in-law like mine, count your blessings.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Younger and more delusional by the day

According to all the statistics I’m pretty much an old bag.

The average age at which Canadian women give birth is 29.7 years. I was just past my 36th birthday when Graham was born, so there’s no denying that the numbers place me squarely in the category of “older mother.”

Too bad. I’m calling bullshit.

I don’t feel like an older mother and I refuse to believe I look like one either. (Yes, I’m a bit of a diva – hence the title of my blog).

I spent last summer on maternity leave and it was one of the best summers of my life. I lived in kitten heels and pony tails and sundresses and enjoyed leisurely early morning strolls through the neighborhood with Graham, soaking up indulgent smiles from the senior citizens we routinely encountered.

Ah, young motherhood, I imagined them thinking and I would smile back serenely, feeling every inch the ingénue with her darling love child.

Perhaps had they looked closer they would have seen tiny lines around my eyes, or thickening thighs, but I like to think not. My body may feel the demands of caring for a child and my mirror might belie my delusion, but I don’t feel much different than I did 15 years ago.

And I’m not gonna tell you it’s because I’m seeing the world through a child’s eyes and blah, blah, blah. Some parents say kids keep them young, but in addition to being a cliché, I think that’s a bit of a lie. No matter what your age, caring for children is just plain hard work. You never get enough sleep and the repetition and drudgery of day-to-day mothering in the waking hours can make you feel beaten-up, bone-weary and old beyond your years.

Yes, there are moments of pure magic, moments when you really do catch a glimpse of how beautiful and fresh the world must look through your child’s eyes. And those moments completely, totally ABSOLUTELY make all the hard slogging worthwhile. But I’d be lying if I said I thought they outnumbered the moments in which I bust my butt struggling to be a great mom/ wife/ employee/ friend/ daughter/ blogger, etc.

So, if I can admit such fatigue, why do I still feel as if Statistics Canada is talking about someone else when they refer to women my age as older mothers?

I don’t know. I just do. Makes it’s because youth is so strongly associated with happiness and right now is, without question, the happiest period of my life.

Or maybe it’s just pure, stubborn delusion brought on by age-related senility. But I will enjoy my ponytails and my kitten heels and my young motherhood right up until the day my darling love child puts me in the (hopefully comfortable) old-age home.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

All substance, no style

American women are dying in childbirth at the highest rates in decades according to a new study that was all over the newspapers last week.

No one is sure if maternal obesity or increasing Caesarean rates are to blame, but after reading the article I know one thing for sure.

Having a baby is serious business.

That might seem obvious to some people, but I didn’t really believe it until I endured 20 hours of labour followed by an emergency C-section.

You see, I had planned a home birth with midwives - groovy and drug-free. I wasn’t the least bit scared about going the natural route as two of my best girlfriends had just had wonderful experiences birthing their first babies that way.

But me? Not so much. I was 8 centimeters dilated when someone realized that Graham was coming bum first and that it was his tailbone and not his head that was about to emerge. Luckily I was in the hospital at that point and surgery was able to provide a happy outcome to what could easily have been an unmitigated disaster.

I shudder to think what could have happened to us had I insisted on sticking to the ideal birth that I had envisioned.

Since Graham’s birth I have come to see that original vision for what it was: narcissism. Obviously not everyone who chooses a home birth is a narcissist (quite the contrary) but in my case, I think it was a way to reinforce an image of myself as strong, fearless and unflappable.

I have always been a bit of an adventure junkie. Whether it’s maneuvering a float plane out of a tiny lake or camping in Africa, I have gobbled up new experiences like they were candy. When I contemplated labour, I expected that it would be another rough and raw accomplishment that I would sail through with grit and style.

I feel embarassed to admit that today, but I don’t think I am alone. I have a friend whose very accomplished and educated sister went into labour and, eschewing hospitals, drove several hours to a rural commune where “holistic” practitioners assured her they could deliver her breech baby naturally. After untold suffering, she was finally rushed to a hospital where the baby was born healthy via an emergency Caesarean.

Women today are giving birth later in life and many are doing so after already boasting varied and impressive achievements. To many of these alpha females a drug-free labour, endured stoically and without intervention, is viewed as the highest order of accomplishment: anything less, if not a failure, is certainly a capitulation.

My dad always used to say that having kids knocks the corners off a person. In my case I had a few corners rounded on the very first day. Giving birth was not the spiritually transformative experience I expected it to be: it was a scary, heavily medicalized procedure.

But in the end, it was just the first day in the rest of our lives.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

The sky is falling! The world is ending! My agony is beyond all measure!

Okay, not really. It's just a little temper tantrum, the likes of which are becoming increasingly common these days. The pique pictured above developed when Graham was told to stop pulling the leaves off Oma's plant.

The (almost) 2-year-old temper tantrum has to be one of the purest expressions of emotion in the human lexicon. Simply put - it's how we would all act if we could get away with it.

Think about it - it would be great.

Not feeling that well today? Spend the entire day emitting a low-pitched growl. If someone tries to cheer you up, ramp it up into a full-blown whine.

Someone at the office eat that last donut you were planning on enjoying? Scream really loud, weep copiously, throw yourself on the floor and thrash about as if in the throes of demonic possession. If someone tries to comfort you, kick them. Hard.

Life with no filter. What a delicious idea. No polite small talk. No sighing in resignation. No grinning and bearing it. No more replying brightly "Good thanks, how are you?" when you want to say "I feel like crap today" or "I feel like a loser" or "I'm scared."

But there's the rub.

We may hold the keys to our own chains but most of the time it's easier to be restrained. Who among us has the courage to love like a two-year-old? Who out there is unafraid to stand naked with need and whimper "Mama" when we need a hug?

The terrible twos are not an easy time for parents. But watching Graham grow out of them will be bittersweet. I will be proud to watch him learn to socialize, to get along, to control his emotions, but I will grieve the raging spirit and the fire that I see in him now. And I will pray that the barriers he will build, that he must build, between his raw emotion and the world will never be unsurmontable to those who love him the most.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Forget shingles, sleep is the new small talk

There are plenty of jokes about how when people age their conversations start to revolve around their various medical ailments.

In my house it’s all about sleep.

My husband works crazy hours and we are often like two ships passing in the night. When we finally connect, often mid-day on the phone, the conversation always starts like this.

"Did you sleep ok?"
"Um hmm, um hmm"
"When did you go to bed?"
"Uh huh, uh huh"
"When did you get up?"
"Yup, yup"
"When did Graham get up?"
"Ouch, that early eh?"
"Did you wake up much?"
"Hmmm – probably was the heat/ cold/ humidity/ dryness"

Only after we are sufficiently updated on hours slept, hours in bed trying to get to sleep, hours spent listening to Graham and wishing he would go back to sleep and hours of sleep that we absolutely have to get tonight in order to fully function, do we proceed to catch up on more pressing matters in our day-to-day lives.

When the hell did this happen?

Didn’t we used to be interesting, vibrant people? I am pretty sure that if the conversation on our first date bore any similarity to the one above we would never have hooked up and produced the little treasure that is the cause of our current obsession with all things sleep.

And the scary part is Graham is actually a brilliant sleeper – he sleeps 11 hours a night, every night. He never wakes up and he even takes a nap for about two hours unless-

Oh God.

I can’t stop myself. I officially suck at sparkling conversation.

I am going to vow here and now to stop slipping sleep statistics into every conversation. I will only talk about sleep with my hubby on the days after nights when I have gotten so little sleep that I can trade on my deprivation for SERIOUS brownie points.

Starting tomorrow. I didn’t sleep well last night and I need a good eight hours before I can make a change like that.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fumbling towards greatness

Karen is a girl in my office who is currently almost 5 months pregnant with her first baby. Frequently she will ask me about some peculiar twinge she is experiencing or about how I came to make one of the approximately four million decisions made about Graham’s care in utero and up until now.

I very much like this girl and I’m flattered that she seeks my advice so I try to dispense as many pearls as wisdom as possible in my most reassuring, motherly tone.

Hopefully she never discovers I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about.

Doesn’t she remember my office baby shower when I brought the house down by unwrapping a nasal aspirator and chirping brightly “You can never have too many pacifiers!”?

While sorting photos for Graham’s baby book the other day, I came across one that never fails to crack me up. It was taken as we prepared to leave the hospital after his birth.

There are a few things that strike me about this photo - one is that my hair looks surprisingly good for someone who has just given birth, but I digress.

Mostly I am struck by the juxtaposition of utter contentment and barely-concealed terror.

Graham could not look more serene: sleeping peacefully, he is blissfully unaware that his very survival depends on the glassy-eyed people flanking him, both of whom appear to be fighting the onset of a panic attack.

I remember those early days well. We referred to Graham as our little yawning chasm of need. Everyone talks about how overwhelming new parenthood is, but the intensity of caring for a newborn is still shocking.

Surprisingly though, you figure it out pretty quickly. In some ways being a good mom is the hardest job in the world, in some ways it’s the easiest. For me it was several months before Graham truly seemed like he wasn’t part of my body anymore, hence tending to his needs, while incredibly exhausting, was as natural as tending to my own.

You just do it. You feed, you burp, you clean, you adjust, you rock, you coo, you protect, you love with a ferocity that sears your soul.

And one day you wake up and see what you have wrought and your heart is flooded to bursting with wonder. How is it possible? Is it a miracle?

Yes it is. And knowing that Karen is about to experience it sometimes chokes me up. She can ask me questions all the day long and I am happy, thrilled really, to babble on about how it was for me.

But deep down I know that when her own little yawning chasm of need arrives, so too will the answers she seeks.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Another one bites the dust

I mean the above title in the best possible sense. What I mean is that on Saturday we were guests at a surprise birthday party for our friend Jon’s 40th birthday.

These parties seem to be coming fast and furious now. While I still have a few years to go, we rang in my hubby’s in May with a massive party from which our neighbors are still recovering. (Once again, I am really sorry - I didn’t realize a live band on the back deck would be that noisy)

The party on Saturday was an afternoon affair, which saw a funky mix of mostly thirty and forty-somethings lounging poolside, chasing after their toddlers, dancing, listening to great tunes, eating yummy food and drinking potent margaritas.

Graham, as is his wont, went crazy for the party balloons which meant I spent a lot of time lifting him so he could touch them, while simultaneously explaining that they were not his to destroy.

It was a cool party for a cool guy. Jon’s an actor who is currently appearing in Flash Gordon and had a meaty role in the movie Shooter. He’s got 2 great kids (four and six months old) and he’s interesting and fun – he’s sure as hell not what I imagined 40 looked like when I was a teenager.

But then none of my friends on the cusp of 40 are likely candidates for the old folks home. I expressed this to Jon’s fiance/ babymama Sheona - a director/ documentary-filmmaker and one of the all-around funkiest chicks I know. She agreed.

“No one seems their age to me. Remember when our parents turned forty?” she said. “They seemed so much older than we are now. Were they?

Or were they actually cool and we just didn’t realize it?”

A sobering thought. But I think she may be right. I have vague childhood memories of my parents throwing parties during which I was permitted to pass out appetizers and have a few dances before being sent downstairs to the finished basement and told NOT TO COME BACK UP. We kids hunkered down there, eating chips, watching television and rolling our eyes every time the music and laughter from upstairs filtered down. Why were they such dorks?

I’m pretty sure Graham will have similar memories. I’m inclined to believe that human beings really haven’t changed that much for several generations. I don’t think forty-year-olds today are any cooler or any younger than their parents were (or their grandparents were). It just seems like it because now I’M almost 40. (And look at me - I am still SO FUN!)

The fact is I probably don’t seem all that fun to your average teenager, but I could care less. I have my own friends in my own age group and we have our own barometer for what’s cool and what’s not. I don’t think any of us really care what teenagers think.
Twenty years from now today’s teenagers will look around at their friends and be unable to believe how well they managed to preserve their coolness as they approach 40.

And, God willing, my friends and I will be approaching 60 and prattling on about how we have got to be the youngest, coolest, most vibrant senior citizens to ever walk the planet.

And we’ll all be full of shit of course. It’s the circle of life.

Forty is not the new 30. It’s not even the new 40. It’s just 40.

But it looks fabulous on you darling.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Small towns - the dirt just tastes better there

So I went home to Norland the other weekend-

You see what I did there? I actually typed home without a second thought when in fact I went to my parents’ house in Norland. I am a grown-up after all – I have my own home and it’s not in Norland, it’s in Toronto, okay?

Okay, it’s in Don Mills, but Don Mills is well within the city limits. And while Don Mills may have started as a suburb, that was so long ago, it’s practically considered downtown now! But I digress.

Anyway I went back to Norland (winter population about 300) where, unbeknownst to me, the Heritage Homecoming weekend was in full swing.

My mom, my brother and my niece hit the festivities in the afternoon where we chased Graham around the inside of the sweltering hockey arena where I looked at old photos and bought a gorgeous framed print by local artist Clive Kay for my dad (for $40! No wonder I love small towns). Graham also took his first pony ride outside and charmed folks in the beer tent by grabbing the first half-full beer he saw and tossing some back. (His father’s genes, I swear).

That night his dad and I left Graham with Grandma and Grandpa and returned to the arena for the homecoming dance. We had a blast and here are some of the reasons why:

* It was only $5 to get in
* The beers were $3 (tax included) and no tips were accepted
* You could help yourself to ice water from pitchers and glasses
* At midnight a free spread of sandwiches, fruit, cheese and sweets was rolled out
* They had spot dances for door prizes (spot dances are where you remain in place after the song finishes, the DJ instructs you to walk left or right a certain number of steps and the couple ending up closest to the spotlight wins – brilliant!)

It was wonderfully fun and lovely and retro but not in that condescending, bullshit, ironic way that has fostered bingo games and charades and the like at downtown clubs.

Some of my cousins were there and I also saw people I hadn’t seen since high school, elementary school really and they were friendly and welcoming. They talked about their kids, asked me about mine and inevitably inquired whether I was still writing. I also chatted with older locals who seemed genuinely interested to hear about Graham whose existence my mom has been shouting from village rooftops for nearly two year now.

At one point in the evening I turned to my husband (who’s never lived outside of Toronto, okay, Don Mills) and declared “I love Norland.”

And I do. No matter how many years I spend in the big smoke, this little blink-and-you’ll miss-it-village will always be special to me. Sure it’s a cliché, but the people I know there are solid and decent and kind. And after all these years I still feel like they really care about me. And that’s a great feeling.

Many times throughout the years, I’ve been razed about my small town upbringing but it’s always been a badge of honour for me – a cultural experience that my city-bred contemporaries never had. I think sophistication is ultimately the ability to feel at ease no matter what your surroundings and I’ve always secretly (and sometimes not-so-secretly) been disdainful of urban hipsters who like to brag that they feel lost in the wilderness when they go north of Bloor.

How fragile is your sense of confidence and self when you lose it outside a 10-kilometre comfort zone?

I am as comfortable at karaoke night at Sonia’s Motel on Highway 35 as I am at a party on Queen St. and I hope my son will be the same way. While I want him to grow up to be charming and urbane, I also want him to feel comfortable in places like Norland. I couldn’t bear it if he turned into one of those pansy-ass city boys we used to laugh at, who couldn’t start a boat motor, or swing an axe and didn’t want to get their hands dirty.

So far Graham seems to love Norland too. And he has no problem getting down and dirty. In fact, playtime at Grandma and Grandpa’s house (on the lake) consists of hanging on the beach and shoveling in mouthful after mouthful of that delicious, country sand.

Eat up my boy. May you grow big and strong.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

On Don Mills and Diva-dom

If I had known my husband in 1987 I would have been wild for him. Not that I’m not wild for him now but I mean WILD in the obsessive, unhealthy way that only a 17-year-old girl can be. He was in a punk band (a punk band!) called Sinful Love which had just recorded a song with a video enjoying rotation on that crazy new network MuchMusic.

The name of the song?


Don Mills is Dead.

Back then he was a punk raging against THE MAN and I was a diva-in-training, on the cusp of a social whirlwind that would be the defining feature in my life for the next 15 or so years.

But that was then. This is now.

Now we have a kid. We have a mortgage. We have a lawn to cut and eavestroughs to clean.

We live in Don Mills.

Ah irony. As a writer I appreciate irony more than anyone. But this cosmic slap-down is a comeuppance over which the Universe is surely still chortling more than five years after I abandoned Queen Street for Canada’s First Planned Community.

There are days when I remember fondly all-night kitchen parties and undiscovered indie bands and size 2 jeans and go-go boots and late night philosophizing about how my cohorts and I would wrestle the world to the ground.

I think about heady days on the university newspaper when a brooding political writer was the Tracy to my Hepburn and the night early in my career days when I lead a group of movie producers to an after-hours club where we bought mickeys of vodka from a biker selling them out of a hockey bag in the corner and danced to a country band until 6 a.m..

I remember the fruit of possibility was so ripe and so sweet; I needed nothing else to sustain me.

My husband and my son sustain me now. But there are still times when the reality of diminishing possibilities is an acute, exquisite ache.

But that’s not unique is it? The retreat of youth is an age-old story and the story ends the same way for most of us. (I’m sure my parents were betting on that when I announced to them in my early twenties that I would be permanently relocating to Arizona with a boyfriend who played trumpet in a ska band).

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when one grows up. For me it was when I realized that the story usually ends the same way for a reason. The chapters on youthful rebellion and wildness gradually give way to chapters on hearth and home because sane people aspire to happy endings. And generations of people far wiser (and probably cooler) than me have figured out that settling down is probably your best bet at a happy ending.

I live in Don Mills but I am not dead.

I will still stage my own small rebellions. I constantly risk the loss of free babysitting from my mother-in-law by staying out too late with my downtown friends! I fly float planes! I fight every parking ticket I get! I throw the biggest and craziest house parties in the neighborhood! (yes, my friends come uptown). When it’s questionable whether I can get away with that outfit/ comment/ purchase, I shut my eyes and dive right in.

Maybe I’m still a cop-out, but I don’t care.

I don’t define myself through my cool lifestyle anymore. In fact, I don’t even have a lifestyle anymore. I have a life. Welcome to it.

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