Monday, January 26, 2015


It was bedtime, and we were trying to get the kids to wind down enough for the usual brush, jammies, books, bed routine.  Walter got his skirt/cape out of his drawer, and Sally lunged for it and took it out of his hands.  He went to take it back, but Sean asked him to back up, and he did. Sally wrapped the shiny blue material around her shoulders like a cloak, fled to the exit, found it blocked and stood with her back to the door, ready to defend her prize. Sean offered her a different piece of fabric, and after very brief consideration she handed Walter his skirt and took the other shiny fabric from Sean.  I applauded both kids for the way they handled the situation, and Walter had a thoughtful look on his face.  Walter went to the door, found it closed, opened it and turned to face us with a stormy look. I predicted he'd slam the door, because kind of an Elsa thing to do, and braced myself for it.  But when he turned around he saw that Sally was right behind him and his expression changed. He looked down at her and smiled, put out his hand, and said very gently. "Come! Come with me, now.  Come up to my castle." Sally beamed up at him, a smile that took over her entire face and her whole little body.  She seemed to levitate a little bit with joy. Sean and I instinctively held back, knowing we shouldn't interrupt this moment, and watched as the two of them, without a glance back to us, walked out of the room together. "Can't stand in the way of that," Sean murmured, and we jumped up to tail them.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Frozen Fever

Along with the terrible stomach virus that swept through our household this week, our family has been hit by a virulent strain of Frozen fever. Symptoms include staying up very, very late screaming and crying "I want to play Fro-zen!" over and over again.

Of course, it's not all bad. Not even close.  Really, overall, it's delightful.  But it is something different, a new level of intensity to Walter's make-believe.

As soon as Walter starting putting words together, he and I came up with this running gag: I'd ask him if he was something else, and he'd set me straight.  "Are you my snuggle bunny?" I'd ask.  "No," he'd say, seriously.  "I'm your Walter."

While playing train, I'd ask, "Are you the conductor?"
"No. I'm Walter."

"Mmmmm. This meal is delicious. Are you the chef?"
"Chef Walter, Mama.  I am Walter."

I loved this exchange, how reliable it was, how affirming of his essential Walter-ness. Now, though, it's different.

"Walter, dinner's ready!"
"I'm Elsa."

He's usually Elsa, although tonight he switched over to Anna for a short time, which was honestly quite a relief to me.  I've spent some time, you see, thinking about the tortured, desperate character of Elsa and worrying about her appeal to my young son.  Oldest child, you know.  Burdened by her well-meaning parents with unrealistic expectations for self control. (In defense of me and Sean, our efforts to teach Walter how to use "I" statements and calm himself with deep breaths is a long way from "conceal, don't feel" territory.)  Full of magic and power, but terrified that with that great power she will accidentally hurt her little sister. So much responsibility, so much angst. "Ohhhhhh, I'm such a fool, I can't be free!" she sings, and it makes your chest just ache for her. And for your oldest child, who knows there is no escape from the storm of powerful emotions brewing inside of him, just the temporary relief that comes from counting down from five to calm down.

Or perhaps Walter, like every other child his age,  likes Elsa's magic, and her beautiful dress, and that awesome song she gets to sing.

And so he sings, perfectly, word for word. "The snow glows white on the mountain tonight, not a footprint, to be seen ..." He makes his big blue eyes Disney-wide and practices saying, "Anna!" with different emotions, expressions, and tones of voice. He wears the cape/skirt I made him for his birthday tied up like a halter dress, and seems to have finally forgiven me for not making it pink or purple because, after all, Elsa's dress is blue. He plays Frozen at school, outside on the playground and inside in the dress-up area.  While many of his friends have more variety in their play, I get the sense that Walter can always find at least one friend to play Frozen with, and sometimes more.  I asked him once, "You always seem to play Elsa.  What if someone else wants to be Elsa?" "Then we have two Elsas," he explained.  "Jackson was Elsa with me today."

Not gonna lie, I was relieved to hear that Walter isn't the only boy in his class pretending to be the snow queen.  And then felt bad that I felt relieved.

Walter as Elsa/Daddy/Conductor 
Here's the thing: I have this deep hope that Walter will always be loved and accepted exactly as he is.  And I have this fear that, any minute now, this blissful window of love and acceptance will come crashing closed and crush his spirit.  This is a fear I endeavor mightily to control, because it could keep me from enjoying these amazing moments of play, these increasingly brilliant imaginative adventures.

Today, for example, Walter told us one of his teachers at school told him he couldn't play dress up.  I was alarmed.  His teachers have always encouraged Walter to be fully himself, dressing up however he wants, with no gender norming at all.  Was this the beginning of the end?

No. Walter gradually revealed that he'd "made bad choices" and used his current favorite attention-getting naughty word, "stupid."  The consequence was no dress up.  Such a relief.  Except for the part about him using the word "stupid" ... that's no good.

When we play Frozen at home, Walter never casts his little sister as Anna, though I think there are some striking similarities there.  Youngest child, you know.  Effortlessly charming, open and honest, flinging herself heedlessly through life like it's one giant "crazy trust exercise."  Slightly more pigment in her eyes and skin than her superblonde older sibling.  But even though she's really the hero of the film, no one seems to want to be Anna. Sally, like most of her peers, prefers Elsa. "Elsa," she says. And then sings, pitch-perfect: "Go!" Tonight, when Walter took it off for a moment, she pounced on his blue skirt, twirled it around herself, sang "Go!" and tried to abscond with it.  She tripped on it, of course, and when I went to help her up and get it away from her she resolutely would. not. let. it. go.

This struck me as very Anna-like.

I am usually Anna, except when Walter wants to be Anna, and then I'm Elsa.  We decided earlier this week that Hank and Sally could not be cast as Prince Hans, because neither of them would understand that we were just pretending they were the villain, and it would be confusing and unfair to yell at them for their villainy.  So, Hank was (aptly) cast today as the reindeer, Sven.  Sally, we decided, could be that adorable little baby troll who sings about tinkle. That leaves Sean as Prince Hans, which is OK, because no one could ever mistake him for an actual bad guy ... clearly this is pure pretend.  We don't have a Kristoff, because I think Walter forgets that character exists. Walter (Elsa) makes Olaf, and sometimes makes him visible by pretending his stuffed dinosaur is the lovable snowman.

You can see why he's excited and reluctant to go to bed.  We've had some success telling him that he needs to recharge his powers at night, which is why I think he switched to being Anna right before bed tonight. "I'm Anna," he argued proudly. "I have no powers."

I argued right back, and told him he had plenty of powers. "You are full of true love," I said. "You are brave and kind.  And you need to recharge all of those powers tonight. Go to sleep!"

He didn't buy it (but he is finally sleeping.)

This morning, both kids woke up ridiculously early and ended up in bed with me and Sean. While Sally slept, Walter gently took her hand. "You are Anna," he told me over Sally's fuzzy head.  "I am Elsa." "Who is Sally?" I asked. He looked down at her fondly, and smiled. "Our baby!" he said. She woke up, stretched, smiled and cuddled up to Walter. "Waltee!" she said. "Waltu!"  Walter looked proud, "Yay!" he said. "She's saying my name!"

And I soaked up that essence of Walter and Sally, which, by any other names, would still be as sweet.

And then they started to pinch and annoy each other, which is, after all, also essential.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Blatant, unmediated bragging

I wear my sunglasses at night
Sally tinkled on the potty tonight.  Yes, that Sally.  The one who is 16 months old.

I'll have to check with my friend Pastor B., because I think maybe his daughter used the potty at some even more ridiculously early age, and maybe this sort of thing happens all the time in the world of girls, and particularly in the world of girls who are younger siblings of children who are in the midst of potty training, but all that being said ... we are impressed.

I went back through some old blog posts and I don't think we documented Walter's first potty use.  My guess is that it happened some time during my first trimester of pregnancy with Sally, when I did lots of sleeping and next to no blogging.  I'm OK with not knowing, though, because no matter when Walter did it, Sally's potty use tonight was quite an accomplishment for her.  And for him, too.  As Sally sat down on the potty before their tub, Walter gave her lots of encouragement.  "Yay, Sally!  You can do it, Sally!"  And when she, grinning, had a little tiny tinkle, we all celebrated together, and acknowledged that having a potty role model in Walter has certainly been a contributing factor in Sally's interest, persistence, and delight in this new experience.

Now, if only Sally could teach Walter how to lie down and go to sleep at bedtime.

Friday, January 9, 2015

"Jesus wants me to go potty" and other Christmas stories

We have had some good, good holidays. Sally, who has been non-stop sick for who knows how long, rallied for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (before immediately falling headlong into the next upper respiratory infection.) We spent Christmas Eve at church, with our now-traditional soup-and-sandwich meal between services and the magical mixture of small children and open flames in worship. Sally wore a fierce hand-me-down black velvet suit and stomped/sashayed around the halls of Redeemer with the confidence of a tiny CEO.  Walter knows all the words to every Christmas song, and I think I caught him singing along with the congregation on one or two. We got into our Christmas Eve pajamas (at first, Walter was disappointed ... JUST pajamas? We explained that all other presents would come the next day) and set into serious Santa-related work. Before he went to bed, Walter spontaneously and genuinely thanked me for the pajamas, and made some statements of questionable theology/mythology:
"I think Jesus wants me to go potty, now. He will be so happy!"
"I think Santa will like that I'm wearing these pajamas.  WE SHOULD READ THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS!  He will like that so much."

A friend asked how we decided to include Santa in our Christmas celebrations, and how we're navigating the potential confusion and problems that Santa can bring.  Honestly, we're figuring it out as we go along.  Santa is imaginative play for Christmas time; Jesus is real and central to our lives at all times. Thinking and talking about both requires that we engage our imaginations and dream about things we can't see. It may be a little confusing, but Walter already feels the difference.  And then there was this conversation, while he and I wrote his letter to Santa a few days before Christmas:

"Mama, are you Santa?"
(Unprepared) "Do YOU  think I'm Santa?"
"Santa is a fun game to play, isn't it?"
"Yeah ... E. is Santa, too!" (E. is a girl from church; Walter has quite a crush on her.)

So, who knows. On Christmas Eve Walter was very excited about Santa, and seemed to have suspended disbelief almost entirely. We put out his letter with a plate of cookies, a plate of carrots, and an empty glass with a straw (we figured Santa would want fresh, cold milk.)  Sean reminded Walter that Santa wouldn't come until we were all asleep, and Walter, who resists bedtime with the brilliance of a thousand lawyers, very seriously said, "Well!" (pulls up blanket, lies down on pillow, smooths and arranges blanket around him,) "Well, we should go to sleep right now, then!"  Sally went down pretty well, too, happy to be able to breathe for once and excited by all the excitement around her.  She said "Santa!" a few times that day, delighting us all.

Kids in bed, the adults in the house went to work.  Umma and Baba worked in their room in the basement, Baba adding another experience to his long, illustrious career of assembling complicated toys on Christmas Eve night (this year: an easel.  So wonderful!)  I cleaned up the living room and made space for the new toys: a dollhouse handed down from a family in the congregation, the easel, a chair for Sally, and more wrapped presents than felt seemly to me. It turned out not to be too much, I think ... the presents weren't all for the kids, after all.  But the sight of all of them that night gave me pause.  We decided to save stockings for our New Year celebration at Umma and Baba's house, to spread out the joy a bit.

I collected Walter's letter to Santa and replaced it with Santa's reply.  Here's Walter's letter, transcribed faithfully (with little to no leading) by me:

Dear Santa,

My name is Walter. I am three years old. My little sister's name is Sally and she's one. Mama's name is Mama. My dog is named Hankie and he went to the vet. Sally did some helpful things like coloring books and paper and a snowman (but it couldn't work.) My Daddy is named Sean; he's a helpful guy. I really like watching Winnie the Pooh. I like to do coloring books. My favorite colors are pink and purple.

For Christmas, I would like a purple blanket with my name on it, please. That's all.

Thank you for bringing me a present.

W (Walter's signature)

[You'll note that Hank's dinnertime trip to the vet was still fresh in his mind.  Not sure what the part about Sally and the snowman that couldn't work is all about. It was fun to record exactly what he said, knowing that this moment in his verbal expression is a fleeting one. ]

Here's Santa's letter:

Dear Walter,

Thank you for writing to me and for leaving such a delicious snack! I enjoyed the cookies and milk very much, and my reindeer loved the carrots.

You are such a good boy, and such a good helper! You are kind and loving. You are a wonderful big brother, too.

For Christmas I brought Sally a nice chair (she loves to sit on your chairs, I know!) For you, I made a special blanket that combines your two favorite colors into a pinkish purple, and it has your name on it! I also had my elves make something extra special for you, too. [Editor's note; a purple bath robe with Walter's name on it.]

Keep up the great work with your dry-all-day and good sleeping stickers! [Walter's eyes went wide and he gave a huge smile, at that line.]

Love, Santa

PS I found the jingle bell you wanted to give me. I love it. I left you one for you to keep and play with, too.

The kids slept in a bit on Christmas morning.  Baba was in place, ready with the camera, waiting for them to come into the living room and see everything.  I don't remember realizing, as a kid, how excited adults are about Christmas.  But we are!  It is so exciting for us. Walter and Sally came out and immediately started playing with the dollhouse together.  They moved over to the easel from Umma and Baba and checked that out, too, with great earnest concentration.  They found Sally's chair, which Walter thought should be his ("Purple is MY favorite color!") but they took turns sitting in it with no conflict throughout the day.  We got them sitting down and read Santa's letter.  Their attention, at the point in the day, was absolutely rapt.  Walter opened his presents from Santa and was utterly, totally delighted with both blanket and robe.  That probably would have been enough for presents, right there.

We took a break to make breakfast, Walter taking the lead on making the traditional Christmas morning puff pancakes.  They didn't rise very much (the chemistry is tricky) but they were tasty.  After breakfast we opened presents, and it was very fun.  Sally got a stuffed kitty, a box of little Frozen books, a set of self-inking stampers.  Walter got a stamp set, the Frozen soundtrack, and a huge roll of tickets with a star-shaped puncher for playing train.  I got a soda stream for making my own selzer! Sean got a year-long subscription to Field Notes, his favorite source for little notebooks for writing down story ideas.  I record this, not to revel in the materialism of the day, but because these gifts we gave and received this year to seemed to fit us especially well, and reflect who we are and how we like to play together.

We took a break for lunch and nap and there were still more presents to open (Walter had opened most of his at this point ... the adults were a little behind on our stacks.) We tried to open only one present at a time, giving our attention to each person while they were opening.  This broke down a bit as the day went on, but everyone was in good spirits. We had a wonderful dinner together and Umma and Baba headed home.

The next day, Sally started to get sick again.  Was that the pink eye? Or the bad cough?  It's all blurred together. She had a very, very sick and sleepless couple of days and nights before we gathered ourselves together and headed down to Umma and Baba's for Holidays Part II.  The change of scenery and the improved adult-to-kid ratio was exactly what we all needed, and by the time we headed home it was clear that Sally was truly on the mend this time.

Our days with Umma and Baba were filled with much fun and many firsts.  Walter watched "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" (animated, of course) for the first time, and enjoyed it.  We also broke down and rented Frozen, a little nervous about the scary parts and feature-length screen time, but we broke it up with an intermission, talked to him during and after, and it went really well.  Hilariously, Sally started saying, "Elsa" and singing, "Goooooo!" (Let it Go.) She went to the window, pointed at the bare grass outside and said, "Elsa. Snow. Snoowwww. Snow, please!"

The one-week-delayed stockings were a hit and a complete delight. (Walter, when we told him there would be stockings the next day: "I think Santa will probably just bring us some cookies. Because we already had a lot of presents, right?")  The little stocking presents, separated from the big and abundant presents of Christmas, brought Walter to great exclamations of joy. "A LITTLE PINK WHISK! LIPSTICK!" (that's what he calls lip balm, a standard Edison-Swift stocking gift.) "A COOMMBBBBB!"

Sally seemed to especially thrive these holiday days, even when goopy and pukey.  She tried to jump with us while we were playing xBox and ended up with this adorable stretch of joy.  She showed off her yoga moves and did lots of dancing and mischief making.  She also nursed. Constantly.  We had been getting pretty close to weaning, I think ... down to once or twice a day.  And then she got sick, and then it was all over. No more going to sleep on her own, no more cuddles that didn't involve nursing.  She was literally attached to me at all times.  Sally asking to nurse tends to escalate quickly from inquisitive, to conversational, to demanding, to panicked ... transcribed, it's something like this: "Mo? Mo mo mo mo mo. Mo?! MO MO!! MOHHHHHHHHH!"

Now that she's really feeling better, we're starting to ratchet down the nursing again, but it's hard on me to go through the painful process of my supply being too much again. My body is worn out from these past few weeks.  Walter asked, "When will Sally be done nursing?" I replied honestly: "I don't know.  Sally, do you think you'll be done nursing, soon?" "No!" she said, cheerfully, Definitively.

I love our nursing time together, but I trust that, as with Walter, Sally and I will still be close and snuggle when the time for weaning comes.  Figuring out when that time should be is tough, though.  It was easier with Walter, because around the time he started seeming ready for it I needed to wean anyway because I was pregnant with Sally.  Not sure how it'll happen this time around.

Sally's vocabulary is out of this world, and growing every day.  She says, "Walter" so clearly now!  She also sings, especially Twinkle, Row Row, Itsy Bitsy, Baa Baa and Let it Go.  She likes to count.  If you say, "one" she'll say, "two" and sometimes even "three."  She loves to say not just "no" but a very sassy little, "No way!" I think my favorite Sally pronunciation is "yocks!" for "socks" and "ishies" for "shoes."  Her smiles are just incredible, and she is very generous with them.  She's also been giving wonderful, whole-hearted, full body hugs and snuggles.  I thought they were just a symptom of being chronically tired and sick, but she's continued to give them even as she feels better. Baba tears up every time she lays her head down on his shoulder and gently pats his back.

He's had a rough day here and there, but Walter is doing very well overall.  He's stayed pretty healthy, which gives me hope for Sally. He is very earnest and serious sometimes, but also very silly and funny.  There's no way I could possibly keep up with all the wonderful things he says and does, but here are some recent examples:

"I didn't play Frozen today.  But I THINKED about Frozen all day."

I don't remember what exactly we were talking about, but it had to do with noses. After a bit, Walter chimed in. "While we're on the subject of noses ... I am going to get your nose!"

"I have no tinkle in my body."

Walter and I were lying in bed, watching a cooking show.  Suddenly, his head popped up and he scrambled off the bed and headed toward the stairs. "I need to go check on the roast!"
"Ok!" I said.  I worried about him slipping on the stairs in his socks. "Be careful!"
 "Because it's really hot, right?" he said. "It's OK, I'll just peek." And away he went.  He returned with a wooden toy fish, wrapped up in a string, roast-style (Sean tells me Walter wrapped a hot dog like a roast the other day. He's very proud of the roast that he made with Daddy for Christmas Eve.) I pretended to eat the fish and said, "It's so moist! I love the flavor." Head up again, scrambling down the stairs: "I forgot to add the flavor! There's no flavor in there.  I'll go get some lemon!"

While riding home from daycare, Walter observed: "Not all of these houses have chimneys."

Looking at photo magnet of the family when I was pregnant with Sally: "Was Sally just under your shirt, or all the way inside your body?  Why can't Daddies have babies in their bodies?"

Instead of a saying "reindeer," Walter often calls Sven from Frozen "Kristoph's reinSven." This is almost as cute as when he just tries to say Sven, which comes out as something like: "Fzvennmen."

He often has a signature phrase or word that we tend to then adopt as a favorite family thing to say.  When he was younger, there was the sweet and memorable, "How about that to you?" These days, he tends to add "right" to many things.  "We are going to see Henry today, right?" Me; "Right." Walter; "Right!"

Driving down to Umma and Baba's, we went over a bumpy patch of road. "Mama, are you OK? Did that hurt you?"  "I'm OK, Walter, the bumpy road doesn't hurt me anymore." "But it DID give you an owie. When we were going to get my haircut." I started to cry (it was dark, and I was in the front seat, so I don't think Walter could see) and Sean took over reassuring Walter.  The owie he's referring to happened over a year ago, two months after Sally was born, shortly after my gallbladder surgery.  We were excited to all get out of the house and take Walter for a much-needed haircut.  Sean took the speed bump at a fairly normal clip, but I was still so tender from the surgeries that it made me cry out in pain.  Walter kept asking about it, until finally we could show and reassure him that my owies had healed, and bumps wouldn't hurt me anymore.  But he still asks about it from time to time.  Last week we had quite a bonk during a hug, and I needed an ice pack right away to avoid getting a shiner.  This week, out of the blue one night, he asked, "Mama, are you doing better? After my head hit your glasses, how are you doing now?"

His empathy is a wonderful thing.  But it breaks my heart when he worries about me like that.

"A Daddy" by Walter, age 3
I had this hope/dream/vision that we'd put the kids to bed early on New Year's Eve and Umma, Baba, Sean and I would play a game of cards, or maybe dominoes.  Didn't happen.  Both kids were up late; Sally was pukey (this is what we do on New Year's.)  I miss doing grown up fun stuff sometimes ... not "partying" per se ... really, just board games, cards and dominoes.  But Umma introduced Walter to Memory and Candy Land, and he did beautifully with them.  Grandparents are the best at seeing when the kids are ready to try something new like that.  I'd been worrying about the lack of representational drawing in Walter's life ... he mostly does swirls and squiggles.  But then he started drawing "H" for Henry on his new easel (again ... grandparents) and I asked him to draw a flower and he did, and then he drew a person, "a Daddy," with a perfectly round head, wide-spaced eyes and a curvy smile.  He's getting smarter every minute, taking it all in and putting it all together.  He'll be playing Royal Rummy in no time.

With Sally, the change is even more profound, and I don't always recognize it, because she's physically so small, still (Walter is her height when he kneels) and, you know, she's My Baby.  But she's not at all a baby anymore, really.  She understands everything we say, not just the words, but the real meaning of what we say and how we say it, and what we're asking her to do.  She comprehends the world around her and how it works like a child does, not like a baby.

Two nights ago I was having trouble getting her to sleep and decided to try something new. I'd left her crying in her crib, walking out without talking to her/making eye contact/engaging ... this is a sleep training technique.  After she cried for awhile I went in and asked her if I could rub her back. "Yeah!" she said, catching her breath as her tears slowed down.  I started to lay her down in her crib and she screamed "No!" and stomped her feet. "Sally, it's Ok." I said. "It's just bedtime. You're safe, and we love you.  You're in your nice bed, with your baby doll and your nice warm blankie. If you lie down, I can tuck you in and rub your back a little bit.  Can you lie down on your belly for me?" I patted the pillow with my hand.  She thought about it, standing and clutching the crib rail, looking down occasionally at the pillow.  I patted the pillow again.  She decided to do it.  She let go of the side of the crib and lay down on her belly with her head on the pillow.  I covered her with the blanket and she snuggled in, smiling.  I started to rub her back and she popped her head up and said, "Itsy!"  What a good idea!  I sang, "The itsy bitsy spider" while doing the actions for the song on her back, and she loved it, snuggling under the cover and smiling and giggling a little.  When I finished, she asked me to do it again, and I said, "OK, I'll do it one more time. But then I am going to leave your room, and you are going to go to sleep."  She nodded.  I sang the song and sent the spider up and down her back. Then I ran my fingers through her her hair, said, "Goodnight, I love you!" and left. Her eyes were wide open, she was smiling; she did not cry.  It was a miracle!

We remember to explain things to Walter; we don't always do that for Sally.  But we need to, now, because she's ready for it. She's listening and learning and reasoning her way through the world at an alarmingly sophisticated level.  She wants us to try reasoning with her--if she chooses to be unreasonable, then fine: at least we gave her the choice.

Last night Sally skipped her "right after daycare" nursing and had a full night of playing and mischief-making.  By the time she looked at me and said, "Mo?" we both knew she was asking for bedtime, too.  "Nigh nigh?" I asked.  "Nigh nigh" she said, smiling, relieved. We nursed, and I let her linger there, until she fell heavy asleep in my arms.  How many more nights like this? I don't know, so I held onto her for awhile and she started to snore. I put her down in her crib and her snores didn't miss a beat.  Two nights ago, she was making independent sleep choices.  Last night, she was my baby again.  But of course, she is both.

We're all the cusp of things, these days.  We are not quite there yet but also there already.  Children have an innate, embodied understanding of eschatology.  The mysteries of the faith are made momentarily clear in them: these little miracles, these incarnations.  So, maybe Jesus does want Walter to use the potty.

He will (has been, is, and ever shall) be so happy!