My Little Imagineers (For the Record, I Prefer Bennett’s Ride)

TowerOfTerrorBennett: “Daddy, when I grow up, I’m going to build a ride for Disney World.”

Me: “That’s great. What kind of ride?”

Bennett: “It’ll be for babies.”

Me: “Good idea. They don’t have a lot of rides for babies. And what will it be?”

Bennett: “A Tower of Terror.”

Me: “Hmm… OK. Well, what are you going to call it?”

Bennett: “The Baby Tower of Terror.”

Me: “How is it going to be different from the regular Tower of Terror?”

Bennett: “It’s not.”

Me: “It’ll be just as tall?”

Bennett: “Yup!”

Me: “And just as dark?”

Bennett: “Yup!”

Me: “Don’t you think babies will be scared?”

Bennett: “Nope, because it’s for babies.”

minniemouseSutton: “I’m going to make a ride called Minnie’s Fashion Bow Ride.”

Me: “What happens in your ride?”

Sutton: “You ride in a bow and you see all of Minnie’s bows and beautiful dresses.”

Me: “How long does this ride last?”

Sutton: “15 or 20 hours.”

2012, Our Moving Year

Just over a year ago, my family was homeless. Okay, so it wasn’t in the sleeping-outdoors, panhandling-for-change sense of the word, but technically, we were without a place to live. We’d packed up our West Hollywood condo, and everything we owned was traveling through parts of the country we ourselves had mostly never seen.

Other than our decision to have kids, it was the biggest, scariest choice we’d ever made, but it seemed like the right thing to do for our family.

We spent the holidays with Drew’s parents and siblings in upstate New York, then I came down to meet the movers and start unpacking our stuff. Each item was tagged with a number, so it was easy to see exactly how much junk Drew and I had jointly amassed in our years on the West Coast. The highest number was roughly equal to my score on the SAT verbal section. (Granted, math was my forte.) Three days later, with only about 3 or 4 boxes unpacked, I opened the door to Drew and the kids, all of whom were seeing our new home for the first time.

That was one year ago today, January 1, 2012.

It’s nice to ring in this year with some stability, because the last one started off so full of uncertainty. Would we like it here? Was this the right thing for the kids? Would we ever get unpacked?

I wish I could say I had definitive replies to those questions, but the only one I can answer for sure is the last one — no.

Earlier today, we sat down with the kids and looked through some pictures of our last days in California and our first days in New York. The differences kind of surprised us, as in this image of the moving truck:

movingtruckThey’re crawling! That may not shock you as much as it does me, but in my memory, the last time my kids crawled was a hundred years ago. In actuality, it was just one year, or, according to the Mayan calendar, a mere 355 days followed by a timeless void.

It took me a minute before I could remember the moment. They knew how to walk by then, but the rickety ramp was a little too unsteady for then. Just to be safe, they got down on all fours. As we got ready to leave our past behind, the kids gave us one last glimpse of their infancy.

Confidence in walking ability wasn’t the only thing our family gained in 2012. We made some amazing new friends, reconnected with some old friends and spent wonderful times with our East Coast family (by which I mean our actual families, not the loose network of Bell Biv DeVoe-affiliated artists popular in the early 90s). The kids also made new friends, they learned about 10,000 new words (only 1 or 2 of which we’d prefer they hadn’t), caught a dozen or two kiddie viruses and started school.

Sometimes, I’m overwhelmed at how happy I am in our new home. Other times, I’ve overcome with grief at the lives and the friends we left behind. I’ll ask my kids if they remember someone from our old life, and they’ll just stare back at me blankly. Los Angeles is a blur to them, and soon, it’ll be nothing but a series of pictures their dads show them when they’re in the mood to look back and reflect.

Browsing through at the photos, I admit, I got a bit choked up. As for Drew, he sobbed uncontrollably and had to leave the room. So the big question facing us now, at the start of 2013, is pretty obvious: did we make the right choice?

I’ve asked myself that at least once on each of the last 365 days, and I sat down to write this post determined to address it. Once again, though, I’m not sure it has an answer. There’s no way of knowing what this last year would’ve been like if we hadn’t moved. All I know for sure is that none of these things would’ve happened:

bennetttrain suttonrainbow grandcentral throwingleaves suttongardenWe would’ve made a completely different set of memories, some incredible, some undoubtedly sad. I wouldn’t have any of these pictures to treasure, but there would be a different set, one I probably would’ve loved just as much. And I’ll never know what they might’ve looked like.

That’s because changing the setting may change some things, but it doesn’t completely alter a story. Wherever we put ourselves, we’re headed forward on a similar trajectory through an uncertain future. Here or there, New York or LA, we’re still us. The same people and the same family.

We end one year tentatively crawling, and the next, it seems like we’ve been walking forever.

Ultimate Parenting Smackdown! Why the Anti-Time Out People are Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

Supernanny, Jo Frost

I’ll admit that 90% of my parenting philosophy comes from Supernanny, because watching a reality TV show is easier than reading a book or taking a class, and you get to look at cute kids acting like animals, which is always fun. What I love about the show is that Jo Frost, the Supernanny, only has about 3 techniques, which work 100% of the time and turn even the nastiest little monsters into complete angels with only four commercial breaks in between.

Sign me up!

I’ve since learned that everything the Supernanny advocates is a tried-and-true parenting method, like Ferberizing, but she doesn’t use the real terms so it seems like she came up with them herself. Oh, those clever Brits!

One thing Jo does in every single episode is give Time Outs. She puts an adorably British twist on it, sending kids to “the naughty ____” [chair/step/Barcolounger]. But it’s a time out. The kid does a bad thing, you make them sit still for a bit, then you all move on with your lives.

MonopolyIt makes sense. I mean, that’s the world we live in, right? Commit a crime, do the time. Scare them straight. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

That’s what happens to grown-ups, after all. You do a bad thing and we punish you by making you go away for a while. First-degree murder gets you 20 to life. Raiding the cookie jar gets you one minute for every year old you are. Sounds fair to me.

Or so I thought. It turns out there’s a whole anti-Time Out movement that wants me to feel guilty for being so barbaric and heartless.

Well, fine. I’ll do what I do any time someone criticizes my parenting skills. I’ll listen closely to their arguments, ponder them calmly and rationally, then shoot them down one by one.

It’s time to play Ultimate Parenting Smackdown! Hit me with your best shots, anti-Time Out people. I’m ready for you!

ARGUMENT: The child is only acting out because his needs aren’t being met.

Which need are we talking about here? The need to beat the shit out of his sister? (For the record, my kids rarely hit each other, so I must be doing something right.)

Most of the arguments in my house happen when one kid wants the other kid’s toy. I calmly give them a list of options — ask for a turn, find another toy, come up with a way to play together — and once in a while, one of those methods actually works. More often, they just grab the toy and run. That’s when they get a time out.

I think some people confuse needs with wants. Most kids want everything, all the time. Any rational parent is going to push back. What if I got mugged by a junkie? Would you tell me not to call the police? Or would that fail to address the criminal’s need for crack?

You want to talk about needs? Let’s talk about my need for peace and quiet. When my kid’s need to yank the cat keyboard from her brother’s hands infringes on that, then my need trumps hers.

ARGUMENT: You’re treating the symptom, not the underlying cause.

When I have a cold, I take cough medicine. It doesn’t make the cold go away, but it eases my discomfort for a bit, and that’s all I expect it to do.

Putting a kid in a time out may not teach them never to misbehave again, but it keeps them quiet for a few minutes, and sometimes, that’s good enough.

Kids do bad things — always have, always will. It’s natural, it’s healthy. They’re testing their boundaries — and my patience. You have a method that makes a toddler never want to take a toy away from another kid, ever? Great, I’d love to hear it. Until then, I’ll take the 3 minutes of silence as the next best thing.

ARGUMENT: Kids can’t understand consequences until they’re 4 or 5 years old.

Most kids can’t read until they’re 4 or 5 either, so should I not allow my children access to books? Should I not teach them how to spell their name or that “J” says “juh”? Trust me, if I put them in enough time outs, they’ll start to make the correlation way ahead of whenever a psychologist thinks they’re able. And won’t I be proud!

Nobody ever says of a violin prodigy, “Man, their parents must be so cruel, shoving that instrument into their hands at such a young age and forcing them to practice.” You just enjoy the music and the cuteness, right?

Well, I’m creating discipline prodigies, so sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labor, world. You’re welcome.

ARGUMENT: Redirecting is a more effective method of curtailing bad behavior.

Some people say that the best way to handle bad behavior is to remove the child from the activity and get them interested in something else. It’s certainly quicker than forcing everyone through the several-minute ordeal (those of you without kids, trust me: every minute feels like an eternity) of a time out.

Really? Ignoring the problem is your solution? Forget “redirecting”. This is avoidance. And since when is that a psychologically healthy way of dealing with a problem?

What’s wrong with telling a kid he did something bad? What message is he going to get if I redirect him instead? “Hey, I saw you hit your sister. Wanna come over here and play with my iPad?”

chair, time out

Misbehave in our house, and you’ll get… The Chair!!!

ARGUMENT: You’re withholding love from your child in order to teach them a lesson.

Damn right I am. They’re screaming their heads off and driving me nuts. What’s the appropriate amount of love to show them at that moment? Once they’ve calmed down and done their time on the chair, I always tell them that I love them and I think they’re good kids, but that [x] behavior was unacceptable.

Don’t worry. My kids get plenty of love from me, and they’re smart enough to realize (or they will be eventually) that it’s love that makes me sentence them to time outs.

I’m not claiming that time outs are perfect or even perfectly effective, but as a parent, I need to do something to keep my kids off the path to hoodlumhood. So until someone comes up with a cure for childhood misbehavior, I’m sticking with them.

******

I always encourage my kids to share, so don’t think you’re off the hook either. If you liked this post, I hope you’ll use those buttons below to post it to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Digg or whatever other service you use. And if you haven’t yet, please show your support for the blog by liking me on Facebook, following me on Twitter or subscribing in the little box on the top of the right column of this page. Then, in the future, you can skip these little post-asterisk messages. Okay, time out’s over. You know I love you, right?

9 Incredibly Uncomfortable Yet Absolutely Essential Questions to Ask Potential Surrogates

Cover of "Vacancy"

This is the latest in a series of informational posts I’ve been doing on the gestational surrogacy process. This is for those of you who might be where I was about 5 years ago, weighing the options you have for becoming a parent… or for those who are merely curious about the process. This time, I’m sharing my advice on what questions you need to ask your surrogate before deciding if you’re a good match.

To the rest of you, I apologize. More peepee poopoo jokes next time, I promise.

Meeting with a potential surrogate is like the most awkward first date imaginable. You’re face-to-face with a woman you barely know, and both of you spend most of the time talking about making a baby together. Talk about rushing things.

There are probably a million things you want — and need — to know. I’ve seen some websites that suggest you approach your surrogate with a massive checklist of questions, many of which are not exactly subtle, like:

“Do you smoke?”

“Are you sexually active?”

“What were the results of your last pap smear?”

Sure, those are great things to ask… if you want the surrogate to throw a drink in your face and slap an instant “No Vacancy” sign on her womb.

Remember, this isn’t a job interview. She can reject you, too, and if you treat her like an employee or a menial laborer, she probably should.

Don’t worry, if there are any red flags, they’ll turn up in her medical and psychological exams, and you’ll be made aware of them by a professional, neutral third party.

When you sit down face-to-face with a potential gestational carrier, try to empathize with what she’s going through. After a huge amount of deliberation and soul searching, she’s decided to do something incredibly generous, terrifically inconvenient, and more than a tiny bit risky, for a virtual stranger. She’s nervous to meet that stranger, but also a bit thrilled.

Then you come in and ask about her pap smears.

So what should you discuss in your first meeting? First and foremost, it’s time to take the mystery out of your relationship and just get to know each other. If things go well, you’ll be creating a life together.

That being said, it’s not exactly a first date. You need to check your compatibility on some pretty weighty matters.

If you’re working with an agency, much of this subject matter will be covered by them, but if not, these are the questions you need to ask, in increasing order of unpleasantness.

1. What made you want to be a surrogate?

No one’s going to reply, “I need the money,” and if they do, you should probably run away as fast as you can. Sure, the money is a nice perk, but with all a surrogate goes through, she’s going to earn that cash, and it is a limited sum. No one’s getting rich as a gestational surrogate, so it’s a safe bet she has bigger motives.

Our surrogate heard a report about gestational surrogacy on the radio when she was 19, and it made her cry. She turned to her mother and said, “Someday, I’m going to do that for someone.” Once she’d completed her own family, she googled surrogacy agencies, and that’s how she was eventually paired with us. It was such a sweet story, and it told us so much about who she was as a person.

Raising this basic topic is a great way to get to know your surrogate and to show her that you appreciate the sacrifice she’d be making on your behalf.

2. What were your other pregnancies like?

Again, the medical exam will clue you in to any relevant technical info, so try to keep this as light as possible. How bad did her babies kick? Did she get morning sickness? You may not know very much about the surrogate at this point, but you know she’s been pregnant before (at least in most cases, since most gestational carriers have a proven history of successful pregnancies).

You, on the other hand, in all likelihood have never been and never will be pregnant. Show some curiosity and empathy by asking her to describe exactly what she’d be going through for your benefit. This is also a great way to show you appreciate the sacrifice she’ll be making on your behalf.

And if you find out pregnancy makes her crave pickles and ice cream, file that away. Someday, when she’s carrying your child, you’ll know just what to put in her care package.

3. How do your friends and family feel about you being a surrogate?

Surrogacy is physically and emotionally demanding, and no one can do it alone. Make sure she has a good support system, people who care about her who appreciate what an amazing thing she’s doing. If she’s religious, it’s very helpful if her spiritual leader is on her side as well.

This is especially important for gay intended parents. If your surrogate has a homophobic husband or goes to a gay-unfriendly church, you’re not off to a good start. Someday soon, she might find herself at the Wal-Mart in her tiny town when a woman comes up, points at her belly and says, “Aww, lucky you!” She’ll have to reply, “Oh, he’s not mine. I’m having this baby for George and Steven.” Is she ready for whatever may come next?

Let her know what kind of homophobia you’ve faced and how you’ve persevered. It can be very difficult for a (most likely) straight woman to willingly expose herself to homophobia, but that’s what she’ll be doing by having a baby for a gay couple.

One surrogate my partner and I met with had previously carried a baby for a gay couple, and she hadn’t encountered any resistance, so we knew she’d be fine this time around as well.

4. Are you comfortable with me/us being in doctor’s appointments and the delivery room?

Sorry, guys, when you came out of the closet, you probably thought you were exempt from discussing (and possibly seeing) ladyparts. Not any more. Obviously, let the surrogate know that you’ll respect her privacy as much as possible. But one of the main benefits of having a baby with a surrogate is being able to participate in all the exciting prenatal moments, like finding out the baby’s sex or seeing him or her for the first time on a sonogram monitor.

Most surrogates will fully anticipate and welcome your participation in the process, but raising the issue in a polite and respectful manner will set the right tone for when those intimate moments inevitably arise.

5. What kind of communication would you like to maintain after the birth?

There’s no correct answer to this. Some surrogates and intended parents want to stay in close touch. Others might want to be your Facebook friend so they can see pictures of your kids growing up. Still others may be content merely to get a holiday card every December. As long as both parties are on the same page, anything can work.

My advice is to offer up a safe but minimal amount of contact. If you and your surrogate hit it off (as we did with ours), you can always have more contact than you planned.

It’s important to reiterate that your surrogate will have no legal rights to your child. Once your baby is born, you are well within your rights to cut off all contact with the surrogate and never see her again. I’d imagine that kind of clean break only really happens in extreme circumstances. Most people and their surrogates form a bond through the process and want to stay in touch afterward.

Once your child is old enough to understand how he or she came into the world, they’ll likely be curious about who their surrogate was, so it helps if you’ve kept up the relationship.

6. How many fetuses are you willing to carry?

My partner and I were very lucky to have twins with our surrogate, but it made the pregnancy considerably harder on her. She was confined to bed rest for most of the third trimester and there were a few scares where we thought she might be miscarrying one or both of the fetuses, which meant some late-night trips to the emergency room.

Thankfully, everything worked out okay for us, but the more fetuses involved in your pregnancy, the higher the risks. A woman carrying triplets is almost always put on bed rest. It’s not surprising then that many surrogates limit the number of babies they’re willing to carry to one or two.

If you were hoping for octuplets, in other words, you’re out of luck.

7. Would you be willing to undergo a selective reduction?

Here’s where the questions start to get really dicey.

Even if your surrogate only wants to carry one baby and you only want to have one kid, you may still want to transfer multiple embryos to increase the odds that one of them attaches.

So what happens if your surrogate becomes pregnant with two or three embryos? In that case, she may undergo a selective reduction, where excess embryos are removed from her uterus at a very early stage, leaving only the number of babies you’re willing to have.

We interviewed a surrogate who had undergone this procedure with a previous pregnancy and, for various reasons, didn’t want to go through it again. She was asking that we not transfer more than two embryos, so she could be mostly assured she wouldn’t have to carry more than twins.

Some IPs plan to transfer as many embryos as they can, then reduce down to just one or two if too many of them take. That’s fine if the surrogate agrees to it, but not everyone will be comfortable with that.

This is obviously a very tricky ethical situation, so for everyone’s benefit, it’s important to make sure you’re on the same page.

8. If we were to decide, due to complications with the fetus, to terminate the pregnancy, would you be willing to do so?

You and the surrogate are both entering into this agreement with the same goal: to make a baby. Neither of you wants to think about terminating a pregnancy, because that goes against the very reason you’ve come together.

However, everyone knows that things do sometimes go wrong, and the baby will be yours, not hers, so if there are complications and you become concerned with what your child’s quality of life would be, it should be your call to make.

There are people — surrogates and intended parents alike — who would never terminate a pregnancy under any circumstances. That’s fine, of course, but if you feel that way, it’s good to have a surrogate who would defer to your judgment in the case that your feelings change.

Again, no one wants to think about the worst case scenario. You both want a healthy baby. So bring this up now, and then forget about it. Hopefully, it won’t end up being an issue.

9. What concerns do you have about us or this process?

You never know what your surrogate may be thinking or how you may come across to her. She might have a special request that’s very important to her or a fear she’s working to get over.

Our surrogate had two requests: One, she wanted an epidural, because she went without one when her son was born and didn’t want to do that again. And two, she wanted to make sure that she wouldn’t be handed the baby in the delivery room. When doctors first handed her her son, that’s when she bonded with him. To make sure to establish the right boundaries, she didn’t want to see the baby until later on, when she was in the recovery room.

Let her know that her concerns are important to you, and in case she does have a vastly different idea of how the birth should go, it’s better to find out now rather than a trimester or two into the pregnancy.

 

Hopefully, you’ll find plenty of common ground with your surrogate on these topics, because once you’ve discussed them and agreed about the important things, you’ve earned the right to never discuss them again. In all likelihood, you won’t have to, and now that you’ve gotten past the tough stuff, you can talk about things that don’t really matter: what her favorite sports teams or TV shows are, what kind of sense of humor she has and what she thinks of the baby names you’ve picked out.

Then, finally, you’ll know for sure if you’ve found “The One.”

Our Spooky Town

Only a few days after we moved into our new home last January, we were driving on the main highway, and we passed by a hideous warehouse-type store that was painted a dull, cheap shade of orange.

“What’s that?” Sutton asked.

“Um… that’s Spookytown.”

That’s what the sign out front said, though instead of o’s in the word “Spooky”, there were two fiery red demon eyes.  If I thought the name might scare my kids, I was dead wrong.

“Oooh, can we go there?” Sutton pleaded.

“No, it’s only open around Halloween.”

She brought up Spookytown constantly — whenever we passed by it, whenever the subject of Halloween came up, and sometimes completely unprompted.  “Next Halloween, we’ll go to Spookytown!” she announced.  “I won’t be scared, because it’s just pretend.”

She was simultaneously horrified and fascinated.  At two years old and change, scary is supposed to be simple.  If something’s scary, you stay away from it.  But here, there was this store that sold nothing but scary stuff, and people went there ON PURPOSE.  My curious little girl was dying to learn more.

As someone who’s never much liked Halloween, it’s taken me some adjustment having a daughter who’s obsessed with it.  She brings it up every single day, all year round — more than Christmas, more than her birthday.  The topics range from what her costume will be to the character traits of different types of monsters like vampires, ghosts and wolfmen to, of course, Spookytown.

We drove past that deserted eyesore for months, and every time, it launched a conversation.  Then one day, it was gone.  Spookytown disappeared, and overnight, a tile store moved in.  They slapped on a fresh coat of paint, installed a new sign and dismantled the demon eyes.

Sutton was crushed — and Halloween was only getting closer.  “We’ll find another Spookytown,” we assured her.

For months, she lived with the uncertainty of not knowing where her October scares would come from.  Drew and I know that Halloween stores are the bad pennies of retail.  You can always count on one showing up again.  Sutton was forced to take our word for it.

Then, in late September, there it was, a quarter of a mile up the road from the old Spookytown.  New Spookytown.  The second we saw it, Drew jerked the steering wheel toward the parking lot and the tires screeched cartoonishly as we skidded up to the entrance.

It was, as expected, a shithole.

There were cheap packaged costumes, cheap overpriced decorations, and a display of animatronic ghouls in a decorative graveyard.  Even though the store had just opened, only half of them seemed to moan on cue.

The kids loved it.

The way they ran from the Smurf costumes to the zombie makeup rack, shrieking at full dog-whistle pitch, it was like they were in Disneyland.

Neither of them could make up their minds what costumes they wanted to wear, so we bought them each three different ones over the last month.  I know, we’re suckers, but we’ve gotten plenty of use out of them with all the costume parades we’ve had up and down the hallway of our house.

As we counted down the days to Halloween, reports started coming in of an unprecedented storm headed directly for us.  Drew and I gathered candles and filled the bathtub with water, while the kids played quietly with their toys and talked about candy.

“Why did you take down the pumpkin in the front yard?” Bennett asked.

“Because the Frankenstorm is coming,” I said.

It seemed like a joke, like the kind of twisted boogeyman parents make up to scare kids.  A Frankenstorm.  But this wasn’t something out of Spookytown.  It was real, and Drew and I were genuinely scared.

Somehow, the storm that tore apart most of our geographic area left us untouched.  The lights flickered a few times, but we never lost power.  By Halloween morning, everything seemed normal.  I put the kids in their costumes and herded them to the car.

“Who wants to go to Spookytown?” I asked.  They went nuts.

It seemed like a simple plan.  We’d been to Spookytown half a dozen times over the last few weeks.  Why not now?  I made a right turn off our street and almost immediately had to hit the brakes.  Up ahead, the road was blocked by a giant tree.

It was just sitting there.  No one was even trying to remove it.  I turned down a different street, and I soon realized why that fallen tree wasn’t a priority.  There were downed trees everywhere, practically one every block.  I saw one that had landed on the roof of a house, but mostly they were in the streets.  It was like driving in a maze, constantly having to turn around and find a different path.

The ten minute drive to Spookytown took forty-five minutes, even with almost no traffic on the roads.  When we pulled into the parking lot, it was eerily empty.  A man at the door told us that the store had no power.  It was their biggest day of the year — in fact, the only day that really mattered — and they weren’t sure if they’d even be able to open.

I took the kids instead to the supermarket.  It was open, but barely functional.  The shelves had yet to be restocked from the pre-storm hysteria.  The freezers were cordoned off with police tape, and what remained in the refrigerated cases was marked “Not for sale”.  Employees whose job was to fill up the shelves were instead spending the morning throwing things away.  Clearly, they had lost power at one point, and all the perishables had perished.

So this was our Halloween.  One thing was for sure: it delivered on spookiness.

The only bright side was that my kids didn’t have many past Halloweens to compare this to.  For all they knew, this was a kick-ass All Hallow’s Eve.  We decided that our afternoon would be spent watching Halloween specials on TV and having a pizza party.  You know, typical Halloween stuff.

Then, the doorbell rang.  It was Cinderella.  She had tiny glass slippers and a school jacket draped over her light blue ball gown.  Her tiny arms spread open the mouth of a shopping bag full of fun sized candies.

In my 17 years in Los Angeles, living in apartments and condos with security codes, I’d never had a single trick-or-treater come to my door.  This was the first time I’d given candy to a little kid in a costume since I was a kid myself.

I thought Halloween had been canceled, but when I looked up and down my block, I saw more of them.  Harry Potters and Spider-Men and, for some weird reason, a lot of Crayola crayons.  (Seriously, what the hell?  Is there a factory nearby?)

“Drew!” I shouted.  “Trick-or-treaters!  Tons of them!”

It was like the sappy final reel of a Christmas movie, where the protagonist loses his last bit of holiday spirit only to glance out the window and see snow falling or Scrooge hoisting a roast goose.

A Halloween miracle.

We turned off Dora’s Halloween episode and raced the kids to the door.  “You guys want to go trick-or-treating?” we asked.

“YEAH!!!!”

It was the best Halloween ever.

A Tale of Two Flower Girls

Bennett, in his favorite outfit

After two previous posts, I wasn’t planning on writing yet again about my son’s fondness for wearing dresses.  Most of the time, he’d rather wear his Thomas the Train t-shirt and jeans, but occasionally, he asks to wear something out of his sister’s closet.  None of us makes a big deal about it, except maybe his sister, who likes to gush about what a beautiful princess he makes.

But this was a very special dress… and a very special day.

Drew’s brother Peter was getting married.  Drew and his other brother were the Best Men, Sutton was a flower girl and Bennett was a ring bearer.

At least, that was the plan.

Naturally, we made a big deal about the flower girl dress, at the risk of causing Sutton to spontaneously combust with glee.  It had a sash, Aunt Ali had picked it out personally and it was so special it could only be worn on that one magical day.  It wasn’t white, as Sutton would remind us over and over.  It was “cream-colored.”

We looked at pictures of the dress online almost daily until it finally arrived, when Sutton began asking us every ten minutes if we would take it out so she could look at it.

As with most formal occasions, men’s fashion was an afterthought.  Bennett would wear a white shirt, dark pants and suspenders, which we could shop for and purchase at our convenience.

We shouldn’t have been surprised when Bennett announced that he was going to be a flower girl, too.  He never showed much interest in the dress itself, never stood at the closet door and gawked at it with his sister, but he insisted that on the wedding day, he was going to wear it.

His uncle and aunt-to-be assured us that they didn’t care what he wore or what he carried down the aisle, just as long as he was a part of their big day.

This was months ago, and Drew and I had to make the call.  The flower girl dress was expensive, and it needed to be ordered way ahead of time.  Would we have a ring bearer in the family… or two flower girls?

Those of you who have never been parents of a three-year-old need to know one thing:

You can’t plan for a kid’s desires five minutes in advance, let alone five months.

Trust me, I live with this kid.  One moment, he might ask very sweetly for me to play “Part of Me” by Katy Perry, but 22 seconds later, once I’ve found it on my iPod and hooked it up to the speakers, he’s furious that we’re not listening to Maroon 5.

Who knew what he would really want to do on the wedding day, when he saw the other ring bearers in their white shirts and suspenders?  Would he do a 180 on us and refuse to go down the aisle in the cream-colored gown?

OK, I’ll admit we also considered the fact that a little boy in a dress was going to steal some of the spotlight from the bride.  If our son identified as a girl and this were a matter of acknowledging his gender identity, that would’ve been different.  But it seemed like it was more the case of a little boy who was jealous of his sister.  We bought him the suspenders.

Occasionally over the next few months, the subject of the wedding would come up, and we’d mention that Bennett was going to be a ring bearer.  “Nope!” he’d say.  “I’m a flower girl!”  Then, we’d quickly change the subject.

This past weekend, we went to Philadelphia for the wedding.  The other kids in the wedding party weren’t at the rehearsal, and Bennett continued to insist that, during the ceremony, he would be spreading rose petals down the aisle.  We knew we had blown it.  Bad call.  The next day, we’d have one very hurt, angry little boy on our hands.

The morning of the wedding, we met up with one of the other ring bearers.  Bennett had actually had a play date with him a while back, during the bridal shower.  “You remember Little Pete?” I asked him.

“Yes,” Bennett said.  “I played with his trains.”

When it came time to put on his ring bearer outfit, Bennett didn’t put up much of a fight.  He thought Sutton looked pretty in her dress, and he beamed when we told him how handsome he was.

We breathed a sigh of relief.  We had made the right call.

Sutton did an amazing job as flower girl, and Bennett and Little Pete were top-notch ring bearers.

“I’m so proud of you,” I told Bennett after the ceremony.  “Did you like Little Pete?”

“Yes,” Bennett said.  “When I grow up, I’m going to marry him.”

I smiled at my kid and said, “Bennett, nothing would make me prouder.”

We Were On “The Today Show”

I never planned to put my kids on camera.  I mean, my cameras, sure.  I have about 10 bajillion hours of video of them doing completely mundane things like drooling or singing that new Taylor Swift song, which in my son’s interpretation, goes like this:

“We are never ever ever, never ever ever, never ever ever, never ever ever, never ever ever, NEVER EVER EVER, NEVER EVER EVER… WE ARE NEVER EVER EVER…”

That’s it, over and over.  It never ends.  Never ever ever.

You can see why I keep these things to myself.

On the other hand, I feel a kind of parental duty to educate people about my family, to make the world a better, more understanding place for my kids, and of course, other kids in nontraditional families.

So when my friend Robin Sindler, who’s smart and talented and amazing and just happens to be a producer for The Today Show, came to me and asked if she could shoot a segment on our family, I thought about it for a bit and then said yes.

Then Drew said no.

Then, Robin said she would fly Susie down for an interview, meaning we’d get to spend a few days with her and her daughter, Grace.

We talked about it a lot, and eventually Drew agreed that if we were ever going to do something like this, we’d want to do it with someone we trust, on a show we respect, so our lives don’t get Jerry Springer-ized or used as a jumping-off point for some loudmouthed debate.

The Susie visit was a bonus, and of course, no story about my family would be complete unless it adequately praised Susie for her gift to us.

A few days later, Robin arrived with a small (and terrific) crew, and Drew and I slogged through what was probably our worst day of parenting ever.  We said things like, “Careful with Daddy’s mic pack!”  “Stay on the swing and keep smiling!”  And, “If you can just make it through one more bit of b-roll, we’ll have McDonald’s for lunch.”  We made the kids sit in the basement watching Beauty & The Beast while we shot our interview.  When Grace started crying, we asked Susie to take her for a walk so it wouldn’t ruin our audio.

We filmed at our swim class.  Usually, Drew’s at work for swim class, and I’m forced to sit with the other parents in a galley area so I don’t distract the kids.  For the camera crew, they let us sit at the edge of the pool, with our feet in the water.  The kids got to swim up to us and show us their moves, while a camera pushed in on their dripping wet faces.  They felt like movie stars.

It reminded me of all the reasons I never wanted our kids to be child actors.  “This is just for one day,” I kept reminding Drew.

I knew it had made an impression a couple of weeks later when we were reading one of my kids’ books.  (I think it was a Curious George book, but I can’t seem to find it now.)  There was a picture of a camera crew, including a woman who was standing in the back, taking notes on a small pad.  Sutton pointed at her and said, “That’s the producer!”

We had no idea how the piece would turn out or how many months would elapse before it would air.  It turned out it was only about three weeks.

I was terrified to watch it.  I didn’t want the kids to see it.  Drew had it on in his office, and he promised to call me afterward with his assessment.

“Go turn it on now,” he demanded.  “Sit and watch it with the kids.  It’s beautiful.”

So we did.  I backed up my Tivo and sat with the kids on the couch.

They were most excited to see their cousin Grace.  “Oh, she’s so cute!” they squealed.  I think they’re so used to seeing videos of themselves that they didn’t see this as anything special.  When it was over, Sutton asked, “Now can we watch another show about us?”

I’ve heard from lots of people since this piece aired — friends who loved hearing the story for what was probably the millionth time, strangers who enjoyed hearing it for the first time.  Now that we’ve seen it, we have no regrets.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy it, too.  It may be the last time you see us on TV for a while.

Until I can figure out how to embed, you can click here to watch the segment.

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The 10 Biggest Secrets I Keep From My Kids

Hey guys, it’s me, Daddy, and I’m only writing this post because you can’t read, you don’t know what a blog is and because you’re still in that developmental sweet spot where you take everything I tell you at face value.

Suckers.

Your old man is full of secrets, things that could destroy my authority if you ever found out.  Here are 10 highly classified facts that I will take to my grave… or at least wait to tell you until you have kids of your own.

1.  TV is a reward for me, not you.

There’s a reason I never promise you TV for being good.  When you’re behaving, I don’t need to turn on the TV.  Overall, you guys are terrific company… but when you’re not, that’s when TV comes to my rescue.  Those 22 blissful minutes of Yo Gabba Gabba are my reward for getting through the crying, whining, fighting meltdown madness that’s become a recurring feature of your toddlerhood.

Here’s the big secret: if you want more TV, you should act out more.  You know how sometimes I’ll pop popcorn and we’ll have a “movie day”, where we get to watch all of Beauty & The Beast or Toy Story from beginning to end?

When that happens, you’ve been BAAAAAAAAAD.

You can never know this, of course, because that would encourage you to misbehave.  So I have to be clever about it.  I always make sure to calm you down first, so you don’t know that I’m only turning on the TV because I’m on the verge of tearing off your Tickle Me Elmo’s head with my teeth.

2.  While you’re napping, I shove my face full of chocolate chip cookies for two hours straight.

You don’t see me eat much, do you?  It’s not because I don’t require sustenance like every other human being, though if it adds to your sense that Daddy is some kind of awesome superhuman, I’m fine with that.  No, the real reason I never eat in front of you is because when you’re watching, I need to model good eating habits.  You think I like eating vegetables and chewing slowly?  Phooey!

I spend every moment in your presence suppressing my natural urge to shovel peanut butter M&Ms through my maw by the fistful.  When you’re asleep, oh boy, do I make up for lost time.  I practically funnel chocolate sauce directly down my throat.  I watch lots of TV, too, and I sit as close to the screen as I want.

3.  I fall for your crocodile tears about 90% of the time.

I don’t know whose side of the family it comes from, but I’d be willing to bet that you two have some Meryl Streep in your blood.  Your performances are unparalleled.  You are gripping emotional powerhouses, both of you, able to summon cascades of tears at will.  I feel like I should be tossing bouquets of flowers at your feet, or at least teaching you to act out Uncle Vanya so your talents can be put to good use.

Even when I’m sure you’re faking, I get sucked into the performance.  I want to give you that second cookie you’re demanding only because I don’t have an Oscar to hand over instead.

Seriously, I don’t know how you do it.  You cry over the most trivial things, but still, you get me to believe that nothing matters more in the world than you getting a turn with the “good” xylophone.

I don’t want to spoil you by always giving in, but I don’t want to stifle your theatrical gifts either.

Bravo, kids.  Brav.  O.

4.  I don’t know how we’re going to pay for your college.

I’m really grateful you guys have no concept of money, because if you knew what college costs versus how much money we have in the bank, you’d wake up crying at night even more than you already do.

Let’s put it in terms of Play-Doh.  If you add together all the various sources of Play-Doh at our disposal — the cans in the craft cabinet, the little mini tubs that came with the Cookie Monster Letter Lunch set, a few unopened packages we keep stashed in the closet for rainy days — it’s a comfortable amount.

Now picture all the Play-Doh in the world.  That’s what a year of college is going to cost by the time you guys are filling out your applications.  I’m not exaggerating.  Our Play-Doh supply would barely cover one semester of independent study credits at that college in Texas that gets all the oil subsidies.  We’re screwed.

I mean, sure, we have a few years.  We’ll keep stashing away Play-Doh in the meantime, but don’t get your hopes up.

5.  I find your speech impediments adorable.

I’ve written here before about how much I hate baby talk, and I stand by that.  Grownups trying to sound like kids are idiotic.  But secretly, I love hearing little kids try to sound like grownups, and failing.

I love Sutton’s slight lisp, and I get a kick out of the way Bennett drops his “S” from the start of words (“Daddy, ‘utton wants a ‘nack!”)  These things remind me, as you’re growing up, that you’re still going to be little kids for a while.

I know better than to encourage poor speech habits, of course.  I do the right thing, suppressing my smiles and correcting you gently, so you’ll learn to speak properly.  But secretly, whenever you mangle the English language, I’m thinking, “Aww!”

6.  Your other Grandpa, my dad, is dead.

Sorry, this one’s kind of a downer.  I’ve shown you pictures of my dad, and I’ve told you a bit about him, but I’m really grateful that you’re still too young to ask the big question: “How come we’ve never met him?”  To explain that, I’d have to tell you about death.  Then you’d figure out the really big secret, that daddies can die.

Ugh, I just can’t have that talk with you.  And it’s not just about you not being ready.  I’m not ready either.  I don’t know when I will be.

When we talk about your mystery Grandpa, I tell you the good things, and then I change the subject.  I know I won’t be able to get away with that forever, but for now, that’s the best plan I have.

Grandpa loved kids, by the way.  You would’ve had so much fun with him.

7.  “F#&%”, “S*@#”, A$$#@!&”.

You know that Madonna song we love to sing along to?  You’ve probably noticed how I always turn down the volume when M.I.A.’s rap part comes on.  Let’s just say there are a few vocabulary words which may come in handy later in life, but which I’m glad you haven’t picked up on just yet.

8.  I was an even pickier eater at your age than you are.

I spend way more energy than any sane person should trying to get you kids to eat things you don’t want to.  Even your junk food diet is limited.  C’mon, why can’t you see how awesome Taco Bell is?

Here’s the truth, though: If I’m always encouraging you to try new foods, it’s mostly because I don’t want you to end up like me.  I’m living proof you can live to the age of 14 eating nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and pretzels.

Sure, at some point my tastes got a bit more exotic (i.e., Taco Bell), but I’m hoping that, unlike me, you’ll have at least sampled each of the four food groups before you reach puberty.

9.  Someday, I’m going to go back to work.

I know you don’t understand work.  That’s why you’ll sometimes cry in the middle of the afternoon and demand to pick Daddy up at the train station, as if he’s just waiting there all day for us to swing by.

Work takes daddies away from their kids, that’s all you really grasp of the concept.  Well, this may come as a shock to you, but before you were born, I used to work, too.  Staying home with you is better than any job I’ve ever had, and it’s worth every sacrifice Daddy and I have had to make.  It’s not going to last forever, though.  In the future, you won’t need me as much, at least not as much as we’ll need the second income.

A few months ago, I was in the running for a job, one that would’ve been too good to pass up.  I’m not going to lie, I was excited about the prospect.  I was also heartbroken.  I imagined what it would be like to tell you I was going back to work, that you would now have two daddies you hardly ever saw.

Then you’d cry about how much you missed both of us, to a person we hired to take care of you all day.

10.  You guys are my best friends.

I used to think people who were BFFs with their kids were terrifically sad.  Now, I kind of get it.  No offense to any of my grown-up friends, but you’re way cooler than any of them.

Yes, I need adult conversation once in a while.  I need to talk about politics and celebrity scandals and last night’s Breaking Bad.  But in general, your reluctant, unfocused recounting of your school day is better than any of that.  Really?  Billy spilled his juice at snack time?  Tell me more!

Again, you can never know this, because the only thing sadder than you being my best friends would be if I were yours.  You don’t need a graying old doofus roughly 14 times your age as a buddy.  You need me as a parent.  My job isn’t to play trains with you and Billy after school, it’s to serve you juice… and to send Billy’s parents the cleaning bill when he spills it all over you.

F#&%in’ Billy.

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Teacher Conference

“Sutton and Bennett’s dad?  Hi.  We had a little biting incident today.”

“Oh no!  What happened?”

“Well, Sutton bit Bennett.  They were just playing around, but then she asked him to bite her back, and he broke the skin.”

“Oh, whew!  So they only hurt each other, not anyone else’s kid?”

“Oh yes.  They’ve never hurt the other kids, though Sutton has a habit of tackling all the boys and kissing them.”

“Great, so I have nothing to worry about then.”