The Beggar Battle Blog

I propped myself up on the couch, happily munching chips and dip when I heard footfalls on the stairs. Damn, I thought, as I stashed the chips and soda out of sight, no more chips until she’s gone. She entered quietly, busied herself about the room, flitting from one object to the other, until she laid her baby in its bassinet. “Baby need a blanket,” she said to me.

“Oh, better go get her one upstairs!” I answered, thinking about my next chip.

“I get a blanket” she said as she ran out of the room. I heard her clomping up the stairs and quickly picked up my chip bowl for a few more furtive bites.

I never thought it would come to this. I never thought I’d be the kind of parent who tiptoed around her kid – but I am. It’s not just the furtive eating. It’s all the things that I don’t do in front of Rose. All the ridiculous ways parents tiptoe around their kids – all the things I thought were ludicrous until I became a parent. Why would you go so far as to hide a snack from your kid? I used to think. Who’s in charge here? Aren’t YOU the parent? Shouldn’t YOU decide who eats what in front of whom?

But, like so many beliefs belied once I became the mommy, the question of “Who’s in charge?” wasn’t so simple. Rose does not rule this house. We just do a certain amount of tiptoeing because it yields a certain amount of peace. Take the furtive snacking, for example. Rose loves chips. If Rose sees a bowl of chips in my lap, it’s “I want a chip! Chip, Mommy, chip! Chip, chip. I want a chip!” And I’ll give her one. She’s allowed to eat them. But one crunch and it’s gone and then it’s, “I want more chip, Mommy. I want a chip. Chip, chip! Mommyyyy!” This chorus starts at the top of the bowl and continues through the last shard at the bottom. Ask yourself: Would it be possible for anyone to enjoy a bowl of chips like this? I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I am the adult and she’s the child and why not just discipline this behavior out of her and be done with it? Right?

The answer is complicated. Yes, I could reprimand her for begging for chips. Yes, I could refuse to feed her chips. Maybe I could put up with 30 minutes of crying every time I said no. The problem is that everything you do as a parent has multiple connotations. Here are a few: One, if I say no, I’m not sharing. Since we want to teach her to share, the lesson she learns if I refuse her chips is that we share some things but not others. Two, refusing would be denying her food. As a mom with deep-seated food issues, my goal is to ensure that my daughter doesn’t develop an eating disorder, so I don’t play food games with her. Three, as foodies, my husband and I encourage her to develop her palate. We wouldn’t do well with a kid who only ate macaroni and cheese. So if we pick and choose what foods she tries, we limit her experience and her enjoyment.

That’s not all, though. The biggest reason I don’t deny her chips from my plate is because the chip battle is one I choose not to fight. I pick my battles as a parent. Some are more important than others but the reason I’ve resurrected my childhood closet eating habit is because Rose is relentless. Let me clarify. Kids are relentless. They all are. Rose is just one example. If you don’t believe me, think about long childhood car trips and how many times you asked, “Are we there yet?”

If I denied Rose chips, I’d have to deny her everything I ate and I just do not have that kind of energy. If we fought the beggar battle every time I ate something we would never do anything else. We wouldn’t have time. The meltdowns would last hours, from the beginning of one snack to the end of the next. So if I eat chips in front of her I give her chips from the beginning of my bowl to the end. But if I want to eat in peace, I wait until someone else is home and I find someplace to eat in secret. And then and only then, can I truly relax and enjoy what I’m eating.

I know that everyone who has or remembers young children is nodding right now, saying “Yeah, I can relate,” and everyone who doesn’t is saying, “Oh please, how much more can she bow to that kid?” And that’s ok. Sometimes it seems like I bow to her but the thing is, she’s my kid and it’s my snack, and I have finally found a way to enjoy both.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas

I could have written a post about how great Christmas is, peace on Earth and all that, because I do, in part, believe that, but the reality is that most of us will spend Christmas with our families, acting out all of our unresolved issues, pushing each other’s buttons, counting the seconds until we can make a graceful exit. This story comes from the book I’m writing, and I wanted to post it for everyone whose Christmases fall short of their hopes and expectations.

I don’t go home for Christmas anymore. The last time I did, I drove with a friend in a blizzard from Washington, D.C., starting at rush hour. It took us four hours to get to the Maryland House rest stop, normally a one-hour drive. My friend called her parents and arranged for me to stay overnight in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Four hours later, we got there and went straight to bed. In the morning, the roads were clear so I set out for my parents’ house outside of New York City. I got there four hours later but let’s back up. In at least 10 phone conversations preceding my visit, I’d told my parents specifically that I wanted New York pizza on Christmas Eve. “Oh, sure,” they said. “We’ll get pizza.”

The minute I got to the house, my mother said, “I changed my mind. We’re having steak tonight.” I whined, “But you promised me pizza!” Let me explain. They have steak in D.C. As any transplant from the tri-state area can tell you, they do NOT have New York pizza in D.C. It was, and still is, a really big deal for me to have pizza whenever I am in New York. And since I had emphasized my desire relentlessly, I thought my parents understood. They did not understand or just didn’t care.

So my mom starts to cook the steaks. I announce that I’m calling for a pizza because I do not want steak. It’s 6:30 on Christmas Eve and I’m worried that all the pizza places are closed, but I find one and order and I do go out and get a pizza. She has not cooked the steak by the time I get back. Instead of saving the steak for another night, my mother decides that she and my father will eat it and proceeds to cook it like this: She takes two individual metal tins, the kind they serve an eggplant parmigiana in, and puts a steak in each. Then she sets them under the broiler. After she cooks them, she takes them out of the pans, having never intended to use the serving pans to serve them. Why didn’t she just use one pan? They both fit in one. It drives me crazy but I tell myself this is not my problem. I eat my pizza and my parents eat their steaks.

The next morning, I wake up and the only presents under the tree are the ones I put there myself. This sounds petty but it is Christmas morning and my parents are quite comfortable and they did ask me what gifts I wanted. So I ask if we’re going to open presents. My father says “Wait a minute, go upstairs,” like I’m seven, but I’m holding out hope so I do. When he calls me back downstairs there is a brown plastic grocery bag, twisted at the top, sitting under the tree. My father says “Merry Christmas!” and I open the bag. It’s a King James Bible and some cleaning solution for my Calphalon pots, neither of which are wrapped and both still stuck with price tags. And then he points out an envelope sitting on the branches. It’s a window envelope, torn at the top and taped back together. I open the envelope and there’s money in it. Merry Christmas. I am grateful for the presents and the money but would it have been even possible to expend less effort to make a nice Christmas? I drove 12 hours for this? I left the next day and vowed never to spend Christmas in New York again.

When I was a kid, Christmas was fun. My father would stay awake all night putting an elaborate toy together and Santa would get all the credit, but we wrapped presents and decorated the Christmas tree and on Christmas Day we’d either go to my mother’s family or they would come to us. The kids would run around and we’d play with our new toys, but all of the cousins my age were boys so if I got a doll or an easy bake oven I had to wait to play with it. We’d all have turkey or lamb and the grownups would sit around the table long after we were excused. As my mother’s family aged and my oldest cousin got her own house, we’d sometimes go over there but we eventually stopped seeing family on holidays altogether. My mom’s family stopped inviting us and my mother was too hurt to invite them. So our holidays turned into the Bellos family tradition of:

1. Do whatever you’re doing during the day. My father would be in the garage, my mother in the kitchen and I in my room;
2. Cook a turkey breast;
3. Call everyone to eat a silent meal around 4 p.m.;
4. Go back to what you were doing.

It’s my fault I was disappointed that Christmas. Why did I expect better? The truth is, I never gave up on expecting more from my family and I was always disappointed.

Now I’ve got the chance spend Christmas with the family I’ve chosen — my husband, my daughter — sometimes my in-laws and close friends. I push traditions on everyone. Last Christmas Eve, I read Rose the nativity story, followed by ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” then “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” just to give her some perspective. I’m not sure how much perspective a one-year-old can really get, but it doesn’t become a tradition unless it’s repeated and I had to start somewhere.

We open presents Christmas morning. Last year Rose didn’t know what Christmas was, but she knew she liked it. She opened the boxes with our help and then flitted from one toy to the next, burning all that pent-up winter energy until nap time, then I was able to make Christmas dinner. Our friends were supposed to visit from West Seattle, but we’d been snowed in for a week by then and since there are roughly two snowplows in the entire county, and three more in Seattle, the roads wouldn’t allow for travel so we postponed it until the following weekend. The day they came I made old school Greek lamb and orzo, and we ate and drank and were generally merry. No family, no strife, and no big story to tell.

My Christmases aren’t Norman Rockwell paintings but I do enjoy them now. And it was all about finding the right company. I hope that if you believe in Christmas and want to enjoy it, you’ll soon find the Christmas that makes you happy.

Change in Plans

Wanna make God laugh? Tell Him your plans. We did. For more than a year, we’ve been trying for a second child. When the old fashioned way didn’t work, we enlisted the “help” of a gynecologist. Since June, she’d been prescribing fertility drugs. Hope was just a side effect. Since we started trying, every time the test stick said no at the end of a cycle, I’d cry, then I’d think: Maybe it’s not right, and when I got the final answer I’d cry again. I’d cry on and off all day. Once Rose went down for her nap, I’d crawl into a fetal position on the bed and sob and ask God “WHY? Why can’t we have another baby??” Eventually I altered the plea:“Please just tell us what to do! I can’t take this anymore!”

Well, we finally got our message. We’d written off the gynecologist and gone to a fertility clinic where they took one look at my records and said my ovaries are shutting down. It was possible, the doctor said, to conceive with treatment, but we’d run a serious risk of birth defects and miscarriage. Finally a straight answer. How long was the other doctor going to string us along? I don’t appreciate all the pain she put me through. I’m quite bitter. But that’s another story. On to Plan B. Adoption.

As an adoptee and a parent of a well-adjusted two-year-old, I believe I’m well-qualified to adopt a kid. I thought my husband and I would breeze through the process. We had a plan. We’d adopt a toddler from foster care. A girl, so Rose could have a sister. A toddler so they’d be close in age. We’d get our kid quickly because there would be toddlers waiting for homes and we wouldn’t have go through the rigamarole of an international adoption.

So I went online and did some research. And from what I could find, it appears that there are no healthy kids under two available for adoption in the United States. The only kids I could find on public sites had severe physical and developmental disabilities. It takes a special kind of mom to raise those kids and I know myself. I’m not that mom. I’m not that strong.

Plan B: International adoption. Most of the adoptees from other countries are toddlers. Jackpot for us, right? Did some more research. Since we want a girl, I looked at China, because they have so many unwanted girls either. Each country has its own set of requirements for adoptive parents. China requires parents to be married five years if there is a history of divorce in the family. We have both been divorced. We’ll celebrate our third anniversary in February. Forget China. Ok, maybe other Asian countries don’t like girls. Check Vietnam. Program on hold. Korea. We’re too fat. On to Guatemala. I’m half Cuban, dark-skinned, and I speak rudimentary Spanish, so I figured a Latina kid would feel right at home with us. Program on hold. At 41, I’m too old to adopt a kid in several other countries, so I crossed them off the list. Our international adoption prospects looked pretty bleak– so bleak that I stopped looking and shut down the computer.

The next day I was revisiting my research and I came across an article: something like “The Myths about Domestic Adoption.” It said that parents are reluctant to sign up for a newborn because they’ve heard the wait is so long and they’re wary of the trend toward “open” adoptions. When my parents adopted me, all adoptions were “closed,” meaning there was no contact between the birth family and the adoptive family. Open adoptions allow varying degrees of contact according to each family’s comfort level. The article said that wait time for a newborn averages 12 months. If we wait 12 months from approval, assuming we’re approved, Rose will be about three and a half when we get the new baby. Not so bad. And 12 months is only three months longer than a pregnancy.

Lots of couples go the international route to ensure a closed adoption. I empathize with the desire for a closed adoption but I totally understand open adoption for the kid’s sake. I don’t now and never will know my birth parents. I have always felt like part of my identity was missing. I want my kid to know her whole story. As her parent, I’d be worried her mother would want her back someday, but that’s my fear and according to a strict cost-benefit analysis, the open adoption is worth any kid’s emotional health.

So now we’re on to Plan C. Adopting a newborn. I wasn’t expecting to deal with a helpless infant again but I do still melt when I see tiny babies. So we’ll lose a little sleep. It’ll be worth it. Bringing home a newborn will also provide a more “normal” introduction to a sibling for Rose. And we’ll get to name the baby! I picked out my girl names years ago. Rose is one and I want the chance to use the other.

If you ask God for patience, He’ll land you in a traffic jam. If you ask Him for acceptance, He’ll present you with the unacceptable. I never asked God for help with my compulsion to plan, but I did write about it. And this is what I got. One Supreme reader and three changes in life plans within a week. And who knows? Maybe more changes to come. Adoption is a journey and you never know what will happen next. But I’m learning how to quickly adapt and I’m a willing student because when I’m a mother of two, I’ll need that adaptability even more than I did this week.

Parenting in Moderation

“You talk to her like she’s an adult,” our friend commented, observing our parenting style.

“I guess we do,” I admitted, puzzled.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that comment. My cousin mentioned it during our visit and I’d heard it at least once before. When I hear it, I always agree to be polite, but in truth I don’t quite know what it means. How do you talk to someone like a child? Aside from trying not to swear, we don’t change our vernacular around Rose. Are we supposed to? We’re first time parents. We don’t know any better.

There must be a right way to talk to your kids, then, right? What do the other parents do? I wish I knew. When we were a couple, we wanted intelligence on other couples’ sex lives. “What’s normal?” we wondered. We read women’s magazines. We read men’s magazines. We found out. But now there’s a new question, and there’s no magazine that answers it. Parenting magazines are full of advice, tips and tricks, but when it comes to intel, they don’t even try. I guess for every hundred parents surveyed, there would be a hundred different answers. They can tell us what’s best, but how do we find out what’s normal?

It’s not just the adult speech comment that befuddles me. I also wonder what all the other moms do while their kid plays. Rose is an only child and she plays by herself, usually while I sit on my ass and watch TV. By the time I see her in the afternoon, she’s already played with the other kids at the babysitter’s and had her nap. When she wakes up, I make her a snack and then I’m pretty much done parenting until dinner. She comes to me when she wants a book read or wants me to play, but she mostly entertains herself. The other moms all say they’re so busy. What do they do all day? It’s not an insult. I believe they’re busy. But I’m sincerely concerned that they know something I don’t. Am I a bad mommy? What should I be doing that I’m not?

If I didn’t doubt myself already, I wouldn’t care. But I do. We’re not raising Rose in a vacuum, but our contact with other parents is limited. I work mornings, when all the mommies usually get together, so I don’t have the social network that the stay-at-homes do. And even then, I’m not sure they really talk about the nuts and bolts of parenting. When I do see the other moms, we talk about our kids and do some troubleshooting but we don’t go over methodology. I could read parenting books, but again the dilemma: There are zillions of books out there. Which one is best? There’s no way to know.

So how do I know if I’m doing it right? I tell myself that Rose is a happy, well-adjusted two-year-old, and that’s what counts. But I remember some family friends had a fourteen-year-old daughter who walked around fingering the tatters of the crib lining draped around her neck. “They always treated her like an adult,” explained her behavior. I don’t want that to be Rose. I don’t want her to carry a security blanket when she’s twelve. I don’t want her in therapy saying we deprived her of a childhood. I don’t think that’s what we’re doing. We’re silly with her and we have pillow fights and we diaper her Elmo doll. Isn’t that giving her a childhood? She certainly doesn’t act like an adult. She’s happy all the time. She giggles and screeches and runs in circles around the living room. She hugs random strangers – yes, a bit worrisome but still the sweet, innocent behavior of a child.

Last night I read an article that addressed over-parenting. It detailed horrifying examples of parents micromanaging their kids’ lives. On the other end of the spectrum, we hear of overly-permissive parents who don’t pay much attention to their kids. I’ve seen both in action, and I think I fall somewhere in the middle. If moderation is the key to life, then maybe it’s the key to parenting. And if I embrace moderation, maybe it shouldn’t matter to me what other people do. Maybe there are a hundred different parenting styles for every hundred families and each one is right in its own way. Maybe our job over the next thirty years is to develop the one that’s right for us.