Tuesday, September 19, 2006

8:31 a.m., Tuesday, September 19

Sitting in our home office, banging out an e-mail. I vaguely notice Ava in the doorway, her hands working on some little blue package. I finish my sentence, look over, and find her about 95 percent of the way through unwrapping a piece of Bazooka bubble gum. This is not a normal occurrence in our house at 8:31 a.m.

Gwen is in the next room helping Madison get dressed for school. The "united front" parenting philosophy/approach is something we try to maintain, so just to make sure I didn't miss some previous side-deal I call out, "why is Ava opening up a piece of bubble gum? Did someone say it was OK for her to have gum first thing in the morning?"

Gwen shares my sense of dismay over the development, so I tell Ava we are not going to have a piece of gum at this moment. I grab a tissue and as she approaches with the gum, now completely liberated from its packaging, I wrap it up neatly, hand it back to her and say, "Here, Ava, this is your gum. I'm not taking it away, you just can't have it right now. Go put it somewhere in your room..."

Ava nods, she's getting it, she understands, we're on the same page. She carefully takes the little white bundle and walks off in the direction of her room. I call out, "you can have it later in the day."

The response booms through the second floor of our house within a millisecond:


Sunday, September 17, 2006

11:53 a.m., Sunday, September 17

Walking out our back door with Madison and Ava, headed to the store for some last-minute items in anticipation of hosting friends later today.

I grab the car keys and the iPod and call out to Gwen, who is rushing around the house cleaning, dusting, rearranging furniture:

"Honey, we're leaving. I'm not bringing my house keys."

Madison's straight-faced response, delivered within a half second of me finishing the sentence:

"Oh, Dad, that's bad. That means she gets to decide whether or not to let us back in."

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Empty Nest Syndrome Phase One (a.k.a. Gwen gets [part of] her life back)

Ava started school this week. We had her in a nursery school program at a local church three days a week last year, essentially two hours of supervised and organized play. This year she’s in a three-year-old program, five days a week, at the same facility where Madison is doing her kindergarten enrichment.

So, for the first time since Madison was born more than five years ago, there are now at least a few hours every day during which both of our children are occupied and accounted for and absent from us. At this point the overlap of their school programs runs from about 9:30 a.m. through shortly after noon, a period I've informally dubbed Gwen's "window of liberation." It also puts us - particularly Gwen - on the brink of a syndrome so effectively articulated by Robert Redford at the end of "The Candidate," with just five great words and a blank stare, right after his character had won election to the U.S. Senate: "What do we do now?"

Ava's orientation was on Tuesday, Gwen went with her, and in addition to enjoying it the reports were that she shined. She wrote her name without help, unique among her fellow students, and she used crayons to draw a picture she described to me that night as, “me and my Daddy walking to buy ice cream for everyone in my class.”

Her first "real" day was Wednesday, and some of the emotions I expected to kick in when Madison started kindergarten last week came rolling through with Ava. I don’t know why, there was something about seeing those tiny shoulders enveloped in an enormous purple backpack walking out of our house that got to me.

She’s also our baby, and the thought of her being away from home, away from us, as part of an every-day organized program is a great and positive development that still manages to feel troubling and actually a little sad.

She loves it though, just like Madison, so upward and onward.

Speaking of Madison, I put a little system in place earlier this week in an attempt to avoid falling into the following stereotypical end-of-the-day parent-child dialogue:


PARENT: “How was your day?”

CHILD: “Good.”

PARENT: “Good."


I told Madison that when I saw her at night I wanted her to tell me at least one thing she did during her day at school. She was receptive to this. I got home late last night and missed her before she went to bed, so she gave me the first report this morning.

“Daddy, this is bad, I’m not sure I should tell you, it’s really bad.”

“What Madison? What happened?”

“So far we have not spent one minute in school learning how to read. Not one.”

I counseled that it was still very early in the academic year and I was sure her teachers would eventually get around to reading, but as a hedge we’re more focused than ever on helping her find her way through early reading books before bed. College essays loom, and Madison is already concerned she's behind the curve.

Friday, September 08, 2006


A couple of significant milestones in our family this week. The first one happened on Monday. I was upstairs, girls were all downstairs in the vicinity of the kitchen/den/half-bath combo, which we’ve now equipped with a 46” high-definition television set and essentially do not leave. Everything necessary to sustain and enjoy life is now located in that section of our house, so why bother?

Suddenly I heard Madison calling, "Daddy... Daddy... DADDY!"

The tone was urgent but joyful. “I’ve got something exciting I can’t wait to tell you,” as opposed to “there’s a BIG problem down here you need to know about.” I yelled back downstairs to ask what she wanted and the triumph was revealed:


By the time I heard the line Madison, Ava and Gwen were halfway up the stairs and we all converged in the second-floor hallway in a scene of utter celebratory mayhem that would not have been believed by anyone who wasn’t a parent and had not personally experienced moments like these for themselves.

We were literally jumping up and down, all of us, our end zone dance accompanied by the words “Ava went poo-poo on the potty… Ava went poo-poo on the potty… Ava went poo-poo on the potty,” delivered as a victory chant. We were all so happy and overcome with emotion, it was almost as if Jessica Simpson had arrived at our front door unannounced to tell us in person that she’d found love again.

In the midst of the unrestrained jubilation I looked over at Ava and caught her somehow managing to participate in the scene and still be somewhat astonished by it. Sort of a “What are you all doing? Are you OK? Is this OK? Do I know you?” kind of look.

A little bit of context here is helpful. Ava has ostensibly been potty trained for a year. She is out of diapers during the day and, for the last few months, at night as well. The one exception has been when she needs to go #2. For some reason, this process has continued to require a diaper – put on solely for this purpose and removed immediately afterwards.

It became a bit of a ritual. She’d ask for a diaper, we’d suggest the potty and, in response, she’d smile, shake her head and ask for a diaper. We produced diapers on demand for a while, issuing gentle encouragements to Ava to try to do her business on the potty instead of into a Pampers. She resisted. I’ve covered this terrain in previous postings, but just as a reminder Ava does what she wants, on her own schedule and is virtually immune to persuasion or parental positioning. And, reluctant to force the issue, berate our child into making a direct deposit into our septic system (as opposed to her preferred, circuitous, route), or permanently compromise the integrity of her digestive system, we kept serving up the diapers.

Gwen was a little stronger than me, so rather than engage in an extended dialogue with her mother when nature happened to call, Ava got into the habit of coming to find me wherever I was, often carrying a diaper with her and delivering some disarming line like, “Daddy… Diaper… Poo-Poo Time!” Then, wearing her diaper, she would disappear behind a chair or into a closet to do her business, returning when it was time to unburden herself of the pungent cargo.

About a month ago Gwen came up with a new rule that was clearly responsible for Monday’s development. She told Ava that she could still have a diaper for #2, but no more crouching in corners or disappearing out back like Namie with a cigarette – when nature called she would have to sit on the potty, in her diaper, and when the deed was done they would both drop the results in the toilet, wipe, flush and wash her hands. [I realize this level of detail is too much for the uninitiated, but I’m assuming that non-parents stopped reading at the first reference to “poo,” so this is the unedited version.]

For the past several weeks, we have stuck to this rule, and Ava hasn’t argued. I think it’s safe to say it really got us over this development milestone, kind of like the time we told Madison to collect all her binkys because the Easter Bunny needed to take them away and give them to other kids who didn’t have their own – another great Gwen idea that isn’t written in any parenting book but worked like a charm.


Our other Big Development this week was Madison starting kindergarten, on Wednesday. Unfortunately the logistics of her situation deprived us of the classic “put her on the bus” in the morning moment, our school district only offers half-day kindergarten and her session is in the afternoon, so Gwen actually drops Madison off at an enrichment program in the morning and she takes a bus from that facility to her “real” school, which courteously returns her to us about 4 p.m. each afternoon.

I have to be honest, I expected a wave of emotion in response to our oldest daughter starting kindergarten, but it hasn’t really hit me yet. We anticipated the moment, built it up inside our house and made sure she was properly prepared, and reports from day one, two and three have been relatively good and positive. No “I don’t want to go” breakdown, she’s looked forward to it and is excited about it and says she’s having good and fun days.

I got home early enough from work Wednesday night to talk to Madison about her first day. At first she said that something “bad happened” that she wasn’t even sure she wanted to tell me about. My heart sunk for a moment until she revealed the source of her distress was two boys, fellow kindergartners, who had kicked her seat from behind on the very short ride from the enrichment program to school. We told her the next time that happened she should turn around and ask them to stop and if they don’t she should appeal to the bus driver, and if that doesn’t work we’ll find out where they live and slash the tires on their parents’ cars and maybe even egg their houses. [The bus seems to be our biggest issue to manage at the moment, the only other negative report we heard all week related to "big kids" (first graders) using "potty words" on the bus.]

Madison was also a little critical of the curriculum. After the bus story she said this, “And Daddy, we didn’t learn how to read, we didn’t learn how to write, all we did was color with crayons. That’s IT!” I reminded her it was early, there was plenty of time, she didn’t need to learn everything there is to know on the first day of kindergarten, and she seemed to accept this.

I guess the biggest change or issue for us related to Madison entering kindergarten is the loss of contact and control over what she's doing for such a long period of time. She gets dropped off at her enrichment program at 9:30 a.m. and we don't see her or have anything to do with her again until she comes bounding off the bus shortly after 4 p.m. That's a lot of time for her to be away from us, in the care of others. But, ultimately, she's ready, it's a transition that has to happen, so like millions of other parents, we're going with it, staying as involved as we possibly can and hoping for the best. I continue to raise home schooling as a reasonable alternate course but for some odd reason whenever I make this suggestion Gwen walks out of the room.