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Years ago, I was present as our friend’s son unwrapped birthday gifts.  One was a school bus with the alphabet emblazoned on it.  Each time you pressed a letter-button, it would name the letter.  Our friend took great delights in pushing “F” “U” over and over.  It went right back to the store.  Later, either in one of the many daycares I visited as an itinerant early intervention speech therapist, or in Kohl’s as a hormonal woman pregnant with twins, we chanced upon a toy lawn mower.  It looked just like a regular toy mower, with a handle, some noise when you pushed it around, like many walking toys, but it had one more thing – a label proclaiming it to be a “learning mower”.  I laughed it off, deciding the manufacturers had given it that title because there were ABC and 123 stickers, which added supposed educational value without actually doing anything extra in product development.

Unfortunately, the trend caught on, and it’s more than just some colorful decals on the side of a toy.  Behold: the Fisher-Price “Laugh and Learn” line.  Characterized by the goofy (and I’m sure trademarked) eyes and mouth emblazoned on every single toy, the “Laugh and Learn” line has remade such classics as mowers, vacuums, shape sorters, telephones, cameras, puzzles,  and now encompasses such things as lanterns, mirrors, chairs, iPod cases, stuffed dogs, smart phones, and ball poppers.  There’s even a soccer ball.  Fisher-Price has created a cash cow by slapping the word “learn” on their products, as if the plain, classic version had no educational value whatsoever.  Parents see a plain toy next to the jacked up “Laugh and Learn” (or, increasingly, see only the electronic version), deduce there’s added value in the battery power, and bring that home instead.  I cannot stand the battery-powered version with its repetitive mechanical tunes, and promises to “teach” babies.

Let’s take one example, the shape sorting cookie jar.  Shape sorters teach many things to babies and toddlers.  My kids, who just turned one this weekend, are able to open the lid to their classic 1972 Fisher Price shape sorter, and take out all the shapes, as well as put them back in, with or without the lid.  They can learn visual-spatial skills as they put things inside, hone fine motor tasks of grasping and releasing, fine-tune pre-puzzle skills of rotating shapes to fit into the holes, explore gravity as they drop the pieces in or out of the bucket, and there are even opportunities for such pre-academic classics as shapes, colors, and numbers.  The triangles are all green, the rectangles are red, and the circles are blue.  We can count them as they go in or out.  We can introduce an action vocabulary — push, drop, hold, count, sort.  We can sort them into different piles by shape/color.  We can even add advanced vocabulary and learn the names for 3D forms such as cylinder, rectangular prism, and triangular prism.  Maybe I’m the only one who does that.  We can learn the opposites “on” and “off”, and take shapes “out” or put them “in”.  They learn determination (“grit”) as they persevere to fit the shapes through the holes.

We received, by way of hand-me-down from my nephew, the Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn Cookie Shape Surprise cookie jar shape sorter.  It has five shapes/colors, so you know it already has added value (my kids may never learn what a star or a heart is otherwise). Plus, the shapes are all emblazoned with a raised numeral, even though it’s not developmentally appropriate to be teaching number symbols until kids have an awareness of quantity of real objects (“two” feet?  My kids just learned they have feet).  Then, we get to the battery-operated wonder.  The cookie jar has little ball-bearings in each opening, so when you successfully force a shape through the hole (it requires more force than the traditional shape sorter owing to the motion sensing technology impeding the shape’s progress), it labels the shape (or number) for you.  And then sings its stupid song.  “Shapes are in my cookie jar, triangle, heart and star.  There’s a circle over there, here’s a square!”  Or, if the toggle switch is set on “number” mode: “Would you like some cookies? Here they are!  Five different shapes, in my cookie jar! You can take them out, you can put them back, five little cookies make a tasty snack!” You can also just push the red nose of the cookie jar’s face to get a bonus song.  The most positive reviews of this toy range from detailing how the song is “catchy, not too annoying” to “It’s my kid’s favorite toy, but I want to shoot myself for buying it”.  That seems to be the theme.  As a parent, you have to put up with the stupid songs or noises because of their “educational” value, and if they’re only mildly annoying, that’s as good as you can expect to do.

What’s ironic, is that in trying to bolster educational value by adding sounds/music, the companies are actually grossly simplifying what the toy can actually “teach”.  It also makes parents feel like they’re depriving their child of something educational if they buy the plain shape sorter.  What do kids “learn” from these toys?  They learn mostly cause and effect.  If I push the button here, I get a song.  Many, many toys teach this concept.  While this is an important baby toy skill, it is only one aspect of play, and of learning.  Just as hearing a mechanical voice say “triangle” is only one exposure a child will have, and will mostly certainly not be the way my children end up figuring out the abstract concepts of shapes.  What I cannot stand is when parents measure educational value by the amount of time their child pushed the red nose over and over and stayed quiet in their crib.  While I appreciate time to go shower, make a phone call, or eat a sandwich, I do not conflate repetitive button-pushing with “learning”.  Nor do I think my kids will figure out shapes, colors, or numbers from playing with educational toys.  I also rail against what those songs are replacing.  For the parents who think it’s the toy’s job to “teach”, and not theirs, it’s replacing a parent coaching a child along, saying, perhaps, “Yes, mummy, that red square goes in the hole.  Can you put it in there?  Oops, not quite.  Try it a different way.  Yes, like that.  Push.  Almost.  Good job!”  The toy says, “Square” or “Four” and then sings a song.  If recent research in language acquisition is any guide, the child playing with the toy without the parent has just lost out on 28 additional words.  Fast-forward to preschool-aged children using a “learning vacuum” for pretend play.  If the vacuum’s job is to teach letters or numbers, and the toy constantly sings when you push its buttons, where is the voice of the child going ‘vroooom’ pretending to suck up dirt?  Where is the child narrating his play as he imitates the adults in his life?  Where is the integration of the vacuum into a larger ‘house’ play scheme?  So-called educational toys are by far the least open-ended toys I’ve seen on the market.

Why does a soccer ball need additional value?  So you can charge more for it, obviously.  So you can guilt well-meaning but anxious parents into purchasing more crap.  So you can assuage the guilt parents feel about not providing constant stimulation so their children can “get ahead” by the time they get to preschool.

In my family, the premier purchaser of this Chinese-made, battery-powered plastic crap is the last person you’d think of — a librarian.  But my mother-in-law gobbles up these toys, from the Vtech Infant Learning Jungle Fun Music Box my nephew was scared of for his first six months, to the “Rhyme and Discover” “book” (from a librarian — this shocked me), the infamous cookie jar, and the newest one, that just left my jaw hanging open, the Singin’ Soccer Ball, which, in addition to ABCs and 123s (again, not developmentally appropriate for the 9 month old pictured holding it), purports to teach sportsmanship.

I try to pretend I’m coming around on the electronic toy front, for the sake of family harmony.  I try to pretend it’s all copasetic if I just turn the toy off when I’m around. (though the kids are confused why the buttons that used to light up are now dark…) I try to pretend it’s okay if our household isn’t 100% battery-powered toy free.  In short, I try not to be a helicopter control-freak parent.  But every time we unwrap a new gift, whether it’s a talking puzzle from my uncle, or a battery-powered walking toy from my in-laws, or when we receive a new bag of hand-me-downs (and that fucking cookie jar) from my nephew, I just want to cringe.  It should simply be a parent’s choice to offer these toys.  It shouldn’t make me so angry, should it?  Yet, short of explaining (again) to my in-laws that we don’t want those toys, they keep on coming.  I doubt they’d sit and listen to a condensed lecture from this diatribe.  Maybe it’s more the fact that I feel disrespected in my parenting decisions, the fact that the burden of deciding whether to return a well-intentioned toy, try to remove the batteries, allow it, or smash it into a million pieces falls on us.  I’d rather spend my time building block towers with my kids for them to smash than arranging for childcare so I can run to Kohl’s for the third time this month, and return the piece of junk.

As I goggled in disbelief at the Singin’ Soccer Ball, I was unable to disguise my contempt in the usual forced smile I reserve for playtime at my in-laws’ house, and my father-in-law asked, “Why, it’s bad?” while I searched in vain for the off switch (IT HAS NONE!!!), I replied, through gritted teeth, “No, they’re just not my favorite kind of toy.” It’s true, kind of.  If my wonderful mother-in-law is sitting on the floor with my children, interacting with them and the heathenous toy, it’s not harming them.  If my brother likes pushing the buttons, and it helps him play with my kids, then that’s great for everyone.  No one toy sitting on the shelf is going to make or break a child’s kindergarten readiness.  No open-ended shoebox, or high-priced baby laptop can replace a parent’s interactions.

I am officially going on record to speak for all those parents writing Amazon reviews about annoying songs and tolerable noise levels — you don’t have to buy that crap.  I absolve you of your feeling a need to buy “educational” toys.  You are so much better than that.  You are not only your child’s first teacher; you’re also his first — and best — toy.

I missed therapy last week.  At 4pm, when I should have been parking my car and entering the building, I was instead holding my son as he screamed through a nebulizer treatment on the pediatric inpatient unit of Bryn Mawr Hospital.  E had been wheezing over the weekend, and we did nothing. Sure, Mr. Apron had noticed it, had asked for my confirmation (I heard it, too), but I did nothing.  I figured, as with most infant illnesses, it would resolve on its own, and, with the new conservative stance on such things as cough and cold medicines for children, we wouldn’t be able to give him anything anyhow.

A miserable Monday night’s sleep had us headed to the pediatrician on Tuesday, and after they’d tried to jack him up with breathing treatments in the office, we were sent directly to the ER.  What followed was a 36-hour ordeal filled with doctors, nurses, changes in treatment plans, screaming babies, childcare arrangements, and poor sleep for all.  My son had to endure being poked too many times in his chubby arms.  Even after digging around in his fat flesh for endless minutes, they still could not strike a vein, so the threats of putting in an IV “just in case” were abandoned, and the poor baby passed out from sheer exhaustion.

“He looks tired,” the nurses commented.  “Yes,” I said, “He slept poorly last night and hasn’t had his nap yet this morning.”

“No,” they demurred, “When we say, ‘he looks tired,’ we mean, tired of working so hard.”

But whether from exhaustion, fatigue, or defeat, the child napped on the stretcher, ensconced in the same hospital blanket they’d used to restrain him for the failed IV attempts.

Hours later, he napped again, this time securely attached to my breast for the better part of an hour as he tried to rehydrate and comfort himself while blocking out the noise and lights of the hospital.  By the time we reached the pediatric unit, he had rested, fed, and was perking up.  It would be another 12 hours before his labored breathing relaxed enough that his little chest wasn’t retracting with each breath, but his affect was brighter, and he’d stopped the endless helpless screaming.

All Tuesday, and into Wednesday as well, I stayed by his side, cuddling my son, feeding him, and letting him sleep on me whenever he could.  I tried 6 times to transfer my sleeping child to the prison-like crib provided for him, and for about 3 hours he slept by himself as I shoveled down a soggy garden burger brought up hours earlier by room service.  When the white noise of the nebulizer shut off after the 1am breathing treatment, he awoke again, and I gave up on the lavish plans I’d had for myself – to pump milk for my daughter, and text message my sister – and just let him sleep by my side on and off all night.  We lay on the pull-out cot together from 1:30 until he woke after 5am for his usual breakfast, despite the night nurse’s pleas that I put him down in the crib.  Co-sleeping is not a hospital policy, especially for babies on oxygen, but if he hadn’t sleep with me, neither of us would have slept at all that night.

I stepped up, I rose to the occasion.  I played with him for hours when my husband went home to our daughter.  I left for only an hour to go home and take a nap.  I advocated for his care, asked about his treatment plan, saved his diapers for the nurses to weigh, and cut up bits of fruit for his breakfast.  I gave him apple juice by syringe in 5ml increments, and let him nurse whenever he wanted.  I commandeered the best toys on the hall and brought in his favorite books from home. I sat for an hour just watching him sleep in the crib — after my only successful transfer — afraid to put the crib rail up for fear of making noise and waking him up.

And when we got home Wednesday night, just in time for bed, the family breathed a collective sigh of relief.  The nightmare was largely over, save for nebulizer treatments every 4 hours, oral steroids, and more follow-ups to the pediatrician.

I blame myself for ignoring the wheezing and landing us all in the hospital.  I blame my inadequacy as a parent.  I was in denial that he was sick because I couldn’t allow myself to believe something serious could be wrong.  Lurking around the corner, hiding behind that sweet baby wheeze, is asthma.

They technically won’t diagnose a baby with asthma, as they can’t really cooperate with all the breathing tests to measure tidal volume, and blowing out the birthday candles or whatever assessments Mr. Apron has told me about from his years of experience at his pediatric allergist/pulmonologist (to whom he still goes, but at least they don’t make him do the birthday cake any more).  But he might have it.  Having a nebulizer, giving him albuterol treatment, listening for wheezing, having an “asthma treatment plan” as part of our discharge instructions — it all scares  me shitless.

“This should be the worst thing that ever happens to him,” Mr. Apron says.  Asthma, or reactive airway, or wheezing when he gets a cold – all of these are manageable things.  Still, I found myself collapsed on the kitchen floor at 9:40pm the night we got home from the hospital, having a whimpering, silent, self-indulgent adult tantrum about having to give my baby nebulizer treatments.  Because I was in denial, and couldn’t face the fact that something real and scary might be wrong with my baby.

Eventually, Mr. Apron refused to coddle me, I shelved the self-pity, and I pulled on my big-girl panties to go help my son.  I learned about all the meds, familiarized myself with the nebulizer, figured out how to detach the individual vials of meds from the plastic strips, and determined how to teach the nanny all of this horrific mess of plastic tubing and drugs.  I labeled each vial with a time, and taped them to E.’s daily communication notebook.

Nebulizer aside, meds aside, asthma aside, it’s just one more task in a seemingly endless series of “have to”s in caring for my children.  And it’s just exhausting.  Choosing to breastfeed means managing milk, rotating my personal dairy, freezing it when it reaches close to expiration, worrying about producing enough, and making sure others know how to handle the Liquid Gold.  Choosing a convertible car seat (and having to buy 4) means researching safety, ease of installation, trying them out in my tiny car, and finding the best deal (did I mention we had to buy 4?).  Starting solid foods means more preparation, choosing healthy, kid-friendly foods, and keeping alert for hidden, forbidden ingredients.  Managing food safety.  Making bottles.  Teaching my husband or in-laws how to use the car seats. It’s an awful lot, and I was managing pretty well.  But along came bronchiolitis and a nebulizer, and treatments every 4 hours, and I just melted down.  Being a detail-oriented, perfectionist mom is hard enough.  I was stretched to my breaking point, everything just working, but without wiggle room.  Adding one more “have to” just set me over the edge.

I’m okay now.  I debriefed with my therapist.  The nanny used a nebulizer when she was a kid.  And the pediatrician said we can skip the overnight treatments, as he supports my belief that sleep is restorative and uber-important.  I love our pediatrician.  I may have a doctor-crush on him; don’t tell Mr. Apron.

I don’t really know how to end this post, as it was just meant to be a Brain Dump, cathartic way of processing the hospital stay and my resulting feelings.  I’m glad we’re all home and on the way to healthy.  I’m glad I’m no longer scared of the nebulizer.  I’m relieved I’m able to care for my son.  I’m scared, too, scared for the future, whether the next emergency is my son and asthma-related symptoms, or something frightening with my daughter, my husband, or my parents.  It’s certainly not the last crisis in the years to come, but I hope I can get my big girl panties in gear so I can handle the situation like a grown-up.

In my house, only the babies are allowed to shit themselves.

Honey wheat?  How did that even get in our house?  As they say in the film, Funny Bones, “I only eat brown bread”.  Now that Arnold no longer makes the “Bran’ola” I grew up on, it’s been a struggle to find a whole grain bread for the house.  I bring home whole wheat, multi-grain, something healthy sounding with whole grains in the ingredient list.  But honey wheat?  I estimate I do at least 75% of the grocery shopping in the house.  And I put away at least 80% of the groceries.  How did that loaf sneak in under my radar?  Yet there it was, in the form of toast for our ten-month-old twins, sitting innocuously enough on their trays, slathered in yogurt or apple butter, being raked into tiny doughy hands, slipping almost unnoticed into our children’s mouths.  As soon as I saw the loaf in the fridge, as I was raiding the bread drawer for some other morsel, I flipped.  I ran to their trays, grabbed up the offending squares of toast, and chucked them into the trashcan, with perhaps a bit more force than was necessary.

“Two things they can’t have,” I said slowly and sternly, perhaps a little too loudly, “Two.  Honey, and nuts.”

“Children under one year should not be given honey under any circumstances,” said Carole Allen, M.D., pediatrician and Vice President of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “There is too great a risk that the infant may contract infantile botulism.”

Are my kids under one?  Yes.  Are they practically 11 months old, and mere weeks away from one?  Yes.  Do I think that any magical processes happen in the digestive system the day of their birthday, allowing them to be safe from botulism?  No.  But I don’t think completely adhering to a recommendation from the AAP when the risk is paralysis is unreasonable.  Will they probably be okay, being merely weeks away from the (magical) one year old, having consumed a smidgeon of honey baked into a highly processed loaf of white bread?  Yup.  Still, to me, not work the risk.

Rigid, inflexible.  Resistant to change.  These are adjectives I used to write on evaluation forms and IEPs to describe preschool-age children with autism.  Am I so like them?  I intend to breastfeed my children for one year, and not a day less.  You have to make some goals for yourself, some guidelines.  And if you don’t stick to your own, completely achievable (only 4.5 weeks to go, and no signs of earnest weaning yet) goals, what’s the point of setting them at all?  AAP says, breastfeed for (at least) a year, so I will.

Apparently, though, it’s not the goal setting that’s an issue, nor the good intentions.  It’s the rigid adherence to the path that sets me apart, that makes me feel like a petulant child.  A few years ago, going through a bout of digestive disquiet, I was unable to eat anything for breakfast besides cereal, soymilk, and low acid orange juice.  I missed leisurely weekend brunches filled with pancakes, eggs, or even yogurt and granola.  If I found we were going out for brunch, or if Mr. Apron wanted to grab breakfast sandwiches from Delancey Street, I would pre-game with a mini-breakfast of cereal.  My stomach just wouldn’t have it any other way.  Without my pre-breakfast, I’d be miserable for hours.

Thankfully, after I gave birth to the twins, my stomach improved and I was able to consume large quantities of whatever I wanted.  It was liberating.  And necessary.  As I struggle to keep up with the demands of two milk-consuming monsters, I’m grateful I can (and do) eat anything that isn’t nailed down.

I look back through the various aspects of my life, and I see the rigid adherence to an ideal (if not an overt goal), sometimes flavored with notes of perfectionism, or at the very least, the idea that there is a right way to do things.  Growing up, we never had a uniform set of dishes or towels.  Towels had been accumulated through the years, through various moves and houses, and there were sets from my mother’s childhood through my own.  There were the yellow ones from the duck bathroom in Plattsburgh, and the purple ones from my parents’ master bathroom in Rochester.  There were the soft, almost velour-like orange towels that could only date from the 70s, and a random assortment of washcloths that could tell the story of the textile industry from the industrial revolution through modern day.  Dishes were another story.  Owing in large part to my bargain-hunting grandmother, we had full sets, but never in one color.  One set of plates were 80% blue, and 20% yellow.  The melamine Dallasware was blue and red, with one random set of yellow.  I desperately wanted matching towels for my wedding, probably because I had never known such uniformity in a linen closet.  Though we registered for all sage green towels, Macy’s ran out before our friends and family could buy them all.  We have coral, green, and honey colored towels.  All the same brand, mind, but it seems I was not meant to have my towels match.

Who cares?  Apparently, I do.  Apparently, in some deep recesses of my mind, towels and plates should match. That that is the right way (that there is a right way) to furnish one’s linen closet and one’s home. A right way to get your car repaired or to choose a dentist. A right way to feed your children, a right time to have children. While I’m working on my new mantra of “Other people make different choices,” there is still the niggling voice that adds, “which I would never make” and the tacit thought besides: because it’s wrong, or at least wrong for me. I can get smug (even to myself) when I do accomplish something grand, or do succeed at making a “right” choice. And I can get positively furious with myself when I fail at self-imposed perfection. My first cavity, my first B, missing an appointment or shirking on a potluck by not bringing something homemade. I’m setting myself up, if not for self-defined failure, then for disappointment, when I can’t, or refuse to flex. Boxed brownie mix taunts me, as does the Cooper Hospital-emblazoned diaper bag we use, a reminder that I wasn’t able to make a diaper bag for myself before the kids were born. I don’t reflect on the crib skirts (with their combined 16 pleats), the tree mural, the mobile with hand-stitched birds dangling from a branch, or the name buntings I was able to complete, only on the few points I fell short of being as ready as a new mom “should” be.

I will always fall short of my own ideals unless I find a way to be flexible. To look at other ways, not just as inferior options for legions of “other” people, but for a human version of myself, too.