What If…?

Eitan goes to bed fairly consistently at some point between 6:30 and 7:30 each night. He plays hard at school and barely slows down once he gets home, so he’s usually pretty tired by the time he finishes dinner. Trudy bathes him and Shayna, reads Eitan a story, sings to him and then he falls asleep (or, if I’m home, I take care of the bedtime routine).

Shayna is slightly less reliable in that respect. It depends on the day she has had; if she hasn’t had an afternoon nap and it’s been fairly busy (which it often is), she’ll nurse and fall asleep right after Eitan. If she has napped in the afternoon, or if the day has been quieter, she may decide she wants to stay up and play longer. I can’t really blame her; that’s her only real chance to play with both of her parents without her big brother getting in the way.

Trudy and I were playing with Shayna on one such night last week after Eitan had fallen asleep. Shayna has just started taking her first tentative steps without holding on so Trudy and I were passing her back and forth and cheering whenever she managed a few steps instead of plopping back down on the floor. She was only wearing her diaper; she had been snacking on blueberries earlier and we hadn’t put on clean pajamas yet. We figured she could use the freedom and the feeling of her bare feet on the carpet to keep developing her walking skills instead of forcing her to get dressed immediately.

As Shayna made one of her trips between Trudy and me, we noticed a bump on her stomach.

It was small, a slight protrusion from the rest of her belly, about two inches above her navel. We tried lying her down to feel it but it seemed to go away when she lay on her back so we stood her back up and it reappeared. It wasn’t a pimple or a mosquito bite; it was under the skin, but it was definitely… something.

Trudy began asking me what I thought it was. “Is it just swelling? Is it something with her organs? Maybe it’s a hernia. Or maybe it’s a tumor.”

I suppressed my immediate reflex to respond as Arnold Schwarzenegger, largely because I had quickly started wondering if that was actually the case and nothing about the situation seemed funny. Against my better judgment, I started doing Google image searches for “abdominal hernia in baby,” “lump in stomach one year old baby” and “baby stomach tumor.” Trudy called the pediatrician and he said that it was probably just muscular but that we should bring Shayna into the office in the morning.

I tried to tell myself – and Trudy – that it wasn’t a tumor; it was probably nothing. Or it was probably something that could be easily corrected. In my head, though, I had moved from Kindergarten Cop to Toy Story:

In most difficult situations, especially at my job, I’m the human embodiment of Buzz Lightyear: calm, cool and collected, ready to figure out a plan and execute it. But in that moment, my brain had gone full-on Sheriff Woody.

What if it is a tumor? Okay, it’s probably not, but what if it is? And even if it’s not, even if it’s “just” a hernia or something, that’s still going to need to be repaired, right? Doesn’t that mean surgery? Shayna just turned a year last month; she can’t have surgery. But what if she needs it? Doesn’t that mean anesthesia? How can I watch my little girl get prepped for surgery? She’s going to be so scared! It can’t be a tumor. But what if it is?

And, of course, since I’m usually Buzz Lightyear, I didn’t say any of this out loud. All I said – and kept saying – to Trudy was that the doctor was probably right about it being muscular and that we would find out for sure in the morning.

Later that evening, I thought back to my mindset during Trudy’s pregnancies. I tried to remember times when I had asked what-if questions about my yet-to-be-born children but I couldn’t come up with any. This wasn’t a major shock; I tend to focus on the matter at hand in most cases and worry about what-if scenarios when they actually arise. But now I was facing a major what-if and I found myself thinking about how no one ever explains that part to expectant parents. People don’t often talk about the fact that terrible things happen to babies from time to time; that they get sick or they’re born with birth defects or genetic conditions. There are plenty of instructions for how to be a new parent, from how to change a diaper to different breastfeeding techniques to the best sleep-training methods. There are no manuals for how to hold yourself together when your child may be sick.

I’ve written before about my reactions when my kids get sick. The feeling of helplessness is the worst part; there is very little I can do in the moment to fix the problem. One thing I’ve learned is that having more information makes a significant difference. The what-if questions that send my brain into the Sheriff Woody frenzy were spurred by the fact that I didn’t know what was happening to my daughter. I didn’t know whether or not she was in pain or whether I would be able to keep her safe. Lack of information meant I couldn’t set up a plan, which meant I couldn’t find any control over the situation (which is what it means when a person is panicking).

This story actually has a happy-ish ending. We found out that the bump is, in fact, a hernia that will need to be repaired surgically but not for another year or two. The main thing is that Shayna doesn’t seem to be in pain, so we just have to monitor her in the meantime to make sure nothing changes.1 The key was finding out more about the diagnosis. Once Trudy and I knew what we were facing and what to expect, we were able to calm those what-if questions, put our parenting helmets back on (instead of our sheriff hats) and return our focus to keeping Shayna happy and helping her grow.

 


1. It also means I can think about that Kindergarten Cop line and this clip from Friends without feeling guilty.↩

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Turning Sadness Inside Out

A couple of weeks ago, on Father’s Day, in fact, Trudy and I took Eitan to the movies to see Inside Out. We had not made any significant plans for Father’s Day, aside from having dinner with my in-laws, partially due to the threat of inclement weather and partially due to the fact that the rest of June was so busy with other activities, like Eitan’s moving up ceremony from preschool, his birthday party and my brother’s wedding. A movie seemed like a nice relaxing way to spend some time together as a family.

First of all, the film was terrific. Most of the themes were probably a bit over Eitan’s head; after all, as smart as he is, he is only three years old and he is not quite ready to grasp concepts like moving to a different city or the emotional attachments that we have with certain memories. But he was able to recognize that Bing Bong’s tears were candy and that it was funny when the House of Cards got knocked over. He also enjoyed seeing Riley jumping on a trampoline and making goofy faces with her parents, two activities I’m sure he associates with his own parents.

funnyfaces

And, as is usually the case with Pixar films, there were plenty of comments interspersed through the dialogue that were designed to keep adults interested, such as Riley’s mother’s frustration with her husband during dinner and Fear’s running commentary of Riley’s dreams. Pixar has been inserting those types of nuggets since their first few movies (A Bug’s Life; Monsters, Inc.; Toy Story; etc.) and they usually do a masterful job.1

The other reason I continue to go back to Pixar movies, though, is because they tell meaningful stories. Sure, kids watch Finding Nemo and enjoy it because of fish with funny voices. The same could be said about any of the other movies; they all have colorful characters who do silly things and have silly voices. But the film makers are particularly adept at portraying complex and challenging situations through those characters. Finding Nemo is about finding the balance between keeping one’s children safe and letting them explore and become independent. The Toy Story movies are about loyalty and friendship. Cars illustrates the dangers of hubris and the importance of treating others with respect. Inside Out demonstrates the ways children develop emotional intelligence and gives insight into the ways that parents encourage – and sometimes discourage – that development.

One of the things that I’ve seen parents do is try to shield their children from having to experience difficult situations. This is not necessarily a bad thing; certainly, our world is filled with enough negativity that our children will realize quickly enough that life is hard and that bad things happen. It’s why we monitor the shows and movies that our kids are watching and, in a perfect world, why we watch those programs with our kids; we want to be there to explain why bad things are happening to certain characters. But I think there is a danger in being overly zealous about “protecting” children from adversity, fictional or otherwise.2 If children never experience challenges, they will never learn to overcome them. The whole point of resiliency is that people are able to experience difficulties and use their problem solving skills to move past them.

In the movie, Joy believes that Riley should be protected from Sadness because she does not want Riley to feel any sort of suffering. The lesson that Joy learns – and that we have to teach our children – is that negative feelings may be uncomfortable, but that does not mean they are “bad.” Feelings like sadness, embarrassment, fear and anger may not be the most enjoyable experiences, but they also present opportunities for growth. The fact that we are capable of experiencing different combinations of feelings is what allows us to cheer each other on when things are going well and to comfort each other when tragedy strikes. We need to be able experience different feelings in order to understand what other people are going through. Completely ignoring a feeling not only prevents us from having a realistic view of the world, it prevents us from being able to feel empathy.

It makes us less human.

Our kids need to realize that they have the ability to develop coping skills to respond to negative circumstances, rather than just trying to avoid them. They need to know that it okay to feel sad or angry or afraid, just like it is okay to feel excited or happy. They need to learn that feelings are not “good” or “bad,” but that they are the ways in which we experience the world around us and the ways we share those experiences with others. They need to understand that empathy helps us become better people.

And it is up to us to teach them.

 


1. If you haven’t seen these movies, or it’s just been a while, I can’t recommend them strongly enough. The Toy Story trilogy, in particular, continues to be a set of my favorite movies.

2. Remember what happened to Phoebe?

The Toys Are Alive!

As anyone who has cared for a toddler will tell you, it’s hard to get young kids to stay in one place for an extended period of time. They have what my brother calls “Ooh Shiny Syndrome,” which means they get distracted by everything and they want to investigate every distraction. That’s why, when we’re able to sit and eat together, we try to get rid of all of the “shiny objects.” The television stays off, there are no devices at the table and we try to just enjoy each other’s company. We try to eat together every night and I’d say we’re successful at least five or six nights per week (my work schedule makes eating together difficult sometimes, but we can usually work it out).

This past weekend, Trudy, Eitan and I were eating dinner together and the scene was just as I described it. The television was off, the toys and phones were away and we were just sitting and spending time together. Then, suddenly, Cookie Monster’s voice interrupted our conversation:

“Cowabunga!!!”

Eitan, like many toddlers today, has a number of toys that make noise. A Little People carnival, a V-Tech turtle that teaches letters, numbers and colors and a gigantic Fisher Price fire truck are just a few examples. They’re basically all the same; you press a button and the toy plays music or talks to you or plays some other sort of sound effect. The Cookie Monster toy is slightly different because it relies on sensors to trigger the noises, rather than actual buttons (the Rock ‘N Roll Elmo, is very similar in that regard). You put cookies in Cookie Monster’s mouth, his mouth “chews” them and he swallows the cookies. They slide through his “throat” and end up in the red backpack he’s wearing so that you can take them out and feed him again. If you stop playing with him for a minute or two, he prompts you to play more. He suggests, “Me think there may be more cookies in me backpack.” Or, if your toddler misses the subtlety, Cookie gets more direct: “Me want cookie, please!” Leave him alone for a few minutes and he stays quiet. But then, last weekend…

“Cowabunga!!!”

We were at the table and Cookie Monster was clear on the other side of the room. No one had touched him, and certainly no one had fed him a cookie, which is usually what prompts that exclamation. Eitan, of course, immediately got out of his chair and went to play. We were able to bring him back by bringing Cookie Monster to sit with us too (we also pretended to feed Cookie Monster spaghetti and meatballs to get Eitan to eat more), but it got me thinking. I couldn’t imagine that we were the first people to experience their kid’s toys spontaneously coming to life. In fact, I’d heard a number of stories about the Baby Alive that Trudy had when she was young. She and her parents kept the toy exiled upstairs because its voice was so creepy that they couldn’t stand to listen to it on a regular basis, and they still heard the baby’s “voice” calling to them. So I put out some feelers on social media and gathered some anecdotes about other parents’ and caregivers’ experiences with their kids’ toys coming to life:

‪Creed Anthony, Tales From The Poop Deck: The creepiest was an Easter gift that we got and it made a road trip with us. We traveled at night and right when my daughter was about to fall asleep, we hit a nice bump on the freeway and the duck started to quack. Needless to say, she cracked up and we did too. Eventually she fell asleep, as did my wife, and that deranged duck quacked from Indy to Cleveland. It was like the beginning of a horror story.

Mike Heenan, At Home Dad Matters: There was a Melissa & Doug Sound Puzzle left in a tent outside our bedroom window. We heard “N is for nails…” all night long until we figured it out the next morning.

Jeff Bogle, Out With The Kids: One night last week, the Mrs. and I were talking and laughing about something ridiculous or maybe it was something else. That’s when we heard it. The jive-talking giggling of Tah Do, our resident pink & black striped Furby Boom. Something had woken her up and she was as talkative as a 10-month-old in a crib as the sun fights through slotted wooden blinds, and making about as much sense. We freaking lost it. (This was an excerpt from the blog post Jeff wrote about the Furby. You can read the whole post here.)

Chris Gould, Blog of Manly: My daughter had a Violet Leap Frog toy, and she would roll over it in the middle of the night and we would hear “Hello, Olivia” in a creepy mechanical voice – imagine waking to that from a deep sleep through the baby monitor!

(For the record, Violet got a lot of mentions; Chris just happened to be the only person who specifically agreed to be quoted. But it seems pretty clear that parents do not like Violet.)

‪Scott Posey, Father Nerds Best: We have Scout. Scout can be [annoying]. If you don’t turn him off by pressing a small button on his foot, he’ll bark at you randomly – especially when you’re trying to put your son to sleep. Or, also when you’re trying to put your son to sleep, he’ll inform the world how to spell your son’s name. Thanks Scout, that was really helpful.

‪Chris Camacho: I own a children’s resell store and one day I walked in the store at about 5 am to get some stuff done. I walked in and I heard a conversation happening toward the back of the store. I cautiously approached and heard one of the voices truly sounded demonic. I thought about calling the cops until at the last moment I recognized Tad. The other voice was Dora but her batteries were about shot and she she was slow and much lower pitched. Freaked me out.

‪James Cameron, Home Is Where The Mouse Is: We had a Fisher Price Laugh & Learn Learning Puppy. Would talk and sing randomly when no one was in the room with it. Sometimes in the middle of the night. So annoying.

Les Westfall, Jr.: I buried a dog behind the garage that liked to talk without batteries. Demon puppy. Sang evil songs. It has a grave marker of an old princess potty.

(James and Les were hardly the only two people who referenced the Fisher Price dog. Dogs may be man’s best friend, but parents seem to hate the Fisher Price version.)

‪Shawn Weil: As toddlers, my kids had a baseball toy – think “tee ball” for the 18-month-old set. If you hit it it would say “you have a double” or “it’s a home run!” The problem? Once you stopped playing with it, though, the trouble started. 30 seconds after the last hit, it would play 5 seconds of the applause of the crowd. Same at 90 seconds after the last hit. It constantly freaked us out.

So what does all this mean? Maybe nothing; maybe there’s just a glitch in circuitry or the house settles a bit without us realizing and that’s what triggers the toys. Maybe ghosts are real and they’re just messing with us.1 Maybe the electronics have become self-aware and we’re going to meet John Connor and Ah-nold sooner than we thought.

Or maybe, just maybe, Sid was right:

Feel free to share your own stories in the comments section below!


1. I have a friend, Mike, who used to do stand-up comedy in college. He had a bit where he talked about the kind of ghost he will be when he dies (I’m paraphrasing): “Some ghosts are angry; they torture and terrorize people because they have some sort of unfinished business or they need revenge. Some ghosts are friendly, like Casper. Me? I’d be an inconvenience ghost. I’m not really out to hurt anyone, I just want to have fun. I would be the kind of ghost where you get woken up at 2:00 in the morning because you hear the toilet flush and you yell out, ‘Damn it, Mike!'”