Monday, October 26, 2015


On a warm summer day eight years ago, my nieces and I were bathing Ladybug in my parents' tub. Lauren was five years old at the time, Sarah just three. Ladybug was a saintly cocker spaniel, whose puppy good-looks and gentle disposition made her a kid favorite.  Unfortunately, her sweetness also led to being used as a practice pup (read: target) for little kids who wanted to learn to leash-walk a dog, take a puppy to show-and-tell, or maybe even dress up a defenseless animal... Bug tolerated it all without complaint.

On this summer day, we were bathing the dogs after the little ladies had "accidentally" put a little bit of my new makeup on them.  Ladybug went first, and as we repeatedly lathered and rinsed her, the water turned all the earth tones and gentle shimmers of my newly ruined eyeshadow palette.  The girls and I were in shorts and tank tops, getting grubbier by the minute.  As any parent knows, the cleaner the bath recipient, the filthier the bath-giver.

When we paused to let the dirty water drain out, my niece Lauren suddenly jumped out of the tub, announced "this would be easier naked!" and peeled off her clothes. Her younger sister immediately followed suit - birthday suit, that is. Once they'd gotten undressed, they jumped back in and recommenced scrubbing the dog like it was no big thing.  At this time I was not completely comfortable with kids, let alone naked ones. I had no idea how to handle the situation.  Do I ask them to get dressed? Go find them bathing suits?  Avert my eyes and do nothing? I'd babysat the girls before, but had always made a point of keeping them well-covered with bubbles in the bath, then a towel, and right into their jammies.

I let them finish up the dog washing as they were, and was still feeling a little uncomfortable with my decision to do so when I confessed what had happened to their mom and my mom.  Both responded by laughing hysterically.  It would seem that people who have kids are less freaked out when they randomly strip down.

A year or two later, I moved in with my then-fiancĂ©, and we began having his two year old spend weekends with us.  Our first Saturday together, we decorated her new bedroom and playroom, and got her situated in the new space.  Although very enjoyable, it was also a bit stressful for me, as I was still getting to know her, and learning about toddlers in general. By evening, I was physically exhausted from moving and unpacking, and emotionally spent from trying to meet the needs of this cute little kiddo. Jeff offered to feed Lili dinner so I could take a much-needed bath.

After unpacking bath soap and my book, I got ready to have my first bath in our new tub. Just as I settled in and closed my eyes, there was a big splash, and I felt water hit my face. I wiped my eyes, looked around to see what had fallen in, and noticed a naked child in the bath beaming up at me.

I shouted for Jeff, who came running.  Although a little surprised, he looked pleased rather than alarmed to find her in the tub with me and Mr. Bubble.  He asked if he could take a picture.  "Are you crazy?!"  I said.  "She's not my kid!  This is totally inappropriate!" I jumped out and grabbed a towel and began to dry myself (hiding from view behind the shower curtain).  Lili, insulted, got ready to cry, and Jeff suggested I get back in to make her feel better.  I refused, and went off to put on Many Layers of clothes and figure out how to word a text message to the peanut's mom about what had happened.  

A few minutes and a lot of anxiety later, I emerged from the bedroom to find Lili swinging her towel and dancing naked around the kitchen.  I ran back to the bedroom, and shouted again for Jeff.  He seemed totally perplexed that I would be uncomfortable about the little nudist in our midst.  He told me, "Little kids are always naked, Karen, it's not a big deal."  It sure felt like a big deal!  

The rest of that weekend proved equally clothes-defying.  At brownie baking time, I suggested we change Lili into an old t-shirt so we didn't ruin her cute dress with chocolate.  She said "NO!" and removed her entire outfit instead, then demanded Jeff take a video of her baking sans pants.  I hid in the bedroom again.  Another incident involved her testing out a few new video games - naked.  Of course.  By the time she left with Jeff to go back to Mommy's house, I was a wreck.  I imagined the things she'd tell her family in her cute little baby voice, when asked what she did at our house:

"Karen take bath with Lili!"
"Lili make brownies - no pants!"

I imagined DCF (the Department of Children and Families) coming to the house.  Worse yet, what if DCF sent a social worker I knew from my job?! I considered the potential horror of opening the door and finding a familiar face looking perplexed and concerned, having been dispatched to investigate suspicious circumstances involving a naked child in my care to whom I was not related.  Oh god, it could go so wrong in so many ways.

Jeff asked why I was so uptight about little kids being little kids.  I responded that I had no problem with little kids - in fact, I love them!  It was little kids without clothes on that freaked me out.  At the time, I thought it was probably because I'd never had any of my own.  In hindsight, it is probably also due in part to societal focus on inappropriate contact with children, in part the nature of my job, and possibly my upbringing.  

I'm a nurse with a therapeutic foster care agency, and we see many very disturbing family situations. My parents are doctors, and happy to provide clinical explanations for things, but we've always been a keep-it-covered family.  Both my mother and father taught the annual birds-and-the-bees class at our elementary and middle school - however, the kids in our family were given that day off.  I guess they figured we had that all down pat (not so much!).  I'd just as well tell our kids that babies are brought by the stork and keep it moving.

Fast forward to 2015 and I'm snapping photos of our little boy's naked rear as it runs by, making absolutely no attempt to cover it.  It took having a baby to disconnect me from some of my own hangups.  Baby buns, I recently discovered, are among the most natural and adorable kid phenomenons. I just love them, they go well with everything!  And, as my nieces and stepdaughter have shown me, the innocence and sweetness of kids in regard to bodies (both their own and other people's) is something we can laugh about and should celebrate rather than recoil from.  Lauren was absolutely right - bathing a dog would be *much* easier sans culottes, so to speak.  Society sadly tells us that might be improper.  Lili made a good point as well: baking in underwear instead of pajamas, a bathrobe, and an apron makes more sense - and less mess!

Absolutely, there are people out there who look at undressed children with cruel intentions, however I'm not going to let the existence of that minority ruin our kids' enjoyment of childhood and naked time.  There are very few years during which children are blissfully unaware of what is perceived to be "wrong" with differently shaped bodies. They're given the message beginning at a very early age that being undressed is suddenly shameful.  For these reasons, I am going to let our kiddos bathe, bake, and just be in the buff for as long as feels comfy for them.  They are absolutely perfect just as they are, with or without pants. If I get a knock at the door one day, I guess I'll blog about it :)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Jellybeans and lies

I put our dying dog to sleep this summer.  By that I mean, I took her to the vet to be euthanized.  It wasn't the first time I've had to do that, and sadly it won't be the last. Because we adopt and rescue elderly and sometimes terminally ill dogs, canine end of life care and decisions are commonplace in our household.

One of the things that's been on my mind, especially during this past year, is how the near-constant rotation of dogs affects our kids, particularly Lili.  It had been four years since we last said good-bye to one of our dogs, and her understanding of the process and result is completely different at seven years than it was as a wee toddler.  

A few weeks after Jellybean flew off to heaven, Lili sat down to dinner and immediately noticed a package on the nearby counter.  It was the little tin of JB's ashes that had just come home from the veterinarian. While Lili studied them, we talked about what a sweet, gentle little dog she was, and how much we missed her.

Next, I showed Lili where I'd planned to put Jellybean's ashes, in a prominent position in the living room with sunlight and a great view of the kitchen.  Proximity to food was very important to JB during her life. Lili helped me arrange the tin next to a little jar of jellybeans, Jelly's collar and tags, and some votive candles.  She asked very intelligent, thoughtful questions about dying.  

We covered the technical, medical part very smoothly, but I stumbled a little when we got to the questions about what heaven is like.  I was honest in saying that I really don't know, but what I like to imagine is that it's a giant bacon buffet in the sky where all of our beloved former pets are reunited, with cloud-beds to rest on and an endless supply of snacks. Hopefully we humans get to join them, I said.  And then I managed to tie in some of the stuff Lili had learned about for her First Communion, which I felt extremely proud about, seeing as I'm a Jew.

As we stood back in the living room to admire the beautiful arrangement we'd made to honor our darling dog, I felt my heart swell with pride, both at what a nice kid Lili was, and what a good job I'd done at providing an honest and heartfelt representation of the transition from this life into the next.

Then Lili noticed Jellybean had a neighbor.

Lili: Karen, who is in that other tin?
Karen: Up there next to Jellybean?
Lili: Yes.  Ladybug and Tucker were buried under those little stones with their names, so who's in there?
Karen: Diego.
Lili: Wait, Diego's dead?  You and Daddy said he went to live with another nice family.
Karen: SHIT!
Lili: You might want to say "shoot!" instead, it's a little nicer word.  

And, just like that, I got busted for profanity *and* lying.  Unable to sleep that night, I mulled it over for hours.  Honesty is probably the single most important attribute I look for in a friend or partner.  It's something Jeff and I both try to encourage (enforce, even) in our kids. Although I think of myself as both a parent and person of integrity, I realized that I lie to our kids not infrequently.  In fact, I've probably earned an MBA (Mommy's a Bullshit Artist) at this point.  The lies seem to fall into the following sub-categories:
1. Avoiding a tantrum: 
-"The playground / toy store / ice cream shop/ pool is closed / closing in 10 minutes."  
-"I don't know where your lollipop went."  
-"You don't want to try that.  It might have peanuts in it."

2. Achieving results:
-"Santa Claus is watching, he'll know if you don't eat your veggies."
-"Yes, the Elf on a Shelf is real.  He's reporting to Santa"
-"Everyone is going to bed now."

3. Preventing fear or minimizing loss/heartbreak:
-"I'm not sure when your next pediatrician appointment is."
-"Yes, Ladybug definitely got the balloon you sent up to heaven."
-"I haven't seen that toy in ages, who knows where it went!"

4. My own discomfort with the subject matter:
-"I'm not sure how the baby's going to get here, but no, he's definitely not coming out my butt."  (Not a total lie, but not going there either...)
-"No, drinking too much beer is not fun.  And wine tastes gross."
-"The priest was right, Christmas is most importantly about Little Baby Jesus' birthday."

I'm not going to try to justify my approach, and I acknowledge 100% that there is definitely more than one "right" way to raise a child.  We are a modern family, and one of the things I'd like to think our older kiddo Lili is blessed with is both a step-mommy and a biological mommy.  Not only does she get extra love and support, her bio mommy is unafraid of tackling some of the subjects that I am not comfortable addressing, or at least unable to address honestly, haha.  This neat trick handily gets step-mommy off the hook much of the time.  Karen just has to make sure she checks in regularly with Mommy, so that she can keep her stories straight....