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Happy Birthday, Nat

This is the same baby picture I used last year on her birthday. Sometimes I'm just very wistful for that age - everything that comes out of a kid's mouth when they're three is either funny or sweet. Every day brings a new achievement in cuteness. Awww, she's going potty, how freaking adorable! It's a good age because it's a forced obedience age. You are their master. You pick them up and put them in the car seat when you want to go somewhere. They wear pretty much what you put on them. They eat when you sit them down at the table. They're strapped into strollers, booster seats, car seats. They're a captive audience, with no real choices and no real means to fight for their right to party. Oh sure, you'll get temper tantrums and willful disobedience, but that's when you just pick them up and carry them out of the store or into their bedroom. Try that with a fifteen year old.

Yea, fifteen. Fifteen years ago from about right now, I was on my way to the hospital, clutching my huge belly and thinking that nothing in the world was quite worth the pain I was in. It's a weird feeling, knowing that you are in the midst of something you can't stop. No, I changed my mind, I don't want to have a baby! I don't want to push this human being out of my vagina! Uh...a little too late for that.

Anyhow, this is about my daughter and I should really try not to spend her birthday morning reliving the hell of birth, although recounting at least part of that story at just the right juncture (what have you done for me lately, mom?) really makes a succint point, no?

I promised her birthday banana pancakes this morning before she heads out for school. So I'm just going to say Happy Birthday, Gnat (yes, I bestowed the same exact nickname on my daughter as the Lileks family did theirs - I guess it just comes wit the name, though we have also called her Bratalie, which James just might do some day when his own Gnat passes out of the "always cute" stage). Below is my absolute favorite post about my daughter and life as a parent.


Babies, Songs and Stepford Mommies

I dragged Natalie to Wal-Mart with me yesterday to pick up some odds and ends. We stopped briefly in the electronics department to see if they carried the thingie that I need to transfer my photos from camera to computer, as the one I own is packed away somewhere in a box that must be buried under boxes we intended to not open for years.

They didn't have what I was looking for, but they did have three giant bins filled with DVDs! Three for Five Dollars! While Supplies Last! Of course, we had to look. I know I will never, ever find anything I want in these bin sales, but I look anyway, always hoping that one day the corporate heads at Conglomerate Central will decide that their store should no longer carry any Gary Oldman movies and I'll be able to complete my collection cheap.

No such luck. There were some Tony Danza movies, a couple of Part IVs to movies that should have never had a Part I and kids videos that were all mean to cash in on the Barney craze way back when but never had quite the impact that the grown man dressed up in the polka dotted lion suit hoped for.

As I gave up hope of finding anything interesting (and after explaining to Natalie that Monkeybone was not worth even $1.75), I was smacked in the face by nostalgia.

Baby Songs. Oh, not a good thing to see while I'm suffering through a raging battle with PMS. No, not the kind of PMS where I want to tear someone's heart out, but the complete opposite, the kind that makes me cry at the mere site of orphaned kittens or little babies or an old couple holding hands.

When Natalie was wee tiny, someone bought us a few of the Baby Songs tapes. I scoffed, as I was not going to be one of those parents who stuck their kid in front of a television. In fact, I vowed that Natalie would not even know what a television was until she was older. Perfect Parenting 100 begins with the mantra Kill Your Television.

We listened to music instead. Natalie was strangely soothed by the harmonious melodies of the Traveling Wilburys. I have a video somewhere of Natalie in her little bouncy seat, having one of her patented screaming fits. When she had these outbursts, she was unconsolable. She didn't want to be held. Didn't want to be fed. Nothing could calm her down. But in this particular video (and why we were taping her screaming, I have no idea), she's at fever pitch; arms flailing, feet flying, head spinning 360 degrees with pea soup flying out of her mouth and suddenly she stops. Just dead stops. She cocks her head like a cat listening for the devil. And you hear it.

Been beat up and battered 'round
Been sent up, and I've been shot down
You're the best thing that I've ever found
Handle me with care

The tears stop, her face lights up. I zoom in close with the camera and I swear she is smiling. Smiling! and thus began the beginning of the end of my infatuation with that Wilburys song. After five days of using it to stop the crying jags, I never wanted to hear it again.

One time, not too long ago, I put the song on just to see if Natalie remembered it, or if she would have some subconscious reaction to it. Nope. She just said "Hey, I know this song, dad has this CD at his house," which left me a little mad that he has something I think belongs in Nat's baby box.

So Natalie's savage mood swings were soothed by music, and this bode well for one very tired mommy. I was able to put her in the swing or the bouncy seat, switch on the stereo and everyone was happy. Mommy could do some cleaning or read the paper and Natalie would bounce and swing and make little baby attempts at singing, which some people call cooing, but when your child is obviously some kind of genius, it is singing, damn it.

Then the stereo broke. Just stopped working, just like that. Now what? The crying jags came back. The red face and balled up fists were like powerful magic, turning me into a stressed out, frenzied mother who wanted nothing more than to not be a mother whenever Nat was struck by these moods. Music, had to have music.

There was the television. Staring at me, just daring me to turn it on. But...but what about my Perfect Parenting score? What would the other women in the Mother's Group think? Won't my baby immediately turn into an idiot if I put her in front of the tv?

Well, it was just music, after all. I just needed music. So I hesitantly put on MTV. The crying coming from the monster baby in the swing stopped. The cooing/singing started. Yes! This had to be worth the points I would get taken off my Perfect Parent license. I took Natalie out of the swing and put her on my lap, right in front of the tv. I was losing control over my ability to perfect parent! Maybe I was going to become the idiot, not my baby.

It didn't matter because the MTV fascination lasted as quick as the Prince video we were watching. They segued from Prince into Guns N Roses and, let me tell you, there has never in fourteen years of Natalie's life been anything that frightened her more than Axl Rose. It wasn't just an aberration that Welcome to the Jungle was making her cry that day. It turned out that no matter where we were, whether it was on the tv or a radio, GnR never failed to pitch Natalie into a crying frenzy. [Then there was the video for Live's I, Alone, which caused Natalie (at a much later age) to have a recurring nightmare about Ed Kowalczyk eating her for dinner.]

It was at one of these Perfect Parenting meetings that I broke down and confessed I was a bad parent who tried to use television to make my child stop crying. The other mothers took turns chastising me and using a cat-o-nine tails on my back while I had to repeat over and over again that I was a bad mommy and would never, ever turn on a television again. Points were taken away. Tears were shed. This was worse than the day I confessed that I wasn't signing Natalie up for Gymboree. Or the day the other mommies noticed that my child was not wearing Baby Gap clothing.

After the de-scoring ceremony, I left the mommy group feeling dejected and horrible about my parentings skills. As I walked to my car (points off for having a Mustang and not a mini-van) a small, meek woman approached me. She was wearing a trench coat and dark sunglasses and furtively glancing around.

I have to make this quick, she said. I've been banished from the mommy group for letting my kids watch television and for not having soy milk available in my home. She then reached into her deep pockets, pulled out a video tape, and whispered two words into my ear: Baby Songs. She confessed that she had been letting her twins watch the tapes since they were old enough to see straight. She related the story of the day one of the lead mommies came to her house for a suprise visit and saw the twins propped up in front of the television, all smiles and giggles, watching a video. She tried to defend herself by showing the ruling mommy how happy the twins were, but the mommy just said they were the smiles of idiots, not happy babies. She immediately turned off her tv, and offered the lead mommy a snack, but the lack of soy milk did her in. Banishment followed immediately.

The trenchcoated woman explained the importance of the Baby Songs tapes. How they soothed her children, but were educational, too. How the tapes gave her time to unwind, read the paper, have coffee, do a load of dishes without having to hold or entertain the kids.

I gave in. I took the tape from her and to anyone looking on from the shadows, we must have appeared to be two desparate housewives making a crack deal to aleviate the boredom of our lives. She offered the crack. I took it and ran.

It was nothing short of a miracle, this tape. The second the music cued up, Natalie did her little hand-waving, foot-wiggling act. She smiled. She giggled. I think she may have applauded.

I was able to make dinner peacefully. I dusted and vacuumed. I read a chapter of a book. All the while, Natalie cooed and sang and never once approached the danger zone of the whimpers that would lead to a full on tantrum.

Yet, I felt guilty. The tv was on! How terrible! So I fought with myself.
She's happy, you're happy.
No, no, she's not happy, she's just smiling an idiot's smile!
Look how much you got done.
But what good is a nice dinner when your child is losing IQ points?
These songs are so cute!
The Mommies are going to take away your membership card!

I had this image of the Lead Mommy looking very much like Angelica Huston in The Witches. Would I be able to hide my dirty deeds at the next meeting or would she just know, just by looking at me, that I was a hideous creature, a mother who dared to let her child watch television and wear K-Mart clothing?

Then Natalie clapped. Really, truly clapped. With delight. I sat down in front of the tv and put Nat on my lap, rewound the Baby Songs tape and started from the beginning. We watched the whole thing together, me laughing and her singing and clapping. Angelica Huston be damned, my kid was happy. She was not crying or thrashing about or turning red with kiddie rage.

The next day I went to my Perfect Parent meeting as usual. When it came time to sit in our circle and take turns airing our parenting gripes in a non-confrontational, non-judgmental manner, I quietly took my place on the floor. After listening to a few women bitch very non judgmentally about other (non Perfect Parenting) mothers who don't enroll their babies in vocabulary enhancement classes, it was my turn. I stood up - even though standing up was considered a threatening, aggressive move -and told the other perfect, wonderful mommies that my child was enjoying watching television and furthermore, I was enjoying the fact that she was enjoying it. And, even furthermore, I was going to purchase even more videotapes and oh, by the way, I don't add tofu to my daughter's baby food, I think Baby Gap clothes are ugly and overpriced and (looking straight at the Lead Mommy at this point) I have it on good authority that you buy store brand diapers! Well, you can imagine the cacophony of gasps and squeals. I fled the room, ran to the car (cradling Natalie under my arm like a football, which is a big no-no in the Perfect Parenting world) and took off in my non-conformist Mustang, tires screeching, radio blaring some Satan's spawn rock song.

Man, that was one long tangent. Let's get back to Wal-Mart, yesterday.

So we stand there still digging through videos and I start thinking about the Perfect Parenting mommies and wondering how I've fared since I left the group that purported to have my child's best interests at heart. Did I raise her right? Did she turn into a good young adult? Would she pass inspection from the Lead Mommy? What would her scores in self-esteem and individuality look like if her life were a scorecard?

We're approached by a loud group of giggly girls that turn out to be Nat's friends from school. One of the girls is a friend of a friend, one of those clique cross-over girls. She stares Natalie up and down while Nat chats with one of the other girls. Natalie notices this.

What? Do I have a booger on my face or something?
Uhh..no. I'm just like..uh...I hate those pants you wear.
Well, it's a good thing I don't dress to please you, isn't it?

Yea, I've done alright.

The girls left and I grabbed three of the Baby Songs DVDs and showed them to Natalie. Remember these, I asked? And my fourteen year old starts singing, in the middle of Wal-Mart. Mommy comes back, she always comes back, she always comes back to get me. My mommy comes back, she always comes back, she never would forget me.

She remembered. Surely, not from her infant days when I propped her in front of the television; more likely from my second round with the tapes when DJ was a baby. But listening to her sing those words all these years later made my eyes fill with tears. Natalie glared at me. You are not going to cry, mom. Pause. Are you?

I look at her and think of her as a baby, a toddler, a Daisy Girl Scout. It really wasn't that long ago. She's still sort of a kid, right? I'm getting all teary for nothing. I still have years of her childhood left to savor. I go on and on like this for a few minutes, staring at the Baby Songs videos, looking at her, trying to not to break into a PMS crying fit.

Natalie breaks my reverie.

Oh, Mom. Forgot to tell you. I got my high school schedule [for September] today.

Damn straight I cried. I'm crying now, still.

[Baby Songs]

Happy Birthday, Nat.


Just started reading your blog and I really enjoy it. I am a dad with a 15-yr old girl and your posts about your daughter are right on. Your recollections and Lileks makes me nostalgic for those early days too. But I guess each year offers something different, although often very difficult as well.

I know the feeling.

Baby Mozart DVD.

Kill me now.

Heh. Today is my sister-in-law's birthday, and next tuesday in my niece's 5th. Then next month (St. Patty's Day) will be 6 years since my brother called me up to tell me he got married to someone he'd only met in person 3 times.

Holy crap, where did all those years go????

Happy birthday Natalie.

I seem to remember my wife, or someone, telling me that giving birth to a child is a lot like pulling a pot roast through your nostril.

Feel free not to share that with your daughter. I'm not sharing it with mine.