Genetic Roulette and Books and Candy

Each time a couple gets together to make a baby they gamble on a spin of the roulette wheel of genetics. In the universe’s infinite randomness, or infinite wisdom depending on your religious persuasions, the resulting baby is a little bit of this and a little bit of that, basically a mess of traits gleaned from parents and ancestors long forgotten.

When my babies arrived, it was clear that I had no genetic input to their physical appearance. Neither were blue-eyed and pink. Luke looked like a photo of his dad come to life, and Sally looked exactly like Luke. This hasn’t changed. Tim and Luke look alike down to their toes. They inhabit their identical-but-32-years-apart bodies the same way, crossing their legs in the same manner, moving effortlessly the same in their skins. It’s weird.

And Sally? She looks like Luke. Her face is his face, just slightly smaller. People sometimes tell me that she looks like me, and I can see how one might imagine I looked like that as a little girl. But a photo of me at 5 holds no resemblance to my daughter, beyond the fact that all 5-year-old girls look pretty much the same.

So what did they get from me in our game of genetic roulette? A couple of unfortunate intangibles: for Luke it’s mostly my quick temper and general disdain for authority. This is absolutely not ideal, but probably exactly what I deserve. To Sally I passed down a flair for drama – this is a euphemism for OH MY GOD THE GIRL IS SO FREAKING DRAMATIC – and a natural disposition to getting hurt in unlikely situations. These, also, are not ideal, nor are they my best qualities.

This weekend I discovered a couple more subtle roulette outcomes in my children.

Dressed in our cozy pajamas, the kids and I piled on the couch on Sunday morning for me to read to them from James and the Giant Peach. This is an epically great book. I loved it when I was a kid and I couldn’t wait to share it with Luke and Sally. The writing is wonderfully descriptive, easily painting the scenes in a reader’s mind. The characters, each fleshed out in all their glorious weirdness, lend themselves to reading aloud, if you enjoy adapting different voices and affectations to help capture your audience’s imagination, which I do. (See inherited “flair for drama” above.)

So I read, enjoying it so much I could have read the entire book in one sitting. To my left, sat a captivated Sally, carefully studying each of the few pictures I showed her. In her I saw a younger me, comparing her imagination’s picture with the book’s illustrations, adjusting her mind’s account accordingly, seeing everything as clearly as if it were a scene right in front of her eyes.

To my right, Luke sat bored and squirmy. The book didn’t have enough pictures; the action was slow to arrive due to far too much background information, too much about the mean aunts and James’ despondency. He begged me to stop. Sally begged me to continue. When I did stop, Luke bounded away from us gratefully, needing to stretch and move. Sally curled into me and asked if I would read more later and if we could do this every Sunday morning. She took a few minutes to mentally transition, saving her mind’s image for next time.

At last! One of my children is like me, and in a way I actually like! Luke’s aversion to reading, and even hearing stories, worries and upsets me a little. I’m sure he’ll be fine and normal and all that, but not loving to read? Ack! It’s like a personal affront. Is this strange boy-person really my child? He’s so unlike me in every way.

Later that day I was still feeling entirely unrelated to Luke, when he inadvertently proved that he is mine after all. At a local Halloween event the kids got to collect some candy shortly before we were set to leave. “OK, kids, it’s time to go, but you can eat some of your candy in the car.” (A good exit strategy is always key.) Sally: “Yay!” Luke: “But I finished all my candy already.”

WHAT? In the few minutes that we watched the end of a costume contest, Luke had absent-mindedly eaten all of his candy. I’m sure he didn’t notice half of it. Sigh, shit. Who would think that this could be an inherited trait? A bag of candy is about as safe with me as a bag of brains is safe with zombies. I would absolutely mindlessly eat it all my candy immediately.

Can’t this kid inherit a single good quality from me? Meanwhile, Sally ate a little candy in the car on the way home, still has some left over today, and chances are she will forget all about it. This she inherits from her father, under whose watch a package of cookies can actually go stale. (WTF?)

The problem with genetic roulette is what you learn about yourself. Nothing compares to seeing your flaws and weaknesses playing out in your children. Hopefully Luke’s physicality and inability to be still will counterbalance his absent-minded candy consumption better than my love for sitting still and reading does mine! Flaws or not, it is comforting to see yourself in your children. It helps reinforce the biologic component to parenting, which is important and helps keep us going when quitting seems like a decent option, like each night around bed time.

Genetic Roulette

 

The birds and bees before sunrise

“I have feet just like Daddy’s.”

“You do. But smaller.”

“It’s his genes.”

“His jeans? Hahahahahaha. You can’t wear Daddy’s jeans! Hahahahahahaha.”

“No, not those jeans. His genes. DNA. It’s what he’s made out of.”

“Oh, those genes. Because you’d look funny in Daddy’s pants.”

“But how did I get Daddy’s genes for big feet if I was made inside of Mommy?”

This conversation happened over my head as I “slept” this morning at 6:15. At this point, I had to get involved.

“You have half of Daddy’s genes and half of Mommy’s. You grew inside of Mommy’s body but it takes both a Mommy’s and a Daddy’s genes to make a baby. So you’re a mix of the two.”

There. That should cover it. We’ve talked about this stuff before, but we’ve never gotten to the actual mechanics of how the baby starts. They know how it ends, and Sally is already hoping for a c-section and Luke is very happy he’s a boy. Are we really going to have this conversation here and now. In the very bed where, well, the starting part happens?

“But what if the daddy wore a glove when he touched it? Then the baby would only have the mommy’s genes.”

“What?”

“You know, when he touches it. If he wore a glove, none of his DNA would come off.”

“What? What do you mean? Touches what?”

At this point Luke touches his finger to the pillow beside me, and says,

“See, I left some DNA on the pillow. But if I had a glove on I wouldn’t have.”

“Oh, I see. You’re right. You have DNA in all the cells in your body. So when you touch something you might leave some skin cells behind that have DNA in them. That’s not how babies get their daddy’s DNA, but it is how cops can solve crimes.”

Yes, let’s talk about crime scenes instead.

“So where do babies get their daddy’s  DNA?”

“From the daddy’s sperm. The sperm has the dad’s genes and the egg has the mommy’s. When the sperm and egg combine, they make a unique person who is a mix of the two parents.”

“Where does the sperm come from?”

And here we go. Answer only the question that is asked. Answer only the question that is asked…

“Men make sperm in their testicles.”

“So my testicles have sperm in them?”

“Not yet. You’ll start making sperm when you go through puberty. Around the same time your voice changes and you grow body hair.”

“When a girl shares a room with her brother, she has to move out when she’s about 12 because she gets hairy.”

“What? Um, well, a girl might go through puberty around 12, and I suppose if a sister and brother shared a bedroom they might want to be separated as they get older.”

“Who will look after Sally when I move out? I don’t want her to be alone.”

“You mean when you go to college? She’ll be big. 16.”

“Yes, but that’s when more serious things can happen and I won’t be here to look out for her.”

Well, this has taken a surprising turn. At this point, Sally buries her head and says,

“What if someone steals me?”

“No, Sally, no one will steal you! You’ll be 16. People can’t steal a 16 year old. Right, Mom?”

Um, potential abduction of my teenage daughter, or the birds and bees?

“We’ll be here to take care of Sally. Do you have any more questions about babies?”

“How does the sperm get out of the daddy and into the mommy?”

And there it is folks. The million dollar question I’ve been waiting for.

“It comes out through the man’s penis. A man and a woman have what’s called ‘sex.’ That’s when a man puts his penis into a woman’s vagina and then the sperm come out and meet up with the egg. That then grows into a baby, for 9 months inside the mommy.”

Well done, Allison! Just the facts, using real words, no embarrassment. Damn, you’re a great mom.

“What if it’s born after just 4 months?”

Gah! WTF, kids? I just told you about freaking sex and you just want to skip right through to miscarriages and dead babies?

“A baby needs to stay inside long enough to live. 4 months isn’t enough. It’s supposed to take 40 weeks. The longer the better but really it needs to be in there for a good 30 or more weeks to be born and survive without any big problems. So, any more questions?”

“Can we have pancakes?”

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We turned off the TV

Two things I know about myself: I am inherently lazy; and I am predominantly grumpy.

Sure, I can be motivated and cheerful, but it’s a fight. As an insomniac, I’m also usually tired and the extra effort required to overcome my natural grumpy laziness takes even more energy. So it doesn’t happen first thing in the morning very often. Which sucks if you’re my kids. (And probably my husband.)

My kids wake up happy! and excited! and energized! and all things exclamation pointy! I wake up grudgingly. It’s not always actual waking up, just a change from being angrily awake in bed to being angrily awake not in bed. Add to this mix the fact that Luke is an early riser, and you have a recipe made for watching morning TV.

Over the years, each time my kids plugged into early morning TV I felt a pang of guilt. For the longest time I kept the programming to the PBS variety, and it made it feel alright. “It’s OK if they watch a little Arthur or Martha Speaks before school. They’re learning stuff. And, mmmmm coffee.” But “a little” was actually “a lot” and eventually the shows were not of the PBS variety.

So we slid down the slippery slope of children’s programming, and soon my kids were watching obnoxious TV shows and were acting obnoxious accordingly. As much as I’d like to deny it, the truth is that they watched hours of TV on most days. We don’t have to leave our house for school until 8:20 or so, and with Luke’s love for 6AM, you can see how the hours might accumulate.

It does not take a parenting guru to see the correlation between my kids’ behavior and their TV consumption. The change in them is pretty immediate. Happy children sit down in front of the TV, cranky children walk away from it. Every time. Something had to change. But to take away morning TV meant that I would have to step up my game. Did I want to do this? While they plugged into their thing, I plugged into mine. After taking care of breakfasts and lunches, I’d sip coffee while catching up on Facebook. Technology ruled our mornings. Any change was going to be rough on all of us.

And then, just like that, I had enough. It was a typical weekend day. Beautiful outside. I decided there would be no TV. Sally balked but then quickly busied herself with her toys.

Sally plays

Luke balked, then fought, then complained, then cried, then fought, then complained, then tried to sabotage Sally’s fun, then fought, then complained, then cried… This went on for five hours. See, not only did I say no TV, (or any iDevice,) but I also insisted that he entertain himself. No, Daddy would not play soccer and no, I would not play games. Mom and Dad were busy.

Five hours. It took five hours for my 7.5 year old to figure out how to play without the help of technology or the undivided attention of an adult. Five hours where he tried to spread as much misery as possible. Somehow, my husband and I stuck it out, not knowing if it would ever end. We paid him as little attention as possible, knowing that, for him, negative attention is just as good as any.

After those five terrible hours something amazing happened. Luke noticed his long ignored Legos. Both kids played with Legos for hours – in between snacks, fights, and meals. The day closed with both kids happy.

That night I told the kids there would be no TV in the morning. We hid the remotes, the computer mouse, and the iPad just in case a sneaky early riser “forgot.” The kids were surprisingly accepting of the morning’s dearth of technology. They never even asked. They played. I certainly couldn’t go sit at my computer, so I busied myself with chores I normally leave until after they’re off to school.

Is this what it’s like to be one of those nice families? 

OK, so that’s one day. Surely this will get hard. That night we again told them there would be no TV in the morning. We again hid all the things. They again didn’t ask. This time, we played several rounds of Uno together. The kids were DELIGHTED. So much so that I felt like the world’s worst mom.

Look how happy my kids are just to get a smidge of attention from me in the morning. Holy shit have I sucked for all these years!

It’s now been nearly two full weeks of no TV in the mornings. This means no computer time for me too, and I have to muster up a lot of friendliness before I’ve finished even my first cup of coffee. I can’t tell you how much of a difference it’s made. Just starting our day with a little more effort helps us all have better days. Leaving the house for school requires so much less reminding, rushing, and nagging on my part and involves so much less complaining on theirs. They haven’t been asking for much afternoon TV either. Will things change when the weather gets colder? Possibly. I hope we land somewhere moderate. Things had really gotten out of control for a while there.

Could I have done this as successfully years ago? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t see much point in looking back though. There were a couple of years when survival was the name of the game. I’m happy to report that we did indeed survive them.

Many of you are probably thinking, “Of course things are better! And yes, you were a shitty parent all those years!” Fine. Judge away if it makes you feel good about yourself.

But for anyone reading who is thinking, “I could never do it. I need that morning TV time for my sanity!” I have something to say: That’s OK. I needed it too. And then, one day, I didn’t.

Pin me: We turned off the tv