Monday, November 15, 2010

Praguenosis Negative

After months of nagging and a tumultuous couple of weeks, Gabe finally conceded that it was time for a trip. So last weekend the Kerr family skipped town for the Czech Republic. Destination Prague. The plan was fairly simple, aimed towards relaxation, new sights, and some much-needed time away. We would rent a car in Vienna, drive 4 hours to Prague where we had rented an apartment, and spend a couple of days taking in the old world architecture of the Golden City. I am not sure where in the planning of said trip we forgot that we a.) had a child, b.) had a child who doesn't like the car, and c.) had a child who likes to run around and isn't all that interested in looking at buildings, no matter how magnificently well-preserved.

It wasn't that we didn't have a good time or stand back in wonder at the beauty of it all. It's just that after all was said and done, the sheer uphill battle of making what are normal day-to-day operations happen under weird circumstances wasn't worth the nominal enjoyment we got out of the couple of hours we looked at buildings in the rain. Brutal, yes, but then so was watching Jude eat nothing but crackers (once even dipped in ketchup) for three days straight. The car ride histrionics alone were enough to make us never want to vacation again.

However, what we did get out of the trip was a walloping heap of learning and some good laughs. Here are some of the highlights...

Not This "Mother's Choice"

I haven't gotten a huge safety vibe from my experience living in Vienna. We've seen playground equipment that appears engineered for kids to hurt themselves. I've been in two Strassenbahn accidents in 3 months. Each time I came home and told Gabe that I had a sneaking suspicion that people/cars must get hit by these things everyday. Most recently Jude has been invited to go for a spin on several carnival rides at a seasonal festival that are clearly intended for much older children. There was never the requisite sign off to the side posting the minimum height for all ridegoers. All sizes welcome, I guess. "Jude, wanna ride Santa's Train of Death?" However, it was the Mother's Choice child seat experience that truly confirmed my fears when it comes to safety precautions. There are none. Thank goodness there is a social safety net here for the battered and bruised of Vienna because apparently there has been no Austrian equivalent of Ralph Nadar.

We arrived to pick up our car rental, baby in tow, and were expecting to drive out of there without incident. We had filled out the request for an age/weight appropriate car seat when we reserved the car online and assumed that the facility was prepared to fulfill this request. Sitting in the smoke-filled room, after we had signed for the car, we inquired about the seat for Jude. The women helping us stared at me with an implied eye-roll. I later described it to Gabe as the, "You're really going to press this car seat thing, lady?" look. She fully intended on letting us drive off with the baby in my lap! When her piercing glare didn't work, she snapped something in German and a second women reluctantly walked over to a drawer, unlocked a set of keys, and went to the back to fetch our car seat. She returned and laid it on the floor at our feet.

I muttered something about checking for the weight limit and as I bent down to do so, I noticed that all the straps had been removed. Really? Come on. 30 Euro for a seat with no straps? But there was that look again. It said, "We've already locked those keys up. You're going to make us go back there and look for a different seat?" But the protectionist in me and the cheap skate in Gabe agreed, go look for another seat. The dance repeated itself, and this time the women returned with a large booster seat, brand name, "Mother's Choice." I did some quick cost benefit analysis in my head. Would making a greater fuss produce a substantially more safe car seat? Would the time spent on such an endeavor be worth the additional time out of our brief vacation?

I quickly converted Jude's lbs. to kgs. and we took the "Mother's Choice."

Just to clearly explain how problematic this seat was for us, I have to note that Gabe and I are kind of car seat fanatics. We actually carried a study exposing the vulnerabilities of infant carriers to the birth of our child, prepared to fully defend our choice of using a convertible seat at birth in the instance anyone gave us trouble when we tried to leave. We were crusaders for getting the thing professionally installed, making call after call to Chicago Fire and Police stations. Stubbornly, we refused to move it someone else's car for the many trips back and forth to Michigan. Usually, this meant having to suffer driving in the Jeep sans AC during the summer humidity. Forgive me if I am making a huge deal out of nothing as I itemize the scary features of the M'sC... the seat was medieval as far as I was concerned.

The only way to secure it to the car was to run the shoulder strap behind our child, leaving the lap belt as the only device holding Jude in and "protecting" him from injury. Whenever the car would make a turn, the seat would shift from its prefered location on the middle seat to halfway over onto the seat next to him. Of course, this was after we moved it from its original position behind the passenger seat because there were no child locks on the doors and Jude made several moves to open the door while the car was in motion on the brief drive to our apartment. However, to be fair, I have to award this feature of potential traumatic injury to the Fiat and not the Mother's Choice. For the duration of his naps both to and from our destination, I got to make up for the M'sC lack of a chest harness and hold Jude into the seat to prevent his head from flopping over into his lap. At least when things got dicey navigating our way through the outskirts of Prague, I didn't feel too awful taking our agitated toddler out of his illusion of restraint to hold him on my lap for a short period of time. Conclusion, Jude was possibly if not probably in greater danger affixed to the M'sC than if we were to allow him to crawl about the car as the women from the car rental had intended.

All Maps Are Not Created Equal

Those who know me would kindly say that I am a bit of a control freak. I often think to myself that it's probably a good thing kids need structure and routine because if it were bad for them, Jude would be pretty screwed up. Schedules and lists are the very mortar that hold this family together. Yet, try as I might to let down my guard and play the role of the laid back mom, I am constantly (re)learning the lesson that it is best to do things yourself.

Enter lovely, adored husband.

Yes, it is the ultimate payback for this checklist loving, uber-clean, hyper-organized woman... I married the absent-minded professor. In an attempt to "fill the gaps" of Gabe's regular oversight of the details, I encourage the making of lists, try with follow-up phone calls, and in the end just wistfully hope that everything will get done. In some cases, ok, most cases, I have learned that it is probably best if I just take the helm. The map for how to get to Prague was one of those cases.

I made my case for an in-car navigational system- the convenience, the precision, the English, but Gabe refused to spring for a Garmin. So I delegated the responsiblity of either buying a map of both Austria and the Czech Republic or printing some clear directions from Google. I should have known that he would opt for the later. When he came home from work and handed me a small booklet of printouts, confirmation for our apartment/ car and a series of maps, I shouldn't have ignored the part of me that wanted to make sure we had adequate info to get us though not one, but two foreign cities.

The next day we managed to return to our apartment to pick up our bags and make our way out of the city through a combination of signs and familiar landmarks. We were on a roll. Maybe it was dumb luck, but driving abroad wasn't as foreign as we had expected. Once we were out of the city, the signage was still pretty good. At times Gabe would ask me to consult "the maps", but it was fairly clear we were headed in the right direction. Part of me dreaded looking at that mess of papers tucked neatly in with passports. About 30 minutes outside of Prague, I got nervous enough that I finally "consulted the maps."

First off, they were in German. Even more disturbing, they appeared to be the directions from Vienna to Prague if you were looking down on Earth from the moon. To add insult to my meager attempts to read these cryptic directions, the line that was intended to illuminate our path actually obscured any ability I had to make out numbers of highways/ exits. As navigator, the only answer that I could be completely confident in giving was that yes, we were somewhere between these two cities.

As is to be expected, Jude is wide awake at this point and clearly perturbed by both his mom and his Mother's Choice. We were running a tread back and forth on a 10 kilometer stretch of highway, unclear where to get off. The intensity level was clearly coming to a head in the Fiat. Gabe continues to ask me questions like, "What is up ahead?" and "Where does it say I should get off?" To which I reply, in a combination of perfect German,Czech,and smart-ass, "Leicht rechts auf Karlovo nám?!"

It was madness.

I took Jude out of the car seat to let him nurse and demanded we stop at the next gas station to purchase a detailed map and pinpoint our current locale, muttering "Garmin" under my breath. As if we needed any assistance in assigning blame for this debacle. Fortunately for us an angel appeared. At this moment it took the form of a short, bald man exiting a gas station bathroom with the ability to speak fluent English. In under 6 hours we concluded the first leg of our journey.

Sitting back in our Vienna apartment Monday evening, I popped open one of the Czech beers I smuggled back with me from our trip. Exhausted and throughly unrejuvenated, Gabe and I decided this was the bottom line for Prague (and all future vacations.) We laughed, Jude cried, and we'd totally see it again. However next time, we bring Grandparents.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

I Heart Playhosen

Upon arrival in Vienna, Gabe, Jude and I set out to explore the local park circuit and acclimate ourselves to the general lay of the land. During one of these early walks, I was confused and slightly disturbed to see a little boy in what appeared to be rubber overalls in the late August heat. Now the Viennese take the cold seriously and it is not uncommon to see babies fully bundled in a hat and warm jacket on a 55 degree day, but this was a little much even by local standards. Did this small child have a part-time gig as a Lobsterman? Maybe his parents had confused the forecast and were simply awaiting an impending thunderstorm despite an abundance of sunshine. I whispered to Gabe... "Check out that kid over there. The one with the crazy plastic pants." Fascinated, I filed the experience under "Weird Austria Stuff" along with the coffee shop that sells espresso machines, lacy underwear, and Lederhosen.

However, the more time I spent at the park, I noticed this was not a one-off; a silly, overprotective parent using make shift rain gear as playground covering. I watched as mammas and nannies, entire daycare centers in fact, dressed the toddling boys and girls in these plastic playground condoms upon entrance to the park. "Doesn't this go against everything be a kid is about?" I thought to myself. "Kids get dirty. It is what they do." You could hermetically seal Jude in a plastic bubble and he would still manage to come out with a mixture of slobber, food, and grass stains all over his clothing.

But the tightly wound, ultra-type A side of me, the one that knew she was headed to therapy after watching her crawling son slowly draw his arms and legs across filthy public surface after filthy public surface for several months, was secretly coveting this magnificent invention of anal retentive playgear.

I scoured the internet to no avail, Nothing but rainwear. turned up blank when I searched for "kids rubber overalls." I was on the hunt, still afraid to simply ask another parkgoer where her child got those lovely playground pants. I wanted to blend in with the local flora and fauna. I was hip to the ins and outs of parenting in Vienna. I knew that if every kid at the park was wearing them, they had to turn up sooner or later.

So.... they did. Jude has playhose...I admit it. And I love them. I remarked to Gabe the other day that they may just be the best thing we bring back to the States with us when we return. Forget handcrafted wooded toys. These rock! While I feel like a traitor to all that is wonderful about being a baby at the park, I rationalize that Jude can still can get dirty with his playhose on. In fact he can get even dirtier. No need to brush off his pants when he is wearing playhose.

Wallow away my little love, you will be the envy of all the excessive, hovering mothers of the U.S.A.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Weaning in Wien

I played it cool for the last 14 months. Now it is time to come clean. There was a part of me that had given up. Sleep would forever be limited to a series of 2-4 hour chunks. I listened, trying to suppress my envy, when other mothers enumerated the hours their babies slept in one sitting with double digits. It was galactically different from our experience... As I've said before, night for us was not for sleeping. No, night was all about eating.

I was living, 24 hour, breastraunt.

Today, I am in nursing mother's Valhalla. I've waited a long time to say it but, Jude finally sleeps through the night. 11 beautiful hours. Time to sleep or watch a movie uninterrupted by a little boy who has decided that he wants a snack, or three. Gone are the days where I would literally rush through my evening projects, an intended source of relaxation in the day, unsure whether I had 4 hours to work or 2. It was a long 14 months. Before I get into the details of how we did it and, gasp, what life was like before we made this sweeping transition, I have to add that we all continue to sleep together in the same bed. This was biggest doubt/question/ fear when it came to night weaning. How in the world would this translate for Jude when he sleeps so close to the source? But after only 6 nights in a 10 part plan, we were surprised at how effortlessly we made the move from the all night diner to a more modest 12 hour establishment.

Here it is in 3 acts.

Act 1: Zombie Stories

I have been working on this post for a while, like a month or so. I'll just chalk up its lack of completion to me being so darn well rested. Anyhow, I guess it is appropriate that I find the time to recall these chapters in my life so close to Halloween because I was a living Zombie for almost a year. Recently a friend was remarking about how crazy it is that people are so concerned about a mother having a cocktail and holding her baby. She had recently given birth and noted that she was by far a bigger danger to her son sleep deprived than she would ever be after a glass of wine or two. It's the absolute truth. As any mother can probably relate, I was a fraction of human being for most of the early months. It's a good thing Jude took so long to nurse during the day, because that is where he was safest, with me in a chair, sitting down.

But for most folks, life incrementally improves. At around 6 months, maybe they are getting up a couple of times at night to nurse/ feed the baby. Ohh no00. Not us. Prior to moving to Vienna, Jude was rivaling his cousin, more than half his age, for the number of times waking at night. It just didn't make sense.

I was beginning to tire.

With Gabe already abroad, I knew that it wasn't going to be practical for me to attempt to modify the situation with night nursing alone. I figured it was going to be difficult, tantamount to taking away Jude's most coveted possession. However, with the recent success of a friend in a similar co-sleeping, frequent night waking predicament, I began to formulate a plan. Travel Wien. Settle. Wean.

Act 2: The Good Doctor

I was pretty surprised how quickly Jude adapted to the time change once we arrived in Vienna. Two days in, I was lump well into the afternoon, but the baby was rearing to go explore the diverse and expansive parks in his new city and busying himself by emptying the contents of his new kitchen cabinets. This was my first cue that maybe I had underestimated his ability to adjust. It wouldn't be the first time where Jude was miles ahead of me, wanting to progress, while I held him back by my limiting understanding of where he was at developmentally. All I ever had to do was simply read his signals more clearly to put us in synch, and he would, often within days, make his leap to the next age appropriate level.

So I did what I always do before we prepare to make some big babymove... I googled. It wasn't just night weaning that I was curious about though. I needed to see if what I had begun to construct in my mind, a nighttime world where mom, dad, and baby all sleep soundly, side by side, for say, 7-9 hours, existed out there on the interweb....

and it did.

Welcome Dr Jay Gordon, Pediatrician, Co-sleeping advocate, and as we have so fondly dubbed him "Nighttime Weaning Man with the Plan." I'll bet Dr. Gordon gets a lot of hits from moms like me, ladies who have fought the good fight for a year, maybe more, and are looking for more than just a few chunks of sleep. Well, he had me at hello. I promptly bookmarked the page and began to make my case for "the plan" that evening. Gabe listened and agreed that Jude was most likely ready for such a plan and was willing to give it a shot. He recognized that this might truncate his sleep for the next week or so, but if we were able to pull it off, the net result would benefit the entire family i.e. happy mama, happy family.

I have to pause here and add some much-needed information about the plan, because it isn't really much more than helping a baby do something very natural- fall asleep on their own. Upon becoming parents, neither Gabe nor I were big fans of sleep training. We agreed that this was not something we were keen on doing when faced with the prospect of letting Jude cry as a means of getting him to sleep for longer stretches. We sucked it up and figured he would eventually sleep or go to college. However, Dr. G's approach was something we could handle. It consisted of 3-4 nights of nursing, but not allowing your child to fall asleep while nursing, 3-4 night of gentle patting, rocking etc. without nursing, and 3-4 nights without assistance falling back asleep. The entire premise of his plan was a.) to wait until the baby was old enough to sleep through the night (which for him was 7-8 hours) and b.) construct a warm environment to support this transition. He acknowledged that there might be tears, but they would most likely be tears of frustration at the change versus tears of fear/ abandonment.

And it worked.

Of the 6 nights we actively worked towards night weaning, there were about 10 minutes of oh-my-goodness, we are going to get kicked out of this apartment tears. After that there were a couple of stretches where Jude would wake up and play around in bed, trying to engage us, and eventually fall back asleep. By the end of the week, he was sleeping 10-11 hours stretches. Can I get an Amen?

Act 3: Life After

What can I say? It's pretty amazing. If I could get myself to bed before midnight, I would be a fully functioning adult. I now get some much-needed time to myself in the evening and that has made me a mildly saner human being. And contrary to the last couple of sentences, I am not the sole recipient of positive gains from this transition. Jude has benefited as well. He is a (slightly) mellower version of himself with less frequent ups and downs.

So why the heck didn't we do this sooner?

In truth, I don't think it would have worked. I must say, I think 90% of our success can be attributed to the fact that we waited. He was 14 months old. He could go 9 hours without food (even if that isn't his preference.) There is a part of me that believes he was even old enough to see some of the logic in what we were saying when we would whisper, Jude go night-night, repeatedly until he conked out.

Either way, it's a pretty great thing, win-win all around. First and foremost, I get some sleep, we've maintained our co-sleeping arrangement, Jude continues his prefered lifestyle of unchecked nursing during the day, and Gabe and I maintained the integrity of our parenting philosophy in the process. Good story all around. I definitely feel like I have arrived, until child #2 comes along of course.

Monday, November 1, 2010


When I awoke Saturday morning to 30 some odd missed calls on Skype, I knew something was wrong. I placed some early morning phone calls back to the States to find that my Grandpa had passed away unexpectedly that afternoon. Under normal circumstances this loss would be devastating. However, this news was compounded by the fact that my parents had just arrived in Austria less than 24 hours before.

My heart sank. The ramifications of this news began to unfold in my head. I had to find my mom and put her in touch with her siblings. My parents would be leaving. I would be staying here... blows, every one.

When we signed up to come to Vienna, I often thought about how we would handle a family emergency, either here or back home. Unfortunately any "plan" we had discussed was always in the hypothetical and never given more than a peripheral thought. We would go there or they would come here. How naive we were to the logistics and expenses of making such a thing happen. Distance being the largest factor working against us, followed by babies and jobs.

My heart goes out to my poor parents. They spent more time in airports and on planes than they did enjoying the beauty of Europe (or their coveted time with their grandbaby.) This arrangement might be fine with some seasoned business traveler, jetting off for a day long meeting abroad, but this was their first time overseas. They were anxious and unsure leaving home. Now they had to turn around and endure the worst part about international travel over again. As of this evening, they are safely back in the U.S. However, the pain and awfulness of this whole ordeal is not over. Now the real work begins. My mom must make sense of this loss all while tackling the huge logistical issue of how to best care for her mother.

But right now I can't help but feel selfish. I want to be home. I want to share in the going over of stories and memories. I wish that I could cry and laugh in their company. I find myself unable to comprehend how to process all of this so far for those who share my common history.

This morning I woke up sad and angry at our living situation, but the rational part of me knew that staying indoors, under the covers, was not a constructive method to combat grief. We rode the train to the outskirts of the city and took bus up into the hills. It was a warm fall evening, crisp and filled with the smells of the season. Gabe, Jude, and I wandered through the vineyards as the sun began to set. With dusk, Vienna became illuminated below us in all directions, a stark contrast to the quite darkness of our path. We talked about my Grandfather.

He had called us less than a week ago to say hello and send along birthday wishes. Gabe and he had talked about how his people had come from the region. He closed the conversation with wishes of love for me and my family. While I will not be able to commune with my family over this loss, I feel that I have something very special in this phone call that I hold dearly as my means of moving forward during this time- a last connection, despite our distance.

Monday, October 11, 2010

3 Things

I've been in a bit of a funk for the last week or so. Nothing more than devoting too much of my headspace to the wrong things, but a low point nonetheless.

I wasn't until I uploaded my pictures for the last 10 days that I realized there are always "gem" moments to be found amidst all the gloom and doom of a rotten week.

Here are mine...

Discovering the abundance of "nut roll", a childhood delicacy from my Slovak Great Aunt.

Art Nouveau vignettes discovered as I explored the Secession Building

An impromptu reading stop on our way through the Museum Quarter

The sun is back out. We have resumed our daily park schedule. Jude and I have made some new friends in the form of a like-minded mama and son, the wife of a math colleague. Gabe and I are busy planning for my parents arrival in late October and a trip to Greece in November. There are many, many things now to keep one's spirits high. However, it is comforting to know that during those weeks when you struggle, happiness never really goes away. It just hides from time to time, on your digital camera.