Amie and the doctor’s glasses (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Amie started asking “Why?” a couple of weeks ago and hasn’t stopped. Some of her why-s are genuine questions, asked out of curiosity, but many (more, I suspect) are not. It’s fascinating and annoying and often a challenge. I find myself in conversations like these:

  • Amie, please don’t make that mess.
  • Why?
  • Why do you think?
  • (Silence. Reads her book. Obviously wasn’t a genuine question. Let’s pursue:)
  • Hmmmmm? Why do you think? Amie? Why do you think?


  • Mama, why do you need a spoon?
  • Why do think?
  • I don’t know.
  • Yes, you do. Why do you think I need a spoon?
  • To stir your tea?
  • Yes! See, so you knew why all along. So there was no need for you to ask why at all!

My response depends on my estimation of her reason for asking. These are many, and not readily discernible!

  1. She wants to know: e.g., “Why is it dark?”
  2. She’s curious about the wider topic: “Why is X crying?”
  3. She’s not really interested, she’s just asking for the sake of talking/pronouncing words/uttering sounds, like singing
  4. It’s a game, she’s playing with language and that most intriguing and versatile of words (why yes: “why”)
  5. It’s a reflex, like in the examples above (mostly when she just asks “why?”, without elaborating the full question)
  6. She just wants to get attention and the annoying aspect is unintentional
  7. She wants to get attention by being annoying
  8. She just wants to annoy

Can you think of other reasons? I’m sure there’s many more, just like there are many possible responses:

  1. “Because our part of the earth is slowly turning away from the sun and so the sun can’t shine on our place anymore and it gets dark. Then it’s night. But tomorrow morning our place will be turning back to the sun and so it will become light again. Then it will be day again. Here, wait, lemme me look it up in this en-cy-clow-pee-dia.”
  2. “Why do you think?” as a conversation starter: “Because she banged her knee? Remember that day when I got that booboo?”
  3. “Is that a real why? Do you really want to know?”
  4. “Why do you think?” as a Ha! Gotcha back! But this doesn’t work very long (“No, Mama, what do you think?”)
  5. “Why what?” “I don’t understand your question, please eee-la-bo-raate“. This might make her understand that the why-question must be respected and asked in earnest.
  6. “Why are you asking? Is it because you need a hug? A kiss? A gobble?”
  7. “Because that’s how they made it.” Also not a why?-stopper for long (and rightly so?)”
  8. “Because I said so!” This often deserves a new why in return.
  9. “Because Mama knows best!” This is sometimes legitimate, e.g., to “Why should I hold you hand on the busy street?”
  10. “That’s a really stupid question!”: this in my view is a no-no. She might think she is stupid for asking it! A stupid way to go, really.
  11. “That’s enough questions for now” or “I’m all out of answers”.
  12. “Mama can’t answer anymore, sweetie, I’ve got a headache.” If followed by a genuine “Why?”, answer truthfully. If not, go to next alternative:
  13. Silence (turn up the radio volume)

There must be a lesson in this… I guess it’s live with it, make the best of it, and make sure you don’t discourage the real why questions.

But then there’s also this:

Listen, I’m a philosopher (I alway say: “student of philosophy”) by training, and what really, really bugs me about this incessant why? is that often it is the wrong question. What Amie wants to know is not why?, but how?!

It’s the difference between causes and reasons, people!

  • How does it work? = what causes this to happen? “The lever pushes the wheel. That’s how it turns.” (Domain of science and technology)
  • Why does it work? = what motivates something or someone, what is the purpose? “The turning wheel makes the toy cars go round. That why it turns.” (Domain of morality and psychology)

Now how am I going to explain that one to a two-year-old? I guess I could start with:

“Why? Oh, you mean how come? Well…”

Barnyard Crime (c) Annie LaVigne (used with permission)

Barnyard Crime by Annie LaVigne

I’ve been terribly remiss in neglecting to add Mickey’s blog to my blogroll. I read Mickey’s weekly blog almost daily and always (1) either cry with laughter, (2) or choke laughing (when I’m munching or drinking something). This week’s entry is particularly hilarious!

Mickey is the other part of Harriet and Mickey, who run the show at illustrator Annie LaVigne’s company – and at her house too, it seems! Check out her funny and witty and generally amusing drawings and prints and send a droll e-card to your loved ones… at Harriet and

Maria Montessori

(Maria Montessori)

After all the hassle of getting Amie into a preschool in Brookline and putting down our deposit… we’re moving. Luckily the hassle was less in the town we’re moving to, but the downside of that was that the choice was overwhelming!

But our favorite was always the Montessori school around the corner, and though it was a bit pricey, in the end we went with that. Amie’s Baba is a Montessori preschool alumnus and he never really considered the other options. I read up on Montessori when we were trying to get Amie into the Jamaica Plain Montessori school, and I really like the philosophy.

“No one can be free unless he is independent.”

So true.

I think it will be good for our little girl. It will help her discipline her great mind. It’s only 2,5 hours a day, and I look forward to having lots of time with her at the new house. We can garden and craft and play together the rest of the day. She will have, I hope, the best of both worlds.


Amie end of May 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Sometimes when Amie is concentrating on something – reading a book, making a drawing, or watching an episode of Caillou – I sneak closer and observe her in detail. I “do the rounds,” check everything. Her eyes work – they see, they blink. Her mouth works, for eating and talking and breathing. Her nose and ears work. Her little hands, every finger on them, do the most amazing things. Her feet keep her upright, and along with her legs and arms allow her climb and jump. Everything on the inside seems to work pretty well too: food goes in, waste comes out, the heart beats strong, and her brain is doing fine too. It’s just amazing! I can’t wrap my head around it…

Boon potty Bench (c) Boon Inc.

I think that potty-training was Amie’s first real challenge. It’s not like “learning” to walk and talk, is it? Those come naturally and very gradually – for both the kid and the parents. Going on the potty is the first fully learned skill, one that requires physical training, and patience and a resilience to failure for all concerned.

There seem to be two general schools of potty training. Each is a combination of two approaches to the child’s access to the new (the potty) and to the old (the diaper).

With regard to the potty:

  • 1. the let’s-first-get-acquainted school: introduce the potty very (too) early on, very gradually; once she is ready, she will know what it is for and will naturally go to it.
  • 2. the wow-look-what’s-this! one: once you know she’s ready, make a big deal about buying and placing the potty and start right away.

You can combine this with two types of access to the diaper:

  • A. the safe-and-easy approach: keep the diaper on, let the child go to the potty by herself, or practice a routine of visiting the potty regularly.
  • B. the what-the heck-is-going-on?! school: once they’re ready, take away the diapers and make them experience the discomfort of wet underpants.

We started out by following a combination of schools 1 and A. We got this fancy Boon potty (*) when Amie was around 1 1/2 and it stood in our bathroom for months before she was really ready. She would sometimes sit on it, but for fun and play, which is exactly what school 1. encourages. More often she would sit on top of the lid and read books.

The time came. She seemed ready, announcing that she was peeing and even going to pee, complaining about a wet diaper, etc. Preschool was in the nearer future and family members were noticing the continued presence of diapers.

But Amie had lost all interest. We could not entice her to sit on that potty, not even as a game – while keeping our fingers crossed that we would strike lucky. Even when she was clearly ready, she refused. Not even our repeated observations about big girls going on the potty helped. She’d cleverly point out that she was “a little bit big and a little bit small.” Even the model of Boo – her favorite Boo, from Monsters, Inc – going on the potty wouldn’t make her try.

That potty just wasn’t fun anymore! The novelty and adventure of it had simply worn off.

Still sticking with school 1. we switched to approach B. We put her in underpants when she was at home. She didn’t like that at all! She often asked for a diaper, but I would talk her out of it. Still, it didn’t feel right because I could see she wasn’t sure of herself, and couldn’t relax. We would have 50% success, but she would go to the potty reluctantly and renew her requests for a diaper. Just as often she would relax and have an accident, and then she would cry, heartbroken. This was undermining her confidence: not good!

Exit schools 1. and B. We put the diapers back on and tried to break the curse of the boring potty by introducing an adaptor for the adult potty, but she didn’t feel comfortable on such a wobbly contraption, which required the added fuss of a stepstool.

I thought it best we take a break: we stopped our efforts and I hid the potty for over two months.

When I reintroduced it – a la school 2. – she finally got on track. We placed it in a different place: our common bedroom, put lots of books next to it, and made a big ado about her own roll of toilet paper. We mixed approaches A. and B., letting her decide. Sometimes she asked for panties, sometimes she preferred the safety-net of a diaper or pull-up – it doesn’t seem to matter, because she can open her diaper herself now (**). We had some accidents, but her reaction was now one of u-oh, not of help!-I-can’t-do-this! I introduced the reward of an “M&M” (an organic chocolate covered raisin).

It has taken about four months now, and – when at home – she is fully potty-trained during the day. More than often she wakes up with a dry diaper too. She is even going on the potty at daycare (contrary to many other kids, the peer-pressure of her friends going on the potty there didn’t help much). And she hardly ever asks for her reward anymore!

“I’m a big girl now!” she will say with conviction.

Next challenge: going on the potty in public restrooms and public spaces like parks, and holding it in when we’re in the car!

(*) We like it a lot. It’s rather expensive ($35) , but it is comfortable (as far as I know), has storage bins on either side, one with a rod to put the toilet paper roll, and it can be closed to lok totally inconspicuous as a sturdy step stool that will lift your toddler up to the sink. And it looks neat too.

(**) Seventh Generation has made the tabs on their largest diapers bigger: very handy, and they no longer tear off.

dead bird (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

I’m reading an interesting book called Talking with Children about loss, written by “Good Grief” counselor Maria Trozzi and co-authored by Kathy Massimini.

cover of Maria Trozzi, Talking with Children about Loss (c) Perigee Books, 1999

I’m always picking up books like those. I read Hope Edelman’s Motherless Daughters, for instance, when I was pregnant, and got many comments, mostly in the vein of “how can you read that now?”. But I am unashamed, because I’m a writer. It gives me the license to “imagine things” without having to be embarrassed about it. So, yes, I’ve imagined the worst for Amie: what if she died, what if I died, what if her father died? I’ve “lived” through these scenarios, and would like to, one day, write a novel about one of them and really explore such an event.

But I read these books first of all because, as any mother, I want to know what to do, or I want DH to know what to do, if Amie experiences a loss. I want to be prepared. Being a bookish person I naturally reach for texts, and find there my knowledge and my hope.

One of the first tasks of mourning, writes Trozzi, is understanding: understanding what death is. Not “going to sleep”, “passing away,” “going to heaven” or “being lost. Death is a physical process that ends everything that we call “human” that attaches to a person’s body. A child needs to understand that, and we need to stop using euphemisms. If a child doesn’t understand the most basic meaning of death, he or she will never be able to deal with loss, will never be able to mourn.

As I read that, I realized I had already started this task with Amie. For one, as I wrote earlier, I don’t want her to be ignorant of where her food comes from: that beef was a cow, that sausage was a pig, the wood in the hearth was a tree, etc.

But it has gone further. Many months ago Amie had repeated nightmares about a dinosaur. She woke up screaming and often would refuse to close her eyes again, because there was a dinosaur in the room, or it was coming. The way we helped her through this fearful time was by simply telling her that the dinosaurs are dead.

“What’s ‘dead’?”

“Dead means the dinosaur can’t move, can’t walk. Dead means he can’t talk, or listen, or look. Dead means his body is lying in the ground somewhere, buried, often even crushed to pieces. So he can’t get up and come here.”

She was quite resourceful. She said:

“But this dinosaur isn’t dead.”

“That’s not possible. All dinosaurs are dead. That’s why we call them a special word: ‘extinct’. ‘Extinct’ means that all the dinosaurs, without exception, are dead. So no dinosaur can come here.”

Sure, she was the only 2,5-year-old who knew the meaning of (and could pronounce) ‘extinct’. But hey, I believe in the power of words (and of their definitions, and of their correct application to the things in the world). And this was one clear-cut example of that power. Amie’s nightmares stopped.

Bird in Birdfeeder at RSL, May 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten


  1. Chickadee
  2. Northern Cardinal (male and female)
  3. Blue Jay
  4. American Robin (male and female – one sitting on her nest in our carport)
  5. Hummingbird (probably the Ruby-throated hummingbird, not because I identified it as such, but because my books tells me it’s the only one that visits Mass. in summer, and it was green)
  6. Yellow-throated Vireo (in the photo), or might this be the Yellow Warbler?
  7. Pileated Woodpecker (it’s big!)

… And many others I won’t even attempt to identify. I was especially thrilled to see the hummingbird. I wasn’t sure they hung out in our neighborhood.

Other animals:

  1. Raccoon
  2. Fox
  3. Squirrels and chipmunks
  4. Lots of dogs of all sorts
  5. Insects of all kind

There are also supposed to be wild turkeys, deer and rabbits and – while we’re on the topic of veggie-eating varmints – woodchucks.

Shot of trees and roof of new house, April 2008 (c) Katrien Vander Straeten

Ay! I am hurting. My whole body is aching this morning and it feels good.

Yesterday we sanded the floors some more (1200 sq. f. of beautiful red oak), vacuumed, tack-cloth-d, smashed a heavy storm window, sanded the dents in the floor, vacuumed and tackcloth-d again, then put on the first layer of polyurethane (water based = less vocs). We didn’t stain, the floor is so beautifully blond. Then, waited, sanded again, vacuumed and tack-cloth-d again, and put on the second layer.

Today: sand, clean, third layer, sand clean, fourth and hopefully final layer. Also pick up a table saw that DH found on Craigslist and maybe we’ll also have time to visit nearby Walden Pond. Or a visit to Home Depot (yeay!) to choose the colors for the walls (we’re going to try FreshAire = no vocs).

Often while taking a break I stand looking at the garden to survey all the work that will be necessary there, this summer and next spring. The septic leach field is still a disaster: not yet ready for a cover crop. The subsoil stones the contractor brought to the surface all over the property are sore on my eyes. There is poison ivy in the future vegetable patch. We have too many trees, affording only a 4 hour of sun, yet I couldn’t part with any of them… And then I catch myself smiling. One thing at a time.

Next week, during some stolen afternoons and evenings, we’ll finalize the paint choices, and next weekend we’ll start painting. Then a big cleanup. Then: move in! maybe we should do a major yard sale first! We’re moving into a bigger space but I would rather it were an emptier, cleaner and clearer one…

Amie gave up her nap when we were on holiday in Toronto. We like it because it no longer takes 2 hours to get her to sleep in the evening (sometimes she would lay awake till midnight!). On the other hand, I no longer have that 1 1/2 hour nap to quickly do some more work.


My “work” is writing this novel. I’ve been working on the first 12 1/2 chapters, over 400 pages, for over a year now, at the rate of about 20 hours a week. Those 20 hours consist of the four mornings Amie is at daycare and napping.

I’ve been working on the thirteenth chapter – the second-last chapter – for over two months now. No, not at 20 hours per week. In those two months Amie has been home sick for three weeks, her daycare took a week off, and I was out of commission myself (“on a holiday”) for a week. We also bought a house, of course, which involved a lot of work, research and stress.

So I haven’t worked in weeks. And I’m frustrated.

I have been spending a minimum $800 a month on daycare – many months for two weeks of nursing a sick child at home. I write “I” because I consider that to be the income I bring in, not DH. Or rather, my “non-income”, as my friend Shari calls it, because I haven’t as yet brought in a dime. It’s my investment into the novel, which I hope will at least break even in the most modest sense of paying for the daycare. My time, and even the potential income I gave up for writing the story, I will consider repaid simply by the fun of having written.

But the main frustration is with how my “work” gets perceived, even by those closest to me, those who know how much I love it, how much I have riding on it, and how much I put into it. It isn’t considered “work”, because it earns no income. Or it isn’t considered hard work, again because there’s no income and perhaps even because I enjoy it so much! Which just indicates the sorry state of the concept of work…

And so also I don’t have the right to be tired, because what I do do when I don’t “work” – namely mothering – isn’t “work” either (and it will never be considered as such as long as mothering isn’t paid). Because staying inside all day wiping a snotty nose and soothing a sad little whining child couldn’t be tiring. Because stealing hopeless glances at my laptop, feeling my story’s momentum and inspiration seep away along with the hope of making it pay off couldn’t be heartbreaking and stressful…

Should mothering be paid? At least we could consider the tax break for a “dependent” as payment for the work of the stay-at-home mom, not as repayment for what the working dad has put into daycare or diapers (though obviously it is a tax break on his income).

But forget about the money.

That I drop my work (at home or not, paying or not) at the sniff of a nose to do the most difficult kind of mothering, that of taking care of a sick child, doesn’t mean that writing wasn’t “hard work” to begin with. And that, when the child is recovered, I return to my work as if I was starved of it, doesn’t mean that mothering isn’t important to me either. Far from it, each should underscore the importance of the other. Both are what I do best, and what I need to do to be the best person I can be.

Okay, end of rant.