Thursday, June 11, 2009

DC Tourism for Toddlers

I had been planning to write this post about Touring DC with children for months, but after the sad and senseless, horrible shooting at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on June 9, I wasn't sure now was the time for it.

In the end, I'd like to help keep the Ima Shalom blog going, and this post is what I have. I will only add that I am very glad my very pregnant friend who works at the museum is okay, and that this city is a good place to be a Jew, despite what happened two days ago.

For the past year or so we've been poorer than dirt. We couldn't afford any big trips. Heck, I could only do nearly-full time child care. So we pretended to be tourists in our own city twice a week. Here are some of our favorites, and all are fun for toddlers, too.

1. The U.S. Botanic Gardens and Conservatory: I have never in my life smelled anything as good as the Conservatory. Don't know if it was the complete rain forest inside or the cinnamon and allspice trees, the orchid room, or what. And if that's not enough for you, its blue tile fountains inside, and the sand box, fountains, play house and other objects of childhood desire, in the very center atrium, kept my girl occupied until she fell over with fatigue. At which point we put her in the stroller and strolled through the botanic gardens outside.

2. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museumwill also keep a girl entertained for hours. We could hardly pull her out of the cockpits of all the cool planes. It's very hands on, considering how expensive all that stuff is. To be honest, the escalators are also entertaining for kids. But big people could fall for the homemade planes--complete with instructions. You could probably build one yourself if you had enough plastic wrap and a spare lawnmower engine.

3. The great thing about the American History Museum is that the Spark! lab (for older toddlers) and the Invention at Play lab (for kids, with play area for babies and young toddlers) are right next to Julia Child's kitchen. So when you're done looking at Dorothy's ruby slippers and Jerry Seinfeld's puffy pirate shirt upstairs, the fun can continue for everyone downstairs.

4. The Natural History Museum is such a no-brainer, I can't believe I'm writing it. So's the Zoo.

5. But if you get to the stunning Sackler and Freer Galleries which house Asian art, and if there are two of you, one of you can enjoy the art while the other douses herself and the kid in one of the two outdoor fountain/gardens. But seriously, my girl loved the Islamic art--lots of animals on pottery, even elephants. And the Sackler gift shop is incredible for kids stuff. Think about it, all the cool toys are made in Japan anyway.

Then we scoot over to the Carousel on the Mall. There may be better carousels, though this one is terrific. But what I like about it is that when the ride is over and the girl is crying that she doesn't want to get off, they give you a STICKER as you exit! How brilliant is that?

6. We also loved the Aquatic Gardensin Kenilworth. It was an easy metro ride, though people do drive. The Kenilworth Park is next to the gardens, but we ran out of time. Imagine DC before civil engineers--yep, virgin swamp, folks. But we got to see a real live beaver in the wild building his dam. (Beavers chew very loudly.) My girl loved running up and down the boardwalk and looking at the pretty flowers and chasing ducks. I wouldn't recommend it on a hot day, though. It is a swamp, and is pretty humid.

7. The only item on this list that is not free is Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown. It's $8 for adults and $5 for kids, and by "kids," they mean ages 2 and up (though it's free in the winter; very limited hours). But it's worth it. These are among my favorite gardens in the USA. The terraces are dreamy, the first orangerie in the USA (which, incidentally, smells almost as good as the conservatory) is adorable, the swimming pool is like something out of The Great Gatsby, but with less depression and booze. There is an amphitheater that makes clever use of a reflecting pool, a rose garden. Something is always in bloom. The daughter took off running in sheer bliss and didn't stop for two hours.

8. I'm not going to mention the Building Museum. You can find it yourself. But it's my secret. So don't go. I mean, it's got a free playroom with every fabulous toy connected to construction and building in it (The building zone). The interior is stunning, and the indoor fountain is tantalizing to the kids, but so far no one has fallen in. It's got the best gift shop for adults in the city, if you like architecture themed houseware, which I do.

We also did the Cherry Blossom Festival and Tidal basin, which the girl slept through.

The National Sculpture garden, which we got in trouble for because the girl broke free and tried to play tea party in the Lichtenstein house. Also, it frustrated her that the birds she tried to feed kept running away from her.

The Hirschorn fountain, in my opinion, looks like the blow hole of a whale, and is, therefore, really cool. I like the design of the museum itself, but never quite got into any of the exhibits there. Stay with the fountain.

What are your favorites?

Friday, June 05, 2009

May it Please the Court

I've spent a lot of time in court this past week. Erev Shavuot was the custody trial for my daughter, and this week I had jury duty. There are certainly things more terrifying for a parent than going to trial for custody, visitation, and (for me less important) child support. But I'd humbly suggest that trial be ranked right up there.

The idea of strangers (judge) and near-strangers (babydaddy) having any say in the matter of the child I raised alone from birth is, to say the least, anxiety inducing. I had hoped to avoid this scenario by hiring the best and most ethical attorney in the area eight months ago. But after we had to resort to suing for custody, it was out of my hands to some extent. This is what we had to do to enable us to move to Israel and marry our guy.

It's not that I don't want Babydaddy in my daughter's life. It's obviously important for her to know that her biological father loves her and wants to be with her. It's important for her to know him. I am just concerned that 1. it be as positive (and un-traumatic) an experience as possible and 2. it not allow anyone to micromanage my life as I had good reason to fear, given the kinds of details Babydaddy wanted control over.

After nearly two months of mediation with mediators and attorneys, which cost me at least my entire month's salary each month, Babydaddy and his attorney sat on our agreement for a month. We got a response from them a day before the trial. Their response (a counter offer), I was surprised to see, contained bits that were actually unconstitutional (violations of free speech), as well as radically unworkable visitation schedules. While I was obligated to return to the States with my daughter for periods of time that were at least twice as many days a year as he had seen her in the 2 1/2 years of her life so far combined, he did not obligate himself to visit us at all.

I had to think long and hard--what was my motivation here? First, I wanted to avoid the split-custody things that children of divorced parents must, unfortunately, endure. I did not want my daughter to have a winter home and a summer home. She's had only one home so far, and I didn't see why this had to change. Especially given the amount of child support Babydaddy decided he wanted to pay once we went to Israel. It was financially unfeasible for me. Especially given he's never spent more than 8 hours at a time with her, and that was always on shabbat, while he stayed with others, as a guest.

But was I acting from anger? From hurt that all this time I've done all the work alone, and now he likes coming in and spending shabbat and vacation with my girl, when neither of us can work anyway? Did I think he was skipping the meal and just coming by for dessert? Yes, I did. And it's something that we had to work through.

So the night before the trial, after I put my girl to bed, I phoned Babydaddy and we worked till 1:30 am, focusing on the points of greatest contention. We got through the first page--visitation. That, for me, was the biggie anyway. Now I would accompany my daughter to the States for 21 days a year, including travel time. And Babydaddy wanted this in two trips. He could come see us in Israel for as long as he wanted, but in the town in which we lived.

Then I woke earlier, typed up our new agreement , brought it to my attorney who looked it over. Then I called Babydaddy as he was en route and we worked out one more issue. We typed that up. Whatever we didn't agree on, I wrote as it had been in our original offer.

My attorney and I met him and his attorney in the courtroom, and they agreed to everything but custody. Since Babydaddy had not paid child support until that week, I was losing the arrears leverage that I'd wanted to use to avoid going to trial for custody. But I signed an agreement on visitation and child support, just to keep visitation as easy on my daughter and me as I could.

We went to trial for custody. Our district is one of the few who privilege father's rights; our judge is known for an extreme reluctance to grant anything but joint custody. But here's where the attorney comes in. My attorney has a reputation for being guided by ideals and ethics, rather than cash (He's older and got a reputation. He can afford it). He simply won't take you on if he doesn't think you're acting with the best intentions, and he doesn't take you to court unless he thinks you can win.

In the end, we didn't need to go to trial. The judge told us how she was going to rule before we began to speak. I got full physical custody and joint legal custody with final decision making power, which is, in practice, the exact same thing as full legal custody. I just have to take his arguments into consideration when making an important decision. Something I'd want to do anyway.

After a week in court, I can say this--it's a crazy system. I don't understand how it works, and often it doesn't, I guess. It does seem to bring out the worst in people. But it also has the potential to bring out the best. And frankly, I don't see an alternative. (Although, as a potential juror, I can see how a professional, trained jury would be better than a regular ol' me type).

That being said, I never want to go through it again.