Getting Through Christmas, One Moment at a Time

I finally figured out what it is about Christmas that gets me down. I wrote last year about it not being all that great (much to the chagrin of my Christmas-loving mother) and I have the same feeling going into this season. I’m doing all the work, making all the plans, and I’m happy to do it all, but I just can’t feel joyful like I used to.

I realized that the “magic” of Christmas for me was a few years during college and after, before I had kids. Going home for Christmas, to my parents’ house, where I knew I would be cared for and lavished with gifts, and I had the warm memories of my own childhood to define what Christmas meant for me. Now my kids are in – and almost done with – those brief magical years. And mama bear is sad.

Whenever someone says “It goes by so fast” I know, and I believe them. Because already, it’s gone by so fast. It’s not my own mortality that bothers me – it’s knowing how brief and precious this time with my children is. We haven’t even properly disposed of last year’s Christmas tree. I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s still moldering away in a corner of the yard. Every time I saw it I felt the shame. I really have to take care of that. But we somehow managed to miss every day the dump was open (which, to our credit, is only like every third Saturday so can you blame us?).

A few weeks ago when I took out the box of Christmas crafts for the day care kids to play with, I found a coloring book with Younger Son’s name on the front. It was from the early, early years of child care. It contained his precious scribbles, one purple swath over several pages. And here I am after what feels like only a few seasons saying, “the early years of child care.”

Younger was born into care and with me constantly for all those years. I remember his face, his hair, his smell even. The sound of his voice, his first steps, a few silly memories and places we went. But it’s only glimpses – I have to rely on pictures and video to give me the whole remembrance of that little boy. He is still here with me today, and our bond is stronger than ever. But he is different. And he will continue to change dramatically over the next few years as we rush here and there doing all the things we need to do to help him grow.

We have so many Christmas traditions that we love to do, and those are the moments of the season that I relish (and the boys do too, for the most part). One tradition is my husband’s comment when he drags the tree in through the front door: “Didn’t we just do this like, last week?” I think the tree laying in the yard can attest to that.

Every year I make a photo album for the Grammies. It’s a nice exercise in looking over the past year and remembering all the good times. The boys like to peek over my shoulder and see the pictures, and they both agreed that their favorite memory of the year was their aunt’s wedding. The reason: because all our family was together for a long weekend. To them, the family gatherings are their favorite times. And that’s why we all do this every year.

When I start to get grumpy over too much work to do, and stressed over their feelings regarding Santa, and just cranky and exhausted from all the work to be done, I stop and think of this. The time is flying, the magic is fading, but that’s just my experience. My kids still get it. So quitting all this sentimentality and being in the moment with them is the most important thing I can do today. Happy Holidays everyone.

Advertisements

Knowing When to Push Your Kids

The other day Mr. O realized that his bff was getting on the rocket swing without him and he scrambled to get there before takeoff. I said, “You want a big push?” and he, with his foot stuck underneath himself, said, “I’m not ready yet.” I replied, “I won’t push you ’til you’re ready.”

I was so proud of my little life truism. I felt like Splinter to his Leonardo. Master Shifu to his Po. Avatar Roku to his Aang. For those of you who don’t watch children’s cartoons all day, I was Obi-wan to his Luke (my geek police are not pleased, I realize that).

Silliness aside, I find this is one of the daily challenges of parenting and working with children. When is the right time to push a child, and when do you hold back? It’s one of those questions that never has one simple answer, because every child is different. When you live and work with them you learn what is the right amount of expectation and support for each individual, but it’s a constant balancing act.

On a daily basis I find myself presented with a situation that begs this question. Do I push him now, or do I realize he needs help and give him that instead. Chores and consequences are one thing – you can’t go to your friend’s house until your homework is done. That’s simple enough but it’s just a basic rule, not a judgment call. When he’s had a bad day because he failed a test, do I say YOU NEED TO WORK HARDER NEXT TIME! Or do I tell him these things happen, and pledge to help him study for the next test?

Even the child who could always be pressured a little to do better has periods of regression. The kid who was a superstar last year may have had something bad happen and now he’s plummeting. It doesn’t mean he turned bad – he needs support and love more than ever, and we in our competitive culture tend to be harder on them when they most need kindness. You were great before – why can’t you be great now? Suck it up kid!

We all go through periods like this and I still find myself on that roller coaster as an adult. Usually I’m on top of my game all the time – I got the mom thing mastered and I love it. But when I have those downswings I just want someone to tell me it’s going to be ok. Doesn’t it make sense that when our children are in a dark place, we should do the same for them instead of just demanding for them to “be better”?

I can’t…how can I put this delicately? provide constructive feedback to? or sometimes even make a simple comment to my teenager without fear that he’ll sink into depression. All parents of teens know this. But when we think they’re just being emotional and crazy and want to react and write them off, we should remember how everything felt like a personal attack at that age (hormones). My husband told our son he did a good job on something and his response was a litany of things he did wrong and storming out of the room. That shirt looks good on you. How could you SAY something like that?!

So the story becomes, as we decide when to push our child, we should also be pushing ourselves as parents. We must assess what we’re doing and take an honest look at our own behavior. We have to recognize when we’re out of line or when we need to change instead of trying to force a change on our children. They are their own people and will make their own choices. We can only provide guidance, and constant reminders of what’s right and wrong of course. Back to the hero’s journey. We send them on their way and hope they find the right path.

When parents are having trouble communicating with their children I always ask them, How would you feel if your boss spoke to you that way? Or your partner? We need to be aware of our tone of voice and body language when talking to our kids – which is often lecturing, yelling, or tossing some remark at them while we rush to the next thing or stare at our phone, if we’re really honest.

It is our job to recognize when it is time to push, when it is time step back and let our kids fail a little, and definitely, most importantly, when we need to have real open communication and hear what they need. Then figure out the best way to get them that support – which might not even involve our help, but instead teaching them how to find it elsewhere.

I say it constantly, but parenting is the hardest – and most important – thing most of us will ever do. No one fully understands that until they’re in it – at 2AM after a string of sleepless nights with a baby who still won’t go to sleep and we are ready to lose our freaking mind. Or just standing there at the end of the school day with a kid in tears, trying to find the right way to help him. Steel yourselves, Masters of young heroes. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Groaning the End of Summer Blues

Last week Google told me it was the first day of fall. Shut up Google. I haven’t even turned the calendar in my kitchen from August to September yet – because if I don’t, summer’s not over. This is just my way of showing mother nature that I object. I’m usually fighting the power, but I might have to admit that there’s nothing I can do to keep fall from coming.

In the weeks before we went back to school a lot of parents were excited to get their kids out of the house. I even saw a few non-parents posting funny cartoons on Facebook, dancing chimps and frazzled moms, with comments like “I hear this is how parents feel this time of year.” They haven’t talked to me.

The grind of the school year is too much for me. I like lazy summer days with their own rhythm. I let the boys sleep in, then they get their own breakfast, watch a little tv, get bored, and hop on bikes to ride to all their friends’ houses and see what’s up. They come back hot and tired, with some goodies from the candy store, and maybe hang out with me and the day care kids in the yard for a while. In the evening it’s another ride or walk to town, a board game, kicking the soccer ball around in the yard, grilling, ice cream.

Now that school is in session I’m finding ever more creative ways to pry teenagers out of bed in the morning. Hustling them out the door against their will. They come home and there’s barely time for a snack before it’s off to practice (well that’s fun). Then the endless late nights of homework are like sticking a needle in my eye. Nobody is any good at that hour. We are barely three weeks into it and I can hardly keep up.

The sad remnants of a provider's summer: one last apple from the tree, bathing suits to be packed away for next year

The sad remnants of a provider’s summer: one last apple from the tree, bathing suits to be packed away for next year

Fall also means another year gone by. I sit here writing this in my house that will be 100 years old in eight months. The previous owner lived here for forty years and when I, the young pregnant wife bought this house from her, I thought good God, forty years. That’s a whole lifetime. Well the new housewife has been living in this house for fifteen years. She has four (blink-of-an-eye, instantaneous) summer vacations left until her baby goes away to start his own life. So yeah, I don’t want to send them back to school. I want them with me all the time.

I’ve always been fascinated with the detachment that moms of older children have – they don’t always seem to be as engaged with their kids as the moms of younger children. I see the goodbyes that parents of younger kids go through, the long hugs and kisses, secret handshakes, hanging around to be sure they’re OK before mom and dad leave. Now my guys just march themselves off to the bus while trying to avoid my hugs. So it’s self-protection to become a little detached the more our babies draw away from us. It’s not because we’re not interested – we’re naturally a bit hardened by all those goodbyes.

My big boys and I still have our own ritual, even if I’m not allowed past the hedge. They each have a saying for me and I try to keep it simple. I can’t yell, “Goodbye sweet darling light of my life I love you so much my little petunia, have a wonderful day and don’t let anything bad happen!” (Though I do toy with that every day.)

They can’t possibly know that my “Have a good day” flung out the door as they leave means so much more than its words. It means, I hope you don’t get bullied. Take care of your friends. Be smart. Behave but be cool too. Don’t stress yourself out over getting perfect grades. Think of me when you’re in a bad place because I am always thinking of you. And I’m always wondering how you’re doing, if everything’s OK, if there’s anything you’re not telling me. And what could I do if you did? It means my child, you are the most important thing in the world to me, and I will be missing you until you’re with me again. Forever and always.

When Your Child Says “I Don’t Like You”

I’m starting a new two-year-old girl in my child care, Ms. A. She is adorable, and curious, and very excited to explore her new surroundings. But she does not like to take a nap.

The first day we spent together, she climbed out of her pack-n-play about 57 times. I lost count but I’m pretty sure it was around that much. I felt like I was in a SuperNanny episode (and so glad I could use her sleep technique).

The second day, she climbed out three times. Then she rolled around in her bed for about an hour, alternating between whining, yelling, a little crying (not serious), and giving me dirty looks but trying not to let me know she was doing so.

I heard, “I want to go home.” “I want mommy.” “I don’t like a nap.” “I want to go in Mommy’s car.” “I’m not tired.” “I need ____.” (Insert anything a toddler can think of: a drink, to potty, a toy, a book, a walk, a song, etc.)

Then she got very quiet for a while, and in a very serious voice, she let the big one rip: “I don’t like you.”

All I could do was chuckle. Not to make light of her desperation, but it was just funny to me. I forget after doing this work for eleven years that this kind of talk can be upsetting to parents.

When I reported on nap time to Ms. A’s mom she was very concerned that her daughter had used these awful words with me. I told her NOT to worry. And then I came up with my favorite quote of the week: “It’s not my job to make them like me. And that’s why they do.”

I know hearing “I don’t like you” from your child can hurt. But it’s your response that matters, not what your child said. It’s not really that they don’t like you. Really?! Don’t fall for it.

In truth, they feel safe enough with you to say that and trust that there won’t be dire consequences. They’re simply testing the boundaries. Throwing a rock in a pond to see what kind of splash they’ll get. And they’re just venting! Don’t you say stupid things to your family and friends when you’re angry?

Ms. A knew she wasn’t getting out of the crib any other way, and she was trying her last resort to get a rise out of me. I didn’t respond. I continued to sit and read the newspaper, which I’d been doing nearby enough for her to know I wasn’t gone, but also that if she climbed out I was right there to put a stop to it.

As I told her mom, we made great strides! In one day, going from a full hour of jumping out of the crib to stopping after three attempts – that’s amazing! We might even see sleep in the next couple of tries. This is real progress.

When your child says, “I don’t like you,” they’re looking for your attention. Kids will take negative attention if it’s all they can get. But remember: you’re the grownup. You need to know how to handle this child’s play better than they do.

If you’re really hurt, tell them that’s how you feel, and that you need a minute before you want to talk to them again. But there’s no reason to be hurt. And worst of all, give them a huge response. Yell, be upset, be mad, get hurt, show them how mean they are – if you want to hear “I don’t like you!” again tomorrow. And the next day, and the next day…

Your best response (unless you’re sleep-training and purposely ignoring them!) is to calmly repeat their words. “You don’t like me? Why?”

You will be amazed at the answer to that question. Just hang in there and TALK to them. It’s all your child wants. You might even end up snuggling instead of fighting.

It’s not my job to get kids to like me. It’s my job to protect them, feed them, let them explore, and teach them how to be healthy physically and mentally. I have plenty of adult friends, I don’t need two-year-old friends. So I’m the bad guy sometimes.

Kids know all this instinctively. They don’t really want to be my friend either – I’m boring. I like to sit around talking, not climb trees and have tea parties. I give them the boundaries they need and crave in a gentle but firm way. I don’t freak out when they do things that every child does just to see how I’ll react. When they get this calm consistency from me, they know they can trust me. And then they love me.

And I love them, from the moment they start kicking and screaming, to the moment they come back and give me unconditional hugs and love.

Losing Our Grip

There’s nothing like taking a vacation to make you wonder about our parenting culture.

As we were laying in bed in our hotel room at 10:30 at night, listening to the patter of little feet run from left…to right…to left…to right…BAM jump off the bed! And left…to right, my husband looked at me and said, “Maybe we’re too hard on our kids. I guess we should just let them do whatever they want.”

I told him at least we aren’t as bad as the lady at the pool. When her son disappeared for thirty seconds, she suspected he stole a butterscotch from the bowl on the front desk. “Where did you go?!” she demanded. “Open your mouth! Stick out your tongue!” While he whined about “Maaaaaaa-ahm, I didn’t do anything! I just went through the other door!” she actually grabbed his cheeks and inspected his mouth. “You better not have gotten any candy!” “Maaaa-ahm, I DIDN’T get any CANDY!”

My sons, who had been joyously running between the cold pool and the hot tub, stopped in their tracks, came to sit with me, and said, “Isn’t it time to go?”

I said, “Yea. As long as we can stop for butterscotches on the way.”

I don’t know. Maybe she had her reasons. But it seems to me that the messsage parents hear today is that we should care more about what our children eat than how they behave.

I understand where this comes from. We all want what’s best for our kids but don’t know how to get it, so we over-parent. And over-parenting is, of course, the style du jour. We’ve bought the idea that they can grow in a warm bubble of nurturing and have the best childhood ever experienced by any person in the history of time. That we are so enlightened, we will make them be superhumanly awesome by being superhumanly awesome parents.

I wonder if you can actually pinpoint the moment bubbles burst.

Is it the first time your child stamps their foot and says, “NO!” Is it your first fight? First lie? First broken window?

I think we’ve forgotten that we’re only human, our kids are ONLY HUMAN, and we’re all just doing the best we can. We’re all going to get mad, make mistakes, tell a lie, make a bad choice, regret something we did and not know what to do.

I actually love it when my kids come to me with a problem and I can say, “I had the very same thing happen to me the other day. I felt really bad about it. What can we do to make it right?”

We need to stop seeing our children as “other” and treat them like ourselves. We have objectified them to the point of thinking they are either little robots we can control, or nether-beings of a higher order who should never be denied their heart’s wishes and desires.

How would you like to be treated? That’s how you should treat your kids.

At Storyland, Glen, NH

At Storyland, Glen, NH

As a culture, our expectations for perfection have become too high. We need to find a balance. We have to be able to say, “You need to do this because I’m your mother and I said so,” but also, “I think I handled that wrong. How can we work together to make it better next time?” 

Balance means making them eat vegetables but also giving them candy. Taking a hike, AND letting them play video games. Telling them when they’re wrong and giving consequences. But then making sure they know that we love them no matter what. Unconditionally.

For the rest of the vacation I pondered this never-ending question, the idea that maybe I’m not doing as good of a job of parenting as I could be. Which I spend a lot of my time doing. You hadn’t noticed?

One night we went out to dinner and sat next to a woman who seemed a little grumpy – I thought we were irritating her with our raunchy boy jokes and reminded them to keep it down (not to stop, of course).

At the end of the meal she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I just want you to know…” (oh crap, here it comes), “how well-behaved your boys are. They are so polite and well-mannered, it’s lovely.”

Yes!!! Gold star for me!!!

Sorry. What I meant to say was how gratifying that was to hear, and how it made me feel not only proud, but relieved. It’s really ok – appreciated even – to require good behavior from our children. I whispered to the boys, “DID YOU HEAR WHAT SHE SAID?!” like I was SO excited and half-shocked. They smirked it away, but I know they felt as good as I did.

And that in itself is enough of a reward.

Help! I’m Surrounded by Children!

When I was 16 I swore to my boss at the ice cream shop that I would NEVER have kids. I hated them and everything to do with them. I’d had a series of failed babysitting gigs and was convinced that I would never have what it took to be with children.

All I had to do to prove my point was show him the behavior of the whining little ones and their overly-doting parents as they held up the line of fifteen people for ten minutes, choosing their sprinkle color while their cone melted down my wrist.

He used to love teasing me about this, saying, “Just you wait and see,” while his infant napped in the baby swing that was installed in the back corner of the serving area.

Today not only is my professional life riddled with kids, but I’ve found that the rest of my life is as well. The neighborhood kids know that I’m here after school, and it attracts them to my house. In the past week we’ve had snowball fights in my yard, indoor basketball tournaments, Nerf gun battles, and fights over who gets to eat the rest of the raspberries. All impromptu, because they were looking for something to do and we were here.

So my boss was right. I love being this mom to everyone, having all the kids know that if something goes wrong, Amy is ALWAYS there. Just show up and you’ll be taken care of. My parents’ house was like this growing up, and now I’m here. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But the funny thing is, besides all the fun and games, I do spend most of my day arguing with all these kids. For the littles, it’s why you have to put on your shoes, why it’s time to go inside, why you have to get your diaper changed now whether you like it or not. And we go right on up the line to why you can’t have a sleepover every weekend and why you have to do your homework NOW, before video games.

They fight with me simply because I’m in charge. That’s what humans do, fight the power. But being in charge isn’t a natural state for me, I have to work at it. I want to say yes to everything but being mom means setting boundaries. I’m not always the strictest person in the world, but I am the most trustworthy. I don’t care if you say a swear, as long as I never see you bullying anybody, ever. And I’ll love you no matter what, but you will pay for bad behavior.

This parenting thing really forces you to grow up.

I had a realization last week while I was making them eat apple slices instead of Thin Mints. The reason they love it here – all kids, all ages – is not just because I’m here, but because of the arguing as well. They’re safe. They may want to eat a whole bag of Cheetos and have a Harry Potter movie marathon but I’m here to tell them why they can’t. And even though that sucks in the moment, they know someone is taking care of them. (Deep down. Really. That’s what I keep telling myself.)

This weekend I saw a sad exchange between a father and his teenage son. The father was storming out, staring at his phone, and the son was running after him, calling “Dad!” The father barely looked up and when the son reached him he said, “I knew you would just be humiliated to be seen with me.” I could see the son trying to make peace with the father, and I knew that dad was angry because his son had done something that every typical teenager does. But instead of just accepting that, he was taking it personally.

We have so much misunderstanding in how we deal with our kids. It’s so sad how we view kids, especially teenagers. They’re bad, they’re cranky, they’re crazy, they fight us. They invent languages so we don’t know what they’re saying. They keep secrets and tell lies. Us vs. them.

I wanted to tell both the dad and the son not to take it so seriously. Kids aren’t bad, they’re just kids. When they fight us or act out it’s because they have to establish their own identity separate from us. This is a healthy, natural, and necessary developmental process. And it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t need us. Inside every tough pose is a scared little person just trying to figure out their way in the world, and they always need our support and guidance.

So I’ve come from hating kids to being constantly surrounded by them. And I’m happy. I know that these are the fullest, most complete years of my life, because I’m contributing my little part to raising all of them. Maybe I reached that level of understanding after all.

Wallowing in the Winter Blues

I took my kids to see “Rise of the Guardians” last weekend and literally. Cried. Through the whole thing. It’s a good thing I got them extra napkins for their popcorn.

I think I would’ve cried alot anyway, given that the plot is about fighting to keep hope, magic, and fun alive in children, but with current events it just made the notion of innocence that much harder to stomach.

It also didn’t help that recent activity around our house has centered on my children growing up – really growing up. We spent most of the weekend (before watching the heart-wrenching movie) cleaning out the boys room. It’s time for a new paint color, as the baby hues I chose for them so many years ago just don’t fit anymore.

So we cleared out and gave away and took loads of old toys and no-longer-loved stuffed animals to donate. I found the Play-doh factory where I spent hours molding with both of the boys. I still have some old ice cream cone sculptures in my jewelry box, because to a mother, those hard, multicolored blobs of clay are more precious than her jewels.

I know that every time we clean out, I’m letting go, and it’s incredibly hard for me to do. The little toys we used to play with, the old, broken pieces of artwork, the collections stashed in old lunchboxes. It’s hard to give up the physical objects because when I look at them, I remember. I am afraid that without the reminders I’ll forget the time spent.

Besides letting go of the material remnants of childhood, Younger Son’s last illusions are being stripped away by his classroom’s study of slavery and the south. Visions of burning crosses dance in his head at night, and I have to soothe his mind before he can sleep. He talks about how painful it is for him to think of people suffering and sometimes I am at a loss for what to say to make it better.

To top it all off, Older just faced his biggest big-boy challenge yet, a really tough decision that involved the whole family and hours of one of my least favorite pastimes: Processing. But after we got the hardest part over, I am left with my amazement at his understanding of the big picture, his own needs, and his bravery in going through with what has to be done. And standing up for himself to boot. I told him what my best friend told me: The hardest choice is usually the right one.

When you look at it all this way, it’s easy to see what it is about childhood that we cling to. Innocence and hope, yes. Believing in magic and the possibility that anything can happen, definitely. But I think it’s the ability to care for people who you don’t even know, to put others first and be selfless and concerned, that means the most to me. And of course being able to live free, without the hard choices that grown-up life brings.

So this morning while getting ready for work I did what I always do when I’m depressed: I put my iPod on shuffle and trusted it to find me a song that would lift me out of my low. It chose the Pretenders’ version of “Forever Young.”

iPod, you so did not get that one right.

Once again I literally. Cried. Through the whole thing. Next came “Find the Cost of Freedom”?! Really?! “Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down.” I’m feeling better by the minute!

Luckily that dirge is short and sweet, and Sly & the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music” came on next. OK. I can breathe again. “All we need is a drummer – for people who only need a beat.” Dance those blues away, baby.

“May God bless you and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay
Forever young

Forever young
Forever young
May you stay
Forever young

May you grow up
To be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the light surrounding you

May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
And may you stay
Forever young

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay
Forever young.”

– Bob Dylan