News and Activism

Big happenings in my world lately, dear friends. I got a new job as a TVI (Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments) for little ones from 0-3 and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ll be working at Perkins School for the Blind, the legendary school of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. This means I had to close my day care, which after 12 years was gut-wrenching and difficult. I will miss and think about my kids a lot in the coming months, wondering how they’re doing and if they’re happy in their new “homes.” I trust my local providers knowing how awesome they all are, and that the kids will adjust. Kids are resilient – moreso than their parents sometimes (and that includes me!).

Just because the day care is closed doesn’t mean this blog is shutting down – I’ll still be here writing about parenting, education issues, and even cooking up a few new projects like a podcast with one of my mentors, Pam Clark, who you may have read about on this blog before. I’ll be posting information about that in the coming months (hopefully – as the dust settles!).

My latest bit of activism is a letter to the editor of the NY Times in response to this article about our state’s supposed “rejection” of PARCC. What it really means to those of us fighting common core in MA is that they are going to re-brand PARCC by “combining” it with the MCAS test. Many of us are trying change the testing paradigm by drastically reducing how many times it is taken (students in MA take MCAS EVERY YEAR from 3rd – 11th grade) and removing the connection of test results to teacher performance. (Some of us would like testing eliminated altogether but, baby steps.)

My letter won’t get published because things move fast nowadays – I took a digital break for Thanksgiving and missed the whole comment period. But that’s why I have this blog.

Before I print the letter I want to thank you all for your continued support. Thanks for reading, and please continue to look for more parenting fun and loudly shouted opinions coming from my little corner over here. 🙂

To the Editor:

The article “Massachusetts’s Rejection of Common Core Test Signals Shift in U.S.” (Nov. 21) downplays the narrative of what has really happened to teachers and students in Massachusetts and the stubbornly blind eyes and deaf ears that policymakers have turned to their constituents. It overlooks the fact that there has been a statewide grassroots organization of thousands of parents, grandparents, teachers, aides, and students to create a 2016 ballot issue to remove common core. Our voices have been ignored and downplayed while Mitchell Chester et al inform us that we are too stupid to understand what’s going on in our schools, and what’s really good for our children.

Last April the state rolled out its pilot of the PARCC test. The culture surrounding this issue has been a draconian, keep your mouth shut or lose your job environment. Teachers have been fired for speaking out against the methods prescribed by common core. Though most teachers oppose common core and PARCC tests, they are afraid to speak the truth to the parents in their classrooms because this threat looms heavy.

Some teachers reached out to trusted allies who would be able to speak publicly on the subject. We met in dark restaurants out of our district to avoid being seen. Parents were told we couldn’t opt out, but had to “refuse” the tests. Parents received threatening letters and phone calls from principals, attempting to coerce them to make their children take the test. In some cases, principals did not accept refusals from parents and tried to get the child, while sitting in the classroom preparing to take the test, to tell their teacher that they were refusing. Students were forced to take tests against their parents’ will because seven-year-olds aren’t developmentally capable of looking their teacher in the eye and telling them no. Stories like this in varying degrees happened all across the state, and that doesn’t even cover what happened to children with special needs or IEPs, who are the biggest victims of PARCC testing.

Most of the people making federal policy and commenting in articles on education are not teachers. They haven’t worked in classrooms nor do they understand children and their development. Education is a female-dominated profession under siege by international businesses looking to make money off education budgets. Last April and May our schools had over 30 days of testing. My children sat out because I don’t send them to school to function as guinea pigs for the Pearson corporation.

 

Summer, Boys, Bikes, Freedom

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said,
– Speak to us of children!
And he said:
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Khalil Gibran – The Prophet

One of my dearest friends gave me those words and they hang on my fridge, an everyday reminder of what’s important to me. If our refrigerators are a peek into our minds, I am a more than slightly crazy person. But my kids are doing great.

Anyway these words ring truer for me this year more than any. When she first gave me the poem my kids were so young, probably still in preschool and kindergarten. At that time letting them fly into the world meant spending a few hours a day away from me in the full-time care of another competent adult. And that felt huge for both of us.

This summer, even the past few weeks, have meant whole new worlds opening for them. Last year it started with the baby steps of letting them walk home from school with a gang of friends and hang out downtown, terrorizing local businesses with noise, food messes, and probably the occasional profanity. Today, they are free to go wherever and whenever they want. They tell me whose house they’re going to, or what store, and hop on their bikes and off they go. They haven’t started taking the money directly out of my wallet yet – they still ask for it and wait around to count it.

They even had their first real babysitting job yesterday, the two of them together (I figure that’s better than one, in an emergency they might be able to use each other’s help, or just make each other more panicked, but eventually somebody would figure out what to do?). Letting them be in charge in someone else’s home (and that dear lady for trusting them) felt like baby steps into adulthood, just as those preschool steps felt so many years ago. It doesn’t seem like it in my memories, but I have to admit it – ten years is a long time.

The choices they are making show me how far these arrows will go. The other day when they wanted to go for a ride downtown I gave them all the cash I had, which came down to a whopping $4 each to spend at the candy store. I figured it would be gone in seconds, on milk shakes or the biggest bag of candy ever. But they came home and handed me a Kit Kat. It was the best part of my whole week.

Best candy bar ever

Best candy bar ever

Their thoughts are their own and they make that clear when I try to impose mine, which is great. They’ll listen to advice but make up their own minds (and that’s when I have to back off). As another friend said the other day, her girls who are the same ages as mine won’t speak all day but then something will come out and she has to be READY and focused at that moment to hear what they have to say. But when they do share what’s on their mind I’m so pleased.

The ways in which I strive to be like them are many. They’re small adults but still uncomplicated. They ask questions and really are curious about how the world works. They fight bullies and speak truth. There’s no drama or if there is, they get over it in the boy way of punching each other, being mad for a little while, and then getting over it.

I know I can learn more from them, or from the journey I am taking because of them, than they can learn from me. They’ll get educated on the subjects they need to learn eventually. That’s not my job. Making sure they know what’s important – and knowing when it’s their turn to teach me – that’s my job.

My Baby’s in Double Digits

I wrote a paean to Older Son when he turned ten, so it’s only fair that I do one for Younger. So far, you’ll be happy to know, we’re all hanging in there just fine with hitting this milestone.

It astounds me how different my boys are turning out to be. Younger is quietly determined, soft-spoken and kind, but with an iron will. It might take him a while but he will get what he wants. He is responsible and organized. He folds the towel before he hangs it on the rack. (That’s even better than me.)

He is a boy who was less excited about his new baseball glove and video game than the donation that was made in his name to the World Wildlife Fund. But still young enough to be disappointed that he can’t actually go and snuggle the lemur he adopted.

He is a deep thinker and likes to hear everyone’s opinion. He actually wants my advice and asks for it, and if I forget to offer it he reminds me, “Mommy, you’re not saying anything to make me feel better.” This is because he is so mature and independent that sometimes I forget he still needs me.

He is a fierce but fair competitor and an asset to every team he plays on. He’s so clever that he can deliver a joke or sass completely straight-faced, to the point where I don’t even know he’s kidding. He loves to stump me and to make me laugh.

He is truly saddened, pained even, by injustice, poverty, and strife. He wants to change the world for the better and I believe that someday he will.

How do I feel having no more single-digit aged children? Wonderful. That’s certainly not what I expected. I thought I’d break down, shed tears, be curled on the basement floor next to the storage box in a pile of baby clothes. I remember when almost-three-year-old Younger was still not talking very much, and I told my friend Pam I didn’t mind, because I liked keeping him young. She said, “But Amy, don’t you want to hear what he has to tell you?”

I didn’t think I could ever let go of my babies. I didn’t want his blonde curls to lengthen and his hair to thicken, or his chubby, edible baby feet to become big and smelly. I think I feared that I could never love them as passionately as I did at that moment, or that that kind of emotion was unsustainable. Or that they would grow up and be embarrassed by me and we would fight over homework and messes and privileges and chores.

What I have learned is that all those things will happen. And every fight will bring a deeper understanding. A stronger bond. Every challenge faced together makes us closer. As they grow older and understand adult things like sitting still in a restaurant, appreciating a good story, and getting the point of really bad jokes, our experience of the life around us deepens. I am sharing my life with two amazingly spectacular, fully-formed humans, and I feel blessed every day.

I truly don’t mourn their babyhood anymore, and it’s such a relief. I am so fulfilled and happy watching them grow into the young men they’re going to be. I’m proud of who they are, the choices they make, and how they carry themselves in the world. My greatest success is hearing someone tell me that I have great kids.

When my friend Rosie’s son turned fourteen I whined at the thought of my babies being that old. She took me by the shoulders and said, “Amy, it just keeps getting better.” I knew her words were heartfelt but still I doubted I’d be as convinced as she was.

And here I am, with two boys who’ve made it through their first decade on earth. It gets better every day. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Melting Down on a Hot Day

Why is it that my kids’ biggest (and most gut-wrenching) emotions hit at the most unexpected times? Birthday parties, last days of school – when they should be filled with sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, lemon drops – suddenly there are tears.

But I do remember how huge and important everything felt back then: the sting of an insult when you don’t know how to respond. Or not getting any candy from the pinata because you weren’t brave enough to dive into the insane-looking pile of writhing kids. Fighting with your parents in front of your friends. And how it felt when so-and-so at school told everyone what happened at the party this weekend.

To us grownups with our logical grownup brains it seems like no big deal. Just a fleeting moment that’s gone when we move onto the next thing. We can see that nobody else even noticed, or if they did, they will forget quickly. Or we have the adult capacity – and self-protection skills – to let go of the slights, make light of them, and move on without leaving a scar.

Pam would say “I cry every year on my birthday. It’s about letting go.” She has a way of making everything seem cleansing and natural instead of stressful and vomitous.

I remembered her words during all the emotional meltdowns this week. There was a birthday involved, but also the end of the school year. School’s out for summer! This. Is. AWESOME! So wait – What? Why are there tears?

It is about letting go – releasing what’s built up over a long time, and facing the new, unknown, and scary. And often those moments catch us unawares. We saw The Avengers last night as a last day of school celebration and I kept being struck at how easily they just jumped into the next battle. Hold up, don’t you have to process what just happened? And you’re not going to stop and think about it for a really long time before facing that next big scary thing?

Which is probably why superhero stories are so popular. You don’t always know what’s coming next, but you can be sure it’s scary. You like to think that you’ll be able to figure out the answer, perform perfectly, save the damsel, and win the battle with a witty quip. Never looking or feeling like a dork, and proving to the world that you’ve got what it takes (and you look super hot in your sexy costume to boot).

During these unexpected meltdowns I find myself struggling to deal with it as much as my kids. Which boy is it, how do I motivate him, what words do I say and not say, do I hug him or stand back, have we covered this topic before or is it new territory? Does he need to laugh it off or is this a real, serious one? Will I make him even more upset if I take it lightly? Will he just be annoyed and shut down if I take it too seriously? Do I talk, or shut up and let him talk?

There is a very brief window of opportunity in these moments, and if I make the wrong choice they are gone. Channeling my inner Black Widow…

And to top it all off, in the midst of all that processing, sometimes I have to turn my back and compose myself. I can’t let them see the tears I’m wiping from my eyes because to hear them sob crushes me. I have to put on the, “I’m here, you’re gonna be fine, let’s figure this out, and it’s OK to cry but don’t cry if you don’t want to, no pressure, we can work it out,” confident voice without letting it crack from my own emotions.

Damn, this mothering thing is hard.

When a Crying Baby Makes You So Angry You Might Hurt Them

A reader sent in one of the most heartfelt and brutally honest comments I’ve had, and I needed to respond right away.

One of the most popular posts on this blog has always been Don’t Feel Bad When Your Crying Baby Makes You Crazy. This is clearly a universal problem: people really do struggle when a baby is crying.

The reader, a man, said how much he loves his one-year-old daughter and that she rarely cries, but when she does, he gets so angry that he has to leave the room and punch furniture. He is afraid that he will scare and possibly hurt her with his anger.

First I want to reassure him that he’s doing the right thing. Go away, get rid of your anger, and come back when you can deal with the child. It’s far more upsetting for them to see you lose it in front of them or, clearly, to take your anger out on them. Your anger makes the moment more intense. The goal is to remain calm, and therefore calm the baby.

This is the hardest challenge of parenting – this is where you really have to dig deep, and I’m not just being facetious. You have to grow and change, which is really hard. You have to push yourself to find a place where you can be calm even when all hell is breaking loose around you.

If you lose control of your anger you can very easily hurt a little one, and it is terrifying for parents to think they have this capacity. Because no one talks about anger when it comes to little ones. We see the rosy pictures and the quiet moments and the joy joy joy we’re supposed to be feeling, when really we’re exhausted, emotional, scared, and sometimes just can’t handle the drastic (and irreversible) life changes we’ve just been through. Babies open up a whole new world we can’t possibly understand until we’re there, at 3AM with a screaming child, and we’ve got a major presentation at 9:00.

First let’s try to explain why all of this is happening. We get so noticeably upset by our baby’s cry because it is designed by nature to get your blood pumping – to get you to respond to its distress. It’s a survival instinct that we’re both physically wired for and there’s nothing we can do to change it.

But I also think that today we have immense pressure to never let our babies cry. All the gurus tell us to do everything we can to soothe our baby and stop the crying right away. But sometimes you simply can’t. And as the reader described, he then feels guilty because he can’t stop her crying and because his own emotional reaction feels out of control. Then the whole situation escalates quickly.

Sometimes being forced to stop crying is not the best thing for a child. Babies feel stress too, and they need a way to let it out. When we run in and force them to calm down we’re saying don’t cry – it’s not good for you. That emotion you have is bad and we need to stop it. A baby feels what they feel, they can’t analyze it.

Put her in a safe place and walk away. You both need a timeout, and that’s OK (and sometimes the safest thing to do). In fact I will often tell my day care kids, “Amy needs a timeout!” and run and hide in the kitchen. We can only take care of our kids if we take care of ourselves first. (This rule applies forever, at any age, in all situations.)

A little bit of crying has never hurt or permanently scarred a baby. It lets them deal with their own big emotions and learn how to self-soothe. There are times in life when Mom and Dad simply don’t know how to stop the pain. We can’t always fix everything, and it’s OK for a child to feel sad. Crying is a release.

Let’s face it, we are not a culture that deals well with ugly emotions. We don’t know what to do with our anger so we bottle it up until it explodes at the wrong time. It scares us, and that’s a healthy thing, but that also leads us to hide it away. When we’re sad we try everything to stop the crying, to hold that feeling in, rather than letting it out. Sometimes your body just can’t do that, even though we try to put our societal norms on it and say we’re too civilized for this ugliness. It’s not true. We need to be able to face it and then let it go, and teach our kids how to do that as well.

Therefore, I would like to introduce you to my friend Nubs. The boys named him that because he doesn’t have arms (or maybe something dirty but I chose not to delve any further). When we got him I thought it would be a hoot – but basically a joke – that I would be able to take my anger out on him. One day I half-heartedly punched his face. In a few minutes my hands hurt so badly that I had to go back to the store and get sparring gloves. When I’m not punching Nubs, I pat him on the head and thank him for taking my abuse, because honestly, there are some days when he saves our lives.

One of the most important things I do with my day care kids is teaching them how to deal with anger. There are many books out there on the topic, and one of their favorites is If You’re Angry and You Know It. I developed a song chart they can pick from and we sing, “If you’re angry and you know it growl it out!” Grrrrrrr, with lots of roars and gritted teeth from the crowd.

The reader asks if he should seek professional help and I would say I don’t think you’re at that point right now. The baby’s cries will get less intense as she gets older (and in case they don’t, remember that the best thing you can do with a tantrum is WALK AWAY – ignore it and don’t feed it, whatever you do).

But I’m glad that you realize that if it doesn’t get better, and you find yourself raging at your child, that you will need to ask for help. You are on the right track, and you’ve tapped into something very strong – the way our kids can push our buttons until we rage. As they grow it might not be crying, but other very sneaky ways they know to get us going.

It’s OK to show our kids that we’re angry. It’s an honest emotion and sometimes they push us to it. They have a part in the dance and need to learn why misbehaving is wrong. It’s part of growing up, and parents teaching their kids right from wrong.

Still I had the hardest time with this because of those messages – life is beautiful, never ugly, our children are precious, never let anything scar or hurt them, and NEVER tell them “No.” My son was a wild three-year-old and I battled him. One day I screamed so loud that it scared even me. I called my friend Pam and cried. I told her I don’t know what I’m doing but I know it’s wrong. I’m afraid I hurt my child.

She said, “Amy, what is he doing right now?” I looked out the window and said, “He’s running up and down the driveway with his Power Rangers cape on.” Pam asked, “Did you crush his spirit?” I had to admit that I didn’t. And what a relief that was. And accept the knowledge that our kids are far more resilient than we give them credit for. I waited until I collected myself and went and gave him a big hug. But I remembered that the next time he was getting me upset, I would let him know before I became a screaming monster.

I’m not much of a yeller now. I’m direct and honest, and address issues before they get out of control. I’m firm but loving. It’s been the hardest process of my life to learn how to handle my emotions, and the kids, and their emotions, in a healthy and productive way.

There is a quote that comes to mind every time I feel my anger rising at my kids. When I remember that they are the most precious and important thing in my life, and that I am the God of their world. That my response is literally going to shape their lives and teach them the emotional strength for how to get through the toughest times:

“Your defining act of love for your child will not be the 2:00 AM feedings, the sleepless, fretful night spent beside him in the hospital, or the second job you took to pay for college. Your zenith will occur in the face of a withering blast of frightening rage from your child, in allowing no rage from yourself in response. Your finest moment may well be your darkest. And you will be a parent.” (Michael J. Bradley)