One Day, Seven Kids

Yesterday was the boys’ first full day off since school started. I was having summer flashbacks – oh Lord, the long exhausting days filled with one disaster after another. The non-stop cleaning and chasing and nagging my boys to quit whatever it was they were doing and find something else. Then giving them four or five different options and hearing, “Nah!” to each one.

Yea, I was dreading it a little.

So instead of trying to come up with games and projects and activities, I set one simple goal for myself: stay present.

The idea was that I would just hang with them, and not be running around distracted all day. Because that’s when they want your attention the most and will start acting like lunatics to get it.

I had the 16-month-old Tornado, three 2-year-olds, a 5-year-old, and of course Younger (7) and Older (9). Just a slight age range there. Shouldn’t be any problem keeping them all happy…

I prepared myself for anything by being totally unprepared.

The morning started off peacefully. In fact, I couldn’t believe how well it was going. Could it be that my plan was working? Older Son has always been into secrets and sneaking. While looking through his Lego catalog he found a Harry Potter secret code. He figured it out, transcribed it, added some of his own letters that were missing, and asked me to make copies for his friend so they could write secret messages. I was so excited. I asked if I could use the secret code and he started writing me notes. I was in the club!!!

Of course pretty soon the notes were all about his Halloween candy and I had to tell him he couldn’t have it until after he ate a good lunch, so even our super-cool secret spy club stuff was invaded by boring old Mommy. But I was spending time with him, making codes and passing notes.

Younger Son was feeling left alone by Older’s attention to his new project, so he started his own. (Usually they are inseparable, so in the rare times when Older finds something private to do Younger’s on his own for a while.) He set up a store for the day care kids. They had to take some magnet money off the white board and they could buy stickers, toys, or books. Miss S, my other after-schooler, was his assistant. The littles were thrilled.

After a little more play time and snack, I announced that it was circle time. Older told me, “I like being here to see what you’re doing all day.” (He needs to know everything that’s going on so he can be in charge.) I said, “Do you think it’s boring?” and he said, “No, I didn’t think you did circle time anymore.” I explained that I dropped it over the summer because it would never work with big kids around. He thought that was silly and asked for his mat.

Sure enough, I gave up on circle time after six interruptions by the big kids.

These are the moments I want to remind him of when he demands to know why I’m not home-schooling him.

So we went outside. I have one newer child, Miss M, who I’m still building trust with. So I take it easier on her than the other kids because 1. I’m not sure she trusts me yet and 2. she’s more sensitive to it than the others. You lay off these kids until you know they can handle it. Well today she had to handle it. She was hanging around the open gate letting the Tornado out, and because my hands were full of twins, I barked at her to “SHUT THE GATE and come HERE!” instead of using my calm and professional child care provider voice to ask her very nicely to please move.

I waited nervously to see how she would respond. It can go either way – take it and move on, or lose it and bawl. She didn’t just take it – she LOVED it. If I barked at her the same way I bark at the other kids, then she knows she’s in the club now. We had that little shift – she could tell I’m not treating her differently than the others somehow. And I know this was a very good thing – we’ve taken one more step in the subtle dance of trust.

Being present. It’s a beautiful thing.

Let me clarify for the person who is appalled that a provider is yelling at kids. I have many tones of voice that I use throughout the day, and sometimes, “barking” is one of them. It is necessary in situations where I may be up to my elbows in something and not able to reach a child, and my voice has to stop said child because my body can’t get there fast enough.

And it may be that I’m human and they’ve pushed me too far (one versus seven, remember?). As I work with kids I try to teach them that we all get angry, and there are lots of ways to deal with it, and when we’re done being angry we apologize and make it better. For more thoughts you can check out this post, but I’m sure I’ll be back on this topic again sometime.

Back in the house. It’s almost nap time and my boys are crazy-wrestling in the area where one of the twins has to calmly and quietly lay down to sleep. They won’t come out and I can feel my anger rising. Instead of losing it (that would be the opposite of my goal for the day), I used one of my teacher tricks. “I’m counting down from five and if you’re not out of there you get no more Halloween candy today!”

They were out by three.

They did calm down and were amusing themselves nicely for quiet time, but Miss S (who’s too old to nap) was needing some attention. She asked for an envelope for her artwork but didn’t like the first one I got. She asked for a folder, and I went and got that too.

Did she like that one? No.

But I didn’t lose it. I reminded myself that she takes her art very seriously and she was trying to be quiet. I took a breath and told her, “Use this one for now, and then I’ll get you another one later. I don’t want to wake up the baby.” She looked right in my eyes, nodded very seriously, and waited until later.

It doesn't just happen in "Ramona & Beezus"

How to while away a day off

The rest of the day flowed. I sat on the floor, I let kids crawl on me, we danced, we did puzzles and read books, we laughed at stupid kid jokes that make no sense. Younger and Miss S taped some poster boards together and drew a six-foot-long picture. And I was right there with them the whole way. You want poster boards? I’ll dig them out of the basement. You need tape? Right here on the shelf. Yes, I can help you pull off a piece of masking tape that’s long enough to fit without tangling it while singing “Five Little Ducks” as the twins jostle for space on my lap. I indulged them all day instead of trying to bend them to fit my plans. I remembered the words of my mentor Pam, who said, Just sit down. I did it, and it was awesome.

Being a Child Care Provider Rules

Seriously. I’m not trying to sugarcoat it – this job is challenging and frustrating. But today I’d like to sing the praises of running a home child care business. I met somebody who told me, “You must like the job if you’ve been doing it that long.” And I agreed. So here’s why I like it:

1. I work at home! What’s better than that? Pam warned me that if I wanted to do this, I’d have to be a homebody. I hadn’t considered myself one before, and in fact I’d been a commuter for years. So I admit I did get a little claustrophobic at first but now I don’t even notice it. In the winter when it’s cold and I don’t want to get a chill on my little bones, sometimes I don’t even leave the house for days.

2. I am my own boss. Nuff said.

3. I don’t take work home with me. OK, that sounds silly because half my house is dedicated to my work. But at 5:15, I’m done worrying. Of course I have to do a lot of cleaning and upkeep on my personal time, but it’s busywork. No worrying about meetings, projects, deadlines, office politics, who stole my stapler…

4. When my “co-workers” are acting like jerks – it’s because they’re 3.

5. And the flip side is that when they’re not acting like jerks, I get unconditional love.

6. I used to spend a lot of time worrying about how having this job makes my boys suffer. Oh, they have to share their mommy and their time and their space and I can’t give them enough undivided attention and they have all these kids around touching their stuff… blahbiddy bloo. The beautiful (and definitely unexpected) thing that has happened is how much they’ve learned. I cannot tell you how nice it is to see my boys around little ones and see how GREAT they are with them. They are kind and patient and know how to get everybody involved in something. They know how to set boundaries and recognize if someone needs help. They know how to identify their feelings and diffuse tension with laughter. They know that part of being a good person is caring for others. I can’t imagine any other job I could have that would teach them this much about life?

7. I am providing a service. Every day I help other families function. I used to sit at a desk and type on a computer, which was great work, and a hell of a lot more relaxing, and damn, the paychecks were nicer. But it didn’t give me any sense of purpose or personal fulfillment. It just gave me eye strain. And, as a friend told me, I am raising kids, and that is a very important job.

8. I am a better mother. Bottom line. There is so much I’ve learned on this job that I definitely wouldn’t have anywhere else, and I’m so so grateful every day for it. I learned how to relax and stop making such a huge deal out of everything. I can see what’s normal behavior – all the annoying, ridiculous, puzzling, unexplainable things that kids do that are actually normal behavior. And now I know that all kids do them, so I don’t have to worry that mine have brain damage. I can tell when something’s a real problem and amazingly, sometimes, I know what to do to fix it.

I have a friend (and client!) who says, “The universe will provide.” So thanks Universe, for giving me exactly the job I needed, just when I needed it.

The Pain of Growing Boys

I was just full of heartache today. Carol came to sub and I took the boys to the zoo as a last hurrah for the summer. I told them it was a thank you gift from me, because really, even though there were days when they drove me crazy, and in general they made my day more complicated, they basically came to work with me all summer.

And we didn’t have any major disasters. And they were nice to the day care kids to boot.

But the entire day I couldn’t help asking myself, how many more zoo trips do we have in us? And instead of drinking in the moments, I found myself trying to grasp them harder, which only made it hurt more when they passed.

The zoo has changed since we started coming here eight years ago and so have my boys (I hate when that happens – on both counts). Their bodies keep growing long and skinny. Younger’s top front tooth has been going crooked for a month, ready to fall out, and it reminds me of my friend Karen’s comment that once those baby teeth come out they never look the same.

We visited the animals we know well: the crazy cockatoo who squawks at Older. The camel who likes to eat grass. We all laughed and squealed when she licked Older’s hand. A woman told her boyfriend to move on because camels spit and I thought, you don’t know what you’re missing!

The dwarf horses and zebras that Younger loves to feed, and he always becomes the most gentle little man when he does this: “Come here horsey, I got some food for you.” The little monkey who will take corn out of your hand, but went after a spider this time (what could be cooler to see, if you’re a 9- or 7-year old boy?) The giraffe they let you feed from a tall platform, which is always a highlight. Have you ever seen the tongue on one of those things?

There’s a teeny weeny trolley that goes around and around in a small circle. The boys used to freak out to ride on this. Today it looked small, old, and sad, but Younger still wanted to ride it. Older was being so kind. He could tell Younger still loved it so instead of saying, “There’s no way in hell you’re getting me on that thing,” he just said he wanted to look at the alligator and headed off for its pen. Sometimes he is really awesome.

So Younger rode, and rang the bell and high-fived me as he passed. He had a huge smile on his face, and I tried to enjoy the moment with him instead of thinking about how next year, he will ridicule this silly little kid train. His innocence is fleeting. Will he find this much joy in something else as he grows and gets jaded?

There’s a small playground that they also still enjoy even though they are Big Grownup Boys. Younger swung as high as he could, trying to kick the tree branch, so I helped him cheat by pulling it toward his foot.

Older climbed like a monkey up the outside of the play structure, and got another big boy to follow. His little brother started trying to chase them but couldn’t come close, so the big boys chased him instead. Then the two pairs of boys, older and younger brothers, began an insanely fast and wild game of tag that went up and over everything in its path.

I laughed, thinking that when my guys were little I would’ve been appalled at their behavior. Boys need to run in packs, period. I thought about how different they are from the girls, who are already learning how to plot and plan, waiting for something they want and when the other child looks away they dash in to grab and claim it. Somehow we don’t notice that girls are being inappropriate when they do this, but the boys are always labeled when they let those big goofy boy bodies run wild.

I thought about how we view and treat men in our culture. When they’re boys they’re too crazy, as teens they’re too dangerous, and when they grow up they must magically transform into respectable men and good loving daddies. I saw two teenage boys petting the goats and thought, well somebody’s doing something right.

The other boys had to leave just as the game was getting good (or their parents recognized that at any moment it might spin out of control). Older Son was panting when he sat down and said, “It’s so fun to play with a new friend you know you’ll never see again.” That was actually a pretty profound statement, and made me feel less guilty for being artificially nice to people in public places. I asked him to explain a little more and he said, “It’s like they’re at their full friend power.” Boy logic, but yes, very true.

The zoo has a room full of those little rides you find outside of big box stores. They both insisted on riding this silly seat that goes up and around in a circle. We thought for sure that Older would be too big and crush it, but both boy and machine survived.

I had to get quarters for more rides so I headed to the entrance booth. There was a grandmotherly lady there who laughed when I yawned. I told her, “Every day they wear me out.” She replied, “That’s a good feeling.” I knew she got it. I think she misses that feeling.

I didn’t want to go but it was time. Pam texted to see what was up and I told her how sad I was feeling. I told her my zoo trips are numbered. In the way that she always comforts me, she replied, “The zoo gets bigger and different. They will always want to spend time with you. The zoo just changes. Zip lining….”

Where is The Love?

A good friend of ours has always been ambitious. For years he worked in high-tech, was very successful, made a lot of money, started his own business, etc. After a disagreement with his partners he decided to leave the company and took the summer off. His wife kept working so he became Mr. Mom. He was dedicated to it and took great care of his kids, and he adores his little girls. But he admitted to Dave that he really just didn’t feel fulfilled. He was happy to be with his kids but at some point he felt like saying, Just leave me alone!

Now when a father says this type of stuff, we agree with him. Naturally, he’s made for more and has ambitions that can’t be fulfilled staying home with the kids. Hmm. What happens when a mom feels this way?

I told Dave the fact is a great deal of child care is grunt work. No one wants to cook, clean, feed, pick up after, wash, and generally meet the constant needs of small tyrants. But still, that work is left to moms because, well, why? We bear them? Because dads’ roles in life are so much more important than ours? Because it is man’s work to be out providing for us? Because they need – and somehow deserve – something more in order to feel fulfilled?

Maybe it’s because a woman is better able to tolerate squashing her feelings and needs down somewhere in the pit of her stomach until her children are grown (or she forgets they’re there). Or we simply won’t accept a lower standard of care for our kids. When I told Pam I was afraid that if something happened to me that Dave wouldn’t be able to do it all, she calmly said, “They’d be fine. They’d be wild boys running around with dirty hair and ripped-up clothes, but they’d be fine.”

I remember when I first went back to work after having kids and was struggling with the balancing act. How I felt like I did most of the work most of the time, but what I heard from friends and relatives was, “What a great dad Dave is! He does SO much!” Really? So howcome I’m not a GREAT mom because I do SO much!?

As usual I called Pam for help. What she said was so true that I wrote it on a scrap of paper (and it was exactly where I’d left it the last time I went to look at it). She said, “There is an acceptance of dad for who he is – mom doesn’t get that.” Meaning, acceptance for who she is. What if she hates cooking and cleaning too?

So it’s OK for dad to say “Just leave me alone!” when he comes home from being out at work all day. Let me be clear, I’m not bashing my husband or dads in general. I adore my husband and he is a wonderful man, father, and partner.

What I’m getting at is this:  it’s assumed that mom will do most of the child care and if she doesn’t she’s negligent. While if dad occasionally folds the laundry on top of his quest for personal fulfillment outside the home, he’s seen as a Really Great SuperDad.

And I hope that the dads may understand why, when they come home looking for a little love and attention, that after a long day of being alone with the kids, their wife might say…

…wait for it…

“Just leave me alone!”