First Day of Summer

Let’s talk about today.

First off, I started the week by putting my back out. Mr. O is going through a second phase of stranger anxiety but at 18 months instead of nine. So now he’s twice as heavy as a 9-month-old. And I’m twice as old as somebody who should be hauling around any baby.

When Famous Carol came to sub for me to go to Younger Son’s graduation from elementary school, I picked up a screaming Mr. O, the back went pop and so, pretty much, did the rest of my week.

With school out I don’t have to transport the boys back and forth, which is great, and I love having them home more than anything. But they are two extra bodies in the house who, however self-sufficient, still need attention and feeding and leave a trail of dishes, crumbs, and wet/dirty/smelly clothes in their wake.

Younger actually wants to help with the day care kids, which is awesome, but requires extra work in finding supplies and cleaning up after the highly complicated art projects he chooses at random each morning.

I had an interview coming at noon and had to print out a contract – and the printer was out of ink. I should add that an interview makes you want to have everything clean and tidy. But there are seven kids underfoot who don’t care all that much about cleanliness. And that just creates a lot of angry noise in your brain that you’re carrying around on top of the usual chaos.

The weather has been crazy this week and it was downpouring all morning. At 10:15 when there was a break in the rain I told the kids, we need to get out in the yard now before it comes back! Once we got there, the skies cleared and the sun was beating down on us.

I hadn’t brought out any supplies for swimming (towels, bathing suits, change of clothes) but the children were already half-naked and jumping in the pool full of rain water.

Well, OK fine, they’re distracted, we’ll deal with that mess later, I thought. Now is the perfect time to put together my new climber that the neighbors donated and are bringing over at this very moment. The interview will see it and think, what an awesome place to bring my daughter. That climber will put me over the edge, I’m sure of it!

The babies were running around naked with soaking wet “pendulum diapers,” as my neighbor noted. Miss A was playing a half-serious game of chase with Mr. L in which she showed him her doll, he tried to take it, and she ran away screaming, “You can’t have my doll!”

I stopped her and explained that she should stop showing it to him if she didn’t want him to take it. She listened politely, showed Mr. L the doll again, and ran away screaming with him trailing behind her.

I realized the climber was going to need more help than a good swift kick to pop it together, so I went to grab the rubber mallet out of the garage. Not there. But this small axe should do the trick!

The two big girls were playing a game of princess rescue in which one of them hid somewhere in the yard and screamed in pain to warn the prince that she needed help. This game intersected with the baby doll chase and four children were now running through the yard tackling each other with various levels of real- and fake-pain screams. The babies were beginning to melt down, lunch time was approaching, and I feared my interview could walk in at any moment.

Pay no attention to the axe in the play area.

I hustled the sweaty, dirty, crying, mosquito-bitten, sunburned, droopy-drawered children into the house and somehow miraculously managed to get them all cleaned up, changed, and sitting down ever-so-beautifully at the lunch table when the interview arrived.

I found out five minutes after she arrived that she used to be a preschool teacher. She was completely nonplussed by the disaster, and sat down with a book and two kids on her lap while I finished cleaning up lunch. Some things are meant to be.

They left and I put the kids down for nap and to have a lie-down on the living room floor (oh yes the back is still twinging amidst all this). I have lately fashioned a pillow out of two comforters and a pillow case for Mr. L who, instead of drinking his water, dumped it out in his bed and wailed about having a wet bed.

It’s 1:50. I’m just sitting down to lunch. We’re only two hours behind schedule. And I’m just a few clicks away from a nervous breakdown. Welcome, summer!

The Tyranny of Expectation

I recently wrote an article on school choice that I thought would earn me a good deal of backlash. Instead, what people responded to most strongly was the idea that we expect too much of our public school system. It got me thinking about expectations.

Parents are probably the kings and queens of expectation. We want the world to be safe and kind, all teachers to be perfect, all coaches to be nurturing, all drivers to slow down, all bullies to get theirs, and for our children to have the best of everything all the time and total happiness and fulfillment in their lives.

Is that too much to ask?

What about the expectations I’ve been given, as a woman and a mother? The debate that women can have it all rages on but I can tell you, we can’t. Did I expect that this job, which is harder, more demanding, and more complicated than any other job I’ve ever had, would eliminate me as a viable candidate for any other job I applied for after I was done? Nope. But it has. I am now “just” a day care provider, my label for life.

However. I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be if I had any job other than this. So I gave up a career to be a mom. Also not what I expected, or what I was led to believe I could have. I could be mad about this, or I could be grateful that I am here for my kids as much as I possibly can be. No “career” job could make me that happy. Though it would certainly pay better.

The very idea of “motherhood” is laden with expectation – no pun intended – right from the start of pregnancy. I was reminded of that by this hilarious (and profane) blog post, “A Letter to My Pregnant, Child-less Self.” Birth plan? How can you possibly control birth? And who decided it would be a good idea to let us expect that we could? Here’s what to expect from labor: a lot of pain, a lot of pushing, elation, fear, exhaustion, and hopefully a healthy mom and baby at the end of it.

Besides letting us down, expectations take us away from a place of gratitude. If there’s anything I’ve tried to teach my boys (in a world full of Joneses), it is to be happy for what they have. When they start envying what their friends have, I remind them of the friends we know who have less. When you can look at what you have and be satisfied, life is so much easier.

The other day I was explaining a “bad” event to Younger Son using the Zen story about the farmer whose son breaks his leg. The neighbors say how awful, but when the army comes and can’t take the boy to fight, they say how wonderful. At every turn, the farmer simply says, “Maybe.” (For the full text, click here and scroll down to “Maybe.”) We can’t see the benefit when we’re in a struggle, and we can’t presume to know the outcome. We need to learn how to accept that what we have may be just fine.

Fifteen years ago my husband took me on a hike to the top of Somes Sound, touted as “the only fjord on the Atlantic coast.” I sat on the smooth rock looking over the harbor below and thought, this is not what I expected. I wanted a dramatic chasm of rock rising on either side with boats like ants in the water below. Instead it was a gentle slope down to a rather wide, average-looking waterway. But it was beautiful, and blue, and breathtaking in its own way.

In a few weeks we’ll go back to that fjord with our sons, and climb the same hill and look out over the harbor. I’ll force them to stand still, pose, and smile for the camera though they can barely tolerate my picture-taking after a few days on vacation. It won’t be what I expected, but it will be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

A Mother’s Fear and Faith

I find myself to be struck dumb when catastrophes happen. It’s hard for me to write about the little details of parenthood and life with kids, and deal with my little complaints, and make all the nonsense seem silly and cute, when I know there are 12,000 people in Oklahoma whose homes just got wiped off the map.

And there are too many catastrophes happening lately, so I find that I can’t write very much. Last week I was focused on how to protect our kids from all the dangers that lurk out there. I decided to give up years of beating myself up for being too worried, and accept that I’m a mother. I’m supposed to be worried. And I’m pretty sure it’s a biological imperative, so I should just stop fighting it.

But the new challenge I have set for myself is to find a way to manage the worry and allow my children their freedom. I have to accept that all of life is a risk. And as Baz Luhrmann tells us in the logo for his production company, “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.” (We saw Gatsby this weekend, it was decent. Thanks for the advice, Baz.)

I don’t want to be fearful. I want to be that adventuresome person climbing the rock cliffs like we did in Utah over spring break. I want to give my kids all the challenges and freedom they need to grow into healthy adults and have faith that they will be alright. Why is it that we can be so unafraid in the face of real falling-off-a-cliff danger, but the walk to school feels scarier than falling off a cliff?

Usually when I’m in this mode of worry and doubt, comfort comes when I least expect it. I was reading the newspaper (a prime source of disaster stress) and there was an article about our police department hiring a new chaplain to provide counseling for both police and the families involved with incidents.

When asked about the stresses of his job, and dealing with so many people in trauma and crisis, he responded, “It’s been a blessing for me to get this experience over the years and to be able to respond to these horrific events to help people get through it and move on. Because we can’t protect ourselves from all these things, we just have to help each other get through it.”

I was hit by the honesty, strength – and yes, acceptance – in this quote, and it stayed with me. Things are going to happen in my kids’ lives. I can’t predict them or prevent them. I can’t be there for everything and there are things they won’t want me there for. But I can always help them through. Whenever my sons get worried we tell them, “There are always people who will help you.” Today my challenge is to focus on this aspect of the good in people and let go of the fear.

What to Do When Sports Get Ugly

“You suck.” – Nine-year-old boy at soccer game

Wow. Yes, believe it or not, this was uttered after our last game by a kid on the winning team to someone on my son’s team. We only lost by one goal, and stayed right with them. If you didn’t count the goal where they tackled our keeper, we would’ve tied. Oh and by the way, they don’t keep score at this level. But somehow we suck.

I have learned that as a sports parent there are many games where all you can do is set a good example. It can take a serious effort to resist getting dragged down by the ugliness that’s happening around you. Many times you have to head home after the game trying to find the positive lesson for your kids.

So, like in the case of this game, a lot of those lessons are about rising above. This kind of flat-out bullying shouldn’t be accepted anywhere, but it kills me how easily people shrug it off on the playing field. It’s just part of the game!

I’m not naive, I know what kind of ugly exists out there in the world. But I’ve worked hard to put some distance between it and myself. I moved to the area I live in because we’re a happy, mellow community. I work with infants, toddlers and preschoolers. I am, as my best friend likes to say, a marshmallow.

So I really have a hard time when I see such bold aggression. I actually have a physical response – it’s probably fight or flight. I get shaky and upset when I see parents and coaches screaming their kids into submission and berating referees and anyone else in the near vicinity.

Then the kids behave the same way because that’s the example that’s being set: This is how we act when we’re playing sports. It’s ok to be a complete animal, because after the game’s over (and we’ve danced in the blood of our enemies) we can all pat each other on the back and say, “Good game.” No hard feelings. We left it all on the field.

Sometimes I think I’m just a sore loser. But I don’t mind losing to a team that plays fair. And I have to think I’m a better sport than the “You suck” kid. I do try not to write them off. I know they’re a product of their environment.

Until now I’ve been unable to think of a way to just watch the game, not get involved in the atmosphere, and enjoy seeing my kids play a sport they really love. So I googled “parenting and sports” looking for some ideas. There were a couple of good articles, like this one, in which coaching expert Bruce Brown says you should “Let your child bring the game to you if they want to.”

I love this idea. Last year we banned re-hashing the game during the ride home in the car, and it was genius. But at some point either my husband or I couldn’t resist the urge to talk about it and give our two cents. I have to accept that when the game’s over, my son might not want to talk about it at all, and that’s OK. It’s not my job (or what they want) to dissect the game, good or bad.

Many of the other articles I found were a mix of “Don’t over-do it with youth sports,” followed by “How to maximize your child’s athletic potential.” The usual bag of mixed messages. We give a lot of lip service to fairness, but secretly we know you’re just in it to get your kid into the pros.

That’s not what my kids want out of sports (which is probably why they aren’t out there trying to dominate everyone). They love the exercise, the challenge, and being with their friends. I have a feeling that many of their teammates feel the same way.

So all I can do is keep taking deep breaths and teaching my sons how to deal with idiots. The best advice I found was that when the game is over, they just want Mom. And being my best Mom means shutting my mouth and listening to what they have to say. Sometimes it means letting them be quiet and resisting the urge to invade their privacy. And no matter what, always be on their side.

A footnote to this post: In response to reading it, a friend of mine sent me a link to this video, which has been making the rounds this weekend. I don’t want to spoil it so please just watch – it’s well worth the three minutes. Everyone in that gym was a better person for what they saw. If only…

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

You Don’t Have to be An Attachment Parent

I’m trying not to get too worked up about yet another study telling us that if we’re not attachment parents, we are destroying our children. But you know how good I am at that.

I try to remain calm. However, the first sentence of this article uses the word “retard” in reference to children who are not raised in the attachment style. That leads me to believe that the author does in fact mean to provoke her readers.

The author goes on to say that “ill-advised practices…such as the use of infant formula, the isolation of infants in their own rooms or the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby will ‘spoil’ it…(are causing an) epidemic of anxiety and depression…rising rates of aggressive behavior and delinquency…and decreasing empathy, the backbone of compassionate, moral behavior, among college students.”

Whoa whoa whoa. Slow down now. I think there may be a few things – just a few other factors – that occur between infancy and adulthood that could cause anxiety and depression. Just a few?

And I refuse to believe that widespread practices of only a generation ago are such all-out catastrophes. My mother formula-fed me, let me cry it out, and put me in a – gasp – playpen when I was a baby! So I would be SAFE while she cooked my dinner! And good Lord, I survived all that trauma and abuse.

Am I depressed, angry, delinquent, and unempathetic? I like to think I’m pretty normal, a successful small business owner, happily married, doing my best to raise well-adjusted (non-attachment) children. I’m pretty sure that being put in a crib as a baby didn’t destroy my life.

And then there is the age-old argument presented as revelation: “This new research links certain early, nurturing parenting practices — the kind common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies — to specific, healthy emotional outcomes in adulthood.”

Hmm. I remember watching the movie “Babies” where the Mongolian baby was tied to the bed while the mom worked. While other people in the theater gasped in horror, I thought, that’s genius! (Maybe I’m wrong.)

I’m sure if you really looked at it, you could find just as many societies around the world where people don’t sleep with their babies. Or like us, a society that is torn in its beliefs with many different experts wringing their hands over it.

So, we’re not a foraging hunter-gatherer society. Those third-world moms (who I’m sure love being seen in that light) probably don’t have to get two kids to school and be in a 9:00 meeting looking awesome with a box of gluten-free muffins we picked up at the organic bakery on the way in because the new client has a wheat allergy (probably due to formula feeding).

Beyond the questionable parenting advice, what upsets me most about these studies is the implication that it’s all mom’s fault. If you didn’t co-sleep or nurse, your kid is done for. They’re depressed, anxious, and maladjusted, and it’s because you let them cry too much as a baby. Nicely done, mom!

What these studies fail to see is that it’s not co-sleeping and breastfeeding that teach empathy, good behavior, and general well-being. It’s what happens BEYOND infancy. Good and/or bad habits can be established during those early years, but it is parenting throughout childhood that sets a child’s path.

And guess what? We can do everything right (impossible) and still have a child who is depressed or anxious. Co-sleeping does not a perfect world make. It doesn’t affect biology or socioeconomic status or many other factors in a child’s life.

I understand that the people promoting these studies have good intentions. But from what I can gather, they are being presented by women who don’t even have children. If I started doling out advice about brain surgery, I think the patients might be taken aback.

When I was about to give birth for the first time a wise friend told me, “There are no blue ribbons. All we want is a healthy mom and baby out of this.” The same can be said for parenting. We’re all just doing the best we can.

If you’ve had success with co-sleeping and can string together more than 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep, then awesome. If it’s working and you’re happy, keep it up. But consider yourself lucky, because you are among about the 8% of people who’ve been able to make it work. (That’s not a research-driven statistic – it’s my anecdotal experience. Just to clarify.)

For the rest of you: there is hope. You can still be a good mom even if you can’t stand having a baby in your bed. Because here’s what it takes to raise children: Consistency. Boundaries. Lots of love. High expectations for good behavior. Consequences. Being able to say no. Having to be the bad guy no matter how hard it hurts. Being pushed to the limit emotionally and still give your child what they need from you in a loving way. Facing both demons and fingerprint-smudged walls on a daily basis. Being able to laugh through it all. A good night’s sleep. And not taking everything so damn seriously.

Moving On

The time has come to write again but I can’t think of any topic other than Newtown. I know I need to focus on other things, but it still hangs heavy for me. Every time I sit down for a snuggle with my kids it feels like a privilege, and more fragile than ever before.

What else should I write? Oh, woe is me, getting ready for Christmas was so hard. Day care is crazy and wacky! I can’t find the silly details and complaints to focus on and make funny when all I can feel is gratitude for what I have. And I don’t think anyone feels they have the right to complain about anything yet.

OliphantI was back home in the Newtown area for Christmas to visit family. For the most part we had a lovely time, but you could still feel sadness. Every business with a sign out front had a message for “our neighbors in Newtown,” there were notices for vigils and donations, and all flags were at half-staff. Christmas candles took on more than their usual meaning.

Usually after an event like this happens the tributes seem false. As my husband pointed out, people have this weird response where they all rush to find their connection to the place (well, I did). But this one feels different. It really does feel like everybody’s mourning. As a friend of mine said, it felt like this was happening to all of us – we were all damaged.

At the same time, it didn’t. I was able to get through Christmas pretty normally, and busy myself with packing, wrapping, cooking, hosting, traveling, visiting, being distracted by (and appreciating more) the time with family. It was the day after Christmas that the sorrow hit me again, and I wondered how the Newtown families got through it.

Our brains do this weird thing when tragedy hits, focusing on that one detail that maybe keeps us from thinking about bigger things. For me it was worrying about gifts that had been bought and wrapped, only to be returned. I think about Christmases to come, and how it might feel to be a symbol of a national tragedy. Every December holiday season will be a double-whammy for the people affected by this.

Adam ZygusI’ve been listening to the news on the sly, still trying to shield my kids from most of it. I hear the negative chatter about gun control and runs at gun shops for those who feel it’s their last chance to buy a semi-automatic. But then my heart actually swells when I hear about police buybacks where they run out of rewards because too many people brought their guns to turn in.

We’ve heard from friends who live in Newtown and are tired of the hoopla. There are well-meaning people who come to try and help, but then there is a dark side: they’ve seen people taking pictures of themselves in front of memorials, and others who were actually looking to mooch free food and presents for their kids. People are weird.

In the moving on, everyone immediately rushes to blame, fix, and point to their own reasons for why these things happen. Any logical person (especially one without a political agenda) knows that these things happen for a number of reasons, and we have much work to do to address them. But we can, and we should. In many ways, we are a very sick society, and in others, a very strong one. We have the ability to make change and help each other – we simply have to remember to do these things on a daily basis.

While embracing my firefighter uncle and cousin, I thought of the first responders who are always in harms’ way. After the shootings I read this comment: “Joel Faxon, a member of the Newtown Police Commission, said the trauma experienced by the officers should be treated no differently from physical injuries.” (Hampshire Gazette, Dec. 21)

This is profound and true. I bear witness to traumas beyond imagination that both my firefighter relatives and my ER nurse mother have dealt with throughout the years. Perhaps the discussion on mental health care will finally change, especially when we see the ravages brought on by those who fall through the very big cracks in a wildly broken system.

I wonder if Wayne LaPierre would have to see what first responders see in order to really understand the reality of what happens to people at the wrong end of a gun barrel. Would that get through to him? I wonder if the NRA is finally, a bit pathetically, taking themselves out of the discussion with their own ridiculously stupid response to this situation. We can only hope.

I know we will move on, and we should. The story is already gone from the top of the news cycle. But we should also not forget. I don’t want our collective memory to be short on this, as it is on so many topics in the 24/7 news and information world. (Does anyone remember Hurricane Sandy?)

During the crush of media coverage and the confusion of the first days after the shooting, I heard a quote that stuck with me. It was a father in Newtown who said, “We’re going to do our business (of grieving) here, and then we’ll be back. You haven’t heard the last of us.” I truly and sincerely hope that was a promise.