Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Scrooged? or Hot Live-In Manny...you decide

Yesterday afternoon. I had just posted my "happily coping with Christmas, ha ha" piece below when the phone rang.

It was Joe, calling from his office. "Well, I'm coming home. They've given us all an hour to pack up everything and get out." I have visions of medieval thugs in black formless hoods standing over he and his coworkers. Actually, it's a timid woman from the corporate office who is literally shaking because she's been given the crap job of telling a whole office full of people to go, right now. She's accompanied by some maintenance guy who is rekeying the locks as people are packing up their belongings.

We knew Joe's job was ending. The company had nothing left, really. Everyone in the office had done what they could to keep things going, but the writing had been on the wall for a while. But the last day was supposed to be today, and when Timid Corporate Messenger of Doom came in, it was a complete surprise. They were actually taking a little break and having a small, somber Christmas party. People who had worked there in the past had stopped by to say a little hello. They were counting on that last day, today, to get in one more day at full pay instead of workshare through unemployment. Instead, they got the boot early.

Tears were shed. People were blindsided. It all boils down to this: the corporate office which has more or less established ownership and authority refuses to pay out for anyone's paid time off. They are breaking contracts and severance agreements with other employees. We are out at least $7,500 on Joe's end in accumulated PTO, and we aren't even getting the worst of it. Corporate is trying to distance themselves from the company, lawyers are being called, sabers are being rattled. And so the little company party was crashed and everyone given the bums rush. People who had been there for nineteen years plus--even the company founder--were told to get out. Keys were handed over.

I'm not naive. I know that worse has happened to other people, and I am very grateful that we'll be okay on the unemployment once those benefits kick in. But what about our insurance? Will the Oregon Health Plan allow us to keep our amazing pediatrician? Our benefits end in eight days.

At the same time, I'm so grateful that we have the life we do. Our mortgage is doable, we don't have extra payments for cable or fancy internet. (Okay, truth be told, I'm dreading another year of dial-up!) We don't have car payments and we rarely use the credit card. In short, we'll be okay.

And I have Joe at home now to help with Kiddo and Plumtree. I'd been concerned about needing childcare to get some work done. Now I have a hot guy who lives in and does do childcare, for free. And I can have an affair with my "manny" and my husband won't get mad. Not bad to be me, huh?

I'm trying to keep a sense of humor in all of this. There's really nothing else to do for it. We just finished a bit of Christmas shopping and will go out for pizza tonight as we drop by the neighborhood mailboxes and finally mail Kiddo's letter to Santa. Later we'll put on a silly dvd and laugh, because that's kind of what we need. We'll have plenty of time to gnash our teeth, wail and rend our garments in our anger. For now, I need to get me some mistletoe kissletoe, because Joe, working or not, is still the best man I know.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cheers

Christmas Spirit. It’s one of those mythical things to me, kind of like a unicorn or phoenix. Not that I don’t believe they could exist. It’s just that the Christmas spirit is kind of slippery and evasive for me. And I think it’s this way for many others too.

I belong to a group called “People Who Had Something Horrible Happen To Them on Christmas Day”. This is not in the caliber of, say, Aunt Martha getting a little too tight on the eggnog and calling her brother Milt a horse’s ass or that year you didn't get those fancy jeans that everyone else was wearing--not that I’m belittling your pain, but really, we would gladly have had that than what we got. Death, disaster and violence don’t hang up their gloves on Christmas day, and for some of us, it’s an anniversary of the hardest or most terrifying moments in our lives. I won’t go into my experience as: A. I like to keep up a little decorum and B. I don’t want to distract from my larger point, but trust me when I say that my life was altered by my Christmas Day experience and that it took years to heal from it. I’m not alone; plenty of others have their own terrible stories of a cruel Yule.

Let it be said: We aren’t out to ruin your Christmas, it’s more that everything that Means Christmas can potentially come with a side of post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a stretching time for some of us, because we want to participate and, if we’ve come far enough, we can enjoy ourselves in the moment. And if Christmas were truly one single day it would be easier to do so. But it’s not: Christmas starts earlier and earlier each year. This summer we were reminded of Christmas in the stores, and it seems to officially start everywhere just as soon as Frankenstein's Posse and all their candy is cleared out of the stores. By the time December 1 rolls around, the television and radio are airing their Christmas specials. I don’t mind all of it, really---sure, there are some things that offend the sensibilities, but they would bother me, Christmas or no. But overall, on the short side it's still at least a thirty-one day Post-It Note reminding you that That Horrible Day is coming up.

I know that Christmas is a very special and important day for a lot of people and I don’t want to take that away from anyone. At the same time, how can we be completely genuine and true to ourselves if we feel like we have to fake an emotion to fit in? I’m pretty matter-of-fact about Christmas myself. I enjoy parts of it; even before I had my son, Joe and I still played Santa for each other. It's a treat, introducing Kiddo to the concept of Santa Claus—I think I can be that kind of a fun, giving mom for my son. But I’m not even close to jolly, happy, joyous or in the Christmas Spirit. At best, you could say that sometimes I get a contact high, and that’s about it. While many people gather with family, some of us hide a little at Christmas or we take good care to be with people who can accept us for who we are on that day. When I was younger I spent more than one Christmas alone and was glad to. As I’ve gotten older, more comfortable with life, each year passes and I become a little more comfortable with Christmas Day. It’s taken me thirty-one years, and I’m not done having hard feelings around Christmas, I know this. And yet, each year brings hope because it feels more bearable.

So, all this is just to tell you: if someone you know seems blasé or uninterested in Christmas, don’t take it personally or think unkindly of them. They are likely not thinking unkindly of you. They could just be like me: doing the best they can with what they’ve got on the anniversary of the worst day of their lives. I’m laughing as I write this, because it’s kinda funny, isn’t it? Now go have yourself a Merry Little Christmas (if that’s what you celebrate) and don’t forget to Santa your kid up.

Cheers.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy Snotty Solstice

I had the buttermilk, the flour, the mini-loaf pans--everything I needed to make some yummy treats for the awesome women in my mom's group. I had a ride to playgroup all lined up. In other words, I was set. My plans were to bake all day and share the love tomorrow, which also happens to be Winter Solstice, which we observe in our home.

So I was caught off guard when Joe brought Kiddo downstairs with a glistening sliver of wet under his nose. Another cold.

Being that I am not the kind of parent to give the gift that keeps on giving (germs), I think our plan is to stay home tomorrow. This cold may affect our Christmas day plans and frankly, I don't want to throw a wrench into someone else's works. I know that I'm not fond of people bringing their super-snotty kids out to mix and mingle so I try to follow that rule as well.

Needless to say, we've scrapped the baking plans in favor of cuddling. Joe has three more days of work and so we're stocking up on necessaries to make sure we don't go bonkers while hanging out at home. An "Old School" Sesame Street and a deep sea documentary will do fine. I'll have to send the man out for more super-soft tissues and garlic before it gets too late.

I'm not sure what the point of this post is, other than to take the season as it comes. I love the Winter Solstice, the passing away of the darkness as we regain the sun's light. We used to celebrate with friends, sitting outside sipping wine, huddled up in blankets and coats around a warm fire, talking low and looking up at our friends' window to see the altar of candles glowing inside, warming the kitchen and the dark winter night. Now we are more scaled down with Kiddo around, but I will light some candles and breath words of thanks for the changing of the seasons. I'm learning more and more to accept what is happening in my life, which was much harder for me when I was younger. Now I try not to dwell on what I might be missing, instead focusing on how I can make where I am and what's happening in the here and now better.

So!...
Chicken soup with garlic and noodles for my son. A nap for Joe. A cup of tea and some good planning time for me. I'll light the candles, make a fire, and be thankful for the rest, the quiet and the renewal that I'm hoping this time at home will bring. Winter is a season where so much looks bleak here, yet so much is happening in the natural world unseen. The plants are holding their energy in the nascent tree buds I can just discern and in the roots underground, invisible. The animals come to eat at our feeders and the bare branches of the choke cherry and plum tree reveal the tiny bushtits and chickadees that were hidden for the better part of the year. Blessings to all who celebrate the return of the Light!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

This One's for the Mamas

I wrote this post a few months ago and while we have somewhat moved past this specific moment, the thought still stands...

Some days, I really feel like a Bad Mom.

There, I said it. I don’t mean a Truly Horrible Mom, not by a long shot— it's just that some days, I get to feeling that parenting a toddler is a little like having an hysteric, headstrong and furious teenager around the house. And it’s so mercurial; things can be clicking along just fine and happy, Kiddo is engaged, learning something new every day and then BAM!, the season of shrill shrieks and crying and “don’t want” starts with a fervor one never could have anticipated. Simple requests that were once pleasantly accommodated (putting away one’s shoes or sitting down to eat) have today turned into opportunities to ignore me and wander off to do as he darn well pleases. He wants things he can’t have and gets mad because he can’t have them. And this puts us in a space where we are locking horns a bit.

And just when I think “Man oh man, I need to walk away now!” Kiddo looks at me plaintively, helplessly and says “Want to hoooold you.”

It reminds me that, inasmuch as he’s pushing my buttons and frustrating me with his sudden lack of cooperation and need to do as he wants, he’s also a little afraid too. I think this is reasonable and realistic. Kids at this age press and press— developmentally they are stretching, spreading their wings, not to fly away but to flap and flap and make a big fuss and say “One day I’ll fly all by myself, I’m my own little bird!” and we Mama birds sometime get tired of cajoling and inviting and redirecting and we raise our voices and squawk at our chicks. This makes the chicks nervous and then we feel like Bad Moms.

Yet, between the layers of guilt and love and the desire to do the best to raise our kids to be well-adjusted and self-actualizing (no small task we’ve got, eh Ladies?), I think there’s another dialogue running in our head like a CNN banner at the bottom of the screen. On some days mine would read: “When is he going to learn to stay out of the food garden? I gave him that huge patch of dirt……I’m so over this screamy-fake crying thing…What?! Again?!.....GET DOWN FROM THERE!!!......Okay, time for Mama to escape and take a shower …..Amazing how I disappear and he’s happy....” That last one is the worst; when Dad comes home or I go out of the room and Voila! The sun comes back out on his once-cloudy face. What a Crap Mom I must be if my kid is happier when I’m gone, right?

Fortunately, I’m not the only one dealing with this feeling of Not Living Up to Expectations. I met a group of mothers for breakfast this morning, all of us with children in tow, and miracle of miracles; most of us were on the same page. We wished we had infinite wells of knowledge in regard to how to address our children’s needs. We wished our children were--dare I say it?-—a little more compliant to our perfectly reasonable requests of them. We feel down on ourselves for getting frustrated with the simply unreasonable and demanding little people we have charged ourselves with raising up right, and for not having endless patience with the child who is yet again wandering off as they hear us calling “come here, please”.

It takes extra brain power for me to sometimes remember that my son now needs me to be physically present to help him do things he did just fine all on his own yesterday. In fact, as he’s pushing away from me, he needs my presence and support even more than if he weren’t. It occurred to me that I have to stop talking as I parent; sometimes just doing is far better than giving him another idea to say “no” to.

And it’s so incredibly silly. Today as we laid down together for rest, I felt appreciative. “Now we can just snuggle and relax,” I told him. This is the kid who, for the last half hour, had nearly chanted “want to lie down with you”. Instead of getting all cuddly he looked at me very seriously and said: “Don’t want to relax.”

“Okay, honey” I told him. “You don’t have to relax.”

He was asleep in less than 10 minutes.

I think most of us mothers of toddlers have had it up to here with advice from books on “How To Make Your Kid Want To Mind.” Heck, I’m full of strategies and after a day like this, my brain comes up blank. And what I want to know, more than any tip on discipline, is how to feel good about myself as a parent when I feel like some moments are complete failures? When I use a sharp voice in frustration and find myself feeling crappy? How do I not feel guilty when he says to me “I’m sorry for yelling at you”, only because he’s repeating what I’ve said?

No one comes along with a Candygram and says “Hey, you’ve done a consistently terrific job up until now and everyone’s entitled to mistakes in the eye of the storm. You’re a wonderful parent and this is like Colic, Part Two. Your kid is going to be angry and inconsolable at times and it’s just a part of their growing up. They will be mad at you and not at all agreeable and when all of this has calmed down, they will still love you and you will still love them. So don’t worry, pour yourself a cup of tea or glass of wine and just chill out now, even if they aren’t napping. Need to put on a dvd for the kid and go hide in the bathroom for a few minutes? Nothing wrong with that! We all need a break! You’re doing a fine job!”

We are doing a fine job. If we never doubted ourselves, never questioned our own weaknesses and values in regard to how we parent, we wouldn’t be doing so hot. What is it that we revere about those whom we consider great leaders? It’s not their perfection, but their humility. It’s their ability to say “I don’t know if this is going to work out, I don’t have all the answers, I can only do my best” as they press on and continue to be brave and try to do what’s right. Parenting looks a lot like international diplomacy: it’s rarely smooth, no two parties see absolutely eye to eye and yet, there is often some sort of progress, even if it’s in learning what isn’t going to work.

What’s more: if we love our kids in all their mistakes, we should try to extend that same grace to ourselves. It’s a challenge for me, especially when I hear that little voice in my soul whispering how badly I’ve blown it for the moment. It’s hard to remember all that’s going right on the days when every interaction feels charged. If we pull back, we can see that in the big picture, things are going right. Like our children, we take our steps, we stumble at times, but we are all in this crazy growing cycle that challenges us to cut ourselves some slack so that we can do the same for our kids. Forgiving ourselves means that we can forgive them for the days that seem endless and full of emotion, so that we can put it to bed and try to get a good night’s sleep for the next day. There’s always another day to do it better, even if we don’t know what that looks like. There’s always tomorrow, and that’s promise enough, even for a Bad Mom like me.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Soggy-Boggy Days

The Soggy-Boggy Days. You know what I’m talking about. First the relentless cold and now the rainrainrain. The cold gets into your bones; the rain somehow gets under your skin and none of it is really, truly pleasing to the soul. Add to this the mindboggling question I’m throwing out to all the work-at-home moms—how do we make work work while we’re at home with the kids?

It seems these days that Kiddo is always needing love. “Want to hoooold you, Mama” he says, hanging on my leg and looking frustrated. He starting to know that he’s not the only shining star in my universe, not with me doing so much work which takes me away from him, even if only for moments. There's the work of the house, and then there’s the work of the school: refining and finishing curriculum, a parent handout, forms for everything under the sun—all that on my list, plus all the little details necessary for the school’s day to day operations, such as mounting the coat hooks or cutting the marmoleum to fit the space where our boots will go. While some developments will hopefully be accomplished as a process with the children involved (garden planning for example), there are plenty of necessaries to keep me busy.

One does wonder, at some point while gazing into her tea as her child bangs away furiously at a metal bowl full of playdough and makes her wish for temporary deafness, why on earth one would choose to start a business at the time her child is doing the “toddler metamorphosis”. It never even occurred to me what would be going on with us around this time, and that was probably a smart oversight. You can scare yourself out of following your dreams, trying to prepare for every contingency. In hindsight, I would never have chosen to do this at this time, and yet, if not now, when? Having this winter and springs lesson plans under my belt will make the work of the next school year as a whole a little less daunting.

The largest challenge for most work-from-home parents is simply finding the time. Our work time usually seems to come at a cost; some ten loose ends of housework must be diligently ignored and if you don’t have childcare, you rarely get work done. This relegates our work to naptimes, after-dinner, or even worse, after bedtime, just when your brain is truly working at its best, ha ha. Or we get stuck trying to carve out work time on the weekends, which our spouses can get a little grumbly about, because they want their weekends too. Only stay-at-home parents understand the idea that for us, the weekend is rarely the weekend. Our child’s pull on us is slightly lessened, but we’re still expected to be the embodiment of "home" for our families. When we are home, and yet we aren’t really there, this can be a bit discombobulating for everyone.

One of my biggest challenges has been to set up a workable office for myself upstairs in our bedroom. Not ideal, but it beats the basement. I need a place to escape, someplace to work that is mine, the proverbial room of one’s own, if you will. Perhaps that will come when Kiddo graduates and moves out, or once he’s at school I can appropriate the kitchen table for the bulk of the day until it needs to be set for afternoon snacks, homework and dinner. Until then, being out of sight is the only way to get a whit of work done.

If you noticed the previous post (posted below) consider this; I wrote that last week and only now have I had a chance to post it. My life feels like two minutes of opportunity at a time. We’re learning to use the timer to measure out ten minute chunks of “play by Kiddo’s self”’ time, but it’s going to be a while before I get a whole half-hour uninterrupted to work.

And now—ding!—there goes the timer. Time to head back to the playdough picnic that’s been happening off and on during the writing of this post. I’ve also built a fire, fed the cat and made playdough peas, spaghetti and cookies. And we’re going to make real pasta soon, because Kiddo’s requested a ‘recipe’ yet again. Yesterday, it was currant pancakes, and I should type a whole post on them because they were so good. Trying to balance the work with fun—trying to get any work done at all--- so, send your stories or tips on how you manage to make work work at home. Double star points if you are doing it with no childcare. We’d all love to hear from you.

Chowdah Heads

Now that Ol’ Man Winter has been shaking his hoary fist at us in a rather threatening way, I’ve decided to feel okay with taking our fun mostly indoors. Even if there are still other things to do in the yard, once the ground is cold with frost, the soil is hard and ungiving; I’m not breaking my back when I could be inside by a cozy fire, working on lesson plans and drowning my yardwork guilt in a cup of tea.

Here are some other fun things to do on a cold, startlingly beautiful sunny day:

Watch the birdfeeder. Sounds tedious, but really, put a suet feeder out in your nearest tree, grab a naturalist’s guide and have some fun. We’ve had a downy woodpecker pair coming to visit us every day for nearly a week; first the female and then, unexpectedly a few days later, the male. This is Big Deal Stuff as I’ve never seen one in either city or forest, and is lots of fun for all us. Including Joe, who was aloof at first but soon telling us excitedly when one or the other was hanging about. A suet block and cage will run you about $5, and it’s one of those treats for the whole family.

Make some soup. Yesterday we made the delish corn chowder from Deborah Madison’s “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone". Sure, the corn wasn’t ‘fresh from the cob’ seasonal, and I didn’t have any fresh basil around (we used dried herbs), but with the stewed red peppers and coconut milk—the exotic substitute for the lactose-intolerant set—we made a pretty yummy supper. With my tendinitis acting up, I opted to use the Cuisinart for the chopping, so Kiddo was able to help by pushing the pulse button on and off while I pushed the potatoes and leeks through the tube on top. I’ve noticed that he’s been more interested in eating the foods he helps make, so I’m all for letting him help me drop ingredients like bay leaves and pinches of salt into the pot. I’m sure his favorite thing about this meal is the butter that goes on the ciabata slices, which makes me think that Kiddo is for sure my own child.

Watch something(s) silly and good. Although we just picked up, and truly enjoyed the new Star Trek movie, we had to do it afterhours, when the violence and scary stuff wouldn’t give Kiddo nightmares. Instead, “The Flight of the Conchords” tickled our fancy; yes, there’s a lot of adult humor, but it flies over Kiddo’s toddler head. He just loves the music. The show’s unusual and at times head-scratching sense of humor toys with circumstances both usual (two guys in love with the same woman) and absurd ( the racism suffered by New Zealanders?). If you ever wondered what two amoral, naive illegal immigrants from the “Land Down Underer” with no visible means of support and a wildly unsuccessful band did with their time, Seasons One and Two of the Conchords are giggly fun. And the music is the true star: songs like “Bowie” and “Bret, You Got it Going On” are hysterical and well-crafted. This show is the mirror opposite of HBO’s other young, irreverent show, “Entourage”—The Conchords suffer no angst, no character development and while both seek no larger meaning and the appeal is phenomenal.

Channel the spirit of Santa.
What recession? The other day Kiddo was asking me for one of the dried poppy seed pods I have in a vase. “I don’t have that for you”, I told him, “But maybe we could write a letter to Santa Claus and ask him if he’ll bring you one for Christmas”, and left it at that. He’s been hearing about this letter-writing ritual and I figure that gently guiding him toward something that he already wants instead of asking the open-ended question “What do you want Santa to bring you?” would ensure he’d get his request. We’ll ride this wave while it lasts…

Mark the passing time. Today we got out some construction paper for cutting. Kiddo cut all sorts of odd shapes and I cut paper strips to make the sort of Christmas paper chain so many kids come home from Sunday School with. We’ve been a little limited on paper, so we have the untraditional color scheme of brown and blue, but Kiddo was happy to help staple links and loved playing with the chain. I’d already given up on any hope of tearing off the links day by day—this sort of thing is just too much fun for a kid to destroy slowly and lovingly—but the whole process of it was a great distraction, and it gave us a Something to Do on a cold afternoon with little to offer otherwise.

Get all craftsy-like. Okay, so the curtains were necessary for the kitchen picture window—it’s like living in a goldfish bowl otherwise. We found a great golden pink Asian-style print that we can live with (another day of Overwhelm at Fabric Depot!) and I’m sewing the fabric up into panels, with muslin to line them. And now I get to sew them. There is something so zen to me about pinning and pressing, being incredibly accurate with the sewing gauge and listening to Perry Mason out of the corner of my ear. Joe just recently gave me the first volume of season four of the series, and I’ve only had a go at it once, so it’s great background chatter. I have to be alone to sew, because ironing boards, hot irons and toddlers to not go together so well. Aw, shucks, I really (don’t) feel guilty about taking a little time alone to do this. Never have curtains given me so much.

Laugh at it all. This year has been challenging; I don’t even know if we’re going to get cards out this year. And it’s not cause we don’t love you. With Joe’s job and investing in a start-up business, we’re feeling a bit in the thick of it. Not over our heads, but definitely looking forward with an eye on the horizon. I have a lot of faith that we are going to get through this okay; if not unscathed, still intact. I know a lot of people are facing very dire straits and tough situations, so I’m not going to feel sorry for myself. Instead, I’m going to focus on the fun, good things we have in our lives. Seeing Kiddo laying on the futon, feet kicking the wall ambivalently and singing along to a cd makes my heart glad. We still have our music, we have our friends and we have each other. I think that I’m feeling a lot of gratitude and abundance in the midst of all this. These moments can serve to draw us closer if we let them.

So be sure to get together with a friend and laugh a bit too. There’s a lot of sadness out there, but it’s okay to take a break and fill your heart a bit. No one is going to do it for you. We have to choose how we spend our days and focus our time, and I’m going to sign off now, put another log on the fire, and play with Kiddo.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Modeling and Mayhem

"Children need models more than they critics."
--Joubert

The past two days have been a kind of crazy situational ring-toss, with lots of stuff flying my way. I have to admit, I've been so busy trying to get work done in Plumtree-land that I can't even remember Monday. But yesterday will go down in my personal history as the day I decided to cut myself some slack.

It started out fine, just as most days here do. We took a little walk, went on an outing to Seven Virtues, a fine cafe down the street a ways. Lunch was okay, but our time outdoors was less easy. I'm a big believer in the old adage "Make hay while the sun shines", and since I had a rain garden to work on before the weather turned, I was pretty much in work mode. Kiddo, of course, had other plans, as we shall see...

What started out easy as pie quickly turned into a frustrating knot of events. First, let me say that whoever thought of making kid-sized metal shovels and gardening implements was well-intentioned, but clearly not thinking along the lines of "If the Kiddo is helping the Mama outdoors gardening, where will her head likely be? Where will the child likely be swinging the shovel?" I've since learned the answer to that one; yes, I did raise my voice, but when you have a bright blue Brio lobotomy coming toward your frontal lobe, it's really okay to yell. This did startle us both, but I was able to collect my wits--which weren't spilled out on the ground, thank goodness--and continue to guide him over to the other dirt pile.

Now, most kids would be in hog heaven with two dirt piles. Not mine. He wanted to work Right Next To Me. It raced across my mind that perhaps his de-braining tools should be put away, but that idea was chased away by the very real possibility that he would want to use the adult-sized tools. Smart move again, Mama.

Next I had some plants up in the front yard that needed to be dug out and transferred to complete the edge of the rain garden. Great! A trip up to the front yard would be exactly what we needed...or not. First, it was his sprint down the sidewalk and around the corner that pulled us into conflict. I felt like the meanest mom as I took his hand and marched him back home. I always read about children being 'marched' indoors and wondered what it looked like. Still not sure what other people saw, but I know that we both weren't smiling.

I tried again. "You can play over there (pointing to a safe place) or on the porch. I need you to stay close." This was fine for two minutes. Then he was trying to sit on the vegetables, which is an old sore spot with me. And I had to work. So into the stroller went Kiddo, unhappy with being restrained but distracted by the collection of pinecones and sweet gum seedpods to play with, and I dug out the plants I needed and moved them to the backyard. The stroller wasn't the coolest move, but as I've decided before, if children don't chose to be safe and I don't have the time (or, at this point, patience) to 'make it fun' for them to stay safe, the stroller is the sane option. I decided not to beat myself up about it, and once I was done I suggested we go for a walk. He was so bouncy, why not?

Well, as we rounded the corner of our block, I could see a disaster in the making: sitting right in the middle of the sidewalk (why, oh why, people?!) was a beautiful pile of leaves, taller than my boy and ever so enticing. "Come climb on me", I could hear them whispering on the wind, "come, little boy, come and trample me, throw my leaves everywhere and let your mother take the heat of the neighbor's dirty looks." I wasn't going to get a break, no matter how I tried. Add to this that it was a no-nap day. It took about two seconds for him to try to climb up the leaf pile despite my best efforts, and another two minutes for me to carry him home again.

What sort of mean mom doesn't let their kid play in some other neighbor's stupid-right-in-the-middle-of-the-sidewalk leaf pile? Me, that's who.

Once we went indoors, I was hoping for things to improve. Oh, there's a reason they call it 'hope'... after he asked for "something to cut up", I thought we might be getting a break in the work of parenting. I sliced up some apples into wedges and gave him a butter knife, which he's done well with in the past. Two minutes later, he was throwing the apple pieces on the floor, then down went the cutting board.With a flourish he shoved his cup aside and like a rock star, jumped up onto the table. Now, the last time I saw a move like this, some drunken idiot singer nearly set Dante's on fire, trying to walk on tables, knocking candles to the floor and eventually falling off himself. (His band broke up, too. Hmmm, I wonder why...)

So, I walked right over to him and grabbed him up. "I see that you are all done eating now!" This was it for me. I was tired, sore, and facing a rather sullen pile of dishes. Part of me wanted to use my really big voice to make a big impression, but I knew that losing it wasn't going to help.

Instead, I walked him into the living room and set him down on the floor. "Mama needs a break. You are fine, you can play. I'm going to close the door and I'll be out in a few minutes." And then, I did just that. I closed the kitchen door, set the timer for five minutes, put some Thelonious Monk on low and drank a glass of water, alone. I did dishes, alone, for five glorious minutes. The living room is childproofed and he usually plays out there while I shower, so this wasn't traumatic at all. He played and I prayed that Joe wouldn't have to work late.

All of this to say, I think I did pretty well. It's hard not to misbehave when our kids are. I intellectually know that it's not reasonable to expect a toddler to do everything the first time I ask, and while did forget my own rule (Ask them once; guide them the second time), I really wanted him to just do what I wanted him to, right away. Not even adults cooperate with requests the first time they are asked, and there's no reason I should hold my child to a higher standard. I recognized that it was a tough day, made even less than ideal because of the pressures and circumstances: I just felt like I had so much to do, and he was dealing with having skipped his nap, which can wind a kid up and then some. And we somehow made it through the day without any tears, either.

I think we all have to cut ourselves some slack, sometimes, as parents. We try so hard with our kids; our failures sting, in the way they look at us and in the way we perceive ourselves. But kids are resilient, and it's okay to occasionally stretch our kids, as long as we remember that we might have to stretch ourselves too, in order to help the situation. Taking the time out for myself was the pivotal moment. Later, I would decide that trying to engage him in the usual picking up toys and such wasn't worth the effort for that day; I did a big pick-up, but left the apples on the floor. An hour later, when he asked about the apples, I reminded him that he'd dropped them on the floor and gave him a bowl, offering to rinse them off after he picked them up. He chose to sit down under the table and eat the apples. Heck, the floor was clean.

At bedtime, Joe (who always gets such a time about not being strict enough from his own parents) said to me,"I really drilled it into him that he needed to pick up his blocks". To which I replied, "I'm glad they're picked up, but would you really want to be the child who is getting the message drilled into them?" He understood.

I'm all for modeling, even when it might look like I'm being mean. I'm firm but kind, and shutting that kitchen door made the best sense in the moment. It put a temporary stop to the Pushme-Pullyou cycle of attention-getting behaviors that were getting us nowhere. Even more than my words, my son needs to see that I can take care of myself and that I know when to say "stop", even to my own urge to see things through. The sane option prevailed. We were able to end the day on a positive note, and now, as he naps, I see all the good that came out of those challenging moments. Keeping this last point in mind is key--it's so important to our own mental health to recognize the good we do, even within the mayhem. So parents, remember to give yourself a break this Thanksgiving. Our own parents or relatives might mutter about our children, and we can just look at them and say "Oh, I so appreciate how hard parenting us kids must have been for you, too. Can I get you more wine?".

Then go top off your own glass and take some Time Out. Cheers.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

TRUCE

Usually a truce is the white flag one side waves to another during conflict. A truce is an agreement to back down and compromise.

Not this TRUCE. TRUCE is an acronym for Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Childrens Entertainment. (I've added them to my Sites to See, at right.)This organization is doing just the opposite of backing down. They're standing up and doing their best to inform parents and families about just how detrimental excessive media exposure is to our kids. They aren't doing this to be politically correct, but because they are seeing the behaviors, habits and affects of unhealthy entertainment on their students and they have every reason to be concerned.

So do we as parents. When we know better, hopefully, we do better. TRUCE's Action Guides are worth downloading. Information about the best toys for your child can be found here. (And by best, I mean best-use or best-play and not best-brand.) Their positive information about television viewing also features a list of great questions to ask your child as well as tips for keeping connected and engaged around what they are viewing, and what our children think of it. Knowing which messages and impressions our children take away from watching television is valuable information for parents, who can then tailor their child's viewing to best suit the family's values and needs.

Most of you who read this will know that we do watch television in our home. So I'm not here to say television is evil incarnate. This website is also a great resource and conversation-starter for those of you who might want to educate family members who care for your child. Well-intentioned caregivers should be informed of the newest research and the other options and alternatives available.

For those of us who value childhood, who want to protect our children without becoming extreme in our choices, TRUCE offers sound information that can help us more thoughtfully consider the paths we take in our parenting journey.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Empowered by Common Sense

I have too much to share--Plumtree is now an LLC!--but wanted to direct your attention to this new link on the right hand side of the page. Empowered By Play is a treat for those of us who feel that kids need more play and less everything else. If you think that those folks at Disney need to be run out of town on a rail (or at least far, far away from your children and their friends) this is the place to go for a little companionship. I just had a moment to skim, but I'm going to go back...

And if you are at all curious as to why play is the best thing ever and the best way for our young children to learn, check out the free booklet "The Importance of Play", available through the Community Playthings website. You don't have to have an ECE to understand why the early childhood ed community is pushing back against the wall of direct instruction-style preschool teaching. Academics are certainly important, but the child's work of play provides the best foundation for further learning.

And now I'm off to play "Turn the marble race into a drum kit" upstairs...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood

"God Bless Mr. Rogers!"

Joe exclaims this as he sits down to dinner. Kiddo has a cold and reminds one of those velcro monkey babies that are permanently attached to their mother; he constantly wants to be held. Except, that is, when Mr.Rogers Neighborhood is on. We rented a DVD on Friday and miracle of miracles, TV has saved our tired butts. Kiddo started Saturday morning out easily, then turned into a human faucet of snot. Seriously. He won't sleep unless he's completely tired; he'll just nurse into a light slumber and god forbid I try to detach myself unless he's out cold. I'm crossing my fingers for an early bedtime tonight.

There isn't a lot that I'm excited about the Kiddo watching, but next to live music, Mr. Roger's Neighborhood is pretty darn great. The man knows kids. Some people say he's a little creepy, but the fact of the matter is, most of us didn't grow up knowing very many people like Mr. Rogers. He was unconditional in his friendship with us, his "Television Friends". He knew what concerned children, what really made them think, and his show proves it time and again; not only with his intelligent, compassionate conversation directed toward viewers, but with the way he provides adults with a gentle nudge of insight. If you really watch this show with a critical eye, you can see that he is talking just as much to the parents, telling them things they might not know about their child. Remarks like: "It's okay to take a break at the circus. You don't have to stay for all of it." or "This sign says 'restroom'; that really means bathrooms. Most restaurants have bathrooms, just in case you need to go." These are things that kids don't always know how to say or ask but can worry about nonetheless.

The dialogue that runs between the characters is also very respectful, and when it isn't, it's usually part of a story that includes problem solving regarding social and emotional issues. While the human adults are very appropriate and safe, Rogers lets his puppets act out; in one scene, Henrietta Kitty's angry retort to X the Owl is conveyed mostly in peevish "Meow Meow"'s and, if I can say it with a straight face, puppet body language. The gist of it is clear: Henrietta is very unhappy with X and as she leaves, taking her cookies with her, the drama of it is safe enough for even very tenderhearted children to understand without becoming upset.

Fred Rogers had a gift. He had no reservations about really getting on a child's level and explaining complex ideas with empathy and understanding. You weren't stupid if you didn't get it right away--asking questions is an important part of the process of learning about ourselves and our world. Rogers and his work respected the questions of children, their worries and concerns, and most evidently, the child's need to know that despite whatever happens, things will end up alright. Mr. Roger's Neighborhood is, at it's core, reassuring.

So, may the heavens smile on Fred Rogers, the mild man who spoke to Congress in defense of public television, the man who took time to really learn about kids (something that seems to be remarkably absent from many kids shows) and who wasn't afraid of what people thought of him. He's one of my influences: I always learn something from him in every episode, in how to teach, how to relate, and most importantly, what I can be to the children in my world.

Up next in my series of influences: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. I'll bet you just can't wait.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Few Moments...

...to say "Hey" to the world. I've had my head down with a bunch of stuff for a while. Here are some very random thoughts on what we've been up to:

Birthday Soup: Okay, so I didn't eat this on my birthday, but I did spend some birthday money at the farmers market on some gorgeous fresh leeks and potatoes. Add in some good broth (I like the Rapunzel cubes), some corn, diced red peppers and lots of celery and throw in some finely chopped fresh basil toward the end. Serve with good bread--I chose a pain au levain--and dig in.

The Autumn Color: the cold snap created some serious beauty outside, including some very trippy-hippy bright multi-colored leaves...the kind you painted in elementary school with loads of green, brown, orange, red and yellow. And those bright red dogwoods--amazing.

Slight tendinitis: Okay, the word 'slight' is an understatement. Between my proclivity to write and my tendency to sleep on my hands, my arms and neck are also affected. Must Stop Typing. (Can't! Can't!)

Brochures for Plumtree Nursery School are finally finished. Feel free to ask for one...we're enrolling!

The Skybridge: If you live in Portland and need something to do for a while to get out in the morning, there's nothing better than the Hollywood Max skybridge off 41st and Senate. Seriously...we spent a half hour up there yesterday, just getting across, watching people, cars, and two guys working in a cherry-picker.

Bruno Bettelheim's "The Good Enough Parent": Personally, I'll say that if I get through this book, I'm going to be at least a Smart Enough Parent. Very good information presented in a not-so-facile text, but if you are willing to stretch your brain around Bettelheim's complex sentences, it's worth the work. Lots of deep insights that ring true; the man has studied parent/child relationships with an eye for what's going on beneath the outward behavior. Put it on your list of "I want to read it someday" books and hope you finish it before your child finishes college. That's my wish!

and finally--Those Yankees! I'm torn--should they lose it to the Angels, Joe will be so bummed. Should they make it to the World Series, I will be sooooo bored. Dilemma of dilemmas...if it were me, I think I'd throw the game in my own best interest. Perhaps that's why they won't let me play the only position I'm suited for: shortstop.

Cheers!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tired

At last, I get to blog in real time. Most of my work these days is done in bits and pieces on the laptop. But tonight I'm hiding out in the basement, taking a little time on my own.

It's been a crazy couple of weeks, it seems. I took a small job directing childcare services for the High Holidays for a synagogue, and it's blossomed into a short-term big job. Lots of email, planning ahead for the unknown, and so many details. It's the first time this group has done any childcare of this sort, and the first time I've directed and worked with multiple committees, so we're all newbies in this. Fortunately, everyone I've worked with has had a great attitude, but even the non-site work is flexing a part of my brain that's kind of been on vacation for a long time. Oh, and Kiddo isn't fond of getting less attention either. But the work must be done. So, as I rev up to do this work, our little preschools planning and considerations must wait.

I'm tired today because we started Kiddo sleeping on his own. He's got a little tent in our room, all cozy with tons of blankets on the floor for a mattress as well as pillows, buddies (Doggie, Kitty and Teddy Bear)and I lay down with him; we snuggle until he falls asleep. We've changed the routine so he no longer nurses to sleep, and I've been sleeping with one ear open for the past two nights. We've done well, all things considered, and I'm not one to force it, but I like having space and not getting kicked in the head or having my shirt pawed on in the wee hours.

Kiddo, however, is pretty stressed. All morning long, as I was working in the yard, he'd lean on my back and say in his little boy voice "Want to hold yoooouuuuuu." I'm trying to fill up his hug bank, and also trying to get our garden in shape for winter veggies; I just bought some kale and onions yesterday. Kiddo doesn't care that I've wanted to take that spotty, high-maintenance rosebush out for ages, or that the roots of the droopy-looking echinacea are so darn deep. He wants to dig where the Swiss chard seeds have sprouted. He wants to pull the wickets up from the ground and turn them into microphones, so he can fake his way through the "ABC" song. And he want, still, to be held more.

I don't even want to think about the pile of dishes in the sink.

So this is what it's like to be all grown up.Again. Job, family, house, garden. I could really use a night out. Girls, let me know if any one of you wants to escape Friday night and grab a beer. Seriously.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Little Senor No-Nap

Sometimes our kids throw us curve balls. When we work with them, we run the risk that an unexpected pleasant surprise might come our way.

Like any two year old, Kiddo has become an unreliable daytime sleeper. Not usually, but there’s often one day a week in which he gets engaged and doesn’t want to nap. I’m not one for forcing naps, but those evenings are certainly harder. He goes down earlier, but needs me more while he’s sleeping and this makes for a not-so-great night on my end. So I do my best to provide some consistency on naps.

This morning was busy, out giving the garden a heavy-duty cleanup. The fallen tomatoes have to come off the ground; if left, they cause a special sort of ‘tomato mold’ that basically wrecks your soil. The giant bristly green squash leaves were grey and dusty-looking and needed to be cut off, exposing the vine and extending the time our plant will stay healthy and producing. Lots of pesky weeds could be found and I’m still not done with them. And please, don’t ask about the crabgrass.

My son is nearly two and a half and is starting to do as he darn well pleases. Yesterday morning he was interested in the toilet, so we took the lid off the tank and looked in, watched the water empty loudly and fill with that white noise sound. An hour later he must have become curious, because I heard the singular sound of the tank lid being moved on the top of the toilet and despite my protestations of “Stop! Stop!” he pushed the lid off the tank, where it fell behind the toilet onto the floor. A loud clang and a breaking sound followed.

And then twice he’s not listened, not stopped running when I’ve called him. He’s quick. I’m also quick—to pop him in the stroller for a while or corral him on the porch.

Although the porch is another story, because today he climbed up on the back of my bike and threw one leg over the porch rail, straddling them both. My heart in my throat, I said slowly and carefully “Please stop. Please get down. That’s very dangerous.” And, thank heaven, he did. But I’m sure he still doesn’t really understand what all that fuss was about and it might take a while before he does.

You get where I’m going with this? This is the kind of week I’m having already, and it’s only Tuesday. When naptime rolled around, well, I’ll spare you the details, but it didn’t go well at all. It was quickly clear that this wasn’t going to be a day for pressing the issue, so I decided to get us out for a walk. This ended up being a real treat.

We strolled, we smelled roses together, we looked at outdoor lighting systems—a real favorite of Kiddos—and stumbled across a summer delight: on a wide, shady piece of grassy parking strip, a woman had left her sprayer nozzle on as a sprinkler. Kiddo absolutely loved this, and it was fun to just watch him have a grand time grabbing the water. I sipped my iced tea and just drank in the moment, the warmth and sun and smell that the air brings just before the season really turns. It was delicious.

In a lazy mood, I walked us over to Laurelhurst Elementary, where he’ll be going in a few years. Kiddo loves to visit the school; he likes to check up on the mason bees house, explore the dandelions and play on the playground when school is out and it’s quieter. I like taking him over there. I want him to grow up knowing his community, knowing where his school is, and to experience the feelings of familiarity and investment. Today, the school was just the place.

We walked by and spied a small cluster of mothers and children next to a snow cone vendor. The cones were a dollar. I looked at Kiddo, who saw the big kids on the playground and couldn’t join them. He wanted so many things he couldn’t have, like Little Bear in the story, where he tells his mother his fantastical wishes and she says repeatedly “You can’t have that, my Little Bear”. I didn’t feel guilty for the things I had told him “no” to, but this snow cone, this was something my own Little Bear could have.

So we went for it. Light syrup. Strawberry/raspberry was the flavor of the day. (The vendor’s got a good mind for kids like that, offering just one choice. After school, that’s exactly what they needed, not to have to choose but to simply enjoy.) We found a shady spot under a tree and Kiddo had at it. We watched a father throw a football with a group of boys. Mothers scootered by us, coming to meet their kids. The bell rang and pickup time officially began. I said hello to the parents of a child I’d met at the preschool pickup last year and we chatted for a brief second. There was community everywhere, even for those of us who aren’t yet ‘going to school’. It was just lovely to see.

Eventually, it was time to keep going. I felt refreshed in my soul, in some inexplicable way. Maybe it was the sweetness of seeing him eat his first snow cone, his earnestness at trying to figure out how to eat it. Or the fact that we’d had a moment of harmony; that I had something to give him by saying “yes” to the moment. He hadn’t even asked for the snowcone—I’d just wanted to give it to him was all.

And he gave me something nice too. Ten minutes later, he was asleep. I should probably wake him up in a few minutes…it’s nearly five now. How did you think I found the time to post this anyhow?*

*Time-schmime! I wrote this last Tuesday and as you can see, it’s the following Monday, so there you go…

Ignore-ance is Bliss

In my last posts, I’ve discussed some of my favorite gems from the Parenting Bag of Tricks: modeling, empathetic language, offering two positive choices and letting our children find their own ‘middle ground’ solutions that work for everyone. Well, today I’d like to introduce you to another Favorite Trick: mindfully ignoring my son.

I’ll let you laugh and roll your eyes for a moment.

As I mentioned in my last post, kids do a lot of things for attention. Can we talk about the child’s desire for attention? Their desire to seek our attention is perfectly reasonable, and in my opinion, very healthy. Even as babies, our children learned that connection with us is vital for their survival as a fully realized human being. It can be frustrating at times, because they often seem want our attention when it most needs to be elsewhere. And sometimes they do dangerous things which require immediate intervention. But what I noticed is that some of the time I was giving my son attention for doing things that were merely annoying. This was a game for him, but a trap for me.

So why do we get stuck in this trap? See, in my profession to we have to address behaviors immediately and thoroughly. “Let’s get to the bottom of this” is the thinking, and as a teacher for toddlers and preschoolers, responding to disruptive behaviors in the moment is essential for the peace and safety of the other 8 or 10 kids in the space. I’d also venture to suggest that there is indeed a proclivity amongst—dare I say it?—overeducated parents whose desire to illuminate their children’s understanding of right and wrong often involves the Long Drawn-Out Explanation. Yet, after careful parental observation, I find the opposite to be true. The more we talk about what we don’t like, the more we see our children doing the exact same things. Lesson learned: Less is more, so (not) to speak.

I’ve never discovered a name or established method for sort of purposeful ignoring (which is actually highly monitored), so I have to use my best judgment and wing it. I pick and choose which things to “ignore” in the moment, based on what’s happening, what’s safe, and what sort of outcome correction and attention will bring.

Here’s a simple example: what to do when he says something less than sociable. I think this is a challenge for nearly every parent at one point or another. We hear our child say something not so nice and it feels like we need to nip it in the bud by having a talk about it or doing something more extreme and less helpful. Over the years, however, I’ve discovered that carrying on about why “saying ‘such and such’ is not okay”, etc. can be just the encouragement our kids need to continue repeating it. Instead, I’ve found that ignoring most of these unpleasant utterances is the best tool for making them go away. And, not surprisingly, they do.*

There’s also something to be said for respecting that kids are people, too, and have the right to speak their mind even if it isn’t always comfortable for us. Kiddo has lately taken to repeating a slightly alarming phrase—“Want to hit kids”. When he looks into my face and says this, he’s already got my attention and so I follow up with the usual “Hitting hurts. Our hands are for doing fun, safe things. They are for being gentle with.” I don’t discuss consequences or other intangibles because they are too abstract. And this may very well be his fantasy talk, so when he’s just rattling on to himself about ‘want to hit kids/cat/mama’, I just let him be.

Joe and I are learning how to use this mindful ignoring to our advantage while parenting together. My new motto is: “One parent is a correction; two parents are attention.” While we initially thought we were being supportive of each other, it became clear to us that the attention of two parents was an irresistible inducement. “Wow! I got both of them to stop what they’re doing and pay attention to me! This is great!” We’ve since learned that one parent talking to Kiddo about safe choices is usually enough to move the moment along. This has helped in some very concrete ways. For example: Kiddo likes to turn the television off when we the adults are watching it. Once it occurred to me that he was likely doing this to get our attention, we decided not to respond to his turning off the tv and just talked to each other instead, mindfully ignoring what he was doing. (By the way, we didn’t discuss this in front of him, but used hand signals in the moment and talked about it in private.) It turned out to be exactly what was needed and after a minute he turned the television back on. Without our response and attention, the whole reason for turning the television off was gone. We then found a positive way of engaging him without discussing his previous actions.

I’ve also had to make some hard decisions about when to mindfully ignore. Kiddo likes to stand on chairs, and this has become a big, exciting problem in our house. Regularly, he’ll stand on the seat of his sturdy wooden high chair (which is high up and dangerous due to the things surrounding it) and grin, loving the attention he’s about to receive. Our automatic response now is to just put him on the floor and invite him to play on the kitchen floor or in the living room. But I recently found myself constantly reminding Kiddo to “be careful” on the edge of the couch or the low adult chairs at the kitchen table. Frankly, I was sick of hearing myself. My diligent cautioning fed his desire for attention; but this wasn’t why I wanted to be giving it to him, and he would not stop doing these not-too-dangerous things until he came up with his own reason not to. And so I let him take a few tumbles. This was a hard decision, but he’s become far more cautious on his own now. Of course, we have to be paying enough attention to make certain that the damage will be minimal; falling off a low chair is far different from falling off the porch, right? And what’s he going to be falling onto? But there is a time when we have to pull back and let them learn on their own. Recognizing when it’s truly okay to do this can lessen our frustration and provides them opportunities to learn to be careful on their own.

So, this is how I’m keeping up with my growing boy. Adapting to the moment and really trying to figure out the “whys” of his actions. I’m careful not to crumple his authentic self, but to preserve it by being empathetic. Sometimes his actions—say, hitting (which is rare)—are wrong, and we tell him so, but it’s important to me that he knows he’s not a bad person. Our kids are more work than ever, and we have to find our own sense of balance and calm in the middle of it. It’s important to keep in mind that our negative language may stem from frustration, but our children store up those comments like pennies in a piggy bank. There’s an old saying that “Children Live What they Learn” and it’s true; children are determined to live up to our expectations, no matter how negative. So lastly, be careful for little ears. If you don’t like something your child did, or are concerned about it, keep your own counsel and avoid mentioning it in front of the child or their peers. Remember: our little monkeys are very interested in what interests us, and if we find their previous actions interesting enough to mention to someone else, even in the least-judgmental light, they will think that doing it again might be worth it.

After all, it got our attention.

* I want to clarify here that if my son were older and walking around saying “bleepity bleep bleep” (insert your favorite naughty words here), I might take a different tack. This would be the time to explain that his words are saved for when he’s alone in his room, out of the hearing of others. That’s his space for doing what he wants, within reason. It’s important to notice when our children are capable of receiving the redirection and understanding the context for it; this is something that my son, at two, would not quite understand: why the words are offensive to some and the autonomy being in his own space gives him. There is a progression to all of this. Oh, and when we’re in public, uttered naughty words can get turned into a rhyming game, which is a positive distraction. Believe me, everything naughty rhymes with something!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Finding the Middle Ground

The other day I had a chance to tell you about the fun we are having with our little fella. Each stage of his growth has opened up more opportunities to have fun, and while I enjoy watching him expand his world and become more interested in what we are doing, there is some extra responsibility on Joe’s and my end to keep up our end of the deal. As our children get older, we have to expand our Bag of Parenting Tricks.

Of course, we all know that the most powerful trick in the Parenting Bag is modeling. We try to use this to our advantage by showing our son safe and appropriate behavior, even at the risk of sounding like a complete idiot as we narrate for added effect. “I like to use the handrail. I hold on so I can be safe” or “Oh, I like to sit on my bottom when I eat. It’s just right for me.” This sort of talk sounds absolutely inane to anyone who hasn’t had a kid who will teeter no-hands down the concrete porch stairs and can’t seem to sit down for a meal unless it’s at a restaurant, strapped into a high chair. Modeling means keeping food in the kitchen…well, most of the time. And going in together to wash our hands before meals. We are trying to capitalize on the Monkey See, Monkey Do, and so modeling often creates a bigger impression than just telling him to wash hands. He’d much rather do it with us, and when he does, he also learns how to do it correctly. (This is especially important with all these new, exciting germs going round!)

It also seems that there are more opportunities for conflict than there used to be. Kiddo is feeling his oats, so to speak. He likes to use a really loud voice to make big noises, just to say “world, here I am!” and going on about his business. He wants what he wants, when he wants it, and we are doing our best to model patience and walk him through the moment as best we can. The empathetic language is essential for those moments when he really, truly cannot do nor have what he wants. Having that connection with us--our understanding of his desires-- before correcting or redirecting helps him to be more able to hear what we are saying. Somehow, the acknowledgment of “Gee, I see you really want to stand on the table. You like to be up high” clears his mind (now he knows that I know what’s going on with him) and now he’s able to move on to “I can see that you need something safer because standing on the table is dangerous. You may stand on your stepstool or I can hold you for a minute.” The acknowledgment of his feelings helps him move past his present action to a more constructive place, and a friendly invitation to make a choice from two pleasant things is so much more enticing than having someone tell you to cease and desist, now.

While one of my favorite Tricks is to give Kiddo two positive choices, when I’m in the moment it can feel like a mental struggle to remember that this is what they are supposed to be: positive choices. It’s all too easy to resort to “stop banging your spoon or I’ll take it away”; lots more effort to suggest that “I know you like the sound your spoon makes, but it is not for hitting. You may use your spoon for eating, or you may go play with your drum.” Some parents might see that sort of choice as a reward for misbehavior; I choose to look at it as the whole-family friendly solution: either way, the people at the table will have some peace and frankly, he’s two. If he wants to play his drum, that’s fine with me—his dinner will sit until he’s ready to eat and it’s no skin off my nose. Trying to make him sit quietly at the table (fine dining manners, intelligent conversation) is not my first priority. Kids wiggle and squirm. I understand that mealtimes are for meals, but he’ll learn with more comprehension as he grows.

I’m also learning to become flexible with him making an unspoken third choice. Sometimes at dinner he’s all over the place, standing up to eat and wanting to take bites from our plates even if it’s the same food. A few nights ago I gave him the choice: “You may sit down to eat or go play in the living room; Mama and Daddy want to eat our food.” Kiddo chose to find something to do on the floor near the table. In my mind, there were two choices: either frog-march him out into the living room or to let him play comfortably and eat in peace. I think it’s important to notice when a non-choice is acceptable and to follow through when it isn’t. Had he continued to pester us about our food, I would have moved him in a heartbeat, but he’d figured out how to stay in our company, and there’s value in honoring his choices when they end up pleasantly solving problems. Once again, some would say that I’ve become too lax, but I think that this happy-medium reduces the child’s biggest incentive for disruptive actions: attention.

It takes a lot of experience with our child and confidence in ourselves as parents to comfortably live in that middle space between insisting our children follow our directions to the letter and just letting them ride roughshod, shrugging our shoulders. Just as much as we should guard ourselves against excusing our child’s behavior out of hand, we should also be wary of being overly strict. If every single parental request must be followed to the letter, we might want to look at what sort of fear and beliefs are behind this. Likewise, if we find ourselves being dismissive of our child’s actions when they are being disruptive and hurting others or themselves, we need to do some soul searching and find out why we are afraid to deal directly and honestly with what's going on. Somewhere in between, I believe, is a place where children can be respectful of the people and the activities around them and be able to find their own way of doing things in a constructive manner. If we can support and respect their process while giving them positive guidance and being clear and consistent regarding limits, we offer them opportunities to problem-solve in ways that only enhance the sense of family harmony. In this way, nothing is taken from the parent or child, but the moment gives back to everyone.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Monkey See, Monkey Do---With You

Now that he’s playing in the sink and I have a few minutes…

It seems like we’ve entered the season of Monkey See, Monkey Do. That is, Kiddo is all about doing what Mama’s doing these days. He saw me doing dishes and said “Want to play water”. This is nice, as it does keep him busy and it hasn’t yet appeared to impact the water bill. Finally, one good thing about the low-flow faucet! Some of the things we’re doing together:

Cooking: Kiddo likes to “poke the yolks” and “stir batter” for scrambled eggs and French toast. We’ve come into an abundance of zucchini, which is perfect for slicing into long strips and letting him cut with a butter knife on a cutting board at the table. (I work with the sharp knife at the counter and this space keeps him out of my work and far safer than being next to me.) Mushrooms are good for cutting practice too—just wipe clean, trim the stem and cut in half so it will lie flat on the cutting board. Apples also work if you are willing to precut, and bananas with their peels removed are easy cutting.

Laundry: He’s so excited now about the washer and dryer, it would be just criminal (and foolish) not to use this as a time to teach the basics, namely transferring the clothes from the pile on the floor into the washer, then from the washer to the dryer (I pull them out, shake them out and hand them to him), and finally from the dryer into the laundry basket. At that point, I need very little help, but he gets to learn about the process and loves to watch the water cascading into the washing machine basin.

Putting toys away: While Kiddo has been quite a pro at putting away toys for a while, I come across myself finding a lot of moments when he needs to have some adult involvement in the task. I’m noticing that it works better to clean up a toy right as we finish with it, and I can always make the transition more appealing by positing it in a friendly light ‘Let’s hop the blocks into the basket so we have room to play such-and-such”. Coming back to a mess seems to invite more play with the toys he was previously done with, so another reason for prompt cleanup. I also have found that talking to the toys and using dramatic play helps. The toys can be invited to “hop into” the basket, or sometimes we are a pusher and a crane, one of us pushing the toys toward the basket and the other picking them up and dropping them in. Sorting games also come in handy, as in “should we put in the blue blocks or the red blocks?” and also gives Kiddo a choice as to how we will clean up. Some toys we say “night night” to when we are finished with them and we cover them with a baby blanket to put them to bed. It’s amazing how well “out of sight, out of mind” works in this regard.

Yardwork: this is by far the trickiest of the lot. Kiddo wants to help, but when he sees Mama weeding, it’s just as likely that a ‘good’ plant will be plucked from the dirt as a weed. Likewise with the fruit; we are in a phase where the green fruit is getting pulled from the tomato and berry vines. Don’t get me started about the grapes! How can he resist? A lot of what I end up doing is redirecting him toward water play with the hose or over to the blueberry bushes to eat ripe fruit. He also has a few dirt patches to dig in. When he wants to pick, he is reminded that he may pick the rosemary, lavender, sage and lemon balm—all are safe—this gives him some choices so that he can pick and trim like me. This is an age, too, where kids notice us ‘eating leaves’ in our meals ( a la salads and chopped herbs) so keeping a close eye out for toxic plants and weeds is still important.

Cribbage: Joe has noted Kiddo’s interest in Daddy’s cribbage boards and has given him a board to play with. When I balked at letting our son play with the choking-hazard-little pegs, he reassured me that he would supervise and was using them to help our son count. I had to admit that I was skeptical at first, but Joe’s capitalized on a window of interest, and I have had more participation when reading counting books than I had before.

Sharing our world with Kiddo means more effort on our part to include him. But it also means that, side by side, there’s a lot of fun. Children who work with their families don’t just learn new skills; when we have a positive attitude about what we do, our children learn the value and importance of these activities in our daily lives. When we give them opportunities to contribute in real ways, our kids feel included in the family.

“You’re a big helper.” We tell our little guy. He smiles and repeats it. “Big helper.”

And you know what? He is.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

In Defense of High-Quality Childcare

Friday night was Ladies Night and we were having a blast. Sitting around the fire, wineglasses in hand, the group of mothers I belong to were enjoying a night out away from our kids. And, as usual, our conversations kept returning to our children.

Less usual, the topic of child care centers took precedence. One mother was describing her visits to different CDC’s around Portland/Clackamas County, and her disappointment with what was available out there. She’s a child educator who works with developmentally disabled children and like some of us in the business, she has pretty high standards. I was relieved that her family had found a place which had openings for both her infant and toddler children and a higher quality of care than most of the places that she’d checked out. I wasn’t surprised to hear the horror stories: dirty centers with broken toys; hands-off staff in infant rooms; unsafe play areas and so much more. Sadly, all of the above are far more common than one would expect at a CDC, which would ideally reinvest its profits in new materials for the kids, teacher training and education and janitorial services.

Our conversations prompted one mother to ask a very profound question that has stuck with me since she uttered it aloud: “What do you tell someone who says they don’t know what all the fuss is about. ‘The lady down the street took care of us and we were fine’? What would you say to someone like that?” I told her I probably wouldn’t say too much, that it sounded like a very defensive answer from a person who already had their hackles up about the whole subject. “But what if it’s your husband, or a family member?” she asked. “What if it was about care for your own child?”

This, I think, is a question that has relevance for everyone in this country, parent or otherwise. It’s not a surprise to anyone who has worked in child care or who happens to be a parent: High-quality care for young children is in constant crisis in the United States, and the fallout of this crisis has manifested itself in several ways. If this failing (and it is most certainly a failing) were corrected, the affect would be deeply felt, resulting in a myriad of positives. For example, the acute divide between working and stay-at-home mothers would likely soften because the perception of a mother “letting some stranger raise her kids” would be replaced by the understanding that loving, caring professionals were providing real social and emotional support for our little ones. In a quality care setting, the children would be empowered to explore their world and ask questions, and to pursue activities which authentically reflected their own interests and abilities, which would develop their self-esteem and confidence, as well as their sense of competence. Skilled teachers would have the ability to model what positive leadership looks like for our children and even with the potential for chaos, keep things in control through gentle guidance and age-appropriate transitions and daily routines. Children would graduate on to kindergarten with not just a basic knowledge of the fundamentals, but with the ability and skills to work through peer conflict in positive manner, which would in turn allow them to better focus on learning and to appreciate the new experiences of primary school.

This last piece is the one that I honestly feel is the most critical to our children’s success, not only in academics, but throughout life. The data and study of a child’s brain development from birth through their adulthood carries both an explicit and implicit message that our young children’s emotional and social development is the first and foremost aspect of their needs to be addressed. Children who are unhappy, who find themselves in stressful situations and who lack security are the ones most likely to do poorly in school later on. Overwhelmed or unempathetic teachers, classrooms without adequate staffing or support, abrupt transitions, punitive methods of discipline, and a lack of guidance and precorrection (or forethought)—all of these are all contributing factors to a child’s feeling insecure. When children have to spend more time coping with the adult-created instability, they have less capacity to engage in positive learning experiences. This shortcoming can follow them through life unless corrected and only aggravates the potential for conflict and unhappiness in the child’s familial relationships and how they deal with challenges in the world as they get older. If children aren’t given a chance to manage their emotions and work through conflict in a group of say, four or seven or ten children, why is it that we expect them to come into their own as one child within a group of twenty or more? Such a common-sense question doesn’t require a college degree to be answered.

Our government institutions contribute to the problem as well. Through federal trade policies, the average wage earned by the majority of Americans is severely depressed. For most of us, including those with bachelor and master’s degrees, the Livable Wage is an endangered species. The powers-that-be bemoan the lack of affordable child care just like everyone else, but the way in which child care is subsidized is absurd. Only low-income families may qualify for subsidies, and those funds are inadequate to cover the cost and expenses of the provider. That the US Government is the largest consumer of child care is a fact, and their limited resources and low-prioritizing of the education of very young children falsely deflates the cost of childcare. A market research study conducted in Multnomah County in 2008 shows some disturbing numbers. The average hourly price for infant care in a Family Child Care setting is somewhere between $3 and $3.50. While this may seem reasonable to working families, consider this: how many infants at this pay rate does it take to make a living wage for the provider in question? Twelve dollars an hour, gross, is poor compensation for the person hustling to meet the needs of four infants; not to mention insurance for her business and the cost of overhead in supplies and food. Take out taxes and it’s a job that barely pays for itself; and if the provider is a committed professional, they aren’t going to get paid for the time before or after work spent cleaning and preparing activities.

While this number looks questionable, it only gets worse. Toddler care pays $3.00-$3.10 per hour per child. Same ratios (1:4), less money, only now this group has more material needs. While the USDA program does compensate providers, to a degree, for money spent on approved food, toddlers tend to eat more than infants. They also require more in the way of art supplies and toys and space. As children age up, costs go down, but at what ultimate cost? The end result may be the attractive arrangement of mixed age groups, which allow up to ten children in total. But for many children in such a group with one provider, it is next to impossible to truly meet the developmental needs of each child. Quality care receives another boot to the head.

As if we as a society were a stubborn child, wanting to sleep longer not because we need to, but because we like the fantasy of the dream, our society as a whole tends to excuse themselves from the responsibility of raising our children in a high-quality care environment. We rely on the myths of teachers’ altruism and “life calling” to justify paying a pittance to professionals, claiming that our work is so rewarding, reasonable monetary compensation is only a secondary consideration. Many parents blame both ‘greedy providers’ and affluence for the high cost of premium child care and choose lower-quality programs based purely on affordability or convenience. A lack of understanding in the general population about child development leads to our broad tolerance of child care providers who use television and are overwhelmed with too many children.

And the mental environment in which we parents must raise our children also creates confusion. We are told educational television shows stimulate learning, but what are the negatives? We refuse to see television’s potential to negatively influence behavior, yet it is the poorly-chosen actions of the characters on these shows which drive the storylines—and still we wonder ‘where our kid learned to act like that’. We get the silent message from others that our kids have to fall in line with “the real world” and that any aberration must be nipped in the bud. The popularity of quick-fix books that seek to address every aspect of behavioral challenge or personal development appeals to our society’s desire for fast results, but rarely acknowledges the child as their own, authentic human being who grows in their own time. Well-intentioned but eminently misguided results-oriented programs such as No Child Left Behind have their appeal to the masses, but fail to respond proactively in preparing children for primary school by investing in quality care. Parents, teachers, and children alike are all stressed for different reasons, but the crux of it can be traced back to the lack of a federal mandate for quality child care for each and every child in the USA, regardless of income or circumstance. And furthermore, it stems back to the lack of our awareness as a country that how we care for our children—indeed, how we perceive our children—must change.

This might seem a bit lofty, so I’d like to share three stories of the fallout of low-quality childcare that I’ve seen directly.

One child I worked with had previously spent their days at a caregiver’s home. As lovely as the woman was as a person, she relied heavily on television to entertain the children. Overwhelmed providers tend to “do to” children instead of taking the time to have children participate in their own care, and consequently, the lack of encouragement in areas such as toileting and dressing did this child no favors, instead, the child and their family would work through these challenges for years to come. What’s worse was that this three-year-old suffered greatly when they made the transition to a high-quality preschool program: instead of enjoying the new school, the child was socially and emotionally challenged to adapt to a school that had a daily rhythm and which expected a reasonable amount of participation and involvement from the children. Fortunately, the new teachers were able to help this child in many areas of their social development, but to see a child caught at such a disadvantage so young was heartbreaking.

Another memorable experience was the time I provided care for a child who had spent far too much time in front of the television. Beyond precocious, this eight-year-old was sassy and disdainful—par for the course at that age, with some kids—but what was worse, their imagination had been utterly atrophied from lack of exercise. This child could not find anything to do on their own; entertaining oneself was a foreign concept and the child had simply not learned how to keep themselves busy for any amount of time without adult assistance. In my opinion, a lack of quality care had robbed this child of so much joy as well as the ability to simply play. For a child to live with sort of condition is utterly criminal.

Low wages have also had profoundly negative, permanent effects. Attracting less trained professionals and more “warm bodies”, programs that only have low wages to offer have to lower their standards. Years ago, working at CDC that relied primarily on DHS reimbursement, I was shocked to discover that one of my toddler student’s older siblings had been sexually molested by other children in the kindergarten class. The teacher of this class suffered from multiple mental health disorders and should never have been allowed to be alone with young children due to her instability. What’s more, the preschool floater also on duty hadn’t caught the multiple incidents because she was too busy reading a book while the kids were on the playground and “hadn’t noticed” what was going on. And yet no one was fired because replacing them was deemed too costly. (If you ever see a teacher sitting around reading their own book and it’s not naptime, turn yourself around and find some other care. No one should be that tuned out while the kids are awake!)

These, I know, are varying degrees of horror stories, but they confirm my belief that a lack of high-quality child care has severe consequences. These sorts of stories are practically non-existent in high-quality programs, familial problems notwithstanding.

For those out there who question our insistence on high-quality childcare, here’s a question: Would you pay some stranger good money to fix your pipes if they didn’t have a plumber’s license? Would you let someone do a half-assed job fixing your refrigerator because you didn’t feel like spending the money to hire an AC&R guy, and just accept the results? No? Then why in the world would you consider anything but high-quality care for your child? No, it’s not a one-time cost, but if your child is more important than your plumbing or the fridge, isn’t it worth every penny? Doesn’t your child deserve to be with people who like children and who take seriously the task of spending the day with them, teaching them about their world and guiding them in to be a positive participant in it?

If none of these reasons matter, I’ve wasted my proverbial breath and the time spent typing this. But if you are on the fence, look into your heart. Yeah, the lady down the street may be awesome—there are a lot that are. But if she isn’t, look further. Keep on your search. Our children depend on us to understand the importance of their happiness and to nourish their potential to be confident, self-actualizing people, because if we parents don’t, who will?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Enough Already!

When are mothers going to stop trying to poke each other in the eye?!

Each morning I receive an email digest from a parenting forum. You know, the kind where people post questions about their particular situation and then all of humanity chimes in with their two bits. While I think that this is just about the worst way to get quality parenting advice, when a question comes up that I can answer constructively, I try to be supportive and share my ideas or experiences. And I do sometimes read some helpful suggestions from other mothers who care enough to try and help.

But some days, I am just so disgusted. Today a mother, who appeared to be a perfectly nice person, was asking some questions about Cry It Out. While this isn't my method of choice, I could see from the post that it was a relief for this mom to have some separation. She asked for "no CIO haters, please", which to me suggests that she was confident in the choice she had made and just wanted some additional information.

Why can't people read? The debate began almost instantly, and what followed were insinuations and what pretty much amounted to name-calling. People who used CIO were deemed insensitive. People who didn't were called wimps, and accused of raising spoiled kids. This sort of bullshit (naughty word, but that's what it is) really makes the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up. This, all of this, was the opposite of supportive. Not everyone who responded was so judgmental, but a lot of them were.

Ladies, here's a news flash: Wake up! NO ONE is going to parent the exact same way that you do, so get over it already. You have your kids, that other woman has theirs, and I have mine. NONE OF US ARE GOING TO AGREE ENTIRELY ON EVERYTHING. Really, truly, it ain't ever going to happen. (and I don't use the work "ain't" lightly!) Please, let's all decide to be secure in what we are doing and let other mothers do what they need to do. I'm not saying any one way is 100% right or wrong. But I am tired of my friends being given a load of crap because their kid uses a pacifier or wants to be held or expressing their feelings in public. I'm sick of hearing about how mean mothers are to each other. And I want to add one more question before I quit this rant:

What kind of example are we setting for our kids if we are so intolerant of people who do things differently? This is the USA, folks. Some of us would like to think that there's one American Way of doing things, but there isn't. Period. So let's not teach our children to be fearful and derisive when people do things we don't quite understand. Let's hold each up as mothers, respect each other for trying the best we can, and just get on with it.

It's hard enough work as it is. Don'tcha think?

Monday, August 3, 2009

String of Stories

Last Friday morning was one of those mornings. I’d almost nursed the kiddo back down when Joe’s alarm clock caused just enough stirring to pique his interest into being more awake than asleep. After 20 minutes it was apparent we were up. I’ve been tired for days with the heat and hoping desperately for even a half-hour more. No such luck.

So we trundled ourselves downstairs and got on with our day. It was still tolerable and not too bright, the first cool morning we’ve had in days. With Joe indoors getting ready and Kiddo busy following him around, I went out into the garden and took the hose with me, giving everything a good soak. Just as I was finishing, Joe came out and gave me a kiss goodbye. Kiddo was indoors, playing happily.

Luckily, I spied some zucchini that had been growing covertly under cover of the leaves and needed to be brought in before they grew any bigger. Joe was just getting the car out of the garage when I decided to go in and get a knife to cut the vegetable from the vine.

The screen door was locked.

I tried it twice and flew down the stairs and stood behind Joe’s car waving my arms. “He’s locked me out!” Joe smiled and got out, bringing his set of keys with him. (I usually keep mine in my pocket when working outside for this very reason.) We got into the house to discover Kiddo sitting on the woodbox, holding an open tube of sunblock in front of his mouth. The cream was on his chest and neck.

Oh, expletive deleted.

I looked my son in the eye. “Did you eat the cream?” I asked.

“Eat the cream.”

Let’s try it again. “Did you put the cream in your mouth?”

“In your mouth.”

Okay, Polly Parrot, I’m going to pull your feathers out until I get a coherent answer out of you…oh, wait, no, this parrot is my dear little boy. Okay, Mama, what next? He won’t open his mouth enough to look for some white residue, but maybe I can sniff his breath and see if it smells like the sunblock. But what does the sunblock smell like?

I found out by accidentally squirting a big gob of it up a nostril. There’s nothing like snorting a little sunblock first thing in the morning, right?

Once I found a tissue and salvaged a sliver of my dignity, I flipped the sunblock bottle around. Caution: If your child ingests this because you foolishly left it in your diaper bag CALL POISON CONTROL, YOU HORRIBLE, NEGLIGENT PARENT!

This was shaping up to be quite a morning. I’ve experienced enough near-misses with kids so that I don’t go instantly into panic mode, and while I figured things would be fine, I decided to be a good mom and call Poison Control anyway. It turned out that our hippie SPF 20 mineral sunblock won’t kill anyone, “though kids will gag on it and throw up because they get a gob of it in their mouths and don’t know what to do”. Oh, and the fact that it tastes like sunblock might also have a little something to do with it.

Poison Control Lady also said that the big issue with sunblock is that some sunblocks use aspirin in them, which we know is a big no-no for little ones. Luckily, we were in the clear.

Two hours later, I was able to laugh about this with a friend as we walked through Laurelhurst Park. It’s good to recognize that everything is not going to the dogs when these things happen. Taking that deep breath and knowing things are okay and remembering next time that sunblock is no longer safe in the diaper bag or that keys must be on your person at all times—all of these things are essential to making it through your kid’s childhood without having a nervous breakdown. Laughing at myself isn’t a skill that has come easily to me; I’ve had to work at it. But it’s paid off.

Lately I’ve had an image in my head of a string of beads, or perhaps something more like a charm bracelet, that is never-ending. This string is my son’s childhood and our mutual experience of it, and those charms or beads, well—those are the memories I’m going to keep, to save up for him. More and more, it becomes apparent that whatever it is about our children’s lives that we focus on, the stories that we tell our friends, our children and our selves: this is what our children will remember about their growing up. We have the power to make this a beautiful gift, collecting stories of near misses and triumphs and sweet moments and stringing them along, rich and bright and twinkly, to share with our children as they grow. We also have a dangerous power: to snarl and twist the thread with our criticism, to construct a mass of dull and shabby objects on a string, if we focus only on all those negatives in our lives.

I want you to know that I originally wrote the first half of this post as a vent on how hard it is to be a mother, someone who is a 24/7 on-call First Responder of home disasters and then some. It can be a cruel job, truly, with the sleepless nights, demanding children, expectant partners and always, always someone somewhere (relatives, neighbors, children’s teachers, friends, online and television experts) to tell you that you’re doing it wrong. And there’s no parade for us. When we avert disaster, we aren’t congratulated, but questioned: why weren’t you watching the kid? What could we possibly be doing that’s more important than raising The Future of Humanity? It’s a thankless job at times. That’s why it is so important to stay positively focused whenever we can. When those opportunities pop up and the love and the beauty and the joy are evident, we have to grab them up and add them to this open-ended string of memories. These moments don’t always give us second chances, they aren’t going to be around forever, so we have to hold them and store them close to us, even if only for the moment. Acknowledging what is going well is equally as important as the problem-solving aspect of parenting, because this is what keeps us afloat during those incredibly hard, sticky spots we get stuck in with our families. On particularly bad days, we can pull out that string of little gems from our memories and know that it’s real, that life can be good, and that maybe tomorrow will be better for everyone.

Last night Kiddo and I were lingering over a snack at the kitchen table when the sunset sky caught my eye. The light had changed to a hazy, gorgeous pink and cast its hue on everything outdoors. I was in my pajamas and Kiddo just in a diaper, but I scooped him up anyway and carried him out into the street. “Look at the sky,” I told him, pointing upward. “Look at the color…blue and pink and orange.” Indeed, it was bright salmon color on the horizon, quite stunning, and the few clouds hung quietly down, a wash of pink on the pale blue. “Look at the color.” I said again.

“Want to see it,” he said.

“It’s right there in the sky.”

“Want to see it”, again.

We stood outside, looking for another minute, him wondering what all the fuss was, taking this strange glorious sky for granted, and me? Sliding another story onto the string, knowing that it only makes me love him more.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Just Breathe

Somehow, somewhere, the cosmos decided it was time to up the ante and shake things up a bit for me. Apparently, a summer that consists of having a fence built, the deck torn down and the entire house re-piped all the way out to the street is not exciting enough for us, so my son has decided to be obliging and become even more of a toddler.

"Who is this little stranger?" I find myself asking as he plays air guitar on a bedraggled children's broom, straw pieces sticking out at odd angles having been roughly used as a whammy bar.

It all started Thursday, I suppose. We hit story time for the first time. It was okay, I suppose. The book choices were a bit uninspired, but there was that group of kids at the storyteller's feet, little faces rapt with attention.

And where was my son? Off exploring the room. A rather inviting room, I would add, with low windows, carpet, and absolutely no furniture. If I were two, I would be tempted to run, and while my son didn't, he did trip on the carpet and skin his nose. After two minutes of comforting, he went back off to flirt and look cute with another mom. Ask me if I was jealous. Please. I was so tired that morning they could have pledged undying affection for each other and I would have been like "Yeah, great, so, do you think you could take him for a couple hours?"

As we left the library I noticed a sign taped to the outside of a glass door. The bold print could be read in reverse--"Toddler Tuesdays". Curious, I turned around to read the rest of the sign after I had walked out. "Learn How to Sit and Listen".

Oh dear.

I think this was the first time I really, truly felt like The World has some sort of expectation my kid wasn't living up to. It didn't feel good. It hadn't bothered me that my son was wandering about the room as the nice lady read stories and sang songs. I just naturally assumed that this was pretty normal stuff for a two year old in a new space. The sign sparked a little glimmer of anger, I suppose. "After all" I muttered under my breath "learning how to sit and listen isn't one of the reasons I took him to Story time in the first place." I was hoping that he'd enjoy the music and movement aspect of it, or that I'd get turned on to some good books. "He sits and listens just fine at home...grumble grumble."

Silly me. That was Day One.

Day Two began with The Morning From Hell. Like many stressful situations, I've successfully blocked out the details of this time and just remember that it was horrible. Nothing was going well. Lots of tears (his), lots of grumbles (mine) and so much to do. A trip to Portland Nursery, which was supposed to be fun, took my every last bit of patience, and just when the walk was going well, he decided to run into the street. Again.

Did I mention that toddlers are not to be trusted? This kid runs into the street like it's the best thing on earth. I couldn't get a lick of yardwork done, and finally had to pop him back into his stroller again. I probably did not say loving, positive discipline sorts of things as I did this.

Day Three. Saturday. Egad. The farmer's market was great, but after an hour nap in the car, Kiddo was cranky and all wiggles and ready to go. So perhaps it wasn't a good time to go get a beer, hmmmm? This, believe it or not, was not my idea, but my dear husband's. I tried to veto it three times, and you know that if I'm passing up going out for a beer, something isn't right. I finally compromised with the dear husband and agreed to trying one glass of beer. Huge mistake, super-wiggly disaster, and our son using his new vocabulary to tell everyone around "you fust'ated", which translates to "I'm frustrated. Let me run...everywhere!"

So it's Day Five now--yes, we've skipped day four, I'm too tired-- and a dear friend offered to take my darling, mercurial, daring and explorative little boy for a couple hours and let me make dinner in peace. I went out for a walk and began to just focus on my breathing. I realized how hard it was to take a deep breath; I'd been stressed and tired for days. But eventually my feet began to pick up speed and as I relaxed into the music on the ipod, I felt my chest open up a bit. I could breathe out all the self-judgement and all the insecurity around the past few days and try to set it aside. I could try to use this time to remember what these feelings are like, to build on it as a base for empathy with other mothers instead of just being angry at a poster. I could try to see what I was doing right: consistently leading him through his transitions with a lot of patience and routine; giving him as much space as possible to be himself within the boundaries of what is safe; and making time for him when he wants it while honoring those moments when he is happier independent, thinking his own thoughts and focusing on things that interest him.

I know that big room at storytime interested him. I knew, when I sat back and watched, how much I wanted for him to be comfortable and happy looking around that room. I don't feel like my kid needs to be following along with the rest of the pack yet--he's only two. He'll have his whole life to suppress his natural instincts and conform to the group status quo. I want to encourage him to feel confident following his own path while being safe, respectful to others and honest to both us and himself. When I breathe, I can see that the vision I have for my son is not about my being comfortable, but about his development as a human being. Discomfort challenges me to confront parts of myself that are always easier not to look at, but self-examination as a parent is always a golden opportunity for progress. So I'll try to move from talking to breathing and see, just see, if the rest of this week might not be a little better.

Keep your fingers crossed.