One chicken comes home to roost then snowballs and mixes all my metaphors

Well. I knew it would happen. I knew the anti-honeymoon would eventually happen.

I’ve been blogging a bit about how our family is settling into two households and how that has been better for everyone. I’ve made sure to caveat how sad and caveat how hard we’re working. And caveat anything tangential because caveats are my wont.

Not always, of course, but when necessary.

See? They’re like candy. So delicious and so hard to stop.

Anyway. The kids have handled the separation well and have been kinder to each other. Notice how I used the past tense. Because holy guacamole is the older one being mean lately.

He's moving closer and closer to prison, it seems.

He’s moving closer and closer to prison, it seems.

I could blame the separation. I could blame the new school year. I could blame anything, really, but it’s coming down to either he’s headed straight to prison or I’m doing everything wrong.

Those two options pretty much cover it, I think. No other choices.

He’s a wonderful child, full of imagination and scientific logic, generally kind and very funny. His greatest pleasure is making me laugh. So whatever bodysnatcher has a hold of his shell is having a great time, because this child is clearly possessed by an alien, ghoul, monster, or bank CEO.

At least once a day this week he’s yelled in my face that whatever we’re talking about is none of my business, or telling me to shut up. He’s grabbed my arm, hard, to make me understand that he wants me out of his personal space.

And all of this rage has gotten an, “Oh, NO. You can’t talk to me that way. I’ll listen to what you have to say if you take a breath and talk kindly.” He knows he has more power with his hands and his voice down, but he doesn’t care. He knows that he can take a breath or take some time apart from situations that make him mad, but he doesn’t care. He seems to want to make everyone miserable. He has been grabbing his four-year-old brother by the shoulders and squeezing hard, for even slight infractions of what he perceives, at eight years old, as the right way to do things. He’s enforcing the rules with an iron fist, and I don’t like it.

And I tell him “you’re important to this family and your opinion matters, but you may not police other people. Your body is your job, and you are not responsible for anyone else but you. If he makes you mad, walk away. Take a break.”

This usually gets an epithet barked at me. And then a privilege taken away.

Yesterday he bickered with a playdate as though they were siblings, calling each other names (I stopped that kindly) and criticizing each other’s homework habits (I stopped that kindly) and challenging each other on how to play games properly (I told them they could go to separate rooms if they wanted to fight, but that I welcomed them finding solutions together.) It was annoying. At soccer practice, Peanut criticized the same boy for something he did near the goal, and the boy lost it. He pushed Peanut, who pushed back. The coach talked to them and had them talk about what they needed and wanted. Peanut very impressively said, “I don’t like it when you push me, but that doesn’t give me the right to push you.” And then he went home and pushed his brother.

And this morning started the whole cycle again.

You're eight. Life is outrageously easy. Stop it with the assholery.

You’re eight. Life is outrageously easy. Stop it with the assholery.

He’s also having outsized tantrums in which he digs in his heels and simply won’t give up. He sat on the edge of the tub for 45 minutes the other night refusing to brush his teeth because I got too angry with his refusal to floss and gave myself a timeout. He refused to brush until I sat with him. I explained that my kindness had run dry and he was welcome to come in for a long hug when he was done brushing, but that I wasn’t going to sit with him. He finally brushed when I set a timer and told him he had five minutes to get in bed, else be excused from soccer the next day for lack of adequate rest.

I’m weary of this rage from a small boy. I asked him what he needs. I asked if he’s tired or needs a break from soccer or needs extra hugs. He told me needs a family without a brother. I said I hear his frustrations and helped him think of ideas for getting more time away from the little tyrant. He’s been saying for 3 years that he wants a family without a brother, ever since Butter learned to walk. I listen sympathetically, but, quite reasonably, don’t offer to find him a family without a brother. They don’t have a great relationship. Peanut is a rule follower and rule enforcer, and his brother writes his own rules. Peanut hates that little kids can’t do everything as well as he can and don’t heed his every request. He also has the insecure human’s need to make others feel small when he doesn’t feel strong enough. After an hour or so of puzzling out something impressive, he’s magnanimous and kind to his brother. Proud of himself from science class or engineering projects or video game design, he wants to teach and listen and generally beam with pride. But that feeling of pride is too rare to sustain their relationship.

Something is making my son retreat inward and create nothing but Dark Art magic with his considerable brain and usually kind heart.

The possible list of causes are:
All my fault
Mostly my fault
Personality glitch
Entirely due to the separation
Lack of downtime in busy weeks
Mostly due to the separation
Totally my fault.

On the walk to school today, we caught up with a neighbor mom and her kindergartener. Her older son is in Peanut’s class, and I assumed he was home sick. On the walk, though, she told me that he has been impossible lately, refusing to get ready, yelling at her, and expecting way more nannying than a third grader should. She said she was fed up, and when he talked nasty to her this morning, she left him home. His father agreed to stay home long enough for our friend to get the little one to school and back. Peanut’s friend had already missed soccer practice this week due to ragingly bad attitude.

I was so happy I could barely speak. Because her kid’s asshattery can’t be All My Fault. I barely know him. And odds that their mutual ridiculous behavior are collectively All Our Fault are slim. So the list of potential causes shifts to:
Full moon
Lunar eclipse
Early-onset puberty
Toxic chemicals in drinking water that only affects eight-year-olds
Totally my fault, so much so that my ill will affects several blocks in each direction.

Anyone else with a particularly rude eight year old lately? Wanna blame it on me? Or take some of the blame for my kid this week? We could swap responsibility until they’re 30 or so. Or we can all blame it on my failed marriage. That would do wonders for my need to poke that open wound a bit. Hey, we could blame your kid’s nastiness on my kid’s nastiness and vice versa! Come on! It’ll be fun!

Reasonable Question

“Mommy, you know how you don’t love Daddy anymore…I mean, not that you don’t love him or not that you don’t like him, but you know how he makes you sad when he yells at you? Well, do we have to have two camp sites when we go camping?”

blink blink blink

blink.

“Well, honey, some day we probably will have two camp sites. And that might be fun because Daddy will cook on his campfire and I will cook on my campfire, and you can choose which campfire dinner to eat. And you can even choose to eat both!”

“Yeah!”

“For now, we still share a campsite. And we’re a family, even if we live in two houses or have two campsites.”

“And even if we have two marshmallow fires, right?”

“Yeah, Butterbean. Even then. It sounds pretty good to me to have two marshmallow fires.”

“Me, too.”

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But it doesn’t sound good to me. It sounds like what we have to do, to be civil and keep the best of what we have to offer the kids, but I’m lying to my son when I say it sounds good to have two marshmallow fires. It sounds like a waste of wood and excessive pollution and too much work. Two campfires sounds to me like the acrid smell that won’t wash out of my hair for two days isn’t even my smell; it belongs, in part, to someone else and it follows me around for the better part of the week, surprising me with an acid taste in my mouth each time I move my head quickly.

Everyone all together was my hope for their childhoods and for my marriage. I don’t want to offer them two homes instead of one, and I don’t want to pay two rents  instead of one. But that’s our reality. Together, Spouse and I fight. Apart we are much kinder. And I’m not going to rehash here the time honored “but they’re happier now and you’re happier now and sometimes marriages just don’t work but you’re doing a great job of making them feel loved even though clearly you made bad choices and probably shouldn’t even be allowed to have children because you’re so bad at decision making” cycle of self loathing some divorced parents go through. Okay, that I go through.

I will say that it’s uncomfortably hard to tell my kids they can’t have the comfort of having everyone who loves them sleep in one house. Or that we can’t split the team and play man-to-man at book-reading time. Instead, there are really only groups of three, and they have to learn to get a lot less solo attention. They’re the center of a Venn diagram, and one of the adults is generally shut out.

What killed me about the campsite question is that he knows there aren’t easy words to put to the situation: it’s not a lack of love or a lack of like…it’s a dynamic between two people who bring out each other’s worst. And they saw it. We were two people treating each other like adversaries instead of partners. And my children felt it. They treat each other like adversaries, too. I feel the guilt of that hourly.

But now they see that two adults can choose to stop being a bad pair and become better people alone. That people can choose to examine their problems and find a solution. A kind solution. A gentle solution. An unwanted but necessary solution.

Later this month I’m giving a talk on finding your blog voice. And staying true to my own writing voice has meant being honest. I don’t blog so I can put on a mask and pretend. For that I have theater. But a blog voice also means permanence and not writing something I’ll regret and want to delete years later. A blog voice means addressing the pain but knowing that just beyond the empathetic friends and sympathetic readers is a future employer who might read this as part of a decision-making process. So being honest and being forever is challenging in transitions like a divorce. I have to talk about solutions but not really explain the problem. I’m not here to air my marriage and its failings. I’m not going to degrade my co-parent in a public forum. And I can’t be here in full therapy mode. That’s not me hiding the truth. But it’s not me being completely frank, either. I’m not comfortable here, right in between a rock and a brick wall.

This blog is where I tell my stories, and aching for my kids that their family seems incomplete, no matter how we configure it, is my story right now. I want to tell that story. Carefully.

Thankfully, my sons’ version of this story is a delightful revisionist world in which they get double marshmallows.

Maybe they’ll share with you.

 

photo credit: John Morgan via creative commons

photo credit: John Morgan via creative commons

 

Group storytelling

As our family dissolves its current form and grows again to a new structure, we’re developing dozens of lovely traditions.

And my absolute favorite is the family story.

We talk each day about our favorite parts of the day, and our biggest challenges; we talk about gratitude and feelings.

And now, when the kids seem bored, when we share time together, when we travel in the car, and especially when dim lighting and clean teeth spell the end of the day, we invent a story. Together. Sometimes as three people, and sometimes as four. Each person tells one sentence of a new story. Each subsequent person builds upon it. Until it’s done. And then we do it again.

Tonight:

There once was a tree with several leaves.
And nearby there was a tree with lots of leaves.
And those two trees began growing toward each other.
One day they touched together.
And they began dripping honey.
And they grew together some more.
And they spilled all the honey on the ground.
This made them fight.
A bear stopped by to say, “Don’t worry, there’s enough honey for everyone.”
So every animal in the forest came and took what they needed.
And the trees were happy.
And the animals were happy.
And full of honey.
The End.

 

Part time job

My kids accompanied me to the post office, and they balked at getting out of the car.

I told them they had to come in, and they rolled their eyes.

The post office housed a handful of people who weren’t in the mood, I could tell from their mirthless stares, for small boys. But as a paying customer, I silently recalled my breastfeeding mantra: “Anyplace I have a legal right to be, I have a legal right to do this.” I don’t think the law covers giggling children who want to rearrange postal products, but I tried not to think about such technicalities.

As each person before us in line approached the counter, explained their purpose, and paid, the boys grew more silly, more wiggly, more frustrating. Not their fault. Nobody likes standing in line. But such is life, occasionally, and they were going from play time to more play time, so they needed to learn to occupy themselves when bored.

And then eight-year-old Peanut spotted a coin near the front desk. He lunged across the room and prostrated himself on the low-pile industrial carpet hoping his treasure wasn’t a mirage.

I asked him to please get up.

His brother joined him.

I asked them to please get off the floor.

They wriggled around, quietly. Intently.

I asked them to please, please come stand by me.

The four-year-old grunted a bit, pressed for air as he snuffled along on his belly, covering himself in decades of federal-service filth, “We’re finding money!” I tried not to laugh. They’re so darned delicious and I so need bits of the unusual and ridiculous in my life.

And suddenly the room full of grousers smiled. I looked around. They were happy the little urchins were calm. I hated to admit it, but I was, too. It was disgusting to watch, and it was embarrassing to spend the rest of the day with abhorrently dirty children.

But Peanut made 78 cents, and Butterbean earned 35 cents, just by slithering all over a post office carpet for a few minutes.

At this rate we’re going to have their college funds fully loaded by December.

Look for us at a post office near you.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Peanut has been fascinated by caves for a long time. His only visit to a cave was in utero, when Spouse and I went to Karchner Caverns in Arizona. I was seven months pregnant and had several almost-panic-attacks while underground. Humidity, claustrophobia, and pregnancy-induced inability to breathe made the cave terrifying. But gorgeous. And somehow that must have stuck with him.

Mmmmm. Cave bacon.

We’ve watched the cave episode of Planet Earth maybe five times in a year. He can’t stop talking about a cave movie they watched at school last year.

He’s been asking to go to a cave for months. And I mostly assumed that outside Mammoth Caves and Carlsbad, there aren’t many around us.

Foolish Muggle.

When I finally looked on the googles, I found caves that are literally on the way to our big Tahoe camping trip every year.

So we crammed the kids in the car and tolerated their incessant bickering to see this (all photos below are mine):

 

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Helictites make me think of Unicorns. And this cave had millions of them.

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See? Unicorn horns.

I had forgotten how miraculous it feels to crawl through a small hole in the heat-cracked earth and arrive in a cool, wide, dark tomb carved over tens of thousands of years by slightly acidic water.

We have a friend who caves, but Peanut has only met her once and thus can’t be duly impressed by her hobby/avocation. I want to send her the following photos, though, because we can lure her out to California.

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How about a pool 150 feet down from the cave entrance?

It’s intensely beautiful to watch kids stare way up and then waaaaaay down to learn the difference between stalactites and stalagtites.

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I see you hiding in the draperies, bacon. Sparkly calcite cannot disguise your mock deliciousness.

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Forgot to ask if this white residue on this flowstone was more of the moon milk we saw on the walls. Mmmm. Bacterial moon milk.

 

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I love this dinosaur-mouth configuration so much.

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Theatrical lighting wholeheartedly approved. Wowzers.

The best part wasn’t even the cave, which is saying a lot. The best part was the rock shop on the way out.

A bit of background: I love rock shops more than any single thing in my life, kids notwithstanding. Maybe. Depends on the day. I have dozens, really and truly dozens, of childhood memories of rock shops. I can tell you exactly which rock I bought or found and at which rockshop of patch of earth for every rock ever obtained from the time I was 7. Seriously. I distinctly remember why each of those rocks called to me. Because they call loudly.

And I cannot be dragged from a rock shop until I’m done. Forget can’t…I will not. Not that I’d know. Nobody has ever tried. I have lovely memories of my parents waiting for me at rock shops. Of being left alone to wander, gently touch, careful consider while they were…ah, hell, I don’t know where they were. I can’t imagine they were looking, too. Bored at the door? Consuming secret cookie stashes while I wasn’t looking? I never considered them, selfish rockhound that I am. I’m guessing they were patient at first. And I’m guessing that they got bored, or that my brother got bored, or that I somehow tried everyone’s patience. But know what? I don’t remember caring one whit whether everyone was exasperated with the rock shop or not. I was prepared to spend all day filling my one-ounce cup with perfect rock chip specimens, even if it killed my whole family.

So when my boys entered the rock shop after an hour below ground in a majestic cave, I rather expected them to shrug and ask for candy. My poor sugar-denied kids always ask for candy. And I always say no.

Anticipating their request and their disinterest in the rock shop, I made a beeline to the rock candy I saw as soon as we entered, and waited for them to follow. I was going to make this cave, this rock shop, memorable for my kids, who likely cared more for sugar than for rocks.

But the little guy ignored me and stood, eyes wide, in front of the pick-your-own-rocks barrel. Fill a bag with any rocks you choose? Any at all? My idea of heaven and his idea of…a whole afternoon of joy. He’s four, y’all. And he spent 20 minutes choosing the best rocks. Never once did he see me at the candy display. He was so engrossed in rock selection that he didn’t look up even when his dad offered tiger’s eye rocks for the bag. “Dad,” he said without looking at either the man or the stone, “this is my choice. Stop it.”

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Not bad for a pink-obsessed 4yo…these were his actual selections and he’s still quite proud of them.

No DNA test needed.

The eldest wandered aimlessly. It was as though he couldn’t find the right rock. I let him be, scouring the shelves for rocks that were one part neglected, one part magic, one part architectural marvel, and one part undervalued.

Butter finished his rock bag. He appreciated the rock candy. We went outside with his dad to slurp and ponder his treasure.

And still Peanut wandered. I chose my rock carefully. I triple checked to be sure I wasn’t missing anything on the shelves.

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And still he wandered.

I stayed back and watched for a while. I showed him my finds and he seemed duly unimpressed. I offered suggestions for areas in which to look for something that might speak to him.

And he seemed stymied. No break-your-own-geodes because his aunt and uncle gave him the best geodes ever two years ago, and he doesn’t want more. No dogtooth calcite, for reasons only a psychologist will be able to discern. No broken shark teeth because he found real, intact, beautiful fossilized shark teeth with his dad at the beach. No arrowheads because, “Mom, who would want that? They’re replicas!”

And then he found the select-a-pendant-and-cord display.

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He chose his treasure quickly. Clearly not a natural specimen, and he doesn’t care. Clearly on a weak bale, and he doesn’t care. Clearly exactly and precisely the man-shaped rock he needs right this very minute oh my gawd I can’t wait. He appreciated his rock candy, but not as much as his necklace.

He made it to the car before he realized his necklace had already fallen off.

Parking lot of gravel. Grey rock on grey cord.

A lot of looking.

Butter found it for him, how I’ll never know. In the middle of the parking lot.

So we have our cave experience. And our rocks. We don’t have any more rock candy. But it was as delicious as any Doozer sugar sculpture*.

* I read that Doozers’ buildings are allegedly radish dust, but those are clearly made of sugar. My entire childhood will be a lie if Doozer buildings aren’t basically rock candy.

So we’ve visited our first cave. And our first rock shop. And our first rock tragedy was narrowly averted by a hero within our own family.

All, my friends, ALL was right with the world in that moment.**

**Except that almost nothing is right with the larger world right now, and that rock candy might not be a Doozer creation. But I’m trying to not have a sad on my cave and rock post. Because perfection.

 

 

Standing ’round the sink

A few months ago, J.C. Little, The Animated Woman, wrote a post about how much her family has bonded over washing dishes together.

And I thought briefly about washing the dishes with my kids. J.C. made it sound so tactile and engaging, so warm and sudsy. And I recalled doing dishes with my stepmom, talking.

But I also remembered reaching into the cool-ish, dirty water to fish out whatever was on the bottom: slime, forks, or a sharp knife.
*Shudder*
No thank you, J.C.

This is totally me and my two kids dressed in matching aprons and laughing as we wash perfectly clean dishes in a perfectly clean kitchen. What? You don't know.

This is totally me and my two kids dressed in matching aprons and laughing as we wash perfectly clean dishes in a perfectly clean kitchen.
What?! You don’t know.

But her post gave me an idea. Six days before I read that lovely post about family bonding over dishes, my sometimes-washer-of-dishes moved to another house. So I’d been doing 100% more dishes by myself for a few days. And I didn’t like it. Not that washing dishes is a big deal. But when you have extremely limited time, most of which is crammed with paid and unpaid activities promised to someone else, washing dishes is a big ol’ “seriously, would paper plates really ruin the world if I used them just until I submit the next big project?” tirade of justifications and pouts while scraping preschooler rejects into the compost.

So the next morning I asked my eight-year-old Peanut to empty the dishwasher, please. He shrugged and emptied the whole thing. It was the first time I’d asked him to this, but he’s an enormously bright boy and member of the family and has thus experienced the acquisition of clean dishes from cupboards. He could therefore extrapolate the placement of clean dishes in the same cupboards. [May that be proof, some day, when his partner claims he 'doesn't know where anything goes.'] The next time I asked, four-year-old Butter clamored to help. He’s big on helping. And they got along, doing the job I rather hate, while I made dinner near them.

We were all in the kitchen, excited, mobile, talking, and thanking each other for various tasks that helped the family. Peanut even devised the most brilliant plan, ever: put all the forks in one compartment of the silverware basket, spoons in another, and so on. That way, he pointed out, when we empty we can grab a whole section and just dump it into the right section of the drawer. I marveled at his genius. And I refrained from telling him I’d heard of this maniacally organized plan for dishwasher loading but could never bring myself to spend that much energy on organization of dirty silverware. So we ooh and aah over the boy’s idea, we listen to his argument about the finer points of his plan, and we do it his way. And now he thinks he’s the King of the family.

Wait a minute, here, J.C.! Turns out this trick works even if you *have* a dishwasher!

I’d always said before I had kids that I’d have them do their share of chores. But as their dad and I bickered about who did the dishes, it never occurred to us to farm out that job. We bickered about how and when to put the laundry away, too. So I decided to J.C. this activity, too. After the dishes and breakfast, entering the second week of our new family arrangement, I plopped a basket of laundry on the boys’ floor and asked them to find their stuff and put it away.

Again with the together and the talking and the many hands making light work.

It’s been almost three months. And my kids are emptying and filling the dishwasher every day. And putting away every load of laundry.

And they’re doing it together, while I do something else domestic in the same room. Usually cooking or sweeping. Man, I love me some sweeping. Watch everything that’s wrong with your life gather in a pile, nudge it onto a dustpan, and throw it away forever. Then do it again in three hours because, geez, do these kids grow sand and dirt and…what is that, a twig?…out of their socks?

This is not my child. Or my sand. Or my broom. Or my background. Do you know how bad stock photos of sweeping are? Shameful.

This is not my child. Or my sand. Or my broom. Or my background. Do you know how bad stock photos of sweeping are? Shameful.

Forcing my kids Working together to do chores feels good. It feels even better to get the work done more quickly and with less fighting.

Thanks, J.C.
I owe you one!

Trust

My sweet little Butterbean loves playing the game of trust. He stands about two feet away, makes his body rigid, and falls toward me. I catch him. He never doubts and he never falters. Neither do I.

This is the game we’re forced to play in team-building excursions, and most people can’t trust enough to just fall. We tend to take a step to catch ourselves, unwilling to trust someone else with our bodily safety.

But my son is willing. He trusts implicitly. And it’s thrilling for him, to know that I’ll get him, to know that it feels safe no matter what his brain tells him about gravity and danger.

four years ago, when Butterbean sought for anything to grab

four years ago, when Butterbean sought for anything to grab and I knew he was smart for grabbing me

And I realize, as we laugh and hug and play again and again, that this trust is the heartstopping part of parenting. He trusts me completely. And that feels intensely heavy, physically. That feels as though his little life and heart and future well-being follow me every minute of the day. Fragile. Important.

I’ve always taken parenting very, very seriously. We have fun, but I drive myself to distraction thinking of all the way to be right, to be ideal, to be precisely what the kids need. Because their trust is everything. It really is.

And my ridiculously lofty expectations mean that I fail. Every day.

“No matter. Fail again. Fail better.”

I try to not obsess with my constant failure. With my less-than-ness. I try to live in the moment and parent my best and do what feels right and true. Because that’s all I can do.

Last week, rushing to make Peanut’s lunch to get him to camp, I checked his backpack to find his missing lunchbox. It was there, mostly empty, festering in smooshing-proximity to a wet towel and wet swimsuit.

“Dude?” I said to him as I shook them all out and prepared to handle them. My job, when I’m home: handling. “It really helps when you take this out of your backpack after you get home. Hang it up, it dries. Leave it stuffed in a closed backpack, it stays cold and wet. And it likely feels better to put on dry rather than damp and clammy.”

He looked at me from across the living room, pausing in his enormously important task of the morning, something I couldn’t possibly understand because I’m mother and therefore flawed and ridiculous and wonderful but lame. He cocked his head.

“Look,” he said. “I’ll try. I hear you. But after a long day of playing, I’m just not sure I can remember. I’ll try, Mom. But I can’t promise anything.”

And I bifurcated. One half my mind thought, “well, for an eight year old that was ridiculously articulate, reasoned, and calm.” The other thought, “Geez, is that the way I talk to him? With weighty sighs at how ludicrous is this life and our expectations? Do I reason and articulate like that? Has the Beckett of ‘Fail again. Fail better’ so informing my demeanor that shrugging with impossibility has become the family motto?”

I don’t know. I know that split, the “wow you’re great humans,” and “wow, I’m ruining you” split applies to both of them. And the difference between them. The reasoned refusal to hang a wet towel and the joyful, trusting fall into my arms. The split mind happens whether I catch the trusting, falling child or whether I explain, rationally and dispassionately, why I dropped him.

I have to stop this post now before I want more babies. Look at that face!

I have to stop this post now before I want more babies. Look at that face!

 

Don’t make me pull this car over

Hi, there. I know I’m parked out in front of your house and it’s creeping you out. I’m not getting out of the car, I’m not looking around, I’m not doing something obvious like making a call or eating lunch.

And I’m not acknowledging the kids in the backseat.

I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. Sincerely. I’d park somewhere else if I could.

But my kids were calling each other stupid, so I pulled over. I’ve absolutely had it with namecalling, and your front yard is where I’m making my final stand. Well, probably not final. Honestly, only, like, second. And there will be dozens more just this week, I’m sure. So let’s call it penultimate. Because most people don’t know what that means. I’m making my penultimate stand before you, your family, and the neighbors. There will be no more “stupid” in my family.

I tell them what they practice is what they become. I tell them that calling names hurts peoples’ hearts. And I tell them to choose a kind word rather than a hurtful word.

But they think stupid is funny. There’s power in stupid. There’s power in making someone feel small. That’s not the power I want them to cultivate. I wouldn’t mind them cultivating sports or engineering or art or language; they can focus on motor skills large or small, ideas grand or practical. I don’t care what part of their brains they feed, except the part they were feeding just now, as we passed your house. I want them to nourish the kind part of themselves, not the cruel part of themselves. So when they call each other names I stop.

Starting now, here, where your wife is probably going to want to park when she gets home from her high powered, well respected career, I’m drawing the line. Is she an architect or judge or chemist or venture capitalist or something? My job, right now, is to make people not say stupid. Kind of like an architect/judge/chemist/venturecapitalist. But for kindness.

I’m going to ignore them until I hear each say something kind. I can tell from your face that you don’t like the sound of that plan, what with me invading your personal space and all. But I’m going to tell you two things. First, they’ll say something kind really soon. They did when we tried this the first time just down the block. They told each other “I love you, have a nice day,” prompted by the four-year-old’s attempt to end the standoff. But as soon as I pulled into the street they called each other “oopid,” which is what got us to your curb. And that brings me to my second point: this isn’t your curb. It’s public property in front of your house. You don’t own this curb. We all do. And I need it right now. Step off, yo.

Because I’m practicing sitting patiently in front of your house. It cultivates patience, deep breaths, and a stalker vibe I’ve always shunned. Patience is good, patience is good, patience is…Aha. They said something nice. We’re off.

Just remember this for next time, please. We drive this street all the time, and the odds that we’ll park in front of your house again are relatively high. but we’ll leave relatively quickly.

That? Oh, that’s them testing me. I’ll take them saying “poo poo pee pee poo poo pee pee” because they’re not calling each other names.

Shhhh. Let’s pretend, okay? I have places to be.

 

Crowdsourced parenting

Ah, the joys of having two boys home for the summer. Together. Every day. Incessantly.

They’ve never particularly worked well together, what with the opinionated and high-strung (don’t know where he gets it) paired with the flamboyant and stubborn (don’t know where he gets it, either). Since the beginning, the eldest gives his brother exactly zero slack, and the youngest adores his brother until he perceives slight, and then he lashes out.

It’s good times. And has been for years.

So to keep from committing some form of -icide this summer, I’m trying a few techniques. And I want to know which YOU think might work better:

1. Put the whole cache of toys in time-out. Not initially, of course. But starting with the first shriek of disdain each morning, every nasty word, hit, kick, sneer, tease, and threat will trigger a toy being stuffed atop the fridge. The fridge where I prefer to keep the cereal and the whiskey will buckle beneath the weight of endless supplies of LEGO and Pokemon and traffic cones (geez with the construction cone obsession). I figure removing cherished treasures to psychologically beat them into submission has potential. Just not sure if I have enough time and enough fridge top. Or if imprisoning the distractions will bring on full-scale war.

2. Force them to say “I love you.” I realized tonight that each genuinely thinks his brother hates him. Really does. Peanut has no sense that his younger brother worships him, and Butter has no idea that the little acts of kindness that arise here and there are peace offerings from a brother whose always wanted to love but feared the wrath. So every time they hit, kick, punch, flick, pull hair, menace, or berate, if I make them say I love you, they should develop a healthy aversion to that phrase, distrusting it and using it as a tool in the same way most kids forced to say “I’m sorry” learn to distrust and manipulate that phrase. Win in the short-term, win in the long-term, seems to me.

3. Scream and wring my hands. Because talking about kindness and gentleness, positive reinforcement, and expectations for civil behavior have fallen on deaf ears for 4 years, I should up the stakes, right? Scream, wail, fling myself between them? It would, at the least, serve my need for the theatrical.

4. Sob and wring my hands. See above explanation and…and nothing. Just replace “scream” with “sob.” That’s not me being a lazy writer. That’s some serious strategic planning.

5. Effusively praise kindness. We’ve had success in the past with the “notice a kindness, put a marble in a jar” scenarios in which kindnesses accumulate toward a big friendly family event like movie night or a walk with glow sticks. I guess I could try that rather simple idea of calling attention to what I like and want from them. Sounds boring, though. Can we go back to writhing and wailing?

6. Maximize their chances for success. Get them outside and moving as early and often as possible. Hikes, runs, bike rides, soccer drills, tennis, walks, yoga, catch…anything that gets them into their own bodies and off of each other. This is the best thing we’ve come up with to date. But then, tonight, I hear during the daily recap of favorite-moment/biggest-challenge-and-solution-brainstorm that Peanut’s favorite was today’s hike and his biggest challenge was his brother kicking him on the hike. I’m not sure what part of the hike I missed, but I should have had a camera poised for this highly athletic child’s crowning moment in which he can hike and kick someone at the same time. Similarly, it would have been nice to capture the stage-averse eldest in this decidedly dramatic moment. I’m guessing he threw himself to the ground and writhed a bit. Don’t know where he gets it.

7. Combine them all. Toy-removal consequences, concordance rewards, screaming, sobbing, exercise outdoors, and forced professions of love. What could go wrong if I just throw myself into micromanaging every breath out of their contentious little mouths?

Anyone? Ideas for brotherly peace? Other than from the famous Camp Don’t Fight with Your Brother, which for some reason has a waitlist, what do you vote? Please tell me you’ve had success with the sobbing. That’s my favorite. But I guess it’d be okay if you suggest something else. It’s not like any of my plans are winning us a calm, silly, kind household.

 

Don’t blink!

This weekend was hectic and full and overwhelming. As weekends are. I was sick as a dog Sunday, but we had the last soccer game of the season and the party and the coaches’ cards I had organized. I had to be upright and smiling half the day, which was not ideal. And I was supposed to be working the other half the day, which was nigh impossible.

And as we left a lovely party with lovely families, my little guy was hilariously spastic. He and his brother were being goofy along the sidewalk, and I asked them to move aside for the man walking behind us. He smiled, but said it was fine that my kids were crazy.

“I miss this,” he told me. “Mine are teenagers and never get silly any more.”

“I love it,” I smiled, “but it would be nice for them to slow down just a bit. Once in a while.”

“You’ll miss it,” he told me again.

“I believe you. Because it’s seven days a week, 20 hours a day, and I will notice any moment of slowdown.”

I had to lie down at home after managing to be vertical for four hours after a long morning of not being able to keep down tea. The boys rolled all over me and ran screaming through the house and played a raucous game  of water balloons with their dad. I photographed the last bit, after puking my sips of water, because these memories never come back, and I knew when I felt better I’d love watching the smiles on their faces as they pelted Dad with exploding projectiles.

And I was sure I’d miss a client deadline today, because I couldn’t work as hard yesterday as I had planned to. I stayed up late, with sips of hot water and mint, and did what I could before I emailed the bad news.

But this morning both kids crawled into bed with me. The eldest asked me about caves and told me his plans for minecraft. The little guy slept. And slept. And slept.

He went along unwillingly to Peanut’s school dropoff. He tolerated my Monday run, and refused all treats that I offered. We came home and he collapsed in a whiny heap on the couch. Without asking for a movie.

Is it wrong to say I’m lucky he was sick? I made the deadline.

He slowed down for twelve hours and I felt restored. I sorted through the boxes their dad restacked in the garage after moving his boxes. I pondered a new organizing principle for my books. I chopped cabbage, diced a pineapple, and made tomorrow’s lunches. I made homemade veggie burgers. I drafted a client ad, swept, planned client blog posts, returned emails, and processed survey results from the preschool.

I’m sad that my little guy can’t get up off the couch. I know how he feels; I was there yesterday. But I’m so intensely glad he slowed down, just for a day.

Kid fevers are like vacation in my house.*

Is that awful to say? It would make a great ad for the don’t-use-fever-reducing-medicine-for-low-grade-temperatures campaign.  “A day of peace and quiet brought to you by a virus.”

*For the record, I would never let my child’s fever get too high. He is waking every hour or so for drink, and he asked for a plain bagel right before we picked up his brother from school. I’m not letting my child languish so I can work.

He just happens to be languishing. So I’m taking advantage of it to work.

And it feels soooooo right.

Just close your eyes

There is an exercise we do in fencing warm ups: we balance on one foot. And then we switch to the other. And after we switch back, we balance on each foot with our eyes closed.

You find out two things when you close your eyes and balance on one leg. 1) A surprising amount of balance predicates itself on vision. 2) Your proprioceptors function amazingly well if you get out of their way. Because the human body should adjust, balance, and re-adjust in response to stimuli. In fact, the human brain should also adjust, balance, and re-adjust in response to input.

So why do I feel as though, only a few weeks into the initial process, that a divorce is knocking my body and brain so far out of whack they can’t adjust?

I know this isn’t supposed feel easy or simple. I know after 15 years the path isn’t going seem as clear as we’d hoped when we finally, finally admitted how wrong our marriage has been for so very long.  I have proof, from the Interwebs, which tell me whenever I ask, that feeling all of the feelings is normal, even during an amiable split. Read some really lovely and awful and heart-felt descriptions of the journey from the incomparable Heather of the EO and my new blog-crush Carla of All of Me Now.

By the way, any time someone says their divorce portends a good thing, and that they’re both doing a great job of addressing the issues they could never address while married, you should give them caramel, the way two of my friends did. Because I can tell you that “doing a great job” of splitting up is something like doing a great job reading Heart of Darkness. It’s ugly and awful, and nobody would ever recommend it to anyone else. Caramel I can recommend unequivocally to everyone. Divorce and/or Conrad? Not so much.

But until a couple of weeks ago I thought, because I’m quite keen on control and planning and overthinking, that I could make a nice tidy plan for how this breakup would go.  And that it would. Go. Just follow a path toward eventual harmony and paperwork and a co-parenting friendship.

Rather like the way I thought I was rather balance-y at fencing. Until I close my eyes. Turns out I balance myself by finding stable points ahead of me and staring at them. When I close my eyes, that stable fixative point ghosts into a bleeding black puddle behind my eyelid, and the swimming scarlet and yellow vitreous drowns my efforts to clench myself into balance and unnerves my thinking mind enough to make me wobble. A lot.

Navigating through the day in an almost-former-marriage feels a lot like wobbling on one foot with your eyes closed. [My eyes closed. I can't speak for you, nor should I. If you ever try both the blind one-foot-balancing trick and the initial phases of separation in the same week, let me know how they compare.] I feel as though I have it all under control, barely, until I blink. And then logistics and hurt and choices and relief and work and timing and panic and money and regret and discussions and feelings and my poor, sweet, vulnerable little boys all swim in green and blue and purple venous blobs before me like a lake of bruises beneath which I’m drowning.

So I open my eyes. And I try to balance without focusing so hard. I try to let my body balance me rather than trying to force everything with my mind. I try to trust and I try to breathe. And I try to memorize how my body feels with this balance so that when I close my eyes I care less how it looks than how it feels.

And each day happens. And each night does, too. And the next day there’s another endless string of challenges.

And when I let my body handle those obstacles, rather than relying just on my mind, it’s like living in molasses. Because letting go and not controlling the hell out of everything taps proprioceptors I’ve never used before. I’m so slow right now. I type slowly. I think slowly and answer slowly. I’m even running so  slowly that I’m considering seeing a doctor. I’ve lost more than a minute per mile off my regular, don’t-have-to-try-for-it pace. That minute, on every mile I’ve run for the past month, is gone. Lost to the ether. I hope some young person in love and full of hope is running faster with my minutes. I miss them, but I’m willing to lose them forever if they go to a good home.

The words “a good home” make me a little maudlin. And by “a little” I mean “ask me in person because I’ll admit very little on a public blog even though I’m pretty darned honest here at good ol’ NaptimeWriting.”

All I know is that if asking my mind and body to do too much leaves me wobbling, I need to balance smarter. Eyes open, deep breath; eyes closed, rolling with the wobbles. Because that’s what learning experiences are for, right? Strengthening muscles you didn’t know you had? Part of me says, “but I don’t want these muscles because I promise I’ll never need them again.” But I will. For the rest of my relationship with the boys’ father, I will need these blind-balance muscles.

And that right now is the saddest part for me, after the waves of gut-punches at what this adult tower of cards means for the boys: I’m building muscles I don’t want to need. But I do need them. And so I will build them. I have to.

Eyes open, deep breath; eyes closed…let go.

 

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Dancing on marbles

Life is one big precarious attempt to not tumbling ass over teakettle, I am now convinced. And I’m trying to see the joy in the slapstick of walking boldly across a slick path made unpredictable with hundreds of marbles. Because every time I’m posed to post on this very spot about something lovely, I’m walloped upside the head with something decidedly unlovely.

And every time I want to wallow in the unlovely, something decidedly lovely distracts me.

You are likely aware, if you’ve been reading here for a while, that my gobsmackingly awesome children are finally starting to get along. Wise friends with three boys told me that once the little guy hit Four it would get better. And it has (with all the caveats about the fact that three people in the same house, none of whom has much emotional control, are rarely in the same mood and on the same page). Sometimes, now, when the first pats of butter-yellow light slip through their blinds and plop onto their beds each morning, Peanut and Butter wake up willing to engage in silly, playful interactions rather than surly, bickering nastiness. Sometimes. And that has increased the quality of life around here immeasurably.

Part of the boys’ getting along more probably roots in the fact that their Dad and I are being much calmer now that we’ve decided not to live together. Less struggle begets less struggle. So far. When there is tangible paternal-absence and marked maternal-lack-of-running-time, when the there might be a struggle or two. See the above metaphor about making steady progress along a marble-strewn path.

I’m sure that, in part, the boys’ kindness to one another stems from a fabulous trip to Boston. We walked the Charles, we spent our tourist dollars at Marathon Sports on Boylston. We ate good food (my GAWD I’ve missed Red Bones) and we practically lived on the T. We cheered for marathoners until we were hoarse. We even offered our fluffernutters to the many, many police working the course on Patriot’s Day. (One indignant Statie told me he already had his peanut butter with jelly, thank you. And then I believe he was fired for inMassabordination.) We spent time like a family, and it was good for everyone.

Part of the increased sibling harmony also stems from a deep sadness that has stilled my otherwise frenetic pace. The death of my friend has brought a rather large dollop of “I don’t care about anything any more” to my endless to-do lists and my frantic need to prove myself worthy through incessant activities.

As we made it through the memorial, we found out that a mutual friend, who was diagnosed with leukemia around the same time Jay had his first surgery, has relapsed. This little boy, who spent kindergarten in Children’s Hospital enduring rounds and rounds of chemo, and whose family learned a gratitude few of us will ever fathom, enjoyed first- and second-grade without cancer. Now his leukemia is back. He’s going through a couple of weeks of chemo before a bone marrow transplant.  We’re all trying coming together as a community, again, to get people checked, at no cost, to see if they’re matches for any of the many Americans in need of bone marrow. And maybe, if enough people get the free test, we can find our little guy a match!

So that’s exciting. If you’re one of the people who’s into bright sides and finding the joy of surfing the marble-covered path to tomorrow, it’s enlivening to have a purpose. To help. To appreciate and breathe and put one foot in front of the other. Nothing brings me out of “what’s the point” like a bone marrow drive.

Go hug your family. Email your friends and tell them you love them. Take a deep breath each morning, and relish what’s good.

And consider being tested to see if you’re a match for, and can help give a great life to, a sweet little boy.

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https://www.facebook.com/amatchforbay

 

Boston, one year later

We’re leaving for Boston soon (nice try, creepy burglar people, but we have a housesitter and trained attack kittens) and I’m so excited. Friends I haven’t seen in years, research for my novel, the always heart-filling fun of watching Spouse run a marathon.

But I’m worried. We haven’t told the kids about last year’s tragedies. We don’t plan to. I really, really really, really don’t want to. Really. Last year was devastating. Disgusting. Terrifying. Enraging. Like many others I spent every single ounce of saline in my body weeping for the families affected by those monstrous acts. I spent all night watching Twitter as the police went from my old work neighborhood to my improv neighborhood to my friends’ neighborhood tracking the alleged bombers. Brothers.

Photo: David L. Ryan/Boston Globe

Photo: David L. Ryan/Boston Globe

I’m looking forward to seeing how Boston is healing itself. I love that town and I keenly miss being a part of its crispy, crunchy shell and gooey center. (Boston is the caramel M&M that the Mars company has never successfully created.) I want to celebrate Boston and its efforts, I want to feel the community that has overcome the most horrible act during a celebratory act on a holiday of revolutionary acts. I am thrilled we’re going to cheer for Boston.

But I don’t want my boys to hear anything about the bombings. I don’t want them to see or know or think or in any way learn about the families, the sidewalks, the streets that will never be the same.

How terrible is that, though? Is it disrespectful of those families and runners and spectators and first responders to keep this painful reality hidden from young children?The mother in me says no, but it feels wrong to hide the truth.

We’re going back to Boston because I could never fathom being away from that city this week. I started training to qualify for Boston the day after the bombings. (I didn’t get far. I’m easily injured and I have limited time for training. So it’s not going to happen this year.) So did Spouse. We contorted family plans and finances to get the family out to Mass. as soon as he qualified. We’ve been practicing the proper pronunciation of the Chaaahlie Caaaahds we’ll need next week.

But I don’t want them to know.

Is that wrong? Is it disrespectful? If it even possible, given all the love Boston is pouring into Back Bay this week?

I want to honor those who died, those who were injured, those who helped, those who ran, those who sought, and those who stopped…I want so much to do whatever I can to help the healing.

But I don’t want to tell my kids.

Does that make me weak? Parental? Cowardly? Ridiculous? Mature?

Is that manic or depressive?

Today felt good. I think. I’m not sure.  I either interacted with the world in a deeply engaged way or I’m developing nervous tics to handle stress. Or both.

It's not bipolar. It's chimera!

It’s not bipolar. It’s chimera!

Butter and I dropped Peanut at school and went for a walk in the rain. I felt sunshine through the thin, grey, stacked clouds that snotted on us all day. Butter clung to me in the backpack, randomly snuggly today in ways that Almost Four resists in its developmental Need to Be Independent and Competent and Separate.

I liked it.

We wandered through the throngs of difference in downtown Berkeley—old and young, punk and granola, homeless and wealthy, tidy and filthy. I bought my little guy a bagel and a homeless woman some orange juice. I helped my Butterbean understand when he pointed out a man’s brightly colored, patchwork pocketed pants that no, those weren’t dirty and old pants, those are art. The young man wearing those carefully-crafted and well-worn pants (and the shirt with the large hole and the many face piercings and the giant chip on his shoulder) smiled at me and thanked me. I explained quietly to Butter that we can always talk later about what we see, but that talking about how somebody looks isn’t polite because it might make them feel bad even if we’re just curious. Then the impeccably-groomed college student getting Butter his bagel asked if I was aware that I had a small child on my back and I made them both laugh by trying to look behind me, asking, “Where?! Where?!” with great concern.

I carried my little carbohydrate fiend past a police barricade because I never saw it, focused instead on humanity today, making eye contact and noticing how simultaneously disjointed and alive the city felt. A stocky  man with a small face moved into my path and gently gestured, “stop, head back, cross, and go around” as he told me softly that the street was closed and he’d prefer that I please head back to an intersection and cross. I barely noticed his neon yellow vest and police uniform but I clearly saw his shiny apple cheeks and his wide brown eyes. I spun around and headed back, passing the barricade I’d missed. A few feet away from the barrier an unshaven man dressed all in black slumped into a corner and ran his hand through his unwashed grey hair as he said to me, “dead person.”

I looked at him and he looked at his fingernails.

Oh.

And I thought about that choice of words. Not “body.” Person. I thought about that reality and the half a block of thick public concrete and red curbs and parking meters and tall, caged trees blocked off for private police use. I noticed that the homeless were clustered in groups of four on every corner for blocks in both directions. This might have been a suicide or a homicide but was likely the routine expiration of a homeless neighbor from exposure or malnutrition or unresolved medical issues.

And they were aware—the police and the acquaintances. And I was now vaguely aware, but not really. And my preschooler was not aware. That’s true of much of life, isn’t it, that there’s a spectrum of connection and awareness. The circle of those you know and the wider circle of those you know less well overlap the circles of awareness borne of age and experience. Exposed lives versus sheltered lives versus young lives? That’s not the right way to define awareness. Because we know a homeless family with two small children. Do their kids know all the things these homeless adults do? Probably not. Are they witness to the street version of life or the child version of life or something in between?

My friend’s impending death won’t attract yellow police tape or the private use of a public space or gawking passersby. But his friends are gathered, too, communing. Huddled in support, not on street corners and not out of curiosity.

Today was a process of going, not unlike other days. Movement, journey, development. The day progressed and everything with a heartbeat did, too, whether the breathing and blinking felt like progress or not. And for some reason my progress today involved connection. Looking into eyes, gently touching arms as I passed, smiling. And asking questions. I stopped to ask the work crew what their truck was called (never seen a drilling rig with a mud rotor and never knew soil samples were taken this way). I asked the Goodwill clerk why they don’t sell baby gates to keep kittens out of handi-accessible bathrooms and whether she had enough help keeping the store as nice as she does (liability, and no, but she’s glad I noticed how hard she works). I asked the security guard outside Bank of America if there was actually any threat to BofA or if they were still making a statement about the lengthy Occupy Wall Street protests (not allowed to talk about security issues but have a nice day). I asked my back-bound lump of Butter what he thought about the varied art we saw in store windows.

I talked to my son who was still patiently snuggling me and his bagel, four miles into the walk, about the typewriter store and the traffic patterns and the balloon animals we were going to make when we got home.

Maybe constant verbal patter is my shield. Maybe what keeps me from noticing the dead persons and dying persons is nervous chatter. Perhaps I’m particularly engaged today because I’m anxious.

But what’s there to be anxious about? Death and homelessness and illness and loneliness and the thin threads that keep us from becoming unrecognizable to ourselves?

Well, that’s just silly. Why should that make me nervous?

Allow me to leave you with today’s soothing balloon giraffes.

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If those freakishly disproportionate bubble creatures don’t fix existential panic, I don’t know what will.

Teachable moment about “gay”

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The phone rang and I hit dismiss because I didn’t recognize the number. A few minutes later I  listened to the message.

“Can you please meet me after school with your child,” said my seven-year-old’s teacher, “because he has been acting out today in ways that are just not like him. There were a few incidents in the classroom, and then he was calling kids names, including calling someone gay.”

Needle across the record: He WHAT?

We are a relatively progressive family. We talk openly about equality and tolerance and people being accepted for who they are. Heck, today, when I couldn’t find shoes to match my pants, he sighed and told me, in his most bored pre-pre-teen voice, “It doesn’t matter what you look like, Mom. It matters how you treat people.”

So when I heard that my son had teased other kids, including calling someone gay, I prepared to give an epic lecture. We will not make people feel bad for who they are.

And that is the righteous banner I held aloft as I marched to my child’s school. The doors swung open and I prepared for an epic lecture on historical repression with…my small, tired, slumping little guy with the too-big backpack and the bedraggled hair.

Oh, pumpkin. I think I’m doing this wrong. This isn’t a battle. This is a talk about kindness.

Reboot parent mode. I climbed off my high horse and sat in a tiny chair at a tiny desk so I could listen to my sweet, sensitive, wonderful little guy.

What happened?

Teacher: I was at the sink when I heard voices saying, “Quinn is gay. Quinn is gay.” When I turned around, Peanut was one of the kids saying it.

Me: Why did you say that Quinn is gay?

P: What? He is gay.

M: What makes you say that?

P: Jason told me he’s gay.

M: I see. Um…what do you think gay means?

P: I don’t know.

M: Oh. Well, gay is when a grownup wants to start a family with someone of the same gender. So our friends M and K are gay, J and N are gay, and G and L are gay.

P: Oh. [beat] But G and L don’t have kids.

M: Family doesn’t mean kids. Family means who you love. But who we love is not all we are. When we go to M and K’s house for dinner, I don’t say “we’re going to our gay friends’ house,” right? I say, “we’re going to our friends’ house.” And when someone is meeting T, I don’t say, “This is my gay friend.” I say, “This is my friend.”

P: I know.

Teacher: If you are kind of teasing, saying “Quinn is gay, Quinn is gay,” he might think there’s something wrong with being gay, and there isn’t. We don’t tease. Just like you don’t say, “Quinn is blond, Quinn is blond.”

M: Right. If you did say that, Quinn would think there might be something wrong with being blond, but he can’t change that. And if you say that he’s gay, he might think there’s something wrong with being gay. And all the people around you in class start to wonder if blond or gay are bad things for them to be. So calling someone blond or gay might not hurt their feelings, but it might teach other people to feel bad about being blond or gay or tall or thin or whatever the tease is. Gay isn’t who someone is. It’s part of them. Like their hair. Brown or blond or gay doesn’t change, so teasing about those things is making someone feel bad. And it’s not okay to do something to make someone feel bad.

P: Okay.

M: May I also point out, really, that the things Jason tells you usually aren’t true. He told you girls aren’t allowed to play soccer. He told you that boys should like dogs because girls like cats. He told you “every single person in Mexico, even the old people and babies have machine guns.” None of those things is true. In fact, they’re pretty ludicrous. So I’d do some serious fact checking before I believed anything Jason said.

P: Okay.

We left the whole discussion at the door. I didn’t bring it up again, which took a lot of restraint. I still had many, many words I wanted to use. But I have to let the poor child breathe.

And I have to breathe, too. I don’t think he was trying to hurt Quinn or to cement hatred against the LGBT community. I think he was trying out a new word. And I think my son just learned that some words are simply unacceptable. I still remember my mom walking me through a whole list of racial slurs I may not ever use, including definitions and an explanation of how horribly each group had suffered under that epithet. Looking back as a parent, I wonder if she unleashed that lecture because I had used one of those names. Or someone said one to me.

So can I maybe relax and realize this is just a rite of passage, just the first step in a long series of conversations about how words have power, and how some people use powerful words to bully other people. A long, evolving conversation about finding your own power rather than taking it from others by devaluing them.

I take really seriously…perhaps too seriously…okay. definitely too seriously…my job of raising people who make the world a better place. I really hope my sons and their peers grow up knowing there’s more to people than their skin color or sexual orientation or gender. Allowing people to be more than the single words we use as labels builds the holy grail of attributes: kindness. Thankfully, that one comes from nurture.

Or lecture. I’m not sure which, nurture or lecture, but I’m going to try both.