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Summer, grant me peace

It’s 3:32am and I can’t sleep. I’m worried that the boys aren’t getting enough attention. I’m worried that I haven’t been kind enough. I’m worried I forgot two pages in a report I need to submit this week. I’m worried that we’ll all forget to bring back the library books. That we paid too little in taxes. That we paid too much in taxes. That I forgot to fill out healthcare forms. That the dentist is this week not next week. That the house is just messy enough to encourage my children to grow up into slobs. That I forgot to email a friend and that we’ll miss our summer window to get together. That I haven’t planned summer vacation for my kids yet.

By 4:07am I’m worried that I’m not getting enough sleep. Or exercise. Or vegetables.

And that I’ll sleep past my alarm.

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It’s the last week of school. I am dropping off plates for the kindergarten potluck, hummus for the fourth-grade potluck, and petition for the dissolution of marriage at the county courthouse.

I haven’t read a book in four months. I haven’t fenced in five months. There’s just no time. I have crammed life so full of “should” that I can barely breathe. And I’m nauseated. Almost constantly. Wound so tight that I injured both sides and was barred from running for 6 weeks.

Not good for my mood, the lack of running and books and fencing.

I should really have a dance party with the boys before school today. Make a note. Remember that.

My life, through no one’s fault but my own, has become about list making. Planning, mandating, chastising, reporting events and discussions and thoughts. My thinking has become staccato, matter of fact. My writing feels terse. Shamed out of adjectives. I can almost hear the words I type begging for bullet points.

Please don’t waste words.

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This is not just lack of writing time, single parenthood, lack of sleep, or overly intense focus on work, though it is, for the record, all of these. But in a bigger sense, I feel that I’ve become less of a person this year. Is it simply that there’s less to me than I thought there was?

It’s been two years since Spouse and I parted ways and tried to navigate the infuriating, heartbreaking, and complicated world of joint parenting. We haven’t bothered to figure out the logistics, again, through no one’s fault but my own. I didn’t want to add more tasks to my list.

But when I took the 10 hours it required to pause, make appointments, gather documents, make decisions, and participate in the first mediation session, I realized that I put the logistics off intentionally. No, I didn’t want to spend what will likely amount to 30+ hours of the Business of Divorce. But I also didn’t want to face the crushing disappointment of voluntarily ending my marriage. Twice during the mediation session I restrained myself from bolting out of the room. The whole two hours was physically nauseating. Not because we’re fighting, because we’re not. We’re agreeing on everything.

I just don’t want to be divorcing. I don’t want to be married, I don’t want to be in between. I just don’t want any of this. But I’m missing a lot while my life is in limbo, scrambling to be a full-time parent, full-time employee. I’m not making space in those double-time parameters to be even a part-time human.

I missed fava bean season this year, because I was too busy. I missed cherry season, too. I think. My two favorite markers for the shift from winter into spring, then spring into summer. Completely forgot to notice, to taste, to revel. Having the boys’ dad pick them up two days after school means I am not in the right place to stumble across the farmers’ market anymore. And instead of walking the kids to school every day, I’m driving at least three days a week. That means I only caught a few days of vine week in Berkeley, the time where the air is almost dripping with the artificial-grape scent of wisteria during the day and heavy with the scent of star jasmine in the evening. For two weeks, Berkeley smells like living near a nectar factory.

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I missed most of that.

But school ends this week. And though I still have to work, it feels as though everything is opening, languorously, and extended without obstacles until September.

The paperwork is filed. Whatever step is next is just another step. Summer plans and work and divorce are all just steps. And I plan very much to put my head down and just step.

I’m cleared to run short distances, so this weekend the boys rode their bikes and I ran, to exactly the mid-point of what my doctor prescribed. We sat with a cold cup of tea and boba, discussing everything we could think of. And on the ride and run back, they found each others’ rhythms, for at least 20 minutes outgrowing the bickering and assumptions, falling behind each other or surging gently past, without cutting each other off, without discord. With grace and understanding.

I noticed their rhythm. I found mine. I celebrated not panicking anymore, not worrying that they’d hurt themselves or bump into someone else or ride off the sidewalk and into the street. I let myself notice the lack of worry, and to celebrate it.

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I hope with everything in me that this is a beginning. For them, a beginning of a long, hilarious, exhausting, splashy, filthy summer. For me, a transition out of marital limbo and into a realm where I find spaces in which to be. Quietly, mindfully, not shoulding myself to death. For all of us, I hope this is a beginning, a new understanding of each other, with tools to make our family everything we need it to be.

All that from a date on a school calendar and a stack of papers with a courthouse stamp.

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The little guy's favorite position is entwined. Here he's on my lap, tightly hooking his leg around mine. He does the same at night. Wraps legs around legs or arms around arms or fingers in hair. He needs to be inseparable. I'm grateful he needs to physically hold me hostage.

Nausea before gratitude

There are many things in my life for which to be thankful. And I have to focus hard to find them right now, through a cloud of nausea. Because this seemed like a reasonably good day, but it went downhill fast.

And then again, this is not a particularly good day in hindsight. I befuddled priorities, didn’t listen well when colleagues spoke, got only minimal exercise, and didn’t play with my kids as much as I would have liked. I’m grateful I recognize those failings so I can do better next time, and I’m grateful I have that chance.

I may not be a great parent, but my youngest begs for lettuce and balsamic vinegar every time we're in a store with a salad bar. I'm grateful for his patience with spring mix.

I may not be a great parent, but my youngest begs for lettuce and balsamic vinegar every time we’re in a store with a salad bar. I’m grateful for his patience with spring mix.

This is not a particularly good evening in my parenting, and though the boys were quite pleasant together today, they weren’t at all nice on a phone call to grandparents, then they were nasty to each other at bedtime. I’m grateful that I told them, each time they were playing well, that I noticed their kindness; I’m grateful that their dad was over for dinner so he could help me separate them when the little one turned South for the evening. I’m grateful for the opportunity to try again tomorrow, for I naively believe that if I focus on the positive and give them tools to minimize the negative, they might some day make honorable citizens. I’m grateful for that hope, even if it’s naive.

Last night was not a particularly good opportunity for sleeping. Though I was overjoyed to have the older child ask for company at night, he is a raging inferno, and I spent most of the night awake and hotter than hell. And we were joined in the middle of the night by his little brother, a walking furnace himself, who sleeps like he’s auditioning for a slasher movie. All night the two cats, who normally ignore us all and prefer each other’s company, decided that anything moving in the roastingly hot bed full of thrashing children was a plaything that needed a solid biting. And my injured shoulder still wakes me up at night, more than a month later. I’m grateful that my bed was hopping with 8,000 degree cat toys to distract me from my shoulder. What a blessing to be in the presence of my darling children as I get a free preview to menopause’s hot flashes while having my toes pierced by sharp teeth. So very grateful.

The little guy's favorite position is entwined. Here he's on my lap, tightly hooking his leg around mine. He does the same at night. Wraps legs around legs or arms around arms or fingers in hair. He needs to be inseparable. I'm grateful he needs to physically hold me hostage.

The little guy’s favorite position is entwined. Here he’s on my lap, tightly hooking his leg around mine. He does the same at night. Wraps legs around legs or arms around arms or fingers in hair. He needs to be inseparable. I’m grateful he needs to physically hold me hostage.

This is not a particularly good evening in my marital discord, and I have that adrenaline hangover that lasts long after a small disagreement when the stakes are so high. I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with my parenting partner toward an ideal separation that honors our kids, and I’m hopeful that better setting expectations will help. I’m grateful I notice what a petty, impatient creature I can be, because it offers an opportunity to improve.

This is not a particularly good evening in culinary achievement. The roasted root vegetables for tomorrow are a bit underdone, and reheating in the communal oven tomorrow likely won’t bring them to the right texture; and the roasted three-color cauliflower is perfect, which means it won’t reheat well. I’m grateful for the large, joyful family who will criticize my food tomorrow, and grateful that they all think I’m a tough enough old bird that they can mock most of my decisions. I’m grateful I will have roasted leftovers to eat, all alone, in my sleeping-kids hours of self evaluation in the cold light of failure. I’m grateful that tomorrow night’s second reheating with either cure the root veg, or will help me stoke the pout flames.

but it tasted sooooo good tonight and I thought I could get away with it.

but it tasted sooooo good tonight and I thought I could get away with it.

This has not been a particularly good week in personal choices. A malaise has flummoxed food, exercise, errands, chores, and parenting choices. Not sure what’s ailing me, but I’m grateful my basic needs are covered such that I have the luxury of malaise. And misanthropy. And melancholy…I’m grateful for my melancholy. And who doesn’t love a good spell of misanthropy? I’m thankful for the opportunity to remember why I despise humanity. In fact, I’m grateful that I’ve run out of my favorite hot chocolate right before stores close for a day and then are replete with the worst of humanity for another day. I’m glad my chosen form of self-medication is unavailable for at least two days. Such scarcity will make me a better person, for which I’m grateful.

There’s no room in my privileged, blessed life to go to bed pouting about all the things I screwed up today, nor the things other people screwed up that I feel compelled to fix. I didn’t yell at my kids or my estranged husband. I didn’t buy anything stupid in an online Black Friday spree of “well, if it’s Wednesday and on sale, it must be a good deal so I need it” nonsense. I thought about it, but didn’t click the pay button. I showed up to the work day (the one in which I didn’t feel I listened hard enough) which puts me ahead of all the other colleagues who could have done the same but didn’t. And I not only changed the sheets on three beds by myself while ignoring my shoulder, I flipped and rotated the mattress on the top bunk. By myself, somewhat one-armed. I’m grateful, in that light, that I’m a superhero.

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.

 

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!

 

Wise, wise women

A group of friends, sharing cheese, wine, sourdough, roasted garlic, and kale the other night asked each other what they remembered from childhood.

After we all answered, one woman said, “But what do you remember most, the good or the bad?”

In unison, we all answered “bad.”

My friend then explained her theory that if we remember moments of bad from our childhood, it’s because the bad was shocking and abnormal. That most of our childhood was kind and calm and uneventful because we were loved and supported and able to do the play and learning and exploration of childhood. This is not the reality of many children in the world.

The bad bits we remember, she argued, are anomalies. And that’s why we remember them. So, too, our children will remember the stuff we agonize over: the moments of short temper, the unreasonable “no,” and the time we’re too busy to play. But they’ll remember that because their lives are full of patient “yes”es when we do whatever they need.

When I got home that night I had a link to this post from another friend. In it, a mother discusses how doing her best is exactly enough for her children, who need her more than they need perfection.

It’s a good read and I recommend you click over, because remembering to cut ourselves some slack is a really good idea.

Earlier this week someone asserted that my best wasn’t good enough. A friend who knew about my effort and about the criticism emailed me, “You’re doing so much, and fuck perfect.”

Do you think we can get this month National ‘Fuck Perfect’ Month? It’s just the right time of year for kicking should to the curb, I think.

Would you choose another month for Fuck Perfect or is November okay with you?

A truer course to steer

Boys:

I hope that each day I teach you a bit about how to turn toward light and away from dark.

I don’t mean that you need to be a creature of the day and avoid night. For too long our culture has associated night with evil and light with goodness, so linguistically that just sticks. Forgive me the sloppy metaphor, sweet one. I mean only that my sincerest wish for you is that you choose, actively, to move toward goodness. Always.

Don’t be fooled by the language of light and dark: being good and kind has nothing to do with being cheerful. Be chipper or be cynical, but I will always nudge you toward good. You can be maudlin and kind. You can be morose and nurturing. You can. Really, given what exists in this world, you must. We all must.

Because when you have to choose what kind of person to be, how to map your course and true your compass, you have to decide. Are you going become a person who hates or a person who loves?

I had some time today. Some unusual, luxurious time to read and immerse myself in humanity. To see what we, as a culture, are up to.

Results are quite varied. And instead of just wandering aimlessly through society’s publicized highs and lows, I wanted to focus on the best humanity has to offer this week. Really, we have, as a culture, been wallowing a bit in the terrifying and hateful and exhaustingly dreadful for a while. Certainly it’s important to know about and fight the yuck churning up the worst of humanity, so we can hear people in need of a voice, a hug, or a place to stay.

I spent a bit of time roiling with anger and loathing at articles like this. In it, a man who professes to know literature dismisses most of the people writing, most of the things they have written, and most of the knowledge we have, as English-speaking nations, cultivated over the past century. He refuses to engage with other opinions because he thinks he’s pretty awesome, exactly the way he is.

I stopped reading after a few paragraphs. Not because he’s a dreadful man with views I find appalling. But because I have better things to do with my time.

David Gilmour’s interview speaks of a core that refuses to hear other realities. Not listening when someone speaks about their family or their work or their passion is a pretty bleak way to live. His words are about ignoring heart.

And I reject that way of being.

So I clicked another link. Someone I trust told me that an article was important. That this is what humanity looks like. Prabhiot Singh lives his life to offer the best of himself to those around him, allowing himself to be affected by his community and finding, even in truly horrifying situations a reason to reach out and help.

You get to choose, of course. You get to decide whether to wallow in self-aggrandizement, closing your mind to people who don’t think the way you do. Or to learn from experience and not let anger and hate and truly disgusting behavior sway you from what you know is right.

I hope you see, in the people we surround ourselves with, that what matters most is kindness. That what matters is struggling to make things better, in whatever way you define better. That life is about deciding what’s right and fighting for it.

I hope that you turn toward people like Prabhjot Singh. People who find gratitude, who reject hate by continuing on their path toward love. People who deserve to know what a wonderful person you are, who can bring out the best in you, and who can teach you about other ways of thinking and doing and being. So that we can all change the world toward what is good. What is kind. What is true.

I hope that’s what I’m teaching you. I’ll keep trying. Because beyond keeping you safe, my job is to show you how to share the best of yourself with the world that is so lucky to have you.

You’re not terrible.

Tonight during our interminable bedtime ritual, the rollercoaster of “I love you…when will this nonsense end…I love you…I can’t take this one more stinking minute…I love you…good god what is it now,” Spouse did something silly. And Three found it horrible. And I told the little guy, to stave off the raging insanity that is a three-year-old Butter freakfest, that Daddy was only trying to be silly, and that it didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped.

And somehow in there, I said, in my best silly voice, “because Daddy is Terrible.”

Immediately, Seven said in just the right voice, “He’s not terrible.” And my sweet Peanut wrapped his arms around my neck and sat in my lap and whispered, “He’s not terrible and you’re not terrible. Everyone makes mistakes. You make mistakes. He makes mistakes. Everyone alive makes at least one mistake in their life. Probably more.”

And I kissed his head and told him he was right and brilliant.

And I waited until later to cry.

Because what I’ve waited for, in my pathetic, childish, needy way, has been for my children to show me the kindness I never show myself. To hear a thank you, to be told to ease up a bit. To be told I’m not as terrible as I think I am.

And my almost-second-grader whispered kindly in my ear that I should cut myself and my husband some slack.

I’m not an expert at anything. But I’m pretty sure that’s as close to perfection as life gets.

Plan of Attack

So I posted a couple of weeks ago that I can’t handle the sibling interactions up in this joint. And with some suggestions from readers, some ideas from parenting books, and some long hot showers (okay, just one, but still…), I’ve come up with a plan. Well, not so much come up with as cobbled together. On the fly. Okay, I’ve MacGyvered a plan.

1. Kindness gets noticed and rewarded. Every kind word or action, every moment of gentle voices or gentle hands, every shared toy and shared moment garners positive reinforcement. Not only do I point out and thank the perpetrator of kindness, I also add a cotton ball to a mason jar in the kitchen.
A full jars wins a family celebration. Glow stick walks around the neighborhood before bed, a trip to the museum, a gorgeous hike, a trip on the train. Something to celebrate the accumulation of goodness that doesn’t involve treat foods. Because if we gave up chocolate until we were all nice the world would end with my chocolate collection intact. Nobody wants that. So, food-independent celebration of kindness.
Lesson: practice being nice and you’ll have a happier family.

2. Nastiness is shut right the hell down. Talking nasty, teasing, and namecalling are rebuffed with a reminder that we don’t talk that way, that we are a family and have to live together, and that we’re all teaching each other how we want to be treated. The second reminder involves removal from the situation. Any physical violence, threatened or executed, results in removal from the room and removal of any toy involved in the situation.
Tomorrow is a new day and you can have the toy back, but if you practice unkindness, I practice removing you from the situation.
Lesson: practice being nasty and you’ll be alone more. Alone is good for restoring and finding kindness. Come back when you’re ready to contribute not destroy.

3. The direct link between sibling tension and my adrenal glands is being severed. They can disagree and find a solution, and they need to be given the tools to do that. If they fight and call names and hit I can correct their behavior without biochemically equating it with being eaten by a tiger. Their emotional health is tied to my ability to keep cool. For years I couldn’t keep cool if they were terrible to each other because I felt, physically, that meanness portended a terrible end. End to what, I don’t know. I just know I absolutely freaked out each time one of them screamed. Or called the other a name. Or grabbed a toy from the other. I didn’t necessarily yell or overreact or lose it in front of them. But biochemically and physically I freaked out. And holding onto that adrenaline all day was destroying my ability to function.
So now I try really hard to visualize the chemical link between one child’s screams and my adrenaline response; and I pull up the drawbridge to that pathway. I try hard not to let their discomfort with being unable to get their way shortcircuit my patience or logic or love.
Lesson: I am not the repository for their conflict. I can teach, lead, guide, and function better if I stop the adrenaline before it flows.

The first two are much easier than the third. But practicing niceness will make them nicer, shutting down nastiness will make us all function better, and eventually allowing conflict to ram up against crappy solutions before finding the best way forward will not keep making my blood pressure spike. Because twenty years is a long time to have my shoulders up around my ears, my stomach clenched, and my muscles ready to fight or take flight.

So. Three part plan to sibling kindness.

Week Two, the only part that’s working so far is that I’m more detached.

Win?

Quality of Life

You know what, six-and-three-quarters-year-old? If you tell the toddler he’s wrong every time he does or says something, he’s going to be mad. And he’s relatively inarticulate. His defense mechanisms are few. So when he feels bad because you’ve told him he’s not Bob the Builder or he’s not actually a big guy or his truck can’t build a new road, he’s going to hit you. It’s not fair, it’s not nice, and I’m working on stopping it. But may I just state for the record that you totally have it coming.

You know what, two-and-three-quarters-year-old? If you walk up and slug your brother because you don’t like what he’s said or where he is or what his plans are for the day, he’s going to get mad. You’re lucky that he now just screams like his head’s been severed and stomps away and says he won’t play with you. For at least two years he’s gotten used to shoving you or hitting you back. That he now withdraws his friendship is well within the bounds of reasonable. And it’s what I taught him to do. (Minus the screaming. Jaysus with the screaming.) Howsabout you do what I’ve taught you, and tell him, “Stop it!” rather than hitting.

You know what, both of you small boys? You’re beating me down. I don’t need much, but I need you to be kind to each other. I’ve done some research. Seven-to-eight sibling fights an hour is normal. You fight less than that. But even one fight a day where one of you hurts the other or one of you says something mean is too much. Knock. It. Off.

Because you’re breaking my spirit. I’m about to be the mom who won’t get out of bed in the morning because whether I do or don’t, you’re screaming and hitting within 5 minutes of waking. Yes, the first four minutes are adorable. You’re quite lovely to each other when you stick to the script. After that, all bets are off. And I talk kindly and explain why you should, too. But I kind of don’t see the point anymore.

Why do you play nicely until I dart down the stairs to go to the bathroom? Or ask you to put on shoes? Or try to cook? Why you gotta be like that? The second my back is turned you’re hurting one another’s souls, guys. Why with the calling names? Our mantra here is “It’s never okay to do something to make someone feel bad.” (Mad props to the friend who taught me that one.) That goes for retaliation hitting and scratching and biting. That goes for namecalling. That goes for demeaning someone or their imaginary world. That goes for excluding. That goes for talking nasty when a gentle explanation will do.

At least once an hour one of you is genuinely kind to your brother. And I tell you how nice that feels or sounds. I tell you to be proud of how you used your words and your kindness to make him happy.

And at least once an hour on or more of you is terrible. Horrid. Criminally nasty. And I tell you that your behavior is unacceptable. That you are a good person practicing being mean, which might make you grow up mean.

Why does this not work? Why are you not fixed? Why can’t you be mostly nice and withdraw when you need time alone? Why can’t you go without hitting or yelling or psychologically punishing each other for just one day?

Don’t give me that “because we’re small children and need your constant guidance, without which we falter and can’t possibly be kind to each other.” Mama has to pee, guys. And read a book, some day.

This steady rhythm of sometimes-nice-but-often-shitty-to-each-other is wearing me down.

And summer is coming. Lots of together time. Lots.

Please. Help a mama out. Stop being nasty to each other.

[To all those out there whose children get along famously, please go give them an extra kiss tonight, because their contributions to family harmony are deeply important. To those who’ve successfully guided asshole children to kinder and gentler ways, please comment below. Ayudame. Por favor.]

 

Not clear on the concept

Peanut, inching ever closer to Seven, is growing more and more adult each day and I’m having a devil of a time trying to walk the line between teaching critical thinking and teaching blind adherence to rules. I would prefer the latter for my rules and the former for the rest of the planet, but I’m glimpsing that perhaps that’s not how the world works. Nuances aren’t my strong suit, and now I have to teach a remarkably analytical child about shades of grey.

Not that kind.

Butter is trying out being a grownup, too. When you ask him to give you something, he puts both chubby, babyish hands behind his back and says, “pick one.” But if you hesitate for more than a few seconds, trying to choose the best hand, he takes his empty hand and points to the other shoulder. Useful, as clues go, but rather ineffective for a guessing game.

Peanut has taught his younger brother to be silent when playing hide-and-seek, and how to tell the good guys from the bad guys in most of our books. Unfortunately, that means the toddler also identifies people, loudly, by pointing them out to me as we pass them. “Good guy, good guy, bad guy,” he says in the supermarket. And on walks. And at the doctor’s office.

And aside from being intrigued by who he chooses in real life to label a good guy and why, and embarrassed that he’s calling anyone with a scowl a bad guy, I’m rather gripped these days by my fundamental inability as humans to judge. When should I follow a rule and when should I fight to change it? Which of many behaviors do I use to finally decree someone is a bad guy or a good guy, given that nobody is all good or all bad?

And how in the name of all that is decent and good do we then teach those subtleties to small people, who are wired to think in black and white, to repeat patterns, and to trust us no matter what we say?

Does anybody else worry that getting children to fit within society’s rules makes them want too much to fit in? That getting children to follow makes them too willing to follow? That getting children to prioritize some qualities and actions over others makes them blind to other possibilities? That pretty much all our work is brainwashing?

That hiding our humanity behind our backs while we try to parent handicaps our children’s ability to choose?

If I just learn from my two-year-old and telegraph the answer, my sons will never get to really choose while it’s still safe for them to make big mistakes. But if they’re left with too many choices…

If Peanut refuses to brush his hair after I ask kindly and logically, explaining that a quick brush now means fewer knots the next time, do I just shrug and let him spend the day with knots in his hair? If I get frustrated and put the brush away and he begs me to please comb his hair, did I just withhold love to get what I wanted? Will he similarly change his mind to restore himself to favor if bullies ask him to torment a younger kid, then turn to walk away when he says no, successfully converting him to cruelty by using the same tactics that his bedraggled-hair-avoiding mother used? Should I offer information and assistance but not be attached to the results? Is that true of jackets when it’s cold? Of protein when he’s hungry? Of manners? Of cleaning up after himself? Of thank you notes? Of not walking on neighbors’ lawns or hitting their flowers? Of kindness to his brother?

Of course not. But “of course not” to which ones?

Someone talk me off the ledge here. Show me the line, please, between over-parenting and under-parenting, worrying too much and too little, revealing too much or too little of the Oz behind the curtain. Point me to the answer, please, between good guy and bad guy. Then tell me how they got that way.

Because I’ll tolerate messy hair if they will just grow up to judge well who the good guys are and how to be one, too.

Time Out

We’ve had a week of big emotions. A lot of anger and tantrums from the pint-sized population.

And I’m trying out something new.

Every time one of the kids freaks out, I’m calm. I offer words and solutions. That’s old hat. But when one or both refuses to listen to gentle reminders that “we don’t hit mommy,” or “use your words, please, so I know what you want,” I lock myself in the bathroom.

It’s not an ideal technique, I’ll grant you. I’m sure it’s not a Dr.-Sears-endorsed way of coping. But I’ve totally regressed in this week of absolute chaos. And I have such a raging temper that, if I stay and try to reason with the inherently unreasonable, I eventually lose it.

I’ve always liked locking doors. As a kid, we had one room that locked: the bathroom. My brother and I would fight, and when it got nasty I’d run straight for the bathroom. Lock. Space, relief, and relative safety.

Even in corporate life, when my stress levels rose, I’d head for the bathroom. Big mirrors, granite counters, brass rails, and locking doors all spell deep breaths and rapid recovery. Personal space brought to you courtesy of American shyness about excretion.

So I’m trying the retreat-to-the-loo technique here. To keep the peace. To show the boys that I will not tolerate being abused. To offer a game changer and a reset button. To cue a new round of, “it sounds as though you’re angry. Would you like a cuddle?”

Yesterday Butter and I came home for lunch. He said he didn’t want to eat. I told him okay, but that I wanted leftover stirfry. So I scooped and reheated. And he screamed and raged and tried to knock the bowl out of my hand. I explained it was just for Mommy. He freaked. I offered some, in case he though I was keeping it from him. He took a swing at me. I offered him his own bowl; I offered yogurt; I offered to go outside with him; I offered to let him choose.

He screamed and hit me.

So I said, “I can’t stay here if you hit.” And I walked downstairs and locked myself in the bathroom. Childish and ridiculous. But I got to shovel a few bites my broccoli into my empty body all by myself. Without being hit. An unusually productive meal, actually.

When I came out one minute later, I offered to cuddle him. He took me up on it. Calm, cuddly, and full belly?

Bathroom for the win.

Peanut came home from school later the same day in a foul, foul mood. As the minutes clicked away, he yelled at me, he called me names, he pushed me. I explained each time that I absolutely would not stand for that behavior and that feeling grouchy is fine but spewing anger on other people is not. I offered him some options, including the game of taking his own grouchy face off, crumpling it up, and putting it in his pocket so the sweet Peanut inside could cuddle and read books. He screamed at me. So I went downstairs and locked myself in the bathroom.

You may remember that, when the now 6-year-old Peanut was small, I made the mistake of staying in the room as tempers escalated. My belief that I couldn’t leave him when he was troubled, no matter how violent he got, was not good for my blood pressure. Or emotional well being. Or our relationship.

So this week I leave. I explain briefly that I will not stay for screaming and hitting, and I go. They hate it. They cry and beg me to come out. And that goes against every bit of my “follow your instincts and do what is kind” parenting.

But I totally love the door between us. Admitting my relief at abandoning my tantruming children might get my attachment parenting card taken away, but I don’t care anymore. Locking myself in the bathroom means my temper stays in check and I can reset my energy back to where it needs to be when dealing with insane raging lunatics.

Hiding behind a locked door means not teaching them that people will stay when they’re being terrible. I have always wanted them to believe that I’m a safe person with whom to lose it, but, increasingly, I reject that idea. You may *start* to lose it with me until you lose it *at* me. You may rage and writhe. But you may not hit me. I can help you find words and solutions. I can let you know you’re loved while and when you’re done being angry.

But I will not stand still and be an inflatable Bozo for your punching needs.

So excuse me. I have to go stash some magazines in the bathroom. I think I’m going to be in there a lot.

Breath held, eyes closed

When I ask you to do something and you’re willing, you sing back to me, “Oak-kay, Mommy Day!” A nicer song was never sung.

When I ask you to do something and you’re unwilling, you brace yourself, and enunciate each word, “Mommy, I heer jew. One meedee.” And usually, after that minute you comply.

You think it’s funny to say that your stuffed alligator says, “Meow.” And that your stuffed elephant says, “Meow.” And that your baby doll says, “Meow.” But you named them all “Poe.” I don’t understand you, kiddo. And I dig that about you.

When you want something right now, you tell me, “Mommy. Look me eye, Mommy.” It’s nice of you to tolerate me and to use such compelling ways to get my attention.

You spend a week or so screaming in desperate frustration any time your hands didn’t do what you wanted them to. I taught you to ask for help instead of screaming, and now you cheerfully bellow, “HELP, EVEEBODY!” when your train won’t work. Luckily for you, everybody hears you and everybody helps. Nice world, eh, buddy?

You ruin even the best jokes, friend, with your own favorite punchline. “Knock knock,” your brother and I begin. “Who’s there?” someone replies. “POOP!” you shout. Very funny. Very, very funny.

When your brother is mean you pull his hair. When he ignores you, you hit. When he yells at you, you bite. These are not okay, things, Butterbean. Angry is okay, hurting is not okay. That nonsense has to stop.

Thank you for saying “soddy.” It feels nice to hear a sorry.

It’s very nice of you to thank me for the things I do. It’s wonderful of you to use words and ask gently to have a turn. And yes, it’s kind of funny that you insist on locking me out of the car every chance you get.

I don’t know how I’m going to leave you at school tomorrow, sweet cream Butterbug. I know you’ll have fun and you’ll learn new things about how people are different but all like gentleness and kindness. I know you’ll be happy to see me when I come after lunch.

I just don’t know how I’ll do. Aside from the whole “allowing a thought to proceed to completion” thing I vaguely remember from before you and your brother were born.

I think I’ll be pretty much demolished without you. I’ve wanted some space from you since those days at three months that you just screamed yourself purple. But I’ve never followed through with it for more than an hour every six months because I just can’t take it. You’re too little, too sweet, too attached, too new.

You’re my guy. I love love love you. And I’ll come get you after lunch.

Okay, Butter Day?

Sad-sack-itis

Today, my two-year-old asked for help with his wooden train tracks. His trains were upstairs, his train tracks were downstairs, and he preferred relocating the relatively large, intricately linked and somewhat difficult to move rails to transporting the things on wheels.

Cool. It’s a day, man, and we gotta live it however we gotta live it. Happy to be of service if you’re gonna play and not scream.

So I went downstairs and brought the train tracks up.

When I arrived at the new train station, he said, “You good helper, Mommy. Good helper.”

And I got a little weepy.

Because nobody in six and a half years has told me that I’m a good helper. Or if they did, they used a regular, grown-up voice and verbs in their sentence so I didn’t completely internalize what they were saying. Either way, it felt really, *really* good to be noticed.

So, either I need a job with regular performance reviews again, or I need to hear these wonderful children when they thank me. We all know the appreciation in this job is at best implied and at worst deferred until they have kids of their own and call, weeping with the exhaustion and overwhelming terror of having a newborn, toddler, preschooler, or teenager to apologize for what shits they were as kids and to express their awe at what great parents we were to tolerate them.

So I’ll take my “good helper” kudos and chalk up my points for teaching him to ask for help, appreciate it, and articulate his feelings. Plus bonus stickers for actually *being* a good helper.

Now, where do I turn in these tickets for prizes?

Thank you, sir. May I have another?

While I tried to make dinner, the boys created a fanciful new game I call “Throw All the Parenting Books Across the Room.” It’s so named because they were throwing all the parenting books across the room.

No, seriously. They left alone the Modernist lit, the graphic novels, and the literary criticism. They threw all the books on practicing patience and being playful and cultivating respect rather than fear.

I gently informed them that, when books get thrown, books get broken. When books get thrown, people get hurt. And when anything gets thrown, I can’t make dinner, so dinner will take longer. The last reason, I was surprised to find, got them both to make eye contact and stop their…how do I put this gently…bullshit. They knocked it off and I finished dinner.

Hmmm. Could this technique work more often?

I was drawing a bath for two-year old Butter and he tried to climb my back and vault into the tub. I told him gently that when he climbed me it made me scared he might fall down. He calmly climbed down.

And got the cat’s water bowl and poured it down my back.

Hmmm. Could this technique perhaps have a blind spot right around Age Two?

As evening called us bedward, I asked the boys to please help me clean up. We had amassed on the living room floor a LEGO collection equal to the task of recreating the Great Wall of China. We all picked up the pieces, depositing them with great mirth and efficiency in the appropriate container. I thanked the boys for their help and told them when we worked together, cleaning up was faster and more fun.

Butter smiled. And dumped out the whole collection right back where it was.

Hmmm. How long does one try a person-management technique before one abandons it for binge drinking and 4pm bedtimes?

Mental image

Peanut and Butter each have a toothbrush that plays a minute-long song so they can brush their innocent young enamel and gumlines for the right amount of time.

Because the manufacturer is focused on non-toxic materials and earth-friendly practices, the brushes’ rap talks about turning off the water while you brush and other such lovely green messages.

It also, at one point, says “grab your parents; grab your mom, grab your dad.” I’ve always thought about the families this might alienate, for some have only onehttps://naptimewriting.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php?post_type=post of those, some are grandparented, some are two-mom parented or two-dad parented.

Either way, I had no idea the kids were really listening until I watched Peanut brush.

As the song said “Grab your parents” he clutched the seat of his pajama bottoms as he brushed and danced.

Turns out he thought it said, “Grab your pants; grab your mom, grab your dad.”

And now that he knows it’s funny enough to make me shoot water out of my nose, he runs around the house singing, “grab your pants,” as he does so. With little Mini Me following and garbling the lyrics even worse than his big brother does.

It is side-stitchingly hilarious. And I need that at bedtime.