Best. Meal. Ever

Maybe exceptions prove the rule, or maybe exceptions build new habits. I’m hoping it’s the latter.

There is generally copious stress during meal prep at Chez Naptime. The seven-year-old Peanut wants solitude, and if he’s not alone he wants to torment. He’s tired and hungry and not at his best. The three-year-old Butter wants…ah, hell, I don’t know what he wants. I’ve mentioned the tired and hungry and general ill temper, and they run standard in his body, too. But he’s also Three and wont to a)mimic behavior of all stripes and b)freak out for various, mysterious reasons.

So I try to make a meal while hollering encouragement from the kitchen. Wash, rinse, slice…. “I hear you finding compromises together. Thank you!” Peel, peel…. “You said that so kindly; can you hear his kind request and respond?” Chop, chop…. “I hear someone frustrated. Does anyone need help?” I set up projects and offer stories and put on dance music and ask them to help me make dinner.

But they’d rather wrestle and bicker and make it known that they need attention. Attention that I offer the whole rest of the time we’re together but that they reject unless I’m actually doing something with the stove. Then they don’t ask for attention so much as create maelstroms that demand my immediate and full focus.

And so I got buy-in from Peanut over the break that maybe dinner preparations are a good time for him to sneak off with the kittens to do his homework. And I asked Butter if he would help me make dinner.

And for once it worked. And I had to quickly change the plan to involve things he could do easily. He cracked the eggs and got ooky hands, but no shells in the bowl. I anticipated a freakout from the “I want to be capable but I’m Three and my hands suck at doing stuff and that makes me mad” chapter of parenting a preschooler so we talked about messes and how they’re part of cooking. We talked about the important stuff that’s hard to undo, like yolk in meringue. But this task involved scrambling not meringueing and there are no mistakes in scrambled eggs but tiny shards of shell. No shell? No problem.

He sliced two bananas. (Interestingly, he sliced his banana neatly and evenly. His brother’s he hacked into alternately huge and malformed pieces. I thought it might have been because he was holding the knife upside down the whole time, but the difference in banana from “this one is for me” to “this is for Peanut” was quite clearly not tool-dependent.)

He asked for something else to cut and I grabbed a couple of field roast sausages. He had an awful time with the butter knife, so I debated giving him a steak knife. Why the heck not? We reviewed knife rules: touch only the handle and place your free hand far from the blade. And as I handed him his first ever serrated knife and took from him the butter knife, I swooned at how warm his chef’s tool was. It was the sweetest, warmest, Butteriest butter knife in the world at that moment because it radiated earnest, adorable labor. Grownup, hard work cooking for his family. I considered putting the knife in his baby book instead of the sink. But I’m a bit of a germophobe, so I chose hot water and soap.

He cut the sausages and not his fingers. He asked if he could warm them up. I had wanted to heat them in a pan, but I’m raising a man, and he needs to feel capable so he takes risks and embraces learning as part of a journey toward mastery. So I told him yes and gave him a bowl. He put the sausage bits in a bowl, slid them down the butcher block counter, dragged his stepstool to the microwave, and opened the door of that appliance straight into his forehead. He rubbed the wound a bit and asked what to push. I listed numbers, he found and pushed them. I showed him how to make the magic happen. He pushed that button and ran for his life.

Then he wanted to keep going. He took the cheese out of the fridge and dragged his stepstool over to the stovetop for sprinkling onto the eggs. He warmed up some peas. He toasted bread. He spread butter. He set the table.  He poured waters.

And he went upstairs to get his brother.

No yelling. No bickering. The gentle beckoning of one who wants to feed one who is hungry. They washed their hands and sat down. I told Peanut that his little brother had made dinner.

“Oh, yeah?” he asked Butter kindly. “What part did you do?”

We listed the steps my tiny little guy had completed.

“Wow. That seems like a lot. Really good work, buddy.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Peanut asked me who had cut the banana. I pointed to his brother.

“You’re pretty good at cutting, Butter.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“That was a kind thing to say. Thanks, Peanut, for noticing his cutting.”

“Sure.”

They ate every bite of every dinner. They were polite and calm in the bath. (whuck?)

They took turns deciding which book got read. (double whuck?)

My three-year-old went to bed feeling that he had done something special to make his family happy. My seven-year-old went to bed feeling proud of himself and of his brother.

Y’all, this kind of evening has never happened before, and I swear to you, every time I use a butter knife I will feel that sweet, chubby-knuckled pride in my hand. I will hear my eldest praise his brother for work that clearly meant a lot. I will hear my youngest ignore that praise because he knows his own pride is infinitely more important that what people say about his efforts.

Oh, dear heavens above, this felt good.

I’m going to go get that butter knife out of the sink.

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Caught between a rock and a moderately challenging place

The week before school started and the first week of school, Peanut turned his anxiety about starting second grade and his smallness in the face of big change into kindness toward his brother. For the first time in their lives, we had full days of genuine cooperation, joyful play, and sibling kindness. They’ve been nice to each other before, but it was always short-lived.

Late August and early September were just sibling heaven. I memorized the feeling of joy at watching them lead each other in play, offering each other kind words and gentle reminders that they, together, are a team. I felt down to my bones the calm of an absence—absence of fighting and teasing and retaliation—being filled with hope and love. My adrenal glands ceased production of adrenaline and my body started to recover from the stress of the past two and a half years. Okay, three and a half years. Okay, four and a half. Ah, hell…eight years.

I am so grateful for that eye in the storm because it taught me what might be.
What will be.
What won’t be. Specifically, incarceration and millions of dollars in therapy.

And then it changed. Peanut got impatient and mean. And I’ve tried to piece together what changed.

Because I really want that lull of sibling peace again.

And today I knew. Because for the first time since the day before kindergarten, he cried and told me he didn’t want to go to school. That he wanted me to come to the classroom with him. That he wanted to go home.

I hugged him and told him parents aren’t allowed in the classroom yet, by the teacher’s request. I reminded him we had an afterschool date planned, just the two of us.

I told him he would be okay. I told him he’s kind and wonderful and that he works hard and listens well, and those are the things that make school days go by quickly and productively.

Mostly I lied.

And I died a little. Because I wanted to take him home.

The first week, he was at an ideal table with two girls he knew, both of whom are bright and kind and silly. And who follow the rules. My son, the defiant, willful, rude creature at home, is a rule follower in public. He’s very cautious and does not believe in rocking the boat. He wants to play and have fun and fly under the radar. He values colleagues who do their work and leave him alone and engage in occasional harmless silly behaviors, not disruptive shenanigans.

Well, a few days into school the teacher moved last year’s Biggest Frustration right next to him. And the beginning of the second week she changed his table entirely to the one with two of the class’s Most Frequent Disrupters.

He’s devastated. He’s trying to muddle through and acknowledge that he has no power in the situation. But damn, that’s a rotten place to be. Powerlessness sucks.

I asked him to brainstorm solutions. Every night the whole family talks about their favorite part of the day, their biggest challenge, and how they handled it. The seating topic has been his biggest challenge for at least a week. Tablemates kicking each other under the table, jostling the table to break others’ concentration, jolting into neighbors’ arms while they’re writing.

“That sounds like a lot to handle,” I said. “How are you going to address it?”

He suggested just trying to avoid them.

“That’s a possibility,” I said. “What else is there?”

“I guess I could tell them to stop.”

“True. Any other options? Best way to find the right option is to think of as many as possible.”

“I could ask the teacher for a new table. The one with…”

As he fantasized about being at the table with the quiet and respectful kids, I thought about the difficulty of being introverted at school. I thought about the very different challenges of kids who have processing differences and disturbances at home and insufficient support systems. And the ones with mean streaks.

I know that my earnest, sweet, lovely child will have challenges his whole life. I know that he has to learn to work through the difficulties to prepare for the real world. I know that colleagues are often rude and brutish and stupid and lazy and all manner of terrible, so there’s no need to protect him now from what he’ll eventually find at work.

I know that life is not easy for students with neurological and biological and sociological challenges, either.

But I want so badly to pull my kid out of school forever so we can face the world together. Without quiet kids or mean kids or disruptive kids or hardworking kids or irritating kids.

Just me and Peanut. The way it used to be.

I also know I will serve him better if I teach him coping skills for life’s annoying jackasses, instead of teaching him to run to Mom.

So I’ll just cry a lot while he’s sleeping, and gently teach coping skills while he’s awake.

But man, I totally want to teach him to run to Mom.

How do you handle wanting to protect your child(ren) from all that hurts them? Tough love? Pull them out of bad situations? Teach them kindness and strength and hope for the best? Cry and overeat and hope that things are never, ever hard for your family? [Scratch that last one. It was a hypothetical that I completely, totally made up. As a joke. Yeah…a joke.]

Overwhelmed

I keep meaning to write, but I’ll be damned if I can catch my breath.

We’ve been riding a wave of birthdays and visitors while I try to manage client deadlines and intense sibling yuckiness.

If I had written last week it would have been a whine about being in over my head and forgetting to breathe and wondering whether to do law school or a doctorate to avoid having to make career choices about creativity versus finances.

When I get caught up in maelstroms of bickering and negotiating and working and not sleeping, I forget what’s important and focus in on tasks instead of flow. And when I neglect the things I need, the whirlwind feels faster and faster and bigger and…

Stop.

So I bought a copy of The Secrets of Happy Families. I’m less than a quarter of the way through, but I’m intrigued at how much breathing room new thinking creates.

And lo and behold, being intrigued by a book means I pick it up as often as I can (granted, that means a pathetic 15 minutes a day). A pressing desire to read a compelling book reintroduces one pillar of my core: reading. And it means the boys see me reading. I can sit in the same room with them, supervise without helicoptering, learn a few things, and model strong reading behaviors.

Even more breathing, even more engagement. Family time spent on the person who has been viewing family as work rather than a situation or a reality or a backdrop or a network of humanity.

And boy was I tired of family being work. I even texted a friend that I love being a mother but freaking hate parenting.

From a few ideas in the book and my increased mood borne of reading, the sibling fiasco is getting better bit by bit.

And as the siblings chill, I chill. And as I chill I do client work faster, which means more sleep.

More sleep means more chill-tastic moments, more reading, more creative work.

I’m still barely making it each day. But now the water is to my neck instead of my eyebrows. (Or eyebrow, singular, really, because the post-surgery side is still way higher than the other one. Stupid cancer. I hate you and I hate what you do to families.)

I’m not yet recommending The Secrets of Happy Families. I’ll read more and let you know. But I am highly recommending a little touchstone work for those of us who feel we can’t quite make it through the day.

I kept making lists of the things I needed to reconnect with: sleep, reading, writing, blogging, exercising, healthy eating, socializing, creating.

Turns out I just needed to boost one and the others got a wee trickle down. Which means my all-or-nothing philosophy of how to forcefully cram balance into my life took a big hit this week.

Don’t worry. I’ll build my black-and-white world back up once I once again stumble out of balance.

For now, I have to go read a paragraph.

 

 

Glory be.

Oh, gentle readers, winds of change are blowing through Chez Naptime. The chaos and the panic and the frustrations are lately vacillating toward harmony.

Not quite sure when it started. This summer was an intense sibling phase of aggression, retaliation, and nastiness. Neither child seemed to have simultaneous good moods, and without fail the grouchy one would turn the other into a screaming jackass within a few minutes of waking. I cannot articulate the stress caused when one child intentionally hurts his brother just to stop morning cheerfulness that he did not share. My days began at least six days a week with children screaming and crying by 6:30. Screaming the rage of being injured for being happy. Sobbing with the broken heart of being thwarted. And the other guy crying because his brother dared enter his Lair of Grump. Beginning before 6:30 and continuing for 13 hours.

I often wondered if it would ever change. If I was doing something wrong. If my readers lied to me that the boys would eventually play together. Heaven knows they mostly fester and erupt together. Blech.

A few days of early Fall showed promise. Their good moods coincided and they treated each other with care and gentleness. They talked, they negotiated. They acted as though they were on the same team.

But those days were still rare. Once a week, perhaps, mornings started well and the boys sided with rather than against each other. For a few hours in some cases.

And lately it happens more often than not. Good moods all around. Or, even better, a cheerful brother persuades a grump to his side of happiness and play.

Yesterday, walking home from school, the little one wanted to roll his softball down the sidewalk. I balked, saying that rolling into the street was going to be too frequent.

But Peanut, my increasingly personable six-year-old, offered a solution: he would run ahead and block the ball from going into the street. A lovely offer. I figured, based on two years of experience with their dynamics, that he was going to use the opportunity to take the ball for himself. But he didn’t. He didn’t take the ball or play keep away or tease or race the little guy. He played shepherd. He played backup, helper, and understudy instead of domineering and impatient first string.

So for a mile, the two-year-old rolled the ball down the sidewalk and his brother helped him. When the little guy screamed in desperation because his brother had picked the ball up, Peanut explained when he was doing and offered to hand the ball over or to roll it to Butter. The older guy was cheerful. He was patient. Butter quickly caught on that he was getting to play with the best side of Peanut, the side that only six- and seven-year-olds get to see.

It was an absolute joy to be with them. To watch them play, to help navigate only rarely. To see how kind they were and how much fun they could have together. To watch the beaming faces of passersby who caught the boys’ infectious laughs.

I want to cry at how lovely it is when they get along, and I know the tears stem from released tension at not having my shoulders up around my ears for 13 hours a day. What a relief to see them both at their happiest. To observe them bringing each other to higher levels instead of trying (often in vain) to gently interrupt their knocking each other down.

Sleeplessness seems less painful. Messes seem less important. Frustrations seem less debilitating. Anger seems a distant memory.

Because they’re being kind. My children are being kind. To each other. Consistently. For the first time in two years.

Thank you, Universe, for this interlude. I know it will shift and change. I know there will be setbacks. I know Age Three will nigh on kill us all.

And now I know how good things can be.

I had no idea. Parents who aren’t stabby by breakfast every single day, I now see that you’re not crazy.

I’m even rebranding our annual Holiday Apathy Gathering as an annual Low Expectations Holiday Party. (Crud, I have to get on planning that and inviting people…) Because I have no meh left. My inner Eeyore is on vacation and my heretofore secret Tigger is on the prowl.

So watch out. I might just pounce holiday joy and effervescence on ya. I have to. I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.

Where?