August 30, Opening presents in my bed in the morning, as is our family’s tradition. (August is a busy month around here).
Thank you for joining me for August Break 2012! I’ll be back after I’ve gotten everyone off to school!
Last year right around this time, I took a moment to reflect on the school year, and am so glad I did. Usually, I limp across the finish line in June feeling very little other than spent. June bleeds into July and by then, those last weeks of school are nothing but blur. I’m not sure if there is an entire story arc stretching from September to June, but certainly countless beginnings and endings scattered along the road. Most of the time, I’m just too busy to notice.
When I held my first son almost thirteen years ago, pressed my nose into his downy head, inhaling, I thought to myself, I will never forget this. Ever. I will remember every moment. It didn’t take long (probably three or so sleepless months) for the sad understanding to sink in. That I would forget most of this. That one day ran into the next, ran into the next week, the next month, and year. Most nights, I’d collapse in bed, bone weary, dreamless, and pick up where I left off, sometimes before sunrise. The tide pulled out, washing away the day before.
I was looking back on old posts (like this one and this one), feeling ever so grateful to have a record someplace that this all happened. Pictures capture life, but for me, not like writing it. Writing them down is like catching fireflies in a mason jar, only these stay alive, and somehow become even brighter as time passes. If writing means tasting life twice, I have found without fail, it tastes even better the second time. There is a sweet spot between living and writing about living. When I’m too busy doing, I can hardly breathe. When I’m watching the rain out the window in my quiet house, pulling up my chair to the feast of losses life can bring, fingers tapping keys, I can drown, too. I need both. One makes the other better. There’s a kind of faith I’ve garnered from writing some of it down. I get to choose what to keep.
Mothering babies called for holding on: hold their head to support their neck, their hand while they learn to balance on their feet, cross the street. Holding tight became like breathing. I had an urgency back then, of wanting to hold onto it all, keep it close, keep them little for as long as possible. One can’t go on like that forever, though. Sustenance and dominion give way, over time, to surrender. I will go, in the course of twenty years or so, from not knowing where one of us begins and the other ends, to a house with three empty bedrooms. From eating food off their clothes (I can’t be the only one) and wiping their butts, to being a guest in their homes.
Now, having walked through nearly thirteen years of holding close and letting go, my grip has loosened. Whatever those muscles are that a mother uses daily to hold them tight and push them out the door all at once, mine have become more supple. Not without aching, of course, but they do seem to know what to do. I get to sit back some, and marvel at who they are becoming.
Would it be redundant for me to speak here about the role of childrens’ sports in our lives?* Redundant in that this is not a new conversation, we have all been saying this for years now, rolling our eyes as we relay how we went from hockey rink at 7am on a Saturday, to lacrosse practice before lunch, culminating in a two-hour evening baseball game? Sitting in our cars at 8pm on a school night as our kids try out for travel soccer at eight years old? The league that will run three seasons out of four, that we will end up having paid $900 in fees and registration annually, for which we will have given up all our family Sundays? Not there yet? Trust me, you will find yourself in some version of this parenting quandary, hearing your own frazzled voice shouting at your kids as you rush off to the next thing. All with the sinking feeling of wondering how this happened, to you, who was not going to be that parent.
This is tricky for me as I have one child (Boy #1) that would rather be playing sports, any sport, than do anything else, who needs a lot of exercise to be chill enough to sit down and focus on school work, or even to have a lucid conversation. Sports are his way of connecting with peers, building his self-esteem, developing who he is and who he wants to be. We have bought him equipment for many different sports over the years, some abandoned after one season. We have allowed him to play on more than one team at once (never say never!) which has sometimes felt manageable and sometimes not.
I also have a son (Boy #2) who in general has avoided organized sports. He articulated to us that he wants no part of the intensity (his observation) of our town’s sports teams. His extra-curricular time is spent mainly on homework and violin. This spring we nudged him to try the low-key town Recreation lacrosse which is one practice Friday nights, “games” Saturday morning and that’s it. Everyone plays, he’s learning something new, he’s getting to be a part of our community. Otherwise, he can be found in our backyard on a swing, jumping on our trampoline, shooting baskets in our driveway. It has been a relief for us that he has elected to stay in “the slow lane” of organized sports.
Boy #3 is young enough that his extracurriculars include riding around in the car, waiting in the hallway during violin lessons, finding someone to play with under the bleachers at his brother’s games, and playing on my iPhone. My husband has him doing “Learn to Skate” hockey for preschoolers on Sunday mornings and I keep looking at him sideways, saying, this is a very very bad idea.
As someone for whom sports was possibly one of the most formative aspects of my younger years, I’m torn. I know first-hand the bounty of lessons to be gleaned through sports. I also know that though my parents supported my involvement in sports, and that by high school we had an erratic dinnertime with my brother and I both on teams, somehow it felt different. There were a few crazy parents yelling from the sidelines then. AYSO soccer , CYO basketball, Pop Warner football. Competition to make teams in high school. All-County, All-Section, All-State honors. Success in sports helping along college admissions.
Parenting and childhood have changed. This, too, is not a new conversation. By now, we all know that we are the generation of parents who over-manage, over-think, over-reach. We are guilty (myself included) of having inflated senses of our children’s abilities and successes. We fall into the parenting trap of needing our children to be extraordinary. Of course they’re extraordinary to us (as they should be), and perhaps they may even find that they are indeed extraordinary in some area, but chances are, they will have their successes, they will have their failures, they will persevere in the face of adversity (or they won’t), they will learn that hard work pays off (or maybe not). We hope for them to find things that make their heart sing, ways to earn money to buy milk and bread, a roof, people to be loved by and to love. But trust me, our kids are not headed for the major leagues.
Attempting to be a reasonable parent today means swimming against the slapping waves of “More! More! More”: the pressure of what we feel like we should be doing for our kids. Rec is no longer enough, they must try out for travel. Then on travel, there are A, B, and C teams. It’s not just sports, of course. There are plenty of “enrichment” opportunities, test-prep courses, accelerated classes to jockey for. Parents are the engine in all this, our vicarious involvement, our survival-of-the-fittest anxieties bubbling up through the ancient mire, our willingness to do or pay for anything to get our child “ahead” of the next kid. (I will not even get into the ugliness I have seen sports bring out in parents, the exclusivity, the nepotism, the bullying— too big a topic for today). God bless the capitalists who have figured out what a fertile market we are. Do we realize this? That there is an entire economy which profits from our anxiety and lack of boundaries?
What do you think? Am I overstating things? Do I need to get a grip? What is it like where you live? Do you see any evidence of the pendulum swinging the other way?
*When I say “our lives”, I am referring specifically to middle-class New York suburban lives as that is the one I am living. I suspect this differs across socio-economic-geographic demographics, but please, enlighten me if you have a different experience.
Image found here.
James came into the kitchen first thing in the morning, rubbing his eyes, saying, “I had the veerdest (weirdest) dream.” He tilted his head to the side. “It vas about babies pretending to be bad guys”.
I wanted to know more, but of course, as it goes with dreams, they crumble in your hands as you try to tell them. It’s fruitless trying to pin words to those worlds that have their own logic, up can be down, death can mean life, sound has no sound. Babies can be menacing villains you are running from, the confusion still unsettling upon waking, the particulars receding from your grasp like the tide pulling out.
Since becoming a mother almost thirteen years ago, it is rare that I remember my dreams. Nighttime marches to the persistent drone of I must get more sleep I must get more sleep I must get more sleep. It’s my default setting now. Even if I have gotten enough sleep, I’m like a child who grew up in Wartime, or in the 1930’s, forever stockpiling food, hiding cash under my mattress. I’m still trying to catch up on sleep I missed out on while nursing babies through the night.
My relationship with sleep before was so casual, so thoughtless. There was plenty to go around, catch up on, or even lose. But then there were three rounds of not getting a full nights sleep for almost twelve months each time. My babies were not the ones you hear about who sleep through the night at five weeks old. Nope. If I was doing something wrong, then I did it all three times. And I was tired. Bone tired. Too tired. Not well. It’s a wonder to me that anyone allowed me behind the wheel of a car, much less in charge of little lives. I lived to tell, as we all do, and now mostly, everyone stays asleep. Unless someone’s sick, I can count on an uneventful night. Though now, they’re up later. Somehow I thought they’d always go to bed at 7:30.
I do fear, though, that my relationship to sleep has been forever changed. I anticipate in a few years I will enter the stage of sleeping-with-one-ear-open, waiting for teenagers to come in. And I wonder, will I sleep soundly when they are off at college, in different cities, left to their own devices? I’m thinking I will, that I will have undertaken the steps, one at a time, to releasing them into the world when they’re ready. That I will, at some point, own my nights again. That the psychic knots and body memories of exhaustion will loosen. I am imagining a day I become untangled from thoughts of not enough sleep, and even, that I may dream vividly, and remember.
Images found here.
Let this be a lesson to me to blog right away. Paris? Was I there? There has been so much life going since then, it’s almost hard to remember. There were many highlights of our trip (upcoming), so much we saw, ate, talked about. A trip alone with just one child is truly a gift, for both parent and child. How different he looked when not bouncing off his brothers, wedged between them, clawing his way through the clamor to claim his spot. There’s so much to tell of our adventures there, though I’ll begin with leaving.
While my husband is entirely competent and I have mused to him on occasion that in some ways, he is a better mother than I am, leaving was hard. There are things I do that he might not think of, like making sure Elizabeth the Hamster has food and water, feeding and walking my beloved dog. The rest I had to let go of.
Anticipating the separation from the rest of my family filled me with dread. I was leaving this little guy:
And this cool guy:
And don’t forget her:
This would be, by far, the longest separation from any of my children. Twelve-going-on-sixteen-year-old Thomas seemed relieved at the idea of having me off his back for the week. When I asked him about this he said, without hesitation, “Well, you’re the bad cop, so yeah.” I could live with that.
As for my little four-year-old nugget, the separation was going to be hard on both of us. He got teary when we talked about it before, tried to be stoic, but clearly, this was going to be painful. He asked me questions like. . . would I be back before summer? How far away would I be? Would I die?
His questions reminded me how four-year-olds have little frame of reference, sense of time or days, and expansive magical thinking where anything is possible. I wanted to give him something concrete to help him understand the concept of how long I’d be gone and when I’d be coming back. The “Mommy Chart”, above, was what I came up with. It was so unfancy, a large index card, a magic marker, and some heart stickers were all I needed. I didn’t Jordan Ferney the thing, I just made it something simple enough for him to be able to do on his own. I went over it with him before I left, showing him how he would put a heart sticker in a box each day, and when he got to the last box, I’d be home.
So often it’s the little things. My husband reported that this dinky chart was HUGE for James. Every morning, he would go to the chart first thing, count the days and enthusiastically report how many days until Mommy would be home, and then move on with his day, confidently sharing with teachers, grandparents, how many days to go.
By midweek, my body physically ached from the separation. To be honest, it was hard on all of us in different ways, stretching and straining our emotional umbilical cord. But stretching is a good thing. As with nearly everything, in parenting and in life, there is a loss and gain for every action, every decision, all at once. You can never have one without the other, can you?
When Ben was crowding me on our trip with non-stop talking and constant, I mean constant, hugging and being in my physical space (I love hugging as much as the next Mom, but seriously, this kid was trying to wring everything he could from me in the seven days he had me), I said gently, (the first twenty-three times), that space was an important part of any good relationship. Strong connections must permit and can endure, even require, some space.
And, as ever, the best part of going away. . . is coming home.
He was quite serious about the black beret, folks. Wearing it everywhere but bed. He spends a fair amount of time adjusting it, asking me if it looks right. I explained that with a beret one has a lot of leeway. You can push it to the side, cover one ear if you’d like, smush it over your eye just so. One must wear it confidently, certain that you’re conveying that je ne sais qois a beret implies.
Ben came to me the other morning, distressed, showing me his favorite pair of pants with a rip in the knee. He said, with desperation, “You’ve GOT to fix these! What are we going to DO?” (Have I mentioned he’s a tad theatrical?)
Once we realized all of his other pants were in the hamper and that the bus was coming in thirty minutes, I agreed that we did kind of have a situation on our hands. I excused myself, went to my room, and returned with a little sewing kit I picked up at CVS about a year ago. When I bought it, I was thinking about how lame it looked compared to what my mother had when I was a child. She had an actual sewing box, floral and quilted, with a brass latch on front and bins with different levels inside. There were mismatched plastic and tortoise-shell buttons that clicked together in your hand when you held them, and spools of thread in ink and candy colors. And the needles, with different sized eyes, a threader, and a thimble I knew she never used. She wasn’t darning socks by gaslight or anything, but she might stitch a hem, refasten a fallen button, or move one to bring in or let out the waist just a touch.
I settled for the kit made in China, a compact plastic see-through zipped bag, in the sale bin by the register. The hotels don’t even give out those little mending kits anymore, so forget about tucking those in your suitcase and counting on having its single needle and twelve inches of thread on hand.
Ben looked at the kit, and said, “But what are you going to DO with it? You don’t know how to USE those things!” (Again, the drama this kid brings is just incredible).
He watched as I threaded the needle with navy blue thread, doubled it, knotted the end. I folded the sides of the rip, tucked the frayed ends inside, and pressing the straight edges together, pushed the needle through the cotton, catching the fabric inside the fold, muttering, “I think I can do an inside stitch where you won’t even see it”.
You would’ve thought he discovered I was running a spa for hamsters in the attic by the look on his face. “Wow. Will you teach me how to do that?” he asked.
“Sure. It’s not a bad thing to know, how to sew a button back on yourself. Remind me. I’ll show you.”
He wanted to know how I learned. It’s not that I’m crafty like all those women stitching up tea cozies or fingerless gloves or felted bird crib mobiles on Etsy, but I know enough to know that a needle and thread and a little know-how puts you in a pretty good position. There is something quite satisfying about sewing a button back on in line with his pearly brothers and sisters. The way you leave just a hair of slack in the thread so that there’s not too much pressure when you push the button through its hole. Over time that thing will just pop off if you sew it too tight.
I told him about how my mother had gotten me sewing lessons with our neighbor, Mrs. Liddle. She had two young boys and a girl around my age, who just happened to be the cutest, most petite little thing, and I could never get over that her name was Kim Liddle and that she was so little. Kim and I took these lessons together and I don’t remember most of it, but I do remember that we made these lunch sacks out of a coated cotton calico and sewed a channel for the thick rope that cinched it closed. And of course we made pillows, which is where I learned that little invisible-inside-seam stitch. You need it to close up the little spot in a corner where you pushed in the stuffing. Mrs. Liddle was quiet and patient.
Ben was wide-eyed.
“Yes, Ben. My dirty little secret. I actually do know my way around a needle and thread. Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone”.
He was startled, almost. Who isn’t when realizing you have no idea who your mother really is after all? She can do things you didn’t know she could do. All along, she was like this sorceress carrying spells and you never even suspected.
Image found on Pinterest
My friend, Nicole, keeps requesting a post on HOW RAISING CHILDREN IS LIKE TRAINING A DOG. We both agree that mostly, raising children is not at all like having a dog. Though over the years as we’ve done both, we have found some ways that learning how to be a good, effective “dog master” informs our parenting (but never the other way around).
Ways that they are different:
Ways that they are similar:
What have I been doing all these years?
My early parenting was very “connection-driven”, meaning that I believed that as long as I maintained a loving, respectful connection with my child, I could gently redirect their behavior. Most often, this was a good strategy. While there have been too many times to count where I have lost my temper and NOT employed this strategy, over the years I could generalize that my parenting style was one with a “light-touch” where maintaining a good, positive connection with my child has been paramount.
Parenting a pre-teen has given me pause. Or perhaps it’s parenting this preteen. All I know is that it’s clear I’m in new territory, without a map, and the kind of parenting my child needs is outside of my repertoire. He needs rules, very clear boundaries, a routine, no room to negotiate, and at this point, he needs me to be unrelenting in my administration of these things. And maybe even to not like me very much. He needs me to be a strong leader. It’s not that there weren’t rules and consequences before, but I suppose I have to admit that they may have been a little vague at times and I’m even going to confess that I was not always consistent (and I knew better with my training as a Social Worker!) But what do you expect from me when I’m making this up as I go?
How I learned to be a better parent from my dog:
I was torn up about how to handle my pre-teen son and at the same time getting fed up that my dog, Sweetiepie, has, since the Fall, refused to walk on a leash. Which means that she doesn’t go on walks. She has gotten so chubby I can hardly look at myself in the mirror. What am I supposed to do? DRAG her around the block? I don’t have TIME for this is what I reasoned. And it became one of those things that I decided just NOT to deal with.
One day I woke up, looked at her, and said Sweetiepie, the jig is up. (Did anyone else’s mom say that besides mine?) You will be walking around the block today. It is good for you and you must do it. I am going to do everything I can to make this happen. I have set aside a whole block of time to do this with you no matter how long it takes (Yes, I said this out loud. To my dog.)
She did what she has been doing, sitting, refusing to move, eyes averted. I gave her harness a tug. Another. She laid her body flat, hugging the sidewalk. With the leash attached to her harness, I lifted until her front paws were barely touching the ground, and started to walk, slowly, steadily. Let me tell you, SP is one stubborn dog. This went on for thirty minutes. I wanted to throw in the towel in and give up, but I reassured myself thusly: Guess who’s even more determined that Sweetiepie? ME.
Eventually, she began to walk on her own, though she still pulls this nonsense at random intervals even now, a few weeks into her “walk training”. But she is moving along. My job is to keep doing this over and over and over, gently and consistently. Relentlessly. And this is how training my dog to walk on a leash gave me all the information I needed to remind me what it takes to be an effective parent. Maybe this may seem like Parenting 101 to you, but for me, this required some new muscles. Or new ingredients to add to all that “Connecting” I’ve been doing for twelve years.
I think I will be doing this as long as I am graced with Sweetiepie as my companion. She will need reminding. She’s stubborn, but straight-forward in this way. Which raises another crucial difference. The lump-in-my-throat one. The one that makes the stakes so high. I only have my son for six more years. Maybe less, separation and individuation and all that. They are bound to be filled with many surprises and challenges. And as certain as I am about what he needs now, I know it will change just as soon as I get the hang of it. But dang it, I’m going to keep at it until my job here is done.
How about you? Are you learning any new tricks?
Thanks to Dave Holmes for the video. He’s officially the most famous person from my college graduating class. Remember how he was the runner-up to stoner/anorexic Jesse Camp in the MTV I Wanna Be A VJ contest? Then went on to have a fruitful and ever-growing career while you ask me, Jesse Camp who? I enjoy Dave’s blog from time to time (see it here), but my favorite thing is this. Really love it.
This is not his child (pretty sure), nor mine (pretty sure). Though I may approach his parents and ask them if they’d consider letting me bottle and sell his enthusiasm and can-do attitude. Any time I’m not feeling quite up to something, I’m going to watch this video.