August Break: Beehive


This picture isn’t even from August, so I’m kind of cheating. In July, I took my family to Family Nature Camp in Bar Harbor, Maine, a stone’s throw from Acadia National Park.

Besides all that we learned about tide pools, lobster ecology, beaver dams, the magnetized granite unique to this region, we took some great hikes.

Our guide told us about the Beehive trail–a very challenging rock scrambler with man-made metal handles fused into vertical rock to pull yourself up. . . and up. . . and up. The ledges are narrow, the drops, steep.

I led my ten-year-old, Ben, advising him just don’t look down, keep going forward, reminding him to take his time. Once I decided that we would be doing this, the work was in quieting the persistent hum that runs through my days, of keep them safe keep them safe. For just this one afternoon, I tried out this one: trust trust trust.

We passed people on their way down, shaking their heads, telling us that mentally, they just couldn’t do it. Physically, of course they could, but the fear, of heights, of falling, made them turn back.

All along, in my mind, batting around the question of whether this was one of my worst parenting moments, (putting my child in a risky situation), or one of my best (giving him an opportunity to accomplish something very difficult). Still not sure. We never really know for certain, do we?

This picture is of Ben making it to the top.

Nursery School Graduate

Friends, I am officially a Nursery School graduate.  Well my son is, really.  (He specialized in blocks and  the alphabet.  We’re very proud).  Onto kindergarten in the fall.  Which means that my nursery school days are done.  I am, in effect, a Nursery School graduate.  How would I even begin to explain the simultaneous well of grief and the sweet relief of having made it through?

I never think I’m going to get sentimental because generally, I’m pretty practical.  Wouldn’t you know it, at the end-of-the-year “Sing-along”, I lost it good.  My throat had begun its tightening well before I saw him filing in with his class, teachers arranging them on stage.  Once the singing started, I couldn’t see him through the swarm of children.

Have you heard thirty-something very small children sing?  *sigh*

Skinamarinky Dinky Dink was a highlight, but that song about Love being the only thing that when you give it away, you have more?  Arrow through the heart.

I told him after, that I could hear him singing, because Moms have special ears that can hear their children, even in a crowd.  He nodded his head, as if saying, Yes. That sounds feasible.  Of course you could hear my beautiful singing.  In his dreamy world, where not everything has a name yet, anything is possible.

My husband was trying to chat with me about something or other while we were waiting for them to come in.  Because we’re old pros at this.  We’re not the parents that got there early to get a seat up front with our camcorder.  We’re all chill on our third turn on the carousel.  I thought.

I turned to him, tears on my face, and said, I’m not available to talk about that right now.  I’m kind of having a moment.  And I don’t want to miss it.

June Again

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.

Dirty little secret

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 

New tricks: On Parenting and Dog Training

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:

  • You don’t need to keep figuring out “what works” with your dog.  When your dog regresses in any way, you go back to what works with dogs.  Your children go through different developmental stages, and just when you “figure out” one stage, it’s on to the next, often having to find your way anew.  Great, you mastered potty training?  Feel proud? Now onto figuring out how to keep your little one in his own bed all night.  Or sit down long enough to eat.  Or deal with that mean girl in her class.  Or sit down and do his homework.  And on and on.
  • While dogs undoubtedly have their own unique personalities, their motivations are pretty transparent.  Generally, our dogs don’t push our buttons in the same way our children can.  I know more than one mother driven nearly mad by her child’s habit of twisting and sucking on the end of their t-shirt.  Positively bonkers about saliva and a worn cotton corner.  Sometimes it’s these unintentional habits that get under our skin, but often it’s the outright toe-to-toe emotional warfare.  My friend stops her toddler from grabbing the dog’s tail, which her little one responds to by laughing maniacally and grabbing the dog’s tail harder as if to say, I really am not planning on listening to you.  Or my new favorite, being told nearly every day how much I ruin my preteen’s life.  You know, with all those things I do to support and protect him.
  • You can’t crate train children any more than you can explain to a dog why you’re not letting them jump on the table.  You don’t need to and don’t have to explain anything to your dog.  Perhaps we need to do less explaining to our children, but still, they ask many many questions.  Some of them are good ones, and some are diversionary tactics.  Dogs don’t do this.

Ways that they are similar:

  • A dog needs a strong, believable leader.  Kids, too.

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.

  • Calm authority.  A deep, internal belief that I am in charge.  Owning it. That I know what’s best.  And heck, even if I don’t, I’m the one driving, so I decide, for better or worse.
  • That I’m the only one who can do it (well, me and my husband), and it is my obligation to do it.  I keep thinking of being in labor, and saying at some point, (all three times), I don’t think I want to do this. It is just too hard.  And it really really hurts.  And the midwives kindly responded, You’re the only one who can. And I was like, Wow.  I so get that.  And that is so unfortunate for me.  Because I’d really rather not.  But it looks like I’m going to. It is the truth and so there’s nothing left to do but dig in.
  • Not being reactive or taking it personally.  I was so frustrated with my dog.  Now I remind myself that she’s just being her, just doing what she’s doing.  Just like my son is just doing what he does.  And it is my job to deal with it.  Calmly.  Respectfully. Over and Over.  Which brings us to:
  • Consistency. Yes, I knew this intellectually, but I really got it when, after half an hour, Sweetiepie was finally walking, and I found just the right tension in the leash to let her know I was still there, and she would keep walking.  Animals are very sensitive to touch, and I knew instinctively that I had to hold the tension in the leash so she would know what I expected from her. For now, my son needs me to metaphorically, “hold a steady tension on the leash”.

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?