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Barely Managing + Constant Guilt = Modern Parenting??

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When you’re a parent, discussing parenting is what you do: the easiest way to find out what you have in common – and also to gauge how you’re doing at the parenting gig, and whether you/your kids are normal.

I can’t help but notice a trend among the parents I talk to with young kids – one that contradicts most of social media. If you’re to believe Facebook and Instagram, parenting is about going to the beach, making kick-ass birthday cakes, watching your kids frolic happily, dressing them up all cute, witnessing their endearingly messy faces, and recording their most hilarious soundbites.

In reality, for many of us, parenting is about the little things that are never done and seem to take up ALL THE TIME. Wakeup routines and bedtime routines, endless meals and snacks, potty breaks and body breaks and tantrum-soothing and squabble-mediating and dropping off and picking up and tidying up and laundering and reminding and re-reminding and outright nagging. Somehow, most of the time, Barely Keeping Up feels like all there is.

I don’t believe our social media masks are necessarily disingenuous. If you were to look at my Facebook profile, you’d think my life is all dancing and ukuleles and cute children and animals. Because who really wants to post about their ordinary-but-hectic schedule? More to the point, who makes time for that? We’d all rather look at cakes.

Sometimes I feel like we get that empty jar every day, and for some reason we can only fill it with pebbles, even though we know what the big rocks are, and we want them – and we’re sure everyone else must be fitting in their big rocks, like you’re supposed to.

Now, I’m wondering how many of us are getting any big rocks on a daily basis. There are parents I see as life experts who’ve got it all together… and often, they actually don’t. They are just as frazzled as I am. We all signed up for this parenting gig, and we knew the baby days would be hard, but we sorta thought it would get easier sooner.  As in, it’ll be easier when they’re sleeping better… when I go back to work and there’s more routine… when they’re out of diapers… when they get to school… And you’re waiting for the moment when things fall into place. And you’re still waiting… and waiting.

I know there must exist families who are fine, who don’t feel like they’re struggling to keep their heads above water all the time… but I don’t know how this phenomenon is achieved.

Sean and I were talking about this recently, asking ourselves, Does everyone feel this way? Why are so many of us struggling to manage life? Shouldn’t we be able to handle this better? Is it really as hard as it feels?

Banal as it sounds, I think it’s partly “the times.” As a society, we’re in this moment where women having jobs outside the family is normal – which really has not been true for very long. Also, it did not happen that the patriarchs stepped in and switched places to take over the household-running – at least, not in many cases.

Also, in the space of one generation, the cost of housing in Canada has gone from reasonable to… frankly unreasonable. Back when my parents were originally in the housing market, a home was a big expense, but it could be paid off in the foreseeable future, like five to ten years, especially if you had the luxury of two incomes for any of that time. Nowadays, it’s common to be paying off your house for two to three decades – possibly more, if you want to do other things like, for example, send your kids to university. (Which is another expense that has skyrocketed, by the way.)

Of course this means that, for many families, a mortgage is simply not affordable on one salary – especially when so many jobs are unstable, temporary, or just under-compensated. But households still need just as much running as before.

And expectations of parenting are out-of-whack with this scenario. Right now, it’s de rigueur to actually play with your kids (wha??), read to them, snuggle them, do crafts with them, run around with them… unlike the days when you had a gaggle of offspring, let the big ones take care of the little ones, and put them to work as soon as they could carry a hay bale.

Child-rearing in the era of mommy-blogs and Pinterest is now a hobby, an occupation, a science, and an art form. For families with a stay-at-home parent, it’s all the more intense: society seems to accept, and even expect, that the parent will give her whole life to the kids, the household, and the community.

I’m all for playing, snuggling, and reading with your children. I love the kind of direct engagement that lets me get to know my kids as people. But other than family dinners and bedtime stories (which are sacred), these things don’t happen as much as I’d like. (You’ve probably noticed I don’t blog about my beautiful kid-crafts very much. Since I don’t do them.) That’s because the expectations of running a household – making good meals for your family, paying the bills, getting everybody where they need to go on time with the stuff they need, and making sure the house isn’t a constant fracking mess – still apply. And I always feel bad when I fail to keep up with those.

This is another problematic factor. The guilt.

If my kids ask me to play with them and I say no for the sake of housework, I feel guilty. When I do play with them, I feel guilty for “shirking” all the other things that need doing. When I come home from school right away to get some housework done, I feel guilty for not being more on top of my marking at school. When I am doing schoolwork, I feel guilty for the household slack that falls to my husband. When I spend time on email, I feel guilty because it’s such a time-suck – but if I neglect it, I feel guilty because I invariably let someone down. And when I go to the gym, ALL the guilt applies – except for the guilt I feel about wasted money when I don’t go to the gym.

Other things I tend to feel guilty about: letting my kids eat sugar, eating sugar myself, spending money on non-necessities, not taking good enough care of my plants, neglecting my cats, not seeing my friends often enough, forgetting things people I care about have told me… etc. You see how it is.

It’s true for many of us, with kids or not, that “catching up” with life is this mythical thing we never achieve, like getting to Solla Sollew. The tangled cycle of obligations and unease seems neverending.

Now, I’m pretty sure my personal sense of guilt is more finely-honed than many – for myriad reasons. I’m also aware that it’s unhelpful and borderline ridiculous. I certainly hope most people’s brains are less apologetic than mine. Intellectually, I know I shouldn’t reproach myself, because I’m doing my best. (But… am I?? my inner guilt-monitor pipes up.) Unfortunately, guilt is like mosquitoes. You can’t just ask it to go away, and if you swat it, there’s always more where that came from.

I have found that I can fend it off somewhat, as long as I’m doing one of the top three things (parenting, housework, schoolwork) needing immediate attention. But really, I know that neglecting the rest of life isn’t a good idea. Especially when my wishes for 2016 include being more fit and doing more writing. I simply can’t do those things… if I’m not doing them.

So! This month, I devised an approach that I think will motivate me (because I love lists and check boxes and points systems) to make the life I imagine but haven’t managed to prioritize. Sean hammered out a beautiful spreadsheet for each of us that will assign points for things like getting to bed on time, taking vitamins, walking, working out, etc. We can also get points for checking a small job off the to-do list – those annoying little jobs that would only take 10-15 minutes but never get done because they’re never quite urgent enough. And we’ve also assigned points to Writing (in 20-minute slots) and Making Music (in 20-minute slots).

Voilà! INSTANT LEGITIMACY, baby. It’s the key, I know it.

The only trouble is, so far we haven’t managed to get “checking off points chart” on the daily to-do list. But I’m sure it’ll be awesome once we get to it.

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#NaBloPoMo, Day 10: Walking

Today, I’m grateful for the ability and opportunities to walk.

This morning was one of those mornings I’m not proud of, as a parent.

I woke up at the normal time. AB, as has become her custom, came into my bed right around the same time, and we had a really nice little snuggle.

When I began rousing the kids to get ready, though, they were reluctant and dawdling. They have been better this year than last at knowing that we have to use our limited time wisely in the mornings (or Mummy gets stressed out and uses a not-so-nice voice), and we were doing okay… until poor AB slipped on the stairs in a fresh puddle of cat pee. And when I say puddle, I mean a full-on bladder-fed lake, gracing a three-stair expanse, that got her pjs AND the clothes she’d picked to wear, as well as E’s socks, all wet and gross.

Our boy-cat Nico was the culprit, but it’s not his fault (he’s under the weather). It was nobody’s fault. But spending ten minutes cleaning up and disinfecting the stairs meant that when AB got her usual stubborn face on re: wardrobe choices, Mummy started using the not-so-nice voice. And after that tipping point, AB started digging in her heels about every step of getting ready, and E got all upset about Mummy’s tone of voice, and my irritation could do nothing but build up.

Those are the times I wish I could flip a switch and make myself be calm, and not react, and just find the gracious way to move things along… but I haven’t been doing as awesomely at that as I hoped I would be, especially during a week where I have not been having good sleep-luck.

Our friend and neighbour was just passing our house with her daughter as we tumbled out the door – she could tell right away that it was one of those mornings.

But once we were walking, we all calmed down. The air was brisk and bracing, and we trooped through fallen leaves and got our blood pumping, and it just felt good, in spite of everything.

It helps that we were walking to school, and not to the bus stop as we always have in the past. Being one minute late for the school bell barely even counts as late; being one minute late for the bus means you have to rearrange your morning.

And walking is just good for what ails you. It’s something humans were built to do well and often. For me, in the mornings, it lends perspective. It helps me to remember – all the things going “wrong” in the mornings are minor blips – and it’s the literal change of pace that allows me to snap out of the loop of impatience.

I apologized to my kids for being sharp with them, and we had good proper hugs and kisses as I bid them goodbye at school. I’m also very very grateful for the forgiveness of my kids.

And now, because I get another chance every day, I will try again to remember:

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#NaBloPoMo, Day 5: My Hubbibi

Whew. Just weathered a Mammoth Meltdown (one of many in the last three years, but this was definitely in the top ten), courtesy of my three-year-old. The better part of an hour of screaming/crying, along with intermittent hitting/kicking. All this – at least initially – because I wouldn’t let her put the cap back on her toothpaste. (Actually, I did let her, and then when she took it off again so she could lick the inside of it, she lost her chance.)

MAN, it’s hard work, sticking to your guns. But the worse things get, the more you have to stick, because otherwise you’re telling the child this works – this gets you what you want.

I don’t really want to talk or write about it. But I do want to mention my gratitude for my Hubbibi today. For being level-headed, for being my tag-team, for being a good sport, for being a great story reader, for being willing to listen and improve, for helping me improve, for being straight with me, for taking straight talk from me, and for giving the best hugs in the world. Oh, and for cleaning the eavestroughs today.

You’re an amazing guy, honey. I love you.

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Kindergarten Quotables Variety Pack

I realize it’s been ages since I talked about the cute stuff my kids say, and it’s not because they don’t say cute things.

Okay, sometimes it’s because they don’t say cute things. At five and two years old, respectively, my son and daughter both have a tendency to freak out about seemingly minor incidents, and they both spend quite a bit of time screaming. This doesn’t leave quite as many opportunities in their schedules for adorable sound bites.

But! These little gems do still turn up. And I could argue it’s even more important to remember them when they’re not as common.

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E has learned to play Pokémon, with rules and everything. You should hear the lingo he and Daddy toss around.

These are E-quotes, from approximately the past year – so he was four years old for some of them (he would want you to know that). I’ve organized them by theme, for your convenience.

Big New Words To Try Out:

  • “There aren’t a lot of places to hide in this particular house.”
  • “I distinctly don’t want square crackers… I specifically said circle crackers.”
  • “The orange juice is essentially yellow.”
  • “This is a really unusual contraption.”
  • “Is it just me, or am I disintegrating?” (NO IDEA where he got that word.)
  • “Marcia has a whole bunch of Play Doh colours, and I’m assuming they all came together.”
  • “A millimeter isn’t even a thing. I made it up.”
  • “I hurt so much of myself! I hurt both my toes and my philtrum!”
  • “You have no idea how mad I am!! I’m googleplex hundred thousand mad.” (As you can probably tell, sometimes we teach him the more obscure words just ’cause it’s fun to hear him say them.)
  • “My finger deflected it into my mouth.”
  • “I’m really good at rhyming. I’m pretty good at homonyms – well, I haven’t mastered homonyms yet… but I have mastered snapping!” This is true. He was in the car, demonstrating from his booster seat. Yes, he does know what a homonym is. And he can snap his fingers like a boss.

Turns Of Phrase That Are Pure E:

  • The morning after receiving some new Lego, seeing the mess he’d made: “Well, it’s another Lego excitement day.”
  • Asking the name of his grandparents’ street: “That’s something my brain lost sight of. I suddenly didn’t know it.”
  • As I explained how we were going to tackle cleaning his room: “You mean, all this great big bellowing mess will be cleaned up?”
  • As Daddy reiterated our policy (if a parent cleans up a toy mess without E’s help, that parent gets to keep said toy): “Daddy! Just lose that feeling!”

Regarding His Little Sister:

  • On seeing baby AB’s arm flailing around: “Maybe she’s like an antenna.”
  • In a passionate defense when we took away something AB was destroying: “DON’T! RUIN! MY SISTER’S! FUN!!!”
  • After she’d learned to whack him when he was getting in her space: “Biting me isn’t her only defense.”
  • After I’d asked him to keep an eye on her while I went to the bathroom, then found him doing something completely else: “I’m keeping a very slight eye on her.”
  • At a predictably nose-running moment: “I think her weapon is snot.”

Regarding His Brother/Potential Brother:

E: Mummy, when are you going to be pregnant? I want another Sebastian. I don’t even know what he looked like.

Mummy: Umm… I’m not sure if I will be pregnant again, sweetie. And if I did get pregnant, we can’t choose whether we have a boy or a girl.

E: Can you control whether you’re pregnant?

Mummy (mentally squirming a little): Well… yes. It has to do with what time of the month it is… and your activities.

E: Can we pick a boy or girl if we decide NOW?

Regarding His Mom:

  • When I was making my own lunch instead of attending to his every whim: “Mommies don’t serve themselves. They serve other people than themselves.”
  • One of the times E was freaking out about having to pee really bad, in response to my dry comment, “Maybe if you cry enough tears, you won’t have to pee so much,” he shrieked: “MUMMEE! Don’t say random things!!!!” (Parents, you know sometimes you have to say things just to amuse yourself. But those comments can rebound on you.)
  • While trying to control his world: “Mummy, tomorrow I want you to be the one to pick me up from the bus, okay? Just keep that in mind.”
  • When I explained that when you have a sleepover at a friend’s house, your parents don’t come with you, and that’s part of why it’s fun: “But, if you weren’t there, it wouldn’t BE any fun!” (Awww. <3)

Deep Thoughts and Life Philosophy:

  • “I just need so much help, in this world. I want to move to a different planet. This one is just too tricky.”
  • “Does snot have protein? Does it have veggies?” (Hmmm. What IS the nutritional content of snot?)
  • “Does the world have a stem? Can you slice the world?”
  • “There’s almost always poop in your body, and one mode is saveable, but the other is unsaveable.”
  • When I explained that his balloon animal would not last very long: “So… balloon animals are just like paper airplanes and flowers and piñatas.”
  • After I’d explained some of the traditions associated with St. Patrick’s Day: “But Mummy – what if my teacher makes me drink beer??”
  • Discussing the older kids on the playground, when E was in JK: “For some reason, they think I’m a LITTLE kid!”

He still knocks my socks off sometimes with the things he says.

One night, just a few weeks ago, as we were tidying up his room before bed, he started reminiscing about his surfin’ days. Except he pronounced it “suhhfin’ dehhs,” which I guess is his surfer accent. To be clear, he’s never surfed, or even been close to a real live surfer, ever. But he maintained the accent and the patter for several minutes, completely deadpan. (I wish I could have got footage, but I was afraid to break the spell.)

As I giggled, I said, “I love you, buddy.” His rejoinder was, “I luv yeh teh, Mummeh… almost as much as I luv meh suhhfin’ dehhs.”

Then, last week, we played chess on the snow day. He had been playing chess for approximately two days, and here he was, saying things like, “I’m really putting you in a pickle here, Mummy!” and “I know the knight’s protecting the queen, so I’m not too worried about her,” and “You’re setting up a good pawn structure there.” Wha??

Crazy, awesome kid.

Next episode: Kid Quotables, Toddler Version.

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Anti-Rape Training Begins at Birth

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My firstborn son E is an extremely cuddly kid. He has always wanted snuggles and hugs and kisses, in good times and in bad. It’s great for me, as his mom, to know I can calm him by taking him in my arms, even now that he’s five; and honestly, I’ll be heartbroken when he decides he’s too big to snuggle.

When E’s baby sister was born, he fell in love with her almost instantaneously. Naturally, he wanted to kiss her silky cheeks, put his face right next to hers, and get his arms right around her warm wriggly little body. ALL THE TIME.

My daughter is a snuggly one too, but in a very different way. She wants hugs and kisses – but only on her terms. Even as a tiny infant, if she decided she was getting over-nuzzled, she’d screech and flail her arms in self-defense.

Right away, we had to start coaching E: “That’s how she says ‘No.’ She’s telling you that she needs some space.”

These instructions got more and more specific:

  • If she screams, it means No.
  • If she pushes you, it means No.
  • If she hits you, it means No.
  • If she thrashes around – as far as you’re concerned – it means No.

Often, he really didn’t want to take that No for an answer. “But… I wanna kiss her!”

So, at three-and-a-half, he was being told, “It’s not about you. That’s her body. It doesn’t matter what you want: she gets to say what happens to it.”

These words, as you can imagine, have a tendency to make my brain jump ahead a decade or so, when they will be even more relevant… which is a little scary.

The teaching is not just for him. I also want her to feel confident that the boundaries she sets for herself are valid.

It was really hard, when she was a newborn, to moderate my own instinct to cuddle her every time she needed soothing; sometimes it was what she wanted, but sometimes it would make her extra-furious. Her cues were actually very clear, but it still took me a long time to get used to following them, after the habits I’d formed with E.

Now that she’s two-and-a-third, if she gets really angry about something, we all know that she needs her space. She will tell us when she’s ready for physical comforting. She’ll rage around on the floor (or wherever), and eventually she’ll say, “Can I have a hug?” or, heartbreakingly, “Can you make me happy?”, which we’ve learned also means she’d like to be snuggled.

And E knows that he is expected to ask permission to give her kisses and hugs. He often does say, “Can I please have a kiss?” Nonetheless, he’ll sneak ’em in without consent as often as he can get away with it. And we know this because if he tries it and she’s not in the mood, she’ll shriek and whack him one.

E will cry, “She hit me!” and I’ll say, “Were you in her space without asking?” If the answer’s yes, then we’re in the grey area of our “No hitting” policy.

Here, my imagination jumps again to the teenage versions of my kids (not that I’m ready for that world… but it’s gonna happen). Yes, we are teaching our children that hitting each other is not the way to solve conflicts, but if there were a boy touching my sixteen-year-old AB in some unwanted way, I hope to God she would have the conviction to make her boundaries clear. If she someday feels she has to scream or scratch or hit someone who’s not taking No for an answer, then I absolutely want her to do it.

{Side note: Reason #297 Why I Love “Frozen”: Boy actually asks girl permission to kiss her. Groundbreaking in its genre.}

Especially since having a daughter, I’ve often recalled an anecdote from a friend about her little girl and how she and her husband bribed her to give her uncle a goodbye hug. It was kind of a joke, in which the daughter was happy to score a jujube, but they later decided to stop the practice. If she was getting a “no” feeling from an encounter, she should have the right to decline hugs.

I now find myself thinking along these lines in situations I never considered before. For instance, when you ask a toddler for a hug and get refused, it’s almost automatic to pull an exaggerated sad face so that the benevolent child will take pity on you and give you a hug. And to be honest, AB loves that game – she likes to deny her Daddy kisses, and then grin and say, “Can you cry?”

But dammit, you know there are teenage boys out there pulling sad faces and hackneyed “it-hurts-if-we-don’t-go-all-the-way” bullsh*t on inexperienced girls – and it works often enough. Guilt is a powerful tool, if not a legitimate one.

I even sometimes get touchy about those moments when there’s a crazy tickle-fest and I hear an uproarious “No! No! Heeheeheeheeheeheehee!! No!” Yes, I KNOW sometimes No kind of means Yes. I trust my husband to know the difference between happy screams and had-enough, when it comes to our kids.

But part of me feels like ANY physical contact should immediately cease the moment the words “No” or “Stop” come into play. Because those words mean what they mean, for good reason; is it really up to someone else to interpret if that’s a “real” No? That’s a dangerous road. Furthermore, if you don’t actually mean No when you say it, you’re diluting its purpose.

I don’t want to risk subtleties and implications being lost on my wee kids. We need to use the words we mean, and mean the words we use.

I probably sound a bit paranoid. Or maybe a lot. It’s not that I want my daughter to freak out whenever someone touches her, or my son to worry about every gesture of affection he wants to give. But if the Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby fiascoes have taught us anything, it’s that some people have very warped ideas about consent – what it looks like, and whether it’s necessary. And it’s also been made clear that rape culture is alive and well in North America in 2015.

Yesterday I was reading about a petition launched by two Grade 8 girls in Ontario, advocating for the provincial Health curriculum to include lessons on consent (above and beyond the “Feeling Yes, Feeling No” stuff in the primary grades). Apparently, there was outcry by certain conservative parent groups when expectations around consent were proposed by the government in 2010 – as is the case whenever the Ministry of Education proposes talking about sexuality as if it’s real and relevant to kids.

Any time there’s pushback from parents about sex ed, it confirms for me that it’s still absolutely necessary – and in this case, that more is needed. The topic of consent is crucial.

What an amazing thing, for two young girls to take this initiative and understand its importance. Better yet, it worked. Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the changes to the curriculum earlier this month. (To those who are outraged that their objections – the ones that made McGuinty back down – didn’t work on Wynne, I say: suck it up. Your kids will know about this stuff one way or another. Times are changing.)

As for my household, I want to be clear: it’s full of hugs, kisses, snuggles, and general cuddliness. That aspect of our lives is really important to both my kids: they are both very attached to their goodnight and goodbye hugs and kisses, with each other as well as with us. (And AB is only content with proper hugs, no half-hugs: “I need my arms around his back!” It’s adorable.) I’m optimistic that both my children will find themselves in physically and emotionally safe, affectionate, and satisfying relationships (MANY years from now).

And until then (please, please), may their awareness of personal boundaries protect them both from harm, and from harming.

*To read about the curriculum changes, please click here.*

*If you are interested in signing the petition to reinforce the support, please click here.*

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Dear Five-Year-Old: I sure love you, even when I don’t like you much.

e suitcase

Beloved E,

I started writing a blog post in your honour just over two weeks ago, when you turned five. Part of the reason it didn’t get done in a timely manner is because your birthday happened to fall between two disparate weeks of insanity.

The other reason is that I wanted to write something full of love, something oozing with your unique five-year-old cuteness, and – well… I was having trouble getting in the zone.

You are an adorable, lovely little guy. Except when you’re a whiny and/or insolent little turkey.

Most people are amazed if I share with them that we have difficulties when it comes to your behaviour. We do appreciate that you are so well-mannered in public most of the time. I’m pretty sure you’re nicely behaved at school, overall – at least, we’ve never been told otherwise. I’m grateful that I’ve never had to abort a shopping trip, or lecture you at a friend’s house, or peel you off the floor at Funmazing.

But there are days when I fervently ask myself, “Did I really raise this kid? How did I?”

It’s the apparent sense of entitlement, along with a rude attitude, that shocks me every time. Particularly in contrast with the sweet version of you. I try to tell myself it’s just a phase, normal development and all that… but some of it must be avoidable, right?

We try not to spoil you (well… Daddy forgets sometimes, but mostly we don’t spoil you). We make sure you know that you can’t always have your way, and there are reasons why. We express our love in all kinds of ways, especially words and cuddles. We have taught you the socially-accepted manners that will help you along in the world. We feed you good food, limit your screen time, and make sure you get ample (opportunity for) sleep.

e sleeping
How beautiful the sleeping child.

And somehow, most days, you are quick to complain and quick to anger. This morning, you got up to the breakfast table and said, your voice seething with annoyance as if you were barely tolerating my incompetence, “Mummy. WHY did you put my lunch bag HERE??”

I have noticed a new trend where you fly off the handle about something and start yelling, and when I remain silent or respond calmly, you say, “STOP YELLING AT ME, MUMMY!! YOU ALWAYS YELL!!”

Out of the blue, I am accused. Like, every day. Multiple times a day.

Yesterday, I was dropping you off at school when one of your sunny-faced little classmates skipped by and said joyfully, “Hi! It’s Playday today!” You did not smile back. You said, “I KNOW!”, complete with irritated hand motion, as if she were insulting your intelligence. I was appalled. I hope this was just because your irritating Mummy was present, and not because that’s your M.O. at school. I know older kids whose default mode is nasty like that, and trust me: nobody wants to play with those kids.

This sentiment of “The world and especially my parents are determined to abuse me!” does seem to be your default mode right now. Most of the time, simply taking things in stride is a non-option. You use your highly-offended (and offensive) tone of voice on a regular basis.

Small injuries make you screech. The tiniest irregularity in your food leads to deadlock. You (like your daddy) are so used to doing things well that you have a fit of pique when you don’t master new skills instantly.

Unfortunately, Daddy and I easily get fed up with of all this. That means we’re not as patient with you as we should be. We raise our voices at you more often than we mean to. We’ve been known to plunk you in your room and close the door, just because we can’t listen to any more shrieks. And now, you’ve taken to running to your room yourself and slamming the door (sometimes twice or more) when you’re mad.

It’s not a good sign that, lately, I’m letting your words and sounds get to me. Since I have a job in which I work hard to achieve a listening audience, repeat instructions ad nauseam, and spend time amid noise levels beyond what I’m naturally built for, sometimes I get home and I don’t have enough energy and composure left for you. I know what kind of reaction I should have to your unappealing behaviour, but I can’t summon it.

You suddenly scream because your sister pinched you, and even though it’s not about me, all I can think is, “OMG I cannot listen to any more screaming.”

Or you cry histrionically, “You are only ever MEAN TO ME, Mummy!!” or even, occasionally, “I HATE YOU!” and I’m unable to laugh it off. I think about all I do for you every day, and just feel tired and defeated.

Or you challenge the limits we set for you, as is your job at this age, and instead of taking advantage of the teachable moments, I just want to shut you down.

I’m sorry. It’s not fair to you.

I know I need to listen more.

I know I need to think more about the underlying stresses that might cause your temper to flare.

I know I need to be the mature one, modelling things like compassion and apology and patience.

School is almost over for the year. This summer, I’m going to work hard to rediscover my calm and put love back in the forefront. I’m going to put in the time figuring out what will work for us, so that Sweet E can be your default mode again.

Because Sweet E is still there. You’re still the boy who loves hugs and kisses, who sits raptly for stories, who draws amazing pictures, who says adorable and enigmatic things when we least expect it, who adores your little sister, who dances like a twinkletoes, whose smile illuminates my heart, and who, five years ago, was born the most incredible blessing in my life to that date.

e and ab hand in hand

You are awesome, darling five-year-old, in so many ways. I love you all the time, always, more than you’ll ever know – and even when you can’t tell.

You deserve my best. Here’s to us, and to finding my best, together.

***


 

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Unqualified

Loving but unqualified
Loving but unqualified

Lovely Di-hards, I know you know that feeling of being in over your head. I’ve had it many times over the years, lots of “what have I gotten myself into” moments. Teaching has provided more than a few. So has cooking at Camp.

Of course, the biggest moment like that, for many of us, is when you gaze at your newborn child and think, “They’re just gonna let me HAVE this? What makes them think I’m qualified?” (I don’t know who “they” are – that’s part of the problem.) And that feeling never completely dissipates. Especially when my kids are sick or won’t sleep or behave badly, I feel qualms about my ability to do a good job at this most important vocation.

On Sunday night, I had an experience that took my qualms to a whole new level.

E woke up shortly before midnight, crying. (This is not the norm, but it’s not rare either.) As is often the case, he wasn’t quite sure what the trouble was. Usually, he is not fully awake, and drifts back to sleep after a few minutes, having been reassured by his parent’s voice.

This time, he was awake. It wasn’t his blankets needing to be re-tucked (that one’s a classic). We determined that he wasn’t in physical pain, that (as far as he could remember) he hadn’t had a bad dream, he wasn’t thirsty, and he wasn’t sad or scared or frustrated. I got him up to pee, just in case, but it didn’t help. The biggest source of upset seemed to be that he didn’t know why he was upset.

I recalled a conversation we had recently with some dear friends of ours with kids similar ages to ours – and very familiar issues when it comes to meltdowns and obstinacy, etc. They have experienced success based on the advice of a system called “hand-in-hand parenting”. They told us one of the theories: that when kids flip out about seemingly unimportant things, it’s usually because there’s something else bothering them – possibly something they’re only partially aware of themselves. They sometimes, like adults, just need a good cry, and we as parents can take those flipping out opportunities to encourage them to get things off their chests. You just let them bang their heads against the (non-physical) boundaries you set up, holding/supporting them while they do, so that they can work through it themselves. Sometimes, big underlying things come to light and relieve the child of some burden.

We’ve been through lots and lots and lots of crying with this little guy in recent times, and I know for sure that many times I’ve ended up invalidating his concerns because I just CAN’T LISTEN TO ANY MORE CRYING. I take him to his room or try to shut him down, tell him that THAT IS ENOUGH. But what if it’s not enough, for him, because he never gets to the bottom of it?

So I thought I’d try this new idea. I gave him a big long hug. I said, “Sweetie, you don’t have to explain why you’re upset. Sometimes we just are. There are lots of things that can make us upset in life, and sometimes we just need to let them out.” I likened the situation to the enormous snowdrifts outside our house – they got so big not all at once, but through many many snowfalls and shovelling sessions. I mentioned some things that are hard about life – like at recess when kids sometimes aren’t nice, and at home when his sister bugs him or when his parents raise their voices at him. He agreed that those things are upsetting.

I was tempted to bring up Sebastian at this point. I know this year E is understanding more and more about the baby brother he lost, and I want to validate his grief too… but I knew I was in no shape to deal with either of our reactions to that one.

By this time, he was back in his bunk, and I thought maybe we were making some progress. The crying seemed to be abating – he’d shifted into tearless moaning (or I might just call it “fake crying”). I was really hoping for the big sigh and the calming moment, where I’d know he had let some stuff go… but it didn’t come.

Then he asked to come and sleep in the bottom bunk with me. Looking back, I probably should have said yes, even though I wouldn’t have slept much. Instead, I explained that we both needed to get good sleep and it was very very late (close to 1 a.m.). I offered to come up to his bunk and lie down with him for a little bit. That calmed him temporarily, but when I went back to the bottom bunk, he got upset again.

The next hour is fuzzier in my head, because I was getting very tired and my patience was ebbing. I offered to tell him a “magic dream”*, and I think I did a pretty good job considering how tired I was. (This one was about his Christmas fairies and how we met them on a walk in the woods. Yep, a little bit of product placement on behalf of Mrs. Claus.)

But he was only momentarily distracted. When the dream ended, we discovered that he was still upset. By this time, he had identified that he was “sad”. (It’s possible that when I was trying to identify reasons before, I was just upsetting him more.) There were now many small problems accompanying that, like he didn’t know how he could close his eyes when he was this sad, and he didn’t know where to put his arm so it would be comfortable, and his foot was out of the blankets and getting cold, and I was starting to feel like I’d somehow accomplished the opposite of what I’d hoped.

And I needed to work the next day, and I needed to not be a basket case.

So in the end, I ended up doing what I didn’t mean to do: asking him to shut it down. (Whatever it was.) Gently, but still.  I hoped that I’d validated some feelings or other… I tried to remain sympathetic the whole time… but MAN. He just kept talking about how sad he was.

That’s when my Major Qualms reared their heads. Suddenly my mind was filled with fears about depression, anxiety, anger issues, suicidal tendencies – things I am not at all trained to deal with in my son (or anyone else). I realized, more clearly than ever before, that this kid is infinitely complex and unpredictable – as are all humans – and what in God’s name qualifies me to bring one – or TWO – of those home and try to RAISE them???

It’s like getting your first vehicle and realizing that not only is it stick shift, but it’s also actually a hybrid double-decker bus with a chopper attachment. (They have those, right?) NO IDEA what to do with it if something goes wrong.

Shouldn’t I know what to do if something goes wrong?

In my mind, the bottom line is I’m his mom. I signed up to be the one who knows what to do. At the very least, I’m supposed to know the best way to show love.

I think that’s it, right there. Showing love should be a no-brainer, and yet it isn’t – not always. As I process all this, more and more questions (re-)surface:

When is tough love appropriate, if ever?

Is love a reward? Should it be?

Can you spoil a child with love?

Which things show love, and which just show capitulation (or other things I do when I’m too tired to be disciplined)?

I know I’ve justified losing my parental temper in the past with the idea that I’m human, and my children need to know I have limits. I do think this is true; I still remember key moments with my own parents when I came to understand that they were people with feelings. It’s important.

But that excuse is way too flexible. One could easily harm a child under the auspices of “being human.”

The things that loom large in the dark at 2 a.m. when your child is crying. For both of our sakes, I probably should have turned on the light.

The upshot of all this is that he eventually petered out just after 2 a.m. with me coaching him on eye-closing and remembering to be still and breathing. AND, he had lost more than two hours of sleep. Which means the next day he was unable to cope with anything and honestly looked and acted like he’d been drugged. (We did not send him to school.)

So lessons. Lessons… ummm… Read all the literature before taking action, perhaps. Don’t try the boundary-head-banging thing for the first time ever at midnight on a Sunday. Turn on the light. Do the cuddles, for real.

I’ll keep you posted the next time we try head-banging. During daylight hours.

***

*Magic dream = unfinished impromptu story in which the protagonist is the listener. My dad used to give us magic dreams when we were kids; they were fantastical and yet soporific. The idea was to listen, and then go to sleep and dream the rest of the story. Auntie Em introduced E to the concept and he LOVES them. Emi and I both do them in our father’s style, but Sean’s tend to be epic tales of heroism featuring Roy the Super Chicken – not sleep-inducing but much beloved.

***


 

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