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On trust

In the comfort of his home, within sight of his Mama and Papa, his confidence and abilities shone. He wasn’t even two, but he used complete sentences to convey the utmost importance of the airplanes flying by, the blue cheese he craved and the trucks he needed to drive around blocks he’d lined up. Utterances were constant, play was complex. There were puzzles to be completed and playgrounds to visit. He’d cry if surprised by the jet-loud roars of our food processor, so I’d try to prepare him for it’s use or wait until he wasn’t around. Otherwise, he rarely showed anxiety at home. It felt easy to respect his needs.

Though aspects of his development were advanced, he wasn’t challenging himself physically as much as his peers. He didn’t walk until he was 15-months. Likely the perfectionist in him, genes courtesy of yours truly, waited until he would not stumble. Slow and steady, calculated and predictable. He observed his toddler buddies ride their balance bikes, climb ladders and zoom down big slides. He developed pretend play routines instead. His playgrounds were bakeries and kitchens, chocolate shops and coffee shops. These themes probably also had something to do with his mother.

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Outside of our home, loud noises, new people or unpredictable kids made him nervous. Hiding behind us or begging to be held, I quickly learned to expect a tug on my pant leg. “Mama, pick me up!” was repeated incessantly until he was safely in my arms. We couldn’t leave him with anyone besides his familiar grandparents. Even with them, we had to sneak out after they provided ample distraction. Every other place we dropped him off paged us back to rescue him. They could never get him to stop sobbing.

At a friend’s son’s second birthday party, he didn’t leave my lap. As things wrapped up, moms encouraged their tots to gather on porch stairs for a picture. I plopped my boy down in their midst, ignoring the discomfort I read in his tense body. I backed away to see if he’d adapt, but of course, his lower lip proceeded to curl downward and he sobbed. I knew he would. I only tried to make him participate because I didn’t want to disappoint my friend and I felt like I needed to show the other moms I at least tried. I retrieved him from the stairs feeling pangs of anger and humiliation. Why wasn’t my kid like the others? Why couldn’t I just chat with the other moms while he played?

This was the first of many times I’d realize my expectations for him in public were different than they were at home. Simply because I wanted him to reflect a certain way on me.

After months of holding him up while other kids jumped into play and rarely getting to drop him off somewhere for a break, I grew to resent this pattern. I also started to worry. Would my little boy always be this needy? Did I baby him too much? Is attachment parenting a surefire route to timidity?

Eventually I began redefining my hopes and expectations. I was learning a new way that I needed to trust his natural development. Just like he learned to walk and talk, roll and and hold a spoon, I needed to believe that his emotional journey would progress in it’s own meaningful way.

4739917866_8b6102c4c6_zIMG_3084Thankfully, as years passed he grew more comfortable without us. He attended preschool with ease. He remained hesitant to participate in most activities beyond that, particularly if they were physical, and we respected his wishes. As a five and six year old, this meant kindly saying no to offers to go to rock climbing birthday parties, join soccer teams, or play at bounce houses.

I began to accept that he may never play a team sport. I began to embrace that he savored his time doing math problems and building towers more than playdates. I grew to love that he preferred to play with girls, engaging in complex play routines instead of climbing trees. I started to let go of my fears of him regularly feeling lonely and isolated.

There was grief in this process. I longed for aspects of motherhood that I didn’t think I would ever experience with him and that was disappointing. I simply began to walk more firmly in the knowledge that it would be far more devastating for him not to be true to himself. Or not believe he’s accepted for who he is.

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My boy keeps surprising me. This past year he jumped right in to his new school despite having only one friend in his class. He eagerly participated in physical games at recess and in PE. He tested for his yellow belt, even choosing to continue sparring after being punched in the face. He happily attended a rock climbing birthday party. Harnessed in, he grabbed the holds and climbed right up without hesitation. As he neared his limit and needed to rappel for his first time, I saw how scared he was. I anxiously anticipated him melting into a pool of tears and loud sobs. Instead, he worked through the fears with with just a little encouragement from the coach. I could not believe it. Any of it. I went to that party envisioning us watching all the other kids from the sidelines, while he felt disappointed by his fears. Instead, he kept climbing higher and higher, confidence growing with each summit. I picked my jaw up off the floor.

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Carried by World Cup excitement, he agreed to soccer camp. It was a huge hit and he begged me to go again before summer ended. At his request, he also played on a team this fall. Despite being the new guy with the least amount of experience, all he wanted was to be on the field. He even enjoyed playing goalie. Balls whizzed past his face by request! It has been wonderful to be shocked by his growth.

I know little to nothing about what’s coming ahead as a parent. These changes in him may swing the other direction. I can certainly count on parenting being unpredictable. Generally, it seems the challenges will surround my ability to grieve and accept. My ability to deal with my own expectations and fears. My ability to cope with the noise, chaos and mess that my energetic (may-as-well-be-on-stimulants) monkeys leave in their wake. Hopefully my ability to make a mean batch of cookies will temper it all a bit.

Every few months something happens in which I have to consciously examine whether or not I’m respecting their journeys and honoring their paths. How much do I believe in their natural emotional development? It seems that only my fears speak against trusting it.

 

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Onward

Lately I’ve had several friends inquire about the current state of challenges with our youngest’s behavior. While I wrote in brevity about our fall preschool drop-off challenges and how we dealt with them, I didn’t communicate the extent to which difficulties continued.

While I am often open here, I rarely divulge the deep struggles while I’m in the midst of them with anyone beyond my husband and a few trusted friends. I generally like there to be at least hints of forward momentum before sharing that we’re tripping on a daily basis, sliding back down to the bottom of a mountain that we’re not sure we’re going to summit.

For at least six months, Little Monkey’s most common immediate response to upsetting stimuli was physical aggression. The range of triggers was wide. If he tripped and fell, SMACK! If I gave him too much verbal praise, WHACK! If big brother moved towards him and he felt threatened, POW! If I moved a toy from the place it was apparently intended to remain for eternity, BOOM! I was getting hit or kicked daily, often more than once. Frequently I steadied myself in pain, anticipating a black eye or bloody nose. Our oldest was also the recipient of many crushing blows.

We were scared.

This kid didn’t cry when he received his first shot as a newborn. His pain tolerance is unbelievably high. For his first few years of life he rarely shed a tear unless the injury involved blood. If he cried after a fall, I prepared for a trip to Urgent Care. After he dished it out, his hands and feet seemed to just experience a slight irritation. Like he’d been rubbed wrong. When he was hurt enough to cry, he often immediately lashed out at others. He would refuse comfort and hugs. He was Mini-Hulk, Super Sensitive Version.

For months his behavior seemed to only deteriorate and we questioned all our parenting methods. Worn out and desperate for change, we started to revert to ways we’d previously written off as disrespectful or humiliating, like isolating him in his room (in essence, a lonely time-out) or taking away toys unrelated to the incidents. We rarely acknowledged the emotions behind his behavior or talked through his motivation. We were caught in a downward spiral of stress, fear, anger and fatigue. We kept trying to get back on our feet and dust ourselves off to continue upward, not considering that we might need a completely new route.

I really couldn’t see straight. I told a group of friends over Christmas dinner that we were considering professional help (family counseling or child therapy). One friend asked, “What’s his currency?” and it hit me. As we talked through motivating factors for children, I realized we’d turned everything we believe to be true onto it’s back. I didn’t want toys, money or screen time to be my child’s primary “currency.” I wanted him to know himself well enough to manage his emotions without an external motivator or threats and punishment. I longed for him to inherently know that his opinions would be valued. His voice would be heard. I didn’t want him to feel alone with his sadness or anger. He needed to know that no matter how enormous his emotions felt, we would stay by his side.

Shortly thereafter, my husband and I recommitted to using emotion coaching as our primary way of handling Little Monkey’s outbursts. We tried to intercept him prior to his hits and kicks. Initially, we restrained him in our arms to prevent injuries to ourselves or our oldest. We would say, “I’m holding you until we’re safe.” He quickly learned that these restraints were actually comforting, and his anger would melt into our arms as his tears took over. We don’t have to do that anymore because he now willingly runs to our arms. If we’re at our best, we speak slowly and calmly, with pauses for all the inevitable crying. “You’re so angry. You really wanted this to happen and it didn’t. You are so frustrated. It’s not ok to hit and kick, but it’s ok to feel mad. I understand. I feel mad, too, sometimes. Just don’t hurt people.” (We don’t always do our best. I’ve yelled more in the past six months than I probably have my entire time as a mom. So, plenty of apologies and restarts, too.)

If he’s still on edge and posturing aggressively after the initial talks and tears, our next step is usually, “You are welcome to stay here as long as you can play respectfully and nicely. If you need to take a break, I can come with you.” If a toy was involved in the altercation we might say, “You may play with that as long as you can use it safely. Otherwise I will take it until you’re ready to be safe.”

Thankfully, once we changed course it got noticeably better. Not overnight, but within a few weeks there was significant weight lifted off all our shoulders. Add normal developmental maturation to improved emotional regulation and his current behavior feels almost miraculous. (I had my doubts this would improve much because of how big his temper seemed.) One of the changes I didn’t anticipate was that he cries more easily now after injuries. He’s seeking us out for comfort instead of acting out physically. He’s also exhibiting much more self-control during disagreements. Like all four year olds, he has plenty of communication skills to learn, but he’s quicker to take turns or share his toys. He’s not feeling as easily threatened. In general, he just seems more stable and secure.

There is residual trauma and it’s remains a careful trek. Some of his worst behaviors reappeared at a friend’s birthday party last month, when he was exhausted after a week of spring break activities and his own birthday festivities. Leave it to the gymnastics party people to put a stamp on his feet without asking so we can all watch the house come tumbling down! Wailing, hitting, screaming. Even a piece of cake couldn’t pull him out of his misery, because it was served with a SPORK, for the love! The kid wasn’t going to deal with alternative utensils on top of all the other atrocities from the past fifteen minutes. (He tried to throw the plate with cake on it.) Nothing could get him back. We had to leave the party early, at which point my oldest (understandably) freaked out, too. Two sobbing boys for the car ride home.

(Little tangent here- Why do people put stamps or stickers on children without asking? Does this ever turn out well? Several months ago a grocery store checker asked if he wanted a sticker. After he answered affirmatively, she took it off the paper and put it ON HIS FOREHEAD. Again, without asking. He loudly yelled, “YOU STUPID!”, hit me a lot and wailed. Goodness, people. Have some respect.)

We have not hit the summit yet, but I can finally see it. All of us still brace ourselves when the road is bumpy. We trip and fall, reminded yet again that the new path requires much more careful footing and plenty of breaks for deep breathing. Once we’re standing on the peak we’ll take in the view and pat ourselves on the back for all the boulders we climbed (sometimes twice!). Then, we’ll head down the other side, inevitably beginning the next mountain.

Choosing Space

Happy New Year. 2013 or 2014, depending on whether you round up or round down. And hello again! It’s been awhile. There were the usual holiday factors. There was a really amazing family vacation in sunny, warm Florida to visit my mother-in-law. We met Spiderman. And Buzz Lightyear.  There was an awful two weeks in January experiencing Norovirus. (The only time I left our house the first week was to rent a carpet cleaner. Our rental carpets are already covered in stains, so paying for that lets you know just how grim it was. Anyways, that’s the only time I put on a bra. In an act of grace I was the only one to escape this horrific virus, but I kept a bowl by my bed for a full week after symptoms subsided because I felt like I was going to jinx myself if I took it away.) There was a birthday party for my favorite six year old. We had family in town and a fabulous party to celebrate him. There was the departure of our regular babysitter, the provider of my few hours of freedom each week. There were tears. A lot. This week we’ve been shut in with illness, too. I can’t wait for summer.

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It is times of illness, when I’m tired, stressed and worried, but unable to leave the house to exercise or get a break from it all, that I realize how thin a mental health line I’m still walking. The Norovirus weeks were a painfully sharp contrast to our vacation time. Christmas was my first break from homeschooling and I couldn’t believe how much easier life became. There was still plenty of learning going on, but none of it needed to come from curriculum or be reported. I spent a lot more time playing with the boys. Then, BOOM! jump back into schoolwork and WHAM! get hit by a nasty virus and BAM! babysitter quits. I wasn’t ready for it.

The patterns over the past few months quite clearly declare that I need more space. A friend lovingly reminded me that in the past six years I’ve been caregiving 24/7, chronically deprived of sleep half that time, endured multiple unemployment periods, moved four times, and dealt with other relational stress without a regular break. Just this past fall I started getting two hours alone. Glorious! With our babysitter’s departure, that ended. Extra salt in the wound came when Charlie turning six meant he couldn’t be in our closest gym’s childcare.

My challenges this year have reinforced how important taking care of myself is, and with the wisdom of others speaking truth and grace into this situation, I’m actually learning how to implement this. Sometimes even without any guilt. Brene Brown’s chapter about parenting in Daring Greatly continues to deeply nurture me. (I have my own copy that I can mark up. Yay!) She quotes Joseph Chilton Pearce saying, “What we are teaches the child more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become.” She goes on to write, “Even though the vulnerability of parenting is terrifying at times, we can’t afford to armor ourselves against it or push it away–it is our richest, most fertile ground for teaching and cultivating connection, meaning, and love.” These ideas are helping me learn to let go of what I see as ideal for my children, even requiring me to give up something very precious, so that I can learn to live more wholeheartedly.

I’m taking extra measures to be more generous to myself. I signed up for a mini triathlon because they’re super fun (seriously!) and they force me to exercise regularly. I used to think I was above needing accountability like that, but I’m not. Only when I’m signed up for races do I choose to exercise as regularly as I need. That extra motivation gets us all out the door, past the environmental-guilt-screams in my head about driving farther than I’d wish to get to the gym, and past the mommy-guilt-screams that more time at gym childcare is bad for the boys. (Which is just ridiculous because they love it. But the guilt is there nonetheless.) Exercise is my good attitude medication. When I don’t do it, life is noticeably less fun.

We registered Charlie for public school first grade and Miles for preschool two mornings. First, Miles will be three. The year of irrational expectations. I kept envisioning next year’s homeschooling scene and it wasn’t pretty. Of course I have major reservations about public school: huge classes, ridiculous mandated tests, often poor curriculum choices, minimal arts offerings, discouraging playground situations, etc… I am very sad that he won’t get chances to ask questions often. Also, I still believe the best learning is individualized, experiential, passion-driven and involves a lot of play. If Charlie has tons of busywork homework, I will probably encourage him to not do it. Our Kindergarten experience has been a really special time for Charlie and I to connect, create and explore together. I will miss laughing about lizards detaching tails and complementing each other’s artwork. Plus, he’s over the moon about his theatre program. So, even though public school gives me space, it’s also a huge sacrifice. If I’m feeling up for it in future years, I imagine we’ll return to homeschooling.

For now, I need more space.

I’m taking this step because I am worth it. In the past, this has been a really hard thing for me to believe and live out. I’m pretty sure I come from a long line of martyrs and being female doesn’t help anything either.

“Somewhere buried deep inside our hopes and fears for our children is the terrifying truth that there is no such thing as perfect parenting and there are no guarantees. From debates about attachment parenting to how much better they parent in Europe to disparagement of “tiger moms” and helicopter parents, the heated discussions that occupy much of the national parenting conversation conveniently distract us from this important and difficult truth: Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting.”–Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

How many times can I tell myself this? The best thing I can do for myself, my husband and my boys is take care of myself. If I am thriving, so will my children. Even more important than being with them a lot is being present. This year, taking care of myself is even more important than homeschooling. Sometimes good is good enough. Maybe even best.

A Hiatus to Grieve

Even though my first post was just a few months ago, I began the process of writing this blog five years ago. Truly. Since becoming a mom I’ve pondered sharing how my professional training in speech-language pathology has enhanced my experience of motherhood. I’ve probably drafted fifty posts in my brain. I’ve discussed it a bazillion times (I think my oldest considers this a real number) with my very patient husband and close friends. It just took me ridiculously long to get over my hurdles of perfectionism, anxiety and self-doubt and take the giant leap.

My primary hope for this blog is that it brings anyone who interacts with children on a regular basis more pleasure in that experience, as well as helping build a better relationship for the dyad through opening up the communication pathways. I hope to relieve some of the stress by providing a few strategies that help with communication struggles. I’d be thrilled if storytimes transformed from a struggle to a joy. Same with mealtimes. Basically, it boils down to this: I know how incredibly hard caring for children day in and day out can be and I am hoping to lighten the load.

My goal is to post weekly but I don’t want to be a slave to the blog and start posting inane contributions just to keep it going. I value your time. I value my time. But, I do feel that pressure. So, the fact that I haven’t posted in several weeks stresses me out a bit.

It’s not that I haven’t written. I have actually spent hours writing. Most of that time was spent angrily venting my thoughts after the Aurora shooting. Coming so close on the heels of the Seattle shootings (Cafe Racer is close to our house and the other spot downtown was close to where Miles and I were at the time), and being in my homestate near the homes of several college friends’ parents, I felt this deeply. I dropped more than a few f-bombs and sat on it for a week, realizing this is not the place for that. There are many excellent journalists who have shared my viewpoint far more articulately with much better research. So, I took action instead- signed a few petitions and emailed legislators.

But even prior to the shootings I was questioning aspects of this blog and feeling hesitant to write. A friend of mine, whom I deeply care about and respect, wrote this about parenting advice. I completely agree with her point about grieving and it was something I needed to read at just that time. I was wrapping up several weeks of dealing with increased anger and impatience towards the boys and Harry, unable to pinpoint why. Her post encouraged me to sit with it a bit and I ended up balling in Harry’s arms a few days later, crying about a variety of things I’d bottled up for far too long. But I needed to think awhile about the rest of her post and why I was hit so hard by it that I didn’t want to post here.

Basically, the last thing I want to do is make “parents everywhere feel like shit.” I know the judgment facing parents.I have sat in that boat, wondering why someone would act a certain way or horrified by a parents’ harsh words towards their kid, and considered that adult less because of it. Now, on my better days, I still think those thoughts but it’s tempered with more grace, compassion and understanding. I realize that I have no idea why someone might be acting that way. Given how much privilege I’ve experienced, chances are their life is much, much harder than mine. I also know that I don’t even come close to knowing it all. There are so many aspects of parenthood that are so ridiculously hard, to think that we have all the answers would be idiotic. Lastly, I am deeply aware of how lost sleep can turn a well-meaning loving mom into a mean ogre. After having Miles, particularly in the first year(s) when we were incredibly sleep deprived, I became the craziest looney on the block. Dr. Harvey did not help me. I was losing my marbles. I was really quick to anger with Charlie, who was at that lovely irrational age of 3.5. I was haunted by all the advice against letting younger babies cry but knew how desperately we needed to be sane. But I could only talk with a few very trusted people about it because of fear of judgment.

So, today’s post is simply to ask that you help keep me in line. If you’re feeling judged or inadequate because of something I write, please let me know. I do not want to go there. My desire is to be a place of inspiration. If you need encouragement in communicating with your little one in a certain way, please let me know. I might have some ideas that may help. This is not to say that I don’t have strong opinions about issues. I do. Oh, yes I do. But, my hope is that you’ll know when my opinions and advice are perfect for you and when you can leave them behind. Or maybe you just need to chew on things for a little bit and re-evaluate later.

In the meantime, I am taking my friend’s advice (I see the irony) to continue grieving while disregarding her advice to not take advice (and in my case, share it). My comment on her blog included this: 

 I really agree with the spirit of this- a parent’s healing needs to be a progression and grieving happens as a life-long process. One thing I notice about parenthood is that my grief, as it comes in waves, absolutely (deeply!) impacts my parenting style. My anger can surprise me with how quickly it will swell and then be directed at my kids. This shock sends me reeling to my books or favorite articles for reminders and ideas that get me through until I’ve had the time and space to properly understand the trigger. Parenthood just doesn’t allow the luxury to reflect during a moment. Those tips can help buy time.
I feel like I am a pretty good judge of what to take or leave. Some of it is crap. Some is fantastic. Some is neither here nor there. As far as development stuff goes (like language), I love learning about child development. My degree in speech-language pathology has made parenting much more FUN. Understanding development better has made my experience much richer. I know how to meet my boys at their level. I can connect much better with them. I wouldn’t have this without a stronger knowledge base. It’s 100% enrichment.
There’s definitely a difference between knowledge and advice. Knowledge allows a place of empowerment from which one can grow and flex along with the relationship’s journey. Advice will sometimes be more rigid and wrong for some, and sometimes be just fine.

I am remembering my own issues and talking more about them, instead of shoving them aside. I am taking steps to care for myself better. I am reading the stories about the theatre victims with amazement at those people who acted out of tremendous love and courage that night. I am reading the stories about Seattle’s Cafe Racer reopening, with the owner embracing a commitment to continued community for that spot. I am smiling and saying hi to the people I pass because it’s a lonely, lonely world sometimes. I am chasing my children around the house while wearing a colander on my head because we all need a laugh. I am letting Miles harvest carrots that are one inch long because he thinks it’s fun and it helps me hold my garden more open-handedly. I am inviting people into my home even though the toilets might be gross and the kitchen floor hasn’t been mopped since June. I am going to keep writing. I don’t want my anxiety of potentially offending someone to stop me from sparking any good that might come from sharing ideas. And I’m thinking about the next nugget of knowledge I’ll share with you.