Tag Archives: shame

Shelter

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

Brené Brown

“Can we listen to ‘I see trees of green’?” Miles inquired at breakfast, singing the line as he requested the song. The boys were sitting at the table with their oatmeal, I was packing lunches, Harry was making the two of us some eggs, and Miles took a break from eating to sign along to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” At the end he made certain we knew that, “The sign for ‘world’ goes like this [hand gesture], because the world is round.”

As breakfast progressed, the best series of songs ever requested by a child in our household unfolded. We played James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” once Miles elaborated enough for us to figure out that “I feel nice” includes “I feel nice! So nice! I got you!” That was followed up by “What the World Needs Now is Love” and “My Girl.” “Baa Baa Black Sheep” also entered the mix; it wasn’t all nursery-free. More signs, more singing, more moments that made me wish we had a hidden camera in our household so I could watch this on repeat when I’m sad, nostalgic or otherwise needing to smile.

My episodic memory is so horrible that writing is one of the only ways I’ll file this away with most of the details accurate. Even a few hours later and I was dependent on Harry’s recollection for all the songs. I would be a horrible witness. (OMG!. Finally listening to Serial. Late to the party, but so glad I showed up. DO NOT TELL ME ANYTHING.) But I do not want to forget this morning. I want its sweetness seared into the depths of my cortex.

These beautiful, not-to-be-missed moments seem brighter to me now than they have for months. A crucial part of this season of struggle for our family is how we let it refine us. Harry and I are acutely aware that our stress can be handled countless ways. We hurt each other at times, of course, but thankfully we also call out to each other for support in our dark moments. It could easily go the other way. Blame, shame, anger, and guilt could do us in if we didn’t bring our more upsetting thoughts into the light.

IMG_5324I am raw. I cry often. Much to my embarrassment, this seems to include every time I walk through one of Seattle’s beautiful parks filled with gigantic, blooming trees. I depend on spring’s flowers. I am also, on occasion, acting like a caffeinated dog stuck outside during a lightning storm. No shelter in sight, I chase my tail until I collapse. This is not a particularly helpful strategy.

After, oh, round seven or so of time between jobs, I am finally realizing that this is one of my coping patterns. In my unhealthiest moments, I detour around my productive strategies for dealing with anxiety to a manic search for something tangible and “stable.”

I spent a ridiculous number of hours looking at homes on Zillow this week. Questions about the Seattle market? I’m your gal! Want a home on San Juan Island? I can hook you up! I’ve been sick and weak from a lovely GI episode (FeBRUTALary!), laying in bed drooling over gorgeous homes with views of the waters the orcas visit. Even if we could buy a house right now, it would be an idiotic move. Yet I chase that dream like it would bring reprieve. How can you weigh the importance of a dad choosing work that doesn’t demand relentless hours or suck his soul dry just to receive a higher income? How do you know whether it’s better to choose home ownership and a more affordable town than the city and community you love?

Yesterday, I spent hours fighting way too many regretful feelings that staying at home for over five years was a poor choice for our family given the ups and downs of a contract-based business. I went to that extremely unhelpful Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda place. If I had worked, we would have more money. I should’ve trusted that the wee boys would be fine with someone else and we could’ve bought a house. If only, if only, if only. The standard privileged modern mom’s dilemma. I’ve faced it before, just not as deeply. Was not working worth it? How much do I value on staying home with kids? Would greater financial stability, nice vacations and a home of our own be better for our family? How do I weigh these factors?

My questions about those things remain, for sure. I wish someone could tell me with certainty all the ways my boys are better off, but ultimately it’s a moot point. Mostly, though, I think I’m deflecting fear that our next income might not allow us to live as we have in the past, as well as anger that returning to work as a Speech-Language Pathologist requires jumping ridiculous, expensive hurdles. I didn’t anticipate a cake walk, but thus far the Washington State Department of Health is giving the DMV a run for their money.

This season has been painful for me, but I am beginning to value the questioning process that is birthed from the anxiety. We are in a refinement period, redefining what is important to us, reminding ourselves of our core values, savoring the laughter, passions, and love we share as a family. We’re going to come out of this with a clearer vision. This is a tiny but important step in accepting that I can not fight the storm. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to stop chasing my tail, too.

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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.

 

Summer PSA: My scariest parenting moment to date

Generally one of the best ways for me to process a horrible event is to share it with friends and write about it. This particular one was witnessed by a friend, and I was comforted to have her immediate empathetic, non-judgmental response as my first. When I told my husband he also responded lovingly and graciously, understanding how this could happen. That’s the only type of response I can handle right now. Here, I’m requesting virtual hugs while simultaneously providing a PSA.

While visiting a friend’s pool today, a common summer event for us, I did as I usually do: walked into the courtyard, placed our gear and food on a table, and turned to help get the boys ready for the pool. But this time I turned around and my youngest was bobbing up and down, silently drowning. (I can’t yet write this without crying.)

I jumped into the pool, cover-up dress still on, and placed him on the side. I held him, kissing him and holding him for a long time while my hands shook. He was breathing. Thank God. He didn’t cough either, so I suppose he did a decent job keeping his mouth closed each time he went under.

I don’t know how long he was in. Probably just a few seconds, certainly no more than a minute. He had to walk down a couple stairs to get to the deeper part and he was already a few feet away from the stairs when I got to him. Given the outcome, it doesn’t matter. I can replay it all I want but I’ll never know exactly how it happened. I just know that he got in over his head.

For the past few summers he’s worn a puddle jumper to swim “independently.” He’s never tried to get in without me holding him or wearing that. I assumed, after several years of safe behavior, that he understood he could not float without assistance. Obviously, there was some cognitive shift in which he no longer understood that he wasn’t floating by himself. Or he simply didn’t understand the consequences. Even immediately after the incident he tried several times to get in the pool without me or the puddle jumper after we’d removed it for bathroom breaks and lunch. Having learned my lesson, I was vigilant at that point and didn’t allow him out of my line of sight, but I was surprised that he tried entering again so quickly.

I simply want to add to the chorus of water safety PSAs, specifically to remind parents of young children that our little ones may demonstrate safety over months of time, even years, and then immediately disregard the rules. (I certainly could’ve used a gentler reminder.) After it happened I recalled that my oldest tried to cross the street without me when he was four, also after years of always waiting for an adult’s hand. There just might be something about this age, as they shift from babies and toddlers to more independent little kids, that they overestimate their own skills. Don’t assume a history of consistently safe behavior will continue.

We will now establish a routine that prevents accidents. I will be putting his puddle jumper on prior to entering the pool courtyard. Or I will hold his hand until it’s on. Or I will not take my eyes off of him. But even writing that idea feels dangerous. Another kid falling or crying can be a big enough distraction to take my eyes off of him, just long enough for a him to get in the pool. So, I think I’ll stick with putting it on the minute we have access to the water.

Right after it happened I would’ve spent a thousand dollars for amazing swim lessons to get him 100% water safe. I’ve talked myself down a bit, but I feel increasingly horrible about it. I will never forget the look on his face. I couldn’t be more thankful that this ending wasn’t different.

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In which I summon Matt Foley

I feel more and more certain that if parents all had, oh, three to five children, at least one would humble us to our knees. Increase our perspective and compassion towards other parents. Help us realize we just might fall short of the badass parents we thought we were going to be.

I have met my match. We’ve been having preschool drop-off challenges. Actually drop-off anywhere, challenges. He just doesn’t want to be separated from us. And he shows it with gusto. Hitting, kicking, screaming. The pattern has been that he calms after a few minutes and then enjoys himself, always exiting enthusiastically with lots of stories to tell. But the entrance. Oh, the entrance.

On the walk to preschool today, he was giggling like crazy as I made the stroller do crazy turns, wheelies and spins (“Oh, I just can’t help it. Whoa! It’s craaaaazy!”). We were both having a lot of fun. Then, a block or two ahead he spotted a tiny little boy wearing an adorable equally tiny backpack. I’m pretty sure that was his wake-up call. He had known where we were going, but might have conveniently forgotten during our walk.

Little Walking Reminder prompted a strong, “I don’t want to go! I want to go home!” I tried my best to be an empathetic listener. “I know you feel sad and nervous. It’s only been a few days and it’s still new to you. When I pick you up we’ll have lots of fun together at home.” “I WILL NOT GO!” He tried to hit me from the stroller. I kept walking, knowing if he got out it was going to be an epic chase. He’d run away, screaming that he’s not going to go to preschool. I’d have to catch him, hold him while he hits and kicks me, and then try to wrangle him and the stroller the next few blocks to school.

Thankfully, we made it to the landing in front of preschool despite his protests growing in volume. I tried to do more reassuring and echoing of his emotions, but he wasn’t having it. I walked a few feet away to sign him in (which is outside, so he’s stayed by the stroller). He started yelling, “I’m stuck!” I looked back to see that he had crawled part-way under the stroller. I tried to help him out but he only forced himself further in. “I’m not going!” he yelled, while in the BOTTOM OF THE STROLLER. He crawled all the way under the stroller seat, into the basket, as an attempt to hide. Quite a tactic. He’s smart, this one.  The preschool teacher came over and nicely told him all the fun things they’re going to do. He didn’t budge. “I WON’T GO!”

I simultaneously saw the hilarity of this moment and was completely tortured by it. If I didn’t hold myself together, I knew I would be laughing hysterically and a blubbering fool. I looked at the teacher, “So, I guess we should just get him out?” She helped release his hands, I pulled him out and she carried him inside while he repeatedly hit her head and screamed, “NOOOO! I don’t want to leave my mommy!”

Out of his sight, I stood outside a minute to catch my breath, tears in my eyes. He kept wailing. I walked away still hearing his cries.

There I was, alone and teary-eyed, leaving a preschool that we’re brand new to as of the past week and don’t yet know anybody attending. I needed a hug. I needed someone to tell me he’ll be fine. I needed someone to tell me he’s going to get used to it and do better. I needed someone to tell me that we didn’t create this hitting, kicking monster who surfaces out of my equally intensely wonderful child.

I quickly pushed the empty stroller past my one of my favorite coffee shops with tears still in my eyes, not wanting to see my friend who owns it, knowing that a look of compassion would open the floodgates. Once past the business section of the neighborhood, I pulled out my phone and called a lifeline. Thank goodness for friends who understand. Thank goodness I’m learning to immediately reach out when I’m sad. This boy is going to teach me a lot. Hopefully a preschool teacher or I won’t get a black eye in the meantime.

I also want to take a moment to acknowledge that a hitting, kicking, screaming young child probably doesn’t come from a hitting, kicking, screaming parent. We both raise our voices on occasion, but it is rare. We’ve never hit or kicked our kids. Nor does our oldest do this to our youngest. This is just his current skill set for fear. He is scared about change, new to an environment, and dealing with it in full fighting mode. He is intense in all ways- the good and the bad.

I’ve been reading parenting books with hopes of understanding him better and finding ideas to help us all through this transition. One passage in a very popular book really upset me. The author answered “How do you handle a child who feels that violence is the only way to solve a problem?” with,

“This question raises several more: What is going on in this child’s life? Where is this child learning violence? Too much television? Too many video games? Too much punishment? A child’s environment and the role models he encounters provide many clues about that child’s violent behavior.

As a wise person once said, if you want to understand the fruit, look at the tree. Children do indeed learn what they live, and changing angry, aggressive behavior is best accomplished through kind, firm teaching about respect, nonviolent ways of solving problems, and watching adults practice what they preach.”

I find this response fascinating and horrifying. I do believe there are children acting out physically because that’s what they’re experiencing, but I am certain that it is not usually that black and white. Isn’t it ironic that such outright parental shaming resides in a book meant to guide parents how to teach children through positive methods? The purpose of this book is to give parents alternatives to shaming kids, yet it’s shaming parents. The parents should be addressed with the same compassion.

So, that’s what I’m going to do here. I’m just going to take a moment to address myself in the way that I need. Stick with me. It’s cheesy, but I’m desperate for encouragement and laughter this morning. I’m guessing at least a few of you are, too. At the moment, I need a motivational speaker so desperately that I might not even care if he lives in a van down by the river.

“Self, this is a really rough period of development. Three and half is notoriously difficult. Plus, he has had a lot of change. He misses having his big brother around. He misses having his dad work from home. He misses being with you all the time. He feels scared about his new experiences, even though he also enjoys them. He doesn’t know how to express all these emotions yet, and for him, they are big. Huge. So, he’s expressing himself how he knows best, with his body.”

“Well, la dee frickin’ da!”

“Thanks, Matt. Anyways. Self, keep at it. Shower him with love and fun. Keep letting him know it’s alright to feel scared. Keep dropping him off. Tune in to whether he’s staying enthusiastic about his experiences because if he’s not, maybe it really isn’t a good fit.  But it’s probably just fine and this is a stage for him. A really awful one, but a period of development that will end. He is a very intense child and his current passion to not go will probably switch to a passionate desire to attend. Let’s hope for the best.”

“Otherwise, he’s going to live in a van down by the river.”

“Yes, Matt. He just might. Thank you. Anyways, it is hard to trust that he’s fine. It’s hard to not feel judged and like you’ve failed when your child is making the biggest scene and hurting people. Trust yourself. Keep calling your friends. Get support.”

(If any of my friends are worried about me after reading that very odd conversation with Matt Foley, please don’t hesitate to give me a call. I’m not so sure about myself either. But, this write-up has allowed me to funnel some of my nervous energy, while also accomplishing the goal of resting while recovering from a cold, icing my injured hip, and getting to write. Aaaah, it’s been forever- so glad to be here again. Now I return to my previously scheduled program- showering, eating and anxiously walking to pick him up and hear about how great his morning was. Or, get hit and kicked.)

Cultivating gratitude

Up until last night, all the job stuff looked very murky again. It has been such a ridiculous and complicated set of events that I’m not even going to try to share it here. Just know, we’ve been on a ride. Most days for the past week I have been shouting “uncle!” every hour. I’m sparing that as my title for the post because I really, really think this is almost over. We will know 100% tomorrow, once paperwork is signed.

One undesirable trait I’ve seen in myself this summer, again, is that I’ve pretty much sucked at looking on the bright side. Harry can weather these times between contracts with a really great attitude. Don’t get me wrong, he struggles with it, too, but he ultimately keeps his head in a place of seeing all the positive that comes from these periods. And he’s right. I know he’s right. We come out with a clearer vision for our family. We become tighter knit and receive clarity with relationships and goals. He works diligently to build his skills during these “breaks” and often ends up getting better jobs. Yet, somehow, I go to this place of doom. Every time.

My doom is luxurious doom. It’s “We’re never going to buy a house or replace our car” doom. We aren’t worried about rent or food. Yet I still go to this “woe is me” place and feel sorry for myself that we’re not going to be able to buy a house a soon as I’d hoped. Especially the million dollar one on San Juan Island, with a view of the orcas. Or get a Tesla. Ok, at least something more environmentally friendly than our current enormous gas guzzling beast.

The unexpected extra thorns this summer also included my phone starting to die, our car breaking down, my surprise by an unwavering policy at Miles’ preschool and subsequent pulling him from the program, hip pain that keeps getting worse and is now keeping me from running and walking, blah, blah, blah, blah. These things are annoying and hard, but they’re weatherable. They don’t need to cloud my vision.

I feel like I have very thin skin these days. Thinner than it should be. Thinner than it used to be. I know it’s not our circumstances improving that will change my resilience. That would be a band-aid. The excitement of a house fades quickly, new cars lose their luster, different jobs provide increased demands. I try to frequently remind myself of the psychology around buying houses and cars. I know, rationally, that the increased happiness in temporary. But that doesn’t keep me from wanting it. Especially during stressful times when I crave a greater sense of stability. Even if it’s false. See the challenge?

I need a stronger anchor. I know Master Brené (if I met her in person I might just call her this) shares the importance of a daily practice of gratitude as a key difference between optimists and pessimists. (Oh no, I’ve even touched on it here before. Just six months ago!) It’s not inherent in personality. It’s a practice. Hmmmm….this might be part of my problem. I’m having a once a week, or even once a month, “Oh shit, I’m focusing on all the negative stuff going on here” moment and trying to combat it with a random pile of gratitude thoughts. No wonder I’m not getting anywhere. Except feeling that I’m bad at this. Like there’s a gratefulness contest about to happen and there’s no point in me even entering because I will be coming in last. As if God is sitting in the stands with a big BOO! sign.

Besides not practicing, my other problem is that I am tired of sweeping things under the rug. Sometimes practicing gratitude feels fake to me. I did that everything-is-all-smiles my teenage years and most of my twenties and I’m over it. Grief is important. Anger is important. I am generally anxious about change and denying that doesn’t help anyone. Buuuuut, maybe there’s a healthier place in between?

The past few weeks, despite myself, I have been continuously reminded of my treasures. I have felt deep love and deeply loved. I have felt more keenly aware of who my community is than I have in a long time. I have been hit with awe knowing that I have people in my life who stick by me through thick and thin. Times when I’m upbeat and fun or when I’m drab and sad. Showered or smelly. People who can handle me where I’m at. No masks. Or at least trying to peel them off when I notice them. And I feel that way about them. Is there a greater gift? I feel one step closer to heaven.

Yesterday, after squeezing hundreds of grapes off their stems in the morning, and pulling hundreds of coriander seeds off their stems in the evening, I realized that I am finding repetitive tasks soothing. (This has not been the case pre-motherhood.) There is now peace in the monotony. It wasn’t quiet or uninterrupted. Miles was narrating every single thing he did while I worked on the grapes, and I frequently left the grapes to play along with his game, sticky hands and all. Yet it was still calming. Bunch by bunch by bunch. Grape by grape by grape. Somehow, my mind relaxed as the colander filled.

I think this is a key for me to further growth. My gratitude practice needs to be linked to something tangible. The working of my hands allows my mind to be more relaxed and often better focused. Maybe my body has to be a part of this somehow. Yoga, dancing, cooking, gardening. Heck, maybe even puzzles! Let’s get crazy here.

If you do them, would you share your gratitude practices with me – what challenges you face and what helps you most? I would love to look around, even if it’s just with virtual vision, and see others on this journey with me. (Also, this feels like a good time to say thanks. I am really thankful you read my posts. It has been a huge gift to me.)

Respecting his journey

He was just two. Toddling about in tiny shoes, saying “titty-tat!” with his sweet, high-pitched voice. Tired of diapers, and cloth ones at that, I responded eagerly to my friend who was determined to potty train her same aged son in one weekend. “Yes!” I’d do it, too. We’d be in it together. It’d be grrrrreat.

As a therapist I had enough experience modifying behaviors in young children to believe that given good teaching, shaping behaviors was almost always possible. I was pretty confident.

I tried. For weeks, I tried. He wore nothing but underwear, I cleaned up accident after accident. My friend’s son did great. He was nearly accident free within a few days. This spurned me on. I was so ridiculously determined that I carried his portable training potty with us in our car. You see, he was scared of the big toilets. Automatic flushing ones were terrifying. So, why not carry a toilet with us?

This really should have been a signal to me. When you’re carrying a toilet around in your trunk, that just might be a sign. I should’ve raised a white flag of surrender. Waved the toilet paper in the air and trusted he would come around on his own time. But there was more at play.

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I didn’t realize I had gone too far until I found myself getting angry at him. I wasn’t voicing it (I only had one kid still- so much more emotional capacity back then!), but I was feeling it. Deeply frustrated, increasingly mad. Eventually it hit me. This was all because of pride. I was committed to the process because of how I perceived it would reflect on me as a parent, not because it felt like the right thing to do for my child.

I was worried this would make me look like I wasn’t a good teacher. Like I somehow wasn’t an on-top-of-it mother or my son wasn’t smart enough. We were flawed because he wasn’t potty trained at two. Oh my.

That potty training attempt was my first taste of the desire to push my child faster than he was ready emotionally because subconsciously I put my pride on the line. I’ve since encountered it with childcare drop-offs, riding a balance bike, tree climbing, running down hills, swimming, riding a pedal bike, teaching him to read, wanting him to participate in a choir, wanting him to want to play sports and attend soccer camp. At least monthly, I am reminded that this is not my journey.

There is a narrow divide between encouraging, trusting in their resilience, drawing upon their bravery and pushing them too quickly, forcing them into activities, putting our own hopes, fears and expectations on them. Tuning into why I’m upset something isn’t happening keeps me on the right side of the divide.

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A few times I have handled letting go of expectations well, though usually after hitting my head against the wall for weeks. The first was when he learned to ride a pedal bike. Christmas morning, weeks prior to his fourth birthday, he woke up to a bike with a big red bow and no training wheels. He had developed great balance with his pedal-free bike, so even though he was young, this was what people encouraged us to do. We took him out that afternoon and he got the hang of it quickly! In our eyes, it was beautiful and couldn’t have gone better. But, he wouldn’t ride again for months.

We would ask and ask and ask. He’d say no. We didn’t want to put training wheels on because it felt like backsliding and we thought he’d come through again. Finally, we gave him room to voice his fears. While we were focused on how well he’d done, all he could recall was a fall that happened at the end of the day. He was scared to bike because he didn’t want to crash. I asked him, “Would you like to try training wheels on your bike to get used to pedaling and braking?” “Yes.” “How many times do you want to practice this way before we take them off again?” “Ten.” Alrighty, then!

After we listened to him, it was that easy. He practiced those new skills ten times and off went the training wheels. He was still very nervous, but found a lot of comfort in the stories Harry and I shared of our own bike falls. I told him about my latest tip over while at a stop sign on a steep Seattle hill in clip-in shoes. Harry told him about his mountain biking accidents. We shared how the falls often hurt, but we always felt like the fun of biking was worth the momentary pain. We normalized his experience- everyone falls, it hurts, most people think it’s worth it.

The same progression happened with swimming. He participated in group swimming lessons when he was four. The only skills I saw improve were techniques to make his classmates giggle while they waited at the wall. Last spring he told us he didn’t want to take swim lessons again, adding, “I will teach myself how to swim.” I believed him. I was also happy to not spend our money on honing his pooltime comedy routine.

Every time we went swimming, he made decent progress, taking little steps that would get him closer to swimming. Finally, after our vacation in June, during which he got more water exposure than usual, he would put his head under while plugging his nose and played lots of water games comfortably. He was probably a little too confident since he still couldn’t float. My concern about his false sense of confidence let me know it was time for more lessons.

A friend told me about private swimming lessons working well for her daughter with a similar disposition, and I thought that would be the best option. No surprise, he didn’t want to go. I told him, “I know you’re nervous, but we believe you are ready to learn more. You’re doing so well now and they’ll help you feel comfortable with the next steps so you can really swim. Pools will be so much more fun!” He wasn’t sold. “I know you still feel scared, but the teacher will listen and help you. They won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do.” Still not buying it. “We believe learning to swim is really important. It lets you have more fun but it also helps you be safer around water. We think it’s important that you’re safe around water. We will keep doing lessons until you are and you can take as long as you need.” Sold! This time he needed the understanding that this wasn’t negotiable but he had permission to go at his pace. He was not excited, but willing. By the end of the first lesson, he was swimming the crawl stroke with his face in the water.

It is difficult for me to determine when I’m taking too much control of his journey or when I need to exert more influence. Our history is teaching me that examining my own hopes and fears is a critical first step, along with listening to him and reflecting his emotions. Normalizing experiences and providing opportunity to practice has helped tremendously, too. But ultimately, it’s about trusting. Believing in his resilience, in his need for security, in his desire to learn. Month by month, I am learning to respect that his journey will often be different than my hopes for him, but if I stay on the right side of the divide, it’ll be just as interesting and rewarding.

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Deep waters

I’m pretty sure that within 15-minutes of posting last week’s cake recipe, in which I shared how nicely our summer was going, I had a complete meltdown, needing to leave Harry with the boys and take a walk. I had written a paragraph for that post about the part of summer that’s been hard to swallow, but I removed it. It wasn’t so tough at the moment and I thought it was ending that day anyway. Therefore, it felt superfluous and got the ax. Well, apparently it really wanted to be published because now I’m sharing. For my own sake, of course.

Harry works contract jobs as a web developer. He also creates his own stuff on the side, like Jetrecord and SleepSleep. (He’s an amazingly brilliant guy, constantly bubbling with new ideas.) We deliberately chose the risks of this job, with a safety net in place, because we thought it best suited who he is and we treasured the flexibility it gave our family. However, the stability of contract life leaves something to be desired. If this feels like deja-vu, you’re right. I’ve written about my mental fallout during life between contracts before.

Yes. Here we are again. His job completed the end of June, another was verbally agreed to start ten days ago. Then the start date moved back a week, then a month. Another one was verbally agreed to. That pay dropped dramatically, as did the contract length. Now it’s all up in the air.

Every time we go through this I weather the in-between a little longer, a little stronger. I try really hard to remain optimistic at the beginning. This time, I felt fine(ish) until the first start date came and went. I started to get more stressed at that point, and honestly, completely lost it by the end of a few rounds of the back and forth. These uncertain periods are never easy for my anxious mind. I rarely just go with the flow.

The Demands and Capacities Model for mental health rings true yet again for me. I think I held on as long as I did because I had a deeper reservoir this summer. Everything else was feeling really great- I liked the summer rhythm with the boys, I felt intense freedom without homeschooling to think about, I was regularly getting up early to exercise (something I’ve battled mentally and been unsuccessful with for months), we had some babysitting freedom, and I was often able to work in the garden and kitchen without feeling frantic. I can shred zucchini and cut basil like a madwoman, I tell you! But I’d rather linger. There’s been more play. For all of us. For me, with food. For the boys, with waterguns and slip n’ slides.

Apparently over a week’s time, my reservoir turned into a boiling cauldron. I wasn’t even aware that I was so on the brink. I picked Charlie up from camp (Lego Camp! Jedi Engineering Lego Camp! My boy has been gone 9-4 all week with strangers and LOVES it. Yay for Ewok villages and Death Star destruction!). I was proud of myself because we were stopping at a friend’s before going home and I thought ahead enough to make him a favorite snack of homemade granola, yogurt and berries for the car. I knew he’d be thrilled. Within minutes of being back in his presence, I made him feel horrible for an accident. Instead of it being a nurturing moment for us to reconnect, I basically shamed him. I didn’t call him a bad kid or stupid, but I made it seem like I thought his behavior was purposeful, which I know it wasn’t. I hate even writing that, but it’s true. I’m embarrassed by it. While he gobbled down that damn delicious granola, I was mean. It certainly wasn’t what I envisioned for that time.

We got home and I felt like shit. I wanted to disappear. I hadn’t apologized to Charlie yet. In our bedroom Harry told me more bad news on the job front while the boys watched Dora in the family room. (“So, this would only last six weeks instead of three months.” “¡RÁPIDO! ¡MÁS RÁPIDO!” “And they don’t want to pay [anything close to my normal wage].” “SWIPER, NO SWIPING!”). I asked to be alone in our bedroom. My dear man closed the door and returned with a beer for me, took care of dinner for the boys and made them giggle like crazy with his silly stories. All while I escaped with a beer, a book and the book of faces.

After this little breathing time I gathered up enough courage to speak my shame to Harry, telling him how I treated Charlie, and then even more to apologize to Charlie. He was so brave. He told me I hurt his feelings, but quickly entered my arms and lap, accepting my prolific explanation of why it wasn’t ok for me to treat him that way and that I was very sorry. We read two chapters of Willy Wonka together, snuggling the whole time. I am deeply grateful for the forgiveness and love of my little boy.

At the end of last night, a dear friend kindly reminded me that it’s alright to check out every once in awhile. I needed that so much. I can easily give grace to others for those moments while still struggling to give it to myself. It’s a shift in thinking for me that being upset and anxious by this process isn’t about my reservoir being too shallow, or some other deep character flaw that I need to beat into submission. I hit a wall. And that’s alright. Apparently, I still need to get better at accepting this whole being human thing. Having limits and all, sharing my needs. It’s a time to walk into what I already know to be true. I need to immediately gather my circle, speak my fears, ask for help. Of course, I still must keep filling my reservoir, avoiding drought if possible. It’s just that sometimes even that doesn’t prevent those very waters from erupting like geysers.

Our car started to break down this morning on the way to camp. Thankfully, we got Charlie there and the car to the shop without a tow truck. I was upset and almost cried, but after a few calls, I think I’m doing alright. I just might even be getting to a place of finding this all somewhat funny. At least for an hour or two. It’s probably because Miles has a babysitter today.