The list that changed my mind

It’s easy to get bogged down in the daily slog of parenting. Every once in a while, though, something happens that shifts your focus enough to see the small person in front of you in a new light. Even if the moment is fleeting, this break from the slog can feel like a breath of spring air after a long winter.

Sometimes it’s the big, momentous things that shift our focus, someone else’s tragedy; other times it’s just something small and simple that surprises us, showing our kids in a new way. For me, yesterday, it was one of these small things that caused a seismic shift.

Lately, my house has been one of discontent. It’s an unending battle for me to be more patient; a steady struggle for me to not to succumb to the argument; a persistent presence of mind not to immediately blow up over latest sibling conflict. The center of all this friction has been Luke, whose heels seem firmly dug into the mud all the time. Life with him has felt like wading upstream – unrelenting, requiring constant effort and attention, not impossible but not easy. I pinball between frustration, anger, exhaustion, guilt, promises to myself to just be better, and wanting to simply up and quit.

I’ve been waiting for a break. Luke seems to go through periods of disquiet, where he has a hard time with just about everything, resulting in meltdowns, arguments, battles, yelling, obnoxious behavior, and all things unsavory. For both of us. And then slowly he shifts into an easier disposition and time goes by unnoticed until the next episode. I’ve been waiting for this phase to end and so far it appears to be as determined as February to break me – brutal with no end in sight.

So, I can hardly express how happy it made me to find this list. Luke made this schedule the day before his friend came over after school. Excited in a way only he can be, he wanted to ensure they maximized the fun, so he made an itinerary, and it’s so cute I could die.Child's schedule

It’s hard to explain how much finding this list lifted my spirits. It was an immediate relief. The tension stretching me to my outer limits released a little, restoring some much-needed perspective. Luke isn’t an evil genius designed specifically to push all my buttons and drive me to the brink. He’s a kid. A little kid. A sweet, silly, little kid who knows that he might need some rest after so much playing so that he can play some more. He’s a little kid who likes to play with stuffed animals, so he put that on the list to make sure he and his friend have the BEST TIME EVER! He’s a little kid who might be obsessed with Pokemon, and who knows that playing in his room is so much fun he’d better schedule it in for a long time.

How can a child so endearing be so difficult on purpose? He can’t be. None of it is on purpose. He would like nothing more than to be easy to get along with. He sees how different it is for his sister, and I’m sure it makes him feel bad about himself, compounding the internal turmoil that I can’t see and can’t understand, but is the root of all of it. None of it is on purpose though, so I can be compassionate not angry. I needed this list yesterday to remind me of that.

You may not have a child who consistently challenges you, but if you do, then you understand what I mean and my relief at finding my compassion again. I can love this child, and provide the kindness he needs to help restore his inner equilibrium. I can feel good about him, so I can help him feel good about himself in a world that constantly points to how he’s doing this or that wrong. This delightful list illustrates who he really is, how he wants to be all the time, even though he’s not always able.

Naturally I’m going to keep this list forever. I’ll look back at it one day and appreciate its cuteness, but I probably won’t remember how it felt like salvation, like the first warm day of spring. And that’s OK. If I do this right, that’s how all these years will be in my memory. More sweet than fight, more love than strife. Ultimately, that’s the truth even though the slog can blind us to it.

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My Days are Numbered

My kids are getting bigger. Soon I’ll enter the Chauffeur Years, when mothers become a barely tolerated presence in kids’ lives, good only for food, cash, and transport. With that in mind, I’m trying like hell to enjoy the time I’ve got left in the Little Kid Years.

And I do enjoy a lot of it. I love that my kids still rely on goodnight hugs and kisses and stories read aloud in order to fall asleep. I do. It’s too bad that this special time always comes at the end of the day when my nerves are frayed and my wine is downstairs waiting for me with the promise of peace and quiet.

I love that my kids still crave my approval and I know I’ll miss it when they no longer need or want my attention. But really, I just can’t feign interest in what you built in Minecraft and that song you’re singing was cute, an hour ago.

These little kid years are fleeting and all the magic that comes with them is but a moment in our children’s lives. As parents we know this so we try to drink up all the magic, and create even more by putting our children in situations where there will be more and more and more magic. Our little kids’ wonder is our drug.

We bring our children to Disney World so we can see that look on their faces – the one of pure wonder and joy that only little kids have. And we get it. We get that moment and our hearts fill, our cups runneth over, and we gain the emotional fortitude it takes not to strangle them when they’re falling apart a few minutes later, throwing epic fits born of overstimulation, exhaustion, and too much GD Florida sunshine. We bring our children to the beach and are justly rewarded with peals of laughter in the waves, tongues held out between teeth in extreme sand castle concentration, and boundless energy for chasing down seagulls, flying kites, and catching crabs in tide pools. We get our fill of the magic, and we don’t commit murder when they cry from hunger, freak out from sand in shoes, and complain the entire car ride home.

As with so many of the lovely things in life, little-kidhood is a two-sided coin. One side is full of giggles, cuddles, and wonder. It’s all enthusiasm. It’s witnessing a person encounter a firefly for the first time, a shooting star. It’s understanding that there is no greater thing than s’mores, a snow day, a rainbow. The other side is quite the opposite. If a day can be the “best day ever!” because of a lollipop, likewise, it can be the worst because of peas touching potatoes. A sibling can be a best friend, and a mortal enemy vying for the love of the people who should only have eyes for you.

This tricky coin flips easily and many times per day. Anything can flip it. There are known triggers that we parents work hard to mitigate: hunger, fatigue, overstimulation, errands, lines, frustration, transition, waiting 5 more minutes for anything, but especially dinner. It can flip back just as easily. Generally bodily functions related to digestion are the most efficient means of doing this. We parents live our lives by this fickle coin.

I’m trying hard to relish the waning years of little-kidness remaining to me. I marinate in morning snuggles and sweetness, which helps me manage later-morning attitude. I exalt moments of sibling playfulness, full of princess dresses, spy gear, and astonishing imagination, which helps me through sibling fights full of yelling, hitting, and inevitable crying. I cherish childish mispronunciations and misunderstandings, which helps me bear their diminishing number. Mostly, I have to be actively mindful of my limited time in this space. My kids are getting bigger. I have to get all the cuddles now.

My Days are Numbered



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Genetic Roulette and Books and Candy

When my babies arrived, it was clear that I had no genetic input to their physical appearance. Neither were blue-eyed and pink. Luke looked like a photo of his dad come to life, and Sally looked exactly like Luke. This hasn’t changed. Tim and Luke look alike down to their toes. They inhabit their identical-but-32-years-apart bodies the same way, crossing their legs in the same manner, moving effortlessly the same in their skins. It’s weird. And Sally? She looks like Luke. Her face is his face, just slightly smaller.

Each time a couple gets together to make a baby they take a gamble on the roulette wheel of genetics. In the universe’s infinite randomness, or infinite wisdom depending on your religious persuasions, the resulting baby is a little bit of this and a little bit of that, basically a mess of traits gleaned from parents and ancestors long forgotten.

So what did they get from me in our game of genetic roulette? A couple of unfortunate intangibles: for Luke it’s mostly my quick temper and general disdain for authority. This is absolutely not ideal, but probably exactly what I deserve. To Sally I passed down a flair for drama – this is a euphemism for OH MY GOD THE GIRL IS SO FREAKING DRAMATIC – and a natural disposition to getting hurt in unlikely situations. These, also, are not ideal, nor are they my best qualities.

This weekend I discovered a couple more subtle roulette outcomes in my children.

Dressed in our cozy pajamas, the kids and I piled on the couch on Sunday morning for me to read to them from James and the Giant Peach. This is an epically great book. I loved it when I was a kid and I couldn’t wait to share it with Luke and Sally. The writing is wonderfully descriptive, easily painting the scenes in a reader’s mind. The characters, each fleshed out in all their glorious weirdness, lend themselves to reading aloud, if you enjoy adapting different voices and affectations to help capture your audience’s imagination, which I do. (See inherited “flair for drama” above.)

So I read, enjoying it so much I could have read the entire book in one sitting. To my left, sat a captivated Sally, carefully studying each of the few pictures I showed her. In her I saw a younger me, comparing her imagination’s picture with the book’s illustrations, adjusting her mind’s account accordingly, seeing everything as clearly as if it were a scene right in front of her eyes.

To my right, Luke sat bored and squirmy. The book didn’t have enough pictures; the action was slow to arrive due to far too much background information, too much about the mean aunts and James’ despondency. He begged me to stop. Sally begged me to continue. When I did stop, Luke bounded away from us gratefully, needing to stretch and move. Sally curled into me and asked if I would read more later and if we could do this every Sunday morning. She took a few minutes to mentally transition, saving her mind’s image for next time.

At last! One of my children is like me, and in a way I actually like! Luke’s aversion to reading, and even hearing stories, worries and upsets me a little. I’m sure he’ll be fine and normal and all that, but not loving to read? Ack! It’s like a personal affront. Is this strange boy-person really my child? He’s so unlike me in every way.

Later that day I was still feeling entirely unrelated to Luke, when he inadvertently proved that he is mine after all. At a local Halloween event the kids got to collect some candy shortly before we were set to leave. “OK, kids, it’s time to go, but you can eat some of your candy in the car.” (A good exit strategy is always key.) Sally: “Yay!” Luke: “But I finished all my candy already.”

WHAT? In the few minutes that we watched the end of a costume contest, Luke had absent-mindedly eaten all of his candy. I’m sure he didn’t notice half of it. Sigh, shit. Who would think that this could be an inherited trait? A bag of candy is about as safe with me as a bag of brains is safe with zombies. I would absolutely mindlessly eat it all my candy immediately.

Can’t this kid inherit a single good quality from me? Meanwhile, Sally ate a little candy in the car on the way home, still has some left over today, and chances are she will forget all about it. This she inherits from her father, under whose watch a package of cookies can actually go stale. (WTF?)

The problem with genetic roulette is what you learn about yourself. Nothing compares to seeing your flaws and weaknesses playing out in your children. Hopefully Luke’s physicality and inability to be still will counterbalance his absent-minded candy consumption better than my love for sitting still and reading does mine! Flaws or not, it is comforting to see yourself in your children. It helps reinforce the biologic component to parenting, which is important and helps keep us going when quitting seems like a decent option, like each night around bed time.

Genetic Roulette