posts tagged with 'parenting'

freedom for kids

Wednesday afternoon found us hanging out at a playground in Lexington. It was before elementary school dismissal, but there were lots of preschoolers and their parents busy playing together. As Zion, climbing over the four-foot-high chain link fence around the play area, teetered precariously with one leg on each side calling "look at me!", a mom of two preschoolers commented approvingly.

"It's great that you let him do that... I'd be a nervous wreck!"

I appreciated the remark! She continued by saying she feels like kids need to have more "dangerous" experiences, something that might be tough these days. I agreed, but reassured her that she might be a little more relaxed about things like that when her second was almost six! We also talked about how dads might tend to be more relaxed about danger, while moms handle the keeping-the-kids-from-dying duties. It was a nice conversation.

And she has a very fair point. The playground we were on was pretty safe—designed to modern American playground standards, with a cushy rubber surface under all the CPSC-approved equipment, but still most of the parents were hovering around their two-to-four-year-olds—or worse, running towards them in a panic if they started climbing up the wrong ladder. What's the worst that could happen, I wondered?

Yesterday evening I read a lovely YA novel by Patricia Reilly Giff called Jubilee. It's about a girl with selective mutism and her efforts at the beginning of her fifth-grade year to connect with the people around her. There were lots of nice things about the book, most notably its setting on an unnamed island in Maine. Besides being an evocative setting for the story, it also meant that it was plausible for the author to have the young characters wandering around on their own—island kids will know everyone they're going to come across, and there's a natural boundary to how far they can roam. Susan Bartlett did the same thing with Seal Island School, and I'm sure there are other examples too.

Now, I don't know if the authors picked the island setting for that reason. Maybe they just appreciate the romance. But it's a fact that it's harder to find—and maybe to write too!—believable stories about kids who face real adventures and get to make real, meaningful choices for themselves in real-world settings. If you ask me, that's why we see so many sub-par fantasy books, especially in the magical-wonder-collides-with-everyday-life mold of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson (it also helps that those two series are such huge money-makers that they've spawned hordes of second-tier imitators). I've got nothing against stories with magical elements. But I like real adventure too, and I think kids should read about it, and I think they should have a hope of seeing some adventure for themselves.

Climbing over fences is a good start. Playing in the woods without adult supervision. Going to the bathroom alone in the library (hey, baby steps). Staying home alone while I walk the dog. Walking to friend's houses. Any six- or seven-year-old should be able to think about doing those things (at least in a safe neighborhood like ours). Island adventures are great—and you should totally read Jubilee, by the way—but I'd like to hope that a little freedom for kids isn't just something that happens on islands.

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still napping after all these years

Lijah turns three in a few days, so every afternoon at nap time I have a moment of doubt about whether he's actually going to fall asleep. Not that three is a magical age; I'm told that plenty of kids are still napping well into their fourth year. It's just that Harvey and Zion both gave up any pretense of sleeping during the day when they turned two. Not Lijah! He's still going strong.

Lijah napping, bare feet tucked up under stripey butt

expert napper

Of course, he's always needed more sleep than his brothers do: we noticed that when he was just a month old. And then we also figured out some things about parenting as we practiced on our first couple children. I figured out that, if a boy needs to sleep, I need to make him sleep whether he wants to or not! And with Lijah the key to doing that at nap time is music by the Youngblood Brass Band.

When I wrote about his affection for the group back in 2015 I noted that the soporific effect their tunes had on him was wearing off. But then Leah started working more hours and, in an effort to keep our homeschooling days sane, I instituted a hard line on nap time based on mandatory listening. It works! (I wrote about the first day of the program, before I knew it was going to be a thing.)

Lijah's reaction to the prospect of napping goes in phases. At first, fully cognizant of how tired he is mid-afternoon, he was happy to relax and fall asleep. Then he started to push back some, by whining or by trying to start a conversation. With the magic music backing me up, I could indulge him a little—with the reminder that we were going to listen to our three or four songs regardless. Lately, I just turn on the songs and give him some time to finish up what he's doing; before too long he comes right over for me to pick him up. It's kind of nice! (it also helps that the other two boys have their own rest time routine down pat).

Not everything is lovely and easy. As ever, there are many ways in which he is horrible, or at least ridiculous. But I love him a lot, especially when he's had enough sleep. So I'm glad that part's still working out!

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balancing

We're working on a complete remodel of our playroom/schoolroom (it's orange now, you can see here). When I look at old photos and see how long the previous arrangement held sway I'm amazed—that futon and "entertainment center" cabinet, repurposed for board game storage, weren't anything like ideal for how we use the space. The worst part was how little organized storage we had for the kids' school stuff: papers, art supplies, found treasures. Lots of good work has gotten lost and wrinkled. So I'm excited to be building new shelves and desks—desks!—where there will be a place for everything. Including our hard-working boys.

The only problem is, building custom furniture is hard and slow. And since Leah and I are mostly tag-teaming when it comes to balancing work and child-minding, when I'm deeply absorbed in wood-working the children are going unminded. Sometimes that's fine, like when they play outside happily with their friends; other times it's less fine, like when they get deeply absorbed in watching shows on the iPad. And it's always true that the longer I ignore them the rougher things start to feel.

So today, even though I had an out-of-the-ordinary Wednesday at home, I laid the tools aside to hang out a little bit. We built some with legos, read some books, played some ball tag, did some math and some drawing. Took a walk together. It wasn't all focused attention—that isn't good either. I did the regular chores of the household and put in an hour or so of work for my job. But the furniture hardly advanced at all (Lijah and I did work a teeny bit on what will soon be his desk). It's a balance. I guess there's no hurry anyway: even unfinished, the furniture is already getting lots of use.

Harvey, Zion, and Havana doing homework at the unfinished playroom desk

desk work

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the pajama game is the game we're in

So as I've mentioned in passing, our kids don't tend to change their clothes in any periodic fashion. That is, they tend to wear the same outfit as long as they're still feeling it (or it gets wet or uncomfortably dirty). Not to say that they always stay in the same clothes for long periods of time—sometimes activities call for several changes in one day. But they don't ever feel like it's necessary to put on something different just because it's a new day, still less because they're going to bed. So pajamas aren't a regular feature of our bedtime routine.

But! On the other hand, it's undeniable that pajamas are awesome, especially when they're new. And this fall all three boys have got at least one new pj outfit each, so at times there's been considerable excitement around them. Tuesday and Wednesday not one of them changed out of pajamas at any point—the same pjs over the two days. Sure, Tuesday was a wet inside sort of day, but Wednesday they were at Grandma and Grandpa's all day, and went for a walk. In their pajamas. Only a trip to the dentist this morning, for all three of them, forced a change. Now they're all in bed in the clothes they wore all day.

I don't see anything wrong with any of that. Personally, I don't care to let my dirty work pants into the bed; but when I take them off to sleep I just put them back on the morning, most days, so I have no room to cast aspersions. But it is funny when, as happened the other day, they slept in their clothes and then changed into pajamas after breakfast. The game they were playing demanded it. It makes sense to them, so who am I to question?

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to let get wet

the boys, a little wet, in front of a spray-park fountain

who could resist?

Sometimes, your kids find an awesome bit of water—a stream or ocean beach or fountain—and they want to go in it. And sometimes, even though it's pretty chilly and they don't have dry clothes, you let them.

We found a spray-park type fountain at Emerson Park in Concord yesterday; we've been there a few times before but it was never turned on. We were on our way out when we saw it, and I guess the boys were thirsty.

Harvey trying to drink from the fountain

it's not a drinking fountain?

They were disappointed when it turned off after a minute, but then a very nice gentleman asked if we'd like him to keep it on for us. We did!

Zion trying to drink from the fountain

a tricky thing to manage well

It was threatening rain and cold enough that Lijah had his raincoat for the couple hours we were playing at the park. Even though he was more waterproof than his brothers—not to mention the only one with a change of clothes available—he kept his distance from the waters.

Lijah carefully poking at the fountain with a stick

a little more sensible

Not so Harvey and Zion.

Harvey and Zion standing in the middle of the fountain getting wet

inevitable

Then after they tired of that lovely fountain we went over to an actual drinking fountain—but a crazy one, that sends a stream at least three feet away. And since they were all set for drinking water they took turns spraying it on each other's head. Then they took off all their clothes for the drive home. Good times!

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so what's wrong?

Leah's usually the one who writes about the tough times, leaving me to accentuate the positive. As our roles are in pretty much everything, really. But in the interest of balance I feel it's my duty to describe, for a moment, what's making it so tough around here lately. Briefly, it's Lijah.

Lijah's anguished face just after he fell in the mud

ok, so that time he had a good reason to be upset

He is a lovely child, of course, and he has many wonderful qualities. Really, when you get right down to it his only downside is that he's the third boy in the house, and sometimes that tips us out of balance. Like now, when we're trying to get him weaned just as he's entering fully into his terrible twos and realizing that he can't change the world by force of will—which of course just makes him want to try harder. The thing he wants to change most is to be able to nurse whenever he wants, but since that's not happening he's willing to freak out over just about anything else: not being able to destroy all his brothers' toys, not having a tiny lego sword in his hand at all times, sleeping, not sleeping, and—most of all—not being connected to Leah every possible moment.

There's some progress—today he spent five hours with Grandma and Grandpa and then another couple going out to dinner with them, his brothers, and me. He was quite civilized almost the whole time, and he ate a very respectable number of french fries (I'm engaging him on many fronts, but what foods he chooses to eat is not one of them—at this point we're happy for him to take any non-chocolate solids!). But sleeping is still elusive and many hours of the day are taken up with keeping him marginally ok. It's all pretty wearing.

So. As I write stories of our small triumphs and Leah doesn't write at all, know that all that is going on in the background. And realize that, whatever we write or not, we're working pretty hard; and when we, say, make Easter suits and a party for a dozen friends it's just because we're that awesome.

Almost as awesome as Jo and Eugene!

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peace at what cost?

A few months ago, Leah was despairing of ever being able to do anything around the house. Liljah needed constant intervention: he needed someone to read him books, he needed someone to occupy him in play, and most of all he needed someone to be holding him and carrying him around. It was a challenge, especially for the Mama, vastly preferred for all of those roles. Things are better now though. Especially when his brothers aren't messing with his stuff (or distracting him with a more creative game) our littlest boy now has moments where he entertains himself for significant stretches of time. The only catch is, for the most part he can only do it while listening to the soundtrack from Disney's Frozen.

Our last big Frozen binge was in the summer, when the soundtrack album was accidentally the only CD that made it into the car for our trip to Maine. We learned all the songs then—oh, did we learn them—but since then the vividness with which they're seared into my brain has faded some. But just like how, for an addict coming back to the drugs, one hit can revive all the old cravings (or so I'm told), it just took one hearing of the soundtrack this winter to ensure that one or another of the songs would never not be stuck in my head. And we've had lots more than one hearing. I try to keep it under three per day.

I'm also trying to introduce new music that he might enjoy—or re-introduce old favorites, since brass band tunes would be vastly preferable. The Nutcracker would be fine too. So far no luck, but I'll keep on it. Today he didn't entirely reject Paul Simon's Graceland as an alternative to a second consecutive playthrough of Frozen.

I boasted long ago of how we managed to avoid kids music with a young Harvey, but we still got stuck with repetition. I suppose that, just as with foods, kids like to play it safe with their music. They like what they like! (And as an aside, Harvey is still a huge fan of Soul Coughing and specifically "Rollin", so in some cases at least they keep liking it for years.)

It's not that Frozen is bad, per se, it's just that there isn't much to it, especially after the 48th listen. And it's catchy, oh so catchy. Both Lijah and I are completely caught at this point, and only one of us likes it. But I like seeing him play independently, so at least for a little while longer I'm going to keep on playing "fo da fut time inna evah" whenever he asks for it.

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Speaking of poop...

I gave a talk at church last Sunday titled, "how to live after happily ever after." You can hear the audio recording there from the second service. I didn't get as many laughs the second time around, but I didn't say "poop" either, so I thought that version might be more appropriate for the official website.

i tried to look fancy with the skirt and the boots, but I leveled the playing field by not wearing a bra

But now that you're here on my blog, here's a moment of reality: POOP!

It's funny getting up on stage and talking about how life is poopy, and then everyone says hurray good job and I feel like maybe life isn't so poopy? And then I get back home and I'm like No Just kidding, life is still pretty poopy. While we were out at church Rascal ate turkey out of the trash can and then shit on the play room rug. The first thing I did when I got home was to stain treat the carpet. Which took me down a level from my moment of public speaking.

I have been wondering lately whether I should do something with my thinking brain, something normal people call "work." Part of my thinking perhaps includes an assumption that if my labor was remunerative I wouldn't have to deal with this other shit. At some level of success, perhaps, I might be so valued that I'm no longer touching other people's feces?

But no, poop is omnipresent. And even if I have an important speaking gig, that steaming pile of poop will wait politely on the play room floor until I get home.

I have been thinking that perhaps the work of this life cannot be outsourced. There is not someone else I can hire to nurse my baby at 2 in the morning. Or to wipe my 4 year old's bum. Or to validate my 6 year old's emotions. There is not a streamlined solution to replace the devoted attention of a mother.

Nor is the work of this life scalable. I think perhaps I will get systems in place, I will make all their lunches ahead of time, and then everything will go well, we will all get on the moving assembly line of Happy Day!

But no, there is no amount of prep work possible, no pre arranged bento boxes, that will alleviate the need to stop everything when a child has a breakdown. To put myself in the middle of their problem, to look them in the eye, to love that little screaming banshee, I cannot put that on my checklist. The march of progress much be stopped. lunch be damned.

There is no way to scale up love.

Love is teeny acts of attention again and again and loving little people is that plus cleaning. And no, I can't get out of it, because humans don't come out factory ready. For some stupid reason. Something something God probably knows what he's doing.

I wrote this blog post on my phone while nursing. It didn't get me out of nursing every 30 minutes all bleeping night. There is no app for that.

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The challenges of Sundays and Mondays and every other day of the week

Let's just start this story at the grossest part, which is to say lice. On Monday of last week I found a single head louse on myself. It was 4:45 in the morning. I had woken up early to work out, and had snuck into the kitchen for some coffee, when I felt a small shivery thing scurrying along the back of my neck. I would have felt so relieved had I pulled a tick from behind me, but no, what I found pinched between my fingers was a single, unmistakable, louse. Before the rest of my family had roused themselves out of bed I had doused my entire head in rubbing alcohol. When Dan came downstairs I had already pulled the covers off the sofas, and the washing machine was running full tilt. Nothing like a good morning, "LET ME LOOK AT YOUR HAIR RIGHT NOW" to get everyone's adrenaline pumping first thing.

I never did find another louse on me or anyone else. But it set my internal tone for the rest of the week. Which was something like CONSTANT VIGILENCE! Or BUGS will EAT you! You think this f-ing place is clean? YOU CANNOT POSSIBLY BE WORKING HARD ENOUGH!

The rest of my week was consumed with packing for a 30-hour retreat. If you don't understand how every hour on an island might require two hours of planning, then you don't have small children. Perhaps you are in the sort of life stage where you can simply throw a change of clothes into a backpack and lightly skip onto a ferry. Tra la! Perhaps you thrive on industrial-style dining (breaded chicken doesn't have gluten, right?) If this is the case, stop reading this blog right now and go have sex on top of your kitchen table. You have no idea, but your DAYS of carefree living are NUMBERED. Tick. Mother f-ing tock.

Meanwhile, I will share with the actual mothers in the crowd that I got so ill from all my food / outerwear / first aid packing stress, that I woke up retreat day with a mild fever. My protein bars might have been better replaced with elderberry syrup, but I am not a walking apothecary, not with the extra pair of rain boots I had to carry for each child on the train. So the outing was dominated by me shivering on the beach with a toddler strapped to my chest because he'd developed a sudden fear of water.

I said to Dan, "When this is all over, I want to take an actual retreat."
"Like going running?"
"Like you watch the kids while I go to Whole Foods."

If I may speak frankly, church-time spirituality isn't great for me these days. When I walk into church Elijah screams for nursing. Or he screams for home. Or he screams because he's tired or because he's bored or because he senses that I don't want him to scream at that moment. As I walk him out towards the parking lot other adults smile and say, "How's it going?" and I want to say, "How does it LOOK like it's going?" but I don't want to kill someone else's buzz if they're in the kind of life stage where they can go to a worship service one day and another day have sex on a kitchen table. They should enjoy their weekend.

No, if I want to be around people who understands my needs at a very deep level, I just go to Whole Foods. The girl in the vitamin aisle knows SO MUCH about oil of oregano. One thousand times stronger than garlic!!! Or I wander the aisle of nuts and dried fruit and imagine the world is a magical place filled with delights specifically designed to amuse me. "Have anything you like!" I say to myself, as if the message comes directly from God himself, as if I believe in a loving creator who cares about my desires and not just about my dedicated perseverance. Or I pace around the hot food bar. Look at all the lovely food that I DIDN'T HAVE TO COOK! Every ingredient clearly listed. It makes me warm inside, not just the proximity to a low-level heat source, but the marriage of OPTIONS and KNOWLEDGE. In Whole Foods anything is possible, even transcendence.

When we drive to church we pass a Whole Foods and sometimes I look out the window longingly.

Okay, so I don't want to be this woman, this mother who can't have any fun. This killjoy shrew who looks down on 20-somethings, whose chief role in retreat is attentive shlepper of bandaids and snacks. When did I become, above all else, a woman who ENJOYS food shopping??? Somewhere my life seems to have taken a wrong turn. I'd like to get back to where it was a bit freer and easier. But the journey seems perhaps long. I can't imagine how I'd pack enough snacks...

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NOW who's a wet blanket?

When you wake up suddenly in a pool of your own urine, it's normal to wonder where your life took a wrong turn.

Was it just last night? When I drank too much elderberry tea to boost my immunity, and then failed to use the bathroom before falling asleep? Because I was already in bed with the fussy baby and the shifting of the mattress might rouse him to a scream? Again?

Or were the seeds of the problem planted far, far earlier than that?

Was it my failure, from day one, to sleep train Elijah? Putting me in a sleep deficit, night after night? Where any slight irritant, a cold or a tooth or an upset tummy, means the child demands to nurse every hour, on the hour? So I only get 40 minutes of sleep at a time, and when an unexpected long stretch comes, say between 1 and 2:30 in the morning, there is nothing rousing me, NOTHING, not even the urging of my own insistant bladder?

Or does it go back to his birth, which I chose to make at home? Or the births of my other two children, also at home, all of which in their own unique way normalized on the release of bodily fluids onto my mattress?

Or was it the choice of that third baby, was that the thing that pushed me over the edge? Mentally, in terms of exhaustion, but also physically? In very nitty gritty terms? In terms of the ability of my sphincter muscles to hooooold it in until my mind regains consciousness?

It's hard to know exactly where I went astray. All my decisions seemed like good ones. Maybe peeing in my bed is the natural result of a life well planned. Maybe I should count a few midnight accidents among acceptable losses.

When you wake up suddenly in a pool of your own urine, it's normal to wonder: Who am I? How did I get here? Where oh where did I take a wrong turn, and how can I possibly backtrack to sanity?

Then again, my children piss their beds all the time. They just get up, shower, and ask for breakfast.

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