Keep Showing Up

parenting

Photo courtesy of soupstock from BigStockPhotos.com

I just finished the second of two parenting classes that I’m required to take as a Connecticut divorcee. Although I’m generally a big government, tree-hugging liberal, I felt cross about the idea of having the State of Connecticut tell me how to parent. Did I mention that we divorcees have to pay $125 for these classes, whether or not we are initiating the divorce? Needless to say, I didn’t enter the classes with a particularly positive attitude.

Because the psychologist wasn’t in control of the room, the conversation devolved into bitching about ex-spouses. The bitching was couched in the forms of questions about children’s welfare. You know, like when you really want to dish a juicy secret about someone, so you tell other people in the form of a prayer request? For instance, “Lucy’s at the clinic with chlamydia because Claude cheated on her and didn’t use protection. She could really use your prayers”? (Come on, you know you’ve been there). The man who asked, “How do I tell my 5-year-old that his mom’s in jail?” didn’t want to know how to help the child. He wanted the class to know that his ex-wife was a deadbeat. That was the gist of the evening.

Let me start back at the beginning of the circle. The first man said that his son lived with his ex-wife in New Jersey. However, the son didn’t feel like talking to him, so he hadn’t spoken to his son in a couple of years. So my inner parenting coach said, “Your son is a minor. He doesn’t know what he wants. You’re the dad. Get in the car and go visit.”

Next.

“I don’t know what to do when my 14-year-old son says ‘f*ck you’ to me.” Inner parenting coach: Mother gives life, and mother takes life away. You give your son everything he has. If he talks to you that way, then you start removing the possessions for which you paid. Starting with the cell phone that you say he uses all night in lieu of sleeping.

Next!

A gentleman who had six kids said that one of his sons was suicidal. He and his wife had been called to the school because his son had carved his own arm with a pencil until it bled. The man wasn’t disturbed about the suicidal part—or at least he didn’t seem to be—but he was disturbed that his wife kept checking her cell phone during the meeting and complaining that her boyfriend hadn’t called.

The psychologist did make a useful comment. He told the man that it was time to “circle the wagons” because he had a serious situation on his hands. The father kept going back to the mom and the cell phone. My inner parenting coach had no time for this one: You slap the cell phone out of her hand, pick it up, throw it across the room and tell her to shut up and pay attention.

Maybe this is why I wasn’t cut out for a helping profession.

“I paid for a trip to Disney before my wife left and now she says I can’t go out of state unless she goes with me.” Moving on. You’re just annoying me. Or try this, my room full of fellow parents: Open your mouths and speak.

New Jersey Guy: Tell your son that even though he doesn’t want to see you, you want to see him. Tell him that you’ll park your car outside of his home every Saturday morning for two hours. If he wants to talk, you’ll be there. Then, show up.

F-you Lady: Tell your son that you don’t care how disrespectful his father is to women. You are going to fight with every ounce of your strength to see that he doesn’t grow up to treat women the way that his father does. Then, stand your ground.

Six Kids Man: Let your useless wife walk out of the conference room with her cell phone. Then, lock the door behind her. Tell the teachers you’re so sorry that you reproduced with a loser, but you’re ready to take responsibility and to throw every mental, physical, emotional and financial resource into trying to help your son. Then, keep your word. You can’t protect him at every moment, but you can let him know that you’re in the fight.

Disneyland Dad: Tell your ex-wife that you will indeed go to Disney, and that if she doesn’t like your decision, then she can come along after reimbursing you for half of the trip. You may also need to open your mouth and speak to the judge about your current state-endorsed Parenting Plan.

I went home to a preschool-aged son who told me he hated me and wanted to live with his dad. He’s been doing this for 16 months, and I’m really getting tired. My own advice rang in my head alongside my desire to pack his little suitcase and ship him off: “He’s a minor. He doesn’t know what he wants. Take away the possessions for which you paid. Throw every resource into trying to help your son.”

Parenting can be thankless, and divorce can be hell. I’m sure the other parents in that class, the ones I was very quick to judge, wondered why I didn’t have a clue about how to defeat my four-year-old nemesis. In the end, I hope we’ll all do what good parents do. We’ll keep showing up, whether or not we have any idea what to do.

You Are Not Nice!

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Long before kids learn to write their own names, they can find your vulnerable underbelly and stick an icepick into it. My youngest son has found a hole in my armor that he’s been pouring acid into for about a month now. When I want him to do something that he doesn’t want to do, he shouts, “You are not nice!”

Pfft! You say. He’s just trying to manipulate his mother so that he doesn’t have to clean up his toys, give his brother a turn to watch movies, go to bed, etc. You’re right, of course, and I don’t hesitate to dish out the time-outs, take away privileges or put a toy on the shelf until he earns it back.

Still, when he accuses me of not being nice, I’m surprised by how much it bothers me. I want to prove that I am nice. I want to find the nearest old lady and help her across the street. I decide to give all my recently purchased canned goods, not the old cans of garbanzo beans that I don’t want anymore, to the nearest food bank. I vow to give all of my money to Bill Gates so that he can give everyone in Africa a malaria vaccine. 

When I moved to New England from my native Arkansas, I was immediately labeled “nice” by my Yankee associates. As a southerner, I’d been conditioned to smile at everyone I passed, to speak politely and to greet strangers, something that my new Puritan brethren didn’t always do. For me, being labeled as “nice” felt unusual. In Arkansas, I felt like I was perceived as direct and impatient. One time when I was in college, a friend ripped off the corner of a package of nylons and handed the plastic scrap to me. “This is you, Jackie,” she said. I read the wrapper: “No-nonsense.”

 After a recent argument with a male (I thought that he was in the wrong), I wrote a polite but assertive e-mail about why I thought I was right. No swearing. No rudeness. No hysterics. The next time I saw him, he confronted me and asked me if I was threatening him. He accused me of starting a war. I responded that I’d been assertive, and maybe that wasn’t something he was used to. Frankly, it wasn’t something that I was used to, because underneath my “no-nonsense” exterior lies a woman who feels afraid that being “not nice” equates with being “not lovable.”

I think women often feel afraid of being perceived as “not nice.” My son’s definition of “nice” is that I give him what he wants. In other words, “nice” is more like “deferential.” I feel a cultural expectation, whether it does or doesn’t exist, that as a woman, I should have a certain genteel manner in which I interact with other people. Never be shrill. Never be hysterical. And never, ever be that most unattractive of epithets: a bitch.

UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma once told a post player, Tina Charles, that she was too nice on the court to become a great player. “You can be nice 22 hours a day,” he told her.

Tina took his advice to heart. She’s in the WNBA now. So maybe I’ll take a page from Geno’s playbook. I’ll be nice to my son—and the rest of the world—22 hours per day. For the other two hours, I’ll go with “no-nonsense.”

Do you worry about being “nice”? Is that more of a female thing? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

Where a Kid Can Be a Kid

ImageI don’t know about you, but I wasn’t always nice when I was a kid. When I was a little girl, I bit my best friend’s arm, and I once convinced her to eat cat food. I pressured my cousin to ride carnival rides at the State Fair and then mocked him and called him a “sissy” when he threw up. Also, I popped a kid at daycare who tried to take my General Lee Hot Wheels away from me. These weren’t awesome behaviors, but I grew out of them. I’m a reasonably sane adult free of significant moral depravity or antisocial behaviors.

I also had fears. Mostly, I was terrified of Jesus. The Jesus presented to me was not the mild-mannered tree-hugging Jesus that some like to think of now. He was a golden-eyed, fire-breathing, blood-soaked god of vengeance, and I was always afraid that he was coming back to get me. I also had night terrors after a kid at my daycare told me that her grandfather had seen an evil leprechaun in his bedroom, and he had to read the Bible to the stumpy little Irishman to make it go away. So I became terrified that a leprechaun was going to appear in my room and do—well, whatever it is that horrific, scary leprechauns do. Despite these fears, I think I turned out okay.

Last week, my son told the caregivers at his preschool that he had monsters in his room at home. I’ve always thought that the fear of monsters was a pretty typical fear that kids face as they start to realize that the world isn’t filled with unicorns and happiness. To make him feel better, my husband and I checked his room out for him and told him we didn’t see any monsters. When my son woke up in the night, we let him sleep in our room. The whole monster thing lasted about a week until my son informed me that he was “all better.”

My son’s daycare then invited me to a meeting to discuss ways to help my son “socialize” better in his class. The next thing I knew, the “early childhood consultant” that had been brought into the meeting started saying that she saw autism-spectrum signs in my son. My older son has PDD-NOS, so our family has made the rounds of speech therapy, occupational therapy and other support services. We recognize autism-like behaviors. My youngest son is blessedly normal. He speaks in complete sentences, has empathy, engages in pretend play—all of the things that my oldest didn’t do. He doesn’t stare at fans or talk obsessively about crosswalk signs. He’s just a typically developing boy.

I then discovered that this “early childhood consultant” works for a clinic in my area that assists at-risk kids. She’s with a program affiliated with the Department of Children and Families that is designed to prevent expulsions from preschool, and she wanted to do a home observation of my son. I looked at my son’s teacher and said, “Jesus Christ, are we at that point?” She said “no,” but I was still handed a stack of papers including HIPAA release forms and asked to schedule a visit with the DCF lady. Long story short, I found out that participation in the program is voluntary. We declined to participate.

I’m not sure when normal kid behavior started to be interpreted as either autism or as a social/emotional disorder. From experience, I know those disorders are real, and they present extraordinary challenges for parents whose kids actually have them. Yet even typically developing kids exhibit some behaviors that are distinctively not awesome. If they’re addressed with consistency, kids usually grow out of them and make better choices later. And fear, if acknowledged and soothed by loving parents, usually fades away.

Today, I am on good terms with my childhood best friend and with my cousin, despite my unkind behaviors. I do have to say, though, that I don’t regret popping that kid who took my General Lee. As far as I’m concerned, he had it coming.

The Absence of Awesomeness

Back-to-school time has arrived in the Lee household. My oldest son has chosen his back-to-school clothes and has a back-to-school haircut. My husband is fixing up his newly acquired classroom. The package store is full of pumpkin-flavored beer, and I’m waiting for Starbucks to start making pumpkin spice lattes. My husband told me this morning how much he loves this time of year.

I guess I do, too. I like putting my kids in a wagon and taking them to pick apples and pumpkins when autumn starts humming. Apple cider donuts and roasted winter squash are great, and I like getting into the routine of school days. I just don’t have the Mom Magic this year, and I know exactly why. I spent all of my reserved awesome points in August on nothing particularly worthwhile.

What is the Mom Magic, you ask? I’ll tell you. It’s that cloak of ruthless efficiency that overcomes you at about the end of August. You look around your nest to make sure that everyone has school supplies and school clothes. You start getting up earlier and putting yourself into the mindset to make lunches and comb your kids’ hair by a certain time in the morning. You fire up the jalopy of your choice (ours is a Hyundai Sonata that just crossed the 100,000 mile mark) and start wearing grooves in the road to school, to daycare, back home, back to school and back to daycare. Homework gets done, children get fed, and order and reason prevail. That is Mom Magic.

This year, we’re getting by on auxiliary power—no warp engines this time. Mom is as tired as the election rhetoric that surrounds us. You see, after my Master’s residency ended, I came home and started doing work to compete for an editing contract. At the same time, my other work sources unleashed the floodgates and buried me with projects. Two entire weeks of my life have washed away, and I’m picking through the refuse to see what’s left of my shredded psyche. I got the editing job, so that’s at least six months of steady work, a good thing for a freelancer, but I may not have communicated with my family in any depth for a couple of weeks. As for hygiene, well, nobody died, did they?

On the one hand, I congratulate myself that I have my work situation resolved for a while. On the other hand, I’m reminding myself of the futility of a life consumed by work. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if it’s self-employment work or if it’s working for The Man. You still end up asking yourself “What’s it all for?” when your work fixation steals you from the people who matter most.

So this year, Mom lacks unfettered awesomeness with which to kickstart school days. The kids will still get lunches and will arrive at school neat, clean and on time, and the wheels will roll out to daycare and back even if the driver is looking a little subdued. I spent all of the Mom Magic on the wrong priorities this time. I’ll have to keep peeking under rocks until I find a new stash of mojo.

Photo Credit: Angie Muldowney Photography

 

 

 

Fact Check!

I have a parenting conundrum that I don’t know how to resolve.

My oldest son is the sweetest and most guileless child I know. His teachers adore him and always tell me how kind and considerate he is. He is diligent to a fault, always insisting on doing impeccable schoolwork and on pushing himself to do well in his extracurricular activities. I rarely yell at him, send him to time-out or banish him to an early bedtime.

Now, before you throw up in your mouth a little as I describe my child’s perfection, I’m going to add an asterisk. He does this one little thing that makes me want to bash my head against a wall.

He fact checks me.

This is how the scenario usually works: My son asks me a question. I provide a (usually) lucid and well-reasoned answer. Then, he goes and asks someone else, usually his father, the same question. For example, if he asks me, “What is the capitol of Israel?” and I respond, “Tel Aviv,” he’ll wait a few minutes and then ask his father, “What is the capitol of Israel?”

Yesterday, I was trying to bring our AppleTV out of sleep mode so that my sons could watch something on Netflix. They are obsessed with natural disaster documentaries right now…that and Spongebob. Anyway, the device wouldn’t respond when I pushed buttons on the remote control. I asked his dad for some help because I rarely watch television.

My son yanked the remote control out of my hand and started pushing buttons on his own. I grabbed it back. He punched the television screen.

His reaction surprised me. I said, “Let’s try this again. Why don’t you say, ‘Mom, can I give it a try?’ instead of just snatching the remote away from me.”

He responded, “I don’t want to.” So I sent him to his room for a few minutes while I fixed the problem. Then, I went to his room, put on my best self-possessed Mom voice and said, “It bothers me when you treat me like I can’t do things or like I don’t know things.”

I’ve had conversations like this with my son on multiple occasions. We’ve discussed how he fact checks me when he doesn’t fact check his dad, his teachers or any other adults. I’m not sure how I became a resource he doesn’t think that he can trust. He doesn’t display a distrust of women in general. It’s just—me.

When I’m not around, though, he acts differently. His teacher last year, for example, told me that she was amazed by some of the facts that he knew that most first graders did not. He told her, “I learn them from my mom.” So he does give me credit sometimes, just not when I’m nearby.

So, fellow parents and amateur (or professional) psychologists, why does he do this? And what, if anything, can I do about it?

Happy Father’s Day

The first thing that my husband said when our oldest son was born was, “Jackie, he recognizes my voice.” The next day, my husband sat in one of those ugly mauve hospital chairs, holding our new baby and singing “Green Grows the Willow Tree.” Almost seven years later, he sang to him today while they were reading Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich. Some kind of twist on “The Girl from Ipanema.”

Parenting is as constant as the air, the stars and the dawn. Every minute of the day, especially when they’re young, your kids need you or your kids are on your mind. You learn to set aside the resentment and take your enjoyment in smaller nuggets of whatever alone time you can get, whether that alone time is just in your mind or whether you are actually physically alone. I get up at 5am almost every day just to work in peace and quiet before my children get up at 6 or 6:30am (even on weekends, folks—it never ends).

Kids have a way of ripping your life open, like aliens ripping open a human host’s chest (sorry, I just saw Prometheus). All of the secrets that you kept tamped down, like the fact that you have a terrible temper, explode out of you at the most inopportune moments. On the other hand, you also can’t tamp down the dreams that you’ve been trying to kill in your quest for suburban nirvana. You’ll do things for your children that you wouldn’t do for yourself. You’ll find courage for their sakes because it’s so important to teach them to take chances. You have to teach them to take risks by taking risks yourself.

I haven’t reached the moment where I wish that I could Benjamin Button my kids to a younger age to relive the magic. To me, the kids are fine just the way that they are. To spirit them back to younger times would be to take away the pieces that they have added to their complex personalities and the knowledge that they have soaked up like little sponges. I do think back to the calmer times that my husband and I had before the kids were married, when we could leave to go to Starbucks at a moment’s notice or spend our entire Saturday reading books. I miss the days that didn’t require me to prepare two meals because my kids won’t eat the meal that their father and I eat.

My children, as maddening as they can be, have added a thick layer of richness to my life. I’m also keenly aware that the family life that I build with my husband will be the foundation of their lives. I’m lucky to share the parenting experience with a good partner. Having a parenting partner is not just about getting a break from mixing chocolate milk every now and then. It’s about sharing and melding your perspectives on your kids lives, stepping up when the other person needs to take a step back, and growing older with the knowledge that we’ve left the world a better place if we’ve populated the future with children of good quality.

My husband will have been a dad for almost seven years this Father’s Day. My oldest son made him some sort of pile of rocks on a piece of paper. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be. My son also made a card for his dad that says, “Thank you for helping me all of the time.” I’m sure that my husband will take the rocks with a magnanimous heart because those rocks and the card say, “Thank you for being there for me.” My sons have a father who shows up every day, prepares macaroni and cheese, reads Elephant and Piggie books, and sings them songs. Someday, I hope that my sons will realize how lucky they’ve been.

Here’s to all of the fathers out there who show up every day and give parenting their all. It’s not a glorious job, but it will change the shape of things to come.