Sunday, January 23, 2011

Work in Progess

Ok, I admit it: sometimes, I am totally and completely HUMILIATED by my own children's behavior. I don't mean just that my cheeks get a little flushed and I laugh nervously (although I do that, too). I mean that I've seriously fantasized about walking away from them in a grocery store and pretending I've never seen these two little boys before, even whispering conspiratorially to a stranger, "Why doesn't someone do something about those children?".

Once, a lifetime ago, I assumed that I would do this child-rearing thing RIGHT, that children who misbehaved were simply a product of poor parenting. I was certain that loving discipline would cure any child of rudeness, tantrums, hitting, whining, or pooping in one's pants beyond the age of two. I had it all figured out.

And then I met my blue-eyed boys.

And while they are generally delightful little human beings, they have some rough moments. They are prone to tearing each other's hair out the moment I sit down to go to the bathroom. Eli has a penchant for electronic destruction that has recently cost us both a DVD player and a car CD player. And Jonah told me a bold-face lie last week about why he didn't receive a reward from the kindergarten "treasure suitcase". It's all enough to make even the most confident mama question whether parental control is just a facade, prone to collapse at the most inopportune moments.

It seems to me that this pathological drive to feel like we are "getting it right" with our kids may be particularly pronounced in those of us who have temporarily left our careers to spend our days changing diapers and driving to soccer practice. We no longer have quarterly or even yearly evaluations from our bosses to let us know how we are doing at our chosen vocation. Our only measure of success in this particular field of work seems often to be our children: Are they happy? Are they well-behaved? Are the "successful" in school or activities? And if they're not, what do we do? We can't be demoted or fired (although Jonah must strongly disagree, since he recently informed me that he planned to go find a "new mom"... ouch). When things are hard at home with our kiddos, we simply drink more coffee, read more frustratingly contradictory parenting books, ask our often equally clueless friends for advice, and try to press on. At times like these, I'd give anything for a written report like the ones I received when I was a high school teacher, extoling my pedagogical virtues even when all my students weren't quite geniuses.

But last week, when Eli refused to share the matchbox cars and Jonah exclaimed, "he never shares!", I heard myself reminding Jonah, "I know sharing is hard for him right now. But he's learning everyday. Can you try to be patient with him while he learns?"

And then it hits me. This is the advice I so badly need myself. These children aren't merely with me for a semester. We have a "forever" kind of thing going on here, and while my boys certainly aren't perfect, they're learning every day. Thursday, Eli made it through a playdate without whacking anyone. Jonah didn't throw a tantrum when we refused to buy him a stuffed shark at the aquarium this morning. It's these kind of little things that often make a huge difference in my day. These boys are works in progress. Beautiful, messy, and complicated... but they're not finished yet.

And thank goodness... neither am I.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Rule of Thumb

Oh the thumb-sucker's thumb
May look wrinkled and wet
And withered, and white as the snow,
But the taste of a thumb
Is the sweetest taste yet
(As only we thumb-suckers know)
Shel Silverstein

My Jonah has loved his thumb since he was just a few days old. Truly, he has ADORED it. That thumb has been his trusty companion for five years, always faithful when he was feeling a little sad, a little sleepy, or even a little bored. It's wrinkled and amazingly soft, and when inserted in mouth has provided an excellent platform for an index finger curled comfortingly around his little nose. When he was a baby, a few observers of Jonah's thumb habit "tsk, tsk"ed it, lamenting the fact that a thumb was much more difficult to remove than, say, a pacifier. I wholly disagreed...I've loved that thumb, too. With Jonah, I never had to keep track of pacis, wash pacis, retrieve lost pacis when dropped in the car or hurled from the crib at three in the morning. His good old thumb was always at the ready. Jonah knew how to soothe himself and he alone controlled when he needed it, instead of being gagged into silence with a pacifier as so many paci parents (myself included, with Eli) can be tempted to do. And man, especially when he was really small, it was just so darn cute. Who could resist this thumb-sweetened face?

But a few months ago, we decided that the time had come for Jonah to bid his trusty thumb friend goodbye. Warnings of potential problems with his permanent teeth from the dentist and concerns from his kindergarten teacher about his sucking at school convinced us that the time for a thumb intervention was now. Jonah seemed amenable, but so much of his thumb sucking was subconscious that we made little progress, especially at night. Reminders didn't work. Band-aids didn't work. Secret signals, gum, and even a few mocking comments from other kids didn't seem to help. We wanted to avoid being punitive or manipulative, and Jonah burst into tears when we even mentioned coating his thumb in nasty tasting stuff. We had reached a thumb impasse.

Enter "The Magic Lady". Our dentist had mentioned that if Jonah was really having trouble giving up his thumb, he would recommend a speech therapist who specialized in helping kids eliminate thumb and finger sucking habits, and that his patients had had such good luck with one particular therapist, that he affectionately referred to her as "The Magic Lady". I kid you not. We were skeptical at first, particularly because the The Magic Lady was magically expensive, and also because as parents, we like to think that we can handle these things on our own. Shouldn't be that hard, right? But as the weeks passed and Jonah's thumb sucking did not decrease, we got a little desperate and reluctantly scheduled an appointment in the hopes of experiencing a little magic for ourselves.

Well, in the interest of expediency I'll spare you all the details, but let me just say that after fifteen minutes of winning Jonah's heart and an hour of completely positive and non-manipulative discussion, Jonah mustered up the courage to give up his thumb for good. As if he were a tiny AA member, he trooped around the office and told everyone he could find, "I'm Jonah, and I've decided to stop sucking my thumb today!" ("Hi, Jonah.") It's been three full weeks now, and he hasn't looked back. It's pretty amazing, but there really is no magic here... just plenty of logic and some some simple tools to help keep his hands and mouth "happy". We are thrilled, and Jonah could not be prouder of his discovery that, at the ripe old age of five, he has the strength to conquer a powerful life-long habit.

In the midst of all this, I think I've learned (or re-learned, as always seems to be the case with me) some really precious lessons about parenting:

1. It takes a village... Yeah, yeah, it's a cliche', but time after time, I tend to think that Steve and I should capable of raising these kids on our own. And maybe we are, but we can do it a whole lot better with some others along for the ride. In this whole thumb journey, we are not only indebted to the Magic Lady herself, but also to the three groups of "supporters" that the Magic Lady insisted we involve in the process. Jonah's supporters called and emailed daily with an encouraging word and plenty of praise. It was a beautiful thing to watch his face light up as he recounted another thumb-free day to his grandparents or family friends. Part of me is always so tempted to sweep a guilty habit like our five-year old's thumb sucking under the rug and pretend we're not struggling, but it is inevitably better when we admit we all need a little help sometimes.

2. Put the kids in charge (sometimes)... So often, I feel like the "responsible parent" would take a situation into his/her own hands and lay down the law, and I'm often tempted to take this approach with the boys. But truthfully, when we work WITH our kiddos, involve them in the solution, and put the responsibility in their hands instead of gripping it so tightly ourselves, we all feel a whole lot better. Sure, we could have started nagging Jonah endlessly about his thumb and coating it with tobasco (certainly no offense to parents who have found success with this approach), but we might have robbed him of the opportunity to feel so in control and proud of his own accomplishments. With just a little help, he made the decision to stop for himself, he did it himself, and he knows it. And what could be easier, or more rewarding, for me than to watch my children develop a healthy sense of personal responsibility? I love it, and he loves it.

It's almost like magic.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Snakes and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails (or, Little Boys are from Mars and Mommies are from Venus)

The day that a blurry sonogram revealed that our firstborn, Jonah, was a little boy, I remember feeling infinitely relieved. Females, to be really honest, tend to make me nervous. We're complicated and emotional. We tend to over-analyze things. You never can tell what we're really thinking and well... sometimes we're just bitchy. So I breathed a peaceful sigh when I learned that I would be a mother of a male. Thank the Lord.

Three years later, when another sonogram revealed a second little boy in my belly, I grinned. Brothers. I loved the idea of the two of them growing up side by side, doing boy things together. Despite many others' concerns that I might have wanted this second (and last) baby to be a girl, I was purely thrilled. I would never have to deal with time-consuming little girl hair-styles or annoying teen girl drama. Yes.

But those years ago, I knew nothing about the wild realities of mothering tiny men. These days, my life involves dodging crashing Matchbox cars that forever litter our floor. Someone always seems to be roaring like a dinosaur or mock wailing ("Ahhhhhh!") as they fall to the ground, or "pew, pew"ing (the universal sound for small boys shooting a pretend gun). Tackling is an actual sport itself around here.

People who claim that there are no differences between genders, that all our male/female variances are purely social constructs, have clearly never spent a day with preschoolers. Leave two four-year old girls alone and when checked on, they will likely be found demurely sipping imaginary tea or singing sweetly to a doll. Boys? The ones I know would likely be jumping off of the top of the dresser onto the guest bed or tackling each other while yelling things like, "Dr. Doom, you will never defeat me!".

Little boys like to be naked, and like their adult counterparts, they like their penises. Jonah and Eli's current favorite bath time game involves scooting around the tub in apparently hilarious attempts to grab each other's genetalia. Seriously? And it doesn't stop there. The words, "Eli, please take your lips off of your brother's bottom" have actually come out of my mouth. I am fairly certain that my friends with little girls do not deal with this.

Little boys, despite all my attempts to deter it, like weapons. They really like them. We have so far banned any toy guns in our household, but these little guys seem able to turn just about anything into a dangerous weapon. No guns around? A stick, a ruler, or even a piece of cardboard (Jonah's latest passion) will certainly suffice. At least they're creative, I guess.

I have a theory regarding the mysterious force of nature many child experts refer to as "boy energy". Boy energy is the stuff that makes little guys run around like wild animals while the girls sit quietly and roll their eyes. I firmly believe that boy energy, unlike mom energy, is not just multiplied when several boys get together; it is exponentially increased. One little boy? Not too rowdy as he sits peacefully and plays. Two little boys? The roughhousing and running begins. Three little boys? Full-scale destruction can ensue if said boy energy is not carefully harnessed.

However, while I do so often find myself completely perplexed at the actions of my rowdy little men, like so many moms of boys have done before me, most days, in spite of myself, I take a deep breath and dive right into the chaos. Because that's what it means to be a parent, right? To fully embrace who and what your children are, even when they seem so different from ourselves. Jonah's current infatuation, like many little boys his age, is Star Wars. He spends full afternoons building lego starfighters and he rarely visits the local playground without his light saber in tow. So of course, when it came time to choose his Halloween costume, he wanted to be Luke Skywalker. He even has the perfect shaggy blond haircut. Now, I'm not a big dresser-upper at Halloween; it's mostly just too much silly work for my overly pragmatic mind to take on. I'm also not so much of a Star Wars fan; my five-year old's knowledge and passion for the story is clearly superior. But this year, Jonah's great Halloween wish was for me to go as Princess Leia, so we could be a real Rebel Alliance pair. And you better believe that this mama made a white dress out of a sheet and put my hair in two cinnamon roll-style buns, and my little Jedi and I walked hand in hand down the street in all our Star Wars glory.

In this little boy world, may the Force be with me.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Lessons from a Green Rocking Chair

Our trusty green rocking chair sat looking somewhat dejected at the yardsale this morning, surrounded by outgrown clothes, Jonah's too-small toddler bed, and Steve's old golf clubs priced to for a quick sale. This rocker is nothing incredible, not particularly hip or stylish or cool, but I'm fairly certain that I've learned most of what I know about being a mother while gliding back and forth in this old chair with my two little boys.

Was it really more that five years ago that I sat in that chair, awkward with swollen belly and puffy feet, watching Jonah's tiny hands press up against the taut skin from the inside, as if trying to escape? I had such expectations, such impatience for his arrival, such fear about my own inadequacy. So I rocked.

Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

And then, miraculously, Jonah was here, nursing ravenously and endlessly in those early weeks. I remember the quiet, the peace, the intoxicatingly sweet smell of his head, the exhaustion. Jonah suckled; I breathed and watched him, and we rocked.

Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

And there were days (and nights) when he was cranky and colicky. Through Jonah's wails, I willed him to sleep, sang endless lullabyes, and shushed desperately in the moments when I was certain this tiny boy would never be comforted. Only the motion of the green chair seemed to calm him (and me), and so we rocked.

Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Then Jonah was a busy toddler, but he often climbed his pudgy little body onto the green cushion, and begged, "read, mama, please read!". Together, we discovered Dr. Seuss, Mike Mulligan, and The Runaway Bunny, and all the while, we rocked.

Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

And soon, there was a new tiny one in the chair with me. Eli and I learned each other's faces in this rocker and his little fist gripped my hand. I relished the middle-of-the-night nursing sessions there, so grateful for a few quiet moments just for the two of us. I sung him "Beautiful Boy", and we rocked.

Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

And together, we devoured even more books in that glider. First one little boy perched on my knee with Goodnight Moon, then another snuggled in on the other knee, and both boys joined in together with the old lady who was whispering "hush". Peaceful and perfectly content even in the midst of the daily craziness, we read and we rocked.

Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

And now they are both growing again, and the old rocking chair can no longer hold us. Jonah's daily stresses are becoming more complicated now, can no longer be calmed simply by the familiar gliding rhythm, and Eli can't be bothered with this chair that is clearly not designed for "big boys". But as I watched the old rocker drive away in the back of someone's pickup truck this afternoon, I couldn't help but offer up a prayer of gratitude. And I stood in the driveway, arms wrapped around myself in the drizzly rain, and ever so imperceptibly, I rocked.

And on it goes...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


A few years ago, I read Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's Freakonomics (didn't everybody?). In case you're unfamiliar, Freakonomics is a peek at some surprising statistics that tend to contradict everything we assume we know. Think it's crazy to keep a gun in the house if you have children? I do, but according to Levitt, having a swimming pool at your house is 100 times more likely to kill a child. If you tend to believe that the amount of money we spend on campaign finance in this country is pretty ridiculous (about $1 billion per year in a major election period), how does it make you feel to know that we collectively spend the the same amount annually on chewing gum? Whoa, right?

I didn't have children when I first read Freakonomics, but even then, the chapter that really smacked me in the head had to do with parenting, or maybe more accurately, not parenting. Levitt cites some initially puzzling statistics regarding the factors that relate to school success for children. For example, in the study he discusses, it didn't seem to matter if a child's parents read to him every day; it did matter if the child's parents owned many books. Say what? It didn't seem to matter if the child's mother stayed at home with him; it did matter how old the mother was when the child was born (older seems to indicate more academic success for the child). It didn't seem to matter if the child visited museums frequently; it did matter if the parents spoke English in the home. Spanking, going to Head Start, watching too much television all seem to have minimal overall impacts, but (no great surprise) having highly educated parents seems to make a big difference in how a child performs in school.

The general conclusion here is that, despite our culture's fixation with "perfect" parenting strategies, ultimately, who the parents are seems to matter much more than what the parents do. According to Levitt, parents who are "well-educated, successful, and healthy" tend to have children who do well, at least in school. Now, obviously the statistics only deal with academic success and do leave out a whole host of other emotional and spiritual issues, but for me, the data really hits home, both literally and figuratively.

In recent months, I've been realizing that for the last five years, I have spent an incredible amount of energy trying to be the best parent I can be, but truth be told, I haven't given myself very much attention. In fact, I think I have a bit of a martyr complex. There's this wierd self-congratulatory voice in my head that genuinely seems to believe that the more I deprive myself of all things good and lovely, the better mother I am. How many times I have a left the library with a huge totebag of books for my boys, only to walk wistfully past the adult section, so much wonderful literature calling out my name, certain that I just couldn't spare a moment to stop and choose just one book for myself? I've been kicking around the idea of going to grad school for years now, but honestly, I spent many more hours choosing the perfect preschool for Jonah than researching options for myself. When the budget is super tight, guess who still gets the expensive organic yogurt at our house, and guess who ends up with the crappy generic cereal? I have used my role as a mother to justify my lack of time and energy for exercise, intellectual stimulation, spiritual development, and date nights. And mostly, I've just considered it all an occupational hazard.

But then I think about this study. About the idea that who I am as person may just matter a whole lot more than what I do as a parent, when it comes to the kind of humans my little guys may turn out to be. I want them to know that their mother is a woman who can devour a good novel in one sitting. That despite stepping away from my career for a few years to be home with them, I'm a damn good high school English teacher. That my body thrives on exercise, and that I'm a much more peaceful person if I start my day with some good yoga. That sometimes the beauty and grace of Jesus still makes me cry. And that, despite our hurried daily squabbles, I'm crazy in love with their dad.

It has taken me five long years to figure it out, but I think I'm finally learning that embracing my own needs and passions will ultimately make me more of the mother Jonah and Eli deserve, not less. I'm a little rusty, feeling awkwardly like the blank-faced cartoon parent on the airline safety card, dutifully placing the oxygen mask on her own face before tending to her cartoon child. It goes against my instincts a bit, I admit. But I'm getting up and exercising in the mornings. I'm looking into grad schools. I'm trying to dress myself in unstained, unwrinkled clothing that don't make me feel like a hobo.

And little by little, maybe we'll all breathe a little easier.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

All Things New

For many people, the transition from one year to the next is a really big deal. They celebrate the holiday with New Year's parties, dropped balls in Times Square, black-eyed peas, a day off from work, and endless resolutions to make a fresh start in the coming months. Lots of folks find January 1st to be the perfect time to reflect on the past and move forward with purpose.

For me, however, New Year's Day never really feels that significant. We're still saddled with all the problems of the previous year. The weather is still gray and we're still buried under mountains of snow and ice. We wear the same heavy sweaters and breathe the same dry, stale, recycled indoor air most of the time. A new number on the calendar just doesn't thrill me in the midst of winter's tedious monotony.

In my life, the "new year" really begins in March. When those first bulbs peek tentatively our of the cold ground. When we finally throw open the windows and breathe in the warm, fresh air. When I leave my down coat in the closet and walk outside in a t-shirt for the first time in months.

Since I've become a mother, I think I feel the relief of spring even more acutely. After months of trying to keep my boys busy inside and endless hours of arduous bundling and un-bundling them in coats, hats, boots, and mittens for even the shortest trip outside our door, just watching them run out to our backyard in short-sleeves and bare feet feels like indulgent luxury. Both Jonah and Eli were born in the spring, so maybe their entry into the world at this lovely time of year has indelibly reinforced my own feelings of this season as one of birth and life.

In the spring, every new morning brings a surprise for all of us: a new flower peeking out of our garden, birds building a nest in the backyard tree, neighbors finally emerging from their homes after so many months of seclusion. And ever on a deeper level, I'm feeling a shift to a new season of life for our little family. Eli's second birthday a few weeks ago means I'm no longer the mother of a baby, which I find simulaneously thrilling and heartbreaking. I'm noticing that the boys are growing increasingly independent; now, they'll entertain each other in the backyard for impressive chunks of time, unheard of last fall. Jonah and Eli dug in the garden with me this afternoon, and I was shocked to find them both truly helpful. Jonah will be finishing up preschool in the next couple of months, moving on to kindergarten in the fall. He stays up late on Tuesdays with me now to watch American Idol; we snuggle up on the couch and dissect every performance like buddies, so grown up is he. And all around me, the growth of the natural world reflects the budding emergence of these amazing little men. Even in the midst of the fickle Colorado springtime weather (65 one day, a foot of snow the next), the buds on the trees and the boys in my house persist in their plucky new growth. I breathe in the warm air, and thank God for spring.

Happy New Year 2010!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Beautiful Boy: A letter to Eli on his 2nd birthday

Eli at just 6 months old... my how you've grown!

Several months ago, I posted a letter I wrote to Jonah as he was starting preschool. I wanted to capture a particular moment in time in Jonah's life as well as my own, a snapshot of who we both were at that moment of our mother/child journey. I received lots of encouraging feedback about that post, but several people wondered about when Eli might have his own letter, too. I figure that his 2nd birthday is as good a time as any to attempt to wrap my pen (or keybard, as it may be) around my unique and wonderful youngest boy.

To my amazing Eli,

It was just two years ago this morning that you made your grand entrance into this world, already looking robust and powerful, not much like a typical newborn at all. Even then, I knew you had such a strong spirit, just brimming with life and all its potential. In those early days, I struggled so much in my role as your mother, constantly mourning the fact that I just didn't have more hands, more hours in the day, and a bigger lap to keep both you and Jonah happy. I recalled the hours of entranced gazing at each other that Jonah and I had experienced when he was so tiny, but as an overwhelmed new mom of two, I was heartbreakingly aware that you and missed out on many of those quiet moments. The middle of the night feedings were our time... just you and me and the glorious moonlight shining in the windows, completely at peace. I think I treasured to those quiet moments with you all the more, knowing just how fleeting they would be.

At less than three months, you discovered that you could roll over on your own, and nothing has stopped you from your fierce explorations in the days since. You are child who is into everything! Your little hands just MUST reach out to touch it all, from the contents of all the kitchen cupboards to the pigtails of poor unsuspecting little girls. You climb everything you can, you hate to be carried these days, and you rarely walk; this little man needs to run! You insisted on feeding yourself at only 10 months old, urging to me grab the stain remover and just prepare for disaster - on your clothes, on the walls, on the floor. You love all things gooey or messy or disgusting. Last summer, you sauntered up to your dad in the back yard with a little brown dog turd in your hand and proudly proclaimed, "Poop!". You couldn't have looked happier.

You adore music, and I've quickly learned that with you, the proper musical accompaniment can quickly diffuse even the most difficult of situations. You play a mean air guitar, and you dance, well, like the lip-biting little white man that you are. For the past few months, you have been fully obsessed with Ziggy Marley's "Give a Little Love". You'll beg, "More, love!" over and over and you zealously belt out all you can with your caveman speech skills: "Give... love. Have... hope. Make... world... better. Try... more. Harder... b'fore. Do... t'gether.... Sing it!". You little voice is amazingly sweet, particularly for such a boisterous little man. I wish I could just bottle it up and play it back when the world seems hard, because that voice is just pure joy, plain and simple.

You are fiercely independent, much more so than your older brother. For Jonah in his first few years of life, I was the center of the universe... Jonah wanted all mommy, only feeling truly safe when I was within his sight. But you, my little E, are so different. You are brave and bold and rarely clingy. For you, I am a more of a harbor, a safe place to return when the big kids are mean or Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street scares you (and oddly, he does!)... you come back to me for a few snuggles and a bit of reassurance, but then you're off again, ready for your next adventure. You stride into Jonah's preschool with such comical confidence when we pick him up each day. You give high fives and say hello to all the teachers and students and parents by name as if you were a tiny principal greeting the school, and then you sign yourself in with a picture on the bulletin board by Jonah's classroom door. One mother commented to me one day, "That child is a FORCE to be reckoned with!". You certainly are.

As you grow, I have a feeling you will challenge me in more ways than I can imagine. I know that finding appropriate outlets for all those big feelings and big plans is sometimes difficult for you, and I promise to do the best that I can to help you safely embrace all this wildness in a way that nurtures your bold spirit and doesn't shut you down. You are just so full of life, and you are teaching me more than I ever realized I needed to know.

So go explore, little one. I'll be here when you need me, with all the love this heart can hold.