Thursday, August 27, 2009

Anger Management

Most people who know me would never guess this in a million years, but I think I have an anger management problem.  

Now, if you're anything like me, the term "anger management problem" brings to mind bar room brawlers, men in tight white tank tops, and 17 -year olds who get sent to juvie for jumping their math teachers.  What I DON'T think of is a 32-year old church-going, yoga-practicing, stay-at-home mom with an endless repertoire of verses of "The Wheels on the Bus."  Me.  Smiley, happy me, right?  But beneath the innocuous exterior is a woman who has, truth be told, really struggled to keep her cool over the last 17 months.  And here's the worst part of it all:  the two people who can most easily drive me to the ugliest kind of fury are, 1.) under the age of five, and 2.) my own children.  

Now, an important disclaimer here:  first and foremost, I LOVE MY BOYS DEARLY.  I CHOOSE to stay home with them on my own accord.  They are not unusually misbehaved or obnoxious children by any means.  In fact, strangers have even approached me to comment that these kids are quite the opposite.  They are curious, loving, adorable little people... truthfully, they're the coolest kids I know.  Which makes it all the more shameful that, in recent months, I seem prone to yelling and making this loud, exasperated grunting sound, even in the grocery store or in front of gawking neighbors.  

Seriously, what's happened to me?  I started motherhood with seemingly endless patience and gentleness, a firm resolve that I would model these virtues for my boys.  A definite Kumbaya kind of mama.  I would never, I swore, be one of those mothers who screamed or slammed doors or forced their shrieking toddlers into car seats in the Target parking lot when they refused to go of their own accord.  Such women, I thought naively, simply needed to take a breath and remember what precious treasures their children were.  

But here's the thing:  some situations were just not meant to be endured by sane human beings.  Like the time a few weeks ago when both boys were given balloons on the Pearl St. Mall, which initially, made them quite happy.  I smiled blissfully as we walked along, hand in hand, each boy watching with amusement as his balloon bobbed in the wind.  However, when on the way home, peacefully buckled into their side by side car seats, their balloons accidentally twisted around each other and tangled, all hell broke loose.  Each boy yanked with all his might on his own string in a futile attempt to free the balloons, and both Eli and Jonah began to shriek like the girl from The Exorcist.  Initially, I was impressively calm.  

"Boys," I called back to them from the front seat as I cruised down the highway.  "Just let go of your strings and I'll untwist them for you."  

The duet of high pitched wailing subsided for a moment, but Eli, at just 16 months old, couldn't make sense of my offer and proceeded to tug with everything he had on his coveted yellow balloon.  Jonah, not to be outdone, yanked immediately back, and the screaming resumed.  

I raised my voice a bit.  "Jonah," I called, trying to appeal to my older, most sensible son, "just let go for a minute and I'll get your balloon back to you."  But by this time, neither boy could hear me over their screaming.  I felt my patience and sanity begin to disappear.  


Seriously.  I said that.  Who am I, after all?  Certainly not the peaceful earth mother I aspire to in my mind.  But sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures.  

I'm certainly not justifying my anger or claiming that it's a good idea to yell at children.  I deal with the shame and the guilt on a daily basis, wishing I could take back words or even an angry tone, praying that I'm not wrecking these little guys for life.  

One recent evening, I had lost my cool once again after my four-year old had refused to go to bed and had woken up his sleeping brother for the second time that night.  Jonah had padded down to the living room begging for "just one more snack" as I heard the baby begin to wail upstairs.  I banged the pantry door shut, slammed down some crackers and milk in front of Jonah, and stomped back up the steps to attempt to put the little one to bed for the third time that hour.  

When I returned down the stairs a few minutes later, I was feeling a bit calmer.  Jonah sat alone at the table with his head down in front of his empty plate.  I called him over to me on the couch, and he climbed up onto my lap.  We talked a bit about the importance of following the bedtime rules, and he nodded.  

"But mommy," he said quietly.  "You broke a rule, too." 

"Yeah, buddy.  You're right.  I was too mad, wasn't I?  I'm really sorry.  Do you know that?"

"Yeah," he whispered as he laid his blond head on my shoulder.  "You did break a rule, but you know what?  Now we'll put the rule back together."  

Gulp.  The boy really said this, came up with it on his own.  Sometimes his grace and wisdom just about knock me over.  

And I just can't help but feeling that maybe, just maybe, there's hope for me yet.  

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Invasion of the Incredible Hulk

Does the Incredible Hulk have a sword?"  Jonah, four years old, asks me as he cruises his scooter in wide circles on our driveway.  

"Nope," I respond.  "The Hulk is so strong that he doesn't need a sword.  Just his hands."

"Whoa." Jonah stops his scooter to ponder this fact, obviously impressed.  

It's a Monday afternoon, and ever since Jonah returned from a friend's Incredible Hulk-themed birthday party the previous Saturday, he's been bursting with questions about the green superhero who grows so large that he spontaneously explodes out of his clothes.  

Now, my husband and I have nothing against superheroes or the Hulk in particular.  He's a perfectly entertaining character, but prior to this party, we hadn't yet introduced our son to this particular facet of boyhood.  We must be somewhat unusual in this choice, because Jonah turned out to be the only kid at the party who was unfamiliar with this freaky green giant.  He played it off well, though, avoiding humiliation for all us at his ignorance of the cultural icon.  But now, he's hungry to know more, and the questions just keep coming.  

"Is the Hulk a monster?"

"Why are his pants so raggedy?"

"Does the Hulk have friends?"

"Is the Hulk good or bad?"

"What makes the Hulk turn all big and green?"

I try to be patient and answer his questions thoroughly, although I'll admit to having to check the internet for the exact reason that Bruce Banner transforms from human to hulk (it's exposure to gamma rays from an explosion in a bomb testing facility, in case you wondered).  But the truth of the matter is, I have some real ambivalence about the fact that we're entering this particular phase of life with our little boy.  It's a perfectly normal phase, one filled with superheroes and army men, lots of conflicts between the "good guys" and the "bad guys".  I think boys need to go through this stuff as they struggle to understand our crazy world and their place in it, but inevitably, this stage seems to be filled with both violence and commercialism, two concepts we've been pretty much able to control in Jonah's life up to this point.  Don't get me wrong... we certainly don't want to raise him under a rock or something, but it's been one of our greatest gifts to observe his little life unfolding in what we've hoped would be a deep sense of beauty, gentleness, wonder, and joy.  When you're the mom and the dad and your small kids look to you for eveything, and most young children do, it's really not that hard to control this through little decisons, basic stuff like choosing PBS instead of Spongebob or prime time, simple toys like blocks or cars instead of guns or Nintendo, playtime spent mostly outside collecting bugs or wading in a creek rather than in a McDonald's PlayPlace.  Up to now, we haven't done a whole lot of talking about gamma rays or bombs.  

But now the rules are changing on us.  We're suddenly not the only viable influences on Jonah's life.  His little friends on the playground and in preschool are much more articulate and opinionated than they used to be.  On a daily basis, he seems to come to us with ever-increasing knowledge and curiosity about video games, guns, boxing, death, or other concepts that belie the fact that, at the ripe old age of four, his grip on his own innocence is tenuous.  

It's poignant to watch this process unfolding, and to know that despite my best intentions, Jonah's view of the world is changing day by day.  The best we can do is take his little hand and promise to walk with him through this maze of, Steve, Jonah, and the Incredible Hulk.  

Monday, August 24, 2009

Little Boys are Like Tomatoes... :)

I've been a mother for over four years now, but I've only been a gardener for about four months.  When my husband and I finally bought our first home in the spring, we had big dreams for our little yard.  We imagined lush gardens teeming with perennials, vegetables, berries, native grasses... all cultivated by our own green thumbs.  We set to work planting as soon as we could, relishing each trip to the local nursery, carefully choosing the best amendments for our soil, pouring over plant guides, designing layouts, getting our hands nice and dirty.  We watered, we composted, we weeded, we pruned, we mulched.  

But really, we had no idea what we were doing.

And within a few weeks, our promising garden withered like an old man who had spent too much time in the suntan oil.  

We searched in books and consulted neighbors and family, all of whom seemed to have a different opinion.  

"More water, definitely."

"Less water.  You're drowning them."  

"Must be the bad soil.  Dig it all out and start over."

But then one day, miraculously, the sage started to perk up.  The tomatoes produced some flowers.  The strawberries gave us a few sweet fruits.  It was so strange, because we really were so paralyzed by all the advice that we didn't actually DO anything to try to improve our dying plot.  We're still not quite sure what happened, but as the summer has progressed, our little garden has survived, and even sometimes thrived.  At the moment, we're bombarded by more tomatoes than we know what to do with.  Sure, it's certainly not worthy of master gardener status, but it's ours, and we think it's pretty beautiful.

And I'm noticing that, at least for me, the process of learning to be a parent is a lot like learning to be a gardener.  These little living beings are placed in your care, and sometimes, they are lovely and you soak up the beauty and joy of the raising them.  But just as often, it seems, despite your best intentions, you flail and you do the wrong thing sometimes, and you feel as if, you've ruined these little people for life.  People give you all kinds of advice, but mostly, it doesn't help much.  Still, like our little garden, and even in spite of their parents at times, these kids keep thriving, and you praise God that many things are just way beyond our control.  

My kids like this old folk song I think Woody Guthrie sang, which seems to give voice to lots of what I feel about being a mom trying to raise little men in a tricky world.   

Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
All it takes is a rake and a hoe
And a piece of fertile ground
Inch by inch, row by row
Someone bless these seeds I sow
Someone warm them from below
'Til the rain comes tumbling down

Pulling weeds and pickin' stones
Man is made from dreams and bones
I feel the need to grow my own
'Cause the time is close at hand
Grain for grain, sun and rain
Find my way in nature's chain
Tune my body and my brain
To the music from the land

Plant your rows straight and long
Strengthen them with pray'r and song
Mother Earth will make you strong
If you give her love and care
Old crow watchin' hungrily
From his perch in yonder tree
In my garden I'm as free
As that feathered thief up there

Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
All it takes is a rake and a hoe
And a piece of fertile ground
Inch by inch, row by row
Someone bless the seeds I sow
Someone warm them from below
'Til the rain comes tumbling down

So I've decided to name this blog "Inch by Inch", which is the way my little boys and I are growing these days.  Slowly but surely, in spite of weeds and stones and old crows.  Those of you who are reading my blog hoping for quick family updates and always happy quips will be sorely disappointed, I'm sure.  I've decided to write not so much to document the daily happenings of our family as to process my own experiences of my days as a stay at home mom, and to force myself into some reflection.  Too many days, I tuck the kiddos to bed and plop in front of the TV for the night, neglecting to acknowledge the little miracles that occurred in my boys and in myself that day.  Inch by inch, I'm learning that the process of raising them is changing me, too.  Some days this is joyous and some days it's torturous, but it's always an adventure.  Thanks for joining me.    

Now, off to pull some weeds...