Sunday, November 29, 2009

But I Feel Safe Behind These Walls

I was grumpy this weekend. Irritated, prickly, and quick to annoyance. Looking for a fight, or at least a reason to be mad at someone. I finally realized it yesterday as I was standing on a ladder outside the garage, replacing a light fixture in a hurry before the rain came. It took until bedtime last night to work out why.

Time warp. I spent my weekend in do-over mode. When my brother-in-law showed up with his family I suddenly had two babies in my house. Two gorgeous, 12-month-old girls who were busy crawling around, getting to know the dog and entertaining us all. I kept my distance at first, letting Eve and Lola play with the girls, hold their chubby hands, figure out what made them giggle, and carry them around the house endlessly. I busied myself cooking, cleaning, making sure our contributions to Thanksgiving were ready. By Thursday afternoon I was defensive for my sister-in-law. By Friday morning I was just plain defensive.

When my girls were babies my relationship with my in-laws existed outside the walls I had built. These walls were erected to protect against any criticism they might aim at me - was I too vegetarian? Too ambitious? Not good enough for their baby? Fitting in to this family was tough and I waffled between working my butt off to squeeze in to the puzzle and just saying "screw it." By the time I added being a new mom to my life my walls were fortified. But somehow, I still felt the sting of the arrows, imagined or not.

I should let Eve cry herself to sleep (fling). I shouldn't nurse her so often (swish). I was praised for quitting my job and staying at home with her. No, she was too young to feed baby food (thwack)...

Bubba's parents had waited forever to be grandparents. We had fielded the questions that turned to pleas that morphed into outright demands for six years as we desperately tried to keep some semblance of privacy in our marriage. By the time Eve arrived they were like shoppers who had waited, staring through the windows of the department store, since midnight for the doors to open. They were slobbering with delight. They couldn't wait to get their hands on her.

I was stingy. I was in love with my baby and used to my independence (read: control) and I didn't give her up easily. I had no idea what I was doing, but I wanted to make my own mistakes and I figured as long as I loved her enough I couldn't go too far wrong. I felt fortunate to live five hours from my in-laws so most of the time it worked out. Except for holiday weekends.

On holidays things fell apart. Eve didn't sleep because there was so much stimulation. Every time she began to get sleepy and rub her eyes, someone picked her up and bounced her and tried to make her giggle. Every time I laid her down, a door would slam, the ice maker would rumble, the vacuum would get turned on. I was grumpy. I was irritable. Prickly.

If she woke in the middle of the night I was desperate to get her to sleep again so she wouldn't disturb the entire house. If she cried during the day I scrambled to explain why, to prove that I was a good mother. I just knew that if everyone left us alone, I could do this thing right and they wouldn't have an opportunity to criticize. It was them, not me!

When I finally got my hands on one of my neices this weekend those old toxic feelings filled my veins. I knew I could just get this little one to sleep and I just about had her there, until she heard her mother's voice. Later in the day I saw her sister begin to get drowsy, quieting down on Grandma's lap and staring off into the distance. I nearly screamed when Grandpa came swooping down, snatched her up and began tossing her in the air, squealing in a high-pitched voice because "she's too quiet today, this little one!" "NOOO," I wanted to say, "she's in the sweet spot. Let her sit quietly and she'll go to sleep on her own instead of screaming herself to exhaustion." The knot in my belly was only matched by the tight connection between my molars as they ground themselves to dust. This feeling was familiar.

And, strangely, not unwelcome. There was something righteous about watching my in-laws with babies again and listening to that voice inside my head, "They have no more idea about what is perfectly 'right' for these babies than anyone else! They are so critical of their children and the way they parent!" Feeling defensive for myself was one thing, but feeling defensive for my sister-in-law somehow felt benevolent. I was defending her this time, even if only in my head.

Lying in the dark at 2:00 this morning, listening to one of the babies scream, I realized what I was doing. All those walls I thought I had done away with are still there. I can't just disregard them because my girls are no longer babies. Having these babies around just stoked that fire and it turns out I still hold anger and resentment toward my in-laws for the judgement I thought they were handing out when my girls were babies. The power of those old arrows lives on in my heart and unless I think on it some more, I have a feeling Christmas is going to be rough for me.

Guess I'm off to take down some walls.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What If?

What if there was a school for girls? What if that school was created by parents of girls who thought girls ought to be taught according to the way their brains work? What if these parents found someone who knew the neuroscience and how to apply it to help girls learn, grow, blossom, and be joyful about their lives and the possibilities within?

What if Bubba and I took the girls to visit that school one weekend and we sat in a room with families of all stripes - heterosexual, homosexual, black, white, yellow, rich, poor, disabled - listening to a passionate panel of teachers, headmasters, parents and students talk about how much they loved this school? What if the walls were plastered with a riot of color and texture; a result of the artwork these girls were producing? What if the girls were taken off to another room to build and explore with other girls their age and they produced something so cool that we just had to come see? What if none of us wanted to leave when it was over?

What if this special, magical place is 30 minutes' drive from my house (in good traffic)? How much do I care? How far will I bend to help Eve find a place like this that will nurture her brain and her soul? I'm thinking you ought to start calling me Gumby...

Thursday, November 19, 2009


I want to go back to those days when Eve trusted me. When she listened to what I said and solemnly nodded her head in understanding. The times when I pointed something out and said, "You must never touch the things in this cupboard. You could get hurt," and her eyes widened in agreement and she refused to even look at that cupboard again.

I miss the days when she would come home from school with a problem and crawl into my lap for a snuggle and a talk. When we were done talking, she had listened to my story, gotten some love and encouragement and left confident that I was telling her the truth. That I could be trusted to know. That my advice was wise and came from a place of love. That she could conquer this.

Right now, her anxiety and fear and self-doubt have peaked to a place where my words are mere superballs pinging off of her armor. Her eyes have lost their luster, her skin is grey, her hair lies limp on her head. She is defeated. She is afraid. It is breaking my heart and, while she is still coming to me and climbing in to my lap, soaking my shoulder with her tears, my examples are useless. She leaves my lap still afraid and certain she will fail. I feel utterly impotent in the face of this impenetrable enemy. So I sit in the hall outside her bedroom in solidarity. All I can do for now is remind her that I am here. That she is loved. I believe in her spirit and its ability to rebound. I can only hope that at some point my persistence will begin to crack the wall she has built and the love will get through.

Wish us luck.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Which Way Do I Go?

In September we were feeling lucky that Eve was about to join our neighborhood public school. The bus stop was at the end of the block. Other neighborhood kids would be joining her at the school. We just happen to live in what is billed as "the best school district in the state." For our first foray into the world of public (read: free as opposed to the tuition we'd been paying for the last few years) school and we were optimistic.

Two months in: Eve has lost her trademark self-confidence. She went in knowing she was bulletproof. A couple of weeks ago she started sleeping in and begging me to let her stay home. She's not being teased or tortured. She has made a ton of friends and has gotten a school "pride award" nearly every week for turning her homework in on time and being a good citizen by helping younger students, volunteering to clean the cafeteria after lunch, and helping in her classroom.

Her teacher spends her day passing out worksheets and doing email. The children correct each other's papers and muddle through their math problems without a textbook that offers examples. Bubba and I have actually had to use a popular search engine to look up some of the terms on her worksheets so that we can help her understand what she's supposed to do.

When Eve approaches her teacher's desk to ask for clarification she is told, "Re-read the instructions." If she resorts to asking a classmate for help, she gets busted for talking in class and a note is sent home.

Last Thursday I sent the teacher an email asking a question about a field trip I offered to chaperone. I sent it at 10:15am. On a school day. By 10:30am (that's fifteen minutes later) I had a response. Why is she doing email when she's supposed to be teaching my kid? Why does a teacher need a PC on her desk in her classroom?

Not wanting to jump to conclusions, I arranged several coffee dates with parents of kids in Eve's classroom. Each of these parents not only have children who are classmates of Eve's, but they also have either younger or older kids who also attend this school. So I asked: Is this year a particularly difficult one to teach? Is this teacher an anomaly? Do other parents struggle with the curriculum (particularly the math curriculum)?

To a parent, their responses were astonishing. This teacher has a particular reputation for being 'disengaged' from her students and their families, but as for any teachers who go the extra mile, there are perhaps two in the entire school, K-6. Apparently the vast majority of parents in our school district HATE the math curriculum and several of them have attended school board meetings in an effort to change it. [Lest you think we have no credibility, our area contains some of the finest engineering minds around. I personally was a calculus tutor in college. If I don't understand elementary math, there's something wrong.] For five years running, the district has defended its choices.

The vast majority of parents in our school district are also resorting to Kumon. The after school tutoring program, Kumon. They confided in me that the local public school is basically their version of day care for their kids and they spend their evenings either tutoring their children themselves or paying someone else to do it.

In the "best school district in the state."

Color me done.

If I'm not here for a while, it's because my writing is all directed toward getting Eve in to a private school where the teachers are held accountable to the children and families they are teaching and the mission has to do with actually teaching children to love learning instead of ensuring they will pass some standardized test tied to their budget.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Yup, I Deserve That

Time was, when everyone in my family was sick, I would bend over backwards to make sure they all sail through their respective illnesses, get them back on their feet, and never look back. Truth be told, I still do that. Bubba spent the weekend on the couch, his brains slowly roasting inside his head from a high fever and coughing like an 80-year-old smoker with advanced emphysema. I shuttled back and forth between the girls and his post, bringing him fluids and homeopathic remedies and alternating Tylenol and Advil to keep his fever down.

By Tuesday afternoon he was back at work, albeit moving slowly, and Eve's body was beginning the slow simmer. Wednesday morning she was grey and hot, shiny-eyed and couldn't talk without the rolling crud in her lungs threatening to come out. By noon, Lola joined her on the couch and I swear I could see the steam shimmering off of their skin as they first huddled under blankets and, ten minutes later, shook them off. Fully stocked with Gatorade, more homeopathic meds, thermometer covers and Otter Pops, I spent the day hydrating, comforting, and reassuring my poor little patients. The grocery lists and dog leash lay on the kitchen counter, left for another day.

Thursday and Friday, normally my days off by myself, will morph from a time to finish tasks for the house and take some time to write and exercise for myself to a time of caretaking. There is something poignant and tender about taking care of my family, especially when they are so clearly physically uncomfortable and I can do so much to help in simple ways. There is something so validating for me as a mother as I tiptoe around them, clearing dishes, taking temperatures, rubbing backs, fluffing pillows. It hits me in a way that feels good.

As we settled in to bed last night Bubba's voice shot out in the dark, "You are not allowed to get sick. You know that, right? You're the only one that isn't allowed." I know he meant it as a joke. Partially. But I know it. And it's pretty rare that I do get sick and actually need the tables to turn so that he is taking care of me. But a couple of times on Wednesday I found myself fantasizing about a sore throat building. Some slight pressure behind my right eardrum.

Nah. I woke up this morning refreshed and ready to help my girls through another rotten day of the flu. Knowing that I may not get these two days to myself this week and not minding. Because there was a time when I would have just written them off and pushed myself through to next week, hoping to get my time then. But now that I'm wiser and more careful about taking care of me, too, I'll wait until they feel better and Saturday or Sunday I will take my time. If they are all stir crazy I'll send them out to the movies and ice cream so I can have the place to myself for a few hours. If they want to stay home, I'll head to the bookstore, have coffee with a friend, take the dog for a walk or go get a pedicure. I've finally figured out that I don't have to get sick to earn being taken care of. I don't need an excuse. All I have to do is make the time to take care of myself. Or else I will get sick.

So this weekend, Bubba's doing all the cooking. The girls will help fold laundry. I will make sure yoga and writing and me are all priorities for me. Yup, I deserve that.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Control Freaks R Us

Inspired by a dear friend of mine who is also an admitted control freak (and whose life lessons all seem to revolve around breaking her of that), I've decided to create a new support group. The working name is Controllers Anonymous, although I'm hoping to come up with something more creative soon. In the meantime, I've decided to get to work on the twelve steps.

1. I promise to stop controlling every person and circumstance around me.
2. Really, I promise to try. So long as these people stop screwing everything up.
3. Oh, screw it...

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Not My Story

Inspired by a short essay I read yesterday, I started thinking about how often in my everyday life I look at things through my own lens, my own story. When I walk into my bathroom, sit down on the toilet to do my business and, too late, notice that someone has neglected to replace the empty toilet paper tube, more often than not I take it personally.

In 'my story,' this constitutes an act of disrespect. Why would someone come into my bathroom, use it and leave without having the common courtesy to make sure it will be ready for me to use when I come in again? How dare they?

In real life, it's more likely that Eve or Lola simply dashed in there, frantic to pee and finish and get back to the game she was playing or book she was reading, and completely spaced the fact that all of the TP was gone. I'm fairly sure, when I take myself out of 'my story,' that it wasn't meant as a personal attack.

What a relief!

After 12 hours of reflecting on this concept and relaxing in to it, I decided that there is so much I don't know about why the girls do the things they do and how they feel that perhaps I ought to ask them.

So I left them each a worksheet to do sometime this morning while I went out to the grocery store. Each of them had several questions like these:

  • When I am singing I feel _______________________
  • When I fight with Eve/Lola I feel _____________________
  • When I'm reading alone I feel ____________________
  • When Mom or Dad is mad I feel ____________________
  • When Eve/Lola and I are playing together I feel ___________________
  • When I am rushed I feel ___________________
I tailored the questions to each of the girls somewhat (I asked Lola how she feels when she wakes up in the middle of the night and Eve how she feels when she is faced with a new task). At the bottom of the page, each of them had to make a list of things that the other members of our household do to make them feel loved and special. I also asked Eve to tell me the times of the week when she feels the most crunched for time and Lola to tell me the kinds of things she likes to do to help out around the house and how that makes her feel.

When I got home I sat down with each of the girls individually and reviewed their answers. A few of them I could have predicted but some of the others were shocking. Having completed their papers separately, I was thrilled to see that they both said they feel loved when they are playing together.

I was sad to see that Lola said she feels "dumb" when she's rushed through her day, either our morning routine or her work at school. She said she feels "grumpy" when she's practicing piano. Wow.

I have learned so much about them by doing this simple exercise. The things they listed under the question of what our other family members do to make them feel special were so simple. There was no "buy me stuff," or "let me stay up late," or "play on the computer." The answers were things like snuggling, reading stories together and saying 'thank you.'

I'm posting these pages on my bathroom mirror to remind me that Lola's story is not my story. Eve's story is more complex and unique than what I might have imagined. My girls don't need much to feel cherished. Certainly not video games or new clothes.

They have also learned, by looking at each other's lists, that each of them has the power to make the other one feel good or bad. Lola feels 'sad' when they fight and Eve feels 'angry' but since they both feel 'loved' when they play together, I believe that will result in more mindfulness when they have conflicts. Who wouldn't choose loved over sad/angry?

Monday, November 02, 2009

Writing Prompt

Generally, I have more ideas for writing blog posts than I have time to write them. A writing prompt is not exactly what I'm seeking most of the time.

A few months ago, though, I was reading a magazine that offered a writing contest to its readers and I happened to miss the deadline. Bummer, especially since I was very intrigued by the subject. The question was this: what was the moment when you first realized you were a grown-up?

Thoughts passed through my head: when I got my period? When I got married? When I got pregnant? That one snagged on a piece of driftwood and caught. Not because being pregnant meant I was a grown-up but because of the questions it raised and the ultimate decision it forced.
I was 29 years old, blissfully over-the-moon married for six years and had a job I adored with a boss who taught me more than I knew was possible. And I wanted a baby. Lucky for me, so did Bubba and getting pregnant was as simple for us as saying the words. "Bingo!" said the fates. "You're pregnant."

Most of the early days of my pregnancy were spent in a typical fashion, signing up for websites that would help me track my baby's growth in-utero, planning for a nursery, looking forward to the first ultrasound. As my belly grew and the little munchkin inside wiggled and twisted I began thinking about baby names and what this baby would call its grandparents. Bubba's mom pleaded with us to avoid "granny" and "nana." My mom couldn't care less she was so thrilled to finally be a grandmother. My dad, hmmm.

At that time my dad and I were fairly estranged. I was too chicken to formally disengage from his life so we casually phoned each other every month or so to check in and I dutifully visited for an hour or so when I was in town, but the truth was that I was so angry with him I couldn't see straight. For sins both imagined and real, I was forever determined to hold him at arm's length. Andre the Giant arms. I wasn't going to let him in to hurt me again. No way.

But as my skin softened so did my heart. My stomach stretched and so did my understanding. My hair got thicker and so did my blood. I began to caress this bump that sat right in the center of me and daydream about the life this child would have. I recalled family Christmases smack in the eye of a tornado of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, torn tissue and ribbons everywhere and smiles all around. I remembered that allies don't always come in the forms you expect them to and regardless of how desperately I wanted to be the one my child comes to when she is in trouble, I may not be the one she chooses.

I began to realize that I wanted my baby to have the biggest, most loving family in the history of the world. I wanted her to know her cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. All of them. I wanted her to know their stories and hear all the hilarious family antics. I wanted her to stand smack in the center of a room full of relatives and feel loved and protected and cherished.

I needed to make a decision. Either I step up and cut my father out of this child's life formally or I let him in. It was time to stop dancing around the issue and choose.

I chose Dad.

Which led to another question. If I was going to really let him in I needed to be honest with both of us. Could I confront him with all of the things that I hated about him? Could I accuse him of all the nasty, mean things he had done in his life and demand answers? Was I brave enough to do that? It was only fair to give him a chance to explain.

I knew I needed to steel myself for this conversation. One night when Bubba was out of town I lie in the darkness on my back rubbing my baby belly and imagining the way it would go. Small talk first, how are you, what's new with the pregnancy, have any baby names yet? Then, what? How do I hit him with it? This was too important to improvise.

The more combinations and permutations of each accusation I knocked around in my head the more I felt my shoulders tense and my body begin to warm. I felt righteous. I felt justified. I felt...anxious. He would deny all of it anyway, wouldn't he? And then what? Do I cut him out if he does that? The baby kicked furiously, turning somersaults and flipping inside me.

Gradually it began to dawn on me. Was there anything he could say that would appease me? Was I just asking him impossible questions? Could I imagine a scenario whereby he would say, "I did that because of x" and it would be okay with me? Could I come up with any plausible explanation for some of the crappy decisions he made as a parent?

A parent. Parent. Responsible for a child. That was me pretty soon. I wouldn't make any of the same crappy decisions, would I? Right? Please?

The baby stopped moving and I went cold. That was the moment I grew up. The moment I realized that my father, the man I'd been vilifying for over a decade, was simply a human being. He hadn't had a set of rules and tips for being the perfect parent any more than Bubba and I would when this baby came. Did he do his best? the devil voice on my shoulder sneered in the darkness.

The answer surprised us both. Yeah, I think he did. When faced with this realization I was forced to admit that I didn't honestly believe anything my dad ever did was motivated by hatred for me or my siblings or my mother. I don't think he was ever trying to hurt any of us. Of the two of my parents, the one who never fails to say "I love you" before he hangs up the phone is my dad.

I realized that it wasn't my job to make my dad pay for his mistakes. The only conversation that was necessary in all of this was the one I had with myself. From this day forward, we would start over. The starting line was here. This place where I recognized that my father, warts and all, loved me. Always loved me.

That is what I wanted for this baby. And until his too-early death last May that is exactly what she felt coming from him. Adoration. Protection. Love.

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