Friday, January 2, 2015

Nothing Changes on New Year's Day (I Will Begin Again)

What? 2014, where did you go? Suddenly here we are and it’s 2015. There is so much about the past year that I want to record that I haven’t. There is even so much about the past week that I want to record. 

More than once this past week of vacation, I’ve felt like I should just follow my children around and write down every cute or funny or inspirational thing they say in a notebook that I can reread when they are grown. I wanted to write down the time a couple days ago when Johnny was leaning in to turn up the volume on The Nightmare Before Christmas. Teeny, currently obsessed with Jack Skellington, was afraid he was turning it off. “No!” she cried. “Don’t turn it off!” I was amazed. I didn’t even know she could say that. In a flash I remembered how a year ago I had created a list of all the words she could say and put it in a Google doc. I gave her teachers and therapists access so we could all update it whenever we heard new words. At the time, her words were so few and her pronunciation so poor that most people had great difficulty understanding her. That list, on a spreadsheet that included a column in which I tried to recreate the way she pronounced particular words and phrases (like “AH-waht” for “I want”) served to help everyone understand what she meant when she tried to express herself and I wasn’t there to translate. 

Now she speaks in complete sentences almost routinely. They are slow and deliberate but they are pretty accurate and, to most, pretty clear. What’s funny is that I don’t always like what she has to say! “Did you finish peeing? Wipe yourself please,” I will say, a thousand times a day, handing her a wad of toilet paper. “No. YOU wipe me,” she will retort, pointing a finger in my face. These days she so is full of “No. YOU do it” that I have just started doing things for her that I know full well she can do herself. But this is dangerous territory for a three-year-old, neurotypical or otherwise, because as soon as I do that, she will of course shriek, “No! Teeny do! Teeny do!” and collapse into hysteria if I dare to do so much as flush the toilet for her when she’s finished because she decided a nanosecond too late that she wanted to do it herself. 

She’s becoming very stubborn. Half ultra-independent (“Teeny do it self!” and “No, I want own muffin!”), half-clinging to Mama (“I want to sit lap, Mama” and “No, YOU do it, Mama.”) Always pointing. Usually polite. And for me, never resistible.  As frustrating as it was to be outside with Bee when she, at eleven months, was taking her first steps, needing a half hour to cover one city block, it is a thousand times more frustrating to be outside with a three-year-old who wants like hell to walk but simply cannot. “I want WALK!” she will shout as we are loading her up into her wheelchair or her stroller or carseat. But then as we are putting on her shoes she will declare, “No braces!” When she doesn’t wear her braces, her ankles collapse easily and even standing becomes more challenging. So we try to reason with her about that, which gets us nowhere. Sometimes she wins and sometimes she doesn’t. When she wins, we walk. But it doesn’t stop there. “Just one hand,” she will instruct me as she pulls herself to a stand, leaning on me. To step without her walker, she needs to support herself with both arms, but this is too restrictive for her liking. I automatically take both her hands in mine to help her, but she invariably yanks one hand away from me, repeating “just one hand!” When I can, I let her try this even though we both know that she can’t take a single step without us holding both of her hands. I redirect that other hand to whatever’s closest – a chair back, a table edge, a windowsill, another person’s hand. This clearly makes her feel more independent. But it would probably take us a year to walk down one block. We take one very slow step after another, correcting the way her right foot crosses her left when she isn’t paying attention and the way both feet do it when she gets physically tired. But she presses on until she can’t go any further. “Take a break,” she will announce and sit down right in the middle of wherever she is, whatever she is doing. Two minutes later she’s usually ready to try again. This kid’s spirit is almost indefatigable. (Almost. She does have moments of extreme frustration when her body can't do what her mind tries to command it to.) For me it’s an exercise in patience and self-restraint that I do mostly happily because I know this new level of determination is a sign of incredible progress. Plus there’s something about it that’s awfully endearing, even when she’s at her bossiest.

Bee is now six weeks away from her fifth birthday. She is both sassy and sweet. This week she helped us with the border of our 1,000 piece puzzle, scouring the piles for corners and edges and seeing where they fit together. She happily sorted hundreds of pieces with me by color and pattern. “Oooh, Mama!” she announced, waving a tiny piece at me. “I think I found another piece of that lady’s green dress! Look!” Later, border complete, we were chomping at the bit to get started on the rest so we set the girls up with a movie. “Are you almost done with the puzzle?” she called to us, about a half hour later. “No,” I answered. “It’s a big one. We’ll be working on it all week!” I could hear the smile in her voice when she responded, “All week? Oooh! That means more screen time for us!” 

Cute, right? But I don’t need to follow them around with a pad and paper. Kids are cute at every stage and in thirty years I will look back and some of it I will remember and some of it I won’t and that’s okay. I don’t need to post every little thing they say and do to Facebook or other social media since my friends all have adorable children or cats or dogs or hobbies or homes too. They get it. I don’t need to do anything except enjoy it. And for me, sometimes that’s really, really hard.

That’s what I sat down to write about tonight. It’s January 1, a day of resolutions and new beginnings. In the past I would resolve to get skinny. To work out every day. To make that person fall in love with me. To stop saying stupid things. You know what I mean. At some point, though, I realized that those kinds of resolutions don’t work, that despite my determination, a half hour into my starvation diet I was ready to eat the house, that I hated the gym, that I had no control over other people and that maybe it’s not that I said stupid things but that I just didn’t have the confidence to believe in myself and to own what came out of my mouth. So I stopped making resolutions and started to think about ways I could be the person I want to be. I didn’t have to wait for January 1st to do any of that. I could do that today, like right now.  
This year I want to do a little of both. At the tail end of a vacation in which I was essentially forced to unplug, I realize now how much I liked it. Work was, for all intents and purposes, closed for the time I was away and I had next to no responsibilities or reasons to even check in. Cell phone service was intermittent at best, so my phone was quiet except in fits and starts, and wifi in the house we rented was weak so powering up my laptop was pretty useless. I sent texts and social media updates in a flurry of strong reception, usually when we were in town for some reason, and then had little to no way of responding to the replies back at the house. Making calls in one spot not moving at all lest the conversation dwindle into “what?? You’re breaking up. What?!?” got tiresome and after a day or so I gave up on emails altogether. But you know, a girl could get used to that. I found myself spending the week with my family. I mean, with. I wasn’t multitasking. I wasn’t in a million different places while sitting on the couch with my kids. I wasn’t constantly thinking about what I had going on at work that wasn’t getting done or that I had to email so-and-so before falling asleep or what I was going to make for brunch when company comes next week or the bills that needed to get paid or that the cats didn’t get fed yet or that what Teeny just said would make a cute Facebook update. I was there. I was here:

One morning Bee woke me up early. Teeny and Johnny were both still asleep so we pulled on our coats and hats and boots and went for a walk in the woods. We talked about metta – the Buddhist concept of lovingkindness – and, stretching our arms out, we practiced throwing some love out into the universe. It was a pretty sweet moment for me, seeing who came to mind for her as we named many people and animals we loved and for whom we wished happiness, health and peace. When we came back to the house, I took out the box of items I have for when I meditate and I explained to her what they were. I showed her my little meditating Buddha statue, the lotus candle holder, the mala beads. She loved my Tibetan singing bowl and she sounded it several times before setting the timer. She settled in next to me and tried to just breathe. She was fidgety, so we tried putting our fingers on the mala beads. That worked for a little while. But after three minutes I could see her mind beginning to wander, so I let her sound the bowl again and we put everything away. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what she really learned, if anything. After all, she is only four. But she talked about that experience quite a bit and a day or two later she asked if we could light the flower candle again and sit with the Buddha and the beads. I was pretty surprised, and happy. And today on a walk in town, we stopped in one of those hippy-dippy tourist-trappy stores for rich white ladies trying to get in touch with themselves, full of overpriced jewelry and self-help books where everything is breakable, nothing is kid-friendly and where they play Enya and burn incense all day long. “Look!” she shrieked, and tore into the store, the door's chimes tinkling as she went in. A hundred disapproving eyes were instantly on us. Disregarding them, I looked. And following her gaze, I smiled. “What are those, Bee?” “They’re Buddhas, mama,” she answered proudly, pointing. They were!

Maybe she will retain nothing from those three minutes, but they were among the most important minutes for me of this whole week. I felt truly present. I was there. With my kid. It didn’t matter to me what she took from it. It didn’t matter whether she was really meditating or just trying to sit still because I asked her to or if she understood that by sending love out into the world the way we did, we really did make the world a better place. It was a moment we had together and it was fun for both of us. We were talking and we were listening to each other. It was only a few minutes, but they were uninterrupted minutes for a mama and her girl and they meant a lot to me. For a moment I was, as a friend of mine likes to say, where my feet were. That’s presence.

I was fully present in other ways this week. With the phones taking a backseat, I noticed that we talked more. Johnny and I completed our 1,000 piece puzzle working together over three awesome, engrossing evenings. We had friends join us for two days and we all sat around the table and talked and took turns playing with the kids. 

We walked in the woods behind the house, jumping on logs and inspecting the stream and the ice forming at its edges. “Look at that ice! It’s freezing over! I think Elsa has been here, don’t you, Mama?” Bee pontificated more than once. 

I let Johnny sleep in one morning and he let me, too. I had a little time to myself when I needed it and so did he. I brought a new cookbook with me and together he and I picked out new recipes to try. I dutifully made a shopping list two pages long with all the ingredients I would need to make those several very complex dishes. Our afternoon shopping trip outing -- one I was really looking forward to -- would involve a couple of different stops: at the supermarket, a gourmet grocer and the food co-op. We were thirty miles from the house when I realized I had forgotten it. I was devastated and the afternoon I was so excited about crumpled before me. But I realized I had a choice about how to behave. I decided to enlist my family's help to find everything I needed, and in the end we had great fun doing our food shopping together. And because I had been so involved in what I was doing, because I was so committed to creating these new dishes and because I had been so fully present when I made the list, somehow, I remembered every single item except one, and that one was easily substituted by something we already had. I couldn’t believe it.

Today I noticed that after five minutes walking in the woods with me, Bee’s conversation shifted from Elsa and toys and stuff in general to exercise, air, trees and love. This evening before dinner we walked the half mile to the end of our road and back, and we discussed the week we’d had and what we liked best. We talked about who and what was waiting for us at home, what we had coming up in the next few days. As we walked, she took my hand and said “I really like our house, Mama.” Which one? I asked her. This house? Or our apartment at home? “Both!” she said, smiling. “They’re cozy. Can we skip now?”  So we skipped the rest of the way down the hill holding hands to keep our fingers warm. 

This year I want more moments like that. So my resolution is to be more present. That’s vague and it’s meant to be. Maybe it means unplugging a little more, so that I unlearn the this-is-a-Facebook-moment-wait-where's-my-phone thought that I think at least a dozen times a day. Maybe it means doing one thing at a time and letting go of the notion that I am a good multitasker. Maybe it means putting myself first more. Maybe it's about worrying less and asking for help more. Spending more time listening. Meditating. Writing. Reading. Exercising regularly in ways I really like because I love my body and I love to be outside. Doing the things I love with the people I love and for the people I love. Maybe it's a little of everything. 

And yet as I type those words, my brain is already working against me. “You should have your resolution be clearer so you can hold yourself accountable,” it says. "That's what it takes to get things done." Maybe that's true for short term goals, but I want to change myself in this way for good. But my brain wants my New Year’s resolutions to sounds like this: You should read 50 books this year. You should work out six times a week. You should sleep at least eight hours a night. You should see friends once a month, balance your checkbook twice a week, eat only this number of calories every day. You should meditate once a day for at least 20 minutes a day. Do a blog post once a week. Read a book on active listening. Take up ceramics. Go back to school. Put the phone on airplane mode for two hours a day. My brain is yelling at me. “Those are all loving things! Accountability is key! Do them all and do them all right!” 

Maybe “be more present” means nothing more than that I stop telling myself all the things I should do and that I am a failure if I don’t do it perfectly. My brain wants to quantify everything as though it’s a measure of accomplishment – or more like a measure of my failure since there is no way I can hold myself accountable to that much. My brain challenges me: if you can do all of that, why can't you do more? But if you know you can't do it all, then why even try? Because clearly you’re awful at everything and you can’t get anything right. 

I don't want to hear that talk anymore. If I'm so busy crossing stuff off my list, am I really enjoying any of it? I do a lot of those things a lot of the time already. Isn’t that cause for celebration? And wouldn’t it be something if I could let myself off the hook for not being perfect and savor the truth of the many the things I do mostly right most of the time? 

I am so controlled by the clock, by the Outlook calendar, by timers, alarms, reminders and confirmation calls. I look at a clock to know when to eat, how long to run, where to be, how to get there, what to wear, whom to contact. Some of it is unavoidable, but the truth is that I can’t remember the last time I tried listening to my body, looking out the window at nature, or looking at the expressions on my children’s faces to make the decisions I have been allowing a beep or a ding to make for me. I am tired of being so overscheduled that I can’t use the present moment to help me determine whether tonight is a good night to read one extra chapter at bedtime because I am instead too busy thinking of all the things that might go wrong if they are up ten minutes later and all the things I still have to do and oh yeah we still have to water the plants and when will we be able to afford bunk beds for the girls and is that my phone ringing and goddamn it I forgot to put the wash in the dryer and I still have that thing to do for work so these kids have to get to sleep now so I can make some tea and fire up the laptop, and then I’m so lost in thought that I haven’t heard a word the girls have said and I completely missed bedtime anyway even though I was sitting right there.

I am not naive enough to say that this all stops today, New Year’s Day. But I can chip away at it. Over the past week I have felt a new love for my spouse and a genuine appreciation for the things we have in common – shared interests like music, certain kinds of food, doing puzzles, walking in the woods, stopping for coffee -- and a real respect for our differences too. We listened a little better to each other this week and we helped each other more. Our voices stayed a little lower and we laughed more than usual. And my patience with the girls lasted longer than usual too, and that was thanks to being present. So what if Teeny was always insisting on being in my lap or on my hip? Why should that be annoying? So what if she’s getting heavy and I can’t check my email while I'm holding her? It was an opportunity to smell her hair, sneak a kiss on her cheek, give her a squeeze. So what if Johnny was sitting reading his book instead of helping me in the kitchen? Preparing a meal is meditative for me, so how much help did I really need? And besides, isn’t he on vacation too? I loved seeing him engrossed in a book and when I really needed his help, I got to practice asking for it. So what if Bee wanted to play hide and seek, choosing the same hiding spot over and over and clearly not understanding the point of the game as I knew it. “I’m hiding in the closet, Mama!” she said every single time, giggling and hopping up and down like mad whenever she heard me come near. This gave me a chance to get creative. “I’m looking in the cabinet, and she’s not in there! Hmmmm… no Bee in the dresser drawers! Where could she be this time?” And this had a real snowball effect: I snuggled with Johnny and the girls a little bit more than usual, I offered to read to them a little more, I hung out in the bathroom longer than I usually do while Teeny splashed in the bath busily pouring water in and out of an empty bottle of shower gel and I spent a lot longer preparing new, interesting, loving and healthful meals for our family. These are things that I do already, but this week I did them a little bit more and with a lot more love, because I was really there for it all, soaking it up and feeling the effects resonate in my body, my mind and my heart.  

So here’s to another imperfect year. But maybe a just little bit less imperfect, with me being a little more present.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

50 Things I Love About Bee

These days I can't take my eyes off of Bee. She is changing so quickly! It's like I can see her growing, and I can't get enough. 

So to follow up on my recent post with 50 things I love about Teeny, I could not help but think about 50 things I love about Bee today:

50. How she says "Mama, I want to tell you something. I... I just love you." when she wants to hear her voice but doesn't know what else to say.
49. When one of us leaves and she asks the other if we think the other will be okay. "Daddy will be all by himself! Do you think he will be okay?"
48. Hearing her sing "I'm all about that bass" under her breath. "I'm bringing booty back!"
47. She was the happiest kid in the city on Halloween in an outfit she concocted from various items in her wardrobe. I asked her which costume of all the ones she'd seen that day she liked best, and she said "The one I wore!"

46. She snuggles with me every chance she can get.
45. She can order a "venti decaf Americano iced no room" for me without even blinking.
44. Her skin.
43. Those cheeks!
42. How much she loves her sister.

41. When she asks me if she's special too and I can list 100 ways she is special to me without even batting an eyelash.
40. Watching her body grown and change from a stocky baby into a tall and lanky girl.
39. The way she says "pig-a-tails."
38. She's vegan because she believes in it and not because I force her to be. She loves her adopted turkeys Anna and Elsa.

37. She genuinely does not understand why people she loves might not be vegan.
36. Her artistic inclination.

35. She is easy to get along with.
34. The way she speaks her mind - openly and directly and also innocently. She knows no other way.
33. Her taste in music.
32. Watching her sleep.
31. Her beautiful bright blue eyes.
30. How much she looks and acts like me.
29. How she also looks so much like my maternal biological family that I think of my birth mother and sister every time I look at her.
28. Doing her nails.
27. She loves to splash in puddles.

26. Baking with her.
25. How she comes into my bed at night to cuddle with me.
24. The little heart-people and heart-cats she draws.

23. How much she loves school.
22. She likes to listen to me read chapter books aloud.
21. She loves taking car rides.
20. Her incredible memory. The kid forgets nothing, ever.
19. How happy she is outdoors.

18. She is totally unselfconscious and loves to be naked.
17. Her attention span.
16. Brushing her hair.
15. How much she likes to help with everything.
14. She tries to speak and write in other languages like Spanish and Japanese.
13. When she is silly and giggly.
12. Overhearing her ask a friend of mine if a treat she wanted to share with her was vegan (it was).
11. The random things she says that give me glimpses into her hardworking little mind.
10. How easily she uses an iPad or iPhone or asks for something that's "on Netflix."
9. She says she will always love me, always be vegan and always want to live with me. I'll take the first two out of three. :)
8. She's a wonderful little host when she has other kids over.
7. She likes to Face Time with me when I travel so she can see me, where I am, what I'm doing and what's surrounding me. 
6. When she requests overnights at Nana's house.
5. Watching her decorate this year's Christmas tree with her daddy.
4. Giving her the space to live her own life, develop her own opinions, make her own friends and just have her own experiences, some of which she shares with me and some of which she doesn't.
3. She draws glasses on pictures of animals to be silly.
2. That time I caught her saying "What the fuck!" in the mirror while pretending to be a grown up. Ha!
1. What started out as a fantasy I had while growing up of having a daughter someday turned into the best idea that Johnny and ever I had, which became a bump with a name that I carried for 40 weeks and then grew into a baby who changed our lives forever and is now her own person, growing and changing and developing and becoming more independent every day. We picked her name when I was only 20 weeks pregnant. Today she loves her name and has her own identity with this name that we picked when she was still an idea. I love hearing her say and seeing her write her name. Every single time I do, it reminds me that she is my dream come true. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

50 things I Love About Teeny

Last week was the New York City marathon. We live right on the course towards the end, so every year we watch as much of it as we can. This year was the first year Teeny could actually watch with us and follow along. It was a really cold morning, so we bundled up to head out early. As we waited for the elites, Teeny sat in her wheelchair and clapped for the para-athletes soaring by in wheelchairs of all shapes and sizes. Because it was so early in the day and it was very, very windy, we were among the few out there watching. There was no music, no party, no masses of people dancing and screaming and holding signs like there would be in another hour or two. It was an oddly melancholy moment. I felt a little like we were in a Giorgio DeChirico painting, standing there alone on the eerily empty, cold and windy corner of a street set up for a much bigger crowd. Most of the runners wouldn't see this particular intersection for another two hours or more, yet the para-athletes were zooming along one at a time, accompanied by some of the fastest cyclists I've ever seen. I stood next to Teeny, pointing out the different kinds of wheelchairs as they passed us. I explained to her what they were doing. We cheered and clapped and I wondered vaguely if any of them noticed her. I cried as I watched her watch them -- I couldn't help it. At mile 21, many of them looked very tired but they all had that determined look I know so well. It's the expression I see on Teeny's face every single day. 

Maybe Teeny will grow up to be a para-athlete like the ones we saw that day and maybe she won't. Maybe she will get a PhD or maybe a GED or maybe she will be happy well into adulthood just singing her ABCs. Whatever the case, a good friend said today that she will definitely surprise us. And it's true. She already has. 

The day we got her MRI report I thought my life was over. Two years almost to the day, I now know it's not about me. It's all about her. And my life is far from over. It's so much better, and that's so much because of her.

So since internet lists are all the rage lately, here are 50 things I love about Teeny today:
50. She loves the soundtrack to The Nightmare Before Christmas, which has been one of my favorites since the movie was in the theaters ages ago.
49. How she says "MORE AH-WEEN! MORE JACK! I want JACK!" when it's over. (She seems to speak in all caps quite often.)
48. She wiggles her butt when she's dancing.
47. The pure joy she finds in so many things in life.
46. She is able to use language to do more than express a need or a want. For example, when you call her name, she often answers with a deadpan "what," like a totally typical teenager.
45. Putting her on and taking her off the school bus is a family affair we all have come to love.

44. How she sings the ABCs and counts on her fingers to ten.
43. Her adorable little lisp.
42. She gives high-fives.
41. The way she has decided to call Johnny "dada" even though we all call him Daddy.
40. Her big round butt that is the only physical feature of mine she seems to have inherited and how adorable it looks in her new Hello Kitty or My Little Pony underwear.
39. She doesn't mind long car rides.
38. How she claps and shouts "I PEED!" when she uses the potty.
37. She uses the potty about 75% of the time now. We thought we might be changing diapers forever.
36. Listening to her repeat everything anyone says to her and knowing she's trying her hardest to understand and contribute.
35. Her big beautiful eyes.

34. Snuggling with her, breathing her in and having her ask me for more hugs and kisses, most of which she now plants squarely and very wetly right on my lips.
33. Her determination. I've never seen anything like it.
32. She's a fairly adventurous eater and will try almost anything at least once.
31. She hugs her baby dolls and makes them sleep, cry, eat and walk.
30. Her funny pronunciation of everything.
29. The way she says "I love you... too!"
28. She brushes her own teeth.
27. How she always wants to do everything by herself.
26. Except when she doesn't. "No. Mama do it!"
25. She has a crazy sweet tooth, especially for vegan chocolate chips, chocolate chip cookies from Whole Foods and any cupcakes I make.

24. How she refers to herself almost always in the third person.
23. She says "Easy, Mama!" and "Be nice!" when I get cranky.
22. She loves her adaptive ballet class and begs to wear her ballet shoes all the time.

21. How she turns the pages of books when we read to her.
20. Her little index finger, always pointing at something.
19. The way she sleeps, rolled in a ball, butt in the air.
18. Kissing her soft skin all over.
17. Watching her learn.
16. She's becoming very girly and often insists on wearing my necklace or bracelet.
15. How she says her own name.
14. She plays her dada's guitar.

13. She says hello and goodbye in such earnest that you know she's genuinely happy to see you come and sad to see you go.
12. She likes to wear costumes and play dress-up.

11. How much she charms everyone who meets her.
10. Kisses, band-aids and the little icepack shaped like a ladybug make every boo-boo better. And how she says "I'm okay!" whenever she tumbles because she knows we all worry she's going to get really hurt.

9. She loves Daniel Tiger, Piggie, Winnie the Pooh, Ponyo and many other endearingly sweet characters. 
8. She idolizes her sister.

7. She helps take out the garbage.
6. She likes to have her nails painted.
5. How badly she wants to walk and how hard she works at cruising, climbing and taking steps every single day.

4. She has surpassed every expectation any of her doctors or therapists have ever had.
3. I watched her come out of my body when I gave birth to her at home and I was the first person to hold her and kiss her.
2. Her amazing manners: she says please and thank you without being asked.
1. She gives the best hugs of anyone I have ever met.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

More on "The Process"

The kindergarten "process," as it's called here, is still in full swing. Since it all started with the online posting of the first application on August 18, I have completed 16 applications. Each has its own set of requirements. Some want essays, some want a series of short answers, some don't want any of that but want two letters of reference or to know who you know at the school. Most want a photo -- some of the applicant and others of the whole family -- which I can't help but object to, though not enough not to send one in. Some waive their fee for those applying for financial aid but most do not. We have paid fees ranging from $40 to $100. We have withdrawn from two so far -- one because I really just couldn't see Bee or us there and the other because their website talked about introducing the curriculum of Jesus in kindergarten -- and we have been taken out of the running for one because of Bee's test score. We have interviewed at six and toured seven. We have gone to four open houses and Bee has had seven playdates. She has taken two of the three standardized tests she is signed up for. This means we are only about halfway through, but I'm totally and completely burned out. Every day I find myself putting the salt in the fridge or chocolate chips in the coffee grinder. We forget keys, lunches, backpacks. Last night Johnny and I both went to bed at 7:30. Lights on, clothes on. Like getting unplugged from the Matrix, we were both out.  

Today it occurred to me as I skimmed the website of a school we are visiting tomorrow that I have learned a whole new language in the past three months. Some of these concepts I was aware of before, obviously, but recently I have attained a whole new level of fluency. Here are some of the words and phrases that mean things that our four-year-old daughter might be scarred forever without, depending on whom you ask:

global citizenship
affinity groups
single-sex vs co-ed
mission vs philosophy vs strategic vision (some very self-important schools have all three)
focus on the whole child
intellectual independence
cross-divisional teaching
experiential learning
concept-based differentiated teaching
inquiry-based learning
bullseye model
Turk system
Singapore Math
problem-solving math
Exeter method
Orton-Gillingham reading approach
Orff music approach
Kodaly method
Wilson Fundation
co-curriculars (not extra-curricular because the school has a commitment to the whole child)
STEAM (STEM is no longer enough? Is this somehow the "new" art?)

Not to mention that for every school there are different definitions of words like diversity, learning resources, "labs," community service, green and sustainable. Each school we've seen has a slightly different philosophy on when and how to learn languages (and how many), when (not whether) to introduce chess to teach critical thinking to lower school students, what musical instruments to offer and how exactly to prepare students for the (as one school put it) "lifelong transformation of self and the world with purpose, passion and perspective." It's hard to keep track of it all. 

Maybe that's why we felt like we bombed our most recent interview and playdate. I had neglected to study for this one (by reading and taking notes from the school's website, their wikipedia entry and their writeup in the "Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools" and calling anyone and everyone I know who went there, worked there or has children there). We showed up unprepared, bleary eyed and unsure of what exactly we were there for. Playdate and tour? Interview? Q&A? We were too scared to ask anyone lest we appear ignorant. We hoped someone would remind us.

We waited for the receptionist to call our names in their little waiting area and helped ourselves to coffee. Among an array of goldfish and cheddar bunnies, Bee spotted a box of accidentally-vegan crackers and went to town. We were busy sipping and munching when our names were called for Bee's playdate and our interview. The playdate person had to pry Bee away from the box; she actually took a fistful of health-food brand wheat-thins wrapped in a napkin with her as she left. I was horrified. To make matters worse, the admissions lady we met with was clearly unimpressed with our obvious lack of commitment to the process and reiterated at least a half dozen times that we had to sign up for a tour of the lower school and of course the open houses and tours for the middle and upper schools as well. When we came down after the interview, there was Bee, sitting by the crackers again. I asked her if she ate through the whole playdate and she nodded happily. Did you have a good time? I asked her. Yeah, she shrugged. I was a little shy though, so I meowed a lot. She swallowed her last cracker and asked for more, meowing again for effect. Wonderful. As we went out the door, they reminded us of when our tour was scheduled and that we should sign up for the twenty-seven other admissions-related events that will fill up soon so we really should call back today to get on the waiting list. I mean really. We are now on thirteen mailing lists that constantly send out invitations to fireside chats, open houses, coffee hours, Q&A sessions, student evenings, curriculum nights and God knows what else that is not mandatory but strongly encouraged. We get the weekly blogs and newsletters from fifteen heads of schools and the piles of booklets, pamphlets and brochures on my kitchen counter rivals the college crap I received in the mail as a high school junior. What do they think we do all day? Certainly not raise a four-year-old child or do anything else other than hang out in kindergartens all over New York. It's like they all want us to move in with them... until February 6th that is, when they have the pleasure of mailing us our devastatingly thin envelopes that politely remind us that we are Out Of Our Fucking League and Crazy To Think We Could Ever Compete. 

The truth is, while each of these schools claim to be so innovative and unique, they're all basically the same. Bee's preschool director keeps telling us that there are so many applicants that the schools are scrutinizing us at every step to find the one thing to move our application to the NO pile. And I'm sure she's right, so I wear a nice outfit and cover my tattoos and maybe even wear a little lipstick or some heels. I make Johnny shave and put on a button-down shirt. I tuck my phones out of sight and try for that hour or 90 minute period to pretend that I haven't a care in the world except to hear about what percent of their students come from Westchester and New Jersey or how many sessions of robotics the first graders have per week or in what year their state-of-the-art black-box theater was renovated. We pay attention and make sure our tour guide or admissions associate or director of outreach or whoever we're meeting with knows we've done our homework by asking detailed questions. We arrive five to ten minutes early, are always ridiculously polite and of course we send hand-written thank you notes. But we are scrutinizing too, doing the same thing that they are doing to us. 

I know Bee will be happy anywhere. She will do well anywhere that has any kind of structured academics of any kind. She's a smart kid and a creative one but she's not that different from the nine million other four-year-olds out there. So I can't help but look for ways to rank these schools in my mind, to want for some reason to cross them off my list. I've been encouraged not to fall in love with any one school since the competition is so fierce and the financial aid, while imperative for us, is just not necessarily there for a family that is pretty squarely middle class and not the "kind of diverse you can see." (I guess wheelchairs are invisible?) But in this ISAAGNY soup of names that until this year made me think only one thing (rich kids and not for me), I have to find ways to make them each different from the next. So I ask hard questions about diversity, about how they accommodate special needs, about how they make the "socioeconomically diverse component of the student body" feel at home. I watch them squirm. I take notes on what we hear from the "parent ambassadors" who are stuck giving us tours in schools that either have too few admissions employees or whose admissions employees are too busy or too uninterested in this part of the process and ask pointedly about parent involvement in their experience. In my head I judge the schools for being too PC or not PC enough, parents for being too rich, too involved or not involved enough, the children for being too Aryan or too obviously "diverse," the schools for being either too loosey-goosey or so traditional that their students don't seem to have time to smile. But really, with few exceptions, they're all variations on a theme. And that theme is that their kids all graduate with one hell of an education. One school's admissions director told me if the family is secure with their kid and the kid is secure in her family, then both kid and family will do fine in the face of any adversity. I'm not sure their idea of adversity and mine are one and the same, but I think she's right. It was reassuring to realize that in September of next year, Bee will be going to kindergarten somewhere and if it's not at School A or B or even C, that it might be X, Y or Z and she will do fine and so will we.

And someday -- maybe in twelve years or so, when Bee is a junior and we're talking about college and it's a breeze because we've essentially already done it all before -- I will look back and laugh. Right? 

Monday, October 6, 2014

This one's a nail-biter.

Since getting pregnant with my first child, I have heard people whisper about the process of getting kids into good nursery schools, kindergartens and elementary schools here in New York City. Like many things in the Big Apple, it's something extraordinarily complicated that we all do here... because we have to. It's one of those stressful things that people complain loudly about over coffee, at the gym, at nursery school drop-off and anywhere else parents of four year olds can be found, which means they aren't really complaining at all, but rather boasting. Where are you applying? Oh, you know. The usual suspects. How are you prepping? What about your (in hushed tones)... zone school? Oh, you're moving to the suburbs? Oh, you're in District 5? That sort of thing. It's a process about which many, many books have been written and many, many alcoholic beverages have been consumed. My hair is noticeably greyer. I am using up all my vacation time to haul ass from interview to tour to playdate, all really one opportunity after the next for people to judge me, my husband, our parenting, our lifestyle, our kid, our everything. Are we educated enough? Involved with the parent association enough but not too much? Is our version of diversity -- stay at home dad, special needs sibling, non-profit admin mom, residents of a gentrifying and mixed area, a union that combines two wildly different cultures, religions, classes, educational levels, etc. -- diverse enough? Is our kid smart enough? Cute enough? And of course, what do I wear to these things?

Someone advised us just to be ourselves, but the most conservative version of ourselves. So the hours before these interviews find us slicking down cowlicks, tucking in shirts, ironing blouses, dusting off the lone pair of heels that my daughters covet but which I am afraid will cause me to break my neck or ankle before I even have a chance to open my mouth. Like Agent Starling before me, with my good bag and my cheap shoes, I am sure I look like a rube. A well scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Is this what rich people dress like, talk like, act like? Smart people? Prep School X Parent-like people? What do I know, really? A parent pal of ours told us these schools need us more than we need them. Really? I want to believe that. I really do. But we do not look as diverse as I believe we are and I honestly wonder if these schools will see anything in us that truly sets us apart from the hundreds of applicants that can afford the tuition, have a connection or are in far greater need than we. But since we don't know, the least we can do is be over-prepared. We spend hours poring over school websites, interviewing friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are alumni or whose children attend these schools, deliberating the pros and cons of single-sex vs. co-ed schools, taking notes on the Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools entries and quizzing each other on what we think we'll be asked. In truth we have no idea what these schools want. I have been told time and time again that the process is so mysterious and cutthroat that no one really has any idea what any particular school is looking for, only that they are all so inundated with applicants that what they are looking for more than anything is a reason to move your application to the NO pile.

That is hardly reassuring.

This process has taken over our lives. It's maybe worse for us than for many other parents I know for two reasons: one, while the neighborhood we live in is gentrifying at a rapid pace, the schools are probably ten years behind. Our local elementary school ranks 89.9% below other NYC public schools and is therefore not an option for our children. Yes, I know there is a lot of privilege in that statement. I know not everyone has that choice and that pains me. It really does. In theory, I fully believe in the public school system. I was raised in it and I taught in it and I have one kid in it now. But while progressive politics and social justice are alive and well in conversation around my dining room table and I have dedicated my professional life to serving the most underserved residents of this city, I do not believe I will achieve any great change by putting my child in a school that performs that poorly. We live in the worst-ranked school district in New York City and as a one-income family, we can't afford to move. The other reason is that while we are attracted in some ways to private schools (because of reason #1), they cannot be a reality for us without significant financial aid. These schools are competitive enough even for those who can pay the full tuition (currently in the ballpark of $45,000 per year even for kindergarten), so for us they are almost out of reach. We have been encouraged to cast a very wide net so that the likelihood of being accepted somewhere with enough aid to make it affordable is within the realm of possible.

So a wide net it is. And that is why on a typical day, like today for example, we found ourselves at one of the most traditional prep schools in the country at 9 am, sitting in a stuffy room in an ivy covered brick building talking about my Harvard education and we spent our evening on the Upper West Side at an open house for one of the most progressive lab schools in the nation discussing the whole child and experiential learning. In between I checked my spreadsheet to see what is still outstanding for which schools, fielded calls from other schools setting up yet more open houses, tours, interviews and playdates, and added new dates and times to the growing list of scheduling conflicts that we need grandparents and friends to help us navigate. It's also why our four-and-a-half year old, the product of two people who could not have greater differences in their educational backgrounds but who agree wholeheartedly that testing at her age is a ridiculously inaccurate and inappropriate measuring stick of anything and nothing, will have taken the Stanford-Binet, the AABL and the OLSAT all before her fifth birthday. That is just not right. We have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that what we feed her the day before, how much sleep she gets the night before, how I braid her hair, what shoes she's wearing or whatever shiny thing distracts her could make or break a test score or a "playdate" with ridiculously inflated implications.

We sat outside the room while she took the first of these. I was so nervous I wanted to throw up. A noise machine made it impossible to hear anything through the walls except for a repetitive squeak. I froze. "Is that her?" I asked my husband, horrified. Squeak. Squeak squeak squeaksqueak. Maybe she's impersonating a mouse, I thought to myself. Maybe it's part of the test. They must be talking about animals. Squeaksqueaksqueaksqueak. Maybe it doesn't matter. The tester will see her brilliance through the squeaking, I told myself. But she didn't. The score came in the mail this week and she didn't make it. And I made it all about me. I felt judged. Rejected. Not good enough. I mourned, fretted, whined. What will my brilliant overachieving friends think? $350 and a vacation day down the drain, and that school is now off the list and I was baffled. I was so sure she would make it.

I didn't have a clue what went wrong until this weekend when we were out of town at the Boston Children's Museum on a rainy afternoon. MIT researchers were looking for kids her age to participate in a study and waved us over. She sat down happily, willing as ever to help someone in need. Then the questions began and I could see she wasn't feeling it. She wanted to be climbing and exploring, not looking at some computer screen. She looked away and then I heard squeaksqueaksqueaksqueak. My heart sank as I recalled what we'd heard through the wall that day a few weeks ago. There was nothing I could do. In two seconds, her part in the study was over. In the words of Miss Dolly Parton, it's enough to drive you crazy if you let it.

And I don't know how not to. I believe in my kid. I love both my kids with all my heart and all my soul. I love our life, our way of parenting and of being. Johnny and I are a wonderful team and I think we have a pretty terrific family. Of course there are things that keep me up at night but where Bee is going to school next year should not be one of those things. I have never been so worried about education for someone I truly believe will do well no matter where she goes. But she's gotta go somewhere and that somewhere has to want to pay for the bulk of it, or she's not going anywhere. In the words of me paraphrasing Miss Dolly Parton, It's enough to drive me out of NYC if I let it.

Here's the great part and the awful part: my kid is a lot like me. She is bright and inquisitive and she gets things done. She doesn't forget a thing. At times she's all business and very demandy-pants. She's also cuddly and affectionate. All like me. And she's reactive, like me. Dramatic, like me. And she needs reassurance, like me. A lot of it. When I see my daughter chewing on her sleeves or her hair, biting her nails or sucking on her fingers, I want to snatch her hands away from her mouth. I can't help myself. I want to cut all her hair, dress her in short sleeves and tie her hands behind her back. I want to take her by the shoulders and shake her and ask her WHY in the world she is SO GODDAMN STRESSED OUT. It is such a strong, visceral reaction that it actually hurts me inside. And then I realize I need to look in the mirror. Because this kid is an awful lot... like me. So instead of shaking her, I open my arms and I get down on my knees to look her in the eye, and I hug her tight. 

Let's do the math:
-I sucked my thumb until I was in elementary school.
-For years, I bit my nails. I even bit my toenails when I could reach them. I can't stand having long nails to this day because as soon as one snags, they're in my mouth.
-I picked and I still pick at my cuticles. It's particularly bad when I don't have time or money for a manicure. I abuse my cuticle cutter to the point where the manicurists yell at me for overpruning, but if I don't, I pick and peel and bite until my fingers bleed.
-I chewed gum compulsively in middle school, spent all my change on Charms blowpops in high school and chain smoked from my mid-teens until my late twenties.
-And still today, I eat to make myself feel better. I can't always distinguish between physical hunger and emotional hunger so I tend to err on the side of a full belly for any and every ailment no matter how real or imaginary.

By nature I am a very neurotic, high strung, Type A person. Years of therapy, exercise and now meditation have helped me find the pause I so desperately needed my whole life. But it's still challenging to slow down long enough to remember to breathe and let go on any regular day. When I am under the kind of pressure I feel as we go through this process, I am basically a boiling pot all the time, edgy and uneasy and very, very uncomfortable. This weekend while we were all together doing nothing but unstructured family play and fun, I watched her chew and bite, I heard her squeak and groan. And worst of all was last night. When I tucked her in and kissed her goodnight, she asked for extra kisses because she felt unloved. Unloved? I may not have a lot of money. I may not have a lot of time. But what I do have is unending love, admiration and wonder for two very special little girls who mean the whole world to me. The fact that she questioned it even for a second was like a punch in the stomach. My heart broke and my mind went in a million different directions, all of which led to the same destination: PARENTING FAIL. What you do is not enough. You ARE not enough.

Don't get me wrong. 99% of the time this kid is crowing about how brave and strong she is. She's rarely shy. She's a calculated risk-taker. She separates easily. But there's a part of her that at times is raw and sensitive and neither of us knows quite what to do with it. When I try to imagine my daughters hurting themselves in the ways I once hurt myself, tears come to my eyes and I think about the sad and scared child I was decades ago. I wish I could go back to my younger self and just take a moment with her to hold her, smooth her unruly hair, kiss her furrowed forehead and tell her that everything would be all right.

I may not be able to go back and hold the little girl I once was, but I can slow down enough to spend some extra time with the little girl I have right now who needs her mama. The trouble is, I don't know how to help her. I love this girl like crazy, but I have a blind spot when it comes to healthy self-soothing. I don't know how to teach her this very important skill because I never learned a healthy version of it myself. In my mind I alternate between tough love -- the part of me that wants to tell her to cut it out and don't let me see your fingers in your mouth again, missy, or else -- and rescue -- the part of me that wants to fix everything, shield her from everything, and go to war on her behalf so she has absolutely everything. I know neither approach is the right one. I know that life is frustrating and she has to find ways to cope on her own. I have to try to teach her life skills that I never learned properly myself. What I do when I don't know what to do is talk. I tell her about how things are hard and life is hard. I tell her that I love her and I see her and hear her. I try very hard to say yes more than I say no and I don't shy away from saying I don't know. I explain why when I can. And all of these conversations happen with her in my arms, on my lap, or curled up in my bed. And yet, she tells me she feels unloved? Oy. The good news is that we only have a few more months to go. By February, much of this will be over and by May the rest should be figured out. No matter what, she will be starting somewhere next September and by then my hope is that she will have forgotten all about this. Until the next big thing. 

It's very difficult for me to end a blog post without having come to a conclusion or resolution. I like to tie things up in pretty bows, cross items off to do lists. I like to feel like I have conquered issues and moved on. Part of me feels like I'll come up with something if I just keep typing long enough. But I don't think I will; this one is especially messy. I really believe that parenting is a long process of separation, beginning the moment the child comes into the world, culminating in them building their own life and their own family apart from their parents. I get that. But theory and execution are very different for me, and I don't know how to navigate it gracefully. So I close with a request. Please tell me about your experiences. Are there self-soothing coping strategies that work for you, your child, your family? What do you do when you see your child struggle?