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:

progressive
innovation
traditional
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
self-agency
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?)
robotics
manipulatives

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?


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

FOR TEENY, WHO HAS PLENTY OF TIME


To my beautiful, courageous, determined Teeny on your third birthday:

This week I spent some time researching elementary schools for you. I know you are just starting at your current school, but you know I'm a planner and I like to do my homework. It was ultimately an exercise in futility, but a happy one. I realized I just couldn't know how much you will grow and where you will be in two years. You could be anywhere, doing anything! Today in the hallway at your school, someone I didn't know stopped me to tell me how smart you are. "You know," she began, while I wondered who she was and how she knew you, "she's bright and engaged and cognitively right where she's supposed to be," she said. "I can tell. She just needs a little help is all." I beamed. Because really, who doesn't need a little help? Reading about schools, I tried to imagine you at five or six. I pictured you in elementary school, learning to read. Doing math. Studying history. Making shoebox dioramas. Walking. Baking cookies with your sister and me. Whatever kids do. Someday, you will do all those things, and more. I know it.

Two years ago Daddy and I were just learning about your neurology. We were scared and sad and we just didn't know what it was all going to mean for you and for us. But you were unfazed. You did what no one thought you could do: everything. You rolled over. You sat up. You huffed and you puffed and you pulled yourself to a stand. You said Mama. Dada. Bee. And now, on your third birthday, you're in school. People ask you how old you are and you shout "three!" You count, you sing the ABCs. You like to do everything yourself. "I do it!" you say a thousand times a day. You climb all over everything, trying your best to walk. One day, you will. You speak in sentences and you always say please and thank you. You ask questions that start with what and why. You laugh with us, chiding "be nice!" when we run out of patience or get silly. You're constantly announcing "have to pee!" and every time, we all stop what we're doing and hurry you to the potty. Some of the time you don't even have to go. You just like to sit there with us and have us read potty books to you. You smile wide and hand me Time to Pee or Everyone Poops and I know I've been had. But you're having fun! Nowadays, your language expresses more than just wants and needs. We hear you interject "oh wow!" and "awww, silly Mama!" and "oh no!" into conversations and we know that you're listening and we know that you get it.

Daddy and I stayed up late last night, baking cookies and cupcakes for your school birthday party, talking about how magical you are. You are our guide, our teacher, our shining star. Your daddy always says that you might look like him but you have my determination. I am not sure that's true. Yes, I'm a hard worker and I have tenacity. Just like you. Yes, I get things done. Just like you. He may never tell you this, but your daddy is a tough cookie too. He is a survivor. He's been through more adversity than most people and he has somehow found the will to turn his challenges into opportunities. Opportunities to learn, to change, to live his life to the fullest. He keeps going and keeps growing.  Just like you. So it's in your blood; it's your nature to fight. But you have a spirit that is unique. You're a fighter, yes, but you don't flail. You just do. Sometimes your life is hard. Sometimes it's really, really hard. But this is the only life you know. You are just you -- and you love being you.

Today you are so in love with life. From the moment you wake up until the moment you conk out at night, your life is full and wondrous. Your eyes widen and you gasp with excitement a hundred times a day. You worship your big sister. You love cupcakes. The potty. Your My Little Pony collection. Queen Elsa. Singing and dancing. Books. Hugs and kisses and nibbles. Mama. The school bus, which you look forward to with an impatience I just don't understand. You love school, the park, the pool at the Y, taking baths, even pushing your wheelchair. You just started adaptive ballet and you can't get enough of your fancy tutu and ballet shoes. You are beloved by so many. Never in my life did I think we would have such a well-attended birthday party for a three-year-old. People came in hordes: your first teacher, your old school's director, your past therapists, your family, your friends, and a lot of people who just love you to pieces. No one could get enough of you and you loved being passed from one person to the next, soaking up the attention. You haven't even been at school for a month, and everyone knows your name. "Oh, you're Teeny's mom?" someone will exclaim without me even opening my mouth. "She's the cutest thing ever!" they will gush, and share some sweet anecdote about you pushing the elevator button every morning or getting people's names right by the third day of school or getting an ice pack after bumping your head and announcing that you're all better.  "She's already the mayor of the school," someone else pronounced, in the second week of September when you'd been there just over a week. People adore you. Simply put, you sparkle.

This week someone explained to me that there is a correlation between the cultivation of gratitude and the ability to problem solve. Apparently both concepts live in the same area of the brain. Until you came, I lived my life feeling very entitled and angry. I deserved this, I was owed that. I worked hard for things and felt robbed when I didn't get them. It never occurred to me that I might already have everything I needed and more. Right around the time that you came, I started to understand how fortunate I was. I am married to the love of my life! I am the mother of two incredible children! I have the best job in the world! I have so many wonderful people in my life! And slowly, the anger and resentment began to fade and it was replaced with a willingness to share my feelings, ask for help and embrace the abundance of love and support that began to come our way. And I realized there was a lot I could do to help get you what you needed, so as I have written about time and time again, I got busy.

Maybe I will always be sad that you were not given the same chance that your sister got. Maybe I will never understand why or how it happened. Maybe I will always be tired, maybe the list of calls to make, appointments to schedule, and bills to pay will never end. But I'm not sure any of that matters anymore. I am so proud to be your mama. I can't think of anywhere else I would rather be in the world than right beside you. I am so grateful for you -- you, exactly the way you are. And we have so much time. There is no rush. You will get there when you get there and you are living every moment in the fullest color. You are like Milo of The Phantom Tollbooth, my favorite character in my favorite book. His adventure began with a gift and a note: FOR MILO, WHO HAS PLENTY OF TIME. As he went on his quest to rescue the princesses of Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason, everyone he met along the way said there was one very important thing about it that they couldn't tell him until he got back. When he finally returned safely, there was a huge celebration in all the land. The kings quietly reminded him of what they'd said at the very beginning.

"I remember," said Milo eagerly. "Tell me now."
"It was impossible," said the king, looking at the Mathemagician.
"Completely impossible," said the Mathemagician, looking at the king.
"Yes indeed," they repeated together; "but if we'd told you then, you might not have gone--and, as you've discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible."

So, happy third birthday to you, my beautiful daughter, my love, my light, my inspiration. May you have plenty of time. And may your life be full of possible.
I love you.
Mama



Thursday, July 3, 2014

In the Morning of the Magicians



I yelled at my daughter today. I mean, I really yelled.

Generally speaking, I am a pretty gentle disciplinarian and it takes a lot for me to lose my cool. I believe in talking to my kids and being affectionate and loving with them, even when I'm seething. I do this because I want to build trust, not instill fear, and luckily it has worked well for our family so far. 

It's really not a big deal that this morning I had to be somewhere smack in the middle of when we're usually taking the girls to their schools. That happens. But instead of asking Johnny to handle the kids by himself like I usually do when I have an early morning obligation, I tried to figure out exactly who had to be where by when so that I could do absolutely everything. I planned it down to the minute. Looking back, it was pretty unrealistic of me to think that we'd be able to make that work. Especially since we got up at the same time as usual, drank our coffee sitting around the table like usual, had the same amount of breakfasts and lunches to prepare as usual, and so on. I know, I know, there are a million things I could have done differently or prepared the night before. But we didn't do them. I didn't plan well. I wanted to do it all and be perfect at it.

When we were finally ready, we were already late. And if I hate when my kids are late for school, I hate even more when I'm late for an appointment or a meeting. So we were scrambling and I was stressed. I was grabbing things I needed but hadn't yet packed: keys, phone, earbuds. Oh wait, I need my water bottle. Okay I'm ready. Let's go. Oh, wait, I forgot my wallet too. And oy, my hair! Just one second. And so on. Johnny was tapping his foot and rolling his eyes at me, and Freyja was beckoning me to the doorway, murmuring "Mama, come!" And in the middle of this, Bee announced "Mama, I'm not comfortable in this outfit." Again.

The first time she said this, about fifteen minutes earlier, both Johnny and I had tried to reassure her that she looked great. I'd launched into my almost-daily speech about how she's beautiful no matter what she's wearing. I usually joke that she could wear a towel or a paper bag and still be beautiful and she usually laughs and says "What about if I wore my pajamas? Or one of Daddy's t-shirts?" and we get sillier and sillier, collapsing into giggles. Not today. She had been wearing a pink hand-me-down tennis dress and I had thought she was as cute as a button. More importantly for me at that moment, she had been dressed and ready to go. The end. But before I had even replied, she was in her underwear again. She had been very specific that she wanted to wear her blue tank top. The only trouble is that she doesn't own a blue tank top. So we had gone through everything in her shirt drawer and I had pulled out a few alternatives. She had selected a striped tank and had been happy with that and the shorts I'd grabbed to go with it. Then as I was collecting my keys and phone and wallet and water bottle, discombobulated and rushed, I noticed her standing there, staring at me. "Mama, I'm not comfortable in this outfit either. I want to wear the other tank top." I sighed. And then, even though I knew better, I said the worst thing I could possibly say in this situation. "Bee, we don't have time. Can't you just wear it tomorrow?"

She balled up her fists and got red in her face. "No!" And it was on. Out of nowhere, a full-on, all-out tantrum. By this time, Johnny had put Teeny down and closed the door. We weren't going anywhere. Teeny started crying too, stressed that her sister was so upset. I was falling apart. Bee tugged on my sleeve. I whirled around. "What!?" I demanded. She begged through her tears to change her clothes again because she didn't like what she picked the second time. She said again that she didn't feel comfortable and I leaned into her face. "YOU KNOW WHAT?" I screamed. "I DON'T CARE!" 

Bee crumpled, sobbing hysterically. Any hope of making my appointment on time was gone, but it didn't matter. I had made my baby cry. I knelt and hugged her. "Bee, I'm sorry," I said. "I love you and I should not have talked to you that way. Let's go change." She took my hand and in five minutes it was over and we were in the car, on our way. 

She was all smiles until she asked why we weren't doing what we planned. She didn't understand why she was going to school first instead of dropping me at my appointment. "Remember when I got really upset because you wanted to change your clothes again?" I reminded her gently. She nodded. "Well, I got really mad not because of you but because we were late and I didn't want to miss the appointment. Changing your clothes again took time I didn't want to take, and now I'm not going to my appointment because I'm too late for it." Her eyes got big and she nodded again. "Ohhhh," she said in a soft voice. "I'm sorry, Mama." I blew her a kiss and told her everything was fine. She smiled and said "You're my best Mama. I love you." And it was over.

The part I didn't tell her is that inside I was still a mess. A mess because I was late and I missed my appointment. A mess because I hate when I make a plan that doesn't go exactly the way I think it should. A mess because I am a gentle parent who lost her shit and I felt tremendous guilt and insecurity about how to handle the situation and make it right. And mostly, I was a mess because I was afraid she learned this from me. How many mornings has she seen me standing in front of the mirror saying "I hate the way I look in this outfit" as I change what I'm wearing yet again, the self-loathing mounting until I can barely stand to look at myself? Countless times, that's how many. I don't want her to have the same hateful inner voice that I have. I'd hoped that me telling her how beautiful she is no matter what she wears would be enough like it is most days. But it wasn't, just like it isn't when my husband eyes me in the mirror as I'm picking myself apart and tells me how good I look. "Uggggh!" I will sputter in exasperation, stripping off whatever he just approved of. I have been so crippled by my inability to choose an outfit and feel good in it that I have sometimes been late for the very event I am dressing for. I've even thrown tantrums myself, sitting on my bed in my underwear, surrounded by clothes I think I hate, convinced I am too fat to be out in public. Stupid. It's just so stupid.

I realize Bee's behavior isn't all about me and my horrible influence. I really do get that she's four and a half and that this sort of thing is more or less age appropriate behavior. I have heard stories about four-year-olds who wear the same Batman shirt every day for months despite their parents' protests, only to wake up one morning and fling it across the room, refusing to wear it ever again. Bee has been dressing herself for months and when I worry that she doesn't match or look well put together, I remember all the kids in her classroom I see in all kinds of crazily put together outfits every day. When I come home from work, she's rarely wearing what she had on when I brought her to school. Most of the time this is fun for her. She loves to dress up. But other times I think it can be fairly painful for her. I know that there is very little about a preschooler's life that they can control. And I know food, sleep and clothes are just some examples of how they exert their control in tiny ways. Bee is a well-adjusted kid whose tantrums are few and far between, and when they surface they are always related to one or the other of these and nine times out of ten they happen when I'm in a hurry to get somewhere. I swear it's as if saying "Let's go, we're late" is the magic spell to turn a dawdling four-year-old kid into a veritable bag of cement.

She does this when we're going to a restaurant. She gets excited about the food, the company, the newness. We study the menu together and I get her to agree to try X dish. It arrives and she instantly pushes the plate away. It's not what she thought it would be and in a flash, she refuses to even try it, and I'm cranky because I ordered and have to pay for something no one is going to eat. I've since learned to feed her first, or pack a snack. She does this at bedtime. She played the nightly I'M NOT TIRED game followed by the BUT I DON'T HAVE TO PEE game until we got into a game-changing groove. Now we have a new ritual: I fill her heart with kisses and she fills mine. We make ding noises when we're full of love and that seems to be exactly what she needs to conk out quickly and effortlessly. And similarly, she does this with her ridiculous and stubborn insistence on wearing at all times possible her cheap-ass H&M Hello Kitty flats. I hate them and regret ever buying them but she loves them because they make her feel like a princess. She wants to wear them all the time. All. The. Time. I realized she was going to argue with me about this every time I said no. Maybe this was a battle not worth fighting? Now I let her wear them pretty much anytime she wants. On the occasions I say no because she's riding her bike or going to the playground, she asks to put them in her backpack to change into afterward. She will bring them to playdates and to overnights at Nana's. And I don't care anymore. I stopped caring. What difference does it make if she wears shoes I don't like? Does it hurt me to send her to school in shoes that make her happy?

So why didn't I think about all of that this morning? After I raised my voice, I gave in anyway and let her change. That is something that one the one hand I'm not proud of because I prefer to be consistent the whole way through and I can't help but think that was like giving her a clear message that tantrums work and that she'll get her way if she just argues hard enough and wears me down. But on the other hand, who really cares if she changes three times? I was tired of fighting. I know I would have saved the rest of the family tears and aggravation if I'd just let her change again when she asked. Instead, I had a meltdown that topped her meltdown. And when I heard myself scream the way I did, I looked up at Teeny waiting at the door in Johnny's arms and saw she had her fingers in her ears. I felt a thousand times worse. 

The lesson for me here isn't that I have to flog myself into being a perfect parent. I'm not one, and I can't become one. This morning was not the first time I raised my voice, and it won't be the last. I know I can't just vow never to yell at my kids again. I also can't commit to being able to let go of all my body-image garbage, much as I would like to. I try, especially because I am very conscious of being the mother of two daughters in a society that is not kind to girls and young women who don't fit a particular mold. I want my girls to grow up with healthy self-esteem and a positive body image. I want to give them the tools they need to develop into brave and confident women. And of course I don't want to model the opposite for them, hating what I see every time I look in the mirror at my big butt or my greying hair or the wrinkles I keep seeing appear on my face and wondering when I'm going to wake up six feet tall, skinny and 25. 

The moral of this story is that I am imperfect in general. My big butt, my greying hair, my wrinkles, the volume of my voice, my instinctive desire to fix and to plan and to get it all right and get it all done. I set myself up to fail by trying to make the impossible happen this morning and I let Bee take the brunt of my frustration. I couldn't work the magic I planned to by adding the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back into an already packed morning, and I took it out on her. Maybe it's just that I need to admit that mornings are not our best time. Maybe my schedule is still too full. Maybe I am mentally taxed enough by two kids and a full-time job and blah blah blah to try to add anything else to my plate -- however small -- without ensuring that something else comes off. Maybe it's saying yes to Bee's silly requests more because I am the kind of parent who wants to say yes whenever I can. And maybe it's saying no to everything else more often because I just can't handle another thing if I want to move through my day being the best version of myself that I can be. Maybe accepting my imperfection in all its ugly glory is the best -- and the hardest -- thing I can do as a parent.