The joyful heartache of growing up

I seem to stay the same, but all around me children are moving on. The semester is ending this week, my students will wave good-bye and new groups will come in, many I’ve had before but are now older, many seniors for whom this will be the last semester of high school. Then they’ll walk away.

At home, I will have new grandbabies this year, a new in-law joining the family, and adult children on the move in all directions. I feel the need to chase them down, as I did when they were toddlers racing to the toy section of the store. But now, they run faster than I can.

My only consolation is that my adult children with families also express their happiness at their babies’ milestones, then complain that their children are growing too fast.

I think every generation for thousands has endured the same joyful heartaches.

Children grow away

 

How do you teach your kids—and yourself—responsibility? My successes and failures, resulting in house-elfness.

Parents, I have a question: when do you show mercy and rescue a child, or when do you let them suffer with an unforgettable lesson?

How do you teach responsibility without potentially damaging your child?

That’s a quandary that plagues me nearly every day. I give you Exhibit A, my youngest daughter, age 9. Yesterday she asked blithely, “Where’s my coat?” as she was getting ready to walk to school in 17-degree weather.

That’s not what a mom wants to hear, that a coat’s missing. “Did you hang it up like you’re supposed to?” I asked, with an appropriate amount of nagging inflection.

“No,” she said, a bit indignant. “I brought it home, all wet, from playing in the snow at my friend’s house yesterday. It’s in that . . . bag . . . right . . . there.” Her voice became very quiet as she realized that house elves don’t work here, and that she hadn’t told me that her soaked coat had spent the night growing colder nowhere near the laundry room.

i-am-not-a-house-elf

Because I was on my way out the door to take my college-aged daughter to catch her bus back to school, I hastily threw the coat into the dryer, set the timer for 25 minutes for when my youngest had to leave, and hoped for the best.

I was torn between hoping her coat would be snuggly warm for her brisk walk to school three blocks away (I usually drive her on mornings like this), and hoping it’d still be a bit wet and cold to teach that girl a lesson in responsibility.

And then I spent the next few hours wondering, What would be the best outcome?

How do you know when to rescue a child from their irresponsibility, and when to let them flounder?

Somewhere along the lines I must have done something right with my oldest daughter, Exhibit B. She is so over-the-top responsible that she’s prepared for every contingency. As a freshman in college, she had an emergency food supply while other students were trying to scavenge pizzas from dumpsters at night, and under her bed she stored dozens of bottles of water, “just in case.” And the girl never ran out of toilet paper.

Growing older has only firmed that. On New Year’s Eve last week, she came up with her two little ones so we could go shopping while grandpa babysat. As she brought in a huge overnight bag, she began to apologize. “I know—we’re staying only a few hours, and the drive is only two hours, but what if the snowstorm comes in early? What if we’re stranded here, or in the car?” She had changes of clothes for all of them, extra bottles and formula for her baby, additional cuppies for her toddler, and snacks.

But I said, “This is what moms do: anticipate disasters. Prepare for the worst. Coming to the rescue for your babies is what you’re supposed to do.”

I was pondering this rescuing attitude as I drove with my middle daughter to her bus stop. At what age should the rescuing stop? Or at least be curtailed to allow the child to find solutions themselves?

My daughter mentioned that two of her roommates had gone back to school the night before and each had texted her with the same message: “I forgot my key. When are you coming back?”

I began to scoff sadly, thinking about those poor, freezing college girls assuming that naturally someone else would be responsible enough to unlock their apartment. Someone else would save them from the predicament they chose not to prepare for . . .

Until I spun around in my seat in the van and asked my daughter, “You have your key, right?”

She smiled smugly. “Of course I do.”

Whew. Thank you, Exhibit C. (By the way, her roommates were rescued by an aunt who lived in the area and brought them to her house for the night, since the apartment mangers were out of town.)

Before I could become too prideful that I’d taught this daughter right as well–at least to remember apartment keys–I remembered that she was the one I accidently left at a Target in Roanoke, Virginia when she was six, and has never let me forget it.

(All of her siblings said she was in the van! I swear it! I went right back again to get her! And I found her with a security guard eating popcorn as she sobbed! How often do I have to apologize for being irresponsible and trusting her four older siblings who swore she was in the vehicle?!)

(She’s also the child who nearly drowned in a high mountain lake when she was 7 without me noticing, and also walked into the deep end of a neighbor’s pool when she was 6, also without me noticing. It’s a miracle she’s made it to 18.)

I realized that this child has been conditioned to expect the worst outcome, to know her mother will be too distracted to realize when she’s in trouble, and that she best take care of herself because mom’s too big of a flake to do so.

So maybe that’s a good thing, letting them flounder in deep, cold water, literally and metaphorically? Look how responsible my middle daughter became because I wasn’t.

(Ok, yeah, that’s a pretty lame argument.)

Now I have to admit that my oldest is so responsible likely not because of anything I taught her, but because we moved around so much when she was growing up, and because I leaned upon her and her sister, only two years younger, so much for assistance. My oldest daughters have become responsible out of necessity.

Survival of the most self-reliant.

So back to my youngest; when I picked up her from school in the afternoon (worried that maybe her coat had been wet, was still wet, and it was only 22 degrees outside and walking home would make her deathly ill, even though I “know” cold weather doesn’t cause a cold because my second daughter who’s a very responsible nursing student will remind me of that fact, every mother knows deep down that yes, cold weather causes colds!), she cheerfully said, “Oh, my coat was toasty warm all the way to school. You should put it in the dryer every morning.”

I didn’t know what to do with that.

Instead of being seen as the kind and thoughtful mother who came up with a solution to make sure she wasn’t cold (rescuing), or my daughter thinking that she should be more accountable and at least tell me when something needs drying and hanging up (teaching responsibility), somehow I’ve been assigned a new task in the mornings of making sure Her Highness’s coat has been adequately warmed in the dryer for half an hour (house-elving).

After being a mom for 26 years, I realize I still don’t know what I’m doing.

How irresponsible of me.

I’m open to your suggestions.

One good reason for having kids

I have little time to write a full post today, with SLC Comic Con rapidly coming up. I’m making 200 signs and 300 clocks to sell in just one month (with products from my Etsy shop), and I’m slightly hyperventilating because I’m only half done, I have no packaging or booth advertising ordered, and as a newbie I’m terrified to my core. (Panic attack will commence in 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . )

Still, I took a moment the other day to spend some important time with my 8-year-old. A couple of weeks ago, her beloved scooter betrayed her, dumping her over the handlebars onto the sidewalk, breaking both bones in her arm just above her wrist. It’s been rough as I’ve had to help bathe and dress each day, and she hasn’t been able to play in pools or splashpads as she wants to. Knowing she needs some tenderness and concern as she heals, I smiled as she came up to me the other day with a Sharpie marker and displayed her cast. I knew what was coming.

sign your name on my cast

Because if you can’t mess with your own kids, what’s the point of having them?

(It’s a joke, folks. Relax. She didn’t cry about it that long.)

 

Parenthood, summed up in one horrible bathroom incident

My four-year-old is my youngest of nine children. You’d think that after 25 years of being a mom, I’d be an expert, but you’re never an expert, I’ve decided.

Especially when it comes to potty-training.

With our first child, I took the excellent advice to “not rush it.” This was the early 90s when having your barely-know-how-to-walk one-year-old potty trained was the rage.

It was actually the mom who was trained, to rush her tiny charge to the bathroom every two hours and plop the toddler on the toilet with great hope. Never being that disciplined, I instead encouraged and suggested, and finally had a trained daughter when she was three.

I followed that same laissez faire approach with my other kids, too, but my sons took a bit longer.

Ohhh . . . my sons and potty training.

Boys are the worst, and I have five of them.

I won’t name names, but one son had a propensity for “forgetting,” and he was well into preschool age before accidents weren’t a weekly—or daily—affair.

Another son would, in a half-asleep stupor, mistake his closet for the bathroom every night. It took us weeks to figure out where the smell was coming from, and why. Once we did, we had to replace the carpet and pad in there, along with a few toys.

Another son simply refused to use the toilet, afraid of it. One of his first public potty encounters was with a toilet which automatically, and noisily, flushed itself. He was sure that all toilets were ready to swallow him whole.

Another child was perfectly easy to potty train, leaving me to believe I’d finally figured things out and was a fantastic mother.

Nope. He was just an easy kid.

And we’re not going to talk about the years of bed wetting. Which were years. (I wept with joy when Febreeze was invented.)

So when it came to potty training Boy #5, I didn’t have any illusions that I knew how to do it within 48 hours, or tear-free, or bribery-free. We just went for it.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA

(We’ll allow #5 to retain his dignity and remain anonymous.)

(If you’re a bit squeamish, perhaps you don’t want to continue reading. But if you’re a parent, none of this will be new to you.)

Fortunately #5 had no problem with #1. Watching his older brothers (who were happy to show off their skills) encouraged him that he wanted to be as big as the teenagers he adored.

It’s #2 that’s been the horror.

He won’t do it on a toilet. We don’t know why. It’s not as if toddlers are good at articulating their reticence about certain activities.

We started trying waaaay back before his third birthday, and while he’s been an expert at shooting the water for over a year (we won’t discuss aim, which even my bigger boys seem to struggle with until they leave high school), the idea of sitting and plopping was a no-go.

Instead, he grabs a pull-up, puts it on himself, hides in the privacy of his bedroom, then comes out ten minutes later with a coy smile and says to me sweetly, “Mommy? Can you please change me? I love you.” Batting his lashes is the crowning touch.

“But I don’t love doing this,” I tell him each time he assumes the position and I pull out the baby wipes.

“Yes, you do. Because you love me. But don’t tell Daddy I do this.”

It always makes me feel dirty when he says that. But Daddy knows.

Daddy frowns at Pull-up Boy, and promises greater things, like setting off smoke bombs or exploding fireworks tanks, if #5 puts #2 in the potty.

We had success after Christmas, when we promised him a shiny new fire engine that makes noise if he went. (Go ahead, judge me for bribing my child. I don’t care what anyone thinks anymore.)

He did it once, and we immediately took him to Walmart, and he loved his fire engine . . . and he never went #2 again because he got his reward.

I hate it when the kids are cleverer than me.

But yesterday, something changed.

I was in the kitchen making dinner when suddenly my 4-year-old stood there, beaming. The fact that he wore only a t-shirt, and nothing below, gave me a hint as to what he was going to exclaim.

“Mom! Mom! I did it! I put stinkies in the potty!”

“Really?!” I don’t know who was happier.

“Come see!” and he took off running to the bathroom.

That’s when I realized that not all of the stinky got into the toilet. A lot of it was smeared down the back of his legs.

As a parent, there are times that you brace yourself for what you’re about to find, and you recite in your head, No matter what, I’ll be cheerful. No matter what, I’ll be cheerful . . .

When I arrived at the bathroom, the story was waiting for me.

First were his pants and underwear, tossed on my bedroom floor as if he were in a hurry.

Then, the pull-ups, left sadly next to the door, because there wasn’t enough time.

Then . . .

The bathroom.

I steeled myself, because sometimes, no matter how often you tackle a mess, it’s shocking when you first encounter it.

But #5 stood next to the toilet, beaming in joy. “Look! Some of it got in!”

It did, along with half a roll of toilet paper.

The rest was on the seat, the floor, and the bath mat.

Boys struggle with having two outlets, and sometimes they don’t have full control of either. My son stood in a yellow puddle, grinning madly.

There was only one option for me as his mother.

“I’m so proud of you!” I cheered and clapped.

Full of praise and happiness, I suggested we finish wiping him up, waist to toe, and I sent him to tell his siblings the good news so I could tidy up the bathroom.

That’s where my 15-year-old found me a few minutes later. “He actually went stinky in the toilet? Whoa . . .” and he backed up when he saw how I straddled one mess to wipe up another. “I was about to say, Bet you’re glad he didn’t give you a mess in a pull-up, but—”

“But say nothing to him,” I warned Big Brother. “This is a huge step for him—”

You’ll have to take a few huge steps just to get out of there—”

I pointed at him. “The mess isn’t important,” I said. “Nor is it important that I had to use five baby wipes on him, and that I’ll use about a dozen Clorox wipes in here. What’s important is that he finally did something hard for him. We cheer and praise, and clean up the mess quietly later, without making him feel anything but joy for his accomplishment, which has been years in the making.”

And that, I realized, summed up parenthood.

Along with this request to Big Brother, “And bring me another trash bag, please.”

Oh yes, being their mother was by far the most difficult work she’d ever undertaken. And it also was, by far, the most satisfying. At the end of the day she knew she’d accomplished an enormous amount of work, even if the house looked as messy as it had in the morning. But at this point of her life, messy meant success. Things happened.

~Book 2, Soldier at the Door

“She knew that in a very real way, she controlled the world. At least, she controlled the way her students would see it.”

“That’s right, sweety—that’s a dog. Doggies are bad. They will always bite you, even if they look nice. Keep walking . . .”

That was the conversation I overheard between a mom and her three-year-old daughter yesterday. I was pushing my son in a stroller past them, and glanced over at the evil beast behind a massive fence.
It was a small, fluffy mixed breed dog, panting happily, not snapping at all.

Not that I’m a huge fan of dogs—I tolerate them, at best—but I worry when an adult passes along their fears, irrational or not, to their children.

I cringed, but the damage had been done.
The child shuddered obediently and gripped her mother’s hand as they rushed home. The girl had been indoctrinated.

The thing is, we all indoctrinate our children, in good ways and bad.
I’ve heard some adults argue that “religious nuts” brainwash their kids into believing in their faith, but it’s still propaganda when adults persuade children to not believe in anything at all.

As parents we literally present the world to our children—a view which they then spend the rest of their lives believing or disproving, or talking to a therapist about.
A difficult question then is, What view of the world have I given to my children?

My mother was a classic case of paranoia run amok. Suffering in Germany as a child during WWII, losing her parents, her grandmother, and several cousins to the war, seeing some of her family interred in concentration camps, then escaping from her home (now a part of Poland) to the west by herself as a 16-year-old, just one day ahead of the invading Russians, is going to leave some scars.

Unfortunately, she refused to have those scars looked at, insisting every time we tried to get her treatment for her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that she had things under control.
She didn’t.
She feared the world. She was afraid of people in uniforms (she hated the Boy Scouts—just like Hitler Youth, she claimed), people in stores (you never know why they’re looking at you), and people just chatting in the halls at church (she knew they were gossiping about her). Every person was a potential threat to her happiness, as it were.

Sometimes she was fine, going for months being cheerful and even joining in the conversations with other women in our neighborhood.
Then suddenly something would snap again—we never knew what the trigger was—and for many months and even years she was sure everyone hated her for her German accent, and that someone was coming to get her.

All of that rubs off on a kid, and even though I learned to distance myself from her delusions and paranoia as a teenager, I still feel my chest tighten when I see a group of women and I think I’m supposed to talk to them.
But rhetoric courses I took in college demonstrated how each person views the world in a different way and, most importantly, those views can change.

In my mom’s later years, her paranoia blossomed—one of the lesser-common side effects of Parkinson’s disease is hallucinations. And she did them magnificently.

My 40th birthday will always be memorable because she called to wish me a happy birthday, then said, “Well, your father’s all but out of the family now since I discovered he’s been having affairs.” The man was 78 at the time. My mom also complained about the listening devices in the house, the person living in the attic demanding sugar, and the horrible statue garden my brother and his wife had put up in the backyard.

My older sister called me two hours later to say, “I just had Mom committed to the mental hospital to stabilize her. How’s that for a birthday present?”

Now, four years later, my mother barely knows where she is or who she is. As her life slips away, I mourn for her that she never fully knew just how wonderful it could be. The world held her hostage since she was a little girl. She never knew how to change her view of the world, nor did she fully realize that for the past sixty-plus years she had a very easy life. All she could focus on was her fear.

That’s why I cringed when I heard that mother yesterday telling her daughter to be afraid of dogs. Undoubtedly she’s had some trauma in her past that she never got over, but to pass those fears on to someone innocent?
To taint an entire collection of creatures with just one ugly color because of a bias?
To assume that we as adults truly know how everything is, and that we’re completely correct in all our assumptions?

I don’t know whether to call that prejudice, or arrogance, or ignorance.
Whatever it is, it needs to be resolved to give our kids a fair and fighting chance.
And that’s probably the toughest thing for a parent to do.