Month: January 2016

How to Say the Thing You Can’t Say

“How was recess today?” I asked Smoke this week, and he immediately started to cry.

Weeks ago, Smoke had complained to me that a friend was bossing him around, demanding that he play with him at every recess, and then dictating the terms of that play. If Smoke put up a protest, if he wanted to play tag with other friends, or if he wanted to be Spider-Man instead of Batman, this friend—let’s call him Boss—would storm off in a huff and declare that their friendship was over.

From what I’ve written about Boss here, I’m afraid that you’re imagining him as a spoiled, insufferable child à la Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but this is not the case. Boss is small and goofy and full of smiles. Boss, I suspect, senses that that his spot in the first-grade pecking order is tenuous, and so he does everything in his power to ensure that he has a steady companion. Boss doesn’t want to face the recess yard alone, and I don’t blame him for that.

“You’re just going to have to let him be mad at you,” I told Smoke after his initial complaint. I went on to explain what I thought would happen if Smoke took action on his own behalf. Boss would be mad for a while but then he would cool down. After a few confrontations, Boss would learn to give Smoke more leeway.

And then, like any great parent, after delivering my lecture, I forgot about the problem. Smoke didn’t come home crying or complaining, nor did he resist school, and so the issue fell off my radar until I remembered to ask him about it at bedtime this week. This is when Smoke burst into tears. “All he ever wants to do now is push me on the spinners, and then I get sick.”

“Tell him you don’t want to do that,” I said.

“I tell him every time!” Smoke said. “But he won’t let me play something else!”

In that moment I realized what should have been clear to me earlier. It didn’t matter what advice I gave Smoke. It didn’t matter because I was telling him to do something he wasn’t ready to do. He had it in him to tell Boss that he didn’t want to spin. But he didn’t have it in him to hold his ground or walk away, to risk losing a friendship that was probably providing him too with an indispensable measure of security.

“What can I do to help you fix this?” I asked him. He continued to cry quietly and look down at the bedspread. “Do you want me to email your teacher?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied without hesitation.

I’ve been thinking lately about being assertive and the ideals we set around saying hard truths. So often we hold off on saying what we need to say because we get so wrapped up in the delivery, we think we must be brave and say it face-to-face. Writing it down would be cowardly. Delivering the message through another source would be cowardly. We suffer for the sake of this principle.

Many years ago, I interviewed for a job and got a voice mail from the employer a week later. He left his number and asked me to call him after 10 pm, because that was when he’d be home. I got the message at 6 pm, and so I had four hours to wait before calling him. I knew that I hadn’t nailed the interview, and so I wasn’t especially hopeful, and yet it was hard to settle into my evening knowing I had this phone call to make. I made my dinner, I showered, and I waited until quarter after ten to call him. Our phone call lasted less than a minute—just long enough for us to trade pleasantries and for him to tell me that they had hired someone else.

I hung up annoyed. I felt certain that he had wanted to deliver hard news to me directly on some kind of principal. But there was nothing helpful to me about hearing the news from a live voice rather than a recorded one. I would have far preferred the voice mail rejection to the personal one. He hadn’t spared me anything, but had instead injected some dread into my evening.

I remember this incident often. I remember it every time I need to communicate something difficult and am tempted to lay it out in an email rather than deliver it live. I tell myself that it’s okay to write it instead of saying it, that it’s okay to need a little space and control. I tell myself that the person on the other end might actually appreciate that space as well.

I emailed Smoke’s teacher that morning, and as Smoke left for school, he was hopping up and down, giddy with relief. He would not have to spin until he was sick at recess.

But Smoke’s teacher didn’t see my message right away. At their first recess, Boss did spin Smoke. Once they had settled back in the classroom, Smoke, impatient for the relief he now felt he deserved, told his teacher by himself.

The teacher took Boss aside. All it took was a single sentence: “You need to let Smoke play with his other friends too.” She didn’t shame him or punish him, but he listened. Smoke hadn’t been able to muster the authority he needed, and so he simply borrowed hers. Not only did it work, it spared him the drama of an angry friend.

For the rest of the day, Smoke played with the friends he’d been pining for in the weeks I’d spent ignoring the problem. He came home happy. It had taken two grown-ups and one child to resolve one common childhood conflict. Three weeks ago, I thought I’d teach Smoke how to be direct and assertive, how to take charge of his own relationships. Instead he reminded me how complicated our problems are and how senseless it is to try and solve them on our own.

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Cursed Independence

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a parent is not dress my child—to stand there and watch with my hands at my sides while he tries to get his head through the sleeve hole. For the past two weeks, Stump (who is newly three) has insisted on dressing himself. All the parenting experts insist that I should encourage this kind of independence. But really it doesn’t matter whether I encourage him or not. Stump doesn’t need me to cheer him on; he needs me to stay the fuck out of his way.

Stump’s rules are clear. I’m allowed to verbally coach him, but I’m not allowed to be physically involved. “That’s the wrong hole,” I might say as he puts his underwear on sideways, and he laughs and makes the adjustment. Everybody’s happy. But just as often something gets hung up—a sleeve is turned half inside-out, or a pant leg gets stuck above his knee, and I must stand there passively as he sorts through the problem. The other day, he had tried three times to put on his pants. On the first try he put both of his legs in the same side. On the second try, the pants were inside out. On the third try, they slid on almost perfectly, except that the waist was just a little crooked. As I reached out to straighten the elastic, I knew that I was making a mistake, but still I continued. I did it so quickly that Stump couldn’t stop me. “Why you do that?” Stump demanded. It was a good question. I don’t know why I did it. Without another word, he took off the pants. He looked at me coolly and started over.

Here’s a problem: most days we actually have to go somewhere, and we have to be there at a certain time. Sometimes a shirt has turned inside-out from all Stump’s dressing and undressing and I’m not allowed to right it, and he’s not able to right it himself and so we reach a standstill. He curls up, naked, in the laundry basket and lies there, dejected. If I approach him, he shoos me away. He might lie this way for ten minutes or longer, until he finally decides to choose another shirt.

This past Thursday, we started the process of getting dressed forty minutes before we had to leave for school. He put his shirt on and his underwear on without incident, but would not agree to any of his pants. As I watch the clock approach the time we had to leave, I realized that this struggle has not helped me cultivate patience. I never stop longing to intervene, to dress my own child, to hurry the process of getting ready. But this struggle has, in some strange way, taught me something about faith. It was 9:12 and we had to leave at 9:15. My son was not dressed and he would not let me dress him. Accepting this meant accepting that I had no control, and yet still I chose to believe that we would make it out the door. I put on my own coat. I put on my own shoes. Stump watched me and decided he would wear the pants with the cars on them. He put them on one leg at a time, and then, by some strange miracle, agreed to let me put his socks on for him.

When we got in the car, the sun was shining for the first time that week. We left at 9:16. Everything was okay.

Soft Resolutions

At the end of December, I thought about giving up some of the things I love. My jeans were tight again and I was feeling burnt out on overindulgence. This happens every year. The holidays arrive and there are cookies everywhere. My days are loose, and so I drink extra coffee. By evening, my mind is still spinning from caffeine and so I drink a glass of wine to settle down. And then I eat more cookies. While I eat, I ask myself if I even really want them, or if I’m just eating them because it seems like I should want them. The idea of January 1 with its clean slate and healthy mandate starts to sound like a relief from all of this rigorous consumption.

I thought maybe I’d give up bread, and cheese.

I thought maybe I’d give up wine, and coffee.

I thought maybe I’d exercise six days a week.

And then I changed my mind. On December 30, I fed my sourdough starter and made dinner rolls. I ate them warm with butter and a bowl of potato leek soup and I thought: this is not a practice that needs to end. Making bread is an all-day process that grounds me. Unlike the cookies, it brings me genuine comfort. I wondered what would happen if I made my resolutions softer and more playful, advisory rather than punitive. I wanted them to feel like a friendly bird on my shoulder, not a drill sergeant.

I decided I wouldn’t give up anything, but instead I’d focus on guidelines, that I would see how my body felt if coffee and alcohol became things I only drank two days of the week. I decided that if there was a window in my day where I could make it to the gym, then I would. And I decided to start cooking a pot of brown rice every few days so that I would eat more whole grains, less bread.

So far, it’s felt a little magic, living with these soft resolutions. I made it to the gym four times this week. Each time I go, I step on the treadmill and tell myself I don’t have to stay very long. But the first ten minutes pass quickly, and when I check my stats I see that I’ve already run nearly a mile. I give my permission to press the stop button whenever I want, and something about that permission makes me want to keep going. I bump up the speed and the resistance. I run until my eyelids sweat. I come home and eat my brown rice and my salad. I ask myself if that’s really what I want for dinner, and for now the answer is yes, although I often follow up with ice cream for dessert.

It is January 17 as I write this, and I do not feel deprived or punished. I also know that this won’t last forever, that eventually the treadmill will lose its novelty, as will brown rice and salad. But that’s the thing about my soft resolutions. I won’t let them turn into failures. I will only keep them as long as they serve me.

 

 

 

2015: all of the things

Here’s a confession: I feel a little weird about linking to pieces that I publish outside of this blog.  I feel somehow like I’m teasing you, pretending that there’s a new Goodnight Already post when really I’m just sending you somewhere else to read something that I wrote for another blog. It feels like bad hostessing, like I’m inviting you over for dinner and then revealing that, actually, we’re going out. (For the record, it doesn’t bother me at all when other bloggers do this. It’s just a personal hangup.) So I’ve saved my clips to share in one end-of-the-year roundup. Only it’s a day late. Here’s everything I published last year:

The New York Times Motherlode

Teaching Children to Love Bees, Not Fear Them

The Washington Post On Parenting

Reclaiming Our Neighborhood Roads

We’re Not Numb; We’re Desperate

Brevity

The Myth of the Real Deal

Writing is the Antidote (to publishing in the digital age)

Cactus Heart

I’ve got an essay, “If I Could Have Two Minutes of Your Attention” in e-issue #13

Brain, Child

Making Peace with the Life I Didn’t Choose

I’m Not Sorry for Yelling

Dear Kindergarten Teacher

What a Father Is, and Isn’t

Explaining Gay Marriage to the Boy with Two Moms

What a Summer Should Be

My Bikini Body

Terrible Twos and Life Out of Balance

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

When We See Our Kids for Who They Really Are

Happy New Year!

2015 image credit: http://exit977.org/2015/12/best-of-2015-you/