boys

Rainbows vs Ninjas

There’s pleasantly exhausted, and then there’s on-the-brink exhausted. Two nights ago,  I was the latter. As Smoke prepared for bedtime, I walked through our house and tried not to look too hard. Everywhere, there was a sight that raised my blood pressure. There’s a pile of laundry in the armchair that hasn’t disappeared for weeks. There are the shelves full of expired medications and near-empty bottles of supplements. There are about a dozen piles scattered throughout the house of paperwork that has no home. Some days it feels like I can’t reach for something I need without eight things I don’t need falling to the floor.

This is a problem, yes, but it’s not a new problem. It’s a problem I live with until I get so tired that I don’t think that I can live with it anymore. If I came to this point at 9 am on a Saturday morning, then perhaps I could put the feeling to use. But at 9 pm on a weeknight, it translates to nothing but desperation, and even though I feel far more cranky than sleepy, I try to tell myself, over and over, “Go to sleep as soon as you can.” I was afraid that if I didn’t I might fall apart–on myself or on someone else.

But it was my night to put Smoke to bed, and he never wants me to go to sleep as fast as I can. He wants books followed by meandering conversations, and he’s never sufficiently impressed when I report to him how late it is.

Every week Smoke comes home from kindergarten with some small book he’s made and memorized, and so I often have him read to me at bedtime as a warm-up. Smoke had come home with this rainbow book, and I had placed in on his bed earlier in the evening so that we would remember to read it. But when we got to bed, Smoke wanted to skip it. He only wanted to read about ninjas.

rainbow

In spite of my mantra (Go to sleep as fast as you can!) I fought him. “Why won’t you read to me?” I asked while at the same time I wondered: why was I picking a fight?

“It’s too embarrassing.”

“What’s embarrassing about it?”

“I just don’t want to read it.”

“Well how does it go? Just tell me.”

Smoke rolled his eyes. “You say the colors of the rainbow twice, and then you say ‘Makes a rainbow ________.”

“Makes a rainbow what?”

“Makes a rainbow b_______.”

“Makes a rainbow bright?”

“Yeah. Bright.”

“Oh,” I said. The layer of sheer annoyance that had hardened around my heart had started to melt away. “I think I would probably cry if I heard you sing that.”

Of course Smoke started singing: Red-orange-yellow, green-blue-purple, red-orange-yellow, green-blue-purple—clap!—make a rainbow bright.

It was the clap that did me in. I was totally unprepared for the earnestness of that clap.

I’m quite certain that the earnestness of that song, its unapologetic sweetness, is exactly why Smoke had wanted to forgo it in favor of his ninja book. At six, he’s just aware enough to recognize innocence and be suspicious of it. But, when pressed, he reluctantly administered the medicine I needed. That was kind of him.

“Do you think I cried?” I asked. Smoke wasn’t sure, and so I pointed to the corner of my eye. We laughed at my one little tear, and then read about ninjas for much longer than I wanted to. And then we went to sleep.

Unwanted Hugs

Earlier this week, Smoke reported to me that a girl in his class keeps on hugging him. Every time he sat down on the carpet for circle time she embraced him and wouldn’t let him go until the class had settled. Not only that, but this girl was chasing him on the playground at recess, and grabbing his shirt when she caught him so that he couldn’t get away. He held the edge of his own shirt to demonstrate, and pulled on it to reveal his lean, pale belly, his inability to move without stretching his shirt further and revealing more of his body. The more he talked about it, the more distressed he sounded.

“Did you tell her to stop?” I asked.

“She laughs at me when I tell her!” Smoke said. His voice broke around the edges.

I pulled a piece of paper off the kitchen table. It was a handout that Mrs. N had sent home about Kelso’s choices. It looked like this.

Kelso_clip_image002_0000

“Have you tried any of these choices?” I asked him, aware that I was an outsider to this new social landscape. I offered the page tentatively.

“Saying stop is one of the choices,” he explained, not even looking at the list. “Also I tried ignoring, and joining a new game, but she just follows me everywhere.”

“Do you want me to tell Mrs. N?” I asked him.

He thought about it for a moment, and decided he did.

Several years ago, I heard a public school teacher comment on how much time she spent in recent years simply answering emails from parents—parents who wanted to know why their kid got a 92 rather than a 98 on a spelling test, or parents demanding a rationale for the novel they were reading in Language Arts. I told myself I wouldn’t add to the burden; I wouldn’t be a parent emailer.

But then, in our orientation meeting with Mrs. N, she reassured us: “Please don’t ever hesitate to email me. Even if it seems like a little problem.”

I wasn’t sure what kind of problem this was. Certainly it seemed like the sort of thing kids typically did to each other, the sort of thing that thirty years ago kids would have worked out on their own. I remember epic boy vs. girl battles that happened at the very edge of the recess field, which was also the bottom of a hill, far away from any grown-up gaze. I remember a kid named Billy Duffy whose face was always stained with meat sauce, who had earned a reputation for kissing girls against their will. Playground problems weren’t teacher problems, and unless you were bleeding, the recess aides didn’t want to hear about it.

But it’s 2014, and as much as I worry about overprotecting my kids, I feel grateful that the system seems to care a little more. (Okay, a lot more.) Also, these days I read a lot about consent, and I brood over how to teach my sons to honor bodies and boundaries. So when a problem like this emerges, even if it’s a little one, I feel that there’s a lot at stake.

I mean, Smoke’s discomfort at having his shirt pulled or being hugged goes beyond annoyance. I could tell by his distress that he felt trapped. I also sensed that he, like me, wasn’t sure how much attention his situation warranted.

That night, awake in bed, I entertained the following thoughts.

  • I felt some alignment with the girl who so badly wanted Smoke’s attention. I know how it feels to want a friend so badly. And I understood why she had chosen Smoke, who is quiet and kind and funny.
  • I considered what it feels like to be physically trapped, and what a common feeling that was in childhood. Well-meaning grown-ups pinch your cheeks and kiss you with their bad breath. Bossy friends convince you to let them roll you up in blankets.
  • I imagined Smoke, some years from now, chasing girls around the playground and lifting their skirts. Maybe some would see this as a little problem, but to me it would be a Big Problem.

I emailed Mrs. N before school the following morning. As we arrived two hours later, she approached us and squatted so she could talk to Smoke at his level. “I told [redacted] that she needs to leave you alone and save all of her hugs for her family at home.” Smoke’s eyes widened. “Will you please tell me if that didn’t solve the problem?” He nodded.

Every moment of Mrs. N’s time is precious. The line of kids was already moving toward the classroom, and she was already moving with them, but as she got farther and farther away she thanked me for letting her know, and then gave me the thumbs-up sign as she disappeared through the door.

I’m glad that it’s 2014. I’m glad that my son’s teacher cares about what happens on the playground.

Introducing Stump and Smoke

Smoke and Stump circa 2013

Smoke and Stump circa 2013

“Did you know we chose a donor?” I asked our friend Dee. Kellie was driving, Dee was riding shotgun, and I was in the cramped backseat of our truck. I had scooched to the middle and leaned forward between them so that we could talk over the roar of the diesel engine. We were headed to our cabin in northern Washington. At this point in the journey, the sun was high, we’d all finished our coffee, and we were driving up a mountain.

“Finally,” Dee said.

Earlier that week, Kellie and I had finally decided on two potential donors from a catalogue of hundreds. I filled Dee in on our choices. Our top pick was a guy who was listed as six foot two, athletic, a native Canadian of Ukrainian descent. It was hard to explain why we had chosen him. We had looked at endless questionnaires, the answers hand-written, and it seemed that, more than any particular answer, the handwriting itself told a story. Overly neat handwriting made me suspicious, like the donor had something to hide. I took comfort in handwriting that was legible, but hurried.

“So you’re going with the Ukrainian Canadian?” Dee clarified. She thought that was funny, and she made up a song, envisioning him as a bearded lumberjack. In a low voice, she sang, “The Ukrainian Canadian came through for us today!” The tune was catchy. Soon we were all singing it as we crested the mountain pass.

“Say goodbye to your dreams of having a girl,” she warned Kellie. From the beginning, Kellie had clung to an idea that she’d make a better parent to a girl than she would to a boy. “You’re going to have two burly sons, and everyone’s going to call them Smoke and Stump.” We laughed some more and, strangely, I could picture it: two little boys in denim and striped shirts, running around with dirt on their knees. Maybe it was the mountain landscape we were passing through, but I imagined us living in a Podunk town where they’d spend their days building forts out of fallen branches and learning to chop firewood.

Kellie laughed along. The idea of Stump and Smoke seemed to make her more comfortable with the idea of having a boy or two—so comfortable that she advocated for actually naming our kids Smoke and Stump. “You’re not serious,” I said. But she was.

We joked about Stump and Smoke for months, but in the end we all but forgot. The Ukrainian Canadian didn’t come through for us after all, and after two years of trying to conceive and failing, no one was making jokes about the names of our future babies. So it wasn’t until last week, when brooding over what pseudonyms I should give my children for this blog, that it hit me—we have two boys! We have our Stump and Smoke! Dee’s joke had been prophecy.

It’s clear to me who’s who. Smoke is my older son, my five-year-old. He is wily and elusive, in many places at once. He may look as if he’s sitting at the kitchen table, but in reality he is spread throughout the universe, entertaining multiple daydreams. Any discipline tactics I attempt can and will be used against me. The other day he warned me “Mommy, you better hand me that milkshake by the time I count to five.”

No fence can stand in Smoke's way.

No fence can stand in Smoke’s way.

And Stump suits my one-year-old, with his brute strength, my baby who, as I’ve mentioned before, I once caught hanging from the counter ledge like an action hero. Currently, Stump likes to pull large stones from the birdbath and hurl them like shot puts. He thinks it’s hilarious to pinch my bare skin with his determined little fingers and hear me cry in pain.

Stump is so hearty, he eats mustard greens for breakfast.

Stump is so hardy, he eats mustard greens for breakfast.

Kellie may once have dreamed of a daughter, but we are pleased with Stump and Smoke, our family of two women completed by two boys. Dee must have known they were our destiny, and she prepared us for it in her way, by inviting us to laugh at sperm and strength and boy-ness.