emotions

What About the Wheel that Doesn’t Squeak?

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Stump, plotting world domination in his sleep.

Stump, who will turn two-and-a-half next week, has become a tyrant, and I am afraid of him.

If you sit on the left side of the couch, he will point at you and scream, “That’s my spot!”

If you sit on the right side of the couch, he will point at you and scream, “That’s my spot!”

If he wakes up in the middle of the night, and you crawl into his bed to comfort him, he will kick at your legs and tell you, “Go away!”

When you get out of bed and step towards the door, he will cry, “Mommy, no go!”

In the morning, when you’re making pancakes, he’ll get excited and want to help. He’ll grab a wooden spoon and stick his fingers in the batter. When you go to pour some on the pan, he’ll shriek, “No! No cook it! I like it cold!”

He will say the same thing about frozen tacos.

When you are trying to write an email, he’ll sit in your lap, cuddle sweetly, and ask to see pictures of sharks. When you bring up a picture of the ocean, he’ll point and insist, “Go there! Go there!” and then he will collapse against you in tears because you cannot transport him into your computer monitor.

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Smoke

All of this puts Smoke, my going-on-seven-year-old, in a somewhat precarious position. “Not you too!” I find myself saying to Smoke any time he gets dramatic or pouty. Because Stump’s demands are impossible to meet, I call on Smoke to be easy. For the most part, he complies.

When he whines that he’s hungry I say, “Get yourself a snack—you’re capable!” and then he does it. When he cries over a lost Lego piece, I say “I’m not helping you find it until you calm down.” He takes a breath and wills away the tears.

I’m not sure how guilty to feel about all of this. I value the skill of self-containment. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I wanted Smoke to have a sibling in the first place—I wanted him to have the companionship of siblinghood, but also to learn the challenges of deep sharing, of splitting the resources of time and attention.

But there is another part of me that wishes I could create a force field around my older son, or that he could get vacation from siblinghood, from sharing, from being told to control his behavior because he’s the one who knows how.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor right now there’s no force field and no vacation, but the jelly bean jar is coming in handy. Originally, I created it to help motivate Stump to learn use the toilet: a jelly bean each time he tried. Smoke (who of course has been diaper-free for years) would also get a jelly bean for using the bathroom—the idea was that Stump would see his brother earning treats and imitate him.

But so far it hasn’t worked out that way. So far, Smoke pees, and then asks me for his jelly bean while Stump is busy tearing up some other corner of the house. So basically I’ve created a system to reward my almost-seven-year-old for continuing to use the potty.

I’ve decided this totally works for me. Because in the end I think Smoke totally deserves a reward for being the one who can control his elimination needs, the one who can share the couch, who understands that frozen tacos need to be heated, and who accepts that you can’t always get what you want.

Grief: Where Does it Come From and Where Does it Go?

When I was around twelve years old, I remember having an evening when I couldn’t stop crying. It was June, and my family had finished dinner. The sky was still just light enough to glow. My mother and I loaded dishes in the washer. I’d been fighting angst all evening—some strange source of pain that I couldn’t name—and suddenly it all burst forth from me in tears.

A gift that my mother gave me—in that moment and many others—was a curiosity about emotions and how they revealed themselves. My outburst didn’t seem to make her nervous. She didn’t leave the room or stand there staring. Instead, she put a hand on my shoulder and offered theories. Maybe I was sad because it was the end of the school year and I would miss my friends in the summer. Maybe I was simply on the cusp of change, and frightened.

Two weeks ago, my son’s preschool closed forever. He started there when he was two and has seen many of the same faces every week for the last three years. It’s the place where, at two-years-old, he would cling to me most mornings, hiding between my legs until he summoned the courage to join his friends; the place where he fed worms to chickens and dug in the dirt; the place where, after he fell from a branch and injured himself, a fire truck arrived, and several kind EMTs gave him a stuffed donkey to hold as they bandaged him; the place where he’s created countless projects out of cardboard and googly eyes. Over the last few months he’s come to love his school especially. On weekends he asks me to count the days until he sees his teacher and his friends.

This is a picture my son drew of his preschool. Note the sunshine and the giant door.

This is a picture my son drew of his preschool. Note the sunshine and the giant door.

The friends, they still exist, and the teacher is having her own baby, but the place we’ve known is empty now, and I’ve wondered how my son’s grief would come out. At the goodbye party for his teacher, we all ate cake and played hard. On the last day of preschool we said our goodbyes a bit louder than normal, but neither of us shared tears. And even at the yard sale, where all the toys they had played with over the last three years were sorted and labeled with price tags, my son was simply intent on purchasing the blue light saber before someone else got it. We got it, and therefore no tears.

I’ve never liked goodbyes. I prefer to mark endings privately, quietly, and perhaps I’ve passed this to my son.

Yesterday morning, my son woke up with his left eye swollen half closed. We couldn’t tell at first if it was an allergy or pink eye, so I gave him Benadryl, and tended to it with a warm washcloth. I gave him extra attention at breakfast, bringing him juice, kissing his forehead, wiping his nose.

After breakfast, when I insisted on a walk in the sun, he curled in a ball on the couch and screamed. He didn’t want to go anywhere! He had a stomach flu! He was serious! He wanted to stay home all day! I was serious too. The day was getting warm and the birds were singing. I had enrollment forms to drop off at the local kindergarten three blocks away, which was across the street from the bakery. I promised him a cookie, but he wouldn’t budge. I insisted. I chose his clothes and dressed him, uncurling him from his ball limb by limb. Outside, my partner carried him, and he screamed some more because the sun hurt his eyes.

But the sight of the bakery case with its many trays of cookies calmed him and he wiped his tears. “Can I have a breadstick too?” he asked. He sat on the bench outside his future kindergarten and ate his cookie first. My partner asked for a bite of his breadstick and he told her “I’m sorry but no.” He walked home on his own feet, half himself again.

I wonder about my own grief and where it will land—in my left eye or my right ear, or will it just stretch out through my body through the week?