patience

What’s Right in Front of You

On Monday afternoon as I turned onto a freeway onramp, a mother duck and her ducklings crossed directly in front of my van. Both of my kids were strapped in the backseat. As I hit the brake, I checked my mirrors, worried that someone might rear-end me. But strangely, even though it was rush hour, this particular onramp was empty for the moment. I put on my hazards and watched as the group crossed together, all of them unified in their determination. The whole thing took about eight seconds. As I drove off, I argued with Stump about whether or not I’d killed the ducks.

“You ran over them,” he insisted.

“No, honey, I stopped. They made it to the other side. If I had hit those ducks I’d be crying right now.”

Smoke came to my defense. “She didn’t hit them. I would be crying too if she did.”

When we got home, there was a box on my doorstep. Inside, I found a gift from my sister: two ceramic mugs that had been shipped across the country. The mugs were wrapped in bubble wrap, and the box was full of packing peanuts. As I sat on the floor admiring the mugs, Stump took two handfuls of the foam and threw them like confetti. Smoke laughed. Before I could intervene, Stump picked up the box and dumped all of the peanuts on the floor. My muscles tensed as I prepared myself to lift him and remove him from the scene. But then I stopped myself. In the world of a three-year-old packing peanuts are a special occasion. Since the damage had been done, I might as well let him enjoy it.

Stump and Smoke threw peanuts in the air. They rolled around on the floor. They stomped on them. I watched as a number of the peanuts broke into many pieces.

I stayed there, cross-legged on the floor, just watching. I am spending time with my kids, I told myself. It felt like a spinoff of last week’s mantra, Parenting is not hard. This wasn’t the early evening activity I would have planned for them, but it was the one they had chosen, and really it was no better or worse than a walk to the park or a romp in the backyard. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t thrilled about it; it only mattered that I was there, on the floor in the moment, half-grumpy and half-calm.

When their fun began to wane, I asked them to help me pick up the peanuts, and they did. (Their effort was a little lackluster, I admit, but it was something.) I spent ten minutes vacuuming the tiny left-behind pieces, and then we moved on to dinner.

All of this is part of a life strategy I’m trying to cultivate called Dealing with What’s in Front of Me. The mama duck walks in front of my car so I stop. My kid dumps the packing peanuts on the floor and so we play with them. I’m trying to move into the mode of responding to my world—and responding to it fully and with patience and zest—rather than controlling it.

I’ve been playing with this strategy at work as well. These days, when I teach a class, I try to remember to look around the room and breathe, to not just be a talking, disembodied head. Rather than planning six activities and working to move us through each one on a schedule, I try to leave room to let my students surprise me, and they do. When I ask questions, I try to let go of my own prescribed answer. On the days when I succeed at that, my world feels altered. I come home feeling connected to something that’s bigger than me.

I think about the mother duck and her experience of the freeway. I think about her standing on one side of the onramp, her babies lined up behind her, anticipating her next move: all that focused concentration. In the span of a single moment, the noise of traffic quiets just enough for her to go. Once she starts, there is no hesitation. She commits to that moment and to her own impulse. That trust becomes the thing that, more than any other thing, protects her.

Image Credit, Mother Duck and Ducklings: Carole Smith Berney

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.

How we Made our Family (…with a little help from our friends)

I’ve written on this blog about some of the ways I didn’t get pregnant.

This week in Mutha Magazine, I’ve got an essay about how we did.

Here’s a teaser:

It had been nearly a year and we still weren’t pregnant…There had to be another way.

Kellie reminded me that there was. If we could find the right man, we could move this operation into our home. We wouldn’t pay doctors. I wouldn’t have to lie on the cold exam table every month; there would be no clamp, no stirrups. Somehow, my desperation gave way to optimism. Maybe he was out there.

You can click on the link to learn how Smoke and Stump came to be.

http://muthamagazine.com/2014/08/jennifer-berney-on-how-a-village-made-our-family/

Truth be told, this essay is a highly condensed version of the full-length memoir I’m currently working on. For me it’s the story of how a single act of generosity has shifted my definition of family. Thanks for reading!

Better than Band-aids: some things that made infertility suck a little less

Last week I wrote about my struggle to get pregnant with my first son. During those two years, I heard all kinds of advice and remarks that were generally unhelpful—unhelpful in the way that I’m sure I am when close friends are going through some kind of personal turmoil that I have no experience with. I may listen and nod, but when it comes time for me to say something, I come up short. I say the equivalent of “Just relax and it will happen,” or, “Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.” But this week I want to point a bright ray of sunlight on the few things that helped me during that time.

1. After about six months of trying to conceive, I sat cross-legged on a friend’s couch, explaining how I had assumed I’d be pregnant on the first or second try. She looked me in the eye and said, “Well, you know, you’re still one of the most fertile people I know.” I carried that sentence around with me for the next year and half like a stone in my pocket. Infertility had made me feel broken, but my friend’s statement helped me see the larger picture, to understand that fertility might mean more than making babies, that my person still had value.

2.  A counselor once told me, at the end of our session: “Seek as much pleasure as you can.” In some ways, this statement might not be so different from the ubiquitous advice, “Relax!”, but I found it far more helpful. To me, “Relax!” was an admonition; it implied that I was doing it all wrong. But “Seek pleasure” was instructive. It didn’t promise a baby, but it reminded me that in the meantime I could enjoy myself. It helped me sleep more, eat better, and listen to the whisper inside of me that told me what I craved.

3. In the spirit of seeking pleasure, I stopped spending a fortune on acupuncture (which I did not enjoy) and instead sought out a massage therapist. During our first session, she asked what I wanted to work on, and I told her I’d been trying to conceive for over a year. She looked at me with empathy and revealed, “It took me three years to get pregnant.” And suddenly, just like that, I felt hopeful again.

4. This last one is impossible, but it would have solved everything. One day, when my first son was two, we were on a walk together and I realized: if I could have a photograph of this moment, and if I could time travel back two years, I would have had so much patience. If I could have seen a single photo of my son, there would have been no dread or urgency to my waiting. They say that faith is knowing without proof, and apparently I’m incapable of that, which is what made those years painful. If the future me could have provided the past me with proof, I’m certain those two years would have felt like twenty-four months instead of an impossible eon.

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