toddlers

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.

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My Six-Year-Old is my Guru

SweetSometimes my kids blow my mind without even trying.

Yesterday I had three six-year-old boys in my living room playing Legos. The play date was coming to an end and Sam, one of my son’s oldest friends, wanted to bring home the storm-trooper-on-a-motorcycle that he had fashioned out of Smoke’s Legos.

“No, you can’t take it with you,” Smoke told him, “because last time when you borrowed my Bionicle it broke and you never brought it back.”

I was sitting on the couch grading papers, and I looked up to appreciate the line he’d just drawn. I was struck by the absolute clarity of Smoke’s answer, and also his even delivery. His voice was calm. It wasn’t loaded with resentment or grief. He was simply calling it like he saw it.

But, Sam was not impressed. “I never asked to borrow it. You just left it at my house.”

Cody, a new friend who wasn’t privy to this history, joined in Sam’s defense. “He didn’t ask to borrow it, so it’s not the same.”

The helicopter parent in me poised to jump in, to restate Smoke’s position and make sure it was honored, but that turned out to be unnecessary. “Well I never got it back,” Smoke told both of them. He took a breath. “Sam, here’s what what we can do. I won’t take apart your motorcycle.” Sam was nodding already, relieved at the idea of compromise. “And if you fix my Bionicle and bring it back, then you can borrow it after all.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a boundary set so cleanly. My son didn’t learn that skill from me. I’ve only recently learned that my relationships don’t have to follow a script, that when someone makes a request of me I’m not required to give them the answer they’re hoping for. Lately, I try to catch myself in the act of delivering a line, of giving a Yes or a Maybe when what I really mean is No. I try to remind myself that I can give the answer I actually mean, but that answer never comes out easily. I stall, I stammer, or my voice trembles, or it’s tainted with defensiveness.

But Smoke’s gentle assertiveness makes me wonder: What do we know before we un-know it? What communication skills are we born with that time corrodes? And what can I do to preserve in my kids their own clarity, their intuition, their emotional intelligence?

Two nights ago both of my kids were still awake at ten pm. It’s June in the Pacific Northwest and so it’s still light at nine, and of course there are barbecues and spontaneous visits and deer sightings that get in the way of our bedtime routine. But no matter  the reason, I start to lose my mind at ten pm when my kids are still awake, and on this day Stump, my 2-year-old, had just insisted on a snack.

Sneer“Goldfish,” Stump said after his bath and then he repeated the word “Goldfish” at least two dozen times. I knew he wouldn’t quit and I was too tired to fight, so I sat him at the kitchen table with a small pile of Goldfish crackers. But it turned out that he wanted the Goldfish crackers, not to eat, but to construct an interpretive scene. I sat in a neighboring chair and leaned my head against my hand. I was done.

“No cry Mommy,” Stump whispered, and he brushed his fingers across my cheek. “No cry Mommy.”

No one in the history of my lifetime has ever been able to pull me out of a funk so easily. I hadn’t been on the verge of tears, but Stump’s empathy perked me up, and I laughed. Stump laughed too and continued to touch my face. “No cry, Mommy. It’s okay, Mommy.” He was teasing me and comforting me at once.

I wished that Kellie had been there to witness Stump’s feat of emotional intelligence. Earlier that evening I had complained to her about some problem and she responded by saying “Why do you let that bother you?”

“That doesn’t help!” I told her, but when she asked me what she could say, I could only answer: “I don’t know!”

But now here was Stump, hours past bedtime, rescuing me from myself, as if he arrived in this world knowing all my secret codes and how to crack them.

Don’t Turn Around

For ages I’ve dreamed about these two things:

The day I could kiss my son goodnight, leave the room, and count on him to fall asleep without me.

The day my son could read fluently enough to entertain himself with a book.

Those days have arrived–they are the same day in fact–and I am surprised to discover that my feelings of pride and relief are coated in a sticky layer of grief.

It all began when Kellie and I decided it was time to move Stump, our two-year-old, out of our bedroom and into the lower bunk in Smoke’s room. This meant that Smoke would have to move to the top bunk. Such transitions in our house require incentives, and so I offered to buy Smoke a headlamp and any comic book he wanted. I pitched that he could read with the headlamp while Stump slept down below.

I thought it would be a hard sell. When Smoke was three he went through a phase of waking at 2 am and demanding a snack. It didn’t matter that I never once gave in. “We don’t eat in the middle of the night,” I told him every time. Still he’d wake up every night and ask over and over.

Bedtimes have gone about the same way. Before this week, on a good night, I might be wrapping up our bedtime reading at 8:40. “Just one more chapter?” he requests. By that time of night he is insistent, and I am so very tired. I always cave. And then he needs a cold drink of water, and then he needs to poop, and then he needs another drink of water, and then it’s 10:05 and I snap at him “Oh-my-god-go-to-sleep!” and then I say “Sorry, it’s just late and I’m really tired.”

But not anymore. On the first night he climbed into his top bunk with his headlamp and his How to Train Your Dragon comic book. He was silent. Ten minutes later, I poked my head in. “Are you able to read that?” I asked him. So far he had been reading books with a sentence on each page, and always out loud with Kellie or me on hand to coach. “Not really,” he answered. “I’m just reading the words I can read.”

“That’s called reading,” I told him.

Ten minutes later, I poked my head in again. “Is your light off?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he answered. He sounded apologetic, as if I might have wanted him to stay up all night. “I just got a little tired.”

I didn’t return until I had finished my own business and was ready to go to bed myself. I turned on the nightlight and stood on my tiptoes, but I could see nothing but the edges of his blanket. I knew for sure that he was sleeping only by the sounds of his breathing. I wondered if it was too late to reconsider. The sight of Smoke sleeping has been one of the deepest joys of my life.

Sleep3But of course, there’s no turning back. Isn’t that what Orpheus taught us when he looked behind him at his wife Eurydice and, in doing so, cast her out of the mortal realm forever? You must not look behind you, you must not turn around, or you will learn that the thing that you once loved has already transformed.

Meanwhile, Stump has not taken to the lower bunk. He’s taken instead to waking in the middle of the night and screaming for twenty minutes at a time. He won’t let me console him. Smoke seems to sleep through it just fine, but I’ve moved Stump back into my own room.

Stump’s final two-year molars are coming in, and so I use the pain of teething to explain his midnight screaming, but of course I can’t be sure what’s causing his distress. I can only be sure that it’s a phase, and it will pass in one month or two, and when he’s finally truly sleeping through the night away from me I will feel strange, like the way I would feel if I lost an appendage not to frostbite or amputation, but if I simply misplaced it, if I left it in a drawer in some rarely-used room. I would wander around wondering Where did I put that? and Didn’t I need that for something? and I will wonder why it’s so hard to be needed, and why it’s so hard to not be needed.

Some types of sex that parents of young kids might actually be having

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d follow on a post from two weeks ago where I responded to a viral post on Scary Mommy about parents and sex. My complaint about this post was that it was so incredibly depressing; central to many of the “types of sex” was the implication that the wife wasn’t an especially happy participant, that after becoming parents men continue to want sex and women occasionally comply.

And so, just for fun, I’ve tried to construct something that resembles what I was hoping for when I clicked on that link in the first place.

  1. TV Sex:

Don’t think too hard about the fact that this is probably what your own parents were doing while you were watching Saturday morning cartoons on NBC every single week. In the era of Netflix, you’ve got a range of choices, but you’ve got to get it right. Barney, for instance, will no longer work since your older child has decided it’s condescending. Dinosaur Train would be a safer bet, except that when Dr. Scott the Paleontologist appears between segments the toddler often starts wandering the house and calling for you. Right now Blue’s Clues is the safest bet because it holds your toddler’s attention and inspires a fond nostalgia in your older child. You have exactly twenty-three minutes. Go.

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  1. Empty House Sex:

This is often prearranged, though it might happen twice in a year that you spontaneously discover that both of your children are gone and you are home. Just the novelty of that is enough to turn you on. You have a window of that that allows for some preparation. Brush your teeth beforehand or maybe even take a shower because, you know, you want this to be really special. Lie in bed for at least ten minutes afterwards and pretend together that you never had children. Feel slightly guilty about that as you get dressed and prepare to welcome them home.

  1. Middle-of-the-night Sex:

Roll over to spoon in the middle of the night and discover that your partner is also awake. Kiss passionately, both of you surprised that this is actually happening. Ruin the moment a little by wondering at what point the baby will wake up because you’re pretty sure he will. Continue on anyway. Try to be silent. Laugh together at how obvious and silly the squeaking bed sounds when you are keeping other noises to a minimum.

  1. Discussion Sex:

In between kisses ask: Did you remember to call in that refill? and, Did my W-2 forms ever come in the mail? Feel a little embarrassed when your partner points out that these questions aren’t enhancing the mood. You actually are enjoying this, it’s just that life’s daily tasks flood in and recede like a tide. Fight the urge to ask about that weird stain that appeared on the carpet last week, or if we need to buy diapers next time we go to Costco. Return the kiss instead.

Mistaken Identities: Some Things my Son Identifies as “Mama”

Me

Apparently I’m the one in the upper left. “Mama!”

 

Lady Lamp

This one is a little more flattering. “Mama.”

 

Mary

Totally makes sense. “Mama.”

 

Okay, since Stump pointed it out, I do see some similarities between Mary and Vader.

Okay, since Stump pointed it out, I do see some similarities between Mary and Vader. “Mama!”

 

From Stump's favorite book, Everyone Poops. "Mama."

From Stump’s favorite book, Everyone Poops. “Mama.”

One way to salvage a morning

The clock read 6:00 exactly this morning when Stump lifted his head from the pillow and began swiping at my face. He’s figured out that I can’t ignore him when he’s shoving his finger up my nose.

Any time Stump wakes up before 6:30, I know I’m in for it. He’s tired but won’t cop to it. Instead, he’ll refuse to do anything remotely helpful like sit in his high chair and eat breakfast or lie still with a diaper change, and instead he’ll opt for an activity like picking up a Wiffle ball bat, systematically clobbering everything in sight, and then screaming when I take the bat away. Usually, the only way to cope is to bide my time for two hours and then offer him a morning cat nap.

I know I’ve written already about what a wild child Stump is, but let me just add that in the months since that post, he’s gotten progressively wilder. He’s arrived at a stage where destruction isn’t just a hobby, it’s a career. Occasionally, he proves himself capable of giving a genuine hug, but more often hugs are a ploy to draw you in so that he can bite you, or pull your hair, or see how far he can stretch the skin on your neck.

To make things worse, I’m not on my game right now. I returned from Utah with strep throat, and am turning out to be mildly allergic to the Amoxicillin that doctor prescribed. I’ve got a rash running down my arms and spreading out from my belly button. I woke up with a headache. I might have slept for six hours, but the mirror told a different story. Oh, and Kellie had an early job this morning, so I had no juggling partner.

I was ready to throw my hands in the air, to resign myself to having the kind of morning where both of the kids and I alternate tantrums, but then Stump had a series of good ideas.

First, he selected a shirt from the clean laundry pile that said “Mommy’s Little Monster.” I put it on him and he walked to the front door and pointed.

Are you sure?” I asked him. “It’s raining out.”

He nodded.

rainOutside

Outside, lo and behold, it was one of those magical wet summer mornings. The rain seemed to calm Stump. He grabbed his brother’s baseball bat and wandered around with it thoughtfully, then settled at the edge of the porch. I sat behind him with my green tea and looked out at the yard, for once enjoying a morning moment that didn’t involve scrambling, or manhandling, or picking up thrown food.

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Then we came inside and ate scrambled eggs and honey toast. He watched an episode of Elmo’s World, terrorized Smoke for a while, threw a few fits, and by eight-thirty he was ready for his catnap. I had survived another early morning.

What’s in this picture?

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This is a recent illustration by Smoke. It might be my favorite picture he’s ever drawn. I’m guessing you might need a little help understanding the story, so here goes. The drawing takes place at Smoke’s best friend’s house, where there is a particularly steep flight of stairs. This staircase is an endless source of fun and fascination. Currently, Smoke and his best friend like to build forts at the landing. They’ve also been known to slide down these stairs on a sleeping bag. This picture features, from left to right, me, Smoke, and Smoke’s best friend shouting “No!”

Me, Smoke, and Smoke's best friend saying "No!"

Me, Smoke, and Smoke’s best friend saying “No!”

Who are we saying “No” to? Of course it’s Stump.

Stump saying "BYE!"

Stump saying “BYE!”

Stump is climbing the stairs because this is the first thing he does every time he enters this house. In fact, before we even the enter the house, he lights up in anticipation of these stairs. What I love most about this picture is that it so perfectly captures our dynamic. Look at all of us with our No’s, how ridiculous we are, how utterly powerless in the face of Stump’s determination. And then there is Stump, cheerfully oblivious, getting ready to surpass us all. His left hand, sword-like, points to the top of what I know is a staircase, but might also be seen as a mountain. Is he leaving us or leading us? Either way, the three of us stand with our arms in a gesture of helplessness, a trio of suckers.

Our Messy Lives

I took this photo last Sunday because I intended to follow up on my recent post about Stump, about how he is a bobcat, a wild child. I just wanted you to know that I wasn’t exaggerating.

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This was at the end of an outing to the park where he walked from mole hole to mole hole to dig in the dirt. At first I thought, well that’s okay, and then as he became increasingly exuberant, throwing the dirt so that it landed in his hair, I thought, whoa this is getting a little crazy, so I carried him over to the rock formations as a distraction.

The rock formations feature a kind of bowl that collects rainwater to which kids like to add leaves and pinecones and stir the concoction with sticks. On this particular day, someone had also added dirt, so it was filled with mud. Stump wasted no time finding this mud. Within moments, it was on his hands and up his sleeves and down his collar. It created a nice foundation for yet more dirt to get stuck to. When I pulled him away, he scrambled up the rocks, bobcat-style, leaving mud tracks behind him on his way to find more mole holes.

No, I didn’t have a change of clothes.

Moments later, a woman cut through the park with her corgi and Stump looked up from his digging. He clapped his hands and cried “dog!” over and over. As he began to walk towards the woman and her dog, she shot me a glare that said, You will NOT let your grubby child touch my dog.

On the way home, I thought about my parenting, and how sometimes I’m torn between letting my kids make a mess, and worrying about how I look to other parents or bystanders in that particular moment. And it’s true that my choice to let Stump play in dirt is as much a symptom of my laziness, my exhaustion, my I-don’t-want-to-fight-it attitude as it is a conscious parenting philosophy. But I stand by it.

That was Sunday I thought this was our mess of the week.

But then on Monday morning we discovered that Stump had thrush, an infection of the mouth, and our doctor prescribed gentian violet as a topical medicine. When Kellie brought it home, we discovered that it’s a bright purple liquid. We’ve been using it for nearly a week now, and once applied, it looks like Stump has been sucking on a purple sharpie. As a bonus, there are drips of it everywhere—on my arms, my shirt, the sink, on my favorite sheets, and on the dishtowels.

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All of this has me thinking about the other ways in which mess has taken over my life. My office at work, once neat, is now embarrassing. It features piles of papers from this quarter, papers from several years ago, boxes of books I will never unpack, and cups of tea that have sat around unwashed for weeks.

And then there is my brain, which is even more cluttered than my desk. If I ask you a question, I’m unlikely to retain, or even hear the answer. I will likely ask you the same question again forty minutes later. Sometimes, for no particular reason, I might suddenly remember a work-related email sent weeks before that I read once and didn’t respond to. Other times, I try to remember where I first heard about a particular article or movie, a task I could once readily perform, but now my memory is a blur of social media, blogging, NPR, and actual conversations.

Sometimes I feel like our world is designed to entrap me in meaningless chaos. My inbox is full of thousands of emails that I will never read, reminders to pay my bills or view my monthly statement, to buy new shoes for 20% off or activate my Quarterly Rewards Bonus. The institution I work for withholds hundreds of dollars from my paycheck every month, money that I can spend tax-free on child care and doctors visits, but I must fill out forms and submit paperwork if I ever want to see it in my bank account. This week I tore apart my house looking for an invoice I had paid off weeks ago. Three days later, when I picked up a notebook in my office, it fluttered to the floor.

I don’t know how other people cope. How is it that people pay their bills on time and stay within a budget and drive a new car and feed their kids dinner at 5:30 every night? How do they arrive at work on time, with neat hair, and not wearing mustard from the sandwich they scarfed while driving? How do they shave their legs and keep up with the shaving? How do they get the laundry done AND fold it? How do they manage to appear normal to their neighbors? How do they get their kids out of pajamas every day or leave the house with snacks and water and a change of clothes? How do they keep their kids from digging in the mole holes or climbing on the kitchen table and throwing cereal?

What?

What?

I know these questions may sound rhetorical, but sometimes I do worry that I’m missing some essential yet obvious life skill. Please explain your answers in the space below.