Recently, I had one of those mothering brainstorms that my children have become accustomed to, and to which they generally accede with grace under the not-unreasonable-assumption that my enthusiasm for the idea will peter our more quickly if they just go along with me. Here's the idea: five nights a week, right after dinner and before the homework blitz, we each pick something to read out loud.
But because they don't like me to get off too easily, Middle usually announces that he has picked The Cruel Mother. We laugh and then everybody readily, if somewhat randomly, reads something outloud. The idea is that you don't practice, don't pick a poem in advance, don't even read the poem before you read it. Just open the book, stand up and read out loud.
We are now a few weeks in and I gotta tell you, this is a keeper. Our living room coffee table now sports a few poetry books. This is a particularly good one for the task:
But, hey, don't take my word for it, take Verlyn's...
Come to think of it, tonight I am going to read that instead of a poem. Will report back.
I am a big fan of the concept of micro-finance and also of finding ways to get my kids involved in philanthropy. For the five to twelve-year-old set (alas, none of mine qualify) One Hen is worth a visit. It is based on a children's book but the site teaches children about microfinance and gives them a way to participate in it. They play games on the site and earn "beads" which are translated into actual loans in the real world for small-business ventures in the developing world. It's a sweet site and a lot less work than a lemonade stand!
I picked Oldest up at work yesterday and as he dropped into the passenger seat he declared, "I think the camp may be falling apart."
"Really? How so?"
He launched into a long litany of complaints: a parent who had seemed nice had actually complained about the counselors sitting while her darling son waded in the water, the rich club members are all rude, management came down hard on the staff and rebellion was in the air.
"I think two counselors are going to be fired," he said gloomily "and if that happens others will quit." He paused and with a quick glance my way blurted out, "If they get fired, I'm gonna quit."
Remember my restraint of, could it have been, just the day before?
I responded automatically, "No you're not. You are not going to quit."
"Oh yes I am."
"You are not going to quit that job and do nothing all summer."
"But I haven't been able to do any of the reading or things I want to do this summer since I have this stupid job."
"Well, guess what? That's what people do in the real world. They figure out how to work and have hobbies and see their friends - all at the same time."
He lapsed into sullen silence. We drove home and, after a refreshing nap, he left for his usual night out on the town.
He did not return until 2:59AM. I know. I was awake while the awful glowing numbers came into focus. I did not go to sleep again for quite some time. I was worrying. I was ruminating. I was plotting and planning. Oh, and I threw in a little catastrophizing just for good measure, cause, well, that's the way I roll.
It went something like this: "It is THREE O'CLOCK in the morning. He has to be up at SEVEN. That is FOUR hours of sleep. He will probably sleep through his alarm and be late for work. I wonder if I should I wake him up tomorrow or let him sleep through his alarm clock? If I do succeed in waking him up, he will certainly fall asleep on the job and some child will get horribly sunburned or wander down the beach, or worse, into the ocean, on his watch. He will get fired. He will be happy to be fired and spend the rest of the summer doing nothing, never return to school, not be able to get another job due to the lack of recommendation or - WORSE - the criminal record he will have due to his nap-induced negligence and end up in a series of meaningless jobs, each worse than the next until he finally ends up like that guy we saw on the way home today, the one shuffling across the freeway with his bare feet so dirty that it actually looked as if he had shoes on, and his ragged clothes hanging limply off his body. I wonder if I should I wake him up tomorrow or let him sleep through his alarm clock? And while I'm at it, what can we do if he quits? He's over eighteen. We can't force him to work. Or can we? I wonder if I should I wake him up tomorrow or let him sleep through his alarm clock?"
Meanwhile Oldest was fast asleep, dreaming and sweetly oblivious to my dire ruminations.
I finally fell asleep, and when I emerged from my room the next morning, at 7, still unsure of whether or not to wake him (yes, I know the "mother less" answer to that question), I found him awake, standing no less, and in the kitchen pulling a Starbucks Double Shot Espresso with Cream out of the fridge. (This, by the way, is proof that my children do not read my blog. He clearly did not get my Boycott Starbucks memo.)
He went off to work, did not get fired or quit, and came back to report at the end of the day that indeed one of his compatriots had quit but that things had settled down. They had given the kids hayrides with a tractor on the beach and the kids had spent the entire time staring at the sand.
And all that motherly worrying in the middle of the night? The worrying that went on and on as the glowing numbers on my alarm clock clicked rhythmically over and over?
I want that time back.
Magda Gerber was the first person to tell me to stay the hell out of my children’s way. I thought I took her words deeply to heart. Thanks to her, I never lifted my boys up to play on something they couldn’t climb on their own. This simple rule had multiple benefits. First, the distance they could fall was in direct and safe proportion to their climbing skills. And second, I got to be the mom sitting calmly on the bench at the playground and not the one standing next to the play structure, arms painfully outstretched, waiting to catch my falling child while endlessly repeating some version of, “Be careful!”
Simply because I have never done it before, I will now, for the purposes of this here blog, define over-mothering as inserting oneself unnecessarily into one’s child’s developmental process. The only thing a child who is put somewhere he cannot safely get to on his own learns is that he needs his mother in order to climb.
I know this. I believe this. Even so, when I look back, I see that I still spent too much of the last nineteen years doing a lot of meddling and calling it mothering. Lately, I have been trying to change that pattern. Hence my New Year’s Resolution to “mother less, but no less than necessary.”
The other day, I may have skated into “less than necessary” territory.
It was no big thing. Really. But in the end, the work of mothering is really nothing more than a long, linked series of no big things.
Oldest called. Of late, he as been in mild, but unpleasantly consistent contact with the law. Thus, I assumed he was calling to complain yet again about the high cost of parking tickets and fake ID violations and the negative impact said infractions have been having on his bottom line. I will admit to being a tad bored with his whining about money and stifled the urge to yell through the phone STOP DOING ILLEGAL THINGS THAT COST YOU MONEY!
Also, I was busy.
Those are my excuses.
Oh, wait, there’s one more. His cell phone makes him incredibly and annoyingly hard to hear. He always sounds as if he's slurring his words. At least I hope it’s his cell phone. I'd much rather it be that than the other obvious choices - a significant pot or alcohol habit.
Anyway, he called and I can’t remember what he asked exactly. Maybe it was, “what’s the deal with dry cleaning?”. Something like that. He had three shirts he needed cleaned. I was busy. He might have been slurring. I didn't want to talk about money any more.
I thought that he was asking about how to get his shirts professionally cleaned when he was short on cash. Thinking I was being - well, if you must know - brilliant, I informed him that it was customary at the cleaners to drop your clothes off for free and pay to get them back. Thus, he could take the shirts in immediately, and pick them up and pay for them after the first of the month from his replenished coffers. That seemed to work. He said OK, thanks and we hung up. The conversation was brief, bordering on curt.
I turned my attention back to my work, but for some reason the conversation kept nagging at me. And whatever that thing was, the particular agent of buoyancy that made the conversation keep popping into my mind, I wish I had more of it because it is exactly the quality a mother like me should cultivate. In fact, it is the probably the only quality I should be cultivating.
I had missed something. But what?
Finally, it came to me. He hadn’t been asking about the money. Or maybe a little bit of it was about the money, but there was more to the question he had called to ask. And because I had been busy, and figured I knew what he was calling about, I had missed it.
When your child is small, he asks a thousand questions a day. The questions break over you like long, curling waves you think will never end.
And then they end. Your child grows up. He enters a phase where he either knows all or would rather die than admit he does not know all. After that, he successfully cuts the apron strings. But here is a little secret. If you wait him out, he will come back to you. And when he does, it will be with questions. The questions are lines he throws back to you. They are his way of reconnecting. He doesn’t need you to answer them anymore. He just wants you to.
These questions he asks, they are gifts masquerading as questions. And to me, they are a big deal. Why? Because when he was little, he had no choice but to ask you those long, curling waves of questions. Now that he is grown up, he doesn't have to call you. He could look it up.
I called him back and said that perhaps I had misunderstood his question. I may have hurried off the phone, I said. Was there more he wanted to know? Was he really asking about the differences between dry cleaning and laundry - and when you use one and not the other?
OK. I can help you with that. What were the shirts made of? Cotton? You’d best launder them. It’s cheaper and better for the clothes and the environment. How about starch? You’ll need to tell them how much starch you like. How much starch do you like?
Is starch bad for them?
Once I assured him of the fundamentally innocuous nature of starch (it is innocuous, right?), we seemed to have covered all the bases. We hung up again, and I was more content. If belatedly, I had been able to give him what he was looking for.
I had caught the line he had thrown to me from 3000 miles away.
I'm not quite sure where it came from, but it occurred to me the other day that, when talking to my children, it might be a good idea to replace the admonition "Don't forget" with "Remember."
Why not replace the negative with the positive whenever possible?
Or maybe I should practice what I preach and never say either.
Seeing the world through your child's eyes is one of the habits of mothering. For years, you look at the world with him. You name and clarify, you laugh and exclaim, you marvel and weep. And then one day, while you are looking out, you will catch, out of the corner of your eye, your child staring straight at you. Your eyes will meet, the outside world will vanish, and you will know that he does not need you for that anymore.
And then he will grow up and leave you 3000 miles behind.
But if you are lucky, every now and then, because he is sweet and knows your loves well, he'll throw you a bone.
For all those living with
two, three, four, five, six, and/or maybe even seven-year olds tantrums, here is one thing you can do and one thing you can hold onto:
The whirlwind's spent before the morning ends;
The storm will pass before the day is done.
Who made them, wind and storm? Heaven and earth.
If heaven itself cannot storm for long,
What matter, then, the storms of man?
From stanza 23 from Moss Roberts' translation of the Tao De Jing:
Every now and then children get the feeling, in some vague and inarticulable way, that their relationship with their parent has unraveled. And the child who feels this way is the child who no longer asks for attention, but demands it, usually by acting in ways you, you wishful thinker you, thought you had long ago said good-bye to. Your perfect sleeper suddenly decides 3 a.m. is the ideal time to chat. Your happy student suddenly hates school. And your independent little tyke will no longer go to the kitchen by herself, let alone the bathroom. And your child is always, but always, under your feet. Or maybe your little one is throwing tantrums like candy, or expresses his profound distaste, even hatred, for you on a disconcertingly regular basis. Or she swears on all that she knows is holy that she doesn’t need you. Not one bit.
Well, I’ve got something for you. Something of a miracle in fact. I can say that because I didn’t invent it. I learned it from Mary Hartzell, the wise and hugely gifted director of the nursery school my boys were lucky enough to attend. I think she adapted it from Stanley Greenspan's Floortime.
Anyway, Mary used to call it Special Time. It's a plan that works particularly well for pre-schoolers - make that wildly, amazingly, well - but embedded in this little gem is a deep truth about parenting. Everything goes better when we are in relationship with our children, when we feel connected even, maybe especially, when things are happening that make us angry, or anxious, or upset in any of the ten thousand ways the world can catch us up and send us spinning.
So if I you have been struggling with your young child, scratching your head and wondering how you got to this whining, yelling, fighting, nagging nightmare of a place, try this: give your child your focused attention for fifteen minutes out of every day. During that time, don’t answer the phone, cook dinner, or talk to your neighbor. And for God’s sake don’t check your email or, heaven forfend, blog. Instead, do whatever your child wants (within reason of course!). You can read, talk, play cards or house, listen to music, take a walk. What you do is actually less important than how you do it. So put a clock out (or, better yet, a timer) and give yourself over to her with grace and good humor. Have fun with your child and let her know that you enjoy this special time together. And if you absolutely detest playing Hide-and-Seek, take comfort from the fact that it’s only for fifteen minutes. Even I could play Barbie for fifteen minutes if I had to. Mary called this Special Time, but I think you and your child could come up with a name all your own.
It is often the case - but not always - that when little children start behaving in ways that make their doting parents look for body snatchers under the bed something has changed. Something has happened that has made the little person aware of how little power he has. Calling the shots in Special Time restores to him an appropriate sense of power. That’s why it is crucial that the choice of activity is up to him. (Naturally, you can refuse if the request is out of line. We did that once when one of ours suggested we pass the time by pulling his mother’s hair!)
Additionally, the fact that Special Time has a defined beginning and end reinforces the child’s sense that life has boundaries (save the existential crises for later). The fact that you repeat Special Time every day gives her a reassuring sense of predictability. Both will help her feel that, no matter how much it may feel that somehow her life has come loose from its moorings, it really hasn’t.
Special Time is so fun for children that time really flies. So give your child a “two-minute warning” before the time is really up. Then say calmly, “Special Time is over for today.” When he complains (which he will), you say, “I know; it’s hard when Special Time ends.” And if he has a screaming tantrum (you know what those sound like, right?) the first day, hold the line, saying “I loved having Special Time with you too. Aren’t we lucky we can do it again tomorrow?” And that is it.
About those fifteen minutes. You do have them. They are right there in every day. And if you make the time for Special Time, I will go out on a limb here and say that chances are better-than-Vegas-good that you will not have a child hovering underfoot, complaining balefully that there’s nothing to do or repeatedly whacking her younger brother on the head. Instead, you will have a child who feels seen and loved, who knows that amid all the chaos, her connection with you is secure. And in the long haul of the twenty-four hours of a day, you will have more time to attack your to-do list because the child who feels secure in her relationship with her parent is the child who can amuse herself while you, uh, blog.
A few rules:
I usually make it a point not to use the phrase, “Trust Me” but here I will make an exception. Special Time is really the secret sauce of parenting young children. Children are nothing if not perfect little barometers for the social and emotional life of the family. Pull Special Time out of your pocket when you move, add a new baby to the house, take a business trip, whenever you feel your young child - or your relationship with your young child - is out of sorts.
I don't expect you to trust me just because I tell you to.
Just try it.
Last year, I used Tuesdays on my blog to check in with my New Year's Resolution which was to "connect with something larger than myself." Today I got some help with that one from Two Square Meals, courtesy of whom picked up this amazing little number that will show you how you are connected to the mountains in Appalachia being destroyed by an utterly pernicious form of mining. Go on...enter your zip code whydon'tcha?
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Now, on to this year's resolution which is to "mother less, but no less than necessary." I know we're only on week three, but I gotta say I am feeling good about this whole project and I am going to tell you why.
On Sunday, I often do laundry. Loads and loads of laundry.
Also on Sunday, we often watch football. Loads and loads of football.
Usually, I fold everyone's clothes neatly and stack them carefully. Usually, the boys come and rip their clothes from the stacks, scattering the remaining clothes all over. Last Sunday, I decided to skip the whole - what's the word? - oh, yes, the whole meshugas. Instead, as each load came out of the dryer, I dumped it in an ever-growing pile on the couch - the same couch my boys were sprawled across watching the playoffs. I told them they needed to pick out their own clothes and take them to their closets - not their beds, their desks, or their floors. Their closets.
The pile of clothes disappeared with only a few stray socks left, like crumbs, on the couch. We all settled down to watch the last quarter of the game. Later that evening, I gotta say my curiousity got the better of me. I just HAD to find out what Middle had done with his clothes. Middle is famous for pulling a tshirt out of a neatly stacked pile in precisely the right way to disrupt every single tshirt left in the pile. With some trepidation, I went into his room. No clean clothes in sight. I stepped gingerly into his closet and what to my wondering eyes should appear but stacks and stacks of neatly ordered tshirts. I was stunned. I went to find him. "Middle," I demanded. "Your closet looks amazing. How did you do it?"
"Well,Mom," he replied with an eager gleam in his eye, "I used the Japanese tshirt folding technique."
"Which Japanese tshirt folding technique is that, might I ask?"
"Well a couple of years ago at camp, someone told me about it and I tried to do it but couldn't remember how, so today I looked it up on You Tube."
So, courtesy of Middle, I now give you the utterly, amazingly, fantastically successful, more-than-a-technique-it's-an-art, Japanese tshirt folding method:
I am so loving this New Year's Resolution.