Parenting, Poetry

Tin Man

Chain and door lock

He is a knot
lashed to a lock
hasp snapped tight
as lips.
Planting himself at the edge of the room
he holds fast to the border
between thrust and withdrawal, steel bars clamped
across his chest.
Silence thuds out from the footing
where he has sunk
his fury
and pulses
through the planks of the floor.

It is impossible to know what someone else feels.
I know exactly what he feels.
The vise grip jaw is mine
writ small. The iced chassis, his
unfortunate inheritance.
I approach with a voice of WD40, the thin straw
laying a bead across the distance between us.
It takes its time leaching in along the thread
of his coil, feeling for tumblers
and any hint of give. I fold my arms
like the mouth of a spaniel
around him and trust in the unctuous
persistence of my proximity
until his grip slips loose
enough to push free.


Happy 100 Days: 70

Tee and I crossed paths at our university’s faculty and staff enrichment day this morning. We lit up when we caught sight of each other. Between sessions, we made a beeline for each other to chat. At lunch, we found a table. He invited a friend to join us and I pulled up a chair for another co-worker. Greetings all around. Tee still introduces me as his “ex-wife.” I always say, “Meet Tee, Bug’s dad.” It feels good to make this conscious shift in my language and to let him follow his own instincts.
We laughed and talked, our little lunchtime foursome, going on about kids and birthday cakes and university parking tickets. The only friction came at the end when we had all packed up to head to the next breakout session. Tee held me back to encourage me to take Bug to a high ropes course they had visited over the weekend. Tee nudging me to follow his lead with all his super-daddy activities does not have the intended effect. Instead, I feel myself getting panicked and irritated. I have explained as much in the past, letting him know that Bug and I have our own rhythm on the weekends. Tee can’t seem to help himself. He is like a little kid bursting at the seams to share his new discovery. I can appreciate that Tee is hungry to describe these adventures to someone who knows his son’s unique ways.
From time to time, I indulge a little of this. Tee returns the favor in kind, I’m sure, putting up with my over-sharing when I forget to reel it in. Still, I am starting to let myself pay attention and trust my gut. If I notice an interaction is rubbing me the wrong way, I ask for us to stop. I know this perplexes Tee. He seeks to know more about why or at least to explain what his “side” is, as if my feelings have a counterpoint in logic. Sure, I could go on a reflective, meandering journey to understand why. I have done exactly that since. . . well, since forever. Even as a kid, I thought I had to have a rational explanation for a feeling AND a defensible position for my reason before I was allowed to ask for it to be respected. It is a revelation to hear my own voice saying with gentle frankness, Stop.
I am still learning how to identify my limits. The next step is to hold them without fear and without apology.

A peacemaker is a bridge walked on by both sides. You can either make peace or get the credit for it. But you cannot do both.
David Augsburger, Conflict Mediation Across Cultures

I am learning all over again how to do the elegant dance of caring for my connections while also caring for myself. It is strange to leave a marriage and return to parents. Strange, but also illuminating. I can see more clearly than ever the fascinating give-and-take in which my folks engage. Being here now shines new light on the odd mix of lessons I learned growing up. They have been married, as my mother like to say, “Oh, on and off for about 40 years.” After the drama of the Off, they have certainly earned their On. They have settled in. Even as I type this, they are downstairs giggling on the couch, delighted that they have finally learned how to use the On Demand feature on the Fios. “We have a new toy!” I hear my mother cry, and they both cheer when they discover yet another episode of their favorite British crime show.
Living so closely with them, I see how they have become a kind of hybrid being, each compensating for the weaknesses of the other. She worries about every impending disaster. He barrels in, guns blazing, his confidence more than compensating for any missing facts. They find balance in the partnership. That partnership still changes in ways that surprise me. Years ago, for example, they came to a grumbly truce about tennis. He is a fiend who goes out to hit on the backboard every weekend. She doesn’t like playing with him and flatly refuses to go. He asks her every Sunday as he’s packing his racket. Every Sunday, she says no. For years they have been going through their little Sunday routine. Then, one day in early October, I came downstairs to find them gearing up and getting in the car.
“Where are you going?”
“To hit a few!” My dad grinned. My mom rolled her eyes and off they went.
I am curious about how this happens, how people concede a little here and advocate a bit there, adjusting to similar adaptations in the people around them. Doing this while also staying true to one’s own path is a mystery to me. I am aware, though, that I have to resolve this polarity in myself first. I have a little bit too much of both of my weird and wonderful parents battling it out in me. Most days, I want to resolve the confusion by wrestling those extremes into submission and then crowing to the world that I am victorious.
Seeing Tee today reminds me that such deep change requires strength, not force. I can make peace in my relationship with my son’s father, my parents, my son, and my demons, but I have to do it with a quiet fortitude. With a loving touch. With a few private promises and a handful of well-placed words. I suspect that I also have to do it without “doing” it. Instead, I can let go of the pieces of what I believe to be true or right. Shake off the habits, watch them scatter, and welcome a new arrangement of things.


Happy 100 Days: 90

While we are brushing teeth at bedtime, I somehow manage to elbow Bug in the face. I feel the crack, and immediately pull him into my soft belly. A split second passes and then he is wailing. Hot tears and even hotter anger seep through my shirt.
“I’m sorry, baby. Goodness gracious, that must hurt. I’m sorry.”
He howls into my side. “It’s your fault, Mommy!” Choking sobs. “It’s all your fault!”
I call down the stairs and ask my mother to bring us the ice pack from the freezer. She hands it up to us and I talk softly to Bug, finding a pillowcase to wrap around the pack. Bug is still clinging to me, yelling, “It’s your fault!”
“Yep, it is,” I say. I help him press the ice to his cheek then have him put on his jammies. I fill a mug with cool water for his bedside table. “It was an accident. I am sorry.” He keeps crying and scowling as the spot under his eye puffs to an angry pink. He reminds me about two dozen more times that I am to blame for his misery. I concede this fact.
Here is tonight’s small victory: My son does not hit me. He does not bite, kick, spit, or butt me in the face with the back of his head.
“Can I have paper for writing?” He asks. I dig up a clipboard from the clutter in his room. We crawl into bed and I begin to read as he writes on his paper with a thick red marker. Halfway through the first book, Bug interrupts me. “That’s you, Mommy.” I look over and see he has drawn on the far left of his page a frowning stick figure with a distressed look. I am impressed with the expressiveness of the eyebrows.
“That looks like a mean mommy,” I say.
“It is,” he says. He returns to drawing. I keep reading. After the next book, I look over again. He has filled in the page with two more stick figures. “Now you are sad,” he tells me, pointing to my double.
“Is that you with an angry face?” I ask.
“Yeah. I am punching you.”
“Oh. I see now.” He marks in little teardrops falling from the mommy’s eyes. “She seems pretty upset,” I say. “And he looks mad.” He draws the two faces again at the top of the page. One is crying and one is scowling. When he puts the cap back on the marker, I tap the page. “You know what you did, kiddo? You told your feelings to this picture.”
Bug reaches over and gives me the gentlest of swats on the shoulder. “Now I did the same thing to you for real,” he says.
I let it go. So does he. He pulls the page from the clipboard and drops it off the side of the bed. He starts practicing his letters. I start on the third book.
After we are finished reading, I tuck him against me into a full-body hug and sing “Baby Beluga.” My son’s new favorite approach to cuddling is to slip his arm under my neck and pull my head down on his chest. He wraps his hand around my shoulder and strokes my hair. It is an odd juxtaposition, my son holding me against him the way I have held him for so many years. I feel small and safe. I feel gigantic and cumbersome. I feel the echo of my voice off his fragile ribs and his unbroken heart.
Downstairs, I hear Giovanni come to drop off the dog. Her nails tippy-tap on the kitchen tile, a staccato counterpoint to the thundering footsteps of my parents as they wash up the dinner dishes and stash away the pizza stone. Bug’s schoolwork is on the kitchen table awaiting his teacher’s smiley-face sticker. A truck roars past on the muggy street outside. The air conditioner hums to life. The presidential debates begin.
I sing “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and Bug sings along, his voice fading.
There’s a lake of stew and ginger ale too,
you can paddle all around it in a big canoe

He is under before I reach the end, but I finish anyway. I stay there for a few moments. His hand is against my ear, fingers tangled in my hair. He holds me as close as he can even in his sleep.
My son was angry at me. For the first time in 5 years and 363 days, he told me about it with words and art instead of with his hands.
So often, I sense the hugeness of the task ahead. Survive, save, support my child, teach him well, build a future. It is daunting. It can be very lonesome.
Tonight, I can feel my son’s strong pulse against my cheek. All around, the world goes on. It sometimes happens that in all that going on, people help. Sometimes, someone takes care of something that need taking care of. Someone walks the dog. Brings the ice pack. Pays the mortgage. Teaches the kids. Runs the country.
Sometimes, I can whisper my boy through his storm of feelings precisely because I am not alone.
What a revelation.
Sometimes, I am not alone.

Learning, Poetry, Reading

Sixth Scents

There was once an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day, his horse ran away. Upon hearing this, his neighbors came to visit.

“Such bad luck” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it two other wild horses.

“Such good luck!” the neighbors explained.

“Maybe,” replied the farmer.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown off, and broke his leg. Again, the neighbors came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Such bad luck,” they said.

“Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after that, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army to fight in a war. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by.

“Such good luck!” cried the neighbors.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

Continue reading “Sixth Scents”



Me: “Tell me about this picture.”

Bug: “That’s my two houses. Your house and daddy’s house.”

Me: “Are you hiding behind one of the trees?”

Bug: “No. I’m hiding in that brown and purple thing in the middle.”

Me: “What is it?”

Bug: “A little teeny tiny house. No one can come in but me, and I can do anything I want in there.”

Me: “Like what?”

Bug: “I can say ‘shut up’ all I want.”

Me: “What else do you do?”

Bug: “You know what else.”

Me: “Um. . . let’s see. You watch TV?”

Bug: “Yep. That’s what I do. I watch all I want. I watch TV all day long.”


Nowhere Near Kansas

Defiance is always a relationship problem. If your child does not accept your direction (‘I don’t care what you say, you can’t make me!’), it’s always an indication that the relationship is not strong enough to support the teaching. This happens to all of us from time to time. At that point, stop and think about how to strengthen the relationship, not how to make the child ‘mind.’  – Laura Markham, Aha Parenting

When the brain is no longer in survival mode, it has the opportunity to come up out of the storm cellar and assess the damage. A weekend of nourishing activities and a few days of rest have calmed the skies. Climbing up into daylight, I can see the havoc this two-year typhoon has wrought on Bug’s and my relationship. It is hard to believe the thing is still structurally sound. It is even harder to face my own role in wrecking the place during my mad dash to get us to safety. Survival-mode parenting may keep the roof from blowing off, but it does not do much to help a kid learn to learn how to build anything solid.
This is not just guilt talking. A raw empathy for Bug also surges through me when I survey the scene. I want to be able to go back to the beginning and throw myself around him. He is too little to face so many of the events unfolding around him, and I wish I could protect him not only from the storm but from my own botched reaction to it. Alas, no one has yet perfected a time machine. Bug and I will have to pull what we can from the wreckage and start rebuilding right here.
As an earlier post described, my kid is struggling hard to manage life in two homes. Transition times yield the most resistance, but explosions occur at bedtime, in the morning, and during any activity involving additional people. Strong feelings seem to flood Bug all in a rush, and he acts before he has a chance to find his footing.  It is normal to look for a causal relationship between a child’s behavior problems and a single, identifiable event. The conventional approach is to wonder if his new teacher, the long commutes, a split home or a food allergy might be to blame. In my gut, I know better. I know that displacing my child’s distress onto circumstances beyond us has been a way for me to manage my own sense of being overwhelmed.
I also know better because I was a child once. The difficult situations around me were never the real challenge. The challenge was in not knowing how to make sense of my feelings about difficult situations. We all have painful childhood memories; for me, the ones with deepest imprint have nothing to do with the precipitating event and everything to do with fearing the fallout from my responses. Somehow, I was supposed to get my act together, yet I had no idea how to go about doing this. A sense of indistinct danger hung over my tangled feelings. The memory of distress is so vivid that even as I write about it from the safe distance of three decades, my heart begins to gallop.
A kid’s emotional vocabulary is rudimentary at best. I am guessing my childhood home was not the only one unacquainted with the “I statement.”  I remember how very difficult it was to know how to behave when I was feeling sad, scared, angry, or disappointed. This is not an indictment on my parents or any family culture. The language of loving guidance is a foreign tongue to most of us. Feelings are strange and slippery things, and they can seem even more perilous when we attempt to face them. Even as an adult, it is tough to gain composure, think clearly, speak rationally, and act well when the pressure is on. Who wouldn’t duck back down into the cellar and pull the hatch closed?
When I am feeling anxious or upset, I want someone to remind me that I am safe. That I am loved. That the world does not hinge on this one decision, that it is okay to take my time to sort it out, and that I have help if I need it. When I do not have these things, I become more prone to burst. Why would things be any different for Bug? In Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, Becky Bailey suggests,

When your children are having a hard time obeying you, they need to believe that you have faith in them. They need to sense that you have confidence in them before they can develop confidence in themselves.

Yet, when my son is acting with aggression, what do I do? Increase the pressure by threatening “consequences.” If he does not put his toys away and put on his jammies now,he will lose books at bedtime. If he does not stop saying “shut up,” he will go straight into time out. I take away his ability to gain confidence in his own decision-making, and he loses trust both in himself and in me.
I understand the argument that children need some form of punishment in order to learn to behave appropriately. I understand it, and I do not agree with it. I have been attempting that approach for months because my own stressed brain has not been able to come up with anything better. However, the more I attempt to will Bug into compliance, the wider the rift between us grows. Sure, he may hop to it if I threaten to pour the hot cocoa down the drain, but he only grows more tightly coiled as the day rolls on. Against this survival parenting, my heart and mind have been gently, insistently reminding me that my own intense and stressful responses to my son are exacerbating his defiant behavior. My child has been begging for help in learning how to face a tough situation. Because I have been so very tired, I have largely left him to twist in the wind.
What is the alternative? As I squint into the new daylight, this is about as much as I can discern: I need to mend what is torn between Bug and me. Laura Markham suggests that “the most effective discipline strategy is having a close bond with your child.” This is what my heart tells me to do. It is also what practice has been reinforcing. No matter how aggressive Bug’s behavior, I remind him that I love him and that I am on his team. “It seems like you are having some big feelings, buddy.  Let’s see if we can figure out what to do.” I try not to snap. I know what it’s like to have someone get angry at me when I do something I know is wrong. It only makes me feel more hopeless. Suggesting my kid has to “get it together” before he is allowed to be in my company or in the company of others sends the message that only his proper, polished-up self is invited to the party.  I want to reverse course, and provide affection and support to the messy, work-in-progress my son truly is, as all of us truly are.
I am practicing staying with him. I am learning to let him cry or blow up a little or say what he needs to say. Afterwards, we can talk it out. Maybe we will have a do-over or experiment with something altogether new. I try to remember to use just one scale to measure an approach before I take it: does this choice strengthen or weaken my relationship with Bug? I do not always get it right, but as I breathe through my own confusion, I remember that the thing my son needs more than anything right now is me, loving him.
Now that I have clocked a few good nights’ sleep and opened up the cellar door, I can see the debris strewn around. The gift of this perspective is that the sun shines under the broken places and reveals treasures I never knew existed. Where structures once stood, rich soil, long fallow, offers itself up to us. Here and now, my son and me. We begin.
Bailey, Becky. Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.


Natural Tendencies

The “Growing Up” section at Barnes and Noble has something for the bullied kid, the child of divorce, the grieving kid, the kid with two mommies and the one whose mommy is pregnant.
How to Stop Being a Bully is nowhere to be found.
Bug’s defiant behavior has been ratcheting steadily upward over the past. . . six months? Year? It’s hard to say. I have not been paying as close attention as I should have been. It has also been tough to admit that something abnormal is going on. Bug’s intensity is not entirely out of character for a boy who punched his way into the world and latched onto me with a grip that made me writhe in pain for six straight months. All sorts of words are used to describe a kid like Bug. High-need, demanding, defiant, strong-willed, stubborn. “Charismatic” is on the nice end of the spectrum. The words on the other end are the ones you bite back when you see a child like mine lording over your kid at the playground.
As for the specifics? Let’s put it this way: Bug’s favorite clip on YouTube these days is Steve Martin’s evil dentist number from Little Shop of Horrors. He giggles with glee all the way through.
Most days, sunny strains of Bug’s goodness rise above the darker chords. He is playful and athletic, curious and agile, imaginative and silly. He dances like a fiend to rock star music and makes epic pirate ships out of old sheets and dining room furniture. However, his foul temper is a rising crescendo, drowning out his better self.  It is chilling to watch my beautiful baby unfold into a mean-spirited, unlikable child.  It is also tough to come to terms with the possibility that these characteristics are not just “a phase,” and that this may be his hard-wired disposition. I worry so much for the young man he will become, and I want him to learn how to manage his big feelings so he does not land in a vortex of reactivity feeding negative self-image feeding delinquency.
We have a tough road ahead. In helping my boy manage himself, I also have to face the role my constitution plays in his. He has inherited the wide arc of his emotional pendulum from me, and he learns how to calibrate (or not) the intensity from me. My reactions contribute as much to Bug’s behavior as my nature does. I cringe when I recall any number of the shameful ways I have responded to his button-pushing over the years. The explosive words I hear coming out of Bug’s mouth of late are perfect recordings of my voice.
Children’s books on the topic may be in short supply, but grownup books proliferate. Reading about tools like positive discipline and loving guidance has given me insight into the needs behind Bug’s behaviors, and the way my choices help or hinder him as he tries to get those needs met. There are no shortcuts. Accepting that something has to change requires me to discipline myself, all the time and in every setting. My knee-jerk snapping or weary permissiveness serve as a perfect model for the behavior I am trying to eliminate. Is it any wonder my kid’s grouchiness grows worse when I am at my worst? Responding with enhanced mindfulness is the only choice.
For nearly five weeks, I have been attempting careful consideration when responding to my son. No matter how hot under the collar we are, how loudly he is shouting hateful things at me in the supermarket, how exhausted I am at 11:15pm after two hours of bedtime struggle, and how much I feel like crying or punching the wall when he is up again at 4:30am complaining of a nightmare, I try to silence my Nurse Ratched instincts. Whatever my first reaction is, my job is to pause and subvert it. Taking a breath deep enough to turn down the heat allows me a moment to consider Bug’s perspective and our options.  I do not always succeed (like after gymnastics this weekend. Yeah, that was me forcing my child into time out right in the middle of the parking lot), but my track record is, I hope, improving.
The blowouts are diminishing in frequency and intensity. Bug may still be experiencing the lightning storm of big emotions, but his behavior does not ignite me as quickly. I keep telling him I am going to help him figure out how to manage his feelings. That he is not alone. After a few minutes, his temper settles, and we are back to some kind of equilibrium – even pleasure – in each other’s company.
Wouldn’t it be nice to wrap up this essay in a neat little bow? It would go something like this:
In time, practicing mindfulness becomes habit. Children are as resilient as the platitude suggests, and they can learn new ways of handling themselves. Parents can, too. Eventually, measured responses supersede knee-jerk aggression or defeat. Whether the human brain is capable of developing new instincts is a topic of debate.  I hold out hope that with intention and patience, mindful responses become an abundant source of inspiration, as easily tapped as whatever came before.
If you want the happy ending, then stop here. The messier truth is that subverting one’s instincts is incredibly exhausting. The self-control muscle grows fatigued from overuse. If making the transition to new behaviors is this tiring for me, imagine how tough it is on a five-year-old! I keep seeking settings in which good behavior comes naturally to Bug so we can both let down our guard and he can succeed without Herculean effort. This seems a critical counter-point to the hard-earned victories of the long game.
As of today, we are still seeking. Sadly, few low-pressure venues exist in our world. Even on playgrounds, even in the back yard, my boy appears almost to look for things to hurt or reasons to lash out. It is like watching an evil villain in training, rubbing his hands together as he decides where to sow seeds of discord. I have to tell myself that my son is just a strong being with a hair trigger, a bottomless pit of energy, and a few too many bad habits for handling disappointment in a world that does not turn on an axis of Bug.
This is an important realization for a mommy who is still learning to accept the same humbling truths. Habits can change. Doing so is a matter of re-orienting ourselves in the right direction then allowing our momentum to carry us forward. When we veer, as we inevitably will, we check the compass and make the necessary course corrections, as often as it takes, as long as the journey lasts.
Maybe Bug and I should add our own title to the “Growing Up” shelf at the bookstore. We can call it White Water: How to Change Course Mid-Stream without Capsizing.
My backup plan is to start saving for a top-of-the-line drill and dentist’s chair. As it goes with all children, whether doom or destiny, Bug is going to follow his own path wherever it takes him.

My mama said,
“My boy I think someday
You’ll find a way
To make your natural tendencies pay.”