Nine Days

Those of us who experience ugliness in our family dynamics often prefer to remain concealed. There is less shame when one stays underground.


– Tracey Watts, “The Explosive Child” in Brain, Child Magazine

In two months, the school year ends. I’ve scheduled the vacation from work. I’ve cancelled the trip to Myrtle Beach. My son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.

This is a luxury. Most working parents crave time like this, time with our over-scheduled and growing-too-fast kids. Be grateful, Smirk.

Gratitude yes, it is here. It just happens to be mixed with a shot of dread. I am mystified about how to make the nine days anything but miserable for us both.

How many parents are sitting on a locked vault of tangled up feelings? It can’t just be me.

(Maybe it is just me.)

I’m not very skilled as a parent. Loving, sure. Dedicated and creative and willing to learn. But bumbling, too. Perplexed. The issues that arise are rarely what I predict and never what I’m prepared to face. My responses miss the mark. I careen around our home, swinging between tight-lipped and screeching, in the face of my boy’s constantly shifting needs.

The loving bond that grows dense and loose in my friends’ families is, in ours, a stunted thing. At the end of our weeknights together, when Bug finally stops arguing about homework, bath time, and how many chapters we’re reading, when he finally conks out, I’m sapped. The thought of facing a mere weekend together wears me out.

Nine days?

The thing is, I’m willing to learn. I’ll eagerly dedicate these next two months to preparing for those nine days. My son is nearing tween-hood.  This may be our last best chance to cultivate the trust and connection that he’ll need as he slogs through the tar pit of adolescence. I have a stack of books. And blogs. And habits to practice both in anticipation of what might come and in response to what does. When I turn to it and start learning, it all makes sense. The way forward is clear.

Then almost as soon as it appears, that clarity begins to blur. In creep the other responsibilities. Up goes the volume on their demands. The fact is, only so much of the strife in our home is a result of “parenting” as some discrete set of techniques. Of our troubles, far more than I’d like to admit, arise from me.

I live 23-1/2 of every 24 hours in a state of low-level panic. A thirty minute cardio high is the only thing that reminds me of the world outside my hall of mirrors.

Unresolved financial concerns haunt me. How can I leverage my skills and energy to move into a higher-paying position? With this question nagging, I push harder at work. I submit a conference proposal, step up on a search committee, and get involved in the new DC undergrad internship initiative. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I stay a few feet back from the financial cliff.

The anemia of my social life concerns me. How can I give Bug a strong community of peers if I don’t build one around us? With this question tugging, I reach out to the people around me. I schedule a walk with a girlfriend, volunteer at the Unitarian church auction night, plan a weekend playdate, and put a potluck on the calendar. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I are woven into a rich and supportive community.

The paucity of my creative efforts prick at me.  So, too, the half-assed attempts at mindfulness, the chaotic closets and filthy windows, the short shrift I give to the relationship with my Mister, the public meetings I fail to attend for the condo association and local school board and VDOT as they make decisions that upend the value of my home,  the urgent call to action for racial and economic justice, the runaway bad habits of eating too much and staying up too late that destroy my sleep and mood and ability to manage any of this with grace. . .

Does growing into a better parent begin with focusing on “parenting”?

Or with 10 minutes of morning journaling? Or with a commitment to a professional development plan?

With daily exercise and 8 hours of sleep?

With a counselor?

With breath?

With less?

What heals a frayed bond between a 9-year-old boy and his mama?

We love each other, of course. All of this begins and ends in love. This hard work, these questions about how to proceed, they pull at me to build a home that can be my son’s sanctuary and his launch pad. Every question comes down to love.

In its most active, living form, what does love need? As it tries to push itself up from the root, how do we cultivate it?

This question churns under all the others. Sometimes I forget this simple truth, and the details topple me. That is when I roar until my throat fills with mud, and I am swamped with shame. That is when I want to sink into the earth.

And that is precisely when I most need to remember that my love for my son is under everything. It won’t let me sink. It catches me and helps me find my way back to the surface.

Then I — then we — get to keep on learning.

In two months, my son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.

I have no idea what to do to prepare.

My son and I have nine uncertain years left together.

I have no idea what to do.

I guess I’ll do it anyway.


 

Outgrowing Punishment

Boy Swing

After another night of ignoring, hitting, and name-calling (the kiddo to me, not the other way around, thankfully) and a morning with even more of the same, I’m lost again.  Serious anger is roiling around inside my son.  His cold fury manifests as prickling hands and words.  He seeks to  needle.  He seeks split the seams and set fire.

I recognize my tendency to respond to my son’s daggers with my own verbal stabs.  I roar.  I exert dominance.

These choices escalate the war.

Recovering from a recent hellish family trip to California, I posted this:

Bug’s had nine years to become the person he is.  I’ve had 42.  If I hope to cultivate healthier ways of being in our family, I’ll need to do it one itty-bitty step at a time.

I’m trying this now.  Seeking out and attempting tiny new approaches.  Even if I have no idea what or why or how, I’m trying something.

In the spirit of taking tiny steps, I choose this morning to read about natural and logical consequences.

From Alyson Schafer, “Positive Discipline: Signs your ‘Consequences’ are Punishments in Disguise”  in the Huffington Post:

A logical consequence must include three distinct qualities, and if any one is missing, it’s a punishment.

1) Related
The consequence must be directly related to the child’s behaviour. This is what makes it logical. Most importantly, the child must be able to see the connection. For example, if you don’t put your clothes in the laundry hamper, a logical outcome is that your clothes won’t get washed when it’s time to do the laundry. If you tell that same child that they won’t get screen time — one of our favorite things to confiscate — if they don’t put their clothes in the hamper, the child’s perception is that their parents are using their personal power to be mean and make them pay for their mistakes.

2) Respectful
Anytime you show a child disrespect, you are being punitive. (Quick test: Would you speak the same words to a friend or a coworker? If not, chances are it’s disrespectful.)

3) Revealed in advance
The child must be given all the information up front so they can make clear choices in their behaviour.  For example: “If you would like to eat, you need to stay at the table. If you get down from the table, you are excusing yourself and we’ll accept your choice and see you at the next meal. Please know there will be no food until that time, so when you get down, you’re done.”

In short: “Stay and eat or get down and wait until the next meal to eat — your choice.” But parents must be sure to actually follow through with implementing the consequence. Too frequently we simply threaten the consequence and the child fails to learn.


Photo from The Good Men Project

Back To Each Other

BlessedNest

Think of your child as a plant who is programmed by nature to grow and blossom. If you see the plant has brown leaves, you consider if maybe it needs more light, more water, more fertilizer. You don’t criticize it and yell at it to straighten up and grow right.

Kids form their view of themselves and the world every day. They need your encouragement to see themselves as good people who are capable of good things. And they need to know you’re on their side. If most of what comes out of your mouth is correction or criticism, they won’t feel good about themselves, and they won’t feel like you’re their ally. You lose your only leverage with them, and they lose something every kid needs: to know they have an adult who thinks the world of them.


– From “Building a Great Relationship with your Child” in Aha! Parenting

On our spring break trip to California, my son rounded up other kids at the hotel pool and played for 4 hours without pause.  At the San Diego Botanical Gardens, he climbed up into tangled two-story treehouse and built a shelter out of balsa wood.  On one bright morning, he hiked with his grandma and me through the hills at Torrey Pines as Pacific tides lapped at the cliffs.

He also fought, screamed, raged, cried, hit, kicked, and hurled insults.  Every single day at every point of conflict, his body went rigid with defiance.  He said hateful things.  He brought his grandmother and cousin to tears.  Me, to worse.

Continue reading “Back To Each Other”

Single Mom Playbook

Stormy Sea

Be a more attentive friend. Make meals at home. Save every penny. Walk. Take the metro. Clip coupons. Go to the gym, to Zumba, to the mountains. Find a group. Be the least awkward. Breathe through the irritation.

Lift weights. Smile at everyone. Ignore the men. Take the pills. Take the vitamins. Go to counseling. Go to church. Bike there. Carpool. Pack water bottle, reusable mug, hand sanitizer, glasses.

Respond without yelling. Appreciate out loud. Remember mom. Remember all the birthdays.

Get to work on time. Stay on task. Buy the groceries on lunch break. Run on lunch break. Walk on lunch break. See friends on lunch break. Take lunch from home. Stay until the last possible minute. Leave with enough time to get to child care. Run for the train. Push through the crowds. Run for the bus. Shake it all off. Greet your child with serenity.

Empty the sink, the dishwasher, the backpack, the laundry basket. Meditate. Pet the dog. Give her a long walk. Look over homework. Manage dinner, shower, teeth, clothes, packing up, settling down. Read to the kid. Watch the clock. Ignore the clock. Speak gently. Breathe. Don’t cry in front of him.

Write in the journal. Post to the blog. Update the resume. Go to a social event. A networking event. A lecture. Take a class. Get a certificate. Learn a new skill. Read something edifying. Plan a party. Be mindful of the guest list. Befriend successful people.

Respond to the emails. Upload the photos. Pay the bills. Track the money. Notice the steady shrinkage. Resolve to create wealth somehow. Rethink the financial plan. Resolve to apply for all the jobs. Try not to notice the absence of jobs.

Speak with positive problem-solving language. Ignore feelings. Schedule a meetup. Wash. Iron. Fold. Put away. Keep the wardrobe up to date. Make a hair appointment. Restock the toilet paper, the dish soap, the dog food, the baking soda. Use less. Shop smart. Read ingredients. Note materials. Consider the planet. Eat vegetarian. Think of landfills. Think of Indian trash-picking children. Do we need it? Can we make it at home? What is a less toxic alternative? What other store sells it? How much? Unit cost?

Feel the pull to be doing anything but this. Ignore the pull. Inhabit the aisle. Save pennies, save packaging, save for college, save the world.

Pay attention to the calendar. Note the upcoming holiday. Figure out summer vacation. Hope the money will come. Map out the weekends. Sign up for after-school activities. Show up for basketball practice, for karate, for games. Pay for all of this.

Make new friends. Remember names. Don’t give male friends the wrong idea. Be kind but not flirtatious. Check the pantie line. Check the body language.

Remove dog hair. Patch worn places. Get another year out of the coat, the shoes, the Goodwill purse. Blow dry. Apply lips, cover blotches, rinse the pits, glow. Count calories, calcium, miles, pounds. Brush, floss. Walk with bold steps. Don’t scowl.

Kiss better. Send sweet notes. Remember to ask questions. Learn the love languages. Appreciate. Communicate. Pause. Give the benefit of the doubt. Speak your truth.

Don’t complain. Don’t gossip. Bear the weight of this list alone. Shut the door when you cry.

Resist the craving. Sleep more. Shut off the phone. Look past magazine covers and success stories and smiling facebook families. Try not to notice the cracks. Avoid schadenfreude.

Learn their secrets. Trust yourself. Live your full life. Don’t measure yourself against them.  Aim high. Simplify. Dream big. Think less. Take account. Shed what you don’t need. Be honest. Know your heroes. Listen to the still, small voice. Follow in the footsteps of great ones. Be yourself. Picture your future self. Know that what you have is enough. Strive. Be quiet. Create. Count blessings. Resist inertia. Meditate. Spark a revolution. Fake it til you make it. Honor your shadow side. Write your own story.

Keep moving. Be here now. Be kind. Be fierce. Be better. Be you. Become someone. Surrender. Fight on.


Image: Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1801, “Dutch Boats in a Gale” (The  Bridgewater Sea Piece) from the National Gallery, UK.

Leap Frog

leapfrog
The Provost’s office announced it is offering up to half million dollars to a lucky PhD program at our university. My team received the news with a collective wave of nausea. Great prize, slim odds. A seventeen page proposal would be due in less than a month.

We’ve hacked through the dense foliage of earlier iterations of the RFP for three years running, and the only thing to show for our noble effort has been “great language we can use elsewhere.”

We accept the challenge this fourth time. Despite unfilled positions, anemic staff, maternity leave, and faculty stretched to breaking (or maybe because of all these things), we have to try. We tell each other to phone it in because other programs always win anyway. We say it knowing the idea is absurd, knowing we will give it our all. Because this is us, an earnest clutch of A+ students.

Also, $475,000.

My first impulse is approach-avoid this the way I do so many other tasks I despise: evade, excuse, put off, then CRAM. My rather irritating Better Self reminds me that as appealing as procrastination is, a more effective tactic might be to eat the frog. So I carve out half a day from my overtaxed schedule, shove everything else to the side, and start working.

A few hours in, I realize something marvelous.

This is a blast!

How lucky can a girl-writer get? The boss decrees that I ignore all my other business and spend my workday drafting and reworking a writing project — one whose goal is to land cash for my students. It’s a pain in the ass but it’s total flow. Challenge, creativity, reaching past my abilities to generate something meaningful. It’s a test.

A game.

So I play.

Only when I look up at the clock, close out, and plunge back into my burgeoning to-do list does the sickening stink of workplace misery engulf me.

And right there as I descend into the morass, I understand the mistake of my perception.

It’s not the task that sucks.

It’s all the tasks.

It’s the clutter, the questions with their missing answers, the half-complete puzzles waiting for someone else’s missing piece.

The desk-turned-junk drawer.

The “Do you have a quick minute?”

It’s the persistent drumbeat of financial crisis, and the knowledge that piles are growing while help is shrinking.

The hissing awareness that the only way out of a slow but steady downhill career grade is to eject from the vehicle and get behind the wheel of something else going somewhere else.

It’s the anxiety.

I carry the burden of all the tasks all the time, keeping myself frantically aware of everything un-done even while in the midst of doing. The irony? Evidence suggests this is a totally pointless expenditure of effort. All the things I set aside while tackling the Provost Award waited patiently enough. When my attention returned to those tasks, I took care of them just fine.

The world continued to turn. I continued to do my work.

As for the Provost Award? We wrote a fabulous proposal.

Our jobs are tangled up with so much of who we are. Work is values and perceptions. Work is what we believe to be real, and it holds so many of our wishes for ourselves, our families, the world. How is our performance? Are we making a contribution that matters? Can we afford the mortgage or will we find ourselves sick, broke, and homeless? Is there any joy in the work? Are we filling gaps and creating new paths?

Our livelihood is means and end simultaneously, existing in a thicket of uncertainty. Does protecting time for our families threaten our ability to support our families? Are we making a positive impact or making enemies? During the day-to-day minutiae, can we tell if our chosen methods are effective? How, under so much pressure, do we learn to do things differently?

Anxiety grabs all these drifting questions and presses them into one dense, throbbing, mass. What if I’m not good enough? What if I can’t cut it? These __________ (vague but terrible) things will happen to my family and me if I fail.

I can see the bold edges now of the lines that hitch anxiety to controlling behavior. It’s a comforting illusion. If I can clean up this mess or present this shiny object as an example of my capabilities or get this person to fall in line with my clearly superior M.O., then the giant black hole of chaos seems a little less threatening. The world feels safe (for the moment).

The problem, of course, is that this constant vigilance about every possible danger fails to keep that danger at bay. It also makes for a wretched existence, and it turns a person into rather miserable company for everyone in (her) orbit.

Life IS uncertainty and chaos. We know this. I know this.

Every so often, like when an award application turns a bright light on the flaws in my perception, I remember again that only one thing matters: This thing right here.

Like paragraph 3 of the Provost Award. Or composing this outline of a presentation. Or winding my way through one maze of inquiries that leads me to an answer a student needs.

Or sitting in the other room petting the dog while my son turns the kitchen inside-out so he can make his own eggs for dinner.

Or holding still the slack thread between my love and me.

Because I know the reel in my hands is a stage prop, and the only way to capture the shape of my longing is to let go.

When I keep such painstaking track of all things that need doing, and catalog all the possible disastrous outcomes if they are bungled or forgotten, then every single moment of my life is toil. Carrying around all that responsibility means that my feet are too heavy for skipping, my neck to bent for lifting, my eyes too fogged for seeing the wash of morning light on the willow branch across from the bus stop.

The only control I have is to give my full attention to what’s unfolding right here, engaging it as it is and freeing it from all the hooks of what it might cause or become. When I am here, I can do a much better job assessing what is effective. I can sense what brings value to my life and to the lives of the folks around me. When I see how we are faring right here, right now, I can choose my next move.

Keeping my head in the game means admitting it’s only a game.

Choosing a play.

And then leaping in.
 

100. Things I Can Captain: This Boat, These Waters

mother child at sea

It’s taken two years to get here. I’ve skirted the edges of this reckoning so long I know every stitch in its hem. Now I sit in front of a screen, a calculator, and a pile of paperwork to ask the question straight out.

Can we make it on my salary?

I asked the same question back in 2012 when the house hunt began. The answer was a definitive “no.” Buying this home was a hard push into a choppy sea. I did the full assessment then and knew that my income would fall short. To cover our expenses over the long haul, I’d need to earn more. Continue reading “100. Things I Can Captain: This Boat, These Waters”

94. Things I Can Whisper: Become, Surrender

I do my work. I do my best to make the small decisions well, and I try not to hunger for the great things, for the deeper explanations. For I am sentenced to keep watch over this small patch of earth, to judge its miseries and tell its stories. That’s who I am.

– From The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich