Tuesday, February 23, 2010

You've come a long way, Sweetpea

Sweetpea had two teeth pulled today!

Lest you fail to cheer with sufficient enthusiasm, may I remind you that, less than two years ago, my wisp of a daughter singlehandedly held off a dentist and several of his assistants on three separate occasions, injuring at least one, for trying to take an x-ray. Because it beeped.

This morning she let a dentist (a different dentist, mind you -- our parting with the last one was, frankly, mutual and had nothing to do with that restraining order he filed) put a mask on her, numb her up, and yank two unsuspecting canines right out of her face!

I could hardly sleep last night, what with all the PTSD (post-tantrum stress disorder) flashbacks. They had prescribed us a little something to take the edge off the nerves this morning -- but frankly, it tasted funny and didn't make me feel much better at all. Maybe I needed a bigger dose. All the way to the appointment, I drove with one eye trained on my rear-view mirror, watching for signs of the storm that was surely coming.

And yet ... when her name was called, Sweetpea merely ducked her head a little, cast a doubtful glance my way, and slouched over to the dental assistant like any normal 8-year-old.

Fifteen minutes later the dentist called for me, and I thought: Ah. Here it comes. I was prepared for the sound of Sweetpea's screaming. I was prepared to apologize for any bodily harm she had inflicted. But I was not prepared for this:

Disapprovingly: "She gave us a little trouble, mom."

"She ... gave you? You mean they're out?"

"Oh yes, they're out, everything's fine. But at first she said she wasn't going to do it."

And again, more slowly, because I was obviously not fully appreciating the gravity of her words: "She said she wasn't going to. She was a bit obstinate about it."

Much to my credit, I refrained from laughing in her face.

When I brought Sweetpea in a week ago to have the teeth assessed, she told the dentist she was not going to have any teeth pulled that day. The dentist replied, "I agree. Let's not do this today."

(What she meant: "Let's do it another day." What Sweetpea heard: "I win!")

So this morning, when Sweetpea once again did not feel like having any teeth pulled, she simply repeated what worked last time, fully expecting the same result. In my house, we don't call that "obstinate." We call it "logical."

When the dentist replied firmly that no, actually she was going to pull the teeth today, Sweetpea complied without much further ado.

In my house, when a child -- our child -- capitulates after only one rebuttal, we don't call it "giving us a little trouble." We call that "progress."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Wherein we discover why doctors no longer return my calls

Hey -- you know what's not funny? A sinus infection. You know what's even less funny? Three in a row.

I can say this with certainty, because I spent the better part of last week psycho-Googling "sinus infection." If there were something funny out there, trust me, I would've found it.

Instead, I found the same three or four medical sites with pretty much the same information, which I kept reading over and over, hoping that somehow, the last 47 times I read them, I missed the sentence that began, "And the guaranteed, fast, natural cure for sinus infections is ..."

Apparently I thought this was a better use of my time and steadily-dwindling energy than (1) visiting someone with an actual medical degree who might confirm I did indeed have a sinus infection, and (2) once I did visit said medical professional, taking the antibiotic she prescribed.

That's right -- I waited two more days AFTER getting the prescription before taking it. Because it is possible I am the world's most stubborn sick person.

In my defense ... the doctor did admit under cross-examination that there is no definitive test for a sinus infection (at least none that she, a generalist, could perform). When asked how she knew this was a bacterial infection as opposed to a hapless series of allergic reactions and viruses, she actually uttered the words, "It's hard to say." I rest my case.

Then she asked me a bunch more questions about my symptoms, which I may or may not have answered truthfully, because ... really? Do you need me to do your entire job for you, lady? As if bringing in all of these printouts from various home-remedy and medical-horror-story websites were not enough?

And now I've been taking these pills for three whole days, and I am still not cured. I think she rigged them.

Friday, February 19, 2010

My cup runneth over

Week before last, I was on a roll. I was writing so much, I could barely stand to come up for air at the end of the school day. I carried my notebook with me everywhere, desperate to capture every one of the thoughts that followed me around like a cloud of gnats.

It doesn't seem possible that was just over a week ago.

Then ... midwinter break happened. Three days of Sweetpea out of school, a long weekend, and a sick day for Sprout tacked on the tail end. In the meantime, I also dealt with two teeth that needed pulling (Sweetpea's), four shots that needed shooting (Sprout's), two testicles that needed removing (the dog's -- relax, Hubby's are fine, thanks for asking), and one nasty sinus infection (all mine).

Now here I am, finally with a bit of energy and a few hours of free time, wondering where, oh where all those creative juices have gone. This balance is still so fragile.

While I wasn't writing last week, I was doing a lot of research about allergies, looking for tips that might help me clear up the sinuses for good. I learned that our bodies can tolerate a certain level of environmental allergens without overreacting. For the last few years I'd apparently been staying within that limit and feeling fine. Then (because life around here was getting a little dull), we got a puppy. In my case, dog dander was the drop that made my personal allergy bucket overflow.

Since we're not keen on getting rid of the dog (and breaking my children's tender young hearts) (OK, my heart), I need to look for ways to limit my exposure to dander and other allergens until I reach that healthy threshold again -- by closing doors, covering mattresses, filtering air, etc.

The creative balance seems to work roughly the same way. Everyone who writes has to deal with at least some other responsibilities, I know. But at some point, the bucket just gets too full. Beyond that invisible line, if you do happen upon a spare hour, you're probably not going to spend it writing sonnets. In fact, you're far more likely to spend it on auto-pilot, nervously wiping counters and waiting for the next child to cry. Or maybe that's just me.

The tipping-point is different for everyone. I know this, because I have friends who managed to continue writing even when their kids were babies. Several years after sterilizing my last bottle, I still can't fathom how they did it. I remember most days having just enough free time to eat or shower, but not both. Where would I have fit in writing the Great American Novel, exactly?

An inch or two of room has finally opened up. But even now, I need to be diligent in managing all of the other demands on my mind and time, if I am to maintain this creative space. Last week, the bucket just plain overflowed.

It looks like tomorrow I might get back on track. To do that, I'm going to have to scale back demands on my energy to a healthier level. By closing some doors. Maintaining boundaries. Filtering requests.

So, please don't be offended if it takes me a few days to respond to an email or return your call. With any luck, it just means I found an inch or two of breathing room, and I'm hanging on to it for all I'm worth.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Nobody told me there'd be days like this

Yesterday was a good day. Sweetpea (the child formerly known as A___) was home from school for midwinter break, and we got to spend a good chunk of the day together, just the two of us.

I found myself wondering what, if anything, to write about our day. We didn't do anything particularly special -- just some errands, a little reading, a few games. I had no wry observations. There were no major meltdowns. Nothing happened that I needed to laugh-so-I-won't-cry about. Sure, we had our moments of tension, but they were far outnumbered by good moments. Nice, quiet, pleasant moments.

Eight short years ago, I might've thought "nice, quiet, pleasant" sounded a lot like "mind-numbingly dull." These days, in this family, quiet moments seem anything but boring. They are like an unexpected patch of sunshine in the middle of a Northwest winter. If you find one, you don't take it for granted or hope it passes quickly. You bask in it. You wonder how it came about, and if maybe, just maybe, you might find one again someday.

Yesterday, for once, I wasn't overwhelmed. I wasn't trying to do too much or allowing myself to be pulled in seventeen different directions. The dog was at the vet. Dinner was simple. Writing could wait. I said "no" when I needed to, but I said "yes" when I could. I enjoyed the kids for who and where they are, and I stayed present.

The chaos will be back soon enough -- I can see the clouds creeping in already. But yesterday? Yesterday was a good day.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

When I become famous, please swallow this post

You've probably noticed that I don't include my children's real names on this blog. (Or perhaps you thought my kids just had really strange, unpronounceable names?) It's not that I don't trust you. It's those other Internet people I worry about.

You know. The ones who lurk around on obscure blogs seeking random children's first names so that they can ... OK, I don't know what they might do exactly (since they still wouldn't know our last names or where we live), but I'm sure it's awful and will end up on Dateline any day now. In the meantime, what kind of mother would I be if I didn't protect my precious babies from completely implausible cyber risks while turning a blind eye to the fact that they let the dog lick them on the mouth?

So. Just in case I become the next Heather Armstrong, I came up with using A___ and N___ (which may or may not represent my kids' first initials). Clever, right? Except it has been brought to my attention that this is not the most graceful solution. And in truth, I didn't expect to be writing about the kids quite as much as I have been. Typing all of those underscores does get tiresome.

Here's the thing. I suck at naming people. It was hard enough coming up with their real names. Two each! And I had help! Now I have to come up with a third, fake name? I'm sorry -- I'm exhausted.

I considered holding a "Name my children" contest. But I couldn't think of a decent prize, so then I'd have to hold a "Come up with a good prize for naming my children" contest. (You can see where this was headed.)

So, although I was hoping to buck the trend of giving blog-children cute nicknames, for now I am resorting to using the pet names that we gave the kids when they were in utero. My daughter will be "Sweetpea," and my son will be "Sprout."

Cute, right? And if the Internet doesn't like their new names, my husband can take half the blame. Now ... what to call him ...

But for a minute there, I was flying.

This morning, like most mornings, found N___ complaining because his sister had hijacked one of his toys. "Grandma gave me that Barbie doll to use, and A___ won't give it back!" he whined.

My first reaction, of course, was to help. And by "help," I mean roll my eyes in irritation and bellow at them to "Just work it out for chrissake -- Mommy hasn't finished her coffee yet!" But just then, what he said sank in. I'm sorry ... did you just say ... doll?

Hallelujah. FINALLY, my long-held principles about raising boys and girls were bearing fruit.

I grew up in the '70s, with liberal parents. "Free to Be ... You and Me" was pretty much the gospel of my childhood. I took it on faith that parents are people, it's all right to cry, and -- preach it, Alan Alda -- William gets a doll.

But I have had fewer opportunities than I had hoped to put my enlightened views into practice with my own children. Before A___ was born, I firmly rejected gender stereotypes. I painted her room yellow; her comforter was blue. "Girls do not have to wear pink!" I naively declared.

Except ... then I told the world she was a girl. And for the next three years, until her brother was born, every item that entered my house was pink. Because every item for girls ... in every store? Pink. When N___ was born, I had an equally difficult time finding anything for him to wear that did not seem to limit his future career choices to race car driver, construction worker, or professional athelete.

Fine, I thought. I can bend on the clothing thing. But this doesn't have to affect their behavior. Surely their dad and I will treat them the same, so there won't be any difference in how they play.

With each of my kids, I had a couple of pretty good years. Baby toys are baby toys, for the most part. Exersaucers are gender-neutral. For a while, even when N___ was old enough to express a preference, his older sister's influence held sway. He played hairdresser. He wore his sister's dress-up clothes. And I ... um ... gloated.

Then, boy met world. He went to school, where his friends watched movies we didn't let him watch, played with toys we didn't let him play with, or had older brothers who did those things. In TV commercials, he watched boys playing with the toys that boys are "supposed" to want to play with. Of course I tried to counteract these messages. But bit by bit, gun by gun, superhero by superhero, I felt I was losing him to a world I did not understand and where I could not follow.

Until this morning. Because my son was heartbroken over a DOLL, people! And I'm pretty sure I broke a land-speed record getting over there to step in and make sure he got that thing back. "You go ahead and take that Barbie to your room to play, son," I said, my voice cracking with pride.

That "whoop-whoop" sound you heard? That was me, raising the self-righteous roof. Here it was, finally, living proof that I had single-handedly (OK, maybe with a little help from my husband) fought off the influence of our misogynistic, homophobic culture. Superhero? I'll show you a superhero! I was on Cloud 9.

And then ... that thump you heard? Also me. Firmly reconnecting with Earth a few minutes later, when N___ came back into the room holding a half-undressed Barbie and exclaiming, "Look, Mommy! Boobies!"

Time to dust off that "Free to Be ..." DVD we picked up a few years back. It's movie night, kids.

Monday, February 8, 2010

You may now congratulate her on a job well done.

As usual, A__ is two steps ahead of me. She greeted me shortly after waking up yesterday morning with this:

Mommy! Mommy! Guess what?!

What's up, kiddo?

I've earned my reward!

You've earned your ... ?

Come see!

Still half-asleep, I follow her back to her room, where my attention is directed to a piece of paper she has taped up behind her door. At the top, in crayon, it reads, "Responsibility Chart." Chores are listed down the left margin, with boxes for the days of the week to the right of each. I have never seen this chart before.

Most of the boxes are empty, but "Put my clothes away" is checked off for each day last week. At the bottom of the chart, it clearly states that when one job is complete, she is to receive a reward.

See? Case closed.

Yes, I see. What are you giving yourself for a reward?

No, you are, silly! We're going to Target to buy me a toy!

And so I apologize in advance to all of her future employers. I can see it now ...

Hey, boss! Come see! I've earned my bonus!

Well, you've only worked here a week, and bonuses aren't given until you've been ...

But look! I've done everything on the chart I made. All week! Isn't this great?!

Actually, we do performance evaluations in ...

Look at the chart!

I'm afraid there's been ...


----. Right. I'll go get my checkbook.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Wherein my daughter meets a CHEERLEADER!

I do not like parenting advice, and generally I do not give it. But for those of you with children not yet of school age, I offer one tip that could spare you a lot of pain and suffering: Keep your kids home on days when there are school assemblies.

I know what you're thinking: But assemblies are fun and educational! Sadly, you are wrong. As far as I can tell, "school assembly" is now synonymous with "diabolical attempt to convince children raising money for the school district is fun."

Listen, people. I have nothing against public school systems. I have nothing against schools raising money. I vote YES on levies. I swear. Some of my best friends are levies.

However, I do object to my kid coming home looking like a brainwashed Stepford child and extolling the virtues of selling cookie dough door-to-door because someone (but most definitely not my child) somewhere (probably not even in our district) is going to win an iPod. And although she didn't know what an iPod was when she left for school this morning, there was an ASSEMBLY, with music and dancing puppets and (I suspect) crack gumballs being passed around, and now she's pretty sure her life is incomplete without one. And selling PTA cookie dough is the only way to remedy the situation.

Or, equally horrifying and more relevant to the title of this post, she comes home begging to go to Saturday morning cheer camp. Because you don't know this, Mommy, but there are CHEERLEADERS! at cheer camp. In their UNIFORMS! And if you go to cheer camp, you get to eat LUNCH with one.

Did you hear that, Mommy? Did you get that the first 50 times I said it? Because I will happily tell you again. YOU. GET. TO. EAT. LUNCH. WITH. A. CHEERLEADER.

(Cheerleaders being, as it turns out, just like princesses except they are louder and -- although I cannot confirm this -- their pockets might be filled with crack gumballs.)

So when A___ came home last week with a creepy Stepford-ish smile and a permission slip for cheer camp, I turned to my trusty library of parenting manuals, looking for the one with a chapter titled, "What to Do When Your Daughter Is Convinced Something Will Be Fun Even Though it Will Almost Certainly End in Cataclysm the Likes of Which the High School Cheer Squad Has Never Seen." Only -- this is so weird -- I can't find any chapters that cover this. I must have the wrong books.

To be fair, cheer camp is probably an innocent enough way for most kids to spend a Saturday morning. But my kid has SPD, of the auditory defensiveness variety. Loud music and shouting? They don't really work for her. Other things that don't work for her and often end in humiliating public meltdowns: dance classes, crowds, and new situations.

Sounds perfect, right? So I did what any good mother would do: I tried to manipulate her into deciding not to go, to spare both of us the embarrassment of another failed attempt at normality, while pretending not to care one way or the other.

OK, in truth it was a little more complicated than that. I described what it was going to be like and explored with her how she might handle it. I emailed the cheer coach to explain our situation, and we made sure there would be a quiet place for A___ to go if she needed a break. I let her know it was OK with us whether she decided to go or not. And it (mostly) was.

The one thing I did not do, was offer to stay and walk through it with her. My thinking was, if she wanted to do this, she needed to be able to handle it on her own. She can't always rely on me to be there holding her hand. (Plus, although I would not have admitted it at the time ... the tears and drama that ensue every time we're in one of these situations can be damned embarrassing.)

By Friday night she had decided not to go. I felt for her, I really did. She wanted to be a part of this, even though she knew it would be an unbelievable strain on her. Where does an 8-year-old find the strength to say no to what everyone else is doing, for the sake of her own well-being? When most people still can't do that at 13? Or 19? Or ... (ahem) ... 38? I went to bed thinking that, hard as it was, the right decision had been made. I was proud of her.

Naturally, I awoke a little after 8:00 this morning to my husband telling me that A___ had changed her mind and was going.

And here's the humbling part. Because I wasn't up and ready, my husband ended up taking her. My husband who (unlike me) did not feel the need to give our daughter an ultimatum (do it 100% like the other kids, or not at all). He agreed to stay with her for the entire three hours, and he let her do cheer camp her own way.

No, she wasn't out on the floor with the other girls most of the time. She quickly realized (as suspected) that it wasn't for her. Instead, she stayed in the bleachers, with her dad, where I guess the noise level was more tolerable (or at least she wasn't going to get bumped around by the other kids -- which, added to an already-stressed nervous system, spells certain disaster).

But she did get to observe all of the fun from a safe distance, learn the routines, and yes, eat lunch in the vicinity of a CHEERLEADER! On Monday, she will be among the girls who get to wear their camp T-shirts and giggle and shake their booties on the playground. In other words, it seems to have worked out just fine.

Tonight I watched my little girl perform the routines she learned today: shouting and shaking and hip-waggling for all she was worth. There was a big smile on her face and -- am I imagining it? -- just a hint more self-confidence in the tilt of her head and hips than I remember seeing there yesterday.

Assembly or no assembly, crack gumballs or no crack gumballs ... I think this one goes in the "win" column.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Because I said so

Every time I sit down to write lately, a Greek chorus of negativity (roughly the size of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) kicks in. Much of this is the everyday, run-of-the-mill self-criticism. But there's also a subtler recurring theme emerging: "Why?"

It comes in many forms. "Why this?" "Why now?" "So what?" "Why is your house such a mess?" "Why not take the dog for a walk instead?"

That one little word can stop me in my tracks. I start an essay, and within two pages I'm wondering why anyone would want to read it. I get an idea for a children's book, and in the back of my mind I'm thinking, "But what's the point?"

I've always been more comfortable doing things that come neatly packaged with a ready answer to the question "Why?" Usually some form of, "Because someone else wants (or expects) me to." "Because someone is paying me to." "Because this will earn me someone's approval." Etc. And lately, "Because the kids need me to."

Meanwhile, I put off those tasks that have a less obvious (or simply more personal) justification. Indefinitely.

Of course, these are precisely the things I promised myself I'd tackle during this sabbatical. So it makes perfect sense that, in finally facing this hang-up head on, I'm stirring up a hornet's nest of "Why?"

I've been working on some new answers:

  • It's fun.
  • It's new.
  • It makes me happy.
  • It scares me.
  • I feel like it.
  • I don't feel like it.
  • It feels right.
  • I dare you.

  • Then again, the answers aren't really the problem, are they? What I really need are some better questions. Instead of "Why?":

  • How?
  • What next?
  • What's stopping you?
  • What if ... ?
  • What's the worst that could happen?
  • And of course ... Why the hell not?

  • If I can't stop questioning myself, these should at least prompt some more interesting answers.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010

    Where does he get this shit?

    My son has a new love. Before you go thinking that's adorable and everything, let me add that he is in love with the phrase, "Damn it!"

    It used to be that he would pull this out only at home, but yesterday afternoon when I picked him up from daycare he yelled it at me. YELLED. It. At. Me. At daycare. Where, coincidentally, his teachers work. Teachers who, in my fantasy life, still think I'm a reasonably good mother.

    Naturally, I responded by acting shocked, as if I'd never heard him do that before. Because if I had, obviously I would have immediately done something so powerful and awe-inspiring as to put an end to that behavior. Immediately. Obviously.

    And now I have to think of something powerful and awe-inspiring that will put an end to this behavior. Because so far? Nothing I've tried has worked.

    I'll tell you one thing we have not tried. This advice, from a book called Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking (written, as far as I can tell, by someone who has never met an actual child): "Tell him to practice saying the offending statement for one minute for each year of age to make the phrase lose its power."

    First of all, really? If I could control what does and does not come out of my kid's mouth in the slightest, would I have this problem in the first place?

    And second, I know for a fact this does not work. I know because we tried it on my daughter a few years ago.

    (Are you done laughing yet? No? I'll wait.)

    From this little experiment, we all learned a valuable lesson. The only thing that disturbs parents more than hearing their four-year-old curse is hearing their four-year-old curse for four minutes straight. And that is not information you want falling into the wrong hands. Trust me on this. (Hint: You lose.)

    Also high on my list of ways not to get your child to stop swearing: Giving a five-minute time-out every time he says the word. By the time he gets to the top of the stairs on his way to the first time-out, he will have accumulated enough additional time-outs to last until his next birthday. Eventually, you will get tired of serving him meals in his room. Or someone at school will notice he's missing. (You lose again!)

    Hey -- I know! Maybe I'll just go find the person who taught him this in the first place, and make her deal with it.

    Oh. Damn.

    This would be more fun if somebody's nose lit up

    I had every intention of sitting down this morning to write something thoughtful or amusing about ANYTHING other than my kids. Unfortunately, I'm having a hard time seeing the keyboard through all of this mommy guilt, so instead ...

    This morning A___ dragged her feet getting out the door, causing us to arrive at her school a minute or two later than usual. There's a five-minute grace period between the first and second bells, so this would not be a big deal for most kids. But I'm not parenting "most kids."

    For my daughter, arriving at school is akin to a delicate game of Operation. Those bells form the boundaries of her carefully timed sprint from the van to her classroom door. A second or two on either side leaves her caught outside when a bell rings, an admittedly grating sound that rockets her nervous system into red alert.

    Since it was clear the first bell had already rung when we pulled up, she refused to get out of the van until after the second, necessitating yet another trip to the office for yet another tardy slip. Some days, even knowing the reasons behind them, her rules and inflexibility get to be too much. I decided on the fly that it was time to learn a little something about responsibility.

    I announced, with something resembling authority, that she could wait in the van for the second bell if she chose (not particularly relishing the thought of dragging out a kicking, screaming 8-year-old) ... but she would then walk into the office for that tardy slip on her own, without me there to excuse her. This seemed to me a reasonable way for her to take some responsibility for the morning's dawdling.

    She did not see things quite the same way. In fact, to a casual onlooker, I'm sure it looked like I had just ordered her to march across broken glass in her bare feet to meet a firing squad. Oh, there was drama. There were tears. And why? Because she knows just where to find my guilt button.

    Every time something doesn't go exactly right with the kids, my first instinct is to search back through a long chain of my parenting missteps, beginning at their births, for a reason to believe their behavior is all my fault. I don't usually have to look very hard.

    There were some prime opportunities to blame myself for this morning's meltdown. I could have used the word "choice" instead of "fault" to describe her role in our late arrival. I could have spelled out the whole scenario for her earlier, so she could have made a different choice or at least have been better prepared for the consequence. I could have driven a little faster to get through that yellow light, said a quicker goodbye to her brother, or simply curbed my frustration when things came to a head.

    But you know what? In the end, I think I parent more effectively when my guilt and I are not standing like a human shield between my children and the cold, hard world of cause and effect, choices and consequences.

    I am all in favor of the perfect parenting I read about in books (oh, so many books!). Books where parents always remember to prep their kids in advance and mete out consequences (on the rare occasions it comes to that) with logic, consistency, and minimal emotion. Yes! I think. Good for you, fictional parent! Look how well that works on your made-up-to-prove-a-point child!

    But things don't usually go quite that smoothly here in the real world. Most of the time, no matter how calmly and effectively I set the stage, my kids learn their lessons from experiencing consequences (multiple times), not from being warned in advance.

    So here I am ... playing my own version of Operation. Delicately maneuvering my tweezers between the booby-trapped edges of "too strict" and "too lenient." "Insensitive" and "overprotective." "Overly flexible" and "Damnit sometimes you just need to suck it up and adapt to the world."

    Trying hard not to be distracted by the grating sound of the guilt buzzer.

    Monday, February 1, 2010

    Yes, I did just say this out loud.

    "You're going to have to throw up a lot more than that, if you think you're staying home from school tomorrow."

    That's all. Just illustrating why, as a general rule, things I say to my kids should not be shared out of context.

    In my defense, I checked for fever first. And cabbage was involved.