With Teeth, and Without

I’ve been a little distracted lately. I was finally ambushed by twenty years of dental inaction when the crown on one of my front-and-center teeth snapped off. It was exactly as horrifying as it sounds. After scheduling an appointment and working out with my parents a plan to pay for the backlog of dental work that needed to be done all at once, I tried to become accustomed to making it through my work days with a gaping tunnel in my teeth. Turns out I am both too lazy to take care of these things in time and too vain to suffer the consequences with grace.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about my kids, none of which have ever had a cavity. Heck, I don’t even know if the older two even brush their teeth, and whenever I ask about it I learn that they have “lost” their toothbrush at some indeterminate point in the past. I’m sure it’s fine. Anyway, they have been surprisingly accepting of my temporary defacement; which is interesting, considering that when I periodically shave my beard there is crying in their ranks.

Also interesting is that my experience has paralleled that of my six year-old, who is just about to lose her first baby tooth. Right now, thanks to a temporary bridge that feels to me like a slightly modified version of those plastic fangs we used to wear on Halloween, my daughter and I are both contending with a disconcertingly flapping hinge in our gums that could come tumbling out at any moment.

If I have learned anything from this fiasco, other than not to eat anything crunchy ever again, it is to have rediscovered what it is like to be in a place my children know all too well: that changes are happening that are at the edge of our understanding and out of our control. Every time I attempt to chew something in the only intact corner of my mouth, I experience the helpless fear that a morsel will roll itself between my center teeth and pull my silly fake smile right out. That kind of helplessness is part and parcel of childhood, with its routine lack of answers and its sudden, jarring transformations.

To be adult is to live increasingly in a place where, ideally, the incidences of helplessness and uncertainty dwindle if not entirely disappear. It is humbling to be back in that position. I can only hope to handle it as well as my six year-old.

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How Do We Even Know Anything About Parenting?

Okay, so this piece from Longreads, My Bad Parenting Advice Addiction, is pretty funny (be advised of a single strategic use of profanity within). In the essay Emily Gould spends the first few months of her new motherhood desperately reading parenting books. She finds, as one would, that there are rough schools of thought around parenting practices that cancel out, if not fiercely oppose, others. Without pledging loyalty to one camp or another, then, it can be mighty hard to find a way forward that isn’t mined with confusion and contradictions. Gould explains her dilemma in this way: “There seemed to be only two options: to raise a patchouli-scented wild child, or to engineer a dead-souled automaton whose early ‘sleep training’ paved the way for a lifetime of blind obedience.”

Of course, it isn’t really like that. As someone who participated in a fair amount of attachment parenting (holding our babies or slinging them, breastfeeding, co-sleeping) I find this assessment of the movement, as embodied in print by the prolific Dr. Sears, to be unfair, if kind of hilarious: “Critics of this approach tend to assume that there is a natural progression from babies who can’t fall asleep unless they’re rocked and nursed and cuddled up next to their parents, to children who are going to scamper all over a restaurant, ignoring their parents’ weak-willed cries of ‘Rowan, please sit back down!’ Wrap carriers, food co-op membership, hollow-eyed mothers whose looks and dreams have drowned in an ocean of their own breast-milk—these are the things, rightly or wrongly, that most people associate with ‘attachment’ parenting.”

I can certainly understand Gould’s feeling of being overwhelmed and bullied by so much disparate parenting advice. She claims to have read 25 parenting books in a row, which strikes me as fairly reasonable (she does not mention looking at parenting blogs, forums, social media groups, or other online sources; this means either that she was careful to keep herself out of that endless swirl of potential madness or that she just didn’t want to talk about it).

What Gould highlights in her entertaining and often insightful piece is how difficult it is for a parent to find what works for them. There are no lack of authors, experts, companies, organizations and agencies who are ready and willing to dump advice on us (and in the process, generally make us feel as if we are failing and/or totally irresponsible if we don’t follow their path or buy their product). There is certainly nothing wrong with reading books and taking what we find to be useful. And no parent can be expected (heck, is even able) to go all in with one particular method or another.

Rather, what Emily Gould leaves smartly between the lines of her essay is that instead of turning to experts on how to raise our own children, we ultimately have to just get to know them, and figure it out, day by difficult day.

Much easier to read a bunch of books, right?

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Parenting, Mortality and Stuff

A number of events came together this week into a sticky ball of parenting anxiety.

First, while ill-advisedly biting into a chocolate bunny (turns out it was solid, the real deal), I broke a crown that constituted most of one of my top front teeth. I can’t blame years of dental neglect, starting in college and continuing up to last week, on age or mortality. But I thought, nevertheless, about how I am going to die. And because I am a parent, I thought about how my children might deal with that.

The second event is that I began reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, a slim but potent book-length essay on the death of her adopted daughter and her doubts about the stolidity of her own body and mind. As Didion writes in the first chapter,

“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.”

Exactly. In Didion’s case, she has experienced what she considers the reverse of the “appropriate” sequence of events: the child should not die before the parent. Reading this, I thought about the many ways in which I have shirked my responsibility to ensure a long and healthy life, so that I can continue to be there for my children.

Didion has more to say about this shirking of responsibility, and I am going to quote her at length, largely because she is my favorite writer and can do prose like no one else.

“I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents. Those who do tend to cite the markers that indicate (their own) status in the world: the Stanford degree, the Harvard MBA, the summer with the white-shoe law firm. Those of us less inclined to compliment ourselves on our parenting skills, in other words most of us, recite rosaries of our failures, our neglects, our derelictions and delinquencies. The very definition of success as a parent has undergone a telling transformation: we used to define success as the ability to encourage the child to grow into independent (which is to say into adult) life, to ‘raise’ the child, to let the child go.”

The third event is that the two oldest girls got the results for their benchmark exams (3rd and 5th grade). As they are not public school attenders, we arranged for them to take the test with a professional proctor in Salem. The results were encouraging but not surprising: they are reading at the level of 10th grade and college, respectively. Guess what is important to our family?

This should not be grounds for further anxiety or thoughts of mortality, but leave it to me. Literacy is one thing we have managed to consciously and deliberately imprint on them. That’s one. Mostly it makes me think of all the unintended, or even unknowable, other things that are imprinted alongside it.

As I have said before, there are particular mistakes I am determined not to make as a parent. It’s going to be different ones that come back to haunt me.

Goes with being mortal, I guess?

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Home for the Holidays

Through reasons that are mysterious to me, I had grouped all my vacation time into the last three months of the year. This year I was able to take two full weeks off for Christmas. It seems excessive in some ways, though my workplace, source of the generous time off policies, insists that this is the best way to take it. So, this will be an experiment.

As I have written recently, taking a vacation can be more work than leisure, at least on the sheer planning end. This holiday break will be much more…domestic. Where normally it’s the kids who are strangely home for several days, this time it’s me! (my kids are always home). Don’t get me wrong; I am looking forward to the change of pace, and I’m as much a homebody as anyone I know. And anyway, my taking more time off was a specific Christmas request from my daughters.

So why am I complaining? I think it comes down to the uncomfortable realization that my being home can be an unwitting disruption of my wife’s well-oiled routines. I can only imagine how I would go about my job with my spouse just sort of hanging around all day. I would be glad to see here, sure, but– my job is my job. This must be what it is like for a homeschooling homemaker (or, as Roseanne Barr once put it, “domestic goddess”) with the breadwinning husband at home. Sure, I’m around to “help.” Whether she likes it or not.

I’m going to try and make up for my presence by getting the kids out of the house for a couple of days. This way my wife can finish all the Christmas sewing, knitting, felting, Instagramming, online shopping with coupon codes, etc.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Happy Holidays to you!

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Climbing Streaked Mountain

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope you enjoy it and, as always, we look forward to future posts by Esther. 

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I had a bit of a panic attack this summer. I was hiking with relatives in Maine up a steep trail when the path disappeared into a bare expanse of rock, dotted occasionally by shrubs, boulders, pine needles and lichen. It wasn’t clear what was the best route up and it was a long way down. To fully understand my emotional state, you need to know that: 1. I don’t like heights, 2. I have slipped on rocks and hurt myself several times while hiking, 3. My knees were still recovering from my having tripped over a suitcase while entering the airport at the beginning of this trip.

Now the reason I have slipped and tripped numerous times is because I get distracted (I had a full bladder and was looking for the restroom sign in the airport incident). I get distracted by other things as well—sights, sounds, my own thoughts– just about anything. It’s part of my temperament.

Temperament refers to traits that are present in us from birth on. While they may be more pronounced at certain developmental stages, they persist throughout our lives. They aren’t the result of experience or training. They aren’t good or bad. Raising Your Spirited Child author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka renamed “Distractibility” as “Perceptiveness” to emphasize that this trait has positive as well as negative aspects.

Being able to let my mind wander brings me great joy. It’s a source of creativity. Allowing myself to be distracted and perceptive helps me to define and solve problems in my life. I particularly like to let my mind wander when I’m hiking. But up on that mountain I couldn’t do that. (Just so you don’t get the wrong impression– it wasn’t much of a mountain: about half the height of Marys Peak).

Being born with a temperamental trait doesn’t mean I can’t increase my ability to act in a different way. I can’t do that by force of will—anymore than I can increase my arm muscles by saying “my arms are strong!” It also doesn’t help to insult myself “I’m a total space cadet!” Instead, by accepting that this trait is part of my nature, I’ve been able to come up with some strategies that enable me to manage situations when I need to focus. On Streaked Mountain, I had to concentrate on where I put my feet to avoid potentially slippery spots. But just looking down frequently led me to dead ends—places where I couldn’t figure out where would be the best place to go next. (Remember that the path was no longer visible and we were trying to ascend by zigzagging gradually up.) My in-laws were ahead of me, but it wasn’t always apparent which way they had gone. Sometimes they had taken routes I didn’t think I could manage. I had to figure out what would work for me. And I had to keep myself from panicking. So, for a while I progressed like this: breathe, tell myself I can do this, look up and ahead to see where I want to go, look down to locate a stable spot to put my foot, take a step. Repeat.

I had to keep focused on each piece of this process: breathe, tell myself I can do this, look up and ahead to see where I want to go, look down to locate a stable spot to put my foot, take a step. It took time. It took a lot of energy.

The crucial thing to remember about temperamental traits is that when people act differently from their natural inclinations, it takes more energy. A helpful comparison is writing with one’s non-dominant hand: unless you are ambidextrous, writing with your other hand takes more energy and effort than writing with the hand you usually use.  When we use energy for something we may not be able to do it for very long. Using a lot of energy for one thing means we will have less energy available to do other things.

When we ask or encourage anyone (child or adult or ourselves) to do something that is energy-draining it helps to:

  •  Acknowledge that it is hard
  • If needed, point out the advantages (or the necessity) of doing that hard thing
  •  Encourage the person to think of strategies they might use. Remind them of past successes. Offer suggestions tentatively “what would you think about trying ____?”
  •  Be patient. If possible, allow more time or take breaks. Often the time needed is less than we expect.Notice and praise each step along the way
  •  Congratulate successes. It helps to acknowledge again the difficulty, mention the strategies used, and celebrate the accomplishment.
  • Avoid making too many demands at once

It helped me on the hike that my husband was supportive and understanding. He acknowledged that it was hard for me; offered me some suggestions but respected my choices; and congratulated me when I reached the top. I did make it and was able to relax and enjoy the fabulous view. And made it back down!

The next steep rocky climb (different set of relatives, but similar tastes in recreation) was easier. Whew.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

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Decompressing the Home

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There are two kinds of parents (actually, there are at least three, but we are concerned here with those involved in the daily lives of their children). There are parents who work, and there are parents whose work is to parent. And this is, well, work.

As for the kids, they all work. Whether they spend their days at school, learning at home, or involved in some sort of apprenticeship such as ship’s boy or cooper’s assistant, they have been “on” for a long time, and when the family is together at home, everyone is spent.

In her article 7 Ways to Help Your Child Handle Their “After School Restraint Collapse”, Andrea Nair writes, “It takes a great deal of energy, mental motivation, emotional containment, and physical restraint to keep ourselves at our best while at work, daycare, or school for other people.” She goes on,

“One of my children used to love going to public school, but pretty much every day was in tears when he got home. He didn’t have a clue why he was in tears, but I knew that he just needed to decompress after keeping it together all day. I steered away from friend playtime or scheduled activities right after school so that he could have time to regroup.”

Nair presents some very useful tips for helping kids to ease their way back into the home environment. In addition to such universal advice as “Feed Them,” she advocates giving them the space they need to readjust their energy. Sometimes this means leaving them well enough alone for a while. Reducing noise and other stimuli, even conversation (even to the point of avoiding that classic parent question, “How was your day?”) can be helpful. It is important to remember that they are feeling all the accumulated stress and fatigue that we are, but with one crucial difference: they don’t have the resources that we as adults, ideally, possess to deal with it.

My situation is typical for homeschooled families in that when I come home from work, I enter what has been essentially the workplace for the rest of my family; for the mother as well as the kids. I try to be conscientious about this, because while coming home may be a relief for me (especially if I have had the presence of mind to decompress from my workday on the way home), it may well be that no one else has had that chance.

My job, then, is to help transform the space into something less stressful. If there is a way that I can help with dinner, I can do that (more often than not, if dinner is already underway I can be more useful by staying out of the way). In that case I start on preparations for bedtime. This involves finding pajamas, closing curtains, turning on lights. I am usually the audience for whatever artwork or projects the kids have been working on that day. And when dinner is served, their mother is officially clocked out.

I will confess that I sometimes envision the scenario presented in shows like Leave It to Beaver, in which my job would be to read the paper in my recliner while the dog fetches my slippers. However, this is a new century, and anyway I don’t think the world really worked like that in those days either. Also, we don’t have a dog, and the cat does not fetch.

So really, I’ll take this.

 

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Family Tripping

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For a family (and a parent) that relies so much on routines, going on vacation can be…complicated. A vacation means that, almost by definition, the rhythms and the certainties of day-to-day life are going to be altered, for the benefit of a new setting and a new set of experiences. One could argue that this is kind of the point. Nevertheless, this perfectly appealing and reasonable argument is going to fill me with anxiety.

Cardinal among the routines that drive our family’s engine has been bedtime. Our kids like their own beds, their own ways of arranging their covers and stuffed animals (and in the case of the oldest daughter, stacking her books next to her head so that they will not topple onto her face in the night but so that, I guess, she can smell them?). They do not as a rule share beds well. This came through during our big trip to my parents’ house in Colorado a couple of years ago, during which we all shared an upstairs room. Much sleep was lost. I still haven’t found it anywhere.

This year, we have planned a week in a cabin in a local State Park. Our goal has been to allow for as much relaxation as possible. There are no timetables; no obligatory trips to see things; no appointments with other relatives. We plan to hike, and play, and read, and that’s about it.

The planning itself has been underway since February. We spent an afternoon checking out all the rental cabins and picking just the one we wanted. We placed our reservation right away and deliberately set it out past Labor Day to our mutually favorite month in the Northwest, October. Once this was done, we slipped back into life and the year sort of whooshed by. Now here we are, on the cusp of our reasonably-sized adventure (State Park camping is just about my speed: a heated cabin, with paved paths and showers nearby. In a previous life I was a British officer who shaved and took tea every day in my tent).

All this leisure and sloth takes a surprising amount of preparation. There are meals to plan, supplies to gather, batteries to replace, books to decide on. And there is the question of keeping our cat fed and to be reasonably sure that she will be alive and still like us when we return.

One thing that was important to us was to get buy-in from the kids. As they know exactly what we are getting into, from the location and layout of the cabin to their fond familiarity with the park, they are excited to help shape our trip and to contribute to its fruition. They spent the weekend polishing boots, washing out coolers, cleaning out the car, and gathering books on birds, animals, flowers and mushrooms we are likely to encounter. They have been practicing being in the same room and making sounds and looking and breathing in each other’s direction without freaking out (more drills will be needed).

Regardless of the outcome, we will only be an hour away from home. We have picked the day with the highest probability of rain to come back into town, check on the cat, and replenish our groceries.

This trip is for them, after all, and their vision made it happen. As for me, I have books to read. And I won’t be checking my email.

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Who Cares for the Caretakers?

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I have written in this blog on several occasions that in order to fill our childrens’ cups, we have to keep our own cups full. In other words, we can only take proper care of them if we’re taking proper care of ourselves.

Parenting is hard. I don’t think any of you are going to argue otherwise (although, if you do, I would love to find out how you make that work. Really). It is hard on us. It costs money. We lose sleep, we lose solitude, we lose at least some of the ways we used to live our lives as single people. For women who are pregnant, it literally takes nutrients out of our bodies. That is because parenting is the most important job.

And that is why it is especially important that we are getting what it is we need. Sleep? We have to weigh the importance of having that time after kids go to bed (and there should be time, because they have regular bedtimes) against getting enough rest.

Solitude? Sometimes it means getting to use the bathroom by ourselves. Or giving our partner a break. We have instituted “rest time,” in which the kids are occupied with an audiobook or a movie or a BBC historical show (as you do), and the parents are thus free to take a breather.

Sometimes it means taking specific steps. I understand that babysitting is a popular choice. For whatever reason, we rarely take advantage of this, though we do have family that can take the girls for an afternoon or even, recently and gloriously, overnight.

Spending quality time with your spouse, partner or coparent of choice is crucial. Having small children makes adult relationships a challenge. Having older ones makes adult relationships…well, challenging. We have taken up reading aloud to each other, and recently my wife has taught me to play gin. Sitting on the porch with a cup of tea seems to be working nicely, though it is hard to let go of the parent mind (“What was that noise? Was it a cat or a child?” “It was the house settling.” “Was it an earthquake?” Etc).

Sometimes it means getting a counselor. Sometimes it means going together.

We don’t stop being people when we have children. Parenting changes us, and that makes it all the more important to keep pace with the changes.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to settle in with a book. As soon as I investigate that noise.

 

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Performing Parenting

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Do you ever find yourself performing as a parent? I know that I do. When we’re in a public place, among other parents and children (and especially other adults without children), there is a tendency to want to show them that we are doing the right thing; that we are not neglecting our duties; that we are on top of things.

There are a lot of reasons for this. We have four girls, and according to some yardsticks this is classified as a “large family.” Having a “large family” prompts such statements as “you must really have your hands full” and “you must be busy!” These can feel like judgments even when they aren’t (and sometimes they are). When another person is trying to walk down the aisle in the grocery store and see that we are taking up the entirety of the space, it’s easy to notice what we perceive to be a sigh of exasperation or a narrowing of eyes that suggests annoyance. We don’t want to inconvenience people with our big (even if often joyful) presence. And when our kids are having a hard time to boot, that feeling is increased exponentially. Really, we might think, why are we trying to shop for food right now? In public?

Or how about this: we’re at the library and there’s another family whose children are maybe not as well put together as ours just now. We might put on our best parent voices and say only the most positive, affirming things, thus reinforcing our superior skills and making a display of how good our children are. We did this, is the implication we are trying to get across. Or maybe we are the other family, whose children are struggling, and are probably hungry or tired or in any case just not wanting to be at the library right now. In the face of this pressure, we feel the need to show we are in control, so we begin to perform this for our audience. We chastise the kids for making noise, for not keeping still; maybe threaten a time out. The message is: We got this.

In all these cases, what’s happening is that we are not parenting authentically, but giving a performance: rather than meeting the needs of our children, we are accommodating the other people in the room. And this is not helpful.

What’s the solution? We have to hold our kids in priority over what we imagine will be thought or said by others. After all, we probably don’t know what other people are thinking anyway, and in any case they’re not coming home with us.

I often say that the toy aisle at Wal-Mart is a fabulous place for a toddler to have a tantrum. It’s roomy, it’s well lit, and the muzak is not that good anyway. Let the child do what he or she needs to do. In the end, they’re the only audience that matters.

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Spare Change

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I hope that you enjoyed your holiday. It was a busy weekend for our family, having contained my eldest daughter’s birthday, my birthday, and my wedding anniversary (we were married on my birthday; it seemed like a good idea at the time, and though I go back and forth on the issue now, at least there’s no way I can forget the anniversary).

In our house, birthdays are pretty special. Sometimes too special. One of the rules of the birthday is that we get to choose what we want to eat for every meal. For whatever reason, this has worked out well in the past. This year, my daughter put a lot of thought into her selection and wrote them out for us to post on the refrigerator. It was a pretty reasonable list:

Breakfast: Hash browns, sausage and scrambled eggs

Lunch: Cream of mushroom soup with grilled cheese sandwiches

Dinner: Meatloaf and mashed potatoes

And of course: Vanilla cupcakes with buttercream frosting

Okay, my daughter made the cupcakes. She’s good at it. But her birthday fell on Thursday, so I was at work, and in the course of the day my wife mentioned that she had spent nearly the entire day in the kitchen, either prepping, preparing, or cleaning up after the birthday meals. I suggested that in the future, we revise the birthday rule to specify that they may choose one special meal.

We felt bad about this, and certainly did not want to impart guilt on the birthday girl, who had spent her birthday money from her grandparents on buying gifts for us. But the thing about creating a family tradition is that if it’s yours, you can change it.

This has come up in other areas as well. I have a crack bedtime routine for my little ones (aged 5 and 7) which has been working well for some time now (months, which I think you’ll agree is a long time for a routine to be working).

The routine consists of the following:

  • Go to the bathroom
  • Changing into pajamas
  • Brushing teeth
  • Saying goodnight to mother and sisters (the second part of this degenerates into a tickling frenzy unless I supervise it)
  • Reading a story
  • Prayers
  • Go to the bathroom again (an insurance policy)
  • Get into bed and turn out the light
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Sing a song
  • Hugs and kisses and saying “Goodnight, I love you, see you in the morning” approximately 17 times

If this reads as a pretty long list, trust me, it is. The whole process takes about an hour. And this is not working for me, because I become convinced that I am going to be doing the bedtime routine for the rest of my life. It is not working for the children because there is a window of optimal tiredness (or W.o.O.T.) which, if missed, hits a reset button in their brains that renders all of the relaxation moot.

I have attempted to remove some of the steps. We can usually get the final “goodnights” down to three or four repetitions. But that’s about all I have managed. Nothing else, apparently, is negotiable.

So I have cast my mind back to my days as a theatre major: when the director points out at dress rehearsal that the show is running too long and we need to shave off 10 minutes, without removing anything. How is this possible?

It’s all in the transitions. If the events can flow from one to another with a minimum of gaps, it all goes okay. This week, anyway.

I know that the routine, like the birthday tradition, will change when it needs to. First I have to want it to change. Because, of course, the routines are at least as much about me as they are for my children.

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