From Bad to Better

FriendsA few weeks back, we were desperate. My daughter’s tantrums had driven us to the brink of insanity. Well, not exactly the brink. We were over the cliff and plummeting to our imminent demise. (See “Major Meltdowns” and Surviving Easter ‘Break’) Well, I can’t say that we’re not insane anymore – that’s a very subjective state. But things have changed dramatically.

We took our daughter to a therapist who’s wonderful. My daughter loves her and gets so excited about her sessions. The first thing the therapist did was to recommend a book, “1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12.” I admit I haven’t finished the book (Because when do I get a chance to read? There’s a DVD too if you don’t have time to read a book either). But the basic premise is this: When your child acts up, you give her two chances to shape up, and if she doesn’t, she goes to her room for a time out. Doesn’t matter what she does in her room as long as she serves her time. read more

Fun Fridays!

It seemed like a good plan. Good on paper, anyway. This year, Rose would go to preschool four days a week. Christian would go to the babysitter three times a week. Both would have Fridays off. On “Family Fridays,” the kids and I would do something fun.

Last school year, Rose went to preschool four days a week because that’s all her school offered. On her day off, I’d send her and Christian to the babysitter so I could work. This year, her school offers a five-day program. So what made me think I’d want her to have Fridays off?

The idea hearkens back to the days before preschool, when Rose and I would do fun things on Fridays in the summer. We used to go to a farm to pet animals and pick vegetables, or to the playground, or to a “spray park” where she could play in a fountain. I miss those days.

But two things have changed since then. One, Christian came along. Because she’s three-and-a-half and he’s not even a year old, they have different skill levels, so if we go to a park, I need to focus almost all of my attention on him to keep him happy and his mouth empty. It stresses me out when all I can do for Rose is make frantic intermittent checks on her whereabouts. Now “fun” things with both of them are not fun.

The second thing that’s changed is my work. “Fun Fridays” was facilitated by my four-day work week at my “real” job. Rose went to the babysitter on my work days and come Friday, I felt a little fun was in order. And it was fun. Now that I’m freelancing, I have to work harder to get work, do work, and make sure I work on my books. And work is picking up.

Nevertheless, I still thought Fridays “off” would be fun. This past Friday I was still on the fence about another preschool day for Rose and I thought I’d make our day the deciding factor.

Fun Friday

Christian woke me at 6:30 a.m. I lay on the couch while he played until Rose got up at 7 a.m. She wanted a roll with butter for breakfast. Proud of her New-York-style choice, I defrosted her roll and gave it to her. As soon as she got it, Christian honed in on the scent, rushing to beg for her food.

“Nooooo!” Rose whined, scooching up higher on the couch.

“I’ll get him,” I said, getting up.

I tried to get him interested in toys on the other side of the room, but the lure of the roll was too strong. He would not leave Rose alone. I told her to eat at the dining room table. She went over, put her plate on the table and walked away.

I checked my email on my phone. I had a message from my editor that I’d missed yesterday. She wanted more info in a blog post I’d sent her. I rushed to boot up the computer and send her a response. I said I would work on the post today but might not get it to her until the weekend. She seemed accommodating, but not happy, so I began the rewrite.

“Waaaah!” Christian had bumped his head on the coffee table. I picked him up; comforted him; tried to put him back down but he cried. I sighed and sat down with him in my arms, looking nervously at the computer. I had to get that post in. When Christian was through with me, he wiggled out of my arms and I went back to work. I added some detail to the post when, “Moooom!”

“What, Rose?”

“Christian’s playing with my Barbie.”

“I’ll be right there,” I said while I finished typing my sentence. I went over, pried the Barbie from Christian’s claws, distracted him with his fire truck and said, “If you don’t want him to play with your toys, you should play with them in your room.”

“No, that’s okay,” Rose said.

I went back to my work. I finished the post and took a break before proofing it. As long as I’m working, I thought, I should get out those emails to the agents I met.

I started to compose an email to one of the agents who’d asked to see the blog.

“Mooom, when are we goooiiing?” Rose whined. We had a lunchtime playdate. I was bringing the BLT’s.

“Not yet, Sweetie. Why don’t you pick out a bathing suit for the wading pool.”

“Okay.” She ran to her room. Christian crawled after her, then took a left into the bathroom – the accident-soaked potty bathroom that Rose uses. I scooped him up, closed the door. He started crying.

“I’m sorry, Buddy, we do not go in Rose’s bathroom.” He kept crying. I put him in the Jumparoo. He cried some more and I coached, “Jumpa jumpa jumpa!” He jumped, realized he liked jumping and kept it up. I looked at the time. I had to start the sandwiches. I laid some bacon in a pan and put it in the oven, then I went back to the computer.

I read over the blog post. It looked fine. I sent it. Then I turned my attention to the email. I read the paragraph over. It looked good to me, but it was going to an agent. She could reject me for the slightest mistake.

Christian was crying again. I got up, looked at the clock. “Are you hungry, little guy?” I asked. He beamed. I went to mix a bottle. He cried and reached out to me. I picked him up, made the formula with one hand, warmed it, sat down and fed him. When he pushed the bottle away I went back to the computer. I read my message again, pasted it into an email, and sent it. I needed to send a link to one more agent but I smelled the bacon so I went to check on it. Not ready yet. I sat down to send the second email. I read it over one more time.

Oh…my…GOD! I saw that I’d opened with “Thank you for meeting with me,” and closed with “Thank you for meeting with me.” With only 40 words in between. I really was that grateful, but I thought, Oh God, she’s going to take one look at that and write me off. I’m screwed.

“Mommy, I want one of these,” Rose said, pointing to the fruit basket. “A purple one,” she said.

“Sure, Sweetie, you can have a plum,” I said, and got back to work.

There was nothing I could do but make sure the next agent got a better email. The first one just wasn’t meant to be, I reasoned. I continued to chastise myself, though. What was I thinking to send something to an agent on a day that I had the kids? How stupid am I? Nevertheless, I sent a perfect email to the next agent. At least I could feel good about that.

“Mommy, I had some of the big tomato,” Rose said, standing at the trash can.

“You WHAT?” I said, running to the trash. There it was. My only tomato, meant for the BLT’s. She’d bitten the middle all around, like an apple. I picked it out of the trash, slammed it back in, “DAMMIT, ROSE! I told you you could have a plum or a peach. I did not say you could have a tomato! That was for our lunch, Rose! Now we have no lunch!” Rose cried and ran to her room.

I felt horrible. I just yelled at my kid for eating a tomato. Most parents would kill for their children to eat a vegetable and here I was scolding her. It was our only damn tomato, though. We’d have to get a new one, which meant stopping at the store, unloading both kids, getting one item, and loading them back into the car. I knew why I was mad, but I knew it wasn’t fair to her.

I went back to her room and apologized. I said I wasn’t mad, but I had told her she could have a peach or a plum and next time she should ask before taking anything else. She kept crying. We took deep breaths and finally she calmed down. As I walked back toward the kitchen I smelled the bacon. Shit! I rushed to the oven. The bacon was fine. I took it out and set it on the stovetop.

It was time to prep the sandwiches and get going, so I shut down the computer. As I pried bacon from the pan, I thought about “Fun Fridays.” I concluded that there was no such thing. I booted up the computer again and emailed Rose’s teacher about adding Fridays to her schedule. That, I realized, was really the most important email of the day. I’m so glad I got it right.

The Pot(s) and the Kettle

Rose not learning to use the potty

“She never learns!” laments my exasperated husband. “I must have told her 50 times and she still doesn’t get it! What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s three,” I sigh. “She’ll get it eventually but it takes her a long time. She’s like a poodle, Honey. Poodles are really smart, but they’re still limited because they’re dogs. She’s smart too, but she’s still a baby. She’ll learn eventually.”

“I don’t think so,” he says.

I can’t help but agree with him on some level. Although I know she’s defiant because she’s three, her father never seems to learn either. Neither do I. We’re the pot, she’s the kettle, and we’re all black. So either she grows up and learns to listen, or she lives her life like us, doing the same thing the same way and expecting different results.

For example, whenever we’re in the car looking for something – a parking space, a house, a road sign – Matt cruises along at full speed and this is what happens:

“Hey, there’s a sp…Oh, forget it, we passed it,” I say.

“You didn’t tell me until I was right on top of it!” he says.

“If you slowed down, we’d be parked by now,” I say.

“I can’t,” he’ll say. “We would have gotten rear-ended. The guy behind us is coming up on me at a hundred miles an hour!”

“If you slowed down, he’d have to slow down too.” I sigh and give up on pointing out spaces. I will just shut up and let him find it on his own, in an hour.

Matt and Rose are more alike than he’d like to believe. This evening, upon leaving a restaurant, Matt ushered Rose into the car. She dawdled, reaching for her Dora the Explorer purse, as Matt pushed. “Climb into your seat, Rose. Let’s GO!” Rose reached for her purse on the front seat. “If you don’t climb up right now I’m gonna beat your butt red.” (An empty threat. It never happens. He’s Southern, from the land of, “Go cut me a switch, Boy! And it’d better be a strong one!”)

“I was just getting…”

“Get up now or you go right to bed!!”

Matt doesn’t move his ass, either. Recently I asked Matt to to get me a tennis ball from the garage. I was still suffering from sciatica and could hardly walk. My chiropractor had recommended I lie down on a tennis ball to work the pressure points on my back. My back hurt so much I could hardly get out of bed.

The tennis balls were buried somewhere in the garage and he said he’d get one. He did not get the ball. I asked for it the next day. He said he’d get it. He did not. I asked the next day. Same story. But I did get the ball. Six days later, when I asked again, he said “I forgot what you wanted that for.”

“My back, Honey. The chiro said to lie on it for my back.”

“Oh, ok.” He went to the garage, and five minutes later I had the ball.

And then there’s me. I’m terrible at learning from experience. When I was young and a boy rejected me, I’d cry for a while, then come back with a vengeance. I’d get completely obsessed, thinking I could make him like me if I tried hard enough. It never worked. I followed this pattern for at least 10 years.

“Never” is a strong word. As I tell Matt, Rose does learn; it just takes her a lot of repetitions for things to sink in. She’s smart, so we think she should pick up on everything right away. But she’s also curious and willful, and those qualities in action tend to throw us off. For example, if I leave my purse or Matt leaves his backpack in her reach, she will dissect it all over the floor, leaving torn utility bills, paper money and credit cards in her wake. For a while, I stored my purse on the closet floor, thinking “out of sight, out of mind.” But then Rose learned to open the closet, pull it out and destroy it. So I moved it to a high shelf. Now she only destroys it when I slip upand leave it where she can get to it.

Matt’s bag is a different story. He leaves it on the floor in the dining or living room all the time. Right in the middle of Rose’s territory. So naturally the curious and destructive three-year-old gets into it, and yanks stuff out, whipping papers through the air behind her like a cartoon. Then Matt comes in, mad, says “How many times do I have to tell you, ‘Don’t touch my bag!’” and Rose looks at him and says, “I was just…”

“I don’t care what you were just doing. You don’t touch Daddy’s bag!” Then he grabs it, attempts to make sense of the maelstrom of papers, all the while grumbling “Rose, dammit, can’t leave my bag anywhere!” under his breath.

Rose then runs to me, and I stand in solidarity with Matt and say, “Honey, you can’t rip apart Daddy’s bag. It’s Daddy’s, not yours.” When Matt calms down, I say smugly, “Honey, if you kept it out of her reach, she wouldn’t do it.”

And he says, “It doesn’t matter. She has to learn.”

Then we have a discussion about unwinnable battles and how the war of the backpack is Matt’s own personal Iraq. No matter how many times he fights it, no matter how much manpower he puts on it, he’s never gonna win.

To her, his backpack’s an irresistible grownup trapping and her interest in it will never wane. To him, it’s his property that his family should respect. That’s not gonna happen now. Maybe in five or ten years, but not right now.

And that’s what I think the problem is. When the Pot and I call the Kettle black, we’re too absolute. “Rose never learns” describes a temporary state in permanent terms. Rose will learn. In fact, she’s learned a lot so far. We never said, “She’ll never learn to talk, or she’ll never learn to walk or she’ll never learn to read,” because we expect her to reach those milestones and we’re well aware of developmental timeframes. But “She’ll never learn to listen,” happens every day, so it seems like it will last forever.

In some ways, it will last forever. She will never stop defying us on some level. Now it’s rifling through our bags, but it will evolve into refusing to do her homework or dating boys we don’t like or becoming a Republican. The thing we have to remember is that we’re the adults. We will always set the limits, and she will always test them. We’re supposed to have the patience and the resources to deal with her behavior, so it’s our job to pick our battles and ensure that we learn how to handle the ones we choose to fight. As for being the Pots, we have to accept that learning goes on forever, and there’s hope for us yet.

Chomping at the Butt

I’m a big believer in letting people learn their own lessons. At least I used to be, before I got married. Now my family’s lessons are biting my ass.

A few weeks ago, Rose’s swim class session ended. Matt takes her to swimming. They used to swim on Saturday mornings but when this session ended, Matt did not sign her up for another session. This was the second time he’d dropped the beach ball. Because signups are so competitive, the pool doesn’t announce registration. Matt used that as his excuse. Rather than run over there to bail him out, I let him take care of the registration process. Well, by the time he called, Rose was shut out of weekend sessions, but hallelujah, weekday registration would start next week. He promised to sign her up.

Well, I thought, This will make him remember to register on time next time. Matt hates to miss work, and now he’d be leaving early twice a week to get to swim class. He’ll learn his lesson.

But what I didn’t realize was how this exercise in restraint would affect me. Matt had been driving to work on Mondays, which got him home earlier than usual. So that’s when he’d watch the kids so I could go to the gym. They have childcare for Rose but Christian’s too young, so I can’t go without a sitter. And I love the gym. I get to read grownup books and work out, and that kind of multitasking always makes me happy. Plus the workouts give me energy – something I haven’t had in nine months.

Well, now Matt and Rose have swimming Mondays, which meant I could not go to the gym. Further, they swim Wednesdays too, so Matt has to drive in twice a week. There was no way I could ask Matt to drive another day. Parking is outrageously expensive and he wouldn’t want to waste the money. I couldn’t go to the gym on weekends, either, because that’s when Matt takes Rose to the gym so I can write the blog.

So now, Matt may or may not have learned his lesson with swimming registration – we’ll see when this session ends. But I’m screwed because in “teaching” him, I lost my gym days.

Come to think of it, letting my family suffer the consequences of their own actions seems to chomp my butt all the time. I do the same thing with Matt’s chores. Matt has two jobs around the house: Dishes and garbage. As a matter of principle, I do not wash dishes or take out garbage. But I’m the one who works at home, so who sees the pile of garbage on top of the trash can? And who sees the counters cluttered with dirty dishes? And who gets more and more resentful each time she enters the kitchen? You guessed it, me.

And if I nag about it, Matt gets defensive and angry. Again, who suffers from that? Say it with me, “Me.”

I try to let Rose learn her own lessons too. She’s three, though, so it doesn’t always work out that way. If she resists wearing her jacket and I insist, it’s a battle of wills that leaves me stressed and angry. If I let her freeze her butt off, I have to listen to, “Mooooommmy…I’m cold.” All day. And then, if it lowers her resistance and she catches cold, I have to take care of her. So because she’s three I make allowances. I’ll carry the jacket and leave it in the car so that the minute she whines, I can say “I told you so” and she’ll put her jacket on.

I learned to allow people to learn on their own in a 12-Step program. But I didn’t need to put it into practice until I got married, long after I’d quit 12-Stepping. So I never learned what to do when it backfires. Strangely, no one in those meetings ever talked about that.

But what’s the alternative? Do I run around picking up Matt’s slack and stage power struggles with Rose every time we leave the house? Let’s say I did. Let’s say I rushed to the swim center and begged the clerk to let Rose into the weekend class. If I got her in, I’d be happy to preserve my gym day but resentful that I had to do it at all, and I’d enable Matt to slack off on registration next time. After all, if he can count on me to do it, why would he ever do it himself? If I forced Rose into her jacket on cold days, I’d come out of it angry and frustrated, and then Mean Mommy would show her ugly face.

I guess it comes down to choosing the lesser of two evils. I can be angry and resentful when I pick up their slack or I can be angry and resentful when I don’t pick up their slack. The truth is, futile as it seems, I still harbor a shred of hope that my actions, or lack thereof, will teach them valuable lessons. And that hope tips the scales for me. Maybe it’s too late for Matt, but I’ve got two kids now, and painful as it may be, all of this practice letting my family learn for themselves will help when the kids get older and I really need to let go.

There’s No Place Like Home

I thought about moving the other day. It went something like this:

What are we gonna do? How are we gonna survive with two kids and no family around? We need to move closer to someone. But where? Matt’s family lives in the Virginia sticks, where there’s a bun in every 14-year-old oven. That’s not an option. We could go to New York, but if we go upstate, near my best friend, my past will haunt me too much. There’s the city. My birth mother lives there. The city would be great if we had no kids, but we do. So that’s not an option. And if we lived there we’d be two hours from my best friend. No point in that. I have family in San Francisco. Now we’re talking. Nice weather, friendly Californians, but too brown. Seattle’s got me so used to green. There’s Southern California – close friend there – but she’s got a snake fence, a bear fence and a coyote fence in her backyard. Add that to overcrowded schools and gangs and it’s completely out of the question.

So what do we do? Now that we’ve got two children we need double the break time but it’s doubly difficult to get. Their grandparents are all the way across the country so we can’t dump them on anybody. We have to move. But I love this house, and there’s so much we’ve done to it, it’d be a shame to sell it. Not to mention I love my woods here. Not gonna find that in California. I really don’t want to pack and unpack all of our stuff anytime soon, either. And there’s Matt’s job. He needs to be on the West Coast to cover his territory. And if we do move, we’ll have to do it before the kids go to school. For Rose, that’s another two years. Not much time. I could wait another three years until they switch her school. Hmm.

I tossed the idea around for a good couple of weeks. I thought it about so much that I must have gnashed my teeth to nubs. Last week I needed an emergency dentist appointment. My jaw hurt so bad I told them I must have an infection. Nope, the doctor said, it turned out I ground my teeth so much that my body decided it needed to grow some extra bone.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the dentist. She could only take me during nap time and even if we’d skipped naps I couldn’t have gone to her office with both kids. So I called Laura – one of our friends from Maryland who’d recently relocated here. She had nothing going on, so she came right over to sit with the kids. She said she could do it anytime, at least until she got a job. And there’s a recession on. Hot damn! I thought. We DO have grandparents to drop the kids with!

And then Thanksgiving came up. We invited our friends from West Seattle. They’re two families – one from South Africa and one from Australia – and they haven’t got family here, so we see them every holiday. Their daughters are Rose’s two best friends. And we see them every couple of months too. They’re almost like – cousins!

When we had Christian, my friend Jackie offered to take Rose when we went to the hospital. We wound up with a live-in sitter that week, but I realized Jackie was one more connection in our support network.

Our Maryland friends invited us to a wine and food tasting last weekend – grownup night. I have a friend who loves Rose but she works so much she doesn’t get to see her. I asked her last minute and she sat for the kids – for free. There’s another part of our Seattle family. Yup, family. Maybe we don’t have to move at all, I thought.

I don’t know whether we’ll stay in Seattle forever. If we don’t, I don’t know where we’ll go next. Maybe we’ll stay until the kids get out of school. Maybe we’ll move in a few years. But now I know that we CAN stay, as long as we want, because we DO have family here. Turns out we’ve had it all along. And like they said in the Wizard of Oz, there’s no place like home.