Friday, November 30, 2012

Waiting in Advent

It’s been a season of holding on, letting go, growing spiritually, and seeking to know my true self over my false self. It’s been a handful. My heart is full as I enter the advent season with my girls. The Christmas tree is decorated, the manger placed and filled with animals.

Yesterday our advent activity was to make “I Care About You” bags to keep in the car. We started this tradition last year when Twila started wondering about the people who stand on the road holding signs; the people who, sometimes we stop to greet and hand money to, and sometimes just drive past.

We filled Ziploc bags with personal care items, snacks, water and hand warmers and handed them out anytime we saw a person in need. Twila and Jada got very good at pointing out people they suspected were homeless. Often near the U of M campus the identified people were not actually homeless, just students with unkempt hair and torn clothes.  Twila took particular pride in handing the bags to folks I agreed were indeed homeless and saying reverently, “This is for you.”

The rest of the activities this year vary from the simple (making popcorn and listening to Christmas Music by the fire) to the extravagant (going downtown to watch the Holidazzle Parade). Some activities include gifts; some are making or buying gifts for others. 

While the work of readying these activities made the fall months anything but relaxing, now that they are ready and all supplies are laying in wait to be used or revealed, I can rest in my preparation, relax and enjoy the season.

But lest I take it too easy on myself, I decided to hand make the girls’ Christmas gifts this year. The process has been fun, since I started in August, but is anything but complete and most nights I have to pull out a work in progress after the girls go to bed instead of just sitting on the couch inertly and sipping wine (my usual preference).

I asked one of our teachers at Waldorf how her family handles Christmas and she said plainly that they give each child one gift. 

I nodded and smiled. You’ve got to be kidding me. The idea is of course lovely and pure and would simplify Christmas gift giving immensely. But I fear that if we went from last year (a dozen shiny packages under the tree) to suddenly giving each child one hand-made gift, it might feel like a punishment. Of course this is likely a projection since kids typically absorb and re project the energy and perceptions we have. 

Talking to that teacher was the first time I realized that I pictured my family culture one way but was still living quite another, or to be kinder and gentler with myself, I am still on the journey toward simplification, but certainly not there yet.

Like the time I read Simplicity Parenting and imagined myself sweeping and scrubbing the floors with a blissful look of peace on my face, humming softly, as my daughters imitated my slow and careful motions, then tried to put that kind of parenting into action with our next baking project and ended up making both Twila and Jada cry with my controlling, snappy mothering. I was trying so hard to be quiet and lead by example. But how can you be quiet when one daughter is eating baking soda and the other is massaging the raw eggs with both hands? I can tell you from experience, you can try but your strategies will seem even more overbearing and scary than just asking them to stop.

Joining Waldorf has been the most overwhelming experience of my motherhood journey so far. It’s overwhelming in the totality of joy I feel every time I am on the campus or talking with the other parents or teachers. It feels exactly like where I want to be, where I want my children to grow, where I want our family to mature. Yet the more I become entrenched in the culture, the more I see my own missteps as a parent, the more glaring are my shortcomings: a lack of calm and patience which everyone at Waldorf seems to have in spades.

Maybe they joined in progress too, maybe other moms at Waldorf struggle with talking less and incorporating their children into chores and activities more. They probably do, but I don’t want to. I want to blend right in with the atmosphere that feels so right. I want to instantly manifest the energy that makes Waldorf feel so life-giving and rich. But no matter how much time I spend loitering around the halls and the parent lounge, I can’t seem to channel that beautiful energy all the time. 

And of course, life just keeps coming from every direction. Last night Ryan went to Twila’s Kindergarten meeting and I took the girls with me to the second to last class in the thirteen week series I’ve been taking at our church. The class goes from 6:30-8:30 so it’s not an ideal one to bring the girls to since 6:30 is usually when we’re brushing teeth and putting jammies on, but it was the only one of the two commitments that had child care. So Ryan went straight to Twila’s school from work and I fed the girls dinner and got them into the car…just around bedtime.

The girls were sleepy; we were running late as usual. I wanted to have the proper bedding in the car to allow them to fall asleep on the way home and they needed to be dressed warmly (it was only nineteen degrees outside). 

“Everyone, to the back door; get your boots on,” I said, and then turned to the kitchen to get a treat for the dog.

Sometimes I feel like a train walking around the house. I lead the way and usually the dog follows me, his nose uncomfortably close to the back of my thighs. Then comes Twila holding the new kitten and often Jada after her begging for a turn with the new kitten. The trouble comes when I reach my destination (my closet or the back door where all our boots are piled up or to the treat cupboard to get a treat for the dog), retrieve what I was going to get, and want to back up. Instead, I find a backlog of children and animals tripping over each other, falling, spilling things.

The opposite effect is magnets turned to polar sides. When Twila is whispering loudly in the hall first thing in the morning and I’d like to direct her out to the living room instead, but as I step closer to her she takes a step back. She keeps doing this until she backs into the dog dish or the clattery toy outside Jada’s door, or until I claw at her arm and grab hold before she can back any further away.

I’m not sure what these two phenomena have in common or what their relationship to each other is but they are both equally vexing. 

So there I stand with a treat in hand, and a train of beings behind me.

“Girls! To the door. Boots! Jackets! Go!”

I lead the dog to the kennel and successfully close him in. The girls are still arguing at the water dish, which is now getting kicked and sloshed recklessly as they argue. I can’t fathom how much water we’ve wasted, how many towels have been washed having to clean up spilled dish after spilled dish.

As the girls clean up the water, the kitten escapes down the hall and I have to chase her down to get her closed in the girls’ room with her cat box and food. Jada follows me whining that she wants to hold the kitty. I remind her we are leaving to which she gives me her pat answer, “No!”

I’m not sure which part she’s objecting to but decide just to pick her up and bring her to the door myself. Once there, I wonder where Twila is. “Here Jada, pull these boots on. Twila? Twila where are you?”

“Hey mom, look!” Twila pops out from the family room, now with one less sock on her feet and an old stuffed animal covered in dust. “I just found Carmel behind the couch!”

“Twila, honey,” my voice is measure, “we need to GO. Where is your other sock?”

“It got wet when I cleaned up the dog water and Jada did NOT help me clean it up at ALL. My pants are wet too.”

I gritted my teeth and sighed. “Okay, let’s go change.”

“Mommy, I need HELP!” Jada yells from the back door, followed by a thunk (her head on the ground) and a sob.

“Twila go and get a dry pair of pants and socks and meet me by the back door—please go now!” I say over my shoulder as I go to Jada. 

Suddenly the dog is barking. I can’t tell if he’s just agitated about being in the kennel while we’re all running back and forth, or if he suddenly remembered he has to go potty. In retrospect I might have been anthropomorphizing slightly, but I am sensitive to the plight of those with full bladders so I let him out for one last pee. Unfortunately our neighbor dog, Django’s girlfriend she has been dubbed for how much time they spend together and the inordinate joy they seem to bring to each other, comes bounding over just then. Though Django is getting older, his puppy disobedience comes out more than ever when his girlfriend is over. Off they run ignoring my shouts and commands.

As I rush back to see if Twila is making any progress with new pants, I realize I haven’t watered the Christmas tree all day. Anyone who chops their own knows this is very bad in the first days after having cut it. A newly cut Christmas tree sucks a lot of water and if its left dry too long, the end seals and it dies, dropping brown needles all over the floor and leaving you with a Charlie Brown style skeleton well before Christmas day. I abandon my first mission and divert my efforts to filling a pitcher for the tree.

As I crouch down at the base of the trunk, the kitten runs by. Twila has let her out while trying to find new pants. Suddenly a pantsless Twila is charging after her and snatching her with one hand.

“I want to hold her!” Jada whales. 

And then we are back at that argument. I begin to think that Ryan has gotten a much sweeter deal going straight from work to Twila’s meeting, grabbing a sandwich on his way and carting only himself from door to car to door.

Somehow we finally made it to the car and I was catching my breath, lamenting my loud voice and short temper, wondering if I will ever get the calm, patient core that seems deeply rooted in the Waldorf parents.
That night at my class, we talked about the true self and the false self, about Thomas Merton’s comparison of our successes and accomplishments to bandages we use to wind around ourselves to cover the fact that we’re empty.

It dawned on me that maybe the idealistic patient, perfect, earthy mommy is part of my false identity which I create to feel better about who I am but which ultimately ends up punishing me daily as I am reminded that I have not yet lived up to it, or probably ever will. What if my true self is fast paced and energetic and sometimes even a little fiery? Is there a way to work on being gentler with myself and my kids without trying to force myself into a mom-mold that simply doesn’t fit?

Today both girls are sick and I am presented with an opportunity to practice both patience, and acceptance of myself. What was shaping up to be a busy day of school for Twila, parent tot class for me and Jada, picking up cat food,  and dry cleaning and going to Eagan for a holiday open house then back home for bedtime, is now an open and sprawling day with a fire in the fireplace and two advent activities to enjoy. One includes paint and wood and the other a new soft Christmas blanket to enjoy by the fire, almost as if they were timed perfectly for this sick day. 

But there will be the challenges of too much free time too, the constant interruptions to help get drinks, find toys and give hugs. Sensitivities are high as their bodies run low on energy. My hope for the day, (for the rest of the year, for the rest of my life,) is that we will all be able to be patient with ourselves, and each other.  

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Six Year Change

Twila, Age 18 Months
The coolness and change of autumn used to represent the change from busy to calm, the cooling of energy and schedules. In the cooler, darker days we stayed indoors more, slept later, played on the floor in the mornings, steaming coffee by my side, stacking blocks, or playing with Twila’s doll house. But this fall, Twila is in school full time; Jada in her first year of preschool. When I imagined this fall I pictured more free time. I imagined myself sitting with my steaming coffee with a notebook open in front of me, giving my writing the attention it deserves, finally.

The surprise has been that with more school comes more responsibility to get us places on time, more transportation of the family, the children we carpool with. There are more meetings and field trips and deadlines. Picture days and festivals and bake sales, Parent Council meetings. And of course, piano class to get to; piano practicing to enforce. Mothering has gotten busier than it’s ever been.

But perhaps the biggest challenge this seasonal change has brought has been the change in my six year old, Twila. I didn’t know how easy I had it when Twila was a baby, then a toddler. Sure she tested the limits, gave me some push back, practiced her ‘no’ around two and got down-right sassy at three. But being my first child, I had no idea how mild these changes and challenges really were. Then Jada came along. Jada with her hot temper and hair-pulling, skin-clawing, ear-piercing shrieks and waling tantrums. And then I realized how mellow and mild Twila had been. 

When Jada was born, I came to see how helpful, responsible and sensitive Twila really was. Of course I’d known this already on some level but the contrast of their personalities brought into even sharper relief Twila’s mild demeanor. 

And then, something happened. Around five and a half, she started experimenting with being sneaky. She often whispered into Jada’s ear some trouble-making directive. I was puzzled by this new behavior and set to work reminding her who she really is, what behavior I expect from my five year old and what behavior is expected in our family. This worked to some degree. Then, this fall, along came six.

Six caught me completely by surprise. I had not heard of the concept of ‘The Six Year Change.’ Having a birthday near the beginning of the school year, all I could think was that school was ruining her. When she started hitting her sister, stomping around the house with her fist on her hip, glowering at me and shouting that she was not amused with me (for saying she couldn’t have a snack as I was putting dinner on the table) and knocking furniture over when she was asked to “take a break” I thought that perhaps aliens had taken my daughter and replaced her with a tiny angry teenager, or, more likely, she was observing nasty behavior from those other kids at school. Never did it cross my mind that this behavior originated with Twila herself.

After several weeks of trying to manage this storm at home, I finally asked her teacher what on earth could be going on.

Twila’s wonderful kindergarten teacher gave me an article called, Observing The Six Year Change by Ruth Ker. I almost cried with relief as I read about the psychological changes that accompany the baby teeth coming out and youthful bodies stretching into the long, lean bodies of girls, losing the last bits of baby chub and youthful roundness. 

This article described exactly what we were going through. From whispering in other children’s ears for them to break rules, to wanting to be the boss, to experimenting with defiance, to rough housing and vacillating between hyper-maturity to regression (wanting to use a bottle and be carried around in the Ergo). This was precisely what we were going through in Technicolor detail. I breathed a huge sigh of relief that this was a thing, not just our poor parenting or something wrong with our child. This was something other parents had gone through and was a part of growing up that Twila had to go through. The article included tips for how to meet children at this stage with loving firmness. 

As I listened outside the bathroom to the girls splashing in the tub, keeping a surreptitious eye on them without interfering in their negotiations, I heard Twila ring-leading, bossing, telling Jada what they were going to do next. I bit my tongue, trying to allow them to work through this on their own. Jada finally gave her some push back. Twila got angry, Jada screamed, my blood pressure rose.

What is it about hearing our children fight that is so stressful? I remember how frustrated my Dad would get with me and my siblings for not “getting along” whatever that actually means. I remember wishing he would back off and just let us have it out, stop protecting my little sister from me. But now I see from the other side of the mirror how hard it is to watch one child be steam rolled, and manipulated. 

At Waldorf Schools children are encouraged or rather, allowed, to work out their struggles without interference from adults. Adults are present to ensure that no one gets hurt or bullied. But they won’t tell a child that she has to share or take turns. They believe, and I think rightly so, that if a child stands up for himself, finally saying, “I don’t want to be the horse anymore” that that is a skill (negotiating, saying no) that he will have for life, instead of growing up to be a person who waits for someone else to take action. 

With this in mind I stood, biting my lip as the girls fought, yelled, screamed and splashed angrily around. I had just about reached my limit; was just about to barrel in and shout that I had had enough of the screaming, that they could work it out quietly or get out! When all of a sudden, the most amazing thing happened. Twila said, “Hey I know,” 

Jada stopped screaming to entertain her offer.

“How about you play with the bowl first and then I get it!”

“Okay!” Jada shouted with equal enthusiasm.

Without warning, the storm had passed and they were quietly and happily playing, pouring water, enjoying their turns without the bowl as much as they were with the bowl.

I sighed. The kind if sigh of relief that can only come from things working themselves out. Maybe I could actually let go and let them have some of the responsibility for their happiness and fun. Maybe they could actually see on their own that harmony was more fun than discord. 

And with this relinquishment of control over their interactions, I find a new level of peace. When I let go of owning their struggle, I become less emotionally attached to it and therefore am less affected by it. I can observe as a neutral guarder of safety and household rules without judgment.

What do I do with all the energy I’m saving? Aside from getting the house and yard ready for winter, applying to graduate school, getting ready for the start of advent and planning our holiday gift crafts, and attending parent meetings, church membership classes and taking Django to obedience class, I’m writing more! I’ve started a new novel; partly out of raw inspiration and maybe a touch out of avoidance of the final five percent of editing in my nearly-finished novel. But it’s fun and exciting and I feel grateful for it. 


So with the changing leaves, the changing temperatures, the changing time, our family culture changes too. Twila grows more mature and independent, I grow calmer and Jada grows more feisty by the day, which I can handle (most days) because of the truth Twila exemplifies in her own transition that this too shall pass.

Twila, Age 6 Years

Friday, September 14, 2012

Coming out of the Poppy Field

It was a week of firsts for our family. Jada had her first day of preschool and on Saturday she went to her first “friend’s” birthday party. Twila’s first soccer practice happened two days after her first day of Kindergarten and two days before her first soccer game. Her first non-school, play date was with the daughter of her very first piano instructor who gave her, her first lesson this week. This morning after both girls had been shuttled to their respective schools (Twila by a neighbor who offered us Twila’s very first carpool experience), I thought about all these firsts over coffee with myself as I sat alone in a quiet house for the first time in six years.

Naturally, I filled the time with house work, like I promised myself I wouldn’t do. So many writing projects were put off to let the busyness and simultaneous laziness of summer rule. I justified my long holiday from writing by saying: I will write in the fall when structure returns; this is the time for our family to be a family, for me to be a mom to my rapidly growing daughters. And I did. We did. We summered it up. We went for long walks with our puppy and played for hours outside breaking only for picnic lunches. Some days I delivered sandwiches up to the tree house on Twila and Jada’s pulley and went back to the dock where I sat in the sun and read. 

We languished in the shade during the brutally hot July weeks and went for paddle boat rides in the cool breaks August afforded. During big, booming summer rains we put on our rain jackets and raced through the yard, splashing in puddles, Django barking along behind us out of excitement mingled with panic. 

I read more than I wrote, devouring several books recommended by my Waldorf welcoming committee. I also dipped into some old favorite fiction novels so I wouldn’t forget where my passions lie and to break up the rather academic literature I was wading through. It was a relaxing summer with minimal conflict and stress. And for a stay at home mom, that is just about the whole thing.

My one beef with summer is that the sun is relentlessly present. Bright and shining through our windows even before this early riser could get up. I kept dragging myself from bed earlier and earlier to get a few minutes of predawn peace only to find that the earlier I got up, the earlier the sun seemed to rise. And the earlier the sun rose, the earlier my daughters came sauntering down the hall, cheeks flushed, hair messy and fluffy, like semi-conscious mad scientists, my smallest tee-shirts covering their knees like hospital gowns. As vexing was the impossibility of getting even the smallest amount of time alone, their morning presence never has ceased to capture my heart and make me smile, albeit shaking my head, as I resignedly stowed my morning pages book back in the drawer and pulled whatever sleepy child had materialized onto my lap to cuddle the bed warmth from her.

And night was no better. The bedtime routine became a game of “hide-the-sun-from-the-kids” as my husband and I worked as a team to close every shade, blind, curtain and door to insulate them from the blaring sun that blazed as bright as noon even at eight thirty at night. 

I remember loving the long summer days in my twenties. It seemed an excuse to stay up later, drink more, and sleep less. I seemed to need less sleep in the summer. It was the season to be awake and alive. But unfortunately young children feel that same invitation even though a parent’s time to be awake and alive is after the children go to bed. The paradox of parenting in the summer.

So we threw blankets over their shades and lit candles and ran the noise machine to muffle the sound of birds chirping and lawn mowers mowing and even audacious children who were still playing loudly at the beach across the lake. And sometimes, sometimes they would get to sleep before nine and Ryan and I would high-five silently outside their door and sneak down the creaky hall and bring a glass of wine out onto the deck overlooking our lake and sigh, because we had cheated the system somehow: gotten our energized children to bed while the sun was still up (at least a little) while we ourselves were still awake to enjoy it.

We’d watch the sun set and talk about, well, our children of course because some kind of magic spell happens when they fall asleep that makes us see all of their finest qualities and feel overwhelmed with gratitude for what amazing children we’ve been blessed with. We’d chastise ourselves good-naturedly about how we shouldn’t have gotten frustrated about that spilled sauce at the table or raised our voices in the car—they were just having fun, after all. It’s a blessing that children sleep because that is when parents charge their batteries even more than the children who are sleeping. 

It was a peaceful summer of joy and fun and calm. But as summer wound down I welcomed the cool of fall and expected the cool down of activity that normally comes with it. But it was different this year. This year Twila is school aged and she has “stuff.” Maybe it was too calm of a summer and we had nowhere to go but up. Whatever the cause, this fall feels busy already.

Twila has activities to get to, school every day and (even with minimal scheduling) she has a social life and a calendar to adhere to. I find myself this week mentally slapping my cheeks to make sure I don’t miss anything vital. But with the snap to attention I have also gotten focused again on my own personal goals. 

I had goals outside of my children at one point and as I come out of the haze of mothering babies as my daughters both grow into fuller and fuller time school, I realize I might want to get back on the path to those goals. 

Maybe mothering infants is like the poppy field in The Wizard of Oz. It takes you off the track you were once so clearly on, wallops you with a haze like no other, distracts you with such a beautiful, blissful high that you think you might never need come out of it. But come out of it you will. Whether on your own terms or your children’s you cannot live in that poppy field forever. They grow up and begin to need you less and less, and less until you either find your own life or find yourself feeding on theirs. 

As Sandy, the mother of my birthdaughter, Nicole, (the baby who I held in my arms yesterday who claims to be turning thirteen this month) said to me once, “You have to have your own life or suddenly you’re fifty and you’re trying to figure out who you are outside of them.”

My own mother, so dedicated to us for so, so many years is still finding herself.

Maybe it’s the example of these wise women, or maybe it was the reality shock of dropping my youngest daughter at preschool, but something about this fall has triggered my senses, begun to wake me up from the poppy field delirium of lactation and pregnancy and diaper changing and nighttime mothering. With my daughters starting school, I am standing up, pulling myself out of the dewy grass, stepping back onto the path I set out on more than ten years ago to be an educator and a writer. 

As I step back onto my own path, I hold this image in my mind of setting my growing girls down on their own feet and taking their hands to walk side by side, seeking out our own destinations like traveling companions, together but separately.