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Becoming a Mother

Is your kid a hitter, kicker, or biter? Read this.

Watching your kid hit, kick, bite, headbutt, hair-pull, or in any way hurt another person is pretty much the worst.

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Photo by Ralph Hogaboom

Even worse than the worst: when your kid keeps doing all that crap for months, years even, despite doing every damn thing you can think of to get it to stop.

This was my kid, Jo. He dabbled in some hitting and kicking when he was 2. And as a 3- and 4-year-old, he developed a diverse and relentless repertoire of aggressions. Imagine spontaneous and seemingly unmotivated bursts of pre-school-sized cage fighting.

It drove me straight to My Wit’s End and left me there for a long, long time.

Jo is now 7. He’s a smart, emotional, kind, fiery, empathetic child. Truth be told, he still sometimes lashes out, mostly at his little brother or when he feels some deep injustice. But the Jo of today is Nothing like the psychopath I had imagined was in our future 3 years ago. That nightmare time of his 3rd and 4th year is OVER. Jo’s transformation is a miracle to me.

How did we get here?

I’ll tell you.

I kept him alive so his brain could develop.

I tried really, really hard (sometimes successfully!) not to shame him.

And I ranted and raved to a select a few friends who would listen without judging or giving me advice.

That’s pretty much it.

I know that’s not the miracle fix you want. Because going through this is hell, and when it’s happening, you just want to make it stop, instantly and forever.

I know this desperation because I’ve been there, imagined the worst, tried a million things, read more advice books than I ever should (this was the best one), and cried on countless shoulders.

I wish, back then, someone had sat me down on a soft chair in a warm room, wrapped a blanket around my shoulders, and told me these things:

  1. The hitting, kicking, biting, or whatever means literally nothing about who your child is as a person or who she is going to become.
  2. It also has nothing to do with how good of a parent you are. I repeat: nothing.
  3. Your kiddo is quite literally exploring a world of cause and effect “What will that kid do when I bang my hand on his shoulder like this?” He is also exploring ways to say “no” or “NO!!!!” or “I don’t like you.” He will learn other ways.
  4. Don’t take on the shame that other people rain down upon you and your kid. You’re both doing your effing best.
  5. Focus your energy on keeping people safe. In the meantime, her brain will continue developing into a brain that makes more socially acceptable choices. Really. It will.
  6. Make sure you’re clear with him that you cannot and won’t let him hurt other kids.
  7. Keep loving her and letting her know with your energy in those biting-hitting-kicking-hurting moments that you know she’s a good kid who doesn’t want to hurt other kids. (She may want the shovel now, or she may want that kid to give her some space, or she may be curious what happens when she bites his foot, but her primary goal is not to hurt other kids.)
  8. Vent to a select few who don’t judge but just listen about how horrible this all makes you feel. This is crucial, since there is no end to the humiliation and shaming and judgement that we parents of hitter-biter-kicker-hurters carry around. Venting let me offload all my horrible scary feelings, and I would emerge lighter and a little more ready for the next brawl.
  9. Circle back around and read #5 again. Good old fashioned brain development is on your side.
  10. I’ve been there, and it was awful. My son is older now and barely ever does that stuff any more. He is a delight. And your kid is too.

Motherhood, trauma, and a washing machine

On New Years Day, I sat in the hard shell of a chair at the laundromat. I alternately felt fine and so broken that I wondered if any of the other launderers could tell. Did they see how my insides trembled as I struggled to get the washing machine handle to lock? Finally, the metal latch clacked into place, and my wavering insides smoothed down a little.

Photo by Kristen M.
Photo by Kristen M.

As the extra capacity washer swooshed our soapy rug around and around, I wondered if this could be considered a nervous breakdown.

For lots of us, the holidays represent a kind of emotional crescendo–family who we usually don’t see swoop into our lives, there’s all this uninterrupted time with our own kids, our partners. We’re suddenly unconstrained by the repetition of work and school schedules.

In this soupy December mix of people and time, two things rose to the surface again and again, not unlike the soapy rug, falling, rising, falling.

  1. I feel like an outsider in my house. AJ and Jo and Cal all seem to have an emotional shorthand, a way they just get each other. I’m not in that club. I don’t love wrestling with flailing limbs or kicking balls hard and fast or watching sports. I like to walk unflinching and straight into emotional conversations, for example. I’m not great at having big talks all sideways, where you’re not making eye contact and also playing basketball. These are just a few of the things.
  2. I get triggered as hell when my kids hit each other. Especially when Jo hits Cal. And then I start buying into this story I have about how they are bad kids, and I am a failed mother. It’s a real horror show.

After a good-old fashioned holiday break, getting wholloped by the old 1. and 2. again and again, I kinda lost it one day after Cal did some hitting and screaming at a new friend’s house. While the mother mercifully told me that it was all developmentally appropriate, I collapsed on the inside.

Fear reached back to that trickiest time when Jo was 3. Then it sloshed forward and swept over me. Falling, rising, falling. All the hitting and kicking. Crying and screaming. Friends leaving. Nasty looks and words from strangers. Shame is a powerful currency, and it was generously paid out to me during that time.

After Cal’s ill-fated playdate, I sent a distress signal to AJ, and by the time he got home, the most basic tasks felt mysterious and overwhelming. I could feel the rules that hold things together slipping away, my grasp on what to do next, how to do the tasks that need doing.

Days later, after the rules slid back into place back again, I kept finding things in weird places–my coat hung up with my shirts in the closet instead of on the hook by the door, playdough in the kitchen cabinet with the peanut butter.

My friend Clio told me that she thought it sounded like PTSD. The validation of that diagnosis helped.  Motherhood can be a traumatic event.

From my broken open, PTSD place, the 1. and the 2. demanded my attention.

As for #1: AJ, Jo, and Cal and their shared interests and maleness have a very strong gravitational pull. I’ve been orbiting around them more often than exerting my own gravity. So in the past few days I’ve been building up the bulk of my own planet.

Instead of the typical pillow fight, wrestle fest after dinner, I set up watercolors, because I like to paint. I’ve always told myself the story that my sons don’t like art, and just make a mess, so its not worth the trouble. I was wrong.

I’m also discovering the subtle hues of what works for me in terms of physical play with my boys. I hate flailing limbs, fast smacks, big crashes near my body. But I like close, squeezey wrestling and laying on my back with Cal airplane style balancing on my feet. So it’s not that I only want to sit and do arts and crafts. But if I’m gonna hang with my boys and their physical play, I need fewer flailing limbs, damnit.

As for the #2: I wrote a sign that says “Jo and Cal are good and capable,” because it is exactly this point on which I falter when they are slugging it out. When I can step between them and stop the hitting from this place, this knowing of their goodness and capability, I stay much more solid and clear instead of turning into a shame monster.

I want to be careful not to write this like a problem solved, because it’s not. Like all problems, there’s a rise and a fall. A circling. But I am moving forward in solid ways. My coat is hanging on its hook, the play dough in its smudged plastic tub. And I’m settling into what it feels like to exert my own gravity. I’m a planet of my own.

Motherhood is all of this

This one goes out to every mother who has ever felt lost. Over it. Wired and exhausted. Overwhelmed and broken. It also goes out to every mother who has felt at the top of her game. Winning. Like her kid is the bees fucking knees.

Perhaps, once or twice, you’ve felt trapped by motherhood. Or incomparably blessed by it. Maybe today you’re just going through the motions when all you want is a silent room and some grapes. Or you’re pumping your fist in the air because you’ve got this thing nailed.

If you’ve been at this gig for any length of time, you’ve spent good portions of time on both sides of this fence.

As I write this, I’m feeling pretty blissed out. Cal only screamed like a banshee twice so far today. I can hear AJ making breakfast downstairs and the kids are whooping happily outside. This is living.

A week ago, not so much. Way back then, in the distant past of last Saturday, I wanted to stop being a mom. As if I could just walk out wearing my uniform, flip off the manager and never look back. Imagine the freedom. The wind whipping my hair, a whole horizon ahead. All of that space.

How could someone not want to abandon this job after days of intermittent but relentless screaming? Those wild animal toddler rages. The utter loss of adult competence and control.

The truth is this: if motherhood were an actual job, the kind that you could interview for and request a transfer away from, precious few would keep it.

You see, a week ago, back when I wanted to quit, I’d been solo parenting for 4 days. That may sound minimal. For me, it was not. Given the latest, grating loop that our resident 3-year-old, Cal, has introduced to our lives, it only took 2 days for me to start feeling like a cracked out war veteran.

These days, Cal, screams bloody murder at the slightest provocation. “I want that TRUCK! Not THAT truck! NooooOOOOOO!! STOOOOOP!” He wants everything Jo has, the moment he has it, and not a moment longer. When the toy or rock or hot dog leaves Jo’s grasp, Cal could not care less. As long as Jo does have it, Cal is a desperate, wild animal. Sometimes, Jo marshals up his patience, tries to leave the room, or asks for help from me, but inevitably, frustration overwhelms and he hauls off and smacks Cal. This is met with fiercer Cal screams and a good old-fashioned brother brawl. You see how this goes. A nightmare boy typhoon that twists around again and again and again. After the umpteenth time, I start to hate it. And then I start to think I hate them. I can feel that twisting inside. I become a hard, knotty old broad who pickled sour and is out for revenge. I stomp around the house on tree trunk legs with a scowl on my face just waiting for an opportunity to bust my boys for bad behavior, because they’re so very bad.

Shockingly, when you add the stomping, bitter broad to the whole boy typhoon, things don’t tend to go well. There’s often shaming. And crying. It’s basically the worst.

And then somehow, things change. I scream and then we all cry. Or I slam a door and later, I lie to Cal that the wind blew it closed. Or I turn on the sprinkler and let the chickens out.

That’s how I found my first 2 or 3 consecutive hours of peace on that terrible solo-parenting weekend. We all needed it bad. It was like finding a spring in the desert, and we gulped it in and smiled a lot. I remembered that they aren’t only here to ruin my life, and that I can be soft, wise and relaxed.

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Then there was bedtime, and the barrage of questions and song requests and popping out of bed, and I morphed, exhausted, yet again.

After that, I slunk down the stairs to our couch and cried.

Motherhood is all of these things.

And while my story might not align with yours too well, I know there’s overlap. Maybe you have one kid and he keeps you up all night. Maybe it’s your middle-schooler whose anxiety holds the whole house hostage. Maybe peace and joy reign in your kingdom today. Any way you cut it, we are all brought low by motherhood. We all feel shame, and rage and hopelessness. The trouble is that unlike the shiny happy feelings, these ugly-step sister ones get shunned, or glossed over, or buried in our desperate pile of parenting books.

So remember this, the next time you see that mom pick up her kids from school looking flawless and at ease with her beautiful, obedient children. God bless her, she might be having a good day. Or she might not, and like the rest of us, she’s just really good at playing her role in the “I’m a tremendously good mother” pageant.

The next time your friend’s kid hits yours, or says something cruel, or has a complete meltdown in the park, remember how gritty and hard motherhood has been for you at times. You probably have all sorts of judgements and ideas and advice for how she could be a better mom and fix her mean kid, but then you can just remember how shitty it feels to be barraged with judgements and ideas and advice when all you feel is ashamed of your child’s behavior and humiliated by what her problems must mean about your own inadequacy.

Probably the best thing that any of us can do for each other or ourselves is to remember that our kids and everyone else’s are both adorable dreamboats and thorny little devils. That all of our lives as parents are sweet and disastrous. That none of us knows which way the tide will turn on any given day. One minute we are charmed. The next, undone.

And that there is nothing, nothing more relieving than simply being witnessed by someone who can see all of those things.

Yesterday, I lost it. Today was better.

You know what’s crazy about living? That in a single 24 hour period you can go from feeling utterly broken and ashamed to being completely at ease and in your own skin, eating with your family on a golden evening.

This time yesterday I could feel it coming. My frayed edges flaring out like the fuse of a cartoon bomb, my energy and patience dwindling. With every whine issuing from Jo’s annoying little mouth, I felt closer to breakdown. I knew it was coming, and still, I went there.

I screamed so loud that my throat hurt. And then Jo and Cal and I all dissolved into tears.

Here’s a lemur screaming in much the same way that I did yesterday. Photo by Tom Ciriello.

This, apparently, is my Achilles heel: watching my older son hurt my youngest. It doesn’t really matter that they were fighting over a caboose. Or that Jo asked for it the first time really nicely. Or that Cal head-butted Jo after he had the caboose ripped out of his hand. What matters, apparently, to my brain chemistry, is watching my 6-year-old bang on my 3-year-old’s back with his fist really hard 3 or 4 times.

That is the thing that floods me with so much feeling that the only choice is to scream at the top of my lungs and scare the shit out of my two kids. After that, I push Jo further away. As if to prove a point: you are not here with us. You did a really bad thing.

In our teary aftermath, I apologized while staring at a gritty crack in our tile floor. “I’m not going to yell again. I know it’s not okay. And I’m not going to do it anymore.”

I told Jo that I needed his help, that he needed to come up with some ideas for what to do when he feels like hitting his brother. His answer cut deep:

“That’s a really hard thing to think of, Mom. Because it all happens so fast. Just like it happens to you when you yell.”

Touché, you smart little creature. If you could just use that sort of reasoning in the midst of a fight over a caboose, we’d all be sitting pretty. But that’s just it. You literally can’t reason when you’re in a rage. And neither can I.

So last night, after my boys fell asleep, I did all I could think of: I cried, and I texted a friend, and I read a book in the bathtub about how our children are our spiritual gifts. (The book is effing fascinating by the way, so much so that I dreamed all night that I was communing with the woman who wrote it).

Today, thanks to my part time job, I got a much needed break from parenting. I also got to Google chat AJ about the whole yelling incident, since it felt too shameful to talk to his actual living, breathing self about it last night.

In the safety of a computer window, I confessed it all. And he was kind. And told me how he tends to deal with those moments with Jo.

AJ’s natural patience and skill in parenting our strange, alien children is continually infuriating and inspiring to me. He simply gets our boys in a way I don’t; he has a composure and deliberateness in his parenting that I don’t. As he mentioned once, in critique of my style, “You get too mad too fast.” A truer word was never spoke.
AJ does not do that. Ever. I have no effing idea how he pulls it off.

So he gave me some tips: If Jo’s not listening, go stand in front of him and say it again, if he’s still not, get down low and look him in the eye, then get really close and raise your voice, then grab his ear or his shoulder a little bit hard. If all that fails, physically remove him.

Done and done.

Perhaps to some, this step by step escalation is not revelatory. But to me–the one who toggles between (1) an endless sea of patience and calm and (2) a blind rage–it represents a huge chasm of options in the middle that I typically leap over in less than a moment.

I got another chance tonight at dinner. It doesn’t really matter that it was about a purple car with white flames painted on it. It doesn’t really matter that Jo asked nicely for a turn and that then Cal said MINE and taunted Jo with the car. Here’s what does matter:

I slowly escalated. I sat up from my chair and walked between the boys. I told Jo again to stop growling at Cal. Then I grabbed his ear a little bit hard. And put a hand on Cal’s back and told him that he could finish his turn with the car. Cal made car engine noises that I’ve never learned how to make. Jo stopped growling. And then I went back to my chair and we all started talking about something else. I think we even laughed.

On Mamalode! Cherish: the agony and ecstasy

My very first blog post here was about an experience shared by mothers of small children everywhere: being told to enjoy every minute by various ogling passers-by. Each time it happened to me, I suppressed the impulse to grab said stranger by the collar and scream “Why don’t you effing enjoy it while I go take a nap!??!”

There is a presumptuous and powerful nostalgia that strangers will shove right in your face as a mother of little kids–a command to cherish, and do so obsessively. It’s sort of sweet. But it’s mostly obnoxious as hell, because remembering life with small kids is light-years away from actually living it. And telling someone to enjoy every minute is clearly delusional, since they certainly didn’t, and since there are many Many things about raising children that are not by any means enjoyable.

My essay, Cherish: the agony and the ecstasy is up on Mamalode. I’m delighted to share my straight-talk over there.

Cherish: The Agony And Ecstasy

Mom revives after reproductive coma

I just got back from a run.

This is a strange fact since Not Running is a story I routinely tell. Once, I actually ran a marathon. When all was said and done, I felt like a badass with really bad knees. As the story goes, if I calculate generously, I’ve run about 5 miles since then. That was in 2000.

I have no idea how far I ran today (it was probably not very far). But you know what? That’s not the effing point.

As houses and gardens and crosswalks slipped by this morning, I felt like an animal coming out of hibernation. Or rather, like a 37 year old woman coming out of a reproductive coma.

My youngest kid turns 3 in a few weeks. Do you know what that means?! It means that I don’t have to constantly track him every minute because he might run into oncoming traffic. It means I’m only hyper aware of his movements every 15th second or so. And that leaves 56 other seconds of every minute for other things

This is huge.

Imagine a tipping point, the top of a roller coaster, a slow, tedious lean that becomes a rushing tumble.

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Photo by Jay Reed

With every foot fall and raspy breath, I completed a circuit back to my former self. I was her, and she is me. I’m new now.

I used to run when I was 20. I did it because I needed a project. It was a performance. Now I get to run like this. On a whim. I have nothing to prove.

I was her. She is me.

I’m new now.

Boredom is my muse

I’ve been drowning in a birdbath*, you guys.

For three years, I’ve been in and out of triage: bought a house, had another kid, got a job. Whether it was up till 3 a.m. painting the rental in my third trimester or up at 11, 12, 2, and 4:30 with a puking baby, my default mode has been On. And not that nice bright, incandescent on. More of a twitchy, anxious flicker.

lightbulb of creativity hangs from ceiling of boredom
“Bulb” by Jon Callow

So I haven’t quite known how to handle the space that has come with, well, stability.
I’ve been having lulls that last longer than 5 minutes, and I’m not feeling routinely on the verge of cracked out. Bonus!
Trouble is, I’ve built up a life based on a bunch of cracked out habits like nightly TV binges, drinking too much and staring at the wall anytime the kids are occupied or sleeping.
It’s left me bored and sometimes depressed inside a life that’s pretty darn ok. Death by birdbath.

I’ve been in a small-child-induced coma.
But not today! Because see? I’m sitting here on a bench at the Y after my dance class and writing this instead of staring into space for the 10 minutes before I have to go pick up Cal.

Turns out there’s more space in my life. And what requires empty space in order to exist? Ideas. Creative Impulses.

What if the boredom and even depression whose butts I’m all proud of kicking are actually a source of aliveness?

A sign of creativity yet to come.

What if the crumbs that collected on my sweatshirt as I binge watched 6 episodes of Transparent actually incubated the creative burst I’m having right now?

Well, kids, if that’s the case, I think we have a game-changer on our hands.

When in their midst, it is near impossible to feel the value of boredom or depression. But here I am, close on their heels, with ideas and vitality bursting out of my ears.

Every living thing has a dormant phase before it blossoms.

And apparently, so do I.

*This simile (and occult inspiration) brought to you by Jessa Crispin in her new, kick ass book, The Creative Tarot.  It’s brought tarot cards to life for me, and I’m not looking back. Jessa Crispin The Creative Tarot

There’s always space

There’s a price I pay for ignoring myself.

A million tiny times a day.

I’m bored at the park but I go anyway, because the boys want to. And I sit there on the bench and feel a little less alive.

I want to read my book, but I wash the dishes instead, because it’ll be that much sweeter to crack the book open  with the clean dishes steaming in the rack. But then Cal wakes up and the book sits still. And I feel a little less satisfied.

Reading this, I was reminded of how compressed life gets, under the routine requirements, obligations, appointments, demands.

It may just be the path of least resistance to turn our aliveness down under such circumstances, under the weight of many tasks that we wouldn’t willingly choose, but that relentlessly nudge for our attention.

And yet,

And yet!

There is always space to be found.

Like in the atoms I was explaining to Jo before bed.

There’s more space inside an atom than stuff. And we’re made up of atoms. So that means we’re made up of more space than stuff. Our bodies, this table, my shoes, that lamp, they’re all mostly space. Isn’t that crazy?!

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This from “Our Friend The Atom,” written in 1956 by Disney to captivate the nerdy brains and hearts of children everywhere.

It’s the smallest choice to read instead of wash. To pause and let the sun breeze over my cheeks before buckling a boy into his car seat. To ignore the robotic pull of dinner prep at 6 on a Tuesday and instead sip on champagne and watch the boys whiz by on their scooters.

It’s the smallest choice.

And a portal into the biggest space.

Energetic Boundaries 101

Some pretty mind blowing stuff went down for me in September that I’m only just beginning to articulate. I went to this rad women and kids communing with nature power weekend with Jo. We ate and sang and played and learned and gathered around the fire together. And once Jo got his bearings, and he and a friend were absorbed in scratching at the dirt with sticks, I took a class about energetic boundaries. Which is to say that for a couple of hours one morning, I sat in a circle of women on the ground near a big fallen tree I wish I knew the name of, and listened to this woman share her wisdom about the ways we habitually do and ideally can choose to create boundaries that protect or reveal ourselves.

I still don’t understand exactly what it was about that class that changed things for me, but it did.

Here’s the best I’ve got:

It helped me understand the fundamental way I align myself with other people. In short, I’ve got some pretty loosey goosey boundaries. And I always track the people around me. I take in what I think their needs and feelings are. I’m like an octopus with hyper extended tentacles, constantly scanning in all directions for what my people are feeling, thinking, wanting.

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It. Is. Exhausting.

And obliterating. Cause where do my thoughts and needs and feelings come in, given the OCD tentacles? Well, dear reader, I’ll tell you. My needs and feelings are stifled at the bottom of the heap. They play second (or third or fourth) fiddle. Those suckers languish deep inside the proverbial haystack.

But somehow, in a circle of women sitting on the ground of a crisp fall morning, I gathered my tentacles in. I chose to create some boundaries. Now I look more like this.TentaclesIn

I deliberately chose to disengage with the endless stream of

Jo is happy and absorbed (sigh of relief) . Cal wants water and needs to put his pants on. Where are his pants? . That guy on the sidewalk seems really desperate . AJ is still mad at me after last night, but I don’t want to say I’m sorry . Jamie wishes I visited her more . Cybil called me three days ago and I haven’t gotten back to her . Ryan seems pissed, is it something I did? . This person wants . This person needs . This . Person . Feels . . .

Reeling in the tentacles made me lighter, buoyant even.

I started to float.

I could see and hear and feel things that hadn’t gotten in for a long time because there was so much noise and obstruction, and so little of my attention left over.

Here’s what I saw:

Everything is a game.

Every relationship, project, chore, obligation.

Some games have higher stakes than others, but at the core, there is a lightness, a playfulness in the atmosphere around all the heavy stuff.

The playfulness is this: in every game, you get to choose your move. Every time. And you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Then the other people get to choose their moves. Now it’s back to you. And the game plays on.

For years and years, I’ve gotten stuck trying to play other people’s moves for them, while my piece languishes in one damn square not very far from START.

That hyper focus outwards, on other people, has been crippling. It’s been deafening.

It has weighed me down, drowned me out, and left me listless on the couch because I’ve quite literally forgotten myself.

It was part of the reason for my post-partum depression with both kids–in that first year, rarely was I able to see and act on my own feelings and needs in the snow-storm of everyone else’s.

Well, I found my way out of that bullshit.

I have a new sense for where I end and everyone else begins.

And I wanna play.

For now, while I’m still learning these new moves, and how to keep my own needs and feelings at the core, I try to keep the tentacles for me. I use that super scanning empathetic power on myself first, because then I know the most key intelligence about the game: where I’m starting from. If I don’t know that, I can’t really play.

It’s game on, people.

 

Mom triumphs over fears about kindergarten

This is the first time I’ve had a quiet house and an alert brain at the same time in nearly 2 months. Our family has plunged into several bold new frontiers. Among them, two parents with new part-time schedules(!!!), Cal starting a playgroup, and Jo (and me) staring wide-eyed at his new public school.

The dust is starting to settle. And I’m feeling pretty damn proud of myself, because amid it all, I triumphed over my mounting fear and worry about kindergarten.

My particular fears and worries are these: that public school (and many private schools too) focus too much on academics and not enough on social, emotional and creative development; that this focus on academics seeps into our kids and snuffs out their sparkles of play and wildness and self-direction.

While we’re at it, you should also know that the idea of public school–a place where any and every child can go to learn, be safe, cared for, and nurtured–makes my heart swoon with the chorus of a thousand hyped-up songbirds. Those songbirds know when and why to pipe down though, since they know what I do–the public school system in our country is tragically uneven, rolling weighted dice to determine which kids happen to get more safety, teachers and resources, and which kids get precious little.

With these worries and fears and smart songbirds, I sent Jo to kindergarten every day for the past 6 weeks. He would come home mostly happy and tired and would lose it over the smallest things, and I would sniff him all over to try to find clues about what was happening at school and whether it was fine or terrible.

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My triumph started on the day of our first big Kindergarten tragedy. Jo woke at 6:30 and climbed into bed with me, saying “I don’t like my school. And the only thing that will fix it is home school.” Eek. You know too well the dark corners of my thoughts, little boy.

After a good long bout of listening to his worries “My teacher is too serious, Mom,” we made it to school. Jo burst into tears as we neared the door and buried his face in my neck. I just kept saying “Dad and I know this is a good place for you, and I believe in you,” while trying to hold back tears.

Once I got out of the building, I had a good cry and was already planning the parents I was going to call to launch an elementary homeschool co-op and FAST.

Instead, I ran into an experienced mom who I trust (Thank God for Those), and she reminded me essentially, “Hard doesn’t have to be bad.” Ding ding ding. In other words, this is a hard transition for Jo and me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the school or the teacher is bad. It might just mean that kindergarten is really different than co-op, play-based preschool and getting used to the new system is hard sometimes. My job as a mother isn’t to remove the difficult things from his life, it’s to help him navigate, to help him keep going.*

*Taking on this job assumes that I have sussed out the particular Difficult Thing and decided that it’s ultimately worthwhile. If not, then we don’t give a rip about that Difficult Thing and move on to something else.

After my talk with the Experienced Mom, I knew that my particular crisis of confidence was stemming from the fact that I didn’t know enough about The Difficult Thing. My only experiences of the school day and Jo’s teacher were for a half hour on welcome back to school night and a minute or two at pick up and drop off.

My not-knowing was resulting in wibbly-wobbly confidence, and that was making things even harder for Jo, who is very good at his job: to constantly scan my slightest emotional cue for whether everything is okay. As he read me on that crying dropoff morning, I was ready to run for the hills.

The only way to know if running for those hills was smart or stupid was to get more information.

I set up a meeting with Jo’s teacher the next day.

The results of the meeting:
I think Jo’s teacher is doing his absolute superninjapower best to help our kids feel safe and heard and inspired. He told me the specific times of day that Jo can find him if he needs to talk or get some snuggles (not that he can’t get that throughout the day, but there are particular times when he’s more available).

This small detail was such a eureka for me, since at Jo’s preschool, there was always a grown up available for whatever social or emotional tangle came up, and now Jo is in a classroom with one teacher responsible for a whole swarm of kids. It’s felt so good to explain this to Jo and know that he has a plan for how he can access his safe grownup at school.

My biggest Eureka! of all: When Jonah would occasionally complain about there not being enough “fun time” at school and his “too serious” teacher, he was voicing my exact worries in 6-year-old terms. What I forgot myself is what I’ve been talking with Jo about this week: serious can be awesome.
Remember when you were learning to ride a bike, how serious you would get? And what came out of that? YOU CAN RIDE A BIKE. That serious was awesome! Remember how hard it was at preschool at first, when you didn’t know how to join games? And then what came out of that hard time? YOU GOT ALL YOUR PRESCHOOL FRIENDS. That hard was awesome!

In the end, I found out that the Difficult Thing is okay. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a lot of good, and I can work with it.

I can feel my confidence. I found my kindergarten mojo. And I know Jo can feel it too.

Yesterday at dinner when I asked him how school was, he gave me a big, earnest thumbs up and said “My class is awesome.”

Huge. Sigh. Of. Relief.

It’s not like this fixed every issue I have with an unfairly distributed school system that emphasizes academics at the expense of emotional and creative and social intelligence. But it has calmed my fears about whether Jo’s teacher was really there to take care of him, and reminded me that my job as a parent (and Jo’s job as a kid) is changing. He’s getting older, more capable, more responsible. And, as he should, he’s being presented with bigger and (gasp!) more serious challenges.

My job is to listen to Jo, address any problems I see that need to be corrected and then shine my confidence about the school we’ve chosen. This is a good place. Your teacher has your back. Some things in your life are getting more serious, because some things about growing up are serious, and that can be totally awesome.