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Coming to terms with preschool graduation

Until just now, I found the thought of pre-school graduation mildly sickening. Something for wealthy kids in uniforms, for overly sentimental, clingy parents who iron their pants.

But here I am. Looking forward to it. Wanting it. Needing a ceremony to help me say goodbye to the school that has been a refuge for me as a parent-in-training.

Jo’s school is a co-op, so I, like all the other parents, have been required to teach there once a week. Monday mornings for the past 2 years have been me, 4 other parents dosing caffeine, 2 teaching professionals and swarm of 26 pre-schoolers.

That first year was about recovering from the shame of having a very phyiscal boy. I just kept showing up every week, peeling Jo’s hot fist out of another kid’s hair, taking a deep breath as I helped the train kids put their track back together after Jo crashed through on his way to the bookshelf. The teachers there kept reminding me of Jo’s goodness. And the other parents didn’t cast me out. Sometimes, their kids acted like neanderthals too, which was always a relief.

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Snack time was also a relief.

This second year has been about slowing down and listening. “I see that you both want to sit in the same chair. What should we do?” And then I just stay there in the silence that follows, crouched down, looking at their open faces. “No. I can’t let you take the chair away. I’m going to hold it right here while we figure out what to do.” Then Voila! after 3 LONG minutes of questions, tears and ideas, it’s over. “Oh, you wanted the chair because it’s red and she wanted it because it’s next to a friend. Let’s get that other chair and move it over here too.”

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These last weeks I’ve been surveying the dreamy landscape we’ve all created. Watching from afar as two kids tugging at the same cape decide to wear hats instead. Looking up from the tire swing to see a trio working out how to let another kid in on the magic ninja freeze tag game. And feeling like we belong. Because sometimes, other parents look just as cracked-out as me when they drop off their older kid with a sweaty, hollering toddler in tow.

What a gift it has been to have this school embrace Jo and me as we are. Unshowered and exhausted, kicking and screaming, easy and playful, nervous and open. Somehow, there’s been enough room for all of it.

Damn it. I’m totally going to be in the front row. Sitting in a chair too small for me. And crying all over myself at effing pre-school graduation.

Giveaway winner: how to survive mornings with your kids!

Step right up! Get it while it’s hot! Get it while it’s buttered! Parenting advice you actually want is being served up by my favorite experts.

Congrats, Susie, you won!! See Angela’s letter below for help with your kid morning dilemma. And congrats to Allison, vjentzsch and Jacquie (and the hoardes of the rest of us) who share Susie’s exasperation on this issue!

And BONUS, Angela and Niels will be answering all of your other questions on their podcast! Woot!! Read on…

Here’s Susie’s question:

L is 5. And INCAPABLE of following directions. In the morning, particularly. It’s “please brush your teeth” and “please do first pee” and “please get your clothes on” and despite many calm talks, and a chart we made called “L’s Morning,” with fetching pictures of what he needs to accomplish, AND with the sometimes-threat (delivered kindly, in my defense) that he will lose the privilege of watching Wild Kratts later if he can’t help out more, he dilly-dallies like no other. I sometimes have to ask 5 or 6 times for each of the three things he needs to get done. We help more and more (pick the clothes, cue up the toothbrush), and that’s fine–we just want some ownership over the activities and a little frigging help around here, please. Often, he completely ignores us, not in a willful way exactly, but in a “I’m-spaced-out-and-am-going-to-pretend-I-don’t-hear-you-so-I-can-play-animals” way. It is SUCH A BEAR to get out of the house, and it often results in yelling or tears or drama that none of us wants. My patience has worn thin. I’m over it. THANKS!

***

Dear Susie,

Oh, yes, the morning Getting-Out-The-Door challenge. Who hasn’t been there? Whew.

First, let me say this: please, please, don’t take any of my advice as a way to be hard on yourself. Parents are stuck between a Rock (children’s hardwired need for connection) and a Hard Place (societal structures and rhythms that make connection extremely difficult, nearly impossibly sometimes).

Be mad about this. It sucks to parent in this culture of isolation, speed, stress, and the pursuit of perfection. Be very mad. But don’t be mad at yourself.

Every moment of warmth, listening and laughter with your child is nothing less than a counter-cultural act of resistance (Do I sound dramatic here? I feel rather passionate about this). Give yourself lots of love and praise for every drop of patience, compassion and ingenuity that you manage to come up with as a mother or father parenting in the here and now. And trust that your kids are resilient enough to take the bits of connection you manage to cast their way and use it to heal, grow, and create their own ways of moving through the world. So without guilt, and while dousing yourself in self-appreciation for the awesome parent you already are (and I can tell this is true!) … read on!

Ok, you might want to first watch this little video to get oriented to why connection is the key to helping things run smoothly in our families, and what this might look like in the very real, very challenging everyday moments with our kids:

So … mornings. A big time of challenge and upset in most families. These are my thoughts on it…

Mornings are really hard for young kids because they are facing many hours away from us. Children who have been pretty well treated—and yours clearly are!—still have high standards for what life should be like. And at age five, it is much, much, much more reasonable to want to spend the day with people who love and adore you than with people who might be nice enough, but don’t necessarily love you. I’m assuming that’s what school is like for kids, even at great schools. So…a five year old, whose brain still relies on lots and lots of warm, attuned limbic-to-limbic resonance (love) to be able to function well, has understandable apprehension when anticipating many hours away from you—the capitol S source of love in his life!

But there’s still lots we can do to gain kids’ cooperation and help mornings go better, especially once we understand that we are asking young brains to swim upstream from their natural impulses. And smoother, warmer mornings are better for everyone because they set us up to enter the day well. So, I think there are three main things that can make a huge difference in the morning—these aren’t easy things to achieve, but well worth our attention. (And I challenge you to do these things imperfectly, at best.)

First, calm, cooperative mornings require a calm, regulated parent. As the Master Regulators of our households, our emotional tenor sets the tone for the whole family. But before you beat yourself up about how stressed and frustrated you often feel in the morning, know that it is TOTALLY unfair that you should have to get yourself and your kids ready and out the door so early in the morning, and that to do it while being CALM is a high order, indeed. You shouldn’t have to do this, but here we are, parenting at a time in history that sets us up to have to work extra hard. So give yourself kudos for all the mornings when you don’t lose it, and be extremely gentle and compassionate with yourself when you do lose it.

And then try this strategy to help your system feel calm in the morning: wake up thirty minutes before anyone else in your family.

Spend this time being with yourself, in some easy enjoyable way, before you become Mommy. For instance, make your favorite hot beverage, sit in the comfiest chair in the living room, and let yourself enter the day gently. Sometimes I light a candle just to help me set the right tone (otherwise, I am liable to start worrying and fretting over the day as I sit there with my coffee). Do whatever you need to make this time pleasant. Recently I have added to my morning time a little self-given foot rub with coconut oil and a few drops of my favorite essential oils. This is a time to treat yourself really well because you are a champ and doing an amazing job in an impossible situation. (A mom in one of my classes recently asked if it “counts” to spend her thirty minutes taking a shower and getting dressed all by herself. I could tell that the thought almost made her giddy, so my answer: Hell yes!) But however you spend your thirty minutes, keep it simple, keep it enjoyable, and make it all about you.

Second, get your kids connected before you ask them to cooperate. This can look different for each kid, and it may change over time. I used to start the day with a morning cuddle with my daughter in bed. The only problem was that then she really never wanted to get out of bed. So we started a ritual of having a “morning couch cuddle.” When she was five I could still lift her, so I’d scoop her up and carry her to the living room where we’d snuggle quietly until she’d wake up to discover she was hungry. These days, enjoying my own morning foot rub with essential oils has inspired me to start her day in a similar way, so I sneak in and give her an invigorating foot and leg rub while she wakes up.

You can also start the day with a little dose of “Special Time”—which is two to five to ten minutes of undivided and enthusiastic attention while you do whatever your child wants to do—with a timer set. Here’s a video in which Niels describes this powerful practice.

But whatever your “connection strategy,” just think of this as a quick fill up before the day begins. Because if we can get our kids juiced up with connection right away, they often have it in them to cooperate better through the morning. You can also give them “micro-fill-ups” as you go… nuzzles, twinkling at them, extra body contact wherever you can, lots of appreciation for what they are doing right (I love how you picked out your own socks this morning!!). The more full their connection cups, the better equipped they are to do what needs to be done and face the day.

Third, make it fun. I know, I’m rolling my eyes just rereading those words because I know how impossible it sounds. But fun greases the cooperation wheels in a grand way. Kids are suckers for a good time. You are on the right track with your “task chart,” by the way. But the difference may be in the delivery. Can you make it into a game? When my daughter was in kindergarten, we went to Staples and she picked out a a write-on wipe-off board that we hung on her bedroom door. On the board, I drew pictures with little check boxes beside them of each step she needed to take to move through the morning. As she did each task she got to check it off. Something about that made it fun—and empowering. Plus, I would give her high-fives as I noticed items that were complete, and with a twinkle in my eye I’d say, “I wonder what the next step is on your list?” when I noticed she was lagging.

Fun is in the attitude. And it creates connection. You can give them piggy backs to the kitchen for breakfast, or announce that you are SURE you will be the first one to get your shoes on (and then be sure to lose). It can mean announcing that you have three things that need to go into the backpack, can anyone help by counting as they go in? Lunchbox, 1! Homework folder, 2! Sunscreen, 3! It can mean adding a dose of silly to the task. This morning, when the foot rub wasn’t enough to get my kid out of bed, I blasted Taylor Swift in her bedroom and we had a ten second dance party (and all her eye rolls let me know I was reaching new heights of “cool” by the goofy way I danced).

Making it fun is like flirting and courting your child into the day. Does it sound exhausting? Yes, I guess it is. But so is wrangling them, nagging, and yelling. And in my experience, a little connection and fun goes a long way. Opera tooth brushing and a skipping race to the car is far, far easier than having to ask my child to put her socks on fifteen thousand times. And it makes us both feel a hell of a lot better.

Smooth Mornings Getting Out The Door really begin the Day Before…, or the Weekend Before.

This is the real kicker…We really only have time in the morning to give our kids “micro-fill-ups” of connection, which isn’t really enough to get them through the morning (and the rest of the day) in good shape. Little fill ups of connection work best in the morning when a kid has had a BIG fill up of our attention sometime recently.

What does a big dose of connection with you look like? It might be a romping pillow fight or your tender attention while they feel their difficult feelings deeply and fully (or even both, because play often gives rise to the big, vulnerable feelings that are often right underneath the surface).

These are examples of the Big Doses of Connection that kids are really looking for in the morning, but who has time then? It’s much easier on everyone if we can provide the Big Doses after school, in the evenings, or on weekends. So whenever you can manage it, let yourself drop your other responsibilities and playfully connect with your kids, and if their feelings start to erupt, stay close and let ‘em flow. Be the safe container for their storm, and welcome the feelings forth. Because if they wake up on school days with their cups already pretty full, then they are more likely to be sated by the “micro-fill-up” that you are able to give in the morning.

But know that it’s not always going to happen when it’s convenient. Some mornings we just have to toss the schedule out the window, and sit down on the floor with our wailing, thrashing child, and beam our love on their emotional storm. When kids have regular chances to release the pressure in this way, you will find you get that time back in spades.

And tomorrow morning will likely go just a bit more smoothly.

I hope this helps,
Angela

PS. We, Angela and Niels, have read all the questions and thought about answering them all. And we will. This week is the start of our new podcast. One of the first episodes features an interview with An Honest Mom herself. You can listen to that interview here.

In the coming weeks of the podcast, we’ll answer all the questions you asked in the comments section of the the giveaway post. You can sign up for the podcast on the Every Parent Podcast website or directly on iTunes, so you won’t miss an episode.

You can also visit us on our regular website, Parent Connect East Bay, where you can find information about our classes and coaching.

Giveaway: Parenting Advice You Actually Want

I think my son is possessed and I’m not sure I’ll survive the toddler years.

This was a text I got last week from my friend D whose son is 3.5.

Quick on the heels of that, I got this email from L, whose son just turned 2:

It seems we have fully entered the so-called Terrible Twos (also terrific twos, at times, but…) We both brought up your name during our “we should get edu-ma-cated about how to HANDLE THIS SHIT” (not that it can necessarily be handled, but maybe more-to-the-point: how we can endure it while maintaining everyone’s sanity?)

After reading both of these, I breathed a massive sigh of relief that Jo has emerged out of his Most Difficult Stage. And then I felt extreme compassion for these gals, because I know how effing hard it is (Cal has taken to Hulking Out when I tell him he can’t open the refrigerator for the 103rd time). And then I sent them both to Angela and Niels and their website, Parent Connect East Bay, because they are the people who taught me the magic that has helped my relationship with my boys the most.

It’s no surprise that the most popular blog post I’ve ever written was inspired by what I learned from Angela and Niels. I think it struck a chord because parenting is often a lonely and desperate enterprise. We all have different kids and lives and treats that we hide for ourselves in the top corner cupboard, but we all find ourselves in the weeds. And we need resources we can come back to again and again to help us find our way out.

The thing I love most about Angela and Niels is that they teach for Real Human Parents. Parents who lose it sometimes, who don’t have the energy to do the best thing all the time, parents who are routinely judged and stressed and do their work in isolation. Parents who fail and love and try again. Down at the foundation of every tool or strategy they teach is the glorious option to not do it. I hear Angela’s voice in my head on a daily basis, “Check in with yourself first. Do you have the bandwidth to listen to Jo as he screams and throws matchbox cars, or do you just need to plunk him in front of a video and go drink some tea and breathe?” The joy of her question is that EITHER OPTION IS FINE. Her point is, do the hard work of listening and connecting with your kid when you have the time and space and energy. And if you don’t, which sometimes you wont! that’s no problem.

Angela and Niels teach classes in Berkeley, and I’m delighted to say that you can now learn their stuff from ANYWHERE because they’ve created a video series that you’ll want to watch because the videos are like this:

Don’t you already feel about 6 million times better after watching that?

The videos teach the same content they cover in their local classes including (but not limited to!) the stuff that still helps me everyday:

  • Understanding kids’ brains and how they’re totally like ours and also nothing like them
  • How to get the support you need as a parent (!!!eureka!!!)
  • Setting limits for your kid without turning into a dictator or a robot or both

So now for the giveaway part! Anyone care for some free online coaching from these two brilliant, kind, experienced teachers? Angela and Neils have generously offered to answer a parenting question from one of you. They’ll put their minds to a question that one of you raises in comments section of this post, and in a week or two, they’ll coach you here in the form of a guest post reply.

And the secret bonus of leaving a comment with your parenting dilemma? There’s nothing quite like hearing other parents talk about their unique, real, gritty parenting problems. Sigh. We are not alone.

To get you in the mood, I’ll leave comment numero uno, where I fess up to a nasty little habit I have when Jo, say, throws the lemon squeezer across the yard after I ask him to please bring it inside.

So get to it. Lay your parenting question on us in the comments to this post. Tell us where you’re stuck. You can comment anonymously if you want.

Don’t just do it for the killer coaching you’ll get from Angela and Niels. Do it for the greater good of all parents everywhere. Don’t we all need to know we’re not the only ones?

I can’t wait to see what you have to say.

Why complaining makes me happy

I’m an excellent faker.

Surface, social me is deeply devoted to lots of smiling and genuine, Mid-Western eye-contact. My interactions are all unconsciously coated in a thick glaze of I-exist-to-make-sure-you-feel-fantastic. I exude happy and approachable, regardless of my internal state.

During sophomore year of college, a friend formed the outline of a rectangle with his thumbs and pointer fingers, and he looked at my face through the frame. “You? Depressed?” Then he shook his head in disbelief. Actually, I was horribly depressed that endless, grey winter. I flirted briefly with the thought of suicide and wept in a bathroom stall.

During that time and every time I’ve felt bad since, the thing that makes me feel most crazy, most removed and despondent and numb and afraid is when people think I’m fine.

Thankfully, I don’t feel so misunderstood anymore.

I’ve learned to complain.

I’ve learned to inject some aliveness and truth into the litany of the How Are You’s. Like last week, at my office. “Well, I’m pretty terrible actually. Cal screamed bloody murder about his awful diaper rash most of the night, and I feel like a twitchy Army Vet with PTSD. How are you?” And then I walk on with my coffee cup to my desk. Feeling like a whole, real person.

armsopen
Photo by Oakley Originals

I know this whole idea would be a lot more palatable if I called it “truth-telling” or “venting” or “being honest.” But those are Have A Nice Day words for what I’m actually doing. The thing that helps me feel redeemed and engaged and more happy with my life is complaining.

Since before Christmas, I’ve been in and out of some dark days. Feeling trapped by parenthood, bitterly resentful towards AJ, tired and bored. I fell into a conversation with my mom over our holiday, and she said, “Well, it just seems like things are going really well for you.” I refused to take the Faker Bait. “Actually, things aren’t going that well. I’ve been having a really hard time.” And then I cleared out every gripe I could find, and laid them all at her feet, like evidence. It was cathartic to set things straight. With my angry little pile of troubles taking up some space between us, I felt known by my mother. It felt good.

So why does complaining, that life-giving art that I’ve recently discovered, get such a bad rap?

Duh. Everyone hates a complainer. Even I hate a complainer.

But there’s a difference between complaining and being a complainer. Being a complainer is looking at the world through sad, complainer glasses, where everything you see is some degree of sucky. Complaining, rather, is sharing about the sucky things that are happening in your life at that moment. You can choose to engage in complaining or not. And the minute you’re done complaining, you can do some reflecting or celebrating or enjoying. That’s the great thing about verbs. And complaining.

There’s also this:

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You need not look far to find dozens of reasons how and why you should commit to your own happiness through gratitude, not sweating the small stuff and looking on the bright side. If we all took these directives to heart, perhaps ours would be a world of happy, appreciative, stress-free, smiling people. I suspect a significant number of them would be secretly crying in bathroom stalls and thinking about suicide between gratitude sessions.

I think gratitude is incredibly helpful. It can re-frame all sorts of things and breathe life into cold, hard places. In our current cultural moment, it’s offered as a cure-all, and like any tool, sometimes it’s not suited for the job. Gratitude is not my go-to choice when I’m strung out on sleep exhaustion, angry at my husband and a good friend asks how I’m doing. Complaining is. That’s because it helps me feel known. It acknowledges my current reality. It takes the air out of my angry, resentful, pitiful place, which frees up some space that can be filled with other things, even–gasp–gratitude.

Gratitude and complaining are different tools for the same job–both have the ability to connect us with our lived experience and people we care about. Depending on the situation, both tools can have the exact opposite effect. Noticing things I’m grateful for when I’m swimming in pitiful seas might give me some perspective and remind me that there are also nice things within reach. Listing gratitudes can also make me feel angry, invisible, patronized, lonely and misunderstood. Same goes for the complaining–it can be alternately liberating or toxic.

Since I’ve been having a pretty crappy time of it, complaining has been my tool of choice. And it’s done quite a job. Again and again, I’ve found myself basking in a post-complaint glow where I’m lighter, kinder and feel more love and appreciation. Take that, gratitude.

armsopenComplaining
Photo, once again, by Oakley Originals.  Complaining by me.

 

 

Mom plots escape from dishes, toddler

Way back when I only had one child, I got pretty devoted to that setup.

When I saw people with more than one kid or considered my life that way, I would shake my head or cringe or feel nauseous.

My body was quick to react to my worries. How could Distractable Me pay attention to two whole, independent, needy children? I considered a life where I was always chasing something—the conversation I wasn’t having, the connection I wasn’t getting, the moment I was missing. Cringe-worthy indeed.

I was right to be worried.

There is no such thing as fairness or equality in mothering. I don’t love my kids the same way. I don’t pay the same amount of attention to each. Depending on the day, the hour, the phase, I prefer to connect with one and avoid the challenges with the other. And then, when I factor my needs and desires into this crowded picture? Woa, Nelly. Good luck. I spend a very significant amount of time stomping my resentments around: that I don’t get enough time—to write, hang out with AJ in that spontaneous way we used to, check my phone, sleep, not wash dishes…

Kitchen Bride
Kitchen Bride by Barbara Butkus. You may remember this doosey of a photo from the Mommy Asana photo challenge a while back.

The dishes are relentless. I am always aware of them. And no matter how angry or accepting I am, they just rest in their plastic white tub, the crust of egg curling up, tipped at an angle by the glasses and spoons and bottles and soggy zip lock bag beneath them.

Cal is persistent and driven. Also relentless. I try to cook and he clings to my legs, screaming UUUPPPPPP! I ask him to please stop taking spoons out of the drawer and he just starts throwing them onto our tile floor with more joie de vivre. He does all the things that toddlers do to drive parents crazy. And it’s had me avoiding him like the plague.

I’m pissed off. And I just want Cal and the dishes and all this shit that I have to deal with to go away so I can sit in a silent room with a bowl full of grapes.

Since I don’t have a silent room or a bowl full of grapes, I do the next best thing: I pack my day full of friends and errands and watching the kids but not really having to connect with them. I distract myself. By the end of the day, the damned dishes are still leering and Cal is as feisty as hell. It grates at me–knowing that those things are still chasing me and I feel more depleted than ever.

Once again, I’ve painted myself into this tight, bitter corner that I’ve found my way in and out of a zillion times before. I know how to get out–the things that torment me grow smaller and softer when I pay more attention to them, not less. Ugh. It’s such an un-sexy, tedious solution.

If I just did the stupid dishes and built time into our evening to talk to Cal and acknowledge his needs, then I might not be so desperate for the silence or the grapes. Because the dishes would be washed, and Cal might tone down the screaming if he felt I was listening.

The only way out is through.

Why I grow roots when my toddler tantrums

We have a new contender for Most Challenging Kid in our house.

I’m relieved about the switch over. That is to say, it’s sweet to preference Jo for a change. I never thought I’d say this, but Jo is just so reasonable. And even when he’s unreasonable, he and I have been there and back so many times that we just know how it goes.

Alternately, Cal is developing into his own little power pack of a person. Compared to Jo, I hardly know him. When Cal is happy, it’s a dream. He waves at every person, airplane and truck.  He scritches his nose up, closes his eyes into little slices with a grin, and cackles like a heavy smoker. He walks like Godzilla, flinging his soft pink arms around. But let me give you a word of advice about Cal: don’t take away his keys. Or rather, if you choose to take away the keys so you can open the front door, get ready, because he’s going to cue up his gutteral misery scream and then when you put him down he’s going to throw himself onto his face on purpose, scratching violently at the floor.

We had quite a morning.

I sort of remember this with Jo, but I think that he didn’t tantrum this much at this age. What I do remember was tiptoeing around all day trying to avoid the equivalent of taking away the keys. It sort of worked but I got pretty anxious, constantly scanning for anything that might induce 1 year old upset. I eventually learned the style I use now, which is not to tip toe, but to tell it like it is.

I know you wanted to go swimming, but we’re not swimming today. You can tell me how mad you are about that…<insert scream/fling/scratch/kick> …Yep. I know you’re mad and disappointed. You really want to go and we’re not going swimming.

And, as you may have heard, I got some new ideas through this rad parenting class in the last year. I took the class cause I was at my wits end with Jo, and I remember thinking how awesome it would be to use some of the things I learned with Cal. But at the time, Cal was a smiley, sleepy, doughy infant without a tantrum in sight. Suffice it to say, these days I’m getting to try some of the stuff I learned with Cal. Here’s what works for me.

  1. When I notice Cal is amping up, I briefly check in with myself and decide if I have the energy to do this whole shebang. If not, I give him keys or my phone or let him play in the car while I sit there since I don’t have to be anywhere just then. Or I hand him to someone.
  2. If I do decide I have the energy, I tune into Cal and imagine myself growing roots deep into the ground. I literally do this. It helps me feel stable and calm. (No one I know would ever describe me as stable or calm. I am neither. This is where the roots come in. They help me lean more in that direction.)

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    Photo by Kim Seng
  3. I get down on Cal’s level and make sure he can make eye contact with me whenever he wants.
  4. I let him rip through his tantrum.

I did this after we got back from the grocery store today. I tip-toed as long as I could through the produce section. Gave him my phone in the canned vegetable aisle and then thankfully the butcher shop had a ceiling fan. When the butcher asked me what I needed, I actually said “5 lbs of ground beef and a valium.”

On the drive home, I knew without a doubt that we were headed straight to trantrum-ville. I decided that I did have the energy to listen to him. Before ye olde melt down, I managed to get in a phone call with a friend while unloading the groceries, but then I needed the keys. For the door. I’m guessing my friend could hear me saying I needed to go over Cal’s bloodcurdling scream fest. I hung up the phone. And got down on the floor.

It probably took about 6 minutes all told. He screamed and flung himself. He scratched at his snotty face. He looked at me sometimes. I talked to him a little bit. At this point, I had already given him the keys back but it wasn’t really about the keys anymore. He needed to freak out. So I let him. After about 3 minutes of him screaming and me listening and imagining my roots growing ever wider and deeper, I had an impulse to open my arms. When Cal is upset, he usually pushes me away, so I’ve gotten used to being near but not touching him. I had my arms open for about 3o seconds while he cried and looked and considered. And then he walked over and sat in my lap and kept crying. He slowed down enough that he said a word. One of his Cal words that I can’t understand. He sputtered down into silence. Then I offered him some smoothie. He drank some. And it was over.

We spend the next half hour before naptime chatting and eating yogurt and granola. The storm passed.

This is only my 2nd or 3rd experience of what this looks like with Cal, but I must say, it WORKS. When I have the energy, I like handling his tantrums this way because it’s how I like people to handle mine. If AJ tries to distract me from feeling upset, it pisses me off. I get distant and cold when he tries to talk me out of it or give me advice. The best times, always, are when he just listens. And I blubber. And everything crescendos into tears. Only then can I really move on. And then I actually do feel better.

Car camping is my new best friend

As a long-time backpacker in my youth, I would scoff at car campers. Why would you go to so much trouble to sit in a dusty parking lot and sleep in a tent?

Well, you narcissistic 20 year old know-it-all, because you have small children. That’s why.

And it doesn’t have to be a dusty parking lot, either.

We packed ourselves all up with stuff we had—sleeping bags, folding chairs, camp stove, pack-and-play, an old nonstick aluminum pan that AJ bought at a thrift store in New Zealand while I snuck off with a lid from another cooking set since we only had $6. And then we added a slew of borrowed stuff to the mix: 6 person tent, twin air mattress, full sized air mattress, battery operated thing to blow up air mattresses.

Then we were off. Propelling ourselves through the heavy, hot air of California’s central valley to a place called King’s Canyon.

On the road, back seat version. #familytriumph

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Back when we did childless things like going to trivia night every Monday, I remember one of the co-hosts mentioning how beautiful King’s Canyon was. So we decided to go to there.

Let me tell you, I’ve been dragging my feet on this camping thing. We tried once when Jo was 7 or 8 months and it was not the best. We actually backpacked in a couple miles–AW with Jo strapped to his front and a backpack on his back, only to find out that there was a spot we could have driven to less than 1/4 mile away. In the end, he barely napped and instead rolled around the tent like a ping pong ball. The night was pretty similar and I woke up bleary-eyed and desperate for our usual world of cribs and doors that close.

When it comes to camping, I wish we were co-sleepers–sleep together at home or sleep together in a tent. One less hurdle to get over. But for our separate-sleeper family and particularly me, with my sleep PTSD, the idea of bedding down together in a tent gave me the heebee-jeebees. To his credit, AJ was persistent, and I said OK through gritted teeth.

Then I stumbled across this post about traveling with kids and–cue soundtrack for light breaking through the clouds–a little golden ray started shining through. I commented on the post, admitting my terror of family tent sleeping and Free to Be replied,

…if you’re used to doing things a certain way at home, it often is a case of looking at things from a totally different angle as a camper – just as the cooking gets done in a different way, so does bedtime and babycare.

Eureka!

So damn true.

I packed that little nugget along with us and kept it as my mantra. I still doubted as we wound our way through the canyon to a campsite at the road’s end, all while enduring Cal’s cry which had turned raspy from overuse. We pulled into our site around 6 and I stumbled out of the driver’s seat, grabbed blotchy, sobbing Cal, yanked his clothes and diaper off and deposited him on the riverbank.

There was a cool breeze. Jo scrambled from rock to rock. Banged sticks on things. Threw stones at things. Cal felt the wind in his face. Splashed. Was calm.

I didn’t look at a clock for the next 4 days. We ate when hungry, slept when tired and not only survived, but enjoyed ourselves. That huge tent and the air mattresses helped too. Yes. There were nights when Cal would wake up Jo who would then wake up Cal. But AJ and I would take turns sleeping in and napping by the river. And being up with Cal at 5:30 washing dishes by the river had its own charm.

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There was a sublime joy in seeing Jo in such a fitting environment. I had a blessed break from the word “no.” Wanna break that branch? Sure. Light that on fire? Please. Hurdle that huge boulder down into the water? Just wait till that girl floats by. Ok, you betcha.

And we got deep into Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Jo saw the cover illustration of the spooky, beautiful witch at the library and was hooked. I required him to sit through my lengthy prologue about the term “witch” and it being a catch-all category for many powerful, magical, wonderful women. Once we got into it, I was struck by Jo’s fear and fascination with deadly, dark characters. Since I’m still afraid of the dark and the Wicked Witch of the West, I worry that stories like these only introduce him to oppressive, new fears, but I had the sense over and over as we read it that it was filling a deep need of his. To have a place to rest some of his knowledge that there are scary things and people out there. To be trusted with a story with some sharp edges.

When we weren’t reading in our camping chairs to the delicious white noise of the South Fork of the Kings River, we were roasting marshmallows over a campfire while Cal slept in his tented pack-n-play. In just four nights, I learned the geography and natural rhythms of Sentinel campsite #13 more intimately than those of the sweet little house we’ve lived in for the last year and a half.

The way the cedars go from 3 dimensional swaying green giants to lacy black frames for a hundred million stars. The evening glow on the east bank of the river, just before sunset. My back pressed into the smooth curve of river rock, eyes closed in the sun, squinting the light in every so often to watch Jo jump and splash through his new river world.

Why you're all welcome in my exclusive bad boy club

For those of you who don’t keep obsessive tabs on the goings on here (gasp! You don’t?!) I’ll catch you up real quick.

I wrote about a parenting breakthrough I had with Jo who will kick, bite, hit, head-butt and then laugh when angry. The post got lots of attention, and 60 or 70 parents, mostly moms, responded about how their kids, mostly boys, did this same thing. I was so moved by all the comments and struck by this pattern of boys behaving this way that I wrote another post speculating about where all this boy raging was coming from. Then I re-wrote that post due to an insightful comment on my Facebook page about gender. I re-wrote it because I realized that while my experience is about boys and while I see and hear this happening a lot with boys, I’m sure it also happens with some girls too, and I honestly can’t imagine the additional challenges of having a girl behaving this way. So I re-wrote the parts where I generalized about boys into generalizing to kids.

Since I did that, there have been some interesting comments in the vein of “Wait?! I thought we were now in this great raging boys club and now you’re expanding it to all kids, and we’re parents of boys. I liked it when you firmly identified as a mom of a boy. Don’t stop doing that!” I also got a fair number of, “Yes, my girl is like this too, so thank you for including me.”

And I’m left here pondering what I think about all of this—the old “are boys and girls wired differently?” conversation. The old nature vs. nurture conversation. The old “how do you talk about your specific experience and bond with people like you and also keep things open enough for different voices to join in?” conversation.

So here’s what I have to say about all that.

I think boys and girls are wired differently. Boys have penises. Girls have vaginas. They have different hormone combinations coursing through their little bodies. I also think boys and girls are wired very similarly. They both have brains and eyes and hands and are human and tend to prefer macaroni and cheese over most any other food in the world.

Here now, courtesy of my friend Jen with a witty blog that always makes me guffaw, are some examples of boy wiring:

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BoyNails

Anyone else appreciate the “nails” theme in this series?!

In terms of inclusion/exclusion, I think something is lost when we try to include everyone in everything because one of my most profound joys in this lifetime is seeking comfort in people who share my experience. I’m talking to you, mom’s of “bad” boys! Also, I think something is lost when we get super exclusive, because one of my other most profound joys is learning from people who are really different than me. And having my mind blown by them. Hello, dads of mild-mannered, craft loving girls.

I want both things, damn it.

I am the mom of a particular breed of boy, and I’m going to talk about that without any apologies. I want you all to write from the hip here too, and not worry about generalizing about patterns you see in boy and girl behavior. I get it. We all see patterns. My big caveat is this: while some of the differences between boys and girls are rooted in biology, the differences between them that we see and talk about are culturally re-enforced to the max. We think boys are like this and girls are like this, we notice what confirms our thoughts (ignore what doesn’t) and make it true.

Also, I want to make room for our boys and girls to surprise us. For the record, when Jo is flinging his limbs wildly about, he’s often wearing one of his favorite shirts–it’s (gasp!) a turquoise “girl” shirt with puffed sleeves and a starfish on it.

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He’s also very nurturing of Cal and regularly shouts, “Mom, Cal’s on the stairs again—it’s a safety problem!”

He’s a big, complicated, easy-to-generalize kid.

Probably a lot like yours.

That slippery fish of parenting mastery

There are moments of mastery.

Because there are so many more moments of barely getting by and utter failure, I have to mark these somehow.

Not to toot my own horn…

To finish reading this post, get ye over to Get Born, a radical blog of unflinchingly real women writers where I post once a month. It’s a dream come true over there.

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Why I re-wrote my last post

Thanks to a really insightful comment from one of you on my Facebook page, I decided to go back and change the title and some of the content of my last post about raging boys.

I like this post, but I must admit I’m not keen on the slight ‘gender essentialism’ edge to it. Labeling this type of behavior as somehow a ‘boy’ thing isn’t really a good thing for either boys or girls. Also in my opinion it’s really not that clear cut. I have a boy who is (at least so far) the total opposite of this- very physically cautious etc. this describes our friend’s daughter far more accurately. A mom I talked to recently with a wonderful spirited ‘wild’ daughter was lamenting the fact that everyone seemed to think this kind of behavior was fine from boys and wrote it off as ‘boys will be boys’ type stuff, but saw it as almost unnatural and totally unacceptable in a girl. Since having kids I see so many examples of how much we try to stereotype them. When we see behavior that confirms our bias we note it, but when we see anything that runs counter to our bias we ignore it. Boys or girls, the same principles, solutions and dilemmas apply so why pigeon hole?

Since honesty is my bag here, I have to admit that I felt really defensive after reading Ruth’s comment at first. “But I wrote it because I have a boy, and 99% of the comments on my post about Jo’s badness were from parents of boys.” And then I thought some more, and had a back and forth with Ruth and decided that she was right. Parents of raging, wild, aggressive girls probably feel less open about it than those of boys, so I probably hear less from them. And like it or not, this kind of behavior is something that’s more tolerated in boys. Based on my own experience at the playground, I can only imagine what onlooking parental wrath I’d incur if my 4-year-old girl kicked and then dumped sand on the little boy sitting by the slide.

So I want to broaden this discussion from parents of boys to parents of kids. Are you the parent of a kid? Do they rage? Do they head-butt you and then laugh? Well then step right up. I re-wrote this for you.