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Mom learns she has everything and nothing to do with her children’s behavior

This just in!

Bay Area mother discovers that the behavior of her sons has everything and nothing to do with her.

Stephanie Mackley—known for her essays on feminism, parenting, and dark-ish, somewhat funny forays into the meaning of life—has recently found her footing again, after a hell-raising summer and first few weeks back to school.

This is what it looked like when Mackley found freedom and relief from the relentless demands of her lovely and very intense children. Photo by Pam Link.

Back in July of 2017, Mackley wrote about a recent experience of accessing deep “chambers of knowing” inside herself, wherein she could “see and understand all of the things.” Coincidentally, within days of writing that blog post, Mackley found herself deep in a pit of not knowing anything at all, after weeks of frequent and unrelenting bursts of sibling fighting in her home. Her two sons, Jo, 8, and Cal, 4, could routinely be found in their bedroom or the basement “super room” screaming, “NOT FAIR” or crying after one of their many bouts of hitting, kicking or teasing each other.

“It reminded me of the days when Cal was a baby, when I could never really get anything done because I had to watch him all the time and make sure he wasn’t going to fall down the stairs or something,” Mackley reported. “I could barely make dinner for all of the fights I was having to break up. And after a while, I just started fantasizing about a small cabin in the forest where I could go and live by myself.”

Neighbors and friends all expected Mackley’s situation to improve when the school year started, giving her a much needed break from the increased parenting duties that unstructured summers often bring. Mackley’s husband of 12 years, AJ, said that things did get better in terms of the sibling fights once school started, “but then Jo started wailing and resisting most any time we asked him to do something like put on his shoes or brush his teeth. And Cal, well, he’s 4, so tantrums are a pretty regular thing for him just developmentally.”

While the new school year did provide a few hours per week for Mackley to rest at her home alone, she still felt significant despair and exhaustion over her sons’ daily outbursts and continued, albeit less frequent, sibling fighting.

As of October 4, 2017, Mackley reported having nearly two weeks of feeling a sense of parenting mastery that “couldn’t have come sooner.” She says that even though she can still be up to her eyeballs in sibling fighting, Cal’s tantrums and Jo’s whining and resistance, she has discovered a new and important aspect of her parenting strategy.

“I have to just feel my feelings,” she said. “I think over the summer, having so few breaks and watching the kids fight so much, I was just wallowing in buckets of sadness and disappointment and shame. I mean, what does it mean about me that my kids are fighting like this? I must be a terrible mother if they behave this way. And why did I get these kids, these really hard and tricky kids—they don’t act like all the ‘easy kids’ I see everywhere else. Not to mention seeing them hurt each other on purpose. Day after day, they do that crap even though I demonstrate otherwise and tell them its not okay and enforce clear boundaries. So, what the fuck?!”

In the end, Mackley reported that she’s found it helpful to track her own feelings when she is taking care of her sons, and sometimes, when things are particularly hard, she’ll leave the boys on their own and go to another room to cry. “When I reach a particular limit of frustration or upset, and I feel the need to cry, I just do it. I’ll go in the other room and bawl for like 5 or 10 minutes, however long it takes to just feel the full horror and sadness of the particular moment. I don’t do it in a manipulative way. I just let the boys know that I’m feeling too sad to keep helping them, and usually, while I’m sobbing on the couch, I can hear them solving their own problem in the other room.”

“Yeah, there’s been a lot of crying in our house,” AJ confirms. “I’m not always sure what to think about it, but Stephanie does seem calmer with the boys when things get tricky.”

Mackley, 38, also routinely engages in a practice called “listening,” when she calls one of a handful of friends who are also familiar with the practice, in order to speak frankly about what’s going on.

“I think of it as barfing up my feelings, really. Parenting these kids just triggers me so much sometimes. So after a hard day, I just need about 7 minutes to say all of the horrible things I’m thinking. And I don’t need advice, I literally just need someone to listen and maybe say ‘uh huh.’ They set a timer and tell me when the 7 minutes are over, and that’s pretty much it. Then all that crap I was thinking and feeling is out of my system, and I feel a little less bogged down, like I actually did something to help myself,” Mackley said.

She says that typically, the listening practice is exchanged, so the other person on the line often takes a turn to talk while Mackley listens.

“Between the crying and the listening time, I find that the kids inevitable drama doesn’t get to me so much–I feel way less invested in getting the fighting or upset to stop, and can focus instead on setting the boundary or consequence or helping them solve the problem or whatever they’re needing at the time.”

Mackley also reports that drinking beer, wine or gin and tonics is also an important part of her coping strategy, and that time away from the kids entirely, is also “insanely important.” But she maintains that her new focus on feeling her feelings has been “a real game changer.”

“It just clears out the fog and helps me remember that I actually do know how to be a decent parent. And it reminds me that my boys are totally separate from me, you know? They’re just kids doing their kid thing, and I’m just here to be the alpha, and set the limits and help them learn to solve problems. Their neanderthal crap doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It’s just their little immature brains figuring shit out. Since I’m actually taking care of my feelings, I’m just calmer and more relaxed, and I think they can feel that. I mean, it’s way nicer for me this way. Instead of feeling like a soldier with PTSD, I’m just a mom, doing her best to help her kids learn to be decent human beings.”

Join the feminist picture book revolution with this free tool

Yo ladies and gents! Are you ready for your DIY summer project? All you need is 5 minutes and a commitment to gender equity!

So stop stirring your artisinal, small batch, organic playdough, and go load some locally-sourced, recycled paper into your printer. Cause we need you for the revolution.

Read on.

“Protagonism is Propaganda that protects and perpetuates privilege.”

Jill Soloway, my living, breathing spirit animal said this.

It, in addition to every other thing she says in this manifesto, has given voice, clarity and purpose to feminist frustrations that got turned up to a steady boil since I pushed out my first baby.

I switch pronouns in most every picture book, I have long, difficult discussions with AW about the sexist way we divvy up domestic chores, I tell the boys why certain stories they read make me angry, because they are using sexist or racist or classist or homophobic stereotypes. “Maybe we should call the male character the ‘the farmer’s husband’ since women and men can both be farmers and husbands and wives. Let’s think of some we know…”

I challenge their assumption that the person riding the motorcycle is male. I consider that all of this is working when Jo and I have an exchange about a silver Toyota passing us on the freeway.

Me: He’s driving waaay too fast!

Jo: Or she!!!

And so it has been that raising my children has made me ever more aware of patriarchy, of sexism, of the million ways that He and Him and His is the universal default for every person or creature seen in the world or shown in a story.

And so it has been that I’ve had the idea to make this for almost exactly 7 years, and finally spent the 10 minutes it took this afternoon.

Behold! This magical feminist pronoun switcher tool can empower any person anywhere to join the protagonist revolution.

 

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Since a shocking majority of published picture books feature male characters, you can just close your eyes at your kids’ bookshelf and grab one. Then, simply print, cut, paste and voila! You just created your first piece of feminist protagonist propaganda! It can be tipped into the tiny, pliable minds of children everywhere.

Not only will you be saved from having to remember to change pronouns on every page, your child will soon set the perfect stage for a conversation about unfairness and and feminism when she asks you why you changed the words in so many of her picture books.

Welcome to the revolution.

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.

On hope lying dormant, then sprouting

It’s been a long time. I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing here, and my overall happiness factor has suffered as a result. This is a time when my overall happiness factor needs bolstering, given the doldrums of winter and staring daily into the belly of the beast of our current president. It’s hard at times like these to remember that somewhere, beneath the surface, is creativity and life and hope.

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Photo by Steven Depolo

This has been a really tricky time for me. Feeling seasonally depressed, creatively deflated, politically afraid and disoriented. Not to mention the fact that the two glorious humans I co-created are growing ever bigger and more complex by the day.

Cal has hit the peak of 3-and-a-half-ness. Oh sweet heaven above. This is a challenging age.

Lucky for me, a teacher of mine, from way back when Jo was an erratic, tantrumy 3 and 4 year old, gave a talk at our preschool. She reminded me of some stuff I knew once. Like how little kid brains are constantly trying to make sure they’re connected to our adult brains, and how when they’re feeling not connected or overwhelmed, their brains can freak out in the form of a tantrum. And during the tantrum, it’s the opposite of helpful to enforce or discuss rules, since their brains have gone all reptilian and they can’t even access the reasoning part of their brain anyway. She also reminded me of this: if a kid is headed towards a tantrum, the best long term choice for all involved is to walk straight into it with them. I know this goes against every natural human instinct in the book, especially when you’re Just So Sick of that whiny, little 3-year-old voice. But I’ve been trying that thing I used to do–the equivalent of walking straight into a hurricane–and it effing works.

I actually just read my own blog post that I wrote 2 and a half years ago as a tutorial. It’s both a shock and an embarrassment to find that not only did I have some pretty refined strategies for how to handle tantrums once, I actually wrote a step-by-step guide about it. Fast forward a couple years, and that same grounded parent and writer is at her wits end with this little person, with scarcely a clue for how to cope.

Well, thanks internet, for preserving a former version of myself who knew what she was doing. There I was, beneath the years, like a bulb sleeping under the frozen ground. Just waiting to be remembered.

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.

An Honest Mom gives away Truck and Bunny, emotionally-intelligent picture book

I wrote a picture book, y’all, and I want to give it to you.

I wrote it in a deep, dark night of insomnia, thereby kicking insomnia’s ass. I wrote it because I was weary of 7 years of changing pronouns in the picture books I read to my little boys. If you happen to be a female sheep, caterpillar, dump truck or farmer, let me give you some advice. Don’t waste your time auditioning for a children’s picture book. You’ve got a snowballs chance in hell of getting a call back.

I wrote this book because I was totally over reading children’s books that suck to read out loud.

Behold! Truck and Bunny!

Truck and Bunny picture book

It’s an emotionally intelligent, multi-perspective story that doesn’t suck to read to your kids.

I wrote it with the brain of a pre-schooler and the over-tired parent in mind.

Truck and Bunny inside pages

You can check out an online preview here.

So now’s the part when I give the book to you. If you subscribe to the blog, I’ll send you an email with a printable link to the book at the cheapest online printer I could find (they print and mail the book for 10 bucks).  And if you’re already a subscriber, THANK YOU one million times. Just leave me a comment on this post, and I’ll email the link to you.

Once you get Truck and Bunny into the grubby, little mitts of your beloved 2-4 year olds, let me know what they think. Perhaps I can feature their review in an upcoming edition.

Praise for Truck and Bunny book

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.

We don’t make summer like they used to

Mid-conversation, a friend of mine recently confessed, “SUMMER. IS. KILLING. ME.”

I had a sense of what she meant, but hadn’t quite gotten there yet. My week of starfishing had me all relaxed, full-tanked, ready to rumble.

Well, it’s been two weeks. My tank is no longer full. Ready to rumble, I am not.

SUMMER. IS. DISORIENTING. ME.

I hardly know which end is up. Where does Jo go today? Tomorrow? How will he get there and home again? And then what about Cal? It’s like some nasty little Rubik’s Cube that you think you’ve almost got solved and then all the colors change and scramble and you’re right back where you started and want to huck the damn thing at the wall.

Back in those retrospectively perfect, happy days of pre-summer, I knew what Monday meant. It meant dance class and then Trader Joes with Cal and picking up Jo at the same damn place I always pick him up. I also knew all the other days. The dishes got washed, the laundry done, the groceries bought and AJ and I each got a few of our own blessed hours to saw and hammer boards and click away at the computer, respectively.

Now I spend most of my time trying to solve the puzzle for next week’s pile of pick ups and drop offs and by the time I do, the next next week is looming and the house undone.

Then there’s the emotional fallout from the boys’ week with the grandparents. They had a great time. But a week away is a week away and apparently, when you’re 3 and 6, you come home from Colorado with the emotional resilience of something with Precious Little emotional resilience and the etiquette of a rabid beast.

How did I fall so far behind in the parenting game? I keep trying to remind myself about times I’ve  totally rocked it. These days, I feel lost and behind. Underwater. How do I respond to this perpetual whining? This refusal to get back on the bike? This screaming and kicking the fence? I cling to the hope that parenting mastery ebbs and flows. I buy parenting books online. I dissociate with TV.

How did this happen to summer?

Summer pool photo by razee.
Photo by razee

Summer is supposed to be The Best. But you know who made summer the best? Stay at home moms did that. At least mine did. When the school year wrapped down, there she was. Ready and waiting. The house in order, plastic pool on the lawn, her lovely almond fingernails clicking away at the buttons on our phone, inviting friends to come over and play.

Because of her, I spent summer at my house and because of my friends’ mothers, I spent summer at theirs. It was a boundless field of time and play and popsicles. It was not like the school year at all.

The summer I’m living now is a shadow of that one. But I am not my mother. And this is not then. The truth is that I’m unable and unwilling to give the summer I once had to my kids.

Unwilling because I like my job. I want my job. It’s a part-time gift from the heavens. And it allows AJ to work part time himself.

Unable because the vast majority of families we know are in the same boat. There is not a sea of other mothers waiting to help me create summer bliss. They’re working too. And scrambling from place to place looking just as wacked out as me. Holding on till the reliability of the school year descends and smooths everything back into place again.

 

My week as a starfish or living at home without children

Alternate realities are helpful for the sake of comparison.

I know, because I’m currently living one. My house feels twice as big, my brain half as full. I slept till nine effing thirty this morning and ate pizza and jellybeans for dinner last night.

This is my life without children. For one week, both boys are in Colorado, swimming and fishing and eating popsicles (even chocolate ones!!) and watching TV with their grandparents.

Way back in winter, the concept felt thrilling and pragmatic, a way to cope with the predicament of summer vacation with two working parents. Yet laying in the bed of my childhood home at 4:30am, the night before we left them, I was certain this would be the largest catastrophe our family had ever seen. The boys would be paralyzed with homesickness, they would sit, wide-eyed, in front of scary movies from which their subconscious selves would never recover, my parents would slip into a catatonic haze of exhaustion, the boys would be happily splashing in the river, then swept into its roiling icy waters to die.

My dark, pre-dawn thoughts know no bounds.

Suffice it to say, I felt some anxiety about leaving them, even though the concept of leaving them filled me with the giddy joy of a convict imagining escape.

The morning we left, no one cried at goodbye, and my jangle of nerves was sure this was some terrible omen, a sign of ruptured attachment, when really, they were probably just super into their new water guns, and a whole grassy backyard lawn, its thick, green hose filling up a neon orange swimming pool.

I cried a little at the airport, but that did nothing to match the anxiety soothing properties of a single pint of beer I drank while waiting to board the plane for home.

I sat with my partner, like those couples I often see, reading and staring and drinking. Simply passing the time.

I’ve watched them hungrily, and fantasized about their freedom, while slung down with bags, AJ and I tag-teaming little boys with sweaty hands.

As the fizzy beer drone spread down my arms and legs, I became the woman in that couple. Waiting for my flight, borderline bored, literally nothing to do.

That’s when the giddiness set in.

I kept feeling the impulse to stretch my arms and legs out at a diagonal, as far as they would go, just to physically demonstrate my internal sensation. A huge spreading out. Extending into space that I forgot was there.

Starfish
Starfish by Elena Kalis

You can’t know how compressed you are until there’s space again. And let me tell you, I’ve been bound in pretty tight. Mothering is the sum total of thousands of minutes spent tracking people other than myself, anticipating needs, contorting my body and energy to try to ease the way. I ignore my aching back and elbow because the baby happened to fall asleep on me this way. Leftover salad goes uneaten while I mindlessly scarf down the remains of an abandoned lunch box sandwich. My energetic nodes are tuned to them and their needs.

And suddenly. I’m in my very own house without them. All those nodes are free. To rest, to roam, to notice other things. To stretch out like an goddamn starfish because there’s so much space to spare.

I have not been to the grocery store since we got home 4 days ago. I casually put our laptop on the floor after watching a late night show, unconcerned about prying 3 year old fingers at 6:30 a.m. I can leave work early or go out for a drink after because it doesn’t matter when I get home, and no matter when I get home, the house will be empty and quiet and just how I left it.

The other thing: I like AJ so much more.

This has been the most stark comparison of all.

On the airplane home, I was snuggling with him like a 20-year-old version of myself, and it felt natural as hell.

For years, I’ve puzzled over the shift in my relationship with him. Wasn’t there a time when I could hardly keep my hands off him? And even long after the whole honeymoon period wore off, didn’t I still dote on small affections?

So why has last several years of our relationship been afflicted with broken and worried conversations. Do I even like him anymore? Does he like me? Where oh where has my sex drive gone?

I was worried about myself.

But now I know what happened to myself.

Two little boys happened to myself.

And our mostly relaxed, dialed-in-to-eachother, touch a lot relationship was ever so slowly and hypnotically hemmed in by laundry and dishes and grocery lists and coordinating the logistics for how and when I’ll go get my semi-annual haircut.

We all know this concept. Raising small children with someone puts stress on that relationship. It makes sense that between the relentless care-taking, cleaning up and mammary glanding, my body craves mostly one thing when the children are away or asleep: separation.

But knowing a concept does not erase the fear. Even though I thought that my relationship with AJ would most certainly, probably feel closer in those mythical years of the future when the boys need us less, I still worried. Have we lost it entirely?

Do I even like him anymore?

Well, hot damn, the answer is yes. In the spacious delight of these days at home to ourselves, we’ve fallen right back into the way it was. I cannot tell you the relief of this: it’s largely effortless to love my partner again the way I used to.

Also, I totally have a sex drive.

I had no idea it would be so easy to get right back into it.

Turns out it’s not so much me, or him, but The Situation that has changed.

Delightfully, The Situation will continue to change, in the direction of more freedom, not less.

I’ve got my eye on the horizon. It’s looking pretty starfishy.