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School aged kids

Sidewalk candy or My son is not horrible at all

Typically, I wouldn’t smile after I told you this story.

If I were being typical, I would finish it up with an exasperated guffaw that means, “Aren’t they insane? Don’t you just dream about being in a silent room alone, eating grapes?”

But because of a particularly brilliant session with my new therapist counselor person and a video I watched months ago and remembering some things about being a human and a mother that I had forgotten and basically every single thing that has happened to me before now, I’m not being my typical self.

I know I’m not being my typical self because when I think about Jo picking up the piece of red sour ribbon candy off the sidewalk, I feel a rush of delight.

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I realize that this is just a red ribbon and not red ribbon candy. For reasons you will soon understand, I don’t have the piece of red ribbon candy anymore.

 

He held it up and asked if he could have it. There was hope in his eyes because sometimes I let him eat things off of the ground or the sidewalk, because maybe it will build his immunity. But this particular thing, this ribbon dipped in sour sugar, it was all alone, just soaking up whatever terrible things might have passed by, and I didn’t want Jo to eat it.

So I told him – with my warm but firm tone that I’m working on – that he could not have the candy. I told him that sometimes grown ups put drugs in candy. I internally cringed when I heard this justification come out of my mouth, but 7-year-olds like really good reasons, and I was grasping to give him one.

He stomped his foot and screamed his tight, high-pitched way that basically means, you’re the worst mom I’ve ever had. It also means, “I might do something really fucked up right now that will publicly embarrass and potentially injure you or something nearby.”

Instead of steeling up and getting harder, the way most humans do when they feel the threat of imminent danger, I said something like, “I know it really sucks that you can’t have it. I’m sorry.”

He screamed again, and gave me his death-y-est death glare, and tightened his fist around the candy. I just looked at him – with that warm but firm look I’m working on. Then I kept on looking.

And then he let out this deeper roar and flung that piece of candy as far away as he could. It soared in a floppy red arc right onto the roof of the apartments next to us. Then Jo hopped back on his scooter, and I walked behind him, imagining how good it felt to throw that candy into oblivion, where no one could ever have it, ever.

The whole red ribbon candy story could have turned out differently. I could have gone all steely disciplinarian, like I tend to, and then Jo would have gotten angrier, and thrown the candy at me, or kicked my leg or something. And then I would have yelled some horrible thing at him because I was so mad about what a horrible kid he was being. Imagine a little Tasmanian devil tornado of horrible sucking both of us right up.

But the tornado did not happen, and we got to keep walking down the sidewalk, towards home, and after that, towards more sidewalks with their abandoned candies, towards more chances to break each other or not.

***

Thank you to Miranda July, whose writing in this book and this book inspired my writing here.

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.

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.

Dreamy movies for kids and grownups

If you’ve tried to find kids’ media that is gentle but edgy enough, that respects a kid’s need for safety and curiosity about danger, then you know you’re in for an epic and unsatisfying quest.

We’ve waded through all sorts of “kids” movies. Some left Jo huddled in the corner of the couch with hands clapped over his ears (Cars), others that had great moments (and songs!) but required tons of challenging explanations and fastforwarding through scary parts (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). We came really close with the Herbie the Love Bug movies, but there was some sexism in those that pissed me off.

So it was a profound relief to discover My Neighbor Totoro. Jo and I were both completely transfixed and delighted. The main character girls are curious, vulnerable, angry, kind and determined as hell. Totoro naps in a huge, soft cuddly heap, and carries the girls, safe in his tufts of fur, as he flies on a spinning top in the night sky and bellows a fierce, resonant roar.

We reveled in this story — it doesn’t dumb down intrigue and fear at the expense of delight, and spins characters out of wonder–six-legged Catbus with furry interior, anyone?

catbus

Now I’ll tell you why we’re all damn lucky. The studio (Studio Ghibli) and director (Miyazaki, who has quite possibly the most sparkly but respectable elderly man face ever) that made Totoro was pretty prolific, so there’s also Ponyo, which is Jonah’s favorite. And why wouldn’t it be? A five-year-old boy named Sosuke lives on a house that teeters over the ocean, where he gets to go and play by himself. He makes friends with a goldfish-turned-girl and names her Ponyo.

Ponyo --- One of my favorites scenes from the movie (I have a weird obsession with underwater scenery)

Among other things, they float on top of their world–which is flooded by the ocean and all of its creatures–in a toy boat that uses a candle as its motor. And voila! Another gender-norm-bending, tender-hearted, just-spooky-enough adventure.

ponyo-500And for those of you who have the time and desire to cook after a good bout of movie watching, I stumbled across this, a recipe for Ponyo noodles on a rad blog dedicated to “cooking and eating through children’s literature.” Recipe for crisp apple strudels and schnitzel with noodles, anyone?!

But I digress.

Apparently, the other Miyazaki movie that’s gentle enough for little kids is Kiki’s Delivery Service.

If you haven’t seen any of these, whether you have kids or not, run to your nearest video store (you can’t stream them online).

You’ll thank me later.

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.