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On empathy, and how it helps me and my oldest son

J’s most common response when baby C cries is to furl his brow, put his hands over his ears and start screaming himself.  I started by trying to explain to J how it would actually be in his best interest to stay quiet, since his screaming would probably only make C cry more. That explanation didn’t get much traction.

So I’ve been trying to connect with J about it.

I don’t like it when he cries either. It’s loud, huh?

Empathizing with him like this has been relieving some of my pent up anxiety, and I’ve realized how much J and I have in common here. I really don’t like it either. And if I weren’t commissioned as the caretaker in this scenario, I might be moved to go for the screaming option too.

I’ve also been taking the empathy a step further, thanks to some advice from my dreamy therapist. She recommended that I try and stretch J’s awareness, and point out that while he feels mad right now that C is crying, he also feels love for C sometimes too.

I’ve been saying stuff like this:

I see you’re feeling really angry that C is crying. I don’t like it when he cries either. Remember this morning when you were playing with C and laughing? Isn’t it crazy that you feel angry at him right now and that you also felt all that love this morning?

Lo and behold, when I’m saying this stuff to him, it reminds me of the same thing–to see things in terms of both/and rather than either/or.

Hey there, self, I see that you’re feeling scared that you’ve been up for 2 hours in the middle of the night trying to get C to go to sleep. And now you’re wondering if the decision to have him was a huge mistake. Remember when you were taking a shower the other day and you thought that having C might be the best thing you’ve ever done? Well, both things are true.

Both things are true.

And if I can just take a breath and stick with my life for another 5 minutes or 10 hours or week, the feeling I’m having will change into another and another and another. And they’ll all be true.

Yesterday, J stopped me in my tracks as we were talking again about C’s crying. He said (in that wonderfully casual and earnest way that only he can), “I love him when he’s crying too.”

Well, knock me over and call me Nancy. He gets it. The bigger we make the space, the more feelings can fit in.

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Photo by BugMan50

We are expansive enough to feel upset and loving at the same time. Or frustrated and hopeful. Or scared and excited.

Hopefully I can remember the same thing the next time I’m awake and exhausted in the wee hours.

Trembling on the edge of baby number two

Here we are again. This strange, in-between time just before a baby is born.

I remember this trembling-on-the-edge feeling from the days before I birthed J. I felt fiercly protective and nostalgic about my life as I knew it, so I printed out a whole bunch of pictures and hung them over our couch.

Pictures of A and I canoeing the Green River, being pelted with flower petals and rice at our wedding, skiing with family, riding the train to Paris, decked out in orange for Queen’s Day in Amsterdam. After every picture I hung, every nail I pounded into the wall, I would stand back and look at my work.

This will insure that you don’t forget. That you’re not lost after you have this baby. Your old life will be right here, anytime you need it.

couchphotos

I loved looking at all those pictures in my early days with baby J.

See. I’m not losing myself at all. I did all those things. I remember what it was like and how it felt.

Time passed.

J started climbing onto the back of the couch. He would fiddle with the frames, knocking them down. Then he’d pull the nails out of their holes.

I don’t even remember when I took them all down, but I did. I shoved them into a drawer somewhere. (Sort of like this sweet tradition that we forgot about for a few years.)

Before becoming J’s mother, I was really scared about how that would feel—moving into a new phase and leaving the old one behind. At the time, I would have told you that I was NEVER going to take those pictures down. They were my grip on reality. I needed to hold on. But when I carted them off to the drawer, I didn’t even think about it. I was just sick of picking the pictures up with J’s sticky fingerprints all over them and hearing the nails ping on the floor.

At some point during those first couple years, without knowing it, I fully crossed over into my new life.  I didn’t need the pictures anymore.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been feeling that same fierce protectiveness—this time, over our life as a family of three.

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I sent off a bunch of new pictures to be printed. Soon, they’ll arrive in the mail and I’ll tuck their corners into frames and look at them and feel some sense of relief.

There. I did it. This baby can come now. My life as I know it is protected.

Naturally, it’s not. It’s going to change. Radically. And who knows what the future of these pictures will be—whether they’ll still be on the mantle in 2 years time.  It doesn’t really matter, because I probably won’t need them like I do now.

Nothing like being 39 weeks pregnant to remind you on a daily if not hourly basis that you’re not in control. That everything is constantly changing. That the life you know can and will be radically altered at any moment. And you won’t have a choice. You’ll have to dive down under and swim across, to a new place you’ve never been. You can’t go back to where you were.

That’s why I need the pictures.

***

This was originally posted over at Get Born, which is awesome. You should check it out.

Is fetal origins research ruining my fetus?

Here’s a titillating preview of my latest post on the rad Get Born blog:

Maybe, like me, you read this Time magazine article a couple years ago and it scared the crap out of you…

Fetal Origins

Head over to Get Born to read the rest and share your reaction to whole fetal origins palava.

Read it: Tears and Tantrums

I go through cycles as a parent when I feel unfettered and fabulous and others that leave me worried, ashamed and inept. The last few months have been the latter, and I’ve done what I usually do when I’m utterly baffled by raising my son–I place a minimum of 5 parenting books on hold at the library.

And then I cart them home. I read the first part of a few chapters of one and then they sit until I have to renew them. And they sit some more. When the final return date threatens, our house looks like a child development study hall after 8pm. I cram.

Last night I read through page 73 of this one:

tearstantrumsbook

It was recommended on my Facebook page by one of YOU, radical readers. I must say, it’s a real doosey.

The take home message: babies and kids need to cry and rage. A lot more than you might think. Solter’s main point that I’m digging is that there are many sources of stress in children’s lives, even if they’re well cared for. And that they have a few ways of resolving that accumulated stress: play, laughter, talking and crying or raging. Often, this stress builds up in their bodies over time, and a seemingly insignificant event, like being handed a broken cookie or having to put their shoes on, can trigger a crying fit or rage-a-thon. I love this, because it helps me feel more compassion when J flips out over the fact that I cut up the apple instead of leaving it whole. Sure. Maybe it really is all about the apple. But it could also be about a kid snatching a toy away from him at daycare yesterday. Or when I grabbed his arm and told him NO! when he was walking away from me in the parking lot that morning.

The way I understand it, it’s not that they are actively remembering the prior stress when they’re freaking out about the apple. Rather, their bodies remember, and they are trying, through tears or tantrums (!) to resolve that stress.

I relate to this book because I do the same thing. We’re in the midst of a big move. (Yes, escrow closed! And I’m excited not to need to use that word again for a long time.) I don’t do moves well. I’m pregnant. We have a very physical, rage-y toddler. So it is not uncommon, once we put J to bed, for me to sit on the couch, start talking with A, and when he looks at me in a particularly kind way, I’ll just lose it. Tears upon tears. And some sobbing. Little patches of snot on his shoulder. And then I heave a few sighs and feel better. Stress resolved. For the moment.

Solter tells stories of parents recognizing when their kids need to cry and holding them close, somewhat immobilizing them for a bit, and then they (the children) tumble into a sob festival. Afterwards, they’ll be all relaxed, sparkly and at ease. I actually tried to get J to cry this morning when we were playing before I dropped him off at daycare. He’d had a pretty surly morning, so I thought maybe we could sit down and have a good cry. I did the gentle hold. Told him it was okay for him to cry. And he did have a few half-hearted wails. And then asked if he could get down.

Maybe he didn’t need to cry? Perhaps he’s more of a rager. Sigh. Either way, it helps me to see the rage and tears as a way for him to relieve some built up pressure in his system. That way, I won’t get too fixated on the apple.

Why I'm tuckered out. And parenting lesson 287.

I don’t have a lot in me today. After a few weeks filled with video project deadlines, A. leaving town for a work trip, J’s 3rd birthday, friends in town, dance rehearsals for a street festival (more on my beloved dance class sometime), and then doula-ing for a radical momma over the course of her 78 hour birth experience (!), I’m completely knackered.

Here’s all I got:

My crisis of confidence with daycare, and the expert advice that helped.

For the past couple months, J has complained just about every time I take him to daycare. The minute I cheerfully tell him that it’s a school day he begins the “I don’t like my school” refrain. It can also express itself as “I don’t like my friends,” or the even more concerning “I’m scared of my school.”

Ever since I had my revelation about how to drop him off at daycare to instill confidence in him, I’ve had that whole situation dialed in. Until now.

For the first month, I just told myself that things would shift. I listened to him, acknowledged his feelings of not wanting to go and then let him know that I think his daycare is a good and safe place for him. And that I trust his teachers to take wonderful care of him. But he keeps expressing resistance. So I’ve started to worry. Is there something going on that I should be worried about? And even if there’s not, is this school just not the best fit for him anymore?

Many of his older friends moved on to pre-school around age 3, but I’ve resisted following that pattern because:

  1. I couldn’t give a rip about his academic development. We live in a culture that is completely obsessed with knowledge and thinking and he’s going to get plenty of emphasis on that his whole life. So right now, I just want him to feel safe and loved and be well fed.
  2. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

After our second month of the “I don’t like my school” chorus, started to wonder if maybe it was broke. I decided to ask for some advice. I sent this to a blogger friend with extensive teaching and childcare experience. (She has an intensely helpful blog called Aunt Annie’s Childcare.)

Hello fabulous Annie. I have a question for you. It’s about my sweet J and our current childcare situation. He’s been going to the same place since he was 1 (and he’ll be 3 in a couple weeks). It’s a home-based montessori daycare and the woman who runs it is full of love and joy and makes amazing organic food for the kids. I love her. So for the past month or so, nearly every time we get ready for school, he goes 2 mornings a week, J says, “I don’t like my school,” and is often very clingy when we get there. If I can get him engaged in something, he’s usually happy for me to leave, but sometimes, I have to pry his little hands away from me and leave with him crying. I’ve tried to talk with him about why he doesn’t want to go. He has said that he’s worried about some boys there who have been rough with him and so we talked with his teacher about it in front of him, asking her to please keep him safe and letting her know that J was worried. The whole conversation went well, and I felt great.

The other day, though, J said that he wanted to go to Childwatch, which is the childcare associated with the gym I go to. I found this a bit alarming, since he was actually preferencing one form of childcare over another. I’d always just assumed that he wanted to be with me instead of going to school, which I understand. But his mention of Childwatch made me wonder if that’s his way of saying that this childcare situation isn’t the best for him. The other thing about the current situation that worries me is that there’s been a lot of staff turnover at his school. His teacher usually has 2 helpers, and since J has been going there, her helper of several years left and since then it has been very unstable. At this point I am concerned, but not sure what to do. I love his school and think it is a good, loving, safe place but am beginning to wonder if it’s the best fit for him. When I think of moving him to another school, I worry that the same exact thing will happen, and we’ll go through that whole upheaval for nothing. So there you have it.

And here is Annie’s most helpful reply:

First, it’s not unknown for a child of this age to have a new bout of separation anxiety; he may have associated the gym childcare service with you being in close proximity. Have you asked the teachers at his Montessori care what happens after you leave? Does he settle quickly or fret for hours? If he frets for hours, change is definitely indicated. In this case you should definitely be listening to your child’s signals about the service, regardless of what you think of it.

If he settles once you’re gone, then he is still having a problem with the actual separation rather than with the service. A transition routine which is the same every day can help here- transitions are SO important. You can work out something that works for you (say, a special breakfast with mummy, then when you get to care you read him a story, then you kiss and cuddle once, leave him with the carer of his choice and then GO) and repeat it regardless of his tears or clinginess. The carer should ring you if he can’t settle- I gather this hasn’t happened?

Changes of staff can definitely be unsettling at this age. It’s a difficult time, but the same thing happens in other settings so that in itself is not a reason to move. You really need to be a fly on the wall and find out what happens when you’re not there! You should be able to rely on the staff to tell you this- but if you are still worried, perhaps some surprise visits are in order where you pop in and observe without him seeing you (if possible!).

She provided exactly the distinction I needed: Is his problem with the separation or the service? And I can say with total confidence now that it’s the separation that is hard for him. He always recovers after my departure within minutes, and every time I pick him up, he’s happily playing in the back yard.

Oh, the joy of asking an expert and finding some peace of mind. Now I can focus my time and energy on developing good transition routine and my confidence in J’s lovely school is back in full force.

Thank you, Annie!

The revolution begins: your not-so-perfect moment photos!

I had to share a few of the great photos that you, dear readers, have been sharing on my Facebook page this week in response to my photographic challenge. The challenge, in short, was to take a picture of one of the not-so-perfect moments in your life–feeling bored in traffic, scrubbing dirty diapers late at night, celebrating the end of a big day in the midst of a messy living room. The only real constraint: you can’t clean it up all perfect and squeaky clean. No tidying beforehand or fixing hair or making things look any different than they just are.

Without further ado:

Here is a nice photo of my daughter mid-fit
I took this trying to stop a crying fit with the power of the iPhone.
My photo revolution. It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I am still in my pajamas. D would rather be doing something else.
Here’s “I don’t know what’s on the counter or if I’d even like it, but I’m gonna stand here and scream till you give it to me” (aka “why didn’t you put me to bed 15 minutes ago?”)
Here is a neither good nor bad moment that occurs many times a day every day.

I have been overjoyed from the tips of my dirty toes to the top of my frizzy head by all of your photos. Thank you. Thank you.

p.s. I’ll keep collecting and posting these, so keep sharing away over on the old Facebook.

A photographic challenge: capture and share a less-than-perfect moment

I’ve been thinking about this photo for a long time.

photo by Jessica Todd Harper

And this one too:

Another beauty from Jessica Todd Harper.

Both were part of this NYT article that a friend recommended after reading my first video blog post. I loved the article for the counterpoint it offered to the “Don’t you just love every minute?” comments that people kept flinging at me when I was out and about with my infant son.

I was so inspired by the photographs that I took one of my own.

It was such a relief to capture a moment simply as it was. It wasn’t begging to be captured, it didn’t show my son in all of his perfect, chubby glory. It didn’t make me look particularly competent or satisfied. I tried to show the moment how it was. From what I remember, I was tired. A little bit bored. And trying to pass the time.

Then last week my friend M sent me this blog post written by a mom of 2 who talks about all of the things you don’t see in the photos of her family life that she posts on Instagram. She tends not to post images of marital spats, colicky infants at 3 a.m. and the like. Of course she doesn’t post that stuff. Most of us don’t. After all, who would want to see that?

I would, for one. And I don’t think I’m alone.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t relish the idea of wading through a ton of photos of screaming children or exhausted parents in dimly lit bedrooms strewn with diapers. But something in me does tire, after a while, of seeing everyone’s perfect pictures of their lives with their children, and, for that matter, my own. The part of me that gets tired of all that perfection is the same part that wonders if everyone else’s life is just a little bit (or a lot) happier, tidier and more successful than mine. It’s the same part that breathes a huge sigh of relief when someone I know tells me about her depression or his failed marriage or her crippling jealousy. That part of me needs to connect with the realness in other people, the darker, messier reality that doesn’t make the cut for Facebook.

This ties into the reason I started blogging in the first place: I feel a responsibility to be honest about my actual, lived experience of parenthood, so that other parents and future parents might feel a little less alone and weird when they’re having a less-than-savory time. And this applies to any aspect of life, really, but I’ve found that our culture’s reverence for family life and unrealistic, filtered portrayals of it to be particularly isolating. The stories we hear and images we see of young families help us form our expectations of parenthood (that later come crashing down…or soar up, perhaps, but that wasn’t my experience) and drive the way we connect with other parents one we join the fold. They help to define what we talk with other people about and what we don’t. What we ask others about and what we think we shouldn’t.

And images, I think, are particularly powerful because they can sink in so quickly. Every one of us, if asked, can instantly bring a long string photos to mind when we think of the word parenthood. A mother lying in the grass, holding her smiling baby up into a perfectly blue sky. A father asleep, newborn baby curled up in his beefy arms. The latest, greatest photo-journalistic rendering of a family of four, wearing jeans, on a walk in a leaf-strewn park, laughing with each other. I like pictures like these. I have some. I want that photo-journalism one.

But I want the colicky infant too. And the sink full of dirty dishes. And the site of 2 frayed moms sitting on their couch, celebrating their son’s decent into a nap by watching crappy tv.

So, I’d like to invite you to take a picture in the next week when you normally wouldn’t take one. To capture a moment that isn’t perfect. See what it feels like to show it how it really is. Without checking your hair or wiping down the kitchen counter. Then, if you’re inspired, I’d be tickled pink if you would share your photo on my Facebook page. Maybe we can start a little photo revolution.

***

If you liked this post and are feeling bold and decisive, please subscribe. I’ve got more where this came from.

Homesteading Update: I'm a cheese maker

So now that we’re knee deep in Pippa milk from our goat share, I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it all. The whole notion of cheese-making made me nervous–I don’t usually have the patience for things that require adherence to absolute precision over the course of many steps. Turns out, it doesn’t have to be that way! There are naturally occurring bacteria in raw milk that will do all the work for you.

Readers, meet bonnyclabber.

Bonnyclabber, meet the readers.

If you want to know more than you ever thought possible about bonnyclabber, you can read this. If you want to know what you really need to know, I’ll tell you. Bonnyclabber is essentially what happens if you take raw milk directly from the udder, pour it into an air tight container and let it sit for anywhere between one-and-a-half to three-ish days. Apparently, my dear grandmother used to talk to my mom about bonnyclabber. She would pour it over cornbread and eat it for breakfast. She also used to talk to me about the ways they would get around having no refrigeration in the Texas heat of her childhood. And now that I’ve been goat-milking for a couple of months, I get it. When you have an animal in milk, you get a lot of milk. Everyday. The milk piles up. And if you happen to live in 1920s midland Texas, you can’t just pop the extra milk in the freezer. What you can do is sit a jar of the stuff out on the counter and let it go all bonnyclabber on you. And then you have a creamy cheese that you can spoon onto things to make them more delicious, like cornbread.

So here’s how I’ve been doing it. I start with a jar of goat-milk, still warm from Pippa’s generous udder.

I usually get 2 quarts when I milk, so we drink one and make cheese out of the other.

I bring the jar right home and put it on our stove top, where it’s kept consistently warm by the pilot lights. And in about 36 hours, it looks like this:

See how the milk has separated? And it did it all by itself! No rennet, no super heating, no starters. After we admire our impressive, spontaneous cheese through the glass jar, I pour it into a cloth-lined colander, and I put the colander over a bowl, to catch the whey. More about how fascinating whey is in a moment. Then I tie up the four corners of the cloth (in this case, I used a square of cloth that I cut from an old, clean pillowcase) and hang the little bundle on something, with the whey bowl underneath.

drip. drip. drip.

And then I wait until it’s not dripping consistently anymore, usually 3-5ish hours. I got all eager beaver at one point and decided to help the draining along by squeezing the whey through the cloth. Turns out this is not a good idea–it gets cheese into the whey and then the whey goes kind a funky and it didn’t make the cheese drain much faster anyway.

Once the dripping is done, untie the cloth and admire your cheese!

J likes to greet the cheese with a good old sniff.

And then I just scrape the cheese into one of my vintage pyrex containers with a spatula.

It just seems like bonnyclabber woudn’t want sit around in some new-fangled tupperware.

Oh, and the whey! You can pour all of the whey that drains off your cheese into a jar and keep it in your fridge. Whey is a great source of minerals, vitamins and probiotics, so it’s a great digestive aid. You can drink it straight–my friend R’s 2-year-old S can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. And you can also add a few tablespoons of the stuff when you soak and cook beans and grains. It helps to make them more easily digestible. I’ve been using a whey and water mixture to soak beans and rice before I cook them, and call me crazy, but I do feel less heavy and bloated after I eat them.

So there you have it. The easiest cheese you ever made in your whole life. I’ve been using ours in place of sour cream, cream cheese or cream fraiche, or eating it with nuts and a swirly honey drizzle over the top. It’s dreamy. And a cheese I have the patience to make.

Toddler sleep update

Well, thanks to all of your helpful comments responding to my cry for help, things are going a bit better on the sleep front.

Your suggestions reminded me of something that I knew deep down in my heart–J is getting bigger all the time, and I will probably always be a few steps behind, thinking he still might need his crib or only drink 4oz of milk at one sitting or that he’ll want to sleep swaddled until his mid 40s.

So I did it. Thanks to my trusty IKEA-supplied Allen wrench, I turned his crib into a toddler bed.

J explores the joys of toddler-bed-dom.

I was definitely terrified of what chaos might ensue, and also just clinging lazily to old routines. It just takes so much damned energy to construct a whole new set of bed time procedures. But it seems that we’ve done it.

Naps are still the real challenge–we’ve gotten him to fall asleep in there on his own for nap time once. I was so giddy with excitement that I had to take a picture:

All other times, he has either fallen asleep nursing (which I must say, I think I am finally ready to give up at this point) or he has never fallen asleep and thus had “quiet time” which consists of bursts of quiet or loud play alone in his room, punctuated by opening his door and having chats with me. I have yet to find a way of enforcing quiet time that feels right to me. The one thing I haven’t tried that I might is turning on an album and saying that he has to stay in his room until the music ends. I welcome any other tips you might have.

Nighttime is much simpler. My friend B sent me this very applicable quote from this website, which seems quite helpful especially for the 0-1 set.

I want to be clear that we are talking about BEDTIME. This is the time you put your child to bed. The only rule is that they stay in bed. You can’t make an older child sleep (nor can you make them eat or poop FYI). This is why we don’t call it SLEEPTIME. As a parent your job is to give them an age-appropriate bedtime, a soothing consistent bedtime routine, establish the limits (primarily that they stay in bed), and then leave. What they do at that point is up to them.

Does that mean it’s OK for your 2 YO to sit in their bed awake and talking to themselves for 45 minutes? It sure does!

Is this a form of torture? No it isn’t! Learning to entertain themselves, care for their bodies, or (*gasp*) spend a moment of the day without constant stimulation is actually really healthy! As adults, what do you do when you can’t fall asleep? You lie there and think quiet thoughts until you DO fall asleep. Your child is learning to do this too.

I found this particularly helpful and found the extra added reinforcement of a Goodnight Moon pop-up book that J and I found on the street corner the other day. Granted, many of the pop-ups had been torn off, which is probably why this book had been jettisoned by its former owner, but one function that remained delightfully intact was the pop up of the little bunny who goes to bed in the great green room. There’s a little tab that you pull and the little bunny sits up, and if you push it, she lies down. But she doesn’t get out of bed. Because she knows it’s BEDTIME. I explained all of this enthusiastically to J and really put some ooomph behind it. I’ve been reminded of the power of ooomph by this post about intention that my blogging friend Turned on Mama wrote. (And she also happens to give great sex advice to boot.)

Anyhoo. He bought it. He stayed in his little bed and fell asleep. And he’s done that a few nights now. Of course, it’s not always perfect. Sometimes he clucks around in there for what seems like forever. Other times he gets out of the bed and winds up falling asleep like this:

I mean, he did technically fall asleep in his bedroom. Though maybe his nose didn’t…

But I can handle that.