Summer Rules

When one’s life is taken up with caring for others, there constantly seems to be a waiting period.  Once they finish school, things will relax.  Once we get through these end of the year activities, summer can begin.  And then you get through those things and life is neither relaxed nor does quintessential summer seem to have begun.

Our first day was glorious.  Bodies still primed to wake up fairly early, we – all but one sleepyhead – rose and readied for the beach.  There was also the excitement of sleepyhead’s birthday, complete with a special outing in the evening.

Then reality set in.

My idea of a relaxing morning is very different from theirs.  An unhurried cup of hot tea vs unfettered screen time to the tune of annoying sound bites run on repeat.

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thirtyhandmadedays.com

I reinstituted the regimen of last summer – to their chagrin.  The Summer Rules.  Their list of required tasks before electronic devices can be had.

The first day, they attacked the list with gusto, feeling accomplished as well as determined for the end goal.  That did not last.  By Day Three, it had become a fight.  With them doing the work-around of school computers to practice math and then access Pinterest or music.  Or doing the bare minimum or doubling up on chores.

It had become something else for me to do – policing them – instead of a way to occupy their bodies and minds other than electronically.  And once they earned their screen time, they seemed to devour it like addicts for the rest of the day, which to me, defeated the very purpose of keeping them away.  However, they’d probably be like that all day if not for the list.

Our rules need some tweaks, some personalization for our family.  ‘Helping others’ doesn’t speak to the actual chores they’re responsible for each day.  ‘Clean up one room’ is pretty vague, though they actually vacuumed their room one morning.  But having a list at all is a lot less vague than me walking around angry because all they do is stare at their screens.

Without structure, all life would be a waiting period – waiting for something to happen.  So our Summer Rules provide some structure to our days – even if they infuriate all of us to a certain degree.

Saving Grace

Well into the afternoon, I felt the warm sun on my face, the air on my arms, the pull of muscles in my legs.  For the first time all day.

It took all day to get up, get moving, get dressed, fed.  And I only did it because the bus would be arriving at the end of our street, depositing two of mine I’d sent out into the world.  The littlest had been my only saving grace all day, tucked under my arm on the couch, smiling up at me.

Holding her hand, toddling down the street in the sunshine, I wondered if perhaps God sent me children to save me.

From myself.  From getting lost in the bottomless pit.

They haven’t made it easy.  Sometimes annoying and painful.  But they got me out into the sunshine yesterday – even if it was late in the afternoon.

Sleep Training for the Old and Infirm

Is it possible to simultaneously feel as if your heart has been ripped out and you’re being played?

By a lover – yes, I suppose.

By a baby?  Definitely.

The baby is question is baby number four.  This is not our first rodeo, people.  We’ve fed, bathed, and put babies to sleep countless times.  But this one?  This number four of four has broken the good sleeper trend.

There are a number of circumstances that fuel this insomniac insanity.  She sleeps in our room; as in, crib in corner of our room because we’ve yet to blow the roof out over our garage so we can reconfigure sleeping arrangements.  Then, she sleeps in our room; as in, she wakes and can sense our presence and won’t let us lay until she’s with us.  Again, she sleeps in our room; as in, she cries in the middle of the night and my husband and I – who are not as young and energetic as we were with baby number one – grab her and bring her into bed so we can collapse back into sleep as soon as possible because neither one of us has the will to walk her or soothe her to sleep in her own crib.

And, apparently, the kid just doesn’t like sleep.

Well, she does when she is glommed onto my or my husband’s physical self.

Yes, we created the monster.  Well, sort of.  She’s a tactile kid.  She could not be soothed as an infant unless she was close – tightly swaddled, firmly held, bounced.  She couldn’t put herself to sleep in the vast wide-open of her crib.  I got that early on.  But that paired with my exhaustion-thin resolve did not help me help her.

Bringing her to bed was fine when she quieted right down and settled into the crook of one of our bodies.  But recently, she’s begun thrashing, rolling, sleeping horizontally.  Ask my husband about skull-on-skull contact around 4 AM the other day.  We all obviously need our own bed.

Which led me to attempting to sleep train an almost two-year-old last night.

Which is awesome when they’re that much more stubborn.  And set in their ways.  And can scream your name.

I remember the heartbreak when my first wailed from her crib as an infant.  I remember standing in the downstairs hallway staring at the calendar where I marked down the minutes.  Now, there was only a comforter over my head separating me from the wails – and they carried my name.  She could voice the cause of her heartbreak.  It was Momma, Mommy, Mommmmmmmmmmm.

My husband had abandoned ship, opting for the couch and somewhat muffled screams, maybe sleep.  I didn’t have to go to work in the morning and I’d had a late-in-the-day mocha so I rode the train.  I prayed a manic mental rosary, pleading with God and the Virgin Mother to just let her sleep.  I heard William Sears and every other attachment expert tell me I was breaking her spirit, crushing her soul.  I heard Ferber telling me I was buckling and needed to stay strong.

I tried the initial cuddle, which sent her to sleep almost instantaneously.  Popped awake as soon as her head hit the crib.  I let her cry for ten minutes, then comforted.  More screams.  I let her cry for twenty minutes, then comforted.  More screams.  I let her cry for thirty minutes.  More.  Screams.  There were two instances of a minute or two where I thought perhaps she’d stopped, when the silence was so deafening in its abject oppositeness; where my breathing began to slow, my body able to unclench – and then it began again.

I gave up after an hour and a half.

I know I’ve probably created a worse situation than if I’d not tried at all.  I’ve probably taught her that she just needs to keep up the crying – for longer and longer intervals if necessary – to bring Mom to her.

As much as I dreaded I was breaking her little heart, her almost instant silence when I lifted her made me feel the rube.

She was sprawled across my bed surrounded by pillows when I snuck away this morning to write this.  She sweetly said, “Hi Momma” when her sister brought her to me a little later.  Instead of being glad she didn’t harbor any resentment against me for last night, I couldn’t help but think she was turning on the charm and rubbing it in that she’d won.

How many more Café Mocha nights will it take?

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The Push and Pull of Motherhood

It all starts with a push.  It is through a woman’s labor, a forceful push, that a baby – and her mother – is birthed.

From that point on, it is all about pulling.  A woman, now a mother, pulled in eight thousand different directions a day.  Literally, she is – calls for food, cries for comfort – but that’s not even of what I speak.  I’m speaking of expectation vs. reality; perfection vs. attainability; manic striving vs. sanity.

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From that first push, and from that first pull forward, the unwitting conditioning of our ideas and carrying out of motherhood shape our every decision, every day, our very psyches.

The other day, I kicked my kids out of the kitchen while I made the cupcakes they requested for Easter.  My second oldest had requested red velvet, which we’d never made before.  Why, suddenly, did she want this new and different flavor?  Could we not keep it simple, especially surrounding a busy holiday?  But then, I could’ve kept it simple by redirecting her to a different flavor or even buying a ready-made mix.  Instead, I half-kiddingly offered the metaphor of red for Christ’s blood.  She was sold.  And I began research on homemade recipes with less artificial ingredients than the mixes.  Again, could’ve kept this simple, but looked for the simplest one I could find that was sort of in line with the husband’s and my new trying-to-be-healthy-ish regimen.

 

That morning, the second oldest and I participated in an impromptu Girl Scout cookie booth.  I came home to prep appetizers for a dinner party at a friends’ that night.  Then I set in on the cupcakes.  The cupcake-requester was nowhere to be found, most likely buried eyeball-deep in her iPad after a morning of social interaction.  Her next youngest sister saw me gathering supplies and asked to help.  At this point, I was up to my eyeballs in a messy kitchen and bad humor.

“NO,” I replied far too emphatically.

When I saw her sad little face, I almost reconsidered, but held my ground, knowing that with limited time and remaining fuse I’d do far more damage than that to her poor little soul.

By way of a conciliatory carrot, I said, “You can help decorate them when they’ve cooled.”

As I prepped the rest of the recipe, I felt guilty.  These were cupcakes for a family celebration of Easter, requested by the kids most excited about the holiday.  Yet, the kid who’d started this whole evolution was MIA and I’d sequestered the rest.  Was I not sucking the joy out of this?  Was it about having a finished batch of red velvet cupcakes or letting my daughters participate in a fun activity?

When describing the frenetic events of the weekend to my therapist today, but before I got the part about my guilt, she congratulated me for sensing my limit and taking steps to keep from flying right over it.  When I told her how I perceived it, she said that I had been well within my rights for self-preservation by prepping the cupcakes myself.  She pointed out that I welcomed them in decorating the cupcakes, which is all kids really want to do anyway.

It did occur to me that, had I removed that fail-safe for myself that day, it wouldn’t have been a June Cleaver moment even if mother and child had made cupcakes together.  It almost certainly would’ve ended badly.  Just the night before, I’d dropped the f-bomb as we all made Resurrection cookies together.  Jesus would’ve been proud.

Looking back, I can see how it would’ve ended.  I would’ve needed multiple ‘come to Jesus’ moments afterwards to recoup.  And yet, the guilt still came in the moment.

And that is the pull modern mothers have.  We have been conditioned to do all manner of June Cleaver, Martha Stewart, Mother Earth type of things for our children, our families – even to the exclusion of our sanity.

Motherhood, parenthood, by its very essence, is sacrifice.  But there is no sense giving all of ourselves if everyone involved is miserable.  Even cupcakes are bitter to the taste buds when made with resentment and frustration.

The journey of motherhood started with a push.  That doesn’t mean we have to be pulled apart from that point forward.  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  And no, I’m not saying we should push our kids around.  We mustn’t remain static in the face of our conditioning.   There has to be movement both towards our children and our own self care.

After all, my homemade version of red velvet cupcakes were vegan – with store bought cream cheese frosting.

Some Similar Sunday

Just when you think you’re trudging this road of life and parenting alone, you come across a gem like this.  I’m brought back to the Sunday evenings of my childhood, where we ate not popcorn, but scrambled eggs or a solitary bowl of cereal.  I’m mise-en-placed to any meal with my own children where we rush to throw a paper towel on the spilled pool of milk before it cascades down the cracks between the leaves of the table.  And I’m gleefully reminded how this all must be done with laughter.

It must have been a sight: eight to twelve of us packed around the dinner table, heads bowed over books splayed flat (somewhere a librarian cringes), the pages held open with one hand while the other dipped in and out of the corn, back and forth from bowl to mouth, the rhythm interrupted only when someone refilled a bowl or took a pull at their Kool-Aid.  When your eyes are fixed on text, you tend to fish around with your free hand, and nearly every week someone upended their Kool-Aid.  The minute the glass hit, Dad jumped up to make a dam with his hands in an attempt to keep the spill from leaking through the low spot in the table where the leaves met.  For her part, Mom grabbed a spoon and scraped madly at the spreading slick, ladling the juice back in the glass one flat teaspoon at a time so it could be drunk.  The same thing happened if someone spilled their milk.  Sometimes when I wonder how my parents managed financially, I think of Mom going after those spoonfuls of Kool-Aid like an environmentalist trailing the Exxon Valdez with a soup ladle, and there’s your answer.

from Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting by Michael Perry

‘Tis the night before Christmas Vacation

‘Tis the night before Christmas vacation
and all through the land
not a parent is sleeping
for teacher gifts await – to be made by hand

There are crayon wreaths
and cookies
Ornaments galore
I might’ve lost the baby
in the mess of ribbons on the floor

Such care is taken
Special attention to detail
There is no room for error
No such thing as a Pinterest fail

For our beloved children,
teachers go the extra mile.
It’s really the least we can do –
to burn off our fingerprints
with an overflow of hot glue

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If we’re being real . . .

At daybreak, the kiddies
to the bus they will go
your precious cargo – the gifts –
into their throes
But you’ll hear the bus driver exclaim as she drives out of sight:
What, was your mom up making that all night?

Mother’s Milk

This tiny little person

latched on to my body

as long as I am wide

Miniature fist clenched around a rib of fabric,

holding on for dear life

Eyes arched in ecstasy,

then drooped in slumber

More parasitic than symbiotic,

but the sweetest symbol ever seen

 

Bonus Day

Yesterday, the first day of spring, my children had a snow day from school.

No, the irony does not escape me. Yes, I realize our region of New England does not preclude such occurrences (one blizzard happening several years ago on April Fools’ Day – apparently Mother Nature has a healthy sense of humor every year). Alas, the snow totals fell drastically short of the predictions and the sun shone and snow melted by what would have been dismissal time.

As I lay in bed Sunday night, after receiving the robo-call from the school department, I was more relaxed than usual knowing I wouldn’t have to rush the kids out the door the next morning. I did say to my husband, however, that I wasn’t looking forward to a whole day inside with the kids. He agreed with me that my comment didn’t exactly sound nice, but I’ve gotten used to some quiet school days as a respite. Plus, I’ve been having iPad battles with the oldest (see previous post), all the girls have been having battles with each other, and I just end up yelling.

It made me laugh, then, when a friend called in the morning, saying I had a ‘bonus day’ with the kids. None of us were dressed. I’d been on my phone all day. They’d bounced between their rooms, the Wii, iPad, and computers. Her use of ‘bonus’ implied unexpected and appreciated quality time. I think I was on vegetation/survival mode.

I finally got my butt in gear enough to strip all three of their beds, a task – believe it or not – they’d been bugging me to do. My very particular middle wanted tightly tucked sheets. My little wanted new blankets. The oldest sleeps with such reckless abandon her bed was just torn to shreds. I figured with them home, perhaps they could help me. I also hoped I’d find my middle’s long-lost library book shoved under her mattress. Ha ha!

When I pulled the bunk beds out to sweep for books and animals lost to the abyss, I made the mistake of leaving the room for a bit afterwards. We all know what empty spaces and crevices and unexpected configurations are for, right? For me, it meant extra room to tuck in those pesky sheets on the far side of the bunks. For them, it meant fill with stuffed animals and baskets and blankets!

'Sure I know what would solve this problem. More floor space.'

Or personal space . . .

 

Suddenly, awash in piles of bedding flooding the hallway, random crap scattered everywhere on the bedroom floors, another step added to an already unwelcome task – I was transported back to days when all three were pre-school. When it was one step forward, two steps back. When it was literally shoveling shit against the tide. When keeping them happy and/or entertained and a house with the least order of squalor attainable and some semblance of sanity was a nearly impossible balance.

And I was scared.

I was reminded what life was like with a house full of littles. As the sole caregiver, comforter, cheerleader, coach, craft guru . . . I am well aware that I need not be all these things at all – and certainly not all at once. But my anxiety treats any deviation from a perceived plan or expectation as a misstep, a notch closer to irritation, panic, anger. It makes me hide in a corner of my couch, balled up in my pjs, content to try nothing rather than get frustrated with things not going according to plan. Or overwhelmed by the enormity of a whole day with all these people – when it should be about the moments.

Even when summer vacation starts and I have not only the new infant, but the older three, it will not be the same as those insular days when they bounced off the walls like ping-pong balls. They are not all toddler and preschool age. They can have some independent and alone time. Even while I tend to the baby, they can play on their own or swing outside. Hopefully they will understand that I won’t be able to – nor should I – entertain them all day. Hopefully I’ll remember that, too.

And to take each moment one at a time for what it’s worth – not worrying the whole day away before it’s even started.

 

Musical.ly Inclined

Many a lazy weekend day in my childhood were filled with concerts. Right in my own living room.

The Eurythmics were repeat performers. Annie Lennox would sweep her hands down into the crowd, imploring them, would I lie to you? Dave Stewart would run the driving back beat down the neck of his guitar.

But even though I hosted the party, there was no front row seat for me. I was Annie Lennox, playing to my imaginary musical sidekick. During the advent of compact discs and their newfangled players, it was exciting to try out the new wave artists’ albums my parents had just acquired – even better when the tiny insert had the lyrics, which made memorization a lot easier than starting the song over and over. Usually, Saturday nights, my parents would retire to the TV room downstairs and I’d transform the living room into a concert hall. However, it was such a common occurrence and I blared the music so loudly, my parents knew my weekend ritual and my mother crafted me a wooden microphone for just such occasions. I played to the crowd, I played to the huge rectangular mirror that hung above the couch, I rallied with my band mates.

Imaginary play is a fantasy. If not in a world of your own creation, where else can you be the star? But – is there a line between imagined best case scenario and narcissism?

The reason I revisit this memory now (as well as any time I hear The Eurythmics) is because of an app called Musical.ly. My eleven year-old has discovered this via – who else – her friends. It started out innocuously enough. She wanted to watch a handful of videos friends had shared with her; she needed to have an account to do so. Once she saw her friends hamming it up, of course she wanted to try as well. The videos are shorts, mostly voice-overs of popular songs or memes to which the kids lip sync and dance – not unlike what I did in front of the decorative mirror in my living room. One HUGE difference, however, is that I never recorded and uploaded my goofy performances for cyberspace to see. I also don’t remember how well I imitated Annie Lennox’s sashay across the stage; my daughter has got way too many of the head-shaking, arm-waving, hip-swaying moves down. She stops mid-move when I enter the room, just like I did as a kid due to embarrassment for being caught in mid-performance, but the video lives on. She doesn’t want me to see it, yet posts it on this app. She does have a private account, only accepting followers she knows as friends. I’ve checked her profile info and posts. I’ve impressed upon her the caution she must take when connecting with people or sharing information on-line. But to see my baby creating her own music videos, trying to look just like the singers who are either much older and more worldly or act way above their own ages, I want to destroy it all. Never mind the self-image lessons it could be teaching; the self-esteem lessons from obsession over number of likes and followers . . .

So am I overreacting? Am I a hypocrite? Is she simply a modern-day make-believe Annie Lennox? Was I as narcissistic staring into the mirror with my microphone as she is gazing into the tiny lens of her iPad? I’d like to think I made it through with a modicum of modesty. Will she as well?

Or is this new medium of childhood fantasy too grown-up for our kids’ own good?

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Murphy’s Child Outtakes

If you’d like to further tempt fate and play the odds for a surprise child, here are additional steps you can take.

  • Purchase a big family vehicle with one seat more than number of children you currently have. When your father-in-law comments that ‘you have room for one more’ and asks if you’re going to fill that seat too, say “Nooooooo! Not planning on it!”

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    (llbean)

  • When looking to hang the precious Christmas stockings your mother bought for each member of the family, you must have identical hooks. Be sure to buy the unique,weight-balanced ones, regionally made, sold from but one supplier – and only in sets of two. So when you outfit your last baby, you can tuck the extra hook into the storage tote, telling your husband, ‘you don’t think keeping this ensures another stocking (child) to fill it?’ You both laugh heartily at your superstition, but perhaps a little too much.
  • While giving visitors the dime tour of your new, larger, family-friendly house, point out the proximity of the bathroom to your side of the bed. Be sure to quip, ‘Too bad I got it after I walked down the stairs in the middle of the night for the three other pregnancies!”
  • Tell everyone about that woman you knew in your early twenties who surprised everyone, included herself, by getting pregnant at forty. She’d just joined a gym, replaced her wall-to-wall carpeting with refinished hardwoods, and sent her youngest off to middle school. Be sure to add significant shock and awe to your retell.
  • Try not to micromanage and embrace life in all its iterations. And you and Murph will get along fine.
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