Fighting Words

In my previous post, I wrote that I thought I was the one in our family with the most anxiety about our oldest starting kindergarten. As it ends up, Boy Wonder had a lot of anxiety, too. He cried everyday for the first two weeks, clinging to my arm, leg, shoulder, neck – any part of my body he could wrap his little arms and legs around, begging me to take him home. Thinking back to my dream from my previous post, he was no longer happily playing in the water; he was drowning and screaming for me to help him and I had no (real) choice but to keep throwing him back in the water.

We weren’t the only ones struggling and I exchanged looks of sympathy with a handful of other parents with their own children velcroed to their legs. I was somewhat prepared for this. Actually, it went down about the way I expected it to with one little surprise wrapped up in a 45 inches tall, 50 pound package – a little boy named Anthony.

Anthony (not his real name) is one of those little kids I didn’t like from the moment I met him. Yes, I admit it –  I don’t like all children. All children are loveable (by someone) but Anthony is the type of child that makes me grateful for my own sons on their worst days. He is loud and rambunctious. He runs everywhere with arms flailing about, often running into and knocking down other children, sometimes on accident but usually on purpose. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him walk. Did I mention he’s loud? Really loud.  Worse, the words coming out of his mouth are often not the words that should be spoken loudly around children, especially when the person speaking them is a child himself.

On the second day of kindergarten as I knelt with my son in line outside his classroom, feeling his head buried in my shoulder and spilling hot little tears on my neck, Anthony stood in line in front of us. He turned around abruptly and said to us loudly (it’s the only setting on his volume dial), “You’re such a cry baby! Only babies cry like you!”

“Flick (Dylan Earhart) is tortured by school yard bully Scut Farkus (Calvin Whitney) while little Randy (Harrison Goyette) lays helplessly in the snow in A Christmas Story.I was stunned. I looked around for Anthony’s mom or dad, expecting them to step in with a quick admonishment (at least) and then model more helpful language (a hopeful long shot in most cases, I know). I scanned the parents standing around. Where were they? All of the other kids’ parents were there. No one stepped in so I ignored him and placed my body between him and my son. Anthony left us alone.

The next day I chose a place away from Anthony but he actually sought us out in line and he proceeded to taunt my son again: “You cried all morning yesterday. Are you gonna cry again today? Jeez. Such a cry baby! I don’t cry. My baby brother cries but I don’t. Quit crying already.”

I looked around again for Anthony’s parents, desperately hoping someone would intervene to say something to this child. Seeing no one, I felt my own anger, hurt and need to protect my child rise up like a red hot bowling ball from the pit of my stomach. My fight-or-flight instinct was kicking in and it was telling me to fight: “Who are you to call my son a cry baby! You little loud-mouthed runt! Step off or I will throw down! You think that just because there are a bunch of people around that I won’t? Just watch!”

Oh. My. God. I had just played out in my head what that fireball in my stomach wanted me to do. My body was preparing to take down a five-year-old! A kindergartner! He’s not even half my size! Horrified and embarrassed by my reaction, I swallowed the fireball, picked up my son and walked/stomped to the back of the line, certain everyone could see the steam coming from my ears and the lasers shooting from my eye sockets aimed straight for Anthony.

The next day, as we approached school, I felt my son tighten his grip on my hand and I started to feel my own anxiety rise. We were one of the first to arrive but Anthony was already there. He left us alone at first but inevitably he found his way to us and started hurling his insults at my son again. I swallowed my fireball and immediately knelt down and said in my kindest, softest mommy voice, “Anthony, it’s ok if he wants to cry. He’s feeling scared and sad and he feels better if he cries. Do you sometimes cry when you’re scared or sad?”

Anthony looked at me hard. I don’t know what he was thinking. Maybe he was thinking if he told the truth it would mean that he was a cry baby, too. And if he lied, well, then he was a liar. He didn’t say anything but instead turned to talk/yell at one of the other kids in his class. He left us alone.

The next day, Friday, my son and I were the first ones in his class to arrive at school. Anthony was the second. He walked right up to us and said at a volume that resembled normal, “Hi Mrs. Mommy. I brought my lunch today. It’s turkey.” I stood with my son on one side of me and Anthony on the other, instinctively feeling the need to protect my son, uncertain how this exchange was going to go.  As the three of us continued talking, I noticed Anthony stepping closer and closer until he was leaning against my leg.  Somewhere between telling me about his backpack and asking my son about his lunchbox, Anthony reached up and gently held my hand. He proceeded to have a very nice conversation with me and my son for the next couple of minutes before another child arrived. He let go of my hand and started talking/yelling at the other child, and my son started his routine of clinging to me tighter and tighter until we both enveloped ourselves into our little ritual to get him through the routine of walking with his class and into his classroom. But Anthony left us alone and has ever since.  I haven’t heard Anthony call my son a cry baby and Anthony almost always comes to say/shout hello to us when we arrive in the morning.

I can’t help but wonder and worry about Anthony. Who in his life is telling him it’s not ok to cry? Equally important, who is telling him it’s ok to treat others the way he treated my son? More importantly, how do I better prepare my son to weather these emotional attacks when I’m not around? What will happen when I’m not there to intervene? I hear my son stick up for himself in other situations and use the language I’ve taught him to use: “I don’t like it when you treat me that way. It hurts my feelings. If you don’t stop, I’m going to go play somewhere else.” I know he has no qualms about reporting to adults when he or someone else is physically injured; he’s probably closer to being a tattle-tale than anything else. Right now, I’m ok with that. He has time to learn more advanced social skills that will allow him to be more self-sufficient but he’s only five years old! He should still feel like he can go to an adult for help if he needs it. Maybe that’s exactly what Anthony was trying to do, and ultimately, it’s what he got.

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Teaching Mommy

I am the only female in my house and I’ve learned a few things about boys in the last four years. Here are some things I learned this week:

1. Louder is better. Preferably in the car but anywhere in close proximity to other people. My youngest literally screamed at me today, “MY MILK IS WHITE AND COLD!!!” Yes it is.

2. It is one of life’s cruelest ironies that I ever have to decipher the difference between smeared chocolate and smeared poop.

3. Don’t tell our pool but I would pay my son’s weight in gold for swimming lessons. Yes, I know my oldest does not love swimming. I see you other parents looking at him with pitiful eyes as he clings to my leg before he gets in the pool. I am still going to forcefully peel him off my leg and insist that he get in the water because he will actually go to sleep before 10:30 p.m. if he gets to play in the water (which he happily does – once he’s in the pool). I will actually get to watch the season premiere of Mad Men I’ve been waiting three months to watch. If. I. can. just. get. him. in. the. water. Oh, yeah, and that whole water safety, swimming thing is important, too.

4. Rocket ships need a lot of cookies.

5. I know why there are stupid warning labels on seemingly hazardless things or obviously risky things. This morning, while I was getting breakfast ready, my youngest did a handstand on the breakfast table with his feet propped up on the wall behind him. The table moved. He bashed his face into the side of the table. (He was fine.)

6. We have reached the stage where the greatest threat to my sons’ survival is not me but each other.  My two boys were in the driveway riding bikes/trains/rocket ships. I was inside fixing dinner. What happened next as reported by my four-year-old: “Little Britches turned my train (bike) into a rocket ship and then bashed his dump truck (wagon) into the launch pad (basketball hoop). There was no way for the train engine (bike/rocket ship) to get back to the train station (garage). So I threw a brick at him.” Yes, my oldest grabbed a brick and hurled it at my youngest, hitting him right in the middle of the forehead. Yes, it will scar but I consider that lucky.

7. Our country should consider adding emergency room physicians and nurses to the list of people it is customary to tip.

8. Never teach your children to change the batteries in their toys. Ever. Likewise, never give them access to the battery charger. Ever. I’m all for creating independent children but this goes too far. If I have to hear Thomas the Tank Engine say, “I’m the number one blue engine!” one more time I’m going to poke my eardrums out with a pencil.

9. Privacy means nothing to a three-year old. When I found my three-year-old trying to properly use my tampons on himself, I decided I needed to redouble my efforts in enforcing a closed bathroom door policy.

10. If I had external genitalia, I’d find it pretty fascinating, too. What I don’t understand is why men never outgrow this fascination.

I Love House Guests

I freaking love house guests. I know that some people find this bewildering, including some of the people who have stayed with us (I know I don’t exude Martha Stewart-esque hospitality), but I really do love it. Especially family.

Really. I’m not lying.

Reasons I love house guests:

1. For about 24 hours my house and life appear to be out of the pages of Sunset or Parenting magazines. My house gets super clean and organized. Even if it’s only for 24 hours.

2. We eat and drink waaaaay more…and better.

3. It gives us an excuse to get out those funny things that we never use in day-to-day life but seem so much more necessary (and cool!) when we have others around to see and use it. (We always get the margarita glasses down from the top cupboards in the kitchen that require a real ladder to reach.)

4. When there’s an audience, I do my best impersonation of a patient, loving, knowledgeable mommy and somehow my kids fall for it and become darn near perfect (hmmmm…are the two connected? Probably not.).

5. Our kids are better behaved. Or maybe someone else is paying attention to them so I don’t notice them as much.

My brother, sister-in-law and nephew spent the last week with us and it was awesome. My perfect house lasted about 10 minutes into their arrival and then it took on the personality of a fraternity house: there was spilled juice (and beer), broken toys, screams, laughs, tears, tantrums, smooshed food on the floor and lots of pushing and rough-housing in the name of fun. Three boys under age five is not for the faint of heart. And I loved it. Partly because I was no longer the sole referee but mostly because I had a better excuse to have an evening cocktail a little earlier.

But the really great thing about having house guests is we finally go do things that we’ve been wanting to do for a long time but always put off because they seem like too much work, too far away or even too special to do when it’s just the four of us. Of course we always try to play it off to our house guests like, “Oh yeah! Every weekend we are doing something equally interesting, adventurous and fun!” When in reality we are doing dishes, laundry, screaming at the kids to leave the cat alone and generally wondering how everyone else is having more fun than us.

So when I happened to hear that the tide was going to be low during the morning and midday last Thursday, I took off my Martha Stewart apron and put on my dictator mustache and announced to my brother and his family that we were going to the tide pools at the Marine Reserve in Moss Beach. I confessed that I’d never been and had no idea what to expect but I assured them it was awesome (gotta sell it!).

And it was.

IMG_2061 In my typical half-assed way, I failed to actually plan anything but getting there. I had no idea that it was almost a half-mile hike in (great for my pregnant sister-in-law and three kids under five who can’t go more than ten steps without saying, “I CAN’T walk. Carry me!”). Never mind that while I remembered to pack swimsuits, towels, lunch and sand toys, I did not plan on how to get them all to the beach. So we (I mean my brother) did our (his) best interpretation of a Sherpa and lugged all the stuff up the bluff and down the stairs that rivaled the steepness of the north face of…ummm…any mountain (because I can’t remember the names of any mountains right now. I know. I’m an embarrassment to native Coloradans everywhere).

But when we got there, we were rewarded with an amazing, inviting little strip of sand and water. Indeed. It. Was. Awesome. (Insert me doing the “I Told You So Dance.”) The magic took over and we all became lost in our new-found world.

IMG_1241The kids didn’t hesitate to wade into the water and instantly found all kinds of little creatures. We all wandered along the ocean’s edge, poking at shells, picking up sea glass, chasing fish and soaking up the wonder of it all. It was a warm, sunny day and we had this part of the beach mostly to ourselves. It was one of those days that all the planning in the world could not have made it any better (well…a lunchtime cocktail would have been nice).

IMG_2067There is something about tide pools that turns our family into a big group of kids. We stared at crabs, let snails slide and suck on our fingers, gently prodded mysterious squishy things attached to rocks and jumped back slightly when they moved. The only discernible difference in the behavior of the adults versus the children was we adults sometimes hesitated to touch something or warned a child to not step on something that might be dangerous. To the kids, the water was a huge bathtub to explore with nothing to fear. And to the adults, this enthusiasm was muted by our knowledge and experience.

Years ago my brother was stung by a man-of-war jellyfish that washed up on a Florida beach during our spring break vacation. We all learned of the dangers that seemingly innocuous and enchanting sea creatures can hold. I think of that every time I go to the beach. That and my irrational fear of sharks. I can’t help it.

IMG_2086My kids eagerly, openly and, at times, exuberantly, explored. And I was filled with a mixture of delight because they were so at ease and fearless, and sadness because I couldn’t be. Almost, but not quite. As a parent, I struggle to truly relax and let them go without thinking of (and often verbalizing) the dangers of which they are wonderfully unaware. Ok. So there weren’t any jellyfish or sharks but someone has to make sure we put on sunscreen, eat lunch and clean up after ourselves.

IMG_2093

When it was time, the adults put out the blanket, wiped off sand from hands and feet, set up lunch and sat back while the kids refueled. And when they finished, we packed up and finally convinced them to leave. We headed back up the stairs and down the trail to our car.

On the drive home, the kids snoozed in the back and the adults were quiet, tired but relaxed and fulfilled. Being a grown-up isn’t as fun as being a kid but on days like this one, it’s pretty darn close.

It was one of the best days of my life and it wouldn’t have happened without house guests.

Everyone is gone and the Rowes are starting our usual week of preschool, chores, baths, naps and snacks. And I’ll be doing some touch-up painting, a lot of laundry and scrubbing mystery substances off of floors, walls, and couches. And I’m not even a little bit annoyed by it (ok, maybe a tiny bit). The toys are back in their bins and the house is back to its pre-house-guest state. I’ve resumed yelling at my kids and they’ve resumed yelling back.

Thankfully, we have more house guests arriving next week.

Pro-tip if you go to the J.V. Fitzgerald Marine Reserve: there is parking in a neighborhood with a much shorter walk to the stairs. No need to park at the park trailhead and walk in (Cypress Ave/Beach Way intersection). The one caveat is if you go this time of year and want to see baby seals, park at the trailhead and go right after the bridge and up the hill to the overlook. It mostly makes up for the crabby, wailing kids on the walk/hike in.

The man on the bike with the baby

We have moved to the set of The Truman Show. At least, that’s what I keep telling my husband. In the movie The Truman Show, a man (Jim Carrey) is going about living his mostly idyllic life that, unbeknownst to him, has been a carefully orchestrated and scripted Hollywood reality show. The houses are charming and the lawns well cared for, the neighbors friendly and helpful, the wives beautiful, the husbands successful and handsome, the kids cute and perfectly behaved. We live a short walk from a cute downtown with a combination of boutiques, cafes, and “everywhere” stores (Gap, Pottery Barn, etc.). Carter rides his bike to school three blocks away with his new best friend who lives across the street. For every three people there is a golden retriever or labradoodle. There is no road-rage. Everyone waves and smiles when they pass each other on the street.  It’s wonderful…and unnerving. I often find myself fighting the urge to walk around saying rather loudly, “This is all a charade! You’re all actors! You can stop it now! I know what’s going on!”

And I feel guilty as hell. The deep, Protestant, you-can’t-go-to-enough-church-to-wash-you-of-your-sins, kind of guilty.

Shortly after we moved here, I was on my way home from driving Justin to work (I was driving our convertible Mercedes because our SUV was in the shop…not because it was broken but because it was getting serviced, what a luxury) when I stopped at a stoplight. I was on a busy street lined with old apartment complexes built in the 40’s and 50’s that haven’t been touched since and are now occupied by low and middle income families. Outside my window, I watched as a man dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and baseball cap stood in the doorway of his apartment, said his goodbyes with a kiss and hug to a woman and then leaned over and kissed a baby in a stroller. I was struck by how similar that scene looked to the one that had played out countless times in our own house. Justin goes off to work (but dressed in a button down shirt, khakis and dress shoes), kisses me goodbye and hugs and kisses the boys before he goes off to work. For some reason, I was momentarily comforted by watching this universal ritual unfolding in a setting so different from my own.

But then, in a fluid motion, one that revealed it was something this man had done countless times before, he picked up the baby in the stroller (tiny little bundle!), wrapped it in thick blankets, put the baby on his shoulder, hopped on his bike and pedaled down the street, holding the baby with one hand and steering with the other.

I couldn’t believe it. Forget that he didn’t have a helmet on (I could hear my son’s panicked voice in my head, “Mommy! He doesn’t have a helmet!”). Forget that the baby wasn’t wearing a helmet (they don’t even make helmets that small, do they?). Forget that the baby wasn’t even in a baby seat or baby trailer. Forget that the man was riding down one of the busiest streets in the area. I had a million questions flood my mind. Where is he going? Is he taking the baby to work with him? Is the baby sick? Are they going to the doctor (the only legitimate reason I could come up with for why he would put his baby at such risk)? Or is he dropping the baby off at a babysitter or daycare? Where, in God’s name, is he taking a baby wrapped up in a blanket while riding on a bicycle?

As I sat in my convertible Mercedes, I thought of my boys and the obscenely expensive, currently empty car seats carefully and tightly strapped into the rear seats of our SUV and how much energy I had expended in the last four years ensuring my kids were securely strapped into the seats every time we went anywhere in our car. We rode bicycles for fun and only after lengthy lectures on safety and responsibility.

My momentary comfort in the universal ritual of dads saying goodbye to their families in the morning fell away. I had no context or perspective from which to view this scene.

My guilt and confusion was overwhelming. I began to sob. And there I sat in my convertible Mercedes driving back home to our newly painted and decorated house in Burlingame/Truman Show, CA to ride bikes with my four year old who was most certainly already having his Oma help him get the straps to his bike helmet tightened under his chin. And when I got home I would carefully strap my two-year old into our way-too-expensive stroller so we could take a walk to the neighborhood park to play with other kids who were in all likelihood doing just about the exact same thing.

I came home and told my mom who was visiting for a few days what I had seen. I said,  “It’s not fair that I get the luxuries of safety and security and education when so many other people don’t. Why am I any better or more deserving than anyone else?” Because I worked hard? Lots of people work hard and don’t get what I have. Because my parents could afford to send me to college (at a state school with ridiculously low tuition)? Because I can afford to pay my law school loans (because of said ridiculously low tuition)? Because I married a man who also works hard and is smart and works in an industry that compensates him well? Because, frankly, we had also been very lucky?

And then my mom told the story of my great-grandmother whose husband died unexpectedly when my grandmother was a senior in high school. There she was. Mother of four kids aged 17, 16, 14, and 12 years old with a farm in Iowa to run just as the Great Depression was starting. How unfair. She did not wallow. She did not feel sorry for herself (of course she did but no one knew it). No time for that! And she did everything she needed to to keep the farm afloat (it is a business, after all). Rather than sending her two oldest girls to college, as was the plan, she kept them close to home and they worked in town, giving all of their pay to keep the family farm alive. My great-granmother got up before dawn to tend to the farm animals, gather cow pies (that’s dried cow crap for you city slickers) to burn for fuel. She turned her home into a boarding house to help bring in a little more money. Once the two youngest boys were old enough, they started helping with the farm, too. This wasn’t temporary. This was how she spent the majority of the rest of her life. She saved the farm and it’s still in the family. One of her great-grandsons still lives in the house. Below is a picture of it that I took during our trip to Iowa this summer:

The four kids helped my great-grandmother as best they could, all raising their families close to the farm. My grandmother later married my grandfather who also lived in the small Iowa farming town and moved to a nearby farm. Here, they raised my mom and her two sisters. Farming life is not easy nor lucrative. My grandparents worked very hard, lived modest lives and sacrificed like crazy to give their three girls a chance at going to college and having careers. Which they all did (still do).

My mom married my dad, also raised on a farm in the small Iowa farm town. My two aunts married men from the same farming community as well. And they all promptly got the hell out of Dodge. Not in a spiteful way (our family remains close-knit) but in a way that honored the opportunities my grandparents tried to create. And my parents did everything they could to provide me and my siblings the same opportunities, with an exponential increase in expectations and sacrifice. Standing on that foundation created by my parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ sacrifices (and the inherent advantages of being a middle-class white female in our society), I went to college and law school and built my career and life with my husband. And then Justin and I made our sacrifices to start a family and began to build a foundation for our children on which to build their futures.

Maybe the-man-on-the-bike-with-the-baby is doing the same thing…he’s just a couple of generations behind my family. The evolution of wealth is usually slow.

Maybe. Maybe not.

I still feel guilty.

I also told my husband about the-man-on-bike-with-the-baby and in the only way that he can give me an ass-kicking, he gave me an ass-kicking (reason #3 I married him). He said, “How do you know that the man you saw is not actually every bit as happy as you? Maybe his life in the last 10 years has been hell and he’s thrilled to be enjoying the life of a new dad and he’s grateful for a job that makes it possible for him to live in that apartment. Just because the two minutes of his life that you witnessed is shocking to you doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his life.”

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe Justin was also just trying to make me feel better (reason #8 I married him).

The truth is, I have no idea where the-man-on-the-bike-with-the-baby was going and whether or not he was happy or satisfied with his life. Just like I have no idea whether the beautiful wives, handsome and successful husbands, and well-behaved children we are now surrounded by are happy or satisfied…or not.

But, right now, I am happy and satisfied. And I’m going to enjoy it and be very, very grateful for this moment in time.  My great-grandmother wouldn’t want me to take my happiness for granted but she’d be damned if I felt guilty for it, too.