Ten helpful ideas for parenting strong-willed kids (part 2)

In part 1 of this story, I shared our family’s reconciliation between practical parenting needs with our daughter’s strong will. Here, I summarize some points for parents struggling with the same behaviors and provide references for further exploration. Enjoy!

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Strong-willed children cannot be made to do anything they don’t want to do, but they can be convinced. If the expectation is reasonable, and your child understands the reasons and loves you, then your kid will often be on your side. Here’s how:

1. Value your relationship above all else and give up control whenever possible. For example, my daughter gets full control over what clothes, hair-dos, and blankets she wears (life-threatening situations excepted). At age three, she is granted these rights and also the responsibility for her choices. For example, she has full permission to puddle stomp, but I don’t end adventures early because she’s wet.

2. Parent in the affirmative. Say yes whenever possible, as in: “Sure, you can have a treat. As soon as you pick up your toys, like we talked about.” Tell your child what to do instead of what not to do and go along with her antics, ideas, and fun-loving nature when you can. Delight in her.

3. Avoid power struggles and direct commands; e.g. whenever you don’t care enough to take it to the death. In moments of small infringement when I got nothing, I often say, “I don’t like it when you do that,” and go on as if nothing happened. Kids have nothing to lose, and their conviction is often stronger than ours. Instead of mandating what your child must do, explain what you will do, the behaviors you will tolerate, and what will happen if you don’t see some cooperation.

4. Save your breath. Adults who give constant feedback risk becoming innocuous background noise. Remember the teacher from Charlie Brown? Waa wah wah waa wah wah. Don’t belabor the point when behavior is marginal or danger is a mere possibility. Your words may then ring true in moments that count.

5. Allow natural consequences to teach your child. If there’s none then think up an appropriate one and offer it as an alternate choice to the behavior you want. Don’t offer choices you’re not 100% ok with and don’t invest in the outcome. Stay neutral. It’s up to your kid to cooperate or take the consequence.

6. Set a few rules, even for toddlers (age 1) that you know you can enforce. Articulate the reasons behind the rules, the music behind the madness. A strong-willed child needs to understand why rules are in place, and have permission to work the available loop holes. She will be looking for them. When your kid discovers situations where the reasons don’t apply, then bend and hope she’ll learn from your modeling. “I see your point,” I like to say. “I can be flexible about that.” Or “Sure you can; as long as it’s not a problem.”

7. If you want your kid to listen the first time then don’t ask more than once. Assume your kid remembers and understands what you said. Choose a consistent cue like “uh-oh” to let your child know that a choice or consequence is coming. You are not required by law to give a warning before a consequence.

8. Try non-verbal forms of communication. Refrain from verbal directives especially in moments when your child is “on the edge.” Open your arms for a hug. Hold up a single finger for “just a minute.” Learn the sign for “don’t touch.” Reach out your hand to hold when you want to leave. Go get him or move to where you want him and start eating, reading, etc. Give him a chance to follow of his own accord.

9. In emotionally charged, right-brained moments (i.e. tantrums), a. Use non-verbal signals to communicate comfort. b. Offer empathy to validate feelings and help your child get calm. c. Be a good listener or talk a non-verbal child through what happened. d. Wait to reflect and request different types of behavior until your child is back at stasis.

10. Decide what qualities you want to cultivate in yourself and don’t let your child push you to become angry, anxious, or mean. Keep your cool. Kindness can be the most effective way to change challenging behavior. Your kid is going to grow up to be awesome.

Suggested resources:

Circle of Security International www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/

Cline FW & J Fay (1990) Parenting with Love and Logic.

Forehand R & N Long (2002) Parenting the Strong-Willed Child.

Shanker S (2016) Self Reg.

Siegel DJ & T Payne Bryson (2014) No-Drama Discipline.

Tobias CU (2012) You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded).

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My strong-willed child (part 1)

Parenting fantasies start from the gold dust of dreams. They are shaped by personal values and rooted in experiences from our own childhoods. Before we become parents we imagine ourselves exuding the perfect ratio of love, creativity, and authority to yield a happy, healthy, and respectful child. Around the time our kids become independent mobile units though, these ideas start to leak like a sieve.

This post goes out to my friend E, who has witnessed my steep parenting learning curve, and recently sent this text about her one-year-old: “My son needs some sort of discipline,” she writes. “He knows the word no and he doesn’t give a f@%$. He really doesn’t. What do I do with that?”

Obedient children are lovely to be around. I’d like to have one, but you have to prioritize characteristics to cultivate in your kids according to what is available. There’s not infinite room in the garden; so you might not be able to grow petunias and begonias.

Lately I have become curious about why obedience became the value to cultivate in children above all other values. Obedience is desirable as a practical skill. It keeps kids safe, well-mannered, and cooperative. It is also boring and stifling.

I was raised to be obedient. “Be good,” my dad always said as we parted ways, and I knew what was meant. When I was a kid all it took was the threat of a spanking; the forward leaning, wide-eyed lear of a grandfather; the shrill or else of my mother to straighten me up. That was all I needed to act right. Threats were many; consequences were few.

Kids today don’t give a shit about empty threats. “Or else what, ma?” they want to know. I don’t know what has changed in the past 35 years, but parenting is different now. “Different pollens in the air,” says my friend M.

In his book Free to Learn, author Peter Gray summarizes this system as beginning with the agricultural age when hierarchies of dominance and submission became rules to live by. “Just as we train horses to do the tasks that we want them to do,” he writes, “we train children to do the tasks that we think will be necessary for their future success. We do that regardless of whether the horse or child wants such training, or benefits from it as an individual. Training requires suppression of the trainees will; it requires a concept of disciplining others that was foreign to hunter-gatherers.”

*

I got the exact wild, brave, curious daughter I always wanted. The surprise is how little control I have over her. She is, what is called, a strong-willed child.

Strong-willed children require a complete rearrangement of how we thought parenting would go: Instead of being strict and consistent, I have needed to become flexible and empathetic. Overall, I have also become less angry, anxious, and close-minded. Parenting these kids can be a great thing if you let it be; or you can stick to your former notions of authority and die trying.

A’s lack of obedience is most difficult when safety is concerned. Rather than offering a constant “Be careful!” chorus as the soundtrack to her young life, I watch for moments when she becomes distracted. “Focus,” I say, or “Do you feel safe?” Yes, I have caught her in mid-air as she dropped off of the monkey bars. On another occasion she hit the ground but was totally fine. “We’re training for the Olympics,” I tell bystanders.

I have had to get very specific with myself about what I am protecting my daughter from. If the risk does not include loss of life or limb (or an emergency room bill), and if she will most likely keep her face, then I say nothing. Proceed, my child, and learn.

I refrain from bringing up her mortality because I don’t want her athleticism curbed by of adult fears. Nor do I want her looking to others to determine what level of risk is acceptable. She should learn to gauge safety and threat for herself.

My ideas, of course, don’t always work. Yesterday my mom, A, and I walked the boardwalk along a neighborhood duck pond. Everything is going swimmingly until A starts wondering about the snacks left locked inside the car, and she takes off for the parking lot at a full sprint.

“Stop!” I shout. “Mama says stop!” But she gives not a damn and is soon out of earshot. My mom looks at me, waddling through the last month of my twin pregnancy, then looks ahead to the blur of our charge racing away. “I can’t catch her,” I shrug. “She probably wont die.”

Good old grandma runs after her.

I know this makes me sound terribly passive. A has taught me to examine all situations through the lens of the serenity prayer and realize there many moments with her in which I have very little say. I have come to value keeping my cool over maintaining control because it’s something I can actually do.

When A returns, there is no reprimand, no consequence, no warning, or threat. There is an explanation. “When mama says stop, you stop,” I say. “When you run far away I worry that you’ll be hit by a car. And I worry you might meet a bear or a person feeling ‘no-no’ and mama won’t be there to take care of you.”

The word, “discipline,” means “to teach.” For the rest of this day and the next, we practice stop and go with a game like red-light, green-light. I use our secret call “Coo-eee!” to beckon her back to my side, and she comes running.

*

Parenting a strong-willed child cannot be about obedience and control because you will lose too many battles. Your relationship must hinge upon something else or you will also lose the war. The last thing any of us wants is to suffer through these childhoods, only to be hated by our kids as adults.

I have yelled. I have spanked. None of it changed my daughter’s behavior one iota and I felt terrible afterwards. When I am angry she shuts down or ignores me. She does not do as I wish, and no ‘parenting’ is accomplished. In short, nothing that was supposed to work actually works. The only thing she responds to, is love.

The antithesis to parenting with an iron fist is to teach a child self regulation. If A doesn’t go to bed when I tell her to then she must learn to rest when she is tired. If she won’t wear the clothes I offer her then she must learn to dress appropriately for the weather and bring an extra layer: I will not procure a sweater from some bag when she gets cold.

In response to our difficulties, I have become more creative about how I talk to my daughter. Every time we open our mouth’s to speak we choose a vessel, a mood, and a posture to carry our words. Instead of demanding deference, I have learned to make a request, reference a rule, convey an observation, explain how I feel, or ask a question. I can issue a statement, give a directive, redirect, distract, or enforce a consequence. I can get physical and overpower my child or find words to guide her by. I can evoke equality, superiority, or submission. Words can bring good humor, sarcasm, anger, or careful intention. In almost any situation I can go silly, tender, or angry. I can bargain, be vague, or be indecisive. I can do nothing. I can encourage dependence and obedience to the status quo or free-thinking, independence, and perseverance.

*

I have given up control for the sake of building a great relationship with my daughter. Yes, the hectocity level is high. I make myself feel better by worrying about what happens when obedient children grow up. Do they rebel hard-core as teens? Struggle to make even the smallest decisions? Spend their lives trying to please others? Lose sight of who they really are?

The teen years around our house will require some patience; but I’m not worried. Perhaps a curfew will hold no power over A. If that’s the case, I will have to get specific with my daughter around drunk driving, intimate relationships, and other taboos of being out after midnight. We will define our family boundaries together (see clause on parenting fantasies, above). With open conversation and understanding, I hope to know where my daughter is and what she is up to. With enough love and mutual trust, maybe she’ll call me first when she’s in a bind or needs a ride. A kid who spent her whole life falling off the straight and narrow and getting busted doesn’t do that.

Teaching self regulation takes a lot of patience and effort up front, but it seems so worth it. Also, I see no other option. This is working. What can I say? She is who she is. If there is anyway to change her, I haven’t found it. That’s probably a good thing.

***

Part two of this post is a list of Ten helpful ideas for parenting strong-willed kids and references for further exploration.

Toddler Art

Lines and shadows

Lately I have enjoyed daily home art installations courtesy of my daughter A. She works mainly in sculpture since she doesn’t get crayons without supervision.

The shortest distance between two points

A’s work reflects an awareness of balance and a willingness to consider various uses of and meanings behind everyday objects. These sculptures are a physical study of the three repeated questions we cycle through every day: “What’s this?”, “What doos?”, and “Why?”

Dad doesn’t need to know

She is also working with origin stories, as in: “Where cheese come from?” Followed by, “Where cows come from?” and then, “Where mama cows come from?”

And: “What birds eat?” “What spiders eat?” “What bugs eat?” “What leaves eat?” “What water eats?”

Weird geometry

Lineage can be traced – must be traced – for just about anything. Once is not enough to satisfy. The same questions come around and around again like a carousel carrying a limited number of painted ponies.

Unicorn sleeping on a dish towel

I read something about it being a trust-building exercise. Maybe so; or maybe she asks again and again because she’s wondering, what else does it do? Maybe a lifetime of learning has set me up with limited perceptions. Maybe I should be more open minded; re-examine the world with new eyes. Certainly, I appreciate her perspective.

The pandemic at our place

My husband M gave me one of those earnest looks the other day: “This year was going to be stressful before there was a pandemic,” he said.

I laughed like I might never stop. We are expecting twins in July. It’s M’s first year of being entirely self-employed as a contractor, and I recently took a lay-off. We need a new house – one big enough to accommodate our instant just-add-water family of five – and planned to build this summer. But given Alaska’s economic decline, we’ll delay a year.

Covid-19 has made us financially vulnerable; yet so far, so good. Can’t complain. While everything is threatened, nothing much has changed. This isn’t the case for everyone. Many families are hurting right now.

I keep telling myself: As long as we are healthy and have an income, we’re fine. Under the thin veil of “fine,” however, there is more…. Anxiety. Stress. Confusion. Boredom. Loneliness. Isolation. Uncertainty. There are opportunities for free counseling right now and I’m interested; but I’m not sure what I would say that hasn’t already been said. “Hi, it’s me. There’s a pandemic, and I feel nervous….”

Instead of making phone calls and seeking providers, I breathe, go outside, take one day at a time. I’m more grateful than ever to live in a place surrounded by natural beauty. My niece C wrote this poem recently:

The wind is blowing up in the mountains, and the sky is turning blue. The dogs are running around. The horses are trotting too. The flowers are blooming. What can you say except it’s a beautiful world today.

I don’t know what six-year-olds understand about this moment in history, but her reminder to look outside of ourselves and pay attention to all that has not changed sums up a lot about how I’m functioning through Covid-19.

In March, a lot was up in the air and I felt terrible. Parents pulled their kids out of childcare until A was the last one standing. I was saving my annual leave for maternity so I kept her going as long as I could. It didn’t take long though, before I couldn’t justify our being out there anymore.

Single people are so lonely right now. I’ve heard several friends speak to how difficult it is to pass through months without any touch. No hugs. No hand-shakes. No end in sight. Meanwhile, moms are pulling their hair out trying to work from home, care for families, and keep school rolling with no childcare. The dichotomy between those without and those with kids couldn’t be more extreme than right now.

I tried working from home with a toddler. I plugged A into cartoons during morning Zoom meetings, typed like hell at nap time, stretched a full-time schedule out over seven days-a-week, stayed up until midnight, and thanked God for a paid holiday on Seward’s Day. In short: I didn’t make it through the second week.

So, after less than a year of adult conversations, I’m back with A full time. My opting out of the work was the only choice that made any sense. It’s been nice to be together again; lot’s of hugs. A is also in a phase where she likes to hang from my neck; so we’ve been talking about the dangers of strangulation.

A and I spend a lot of time alone together. Considering our significant lack of play dates, life could be getting boring. Lucky for me, A wakes up knowing what we should do with each new day:

“Go to the beach, mama?”

“Play camping, mama?”

“Birthday party for snowman, mama? With hats? And a big sign?”

Juneau’s pre-emptive social distancing means that we’ve had relatively few cases of Covid-19 in this area. Until yesterday, patients were restricted to the prison and those who flew in from elsewhere. There hasn’t been enough testing, but with so few documented cases it’s been hard to remember why we’re doing this. People, including myself, almost need the reinforcement of a spreading virus to remember why we should bother.

Of course I don’t want a massive wave of death. But right now I feel more worried about peoples’ finances and the subtle impacts of our estranged social behaviors on our communities and our kids.

A misses something but she’s not sure what: “I miss my cousin Lincoln,” she told me yesterday (even though he lives in Canada and she met him only once). And I miss Santa Claus,” she said. “Can we have Christmas again?”

I expect cases will come in waves over the next year (or two?). People will relax, travel, and socialize again and this thing will spread. Then we’ll tighten up; restrict our movements and get back into hunkering down. Technically I’m high risk because of this pregnancy but I don’t feel it. I wear a mask in stores and go through the motions of social distancing, but I wont really worry about my own exposure until these babies are on the outside.

If no one in your family or mine is sick, then maybe there’s room for us to spend a little time together?

*

New beginnings (part 2)

Happy Mother’s Day everyone! I hope all you mamas reveled in your day. I certainly did. Bring on the mama love!

So, I’m pregnant with twins. Many of you just found out with my last post (part 1), but I’m closer to the end of this pregnancy than to the beginning. It just took six months before I was ready for pictures and wide-spread announcements:

Twins! The third trimester begins.

I would have said something earlier, but there was no good way for you to respond. During the ‘Stare at a wall and eat cake’ phase of this pregnancy, “Congratulations!” and “How exciting!” left me speechless and uncomfortable.

Twins are exciting. And daunting. With A I didn’t sleep four hours in a row until she was 24 months, and this time there will be two of them. In their first 4-6 weeks of life, twins eat every two hours and take an hour to nurse; so if things go well I’ll be sleeping in 1-hour stints round-the-clock. One twin mom said she went through 800 diapers in the first month of her twins’ life. These are just a few things I know in advance…

While in twin denial, responses that signified sympathy or horror better mirrored the way I felt and provided the empathy I needed. I’ve heard, “Holy shit,” “Congratulations?” “Condolences,” and even, “That’s f*%+$d,” and I wasn’t offended. Tru dat.

As I have become welcoming toward these babies, the celebrations feel more appropriate and the contrary responses mark how far I’ve come. Look! I think. Your jaw is on the ground but mine is not! I must be doing better!

“Do twins run in your family?” Yes. But my mom has 100 first cousins so there are bound to be a few sets of twins in there. It is perhaps more striking that twins run in my friend group: I know at least six twin families, most of which had a singleton first. This association seems as likely a reason for my dropping two eggs as my genetic lineage. I’m also 38-years-old, and my ovaries might be having a blowout sale. Everything must go.

I fear the martyrdom of motherhood. I fear going bonkers. I fear that the relentless and under-appreciated work ahead will make me an angry, tight-lipped woman in middle age; that I will lose my joy, generosity, ambition, and groundedness. That’s all.

I’ve been binging on podcasts as a comfort measure, and it’s nice to learn that most twin moms are terrified in early pregnancy. These good-natured women offer practical advice on tandem nursing, cloth diapering, getting out of the house, surviving. But I’m listening for something else: I scan their voices for traces of irony; any hint of resentment over what life has handed them. But there is none. They love their kids. This is all I need to know.

Even as I’m starting to feel better, some pregnancy anxiety continues. Twin births are high risk and I feel a lot of pressure to accept medical interventions. We live far from family and our home and cars lack sufficient space for these babies. My daughter just turned three and I can’t imagine how I will continue to care for her. WTF bedtime. Also, there’s a pandemic.

One day at a time. I am trying to get clear with myself on what I want to happen and put my energy in that direction. Covid-19 restrictions will lighten and allow me to labor without a mask and with both my husband and doula. These babies will come at term, without an induction, and with all of the space, time, and good vibes they need for a safe and beautiful birth. Let’s call this plan A.

I love raising kids. In addition to being totally crazy-making they are funny, inspiring, and impossibly cute. It’s not the children I fear; it’s the opportunity costs – the turning over of who I was but no longer get to be.

Instead of grieving the loss of possibilities for my life, I turn fears on their heads and discover possibilities that excite me. For example, I’ve never seen myself as a mini-van mom, but I’m over-the-moon with the idea of getting one of these:

Mama’s dream ride

Yes, this was a planned pregnancy for one of them. The other was very, very unplanned. Believing in fate and karma, I search for some understanding of these babies as reasonable, just, and timely for my growth and purpose. I try not to suffer over what might happen. I remind myself that what I fear is the unknown, and my future has equal potential to be wonderful as it does to be difficult.

I honor friends who are living the pain of wanting a child or more children. Raising children is painful, but not raising children is also painful.

Knowing that we are who we admire, I feel myself drawn to women who have flocks of kids and manage to enjoy their lives. You give me hope.

While I struggle with the idea of lost adventures, I am excited to experience new emotional peaks and valleys. I’m thrilled at two more chances to manifest daddy’s left-handedness or grandpa’s light-blue eyes.

I dare to imagine the big-family benefits that I never considered before: A full dinner table every night and not just on holidays. Bringing the party to every party. Themed Halloween costumes (we can now be all of the characters from The Wizard of OZ!). Family raft trips. Boat camping. Built-in friends for everything. Family band. Grandchildren?

I frolic in the glow if A’s love like a pig in mud. When I’m with her, loving her, it also occurs to me that I might feel this way about two more small humans. The possibility blows my mind.

Get in the van, y’all!

*

New beginnings (part 1)

“Let’s get you to ultrasound,” says the nurse, “and we’ll see if we can find a heartbeat.”

You won’t, I think to myself.

After some gentle nudging, my husband recently agreed to try for a second baby; but after a bleeding event last month I’m sure it’s over. I’ve spent these past weeks drowning in sadness, vomiting from leftover HcG hormones, and waiting for the rest of this pregnancy to flush. I’m ready for the DNC.

The monitor flicks on. “Do you see this?” the tech asks.

I do see. I have had two previous pregnancies, including one miscarriage, and I fancy myself a bit of a hack with ultrasounds. I once won a baby shower game based on labeling black-and-white images from 20-weeks gestation with facial features, kidneys, genitals, lungs, gall bladders, etc. I barely know what all of those organs do, but I got 100%. So I don’t need anyone to tell me that instead of one dead baby in my belly, there are two.

This ultrasound tech with the German accent has done all of my 10-week ultrasounds over the past five years – at three different Juneau OB offices. It’s a strange coincidence what I’ve been through with her. I don’t even know her last name.

The lump in my throat is too big to speak so I nod. If there’s anything more disturbing than learning you are pregnant with twins, it’s learning that you were pregnant with twins, but aren’t anymore. My heart feels like it has been hollowed out with a spoon.

In my first pregnancy, there were no symptoms of miscarriage; unless you count lack of vomiting and a recurring nightmare where the wicked witch from Snow White steals a baby out of my womb and places it in her own. I went glowingly into that 10-week ultrasound to this woman’s frowning disapproval. “Your fetus isn’t ten weeks old,” she said, “maybe six. And I’m not finding a heartbeat.”

This miscarriage is different, but the dreams are back. Over and over, I meet pregnant women with round full-moon bellies. I look down to see my own body: lean and empty, and I feel so sad.

I watch in disbelief as she labels the once-fetuses: “This one closer to your cervix is Baby A,” she says. “Baby B is up here.”

Something is off. I know the hard, clear manner with which this woman delivers sad news, and this isn’t it. Finally done measuring and labeling, she turns to me and says — “I’ll go get the doctor to look at these babies.”

“Babies?” I ask. “They have heartbeats?”

Ja,” she says. “They have heartbeats.”

“Show me.”

Recognition of our disconnect flashes in her eyes. She runs the wand back through the gel on my belly. The blurry forms that were lifeless sacks waving in an amniotic breeze become two jumping beans waving fingerless hands. “Hi mom!” they say in unison. “Surprise!”

“See?” she asks. “They’re active ones!”

For the second time in ten minutes, my world crumbles. Come to the OB office, I text to my husband. Urgent.

*

When M walks in I let him take in the scene for himself. He looks at the monitor as I watch like a hawk caught with too many eggs in the nest. Bless him. Happy daddy tears form in the corners of his eyes.

After the appointment, we head home in separate cars. My husband picks up our daughter and gets takeout with a cake to celebrate. Driving alone, I try to figure out who to call… what to say…

That evening, M and I stare at walls as our daughter bounces around our apartment in her usual state of evening coo-coo. We eat in silence, then M devours half of the cake without realizing what he’s doing. I start in with the only positive thing I can think of in this moment:

“At least it’s not triplets?”

*

The story continues… Part two is here.

Success! The musical

It’s been a while since I last wrote. I got a job. I promised myself that I wouldn’t stop writing weekly posts but it’s been six months and I didn’t write any. Not. A. Single. One.

I’ve learned that the few hours that go into a blog post aren’t really just a couple of hours: They are a couple of hours when I have already played with A, walked the dog, filled the prescriptions, made the appointments, found the gift, thawed the meat, and still have energy to spare. It is a few hours when the house is quiet and I have something intangible on my mind that I can almost put a finger on. It is a few hours when I feel clear enough to place one word after the next and hope, with trepidation, that some lift might happen to make those words worth sharing. For six months, I have not had any such hours.

Last summer the baby-wearing hike, nap/writing, dinner-making routine I enjoyed the year before gave way to nap jail from 11:30 – 3:30. The summer was a sunny one and I was the only fish-belly left in Juneau. And in the ongoing parenting battle, I was losing. After a particularly trying day, I took matters into my own hands. Universe, I said, I’m ready for a job.

*

I started small with house parties and potlucks: “I’m going to open myself up to a job,” I would say to anyone who would listen.

“What kind of job,” the people asked.

“Don’t know,” I would say. “I’m waiting to find out where Juneau needs me.”

Sure enough: Someone sent me a job announcement. I applied, and I got it.

Now I work at a non-profit full of amazing people. Things have been good. Since starting here, I’ve felt a sense of belonging; I’ve felt needed, and like I’m making a difference, and I’ve felt appreciated. Being in a new field has brought words, books, and conversations I never knew existed. I’ve met people who will inspire me for the rest of my life.

Having arrived at this once vague and distant future where I am a working parent, things are not as I’d imagined. My job is harder than I thought it would be; and after paying for childcare and keeping the family in health insurance there isn’t much take home pay. I’m out of shape, and for the first time in my life I don’t go outside on a daily basis. I find myself wondering: Is this worth it?

The other night I dreamt of Success! The musical. Literally, those words were written in pink neon lights above this staircase where dancers were “climbing the ladder,” singing a chorus of resume building activities: Go to college, get a job, work real hard… over and over in three part harmony.

Thank you, dream brain, for leaving very little up to interpretation.

I’ve always thought that the only right way to success was to find a job that suited you well, devote yourself to it like a spouse, and go to it every day for twenty years. There would be rough times; ups and downs; but as long as you stayed in it the rewards would outweigh the sacrifices. That’s how these things work.

I’ve had plenty of interesting jobs, but nothing that rings of a profession. I’ve always thought that part if life was yet to come. I want this to be it.

But I’m struggling with the enormity of what making a difference actually means and I’m not sure I have what it takes. While I feel inspired by what a person might learn and accomplish in twenty years, I’m not sure I have inspiration enough to make it through next week.

This might look like a simple question of should I stay or should I go. But having invoked the Universe, having been placed clearly, squarely into my current situation, and having set an intention for the long haul actually leaves me with a crisis of faith.

Have you failed me, Universe? Have I failed you?

It doesn’t have to be this job, you kindly say. I know. Maybe I’m better suited for seasonal work. Or creative work. Or parenting.

It’s been a decade now since I started making all major decisions based on an intuitive sense of rightness – not choosing based on what makes sense, but on which choices drive a tingling up my spine or a sense of expansiveness in my heart. For the first time in a decade I feel uncertain about what I’ve gotten myself into.

For now I will do what I’ve learned to do in moments of existential anxiety: I refocus my view to see no farther than the end of my nose; I remember the reasons for the decisions that got me here; and I put one foot in front of the other.

Night-night horses

Last night around 10:30 pm, a small form catapulted into my bed. My back was turned, but six inches of mattress space remained, which A claimed for her own. Her battle cry: “Together!”

A has been transitioning into her own little bed. There have been growing pains. She recently started childcare and has held on to mama even a little more tightly this month than before. It’s most apparent at bedtime when my tired little squirrel thinks up more and more excuses why she should get to come back out and see me.

“Mama! Milk in a cup!”

Each time she toddles out I silently lead her back to bed and put her down. Until, that is, she pulls her trump card:

“Poop! Mama! Poopy diap!”

Ok. You got me.

I change her. Then she climbs the wall, stands on her head, takes any position other than “the right thing to do,” which is to lay down with her head on the pillow.

I’m starting to feel mad,” I say. “How do you feel?”

“Happy!” she says.”Gulagulagula Gulagulagula.”

Dear heart, how is it possible that you would rather be with mama, in any mood, than not with mama? How can you be happy while I am trying not to lose my $&@!?

Gulagulagula was part of A’s earliest vocabulary. I’ve heard this babble for a year but only recently realized its meaning. Oh yes. She says it when she’s happy to see me. Togethergethergethergether.

For a child who wants to sleep with mama (preferably wrapped around my neck), bedtime’s most desireable outcome is an extra hour (sometimes two) of undivided mama attention. It’s super fun. The infuriating part of putting A to bed is that other people can do it easily as long as I’m not around. Dad can do it. Grandma can do it. Our childcare provider, M, can do it.

Mom, of course, is wasting all of her ever-loving time. What do I wish I was doing? Sigh. Blogging. Reading. Resting. Talking to my husband. I heard (a few years ago) that I should see the HBO series Game of Thrones. Maybe someday.

For now, the blood vessel in my forehead will continue to bulge; because by this time my child, who lacked a sense of cause and effect to begin with, is over-tired and has completely lost her marbles.

Once the threads of the bedtime routine fabric start to unravel, there is no going back. I decided I needed an effective consequence for A’s getting out of bed so we can get her to sleep before it’s too late. On a recent trip back home A discovered these horses from my childhood:

In a flash of genius I tell her they are night-night horses, and they can only be played with in the little bed with her head on the pillow. Otherwise I take one away. Three chances; no more horses.

As you can see, they’re pretty cool and A really wanted to keep them. So it worked for like two nights.

What my plan lacked, obviously, was an end game. What happens when she’s lost all three horses? Mama has no choice but to go back in and wear A like a scarf.

I could blame myself for some of our badtime habits, but A came out of the chute this way. She spent her first night outside the womb in respiratory distress hooked up to the tubes and wires in the hospital’s mobile NICU bed. She breathed more regularly when my husband or I held her in our arms; so of course we spent all night with her. The second night she refused to sleep on her own so whole-heartedly that nurses offered to take shifts so I could sleep. I refused the help, unfortunately. After that, A pretty much had us pinned.

Baby A has a bad case of the mama’s (cue blues guitar solo), which means she gets extremely anxious at the prospect of not being with me; especially (???) for sleep. If she isn’t touching me, it’s as if I cease to be. Or something like that.

Clearly, something has to change. Perhaps a nice book could offer some advice? It seemed for a long time like if you didn’t cry-it-out (CIO) at five-months-old then there were no books. It’s as if the psychologists are saying, Sorry… Better luck with the next kid.

Then I read Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster W. Cline. I didn’t love it (or logic it?), but it has changed my parenting, which is huge.

The premise of the book is that obedience can be taught with choices instead of with fear tactics and threats. When behaviors arise, you give your kid the option to do the right thing or take a consequence.

Framed as a choice, and offered with empathy instead of anger, the child can’t really be mad at you about consequences. Smart.

When your child “chooses” the consequence, it’s given with empathy; as in, “I love to play with you. I’m sorry you can’t play nice right now because that means you have to take a time out.” The part I don’t like: it feels somewhat manipulative. The part I do like: It is non-threatening and so far seems to be effective.

So, here’s what I said:

“A, I love it when we’re together. But I need your help to make this a good night-night with no sillies and no crying. If we can’t solve it then we need to go to M’s house and ask her to put you to bed because I know you go to sleep really well with her. It’s your choice: help mom and solve sleep here or we have to get in the car. Your choice.”

She got really, really serious and went right to sleep 😴. Hopefully it will last for another night or two.

Photo by M. Ashby

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Karma bulldogs

This morning my daughter A makes up a little game. One dog food bowl has a little kibble left in it; the other a little water; so she dumps the food into the water, the sloppy wet kibble back into the other bowl, back and forth, to create a ticking time-bomb of a mess. I allow it for one simple reason: I am washing the dishes.

Sink empty, I take on A’s fall out. Wet kibble is harder to clean up than I thought it would be… still I’m feeling fine (I chose this after all). But A is unsatisfied by my contented mood. She looks at me sideways, picks up a bowl of yogurt and berries, and chucks it into the mix.

In a moment of surprising maturity, I look at this small human, who is both so adorable and so infuriating, and in a calm voice I say, “I’m starting to feel mad.”

I’ve been wanting to talk about difficult emotions (I’m a writer; that’s what we do). It was a toss up between anger and shame, but it looks like anger just won.

Photo by N. Hanson

I have tried to build skill around anger for as long as I can remember, but I never improved much until A came into my life. Guess I needed a 24:7 immersion to get enough practice.

Baby A inspires me to do better when it comes to emotional self-control, yet I still fall short sometimes (every day?). I want A to understand how to express her emotions authentically but also kindly. I want her to know it’s possible to resolve conflicts by talking and listening.

I want A to grow up in a peaceful home. I know a non-violent existence is possible even if I’m not there yet. I want to be it so that I can believe it; but also I want to teach my child what is possible through my own example. What is seen is so much more powerful than what is said.

I am always looking for some tip or trick to help me break that quick link between emotion and action, but if you offer Zen advice on how to handle anger skillfully then I automatically doubt you’ve ever experienced the real thing. In my mind your advice can’t be both useful and authentic.

How are any of us supposed to break in a gas-pedal moment well enough to respond instead of react? There is no time to count to five, find compassion, or breathe. Here’s some advice from one who knows anger: Get everyone out of the house. Leave the hard-drives and important documents.

If you want to save the world, it’s best to start with yourself. Maintaining enough perspective during the kibble incident that I actually 1. Remain calm, and 2. Use my words, makes me so proud of myself. It has taken more than a decade of hard work to arrive here. And I’m proud of A too. In response to my words, she lifts her hand, touches me on the face, and says, “Pat, pat, mama.”

Pat, pat is the gentle way I’ve taught A to touch living things. Friendly dogs like a pat, pat. Plants, too, get a pat, pat. Apparently, so do angry mamas.

We laugh. Seas dissipate. Clouds part. Birds sing. At 3′ tall and just shy of 30 lbs, my daughter knows more about how to push my buttons than anyone. But she also knows more than anyone about how to help me feel better.

Just as a parent shapes a child, a child also shapes her parents. Kids are karma bulldogs who lead us down life’s path on short, taut leashes. If you seek patience, you will get a trying child, and thereby you will learn patience. If you seek self-containment, your child will make you an island. If you seek inspiration, you will get a child who makes your heart sing. My child does all of these things for me.

My old habit in handling anger was to get quieter and say nothing until I became mad enough to shut down the party. I had this secret (as in unconscious) three-strikes system: Cross me once, and you will never know it. Cross me twice, and I will maintain. But cross me a third time and I blow like Kilauea.

In a recent moment, my husband was the victim of my ‘three strikes’ system. When I blew, my reaction seemed to come out of nowhere. What he said, with confusion on his face, was: “But you can be so nice sometimes!”

Staying quiet during the initial phase of my anger does my family a disservice. No one ever tried to help me calm down because no one knew I was mad. How could they? They never even saw it coming.

Letting my family know how I feel gives loved ones an opportunity to change course or to help me change course. Also, the use of “I feel” words integrates strong emotions from the limbic brain – a place of instinct and quick decision making – through the rational prefrontal cortex to a more empathetic and reasonable place.

I watch my behavior and try to understand what keeps me coming back to anger. Here’s what I see:

There exists an illusion that anger is useful in regaining order amidst chaos. When rage monster appears in a room, everyone stops and does whatever they can to get her to go away again. When it’s all too much, there’s always the option to go ballistic and bring people back under order.

Anger is effective, but it’s not very nice. Anger justifies itself, claiming you are the only rational person in the room. But really, people appease you because they are afraid or think you’re nuts.

I am looking for a middle way. So, I’ve decided to keep this little phrase: I’m starting to feel mad. I say these words at the first hint of a spark; long before the inner Kilauea starts to boil and all the good people should run for cover. I say these words for my husband, my toddler, or for myself if no one is around. Before the dark cloud moves in solidly over my face, before I yell or threaten, I say these words, and we are all spared.

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Can we find joy?

When you were a child, did you have some special place in nature? I was lucky enough to grow up at the edge of the big city, and my place in nature was a patch of woods in my backyard.

I built a fort there with my sister and our neighbors in the alders. The branches drooped from our climbing them to form a sort of roof. We tunneled under those long, scraggly limbs, swept out the leaves, put pine cones up in the larder, and built ourselves a happy home.

Being outside has always been when I feel the most free and most essentially myself. When I sink back into those first experiences of the natural world, the feeling I remember is of pure joy.

Lately climate change is threatening that joy. If we continue with business as usual the planet will be ice free by the year 2100. By that time, there may be 10 billion people on the planet. Florida will be underwater, and the largest animal on earth will be the cow.

In 2100, my daughter will turn 73. Anticipating this inevitable crowding, temperature rise, loss of biodiversity, and struggle for resources has me worried. How can we expect life to carry any quality under those conditions? This is not the world I would choose to leave for my child.

Changes are already happening. In Juneau, Alaska, where I live, the snow melted out of the mountains in May this year. There was no frost over Memorial Day weekend to take out the zucchini plants of over-zealous gardeners; meaning that our growing season is suddenly extended by almost a full month. Fields of wildflowers bloomed in the first week of June instead of over the Summer Solstice. Before the first of July we saw 85-degree temperatures, ripe salmonberries, and the tall, blooming fireweed that used to signify the end of summer rather than the beginning.

The ocean is warmer too, and the waters are less nutrient-rich, meaning there is less out there to eat. For five years the humpback whales in Glacier Bay National Park have been in a steep decline and last year they had a total reproductive failure. King salmon returns to Southeast Alaska in 2018 were the lowest we’ve seen in 50 years of record keeping.

I don’t think people are drawing enough meaning from these observations. They are not separate issues; they are distinct symptoms of the same illness. Even with so many warning signs, I’m afraid the end of life as we know it is going to catch us by surprise.

Again, I shake it off. Bad situations always get worse before they get better; the downward spiral is a kind of progress. Pain pushes until a system breaks, and then we find a new way forward.

Climate change is especially scary for parents; because our peace of mind depends on world that will maintain a friendly, habitable surface beyond our natural lifespans.

I hear some friends saying they don’t want to have kids because of climate change. I’m not sure exactly why; maybe these sensitive people intend to slow emissions by limiting population growth by one human at a time. Maybe the idea that children will inherit our ecological damage seems too unfair. Perhaps they know parenthood would increase their worry and suffering. Maybe it’s a combination of all of these reasons.

If you don’t want kids, then don’t have them. They disappear your free time, rub avocado on anything, and sixteen years later inevitably scream, “I hate you!” into your face. Bringing a new life into the world is a contract that should not be entered into lightly.

But don’t opt out of parenting for the sake of the planet. Only when we are whole, when we stay human, will we do our best work. Let kids inspire you to live with your eyes open, and find joy, no matter how small, in every day. Fear of the future isn’t reason enough to miss out on your life.

Five years ago I saw climate change ramping up, and my need for a baby only intensified. Kids drive my commitment to talk about this thing and prioritize solutions whatever the cost. Before I became a parent, I might have gotten tired and stuck my head in the sand. But now, I can’t. With my daughter as my muse the burden of this work feels more serious, but also somehow lighter.

In Parenting from the Inside Out, Dr. Daniel Siegel writes: “Enjoying your child and sharing in the awe of discovering what it means to be alive, to be a person in a wondrous world, is crucial for the development of your child’s positive sense of self.” I feel this intuitively: That the play and fun threatened by anxiety are the very resources we need to get all of us through the climate crisis.

I have an awesome memory of being nine, sitting on the tarmac in Anchorage waiting to fly to California with my mom and younger sister, and the three of us singing “I’m so excited! And I just can’t hide it! I’m about to lose control and I think I like it!”

Flying standby, all of us in dresses, and waiting for our red-eye to take off, we serenaded our airplane. Can you imagine this happening today? Of course not. But maybe that’s because you haven’t met my mom. My mom is a master of spontaneous fun, and she does not embarrass easily. A silly childhood is a gift my mom gave me.

Sometimes this kind of fun is an effort for me. But it’s getting easier. Because of my child, I have memorized lyrics from the Moana soundtrack. Because of her, my husband goes to the swimming pool and does handstands underwater with a goofy grin in his face. Because of her, Grandma goes down slides saying, “Wheeee!” and makes herself sick on meri-go-rounds.

I would like to say I am giving this gift to my daughter but actually the reverse is true. In wanting my daughter to be proactive and resilient, I too am becoming proactive and resilient. Thank you, A, for bringing silly back.

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I went to Anchorage this summer and got to take A and my nephew B back to that little patch of woods behind my parents’ house where I used to play.

The backyard is not the same. It is cleaner now; with more light and fewer mosquitoes. The alders fell down and my parents cleared the brush. It is better in many ways, but I can’t help feeling nostalgic.

How many of us have returned to our special childhood place and found it changed? Or maybe the land you love hasn’t suffered anything extreme, but it looks different when seen through an adult lens. Can adults return to changed natural places and also find joy? I don’t know how to, but we have to try. Otherwise, we will only hurt ourselves and our children.

There are days when I don’t know how I will cope; when a tightness grabs ahold of my throat, and I focus too hard on the constant flow of traffic. I miss the way things used to be; but playing with A helps me to accept changes in the natural world and feel grateful for what beauty remains.

I would have liked to see the American West when bison roamed the eastern slope of the Colorado Rockies. I wish I could have rode over the Sierra Nevada to find a raw California coast glittering in the sunlight. I would like to have seen an un-dammed Columbia River teaming with salmon spill over a wetland full of nesting birds.

But my life would not have been better for it. Every generation has feared for their childrens’ future. We stand at an extreme and important moment in Earth’s history, but the emotional stress we feel as parents at this time may be less unique than we think. It is hard to know what matters except in hindsight.

In sad moments I take a hard look around my city. I find beauty in the architecture; in the intentions of city planners and their vision for the future. I do my best to focus on the ways things are improving. Sometimes, all we can do is accept the times we live in.

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There is a lot of beauty still in the world, and it deserves to be celebrated: For our kids’ sake and for our own. Returning to my childhood backyard is difficult for me because I know how it used to be and I see the changes. But through my daughter’s eyes, nothing has been lost. Perhaps one day she too will rake the leaves, gather pine cones, and feel that same joy as I once found there.

As we bravely step forward and raise the climate change generation we will help our kids through uncharted environmental disasters and emotional challenges. Despite the uncertainties, it is we adults who will miss the most. This gives me some comfort. Shifting baselines are the blessing curse of passing generations.

I believe, whole-heartedly that my daughter will have a good life as long as I teach her to appreciate the world for what it is and not for what it used to be. I’m not saying it will be easy; I’m saying I have to try. I don’t know if we can find joy in this world, but I know kids help joy to find us.

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Thanks C & M for the good conversations that led to this post.

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