Deluge

Early December brought a downpour to Southeast Alaska that the National Weather Service described as a 1-in-200 year event. Twelve communities were affected in all. Haines suffered the most extreme damages with 6.62 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. There were landslides, sinkholes, roads washed out, loss of nine homes, dozens of people displaced, and two fatalities.

The rest of our communities hardly make news. It’s rain, after all. Y’all are used to that, right?

I’ve never experienced anything like it. On the second day, flooding begins. Gustavus gets almost 4 inches of rain; just under the 24-hour record set in October of 1994. Eleven inches fall in the City of Pelican in 48 hours. Eleven. Southern California is lucky to get that much rain in a year.

For these two communities, last month was the rainiest December on record and second only to October of 1978 for the rainiest month of all time.

My neighborhood loses power in the late morning. Someone from the utility company stops by all of our homes to explain that a transformer is underwater. They are waiting to see what additional flooding the high tide will bring. “Hopefully power will be back on tomorrow,” he says.

I love a good power outage. When I was a kid we lost power to wind storms all the time. Mom would get the kitchen glowing with kerosene lanterns and warm us with the blue flames of our gas-powered stove. It felt very pioneer. We ate cereal and listened to AM radio. Gusts to 60 mph. French toast sticks for school lunch. We suited up into snow pants and jackets and went to the bus stop. No big deal.

Fast-forward thirty years and I feel dramatically under prepared. My husband is in Juneau. I have a range top and a wood stove, but no heater and no oven. Without the booster I can’t text or make calls. We have water in the reserve tank but it will run out soon.

First things first. I make a batch of play-dough and dig through the Christmas decorations to find two LED candles and enough AAA batteries to power them.

I place one of the candles on Avery’s nightstand as I tuck her in at naptime. “This is your candle,” I say. “Keep it with you until the sun comes up tomorrow.”

During her nap I prepare for nightfall. I mix a quick soup, put out oil and popcorn, place an empty bucket under the downspout, scoot living room furniture aside to create a sleepover scene, prep the laptop and DVD, and gather thematic books.

Avery wakes up and walks out in her light shoes click, click, click. Pink and purple fireworks with every step. She is carrying her candle. “Mama?” she asks. “It’s 6 p.m.?”

She wants to know if it’s time for the episodes she watches in the evening while I put the brothers to bed. “Not yet,” I say, and we read Dinosaurs before dark by faux candlelight.

My ability to slap a silly solution on a somewhat serious situation is my strength as well as my weakness. Maybe I should dig deeper, plan harder, think bigger; but that’s not where my brain goes. If the kids are safe and happy, if I can manage to make this into another one of our adventures, then that’s good enough for me.

It’s time to drive into cell-signal land and call daddy. I load the kids into our old truck and brave the flooded driveway.

Photo by S. Neilson

I dial my husband from the library parking lot. For a few minutes everyone is copacetic but then Toren starts in with his metal-on-metal scream. My husband is irritated. “Why don’t you call me back when everyone is settled?” he asks.

I get out of the truck to tell him how it really is. That making this phone call took a journey. That all I’ve got to get us through the night is popcorn and light shoes.

Covid-19 makes this strange storm even stranger. At another time people would be visiting, playing games, and waiting together for the weather to clear. But for the millionth time this year, there is nowhere to go. So we go home.

All of us are dealing with multiple stressors: People have too much work or too little work; too much time or too little time; anxiety or boredom; friends or family. We have nothing left to give, but keep giving anyway. We get out of bed in the morning, get along with others, pay the bills, get some sleep, and do it all again tomorrow. It’s not our best work but it will have to do. We forgive ourselves. We call it giving ourselves grace.

This endless rain at the end of an endlessly rainy year taxes whatever stamina remains. I wonder what kind of resiliency I have left. Six p.m. finally comes. With Avery plugged in and the brothers asleep, I sit down to eat soup and reevaluate. A generator, I think. Tomorrow I will find a generator.

Just then, a neighbor rolls up with venison steak, fun lights, and a generator. Turns out my husband made a few calls of his own, and Covid-19 doesn’t stop everyone.

Photo by S. Neilson

Sometimes we have what we need; other times we don’t. Maybe resilience lives in the community collective: A place where even when people are tired, someone has the energy to make a difference, knows what to give, has the right thing to give, and the truck to get it there.

*

The evening begins anew. We eat and play. I run the generator for a bit of light and comfort before turning in. “You might hear me up in the night,” I tell Avery. “I’m adding wood to the fire. Call Coo-ee! and I’ll come tuck you again.”

The pounding rain keeps me awake. I remember another time, far from this life, when I pretended the wind rattling my metal roof was the Southeast rain and let it lull me to sleep. This is not that rain. For the first time, I wonder what constitutes a monsoon.

Daylight makes everything better. I pack everyone up and drive to a friend’s home where I sit on a couch, drink tea, and feel normal. People joke about their new lake-front property. The power comes back on.

But the rain continues. After three days the volume drops to a normal sort of torrential angle-rain that continues through days four and five. On day six my friend H texts me: How is it still raining?

After a week, the sun comes back out. My husband flys home. We cut a Christmas tree. I ignore the wet things haunting my crawlspace. M spends three days evicting voles from our garage.

The New Year offers an opportunity to exhale and celebrate all that we have come through. With the last full moon of 2020, I spend a quiet moment letting the past year go and making room for the year to come.

Resilience sometimes shows up as a reserve: A full tank of gas. Love handles. Money in the bank. Good health. People who pick up when you call. A shiny new degree. An adequate resume. A reliable vehicle. The padding we hold onto for tough times.

But rather than a fullness, resilience might be a space. A capacity for looking ahead to a challenge and wondering, How might this change me for the better? In lean times a reserve can be exhausted. But a space can grow and deepen forever.

I talked with a friend in Haines today who parents an almost 2-year-old from before sun-up to long after sun-down. He is also remodeling a kitchen, emotionally supporting his partner who is a pandemic-era medical professional, repairing his home after national disaster-level flooding, and with each day addressing that relentless question, What’s for dinner?

“It feels like a little too much,” he says.

Yet I know this man to be highly resilient. Even under stress, he loves. He knows his gifts and gives of them generously. He cultivates an attitude of gratitude. Kindness is a prerequisite. Play is a priority. He lives by values, rather than resolutions.

Resiliency requires imagination. It says we must not expect life to behave predictably and we must not despair when everything crumbles. There is always a new chapter waiting; another chance to rise from the ashes. What is the point of living as less than we are?

On the brink of a new tomorrow, resilience is resisting the urge to rush back to the safety of everything you’ve ever known. It is singing our sorrows with lifted voices; even if we can’t carry a tune. It is the courage to look out over the edge, and fly.

Thrill of the wild

Last weekend Avery and I (and the brothers in their cart) walked to a beach not far from our house to look for animal tracks.

This beach is part of a wildlife corridor that connects disparate sections of Glacier Bay National Park. Animals use this land, and sometimes my driveway, as part of their route across the forelands.

It is a perfect environment for teaching natural history. We find coyote, wolf, brown bear, and moose prints. Once Avery can identify all of them I play a trick. I find the tire track from the chariot and I ask, “What kind of track is this?”

“Baby snake?” she asks.

Well, almost all of them.

*

Alaska: The Last Frontier. The last place where a parent might worry more about their child’s exposure to brown bears than to creepers, gang violence, and guns. I’m proud, but petrified.

Avery walks next to the bear tracks and I calmly take pictures. The only time I’ve ever had trouble with a bear was while fishing. Still, I make sure these footprints lead away from where we are playing, and take the safety off of the can of bear spray in my pocket.

I don’t want fear to ruin our fun. More people in the United States are crushed by vending machines every year than are attacked by bears. There are, however, a lot more bears out here than vending machines.

Where we live it’s sort of uncool to be afraid of bears, but I am. I think back to time off I had in past summers when I canceled planned kayaking trips because I had no one to go with. It’s a shame. Every day that I am out feels precious now.

On the way back I start a game: “Hey Avery… How do we get back to our house? Can you find the way we came?”

My usually independent and brave little girl crumbles. “We are lost!” she cries. “We will never find our way home!”

I pull her close. “Aves,” I say. “Mama knows the way. Your mama is an excellent route finder, and we are not lost. I’m playing a game so that I can teach you to be safe out here. You’re just a little kid now, but you can learn. And when you are a big kid, you can come out here with your friends.”

I can hardly believe my own ears. She can? At what age? And with whom? Will I really let her do that?

Of course I will.

Fear can keep us safe but it can also prevent us from getting outside. If I know anything about my kid then she will grow into a teen who needs a little danger. There are only so many opportunities for adventure and I’d rather not instill too much fear of the wilds in her.

At the end of our driveway, you can turn right and head out to a wild and remote stretch of Alaska’s coast. A kid with a pair of boots can muck up and down a number of sloughs and across tidal flats. A few years later, that kid might get in a kayak and paddle a short distance to watch deer or wolves on an adjacent island. Maybe she hikes in a bit from there to discover a one-thousand-year-old Sitka Spruce; or paddles around to the back of that island to explore a reef covered in anemones and sea stars.

Avery will also have the choice, at the end of our driveway, to turn left. Around the same age, on foot or by bicycle, she will head into our small town. There she will find a school, post office, cafe, grocery store, gas station, and opportunities for a different sort of trouble and adventure. It could be a metaphor, but it’s not.

So I take her to the beach.

Today she discovers mildly-colored goose feathers (not poisonous, she tells me) and baby strawberry plants growing from burgeoning soil. She finds chunks of driftwood left from trees plowed down three-hundred years ago by the oncoming glaciers of the Little Ice Age and loads them into our cart. Without explanation, she intuits that they are special.

When the time comes for my girl to head out into the world on her own, she will go. I do not expect her to be one who waits. Already, she watches the big kids who arrive at school and walk up to the door on their own.

“Me go by myself?” she asks, eagerly unfastening her carseat buckles.

“No,” I say. “Mama’s not ready.”

*

I was lucky enough as a teen to have friends who took me to the wild places. We could ran through passes and over peaks. We belly-slid on the mudflats and did a lot of high-risk sledding. We snuck out once and picked blueberries by headlamp.

Our mischief also took us into town: We found streets that reflected our names and stole the signs. We toilet papered a covered bridge that led into a new subdivision with cookie-cutter houses. We borrowed a paddle boat from a lake house and played on the water until 2 am. We used road construction equipment to rerout traffic past a friend’s house. Twice we were chased by cops but they didn’t catch us.

As Avery grows, I hope she knows the thrill of the wild. I hope she recognizes fear for what it is; learns when to trust it and when to ignore it. I want her comfortable and clear-headed so that she makes it home again. I hope she experiences everything.

Please let her turn right.

*

Letting go

Since I was away from Southeast Alaska for the summer I am still able to enjoy the rainy weather. On most days I take the babies on a walk right after I drop Avery off at school, but today is torrential; we will stay in.

I set the brothers up in front of the fire hoping they will fall asleep in their bouncy chairs if I steam them slightly.

I’m happy to be at home with kids again; even if I am limited to breakfast cereals that benefit from a lot of soaking. The brothers are almost four months old. I can’t believe how much time has passed, and how little time has passed.

So much is different about this round of babies. I wore Avery constantly but I’m forever setting the brothers down; trying to rest my back or catch a minute.

When Eirik is fed and dry but not quite tired I can set him up with a game of red bird (stare and smile at the red bird) or ceiling fan (stare and smile at the ceiling fan). Left to himself in the bouncy chair, Toren just screams.

Toren prefers a playmate and often skips his afternoon nap to get one-on-one time with mom. We play a game called, Hello! Hi! I start by saying, “Hello! Hi!” and he returns my sounds and smiles. We also like A-Goo! (similar rules). Sometimes he likes to mix it up: “A-WOOO!”

*

They are asleep. I cook and do exercises to draw my abdominal muscles back together. I write every day but I rarely post. My thoughts link to everything and nothing and fill my drafts folder with frazzled half-sentences. Somewhere in here there is a theme…

It has been a hard year, this 2020. Political strife in my country and a pandemic. Some doors are closed right now: Productivity. Time with friends. Travel. But doors are also opening.

A woman in the white house.

What is this year driving me toward? I move into marriage and family. Into patience. Into risk and fearlessness. Into becoming more and more myself. Into this work that is always just beginning.

*

I belong to a generation of women who grew up with the impression that we could do it all: kids and career. I have not quite found that to be true. It is at least impractical to do both at the same time.

I have a theory that, if we dig deep, what we first “wanted to be when we grew up” manifests in adulthood. I spent my free time in elementary school writing and illustrating stories and making covers from wallpaper scraps. I wanted to be an artist.

For a few adult winters, back before kids, I spent rainy days like this playing guitar and writing essays; being time rich. I thought a winter was all I needed to record an album or write a novel. I learned that good art isn’t made by people sitting around with a whole bunch of time.

When I was home with Avery, unsatisfied career goals rolled around in my brain like cobbles in a colander. The less I worked the wilder they got: I’d like to publish a book. Or become a state senator. Either. I’m just doing all of this laundry for now.

I once told M about this problem. “Turn it over,” he said. “Dump it out.”

Good thing someone in the family knows how to run a colander.

*

I fall into this myth that one day I will make some thing and feel successful, but creativity is not something we arrive into. It is an infinite and iterative process.

I spend all day narrating in my head and find shards of time to write things down. The squeeze of family life limits me but also inspires me. I have plenty of material. Keep going. Life is stressful enough without being a writer who doesn’t write.

I keep a file called “scraps” for bits of text that don’t make the cut into a final post. I found this from when Avery was small: After more than a decade of wanting baby A, I have her now. But there’s no relief from wanting because my mind stuffs that space full of unrealistic goals…

In this, the twins have been freeing. With one baby my ambitions were just out of arms reach. Now they are so far gone I’d have to be out of my mind to stay bogged down by them. And with three kids I’m so busy that I no longer question my value in my family. Mama is a key player.

Family is not a sure bet either; but at least these people exist outside of my heart and imagination. I will make things because I like to but I won’t feel bad about the things I haven’t made anymore. I am letting go.

*

Going home

All of my babies are sleeping and so too should I be. Instead I am wondering why we let this apartment run out of chocolate and eating coconut cream straight from the can. Hopefully, I will also write a little.

Yesterday my husband and I made it, be-masked, through the airport with one preschooler, two infants, and nine items of luggage; including three giant totes, three carseats, a moving box, a duffel, and an arthritic dog in kennel. The Alaska airlines agent kindly let Talus fly on an expired vet certificate (the date on which I attempted to forge). Things could’ve gone worse.

One leg of travel down, one more to go. We will spend three nights in our Juneau apartment and then hop a ferry home to our little town in the rainforest. The interim holds two days of doctors, dentists, and the DMV. With all of my babies in tow, I will catch up on everything I put off since the beginning of COVID-19 and begin to learn what my new life holds.

It is my first night and day of parenting without grandma, grandpa, auntie, and cousins to help things flow smoothly. Avery and my husband are closed off behind a curtain in the bedroom we’ve always shared. I sleep on our fold-out couch in the living room with the boys next to me in a pack and play. Apologies to every guest who has ever slept on this thing. You are all very, very good sports.

This rental is small, and if one person in our family is awake then everyone is pretty much awake. We are up early.

After the morning circus of nursing and diaper changes I haul the boys in their carseats up sixty stairs to our parked car. The walkway is too narrow for me to take it head on so I do a side-winding shuffle with the carseats bump-bump- bumping all the way up. While I’m away Avery puts on her clothes, rain suit, and boots as instructed and is ready to go when I come back down. Love this girl.

I’ve had enough support that much of #twinlife + #covidlife remains to be figured out. What I know, is that I will wear this ergo baby carrier from sun-up to sundown.I need a safe place to set a baby available at all times. My backpack must hold water, snacks, diapers, clothing changes, and raingear and must never be more than an arms reach away. Also, it is possible to do almost anything one-handed.

Today, I wrack my brain for a fun thing to do and end up taking everyone to Whale Beach Park. I still haven’t figured out the attachments for my double stroller, or how to take everyone for a walk, but this place is compact enough that Avery can bike around on the concrete pad, and I can wear one baby while the other baby sleeps in the car. I’m shooting for possible, not optimal.

Things I don’t yet understand include what to do with Avery on rainy days, what to ask for when neighbors offer help, and how to make a phone call without everyone falling apart. September will be a month for learning.

*

The lamb and the lion

Like a character from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toren Ambrose was born on July 29, 2020 with his eyes open, giving the impression of one who is patient, thoughtful, and cautiously optimistic. His water had been broken ten hours prior and, as the finale to a long induction and longer pregnancy, he waited in the birth canal for two hours before my epidural faded enough for me to push him out.

Twenty minutes later, Eirik Axel came into the world red-faced and roaring. It was his privilege to wait out the entire labor with his water still in-tact. I offered him a breast before he was cleaned off or the cord was cut, and he took it.

I wouldn’t hear Toren cry for a week. At 6 lbs 5 oz, he was a full pound-and-a-half smaller than his brother. Big for a twin, it was two hours before a nurse noticed that he was small for a full-term baby and sent him to NICU.

Eirik and I were moved upstairs to the mother-baby recovery ward. At 7 lbs 9 oz, he was larger than our singleton and came with all of the upgrades: chubby cheeks, a full head of hair, eyelashes. I spent the next two sleepless days nursing him, charmed by him.

I made the trip down to see Toren for about 90 minutes at the beginning of each day and again at the end. A major design flaw of this hospital is that NICU is too far from mother-baby for a woman who has just given birth to walk there. On the first day a nurse pushed me down in a wheelchair. The next day I went on my own, pushing the wheelchair like a walker.

Toren had an IV with a glucose drip and later a feeding tube by which a nurse put 50 mL of milk through his nose and into his stomach every three hours. I held him and tried not to upset his tubes and wires. When offered the breast, he would smile at my nipple and fall asleep with it in his eye.

I did not spend enough time with Toren in those first days. The constant revolving door of nurses and doctors kept me busy upstairs. I was too hungry to be gone from my room (access to food delivery) for very long. And caring for my lion, being tangibly needed by him, felt more pressing than the needs of my lamb. My main expression of love for Toren in those first days was pumping. In training my body to provide milk for two babies instead of one, I pumped my breasts eight times a day. Whenever I fed Eirik, I pumped for Toren.

My husband, M, became the short-term NICU super-dad. He attended Toren’s feedings and came up with goals for him. He got to know the nurses and talked with them about how to get Toren out of there.

Eirik and I were discharged on a Friday. After three sleepless nights in the hospital, our family decided to go home to our daughter and a real bed rather than room in with Toren on a fold-out couch. Covid-19 restrictions meant that Eirik would not be allowed to return to the hospital once we left. M would likely continue on as Toren’s primary parent until his discharge. We didn’t think it would take very long.

Our family visited the NICU on our way out to tell him goodbye. We kept it short. It was evening, and I pretended we were going back up to our room to sleep instead of driving to a home 20 minutes away. Love you, Toren. See you in the morning.

Walking out of the hospital with one twin was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. M stayed behind for a few minutes to talk to a nurse while I pushed the cart of our belongings out to the curb. Eirik, in his carseat, was perched on top.

As I walked through the lobby, stranger after stranger turned a masked face up to offer me heart-felt congratulations. This was not your standard new baby well-wishing: At one point they almost broke into spontaneous applause. I felt sad, private, and confused by the happy attention. Finally I realized: I was leaving NICU with a baby. It’s kind of a big deal. How could I tell them? This is not what you think it is.

The next day Toren had a nurse named Steve who was our game changer. ”This kid doesn’t belong in NICU,” he told my husband. Steve pulled the feeding tube and got Toren’s required feedings reduced to 30 mL every three hours. As long as Toren could keep up with those quantities, maybe he could go. M sat with Toren swaddled against his arm and patiently bottle-fed him. Steve worked down the NICU discharge checklist; including having Toren sit for 90 minutes in a carseat. Thanks, Steve.

In the morning a doctor called and said we could come get our boy. He was five days old. By day 10 he was entirely breast fed. By day 14 he had gained more weight than Eirik. Today is day 50 and you would never know he had a rough start at all. How did the birth go? you ask. Everything went great.

*

Still waiting

We’re getting a lot of calls on the home front: “What’s the news?” “Any action?”

Nope. Still pregnant.

Early on it seemed like everyone in my family had a bet to place: Birthdates were chosen to reflect favorite numbers, national holidays, and lunar phases. All of those dates have come and gone.

Twins have a tendency to come early, and everything in my third trimester gave me Braxton Hicks contractions. A month ago I stopped going for walks, sweeping floors, and lifting my 30-lb daughter and took to doing a lot of back-porch sittin’. My tan this summer rivals the one I had in the 1999 when I was fresh out of high school and working as a camp counselor. The comments made by my nurses about it are not meant as compliments, but I’ll take what I can get.

For the longest time I celebrated every week that the babies stayed inside. Thirty-three…. thirty-four…. thirty-five…. I crested up to the top of the gestational curve with cramping and diarrhea at 36 weeks and felt sure they were on their way. I became unable to tolerate heat, noise, or human company. All I wanted was to sit alone in the darkened basement and watch Netflix: A sure sign of impending labor.

Then, un-ceremoniously, all pre-labor symptoms quit. Two uneventful weeks have since passed; the only change being that my once large but taught belly has started to droop like an anemone left hanging too long at low tide.

Twins are funny; they are premature right up until they are overdue. The modern standard is to induce during week 37 when babies are barely full term but before complications arise. Fortunately, the only complication I have is my feet, which have swelled to resemble a mantee’s flippers:

I find myself in territory that twin moms haven’t encountered for thirty years: Week 38 and counting. We’ve rounded over the top of the normal curve and are headed downward into highly unusual. My doctor is keeping a close eye on these babies with twice weekly heart rate monitoring (see above photo). Everyone is doing great.

So far I’ve fought hard to skip induction in favor of natural labor. I also don’t want to screw up their astrology: Cancer or Leo, kids? Which will it be?

*

Gift love

Sometimes love is easy; other times… not so easy. When love is easy it bubbles to the surface of our skin, comes out in words, touch, and little notes. We don’t have to think about it. When love does not come easily it can still be given consciously and with effort. This, is gift love.

This post has been in my drafts folder since A was small enough to nap on her dad’s body. The picture is out of date but I kept it anyway because I like the palpable familial love so visible in it. I like to see M’s eyes sparkle; and baby A in that purple dress with her one-year-old mowhawk before the sides of her hair had grown in. I love the moment when this picture was taken.

Gift love started as my way of thinking about how to reconcile daily grievances, make-up when the unthinkable just happened, and forgive when apologies have not necessarily been given. Anyone with a spouse will relate, but also anyone with any valued long-term relationship; be it with a parent, sibling, lover, child, or friend.

The first few years of parenting are hard on a marriage, and I’m not sure it gets any easier. Why are relationships so hard? Why is it that the people we love most have this endless potential to cause harm; to take the most tender parts of ourselves, twist them into something ugly, and fling it back into our faces?

Gift love, put simply, is empathy. It is meeting a person where they are and saying,”I see you.” In loving a person at their worst we invest in the parts of them that are soft, vulnerable, fragile, and help those parts to grow. To love a child is somehow easier than loving an adult, but it is the same. Each of us was once a child. Each of us started out as precious.

Gift love is the love we give even when we don’t feel like it. It is courage mustered in small moments when we want to roll away and offer our back, but instead roll to and bravely talk about how we feel. It is a love given humbly, in remembrance of the big picture, and to the people without whom we would be lost. When it all falls apart, someone has to start somewhere.

I wish there existed some rote method of reconciliation that everyone was trained in: Then we could just move through the process and get on with it. You speak, and I will listen. I speak, and you listen. We each apologize and take responsibility for harms caused. Forgiveness is complete. Once again, we feel safe and loved in each other’s presence and the relationship is whole. We part ways feeling right with the world.

What holds us back? Part of gift love for me is that I will only take your words 100% seriously when you are clear-headed, centered, and speaking from the most authentic core of your being. I picture a circle of emotions that each of us works with. All of the places we reach for in difficult moments are along the edge: ego, pride, anger, control, defense, greed. The center is where the heart is; the authentic place we speak from when we are feeling vulnerable but brave and can be proud of our words and actions. When we speak from this place it is easy to love ourselves and each other; and when the conversation is over we rest in the knowledge that we did our best.

What do we do with nasty things said in a heated moment? The things we can’t rescind or un-hear hold kernels of truth. Take them seriously and reflect; but at the end if the day, understand that my harsh words are more a reflection of how I am doing on this difficult journey than of how you are doing. Know that I will want a chance to make things right.

Relational stress is the worst for me; it hurts for years. On the receiving end of an ear-full I take your words pretty hard. Maybe I should see that you aren’t centered in your emotional circle and try not to take you so literally. Maybe, if I stay centered, I can resolve some piece of your suffering rather than adding to it.

I am trying out this idea of asking people to apologize. It’s awkward but if you need something, ask for it. If I didn’t believe in you, if I didn’t value our relationship and want it to continue, I wouldn’t bother. I would write you off as a lousy human and move on. Revealing my hurt, is me loving you. This too, is gift love.

As a person who messes up frequently, I have had lots of practice apologizing. I have no shame in righting my past wrongs. If I caused you harm then I was oblivious to your needs in that moment or not centered in my circle. I don’t feel a need to justify my past poor behaviors; so please, just ask. I will hear your words as a gift.

I want to be a refuge for my people; a place where you can come to be heard and understood. I look at myself and my husband in this picture and I see how our lives have become more stressful than they used to be. I see how needs now go unmet; his and mine. Still, on a good day, we make each other lunch. We hold hands and kiss before dinner every night. We prioritize time together on weekends during nap time. I see how these small efforts, made with great love, accumulative into the days of our life. Love given freely always comes back in some form.

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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!

***

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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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.