Boundaries

Lying in a yellow hammock with my golden-haired daughter, I read The Secret Life of Trees and watch the first leaves fall. It is the last warm day of summer. I would like to feel charmed but my squirrel will not sit still.

“What do you need? I ask. “Why are you so wiggly?”

“Mama, I need silly love,” she says.

Uh oh.

Silly love is Avery’s name for tactile, sensory affection. In manifests in her pressing her body against mine for all she’s worth. In one such moment she said, “Mama, I want to climb back inside your body.”

Avery’s need to give and receive love does not shame her. She’ll make you the craziest gift of post-it notes scribbled with stick figures and letters, wrap it in pipe cleaners and electrical tape, and offer it up with stars in her eyes. “I love you,” she says, pink glitter flowing forth. Hers is a love unafraid.

You know you are the object of Avery’s affection when every sentence serves as an excuse to say your name. “Heidi,” she says, “you know next summer when I turn five? I’m going to need a really big cake for more candles, Heidi. And purple roller skates, Heidi.”

Avery has two friends who also receive this special treatment. I fear the rejection she will eventually face; but that’s my baggage. As her mother, I for one will try to reflect Avery’s effusive brand of love to her.

Spinning-out-of-control happens when Avery needs affection, but also when she is tired and hungry, I’m busy with the brothers, she’s mad because I took away her butterfly wings (stop jumping off the couch!), or we are trying to leave the house.

It takes a few minutes before I recognize why the room is exploding into chaos. By that time Avery is running circles around Toren or chasing him until he falls over. She spins upward and outward, like the bubble gum she’s infatuated with, until she’s on the ceiling. Faster and faster; the bubble expands until she’s in trouble and it pops in a tantrum — hers or mine.

No words can calm her. I ask my friend T how to curb this energy; but I catch her in a moment of nostalgia. Her kids are bigger than mine, and they’ve moved on from wanting her in this I love you, I love you, I hurt you way. “Four year-olds are a more condensed, beautiful version of themselves,” she says. “It fades, somehow, as they grow.”

*

I always feel the need to interfere with silly love; so I don’t really know what Avery is driving towards. Back in the hammock, I wonder what will happen if I do nothing. The brothers are asleep and I have no pressing appointments. I pull the fabric around until we become two peas in a pod. We tickle and play. I am holding my thumb and index finger an inch apart and saying, ‘don’t squish the invisible man!’ in a silly voice when the licking begins.

It’s like a run-in with a puppy. “Blech!” I say. “I don’t like it!” She weighs less than 40 pounds but she is strong and seated on my chest. There isn’t much I can do.

Avery reveals possessive and jealous feelings with tension around her mouth. As a toddler she popped non-food items inside as a symbol of ownership. I would come to take something away, and in it went. Mine.

She is not going to stop. “I don’t like it when you do that!” I say. “I don’t like where this is going!”

I use the phrase I don’t like it when you do that to express any breach of boundaries. I learned it from a preschool teacher, and these words continue to blow my mind. Like, you can just say that?

Telling her how I feel maintains my integrity regardless of whether or not Avery stops. Her response doesn’t matter; in fact, I’m giving this to her. She stops when she’s ready. I am tired from laughing but no worse for the wear.

*

Since most people don’t like to be the object of an obsession, and because I would enjoy this mothering journey quite a bit more with 18” of personal space, Avery and I talk a lot about boundaries.

I worry that I might sound rude when I speak boundaries but I am learning to ignore those thoughts. Polite, direct communication benefits everyone. If you or your child is the subject of a boundary that I am protecting, please recognize that I would also protect your boundaries if you ever needed me to.

I also acknowledge body language and other forms of non-verbal communication. A scrunch of the nose. A lift of the eyebrows. The babies offer ample opportunity for Avery to practice. “Did you see that?” I ask. “Toren moved away from you. He doesn’t like what you’re doing,” I say.

“But mom,” she says. “I love him.”

“I know, sweetie. But all you can do is offer an invitation. If he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t have to.”

Kids learn to respect boundaries by observing their parents’ boundaries. That’s why kids aren’t allowed on my lap while I’m eating. Unless holding that baby is the only foreseeable way for me to finish my meal. Then, by all means, climb aboard. And the babies stay in their cribs at night; unless I perceive, through blurry eyes, that my chances of a restful night’s sleep are better if they are in bed with me.

You see how things get squishy.

But clearly, I have boundaries. The other day I was on the toilet and nursing Eirik when I heard Avery say, “Mama? Can you help me with this zipper?”

Feeling generous, I invited her in. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll help.”

She was surprised, and a wee bit jealous, to see me sitting there with her baby brother, and she asked, “Mama, can I sit on your lap?”

“No,” I said. “You can’t.”

Real boundaries are easy for me to stick by; though not boundaries surrounded by any degree of idealism. For example, when we tried, briefly, to teach baby Avery to sleep on her own, my husband and I sat in the next room wringing our hands and watching timers while she cried. We decided it wasn’t worth it; and I unwittingly committed several hours a day, for the next two years, to getting her to sleep.

With the twins, mama ain’t got time for that. I’m not going to the brothers in the night and I hope for the love that they learn to link sleep cycles very soon. I don’t mind the crying because sound sleep is a necessary end goal. Mama at your beck-and-call is not a sustainable system for a house full of kids. Everyone’s got to do their part to make nighttime work. This shift in perspective makes the addition of twins easier than the addition of my first baby.

*

In the afternoon, Avery is playing in her little swimming pool when dad comes by. He has a net and starts to scoop out the leaves littering the water’s surface. “Dad,” she says, “please don’t do that while I’m in the pool.”

Mama is very impressed with her words.

But my husband, focused on the task, brushes aside her voice: “I’m just cleaning a little,” he says. Mama lowers her brow like a bull lowering its horns.

What should we do when our boundaries are expressed but not respected? I am trying to get more and more clear with my language as opposed to getting louder and louder (or quieter and quieter) with my voice. But it’s hard to do. I should coach Avery to continue the dialogue, but I also want her to know that mama got her back.

People need to learn that no means no and yes means yes. When kids say, “tickle me!” start and stop when they want you to. Lessons on body boundaries that we receive during childhood rough housing are carried with us into our adult sexuality. Let’s not confuse things.

“She asked you to stop,” I say, my voice rich with meaning. M nods, catching my drift, and leaves the leaves to float.

***

Mom slave

I can’t believe how trashed my house is lately. Before I had kids I remember visiting homes with a lot of children and being surprised that no one cleaned for my arrival. Now I know, they did.

My mom is an exemplary housekeeper. Her house is not clutter-free but it’s always clean. She takes ownership over the problem; takes charge. Not because the mess is hers, but because the home is hers.

It seems an important detail to me, though to no one else, that all that shit on the floor is on a relatively brief rotation. Those empty spaces were occupied only moments before. Toys. Clothes. Yesterday’s waffles. This is how we live.

Weekends are particularly nuts around here. Comically nuts. Tonight, I push the breakfast dishes towards the middle of the table to serve dinner.

Avery looks around the room and says, “You know grandma’s house? Grandma’s house is really clean, isn’t it?”

Child. I’m trying.

*

Hopefully you’ve got a good woman who keeps the home front chaos down to a reasonable roar. Cleaning is optional for men, but the state of a woman’s home reflects her value as a wife, mother, and human being. If a guy is a complete slob you can look the other way or make excuses for him. “Helluva guy,” you might say. “His wife could use a little help around the house though.”

I’ll be damned if I don’t do anything with my day but tidy up. I maintain a house that is only reasonably messy as a feminist ideal but I am my own worst critic. It’s not my mess; but somehow it is my mess. Expect me to be defensive.

My mind is wired in a relational way. I spend a lot of time helping kids work through needs and conflicts. When they are copacetic, I try very hard to stop cleaning so that play, adventure, and creativity happen. This is the scale I wish to be measured by.

I want my family to be involved with the housework. Avery and I made a chart of 10 chores that need to be done every day. Dishes. Laundry. Prepare food. Clear table. Feed dog. Tidy books. Shelve shoes. Make beds. Sweep. Pick up toys. In reality I do some of these things multiple times a day but once is enough to avoid a house of “sloven filth,” as my husband calls it.

Sloven filth reflects upon a woman’s character; never a man’s. It remains an unwritten rule that house cleaning must come first. You can teach the babies to speak Swahili, but if the kitchen floor remains unswept then nobody cares. I rail against this reality like a rebellious teen.

My husband does not understand. “If you would clean the kitchen,” he says, “things would be a lot less chaotic for you.” Every Saturday morning he makes the kitchen his project. He cleans (zero babies under foot) faster and better than I ever do. Then he lays down on the couch as if to say, “Did that. I’m done.”

My cleaning style is a tireless dance of shifting objects. Collect cups, place next to sink. Gather perishable food, place next to fridge. Remove dirty socks, toss toward hamper. Each time I step out onto the floor I aim to restore spaces to a more sane situation if never quite to sanity. I never lie on the couch. I am never done.

When a husband or grandma out-cleans me, I get depressed. Here I am trying to be a parenting slouch (ie. maintain boundaries or eat breakfast) only to have other well-meaning adults pick up the slack. It’s embarrassing. In your presence I have no choice but to rally or cease to function.

In my husband’s most recent tirade through the cabinets, he paused, seeing that I stacked some glass bowls and lids. “Tupperware looks good,” he said.

It was meant as a compliment. But I do not want to be celebrated for my victories over Tupperware. How about, “Really? Avery has stopped biting the brothers?” Or, “Wow! The babies are falling asleep on their own?” Or, “Everyone is still alive?!” Bravo!”

Yeah. I did that.

*

Can the kids help? If only my children would stop destroying the house while I clean; that would be a good start. I’ve been trying to teach the brothers not to pull books off the shelves. They persist, but now Eirik says, “stopstopstop” while he does it. Maybe that’s an improvement?

In cultures where kids do chores willingly, parents include toddlers in house work as they become interested. Toren is constantly in the dust pile or grabbing for the broom while I sweep. He climbs into the dishwasher but he also helps me to close it. I will encourage him.

Sometimes Avery gets invested in our chore chart, but she is more interested in doing laundry than anything else. Mistakes have been made, and I may have to play hardball.

In serious chore face-offs I tell my daughter , “I can’t help you until you help me.” This is extreme, but also effective. She will learn to pick up or wipe her own bottom. Either way, it’s a win for me.

This morning, Avery cuts a scrap of paper into smitherines. “You’re making a mess,” I say. “Stop and clean up, please.”

“No,” she says, confidently. “You can pick that up later when I’m at school.”

Right. But did you have to say it out loud?

*

Clean is ephemeral; mess is forever. Eternal tidiness models a reality where mom has nothing better to do than clean up after other people. The need is real, but the expectation is unreasonable.

Last night I dreamed that I had completed “warrior training” and was being driven somewhere for my final test. Imagine my surprise when we pulled up to… my own home. Inside, an army of people waited to capture me and “make me their slave”. I did not escape; but neither did I lose hope.

As a kid I had a friend with a lot of siblings and blessedly little supervision. The yard was a child’s fantasy world where a hose ran 365 days a year. All of the neighborhood kids hung out there. In summer we dug and filled swimming pools. In winter we used 5-gallon buckets to make ice blocks for igloos. We built a treehouse with real boards, nails, and hammers and never an adult anywhere.

Inside, gloppy peanut butter and jelly goobers covered the oak table and a blue macaw scattered sunflower seeds across the living room carpet. I wondered why their mom didn’t clean it up. I never thought that she did, or that maybe we kids, or her husband, should do some cleaning. You might as well have suggested that the parrot pick up after himself.

Mom jobs are often invisible. Patriarchal culture implies that they are also easy. When we can’t keep up, we are left to wonder what is wrong with us. Moms are shamed into accepting the never-ending chore vortex as our lot in life. We work harder, have less to show for it, and say nothing.

I have few memories of that neighbor mom when she wasn’t carrying a laundry basket. But once, I saw her on the couch reading a novel. I remember because I’d never seen a mom read before. She was up against an impossible task; but I hope that messy house was in part the result of a high-quality no on her part.

I will not be your mom slave.

If we want better for our daughters, we have to want better for ourselves. Don’t mother away your personhood. Resist. It’s hard to let the dishes sit and do a thing, but this poem by Tess Gallagher helps:

I Stop Writing the Poem

to fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I’m still a woman.
I’ll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I’ll get back
to the poem. I’ll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there’s a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it’s done.

*

Sleepy train

“Night night, Avery! It’s 8 p.m. and *yawn* I’m tired!” Please don’t keep me awake.”

“Okay, mama.” She tucks me in, patters off to her room, and then the bamming begins.

Avery’s bedtime has always been a nightmare. Last December I let go of my investment in her going to bed now for the sake of her going to bed at all. She stayed up for hours but at least I didn’t have to.

I struggle to bring up hard topics while they are still painfully unsolved but I hope this sleep issue is on it’s way to becoming past tense. There have been many chapters.

My husband commutes for days at a time; so when he is home I get to explain our bedtime routine, whatever the latest idea might be. “What is she doing in there?” he asked. “Rearranging furniture?”

Me: “Building furniture?”

My daughter and I have different priorities. Which is why the water in the half-bath adjacent to her room is turned off; and toilet paper, toothpaste, hand soap, scissors, and crayons are kept in locked cabinets. That’s right, those child safety locks are not only for cleaning products.

The next day, I asked: “Avery, what do you do during quiet time?”

“Just… nothing,” she said.

“I hear bamming. What are you doing in there?”

“I toss my baby in the air,” she said. “Sometimes I catch her; sometimes I don’t.”

*

I have invested thousands of hours in getting Avery to sleep. As a baby she would wake every 45 minutes unless we were touching. As soon as I got off the mattress her eyes snapped open; so I went to bed with her every night at seven.

Nothing improved as she got older. When she was two she started silly love, an infuriating boondoggle to any adult agenda. As I tried to tuck her in, she would put her head down and pike her bottom into the air; or roll over and over so the blanket wouldn’t stay in place. It never ended well.

Over the next year we tried everything: bedtime routines, charts, rewards, consequences, and punishments. Nothing worked. I figured she couldn’t act out without an audience; so I would leave. She freaked out and freaked out some more. Every failed bedtime left me asking: Harder? Or softer?

For a while I resorted to locking her in her room, which she naturally hated. Twice she managed to lock me in there, and I resolved never to do it again. Instead, I got her to stay by threatening to take the next day’s episode. That tactic worked; but it often ended with her standing in the doorway and screaming.

What to do? Beyond the purpose of getting my child to sleep, I want bedtime to be straight-forward, peaceful, and dare I say enjoyable. It happens every day, for God’s sake. At the very least it shouldn’t be traumatic.

*

Though I tried to pass the buck, Avery has never had a security blanket, favorite stuffy, or a pacifier to sleep with. She had me. I loved cosleeping for the first year. Now I would love to sleep together and hold her little foot sometimes, but I also dream of an evening hour to drink wine with my girlfriends.

Sound sleep is vital to a family’s health. Why does it have to be so hard? On one hand, a new parent is so tired and has little choice but to do whatever makes sense in the moment: Scoop that kid up, use the boobs, pull her into your bed. On the other hand, the big picture hand, you must find a way to ask more of your child. Hold the vision of her sleeping alone. Start leaning in that direction on day one.

If your baby falls asleep on the nipple, rock her to sleep in your arms instead. Work this idea until you can lay her down. Get that little bottom into a crib while still cradling her head in your hands. Perfect this dance while she is still small. If she insists on sleeping in full contact with your body, fine. But side-lie and inch her farther and farther away in those moments before she is asleep until she is only touching your pinky finger. Don’t do what I did and let her wrap herself around your neck and stay there. Once you give your child your body in sleep, she will never it let go.

*

When Avery turned two I started getting four-hour stretches of sleep in a row, and right away I was talking crazy about a second baby. Then I got twins.

I spent the summer of 2020 with my parents in Anchorage waiting to give birth to a pair of baby boys and teaching big sister to sleep by herself. My mom did the lion’s share of the work, and before our due date Avery was falling asleep in her own little room.

When we got back home to our Southeast Alaska town things got hard again, but a big shift happened when I changed from thinking Avery is being deliberately disobedient to supposing that this lousy excuse for sanity is the best she can do.

One night, as she spun out in the living room for the umpteenth time, I picked her up to carry her to bed as she wailed, “I am the baby! I am only a baby!”

Ahhh. Maybe the ‘be a big girl’ messaging wasn’t what she needed. I finally realized that the bedtime power struggle is designed to keep mama on lock down. It’s a fancy form of separation anxiety. I feel so foolish not to have understood earlier. Sometimes a three-and-a-half year old needs to know she is still little.

Our cosleeping is a result of separation anxiety, and the separation anxiety is a result of our cosleeping. This new light called for a change in tactic. I started to wonder: What if, instead of separating at night, we could all be headed to the same place? Like riding through our dreams on a sleepy train…

*

“Are you ready to ride?” I ask as we finish our books. “Where should we go tonight?”

“Antarctica!” she says. “Let’s visit the penguins!” Other popular destinations include under the ocean, outer space, California, and up north where the polar bears live.

“Sounds good. I’ll hop into my bed and meet you at the Imagination Station. Do you want to get on first and save us seats? Or should I do it?” I’m feeling encouraged. This is the first sleep solution that has worked longer than three nights.

“I’ll do it, mama. I’m sooo tired.”

We love working out the details of these train rides: Will dad already be riding when we get on? Friends from school? Grandma and Grandpa? The brothers? We think it’s funny if the babies get on first and save us seats. When this happens they have to crawl up an imaginary ramp all by themselves to get on the train, carrying tickets in their diapers.

“I don’t want to be late,” I say. “Here comes that shiny black engine number 58. It’s pulling all those passenger cars and a red caboose. It’s putting on the brakes to stop for us! See the sparks fly along the rails?”

I give her the colors , sounds, and smells of a train yard – an image of us all together – and she forgets to be afraid of our separation. “What will they serve for snacks tonight?” I ask.

“Milkshakes!” she says. “Strawberry, vanilla, or chocolate.”

“Chocolate for me, please. Put in the order and I’ll meet you at the station in a minute. I’ll be wearing a red parka.”

Before I go she touches my heart’s center with all five fingers. “Click click,” she says, and she twists her hand back and forth to connect our invisible strings.

“Thanks,” I say, doing the same thing to her. “That will help us find each other easily. Click click.” We got this idea from a childrens book: People who love each other have invisible strings running between their hearts; so no one is ever really alone.

“Can you feel my love?” I ask.

“Yes!” she says.

“What color is it?” I ask.

“Pink!” she says, snuggling down into the covers. She turns onto her left side and takes a few deep lion breath’s, and I know she is ready. I sing my way out of the room:

Here comes the train!

Chugaluging down the track;

Going, Chugaluga! Chugaluga!

Chugaluga! Chugaluga!

Chugaluga! Chugaluga!

Chooo! Chooo! Chooo!

*

What we pay attention to grows

Give me back my sock!

Give that sock back! Give it back nooooooeeeewwwwww! She is laughing, running around the bedroom, tossing this purple and black striped sock into the air. Is this why mama it’s always the last one dressed and out of the house?

Um, yes.

Chase, laugh, repeat. Just days ago I would’ve grabbed said sock and made sure we moved on in a timely fashion. But I have a new goal: Make Avery giggle every day and keep it going.

The figurative Puritan farm wife in me has never allowed for enough joy but my new goal is helping. Also this week: Airplane rides. Grandpa walks. Special Time and the The Don’t Do It game. I discover that I know a surprising number of silly songs about horses. Tickle chase in a grassy field substitutes for the workout I never seem to get.

Why would I ever shut this down?

*

Last week was rough. “Don’t wake the brothers,” I said as Avery climbed into the car after school.

Avery and I have been in a terrible cycle. She’s been aggressive towards the babies, seeking attention through negative behaviors, and generally wound up for months. If you say, One more time and I’ll... she’ll get right on that.

Ruptures within our family are never about one incident. Major conflicts fall on top of years of broken sleep and “normal” household chaos (this morning I found play dough smashed into the rug and half-eaten tomatoes in my daughter’s bed). Even if I maintain through offenses A, B, and C, there is no way I will make it through to X, Y, and Z. I have been mad, yelling, slinging consequences, and even spanking.

Already we suffered a string of conflicts this morning. If the babies stay asleep then Avery and I will get some desperately needed one-on-one time before her nap; but I am hoping for the impossible…

“Hi Eirik!” She yells into his face. Two little blue eyes blink open.

With three car seats across the back of my SUV, car time offers Avery unsupervised access to the babies that I find impossible to avoid. Eirik gets the worst of it. At times she has pressed a thumb into his fontanelle until he cried or finger-popped the side of his mouth and made him bleed.

“Hi Eirik!” she yells again, this time poking at his mouth. As she reaches for him now, I go ballistic.

*

I am a good parent; meaning I am committed to the process. Communicate well. Lead by example. Each of us takes responsibility for our role in a conflict. Focus on the beauty. I hold this vision for the long road and offer myself forgiveness in all the moments.

Every now and then I stumble upon a hard topic to write, which also means that I have to do it. This is that topic. Conflict within our family. My child’s overwhelming behavior. Trying to be on the same page as my spouse. The role I play in all of this. It might take a few posts.

At times, Avery’s love for the brothers recalls the curly-haired Animaniacs character Elmyra who gathers the animals into her arms, saying, “I will kiss you and love you and squeeze you all up!”

Parenting is insane and whoever says it gets easier is a filthy rotten liar. The twins get a lot of press, but what makes our family functional or fraught is Avery’s behavior. I wont divulge too much lest I shut down reproduction for the human race, but this list is a pretty good summary:

Avery isn’t a toddler anymore; but Preschooler = Toddler with more brain and muscle. Since I’m the one who’s talking people worry about me but that’s not the point. Please, pray for us all.

*

It’s sad what a big kid loses when she gains a sibling (or two). She had mama entirely to herself for three years and must now compete for my attention (aka take turns).

I remind myself that I am the guardian of Avery’s sense of security, and she expects me to model what reasonable interactions look like. I want to harness her “creatiful” energy for the greater good and find a way forward where I am not mad all the time.

Avery demanded the full hippie swim-up bar until she was two-and-a-half. Watching two babies tethered to my boobs is too much for her to take. If I don’t want a baby at each breast and a jealous kid wrapped around my neck then I nurse in my bedroom.

While I hide behind a locked door, Avery finds outlets for her angst: Sewing needles scattered across the floor. A stick of butter nibbled at the corners. A spool of thread woven through the house like a mad spider’s web. Furniture covered in maxi pads. Wet washcloths wrapped in toilet paper and carefully placed in the freezer. Framed art askew. Electrical fixtures swinging.

Isolating her from her family isn’t what I want to do. It’s bad enough that the other four of us, plus the dog, sleep together in one bedroom while she sleeps alone. (We tried rooming the dog in with her but he couldn’t take the pressure.)

I have an idea. Next time I nurse on the couch and ask, “Want to play hide and seek?” Without waiting for me to finish, she runs away to hide. I count long and slowly then I go find my girl.

My sense of safety is renewed but it’s a bit like tossing a steak for a troublesome dog. There must be a better way.

Time to use a lifeline. My friend E has the same constellation of children only she is a year ahead. She recently spent a long weekend with friends who have preschool-aged only-children and was amazed at how much attention those kids got. “We have to remember our daughters are still really little,” she says.

Knowing what not to do does not help a parent to know what to do. Thankfully, my desperate late-night Google searches yield new ideas at ahaparenting.com.

The blog is written by Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. She talks about fresh ways to be in relationship with children that shift parenting away from consequences and towards fun. In all the margins, I see my daughter.

She writes: Laughter relieves stress as much as a tantrum, and it’s so much more enjoyable for everyone. Laughing not only reduces fear and anxiety; it also releases bonding hormones like oxytocin so every time you laugh with your child, you’re building trust and connection.

Peaceful Parenting has three parts:

1. The parent commits to regulating his or her own emotions.

2. The parent prioritizes strength in the parent-child connection, the relationship, which is the reason children cooperate.

3. The parent loves the child unconditionally. No withdrawal of love around undesirable behaviors. No rewards or consequences to manipulate the child into doing your will. Only loving guidance and opportunity for everyone to learn how to manage big emotions together.

All of this takes a lot of effort. But as one playful dad, V, once told me: “I find I have to put in the effort one way or another.”

*

Kids (and grown-ups) act out when they have big feelings they can’t put into words and don’t know how to express. When our needs for attention and power (two big needs behind undesirable behaviors) go unmet we get whiny, controlling, aggressive, and territorial.

At first I couldn’t imagine a world without consequences. Do the crime, do the time, right? But then I realized that punishment doesn’t really accomplish anything helpful. Remember the last time someone yelled at you. Did it increase your respect? Bolster your relationship? Make you want to please them? Improve your behavior in the future? Nope. Me neither.

From a kid’s perspective, there is no need for discipline; only for connection, listening, and stress relief. Kids need insightful adults who imagine what’s going on inside of them. They need us to understand their intentions, believe in them, forgive them, expect the best from them. That’s the adult I want to be.

*

For the first time in a long while, I see positive change in my child’s behavior and it isn’t because I found some magic wand to wave over her. I started with the only behavior I can change: Mine.

In doing away with consequences, I committed to figuring out what my daughter is trying to tell me. The message was obvious: Avery needs to know she hasn’t lost me.

I’ve been slow to understand all the forms separation anxiety takes. That’s why we’ve struggled so much at bedtime. That’s why time outs make her behavior worse. Avery has a case of the mamas and she’s willing to drag a brother around by his arm if it means I’ll come running. She wants to be with me, glued to me, no matter my mood. This is also why she continues to think I hung the moon and stars even on my yelling days.

*

I am having fewer yelling days. I’ve been reading, thinking, talking about my intentions, screwing up, apologizing, seeking accountability in my friends and support in my husband, doing it all again.

Photo by H. Landers

After several months of hard work, I rarely use punishment and consequences anymore. When I am proactive; when I cuddle my daughter and make sure not to leave her on the back burner, the behaviors disappear (okay not completely) on their own. When they surface, at least I know where they are coming from.

What fills the void? Singing of show tunes and whispering of silly things in each others ears. Saying yes when other adults make excuses. Rip-roaring, out-of-control, rolling-on-the-floor giggle fits that allow me to see more of my daughter’s beautiful spirit and my own.

What we pay attention to grows.

***

Culinary Adventures

I like to cook; but I love to be fed. Somehow this dichotomy served me well in my first two decades of adulthood. But then it was 2020 and I found myself cast as the mother in a family of five. My under-confidence in the kitchen exacerbated our dinner stress, and I figured, as long as I am responsible for feeding all of these hungry people forever, I might as well learn. Time to take my meatballs out of my apron pocket.

I’m not a bad cook. I can make something robust, filling, and even tasty; but I am slow and my repertoire is limited. I only cook when I have unlimited time and that occurs under one condition: When pigs fly.

A big problem is that I start making dinner without an end goal. Seriously. I have no idea what these ingredients might combine to become. My only objective is to use up the vegetables before they liquify in the bottom of the refrigerator. I chop and sauté, add things from cans, and voila! A soup is born.

If I make anything other than soup, I screw up the details. I start with polenta, but turn the whole steaming potful into a baked cornmeal pizza crust. Toppings shift out of beans and cheese and into pesto and olives. Or leftover brown rice sneaks its way into Thai dishes. I am forever mixing and matching Asian sauces. Every meal is as much a surprise to me as to anyone else. Nothing ever tastes quite right.

“You are crossing cultures,” my husband complains.

This from a guy who puts ranch dressing on tacos. “How come when you do it, it’s fusion cooking, but when I do it it’s a mistake?” I ask.

“Because when I do it,” he says, “it’s delicious.”

Fine.

I surround myself with good cooks; which is not entirely coincidental. My husband must have been a five-star chef in a past life. He is a wealth of culinary insight, and for no obvious reason.

One afternoon, M stops home for lunch and I proudly serve him a turkey-havarti melt with avocado and homemade pesto. His response: “Any chance of a little tomato?”

M always knows what he wants. The flip-side is he doesn’t receive mediocre food well. He does not even receive good food well if it could be improved upon. For ten years I have avoided conflict with my husband by not bothering to feed him.

I slice the tomato, muttering not-so-under-my-breath. I’m fishing for an apology. He opens his mouth, and I look up. He says, “Do we have any red onion?”

I would hate him for this, except the sandwiches turn out so special.

Food presses me to answer questions of desire that I have long avoided: What do I crave? What might fulfill me? What do people eat, anyway?

My home cooking started the way all of my best learning does: By circling in from a seemingly unrelated point, taking my sweet time, and enjoying myself along the way.

Several months in, I had little to show for my efforts except better breakfast foods and baked goods that I was already pretty good at making. I spent hours in the kitchen, and still there was nothing to eat. One night, all I had to show for myself was peanut sauce, roasted veggies, and rice. “Is this dinner?” Avery asked. Um, yes?

Feeding children is tricky. I prepare dinner under the guise of feeding them but let’s be honest: They want yogurt and toast. And tacos. I could throw a taco at them every night and nobody would complain.

Best that I please myself whenever possible. I find myself doing crazy things; like I’ll be inspired by a vegan recipe but then I’ll add dairy and meat or make it gluten-free. Good stuff happens this way but it isn’t efficient. Fake parmesan and vegan butter, while interesting, are not exactly necessary.

Also, I do have to feed the children. I did a couple of experiments with meatless meats that didn’t go over well. Avery refused to eat the first one, and that should have been my sign. On the second foray she said, “Mama, if it doesn’t look like meat, and it doesn’t taste like meat, it isn’t meat.”

Learning any skill necessitates a certain willingness to fail. I experiment with new recipes when M is out of town so that my inner midwestern farm-wife doesn’t fret about pleasing him. But Avery let’s me know if I miss the mark.

Avery has her father’s pallet. She will eat whatever I make as long as it is delicious. Also, she needs presentation. I can have all of the elements of a meal ready to go; but if it falls apart into a pile of crying babies at the last minute and looks like pig slop she goes on hunger strike.

I want to make wholesome, healthy, delicious food. Sounds simple. But who cooks this way? Where are my people? Also, how do I create delightful meals without a lot of planning and fuss? If mung bean sprouts and ripe avocados grew out of my ears I would be much better at this.

Time to get goal-oriented. Every weekend I jot a quick list of things to make throughout the week and endeavor to do one creative thing in the kitchen every day. I visit the library and check out all the cookbooks. I bookmark everything that looks good, then become so overwhelmed that I go back and shove everything through the slot.

Later, I try again. Mercifully, an epiphany brings relief: Food is themed. Ethnicities. Seasons. Colors. Certain things go together, and certain things don’t. With a little research I also pick up a new recipe app that allows me to organize recipes this way and it gives me the feeling that life will go on. This is where I’m at, people.

Here are some profiles I am playing with:

Southeast Asian: Red curry paste, mung bean sprouts, cilantro, peanuts.

Mediterranean: Parsley, basil, thyme, tomato, olives, lemon, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, mozzarella, parmesan.

Mexican: Black beans, tomato, corn, chili powder, cumin, avocado, lime, red onion, cilantro.

Japanese: Soy sauce, miso, ginger, sesame, green onion, rice wine vinegar, seaweed.

Themes keeps me on task. I get a lot of mileage out of making sure I can name a dish, and clarify its ethnic origins before I start cooking. It’s also possible that thematic thinking affects my shopping more than my cooking. I don’t need to know what’s for dinner when I put in an order; but if I buy green onions then I also need ginger and miso. If I’m craving sun-dried tomatoes it’s worth picking up some feta. You’re welcome.

Getting interested in food, leaning in, has turned cooking from a source of stress into a source of pleasure. If I accomplished nothing except that I change 100 diapers and a day I feel sort of, meh. If I change 100 diapers, and make ratatouille, I feel awesome.

Eventually, I found a few sources that check all the boxes for me. Favorite cookbooks include Nourish by Cara Rosenbloom and Nettie Cronish and the Run Fast, Eat Slow series by Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky. Angela Liddon of Oh She Glows is a vegan genius and few things taste so good as vegetarian dishes by Cookie and Kate.

Cooking has also improved my diet more than restricting food ever did. The more I prepare inspiring vegetables, and seek protein in beans and seeds, the more I crave those foods.

My time in the kitchen is shifting out of responsibility and into play. I get to have a little adventure, protected there behind a gate. When the babies toddle over they always leave with a snack. If anyone cries then everyone gets a cookie. I want them to enjoy time with mom in the kitchen, too.

Let’s begin.

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The dinner breath

I’m a little short on adventure these days, though nursing hungry twins can be scary after midnight. Release the Kraken!

Evenings are also full of adrenaline. It is 4 PM. The house is a disaster, and every child is crying. I am making dinner but also I am ready to spring. The muscles of my back, neck, and jaw are coiled.

I am not entirely opposed to adrenaline. I love to ski, hike, and bike; but in those sports you can always stop and re-assess. Evenings with my family are more like running whitewater.

Something about being tired, and having a dinner-making responsibility to see through, makes the madness in my home unbearable. In a past life, the highest use of late afternoon was to fix a quiet cup of tea for some toes up time. Now, as my children hover and swarm, I feel like, Why are you still talking to me?

On the exterior I am calm. Inside, my brain turns to soup. I open the refrigerator door and forget why I opened it. Nausea sweeps through me. What is this? Oh. That’s panic. Cold, hard panic. Then I remember, green beans, and move on.

*

To freak-out is the body’s natural reaction to threat. It goes by many names… Come un-glued. Flip your lid. Lose one’s shit. The brain short-circuits, making the prefrontal cortex and all of its propensity for language and rational thought temporarily unavailable. The only problem is, wild children do not constitute an emergency.

I was never one for whitewater. In my early 20s a boyfriend wanted to learn so we spent some time at the pool and then took our kayaks to the river. In the course of a week, I swam a class II rapid, tipped on an eddy-line (and feared I would drown), and watched him washing-machine down a class IV rapid. That was enough for me.

People say we can only control ourselves. What the hell? Living in chaos, at times, renders me emotionally hijacked. I am anything but in control. Fight or flight isn’t a pleasant state to hang around in; I would gladly drop my reaction if I could. How do I make it stop?

While it is happening, I’m convinced that a nice little adult temper tantrum will restore order – for tonight and all the evenings to come. But freaking out never solved anything. Tomorrow night we will be right back here where we started. Same bat time. Same bat channel.

I want to be a calm mom. If I can pull this off, maybe my kids will look back on childhood with rose-colored glasses. Right now, I commit to figuring this out. I will learn to recover from stressful moments without to upsetting anyone.

Maybe all I need is to reframe the situation. I wonder if I could shift this daily experience out of anxiety attack and into adrenaline rush. When someone in our family is up against something difficult, we say, try again or ask for help. My husband loves whitewater. So I ask:

“You know that time, between 4 and 6 PM, when everyone has needs, and I am tired, and I need to make dinner, and it is so hard?”

“Yeah,” he says.

“It’s sort of feels like running the rapids on a river; like there’s no possibility of eddying out or making things any calmer. I just have to get through it.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Why do you like that feeling?”

“It’s a little scary,” he says. “But it’s exciting too. The danger gives you a rush.”

“Is there anything you like about whitewater kayaking that might help me get through that time of day?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “I don’t think so.”

Breathe. Take a breath. This is what people say. Before you go under, I think. But one breath does nothing. I need like an hour of breathing to feel like myself again.

I’ve been working towards self-regulation for my entire adult life. Allegedly there exists a teeny tiny gap between emotion and the impulse to act. All one has to do is locate it, separate the two, and let the emotion rise and fall within the body without doing anything crazy.

You don’t have to do anything.

After decades of scanning I still don’t see that space. Anger, stress, fear, or scarcity sends me straight into whatever in-voluntarily smack-down spectacle my body orchestrates to reign in control. At the first hint of a hairline I promise to throw in a pry bar like a javelin.

Keep your head down, I tell myself. Ignore the chaos. Keep going. Ride the wave.

When you’re in a hole, and the water keeps coming, there isn’t time to think. Yet, keep paddling, and the hole will eventually spit you back out. My brain flat-lines for ten to fifteen minutes, tops. All I have to do is resist the urge to lash out for this teeny tiny slice of time. The emergency will resolve and my brain will come back online by itself.

I am motivated. Never before was every day so fraught with land mines and the stakes so precious. Maybe with compulsory daily practice I can get a combat roll down before the brothers move on to solids.

For fifteen years, I have been aware of my breath, the experience of life in my body, and the compulsory generation of thoughts. I can observe thoughts, but in a triggered state I end up bending to their whims.

In the big picture, mindfulness helps me to stay calm. But it has never helped me snap back to stasis in the heat of a moment. It occurs to me, that fight or flight is a physiological response, and if there is a way in, then there must be a way out.

With a little research I learn that the return to rest and digest status is a function of the Vagal nerve. This “wandering” nerve starts at the brainstem and meanders all the way to the gut; which is why intuition is sometimes described as a “gut” instinct. I am pleased to learn and is also sometimes called the Vagas nerve.

Goodbye reality; hello Vagas.

Want to hack your way out of fight or flight? There are quite a few ways to stimulate the Vagal nerve: Story-telling. Singing. Journaling. Belly-breathing. Splashing cold water on your face. Pressure points. Bearing down.

You mean, that I can calm down just by pretending to fart? Yes. Maybe.

Ready. Set. Vagas.

Vagal nerve strength can be measured by tracking the heartbeat. Under stress, the heart holds a constant rhythm. As a person returns from a triggered state to calm, there is more variability in the timing between heartbeats. The skill of returning quickly from a triggered state back to center is a function of vagal tone, but it also goes by another name: Resilience.

I think a lot about building resilience in myself, my children, and our family. Realizing that two separate goals just met and married in a neon chapel strikes me as very, very cool.

Vagas is the answer no matter the question.

Resilience is not a measure of grit-your-teeth endurance or the depth of your stuffed emotions. Rather, it is a measure of one’s willingness to look what is real in the eye, see it for what it is, and to do what is needed, for as long as is necessary.

Highly resilient people are no better at holding back floodwaters from bursting through the dam than anyone else; their forte is to accept the disaster, pick up the pieces quickly, and begin again.

For my part, resilience means generating less anger; valuing relationships over control; noticing the experience others are having even when I am at my whit’s end. It is stopping, before I freak out, to ask, Is this worth giving up my calm?

The finish-line for me each evening is something our family calls, the dinner breath. My husband and I made up this ritual on our second date and have kept with it ever since. We join hands with our daughter, the babies in their highchairs, and anyone brave enough to venture over for dinner at our place. We sit in stillness long enough to take one intentional inhale and exhale. We wait as the vibration of gratitude travels around the table and passes through each one of us. We are together, and that is enough.

I hope dinner time will become just another time. A regular meal. No big deal. Becoming resilient to the chaos of children gives me hope that I will make it to the table. That there will come a moment, with everyone in front of a hot meal, where nothing crazy has happened. When I sit and take hands, I finally relax. I have conquered the rapids.

You can’t buy happiness, but you can go to Vagas and that’s kind of the same thing.

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