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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Second baby dilemma

Found this gem from October 2019 in the drafts folder. Enjoy!

As a young person I pictured myself as the eventual mother of two kids. Upon learning what parenting actually is, however, I am fairly on the fence about a second baby.

One kid slowed me down a lot, but not completely. When A was one I hiked a ton and once even enjoyed a bonfire among friends with a beer in my hand and a sleeping baby on my chest. “You’re winning right now,” said my friend K. Yes. I am.

Now that A is two, my husband and I are back up at the mountain trading off time on the lift and time with our daughter. It’s not the endless string of powder days I once lived and breathed for, but it’s enough.

I’ve soared through some nice snow this winter and had a ton of fun on the platter pull. It’s great to be back in the world and remembering my former freedoms. Which brings me to a dilemma. To try for a second baby? Or not?

Feeling torn over the idea of a second child reminds me of the last time I bought downhill skis. I had the option to choose high-cost, high-rewards powder boards. They slow you down in a lot of situations but man are they fun when conditions are just right. Or I could go with a more versatile all-mountain set up like I’d had in the past.

“You like to travel light and quick,” said my friend E. “Stick with the all-mountain. Less to haul around.”

She had a point. I liked what I had and I’d be safe to stay there. But what about the all-American urge to shoot for the moon and have it all?

“Powder boards,” said my husband. “You already have all-mountain skis. Time for something bigger.”

You can’t win if you don’t play.

The world seems all-in on this question. No one regrets the decision to have a second child, but no one could admit that either. Parents of second babies must encourage their propagation because they need equally slow, bat-shit crazy families with wheelbarrows full of kid gear to adventure with. All sources are biased.

The only slightly contrary insight I solicited is this: “Going from one baby to two,” says my friend S, “feels like going from one baby to 100 babies.”

A second child offers the first at least a shot at a great sibling relationship. Parents get to recycle their baby knowledge and correct mistakes from the first round. Baby stuff can be dug out of the crawlspace, used once more, and given away for good. Grandma’s heart would sing.

I miss my friends and mountains. Another baby would put this type of fun on the back burner for a few more years. Three more years of shitty sleep and no friends and not enough exercise. The inconvenience of pregnancy and lasting wear and tear on my body. Childcare for two kids would be so gosh-darned expensive. Paying for college, too. Eight-billion people on the planet. And my current baby just poured liquid laundry detergent on the carpet for the second time this month; so there’s that.

If I go for it I’ll be pushed by the same force that always drives me forward: Fear that if I don’t, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.

Why else would I do it? For squaring up the family. For efficient use of chairlifts, Alaska Airlines companion fares, and SUVs. For the love of second babies, who are so funny and sweet and chill. For the possibility of getting to know you, mysterious child, who is at once me and my husband and everyone who came before and someone completely new. For watching you grow, change, learn, and become who you are. For looking at your sweet smile and tiny toes and wondering where you were before this moment in my arms. For the freaking sanity of not having to think about whether or not to have a second baby anymore.

I’m old enough that I can’t hang around in this zone much longer. Do I give up what freedom and adult conversation I have for the sake of one more potentially cool kid?

With the birth of my first child I got to satisfy a deep curiosity about what motherhood is; but where would bearing another leave me?

At home. With a kid in each arm and staring at these big fat powder boards.

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Explorations

I allow A a lot of liberties. It’s been a warm summer, and I always let her swim at the beach. This will become a problem when the weather turns and she has no experience bypassing a perfectly good body of freezing cold water.

Maybe I’m a pushover. But also, one of my mom jobs is making life fun. I desperately want our family to do stuff. I hate showing up in a beautiful place, seeing limitless fun potential, and saying, “Maybe we’ll do that next time.” I’m also a firm believer that you never regret jumping in.

A has already learned to ask dad for certain things (sugar and screens) and mom for others (anything wet, muddy, or messy). One morning we are on a walk with my daughter’s good friend baby H and his mama E. The kids find a giant puddle turned mud pit that the WWF should be interested in.

Indoors this turns into water play in the sink, which she wants to do morning noon and night. I mostly let her, because I think it’s the right kind of creative-messiness and because if I don’t let her she clings to my leg and bellows.

When A and I play outside together, I love to show her the things I know: crab molts, urchins, humpback whales, glaciers, and blueberry blossoms. I also love to explore with her what I do not know: We use recordings to identify sparrows by call and watch cartoons in Spanish, and learn all the things I never learned but meant to. For her sake, I am getting a very little bit better at basketball.

There is nothing like a child to remind us that we are all children; that it’s never too late to start something new; that learning never ends.

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