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. 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.

***

There’s the love

“I miss you mama,” she says.

“I miss you too, Avery.” I return the gesture but I don’t quite understand. Unless she’s at school, my girl and I are together in every waking moment.

Since the brothers came along, people have been asking: How is Avery? Sigh. She is still a high-energy three-and-a-half who does very well with direct adult interaction. How about being semi-ignored except to make sure she’s on target? Less well.

All of the advice I received on how to support Avery as we welcome new babies into our family was the same: love, love, love. Make time for her. Make sure she knows mama still cares. I have; but it’s not the same.

We lost co-sleeping but we cuddle every morning until Toren calls for a diaper change. We read in bed before nap and bed time; unless Eirik starts to cry. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I tell her.

Parents opt in for second (and third) babies so that our first learns to share an adult and loses the impression that she is the only show in town. We thought having siblings would help our daughter grow into a more awesome person. Being that this was the plan doesn’t make it easy.

I am coming to understand, without understanding why, that beneath her antics is an extreme love for me. In intense moments, I’ve learned to ask: What does she want? Where’s the love?

“I miss you, mama,” she says. “I miss you too, Avery.” * Avery stayed home from school for the past two weeks because of Covid concerns, and has gone almost entirely ferrel. I’m hoping her teachers reign her back in. On Monday, Avery finds me in the bathroom where the brothers and I do our morning yoga. “Hi, mama! Hi brothers! It’s biiiggggg sister!” We move to the kitchen. Eirik is rubbing his eyes so I put him down for a nap in his carseat (#StrategicMommery). I still have to make her lunch feed the dog find a mask think outerwear change my pants load everyone into the car. Avery just has to eat and get dressed. Usually she can handle that, but not today. It’s time to go. “Avery!” Next for you is socks! Go get them!” I say this and return to the PB&J I am crafting. She returns a few minutes later completely naked.

“Where are your clothes?” I ask.

She looks at me straight-faced and says, “I couldn’t get my bracelet off.”

Indeed, she is wearing a bracelet.

*

Avery is smart. She recently did the zipper on her sweatshirt and announced: “I don’t need adults anymore!” She loves books – from Winnie the Pooh and Trucks Go to the Magic Treehouse series and graphic novels. She often rocks side-ponytails because they work with her DIY haircuts. She can do somersaults and fireman poles but struggles with basic human functions: Fall asleep. Eat with a fork. Keep food within a 2′ radius of your plate. Sit in a chair without falling out of it.

My girl doesn’t take orders so I work around them. Please go get dressed. What do you want for breakfast? I make requests and ask questions. I model exact language and respectful communication. I try not to break down like David Seville:

Avery? Avery!! AVERYYYY!!!!!

On Tuesday she still doesn’t want to get dressed. I say: “When I am ready the brothers and I will load up and wait for you in the car. But it doesn’t come to this. Somehow we get where we need to be.

On Wednesday, I do it. You are not the one who is late for school, say the books. Make it her problem. I’m fussing with the Bluetooth and trying to enjoy myself. I expect Avery to run out of the house at any minute. She does not.

This is why I avoid power struggles with my girl: She always wins.

After eight minutes I find her inside sitting in what remains of a house plant. She is wearing pants but is still topless. “My shirt was inside out,” she explains.

Consequences fly. Minnie mouse lunchbox? Gone. Sleeping bag and sleeping pad? Gone. It is my stacking of library books into a dramatic pile that stops her in her tracks.

“You return my library books?” she asks. “Without my books, I can’t reeeeead!”

“Get dressed,” I say. “I’m going to take books until you get dressed.”

*

Writing this post holds some shame for me, but so it goes. When I became a parent I did not become a perfect person.

All of us struggle through raising kids. Maybe I’ll imagine that parenting provides us each with a similar level of struggle. Even as this is not true, we might feel similarly maxed out, and in this we are together.

I am trying to shift from shame, pain, and blame punishment (physical or emotional) to inquiry. I ask questions and try to figure out what’s going on. Infuriating behaviors are a form of communication: She has so much to explain.

*

I’ve strategized and on Thursday morning I’m ready. “I made a biiiigggg breakfast,” I tell her. “When you are dressed please come out of your room and eat with me. I will leave the door half open.

She comes out, still in her foxy nightgown.

I returned her to the room, and repeat my clever line. “This time I will have to shut the door, but it won’t be locked,” I say. “When you are dressed, come out and we will eat breakfast. I hope you come soon, because I’m hungry and ready to see you.”

Again, she comes out in her nightgown.

“Avery, what is going on?”

“Mama, I feel sick,” she says.

“Okay,” I say. Clearly, she isn’t.

She beckons for my ear: “Sometimes,” she whispers, “when people are sick… they don’t… go… to… schooooool.”

“You are going to school,” I say, but gently.

No tears come but her voice breaks. “Mama,” she says “I don’t want to go to school. I just want to stay home with you and the brothers.

There’s the love.

“My girl,” I say. “You have to go to school (so I don’t lose my ever-loving mind), but the brothers and I will miss you very much. Know what? We could put some gummies in your lunch. You know what else? Today is Thursday and it’s almost the weekend….”

All the while I am walking her back to her room. “Avery, I have to lock this door. Call me Coo-ee! when you are dressed and I will come get you to eat breakfast.”

A minute passes:

Coo-ee! Mama! I am dressed!”

*