Head and heart

We had a rough morning today.

We’ve been working with Fred on time management, and today he was a half hour late coming down for breakfast after already being twenty minutes late for school yesterday. This despite the fact that both Max and I had, at different points, stopped by his room to remind him to get dressed and come downstairs.

Because this has been going on long enough – and we were at our wit’s end because we have tried everything – with Max’s nod, I “punished” Fred by asking him to come straight home after school today. Yesterday was supposed to be his last day at his after school program, but he and his friends agreed he’d come back one more day to say their good byes and play together.

I hadn’t anticipated the depth of his devastation. You can picture the rest: screaming, crying, negotiating, hyperventilating. If he can’t see his friends one last time today then, he protested, he was not going to school at all.

When the screaming and anger finally gave way to a momentary calm, he wept and said, “I’m going to miss my friends. It’s my last day.”

At that moment I looked over at Max, who shook his head hard at me. “NO…we are staying firm,” his eyes said.

And that is when I went upstairs to my room and fell apart.

There was no script for me to follow this morning, or any morning, or any day, for that matter, in this parenting business. In my mind this would be like any of the 100 or so days that we’ve had so far: Fred would saunter to the kitchen table by 7:05 or so, I’d give him his breakfast, he’d eat it, he’d put on his jacket and backpack, and he’d be off at school.

I didn’t know he was going to be half an hour late, because he has never been this late before. (He was in his room gathering all the toys he was going to take to after school.)

I didn’t have planned the best possible consequences for this behavior because, I don’t know…I’m tired, or busy, or lazy, or clueless. I flew by the seat of my tired pants – my mind one half on getting his snacks and lunch and breakfast ready, one half semi-functioning. But I needed to think fast, and I know my pent-up frustrations and concerns about his time management fueled my eventual choice of punishment.

So many times during parenting I feel like that guy in the action thrillers: the one who has to figure out in 60 seconds which wire goes with which, so the plane doesn’t blow up.

When Fred reacted the way he did I realized I had pushed the biggest button on his little body. More than toys, more than video games, more than sweets, his friends are what mean the most to him. “Why didn’t you warn me this would be my consequence? Why can’t you give me a different punishment?” he cried. “Why this one?”

When I realized this, I sat down with him and promised I would get the contact information of his friends’ parents. We’ll have his friends over for play dates. He can absolutely still stay in touch with them. But he should have planned his good-byes for yesterday, the official last day we’d agreed on. And his spending half an hour to prepare for his after school playing meant that he was prioritizing socializing over getting to school on time. This is the logic that I tried to use to voice over the crying of my own heart.

Logic…I have plenty of it. The problem, sometimes, is that my heart is bigger, and louder. As a parent I know I need to somehow find a place where the two can meet as equals.

Forty-five agonizing minutes later, we were able to calmly get our tear-stained boy in the car to school with the agreement that he would come straight home in the afternoon. And I went back to my room, to pick up the crying where Fred had left off.

Have you had moments or days like this?

Slowing down

Any given morning in the life of us will look something like this:

Fred, please hurry up and eat.

Fred, more eating and less talking please.

Fred, we’ve got 8 minutes before we have to leave for school and you still have to brush your teeth.

Fred, I SAID, straight to the bathroom – no detouring, no touching any toys, no nothing! Just brush. your. teeth!

Fred, you have no sense of urgency whatsoever! COME ON!

We don’t quite know what exactly goes on inside our 8 year-old’s head while we are shouting to get him to move a little faster so he isn’t late for school, for taekwondo, for piano, for the dentist, even for the play date he had been waiting a whole week for. His first grade teacher once said to us, “He’s bright so he has a lot on his mind,” and ever since then I’ve been tacking his absent-mindedness to his intellect to make myself feel better, until my mother told me to stop making excuses for him.

And so Max and I have buckled down this week to try and find some no-crying-no-yelling-no-fuss solution to teach Fred the tools to watch and manage his time better.

And then a thought came to me. While Fred does need to learn to be more mindful of time, maybe many times he is moving at a pace that is perfectly normal and healthy for an 8 year-old – indeed, for an adult. It is Max and I who are going at 80 miles an hour, not because it is good but because it is how we have been trained to move all our adult lives – to wolf down lunches, multi-task, rush to meetings, meet multiple deadlines, and catch trains. We then become frustrated when Fred is simply moving at the speed limit.

Fred’s got a tight schedule, between school, after school care, dinner, taekwondo and homework. I have things scheduled like the military because we have to move with that kind of precision. There is no room to stop or look or touch or think. You just need to go go go. And Fred resists. He moves in slow motion. Maybe because he’s spacy, or maybe because he’s protesting, and he’s tired.

Last night Max and I made a plan to micromanage less and to entrust Fred with more autonomy to manage his morning and evening routines. We would encourage him to look at the clock and make his own schedule of how he plans to finish his tasks by a certain time.

At the same time, we took a cue from Fred, and decided to take him out of his after school care. We’d put him in there since kindergarten because both Max and I have to work, but he is now old enough to not need it (Max and I work out of our house). He’ll come straight home after school, and have time to do his homework without rushing and rest and play outside.

This morning was the first day of our “project,” and Fred got to school 10 minutes earlier than usual. He managed this even after taking a couple of minutes before putting his jacket on to literally just look at a new toy he’d just received. “I just want to look at and touch my Beyblade before I go,” he’d said. His new Beyblade is a rare gold spinning top, and he held it in his hands just a couple of inches from his face, admiring and stroking it before gently putting it down on his desk to head to the car. A week ago I would have blown my top and told him to get into the car already. Today, I’m taking a cue from him, and hoping that I can slow down enough to notice what really matters.

Heartbreak

This post was not planned, since just 12 hours ago or even 6 hours ago no one could have conceived of something so unspeakable happening. But I need to talk to someone, even if I don’t have the words, so I’m just going to write off the cuff here.

I’ve already decided that I may not turn on the t.v. today, or click open any links, or turn on NPR. I’m not sure. As much as I want to see the parents and the children – to show them some symbolic solidarity – I’m not sure if my heart can handle getting so close. And for that I feel selfish.

And is it also selfish that after thinking about the children and their parents my mind raced to my own child? Because deep down, I have imagined the worst and have wondered how I would react if I ever got such a call. Because I know these things happen, especially in the United States. And because it has happened to other parents, it can happen to us too. And because my son’s school actually practices lockdown procedures. Oh yes. From the ripe old age of 5, my little boy had learned the word “lockdown.” By kindergarten he was more familiar with what to do when a gunman shows up on school grounds than with how to tie his own shoelaces or prepare his own snack.

“Me and Danny and Lily and Jana all ducked under the teacher’s table with our heads down and our hands over our heads. The other kids went under the other tables.”

How innocent and cheerful he was when he said that, as if he were telling me about a new game at recess, while I had to fight back tears at the very image of it.

And once or twice Fred and his schoolmates did in fact have a real lockdown. The most serious one was in first grade, when a student arrived at the high school down the street with a gun and took a shot inside the school bus. But the teachers were calm. As far as the children knew, they just had extended language arts that morning. No panic…only among the staff and parents who’d received a call from the principal about the lockdown.

It’s ironic, that I grew up in a much rougher and more destitute neighborhood 30 years ago and yet I did not become familiar with the words “gunman” and “lockdown” and “barricade” until I became a parent in an affluent neighborhood.

I am so angry at the gun laws in this country. I lived for almost a decade in a country where guns are illegal, and where the annual number of deaths by firearms ranged from 2 to 22 between 2006 and 2008 (compared to 12,000+ in the U.S. in 2008). I love America but for this.

Today so much is running through me – the urgent need to hold my child, anger at the senselessness, and a visceral ache for my fellow parents…because in parenthood we’re united by a common understanding of those unique emotions that can only be felt but not described. In this way I can only imagine and at the same time imagine too well what those parents are going through…and that is why it hurts so much.

That’s all I want

About a month ago Max and I started this little ritual with Fred: we would end each night telling each other what one kind thing we did for another person, and what we were thankful for that day. This was important, we thought, in a life where we are capable of giving Fred almost anything he wants and where it becomes so automatic to receive. And it is also important for me, as someone who has been prone to focus on the things I don’t have over the things that I do.

It’s a heartwarming way to end our frequently frenetic days, as we snuggle in the dark and exchange reflections. For examples of gratitude, I’d expected to hear from Fred lists of treats and goodies that he’d received during the day, like an ice cream sandwich he was allowed for dessert or the chance to play on the computer. But instead it is almost never that. Almost night after night he has surprised me:

I am thankful that you let me help you cook dinner tonight.

I am thankful that you let me do the laundry with you.

I am thankful that you and Daddy listened to me when I wanted to go to Subway for lunch.

I am thankful that you read to me and got me into bed.

I am thankful that a stranger held the door open for us at the restaurant.

Really, he has blown me away. Because he has made me question how well I really know my own child. “Me me me” is how I have heard him. After all, conversation sounds often like a litany of “I want”s: I want soda; I want a cookie; I want a new Wii game; I want more Lego…The seeming obsession with acquiring things is what prompted me to start this gratitude ritual in the first place, but it’s in our process of thanking that I have been able to see what my son really wants…

to be autonomous

to feel needed

to contribute

to spend time with Mom and Dad

to be visible, to be heard, to know that his voice counts

to receive kindness

Very seldom have material things even entered into his nightly thanksgiving.

How is it that I never heard this? How is it that what I always seemed to hear instead was “I want this” and “I want that”?

Perhaps it was always there but I was simply shutting it down.

Like when we say “No” every time he asks to have dinner at MacDonald’s or to go to Chuck E. Cheese.

Or when I say, “No, let me do that; you’ll take too long/you don’t know how/you’re making a mess.”

Or when I say, “I’m too tired/too busy/not feeling well” and “I don’t have time right now/maybe later/later/no.”

Maybe he was telling me all along, but I just wasn’t listening.

But I am now, Fred…I’m listening now. And I realize that you simply want all the same things that I want too.

Are your children always wanting one thing or another? What wishes of theirs have surprised you?

Raising a reader

When Fred was 3 or 4 I’d read a New York Times article about the crisis of boys and reading – how boys are not reading, and how this puts them at risk for dropping out of school and heading into a whole host of adult problems. I remember feeling pretty smug at the time, because my preschooler just loved reading, thank you very much, almost as much as he loved eating vegetables.

And as many mothers of older children know, in time we learn to eat our humble pie.

Like many mothers who are privileged enough to do so, I’ve filled our house with children’s books from the time that little stick turned pink. I began reading to Fred almost from Day 1, knowing that even the newest of infants can begin to understand and process language even if they can’t yet verbally communicate.

Fred loved books, and he loved being read to and flipping through books on his own. This is instinctive, I thought, human. Boy or girl, what child doesn’t love color and pictures and a good story?

As he got a little older I saw that Fred was the stereotypical little boy who could barely sit still, a boy who preferred creating over absorbing, doing over reflecting. Then I realized this was the daytime Fred; by nightfall he became a reader. No matter how tired he was he wouldn’t be able to sleep without having cracked open a book first. It became a ritual as necessary as bathing. And trying to get him to close his book and turn off the light was the one fight I welcomed and was often willing to lose.

I would also talk my books with him and take him to library book sales with me. He was only too happy to oblige, somehow loving being a part of my adult reading world. He’d ask me questions like, “Is the girl with the dragon tattoo the same girl who played with fire?” He’d beg me to retell novels like The Hunger Games, and I’d struggle to abridge them to Rated G versions.

But then one day I messed up.

Last year in the second grade he became fascinated with The Mysterious Benedict Society. A complex 5th grade level book about a dangerous mission undertaken by 4 gifted children, it was not an easy read for this 7 year old who’d only just learned to speak and read English a few years before, but he loved it and we read it together night after night, chipping away at the 400+ page book, stopping every once in a while to go over unfamiliar vocabulary or expressions. How proud I was the day he gestured to take the book from me saying, “Mommy, I want to try reading this. Let’s take turns.” And so we did, and a few days later he said, “Mommy, I want to take this to school to read.”

He came home that day, beaming that he had read 30 pages.

“30 pages?! Did you understand what you read? Can you tell me what happened?”

I drilled him all evening, and he responded with, “I guess…sort of…I guess I sort of understood everything.”

Overnight my pride turned into panic. Reading is not about finishing a certain number of pages or trying to look grown up. I wanted to make sure he enjoyed reading, that he was getting as much out of the stories as he could.

The next morning I noticed that he’d taken The Mysterious Benedict Society out of his backpack.

“Aren’t you going to take the book to school?” I asked.

“Nah…” Fred responded.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to have you asking and asking me what happens in the story.”

I told a veteran mom friend about what had happened and she reassured me that I can quickly get him back. But deep down I knew what I had done. Since that evening Fred never again picked up The Mysterious Benedict Society on his own.

And so last summer I saw him slowly sinking into that hole I’d read about in the NYT article five years ago. Whenever we went to the library he’d head straight to the DVD section or the computers. Whenever I asked him to get a book he’d borrow manga. Whenever I suggested certain chapter books he would complain that there were too many words. My heart was breaking. Eight years it took me to build up a reader, and in the space of an evening I had managed to dismantle his passion for books and his confidence to read.

That summer I began googling “boys and reading” and looking through library books with titles like How to Get Your Child to Love Reading. I read all the old advice again: Fill your home with books; read to your child; have the men in your house read in front of your son; accept all kinds of reading material, from cereal boxes to comics to magazines, and don’t criticize.

Don’t criticize.

And so I – we (I’d enlisted Max’s help as the male role model) – started again from the beginning.

Then one day we were at the library, and for some reason Fred pulled off the shelf the first book in the Warriors series, the intricate story of a clan of cats that wrestles with such hefty themes as loyalty, ambition, individuality and identity.

“Lily reads these,” he said, referring to a friend whom he finds excruciatingly annoying but who is famed for reading 400 pages a week.

We started the book together that night, and we both became hooked. Then Fred made me swear to keep all of it a secret, because boys don’t read about “cute animals.” I countered that he should be proud to read anything he wants, and that besides, these cats fight. Fred reconsidered.

By September, Fred was well into the series. He started telling his classmates about the books, and one by one hooked the others onto them. By the end of the month his class was divided into cat clans with his classmates each named after a cat character.

These days, I worry about Fred getting enough sleep. While he cooperates about lights off at night, he is often up at 6:30 if not earlier to read. He reads at the breakfast table and in the car and he begs me to ask him questions about what he’s read. And this time, I ask questions to talk rather than to test. This precious world with his books and characters and distant places? It is his, and may no one ever take this refuge away from him.

Tell me about your reading life with your children. Have you had struggles? How do you keep your children loving to read?

Sensitive

I’m sitting in bed on a Sunday, with a cold and feeling bad. The fatigue and coughing…that’s not great. But what’s bothering me more right now is discomfort on a more emotional level. It’s a negative comment, by someone I don’t even know. I can try and logic my way out of it but that usually doesn’t work that well for me. Because I don’t work with logic; I work with feeling. And how do you stop yourself from feeling?

Yesterday over dinner we had a fun discussion with Fred over the characters in his favorite book series. “Which character best describes you?” I asked. At first he named the star character, the one who’s perfect – good, heroic, the one who always makes the right choices. But I wanted to make sure he was approaching the question correctly. I said, “Remember, think about the character who best matches you; not the one you most admire.” Then he thought for a quick two seconds and came back with a secondary character. I asked him why he chose this one, and he said, “Because he feels strongly. And so do I.”

And so do I.

For as long as I can remember I just felt everything so keenly. Small joys were ecstasy and small transgressions were betrayals. Hurts, even perceived hurts, could land me under the covers for half a day. Break ups? Love? Thank goodness the two happened in that order and not the other way around.

I’ve tried employing rational thinking to control my feelings. I would ask myself, “How would you advise a friend in the same situation?” I once also kept a notebook in which I would write counter-arguments to my negative thoughts. Too often, I just ended up giving in to the pull of my emotions and then beating myself up over the fact that I am so damned sensitive.

And then I started noticing this in my own child. How a seemingly unfair remark from his father can send him to pieces, transforming him from his usual happy mode to a screaming, indignant child. How a negative comment from me can move him to tears such that he can’t even continue with what he is doing. For the longest time I had not seen myself in his reactions, because on the outside he appears so headstrong, not your “typical” sensitive child. And so I often just sighed that he was “acting up” or hungry or tired. No, like me, Fred feels so deeply, and when he feels, he doesn’t know how to stop.

So last week when he threw a tantrum, instead of telling him to calm down (because how does a young child really know how to do that?) I approached him and asked if he wanted to talk, and when he didn’t respond I asked if he’d prefer to write down his feelings instead. He initially made a gesture to reject the idea, but in the end told me his feelings. Maybe letting him know that I want to hear him and giving him that channel to express his emotions can be a step in helping him manage his feelings. I don’t know.

To be honest, when Fred said, “Because he feels strongly. And so do I.” a part of my heart sank. I was so proud of his self-awareness, but in pain for him that he would go through life feeling so much. Because I know that while we sensitive types can, through maturity and experience, try and learn ways to manage our emotions, ultimately this is who we are at our core: uniquely compassionate, rich in our inner lives, and prone to hurt.

How do you handle negative feelings, or teach your children to? Any advice?

How it feels when your mom blogs about you

The following is a true story, written by me, from my son’s voice and point of view. 

So I’m sitting at the dinner table and I’m in a bad mood. Because I was sorting my Pokémon cards when my mom started yelling, “Thunderstar! Do your homework!” “Thunderstar! Did you wash your hands?” “Thunderstar! Did you unpack your lunchbox?” “Why do I need to say this every day, Thunderstar?!” I just got home – for goodness’ sake! – after being in school since 7:40 this morning. And it’s now 5:25, P.M.!

Then I start my homework and before I’m even done my dad goes, “Thunderstar! Set the table! It’s dinner time!”

There is something really wacky about my family. Because my mom and dad get to tell me what to do, but I’m not supposed to tell them what to do. Like with the iPhone and iPad. They’re always dictating rules about that, even though I know sooooo much more about technology than they do. They say, no iPhone or iPad on school nights. No iPhone or iPad after 8 p.m. No iPhone or iPad if I talk back. Blah blah blah. But my dad is forever playing Bejeweled Blitz, even when my mom says, “Why don’t you read a book instead.” Yeah, Dad, why don’t you read a book instead? So I gave them my own rules, like “No Bejeweled Blitz while Thunderstar is awake.” and they said, “No, Thunderstar, it doesn’t work that way.”

I don’t care much for dinner time, unless it’s at McDonald’s or I’m eating mac and cheese from a box.

Because my mom is always staring at me too. She says things like, “Thunderstar, your hair is starting to look like a helmet. I need to cut your hair this weekend,” and then forgets all about it. Or she’s watching me to make sure my mouth is moving. If my mouth stops chewing for more than like 3 seconds, then she’s like, “Thunderstar! Eat!”

But today she probably saw my bad mood, because she suddenly tried to sound cheerful.

“Guess what!” she said. “This moms website wants to feature my blog post. Isn’t that great news?! I’m wondering which post I should send to them.”

I know my mom writes a blog. And I know she writes about me and Daddy. And I know she calls me Fred, which I hate. I asked her why she can’t use my real name, because my real name is so much cooler, but she said it’s not safe to show my real name on the internet. So I told her to change my name from Fred to Thunderstar. (Did she do it yet?)

She and my dad were talking, then suddenly I couldn’t believe it. She started giggling. She said – she actually said – “I’VE ALWAYS LIKED THAT POST ABOUT HOW THUNDERSTAR WOULDN’T WIPE HIMSELF. MAYBE I’LL USE THAT ONE!”

It was like all the sound in the room disappeared, and I shrunk to an inch tall, and I have no pants on, and I am surrounded by faces, just hundreds and thousands and an infinity and beyond of faces. They’re mean and everyone’s laughing and pointing their fingers at me. I can’t hear them but I see their mouths wide open with that deflated balloon thingee hanging and shaking from the back of their throats, and their eyes are shut so tightly from laughing, laughing at that big fat baby Fred who wouldn’t wipe himself.

I cried to my mom, “No! No! I don’t want you to use that post!”

“Oh Thunderstar, you were 4 or 5 years old at the time! All moms would understand! You don’t even know what it’s about – if I told you, you would think it’s so funny. It’s totally innocent and cute!”

She was not getting me at all! I have a blog too, in Mrs. Stevens’ class, where we write about the books we read. How would my mom like it if I wrote about her wiping herself and let the WHOLE class read it??

The tears were bursting out of my eyes and running down my face but I didn’t care. She really thought it would be cute to tell the WORLD – because she just finished showing off that there are almost a million people reading this website – that I couldn’t wipe myself after potty.

“No! It is NOT cute! You are NOT telling that story!! How would YOU like it if I wrote about YOU pooping?!”

I was really crying now. I couldn’t believe she was trying to sabotage me. How could I make her stop? How?? I can’t give my mom and dad rules. I can’t tell them what to do, not even when they’re wrong, SO wrong! I can’t believe I’m only 8 and they are like practically 50 and I know more than they do!!

“You are NOT using that story!!”

“Oh Thunderstar…okay. I won’t. I promise I won’t use that story. I will use another story.”

Did she really listen to me just now?

“It’s okay. Mommy won’t.” She put her hand over mine and looked at me. I couldn’t tell if she was trying not to cry or not to laugh.

“But it’s still on your blog,” I said. “You have to delete it.”

I’m 8, so that means I was literally not born yesterday.

“But, I – I mean, no one’s going to find it, Thunderstar. It’s 3 years old.”

“No! I want you to delete it, after dinner. And I want to SEE YOU DELETING IT.”

“Thunderstar. Don’t talk to me like that.”

“BUT I NEED TO SEE YOU DELETING IT. I need to know you are really doing it and not just saying it.”

“Not that many people even come to my blog. They’re not going to find it. It’s buried under a gazillion posts. But okay, I’ll take it down tomorrow.”

“How can I trust you?”

“Because I’m your mom, and I love you.”

“But moms lie.” This is a fact. I know from my friends that moms lie. I don’t even think there is a Tooth Fairy.

“Some moms may, but I swear that I don’t.”

“How do I know you’re not lying now?”

“Thunderstar, have I ever done anything to make you not trust me?”

I couldn’t think of anything.

“I will take it down because I am seeing how important this is to you. So I promise. I will take it down tomorrow. I don’t want to do anything that makes you so upset.”

I looked at my mom a little while longer, and then I went back to my dinner. Tomorrow, I’m going to check with her to make sure she really deleted it.

Post script

I took down the post the next day. And began thinking about what privacy and embarrassment mean to a child.

Thunderstar really says things like “for goodness’ sake!”, “infinity and beyond” and “sabotage.” And he really hates that he has little power, especially when sometimes he knows more than the adults.

An amazing thing happened as I was writing from my son’s point of view: I began to understand him in ways I didn’t before.

I apologize if Thunderstar has offended anyone named Fred. In kindergarten he asked me why, why we didn’t name him Fred. You know how kids are.

Many thanks to the writing prompt over at Mama Kat’s Writer’s Workshop (Mama’s Losin’ It) for inspiring this post.

Mama's Losin' It

Growing up and letting go

Our house was like Grand Central this weekend, with the neighborhood boys streaming in and out. We love these Social Sundays, especially now that I’ve gotten over the early bittersweet of my baby forming his own world without me.

Then that day came another milestone.

After playing with his friends on our street, Fred asked if he could go to Brian’s house, 2 blocks away. Straight path, no traffic. It seemed high time for him to go there on his own.

When it turned out Brian was still eating lunch, Fred came back and asked if he could go to Kyle’s house, a more complicated path 4 blocks away within our subdivision. Again, we said yes.

An hour later, Fred came back with Kyle and asked if they could go to the park. The neighborhood park is a little under 10 minutes away by foot, and up until that point Fred had never gone there without an adult. It’s not that we had forbidden it; he simply never asked and we never had to think about it. But today it came up, and again, we said yes.

I was surprised to feel relieved. Max, too, added, “This is how boys should live.” Coming from a country where kindergarteners commute alone on public transportation, Max has since adopted my American wariness and done his fair share of standing guard at playgrounds. But we always recall our own stories of how much more carefree our childhoods had been: how Max traveled alone from one end of Japan to the other at the age of 9, how I was walking 3 blocks through traffic in a much rougher neighborhood to catch the school bus when I was 8.

I didn’t realize how exhausting it was to fear and worry…not about safety from speeding cars or kidnappers but about how to make sure we don’t overprotect Fred.

In the second it took for me to calibrate the risks of letting Fred go to the park, I asked myself what it was that I was fearing: Was it child molesters? Traffic? Getting lost? Given our neighborhood, getting lost was the greatest risk, but even that was basically nil. There was more to lose by holding Fred close.

But I will tell you the bigger anxiety I had that day, once I’d let him go.

I wasn’t worried about Fred getting to and from the park safely, or being safe while playing at the park. I worried about what he would do – from now on – when there is no adult to say, “No, don’t do that.” My mind flashed back to all those stories of dumb pranks performed by my perfectly intelligent male friends, antics that helped build up my earlier vow never to have a boy. But you know, writing this, I am ashamed to admit to my own fair share of regrettable choices and dumb behavior. This latest milestone made it clear that I have entered that parenting stage where the most important thing I can instill – and rely on – is my child’s good judgment.

And suddenly potty training feels like a breeze compared to trying to shape a child’s moral compass and self-control.

This post took me three days to write. I didn’t know where to go after the above paragraph. Then, in trying to find my direction I ran up against this question again: What is it that I’m afraid of? Has Fred chosen bad friends? Has he made poor choices in judgment? Has he given me any reason so far to worry that he will one day binge drink at his first fraternity party (because, you know, that worry ranks right up there with doing bike wheelies and entering hotdog eating contests) ?

One of the incidents that triggered my worries was how oblivious Fred became to me as soon as his friend told him she was organizing a neighborhood talent show. He became so giddy he ignored my warning that it was dinner time, and threw himself at the piano to practice Jingle Bells, his latest and proudest piece.

After I’d gained some perspective, I realized, it’s Jingle Bells, not crack.

So, after more than eight years as a mother, I’m learning to let go…to let go of not my child, but my fears.

 

 

 

 

 

Lying to Mom

The phone rang Sunday morning, and I asked Fred to check the caller ID. It’s Grandma, he said, looking at me. I told him I will call her back later in the day when I felt better. Without batting an eye he set the phone down, still ringing, and went back to what he was doing.

The thing is, I haven’t told my mother about what happened to my leg, and having just come out of surgery, I was too uncomfortable at that point to have pulled off a normal conversation.

It had been a no brainer for me to just keep this from her when I was in a cast; I figured, it’s temporary, and I am going to heal. Then when I learned I needed to have surgery, I was no longer so sure about keeping this mum, but at that point I’d already gotten in too deep…

It is quite possible, in the complex world that I inhabit with my mother, for me to be simultaneously intimate and dishonest with her. And then I remember reading somewhere recently that something like 92% of all teenagers lie to their parents about something, at some time. It got me thinking about why we lie and when we lie, and to whom we do it.

Last spring I was out of town to take care of my mother after her own surgery. Max and Fred had returned home earlier, and I called one night to check in.

“So what are you doing?” I asked my 8 year old.

“We’re, uh, what? [apparently off line to Dad]. Uh, we’re at, at China Kingdom.”

“What are you eating?”

“Uh…”

“Your favorite fish dish?”

“Uh…”

I started to grow impatient. Then I heard Fred’s little hand cover the mouthpiece as he hissed not softly enough, “Daddy! She’s asking me what we’re eating!”

“Fred! What is going on?! What are you eating??”

“Uh…crust…” I could see him cowering on the other line.

“You’re eating crust…at China Kingdom??”

And so I put 2 and 2 together and figured out they were at Chuck E. Cheese eating that horrible pizza. For dinner.

And so we all laughed and thought, isn’t that cute, ha ha, let me put this on Facebook. Until it dawned on me that it’s actually not funny to lie to Mom.

And why did they lie? Because they know how I get about fast food, and Chuck E. Cheese. I know pizza (of course) isn’t poison and Chuck E. Cheese isn’t a drug house. But I get it – if you’re not doing anything bad, why rattle Mom when you don’t need to?

I still consider myself close to my mom. Our weekly phone calls are always over an hour long. I share a lot, but I’ve also learned to keep away from her information that may excessively worry her. Like so many mothers – like myself – she finds her children’s pains so difficult to bear. When something happens to me my stress is doubled as I feel not only my pain but the pain that she feels. She’s tried hard to shield me from hardship, and on my last trip home she once even tried to carry my bags for me. We’ve always conflicted because I get insulted by her overprotectiveness. I ask her why she can’t see strength in me; she gets upset that I can’t see how she loves me.

The biggest lie I have ever had to keep from her was Max’s past. When it became clear that we were going to get married, I was suddenly tormented as to how or if or when I was ever going to tell her that Max had been married before and already had a child. She was coming from a very conservative culture and generation, and she would not understand what divorce meant or what it would mean for me to marry someone who had been divorced.

But keeping something so huge from her about her future son-in-law was more than I could bear. As many people do (I’d come to realize), I went to my father first, because it was easier. The way I interpreted love, my father loves me but sees strength and competence in me, and he has never seen me as an extension of himself. His calm centered me and he advised me on how to break the news to my mom.

Though I was right to tell my mother, it was the single most painful experience of my life. In her shock and fear of the unknown, she told me to call off the wedding. I was as outraged at her small-mindedness as I was at myself for having failed to make her happy.

It’s been over ten years now, and my mother’s come to ease up a bit on her worrying, especially seeing how I had thrived overseas on my own for nearly a decade, and now understanding how strong my marriage is. However, I can tell she remains vigilant about whether or not I’m being well cared for by Max. And I still dread the moments when she detects hoarseness in my voice or a lingering cough. I have imagined how I might tell her about my leg, but ultimately the idea of having to string together the words “I” and “broke” and “can’t walk” and “surgery” in a long distance phone call to her is too much. I might be underestimating her, but I worry that it will be too much for her…or maybe for me.

The last two weeks with my broken leg have been up and down. I have so far only allowed myself to cry in front of Max. Sunday, two days post-op, was one of those more down times. After leaving a message on our landline, my mother tried my cell phone. I turned and looked at it for a long while as “Mom and Dad” pulsated on the screen. I blinked away tears before deciding, finally, to let the phone continue to ring.

How well do we really hear our children?

A month ago I picked up Dave Cullen’s Columbine, considered the most definitive account of the Columbine massacre that took place 13 years ago last Friday. Like many I reacted with horror but then detached interest when the story came out. Of course, I was still relatively young then, and nowhere near parenthood. Now a mother, and a mother of a school-aged boy, I flew through the book with vested interest.

The mastermind and leader of the killings, Eric Harris, was confirmed by experts to be a textbook psychopath: cold, heartless, calculating. The second killer, Dylan Klebold, proved to be more complex. In fact, the initial profile of him sent chills down my spine: He was bright, curious, athletic, sensitive. He loved Lego and origami. It was irrational, but I shivered because that just described my son. How can a killer have started out this innocent boy, so similar to my own?

To my own surprise, I finished the book without judging the parents of the two boys. Unlike what some might think, Eric and Dylan were not raised in broken or abusive homes. Their parents were middle class or upper middle class and well educated, loved their sons, made efforts to discipline, and appeared to have paid attention to their children. And yet the question lingers on every parent’s mind: How could they not have seen this coming? Could we be as equally blind?

I look at my own parents. My father, a product of his generation, worked 80 hour weeks and left the childrearing to my mother. My mother devoted her life to caring for my brother and me, “dedicated” being an understatement to describe her. And yet, for cultural and generational reasons, my mother did not “hear” us much less listen to us. She was not raised in a culture or in a time where concepts like self esteem and depression were even conceivable. How can you hear what you don’t know exists?

But I, on the other hand, born into a cotton candy pop psychology bubble, would know. I’ve gone through periods in my life where self-help books lined my shelves, and I continue to talk like an amateur psychologist. I only amp up the psychoanalysis now that I’m a parent: Have I told my son enough times that I am proud of him? He was a little quiet after school today – did something happen with his friends? Don’t tell him to drink milk so he’ll get bigger – you’ll teach him to pursue a false body ideal!

And even so, as emotionally in tuned to my child as I think I am, I’ve missed some critical spots.

Like when Fred was about to start kindergarten, and he began acting out and throwing tantrums. I was taken aback, shocked at my 5 year old’s new aggression. We scolded and threatened and wondered if it was heightened testosterone, until Max brought up the idea that maybe Fred was simply anxious about starting school. Of course. We’d made such a big deal over kindergarten, telling him how exciting it was. But given his limited experience as a person, he had no idea what kindergarten was. We took him to an ice cream social at his new school, let him meet his teacher, and, like that, the aggression disappeared.

Then when he started first grade he began showing signs of more extreme stress: nervous tics, inability to sleep long. “I never get a day off!” he would shout, and we felt the guilt, but we plugged on with his activities, having convinced ourselves that they were non-negotiable. He had to go to Japanese school, to keep up his language and culture. He had to study Chinese, to keep up his language and culture. He had to stay with soccer, to build up his physical strength and teamwork skills. We finally took him to a behavioral pediatrician, who said to us, “Fred’s fried. He’s not telling you with words, but he’s telling you with his body.”

I look back on that time – just a year ago – with shame. Shame because I’d prided myself on being such a good mother, a mother who can see her child through and through. But maybe what I need is not so much to see – especially only what I want to see – but to really hear, and to really listen.

Part of Momalom‘s 5-for-5 writing challenge on “Listening.” Click here for other fabulous bloggers’ posts.