Sunlight and Shade

About a year ago, I added over nine hundred followers to this blog thanks to a post entitled “A Letter to New Mothers,” which appeared on Freshly Pressed. The baby I was so eagerly anticipating when I wrote that essay started kindergarten last week, and leading up to her first day, I felt restless – not so much with worry, but with wonder. What had I done with her for the last five years?

When my first child went off to kindergarten, I had poignant flashbacks of all the fun things we’d done together that I was going to miss – leisurely trips to the zoo, spirited library story times, play dates with friends now scattered across several area schools, and a few who’d moved out of state.

Elizabeth and I kept a very different preschool rhythm. She was happy to play quietly in her room alone or with me, happy to draw or make perler bead art, happy when left with her own imagination to tinker with things that may or may not appear to be toys. She loved an occasional outing, but rarely demanded one.

In the days leading up to kindergarten, I found myself feeling guilty for not having more zoo memories with her. What had we done? We had gone to Target together, where she’d tried on every pair of sunglasses that struck her fancy. We’d drawn with chalk on our driveway and used up several giant sized bottles of bubbles. We’d overcome a year’s worth of furious temper tantrums brought on by the arrival of her baby brother. We’d gone to the grocery store, to buy shoes, and to pick up dry cleaning. We’d curled up on the couch and read book after book, pulled out the baby pool, eaten popsicles, and imagined the most elaborate stories a preschooler can muster.

At the time, it felt to me that I was taking the easy way out – schlepping an ornery two year old and a nine month old to the zoo is no way for a young mother to keep her sanity. (I know, I tried.) But the truth is that the reason being at home felt so easy was that there was really no other place E wanted to be.

Home, not the zoo, or the library, or the playground with a dozen of her friends, is the place where our hearts were sewn together, and, it should come as no surprise, the place where E wishes she were – right this second.

Kindergarten has been in session for a little over a week now, and every day at drop off, or at some point during the day, she’s cried. I’m not talking about a little sniffle. When Elizabeth cries, she gives it her all – true teenage heartbreak channeled by a five year old. After several days of this, I called a counselor I know, and he said, “You know, the problem with society today is that no one wants anything to be hard. Hard is OK. Hard can, in fact, be great.”

I hate it, but I agree with him. If I pulled my girl out of kindergarten right now, it would send the wrong message. She’s big enough and brave enough to know that some things are hard, but that they’re still worth doing.

Confidence is a bear of a thing to cultivate in a child. According to experts, saying “Good job!” too much can eventually have an adverse effect on self-esteem; telling kids they’re smart, rather than hard workers, can make them more anxious about their performance; correcting their bad behavior, rather than effusively praising the good, can make them feel like they never do anything right. Our knee-jerk reactions, like wanting to give Elizabeth another year under my wing, are not always the right ones.

I miss snuggling with E on the couch and hearing her little voice up the stairs, but I don’t want to snuggle her to defeat, or to love her to the point of not knowing what she might accomplish in the face of a challenge. I don’t want her to consider herself a hard worker because I say she is, or for her to measure her worth based on how many times her dad says “good job.” I want her to consider herself a hard worker because she’s carried the load and felt the satisfaction of having done it her way, to know in her heart that whatever she feels pleased to have done is, in fact, as good as it gets.

For the past week, when I’ve tucked Elizabeth in, she’s told me she doesn’t want to go to school, that she’s “not ready,” and/or that she misses me. As painful as all this is to hear, it gives me the opportunity to tell her the truth – something she can return to in five or ten years when other, possibly bigger things, are getting her down – that it’s my job to believe in her, even when she doesn’t believe in herself. I say it, and she looks at me like she’s studying a page in a book:

“What does that even mean, Mama?”

It means that I can see the spark inside her that she’s too clouded over with bewilderment and mommy-wanting to feel. It means that I’m going to pull her along until she can see the beauty of her own mind unfold, until her confidence finally takes root and becomes the thing that takes in sunlight and gives her shade. It means, and this is what I tell her, that I love her, and that she’s going to be okay, even if it doesn’t feel that way quite yet.

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Freshly Pressed, and Thoughts on Being Super Mom

In the past year or so since I’ve let my blog go dormant, I’ve gotten a few notifications from WordPress. Sometimes they included legitimate comments from readers, but the more occasional ones were all spam, and I thought the email I received from the site a little over a week ago would be no different.

But it was. So. Different.

Krista, an editor at WordPress, somehow found an essay I wrote over two years ago. She liked it so much she wanted to feature it on Freshly Pressed. This digital age is a funny one, and for a minute after I read her email, I thought, “Oh, ‘Krista’ is probably just a computer, trolling sites for key words.” But then I read her email again, and she actually sounded like a human being, who had actually been moved by my writing.

When it hit Freshly Pressed later that week, I started getting comments, and “likes” and reblogs, and followers that trumped my previous numbers several times over.

All this attention for something I wrote such a long time ago has made me feel like I’ve woken up in a room filled with bright lights and party hats. As soon as I sit up, everyone shouts, “Surprise!”

I didn’t know how much I needed that kind of attention, but I did! It’s set my brain on fire.

All around me, the world is loud. My children are loud. My husband is loud. My tea kettle is loud. My new phone, because its speaker is not yet clogged with apple sauce, is loud. My dog has acquired a barking problem, and I’ll be damned if she is not loud. My own thoughts are loud, too.

But for the last year or so, I have been quiet – not writing, barely investing in reading – because if there is anything I want right now, it’s quiet. I want my brain to be quiet, my life, especially when I am alone, to be quiet. Pictures instead of words, if you please.

One could say from all this talk that I am depressed, or not coping very well with the chaos that is life with three young children, but the reality is that most of the time, I love my life. I am deeply grateful for everything in it, painfully aware that in just a few years, I am really going to miss the noise and the mess that trails after my children at every turn. I breathe in the sweet smell of my two year old every night, and I revel in how simple it all is right now. No one is begging for an iPhone; no one’s rolling their eyes; no one is sneaking out, or getting bullied, or having their hearts broken. It’s pretty great, really, in the grand scheme of things.

But my thought life, and therefore, my writing life, does suffer. Until this week, I’d been willing to let that go as an inevitable consequence of the season. It had kind of fallen into the mini-van category: a necessary evil that makes life for a mother of three exponentially more convenient.

The convenience of not writing, though, the luxury of all this quiet, has its consequences. And while I am not exactly sure what all of them are, the sum of their parts equals Not Good.

I read an article in the New York Times the other day about modern day Mommy Culture – how our life as mothers has somehow become so defining that it’s supplanted our core identities. Until my third child arrived, I felt I was able to hold most things in balance. Since then, I have (mostly unknowingly) been asking myself the following questions: “Do I want to be: A Mom Who Writes? A Mom Who Exercises? A Mom Who Volunteers?” Etc. etc. — As opposed to being a person who does all of those things and also happens to have a family.

The article in the Times came down pretty hard on our culture, and perhaps rightfully so, but I would also argue that all the Super Moms out there are knowing parties in the madness they’re perpetuating. These high achievers want to be the best, and it doesn’t matter if all we’re talking about are cake pops and class party logistics. They’re women who have had their dreams deferred (and sometimes derailed) by the process of parenting, and like everyone else, they’re desperately fighting the demons of insecurity.

I don’t have it together enough to be a Super Mom. I’m kind of a mess, really. But I feel for them, because I kind of know what they’re going through, and I wish for them that they could just take a deep breath and stop. Their kids don’t actually want them to be crazy.

My kids don’t want me to be crazy, either. Occasionally, I have been – and I am not using the term ‘crazy’ as a colloquialism when I write that. But as I have quietly been making my way through the past year or so, I’ve started to mix a little bit of my old self back in with the new. I started exercising after an embarrassingly long hiatus; I’m taking turns editing this awesome new lit mag; I felt the freedom to sit on a porch swing at the beach house to finish the last few chapters of The Goldfinch, while the dads manned the fort. Maybe writing again, more often, is next. We’ll see.

An Experiment with Self-Improvement

On Monday, Baby E had her one year checkup. I often go to doctor’s appointments with a brief list of questions in my mind, and every time I make my mental notes, I am astounded by the responsibility entrusted to us as parents.

Before each of these doctor’s visits, I feel a little the way I did upon discharge at the hospital, when the nurse tells you everything that could potentially go wrong with your baby and then whisks you away in your wheelchair, holding a precious, burritoed bundle, to the unknown. Whoa.

Before my kids’ major checkups, I fear that I will forget to ask the most important questions, or that some huge, but yet-unknown-to-me parental failing will out itself at the appointment. I strive to look as presentable as the mother of two small children can, as though the doctor will take one look at my under-eye circles and the workout clothes I wear every day and deem me incompetent.

This ritual is ridiculous: no one is going to care whether I have on makeup or not at my baby’s one year checkup, and yet I give it weight, compensating for the insecurity that shakes my confidence and the confidence of almost every mother I know: getting it wrong.

As it turns out, Baby E was, and is, thriving. I remembered to ask all the questions on my mental list. She cried, but not too much, when they gave her her shots. We left, well-tended and on to the next thing. But the prep work that went into that appointment got me thinking about how all our efforts, in everything, reveal a little – or a lot – about who we are and what we care about, and where our insecurities lie. Since parenting is, for me, my most consistent gig, I began thinking about the rules I’ve set for our household, especially for Claire, and how those rules reflect on me.

A few, for example: C may only watch two hours of tv a day, tops; her treats usually have to be earned, not expected; she is only allowed juice (diluted!) once a day.

I know: some of you without kids are thinking, “What are you running up there, a prison?” And some of you with kids are thinking: “Are you kidding? TWO hours of TV? Her brain is going to melt!”

So, I’ve taken a couple of these rules to heart, just to see if I really believe in what I’m enforcing and if life will improve if I, not just Claire, abide by them. I never watch TV, so I’ve started limiting my internet access to no more than two hours of web and email, holding myself to the discipline of not checking email every time I pass my computer. It is amazing how much time can get sucked away by the internet, and how numb I often feel after too much time on Facebook or looking around even at interesting, engaging things online. There is a much richer life to be had in writing, books, folding laundry, cleaning out my closets, talking to friends, etc. and I feel more human when I participate in this sort of mundane, real life stuff. So far, so good.

Lately, well, OK, for my whole life, I have been terrible about drinking enough water. I would much rather have hot tea, juice, Pelligrino, or champagne. I mean, who wouldn’t? So, for the next thirty days I’m challenging myself to drink the recommended amount of water each day – 64 ounces. Honestly, I am kind of bummed out about this, since I really just do not like water that much, but if I expect my children to follow suit, I’d better get on board or change my tune.

This self-improvement/experiment at enlightenment may be kind of silly. As I write about it, it feels a little like a delayed New Year’s Resolution or Lenten promise. Its purpose, though, is sincere: Am I teaching my children, even at the most basic level, about who I am and what I really believe, or only about what I’ve been told to do? Let’s hope the former.