Family Dynamics and Parental Guilt

I’m supposed to be writing about being taken down from the cross this morning, but my heart is full of my children.

Kids with egg glasses

Nicholas had his kindergarten screening last week, and the mediocrity of the scores…well, to be honest, I freaked out. Nicholas is exceptionally bright, and because he learned so many things alongside Julianna, I assumed he was doing fine. It turns he doesn’t know rhymes and he’s not clear on the sounds associated with letters.

The last few days, I’ve been suffering from a potent case of parental guilt. I know Nicholas doesn’t get from me what Alex did, or what Julianna got from her procession of therapists and teachers.

At the same time, I realized how much of the energy I have to focus on my third child is devoted to problem solving his behavior. When he’s in those moods–and he’s been in one again lately–he can suck me dry in half an hour.

Then I began to think about how differently my children experience the world, simply because of the dynamics of the family in which they live.

As a baby, Alex had my full attention. I’d waited so long for him, I wasn’t going to miss a moment. He was genuinely attachment parented; I napped with him, he napped on my lap while I was on the computer. We talked about developmental concepts all the time: every chance I got, I was pointing out things about the world around him.

Along came Julianna: initially medically fragile, full of new challenges, just when I had arrogantly assumed I had this parenthood thing under control.

100_3583Alex helped with therapy sessions–some of the cutest videos we have are of him encouraging her to walk to him. He grew up knowing he had a responsibility toward her, because she would always be vulnerable. That resonated deeply and still does in his beautiful, sensitive heart. When I told him we were having her repeat first grade, he almost cried for fear that she would be picked on.

And then came Nicholas: strong-willed and self-absorbed. He can be the most delightful child you ever met–and he frequently is, even to me. But it takes only a breath to flip his angel/devil switch. Ten times a day I repeat to myself that strong-willed is a positive characteristic after it’s has been formed properly. But it’s no comfort when my emotional reserves are in the red and I’m in need of yet another creative response to self-centered, uncooperative behavior.

Nicholas goes around picking fights with Julianna all the time. He surely knows that with her, not every yes means yes, and not every no means no. I mean, he’s seen that in action countless times when we interact with her. Yet he’ll say to her, “I want to do my homework (his kindergarten book). Do you want me to do my homework?” Then he’ll come shrieking to me shouting, “JULIANNA WON’T LET ME DO MY HOMEWORK!”

Or, on the way home from Saturday evening Mass, everyone is anticipating popcorn, and out of the back seat, interrupting parental conversation, Nicholas shouts, “JULIANNA SAID I CAN’T HAVE ANY POPCORN!”

I know Julianna said no such thing. She just answered with a yes or no, without really processing the question. But Nicholas feels a need to create drama.

Nicholas profileIt’s hard to feel overshadowed in your family. He’s not being treated unjustly, despite what he thinks, but he craves attention.

I think he’s most jealous of the attention Michael gets. I am endeavoring to enjoy the heck out of Michael’s littleness. I am already in pre-emptive mourning for the day when he decides he’s too big to be chewed on and tickled.

Michael has speech problems and it causes him to shriek in a long, protracted frequency that short-circuits my emotional energy almost instantaneously. But he’s quicksilver: it’s there, then it’s gone. He’s still easy to distract: It’s Nicholas’ turn to carry my workout mat, but you can my shoes.

Michael 2Michael wakes up in the morning happy. Sometimes there’s a five-minute window of whining, but if I snuggle him for a couple of minutes and then start tickling, he erupts in the most adorable giggle, pure joy. His laugh is soul food, and he loves to feed people.  He thinks everything is funny. And even when he’s not actually smiling, his eyes are. He’ll do this pouty face where he drops his eyes and won’t meet your gaze, because otherwise you’ll see the sparkle of laughter in them.

I’m a baby person. I’m not a toddler/preschool person, and so my interactions with Michael are, I have to admit, more joy-filled. Nicholas is more boy than intellectual, despite being sharp as a tack, but he must be aware of the difference at a subconscious level.

Talk about feeling guilty.

The irony is that I expend far more emotional energy on Nicholas than any of my other children. Someday perhaps he’ll realize that mommy was not prejudiced against him. That she was always weighing fairness: who gets what, when and in what order. But that doesn’t help in the here and now.

Perhaps the real story of parenthood is the struggle to stay aloft on the tightrope between doing the best I can and you’d better find more, because that’s just not good enough.