Parenthood is all about “Pantsing”

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pexels-photo-434446.jpegOnce, I was talking to a favorite uncle about life and all deep things. Because that’s what we do. (He’s a great uncle.) I said, “You know, when I was a kid, and something was bothering me, I’d think it through and make up my mind what to do about it, and that was it. I never questioned it again. Now, I never stop questioning things, no matter how many times I make up my mind.”

My uncle laughed. “Welcome to adulthood,” he said.

I was thinking about this last night as I listened to one of my children baring his soul about an experience that had hurt him deeply. It wasn’t a situation with a simple solution. He wasn’t at fault, but he was letting it get to him far more than was necessary or healthy. I told him what he had experienced was always going to be irritating—like mosquitoes you can’t escape—but he has a choice whether he opens up his heart and lets it hurt him down deep. Even though it doesn’t feel like he has a choice. That he feels things more deeply than other people do, and the first thing is to know that about himself.

A deep, heavy sigh. “Mom, I thought you’d be able to help me. Give me some advice or something that would help.”

Oohf. Speaking of opening up one’s heart and letting things hurt you down deep. This is not how a mom wants to be viewed by her child: as impotent. This is not how a mom wants to BE to her child.

Writers tend to split themselves into two camps: plotters and pantsers. (Those seem self-explanatory to me, but just in case: Plotters have a global plan in place before they embark on a novel; pantsers fly by the seat of their pants.) I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone reading this post that I’m a confirmed plotter. Without a plan I would have no idea which way to go. I would write 5,000 words and then hit a huge wall, because I wouldn’t know where to go. It’s too big a task.

That’s how I feel about life, too. I want a plan, a way to organize the things that are Too Big, the things that are Too Much For Me. This is how I deal with anxiety: by planning for contingencies. Even when plans A, B, and C get derailed, merely having thought through everything prepares me for flying by the seat of my pants.

Last night on our oh-so-romantic Valentine’s date at Denny’s, Christian and I were discussing parenthood, and we came to the realization that although we are plotters by nature, parenthood is really a game of pantsing. You’re totally making it up as you go along.

No wonder we all make such a mess of it.

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On the Need For Retreat

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I am sitting in the dark this morning. Despite my hopes, I woke up a little before five, but instead of the usual mad scramble to figure out how to make use of the time, I laid in bed and allowed myself to drift in my sleepiness, listening to the sounds of the retreat center, praying and thinking and trying to find that quiet mental place that seems so elusive these days, the place where God speaks.

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Image via Pixabay

This week, for a few days, I am at the Liturgical Composers Forum, a week that serves as my retreat: a time to pray twice a day in community, a time not to fill every spare moment with productivity, but instead to be still. Or anyway, as still as I can.

It’s always so shocking when the kids come home after school these days–the level of noise and splintering of attention. It shouldn’t be shocking; this is my normal. But the middle of my days, when I’m not running around, is spent inside my head. I don’t play music because I couldn’t concentrate if I did. I don’t talk on the phone. Sometimes I play my flute, but really my days are spent inside my head. And then the kids come home and everyone wants a piece. Julianna’s little “Mommy? Mommy? Mommy?” So patient when I am sidetracked, which is pretty much always. Then there’s the quintessential example. We went out for custard a few nights ago, and we were all sitting in a single booth at Freddy’s, and while I’m listening to Christian talk, my two youngest are reaching across the table to poke me, over and over, trying to get my attention. OVER-STIMULATION.

I totally lost my you-know-what last week. Wednesday. It was hormonal, but that’s no excuse. The night before had been one of those days: I had to run kids to piano and then come home and make dinner, then get a kid to basketball and make it back in time to teach a flute lesson. All of this with a bad, bad headache. So Alex was assigned to supervise Michael loading the dishwasher. The bad day began when I discovered, Wednesday morning, a dishwasher full of crusted, un-rinsed bowls of chicken pot pie. The job that had been given to kids, that should have been well within their capability to help ease the burden on the parents, had instead become more work for Mom than it would have been in the first place. That was where it started. It went downhill from there.

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Kinda like this. (Image via Pixabay.)

Once the kids left for school, I spent five minutes walking around the main floor and throwing everything the kids had left lying around into a big pile on the living room carpet, to make a point. And then I calmed down, and after school I approached the topic without histrionics and we got started cleaning. Deep cleaning that they would have been paid for if they hadn’t shown such consistent and blatant disregard for the amount of work their parents put in already.

And then I discovered that a week earlier after “cleaning,” Julianna had thrown the toilet bowl cleaner into the cabinet under the sink open AND SIDEWAYS. Well, you can probably imagine I did not keep my cool.

I could see the effect my histrionics were having on Nicholas, in particular. And felt horribly guilty. As if he doesn’t have enough anxiety without Mom turning into a shrieking banshee. And I thought, “I am so ready to be in St. Louis on retreat next week, where I DON’T HAVE TO DEAL WITH ANY OF THIS.”

You would think that one would approach a retreat week with higher motives. But maybe the truth is, the time we most need retreat is not when we are in a good place and seeking to grow closer to God. Maybe it’s when we don’t have our you-know-what together that we most need the time.

This post went in a completely different direction than I meant for it to go when I opened my computer this morning. Well, I’ll save that for tomorrow, I guess.

Battleground: Parenthood

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Butting HeadsThe hardest thing about parenthood, to me, is not knowing. I know he’s mad at me when he gets out of the car at school and takes off without a word. I also know why he’s mad at me. What I don’t know is whether some part of him recognizes the truth of what I said. Or is there only room in his brain for his own self-righteous anger?

I know the horrid things I thought about my parents…and siblings…when I was his age. Actually, with me it hit a little older, but this angst is all familiar.

I feel so often like I’m caught in between. Forced to choose sides, knowing it will, at least temporarily, damage my relationship with the one who comes out on the down side. Forced to arbitrate between (and sometimes among) small people with practically zero self-awareness and an equivalent ability to admit wrongdoing. It takes practice at humility to learn to say “I’m sorry;” most adults can’t even do it. I thought making it part of conflict resolution in small childhood would lay down good neural pathways, but as they get older it doesn’t seem to be helping.

It’s about humming. And Xbox. And who’s packed their lunch. Or done their bathroom chore. And whose turn it is in the front seat. All these completely irrelevant things. Such nastiness toward each other. Such a lack of tolerance. Sharing, oh, the battles. We have one TV, one Xbox, and a limited amount of time. And if one person is using it, the others are getting extra screen time, or else we’re having battles to tell them to go do something else. And no matter how I try to handle it—and I’m always trying to figure out how to be fair—I’m always wrong. Not in the eyes of one of my children. In everyone’s.

I remember someone once saying that if you got Toy X for one child, you had to buy a duplicate for the other one so they wouldn’t fight over it. We had such a knee-jerk reaction to that, but I’ve always understood the temptation, and never more than now.

I have to believe that in the long run, the battles I am fighting will turn out to have been worth fighting. But it’s so hard when everything is a battle.

New Era, New Routine

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Michael 1st day kindergarten

Coloring a star is serious business.

Well, it’s official: all my kids are in full-day school.

For the past three weeks, things have been rather up in the air. I’ve been collecting a list of Things I Will Do When I No Longer Have Kids At Home All Day. Most of them are writing-related, but there are also things like going out and sitting in nature, which I haven’t gotten to do much of the last year or two. Maybe even a little shopping, occasionally. But then, for a while, I thought something else was coming down the pike in my world, that would call all that extra time into question. So I didn’t bother spending the time trying to figure out what my new world was going to look like. And then that “something else” didn’t end up coming to fruition, anyway.

So the first day of school pounced upon me without a whole lot of preparation. This is the first time I have ever found myself reeling on the night before school starts, asking myself, “Where did the summer go? It was unbelievably short. I don’t have a game plan yet for tomorrow when I’m by myself with time to work!”

Of course, yesterday I went from school dropoff to rehearsal to dental appointment, and by the time I got home, the morning was 2/3 gone already, so maybe it’s just as well I didn’t try to make a plan yet.

Still, I’m a person who does well with structure, and who gets stressed with lack of it. Our life with four kids is much easier if we know that Person XY does A on B day, and Person XX does it on C days. We’ve had the same pattern for, well, 5 years at least. But this year our families outgrew the carpool, so that changes the shape of the afternoon. And because I have the full day on my own, I’m taking more of the morning prep instead of trying to squeeze half an hour of work in between 5:45 and 6:20. (Or 40 minutes…or 45…) I’ve actually done the dropoff run the first two mornings. I’ve never done the morning dropoff. That’s always, always been Christian’s job. So clearly, things are going to be in flux for a while.

What I know so far is that the time between the boys’ departure and the arrival of the public school bus will be dedicated to reading comprehension with Julianna. This much I can set down in stone now, and make good use of a small block of time for something that gets pushed aside too easily in the afternoons.

Figuring out how to structure the rest of these days for best possible use of time? That’s going to take a while longer to figure out. But yesterday, remembering my friend’s words: Pace yourself, I paused at 2:35 p.m. and said, “I’ve worked all day. I think I’m going to play for half an hour until it’s time to pick up the kids.”

And I did. I played with a Shutterfly album of Colorado.

On to Day 2. Hopefully a pattern will emerge sooner rather than later.

Being Clear-Eyed About My Special Needs Child, And My Responsibility To Her

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¾ of the way through Day 3 of iCanBike camp, the gym at the YMCA was starting to get less crowded as the more successful campers started heading outside with their volunteers to transition to independent riding. The speakers were playing “give ‘em hell” music like “Eye of the Tiger” and “How You Like Me Now?”, and at the far end, the head volunteer was trying to coax Miss Julianna, in her Frozen t-shirt and polka-dotted skort, off her roller bike and onto two wheels for the first time this week. She was not enthusiastic about the prospect.

And then the strains of The Heavy disappeared to be replaced by:

It worked. Soon enough, Julianna was circling the gym—slowly—on two wheels, the head volunteer holding onto the support pole on the back. Singing, of course. (Julianna, not the volunteer.) And about the time Julianna started sing-shouting, “The fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all!”, she picked up some speed and the volunteer was able to let go and Julianna rode a bike about twenty feet without anyone holding onto her for the first time in her life.

Photo by ICanBike Fulton

As special needs parents, these are moments we cling to. Because the reality is that although these tend to be the moments we share, they are not the rule in our lives.

For every one of these, there are five or ten where I tell Julianna, “Put your clothes away,” and discover that she’s put her dirty underwear and socks back in the drawer with her clean clothes; then, when I scold her and tell her to put them in the laundry, she puts the entire contents of the drawer in the laundry. Or, in an excess of desire to be like her brothers, who are packing for vacation (and who are occupying every bit of my attention and then some), she pulls out every shirt she owns and dumps it on my bed. And when I say, “Julianna, we’ve got to make lunch right now. Put those back, and we’ll pack you after lunch,” she instead empties ALL of her drawers onto the floor of her room.

It’s hard for me to know how much she really doesn’t understand, and how much she is pretending not to. In the above examples, I wasn’t being very concrete. But often I do stop, look her in the eye, and speak very slowly: I need you to put your dirty clothes in the laundry…(pause)…and THEN…(pause)…fold your clean clothes and put them away. Sometimes I even have her repeat it back to me. And more times than not, the outcome is virtually the same.

It’s hard for me to accept that my 10 1/2 year old, who can read literally anything you put in front of her (well, okay, if you presented her with a foreign language or with medical jargon, you could stump her, but otherwise) really is incapable of carrying out a sequence of three simple instructions that she’s been doing every single day for years.

It’s also hard to accept that this experience gives credence to the stinging note on the final reading assessment of last school year–the one where it said she would be well served by handing her preschool books to read.

We’ve been very laissez-faire with Julianna…pretty much her whole life. Partly it’s philosophical, but mostly I think it’s because hey, we have three boys and it’s madness–madness, I tell you. This summer, for instance, I made a conscious decision to focus on getting Nicholas and Michael to swim lessons, because they can learn and learn quickly and be safe in the pool, and that’s one set of lessons we don’t have to mess with anymore! But Julianna isn’t served well by the same instruction–I mean, she does fine, but she’s so slow to progress, it’s a poor use of time and money–so right now she’s sitting out, and when fall ball is over we’ll spend the money on private swim lessons through the winter, when other things are not going on.

But I often feel my conscience pricked at the conviction that if I worked with her more consistently–on reading comprehension, for instance–that she would progress more, that she would be doing better. That I am underserving her mostly because I find the process frustrating. That I, in sum, am not being the best mother to her that I could. Or should.

And often I remind myself it doesn’t matter that much if it takes her 2-3 years longer to learn something than it would if I were more on top of things–because it’s not like we’re chasing a goal of success in trigonometry, statistics, and AP English.

But I really thought by the time she was 10, I could be reading Anne of Green Gables with her. I’ve been looking forward to that for a long time. And she’s just nowhere near that.

So when special needs parents share those moments that seem so small, so ordinary, it’s not just because we want people to understand that our kids can do the same things other kids can do, even if it’s harder or takes longer to get there. It’s also because we have this whole deep ocean of repeated failure that we don’t share. In part that is because we don’t want to be the whiners nobody listens to. But it’s also because we feel a huge, huge responsibility not to scare people off welcoming kids with disabilities into their worlds.

It’s an impossible juggling act, and one we navigate every single day of our lives. Just some days, we are better at it than others.

The Reason That Dream Was So Scary

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Photo by anjan58, via Flickr

I’ll blame it on watching “Logan” late at night. I had this vivid dream in which we were at my parents’ church and in the middle of the Gospel, I realized Julianna’s bus was due to drop her off at home in five minutes. Only my parents’ church is 35 minutes away, and by the time we got home, we had no idea where she was. Then Christian got a phone call from the bus company saying she was in X subdivision and we had to get there in the next two minutes, and he was trying to tell me where it was so I could go find her.

I spent a couple of half-awake minutes trying to problem-solve it before I realized it was a dream and woke myself up all the way. It was 4:30 a.m. and I was afraid to go back to sleep.

This was the first time in a very long time that I’ve felt a desire to wake my husband and seek comfort after a nightmare. Usually I can dismiss the emotional response the moment I wake up because the situation is so ridiculous.

The problem with this one was, it could actually happen.

For seven years, I’ve structured my life around meeting Julianna when she gets home on the bus. For six of them it wasn’t optional: the sped busses will not drop off a child without a responsible adult on hand. They make two attempts to deliver a child and then they take them to the police station. This is laid out up front in the paperwork.

But sped busses are expensive, and a year ago, the school asked us if we were ready to let Julianna ride the reg-ed bus, with an accommodation written into her IEP that she would still get door to door service.

It’s the walk to and from the bus stop at the end of our street that had been my hangup this whole time; otherwise, I really wanted her included in this way as she is in the classroom. So we did it, and it’s been a positive experience, but no longer is there a requirement that the drivers deliver the child into the hands of a responsible adult. At least, I don’t think so.

So for the past year, I’ve made sure I’m there when Julianna comes home.

Until this summer, when all three of the younger kids rode together, and for that reason, I didn’t have to, because she was in company with brothers who would be sure she’d get inside.

Come August, she’ll be riding solo again. And this morning, lying awake with anxiety pouring through my veins, I realized how lucky I’ve gotten that nothing has ever unexpectedly prevented me from meeting the bus—car accident, appointment running late, last minute emergency with another kid—my author’s brain is concocting all kinds of zero-fault premises.

The thing is, Julianna cannot get into the house, and I have no idea what she might do if she found herself locked out.

But giving her a key would be useless, because our door has one of those push-in-and-turn locks that even adults can’t get open. Our next door neighbor couldn’t get in to water the tree for us one Christmas; I’ve lived here ten years and I still haven’t figured out the trick. I just wiggle and wiggle until I hit the magic combination. And the garage door code, aside from being far over her head, is not well made. You have to push the buttons so hard, she would never make it work, even if she could remember the combination. Or we could get her a garage door opener, but what if the power is out the one day I get caught away from home?

“I want to replace the front door lock,” I told Christian the instant he woke up this morning.

He said, “Just do the deadbolt and not the regular lock, and then she can use a key. The deadbolt works fine.”

I said, “Look, if I know I’m going to be gone I can do that. But if I know I’m going to be gone, I can call the neighbors to meet her. The problem is going to come when something prevents me from getting home on time. And I always lock that door.”

So—a new lock, and a key. But the truth is, I’m terrified of handing Julianna a key and saying “if I’m not here, let yourself into the house.” This is the girl who forgets (or chooses not to remember) that I told her to put away her shoes AND her dirty underwear. Who, when she does remember, is just as likely to deal with dirty underwear by sticking it back in the drawer as she is to put it in the laundry basket.

The girl for whom I never know how much she actually doesn’t understand, and how much she’s CHOOSING not to understand. I’m not even sure she knows the difference. She’s a mystery to me.

The girl who, after being shown the pulled weeds lying on the ground to put in the wheelbarrow, instead pulled up my lantana.

That dream, seemingly innocuous as nightmares go, is a reminder to me that parenting Julianna will always be fundamentally different from parenting my other children. And that is why it was so scary.

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Photo by evereverse, via Flickr

The trials and tribulations of Kate, mother

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Golden Hour Swing

Don’t let those innocent faces fool you. I’m on to them.

In the past week, a couple things have happened in my world.

First, we learned that our 5 1/2-year-old needs a nap after school. Luckily, it only took us two days to realize what was going on. Unluckily, we haven’t figured out how to make it really work yet, so sometimes it happens, and sometimes…it doesn’t.

Second, I’d had it up to HERE (envision the hand at the hairline) with being ignored. For example: that blasted black sock was STILL sitting on the living room floor THREE DAYS and FIVE REMINDERS after first being pointed out/instructed to put it away.

I was not happy. Not happy at all.

Saturday morning, I cornered the kids in the van, where they were all seatbelted in and couldn’t get away, and I announced (calmly) (mostly) a change in procedures in our house. From now on, I will give an instruction one time. If I have to give it again, the consequence will be an extra chore. Two reminders = two extra chores. Three strikes and you’ve lost your screen time for the day.

That was 9:30 a.m. By lunchtime, Michael had lost his screen time.

On Sunday, Nicholas made it to two strikes. Even though we had a conversation about it while he was doing the job I’d given him.

(What kind of conversation, you say? I’m so glad you asked. Here’s a strong-willed child insight: “So,” he says, as he’s sllllooooowwwwwwllly doing what I told him and getting his a) loose change, b) wallet, c) ear buds, d) book off the table so I can set for dinner. “So…do we get three strikes every day? Or do they just add up till we hit three?” Would you like to know where I found all that stuff? On the stairs. Still not put away. Envision me pounding my head against the nearest hard surface.)

But wait! There’s more! Sign up today and for absolutely free (oh wait, this isn’t an infomercial? my bad) you’ll get Miss Julianna on Sunday afternoon, trying to sneak extra iPad time by closing the door to the boys’ room so I wouldn’t hear it talking to her.

And that night, in what is becoming almost a nightly pattern, we came upstairs to go to bed and found Nicholas and Michael having a sleepover on their floor.

As my husband is known to say, when told of his children’s latest and greatest exploits:

“Awesome.”