Battleground: Parenthood


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.


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


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


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.


Photo by evereverse, via Flickr

The trials and tribulations of Kate, mother

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:


In Which A Recovering Social Loser Processes Her Kids’ Social Status (or lack thereof)


Photo by  Laura Barberis, via Flickr

Elementary school and junior high were no picnic.

I had my first breakup in the fifth grade, and it wasn’t even a romantic relationship. My best friend…okay, let’s be honest, my only friend…came over while I was sharpening my pencil by the coat rack and said, “I think we should be friends with other people.”

She used those exact words. I was too young and dumb to realize that actually meant I don’t want to be friends with you anymore.

For a year, I didn’t have any friends at all.

I was always picked last.

I never got the jokes. (Full disclosure? Sometimes I still don’t.)

I was only invited to birthday sleepovers because it was a Catholic school rule that everyone had to be invited. And people made fun of me when I was out of the room. I heard them.

High school was a fresh start for me, and three of the four years were basically good. Sophomore year was terrible, start to finish. But even during the good years, when people said, “These are the best years of your life,” I shook my head inside and chose to believe they were just being idiotic adults.

Most of the time, adults knew what they were talking about, but in this case, I’m happy to say, the teenager knew more than they did. Thank God. In college I finally found my people—the classical music crowd—but it took full-on adulthood to reach a point where I feel like I am happy with who I am and I exist in a community of people who understand me.

Frankly, I think it has a lot to do with being happily married. A child’s emotional stability, that sense of belonging, gets rocked by the onset of adolescence, and you spend the next ten to twenty years trying to find a new place where “home” means the safety you knew as a young child. Just sitting here thinking about it, I grieve for the children who never know that sense at all, and for the adults who never found it again. And, frankly, for the list of people for whom high school was the best time in their lives. Shudder. Imagine if life never got any better than that.

Why this traipse through the ghosts of angsts long past? Because now I get to experience it in a whole new way. More than one of my children is currently experiencing some variation of the not-good-enough that defined my later childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Probably it defines those parts of everybody’s lives, but in adolescence, those of us who inhabit the bottom of the social totem pole—not good at sports, not cool, viewing primping as a waste of good superhero-drawing/reading/writing/music practice time—feel that our faces are rubbed in our inadequacies quite frequently. Who knows? Maybe it’s harder to navigate those insecurities at the stratospheric end of the totem pole, because you are trying to keep up appearances when you feel like a fraud. Maybe I should be grateful for the spiritual/emotional/intellectual honesty of having had nothing to prove—both for myself and my children.

But it’s hard to see your kids suffer. As much as I value being outside the mainstream on, well, let’s face it, just about everything, I know how it hurts to be looked at like you’re somehow less valuable for it.

What I am grateful for is the fact that so far my kids want to talk to me about it. Because I’ve thought long and hard on these questions over the years, and for that reason I don’t fall back on the useless and maddening platitudes that adults used when I was a kid. Because we can use the experience as an ongoing opportunity for lessons in mercy, in recognizing how every situation is more complex than it feels, and in keeping the focus on Jesus.

And mostly, because it lets me love my kids really hard.

Parenthood: A Series of Un-Winnable Battles


Photo by quinn.anya, via Flickr

It’s happening more and more often these days. I find myself frustrated with something my kids are doing (or not doing), saying (or not saying), and I think: Did we act like this when I was a kid? How did my parents deal with this?

There are long stretches of life when you sort of glide through life and you feel like you’re basically doing okay. There are bumps in the road, but they’re just that. Not crises. Just little bumps.

And then there are times when you see what your kids are doing and you think, Did I cause this? Is this my fault? Am I somehow teaching them this appalling behavior without realizing it?

Those days, it’s really easy to feel like a failure as a parent, and not even really know why.

My kids fight a lot in general, but it seems much worse lately. They’re all in each other’s business. The mantra of my early-childhood-parenting years– “You take care of you” –seems to have lost its effectiveness. My entire life seems to consist of statements like, “It is NOT your business to tell your brother to eat his vegetables!” and “Did I ask you, or did I ask your sister?”

It goes without saying that they are calling out their siblings’ misdeeds while blissfully (or willfully) ignoring their own transgressions.

Worst of all is yelling at one of them for being a bossy busybody, and then having to turn to the victim of the bossing and tell them the bossy busybody was right. I mean, that’s a no-win situation! I have to choose between affirming Busybody’s busybody-ness or letting Lazy child get away with Laziness!

And it all escalates, and parental tempers short out, sometimes in public, and it’s embarrassing and potentially relationship-damaging, and I circle back to this question:

How did we get here? What did I do to make it happen? Because it surely has to be something I did!

My middle- and high-school journals are filled with the word “lecture.” As in, complaints about parental lectures. Remembering this, I’ve tried really hard to keep my own parental lectures compact. I don’t want them to tune me out; if all I’m doing is flinging verbiage at a reflective surface, I’ll only increase my own frustration.

But it’s hard, because I’m so sick of giving the same instructions over and over and over and over. How many times have I told children to flush the toilet and wash their hands? Why do they still need to be told this every time they exit the bathroom?

How many times have I said, “Put your shoes IN THE CUBBIES”? or “Put the toy/book AWAY,” and the first response is crickets, the second is to pick up said item and lay it on the stairs, the third is to carry it up or down the stairs and drop it on the floor?

I often feel like my parenting consists of a) instructions followed by b) the need for consequences. This is not okay. I mean, how many times a day can you take away screen time, which is the only thing they actually care about?

In the toilet training years, people are always saying, “Oh, don’t stress about it, no kid goes to kindergarten in diapers. It’ll happen.” I’ve always wanted to shake people for saying that, because kids don’t just magically do it on their own. They have to be taught—even Michael, who did sort of magically train himself, needed several months’ worth of parent-led practice first. If the parent has to lead, it’s the parent’s JOB to stress out about it.

That’s the way this feels, too. Part of me whispers, Chill, Kate. They’ll grow out of it. And then I think of families I know in which the adults really still don’t get along all that well, and I think, Um, I’m not so sure I can count on them“growing out of it.”

So Sunday morning, I did the only thing I could think of. I stopped everyone at breakfast before church—before anyone had a chance to get in someone else’s business, before there was time for an escalation, before there was time for a parental explosion—and I re-instituted the “screen time depends upon getting along with each other” rule.

On Monday, one child lost his privileges.

Tuesday is a no-screen-time day, anyway.

We shall see what happens today.

A Manifesto on Parenting


When I was newly married, I spent one year substitute teaching in the local schools. That was a very educational experience. There was the elementary school that was universally viewed as the worst in the district (it has since been closed and reopened as a Title One/gifted/Early Childhood location), which started requesting me after I worked there once, and I couldn’t figure out why. There was the first grader in a different school who dropped the f-bomb and I was so appalled, I said, “No. Not ever” in a tone of voice I’d never felt within or heard from myself before, as if some other, more authoritative, human being had momentarily possessed me. (I use that voice regularly now.)

Most importantly, there was the day I was assigned to be the second teacher supervising last-period suspension at a middle school. After the kids left, I got into a conversation with the other teacher about these troubled kids. She was telling me about research showing the damage that had been done to many kids in young childhood. It wasn’t that they were abused—it was that they were ignored, stuck in front of a TV or whatever so the parents didn’t have to be bothered. These kids had problems forming attachments and trusting authority, and for that reason they struggle with behavior and human interaction for the rest of their lives.

Her takeaway has stayed with me word for word: “By the time these kids get to kindergarten, it’s 100% unfixable, and it was 100% percent preventable.”

I did not realize it then, but these experiences were shaping me as a parent as much as anything I learned growing up. And having to wait three years to become a parent gave me an excruciatingly long time to think and process what I saw unfolding around me. I often struggled not to judge, but that’s a different topic. From then until now, I have always taken a very intentional approach to parenthood. It goes like this:

My children will know they’re loved. They’ll know it in their bodies, in their minds, in their souls, so completely at such a deep, visceral level that they won’t ever have to question it.

They will know there is right and wrong. It won’t always be simple to identify; it will usually involve shades of gray and require mercy as well as sound judgment; and more often it will be harder to do than to identify. But they will know it exists.

They will know being part of a family involves responsibility. They are valued and important, but they are not the center of the universe. This means chores and looking out for each other, even when they don’t particularly like each other. The boys, especially, are being formed in the knowledge that they have to be responsible for their sister.

I will honor their unique interests and gifts. It’s not about having them reproduce my formative experiences—or, for that matter, fulfilling my unfulfilled childhood dreams. It’s about finding who they are called to be.

Luxuries and privileges are just that—luxuries and privileges. Privileges are earned and luxuries can be enjoyed more if they’re not experienced all the time.

They will know you can’t have it all. Sometimes you have to choose between good things, and just because “everybody else” does two sports and, and, and, doesn’t mean it’s a healthy lifestyle. Because…

Family and faith are #1. Being involved with church is non-negotiable, and family dinner is the rule, not the exception. Family game nights, family outings, building a community centered around the real-world practice of the faith—these are the things that keep us grounded and give us the emotional and moral strength to be good—and no less important, happy—people.

My job is to raise holy, happy adults who have the mental and physical discipline to do good things in the world. And everything I do as a parent is done with that central principle in mind.