Tuesday, October 21, 2014

On Realizing I Love My Toddler's Tantrums

Ok, so the title may be a bit misleading. I don't know that I'd go so far as to say that I love seeing my little guy in the throes of misery - crying, kicking, and screaming his frustrations out, all at the same time. Especially if we happen to be in public. Like many parents, I would consider my child having a mega meltdown in a supermarket aisle to be a low point of motherhood. However, I have come to realize that tantrums provide me with unique and often exhilarating opportunities as a mother. I have begun to really cherish them. Let me explain.

Parenting a toddler is tough. There are so many conflicting ideas at play. Their lack of understanding of danger and consequence vs. our need to keep them safe; their affinity for exploration vs. our fear of severe injury or property damage; their intense desire to have things their way vs. our desire for the exact same thing.  I find it is a constant tug of war, seeing how much rope I can allow him to have before I need to yank him back in my direction. Finding the balance is always a struggle and I often feel like we are stuck in this cycle of battles. Nearly every attempt to play together gets thwarted by something. Sometimes it's his inability to sit for more than a few minutes at a time, other times his unwillingness to actually learn the rules of a game. I'm more than happy to make things up as we go along (and some of our most successful activities are ones that evolve out of nowhere), but it often feels like we aren't having as much fun as we used to.

A lot of it has to do with the tantrums. Inevitably, when my son and I are playing together, something will happen to set off a fit. The other day we were just sitting down to play a game of memory when he asked me to a refill his bowl of Cheerios. I told him he could absolutely have more if he ran into the other room and brought me the bowl he had been using. He categorically refused, shrieking and crying that I had to go get it.  The hardest part for me is that I am regularly caught off guard. Sometimes I can make a request like this one and he will say "sure, Mommy," and without missing a beat he's off to the other room. It's tough to know when something is about to happen because his reactions are so inconsistent. In this instance, he cried for a while until he decided it was more important to have the Cheerios and he went to get the bowl. The point, however, is that it is not uncommon for things like this to derail our fun time together.

The question is, how can I get us past the tantrums and back to a place where we can have some fun? I started thinking about these tantrums and the most effective ways to help him through them. What I have come to understand over the months is that my son (and I recognize this is not something that will work for everyone) responds incredibly well to being distracted.  The sillier the distraction, the more successful it tends to be. I've begun getting completely ridiculous with my son whenever he gets into an irrational place. And you know what has happened? We've started laughing a lot. We don't need to get past the tantrum so we can get back to having fun because getting past the tantrum is fun in itself.

I suddenly find myself in a constant state of creativity. How can I make this child happy again? I pull from songs and books and movies he loves. I sing lyrics incorrectly, I mix up characters and family members, I quote books with absurd accents. These tantrums have presented me with a chance to regularly challenge myself to connect with him. They send him to a place where he is irrational and unreachable and I have the tools to bring him back. The emotions of a 3-year-old are so fluid, he can go from misery to giggly in a matter of moments. 

Toddler tantrums have the ability to send us spiraling into a bad place. They are loud and often ridiculous and incredibly frustrating. My knee-jerk reaction was (and still is) to get angry, but I've learned that it mostly just escalates things (doesn't anger always?). One day I do hope that the tantrums subside, but for now, while this behavior is age-appropriate and expected, I'm enjoying the fun it's afforded us.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Five Lessons I've Learned From My Toddler

I wrote a post a while ago about how terrified I was to have a second child. I had many fears about what it would be like to add a fourth person to our family dynamic. As is often the case with worry, the things that were on my mind weren't quite the things that have turned out to be difficult. In the last seven months, the biggest challenge I've faced as a parent is how to handle the woes of toddlerhood.

My older son is three years old and incredibly independent and strong-willed. Most of the behavior he exhibits is totally standard toddler behavior. Some of it is directly related to dealing with having a sibling. My instincts on how to deal with his tantrums and refusal to follow the rules of the house are not always so good. It has (and will continue to be) a work of trial and error. It's tough especially because sometimes what I want to do (ignore him) and what I'm able to do (he's sitting down in the middle of the street for this fit) are at odds with each other.

Over the course of the last few months I've picked up a few tricks that have worked better than others. I am sharing them here for two reasons. One, I like to write things down so that I can reference them when I need a reminder. And two, maybe some of these things that have worked for me will be helpful for someone else. I recognize that all children are different and it's possible your toddler and mine will not respond in the same way to the same interventions. This is not a list of suggestions, it is merely a collection of lessons I have personally learned from one specific three-year-old. I would love to hear your thoughts, though, if you have come to similar conclusions or if you have had opposite experiences.

Lesson 1: The good moments can become bad moments and vice versa VERY quickly.

This is something that both distresses and comforts me when dealing with my son. We can be playing nicely together, enjoying each other's company, when something seemingly minute will set him off and lead to a complete meltdown. Forty-two pieces into a forty-eight piece puzzle and suddenly two of the pieces come apart when I accidentally lean on it. Instant frustration, and the next thing I know he has destroyed the whole thing in a fit of anger and tears. I am often caught off guard by the speed at which he can go from perfectly happy and pleasant to shockingly angry and destructive. But, the flip side of this is that it goes the other way as well. When I watch him in the throes of these tantrums, I think that if I were to get that riled up it would take me a very long time to calm down. That isn't the case with him. The slightest thing can distract him from his fit and settle him right back into a playful mood. With tears still stuck to his cheeks he can be smiling from ear to ear. The emotional pendulum is constantly in motion and what I've learned is that it always swings back in the other direction.

It's good to keep this in mind through the tough moments, because I know there isn't much I need to do to help him get past it. Distractions are helpful sometimes, but for the most part if I'm able to let it run its course, he comes back all on his own. And it's good to keep in mind when we are having a good time because it helps me to not take the sudden shifts too personally. If there is something specific I have done to make him upset, I can certainly try not to do it again, but the fact is, this is who he is right now. He expresses himself through these tantrums. We're working on using words and it won't always be like this, but right now, this is age appropriate behavior. It's helpful for me to remember that when our special time gets briefly interrupted.

Lesson 2: Speak to the baby the same way I speak to him

One of the toughest things for my toddler (M) is figuring out how to deal with his baby brother (S). When S was first born, it was less of an issue, but now that he can crawl and grab and get into his big brother's things, it's starting to cause some tension. I do my best to keep the baby out of M's way while he's playing, but I also can't (and don't want to) have S in my lap for the next three years. It's important, I think, for M to learn how to tell his brother what he wants rather than shoving him (or worse) when he wants to be left alone.

What I noticed, though, is that my reactions in these scenarios is almost always geared towards M. "He's just a baby, he doesn't realize he's pulling your hair." "Please don't push him." "Can you give him something else to play with if you don't want him to touch your blocks?" Everything I've said is true, and even fair, but in putting myself in his shoes, it occurred to me that it must seem like this baby can do no wrong. What I've started doing is addressing S as well so that M can hear my give them both instructions. I don't want M to feel like this perfect baby came along and made me get angry at him all the time. So now, I'll say things to the baby like "S, those are your brother's toys and he's using them right now" or "Don't pull your brother's hair, that hurts him!" The fact that the baby doesn't understand what I'm saying is irrelevant. It gives M the impression that the same rules apply to both of them. He has to be respectful of the baby, but the baby also has to be respectful of him.

Lesson 3: Transitions are way easier when they aren't sudden

One of the worst mistakes I make is when I'm so busy running around getting us ready to leave the house that I forget to mention that we are, in fact, about to leave the house. When I finally have us all packed and ready to go, I say "OK, time to get in the car" and I'm met with a massive reaction because he was in the middle of a book or project or TV show. This is also true of leaving friends' houses, getting dressed, taking a bath, going to sleep or really any other activity at all. Any time we have to transition from one thing to the next, a warning makes an incredible amount of difference. Telling M he has 5 minutes, then 3 minutes, then 1 minute until we X, prepares him and 99% of the time mitigates the ensuing tantrum. Sometimes he still has a hard time, but it is always better than the full-fledged freakouts that happen if I forget to give him the heads up. Most of the time, we count down the last ten seconds and then he readily comes along to the next thing.

Of course there are plenty of kids for whom this wouldn't make such a big difference, but I think the reason it's an important lesson is because of the drastic difference between the two approaches. As I said, it's a lot of trial and error and the bigger lesson here is that sometimes a small tweak can make all the difference.

Lesson 4: Who wants to be on someone else's schedule all the time?

On the days that M goes to school, sometimes I eat breakfast before I take him. Sometimes, I am not that hungry when I wake up so I wait til after I get back home. Some days I eat lunch by noon, other days not until two. It is entirely up to me to decide when I'm hungry and when I will eat. That's not the case for M. For him, it's lunch time when I say it's lunchtime. And if he's not interested in eating at that time, it has the potential to turn into an argument. Finally, I realized that it would be very unpleasant for me if someone else was deciding when I should eat.  At the same time, I don't want to be a 24-hour diner, either, ready to get up and serve him whenever he decides. And so I've started preparing his lunch, leaving it on the table, and telling him he can go eat it when he's ready.

I try and apply this logic in other areas as well. The biggest toilet training fights we have are when I try and force him to sit when he doesn't think he has to go. This one is a bit tougher because he has the tendency to be wrong about this and I really don't want him to pee on the carpet. Still, what I've found is that if I don't bother him and I just remind him from time to time that the bathroom is there if he needs it, he typically goes all on his own.

Which brings me to the most important thing I've learned. 

Lessson 5: He needs to be able to do things on his own terms  

Nine times out of ten when M is having a really tough time it is because I am trying to control what he's doing. I remember one particular time when I was trying to get his shoes on and he was wriggling and kicking and generally making it impossible. "Stop it!!!" I screamed at him. "No Mommy," he wailed back, tears streaming down his face "You stop it!!!" And then I tried to imagine what it would be like if someone three times my size had me pinned down doing something that I didn't want her to do. So I asked myself, does he need his shoes on to get into the car? No, I guess he doesn't. And then I said to him "M, if we go in the car without our shoes on, when will you be ready to put them on?" And he said "Before we go to the playground" And that was that. We drove without the shoes and I put them on him before getting out of the car.

It was a moment of clarity for me, because so often I assert my will without considering what his needs are. The fact is that there are many small decisions that occur within the larger ones. It may be that I am making the call that we're meeting friends for dinner. He doesn't get a say in that, at least not always. But what decisions can he make? Where can I let him have a little more control? The amazing thing is that the more I let him come to conclusions on his own terms, the more he comes to the ones I want him to reach. Whereas when I push my agenda onto him, he naturally rebels against it in an effort to establish his own will.

As my father always taught me, children are just short people. It's important to treat them like human beings. The most common thing I ask myself now is how would I feel if someone did to me what I am doing to him. If the answer is that I would feel angry or disrespected, I have to try and find a different way to get what I want from him.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

To The 9-Year-Old Girl Who Shot Her Gun Instructor

Hi Sweetie,

You don't know me, so I hope it's not too weird that I'm writing you a letter. I'm sure you've had to talk to a lot of strangers recently, and I bet everything you've been through has been really, really scary. I don't want to make you answer any questions or tell me anything at all. What I'd really like to do is hold you in my arms. I'd like to squeeze you tight and rock you back and forth and reassure you over and over and over that this is not your fault. Since I can't do that, I'm writing you this letter.

There's a lesson we all learn at some point in our lives about the infallibility of our parents. Some of us are lucky enough to hold on to our image of their perfection for a long time, others have it shattered earlier. Nine is early. You are entitled to more time living in a bubble where you believe that your parents can keep you safe from everything. Certainly you're entitled to more time to believe that they'd never put you in harm's way. But, parents, like all people, make mistakes. Sometimes mistakes have grave consequences and the people responsible deserve punishment for their errors, but it's important not to lose sight of the fact that no one intends for accidents to happen, even when they were avoidable.

I don't know your parents, but I believe that, if they are like most parents, they love you more than anything in the world. They are guilty only of lack of good judgement. Bringing you to that gun range does not, as some people will suggest, mean they didn't care for your well-being. What it shows us all is that many grown ups in this country are very confused about guns and their dangers and that the confusion has led them to make colossally bad choices.

I'm so sorry that you are a victim of this confusion. I'm sorry that, as a country, we haven't been able to fix this problem fast enough. I'm sorry that you have to live with everybody else's mistakes for the rest of your life. I'm sorry that nobody was able to stop this from happening.

I wish there was more to say. I wish I could make sense of this for you. I can't. It is a terrible tragedy that should not have happened. The only thing I want you to understand is that the fact that you were holding the gun does not mean that you killed this man. People like to say that guns don't kill people, people kill people. But, it isn't true. Guns are designed to kill, and sometimes they do just that, even without consent from the people holding them.

I don't want to make a major political statement to you. You are a child and should be out playing with your friends or doing your homework, not worrying about this stuff. I am sorry, on behalf of all of the adults in the US, that we have let you down so badly. I hope you can find some comfort in the knowledge that we are now even more committed to making sure something like this never ever happens again.

I hope you can feel my hugs wherever you are. I'm so glad you're alive to receive them.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Dear Boys, #YesAllWomen

My dearest boys,

If you've seen me crying over the last couple of days it is because I am overwhelmed yet again with senseless gun violence. On Friday night a young man killed six people because, as he explained, he was getting revenge against all the women who had ever rejected him. In his mind, the unwillingness of women to have sex with him and the willingness of those same women to have sex with other, obviously less deserving men, was a terrible injustice that needed to be addressed. On top of the terrible tragedy that has left more American families devastated and broken, there are reactions to the shooter's justification that have been appalling and alarming. There seem to be people out there who think that there is a place for sentences that begin with "Well, maybe if one woman would have just given him a chance..." Let me be very clear, boys. There is no place for it.

As boys who will one day grow in to men, there are certain things I want to make sure you understand. There is a culture that we have allowed to exist in America that makes men think women are property. It is a subtle message and most men, if asked, would not acknowledge that this is how they think of females. And yet, the rhetoric, the expectations, and the way blame is assigned point to something very sinister.

So, I've made you a list of things to remember. A lot of these are concepts that I hope to teach you over many years, by talking with you honestly about my life and experiences and calling attention to moments that I think can be helpful in teaching you important lessons. But, I also thought that for future reference it would be good to have these things written down. I probably won't be ready to show you this for some time. Sex and intimate relationships are a ways off, given that you just recently learned you have a penis, but someday we'll go through this list and I'll reiterate its importance often. It is likely incomplete, and so I will continue to add to it as I think of more. Maybe some of the people reading this can help out and add their own suggestions as well.

So, here we go*:

1. Sex is not something that you are entitled to. You get to have sex when a woman decides she wants to have sex with you, and you want to have sex with her as well. That's the only acceptable scenario.

2. The reward for being a good friend to a woman is that you get to have her as a good friend. A woman doesn't owe you anything for being a decent human being. If you aren't interested in the friendship, then don't pursue it. But being a good friend does not entitle you to gratitude sex. See number 1.

3. Getting rejected stinks. It crushes the ego, makes us doubt our own worth, and can leave us feeling incredibly hurt. None of that is pleasant. But it's part of life. There is nothing about being a male that means you shouldn't have to feel those things. Hopefully over the course of your life you will develop skills for coping with some of these challenging emotions. I hope to help you do just that. Please don't ever think that someone has done something wrong for making you feel these things. She has not. Loving you is not a requirement of everyone in the human race, despite how easily it comes to me.

4. There are certain things you will never understand because you are not women. That's okay. But what's not okay is dismissing what a woman tells you about her experiences with men because you are not that kind of man. You can't possibly know what it feels like to be female. So, if a woman is telling you about it, listen. You might actually learn something.

5. A woman's clothes have absolutely nothing to do with consent to have sex. Either she says she wants to have sex with you or she doesn't. The idea that a woman's outfit can be at fault for unwanted sexual advances a) puts blame on a victim and b) suggests that the man who made the advances was not in control of his own actions. You are always in control of your actions. 

6. If you are at a party and you see a girl being taken advantage of, do something.

7. Talk to me. Or your father. Or each other. I don't really care who. But don't feel like you have to hide all your feelings. Having feelings and talking about them does not chip away at your manhood. What it does do is give you an outlet for dealing with some of the tough stuff. You are, first and foremost, a human being. We all have feelings. Some of them are wonderful, some of them are pretty miserable. It's important to be comfortable with both.

8. So we're clear. All of this is important. But most important of all - it's never okay to physically harm another person. End of discussion. It doesn't matter how the person made you feel. Or how wrong she was. Violence. Never. Okay. 

*Of course I recognize that you may not be interested in women at all. In that case, filter out what still applies. I'm sure we can make a whole other list of things to consider when approaching your relationships with other men.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Most Important Lesson I'm Trying to Learn

It's become my mantra.

I say it to myself over and over again.

But, sometimes, it's really hard to do.

Don't take it personally. 

We, mothers. We love and we provide and we play. We do all that is asked of us and more. We read and we tickle and we kiss. We cook and we feed and we tuck in. We give and we give because that is our job, and we ask for little in return, because that's the nature of the position. It's not about getting anything back, it's about the giving, providing and teaching. But, sometimes, in order to do this job successfully, we do need to put in a request. Usually a seemingly small one ("come here, so we can put on your shoes," "hold my hand so we can safely cross the street"). And when that request is met with a defiant "no" or a tantrum of epic proportions or an invitation to begin a game of "catch me if you can," it's hard not to feel like it's about making our lives difficult. But,

Don't take it personally. 

Toddlers are fascinating humans. They are learning the ins and outs of their world. They are exploring every facet of existence and figuring out how just how far they can push the limits of the people around them. As awful as their resistance can feel sometimes, it is actually what they are supposed to be doing. We each have our own ways of figuring out how to deal with our children and different tactics are going to work for different families. But, for me, more than figuring out how to work through the challenging behavior is the importance of realizing that the behavior itself is not being employed as some sort of punishment for me.

Don't take it personally. 

The way children grow and develop tends to leave us unprepared for toddlerhood. They start out knowing nothing and needing us for every aspect of life. As time goes on and they learn how to fend for themselves they (hopefully) begin to establish some independence. Again, this is what we want to happen. And yet, that desire not to conform to what's being asked of them, to insist on doing things their own way in their own time can sometimes feel like a major slap in the face. Additionally, as our children get older and seem to understand so much of the world around them, it seems impossible that they can't sense how close to the brink we sometimes are. There are moments when I just can't believe that my son doesn't realize how badly I need his cooperation. His inability to just do the simple thing I am asking feels like betrayal. And yet.

Don't take it personally.

And, not taking it personally does not mean that it's not personal. It is. But not in the sense that it's a personal attack against me. It's personal in the fact that it has to be a sign that I'm doing something right. My son's comfort in fighting me on the everyday details of life tell me that he understands my love is unconditional. He is not afraid to push me. If nothing else, that must mean that he knows innately that I'm not going anywhere. It may make it significantly harder to do my job and it may even feel spiteful at times. But, it's not about hurting me. Or punishing me. Or being ungrateful. It's about growth and learning. It's about testing and evolving. It's about being a toddler.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Can We Please Stop Talking About the Texting?

I can't decide what I find more frightening - the notion that a man could go to the movies with his wife and be shot dead in the middle of the theater by a man in the row behind him, or the fact that in the aftermath of this horror show the national discourse seems to be about the ramifications of texting during a movie.

Let me tell you something about Curtis Reeves. He was a disaster waiting to happen. A 71-year-old man, walking around with a concealed weapon and the legally sound idea in his mind that if, at any moment, he should perceive a threat, he is within his right to shoot to kill. This is a recipe for tragedy.

That anyone is discussing whether Chad Oulson should have left the theater to text his daughter boggles my mind. This has absolutely nothing to do with the massive problem we are facing as a country. People behave badly sometimes. In grocery stores, in movie theaters, in parking lots - you name it. Somehow we have given our citizens the idea that killing others is an acceptable way to respond to a mild nuisance - as long as you can pretend that you were afraid. How far away are we from someone claiming he feared a mother of three was going to use her minivan as a weapon as she swooped in to a parking spot he was waiting for? If Reeves could be so quick to draw his weapon and use it lethally, why would anyone assume that he wouldn't have done so had someone stepped on his foot on the way to the bathroom?

In the wake of the horror in Newtown and the myriad of other mass shootings we have lived through over the course of the last few years, the NRA would have us believe that the answer to the situation is more guns. The saying I've heard over and over is that "the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Well, thank you Curtis Reeves for showing us exactly why that argument is a dangerous one and should be dismissed immediately. Curtis Reeves was supposed to be one of the good guys. And you know who he stopped? A 43-year-old father who made the mistake of wanting to see a movie in the middle of the day. And you know why? Because we've allowed him to think it was what he was entitled to do.

There is only one thing that could have and would have stopped Curtis Reeves from killing Chad Oulson on January 13th: not having a gun. It's as simple as that. A fight may have begun, punches may have been thrown, two grown men may have been thrown out of a movie. But no one would be dead.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Why Social Media is Actually Great for a Mother's Mental Health

This morning I read an article in the Parents section of The Huffington Post about the falseness of family life that is depicted by parents through social media. In this article, Megan Davies Mennes makes a point I've heard several times. She discusses how ridiculous it is that parents use sites like Facebook and Instagram to post photos of their children that paint the most idealistic pictures of what their lives with their children are like. She comments on how these photos show nothing of what happens in between the few perfect moments and claims that we are essentially lying to the world about what goes on in our homes. I've heard this argument made in other places as well, and I recall one particular article suggesting that we are doing a disservice to our friends who are struggling as mothers when we make it look like our lives are a picnic.

And the truth is, there is merit in what these articles are saying. Being a parent is challenging on the best of days and to suggest to others that your life is a breeze or that your children are perfect angels is dishonest no matter who you are. But, I don't really believe that's what's parents are trying to do. Nobody shares the negative details of their lives on social media - so why should parents be any different? I see photos of couples out enjoying themselves all the time. Does that mean they never argue? Does it mean that all the moments off-camera are as pleasant as the ones in front of it? Of course not. They just choose not to share their less pleasant moments with me and the rest of their friends. People often post pictures of beautiful sunsets and beaches. Strangely no one seems to share photos of the sky on gray, overcast, miserable days. That doesn't mean that it never rains where they live. It just means they recognize the beauty in a specific instant, and want to share it.

Additionally, and more importantly, there is an important piece of this conversation on parents and social media that is being overlooked. Being at home with young children, whether full time or not, can be an isolating and tremendously overwhelming experience. One of the traps that parents can fall into is getting so caught up in the difficult aspects that they miss the wonderful moments that pop up from time to time.

The desire to capture moments to post on social media sites creates a situation where parents are specifically looking to appreciate small moments. Do I think it would be wonderful if parents looked to appreciate these moments on their own, without feeling the need to share them publicly? Sure. But, it also can't be ignored that the presence of social media has led many parents to pay more attention to how fun, silly, and sweet their sometimes difficult children can be. It's so important for parents to be able to pause for a second and enjoy the little things, for their own well-being and for their children's. It's good for the parenting soul, it provides the fuel that helps power us through the tantrums and the arguments and the sleepless nights. Who cares what the impetus behind it is?

From what I see on television and in film and in general out in the world, parenting tends to get a bad rap. Parents are portrayed as being miserable and often seem to be pining for the days before their children came along and ruined everything. It's hard for me to think that a few pictures of smiling, cuddly children are going to suddenly make everyone think that the lives we're leading as parents are the most carefree days of our lives. If anything, the message these photos should be sending is "sure, everything you've heard about being a parent is true, but there's also some awesomeness - stay tuned to see some of it."