The Look

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Recently, I got “the look.” It has been a while and it was spine-tingly, reminding me of when our kids were little and the looks were frequent and plentiful. If you’re a parent, you know the look I’m talking about. It’s that sidelong glance your kids give you when they are doing something they’re proud of,  priceless peeks to wherever you’re sitting in the audience to make sure you’re watching. This is the look that has resulted in untold numbers of soccer goals being scored while the goalie was scanning the bleachers for her mommy or daddy. The look that gets little leaguers “doubled off” because they absent-mindedly wander away from the base, or forget to run to the next base, while checking if their parents noticed them get on base in the first place. The look your kids give you while taking a bow after their school play, piano recital, or perfect pirouette. And when they give you the look, it’s key that you be looking back, lest you miss the look and your child panics that you missed the whole reason for giving you the look. Kids know there are no instant replays.

This past spring, we were invited by a dear family friend to their grandson’s kindergarten “graduation” ceremony and looks were flying everywhere. Like every other capped and gowned mini-graduate, our friend’s grandson gave the look to his parents while standing in the queue for his diploma, again while receiving his diploma from the kindergarten teacher (whose hand he forgot to shake because he was too busy giving his parents the look), and yet again on arrival back at his seat. We knew just this one graduate, but as each of his classmates crossed the stage, we only needed to follow his or her laser-focused look to identify the proud parents in the audience.

Ours was a sports-obsessed home, and when our kids were little we anticpated many looks during each game or match. We always sat in the same spot in the bleachers to minimize the distraction of searching for us. As they got older, they tried to stifle the looks, to appear cool and unconcerned with what the family fans were thinking, but we caught them looking anyway. Fleeting checks from the corners of their eyes while bringing the ball down the basketball court or striding across the tennis court after serving an ace. For certain of the looks, I had a trademark response our kids came to expect: I held my right fist over my heart and tapped my chest a couple times, symbolizing…well I’m  not absolutely sure what I was trying to convey. Probably heartfelt pride in their accomplishment.  Or maybe it was a sign of gratitude for having healthy and happy kids, and for being blessed to witness their small triumphs.  Or relief that we could offer a silver lining on the car ride home after an otherwise crushing defeat. Not every two-point basket or single up the middle earned a heart tap. Game winning 3-pointers and walk-off base hits usually did. Sometimes I added a flourish to the chest tap by pointing my finger at my young star, as if to say “this tap is for you.”

Our kids are grown and living away from home, so it’s rare for us to get the look these days. When our daughter was leaving for graduate school a couple years ago, she turned to wave before entering the airport security line and gave us the look. I choked up, and tapped my chest. When our oldest son took the oath for the New York State Bar, he gave us the look, and again I choked up and tapped my chest. A couple years earlier at his wedding he didn’t give us the look – he saved it for his wife. We forgave him.

Earlier this summer, as our youngest son marched in with hundreds of his classmates to receive his college diploma, he turned to us in the audience and gave us the look. This one was a prolonged look, a cumulative look for all the smaller achievements we missed seeing that led to this moment. As he met our eyes, he raised his hands in the air in a celebratory gesture, mouthing “thank you.” I gently tapped my chest, and pointed straight at him.

Mom in Perpetual Motion

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I am a mom in perpetual motion. From the moment I open my eyes every morning until I eventually lay my head down at night, I never stop moving.

The lists of things to be done are long, never ending, never finished.

Wake up the kids, feed the kids, grab coffee myself…try to breathe.

Hurry up, we can’t be late!

Where are your shoes? Where is your backpack? What do you mean you don’t want to wear a jacket today?

Hurry, hurry! Never stop hurrying!

Do two things, three things, four things at once whenever possible. It’s the only way to get it all done.

Focus here, no there. Everywhere. Nowhere.

Drink more coffee; turn on the computer; get to work. Watch the clock.

Hurry, hurry, can’t be late! Pick up this kid, then the other. Check the backpacks, sign the agendas.

Help with homework. Wonder, was homework this hard when I was a kid? Thankfully the teenager can help her little brother with math! Remember when 2×2=4? Yeah, let me tell you about Common Core Math!

We’re moving again, never stop moving. Always in a rush. Eat your dinner, just a couple bites. While they eat, I’m loading the dishwasher, sweeping the floor, wiping down the counter…

Never. Stop. Moving.

Can you put your backpack away? Find your shoes so the morning will be smoother. What do you mean you don’t know where they are?

The daughter needs to get to dance class, the son needs to get to karate. Everyone hurry to the car, and off we go.

On the move again!

Drop one kid off, hurry to the next place, drop the other kid off, run errands while they’re busy. Where is my list?

Pick up the first kid, then the second, and we’re back home again.

Yes, you do need a shower.

Yes, you do have to wash your hair.

Hurry, your sister is waiting to get in the bathroom.

Do you need a snack? Okay, I’m tucking you in!

It’s finally starting to quiet down. The noise of the day is winding down, and I am running out of steam, but I am still not finished for the day! Check the laundry, empty the dishwasher, and make sure we have milk. Don’t forget to set up the coffee pot!

Even as I lay my head down at night, my brain is still in perpetual motion. Making tomorrow’s to-do list, adding to the top the things from today’s list that didn’t get done.

There’s always tomorrow.

Parenting To The Lowest Common Denominator

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My daughter is almost six, though she will correct you immediately that she is “five and three-quarters” if she hears you say that because she is precise, and detail-oriented, and very much her father’s daughter in that way.

But she is my daughter, too.

A daughter that I was petrified of having, and then elated that I was having – all because of a very tumultuous past I have with my own mother.  And becausewhile my experience with my mother may be unique, I realize that anyone who is the daughter of a mother or the mother of a daughter has a bond that is fraught with all the complications that have been written about, talked about, and psychoanalyzed long before Freud ever uttered the words “Electra Complex”.

All of this, while walking that tightrope of parenting that that cautions against becoming one of the many stereotypically “wrong” types of mother. You can’t be a “Helicopter” mom or too much of a “Free-Range” mom, and the “Tiger” mom is too overbearing yet the “Best Friend” mom is too permissive.

I just want to be her mom – yet I feel that I have failed her to a certain extent in successfully figuring out who exactly that is, and how exactly to execute that role successfully.

Because I am also someone else’s mom.

When she was born, I became a mommy. Sixteen months later, when her little brother was born and we found out that he’d had a stroke in utero – eventually resulting in multiple diagnoses that included Cerebral Palsy and Autism  – I became a Special Needs mommy.

The two of us went away together this weekend on a four-day road trip we have both been eagerly looking forward to.  Watching her run free, being able to say “Yes, we can go on that ferryboat” because I’m not worried about her trying to throw herself overboard, or “Yes, we can go down all of those big waterslides” because she is big enough and her brother wasn’t there to get upset that he couldn’t go, or “Yes, we can play Skee Ball and Air Hockey at the arcade” because I wasn’t concerned that she might send those wooden balls or plastic pucks flying into the heads of other unsuspecting game-playing patrons, well, it made me realize something with a jolt that felt very much like a figurative slap in the face.

As she stood on the deck of the very same ferryboat I had sailed on during a childhood field trip, as I watched her take it all in – waving to the people parasailing on the lake, eyes twinkling as she listened to the boat playing cheerful tunes on its calliope, face upturned to the sunshine – it hit me.

“We have been parenting to the lowest common denominator.” I told my husband later that night.

We have held her back when it was unsafe or unwise to push him forward.  I have been unable to let go of the vigilance I need to hold onto as his mother and find a way to let loose and sometimes just be her mommy.  It is an occupational hazard among the medical, sensory, and therapy-heavy day-to-day life we are currently living.  If I loosen my stronghold on control, on looking out, on keeping watch, on making sure and double-checking, there’s no saying what might happen. Temporarily loosening my grip on on small hands turns into darting out into busy parking lots, and running downhill becomes a buckled knee or twisted ankle and a trip to the Emergency Room.  Saying “yes” to her, often means saying “no” to him - or forcing him to watch from the sidelines.  Saying “no” to both seems easier – more fair – though I am now seeing that it is the former rather than the latter.

She is cautious, shy, naturally anxious, sensitive and introverted.  She is fine with her father and I going out at night for the occasional dinner with friends or to work events, but worries about what time we’ll be home.  She is happy to play “school” or “camp” or “house” in her room for hours – often preferring long stretches of time by herself. She simmers in her emotions quietly, trying to push them down, worried that if she allows herself to fully feel them, they will somehow wrench themselves from her control and overpower her.  She is afraid that she will not get them back somehow.

She lashes out, then weeps as she apologizes for it.  Afterwards, she relegates herself to her room, emerging a short time later with a picture she’s drawn of you holding hands with her under a blue sky and a bright yellow sun with the words “I em Sorrie” or “I wul be beddur” written beneath in her preschooler’s scrawl.

It is heartbreaking to watch her inborn tendencies towards empathy clash with the developmentally-appropriate Id of an almost-Kindergartner. Having a brother with a potpourri of Special Needs only complicates things further. I look at her and just know that she is shouldering the self-imposed burden of feeling like she has to hold it all together at all times as she watches her little brother constantly coming apart at the seams. 

A version of a line from one of my favorite songs always reminds me of the two of them and describes them in relation to each other perfectly.

She is a china shop…and he is a bull.

He is hearty and she is delicate. He is impetuous where she is cautious.  She walks the perimeter and observes while he makes a beeline for the center of the room.  He will scream when you introduce yourself as she is hides behind me.  I need to give her permission to fly and I need to reign him in.

So how do I find a way to loosen my grip without letting go entirely? How to I find the switch within that allows me to tell my perpetual inner-lifeguard that it’s alright to go off-duty for a little while? How do I parent two completely different children with two very different sets of needs simultaneously and successfully – and safely?

We have indeed been parenting to the lowest common denominator. And that worked – for a time.  Until it didn’t add up anymore. Until the calculated risks that always seemed too high for him, have morphed into a price she is paying for all of the caution we’ve exercised. Until I saw her this weekend, until my eyes were opened up to the limitations we’ve been putting on her.

And she lost it a few times this weekend. She freaked out, lashed out, cried out. Same as it always is when her fears or insecurities or anxiety overtake her.  But something was different in me.  Instead of clenching up, usually already exhausted from holding on too-tightly to them both, my shoulders were down and I wore an expression of calm.  I crouched down, held her hand, and looked her in the eye.

“Hey, it’s okay to be mad, or sad, or frustrated,” I told her. “You can let it out. I’ll still be here when it’s over. There’s nothing you can say or do that will make me love you any less. I’m not going anywhere.”

And it did pass. And she looked up at me and smiled her shy smile and I squeezed her hand.  And we didn’t talk about it because we didn’t have to. And I had the energy and the time and the patience to wait it out this weekend, to really see her.  And now that my eyes have been opened, I know I can’t go back.  I owe her that.

There will be no more parenting to the lowest common denominator.

She is one quarter of this family.  She is one half of our children.  She is a whole person.

And she counts.

Kindergarten Blues

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A new school year is upon us, and this year I get to enjoy the smell of a box of brand new crayons. My first-born fruit of my loins will be starting kindergarten this year, and thus begins such a bittersweet time.

My little Sunshine is a spunky spirited child whose antics delight me and simultaneously drive me to drink. She was the baby I couldn’t leave at the gym daycare for more than 15 minutes because she screamed and clawed to try and reattach herself to my hip. I spent more time trying to squeeze into my yoga pants than I did actually swishing around on the elliptical machine. Every day I would get paged to come get my screaming child. Every day.

I cancelled my gym membership and vowed to hit the treadmill once again when she started preschool. Then I blinked, and it was time to enroll her. At this point she was 2, and I’d spent 821 days tending to her every need. This momma needed a break. I cleared my schedule the first day of school and planned to wait in the library. I knew they’d need me to come back to class and talk her down off her screaming ledge.

I hyped it up the whole way to school telling her how much fun she was going to have with all the new toys and friends. There was no way this little thing in the backseat even knew what I was babbling about, but I had to try. I needed a break.

As I posed her for a picture outside the church doors I got a little lump in my throat. Maybe she wouldn’t scream for so long. Maybe she’d just cry a little and calm down after 15 minutes. I just wanted her first day to go well. I didn’t have time to think about the fact that this was her first step away from me.

She didn’t cry the first day. In fact I had to chase her into the classroom to get a goodbye kiss. That feeling of dread, that mommy guilt that was tugging on my heart telling me not to leave her and that she needed me just faded away. I was happy that she was happy.

Two days without my 2-year-old turned into three days without my 3-year-old, and as another year passed I found myself surfing job boards longing for the day that I’d go back to work full-time in a real big person office with big people chairs and quiet lunches. The terrible twos were nothing compared to the tyrannical threes, and I found myself just surviving motherhood one day at a time.

There were so many days that I looked around my filthy house and wished I had 5 minutes of peace. The sass that came out of my 3-year-old’s mouth was atrocious and I had to remind myself that screaming at her would only teach her to scream. Instead I’d scream in my closet with the door shut and long for a shower without an audience.

Then the time came I realized my own mother was a dirty liar. She said 2 and 3 were really hard, but when they turn 4 they’re angels. That advice stunk worse than my 1-year-old’s diapers. Turns out 4 wasn’t really much better than 3. It was battle after battle, day in and day out. She didn’t want to wear anything purple, and only wanted to wear things with cats. She wasn’t wearing those shoes because the buckle was too tight. Then it was too loose. Then it was too tight.

Every. Single. Day.

I spent more hours than I’d like to admit letting her watch marathons of Ruby Gloom on Netflix while I poured over job boards looking for freelance work. I yearned to be back in the land of rational people who were okay with anything other than chicken nuggets and boogers at lunch and who didn’t wear jam as an accessory.

I scoffed at my friends who said they weren’t ready to send their kids to all-day kindergarten. I boasted that my kid was going to love it since she loves preschool so much. I tried to hide the fact that I was the one looking forward to a full day of productivity.

Then I blinked again. And as I registered my spunky sassy little girl for kindergarten I got another lump in my throat. What if she doesn’t cry? What if I can’t even catch her to give her a goodbye kiss? This magnificent and wonderful little creature that I created and spent 1,898 days with is taking another step away from me. Our special time together is over. And now I can’t help but long for those days of jam smeared kisses. I regret the Netflix marathons and I know that I must savor these last few weeks that I have her all to myself.

It’s heartbreaking, and wonderful and terrifying all at once. And I know that all I can do when I drop her off and the tears well up in my eyes is just try not to blink.

Related post: 6 Things I Learned as a Kindergarten Room Mom

4 Ways Kids Can Keep You in Shape

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Lower Body Strengthening:
1. Give your toddler a bowl with some Cheerios in it. DO NOT put on a lid.
2. Check your Facebook for 7.2 seconds.
3. Look around. Has your toddler spilled every last one? If no, repeat previous step. If yes, pry the empty bowl out of your toddler’s hand.
4. Is he crying even though there was no food left? Yes? Good. Now pick up each Cheerio by squatting rather than bending or sitting on the floor. Try to pick them all up before your toddler’s crying has reached total meltdown level.
Level up: When this exercise becomes too easy, increase the intensity by letting the dog in. Race her to all the cereal.

Cardio:
1. Allow your preschool age children to play “theater” with their stuffed animals on the stairs. Make sure they have all 1,622 animals their grandmother has bought them.
2. Send said preschoolers upstairs with one old, broken toy that no one has played with in months, but for some reason now they both NEED that exact toy or their faith in the fairness of the universe will be forever lost. Lace up your sneakers; Before you finish, someone should be injured and/or wailing.
3. Now run up the stairs as quickly as you can, being careful to avoid the strategically placed horde of stuffed animals. Intervene with preschoolers.
4. By the time you get back to the bottom of the stairs, the fight will have recommenced. Repeat previous step until you are ready to throw away every toy they have ever owned.
Level up: Re-install those old baby gates at the bottom and top of the stairs. This will not only test your physical strength, but also your will to live.

Yoga:
1. During rush hour, put kids in the minivan, being sure to buckle them close enough so that they can reach each other.
2. Hand them each a few toys. Find the nearest traffic jam, and get your van right in the middle of it. Do not turn on any movies or the Frozen soundtrack for your children. They should be very bored.
3. After you’ve been inching along for about fifteen minutes, your children will either begin fighting, dropping toys, and/or requesting snacks and drinks. Wait five more minutes after this begins.
4. When you can’t tolerate one more minute of whining/yelling/crying, make sure you are firmly stuck in traffic, at a standstill, and start trying to appease your children. When a toy is dropped, contort your body while keeping your foot on the brake and retrieve said toy. Try to locate the stray Ziploc bag of Goldfish you saw under the passenger seat without unbuckling your seatbelt. Separate your fighting children with your right arm while keeping your left hand on the steering wheel.
Level up: To attain maximum mental benefit, bring along your spouse. Challenge yourself to keep a Zen-like state of mind while you complete these exercises and listen to the lecture you’re receiving about distracted driving.

Core Strength:
1. Approximately twenty minutes before nap-time, load up your three year old and go to the grocery store. Make sure you have a long list of necessities to acquire.
2. Ask your child whether she would prefer to walk or ride in the cart. Whichever she chooses, tell her she must do the opposite. When she falls to the ground in a pile of angry dead weight, lift her, and try to wrestle her into the cart, keeping your core muscles tight. Maneuver her flailing feet into those tiny holes while preventing her smashing her face into the side of the cart.
3. When it is time to leave, rouse her from her half-sleep in the cart, and lift her back into the car seat while using one leg to keep the cart from rolling down the lot and into the pristine Mercedes two spaces down.
Level up: Bring along your school-age child and allow him to push one of those horrible kid-size carts. Complete the above exercises while preventing your older child from injuring yourself or defenseless elderly women with said cart.

The next time you’re rockin your “good” yoga pants and someone notices your svelte new figure, just channel Gwyneth and say “Really?!? I never get to the gym. Just keeping up with my precious snowflakes is all I need to stay fit.”

You’re welcome.