Sunday, August 21, 2011

More Than . . .

One morning last year, I sat my youngest child on the counter so he could watch me make his egg. He said, "Mommy, I wish you weren't already married to Daddy, because I want to marry you." I said, "Oh, trust me. As much as you love me, you'll love your wife someday even more."

I hated admitting that to him.

He gave me a hug and said, "I'm in love with you."

Of course, five minutes later he was in love with his shirt, his shoes, Curious George, his scooter . . . whatever could hold his attention. But if I rank up there with a monkey and his favorite mode of transportation, I'd say I'm doing okay.

He just headed outside with his helmet so he can ride his bike around our driveway for a few minutes before I call him in for bed. He's singing and making up the lyrics as he goes along, standing up on the pedals to show off to his sister, and then swinging his bike around in the other direction for a new set of lyrics. And I have to say I'm in love with him, too--in love with all of my kids--even more than monkeys, scooters, applesauce, and diet wild cherry pepsi.

That's always been a common game my children and I have played when they're still young enough to gush over me: "I love you more than . . ." And "anything" is always the shortest and most honest answer, but it's cheating as far as the kids are concerned. According to their rule book, you have to really think about what you'd be willing to do without if you had to choose between them and the next best thing.

I don't feel I gave up anything when I chose to be here at home with them. It was the right choice for my husband and me, and I'm grateful it was a choice I actually got to make--that circumstances haven't dictated my decisions in this regard.

Yet recently I've been thinking a lot about the role of a SAHM in 2011. We have it easy in so many ways. Come on. Admit it. Don't give me, "Yeah, but mothers 50 years ago didn't have to worry about the X, Y, or Z." At the very least, we have it easy as far as the actual work required of us is concerned. I don't know about you, but I don't have to wash my clothes by hand. I don't have to beat my rugs outside. I don't have to scrub my dishes in a dry sink with water I hauled up from the creek and then have to take outside to empty when I'm done. I don't have to grind the wheat for my bread, bake the bread, pick the beans, dry the beans, cook the beans, slaughter the pig, and hang it to cure in the smokehouse. I don't have to sheer the sheep, dye the wool, spin the wool, and make my own clothing. And all of that before breakfast.

What I do have to do is figure out how to let my kids head out their own without circling above and over and around them. I have to figure out what "stay at home" means when I've had the luxury of defining "home" as the place I get to be with my children. I have to figure out how to give them--my kids--up to the big scary world because I love them. I have to figure out how to make my life as meaningful from 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. as it is from 3:31 p.m. to 7:59 a.m. I have to decide how much of what I do is about making our home into a home and how much is about making myself into someone they can call "home" just as I call them "home."

I'm in love with them all. I love them more than anything, even myself. That's the easy part. The challenge is making the "even myself" mean something.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


When Ivan, my youngest, was four, he took swimming lessons not so he could swim in case he fell in the pool (which yeah, that's important, of course) but so he could swim when he dove in, did flips in, cannonballs in, belly flops in (intentionally), all of which he'd been trying even without knowing how to swim. And he was four. Four! Sure, I was proud of that tenaciousness. But I was also a little scared of the fearlessness this kid showed--and still does. He jumps into the pool, into trouble, into a crowd of kids, into life without worrying about how he's going to swim back to the side after he gets there. Daily life with him is unpredictable and erratic and frustrating and exhausting and insanity-producing . . . and exciting and wonderful and gratitude-inducing as well.

Not too long after starting those swim lessons, however, he showed a moment of fear. Ron took him to the deep end of the pool and, with the lifeguard's approval, let him onto the diving board. Now, Ivan had dived into a pool before, but the diving board was much lower than this one and fewer people were watching. Ivan got to the end and froze. He looked around, saw all of the eyes on him, and started to cry. He turned around and headed back for Ron, who assured him changing his mind was fine, and the two of them sat down for a few minutes before Ivan looked at the board and then back at Ron and said, "Daddy, I want to try again." So Ron took him back, Ivan headed to the end, and jumped in without hesitation.

More than his fearlessness without thinking of what will happen next, I admire this kid's willingness to do something he is afraid of. That was not me at four or six. That was not me in elementary school or middle school or high school or college. I still don't think that's me. Part of my refusal to try is my unwillingness to fail. Failure scares me to death. And I know that confession shows off my immaturity, my self-consciousness, and in turn my vanity. Because that's what fear of failure is, really, isn't it? The fear that someone else is going to see me as less than I want to be and the admission I'll have to make to myself that I have yet one other weakness, flaw, or area of complete ineptitude.

One of my favorite books is Moby Dick. Yes, really. I read it once in high school, once in college, and then again after graduation. I didn't like it at all the first time, tolerated it the second, and loved it the third. I was determined to like this book, and it became an obsession for me. One of my favorite lines is delivered by Starbuck, the first mate: "I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of the whale."

We so often think of fear as paralyzing, which it can be and which it has been for me in many respects throughout my life. Lack of it, however, is recklessness. So how do we acknowledge our fears and learn to overcome them, use them to our advantage, without ignoring them completely and putting ourselves and others--whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually--at risk?

Ahab wasn't afraid of Moby Dick. Ahab hated Moby Dick. He wanted his revenge on Moby Dick. We all have a great white whale in our past that has beaten us, even ripped our leg off. Do we go after it again and again until it destroys us and those we love, claiming courage rather than stupidity and megalomania? Ahab said, "Ignorance is the parent of fear." He claimed to KNOW the whale, and therefore had no fear of it. So does knowledge shield us from ignorance? Yes. But stupidity? No.

This is where I am in my parenting lately. I want my kids to be courageous. I want them to tackle what I never would have dreamed of tackling at their age. I want them to ignore what people say they can't do, even ignore what their fear is telling them they can't do. I want them to have huge dreams and I want them to do what it takes to make them come true. And I'll help as much as they let me. But I don't want the whale--that uncontrollable aspect of nature and human nature--to beat them. I don't want them to get out on that dinghy and think, "Crap. Mom should have told me I didn't have the right life vest on for this one. And she should have told me that freaking whale is a lot bigger up close."

School starts here in another week. My oldest starts high school. My second oldest starts junior high. My daughter starts fourth grade--the first year she'll get actual grades and not "shows improvement" or "needs improvement." And my fearless six-year-old starts elementary school where he'll mix with the big kids instead of being king of his own little castle at the kindergarten. It's a scary year ahead.

So the most I can do right now is agree with them that the diving board is more frightening than the kiddie pool. Then I'll cheer them on to get back up there anyway, and keep my fingers crossed that nothing in the water is going to surprise any of us.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Feeling It

I've kept a journal on and off (mostly off since getting married) for the last . . . let's just say since I was in sixth grade. Only it wasn't a "journal" then. It was a "diary." Journals are for record-keeping and for passing on to your children's children. Diaries are for burning before anyone else can find them and decipher the bubbly letters and the various initials of the boys you were madly in love with from week to week.

Oh, yes . . . I had a diary. And I wrote in it faithfully. Important stuff like, "He didn't even look at me today," and "I got a new haircut. I wonder if he'll notice." Or there's my very favorite: "All hope is forever lost." That last one was an entry in and of itself--no clues as to why I felt hope was lost, why ALL of it had to be lost, and why ALL of it was lost . . . FOREVER. But I'm pretty sure the hope was concerning the boy who didn't look at me and probably didn't notice my haircut.(You know who you are, SW!)

Last summer, I looked up from my driveway and caught my youngest (five at the time) tearing a hole in his screen window with some piece of hardware that had ended up on the ledge. Ready to lay into him for destroying our house, I took the stairs two at a time up to his room. And there he stood sobbing, looking out at the other kids playing in our backyard. He was completely oblivious to my impending rage--too caught up in his own sorrow.

So I took a deep breath and knelt next to him on the floor. He glanced down at me and then crumpled, heartbroken, into my lap.

He'd been betrayed by his sister and her friend. Of course, he didn't put it quite like that. It was more like, "They dared me to pee in the pool and then I did and then they laughed at me and said they were going to tell on me." And it wasn't the "telling on me" part that upset him. It was the realization that the three of them weren't in on the fun together: it was them against him. They weren't laughing with him: they were laughing at him.

I didn't have the heart to punish him for the hole. I realized while he cried and cried, and it had "only" taken me thirteen years as a mother to get there, that my feelings are no more valid than my child's. Perhaps they're even less valid at times, because they're complicated by logic and a facade of maturity and the need to be the adult.

I've worked a lot over the last year to slow down my "reaction time" a little. I've tried to be six and nine and (heaven help me!) twelve and fourteen when I'm dealing with my kids' emotions. I've tried to take the steps one at a time instead of two. I've tried to take more deep breaths and to imagine what my children would write in their journals about who didn't understand them or notice them or simply listen to them.

When I was in high school, I went on a huge Richard Bach kick. Jonathan Livingston Seagull wasn't enough for my sixteen-year-old self. I had to read everything he ever wrote. (Weaker teenagers would've collapsed under the weight of my microcosm.) And one of my favorite quotes of his was "Not being known doesn't stop the truth from being true."

Okay, so that one doesn't really have a lot to do with the point I'm trying to make here, but, like I said, it was one of my favorites. However, he also wrote, "The simplest things are often the truest." And what's simpler than a child's emotions? Kneeling down on the floor next to a child in the midst of a tantrum--his or yours--is the best and fastest way to figure out how to calm the heck down.

The hole is still in the screen. Unlike the little boy who made it, it's small enough to be inconsequential.