Sunday, May 11, 2014

Six Pieces of Advice for Real Parents

"Mom, I made it stop raining today. I came out of the library and I yelled at the sky 'stop raining! I've got big plans today!' And almost right away, it stopped raining.  But my powers are limited. Then I tried to turn Sean into a 35-year-old but it didn't work."
-Avery (April 2014)

Parenting can be hard.

Some days it can be really freaking hard.

I-spent-the-last-eight-months-glued-to-my-couch-horking-down-Klondike-Bars-and-today-I-have-to-run-that-10K-I-signed-up-for-back-in-August hard.

Fortunately, most of us are surrounded by people who love to give advice about how to master every aspect of parenting.  And unfortunately, a good deal of that advice comes in the form of either veiled shaming or flagrant self-promotion.  So if you're a parent, and you're looking for real-life advice you can use, you've come to the right place.  I have no shame, which means I'm sorta the perfect one to offer you the following words of wisdom.

1.  The years may be short, but the days are still long.

Want to hear the single most assholish thing you can say to a person who hasn't slept in five days, hasn't showered in four, and just spent the afternoon washing someone else's diarrhea out of her favorite bra?

"Treasure this time, you'll never get it back."
Fuck you.

My kids won't be little forever, but that doesn't mean a lot of today didn't suck.  That's right, I said it.  Some days I rock at this gig, while others have me mentally calculating the number of hours until bedtime.

Here's some truly helpful advice for my fellow parents out there: at the end of each night, scrap any misplaced guilt you may have regarding the fact you were slightly less than orgasmic about the diaper blow-out that covered your only clean shirt while $200 in groceries sat melting all over your shopping cart.  Then, pour yourself a glass of wine and - when you are ready - go into their rooms and watch your babies sleep for a few minutes.  That's time you can really treasure.

2.  It's all small stuff.

When my oldest son was two, I signed him up for a mommy-and-me gymnastics class, and I was crappiest parent in the room.  It was mortifying.  My kid was the only one who thought it would be more fun to climb the walls and rearrange the obstacle course than do a perfect somersault.  For four straight weeks, I begged, bribed, threatened, and time-outed while the other pink-cheeked babes and their smug parents robotically followed directions.  Then we dropped out.

My real mistake?  Not dropping out after session one.  If your kid is great at this type of thing (my youngest would have put those cherubs to shame with his ability to follow directions), then go for it.  If not, take the $35 enrollment fee, buy yourself a pedicure, and congratulate your child on saving you both from having to make a weekly trip to the smelly YMCA gym.

Is it a problem if your kid is the last in the group to be potty-trained, hates kale, or can't sit through library storytime?  I mean, is it REALLY a problem?  Is it hurting anyone?  Is your child's health or safety at risk?

No?  Then chill.  Most of your friends' potty-trained, kale-eating tots are probably biters anyway.

3.  They WILL outgrow it.

Remember this: your son is not going to attend high school in diapers.  Your daughter will not refuse to eat
anything but strawberries and flour tortillas when she's an adult.  Worst-case scenario for most rotten behaviors is 18 years.

I've gone through seriously tough weeks and months with my kids, and I am sure the toughest have yet to rear their ugly heads.  Yet somehow, we've always come through to the other side.  The thing about that astronomical physical and emotional development that comprises childhood is this: new behaviors are constantly cropping up, and it takes a little time for you and your child to figure out successful strategies to cope with each one.

Here's an example.  When I brought up my oldest son's bedwetting several years ago to our pediatrician, she told me he would outgrow it and I should stop worrying.  Unless, of course, it was a problem for him.

It wasn't.

"Don't you want to stop wetting the bed?" his dad would ask.  "I can't help it, daddy," he would say simply, "but hey!  I'll grow out of it!"

Naturally, I worried.

But he outgrew it anyway. 

4.  Maybe it's just your kid.

Fellow parents of strong-willed kids, I'm about to offer you a huge gift, so listen carefully:

Maybe it's your kid, not you.  Maybe you're not doing it wrong.  Maybe your kid is just challenging.

I could have cried when, after several years on end of late nights, frequent wake-ups, and early mornings, our pediatrician looked over our oldest son's chart and admitted, "it's possible he just doesn't need a lot of sleep."  It was so validating!  In a separate discussion over his constant desire to negotiate rules and consequences, my good friend and parenting expert Vanessa suggested he might be a child with a high need for control.  Again, so incredibly validating.  Some kids are more challenging than others.  If this is your situation, own it and learn to work with it.

There is a ton of great advice out there if you have a fairly easy-going child, but some of it just doesn't work the same way for more challenging kids.  I have three kids, and they are all different.  A fairly mild look in his direction will set my youngest son to crying and begging forgiveness, so you can imagine he's pretty easy to parent.  Not so with the older two.

So maybe, just maybe, it's your kid.

But then again, maybe it's you.  If you're giving your kid grape soda at 8:45 p.m. on a school night, it's definitely you.

5.  You have a great kid.

You have a great kid.  I know it's hard to remember sometimes.  I know if your adult friends treated you the way your kids treat you, they wouldn't be your friends very long.  I know there are times when you look at your child and you're completely at a loss.  But really and truly: he or she is an incredibly special little individual who has unique interests and talents, as well as significant strengths, and boundless potential.

I don't even have to know your kid to know that.  He's amazing.  Or she's amazing.

Our children are going to do amazing things in their lives, and they will change this world for the better.  No matter how rotten they've been today, there are great kids buried in there somewhere.

Remember that when you're ready to let the wolves raise them.

6.  You are a great parent.

If you're a mother or father, nothing is worse than being made to feel like you're a bad parent.

When I was in high school, I worked for a couple of years as a cashier at our local grocery store.  I remember one day where a young mother was desperately trying to console her upset baby with one hand and pay for her groceries with the other, when the older customer behind her leaned forward and said, "a better mother could get that baby to stop crying."  It wasn't until after I had kids that I realized it would have been a pleasure to get fired from my $6/hour job just for the moment that I could have refused to ring up his groceries.

That baby is probably in high school herself now, and I wish I could go back and tell that woman that she is a great mom.  But I can't, so I'll tell you instead: you are a great parent!

Are you loving and attentive toward your kids?  Do you do the best you can?  Do you fret over your mistakes, while striving for constant improvement?  I think so.

Remember #5?  Your kids are great kids with great potential who are going to do great things in the world because of YOU.

Pat yourself on the back.

Monday, December 9, 2013

On Blame

"I have Christmas stress.  I get it every year.  It means stress about trying to be good 
so I'll get lots of presents."
-Avery (December 2013) 

The other day, I opened up my Facebook messages to find my husband had sent me a link to an article decrying the growing helplessness of today's kids, wondering about my thoughts regarding the author's conclusions.  As a full-time college professor, Jason has occasionally run across the odd overbearing parent such as those described in the article (though never - at least not yet - has he been asked to explain a grade to a student's parent via cell phone in the middle of a class).  FERPA, he claims, provides the best excuse - not only is he under no obligation to discuss adult students' grades with their parents, he's actually required not to do so.  In any case, though, Jason was not overly shocked to read accounts of college professors who had been subject to inappropriate requests and demands by the so-called helicopter parents of their adult students.  And I wasn't either.

The question, of course, is why?  Why are we not blown away by these socially improper, developmentally unsuitable, ridiculously condescending parenting tactics employed by grown adults on behalf of people who are also, lest we forget, grown adults?  Why does it not surprise us that grown children would bring in their parents as reinforcements when the going gets tough?

And the answer, at least in my estimation, comes partly in the form of one very nasty, insidious, ubiquitous little word: Blame.

If you follow my blog, you may remember a previous post I wrote about how the pressure to be a "good mother" comes mainly from other mothers, who are also working tirelessly to portray themselves publicly as good mothers.  But the question of what it means to be a good parent (mother or father, though mothers still seem to bear the brunt of the pressure) remains a philosophical debate, and in America, even though it's become downright im-fucking-possible to be a good mother, we hold on the idea that every single outcome for any given child rests on how "good" the child's parents are.

The natural extension of this concept, of course, is that a "bad" outcome - whether a child develops tooth decay, is diagnosed with ASD, or throws a tantrum in a restaurant - must always be due to some fault in the parent, and because parents are blamed (and in turn, taught to blame ourselves) for negative behaviors/outcomes their children display, the pressure involved with parenting "correctly" has become untenable.  We research the shit out of everything, obsessing over the risks of taking a Tylenol during pregnancy, restricting our kids from wheat, dairy, sugar, meat, and anything else that tastes good, fighting vicious battles with other parents over everything from circumcision to sleep schedules, and nursing our secret feelings of superiority on the rare days our kids don't watch any TV.

We exhaust ourselves trying to do it perfectly, and then we lie about it when we can't, at least in part because we know if at any point our kids fuck up in any way, it will be assumed that we are at fault (and we will agree).

This blame is often manifest in despicable ways.  A kid goes missing while walking home from school?  Well, the parents shouldn't have let the kid walk home alone.  A toddler is injured in a car accident?  There must be some reason for blame, and it must go beyond the reasonable (was the kid restrained? was the driver texting?) to the ridiculous.  By God, we'll find some reason to feel morally superior and reserve our sympathies.  Was that 29-pound, 23-month-old front-facing?  Did the parents cheap out and buy the Graco carseat instead of the more expensive Britax model?  If so, we wash our hands of their pain.  They knew better.

One excuse often provided is that we live in a different world now (a worse one).  But is it true that the world has become a more dangerous place?  If anything, in many ways, the world is becoming a better place.  America's violent crime rates continue to drop.  There are more democracies in the world than ever before.  We even recycle more of our garbage than we did a few decades ago (okay, okay, we're making more garbage too...).  No, the difference can't merely be pinned on living in a more dangerous world.  Kids got hurt in car accidents and snatched by bad guys in the 1950s too.  The difference is that now we have a 24-hour news cycle that is only too happy to tell us every time it happens, and guess what?  They're also happy to help us decide who is to blame.

Without going deeply into political philosophy, I'd argue that blame has a purpose: it's useful in terms of controlling people's thoughts and behaviors.  If - on a grand scale - we are supposed to believe that people (not structural problems) are always responsible for their own misery, then it is important to blame individuals for anything that goes wrong in their lives.  Unemployed?  Your fault.  Lung cancer?  Must have been a smoker.  Overweight?  Quit eating so much.  Divorced?  Nobody takes marriage seriously anymore.  The truth, of course, is that all of these issues are extremely complex, and are often rooted in biology, history, and/or social problems.

Sadly, as a culture, we have allowed some of our greatest founding ideals - individual responsibility, free will, meritocracy - to give us reasons to look down on our fellow man.  We have been taught to believe in prevention, even though not everything is preventable.  We hold victims in contempt, reserving our sympathy and resources for those whose values more clearly resemble our own.  Blame also allows us to pretend we're not vulnerable.  If we shell out the cash for that Britax carseat and forbid our children to walk home from school, then we are practically invincible...

...except, of course, we're not.  Because we live in a world that is by spells amazing and imperfect, where bad things sometimes happen.  Where an honor student walking the right direction on a sidewalk can be hit and killed by a drunk driver in broad daylight.  Where a toddler can be molested by her own parent.  Where heredity has been found to play a substantial role in obesity, and where there is a dearth of jobs that pay a living wage.

But I digress.

The sad fact of the matter is, if we are indeed raising a generation of helpless kids, it's not because of bad parenting.  It's because of "good" parenting.  If there is a generation of helpless kids, then their helplessness was born of our extreme desire to do it right.  And that can only mean one thing: maybe it's time to re-evaluate what it means to be a good parent.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Parenting: Is It Worth It?

"You know what I'm going to be when I grow up?  I'm going to be a 'basketballer', 
a paleontologist, and one of those guys who walks around town picking up garbage 
off the ground with a stick and putting it in a bag."
-Avery (July 2010)

Some years ago I discovered a yearbook I had made in the first grade, which included a short Q-and-A section about what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I had filled in the "career" blank as follows: A teacher on Tuesdays and Fridays and a mom the rest of the time.  My first grade teacher, it must be noted, was a ventriloquist who had a puppet named Chester, and I'm pretty sure he must have come to the classroom on either Tuesdays or Fridays.  I'm not sure why I liked the other day.

But it was obvious even from age six I was planning a future that involved children of my own.  (Ironically, my firstborn was anything but planned.)

If you think about it, there's really no way to "plan" for kids, even though many of us planned every aspect of our children's conceptions and births.  Despite not always being a child-friendly culture, America loves the idea of babies and children, which means most of us grew up socialized to believe parenting would be generally rewarding and rarely difficult if done properly.  And if (like me) you grew up to be one of those parents who openly acknowledges raising your kids often feels more frustrating than rewarding, you probably also have plenty of experience hearing and reciting the following corollary: 

"...but it's worth it."

This conclusion that raising kids is "worth it" seems to be blindly accepted - indeed, expected - whenever a conversation turns to the demanding nature of raising kids.  I mean, what kind of deplorable human being wouldn't gladly give up everything they own, for the rest of their life, for just a single one of those gummy smiles?

But I had a moment last week.

Not quite THIS bad, but almost.
It was one of those really, really overwhelming days parents sometimes have where nothing goes right: the kids have been trashing the house to the point of actually damaging the walls and furniture, the meat hasn't thawed in time for dinner, it is impossible to meet that self-imposed work deadline, the living room inexplicably smells like pee, everyone in the household is having some sort of conflict, I can't bear to even look at myself in the mirror, and the coffee table, washer, dryer, and all the baskets in the house are overflowing with laundry, clean and dirty.  As I rinsed the ground beef off my hands to wade through mountains of clothing and break up a Skylanders-related fight that was on the verge of becoming physical, I had a moment.  A moment where I felt - no, I just knew - it wasn't worth it, and I was a Bad Mother for feeling that way.

Except that I didn't really feel like a bad person.  Instead, I felt like I can't possibly be the only parent who has ever hit this nadir.  And it left me wondering: why do we parents always insist on saying it's "worth it"?  Is it really worth it?  Or are we just too terrified of what other people will think if we admit that once in a great while, it's not?

What does it even mean when we say it's worth it?

The root problem here involves conceptual issues around the word "worth."  What makes raising kids "worth it"?  Is it money?  Happiness?  Personal fulfillment?  Something else, intangible and indescribable?

It can't possibly be money.  With three kids, Jason and I are pretty much always broke.  The USDA estimates it costs about a quarter million dollars to raise a child to the age of 18.  Many of those costs overlap between kids, so let's say with our three, it will cost "only" double that.  A mere half a mil.  Might I see some returns on that in my old age, when my kids are paying for my nursing home?  Maybe.  But if I were a non-parent financial genius, I could likely invest the equivalent of that half mil and retire on a private island somewhere before I was old enough to collect Social Security.  Oh, and I'd also have an income to invest, because I'd actually be working for pay.

Bottom line: raising kids is expensive.  Our grocery budget is a running joke - with three boys (ages 2, 5, and 8), we spend nearly the equivalent of our mortgage payment plus taxes and insurance on groceries each month.  Jason and I once bumped into our childless friend Matt at the grocery store, who commented, "Whoa!  That's a lot of groceries."  And that was during our mid-week (aka small) trip to the store.  In terms of clothing them, we are lucky to have all boys, two of whom could theoretically live in hand-me-downs, but after each had grown out of last of the 2T stuff, there was not a single pair of shoes or long pants that made it down to the next kid without being completely demolished.

If you were to sit me down and say, "I've got a job for you.  It involves major and permanent bodily changes, and giving up every night of uninterrupted sleep you might potentially have for the next six years.  Despite the fact you will be making three healthy meals a day for other people, you will on at least one occasion make a lunch out of someone else's chewed-up M&Ms you licked off your own breast because you didn't have a free hand and didn't want them to stain your favorite shirt (too expensive to replace it).  You will be handling other people's bodily fluids without gloves, and experiencing constant - and I mean constant - guilt and worry.  You'll have multiple bosses who are almost always impatient and demanding.  And you'll walk barefoot across floors covered with Legos every day so that you can put away mountains of laundry that doesn't even belong to you.  Oh, and by the way, it comes with a fabulous salary of $0/hour with no retirement, no medical, no vacation, and no sick days," I'd probably tell you to go fuck yourself.

Except I didn't.  Except I said "sign me up!"  I said that.  Three times.

So it's not money.  We've established that.  What about happiness?  Is it happiness?  Do our kids make us happy?

In Robert Sutton's book The No Asshole Rule, he argues that negative interactions have a fivefold stronger effect on mood than positive ones.  Which, I suppose, suggests that for every negative interaction, five positive ones would be required in order to balance things out.  Now, Sutton's research and book are focused on creating a positive work environment (my friend Dusky bought it for the two of us to read when we were sharing a particularly difficult boss), but since my work environment and my home are one and the same, I can safely say the ratio of positive to negative interactions is nowhere near 5:1.  In fact, if all three kids are at home and bored, it's sometimes closer to 1:5.

The truth is, one really cute smile is not enough to make up for a forty-minute screaming fit over being denied Scooby Doo fruit snacks at the grocery store.  It's not.  It's just not.  I don't care what anyone says.  Kids take and take and take.  They don't give nearly what they take.  Kids are by definition dependent on their parents.  That's why you get tax deductions for them.

Studies on parenting and happiness have reached mixed conclusions.  Some suggest that parents are happier than non-parents, some suggest that non-parents are happier, and others suggest happiness levels are about the same.  And then there are some like happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, who suggests children bring high levels of both happiness and misery to the lives of their parents.

Incidentally, parents of small children are among those who report lower levels of happiness.  Which is ironic, when so much of what we hear from others is related to how fast it goes by and how badly we'll want it back.  While I don't doubt I might someday feel that way, in the meantime it bears acknowledgment that the days are long, the work is unrelenting, and those tropes do more to make me feel guilty than grateful.

Interestingly, though, empty-nesters are among those who report the highest levels of happiness.  Which brings me to my next point...

...personal fulfillment, then.  That's got to be it, right?

Maybe there is something to that one.  Research does suggest that parents report higher levels of meaning in their lives than non-parents.  But again, what does "meaning" mean?  What does "fulfillment" mean?

My childless friends do shit like go to Europe and run marathons.  They do that!  They have sex that doesn't involve blocking out the sound of someone knocking on the door, begging for a snack.  Is that not fulfilling?  Is that not a life worth living?  Not having kids opens doors for you in the prime of your life that are often closed to those of us who have become parents, whether by lack of opportunity or financial impossibility.

Now, I'm not trying to start a battle here between parents and non-parents.  That battle is already raging.  There is a body of research out there that supports the idea people generally feel their own personal choices are the best choices for everyone, which logic rules cannot possibly be true.  I've been directly and indirectly accused of contributing to world overpopulation, and once while walking with two of our kids in downtown Portland, Jason and I were pejoratively referred to as "breeders" by a passerby.  On the flip side, I'm sure there are plenty of non-parent adults who have had parent friends who refer to them in equally pejorative terms and wrongly assume their lives lack meaning or purpose.  I have a very dear childless-by-choice friend who once relayed a story in which she was holding another friend's baby when someone told her, "See?  You don't hate kids after all!" as if remaining childless had anything to do with that.

So if you've made the decision not to have children, you made the right decision.  It's not worth it.

But if you made the decision to have children, you made the right decision too.  Because in spite of it all, 94% of we parents say that having kids is "worth it," and except for those one or two rare moments when circumstances become so overwhelming as to feel untenable, I count myself among them.

For those of us who are parents, it is worth it.

Not by one single objective measure.  But still.

It's worth it.

Because I sometimes feel like I had too many kids, but ask me which one I could live without.

Because I read Sophie's Choice 6 years ago and I'm still traumatized.

Because when I heard a story about parents explaining to their young son what it would be like when he was dead from cancer, I couldn't even find the voice to describe it to my husband hours later.

Because if I think too hard about Sandy Hook when my kids are at school, I will find myself on the verge of a panic attack.

Because when I sit down and try to imagine my life without them, there's nothing but blackness.

Because I love them.

Because I don't want to live in a world without them in it.

My children are a part of me: the blood of my blood and the flesh of my flesh.  They are like the air I breathe, and when it comes right down to it, isn't that the ultimate measure of whether something is "worth" having?  Not its impact on financial stability, happiness, or any other quality we may value, but whether we could bear its absence.  And for those of us who are parents, when it comes to our children, that "question" isn't really a question at all.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The One About Conflict Resolution

"Crime is like when a bad guy takes a battleaxe and tries to chop you with it."
-Owen (December 2012)

There's nothing in this world I'd like more than to be able to have a productive yet flowery, kumbaya-type dialogue with my kids every time there's a problem.  And while we're hanging out in Fantasyland, let's also keep in mind that my kids never break the rules, and if they do, there's no question it was truly an accident.  We sit and hold hands, and I talk about how we're going to prevent the behavior - together - from this point forward, while my children gaze up at me all big eyes and pink cheeks, hanging on every word.  When the conversation is over, they say things like, "Gee, I never thought of it that way before," and "OK, mommy, I understand."  They apologize and I fold them lovingly into my arms, and there are hugs and kisses all around.  Then they go skipping down the hall to have a quiet little tea party for three.

But then, that's Fantasyland.

Kids aren't like that.  At least mine aren't.  In real life, the moment I pull someone aside for a talk he goes into defense mode: I may not understand it, but this time, there really was a legitimate reason to ram the tricycle into his brother or pull down the curtain rod.  He makes an effort to negotiate any rewards or consequences associated with his behavior, and when the conversation is finished, he almost inevitably winds up stomping off angry, muttering "mean mommy!" under his breath as he goes.

"When they say 'mean mommy', I hear 'good job!'" says my friend Renae.  I'm working on adopting her attitude, as I feel it might boost my parenting-related self-esteem considerably.

It gets even tougher when more than one kid is involved, which is almost always the case.  Then there are two or more children each trying to clarify their positions, and it's going to be a cold day in hell before anybody walks away happy.  Research on sibling relationships has determined that for each hour of playtime, your typical pair of siblings spends about 10 minutes fighting, with a conflict occurring on average every 17 minutes.  I'd call that pretty generous, but then I also happen to have three kids, so instead of one sibling relationship, there are four: three pairs and one triad.  Which could potentially work out to me spending something like... oh, I don't know... seven hours a day in conflict resolution.

How's my math?

The truth is, I'm not terribly worried about most of the conflicts my kids have with one another.  Most of the time nobody winds up bleeding, and beyond the occasional, "give it back, fart man!" they seldom even engage in ad hominem attacks.  My kids are not generally mean, cruel little people.  So long as there is no systematic bullying-type behavior occurring, I see no reason to get freaked out.  Incidentally, the reasons most experts provide for sibling conflict makes me wonder how many of them have ever met a pair of young siblings, let alone parented them.  Jealousy?  Competition for parents' attention?  Poor conflict resolution modeling by mom and dad?  Puh-lease.  There's simply no need to get so complicated.  Here's a rough breakdown of the sibling conflicts in my household, arranged in an easy-to-read pie chart:

See?  Actually pretty straightforward.  Theoretically, I could solve 90% of all sibling conflicts by buying three of everything, but I've already tried that and it only works until one gets broken.

As a parent of multiple children, I can safely say that if I allowed myself to become involved in every one of their conflicts, it would wind up ruling my life.  It is a rare situation when only one kid bears full responsibility within a conflict.  Once I intervene and ask for reasoning or a timeline of events, the bullshit quickly piles up so high I'd need to strap on stilts to step out of it.

When my older kids first reached the age where they were fairly evenly matched in a conflict (Avery had the size advantage, while Owen had fewer qualms about biting), I started to realize that my intervention was often doing more harm than good.  The solutions I would propose were generally regarded as invalid ("No, I really need to play Candyland by myself!"), it was hard for the children to believe their brothers needed that toy as badly as they did, and in the end, all of us usually wound up feeling more angry and stressed than if I had just let them work it out on their own in the first place.

And so I learned to stay out of the minor conflicts whenever possible.  Kids are often capable of resolving them, which for mine usually means working out some sort of trade.  Or one of them will decide it's just not worth it and go find something else to do.  Sometimes this isolationist policy backfires, as this manner of conflict is generally motivated not the tangible object itself but rather the principle of the matter.  My friend John-with-an-H once relayed a story in which his younger daughter came to report that her older sister had taken away the toy she was playing with.  The informer was holding the toy at the time.  On another occasion, Avery had control of the TV but had promised to put on something Owen liked to watch.  Owen's response?  "I don't like something I like!"

When they can't work it out, I usually try to let them come to me.  My go-to strategy is to comfort whoever is crying, rather than trying to figure out what happened, since I won't get the straight story from anyone.  Most of the time, directing negative attention toward whoever I deem to be the major culprit seems to be less effective than directing positive attention toward whoever I deem to be the more likely victim.

This isn't to say I never intervene - once the physical contact goes beyond trying to pry a toy out of someone else's hand, it's definitely time.  But when I don't have to, I won't.

Conflicts are developmentally appropriate.  There is a huge body of research evidence to confirm the fact that virtually all siblings fight.  Why?  I suppose it's similar to why baby lions and bears tangle with their siblings.  Conflict with other children is a cornerstone of how kids learn what constitutes socially appropriate behavior.  Without conflict, how does one learn how to resolve conflict?  In addition, conflict teaches children how to deal with not getting their way and how to cope with outcomes that feel unfair.  Kids learn how to gauge others' behavior and body language partly in the context of conflict, as well as which words and behaviors make it clear they've pushed it too far.  Conflict can help children learn about themselves too, in terms of social order, social comparison, and what types of social interactions they prefer.  To a greater or lesser degree, I think that conflict is probably necessary and inevitable for kids, and it's neither necessary nor productive for parents step in and solve every single conflict on their children's behalf.

There sure seems to be a lot of other parents who don't seem to share this philosophy, though.

Case in point: two years ago, when I almost got beat up in a McDonald's Playland.

We were 900-odd miles into a 1350-mile road trip, and decided to overnight in Boise, Idaho where Jason had planned to meet up with a few friends from his college days at Boise State University.  Being the awesome wife that I am, I told him to "Go!  Have a great time!  I'll find something fun to do with the kids, and see you whenever you get back to the hotel!"  Of course, having spent a sum total of 48 hours in Boise in my entire life, I had no idea where all the cool kids were hanging out, and so we headed to a McDonald's Playland I saw from the freeway.  Lest you think I'm trying to play the role of Good Mother and this was some sort of rare treat, I'll be the first to admit my children are on the verge of having the kid's menu memorized.

It was a great time to be at this particular Playland, since the Happy Meal toy of the month was a mini-lightsaber and there were about 10 other boys between two and eight up in the play structure with Avery, who was six at the time, and Owen, who was three.  All of the kids appeared to be having a great time... until somebody started crying.  A minute later, a little boy came down the tube slide in tears and raced over to his mother, a very tall and extremely intimidating woman, who asked him what happened and then promptly thrust him into a chair and left him sitting alone while she tore over to the end of the slide.

"DID YOU SEE WHO HIT MY SON!?!" she yelled at the first kid who appeared at the bottom.

Jesus.  Please, let it not be one of my kids.

The little boy shook his head and ran off to his own table.  The next kid slid down.


Not one of mine.  Please?  I don't want to die tonight.

Unfortunately for me, the next three little boys had seen the hitter.  The angry mom stomped to my table, leaned over me menacingly, and shouted: "YOUR SON HIT MY LITTLE BOY!"

"I'm so sorry," I told her, thinking what a crying shame it is that causes and places of death are so seldom listed in obituaries, because mine was going to be a real doozy.

"AND WHAT DO YOU PLAN TO DO ABOUT THIS!?" she screamed down at me.

I felt like King Robert must have, when Queen Cersei demanded he have the direwolf killed.  I called Avery over and asked him to state the truth of the situation. "I was swinging my lightsaber and I hit him with it," Avery admitted.  "But mom, I didn't mean to.  It was an accident.  And I told him that I was sorry."

I looked up at the screamer and, in a bold moment of bravery (though not quite bold enough to point out if you send your two-year-old into a McDonald's play structure with a dozen other kids swinging mini-lightsabers, you get what you get), I threw up my hands.

"WELL!" she exclaimed, beginning to calm down.  "I guess you and I aren't going to have a problem after all."

She stalked back over to the table where her son was still sitting alone.  I packed the barely-touched Happy Meals back into their folding boxes, grabbed three kids' worth of sandals out of the shoe corral, and raced them all barefoot across the parking lot before she changed her mind.

On another occasion, we attended a birthday party at the home of a friend.  The older boys were playing outside when I walked into the living room to find another guest, who I had only just met, was physically blocking 27-month-old Gavin into a corner of the room in an attempt to force him to apologize for whatever behavior this man felt was so egregious as to warrant an apology to a grown man from a 23-pound toddler wearing nothing but a swim diaper.  And another time at a different birthday party (I may have to start declining these invitations) where Avery hit an older kid in the face with a foam pool noodle after being teased and harassed by him for the better part of ten minutes.  The fact it felt unfair didn't make the hitting acceptable, so I walked Avery over to where the kid was complaining to his dad and suggested he apologize.  He offered what I knew to be a surprisingly sincere and humble apology... and then, the dad took it upon himself to gruffly lecture him, while the older boy smugly looked on.

Secretly, I sometimes wonder if these people are raising the next generation of road-ragers, who have also seemingly been imbued with the parallel beliefs it's always the other guy's fault and it's my job to police everybody else's behavior.

I am sure someone out there is wondering why I don't do a better job advocating for my kids.  Maybe I'm doing the wrong thing.  In my head, I like to think that I do advocate for them most of the time - I just don't advocate for them to have the upper hand in a fight.  I don't like to engage with other adults about this type of thing unless it's absolutely necessary.  I don't claim to have it all figured out, but with eight years of parenting under my belt, I've come to understand it's usually easier to avoid this type of problem than it is to argue about it.  But if you're looking for some practical advice regarding how to appropriately intervene in children's conflicts when not all of the children involved belong to you, let me offer a few suggestions:

1.  By all means, feel free to intervene if one of my kids is doing something harmful.  It takes a village, people.  I have three kids and two arms, and if I happened to be turned in the opposite direction when one of my kids did something wrong, feel free to step in on my behalf...

2. ...but when you do step in, don't be a jerk about it.  Don't yell at my kid.  Don't try to punish him.  Don't engage him in a protracted discussion about the issue.  Of course you can suggest an apology might be in order, but don't force it.  Your best bet is a simple, "That's too rough.  More gently, please!"

By the way, the time to teach the lesson regarding apologies is when your kid is at fault.  Forcing another kid to apologize to your kid only teaches him that his parent has the power to force other kids to apologize.  This teaches your kid narcissism, not empathy or politeness.

3.  If you want me to listen to what you have to say, don't storm over angrily and start making demands.  This tells me you are an aggressive person, and makes me question whether my child is really at fault or whether you were looking to pick a fight.  Let me know - nicely - what is going on and I will be happy to handle it.

4.  Keep in mind that children have infinite capacity for manipulation.  When describing a conflict, they are almost always smart enough to omit the role they played.  If your kid and another kid aren't getting along, and are roughly an equal match, the odds are extremely good that both kids were involved in escalating the conflict to the point at which you intervened.

Here's the takeaway: kids have conflicts.  It happens far more often than most parents would like, and sometimes it rises to a level that requires adult intervention.  But that doesn't mean the adults involved have permission to sink to their level.  When you wrestle with a pig, you both get dirty... but the pig has fun.  As parents, we should be supporting each other and working together to raise the next generation of good citizens.  And that means when a conflict is unsolvable, we should model that we have the self-control to walk away.  Because ultimately, when it comes to conflict resolution, that's the most important lesson any kid has to learn.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

I'm Ditching This Masquerade Ball

"The girl I'm going to marry?  She has to be pretty.  And she can't eat her boogers, 
because I think it's yucky to kiss someone who has boogers in their mouth."
-Avery (May, 2010)

The checkbox on the preschool sign-in sheet included only two options.  As I marked the first, my child will be bringing a lunch from home, I noticed the name of the child on the line above.  On his line, the other box had been checked: my child will be having the school lunch.

Keep reading.  This is not where I proselytize the virtues of the homemade, wheat-free lunch packed into a BPA-free bento box in the shape of a sunset scene, complete with palm trees and leaping dolphins.  I'm not going to try to convince you that conventional milk will cause your kindergartener to start menstruating, or complain that the USDA school meal standards allow macaroni and cheese to be counted as a vegetable.  Although I do most of my cooking from scratch and my kids eat a fair proportion of organic foods, my third-grader also ate two bowls of Fruity Pebbles for breakfast this morning.  Even worse, I daily pack their PB&Js in Ziploc bags.  I know, I know.  The horror!

The reason I felt surprised, a little irritated, and more than a little vindicated when I noticed the "school lunch" checkbox was precisely because I had recently endured that very lecture from this child's mother.

Now, I'm not normally a small person, and I'll certainly allow it could have been a one-time kind of deal.  Maybe their utility main froze and there wasn't enough clean water to brush the kids' teeth with fluoride-free Tom's of Maine and wash the PlanetBoxes.  There could have been a family emergency, or they may have been in the midst of moving.  I don't know.  All the same, I had an epiphany in that moment: I had been made to feel like a Bad Mother by someone who had no more right to the title of Good Mother than I.

In her excellent book Bad Mother, author Ayelet Waldman lays out the criteria for Good Mother, a role that she argues is defined by self-abnegation:

"Her children's needs come first... They occupy all of her thoughts, her day is constructed around them, and anything and everything she does is for their sakes.  Her own needs, ambitions, and desires are relevant only in relation to theirs...  A Good Mother not only puts her children's needs and interests above her own, but enjoys doing it."

So what exactly does it mean to be a Good Mother?  It goes beyond rising before dawn every day to make grain-free, dairy-free, dinosaur-shaped pancakes with organic raisin eyes.  Although that will certainly boost your cred, it also means maintaining both a spotless house and a trim figure (but utilizing absolutely no time that could have been spent with your children to clean or work out).  It means all your kids' birthday decorations are unique, thematic, and made by hand (but again, using absolutely no time that could have been spent with your children to make them).  It means unplugging your TV, and homeschooling seven kids through graduation, and tandem (or triandem) breastfeeding until every last little one has independently decided that it's time to wean himself.

Good Mothers don't spank or yell at their kids.  They never even feel the urge to do those things.  And for that matter, they don't use that oh-so-cruel and antiquated system known as "time-out" anymore, either.  After all, what does it teach your child to send him away for acting out on his unmet needs (especially when you're always the selfish jerk refusing to meet those needs)?  A Good Mother can invariably and accurately predict tiredness and hunger, because under no circumstances should a child ever learn to cope with being hungry or tired for any length of time.

As I'm sure you've guessed by now, I agree with Waldman: the Good Mother is a figment of imagination.  When the image we have come to associate with modern motherhood includes a woman with no stretch marks working out in the middle of a living room full of white furniture, it's obvious how incredibly disconnected "motherhood" has become from real motherhood.

I'm not saying there aren't bad mothers.  Or that there aren't women who largely resemble the Good Mother.  However, if you think back to that old Dove evolution of beauty ad, I would argue that the typical mother is analogous to the woman who initially sits down in the chair, while the Good Mother is every bit as unattainable as the final image on the billboard.  A given mother may look a little more or a little less like the billboard image than other mothers, but that still doesn't make the image real.

The apocryphal Good Mother is a threat to mothers everywhere.  She negatively impacts our entire self-concept.  Further, she refuses to acknowledge many aspects of family life that are not within every mother's control: not every mother can stay home with her children, not every mother has perfect teeth and tight thighs, not every mother can afford to hire a housekeeper.  She also declines to recognize the many aspects of our children that are outside our control: not every child needs the same amount of sleep, not every child has capacity to read at two years of age, not every child will ever have the ability to swing all the way across the monkey bars and back.  And in many cases, those things have more to do with the child's individual temperament and biological makeup than anything the parents could have done or not done.

But as harmful as the myth of the Good Mother is, there's something even more injurious lurking at the fringes: to a large extent, as a community of mothers, WE are the ones who participate in and propagate this stuff!

Perhaps you've noticed on your Facebook wall or in your playgroup that mothers report their successes frequently and enthusiastically, while making little or no mention of their failures.  In fact, all the good mothers on Facebook these days are growing their own quinoa and grinding their own millet.  They use their pooping time to practice flash cards with their kids, and they make their own vanilla extract.  They do projects with their toddlers, which turn out exactly like that one on Pinterest.

In real life, obviously, most of us - including these same mothers - look the other way when our toddlers take a swig of our lattes.  We extend our pooping time by several minutes to finish People magazine while ignoring the Mercer Mayer books shoved under the bathroom door.  We blow up bottles of vodka trying to make that vanilla extract, and we're responsible for virtually all of the content on Pinterest fail websites.

"We should make a crap-terest site," writes my friend Jessie.  "We could post pictures of real life, if we could find the camera.  Like my midnight baby covered in vomit.  Or me doing my son's valentines (by "doing", I fully mean "folding") AT midnight when the baby starts to vomit.  Only to take the valentines to preschool where there will no doubt be a Pinterest mom with paper-mache silhouettes of all the children."

There has been a lot of research in recent months about the concept of impression management and the ways in which Facebook makes us feel bad about our own lives.  This phenomenon is not unique to moms or to the concept of motherhood.  And again, I'm not saying there aren't mothers out there who seem an awful lot like the Good Mother.  Some moms are crafty (good for you!), and some moms are thin (wish I was one of you!), and some moms have clean houses.  (I do, although just about every day I run into a Facebook meme that makes me feel guilty I chose to clean it instead of savoring every single second of my children's childhood.)  What I'm not doing here is dissing anyone for being good at something, or even for being good at almost everything.

What I am dissing is the fact that as a community, we are losing authenticity.  Publicly crafting one's image as a mother is rapidly becoming a mandate to out-mommy everyone else.  And while that might be fun for a handful of moms, there are thousands of others who find themselves jumping on a horse they never wanted to ride.

With so many of us broadcasting the ways in which we're doing it right, others come to the conclusion we must be doing it wrong.  Most mothers aren't exactly posting Facebook status updates about how their kid swiped a classroom toy or got busted playing "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" with the neighbor kid.  Instead, they're posting about their 10-month-olds who have been accident-free for weeks, and their seventh-graders who just signed up for fall semester at the local college.  As a result, the mothering community at large concludes it is our children's behavior that's outside the range of normal, and by extension, we must be inferior mothers.  And how do we resolve the crisis presented?  We start doing the same thing.  Omit the bad.  Hyperbolize the good.

The result of this inauthentic behavior is that we've basically dismantled our own support system.  When everyone is a Good Mother, how do you admit to being anything less?

To remedy this problem, I'm officially calling for a long-overdue end to parenting pretension, and to start, I'm issuing the following challenge: once in awhile, make it a point to admit to being less than perfect.  Maybe your daughter spoke her first words, and they happened to be "PBS kids dot org."  Maybe those spectacular handmade Lego Star Wars birthday decorations were purchased secondhand, from some crafty Pinterest mom who spent hours making them for her own son.  Maybe you read A Clash of Kings out loud to your kids at bedtime (skipping over the whoring and beheading, naturally) because you were just so tired of Magic Treehouse.

I'm not saying you shouldn't proudly and truthfully report your successes.

I'm not saying you should complain about your kids.

I'm not saying you must turn your social circle into a cesspool of negativity.

You don't have to make an announcement every single time you lose your shit (and wind up tossing that marker/sucker/Matchbox car that has inspired so much hate and discontent between your children into the garbage can).

All I'm asking you to do here is allow yourself to be vulnerable.  Admit once in awhile that you're not always sure of yourself.  Your kids aren't perfect, and neither are you.  Ask for help when you need it, and when someone else asks, offer what you can.  And while you're doing that, make it clear you understand everyone's circumstances are different, and what works for you may not work for another... which doesn't mean they're doing it wrong!

We can all band together and restore some much-needed humility and authenticity to this thing called motherhood.  Because it gets really freaking hard sometimes.  And until we can somehow bring the bar back down to a realistic and attainable level, we owe it to ourselves and to mothers everywhere to stop pretending we're vaulting over it.

Also, my apologies to the fantastic dads for leaving you out of this one.
You know who you are.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Cheese and Crackers

"I'm gonna pop some tags, I got twenty hot dogs in my pocket..."
-Owen (April 2013)

It spilled out of his mouth as Jason braked to avoid the taillights racing back to meet our front bumper.  The tires caught dry pavement between the patches of ice, and as I let out the breath I'd been holding, I turned toward the driver's seat and asked the question lingering on both our lips.

"Did he just say the F-word?"

Jason swiveled his head toward the back seat.  "Son, can you tell me what you just said?"

Eighteen-month-old Avery gave him a big smile full of tiny, white teeth.  He sat up a little straighter in his carseat too, but for once, our little myna bird seemed to be at a loss for words.

"He definitely said the F-word," I answered myself, rubbing my temples.

"Shit!  That does it.  We have got to clean up our language."

Now, I know what you're thinking... I put my 18-month-old in a front-facing child restraint?  Call CPS!  And in the meantime, try to keep in mind that this was way back in 2006, when the self-appointed carseat police were a little more laid back than they are these days.  I'd never admit to doing it today.

Yes, of course any half-decent parent would have stopped swearing long before their kid had the vocal articulation to repeat their naughty language.  But in our defense, newborn babies are cunning.  And disarming, too.  A baby doesn't repeat what you say, and frankly doesn't even appear to notice when you use a nasty, obscene word to describe your overbearing, demanding boss.  If anything, as babies grow they become more and more delighted with every word and sound you make in their presence, which is hardly a disincentive to start curbing your language.  And by the time you realize that they get it - they really do get it - they're already engaging in road rage-related swearing on your behalf.  It happens in the blink of an eye.

Before I had kids, I was never much for profanity.  Oh sure, the well-timed F-bomb was always fun to drop, and maybe I threw out a "dammit" here or there when that troll Clay Aiken made it to the finals of American Idol Season 2, but I like to think I was at least somewhat judicious in my choice of language.  I peppered and salted sparingly, especially compared to my younger brother J.L. who, throughout his early adulthood, filled the pauses in all of his sentences with "fuckin'", where other people might make better use of "umm" or "uhh."  As Jason would say, though, that's a low bar.

Maybe it was the sleep deprivation.  Maybe it was the colic, or the reflux, or the overbearing, demanding boss.  Maybe I'm simply making excuses.  The point is, somewhere along the line the two of us started to reach a little too often for the low-hanging fruit, and our toddler decided to hold us accountable.

We kicked our efforts into high gear immediately.  "Crap" and "friggin'" were simply not options in terms of alternatives; with our son sponging up and wringing out vocabulary like so much poopy underwear, the goal had to be clean language, not marginally-better-but-still-not-good language.  Out of necessity, "fudge" made the list, as did "crum" and "cheese and crackers."  We did a spectacular job.  That one little blip on the icy Eugene highway was the first and last vulgarity we ever heard out of our tot.

Until the following winter, at least.

It was another cold evening and Avery, now two, had been going a little stir crazy in our tiny condo for most of the day.  Jason and I decided that we all had to get out, and a little early Christmas shopping might be just the thing to cure a nasty bout of cabin fever, so we bundled up and drove down West 11th Avenue to a nearby Target.

As we approached the toy department, I briefly noticed a 30-something man in a leather jacket at the end of an aisle, comparing a couple of action figures as he sipped from a reusable coffee cup.  Avery raced past him and stopped short in front of a Hot Wheels dinosaur track.  I watched his eyes widen and his mouth drop open, and in his excitement, it was quickly obvious that he had lost all awareness of decibel volume.

"OH.  MY.  GOD!!"

This drew an amused smile from leather jacket guy, who had grabbed his coffee cup and rounded the corner into "our" aisle.

Embarrassed, I chided gently, "Avery, can you think of something nicer to say?"

My son gave me a confused look and tried again: "Goddammit?"

Goddammit indeed, I thought.  Jason just hung his head.  Leather jacket guy sprayed a mouthful of coffee across the aisle, laughing uproariously.  "Oh, that is funny," he said, wiping his eyes, "your kid is hilarious.  I'm sorry, but that is just so funny."  I could hear him laughing his way to the front of the store.  "Goddammit.  That's rich.  Ha ha.  Ha ha!"

Okay, so maybe we haven't achieved perfection.  But we're fast learners.  None of our three kids have dropped a dirty word in front of Jason or I since the incident in Target.  And I mean it this time.  We did once surreptitiously observe Avery practicing variations of the word "badass" in front of a mirror, but that's about it.

Although swearing and kids clearly do not belong together like peanut butter and jelly, the fight remains something of a losing battle.  Even if you manage to avoid swearing, eventually your children get old enough to have friends - friends who race into your house, torpedo onto a beanbag and yell, "fucking bitch!" at nobody in particular.  They outgrow Super Why! long before you'd like them to, and start begging to watch Adventure Time and The Lord of the Rings trilogy instead.  They figure out how to play Skyrim on the PS3 while you're taking a shower.  Then they start listening to song lyrics and asking questions like "what does it mean if you're 'getting higher than the Empire State?'"

"It means he's really high up in the air," said Jason at the same time I answered, "it means his friends are doing drugs in the bathroom."  Dirty looks were traded.  "He's too young for that!"  "This is a teachable moment!"  Call it a matter of philosophical differences.

We've made good use of cheese and crackers over the last few years, though.  And when, one day last summer, a relative let out a string of words in front of her preschooler that would have made a sailor blush, Jason found himself so surprised that he was utterly unable to hide the look of shock on his face.  She laughed and said, "you must be one of those people who doesn't swear in front of your kids."

I guess we are.  At least now.  At least for the most part.  But when I find myself sitting in silent judgment of other parents' language, I think my way back to that late-night trip to Target.

And that takes me down a peg or two.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Five Ps of Success

"I can tell I'm going to like this movie.  It has a talking dog in it."
-Avery (January 2011)
Among the million absurd but fundamental realities of being a parent is this: there is no plan, of any size, that 
your children cannot inadvertently lay waste to.  A bath, naturally, but that surreptitiously-purchased Milky Way hidden in your purse for after they go to bed can also result in a two-hour extension of their typical thirty-minute bedtime routine.  On a much larger scale, Jason and I once spent eight months planning a kid-free second honeymoon to Boston and Cape Cod, only to have our toddler take a flying backward leap off the couch at 9:00 p.m., winding up in the ER for staples in the head just hours before our plane was supposed to depart.

It is often said that "life" is what happens when you’re making other plans, but I seem to vaguely recall a time in my life when plans truly could be made and properly enacted.  This extended through the nine months of my first pregnancy and ended in the delivery room, where I abandoned my six-page birth plan and didn’t even bother to open the suitcase I had spent weeks packing and re-packing.

Parenting our firstborn was a bit like trial by fire.  My pregnancy had been (diplomatically speaking) a fairly unexpected surprise.  But Jason and I were in our mid-twenties and madly in love, and when the drugstore test revealed two pink lines instead of one, we quickly decided a baby might just make the perfect addition to our household.  We celebrated over strawberry lemonades at Red Robin.  I read every book I could get my hands on – What to Expect When You’re Expecting, The Happiest Baby on the Block, Dr. Sears’ most excellent tome The Baby Book, and even the controversial Babywise.  Jason secured a one-year deferral of his acceptance to graduate school at the University of Oregon and bought a series of classical music CDs designed for new babies.  We procured a ridiculous amount of gear, and I quizzed every mother I knew on every topic from epidurals to circumcision.

When we finally walked in the door of our split-level, suburban home carrying two-day-old Avery, we still felt reasonably prepared, despite the disorienting and somewhat disillusioning couple of days we had just spent in the postpartum ward.  We allowed our cats to sniff the new baby (carefully supervised, of course) as recommended by the number of resources we had read regarding how to incorporate new babies into households with established pets.  Jason unpacked the untouched suitcase, and we spent the next several hours snuggling on the couch and staring at this miniature person we had created together.  Like all fresh-faced new parents, we marveled over his tiny, translucent fingernails and counted and then re-counted his toes.  We changed his miniscule diaper each time we thought it could possibly be wet, and every hour or so, I would pop a nipple into his tiny mouth and practice breastfeeding.

When the sky started to get dark, we decided it must be time for bed.  I changed Avery into a soft new cotton pajama set, swaddled him as the hospital nurse had taught us to do (“like a burrito!”), kissed and nuzzled his beautiful little head, and laid him in the bassinet Jason had assembled for him some months before in the corner of our bedroom.

A few seconds went by.  The baby started to wail.

Jason and I looked at each other, confused.  Finally, Jason reached into the bassinet, gently lifted the little bundle into his arms and softly bounced for a moment or two.  The crying stopped.  We smiled.  Jason nuzzled and kissed him one more time, and laid him back in the bassinet.

Another tiny cry.

“There must really be something wrong,” I worried, “maybe he’s hungry.”  This time, I picked him up, unraveled the swaddling blanket and carried him to the rocking recliner in the living room.  It had been only an hour since his last feeding, but he latched on greedily and around 45 minutes later, he was fast asleep.  I swaddled him once again and placed him in his bassinet for the third time.

We tiptoed out of the room, congratulating one another on our fine baby-whispering skills, but before we had reached the living room, the baby let out another sob.

“This is just weird,” Jason said, frowning.  “I’ll go get him this time.”

Gathering the baby into his arms, Jason carried him into the living room for a physical inspection.  There were no visible injuries.  He seemed neither too hot nor too cold.  Peering into his nether region, Jason exclaimed with no small measure of relief, “he needs a diaper change!”  Nodding knowingly in my direction, he lifted tiny Avery and carried him to the brand-new oak changing table, cooing “Daddy knows how to take care of that!”

Freshly diapered, filled with colostrum, and lovingly rocked back to sleep, we were confident this baby was ready for bed at last.  We wrapped Avery tightly in his blanket one last time, gently lowered him into the bassinet, and climbed into our own bed, exhausted.

I had just shut my eyes when the crying started again – a tiny, desperate newborn mewling that even the most heartless parent would be hard-pressed to ignore. 

“You go to sleep,” I told Jason, “I’ll just go rock him for a little while.  Maybe we can trade off.”

And so began our new life as three.

Here's my mom modeling some of Avery's reflux.
Though I didn’t know it yet – I had no basis for comparison until Owen joined the family almost three years later – Avery would prove to be an intensely challenging baby in almost every way.  His first two months of life were spent alternating between projectile vomiting and relentless crying, until our pediatrician finally diagnosed him with infant reflux.

Jason’s mother got the worst of it one afternoon when Avery unloaded a partially digested bottle of expressed breast milk into her open mouth.  After that incident, and having tried all of the more modest interventions, we resorted to treating him with prescription reflux medication, which was nearly as traumatic to administer as the reflux had been to endure.  Although it improved the vomiting, Avery also suffered from colic, a special kind of hell that is difficult to understand unless you have spent an uninterrupted four weeks pacing in and out of every room in your home, patting the back of a 10-pound baby as he screams into your ear at full volume.  He had chronic diaper rashes that often blossomed into full-fledged yeast infections in spite of (or perhaps, because of) hourly diaper changes, and by the time he matriculated to the third grade, he still was not sleeping through the night.

Throughout those early months, Avery managed to defy just about every preconceived notion I’d held about what it meant to be a mother, not to mention what type of mother I was going to be and what type of child I was going to raise.  My opposition to pacifiers eroded within days, and rather than Ferberize my new little baby, I spent the better part of each night watching re-runs of Curb Your Enthusiasm while he slept restlessly on my chest.  Unknowingly and unintentionally, I turned into something of a devotee of attachment parenting after embracing the practices of babywearing (out of sheer desperation), and nightly co-sleeping (out of sheer exhaustion).  There were many bright spots – Avery was a beautiful and affectionate baby whose innate intelligence and sense of humor shone clearly in his great blue eyes – but there were dark moments too, when I would place my colicky infant into his bassinet, force myself to close my bedroom door and then weep alone on my back porch, aching with equal parts horror and sympathy for those parents whose lack of support, education, or self-control inspired them to cause real harm to their babies.

After ten weeks at home with my new baby, I returned part-time to my job as a rape crisis advocate, wearing my largest pair of non-maternity pants and a shirt I could barely button across my swollen chest.  I arrived earlier than usual, set down my purse and had just fired up my desktop computer when a colleague popped into my doorway to welcome me back.  A few years older and with two young girls of her own, she had been a wealth of information and resources throughout my pregnancy, and I hadn’t seen her since the week I started my maternity leave.

“Well?” she asked, “how is it so far?”

I hesitated for a moment, trying to think of some easy way to condense all of the moments, thoughts, emotions and fears that had marked my past several weeks.

I saw her eyes well up, and she gave me a warm hug.  “Nobody can tell you what it’s really like, can they?  You just have to experience it for yourself.”  

She was so right.  There are many things your well-intentioned friends and loved ones will tell you as you enter the labyrinth of parenthood.  There’s the perennial favorite, of course: childbirth is going to hurt like a motherfucker.  It did.  When you have a baby, all you’ll be doing is changing diapers.  Blindfolded and with one hand, thank you, while using the other to make ants on a log – pardon the pun – for his older siblings.  You won’t sleep through the night anymore.  Not a single one since I hit that first third trimester, as a matter of fact.

You will live and love in ways you had never imagined.

But in a sense, these are just the obvious things.  A list of “what nobody told me” could never be written and if anyone were to attempt a project of such enormity, it might well span the Earth twice over.  Parenting is hard-core.  It’s gritty and messy, incredibly fun yet undeniably maddening, and at times, it can be indescribably ridiculous.

It means your grinning toddler clubbing your face and then defiling your bathwater.  It means your preschooler losing the apparently irreplaceable crevice tool to your decade-old vacuum cleaner in a grocery store two miles away from your home.  It means arguing over bedtimes, and saying things like, “please do not put your fingers in your mouth after they’ve been in your butt crack,” and crying real tears when your third child won’t take that pacifier you so desperately tried to keep out of the mouth of your first.  It means not even bothering to ask questions when one child’s clean underpants somehow end up in a toilet that another child is actively using.  Above all, it means a newfound appreciation for authenticity and a restored sense of humility.

So here's my parenting advice to you: learn to regard your abandoned plans as a sign you are flexible and fabulous, not a failure.  At the end of your days, will it really matter that you had to stammer your way through the birds and the bees?  That your kids once ate a pack of "fruit" snacks for breakfast?  That you had that epidural, after all?  It won't.  I promise you.

Oh, and one last thing.  Go cancel your Pinterest account.  Today, preferably.  You don't need that shit in your life.  Raising kids is hard enough without undue pressure to throw the most spectacularly elaborate Lego Star Wars birthday party that the universe has ever known, three times a year, for the rest of your parenting days.