Tagged with " parenting"
Oct 10, 2011 - Domestic Engineering    12 Comments

The Walking Wounded

My kids are Those Kids. Not the ones who talk through concerts or scream in movies, thank all the gods and little fishes. But the ones who throw tantrums for toys in Target? Or run down the aisles in the grocery stores? Or carry on conversations in restaurants loudly enough for every other diner to clearly hear over their own?

Yeah, those are my kids.

I get that everyone is tired of Those Kids, especially people with no kids of their own. I’ve seen how quickly articles with titles like “Curb Your Brats” get shared on Facebook, and how much gleeful support has rallied around business owners who decide to bar children from their premises.

Kids aren’t useful and quiet, inconvenient to an allergic few, like service animals. They’re unpredictable in every way: unannounced bodily processes, loud inappropriate emotional outbursts, irregular and unapproved repositioning of their messy selves. And parents and children alike think everyone should be willing to accept their shrugs and smiles and apologies just because everyone once was one. Ludicrous.

There’s no question that some children are much better behaved than others. Some children just seem calmer, sweeter, neater, and their parents receive that rarest of praise: “I hardly even noticed s/he was there!” A lot of that is just disposition, but I don’t mean to detract from what must be very calm, loving parenting in a steady environment. I’m so happy for those families, and what they’re able to achieve.

That just isn’t an option for us. My oldest son Connor has Asperger’s, but even without that, he, like his younger brother Griffin, is an Active Child. This is a category that is itself in flux; author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka has written several books about “spirited children” that propose some interesting theories advancing the discussion. What does this mean? They are incredibly smart, lightning fast, hair trigger, and non-freaking-stop from the second they wake to the second they relent and fall asleep.

And whatever mitigating influence my husband and I could offer our kids by giving them a stable home, continuous medical care, and high-quality restricted diet since birth — all of which we’ve had recommended by various well-meaning friends and teachers — are beyond are reach, mostly for economic reasons. We cannot buy a home. We are dependent on state health care, which comes with restrictions. Organic food and what’s left once one eliminates gluten, dairy, or all sugars, are foods that we cannot afford in the volume it takes to feed a family of four on our income.

As much as we try to shield them from those realities, we carry that stress, and we know it affects our interactions with them. My physical and mental health also affect my interactions with them, an unavoidable truth for which I carry a staggering amount of guilt that probably contributes to those self-same conditions (vicious spiral, that).

So what do you do with kids like these, or any kids, when they’ve got you at the end of your rope? The quick and dirty — and very satisfying and least efficient — option is to lose your shit. Scream back at them, burst out crying, spank, make exotic threats, bring down the Hammer of God. The child sure as hell regrets his actions immediately, but you sure as hell regret them later.

Are there times when this is all you can do? Yes, I really believe there are. Every parent’s got their buttons that makes the Red Haze rise. Griffin’s got a doozy: I tell him to stop doing something. He doesn’t. I say, “Stop doing that, or I’ll take away X for the rest of the day.” He says, “Oh yeah? I’m going to keep doing it more and worse until we leave/you buy this thing/I get my way/you take that back.” BOOM — instant fury. I was in a store the other day with him, and he wouldn’t stop touching fragile things on the shelves. I said, “Give me both your hands. I don’t want you touching things anymore.” His response: “I can still touch them with my feet.” I leaned down and growled at him, “I will tie your hands and feet together and wear you like a handbag.” He stopped long enough at least to assess the odds of me having rope in my purse. I’m not always that creative, and some of you may find that threat horrific to make at all, let alone in public, but I regularly reach that point with him these days.

The next option is to find your inner Buddha and appeal to their inner humanity. You take a moment to evaluate the environment, and what’s affecting the kid, then you sit down with him and help unravel the tangledy ball of emotions that’s making him act like a colossal jerk. Sometimes, this really works, and you have a truly insightful conversation that makes him aware of some new tripwire that we can work together to avoid or minimize in the future. But most of the time, this is a boring torture worse than pain of death to the child, and/or devolves into the Airing of the Grievances in which everything you and everyone else have ever done is screamed out through tears of rage before doors are slammed and Xanax is taken.

Finally, as with every good and human endeavor, there’s the middle path. And like every good middle path, it’s got angry yelling and compassionate insight, with a healthy dose of deep breathing and a sense of humor. You admire the passion and energy that drive these little engines of discovery and innovation; you give points for perseverance and rhetorical style; and you acknowledge that yelling at a kid after the fourth time you’ve asked him politely to pick up the damn plate in the middle of the floor is not going to squish his special little snowflakeness.

The single best thing other parents can do for one another is to be gentle with one another, especially those who don’t have Active Kids toward those who do. Face it: parents just aren’t going to get the support or sympathy we’d like or deserve from childless adults, or even adults who’ve already done their childrearing and want to be done with the screamy droolmonsters. But the shit parents give one another is absolutely unforgiveable. There’s this hypocritical cult about motherhood today: it’s the single most important job a woman can do, but you’re expected to do it in absolute seclusion, and if you’re not doing it “exactly right,” you deserve to be publicly flayed. And you wonder why antidepressants and wine are essential motherhood equipment?

Nobody knows the story behind that screaming kid in the store or restaurant. The vast majority of special needs, both juvenile and adult, are invisible, as are personal struggles. You walked in in the middle of the movie. Philo wrote, “Be kind to one another, for everyone you meet is fighting a difficult battle.” Parenthood is one of the rare battles that many of us have the scars from. The least we can do is give each other credit for serving the best we can.

Sep 27, 2011 - Domestic Engineering    1 Comment

Picture Day

Picture Day is an act of faith. I mean, even more than the usual act of faith that is bundling your children out into the world, delivering them into the hands of strangers to have their minds and bodies nourished in the company of their peers. But there’s a certain divine grace about Picture Day.

Maybe it’s in the frantic warnings of the parents, different than every other morning, as the kids clatter toward the door. There are the usual questions — “Do you have your homework? Your lunch money?” And of course, there are admonitions — “Be good. Don’t cause trouble at the bus stop. No swordfighting with your recorder in music today, okay?” But today, there are pleas, urgings, prayers almost — “Look, just try to stay tidy until your picture. Please make sure your breakfast goes in your mouth. No splashing in the sinks. Whatever you do, don’t play in the dirt until afternoon recess.” They stop, nod more solemnly than they usually do; none of the usual eye rolling. Your kids understand, for one rare moment, that your happiness rises and falls on their ability to follow directions, once they’re beyond your control.

Or maybe it’s in the lines of kids standing against the gymnasium walls, nervously awaiting their turn before the camera. They’re not in their Sunday best, usually — that would be too conservative — though a few boys are buttoned and knotted into miniature Brooks Brothers shirts and ties, oddly serious as if rehearsing some stifling notion of adulthood. No, most kids are in their peacock finery: their brightest, trendiest clothes, little hipsters who will leave not only the stamp of “THIS IS ME” on their pictures, but a clear declaration of “THIS IS NOW.” The girls, especially, no matter how young, have special permission today to embrace the sparkly, the dangly, the poofy. Hair is teased and curled, contraband lip gloss gleams in the fluorescent light. They, too, are rehearsing for adulthood, but it’s not stifling. It’s exciting, and they are lined up, clutching their picture orders like tickets to get on the biggest, best ferris wheel in the world.

It might be in the careful eyes and hands of the adults who guide the process. They’re intercessories for every parent who can’t be there in person: the teachers, even more so today than every other day; the PTO volunteers standing by with tissues and combs; and the photographers themselves. They stand guard to avert disaster in those last critical moments. They advise on questions of monumental importance: top button buttoned? hair over the shoulder? glasses on or off? They tame cowlicks and smudges with beneficent hands. It is holy work, to make a child feel beautiful, to want to smile.

Ultimately, that’s what makes Picture Day an act of faith. Each child, exactly as they are — that day, that moment — sits, smiles, and is recorded. Whether they buy photos or not, they are worth the dignity of a photo, so they will be in the class picture. For that one second, no matter what awaits them back in the classroom, or back at home, they have something to smile for. It’s a message to their friends, and their future selves. It says, “Remember me, just like this.” And if you look at them that way, no class picture can be anything but beautiful.

What are your Picture Day memories?

Working the Beads

I bought my mala beads almost ten years ago, in a huge bead store in Mountain View, CA. To be perfectly honest, I liked the way they looked in people’s hands. I wanted to try to cultivate that practice, in hopes that they would bring me some of the peace and acceptance I saw reflected in the aspect of those who wore them. I had just been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and I was locked in the first of many struggles for respect and funding with my university department. I desperately needed peace and acceptance.

The beads, at least, were only $1.99.

I’ve worn them on and off over the years, but I never really picked up the habit of using them as a spiritual focus. Maybe it’s because I’m not much of a mantra girl (note to self: awesome new superhero name). I can’t settle on just one idea and focus on it for very long — I’m the Queen of Lateral Thinking (2nd note to self: awesome new Nobilis character).

But my stomach had been tying itself in knots for days over the impending Troy Davis execution, and by the time I left work yesterday afternoon, I was well and truly sickened in heart and belly, on top of the upper respiratory thing that already had me at a disadvantage for air and sleep. So, desperately needing peace and acceptance, I fished my mala beads from the depths of my jewelry box with 75 minutes left before the scheduled time of death.

And, while I believe as an article of my faith that the focused will can change the unfolding of the universe, neither my will nor that of the hundreds of thousands watching and waiting last night stopped the killing of Troy Davis. This can’t be a hopeful, new-world story like the Repeal Day one, and in 12 minutes, I’m going to have to wake Connor and tell him that all the hope and doubt and logic and justice didn’t save a man’s life. I’m afraid of what little piece of him will disappear forever with those words.

But I learned something about the practice of the beads as they clicked through my fingers steadily for over five hours last night. I didn’t stick to just one thought that whole time; in fact, it was the evolution of my focus that tells the story of the night better than any news report can.

When I first lit a candle and picked them up, I started whispering, “May you find peace,” and again, in the spirit of total honesty, I probably didn’t just mean Troy Davis. I meant the crowding protesters in Jackson GA and Washington DC and London. I even meant, judgmentally, the parole board that had voted 3-2 the day before to deny clemency, and the GA Supreme Court that had refused a stay of execution. But mostly, I meant my own roiling stomach and twisted heart.

At 15 minutes to 7.00pm Eastern, tears started falling, and I asked Griffin to come sit with me and snuggle. He knows when I need comfort, and he’s more at ease sitting with my grief without trying to fix it than I often am, so he just nestled into my side and started to play with the beads too. He asked what I was saying, and at that point, I realized the words had changed. Now it was simply, “I wish you peace,” and I was trying to speak directly to Troy. Griffin liked those words, and he liked the slide of the beads, so I held the string’s tension and we went back and forth, each saying the tiny prayer for a little while, as we waited for the news to tell us that a man was dead.

But the news didn’t come, and the TV networks faltered — those that were covering it, shamefully few — and so the click of my mouse on Twitter joined the click of the beads in my other hand as I waited for news. And the words changed again as the first messages of the delay came through: “Please stop this.” As it became apparent the US Supreme Court was considering a stay, they changed again: “You can stop this.”

They didn’t. Not couldn’t — didn’t. And the process reversed itself. I wished Troy Davis peace as the tears rolled down, until they announced his death. And I whispered, “May you find peace” as the media witnesses spoke and the analysis began and the verb tenses changed.

But my object had changed. I was wishing peace to the families, to the guards, to the lawyers, to the activists, to the witnesses.

I was wishing peace to those who had waited, those who had held their breath, those who had hoped for the hope and justice that our system almost never delivers.

I was wishing peace to those whose hearts hunger for something so deep and unnameable that they think the death of another human would quench it.

I was wishing peace for those who would sleep and get up and fight on, and those who would not find sleep that night, in the shadow of too much doubt.

On the Morning of The Repeal

When my sons leave the house in the morning, I don’t tell them to keep their schoolyard crushes for little girls. Their bus driver doesn’t ask them who they’ll marry when they grow up.

When the kids get to school, they don’t ask their teachers who waits for them at the end of a long day filling their heads with knowledge and wisdom. The lunchroom monitors don’t tell the children that heterosexuality is as healthy as the salad bar.

The parents who line up with strollers and siblings, with minivans and dinner plans, want to be told what their children learned that day, not that they are only attracted to the opposite sex. They want their children to learn to hang up their coats, not that there’s such a thing as an incorrect place to hang your heart. They dig deep to find reserves of patience and energy for their beloved families. They don’t have any left to waste on telling someone else that their family is any less beloved.

The sky didn’t ask before it let down the rain in the pre-dawn grey, nor did it tell us that the sun would shine warmly by mid-morning. The geese didn’t ask one another before beginning their long journey south; they do not tell us where their stops and starts will be.

I did not ask to be born in this country, or in this body, or to my parents, but I have told my basic identity freely, without fear, my whole life. The times I’ve had to hide, to keep some piece of myself secret, to “pass,” I’ve been able to without killing myself from the inside. And when I fell in love, though the barriers were high and deep and every other physical measurement for which there exists a metric, my country and my insurance and my job added no obstacles, passed no judgment on my choice. When I say who I am and what I want to do with my life, my patriotism, capability, or the disposition of my soul have never been questioned.

And today, on the morning of the repeal, when all but one thing hasn’t changed at all, may these things be true for more of the bravest and most honorable of my fellow Americans.

5 Ways to be a Great Geek Grown-Up

Short post today, by way of pointing you to a longer post I wrote for an awesome, positive, community-building event I’m helping to admin. It’s called Speak Out with your Geek Out, and it’s an effort to counteract the recent wave of geek bashing online. The goal is to get lots of people blogging and tweeting and talking positively about their geekiness, and transform the discussion into one that makes the environment more supportive and encouraging both for and among geeks of all stripes.

My contribution to the preparatory guest-blogging at the core site is a short piece about how every geeky grown-up can be more like the adult ally that every geeky kid wishes they had, no matter whether that’s in the form of a parent, older relative, or mentor. You can find it at http://www.speakoutwithyourgeekout.com/2011/09/jessica-banks-on-5-ways-to-be-great.html . Hopefully, you’ll find it full of good ideas, whether the kid in your life wants to be the next Bill Gates or the next Joe Buck or the next Tim Gunn.

I’ll be hosting a few guest-posts here on this blog over the next week, as part of the Speak Out event, perhaps from way-cooler-than-me friends like Atlas Games creative director Michelle Nephew and bestselling romance author Shannon K. Butcher. So, if you’re coming through to read what they’ve got to say, welcome! I hope you come back for more of the homecooked weirdness in the future!

Default Setting: Love

This is my first blog post, and it’s by way of explaining why I felt strongly enough about the Speak Out with your Geek Out movement — all next week, anywhere and everywhere you want to talk about whatever floats your geeky little boat — that I stepped up to be an admin. I’m doing it because I’m a big geek, of course, but more importantly, I’m doing it for my kids. They’re going to be a frequent subject on my blog, and yes, I’m going to use their names.

* * *

The first thing most people notice about Connor is how *big* everything is for him. His volume is permanently set to 11; every gesture and expression is oversized and repeated two or three times in case you missed it the first (you couldn’t possibly). Then the other extremes about him begin to emerge: the speed of his speech only hints at the speed of his thoughts, and words pop up in the rapid stream that you don’t expect in a fourth-grade vocabulary. All these things might give the impression of excitement by themselves, but there’s real enthusiasm for so many subjects, and genuine delight at the prospect of sharing the coolness with someone new.

This is my kid. He’s a geek. His default setting is love.

He was doomed to geekhood well before his conception, what with two parents of impressive geek credentials. And he showed his own talent for geekhood as well. He started calling his make-believe play “movies” between ages 2 and 3, around the same time he announced he wanted a Jon Stewart 3rd birthday party. His passion for superheroes exploded onto the scene, until we started telling people who asked about potential gifts for him, “Look, if it’s ‘super,’ it’s great.”

What we didn’t know until he turned six was that Connor has Asperger’s Syndrome. The school where he attended kindergarten failed him in every respect. Teachers missed the expanding intellect and hunger for social interaction, and labeled him a discipline problem, a threat to “normal” kids. His classmates saw a child who wanted friends a little too desperately, and probably left them behind when he tried to include them in his elaborate stories. And, at that critical age, when different is dangerous, those children made his life hell. They rejected his friendship. They rejected his enthusiasm. They hurt him on the playground, to the point of stitches one cold winter morning. They threatened his life on the bus after school. Kindergartners told my son they wanted to have a party at his house; he was overjoyed. They said they would have a party at his house, and he would be the pinata, and they would beat him until he broke open and died. He had nightmares. My six-year-old said he wanted to kill himself. He knew what he was saying.

Things got better. We switched schools for first grade, and within a month, they’d identified the Asperger’s. Instead of simply conceding to the previous reigning theory on his behavior issues (i.e., “we’re crap parents”), we built strategies for home and school to address the most serious problems and deal with them constructively and consistently. Connor’s teacher gave him challenging work that kept him from making trouble when he was bored. He made friends who valued his vast cache of knowledge about Star Wars and superheroes.

Connor’s experiences made him a better person too. His fixation on superheroes had taught him the philosophical concept of justice, but now he understood what prejudice and oppression felt like, and why it was important to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. His skill as a storyteller was growing apace, but now he was sensitive to allowing his friends agency in their own stories, and supplied them with information so they could “make cool movies” too.

It’s not for nothing that jaded adults are advised to view the world through the perspective of a child, if they can. Everything is new and amazing to children, and they’re predisposed to love it, to find it literally wonder-full. I heard a parent of an autistic child in a radio interview say that people with autism are “more human than human;” natural human tendencies are amplified to extremes. Geekhood is, I believe, a natural human tendency. We get enthusiastic about things we enjoy; we want to know more, and we want to share them with others. We start with it when we’re children, when we’re geeks about the whole wide world–our default setting is love. And for some lucky people, like Connor, that setting never changes.