Today I have a guest post up over on Tara Lazar’s website. Tara is the host (and creator of) Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) where writers challenge themselves to come up with a picture book idea every day through the month of November. Tara hosts guest blogs throughout the month to help people with this challenge. Today was my turn to give advice. I hope you’ll go take a look.
Optical illusions are fascinating. I remember staring at the picture of the young lady and then suddenly something switched inside my head and I could see the old witchy lady. Then it would switch back again. The same thing happened with word searches. I’d stare and stare at a box of random letters until, bam. There was the word I’d been looking for and I wondered how I could have missed it before. What I remember most is that moment of recognition, when nothing changes in what I’m looking at, but suddenly I see it differently.
I had such a moment this week. I wish it had been a happier one. I listened to my son and realized that he was saying the same sorts of things that Howard does when he’s depressed. It is not a surprise that my son is depressed. Not really. I knew this was there, just like I knew the old lady was there when I saw the young one. But it is different in the moment that I actually see it.
I’ve already met with school administrators once this week. I’ll do it again tomorrow. That meeting will likely spawn further meetings with individual teachers. Today had a doctor’s appointment. Next month there will be a more thorough evaluation. Prescriptions have been adjusted. I know this dance. I can take the steps almost flawlessly. I even feel the requisite parental self-doubt right on cue. I’ve had far to much practice helping loved ones face down mental monsters.
It was not my first choice for how to spend this week, but things can’t begin to be solved until they are seen. I’m not sorry that I finally saw it. I also have a sense that this is a necessary, if unpleasant, step in this particular child’s growing-up process. He is beginning to see it and he needs to be able to recognize this, call it out, and manage it through the rest of his life.
Years ago I judged my neighbor for decisions I saw her making about her teenagers. It was a very light judgment that I only held in the back of my mind. She never knew about it. It never affected our friendship. I even supported her and aided her. Yet I thought to myself, “I won’t do that.”
This week I find myself making some very similar parenting decisions to the ones I saw her make. I finally understand the troubles which drove her to those decisions. All those years ago, I couldn’t see the troubles, just the decisions that resulted from them. Today I am surrounded by stresses and I have a child who is nearing an adulthood that he’s not yet ready for. Every day I make decisions and I am conscious of how those choices may look to people who aren’t mired in my context. Somewhere out there, someone is judging me. I’m not angry with them for not understanding.(As long as they don’t try to impose their imperfect comprehension on my actions.) I actually hope that they never understand this because having a depressed teenager is not something I wish on anyone.
My neighbor moved away years ago, only a year or two after my judgement of her. I have her number, but to call and apologize would be pointless. What I must do instead is train my thoughts to think more kindly when someone else makes a decision that I don’t understand. They’re probably driven to it by problems that I can’t see.
I have a recipe box. I got it when Howard and I were first married and I carefully collected recipes to fill it. Collecting and trying out recipes was part of how I learned to manage my own kitchen and was helpful for Howard and I to define our shared identity as a couple. We liked this one, we didn’t like that one, this one needs adjusting, we’ll never try that again. When we moved to our first house, the recipe box came with us. In our current house it first took up residence on the counter next to our library of cookbooks. Over the years it moved to a corner of the counter and then to on top of the fridge. We still cook, but I reach for the books more than I do the box. Half the time I’m reaching for one of a dozen pieces of loose paper, recipes that I’ve printed off the internet and stuck in the row of cookbooks because I make them again and again. The size of this stack of loose paper has begun to be ridiculous. Today I realized that loose paper is the reason that recipe boxes were invented. It is a place to collect the recipes.
So I pulled out my little box and I sorted through it. I got rid of all the recipes that I grabbed because I might make them one day. I kept all the things for which I have fond memories. I definitely kept the ones that we continue to make. It was like a walk down memory lane touching all the cards of odd things I collected over the years. There were card given me by people I don’t remember. I vaguely remember that giving me recipes was part of my bridal shower. Some of them came from there. Others were clipped from a cooking magazine that was given to us as a wedding present. But there is no sense in cluttering my life with little pieces of paper because they provoke a vague nostalgia. I cleared it out and made space for things to come.
Now I need to find a program that will let me transcribe recipes so that I can print them on cards, but which will also let me easily duplicate them for other people. My children are going to be heading out into the world to cook for themselves and I’m certain that some of them will be asking for copies of some of the recipes I’ve used. It would be nice to just be able to print those out instead of copying by hand. Except, I did keep one recipe that I’ve never made, because it was in Great Uncle Blake’s shaky handwriting. So perhaps there is value in handwritten cards.
Mostly I like knowing that I have space for things that are useful to me instead of it being occupied by things that are lingering without purpose.
In hindsight I can see that this was a heavy week. I didn’t realize earlier because none of the things in it were individually large. It was just one little thing after another until I was hunched over and exhausted from the weight of them all. Every time I finished a thing, there were three more things sitting and waiting. Or sometimes jumping up and down and screaming at me that I really ought to have done them last week. Then there were the things that lay in silent heaps making life feel cluttered. That last one is about laundry. I’ve felt quite a lot of laundry guilt this week. Laundry guilt is cumulative and I’ve accrued quite a lot of it.
I do want to get off of the “hope this works, nope, time to try something else” roller coaster that we’ve been on with Link’s homework and with Patch’s anxiety. Both are looking up today, like we may have actually identified solutions, but I’m a little afraid to believe in it yet. I’m also sad because my Kiki had a sad thing today and she called to talk to me about it. Now I wish I could hug her and make it all better. Sometimes there isn’t anything I can do except listen and that is hard.
On the happier side, Howard has finished drawing all the calendar pages. They’ll soon be colored and lettered. Then I’ll drop them into place and send the calendar off to print. That will be a nice piece to have complete.
Tomorrow is Halloween. I have an elementary school parade to attend in the morning. There are pumpkins to carve in the afternoon. And the evening will be Trick-or-Treating and answering the door. Hopefully in between those things, I’ll also be able to carve away at my list. It is shorter now than it was it the beginning of the week. I’m slowly making progress. Maybe I’ll finally have time to solve the laundry.
It used to be that the church Halloween carnival was the biggest event of the year for my kids. It was planned for and anticipated. This year Patch decided he didn’t care to go. Link has opted out for the last several years. Kiki is off at college. Howard is up against a deadline. That left Gleek and I. She dressed up and spent all her energy to run games for younger kids. This is Gleek in her element. It had been my intention to dress up. Last year I’d decided I was tired of being the boring Mom, so I acquired pieces to make a costume.
Yet when this week arrived, I didn’t have the energy to care about being boring. I spent all of my energy helping Patch troubleshoot his stress and Link troubleshoot his only marginally functional homework system. Both were problems this week. We think we’ve figured them out, but the solutions for Patch require ongoing work from me in the form of enforced bedtimes and additional meals. (He grew half an inch in the last two weeks. Four inches since February. He’s stressed because his body is using all of his resources to add height.) The solutions for Link may involve the acquisition of a cell phone for him. This requires much thinking and budget calculation. There was also the issue of replacement coats before the freeze which is due this weekend. Library materials needed to be returned. Packages needed to be mailed. Basically I spent half the day driving from place to place in my car and making decisions at every stop, until my brain ran out of decision-making energy.
I sometimes teach a class on structuring life to support creativity and one of the points I always make is that changes work best, and are most likely to stick, when they are made only one or two at a time. On one level I’m applying that. I’m only making one or two changes for each kid, but the cumulative effect for me is a pile of things that I have to remember and haven’t yet turned into habits. When I was a kid I remember life having long stretches of sameness and I longed for something different to arrive. These days I just wish that life would hold onto a pattern long enough for me to become accustomed to it.
I read a lot of articles online. Truthfully, most of them are a waste of my time. But every so often I find exactly the words I needed to read that day. When I do, I pin it to my Pinterest board. That way I’ll know where to find it if I need it again. More than once I’ve been able to send a link that I pinned to someone else who needed it.
Today started out a little bit raw, which is normal on the day after a crying day. Sleep restores much, but my eyes are still tired. I understand why lots of crying in a short span of time will make me thirsty, I’m less clear on why it makes my eyes feel tired and my face feel tender. The good news is that the tears were gone, the sadness processed. Today I can see that my challenges are not so bad. I could see it yesterday too, but the sadness had to finish flowing once the pocket had been pierced open. This morning it was gone and I was left with tired eyes and a day’s work to do. Fortunately one of the first things I read was an article, linked by a friend of mine, about how often we fail to realize that we are already in the middle of our life’s most important work. The work we are called to do. I was barely halfway through when I could see how all the things that I cry over are a worthy work. I wouldn’t cry over them if they were not. And they bring me joy far more often than they bring tears.
The other article which I found very helpful today was linked on my Facebook timeline by my backyard neighbor. She knows me well. It is an article about doing the artistic work you feel divinely called to do. The ending of the article is a specific discussion of a project to help mother artists, which didn’t really apply to me. Yet the earlier words exactly matched what I’ve experienced in the last few weeks. I finally listened to all that prodding and hounding which I felt any time I opened my heart to inspiration. I finally bumped writing far enough up the priority list that it has been getting done. I can feel the difference in my heart and my life. I can feel a before and after difference in each individual day. Even while I’ve been spending my energy, and my tears, on my hearts work of raising my kids, I was also ignoring my other calling. In fact I was sometimes actively dodging it while trying to pretend to myself that I was not. No wonder I spent so much time feeling stressed and in pieces.
I have crying days in my future. They come to all of us. But between now and then I hope to have lots of days where I’ll do my heart’s work, both parenting and creating.
I was crying in the hallway at church. It wasn’t how I expected to spend Sunday when I got up this morning, but then a series of things happened. None of them were big things, they just all hit me in the exact same emotional spot, slicing me open and leaving me in tears.
Patch was too overwhelmed to participate in the annual children’s program at church. He’d had an overnight camp out on Friday where he didn’t sleep well, followed by a Saturday visit from an out of town friend, capped off with a late night Halloween party. On Sunday morning he was in a state where cutting up his waffle to eat it was cause for tears. The syrup wasn’t right and none of us, Patch included, could figure out how syrup could be wrong. But it was. I could not in good conscience put Patch up on the stand in front of the congregation with so few emotional resources and feeling unprepared. I once sat in an audience watching my child have an anxiety attack during a performance. It is not an experience I care to repeat. So I excused my boy to go back home, knowing that this decision meant I was letting down his teachers and church leaders who put so much work into creating the program and getting kids to practice for it. It did not help that this was Patch’s last year in the children’s program, his last chance to be part of it. I’m sad that this rite of passage has been impacted by anxiety and emotional limits, as have so many other important moments in our lives.
Patch came with me to the first portion of the meeting for sacrament, and we planned to let him quietly leave after that. As I was walking into the chapel I was caught by Gleek’s young women teacher, who wanted to let me know that Gleek’s habit of drawing in class was distracting the other girls and causing a problem. She asked if I could tell Gleek not to draw in class. It was such a small request, the sort of thing which should be simple to do. I was left standing there with no time to make clear why this small request actually needed to happen a week ago. In order to comply, I needed time to negotiate with Gleek. I needed to help her figure out alternate ways to manage in-class fidgeting. I needed to remind her how to take deep breaths and stay respectful to teachers even when she is angry with them. I needed to give Gleek her medicine on Sunday morning instead of letting it be an off day as we’ve been doing. I probably needed to create some sort of bargain with a reward so that Gleek was willing to make an effort to learn new skills instead of being resentful and angry at an imposed change. I can tell you that resentful and angry Gleek is the one most likely to make split-second unfortunate choices, particularly when she is unmedicated. My thoughts weren’t organized enough to say all of that, I agreed to talk to Gleek and see what I could do. Then I sat down on the bench with my family and tears began.
I’m sad that simple things—sitting through a meeting without drawing, sitting in a group on the stand to sing songs, attending class activities, organizing homework, speaking to non family members—are so hard for my kids sometimes. It takes significant behind-the-scenes effort for me to help my kids manage these things that the world expects to be simple. And I’m left feeling the unfairness of it. I’m also left wondering if the failing is in me. That perhaps these things would be simple if only I knew how to teach my kids better. Everything I’ve done has not been enough, and I don’t know if I’m capable of more. I get so tired.
Gleek and Patch (before he ducked out to go home) noticed my tears. They leaned over to ask what was wrong and I had to find words to whisper back. I hadn’t even had time to articulate my sadness to myself, so I whispered carefully selected truths to let them know what I was feeling, but to not make them feel responsible for it, nor to guilt them into doing the things. Even if they had spontaneously decided to sing in the program and to not draw in church, that would not have ended my tears. When the meeting was over, I wended my way out of the chapel, eyes firmly fixed on the feet of the people around me. I could feel that my face was red from tears. Anyone who looked me would see that I’d been crying. I looked at no one and took care to pass behind instead of in front of those people who were most likely to notice. I didn’t get away completely, several people stopped me in the hall and gave me hugs. Fortunately the words “Parenting is hard.” Tumbled out of my lips and no further explanations were necessary. They understood and didn’t ask more, which was good because the rest was all a jumble of incidents and emotions that I didn’t know how to sort into a comprehensible narrative until hours later.
Parenting is hard. Those words earned instant understanding and sympathy. I am not the only parent to end up crying in a public place because some small thing made all the worry overflow. Today will not be the last day it will happen to me. I left church early and took my emotions home where I had the space to sort them properly. They still aren’t entirely sorted, but I know what my next steps need to look like. They look remarkably like last week’s steps with only minor adjustments. In the quiet of my house where I could cry without having to explain, I also prayed and got quiet answers to help me know what adjustments to make. Everyone needs to sit down and cry sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing anything wrong. It just means we needed a rest before carrying on with the work that needs to be done. So, that is what I’ll do.
About once per week I get an email from The Orchestra Mom. I don’t know if she single-handedly put together my son’s before school elementary orchestra program, but it feels that way. Her emails are long and detailed. They tell me exactly how orchestra went, how the director taught, and then there are the lesson instructions. I should have my son practice with a metronome set to exactly 60 beats per minute, but don’t worry if he doesn’t get it right away. My son should practice singing the scales and I should sing them with him, and I should persevere even if my child doesn’t want to, because learning the scales and note names is really important. The music should be memorized through bar twelve and practiced at least three times per day. But don’t worry too much if my kid is still struggling because orchestra is supposed to be fun. The instructions go on for paragraphs.
All of her emails are like that. They are a mix of very precise instructions on exactly how everything should be done with small reassurances at the end of each paragraph that perfection is not expected. I read these emails with bemusement and I know that this mother is coming to orchestra from a very different place than I am. All her communications assume that parents put their kids in orchestra because it is good for the kids and that the kids will naturally resist until they finally get good enough that they’re able to realize that maybe they enjoy music after all.
I didn’t pick cello for my son, he picked it for himself. Out of all the things he could do in his out of school hours, he chose music. The worst thing I could do is to take that interest and turn it into a chore. So, if he doesn’t feel like practicing, I don’t make him. If we have a string of days without practice then he and I have a conversation where we talk about whether he still wants to do music. He always does, and then we rearrange his schedule so the practices fit better. He has a solo lesson on Tuesdays before school and orchestra on Friday before school. Some weeks those morning sessions are the only times he touches his cello. I’m okay with that, because he comes home smiling. I want him to enjoy the process of learning music. It is the process that matters to me, not him arriving at some imagined proficiency goal.
I feel empathy for the orchestra mom, because in other times and areas of my life, I’ve been her. I’ve been the one who cares passionately about a project, who knows exactly how it should be done, but who has to rely on others to follow through. I’ve had to dial back my intensity so that I don’t drive others away from a project. I’ve been (and sometimes still am) the mom who requires my kids to do things because it is good for them, not because they enjoy it. Sometimes I push in the hope that someday my kids will see the value in what I required them to do. I know that for some things they may never thank me. This is why I am so glad to not have to push for my son’s music. Instead I quietly file the emails as they come in and let my son practice, or not, as he chooses. I also send a quiet, sympathetic thought to the orchestra mom. I’m learning, slowly, how to push less and trust more. I hope that she can too, because her emails make me feel tired for her.
Link got into the car smiling. “I haven’t felt like this in a long time.” He said.
These are the sorts of decisions I’ve been having to make with Link since the beginning of school. I’m playing the long game; trying to make sure he learns lessons that will help him be an adult even if those lessons sacrifice his grade point average. It is hard for me. My own schooling has ingrained the paramount importance of grades on a very deep level in my brain. I have had anxiety attacks over school work my son was not getting done. So I do battle with my anxiety to prevent it from driving me into badgering him until the work is done. That path would result in better grades, less anxiety for me, more arguments with my son, a deterioration in our relationship, and would prevent him from learning his own lessons about how he feels when he doesn’t do the work that is expected of him. Some days it took all my strength to give him the space to fail or succeed on his own choices. I’m very glad to know that we won’t be having to make up failed credits over the summer. Though I won’t feel completely relieved about that until I see the official grade reports.
“I’m stressed. I don’t want to be stressed.” Patch said as we sat snuggled together on the couch. The days are long gone when I can snuggle him in my lap. He’s almost as tall as me these days and his feet are bigger than mine. At eleven, he’s primed to shoot up tall. He’s also entering a rocky hormonal and emotional place where childhood things start to slip away leaving bewildered pre-teens adrift from who they were, but not yet sure who they will be going forward. It is an anxious place for anyone, but particularly for a child who is already prone to tie himself in little emotional knots. Patch’s expectations for himself are high and he never wants to make other people disappointed or upset.
“I know, buddy.” I say and put my arm around his shoulders. Touch is a stress reliever. I’m hugging him a lot these days. We’ve also begun a three part list: Things that stress him, Things that relieve stress, and things that pause stress. Being stressed and not knowing why is in itself stressful. So the list is helping Patch practice identifying stresses. He is beginning to be able to examine his own thought processes and figure out when the emotional reaction is out of proportion to what is going on. Most of the time when he becomes anxious it is because there is an insoluble conflict in his head. It may have a simple solution in the real world, but it requires that he readjust one of the constants in his head. For example: I have to remind him that he is allowed to inconvenience other people to ask for things that he wants. In fact the very act of being alive requires us all to do this.
Some surprising things are ending up on the de-stressor list. Seeing the accumulation is sparking new ideas about how Patch can help himself feel less stressed on a daily basis. The trickiest bit for me is trying to set up de-stressing systems that don’t require regular maintenance from me. In the next eight weeks I’m going to be stressed and I’m going to accidentally drop some of my responsibilities. Patch is already going to pick up some of my radiated stress because he’s naturally empathetic. He needs systems that won’t fall apart when I do. Haven’t figured it out yet, but we’re working on it.
I called Link my oldest the other day. The words sat there on my screen, staring at me until I realized why they were bugging me. Link is not my oldest child. I have Kiki, who is away at college. But Link is my oldest child at home. He is my oldest child for whom I am still performing active parenting. Somehow my subconscious has graduated Kiki into adulthood, thus leaving Link with the title of “oldest.” Or so I must infer from the fact that the word has slipped out in reference to him on at least two occasions.
I told Kiki about this mental promotion as I drove her back to college. She’d come home for fall break to spend four days doing nothing much except playing video games and watching movies. Kiki laughed out loud at the story. I was glad she laughed because I never want her to feel evicted from the family just because she is the first child to venture out into adulthood.
“Do you believe in Ouija boards?” Gleek asked me as we were unloading groceries from the car. My brain had been planning where to put food, what to cook for dinner, and when to haul kids in for homework time, so it took a moment for me to switch gears into a conversation about the occult.
In the end Gleek’s fascination was no more deep than the average kid who has watched a few ghost-related videos on YouTube or who has checked out a book about Spooky Encounters from the library. There wasn’t really anything for me to worry about and in the course of our discussion I was able to acknowledge that I do worry. She accepted my worry, just as I accepted her interest. It was a good conversation to have.