Letting the Apple Roll

When I was an idealistic young teacher working on my first set of report cards, I listened carefully in the lunchroom to hear what the more seasoned teachers were writing in that terrifyingly blank space labeled “Comments.”  In the slow tones of the South, one of the seasoned 5th grade teachers drawled an acronym: “A…D…F…F…F…T…T.”  When I looked up quizzically, she explained, “Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree!”

Now that I have two little apples of my own, I see that there is more than a grain of truth in her sarcastic pronouncement.  As parents, we are justifiably thrilled when we see what we consider to be our best traits becoming evident in our children…and a little less so when we see they’ve inherited the not so desirable ones.

Take, for example, our kids’ unfortunate gene pool options when it comes to singing.  They have the poor luck to have not one, but two completely tone deaf parents, one of whom nonetheless loves to belt out snippets of tunes she sees as pertinent to the conversation (the kids have taken to saying, “Mama has a song for everything…except regular carpet” (as opposed to the magic kind, about which there are several choices)).  I didn’t realize how my approximation of singing was affecting my children until we were at the home of Will’s godmother, who sang at our wedding and all over Europe with her choir.  Playing with baby Will, she began singing a familiar children’s song which I thought Will had “heard” many times.  Transfixed, he sat on the floor before her with his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open.  Perplexed, Annie looked at me and said, “He’s heard that one before, right?”  As I realized the reason for his amazement, I answered, “Not like that!”

That Josh had inherited my singing talent became apparent the other day when I reprimanded him for humming randomly and tunelessly under his breath to annoy his brother (and in doing so, grating on his mother’s brain like fingernails on a chalkboard).  Deeply offended, he retorted, “That’s one of the songs from our 2nd grade musical!  I was practicing!”

While Mark and I are delighted that both of our children have inherited our deep-seated love of learning, we have hoped from the time they were very small that they would also have a chance to be “cool” in the eyes of their peers.  You see, Mark was small enough to climb INTO his desk and hide in second grade, and I used stick my folded spelling list in my sock to study in the outfield when we played kickball in gym.  Yes, we were true bona-fide, official geeks, and suffered enough for it socially that we wouldn’t wish the title upon anyone, least of all our own children.

So, we try to dress them a little bit hip (when Josh was very small and had just begun talking, I told him he needed a new baseball cap, and he promptly replied, “Gotta go to da GAP!).  We buy some, but not all, toys that we know will be short-lived fads rather than brain-stimulating secret learning tools.  We recently allowed them to watch the Star Wars movies, and yes, we bought them Nerf guns, an experiment in social interaction that has had some challenging results (but that’s a post for another day).  Instead of just PBS and Nick Jr. options, their TIVO list now includes Garfield, Batman, and The Clone Wars.

And yet, TAADFFFTT…the other day I was struggling to control the troops while making dinner and suggested they watch a show.  The remote clicked on and all was quiet on the couch.  Curious to see what had so quickly grabbed their tired, end-of-the day attentions, I looked up to see them sitting side by side with their blankets, eyes wide, totally absorbed…in NOVA.  Another day, I came home with a magnetic white board chore chart, as we are getting ready to start Josh on an allowance.  Excited to start saving for a DS (refer back to the “cool” paragraph), Josh drew up a tentative list of chores for himself…which included “Play outside!”

At least I am not leaving behind the legacy being granted by my dear husband.  Will had caught one of the hundreds of illnesses going around this endless winter and was trying to explain to me the location of his headache.  “It hurts right here,” he wailed, patting the crown of his head, “right where my bald spot’s gonna be!”

I worry especially about my firstborn, who is a classic number one, born to two number ones.  He hates surprises, resists trying anything new or different, struggles to achieve any kind of flexibility, and tends to quit when things don’t go perfectly his way.  “Oh, God, what if he grows up just like me?” I worried recently, working out my tensions in my customary way — with flour and sugar and butter.  I paused in my fretting as I began to roll out the crust for a pie (apple, ironically) and thought to myself, “Damn!  This is really nice crust.  My new vodka trick is actually working!”

You see, I had just lately discovered that while I WAS employing vodka in my never-ending quest to master my mother’s piecrust, I was not utilizing it most effectively by sucking it down with tonic and lime.  Scanning through pastry hints online, I came across a recipe that suggested using vodka to replace part of the water, which reacts with the flour to produce gluten and must be used sparingly to avoid a tough crust.  I was about ready to give up on pies altogether at that point, so I gave a metaphorical shrug and tried it, along with another small modification or two.  After years of tears and tender but brittle pastry, it seems I have finally come up with a version that works for me.

I carried on with my crust in the light of the late winter sun, my body swaying above the rolling pin in the remembered ways of my mother and my grandmother before her, my hands, shaped like theirs, moving almost without conscious thought.  It struck me then – I had struggled for so long to do this exactly like my mother, but the truth was, it was okay to change the recipe.  It was not the measurement of flour and water and salt that mattered, but the continuation of a dying art in honor of generations of women who practiced it so deftly.

Perhaps it’s not just where the apple falls that matters, but how it rolls.  As our children grow up, maybe it is our job to say, “these are the numbers you drew in the great genetic jackpot of life, the ingredient list handed to you at birth.  I will teach you the recipes that have worked for me, but in the end, you need to pick and choose how to put the ingredients together to make these recipes your own.”  Over the years, Josh will find his own way to deal with his need for quiet time, order, and routine; he’ll acquire the fine art of flexibility; and eventually he’ll learn to let life and the people in it be imperfect…including himself.

All this time I thought we were responsible for turning out a finished product, when in actuality, our job is only to start them; in the end, we all have to finish ourselves.

Posted in big brothers, coping skills, electronic games, free to be 40-something, humor, inspiration, kids and guns, kids and technology, mid-life crisis, middle age, mother of boys, Motivation, Nintendo DS, out of the mouths of babes, parenting, self-discovery, stay-at-home mom, vodka, weapons | Tagged | 5 Comments

Juicy Couture, ala Mama

My niece Stephanie keeps a list, and I think I’m finally on it.  This is not necessarily a good thing; she is 15, and it is a list of people who annoy or embarrass her.  I was doing great at staying off it…until the subject came up of my Juicy Couture.

It all started with Gramie’s new purse, which sports the stylish and useful feature of a removable magnetic jacket that can be swapped out to create an infinite number of looks without ever having to move the inner workings of the handbag (it is a Miche, I have been told, in case you are wondering).  While I was thinking that this was actually quite a brilliant idea and lamenting that if I had been the one to invent it, I could probably be driving a brand new Odyssey right now, my sister-in-law noted that the Miche could only be topped by a Juicy Couture, a selection of which she had seen and coveted while on a recent vacation.  Someone commented that you can never have too many purses, and Stephanie noted that between her and Gramie, they must have a thousand.

I’m not quite sure why I did it.  I should have been mortified; instead, I floated in a curious sense of detachment, perhaps caused by the sudden holiday influx of sugar and fat in a system accustomed to protein and veggies.  Before I knew it, I had tripped to the bench in the back hall and pulled out my own Juicy Couture.  Plunking it down on the table in all of its glory and significant mass, I stepped back so all could see.

Yes, Virginia, it is the same purse that so many months ago spawned the infamous Purse Cheese (refer to August 2010 posts “Purse Cheese,” “The Sisterhood of Purse Cheese,” “The Voice of God,” and “The Sisterhood Grows”).  And yes, I did that many months ago carefully purchase a replacement Bag, which has sat in the closet all those months still sporting its tags, patiently waiting to serve its mission as my next potential Purse Cheese receptacle.  Only since that time, there has been a new development; given the heavy use of the holiday shopping season, a structural failure occurred, and one end of the shoulder strap completely ripped out from the body of the purse.  Since there was no time to slow down in the midst of the fray, I did what any good wife of an Eagle Scout would do and tied a knot (a slip knot, to be exact), essentially forming a lasso at one end of the long strap to nowhere, which I then slipped ‘round the strapless end of my boxy navy blue bag, creating a much shorter but quite useful handle.

Presented with this mesmerizing spectacle, Stephanie could only stare.  “But Aunt Judy, couldn’t you just move into one of your other purses?”  “I only have the one,” I responded.  “I know – one navy blue one,” she tutored patiently, “but what about all the other colors?”  “No, I only have ONE.  Total.”  There was stunned silence around the table, and I laughed and assured them that I already owned a very nice and much more fashionable Bag and would move into it soon.  “Then Jeff can pass this one on to a bag lady in New York,” I suggested.  My brother-in-law snorted.  “Honey,” he said, “no self-respecting homeless person would be caught dead with that thing!”

As the evening progressed, my equally style-impaired husband got into the act, showing off his tattered wallet (which had already been replaced with a gift that was wrapped and waiting for Christmas morning), and his very own “Aeropitzatelli” work jeans, which he “fatigued” by hand from a $17 pair of Lees while building our home.  Carefully detaching one of the ratty white strings that stretched across his knees, he presented it to Stephanie as a friendship bracelet, which she reluctantly allowed to be tied around her slim wrist.  Thinking it would bite the dust on the car ride home, I was startled to see it peeking out from under her sleeve two days later on Christmas morning.  Proudly she showed it to her Uncle Mark, stating simply that she had promised to leave it on ‘til Christmas Day, and she hadn’t taken it off once in between.

Stepher, it will take you years to fully understand this, but in that moment, you were lovely – more beautiful than any expensive purse will ever make a woman.

At 15, the Stephanies of my school were the object of my deep envy and admiration (only in those days, it was Valerie Vanbenschoten in her Gloria Vanderbilt jeans).  Our smart and savvy niece has everything I didn’t when I was that age — long, thin legs; stylish makeup, clothes, and hair (and yes, purses!); a couple of sports at which she excels; a cool hockey-playing boyfriend.  And while it was my lack thereof over which I obsessed, I obsessed all the same about those very issues.

Unlike my former teenaged self, my nephew Sam is, at 20 months, not obsessed with much of anything besides learning to talk.  As his doting “Aunt JuJu,” I was delighted over the holidays to watch him respond when my sister asked him, “Who are YOU?”  Gently, as he does everything, Sam opened his chubby palm flat on his chest and softly answered, “’am!”

This, of course, prompted a quick trip to Borders to purchase the Dr. Seuss classic, “Green Eggs and Ham,” from which comes the famous line, “Sam I am!”  After some more thought, laced heavily with a few glasses of holiday “cheer,” it also prompted the realization that Sam has it right.  God made us in His image, then put His hand on His chest and said, “I AM.”  I can just picture Him up there peering expectantly down at us, waiting for us to repeat after Him, to learn what He has to teach.

So besides the one to finally move into my new purse, I have a New Year’s resolution (only a month behind – not so bad).  After spending the first half of my life lamenting what I am not, I’m determined to spend the second half being what I am.  After all, when it comes right down to it, we all have to check our accessories at the door in the end.  Whenever my time may come, I want to plunk my Juicy Couture down on the front desk of the Great Beyond and hear my voice ring through the grand halls of Heaven: “I AM.”

Posted in beauty, Christmas, Christmas with kids, coping skills, free to be 40-something, God, handbags, humor, inspiration, Juicy Couture, learning to talk, meaning of Christmas, Miche, mid-life crisis, middle age, mother of boys, Motivation, New Year's Resolution, out of the mouths of babes, parenting, purse cheese, self-discovery, stay-at-home mom, teenage girls, the Great I Am | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A Fond and Hefty Farewell

How Women Know It’s Time for the Holidays to be Done:

  • Hurts to wear jeans
  • Hurts to wear bra
  • H*ll, who are we kidding — it hurts to wear UNDERWEAR
  • There are Nerf darts in the Nativity
  • You say, “We’re actually free on Sunday – do you want to invite…” and your usually gregarious husbands snaps, “NO!”
  • Said husband sighs wistfully, “I could use another day of vacation,” and you snap, “OH, no – tomorrow you are all going back to wherever you came from!”
  • Your children ASK to go to bed
  • You go through the grocery store and realize you have automatically added a pound of butter, a bag of sugar, and a dozen eggs to the cart
  • Your Weight Watchers goal for the next week is to fasten your jeans without the rubber band
  • …and the number one way you know it’s time to be done with Christmas:  you have to change your shirt, and you find yourself repeating under your breath, “Whatever you do, DON’T LOOK DOWN.”

Happy New Year, girls (and boys, too!)!!!

Posted in Christmas, Christmas with kids, coping skills, free to be 40-something, holiday anxiety, holiday weight gain, humor, inspiration, kids and guns, middle age, mother of boys, Motivation, parenting, self-discovery, stay-at-home mom, Uncategorized, weapons, weight loss, Weight Watchers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Physics of Christmas

Snow is falling in upstate New York, and the Christmas carols that have been playing in the stores since before Halloween finally seem appropriate.  It’s the time of year when I customarily begin to make long and detailed lists, obsess about gaining weight from the sheer mass of butter and sugar that is passing through my mix master, and in general begin to fret heavily day and night.

There is just so much TO Christmas – not only the social engagements, baking, tree trimming, and shopping, but also the thoughtful thanking of teachers and vendors and newspaper men; the weight of traditions to be kept and begun; the need to keep meaning in a holiday grown increasingly devoid of quiet contemplation, due largely to the fact that by the time you do all of the above, there is quite simply no time left to think.

Now that we have children, and more specifically children who are now sometimes allowed to watch TV channels with commercials, there is also the constant tug-of-war between resisting (and helping them resist) the lure of blatant consumerism, and the wish to make at least a couple of their Christmas dreams come true.  On Josh’s list this year, there are the usual commercial-driven requests, but notably absent are the biggies from last year’s list: a Nintendo DS, an Ipod Touch, and Wii…none of which did he receive, nor will be given this year.  I’m not quite sure why Mark and I are standing so firm on those, other than perhaps the thought that once one’s brain learns to play in a primarily electronic way, it is less and less likely to come up with elaborate ideas for more traditional play.  We had a few days off from school recently, and I came down the stairs one morning to find that by 7:30 a.m., they had already dragged a small, narrow table up the basement stairs, re-labeled the old Fisher Price Post Office with a sign that said “ice cream,” made a long and elaborate list of flavors in different colors, designed not only a large sign for the shop but also another to flip over the top reading “Sorry, we’re Closed,” lined up various mini M&M canisters and empty sprinkle containers for their toppings selection, and carried Mark’s large bucket of pennies down from the bedroom to use for giving change.  Somehow, I suspect they would never have gone through all that effort if they had the option of an “ice cream shop” app on an electronic toy!

Of course, there’s also the time Josh shot himself in the foot on this subject without even knowing it.  On the way home from a family party, where he happily and obsessively played Wii for as much of the visit as possible with an older cousin, he complained mightily about the serious dearth of electronic toys in our house.  “I don’t have ANYTHING cool to play with at home,” he whined, then added the telling disclaimer, “Except Dada!”  As long as he still considers his father to be an excellent play toy, we’ll hold off on the electronics!

The boys are old enough now for formal religious education, so when they are asked why we celebrate Christmas, they cheerfully respond “Because it’s baby Jesus’ birthday!”  The depth and breadth of meaning embedded in that statement have engaged the minds of theologians and scholars for centuries; clearly the concept of God incarnate is a bit beyond the full understanding of a 5- or 7-year old.  For now, I’ve been sticking with the idea that God sent baby Jesus to earth to teach us how to love each other.  The typical lessons come home from Sunday school, share, be kind, don’t judge…all good, concrete lessons for concrete brains.

As my own brain grows older and less concrete (or maybe more filled with concrete??), I seem to need more than that to answer the question of why we celebrate the birth of this baby in the manger.   Casting about in my mind for lessons learned long ago, I felt a memory come floating back: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  (John  3:16)   I chewed on that for a few days as I struggled to keep order in a house full of sons, and came to the conclusion that God must have had a lot of love, and patience, too, just to beget a son in the first place — how hard it must have been to teach a boy to turn the other cheek instead of turning around and whaling on his attacker with both fists!  And how did he get him to share all that fish and bread without his Son saying “ha ha, I win!  I have WAY more than you?”

Still, the import of the verse didn’t hit home until I was shuffling to Josh’s room at 2:00 a.m. to remind him to use the bathroom.  After he dove back under the covers, I tucked him in with an extra blanket and sleepily mumbled into his soft, little boy cheek, “All my best love…”  Weaving back to bed in a semi-conscious fugue through the minefield of toys in the loft, I thought to myself that my garbled endearment had a ring of truth: the love I had given since becoming a mother, while woefully imperfect, was really by far the best loving I had ever done.

And then, in the cluttered moonlight, it hit me like a heavenly brick.  That love that we have for our child – painfully deep, consummately intimate, stumbling and failing yet persistently rising to try again because there is no option but to grow better at loving – that is what He wants us to learn.  He sent His only begotten Son, because that’s the way he wants us to love each other — as we would love our own child.

Having received this deep middle-of-the-night revelation on the meaning of the Christ child’s coming, one would think I would immediately ditch the holiday anxiety and focus like a laser beam on the Important Stuff; however, this hardly ever happens when the alarm rings in the dawning light of day.  So I guess the Big Man felt he needed to tack on an extra reminder — out of the mouth of one of my babes, as usual.

While having lunch with their respective children on the way to the Lego League Robotics competition, my rocket scientist husband was talking matter and anti-matter with one of his rocket scientist friends.  Hoping to show off Will’s vast knowledge of physics, Mark asked him, “Will, what’s the opposite of matter?”  Will thought briefly, then happily replied, “Doesn’t matter!”

May your Christmas be blessed, your New Year filled with more matter than anti-matter…and may the Force be with you!

Posted in Christmas, Christmas with kids, coping skills, electronic games, free to be 40-something, gifts, God, holiday anxiety, humor, inspiration, ipod, kids and technology, meaning of Christmas, middle age, mother of boys, Motivation, Nintendo DS, out of the mouths of babes, parenting, physics, self-discovery, stay-at-home mom, Uncategorized, Wii | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Stagecoach Express

One of the things Mark and I promised each other before we entered The Other World of parenting was that, regardless of any other concessions we made for our offspring, we would never, under any circumstances, own one of them.  On the television ad, orchestra music plays while rose petals spill out their convenient sliding side door.  Coupled like cop cars, they sit nose to tail in the nursery school parking lot…object of our former collective derision, the soccer mom minivan.

My kids don’t remember a world without them.  As a matter of fact, anything dated before their inception is lumped together in the category of ancient history, as evidenced by Josh’s startled exclamation as we were driving to school.  “Mama!”  he yelped from the back seat, “I just saw a stagecoach!!!  No, that’s not it…what’s the word for those long cars they had before minivans?”  Stumped for a moment, I finally figured out which historical vehicle my observant son had spotted: a station wagon.

Back in our adventurous days, when we first made the Anti-Van Pledge, Mark and I rearranged our finances to acquire the ubiquitous dark green Ford Explorer, with a roof rack for the bikes, skis, and canoe; ample interior space for Hobie Cat sails and backpacking gear; and a hitch and sufficient horsepower to tow boats to regattas.  A couple of years later, we replaced Mark’s aging sports car with the sleekest version of the Olds Alero we could find, with fancy rims, leather, moon roof, a powerful touring engine, and even a sporty spoiler for good measure.  And in the garage?  The cherry red 1937 Jaguar convertible kit car Mark had bought the week before he met me (to pick up chicks!).  When our social engagements were local and the weather was fine, we cruised the back roads together in the two-seater, pausing in the parking lot upon arrival so I could brush the tangles from my ponytail.

We traveled the Northeast in style in those days – and then the car seats came.  And the spit-up, and the sippy cups, and the Cheerios, and the dings and dents from bikes in the driveway and a distracted driver at the wheel.  Our aging fleet now includes the 11-year-old Explorer and 8-year-old Alero, and one dusty red convertible, which the boys consider to be their personal garage play toy.

I have to repeatedly remind myself that we are residing in the era of vehicular extinction by careful and calculated design; when we planned the custom-designed home on our 8.5-acre lot, we made a conscious financial decision to drive our current fleet into the ground.  The groceries unloaded onto my lovely granite countertops come from a trunk that no longer opens at the touch of a button, but requires a long fumbling search in the dark for the old-fashioned key hole, which I swear migrates to a new and elusive spot every day.  The check engine and low tire pressure lights in the Alero are constantly on (the sporty rims leak air, and there are any number of inconvenient but not unsafe failures occurring elsewhere in the vehicle on a daily basis).  The paint on the hood was faulty from the start, leading quickly to a delicate lace of rust along the front edge.  We’ve tried to replace it with a used hood, but it is impossible to find an organ donor for that particular body part, as even those surviving the donor car’s accident are equally rusted in the exact same place.  Will claims it makes the car easier to find in the parking lot, and I’ve learned not to wonder out loud, “Now, where’d I leave the car?” as he will invariably respond moments later, with triumphant volume, “THERE’S Old Rust, Mama, right over there!”

The truck has its own set of issues; as a matter of fact, one has to pause before putting the keys in the ignition of any current Hager automobile and remember its specific quirks before embarking.  The Explorer was used as a construction vehicle during the build and was regularly filled with enormous spools of wire, a thousand tiny yellow and red electrical parts, and loosely packed tools.  One must open the hatch with caution, as there seem to be an infinite number of small pieces and hardware still embedded deep within the bowels of the truck which can emerge from the deep and go rolling wildly around the parking lot without notice.  Also, the lack of an interior door panel on the driver’s side serves as a reminder that to exit the vehicle, one has to open the power window (which still works, thank God), stick one’s arm out, and open the door from the outside, or else the handle will remain stuck in the open position, thus prohibiting the door from being closed again.  Mark can extricate himself successfully from the inside by jiggling the lever exposed by the missing body part, but I have only sporadic success with this approach and must rely on the unwieldy arm-out-the-window method, which I rarely remember until it’s too late.

Of course, it doesn’t much matter what we drive any more because, as my friend Tracy accurately pointed out, it’s not like we GO anywhere – Wegmans, Target, school, and the library (Mark once asked me if there was some sort of “frequent flyer” card for high-volume borrowers).  As a stay-at-home mom, my world has necessarily shrunk to within a radius of only a few miles; a vehicle is less of a touring coach in which to settle and enjoy the ride, and more of a workhorse combination of shuttle, restaurant, and changing room.

The thing is, you can’t criticize another person’s ride until you’ve traveled a mile in her stagecoach.  Whether she is driving Old Rust or a sleek new rose-petal-spewing Odyssey, she is also passing out water bottles and nutritious snacks to carry her riders through basketball or gymnastics.  She’s trying to stay within the legal speed limit (well, most of the time) and still get there on time, while quizzing a 2nd grader on spelling and mentally reviewing the night’s dinner menu.  She’s considering which babysitter to call so she can attend the PTA meeting while her husband is out of town the following week, and wondering if his favorite dress shirt was in the load of laundry sitting wet in the washer at home.  Ironically for the stay-at-home stagecoach driver, the very thing that allows her the option of being home with her kids – her husband’s success at his job – also makes it increasingly difficult for her to do anything else.  As her spouse moves up in the ranks at work, there are often longer hours, business trips, and unexpected delays, increasing the family’s dependence on her services…and her own interdependence on the rest of the stagecoach fleet.

I have never been a “girlfriend” kind of girl; I don’t get my nails done, or my hair colored, or my eyebrows waxed, and I don’t shop for shoes.  I never knew quite what to say to other girls – until we all ceased being girls and turned into mothers.  Suddenly there was this slim strong bond, a silent empathy, an ease of communication that never existed before.  In this month of giving thanks, I salute you, my sisters of the Stagecoach Express; should the opportunity arise, I would be proud to join your ranks behind the wheel of a soccer mom minivan.

I just have to convince my husband.

Posted in coping skills, finding who I was before Mama, free to be 40-something, humor, inspiration, middle age, minivans, mother of boys, Motivation, parenting, self-discovery, stay-at-home mom, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ninjas, Knights, and Nargoyles

It is a lovely October afternoon, sun shining (finally!) in a bright blue sky, air crisp, leaves blazing in the sun.  In a field resplendent with goldenrod and purple asters, a pair of horns suddenly appears.  Upon closer investigation, they belong not to a runaway bull or grazing buck, but to…my husband, making a valiant attempt, in his Viking hat, to keep up with Josh and Will in their respective Ninja and Knight costumes (what woman in her right mind allows BOTH of her small boys to choose costumes which require swords???).  The Viking makes a brief appearance near the stereo, and suddenly Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries is blasting from the speakers on the porch.  With both courage and amperage on their side, the ancient warriors fight a brave battle against the Nargoyle, who turns out to be a dragon living in the refrigerator box dragged out from the bowels of the garage.  Victorious, they wave their swords in the air, and suddenly, one horn pointing up and one pointing down, the Viking slinks stealthily past the window at the computer desk.  Grinning, my husband pops his horned head up and murmurs slyly through the screen, “This is where I woo the princess!”

The irony of following a post on the importance of conflict resolution with one on the gradual acceptance of violent weaponry into my home is not lost upon the writer.  Much to the amazement of some of my friends, I steadfastly stuck by my “no weapons” rule for almost seven years.  It isn’t that I am such a peacenik; there are a variety of other reasons for the ban.  It started when Will was a newborn, lying soft little belly up on his blankie on the floor, and I suddenly found myself yelping, “Josh, do NOT jump OVER your BROTHER!!!”  Tall and lanky for his age, Josh has shown a consistent lack of body control over the years, so while Will was still small and vulnerable, there was no way I was putting in Josh’s hands anything whose entire purpose was to be aimed or flung at another individual.

Anyone who knows Will now is scratching their head and thinking, “Was Will EVER small and vulnerable?”  Both of our boys were nicknamed Tank as toddlers, but while Josh grew long at three and four, Will has maintained his low center of gravity and linebacker density.  Which leads to the next reason for delaying the introduction of fighting implements: Will quickly discovered that although he cannot keep up with Josh in verbal zingers, he can wield a mighty blow when necessary and even things up quite nicely.  Physical prowess paired with the low levels of patience and impulse control of the average four-year-old is a dangerous combination, and for the past year or two it has been Will who would pose the most danger given a ready arsenal.

Now that Josh’s large motor skills have grown into his large motor (at least to a degree), and Will’s temper has begun to show some sign of temperance, I am willing to give weapons a try…within limits.  We have instituted a no-sword-to-body contact rule, and are trying to maintain never-aim-your-gun-at-a-person.  Also, we don’t aim to kill, unless we are hunting for food (the boys will regularly bring me imaginary venison and turkey to “fix” for dinner, hefting their pretend burden, fur, feathers and all, onto my kitchen counter).

Our dearth of heavy weaponry has caused quite a bit of dissention among the ranks, as one might expect.  Common conversational threads begin with comments like, “Well, so-and-so has the super-speed, automatic reloader, 30 round Darth Vader nerf gun WITH THE SIGHT, and we don’t!!!”  My pragmatic, “That is correct” is somehow never the response they are looking for.

Still, they improvise.  A “hand” gun made with a barrel of two fingers is more powerful than if it were formed with just one.  After a Cub Scout trip to the Naval Museum, water bottles filled with batteries and the balls from the Magnetix set, then stuffed with ungodly numbers of cotton balls, became grenades (incidentally, has anyone ever tried to get cotton balls out of a narrow-necked water bottle?  It takes tweezers and a lot of time.  I would have been willing to sacrifice the cotton balls and the Desani bottle but wasn’t willing to give up on all those Magnetix balls and batteries!).  I walked into the loft one day and couldn’t shake the eerie feeling of being watched.  After a careful scan of the usual disarray, I realized that there were tiny plastic soldiers perched on every horizontal piece of our lovely Mission oak railing, silently stalking whoever dared to walk past.

So, why do I try?  After all, we played cowboys and Indians and cops and robbers when we were little, and we didn’t all turn into violent felons.  I do understand all the articles I read about imaginative play as a method of safely acting out aggressions and expressing anger.  As my friend and confidant Bethany would say, “I GET that, I really do.”  I guess I just don’t want my kids to think it’s the only way.  It seems that every day now there is another report of someone — fired from his job, having an argument with his girlfriend, repeatedly bullied in school – reaching for a gun to “solve” his or her problem, leaving behind a trail of dead bodies and heartache.  Obviously there are many complex reasons for such behavior, and parenting probably plays a very small role in the mix.  I can’t imagine the agony of the mother receiving that call that her child is in custody, or lying dead with his victims.  If, God forbid, that should ever be me, I wouldn’t want the heartache heightened by the knowledge that I had thrown up my hands and given up.

So, I guess I’ll continue to take the odd looks on the playground when I hear my kids use the word “dead” and call them over to tell me exactly what that word means.  Day after day I’ll wonder how to compromise so my kids don’t get teased, but don’t get sucked into the abyss of pervasive violence, either.  I expect it will be an ever-evolving struggle, but I promise to them and to myself that I’ll never stop trying to think it through.

At least for now, my trepidation about buying the swords and weapons at the Halloween Warehouse has been allayed.  When I suggested to Will that we pack up his costume for Friday’s Halloween party at school, I was startled to hear him say, “Hmmm…I don’t know what I want to be.”  Bypassing the sword and shield, the breastplate and helmet, he dug out his real cowboy hat and personalized “Texas Ranger” star from his grandparents.  Going all the way to the bottom of the bin, he found the boots and vest and bandanna from an old Woody costume.  “Guess I’ll be a sheriff!” he declared with a grin.

And he didn’t even carry a gun.

Posted in big brothers, conflict resolution, coping skills, costumes, Halloween, humor, inspiration, kids and guns, mother of boys, Motivation, parenting, self-discovery, Uncategorized, violence, weapons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Three Puppies, Two Regs, and a Big Boy

It’s one of the most gut-wrenching sounds I know, and my heart still races when I hear it, despite the fact that it hasn’t emanated from my own offspring for almost five years.  As humans, we are programmed to respond to the screeching sound of a newborn’s cry with primitive urgency; while logic tells us the baby is safe in the nursery, some ancient part of our brain stem is prepared to save our young from whatever predator is poised to carry them off for dinner.

Before we brought Josh home from the hospital, the staff taught us to do a check-down to determine the cause of the crying.  Is the baby wet?  Hungry?  Cold?  Hot?  Over-stimulated by light or noise?  What they failed to reveal was that, while those are all very good reasons to wail, sometimes babies just cry.  It’s what they DO.

It was a Sesame Street video called “Three Bears and a New Baby” that opened my eyes to this fact.  In the live-action portion, a big brother awkwardly and tenderly cuddles his sobbing infant sibling, and the lyrics to the accompanying song called “Brothers and Sisters” go something like, “Sometimes you just have to help them cry.”  For Josh’s entire infancy, I thought I was supposed to be able to decode his cries and fix whatever was ailing him (Mark eventually did ban “The Baby Whisperer” from my bookshelf).  When I couldn’t, I felt like a failure, and my growing tension simply added fuel to the fire of his full-blooded wails.  I could have saved myself so much angst if I had realized that once the checklist of possible causes had been exhausted, my job was not to stop the tears, but simply to hold him with compassion while he cried.

As the baby grows and develops some self-awareness, the job at hand becomes teaching the process of self-soothing.  Josh had a lovey team: Baabaa-co.  Baabaa was a lamb, of course, and “co” was short for “cozy covie,” which is what we called his blanket with the silky edge…which was, of course, given to him as a gift long before he was born, and was no longer available in the stores for duplicate purchase when he latched onto it a year later.  Thank God for e-bay!  For the small price of roughly twice its value, I was able to procure the means to accomplish the old laundry switcheroo.

Josh, being a categorical kind of guy, quickly assigned labels to every other blanket in his world.  The extras in the vehicles were “Car Co’s,” and the afghan on the sofa was “Couch Co.”  Once he graduated to a larger blanket for his bed (which luckily also had a silky edge — thanks, Mrs. Church!), his original co became “Regular Co,” and the more ample version was “Big Boy Co.”  The extra-soft one my husband always chose to pull over himself if he got chilly in Josh’s room was “Fluffy Co.”  Over the years, the noun has been dropped and the adjectives shortened for convenience, so now we have “Reg,” “Fluff,” and “Big Boy,” who still performs active service, though in an increasingly covert manner.

Fast forward about a year from the inception of the Baabaa-co team.  I’ve just discovered I am expecting again, and since we are a “surprise me” family, we don’t know if it’s going to be a boy or a girl (When well-meaning friends and strangers asked, “Do you know what you’re having?” Mark always answered, “A human, we hope!”).  The nesting instinct is instantaneous and strong this time, and I am determined to be prepared.  Again, there is a lack of information: no one has notified me that God does not wish you to miss ANY aspect of parenting, and therefore any adjustments or solutions utilized for the first child will not be serviceable a second time.  Rather, all new adaptations will be required to meet the totally different needs of any additional offspring.  Blissfully ignorant of this fact, I hit the e-bay search engine hard, Mastercard in hand, to locate both pink and blue versions of Josh’s white “Reg” with the Winnie-the-pooh embroidery and the silk around the edge.

By now, the blankets are even more costly, as they have been off the market for over two years.  Plus, I am now seeking not one blanket to match what I already have, but two matching sets, one pair blue, one pair pink, from separate sources.  Needless to say, there are numerous false starts, as the photos on e-bay are not always as distinct as one might wish.  Unable to control much else in my life at the time, I become diabolically obsessed with the matching blankets, staying up until the wee hours to watch the bidding, and paying way too much for blankets that come with outfits or teddy bears to match.

Finally, along with an enormous Pay Pal bill and a basket full of ready-made baby gifts for other people’s children, I had two identical pairs of brand new Winnie-the-Pooh “co’s,” ready and waiting for Josh’s baby brother or sister…who, of course, showed absolutely no interest in my careful investment, selecting instead a plain cotton blanket procured on a whim from Carter’s at 75% off.  At least I had gotten smart enough by then that I had bought two!

The yellow striped Carter’s blanket was called Will’s co until the day he decided, with characteristic certainty, that it should be otherwise.  For no reason that we could ever determine, he walked up one day and announced, “Dis co’s name is PUPPY,” turned around with a swish of the blanket, and walked away.  Instead of “silking him,” as Josh always did with Reg and Big, Will “chews” Puppy, stuffing unimaginable amounts of striped yellow cotton down his throat and rubbing his nose with some dry segment of what’s left.  Because of this technique, Puppy or his twin have been included in nearly every load of laundry processed by our aging machine for the last five years, and are consequently almost unrecognizable forms of their original selves.  When my friend’s neighbor asked if we were the ones with the yellow striped Carter’s blanket, because she had one she never used and wished to donate, my friend said, “That sounds close, but I’m pretty sure it’s not yellow!”  This third Puppy has become “Good Puppy,” or “Dress-up Puppy,” and he goes with us when we go to parties or other public events where the original Puppy twins might not be welcomed.

The irony of the whole thing is that as soon as you get a handle on teaching, “I am here for you always and to build your trust I will meet your every need,” you need to start working on “Life sometimes sucks.  Here are some ways you can deal with it.”  It begins with a silky blanket or a stuffed lamb, but soon it becomes impossible to protect them from the kind of disappointment and conflict that goes way beyond the coping capacities of any lovey.

Last weekend, I was visiting my parents with the boys, who were happily engaged in the toy room with mountains of Legos.  From the room where my father and I were talking, I suddenly heard the tenor of the play change.  Assessing in a heartbeat the time of day, potential hunger and thirst for each child, and elapsed time on task, I selected my countdown starting point: 4, 3, 2, 1, EXPLOSION.  At issue was a motorcycle coveted wildly by both.  Being logical people, Dad and I elicited some suggestions from the boys and made some of our own: take turns, make a trade, search for the other motorcycle reportedly living deep within the Lego bin.  None of these were acceptable to both parties, and I was inwardly sighing with frustration when I realized that the crisis had passed.  Josh suddenly remembered some other sets of Legos in the toy room and abandoned the idea of the motorcycle to explore the possibilities of those, and play resumed with peace and happy chatter.

Why not just “let them work it out themselves,” you ask.  My self-doubts will rear their ugly heads for a moment here as I answer that my particular boys, at 4 and 7, usually cannot “work it out” themselves.  It is increasingly my experience that if you let children “work it out” without first teaching them strategies to use, the person with the most power in the situation will always win, and not graciously, and the person with the least power will frequently be hurt, and far more than is warranted by the situation.  “Such is life!” some might say, and I do not disagree; the world is full of powerful people who will continue to win as teenagers and adults, and less powerful people who will be forced to concede more often than not.  This is human nature, and I don’t in any way wish to shelter my children from this reality, in age-appropriate doses, of course.  What I AM coming firmly to believe is that we as evolved adults need to actively teach our children to communicate their needs clearly to each other, seek out solutions that might meet everyone’s needs, and when that is not possible, to assert themselves in a way that allows the other person to save face.  We need to teach them that sometimes problems have no neat and tidy solution, that it is okay to disagree, and that sometimes our anger and tension just fade away as the heat of the moment passes.  We need to metaphorically hold them while they struggle with conflict and disappointment, just as we physically held them while they cried.  And here’s the thing I always forget: we need to do it over and over and over again.

The reason this post took so darn long to write is that this is, of course, an exceptionally tall order.  I frequently do not have the bandwidth to follow my own convictions, and instead run red-faced into the middle of the fight, screaming at the top of my own lungs, “StopitstopitstopitSTOPIT!!!!!”  But I decided that I needed to write this, if only to remind myself that as hard as I worked to get each child just the right “co” for that first crucial step in soothing themselves, I need to work just as hard to help them build a set of verbal and social tools to solve their own problems in a larger world.

I think it might be sinking in, just a little.  When I expressed my dismay at having missed the mailman one day, Will thought for a moment and then said, “Well, Mama, you might just have to deal!”

Humbly submitted,
Magnificent Mama

Posted in attachment object, big brothers, big sisters, conflict resolution, coping skills, free to be 40-something, humor, inspiration, lovey, mother of boys, Motivation, newborns, parenting, self-discovery, Sesame Street, stay-at-home mom | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment