Monday, November 10, 2014

Can you hear the words that are coming out of my mouth?

That's what I figured.

"She is not giving you a hard time; she is having a hard time." Lisa Sunbury

Before school this morning, Violet kicked me. It's not the first time and I know it won't be the last. 

To be fair, she was angry because I was pulling her pajamas off against her will so that I could change her into jeans and a T-shirt. I'd be angry too if someone was making me wear something I didn't want to wear.

The morning started off well enough. She woke up in a great mood. I made her oatmeal with bananas and honey and sat down to enjoy my coffee. She admired the fall flowers I had bought for her table, and we talked about how she enjoyed watching the classroom hermit crabs over the weekend.

I try.

We had plenty of time for a while there — until we didn't. Suddenly we had about 10 minutes to get ready before we had to leave for school. I told her to go in her drawer and pick out jeans and a shirt. (I thought that was pretty good. I was giving her the option to choose which shirt and which pants she wanted to wear.) She chose a Christmas dress, all sparkle and bows, that was hanging in her closet, and when I told her no, she ran into the dining room and hid under the table.

What were my options then? I could choose not to battle over the clothes and just let her wear the Christmas dress. But it was cold outside, she gets filthy at school, and I didn't want to. Plus, I'd already said no, so I think it would have been unwise to do an about-face just so I could avoid conflict. 

I could yell, but I work hard to not lose my temper so that I am not sending the message that I am out of control. I don't want her to feel unsafe. 

I could threaten her by saying she couldn't watch her TV show after school or say that I was going to take away one of her toys. 

I could grab her and stick her in a time-out chair so that she could think about how she's not listening to me. But I don't believe in threatening (because I don't want to be manipulative), and I don't want to put her in time-out because I want her to learn to express her feelings, not stuff them. 

I could do the countdown: "You have until five. One. Two. Three ..." But if someone did this to me, I would just get more amped up and be ready to explode by the time "five" came around.

I could also just wait and say that we were not moving on to the next thing until she did what I asked her to. That seems like a logical natural consequence, but in this case, the next thing was going to school, and she really didn't care if she was late or didn't make it there at all.

It was tempting to just threaten. I really just wanted to get moving, and I knew if I made a good threat, she'd listen and we'd be out the door on time. But I know that this is about our relationship too, so I needed to make a choice that would get us out the door on time and send the message I wanted.

I'm pretty good about remembering to acknowledge my girls' feelings when they are upset, so I did that. I have to say, though, that while that used to help calm Violet down, it doesn't anymore. At least, not in the moment or for a while afterward. In the moment, she just wants what she wants. (I try to bring up the hard time she was having at a later point in the day.) I still do it, though, because it's not about whether it "works." I just need to let her know I hear her.

Then I asked her to come out from underneath the dining room table, and when she didn't, I picked her up, carried her into her room, pulled her pajamas over her head (insert above-referenced kick), and then pulled her pants and shirt on. It didn't feel good to do that, but I tried to remain calm while doing it and not allow myself to feel impatient or annoyed (it's not easy, and also she is heavy). I also grabbed her foot and said, "I am not going to let you kick me."

Not listening is just par for the course when you have a four-year-old (or, really, a kid of any age). Of course she wants to make her own choices. As parents, we try to give them some control, within reasonable parameters, but it's not always enough for them. 

Fortunately for me, Lisa Sunbury, an RIE educator, mentor, associate, and author of the popular blog Regarding Baby, offers some great advice:

  • First, she says to remember that when a child is not listening or is otherwise acting out it is because they are having a hard time, not giving us a hard time. I love that because it helps keep things in perspective and reminds me to be more of an observer of the behavior as opposed to taking the behavior personally. Also, when I think of it that way, it puts me back on my daughter's side rather than in opposition to her. And that's what I want my girls to feel: I am on your side. You will get there and I will help you.

  • She also says that if she's doing something like throwing something or hitting, do not allow it. Bear-hug her if need be. Sit with her through those emotions, for however long it takes (I find that it sometimes comes in waves). Once things have calmed down, you can talk about it. No lectures — just listening to the feelings and acknowledging them. You can start the conversation by saying what you observed happening. Keep it short.

  • When Violet won't let go of something I've asked her to give to me, I can give her the option of either giving it to me or putting it on the floor (or table/counter). If she won't do either, I can let her know that I am going to have to take it. Then, as gently as I can, go ahead and take it (or, as was the case this morning, I have to take control of the situation and set the boundary).

  • Teach your child how to master self-regulation. One way to do this is through modeling. Their emotions/moods often feed off your own, which is one reason why it is so important to have a relaxed, confident attitude. If you are feeling annoyed, just say that you are feeling irritated and need to take a minute to calm down. By doing that, you are having an honest exchange with your child about your feelings and you are modeling a calming technique. You can discuss with her what kinds of things you can do to help calm down when you are feeling angry, and you can put together something like a "calm jar" or a "calm box" with some toys in it that help her calm down (think marbles, cotton balls, stickers, etc.). You can also suggest a private signal between the two of you, like squeezing your hand. This will act as a nonverbal cue to let you know that she is angry and needs some help calming down.

  • Maybe time alone is needed. You don't need to send her to her room to punish her, but if she is feeling out of control, maybe she needs to unwind by removing herself from a situation that's triggering her and read a book or play quietly.

I appreciate Lisa's insights. It definitely takes a lot of patience to sit through all of those emotions that my girls are experiencing and to help them work through it — without getting too annoyed — but I think it's important. I don't want to minimize their feelings, dismiss them, or patronize my girls by distracting them. I will say, however, that I recommend not always announcing that you are going to have to take something away, or at least not until you have your hands already on it and are moving it out of the way. The announcement can just make an angry toddler latch on with all her might. Also, I suggested the hand squeeze and calm jar to Violet, and she gave me a deadpan that I would expect from someone fifteen or older. So to say she wasn't interested is an understatement. Oh well. Maybe I need to come up with a more inspired name for the jar or our secret handshake. I'm sure I'll have plenty of reminders.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Interestings

I was in my mid- to late twenties before I realized what a profound effect my adolescent years — particularly the high school years had on me. During that time, I felt the first swell of romantic love, the devastation of broken friendships, the unchecked rage toward my parents. I may not remember the details of those years today, but I can effortlessly access the emotions. Looking back, I realize that the reason those years were so meaningful is because that was the time in my life when I began to form my personal narrative.

There were some big changes in my life during that time that were completely out of my control. And because of the way I obsessed about boys, the potentially dangerous situations that I threw myself into with wild abandon, the competitiveness I felt with my friends, and my apathy toward school, a worldview and identity took shape that I've only managed to revise in my thirties. I believed I was a rebel, that I was stupid, that I was unattractive, and that I was daring. I saw the world, by turns, as a hostile and enticingly mysterious place. This personal narrative became only more fully ingrained with time, as I reconstructed and retold these experiences to others in an effort to communicate who I was.

Like me, Julie Jacobson, the protagonist in Meg Wolitzer's 2013 novel, The Interestings, begins her personal narrative in adolescence, specifically the summer she is fifteen. That summer, in 1974, at an arts camp outside New York called Spirit-in-the-Woods, unremarkable suburbanite Julie is rechristened the more glamorous "Jules" when she is initiated into a group of five friends who call themselves (with an arrogance and irony that only teenagers are capable of) "The Interestings." 

The friends, male and female alike, form an unbreakable bond, and the novel follows them from adolescence into middle age. Jules's new friends are privileged, ambitious, and possess what Jules learns much later are rare talents. Spirit-in-the-Woods is the place where many of her friends' gifts are first realized, and some go on to achieve wild success.

Jules's worldview mirrors those of her friends. She believes she has access to the same opportunities as they do, and she pursues them in earnest. Her self-worth and well-being are tied to her endless comparisons to her friends, and for a long time, she can't reconcile why her life has gone in one direction, and theirs in another. Despite having a quieter life, however, Jules finds true love; is well respected in her chosen field; and is a loving mother, wife, and friend. And as her friends' lives evolve and as some of their flaws and struggles are revealed, Jules is able to gain a fresh perspective and extricate herself from this punishing social comparison.

The denouement of this novel is Jules's awakening. Like me, she does not remain arrested in her development. She is able to compartmentalize those transformative years, she comes to realize that she is accomplished in her own right, and she begins to experience gratitude for the gifts that she has received. 

Yes, I loved this novel because Wolitzer writes with such eye-opening acuity, and yes, I loved it because the characters are so dynamic that I was fully invested in them. I also loved it because, like many novels that I fall in love with, I was able to connect on a deeply personal level: the unformed emotional fragments that floated around in my subconscious were brought to the surface for a reckoning. The Interestings gave me the objectivity I needed, through Jules, to be reminded that, while I may not be particularly interesting and while there still exist some traces of the rebel I once was, I have more agency now. And this means I have a new story to tell, one authentic and powerful enough to eclipse the narrative of my youth.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Week 4

So a couple of things happened since my last running post. For one, the half marathon that I was training for was canceled. I also got sick, a present from my girls and all their new little friends at school, so I took my third week of running off.

Even though I skipped a week, I picked up on week 4 of the training plan. I still covered most of my miles in the gym, but I chose to run outside for the weekend. I've really missed it. 

Dunedin Causeway.

My three-mile run was my best time in the last three weeks, and it was also just a beautiful run. I started out the run listening to Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah," followed by Robert Plant's song "Rainbow," a recent discovery that turned out to be good for pacing.

At the risk of sounding fanciful, I have to say that I leaned in, and when I did I felt cradled by the morning: the rain-stained pavement, the foamy shoreline, the breeze with just a touch of crispness. I was open to the moment and felt connected to the singers, the landscape, and my own intensity— something that has always been part of me and, try as I might, will never change. 

When the songs ended, Emily Dickinson's "Sweet is the Swamp with its Secrets" kept running through my mind. I love the poem for its simplicity, and for its alliteration and rhythm:

Sweet is the swamp with its secrets,
Until we meet a snake;
'Tis then we sigh for houses,
And our departure take
At that enthralling gallop
That only childhood knows.
A snake is summer's treason,
And guile is where it goes.

Wish I could've kept up the pace with this one.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do about the half marathon. I was thinking that I might just run my thirteen miles on what would be race day by myself. Who needs an audience? I also could just extend my training by a month and run a half marathon in December. Or I may just do both.

Either way, I hope I can have a few more runs like the one I had on Saturday.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Optional Suffering

New gear was my motivation.
So it's been four months since my last run, with the exception of an ill-fated eight-mile run that I barely survived. I attempted eight miles with my friend Lee (an accomplished long-distance runner) because I was a little cocky. I was sure, despite the fact that I hadn't done more than a three-mile run in months, that my stubborness would carry me through and that my body was accustomed to long distances and still had the stamina, latent though it might be. Needless to say, I was wrong. I shuffled along, had to walk some, and finished with a pace of 13:40 per mile.

I had dinner with Lee a couple of weeks ago and asked, out of curiosity, if there were any upcoming half marathons. I knew all the usual ones — December through May  but she informed me that there was actually one in St. Petersburg in November.  If I wanted to run it, I had just three months to train. I always train for four months, and I always follow a beginner's training plan, which always assumes that you have been running consistently for at least six months. I've usually not been running for at least six months. A three-month training plan was and is daunting.

First run--fartlek.

This week, though, I decided to give it a try. I haven't signed up for the half marathon yet (I'm going to wait until I have at least three weeks under my belt), but I ran five times, and, despite the early mornings and incredible soreness, I am still alive and did not skip a single run.

Second run--just getting through the mileage.

Each night, I made a promise to myself that I would get up at 5:00 a.m. to make it to the gym by 5:30 a.m. This happened exactly zero times. 6:30 isn't too shabby, though.

Third run--I did a bit of fartlek on this run, too.

I can't bear the sun and heat right now, so I've completed all of my runs at the gym. I've been listening to Fresh Air and WTF (Marc Maron) podcasts. I particularly like the Marc Maron podcast because the interviews are longer, funny, and very in-depth.

My legs have been killing me (calves tight, hips achy, thighs sore), so I was really looking forward to my three-mile run on Saturday. It's also nice that it was only three miles because I obsessively look at the treadmill to see how much distance I've covered.

Fourth run.

I dreaded the six-mile run on Sunday. I was worried that it would be a repeat of the eight-mile run I'd attempted with Lee a while back. I decided I would take it reaaallly slow and just try to cover the distance.

As it turned out, it wasn't as bad as I thought. I sped up when I could. I'm disappointed that I wasn't able to get a picture of the six-mile run (with just half a mile to go, I accidentally hit the "cool down" or "clear" button when I was adjusting my speed, and the timer started over). My guess is that I finished at 63 or 64 minutes.

Throughout this week, I've wondered why I'm doing this to myself. Why not just read or watch a movie or sleep in on the weekend? I'm in pain and I'm hungrier than ever. I guess my answer is that I'm really goal-oriented, so having a plan with set distances helps fulfill that need to achieve, and also because it gives my days some purpose — beyond raising the kids and a job — something that is just for me. I hope that I keep up with it, and I look forward to it getting easier!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Waldorf: A New School Year

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there will ever be to know and understand." Albert Einstein

Future's so bright she's gotta wear shades

I don't know if Portlandia  has done a spoof of a Waldorf school, but if it hasn't, it should. We are the baby-wearing, organic-food-eating, self-righteous women who wait in line for a Terry Gross autograph.

Next week, Violet goes back to school. Despite the fact that I bought her some new shoes and dresses that she is overjoyed about, she's not thrilled about the upcoming change. I've loved our time together this summer (three months!), but with having to rely on a couple of nannies to help me out during the workday, I am ready for her to return to the nurturing, wholesome community that her school offers (and the ease of having regular care that her being in school provides me).

Because she started in January last year, I didn't have the benefit of a parent orientation, which would've helped explain what goes on in the classroom on a day-to-day basis and the rationale behind some Waldorf practices. Saturday I attended the orientation for this school year, and I feel like I got a lot of my questions answered.

Some of the school beliefs include the following: encouraging a child's sense of wonderment and activating his or her imagination by having open-ended toys, such as dolls with no faces and simple wooden cars and animals; no exposure to media because of the content of television and radio programming and its effect on the child's sense of self and well-being (the school also prohibits children from wearing character shirts), the impact it makes on logical sequential thinking and imagination due to its rapid "flickering," and all of the things a child is not doing when she is passively watching or listening to a program (such as discovering something on her own); an extensive celebration of a child's birthday to acknowledge the milestone in her life and her journey to earth; and a rhythm to a child's day that includes regular rest, oral storytelling, nourishing foods, and participation in classroom chores (baking, setting the table, cleaning up the classroom).

As I've mentioned before, I had my own reasons for choosing a Waldorf school. I liked the slower pace it offered, the fact that it doesn't focus on academics in the nursery and kindergarten classes (Violet is in the mixed-age kindergarten, even though she is not old enough to be in kindergarten in a traditional school), the open-ended toys, the idea that adults just need to get out of kids' way so that they can learn, and the home-like atmosphere. However, even though I think it's best that she not watch television,  I do allow her to watch one show a day sometimes two and, on occasion, I even allow her to watch a movie. Part of the reason I allow her to watch a show is because she does 30 minutes of vision therapy with the television, and, I admit, sometimes I just need a break. Also, half of her T-shirt drawer is filled with character shirts, and even though I serve a mostly organic diet to my children, I do allow Violet to have McDonald's once a month. There are other things too, but I am considering making some changes at home.

The parents are encouraged to participate in the school community as much as possible by volunteering to clean the classrooms and maintain the grounds; building structures (like a loft); and attending parent/child groups for children two and under, monthly meetings that explore various topics (like the impact of television on children), and lectures by experts from various fields. I've done none of this, but I did offer to do some writing to help their marketing efforts, and I've made some non-toxic cleaning products that can be used in the classroom.

Despite some of its quirks, I feel like the school offers something really special, so I am feeling hopeful about the new school year and reassured that I made a good decision. And my hope is that, once Violet gets into the swing of things, she will feel that way, too.

Practicing her curtsy

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Intentional Parenting

My friend Anna used the phrase “intentional parenting” once when we got our kids together for a play date, and I think it describes the type of parenting I aspire to. I know that I am not perfect and that I have my struggles, and that my daughters will be imperfect and have their own struggles, but most parents I know want to give their kids a running start, and this is the way I know how to do it. When it doesn’t come naturally, this hypervigilance can be tiring, but my hope is that it makes a difference where it counts.

For instance, lately I’ve noticed that I’ve been threatening my kids, that there has been a re-emergence of sibling rivalry that I thought I’d diminished, and that I’ve found myself backed into a corner with desserts. Instead of saying to my two-year-old, “Don’t swallow that toothpaste,” I say, “Don’t swallow that toothpaste or you will have to go back to your other toothpaste.” I also say things to my four-year-old like, “If you eat your sister’s food, I will have to put you out of the kitchen.” I also sometimes add the word “please” at the end of a command, which might seem like the polite thing to say but, in actuality, may result in them feeling "mom is not in control because she is pleading with me." Instead, it’d be more effective if I just left the second part of the sentence off and if I avoided saying no altogether, as saying it too much can lead to feelings of frustration, cause my kids to become desensitized to the word, and result in future rebellious behavior.  A better idea would be to say, “Let me show you how to use this toothpaste,” or, “I see you are still hungry. Would you like some yogurt or an apple?”

A while back, I read Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. There were a number of takeaways that I feel I’ve done a (mostly) good job of implementing. I try to not use the words “too” or “also” when talking with my girls, as in, “I see you are cleaning up the toys, too,” so as not to compare them. I also avoid saying that I love them equally (instead telling each one, in private, the things I love about them) so that they can each feel special and have a unique bond with me that acknowledges their individual personalities. I avoid comparing them or giving them a label, as in “Harper is my good eater,” or, “See how well your sister eats?” I also have been doing a better job of letting them problem solve (not making them share) without intervening. I want them to develop their own relationship and give them the chance to be kind on their own (without me making them do it, which causes them to feel angry or hurt instead of feeling empowered), and I don’t want to cast one child in the victim role and one in the villain role. It’s hard to do because Violet is so much faster and stronger than Harper and can get to a toy first or take a toy from her so easily. I often think it’s unfair, but when I do leave them to their own devices, I get a chance to see, when Violet gives a toy back and comforts her younger sister or apologizes, how generous and empathetic Violet can be. I also realize that Harper doesn’t care as much as she initially lets on. She will often just pick up a different toy and begin happily playing with it.

Where I think I’ve fallen short is that I am sometimes demonstrative with one in front of the other. This happens frequently in the mornings. I sit down with my coffee, and Harper will come and lay her head on my lap. Without thinking, I stroke her hair. Violet, seeing that, immediately asks to sit on my lap.  When I put her on my lap, Harper then demands to be on my lap, too. If I’ve done it and then realized my mistake, I will say, “Okay, I can give you both big hugs, and then you need to go back to your seats.” Unfortunately, by that point, it’s already too late, and they are both crying. Part of me just thinks, “Oh well. Life isn’t fair.” But I know, from experience, that when I create this dynamic in the morning, it often (because of the feelings of resentment that it causes) has repercussions throughout the day.

I also fail to acknowledge both sides when it’s gotten physical. I have been good about just attending to the wounded child and acknowledging the feelings of the wounded child, but I’ve forgotten to address the feelings of the aggressor. The aggressor, let’s be honest, is usually Violet, who is very articulate and can easily explain why she did something, so it’s worth it to just get to the root of how she feels.

In terms of the affection, I think I can just thank them for the hug they’ve given me and set a boundary that there will be no cuddling right now. I can tell them that I look forward to some special time later. Later on, I need to make a point to read a book or play with a toy privately and cuddle with them then. As long as I know they get plenty of affection throughout the day, I don't need to feel guilty about not giving it right in the moment.

Recently, I wrote the post Stress-Free Meal Times. However, I’ve still had some situations come up that I've needed to address. One of them surrounds dessert. As I wrote in that earlier post, I’ve taken care to not bribe by saying that they can get dessert when they finish their dinner. However, sometimes they see the dessert sitting on my counter, whether it’s banana bread or cookies or something else, and they, of course, want some. Obviously, I don’t want them to have dessert instead of dinner, so I’ve lately begun acknowledging what they want and reframing: “You see dessert and you want some. I said you can’t have any now, and that makes you upset. When you finish your dinner, if you are still hungry, you may choose something else to eat.” They will always choose the dessert, but at least I am not mentioning it or dangling the promise of dessert like a carrot.
Another option is a tip I got from Anna, which is to say, "You need to have your healthier foods first," or, "You need lots of nutrients and vitamins in your body in order to process the sugar." I especially love the second response.

No one is as hard on me as I am. The problem is that I believe, for my children’s self-esteem and for their development, that these methods are the best (also because bribing, distracting, and threatening don’t work, and, if they do, it’s just because the child is trying to avoid punishment or because she wants the reward, not because she is making a good decision), but even though I know that intellectually, it doesn’t always happen in practice. I have to keep reminding myself how I’d like to handle things going forward so that I can at least lessen the frequency of my automatic, more negative responses.
You can read more about these techniques (and others) here, here, and here.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


     Before I got pregnant for the first time, I taught in the public school system for eight years, finished grad school, and started a new career in writing and editing. I traveled when the urge struck me, taking off for two weeks at a time to visit places like Ireland and Alaska. I published the occasional short story or essay and harbored dreams of a novel, with my name on it, occupying the shelves of my local Barnes and Noble. At thirty-one, however, the birth of my first daughter sparked a tectonic shift, and I let go of all of the things I thought I wanted, releasing them like Chinese lanterns into the night. By the time I had my second daughter, at thirty-three, I was already wearing motherhood like a comfortable pair of sweatpants. 
     Now I spend my days and nights thinking about whether my children are happy, whether I am raising them to be well-adjusted teens and adults. I think about whether they are getting the nutrition they need and whether they have enough time to play. I think about getting the laundry done in time for school and how to turn my house into a home that is both loving and beautiful. I take care to cut my girls' sandwiches in a diagonal, just the way they like them. I engage in mental sessions of self-flagellation when I find myself distracted by recipes on Pinterest. Despite yearning to sip my coffee in peace in the mornings, I do my best, as I look upon these hungry, vulnerable little creatures, to twist my face into something open and honest.
     I'm as likely now to abandon an ambition as I am to follow through. Seven months after the birth of my second daughter, I ran a marathon. I began training for a second one and stopped running cold turkey right in the middle of it in favor of spending my free time reading books in bed. I intend to get dressed and maintain an acceptable level of personal hygiene, but I work in my pajamas and sometimes skip a shower. A couple of days a week, I might not even make it outside of the house.
     After spending my twenties fantasizing about extraordinary experiences and working toward grand accomplishments, I tend to consider my thirties thus far characterized by mediocrity. I no longer spend my evenings and weekends studying. I'm not so quick to volunteer to work the longer hours I used to. Instead I've discovered that I derive a perverse pleasure from producing baked goods. I have to wonder what that says about me. Will I ever, even after the kids are both in school, be ready to write a novel or to even put in the time and concentration required to publish again? Or will I just use my children like talismans against potential failure? 
     Then again, maybe mediocrity is just a label applied by the vestigial twenty-something still residing somewhere in my consciousness. In my sweatpants and ball cap, at the park, I feel miles from the sexualized images of checkout-line cover girls. But I don't need a low-cut shirt, makeup artist, and air-brushing to advertise my fertility. The two kids I'm chasing around are evidence enough. Like Gaia, the mother goddess of Greek mythology from whom all beings sprang, I have the power, as a woman, to grow life inside of me. Viewed through a different lens, my life takes on a separate hue. My children worship me. It seems like ever since the umbilical connection was severed, they have maintained an attachment via sameness — striving not to be mere approximations of me, but me exactly. Violet, my oldest daughter, with urgency in her voice, tells me that she wants to grow up to be just my height. She wants her hair to turn red, like mine, and she wants to wear all of my clothes. She wants to walk like me and talk like me too. 
     I am my girls' mediator. I am protective of them in a primal way. Psychically, I anticipate all of their needs. I have forged a happy marriage and communicative partnership with my husband to shield my children from familial instability. If I get the rare weekend away, a chance to lounge poolside and sip on fruity alcoholic beverages, by Sunday it already feels too long. 
     When considering my two girls, the importance of some of my old aspirations drifts away like the distorted image of a leaf being swept downstream under the surface of the water. Now I have new ambitions: raising my two miraculous girls in the best way I know how and loving them in that fierce way that only a mother can. Now I know that this is not mediocrity at all; instead, like every woman who strives to be a good mother, it's what makes me extraordinary. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Best Friends Forever

"The best mirror is an old friend." George Herbert

Awesome job curling my hair for school picture day.

Mrs. Greene, my second-grade teacher at Fairway Elementary, is handing out pencils. She walks up and down the narrow aisles, in between the rows of students sitting uncomfortably on blue plastic chairs affixed to their desks by metal rods. I write my name carefully on the line at the top of my worksheet. I am six years old and thinking about my mother's palm-sized compact with the sticky pink lipstick that doubles as blush. I had wanted to carefully dab it on before coming to school that morning, the way I'd seen my mother apply it, but my father, who had dropped me off, said no. Another day, I told myself, I'd be able to convince him. 

Mrs. Greene asks us to find partners and to ask them the questions on the worksheet. My eyes find a girl across the room, in the second desk in the farthest row. She is looking at me too. We are the only two children in class with red hair, which seems an excellent reason for us to become fast friends. She tells me her name is Hadar. "Hadar?" I ask. She tells me she just moved to Florida, from Israel, and that's why she has that name. I tell her I just moved to Florida too, but from upstate New York. We smile at each other. I am glad that we have this recent displacement in common, although I wonder if she has been scared like I have been since moving. At night, I sleep outside of my parents' bedroom door because I am afraid of ghosts and they won't let me into their bed. I don't mention this.
A few weeks later, we go to a water park for my seventh birthday. After that, we spend the night at one or the other's house every other weekend. Hadar and I join Brownies together, and, for Halloween, we paint our faces green, stand side by side with an extra-large bathrobe thrown around us, and tell people we are a two-headed monster.

At least I didn't forget my necktie.

I don't know why shower caps were involved.

Because a Girl Scout vest goes with everything.

By middle school, I have moved. My parents are divorced, and my mom, brother, and I have relocated from our four-bedroom house in the suburbs into a cramped apartment with a kitchen so small that when I open the refrigerator door, it pins my back against the pantry. My mother and I share her waterbed. Hadar's parents are still together. She has two living rooms and a large pink bedroom with heavy furniture and porcelain dolls with rosebud lips that stare down at us from her armoire. In her family room, we plop ourselves down on the plush couch and watch Revenge of the Nerds and Dirty Dancing on cable. 
I have a pair of pajamas just like hers, and we change into them at night. She brags that hers are store-bought, expensive, and adds that mine were made by my grandmother and aren't as nice. The elastic ruffled trim on my shorts suddenly feels too tight, and the floral-patterned top stiff and garish. Hadar's pajamas are made of a thicker material that gently clings to her body. I feel like an imposter, but I hold it in. I can't say anything for fear of breaking into tears in front of her. At that moment, I realize that I have mistaken our red hair and freckled skin and secrets and shared bowls of popcorn for sameness instead of seeing these things for what they are strands of a fragile bond holding us together as our adolescent lives careen down different paths.
Just before ninth grade starts, Hadar gets a short haircut. Her curls fall just below her ears, and the hair at the nape of her neck is as smooth as a cat's. She overhears a boy in her English class saying that she looks like a boy. She confesses to me that she hates her hair and desperately wants to grow it out. In that first semester of high school, I borrow her tight skirts, bodysuits, and babydoll dresses. I wear red lipstick, and by January I have a boyfriend. "You wear too much make-up," she says. I become close with three other girls. We are troublemakers, and Hadar disapproves. I dismiss her comments as envy. 
One afternoon, between classes, I give Hadar a note that says I don't want to be friends with her anymore because she is too shallow and mean. I hear from a girl in my Russian class later that day that Hadar was crying, but I don't care. I'm glad to be free of her.
The spring of my sophomore year, my boyfriend and I break up and my girlfriends all disperse, two of them sent to Canada to live with relatives and one sent to a boarding school. Each morning before class, I pass by Hadar and a large group of her friends. She pretends she doesn't see me. I sit by myself, waiting for the bell to ring.
By senior year, I've moved again, for the fourth time. I'm still nearby, but we're attending separate schools. The bitterness that had crept into our relationship fades as this phase of our lives draws to an end, and we make up. We go to each other's end-of-year parties, Hadar is voted "best dressed" by the class of 1996 before she goes off to college in Tallahassee, and I move to Tampa to attend school. We try to stay in touch but end up getting in a fight about who has been the better friend and stop talking to one another. 
After graduation, she moves back down to South Florida and I stay in Tampa. We both become teachers. Hadar teaches social studies at a middle school, and I teach English at a high school. Hadar is a consummate professional. With her students, she is patient and funny and inspiring. Very soon, I realize that I've returned to high school because I want to reconcile with those years, and I learn that I cannot. Every student outburst and act of aggression in my class becomes an emotional trigger. 
We don't go to each other's weddings, and the regret stemming from not sharing those occasions brings us together again. We go to graduate school at colleges close to where we live. She earns a degree in educational leadership, and I earn a degree in creative writing. We change careers. We have babies. We have jobs that allow us to work from home. We live four hours apart, but once or twice a year we visit each other. It is not enough.
She calls me, crying. "I'm going to lose my job at the end of July." I say all the things you say to someone when they tell you some unlucky news, only I am fully confident that she will quickly find another job and be successful at it. I am right. I call her, crying. My four-year-old is still not 100 percent potty trained, and I feel like a failure as a mother. She assures me that I am a wonderful mom, that other women she knows have children my daughter's age with potty-training issues, and that it will get better. It does get better. We were both close with our respective grandfathers, and, in the same year, we lose them.
When we get together, we leave our children with our husbands and go out for dinner and drinks. We talk mostly about the kids, but, inevitably, the conversation winds itself back to some distant moment in the past when we were foolish. We are hysterical with laughter.
She is the only other person in the world who knows exactly what I'm talking about when I say "raisin princesses" or "Mr. Bubbles." All throughout high school, even when I attempted to end our friendship, I carried in my wallet a list that she had given me for safekeeping of all the people she had ever kissed. After thirty years of friendship, I know her family secrets and her innermost fears.

Obligatory selfie, post-margaritas.

Because I work from home, and because my social life has shifted to revolve mostly around my family, sometimes my world feels small, and, in those moments, I am grateful that I have a best friend, a friend who knew the milky-white girl with the bad perm and gold-rimmed glasses, and who loved her anyway. Who else but a best friend can reflect all of your jealousy and suffering and achievements and failures and show you your pretentiousness or brilliance or immaturity or perseverance? Friends can wound each other deeply, but best friends have something far more rare: the capacity for healing.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

What's On My Kindle This Summer

Since I haven't been running lately (yes, as it turns out, it was a little premature for me to say I was back), I have been doing a lot of reading instead (much easier on the knees).

Here's what I've been reading over the last few months (review to follow).

The chick lit

Rich sickos.
Liked, but could read with eyes closed.

The literary

Sittenfeld take three.
You had me at psychic twins.

Regrettably, a dud.

For bibliophiles

Old meets new.
Sympathetic book snob.

Historical fiction

Became another dud.

I guess I'm feeling a little less tolerant of my reading material these days, or else a little more accepting of my initial judgment of it. I used to make myself finish a book once I started it whether I liked it or not, but, just in these last few months, there were three books that I didn't finish. The first was The Luminaries, a Man Booker Prize winner that, by all accounts, I should've liked. My problem with it was that I couldn't attach myself to any one character, so I found myself losing interest. The second was The One and Only. I'm usually down for an Emily Giffin book, but I just don't like football, and the backdrop for this novel is steeped in Texas football,  including a football-obsessed protagonist/narrator. The third was a Victorian historical novel called The Quick. I was so excited to read this that I downloaded it the very day it was released. It started off well, but it very quickly turned into a book about vampires, which I know serve as cultural commentary and thus are very popular. For me, though, the vampire has overstayed its welcome.

However, the books that have been worth finishing have outnumbered those that have not. In just a few days, I devoured Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, which is a fast-paced read about a mysterious bookstore and a quest by the novel's main character, Clay Jannon, to unlock its secrets. Thematically, the novel tackles the role of technology in our lives and whether or not, in a world of Amazon convenience and Google immediacy, we still care about books.

I read Sisterland and Man of My Dreams just as eagerly. I've been a Curtis Sittenfeld fan since her debut novel, Prep (2005). Although Man of My Dreams is a coming-of-age novel (told in third person) and Sisterland (told in first person) handles domesticity and motherhood, the voices of the main characters in both books are perceptive, self-conscious, blunt, and misguided (translate: lovable).

But Ladder of Years, by Pulitzer Prize-winning Anne Tyler, published back in 1995, was the standout. Also told in third person, this book features an escapist plot and masterful writing. Forty-year-old Delia Grinstead is unassuming and calmly, quietly resolute. After years of putting her family's needs before her own, she impulsively abandons them when she wanders off during a beach trip. Delia has been feeling unappreciated and, worse, invisible. When she is noticed by a stranger whom she meets at the supermarket, the acknowledgment proves irresistible and ignites a slow-burning anger toward her family. This anger reaches full bloom as she establishes a new identity in a new town. As she invests more fully in this new life, her former life, as a doctor's wife and as a mother, recedes into the distance. Because of the narrator's voice, such a welcome contrast to my own intensity, and because Tyler's slow-moving prose is understated yet precise, I found the book soothing and its resolution gratifying. If summer offers me the tiniest bit more freedom than the rest of the year, I want to read something that transports me to a different place and allows me to inhabit a different consciousness. Escapism is what summer and beach reads are all about, and this decades-old book of Tyler's delivers. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Stress-Free Meal Times


     Meal times, specifically dinner, haven't been so easy lately. My four-year-old has always been picky, and my two-year-old, with whom I practiced baby-led weaning, and who used to show so much promise in the eating department, has followed my older daughter's lead. Sometimes I wish I believed in bribing, distracting (often used with babies), or threatening my kids. It would make things easier, and I'm certainly guilty of all of them, but I do my best to avoid those tactics.

     With meal times, especially, it'd be so easy to say, "Well, if you want dessert, you need to finish your dinner," or, "If you eat one more bite of broccoli, you can have ice cream." I could also say, "If you don't eat your dinner, you are going straight to bed," or, "There will be no TV if you don't finish your meal."

     What makes it so appealing is that, by and large, it seems to work. She finishes her dinner, dessert is served, and you can feel good about getting her to eat her vegetables.

     But here's the rub, at least for me: I don't want to have a relationship with my daughters built on manipulation. Would I like them to comply and eat the nutritious meal that I have provided? Absolutely. Yet, if my daughters can't control what goes in to and comes out of their body, what can they control? Do they have no autonomy whatsoever? On Janet Lansbury's website, she writes, "Distraction is the polar opposite of connection ... Distraction doesn't teach appropriate behavior. What it does teach children is that they don't rate an honest connection in their first and most formative years. So these distractions, along with other manipulative, controlling methods like bribes, tricks and (most disconnecting of all) punishments threaten the relationship of trust necessary for close parent-child bonds."

     So here's what I practice instead: I am in control of what I offer; they are in control of what they eat. I cannot force-feed them. I make a meal. I try to get them as involved in preparing the meal as they are capable of being (though, I admit, a lot of times it is just easier for me to do it myself). I serve the meal. If they eat it, great. If they don't, oh well. There will not be any other food offered. If they complain that they are hungry, then I will offer again the dinner that they initially turned down. Sometimes they just choose to go to bed hungry. Once, my youngest even screamed because she was so hungry but so determined to not eat the spaghetti that I had made. I try to show empathy and acknowledge their feelings: "You are hungry, but you don't want to eat the meal that I made. I know that is very upsetting to you. I am hungry too when I don't eat my dinner. I will give you an extra serving of oatmeal at breakfast so that you feel better tomorrow." Once or twice a week, I make something I know they love (right now that is Applegate chicken nuggets and eggs). That still leaves five days of the food that I prefer that they have. Another thing I do sometimes is a tip that I got from my friend Anna, which is to limit the snacks they have during the day so that they are hungrier at dinner.

     As far as dessert goes, I don't offer it unless I am okay with them having it whether they eat their dinner or not. When I am at someone else's house, I don't stress about it at all. The host is in control of what is offered  not me  so even though I would prefer that they eat dinner before getting dessert, the visit is usually infrequent enough that I just choose to not worry about it.

     One of my boundaries is that I don't want misbehavior at the table. I don't want feet put up on the table or my girls getting out of their seat, and I don't want them playing with their milk. In these cases, I use natural consequences. For example, I simply remove their plate, and say, "Thank you for letting me know that you are finished." My girls usually protest at this, but I still take the plate. I tell them that if they are not finished eating, I will give them their plate again in a few minutes. 

     Eventually, as they get older, I worry that they might purposely misbehave at the table so that they can get out of sitting down with the family for dinner. In these cases, I think it depends on what your goal is. While I don't like the idea of them going off to play instead of eating with me and my husband, if my aim is to get them to eat what I serve and to not misbehave at the table, then I might have to wait until they are hungry enough to relent. The bottom line is that they will not be permitted to behave inappropriately at the table, and, if they are hungry, they have to eat what I serve. I'd rather have the trifecta: they eat what I've prepared, they don't misbehave, and they sit down as a family. And I will get that some of the time. Other times, it's imperfect, but I figure I will have to take the opportunity to connect with them when they decide to eat.