Tag Archives: parenting

Death, Germs, and Darkness

Ithilien is a worrier.

Oh, this child of mine, how he worries!  He always has.  I remember holding him at the counter of a fast food restaurant when he was a little baby of perhaps 5 months, and when the soda fountain made that grr-I’m-grinding-ice noise, he went rigid, hyperventilated, and burst into tears.

In those early days, it was easy to brush off that he was scared.  Babies are always scared when they’re alone, or when unexpected things happen, because it’s how they stay alive.  It wasn’t remarkable that he was afraid of loud noises or panicked and couldn’t catch his breath when the wind blew on his face or was so terrified of being separated from me that he reacted to strangers the way most movie characters react to their first zombie.

As he got older, the worries didn’t fade.  He’s still scared of thunder and cars back-firing.  He can’t stand the way deep pipe organ notes resonate in the floor.  He doesn’t like to meet new people, and he doesn’t like loud parties.  He’s afraid of big dogs, and nervous about going over bridges, and says he hates his brain for making up monsters in the dark.  He worries about Robert and whether he is safe during the workday and whether he will ever come home.  He worries that the baby will die.  He still ends up in my bed every night, terrified and shaking, begging for protection from things unnamed and imaginary.

Normal childhood stuff, right?  Lots of five-year-olds are afraid of the dark or a bit shy, and nighttime magnifies everyone‘s anxieties.

But this week was a departure from that.

This week, he has whined, cried, and begged for protection for hours of the day, every day.  He says he’s scared.  That he doesn’t want to die.  That he hates that germs exist.  That he doesn’t want germs to destroy his body.

Let me be clear: the kid isn’t even sick.  I have told him, countless times, that he will probably live another 70 or 80 years.  That his body is strong and his immune system works hard all the time to protect him– that’s one of the Big Lessons.  That if germs were destroying his body, we would get him help, because he is our baby and we love him.

No dice.  Still scared.

Today, when he had literally been whining and crying pathetically in my lap for four whole hours and I was just trying to get something done, I lost my temper and yelled.

“Please, just STOP WHINING!”

And he wept.  He hugged himself in his blanket and trembled, crying softly, while I rushed to apologize and reassure him that he was acceptable, and his feelings were acceptable, and I was wrong to yell at him, and he was safe with me.

He forgave me and let me pick him up, and we rocked and talked about his feelings, and then he fell asleep, worn out from a long day of emotional turmoil.

I kept rocking him, and I took up the mantle of worry for myself.

Is he okay?  Should we take him to a therapist?  What if he’s really sick?  What if he has a crippling anxiety disorder that can only be managed with medication?  Did I do this to him by yelling?  Is this what happens when children grow up with depressed and anxious parents?  Am I breaking him?  Am I bad?

Then I looked down into his face, all long lashes and beautiful pink mouth and enviably perfect skin, and saw total peace and trust.

I thought about a conversation Robert and I had about Ithilien a few weeks ago.  We had talked about how he was like one of the fairies from Peter Pan– so small that he can only feel one thing at a time, but whatever he feels, he feels it completely.

I remembered that this was the kid who was always afraid of ice makers and unable to cope with wind, but that he was also the baby who smiled so big and wide that it seemed the top of his head would fall right off.

He’s the one who needs light and company to feel safe enough to sleep, but also the one who totally loses himself in giggling.

He’s the one who can’t go upstairs alone without turning on every light, but also the one who seems completely fulfilled by art-as-process, who never worries about the product.

He’s the one who goes from apoplectic anger to complete delight in three syllables.

He’s the one who worries about things that may not happen for a century to come, but he’s also the one who has been making new Christmas decorations since March.

He’s the one who trembles with fear when I lose myself and yell, but he’s also the one who tells me “I just can not stop loving dyu because dyu is my mommy and dyu take care of me.”

He’s the one who has spent the past three days in the depths of a depression about the inevitability of his own death and the specter of disease, but he’s also the one who wants to build a workshop for teaching his unborn baby sibling to be an expert holiday decorator and trick-or-treater.

Maybe he’s not broken.  Maybe his feelings are just so big, so perfect, so beautifully whole that they overwhelm him.  Maybe he feels more, and deeper, than I could ever imagine.  Maybe it’s a kind of blessing, and not just a curse, to be wired the way he is.

Maybe he is just furiously happy, too.

Small Victories

This afternoon, my family took a moment to celebrate.  Full-voice whoops of excitement, high fives and tens all around, jumping and spontaneously dancing to no music at all, running around in circles at high speed.  We had just done a dry-run install of the baby‘s car seat, and found a way to get a safe and correct install of all three kids’ seats in the back of our entry-level sedan.

And yes, it absolutely is a red-letter day.

This is what my life has come to.

So, I made a list of similar occurrences.  Because lists are a major part of how I cope, obviously.

Major but Trivial-Sounding Victories of Our Early Parenting Years:

  • Númenor’s feet were finally long enough that storebought newborn socks didn’t have ridiculous-looking empty heels flopping around halfway up his calf.
  • I found a stain-fighting solution that took out Númenor’s iron supplement.
  • Ithilien slept through the garbage trucks coming down our street.
  • I modified a recipe for a breakfast cookie so that it met all my criteria for a young toddler’s diet and didn’t taste like crap to me, either.
  • Númenor and Ithilien sat through a whole Chekov play without being disruptive.
  • I said “Well, it’s up to you.” and I meant it.
  • Ithilien decided that yes, sitting on your butt and scooting down the stairs WAS something that he could survive.
  • Númenor went a whole week with the same sheets on his bed.
  • Ithilien didn’t mind that his orange shirt with the monster on it was now too small for him and wanted to make sure we would put it into storage until the baby was big enough to wear it.
  • Númenor “read” a book to Ithilien so I could take a quick shower, and they were still “reading” together when I got back.
  • Ithilien spent a whole car ride talking about the interesting things outside his window instead of screaming hysterically for unknown reasons.
  • We invented the high-pitch OR high-volume rule.
  • Númenor chose to go back to his own bed in the middle of the night instead of coming into our bed.
  • Ithilien let me brush his hair, even though he had some tangles that needed working out.
  • I found a way to fit both small beds into the nursery in yet another house.
  • Númenor turned off the nature documentary he was watching and went outside to play.
  • Ithilien put his dishes in the sink immediately after he finished eating.
  • Númenor sat still while I dug a deep and painful splinter out of his foot.
  • Ithililen asked for more salad.
  • Númenor said “Can it be bedtime now?  I am tired.”

It really is the little things that make life worth living, isn’t it?

Feathering that Nest

Happy news has its own special way of completely demolishing a person’s life.

Celebratory things– like getting married, moving in together, having a new baby, starting a new job– they take just as much energy, attention, and time as their tragic counterparts do.  But there’s an added sting: people expect you to be happy.  You should be happy.  If you’re anything like me, you ARE happy, somewhere deep inside, in all that mess of humanity and emotion.

But all you can see on a day-to-day level is how much work it is to be pregnant and trying to raise your older children at the same time.  You feel that anxious pressure over money, time, preparation, and you are seized with that “how am I going to make this WORK?” panic in the middle of your sleepless nights.

diaper caddy

People have all kinds of ways of dealing with this madness.  I have a friend who started posting weekly pictures of her belly on Facebook when she was 8 weeks pregnant.  People who are on bedrest often make countdown calendars marking each day until their due date or safe date as a tiny victory.  Couples, especially first-time parents, sign up for birth and parenting and breastfeeding classes, even though it’s an open secret that this is a laughable prospect.

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All these activities have two goals: first, to keep the mind of the expectant person so full that they can’t spare the time to freak out, but second, to make openings for people in their social networks and general vicinity to offer them help and reassurance.

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A weekly belly pic means a regular reminder of your pregnancy in everyone’s feed.  A countdown calendar gives you an opportunity to remind all your housemates of your incremental but inevitable journey.  Classes are an explicit way to seek new connections and new sources of support based on your status as expectant parents.

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Personally, I knit.  I sew.  And I felt and fold and sculpt and bead and work-work-work as much as I can.  That keeps me distracted from the fact that I have made the incredibly foolish decision to let the children in my family outnumber the adults (oh help!), and, if I work on baby things, it provides a neat justification for talking about the baby, even with strangers.

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Plus, you know, cuteness.  Thriftiness.  Et cetera.  Not all crafting is about insecurity and escapism.  Or, rather, my crafting isn’t entirely about insecurity and escapism.  Not entirely.

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So, to the lady who saw me knitting baby pants in the car outside the burrito place and asked what I was making and complimented my skills, even though it was just stockinette and seed stitch, thank you.  To the friend who doesn’t watch Bob’s Burgers but told me my “Louise” baby bonnet was adorable, thank you.  To the elderly relative who doesn’t quite understand what a sleep sack is or how cloth diapering works but is interested in having me explain it, thank you.  To the understanding partner who listened patiently to a cumulative total of three hours of freaking out about the exact configuration of compartments in the diapering caddy, thank you.

Thank you for reminding me that I am not alone as I feather this nest.

 

15 Truths About Parenting Little Kids

http://explosm.net/comics/3814/

You never, ever sleep alone, or a full night.  How would you know it was 3am if somebody hadn’t wet the bed?  How would you know it was 4:30 unless somebody had snuggled in next to you and miraculously managed to occupy 85% of the bed with a body 25% the size of yours?

Every meal is worse than water torture.  Forget getting them to eat the damn food, how about deciding what to make for them– when making plain pasta is UNACCEPTABLE and making sauced pasta is UNTHINKABLE and presenting them with either dish a personal insult, what is it that they want us to do?  How about bribing/threatening/manipulating/whatevering them into letting you prepare what they’ve demanded in peace, if they ever do decide on a single demand?

Your war cry is “Just a minute!”  They want fifteen totally contradictory things, surrender is not an option, and you’re just trying to get through the hour without having your head explode when they suddenly barrel in out of nowhere, shrieking and crying at you in the resonant frequency of your skeleton, and you know full well that they will show you no mercy if you ask them to slow down or start over.

Reason is not an option.  No, they don’t understand that if they would just hold still you would be done by now.  They don’t seem to hear you when you say that violence begets violence and remind them to use their words, and then they somehow conjure up surprise when they are in pain.

And yet, you are expected to know the explanation for everything.  “What does ‘solitary’ mean?” “Why do birds have feathers?” “What do tarantulas eat?” “Why are oil molecules slippery?” “Why do they call it ‘French’?” “What kind of spider is that?” “What is that dog’s name?” “Why are rocks hard?”

You have memorized what tracks of what CDs are “robot songs” or “hey! songs” or “na-na-na songs.”    You are secretly pleased that they like “Hey Jude” and “What I Like About You”, but you’re kind of embarrassed that they know so many words to “Domo Arigato Mister Roboto,” and you really hope they never sing “Centerfold” at Grandma’s house.

Movie nights are an unparalleled source of déjà vu.  Yes, they want to watch it again.  Even though they just watched it yesterday.  Even though they can recite every line.  Even though the songs have been stuck in your head for three months.

You don’t bother to guess what artwork is supposed to be.  To you, it’s clearly a scribble surrounded by irregular boxes, but this is a heretical thing to suggest to the beaming illustrator of, apparently, a Star Destroyer attacking a baby echidna in a robot suit with the laser guns going pew pew pew and a spider web catching the laser blasts so they can be recycled at the depot and made into force fields red force fields.

All of your household rules can be expressed in pithy soundbites, the better for yelling across the playground like an idiot.  “Be gentle and kind!”  “It’s his body, so he gets to decide!” “Everyone has their own imagination!” “If you don’t have consent, it’s not a game!”  “Use your words, and then get help!”

Sometimes, when you give advice, they listen.  Maude and all the Golden Girls be praised, y’all, it’s a Bastille Day Miracle!

Getting into the car seems to take every muscle in your back and most of an hour.  Address nudity, send to the toilet, help with shoes, maintain pace and stay on target, unlock door, demonstrate how to open door, wait, lift child, bend over, buckle, buckle, buckle, check shoes, check provisions and possessions, distribute car toys, defuse fighting over car toys, get in car, buckle, start engine, “rocket ship blasting off” countdown, drive away.

You no longer understand comedy.
They say: “Knock knock.”
You say: “Who’s there?”
They say: “Chicken walking across the road.”
You say: “Chicken walking across the road who?”
No answer, just hysterical, rolling-around-on-floor laughing.
What.  Just.  Happened.

History doesn’t seem to be the way you remember it.  “When I was a baby, I just went into the ocean with my robot swimsuit submarine and saw a shark and I said ‘good mornden, shark, I want to be your friend’ and the shark said ‘no I will eat you’ and then I was eated up and I died.” — Ithilien, apparently still alive and uneaten

Context is a luxury.  “Remember when we saw a movie at the drive-in lasted night, with the many women and the one woman growing a baby and one woman with black eyes and the white men driving-racing with a truck with monster-truck wheels and all fire and a sand cave full of ice and sand and there was an explosion?” –Númenor, describing Mad Max: Fury Road, which we saw six weeks prior

It’s a sacred and awe-inspiring occupation.  Every day is a fresh adventure, and they learn and change so fast you can barely keep up, but they still need their scrapes and bruises kissed and want to snuggle when they are tired.  They have sweet, baby-round cheeks, and long, strong limbs that carry them far and fast.  They worry about impossible things (like teddy bears coming to life and starving because they have only stuffing and no digestive organs) and inevitable things (like their own death).  They have tiny, mad, whirring, working minds, and the verbal skills to let you peek under the hood.  They love to give presents and have parties and prepare for holidays months in advance.  They tell you they love you, and they mean it.

Toys with SOUL

Lately I’ve seen several blog posts about taking away your children’s toys, and how much they benefit from the freedom and lack of distraction and clutter.

But I’ve noticed that nobody actually takes away ALL their children’s toys.  And for good reason!  Play is the work of childhood, for one thing, but more importantly, where would you stop?  Cardboard boxes are toys.  Craft supplies, board games, playing cards, books, sticks, rocks, recycling materials, pillows, and furniture can all be part of a game, too.

Obviously there is wisdom in limiting the playthings available to a child to what they can reasonably use and enjoy– too many toys cause chaos and clutter instead of fostering learning– but I don’t think it’s really necessary (or desirable!) to take ALL, or even most, of a child’s toys away.

Instead of taking things away, I focus on having the best things in the first place.  But that presents a problem of definition: how do you tell if a toy is really the best it could be?  Is it about carbon footprint?  Price?  Ethical manufacture?  Subject?  Do you follow Montessori guidelines?  Waldorf?  Froebel?  What about that pesky cardboard box?

Robert talks about measuring the usefulness of toys in milisticks (one-thousandth the usefulness of a stick), as if you could calculate such a number.

I once tried to make a list of Platonic ideal toys, not unlike Friedrich Froebel’s list of gifts:

  • The stick about as long as your arm and two fingers thick (toy swords, magic wands, hobby horses, and fishing poles also fall into this category).
  • The collection of smooth pebbles that each fit nicely in the palm of your hand (marbles, small beanbags, little wooden figures).
  • The piece of string about as long as your armspan (dress-up belt, horse reigns, garland, necklace, clothesline).
  • The bit of wood about the size of your hand (the toy car, the bathtub boat, building blocks, play food, small board books).
  • The scarf big enough to wear as a cape (dress-up cape, doll blanket, fort-building sheet, bag).
  • The box just big enough to sit inside (rocket ship, car, cave, fort).
  • The avatar (doll, action figure).

But then how many of each is appropriate?  And is that really an exhaustive list?  And is there an advantage to differentiation– is it better to have a wheeled car AND a bathtub boat rather than just a block of wood that you could pretend is either a car or boat?

After a few years of trying to verbalize what the difference was between toys that were “good”(perennial favorites with the smalls, pleasing to me) and those that were gimmicky or just not well-designed, I finally came up with a satisfactory method for screening our collection.  All our toys have to have SOUL.

Playthings should be:

Simple:  A minimum of fuss, function, and automation.  Ease of production, repair, and disposal should also be considered.

handmade soft mouse toys and sleeping bag

Operational: No missing parts, not broken, not too complicated for the children to use at their current stage of development, not too dangerous/limited for use in the area where it is found.

wooden train built from colorful blocks

Useful: Strengthens a necessary skill through play (e.g., lacing cards, button snake), or provides an outlet to explore something of unlimited interest (e.g., dolls), or can be used in infinite ways (e.g., blocks, marbles).

Númenor assembling a tinkertoy creation

Loved: If your child wouldn’t miss it, your child doesn’t need it.

Ithilien with his favorite toy, "Bitey" the plastic shark

Simple.  Operational.  Useful.  Loved.  SOUL.

Full disclosure:

  • Yes, sometimes they talk about wanting a specific toy.  They aren’t often exposed to ads and we don’t go to toy stores or toy departments (talk about a mecca of the pink/blue dichotomy), so this usually takes the form of Númenor rattling off a list of specifications for a hypothetical toy he would like to have.  My answer is always the same: How can you make a toy like that for yourself?  Sometimes I offer suggestions for materials or offer to help him design or build.  Sometimes it’s as simple as pretending one of the simpler toys we have already has those advanced features (lights up, fires lasers, etc.) with the help of sound effects.
  • Yes, we do limit toys coming into the house.  We ask for very specific things for the children for gift-giving occasions, only about half of which are toys, and we intercept and donate or return unacceptable things before they are added to our collection.
  • Yes, I do sometimes pick up the toys for my children.  But more than 90% of the time, we work together to do it or I supervise while they do it.  We have built the habit of helping to put their own things away correctly and cheerfully since they were babies, and now it is second nature and I only have to step in when a tantrum or an unexpectedly early bedtime interrupts the usual night routine.
  • Yes, sometimes my children do squabble over turn-taking related to toys– but sometimes they squabble over turn-taking for sticks, rocks, or bits of recycling they have made into playthings.  Anyone who tells you that their kids never fight about turn-taking now that they don’t have storebought toys is being less than truthful or has alien podlings instead of human children.
  • Yes, every few months we rotate the toys that we have out, and as part of that rotation, we pull out toys that are outgrown, broken, or don’t adhere to the SOUL criteria.  But I don’t feel burdened by using half an hour of my time every three months and couple of 18-gallon storage containers in our garage to make our toy collection manageable.
  • Obviously, as with all parenting advice, this is simply what works for us, and it might not work as well (or at all!) for other families.

 

 


 

 

The soft mice and their sleeping bag were handmade by a member of my extended family, the train is from Melissa & Doug, the rods and connectors are Tinkertoys, and Bitey the plastic shark (currently Ithilien’s favorite toy) was a gift.

 

Storm

It starts subtly:

A flash in my peripheral vision,

and then a distant growl.

The air pressure slowly builds, and I become more and more sure that the intermittent flashes and the far-away rumbles are lightning and thunder.

Finally I admit defeat, and the smalls and I turn off all the devices in the house, clear walking paths through the morning’s play mess, grab flashlights and snuggle up under a blanket to watch the storm roll up the river.

Lightning stabs the mountains, Oregon and Washington side alike, the border meaningless.

We count, breathlessly, in anticipation of the rumble and roar of the thunder through the clouds– ten seconds means about two miles away, about as far away as Robert’s office.  A new flash of light, and we count again– eight seconds, about as far away as the first park we discovered when we moved here.  Then a long pause.  Stillness.  A drizzling rain.

I take some food scraps out to the chicken yard and do some quick weeding on the way– a handful of stray grass and a big curly dock plant from the skullcap bed– the chickens love weeds, and the clumps of soil clinging to their roots often hide woodlice and centipedes and other protein-filled treats.

And then, another flash of light over the river.  I count silently to myself as I take off my yard shoes and open the bathroom door– five seconds, about a mile away.

Ithilien is scared of the “monster sounds” of the thunder.  He stands close to me and puts his arms around my legs, shivering in a way that is mostly theatrical– he’s genuinely frightened, but the trembling is a voluntary affectation to communicate to me how scared he his.

We sit in the corner of the library and I hold him.  I tell him that thunder is just a sound the air makes when lightning moves through it, and he is very safe from lightning inside the house.  Númenor says that people build houses to keep their babies safe, an oversimplified version of a fact we’ve discussed before.

The lightning flashes.  We count again, but I’m still saying the word “four” when the thunder rolls and crashes like a turbulent sea above our heads.  Now we’re all under the blanket again, and Númenor whispers quietly, “Four means less than one mile– like maybe zero miles.”  Ithilien buries his head in my shoulder, and says, in a small voice, “Zero means none, Mommy.”

Suddenly the sky opens, and rain pours down, with a rattling, chasing sound that– for once– actually might be approximated by rice falling through a maze of nails inside a hollow tube.  I can see the chickens through the window, huddled in the door of the henhouse, this downpour too much even for them.  They twist their heads up occasionally to catch and drink the drops of rainwater collecting at their rooftop eaves.

The rain changes to hail, buckshot-sized and coming down so thick and so fast that for a moment I think it might be snow.  Another flash of light, and this time the bullwhip in the heavens cracks immediately after, before we can even start to count, rattling the windows and shaking the trees.  The hail intensifies until I can’t see the back fence through it.  Another flash and crash, directly overhead.  The chickens wait patiently, their heads ducked inside the henhouse now.  Ithilien whimpers quietly in my lap, and Númenor asks if the hail will kill our carrot seedlings.  I tell him that I don’t know.

And then, just as quickly as it began, the hail is over.  A few straggling stones send up miniature showers of their older siblings as they crash into the layer of ice droplets on the back deck.  We open the back door to pick up a few hailstones with a spoon and look at them.

As the rain tapers off and we hear one final peal of thunder rolling away to the east, Ithilien is the first to pull on shoes and dance in the wild-scattered whiteness.  He squeals with laughter as he slips and skids across the usually-unremarkable wooden slats of the back deck.

ithilien dancing in the hailstones left behind on our deck

I peek into the containers of carrot plants, and am relieved to see their ashy-green fronds, beleaguered but mostly unbroken, among the sprinkles of already-melting frozen cloud.  The chickens gobble up the scattered ice pellets with apparent delight.  Númenor collects a bare handful of hailstones and gives a surprised yelp– “They’re so cold!”– as he casts them away.

hailstones in númenor's hand

The smalls hurry into jackets and hats and unseasonable mittens and race out into the yard, climbing to the top terrace to survey the damaged dandelion “wishes,” giggling at the greedily-pecking chickens, shaking the lowest branches of the trees to create their own tiny stormlets of concentrated raindrops and melting ice.

And thunderous laughter.

And flashing life.

Make and Mend

I’ve said it before: I would be free to make myself more nice things if only I didn’t have to spend so much time repairing the torn knees of my small children’s pants.

So why do I bother?  Why fix it when it’ll just get broken again, when it’s cheap to replace, when I have other things to do?

Well, because it’s easier to add a quick patch to a garment than it is to find a replacement that would float in the Pool of Standards.

Because it’s important for children to know– not just academically, but experientially– that things can be fixed.

Because I HATE to throw things out, especially things that might still be useful.

Because I’m cheap and selfish, and even if I could get a new pair of pants at the Target for $9, I would rather use a scrap leftover from another project and spend that money on something I really need later.  Like chocolate.

Because, having raised children in a house with a mending basket, I am now the proud mother of smalls who delightedly point out holes in their clothes and start rattling off their grand scheme for the repair’s design before I can even see the damage.

Because there’s nothing more childlike than patched knees above dirty feet.

Because if I buy a new $9 pair of pants every time a hole shows up, that’s at least five new pairs of pants in EACH size for EACH child I raise– and that adds up fast.

Because going to the Target means getting all worked up about the needless and harmful gender dichotomy in children’s clothing.  Again.

Because I love a good puzzle and I love a good treasure hunt, and mending something well and with just the right materials can be both.

Because I can look at the patches and the fixes and the incongruous thread colors in years to come and remember the growing, and the running, and the exploring that destroyed those knees and seats and hems.

Because mending my child’s clothes gives me time, in the depths of the night, to work a little magic and say a few blessings into the seams.

Because mending takes ordinary, boring basics and elevates them to one-of-a-kind bespoke work.

Because I’m trying to raise children who understand that human time and effort go into producing and distributing everything in our home.

Because really looking at how the people in my life wear things out tells me so much about who they are and how they live.

Because it feels good to empty the mending basket.  Even if I’m just futilely struggling against entropy, scoring points here and there with small accomplishments like finishing the mending goes a long way toward making me feel like I’m making a difference.

Yes

Sometimes, as parents, we get swept up in the day-to-day struggle of life with bills, and work, and rainstorms, and living with small humans both unpredictable and strange.  We get overwhelmed.  We put all our spoons into just getting through the day without major incident, and are glad when it’s over.

Sometimes, you start the same simple project over and over again– you mistake navy thread for black and don’t catch it until the seam is nearly finished, you try to sew a French seam with the right sides facing out of habit, you make a measuring error– and suddenly, what was supposed to be so easy is impossible.

And invariably, while you are in the depths of this everyday depression, your irrepressible little children will ask to do something outrageous.  Something involving paint, and limited supplies, and relying on the inconstant spring weather to stay clear for a few more hours.

And, for reasons you don’t totally understand, you might say yes.

wooden dragon toys painted by my children

Yes to the mess.

Yes to the chaos.

Yes to the inevitable bath that will have to follow.

Yes to the memories that you are making.

Yes to the mini-lesson on secondary colors, and the demonstration of printing with the cardboard palettes you improvised.

cardboard with pools of paint after being used as a palette side-by-side with the print made from the palette at the end of the session

Yes to the seemingly thousands of trips to the bathroom sink to wash a brush so you can use another color.

Yes to scrubbing paint off the deck afterward, and leaving a weird clean spot in years of dust because seriously, who washes their deck?

my toes on an awkwardly clean section of deck after I scrubbed it

Yes to the children, who are so much work and so very worth it.

Yes to being the kind of parent who is okay with supervising painting projects, even on a difficult Tuesday you wish was going better.

And then, against all the odds and absolutely all reason, you find your kairos moment for the day.  In the paint.  And the mess.  And the nuturing of small souls.

And you decide to say yes more often.

Ithilien hacking at a piece of ice with a garden trowel

Even on hard days.

Waterproof

a toddler Ithilien steps outside on a rainy day

One of the first things I noticed when attending college and living outside Oregon for the first time ever in my life was that I had a very different approach to rain than everyone around me had.

In case you don’t know, Oregonians are not bothered by rain.  In other places I understand rain forecasts affect voter turnout and box office sales and stuff, but if people in western Oregon cancelled their plans and stayed in every time there was possible rain in the forecast, we would still be trying to schedule a vote on whether to join the Union.  People go to the zoo in torrential downpours and wait in line outside downtown theaters in moderate rain wearing evening dress.  An umbrella is just another thing to accidentally leave on the MAX, and how are you supposed to use one on a bike?  Sure, you might cover your head if you’ve got a long walk ahead of you, but that’s why you’re wearing a hoodie, obviously.

My East Coast college campus, on the other hand, positively sprouted umbrellas when the sky was overcast, like they were some kind of bizarre poly-nylon mushroom.  I saw grown adults wearing rain boots– the chemical-smelling pull-on rubber things my mother used to buy for my siblings and me at the feed store when we were too young to dress ourselves– at the slightest hint of rain, presumably by choice.  People took dry, folded umbrellas to class and to club meetings, in case it rained on their 5-minute walk back later.  Some particularly deranged individuals even used umbrellas and slickers in the face of fog, snow, and other distinctly not-rain-like forms of dampness.

I told Robert, “It’s like they don’t know that people are waterproof.”

We joked many times over the years we were living in our little Finger Lakes college town– “Well, we’re Oregonian, so we’re waterproof.”

So naturally, when we had tiny, New-York-born toddlers who balked at the rain, we assured them “It’s just rain, and you are waterproof!”

Númenor latched onto the idea of waterproof-ness when he was two, and suddenly he went from asking “What’s that?” to asking “What’s that?  Is it waterproof?”

Yes, we said, you are waterproof.  Ithilien is waterproof.  We are waterproof.  The dog is waterproof.  The trees are waterproof.  The playground is waterproof.  The car is mostly waterproof, and some cars are totally waterproof.  Your cup is waterproof.  Yikes– no, the book is not waterproof!

But we didn’t realize how seminal being waterproof was to our children’s sense of security until the day Ithilien finally got over his fear of the bath, and his lisped, wide-grinning, 21-month-old comment on the event was “Odderpoof!”

And so, we had developed the first of our major teachings as parents.

Here’s the whole list as it stands now:

Big Lessons for Small Children (and the adults they will become)

It’s just rain, and you are waterproof.

You’re stronger than you think, and you can withstand the quotidian misfortunes of life.  It may seem frightening out there, but if you keep your wits about you and make sure you have a way to get safe (or warm and dry, as the case may be) later, you’ll likely benefit from the adventure.  It might even be fun.

Almost everything can be fixed, but virtually nothing can be made new again.

Between a needle and thread, a crochet hook, wood glue, and some simple know-how, we can fix just about everything.  Furniture can be fixed.  Your blanket can be washed.  We can add a patch to cover that torn knee.  We can rub a walnut into those gouges.  It can be fixed.  This is true of relationships, too– no matter the misstep, there’s almost always a way to make a repair and keep going if you’re willing to put in the effort to fix it.  But don’t expect that it’ll be like it was before it was broken.  Thermodynamics doesn’t allow for that, and neither do people.  You might like the mended version better– sometimes it’s stronger, or prettier– but chances are that you’ll always be able to see where something has been broken.

Use your words, and if your words don’t work, retreat and get help.

Language is a big part of what makes us humans and not just frostbitten apes.  Learn to set boundaries and express your needs and expectations now, and it will save you years of therapy as an adult.  Say it with an I-message if you can, and if you can’t, at least try to remember that arguments aren’t about being declared right, but about working out how to live in a world where you don’t always agree with everyone.  If somebody isn’t respecting your boundaries or you can’t find a way to understand each other, the best thing you can do is get help from an appropriate source, whether that means asking your mother to arbitrate turns with a toy truck, filing a restraining order against someone scary who won’t back off, or going to couples’ therapy.

Even a hug is mean if it’s not wanted.

Negotiate consent in your everyday life.  Ask before you hug, always know whether you’re playing flag or touch or tackle, offer a high-5 but don’t get strange with the exchange if the other guy leaves you hanging!  Some people won’t want to be touched, and that’s their right to decide.  Some people will be okay with the game until they’re on the receiving end of the tackle, and it’s their right to withdraw or renegotiate the rules, even then.  Understand that people cannot be obligated to do things they don’t want to do with their bodies, not even if they promised, and not even if you already went first and it feels unfair, and not even if it would benefit somebody else.  If it’s not safe, sane, and consensual, it’s not okay.

You don’t have to help, but you may not hinder.

Respect other people’s work and leave it alone if you can’t find a satisfactory way to collaborate with them.  Don’t yuck somebody else’s yum, even if you don’t share their tastes.  Food you don’t want to eat is not disgusting, you just don’t want it.  A game you don’t want to play is not stupid, you just don’t want to play it.  Everybody gets to decide for themselves, which means it’s fine if you don’t like something that somebody else likes, but don’t be a jerk about it, just decline.

Families work together.

When a group is working on something for everyone’s benefit, everyone is expected to contribute however they can.  You can negotiate your role, and feel free to be creative about finding one you like, but if you don’t find a way to contribute, don’t expect to benefit.

That bug is not going to hurt you, so leave it alone.

Treat other lifeforms with respect.  Don’t waste food, don’t step on ants, and leave those chickens alone– everything that’s alive is striving to be so, and life is hard enough without capriciousness or cruelty.  Work to preserve nature in every way you can.  Yes, sometimes it’s necessary to kill something in order to thrive yourself, and that’s acceptable, as long as you’re respectful about it and don’t take lives thoughtlessly.  Remember that someday, you might be the freaky thing crawling across somebody’s bathroom floor, and choose the cup and the paper over the sole of the shoe.

There could be zombies on the other side of that door.

A closed door is a mystery and you don’t know what’s on the other side, so be prepared before you open it.  Don’t assume that since it was the UPS driver the last four hundred times, there’s no way it will be a zombie now, because that’s how people become the teaser fatality in somebody else’s show.  Expect the unexpected.  But, that said, do understand relative risks and prepare for potential dangers proportionally to their risk– it’s fine to open the door a crack and see who it is before you unlatch the chain, but it’s probably a bit paranoid to refuse to answer the door just because you can’t put your hands on a ready-made device designed for crushing the skulls of the undead.

Nobody else can draw the spaceship you want.

Do things for yourself, even if that means doing them imperfectly.  Take the chance.  You will make mistakes; that’s part of learning.  Keep trying, because so is practicing what you want to become.  Don’t be afraid to fail, because failure is a wonderful teacher.  Keep trying, because nothing will destroy you so utterly as an abandoned dream.  You can’t wait around for someone else to deliver on your vision.  Nobody else has your brain– you are the unique product of millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of human society, and your insights and ways of thinking are yours alone.  Follow your passion and share your vision with others, even if you don’t know yet quite how you’ll make it work.  Do something creative every day, even if nobody else ever sees it and you can’t leverage it into a living wage job.  Never be ashamed to do what brings you joy, even if you know for sure that someone else makes fewer mistakes at the same activity, because vicarious pleasure over someone else’s perfect product is no substitute for your own joy in the process.  They can be better at drawing than you are, but they can’t be better at your drawings.

Listen to your body.

Sleep when you’re tired, and eat when you’re hungry– that much is obvious.  But your body gives you more subtle signals, too.  Trust your instincts about people and situations, because your brain, like your family, would rather see you safe than perfectly rational.  Know what it feels like to be getting sick and take it as a signal to go easy so you can get better again faster.  Know that a fever and a runny nose are your body’s way of making you well again, and focus on supporting your immune system instead of suppressing it and feeling oppressed by it.  Your body is your most valuable tool– use all its functions, from sensor to computer to creator to athlete.  Push your physical limits, but respect your body’s expertise when it starts to push back.  Remember that growing is hard work.

Some Grace and a little Walnut Oil

I don’t really remember what I was trying to work on.  I remember that I was yelling.

“Ithilien!  ITHILIEN!  STOP!  YOU ARE BREAKING IT!”

I snatched the plastic unicorn out of my 4-year-old’s hand and knelt down to bring us face-to-face.

“Ithilien!  You broke my table!  Why would you do that?”

Ithilien's feet in the doorway and a view of the offending toy unicorn on the corner of a low table, showing damage

Of course he didn’t know.  I know, because he’s four, that probably what happened was that he was fascinated by the deep pockmarks the unicorn’s horn left in the wood as he banged it down again and again on the surface of my studio cutting table.  He had tried it the first time to see what would happen, and the second time to see if it would happen again, and before he knew it there were 11 deep, short scratches in the table surface and I was yelling at him.

He made the grinch face.  You know, the one where his upper lip goes V-shaped over his sucked-in lower lip.  His eyes filled with tears.

“You scared me, Mommy!”

Why would you do that?

We’re still a few years from him articulating the second question for himself, but I have an active imagination.

I held him close in a hug.

“Oh honey, I know.  I’m sorry I yelled.  I should have been gentle and kind with my voice.”

We looked at the table and at the unicorn’s horn, now scraped clear of painted finish.  I explained that I need the table for working on, and that I want him to respect my things.  We talked about how sometimes people yell because they are angry or to get somebody’s attention if people or things are in danger, but it’s better to use a gentle and kind voice to talk to somebody, especially somebody you love.

And then I got down the jar of walnuts and we rubbed one into the scratches.  We talked about how most things can be fixed, but when you fix things they’re never really the same as they were before– that’s one of the Big Lessons we try to instill in our children from birth.

I asked his forgiveness for scaring him by yelling when I could have used a gentle voice.  I said his name with love and care, the way he deserves.

And I’m trying to have faith that he meant it when he said he forgave me, but I know that nothing is quite the same after you fix it as it was before it was broken.  Just like my table, with its now nearly-imperceptible unicorn-horn scratches.

the same table, after we rubbed some walnut into the scratches, with unicorn and Ithilien's tummy

We are all learning.  To be better, kinder people.  To think before we act.  And making mistakes is part of learning.

What matters is that we learn from mistakes and practice becoming the way we want to be.  What matters is that we know that walnut oil is a great fix for scratched tables, and a hug and an apology goes a long way to setting a relationship back on track.

Because most things can be fixed.  You just have to want to fix it and to know how to begin.

Amazing grace, indeed.