The Littlest Geek.

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Before I knew it, Saturday was here and happening and then, just like that, it was gone. We were stuffing crates of leftover catering into the fridge, peeling off panty hoes and hanging up ties.

We’d taken the week off of school to prepare for throwing my parents’ anniversary party, and the first two days of being back in action were sort of a drag. But Tuesday night, Spencer started to feel under the weather and the next day, he was home. For some reason, even though he was sick the whole time, all of us thought it was really fun to have Daddy with us on a school day. (Unfortunately, Mary caught the bug too, so most of her day consisted of videos and worksheets that she could do curled up on the couch, per her request. Oh yeah, plus lots and lots of Twilight reading.)

One thing block scheduling is really great for, is allowing me to keep focus even when I have to switch gears from one kid to the next. Even though we didn’t get to tackle 7th grade science the way I wanted to from her being sick, I already spent the morning planning it out. Instead of making an electromagnet and doing a subsequent experiment, we read straight from the text and then discussed new vocabulary and concepts over a worksheet before letting her move on to mechanics on her own. But after all that prep, I was still in the mood to geek out and explore, so it was cool that with the little kids, I got to have my fun.

I cut up a handful of pipe cleaners and then laid out some fun magnets of varying shapes and sizes. (At first Matthew helped me, which was a great fine motor exercise for him. But while I did the rest, he and Scarlett were totally sucked into the documentary on electromagnetic spectrum that Mary had playing on her laptop. It was cute watching him get so excited about the cool waves and the prisms he recognized immediately from his Pink Floyd t-shirt – and then hearing Mary explain to him exactly what they were.) (It was even cuter when Scarlett ran back to me just to report that she’d seen the color purple! PURPLE, MOMMY! PURPLE!)

I emptied their behavior jar and used it to hold our pipe cleaner pieces. When the kids found out that they could manipulate the pieces from outside of the jar with a magnet, they were giggling all over the place! Every time Matthew discovered something new (some of the bigger magnets weren’t as strong; the magnets won’t stick to the jar unless there are enough pipe cleaner pieces holding it up) he’d shout it out in that ever-enthusiastic way he always does. Then Scarlett would stand up in her seat, look me in the face with a very serious expression, and repeat what he said in toddler-eeze.

It never fails to amaze me how much Scarlett is actually capable of participating in stuff like this now.

This is just an aside, but can someone please tell me just what in the hell makes it so hard to remember that the baby of the family eventually grows up like all the rest of them? With Matthew and Mary I’ve always been so excited for the next new and exciting age, that I hardly ever noticed the last one dissipating behind us. With Scarlett, every new and exciting age that catches up to her feels more like a punch in the gut, impossible to ignore. Watching her little wheels turn yesterday while she tried to figure out new ways to manipulate the awesome new toy we made, was – as always, these days – bittersweet.

Funny how the sweet part of that deal is always so worth it though. Right?

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Keeping It Constructive.

I don’t often write just because I need to unload, but this is going to be one of those times. I have nothing insightful to share here… just a circumstance I’m trying to figure out in print, because mapping it out in my brain so far hasn’t done a damn thing to help.

We all have ways that we’re crappy parents. Normally, knowing that I struggle in certain departments of parenting doesn’t bother me. I figure that if we at least know about the ways we’re crappy, we’re not that bad off. At least we’re in a position to eventually fix it… you know, when we figure out how.

One of the ways I know I’m bad is feeling so often like I need to vent about Mary. It’s not one of those things I’m okay with. I’m constantly checking myself about it and trying to figure out how to knock it the hell off without driving myself to insanity in the process of keeping so much pent up frustration to myself.

When Spencer comes home and there’s a minute away from the kids, or a friend calls with lamentations about some way their younger kid drives them crazy, I have no problem rattling off to them all the ways Matthew puts me through the wringer. Maybe their should be, but there is no guilt. It feels good – constructive even – to get it off my chest. It doesn’t feel that way with Mary. I guess she’s just at a more complicated age.

I won’t try to over analyze it, but her self esteem is obliviously in a fragile state of growth. She, herself, is pretty thick skinned. But no twelve year old is a rock of self-assurance. I have to be so careful about the things I chose to come to her directly about. I don’t want the only council she hears from me to be about stuff she needs to work on, you know? I know from being that age, that it’s going to feel that way to her, no matter what. I don’t want to add to that unless it’s necessary.

But at this age, talking about her to other people feels wrong too. It doesn’t feel like harmlessly discussing parenting issues the way it does when I talk about the younger kids. She’s old enough now that it just feels like talking behind another person’s back. On the few occasions she’s overheard me only jokingly chiming in with another parent about what a difficult age hers can be, it’s hurt her feelings.

Nothing sucks worse than hurting your kid’s feelings. Nothing.

So I feel like I’m caught between a rock and a hard place. But then it gets a little more complicated than that.

She’s at that age… the age we’ve all been through… where jealousy is rampant. There is a viciously competitive spirit growing inside of her and guiding it toward constructive outlets has been no simple task lately. The only things coming out of her mouth about anyone — especially her friends, are awful. What starts as a perfectly nice conversation between the two of us during the day about someone, almost without fail, morphs into a list ten feet long about all the ways that person is positively nasty and intolerable.

I’m not talking about a few complaints. I’m not even talking about one, specific person. I’m talking about the fact that a conversation about anyone will eventually (if it’s allowed to) turn into her working herself up to a boiling point. Everything that makes a friend of hers happy is viewed as selfishly snatching credit away from her. The people who are close to her just can’t win. Every perfectly nice thing they do or think or say to her is fuel for a rant as soon as they leave.

I try to tell her that these feelings are normal (though unacceptable) and then encourage her to really think about why a good thing happening to her friend is so terrible. It always ends in her being viciously angry with me for not knowing or understanding anything.

Nothing is more infuriating to her than when I don’t jump into cutting her friends down with her. Then, she’ll start using things her friends said to her in confidence against them, assuring me that I don’t know how awful they really are. The worst part is feeling so badly for the people she’s cutting down. I want to teach her how to control her jealousy-driven behavior, but I don’t know how to do that without making her feel further self-conscious.

I have to tread so lightly here. Because everything I do seems to make the problem worse, I’ve even tried to simply lend an ear and try to understand. But doing that does not feel right. I know I’m only advocating a poisonous habit of being vicious and catty, which will only hurt her down the road. But even when I assure her first that feeling competitive is totally normal, the conversation ends in her feeling like I think she’s a rotten person. And that’s not true.

 

 

Here I go probably overanalyzing things again, but maybe there’s a connection. I told Spencer a few months ago that I want us to really be conscious of the example we set for Mary by not talking about people behind their back. If we want to discuss something that gets under out skin about someone who isn’t around, that we need to do it in a way that isn’t unnecessarily vicious. Also, we need to really go out of our way to show her that when good things happen for other people in our own lives, that it feels good to celebrate in their successes or dumb good fortune with them.

I’m no child psychologist, but I know that a faltering self-esteem is usually at the root of jealous behavior – which is why cattiness thrives like wildfire in those awkward middle school years. And I can’t think of anything worse for a kid’s self-esteem than feeling like all their parent does is complain about them.

Even when I know Mary can’t hear it, there’s a guilt that tugs away at me when I finally open up to someone about all of the ways that raising her can be so difficult and confusing. I know that I’m not really complaining about her, but rather, trying to decode her behavior. Nonetheless. It starts to feel good… like maybe this person I’m talking to will understand and be able to offer me a fresh perspective… but something doesn’t let me finish. I always wind up wrapping it up and tucking it back inside of my frazzled, overworked brain to figure out in solitude. Which feels impossible.

It can be so alienating… to not have many mom-friends who are raising a stepchild, much less one just fifteen years younger than they. It gets tough to shoulder such an unforgiving weight of responsibility without help or advice from people who know what it’s like. There are just so many confusing emotions that I want to share — which I can’t help feeling like it isn’t that far off from what she’s experiencing.

Maybe I’m just trying hard to relate. Or maybe all it boils down to for the both of us, is a fighting need to talk, even if what you have to say isn’t always perfectly constructive.

Staying Me.

 

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When I was younger, being an artist had always been more of an obligation than a gift. I always liked to draw, but not as much as people expected. Every week in fifth grade my illustration of our class’s reading was chosen to be replicated in mural form on a giant roll of paper that hung out in the hall. I had to replicate the same drawing I had just turned in, except at 40 times the size, every Thursday. I wound up painting murals for every school I went to (plus a church I used to attend, plus a job I used to work) in one classroom or another. I think even at a young age I liked having a sense of purpose, but secretly, I could not stand painting murals. I’m talented at something that, unfortunately can be pretty boring when there are better things to do with so much time. And there usually was.

When I’m in the zone, I can really enjoy myself. It’s getting myself to want to be in that zone that’s a different story. At least, it used to be. Growing up, people would ask me to draw or paint things for them all the time. It started in second grade and never stopped. All through middle and high school, I made mall money sketching out portraits of people with their boyfriends for three-month anniversaries. Somewhere around seventeen, I realized I had started taking on the commissions solely because I knew that if I didn’t obligate myself, I’d stop drawing altogether.

Sometimes that made calling myself an ‘artist’ hard to do. What kind of an artist doesn’t live and breathe for their work?

Now that I’m an adult, with such a tight squeeze on time I can do anything for myself, that’s changing. For the first time in my life, I’m actually craving time to be creative. Like, wildly. It’s on my brain all the time. I want to sharpen my skills, I want to be covered in charcoal smears, I want to make something badass. I want to feel like I can do something cool and fun and hard and just for me.

And it’s because this year has sucked all the life out of who I am. No, really. It has and it is.

I’m a river run completely dry. In a word, and for the first time since I’ve started down this path of marriage and motherhood, I’m miserable. But, believe it or not, it’s a good thing — I can see that now. It means that there’s a me behind motherhood that I don’t think I would have cared to find without this.

It makes sense. I like the ‘me’ I’ve found through motherhood infinitely more than any other one I’ve ever been. It was like finally finding my color; that shade of make-up or cut of dress that set my eyes on fire and could hack away my every flaw. I suddenly loved who I was, because of what I had made, even if no one else did. I saw parts of me evident in my children, either through nature or nurture, and I realized that I really, genuinely, whole-heartedly like those things. Even when I made mistakes in my role, I had a confidence in myself that never existed before.

On the flipside, it made me never miss being naked. There was no desire to rediscover a ‘me’ independent of them. In fact, I could feel that becoming true, and I couldn’t make myself care.

When we decided to homeshool, I was already used to going above and beyond for my three kids. I had a hard time believing that essentially just adding a change to our routine could really be that much harder. As it was, my every waking hour belonged to someone else. I peed at the same time I settled disputes between siblings that couldn’t wait. Even during my long, rejuvenating winter bubble baths on the weekend, reserved for catching up on good books, Scarlett stood tubside, quietly stacking bubbles on my knee. I never minded.

Homeschooling was harder though. It was like going from a place where the air wasn’t as fresh as it used to be, to having the air sucked right out from my lungs. Everything I identified with: my soft-spoken, understanding nature; my easy-going attitude – all of it was gone. In order to keep any sense of control over our life, I had to become a bull. Nothing else would cut it. It was rough, and it changed me.

What’s weird is that I so enjoy the act of teaching. I enjoy the challenge of staying organized. I thoroughly enjoy being so in on the action during their “aha!” moments of educational discovery. I enjoy the immense benefits it’s provided my children. On a whole, I have a great respect for the institution. But it has been at the heavy cost of losing, I swear, the last drops of my youth. Grey hair, sunken flesh under my eyes, lines in places I shouldn’t have them yet and headaches that feel like they pause between onsets instead of ever really going away, are just all part and parcel. It’s gotten easier, but these first six months must have aged me nine years.

I’ll tell you this, I don’t feel twenty-seven. I feel like I’ve made my children proud, but that I’ve lost myself in the process, which was not the outcome I ever expected. I thought that being their mom was the end all and be all of what I was now. I thought that no matter how much this experience stretched me, that I could handle it, because that’s all I was now: a parent. There was no other place for me to put my energy. But apparently, that’s not true. There are other parts of me begging to be acknowledged.

And you know what? I like that.

I like knowing that I haven’t lost every part of who I am to being a mom. I like that there are parts of me, having nothing to do with them, that I actually miss. I like knowing that the old me hasn’t been replaced; she’s just moved over so that other parts of me had room to grow.

She moved over a long time ago for their birth. Then for their health. And this year, she did it for their education. No part of me – not the mom or anything else – can regret that. Time for them will always be time well spent.

I only know what next year is supposed to hold. Lord knows, that’s no promise. But I am greatly looking forward to a little elbow room, and the first chance in a long time, to really fill my lungs. The first chance in maybe ever, to really be an artist.

 

 

Here’s To A New Beginning.

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Before you go off and do anymore growing up, I have something important to say. This birthday letter is different because it isn’t about praising you to the Heavens or giving thanks that you are healthy or even about how much I have loved you from the minute your were placed in my arms five years ago, all squawky and mad.

It’s about the fact that our relationship is about to change.

I doubt there’s anything significant from the year of being four or even much from being five that you’ll vividly remember, so I periodically write it down, because I have a feeling a lot of what I’ve been through raising you this year is a precursor to what I always will. And if it is, I’ll need a good head start preparing.

This year with you has been primarily about un-training myself to be your friend. Getting tough. And take my word for it, Matthew, it has sucked from your end all the way to mine. I can tell that this year will really be the first that I’m more parts sworn enemy of yours than the best, best bud I’ve always been. That’s just the natural course we’re on. We’ve reached that age.

You are five. I know, I know. It sounds like such an unblemished age still, but this is where you test the boundaries of where I’m willing to go for you. Yesterday, we couldn’t go to Build-A-Bear for your birthday because I told you ahead of time that I wanted to take you, and you knew that I was excited. Something about expecting you to behave makes it all the more difficult for you to do. It always has. It’s like performance anxiety or something. (The month of December is torture for kids like you. Or, maybe just you – hell, I don’t know.) In any case, sometime during the day, you told me that you didn’t love me anymore because I would not let you leave your room until it was clean.

You are five. You are five, with a vengeance.

And even though there are so many gorgeous things I’m celebrating about this new age with you, (too many to list parenthetically) that part of it really has sucked, buddy. I know it hasn’t been easy on you, learning how to take direction like a responsible young man; learning how to respect my wishes like I have some divine power of you. I tell myself that it’s hard on you because you have the heart of a leader, and you can’t help it if big things like that take some growing into.. Then again, people tell me I have a tendency to exaggerate when it comes to you, and that’s probably true.

I have to take their word for it. I’ve never been so biased, or so protective of anyone as I am over you. I don’t even know why because it doesn’t feel like you need it. It has to be that mother/son phenomena, because there is something so unabashedly fierce about the way I want to protect everything in you that is natural. I have a hard time seeing any innate quality with which you were born as less than a gift. I just do.

But that’s no way to parent. I mean, me feeling that way about you is not something I can help, but it is something I have to try sometimes not to always act on. Your better interest relies on me being a rock for you in ways that are not always fun. I demand, for example, that you treat everyone with the same level of respect that I demand of them toward you. And oh, how you have fought me on it. But I have lovingly, dutifully fought back. I tell you it’s all in the name of some ‘love’ you don’t understand. Love, to you has always been a soft place for you land; a warm place for you to retreat. It’s always been comfortable and nice and easy for you to accept. This part of love is a pain in your ass. But this part of love is what you need to grow up strong. This part of love is something I refuse to fail you in.

Confucius would have a ball with you. You have the hardest time swallowing this cockamamie idea that other people deserve more respect than they have to give you just because they were born a few generations ahead. It’s already our biggest issue, this problem you have with authority. I actually think it’s endearing for you to be so bravely confident in your own way, mostly because I’ve struggled to have genuine confidence all my life. But I promise, your teachers won’t. Or, for that matter, any of the women in your world who will succeed me later on in life.
So I squint my eyes, and I do you a favor. I try to see past the rose colored tint in my glasses, toward a truer you. Don’t worry, this doesn’t change anything. I’ll always sing your praises to anyone within earshot. And I’ll always do it where you can hear me, just to make sure you know. And I’ll whisper in your ear first thing in the morning and after you’ve fallen asleep at night for as long as I can, that you are mighty and unbreakable and capable of such wonderful things because I believe them, because I’m your mom. I will still be that safe and comfortable and ever-accepting place for you to retreat. But in this next phase of life, it may not always look like it.

When those times come… When I fight against you, son, understand something. Understand that I never really am. When it feels like I am fighting against you, trust that I am fighting for you, with you, ever at your side because I am on your side – always. I will protect those good and courageous and righteous parts of you with all of the ferocity of a mother protecting the life of her only son, because I will be.

Of course, there will come a time when I will have to back off. I promise to.

Don’t get excited. We’re not there yet.

This year, I’ll begin to teach you things that are hard for you to understand, things that sometimes cut against your natural, headstrong grain. I’ll try my best to do it in simple terms and baby steps so that none of it is too much for you at once. But I’ll do it in a way that is less tolerant than you approve of. And I will be a rock, unyielding to guilt and tantrums and tears and threats and slippery tactics I know, at a certain point, you’ll have the balls to pull. You are compassionate and you are emotional, which will probably make you a very easy person to trust. But you are still your father’s son — so opposite of me, with a win-at-all-costs, unapologetic confidence. And I’m ready for that, because these past five years have taught me that I’ll need to be. You are a deadly combination of your mom and your dad. (You’re welcome.)

Today you are five but that won’t always be the case. I’m laying a foundation this year, for the way I want to parent you at 12, at 17, at 21. It won’t always seem from your perspective that there’s a method to my madness, but my goals in parenting you are pretty simple. I want to nurture the natural you: be it mind, body or spirit. You were born with so many strengths, inner strengths that can break a man if he lets them. You are already so fearless, smart, strong, handsome, compassionate and loyal. A big part of my job will be to have you see that other people can be too.

My world has always revolved in so many ways around you. Soon you’ll learn that the real one doesn’t. That’ll take some getting used to, but it’s okay. I’m not going anywhere.

From this day forth, I promise to make it look like I’m standing two steps back, while always staying three steps ahead. I promise to let you be every age, exactly the way you were built to: with a vengeance. And I promise to love you fiercely, whether your ornery ass wants me to or not. Always.

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Happy birthday, my big-hearted baby boy. Let’s do this.