Sunday, April 25, 2010

Wisdom and luck often take turns parenting

Faster than I could think of the word for "falling" I was hurtling backward out of the truck to the pavement below.

My ankle was scraped and the heel of my palm was peppered with asphalt. I'd landed on my hip, but the skin on my hand took the brunt of the impact.

I could hear Ittybit through the filter of my thoughts — "stupid-stupid-stupid" — her voice registering alarm as she yelled "MOM! are you OK?"

As I sat on the ground with the car seat I'd been trying to retrieve, I shook my head and tried to reorganize my thoughts.

The moment I released the seat from the cab of the truck, I'd forgotten where I was and just stepped back.

I knew immediately where I had gone wrong. In the instant I stepped back my mind was merely pulling something from my own, close-to-the-ground sedan as my body had done a thousand times before. My mind wasn't three feet higher.

I still didn't stand up. I could feel a burning sensation on my ankle, though the blood had yet to seep to the surface of the scrape. Something felt wrong with my leg, but not so wrong that it would require a trip to an Emergency Room.

My ego was more bruised than my body. I fell out of the cab of a truck. It was a stupid mistake.

From where I was sitting, Ittbit seemed so far away it didn't occur to me that she could have been hurt.

I didn’t even think to ask. I thought she was just scared. The kind of scared I was when I watched my own mother fall off of a horse when I was a kid, a few years older than she.

When I finally stood and dusted myself off, dragged the stupid car seat back to the car from whence it came, her eyes filled up with tears. "I’m OK, honey," I say, trying to be reassuring.

"It’s not you, it’s me," she said, lifting the skirt of her dress. The white lines on her leg were faint, but proof nonetheless she hadn't escaped unscathed. The car seat had struck her after I had let go.

Parenthood seems a lot like this moment in so many respects. You go along and you go along and you go along, almost by rote, until something you should have seen coming knocks you flat on the ground.

As it's happening, you get the sensation that time slows to a crawl. Yet events are happening so fast you have trouble comprehending what it all means.

Our success as parents depends not as much on whether we fall, but how we pick ourselves off the ground. In some cases pretending to know exactly what we are doing, and convincing ourselves that what we are doing is the best course of action, is called for. Other times, admitting our mistakes is imperative.

Knowing the difference is either wisdom or luck.

As I sat on the ground focused on myself, overlooking the potential for harm where my daughter stood seemed to be a rookie mistake.

I go and hug my daughter. I wish I could rewind the moment and play it again, only make it better. Her wound isn't really on her body it's on her soul. She knows I am fallible, and that she can't protect me. I know that I can't always protect her, and that I might not even notice she's in jeopardy.

All we can do is take a deep breath and try again.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

When rules are rules to be broken

Why is it that children never have to go when you ask them?

"It’s going to be a long trip, you should use the bathroom now," I say to Ittybit, knowing from experience the wee girl has a wee bladder and an unreliable early warning system.

"I don’t have to go," she says in a defiant whisper.

This is our private war. There are rules of engagement.

Sometimes I win the battle and she disappears into the bathroom as I wait on the other side of the door. On those occasions I usually laugh when her voice echoes inside: "Oh, I guess I did have to go."

Other times, though, she wins and we end up making an unexpected stop. … Or two.

"You broke the seal," as my husband would say.

But this really isn’t about my daughter or her bladder.

This is about the kindness of strangers, and lack thereof.

Any parent will tell you, as we hunt for available rest rooms, we tend to become incidental shoppers. We buy lunch and trinkets, drinks and candy. Perhaps the smallest item we can get away with to meet the requirement "Restrooms For Customers Only."

When the kindest proprietors take pity on us ill-prepared parents, or have no such requirement, I try to buy something as a gratuity and become a repeat customer.

Of course the opposite is true when the rule-followers don’t bend.

You know who you are.

You are the people who think: "rules are rules," or "I didn’t make the rules, but they’re there for a reason," or "there’s a liability I just don’t want to take."

Every parent on the planet has probably made your acquaintance.

When I met you I was, unfortunately, at my wits’ end.

I was on errands with my two small children. The one not in diapers had already gone at the last stop, yet here she was squirming around, needing to go again.

We were shopping, with a few selections already picked out. You were smiling, probably a little uncomfortably, as you told me "No," she couldn’t use the bathroom. "It’s not for the public. Try across the street at the fast food restaurant."

Technically, I was asking for preferential treatment. And you were well within your rights as a store manager to deny access to the facility.

But when you smiled, I knew you enjoyed this power you had. I also knew you didn’t really value my business.

So I did what anger does. I dropped my selections on the nearest elevated surface and told the kids we were leaving.

The "we wouldn’t be back," was in answer to my girl’s question, but you knew it was directed at you.

I know you don’t care. I mean nothing to you, and you aren’t paid to care.

"I can hold it, I can hold it," my daughter pleaded, dragging on my arm trying to reverse my motion to the door.

I could guess she thought she’d done something wrong because I was unhappy. "We can go back. We can go back."

It’s not until we’re in the car, riding home, that I calm down enough to be human again.

"I’m sorry, kiddo. It’s not your fault. I wasn’t mad at you. I’m mad at that woman who wouldn’t bend the rules."

It’s a lot to take in for a child who is learning all the time why rules are important; why rules are supposed to be followed.

"Sometimes people are just more important than policy."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Looking at bullies, sometimes in the mirror

I'm not sure what bullying is anymore. I'm not sure if it's a shadowy part of human nature, a rite of passage we must navigate in some respect during our development, or a crime.

Surely the case of a South Hadley, Mass. teenager, Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide after enduring several months of torment from other teens, is enough to tip the definition toward the latter. But to do so, I think, would be a grave mistake.

Bullying is a difficult problem to face head on. There are so many dark roads to explore. As a child, do you tell someone or suffer in silence? As a parent, do you intervene or counsel your child? As an administrator, if you don't punish are you permitting? Is there a line drawn that can't be crossed?

Experts seem to disagree on what causes children to bully.

Some believe bullies are children with low self-esteem or who suffer from social isolation. Others believe bullies are most likely kids who have an easier time of making friends, are popular and possess an average or above-average sense of self-esteem. Some believe bullies are incapable of understanding the feelings of others but are expert at reading behaviors. Some say bullying stems from innate or basic survival mechanisms, while others profess it to be something we learn and therefore can "unlearn."

But how do we "unlearn" as a society?

A school district in Mississipi manipulated its school’s prom — turning it from a school-sponsored social event, into a private, parent-held party — expressly to exclude one girl, Constance McMillen, a lesbian who would have escorted her girlfriend to the dance.

Maybe my definition of bully is different than yours. My definition includes the kids with short tempers, the kids who want to be liked, the kids who are afraid to stand up for what they know to be right. It includes the kids who don't care and the kids who's parents don't care. The kids we'd just as soon throw away. The kids we've pegged as having no future. It also includes communities that would allow segregation and maltreatment of someone else because they are different.

From a "Breakfast Club" standpoint, I can see we are all bullies, we are all victims, we are all in a place where we do the wrong thing and have to live with the consequences. Yet we all wish to think of ourselves as underdog and the hero in one.

The common thread seems to be the ability to have others follow the lead others who may be relieved the target is painted over someone else. Animals, even human ones, tend to pounce on those they perceive as weak, those who won't challenge their authority. We are nothing if not predictable.

As much as we seem shocked by the thought of the viciousness of kids calling each other names in an effort to assert power, we are happy to watch any number of powerful people do the same, from the halls of American governance to the judges’ seats on American Idol. Its tactics are not new to any generation of politicians or pundits.

When the news about Prince's suicide was reported, the impression I got initially was that the girl was physically tortured. Report after report after report, however, seemed to indicate the girls who used ugly names and behaved in a reprehensible manner were jealous and small-minded, and likely someday, if they ever mature, will have to live with the tragedy their words put into action.

They will have to face the repercussions just as each of us has to face the results of every choice we make. We also live with the questions and regrets when the paths we choose lead us to places we couldn't have imagined.

It's not easy defending a child whose words cannot be condoned. It's difficult to look past the malignancy some of these New England teens have continued to spread, trying perhaps to avoid the sanitizing effect the bright light of scrutiny has cast on their words and actions.

But I can't help but think the answer, if there is one, lies somewhere beyond punishment -- somewhere within.


Sunday, April 04, 2010

To maternity ... and beyond

I’d forgotten all the things I’d meant to bring. The cookies I’d made were sitting on the kitchen counter and the hand-me-down baby carrier was still tucked in the top drawer of my dresser.

I was anxious to get on the road. My friend was weeks away from meeting Baby No. Three, and my babies, numbers One and Two, were dawdling.

"Oh-my-gosh, we’re late. We should have left five minutes ago," I yell in the direction of the family room where the kids had run after I asked them to get on their shoes. "I still have to stop at the gas station. … Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go …"

I wasn’t ready either. As I looked into the empty tote bag, willing things to just jump in of their own accord, my brain was racing the clock. "It would take an hour to get there. I wonder if there will be any traffic." I tossed in diapers and wipes extra clothes in case of emergency spills. I remembered my phone and keys and cash. My camera batteries were charged and ready to go. The camera bag was already packed and in the car ... first things first and all.

Our mission, in addition to a friendly get-together, was for me to take maternity pictures -- something that has become a sort of tradition.

I photographed her first pregnancy - with film - eight months after giving birth to Ittybit. When I photographed her first child kissing the baby bump that contained her second child, a son, I owned a digital camera. One month after her boy joined the world, so did The Champ.

In so many ways it’s been a journey through motherhood we’ve taken, and documented, together.

"Now I need your help, guys," I tell my kids, who are already "are-we-there-yetting" as we turn out of the driveway. "I’m going to take pictures of you with your friends, but I need you to stay behind me and keep any pets, robotic toys, errant balls, flowing liquids or monsters from getting into the room when I’m taking pictures of your friends with their mom, Ok?"

"OK, mom," they parrot.

"This is very important," I stress. The last time I took family pictures in an official capacity, I had to crop my daughter out of the best one. Christmas cards with an extra kid in them can be confusion to some people.

"OK, OK! But are we there yet."

"Soon. We'll be there soon."

Ittybit may have been even more excited than I was to see my friend, whose children she has decided are "The Luckiest Kids in the World" because they are not only having a baby, but the sister kind. "I always wanted a little sister," she says sweetly, gazing at her brother who has already fallen asleep in his car seat.

Both kids are asleep when we finally arrive. I pull in the drive way to see my friend’s daughter jumping on the couch in excitement. I can almost here the "THEY’RE HEREs!" echoing through the house.

"We’re here," I say to the kids as park the car and the engine. They are instantly awake and excited again.

My friend looks happy and rested as she opens the door for us. She is glowing in the way that people say expectant mothers glow.

"I can’t believe I forgot the baby things I was going to bring, especially the baby carrier you wanted to borrow," I say as we hug.

"Oh, that’s OK," she tells me. She’s already as prepared as she needs to be. One fewer thing at this point is one fewer thing of which she must keep track now that she would have three tiny humans to corral.

For the first time since The Champ was born, and even though I always told people "two and through," I felt settled, if not cemented, in the decision to put maternity behind me.

It’s the kind of epiphany that is weighted with a tinge more sadness than relief.

My friend was going into new-baby territory by herself. I won’t be following.