Back from the Midwest

It was good to see Mister Book. This is a strange setup—I always hesitate when having to fill out forms over “separated” and always choose “married,” since “separated, no, not like that, we love each other and wish we were in the same place” mysteriously is not a standard option. Ours is not a standard situation.

Christmas is not a great time to be apart. We are both big fans of Christmas, and while I will videotape the kids on Christmas morning and certainly we will Skype, he feels very much his isolation at the holidays. Kit is more and more able to have a relationship with his daddy, and while this is mostly the greatest thing (you should see his eyes light up when I ask whether he wants to talk on the phone with Daddy), it makes the separation harder for the Mister, no question. Joey, too, clearly feels love for his dad, but he’s more prone to punishing Mister Book for his absence with shunning; the last time we Skyped, he carefully kept his back to the computer for several minutes, making his disapproval clear. He gets that sort of thing from his mama, I’m afraid. I am feeling especially guilty about Kit and Joey being separated from family in more than one direction, and have as a result kind of overdone it on presents this year. I’m also trying to get them to do tons of holiday activities (“Let’s paint ornaments! Let’s decorate cookies! Let’s make Christmas pictures to send to Daddy! Let’s maybe let the boys just hang out and stop trying to be Jane the Holly Elf for an afternoon!”), and they are sometimes game and sometimes not. (And fair enough: that is the human condition.) I love them a lot, and I feel like I’m letting them down, especially because I am often snappish with Kit these days. (Kit is involved in an extended science experiment that involves flapping a hand an inch from my face, whining and screaming a great deal, refusing to do simple things for himself, and just generally trying to see what will make Mama crazy.) I wish I was a better Holly Elf.

They’re both great kids. I keep saying that, right? Because it is true. I feel guilty when I get annoyed at them, too. I am slightly dreading having to take them both to play dates while Joey is on winter break, and I also feel guilty about that. Tomorrow they are both going to a Chanukah party/play date, and I can’t stop worrying about what will happen if half-potty-trained Kit has an accident (he has not thus far been willing to use an unfamiliar potty) or if Joey gets overwhelmed. I know that we can always leave, but I have already been that mom with the wailing, pee-soaked toddler in her arms and the wailing, frustrated preschooler trailing behind her, and I was that mom yesterday in fact, and I would like a slightly longer gap between these public episodes of my inadequacy.

I don’t know whether I’ll blog again before Christmas, so let me say that I think our Christmas will be very nice, and that I will be able to set my angst aside and just enjoy the kids and my family and the really excellent food we’re planning. I really do understand how fortunate I am, even when I give in to my period bouts of whining. Poor Susie, with her loving family and excellent kids! Poor Susie, with her regular contact with her placed son! If anyone out there has a tiny violin, this might be the perfect time.

I hope that all of you have a very Merry Christmas if you celebrate it, and bright and blessed winter holidays for sure. Peace be with you.

Questionable Timing, Susie

I keep waiting to have a really excellent post, but I’ve been waiting awhile, so instead I am just writing here in the middle of the night.

Kit has started to talk in silly voices a lot of the time—this is something that Cricket does. He cannot be pried out of his rain boots with a crowbar—this was true of Cricket for better than two years. There hasn’t been much of this sort of thing between Joey and Cricket, or even between Joey and Kit, because Joey is very much on a different path. But Kit and Cricket look alike, and seem alike in some other ways, and I will be interested to see them together later this year. Kit is mad for puzzles; I am planning to ask Nora whether Cricket is or has in the past been into puzzles.

Joey has finished his extended school year, and is one week into a five-week break; he doesn’t seem thrilled to be off school. I’m trying to get them out of the house most days, but I’ve been depressed and tired, so there have been too many days when we just end up taking a trip to the back yard. This week we have plans for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; I’m trying.

I’ve just finished a little freelance work, so I’m up after midnight, waiting to be able to sleep. The boys get up before 6 every morning, so tomorrow will not be a super energetic one on my end—note that we do not have an outing planned for tomorrow—but for sure the dudes can swim, and I can drink coffee and daydream about taking a nap.

I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life. I feel grateful to be at a point, now, where I can see the sadness and hopelessness as something that I don’t have to explain to myself or jolly myself out of; I can have those feelings and just try to let them exist without allowing them to rule my life. Some days they steer me more than I wish they could, and almost always they weigh me down, but I can enjoy the kids and give of myself to them and make jokes and read novels and see the depression as sort of running alongside instead of over my life. I’ve learned that when I am especially burdened, I have this different kind of exhausted compassion for the kids’ troubles that is quieter and less pushy than my normal variety, and that seems like a silver lining worth appreciating. Six or so hours ago, Joey just melted down, screaming and shaking and just beyond coping. He had a mild diaper rash, but I couldn’t find any other obvious cause for his distress—but just being held by me without having to endure a lot of stupid questions helped, and a bath helped the rest of the way.

Kit Kapers

I am having experiences with Kit that are, I’m sure, the most normal little things—but they feel like nothing that I’ve ever seen or experienced before. I took him out one morning last week for a pastry (for him) and a cup of coffee (for me), and he was happy to sit in an enormous chair and occasionally walk around the coffeehouse and smile at people. After a little while, he started signing to me that he was thirsty, and then he waited patiently while I got him some milk—and by “waited patiently,” I mean “staggered around signing <thirsty>,” because for Kit that sign requires you to throw your head as far back as possible. It was a really nice time, and it’s so strange that he can now, say, pick out a doughnut for himself or enjoy watching passersby. I’m acclimated to Joey, which makes having a little boy who smiles at strangers sort of baffling. But in a good way.

Kit is almost two. He does not show any signs of autism—and you can believe that he has been closely scrutinized, not only by me but by the professionals who work with Joey. He loves trains, trucks, and the color purple. He counts and reads numerals 0–10, and has started reading and signing letters; when he sings the alphabet song, he gets stuck for a bit on W: “You, bee, double you you you you you you you you you you you . . .ex, why . . . zee!” He is very nervous of most nonfamily these days, but he warms up to most people pretty quickly. He loves to wear cowboy boots and a bucket hat, and he loves to hide and be found, or run and be chased.

Slaps and Spats

Both Kit and Joey hurt me on purpose every day, multiple times per day. They each do it in different ways; Joey pinches and chins, which is a term I learned from his behavioral therapist and refers to digging his chin into me, hard, whereas Joey slaps me. Most of the time, I can just get through it—mostly I move away from the kids at those times, tell them that it is not okay to hurt people, and that I don’t want you in my lap if you’re going to hurt me—but sometimes especially slaps in the face really bother me. I don’t hit the kids, and I want only to use time in—but I have put Kit in time out a few times when we were just both at a point where we needed a couple of minutes apart. At those times, I put him in his room and tell him that I’ll be back in two minutes; then I come back and talk to him about how we need to be working together better than we are, and here is what I need from you (stop hitting me, quit rooting through the trash, stop shoving Joey, etc.): What do you need from me? And then we go back out together, and mostly things are better after that—at least for awhile.

There have been periods when the kids were less aggressive with me, and I know that there will be more of those in the future; I expect Kit to grow out of using violence with me altogether.

In the meantime, here we are. I’m not enjoying the hurting, but Joey has otherwise pulled out of his rough patch; he’s having a good time and really engaging at school. Kit and I are going on and hosting more play dates, and he is more and more often able to enjoy the company of other kids—although in a group of five or more other kids, he is unhappy. We had a lot of rain over the last few days, which is a rare occurrence in these parts, and both boys have been mesmerized. And I bought the boys matching Easter outfits and can’t wait to dress them up.

I hope all of you out there are getting some spring weather, and keeping well.

Toddler Time

I think I am having the authentic toddler experience. Kit is shockingly funny and wild and wow, such big feelings. I think most people have an idea of the downsides to the toddler experience: screaming, freakout tantrums because I won’t let him empty out the silverware drawer, for example. But he’s such a bright light, and I’m really enjoying him.

Probably everyone who parents more than one kid has the experience of having her every expectation violated by kid number two; I’m having an extreme version of that experience. Joey is autistic and also a very sweet, mellow kid; Kit is typical, very verbal, and a firecracker. Joey cuddles in my lap and Kit jumps on the couch, pointing out the window and exclaiming: “A car! Over dere!” Almost a week ago, Kit developed a game in which he would throw a (clean) diaper into the air and I was supposed to provide sound effects. I am truly awful at sound effect production, so after a few attempts (“ka-pow!”) I started exclaiming at the diaper as though it were a cop on the edge in a ’70s film: “You’re a loose cannon, diaper!” “You’ve got no respect for authority, diaper!” and so on. He loved it.

Skype with Mr. Book is getting better and better; Kit is always thrilled (and Joey is usually quietly pleased), and has started showing his daddy favorite toys and saying “I yuv you!” This season’s hottest toy at Casa Book is a broom whose handle snapped short (and has been wrapped in electrical tape). Kit is also very into building with blocks recently—he builds tall towers of single-block stacks, and when they inevitably fall over (at seven or eight blocks tall), he screams at me to help. I don’t want him to get the idea that I won’t help him, but at the same time, it doesn’t seem super productive for me to just build block towers for him. What I’ve been doing so far is just to start building something different, like a pyramid, and then Kit usually starts adding blocks to my structure. He’s still incredibly mad whenever the blocks fall down, but I guess that’s just something that’s going to keep happening for right now.

 

Put Your Weight on It

I’m not really a jewelry person. I wear my wedding ring and three small silver hoops in my right ear; that’s really it. I have a few pieces of nice jewelry that sit in cases in my closet, and I think they’re lovely, but I just don’t wear it. Of course, as I write this, I am wearing black pants, a hoodie, and a baseball cap—my hair is shorter than my husband’s. My presentation is fairly butch, is what I’m saying. But a week or so ago, I decided to wear a necklace that Mr. Book gave me: a St. Francis medal. Francis is my confirmation name, and I’m a big fan, so I decided to wear it. And Joey was overcome with envy. He loves circles, and the medal is a circle—but more than that, the boy loves to be fancy. So I let him wear it, and he spent an evening taking it off and putting it on and saying “fancy” and “circle.” A few days after that, my sister Tammy came to visit, and my mother invited her to look through my Omi’s costume jewelry and see whether anything caught her eye. Well! Joey was quite taken with a necklace of big, shiny blue beads, and my mother put it on him. He broke it pretty quickly (it was, as I say, quite old, and was strung on stiff and stressed plastic fishing line stuff), but yesterday I finally restrung it and gave it back to him. He loves it, keeps calling it “fancy” and “nice,” and has gone out of his way to show it to everyone. He was willing to take it off for lunch after I explained that it would be unwise to get pizza on it, but cried for it when he was done.

Joey has wanted to accessorize since before he could walk: colorful scarves, hats, even a toy castle that he can fit around his chest (it’s made of cloth). I wrote last year about my mother calling him “a little gayboy” last year; I was, hmm, very discouraging about that, and she hasn’t said anything like it to me again. But when Joey was first trying out his necklace, I said something about putting it in the dress-up bin, and my dad said something about adding some neckties, and maybe suspenders. Lord knows I don’t see anything wrong with a nice necktie, but it was discouraging—my dad seemed so uncomfortable.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen Disco Godfather, but I totally recommend it. If you haven’t had the pleasure, let me tell you that one of the thDisco2ings I like about the movie is that it led me to think about things that have been shaved off of maleness as time goes by. The titular character is extremely macho—women want him, men want to be him, he was a cop, he knows kung fu—and he is so, so fancy. I missed disco, but I do know that it was a space for homosexual male expression; please don’t think that I’m missing that or trying to downplay it. But at least in the movies (have you seen John Travolta?), it appears to have been a place for men to be as fancy as they want to be. Of course, I know that any number of people have questioned the sexuality of men stepping outside of the crewcut and pantsuit paradigm for as long as men have crossed that line—but, damn it, it looks from here as though the culture keeps making steps toward escaping the gravitational pull of that norm and then takes two steps back.

I’ve read Cinderella Ate My Daughter (and Reviving Ophelia and The Beauty Myth and Reasonable Creatures and and and); I’ve some familiarity with the ways in which our culture is hostile to girls. But now I find myself in a position to be deeply interested in the ways in which patriarchy poisons boys. Don’t get me wrong: my kids have privilege that I don’t, which is weird. But misogyny hurts everybody, and four years and a couple of months ago, I abruptly landed in alien territory—I became a mother to boys. And now I imagine a world in which my toddler—or kid or teen or any future bub at all—can wear spangles if it pleases him without being pigeonholed, and I have to tell you, I prefer that world to this one.

underground

There are things I haven’t talked about—I haven’t wanted to think about them. But it’s gotten to the point where that’s not workable anymore. Joey and Kit have had a lot of things in common; I guess they were/are both what you’d call high-needs babies, although it’s mostly just seemed like the way babies are, since that’s what we’re used to. But now we’re going through with Kit what we did with Joey—he will not sleep without me, and he’ll freak out if he wakes up without me, so he’s fighting sleep as hard as he can all of the time so that I can’t sneak out. But this time, I can’t just give in and stay with him. For one thing, he refuses to be worn; Joey could just nap in a front pack while I made dinner (or what have you). We also had a laptop, so that I could work in bed with the sleeping baby Joey—our laptop is now kaput. And we have a toddler now, and he needs a lot of attention and company, too. But maybe most problematic, I have postpartum depression.

I feel pretty guilty about the PPD. I’m still doing right by the kids—and let me tell you, it is just the weirdest thing to have to tell myself “smile at him” and then make it happen instead of just having that happen naturally—but I’m just not doing okay myself. A couple of days ago, I admitted it to my family, and we’re trying to change some things to help me get better. But if you are one of the many lovely people to whom I am not writing letters, or writing letters that I can’t manage to send, or not putting together an email for . . . well, this doesn’t excuse that, exactly, but you are not alone. I am in the tall grass.

Recently, Kit is spending hours in the evenings just screaming. He’s got an impressive set of lungs—they remarked on it at the hospital. We hold him and he just screams and screams, and then finally he wears himself out and falls asleep. We’ve tried an awful lot of things to help him, and nothing seems to really make any difference. I just want to get away from him at those times, which probably is making a difference, and not in a positive way. He’s started to be upset about more and more things, and it can be hard to predict what will set him off: he used to love baths, but today he flipped out when I put him in the water (tepid, and checked and rechecked several times); sometimes he loves a pacifier (I broke down and got him a pacifier!), and sometimes he hates it so much; he can love bouncing/being held over a shoulder/“walking” around until abruptly it is the worst thing, and he doesn’t slowly get upset but instead immediately is enraged and screaming. I need a better word than screaming, or at least a couple of others to throw in every so often, but it’s just screaming—screaming and screaming and screaming.

So that’s the word. I’m quiet, and I’m not really doing okay, but hopefully things will get better at some point. I’ll try to write again, about something else.

H Words

I think that Joey has started to look more like his brother. My genes have clearly lost out on just about every front, which I find myself not minding—both boys have bigger eyes, like mine, and Cricket especially makes the same expressions I do (according to Ruth, and from what I’ve seen)—but they’re both within spitting distance of that tall fellow I like so much. I thought that Joey looked more like me, but then I saw a whole mess of baby pictures of my husband, and there were some in which he could easily have passed for his younger son. I may end up the odd woman out in a family of tall, charming blond fellows. There are worse fates.

Speaking of which, Joey has started expressing his anger by slapping me in the face. It’s a strange thing—one issue we are perpetually working on together is helping him to use words to express what he wants or is feeling. So he will scrabble at the foot of our bed and then scream with rage: I say, “You seem frustrated! Is there a word you can use to tell me what you want?” and he will say “Helb! (help)” “Oh, you want help up?” and I help him up. He has a lot of words, but he’s easily frustrated, and when he is frustrated, they go right out the window. (By contrast, if he’s feeling cheerful, he will run to the edge of the bed and say “Helb! Up!”) My brother has always had this same incredibly short fuse—easily frustrated and unable to tolerate frustration—so it’s important, I think, that we try to help Joey learn to manage it. I’m still figuring how. Right now, that mostly means time-in for persistently dangerous bad behavior (throwing blocks at people’s heads, that sort of thing): I hold him and talk to him and for a little while he fights to get loose and go back to whatever he was doing; after a minute, he relaxes and generally seems to enjoy being held; and after a couple of minutes, he’s free to do as he likes (he usually stays in my lap awhile). When he hits me, I first hold his hands, give a serious “No, we do not hit” sort of talk—and when he hits me again, which he invariably does, I tell him that he can’t sit with me if he’s going to hurt me, and I set him on the floor—at which point he starts screaming as though he’s the one who’s just been slapped. It is not a perfect system, for sure.

It might not sound like it yet, but I am overall really enjoying the toddlerness of this boy; he’s getting smarter by the day, and there’s scarcely a trace of baby left in him. We got a toddler leash because he wants to run into traffic and not to hold our hands—now he likes to wrap it around himself at home, and we’ve started calling it his fancy. “Oh, Snerks, you look so fancy!” He will let you know when he needs his diaper changed, usually (“Helb! Poop!”), and he’s more and more interested in soccerish games with us in the yard. His fine motor is pretty lousy, unfortunately (one area where my genes totally dominate! I was in special P.E.), and he gets frustrated trying to work at improving it, but there’s time yet. His physical enthusiasm combines with that “fine” motor to keep me on my toes preventing him breaking his neck, but we’re doing pretty well so far, and a pool fence is coming soon (not that he is ever, EVER alone outside). One of Joey’s favorite words is hug, and he will frequently demand one—“Ugga!”—this is one of my favorite new things. It actually came out of that same pool as the paragraph above, trying to help him deal with frustration; he was finding a toy very annoying, and when he would sit next to it and scream, I would say, “Sweetie, if you want, you can come here for a hug—maybe you’ll feel better.” After a dozen or so times, he started spontaneously coming over for a hug when he was getting mad, and the word has really caught on.

Insufficient

My milk is drying up.

 

I knew this was a possibility, now that I’m four months pregnant, but it’s still discouraging. Kellymom suggests that I won’t dry up completely, and for now Joey seems willing to persist—he is in fact doing a lot of kneading and headbutting, trying to get every drop of milk when he nurses. He’s trying to nurse constantly; I am not willing to nurse much more than once every two hours, because WOW the pain, so we’re having some tantrums. I’ve started to flinch when he reaches toward me, because he keeps hitting me in the face. When that happens, I hold his hand and explain that it’s not okay, and if he persists I will put him down . . . and he will scream. Occasionally he’ll give up on hitting and start headbutting my nose. It’s not ideal.

 

That sounds a bit grim, but we’re really doing pretty well. There are good times every day, and I’m drinking more water and eating oatmeal, which has helped a little with the supply—but I’m also giving clear milk sometimes, so it’s really the pregnancy causing the change, and there’s nothing I can do about that. Dry nursing is painful, but beyond that, it is eerily like that feeling you get when you root around in your belly button too long: you get a clear signal from your body to knock it off. The pregnancy is leaving me awfully tired; it turns out that parenting while pregnant is much less restful than just being pregnant and sleeping fifteen hours a day, so I haven’t really gotten a second-trimester energy bump. Bummer. It’s definitely led to my blogging less, since I’m just tired all the time. In the meantime, Joey is moving steadily toward toddlerhood, breaking things and shrieking in protest when we clean up after him.

 

I think it’s going to be a great Christmas. I’ll post again this weekend, and for sure I want to share some pictures of my adorable tyrant.

Never Violence

I got sucked into an intense parenting conversation with my mother. She has talked occasionally about a colleague’s sister’s teenage son (perfectly clear, right? ;)), and about how his mother is going to send him to last-chance wilderness boot camp in a few weeks because he is mouthy and stays out all night. The mother and father of this kid have apparently been very strict his whole life, and now he curses at them, tells them he hates them, and won’t obey his curfew. I totally misread her point the first time she told me this: she was saying, How horrible for his parents. I was hearing: How horrible that his parents are doing this. I’ve read and heard accounts of people sending their kids to these programs and thought, Well, it’s hard to imagine what else they could do—but for a mouthy kid? A mouthy teenager? Of course we neither of us know the whole story, but based on our different understandings, we misunderstood one another.

For my mother, this means that I am judging her parenting. She didn’t send any of us away, but has told me many times that she considered sending me to military school because I was so depressed, and I have said that I’m glad that she didn’t, and I would have seen it as proof that she didn’t love me. I know as an adult that it wouldn’t have been that, of course, but as a teenager? I would have been certain, and heartbroken. It seems like a relevant fact that she never did sent me away, but she has apparently been needing to talk this out/set me straight, so while Mr. Book and Joey played with a cardboard tube (adorable), we talked about this without her persuading me to her point of view. She started to explain to me that parenting isn’t always simple, and sometimes you have to do hard things and be mean in order to help your kids, and I was saying that yes, I know that it is complicated, but I still value coming to these decisions from a place that prioritizes a warm and close relationship with my kids over their GPAs, and she felt as though I didn’t understand, and finally Mr. Book jumped in.

My mother was explaining that you want your kids to be successful, and you can’t stand to watch their actions close doors for them—I suggested that there will be doors open to them that you can’t possibly imagine, and while you can support your kids to succeed you can’t make them, and maybe their ideas of success aren’t the same as yours—and she was getting really exasperated. Mr. Book had been listening quietly, mostly focused on Joey, and he all of a sudden looked up at my mom and said, “We have different values than you do. We first off want our kids to be good people; we secondly want them to be happy; and everything else is a pretty distant third. We don’t prioritize success in the same way that you do, or think about it the same way.” My mom asked how you can make your kids be happy; he said that you can’t, you can’t make anyone be happy—but you can help. The conversation ended then.

I’m writing about the conversation because I’m still worrying it, chewing away at it and trying to figure out what happened. My mother has regrets, and that is what it is—I don’t hold my childhood against her, and I don’t bring it up with her. I know that we’re nowhere near the hardest parts of parenting yet, and am in that frustrating position of saying that while I know that I can’t know what it will be like, I think and I believe and I anticipate these various things. My mother kept asking me what I would do in this woman-I-don’t-know’s position, and I kept saying that I would really have to find myself in that position and figure it out—but I might see if he wanted to stay with relatives for awhile, I might let him drop out and look for work, I might ask him what he wanted and where he was going. Who can say? My mother worries that our decision not to hit our kids is a sign of some fatal parental weakness, and that we will be taken advantage of by horrible children; again, I suppose it’s too soon to rule that out for sure, but we don’t let Joey crawl around the floor in restaurants or make other peoples’ lives a burden to them. We have limits for him, but we don’t hit him when he crosses them—we just pick him up, explain, and redirect him. And my mother watches us, and worries.