Monday, November 17, 2014

Truth in Advertising

Parenting, more often than not, is NOT a glamorous affair. Like the grammar in the previous sentence, it is often messy and confusing. And that’s on a good day. On the bad days…well, parents know what the bad days are like, and non-parents wouldn’t sleep at night if they knew what their brethren with children were enduring on those days. Which is why I often claim that parenting is not actually or fairly portrayed to those without children. If The Childless truly knew all that came with kids, there would quite possibly be NO. MORE. CHILDREN.

To be fair to all those who have misrepresented parenting throughout history, I am fairly certain that many experiences just can’t be relayed with mere words. You can tell someone that The Silence of the Lambs is the scariest movie ever that will forever change their perception of moths, lotion, baskets, fava beans, Chianti, loafers, etc. But that horror doesn’t truly come to life until actually experiencing the movie (damnit, now I won’t sleep for three nights). Parenting is like this, too. Until you have children of your own, the full weight of your parent’s curse, “I hope you have children just like you!” doesn’t really register. That is…until the day you do have children just like you, and you realize the statement wasn’t meant in a complimentary way. Hmmmmmph.

Something all parents know that The Childless wouldn’t fully appreciate is the impossibility of using the bathroom alone. I saw a comic recently that read, “I had kids because I like picking up after other people and listening to myself talk. I also never, ever wanted to go to the bathroom alone again.” While that comic sounds funny, the actuality is not very funny at all. Recently, while I was in the bathroom, Liam and Declan burst in, shrieking and laughing and chasing. After I had finally convinced them to leave, Grace and Nadia burst in, in a full-out sister snit. Accusations were flying, fingers were pointing, emotions were high and the drama was flowing, all while Liam and Declan had started squealing and having a high time again. Keep in mind, for this entire time, I am seated on the porcelain throne with my pants around my ankles, head buried in my hands in despair. By no means is being interrupted in the bathroom a rare incident, but it’s not often that all FOUR kids crash my bathroom party simultaneously. I did some shouting about kids having absolutely no respect for a closed door, ushered the boys out and postponed the settling of the sister squabble to another time and place. But while all parents know the trauma of interrupted toilet-ing, hopefully few parents know the trauma of their bathroom time interrupted by someone else’s children. This actually happened to my neighbor, when my son walked in on him in his bathroom. These are the things that no one is talking about to The Childless.

Recently, Declan lost his BFF, FurFur (aka Mr. Furry Face), an incredibly dirty, used-to-be-white stuffed rabbit. FurFur has been consistently at Declan’s side for more than two years now, and FurFur has logged more miles than a lot of people I know. FurFur occasionally goes missing (or into hiding for some alone time, I suspect), but he always turns up again after a short break. So imagine the entire family’s horror (and Declan’s sleeplessness) when FurFur recently went missing for NINE days. Days one and two were not particularly scary. The searching began in earnest on day three, because that’s the maximum time FurFur has ever disappeared. Day four resulted in an Amber Alert to all friends and neighbors. By day five, I was really starting to panic and retraced steps the day he went missing. By day seven, I’d actually telephoned the police (I did, I admit it, but I swear this honestly wasn’t my idea). I can only imagine how crazy I must’ve sounded as I informed the officer I was looking for a 6-inch tall, off-white rabbit with a shabby pink nose who answers to the name of Mr. Furry Face. No dice. A call to the airport and my description of Declan’s sorrow caused a woman (a mother, obviously) to voluntarily do a sweep of the terminal (fortunately for her, it’s a small airport). She contacted me twice with status updates. No dice, again. In my head, I imagined poor FurFur, heartbroken at being abandoned by his best friend, turning evil, a la Lotso Huggins, as he waited and waited for Declan to come back for him. A day or two later, I was starting to come to terms with my worst fears when we stumbled upon FurFur at the local hardware store, sitting on the same tractor Declan had apparently abandoned him on…nine days earlier. 

Nowhere in the parenting manuals was there a chapter addressing the lengths you’ll go to as a parent for the sake of your children, or their furry friends - both the non-living and living variety. A fellow parent recently recounted the story of her daughter’s pet beta fish. The daughter had asked for a fish for years until, finally, the fish wish was granted. The beta became part of the family and things were going well. Until, one day, when they weren’t. The beta was lopsided and swimming awkwardly. The mom, in a classic example of unanticipated parental adventures, ended up at the Kansas State Veterinary Hospital, distraught, with a fishbowl on her lap. A diagnosis of fin rot was made, medication was prescribed and a special lamp was bought. The fish survives, but the mom is worried. When the time comes, she is armed with clove oil to help the fish pass quickly and with dignity, so that suffering (for fish and family) and flushing are not required. In her telling of this story, she, also, was startled at how parenting can entail so much that we never expect.

When I was mentally drafting this blog, I thought my parenting truth-in-advertising campaign would focus on the shockingly disgusting things that parents never expected to encounter. I could write an entire blog about the places my kids have vomited, to include (but not limited to) the community pool, multiple birthday parties, a hotel lobby, in a friend’s bushes, and in the van on the way to the airport (in this situation, I caught most of it in my hands and held onto it until a rest stop, as to avoid a vomited-in van marinating at the airport during a 10-day vacation). I thought I would also mention an incident with a three-year-old in a loose-legged bathing suit at Disney World that resulted in a “treasure hunt” for some excrement that fell out of her leg hole. We didn’t find it but, for the poor soul who did, Disney World will never be remembered as ‘the happiest place on earth” again. I hope a parent found it; they’d be the least traumatized. 

As I thought about the surprising truths in parenting, in addition to stories of grossness, I kept coming up with various stories of the lengths parents go to for their kids and the unexpected adventures parenting entails (this morning, for example, I had a great time doing a photo shoot with an elf). Clearly, and for obvious reasons, there is no truth in advertising when it comes to parenting; it’s an adventure that can’t be explained, only experienced. And that is The Truth - parenting is an adventure…both for good, bad, disgusting, maddening and hilarious. You’ve been warned; proceed at your own risk. And bring a lot of antibacterial wipes.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

An Unpleasant Diagnosis

If I were a different type of woman (genteel, wealthy, childless), living in a different place (the South) and time (decades past), I would collapse on my fainting chair, fan myself with something lacy, with the back of my hand dramatically pressed against my forehead in a forlorn manner.  Those who tend me would summon the doctor, who’d arrive tout de suite, carrying his leather satchel. He’d check my pulse, look in my bloodshot eyes, and know my situation was precarious.

The doctor’s interview with me would reveal the telltale symptoms: expiration-date-induced palpitations (heretofore known as EDIPs) and grocery store melancholia (GSM). Also present would be the cast of supporting symptoms: irritation, jaw clenching, sleeplessness, excessive use of foul language, and feelings of hopelessness, despair and anger.  By themselves, the lesser symptoms could be anything but, when presented with the very unique EDIPs and GSM, they can only mean one thing: a diagnosis of Imminent Deployment of a Loved One Syndrome.

For those who have had the good fortune of never having been afflicted with IDLOS, please take a brief moment and be grateful for the people who do what they do so that others don’t have to. And if a reader is curious as to what, exactly, EDIPs and GSM are...EDIPs frequently goes hand-in-hand with GSM, which causes the unpleasant situation of doing more crying in grocery stores than in any other location. Technically speaking, expiration-date-induced palpitations is the chest tightening that occurs when you realize the coffee creamer/oil in your car/library book will be in your immediate life for a longer duration than your spouse. Grocery store melancholia comes in many forms, one being EDIPs, others of which include: the mere sight of boxes of cake mix and holiday candy displays, which remind you of all the birthdays and holidays that will be missed during a deployment; the sight of new products and favorite products rendering you heart-broken by the thought of not being able to share that product with the person who’s deployed; running into someone who asks how everything is going while you suppress the urge to shout, “NO ONE SHOULD HAVE TO LIVE LIKE THIS….IT’S JUST NOT NATURAL! MY KIDS NEED THEIR DAD!!” While these are some of the most common triggers of GSM, the triggers come in many forms, and I never cease to be amazed at the many ways the grocery store can reduce me to tears.

If I were that other woman, the doctor would make sure that people were quiet around me, doing nothing to increase my fragility, and I’d get to stay in bed for as long as necessary until my constitution strengthened. I’d ask for something to “settle my nerves,” and the doctor would take pity on me and prescribe a heavy sedative for several months, and he’d tell me it would be all right and that he’d wake me when it was all over. I’d reply, “Thank you kaaahhhhndly, sir,” and I’d wake up months later, and it would, indeed, be over.

I wish I were that woman. Her indifferent sedation would be a much-preferred experience to the one we will have in our house…the one with little kids crying because they miss their dad and it’s been so long since they’ve seen him, the one with the what-if worries, the one with heartache and exhaustion and stress and crappy, canned dinners and homework to do and grass to be mowed and snow to be shoveled and sports schedules to be juggled and Christmas trees to be fought with and holidays to be conquered and a sense of “normalcy” to be created/maintained and a life to be lead with no rest in sight. Sedation…if only.

Of course, all that stuff I just listed also sounds like my “normal,” every day life. Five days out of seven, I largely manage as a single parent. I was independent before I married Mike and these many years of being an Army spouse has made excellent use of that as Mike has worked crazy hours in demanding jobs and gone on long deployments and shorter trips to stateside locations. If there’s a bright side (and don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying there is a bright side), it’s that I’ve done this before. I’ve managed to keep the kids and myself alive and relatively safe and sane for two deployments, which (I think) means that the odds are in my favor that we will probably make it again. I hope. I think. Just maybe.

Another symptom of IDLOS is constant doubt. About everything, but specifically about one’s ability to manage as a single parent while still maintaining some version of sanity at the end of the day. Maybe this is just a symptom of parenting, or living, but it is exaggerated during a deployment, as I will question absolutely everything, wondering if I am being a good-enough parent, a supportive-enough wife, if I am properly maintaining myself, as I wonder what’s the point of all of this (pontificating war and peace and politics, etc) and whether our kids and family will come out of all this damaged at the end.  

For the record, none of these acronyms can be found in the latest DSM book (although they probably should be). Though every word I’ve written is true, I’m fairly sure EDIPs and GSM, as well as IDLOS, are only creations in my own mind. I am not actually qualified to diagnose anything, despite all the time I spend on the internet diagnosing various ailments (if you think you have lupus, check with me…I’m a resident expert). Despite my lack of accredited expertise, I can confirm that there is a cure for IDLOS, as well as most other afflictions: time. Usually lots and lots of time. This, too, shall pass…with enough time. This is where that sedation would come in handy. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What I Learned in Summer "School"

(Sing to the tune of Camptown Races)
Eleven weeks down and one to go, doo-dah, doo-dah!
Eleven weeks down and one to go, oh-doo-dah-day!
I might sur-viiiiive, I might sur-viiiiiive!!!!
Eleven weeks down and one to go, oh-doo-dah-day!!!!

Insert sigh of relief here! The summer is almost over and I am still not an alcoholic! Or in an institution! No drug dependency! And the kids are alive! Thanks to all these declarative statements, I’m even almost ready to start believing in miracles, oh-doo-dah-day! Honestly, I think the last time I used this many exclamation points in one paragraph, I was an emotionally-charged teenage girl who was either love-struck or really, really pissed. Now the only event to trigger such excitement is the promise of school starting in a mere six days. (must…resist…the urge…to use more exclamation points…)

Summer is a time of togetherness…for better and worse. The kids have spent so much time together for so many weeks that tensions are just as high between them as they are between them and me. Just today, for example, when Liam had been awake for maybe five minutes, he slapped Declan for no apparent reason. And then Declan promptly slapped him right back. Typically, slap-fests don’t occur until late afternoon, not first thing in the morning. To compound tensions, we also just got back from a family vacation to Colorado. So, in addition to the many, many weeks of no-school togetherness we’ve been subjected to, we just survived a lot of time of non-stop togetherness, many hours of which were spent in the cramped confines of the family mini-van. I haven’t Googled it yet, but I bet, statistically, that more homicides happen annually within the family vehicle than in, say, a place like Detroit.

Summer is also a time of learning…sort of a summer school of living life. Spending all your hours with multiple kids – and, often, their friends, or in facilities with other kids you don’t know from Adam– will teach you many, many things in many, many realms. For example, this summer I learned that two-year-old Declan can maintain a mouth-fart sound for the entire duration of dinner (with no breaks for eating, of course). Now that’s stamina. But, on the positive note, I learned that it’s not just my kids who can be super-annoying. While talking to another mom in the gymnastics waiting area one day, I witnessed her kid, about five years old, punch himself in the crotch, non-stop, for the entire duration of our conversation. Sometimes the only saving grace in parenthood is knowing that you don’t suffer alone.

I learned that Band-a-Loom (aka Rainbow Loom, aka Loom Band, aka Rubber Band Bracelet Weaver Thingy, aka Bane of My Existence Comprised of Millions of Small Rubber Bands) is a horrendous invention. I’ve decided that it had to have been invented by a grandmother with extreme passive-aggressive tendencies and great animosity towards her children. No one else would be capable of causing such grief to so many parents of adolescent girls. Today alone, and this is not an exaggeration, I must have vacuumed more than 100 tiny rubber bands out of the van (in addition to a melted candy cane, a blue jay feather, and some unidentified fur, among other treasures). I hate small rubber bands. I have nothing else to add.

I learned that my tolerance-for-yuck (I don’t know how else to phrase this) is so high that, apparently, I have absolutely no standards of anything any more. Declan has been plagued by a giant plantar’s wart on his foot all summer (curse you, family-member-who-shall-remain-nameless, who plagued my children with disgusting plantar’s warts). In spite of the many treatments I’ve applied to it all summer, one day I walked into my bathroom and discovered him applying my absolute favoritest lip balm TO HIS WART (in his defense, he was trying to medicate it). I looked at the lip balm, and then at his disgusting wart, and then at the lip balm…and then I gave the lip balm a thorough wiping and threw it back in the drawer. I know, I know...I’m disgusting. However, I am pleased to say that, weeks later, there has been no transmission from his foot to my lips.

I also earned that we say a lot of absolutely ridiculous things in our house (brought to my attention one day by Grace). Taken out of context, we’d all be in a wrap-around coat. Some of the things said this summer include:
“If that dragon egg hatches in the van, we’re going to have a serious problem!” (again, me)
“NADIA! Why are there cherry pits in my underwear drawer?????” (Grace)
“Elephants like penis.” (Liam, often confusing the words ‘penis’ and ‘peanuts.’)

I also learned that you just don’t take kids shopping at the thrift shop, especially when your hobby is taking their stuff to the thrift shop unbeknownst to them. One day, Grace held up a certain toy and said to me, accusingly, “Mom! I’ve been looking for this! Why did you get rid of it?” And I said, nervously, “Um, that’s not yours. It just looks like yours. You misplaced yours at the house somewhere.” And she turned it over and said, even more accusingly, “Then why does it say ‘Grace’ on it?!” I knew the gig was up. You can’t teach your kids to be honest when you lie through your teeth to them. But on the same visit, when Nadia saw her horse shirt and shouted, “Mommm!!!!! Really???????” I lied – again - and told her it wasn’t hers. Thankfully, her name wasn’t written on it anywhere so I was able to weather the suspicion. Apparently, I also learned that I shouldn’t be the one to teach the kids about honesty.

In these last few days of summer, before the start of school, I hope I learn exactly one more thing….that even when I’m convinced I’m on the precipice of crazy, I never actually fall over the edge(!!!).

Sunday, July 13, 2014

An Ode to the Crazies, Part 1 of 4

For some reason, people think I drink a lot and that my kids drive me batty. Maybe it’s my oft-dejected demeanor, stemming from trying to raise responsible people with manners and bladder control, only to have it all fall apart in a public space when one of them belches enormously and laughs hysterically, while another has damp pants. Maybe it’s the hopelessness that other parents recognize, knowing that raising children and herding cats probably are probably about the same experience in frustration. Or maybe people think this about me because I always say that my kids drive me batty and that I need a drink.

Whatever the reason, I feel I need to set the record straight. Do my kids drive me batty? Fo’ shizzle. Do I love them hopelessly? You know it. Do I often think they are delightful people who, in time, will likely grow up to become productive members of society? I do; I really do. Is who am I – not just the negative wine-guzzling side, but also the positive – a direct result of being their parent? Yes, inextricably. Is this an intensely complicated and emotional job? Ummm….does a bear crap in the woods?

I have been a fan of Erma Bombeck since I was a pre-teen. She was a parent of three and I, intensely ignorant of the subject matter at the time, rolled in hysterics at her descriptions of domestic servitude and parenting. Little did I know, little did I know…. One of my favorite pieces she wrote was love letters she wrote to each of her children, explaining why they were her favorite. She wrote to the oldest, “Dear firstborn, You’ve always been my favorite because...,” and then went on to describe why. Her letter to the second-born began, “Dear Middle Child, You’ve always been my favorite because...” And then there was the letter to the youngest: “Dear Baby, You’ve always been my favorite because…” It was a wonderful set of letters and moved me, even in the days when I had no kids, was a kid, and didn’t know beans about this domestic life I navigate daily.

A few days ago, Nadia did a series of things in a short period of time that I found to be absolutely enchanting. It caused me to sit down and iterate many of the reasons I find her to be so delightful, which reminded me of Erma’s letters to her kids. So, to combat the image I inspire of a drunken, frazzled mother, I was inspired to spend some time focusing on some of the wonderful qualities of the small people who drive me to madness. 

Here is part one of four, dedicated to my second born.

Dear Nadia,

I love you the most because you are a little girl with big imagination. You randomly do things like build a rocket ship out of a large styrofoam cup, install a bucket seat (a Dixie cup) and a seat belt (a stretchy bracelet), and send your duck to the moon. Recently, you had Duck participating in his own ultimate sport while rolling in a hamster ball down the driveway. I love that you’ve made Duck an adventure junkie.

I love you because of the funny things you say. You recently asked for if you could do something and I said, “Probably not, Nadia.” And you said, with bright eyes and an infectious smile, “So that’s a maybe?!?!?” Sometimes, you assume the role of the Queen of “What If?” 
Nadia: “What if a hurricane and a tornado happened at the same time?”
me: “Nadia, I don’t think that’s possible.”
N: “But what if, Mama?”
me: “Even if it’s possible, I’m sure the statistical odds are so low that it’s not something you’ll ever have to worry about.”
N: “But what if it happened, and you were sitting on the toilet and only wearing one sock?”
me: (deep sigh)

I love you for your self-proclaimed “way with animals,” as you proclaimed to your brother once, as he was petting a kangaroo, “Liam! You don’t know what you’re doing! I have a way with animals, not you!!” You want a firefly as a pet. You recently spied a loose dog, which ended up in our backyard while we tried to find its home. In the hour or two we had the dog, you’d named it, fed it and worked on training it. I’ve seen you catch four butterflies at a time with one swoop of your net. You recently wrote an ode to Mr. Nut Nut, a squirrel you spied from afar, once, that you identified as your “best friend.”

I love you for your love of the natural world. You collect it in all forms and your room is a bone yard of rocks and feathers. On a first grade field trip to the zoo, you proclaimed (with lots of dramatic flair), “I FINALLY got to touch a REAL feather attached to a REAL peacock!” It was about the best day of your life (that week). One time, in your bed, I found a flamingo feather, a hawk feather, a peacock feather and some random, unidentified feathers. I have half-jokingly said, many times, if there’s another worldwide, avian-induced malady, there’s a good chance you will be identified as patient zero.

I love you because you’re full of kindness, but a firecracker when required. Recently, at a wave pool at a water park, you emerged from the pool with a two-year-old boy in a life jacket, who you had found alone in the wave pool. If someone or something needs help, it’s Nadia to the rescue; but if someone starts a fight, you won’t hesitate to fight back. You are small, but mighty.

I love you for the snapshots of childhood you burn in my memory. The other night you ran by at warp speed, shouting, “Flying toads!” You are startlingly fast. Your white hair floats around you like iridescence as you streak by.

I love you for your joy – that which fills you, and that which you spread to others.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Summertime Blues, part 2

Clearly, I am doing something wrong. I mean, with this whole parenting thing. I think that I am having more trouble with all of it than everyone else or, at the very least, that everyone else is much better at hiding their exasperations. My standard greeting lately has morphed from “Hello!” to the ominous, “I’m not gonna make it,” coupled with sad, puppy-dog eyes. People who know me think I am being humorous, but I keep telling people that what appears to them to be humor is genuinely a cry for help. Now, at least, I will have it in writing that I have been a woman crying out for help for nearly a decade now and that no one took me seriously. My despair, however, has yielded one major positive: I have a title for my autobiography. A couple weeks ago, in a fit of frustration, I shouted to no one in particular, “Welcome to Crazy Town!!! Population: me!” Now that’s a title that’s going to move some copies!

Now that we are already in the second week of summer “vacation,” my peanut butter intake has skyrocketed. For lunch, I just used a knife and went directly from one jar to the other, delivering, alternately, peanut butter and raspberry jam, straight to my mouth. This is obviously problematic for two reasons: it’s bathing suit season, AGAIN (expletive, expletive, expletive), and Mike has serious issues with jam ending up in the peanut butter jar. I tell him that there’s no time for a second knife when I am on the verge of a meltdown, but I don’t think he believes me. This parenting is seriously stressful business and, sometimes, only excess peanut butter and jelly, sharing one knife, can take the edge off.

I frequently read studies about people in various professions who are most likely to suffer from PTSD. They are generally fairly obvious professions: soldiers, police, corrections officers, doctors, nurses, etc. I often wonder why no one is looking at parents. Parents of multiple kids, parents with a spouse in the military, parents of special needs kids, parents of potty-trainers, parents of teenagers…I have an unproven theory that no one is in worse shape than parents and that scientists are too afraid to publish this truth. Our population depends on people continuing to have children so the unpleasant truths about parenting remain unexplored and/or hidden, depending on your preferred type of conspiracy theory.

Another group of people to blame in the big cover-up are parents. When I was pregnant with Grace, exactly ONE friend told me an unpleasant truth, which was, ultimately, wonderful, and I have hearkened back to her wisdom multiple times over the years.  She told me that people talk about this connection they automatically feel when their baby is born. She said she didn’t feel it, that the bond wasn’t immediate. She also told me that there would be times when I’d want to throw my crying baby out the window in the middle of the night; and that was normal, too, AS LONG AS I didn’t ever act on it. No one ever said anything like that to me except for her. So, either everyone feels it and no one says it, or she and I are just equally horrible parents.

Don’t get me wrong…I love my kids and would (and do) do anything for them. I’d be lost without them…absolutely crazy. But the opposite is equally true, too. That I frequently feel lost with them and that I will go absolutely crazy because of them. It is difficult to have such strong, conflicting feelings. Which is just one more of the ways parenting slowly chips away at one’s mental well-being. Not only do I constantly marvel at how many children survive childhood (kids are accident-prone and full of pretty dumb ideas for a lot of years, and I am certainly NOT excluding myself from this group), I also marvel at how many parents survive parenthood. It is a complete mystery to me that more parents don’t end up institutionalized, at least short term, or have significantly lower life expectancies.

People tell you how much work parenting is, but the emotional roller coaster that accompanies it is probably something people can’t appropriately warn you about, anyways, it’s something that can only be experienced. Unless, of course, I am doing something wrong which, I often think, is a distinct possibility. My personal and parenting faults are many: I am obsessive, I am an over thinker, I’m a perfectionist with unreal expectations, I want to do well but am plagued with insecurities and doubt, I am chronically mentally exhausted and overwhelmed, I’ve lost almost all of my memory and I mourn my almost non-existent free time (as I type, my four-year-old is bellowing, “Mooooooommmmm….help me with this puzzle!” I am ignoring him). I never know if the list of things I am failing at stems from doing something right, or from doing something wrong.

Growing people is hard work…from the day the seed starts to germinate until the day the plant is mature and fully bloomed. And the years in between are filled with work, worry, work, worry and more work and worry. And I can’t help but wonder (and fear) if, when the kids are finally grown, there’s ever satisfaction and pride in the accomplishment, or if we are plagued by the question: did they turn out just fine because of us, or did they turn out just fine in spite of us?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Neglected Caboose

The other day at soccer practice as I was talking to another soccer mom, she sat her 18-month-old on the sidewalk and poured a snack directly onto the sidewalk for her daughter to eat. The mom looked at me and must’ve seen some kind of surprise on my face, and she said, “What? She’s the third…you know how it is.”

Indeed, I do. A parent’s standards of safety, cleanliness and general supervision decreases exponentially with each child they have. The surprise that my face likely revealed was not that a parent was using a sidewalk as a plate, but surprise that she so brazenly did it, with no attempt to pretend-look for a snack cup that wasn’t there, and that she offered no apologies and, embracing the Nike spirit, just did it.

I mention this not as a passing-of-judgment on this parent because, as she so accurately pointed out, I do know how it is. I remember, shortly after Declan was born, stumbling on a parenting “cartoon” on Facebook. It showed a sweet baby and had the caption, “First child eats dirt. Parent calls doctor. Second child eats dirt. Parent cleans out mouth. Third child eats dirt. Parent wonders if she really needs to feed him lunch.” I shared it and added something like, “Fourth child eats dirt. Parent is not even aware child ate dirt because she gave up a couple years ago.” And that was shortly after Declan was born. In the two intervening years, supervision and general parenting standards have only gone from bad to worse.

Later children (which I will identify in our family as the caboose on the Crazy Train) are cursed – and alternately blessed – by the “neglect” that results from being born into a family with many children and exhausted parents. As my mother’s sixth child, I often joke that, by the time I was born (and after having raised my often-in-trouble siblings), my mother had pretty much given up. By the time I was a senior in high school, I had no curfew and would occasionally come home at 3 AM on a school night. My brothers and sisters were often up-in-arms about what they claimed I “got away with” and “how easy” I had it in comparison to them. In a lot of ways, I felt micromanaged because I was almost an only child, having come so many years after all the others, yet in many other ways I take some credit in raising myself, as a result of a mother who had, after the antics of a pack of siblings who grew up wild in the free-wheeling 1970s, gotten tired and given up.

I’ve had several chuckles to myself over the sidewalk-as-plate incident. While I largely view the ingestion of dirt, germs and expired food as an exercise in immunity-building, I know that’s not always a popular stance to take, especially among parents with fewer children who are still motivated by high standards. Still, it’s always encouraging to know that I am not alone in my laissez-faire ideas, and that there just might be other parents out there who don’t bother to pick the cat hair off the lollipop that falls on the long-unvacuumed rug.

I frequently feel bad for my boys, thinking they are getting the short end of the parenting stick somehow. Grace’s hair was always combed, she always had proper outerwear, and her clothes were new and clean. Nadia’s hair was almost always combed, she usually had proper outwear and her clothes, though hand-me-downs from Grace, were still in pretty good shape from all of Grace’s intellectual, gentle-on-clothes, supervised activities. Liam’s hair is frequently uncombed, he sometimes has outerwear (today, as we were fighting for him to wear a coat, I may have actually said, “Go ahead and freeze! I don’t give a rat’s patootey!”) and he has whatever clothes Grandma sends him. As for Declan, I can’t say for sure that I’ve ever combed his hair in the morning, and he frequently brings the coat to me to remind me he needs one. His clothes sometimes match but often have holes. At least he’s dressed, right?

Ah Declan…my poor, neglected caboose. Since he doesn’t know any differently, maybe he’s not even aware of his neglect. Maybe, just maybe, he will grow up easy-going and carefree after his childhood in our madhouse. Maybe he will be self-sufficient and capable. Maybe he will be a peacemaker and negotiator. Maybe there’s good to come out of the craziness and “neglect” he’s growing up with. It’s the conundrum of the caboose – the blessings and the curses.

I’ve decided my fellow soccer mom is my new hero and muse, and I keep thinking of her as a radical pioneer. Back in the day when I only had three kids, I am pretty sure I was still at least minimally concerned with “keeping up appearances.” What she did was akin to burning a bra outside a Miss America Pageant a half a century ago. I wouldn’t have dared to do what she did! What a free spirit she must be, comfortable in her own parenting skin.

Either that, or she’s just too tired to care. Her poor, neglected caboose...

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Chicken or the Egg?

It’s a classic chicken-or-the-egg scenario: Do we never want to take our children to public places because they act like animals, or do our children act like animals because we try to never take them out in public? It’s so hard to distinguish which came first.

Over the years, I have been startled at how closely children and animals are related. Kids and animals have their own distinctive, and frequently offensive, scents. Kids and animals are unpredictable…even the domesticated kinds (of both species).  Both have been known to fling their own feces. Both are frequently guilty of inappropriate, and inappropriately loud, noises. Both exhibit pack behavior and can be dangerous, especially if you stumble upon them when you are alone and vulnerable.  They have similar manners (or lack thereof), and neither belong in public places.

Take tonight, for example. Twelve days late, Mike and I worked up the courage to take the kids out to an actual restaurant to celebrate Grace’s birthday. Although we used to eat in restaurants pretty regularly – even when we had just two or three kids, we rarely do so now that we have four kids. Man-to-man defense was a much easier game to play, and we closely resemble a traveling circus pretty much every time we leave the house. We still do quite a bit for having such a large posse o’ children, but eating – even at home – is generally the least fun experience of the day. And dinner, as I suspect it is in most homes, is the most “adventuresome” meal. It’s not for the weak of heart or spirit.

We went to Bella’s, an Italian restaurant that is about as upscale as our small town has to offer (they have tables with chairs, in addition to booths!). Our first mistake was taking a table in the middle of the restaurant. For a family like ours, a dark corner, far away from other diners, is the ideal location. We are a loud, sometimes unruly, group, and a centrally located, brightly lit table is merely a stage for the drama to unfold, forcing other diners to serve as our unwitting audience.

Shortly after having ordered, which, for our family, takes about as long as eating the entire meal, Liam belted out a rousing rendition of Old McDonald. The entirety of it went just like this (in an off-key, sing-song tune): “Mick and Donald had a farm, and on him farm he had a cow,” (end sing-song voice and adjust volume to a shout), “I JUST FARTED!” I couldn’t judge the reaction of the other diners because I promptly buried my head in my hands and did not look up for an appropriately long time. I am confident I heard a belly laugh from the table next to us but I couldn’t make myself make eye contact with that table for the rest of their meal.

After some time coaching Liam on farting etiquette in restaurants, our mortification slowly subsided and small talk resumed. Then Nadia asked, out of the blue, “Do crabs have eyes on their shells, or on tentacles?” She has such a random mind, but frequently asks questions that remind me how little I know. 

The food arrived, which is always a hopeful event for parents, as food frequently helps occupy mouths so that fewer words come out of them. The downside of food is that it requires some basic etiquette, like using utensils, which is often lost on children, even those as old as seven. But the meal was progressing, dirty looks were dished out as necessary, and the end was in sight. Then Liam had a eureka! moment and announced, loudly, “When I get home, I need to poop!”

There was more face burying and head shaking. My eyes met Mike’s and the look on his face, with jaw clenched and a hint of madness in his eyes, said all there was to say. I wondered aloud why we continue to leave the house. Grace and Nadia snickered and giggled, and Liam offered another sentence or two about what a great pooper he’s become. And I realized that my family has become that family – the family that I might’ve sat next to 15 years ago and said, under my breath, “If those were my kids, I’d never leave the house!” 

How much I’ve learned about so many things – most of all, patience – in the years spent in the company of children. We keep leaving the house, even when common sense says we shouldn’t, sharing our little slice of craziness with those whose paths we cross. Though Grace and Nadia frequently say, “Mom is crazy!” I look forward to that day, well in the future when they are out with their own kids (who are misbehaving in all kinds of ways), that they have their own which-came-first epiphany, wondering whether I was out of my tree before I had kids, or if, just maybe, I had kids and then fell off the deep end.