The Smart One and the Pretty One

A few months ago, I was shopping at the local dollar store with my three-year-old daughter. As we went through the store, row by row, my daughter asked for everything she set her eyes on, as she always does.

I usually let my kids pick out one “prize” when we go to the dollar store. I steer them to the craft section, where they can pick stickers, craft supplies, or books — stuff we use.

That day, the craft aisle was overflowing with tempting offerings. Some were on my approved prize list; others were not. We spent a long time negotiating over what  constitutes a prize, and after that we spent an even longer time going through the arduous decision-making process. After changing her mind about a zillion times, she finally settled on the stickers. My body sagged with relief; we had passed through the minefield unscathed.

So you can imagine how I felt when we hit the housewares aisle and my daughter experienced a profound case of buyer’s regret. She really, really, really, really wanted the glitter paint. She needed it. I told her we could trade the stickers for the glitter, but by that point she had grown so attached to the stickers that the only way I could possible satisfy her soul was to buy her both. I said no; she cried.

My daughter is really good with the crying thing. She lets the tears stream down her face, while aiming big, sad, disappointed eyes right at you. She says things like “you broke my heart when you said no, mommy” and “I will never be happy again.”

She was right in the middle of a pretty magnificent expression of pathos when an older man came up to me and said, “Aw, come on. Let her have it. She is too pretty to say no to.”

I’d like to say that I gave the guy a piece of my mind. But I didn’t. I am far too conflict-shy. I just gave him a fake smile and walked away.

There was a lot about that little episode that pissed me off. First of all, I really don’t like it when people contradict my parenting in front of my kids in a matter of discipline. You just don’t do that.

But what really got me going that day was the whole, “she is too pretty to say no to” part. I mean, my daughter is gorgeous, so I get where he was coming from. People are constantly commenting on how pretty she is. They especially rave over her bright blue eyes, which are pretty stunning. And I appreciate the compliments.  I really do. After all, I made her.

I mean, I get it but...

I get it…

But here is where it  gets problematic. First of all, I really don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking that it is her prettiness that gets her recognition and appreciation from people outside her family. I desperately don’t want her to feel like when she is out in the world she is defined by how she looks. Sometimes I think we grownups forget how watchful our children are, or how much they observe from life as it goes on around them. And even though she is only three, I can tell that this little girl is aware of how her looks influence other people.

Secondly, I have another daughter. Another gorgeous daughter with brown eyes you can get lost in. And all she ever hears when we are all out together is how beautiful her little sister is. People notice the little one because she is at the peak of her cuteness. But they always seem to miss the older one, the brown one, the one who is as pretty as she is smart.

This one.

This one.

The one who told me the other day that she is ugly. That her eyes are the color of poop and dirt. That her sister is prettier than she is. The six-year-old who is unhappy with the way she looks because “the pretty one” gets all the attention.

I know that, as much as we wish they didn’t, looks do matter in our society.  And I know that when people compliment little girls on how they look, they are doing it out of kindness, with only the best of intentions. I’ve done it myself often enough. There are times when it is biologically impossible not to rave over how cute a small child is. I also know there are times when people need to be told that they are pretty, or attractive. There are times when it is welcome and appropriate.

I just wish that when people engage with little girls out in the world, they notice more about them than just their pretty faces.

And I wish we had a better understanding of the subtle ways our words and actions shape a world that puts far too much value in the way women and girls look.

I also wish that when people see two little girls together, they notice them both.

Because they are both awesome!

Because they are both awesome!

Twelve Rules for Owning an Independent Preschooler

Those of us with young children who have entered into the “I do it MYSELF” phase have come to understand a great irony of life. We spend the first few years of parenthood imagining a future in which we don’t have to do every little thing for our children. We long for the day when butts will be wiped by hands other than our own, when we no longer have to force limp limbs into coats or kicking feet into shoes. We say things like, “life will just be so much easier when she starts getting dressed herself.”

Then one day, your child will decide to get dressed all by herself. And on that day, you will come to know the true agony of watching a three-year-old trying to remove her day clothes and put on underpants and a pair of footed, zippered pajamas with no help. At all.

And woe betide you if you do try to help. In fact, offering to help is such a rookie mistake that, if made a second time, you really do deserve the wrath your offer will ignite.

Unfortunately for us parents, surviving a preschooler’s attempts at independence isn’t as easy as just withholding your assistance. Oh no. There is a host of rules that you must follow in order to survive your day unscathed. I have broken these rules more times than I can count, and I have suffered accordingly.

Rule #1: Do not offer to help. This is the most basic rule, and really should go without saying. But I am saying it anyway.

Rule #2: Do not attempt to provide child with items necessary for task completion. Don’t you dare give her those socks!

Rule #3: Do not look directly at items necessary for task completion.

Rule #4: Do not think about items necessary for task completion. They read minds.

Rule #5: Do not compliment child. They can sense an unspoken offer for help.

Rule #6: Do not provide suggestions or advice of any kind. Even though there is a nearly 100% chance that she will drop the entire bowl of Cheez-its into the toilet if she brings them into the bathroom with her.

Rule #7: Do not speak to child.

Rule #8 Do not make eye contact with child. Again, they read minds.

Rule #9: Do not look in child’s general direction.

Rule #10: Do not attempt even the smallest tug of the child’s shirt, even though her head is stuck and she is about to fall of the bed.

Rule #11: Do not breathe the same air as child. She can hear your frustration in every sharp intake of breath.

Rule #12: Do not exist in near proximity to child.

The consequences of breaking any of these rules will be that she has to do it. all. over. again. Including the part where she gets her head stuck in the shirt.

Basically, just leave the room with your eyes closed and your ears covered. Stand with your back toward the general direction of your child. Do not think about your child until she has completed the task and given you express permission to address her. Unless, of course, the child with her head stuck in her shirt does fall of the bed, in which case why didn’t you offer to help you terrible, neglectful parent?!

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See? She can do it all. by. herself. (It was 80 degrees and sunny.)

 

And Off She Marched Again

This time last year, I was overcome with anxiety over my daughter starting kindergarten. I was worried for her because public school can be a big, scary place, and I was worried for myself because my mental balance was disturbed by the fact that my girl was growing up too darned fast.

I found out this morning, when I sent her off to first grade, that letting her go off into the big wide world of school wasn’t really all that much easier this time around. Because it turns out that your first grade baby is still your baby, just a year older and even further removed from the tiny, helpless newborn she once was.

Would it be excessive for me to make her wear a label with this picture on it and the caption, "ATTENTION UNIVERSE: I USED TO BE THIS. So be nice to me. Or you will have to deal with that lady in the hospital gown."

Would it be excessive for me to make her wear a label with this picture on it and the caption, “ATTENTION UNIVERSE: I USED TO BE THIS. So be nice to me. Or you will have to deal with that lady in the hospital gown.”

In six years of parenthood, I can say with some authority that I have learned two things. First, I’ve learned that bringing your first child through her newborn phase will feel like the hardest thing you have ever done, and when people with older children tell you that it just gets harder you will want to stab them in the eyes with a fork. And second, I have learned that it just gets harder.

I used to think that, once my daughter could just tell me what was wrong, parenting her would be so much easier. It wasn’t. Because once your children start being able to tell you what is wrong and how you can make it better, they start demanding things that are impossible for you to give them. I will never forget the night my daughter, then two, begged me, sobbing, to make the sun rise up again after it had gone down. As much power as we parents have in our children’s lives, we cannot alter the functioning of the universe. My daughters still struggle to accept this fact.

As your children get older, their problems get far more complicated. They argue and defy you and do things that are bad for them. They struggle, and there is often nothing — nothing — that you can do to help them. The power you once had to tailor their world to fit them diminishes with every passing year.

For me, one of the hardest parts of parenting has been coming to terms with the overwhelmingly bittersweet feeling of watching my daughters grow up. I am awed by and in love with the people they are becoming. My girls are awesome, and their awesomeness just becomes more evident as they grow older. I’ve never experienced anything as satisfying as watching my daughters grow into the people they are meant to be — and the best part is that I have many more years to experience this phenomenon.

But as they move closer to the people they are becoming, they move further away from me. It is a distance that I feel, physically. My arms were once full of them; if they moved through the world it was because I was carrying them. And now they are moving through the world on their own, with my guidance and love behind them but not surrounding them. I love who they are, but I miss what they were.

I never knew that an adult could experience more angst about her children growing up than a teenager does who is in the throes of coming of age. But there you go. Parenthood is hard, and it is hard in so many ways.

Fortunately, as I struggle with letting go, my big first grader is delving into the new school year with her customary verve.

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She is pretty amazing, isn’t she?

 

 

 

 

A Milestone Moment

Last night this blog hit a milestone moment: I got my first thoroughly negative, personally insulting comment. It was yesterday’s post that brought it in, and I’m looking at it as a good thing — first, because it means that people other than my relatives and friends are reading what I wrote, and also because it means that I’m touching nerves and writing about important things.

My comment was from a person who called himself Cliff, and this is what he wrote*:

“Thankyou for nothing, I am a grandfather, I do watch kids at the park, have even picked them up when they have fallen from the play aminities. Big deal, if you think that every grand father is a sick sod well thats your life, but dont taint us all with your warped mind. just because I enjoyu watching kids have fun, should not open me up to your tirad. not all men are out to harm children. as for your icecream man, poor sods wondering if a complaint from you will end his job.
Do your self a favour, go back to the doc and tell him your sick of the meds you have been buying on the street and you need help.” 

I am going to ignore his unkind personal remarks about me and respond to what I think is his point — that he is offended by the idea that, as a perfectly innocent grandfather who enjoys being around children, he might be stereotyped as a pedophile. Fair enough. I can see where he is coming from — people tend to consider pedophiles to be the scum of the earth and I can’t imagine that anyone who isn’t one would want to feel as though he or she is being classed as one.

To clarify my own point, however, I don’t think that all older gentlemen who find joy in watching children play are pedophiles or weirdos. In fact, I generally welcome kind words from men (and women) young and old when they compliment or show benevolent interest in my children. It wasn’t my intention in yesterday’s post to suggest that I feel otherwise.

Still, “Cliff” has a point, which, though I don’t think he realized it, highlights the sort of internal conflict that I was trying to convey. I don’t want to stereotype people. I don’t want to think that all old men are untrustworthy and I don’t want my children to think that either.

But I am my children’s one and only mother and it is my job — my most vitally important job — to keep them safe. And I won’t apologize for the times when I become overly cautious because someone, man or woman, young or old, black, brown, or white, human or non-human, makes me feel uncomfortable.

From the other comments I have received, both here and on my Facebook page, I can see that most other parents feel as challenged as I do when it comes to developing both confidence and caution in our children. But I have also seen that, as these very wise people have pointed out, the most important thing is that we foster communication about these issues with our kids. There is no single path to follow. We will always be challenged with the task of keeping our kids safe. I’m 35, and I can tell that my own father has been worried about me ever since I posted about the shady contractor trying to take advantage of me and my husband. I suppose we won’t ever have all the answers, but, thanks to those of you who have shared your insights with me, I now understand two of the most important things we can do for our children: constant — and compassionate — vigilance paired with constant, and two-sided, communication.

 

* I copied his comment directly. You won’t find it with the other comments on my earlier post because he wrote it on my Contact Me page.

 

Secrets and Pedophiles

I got you with that title, didn’t I? It’s bold, but this post isn’t about making a statement; it’s more about asking questions.

Last Friday, I found myself in a situation that got me thinking, and wondering what other people would think  or do if they had been in similar circumstances. Here is what happened.

I took my daughters to a local playground that is situated right across from a lake. The view is beautiful and it always feels peaceful to me there, so I take my girls whenever I can.

My daughters were the only children on the playground, although there were several other adults sitting at the picnic tables between the playground and the water. One of those people was an older man with long, sort of shaggy white hair and a baseball hat shading his face. He sat with his back to the lake, facing the playground and he was watching my kids the whole time we were there.

At least, that’s what it seemed like to me. It felt odd that he was looking in the direction of the playground and the street behind it instead of at the much more attractive view of the water. And whenever I looked in his direction, his head seemed to be turned toward my children. I was picking up child molester vibes and my mommy genes kicked in. I instinctively began hovering around my girls far more than I usually do. I showed obvious and exaggerated affection. I found myself thinking — this guy is going to know that these girls are loved, and watched, and protected and there is no way any creepy old men are going to lure them away from this mama bear.

It was a hot afternoon and I already felt uncomfortable with the situation so we didn’t stay at the playground for long. We headed out to Trader Joe’s to pick up some summer essentials, like ice cream and tortilla chips, and as they usually do, the girls were attracting attention from other shoppers. (They can be very cute together when they aren’t being rotten to each other.) As lined up to check out, my younger daughter was playing peek-a-boo with an older couple behind us, and then they were both smiling and blushing for the teenage boy working at the register.

As the young gentleman was ringing up my groceries, I overheard him say to my three-year-old, “Don’t tell your mother. It will be our secret.” I saw him smile and I smiled and laughed back, assuming that I had just missed what he had said before that. But then, maybe because I already had a case of the creeps, I thought to myself — that is exactly the kind of thing pedophiles say to the children they are abusing. Don’t tell. It’s our special secret. So I stopped smiling.

Some of you reading this might be thinking, holy cow, is this woman off her meds? These are perfectly normal social interactions. The guy at the park probably wasn’t even looking at your kids. Or maybe he was someone’s grandfather, missing his own grandkids and feeling closer to them by watching other small children play. Who knows? The poor kid at the check out was just trying to make a joke. There’s nothing to be seen here; nothing at all to worry about.

I was thinking the same things as I was reflecting on the events of the day and my own internal reaction to them. But I still couldn’t silence that nagging voice in the back of my mind, the one that seems always to be echoing the words, “constant vigilance!” Vigilance of my surroundings, yes, but also vigilance over myself as I react to the things that I see as representing potential danger for my children.

I want to instill a healthy sense of security in my children, but I also need them to know that the world isn’t always a safe place. So basically, I guess what I am saying is that I want them to not be afraid, but also to be afraid. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? And I know that my own reactions to life are the model they are following.

Since I actually am on much-needed (and moderately effective) anti-anxiety medication, trusting myself and the way I perceive the world as it affects my children is difficult.  I don’t want to overreact, because I don’t want my children to become fearful, but I also don’t want to laugh off circumstances that could lead them into real danger. The question of how to strike that balance between healthy confidence and healthy wariness is a challenging one for me.

So if you are another parent reading this post, I must as you this:  How have you have been able to nurture both of these qualities in your children? Have you faced circumstances similar to mine — where you perceived danger in a situation that could have been (and probably was) perfectly innocent? And how did you react if you did? And for those of you with older children — have you managed to teach them how to discern a safe situation from an unsafe situation? How? What do you suggest parents of young children do to help them navigate a world that can be both so wonderful and so terribly frightening?

 

 

 

 

We Are All They Need

Today is Janurary 6, my mother’s day. It became “my” mother’s day 23 years ago when my own mother, after a nearly eight-year battle, lost her life to breast cancer and when I became aware of how vitally important a mother’s presence is in the lives of her children.

For many years, whenever January 6th arrived, I thought about my own losses. A first, I missed her with every nerve; I felt flayed and exposed to a host of things that were beyond my understanding. Gradually, my piercing grief was replaced by a longing that was no less intense, because it contained the realization that with each passing year I was separated even further from her.

But now that I have children of my own, when January 6th rolls around I find myself thinking less about my own losses and more about what my mother lost when she died.

She was so beautiful.

She was so beautiful.

Parenthood is a future-thinking endeavor. When we first breathe in the newness of our just-born child, we look forward, far forward, to decades of moments with that brand-new baby. Yes, we marvel at their smallness, their freshness, their perfection. We revel in the tiny yet immense gift we have been given. But we also envision what that baby will be like as a child, and as a teenager, and as an adult. We see them on birthdays, on holidays, at graduations and weddings. We see their children.

We plan to be with them until they are grown, and to experience life with them after they have reached their potential as adults. We don’t plan for our relationship with them to end when they are children.

When my mom died, she didn’t just lose her own life. She lost her life with her children. For her, my life and my brother’s life, intertwined as they were with her own, ended when we were eleven and six.

I can’t even imagine how painful it must have been for her, when she finally accepted that the end was near, to know that she was about to lose her future with us. That she would miss all of the moments of our lives, big and small, for the rest of our lives. That she would never know us as adults, or meet the people who would become important to us as we matured. That she would never, ever, hold a grandchild in her arms.

As her daughter, and as the mother of my own children, it breaks my heart to know that this face…

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…and this face

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…are wholly unknown to her.

When she knew that she was dying, she also had to know that she was letting go of a million moments with her children. That the past was all she would ever have with us. She must have experienced the kind of pain that pray I never have to face.

***

This is not going to turn into one of those “enjoy every moment with your child because you never know how many you have” posts. I could go there, but I’m not a hypocrite. I would wager large sums of money that, when my children are grown and gone, I absolutely will not be longing to re-experience the prickly-hot feeling of panic spiked with shame that comes over you when your five-year-old is publicly behaving like a spoiled toddler, while your toddler is running in circles like an untrained dog smelling distinctly of eau de poo. There are many moments that I won’t miss.

I’m not even saying that we moms (and dads!) should be doing anything differently. If anything, I am saying we should all do less, or at least that we should worry less about what we should be doing. Because if I have learned one thing after 23 years of being without my mother, I can tell you that what I missed, what I craved, was her. Her presence. The knowledge that the world contained her.

I didn’t need any extras. I didn’t need perfection. I would have preferred to have had her healthy, but to have had her at all was a blessing and, as I have learned, a luxury. To have had her, just as she was, was enough.

And if just having her was enough, then it follows that just having us, their parents, is enough for our own children. The fact that we are in their lives, that we are actively loving them, is enough. Our flaws and imperfections and mistakes do nothing to lessen the impact of our mere presence. Isn’t that a freeing thought?

What I am saying is that the sum of moments that we have with our children is probably the best thing that we, or they, will ever have. And that if we are able to look forward to a future of these moments, when we and they are all present together in this world, then we are damned lucky.

Existentialism for Toddlers

Trying to have a conversation with a two-year-old can be about as productive as having a conversation with a wall, assuming that the wall screams a lot and sometimes throws things at you and is often violently disappointed by life.

This week, my two-year-old has decided that nearly everything the universe has to offer is yucky. It’s not so much that she feels a general sense of yuckiness about the world around her. It’s more that she keeps requesting things from life, and then whatever it is that life hands her in response is a shattering letdown. (And by life, I really mean “her mother”.)

No! Not dis life mommy! Dis life YUCKY!!

No! Not dis life mommy! Dis life YUCKY!!

For example, yesterday we had this conversation:
Two-Year-Old: Mommy, I watch Max and Wooby on TV?
Me: Sure, sweetie, here you go.
TYO: NO! Not DAT Max and Wooby! Dat one YUCKY!

Then we had this conversation:
TYO: Mommy, I need apple pease.
Me: Sure, sweetie, here you go.
TYO: NO! Not DAT apple! Dat apple green! Dat YUCKY!

And then, at the end of the day, there was this one:
TYO: Mommy, hold you?
Me, feeling warm and fuzzy inside: Of course I will hold you!
TYO: NO! Not Mommy hold me! Daddy hold me! Mommy YUCKY!

(That one hurt)

But this morning, we had a breakthrough. She asked for bread for breakfast, and when I gave her toast with peanut butter, she didn’t scream, “NO! Dat YUCKY!”

Instead, she said, “NO! Dat bread gis-GUSTING!”

Oreos, however, are not yucky.

Oreos are not yucky.

See? We’re making progress!