Life, Parenting

Foam or Fury?

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In my neck of the woods, we parents of school-age kids have just suffered through enjoyed Spring Break.  I’ve therefore been out in public more with my brood and had the opportunity to observe others who are similarly emerging from their winter hibernation with their offspring.

In doing so, I’ve noticed that there is a spectrum in terms of the input we offer our kids, and this spectrum could be compared to the earth’s layers – strata ranging from the foamy bubbles atop a pond way down to the boiling lava in our planet’s core…

On the top layer, we have what I’d call the ‘bubble parents’.  These are the ones on the sidelines watching their kids budge ahead in the science centre queue, saying ineffectual things like, “Oh, Rosie – there was a lineup!” while taking no action whatsoever.  The ones allowing their kids to hit them to get their attention without any instruction on how to do better. The ones whose kids’ demands dictate their every move. This is very much the lightweight approach to parenting; fluffy and fun with no firmness or gravity or depth.  Discipline and guidance are pretty much non-existent and misbehaviour doesn’t seem to bother them.  They don’t offer reminders for their kids to use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ or other thoughtful words. The classic line from these parents is, “Oh, boys will be boys!” as their boys are hitting and yelling, destroying property and disrupting the play of others.  Their classic move is the shrug.

Way on the other end of the spectrum are the ‘lava parents’; these guys are the complete opposite to ‘bubble’ parents because for them everything matters, and it matters a lot.  In fact, most of their kids’ behaviour seems intolerable to them.  The classic reaction of these parents is to blow up and overreact; they dish out big consequences for even the most trivial of misdemeanors.  The classic move is the eye-roll-exasperated-sigh combo (often with a complementary crossed-arm-fold thrown in for good measure).

These parental temperaments/behaviours are not the exception for true ‘bubble’ parents and their ‘lava’ counterparts; they are the norm.  While you or I might occasionally exhibit something like a ‘bubble’ shrug or ignore some behaviour in order to ensure that we’re not ‘sweating the small stuff’, this is not considered, intentional behaviour for real bubble parents – it is their default, and it is often borne of ignorance about the necessity of teaching and modeling responsible behaviour and consideration for others.  Similarly, lava parents default to the kind of angry outbursts you or I would be embarrassed about and remorseful over.  They simmer with resentment and rage and behave as if their kids are devoid of charm or worth.

I’d say that most of us fall in layers somewhere in between these extremes.  And I believe that there’s plenty of room for different parenting styles.  Earthy parents, gritty parents, rocky parents (oh, to be so cool!), even flaky parents – we’re all different and we all have reasons for why we parent the way we do; some of those reasons (and the resulting actions) are good and some of them are bad.  I yell too much – and I’d definitely be further along on the spectrum towards ‘lava’ parenting – but I will continue to take great pains to avoid allowing this kind of overreaction and anger to my boys’ behaviour to be my standard response*.

All I’m saying is, if we find that our parenting default setting has become I just couldn’t be bothered or everything my kids do bugs me, then perhaps some action is in order.

Maybe if our default is either foam or fury, we should do some digging – and find some middle ground.

 

 

 

 

*As I’ve admitted, I do yell too much.  So I’ve been doing some digging…  I have decided to take the Orange Rhino challenge and work towards a more peaceful approach.  Recently, at a Mums’ group, I admitted that I’d never allow Westley to speak to me the way I sometimes speak to my kids; so the logical conclusion to that is that I should not be speaking to my kids in a way that isn’t equally respectful and honouring to them.

If you’re struggling with the same thing, why don’t you join me on the challenge, and we can keep one another accountable?

I’m starting with a ten day goal, to be extended as I get better at it!

Thanks for reading,

-Trix.

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Faith, Life, Motherhood, Philosophy

Giving Birth In A Tree

photo by Gilly Walker (flickr)

The year was 2004, and I was pregnant with our first child.  After a year of travelling, West and I were finally ‘settled’ in a rental flat in a pleasant Auckland suburb.

For most of the previous year I had been relentlessly clucky and spent a good deal of our enviable free-roaming time in Europe wanting to fast-forward to the next phase of life; I spent hours (I wasn’t working) doing fertility/pregnancy/childbirth/parenting research on the internet.  Even before I was pregnant I had the whole nursery planned out – and I already knew the kind of natural pregnancy and low-intervention childbirth I was aiming for.

So it was with great delight and some relief that we discovered that I was pregnant – except that, anticipating it taking us the 3-6 months it takes an ‘average couple’ to conceive, we’d just signed a one-year lease on a flat that was not suitable for children.

We spent the first two trimesters of my pregnancy in that little ground-floor suite, and for the most part they were happy months; in spite of endless morning sickness, recurrent dizzy spells, and relentless fatigue, it was a time of joyful anticipation.  During that period we chose and purchased our nursery furniture, baby clothes, and buggy.  We hosted a baby shower for my younger sister-in-law (two of West’s sisters were also expecting that year), and we were spoiled with a baby shower for me during a visit to Canada as well as another one with my Auckland family and friends.  I joined an online forum for ‘Mums-to-Be’ and made some wonderful connections with other pregnant ladies, some of whom ended up becoming real-life friends.  It was a truly special time.

But there was something that was not as I’d imagined it would be.  There was something that wasn’t in the plan.

As I’ve mentioned, we were renting – and this little place, with neighbours living above us and a single bedroom in our own suite, was not going to accommodate a baby.  We would have been willing to do so, but under our contract we were required to be ‘child-free’.  Our landlord wasn’t happy at our having to break the lease, either, so he wouldn’t release us from the contract until close to the end of the calendar year.  Thus it was that we found ourselves searching for new digs as I grew heavier and heavier; we eventually moved about a week before Christmas, when I was 36 weeks pregnant.

All that nesting I’d anticipated – all that cocooning that I craved – was, frustratingly, not happening during that time before the move.  And even afterwards, there were limits (due to timing and location) to what I was able to do.

As I sat in that first little Auckland flat, I had lots of time to feel sorry for myself.  I had lots of time to grieve the injustice of being denied these special rites of motherhood; preparing a nursery, becoming a family in our own little home, feeling a sense of permanence as we nurtured a little garden to grow alongside our babies…

I probably would have continued on this trajectory of self-pity if it weren’t for a couple of moments of enlightenment that merged to create a small epiphany for me during those last few months in our first place.

For one thing, I was doing a study of Philippians.  The apostle Paul (formerly Saul) was imprisoned during the time that he wrote this letter to the church in Philippi, and it really is a worthwhile read.  Paul was languishing in prison, with no expectation of release, when he wrote these words:

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

(Philippians 4:11b-13)

These words really struck me.  Phil. 4:13 (I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me) has been a favourite verse of mine since my high school days; but now the verse preceding it was etching itself into my heart.

Around the same time, I became aware of an event that had taken place a few years earlier in which a pregnant woman, during the floods in Mozambique, climbed a tree to escape the flood waters and ended up giving birth in the tree.  That’s right – she gave birth in a tree

To me these two seemingly unrelated narratives formed a single clear message:

Be content.

How shallow it would be to continue to rage and rail about the injustices I was suffering – when this poor woman had brought her child into this world in such precarious circumstances!  She had clung to life as her home washed away.  My conscience was pricked: all my petty grievances seemed utterly frivolous in light of her story.

And Paul – what a lesson.  To be content in all circumstances?  That takes practice.  That takes discipline.  That takes wisdom.

Be content.

So I let go of it.  I released my disappointment and focused on all the goodness I’d received.  And the blessing was in the contentment I felt throughout the rest of the search for an acceptable rental, our shift to a less-desirable suburb, and a hurried preparation for our baby’s arrival.  Contentment, even, when I went ten days past my due date with lots of preparatory contractions interrupting my nighttime rest (I didn’t say I was happy, but I was generally content).

I’m still learning to be content ‘in all circumstances’.  I still fall into melancholy phases when I allow what I want to overshadow what I have.  I still pine for a place of my own.  But by now contentment is pretty much my default setting – and that, in itself, is a blessing.

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Motherhood, Parenting, Philosophy, Relationships

Just A Drip Under Pressure

photo by Geoffrey Gilmour-Taylor

photo by Geoffrey Gilmour-Taylor, through flickr.com

Having four kids – especially four boys – gives me a fair bit of street cred with other parents on the playground.

I can see people scanning my little group.  Noting.  Counting.  And then they make eye contact with me:

“Wow – they’re all yours?”

“All BOYS?”

“So wait – you’ve got FOUR BOYS?”

“What’s the age gap?”

… and so forth.

And then comes the inevitable,

“You must be BUSY!”

or

“Wow – that must be so hard!”

Usually followed by,

“I can barely manage one/two/three!” [as applicable]

Sure, it’s nice getting respect for having bred.  I mean, I’ll take some kudos for actually having popped them out the old-fashioned way and working hard to nurse them.  But mainly people are just impressed because we have so many kids.  Around here, one or two is the norm; three is a large family, and four is (judging by the looks and comments) right up there with 19 Kids and Counting.

A little honesty is in order here – there’s a subtle self-deprecation in these comments other parents make to me, and I can’t just let them go on appearances (classic over-sharer, right here).

And so I answer them, with complete honesty.

I could barely manage when I had one.  One was busy.  One was hard.

Two under three?  Been there, done that – got the spit-up stained T-shirt… Two was busy.  Two was HARD.

Three?  Yeah.  Sing it, sista/brotha.  Hard.  Busy.  I could barely manage.

And four?  Yep, same story.  Having kids is, by nature, busy.  It is, if you are doing it right, hard.  It requires things of you that have never been required of you before.  SO often (especially in those exhausting, amazing early years), you’re just barely managing.

I find it’s especially the harried, depleted mothers of two little ones who look on me with something bordering on reverence.  There I stand before them, freshly showered (they can tell, ‘cause my hair’s still wet…) and wearing matching shoes.  To them I appear to be a veritable paragon of togetherness; while their preschooler is pinching another kid in the sandbox and their toddler is feeding himself handfuls of bark mulch, at this particular moment, all of my boys are being good and safe.  My older two are walking on either side of my baby and my kindergartener is entertaining himself on the slide… This stage I’m in looks so idyllic, and so unattainable to a Mamma like this, who regards the scene with bloodshot eyes (which have to keep darting from one child to another to make sure she’s still got them both close at hand) and an undisguised tinge of envy.  She wonders at how it could ever get so easy, for her.

So I tell these Mammas, too, the truth of it:

It gets easier.  And in the ways that it doesn’t get easier, it gets different.

And I also tell them, as often as I can, that they’re doing so well.  They are.  I look at them, and I wonder at how they seem to have it all together.  There they are, with their two little ones whom they could just as easily have kept at home, and they’re out there providing them with fresh air and wide spaces.  As they sit there and nurse their babies while they keep an eye on a toddler by the swings, they really look like they’re rocking this motherhood thing.  I wish I could have managed so well when I was at that stageI was always struggling, and everything always seemed like such.hard.work…

When I was at their stage, I used to look up to Mammas like me, too – Mammas who had been in the trenches a while longer than I had – and I used to imagine that they knew all the answers.  I figured that they were experts, at least compared to me.

Of course, it’s not always a like a meeting of the Mutual-Admiration Society when I’m out in public with my boys.  There are also sometimes negative comments:

“Oh, you POOR THING!  All boys!”

“You must wish you had at least one girl!”

“Did you cry when the last one turned out to be another boy?”

Weirdly, cruelly, so often said within earshot of my beloved sons.

But foolish people provide an excellent opportunity to practice grace.  In fact, my Dad gave me a great reply once when I was fretting over having to give a presentation in a tutorial; I’d told him about the superior and challenging manner in which some of my classmates seemed to interrogate presenters.  He said, “You should tell them, ‘Well, I always say there’s no such thing as a stupid question – so let me try to address that for you…’”  I didn’t end up having to use it, but it gave me something to smile about as I faced my peers later that day.

So when people say these silly things, I tamp down my anger and frustration and force a smile as I reply (again, truthfully),

“You know, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s busy, it’s noisy, and there are a lot of them.  But I am SO BLESSED.  These guys are great boys.”

Sometimes I add more, too, about what great friends they are and how well they care for the little guy; how they help me with things and how they’re learning how to behave like gentlemen.  I don’t say this defensively, but conversationally – because I really want these people to hear what I’m saying.  And I always hope that my boys hear what I’m saying, too.

But mostly I get positive comments and generous feedback – because people cut you a whole LOT of slack when you’ve got more kids than hands.

I especially love it how other parents will watch me racing around after a disobedient child (while also shouting behind me at another one to “Getbackintotimeout!” and reminding another not to step in the puddles with his regular shoes and breathlessly reassuring the littlest, “Berightback!”) and then just nod knowingly to each other – She’s got four boys.

I can be wading frantically through mud to talk a kid down from a too-high perch (while simultaneously berating him for not listening in the first place), abandoning my post with the (saner) mothers to leap across the playground and admonish the son brandishing a stick, scrambling to get to the baby when he has decided to practice his ladder-climbing with nobody around to spot him; it pretty much doesn’t matter how I humiliate myself – those parents just chuckle and agree, “She’s just doing what it takes.  *I* could never manage four boys.  I take my hat off to her.”

Somehow, it would appear, I am now seen as something of an expert; and as such, I am granted some respect.  I am forgiven for having a messy house, for not planning Pinterest-worthy craft sessions, for yelling too much, and for plenty of other failings – simply because I have a bunch of kids.  I need no further excuse for my shortcomings and I am generously deemed a ‘good’ mother in spite of great evidence to the contrary.

But what is an expert, really?

My hubby has always joked that the true definition of an expert is this:

x = the unknown quantity & spurt = ‘a drip under pressure’

And that’s all I am – a drip under pressure.

Yes, I have the benefit of time; it has been a few years since I was mothering two-under-three as a newbie parent – and so I have been able to improve in some areas with my second two.

Yes, I have the benefit of some experience; I’ve now been parenting for nine years. Whew!

Yes, I have the benefit of four kids to better understand sibling rivalry, the dynamics of differing personalities in a family, and how to enhance our bond with one another.

But I’m also still working things out.  I’m still adjusting, and growing, and failing.

It’s hard.  It’s busy.  Sometimes I can barely manage.

We all need a place to face our fears and our failings as mothers, and yet walk away encouraged in the knowledge that what we are doing is good and necessary.  Why can’t the playground be that place?  Why can’t church?  Why can’t the coffee shop?

Why don’t we just get real with each other.  I would hope that all those parents who give me admiring glances would extend the same grace to themselves; chances are, if they were to look honestly in the mirror, they’d see that they were doing a far better job than they think.  In fact, if we all just looked at the things we are doing right (without succumbing to complacency), we’d probably have a much more accurate perspective on how we’re doing as parents overall.

So let’s all just agree on this, shall we?  Nobody’s an expert at this parenting gig.  You may know better, but not do better.  I may have made a mistake in the past and then repeat it in the future.  You will do well at one thing and I’ll do well at another. But never, ever, undervalue what it is that you do in the face of what someone else appears to be doing.  If you feel that pang of wanting to parent better, to be more patient and more loving and more creative and more fun, then the chances are that you’re already doing pretty well.  And there’s always room for improvement – always.

I know that a lot of you who read my blog know me in real life – so you are under no delusions about me being a perfect parent.  You’ve seen me mortified when my kids have said something inappropriate.  You’ve seen me sweat it out trying to keep them under control in a pew – or even trying to get them into the pew on time (just once would be nice!)… You’ve heard me share my heart about all the mistakes I make on a daily basis, and how I fear that these failures of mine will haunt me when my boys grow up to be thugs.

I know that you know me to be a truly imperfect parent and – when all is said and done – just a novice, like everyone else.

So if you see someone shooting an admiring glance at me as I troop past with my brood, do me a favour, will you?  Just give them a gentle nudge and remind them:

She’s an expert, you think?  Well, you know what they say:

An expert is just a drip under pressure!

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