Stop and squeeze the fingers

Zachary is in camp every morning, living it up with his peeps as they tie-dye shirts and holler “What time is it Mr. Fox?”  It starts so early that I leave the other two kids – still pajamaed and just sitting down to breakfast – with our au pair while I drive my eldest to UCLA’s campus.  He chatters in the car.  Pretty much incessantly.  About so much shit that, later in the day, I will find myself trying to multi-task: drive, carry on a conversation, and think about something I actually give a crap about at the same time.

Much as I hate to admit this in public, a good chunk of the time I just don’t care about what my kids have to tell me.  I know I am supposed to be enamored of every word that comes out of their mouths, provided it isn’t obnoxious, but good lord, my kids never shut up.

Zachary’s earnest chatter is charming, and first thing in the day I usually am interested in a good deal more of what he has to tell me than I am by evening time.  We have some serious conversations about why one shouldn’t put things in one’s ears and the way that Winnie the Witch got caught in a traffic jam because there were no stop lights in a book that his friend, James, owned back when we lived in England a year and a half ago.

He gets out of the van, still talking, as we arrive at camp, and I am relaxed as I take his hand in mine.  I am not feeling anything urgent, which sounds strange except for the fact that usually I am.  Usually I am hurrying or tense or frustrated or something intense.  So, the absence of that kind of stress is worthy noting as I walk my son to his camp group, easily carrying on a conversation with him.  I am not trying to mediate between warring parties or skin carrots or figure out how to fit their haircuts plus Benjamin’s requisite three-times-a-week swimming into our schedule.  I am just chatting with my kid as I walk him to camp.

Sometimes, I squeeze his hand.  A series quick squeezes, returned in the exact same pattern.  We’ve never talked about this game we play while holding hands – a call and response that amuses us both for our very refusal to acknowledge it.  Lately, Benjamin and I have begun this game, too, but neither boy knows that I do it with his brother.

Zachary is so easy to drop at camp or school.  There is no clinging, no crying.  He just sits down to the activity, eager to get going, after giving me a sweet little kiss.  I take comfort in this, hoping it is a sign that he is secure and I haven’t fucked him up too much yet by being a rolling ball of anxiety tied up with a bow of impatience.

Then I go home, trying to quietly sneak my purse in the door so I can go running before I need to take on one or both of the other children.  Already, I am testy if one of the kids sees me, screwing up the schedule because now they want my attention.

By 9:30, I am ready to take on the younger kids.  Some days, I have both, but I have arranged our au pair’s schedule so that Benjamin and I can have several mornings a week just for the two of us.  We go here or there – the science museum, a playdate at the beach.  As we get out of the car, we play a little game.  I squeeze his hand, a few quick times.  And he returns the pattern, giggling a little.  Neither boy knows I play this game with the other one, too.  If they find out, I’ll know you told them.

Ben is so enthusiastic about everything, even his anger.  Our mornings together are delightful as we jump in waves.  Yet, I find myself getting impatient as the morning wears towards lunchtime.  Three-year-olds, they repeat themselves a lot.  They ask the same question 79 times, just to see if the answer is going to be the same each time.  While it’s adorable to hear about the “big, BIG puppet” time and again, it’s less amusing to have to respond to “Mommy, why we got two Diego cups?” every twelve minutes for three days running.

And he gets bored so goddamned easily.  Now, don’t get me wrong, he’s actually quite self-sufficient about amusing himself.  But, unfortunately, what he calls “entertainment” is usually classified as “destruction of property” or “self-mutilation” by everyone else.  He needs to be doing something all the time, and if not provided with an activity that he likes but that the adults deem acceptable, he jumps off of things or dumps out things or breaks things.

Not to mention that he fucking whines all the time.

Which is all to say that only a portion of our special mornings together is actually any fun for me.  I want to be having these delightful adventures, filling his bottomless cup with the affection he never tires of.  Our trip to the puppet show was like that.  But, then, the next day, he is bursting into tears at every provocation and complaining all the time and I am testy and I wonder why the hell we are doing this.

I want so badly to believe that he needs to behave like this, to let off the steam in the time we are alone together.  I want to think that our time together is helping him in ways I just haven’t seen yet.  I want to convince myself I am helping them grow up happy and secure.

In truth, there is no fucking way to know whether we are good parents or bad parents.  We all lack perspective on what we do with our kids.  Are we yelling too much?  Being too lax?  Inconsistent?

And how much is too much?

So, I do what I can do, and I hope they will remember the wave-jumping and the patient conversations, not the frustration at 6:45 when I yell at them to stop interrupting me for a minute so I can get a sentence out because really, did you need to tell me right at this moment that earthquakes are strong?  At 8:15 A.M., I honor how, to them, the things they have to tell me are important.  When I am doing the dinner dishes and they are leaping off of furniture and the au pair is trying to catch them to brush their teeth, I snap and it must cut them to the quick.

By the time this goes to post, it’ll be another day, and there will be a whole new batch of patience waiting somewhere inside me.  But as I write this, late at night, I am numb.   And I’ll tell you something I find both frightening and shameful:

I’m so busy getting to the next part of the day, so busy making sure my kids are enjoying themselves, that I am having very little fun with them myself.  I just hope like hell that perhaps they don’t notice.

21 responses to “Stop and squeeze the fingers

  1. I used to fret endlessly about this until… well, I thought about how important I think it is that my children know I’m not perfect – that I do get impatient and tired and cross. It’s important that they don’t have some twisted vision of perfection that they themselves will never achieve. It’s important to know that they aren’t always the most vital thing in the world, that other people aren’t always fascinated with what they have to say, that sometimes someone won’t have the time (of course it’s just as important to know that the opposite is true now and then). It’s also important that they learn there are consequence for things – little ones as well as big ones.

    And it’s important for me to know that they know I love them, even when things aren’t perfect.

  2. Cheeky Monkey

    Emily, stop breaking my heart. You *are* a good enough mother, and I know this because you have just explained how you present you are. You are physically there, all the time, and you have rituals and you think your parenting through and you are trying so damned hard. And this is good, this is great. Even if you can’t always feel it.

  3. I think it is human nature to want to remember the good things and forget the bad. At least, that is what I tell myself when I’ve had a particularly bad day with Little Man. And kids are so freaking resilient, I’ve noticed that as long as I give a kiss and a hug after a punishment, all seems to be forgiven. Of course, Little Man is only 2, and I’m sure older children can hang onto a grudge, but it’s like I always tell my mom: I don’t remember the when she lost her cool, or was impatient with us. I remember the vacations, and dinners together, and the love. Your kids will too. Just like we won’t (or we’ll try not to) remember the whining, DEAR GOD the whining, or the pouting, we’ll remember the cuddles and the squishy baby and the love.

    Speaking of the whining, HOW DO I GET IT TO STOP?????

  4. What’s hard about whining, tears or complaints is that we take it as a sign that we’re doing something wrong, whether at that moment or in general. If we were good parents, our children wouldn’t whine, right?

    They’re whining because they don’t think things are perfect. Let them, it will pass. Now of course, you may still have to fight the urge to cover your ears- those small people can be so loud- but just remember that it’s not because you’re doing anything wrong.

  5. This post was SO accurate. Your descriptions of life with a three-year-old are dead on — I think I’ve already answered the question, “Why do I have to drink juice out of this cup, when my brother gets that cup” about 50 times today.

    Loved your game of hand squeezing. I’m going to try it.

  6. I mostly remember the good stuff from my own ordinary childhood. And I’m a child of divorce. I remember the times we decorated cookies or played games preferentially over the times I was in trouble. And I know there’s no way we decorated THAT many cookies.

    I cling to this, now, as a parent. That my every little screw-up won’t be remembered in detail, and won’t scar my kids for life.

  7. IMO, what you have here is an example of the best kind of mom blogging – honest, true, not whiny, not trying too hard to be cute.

    You’ve captured all of the love and ambivalence of spending your days with little ones. And you’re entirely correct about lacking perspective – it takes years. The fact that my son is reasonably functional and independent at 25 is as close to parental validation and I’ll probably ever get.

  8. Emily, it’s hard as an adult to have fun with little kids. Some people who are really into crafting can or people who have an unusually high dose of playfulness. But most normal adults really aren’t that into kids’ company. It’s healthy. It’s normal. You are a caring mom who recognizes your kids as individual people. Your intention is to cherish them and raise them well. It doesn’t matter if you’re not perfect. No human being is. What matters is that you value them and they know it. You don’t have to prove it. I once asked my younger child if she knew I loved her. She said of course why wouldn’t I? You never said you didn’t.

  9. I often feel like I am just trying to get through the day. I am sometimes thinking about the next activity rather than enjoying what I am doing. I hate that rushed, anxious feeling. I have to tell myself to stop and be present. Enjoy the moment. It is hard because young children can be so frustrating and I am often focusing on having things go smoothly rather than just enjoying it.

  10. Yeah, what they said. Also, to have great sparkly cartwheely fun playing with a three-year-old every day, you would have to have the I.Q. and emotional maturity of one, and that? would not be good. My own mother recounts with great hilarity the time she said ‘get out of this kitchen right now, I’m so mad I could kill you!” and I turned out normal and happy. Okay, maybe not so normal, but my relationship with my Mom is fine. And I think I’m a bit better at it than my mother was, and we all know your parenting kicks the ass of everyone who ever parented you, so you’re already ahead of the game. Which is not to say it isn’t hard and you’re not entitled to bitch periodically. And hey, where better?

  11. i was feeling very much like this yesterday, and realizing that part of why i was feeling so crabby and testy was because I was wanting to have a special after-the-first-day-of-school moment (tradition, now) with MQ, and everything was conspiring against it, and by the time we even got near it I was in a foul mood, and the moment never happened because it got stolen by my husband (which, ultimately, was OK, and totally fine by MQ and she didn’t miss a thing, but i was disappointed and I felt like i went right back into the rush rush and never enjoyed the moment. arg) And now i am rambing in the comments. obviously this touched a nerve.

  12. A good trick is talking to your kids about something you’re actually interested in. It’s sneaky, but it helps keep your sanity. My four year old daughter and I discuss Teen Titans and who is stronger, Batman or Superman. OK, maybe I’m not really making a good point here…

  13. I definitely know what you mean about working so hard to get through the day and make sure the kids are having fun, that you don’t have time to have fun yourself. Its especially hard when you have multiple kids at once with you, because then you’re basically putting out fires and coralling kids in. I know I feel like I snap at them (especially Little Bear) too much, because I’m just trying to hold everything together. I wish there was a way to slow down and enjoy life with them more!

  14. I don’t think children or mothers have ever changed. Try reading The Woman’s Room by Marilyn French if you want some descriptions of ordinary mothering that make what we do in this era look like sainthood. (But that’s abig book and you don’t have so much time – dip in and out). Mothering, especially the early years, is bloody hard work. My son still has a phobia about cleaning his teeth (it’s the only thing he absolutely has to do that he really doesn’t want to do, apart from go to school, hence the battles) and I still end up getting cross and frustrated at quarter past eleven because I want to go to bed and not have to listen to any more whining. And I still worry that I scar him for life because I don’t show enough patience. But no one ever emerged into the world a perfect young adult, and I just can’t do or be anything different. You have to figure that if you feed, house, nurture and love your children, and you don’t abuse them or refuse to take responsibility for bad behaviour, then actually, you’re doing fine.

  15. Ack. The whining. The whining. My cousin’s daughter only talks in whine and it rubbed off on Yago after a visit. I couldn’t stand it. I mimicked him to let him know how it sounds and didn’t repond to any requests until the whine went away. (I pretended not to understand “whine.”) It went away, but it still comes and goes. I have plenty of whine left to come as we approach 3.

    As they say in Spain, “animo” Emily. Chin up! Your kids are lucky to have you. I wish I yelled less, listened more. Have already said no more times than I can count and it’s not even 9. It’s all about survival afterall.

  16. I often felt like that when my two daughters were babies/toddlers/preschoolers, etc. And we won’t talk about the teenage years, although my journey through those was nowhere near as bad as many moms that I know. And now my daughters are 20-something college graduates. Where did the time go? It is very, very hard when you don’t get time to yourself but it does get better. Keep doing what you are doing. Your kids will remember the ambiance of your home and not the days you were too tired to listen to their ongoing monologues. And you will find new and interesting things to do with your writing that you haven’t dreamed of yet.

  17. No way to know the long term results. I guess err on the side of affection and tolerance when it seems undeserved. Even people who are agnostic still need faith. You choose what you have faith in for people and you use it as parents. And that is stupidly difficult.

  18. P.S. I bet they don’t remember the incessant whining or questions or roll of the eyes but instead just remember the “squeeze my finger” game. Be glad for selective memory.

  19. Oh I have these days, these weeks…sometimes it feels like years.

    And we worry about everything and doing the “right” thing so we don’t mess up our kids. But, the fact that we worry and we care, has to mean something. Because I see a lot of parents that don’t seem to care, they just do what they want.

    Oh, and when you go through UCLA, say hi to my dad, will you. He works over there (but, actually he is here right now, so wait a few weeks :))

  20. Me too.

    I recently heard this about parenting – aim for 70% each day. Most days you will hit 50%. Even on the days you only hit 10%, you have made a positive difference in the life of a child.

  21. It gets easier, they get easier as they get older. I was where you are a few years ago and thought I was just screwing up this mothering gig big time. Now? Eh, they still talk endlessly about nonsense, but they also have become so fun. It’s so much easier to enjoy the time spent with them, because they aren’t so needy and destructive all of the time.

    You are trying to spend time with each of them and that is what is important. You are obviously a good mother. They are very little and it’s time that matters. The rest will come.