Have Kids, Will Travel

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I do a lot of traveling with the kids. I suppose it’s a function of having my heart in two places, of straddling the country to make my family feel whole. So here we are in Ontario again, and this time I made the cross-country trip alone with the kids. It was my first time traveling alone with all three, and it went way better than I expected; even though I generally dislike the upset of travel, once we’re through security I tend to take a “que sera, sera” approach. Flight delayed? Oh well, not much I can do. Kids walking at a snail’s pace? People can go around. I wish I was better at applying this to the rest of my life. There’s something about being trapped in an airport that invites surrender, at least it does for me.

Something that really struck me on this trip, and maybe it’s because I was the crazy lady traveling alone with three small children, is the way parents look out for other parents in this situation more than in any other. On our flight from Whitehorse to Vancouver, a woman pacing the aisle trying to settle her baby stopped to offer her husband’s help to me if I needed it. In the Vancouver airport, when all three kids fell asleep just 20 minutes before boarding our (delayed) 11pm flight (can’t blame them) a business woman traveling alone offered to help me any way she could. It’s my way to turn down help at every chance, of course, because people obviously don’t actually want to help (haha) but I literally could not get all three sleeping children onto the plane alone. So she wheeled Aedan in the umbrella stroller while I carried the other two, and then when we had to check the stroller, she carried Aedan to our seat. As we wove our way together down the narrow aisle, she told me that her youngest two were twins, so she understood what it was to have too few hands for a task. I thanked her and she disappeared into business class. As I sat between my sleeping boys, Charlotte asleep in my lap, a man stopped by our row. “How are yours? My kids are still awake! It’s so late! Where’s the Ativan when you need it?” We laughed together and I wished him luck. At every stop, it seemed there was a sympathetic parent ready to help. It warmed my heart, and I know that if I’m every a business lady traveling alone, I’ll go out of my way to help any and every frazzled, struggling parent I can.

Parenting littles is hard. Traveling with them is harder. Let’s look out for each other!

Image via Flickr user Yuichi Yasuda

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It Ain’t Easy

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It’s still dark when we set out to romp n’ run. I push Charlotte, bundled in the stroller, behind her brothers, bumbling down the snow covered dirt road, through yellow blots of streetlight. The wind is cold and in our faces, but we’re not far from the school. I can see the lights on and soon we’re inside. I get the kids out of their gear and together they cautiously enter the gym, where the playgroup facilitator, Sue, has set up the room for the preschoolers. On one side are balls large and small, Plasma cars and push toys for the toddlers. On the other side there are fabric tunnels and tents set up, big foam blocks for climbing and jumping, tumble mats and boxes of toys. We’re the first family to arrive.

I sit down next to Sue as the kids begin to play: they take advantage of the space and range around the entire room, touching a bit of everything. Sue and I chat about putting Aedan in kindergarten. I’m wary, because these playgroups often end with me near tears, dragging my rambunctious kids out early. So far, though, so good.

The first parents and their little ones begin to arrive. I try to be aware of the huge amount of space my oldest commands: he’s loud and boisterous and he throws the big balls after Colm, who pushes himself around the room on a plastic car. Repeatedly, I caution Aedan to stop trying to hit his brother. Roll the ball. Let’s play catch with a smaller ball. Stop. Please stop. Don’t do that. Over and over until I feel absolutely ridiculous. I’m acutely aware of the other parents and daycare workers in the room, who are likely not watching and judging my every move but it certainly feels like that anyway.

I’ve barely put out one fire before my boys have run to the other side of the room. They are ripping apart the plastic tunnel structure even as kids are trying to crawl through. A mom is trying to talk to me: it’s useless, I can’t hold down a conversation. She smiles apologetically and hurries away. The boys throw themselves on top of the tents set up: they collapse them. I feel frantic but I try to look calm, disinterested even, as I reassemble the tunnels and tents. And then again. And again one more time. I’m fraying. I issue a threat. We’ll leave if you can’t listen to me. I hate this particular threat because he’ll never learn to be with other kids if we leave every time it gets hard. And it punishes the other two. Aedan hardly looks at me as he tears off again.

He throws balls as hard as he can. He launches hula hoops like weapons. Maybe it’s the fluorescent lights that blare overhead, or the sounds of the kids voices that echo in the big room. Maybe it’s the other parents, sitting along the wall chatting and drinking coffee and tea out of travel mugs while their preschoolers placidly ride the cars or crawl through the tunnels I’ve reconstructed five times. Maybe it’s my own inner critic who never fucking shuts up, but I feel flayed wide open, on display. And even though other parents tell me: “Oh, they all go through this,” I don’t recall seeing another child quite like my oldest at any of these playgroups.

For the third time, Aedan takes a train track from one side of the room, dashes over to where the other kids are riding the little cars, and hurls it. Thankfully he doesn’t hit anyone. I take his hand and say as calmly as I can “We’re leaving now.” He doesn’t protest too much. Colm bursts into tears as I herd all three of them out. Sue calls a goodbye and I can barely get mine out.

Monster! I think, unkind both to my kid and myself. I try to replace it with something a little nicer, a little closer to the truth: High energy. Playful.  I try not to diagnose. I feel totally defeated (it’s a common feeling for me, in parenting) as I get us all dressed again.

Out in the street, the sun is finally up, though it’s another grey day. The little boy who, minutes ago, couldn’t be contained, and seemed on a mission to hurt someone, looks up at me, his toque pulled low over his forehead, and says in his little boy voice: “I love you, Mama!”

My heart explodes for the millionth time this morning. I pick up the pieces, again, smile a tired smile down at him. “I love you, too, buddy.”

Image via Flickr user Kevin Dooley

Self-Care and Mom Guilt

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Yesterday afternoon, I was texting with a mom friend who was feeling lonely and overwhelmed at home with her two little ones. I asked her if she could get a break today. She replied that it didn’t look possible; that she’d been to the gym a few days earlier so she shouldn’t be complaining, anyway.

Shortly after that, I saw an opportunity to go out for a run and I took it. And the day before, I’d been to a yoga class. And the day before that, I’d been for a run, too. I didn’t tell my mom friend that I was going for a run the day after I’d been to a yoga class, though. Instead, I texted a vague “gotta go, love you!”, threw on my sneakers and dashed out the door. As I ran, I thought about self-care and the seemingly endless guilt we mothers feel about it.

I know exactly how my friend was feeling: like we only deserve so much. Like asking for more, even a significant break on a daily basis, is selfish, is asking too much. So many times in my journey to better self-care, I’ve told myself I’ve already had enough for that day or that week. That asking for this one more thing is just too much. I wonder, do fathers struggle with this? When they decide to go to the gym or a drive or have a night out with friends, do they carefully weigh how many hours they’ve already had to themselves this week? Why do we, as mothers and, let’s face it, primary caregivers, feel like there is a limit to how much time we can give ourselves in a day or a week?

Guilt waits at every turn for me. I feel like we’re nearing a decision on whether or not to send Aedan to kindergarten. It’s something I began to write about here a few months ago, in a post about homeschooling as a writer. I am leaning heavily towards sending him to kindergarten, and his brother and sister after him, but oh my, is it wracked with extreme feelings of guilt and failure. This morning, I reached out to the doula I had when Aedan was born: I recalled her talking about homeschooling, five years ago, and I also remembered that recently she’d announced on Facebook that she was getting ready to self-publish a book. I wondered if she’d homeschooled and found a way to balance that with her writing. She wrote back that in the end, she sent them to school. She reminded me that in tribal cultures, there are 4 adults to each 1 child. She told me that school is a part of her tribe that helps her to raise her kids. I had never thought of school in those terms before, but those words felt so right, so affirming to me. They felt like permission to drop my guilt.

We are not meant to parent alone, but we do, so much of the time. It’s so lovely to think of our “tribe” as being made up of aunts and uncles, grandparents, older siblings and cousins, friends and elders who can all play a part in raising our kids, in caring for each other, in household work. But it’s just not our reality. Our tribe can also be made up of teachers, daycare workers, free childcare at the gym, or the teen down the street who hangs out with your kids for an hour on the weekend so you can go out alone. There should be no shame in pulling together the resources we have available so that we can fill ourselves to overflowing and be more present for ourselves and our families.

I’m going to try and stop keeping track of how much time I’ve spent on self-care. I’m going to try and stop thinking of it as too much, and instead think of it as always just enough of what I need to function. In these intensive years of parenting little ones, we do need breaks every day. And I realize it’s not possible a lot of the time. But we shouldn’t feel guilty for the wanting. We shouldn’t feel like we’re complaining or like we’re not enough because we’re struggling to do something we were never meant to do alone in the first place.

Permission to Have a Bad Day

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Yesterday was one of those days where I woke up exhausted. I muddled through breakfast and my first cup of tea. I lay down in what passes for the kids’ playroom and watched them play, trying to stay awake. I had my second cup of tea, the sun still not even close to being up in the sky. I felt low, in general. My negative self-talk was a grumble in the background. You should be doing more. You should get the kids out. You should put pants on. What kind of mother are you? Get up. Get up. Get up! On top of that, I was feeling anxious about Halloween (how am I going to get through trick or treating when I’m already so tired? I don’t want to do small-talk in the street!) I was also feeling distress at the state of the world and my place within it.

I struggled with this as I drank my second cup, and then I told my chattering mind to just hush. I stopped following those anxious thoughts and just let myself rest. I gave myself permission to just have a bad day. Though that’s not quite right, either. I gave myself permission to be feeling low right then. No promises or expectations for the rest of the day. And so that’s what I did. I spent the morning watching the ebb and flow of the kids at play, reading books when asked, redirecting when things got too rough, dozing when things were calm. Charlotte went down for an early nap as the sun came up at 10 (10!), I wrote a blog post, and then P came home from work.

Lately, I’m big on doing, as Glennon Melton calls it, “the next precise thing.” And what I wanted at precisely that time was a shower. Not even to wash: just to stand in the hot spray, the close humidity of it, the absence of little hands tugging at me. And that was just enough of a reset for me to get dressed, get the kids dressed, and go for a walk along the river after we ate lunch.

All in all, it wasn’t a stellar day, though our friends did pop over for tricks and treats, so that when Colm fell asleep at 5 and actual trick or treating didn’t happen, nobody was sad about it. I went to bed early, too. The thought crossed my mind more than once that maybe I need to get antidepressants. But today dawned differently. Even though it started at 4:30 for me and Colm, I don’t feel nearly as exhausted as I did yesterday; I’m already dressed, we made muffins, we walked to the store and back.

Part of my recovery from PPD, and from a lifetime of bouts of depression, has been learning that just because I have one bad day, or two bad days, doesn’t mean I’m doomed. It doesn’t mean I’m failing, it doesn’t mean I’m going back “down” again. Sometimes, we just have a shitty day. We’re tired, our energy is low. It’s winter and sunrise is 10 a.m. Giving myself permission to feel that way yesterday was an act of self-love and self-care. Staying present with whatever feelings arise, without making sweeping statements about what they might mean for tomorrow or even five minutes from now, is what’s getting me through each day.

Today, I hope you’ll give yourself permission to feel your feelings, whether they’re high or low or just neutral, without making any judgements. Love yourself as you’d love your best friend.

Image via Flickr user Asja Boros

Reset

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Powerless. That’s the word that I held in my mind as today started. Powerless as Aedan revs up, pulling the cushions off the couch before I’d gotten halfway through my first cup of tea. Powerless, as he dumps the box of Duplo on the floor and runs away laughing. Powerless, as he throws pillows across the room. Powerless.

It’s not a very positive mantra, and I let it do its work on me.

“Don’t throw your toys in the house,” and a block sails past my head.

“Stop bugging your brother,” and he tackles him on the couch.

“Leave your sister alone,” and he grabs her face and kisses her as she cries.

Can you see where this is going? I’d like to say I was Calm, Cool, Collected Mama. But when your mantra is “powerless,” you start to really believe it. To really feel it in your bones. I was still holding on to a thread of self-control. He wouldn’t stop. It’s like he wants to hurt people. That’s a a script I need to rewrite, though. He couldn’t stop, because his brain is still developing, because the connections haven’t been made between his lizard brain (dragon brain might be more appropriate for this kid) and his centers of impulse control. He doesn’t want to hurt people. It’s just all he knows right now. He’s fumbling in the dark, and I need to guide him.

So I sit down with him, hold him facing away from me, hold his hands so he can’t hit me, and I tell him we would sit there until he felt calm and ready to treat other bodies with respect.

“Idiot! You’re an idiot, Mom!” I feel that last thread slipping out of my grasp. He swings his head back, hard, and butts me in the chest. I know he feels trapped. I let him go, step away, but not before he turns and kicks me in the face, knocking my glasses askew.

I think he can’t handle all the big feelings in his head, the stress he must be feeling over the move, the winter outhouse, the faraway family. I think when he’s hurting, he tries to make everyone else hurt, too. I know it, because it’s what I did next. That little thread of self-control slipped through my fingers and I lost it.

I push him away from me. He picks up a book and hurls it at me. I grab his shoulders, yelling. Propel him into the kitchen, plunk him on a chair, tell him to stay there until he could be more respectful. I half expect him to grab the bowl off the table and throw that at me, too. I’ve never understood how kids can be put in a time out and just stay there. But he does.

“Idiot!” he throws at me. I throw it right back.

Crying now, he screams: “I want you to go away and never come back!”

“I’d love to!” I respond. “I’d love to just get in the truck alone and drive and keep driving until I’m far away from you!” Now we’re both crying. The fog of anger is lifting, replaced by deep shame. I’m supposed to be the adult. My sweet middle child, Colm, wanders over and informs us that we are having a fight. Yes, we are, baby. Thank you.

The oven timer beeps (did I mention we somehow managed to get muffins made before shit hit the fan?) Aedan sniffles, asks if he can have a muffin. I tell him they need to cool down. I tell him we all need to cool down. Charlotte is toddling over with a book. “Read? Read?” I sit down with her, but I can’t read because I’m crying. Aedan is crying. Colm is confused because I’m crying. I put the book down, I put the baby down. I go to Aedan, and ask him if I can give him a hug. He nods and collapses into my lap.

We hug each other tight, and I tell him I’m sorry. That I lost my temper. Why? he wants to know. I think, because I told myself I was powerless. And I hate feeling powerless.  Instead, I tell him that he hurt me, so I tried to hurt him back. I remind him that he does that sometimes, too. I tell him I will do better; we both need to do better. We hug a few minutes more, and then we all eat warm chocolate banana muffins.

If not daily, then at least a few times a week, I feel certain that I have fucked this up beyond repair. I feel certain that I should not be in charge of these children. Surely, there is someone more qualified than me. But this is it. They’re dependent on me. Aedan is me, basically. Maybe that’s why I feel so powerless against him. Because it reminds me of how powerless I sometimes am to my own faults.

I need to let go of this desire to control everything. But what the hell am I supposed to do on the days where they just won’t listen? I try to change things up, get us outside or otherwise distract them from destruction, but sometimes it’s just not possible. Sometimes I’m too tired, things move too quickly, they refuse to be distracted. Sometimes it feels inevitable that I’m going to snap.  That’s the same as telling myself I’m powerless though, right? And we’ve seen how that turns out. Maybe it’s not inevitable. I keep writing about staying present, being mindful. That’s my key, I think. It’s just really fucking hard, in practice.

I’ll reset my mantra for today, I’ll pick a new word. Connect. With myself. With my kids. With the present moment.

 

Image via Flickr user Dino Giordano