Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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Give Us this Day our Daily Marshmallows

It was like quicksand.  The more I tried to pull her out, the more I was pulled under.

There was no tragedy, just the end of another very long day in late January.  Kindergarten.  She hated kindergarten, pancakes, and having a sister.  Housemates made the house too loud, and why couldn’t she have a pet (the cats and chickens don’t count because they’re boring).  School was too hard, and why couldn’t she be homeschooled like _________, and she didn’t have any friends at all.  She hated church and ballet lessons and all of our games and books.

Am I leaving anything out?  She didn’t.

As I sat there, trying to listen, trying to pull out some positive speck of something from her (What about recess?  Recess is boring.), I wished I could erase the words hate and boring from her brain.  When did my six-year old turn into a sullen preteen?  Is this the beginning of a very long decade?  And as I sat there, I sank, right along with her.  Everything was horrible.  I hated that moment and myself in it.  And I almost said (key word: almost), “Do you know how much we pay for you to go to that school you hate?” 

****

There is this song that I find myself in sometimes.  It’s a U2 song from the All that you Can’t Leave Behind album.  Track two.  The chorus:

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better now you’re stuck in a moment
And you can’t get out of it

I understand what it means to be stuck in a moment.  It doesn’t take much–how about a slight headache set to the soundtrack of screaming children?  How about a deadline and a computer program that is Not Behaving as it Should?  How about a change of plans that I didn’t plan, or 4-7 p.m. on just about any given day?

Stuck in a moment.  Look.  See, there I am. Scowling, glaring, sulking, sinking.  And I can’t get out of it.

****

One of the worst moments as a parent is when you realize you’ve passed along some undesirable trait to your children.  You have this thing that you don’t like about yourself, and then one day they do it.  Right in from of you.  Nature and nurture, working together to corrupt the next generation.  This is what I realized as I sat there listening to my daughter’s hate and boring litany.  Oh no.  That’s just like me.

Well, that was just like me.  You see, I’m working on it.  And I’m being worked on.  Lists of little things that I’m thankful for sit beside my bed, are tucked into the bookshelf downstairs, and grow as virtual post-its on my computer desktop.  Little thankfulness lists chipping away at me:

Cat, curled up on the towels; Warm tea received in warm hands; Sun!  We are tilting back toward it now; Four squeaky voices full of life; Getting to check my e-mail; Christmas present slippers; Yellow rubber duck (why is it on my desk?); Insulated walls; Husband obsessed with insulation; Winter doesn’t last forever; Pain reliever for my headache; Clean water from the tap; Pink mittens and polka dot pajamas

Etc.

But my daughter doesn’t write, and it’s a little much to ask a six-year old to keep a list.  Isn’t it?  Besides, why would she do it?  I suspect, sometimes, that she enjoys getting a little pity, complaining a bit, wallowing in her discontent when things didn’t go the way she wanted them to…

(Or is that me?)

But wait.  Suddenly, inspiration.  Small, cubical, gelatinous inspiration, filled to the brim with corn syrup.  Disgusting.

Perfect.

“Honey,” I announced as on the way to the bus, “today we’re going to play a game.  It’s called the marshmallow challenge.”

The rules (I was making them up as I went along):  pay attention and try to remember good things that happen to you today.  They have to be specific (Mama, what’s specific?).  You have to remember them.  Then when you get home, we’ll sit down for snack, and for each good thing you can remember, you get one mini-marshmallow, up to ten.  No more than ten.  I’ll do it too.  We’ll see if we can each remember ten.  Got it?

At 3:30, she came home with this:

023

 (Clockwise from upper left, her words, my writing:  Made a paper airplane, A Spanish reader came, My teacher read a book about penguins, Played at kitchen, I tried to fly, Played at pipes, Colored my paper airplane, and Played freeze dance)

Eight marshmallows isn’t bad for the first day.  I got six.  Maybe tomorrow I should try to fly.


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Kindergarten, Day One: The Aftermath

It wasn’t a fight exactly, but the tension took me by surprise.

“I just don’t understand why this is so hard,” my husband said, “I thought you would be celebrating.  She had a good day.  She’s at a good place.”

“Well, uh, yes.  I am excited,” I stammered, “but it’s just that… um… it’s just that… it is hard.  For me.  It’s hard for me.”

He looked confused (wonder why).  “But it’s been hard on you to be at home with the girls too.  Kindergarten means that you will have time to write, to work… you’ll finally have some space.  Isn’t this what you’ve wanted for five years?”

Of course, but…

****

I hadn’t know how upset I was until I blubbered all over the school secretary.  Blubbered.  Really, it was lovely.  But it wasn’t during drop-off.  During that first morning drop-off, you would have thought we were professionals:

“Have fun today, honey.”  “Okay mom, bye.”  “Love you.”  “Me too.  Bye.”

She had stickers, markers and a name tag to decorate.  I had a little sister to entertain.  Who needs a scene anyway?

On the way out I remembered to tell the secretary that I would be picking her up today.  The bus had been a little intimidating that morning (as in, no-way-am-I-getting-on-that-thing), and so I wanted to help her first day go as smoothly as possible.  “Would you tell her so that she won’t worry about it?”  I asked.  “Sure,” the kindly secretary smiled, “I’ll let her know.”

The day went by quickly, and I kept the 3:05 pick-up in my sights.  Little sister wanted to go to a museum on the other side of town, but no matter, we would leave early and be at school in plenty of time.  I guessed that the trip would take thirty minutes (never having done it before), and so I left fifty minutes to get across town.  Fifty minutes was a little over-the-top, but I didn’t want to cut it close.  We had a plan.  Everything was under control.

Everything except the school buses.

There were school buses everywhere.  School buses like locusts.  School buses stopping traffic so that little children could walk across the street safely.  School buses turning a five minute stretch into fifteen minutes of gripping the steering wheel.  School buses ruining my life.

I tried to stay calm.  We had extra time after all.  I had been a responsible parent, hadn’t I?  We had plenty of time.  

Inch, inch, inch.

Now I was beginning to lose my bloody mind.  The school had been clear in mailed-home papers: Please do not ask us to hold your bused child if you are running late.  If you are not there by 3:05, we’re very sorry, but your child will be put on the bus.  I pictured my dear sweet kindergartner crying as they forced her on the bus.  “But my mom,” she would sob, “was… supposed to… pick me up!”  

Inch, inch, inch.

2:55.  2:59.  3:00.  I called the school.  The secretary answered.  I forced out the words, “Um, I’m stuck in traffic.  I thought I left plenty of time.  Could you tell my daughter that she’ll have to take the bus? (yep, that would be the same child that I asked you to give the opposite message to earlier today)  I’m afraid that she’ll be upset…”

With the word ‘upset’, I lost it.  The crying forced it’s way up through some deep place in me, and I was done.  I bawled.  “I’m… so… sorry…”  I couldn’t get any other words out.  “Bye…”  I hung up and kept crying.

Poor little sister.  She didn’t know what to do as her mother wailed and turned the car toward the bus stop.  “Mama, it okay.”  “Mama, don’t cry.”

Great.  I was scarring both children at the same time now.  I cried harder.

By the time the bus came, I had calmed down and bought two bribery cookies.  I prepared myself for my kindergartner’s tears, her well-founded accusations, and tried to steel myself so that I wouldn’t sob again.  The bus pulled up.

She bounced off, grinning from ear to ear.  “Mama!” she hugged me jubilantly,  “I took the bus!”

****

At dinner we got the story out of her.  The school secretary had hung up with me, gone into the gym, and walked her out to and then onto the bus; holding her hand until she found someone to sit with.  It had been the best part of our kindergartner’s day, and she couldn’t stop smiling.

I smiled too, but inside I was still a wreck.  It had turned out well, but I was mentally and emotionally exhausted.  “I’m so proud of you honey” I managed, and my husband put them to bed.

I stared at the wall.  Why was this so hard?  When he came back down, I tried to explain it to him (see stammering above), but I barely knew why I was feeling the way I was.  It was complicated.  Messy.  Hard to explain.

I’m starting to understand that this ‘letting go’ thing always is.

On one hand, you’re thrilled to see them grow, to have just a little bit more independence, and to become a little bit more of who they are apart from you.  After all, if our kids live to be eighty, they will be under our direct care for less than a quarter of their lives.  We are raising adults, and watching them become themselves is a beautiful thing.

However.

There is also the other hand.  You know, the hand that feels like its wrenching organs out of your chest?  It happens slowly, sometimes so slowly that you don’t even realize what’s going on until you start blubbering on the phone.  Suddenly you realize that you’re going to be putting her on that bus everyday.  That you won’t see her again until the bus returns.  That she has a world you will only visit, and though that world is a good good place, it’s not yours.

It’s hers.  And this is harder than I thought it would be.

All of this is taking me by surprise, because really, I am an exceptionally disgruntled stay-at-home mom.  Needy babies drove me crazy, and demanding preschoolers are only marginally better.  No, I don’t want to play kitten doctor with you again.  No, I don’t want to keep you company while you poop.  Please, please watch another video so that I can read a book (or write a blog post… right now little sister is watching Blues Clues).

My husband is right.  I like my space.  But I love my girls, so much that it really honestly feels like they’re somehow physically attached to me.  So much that these steps of letting go, while lovely and necessary, are a little like surgery.

Kindergarten was/is a big procedure.  So please be kind to me.  I’m still recovering.


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Choosing a College for Your Four Year Old

Um… I meant to say, ‘Kindergarten’.  But really, it’s a similar process.

It all begins with understanding your choices.  Local school (also called ‘feeder school’, which sounds way too much like ‘feeder fish’), magnet schools, charter schools or private?  Mandarin, Spanish, French or German?  Religious or not so much?  Environmentally focused or styrafoam based?  Half day or full day?  Five blocks or five miles?

Let’s all take a deep breath together.

On Saturday I will attend the ‘Magnet Fair”.  My October calender is full of school tours.  I have a stack of applications, school information links come up when I start typing in web addresses, and my parent friends and I begin way too many conversations with, “so, were the charter school tour dates posted yet?”

Tour dates?  I wish we were talking about U2.

And as I do all this and think about all this and essentially become ‘that mother’, I can’t help but thinking about my own childhood.  In small town Western Pennsylvania, here was our school choice process:  Are you Catholic?  No?  Go to public school.  Of course, in my 800 plus graduating class, I did sometimes feel like a feeder fish, but at least my parents weren’t faced with this level of decision when I was still building with blocks.

One more deep breath.  Okay.

There are lots of complicated debates about all of these school choices, what they are doing to our public education system and what we should do about it.  I don’t have the time, space or energy to get into all of this here.  But I do have one simple observation.

Our current system is a lot of work.

Or, am I just making it that way?