Long Days and Short Years

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


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Hovering is Relative–Some Questions for You

Setting: The cafeteria in a big public school

Event:  Kindergarten welcome breakfast

Characters: More squealing 5 year olds than you can imagine with the occasional frazzled grown-up thrown in for contrast

****

It was time for the parents to go.

Squeezed between a cafeteria table and attached bench, I was planning my exit.  Assuming that I could still physically extract myself from the table (there was some question here), the bigger question remained.  How should I leave my daughter, my youngest daughter, on her first day of kindergarten?

Should I act casual, like it was all no big deal?  “Have a great day, honey!  See you later!”  Should I acknowledge that this was a big moment, and make the break slowly?  “We love you so much, sweetie, and we’re so proud of you.  You’re going to have a great day, and I can’t wait to hear all about it.”

And while I was composing my speech, I overheard a conversation across the table.

A mother was saying her goodbye.  She stood up.  “Well, this is Kindergarten,” she said, “You’re on your own now.  Do you hear me?”  The little girl stared solemnly.  “You behave.  I don’t want to get called,” she continued, and then repeated, “You’re on your own now.  Do you hear me?”  And without another word, or even a hug, she walked away.

And the little girl?  She returned to her breakfast, and then to her puzzle, seemingly unfazed.  The teacher called her named and she smiled broadly, “I’m here, teacher!”

I looked down at my daughter, who was clinging to me.  She was trying so hard to be brave.  The teacher called and she slowly dis-attached herself.  “Bye Mama,” she whispered.  I blew her a kiss, and she joined her class.

She was on her own now.

****

While the words of the mother-across-the-table were harsh, there is truth in them.  We are constantly preparing our kids to be on their own–and it makes me wonder…

How can we prepare our children, and ourselves, for moments of letting go?  This may be the million dollar question of parenting–not just what kind of parents will we be when we are with them, but what kind of children (and soon, adults) will they be when we are not with them?

Because I know that kindergarten is just the beginning.

****

What are your thoughts about preparing your kids to be increasingly on their own?  What do you remember about this from your own childhood?  What have you learned by watching other people parent their kids?  And if you have ’em, what have you learned from parenting your own?   

 

 

 

 

 

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Hovering is Relative

Our kindergartner’s paperwork was late, but the principal of her new school didn’t know that.  She only knew that the post office had held their mail during the summer, and that our paperwork was in the pile.

I introduced myself at an end-of-summer picnic.   “Oh, Mrs. P.!” she replied, “So sorry that we didn’t send your welcome letter sooner.  When I saw your papers in the summer pile I knew that I had to send you something right away.”

And when she emphasized the ‘you’, I knew that I had been pegged.  We had toured the school the previous spring, and I had requested a specific classroom for my daughter.  I had inquired about class size.  I had e-mailed about volunteer opportunities.  We turned in our paperwork on time, and even got her physical and dental check-ups.  Early.

“If there’s anything you need Mrs. P.” she continued, “you just let me know.  We’ll take very good care of your daughter this year.”  She looked at me intently as if I wouldn’t believe her, and suddenly I felt embarrassed.  Uh oh…

In the world of my kindergartner’s new school, I was a helicopter parent.

whop, whop, whop…

****

Now get in your car (I assume you don’t actually own a helicopter), and drive five miles east.  We have another daughter, a first-grader, who attends a private school.  It’s not a fancy or exclusive place–80% of the students are there on scholarship–but it is small, and comfortable for our daughter.  Easy.  The transition from kindergarten to first grade involved moving across the hallway, and she already knew her teacher, her teacher’s aide, and 16 of her 18 classmates.

(Little sister didn’t make kindergarten cutoff this year, which is why she is attending the large public school of the previous section.)

Her school requires “substantive parental involvement,” and they are not joking.  The baseline commitment is 24 hours a year per family, but I suspect that many parents do more.  Volunteers produce an elaborate spring musical, serve monthly breakfasts to the teachers, maintain an outdoor classroom, and organize an annual all-school camping trip.  On Fridays parent volunteer supervise lunch in every classroom.  Before school begins in September we bring our buckets and mops and clean the entire school.

Unfortunately, I know of most of these commitments (other than the bucket and mop) second-hand.  We barely made our 24 hours last year.

And just last week a parent, a very-involved-parent, handed me a service opportunities survey.  I read down the list of everything I didn’t do last year.  Then I turned the paper over, and found another full page.  Oops.

And I ask you:  How can the helicopter parent of one school be a complete slacker at the other?

****

I am one of those people who tends to take everything personally.  For example, I felt guilty last year when I couldn’t do extra volunteer opportunities at our older daughter’s school.  It was hard to look the very-involved-parents in the eye!  This year, I find myself holding back at our younger daughter’s school, not wanting to be perceived as too eager.  I care about what people think (or what I think they think), and so I try to manage my reputation, carefully striving to find the balance between over and under-involved, and trying to appear neither lazy or over-zealous.

It’s all a bunch of foolishness.

I’ve decided that this year I don’t have time for self-scrutiny.  My two girls are at two schools, and they both need “substantive parental involvement.”  So within the time constraints of reality, I will try to be involved in both places.  This probably means that I will appear both lazy and over-zealous, depending on the location, but so be it.

Because in the end, it’s not really about me anyway.


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No Time to Waste

Tuesday is our day.  No preschool.  No work.  No ambitious goals.

Just one four year old and one distracted-but-trying-not-to-be mama.  Tuesday is our day.

We spent the morning teaching her dolls to swim and putting away the laundry.  The neighbor boy knocked, and she went out to enjoy the mud while I checked my e-mail.  Leftovers for lunch, dishwasher loaded, and then I asked, “So, what do you want to do this afternoon?  Roller skating?  Dinosaur museum?  Library?”

“I want…” she considered, “I want to go for a walk.”

“Okay.  Where do you want to walk to?”

Wrong question.  She practically rolled her eyes in exasperation.  “Mama!  We can’t waste time going somewhere.  I just want to walk!”

I couldn’t believe that she said that:  We can’t waste time going somewhere.  I never thought of it that way before.

And so we didn’t waste a moment.  We strapped her marker-streaked Belle doll into the old green umbrella stroller and ambled up the hill.  If we had been going somewhere, the pace would have been painfully slow; but since this was what we were doing, I let her lead.  The streets were quiet, nearly deserted in the lull between lunch and school dismissal.  We circled around and around, stepping over broken glass, and peering into the caverns of rotted trees.  She stopped to feel the warm air coming out of a dryer vent.

After nearly an hour we sat on a low wall to share a bag of raisins and peanuts.  Our coats were open now, and our hats and gloves cushioned the baby doll’s head.  The sun reflected off metallic candy wrappers sticking out of the storm drain.

“Mama” she sighed, “do you know what?”

I looked at her serious little face expectantly, “What honey?”

“Mama.  Sometimes… (here she gave a dramatic pause), sometimes I smell a lion nearby.”  She studied my face for signs of fear.  I tried not to laugh.   “But (another dramatic pause) then I know that it’s just someone pretending to be a lion.”  She raised her eyebrows and I took a deep breath to steady myself.  “Mama.  Are there any more raisins?”

There were.  But you’ll be relieved to know that lions don’t eat raisins.  We finished our snack in silence, and began walking toward the bus stop.  It was almost time for big sister to come home, and she couldn’t wait to show off the rocks she had just collected.

Though after all of that, it was a little disappointing to have a destination.


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Saying I Love You in Late February is Not Easy

First, some background:

Once upon a time, in the woods of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern North Carolina, I worked as a camp counselor at two Lutheran summer camps.  These four summers were the hardest and most magical times I have known.  I remember laughing until I cried during the nightly skits, and I remember crying until I fell asleep when it was week 4 (out of 9) and I just wanted to go home.

It was camp.  It was life to the full, and then fuller.

Every week had a routine, a rhythm of ice-breakers and opening worship and the first night (with accompanying tears from the camper who would also cry when it was time to go home at the end of the week).  There was activity time, creek-walking and canoeing, ropes course and the zip-line.  And then, as the week began to spill toward its inevitable end, we counselors began to prepare for our most sacred task of the week.  Affirmations.

Affirmations took place during the final worship service.  During an extended time of quiet singing, each counselor would take each camper, one by one, to a spot on the dirt floor of our outdoor chapel.  There each counselor would begin, “Here are some incredible things I noticed about you this week…”, “You are so good at…”, “I really appreciated this about you…”  We were only supposed to talk for about 3 minutes, but mostly it went longer.  It was an inspired time, quite literally, and while I hope that our campers were changed in receiving the affirmations, I know that the counselors were changed by giving them.

The change began sometime on Wednesday when we realized that affirmations were coming.  Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to see one kid as ‘trouble’ or another as ‘a leader’, a time was coming (and coming soon) when we needed to say more.  We dug for adjectives and examples, we watched them interact with one another, we looked for signs of wisdom, compassion or creativity.  We prayed and watched, prayed and watched, because the time was coming when we had to speak.  Sometimes we were so exhausted that it all just seemed annoying, one more thing to do, and what-in-the-world-am-I-going-to-say-about-her; but we also knew it was a holy task.

And if there was any doubt, the actual giving of affirmations put that to rest.  It was a weekly miracle.  Sure, we stumbled, and there were seeming ‘duds’ now and then (darnit, I should have watched that kid more closely), but words would also come rushing, kids’ faces would light up, and oh so often, the one who drove you crazy all week would leave you in tears.

Its been twenty years, and I still remember.

****

Now.  Back to life, back to re-a-li-ty:

I originally planned to finish and publish this post on Valentine’s Day.  My take-away was simple: a challenge to watch our loved ones closely, and then the discipline to tell them beautiful and true things about themselves.  Affirmation, in real life.  Ready, set, go.

But then one child got an ear infection– a bad ear infection that eventually burst her eardrum.  On the same day that the car tire burst.  A week after the rotor and brake pads had to be replaced.  At the same time that the ice on the back porch roof started melting into the kitchen.   Just a few days before I got strep throat… really really bad strep throat, like screaming every single time you swallow strep throat.  And it was all a prelude for the four-day school break followed by yet another snow cancellation.

Ugh.

Heart-warming, thoughtful affirmations for all my loved ones?  How about I hold back a tirade when you spill your milk for the third time today?  How about I don’t throw my checkbook at the mechanic just to see his reaction?  Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.

Here’s the reality friends:  February is hard.  This whole being-a-grown-up-thing can be brutal.  And I refuse to give you one more thing to do.  Instead, I want you to sit down with me for a moment on this patch of warm earth.  Can you hear the crickets and the guitars?  Good.  Now let me tell you something:

You are doing a great job.  Really.  You, the exhausted one.  You do so much in one day, so many small, mundane acts of love, you don’t even realize the self-sacrifice that it part of your regular routine.  You fall down and keep trying.  You make mistakes and apologize.  Your love runs deep, and that’s part of what makes all of this so hard, because you actually long to do right by the people you love.  And you’ve come so far already.  It hasn’t been easy.  Today won’t be easy.  But you’re doing it, friend.  You’re doing it.

You are amazing.  Even in February.  And if you can be like this at the end of a long winter, well…  just wait until spring.


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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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Be Small and Love Big {Part Two: Christmas Letter Aftermath}

How do you count your life?

Big, small, meaningful, wasted, successful, incomplete?  How do the days add up?  How do you add up?

Do you ever wonder?  I do, and though I finished Part One with a nod toward meaning found in daily acts of love, I am unsteady here.  I sway when I consider that my part-time job pays less in a whole month than my husband makes in a single real estate transaction (which isn’t even his main job).  I waver when my friends get promotions in jobs that they actually went to school to do.  I topple when the Christmas letters come and I learn that someone else’s preschooler is reading better than my kindergartner.    Or that they ran marathons.  Or teach Pilates.  Or just published their dissertation.

(You all know who you are.)

I sway, waver and topple; and though I tell myself that my own life has meaning that can’t be quantified, sometimes I feel like an over-indulgent parent complimenting a four-year old’s scribbling.  “Oh, honey, it’s beautiful… what a nice, uh, nice, uh…”  “Pegasus, Mama, it’s a yellow Pegasus with rainbow wings.”  “Oh, of course.  Let’s put it on the fridge.”

Sometimes I wonder if my life is really worthy of the fridge.

****

How do you count your life?  Here is the easiest way to count most things: numbers.  Let’s talk annual income, weight loss, or likes on facebook.  How about debt, doughnuts eaten, or hours wasted in whatever way you like to waste hours?  How do the numbers add up?  It’s like a word problem on a standardized test, “If Suzie spends two hours watching Downton Abby (which, if you’re wondering, is a positive value), works for six hours at twelve dollars an hour, and cycles three miles home; did she have a good day?”  “If Bill owes twenty thousand dollars in school loans, makes thirty thousand dollars a year, and just lost ten pounds; is he having a good life?”

Yes, I know that I’m being ridiculous.  Of course, you can’t count a life by numbers any more than you can compare one life to another.  But isn’t this our fallback position?  Isn’t it at least a temptation when you find yourself unemployed or overweight or in debt over your little graying head?  Or conversely, don’t we have a subconscious sense of security when the numbers add up in our favor?  Isn’t this why I’m obsessed with exactly how many miles I ran?

If life doesn’t add up in numbers, how am I supposed to know how I’m doing?

And now that I’ve said it, I can tell:  this is exactly the wrong question.  I ask it as if life is something to be earned, deserved or proven.  But when I sit here, when I fall into this place and wallow in it, I know:  I’ve gotten everything backwards.

****

Ann Voskamp spelled it out for me the other day on her blog, the blunt force of her words cutting through my hazy patterns.  “Doxology or drown.  Decide.”  We either live a life of thankfulness (doxology), or we will quickly find ourselves in over our heads (drown).

Doxology or drown.  Decide.

When I read this, I felt physically shaken.  It’s no wonder.  She was pulling up the roots of my assumptions.

Life is not an accomplishment(yank), but a gift.

Life is not something to be evaluated(pull), but something to be received.

Yes, yes, I knew all this.  In my head.  But do I really know it?  Do I live it?  How deep does it go?

I entitled this pair of posts “Be Small and Love Big” not knowing precisely what I meant.  I still don’t.  But it’s a place to begin.  Be small.  Doxology begins with the small, with noticing how the raindrops slide down the electrical wires (thank you).  With hearing a child downstairs whisper much too loudly, “Go away.  I’m hiding” (thank you).  With feeling the tap of computer keys as words come and another blog post goes out (thank you).  Another new morning.  Another list of responsibilities.  Another influx of blessings.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

Doxology begins with receiving each small piece of your life.

Noticing.  Receiving.  Saying thank you.  Again and again.

It’s another way of counting life, and I have decided to give it a try.


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Stop Growing Already

Not to brag, but…

Our kids eat kale.  Straight up, plain kale, in all its wrinkled green glory.  Kale, which is not just a commoner vegetable like carrots, but Superhero nutrition, somewhere on the order of brussel sprouts.  Or turnip greens.  Or something else I don’t like to eat.

All of this is thanks to a simple psychological trick, um… careful methodology… called reverse psychology.

It came about in this way:  One evening my housemates made dinner.  It was a grown-up favorite–sausage and kale over pasta, sprinkled with olive oil and feta cheese.  Yum.  The cooks were wise (experienced) and kept the ingredients separate for the kiddos.  Sausage in one section, pasta in the next, and a little bit of kale in one corner.

The sausage disappeared first, followed closely by the pasta, until four kids were left with lonely bits of green and the irresistible urge to leave the table.  “I don’t care for the yucky stuff,” our youngest cherub intoned.  “Kale, it’s called kale, and you need to at least take a thank you bite,” an exhausted grown-up replied, “We’re out of carrots.”

Rebellion was brewing.  The kids looked at one another.  Four of them and four of us, and though they were smaller, they were perhaps faster and definitely more agile.  They looked at us, and then…

Brilliance.  I think that it was housemate-dad who spoke first.  “You’re right kids,” he said with an exaggerated sigh, “Do not eat that kale.  It’ll make you grow, and we like you just the way you are.”  The kids were confused, but the grown-ups caught on quickly.  “Oh, of course!”  “Why would we give you such a thing?”  “If you eat too much of that, you’ll grow up.  And you are so cute right now.”  “Don’t you dare touch that kale!”  “Candy.  Nothing but candy for these kids from now on.”  “What were we thinking?”

And the kids shoved kale into their cute little mouths.  Did they know it was a joke?  I still don’t know–they were laughing, but they were eating.  They ate the kale, and asked for more.

“No, you don’t want more of that stuff.  Don’t you want marshmallows with  sugar sprinkled on top?  Ah, come on.”

In classic grown-up fashion, we milked our little trick for all that it was worth.  For weeks.  Kale was just the beginning.  It became a nightly routine–a well-balanced meal on their plate eaten amid our feigned protests.  The drama and the laughter increased, but they ate anything we gave them.  “Please.  Please stop growing!  Please!”

Can you blame us?  It was working so well.

And then.  One night, right after dinner, I took my eldest out to buy Christmas presents.  As we were driving, she spoke from her booster seat.  “Mama, I need to have a talk with you.”  “Yes honey?”  “Mama,” she asked, “do the grown-ups really want us to stop growing?”  “Oh no, of course not.”  I laughed lightly, but she was completely serious.

And she wasn’t done.  “Mama, did you like me when I was four?”  “Yes.”  “Do you like me now that I’m five?”  “Yes, of course.”  “Then, Mama, you will probably like me when I’m six or seven too.  Mama, you have to let us grow.”

Ouch.  I took a deep breath, trying not to smile, but now also fighting back a few tears.  This was serious.

“Okay, honey.  From now on, I’ll let you grow.  I promise.”

“Thanks Mama.”  I could hear her smile from the back seat.  Satisfied, she went back to watching Christmas lights out the window, but I swallowed hard.

Did I really say that?  Yes honey, I’ll let you grow.  I’ll let you grow, I promise.

And how many times will I have to say these words again?