Thursday, May 19, 2011

Childish Ways

"Ca-preez-nee," my friend Josie said the other day, as we watched our children play together in my kitchen. Or at least that's what it sounded like to me. It was in Russian. (Josie, having fallen in love with Jesus and a man committed to foreign missions, in that order, is living out a decade of her life in Kiev, Ukraine with her husband and two young sons.)

Ca-preez-nee is the Russian word for "capricious," and according to Josie, a word you often hear mothers on the Ukranian playground say to one another when their children do something strange or frustrating: like refusing to eat a granola bar because it has broken in half, or insisting on wearing their shirt in-side-out. Capricious means (yes, I looked it up) subject to, led by, or indicative of
caprice or whim; erratic. To be thorough, caprice means a tendency to change one's mind without apparent or adequate motive.

Without apparent or adequate motive. Yes, that sounds about right to describe a child four years old and under. If I'm understanding my friend's cultural assessment, this means that Ukranian mothers know how to shrug their shoulders over their children's whims and erratic behavior, without being plagued by the need to understand, correct or control them.

This is in stark contrast to mothers like me. Which would mean what? English speaking?
American? Middle class Californian? Over thinking? Mothers in my circle are much more likely to assert rational causes for the reason a formerly compliant child suddenly refuses to get in a car seat or shopping car seat. "She hasn't napped in two days." "Her sister has been away at camp and she misses her." "He's getting a molar." "He's processing his anxiety over [enter trauma of choice here]."

These assessments give us mommies a sense of control. It would be nice to be able to explain why a child who ate onion rings yesterday will suddenly pick apart every food to make sure there is nothing remotely resembling an onion in his meal today. And I love it when I find the motive in a behavior that previously seemed without cause. Like when Olivia, who had never exited her bed during nap or after bedtime before, suddenly began creeping around the house, "for a cup of cold water" she would say when I found her in the hallway. I realized she had been obsessed with "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," and she was absolutely astounded that Cindy-Loo Who had gotten out of her bed in the middle of the night. Perhaps I can do it too, she thought.

We are minute studiers of our children's behavior in my circle of friends, which is certainly better than the alternative: a mother who takes little interest in her child's development or ignores the cues that something is changing or wrong with her baby. But I remember the stress of my first-time mommyhood, and telling my husband, "I feel like Sophia is a problem to be solved." So there's something very appealing -- and also wise -- about a shoulder shrug of acceptance and a sense of humor about the caprice of children.

Caprice in mothers, on the other hand, is a bad characteristic. Not on the whimsical spectrum, of course ("Come on kids, let's go to get donuts in our pajamas for no reason!"). But in terms of rules and discipline, a mommy cannot be capricious. I can't suddenly start shouting at my kids for doing something they were allowed to do yesterday, just because I'm in a bad mood. A mother that habitually doles out discipline capriciously is one of the scariest kinds of parents, who raises fearful and ultimately rebellious kids.

This is the hardest part of mothering: the consistency. I remember telling my friend Jenni, when she had a three- and I an two-year-old, that our discipline has to be based in truth, not just on our mood. Seeing that three year olds are way harder to manage than two year olds, she probably hung up and went and pinned my face on a dartboard. I don't blame her. It's hard to be the one who has to act like an adult in the house when every one around you is acting like a child -- even if they are children and that's their job.

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthian church, wrote, "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me." You know what's fascinating? This verse is buried in one of the most well-known chapters of the Bible: 1 Corinthians 13, the chapter that defines the characteristics of the Greek agape form of love -- the unselfish form. You know: patient, kind, non-envious, not boastful, not easily angered, keeping no record of wrongs. It is hard, hard, hard to love your kids like that, especially when they persist in being capricious, unpredictable, exasperating. But on the other hand, who can love agape like a mother? Here's the rest of the definition: "Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."

Livie has been capricious in the extreme for two weeks and I am worn out, so here's what I'm praying for today: The ability not to "solve the problem" of her behavior, but to continue to protect her, to trust God, to have hope, and to keep persevering. Lord, help me put childish ways behind me so Livie one day can too.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Celebrity Mom

You scared me to death! You scared Victoria to death. Next time you think you see a black widow spider, say, "Dad, I believe a poisonous insect is in the house," and I will calmly come and take care of it. You scream like that again and I'll kill you! --"Sam," Sleepless in Seattle

Recently, thinking about what has the greatest influence over the way I talk to my children, the conclusion I came to was a little bit strange. It's not early dialogues with my own mother. Nor is it the Holy Scriptures. My greatest influence is Sam, Tom Hanks' character in Sleepless in Seattle.

His general response to challenging parenting moments? Bombarding his child with adult phrases while his voice rises to a comedic pitch. Like, when his son is begging to fly cross country to meet a woman (Meg Ryan), who heard him on a radio show and thinks he might be her destiny: "There is no way we are getting on a plane to meet some woman who could be a crazy sick lunatic. Didn't you see Fatal Attraction?"

Like Sam, sometimes I find the bizarre, mischievous actions and capricious requests of my children to be more than I can respond to they way most parenting books would advise me. I simply can't come out with a placid, "Mommy asked you nicely to stop eating your boogers, dear," but instead find myself saying things more like, "If you don't stop eating your boogers I'm going to video tape you and save the tape to show to your first boyfriend!"

Really, parenting is one part exasperating and one part downright hilarious. (There are other parts as well.) And if I don't respond with some kind of humor and make myself laugh on the inside, I might cry, and it relieves me enormously to respond this way now and then. Fortunately, the girls take my semi-comedic rants rather well. They go right over Livie's head. Meanwhile, Sophia, who shares my love of wit and language, often starts laughing at me. This can sometimes be further exasperating, but I have no one to blame but myself.

When I really think about it, our entire family's communication is influenced largely by people like Nora Ephron and Andrew Stanton (who wrote about half of Pixar's movies). I've always had a penchant for memorizing dialogue (I can do a whole scene after watching it once if it was really funny). Jeff and I talk to each other in a code made up of Seinfeld lines and quotations from Nacho Libre (Jared Hess's sleeper follow-up hit after Napoleon Dynamite). The girls are heavily influenced by the funniest children's movie ever -- Despicable Me -- and often speak to each other in Minion.

Sophia picked up movie dialogue at an early age. When she was four years old, I asked her as I was putting her to bed one night, "Looking back sweetie, didn't that temper tantrum seem like you were overreacting just a little bit?" I swear her response was, "I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now," a quote from Edna Mode, fashion designer to the superheroes in The Incredibles.

Where am I going with this? I'm not exactly sure to tell you the truth. But I know Jesus said "Out of the heart the mouth speaks," so I'm wondering if maybe my family is watching too much television. I know my friend Tris would think so; the only movie her three year old son has ever seen is Cars, and I think he's only watched it twice. Good mommy!

On the other hand, most of the movies my family gets attached too have real heart (yes, even Nacho Libre), their general direction being one of love and joy. Recreating their dialogues give me and the kids an opportunity to process all kinds of conflicts and inspires great moral discussions (as great as you can have with children under the age of 8). If you talk to Biblical scholars, you'll learn that even Jesus taught using illustrations that were part of popular culture in his day, which is sort of the equivalent of talking movies with the kids. And it turns out, even sleepless Sam, who uses big no-no phrases like "I'll kill you" and "shut up" eventually turns out to be a dad who would do absolutely anything for his endearing, precocious child. See, no wonder I relate so much.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mommy the Big Fat Hypocrite

Not that I believe I have too many loyal, day-to-day followers, but just in case anyone noticed, I'd like to mention that I said in "Mama Don't Raise No Sissies" that I don't come out so good in my next blog. But then I got diverted and sentimental and wrote "Living the Dream." So this blog is the Part Two in which I defame myself -- which you may or may not have been waiting for. And Julie and friends, this one's for you.

Sophia and I were in the calicoes section of Joann Fabric and Crafts not too long ago, and she asked me to buy her a new fat quarter (for non-quilters, that's a quarter yard, cut square, and sold for about two bucks).

"No, I'm not buying you anymore fabric," I told her. "You haven't made anything with the last piece of fabric I gave you."

Suddenly, self-awareness hit me like a wave. How much fabric do I have sitting at home right now, and here I am buying more. See the picture above. I'm counting 14 boxes of fabric in my laundry room/sewing studio. Hubby, who sees that stash every day, often asks me, "What are you going to do with that?" when I buy some new tempting textile. My response is usually, "I don't know. It's just so pretty."

Here's the truth: Mommy is a big fat hypocrite. There are tons of thiings I tell the kids to do that I do not do. And I'm talking, really bad habits I have, that I actually lecture them for.

Some examples:

* "How hard is it to put your shoes away when you take them off?" Okay, I always have AT LEAST three pairs of shoes lying around downstairs. One at the back door. One at the front door. One under my computer desk. And possibly one under the kitchen table or next to my favorite spot on the couch.

* "Put your clothes away as soon as you take them off!" There is a pile next to my dresser of discarded clothes. All. The. Time.

* "Stop leaving your clothes on the bathroom floor!" Hmm. There are my undies from this morning, right next to the shower.

* "Put your dishes in the sink when you're finished with them!" Every morning, my husband says he has to pick up my plate from my late-night TV snack off the living room floor. Also, there is typically a dirty coffee cup on my vanity in my bedroom and possibly also on the bathroom counter if I had to blow dry my hair the day before.

* "No snacks right before dinner!" As mommy pops an Oreo in her mouth as she stirs the soup when no one is looking.

* "If you take a ton of stuff with you wherever you go, you are going to lose things!" Jeff has actually forbid me to buy anymore portable coffee cups because I leave them everywhere: Target, the park, someone's display table at the flea market. I've blogged at least twice this year about how many things I lose.

So here's my self-justification, in three parts:

1. I am the one who cleans, tidies and organizes our house. So, I'm allowed to make a mess: it's my house. And I'm allowed to be cranky when people lose things or don't pick up after themselves, because I, not they, will pay the consequences. If I leave my shoes around, no one else is going to pick them up. I will do it eventually. (The exception is my snack plate, which apparently Jeff does pick up).

2. I'm a disorganized person in the small things! I can barely keep track of my own things, which is why I need my kids to take care of theirs. (This really actually sounds more like a condemnation than justification, doesn't it?)

3. At least I'm not too much of a hypocrite when it comes to the moral things I'm trying to emphasize, which really counts. Like, I don't tell them to tell the truth, and then turn around and tell lies -- black or white -- right in front of them. I am scrupulously truthful. I don't hit people. I give money to the poor. I share my toys. I say please and thank you (most of the time). I say I'm sorry when I've done something wrong. Like right now. Girls: I'm sorry I lecture you about being messy when I myself am messy.

And here is one more thing to make me feel better. I've noticed a principle in parenting: Outcomes are hard to judge. Some parental traits will be passed down verbatim. In other ways, kids will do just the opposite of whatever their parents do. I cook just like my mom used to, I dress like her, and I believe that doing what you love is way more important than doing something lucrative -- just like she does.

But, my mom was always late to things when we were kids, and I think that's why I am compulsively punctual; I hated arriving to things stressed and out of breath when I was younger. Also, my sweet mom still has all our baby pictures in shoe boxes, and I rarely take a picture that doesn't end up printed and in an album within a week.

So, it's possible that my daughters could keep all my good traits, and reject all my bad ones! Wouldn't that be fantastic? It's possible that though at ages 3 and 7, my girls leave their shoes around and buy more fabric than they can use, they will grow up to be extremely tidy and never buy a thing they don't need. And then on the other hand, I'm praying with all my heart that the good they see in me -- any generosity or creativity or faith or hope or love -- plants seed, takes root and blossoms bigger, sweeter, better than it ever was in me. If my good Father brings that to fruition in my children, they can leave their underwear on the floor and eat sweets before dinner as much as they want.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Living the Dream

Before I put fingers to keyboard to write this blog, I had to wash snail slime off my left hand. Snails are a very big deal to Livie right now. She gathers them from around the neighborhood and keeps them in bug catchers in the back yard. Once she even brought one of them in the car in her "Catcher," and being the extremely attentive mother that I am, I didn't realize until the next day that she had crushed it. The Catcher, not the snail. The snail is still at large in my SUV.

As I just walked to the mail this lovely Friday before Mother's Day weekend, Liv had gathered a "family" of snails, all of which had come out of the shell in the time it took me to cross the cul-de-sac. And since the family members couldn't be separated, I got to carry them en masse back to our front sidewalk. They actually slithered across my palm. Yuck. But while this was happening in my left hand, my right hand was opening this card (above) from my friend Wendy.

On the outside it said "Motherhood, oh yeah..."

And on the inside it said, "Living the dream, baby."

I laughed out loud.

But here's what's funny: I am living the dream. Sunday will be my seventh Mother's Day, and I'm feeling really, really good about it. I'm feeling like -- and try to stay with me here -- I don't need my kids to do anything for me or thank me for anything. I love being their mom. On this particular day, week, whatever, I'm not even feeling exhausted, just lucky that they are my kids. It's weird, because it hasn't been exactly the easiest week. We've had sore throats and injuries, tantrums and messy (amazingly messy) rooms. My husband has worked long hours in the office, which means for me long hours at home.

But at this moment, I look at my life and feel a fullness and satisfaction that I frankly just didn't feel on Mother's Day when my children were younger. Whatever desperate need I had to be seen and appreciated as a baby mom I don't feel this year.

Don't get me wrong: I love babies. I mean, LOVE them. My first ever nephew was born on Thursday this week, and I seriously considered trying to smuggle him out the hospital and taking him home. But looking back, I don't love myself as a mom of babies. I didn't know who I was or what I was doing most of the time. I lost most of my creative energy, and almost all my (how to say this subtly?) romantic desires. I missed the kind of wife I used to be and what my husband and I had been like together. I had trouble finishing thoughts because my brain wasn't functioning. I didn't recognize my body. I was so, so tired. Basically, I lost myself.

I was also working 20 hours a week at my editing job when Sophia was a baby. I hated leaving her. And I felt torn between two worlds all the time, and being in a creative field with no creative energy is not a good situation.

So, now as a mother of 3 and 7, I'm aware that I've come out of the early childhood tunnel. I finish conversations with my husband more often. I finish books. I create things. I serve other moms. I love my kids in a wonderful, deeper, less terrified way. They're real people with real ideas and selves and thoughts and abilities. They're miracles, who can, miraculously, use the toilet and get their own snacks and don't need to actually eat off my person. And because I don't go out to an office anymore, I can bloom fully into my role as mom without a sense of divided loyalties.

Today at my MOPS group I gave a speech about how God sees all the little and big things the moms do for their kids, and I'm sure in that room of 100 that at least 50 needed to hear it. Or maybe I'm overestimating because of how much I needed to hear that when I was in the baby stage. But what I really wanted to say, and didn't because I don't want to sound smug, being only a couple of years ahead of most of these young mommies, is that motherhood gets better, and in a pretty short time. I've heard women say that they suddenly knew themselves at 40. I suddenly feel I know myself, or know myself again, at 33. So I wanted to tell my young mommy friends, "Don't worry, at the other end of the tunnel, you're waiting for yourself. You'll find yourself there."

But, actually, that's not accurate. Hopefully, they'll find an even better version of their old self there. A mellowed out self, a more confident self, even if that self has loose skin under her belly button that will never go away. And in the meantime, their kids will get easier to take care of, and be -- dare I say it -- even more interesting to be around.

Last week, one of the day care moms was dropping off her child at my neighbor's house. Livie and I, just returned from dropping Sophia off at school, were peering into the hollow of big ficus tree where all the neighborhood's snails sleep every night in a big, disgusting, slimy pile. I had a coffee cup in my hand and a bucket of snails in the other. "We're hunting snails," I said to the mom.

"I'm jealous," she said. "I'm going to work."

I know, sweetie. "I'm lucky," I said to her. And in my head, I added, I'm living the dream.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Mama Don't Raise no Sissies

Celebrate with me, friends. My daughter has just completed her first arachnid assassination.

Just now, above the whir of my sewing machine, I heard Livie call from the top of the stairs, "Mom, I just killed a little red spider! It was in my room!"

"Where is it now, Livie?"

With glee: "It's in a tissue! In my hand!"

This is an extremely proud moment for me. Until recently, Liv hasn't been a particularly brave child. In fact, only a couple of months ago, a spider sighting would have aroused dead-waking shrieks from my Second Born.

When I found out I was having a second daughter, one of my (many) mottos became, "Mama don't raise no sissies." I have a theory that parents who have only one gender offspring, unless extremely conscious, begin to harbor resentment against children the opposite sex of their kids. If you have only girls, boys can start to look like a bunch of mannerless savages. If you have only boys, little girls may seem prissy and far too prone to tears. Meanwhile, the kids' natural gender tendencies are not tempered by the influence of the opposite sex sibling.

I have two little brothers, which I believe is one of the reasons I know how to bait a fishhook and cast a line; catch a wave; pick up a crab without getting pinched; subdue a lizard by rubbing its belly; and do all my own bug and spider killing. Last year, I crushed five black widows, and swatted a wasp bare-handed out of my best friend's car where her son was strapped into the car seat. I can also use a power drill (sort of) and I don't mind getting muddy.

So, being extremely conscious, if I do say so myself, I try to temper the imbalance of estrogen in our house by encouraging my girls to be tough cookies whenever possible. The red spider who just went down in my three year old's bedroom is proof that some of my modeling is paying off.

It's Mother's Day this week, and so I'm thinking lots about motherhood and all of its meanings. I'm pondering what kind of influence I want to have over my kids and what the best way to achieve that influence is. Tomorrow's blog is half-written, and I don't actually come out looking so good in it, so I just have to take a moment and tout a few of my accomplishments: skills my daughters have mastered on both sides of traditional gender lines, thanks to me, their Mom.

1. Sophia knows how to properly load a sewing machine and can define "seam allowance."
2. Both girls can roll out cookies and cut out shapes efficiently without wasting dough.
3. My daughters are not afraid of snails, most non-flying bugs, dogs, rodents, or reptiles.
4. Both girls know how to properly apply hair conditioner.
5. Sophia can do a mean cannonball in the pool.
6. Livie knows how to wash her own fruit and doll out appropriate portions of crackers for snacks, neatly putting the bag back in the pantry when finished.

Okay, so they aren't major moral accomplishments, but they are valuable life skills. And now, Liv won't have to depend on any man to crush spiders for her. Happy Mother's Day to me.