Starchild and the mashed potatoes

Today was Henry’s first day with a new teacher in charge of his classroom. His former teacher Marissa moved to California. He knew his new teacher very well, but it was still a change. I don’t know if that affected him at all or if it’s because he’s got a little cold, but he came home a little low on energy.

Cory made soup while Henry watched Daniel Tiger, his favorite show. Henry wanted a snack. He came and grabbed cookies out of the snack drawer, which we grabbed back. He cried on the floor. So Cory had Henry help make the dumplings for the soup.

Henry's favorite show.
Henry’s favorite show.

During dinner, he dumped his water in his soup bowl. I took his drink away. He said he was thirsty. I gave it back. He wanted it in a sippy cup. We made a deal that if he ate four pieces of tempeh, we’d get him a sippy cup. He shoved so much tempeh in his mouth that he gagged. This is a thing he does often. “Because it’s funny.” We said if he puked it up, no sippy cup. He ate it.

After dinner we made a blanket fort. We didn’t really want to, but after mild protesting we gave in. We made it with just two blankets. He had a fit because we didn’t use all the blankets. So we gave in and got all the blankets down from the upstairs closet and made a fort with all of the blankets.

Bath time. Bed time. Read him three Berenstain Bear books. Time for sleep. I was tired so I laid down with him for a while.

“I’m hungry.”

“You should have eaten more dinner.”

“I’m very hungry.”

“Well, you remember that tomorrow at dinner time and eat more so you don’t go to bed hungry.”

“I’m very hungry.”

“Too bad.”

“I’m very hungry!”

Mashed potatoes in bed. Because we are suckers.
Mashed potatoes in bed. Because we are suckers.

And so on for several minutes until Cory goes and gets some leftover mashed potatoes. Here’s the story with the leftover mashed potatoes: Last night I was craving mashed taters like crazy. I’m 30 weeks pregnant now and worried I haven’t been eating well. So while I could have had a bowl of cereal and called it a night, I didn’t. I had my 4 p.m. bowl of cereal, Cory peeled potatoes and put them in a pot of water on the stovetop to cook later, and we took Henry out to chase his Uncle Andrew’s hot air balloon.

As we’re buckling him into the seat, he says to his grandmother DeeDee, “I’m going ballooning.” She says, “You’re going to chase?” He says, “I’m going up in the balloon with Uncle Doo.” We have to explain that it’ll be a while before that happens, because he has to be big enough to see over the basket. But he can touch the balloon, and watch it go up, and help pack it up when they land. He says, “Okay.” He has tic-tacs in his pocket for Uncle Doo.

Balloons in Washington County
Balloons in Washington County

We couldn’t get to where they were taking off, because a bridge was closed and by the time we took the detour they’d have already inflated. So we waited around and watched some other balloons go up. We chased Uncle Doo all over and finally they land in a field that’s only accessible by a dirt road full of ruts that we can’t get through. We can’t even watch them pack up from afar, because trees are in the way. We are about to go home and Henry cries like we’re murdering somebody he loves. So we sit Henry on the top of the car and he eats pasta salad and quinoa for dinner while we wait. Half an hour. On the side of the road. Finally, Uncle Doo comes and Henry delivers his tic-tacs and we go home. It’s like 7:30. Henry’s usual bath time is 7. We skip it, turn on the potatoes and put him to bed. Brush teeth, read stories, sing songs. They’re ready just as it’s time for us to leave the room. We make the mistake of telling him we’re making mashed potatoes and he wants some. Mashed potato picnic in Henry’s room. Brush teeth again. Bedtime. There’s one scoop left and he asks us to save it.

So then here we are tonight, and Henry’s eating that leftover scoop in bed. I want it so bad. He’s trying to eat it laying down. I tell him he has to sit up if he’s going to eat mashed potatoes in bed.

“But I’m very tired.”

I tell him I’m going to eat them if he doesn’t sit up.

“You leave. You’re mean.”

So I do leave. Cory ends up putting the mashed potatoes on Henry’s nightstand at Henry’s request because he’s too tired to eat them but doesn’t want us to take them away. Cory stays in his room for one minute, which is their little routine, and then leaves to get in the shower.

I hear Henry on the monitor crying for Daddy. I go in. He orders me to sit in the rocking chair for one minute. I time out one minute and go to leave. He tells me I can’t.

I’m torn. I’ve been bossed around by this kid for three years, and it’s getting worse and worse. The more I give in, the more he’ll do it. It’s not good for him.

I think about my friends Erin and Colin and their son Odin who died. About how fast life goes, and that he won’t always want us around. About all the things that could go wrong in our lives. How lucky we are to have these moments.

I lay down in bed with him and ask him what’s the matter. He says he can’t fall asleep. He guesses he isn’t going to sleep tonight. I ask if he’s having a hard time. “Yeah, I’m having hard time.” I suggest lavender oil, which he turns down. I suggest deep breathing, which he refuses to do. I suggest wiggling his toes and feeling the sleep come up through his toes to the rest of his body, which he also refuses to do. I suggest “imagining” (guided visualization). Nope. Cory gets out of the shower and comes in.

“Daddy, I’m having hard time.”

Our cartop picnic
Our cartop picnic

We tell him we’re going to leave. He asks us to stay. We stay.We tell him just one minute, then we’re leaving. That we’ll turn off the disco ball lights if we have to come back in afterward. Me in bed, Cory in the rocking chair. I pet his hair like I did when he was little. I try running my fingertips over his face, a trick I saw on YouTube to put a baby to sleep. Henry sleepily smiles and holds my hand, doing it over and over. I make the decision not to leave after one minute, because I see that he is getting closer to sleep and I think it’ll wake him up more if I go.

I close my eyes and slow my breathing, a trick I used to do with him when he was a baby and I wanted him to go to sleep. I’d basically have to go to sleep myself, and his body would follow my lead. Quiet my mind, relax my muscles. I feel Henry’s little hands touching my hair, my face. He’s doing fingertips back to me.

He slips his arm around my neck, pulling me closer so I’m resting my head on his chest. He pats my arm a few times like he’s the adult trying to get me to sleep. And then in the very next moment, I feel him do the sleep twitches that mean he’s asleep. I make a motion to Cory that he’s out. And I lift my head a few minutes later to look at him and just start sobbing.

He’s so perfect. I love him so much. What’s the worst thing that could happen, a child falling asleep feeling loved? Those few pats before he lost consciousness. I can’t even.

Henry's new favorite book.
Henry’s new favorite book.

Cory came and laid in bed with us and I just looked at sleeping Henry and cried. He’s just so perfect. In that moment, I felt like teaching him things, while important, is so secondary to just loving him and making sure he knows he is loved. I know, intellectually, that every time I give in I’m reinforcing manipulative behavior. That he’s testing his boundaries, and that there need to be boundaries. That his sense of entitlement, taking everything for granted, will worsen if I don’t firm up. That he’s not going to starve to death by going to bed hungry one night.

I want to be the type of parent whose children respect them, whose children are not spoiled brats, whose children don’t just ask for more and more and more and are never happy with what they have. I want my children to feel gratitude, to count their blessings. Ironically, it’s the Berenstain Bears book about counting your blessings that we’ve had to read to Henry ten times in the last three days.

But really, knowing that Henry just needed us there with him, snuggled up tight, giving him all the love he could want and more — that he was having a “hard time” and my cuddle is what got him to sleep — the loving touches he gave me — that’s the whole point of being a mom, I think.

My heart exploded into a million tiny fluttering butterflies. Like I was seeing him for the first time and loving him for the first time. It’s been a long while that I’ve just been getting through the days, picking my battles, making sure he’s taken care of but trying to get work done and take care of everything else at the same time.

And tonight I was just clubbed over the head with a big smack of love beams. It was beautiful.

This smile is everything.
This smile is everything.
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No thank you

unnamedI envy the calm, lilting tone I hear some mothers use. “No thank you!” they recite, gently guiding their child away from climbing the radiator around the perimeter of the children’s room at the library that all kids gravitate toward.

“We’ll get them at the patch this weekend,” they sweetly croon in the Hannaford aisles to their four kids waving their arms threateningly around the pumpkin display.

How are these parents managing to not freak out?

I could blame my Italian blood, my husband’s weekend 12-hour overnight shifts, low blood sugar or my work-frayed nerves, but I have no such patience.

My two-year old son Henry is a sweet cherub 90% of the time, but in the difficult moments, I manage to channel all the gentleness and tranquility of a cat whose tail has been stepped on.

I guess the short fuse is part of being Type A. I’m an overachiever when it comes to behind-the-scenes parenting. I research which sunblock is free of nanoparticles, expertly manage a calendar to ensure proper Henry-care coverage, and buy organic, vegan, nutrient-rich local foods to lovingly prepare.

But when it comes to face-time parenting, I’m graceless.

One Saturday morning, we had a screaming match over shoes. It ended with a sneaker-clad child only due to strategic convincing by Charlie, Henry’s best friend who happens to be a creepy kid-sized puppet. Henry loves Charlie, and thankfully listens to his suggestions.

We went to the library and Henry jumped right in to play on the radiator. I sighed and looked in the other direction, which happened to be toward the shelves.

A book called “ScreamFree Parenting” leapt out at me. It’s by Hal Edward Runkel, LMFT. I didn’t know whether it was less screaming from the kid, or less screaming from me, but either way it sounded good.

Henry and the radiator hadn’t hurt one another yet, so I let them play together while I read the first few pages and found myself quickly engrossed.

The main thing the “ScreamFree” method touts is that you can’t control your child (or any other human being), but you CAN control yourself. It says that our society has become too child-centric: Of course we are at our wits’ end catering to our children’s every whim. We’re exhausted and snap easy because of it.

As they say, you put on your own oxygen mask first. You can’t take care of your child if you’re not taking care of yourself. “Grow yourself up and calm yourself down,” it says. I know this will take a lot of practice, but it seems like a solid plan.

I looked up from the book. Henry was okay. His friend Maxwell came in with his parents and they played for a bit. We stayed a while longer and eventually I had to tear Henry away from the toy room.

When he protested, I took a deep breath and said, in a calm, lilting voice, “No thank you.”

Just kidding. I didn’t. But neither of us screamed, at least.

This Family Time column originally ran in the Glens Falls Chronicle on October 9, 2014.
Click here to read “On living the scream-free life” as it ran in The Chronicle.

Talkin' bout my generation

Henry apple picking at Hick'sBorn in 1982, I’m on the cusp between Generation X and the Milliennials, which TIME Magazine recently called the “Me Me Me” generation of lazy, entitled narcissists.

Raised by hippies, I did grow up in the era of Mr. Rogers, talking about my feelings. I knew I was special by just my being me.

The theory of it was solid, but I walked all over my parents. We had frequent power struggles. My mom has told me that she didn’t know how to create respect without also creating fear as a by-product.

Ultimately, by my own conceited set of standards, I turned out awesome, though. They did a good job.

But I’m not sure I want to go through the same hell my poor folks did, or let my son Henry suffer the harsh reality of realizing he may not a beautiful and unique snowflake (even though I think he is).

According to millenialmarketing.com, I’m like others in my generation in that I want my kid to respect the environment, eat healthy, be socially compassionate, and to identify and constructively express his feelings.

But, likely due to the “grass is always greener” effect, I have romantic feelings about authoritative 1950s-era child-rearing. Where respectful, polite children know their parents’ decisions aren’t up for debate. You know, the well-behaved “seen and not heard” kids of black-and-white TV.

I want him to do his chores, wait his turn, save his money, work hard and turn his homework in on time. To say please and thank you. To feel gratitude and not entitlement.

I like to think there’s a balance to be found. Rather than subscribing to the package deal, I want* to combine the firmness of the authoritarian regime with the empathy of attachment parenting.

In reality, though, choosing between taking care of him, versus taking care of myself so I CAN take care of him is an ongoing internal mud-splattered, blistered tug-of-war for me.

I hope that, in time, experience will help me make these decisions.

Decisions like… Is he actually thirsty, or is this some kind of bedtime procrastination trick? Should I see if he’ll fall back asleep if I don’t run right in there to comfort him when he cries? Should we abandon our meal because he refuses to use the restaurant’s restroom, or does being this hangry** mean it’s worth hoping he can hold out while we scarf our fries?

Right now, I don’t know the answers. I’m trying to navigate it as best I can so that we’re both happy and healthy.
I do know that I want him to be bold, independent and confident; to think for himself and question authority…

Just not mine!

* A self-referential footnote: Lots of “I want” in this column, right? Let’s call it dramatic irony.
** Hangry: So urgently hungry you’re angry.

This Family Time column originally ran in the Glens Falls Chronicle on September 25, 2014.
Click here to download “Talking ’bout my generation” as it ran in The Chronicle.

In the face of tantrums

Henry has discovered his being-photographed smile.My parents used to sing the Rolling Stones song, “You can’t always get what you want,” to me when I was little, and I hated it with a fiery passion. I get where they were coming from now that I’m parenting a two-year-old, though.

In the event of a tantrum, I’ve found that apparently my first reaction is to channel the coldness of a prison guard in a brute force approach — “You will stop crying and you will LIKE stopping crying!” — which is not only disturbing to realize about myself, but makes it into a power struggle, which is completely ineffective and frustrating.

Conversely, the gentle Mr. Rogers tack in which I ask him to explain his sadness just makes him look me in the eyes and wail louder and more deliberately, like a person trying to talk to someone hard of hearing.

I’ve tried blowing in his face to startle him, which I read about somewhere. It startles him, but then he cries about being startled. I’ve tried doing a silly dance to distract him, which has literally no effect on him, and makes me feel like an idiot.

It wasn’t my proudest day, but I found out recently that if you’re in Cole’s Woods and your kid is freaking out because they want to hit a stump with a stick for twelve more hours, he’ll stop instantly if you tell them that bears will eat you if you cry in the woods.

Our pediatrician, along with countless others, affirms that ignoring a tantrum is the best way to deal with it. It’s not so easy to ignore in public places where the furrowed brows of passers-by urge you to make the crying stop or go the heck home.

I’ve read that toddlers and tantrums are best dealt with by diverting their attention, and I’ve found that to be true. And for certain fits, it does the trick just to hug him and acknowledge he’s upset so we can move on. I’m slowly getting the hang of it.

He doesn’t cry constantly, and I don’t mean to make it sound like he does. But like we all do, he has his off days, or off hours, and sometimes he’s inconsolable. They’re weary moments.

My friend Sarah Bates, who is a former nanny, told me once that we adults are funny in that we want to dress a kid up and take them to the playground to have fun, but then struggle with the kids to get them there.

But if we could just step out of our one-track-mind for a second and notice that they’re having plenty of fun simply hitting a stump with a stick or playing in the dirt or whatever it is we’re dragging them away from, we would all be happier.

This Family Time column originally ran in the Glens Falls Chronicle on September 11, 2014.

Manic Mondays

Henry and all his friendsWe like to take our toddler Henry to the Monday night City Band concerts in City Park. But I’d be lying if I said he peacefully enjoys the music.

While he listens, he also pokes his fingers in the irrigation control valve covers, smacks the metal light poles, points at ants and says, “ANT.” — and so on.

His favorite vantage is from atop the time capsule, which, to his balloon-crazed liking, has a hot air balloon on it. (Fun fact: There’s a picture from 1978 in that capsule of “balloon baby” Andrew Avon, Henry’s hot air balloon pilot uncle.)

We momentarily take Henry away from the crowd to look at Emily Thomson’s balloon mural in the LARAC window when he’s especially noisy.

It’s not really that he’s loud, though. He’s just a friendly guy.

I never know how much to hover. Rather than “helicopter parenting,” my tendency is to let him run and explore if he’s not in danger. But I struggle to gauge how much his friendliness creeps people out. Sometimes he’ll just walk up to someone and smile at them. I’m sure it’s disconcerting.

He generates a lot of sunny expressions from strangers, though. And I have friends who email begging for Henry pictures when they’re having a rough day.

Sometimes it feels like a public service to bring him around. It’s like walking around with a magic wand you can point at people to make them smile.

But not everyone’s into cute. Some people don’t like kids, or want to be left alone. So I fret. We don’t aim to annoy.

One recent Monday, Henry got away from us to sneak up on an unsuspecting audience member and delightedly stuck his water bottle in the cup holder of her folding chair. It was an adorable gesture. She smiled. We were relieved.

He then scanned the park, which was chock-full of folding chairs, each with a cup holder, and realized the magnitude of his discovery. We saw the light go on over his head and looked at each other.

Do we intervene? Are people just trying to relax and immerse themselves in the music? Or will he bring sunshine and rainbows to everyone in the park if we let him work his sweet magic?

During our hesitation, he hit at least seven chairs with his water bottle. Seven smiles. Two nice ladies recognized him from The Chronicle and called him by name.

Then another few cup-holders, and subsequent smiles. A couple let him pet their dogs.

We stopped him there, though, not wanting to push our luck.

Thank goodness you can still hear the band from over by that heaven-sent balloon mural.

This Family Time column originally ran in the Glens Falls Chronicle on July 25, 2014.