A Whole Fucking Decade

My baby is ten.

Let me repeat that. My baby, my first-born, my little chubby-cheeked, sassy-pants little girl is TEN.

Fucking double digits. Ten. A decade.

No longer very chubby-cheeked. More beautiful and grown up than I could imagine. Definitely still sassy, but also moving into puberty-fueled moodiness with spontaneous ups and downs.

I have been a parent for an entire decade. Which, I realize to all of the parents out there who have been-there-doing-that for much longer than I have probably scoff and think to themselves that ten ain’t nothing. But for me, it’s definitely a big deal. As so many people my age are just having babies now or have toddlers, having a child tiptoeing the precipice to teenage-hood is remarkable, and marvelous, and fucking terrifying, and rewarding. It seems like this past year, more than any other, she has morphed into someone so like us and so apart from us. And I realize I likely say this every year, so please allow me this redundancy. Because I got to see her each day before my eyes, all day, growing, changing, learning. I got to see her unraveling this puzzle that is her place in life. It has been nothing short of spectacular, and I’m so thankful to be there with her so closely to guide her and just be there for her when her emotions were just too much for her. I hadn’t gotten such a front row seat since she was a baby.

And honestly, that time is so far gone now that I only really have bits and pieces of those memories still in an easily accessible place in my brain.

Time is so damn cruel, how it takes what it wants and leaves whatever it pleases. Like, even ten years later, I can still remember feeling anticipation of her being born. I used to sit in her room, rock in the rocking chair we’d bought, rub my belly, tight and smooth from stretching, and just look at her baby clothes and diapers so neatly folded and stacked. And I would just think about holding her. How it would be to finally have her out of me and in the world. I swear, I can feel her rolling around in me even now. I can close my eyes, and I can be back there. So acutely, so otherworldly. But I can’t remember all of the little things she’d say funny as she was learning to speak. And I can’t remember what her favorite dinner was when she was 5. And I can’t remember what made her scared or automatically giggle when she was 3. I can’t remember it all.

I can remember what her face looked like when she slept. She looks exactly the same even now. The way she stretches and pouts out her lips and squinches her eyes shut. It’s uncanny how she looks like she’s 1 again.

I can remember what she smelled like when I rocked her to sleep when she was 3, having to guess what animal she was every night before she’d let me put her in her bed. I don’t know if there’s something scientific behind it, but I think every person has a distinctive scent because her head still smells the same.

I can remember how her whole self loved me more than anything. How she would sweet talk her way into making me stay in her room with her while she fell asleep. Or how she would convince me to let her out of bed to have a snack and a snuggle just because she wanted to be near me.

And I’m thankful that I can remember those things because there have been many moments in the last year when I swore my daughter couldn’t stand to be near me. When she’d get so mad at me that she couldn’t even look at me. When it would break my heart to send her to her room or take away privileges. And she would look at me with such contempt. And I had to tap into those memories until she would calm down, and then snuggle up to me like nothing had ever happened.

Yes, I know there’s so much more of this (and worse) to come. Please, spare this mom that reminder. I’m already struggling enough to get through this acceptance of her no longer being a little kid. My eyes are spilling over with tears enough while writing this.

But don’t you write these every year? Yes.

And don’t you cry every year? Yes.

I cry because I’m naturally very sentimental and sensitive. But this year I’m crying because I realize just how important these reflections have become to me. I started out writing them for my kids. So that when they’re adults, they can see snapshots of who they were as kids, and how much they were adored. But now I realize that they’re becoming time capsules for me. Because I can’t always hold on to every little memory on my own. My brain has no choice but to file some things in the back where they’re not easy to get to. But when I read these reflections, it’s almost like I can go back in time and be there at any of their ages.

And now that Lily is 10, and spending less time snuggling up to me and more time doing her own thing, I really need these reminders that underneath it all, she’s still my little girl.

And don’t get me wrong, I love how she’s growing up and don’t want to stifle her. I love how she’s taken her illustrations from the paper to art apps on the IPad all on her own. She draws and writes her own comic books. She is clever and witty, and can hold her own when coming up with puns and jokes. She’s become much more aware of her self-image, loving accessories and playing with makeup and trying to look like a little lady. All awhile still loving to be goofy, using Snapchat to make her face into a bee or using the IPad to make her face distorted with the fish eye lens.

She’s still such a kid. She still plays with her Beanie Boos, sometimes recording them and splicing the videos together, adding sound effects and transitions. She plays in our giant sandbox, creating prisons and adventures for Ollie’s G.I. Joes. She snuggles her stuffed animals at night; needs to sniff her pink blanket sometimes; doesn’t want to do chores; hates taking a shower and needs to be reminded to wear deodorant or comb her hair (other kids do need those reminders too, right?). She’s obsessed with Pokemon, Star Wars, and Pusheen cats. She’ll yell at her brother and tell him to leave her alone one minute, and then be on the couch snuggled up with him watching Netflix the next. You know, average kid stuff.

Which I think balances out all of the times when she has conversations with me about topics that should be beyond her age, like politics or human rights. Or when she so astutely observes adults being hypocrites. Or when she calls me or Josh out on something, effectively putting us in our places. Because while she may only be ten, she’s already ten. She’s silly, and talkative, while still being mature and pensive. And that girl reads like nobody’s business. So when she asks to read our National Geographic magazines and then wants to talk about gender roles or female genital mutilation, and she does so in such a respectful, wise-beyond-her-years ways, I sit in awe of her. Because my daughter, who has been on this earth just a fraction of the time as some, can see without any doubt or hesitation, things that others still fight against or refuse to acknowledge. And that makes me so fucking proud to be her “mom-mom”.

So, ultimately, I guess we’re really a part of two worlds with her now. One in which she still comes to my room to get me if she has a bad dream (or if she’s sleepwalking and wants to tell me something weird while still unconscious), and the other in which she chooses her own clothes and is only 4 inches shorter than me. And though she’s almost as tall as me, that crazy girl still tries to get me to pick her up and hold her at least once a day. I told you, she’s silly. 🙂

So, Lily-Boo, a very happy and momentous double-digit birthday to you. I am so proud of who you’ve become, and honestly look forward to each coming day straddling these two worlds with you, even the bad ones when you can’t stand to be in the same room as me. Because even when you’re mad, your pouty face reminds me of your toddler years when I thought those fights were bad. And no matter how mad we may get at each other, there is love there that nothing can break. You’re who made me a mother and who continues to challenge me into being a better mother, and I’m eternally grateful for you in my life. Because without you, I wouldn’t be constantly striving to be a better, more patient, and considerate human. You mean so much more to me than you can possibly realize.

Happy birthday, Pookie. I hope it’s everything you’ve been counting down on your calendar for and more. You’re an amazing, unique, beautiful soul, and you deserve the world. I love you.

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The Last of the Single-Digits

As Lily enters her last year of being of a single-digit age, I can’t help but think this is an enormous turning-point for her. Her physical development is starting to catch up with her precocious nature. And it’s readily apparent to anyone who sees her that this little girl is becoming a young woman. Already. How is that even possible?

I’ll admit, my memories of being a child are a bit fuzzy. I have general time frames at which certain things happened, and have some recollections of things I did and people I did them with. So I may be looking at Lily’s development through a very skewed perception when I wonder how in the hell a 9-year-old can already be becoming a woman. To me, she’s still a baby. I mean, 9, in the grand scheme of things, is really quite new to the world. But then I look at this long-legged beauty, and listen to the clever, witty things that comes out of her mouth, and get slapped with realty. A baby she most certainly is not anymore.

Then again, I don’t want to encourage her to grow up too fast. Meaningful, careful change takes time. I want her to have all the time she needs.

This first occurred to me when, one day this spring, she had her two good girlfriends over to play—both of whom are one year older than she is. The three girls were all outside taking advantage of the mild spring weather. I just sat and watched them. They were all wearing training bras, all in different stages of needing them. They were all wearing some sort of accessory or had nails painted. They all had cute, sassy little outfits on. They all looked very much like they were becoming little ladies. And one might assume by just looking at them without hearing their conversations that they might be gossiping about boys or talking about situations with other friends at school. But they weren’t. They were playing house. Well, a strange combination of house and Minecraft, but house nonetheless. Like with baby dolls and each girl playing a different role: mom, dad, little sister. They were making pretend food from garden materials, and playing with Lily’s tea set and toy dishes that she got when she was 2. And it was so sweet.

It was at this moment that I really came to understand the term “tween” (even though I still think it sounds ridiculous). Here was my girl in a training bra, with hoop earrings in her ears, and temporary metallic tattoos on her arms, playing house and tea party. Not quite ready to move on, and not quite ready to let everything go. A little bit like a child, and a little bit like a teen, and nothing all the way. She’s kind of stuck in this middle-ground trying to slowly traverse her way from one stage to the next. And though I’m a little bit sad at how quickly childhood goes by, it’s sort of endearing as well. I do have many memories of that time in my life, with my girlfriends, and it was some of the best times of my childhood. I’m really glad she’s able to experience it as well.

In continuing with Lily’s transition from girlhood to womanhood, I also noticed that she’s become much more aware of how other females act, dress, and present themselves. I see her looking at older girls, studying them. What are they wearing? How are they talking? Who are they with? It’s almost as if she’s trying to figure out how she fits into the womanhood equation. And when she comments about seeing other girls maybe acting in a way she doesn’t agree with, I can see that she’s sizing up their choices in relation to what I’ve given her as a perspective on what it means to be a woman. Of course I’m going to always be, perhaps, a most influential example. But I do try to explain that there really is no one definition of what it means to be a woman, and I think she’s really trying to piece out all the choices available to her.

It’s a puzzling time, I think, making this transition. She needs to figure out what her values are, and how they compare to what we’ve tried to instill in her, and what might be uniquely her own. She needs to figure out what she likes about herself and others. She needs to figure out what her strengths and weaknesses are. All awhile taking into account what she feels others see in her. And I’m so thankful that I’ve been able to be there to play a more active role in her life this past year. Not having to dedicate so much of my time and energy to my job and someone else’s children, but rather my own, has been a true blessing. Especially given Lily’s nature.

One of my favorite stories to tell about Lily, and one I think I’ve already included in a birthday reflection, is from when she was about 10 months old. She had a very favorite book that we read approximately 1 million times a day. And one day, she picked it up and held it out to me. I asked her if she wanted me to read it, and she grunted and clapped her hands. And when I jokingly said, “But what if I don’t want to?”, she stiffened her arms out to her sides, balled up her fists, and yelled. I still think that memory is both hilarious and telling of her. Lily wants what she wants. And God help you all If you make her angry.

And even though she has definitely come to realize she can’t have everything she wants, she’s still just as fiery and quick to anger. But now she will pout, stomp upstairs to her room, and shut out the world. I understand that sometimes she just needs some time alone. But luckily I also have the time, energy, and patience to be there for her. Because every time (I’m not exaggerating), every time she gets into one of these moods, if I come to her room to see if she wants to talk after she’s had time to calm down, she always does. She wants me to hold her hand or snuggle her, and just listen to her. She wants to cry and yell, and be heard. And I’m forever grateful that she lets me do that. That I can be present for her. Because I know so many children who never had that, and how it made them grow distant, angry, self-critical, and even harmful to themselves and others. And I’m grateful that Lily loves and trusts me enough to know that no matter if she’s angry with me or someone/something else, or if she knows I’m angry with her, I’m still going to come into her room, sit on her bed, and ask her if she wants to talk about it. And I hope this will help her through whatever challenges this next year will bring.

And I expect there to be many challenges ahead of us. With homeschooling on the horizon, it could be a recipe for trouble even though it will also most probably bring us closer. What I hope is that Lily will continue to see how much I believe in her, and transfer those beliefs to herself. I hope she will go back to loving school, as much as she loves learning (which are, of course, not one in the same). I hope she continues to grow as an artist now that she will have ample time on a daily basis to experiment with new ideas, mediums, and techniques. I just hope that every hurdle we come upon, we will jump over together. Whether she is giving me a boost or the other way around.

Because as I love my children equally but different, I love my firstborn in a way a parent has to love the person who brought them the greatest gift of parenthood. I see so much in her, and I would do anything for her. She was my first sidekick, my first baby, my only girl, and hopefully my future best friend.

And so, Miss Lily-Girl, I wish you more happiness than you can ever know. I love everything about you, even the things you yourself don’t seem to appreciate. Because you know what, Pookie, everything inside of you makes a whole you. And without them, you wouldn’t be the girl I know so well. Embrace all your quirks, interests, shortcomings, fears, hopes, and dreams because every bit of those things make you the funniest, cleverest, pun and joke-making, intelligent, talented, beautiful little sassy-pants that you are.

I saw a story online that told of a mother who always told her daughter, “I wish you enough.” And it resonated with me. Yes, I wish you the world, but only so far as the world brings you that which fulfills you. I wish you enough from life to make you happy. Because no matter how much you have of toys, clothes, books, travels, whatever, as long as it makes you truly happy in your soul, it will be enough to sustain you. And that is what I wish for you, my dear girl. I wish you enough.

I love you, Pookie. I hope you have a most marvelous last single-digit birthday. Thank you for being my baby.

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

Last June—right around this time, actually—Ollie got a mosquito bite on his eyelid that made his whole eye socket swell up so much that he couldn’t open his eye. It was frightening and stressful because I had no preparation for that. I had no idea how to handle it, what to do, other than to call the doctor. And luckily for us, it turned out just fine in the end.

But while his eye was healing—it took about a week—we obviously had to go on with our lives as normal. One of the things we look forward to at the beginning of the summer is the food truck rodeo at the Historical Museum. We weren’t going to let a little eye swelling get in our way of a nice evening. So we went as usual, and got our food, and went to sit in our usual place. And it was during this very brief walk, that ultimately felt very long, that I began to notice the stares. Other people were openly staring at Ollie’s face, and some were even whispering amongst themselves while staring at him. Yes, he looked different, but he was still the same Ollie. I truly hadn’t realized how brazen people can be in the presence of someone else. Like who the hell were they to judge my child, a little boy? And I thought to myself at that moment, “I imagine this must be a little of what it’s like to have a child with special needs.” Now please excuse me if this thought was inappropriate for the situation, but at the time, it really felt like so many people were looking at us differently, waiting and watching to see what Ollie would do. And it broke my heart. And this was only one day that I experienced this! I thanked whatever powers that be or forces of nature at that moment that we ended up with two healthy, well-adjusted children without any significant health, developmental, and/or learning concerns. I couldn’t imagine the strength needed to have a child who was anything but typical—I hate to use the word normal.

Fast forward a year to now, and I’m singing a different tune. We are now amidst figuring out how to live with Ollie’s newly diagnosed anxiety disorder. It feels like our world was turned upside down practically overnight, even though, in retrospect, this was a long time coming. It had been right in front of us for so long, but we had no clue.

And though I don’t want to place blame on anyone or anything, certainly because in placing blame, I would also be claiming that what Ollie has to deal with is something regrettable, which it is not. But I suppose I want to point out that what appeared to be just personality characteristics, because of society’s continual (though slowly changing) ignorance of what mental illness looks like, were really early signs of his issue. What I thought was just excessive empathy and sensitivity was his mind overthinking sad or scary scenarios. What I thought was age-appropriate uncertainty at being new to school was really obvious separation anxiety. What I thought might have been normal indigestion or the need to poop was really physical symptoms of stress after his anxiety was left uncontrolled for so long. I really had no idea. But I should have.

Even as someone who suffers from anxiety and depression herself—and as I now can realize after being educated about this topic, did as a child as well—I didn’t have the needed knowledge or tools to look at my son’s behaviors and spot something wrong. And again, I don’t want to place blame on anyone specific, but to blame society as a whole for constantly overlooking mental health issues and for this deficit of what should be common knowledge.

You see, we all know about children with ADHD or signs of Autism, or what a speech delay looks like. Any good pediatrician these days will ask the parents at every routine checkup for signs of these things. But never did I ever get asked any questions like, “Does your child have a difficult time leaving you?” “Does your child ever complain of being lonely and/or scared?” “Does your child seem to worry a lot or engage in repetitive behaviors when upset?” Never. Not once. And maybe if I had, I would have picked up that these behaviors were not, in fact, normal for someone of his age. Instead of thinking that perhaps he was just a little immature or stubborn or too sensitive, I would have caught the warnings before they got out of hand like they are now.

Maybe. Maybe not, of course. But the fact that these issues were never even brought up upsets me. Because to me, and loads of other people speaking out lately, it seems that not only is mental illness very much misunderstood, it’s also misrepresented as something of less importance than other conditions. And I can back this up.

Here are the statistics for numbers of people/children diagnosed with the following conditions:

Autism—approximately 1% of the population

Sensory Processing disorder—approximately 5% of the population

ADHD—approximately 11% of the population (But I must add that there are numerous studies pointing to misdiagnosis of anxiety disorders and/or depression as ADHD in children as symptoms of these disorders are far different in children than in adults.)

Speech/Language Disorders—approximately 7-8% of the population

Mental Illness (Broad category)—approximately 20% of the population

Anxiety Disorder (more specifically)—approximately 8% of the population

Now I realize these are not the only conditions parents find themselves facing when raising children. These are just some of the more easily recognized and understood conditions. And I’m also not implying that any of these conditions is any easier or more difficult to live with. I just want, again, to point out that even though mental illness (in general) ranks the highest for diagnoses in children (and adults, I might add), it’s often the least understood, accepted, or treated.

Unlike so many other conditions, mental illness symptoms often get either misunderstood as other things or pushed aside as something the person should be able to control. Would a parent whose child doesn’t make eye contact or fusses excessively when touched push that away as nothing? Would a parent whose child hasn’t spoken a word by age 2 push that aside as being a “late bloomer”? I hope the answers to my previous two questions would be a resounding no. And yet, when a kid is so distracted by whatever is in his/her mind that they can’t focus on anything else, we tell them they need to “pull it together or else”. Or, when a child is clinging to his/her parent, refusing to let go, figure they’re just a little immature. And when we do these things, whether intentionally or not, we set the child up for an increase in the condition.

Here are some more facts for you:

Approximately 60 percent of adults, and almost one-half of youth ages 8 to 15 with a mental illness received no mental health services in the previous year.

One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14; three-quarters by age 24. Despite effective treatment, there are long delays−sometimes decades−between the first appearance of symptoms and when people get help.

Approximately 26 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness and an estimated 46 percent live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders.

Approximately 20 percent of state prisoners and 21 percent of local jail prisoners have “a recent history” of a mental health condition.

Seventy percent of youth in juvenile justice systems have at least one mental health condition and at least 20 percent live with a severe mental illness.

Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.

Over 50 percent of students with a mental health condition age 14 and older who are served by special education drop out−the highest dropout rate of any disability group.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. (more common than homicide) and the third leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24 years. More than 90 percent of those who die by suicide had one or more mental disorders.

 Think about this: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in men and women. It is the cause of death for 20% of men and women each year. So, someone with heart disease is 20% more likely to die from cardiac arrest than people without heart disease. That’s pretty awful and scary. BUT, people with mental illness are 90% more likely to die from suicide than people without mental illness. And this is considering that people with mental illness also account for 20% of the population. That’s terrifying for someone either suffering from mental illness or a loved one of someone who is. But where are the ad campaigns highlighting how we can reverse these statistics? Where are the constant reminders at doctor’s appointments to take better care of your mental health? Why do we act as though mental illness is a brand new condition that we’re still trying to get a grasp on?

Because despite all these things we know about mental illness, it is still one of the most highly undiagnosed and untreated conditions people suffer from.

But how can anyone outside of the medical profession see these symptoms for what they really are when the information is just not out there? Worrying, stressing, being afraid of something, feeling lonely or lost: these are all very common feelings that everyone at some point experiences. But what makes the difference is when these feelings are negatively impacting the quality of life of the sufferer. Then it becomes a disorder. But perhaps because so many people have experienced these things and have gotten through it, they seem to think that anyone can and should also. But like I said to my husband, “Not to be an asshole, but if you don’t suffer from mental illness, you can’t possibly understand.” You can’t understand the feelings of futility. You can’t understand why someone would not want to feel a certain way, but be powerless to do anything about it. You can’t understand how hearing someone tell you to “just get over it” makes it worse. You just can’t understand.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t help. It doesn’t mean you can’t spread awareness. It doesn’t mean you can’t support someone who does know. It doesn’t mean people who have mental illness have to suffer in silence or ignorance.

Because mental illness does have a genetic component to it, it is very likely you know or will know someone suffering from mental illness. No matter how good their life may seem, brain chemistry imbalances trump all else. Remember, you’d never tell a diabetic to just stop not processing insulin correctly. So you can’t possibly expect a person with mental illness to just stop feeling anxious or scared or depressed.  (Please also remember depression is not the same thing as sadness, so please don’t use these words synonymously.)

So what does that mean for our family? Well, it means that we will have to work as a group to overcome some obstacles together. We’ll need to see a psychologist, both individually, and as a family. We’ll need to be more patient. We’ll need to be mindful of using effective coping strategies and not letting our tempers rule our behaviors. And we’ll have to remind ourselves daily that we are living with loved ones who have special needs. Perhaps our needs are not something that’s seen as easily as Ollie’s bug-bitten swollen eye. We look just like everyone else. But we have special needs nonetheless.

I’m hoping that homeschooling with help ease a bit of Ollie’s anxiety in being left with others. And I’m hoping our time together will not reinforce that I’m the only safe person, but that he can use what we learn together—in his time and comfortable pace– to make himself feel good enough to function well. And I’m also hoping that him knowing he’s not alone in this will help him to feel less worried that others are judging him.

But this is not something that my family can do alone. We can’t normalize mental illness for everyone. People will continue to stare when he has a meltdown for what appears to be no reason. He will still feel fear and uncertainty. I will still feel guilt.

But if everyone who reads this can do one thing toward normalizing mental illness, it can become just another condition. If you see something on the internet, share it. If you hear a comment you know is incorrect, correct it. If you see someone out in public who is having a hard time, smile at them warmly or offer a hand. If you know someone who has a mental illness, remind them you are there. There is certainly power in numbers and the ability for something to go viral. And if we all work toward bringing greater awareness and understanding to these issues, we will all benefit.

 

Souces:

http://www2.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf

http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/facts-and-statistics/

http://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/facts-statistics-infographic#3

https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/statistics/quick-statistics-voice-speech-language

https://www.nami.org/getattachment/Learn-More/Mental-Health-by-the-Numbers/childrenmhfacts.pdf

http://www.spdfoundation.net/research/newresearch/

http://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm

https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/common-genetic-factors-found-5-mental-disorders

Halfway to double digits!

I usually begin my yearly birthday posts by going back to the post from the previous year to see what highlights I picked out then, and to see in what ways my babies have changed.  In the past, there have been numerous changes. New abilities. New interests. New hobbies. New character traits. But this year I was quite surprised to see just how much Ollie is still the same. And at first I wondered how this could be. He seems to have grown so much. But yet, at his core, he’s still very much the same person.

Initially I wondered if his constancy was a good thing. Did it indicate a lack of progress? Was he not developing as he should? Was he content to be stagnant? But the more I thought about it, the more I really believe that it’s a unique and wonderful thing. How many people can you honestly say aren’t affected by what is around them—popular culture, others’ interests or behaviors, music and/or tv, etc.—and merely stay who they are no matter what? I know that I’ve personally been affected by others many, many times. I know that I’ve tried to change who I am to fit some mold or role or expectation of who I was to be. But not Bubba. He just keeps on rolling as before. It really makes me so proud that he’s so content with who he is that he doesn’t seem to feel the need to change.

That’s not to say that he doesn’t find new things he’s interested in or want to join Lily in whatever she’s obsessed with at any given moment. Over the last year he has become a huge fan of Beanie Boos, Pokemon, Star Wars, and Minecraft because his sister was into them first. But I attribute that more to his adoration of his big sister. That boy wants nothing more than for his sister to want him around as much as he wants to be around her. Some days he gets lucky in this area, and somedays not so much. But he never stops trying to make himself her best friend. It doesn’t matter how many times she yells at him, or makes him cry, or pushes him away, he always comes back. Not that he’s a walking punching bag. He just seems to be able to know that underneath the sibling squabbling lies the coolest person in his life. And though she may huff and puff and roll her eyes when I tell her he just loves her so much, even she can’t resist his smile.

Ah, that little smile of his. Those full cheeks, and big, blue eyes, and dimpled, pointy chin combine into a perfect storm of cuteness that I dare anyone to resist. Bet you can’t. I know at least I can’t. And I’m pretty sure he knows this too, much to his benefit. Lily was always so damn clever and manipulative at his age, that I would give in sometimes just out of sheer amazement at her negotiation skills. I had to give her credit for her hard work, after all. But Ollie needn’t even go that far. He just needs to flash one of his smiles or sad, pleading looks, and I’m hard-pressed to say no. Of course I do say no sometimes, but it takes all my willpower not to give that little cutie everything he asks for and more.

Thankfully he doesn’t usually want much. He’s like any kid who wants a new toy anytime we enter Target, but he takes “no” fairly well when that’s the final answer. He’s an easy-going, easily pleased little guy. If he gets upset or angry, he’s usually over it within a few minutes, and then he’s back to whatever he was doing beforehand. He may still be very sensitive and easy to bruise emotionally, but at least he’s quick to forgive and forget. I’m thankful for that too because if he held a grudge every time he got upset, he’d be a perpetual grey cloud. But him, a grey cloud? Nope. No way. Thunder sometimes when he’s off-the-wall crazy and rambunctious. But never the rain on anyone’s parade. Always the rainbow.

And with this past year came the addition of school into his life. And with school, so many new people with so many different personalities. And also with school came less Mommy. And boy was it a task to get used to this at first—well, at least the Mommy part. He adjusted so well to meeting new kids. Kids who looked different than him, talked different than him, behaved different than him. And not once was this ever a problem for him. Bless his little heart, he never once asked me why most of his new friends had dark skin, or why some of them didn’t speak much English, or why some of them yelled or pouted, or talked back to the teachers. As long as they wanted to play Legos with him or build with Magnatiles (His FAVORITE things to do!), they were perfectly ok in his book. And if another student was disruptive or trying to get him to act out, he would just continue doing whatever he was doing, completely nonplussed and unconcerned with anyone else. Sometimes he’s just so damn good-natured, he’d let his friends squeeze the hell out of him with love or wrestle him to the ground with playing. And he’d just sit back and absorb it, and move on. Nothing seems to faze him.

Maybe he’s so good with his classmates because he knows what it is to feel something so strongly and to love so fiercely. He still showers me with hugs and kisses, and “I love You”s . It took him until about November before he would stop crying when I left his classroom each morning. He still makes me give him about a dozen hugs and kisses (no, seriously, I’m not exaggerating), but at least he lets me walk out looking at his smiling face instead of sobbing face. And I’m more than happy to oblige him in his need for affection because I think every child should have absolutely no doubt in their mind that they are the single most important thing in their parents’ lives. He certainly knows it, as does his sister.

And I suppose in a very selfish way, I’m also glad to know he still needs me as much as he once did, even if the need is different now. This is something that has taken me almost nine years of parenting to figure out. No matter how independent your children get, and how much they will do on their own and not ask your help with, they always need you. Always. They will never stop needing your love, attention, support, appreciation, lessons, structure, advice, interest, information, affection, worry, presence, communication, honesty, etc. And I saw this very clearly this year sending Ollie off to school. Sure, I’d pick him up and he’d be all smiles from having so much fun in school that day. But he always told me he was glad to see me, glad that I came back. And at first it struck me as odd and somewhat sad that he’d think otherwise, but I guess being in a new situation like that can bring out one’s fears in that way. But the fact that I kept coming back for him eventually led him to not worry so much anymore and to enjoy being with others. So even though he doesn’t need to hang on to me as much anymore, I think he needs my being there, and knowing I always will be. And that’s certainly something I can easily give him.  Every day. For eternity.

And so I look forward to watching him over this next year. Watching him grow even more into a little man. Losing his baby soft roundness and cutesy voice. Watching him continue to not give two shits what anyone might think about his nail polish or pink stuffed animals. To continue coming up with crazy stories or building newer and more inventive towers, buildings, and worlds. To watching him make more and more sense of written words on paper, and to write stories of his own. To watching him run, and climb, and crash, and fall, and get back up again, and smile all awhile. And to be there to be his wrestling partner or to chase him up the stairs squealing as I tickle him to death. I look forward to watching any changes that may take place, but more so to watching him continue to be the sweet, self-assured, kind, easy-going little love bug he’s always been.

So, my Bubba, I wish you a most wonderful 5th birthday full of what you love best: smiles; practical jokes; Cheez-Its; annoying your sister; hugs and kisses; high-pitched squeals; big belly laughs; funny, made up songs; and lots of sweets. I love you, my little man, more than I have the ability to express. I hope you feel every day just how loved you are, and how much more wonderful our lives are because of you in it. We are so very lucky to be your family. And I wake each day thankful I’m your mom.

 

Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes

Well, it’s official. I’m going back to teaching. Despite having said many times that I would never again be a teacher, I have changed my mind. Starting in September, I will be moving into a new position as an elementary teacher. Though I will have essentially 8 preps, as I’m teaching both Kindergarten and 4th grade, I’m super excited to begin this new chapter of my life. You’re probably wondering what school could possibly have one teacher teaching two separate elementary grade levels. It really is not very traditional, after all. Well, I can proudly tell you the name of the school is Mergler Homeschool.

Wait, come again?

Oh, no, you read that correctly. I’ll be moving into homeschooling my kiddos for the upcoming school year, and likely many more after that. Yes, my husband supports this plan. No, it wasn’t an easy or quick decision. And no, it’s not right for everyone. But it’s right for us, and that’s all that matters.

You see, we’ve taken pains to raise our children thus far with the mindset that they mustn’t  follow the crowd just because everyone else is doing something. We’ve prided ourselves in showing and encouraging individualism and promoting walking down the road “wanting wear”. And it has become increasingly evident that public school was not matching our values.

Lily has always been naturally curious and has genuinely enjoyed learning new things. And Ollie was very obviously following in her footsteps. From the outside, Lily’s honor roll grades, and Ollie’s enthusiasm for Pre-K might seem like the ideal situation. But I can tell you that the insider’s perspective tells a very different story. Lily has been bringing home worksheet after worksheet after worksheet for years now. And it’s not because she’s had terrible teachers. She has had, in fact, several wonderful, caring teachers. But because the climate of education has changed in the last decade, the teachers have had to do things in their classroom that they wouldn’t have done otherwise if not for the pressure put upon them. Hell, I know this firsthand.  (Yes, education has been constantly changing. Let’s not argue about this. But the last decade has seen some particularly unfortunate changes to how teaching and learning take place.) And because of these changes, I’ve seen my bright and inquisitive daughter slowly begin to dislike school. Instead of smiles and excitement about what she’d done each day, she’s begun complaining about what they don’t do, and how many worksheets they have to complete. When my mother asked her what she was doing in all of her subjects, she replied that they only do math and reading now because of the state test. Not ok.

But like so many people, I was afraid to even imagine an alternative. Kids get to a certain age, and then you send them off to school. And you encourage them to do all their work, don’t get in trouble, and in doing so, make you proud. You, essentially, choose to have children, and then leave them in the hands of other people and environments for most of their day. And then you deal with, potentially, rectifying the unwanted changes school makes. Why? Why do we give up this power? And if school seems less than ideal, you just shrug it off as “Well, that’s how it is sometimes.” Nothing is perfect. And though schools and teachers try their hardest, nothing can ever be what every kid needs. That’s the truth. That’s just how it is. But it doesn’t have to be.

You see, that’s just the thing. There are options. Some parents move their family to a school district that better represents what’s important to them. Some families attend private or Catholic schools. And now, some are even able to stay within the city by sending their kids to a charter school. So many options. And these options are very rarely, if ever, questioned, frowned upon, or cause a shifty, sideways glance from others. Yet, another alternative–homeschooling–very often is. What about socialization?? Aren’t they going to grow up to be weird?? Are they really going to learn anything?? Aren’t you sheltering them too much?? Won’t you get sick of each other?? How are they going to learn to get along with others?? I could continue, but I think you get the point.

The point is that there are so many valid questions to be asked of any schooling situation, but we’ve become so accustomed to the norm of public schooling. When someone decides that his/her child will be beginning school in their district, there is seldom any feedback other than “Oh, how nice.” Yet when a parent chooses to do something out of the norm for his/her child, there is an almost immediate storm of questioning and opinion giving.

With all due respect, my readers, please don’t bother. Because, believe me, I have done my fair share of research on this topic. I’ve joined homeschooling groups and talked to other parents. I’ve read scholarly articles on the subject, as well as firsthand accounts from parents and children. I’ve researched curriculum, and standards, and benchmarks for each grade. I’ve sought out cooperatives, classes, playgroups, and activities for the kids to join. My parents and in-laws have graciously paid for memberships to the science museum, art gallery, and aquarium for the kids to use as places to learn and socialize (And we’ll work on the zoo and botanical gardens as well). I have taken this transition so very seriously that there is honestly nothing anyone can say, particularly someone who either hasn’t  lived it or researched it, that will change our minds. There are so many myths and false perceptions surrounding homeschooling that I understand why some may be concerned. But I assure everyone who knows us and loves our children, we would never, ever do something that is not in their best interests.

And what is in their best interest right now is pulling them out of a system that is killing their desire to learn and grow in the way that is best for both of them individually. I have the ability to cater to their needs and interest in a way that school never could. And I also have the benefit of knowing my children so well, that I know what types of activities would be best to play up their strengths and remediate their areas of weakness. I can, and will, integrate play-based learning and art-integration lessons, and so much cross-curricular units that so much of school won’t feel like what we think of school at all. I have time and the flexibility to include field trips on a weekly basis, and time to allow for independent reading and self-selected projects. I can let my kids be kids. Not test scores. Not statistics. Not robots. Not cogs in the wheel. They can be who they are, in all their complicated wonderfulness.

And so I put this out here to you simply as a request for understanding, caring, and support as we move from one type of lifestyle to another. Both of the kids are incredibly excited to begin this next phase of their schooling (Shockingly, convincing them was the easiest part!). One of the most beautiful parts of homeschooling, in my opinion, is the movement back to the concept of it taking a village to raise children. My kids will be so lucky to benefit from the wisdom, knowledge, humor, interests, and experiences of everyone in our lives. And we would love to have guest teachers for workshops, classes, or just some hanging out time anytime there is interest in doing so. And of course we also just look forward to your love and presence in our lives. And if anyone wants to have a sincere conversation about more reasons why homeschooling is the right option for us, or would like resources to do research of their own, feel free to let me know.

But for now you’ll have to excuse me, as I have a lot of planning to do before September!

So what WILL you do then? Or: In Defense of Stay-at-Home Parenting

I know that anyone who frequents any social media sites are likely up-to-their-eyeballs sick of divisive articles that pit one group against one another, particularly parents. You’ve got the groups that think breastfeeding in public is a disgrace, and the group that thinks formula feeding is poisoning children. You’ve got one group that tries to convince others that not vaccinating your kids is the most irresponsible thing you can do, and the other group claiming vaccinations are unnecessary and we’re, again, poisoning our kids. And let’s not forget the natural birth = warrior mama vs. c-section birth = the easy way out debate. And then, last but not least, we have the groups that claim working parents are neglecting their kids and are selfish to want a career, and others who think stay-at-home parents are on one extended vacation. Enough, right?

Well, maybe one more…

Because I’ve made it abundantly clear to anyone who will listen that I am not going back to teaching in the foreseeable future (and by foreseeable, I mean ever), I’ve had plenty of conversations that have progressed in the same way:

Me: “Yeah, I think I’m done with teaching. It’s just not what’s in my heart anymore.”

Other person: “Huh. Ok. I get it. But what will you do then??”

Me: “Uh. This. What I’m doing now.”

Other person: “So, like, just staying home.”

Me: Smirk. “Yeah, Just staying home.”

Because, you know, all I do all day is hang out and eat bon bons. Don’t all stay-at-home-parents? No? Bummer. What did I sign up for then?

For the record, I can’t speak to any other family’s situation, and I’m not here to write my defense of what I do all day. I’m writing this to perhaps illuminate a topic that is incredibly misunderstood.

What is the role of the stay-at-home-parent, Mergler Style: Get up; feed the cats; feed the birds; wake the older child, make sure she gets out of bed, dressed, and having put on deodorant and clean socks (Trust me, that’s a feat all in itself); entertain all manner of questions and comments as younger child follows me around the house; make sure the third child…er, husband is awake and getting ready for work; make lunches; feed older child; brush older child’s teeth; do older child’s hair; get children dressed to go to bus stop; go to bus stop; come back and make breakfast for younger child; eat breakfast myself; shower (if I’m lucky); get younger child dressed; brush his teeth; treat his eczema; pack his bag; help him get dressed to leave the house; drive him to school; take him to his locker and help him unpack; take him to his classroom; give him ten thousand hugs and kisses; go back home; clean the house; do laundry; go grocery shopping; run errands (all of these in any particular order or day); try to squeeze in time for reading or writing; go get older child from bus stop; go pick up younger child from school; come back home and help older child with homework; make children snacks; make dinner; clean up after dinner; family time; bedtime routine–both children because husband is tired from working all day–brush teeth, get in pj’s, read books, hugs and kisses, lights out; hope for time left to interact with husband and maybe read; go to bed. Get up the next day and do it all over again.

Now, do other parents do this and more? Of course. One of my good friends teaches full-time and is a single-parent. And I’m well aware that working parents still parent as well. But just from my experience alone, I can say that very rarely did all of these things get done in one day, particular without one or both parents getting testy.

I don’t know about you, but nowhere in that list do I see eat bon bons. 🙂  Do I have some free-time most days? Yeah, of course. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. But in that free-time, I’m focusing on doing what I can to make sure I’m as rested, stress-free, and happy as I can be because I know that my mood directly affects that of my family. And I know that when I’m feeling frazzled, so much less gets done. I’d bet anyone any amount of money that if you asked my family if life is better now, that we’re happier now that I’m not working, that they’d definitely say  yes.

But yet, for so many people, this is not enough. Having a well-run household and family life is not enough. Having my kids never wanting for attention or help is not enough. Having a daily existence that is 90% stress-free is not enough. Because I should be doing something else. And why wouldn’t I want to?

I admit that for quite a bit of my life, I felt that to be a strong, independent woman, I needed to be reliant on no one but myself. I swore I’d never let myself get in a situation where I was monetarily dependent on my husband. I felt it was the opposite of feminism. A feminist can stand on her own. She runs her life, and doesn’t need anyone.

Now I have come to believe that the most important aspect of feminism is the presence of choice. I have options. I can go back to work if I’d like. But instead I choose to be a stay-at-home parent. And it’s in this choosing that I think I’ve found the same amount of power, control, and independence that I once did while having a career outside of home. Not to mention, I’ve matured enough to realize that depending on someone else doesn’t make me weak, it makes me human. And depending on my husband just means he is an integral part of my being and necessary to my happiness. I see nothing wrong with that.

Ultimately, I think we’re all just trying to do our best. We’re doing what we feel is best fo ourselves and families. And as far as I’m concerned, I’m not looking for anyone else to validate my way of life. I am happy. My family is happy. That’s the only validation I need. But I will put out a plea for others parents. I know many people–men and women–who are stay-at-home parents and who would appreciate just a wee bit more respect. Being a parent is, in my opinion, one of the hardest, but most amazingly rewarding jobs there is. And no one has to agree with me on everything,  but I think we can all agree that it is work, and that we all deserve a little credit for doing it.

So please, all you lawyers, teachers, bankers, tradesmen, etc., please don’t ask me what I do all day. And please don’t ask me what I’m going to actually do in the future. I’m going to do this. Exactly what I’m doing now. And I would never dream of asking you the same question.

 

The end of NaNoWriMo

Today is the last day of NaNoWrimo, the day by which all participants should have reached 50k words and verified it, thus “winning” the challenge. Today I am at 42k words, haven’t written in 3 days, and have no plans to do so today. And I’ll tell you why. I’ll tell you what I learned by doing NaNoWriMo.

I signed up for this challenge with some optimistic naivete. Having never written more than a short story, but wanting to write a novel for as long as I can remember, I thought this would be it. I’d heard of NY Times best sellers that were NaNo books, and I figured anything was possible. Sure 50k words is a lot, and it demanded commitment, but I had the time and the drive. I could do it.

And sure, I did do it. I got to 42k words, which is in itself pretty impressive. And if I wanted to, I would have reached the 50k mark. And after having 7k be my highest word count, I feel super proud of myself. You see, because even though I didn’t “win,” I still feel like a winner. NaNoWriMo was the kick in the ass I needed. I needed to go from talking about writing, and wishing I was writing, to actually writing. And I did.

This challenge made me go from thinking I’d never be good enough and that my writing is unremarkable, to thinking that it might be unremarkable now, but that I have the potential to make it better. That a blank paper will never be more than that, but a paper with lots of red cross-outs can be better. And my 42k words will get better. On my time, at my pace, by my rules. I appreciate NaNo for getting my engine started, but I know now that time constraints and word count goals make for more quantity of writing than quality of writing. And to be fair, no one claims to have a polished novel at the end of the month. But I felt I was putting too much pressure on myself, and that was not good for creativity.

Now, I know that all writers work under some sort of deadline. When you are working with an editor and publisher, you need to have your work completed by a certain time. I get that. I also understand that every good writer writes every day. Every. Day. But that’s just not ideal for my life right now. I could write something every day. And maybe that’s really the point. Just to get something down. But I could not commit to 2k words each day. Some days the words flowed very easily, and I reached over 2k words, and other days not so much. And it was on these “not so much” days that I felt enormous pressure. If I didn’t hit 2k, I would be behind, and if I was behind, I would have to race to catch up, and if I didn’t catch up, then I failed. That was no good for getting the creative juices flowing again.

And while I realize 2k words isn’t that much to ask of someone, it just wasn’t always feasible for me. When I left my job as a teacher and decided that I was never going back to the profession, I did so for many reasons. But one of the main reasons was that I had put my job ahead of so much else for so long. I sacrificed personal time, my health, and pushed my family to the side for ultimately nothing that gave me long-term pleasure or benefits. And when I decided teaching was no longer the best fit for me, I swore to always put my family first, no matter what else I was doing. And there were several times during NaNo that I should have been with my kids, because they were sick or wanted attention or just because otherwise I was holed up in my office and not really present; and, I didn’t honor my commitment to them. And I always felt a pang of guilt then. But in my head I defended my actions as it’s only for a month, it wouldn’t be forever. And I got through much of the month this way. But what would I say if I continued past the November 30th mark (as my 42k words is roughly only half the book)? Would I continue to justify my reasons for eschewing my promise to myself and my family? I wasn’t willing to do that.

But toward the end of the month, with Thanksgiving upon us, my kids being home for 4 days, not to mention some bouts of pink-eye, upper respiratory viruses, and then strep throat, I couldn’t see myself focusing on my writing above everything else. As the days went by, and my word count stayed stagnant, I started to realize that making it to 50k wasn’t really winning me anything but a return to the life I’d previously lived and loathed. And it was then that I made a conscious decision to not finish. My story would still be there waiting for me when I was ready to pick it up again. But these moments when my family needed me were too crucial to miss.

I know I might seem hopelessly idealistic in saying I don’t want to live a life that feels like a burden. Yes, I know sometimes aspects of our lives are difficult. But after having lived for so long with everything being difficult, I know the danger in complicity. I know how making concessions can be a very slippery slope toward feeling futile and worthless. I never will allow myself to live like that again. And when it comes to writing, I never want it to feel like a chore. Challenging, frustrating, perhaps? Sure. But never like something I have to do instead of something I want to do. I want to want to write even when I can’t, when I have something else I need to be doing. I don’t want to feel like I have nothing I want to say when I have all the time in the world. And that’s exactly why I walked away so close to the finish line, and why I don’t regret it or feel like a loser at all.

I congratulate all of the participants who will, by day’s end, have met the goal of 50k. And I also applaud all those who tried and didn’t get there, willingly or otherwise.

Hopefully we all have so much more to live. And while I know today could be our last and perhaps then I should write like I don’t have forever to finish, I choose to simply live life enjoying what I can from each day. And if writing is a part of that day, great. If helping a sick child blow their nose or catching their vomit in my bare hands so it doesn’t hit the carpet is part of that day, that’s great too. I will live my life by my rules only now, and my rule states that I always do what feels right. And today what feels right is saying farewell to NaNoWriMo. Regardless of my word count, I now consider myself a writer.