The Mystery of Who You Are

When your child is an infant and a toddler, you don’t know a whole lot about who they are, but at least you can describe them. Sure, that description has little to do with their personality and a lot more to do with how they sleep, what they eat, their gross and fine motor capabilities, but you can at least pin those things down. And maybe for some kids they stay that way during the terrible 3’s, but some of what makes that age so tough for me isn’t just the constant frustration of a tyrannical preschooler, but the lack of consistency. 

Tessa just turned 4 and I cannot for the life of me pin her down. Fickleness may be her most distinctive trait, to be honest.

Sure, I can nail down a few likes and dislikes. She likes accessories and riding her bike and bunnies. But you could pick out something that’s absolutely perfect for her and she’ll hate it. She doesn’t have a consistent favorite toy, what she loves today she cares about not one whit tomorrow. 

 

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Some of this is garden variety developmental whatever. She asks for something, then when given it 5 seconds later is now furious that you’ve given her THIS and not THAT even though this is exactly the thing she begged and pleaded for. But there is no old reliable, no go-to, nothing that I always know will cheer her up. 

This adjustment is a little hard because Graham was such a child of habit and ritual and routine. He fit into a very specific box. It’s an unusual and eccentric box, but it’s a box nonetheless. He responds well to praise. He loves a certain kind of toy. He enjoys a certain kind of game. And while these things change over the years, there is a lot of consistency from day to day and week to week. It’s comforting to know how he’s going to respond, even if I don’t always like it.

But Tessa? You’ve got me. She doesn’t respond consistently to praise or discipline. I can say for sure that she is stubborn. 

Sometimes she is vocal and opinionated. Sometimes she is content to stay in the background. Sometimes she blends in with her friends and is totally mellow. Sometimes she is bossy. Sometimes she is the little sister who repeats everything her older brother says. 

I feel like I should know more about who she is by now. I’m her mother, right?

But I’m also the kind of parent who recognizes that my kids have their own very deep and very strong inner life that hardly involves me at all. I don’t want to put pressure on her to be a certain way. I want to give her the power to define herself at her own pace. I just get impatient about who this little one is.

I’m also acutely aware of how little I know of her because I know that autism presents in very unexpected ways with girls. Our family is a prime model of this. Graham who follows a very well-worn type, and Tessa who doesn’t fit any type at all. Her therapists don’t have any more of a clue than we do, but everyone agrees that she’s generally happy, fun to be around, and quite bright. 

It’s okay if I have to keep waiting to see what her challenges will be. There are certainly worse problems we could be having, I definitely know that. For now, I still won’t know when she’ll hop happily along beside me and when she’ll refuse to stand up even though we are going to do something fun and go somewhere she wants to go and why will she not just stand up already (while Graham starts losing it in the background). For now, she still doesn’t quite have the words and the awareness to tell me how she feels or what she wants all the time, even when she is upset. 

But I do give her full props for being a master of standing her ground. Like the other night when she wouldn’t stop making noise and kicking the wall in bed. She was keeping Graham awake and making him increasingly upset, so I pulled her out of the room and had her sit in the hall for a while. Despite very lenient bargaining, she refused to stop making noise and when I let her back in she went right back to kicking the wall. So she stayed in the hall. She planted her flag in the hall. And she wanted to make sure I knew it.

 

 

She fell asleep with that scowl still on her face rather than go lay nicely in her bed. I may not enjoy dealing with that kind of stubborn but I can’t help but admire it. 

I think of all the traits I want my daughter to have…

That level of commitment and willingness to flout authority? I feel like she’ll be okay.

Holiday Spirit

It is Saturday, the 19th of December, aka Christmas Eve at Mom’s House. The calendar has the kids at their dad’s for Christmas, which is fine. I’ve never been a you-have-to-celebrate-on-the-actual-day kind of person. 

It is a lot like a normal day, with the occasional festivity thrown in. 

Graham asks to watch television, we run errands instead. We stop at the dollar store where we will continue my family’s tradition of all the kids buying each other presents. (When I go to my parents’ house for Christmas, this continues, with my dad to this day passing each of us a stack of one-dollar bills to cover it.) This mission involves secrecy and surprise, which is part of the fun, since you’re all shopping in the same store at the same time. Graham is nervous about this endeavor, which I anticipated. He knows that when they split up, I’ll stay with Tessa. He has lost it in the middle of a public place on more occasion when he cannot immediately see me. But we talk it through, the store is small, and Tessa chooses an Iron Man puzzle for Graham quickly, just in time for him to call out for me. I peek in his bag and see a Frozen puzzle for her. We walk to the register, I hold both the secret packages, Tessa says to Graham, “I got you puzzle,” and I immediately shush her and remind her it’s supposed to be a secret. “But it is a secret,” Graham insists, since he doesn’t know what kind of puzzle. By the time we get to the car he tells her he got her a puzzle, too. So much for surprises.

After this delightful trip, it is all downhill as we try to get through a grocery trip. I make threats. They don’t listen. The car cart is certainly the heaviest it’s ever been, have they doubled in size? We ride home with the kids in penitent silence hoping to atone.

At home it is whining for snacks and whining about who doesn’t want hugs right now and finally I cut through it all by letting them at the gingerbread house kit I brought home from work. It buys us about 20 minutes of holiday harmony before they eat all the candy that wasn’t used for decorating and demand more snacks.

As we hit late afternoon we get peak How-long-until-dinner? “One minute less than when you asked me last time.” But finally the time passes. We eat dips (veggies with dip, chips with dip, apples with dip) for dinner and watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Frozen and wait for the time to open Christmas Eve pajamas.

You always think holidays will be different but with kids they can never get too far below 80% normal. 

 

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But somehow on Sunday, our Christmas, we manage to get about as close to holiday magic as I think is possible. They are excited and tickled in the 10 minutes or so it takes to open presents. I let them eat all the candy from their stockings. We open Graham’s legos and start to build. Tessa puts on her new necklace. We watch a movie. Everyone plays a game together. Graham helps Tessa with her duplo set. I bake. Twice. 

There are still two time outs (one for each kid) and they’re sent upstairs before bedtime when I’ve about had it and the requests for snacks all day long are nearly relentless and Tessa doesn’t eat the sandwich she asked for and so on. But we have more cooperation, more cuddles, more general happy than usually happens on a day when we don’t actually leave the house. It’s not exactly a Christmas miracle, but it is a pleasant surprise.

The evenings are easier this year. Last year I was really depressed when I stayed up on Christmas Eve to wrap. This year is my second go at single-parent-holiday-prep and because I already know I will have Danny and Bing and Sam Adams there with me, it isn’t so daunting. I also don’t have anything to assemble this year, a plus. (You know, assuming you don’t count the 6 hours I spend helping the 6-year-old put together his lego set. And honestly, I’ll take that because peace and harmony and quiet.) Last year I was much more hung up on everything that I’d always expected the secret holiday wrapping to be, a special little party of your very own. It’s not that I still don’t get disappointed or sad or lonely because I definitely do. But it’s been 2 and a half years and I have not had a serious relationship that entire time and single has become the default. Which isn’t bad, honestly. This is still the rough part, I’m still right in the weeds of the holidays, but it is better. Everything seems at least a little better this year. That is nothing to sneeze at.

The Moment Is Now

Maybe, if it hadn’t been so taxing and all-encompassing, I might have had that peculiar out-of-body style experience while giving birth. You know, the one where you are doing something but simultaneously you’re looking at yourself doing that thing from the outside and thinking, “Hey, I am doing this thing. That’s crazy.” It certainly could’ve happened during birth, it’s such a trope of television and movies. The feet in stirrups, the directions to push, the straining and sweating. But, like I said, I was too caught up in the moment.

Still, I do have those moments as a parent every now and then. Sunday was the most recent one. I took the training wheels off Graham’s bike at his request. He’s had his bike since July, most kids probably would have ditched the training wheels months ago, but we’re not quite the norm. We don’t live on a quiet suburban street. We have a small stretch of sidewalk, but it’s on a hill. There’s no good place nearby for him to practice, so we have to drive to the high school track 15 minutes away for him to put time in, but we can only do it on weekends and he’s at his dad’s house half of that time. Oh, and Tessa has to be up for it, too, and she thinks riding bikes around the track is super boring. Plus, Graham’s an anxious kid. After he jumped on that bike like he had already mastered it and scared himself half to death because he didn’t know how to stop, he took his time getting comfortable.

We drove over on Sunday after I removed the training wheels. Graham was confident but cautious, which is his attitude more and more these days. He likes to tell me how 1st grade is very hard, but he also tells me that he is learning everything and knows how to do it. 

The first order of business was getting on and getting off. I knew from his prior scare that he needed to be able to stop and get off comfortably. And I knew that just standing with the bike would be harder than the riding part. He’s got the riding down, it’s just managing the bike itself when it’s not in motion. So we practiced a bit, and then he started to ride while I held one handlebar and kept a hand on his back.

We went around the track and I thought, “Oh hey, here I am, like I’m in a commercial for life insurance or something, jogging with my kid as he learns how to ride his bike.”

I also thought, “Maybe I should’ve worn my sneakers.”

By our third lap I just had my hand lightly on his back and I told him, “I’m barely touching you, I’m not even holding you up anymore, so once you go around the corner, I’m going to let go, okay?” 

And to my surprise he said, “Okay, Mom.” And that was it. I let go, I continued to jog with him for a stretch, and then I stopped. There he went. It was the end of the commercial.

 

Training wheels are OFF!

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It was even the golden hour, for crying out loud. 

Sure, it wasn’t the tree-lined suburban street. It was a beat up and worn out old track at a beat up old building with graffiti, and a sad looking Chinese restaurant across the street, plus a bar where it’s not that unusual to get a strong whiff of pot smoke. But it was our moment, and we took it.

The Story Starts Here

sponsored post image The Story Starts Here
Post Sponsored by Scholastic

I knew before I had kids that I couldn’t expect them all to be readers just because I read. I’ve seen in my own family how everyone is their own person, you can build a strong foundation but it’s everyone’s choice to make for themselves. But I still wasn’t quite prepared for how hard it was to incorporate books into parenting.

While everyone else had pictures of their infants flipping pages in board books and lovingly munching on the corners, my baby wouldn’t look at a book. I followed all the suggestions for how to read to your baby, but it just wasn’t happening. He hated it. I hated it. It was a bust.

Things started to change when Graham was 1 or 2. That was when we had the whole year of one book, Thumper’s Fluffy Tail, a real riveting read that I had completely memorized, not just the words but the pauses before I turned the page so Graham could rub the textured parts. Everything had to be just so or Graham wailed in protest.

But we perservered. We pushed through. It took years of work, finding the right books, and then having to start over somewhat once we added Tessa to the mix. But even if reading doesn’t get off to a great start in your house, there’s still hope. 

As Graham’s reading has progressed we’ve changed our rituals to accommodate everyone’s needs. I know a lot of other families are in a similar situation, with one or more older readers able to read on their own, with younger kids who can’t read yet. We’re making it work and I have a few tips on getting reading time to work for you even when you have kids of different age levels.

scholastic 1 The Story Starts Here

Something for Everyone

We all take part in reading time, but everyone has their own role to play. Graham and Tessa each pick out a book of their own and there’s also our regular chapter book on top of that. Everyone has a part of the reading that’s just for them, but they’re also able to enjoy everything else.

Practice for Early Readers

Graham is now in first grade and is supposed to read on his own for 20 minutes a day. We work that into our bedtime routine. He reads picture books sometimes, but most of the time he’s reading early reader books with short chapters. We’re working our way through Arnold Lobel’s entire bibliography along with anything else that catches Graham’s fancy as we go. 

Have Structure, But Be Flexible

We usually start with Graham reading, then Tessa gets her book, then we finish with the chapter book. But if one is in a groove or the other is really excited, we can always mix it up. We always have our routine to fall back on, but when people are extra antsy that may mean less reading (or it may mean more, since reading is right before bed at our house and it also helps to serve as calm-down time). If the story’s really good, we can always add another chapter or another book. 

The structure makes it much easier for me to transition us into reading time without stress or anxiety. I don’t have time to plan fun reading activities or curate themes in our reading. I just want us to have this time together and to enjoy the stories.

If Tessa is just not feeling it, which happens some days, we still have enough rules set up that she knows to be quiet and let Graham listen and concentrate. And every now and then if Graham really doesn’t want to read, I give him a pass. (In the picture above, Tessa is doing her own thing while Graham does his reading. Totally cool.)

Be Patient with Chapter Books

I’ve talked to other parents who find it difficult to begin the process of reading a chapter book. And it does require everybody to adjust a little. Kids are used to pictures and used to something shorter and more engaging, so you have to give them plenty of time to adjust. We started with chapter books that are heavy on pictures (our first was My Father’s Dragon, which felt a lot like a long picture book) and if a chapter is particularly long we’ll break it up.

If you find that the kids are fidgety, don’t worry. Most adults I know can’t focus on an audiobook and that’s basically what you’re asking your kids to do when you read a chapter book aloud. Graham tends to stay close by, though sometimes he’ll wander a bit or fidget. Tessa usually pulls out toys and plays while we read the chapter book. But no one complains, in fact when I had to skip it when I was sick and lost my voice, everyone was pretty sad.

Let Emerging Readers “Read”

Graham has been reading to us for a few months now, and Tessa has finally decided it’s time for her to “read,” too. She usually does this by choosing one of a few books that are pretty low on words. She’ll either have me read it and then repeat the words or she’ll “read” it by herself. I let her go and don’t tell her what the book actually says, she remembers it pretty well and Graham pipes in sometimes to help. Her favorite book for this right now is I Want My Hat Back, which is short, repetitive, and silly. Perfect for a 3-year-old.

Older Kids Still Enjoy Picture Books

Graham still loves picture books aimed at kids much younger than he is. He loves all kinds of books, so we’ll be keeping picture books in rotation for a long time to come. He gets to listen to me read, read on his own, and then have the full interactive experience of reading a picture book over my shoulder and taking in the reading and the visual story. It’s all slightly different skillsets and it helps him be able to follow along and see new words in a low-pressure situation.

Add New Books to the Mix

There tends to be a lot of repetition when we’re reading a chapter book for a couple weeks or the same picture book over and over again. So we make regular library trips and I try to pick out a new book to add to our home library every so often. 

Speaking of new books, we got a bundle from Scholastic to incorporate into our reading and I have to admit, I was impressed with their choices. 

StoryStartsHerePrizingImage e1447632674541 The Story Starts Here

Peek-a-Boo Farm is an animal identification board book with a flap to pull to reveal the animal. Yes, Graham is 6, but he still enjoys these. And Tessa is in school now, but she enjoys the participation element. The simple formula also means she can “read” it to herself while she lays in bed.

Where’s Walrus and Penguin? is one of those wordless stories that’s great for a wide age range. Tessa can “read,” Graham can comment on what’s happening, both kids really enjoyed the hide-and-seek game of the story. (I’m sure my kids aren’t the only ones who love a book where they see something the characters don’t.)

Friendshape is probably my favorite, great message, witty illustrations, a really fun elementary shapes book that does something different.

If You’re a Robot and You Know It is the one they won’t put down, as is always the case for a pop-up book with tabs to pull. My kids ADORE tabs, it’s kind of a problem. 

Zen Socks is a complex story with gorgeous illustrations that’s a nice addition for families talking about mindfulness. 

TheStoryStartsHere 4C Stacked 300x261 The Story Starts HereBasically, the set was a big hit and the kids are working the books into their rotation. 

I know looking for books for kids can be overwhelming, so many choices, so many authors, and that’s where Scholastic’s new site The Story Starts Here comes in. Whether you’re a parent, a friend, a teacher, or a librarian looking for books for every age group, you can find great recommendations. Plus downloadables and videos that tie in to the stories. 

I am a big fan of doing books for Christmas, birthday, Chanukah, you name it, I think it’s a great time for books. And if you’re gifting for someone else, you know their parents will be much happier if you give them a book than one of those really loud and obnoxious toys. So head on over and take a look. 

Thanks to Scholastic for sponsoring this post. As I’m sure you can imagine I am pretty thrilled to be working with them. Yay reading!

 

Not So Big Magic

Being a parent on the internet usually requires you to fall into one of two categories.

You can be the person who sees beauty everywhere in your children, who writes them long letters, who basks in the wonder of their faces and their voices.

Or you can be the person who uses humor as an escape from the mundane drudgery of parenting, the cleaning, the whining, the repetition.

I am not really either of these parents, though I tend to lean towards the latter instead of the former. But as my circles expand and I see more of the former in my internet circles, it can lead to some soul searching, for better and for worse.

Why don’t I find that kind of beauty in my children everyday? Why don’t I want to write a long post about the magical moments in one of their childish traits like curiosity? Why don’t we have the kind of relationship where my children are overcome with joy and hugs when they see me after time away?

I struggled with these questions a lot early in my parenting life, but then those questions got all swept aside when I found out my child had Autism. That seemed to explain it.

I’m not sure it explains it anymore. My children are children, and despite their differences, they are social and emotional beings. They are beautiful and sensitive and just as worthy of spare essays celebrating their uniqueness.

It’s me. I’m the difference. And I think I’ve always known that but it was nice to believe it wasn’t when I was at some of my lowest points as a parent. 

When the kids came to my house after a few days at their dad’s, I thought to myself, Try to see the magic in them, try to see it just a few times each day

It’s a nice mantra, but it didn’t really change anything. Maybe some of my smiles or my hugs were a few seconds longer? It didn’t change my outlook or open up any new meaning. 

Usually as a parent, the best I can manage is trying to be optimistic and positive. “Trying” is the important word, because it usually only takes a day or two for me to lose that outlook completely. Many weeks, by the time I get them ready on their last morning with me, it feels like a relief that I will have a little time to myself.

You may be thinking that it’s single parenting that’s part of the issue. And who knows? Maybe it is. I can’t really say. I’ve never had a real parenting partner, but plenty of people who are married are in that situation. When you’re both working and things are crazy or when one of you is working and division of labor is uneven. It’s just part of it. No, it’s me. And it would be me even if I was in a beatific marriage with a perfect co-parenting partner. The other stuff just affects where my mood falls on the scale from “This is pretty nice,” to “I am ready to be done.” 

I wish I found parenting more inspiring and magical and joyful. I really do. And I know that even the people who write long, beautiful stories about wonder in their child’s eyes also experience the drudgery and annoyance and all that. But I only get to hang out on their end of the spectrum in small, short moments. 

I worry that my kids miss out. Would their lives be better if I was more excited about who they are right now and what’s happening in their minds? Maybe? I try to make up for my lack of whimsy by making sure we have our fair share of memory-making activities. But I admit this is also to help me keep order and break up the day. 

But then again, my children aren’t whimsical by nature. I get the feeling that kind of person would be frustrated by my kids a lot more than I am. Honestly, I usually feel like my kids and I are pretty well-suited to each other. They tend to be independent, which was my preference as a kid and is definitely my preference as a parent. When they seek out play and magic, they usually seek out each other and I’m happy not to stand in the way of that. 

 

I just stopped writing because Tessa walked over and asked to sit in my lap. I saved my draft, hoisted her up, and sat with her for a while. I didn’t feel any great sense of joy or peace or wonder. But it was nice. And there’s no reason why that can’t be enough.