This Year

This year was the year a lot of things went wrong. But it was also the year Christmas started to work.

When you spend the holidays with a big group of family or friends, little kids aren’t such a big deal. You celebrate the way you always do, you trade off with the kids, and it’s the same as every other year. But when you spend the holidays with just your little family and your family has only one adult, the formula changes. 

At our house we have thrown out most of the holiday trappings. I don’t spend hours working on a big meal, partly because it’s hard to do while also keeping an eye on kids, and mostly because the kids wouldn’t eat any of it anyway. And the traditions I’ve wanted to put in place haven’t always worked, little kids are fickle and everyone has to be treated the same and that just isn’t always going to fly.

But this year! This year we kind of got it. 

I didn’t put in a lot of extra effort this year. Actually the week before Christmas was really awful, a pile-up of bad thing after bad thing. So I came into the weekend with a bare minimum of plans. What I remembered, though, was my previous attempts at starting holiday traditions that crashed and burned because the kids were not interested. So this year we had traditions, but like much of our lives, they were simple and low key.

We bought a real tree this year. We’ve never had one before, and it was definitely a sacrifice this year in particular since the move has money tighter than usual, but it looks great. The kids helped me pick out ornaments and a star for under $30 and a few leftover ornaments from previous years plus gifted ornaments from friends meant we had a real tree decorating this year. 

One tradition I’ve been committed to doing with the kids is one my parents started. If you don’t give allowances and budgets are tight, kids can still give gifts with little money and risk with one simple trip: the dollar store. This one mostly worked, but neither Graham nor Tessa likes being alone. At all. And since secrecy is part of the deal, logistics were a little tricky. But each of them got two dollars to buy a gift for each other and for me. Dollar store gifts mean expectations are low, but the impact was really there this year. They both kept talking about the gifts they’d chosen, I had to tell them about a hundred times, “It’s a secret!” They were just really excited. Graham had me open my present from him before he opened any gifts himself. And while Tessa got me a card with a kitten on it “for a favorite niece,” I’m calling it a win.

Christmas Eve pajamas are always a win. You can take that to the bank.

After we opened pj’s, I decided to do a Christmas Eve dinner that was different and fun, but still the kind of stuff my kids actually like. So I got a bunch of red and green veggies (bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, cucumber, celery), cut them up, and served them with a big bowl of ranch (and hummus for me) to eat while we watched Muppet Christmas Carol. The kids were thrilled to eat on the couch and enjoyed the dipping. I was just happy they ate and that it took only a little while to prep.

I stayed up after the kids went to bed to wrap presents and watch White Christmas, a little tradition of mine ever since the divorce. In the past it’s been bittersweet, but this year I was just used to it, it was the thing I always do, so it felt better. I thought about cooking our Christmas breakfast (strawberry muffins, settled upon after a few other efforts that flopped) then but ultimately decided the kids would eat the candy from their stockings in the morning anyway and no one would be wanting breakfast until at least 10. Which was 100% accurate.

I let Christmas Day just be. The kids enjoyed their new things, we went to a movie, we had a normal dinner. What makes my kids happy is routine, safety, comfort, so we had enough of normal with special thrown in to keep everybody happy. 

Christmas was Sunday, the kids were staying until Wednesday, and there would be no reinforcements. No school, no camp, no childcare, just me and them. The holidays are notoriously awful to try and do a big thing with your kids to get out of the house because everyone else had the same idea. So I was trying to think of ways for us to use the time. I planned a few activities.

But in the end, we didn’t do most of them. Because we were fine. Everyone got along. I gave one time out. I didn’t need to yell and only a couple times had to be called in to mediate or separate. Instead we were all just good.

Sure, I let them eat more candy than usual. I let them watch TV. I let them play video games. Because if not Christmas break, when? Everyone was in a good mood. We listened to music. Tessa and I played card games over and over again. Graham gave me regular updates on his video game status. Everyone was just good.

I took family pictures, which was a hilarious undertaking. Turns out my camera doesn’t take a wireless remote and no one carried a wired remote in the store so I had to use a self-timer. I also couldn’t find my tripod so I had to set it on a chair, squat down to make sure it was in the right place, hit the button, jump up, sit back down, pull the kids in close, and hope it turned out. Did that about 20 times. The kids were great sports, though. And I need to do it more often.

family picture

The kids left and I didn’t feel tired or worn out or in need of quiet time. I realized I had days left in me, which is much better than I usually feel, even when everyone has school or I keep the kids for a short time. 

I was on my own for New Year’s Eve but had an invitation to go out and took it. I danced in the year and it felt good.

This year was not an easy one. It was not a good one. There were not personal victories. In many ways I accomplished less than the previous year. But this last week was a reminder that there have been lots of little good things along the way, there have been bright spots in the thick darkness.

I do not have a milestone or accomplishment to present as my 2016 thing. I had hoped to finish the first draft of my novel this year but realized this summer that it wasn’t going to happen and made peace with that. Life gets in the way and that is nothing new. But that manuscript is over 80,000 words and I did most of that work this year. If I was going to pick one thing this year that I’m proud of, it’s that this year I decided to act like a person who is a real writer. I call myself a writer. I think of myself as a writer. And the funny thing about that is that you start to believe it eventually, even if I don’t feel like I have a lot to show for my writing this year. It’s a long process, it’s a tough process, and I’m squeezing it into the small openings in my life and that is okay. 

I am not approaching 2017 with any particular goal (though I would really like to start my 2nd draft by June). I am not going to say that it will definitely be better than last year. If 2016 taught me anything, it’s that thinking you are on an upward swing doesn’t mean anything. Things can turn bad quickly and they can stay that way regardless of how hard you work or how much you deserve. I’m building a life and I just want to keep laying bricks this year. And that will be enough no matter what happens.

It’s All About Communication

This post is sponsored by Cochlear, who provide families around the world with hearing-loss solutions. All opinions expressed here are mine.

Today I sat in the pediatrician’s office with Graham and saw, for the first time in a long time, his baby self. I saw that skeptical expression he always wore in those days, the distinct silhouette of his overbite, the deep focus in his eyes. I am not the type to weep over my children getting older or look back fondly on their babyhood, but for a moment I was transported to what it was like to being Graham’s mom back then. And I thought of how glad I am that I’m Graham’s mom now instead.

Babies are hard for me. Baby life is all action and reaction. There is all kinds of problem solving where you don’t actually know what the problem is. There is this little mystery of a person running your life and you’re so aware of their complete inability to exist without you.

 

There’s also the pride that comes from seeing the beauty in your child, their weight, their shape, their smile, their softness. And there’s the huge expectation, the certainty that your child is truly singular and amazing.

We all get those expectations dashed eventually, maybe not until a child goes to college, but for me it came early. And it started with a hearing test.

Me and Graham, shortly before his 9 month checkup
Me and Graham, shortly before his 9 month checkup

At Graham’s 9-month check-up, his babbling had decreased, he didn’t always look at people when they spoke, he didn’t respond to his name. It was time to check Graham’s hearing. We went to another doctor. I sat Graham on my lap in one small room, then another. There were several tests involving sounds and screens. I couldn’t tell what any of it meant or how Graham did. Graham’s hearing was fine. It would be several more months before we got the Autism diagnosis. When he was diagnosed at 18 months, he had the receptive language/listening skills of a newborn. That, more than anything else I learned, shocked me. All the words I’d said to him for all those months, all the comfort and tenderness and songs, it hadn’t registered to him in a way he could understand.

Those months were the hardest. The months when I knew he could hear me, but he never showed any signs of understanding me. I learned what communication really means when I had no way to do it. Graham got older, he developed more specific wants and desires, but without the ability to communicate them we were both constantly frustrated. There was a lot of shrieking (him) and crying (both of us) and it seemed like nothing would ever change.

It did change, though. The boy that I see now hardly ever gets that look on his face anymore, the one where he’s all lost in his own head. Instead he talks to me and looks at me. He knows when I’m happy or angry or sad. He tells me what he thinks about, what he learned in school, what he doesn’t know yet. And, the thing he says to me the most (besides just “Mom?”) is “I love you, Mom.” He says it all the time, out of the blue, a few times a day. There was a time when I never thought we’d get here. But here we are.

We were lucky that we found a diagnosis and found treatment. So when I talked to Cochlear, I immediately understood how important their work is. Helping infants and children (and adults!) with hearing loss is providing a way for families to communicate. You’ve probably heard of cochlear implants, like I have, and seen them help kids. This story from Natalie’s mom sounded a lot like how life changed for me when Graham started therapy.

There are still things I worry about with Graham, still so many questions about how he copes with the world. But I don’t have any doubt about his ability to hear me and understand me and there is so much comfort in that. When I talk to parents of an infant or toddler who are worried about milestones and development, I always tell them that you shouldn’t be afraid. Talk to your doctor, ask for that referral, get that test. Even if it scares you, the truth doesn’t change. What does change is what you can do about it and the help you can now find for your child.

Children as young as 12 months old can qualify for a cochlear implant. If you’re worried about hearing loss in your infant or child, talk to your pediatrician. If your child does have hearing loss, a doctor or audiologist can determine whether they’re a candidate for a cochlear implant.

Now that he’s 6, I don’t have that same experience I had when Graham was a baby where I was sure he must be better than every other baby in the world. Now he is Graham. He is himself. He tells me about Star Wars and the book he’s reading and what he learned in Science. I learn more about him every day. I am learning about his strengths and his weaknesses, his passions and his problems, and I try to remember that there was a time when none of this was a sure thing. I remember staring down a future where my son wouldn’t be able to listen to me or talk to me. It seems like another life now, with this beautiful kid in front of me. I listen to what he says, and I try to tell him what he needs to know. I try every day.

 

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.