An afternoon to remind me of the power of one-on-one time. Of observation and connection. Of slowing down.
Straight after GG’s nap – when he’s often super grumpy – I took him out for a date. And yes, I totally bribed him out of his bad mood with ice cream, I’ll admit it. But watching him eat it was a meditation. He loved every lick, every bite of the cone. He was so in the moment he couldn’t even speak to me while he ate.
Every meal should be like a 3-year-old boy eating ice cream.
After the ice cream we ran around an empty mall. Hopped, jumped, fell to the ground at his whim. I showed him how to do somersaults in a baby play area. I fought the urge to play with my phone when his attention wandered from me, and instead kept mine glued to him. Yet another exercise in mindfulness. In staying in the present for once.
On the way home we stopped to fill the car up with petrol. He got out with me and asked questions. A million “why’s” that for once I had the time and the head space to answer. Or try to answer.
Why is petrol dangerous for little kids, anyway?
It was just an hour and a half, but we so needed that time, GG and me. Time together with no agenda, no bathing or dinnertime or bedtime battles. No baby sister or other adults. Just us.
When we got home, some kids from his new kindergarten were meeting in the local playground, so his dad took him to join them. And so it was just me and Little A at home. Again – a rare treat.
Babies seem simpler, but I think that’s just because we don’t pay them enough attention.
Every move this kid makes is an exploration, an experiment, an expression. Every turn of her hand is a preparation for her next move, or bite of food, or request. And I’m her mama, I know her back to front, I can preempt her requests before she’s even made them – but sometimes it’s beautiful not to. Rather, to lay next to her and see the world through her eyes for a few moments.
We ate, played, bathed. For once I wasn’t rushed as I washed her, fending off GG’s “help” in the form of buckets of water on her head. Instead I watched her examine each toy with her mouth, giggled with her, cuddled and marveled at how big she’s gotten, though it seems like she was born just yesterday.
It all sounds awfully flowerly, I know. But that’s really how it felt.
An oasis of joy in a sea of stress, emails, anxiety, drop offs and pick ups.
There’s this global movement in the business world called Fuckup Nights that I think is brilliant. It’s a simple concept; a series of events where people get up and tell their stories of failure. Like TED, but with a twist. Businesses that crashed and burned. Deals gone wrong. Product recalls. That sort of thing.
Along with being generally hilarious, the stories tend to be quite inspiring. Largely because the people who have the humility to be able to get up in front of a crowd of people and say, “yep, I fucked up,” those people are the good ones. It shows real strength of character. These are professionals who are able to look failure in the face, move on, and ultimately to learn from it.
So, I’m thinking, we need Fuckup Nights for Parents. A time to get together and share the times we totally screwed it up. To support each other through it, and to bring failure out into the open. To take the shame out – because we all fuck up, sometime or another. It’s just a matter of how we frame it.
Of course, getting out of the house, on time, without the kids is probably easier said than done for parents of young kids, so I guess a virtual Fuckup Nights will have to suffice for now. Here’s one of my tales of failure to get the ball rolling:
It was about 7 months ago. Little A was a few weeks old, and GG was in the thick of coming to terms with the new addition to our family. About to turn 3 and just having a really hard time of it. He was acting out left and right, but usually the trigger was when he needed me and I was busy with the baby – generally nursing or holding her when he wanted to be held.
His kindergarten threw a holiday party one afternoon, and for some reason I thought nothing of turning up by myself with Little A in tow. She was fussy so I just brought her in my arms, no carrier, no stroller. I’m cringing now just thinking about it.
The party was a low-key affair, just a few little songs and dances and then food, but somehow for us it turned into a borderline catastrophe. GG wanted me to dance with him and Little A was screaming. I had nowhere to put her down even if I wanted to. He wanted me to pick him up and had a total meltdown. The baby needed to eat. I didn’t know anyone well enough to ask for help – or I hadn’t learned yet that sometimes the only way to survive with more than one kid is to get help.
Before long the poor little guy was a total mess. Screaming for me to pick him up, surrounded by kids who had all of their parents attention, and there I was, baby in my arms, failing him. I hadn’t even thought about it, about how much GG would need my attention in there. I’m so embarrassed to say that but it’s the truth.
I could have asked someone to come with me just to hold her, I could have thought to bring the stroller in, I could have asked for help. Now that I’m writing this, I could have even run outside right then to get the stroller from the car! But I didn’t. I was so busy fucking up that I couldn’t think straight.
Eventually we made it out. I let GG eat some gross unhealthy food because I felt so guilty and inadequate, and somehow I got both of them and an armload of bags and jackets into the car.
And that’s it, that’s my fuckup story. Sounds insignificant I guess, and maybe it was, but to me it was huge. Because I realized it, plain and simple. Failure.
So, why am I thinking about this right now?
Because yesterday I had my chance for a corrective experience – the end of year kindergarten party. And this time I got it. I understood what was expected of me, prepared accordingly and we all had a great time.
Accepting my own imperfections is a real challenge for me. My therapist is always reminding me that the aim is not perfection – but rather acceptance. Sometimes I feel like, umm hello, what am I paying you for if we’re not working on making me perfect here? But of course, she’s right. And I think owning our failures can help us move towards acceptance. Not to try to get to a point where we don’t fuck up – coz that’s not gonna happen – but rather to except that we’ll make mistakes, and to learn to see failure, nod and carry on.
The trip from Tel Aviv to Sydney was long – 31 hours door-to-door. It’s full-on for an adult, let alone for a three-year-old and a five-month-old.
GG loved every minute of it. He’s obsessed with planes for starters, plus we had endless time to spend together, and I let him play games on the iPad for the first time – so he was totally in his element. We slept a decent amount on the first flight but only a little on the second, and were all totally exhausted by the time we got to my mother’s place.
So it wasn’t surprising that within an hour of us walking in the door, GG totally melted down. At first it was kind of comical – him and Little A both starting bawling at the same time, and my sister’s newborn (who we’d come all this way to meet) joined in, too. We each took a kid – my sister cuddled hers, mum put my baby down for a nap and I took GG into the lounge room to calm down.
It was clear that this was no ordinary tantrum. He was beyond exhausted, disoriented and completely overwhelmed. Within a few minutes of screaming and crying he started saying over and over that he wanted to go home, and Daddy, and I realized. Fuck. I’d spent so much time preparing him for the journey itself – maybe because that’s what I was nervous about – and totally neglected to explain the part where we were going to stay at his grandmother’s place in Sydney for two-and-a-half weeks. Without his dad. Fuck. What a colossal oversight.
While I was trying to hold him screaming and thrashing around I fumbled for a way to rectify my mistake. But how to explain it in three-year-old? He doesn’t understand the concept of weeks. He doesn’t know that trips end eventually. He can’t text his dad whenever he misses him a bit.
I took a punt.
“Remember when your friend Ella went to America?”
He paused, interested. He loves Ella, and the story was recent. He nodded.
“Remember how each day you went to kindergarten, and she wasn’t there? And your teacher told you she was in Los Angeles? And you really missed her?”
He nodded again. His breathing was starting to calm and the crazed, out-of-control look in his eyes was starting to soften. He was engaged.
“And then one day, after a couple of weeks, she was back! Do you remember?”
He smiled, “Yes! And I went to America once.” It’s true, we’d visited New York the previous year, too.
“So that’s what this trip is going to be like. We’re going to stay here at Nanna’s place for two-and-a-half weeks, for this many days [I showed him with my fingers]. Each night we’ll go to sleep here, and wake up here the next morning. And then when those days have passed, we’re going to head back home, to Daddy. We’ll take two planes to get home, with a night in a hotel in the middle.”
He got it.
“Mama I have an idea,” he said. “Let’s pretend that this is our home. Just for now.”
He totally nailed it. It was just so fucking sweet and perfect. I hugged him again. “That’s exactly it baby. That’s what a holiday is. This is our home for now, while we’re in Australia. And then we’ll go back to our real home.”
And that was it. He literally skipped into the kitchen for a snack.
It took another week until he completely settled. A week for the jetlag to pass, to feel at home in his new “pretend” home. But every time I said we were going home after an outing or a visit, GG had to check – “home to Nanna’s place?” – just to make sure he still understood the plan.
The conversation was a real eye-opener for me. I’d been so hung up on my anxieties about the trip – particularly 24 hours of flights, alone with two small children – that I’d forgotten to fill the kids in on the whole picture. It’s not that I hadn’t considered them of course – I’d gone over and over what sort of visit would be best for both of them, the balance between activities and chill out time, who we’d see when, where they would each sleep etc. To the point of distraction, really. But I hadn’t done the full circle that is so often the key. I hadn’t kept GG in the loop, of his own life.
In a more general sense, the conversation was a reminder for me that kids don’t just lose their shit for no reason. On top of the basic stuff that makes us all more sensitive – like hunger and tiredness – there’s also usually a misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up. Often with toddlers it seems completely illogical – like we didn’t ask them what color spoon they wanted or some crap – but this one made perfect sense. Just like adults, kids need – and deserve – to be informed about what’s going to happen to them. I certainly wouldn’t want to be dragged halfway around the world without at least being told the basic itinerary details. Why should it be any different for my kids?
So, to GG and Little A – this is my promise to you. I’ll do my best to keep you in the loop, with big things and little things alike. To help give you a sense of control and order over your world wherever I can. I’ll prepare you in language that you can understand, with points of reference that make sense to you. I’ll talk to you in advance, and remind you of the plan as necessary.
And if I’m ever not clear enough, if you still don’t get it, please feel free to cry. Even to flail around a bit. To let me know that I haven’t quite got it yet. I’ll try again and again, until you get it.
I’ve been trying to write this post all week, about how being a mother has taught me not to be judgmental. About how I used to have all sorts of opinions about other mothers, but now I’ve realized that it’s so hard and everyone’s just doing the best they can and who am I to tell them otherwise. And so I never judge them.
But something about the post just wasn’t sitting quite right. I wrote and rewrote, moved paragraphs around, thought of a cute intro. Nothing was working. And then I realized.
It’s because it’s total bullshit.
I haven’t stopped being judgmental at all – I’ve just learned to be maybe a little less judgmental of people who are basically the same as me. Oops.
Here’s the real deal.
Before I was a mother, I had it all sorted out. I knew exactly how I wanted the birth to go, along with everything after that.
Same goes for how other people birthed and raised their babies. I knew exactly why things were going wrong and what they should have been doing differently. How unnecessary stress was creating pregnancy symptoms, that babies cried because their mothers weren’t emotionally connected, how all nursing problems could be solved if you believed in your boobs hard enough, and of course – that toddler tantrums were always the result of poor planning on the parents part and could be avoided by being totally in tune with your kid.
I knew everything.
What I’ve learned with the benefit of a few years of experience now is that shit doesn’t go to plan most of the time. So even if you planned to give birth floating in a pool of flowers wearing a tie dye bikini top, it doesn’t necessarily turn out that way. And so I learned not to judge women who planned a natural birth and ended up with something different.
But what about my cousin who didn’t have any interest in planning a natural birth in the first place? I wouldn’t say it to her face but the truth – the real, ugly truth deep down – is that a lot of the time, I’m totally judging her for taking an epidural. Hours and hours of very entertaining phone conversations with my girlfriends, judging our respectful-parenting-natural-birthing-baby-wearing-extended-breastfeeding-organic-cotton hearts out. Because there’s an arrogance in me that still thinks that I know better. That choices that don’t fit into my ideology are somehow less than.
A like-minded new friend tells me about her struggles breastfeeding her baby in the early months. How she had her best-laid plans to breastfeed into toddler-hood but the baby wasn’t putting on weight and crying all the time and everyone was freaking out. So she supplemented with formula and pumped round the clock for months and months, trying her utmost to make it work. Ultimately she stopped breastfeeding earlier than she wanted to, and she was devastated. Her story is fraught with regrets, doubt and sadness. Of course I don’t judge her – why would I? It’s so clear that she’s a mother like me, doing a great job, just trying to do the best she can for her son.
So what’s the difference between the two scenarios?
I guess it comes down to understanding. When I can easily put myself in the shoes of the other, understanding and compassion flow. And it’s just more natural to put myself in those other shoes if they look more or less the same as mine. The challenge comes when the world view is different – it takes more of an effort to garner the same level of understanding.
But it’s not impossible. I have close friends who are very different mothers to me, and I manage not to judge them at least most of the time. Because I know and understand them, and so it makes sense to me why my style of parenting wouldn’t work for them. I don’t have to work to comprehend the motivation behind every choice.
The ironic part of all this is that I know how shitty it feels to be judged for your parenting. That sinking feeling of being completely misunderstood, of knowing that someone close to you thinks you’re doing a bad job. I often feel like I’m being judged by family and friends and it’s so horrible. And yet as we just established, I’m guilty of it just like everyone else.
So, here’s the plan. I’m gonna try to do this less. It won’t happen overnight, but I hope I can use skilled compassion and understanding to judge other mamas (and papas) less. To notice judgement as it arises in my mind, and to consciously remind myself that everyone is fucking exhausted, emotional, and trying to do the best they can for their little people. Even if it looks ridiculous and misguided to me. Even if I know just the Janet Lansbury article that would sort them out once and for all.
There’s this sign on the fridge at my Dad and Stepmom’s place, it says, “TEENAGERS! Tired of being harassed by your parents? ACT NOW! Move out, get a job, pay your own bills while you still know everything!” It’s a dad joke, for sure, but there’s truth in it. As a teenager I really did think I knew everything. And while I’ve learned a lot since, the real wisdom I’ve gained is that I don’t know anything. Well, hardly anything.
So – more understanding, more compassion, less judging.
This afternoon started out pretty much the same as yesterday afternoon – with whining and tears and ridiculously illogical arguments about whether or not we had bananas in the car. My heart sank. I’d hoped that bringing GG a special treat from the bakery when I picked him up from kindergarten might set the tone for a nice afternoon. No such luck. He didn’t like the way the bread stick crumbled onto his jeans, he screamed when it broke into two pieces, and when I refused to eat part of it according to his demands, five minutes of yelling and tears ensued.
And I’m okay with tears, really. He can cry on my shoulder, or on my chest wedged between my boobs as is his usual preference, as much as he wants. I’m good with emotional expression. But yesterday afternoon was just so tough, four hours of tantrum after tantrum with basically no breaks in between. I was terrified of a repeat performance. On top of the patience required to help a toddler through these onslaughts of feelings, when I need to feed 2-month-old Little A, GG’s full-blown tantrums escalate from peak level to … somehow even more extreme.
So we’d made it into the apartment. About a meter into the apartment. All three of us on the floor. Little A was in her baby car seat, crying to be taken out. GG was crying about a mark on his banana. I had tears in my eyes myself at the realization that today was going to be just like yesterday.
And then I remembered something GG’s kindergarten teacher had mentioned when I told her how hard the previous afternoon had been. She said that he was probably continuing the special circumstances from his week home sick with the flu. And this morning she warned my husband not to let it drag on. At the time we kind of didn’t know what to do with those statements. Like, how was I meant to “not let” him cry? It didn’t seem to fit with our parenting style at all.
But in this moment on the floor, I looked at my little boy on my lap, tears streaming down his cheeks, ranting about wanting something or not wanting something else, I don’t even remember anymore, and I thought, he looks so out of control, like it’s all too much. Like he has no idea what he’s meant to be doing. Like a week of rules being thrown out the window because he was just so miserable had totally confused him.
Like he really needed some boundaries.
And so I turned him around to face me, and I told him, “Sweetheart, you and me, we can figure anything out. If you need something just ask me and I’ll always do my best to help you.”
He was listening. I went on, “Let me tell you what I want. I want us to have a nice calm afternoon together. I don’t like it when we fight so much. Do you think you can find a way to ask me for things other than yelling?”
He agreed, and straight away something in his mood lifted. And yet 2 minutes later he started whining and yelling “no! no! no!” when I denied his request for a second banana. I calmly told him that this was the sort of yelling I’d mentioned before, and he took a deep breath, and asked me again calmly. And then even managed to accept my repeated “no” to his banana and move on.
The next time he started to yell he caught himself before I even said anything, and a look of realization seemed to pass over his face. He understood that this was the voice I’d been talking about, and he smiled. And that was it.
We had such a fun afternoon. We ate, we played, he helped his baby sister get to sleep for her nap. We read books. Three solid hours of good wholesome fun.
When my husband came home he couldn’t believe it, how I’d “fixed” him. The energy in the house felt completely different from the past couple of weeks. Bath and bed time were a breeze, and GG went to bed with smile on his face.
But I didn’t fix him, of course. There will be tantrums and crappy afternoons again. All I did was remind him what was expected of him, and ask for his cooperation. Clearly, calmly, and in a way he could understand.
I’m on the way to work, sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on my new one-hour daily commune, when my husband calls to update me on drop off. He sounds uncharacteristically defeated.
“Babe,” he says gingerly, “I think you’re going to need a new yoga block.”
I’ve got two options – laugh or cry. This week I’m choosing laugh. Last week was mostly cry.
It’s been a tough month. GG finished up at the daycare he’s been at (and loved) for two years. My grandmother passed away back in Australia. At 33 weeks pregnant I wasn’t able to fly over for the funeral and to be with my family. We moved cities. GG started a new kindergarten. And did I mention I’m a bit pregnant? Between my hormones, my husband’s exhaustion and our two-year-old’s emotional reactions… I don’t even know what words to use.
Last week the language that came to mind was pretty harsh. Now it feels like we’re a cartoon family. Toddler running out onto the road and peeing on things around the house to get attention (like my yoga block), me groaning and holding my lower back when I have to bend over to pick things up, the husband staying up late to get extra work done so we can cover our new mortgage. Oh so textbook and mundane.
When I’m my best self, which is only for fleeting moments right now, I remind myself that it’s all impermanent. That we’ll get used to our beautiful new house and all the arrangements that come with it, and GG will settle into his new kindergarten. That this testing behavior is totally normal for a toddler at the best of times – let alone during a month like this. That my pelvic floor will get better (right after it gets worse). That this too will pass….
And hopefully we’ll have a few days to enjoy the calm before I go into labor and we get to meet #2.
Granted, I’ve been kind of off all day. The afternoon probably never stood a fighting chance. I woke up feeling weird, with shooting round ligament pain up my sides and a general blurgh feeling. The heat has been getting to me this pregnancy and last night was particularly humid.
I kept it together okay at work, with only minimal breaks in concentration to neurotically Google things like “stitch-like pain in right side 27 weeks pregnant” and to brush up on the signs of preterm labor. And then it was time to be a good mama for the afternoon.
I knew there was no way I could deal with taking GG to the park in the 34 degree heat. I also knew that the chances of my mood not eliciting a reaction from him were slim to none. I braced myself.
The first part of the afternoon was fine. We walked to the car slowly, stopped to get petrol on the way home (one of GG’s favorite activities), then made fruit ice blocks on the kitchen floor. I started to relax and we seemed to be in sync.
But something changed in the energy a few minutes later, and he started to lash out at me. Hitting and kicking and pulling my hair. Grabbing at my stomach and trying to bite me. Seriously this shit is hard to handle at the best of times but I’m fucking pregnant and hormonal and in pain and yet I so badly do not want to yell at him. I actually never have, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to it than I did this afternoon.
Summoning up my best self, the mother that I want to be, felt almost impossible. Oh – and did I mention he was laughing hysterically this whole time, more and more when I told him sternly that he was hurting me? My words were doing nothing. At least I had enough awareness to realize that. And I had no emotional energy to tap into how he was feeling, either.
So I used my hands. I sat next to him on the floor and I held him down, physically restraining him from hurting me. I told him I wouldn’t let him touch me like that. He tried again a few times nonetheless, and then gradually his cackles started to die down, his breathing calmed, and he asked me, “are you happy Mama?” This is what he asks whenever he can sense that I’m not.
“Not really,” I told him. “I’m annoyed that you hurt me just now and I don’t feel so great.”
After that he got up, tried to run off, tripped and hit his cheek on the carpet. He burst into tears, sprung up and melted into me. I was his mama again and he was my baby. We were no longer adversaries in some strange, uneven battle. We hugged it out. I thought all was solved.
But this cycle continued over and over the next couple of hours, right up until bedtime. Everything would be fine and then he’d start testing me again. He threw my phone across the room, watching me with an expectant grin to see how I would react. He tipped a glass of water on the floor during dinner with the same glint in his eye. Lobbed pasta in my shoes. Tried to pinch my nipple once or twice. I dealt with each incident as calmly as I could. I willed myself to stay in the moment, to react to each outburst as though it was the first of its kind today. Because I knew that GG was just reacting to my low energy, and I honestly didn’t know how I was going to be able to take care of him if I strung this series of events into a horrible story and started feeling sorry for myself.
So I did the best I could, for today.
Ultimately, I just had a hard day, and it continued into a hard afternoon – no surprises there. GG reacted to my vibe, on top of just being a two-year-old. Nothing to do but accept it and move on. To make sure I get a good night’s sleep and hopefully feel better tomorrow. To wake up a stronger, more energized mama, so my little son doesn’t have to test the boundaries quite so much tomorrow.