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From One Teacher to Another

3 Sep

When I was a second-year teacher, many years ago (before kids), I was stunned silent by a parent after a not-so-pleasant meeting about their child’s lack of work completion and general bad attitude.

“Are you a parent?” she asked me after much discussion.  And in the uncomfortable silence, I heard myself screaming in my head.

“Huh. She thinks I’m an idiot.  Great.”

“Oh, I see.  Because you’ve been through school, you’re qualified to do my job, but because I’m not a parent, I can’t possibly understand kids.”

And, “No!  But I have a DEGREE.  Who gave you a degree in parenting?  Huh?  Nobody, that’s who.”

Her question stuck with me, and though my years of teaching elementary school I often found myself wondering if the parents secretly lacked trust in my ability to educate their children based on the simple fact that I did not belong in their little club.

And then I had children of my own, and despite my best efforts to keep them little, one of them grew old enough to attend school.

My dad likes to say that nothing is as humbling as being a parent, and I have to agree.  Because what I understand now is that Mrs. Jones (or whatever her name was) wasn’t telling me I wasn’t qualified to teach her child.  She wasn’t even telling me that I didn’t understand children or that I was wrong in my assessments.  If I could step back in time, and translate her question, I’d tell that second-year teacher what the mom was really trying to say:

Look.  I know you’re trained for this.  And I know my child is having problems, causing problems, and that we are all frustrated.  But even though I know you want the best for my child, you can’t possibly understand where I’m coming from.

Because that 9 year old in your class?  Is the baby I carried for 9 months.  She’s the tiny being I brought into the world.  Me.  With my body. I look at her and I see sleepless nights and endless nursing sessions, clogged ducts and tearful latches.  I recall how her baby smell slowly faded from my grasp and the moment when her first steps left me simultaneously cheering and catching my breath.  And just as I breathed life into her, she has breathed life into me.

I can’t possibly be objective.  I don’t want to be.

And so, to my daughter’s teachers, on her first day of Kindergarten, I want you to know:

I am trusting you with my baby.

And as exciting as it is – thinking of all she will learn and all the ways she will grow over the next 36 weeks – it is equally as terrifying.  E and I?  We have been through hell and back together, but if I thought bringing a child into this world was hard, it’s nothing compared to letting them go out in it.

Thank you for loving her and for bringing your light into her life.  Thank you for all you will give of yourself and all the ways you will broaden her horizons.  I will do my best to gently follow her lead as she grows up and to not get in your way.  But when I fail?  Please remember it’s because I’m learning, too.  And know I wouldn’t have it any other way.

DoodleBug First Moments

Dear K

26 Feb

Dear K,

I don’t know you, but because we both love Story, I know you must be good people.  The best people.  Because that’s what Story is.

Six weeks in with each of my babies, I began to wonder what I was ever thinking by having children.  The sleep deprivation devoured my brains and even the cat wasn’t immune from my resentment.  So if you’re having a hard time, I want you to know that it’s so, so normal.  A rite of passage, almost.

Story wrote you a wonderful list of 8 things she wish she had known about having babies.  I’ll add on my “things I wish they’d told me” below, with so much love and affection.

~ Susan

(9) You belong to the club now. There is no secret mom handshake, but you will find yourself exchanging knowing glances with other moms out in the world. Let these remind you you are not alone.

(10) There is an industry out there that makes a killing off of mothers’ insecurities.  Promising “the right way” to get your baby to sleep/eat/poop/nurse/learn/everything, they sometimes have helpful nuggets of information.  But mostly?  All those books, magazines, and videos just make you doubt yourself more.  Put down the books.  Listen to your mama gut.  It is there, I promise.

(11) It is okay for other people to take care of your baby differently than you do.  When I stopped thinking about leaving my baby as depriving her, and began thinking of it as enriching her life with the other people who love and care for her, it became easier to make time for myself.

(12) Nobody knows what they’re doing, even if they look like they do.  And just when you think you’ve got it figured out, everything changes.  I may know babies now, but I’m in uncharted territory with my 5 year old.  And that’s okay.  The “muddling through” feeling is okay.  Really.

Emulating Perfection

19 Feb

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who snuck into her mother’s bathroom to poke through a drawer of wonder. Lotions and make ups. Powders and perfumes. Treasures worth the risk taken tiptoeing down the long, barren hallway to a room her parents considered a protected sanctuary. She applied the powder to her arms, to her face, to her hands, unsure of where it was supposed to go but confident that it made her just as beautiful as her mother, for it was her mother she was trying to embody.

For she grew up knowing that her father believed her mother to the the most beautiful creature in the planet. The most exquisite human being in existence, in fact, and she wanted just a taste of that kind of magic. To stretch out into, and fill up, her mother’s shadow.

Once, only once, her father uttered the words, “I wish your mother would…”  Her ears perked up and she raced into the room to find out what she trumped her mother in, begging her father to say it again.  She hoped for something deep and personal, for some great character trait her father would praise her for.  “He wishes Mom painted her toenails,” her younger brother whispered, and her face dropped into disappointment.  Surely there was something remarkable about her besides the polish she applied to her feet.

————

It makes me sad to look back and realize how much of my self worth as a child and teen was based on measuring up to someone else.  Honestly, I held onto my pedicure triumph for years.  YEARS, people, thinking “at least there is something I do that is good enough.”

My parents were (are) loving, attentive parents.  But I always felt, and work today to keep myself from feeling, that there was an element to their love that I had to earn.  And though I don’t blame them one bit, I wonder whether there’s something they did to cause me feel this way.  Maybe it is just a part of my personality, or unavoidable human nature.  Perhaps it’s partly to blame on my birth order.  It won’t surprise anyone who knows me to learn I am the eldest of three.

Now that I’m a mother of two children myself, I see how I treat my girls differently, and not just because they are different people and different ages, and therefore need different things from me (That was a lot of “differents” all in once sentence.  My English teacher would cringe).  My oldest seems so much older since her little sister joined us, and I constantly catch myself pushing her to put her childish ways behind her, as if they are reserved solely for the baby.  Some days I hypothetically ask her, “what are you? Five?” and it stops me in my tracks as I remember how small, fragile, and adorable 5-year-olds seemed to me before I had children of my own.  It’s the curse of being the oldest – the added responsibility of paving the way, your parents using their experiences with you to better themselves for your successor.

As I write all this, I realize that my mindfulness gives me an advantage and that I don’t doubt my worth as a mother to BOTH of my girls because I know I truly am doing the best I can with the knowledge that I have at the time.  I don’t expect to parent perfectly, nor do my children need me to.  And though I look back at the moment when I learned my father’s worship of my mother knew no bounds – that he loved her in a way he would never love me – with continued envy, I know it has shaped me for the better.

Mom and DadMy parents have been married for 36 years, and I see in my dad’s eyes that he feels the same way he did all those years ago.  Nothing compares to my mother for him.  And because he modeled that kind of marriage – one of unconditional love – I looked for the same in a spouse.  I can’t compare my love for my husband to the love I have for my children.  They are different kinds of love and can’t be measured with the same yardstick.  But there IS something about my husband that grants him trump.  After all, I chose him.  We vowed to spend our lives together, and when our girls have grown and left us to begin lives of their own, we will still be stuck with each other’s company, hopefully for many years.

As far as comparing myself to my mother?  I think I will always do that.  She’s an amazing woman to emulate.  But what I have discovered over the years is that she catches herself trying to emulate me as well.  She sees in me the best of her, and even better.  And that, besides being the greatest gift a parent can give a child, is what I couldn’t see all those years ago, when childhood placed a halo above my parents’ heads, blinding me to their humanity.

They were imperfect, too.

Full Circle Mess

18 Feb

My friend Story tells me I should just start writing. And when I warned her that it will be one big, rambling mess, she rebutted with, “I love your mess.” Words thrown back at me from an earlier conversation when I insisted she doesn’t have to be perfect (or even close to perfect) in order to be loved – to be happy.

Why is it I am immune to my own wisdom? Well, not all the time, but it seems that often the hardest advice to take is my own.

And another thing. I auditioned for Listen To Your Mother a few weeks ago and had a blast. Met some great people – bloggers from my actual neighborhood instead of my virtual neighborhood. It’s always nice to have faces (and hugs) to put with the websites. But as soon as I got home, I realized the piece I auditioned with? Wasn’t done. It was a work-in-progress and I fear didn’t really dig deep enough. I wrote about my conflicted feelings about my 5 year old – how much I mourn for the loss of the baby and toddler she used to be. And before the audition, I was really happy with it, but looking at it now, it misses the mark. It doesn’t really show the depth of my sense of loss or how much it keeps me from enjoying her now. I expect not to make the cast and that’s okay. I will audition again next year. I will keep writing. I’m just disappointed that I missed the chance to really polish something.

Adam tells this story about when he was at a dinner (or meeting, I can’t remember) with his PhD program advisor. The professor recounted a visit he had with an academic, crypto celebrity. He explained that as he admitted to the well-respected expert-in-his-field-PhD that he felt like a fraud, expecting to be discovered for his lacking at any moment, the crypto-god said “I feel the same.” I wonder if other experts ever feel this way. Does Yo-Yo Ma ever shrink back from his cello?

There are so many things in my life right now that are sucking the confidence right out of my spirit. I rely on that confidence to tell me that I am okay, so its disappearance is always a warning sign to me that I need to stop and take stock of my mental health. I’m so very worried about my girls, for different reasons. We are really struggling with some difficult behaviors with Doodlebug and Bean is falling behind on her growth charts. And because I love them both so fiercely, the fear that something may be seriously wrong leaves me trembling. And though I try not to borrow trouble, it’s been hard this week to stop the worry cycle.

And it’s snowing. Again. It IS pretty, falling gently from the clouds, unlike the windblown, rainy mess from Sunday. Today’s snow is a magical one, but it would be better if I had a fireplace. And some palm trees. On a beach. With no snow.

This piece? Is not polished. I don’t think I’ve ever published one of these hot messes. Maybe that’s the exercise today – to let go. To find some peace in the unpolished, the unfinished.

Well, shit. We’ve come full circle, back to my friend Story and her love for my mess. Funny how that happens. You write and write and write and then all of a sudden, you feel like you can breathe again.

Thanks, honey. I needed the push.

This Moment

17 Jan

As I stepped gently up the stairs to tell my rambunctious, challenging five year old she could come down while her baby sister continued to nap, I wondered to myself why she was so quiet.  I prepared myself for battle: the daily argument over picking up her room, and the barrage of requests that would accompany her back down to the living room.  And then I was greeted by this.  I sat down on the edge of her empty mattress and stared at her.

Impromptu Nap

She had fallen asleep on her floor, decorating a tinsel Christmas tree with hair barrettes during her “rest time.”  Her ever-faithful “Light-Up Turtle” companion by her head and her soulmate “Cuddle Monkey” tucked under an arm, she snored beneath a pile of blankets.  And in an instant, the stern-mommy-of-a-preschooler in me melted into the mom I remember being to her.

You see, though I love her fiercely, she and I are like oil and water – if oil and water were practically identical, that is.  Everything is an exercise in diplomacy with her, and most days I can no longer see the baby she used to be – I see the child she is and the young lady she is becoming: headstrong, opinionated, analytical, difficult.  And though I know the armor I unwittingly don puts space between us, I struggle with letting my guard down, burned by so many other bad moments, bad days, bad weeks.  The softness that I gave to her as a baby and toddler, the same softness that comes so easily with her younger sister, is buried under my frustrations and my anxieties and my fears.

I miss the toddler she used to be.  At times it’s as if this new, older daughter has replaced her, calling muffins by their correct name instead of “mondays,” and asking for privacy with a roll of her eyes instead of revolving her entire world around me.  Even her body has lost its toddlerness, the chub and rolls stretching out into a lean childhood figure.  She seems so big now, especially since her sister joined us two years ago, and I know I look at her and forget how big the world must seem to her, how many things she still has yet to understand, and how much wonder surrounds her.  I forget she is that same little baby that made me a mother.  How can you miss someone who is standing right in front of you?

It’s bittersweet, this process of letting go that we call motherhood… falling in love with a tiny being only to have them leave you day after day, metamorphosing into a new version of themselves.  I know the practical answer is to enjoy her for who she is at each stage of her childhood – to soak in this five-year-old Emily so that I may miss her when she too has gone, but I struggle with my sadness at what has been lost and with finding a balance between being better for her and allowing myself grace.

The words of Kahlil Gibran* have never rung so true:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of to-morrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

And so, I let her sleep, conscious of the fact that I will have to eventually wake her and break the spell, holding this moment in my heart, determined not to forget its warmth and softness once it has passed.

*Poem excerpt from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, 1923

Milk-Soy Protein Intolerance and Living Dairy-Free

8 Jan

I had never heard of milk intolerance before becoming a mom.  Lactose intolerance, sure.  But milk protein intolerance is completely different.  Not really an allergy, MSPI (milk-soy protein intolerance) is when the body is unable to safely process the large protein molecules found in cow’s milk.  As a result, the stomach may overproduce acid and the intestines become irritated, leading to mucus and sometimes blood.  Both my babies were born with an MSPI.  And, being a first-time parent, my first baby suffered for 3 months because I just didn’t know enough to ask more questions of the pediatrician or to advocate for myself.  But as it turns out, all my knowledge and experience still left me unprepared for my second baby’s MSPI as well.

Bean was 8 weeks old when I finally called “uncle” and went to a lactation consultant for help with my screamy baby who was clearly hungry but fussed every time I attempted to nurse her.  She had gone from the 35th percentile to the 10th but the pediatrician didn’t have any ideas for me other than to try formula.  Every feed was a nightmare and getting her to eat required a combination of baby wearing and bouncing on a big exercise ball in the bathroom with the fan running.  It was exactly the kind of horrible breastfeeding experience that prevents new moms from nursing long-term. But I never suspected a milk intolerance because her symptoms weren’t as severe as her big sister’s.

My oldest would projectile vomit after feeds, her diapers were filled with mucus, and the pediatrician found signs of blood in her stool.  But with the littlest, the only symptoms were her fussiness and her trouble breastfeeding.  I spent 8 weeks convinced it must be something else before the LC suggested I visit a pediatric gastroenterologist who diagnosed her right away.  Grudgingly, I went on a dairy fast, giving up any food with soy or milk protein.

Within a week, I had a whole new baby.  She was sleeping better, screaming less, and after two weeks, had jumped back into the 30th percentile.  It was, quite frankly, a miracle.  I had seen similar results with Doodlebug, but giving up the dairy was so hard on me emotionally, that we ended up using hypoallergenic formula with her.  I remember rocking her in the big reclining rocker at my parents’ house sobbing “I’m sorry” over and over as I filled her up with formula.  Looking back, it was absolutely the best thing for both of us.  She thrived on the formula and it immediately alleviated much of the anxiety I was suffering from.  With Bean, giving up the dairy didn’t seem as daunting, perhaps because I had already had some practice.  Also?  My overwhelming PPD and OCD the first time around made breastfeeding torturous, let alone an elimination diet.  With Bean, I was mentally healthy enough to take on the added challenge.  And is is a challenge.

It’s been 2 years, and though we keep attempting to introduce dairy into her diet, every week spent with milk results in sleepless nights and a cranky toddler.  I’ve been able to reintroduce cheese into my own diet (I could hear angels singing, folks), but for the first 18 months, I was completely dairy-free.  I wouldn’t wish such a difficult diet on anyone, but it is possible, and for some mom-baby pairs, may make life much easier overall.

So let’s be honest.  Dinners weren’t so hard to modify.  After all, spaghetti and meatballs is dairy free, as is most grilled meats, fresh fruits and veggies, and many breads.  But how did I live without cheese (and ice cream, and milk, and cookies, and chocolate)?  While there are really no good soy and milk-free cheese substitutes (I really did give them a fair shot), I found that hummus often worked in place of cheese in fajitas and even sandwiches.  Whole Foods sells a cheese-free pizza with roasted veggies that is pretty yummy for those days when you Just. Want. Pizza.  And So Delicious makes coconut milk yogurt, ice cream and my favorite, coffee creamer.  I actually prefer the coconut coffee creamer now.  Coconut milk is great for baking, as is Earth Balance soy-free margarine, and to my surprise, cocoa butter isn’t actually butter and contains no dairy!  So as long as your chocolate doesn’t list casein, milk, or whey as an ingredient, you can eat it!  Lindt makes a dark chocolate that we really love here, but my favorite trick is to buy a huge 1 pound block of 65% chocolate from Whole Foods.  We chop it up and snack on it for a month!  The key for me was finding substitutes for my favorite foods so I didn’t feel like I was depriving myself of the comfort foods I loved.

Here are some of my favorite MSPI and Dairy-free resources:

MSPI Mama – tons of recipes and resources, including a QUICK START recipe list for the first few weeks of MSPI eating when everything is so overwhelming.

MSPI Mama links to restaurant allergen information HERE

More facts about MSPI

The differences between allergies and intolerances from PIC (Protein Intolerant Children)

Tasty Eats at Home – my friend Alta writes about her food journey and has many recipes and resources for eating dairy and gluten-free

The best advice I can give you is to be realistic with yourself about how the MSPI diet is affecting your happiness.  If it makes you miserable, it may not be worth continuing to breastfeed your MSPI baby.  But it DOES get easier with time.  After about 6 months I stopped missing cheese, and these days, I don’t even mourn the ice cream any longer.  Truly.  It also had the added benefit that watching my diet carefully taught me to be aware of my food.  I eat a much healthier diet now, just because I learned to read ingredients and to cook more food from scratch. But each mom has to decide what’s best for her family. Hopefully you have enough support no matter how you decide to address your baby’s MSPI.

Yes, I’m Still Breastfeeding

6 Dec

Extended BreastfeedingI never expected to be breastfeeding a toddler.  But here I am, with my 23-month-old, still going strong.

After my first breastfeeding experience ended abruptly due to to a myriad of issues, I was determined to give it a shot the second time around, but I knew what mattered most was that I took good care of myself, no matter how I was feeding my baby.  We had rough start.  Bean struggled to gain weight and ultimately to nurse because of an undiagnosed milk protein allergy.  I had massive oversupply and hyperactive letdown difficulties, and I spent many nights sobbing out of frustration.  I knew my baby would be okay no matter what I decided to do, but she would be my last and I just wasn’t ready to give up.  But eventually, as many promised, it did get easier.  Breastfeeding became a solution instead of the problem, and both Bean and I grew to relish the quiet time together.

I never set a concrete goal, but deep down, I just wanted to make it farther than I did with Doodlebug – 3 months.   6 months sped by, and we introduced sweet potatoes, avocado, and bananas, and I found myself musing, “now what?”  I didn’t know what else to do, so we just kept nursing like aways, and I followed Bean’s lead.  We celebrated her first birthday, and we just kept nursing.  I remembered weaning Doodlebug from her bottle at 13 months out of fear of babying her (I know… first-time mom syndrome), and so around that same time, I started to feel a little conflicted about nursing Bean.

BFing Quote

By 13 months, she wasn’t nursing to sleep any longer.  She nursed before naps and bed, in the mornings, and a few times spread out during the day.  She wasn’t biting, wasn’t pinching or pulling at my hair, and didn’t “nurse and run.”  It was working for us, so we just kept on doing it, and one day turned into one week, one month, one season.   The conflicted feeling passed and we made it to 18 months, when she began nursing only before nap and bed and once in the morning.  Breastfeeding receded into the background of our day and I didn’t really give it much thought.

Now, her second birthday is fast approaching (pause for a moment to think about how utterly ridiculous and unfair that is) and the conflict has resurfaced. I have many good reasons to continue to breastfeed her, both anecdotal and scientific.  Nursing feels natural for us, it helps her sleep well and soothes pain and hurt feelings.  It’s alleviating some of the pain of her two-year-old molars erupting without the use of medications.  Extended breastfeeding is supported by the AAP and the WHO for the emotional and medical benefits.  My mama gut tells me it’s the right choice for us, and yet I feel like I should feel more uncomfortable with it.

Extended BreastfeedingIt’s not that I’m conflicted about continuing to nurse my toddler – in fact, I’m convinced my mama gut is right.  Instead, I’m conflicted about my lack of conflict, especially given my culture and upbringing.  I had no exposure to extended breastfeeding (or really breastfeeding at all, for that matter) before doing it myself, and it’s rarely discussed openly in this country (other than to condemn it as gross, damaging to a child, or selfish).  And to be completely honest?  Before nursing an almost-two-year-old myself, my first reaction to a breastfeeding toddler would have been misinformed judgment.

It turns out that it’s much easier for me to dismiss the opinions of strangers on the internet or hushed stares at the local playground than it is for me to silence my own social conditioning.  In recognizing this about myself, I can move past it…  Because the bottom line is that: Yes, I’m still breastfeeding.  It’s working for us.  And I refuse to put the discomfort or judgement of society before the needs of my family.

These words poured out of me for two reasons today.  Writing allows me to work through my emotions – to document my soul-searching.  But also?  I wanted to share that what I’ve learned from breastfeeding a toddler has nothing to do with breastfeeding at all:  Suspend judgement.  Informed convictions are valuable, but until you’ve experienced something, remember that you might not know everything.  You might be wrong.  I certainly was about extended nursing.

*******

p.s. Why do I post pictures here, you ask?  Because the more breastfeeding (both infant and extended) is normalized, the more moms will feel comfortable asking questions, sharing their stories, and reaching out for help.

p.p.s.  Breastfeeding isn’t for everyone – each family has to decide for themselves what is the best fit for mama and baby/toddler.  I support a mom’s right to choose how she feeds her baby.  But I’d also like to see more non-pressured support for nursing mamas.

Timeout

28 Oct

I don’t write often enough here about my failings as a parent.  And there are many of them.  You see?  I have what I’m learning to reframe as a “spirited” child.  She’s full throttle all. the. time.  And though I love her more deeply than I ever understood one person could love another, most days the degree to which I am grateful for her bedtime feels wrong.

This morning we argued over whether there were socks in her hamper.  Over what kind of toy she wanted to bring for “M” week at school.  She chased her sister around the house instead of putting on her shoes despite my pleadings, only to finally stop in her tracks to debate with yell at me about the practicality of sandals in the wintertime.  By the time I dropped her at the brick pathway, we were both relieved to be rid of the other’s company.

It’s like that all day long.  Nothing is simple.  Nothing is done just for the love of pleasing her mother or father.  Everything must be on her terms and those?  Come with litigation-worthy dispute.

The hardest thing about having a five year old is that they are too big to just pick up and put in timeout.  They are too focused to distract with shiny keys and too stubborn to respond to force.  You must learn to convince them and to bewitch them with the illusion of control.

Hence our timeout chart:

Timeout ChartTimeouts are a great tool for parenting, but I have to remind myself constantly that discipline is about educating behavior, not about punishment (though punishment sure does feel good to an angry mom, I must admit).  And though I usually end up sending Bug up to her room to stop the conflict and give everyone a chance to cool down, I needed more.  I want her to be able to make the kinds of choices I only just learned how to make – how to recognize what she needs and react accordingly.

So now, when things get out of control, she may be asked to go choose a time out.  Sometimes she gets full control of the choice, while other times she needs to be guided to an appropriate timeout for the situation (and other times, I forget about the chart and holler at her to go sit on the carpet).  It’s a reminder to me not just to punish, but to teach.  To think, “what was happening and how can I best teach her to change her behavior?”

It’s far from perfect, but so far it seems to be helping both of us.  And as a bonus?  It comes with drawings like these.  My husband and I were both surprised and enlightened by the discrepancy between what really happened and how Bug viewed it.  It’s quite revealing – and hilarious.  The laughter helped disperse any tension over the actual conflict.

Bugs Timeout Pic 1

 

Bugs Timeout Pic 2

And if you’re not laughing, you’re crying, right?

Talk to me.  What works for you with your most challenging kiddo?  How do you parent your child once they’re not a toddler anymore?

 

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