We All Need To Be Rocked Sometime

lion-hugWhen I picked my daughter up this evening, she looked tired.  It was warm here today; her face was flushed, as if she was overheated.  She seemed a bit standoffish, not greeting me right away.  Then when she spoke, she was speaking in baby-talk.  Regressed syllables, clipped sentences.  It took me a bit of time to get her moving towards the car.  She wanted to be silly; not follow directions, play games, dawdle, etc.  I had a feeling I was in for a long evening.

My daughter is seven.  She is bright, beautiful, curious, empathic, and extremely loving.  She’s been facing more than her fair share of challenges lately, which leave her more often than not wounded and wondering.  Not much different from the rest of us, really, though we have the luxury of life and learning and how to bounce back better than a seven-year-old now, don’t we?  The regressive speak is a product of feeling vulnerable, and a yearning for being nurtured.  I also gather it’s related to spending time recently at her grandparent’s with her 18-month-old cousin; watching him being coddled and cared-for in a way reminiscent of what she feels she’s needing, when she is expected to be the “big girl” in the room must be especially frustrating for her at the moment.

The toddler-talk continued for the entirety of the car ride home.  I did my best to calmly tolerate it, while also reminding her to use better words.  When I could tell her frustration level was rising, I tried instead to shift topics or distract with music rather than continue to correct.  There’s a time and a place, and an over-tired child won’t soak in the message anyway, so why hammer it in?

When we got home I focused on minimizing her stimulation level (no television), and maximizing her comfort level (giving her my full attention).  I put on some music and we played a game together while Daddy cooked dinner.  As she continued with the tiny words, I tried a different approach.  I told her that I knew it might feel safe to pretend to be little sometimes, but think of all the things she would miss if she didn’t grow up?  Measuring how tall she was against my chest, riding the bigger slides at the water park, getting to go on overnights with her Girl Scout troop.  Those were pretty cool things that only big girls got to do, and she surely wouldn’t want to miss out on those, right?  She answered back in her normal seven-year-old cadence and added a few of her own achievements – getting tall enough to no longer use a car seat, riding the cooler roller coasters, and tackling me when she hugged me, which she then proceeded to do.  After the tackle, she got quiet, looked up at me, and said, “But what about rocking, what if I get too big for rocking?”

I pulled her onto my lap and held her close.  I told her, “You will never be too big for rocking, baby.  We all need to be rocked sometime, even big people like Mama.  I’ll always rock you, no matter how big you get.  Promise.”  Then she clung to me tightly for what seemed like a moment in between worlds – where baby and big girl and Mama all blended together in one swirly thought – and we just rocked there, together.

I don’t even remember who won the game…

Boiling Point

I stood in the kitchen and watched the water boil.  I stared at the droplets as they spun and bubbled and rocketed towards the surface, bursting as they finally reached the top.  Only I wasn’t thinking about the water, nor was I thinking about the pot or the stove.  I was actually thinking about my daughter, and how closely that roiling liquid matched her emotions a mere three hours earlier.

My seven-year-old beauty…  She is an only child, for all intents and purposes.  Her three older brothers outnumber her by so many years (at 22, 24, and 26 years of age) they are more like awe-inspiring heroes than arm-slugging, room-sharing siblings.  She often laments this fact, pointing out that having a little sister around would make playing so much easier at home.  Truth be told, she struggles to find the right balance with relationships that are not family-oriented, and it’s likely much to do with this exact reason.  Not that we aren’t aware of it – we are; acutely so.  We’ve made extra efforts to find outside social avenues for her for several years now for the sole purpose of giving her more social interaction.  And though she is markedly confident in so many areas of her personality – academics, athletics, trying just about anything new – socializing, especially in the untested waters of all things “girl”, is still a struggle.

Don’t get me wrong; my daughter is far from shy.  She charges forth with unbridled enthusiasm towards any friend that gives her a second glance.  The introduction, itself, is not the problem.  Well, maybe it is, in the fact that she is SO forward she sometimes knocks the recipient off guard.  See, she is convinced that everyone she meets wants to be best friends immediately, just the way she does.  And she’s completely baffled when, for some reason she never understands, they may not.  This is where the issues come in; navigating the waters of 2nd-grade friendships when you haven’t a boat or an oar, let alone a team to row with.  It’s a tricky business, paddling alone.  And she’s constantly desperate to find anyone who will join her.  Fortunately she has garnered a couple of good friends in our neighborhood, but they are a bit older and more mature than she is, and there are still times when misunderstandings occur.  Unfortunately, they seem to weather these situations much more easily than my daughter does, and she often comes off as the immature odd-girl-out.

Hurt feelings – we’ve all had them, and they suck.  I’m 40, and they still sting; at seven, they’re practically world-ending.   Take this evening’s crisis:  four friends, happily playing, wind up at our house for a brief “breeze-through”.  During the stop one of them mentions going to another’s for some always exciting trampolining.  Problem: the girl with the trampoline can only have one friend over, per her mother’s instructions.  Cut to crickets and silent stares from the rest of the crew, as each of them wonder just who the ‘lucky one’ will be.  No need to wait long, as trampoline girl announces she’s already offered the spot to one of the other girls (the girl who happens to be my daughter’s best bud).  Drama ensues.  My daughter immediately bursts into tears because 1) she was playing with her best bud way before trampoline girl showed up tonight and 2) she never gets to go anywhere and 3) she was supposed to be able to jump with all of them and 4) she is never going to play with any of them again and (the list continues as she melts into a weeping puddle on the chair while the other three simply stare at her).  At this point I intervene by calmly stating that it’s close to bedtime anyway, and we have some things to do, and I’m just going to go ahead and keep her home for the night and we’ll just see everyone tomorrow.  This successfully redirects her ire away from them and over to me long enough to get the other girls out the door.

But remember the boiling water I was talking about earlier?  Well, here it comes; clearly I have forgotten to take the kettle off the stove and it is now screaming at me with a fever pitch.  All those hurt feelings of being left out and pushed aside by her friends have now been compounded by being embarrassed in front of them by her mother and forced to stay home like a baby.  The kettle quickly morphs into the form of a 50 pound seven-year-old banshee with wailing fists and kicking feet.  My daughter is rapidly spiraling out of control, and I am forced to decide what to do with her.

I, myself, am not the bastion of emotional control.  I grew up learning that when you’re mad, you scream.  When you’re angry, you explode.  I’ve spent my whole adult life trying to unlearn this exact pattern.  Part of the little kettle has come from the big one, in my house, and that fact is not lost on me.  So in moments like this, I have done an immense amount of work to train myself to remember that I have the ability to decide how to act.  Learned or not, we all have a choice.

Tonight’s meltdown took every ounce of patience and breathing and courage and momma magic I possessed, but I made the decision to offer a safe space for my daughter.  And I will tell you, it was excruciating.  I stared at my lovely girl and watched her boil.  I watched her heart break for a full half hour; watched her rail at me because she did not understand the hurt and frustration she was feeling.  And I had become the target; she clawed at me with her words, hit at me with her fists and kicked me with her feet.  Each time I calmly yet strongly prevented the blows and told her, softly, “I will not let you hurt me, and I will not let you hurt yourself.  I know you are angry and upset, and that is okay, but it is not okay to hurt people.”  I offered her two choices; to get into a warm bath, or to go to her room until she was done with her feelings.  I simply kept repeating the same things over and over, like a mantra.  I did not fight back; I did not scream at her; I kept her safe, I kept myself safe, I told her I loved her, but I also told her what was and was not acceptable.

She finally stomped off to her room.  She did it while screaming that she hated me, but she had finally made one of the two choices.  As soon as I knew she was clear, I let down my guard.  I didn’t realize how much adrenaline had kicked in until then; I had to breathe through it for about 20 minutes for it just to clear.  The tears continued for another 10.  I felt like I had just been hit by a truck, both physically and emotionally.  But I took a minute to remind myself that I was successful in my decision to hold a safe space for her as long as she needed it.  I was spent, but I was proud.

About a half hour later she came and found me; or rather, a flying note did as she hid around the corner.  It said she was frustrated that I said those things in front of her friends and made her feel bad.  But it also said she was sorry for fighting, and that she loved me very much.  She peeked around the corner as I read it, then came to snuggle on my lap.  We ended up having a really good talk about what happened, her actions, and what would be a better way to handle big feelings the next time she has them.  She’s learning; maybe not right in the moment, but she’s getting there.  My girl may have really big emotions, but she has an even bigger capacity for love, as I was so clearly reminded tonight.

You should know this kind of scene is not a hugely common occurrence; these ones only come out with the really big emotions for her.  But when they do come out, the water boils over and spills onto anyone nearby.  It’s a familiar pattern in my family, and I have long since wondered how much is genetic, and how much is learned.  I will probably never quite know the answer.  But I do know that I have the ability to change the pattern, both for me and for my daughter.  They say a watched pot never boils.  I’m not so sure about the “never” part; but I’m fully convinced that if the big kettle gives the little kettle a better example to observe, all that roiling and bubbling can be replaced by much calmer waters.

Coffee Shop Compassion

One random morning a stranger asked me for a matchbook.  That, in itself, is not significant.  The events that took place before and after, however, certainly were.

You see, our family is like many in America; middle-class, fairly fortunate, insulated from poverty and hardship.  We have a nice house, food in our pantry, a car to drive, and jobs to support us.  We are aware, however, that there are lots of people in this country that do not have what we do.  I try to educate my daughter about helping others that have less than us, and we make efforts to give when we can.

On this occasion, my daughter and I were on an early morning trip to Starbucks in Portland, OR.  We’d flown out from Ohio, so we were still on East Coast time and I was trying to get my rambunctious 6-year-old out of the house for a bit so she wouldn’t wake the rest of the family at 5:30 am.

As we were sitting at our table enjoying our goodies, I noticed a man crossing the street towards the shop.  He was wearing only a black t-shirt and sweatpants (despite it being fairly cool and rainy), he was slightly balding and bent over walking, and he was missing his right arm from the elbow down.  After watching briefly I turned back to my daughter and our conversation which she abruptly stopped, because she had a serious question.

“Mom, why did that man pick a used cigarette off of the ground?”  I turned to look as the man I had noticed before now entered the shop.  I told her I would explain a little later since we were now, with him, the only patrons in the shop and I didn’t want to embarrass him in case he overheard us discussing it.  I heard him ask the baristas for a book of matches, to which they answered they had none.  He then turned and looked at me, rather sheepishly, and asked the same.

Without really thinking about it I stood up and told him I had no matches, but would he like a cup of coffee instead?  He stared at me for a moment, as if he was confused by the shift in topic, and then answered, “Yes, that would be nice.”  I led him over to the counter and said that they had breakfast sandwiches, and would he also like something to eat?  He pointed at the example in the case and said the sausage one looked good.  We got him squared away and he came and sat next to us.  He introduced himself then, “Charlie Chester”, and shook my hand.  I did the same, introducing myself and my daughter.  We made small talk while we ate; I told him where we were from, he told me where he got his shirt with the ten bats.  He seemed a bit disconnected, but happy to have some company.  It occurred to me that perhaps it was not often that anyone took the time to speak with him.  He had kind eyes.  I noticed he was a bit shy but tried to connect with me and my daughter, though she was oddly irritated and wouldn’t respond to him.  I tried to keep myself the focus of the conversation until we were done, then wished him a good day as we packed up to go.  He thanked me wholeheartedly, and told my daughter “You sure have a nice Momma.” to which she scowled and said a snipped “Thank you.”

As we got into the car, I asked her why she was so irritated and rude to the man.  I was sure it had something to do with the fact that he was a stranger, or dressed shabbily (and, to be honest, probably could have used a shower), etc.  I was surprised by her answer: “You didn’t even know him, and you gave him our money, Mom.”  I did not expect that she was possessive of our giving to him in that way.  Especially since the week before she had voluntarily chosen to give her own gumball quarters to the Children’s Hospital fundraiser at her school, and we often pack up her extra unused stuffed animals and take them to the fire station for children in need.  It then occurred to me that she didn’t see what I so clearly did, that this man was so very much in need.  I suppose she just thought he was some random man and I had just handed over something I could have given her instead.

I then proceeded to try and explain, in my best 6-year-old-speak, about Charlie Chester and his world.  I shared that his funny bat shirt and shabby tennis shoes were probably the only clothes he owned.  The coffee and sandwich that Momma bought him with “our” money this morning would probably be the only thing he ate today, maybe even tomorrow, unless he found something else in a garbage can to scrounge (“People DO that, Momma??” “Yes, they do honey, when they have nothing they do lots of things you’ve never thought of…”).  Charlie Chester probably has no place to sleep at night, except wherever he can find outside to stay out of the rain and wind, if he’s lucky; no bed, no pillow, no blanket, no roof.  And certainly no “friends” (what she calls her stuffed animals) to keep him company.  Wherever he goes he has to rely on his two feet, because he also has no car or bicycle or scooter.

At this point, her eyes were fairly wide, and I had her full attention.  I reminded her how she made the choice the week before to give her quarters to the Children’s Hospital (“Yeah, so I can help the little babies who need it!”), and to give her old “friends” to the fire station (“For kids who don’t have ANY friends at all, Momma.”).  I told her just like her acts of kindness, I was choosing to help Charlie Chester with my money, at which point I think it finally connected for her.

It was really an interesting morning of learning, for both of us.  I was surprised that I had just assumed that my daughter would automatically have known poverty and sadness when it walked in front of her.  I felt that I already talked a lot to her about helping people, but clearly I’ve not done a good job about showing her who those people are, or what the need for help really looks like.  I was reminded that though compassion is innate, generosity is sometimes learned by example.  We’re getting there…

Sprinting Towards Selflessness

AP Photo/The Daily Call, Mike Ullery

AP Photo/The Daily Call, Mike Ullery

What compels a runner, struggling to finish her own race, to stop and help a competitor finish – even pushing that opponent ahead of herself causing them to finish first, and herself to finish dead last?   Good question.  It’s the one on the minds of all the spectators present last Saturday at Jesse Owens Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, as well as many a reporter trying to secure an interview with said runner after the race’s end.  (You can see a more detailed account here: http://espn.go.com/high-school/track-and-xc/story/_/id/8010251/high-school-runner-carries-injured-foe-finish-line)

Many are calling it ‘sportsmanship’; some are calling it ‘compassion’.  Others are labeling it ‘humanity’, even ‘heroic’.  Clearly, any of these descriptions would be accurate.  The runner herself, Meghan Vogel (of note, a junior in high school), doesn’t seem to know what all the fuss is about; she felt she was simply doing what anyone else would have done.  But really, did she?  Or rather, would anyone else have done the same?  Personally, I don’t think that’s necessarily a given, which is what makes this act of selflessness so amazing.

Traits like those Miss Vogel exhibited are not always innate; often, they are learned.  The fruit would have to fall close to the tree, as it were.  While we do have the seeds of compassion and empathy inside us all (at least I believe we do), it is the way these seeds are nurtured that determine how we put these traits into practice as we transition from children, to adolescents, to adults.  We are taught, often by example, how to treat others around us; whether to value humanity, when to lend a hand, how to practice simple decency.  The fact that, at around sixteen years of age, while obviously being a serious sports competitor, this young woman would sacrifice her athletic goal with nary a second thought to help out a fellow runner, simply illustrates the examples she has clearly been following, likely, for most of her life.  It’s not something she suddenly chose to do some random Saturday in June.  And that she would do it without even batting an eye is what makes it so extraordinary to me.

As I looked at the photo at the end of the article I couldn’t help but think of my own daughter (currently six years of age); I thought of all the hopes and dreams I have for things she will accomplish in her own life.  I have to say, I can imagine how proud Miss Vogel’s mother was of her on this day; and really, she should also be proud of herself, for helping to raise such an amazing young woman.  Selflessness is not an easy trait to foster; but it is one that will take you farther than any other.  And Miss Vogel has shown us, with this one act of kindness and compassion, that she’s already accomplished more than many have in a lifetime.

Unpredictable

Children are so unpredictable.  As a mother, you work hard to make sure you learn them as well as you can; your own, anyway.  Their moods, their tells, their triggers.  You pride yourself on not only knowing them like the back of your hand, but being there for them whenever they need you.  You don’t often prepare yourself for the moments when you will fail them; when you can’t be there for them like you want to, like you feel you should.

For me, these moments most often happen when I’ve had a significantly nasty migraine, such as the one that hit me out of nowhere last night.  Well, it wasn’t completely out of nowhere; I’ve been having a string of them all week.  The cycle is familiar; it starts out with a bad one on a particular day, followed by recurring less-severe ones in the evenings for several consecutive days until I can get the cycle to break.  The triggers are varied; they can be hormonal, weather, sleep, stress –  the list is long and complicated.  I’ve been dealing with them since my daughter was born six years ago.  While I very much abhor them, I have settled into somewhat of a respectful truce.  I cannot conquer them, so I’ve learned to exist with them as best as I can, while improving my quality of life where possible.

I don’t hide them from my daughter; they are a part of my life, and they very much affect my life.  As such they affect my family’s life and, by proxy, affect hers.  As a result, she is aware when I have one; she is aware that I take medication for them.  She is aware that sometimes, they knock me out completely, like today.  This last cycle was rough, but I thought I was on the other side of it; when I went to bed last night, things were feeling fairly clear.  Then I woke up at 2:30 am in blinding pain.  They rarely present that way but, when they do, they’re merciless and almost impossible to control.  The few times they have, I’ve wound up in the ER for pain meds; it’s not pretty.  This time, fortunately, I was able to control it at home on my own, but it was difficult.  It also meant that I would be completely out of commission for the rest of the day trying to recover; both from the pain, and from the meds.

As I mentioned, I’m very honest with my daughter about my migraines.  Mainly because I feel honesty is important, but also because at six, she is keenly observant and can usually tell when something is up anyway; it’s no use trying to hide it from her.  So today when she hugged me to say good morning as soon as she woke up (shortly after 6:00, at which point I’d barely relieved the pain and gotten almost no sleep), she looked at me funny and asked if my head hurt.  I told her that I was going to need her help today and why, and gave her some suggestions about options for breakfast and activities for the morning while I slept in.  She kindly kissed me on the head saying “don’t worry, Momma, I’ll make good choices and come check on you real soon.”  It’s an odd mixture of guilt and sweetness to see your 6-year-old take care of you the way you do for her…

When I pulled myself out of bed a few hours later, I started to go through the motions of steeling myself for the rest of the day.  It’s odd how your mind will shift into survival mode, especially from a mom-perspective.  What food do we have in the house that’s relatively healthy that I don’t have to actually prepare?  What can I keep her occupied with for a full day and still move as little as possible?  Because regardless of what horrible shape I was in, the reality was that I had a daughter who required watching for the day, and she still needed me.  But as I mentioned, children are unpredictable.  And today was certainly one of those times.  My 6-year-old usually rambunctious daughter was so fluid today, I was amazed.  She entertained herself in the morning without complaint.  She helped with ideas for lunch for both of us.  When she clearly appeared bored this afternoon and needed to blow off a little steam, she willingly compromised with me by sacrificing a trip to the park in lieu of the swing set in the front yard (where I could sit in silence on the porch and watch her), even though it meant she would have to play alone.  She ate leftovers for dinner without issue, and helped clean up the living room without complaining.  She again compromised afterward by accepting Mom as her badminton partner (far lackluster in comparison to her friends) so that I could keep her near the house and not have to chase her down when it was bedtime.  And then, when it was time for bed, she went willingly with a big hug, kiss and smile.

Given my lack of energy today and basic inability to cope, I could not possibly have asked for her to have been any more amazing than she was.  Don’t get me wrong; my daughter, for the most part, is a pretty good girl (though she has her moments; she is six, after all).  But I felt like today, she sensed that I really did need her help; that by trying extra hard and being extra good, she really was doing something special.  It reminds me that we all have such an unlimited capacity for empathy and compassion; even at such a young age.  And even though my head can throw me for a loop in its unpredictable capacity for pain, it’s still no match for my daughter’s unpredictable ability to love.