Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The library of our family

I always said I wouldn't compare my children, and I was wrong to think that.  Now I've decided: It's about whether it's a qualitative comparison, a competition of which child is more of something.  

My skin crawls when I hear adults do that about my children.  Steve assures me that in the end, it's about what children hear at home, and how their parents define them.  And I really hope that it's true. 

I don't think celebrating differences has to be a qualitative comparison. If it's about understanding the uniqueness, I think seeing children individually can actually be liberating for a child.  It's about saying we're all approaching life from a different perspective, and each of those perspectives is equally valuable or wanted.

Today, I was thinking about the Theme of a Child.  As if they're each a different book in the library of our family. What have I learned from each of my children? 

Jack's theme is more easily noticed and understood by others.  He's usually serious and cerebral and measured, and it fits well in nearly every environment.  So people tell him often how smart he is, how grown up, how "good" he is.  And I try to weave into his life periodically, reminding him that it's okay to not always be the Big Brother. It's okay to not always be the one cleaning up after others, fixing problems, staying calm even when he's upset inside.

People don't usually imagine that defining a child as "good" is a problem, but it's definitely a pressure that I'm not interested in my children having.  I want them to be honest and authentic, and sometimes that means throwing a tantrum when the situation requires it.  

With Jack, my parenting requires giving him space to figure things out (letting him make mistakes without any judgement at all)...not asking him to take on extra burdens, just because he's older...and reminding him that it's okay to have yucky emotions. 

Andrew's spirit is more easily misunderstood by others, but at home, I have such a clarity of his spirit.  I get it. I love it.  And while his spirit is more complicated to parent at times, to bring out to a restaurant, to figure out his best schooling...I see those as small drawbacks to the incredible Other Side to his traits. 

It is almost humanly impossible for him not to run.  At the water-park, the lifeguard blows his whistle and reminds Andrew to walk.  He walks for a few steps.  And then his body, almost as if powered by remote-control, tries to break into a run again.

He just loves life so damn much. And wants to inhale every single moment of it, which sometimes requires running faster to get it all in.

Before having Andrew, I didn't really understand that Warrior Side of a young boy.  To me, it represented aggression and anger and something pent up that shouldn't be there.  If a child was parented with love and gentleness, I thought that war-loving, weapon-toting side might not happen.

Experiencing Andrew taught me how completely wrong I was about that.  Thankfully, it was out of my system (we were never anti-gun) or else the tension in parenting Andrew would have been mind-boggling.  But I still learned so much about what that "pretend violence" and superhero play really meant to a kind-hearted, loving little boy.

For awhile there, I kept thinking of Andrew as a contradiction: How could he be SO MUCH of a warrior-spirit, and SO MUCH of a loving, nurturing, person-centered human being?  It didn't make sense to me.

But then he started talking more, expressing his mind, and he'd say things like: "I love you so much I would kill a lion for you."  Or: "If a bad guy ever tried to hurt you, I would stab him in the eye with my sword."

Coming from Andrew's sparkling, happy, joy-filled eyes, I started to see that this was how he loves. He will take care of people around him with a fierce territoriality.  He will give you the world's most amazing hugs -- but if someone messes with you, he will fight them without hesitation. He is a Protector.  The guardian of his loved ones. 

My mothering-side secretly hopes he's never recruited for the military, because I think he'd make an amazing Navy Seal.  He is wickedly intelligent and the miniature version of a man who would unblinkingly take a bullet for someone he loves or who needs protection.  And really, I'm not interested in my baby taking a bullet for anyone. I'm selfish like that.

And, Simone.  Her theme?  Brilliant firecrackers of color exploding through my life.   Her raw intelligence, her incredible awareness, her deep-seated intuition.  I love watching her charge down her life-path, like she's already read the map and knows exactly where she's heading.

When I think of Future Simone, I get these snapshots of images.  A recurring one is her standing on the Great Wall of China.  And she is looking into the camera with this triumphant glow, hands gently on her hips.  I don't even know the back-story to this mental picture -- whether we're there too...she's by herself...with friends?  I have no clue. I just know that she looks so amazed to be there, but this confidence cutting through the moment.  She understands the magnitude of the moment, but also knew she'd eventually be standing there.

I'm excited to watch where those tiny little 3-year-old feet will go.  She might scare her parents the way I scared mine at times, but I also look into her soulful, wise eyes and know she's going to do great. 

Examining their themes is like contemplating great books I've read.  Different styles and different authors and completely different plot structures.  But they each teach me something important and new -- about them, about me.  They shape my perception and make me a better version of myself. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

"I'm sad about you dying."


Sometimes I'll grab Steve's arm in the middle of some domestic moment, and say earnestly: "Can you believe we MADE these little people?  You and me?  That is so effing cool."

When they were babies, I would stare at their sleeping beings and think: We made something that breathes?  Poops? Cries? 

But as they've gotten older, the miracle expands exponentially.  They are tiny packages of ideas, interests, idiosyncrasies...and my head wants to explode from watching how cool that is.  Watching them form and become these incredible human beings in front of my eyes.


Andrew's personality seemed prone towards dishonesty, and not because of negative reasons: He loves people so much, cares so much about them - so if he knew something would make them sad, it was difficult for him to tell them.  He hates disappointing people.  

Had we punished him when he admitted something to us, he could have quickly developed a lying pattern to avoid that disappointment.  We saw that early on.

Our major goal with him was to create a safe place for honesty.  When he told "difficult truths" to us, he could never-ever-ever get in trouble.  Steve and I vehemently agreed on that.  

I didn't care what he'd broken or done, if he told me the truth, I'd crouch down and look him right in the eyes: "Thank you, Andrew, for being a man of integrity. I'll bet that was hard to talk about."  

In the last year or so, we've really seen him identify with being a Man of Integrity.  He finds a lot of pride and honor in telling the truth, which might be one of my greatest parenting triumphs to date. 


We've talked a lot about death in these last few months, starting with losing my Mikey in January, and then three Stage-4 cancer diagnoses in our circle.

The kids knew we were driving back to Chicago to see Aunt Robin because she had pancreatic cancer, because we weren't sure how she'd be feeling when we were there this summer.   The kids adore her so much, we wanted them to have a lot of time with her when she was still feeling well.

We told them we'd answer any question they'd have, and they could talk to Robin about anything.  But: "Let's not talk about dying with her." 

We spent an amazing Friday evening with her.  No matter what happens down the road, with such uncertainty about the cancer prognosis, that night meant a lot to me - watching her with my children.  I love how much love Robin has given to them, and how many memories they have of her.  She has meant so much to our family.

It was my sweet Andrew, the one who struggled in his earlier years with dishonesty, who leaned over to her and whispered in her ear: "I'm sad about you dying."

He also told Robin, "My dad cried about you dying." And: "We planned this trip just to see you."  All things I might have advised him not to say, but you know what?  He was right.  Those things should be said to someone we love.

Andrew taught me something that night:  That these little persons you make?  Sometimes know a hell of a lot more about things than you do. 

And that in my complicated lessons to him about integrity - speaking truth, but then other times watering it down - he had to say what he felt. 

I think that honesty was probably more refreshing for Robin than things we could have said to her.  Children's purity is pretty profound.

My favorite part of that, even, is how he leaned in to whisper it to her.  That regardless of what his parents had said about it, he needed to speak the truth to her.  

My little man of integrity.  I was wrong in trying to edit that. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Can you make your own sandwiches, kids? Mom is reading right now.

I'm in an antsy, restless, transformational phase in my life right now.  I know the signs.  I've done this before.  Many times.  

Sometimes it looks like a disconnect.  Staring out the window, and one of my children has to tap me to get my attention.  Forgetting the pasta water is boiling. Lying awake at night, with an almost aerobic sense of wondering.  Anticipation, but not sure exactly what I'm anticipating.

These are the times in life that are most brightly-colored.  Almost shimmery in my mind.  Heightened awareness.  Looking for clues or messages about where I'm heading next. 

Sometimes it's about geography.  Wanting to travel, explore. Right now, it's just about figuring out my new life here in Richmond.  What I'm going to do, who I'm going to be.

Transformational period or not, if Gil mentions a book to me, I read it.  Maybe it's because I respect his writing so much, and reading is so closely tied.  Maybe it's because, years ago, he passed me Milan Kundera after shaking his head in stunned wonder: "You're going to Prague? And haven't read Unbearable Lightness of Being?" He introduced my younger-self to great writing and songs that opened entirely new sections of my life.  

He was a writer like me, but better at it.  He was a reader like me, but better at it.  Knew more books, more poems, more authors.

So when he mentioned to me last week that he's always re-reading A Moveable Feast, I sent it to my Kindle. 

I don't always know what the catalyst will be in these transformational times.  But for this moment in time, that book did something to me.  I've read that, maybe it was more like "skimmed it"...years ago and didn't feel the power in it.  But it was an event in my life this time, reading Hemingway's thoughts -- how he created sentences using the same words I use, but in ways I could never have imagined.

I couldn't put it down, until I was almost at the end...and then I turned off my Kindle, because I didn't want the book to be over.  When I told him I loved the book, he said that Just Kids was the best book he'd read last year.  Another Kindle download.

I have always thought I loved reading.  And I do.  But I learned something in the juxtaposition of these two books, in this "shimmery" period of my life.  

I love words.  I love new words. Foreign words, that capture something specific for which we have no English counterpart.  How someone brilliant puts words together to create an entirely unique idea or moment. 

I told Gil I felt like a literary-zombie, carnivorous and starving for words that resonated with my deepest layers.   I've been reading non-fiction, because that is a part of me too.  I adore immunology, and could talk about gut flora and IgG reactions all day.  Economics, of course. Biographies, yes, and I thought the Steve Jobs one was fascinating. 

Those, though, speak to my logical brain.  My thinking side.  I love learning and absorbing facts. 

But this last week, I learned just having a book to read isn't who I am.  I want the artistry of words, not just the content.  That there's an important part of me that wants to just feel a book.  To find a sentence or a word pairing that ignites me...connects with me.

After I finished those 2 books, I downloaded Great Gatsby to re-read.  I liked it before...a lot...but thought there was a chance I could fall in love with it an entirely new way.  Hemingway talked about what a great book it was.  

Steve said I'd like Dostoyevsky, that Crime and Punishment was a complex, philosophical book about morality vs. the law.  He said he'd re-read it with me, so I could talk about it with someone.

Remember that period of French cooking, when my children were getting elaborate dinners?  Now, they're getting pancakes and scrambled eggs or "whatever you can find in the fridge, kids" while their mother walks down the hall while reading her book. 

I know this is not a sustainable reality.  This devouring of the written word at the expense of doing actual life-tasks.  But I think these periods of extremes teach something important that does sustain.