Thursday, February 21, 2013

Art museums, wearing socks to bed, and other parenting mysteries

There are two categories of parenting that can equally shock: When your child is like you in ways that are inexplicably specific, and times when they are completely disconnected from anything you could have imagined.  Genes pour together into a vat, get stirred up a few times, and come out all kinds of unpredictable chaos.
Simone (4) said in the National Gallery last weekend, with wide-eyed awe: “How are these paintings even possible?”  This is nearly identical to something I said to a friend at the National Gallery last fall: That I loved the Dutch Realist painters, where you can’t even fathom that it’s possible to paint it.  I have never said that sentence to Simone, but her emotional computer created the same feeling and articulated it in nearly the same way.
There was a buzzing brain-sizzle as I stared down at this tiny, blonde, Shrunken-Down Version of Me, standing in the museum corridor. She collects words like me, drags books around the house and begs me to teach her how to read them, starves for sentences and ideas, and authentically loves art museums.  Not to make me happy, but to make herself happy.  If I apply zero pressure to steer her path, I will still have created a word-loving literary child.
Or the littlest things: Like when Jack told me he likes to wear socks to bed, because the best feeling is waiting a little bit and then taking them off,  so you can feel the cold sheets on your feet.  I do the same thing.  For the same reason. 
It’s oversimplified, I know.  There are 100 ways they’re different from me. With Andrew, there are 1000s. More on that later.
But still.
So to go back the Gene Vat analogy: You reach into the vat and scoop out a soul, with its pre-wirings and interests and proclivities.  And then you create an environment around it. 
In some ways, Jack seems like the Me I wish I’d been.  Or rather, a version that I’d be if I could take multiple paths at once.  Life is like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, and you have to make choices along the way.  Not like the current me: I ask him what he did in school today, and he asks if I want it in French or English.  And he is not joking around.  That’s not Me because it can’t be me.  But I understand that side of him, because he got it from me. But…born into a different era, different situation, different parenting strategies. 
You always have to choose, as a parent, which experiences to give your children.  It’s like reading.  When I think of all the books out there, it can shred my heart that I will never read them all.  You just can’t. It’s not humanly possible.  I can live to be Very Old, and I will still die with countries unseen, movies not watched, museums not explored, books not read.  It pains me on some level, but it’s also a comfort.  You choose.  You do your best.  And you fill life the best you can in the time you have.
When my children pack their bags for college, there will be so many things I haven’t done with them.  We’ve made travel a focal point of their childhood, and my 4-year-old has been to 30 states.  But in doing that focal point, there are other things that haven’t happened for her.  She never once went to a Mommy-and-Me class. J Or: I can send them to French immersion school and Russian camp for Jack, and that still means hundreds of languages not learned. 
But it’s only partly what I pour into their lives, too. There is a library at work, a floor down from my office, so I come home with books for the kids most days. They love biographies.  We read about Helen Keller, Ben Franklin, whomever. They aren’t picky.  I got one about Vivaldi the other day, and was reading it to Jack before bed.  Apparently, Jack already knew Vivaldi.  Heard his music at school.  Knew he was called the Red Priest. And that he taught orphan girls music.
These tiny moments leave me breathless.  I’ve created this person who is of me and like me, but with his completely independent path through life.  He’s already learned and will learn things that never came my way. 
There are echoes of me in Jack and Simone, in ways that are eery, disturbingly exciting, and profoundly fascinating.  Andrew is a near carbon-copy of Steve, so Steve has baffled wonder moments more often with him.  We swapped out Steve’s cautious analysis with my fearless impulsivity, so those parts of Andrew resonate with me.  Most times, though, I filter through Andrew dilemmas through the Steve-filter.
I thought motherhood would be just about loving these little persons, and ohmygod, I do. But the exploration of another human being…that’s this completely unexpected element.  Learning about them, guiding them, watching them unfold.  I can’t choose what interests I pass down to them – whether through genes or dragging them on my outings – because you can’t predict or steer whatyour child becomes. 
I can set good examples and give them values and teach them how to treat people, and all the Parenting 101 basics.  But at the end of the day, the individual they become is their own masterpiece. I hand them the brushes, buy the paints, make suggestions, tell them I like how they made that tree over there.  The painting is all theirs, though, and I just get to observe the scene unfold in front of me.
Basically unrelated, although still under Musings About My Children… and things I want to remember for them:
Andrew (6): “What if all this is a dream?  Our whole lives?  What if I’m just in the dream?”
Me: “Andrew, did you know some of the greatest minds ever have asked that same question?”
Me: “So guys, what was your favorite thing about our trip to DC?”
Simone: “Learning that even if I’m as cold as an ice cube, I can STILL DO IT.”


Monday, February 18, 2013

Turns out, I DID come home un-crabby.

I have so many things I want to say about my children right now.  And not a single sentence I can write could describe this feeling in the pit of me -- the gratitude, love, joy, excitement -- that these little persons are mine.

I left on Sunday morning to take the kids for 2 days in Washington DC, solo due to Steve's work schedule.  As we were leaving, Steve said to me: "Thank you for doing this for our children."

"Ah. Maybe thank me when I get home.  Make sure I'm not crabby on the other end of this."

Steve, with complete calm: "Oh. I have NO expectations that you'll come back un-crabby."

The way he said it, with absolute acceptance, twisted me in a lovely way.  I felt like he was giving me permission to react authentically to what could have been a very complicated weekend. I really appreciated it.  And in a strange way, it poured a confidence into me -- like no matter what happened, it would be okay.  I would make sure it was a great weekend. 

We went up there because I wanted to take the kids to the National Gallery.  As I posted on Facebook: "My art-loving younger self never predicted researching the National Gallery website for paintings whose artists share a name with Ninja Turtles. But when Andrew said after the Michelangelo exhibit, “Can we go see Leonardo ones next?” -- all I could hear was his excitement about art, and I didn’t care about the source. Honestly, I’m kinda in love with the way family members meld their interests to make something bigger and better than any individual. Yes, we’re going on the Ninja Turtle themed tour of the National Gallery this weekend – but we’ll still see some amazing art. And my superhero-loving little boy is excited about it. That means a lot to my art-loving current self."

We drove up early that morning and had brunch with Prilla and Curt, left our car at their place to take the Metro, spent a few hours at the National Gallery, then walked to Ford's Theater, then to the White House, then to the Metro station again to come home.

That's the simplified version. The more accurate, unedited vision involves blasting cold wind, hurting feet, no open restaurants for long stretches of time, not being able to find taxis when we needed them (hence all the walking), the Metro station being closed when we finally arrived, and one child wetting pants because no building with a bathroom was unlocked.

But you know what else it doesn't include? 

That NOT ONE of my children whined at me.  We all talked about how effing cold it was (Simone: "I have never been so cold, but I am TRYING REALLY HARD not to freak out right now!").  But everyone talked about it like it was an unalterable entity...a necessary evil to do what we were wanting to do...and with no whining or irritability. 

I felt like we were all in this together.  Bonding through the misery of cold, hurting-footed hunger.  One of us with wet pants.

Every few freezing blocks, I'd crouch down at their level, tell them they were travel warriors, and we'd all do a group hug.  Partly for moral support, partly for shared body heat.  You'd think we were climbing Mount Everest together, not walking urban DC.  But for tiny persons, quite honestly, it might be about the same level of triumph. 

When we finally found a Marriott (after blocks upon blocks of closed office buildings), we ducked in, dried off wet pants, bought a round of hot ciders, and then I said: "Do we still want to walk to the White House?"  I assumed it'd be a unanimous NO, but three sets of eyes lit up and shrieked YES.

I fought back tears, pushed forward by some yet-to-be-named emotion that is a large percentage pride...but also just wondrous awe at these persons.


It was an amazing two days.  They loved the art museum.  Andrew loved that he planned our Sunday (Ninja Turtle artists...where Abe Lincoln was shot...and the White House -- all his itinerary for us).  I think he grew a foot taller yesterday.

On Sunday night we stayed at a hotel, as we went to Mount Vernon on Monday for Washington's birthday events and to see his personal copy of the Constitution.  I woke up this morning to see the bathroom light on, and Andrew playing in there.  "I didn't want to turn on the lights and wake you all," he said.  And then a few beats later: "You know what, Mommy? You're an awesome mommy." 

Sometimes, motherhood is complete un-fun.  If you are a parent, I don't need to explain this.  Sometimes, in fact, it can be pretty damn miserable.  And then other times, you're standing in your pajamas in a hotel room in Alexandria, wiping away tears about this sweet little boy standing in his underwear in the bathroom, holding a Spider-Man, handing you one of the more beautiful moments you've ever had. 


Friday, February 8, 2013

On being a siblingless-sibling.

I don't really know what it feels like to have a sibling relationship, despite having two brothers, which might not make sense if you didn't have mentally handicapped brothers. It's not like being estranged from a blood sibling, or not getting along, or having different personalities.  It's a completely unique recipe of caretaker-mentality, similar biological age, but a huge gap of mental age that mimics decades of chronological age.  Mimics, but not the same.  As even with a decade or two of chronological age difference, at some point you can catch up and have some peer element.

I'm not saying one is harder or easier or anything qualitative.  It just is.  This is my experience, the only one I know.  

Peer-dynamic is the part missing about my sibling relationships. I think the mix of only-childness, but components of siblinghood, is what makes being a "special-needs sibling" such a complex definition.  

I wouldn't change it. I don't wish it away. There's no internal whining or wistfulness when I think about it.  I don't have a longing or an ache for a sibling relationship, but I do have a curiosity. 

I watch my children play together, talk together at the dinner table, and wonder...deeply and passionately...what that feels like to have someone who shares your blood, your mental abilities, your age, your home.

What does that feel like?  I want to put it in double-italics, underlined and bolded, maybe flashed in neon.  Because in my mind, it tumbles out like a hungry, ravenous begging. 

I want to interview my children along the way.  When they call each other... from college...or as adults cities apart...what will they say to each other?  What do you tell a sibling?  My brothers are barely intelligible on the phone.  I have no concept of calling up a sibling to a peer...whether to pass on information or anything else.

Being their sister shaped me in incredible, indelible ways.  It gave me a confidence, this feeling like I could do anything...along with a sense of responsibility, like I should do everything I can do.  But it stripped me of any ability to be arrogant about it all, because my mind doesn't belong to me.  I have nothing to do with my ability to construct thoughts and ideas.  My DNA gave it to me, and it could have just as easily taken it away from me.

So there's this crazy concoction of awe and appreciation and profound humility, about something inside of me that doesn't belong to me.  I escaped my genetic coding with a normally-functioning, non-handicapped mind... that gets to read Hemingway and write down thoughts and psychologically probe Mein Kampf with William. All these things I've shoved into my neurons over the years -- they have nothing to do with me.  I was just given a bigger cup to hold it all than my brothers.  I wasn't holding more water because I practiced pouring.

We wonder about raising siblings, Steve and I, because we don't understand it.  He had two much older half-brothers...and while the dynamics are different (they are now peers), we share an understanding of having Official Brothers but feeling like an only child in many ways. We don't always know what to do in our children's sibling-moments, and so we fumble around and hope for the best.  

We gave our children siblings in a tight-cluster of age, and nature gave them closely aligned intellect.  We've moved them from place to place, so they've become bonded as one of the few constants in each others' lives.  

When we were in the Grand Tetons, we took a tour of a tiny one-room cabin where a pair of brothers lived in a harsh Wyoming winter.  The tour guide said, "Who here would want to live in this TINY room with their sibling ALL winter?"  My three children were the only ones among 20 people, adults and children, who raised their hands.  I laugh even now, remembering it.  I remember looking down at their tiny heads and raised-hands, and loving that they had each other.

Yes, I know...I had and have brothers.  I'm not saying I didn't.  I have snapshot-memories of being in head-locks, raiding cabinets of junk food while our parents slept in on Saturdays, and long bike rides with Craig.  In the beginning, too, the differences weren't so vast.  But I kept growing up.  And like Peter Pan, they stayed the same age.  I read Separate Peace while Craig, 2 years younger, kept reading Berenstein Bears.  He still does, for that matter.

I became a peer to my parents instead.  Told them secrets you might normally tell a sibling, came to them for advice.  But then as my mom's mind splintered and dissolved in her last decade of life, from the same dystrophy that splintered my brothers' minds from birth, I became a siblingless-sibling and a motherless-daughter.  

I had brothers, but no peers in my family.  And I had a mom who adored me, but couldn't keep her cognition straight to be an authority figure and guide.  Sentences were jumbled, logic made no sense.  I had to help put on her shoes, because her physical shell was dissolving too.

I'm not really getting to a point. I guess there really isn't one. I have some blended up thoughts about trailblazing elements of parenting -- the attempts to do a good job when there's something you don't really understand.  But mostly, this is just what's on my mind tonight.