Saturday, September 12, 2015

Rotten Island

It's been a good long while since I had a parenting vent session. I guess that's good, because it means I've hit my stride in a way, or that the really rough patches are short lived. Or maybe it just means that now that I'm back in school, I will find anything to do or write about other than comparative foreign policy. Not that that's a boring topic, but I'm SUPPOSED to be doing it, so therefore, I'm doing this instead.

You're not going to believe this, but I think we might be buying a van. Don't worry, I can still rock it. And I can say with complete honesty that we're not getting a van because it's the van-phase of our family life, but just that our other cars died and the van is the right price with the right mileage and a reliable brand and we need to replace our car NOW. I was really gunning for a station wagon, but nothing panned out.

I haven't been particularly invested in the process of finding a new car because I hardly ever drive anymore. We have one car between Jonas and I and he's at work or school 7 days a week. I spend an egregious amount of time at home with the boys, which I think contributes to my feeling rather frazzled as a parent right now. We are all pretty bored and don't know how to combat it. It's too hot to play outside. We can't play in the water very much due to the drought. We can't go very far in the suburbs without a car. When we do get out, I feel terrible for spending money. We live in a giant house full of other people's things that are not for babies to touch.

I used to think that my failure as a parent was being too selfish to indulge in the behavior or take the time to do what my kids would consider fun or entertaining all day. I've gotten much better at that, but they have the attention span of gnats, so even when I am able to play with them, they don't want to play for more than 5 minutes, or it degenerates into Ishmael bashing Ira in the head because only he gets to play with mommy. For his part, Ira loves to sit on my lap and be read to, but I've really hit my limit of being hit full on in the face with board books every time he wants to suggest a new title.

I get so frustrated with Ishmael's constant wailing on Ira, no matter how I punish him or how many times I tell him to be gentle or to share. It's hard for me to stay calm when they ruin my stuff, too. I can't always make it there in time before they tear a page, or fall and hurt themselves, for that matter.

I'll be keeping an eye on one of them (obviously, they can never choose to be playing within sight of each other if they can possibly avoid it), and the other takes the opportunity to get into unfathomable mischief. Every single time, I think to myself "there's nothing over there that they could possibly get in to", but they are incredibly talented at defying my wildest imaginings. I would like to, for once, find one of them cleaning up or reading quietly, instead of peeing on chairs or shoving compost in their mouths.

Few things make me die inside more than Ishmael coming out of his room, clearly not having napped, and waking up a sleeping Ira in the process. I can barely fight off the heavy sense of dread as I envision the rest of the sleep-deprived day going downhill, with no chance for me to do homework, or anything else in that sacred nap-time space either, for that matter. It's really, really hard for me not to be furious (or to show him grace despite being so disheartened).

It reminds of me life on Rotten Island, a place where "[monsters] loved their rotten life. They loved hating and hissing at one another, taking revenge, tearing and breaking things, screaming, roaring, caterwauling, venting their hideous feelings." (Story and fantastic illustrations by the one and only William Steig. I want to marry him in a parallel universe.)

Sometimes I just want to GIVE UP. Do whatever you want, boys, tear each other limb from limb if that's what you want so badly. As Jonas puts it, "the boys are taking me on a trip to Nuts. They're driving me there." Incidentally, the boys think Jonas is the BEST and cry for him when I'm being especially strict with them, which is super encouraging, obviously. When he gets home, we all run to him and shake the bars of our day, screaming, "let me out of here!" (aka, "venting our hideous feelings") Get us off Rotten Island!

Having "mastered" the ability to play with my children, should I choose to, was clearly not the answer to all my problems. Perhaps I'm just not very creative with that task, because there's only so much block stacking and airplane drawing we can do before we're all pretty tired of it. They're little Olympians at turning fun stuff into gladiator sports, as I may have mentioned once or twice before. All "fun" eventually comes to a halt with me telling them to stop standing on the back of the couch, or stop kicking each other in the face.

My new parental self-esteem issue is thinking that it's my fault that they can be so unpleasant. If only I were more patient, more carefree, more loving, they wouldn't act so brutish. I think this is actually a lie, but it's mighty hard to shake.

The night doesn't seem long enough to recharge me from the horrible, petty, irritable mess I am by the end of a day of keeping their gnashing teeth away from one another's necks. After a few days in a row, I wake up already upset with Ishmael (maybe because he wakes up in the middle of the night for no good reason most nights, occasionally even waking Ira) and wanting nothing but to escape. I don't like this. I don't want to be in this situation, and I don't like feeling myself unable to reset. Frankly, I feel paralyzed to even ask God for help, and generally abandoned to my own ugly war. I know this is ridiculous and even offensive, but I feel like my day and my attitude are #beyond! Beyond His help, that is, and that if I were to get "spiritual" about motherhood that it would only be a pretty face on top of something that is still incredibly hard and rotten, most days. I fall prey to the idea that if I were a good enough mom or a good enough Christian, Jesus would make my life easy. What a joke. The only truth I know about God and parenting so far is that it is still hellish (perhaps more so when you're trying to guide your children to love the Lord and do what is right), and the only difference is that His mercies are new every morning. My problem is that I have trouble accepting them.

Even my body is aware of my state - bent to the point of pain at standing straight, pain at being on my feet because of bad posture, headaches from coffee or lack of coffee or just emotional exhaustion.

It's very hard for me to see the joys in parenting right now, and there's certainly little to no fun. One of the worst things is that I'm afraid that if I can't have fun, they probably can't have nearly as much fun as they could be having, and that's a shame. As I was cooking dinner today (they were gated in upstairs where it was easier to ignore them yelling at me) I realized that perhaps the crux of my dissatisfaction with my role as a parent right now is that I can't seem to thrive at it. I think most of us would agree that we enjoy doing things that we're good at and find fulfillment in seeing a good thing completed. For me, that has yet to happen with parenting, which seems to be my sole job for the next two decades at least. I know that this is my perspective more than reality, but I have a hard time separating the two.

A lot people are willing to say that parenting at any given moment is typically not the most fun or enjoyable thing, but they always continue with, "but it's so rewarding." In the interest of being honest, I'll throw it out there that thus far, I don't find it very rewarding. I don't see my children becoming incredible creatures that somehow stand above the rest. I don't feel rewarded that everything is a struggle, including my own personhood. Their milestones are cool, but I don't have very much to do with that (I know, me me me again), and while it's amazing in a sense, everyone else hits those milestones too. I like my kids a lot better than I like other people's kids and I still don't find watching them grow to be the pinnacle of my life's joy or achievement. In a Biblical sense, maybe that's okay, but God Almighty is it counter cultural! I love to be counter cultural to a degree, but this is in a realm that just feels completely isolated.

This is a really negative way to look at it, but I wonder to myself sometimes, why do we have children and sacrifice so many other good things in the name of giving them "a good life" only to have them repeat the process? We're raising kids to raise kids to raise kids. I know that we can accomplish other things in life in tandem with raising children, but I feel like a pet store rat on a wheel imagining my kids finally being grown and therefore having "made it" to the goal, only to have them start out with babies right where I'm leaving off with them and feel pulled away from everything we've worked so hard to given them the opportunity to do. Unless the journey IS the goal (see my reservations about that above), we never reach the finish line. I know this sounds so heartless in light of the fact that my children are treasured human beings. I love them, I just don't love this system. Is this the way life was designed to be, for me or them? If so, WHY? And if not, what am I missing?

I've read of a few chapters of Jennifer Senior's "All Joy and No Fun" (buy it right meow) and she goes into a bit of the history of the economic value of children. Right around the industrial revolution, people got up in arms against child labor (which I think we can generally agree was a rotten thing) and in her words, children suddenly became "economically worthless and emotionally priceless". I'm not arguing that children aught to exist to make me happy instead of working, but why is my existence now expected to make them happy? It's not, and I don't try to make it be. Which is not to say that I don't want to see them happy, but again, not bending over backward to mold your child's life just so goes against the grain of middle-class American schools of thought today, and even though I don't buy in to it, I still feel guilt for not living up to a standard I don't believe in.

You know what the real joke of focusing solely on your children's lives is? No matter what we do as parents, they will never turn out exactly as we envision them or want them to, and a lot of people get caught up in their own supposed "failure" over that, or worse, blame their children for not being who the parent dreamt they would be.

It's not a lot of fun to slog through each day trying to teach them life lessons rather than gratify every demon possessed desire that grips them, and probably only slightly less miserable than giving them everything they want and letting them run the world. Maybe we just haven't come out on the other side yet, to the magical land where character building has made fun more rewarding than it can ever be for children or parents who are enslaved to one another.

The 2-3 year old age range is infamous. Ishmael will ask for something to eat, and I will give it to him. Then he won't eat it and will ask for something else. All day, every day. This might not sound like a big deal, but I don't allow him to waste food, so multiple time a day, this scenario turns in to him whining to get down, me saying no and having to prompt him 7 times to eat his lunch. He won't, so eventually he gets down with the understanding that he won't be eating anything else until he finishes the original food that he asked for. Then he will ask me for other food about 15 times through out the rest of the day, and I will say, "no, eat what I already gave you". If this (or any similar situation, such as "clean up this toy before you get that one out") goes on, it's not unlikely that he will get frustrated and melt down eventually. When he asks for other food or anything else for that matter, he will say it many times over with no breaths in between until you acknowledge him. Sometimes you can't even acknowledge him because he's taking up all the air and noise in the room asking you. If you do acknowledge him and give him an answer, he'll ask you a bunch more times or say "why not?" if it's not the answer he was hoping for, or if it was the answer he wanted and you're not making it happen quickly enough, he'll ask you 10 more times for good measure. It's exhausting just to write it out, and probably to read it too.

If he sounds like a brat, I worry that he is. I can only focus on so many life lessons at once, and not interrupting hasn't made it to the top of the list yet. Even when I do everything "right" parenting him, he still chooses to be pestulant much of the time. Perhaps it tickles his insides more than being obedient does.  God knows why, since the look of sheer pleasure and adoration on my face, accompanied by rewards and praise when he does the right thing are probably enough to keep him from sinning again for the rest of his life.

Part of me thinks that one day, they'll GET IT, and just be the lovely cherubs they could be if they just listened to my advice. On the other hand, every single person I know who has ever had more than one boy says that they battle with one another constantly, so I'm not holding out hope that they'll give up their Rotten Island ways for at least 15 more years.

I cropped the rest of this tabloid story out because it's too child-neglectish to be very funny, but I've always [ruefully] grinned at this headline about taking a break from your toddler, like you might with a particularly difficult relationship with an adult in your life. {link}

Sometimes I imagine myself doing yoga instead of actually doing yoga (children just sit on your face) and at least in my imagination, some of the worries melt away. For their part, children are like uncrushable little balls of optimism, ready to try another day, no matter how bad the previous one was.

I think I suffer from never having truly been a child at heart, but at the end of the day, there is some little seed of motherhood in me that I can't drown, no matter how intensely I fight against mom-hood sometimes. I think all women get this magical substance when they see their child for the first time, and it's like their hearts get an injection of fluid elastic so they can be beat and prodden and torn in every direction and still have room for that kid in there. I got it too, except they were almost out at the hospital, so I only got a drop. Even so, it melts me even in the worst of times (or soon thereafter) and makes me want to give my sons another chance and it makes me smile back when they grin at me, even in the midst of their devilry, and makes me reach for them when they reach for me. I can't resist it when they crawl into my lap with a book.

Sometimes it prompts me to call out across the sea of broken toys and shattered agendas that "I love you!". It feels like one good thing against a mountain of things I don't like at all, but somehow it always wins, and not just because I don't have a choice. These kids somehow still love me, even when I'm fed up with them and myself, and when I see that in their beady little eyes, I scoop them up against my better judgement and try again to make sense of all of this. 

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