Friday, March 4, 2016

Amateur Mother

A situation requires a very high level of potential embarrassment in order for me to consider whether or not I should publicly write about it. I am not easily shamed or embarrassed – or rather, when I am, it is easy for me to laugh it off.  However, as any parent of a pre-schooler could probably tell you, children complicate the ability to deflect embarrassment.

My sons are animals. They’re really sweet and cute and a lot of the time, but they’re animals. John Oliver recently likened supporting Donald Trump to having a pet Chimpanzee – they’re entertaining until they start ripping your limbs off. That’s how I feel about my sons. They have two settings: sleep and mischief. As Bunmi Laditan noted, I spend all my time breaking up fights between the two children I had expressly so they would entertain each other. 

Ishmael’s deviance of choice is kicking Ira, or kicking whatever object Ira is trying to use. Ira, in turn, will go up to Ishmael and shove him in the chest with both hands and laugh his bum off about Ishmael staggering backward and crying. I'm convinced that people who believe in the basic good of humanity don’t have young children.

Ishmael's other hobbies include stealing candy, destroying property, and lying about everything. Meanwhile, Ira has perfected acting entirely deaf when I talk in his direction and then by the time I’m yelling at him to stop whatever he’s doing, he turns and looks at me and shouts, “OKAYYYY!” with almost as much sass as my 16 year old sister. Their go-to responses to questions are “I don’t know” (when they clearly do) and “HE did it!” 

Ishmael’s behavior has been especially discouraging recently because I can't find any kind of discipline that consistently changes his ways. And I really don't want to get into a positive vs. negative reinforcement battle right now, because I know that's probably what you're thinking is wrong with me. That's what I would think is wrong with me if I were someone else reading this.

Deep down, I know that he is bored and ignored most of the time, and that’s why he acts out. I feel guilty because I’m the one who isn’t engaging enough with him and I’m the one who is trying to accomplish 10 other things while simultaneously keeping both children alive. More so than any shocking thing my children say or do, I'm embarrassed to write about my life as a parent because I believe it’s my failures that make them unpleasant to be around.

Let me tell you a little story about something that really broke me as a parent... 

Ira has been sleeping in a vintage crib that I painted when pregnant with Ishmael. All of the fumes I inhaled are probably what caused Ishmael to be born with so much hair and a temperament that challenges mine in every way. Because it's a vintage [probably illegal] crib, it's must smaller than modern sized cribs, which are almost the size of a twin bed. At any rate, Ira could easily crawl out of it if he had the mind to, and I'm pretty surprised he hasn't had the mind to so far. Knowing this, my mother kindly bought us a regular-sized crib at the thrift store, but it was too big to fit up the stairs in one piece, so Jonas had to dismantle it first. 

While I was clearing off a space on the boy's bedroom floor - aka the place where toys go to die, as they become a mine-field for unsuspecting adult feet or lost forever under piles of underwear and broken sunglasses - I grabbed a yellow toy truck about the size of burrito. Something sloshed out of the truck bed onto the carpet in a remarkably viscous, straight line. The color was suspect, so I lifted my doused finger to my nose, and I can not describe to you the feeling I had when I realized that it was urine. Actually, I can. It was mind-bending disbelief coupled with an internal, "What. The. Hell." Jonas and I looked at one another and agreed, "That. That is truly weird."

I share a bathroom with three boys, so I see a lot of urine in places it shouldn't be. I don't love it. But something about imagining my son purposefully peeing in the bed of a toy truck instead of in the toilet so horrified me that I really felt like he might be a troubled person. I was afraid to tell anyone about this, but one of my sisters is a nurse and she thought this story was hilarious and relatively normal, so I've taken a deep breath and shared it.  

Now, I honestly think that this is probably on the spectrum of normalish boy behavior. I'm sure I'm in for lots more surprises in having sons. I think it will only get funnier as time goes on, and I don't think there is something wrong with Ishmael. If he reads this someday, I want him to be assured that I don't legitimately think there's something wrong with the way his mind works. I did some pretty bizarre, unbelievably unsanitary things out of pure curiosity as a child myself. But I have been at my wits end for how to deal with him, and this situation played into a the decision to get him in to school as quickly as possible. I just typo-ed "pissable", which I find worth noting here. 

Ever since Ishmael was a baby, he’s loved to get out of the house. He and I are very different this way. He’s almost always on excellent behavior when we go out, and on worst behavior when we're home. After we’re done at one store or destination, he always wants to go on to another, and begs not to go home. Ira, on the other hand, asks to go home frequently, though he never wants to be left out if we are going somewhere.

Ishmael is dying to learn. I don't just sense this, he tells me so himself. He pretends he’s at school and he talks about school often, even though he’s never been (he's not even 3 and half yet). He immediately focuses, comes alive, and becomes a joy when we read, play playdough, play jenga, go the park, or go to the library, but for whatever reasons (many legitimate) I can't provide all the stimulation he needs at the levels that he craves it. 

He needs more than I can give him, and while I'm okay with that, it's not an easy thing to be secure about when you're an amateur mother, daughter of a professional mother. Even though we’ve always planned to put our kids in school (as opposed to home-schooling), I thought that we’d delay it as much as possible so that the stay-at-home parent (which turned out to be me) got to be with them as much as possible in the youngest years and shape their character. I thought - and have been told - that the opportunity to shape a young character is basically the highest calling a mother can have, and that it's terrible to let anyone else do that. 

As it turns out, spending all day, every day together shaping one another's characters doesn’t seem to be the best thing for Ishmael and I. We're definitely being shaped, just into funky postmodern sculptures with limp arms and dripping faces. I must pause here and say that there is good in being the primary care giver for my sons, and I wholeheartedly believe that parents have the honor and responsibility of teaching a child how to function and flourish, whether or not they're the primary care-taker for their kids. I don't take that lightly or wish that someone else would handle all of it. I'm just realizing that me being the exclusive shaper of Ishmael's young heart and mind may not be the healthiest of options.

If you don't believe me, check out this terrifying drawing that Jonas sketched for one of his classes. When the boys saw it, they both pointed and said, "mama." DON'T ASK. (I don't even know...)

I read this article a long time ago, written by a former nanny who is now a mother to children of her own. This is slightly out of context in regards to what she was saying, but she referred to mothers as "feeling both out of control and deeply responsible". I'm a realist when it comes to rights and fairness in this world, but motherhood can feel like the most unfair, uncontrollable collision of impossible feelings and situations. So responsible, so helpless. 

"They are great at their jobs, even though child care is easier when all parties allow the late-capitalist delusion that it isn’t a job at all. Like maybe they’re doing the work because they just love children that much. Though, having done it, I know it doesn’t always feel like a job but something else much trickier, with fewer boundaries and higher stakes." No rules, all the consequences. 

One of my primary roles in life is to be a mother to these children, and I don't understand why God would choose to give me a task so unsuited to my natural giftings. Why can't this work be fulfilling and uplifting to all parties involved? Actually, I think I do know God lets it be this way, and it makes me not want to have coffee with him. He's forcing me to rely on something other than my own brain power or gifts such that I grow and learn and am stretched and have to admit that I'm a slobbering, blubbering, broken down mess all the time without his mercy and grace (which I am gifted at ignoring). I guess I will have to continue learning this lesson until I no longer have children, which Lord willing, will be a long damn time. But seriously, why can't children eat artwork and learn discipline from hours of delicious sleep? Maybe that will be what it's like in heaven, where everything is as it should be. 

I strongly believe in early childhood setting the tone for life, aka "providing a good foundation", and that makes me queezy, as I don't feel that it's going very well. However, I am still hopeful that my less Catholic-school more free-range approach with result in idyllic scenes of me with two teenage sons, all bffs, co-writing a political blog while monetizing our hobbies together and renovating a pink Victorian mansion somewhere in South East Asia. It could happen, right?

When I see other people who love to be with pre-schoolers and who understand how to engage them, it’s pretty obvious that Ishmael needs that, and I don’t have it. He has always been harder for me to relate to. He is deeply caring, and I think he might be an artist or an inventor, which thrills me, but it also makes me look at myself and wonder if I'm also that mysterious and slippery and complicated a soul. He is often so emotional that I think his constant crying is "crying wolf" and I worry that I'm like one of those 1950s fathers ingraining in him that boys don't cry, only because I'm so exhausted by his levels of sentiment. Is he my carbon copy or my polar opposite? Most likely, he's just his very own brand of person and I don't know him very well yet. Too often, we don't bring out the best in one another.

I found this paragraph in a draft for another post that will never see the light of day. It was about a weekend I spent in LA with some of my siblings and just one son: "It was such a departure from my reality, especially since I only had Ira with me. It was both wonderful and sad to realize how much I enjoyed time alone to focus on Ira. He seemed to blossom in front of my eyes and I loved playing with him, even when I was frustrated at pulling him off the kitchen table for the thousandth time. It made me ENJOY having children. I always love having children, but I do not often enjoy it."

The first few years of my parenting journey were heavily influenced by post-partum depression, which I did not realize I was dealing with at the time. It certainly contributed to my over-all sense of dislike for that time period, and beside being extremely difficult, it also made me feel so guilty to find rest and enjoyment in my "easy" child, and constant frustration in interacting with my "difficult" child. Even the naked fact that there are now two of them meant and means that I can rarely focus all my love rays on either one of them as much as I wish I could.

Showing favoritism is one of a very few things that I find unforgivable in other parents. As usual, I've had to face this ugly struggle that I never expected to have to deal with in myself. This is a taboo topic for pretty good reason, but I think there is a need for these topics to be brought out in the open, because if I'm struggling with it, I'm pretty sure some other moms are too. Nothing makes an amateur mother feel like less alone than having someone else voice our deepest fears.

I must clarify that I genuinely love my sons equally. I don't always like them equally, and they take turns being the more frustrating one. I don't think it's wrong for that to be my reality, but it is wrong to treat them differently in light of that, and that is hard for me. One has been in my favorite age-range recently, the other is at a notoriously difficult stage. I'm sad and fearful as I watch Ira, who has been so much easier, descend into the 2-3yo window (18 months is the sweet spot, so far!). It makes my uterus shriek, if you know what I mean.

On top of that, I quickly blame Ishmael in a situation in which they're both in trouble, because it seems much more likely that Ishmael understood his actions and still deliberately hurt Ira. But recently, Ira has adapted to become conniving and devious in his own right, and I'm less likely to favor his side because he's so "helpless".

"out of control and deeply responsible" (artwork source unknown) 

So far, I've only heard one nugget of wisdom that made me feel less miserable about trying to navigate this situation. "When we're being honest, our favorite kid is the one giving us the least amount of trouble right now." I find that to be true of myself, and I cling to it because it means that my sons both get a chance to be "the good one" sometimes. But I also question why there is a need to compare and why there can only be one that I'm the most happy with at any given time. Or why I base how "well" things are going by the level of happiness I'm feeling.

I can see clearly that they're very different kids and I know that comparison is a deadly habit in general, but I think parents are lying if they pretend they don't compare behavior among their children. Thank goodness that motherly love seems to be an uncontrollable resource that never diminishes based on behavior, no matter who its channeled at. I hope it's not arrogant to say that that's the image of God in us as parents, and thereby the thing that I am least responsible for in myself as a mother.

I think what I had started to say about school got lost in all my feelings about being unjustly subjected to parenthood-by-fire. School turned out not to be the point of this post at all, but anyway, Ishmael will be going to school in the fall, if all goes well. I hope it helps regulate his behavior and gives him tasks to put his heart into and helps me feel less guilty for being the sole ruinner of souls. 

As much as I writhe around under the title of "mother", my sons are precious to me. Precious little ball and chains. Apart from losing a great deal of liberty as an adult upon having children, parenting is most difficult because you do love these young humans with all your might, and that makes the possibility (and reality) of messing them up so crushing. Nothing makes me smile more than to watch them experiencing joy, and nothing rips me up more than feeling like an impostor of a parent, responsible for their miserable human behaviors. 

For everyone's sake, I wish I was a professional mother. But I'm not. I'm only an as-good-as-I-can-be-right-now mother who is actively trying to be a better mother. And that has to be enough. 

1 comment:

  1. Karissa, this is why I love reading your posts! You artfully express exactly the feelings that are stuck in my heart. I can't get them out but you do and my heart can rest knowing someone else is going through it with me. I love you!


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