The Parental Ideologue

So here is what happens… you find out your pregnant. You start to share this news with the world. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has parenting advice. Family, friends, distant relations, people you talked to once in high school, random strangers will stop you on the street, in the middle of the grocery store, to tell you how they parented.

You have the baby, and the advice does not stop. Especially if this is your first baby. Everyone is a parenting expert, and they will have this irrepressible need to tell you the many ways they succeeded, how they did it, and how you should do it.

I would like to note that rarely do these home-grown experts own up to their failures.

Among the advice givers, you’ll find the ideologue. There are roughly as many different theories on parenting as there are lip gloss samples at Ulta. You’ll find parents from many of these groups, and they will tell you how every decision they make fits within the tenements of their parenting philosophy.

It drives me crazy.

I parent to the kid, not to the ideology.

If I had to pin my parenting philosophy down, it falls somewhere around “Get Everyone to 18 Without Losing my Mind.” We do practice quite a bit of attachment parenting, I do consider us gentle parents. But we routinely find ourselves making decisions out of the definitions of those philosophies.

Each kid is different. There are vast differences between Sprout and Pudge. Already, I am seeing that some of the parenting techniques that worked with Sprout are not going to work with Pudge. She is an entirely different child, technical and precise, then her wild big sister. Making decisions just to stay within the parenting tenements I follow, to have more cred as a gentle parent, will hurt my children, rather than help them.

Along with this, comes the books. There are hundreds of books at my local Barnes and Noble on parenting. Many of them proclaim with bold phrases in bright letters that buying this book will solve all your parenting problems. Or the DVDs. For just $59.99 plus shipping and handling, you can buy this series from world renown parenting expert Doctor Clown, who can solve all your parenting problems!!.

No. It just doesn’t work that way.

Parenting is not finding one parenting philosophy or book or technique, that will solve all your problems. Parenting is continuous problem solving. It is tackling the same problem from different directions. It is giving up on a problem and coming back to it.

Let me be honest. There are days when I wish one book, one technique, one anything would solve every parenting problem I face. But that just isn’t true. Some days I have to drink enough coffee to caffeinate a hibernating bear; do as much as I can with the time I’m given, keep the girls fed, clean and get them into bed, and call it a day.

And that’s my parenting ideology. Do the best you can with each day you’ve got.

 

~Jennifer

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Carry Me

“Carry me”, she says. She is 5 now, and those thorough-bred long legs still tire on long walks. She is still afraid of thunder storms, and when the rain beats down, she holds her arms up.

“Up up up!!” the baby says. Chubby toddler arms reach up for me, as she bounces impatiently. The last vestiges of babyhood cling to her, a round face, an equally round belly that pushes out over her diapers. Proof of a healthy appetite.

I moaned and complained for years over my hips. My Mom told me there were child birthing hips. I have no idea if wide hips made giving birth easier. But it has provided me a spot to prop my children.

Since Sprout was tiny, I have carried her. Or worn her. First it was a wrap, then a ring sling got us through the toddler years. I put it away with the hopes of another baby.

And that baby came. Pudge was just a few days old, I was still sore and hurting, when I pulled the ring sling over my head, spread it out over my shoulder, and put her in it. A second ring sling, an Ergo that she outgrew, and finally a Tula.

At the beach yesterday, I wore her. And I realized that she is too heavy, or am I too beaten down and old, to wear her on my chest anymore. A long walk and my shoulders ached, that spot in my lower back that never seems to loosen up reminded me it was there.

I realized it was time to put her on my back, and so for a second walk, down by the ocean, I did that. She was content to watch the world from my shoulder, and I did not ache at much.

I have heard it often, that I should put them down. Let them run and play. And I do. At the park, on the beach, around my yard, and through my house. I could, and have, talk myself blue in the face about not running and slowing down and being more careful. They do not listen.

But the time when I can carry my babies on my hip, on my back, in my arms, is passing. These are the hard years, but they are the fast years. I still feel like I just brought Sprout home from the hospital, and this fall she starts kindergarten. A year ago Pudge was a roly poly baby, and now she is my independent toddler.

I will hold, and carry, and wear, them as long as I can. Until either my body gives out or they are too big to carry. Tomorrow they may conquer the world, but today, they have a spot on my hip.

~Jennifer

The Night Before School

When you have a baby, when that monumental moment in time comes, and you literally bring your child into the world, the doctors, nurses, your family and friends, they all forget to tell you one thing. That you are taking a piece of your heart, and putting it into a being separate from you, and that with each nap, with each play date, with each breath they take, they are pushing further from you.

All those firsts you look forward to, first smile, first time baby rolls over, first steps, they are firsts that will separate your child from you. From the moment you give birth, you are separating, the act of giving birth is the first step in letting your child go.

Tomorrow, Sprout starts Pre-K. Like everything we have done so far, and everything we will do for the foreseeable future, she’ll be at home. The school corner has been cleaned and organized, I put together a new Circle Time board, and she has new crayons and colored pencils. When the store did not have the color glitter glue she wanted, I bought clear and added glitter to make her preferred color. I bought her a new backpack, even though we use that more for trips than school, she has a lunch box and a thermos, and I had to promise her tonight, during bath time, that I would pack her lunch in it. So we’ll have school in the living room, and she’ll eat lunch at the kitchen table, out of her lunch box. Or maybe we’ll sit outside.

But she’s starting Pre-K. And all those First Day pictures, and the cupcakes, and the certificate (of course she has a First Day Certificate), and all the projects. They’re other ways of letting go. When she mastered holding her scissors the right way, and told me she was a big girl, I was in the middle of feeding Pudge. It didn’t hit me until later, when I was picking minute pieces of paper out of my carpet, cut neatly, that I realized she had done it again. Taken another step away.

Those fingers that are holding safety scissors will one day hold real ones. She’ll put together college projects, work projects. Those fingers might sign laws into effect, might write legal briefs, might guide a rocket to Mars. Might dig holes for flowers, or cut silk for a designer dress. But she gained another step on the road to independence, when she remembered Thumb Up Top, Pointy End Out.

Your children are not really yours, they belong to themselves. Sprout has belonged to herself since she made her entrance into the world, serene and calm, watching the world through foggy eyes. The face that echoes my own at that age, the eyes that are duplicates of mine, they are hers. She belongs to herself, and she is slowly but steadily learning that.

I can hear her now, “Slow and steady wins the race Mama. Just like the tortoise in the story.” She still calls me Mama, and I dread the day that turns to Mom. I’ve liked being Mama, even when I get tired of hearing that name. Mama is the world of littles, of little fingers and toes, of nursery rhymes and rock me to sleep and I’m scared let me come sleep with you. I like this place. I know this place, of little girls, of toes barely big enough to put paint on, of untangling hair first thing in the morning, of frilly dresses and bare feet on a warm day. This place of Sesame Street and You Are My Sunshine is the place I have been the happiest.

Really that’s it, I don’t want them to grow on me for purely selfish reasons. I am happy.

I am tired. I am exhausted. I want a hot shower and a days’ worth of sleep and someone to cook all the meals for a year. But I am happy here, in the land of littles.

And my girls are determined to lead me out of this place, where I am happy. I am sure the next stage in motherhood will be happy too. But this stage was where I met happy, where I learned that I could meditate with a baby in my belly, or in my lap. That in the moment meant coloring in a princess themed coloring book with my pajamas still on, and coffee growing cold on the counter. This stage taught me the healing powers of a baby asleep on your chest, on the peace and contentment a child could bring. I like this stage because it has healed me, as much as I have raised my children through it.

So this is why, as I pulled together what we’ll need for the week, I found myself crying. We are ready, we have everything we need. I am not ready.

My littles are leaving this stage, and I would happily stay here for a lifetime.

~Jennifer

Motherhood is….

Every so often, I get asked about motherhood. Right around the time the lines turn positive on a test for a woman I know, I start to get questions. What kind of diapers are the best, which baby carrier is the most comfortable, who sells the best maternity clothes, what car seat do I have for the girls, the list goes on and on. But I get asked what motherhood is like the most often. I have tried, really, really tried, to answer the eternal question “What is it like?” as honestly as I can. And really, only one word describes motherhood.

Relentless.

It is relentless. The work is relentless, the lack of sleep is relentless, the mental exhaustion is relentless. The physical exhaustion is relentless. From the morning my feet hit the floor, life, the girl’s life, my life, the house-life, comes at me. Gone are the day where I could ease into the morning with a cup of coffee and the news on the tv. Now I’m lucky to get to pee in peace before answering questions, feeding a baby, turning a tablet on, helping a little body into clothes, changing a dirty diaper for a fresh one.

The onslaught of motherhood slams into me before I’m fully awake.

There is an ongoing mountain of laundry, a long list of housework I never seem able to get through. A list of chores that grows rather than shrinks. A list of things I need to do, errands I need to run, all of it, that demands attention, generally while my attention is being demanded from two small little girls.

Every decision I make during the day, down to something as simple as getting dressed, is dominated by the girls. How hard will it be to get this shirt off when it’s covered in spit-up and baby drool? Can I wear these shoes and keep up during a walk? Are these leggings even clean? I can no longer go the grocery store to pick up a couple of things, I have to get both girls loaded, check to see if my ergo is in the truck or on the couch, herd Sprout through the store, hope Pudge doesn’t pee through a diaper because it just dawned on me that the diaper bag is sitting on the kitchen counter, and get home. I can’t let the tv just mindlessly drone on, there is too much on tv that is way too big for Sprout; so certain channels are on the no-no list. Some channels are on the no-no list at certain times of day, some all the time. (I’d like to take a moment to thank Science Channel for running How It’s Made during the day, it’s always a safe bet.)

Sleep is non-existent. The nights the girls sleep in their beds all night long I can’t sleep. The nights they end up with me, I end up used for a pillow, a security blanket, and a drink holder all night long. I spend most of my days hovering between shades of exhaustion, and Quiet Time in the afternoon is probably my favorite time of day. Yes, we all snuggle on the couch and it’s very sweet. But more importantly, I get a much needed nap. Sleep deprivation is relentless.

Even on days where I’m not teaching, I have activities planned out. Leaving Sprout to her own devices means fixing something she has broken, cleaning something she has spilled, and playing get the glitter off the cat/out of the carpet. Keeping her occupied with tea parties and dress-up and projects to do on the patio means we’re saner. I spend 20 hours a day, some days, in Mom-mode, and the mental toll is relentless.

There’s laundry to sort, diapers to wash, dinners to cook, lessons to plan (looking forward to taking the summer off), there’s work to be done. The sheer amount of work is relentless. For every job done, there are more lining up. It is utterly relentless.

But…..

So is the love.

The hugs and kisses from Sprout are relentless. She’s independent, and cops an attitude, but she is almost always up for a snuggle. A day never passes when she tells me I’m the best Mom ever, or that I’m better at breakfast than Daddy is, or that I’m her favorite Mom in the whole wide world. The love I have poured into that child comes back now, in great big relentless moments.

The love that I’ve poured into Pudge is coming back. I am rewarded with a toothless, gummy grin every time I stumble into her room at 4 in the morning, to change her diaper and feed her. Like her sister, she is always up for a snuggle, and wants nothing more than for someone to hold her. Those moments where she lays her head on my shoulder and is content to sit there, watching the world go by, are filled with relentless amounts of joy and love.

So is the happiness.

These are, hands down, the best times of my life. I have two healthy, imperfectly perfect, little girls. The sun shines, the hummingbirds visit the feeder, the smell of crayons and play-do dominates my house. Little feet run across the carpet, toes are painted, songs are sung, movies are watched. We laugh all the time, at silly knock-knock jokes, during tickle fights, we giggle over a science experiment gone wrong, we laugh at a bubble fight in the tub.

When I was pregnant with Sprout, I bought a crystal sun catcher. It’s 3 big crystals, held in a spiral wire, attached to a small motor. In the window, at just the right time, it scatters the light into the girls room in spinning rainbows. Sprout bounces on the bed and shrieks and giggles every time, Pudge coos and gurgles at the light. That room becomes the focal point of life for me. The happiness is relentless.

So is the peace.

For years, I lived like a gypsy. (Pardon the un-PC term). I moved on a moments notice, changed jobs, dropped in and out of college. It was a carefree, un-moored existence. I swore, at the tender age of knows it all 20-something, that I could never be happy tied to one place. I needed to explore and travel and roam.

And I can’t now. Moving is a huge undertaking. Just going an hour down the highway is a huge undertaking. I am moored here, digging in and growing new roots on my family tree. I thought I would die of boredom, all those years ago.

But this is a peaceful time. Having a place, one singular place, to call home. Having somewhere to fill with laughter and music and good food and movies, and all the books we can fit in here, is the most peaceful I’ve ever been. The peace comes to me in a relentless sort of way, like sitting on the beach, up far enough that the waves don’t crash, but flow up around you. They still come, they don’t stop, in their own relentless, calm sort of way.

Some day, relentless will be gone. The girls will gone, the swing will be empty, there won’t be toys to be picked up, I won’t be tying shoes and wiping noses and changing diapers and clothes. I will have a big bed with room to stretch out in. I will have time to go shopping and get my nails done. The relentlessness of motherhood will be gone, my girls will be on their own, the nest will be empty. I try to remember that, when the relentless tide of motherhood isn’t all good.

Motherhood is completely and utterly unabating, in so many ways, the good, the bad, the in between. It comes at you all at once, the giggles and the tears, the dirty clothes and the perfectly clean living room. It never stops, never pauses, never lets up. It is an unending ride through childhood.

It is completely and utterly relentless.

~Jennifer

Sleep

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How to tell you need a bigger bed.

The advice you get as a first-time parent is mind boggling. When to feed, how to feed, diapers to use, wipes to use, how to hold baby, swaddle baby, what to do with baby when baby is upset, how to handle colic, burping, what laundry soap is the best for sensitive baby skin, it goes on and on. But the advice on how to sleep, how to get baby to sleep, came in like an avalanche. I was buried under the sheer amount of thoughts and opinions on sleep.

In the end, when Sprout was tiny, and hubs was back in Iraq, she slept with me. I know that’s breaking one of the rules of deployment, and many parenting rules. But there was something comforting about sleeping next to her, my hand resting on her tummy, feeling it move up and down with each breath she took. She was the only tangible, physical reminder of Hubs. The weight of her head on my shoulder, the feel of her tiny fingers curled around mine, that was all I had left; until he came back home.  We repeated this ritual, sleeping curled up tightly together, her head on my shoulder, during his second deployment.

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One of the first pictures I got of them together was this one. Early in the morning, sleeping snuggled together.

He came back, and we set about putting us back together. It seemed natural, as we learned to be a family, for her to sleep with us. We had a routine, put her in her own bed at night, and typically in the early morning, when she needed to be changed and fed, she would come to bed with us. Some nights she was in bed with us the entire night, some nights she was in her own bed the entire night, and some nights, half-asleep I would nestle her into our bed, and we would sleep.

Once I openly admitted that yes, she slept with us, the advice really started to pile on. She’ll never sleep by herself, you’ll put a strain on you and Hubs, you need some alone time, she has to learn how to self-soothe and put herself back to sleep, on and on. Some days I felt my friends and family had all turned into broken records. I had my doubts, when Sprout was up for the umpteenth-thousandth time, when I was tired beyond all measure, I wondered if they might be right. Maybe I was screwing up my child.

But in the early morning hours, when the smell of baby shampoo and conditioner drifts to me, and a pair of over-large feet are propped on my stomach, I believe, I know… We got this right.

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Sometimes we don’t sleep though.

Night time is our time to bond, to come together as a family, to spend a few hours just with each other, not arguing, not talking, not teaching or playing. Just being around each other. Sprout is what the professionals call a strong-willed child. I have many terms for it, stubborn, fierce, independent, GIANT PAIN IN MY ASS; and the end of the day, when we need to rest and recharge, there is no better way to make peace than sharing a bed. The nights where I run my fingers through her curly hair until she relaxes and falls asleep, are the nights where we make peace, after a day of battles and negotiations.  Almost always, after a particularly trying day, when she ends up sleeping with me, she whispers she’s sorry, and drops a kiss on my cheek when she climbs into bed with me. And I whisper the same back.

When Pudge came along, for a few nights I slept on the couch, giving up the bed to Sprout and Hubs. Sprout inevitably found her way to the couch, and one night I said to hell with it. I slept for a few hours with a newborn on my chest, and my oldest snuggled beside me. And in that hazy time of no-sleep and cracked, bleeding nipples, and post-partum crazy hormones, I relaxed.  I tried, after that, to keep Sprout in her bed, and Pudge in hers, and it just didn’t work. I’m too tired to tuck one child into bed, only to do the same for the other an hour later.

More often than not, Sprout sleeps next to Hubs, Pudge sleeps snuggled with me, and I dream of a king sized bed. All to myself. The times I get the bed to myself though, I cannot sleep. If Hubs is working nights and the girls are both in their own beds, my bed is too empty, too cold, and I am restless. I find myself snuggling first Pudge into bed with me, enjoying time with my chubby baby, and then lifting the covers when Sprout stumbles in, making more room for her. In that moment, the world shrinks down to my room, to the warm bodies that snuggle against me, and the smell of baby shampoo, and milk breath.

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But when they do both sleep, it is glorious.

The time of diapers and bottles, reading books before beds, stuffed lovies and “Mama I need you” is small. The season of small children is the fastest season of life I have known. It’s passing by so quickly it makes my heart hurt. I find myself sniffling back tears as I realize Sprout’s face is free of baby fat, that Pudge no longer has that newborn look, but has filled out and is a chubby baby. The best time of this season right now, is for me, night time, when the world is quiet, the bed is warm, and my babies are sleeping beside me.

~Jennifer