Mamahood

Paper airplane

Last night I took Jakey for a walk around our neighborhood. The sun was setting, the breeze was cool, and he had a paper airplane he wanted to test.

We checked the direction of the wind. We noted the plane’s patterns of flight. We laughed. Over and over again he repeated, “Mama! Watch this! Watch this, Mama!”

I was watching. Had been watching. I was right there, totally present.

Some teachers have questioned if I spend enough time listening to him. Playing with him. Paying attention to him.

It’s a bewildering question since I have been in his corner, one hundred and ten percent, cheering him on since the day he was born.

I have to remind myself they don’t know I lay on the floor with him when he was an infant who refused to be content with tummy time—it was plank time, obviously—he had to show off his little tiny baby muscles, his loud baby voice, before the world had even taught him there’s anything to prove.

They don’t know how many games of peek-a-boo or made-up songs or walks around the neighborhood in the Baby Bjorn I invested. They don’t know that when his brother was born my heart broke before it expanded, because I knew he’d suffer without a constant audience.

I’ve had teachers imply (or state directly) that I must not set boundaries for my child.

I have to remind myself they haven’t seen the frustration and tears as I remain firm in the boundaries we’ve agreed on as a family. They don’t see how he bounces back faster than he used to. They don’t know the progress we’ve made over the last three years.

I’ve had teachers imply (or state directly) they don’t believe he has empathy, and that we need to work on his understanding of emotions and the emotions of others.

I have to remind myself they weren’t there the time he sobbed, at 18 months, when he first heard the song “Five Little Ducks,” because he was so relieved the baby ducklings were reunited with their mother.

They aren’t there when he asks how my day was, or gives me a hug, or tells me “I know you don’t like surprises, so I’m telling you now even though I’m going to surprise Daddy (because he loves them!)”

What they see is a child who can’t sit still, who questions authority, who will let you know how he’s feeling (and loudly). They see a child who resists being put in time out (time outs do not work), who uses maladaptive strategies for making connections with others.

I see this, too.

What I also see is a little boy who is full of passion and curiosity and a desire to make friends. A boy who longs to be seen and accepted and celebrated for the unique person he is. A little boy who struggles with anxiety and big feelings and most likely some brain wiring that isn’t quite neurotypical.

And since he’s loud, and gets “too” excited, and forgets to give people personal space, he gets labeled as problematic. Troubled. Behaviorally challenged.

Guess how adults treat a kid like that?

I have been appalled at the level of disdain, anger, and shaming we have experienced during our time in Hawaii. The looks I get from strangers — I must be a terrible mother. The comments I’ve gotten from teachers—“do you ever tell him no?” The harsh tones used by adults who are supposedly trained to work with children.

This was all on my mind as last night I watched him tossing the plane higher and higher into the orange sky. “Mommy! Did you see how it flew faster when I removed its tip?! It’s lighter now. My theory was correct!”

He presents as a confident, articulate, highly intelligent child. He looks older than he is. His brain is a wonder. And it’s almost as if people resent him for having a developmental lag in emotional regulation because he’s advanced in other ways.

“He should know better,” they tell me.

They don’t want to deal with the raw truth of his frustration and his pain. They don’t want to have to hold those emotions themselves, or regulate their own bodies in the face of his overwhelm.

I get it. Sometimes I don’t want to, either. But I have no choice, because I am his mother, and I love him.

He does know better. And I honestly believe that if he could do better, he would.

We thought we had found a preschool that would help him. We thought we had found teachers who were willing to work with us and try new strategies that have been helping him at home.

Instead, we found teachers that put him in extended time outs because “we honestly were just tired of dealing with him,” who yelled at him, and who strung me along for months, insisting he had a place there before sending a letter home right before the holidays explaining they were no longer prepared to accommodate him.

This week will be his last, and with no one event to point to, I had to come up with an explanation for why he has to leave.

Last night I sat in the grass, holding a sobbing five year old, trying to explain to him what it means for a school to not be “the right fit.” I tried to acknowledge his grief and also paint a hopeful future (when I have no idea what that actually looks like).

How do you explain neuropsychological testing and occupational therapy to a five year old?

Maybe he has ADHD. Maybe he has sensory processing disorder. Maybe he’s dyslexic. Maybe he’s got anxiety that manifests as frustration and a desire for control.

And maybe, even without all of that, the amount of transition this kid has been through in his short five years on the planet is enough to give anyone a hard time. Because #militarylife

But last night, holding him in the gathering dark, his paper airplane discarded in the shadows, I couldn’t say any of this to him.

All I could say was “I love you. I’m so proud of you. You’ve been working so hard. We’re going to figure this out.”

This morning, my soul heavy with the weight of last night’s pain, his easy smile reminded me that being a mother is perhaps, at times, harder than being a kid.

Or at least, more complex.

They have no idea of the emotional burdens we carry for them.

They have no idea how much we fight for them.

He does know he’s loved. He knows we see him for the complex imperfect wonder that he is. And he knows I will do whatever it takes to get him the support he needs.

Today I have to believe that is enough. I have to believe that soon the wind will once again pick up, that his paper airplane will soar, and we will laugh to see the surprising path created by design, and effort, and perhaps a little bit of luck.

In the meantime, I beg you: let’s offer compassion to the kids who annoy us, push our buttons, who are “bad examples.” When you’ve got capacity, take a moment to listen to their questions and laugh at their jokes. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

They are precious souls—they are children—who are doing the best they can with the resources they have.

And if you’re the mama of an exceptional child like mine—please know you are not alone. I see you.

I’m here, if you need anything. ❤️

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Identity

Future Me

lanikai

 

I was walking toward my future self on the sands of Lanikai Beach as the sun rose over the Mokulua islands (a short drive from my house and a favorite spot of mine). She was sitting on a woven blanket, wearing yoga pants and a ponytail, looking healthy and relaxed. I asked her how she got to be so happy and she laughed.

“I’m happy because I chose to come watch the sun rise. I’m still exhausted. Life is still hard. But I’m choosing what makes me happy.”

I sat with her on the blanket and watched the sun as it grew in strength and color, and I was struck by how peaceful and calm we both were. All I was focused on was the sun and the sand and my breath.

Suddenly, she laughed, jumped up, and began sifting through the sand – she had a gift for me but had forgotten where she had hidden it. Finally she unearthed something gold and shiny from  beneath a large weather-beaten log.

She grinned. “Buried treasure!”

She handed me a golden compass hanging from a chain. I asked her what it was for, and she just shrugged and smiled.

***

For the last three Decembers as a part of Stratejoy’s Holiday Council I’ve embarked on a simple guided meditative journey to meet with my future self. She is always thinner than present me,  calmer than present me, and better rested than present me. Her hair is always in a perky ponytail (she’s finally mastered the art of effortless beauty), and she always looks invitingly cozy. The first year she was curled up on the couch in our Tacoma living room wearing a chunky sweater. The second year she was cooking in our Tacoma kitchen, laughing with Jake as he clapped in his high chair. This year she was alone on the Hawaiian shores, soaking in the sunrise, strong and healthy after a year of yoga, running, breathing, and prayer.

It’s always such a grounding exercise for me, to let my mind wander and unlock hopes and fears and questions I have about where I will be the following December. The first year, I was afraid I’d never get pregnant, and it was unclear whether the woman I saw  was reading on the couch while her baby slept or if she was still waiting expectantly. The second year, I had high hopes of learning how to cook and creating a warm welcoming space for our family to grow. This year, I was afraid to ask whether her husband had returned to her, whether her kids were safely tucked in bed under the protective gaze of their father, so I focused on the only thing I know I can control: myself. The past two years I have been seeking family, coziness, and community; this year I was seeking freedom, self-renewal, a release from the anxiety that binds me.

I’m unsurprised I found her on the shores of Lanikai Beach, a beautiful hideaway I first discovered with Tim when we first visited Oahu many years ago. I’ve watched a couple sunrises in my time here and they always leave me feeling more centered, like I’m back to being no bigger and no smaller than I am meant to be.

***

As a Four on the Enneagram, the Individualist, or Romantic, I am what you might call moody, defined by ever-shifting emotions, and motivated by the need to feel heard and understood. No matter the life circumstance, I often feel as though I am missing something – like I lack some fundamental character trait that others possess that allow them to get up every day and live a drama-free life. I often struggle in the tension between wanting to be fully known and fearing that no matter how vulnerable I am with others, I will never truly be loved for who I am. So I withdraw. And I project. And in the confines of my self-protective fantasy world, I imagine a future self who has everything figured out: she has found the mysterious secret others seem to possess, that elusive ability to remain content regardless of her circumstances. She’s calm, unruffled by her ever-changing emotions. She’s free of anxiety and her constant suspicion that others are judging her for being different. She’s self-forgetting and is no longer caught up in the tragic stories from her past or the ideal relationships and accomplishments she dreams about in the future. She just exists. She is connected to her body and she is healthy, happy, whole.

***

This year, I decided my guiding word is breathe. A simple, grounding reminder to a woman whose wheels never stop turning, whose emotions never seem to settle. Faced with deployment, solo parenting, and a lifetime of unknowns, I have finally realized I have got to get a handle on this inner turmoil I have often unknowingly exacerbated. Life is hard enough without trying so hard to emotionally color all of my experiences in the attempt to turn it into an epic work of art.

Further study of the Enneagram has helped me identify all the ways in which I am my own worst enemy, the ways in which I’ve been contributing to this pervasive feeling of melancholy for most of my lifetime — but also the ways in which I can choose to (however slowly) make changes. I’ve begun to see that perhaps the future self I dream of isn’t an emotionless yogi on the beach, but instead an integrated, emotionally intelligent woman who is wise enough to know when to act on emotion, and when to let it go.

So how do I get there?

Perhaps the answer lies in her gift to me. Perhaps, I need to remind myself there is goodness and beauty in the world–whether or not it feels good and beautiful. Perhaps, if I work a little harder at attuning myself to all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable*–if I remember I already have the tools to get to where I’m going (even if they are buried deep in the sand)–I won’t worry so much about trying to feel my way to true north.

*Philipians 4:8

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