I was thinking to myself that my resolve to eat better was going well. I made delicious lemon-miso dressing so the CSA mesclun wouldn't turn to sludge in the fridge. I made delicious carrot-miso dressing for the edamame. I cooked a pound of CSA kale (it takes a lot of kale to make a pound) with apples and onions until it was tender, and then I built a frittata around it. I sliced fennel thinly and cooked it up with tamari and Pickapeppa sauce.
And then a child started to cry at dinnertime because there were so many vegetables on the table. SO-- maybe not a success after all. The child in question was given permission to make a quesadilla -- usually not an option at dinnertime, but seriously, this dinner was ridiculous. The quesadilla dried the tears, and after eating it the formerly tearful child ate an impressive pile of edamame. But I am leaving a mental post-it note for my future self: let's rein it in a little next time.
A few of you commented to say that are thinking about joining me in eating better, which is awesome. For me it's really a mental thing: eating well sharpens my focus, deepens my reserves. It doesn't make a ton of sense that more fennel = more brainpower and also more patience, but it seems to be the case for me.
This weekend we are celebrating our second son's eighteenth birthday. He asked first if I would reprise the coffee-almond cake I made for him last year, but then he wondered whether I could surprise him with something even better.
Probably a fennel cake is not what he has in mind.
I am keeping it short tonight because I am almost done with the Last Chronicle of Barset. My Kindle app estimates that I have spent about 50 hours reading the six Barsetshire chronicles so far, and I have less than 50 minutes to go. What will become of John Eames? I bet you can't wait for me to report back.
Rachel Who Needs A Blog asked me to write about kids who outgrow their tantrums slowly, and really Rachel WNAB could ask me to write about...I don't know...consolidation of political power in ancient Egypt and I would give it my best shot. But that post will require some brainpower, so it is going to have to wait. And maybe some of you out there have had enough of the tantrum talk for a while. Maybe you have been secretly wishing I would write about rodents and flatulence instead. So! Here you go!
We have not heard any more mystery rodents scrabbling in the walls since Elwood zip-tied screen over the roof vents. This is a little weird, because our roof guy said the roof vents should not allow a rodent access to the walls. I keep waking up at night and thinking WAIT MAYBE THAT IS A MOUSE IN THE WALLS IS IT IS IT A MOUSE?? But I think (I hope) that's just my anxious brain running amok as it sometimes does.
Tonight, in a conscious effort to get my anxious brain to stand down, I went to a yoga class taught by the chair of my department. She is way, way into yoga and has been offering free passes to her classes at this new studio. I didn't know that she was also inviting students, though. In my mind students and workouts should remain entirely separate. Even though these were students I am always genuinely happy to see, I much prefer to see them when I'm not wearing Lycra. I've had a grumbly stomach today, and I was worried that it was going to disturb the tranquil environment of this yoga class. Did I mention the part where it was my chair teaching the class? and the part about my students attending, downward-dogging it right next to me? Thankfully it all worked itself out -- or, more accurately, kept itself contained. LET US LEAVE THIS TMI PARAGRAPH TO ITS OWN DEVICES, shall we?
In shavasana I was trying to focus on gratitude -- for breathing lungs and the air that fills them and the lovely planet we have been given. My brain, alas, was having none of it. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE TRAINWRECK EPA? it demanded. It seemed urgent, for some reason, to recall the particulars of a long-ago conversation between my dad and a West Virginia environmental activist. It's not the easiest season in which to cultivate acceptance and mental presence, I'm just saying.
Tomorrow Elwood and I are going to our parent-teacher conference at the Catholic high school. It should be fine -- almost all of the teachers seem to care about their work and the kids -- except for the problem teacher I've mentioned before. It is probably most prudent for me to keep my mouth shut while we are talking to her. Elwood will have the presence of mind to say something measured like "We have some concerns about your responses to our son's questions" when I am tempted to lapse into snark and drama.
I started to tell you about the latest bit of racist nonsense that went down at the school, but it's so depressing. I will be relieved when it's May and we never have to pay them another penny.
Huh, this is turning into kind of a depressing blog post. When you promise to tell people about rodents and flatulence, they're bound to expect a little uplift, am I right? A moment of inspiration?
Did you know that there are only 4 weeks until Thanksgiving? I think it would be good for my outlook to clean up my diet for the next four weeks. Anybody want to join me, doing whatever version of clean eating works for you? I think that would be an excellent plan.
As I was writing thousands of words on how to deal with tantrums effectively, I kept remembering my own tantrum fails. I thought about the old friend who was miffed when I vetoed her plan for a group get-together in 2001 because I knew it was a tantrum waiting to happen. I thought about my old friend Tom, who witnessed my ineffectual response to at least one colossal Alex tantrum back in 1999, when he was traveling with our family. I want to come back to the thing I said at the beginning: big tantrums are really hard.
I have told you before about some of my favorite parenting books. Barbara Coloroso might be the single biggest influence on my parenting, but Haim Ginott was really important too. The most helpful book for dealing with tantrums was one I've never mentioned here before: Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's Raising Your Spirited Child. It was full of good ideas for responding to my kid, yes, but it also made me say to myself, "I am a spirited child all grown up, and I don't have to be ashamed of that ever again." So if the grocery store is getting me down in the run-up to Christmas, I will put my fingers in my ears and laugh about it later. If I go to Pier One because they sell pretty and inexpensive kitchen things, I know that I have a single-digit number of minutes to spend there before I get overloaded. I'm going to need to pick out my placemats quickly and flee the premises. In the process of learning to be kinder to my children, I have also learned to be kinder to myself.
One of the messages I hope my kids hear most clearly is this: It is right and good for you to be who you are. Sometimes kids are extra sensitive, extra volatile, extra fragile. I am going to keep nudging them toward maturity in those seasons, absolutely, but I also want them to know that I am there for them when they are difficult.
I have been stalling on writing this post because I want to tell you two nice things that people in my family said about me, but I also want you to know that I am writing the series humbly, mindful of how long it took me to learn the things I am telling you. But anyway: here's the first thing. One night at dinner we were talking about this series and my husband chimed in. With tears in his eyes he said, "Mom is supernaturally patient." And if that is true (the source is anything but unbiased), it is because my kids (and the Holy Spirit) have made me so. Because of the nights that I was filled with regret about something I had said to a child. Because of the times that I have knelt before the tabernacle, weeping over my shortcomings. Because I was pushed again and again to my limits-- until slowly, almost imperceptibly, I was able to grow beyond them.
The work I am doing as a mother is fitting me for heaven. That's why it's hard.
Here's the second nice thing. Last month Pete and I went to Target, where I said something friendly to a mom and her toddler. "You're always so kind to the little kids we see," said Pete unexpectedly. "It must be nice for their parents to hear." This is entirely the result of dealing with giant public tantrums: I remember so vividly the moments of stranger judgment and the rarer moments of stranger kindness. I was so grateful for the people who said, "It is going to get better; it really is." Something inside me said, "That is the kind of person I want to be when I grow up."
This is going to sound pat but it is true: I am really grateful that I was given Alex as my first child. I fear I would have been intolerably smug if I had been given a meek and peaceable firstborn. It would have been entirely the result of my awesome parenting, you see. The reality is that a child's behavior only ever gives an outsider a vague idea of a parent's abilities, much as we might like to think otherwise. Recently I re-read an old post of mine in which I opined that "one of the best gifts we mothers can give to each other is the benefit of the doubt." I still think it's true. The world is roiling with mother blame and pointing fingers. What if we agreed -- in the face of a tantruming toddler, a sassy six-year-old, a truculent teen, a worn-out mom -- to lay down judgment and sow a little kindness? Kindness will seldom steer you wrong.
What do I do when my kid is being melodramatic?
Tell him about it. I used to say, "I'm hearing this much drama and this much genuine sadness [illustrating proportions with my hands]. Lose the drama and I'll be happy to help you with the sadness." I can't deal with fake tears. So I don't. I think it's valuable to tell kids that you're willing to listen to small frustrations expressed honestly. I think it's valuable for kids to know early on that manufactured drama is a bad idea. Occasionally I've misjudged the proportions, but the attempt has been good for protecting my own reserves.
My mother says my daughter is manipulating me with her tantrums.
I roll my eyes at your mother. You guys, think about the strategizing that goes into effective manipulation. A manipulator has to think to himself, "Okay, I want Outcome A but I can't seek that directly, so I'm going to engage in Behavior B in order to elicit Outcome A from Person C. Let us consider, for approximately three seconds, the odds that we will see that level of planning and judgment from a person whose planning and judgment skills routinely leave her saying, "Oops! First we put the pants on, and then we go outside." Let us ALL roll our eyes at your mother.
Maybe she's hearing overtly fake tears. You can address those. It's true that tantrums can be an attention-seeking behavior. I've written before about the importance of attention in a healthy parent-child relationship. You can address that too, if you need to. But please: the idea that you're being suckered into an unwise choice to extend patience and compassion to a child who is overwhelmed by her emotions, and you should stop doing it at once? I mean.
Somebody's been reading too much John Rosemond.
What about when he hits me?
Shut it right down. Do not tolerate it; do not ignore it. Create physical space between the two of you so he cannot hit you. Inhabit your authority and say very firmly (but still not unkindly), "That is not okay. You will not hit Mama." Accept that it's normal for kids to try it, and know that you are teaching your son something he needs to know for the rest of his life: no matter how mad he gets, he cannot hit a woman he loves. It's probably going to take some repetition. Keep at it. If you're dealing with frequent explosions, give some thought to containment strategies you can use when a tantrum strikes in public-- maybe taking along a soft carrier for the baby so you can strap the toddler securely in the stroller and move briskly to a less public location.
If violent destructive tantrums are a recurring issue, I encourage you to seek compassionate professional assistance. Ongoing issues with physical aggression suggest that maybe you're beyond stick-shift-in-San-Francisco territory. If you find yourself in a Yemeni city, where you don't speak the language and can't read the street signs, you're going to fare better with an interpreter.
How do I know when to negotiate and when to stand firm?
An often-repeated piece of bad tantrum advice is that you should never give in to a tantruming kid because it teaches her that tantrums get her what she wants. The thing that makes it bad advice is the "never" thing. If it's a tantrum over whether you should give her chocolate syrup for breakfast, then yes, absolutely: let it wash right over you while you prepare her a delicious scrambled egg with toast. Do not succumb to the chocolate syrup temptation.
But sometimes kids tantrum because we get it wrong. You promised that she could feed the leftover sandwich bits to the geese before you left the park, but you got distracted and forgot. When you pitched them in the garbage can, your daughter lost her mind. In this case, refusal to respond to her tantrum says not only "I'm going to keep doing my thing while you are sobbing great heartbroken sobs," but also, "And I get to break my promises with impunity and maybe even scold you about it afterward." Reverse course! Show your daughter that you are a trustworthy and responsive parent with occasional absent-minded moments! If the baggie with sandwich ends isn't too disgusting, fish it out and say you're sorry you forgot. It's normal to get upset when people break their promises. Her normal response doesn't void the promise.
It's not always that clear cut, of course. Often kids will freak out because they want something much less unreasonable than chocolate syrup for breakfast. Again, think about the long haul. It's important for kids to know that firm limits exist in this world. It's also important for kids to know that many things in this world are negotiable. It's okay to sit down next to your shrieking child and say gently, "You really wish you could wear the red sweatshirt today. I think we can do that." You don't have to worry that you'll be sentenced to years of tantrums if you say yes to a reasonable request expressed badly. After the tears are dried you can say, "Hey, next time you can use your big-kid voice to tell me what you want to wear. Let's practice." Have some fun practicing requests in a big-kid voice. Maybe it won't stick for the next time, but eventually you'll get there.
Kids don't tantrum because it's fun; they tantrum because they're figuring out how to do it better. And you can help them get there -- you really can.
The comment that kicked off these posts came from Miriel, who said:
Speaking of children, I would love a Jamie's Parenting Advice post about how to keep your (my) cool w/a 3yo. The yelling/screaming/defiance— MMR (@mirielmargaret) October 17, 2017
This is an excellent query. There are two answers, really: bring down the demands on your own emotional regulation, and increase the supply.
Think first about prevention, because you'll feel less frustrated less often if you're dealing with fewer tantrums. If you find yourself feeling hangry on not enough sleep, how likely is it that your best self will surface and steer you to calmer waters? Not super likely, am I right? It goes triple quadruple to the quintuple power for little kids. Toddlers need more sleep than they think they do. In practical terms, this meant that I was very very firm about bedtime for a long time. No, scratch that past tense. I am still very very firm about bedtime. I was just digging in my archives this morning, and I found my December self wondering if it was all right for an 8-year-old to stay up until 9 on her birthday. (Answer: yes. Live a little, December self.) I am the person at the grandparents' house insisting that it really is bedtime and so we'll see the cousins in the morning, because if I have learned one thing over the past 20 years it is this: everybody is nicer with a full night's sleep.
Blood sugar regulation is critical for emotional regulation. Many portable toddler-friendly snacks are simple carbs, which are not your friend if you are aiming for steady blood sugar levels. I used to take along a scrambled egg in Tupperware in my diaper bag. These days I lean more toward cheese sticks, or single-serving almond butter packets that I can squeeze onto an apple, or tuna salad pouches if they're on sale. Regular infusions of protein can make a world of difference.
Prevention is important for parents too. You know that thing where you stay up too late because it's FINALLY quiet and you need some quiet so badly and HEY TWITTER I HAD A HARD DAY and whoa how did it get to be past midnight? You don't need me to tell you that it's a self-sabotaging thing. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to infer that the next day's tantrums are likely to take even more out of that exhausted parent. Go to bed before you get too depleted to send yourself to bed. Pop some almonds in your purse so that "one more errand before lunch" doesn't cause you to have a meltdown alongside your toddler.
Another piece of prevention is looking at the bigger picture: what factors could be destabilizing the emotional climate of your home? NB: do not blame yourself for tantrums any more than you blame yourself for earthquakes, but think about anything that might be contributing to a surge. If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. Can you polish your mirror via self-care? Is there stuff going on between you and your spouse? A sensitive kid may try to draw your fire, because maybe it's less uncomfortable to be the emotional disturbance than to observe the emotional disturbance. Sometimes you can't fix it. Extra yoga classes and coffee dates and rosaries cannot avert the distress Miriel experiences as she prepares for her daughter's surgery. But sometimes knowing that increased tantrums are a normal response to family stress can put the kibosh on the guilt/anger/more guilt spiral.
The best way I know to bring down the demands on your own emotional regulation during a tantrum: make sure you are only doing your job. Your job in this moment is to keep your kid and others safe, and to set the example that healthy grownups don't lose their shit in the face of strong emotions. That's it. Your job is not to manage anybody else's opinions about you and your kid. Haters gonna hate, and Target shoppers gonna make the occasional unhelpful comment about how the world is going downhill right here in aisle 3. Get out of aisle 3 if you can, but if you can't? It's not the only tantrum that's ever happened in aisle 3. Your job is also not to make your kid stop screaming. It is physically impossible to prevent a kid from screaming if that kid is really determined to scream, although you could display some deeply barbaric behavior in the attempt. And your job in this moment is not to reason; tantrums are impervious to reason. Calm now, logic later.
If you start getting too frustrated, say, "I'm feeling really frustrated, so I'm going to go into the kitchen and wash the dishes. I'll check on you in a few minutes." This says to your child, "Grownups get frustrated too, but they do not yell or flail. They give themselves a little space and do something brainless, and it helps them calm down." <---This is what you want your kid to know, right? Not that you never get frustrated, but that you have tools to get un-frustrated: label the feeling, get away from the trigger, and do something else while it dissipates. But oh, you guys, you can also do something really valuable if your inner adult temporarily loses her grip. If you bellow or smack or [fill in your worst tantrum response here], BUT THEN afterward you say, "I lost control of my temper and I am sorry; please forgive me"? You have just offered your kid a powerful example: in our family we all get it wrong sometimes. We don't blame other people for our own failures; we take responsibility. ("It's your fault I lost it" = so many flavors of wrong.) We seek forgiveness. We do it better the next time, or maybe the time after that. Emotions are BIG sometimes, but love is bigger and forgiveness is real.
It took me years to figure out that I also needed to replenish my own reserves after dealing with a tantrum. I would be patient, oh so patient, with a tantruming toddler, and then snap at his older sibling about something minor. Being kind and compassionate and firm in the face of an enormous tantrum is an enormous job. What do you need to get back to normal in preparation for the next round? Twenty minutes with a novel while the kids watch a video? A cup of tea with a non-judgmental friend that evening? A solo bike ride or a kickboxing class? A visit to the confessional with no kids in tow? Think carefully about whether scrolling is restorative for you or just easy and diverting. Don't skip this step. You can't pour from an empty cup.
I remember feeling so much better when I figured out the before and during parts back when Alex was 2. His tantrums, when they struck, were still something to behold, but the feeling that I could do something was an immense relief. Maybe it's like living on the Gulf Coast in 2017 versus 1917. Hurricanes are still big and awful and unpredictable, but it's easier to preserve lives and property in an era with weather satellites, building codes, and FEMA. In 1998 the UK newspapers were a little sniffy about Hurricane Mitch, with writers wondering why the Americans were making such a fuss about a storm. "They don't seem to understand," I remember telling Elwood, "that this storm is bigger than their entire country!" Remember my geography analogy? People who aren't used to hurricane-force gales may not get it. Don't worry about them. It's not your fault that New Orleans gets hurricanes; you're not a bad parent because your child has tantrums. Batten down the hatches, and be confident that the storm will pass.
Oh, dang it, 1300 words and I still have lots to say. On to Part 4!
Okay. So whenever I write about parenting I tell you the same two things, pretty much: take the long view, and exercise the Golden Rule. They are important for tantrums too.
Quick, think of people you know who manage their emotional volatility poorly. It's not hard, right? We all know somebody who loses it when things don't go his way. We all know somebody who apologizes for her feelings, even when her feelings are perfectly reasonable. We all know people whose substance abuse problems are rooted in their inability to cope with intense emotions.
I submit that these are not desirable long-term outcomes. I'll say it again: sometimes in parenting, your short-term goals are in conflict with your long-term goals. With tantrums, the short-term goal is to make.it.stop. Make it never happen again. The long-term goal, though, is a well-balanced adult who can handle life's ups and downs. Ideally (I know ideally is hard when your kid is screaming and flailing), our responses to tantrums will support their (eventual) healthy management of strong feelings.
This is not a quick strategy; it is not a sexy strategy. I am never going to sell a parenting book, because my #1 tip is Think About Your Future 25-Year-Old. But seriously, think about your future 25yo: you don't want him to think that flipping your lid is okay as long as you're big enough that nobody can stop you. You don't want her to be ashamed of feeling things keenly when the world urgently needs people who feel things keenly. And you surely don't want your kid to think that numbness is the answer.
Many people, in my experience, focus on the short-term solution. Bad advice abounds. Be stern enough to show your kid who's boss and maybe swat him on the butt! (Because it's okay to be a jerk once you're an adult? Because we want to set the example that angry grownups hit other people? No.) She just needs to know that big girls don't act like that! (Because shaming people for strong feelings -- at any age -- helps them to address those feelings effectively? No.) Just ignore it and he'll stop screaming eventually. Tell her after she calms down that she has lost x privilege because of the tantrum. Take video so he can see how ridiculous he looks. Never give a tantruming child what she's demanding, because she has to learn that no always means no. People will be delighted to tell you about the thing you're not doing that would fix all your problems-- the magic solution.
There is no magic. There is only love paired with persistence.
When was the last time you came unglued? What kinds of helpful and unhelpful responses did you get? I suggest that your answers to those questions will be helpful to you in responding to toddler tantrums.
If I get myself into a freaked-out tizzy, these are the things that help me settle down:
So Golden Rule thinking tells me that these are the things I should try to offer a child in the throes of a tantrum. It is really hard to be a toddler. We don't remember in adulthood how hard it was, but it's a tough place to be. One of the most important pieces of tantrum management is prevention, about which more soon. But if you find yourself staring down the barrel of a full-blown tantrum, I suggest that you try the following strategies:
This leaves you with a bazillion questions, right? Like, I think you may have forgotten what this is actually like, Jamie, since your youngest child is almost 9? Tomorrow let's talk about prevention, and about these other things too:
Today a Twitter pal asked me if I'd write about responding to tantrums, and OH YOU GUYS, I have more tantrum experience than your average bear. My oldest son threw hardcore tantrums for a long time. We laugh about it now, but it was not at all funny when it was happening. And here is a strange thing: I started to tell you a couple of the stories and I immediately felt inner resistance, a certainty that somebody reading this would say, "Well, why didn't you just--"
Believe me, I tried to just. Just ignore it. Just make my expectations clear. Just meet the needs he was struggling to express. There was no just-ing this boy.
Dealing with tantrums is harder than most things in life. I like doing hard things. I blog about them with some regularity. Shepherding a kid through serious tantrums is harder than all of the following:
I could go on. I tell you this because if you are having a hard time with tantrums, the reason is that tantrums are hard. It's not you. It's the task.
Think back to learning to drive. I am certain that if you reflect on your first year behind the wheel, you will recall moments that felt awful or at least awkward. The first time you drove an hour in the rain through construction with traffic surrounding you, it was scary and exhausting. You got out of that car and felt a little weak in the knees. Did you slide right into the space the first time you tried to parallel-park? Or even the tenth? I'm guessing you did not. Your parents' friends probably sympathized with them about how hard and time-consuming and sometimes frankly scary it was to teach a teenager to drive.
We learn to drive when we're old enough to remember the stress that goes along with it. It is every bit as hard for young kids to learn to manage their emotions.
Like driving, learning emotional regulation requires us to control a complicated tangle of interrelated systems. We have to practice being in charge of them, and practice and practice and practice some more until it becomes automatic. As with driving, we have to prepare for the occasional moments when we lose control-- how can we minimize damage in those circumstances? The consequences can be grave; the skills cannot be infused by osmosis.
Some of your peers, I'm betting, seemed to sail right through their driver's ed class. Others were more nervous, or had more trouble with figuring out the position of the car in space. But even the most spatially aware kids still needed time for the skills to become automatic.
Some kids have extra challenges when they're learning to drive. Here in Gladlyville, there's not much traffic; the streets are wide and flat. I would hate to teach a kid to drive in the West Virginia town where I was a teenager. I would hate to teach a kid to drive in Chicago, because secretly (except that I just put it on the internet) I still get a little stressed out about driving in Chicago myself. It would be preposterous for me to tell parents in those towns, based on my n of 2 licensed drivers, that I know just how they should teach their kids to drive. Some parents are teaching kids to drive manual transmissions in San Francisco: hills + traffic + fog + ill-timed stalls. And yet some people whose kids had Gladlyville-level tantrums think nothing of telling the parents dealing with stick-shift-in-San-Francisco-level tantrums that driving instruction is no big deal. Just-- insert preferred technique here.
I am not going to just you. I am going to tell you that it gets better. I promise it gets better. I am going to tell you that it's not your inadequacy; it's the magnitude of the task. And tomorrow I will tell you some things that helped me get to the other side.
The roofers did not call me back as requested, but today it occurred to me that screen + zip tie was probably a reasonable DIY solution that might put paid to the late-night scrabbling in our walls. "You really think they're going in and out?" Elwood asked skeptically. He was worried about trapping a rodent in the walls. I don't think they're just sitting there silently, though. I don't think so.
So. I went to our neighborhood hardware store, where I asked the checkout guy if he could help me outsmart a squirrel. He said, "...uh..." But he gave me a bunch of screen offcuts for free, and I bought a package of zip ties. I thumped energetically on the walls to see if anybody seemed to be home. Elwood zip-tied the screen over the (empty, let us fervently hope) roof vents.
There are more official-looking roof vent covers that a person can buy at big-box stores or from Amazon. We'll see if the zip ties do the trick.
If I am awakened again by 3am rodent Zumba, I'm going to be a little disgruntled.
The first climbing Gladly was my husband, who agreed a little reluctantly to head up onto the roof yesterday to see if he could spot a potential point of entry for our mystery intruder. The roof appears to be intact, but he reports that there are three vents up there big enough to accommodate a squirrel. Or something. I left a message for the company that replaced our roof in 2013. It doesn't actually say "HELP GHOST GROUNDHOG ROOTLING IN MY WALLS" but let's hope the urgency comes through nonetheless. I think the most likely scenario is a squirrel who is treating one of the vents like a hollow tree, storing walnuts for the winter in my walls. I am optimistic that we (read: they) can slap some screen over the openings (while Mr. Squirrel is off gathering more winter walnuts, let's hope) and secure it to keep out any future visitations.
If that doesn't work I might have to call an exorcist.
I've never been on our roof. I do plenty of traditionally masculine jobs around here: I handle the negotiations with tradespeople and I am comfortable arranging auto repairs and maintenance; I manage our money. But I think in my mental schema gutter-cleaning and roof reconnaissance require a Y chromosome. The ladder might as well have a NO GIRLS ALLOWED sign on it. Weird, huh? What about you -- do you have mental gender blocks on any household tasks?
Anyway, I did do some climbing this weekend. One of Gladlyville's founders was a man who loved trees, and so we are blessed with many many beautiful old trees -- some old enough to have been planted by the man himself, others planted by people who cared about his legacy. Pete and I love to wander the quad and talk about the trees we see there. Did I tell you already about my failed tree-climbing attempt from late August or early September? I used to love to climb trees. I used to be better at it. Pete wriggled himself into a beautiful European beech tree and tried to persuade me to follow him. I got my arms and legs around the lowest branch...and then I hung there, contemplating the way of all flesh.
But today I found a fir tree that was easy to climb. (Picture by Pete.) And then -- I started to say I was emboldened by my success but really I was chivvied by my 12yo -- I made it up into the beech tree that stymied me before. He was a little bossy about it. I said, "My abs are protesting," and he said, "OH WELL TOO BAD." But do you know, it worked.
So maybe I'm getting old. But at least I'm not that old.
This morning I woke up at 8:30 in a house that held all six of my most favorite people in the world. The littles waited patiently for me to finish coffee and Lauds, after which I made pancakes and said yes to Nutella on top (though seriously, Stella, shall we review the importance of temperance?). We went to church together, all lined up in one pew. The two oldest boys are taller than both of us; Joe is taller than me but not Elwood. I didn't know, when they were small and Mass was a struggle, that I would be so happy to get them all back in one pew again.
After Mass Elwood ran to the grocery store for picnic supplies, while I whipped up chocolate pudding for the younger kids and mocha pudding for the older ones. (Mocha pudding = stir a splash of leftover coffee into the chocolate pudding.) I packed it up in the cooler and we all headed out into the sunshine.
After we picnicked Pete asked us to kick soccer balls toward his makeshift goal so he could practice defending it. We played a brief and breathless game of family ultimate frisbee, and Elwood headed out with Alex to return him to school.
After our goodbyes the rest of us made a Target run and a batch of Instant Pot potato-leek soup. My mother-in-law wanted to talk to me about a couple of things, and we chatted for a while as I was prepping dinner. She and my father-in-law were on the phone together, talking about their time with Joe last weekend. "You have done such a good job with those kids," she said, and he chimed in. "They are just so nice to be around."
This is not, you guys, a thing I would ever have thought I'd hear from them when I was in the trenches 10 and 15 years ago -- not in my wildest imaginings. If you are dealing with challenging toddlers just now, may I offer you a little smidgin of perspective? It really does get better, faster than you think it will in the moment.
Alex is gone, and Joe goes back tomorrow, and so I'm not sure when I will wake up again in a house with my six favorite people in it. But I'm really grateful for the chance to do it two days in a row. I'm really grateful for those six people.
I woke up today in a house where all five of my children were sleeping. What a good feeling that is!
It's been really intense at work lately, but I'm hanging in there. I have one more week left as the lead instructor for the four-hour grad class I'm co-teaching this semester. Well, one more week in front of the classroom, plus the grading.
I can't say enough good things about the Any Good Thing writing challenge, which is keeping me writing consistently in a small way even when the grading load is Brobdingnagian.
The last Barsetshire Chronicle is really good. It seemed likely to me that it would feel a little penitential (>900 pages of clergy machinations in a fictional county in Victorian England), but it's really, really good. I'll have to tell you more about it soon. Right now I'm going to squeeze in one more chapter before I go to sleep.
It feels so luxurious that I will not be setting an alarm.
In the town where I grew up a woman caught fire last month.
I say this as if she spontaneously combusted, a Mrs. Krook among her mysterious papers. This is the real story: she loved a man. He set her on fire. He tried to burn her children alive too.
She spent almost three weeks in the hospital, burns covering 70% of her body, and then she died last night.
I don't know her, but I know several of the people who are grieving her death. I clicked through to her Facebook page to see if she was one of the Belindas I knew in high school. There she is alive and smiling, enthusiastic about the fiancé who was just about to set her on fire.
My best friend from sixth grade lived with her mom after the divorce; they moved to an apartment far from our subdivision. The mom's new boyfriend was bad news, but she couldn't seem to break things off. I got a letter from my friend when I was 13: they had packed up suddenly and driven off to Iowa to live with family. The plan was to get away from the boyfriend who wouldn't stop drinking, even though drinking made him lose control of his temper and his fists. "Mom got tired of getting beat up every time he got drunk," she wrote. I hadn't known. I wasn't sure I wanted to know.
In junior high I met a girl named Ruth. She and I were never close friends, but we had close friends in common. She moved away from West Virginia; she moved in with a boyfriend when we were still in high school. It's been more than 30 years since he killed her with a shotgun, but I'll never forget the way her best friend Linda wept over the news. "I told her he was trouble," she said. "I told her."
I was thinking about domestic violence as a plague on West Virginia in particular, but then I remembered a conversation with a dear friend here in Gladlyville. "I need to tell someone what happened," she said, and her story came bursting out. She asked me to help her in a small way with getting free. Yes, OF COURSE, I said. It took her a couple of tries, though, to make the final break.
I didn't know until I looked it up that half of murdered women are killed by intimate partners. I didn't know until recently about the connection between domestic violence and mass shootings.
Even across the course of our marriage the culture has changed. Do people still laugh about Ralph Kramden telling Alice she's going to get it one of these days? We've moved away from settling conflicts with fists on playgrounds and in bars. And yet we still live in a world where a man can get into an argument with his fiancée, and settle it by dousing her in gasoline and lighting a match.
Kellie asked about the frog spawn that lived on my childhood dresser despite my Muggle origins.
The West Virginia subdivision in which I lived from 1980 until 1987 had its own pond. It wasn't a decorative kind of pond; it was tucked away behind the houses. It wasn't a place, as far as I recall, where grownups went to walk or fish. In my memory, only kids visited the pond. Once in the spring of 1982 I was prowling around its edges when I noticed the frog spawn. "That's nifty," I thought to myself. I came back with a Mason jar, and took some spawn and some pond water back home with me.
I am trying to remember what my mother said about this. She cannot have thought it was a great idea for me to store frog spawn on my nice wooden dresser. The conversation is a blank in my memory. Maybe I thought she wouldn't notice? I cannot say.
The eggs hatched out tiny tadpoles, and they grew into bigger tadpoles, and they sprouted leglets. I was going to camp just as things were getting interesting, so I took my jar along and parked it on my dresser there. (So many questions here. I must have fed them...something. But what?) The jar began to give off a decided aroma of Tadpoles With Suboptimal Personal Hygiene, though. We'd probably all have suboptimal personal hygiene if we swam around in our own waste. I think I was worried about changing their water because I knew chlorinated tap water could kill them. My poor roommate at camp did not complain, but surely she wanted to.
I thought the tadpoles were the coolest things ever. Leglets! Eyes! Mobility! All of this burgeoning life had burst forth from the tiny black speckles I only happened to notice on the edge of the pond. Who knew biology was so awesome? I wrote a bunch of poems for the camp's literary journal, and I used "Miss Tadpole" as my pseudonym. Doesn't every 12-year-old girl yearn to name herself after something slimy and amphibious?
The eventual fate of the tadpoles is another sad lacuna in my memory, I'm afraid. I think maybe some of them died in their icky jar. Did I return the rest of them to their pond when I got back home? Did my mother flush them in a moment of fervid disgust? I don't remember the end of the story, and there are some uncertain bits in the middle too. But I do remember the fascination of watching them unfurl. And the experience leaves me a little skeptical about chia pudding.