Life on Hard Mode

Last year, when Oliver started preschool, he had some trouble adjusting to the classroom after being home with me 24/7.

We phased him in slowly. For weeks he went for an hour. Then he went for an hour and a half. Once he could handle that, he stayed for 2 hours. Every life change at home threw him off again. By the end of the year he still wasn’t at school for the entire half-day. His many red flag behaviors drove us to seek evaluation for any neurodiversities. He registered off the charts for hyperactive-impulsive ADHD. While this is just a label, it pointed us in a good direction for his specific struggles and resources to help.

We have developed and tried to implement routines. We have purchased sensory items for him to bite instead of his friends. We have a visual timer that shows remaining time in pie pieces so he has a warning for upcoming transitions. We have seen specialists for digestive woes.
We are constantly evaluating our expectations to determine which hills we are willing to die on because it’s all hills all the time over here and they just can’t all be defensible.

We have talked and listened and shifted our perspective. We have discovered that 99 times out of 100 the reason he is upset is not the reason we would have guessed, and the solutions we are throwing at him aren’t coming close to the problem he’s actually having.
Re-adjusting to school was hard. He was able to do the full half day, but almost never without incident. His amazing teacher has a sixth sense for his triggers and preempts so much, but she’s one person in a room of twenty preschoolers with a wide range of needs; she’s just not going to catch them all.

We helped Oliver make a box to keep teethers and other sensory objects on a shelf at school to use when he got mad. He was allowed to keep his lion lovey on the shelf too. Sometimes he removes himself from the classroom and finds a rug in the hallway to calm himself down without any prompting. The progress he has made is impressive and I can only imagine exhausting for him; it’s been exhausting for us.

Then, Thanksgiving and Christmas came. For all the joy and love and holiday magic of the season, it is also still a stressful time even if you aren’t a 3 year old who thrives on routine. Personal life stress plus holiday stress threw me into probably the most intense anxiety whirlwind followed by the deepest depressive pit I’ve ever endured. Any tether the poor kid had to normalcy and stability was hanging by a thread and fraying from the strain.

I knew his behavior at school had dipped again, however, knowing why and knowing how to work with it kept him afloat. I was already working with his teacher on a new plan for pick up. Given the distance to his school, I arrive to pick him up from the playground anywhere from 15 minutes early to 5 minutes late. Depending on the chaos of the classroom, sometimes they aren’t even out to the playground when I arrive. I don’t know how it took me 2 months to realize, but letting Charlotte play on the playground and giving him and unpredictable amount of time to keep playing until I unilaterally decided it was time to go was confusing for him and sent him into his go-to “I’m not in control of this situation”, fight-or-flight mode.

As we have been doing with every issue we’ve encountered for the past year, we talked to him about it, found out his concerns, stated ours, and then set out to find a solution. We asked his teacher if we could send an analog watch with a mark at 12:00 so he’d have a visual cue for pick up. She wasn’t against it, but hearing that he was concerned about having time to play with his friends, she suggested that he be allowed to play until the all-day kids lined up to go in for lunch. Assuming I had the time to wait, he would then be allowed to play and expend some energy as long as any other given friend from his class.

This worked instantly. Not only was he not panicked about when I’d decide he was done, another problem I hadn’t noticed was addressed. Since his teacher now tells him it’s time to line up and then hands him over to me, he doesn’t have any confusion about who his adult is. Even trying to come up with an adult world example of this dissonance makes me uneasy because I certainly couldn’t tolerate mixed signals as to which realm of expectations I was being asked to operate under. This new pickup process is simple. Until they line up, it’s school rules; once he’s with me, it’s mom rules.

Seeing him flourish and improve at school proved a great contrast to the turbulence at home. Knowing I was not holding up my end of the bargain on routine, empathy, and stability, I made my mental health a priority. I started therapy, and then, against every non-confrontational bone in my body, I walked away from that therapist and found a better one. I took the scary leap of letting go of my barely working antidepressants to try possibly better antidepressants and a stimulant. I hope they’ll move me from just surviving to somewhere closer to thriving. So far I have felt much worse than ever before and also much better than I have in a long time; it hasn’t even been a week on the new meds.

Just when I felt like I could breathe normally again, because my head was predictably above water more than below, we had a snowy weekend, a day off of school, and then a delay day.

For most families that means snowmen, hot chocolate, movies in pajamas, and maybe a pancake breakfast before heading back to school. For the Olivers of the world it means disregulation. He doesn’t have an existing protocol for packing up his sled and coming home. He doesn’t have a routine for dad being home extra days in a row followed by dad having to go back to work. He’s excited that he gets to sled outside his school with his friends instead of going to the playground, but he also has to create a whole new construct of expectations, rules, and possible outcomes.

This particular day was a perfect storm of familiar enough that the differences were glaring. His 6th Sense teacher was helping another group of students inside the building when I came for pick up. Given the unique snow situation I thought it would be fun to let Charlotte play too until the all-day kids went in. Not having foreseen the “authority figures from two different worlds” problem, I figured letting him play was all I needed to respect. And for a while, things were fine.

Then he decided he wanted a turn on the sled after another classmate reached the bottom of the hill. His teacher’s communal classroom blue plastic sled is an exact replica of his sled, except she bought hers at Target and his was clearly handcrafted by elves in Santa’s workshop.

He grabbed the sled. Classmate grabbed the sled. Oliver pulled. Classmate pulled. Oliver tackled Classmate like your over-competetive cousin at the backyard post-thanksgiving football game.

Oliver often dials it up to eleven when his peers would top off at maybe a six. This extreme reaction even surprised me. My ever-quantitative hypervigilant constant evaluation of my son’s triggers would have expected a level 8 reaction at most. I was down that hill faster than your over-competetive cousin when it’s time to go out to the backyard for the post-thanksgiving football game.

I started out calm(ish) by sheer virtue of the WTF factor. ” Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! What happened?! Look, Classmate looks hurt! He looks sad! Can you go talk to him?”

Oliver was in the wrong. There’s no debating that. When a preschooler is that enraged he is in no place to logically assess the ratio of his wrongdoing against the perceived wrong against him. What both kids needed in that moment was their person, in this case, their Mom. When Oliver is given space and time to calm down, he always comes to empathy, apology, and restorative justice on his own. His logical brain gets it when he’s not hijacked by his emotional brain.

My logical brain knows this when I’m not hijacked by my emotional brain. Sadly, I was shocked and embarrassed by his behavior. It was pick up time, so many parents witnessed my kid losing his bananas… again, including Classmate’s mom. In order to get everyone moved along as quickly as was humanly possible I tried to rush the apology. I held Oliver’s arm, half dragging him up the hill to talk to his peer. Another adult mentioned to me that I ought to say something to classmate’s mom because she was visibly upset. As I was intentionally strapped to a ticking time bomb, hoping to throw myself on my womb-fruit granade, I didn’t take the well-intentioned suggestion.

I tried guilt, I tried anger, I tried offering false alternatives, anything to get him to “sorry” faster. If you know Oliver, you can only imagine how well this went for me. I ended up leaving a crying Charlotte on a snow bank while I ran to catch Oliver before he ran into traffic in his efforts to flee from me and from his own embarrassment and anger. I caught him and contorted myself into a five point harness, trying to aggressively hug the anger out him. When I saw the other family heading to their car, I hefted my 34lb sack of hissing, kicking potatoes over my shoulder, and tried to carry him to face his moral obligation to apologize. I’m out of shape; we didn’t make it.

You know how I said he comes to empathy on his own given space and time? It’s been 2 days. He still gets angry when I try to talk about it with him. Eventually he told me he only wants to talk to his therapist about it. We haven’t seen his thoughts and feelings doctor since September. I honestly believe I botched my reaction so badly that he can’t separate the feelings that drove him to push from the feelings he had after.

I’m not saying this to shoulder all the blame for his behavior nor to excuse it. I just know where my kid is and where he isn’t yet and I’m slowly learning what gets us moving 1 step forward and what sends us 2 steps back. Moving forward means solving the underlying problems and building the skills so he doesn’t feel like every confrontation is an attack and, even when he does, he can find something in his mental/emotional/social toolbox that works more like a screwdriver and less like a hammer. Here, he was seeing me throwing hammers while telling him to find his screwdriver. It was a setback, but recoverable. At least I thought so.

So we come to the second chapter of this edge of your seat thriller: the phone call.

Mrs. Teacher called that evening to set up a parent-teacher conference to talk about where Oliver was. Classmate’s Mom would be meeting with her and the school’s director to discuss the incident, including a review of handbook guidelines regarding disruptive behavior.

I made it through the call without crying, barely. Then the old familiar anxiety took over. How badly was this kid hurt that the director was involved? I knew Oliver had regressed a bit, but is it worse than I thought? Am I that parent who refuses to believe their kid is “that kid”? Do all the other parents hear stories of violent outburst Oliver? What if were getting kicked out? What if we have rearranged our schedules, made Charlotte take half naps in the car, and continue to experience financial hell for the only school we’ve ever found where Oliver thrives, only to be asked to leave?

I joked with John at dinner that if we no longer have a to pay for school at least we’d be saving $X/month. Oliver chimed in with the ever optimistic “Then we would have enough money to go to Disney World!” We had been speaking somewhat cryptically so he wasn’t fully aware what we were discussing. Still, I couldn’t help but think that kind of dream come true wouldn’t send quite the right message after what had happened. On the other hand, my knee jerk reaction to sh** hitting the fan is to start price checking vacations to the happiest place on Earth.

To add insult to injury, we scheduled our conference directly following Oliver’s 4 year checkup, complete with shots. We went from school to McDonalds and spent a leisurely 45 minutes at home eating nuggets while watching “Daniel Tiger Gets a Shot”. Then he endured his immunizations and was brought immediately to his grandfather’s house while we went onto the conference. While he enjoys time with his Grumpy, he does not enjoy transitions, and was already upset he couldn’t spend the night there (and stay in one place for a while) before we even dropped him off.

It’s hard to go into a meeting about the wellbeing of your child when you are still exhausted, confused, ashamed, anxious, and angry from your daily struggles with that same child. Luckily those concerns fly right out the window when you hear that this is he 4th time in one month he has hurt this same kid, that he is on a probationary period of 30 days, and if he harms any student in that time he will be asked to take a haitus until the following school year.

*Jaw drop emoji*

When you spend years in fertility clinics and you finally hear that tiny heartbeat on the first ultrasound, you never think “He’s going to have Daddy’s eyes and my temper, and there’s no way in hell he’s going to be able to refrain from hitting someone over a perceived slight for a consecutive month.” We didn’t set up his nursery with calming paint colors and then hang a decorative sign saying “it’s been X# of days since my last incident report” on the wall. The thing is, with bright, curious, fiercely loving, sensitive, active, spirited, challenging kids, you learn to mourn the parenting experience you fantasized about and you love the one you’re with. And not in a settling kind of way, but because you can’t help but love the entire package of them just as they are and just as they grow to be, in their own way and in their own time.

We are lucky to have found a school and a teacher that gets our kid. Where he has structure and firm boundaries, but also empathy and a deep respect of the child, his own will, and his own way. I can’t describe what it’s like to face the possibility of losing that when I am completely out of control of the situation. Even if I wanted to employ strict punishments, sticker charts, or any of the other things neither John and I, nor his school agree to be in his best interest, none of it could manufacture reliable change overnight. For the next thirty days I would be walking on eggshells avoiding artificial dyes in his cereals, worrying that his digestive disturbances would alter his mood, trying to find acceptable outlets for his energy despite winter weather, and losing sleep over whether or not he was losing sleep. Other kids can have a bad day, but Oliver has to keep it together every weekday for a month.

His teacher was prepared to be by his side, like a shadow, for the foreseeable future. She’d be on him like glue during transitions, during any times where things were different from the usual, or anytime her spidey-sense told her he might get upset. I asked and was reassured that Oliver was not specifically targeting this other child; his actions aren’t calculated or bullying but purely reactive and for some reason he has been reacting close to this child a lot lately.

The teacher already takes one or the other children with her if she needs to step out the classroom, knowing she can’t leave Oil and Water under the care of only the one other teacher, or even their one regular teacher and one substitute. For all intents and purposes, everyone involved is doing all they can, but just like I couldn’t rush Oliver’s natural empathy to wring an apology out of him, we can’t rush his maturity fast enough to ensure a peacefully and safe classroom. It’s not fair to anybody, but we all understand that 19 kids can’t be at risk because one kid has a rockier path to building adaptive behavior.

When you think you’ve been squeezed and juiced so that you are only a mere pulpy husk of the person you once were, sometimes you can push a little harder dig a little deeper, and find a little more. In fact, when you see someone who has no familial interest in your child also juicing themselves down to the peel for your kid, it’s damn near impossible to do anything else.

We were ready for constant vigilance. We were ready for our hearts to drop every time the phone rang. We were ready for morning car ride conversations about “using our words”, drop off line send offs of “I love you and remember to be kind”, and hesitant pick-up greetings asking “how was your day?” We were ready to keep him home at the first sign of a bad day, even if that meant turning around from the drop off line and driving the 40 minutes back home.

We will still have a lot of that to contend with, but somehow we managed to come to a solution that should mitigate a great deal of Oliver’s struggles and protect the upset family from further incidents. Not only that, it may actually be better for Oliver in the end.

Starting after the three day weekend, Oliver will get one of his recurring wishes and he will start school by joining his friends at lunch. He will then have the traditional Montessori block of uninterrupted work until all of the children go to the playground and then home for the day. Instead of spending the morning in a full classroom of twenty, he will be at home with me. No morning rush, less nagging, and more time for a complete breakfast. Oh, and ample time for toileting to avoid the years long battle with encopresis that has been running like a disgusting sound track behind all of the more front-and-center behavioral drama. Charlotte will get to nap when she wants to instead of passing out in the car for a half hour at 9am and then refusing to nap the rest of the day. We can pack a lunch that Oliver gets to help prepare, instead of the daily battle between his obvious hunger and his desire to get settled at home before having to decide what to eat.

When he gets to school, half of his classmates will have already left. There will be more space to move, less overall noise, and fewer children with whom to have conflict. He will be less likely to find the materials he wants already in use. In the long run he will need to adjust to more children, more noise, more sharing, more waiting — but now so much of that can be back-burnered while he works on his lagging social-emotional skills in a less stimulating environment. Assuming he adjusts well to the change, I am optimistic that he will be ready to tackle those challenges in the fall, just not literally.

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Won the Battle but Lost the War

Oliver has been asking to go to the zoo since we got back last weekend.  We have a membership and get free parking, so other than a minor hassle of packing food and driving there, it’s totally free.  We looked at our next two weekends and realized we weren’t going to make it again, so we made a plan to go when John got home from work at 2:30 today.  We woke Ollie up from nap to get out before traffic.  He wet his pull-up at nap and didn’t pee before we left.  This is somewhat important.  

Oliver was so excited and named a list of all the animals he wanted to see when we got there.  He was and trooper when we made the first stop a bathroom, but didn’t pee again.  

Fast forward an hour later, we arrive at his favorite, the sea lions, and he is dancing and holding himself.  The sea lions at the zoo are exactly between two bathrooms.  We tell him we have to go to the to the restroom but we can come back when we are done.  This was our first mistake, we should have just let him pee himself.  

He ran away as fast as his little feet would carry him.  When John caught up to him and picked him up, the kid bit his father’s face.  You can only imagine how successful that bathroom trip was after that incident.  Still no pee. 

Here’s the problem with potty training that no one tells you. The bad feelings associated with the potty training battle spread like hot urine staining every fiber of every other interaction.   

We have to address the biting so I say, without thinking or consulting with my co-parent, “You may not bite.  If you bite again while we are here, then we will go home.”  (Mistake 2)
“I want to stay and find more animals.”

“Ok, then no more biting.  We will go look at more animals, but if you bite again we will go home.  What’s the rule?”

“Cheetah!”

“Yes, we can go see the cheetah, but what’s the rule?” then prompting “Noooooo…”

“No biting.”  

“Right.”

Does he really understand the if/then happening here?  Does he think we are mad about him not peeing? I didn’t think of addressing these possible concerns until later.  

Moving on. We don’t go back to the sea lions because he now wants to see the cheetah. We stop at the pacyderm plaza on the way and he bogarts some popcorn from a kind lady with snacks.  She keeps giving him more because he eats what he drops off the floor like some kind of starving boxcar child.  She seems sure he would spontaneously combust from elephant pathogens; I’m willing to admit he might have an uncomfortable poop down the road.

All this to say that we decided to head toward the pandas and eat our packed dinner on the benches there.  Sandwiches, grapes, and a juice box later we broach the toileting conversation again.  “Ollie” we say cheerily “let’s go look at the pandas, and then after we are done we will go toward the bathroom.”  
He’s off like a rocket again.  John follows.  I pack up dinner and head up to meet them.  They meet me halfway, Oliver thrashing and John has that twitch in his eye.  “We’re going home.”  John has fresh teeth marks on his hand.  
Oliver is devistated.  I’m trying to think of ways to backpedal because I hate breaking his heart.  Then again, I wasn’t bit twice.  John wants to stand firm.  I call my mom because I guess I need to be told twice what I don’t want to hear.  We need to hold our ground, no excuses.   

We still feel like we should get this kid to pee before we sit in the car for an hour, oh wait, it’s rush hour(s).  We weren’t supposed to leave until 7.  We are never getting home.

Other than the occasional request to see an animal followed by crying at the subsequent “no”, he handles it pretty well, which only makes it harder for me.  

One more failed attempt to force him to pee before heading home.  It’s been at least 4 hours.  Everyone in the restroom thinks I am torturing my child.  We wash our hands and he uses all 10 automatic hand dryers on the way out.

 His mood quickly rebounds after every setback, making the disappointment fresh every time he asks to see the lions and we keep walking.  Heart. Broken. 

2 minutes down the road he floods his pants and his carseat.  

Hindsight being what it is, I see we were doomed early on.  We made toileting a power battle, which we know from 3 failed potty training attempts over a year doesn’t work for Oliver.  He lost control and so he lost control.  We all suffered.  He learned about poor choices and we so did we.  We’ll all do better next time.  
*Posted from a parking lot in Tysons where we stopped to feed the screaming baby who wasn’t screaming when we left but was once we got onto a road where there were no stops.  We are actually never getting home.  

Great Expectations

On Wednesday I had a little nervous breakdown at Ollie’s school.  On Thursday my sister recommended looking for a way to get some alone time once a week.  One cheap option was to find a mommy’s time out type drop off program.  I turned to my local moms facebook group with a tall order – a wholly secular mom’s morning out class.  Some mom’s wanted in on the suggestions, others offered nanny shares, some offered a simple trade, and a few knew of programs at schools in the area.  Good news fellow moms of toddlers: if you aren’t too picky there are so many options and so many kind strangers in your village.  

One mom knew of a 2.5 hour Montessori mommy’s morning out 10 minutes from my house.  I was hooked then and there.  Further research told me it would be $25 a class if I booked for the month and they welcome cloth diapers.  This was a dream come true!  I printed Ollie’s immunization records and filled out the application.  I packed the paperwork and my checkbook in my purse with a mental plan to make a quick stop Friday morning to register.  Basically I was an eager teen romantic showing up to a first date with our names monogrammed in a 4 ever heart on a sweater I knit from my date’s shed hair.  I don’t need to get to know you; I know you are my soulmate, Montessori mother’s morning out.  

We arrive 30 minutes after school starts on Friday to allow for a smooth drop off for them and hopefully a settled office so we can drop and run. 

Oliver is a bright eyed angel while I sign in.  He greets the Admin, Miss M, unprompted, sits in a small chair, grabs a book, and “reads” himself a story.  There is another family coming in to register so Miss M asks us to wait so she can talk to us all at once.  They arrive, 2 sweet kids in their Sunday best, a mom and a dad.  It’s amazing how we try to impress people with our children’s best clothes.  I put Ollie in a polo to drop off paperwork.  

We all venture into the empty playroom where the kids can explore and dump out toys to their hearts content while we parents get a folder of paperwork and the quick intro to Montessori and the school. The speech is the same for all of the Montessori schools, “We want the children to explore so everything is their size and safe for them.”, “We don’t have 18 month work and 2 year old work, and 3 year old work, your child can work with whatever they are ready for.  If it seems too easy we may invite them to try something more challenging.”, Most of our teachers have been here 10 – 20 years and the directors both work in the classrooms, they prefer to be with the children.”  I am that emoticon with the gaping mouth and the two hearts for eyes.  

“Now we’re going to go see another classroom.”  

This is where the unexpected 2 hour tour began.  

There didn’t seem to be an expectation from Miss M that the kids clean up at all, but I’m not undoing 2 years of work with Ollie today. I asked Ollie to put away roughly a third of the scattered toys with the enticement of seeing a new exciting space.  He was a trooper and cooperated nicely.  

We then visited a primary (age 3-5) classroom.  Oliver immediately chose some work with tongs from the shelf and brought it to a table.  Miss M immediately asked that we put it away because the small erasers he would be picking up with the tongs were “not safe for him.”  Oliver was confused because they were the same size as the beads he picks up with tongs at his other school.  It turns out we were there, with our toddlers, so that Miss M could tell us about the primary class and their work.  As I spent the entire time keeping my curious toddler from touching any of the him-sized materials on the him-sized shelves, I did not learn about their primary classroom.  Not in that classroom or the other two primary classrooms we then visited for the same experience.  Instead I have to pick up and carry an upset toddler whole still holding this folder of information I don’t need right now.

Next stop was outside to look at, but not go down the stairs to, the playgrounds.  We are getting to tantrum territory now – for him and for me.  We have to take the stairs down to the other rooms and Miss M offers to carry Ollie for me.  I assure her he’s been walking up and down stairs for about a year.  

Luckily we go to the indoor playground next and he gets a chance to run around for a while while Miss M shows me the neighboring baby classroom.  She follows it up with a trip to the kindergarten art room.  Fragile creations and vats of paint for looking at only.  

When we go to the toddler classes (plural) he is allowed to explore a bit and takes turns with the other kids on a small slide.  It would have been lovely if we stayed in there, but we apparently need to see each of 30 different rooms in this building before we are allowed to leave.  

I got to see all 30 of these rooms on a self guided tour when Ollie took off during a transition.  For at least 10 minutes I, the other two parents, Miss M, and every teacher we encountered searched the bathroom stalls, classrooms, play areas, and lunch room for my missing toddler. They kept reassuring me that he couldn’t get out of the school.  Maybe I’m a crappy mom, but I was less concerned with him trying to leave a secure building than I was about the impression we were making on the staff when I still really wanted them to agree to take my child once a week.  These sorts of shenanigans are exactly why I need a break.  

We found him in an empty classroom just hanging out by the fish tank.  I honestly think he just needed a break from the unpredictable whirlwind of being dragged from room to room and then restrained.  In this room he was king, he made his own rules, and he decreed that it was time to look at the fish. 

Everyone being relieved that he was safe, and me being relived that the tour seemed that be over, we headed back that that he office with the promise of stickers for the little ones.  I think I deserved a sticker, but life isn’t always fair.  These final moments were excruciating for me as Miss M separated the “girl” stickers from the “boy” stickers offering hello kitty to the little girl and stating that boys like “things that go” so they could choose cars, planes, boats, etc.  

As you recall I thought we were dropping paperwork and going home.  This is important now because my son had a poopy diaper from about 5 minutes in, but the diaper bag was in the car.  Stickers in hand, or placed on neck because my kid does what he wants, I thought we were home free to do a quick change in the car before heading home.  Instead we went back into the mom’s morning out playroom to wrap up.  

I should have just left; no one would have blamed me.  They offered I a spare diaper, so I borrowed wipes from the other parents and fought my diaper-change-hating crankopotomus on a wobbly changing table.  Once wiped and ready for a fresh diaper, we discovered there wasn’t actually a spare diaper. My kid went commando in his jeans while I ran to the car anyway for his diaper bag.  The other family was still lingering, so I let Ollie play again. There was no official end or send off for this extravaganza, so I got to do the classic 2 minute warning followed by dragging my kid, kicking and screaming, out of the place.  We went home and he threw blueberries at me in protest.

This is a tale about guarding your heart and setting realistic expectations.  Not all daycares, preschools, Montessori programs are created equal.  A daycare isn’t horrible because it’s a daycare; a preschool may not teach what you wish it taught.   When someone tells you they want to let children explore their environments, put them to the test and see if they actually do.  Were I looking for a full time Montessori school for Ollie, I would have needed that lengthy tour, and I’d have needed to take it with John and without Ollie. As it so happens, I am looking for a safe place to leave my kid for a couple hours so that I can get my haircut, read a book, clean out the nursery, watch West Wing, or call the gas company and listen to hold music then argue about my automatic billing.  I can swallow a few of my standards for this.   The school was well staffed, clean, and secure.  The teachers spoke respectfully and kindly to the children and each other.  The materials and educational approach was Montessori based, even if I found their expectations were set too low for what a child could handle.  I’m hoping Ollie amazes them because his strong will won’t allow for being told he is incapable.  I’m hoping they amaze me by finding his missing link of obedience in dangerous situations and working with him to respond to verbal discipline and commands.  

There I go again, getting my hopes up for something that’s almost too good to be true. I did make a monogrammed stalker hair-sweater after all.  

Mama said there’d be days like this.  

​Yesterday, after class, Ollie asked “more school?” and was disappointed that we had to leave, so today we did a second day.

Here we have a mom and teacher with boundless patience, working with my son between meltdowns of frustration with me.

He did fairly well until circle time, when we had a disagreement about him jumping around and running into other kids who were all sitting nicely and singing.  This argument ended with both of us crying on the stairs and me having a bloody lip.  He was ready to try again before I was, and had I followed the “oxygen mask” rule, we would have just left then.  

Fast forward to the end of circle time where my kid always bolts for the door like there’s a fire, knocking over old ladies and kicking crutches out from under the injured in his hurry to be first down the stairs. I drag him back up umpteen times to put his stolen maracas away, to put on his shoes, to put on his jacket, etc before we make our descent.  That’s when the bananas really hit the fan.  

There is a magical, wonderful door at the bottom of the staircase that leads directly to the parking lot.  We are not allowed to use it.  We are required to enter and leave through the main door at the front of the building.  It’s a safety thing as I’m sure a kidnapper would be stopped by the unspoken rule that we don’t use that door and be waylaid by school staff when exiting properly with my stolen child through the front door.  It’s a rule; I’m a rule follower.

There are some new parent-child pairs that I can only assume didn’t know this was a rule.  We happened to be trying Ollie’s entire store of patience behind a new walker and her dad down the stairs, and when they went out the forbidden door, Ollie would not accept that we were not going to follow out that door.  He handled this by laying on the floor and being sad.  I am trying every calm, controlled way to address this situation from telling him it’s ok to be disappointed and angry to bribing him with French fries and cookies if he will just stop throwing a fit in the middle of the hallway.

I’m going to take a minute to address how very difficult it is to bend down and pick up my son from the floor.  First, imagine that you have inserted a basketball into your lower abdomen and everything that used to live in your lower abdomen has now taken up residence between your lungs and your ribcage.  Not scientifically accurate, I know, but that’s what it feels like.  Now, imagining that is your body, try bending in half.  Have you passed out yet?  Now lift a 30lb weight from the floor.  This weight has flailing limbs, is set to the hokey pokey’s “and shake it all about” mode, and was also a roman gladiator in a past life.  Once you lift this hitting, biting, pinching, head-butting, kicking medicine ball, find a place to carry it.  Remember, there’s a basketball in your midsection.  

Here I am dreading the inevitable of throwing this human tornado over my shoulder without my uterus falling out. I want to lay on the floor and be sad.  A helpful 5 year old approaches from his classroom and offers “Maybe he would be interested to look at our lunchboxes at the end of the hall.” I love these kids.  I am about to use the child’s suggestion to draw Ollie down the hall when I am approached by the teacher of the class at the bottom of the stairs.  “This area is an extension of our clasroom.”

“I know, I’m trying.  Another family just went out the side door and I’m having trouble explaining to Ollie that we can’t go that way.”

“Well this is very disruptive.”

“I know.  I am doing the best I can to get him down the hallway.” 

Maybe we need to talk to Sandi about parents using this door.” 

How that 5 year old learned compassion and problem solving from this particular teacher is beyond me.  Maybe she was having a bad day; I assure you I was having a worse one. At this point I’m crying again.  I respond with a choked up and not wholly polite “OK.” while hoisting my flailing sack of potatoes up onto my shoulder in just the right position that he can’t damage any of my vital organs.  I rush him down the hallway, tears streaming, grateful to open the hall door to an empty lobby area. Or I thought it was empty, there was another teacher and another mom chatting by the door while her darling child sat quietly and patiently on the foor.   In the friendly nature of 99% of the people I have encountered at O’s school, they greeted me and asked how I was.  

I think I sounded like an ogre as I barely grunted out a “I’m fine, thanks.” I pushed past them, pushed the door open more violently than an adult ought to at a preschool, set Ollie on the sidewalk and barked “GO.” When he didn’t, I took a safe ten paces away from him, back turned, facing the paring lot in case he chose this moment to run toward danger.  He sobbed, I sobbed.  At least this useless mother and her out of control child weren’t disrupting anything anymore.  

This other teacher (and mom of a toddler) came out, scooped up my son, and talked to him about the trees, the cars, and the snow while I calmed down.  My sister relieved her and I sat on a nearby bench and let it all fly. Sandi carried Ollie all the way to the car, a feat my body can’t even manage right now, and helped me get him settled to go.  I cried most of the way home wondering if I am fit to parent this strong willed child, if I could or would even want to handle finishing my Montessori training and doing this for a living, and wishing the urge to go back to working outside the home wouldn’t keep building up as my pregnancy speeds toward my due date.  I reached no conclusions.   

I’m not feeling much better as I sit and listen to the monitor as my child destroys his room instead of napping.  I’m tired, my head hurts from crying, and I’m dreading the next decade and a half of battles to set and uphold boundaries with a kid I know will test every single one.  All I want to do is let him be the kid that likes to dance around in the middle of the rug at circle time.

Mother’s “Milk”

This week and next I am taking a course to become an assistant in my sister’s infant and toddler classrooms.  After 5+ years studying child developmental psychology, a lifetime around children, and a year and a half as a parent I can’t say I went into this class without preconceived notions of how and what to teach a child.  I was excited to hear the specific Montessori perspective and to learn more about the meticulous practices involved in the materials and the lessons.  I wondered, however, what they could teach me about how a child learns and grows, that I didn’t already know.  (OK that I didn’t already learn, and then probably forget, but that was in some lecture notes from my college days.)

Today’s topic was language.  This is my absolute favorite subject in development and, happily, I could listen to knowledgeable people talk about language acquisition for days.  I was waiting for Broca and Wernicke to come up.  I was ready to talk about neural pathways and mylenization.  My mind was already wandering to the benefits of bilingualism, especially with one spoken and one kinetic language, like ASL.  On most points, I was not disappointed.

We talked about language being a social contract where people agree to represent a concept with a word.  The instructor, Dora, gave examples of how we condense all of the experiences a month long trip across Europe into a thirty minute conversation with a friend and how we can describe a fleeting moment in long, descriptive poem.  We talked about language being ordered in its letters and words, as well as its spaces of silence.  We acknowledged the power of intonation, body language, speed, volume, and pitch.

There was a bit of a discussion about the physical process as well.  How both the ears and certain brain centers are critical to absorbing the language, and how it starts as early as the 3rd trimester when the baby responds to human voices outside of the womb.  How the vocal structures, respiratory system, and other brain centers must develop to achieve spoken language.  After 3 days staying out of town away from my family, this lecture was a little bit of home to me.

Then Dora added a quick note about how the work of breastfeeding helps develop the mouth for speech and it was like a switch was flipped in the part of my brain that is controlled by my heart.

As many of you know, I tried to breastfeed Oliver, but we gradually switched over to formula by 3 months.  When she says “the work of breastfeeding”, I have many experiences related to that concept.  I watched my child struggle to learn this skill that is supposedly so innate.  I myself struggled to find a different way, a different position, a different solution for the problem of breastfeeding my son.  What was supposed to be an intense personal bond between me and my child was instead anxiety fraught work for both of us.  There are resources available, like lactation consultants, which I did not use. I often struggle with guilt over what could have been had we broken through the barrier.  Every time someone says “breast is best”, regardless of their intention, I become defensive over this choice, probably because I haven’t fully accepted it.

Even as I write this, though, I realize that the greater disservice I did my child was probably forcing him to keep trying to breastfeed when it wasn’t working. Instead of Oliver learning that I was a constant source of nourishment, he found that he couldn’t take the food from me or that he couldn’t take enough.  I try not to deny my child the opportunity to put forth effort and be rewarded by the positive outcome of his hard work, but hindsight shows me that his effort was being wasted and he now has a very early experience of working hard and failing.  My desire to do what was best for my child might have actually kept me from doing what was best for my child.

It’s interesting to me and so relevant to this lecture that this one word, “breastfeeding”, has such emotion and experience tied to it in my mind.  We know that language is often tied to emotion, and spent a great deal of time in class discussing our own concepts of “house” including everything from a roof and windows to mothers, cooking, and financial struggle.  I jotted down that words are based in emotional or experiential concepts and moved on.

As an English major turned Psychology major, and even as an educator and a parent, I have always had a very utilitarian view of language acquisition.  Language is a tool for expressing our needs and for passing down ways of survival to the next generation so that we can advance as a species.  When we first started teaching Oliver ASL, we used the signs for “milk”, “all done”, “more”, “sleep”, “diaper”, and “hurt”.  Since a baby at least as young as 6 months has the motor skills in his hands to make signs, it can be an excellent way for the child to communicate before they are physically able to speak.  Who wouldn’t want to be able to better meet their child’s needs before they can say what they need or want?

Periodically I would pause during the lecture, not wholly understanding why Dora kept reemphasizing the emotional aspects of language. That is until she laid out what she called “The 3 Main Elements of Communication.”

  1. What: What are we communicating?

The emphasis here was that the child needs to collect experiences in order to communicate.  They can never talk about something they haven’t seen, touched, heard, smelled, tasted, or done themselves.  When we limit their experiences we limit the experiences they can pull from to communicate.

  1. How: How are we going to communicate? Language.

We provide a language for the child to use to associate a name with a concept, and then they can use those words to share their experiences.

  1. Why: Why do we communicate? Love

I paused here.  We communicate for survival, because we need to advance mankind by building upon history.

She continued:  We communicate, a child especially communicates, about what he loves, because he wants to share his joy with those he loves. Communication is a way to share a part of yourself with someone else.

And she’s right.  We’ve seen the kid who will talk for an almost unbearably long time about Minecraft, or Pokémon evolutions, or an inside joke they have with their friend at school.  They tell their stories to their favorite uncle when he’s visiting or their grandmother while she cooks him eggs.  They don’t generally approach a complete stranger and share these things.

So I take this revelation in, swirl it in its glass, sniff it, sip it, swish it around in my mind-mouth, spit it back out in my notes, and reflect on the lingering taste.  The lingering taste is good.

We continue discussing spoken language.  There’s an emphasis on how a child needs to have the auditory experience with the language to fully absorb it, they need to build a relationship with the words so that they come to represent the holistic concept, and then they can start to express those concepts with language at around 12 months.

“Wait, what?!” My brain screams, but my voice stays quiet.  Ollie’s first sign was at 6 months.  He was a little precocious in language, but 6 months is not a normal deviation gap; he’s no language prodigy or anything.

She continues as though she knows what I’m thinking.  (What we’re thinking?  Maybe I’m not alone in this.  Maybe she gets a lot of naysayers at this.)  She asserts that if you give the child the words first without the experiences and the concepts linked to it, they can speak the words earlier, but they are only mimicking. A child who can look at flashcards and name obscure animals, foods, or vehicles they have never seen are just parrots and haven’t truly learned the language.

I get this, this makes sense.  I can read a paragraph in French with a decent French accent without knowing what any of the words mean because I have heard some other French words.  My gut tells me that Oliver’s early signing had meaning and intention.  And then it hits me.

Oliver’s first sign was “milk.”  At first glance this is really his most basic need.  To be able to sign this opened a huge door for us because he had the ability to tell us he was hungry, to ask for nourishment, in a way that didn’t cause him distress.  He could start exercising patience in the small amount of time it took us to prepare a bottle. As long as we brought the milk when he asked for the milk, he would learn that communication was a way to get what he needed and we could keep reinforcing his trust in us to provide for him.

I remember laughing while telling people who asked about his signing that he didn’t sign “milk” when he wanted milk.  He signed “milk” when we were feeding him milk.

He signed “milk” when we were feeding him milk. 

His first word wasn’t signed to express a need.  His first word was signed because he linked the word we used with his experience of being nourished while we held him.  This was a shared bonding experience, and he had absorbed the concepts of love, food, warmth, and closeness with the sign “milk”.  Then he produced the sign with his own hands and gave it to us, like a gift, whenever we shared the experience of feeding him.

Later, his next signs were “hat”, “cat”, and “ball”.  All of these came out during experiences we shared.  Trying on hats with Meme.  Seeing the family pet curled up on the rug and wanting to reach her.  Daddy rolling the ball to him.  We used the signs for different foods, signs for please and thank you, signs for other animals or objects in his books, but the words that he chose to hone in on were all things he loved.

When I look at language this way, as a gift to give someone you love, then all the guilt about breastfeeding melts away.  My son’s first word was “milk”.  The first time he chose to share the gift of his new language with me, he was drinking Similac powder mixed with warm water from a plastic Dr. Brown’s bottle.  He was in my arms, against my body, looking up at me as I rocked him gently in my lap, and for him, all of that is now tied to “milk”.

Milk open Milk Closed

A Happier Version

In April a sperm and an egg came together.  Like the start of any relationship there were strange tummy feelings and sleepless nights. Things were starting to work out and he was spending every night at her place, though he never left a toothbrush.  Then, slowly, the spark fizzled and the relationship stopped growing.  They ultimately just weren’t compatible. 

They called it quits and decided to move out, go their separate ways. Maybe it was nostalgia, maybe it was misplaced optimism, but their attempts to pack up and take the leap were half-hearted at best.  Eviction notices came because they didn’t pay their rent, but still they stayed, squatting, holding onto something that was long gone.

Today professionals were brought in to evacuate the residents and purge their belongings.  My internal cleaning crew will handle the final phase getting the place squared away for a new couple that will hopefully find true love, settle in for 9 months, and only move out after when their love gets so big that need a bigger place to live. 

Wait and See

As many of you know we waited or Ollie to join us for over 2 years, plus his entire gestation.  I’ve written about that wait, and the strains and struggles it caused.  He’s obviously been worth it, so much so that we decided to have another.  Assuming this would take a little while, I was surprised to produce a positive pregnancy test in April, a few weeks after this decision.

A majority of people I know have had an unusually bad start to 2016 and I begged and bargained with John to tell our families early this time, so early that I hadn’t even been to that first 8 week appointment with my doctor.  Everyone could use some good news.

The family congratulated us.  A few days later the doctor congratulated us.  The following week the Dunkin’ Donuts cashier congratulated us, but that was just a poor wardrobe and lifestyle choice on my part.  Then we went to our first ultrasound and the radiologist asked a lot of questions but did not congratulate us.   He tried to be reassuring, but 8 weeks into the pregnancy, my uterine nugget was measuring as 6 weeks old.

I panicked after that first visit to the radiologist.  I called my doctor as soon as we got out, but it was late and only the receptionist, Regina, was still there closing up the office.  I tried to remain calm but my voice broke as I was thanking her and hanging up.  Not only were we in the dark about his pregnancy, we couldn’t even have the small satisfaction of knowing our next steps to having answers.  Regina called back moments later just to check on my emotional welfare.  This act of kindness made me cry even harder.  I would not be surprised if she spent the night nearly as concerned as we were before she could get back to the office and have a nurse call me.  That woman is a saint and we sent her flowers.

The next day was rocky for both John and I.  We found out that we were going to have to wait until the end of the following week to have another ultrasound.  It might be my hindsight optimism, but that week between ultrasounds felt longer than the wait to conceive our first born.  In that time we had to follow up with family that knew about the first ultrasound, sharing our fear and sadness instead of sonograms and due dates.  We had to try to stay away from Google and stay positive.  I cut out the little caffeine I was consuming, tried to eat healthier, and followed all of the pregnancy rules, even the crazy ones like avoiding hot showers.  I grasped at any opportunity for rest and relaxation during the most anxiety ridden time in my life, because stress and depression can negatively affect a growing fetus.

This is the point in the story where I’d love to relieve you with a miraclesque portrait of happy tears as we watch a tiny heartbeat on the monitor.  I don’t get to write that story today.

The ultrasound technician started with a few questions, but became gradually stonier as the appointment dragged on.  She left us to get a doctor that never showed, popped back in apologetically to copy some information from the screen, and gave empty promises of a quick return.  We knew the news was bad 10 minutes into the appointment, but over an hour later we were still sitting in that exam room waiting for someone with the guts to say it to our faces.

Eventually we were ushered, I still in my backless gown, to a tiny closet room with a phone.  A doctor from my practice, whom I have met once, was transferred to us.  She wished she could tell us in person but thought forcing us to drive the 45 minutes to their office would be cruel.  She was sorry, we were too, and we hung up not ready to think about arranging childcare so that we could go to yet another appointment to follow up with my doctor.

We hugged and cried for a whole 30 seconds before that technician with the tact of a rabid llama knocked on the door to hand me the purse and water bottle I left in the exam room.  I guess they needed the room for other patients after trying ours for the last hour.  I went to get dressed and we got the hell out of there.

We resumed our hug, cry, talk schedule that evening, interspersed with a few calls to family members, who in turn spread the word to other family members.  By this point we were talked out.  That night we passed out after Ollie did and slept like rocks.

We went to the doctor, we asked all the questions, and we got the pills to speed up the physical process of moving on.  Then she reassured me that I didn’t do anything wrong.  While I intellectually knew this, my heart needed to hear it.  Despite what the term “mis-carry” might imply, it has nothing to do with the carrying and everything to do with the chromosomes.  This particular pregnancy was never going to be a baby.  The wait was over; the uncertainty was gone.  There was a lost opportunity, lost time, some lost hope, but, for us, we did not lose a child.

Sitting there on the exam table at the OB, I realized two things: 1) I was going to be OK, and 2) there was no reason for me to be undressed from the waist down.  Thank you to that nurse for giving John and me some much needed comic relief.

So we don’t have exciting new to share with you…yet, but we are confident that all the hopes and plans we started to formulate in April will come to fruition soon enough.  One thing is guaranteed, Oliver’s new sibling, whenever he or she is ready, will be worth this struggle and this wait.