Thursday, October 14, 2004

October, 2004: What degree of difficulty is your parenting?

I am fascinated by the sports of gymnastics and figure skating. It’s not because I have any background in these areas. I could never do the straddle roll to pass beginning gymnastics, and my favorite part of ice skating is the hot cocoa afterwards. In spite of my limited talents — or perhaps because of them — I love to watch athletes defy gravity and leap, spin and flip their way to the awards podium.
I can’t say I completely understand the scoring in either of these sports, but I do understand the oft-used phrase, “degree of difficulty.” The more complicated a routine is, the higher the possible score the athlete can get if he or she does it perfectly.
I have decided we need to apply this phrase to parenting. Every child equals one point, or one degree of difficulty. Two additional points are awarded for each child age four and under. Parenting while pregnant earns an additional point, as does parenting anyone who is not yet sleeping through the night.
 Therefore, my friend Carol, who has four children —  ages one, three, five and seven, is working with a degree of difficulty of 8. My own degree of difficulty, now that we’ve added a one-year-old foster daughter, is up to 5, having been recently down to 2, when we just had the boys — ages 6 and 9.
My friend Patty, whose five children are now between 6 and 12, once had a degree of difficulty of 10, when she was pregnant in addition to having 4-year-old twins, a two-year-old and a one-year-old. 
I don’t have preteens or teens yet, but from what I’ve heard, they may require an additional point of difficulty, just as the very young children do. And teenage boy drivers may add even more, just as they do to insurance premiums.
Degrees of difficulty would be helpful for two reasons. First, because they would be applied to everything a parent does, they would turn small daily successes into major triumphs. “Did you see that, ladies and gentlemen? She’s going grocery shopping with her children. That’s a degree of difficulty of 8, remember. Look at that. She’s actually moving down the aisle. She’s keeping the three-year-old away from that display of sugared cereal, and handing a cracker to the baby — all this while getting the best price on spaghetti noodles and answering the seven-year-old’s questions about dinosaurs.”
Degrees of difficulty would also be good because they would be a concrete way for parents to gauge when their lives would get easier. “Hmm. When the baby starts sleeping through the night and Johnny turns five, my degree of difficulty will drop by two.”
I think the main reason I am in favor of degrees of difficulty, however, is that conscientious parents are often too hard on themselves. I’ll go over to a friend’s house who has three children six and under (degree of difficulty, 7) and she’ll apologize because there are toys on the floor and the kitchen’s a mess. But her crazy climbing 17-month-old is alive and relatively unbruised, and so is her three-year-old, who has been known to wander away from the house and down the street. Toys on the floor or not, we need to call  it a successful morning.
Perhaps it’s my contact with the foster care system that also makes me want to publicly give voice to the difficulty of parenting. I know firsthand that what most parents consider the basics — keeping their children clothed, fed and attended to, all while making a living — can be an insurmountable task for some parents. I’ve seen firsthand that a parent can love a child and still neglect him or her. That the all-consuming task of parenting can become downright impossible in the face of addiction. My degree of difficulty scale did not even include parenting while in poverty, parenting while living in a dangerous neighborhood or parenting while in an abusive relationship. At some point, the degree of difficulty becomes so high that some parents give up.
And if parents are the athletes, we are also the judges. We judge each other and we judge ourselves. We judge our next door neighbor, whose degree of difficulty may be similar to our own, and we judge those who live across town, who are dealing with degrees of difficulty that we cannot even imagine.

But the thing that we too often forget as we’re balancing and leaping (and judging), is that parenting is not a competition. In ice skating, athletes may not rush out onto the ice to help each other. And a gymnast certainly may not lend a supporting hand to a teammate about to fall off the beam. But parents aren’t bound by these rules. As we acknowledge our own degree of difficulty — and forgive ourselves for our missteps — we must simultaneously reach out to other parents. We must cheer for each other and be ready to spot without being asked. And after a fall, we must remind each other just how complicated the routine of parenting really is.

Monday, October 4, 2004

October, 2004: One more one-year-old

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character has to re-live February 2 again and again until he gets it right.
            Our foster care experience has some similarities to Groundhog Day. We’ve been doing foster care for two years, and in that time, we’ve had 3 baby girls — all of whom have come to us at exactly 14 months. We did not request 14-month-old girls; on our foster care form, we noted we’d be open to any child, age three and under.
Despite this, every time a new social worker comes to our door, she’s holding a toddler girl for us.
            Having gone through every parenting stage from birth to 10, it is my opinion that the year between one and two is the hardest. One-year-olds, cute as they may be, are crazy.  One-year-olds are a terrifying combination of total mobility and a tiny brain. I realize this was also an issue for the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and there are important similarities between the two, not the least of which is destructive potential. Parents of one-year-olds spend much of their time bent in half, running after their toddler, trying to prevent a calamity. Bill and I have now been doing this for two years straight. 
            Christa, * our current one-year-old, is obsessed with the toilet. We must keep the lids down and the bathroom doors shut at all times. If we forget, no matter where Christa is in the house, some sort of toilet alert goes off in her brain, and she is off and running toward the toilet. Upon reaching the toilet, she will take any object she happens to be carrying and fling it in.
Complicating the issue is Liam, our six-year-old, whose own relationship with the bathroom has always been volatile. Liam waits until the last nanosecond to use the bathroom and then sprints to it from wherever he is. This means he often can’t even spare the time to close the door. This apparently turns Christa’s internal bathroom alert to “high” and she is off and running to the open bathroom where there is now even more potential for fun. Liam, of course, is horrified to be seen standing at the potty by his little sister, but cannot flee the scene, so his only recourse is to yell loudly until a running, bent-in-half parent appears to whisk Christa away. And that is just one three-minute period of the day.
All of our children, as toddlers, would try to take our food. It is impossible to eat near a toddler without having the child make a grab for whatever you happen to be eating. This leaves the parent in a quandary. Do you give in, break off a bite of the food, and give it to the child, thus teaching the child to continue to grab for food whenever he or she wants, or do you say something like, “No, this is mine, you have your own cracker,” and risk the high pitched screams of frustration that will follow? The year between one and two is when most women lose the remainder of the weight gained during pregnancy. This is probably because they’re giving their food away, but it could also be from time they spend running around, bent in half.
            Three foster one-year-olds in a row, in addition to our two boys’ time as toddlers, have convinced me they all have the same agenda. I can almost imagine a boardroom meeting of one-year-olds (three of them crawling on the table, two pulling on the curtains, one crumpling papers), led by a just turned-two-year-old. The two-year-old would have a flip chart with a list of assignments for the one-year-olds. Cabinets at floor level? Open them and start to empty as fast as you can. You’ve been brought outside? Run toward the street. If no street, open water will do. Closets? Walk in and see what you can find. Food on the floor? Eat immediately. In fact, assume any small object on the floor is a piece of food. Done with your oatmeal? Start rubbing it on your face. If no one notices, move on to your hair. Socks? Who needs socks? Take them off. Right away.
            As I write this, Christa is busily taking apart a ballpoint pen on the floor next to me. She has no socks on and I know that I have approximately sixty seconds to finish writing this before she toddles over to the computer tower and starts randomly pressing buttons.           
            But she has these enormous brown eyes, unbelievably soft chubby cheeks and legs that are still a little bowed from her time in the womb. She babbles in a soft baby language and when she hugs me, it’s with her whole body.
She’s one, and she’s crazy and sometimes my life is Groundhog Day because I’m on my fifth one-year-old. But other times I think, how lucky I am that I keep catching these girls as they tumble over the threshold between infancy and childhood. Wriggling, pot-bellied little girls, bursting into my life and toddling into my heart.  How lucky and blessed I am.

            Except for that toothbrush in the toilet. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

September, 2004: More than coincidence: Welcome Jamie!

I met my husband because of a spinning pencil.
            Bill was 22, a new college graduate recently moved back to Milwaukee. After a summer of living with his parents, a high school friend convinced him it was time to move out. The pages of apartment rentals in the Sunday paper seemed daunting to the guys, so Bill spun a pencil and announced that wherever it ended up pointing to, they would live.
            The point stopped on an ad for the apartment across the hall from where my college roommate and I were moving in.
            Meetings and beginnings are fascinating to me. Looking back on Bill and me moving in across from one another, I know now that there could not have been a better way that we could have met and started dating. I got to know Bill as we picked up our mail together; as we talked in the hall with our keys in the locks, not opening our doors. I took note of the environmental posters and the cross on his living room wall. He was glad to see I had a high quality bike. Bill’s subtle humor and thoughtful personality came through quietly and gradually. If I had instead met him while out with friends, I might not have slowed down enough to learn who he was.
            Thirteen years, one marriage, two sons and three foster children later, I think about the Holy Spirit present in that pencil spin. While I’m cautious about using the phrase, “It was meant to be,” I do believe God offers us opportunities through the people we come in contact with. God nudges us to meet those who could help us grow and learn or who could benefit from something we might be able to teach. Whether we seize the opportunity or not is where free will comes in. Yet, even as I hesitate to say, “It was meant to be,” it seems that sometimes, it is.
            We received our third foster child last week. The other two have been returned to family members. For the sake of confidentiality, I will call this new arrival Jamie. She is 14 months old, Latina and beautiful.
            Jamie has been in foster care for over a year, since she was two days old. Social Services called us a month ago to tell us about her situation. She was with a wonderful foster family, the social worker explained, but it was now looking like there was a chance her birth parents’ rights would be terminated. Because of this possibility, Jamie needed to be moved to a foster home where the parents were open to adoption, should this become necessary. Her current foster parents were in their 50’s and adopting baby  Jamie was not an option — they had grown biological children and an adopted 13-year-old. Bill and I said that we were interested and set up a time to meet.
            The night before we were to meet Jamie  for the first time, I went to my monthly book club meeting.
            I had not told the group about the potential foster child yet, and as we stood around drinking wine and chatting, Kris, a mom of two, turned to me and said, “I thought of you the other day. The grandmother of a girl on my son’s soccer team is a foster mother, and her foster baby needs to be moved. I told her I knew the perfect family — yours, but she said social services already picked out a family.”
            Something about the situation made me ask some follow-up questions. Was the woman white? Yes. Did she have a 13-year-old African American son? Yes. Was the baby about a year old and of Puerto Rican descent? Yes.
            In a metro area of over a million people, someone from my eight-person book club had met our soon-to-be foster daughter — had sat next to her at soccer games — and was telling me this twelve hours before I was due to meet her for the first time.
            “She’s darling,” Kris said, as we realized it had to be the same family. “You’ll love her. Her foster mother’s name is Judy.”
            Over the past month, as we have transitioned Jamie  to our home, there have been other profound coincidences —  spinning pencil moments —  that have made both her foster mother, Judy, and Bill and me pause.
            Judy’s best friend, another foster mom, turns out to be the foster mother Bill and I  invited over three years ago when we were first considering foster care — we had received her name from a friend of a friend. Listening to her story inspired us to sign up for the certification classes. We had not seen her since, but Judy sees her a few times a week.
            Jamie’s physical therapist, we learned, is Julie, a good friend of mine from college. Julie was working with Jamie one week, and when she heard the description of the family Jamie would be moving to, she recognized it as ours.
            Jamie shares a birth date with my friend’s brother who recently died unexpectedly.
            Judy told me her pastor doesn’t believe in coincidences — he calls them God-incidences, or incidences of God. My friend Amy calls them signs, and says once you start looking for them, they’re everywhere.

            To me, they will always be spinning pencil moments. A flash of the divine in the ordinary. A whisper from God, who is standing closer to us than we dare to hope; closer than we have the courage to believe. Spinning pencil moments. Not lightning bolts or thunder claps, just quiet reminders that the grace of God is here. Is everywhere. Welcome Jamie. 

Saturday, September 11, 2004

September, 2004: 10 year anniversary Mass

Last September, my husband Bill and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary, as did four of my roommates from my senior year at Marquette. The five of us and our husbands, along with two other Marquette couples and a total of 14 children, gathered in the middle of the Marquette campus at the St. Joan of Arc Chapel for a Mass and renewal of vows.
            As Marquette students, we had often attended 10 p.m. daily Mass together at the chapel. Now, thirteen years out of college, we were back in the tiny chapel. And the theme seemed to be sippy cups.
            As we prayed together, sang and broke bread, there was the constant underlying noise of small children. A book being dropped. A pacifier being thrown. A question being asked in a loud stage whisper. And occasionally, a wriggling, crying toddler who was quickly scooped up and taken outside the chapel for a few minutes. 
            We listened and prayed as we could, and the children participated in the liturgy as they were able. Jacob and Jeremiah, both 8, proclaimed the second reading together, and a few of the preschoolers brought up the gifts. It was not the quiet, reflective Joan of Arc Mass of our college days, nor was it nearly as formal or well-organized as our weddings. Instead, the liturgy bore witness to our mode of worship and of living right now — noisy and messy and full of interruptions, with the vows and the Eucharist in the middle of it all.
And I couldn’t help but think, as I stood with my friends and made those promises to my husband once again, that we all understood so much more of what we were promising this time around. We knew about arguments and tears; about loss of jobs and late nights with sick children; we even understood more about the true duration of a lifelong promise. There were no flowing white dresses to give us the illusion that we were beginning a fairy tale. And because of these things, I believe that our 10-year anniversary vows held more weight than our original ones could have hoped for. Having experienced both the joy and the sorrow of marriage, we were coming back for more. 
As our children watched, the older ones from their chairs, the younger ones in our arms, we vowed once again to be true to each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health; we vowed to love and honor each other all the days of our lives.

And then, our children, who somehow managed to make living those vows both more wonderful and more difficult than I could have imagined as a young bride, clapped for us as we kissed.

Saturday, September 4, 2004

September, 2004-- Jacob is 9!

Jacob, my oldest, is on the second floor of his school this year. Fourth grade. 22 steps above the primary grades. Not on the same floor as the kindergarteners anymore. He’s on a different level now, both literally and figuratively. Fourth grade is the beginning of the intermediate grades. Intermediate — in the middle. Jacob and his classmates are in the middle of childhood. Nine years old, they are halfway to 18. Halfway through grade school.
            And while I understand the whole point of parenthood is to help your child grow and develop — this is what God intends — I’m still getting used to being the mom of a larger-sized kid. Jacob’s clothes aren’t cute and tiny anymore and haven’t been for some time. I could wear his t-shirts if I wanted. (Yes, if I wanted to constantly walk around with large numbers on my back and chest.) If his feet continue to grow at their current rate, I should be able to fit into his shoes in a few months. Already, I have mistaken his black dress pants for cropped pants of my own; I hung them in my closet and only realized my error when I began to put them on and they stopped suddenly at my hips.
            Jacob is still a good ten inches shorter than I am, and I easily have forty pounds on him, but my days of being the expert at everything are clearly numbered. This summer, I had to admit that he is better than I in baseball. If I were to be completely honest, I would acknowledge this might have been true as many as two years ago, and quite certainly one, but this summer was the first summer I thought about it.
            We went to a park one afternoon, and I stood on the pitcher’s mound, Jacob’s sometime-position in little league, and I pitched to him. It looked so easy when I watched him from the stands, but as I struggled to get the ball over the plate, I apologized to my son for making him wait so long for a decent pitch.
            “That’s okay, Mom,” he said. “You pitch pretty well, for a writer.”
            My child was giving me qualified encouragement that I was doing okay. I wasn’t doing as well as him, of course — who would expect that? He wore the numbers. He was the baseball player. I was the mom. And the writer.
            And though I knew Jacob’s assessment of the situation was accurate, somehow in my mind, it wasn’t possible that Jacob could be better at baseball than me — after all, I was the one who taught him how to hold a bat in the first place. I was the one who pitched the enormous white whiffle ball directly at his fat red bat when he was a toddler, willing the ball to stop in mid-air so he could make contact. I called it a hit, even when it would more accurately be called a pitch that tapped the bat. And now he is better than me. Much better.
            I told my friend Eric, who has a two-year-old, that the day is coming when his daughter will be better than him at something.
            “It’s already here,” he said. “She can dance better. She has more rhythm.”
            I look at Jacob and know baseball is just the beginning of a long list of things he will one day do better than I. If early childhood was for learning basic skills, middle childhood is for refining those skills. And while one side of my heart cheers wildly for Jacob as he conquers long division, the strike zone, and increasingly adult-looking novels, the other side of my heart wants to freeze time. For the middle of childhood — age nine — is so clearly the beginning of something big. And I have learned from babyhood on that beginnings are fleeting. I am afraid that middles may be fleeting, too.
            He’s on the second floor this year. Halfway through grade school. Halfway through childhood. A tall, skinny kid with a huge appetite, a big smile and talents neither of us knows about yet.
I’m running to keep up.