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.