Fall Into My Arms

Life as Siena’s mom has not been easy. Of course, motherhood is never an easy undertaking, but as Siena has grown I have come to realize what a unique individual she is– and how much more demanding my job is as a result. I have put so much into her– from months of sleepless nights to extreme dietary restrictions to numerous counseling and psychologist appointments– that I often feel lost myself, just to equip her to handle her own big self as she matures. This is a daunting task, but of course I would have it no other way.

Today we had some one-on-one time at the park after a friend’s birthday party. She tends to gravitate toward swinging and spinning, as she craves the vestibular stimulation. Then we ended up on the climbing toy, where she decided to master tightrope walking. For awhile she bear walked across, then she held my hand, then I spotted her while she did it on her own.

As she walked across, one time she fell and said, “Mom, I almost lost my balance, so I had to fall into your arms.” I immediately felt tears form in my eyes. What a metaphor! Yes, spotting her in life is a challenge, but how rewarding to know that she has a safe spot to land– and that she jumps into my arms before she even truly falls.  My heart feels warm and big.

This year she turns five and will attend her last year of preschool. She is on the top rung, but next year she will be a tiny kindergartener in a sea of big kids.  She only recently discovered that The Little Mermaid is a movie and not just a book.  She doesn’t know what guns are for.  She still sleeps with her daddy.  She has yet to feel true struggle, rejection, or heartbreak.  She will be exposed to a life she can’t even imagine now. I have no doubt that she will face challenges, and I have no doubt that she will come through it victorious. Between the two will be all that hard work– her own and, behind the scenes, mine:

Siena, I’m here by your side. My arms are open.

Her last time across the tightrope, of course, she made it by herself. We took a video and sent it to Grandma.IMAG0266

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Lost and Found

One aspect of motherhood I never anticipated was the hijacking of my own mind.  I used to be a very thoughtful and analytical person, but currently my mind is always busy with other things: my mental to-do list, ensuring that the toddler isn’t playing in the toilet, wondering if my preschooler left all her shoes in the car again, retracing my steps in an attempt to find my keys, etc. But every once in awhile, usually while the kids fall asleep in the car as I drive, I notice my mind has gone off on its OWN tangent.  My thoughts belong to myself, and I revel in this rare luxury.

While my old self would take this time to contemplate, for example, what four-dimensional space might be like, the thoughts of my current self almost always gravitate back to motherhood– the very realm from which I usually need some freedom.  This introspection, however, often leads me to surprising clarity and even revelation about my family, my role therein, and my emotions.  It gives me the opportunity to solve some of life’s puzzles.

This past weekend I was lucky enough to have some of this time.  I was actually out enjoying an afternoon with the ladies, driving alone to and from, but my heart was on my daughter.  Anyone who has read my previous posts knows that she is a challenge.  I often feel inadequate as her mother, and these feelings have caused significant anxiety as I attempt to decode her behavior to find a solution that will help her.  These problems haven’t improved for over a year, in spite of the many avenues I’ve pursued.  The distance that afternoon, and the space to think, resulted in feelings of overwhelming pride and love for my daughter.  While I also felt helpless and heartbroken, I saw that a big answer was just so simple: I needed to spend some time connecting with her.

The very next day we went on a mom-and-daughter date– to Indian food, her favorite, and to an indoor playground afterward.  She thought she had died and gone to heaven, and actually, so did I!  It felt *so good* just relaxing and having fun together.  We truly enjoyed each other’s company and left feeling rejuvenated.  We’ve kept this momentum throughout the week, with simple games of Memory as her sister naps, secret hand signals of our very own, and lots of affection.  It’s amazing how much rapport can transform a relationship.  And it’s amazing how much it can slide when my focus is, at least in the short term, so distracted by the challenges of everyday life.

Who would have thought that long, monotonous drives would end up being some of my most valuable times as a mother?  In those times when I find myself lost in thought, I am found.

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Goodnight Kisses

The other day, snuggling into bed with my daughter after a tough day, my whole world turned magical:

As usual, she cups my face in her hands, kisses me, and tells me how much she loves me.  She then turned away and started making silly mouth noises on her hand.  She said, “Mom, these kisses are as big as my hand!”  Oh okay, the mouth noises are kisses.  She rubbed her hands together with care and wrapped them around my wrist.  “Mom, this is a kiss bracelet, but it will not stay a bracelet.  When you wake up in the morning, it will have turned back into kisses and they will live right here forever,” she says slowly and deliberately as she gently touched my eyelashes.

I get tears in my eyes when I remember that, and how sweetly she gave me the gift of my eyelash kisses.  I wear them proudly, and I have a little extra spring in my step knowing they’re there.  I’m probably the only one with kisses forever on my eyelashes.

My life is so much richer with my daughter in it.

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Weathering the Storms

It started raining today. We’ve had just about the driest Indian summer on record, but that all changed today. I hear the wind chime, soggy leaves are everywhere: suddenly there’s no mistaking it is fall.

Maybe the weather is getting me down, or maybe it’s just time. Today I’m admitting defeat. I’m an optimistic person by nature, but I feel like my writing has been negative, disguised by some forced optimism at the end. I’m surprised by the negativity, but I realize I’ve been pushing myself so hard to keep going and be optimistic. I mean, not that I really have a choice. You can’t just stop parenting, or even take much of a break. But when I’m being totally honest with myself, as writing has a tendency to reveal, I’m worn down, empty, and… well, kind of negative. Mostly just sad. It’s really, really hard to feel so helpless when your child needs you.

Siena has been having tantrums—and I mean intense, frequent, out-of-control, extended tantrums—for over a year now. She is so incredibly smart, but her little body just can’t make sense of the strong emotions she feels, even with my devoted help. I finally talked to the pediatrician, therapist, child development expert, and occupational therapist in an attempt to determine what is going on. As I mentioned before, she has no diagnosis except that she is just an extreme case of normal. But really, no diagnosis means no answer, no explanation, and no plan—no plan besides just rehashing everything I’m supposed to be doing that I’ve been doing for a year already.

Nearly every mother who has given birth knows that point when you know you just can’t do it any longer. We’ve all felt that feeling, yes, but I mean when you really know that you can’t keep going. I’ve only felt that feeling twice in my life, birthing each of my daughters. Until now. I feel that same feeling, but in a totally different context.
Obviously when we’re giving birth we do keep going, because we have no choice. We can’t stop until our child is born, and we end up accomplishing something we never thought we could. The same is true with parenting. I must keep going. I will find a way to help my daughter. But today I’m realizing something has to change. Just as birthing is empowering, I’m going to empower myself to find a better solution to this puzzle.

We may have many storms yet this season, but spring will come. I will find it.

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Raising My Spirited Child

I am the exasperated proud mother of a spirited child.

“Spirited” is a term I first heard about a year ago, when I was introduced to Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s Raising Your Spirited Child. This book has changed my parenting and my life as a mother.

Kurcinka coined the term to refer to those children who are “more” than other kids– more intense, active, persistent, sensitive, and perceptive than others.  These children, approximately 10-15% of the population, require more input from parents and their parents need to be more skilled in their responses. (Another book that I imagine to be similar but less optimistic is called Your Difficult Child.) She breaks down these qualities and offers practical advice for parents.  The reason her book is such a gem, though, is that 1) it acknowledges these challenges, which is extremely validating to us parents who are constantly on high alert day and night parenting our children, while also 2) reframing the challenges by showing us how incredible our little ones are because of these exact qualities.

Even in light of the insights and techniques offered in her book, it’s easy to get down on myself as a parent after a string of hard days.  I feel like it shouldn’t be so hard if it’s working.  I feel like my daughter should cooperate and life should be easier.  I feel like I should know how to respond and my response should help her.  But life doesn’t work that way.

I know we are making progress.  We are gaining tools and getting more effective at using them.  At the same time, my daughter is getting bigger, stronger, smarter, and more independent.  This leaves us in a dead heat: as soon as we figure something out, it all changes– consistent with the grand story of parenthood.

Enter: Mary Sheedy Kurcinka herself.  Yes, I got to hear her speak in person tonight.  The event has been marked on my calendar for months.  I even got to speak to her afterward and get my book signed.

What nugget of wisdom did she share that will change my life?  Well, as I suspected, a lot of what she spoke about was similar to what I’ve read in her books.  Her insights and solutions were valuable, as was the sense of community from sitting in an auditorium full of people facing similar parenting challenges.  I learned that I should move Siena’s bed time earlier, that I need to pay close attention to those subtle cues that suggest her intensity might be rising, and that I can control my own intensity to ensure I respond to my children in ways that build our connections.

Kurcinka focuses a lot on temperament, and the real golden nugget of the evening was the realization that I’m persistent.  When I make a goal, I stick to it until that goal is met.  Being the best mother I can to Siena is probably my utmost goal at this point in my life– a goal into which I put a lot of my energy (hence the books and lecture attendance).  One message I heard loud and clear tonight is that if we keep it up, it works.  If we teach our spirited children how to meet their needs appropriately and respectfully, they grow up into spirited adults who manage themselves well, and these people are the real movers and shakers of society.  I get to be the person who helps Siena blossom.  What an honor!

And, for those hard days, I learned that Kurcinka is available for private phone consultations!

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A Birthday Gift

My kids amaze me.  And what could be better than beholding this phenomenon to such a delightful extent on my daughter’s birthday?

Today my firstborn, Siena, turned four. Siena is a spirited girl, full of fun in her own spunky way.  Her birthday was no different: She wore her pajama pants, which might be better described as clown pants, all day.  We had an Abba dance party and she got her fingernails painted purple with white polka dots.  She cried, heartbroken and in need of reassurance, when the animals left in The Lorax (a movie she has seen several times by now).  She insisted on living it up today, in spite of being tired, and easily made friends everywhere we went.

Scarlet, my younger daughter, also made today memorable.  She perfected her crawling– on the day we finally got Siena a real Lego set of course.  She figured out who “mama” is and used the word correctly all day long, much to my delight.  At the pool, she watched Siena so closely that she mastered kicking and delighted in “jumping” off the edge. To top it off, she gave Siena the best birthday present of all: she is now saying her name, “Neh-na.”

Our days aren’t usually so ideal.  We have plenty of struggles, particularly Siena’s extreme-but-normal (both a relieving and frustrating non-diagnosis) challenges with temperament, behavior, sensory input, and anxiety.  On good days I find new tools for dealing with these challenges, focus on the positive, and feel like I’m getting the hang of it.  On the really hard days I am pushed beyond my limits, feeling like a failure of a parent, and so tightly wound that my husband also needs a break from me and sends me out of the house to recover.

I tend to dedicate myself to one thing and do it well.  When I chose to be a stay-at-home mom, this became my one thing.  The problem with motherhood, for me at least, is that it’s hard to measure how “well” you’re doing.  It’s a long-term experiment without exact answers.  Previously, I felt like this was going to come easily to me.  After all, I had good role models and always had a knack with kids.  As so often is true, however, the vision did not match the reality.

When I found myself in the trenches of parenthood, lacking right answers or even answerable questions, it was time to start searching: I have accumulated Parent Education credits at our local community college, where I have learned invaluable life lessons that far exceed the realm of parenting; I am a board member at the co-op preschool; I read about child development and parenting from a variety of sources; and I have sought expert advice when needed. Yet, even to a person with good instinct and ample information, parenthood is not straightforward.  It has taken some time for me to find the other side of myself: the side that can let go of data and results and just go with the flow.  As my parenting class instructor said, there’s no such thing as a parenting expert. The truth is, of course, we are all just following our gut and seeing what works for our family at the time.

Lately it feels like we have had a string of hard days.  We have repeatedly faced the same challenges and not only lack progress, but start to feel defeated.  Then we have a jewel of a day like today.  Today wasn’t just a good day; it was like a glimpse into the future, into who my children are actually becoming.  This long-term parenting experiment is far from over, but I see a grand success in our future.  Our kids are truly incredible, extraordinary, amazing people.  It is working.  Yes, this is why we persevere.  This is what motherhood is all about.

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Reflection on Four Years

My daughter turns four this week. Wow, four years.  Four years that have changed my life entirely.  Nothing else comes close.

Her birth marks a Great Divide in my life.  I’m sure this is true for most people: before kids, and as parents.  But for me, this divide is when life was easy, and now that life is hard.  No, this isn’t because of parenthood, but because this is when life really started to surprise me. Her birth, a traumatic experience for me, was the first event in a perfect storm of hardships that inundated us that season.

For better or for worse, I didn’t have much previous experience dealing with life’s challenges– besides a high school breakup or getting a cold during finals week– so I had no practice for handling life on this new level.  I found myself in a swirl of tangled emotion that I couldn’t unravel.  Slowly, however, I dug myself out of that hole.  I made the decision to be optimistic and empowered, and I’ve worked very hard to get my life in order.  We are still facing challenges, but we do so with new tools and a sense of accomplishment for having come this far.  I’ve learned so much about people— knowledge that is valuable in any interaction and very much as a parent.

The constant force that pulled me me through this whole journey has been my daughter.  She is often the perfect antidote to the hardships.  She has a zest for life like I’ve never seen before!  She is so little, but just so big too.  How can all that energy and emotion fit into such a little package?  And she has so much insight it’s almost scary at times.  I’m honored to be the mother of such an amazing daughter, and I can so plainly see that with a little honing, these very things will make her into an incredible woman someday.

So yes, these past four years have been hard, but those lows have brought with them the highest of highs.  Rather than resenting the hardships, I recognize the compassion, understanding, purpose, and resilience they have brought into my life.  This increased range of emotion is like seeing in color when we’ve previously known only black and white.  My life and heart are fuller, and I know that I am really living.

Thank you, my daughter, for the rainbows.

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