Parent-teacher conferences…conquered.

For some reason, parent-teacher conferences always make me a little nervous.  There have been a few stressful meetings at the school (mainly early on when we were still trying to figure out whether Zoe and Alexander would be placed in Kindergarten or first grade as entering students and, of course, the awful first conference I mentioned in “The Fisherman’s Wife”).  One of the things that stands out in my mind about these meetings is having to sit on a tiny uncomfortable chair — often while the teachers sit in normal adult-size chairs!  So, I am happy to report that when I went to school to meet with Zoe and Alexander’s teachers last week, I was given a comfortable grown-up chair in each classroom.  After that, the rest was cake.

Alexander’s grades were mediocre — only one A (in reading, of course), but his teachers described him as happy, engaged, and with an amazing vocabulary!  Zoe was praised as an excellent student (and her grades reflected her hard work and diligence).  However, both teachers said she was very quiet and did not participate much in class, which surprised me.

The upshot:  The teachers clearly had gotten to know my kids.  They had lots of observations to share and seemed really interested in bringing out the best in Zoe and Alexander.  Both teachers were insightful, enthusiastic, and funny (definitely a plus).

Truth be told, I still felt a little uneasy about the whole ordeal (I guess calling it an “ordeal” is kind of a giveaway, huh?), but it was definitely a positive experience and reinforced my general sense that fifth grade is turning out to be a good year.

As a coda, I’ll mention something I came across while working on scrapbooks for the kids.  While going through the bin of stuff I’ve been saving for the last few years, I found several notes written to Alexander by his second grade teacher.  This was a woman I did not feel close to and never developed a particular rapport with.  At the time, second grade had the reputation of being “tough” compared to first grade — i.e. “no more Mr. Nice Guy”, time to whip these kids into shape and prepare them for the rigors ahead (see “Worrying never solved nothin'” and start-of-school-year meetings).  It was an end to sweetness and warm fuzzies.  There would be no hugs shared between the teachers and parents.  (The first grade teachers were huggers.)  And yet, three years later, I found myself reading wonderfully encouraging notes from this teacher to Alexander.  Handwritten cards praising his progress, telling him he had a good day, pointing out the positive changes he had made through the year — all signed “Love, …”

Another example of being able to look back and see how far we’ve come in our journey and appreciate those who have helped along the way.  And the years keep twirling by.

Here’s a poem I wrote awhile back that touches on some of that, though, of course, imperfectly.

School in Summer

Stopping by
school in summer, a mower
stalks the field, sound
swells and recedes.  My children
rush the playground, reborn
and, for now,
theirs alone.
I sit on a bench
with my magazine
and news
of budget cuts
and lay-offs of
beloved teachers,
one who brought my child
through a hard
first year, a nest
that held
his eggshell curve
of ego.

Summer wind
is spinning
the leaves on their stems.
I smell mint.
Soon all this will be gone.

Your children are not your children

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCVvoL_F5gA

Last Sunday afternoon, I had a stunning revelation:  “You cannot have any needs that are bound up in the behavior or actions or personality of your children.  When it comes to your children, you must be ego-less.”

This is not to say that, as a parent, you must be selfless.  But your needs and desires must not be dependent on your children.

Even as this crystal clear realization came to me, I had a sinking feeling that this parenting principle would be the hardest one of all to follow.

As often happens when I’m writing this blog, I begin thinking that I’m talking about one thing and end up realizing somewhere along the way that I’m talking about something completely different.  In this case, the original theme for this blog post was about being a pushy parent — and how much pushing is the right amount.  However, by the end of Sunday afternoon, the day of infamy, my thoughts had moved away from pushing versus not pushing to something more challenging.

Our weekend was going well.  We had a good family meeting on Sunday morning with everyone participating and in fine spirits.  One of the things that was touched on (and had been mentioned earlier in the weekend, as well) was that Zoe and I would go running around Bass Lake in the afternoon.  Zoe is participating in Girls on the Run, a program that promotes self esteem through a girl-power curriculum that integrates running and training for a 5K.  I’m Zoe’s “running buddy”.  While most of what the girls do takes place during a twice-a-week afterschool program, each child is required to have an adult running buddy to run the 5K with.  Training with your running buddy is optional.  When Zoe started the program about a month ago, we talked about running together on the weekends.  She seemed receptive to the idea, and we have actually done it a few times (on a fairlly limited basis, as she is still not up to running very far at one time).

This past Sunday, I was looking forward to our run together.  First, the weather was absolutely gorgeous — blue sky, sun, breezy, temperatures in the 70s, leaf colors still vibrant.  I felt an urgency to get out and enjoy the day because it seemed it might be one of the last warm days of the year.  I was also feeling that it would be a good opportunity to move Zoe along with her running, which seemed sluggish to me — and I was starting to wonder how she would ever run a 5K.  Finally, I was looking forward to some physical activity, myself, and thought I could run a few extra laps around the lake and have it “count” as real exercise for me, too.

But when the time came, Zoe was not enthusiastic.  She put on her running shoes, but refused to change out of her jeans, although I nagged her and pointed out how much more comfortable she would be in shorts, or at least stretchy pants.  To no avail.  After I dragged her away from the television, we set out for the short drive to the Moses Cone carriage trails near the Blue Ridge Parkway.  However, we had not gone very far when the conversation turned in such a way that it became obvious that Zoe did not want to go running.  For some reason, this absolutely pushed me over the emotional edge.  I’m really not sure why, at that moment, I felt so disproportionately frustrated, discouraged, irritated, let down…  My bubble had been burst, and I was strangely heart-broken.  I did not handle it well.  The words “guilt and recrimination” come to mind.

Initially, I thought about this incident in terms of pushiness.  I know for a fact that I am not the pushiest parent in the world.  One friend has told me repeatedly that her children are “required” to partipate in at least one organized sport a semester or face consequences.  Another friend, who I think of as very gentle and low-key in her parenting style, expressed to me recently that she thought it was necessary to push children to do things so that they did not miss out on valuable experiences.  I know other children who have been involved in such an endless stream of activities since they were very young that I can’t help but think the motivation has come more from the parents than the kids.  So, if my pushiness seemed within normal range, why did I still feel so uncomfortable with my reaction to Zoe not wanting to go running?

In a moment of clarity, I realized that this was about something more profound than whether my child went running or not — or whether I was being too pushy.  It was about my own ego and a vision I had (perhaps without even fully realizing it) of Zoe (as an athlete, ready and willing to work hard to achieve a goal) and of our relationship (mother and daughter, in sync, enjoying an activity together).  Never mind that it was MY vision and MY goal.  In this instant of clarity, I saw how many different ways my ego was tied up in my children and how powerful the desire was for them to fulfill my needs.  It was sobering.  But it gave me some important insight and, hopefully, a path for pursuing a more peaceful and contented relationship with my children.

It’s been almost a week since that fateful day — a busy, tiring week when I have not had time to write or reflect — and this blog post feels disjointed, since it was written in several sittings with my mood very different at each time.  In retrospect, I can see even more how I overreacted to the running incident — but I hope some good will come from it.

Posting this amazing Sweet Honey and the Rock song (with words by Khalil Gibran) two ways http://youtu.be/HCVvoL_F5gA — check it out!

The world keeps spinning

Today marks the end of first quarter of the school year; parent-teacher conferences are scheduled for next week.  Zoe has, in fact, earned a blueberry dwarf hamster.  Zander has been handling his homework with more good grace than I imagined possible at this time last year — or even a few months ago.  The kids have finished their first big school project for the year (on Native Americans).  Zoe is participating in “Girls on the Run” and preparing for a 5K in December.  Both kids are sticking with their instruments fairly well (Zander, guitar, and Zoe, clarinet).  Mornings are not perfect but are not usually terrible.  And the school year that I half-longed for (looking forward to seeing my kids grow and change and master new things) and half-dreaded (anxious about the tantrums and angst and battles) is progressing at its inevitable pace, not exactly a walk in the park but, on balance, more positive than negative, with lots to be hopeful and optimistic about.

Of course, there’s more.  Like many people, we are under some financial duress as owners of a small business during a recession.  Stress about money is the pits — exhausting and hard to shake off.  But it does make me think — as I reflect on how well the kids are doing, even while I feel frustrated that life still seems stressful and somewhat out of control — is it a truism that “there will always be something“?  There will inevitably be some aspect of life that seems out of balance, stressful, unsettling.  All my life, I’ve waited for — and worked towards — the time when this would not be the case.  Today on my 48th (gasp!) birthday, I’ve got to wonder how ridiculous the premise of a stress-free, fully self-actualized life is.

So, no great wisdom to wrap this up — except some vague notion of more thankfulness and appreciation of the good.  Keep being healthy.  Try to do things right.  Easy-peasy.

Taming monkey mind in the internet age or “How do I get my flow back?”

Originally, I was planning to call this post, “Has the internet helped or hurt my parenting?” (or something along those lines, only catchier).  Then I realized, Who am I kidding?  This isn’t about parenting, this is about ME.  So, in the way that only a blog can compel me to do:  time to come clean.  Yes, I do believe I have a mild to moderate internet addiction.  Like addicts often do, I find myself trying to hide my addiction.  I also find myself taking comfort from the fact that other people seem to be worse off than I am, which means it can’t be that bad — right?

My addiction does not take the form of hours lost to surfing the net or hopping from one YouTube video to the next.  Who has time for that?  It’s more about quick but frequent checking in on various online sources of information, both personal and general — email, text messages, Facebook, the word game I play, mlb.com (if there’s a Yankees game and I’m not watching it on TV), weather, NY Times headlines…  even this blog site…

My compulsive checking has gotten much worse since my husband gave me an iPhone as a surprise gift earlier this year.

Recent news stories have revealed that there is a scientific basis for this type of addiction.  Apparently, the receipt of new information — a text, an email, a notification on Facebook, etc. releases dopamine in the brain and makes us want to keep checking for more new stimuli.  Weirdly, the anticipation of something new and unknown is actually more compelling than the actual information received.  http://www.simplyzesty.com/technology/the-science-behind-your-internet-addiction/

This all seems accurate but, in addition, I think of my relationship to the internet (and to my gadget) as related to fear of commitment.  To some degree, I can trace this fear to the birth of my children.  With two infants and a non-profit law practice to manage, life became more chaotic and fragmented than ever before.  I remember keeping a written log (in the neurotic way that new mothers do) during the six weeks I stayed home from work after Zoe and Alexander were born.  Review of the log shows entire days where there was not even a full hour between feedings of one baby or the other.  Obviously, this did not continue forever.  But, somehow, the feeling of chaos and lack of control remained, even when the early crazy days of parenthood had passed.

And so the stage was set for years of my life when I seldom devoted a substantial amount of time to any one activity, constantly felt distracted and uneasy about chores and tasks that needed to be done, and generally lived life with very little commitment to a deeper awareness of what was satisfying and fulfilling to me.  The internet fit in nicely; it provided an easy way to connect with friends, make plans, stay informed, and entertain myself, with minimal time or effort required.  The rest is history.

Incessant, reflexive internet use is the antithesis of a concept called “flow”.  I first became familiar with the idea of flow when I read a terrific article by attorney and educator Gary Pavela.  Pavela defines flow as “a state of intense commitment and involvement at any given moment.”  He quotes psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake” and as engagement which requires “disciplined concentration.”

I experience flow when I’m writing, working on an art project, or reading an amazing book that excites and inspires me.  (And, in a work context, when I’m involved in legal research to answer an interesting question.)  Yet, I don’t often allow myself these experiences.  I hold back — dabble around the edges, dole out my time in ways that provide limited opportunity for flow.

It’s as though I’m afraid of losing control of all the little things that are swirling around in my life if I step into the river of genuine engagement and “go with the flow”.  But what if all the fragmented pieces that feel unsettled and chaotic begin to fall into place when I increase my involvement in activities that create flow?

Crazy idea — but I like it!  Now how to make it happen???

When do you experience flow?  Are you happy with the amount of flow in your life?  How do you create opportunities for intense commitment and disciplined concentration?

A totally inappropriate response

Tonight when we got home, both kids had homework.  For a change, Zander was further along — thanks to a new after-school arrangement with my mom that involves going to Kojay’s Cafe to drink hot chocolate and do homework while Zoe is at Girls on the Run.

Zoe had had a trying day.  A special rock that she had been carrying around with her for days was confiscated by a teacher and thrown away.  Sadly, this happened at Girls on the Run, which is meant to be a fun, empowering activity.  My mom reported that when she picked Zoe up, Zoe was in tears.  It sounded to me as though the teacher had acted impulsively and, perhaps, made a wrong move in taking Zoe’s prized possesion wtihout explanation or chance for redemption — not only taken it, but actually thrown it into the long grass where it couldn’t be found later.

Impulsive.  I ran the word through my head as we drove home.  It made me feel calm and superior.  I was not impulsive.  I could step back and assess a situation and act in a measured way rather than reacting without thinking.

Then came homework time.  I helped Zander with the last problem on his math worksheet, a complicated logic problem that required several steps.  Zoe had already finished her math and moved on to spelling.  She reluctantly agreed to let me check her math worksheet.  She assured me that she knew it was all correct.  I went straight to the last problem.  Sure enough, it was wrong — totally wrong — all five parts of the answer.  But when I pointed this out to Zoe, she immediately, adamantly refused to correct it.

And what did I do?  Was I calm and measured?  Was I compassionate?  Did I try another approach?  No.  I said things like, “Handing in work that’s wrong is no better than not doing it at all.” and “You have a responsibility to do your best work.”  and probably worse.  I was convinced that Zoe would not let me help her with her math because of her need for power and control.  This made me feel angry and hopeless.  I wanted to overpower her.  I wanted to shame her into letting me help her.  I wanted the math problem to be done correctly at all costs.

Everything that was going through my head and coming out of my mouth was exactly the opposite of what Positive Discipline is all about.  Positive Discipline teaches parents to look for the hidden message behind children’s behavior and respond to that rather than to the immediate behavior.  It counsels parents to step back from conflict because our primitive brains take over when we are in conflict, making it difficult to find a solution.  It teaches us, above all, to be kind and compassionate to our children.

Epic failure.

Over the weekend, I found myself seething with anger several times when the kids were fighting.  I wasn’t using, or even thinking about, Positive Discipline skills and techniques.  And now, on the very first day of a new school and work week, I had already lost it and behaved in a manner that made me feel guilty and ineffective.

Happily, though, Positive Discipline also focuses on learning from our mistakes and forgiving ourselves — not just giving lip service to this idea because it makes us feel better, but really, truly learning and, hopefully, showing our children how mistakes can be wonderful teachers.  This is a hard one, I admit.  I would much rather have a magic wand to wave away my bad behavior.  But I’m working on it.  I mean, really, what else can I do?

Tonight, Zoe and I have reconciled, at least temporarilly.  She has agreed to look at the math problem with me after taking a break from her homework.  I know we have not reached the end of this power struggle between us.  Somehow, instead of cowering in dread and reverting to my most primitive parental behavior when confronted with her defiance, I need to rise to embrace this dynamic and change it.  Wish me luck and courage.

Sweetness

A few nights ago, Zoe and Alexander re-discovered their substantial collection of capes, which were stored in the attic just waiting for the next time a cape might be the perfect garb.  Since it’s the beginning of October, that time, apparently, is upon us.  The kids each have three capes:  a Harry Potter robe, which was ordered from a website for last year’s Halloween costume (flannel, hooded, kind of cosy), a dracula cape from an earlier Halloween (shiny, slinky, with a big stand-up collar), and an “invisibility cloak” that my mom made for them (diaphanous, light-weight, slightly sparkly).  The new revelation was that all three capes could be worn together!  The effect was stunning and dramatic.  Much excitement ensued.  Wheels began to turn as to how the capes could be used for this year’s Halloween costume.

But for Alexander, Halloween wasn’t soon enough.  He explained his vision to me:  him, standing high atop the monkey bars on the school playground, dressed all in black, dark clouds rolling across the sky, cape flowing out behind him in the wind.  This plan could not be deferred; the next morning, the Harry Potter cape was stuffed into his backpack so that he could carry out his plan.

Things like this kind of break my heart.  First, there is something so vulnerable, sweet, and true about putting your fantasy on the line for all to see.  It’s something grown-ups don’t do very often.  I can’t help but hope that all will go as envisioned and that he won’t be embarrassed or disappointed.  But, also, I know this wild imaginary play won’t last too much longer.  My guess is that in one or two years, Zander won’t be caught dead in a Harry Potter cape, especially on the school playground.

As adults, we can revive our interests, re-enter phases of our lives at will.  I can start writing poetry again or train for a bike race, even if I haven’t done so in years.  But as our children grow up, they don’t go back.  I know it’s been said a thousand times before, but it’s true that these sweet times are fleeting and emphemeral.

What’s really sad is that I have very little memory of the happy, adorable moments in my children’s lives.  My recollection of the early years of parenthood is either blurry or clouded with a sense of stress.  It’s only when I come across a journal entry describing their behavior as babies, or look back on photos I haven’t seen for a long time, that the wonder of this parenthood thing hits me all over again.  Our recordings of these days and years are far from complete, but I’m so thankful they exist.

As for Zander and the billowing cape, I asked when I picked him up if he had, in fact, worn his cape on the playground as planned.  He said that he had, and he seemed happy enough with how things had gone, though I didn’t really get much detail about it.  He was moving on already.