Family Drama

There is so much to say but I’m too hurt to say it. The last few days have left me depleted, exhausted, over wrought. I just don’t have much left in me.

The morning after I wrote Thursday’s post, my IL’s sat Mi.Vida down and expressed their intense concern over the methods I was using to discipline my daughter. They believed I was “withholding” food in at attempt to force her to say “please” (I have NEVER not given my child food to make her say anything) and that “time outs” in her crib were not only developmentally inappropriate but detrimental.

The whole thing tore me apart. I was deeply, deeply hurt. Wounded. This weekend, which was supposed to be really wonderful, and which I had been looking forward to very much, was pretty much ruined.

Mi.Vida went over on Saturday morning and spent three hours speaking to his parents. Saturday afternoon he relayed to me what was said. I had a very difficult time listening. On Sunday morning Mi.Vida and I spent an hour at couples counseling going over the whole thing a second time. I would love to write something coherent and meaningful about what was said but I just don’t have it in me. I’m too exhausted, both emotionally and physically, to recount everything, but I will say this:

– Mi.Vida did an impressive job standing up to his parents and defending me as a mother. And even though at first my hurt made it difficult for me to listen, I am forever grateful for all he did this weekend.

– Even though my in-law’s concerns came from a place of love for Isa, it was inappropriate for them to share those concerns, especially in the way they did.

– This was especially hard for me because not only was someone attacking the way I parent, but they were attacking the aspect of mothering in which I feel most capable. Also, the people attacking me were people I care about and am grateful for. Because of my in-laws’ willingness and ability to watch Isa I can go to yoga when Mi.Vida is away, we can go to couples counseling twice a month, we can enjoy the occasional date night, and we can get big projects done. Also, my FILs willingness to watch Isa four mornings a week this year has allowed me to work part time, a long-time dream of mine. These are not things I take for granted.

– Of course, their excessive presence in our, and Isa’s, lives, make situations like these incredibly difficult and probably do a lot to cause them.

– We have two options as we proceed. (1) Require that Mi.Vida’s parents’ address both of us with their future concerns so we can respond to them as a united front. (2) Listen to, and ignore, their future concerns in whatever way they choose to share them with us (this is possible because, currently, I’m not worried about whether or not they do these things in their own home, if Isa were older it would be different).

– Mi.Vida needs to be more involved with parenting decisions like these. In the past he has relied on me to figure these things out and when issues arise with his parents he feels ill equipped to suppor/defend me. He also feels he’s taken too passive a role in this aspect of parenting and wants to read more books and be better educated to both form and express his own opinions on issues like boundary setting and enforcing.

– When both Mi.Vida and I are feeling hurt and confused we may not have the emotional fortitude to support each other in the ways we want and that is okay, as long as we both understand what is going on. I wanted to be there more for Mi.Vida this weekend but I just couldn’t. He felt similarly. By Sunday night we both were able to come together and give each other the support we needed but Friday and Saturday we were totally incapable of that.

– My in-laws didn’t ruin this weekend for me. They did something and I reacted to what they did. I take full responsibility for the way I reacted and the fact that I felt my weekend was ruined. I do not blame them for my response to what they said, even if I believe what they said was inappropriate. I am responsible for my own feelings.

– Sometimes shit sucks and there is nothing to do but move through it. That was hard for me this weekend.

Agreeing to Disagree

My daughter is almost two years old. She is learning more and more words every day. She already says well over a hundred words (in Spanish and English – much more in English) and strings them together to make sentences. She can count, in two languages. She can sing (the first four letters) of the alphabet. She is smart. She is capable. She gets what is going on. And I have to admit, I’m loving it.

Some moms like the baby phase. Some moms LOVE it. They revel in the smallness, in the all-consuming nature of it. They feel empowered by how much their newborns need them and how they are able to provide. For me? Not so much. I’ll admit I found the first six months kind of… boring. The older Isa gets, the more I enjoy motherhood. I love her independence. I revel in the thirty minutes she can play and read by herself. I sink my teeth into the opportunities to teach her. I wait eagerly for the chance to give her consequences.

Yes, at the tender age of 21 months, I am already issuing consequences to my toddler.

You see, this is the part of motherhood I’m good at. I’m good at the consequences part. I’m good at setting boundaries and enforcing them. I’m good at making my expectations clear and helping my daughter meet them. I believe my daughter is already capable of learning what is expected of her and doing it. And I’m treating her accordingly.

The thing is, not everyone agrees with the way I enforce consequences with my daughter. Most of the time it doesn’t matter, because I don’t really care much what others think of my choices. She is my daughter and I’m doing what I believe is right in raising her. Of course, when the people who don’t agree with me are my in-laws, it gets more complicated. Especially since my in-laws are our primary care providers.

It’s not even that I want my in-laws to do things the ways I do. Usually I tell them what I’m doing with Isa so they can create consistency if they want to, but I never overtly ask them to do anything. And that’s probably a good thing, because chances are they would refuse.

Recently I told my in-laws that I was putting Isa in her crib for a minute when she hit or scratched me. I don’t really consider this a “time out” but more of a chance for her to regain her composure when she’s really upset while letting her know that hitting will not be tolerated. At first she would get very upset when I put her in the crib but after about a week, she would regain control almost immediately and be ready to play happily by the time I returned to get her. Also, she hasn’t hit me in a week.

I mentioned this at lunch with my in-laws and I was promptly informed that they would NOT be doing anything of the sort when she was at their house. Not only was it developmentally inappropriate (ie she wouldn’t understand what was happening) but they don’t believe in time-outs and refuse to administer them. I told them they should do whatever felt comfortable and left it at that.

Today my father-in-law mentioned that he was trying to teach Isa to say “thank you”. I’ve been focusing on requiring her to say “please” before I give her things. It’s a part of our daily exercise in patience (many times a day I just don’t let her have something right away, usually I have her go distract herself with something else and then bring it when she has forgotten about it). In just a few short weeks she has started using “pease” instead of grunting for what she wants. It’s a welcome change.

Anyway, I was going to start requesting she say “thank you” when I felt “please” was adequately acquired, but I certainly didn’t mind my FIL trying to teach her “thank you”. I mentioned that I was focusing on “please” first and he made it clear that he would not be focusing on “please” he didn’t care about whether she said “please” and he certainly wouldn’t with hold things to force her to say it. He would casually focus on “thank you” and that was it.

Now obviously this is not all that important and I truly don’t care whether he reinforces the work I’ve done on asking Isa to say “please” when she wants something. But I have to admit, his total disregard of my mothering choices is hard to handle. Really hard. And I’ve felt pretty shitty ever since our exchange.

It makes me realize that my parenting decisions really are an extension of who I am, and if someone disregards them or implies they are so worthless as to not be worth considering, I take it personally. Very much so. When my FIL fails to even consider my reasoning for doing something when it comes to my daughter I feel like my own values are disregarded as well. It’s complicated and difficult to explain. The only thing I’m sure of is how much it sucks.

Do you ever have to defend your parenting decisions? When you do, does it feel like you are defending who you are? What do you do or say when people close to you disagree with your choices?

Using Motherhood as an Excuse

UPDATE AT THE BOTTOM

Last week I lost my work key. AGAIN. You might remember that my lanyard, the one I’d had for seven years, the one with my work keys AND my staff ID, disappeared over the Thanksgiving break, much to my complete and utter panic. I was given a single key to my room when I returned to work and now, less than four months later, that is gone too.

In seven years I never lost my work key. Not once. Now, in four months, I’ve lost it TWICE.

The day I accepted the fact that my work key wasn’t just hidden somewhere in my house (or that if it were, I wouldn’t be finding it), I also realized that I hadn’t submitted one class’s grades for report cards. By the time I went online the window was closed, my opportunity had passed. Even though I figured it wouldn’t be a huge deal and that I could resolve it the next day I felt horrible. In almost eight years of teaching I had NEVER been late with my grades. Every trimester, for 22 trimesters, I had turned them all in on time, even when I had eight classes to submit. And then this year I just forget, for no good reason. I just let it slip my mind.

I spent that night feeling really, really, supremely disappointed in myself.

At work the next day I was lamenting both the lost key (I still cannot wrap my head around the fact that I can’t find that key, it was around my neck when I came home on Monday, where the eff could it have gone?!) and the forgotten grades with my fellow co-workers and not once, not twice but multiple times I got the same reply: Well, you’re a mother now. Evidently it was as obvious as that.

I know these women mean well. I know their intentions are good. Their point is only that mothers have a lot on their plates, we have a ton of shit to do and when we are scrambling to get it all done things are bound to fall through the cracks. The truth is, I probably did lose the key while I was clambering to get Isa down for her nap before straightening the house for afternoon guests. And the day I forgot the grades I was home from work with Isa because our fragile child care system breaks down when Mi.Vida is out of town. So both times I could easily attribute my fuck ups to being a mother.

The thing is, I don’t want to.

For the past century women have been trying to convince men that we can do it all. We’ve argued over and over again that just because we are mothers doesn’t mean we can’t also be doctors or lawyers or senators or the president of the United States. Millions of women have pushed past expectations and conventions to give us the opportunities we have today. They have proven that being a mother and being anything else don’t have to be mutually exclusive. If I blame my fuck up on being a mother, am I undoing all that countless women have done before me?

I feel like I have two options: (1) berate my scatterbrained self for totally messing up things I’ve never messed up before in my life or (2) chalk my mistakes up to being a mother and therefore simply too overwhelmed to keep up with everything. Neither seems fair and frankly, both are probably true, at least partly. So where does that leave me?

Is it true that, as mothers, we take on too much, that we’re setting ourselves up for failure? Can we successfully juggle our careers and aspirations while assuming the bulk childcare and household responsibilities? And if not, where does that leave us? Doomed to failure? Left with no other possibilities but to meet the lowered expectations of the men around us? The whole thing just seems so fucking unfair.

UPDATE: I just wanted everyone to know that I found my work key today. In my daughter’s laundry hamper (where I already looked, it was inside something obviously). THANK GOD I FOUND IT!

Anger to the Nth Degree

I wrote not long ago about feeling ambivalent about having another child because I already feel so ill-equipped to deal with the one I have. It worked out well that around that time I had to write a piece on anger for the magazine I work on. I decided I would write my piece on toddler anger, and the feelings it inspired in me. This is my piece.

Anger. Every human has experienced it at some point or another. We probably all feel it at least once a day, sometimes many instances in just one afternoon. As a middle school teacher, I considered myself an expert in the field of anger. Each day, I’m exposed to student frustration, parental ire, and teacher exasperation. In the hormone-saturated halls of middle school, anger is a common occurrence. Then, my daughter became a toddler and I realized I didn’t know jack about anger. I was about to be schooled.

Anger is a base emotion. It’s impossible to avoid anger entirely; the only thing we can control is how we react to it. As adults, we’ve (hopefully) acquired a few tools to better handle our anger; when we get mad, we can usually control our feelings or at least express them in a socially acceptable way. Toddlers, unfortunately, have yet to acquire these tools. When a toddler gets angry, those around him are privy to this powerful emotion at its most extreme

Watching a toddler have a tantrum is like observing anger in its natural habitat. Toddler anger is raw, unbridled, visceral, severe and totally overwhelming.  Toddler anger is a full body experience, for both child and parent: we hear the screams, we see the thrashing, we feel the hits, scratches and kicks, we taste the sweat and tears, and we smell the desperation. No one has endured a true outburst of anger until they’ve experienced a toddler in complete meltdown mode.

At the tender age of one and a half, my daughter is incredibly susceptible to outbursts of anger. Pretty much anything can trigger her rage. Daily necessities like diaper changes, donning a jacket (or socks, shoes, or any article of clothing, for that matter), even leaving all but one or two stuffed friends at home can provoke her fury. If she is faced with an actual affront—like say, a toy is taken away—the offending party is guaranteed a hurricane of rage will be unleashed, probably on them. Sometimes it feels like I’m living with an unstable element, a ticking time bomb poised to go off at anytime, without prior warning.

Most of the time I’m pretty calm in the face of my daughter’s outbursts. While it may be the minor leagues, eight years in a middle school classroom has taught me a thing or two about keeping my cool. I’m relatively good at approaching my daughter with slow movements and a gentle voice, even when she’s splayed on the dirty floor at Safeway. I’m also fairly adept at swooping in to prevent her flailing from causing herself—or others—harm; I’ve even managed to keep her head from crashing against the concrete on a few occasions.

Yes, most of the time, when faced with the unbridled rage of my offspring, I can use my adult tools to contain my own anger. There is only one situation when I feel it getting away from me, when I worry her rage will spur my own. That is when my daughter hits me. When my daughter purposefully slaps me across the face, I get really, really upset.

I’m not talking about the hitting, scratching and kicking that happen during a tantrum. I’m not referring to the uncontrollable movements of my daughter in her sub-human fits of rage. I’m talking about that moment when my little girl, calmly and coolly stares me straight in the face before slapping me with everything she’s got. That kind of deliberate violence against me is the one situation that triggers my own anger, and sometimes it’s intense.

I know that my daughter doesn’t understand what she’s doing; at least not in the way I understand it. I know she doesn’t grasp the severity of her actions. My rational brain is absolutely aware of that, but when my daughter hits me, it’s like my reaction-synapses detour my rational brain completely, bursting out of the anger-gate without looking back. I truly believe there is an evolutionarily remnant in all of us that reacts viscerally to deliberate violence against our person. Something inside of me screams, No! This must not be tolerated.

Of course, I’ve never acted on that anger. I’ve never met my daughter’s physical force with my own. But it has made me upset, incredibly so. And when I’m in a situation where I can’t just walk away from her, when I can’t create distance while keeping her safe, I feel at a genuine loss as to how to respond.

Maybe my reaction to my daughter’s deliberate hitting is understandable. Maybe all new mothers feel this during the initial assaults. Maybe this anger will dull over time, as my adult tools better perfect themselves to react accordingly. Or maybe it will always be this hard. Maybe when someone hits you, no matter whom they are, it will always trigger those base feelings of fight or flight. Whatever the case may be, I’m glad I’m getting these lessons now, because I’ve heard I don’t know anger from Adam until I’ve experienced the fury of a sixteen-year-old scorned.

Prioritizing one’s passions

This is the stack of books sitting by my bed. Actually, some are nestled safely in my night stand, while others feel my foot falls every morning as I lumber into the waiting dark. I’m currently immersed in all of them, in some way or another. Obviously I don’t read them all every day. Sometimes I don’t read one for weeks, or months, but they all house a place keeper and I return to each of them regularly.

This stack really epitomizes my life right now. I feel pulled in a hundred directions; I’m always thinking of a million different things. I have about two hours of time to use as I see fit every day and literally dozens of things to do. Some I need to do, some I want to do, some can be avoided, others are absolute necessities. At the end of the day, when I have that one precious hour to dedicate to myself, how should I spend it?

Do immerse myself in Spanish, strengthening my skills so I can more effectively pass the language on to my daughter? Do I fine-tune my copyediting abilities so I can better contribute at the magazine where I volunteer? Do I read about how to write a better children’s book or work on the book I have in my head? Do I indulge my OCD driven, anxiety riddled pre-TTC self, creating a plan to follow before we try again, granting myself some semblance of control when I know I have none? Do I learn how to better nurture my relationship, or just spend some one-one-one time with my attention starved partner? Do I fill my mom-toolbox with strategies for dealing with my increasingly defiant daughter-turned-tantrum-prone toddler? Or do I just enjoy the final book of the Hunger Games trilogy (I’m reading it in Spanish) so that when that one 7th grader in my class asks me, for the umteenth time, if I’ve gotten to “the part with Prim,” I can finally say YES! YES I HAVE! AND IT WAS AWESOME! Or do I write a blog post? Or do I simply veg out in front of the TV?

I have so little time and so many things I want to do with it. I’m starting to wonder if doing everything a little bit is better than abandoning some projects for the time being and returning to them later, when I can afford them the proper attention. Can I really pay adequate attention to this space and work on my book? Can I make teaching Isa Spanish a priority and put in the hours strengthening my relationship? If it’s not possible to do both, how do I decide between them?

Obviously some passions trump others. My partner should always come first, and I have recently been reminded of this in the saddest of ways. But the idea of being forced to abandon my goal of raising Isa to be bilingual, or being truly bilingual myself, devastates me. Just as the idea of leaving this space uninhabited, even if only for a few weeks, carves a great hole in my chest.

This past week, working on my book, has been wonderful. I finally figured out a way to make it work. And while a critique today took some of the wind out of my sails, it also grounded me in ways that I appreciate.

Last week, when I said my farewells and started publishing old posts, I was hoping to have one page ready to share at the end of the month. Now I already have that and I have every intention of completely at two more. Last month I never would have thought that possible, but now I’m sure it is. And that feels amazing.

At the same time, finishing that one page required an immense amount of work. I’ve been glued to my computer for the past week, barely looking up to make eye contact with my partner, let alone giving him the attention deserves, the attention I want to give him. I know he supports this project, just as I have supported many of his in our years together, but it’s still hard.

So what is a girl to do, when she’s lucky enough to have so many passions in her life? How does she prioritize when they all feel so pertinent? Truly, if you have any suggestions, I’d love to know.

Womanhood: An unattainable ideal?

I’ve had a hard time getting back into the swing of things since winter break. I’ve been incredibly tired and overwhelmed and just unable to get done the things that needed to get done. I can’t tell you how many times this week my wonderful partner insisted I go to bed only to stay up washing the dishes or straightening up Isa’s playroom.

I felt horrible.

Yesterday, I called Mi.Vida from the car, mentioned how exhausted I was and apologized for how much slack he’d been forced to pick up in the last two weeks. I didn’t realize I was fishing for a “don’t worry, it’s fine” until one didn’t come. When my desperate, “but you’ve had to do so much, I feel so bad, I know I’ve really dropped the ball lately,” was met with (what felt like) a stoney silence, I was mortified.

It wasn’t just that I felt truly sorry for all that Mi.Vida has been doing, it wasn’t just that I was worried he was genuinely angry at me for my short comings, in that short silence I felt the irrevocable judgement that no words could ever convey. I was doing a shitty job. I was failing, as a partner, as a mother, as a woman.

I hung up the phone and promptly started sobbing.

Yesterday Mel posted a critique/discussion of Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady, using it as a jumping off point to explore “how we define womanhood.” Her post artfully weaves the movie’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher with her own impressions of how we define womanhood and then judge all woman within that definition.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mi.Vida’s silence stung so sharply because I took it as a judgement on my capabilities – as a mother and a partner, as a woman who is supposed to be able to do her job, maintain her home and care for her child. When I can only perform two of those jobs well (or at all) and leave the third to languish, I have inherently failed as a woman.

I don’t think we realize how much we expect of ourselves as women, and how conflicting those expectations can be, until we force ourselves to examine our situation carefully and honestly. The reality is that in this day and age, women are expected to be wives, mothers and career women. While not all women chose (or are able) to take on these roles I would argue that it’s socially expected that they do, at one point or another. The choices* not to commit to a spouse, have children, or pursue a career are commonly used to qualify someone; those circumstances are mentioned because they are seen as modifiers, they single that woman out.

As mothers, women are not only expected to love their children unconditionally but cherish spending every waking moment with them. The role of mother, and the children that distinguish a woman in that role, are assumed to provide all of life’s satisfaction and then some; her children should be enough, in and of themselves, to guarantee her happiness. As mothers, women are also expected to be not just capable of, but exceed in, the distinct arts of feeding, nurturing, educating, soothing, discipline, imagination and play. It is also presumed we can, and will, keep the house clean, the laundry folded and nutritious meals on the table. All of these many and incredibly varied responsibilities are shouldered by every mother in our society today.

As wives (or partners) we are expected support our husbands in much the same way we support our children. We’re also expected to be there for them emotionally and intimately, as friends, lovers and partners. Even though our hearts supposedly belong completely to our children, we must find space to provide unconditionally for our husbands as well. We also must share financial responsibilities and work as a team to ensure the general happiness of everyone in the family. Oh, and it would be greatly appreciated if we could maintain our girlish figure and good looks too.

As if that weren’t enough, women of the 21st century are also expected to pursue a career of some kind, less they languish in the monotonous, simple-minded routine of the stay at home mom. Women who have no plans for themselves outside of the home are considered to lack ambition and are sometimes even pitied. What will they do when their children are in school? What will they do when they’ve left for college? As women we are expected to thrive as mothers but are found lacking if that is all we do. As productive members of society we are expected to do more, use our minds, make something of ourselves.

Of course not all women play all these parts, not all of the time, but I would venture to say there is an expectation that we will preform all of them at some point in our lives, and many are attempting to excel at all three for the entirety of their middle aged years. How are we supposed to succeed when these roles are at war with each other? How can we ever be dedicated mothers and wives when our careers pull us away from our husbands and children? How can we take advantage of our education when we do so at the expense of our family? If we want, or are forced, to do all three we are setting ourselves up for failure.

And here is where the guilt comes in, and the judgement – the condemnation of ourselves that turns outwards in the disapproval of others. If we can never satisfy our own standards, we better find everyone else lacking as well.

Let me use myself as an example. I don’t cook. It’s not that I can’t cook but I don’t cook. I don’t like to cook and in a stroke of what I consider to be pure genius, my partner and I made an agreement in which he does ALL the cooking (and meal planning) and I do everything else, effectively solving years of disputes about who does what around the house. For us it’s a perfect arrangement–I am forever grateful for my husband’s efforts in the kitchen and he commends me for all I do around the house. Oh, and did I mention I never have to cook?

Every once in a while it comes out, the fact that I don’t cook. Sometimes I let is slip, sometimes I declare it proudly, but no matter how it makes its way into the conversation it’s always met with the same looks of bewilderment, indignation, or pity (many times simultaneously). The questions are always the same, though only sometimes uttered, How can she call herself a mother? Or a wife!? Isn’t it every woman’s job to feed her family? Her poor husband! I could never do that to my partner or child! Does she think she can get away with this?! When I admit that I don’t cook I automatically drop a peg in the minds of most other woman; by relinquishing this traditional obligation I have forsaken a part of my womanhood. I am effectively less of a wife and a mother.

Right now it’s 3:47pm. My daughter has been up since 3:29pm. I didn’t immediately go to her because I was writing this post and I wanted to finish. What does it say about me, that I chose my own fulfillment over my daughter’s? Does it even matter that she has been chattering away, completely content in her crib for the last twenty minutes? Surely I should be judged even more harshly for the fact that I didn’t spend this morning–or any morning this week–with her and am effectively wasting a precious half an hour of possible together time. Obviously this act qualifies me as less of a mother: how can I possible love my child with all my heart when I don’t take every opportunity to be with her?

And therein lies the rub. No where, not in one of our defining roles as women, is anything mentioned about our own happiness, our own fulfillment. Good wives, mothers and career women are never supposed to put themselves first. There is always someone else who depends on us, someone else whose needs have been determined more important than our own. The role of individual is sorely lacking from our understanding of womanhood. Maybe if we created some space for who we are as unique people, we could make room for all the other parts we play, giving them the opportunity to merge into a more cohesive (and forgiving) entity.  Maybe then we could define ourselves as mothers, partners and career women in a way that works for each of us, individually and as a whole.

I believe womanhood can be significantly less confining, but only when it is emphatically harder to define. 

What do you think?

Are we brave enough to change the definition?

For more on this topic – and to be reminded of why we’re all RAD! – check out Jjirrafe’s post at Too Many Fish to Fry.

*Obviously one does not always have a choice to become a wife, mother or career woman. Not having that choice, and the damage it does to a woman’s identity within the confines of the traditional definition of womanhood, is an important discussion, one that sadly did not fit in today’s post but that I do hope to tackle some day.