though they be but little, they are fierce

The restaurant is crowded with happy Friday night diners; the delicious headiness of frying onions and peppers, brisk steps of servers walking between tables, jubilant voices bubbling over one another. In the foyer, a woman in a smart apron stands at a portable bar smashing ripe avocado with a large mortar and pestle, right on the spot making guacamole. She scoops small portions of this deliciousness into cups, garnishes each with a fresh tortilla chip, and passes the delightful repast to waiting customers.

We have ordered, our drinks are arriving, and it’s time to wash hands. I stand, and my eldest hovers at my elbow. “You’re fine, you can do it,” I say cheerfully, and put a confident hand on his back. We split up into our separate restrooms and I am in and out quickly; hair standing on the back of my neck, a deep breath. Every journey into a public men’s room is fraught and I relentlessly muster a casual confidence I do not always feel. Every other diner in the place has no clue; they are chattering, lifting frosty drinks to mouths, forks busy. But a simple family dinner out is a little less simple for us, most of the time.

My sons speak the same language these days, back and forth, snickering over phone screens and sharing meme-speak. Nels came out as gay June 1st and it seems to have brought the two of them closer together. Their disagreements have matured, as well; and they argue rarely. A terse word here or there, and the other will usually back off. I can’t say there aren’t resentments here or there simmering beneath the surface, but mostly they get on like a house on fire.

Their temperaments are, as ever, the moon and the sun. Phoenix, the eldest, solicitous, more community-minded within the family. Nels, recently hooked in to a group of five teen boys who are passionately gaming and socializing together every waking hour, well Nels is a little flightier, a little more self-absorbed.

Astonishingly, my scheduled two-week break from work is almost up. Time is flying, of course. In spite of this I have enjoyed more time with the boys, more time reading barely-historical novels and watching creepy television, and more time for family projects – for instance, today, surprising Ralph on his birthday by having car speakers installed and scrubbing the kitchen floor.

I am continually amazed at how quickly those early child-rearing days flew. And it seems I receive so many reminders; as friends, old and new, have their own babies. I drank deeply of those early years, and they passed so quickly regardless. It’s easy to lose my head and rush off to more work and new things, but I know if I’m not very mindful this present reality will fly by, too.

A Little Sun

one-legged balance

A Little Sun

Any engaged, active parent will tell you that children and teens go through stages we aren’t ready for. I’m not talking about childhood milestones – losing their baby teeth, learning to walk, mastering the ability to read – landmarks which are fairly universal and usually bring much delight in those whirlwind years of early parenting.

I am talking about those changes that we wrestle with, because they are shifts of personality and values that are stark, startling, and profound. I’m talking about the upheavals we weren’t ready for and that knock us back a bit – or a lot. These are stages we usually navigate pretty gracelessly – at first not seeing the sea change for what it is, fighting it or unconsciously resisting it – and then scrambling to keep up as we begin to comprehend: Our child is different now!  Twenty years ago I remember my friend Parker telling me about the last time he held his son’s hand, when the boy was twelve. He had somehow caught that it would be the last time (what a gift!), and he’d treasured this deeply as they walked together down a forest lane.

I understand the pain and sweetness of such an experience just a little more, today.

My youngest child is going through such a change. I have not, in my decades of parenting experience, previously beheld such an abrupt shift. This is a child who coslept with me into his double-digit years, and who every day would approach me several times to hug and kiss, who has been sitting on my lap long past the time he surpassed me in height. This is a child who since the age of three would tenderly chide his “Little Mama!” and offer sly, loving affections most times I entered the room. I have homeschooled this boy and I have had more time with him than most parents ever get with theirs. I drank up deep draughts of those days and I never grew tired of the elixir; I always found it delicious. Day after day of these caresses and his beautiful brown arms tangling up in mine and his laughter like crystal warming the home. I had this Eden for as long as one could.

Those days – are gone.

And I mean they are gone, and the change happened within just a few days – after almost fifteen years of such a bounty. I can’t begin to express my shock and confusion.

At first, you know, I thought something was wrong. I thought he was going through a distraction; I thought he was having a bad couple of days.

***

I practice yoga every single day of my life; I have been doing so for a few years. The other morning I moved through several one-legged balancing and strength postures – Tree, One-legged Tadasana, Warrior Three – with confidence, with joy and swiftness, and with a smoothness that has been patiently earned. As I hung suspended in air I reflected on this stability; it has arrived only after years of fairly unglamorous body work, of actively and repetitively engaging all these muscles large and small, finding new support through a myriad of subtle counterbalances. Now these once-difficult movements are a joy to me and this physical delight carries me through the rest of my day. Such is the benefit of yogic practice.

I’ve been practicing parental yoga for years, every day, too. I don’t wobble like I used to. It took me about a week to realize my son had shifted; only a week to perceive things had once again changed, forever. Upon this awareness a torrent of emotions flooded my body and mind; surprise being the foremost, quickly giving way to shock. And I felt, and still feel, a profound grief radiate from within my body’s center, a body blow that is so massive and middle-deep that I can patiently feel this bruise and know that it will last, it won’t shift swiftly. Hello grief! Welcome. Again.

I know, too, that what my child needs the most right now is privacy, respect, and personal dignity; I know not to whine or complain about the change because I have other, better ways to process my pain. After a couple days’ awkwardness, I stopped asking him for hugs. I stood at my kitchen sink and held my loneliness in my hands and knew I would treasure it; it is mine after all, it is not something he or anyone else created within me. It is the gift of many years’ floods, swelling on the beach and warming the sands, and now the sky has turned cold for a little while and frost creeps around the edges.

I started, instead, offering hugs to this child – offering, not demanding – less frequently than I would like. After a day or two he came out of his standoffishness; he hadn’t asked me to change, but he clearly appreciated my retreat. I have slowed down and become more circumspect in how I address him. I ask his preferences. He hugs me differently, the earthy sunshine shifting out of his straw-colored hair and a remote coolness within his slender body; his shoulders ever-broader and his physicality a glancing one. I am patient. I can survive.

And of course, as is my prerogative, I have engaged him directly – but only a little. A little, a little – no lectures and no feelings-talk. I will tell him about my feelings at some point but I will give it time, and I will share with him two sentences or so. For now: I am a parent, and I have a beautiful obligation.

Two days ago I sit with this child over morning coffee and I ask him if he is angry with me; he’d spoken maybe fifteen words to me the day before. His face clouds and a flinch of irritation passes over his countenance and he says, “You said it was just a stage.”

I think carefully before I respond. “Yes – and no. The part of you that doesn’t want to hug or kiss, that doesn’t want to snuggle and that wants to spend all your time with your friends – that’s a stage. That’s a normal part of development, and it’s a good thing. That will pass and who knows what will happen next.”

I continue: “But the part of you that is angry with me, that has thoughts about me and how I behave, those are things we should talk about.” After a moment, he shares. He has been feeling acute unfairness with regards to a housework duty. He believes I favor his older brother in this regard. I ask questions. We talk. After a few moments I can see he feels heard and understood.

We propose changes to our routine, and later in the day we bring them to the other two family members.

I know there is more to talk about. But not all in one day.

When I was a child, my strong emotions and behavioral changes were not treated skillfully. I was called names – “little Hitler”, “asshole”, I was told repeatedly that I was selfish. I was yelled at to “Show some respect!”; I was slapped. I was mocked for displaying strong emotions and I was belittled for how deeply I felt them. I was told, “Don’t be upset!” By the time I was a teenager I felt ashamed of my strong feelings, particularly anger or aggression. I felt a strong pressure to hide these experiences under a mask of civility and inauthenticity. I’d long lost the memory of what it felt like to seek out my parents for physical affection and comfort.

How I was raised, was not good enough for our future. My partner and I have made a different path.

So: my children will not know these humiliations in their home. They will know respect, privacy, and deep nurture. These periods of change, these are the times when we most need to honor their dignity. This is when the habits of our earlier parenting come to the fore and we reap what we’ve sown.

I grew this practice. This balancing practice. It is not without its wobbles, but it is surprisingly stable all the same. I planted this practice while they were small; I patiently tended it every day with ferocity and with persistence.

It sustains us still.

***

If you like my works on parenting, please sign up to receive notices about my upcoming publication:

HOW NOT TO FUCK UP YOUR CHILD
(ANY MORE THAN THE WORLD FUCKS WITH THEM ALREADY)
(working title)
(shipping date TBA)

Early Fall

don’t look too far, right where you are

We’re crossing F street and Phoenix asks me for the difference between empathy and sympathy. And this leads to a discussion on two tangential experiences: commiseration and understanding. Watching my children grasp new concepts so swiftly, it’s still breathtaking all these years in. I don’t know what brought these emotional-relations topics on but I can think of some salient, personal examples in our lives, and I share them with my oldest as I feel the steering wheel hot under my hand. I glance across the street at a carved wooden structure; the sun is hitting the swollen river and I’d planned to let my oldest drive us down to class today but we were feeling rushed. Phoenix has his new learner’s permit folded up in his wallet, which he’s learning to take everywhere with him.

Nels + Ramen

dear little fighter

I have decided a huge amount of conventional wisdom about teenagers is utter bollocks, as they say. Teenagers are not ridiculous or less-than; they do not deserve our smart-aleck comments and eye rolls. They do not warrant our smug and authoritarian parenting. My teens are not rude, entitled, “crazy”, “hormonal”, non-sensical. They are not especially loud or dirty. They are exactly as I would have predicted from my incredibly extensive and intensive experience unschooling them through childhood: they are whip-smart, kind, funny, sensitive, and joyful. They are genuinely interested in other people, not just themselves. They are interested in the whole of life, not just work. They do not have the martyred energy, the passive aggressive forms of communication, the entitled and inflexible attitudes of adults. They respond to criticism or correction with open-mindedness and they change their behaviors if their behaviors are deemed problematic.

If the citizens of this country were anything like my teenagers, the world would be a much better place.

An Intense Fellow

“It’s Complicated”

There is a perfectly lovely woman at a local shop who always greets me warmly, and makes genuine, caring conversation with my husband and I when she sees us. She is a homeschooler and so that, I feel, is why she reaches out to connect. But she is a very different type of homeschooler than we: she uses a strict curriculum (for her several children), and the family is an evangelical Christian. Today I got to have that conversation I’ve had so many times in the last few years:

Her: “‘Boys’? I thought you had a boy and a girl?”
Me, smiling: “We thought so too! But we were wrong.”

I wait a beat. It takes most people a second to process what I might be saying.

absolutely a precious thing

Ralph and I are home late but we are putting together a dinner with several parts: chick’n strips, steamed cauliflower and broccoli, roasted carrots, gravy from scratch, homemade fluffy biscuits. The preparations take a while and the dining room table waits, the children having set each plate with a folded napkin. Four small juice glasses.

Sometimes I think of preparing an elaborate dinner and setting it in the warmer to wait until the kids come upstairs from their gaming. They work work work (gaming or drawing) until they are famished. They come upstairs crying out for food. Besides little bouts of inspiration here and there, they are uninterested in learning how to cook for themselves, let alone the family. I don’t worry at all because I know they are growing. They are being raised in a home with a love of food and with good homemade fare on the table several times a day; they will very likely grow into this aptitude themselves when they are ready. (And if they don’t – what of it?)

My youngest child’s locks are long; tonight he asks me to dye the blond tips a cool blue. I put on gloves and mix up a concoction and paint his hair, his beautiful honey-colored length. I knot his hair up on top of his head and instruct him on how to cowash it to keep the color. He tells me, “I have hair under my arms now!” and shows me – proud. His shoulders are getting broad and yesterday after he asked me to snuggle him, as I slid behind him on the bed to put my arms around him saw stretch marks on the smooth skin of his back; he is growing so fast. He tells me he stayed up all night and waited until Ralph got up to get ready for work, so he could crawl into bed with me: “The way things should be,” he says, his eyebrows beetling and his lips set firm. 

Both kids want me to work less. When I took the day off yesterday and had us do housework they were happy and they sang and played and enjoyed our time together as much as if I’d taken them to the beach. There is absolutely no mistaking the fact that as long as we prioritize parenting, one of us adults won’t get to develop their career as far as it might have gone – that’s looking to be me, set back about twenty years. I have searched every brain crevice and I know it’s what I want (and it’s what Ralph wants), but sometimes I get salty as fuck about how little we want to spend on our kids, how few resources we throw them. My kids get to be raised differently and I wouldn’t have thought it would be one of my legacies but it is. Today in any case I did get to stitch some darts in a burnout velvet, and I got to do a few more this and that, but to be honest much of the day was spent caring for children, and the home, and putting time into a few other people besides.

upside down / inside out, & round & round

Two weeks ago pulled the carpet out of my basement studio, with aims to steam clean it and sun-dry it. It never made it back in the house, and was instead sold on Facebook. Now my studio is agreeably cool in the hot summer days, if a little less posh-looking. I try not to think about the winter, when I’ll bundle up in lots of layers in order to sew. My husband wants to “finish” the basement fully but I am not wild about the idea; we have enough debt and I don’t think he quite understands how expensive an undertaking will be.

Today I sit at the kitchen table and queue up 1958’s The Fly while re-applying lace to a wedding dress, by hand; my oldest child washes dishes and cooks up a tofu scramble, stepping into the dining room to join me for our favorite parts of the film. We laugh when scientist Andre Delambre – played by the very handsome David Hedison who at ninety today is still a fox – discovers the misprint on his “heirloom” ashtray; we cringe minutes later at the reveal of the poor man’s hideous new visage and his creepy, monstrous claw. The doting Vincent Price, caring for his distraught sister-in-law so tenderly. “This movie altered my life,” Phoenix tells me ruefully. It’s still a thrill to watch – all these viewings later.

In the afternoon I sit the children down and let them know they are joining me out at a restaurant on the beach, for lunch. They are to wash their faces and get dressed and not in pajamas. Then, with two of my best girlfriend, the five of us travel in style in a new car, along lonesome back roads green as ever; these roadways will stay fecund and lush through even the driest of summer weather. Along the beach route: lonely trailer parks, half-hazard tourist diversions, produce stands, llama farms and makeshift fireworks stands. As is often the case, the heat in town dissipates as the fog. “Ocean Shores always smells good to me,” Nels says, as we leave the restaurant to find a coffee. I realize every little choice I’ve made has led my children to this life here in this little corner of the world. Who knows where they will venture later? But for now, this is home.

When Ralph gets home I have put my studio back to rights; I have opened the delivered parcel of sumptuous bamboo french terry, and pulled out a sample card for zippertape colors. The earlier wedding dress project is packed into a garment bag and carefully secured in my sewing closet downstairs. I put aside my work for the evening; yoga practice, a shower, and some quiet television with my husband before bed.