Since I began parenting, I have operated under the delusion that I would one day be able to pee without interruption. I figured it would happen around the time all of my kids were in the double-digits.
Did you get the word "delusion"? Delusion!
Wanting our kids to clearly understand that there are so very few times when we demand uninterrupted privacy, we only close our bedroom door for three reasons: 1. to change clothes, 2. to make mad, passionate parent-love (meaning exhausted, super quiet, fast sex), and 3. to PEE and POOP!
Three reasons. That is it.
Wait. No. Four reasons: 4. to make the children think we are engaged in either 1, 2, or 3, especially 3, so that we might have a few minutes of peace and quiet, free from the rapid progression of questions, comments, and non-sequiturs they fling at us regularly.
So, four reasons we have for losing the bedroom door. That is not a lot. By double-digits, they should be able to connect the dots between a closed door and one of four (although they only know of three) reasons.
Nevertheless, it never ever fails that we have complete and total privacy in all things wardrobe and parent-sex, but never ever ever when our delusional heinys land squarely on the porcelain throne.
Usually the interruptions begin with a child knocking on the bedroom door fiercely, "Mom! Mom!! Mom, are you in there (Of course, I'm in here -- you know that because the door upon which you are furiously knocking to such extreme that my pee has frozen inside me -- is CLOSED?)? Mom, I just have a quick question."
My response, my response for the past double-digit years of parenting, is always, "I'm in the bathroom. I'll be out in a bit."
"Okay," comes the voice of the so sad, broken-hearted child, bereft at the very thought of her mother withholding attention, especially when that attention is going to such an unnecessary time-waster of a deed, "It's just that I was wondering if you could explain the Mayan calendar to me again and how the world was supposed to have ended by now."
"I'm in the bathroom. I'll be out in a bit." My jaws and everything else on me are now beginning to clench.
"Okay. That's cool. It's just that I'm trying to figure out why anyone would even believe that the world was ending just because someone's calendar ended."
"I'M! IN! THE! BATHROOM! I'LL! BE! OUT! IN! A! BIT! BESIDES, THAT WHOLE THING WAS FOREVER AGO!"
"Oh, okay. Sorry." She ambles away, mumbling, but not really mumbling because I can clearly hear her through the closed bedroom and closed bathroom doors, "It's just a simple question. You could have answered it in the same amount of time it took to say, 'I'm in the bathroom.'"
Then there is is this glorious moment of silence, the likes of which fools me into complacency ever single time. Double-digits of parenting and it fools me every time.
Just as my flow begins to relax a bit, I hear my name being called through my bedroom window from the front deck. This time it's my son. He kindly realizes that I don't really want to be bothered by knocks on the door, so he ever-so-gently calls to me from the window. In his double-digit head, that's not really an interruption.
"Mamma? Hey, Mamma. Would you mind if I came in and got your ipad? I wanted to look up the Mayan calendar? Blueberry (the blog name for his little sister) was curious about it and we thought maybe instead of interrupting you, we could just look it up ourselves."
"I'm in the bathroom. I'll be out in a bit."
At this point, not only have I failed to pee or poo and am in a bit of physical pain and also fully comprehending how parenthood makes you anal-retentive, but there is a small tear close to falling from my eye.
The son, and I know this about him and exploit that knowledge here, is far more patient than the youngest daughter, and says, "Oh, okay, Mamma. I didn't know (because I've kept that information so cryptically hidden BEHIND THAT CLOSED DOOR AND MY PREVIOUS EXCHANGE WITH HIS SISTER!). I'll wait."
Then there is silence and I settle into the business at hand, daring even to pick up my phone to read a bit of news while I have some peace and quiet (What? Like you don't bring your smart phone or tablet into the bathroom. How is it any different than when we pounded on our parents' doors while they were reading the newspaper?).
And then I hear it, the sound that tauntingly reminds me that I have once again been lulled into the fantasy of an uninterrupted bowel movement: the familiar chimes that indicate a text has come in from my eldest daughter, the only child in the house with a phone.
It reads, "Mamma, sorry. I know you are going to the bathroom. Real quick. Can you explain the Mayan calendar thing to me, please? Blueberry and I are having a disagreement on some of it."
Every single time. Sure, the topics change and sometimes there is the house phone thrown into the mix (that they have answered and, despite nobody in the world I would want to talk to while on the toilet knowing the house phone number -- because we have it for emergencies only -- think I might want to know who it is calling so that I can decide whether or not to just chat a bit).
But the gist of it remains constant:
Double-digits of parenting do not amount to a pile of the stuff I am routinely interrupted from expelling when it comes to quiet time on the toilet and double-closed doors.
I guess I'll pee alone and finally have a complete bowel movement when they are in college.
He's not the Hollywood kind of nerd, clad in black rimmed glasses and slightly less than stylish clothing, occasionally awkward in a hot kind of way and able to morph to perfect beauty with a simple costume change.
See what I mean?
Nor is he the kind of nerd appropriated by hipsters, usually tattooed, sometimes ironically, binge-watchers of sci fi and/or life-long gamers.
He is the nerd who was shoved into lockers, hoisted up by his patched corduroys, pushed around by both types of poser nerds mentioned above; the nerd who lost himself in programming and math over girls and music (even as he hoped perhaps a girl might notice him).
He is the nerd who does Calculus to relax.
I have always been attracted to nerds, real nerds, with their rapidly spinning, voracious brains that think in speeds and vibrations that the rest of us can't understand.
Having been married to one for 14 years now, I know the many beautiful perplexities of loving a true nerd, the least of which is that I have never had to suffer the loneliness of being a widow to an entire sports season. My nerd neither plays nor cares much about sports. We have blissfully skipped 15 years of sporting events together (save the Olympics, which, truthfully, we watch for the human interest stories).
Despite knowing that have some naturally athletic children (which required a whole other gene pool than ours to produce), we have raised our children with the notion that if they really want to play sports, they will let us know when the time comes.
While watching our eldest play some fiddle bluegrass amidst a sea of grey-haired banjo and mandolin players (plus a lone accordionist) at a pizza place, my son turned his head from the basketball game on TV and asked, "Mamma, do athletes like those men on TV actually get money to do that? I mean, is that, like, their full time job? I mean, what I mean is, could I do that for a living?"
See how little a part organized sports play in our household? The child was not even aware that one could choose to play sports for a living.
Being married to a bonafied nerd does nothing for me now.
Soccer is his first choice (this, even before the World Cup). It's a game I've gone to great lengths to avoid since he came home at 21 months, having already played some soccer at the orphanage (because it seems that every other child in every other country plays soccer as soon as they can walk).
Soccer. He's asking me to be a soccer mom.
I have successfully assuaged my guilt about actively avoiding becoming a soccer mom by clinging to an interview I'd once heard on NPR. A coach of some college sport (Football, maybe? Baseball? I'll give the first person to find the interview a dollar) asserted that he was no longer recruiting athletes who'd played their sport year round most of their lives. He said he gave them huge scholarships and held high hopes, only to have them arrive and announce that they were burned out on their sport or, worse, sustain a major injury early in the season. "No," he told the soft, mellifluous voice of the NPR interviewer, "I've decided to recruit kids who tossed the ball around in the yard with their folks, who got regular games going with kids from the block. If a kid is meant to be an athlete at this level, it doesn't matter how many years he has trained. He's either a natural or he's not. I can teach him everything he needs to know."
I didn't even care if he was right. Or kind of sexist in his verbiage. It worked for us.
Truthfully, my son, he who wants to call me soccer mom, is physically genetically superior. At 21 months old, malnourished and leaking Giardia, he had round muscles in his arms and 6-pack abs. I kid you not. I took one look at him and vowed never to insult my own abs again. Clearly, it's a genes thing.
Likewise, he has always been able to throw a ball accurately, with speed and distance, run fast, and kick with precision (His Achilles heel was jumping with both feet, a skill that took him several hilarious years to master).
Now he wants to play soccer and he wants to test it out as a potential career. What does a mother whose child first touched a soccer ball (in the U.S., that is) at 12 do with that?
We are starting with local recreational soccer. It's so painful to take this first step that my first new friend here in California is holding my hand through it. She's already a soccer mom and she says she enjoys it. She and her husband are also both scientists so I feel like she gets both sides: Nerd v. soccer mom.
If he likes it and they like him, I think the next step is competition soccer. It makes me ache to think of it. Competition soccer, I am told, invokes entire weekends lost to soccer fields, hauling goldenrod igloos of gatorade from field to field, washing rancid 'tween athlete laundry.
Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. Maybe he'll stink at it.
No. That's not okay. That's not an okay thing for a parent to think. Right? I can't go there?
Nope. I can't. It's actually time to bid adieu to weekends finding the best spot on the beach or under a tree to plant myself and my Kindle. Saturdays were a fun concept, but beginning in August, I'll be spending a lot of time in a chair on the sidelines with my hands over my eyes (Because did you see all the knee thrashing and ankle flipping and shoulder biting in the World Cup? I thought he was at least choosing a safe sport. I have been schooled.).
I am comforted by the fact that we now live where those soccer fields will at least stay warm all season and, of course, as any good parent would, because my son is going to do something that brings him true joy and excitement.
So watch out, you other soccer moms and dads with your cool kid understanding of the rules and your popular kid pretty pretty coolers and perfectly portioned orange slices -- here come the nerds!
*Funny story: In writing this, it felt really familiar, like I'd been here before. So I searched my posts for the word "soccer" and found this post here about, basically, this very same thing. An astute reader will note that I have managed to keep sports local to our yard, neighborhood, or the beach in Illinois, from the time I wrote that first post to this one. One might also note that my focus of the first piece was on myself as a nerd. Here, I sort of blame it all on my husband. It's easier that way and, really, only fair. I can't assume all the guilt!
We've all come to a place in my family where we realize that, at the same time that we are actively working to heal the effects of this Rheumatoid Arthritis and its auto-immune pals, we are also living with it.
I've spent a lot of time worrying about what this means to my kids, wondering if waking up unsure of mom's condition would affect them in a similar way to living with an alcoholic or living in economic uncertainty.
Well, maybe it will. And maybe that's not altogether a bad thing.
I've noticed some lessons my kids are learning from this that are often harder to come by these days (Say it with an eye roll like this: "Theeese days").
1. They are learning to wait.
In this age of instant gratification and entertainment through electronics, waiting is a lost art. I myself am not good at it and occasionally resort to scrolling pictures of funny animals in hats on Pinterest to pass the time.
Nowadays, we spend a lot of time in doctor's offices. The kids are old enough that they don't have to come along, but they do anyway. And they come without their own electronics. They spend several hours some weeks in waiting rooms. They use the time to read, draw, play games, and get to know the front office staff (at my rheumatologist's office, there is a space on their cupboards for the pictures my kids draw them). Sometimes they just people-watch or stare into space.
I am firmly convinced that should we ever end up in a Hunger Games-type situation, those who can stare into space will be the quickest to adjust.
Bonus lesson: I have also recently discovered that my kids suddenly know a lot more about pop culture than I'd expected. Apparently they have been reading entertainment and gossip magazines quite regularly in those waiting rooms.
Bonus lesson to the bonus lesson: They are learning to discern news from gossip.
2. They are learning to be self-sufficient.
Everyone in the family agrees that they would rather my healthy energy be used on family togetherness: field trips, education, delicious meals, visiting, parties, dates, and projects. So while I still do what I can of the housework, they pick up the slack -- all those repetitive energy suckers that are rough for any parents.
They do their own laundry, keep their rooms clean (desired, though not required), unload the groceries, clean their own bathroom, unload and load the dishwasher, take care of the pets, empty trash and recycling, help in yard, make their own lunches, sometimes make breakfast or dinner, etc. This process has become rather seamless, though it is more than many kids do nowadays (especially if TV families are any indication -- geez -- have you ever seen those kids from "Parenthood" do a chore?).
As they have assumed more responsibility, they have also requested more. My daughters have taken to fixing entire family meals, banning us from the kitchen, and serving them with flair. They are building their own shelves for their rooms. My son spends a lot of time finding new ways to keep the dogs active, delights in fixing things around the house, and loves a morning spent making everyone pancakes.
Their future roommates and partners will be very thankful for this lesson.
3. They are learning to be considerate.
There are days when I am unsteady on my feet. This means nobody can leave anything on the floor, lest I trip. There are days when the door is too heavy for me. They notice those moments and jump ahead to help. Conversely, they notice when I am capable of doing it myself and offer that space. They can tell when I am strong enough for a bear hug and in enough pain to need a gentle hug.
These are lessons I did not learn until I was in my late 20's and a pastor. A woman I'd never met came out of the sanctuary after worship to greet me and I grabbed her hand and shook firmly. She screamed and pulled her hand back. "Oh, honey, don't worry," she said with more kindness than I deserved, "You couldn't have known I have such arthritis." From then on, I always let the other person dictate the firmness of my handshake or hug.
On rougher days, they've started to ask things like, "Mamma, can I get you anything?" or "Mamma, before I go out to play, is there anything you need?" Sometimes they get a glass of water for themselves and spontaneously bring me one. Sometimes they bring each other one. The lessons spread.
4. They are learning to make choices and sacrifices.
It is expensive to have a chronic illness. Though we are lucky to have insurance and family help, all those co-pays and 10-20% payments, combined with the recent cross-country move, mean we are pinching many a copper penny around here. Nobody is truly suffering by any stretch of the imagination (we have clean drinking water and flushable toilets, after all) but there are choices to make: one activity over another, waiting for the book to be available from the library rather than buying it immediately for the Kindle, saving up for things we want (and sometimes need), making do with what we have, etc.
Everyone makes choices and, in doing so, we learn what is and isn't truly important to us.
5. They are learning that an illness does not change who a person is to you.
Haven't you ever wondered what would happen to your relationship if your partner were to suddenly go blind or lose a leg? Well, this is not nearly so dramatic, but my kids are learning what "in sickness and in health" really means. In many ways, chronic pain has brought my husband and I closer (and not just because he massages my feet and legs every night -- shout out to my HotNerd!). We have to work together, need to communicate (gone are the days when I could move quietly through pain), check-in with each other (I give him a daily pain/ability update, he tells me what he can take on, and we adjust), and be flexible. We also have to laugh, often about my pain. When I need to use a cane, I WANT him to laugh at me and make jokes about it. That laughter keeps us going.
I think a lesson like this can be truly life-changing for young people as they grow into committed relationships. It is also all too often lost in a culture like ours that discourages multi-generational co-habitation. When our kids don't get to see how grandma and grandpa's relationship evolves as they face aging together, it is more challenging to develop a sense of their own future long-term relationships. It can contribute to a the mindset that youth and perfection are priorities.
Most important, they are learning that their mother is no less a woman, no less interesting, no less a person than when I could bike 30 miles with them. This means our relationship is rooted in so much more than what I can DO for them.
6. They are learning compassion.
I have to take a hormone every morning that makes me, shall we say, "special" for an hour or two afterwards. They have created a "forgiveness zone" around those two hours, where manic mamma moments are released into the ether.
Likewise, when they reach a point where they'd really like to ride 30 miles with mamma again, but can't, I work to understand what that must be like.
These are just two small examples of how we are learning this lesson together.
7. They are learning not to judge by appearances.
One of my children has always been a self-appointed police officer. He was the first to notice that the person getting out of the car parked in the handicapped space could walk into the store. He is no longer so quick to condemn and often wonders aloud if the person might also have RA or perhaps is recovering from chemo. Observantly, he'll share, "Maybe he knows he is fine to walk in, but doesn't know how he'll feel walking out." Having seen me lose the use of my knee in the middle of a regular, ordinary moment, without provocation, he understands.
They also know that the checker with a frown on her face surely has a story we don't know and the parent sitting on the bench at the playground is likely more than just lazy or uninvolved. It is neither our place to judge nor our business.
Extending it even further, they understand that appearances do not tell a whole story. They see me on days when the thought of form-fitting clothing makes my skin scream and loose, sometimes grungy sweat-pants win. They've watched my weight crawl with each prescription of Prednisone and each cortisone shot. They know that I desperately want to exercise regularly but have to wait for good days (and only if those good days are flanked by days when it is okay to be sore and possibly less mobile). They get that shorter hair on me is easier than the longer hair they prefer.
And they are okay with all of it. I'm not sure I could have taught them these lessons so strongly any other way.
8. They are learning service.
I often hear people speak of service as if it were a box they need to check off at some point -- something for a transcript, to boost a future career, or an unspoken requirement of their faith. This is perhaps another consequence of our propensity to live insular lives, separate from our elders. Maybe it is a natural by-product of our competitive nature or our over-done culture. I am sure this perspective of service has prevailed for as long as I have lived.
There was a time in this country (I have seen it breathe in other countries), though, when service was a vital part of who people were. It wasn't something people planned, but just a function of being a human being in community.
As people living with someone who needs regular help, I think my kids have figured this out. In turn, I work to serve their needs in ways that I can. With that, we also learn that all service does not look the same.
9. They are learning that abilities do not define a person.
While I cannot currently kick the ball around, garden, or boogie board with the kids like their father, I am always the choice for a good story, a clever idea, problem solving, or a hearty laugh. We all have our thing. This one is simple. I see them working to translate it to their own abilities as well. Just because one sibling can do something, it doesn't mean they all should master that skill. If they can carry this through life, they will possess peaceful souls.
10. They are learning that it is okay to laugh and cry, often unexpectedly.
My eldest, who is also struggling with pain, often pushes through it. Often times, it is good to push through when possible. But I taught her to keep her pain to herself, so much so that on her worst day, the day of her birthday party, I walked in on her sobbing alone in pain. Not cool.
Now that I have no choice but to wave the white flag at times, she is learning to do the same. We are both learning balance -- when we need to flex and when we need to release, when to put pain first and when to let it fade into the moment.
We are also all learning that sometimes the best medicine for pain is to laugh, often times irreverently, at it -- like when I have to use my cane and my youngest walks beside me mimicking a woman at least 127 years old.
Though we would all certainly prefer not to have to deal with me having Rheumatoid Arthritis, there have been many gifts in this journey, lessons learned that might otherwise have taken many years and great heart-break.
This past month has given us three rough weeks physically and then a really good past week. During that good week, we had a mini-staycation, I completed several projects, I got a part-time, remote writing job, and we took several field trips. Still, even with me in full swing, the kids continued demonstrating the lessons they are learning. Nobody dropped their chores because I was feeling energetic. Consideration has not flown out the window.
The lessons are sticking and, for that, we are all grateful to Rheumatoid Arthritis.
I was particularly struck by #4 because I too have been comforted by that very same story Annie's mother told her about once having (and resisting) the urge to throw her crying baby out the window.
Annie writes that as a child who had never experienced abuse, she was surprised by such thoughts, by feeling unrestrained toward her own child, by those moments when she set a child down too firmly or squeezed an arm a little too tightly. Her mother's reassurance, that it's common for mothers to be prone to terrible thoughts about their children, has gotten me through some very difficult parenting experiences.
I thought I had processed it all and had healed from my childhood until I happily became a mother to two pre-school aged children who had joined our family through adoption out of trauma -- and then was immediately pregnant with a third.
Parenting my wonderful, beautiful, children, two who'd known their own trauma, opened me up. It forced me to heal the places I never thought I could reach, those places I might otherwise have left broken.
Every single parenting move I made when they were new -- from how I hugged my children to how I dealt with tantrums -- was punctuated by both my history and theirs. So that while I assumed other mommies were putting their babies to bed and then relaxing (I now know they probably weren't), I was perseverating over every move I'd made. Was I gentle enough? Did I spend enough time with them? Was the story too scary? Did it bring up their trauma? When they got out of bed for the fourth time, was I too stern?
Worse, when I could feel a presence seemingly outside of myself, but clearly a part of me, shaking with exhaustion-turned-to-rage over another hour of a child wailing in the middle of the night, I was sure that I was the only parent in the entire world who could possess such ugly thoughts and urges concerning their children.
I spent a lot of time in mommy time-outs back then in order to stop myself from acting on those urges. I'd quickly put the children together in my son's crib with a few toys and some books, lock myself in the bathroom, and scrawl out my terrible urges in a notebook while sobbing snot all over myself. Then I'd violently rip up the page and flush it down the toilet. I was terrified of ever telling another soul, especially another mother, about those urges. I was repulsed with myself, ashamed that all those years I thought I'd spent healing had not prevented them. On some of those days, when my husband came home, I would hand him the children and, knowingly, God bless him, he would kiss me and tell me to take as long a walk as I needed.
Once, my son had been projectile vomiting through the previous night and that day and I was waiting for the doctor to call me back to tell me whether or not she thought the intense pain I was experiencing indicated an ER visit to rule out ectopic pregnancy (it did not). Our church was also falling apart, shattering our social network with it, and we were far from any family. Meanwhile, my eldest, 3 years old at the time, who had (understandably) cried a good portion of her waking hours (and some of her sleeping ones too) since she'd been home, was demonstrating her resistance to nap time by kicking and punching at me as I carried her up the stairs.
I reached the third stair when she kicked me in the abdomen. At that moment, I felt the presence again. Only this time, instead of shaking with rage, I could feel it wanting to ball my hand into a fist and pull it back to punch whatever or whomever I could. To stop myself from letting the presence dominate, I thrust my arms, with my daughter in them, far from my belly, dropped her onto the stair landing, and then fell onto the landing myself and punched the stairs over and over again.
That night, instead of taking a walk, I went to see a therapist.
She told me that under those circumstances, even a parent who'd never experienced violence herself might have reacted similarly.
I countered, "But a parent who has never experienced violence doesn't have to deal with the presence."
The presence isn't an excuse for those feelings and urges, just as it wouldn't have been an excuse had I acted on those urges. It is a layer of parenting that can feel impossible to peel off when one is in the thick of things. Though it does not have to define or control a parent, it can rear its ugly head in even the most healed of parents who have experienced violence.
It is a constant reminder that we are forging a path from that very spot where we are parenting. There is no path that precedes us, at least not one that we want to continue taking. We are the path.
It is a very lonely place to be, so lonely that we might forget that, though we cannot continue the path that led us to that place, there are a multitude of paths approaching us from all sides that want to connect with us at the place where we are beginning anew.
I started to discover those paths after my youngest was born, a little over a year into my parenting journey, around the time I met Annie. By then, I was tired of being the only mommy on my path so I confided in her about my terrible mommy thoughts, the presence, and my mommy time-outs. She told me the story her mother had told her and also the reason she'd needed that comfort, that she too had felt like she could hurt her crying baby.
And there it was: a path that had not begun with violence connecting with mine.
And there I was: no longer alone.
After that, I would take a phone into the bathroom for my mommy time-outs and after scrawling and flushing, I would call someone. "Annie," I'd say, "I need to come over and I need you to parent my kids. I will bake everyone cookies." I baked everyone a lot of cookies in those early, chaotic years.
We'd get together with our dear friend Julie, who'd also had 3 children in a short span of time, under the guise of creating an educational experience for the kids when, really, we just wanted them to play so we could have a full cup of coffee, finish a sentence, and get to pee alone.
Since that moment when Annie told me that her mother had once thought of throwing her son out the window, I have tried to be open with other mothers, especially mothers who are parenting in challenging situations and out of broken paths, about those same urges I've had, about the time I punched the stairs, about those parenting moments when I didn't know what to do with the presence.
One time, a dear friend, one who had also never experienced abuse and whose own parents had been models for me, finished her story about her own terrible thoughts by sharing that she too worried about what others might think of her for having them.
We have to share them. Though, as I later learned from a neuropsychologist, my method of scrawling them out and flushing them, can literally alter the brain, aiding in resisting those urges, there is nothing so healing as feeling like you are not alone.
Had I never shared my thoughts that late fall day on Annie's couch; had I never heard her mother's story, I truly believe I would have eventually caved to the long path that preceded me. It was familiar after all; it was what I knew. Though I'd been lucky enough to see parents do it differently throughout my life, I still possessed the presence and, until I was able to merge my mothering path with those of other mothers who also understood that terrible thoughts do not necessarily make terrible parents, it possessed me as well.