This Thing I'm Doing: Pushing Through the Dirt
Shannon and I joke about being Borg, or being a part of the same hive mind, but the similar ways in which our demanding family lives are testing our patience and endurance are decidedly unfunny. It's tough around Smarty Mommies Central right now, both in the Shannon wing and the Christina outpost. I took notes for this piece the Saturday before last, thinking that I could come back to them in the future and write about having weathered these tough weeks in the past tense, with the wisdom of experience and the satisfaction of triumph and without the discomfort of admitting current troubles. But sitting on this would feel like a lie, perhaps not of omission, but of timing. And so here I am, coasting in Shannon's courageous draft and riding precariously on the hem of her superheroine cape.
Shannon loves that chicken, y'all. Photo credit
I read a lot of blogs, particlarly the parenting-oriented or earnestly self-help-y type, and I take a lot of comfort in those that reference life's seasons. I know that it's a pretty Biblical concept for an atheist to embrace, but both the purposefulness and finitude of a season as a unit of time makes it seem kinder when facing the less enjoyable and more challenging life stages. As opposed to the dismissive connotation assigned to "phases" (It's just a phase! Merely a phase! Don't sweat this transitory, meaningless, and ultimately unimportant phase!), a season has a real utility. We - all of us living on earth - need each of the seasons and their particular gifts and difficulties in order to live and thrive. And so it must be with seasons of life. Things are hard here now, but hopefully in service of a growing and flourishing time soon.
Right now, my older daughter is wildly emotional and needs a lot of time to process her unpredictable and intolerable feelings of sadness and uncertainty. She needs vast stretches of time to cry and worry and, since her big feelings are often too much for her small self, she needs to cry and worry on my lap, my shoulder, my chest. Her needs are compounded by competition from her equally needy younger sister. My younger daughter is the three-est three who ever threed, and her tantrums are violent, long-lasting, and nearly constant. When the two of them are both having difficult days the only peaceful time I enjoy are the 2 1/2 hours when they are both at school and after they are asleep. Add to that building a business, figuring out how to edit and shop a book for publication, and maintaining any kind of illusion that I have interests or needs beyond these things, and it is clear that this season is rocky, tumultous, and painful.
But I do believe - I must believe - that this is in the service of fruitful growth that is just around the bend. This might be our winter, when growth is invisible underground and hardship is most apparent. It might be our spring, our starving time, when the stores of autumn are consumed, coming abundance is just a promise, and we scavenge for comfort as new growth begins in germs and in shoots. It is awful now so that it can be beautiful later. I need to believe this. It has to be true.
My older daughter's emotional needs are a sign of her growing and developing into a deeply sensitive and empathetic young woman. She is also in the midst of a savage growth spurt now that her tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy have cured her sleep apnea and she's able to finally rest at night. She is wild now, and her experience is hard, but it is so that she can experience some calmness, order, and ease as she develops. My younger daughter's rages are purposeful and useful, too, even as they wreck rooms, hours, and eardrums. In order to reach the relative equilibrium of four, she must first conquer three. In order to reach some temporary calm as a big kid, she must first push away from us, you, anyone, anything to assert herself and wrest herself from the identity of "little kid." And, as much as both actions and outcomes frustrate and wound, I know that they are both cleaving unto me so fervently in preparation for the struggle of cleaving from me in equal brutal measure.
Blogger and business coach Christine Kane* writes about this idea of struggle and growth in terms of seed germination. While she is writing about setting intentions and changing mindsets rather than parenting, the metaphor she uses is still apt:
"[W]hen you plant a seed, the first thing that comes up isn’t the perfectly formed sprout. The first thing that comes up is dirt. Same thing with setting intent... Same thing with new habits and patterns."
Same thing, I'd say, with any new creative or generative endeavor, including child development. And that's what this season of life is about, to wilfully and proudly mix my metaphors: it is about the dirt coming up. It is about the struggle before the blossom. It is about the effort and raw force required for a sprout to shove its way to the light. We are all of us here digging through the soil to grow into something bigger, better, and more complicated. It's hard, and it's ugly, and it hurts. And it's worth it.
Ouch. Photo credit.
I try to recognize our chaos as the dirt coming up, as experiences we need to go through that will ultimately nourish what it is we're striving to become. This doesn't mean that I don't need means of coping with the the difficulties inherent in shared, rapid growth. And, cribbing again from Christine Kane's exploration of this idea, these are methods that I'm trying to use to shape and endure our madness.
1. Brass Tacks & Basics
When I was recovering from both C-sections and needed to remember to prioritize my basic needs in recovery, I posted notes on the fridge that read only "Sleep, Nutrition, Hydration, Medication." I had to remind myself that all I was responsible for outside of what baby care I could manage post-op was those four things. The list is longer during this rough patch, but I have taken to boiling down what constitutes a successful day together into a short list of priorities. If we all slept, ate, drank, exercised, attended to basic hygeine, read together and attended school or did some work, then I call it a successful day. Everything else is extraneous and, while nice, unimportant during this season. If we took care of our bodies, learned something, and were as peaceful and understanding of each other as we could manage, then we've done the important work of this time. We spend a lot more time snuggling under blankets and reading together or watching movies than usual, and that is exactly the kind of warmth and slowness that this growing period requires.
2. Experimental Parenting
I'm reading a thick stack of books on child development for my children's ages, as well as books on teaching emotional intelligence and highly sensitive children in order to learn how best to help my daughters. It is tempting to take one of theories or practices as gospel and then adhere to it stubbornly. Certainty, even if it eventually proves ill-suited or plain wrong, in a time of chaos is wonderfully attractive. Rather than do this, though, I'm attempting to remember that parenting is an experiment and that the family is a laboratory. I'm throwing all kinds of ideas and methods against the wall and seeing what sticks, generally to a good end. When faced with disorder, it is easy to want to become rigid in response. But an experimental approach of trying new things and finding novel solutions to conflicts is proving very useful as we navigate our new growth together.
3. Observing Without (or with less) Judgment
In responding to the daughters' emotional outbursts I'm trying hard to merely observe their feelings and actions without assigning any real judgment or, in Kane's word, "story" to it. I tend to catastrophize ("She's making a habit of throwing these tantrums, and she'll do it forever!) when I get overwhelmed and then overreact based on the catastrophic story I'm telling myself ("I must stubbornly enforce a time out rather than try new methods or else she'll always throw tantrums forever and ever and ever AIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"). This, clearly, works for no one. Observing and experimenting without clinging to a sometimes false judgment of the situation or letting a panicky story spin out of control ("Time-out attempts seem to be making this tantrum worse. Perhaps rather than cooling down alone, she needs to connect and calm down first this time") allows more room for problem-solving and peace-making.
So, this is what I'm doing, and this is how I'm making a season that seems completely unworkable work for us. Some days are still horrible, even in the face of earnest attempts to make them tolerable. Some days I crack and yell. Some days I crack and go numb. Some days I crack and cry. But all days I get back up, rub a little dirt in the wound, and try again. This season will pass, and we'll brush our hands of it having struggled, grown, and flourished together.
*Warning: This essay is pretty woo-woo. I love that shit. If I ever had a secret, or shame, or secret shame, it would be how much I go in for New Agey, self-help, feel-good self-improvement.