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Better Than Perfection? Try Reality

8 Jul

Do you get as annoyed as I do with that tired old mantra to just “Do your best”?

Do my best?

What if my best is a half-hearted, sleep deprived, muddled grasp at reality, at sanity, at getting the lunches packed? What if my best is cheese sticks and goldfish crackers, wrinkled clothes and mismatched socks, cereal for breakfast every day? What if my best means yelling at the kids when I should be teaching them? If it means I haven’t exercised in years? If it means I sometimes neglect friends, husband or family, because I’m too preoccupied, too tired, too busy with self-imposed business? What if it means I forget friends’ birthdays and make chicken nuggets for dinner even though I know perfectly well how to cook a decent meal?

I should just keep doing all that, then?

Really….’cause I was sort of hoping that could change someday, that maybe in the future, at some unforeseen and impossible day, I would do just a little better. Yes, better than this current mediocre mess some might call “my best.”

But what if this, as they say, is as good as it gets?

Here’s a revolutionary idea: let’s pause, and instead of taking stock of our flaws and the things we aren’t doing “right,” let’s remind ourselves of what we ARE doing well. On the days I’ve actually turned things around like this, I’ve felt pretty good about the “job I am doing,” a.k.a. mothering. For instance, the first day of summer was a mess of a day — the kids woke me up instead of the other way around (no time to get coffee first), the house was a disaster, with piles of unfolded laundry as yet untended. The kids were so bored while I put together shopping lists and returned phone calls that the oldest smashed her toes on a piece of furniture and limped around the house, and our son spent the better part of the day hitting his sisters and getting mad at various things, including a) me and b) nothing at all.  But for about four magical minutes, they danced around in the rain outside with their very own kid umbrellas and were happy. They actually got a bath that night too. I’m calling it a good day, so there.

© heinz6x57, 2007

It works on a larger scale too — banish your own guilt as you follow along:

-Our kids all love books, including our 3-year-old son with Down syndrome.

-Our kids all love each other. (Give it time, they are still young.)

-They go to bed each night with their comfy blankets and pillows and loveys and get up in the morning. In between, they mostly sleep.

-They eat food and grow and they have lots of clothes to wear.

-They liked school and made friends.

-They watch TV, sometimes a lot, and their heads have not exploded yet.

Most of us parents, especially mothers, are always trying to live up to an imagined ideal — I don’t think any of us are aiming to be perfect, but just to get to the point where we feel somewhat organized and in control of our lives, our kids, our home, our jobs; even that can be elusive. If we keep focusing on the minutiae, we’ll never realize how far we’ve come. Keep working on the small details, every day, but to see how you’re really doing, look at the big picture. By that measure, there is no need for perfection and nothing to control. Nothing is more perfect than having your little son with special needs wave at you proudly from across the room and say “Mommy” at his end-of-year party at his big bad public school (which we love, and his particular classroom is small and cozy).  He was so proud and his smile filled his face. We blew kisses back and forth for a few minutes, and time stood still for just a little while.

Why Mommy Loved Therapy

18 Mar

You start the day with a picture chart, showing your developmentally delayed toddler exactly what is going to happen over the next half hour. Look! Here you are getting your diaper changed. Yes, then you get to have your milk and eat your breakfast. Then we’ll wipe your mouth — I know you hate that — and then you can play with your sisters. Oops, wait a minute, first we have to do these oral-motor exercises to strengthen your jaw. Open your mouth please, and bite down on this vibrating stick. Good! Now make a fish face until the stick pops out. Great! Let me massage your jaw while singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  Oh, you wanted “Itsy Bitsy Spider?” OK….here we go.

High Chair Drama King

©thehighernest, via Flickr

A few minutes pass. “Itsy Bitsy” has now been sung 6 times. Mom is in agony. Child makes sign for “again,” and says “again.” Again.

Exercises finished, child must now clean up plate and put it in sink before going off to play. Oh, and he has to pick up the cup that he threw on the floor, just like he has been doing three times a day for the past 732 days, even though he is reprimanded each of those times and reminded of what to do instead, which is to place the cup on the circle that has been lovingly drawn onto his highchair tray.

This morning was made possible by the therapists who worked with our son for almost three years as part of the North Carolina Early Intervention program. They were the ones who came up with these great ideas for making life easier for our son, who has Down syndrome, and for us, his parents, who also have two other children: a daughter, age 6, and our son’s twin sister, age 3. (The oral-motor exercises I mentioned were part of a program developed by Lori Overland, SLP, a speech and feeding specialist who has become mildly famous for working to increase speech production and clarity in children with Down syndrome by addressing difficulties with jaw movements, jaw strength, and chewing and swallowing.)

Make no mistake, most mornings did not go like that — rather, they were a jumble of harried breakfast, harried mother and crazy young children. But on the good mornings, no, the perfect mornings, things could go like that. And as you can see, they were still far from perfect. They were, to put it gently, very busy. Of course, this is only my point of view. How did my son feel about all this? Well, he always loved his “lady friends,” but some mornings he definitely wanted nothing to do with the therapy itself.

For about two and a half years, I had the privilege of having a group of lovely young women therapists come into my house and work with my son — a physical therapist, speech therapist, occupational therapist and play therapist, also called a special educator. We also added a behavior therapist in 2011. Then he aged out of the program at 3 and started preschool in September, along with my other children — big sister going full time and little sister part time.

It has taken me almost this long to digest this transition and what it means, which is the absence of things.  The absence of brother and sisters fighting and crying nearly nonstop for hours; the absence of relentless morning activities, meals and schedules. The absence, most of all, of our beloved therapists. I’ve heard some special needs moms express pleasure at the thought of Early Intervention ending and not having a stream of people come into their house each week. I get that. I do. Feeling bound to the schedule, trapped in the house. But for me, those very minor inconveniences were far outweighed by my overall joy at having these incredible people right in my living room.

My teammates, helpmates, resident experts, colleagues in this strange new job they call full-time parenthood. In addition to the incredible task of helping us help our son reach his potential, they were also my shoulders to cry on, cheerleaders for all my children (and for me), resolvers of sibling warfare and gentle advice givers. Imagine if every stay-at-home parent had a nice lady come to the house and say in a very relaxed cadence that the parent was doing a great job. And then, very subtly, also dispensed some simple advice for doing things better. When our time for home therapy was up, I cried. More than once. OK, more than twice.

I called them friends — and always will — though as friendships go, they were a bit odd, one-sided and more crucial for me than them. I’m not sure how many professionals want to walk into work to be greeted by a wild-eyed, bed-headed mom with three small children sticking to her like jellyfish and who has little idea what to do with them. But our therapists never seemed ruffled when that’s exactly what they got.

While of course they were teaching my son the step-by-steps of sitting, standing, talking, eating, listening, and a gazillion other things large and small ending with “ing,” they were also teaching me. To be patient, to be persistent, to be flexible, to be creative, to take it easy (even on myself sometimes). Everyone with a young child should have a therapist to support them. Or maybe just people like me should, neurotic worriers who can’t seem to do the simplest tasks correctly even though they somehow managed to plan trips to Europe and land big-sounding jobs in the heart of Manhattan. People who now spend their days feeling bad for roadkill, especially flat turtles who could’ve never, in a million years, made it across a well-traveled roadway. Maybe there should be a test when you have a kid, and if you’re too sappy, you get a therapist to toughen you up.

How do you replace all that? You don’t, I guess. You just move on and hope for the best. So here’s me, hoping for the best.

What I’m really trying to say is: see you around ladies. Let it not be long before our paths cross again. Oh, and thanks for saving my life.

Away She Goes

22 Sep

Now that I’ve had a little time to think about it, I’ve figured out what bothers me most about the First Day of School. It’s the doors. The doors to the classrooms. They are so narrow, and there are no windows on the walls either. You take your oldest child, whom you have raised for years in the cocoon of your home, and you walk her quickly to the door of an unfamiliar room — Kindergarten.

And then in she goes, whoosh. Into a void. Sucked from the wide world into this suddenly tiny room. She walks in ahead of you to greet her teachers, and you try to squeeze in, but you can’t because other children have come in right behind. So there you are in the hallway, craning and stretching your neck to see inside, desperate for a peek.

2009 08 31 First Day of School_0010

© Laurens Kaldeway, 2009, via Flickr

Finally you get a look, and you know you will have to say goodbye soon. But first, you want to see what she is doing, your child. But she isn’t doing anything. She just got there! She is trying to put away her lunch bag, or looking for someone to tell her what to do, or maybe sitting in a chair. Or simply walking silently in the opposite direction from you, and this is a weird feeling. Before this day, you knew almost exactly what she was going to do at any given minute, whether at home being Little Mommy to her younger brother with Down syndrome and his twin sister, or in preschool. From now on, eight hours of her day will be a Big Mystery.

Sure, they’ll eventually send home a schedule and there will be curriculum nights where you can find out more about how and what they are learning.But because the day is so long and so full, you cannot possibly keep a grasp on what has gone on in each class, every day. Not that you need to. No one needs to, but you want to, you really really want to know. Because you’re the parent and you know exactly how she likes her oatmeal and which teddy bear she keeps closest to her pillow and what shape the constellation of bruises makes on her right knee. But this school thing is much more her business than yours.

Though you know you will be an involved parent and will visit the classroom and keep up with assignments and field trips, this does not change the fact that those doors and those walls divulge no information at the very moment you crave it most.

The First Day is about to begin, and the seconds until your departure are ticking by. You still can’t really see anything because other small bodies and big backpacks keep getting in the way. A zillion questions run through your mind. Is she happy? Is her hair getting in her eyes again? Will she be shy or friendly today? Will she choose puzzles or blocks? None of this matters a whit, yet the answers to these questions seem the most crucial of your life, simply because they are so impossible to obtain.

And then you leave. End of story. No fireworks, no confetti, no gong to mark the transition. (I’m dating myself, but remember the Gong Show? They knew how to send someone packing with style.) There is no warm, matronly woman handing you sympathy tissues — or, more my style, sympathy coffee and pastries — and saying with great enthusiasm “Thank you for leaving your beautiful, amazing and sometimes enervating child with us for the next 12 years!” No one pats you on the back. They are all too busy. As they should be. But still.

As Peggy Lee sang, Is that all there is? All the getting her excited for school, reading lots of books, buying new clothes, ceaselessly hunting for bags full of supplies, packing the lunch with care, waking up in the dark, actually making it out of the house on time — ends with a quick kiss good bye in a room full of strangers. Have a nice day, dear.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m THRILLED that she handled it well, that she was happy to be there even if she looked a little stunned. But I guess I thought there would be more pageantry about the whole thing. It just seemed too much like the rest of life — all business, no magic. And everything important associated with our precious ones is supposed to be magic, right? Right?

Yet I know the magic is there, past those walls you can’t see through and those doors you can barely fit into. Behind those blockades, all kinds of secret things happen that parents mustn’t witness. If they did, they might disrupt the alchemy that turns a little 5-year-old into a confident schoolgirl, possessed with the golden knowledge that she can indeed do great things.

Up, Down and All Around

7 Aug

Joy and grief. Clarity and confusion. Ease and difficulty. Twin emotions that came with the birth of our beautiful, amazing twins nearly three years ago. One, a girl, snuggly and often crying, but simple to figure out. The other a boy, born with Down syndrome, squirmy and quiet, hard to hold, host to some odd little traits that needed sorting through – and still do. Now they will turn 3 in a few short months and start preschool programs, flying from the nest, half finished, into a bigger world. Their older sister will start Kindergarten, the first step along the road that only leads further and further away from hearth and home. What I get out of this deal is a little more time to myself, and a new routine for the kids that maybe, just maybe, will make them a little bit less crazy, more in control of their behavior. How do I feel? In a word, ACK!

Comedy and Tragedy

Courtesy of carolclarinet via Flickr

Elated and freaked out. Happy and so sad. Excited and nervous. Those twin emotions, back again. The children are gaining independence, a wonderful thing. Learning how to survive on their own, without their sometimes overwhelmed mother at their side. But they are so full of life, such fun kids, so innocent, and our lives feel unusually blessed most days. I know in my heart that school will be just what they need, but change is always unsettling. Will we be able to preserve our little cocoon? Will our sweet and sensitive big sis be OK in the rough-and-tumble world of public school? (I’m sure she will, actually). Where did this year go, the year I was supposed to be savoring every moment with the Three Bears and blogging about it?

I’ll tell you where it went: the fall, winter and early spring went by in a blur of sicknesses, hospitalizations and operations, minor ones. Snot and saline spray were my constant companions. It was not pretty. We were trapped inside and I was always on the phone with doctors or nurses or billing offices. I knew it was bad when my 5-year-old proudly showed me a drawing she had made on a big piece of poster board. It was an awesome piece of work, very detailed. The outline of a house, with a wreath outside for Christmas. In the living room, a sofa with three figures on it, big sis in the middle flanked by the twins on either side. They were watching TV. Off to the side, a woman in a dress, talking on a phone. Me, smiling at least.

“Oh,” I cringed as I spoke to her, “is that how you feel? That all you do is watch TV while I talk on the phone? That is so sad!”

“But Mommy,” she replied, pointing to the small square devices they each held in their stick-figure hands, “we each have our own remote controls and we’re watching our own shows! It’s not sad, it’s great!”

That drawing now has pride of place, taped to the wall of our living room. It’s a living reminder of all the twin emotions in our lives — frustration and laughter, getting stymied but making do, falling ill but getting better. Since late spring, we have been freer — less sickness, more time for playdates, strawberry picking, riding bikes, trips to the park or the pool, bowling, lots of ice cream and other treats. The other side of the coin is showing. I like this side. Please don’t flip back again come fall, please, I silently plead.