The Lesson My Children Taught Me

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I love the Beatles’ song “Let It Be.”

When I find myself in times of trouble

Mother Mary comes to me

Speaking words of wisdom, let it be *

This song is a part of the soundtrack of my life. When I listen to the news and learn of great inexplicable tragedy, I find myself playing it over and over again in my head. It is remarkably comforting. Despite the fact that Paul McCartney wrote this song about his own mother, and, given my extreme ambivalence towards matters of religion, it strikes me as somewhat odd that I still like to think that the song is about the Blessed Mother, and, now that I no longer give a shit if it sounds uncool, I am okay with admitting this. Although I have been engaged in my own personal battle with my religion for years, I find great comfort in the divine Mother Mary. She is a mother’s ideal: a gentle, patient, ever comforting presence. I have no delusions of grandeur, but as a parent, I do strive to be gentle, patient and comforting, and I hope when I am gone, many, many years from now, my children will remember me in this way. But what of this idea of letting it be? As parents we strive to help, to fix, to make everything better for our children. What of letting it be? Letting them be? This week both my children taught me lessons in how to do this. What I learned is that letting it be can painful, liberating, inevitable and right.

The first part my lesson was delivered by Allegra, my four year old daughter. I volunteered to help out for muffin baking at preschool. This year Allegra has blossomed socially and has even made a best friend. Last year, if I had volunteered in her class she would cling to my leg and not only not let go but also not allow any other child to come within five feet of me. Soooo, with last year still fresh in my mind, I was a bit apprehensive about showing up at school, just when she is beginning to make true friendships. That said, this is her last year before “big kid” school, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be in her class for the morning. I thought it through and had a plan in place-if, in any way, my presence was disruptive for her, I would leave (great plan right?).

Well I am happy (and sad) to say that my dear soul sister Allegra did not give a damn if I was there or not. Actually, I just lied; she didn’t want me there at all. As a matter of fact, she actually pushed me away when I attempted to sit next to her at cicle time (talk about feeling like an ass). To feel relief and loss at the same time-what a strange experience! But those were my feelings, relief and loss. On one hand, I felt a sense of pride and victory and relief. I was so proud of my littlest one. I had sent her out into the world, and she found happiness. She found friendship. She is a glorious creature. On the other hand, well, it hurt…it hurt a lot. You see, Allegra and I, from the day I brought her home from the hospital, have been attached at the hip. Literally, we have been attached at the hip. For the first two years of her life, she loved to be held, so I held her. I held her on my hip. I held her on my hip as much as I could. I cooked and cleaned and did pretty much everything other than drive with her on my hip. As she got a bit older and too big to constantly be held, she remained as close as possible to my side. And she has remained by my side until a few weeks ago. Recently, I have noticed that she has needed me less and less. She wants to be a “big girl” and as such, wants to do most things on her own…like a “big girl.” And I want to scoop her up. I so want to pick her up and yell “Stop! Please stop! Don’t grow so fast. What’s the rush little one? Just stay with me a bit longer.” But that is wrong. She is happy. This is as it should be. This is life. This is my job, to let her grow, to let her go, to let it be. Let life take it’s course Heather. Let it be. Let her be. Don’t be selfish. Don’t hold her back. Let her be. Let it be.

And now onto my Jack. Jack gave me my second lesson in learning how to let it be. Jack doesn’t run with the pack. He is a lone wolf, a wonderfully brilliant, kind, unique and creative lone wolf. Unless he is with those family members who are closest to him, with whom he has deep and meaningful relationships, Jack prefers to be on his own. Of course, I worry. In the society in which we live it’s all about being a member of a team; there are sports teams, work teams, cooperative teams at school and teams on the playground. And if it’s not teams, it’s partners. Work on your math with a partner, play catch with a partner, complete this project with a partner. Jack doesn’t like working with teams and partners. I have pushed him to engage in group activities. I have encouraged him to try to enjoy playdates. How stupid is that? How can you possibly encourage someone to enjoy what they do not like? Why would you ever try to encourage (force) someone to learn to “like” something they do not like? Jack is not anti-social. He loves deeply and has meaningful relationships with those dear to him. Period. That is how he is now. He may change in the future. Who knows? But for now, he just doesn’t enjoy teams, groups and artifically “manufactured” by your parents relationships.

That said, the other day I asked our babysitter to come by so that I could run some errands. When I told Jack that the sitter was coming, he asked if he could run errands with me. Jack has never asked to run errands with me. I was thrilled. So I tweaked my plans to include lunch at IHOP. When our sitter arrived, I gave Allegra a kiss (Allegra loves her babysitter. Rightfully so; she is a wonderful woman) and off I went with Jack. At lunch we talked about life, about where we want to travel, about Christmas. He played the game on the IHOP placememat and identified the flags of various countries. The Australian flag got us talking about penal colonies and Britain and Australia and the United States and Jamestown. Then, somehow, we moved on to animals and log cabins and having a farm and Christmas and how great it would be to live in a log cabin on a farm and decorate it for Christmas. It was awesome. Then, rather than run errands, we ran around the mall looking at Christmas decorations (I know. I know. It’s early, but Jack LOVES Christmas). I can sincerely say that I had soooooo much fun, and I know Jack did too. That night I thought about my Jack. I thought, let him be. Let him be. He is lovely. He is brilliant. He is kind and gentle. He loves Christmas and log cabins and animals and his family. He loves his dog and blue skys at 4:00 pm on winter days (something we all learned to appreciate from his Uncle Sean). He loves the book Owl Moon. Let him be Heather. Stop pushing. He is perfectly imperfect. He is Jack, wonderful, beautiful Jack.

These are not times of trouble and darkness in our house. Our children are healthy. All is well. Every night I am blessed to kiss them on their soft cheeks and know that they are okay. All is well. Let them be Heather. Let them be.

* McCartney, Paul. Beatles. “Let It Be.” EMI, Apple Records, Lyrics. 1970.

Oh. You Are Also a Specialist? Of What, If You Don’t Mind My Asking?

    A few years back, we were invited to vacation at my husband’s boss’s beach house. One evening we were dining out on the patio, which happened to abutt the path down to the shore, when two ladies from the neighborhood attempted to pass us while taking their nightly stroll to the beach. As the ladies passed, and before Giorgio and I knew what was happening, our then four year old son hopped up and said, “Ladies, would you like to join us for a bottle of wine?” Being the persistent little fellow he is, when the ladies giggled and declined, my dear Jack then continued, “Well then, how about a brandy?” This is the same little boy, who very recently at the age of seven, alarmed us by asking, “What if we don’t really exist? What if this is all a dream?” He has been described as an old soul and free spirit, and, yes, he is in fact both. He is charming and precocious and very intelligent, and he HATES school. He has learning differences and sensory issues which have made his experiences with school quite unpleasant and continue to make finding an appropriate educational setting a challenge. As an educator, it drives me mad to think that learning has become such an unpleasant, onerous task for my bright and curious little boy, and I have made it my mission to find a way to make learning and life, as joyful and wonderous as is realistically possible.

    In fulfilling this mission, Giorgio and I have learned is that there are an awful lot of experts and specialists out there. I mean there are specialists that super specialize in the specialists’ specialities. There are soooo many people who want to help out there. What I also figured out is that “helping” our children has become and industry and a lucrative one at that. I mean one family with one child with learning differences can spend thousands, upon thousands of dollars. We pay the college tuitions of our specialist’s children while we ourselves become increasingly stressed because after we dole out all our money to special schools and experts and specialists, we can’t even afford to register our kids for dance class much less pay for their education, which was our main concern to begin.

    I don’t mean to sound cynical, and I certainly don’t want anyone to think that I believe there is no place for specialists and experts. When our children are struggling it is our obligation as parents to seek help. It’s just that we need to be cautious. We need to be savvy consumers. WE need to determine when our work with a specialist has run its course. We also need to discern when we really need the services of another party and when we as parents can, with time and research, provide appropriate services ourselves.

    When we began our quest to help our son, we dove in a rabbit hole and into a surreal world where everyone is an “expert” and where the only thing “experts” can do for you is refer you to other “experts” (with whom they share an office) whereupon they hand you a bill and where only one thing is certain…all experts charge fees that are staggering.

    Just this past week, Giorgio and I had an appointment with one of the many specialists we have consulted over the past few years. Prior to our appointment, I spent two hours filling out a twelve page questionnaire, which was to be reviewed by said specialist prior to our meeting. Two hours! Twelve Pages! Prior to meeting! Giorgio was immediately suspicious and repeatedly asked me why we were writing answers to questions about topics we should be discussing in person. I reassured him, certain that this was just preliminary “stuff” and that we would elaborate on our answers during our $300 per one hour not covered by insurance appointment, an appointment which required Giorgio to rearrange his work schedule and me to make childcare arrangements.

    Well, Mr. Specialist’s office is an hour plus away from our home, so we frantically raced out of our house, dropped the kids with my parents and arrived ten minutes early. So you can imagine my disappointment when ten minutes after appointment time, our specialist hadn’t come into the waiting room to greet us. I have to say, I’ve got a real “thing” about waiting…it pisses me off. I just believe that we are called upon to wait much too often. For the majority of us, if we are late for an appointment, we are deeply disturbed and apologetic towards whoever we have kept waiting. Yet, doctors, specialists and so many others seem to feel as if our time is less valuable than their time. Anyway, the receptionist must have heard me bitching to Giorgio because she quickly disappeared and promptly returned to tell us that Mr. Specialist was in a meeting and would be with us soon. Five minutes later, he emerged, alone, so I wonder who the hell he was meeting. One thing was for sure, I was going to make damned sure he gave us the full hour, the $300 hour, the hour of gold.

    Since I now have a significant amount of experience, I have changed my approach. While I am always nice and respectful, it is no longer important that the specialist likes me. I make my needs clear up front. This time I informed him that we are not wealthy people and that we are frustrated because everyone we consult refers us to someone else. Well do you know how the meeting turned out? At some point during our visit it became painfully clear that Mr. Specialist never read our two hours worth of paperwork. He perseverated on one topic, of only minor interest to my husband and I, and, in the end, he referred us to an educational consultant who works in his office. With a bit of research we learned that this consultant would charge us a minimum of $750 for her services. Oh yeah, after only forty minutes he started to look at his watch. When he attempted to end the appointment at the scheduled time, despite the fact that he was fifteen minutes late,I kept him talking until the full hour was up. Go girl.

    After our appointment, Giorgio headed off to work, and I returned home, frazzled and anxious. And I got to thinking. All that time lost. I could and should have been home with my kids, teaching, playing, mothering! Instead, I wasted time. And I have wasted soooo much time visiting specialists and special schools.

    I once visited a school, a thirty thousand plus a year school, which is located in a very affluent community in Connecticut. It seemed great. Prior to my visit, I read their website which explained that they incorporate original play into their curriculum. Play! Great! We love to play (I either didn’t notice or completely ignored the word original)! Jack will love a school that allows a little bit of fun! During my visit everything looked great:students appeared happy, teachers seemed nice. There was nothing strange about the place at all…until the discussion turned to original play. Never heard of it? Neither had I. Silly me for thinking it was normal human play because, as it was explained to me, it actually mirrors animal play. The kids roll around on a mat; a teacher facilitates. And guess what? In eighth grade, if they’re really good at this original play thing, the kids get to travel to Florida to swim with the manatees. Are you kidding, you ask? No, sadly I am not. Strange right? Of course when I got home I researched original play and let me tell you, it is very hard to find out anything other than a clip on YouTube where a big bearded burly man demonstrates how it’s done. Perhaps I am a sceptic, but I prefer to think of myself as reasonably intelligent and educated. Evaluating research was a big part of my graduate studies. You know; instruction should be researched based and good research studies require thousands of subjects and a control group and blah, blah, blah. Why is it then that educators are engaging in practices when there clearly is not enough research to support those practices.

    A larger question is how do specialists and educators get parents to subscribe to their practices? The answer, I believe, is that desperate parents are easy to exploit. I don’t mean to suggest that these professionals are intentionally exploiting parents; most are well meaning. Regardless, parents are being exploited. When we as parents see that our children are struggling and are told that we need to do something about it, we desperately seek out those who can help. I am beginning to realize, however, that there may be something fundamentally wrong with our process. Sometimes because our children are different we are made to feel that they are broken and that they need to be fixed and changed and altered by experts and specialists. What would have happened if teams of professionals “fixed” the young Albert Einstein or Winston Churchill, both of whom were quirky kids and bad students?

    Professional educators, therapists and specialists do have an important role to play. They can help. They have helped me. I have met some great specialists. We shouldn’t feel that in order to be good parents or viewed as good parents we need to constantly seek the help of “experts.” We as parents are the only TRUE experts of our children. Sometimes, rather than shuttling our kids from one appointment to another to be evaluated, analyzed and over analyzed and spending hours on the computer and telephone searching for professional help, our children would be better served if we just spent those extra hours with them , learning their patterns, understanding what works for them and what doesn’t. In a world full of experts, we have lost our confidence as parents, and we need to reclaim that. No one will ever know or love our children as we do. Our instincts and opinions count. We know when our children are just different, when they just need another approach or another way to learn and when we need the help of knowledgable professionals. We know. We know when it’s a matter of doing something different or better as parents and when we need to seek outside help because we just don’t know what to do. We know when to say “help” and we know when to say “enough!” We must trust ourselves and know.

Why Is This Happy Moment So Sad? Ahhh…The Great Sorrow of Motherhood

This morning my daughter and I had the best time ever, a sentiment shared and articulated by both of us. Before I continue, let me rewind a bit. Recently, I began to recognize that we as a family are entering into a new stage. Jack will be eight in December, and Allegra just turned four. Yes, they are both still young children, but babies no longer. The other evening Jack, who is generally within arm’s reach, took my husband’s iphone and shut himself into his room. When I peeked in to check up on him, he looked rather perturbed and informed me that he was listening to music and would appreciate his privacy. Hold up now. Weren’t you just a baby like two minutes ago??? Even my daughter, who is still a little preschooler, is becoming more and more independent. And all of this is good. I know. I know. I know. Yet, as the tic of the clock gets louder and louder and time seems to move faster and faster, I can’t help but feel, well, sad.

So, my husband Giorgio has tweaked his schedule so that every Thursday morning he can go out to breakfast with Jack and do some type of special activity with him. This gives me some rare time to spend with just Allegra. So today Allegra and I decided to grab some munchkins, eat them in the car and go for a bike ride.

As all parents know, even the best laid plans can result in disaster with children. Spontaneous meltdowns, fights, disappointments, can occur at the most unpredictable times. Yet today, none of those things happened. I walked beside my little one as she rode her bike and we chatted and chatted and chatted about everything. Then we decided to head over to the park since we had some more time before we had to meet Jack and my husband back at home. My daughter and I were just happy, so happy in fact, that I became sad. The park was nearly empty, the sky was gray, the air was cool; it was the perfect scenario. We ran up slides, rode the see saw, climbed monkey bars, swung on the swings. And despite all of my joy, I felt a pang in my heart. It seems like just yesterday that I was playing at the park with my Jack, my Jack who now refuses to go to parks, who now shuts himself up in his room to listen to his music. My time with Jack as a baby and toddler and preschooler went by so fast. As I looked at my daughter’s smiling face I thought, my God, we won’t be doing this for much longer. So, even though we should have headed home, we stayed a bit longer and played and laughed and talked.

On the ride home Allegra said to me, “Mommy, I didn’t want to leave. You didn’t want to leave. We had the best time ever. But it had to end.” Yes, it had to end. And this is the great sorrow of motherhood. Time marches on, our little ones grow, yet we, us mothers, remain the same. We still have the same great love for our little ones who we once cradled in our arms, and pressed our cheeks against their fuzzy little heads, and picked up and swung in the air, and our little ones grow and become independent, and, as all mothers wish for their children, find their own loves and make their own families so that they too can someday cradle their little ones in their arms and feel fuzzy heads against their cheeks. And so it goes, mothers holding babies, watching them grow, saying good bye, all the while feeling incredible love and joy and sorrow and loss.