The Master Plan….

I strum my fingers together and smile devilishly. An unexpected plan has come together this summer – “practice” camp.

We stood at the registration table on Sunday afternoon. Nine-year-old Mr. Ornery was unusually subdued as they searched for his name on the list. Beside him and slightly in front of him, the Little Guy bounced up and down and tried to answer any question with as much true or somewhat-true information as he could. The auburn-haired woman peered over her dark glasses and said, “Ah, are you staying for mini-camp?”

“Mini-camp?” I queried.

“Oh, yes,” she proceeded. “In addition to Kids Camp, we’re also running mini-camp this week. How old is he?”

“Seven.”

“Great. And where do you live?” she asked as her brain clearly contemplated her next question. Thankfully she held in the “Why don’t you just run on home and pack him up,” and instead said, “When you get home, go online and register him. Then bring him here Wednesday night.”

Wednesday night? Both my “young” guys in camp at the same time?!? I filled out that online application immediately, followed by mad texting and emailing to see which friends I could gather for my two glorious nights of “limited” kid responsibility (the twelve-year-old fends for himself pretty well these days).

For days it was nonstop questions. “Has my flashlight arrived from Amazon yet?” “Is it Wednesday yet?” “When do we go?” “Will you miss me?” “Did the mail come yet with the flashlight?” “How about my sleeping bag?”

He fell asleep on the short trip up to camp. Our car was greeted by two very enthusiastic camp counselors who had been his summer day camp counselors. They screamed his name and rushed to open the door, slathering him in hugs and kisses. The other counselors stared. This kid is going to be just fine with these young mother hens all over him.

As we started up the path to the office to register, I spied Mr. Ornery leaving the pool area. He saw me and came running over for a wet tight hug. “I’m having a great time. Love you. See you later,” and off he went waving the love-you sign behind him. My eyes welled. I had been worried that I’d arrive to find an unhappy little man ready to pack up and go home.My heart though was hoping he would be enjoying it and have the full camp experience. Thankfully, this little clown seems to have made some friends and found his own space. I just hope the presence of the Little Guy won’t be too disruptive. The Little Guy commands an audience. He smiles and people melt. I had checked that Mr. Ornery wanted him to come, but I’m still thinking that the stories should be interesting.

And so… I drove off….in a quiet car….praying blessings upon them for peace and safety and friendships and a deepening devotion.

And thinking – “Now, my young padawans, as you graduate from mini-camp and one-week camp this year….the “secret” plan is “Summer’s Best Two Weeks” next year!”

Did you catch that?

TWO WEEKS!

This might not go completely according to plan. The report from Super Tall Guy in the weeks after his camp experience was that he didn’t like it too much. He was bothered by a set of brothers in his cabin who apparently had a lot of brotherly “bickering” and overall seemed pretty tired by the constant activity level. (The lack of any screen and internet might also have contributed his unhappiness….But we’re going to keep working on the importance of screen-free weeks and finding an “away” experience during those two weeks!).

And, of course, my two days “off” didn’t go completely as planned. The irony of parenting is that just when you are free from the responsibility of the daily grind of caring for the younger two, the typically-independent eldest develops a fever of 102….and so I am still “needed”!

Next summer….

*ps – I miss these guys terribly, but am so proud of their bravery in stepping out a bit on their own.

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Delivered: My First “Summer Camper”

I sat at the pool today ….a blank laptop screen in front of me…reflecting on a blank mind with nothing to say….until I left a piece of my heart…..at a summer camp….in a cabin with five other boys, ….and a counselor named Lyvth.

Super Tall Guy went to this camp in October for two nights with his fifth-grade class. He had a great time. He and his best friend decided they wanted to go for a week in the summer. I am hoping that they have a great time again.

It was a tough weekend leading up to it. The poor guy had some GI upset which mercifully resolved. Then we had the suspense of his friend’s baseball tournament. Drop off times were from 4-6 pm. The baseball game was at one. If they won, he would have another game and then not go to camp until the next morning. Super Tall Guy was reluctant to go to camp without his buddy. I tried explaining the importance of that first night. You are going to hear all the rules. You pick your beds in the cabin. You meet your counselor. Other kids are new too. It’s the time to get settled in together. If you wait for the morning, you will miss some important things.

He was not swayed. He needed his friend. It was too stressful to think about being there alone.

Thankfully, the team lost and their tournament ended. We made it to camp at 5:30 and they got the last two bunks side by side.

B’s mom and I helped them make their beds. We took the mandatory photos. We awkwardly stood around. The counselor gracefully exited for good-byes. I sent the “annoying” younger brothers outside for a few minutes. I leaned over to Super Tall Guy, kissed the top of his head and said, “I love you.” “Leave,” he replied. Yes, that’s my boy.

We stood outside the cabin for a minute. I swallowed my heart skip and quieted the tears that threatened. My eldest was in a cabin and I was leaving him. This time he had one friend and a “village” of about fifty other boys to meet. Instead of stories about classmates keeping him up all night, he’ll have stories of five other boys he’s going to get to know, some of whom were returning for the third or fourth time. Instead of teachers and school counselor watching over him, he’ll be on his own to remember the bug spray (I’m pretty sure B will be better at remembering it and reminding him!), to figure out where he should be and when, and to get to sleep. Instead of being surrounded by people who know him, he’s going to be on his own negotiating his stance and emotions and behaviors.

Lyvth seemed like a really great guy in the two minutes I saw him. The returning campers had great rapport with him. He looked like he was going to be fun. I’m entrusting my son to him.

Most days, Super Tall Guy drives me crazy. He pushes all my buttons. He argues with 99.9% of what I ask of him.

And yet, he holds a pretty big chunk of my heart.

Which is now 20 miles away….

For the next five days….

But, since there were three boys chattering happily (and occasionally unhappily) in the back of the van as we drove home, there wasn’t much mental space to think about it.

Now, at 7:30, I sit at the pool again. The pizza is delivered. The beer is cold. The heart is full. And I’m praying God’s blessings on the boys.

I am happy for Super Tall Guy.

I sure hope he’s happy too.

 

Repaired Windshield, Shattered Relationships: Another Weekend of Tears

The windshield was repaired this past week (review of that story), but I had to make a tough decision that I really didn’t want to. It was the second Friday in a row of kids crying and Mom crying. The second Friday of sobbing on the couch after the boys went to bed. The second week of cycling through shock and numbness and sadness and wondering why this parenting “gig” has to be so hard sometimes.

I had to let the sitter go. She’s been with our family for three years. She’s a part of our family and the kids are a part of hers. But around 3:30 on Friday afternoon I got a call from a friend who asked, “Where is your sitter? Or who is picking up the boys after school? I see the younger two playing here on the school playground, but I don’t see your sitter. I started to drive away with my kids then turned and came right back.” Asking her to stay there and keep an eye on my 7 and 9-year-old boys, I called the sitter. She left the boys at the playground (“there were other people there”) because Super Tall Guy really wanted to be taken home.

She left my boys.

In shock, I said, “You can’t leave the boys alone! Those kids are the most precious things in the world to me. What if one of them fell off the monkey-bars, split his head open and died….alone? What if someone walked by and took off with one of them? What if you got in an accident as you drove and then they are hanging out at the playground for hours wondering where you are?”

She arrived to pick them up as I communicated with the other mom again how I appreciated her taking care of my boys. I got home as soon as I could. I wrote out her weekly check and told the sitter it wasn’t going to work out anymore. She had done this once before a couple months ago. I had talked with her then. Then she had left the 7-year-old at the playground in our community once for a few minutes while she ran to the school to pick up the middle kid because “he was playing with the other kids and wouldn’t listen to me when I called him. What did you want me to do – go over there and drag him to the car?” Yes.

This time, I flipped out. I couldn’t bear the thought of my kids being in danger. She wasn’t intentionally hurting them. She just wasn’t thinking through the potential dangers. And she wasn’t assigning another adult to hold the responsibility of the kids in her absence. She loves the boys. She doesn’t want to make any of them angry or disappointed. Yes, I understand that, I said. But, their safety is first priority. Whether they are “happy” is a bit lower down the line of concern. And trying to protect the boys, mostly from their own rash decisions as well as from other people’s decisions, is a huge challenge as a parent.

Another huge challenge of parenting is managing your own emotions while also scaffolding those of your children. The role is complicated with multiple children who have different personalities, different types of emotional processing, and need different help with managing their emotions based on their developmental stage and individual abilities.

Super Tall Guy doesn’t care. “That was stupid,” he says and walks off. Mr. Ornery says, “Aw, that’s sad. What’s for dinner?” The Little Guy crawls into my arms, shaking as he sobs. I reassure him that we love the sitter, we’re still friends, we can still visit, but it’s Mommy’s job to always, always make sure my boys are safe.

In the past couple of days, the weight has just hung on me and the tears are easily present. The Little Guy asks about her often and before falling asleep the next day, he said to me, “But Mommy, everyone makes mistakes. Why can’t you give her another chance?”  Yes, I replied, we all make many mistakes every single day, but there are some big mistakes that are super important. Keeping you safe is super important.

And we cried together again.

 

 

 

 

Broken Windshields and Digital Detox: Handling Mother’s Day

It was not a good morning. A wet t-shirt whack to the middle child’s arm left him in tears and left the eldest arguing about the subjective experience of pain. My attempt to explain this subjectivity was unwanted factual information at a time of emotional distress which escalated the issue. Before long, TV remotes were flying, pillows were flying and by the time the baseball helmet was about to be launched toward the sliding-glass doors, I took him down.

I give the boy credit for moving into submission rather than fighting back with all his might as he outweighs me by at least twenty or thirty pounds now. But we drove to school with me emotionally exhausted. As they jumped out of the car, tears welled as I texted a friend: “It’s so hard when people tell you how mature and wonderful Super Tall Guy has become and they don’t have to see the shit that he gives me at home.” Over and over again.

He pops into school and does well all day, while I carry around a heavy heart. Because his loss of control seems more intense lately, I eventually decided to call for an intake appointment for psychiatric/therapy services. It’s been on my mind, you know, every time he flips out and then I say, “Well, he’s calmed down again.”  But I worry about the emotional toll on myself, the toll on him to deal with uncontrolled anger again and again, and the toll on the younger brothers emotionally and sometimes physically.

After school he wasn’t much better. I arrived home with The Little Guy (after learning that since a cavity was filled in the same tooth eleven months from the last time, insurance wouldn’t cover it and I’d be paying $175) to find Super Tall Guy running out to my car to say, “I’m sorry for hurting Mr. Ornery.” Sigh. Apparently a discussion had gone awry about who got the “best” placement for the Mother’s Day gifts they brought home from school. Mr. Ornery’s loss left a scratch on his back.

My consequence of banning him from visiting his aunt’s house where Awesome Cousin had just arrived from the West Coast was met with upturning the video/CD shelving. I took the younger brothers over while Super Tall Guy cleaned up the mess. Expecting him to have turned the corner, we went over to my sister’s as well.

The evening seemed to go smoothly and given the beautiful weather, I worked on cleaning my car while the boys rode bikes on the street. I heard but didn’t see the crash that sent my 7-year-old nephew onto the pavement as he swerved to avoid Super Tall Guy lying in the middle of the road. His full-face helmet offered important concussion and teeth protection, but his lack of a shirt resulted in brush burns to back and shoulder. Comforting the young one, I let Awesome Cousin chat with Super Tall Guy about his poor decision.

We soon left for home and just a few hundred feet down the road, I reiterated how dangerous it is to get in the way of young kids riding on the street. Super Tall Guy was not in the mood to hear more about his mistake. Embarrassment leads to anger. Remember that. Embarrassment leads to anger. He picked up his feet and kicked the windshield – causing a brilliant star-shaped shatter. Shocked, I pulled over to the side of the road and just sat there for a couple minutes crying “I can’t do this anymore.” Super Tall Guy cried in sadness and despair. The Little Guy cried out of fear at the intensity of the emotions around him. Mr. Ornery must have been wondering what all the fuss could possibly be about as he didn’t notice the cracked windshield until the next morning.

Walking into the house a few minutes later, Super Tall Guy collapsed onto the couch and fell asleep as I took the dog for a short walk. I gave The Little Guy a tight squeeze as I reassured him that his mom had this. “I’m strong. I got this. Don’t you worry. I’m going to help your brother.” Kissing Mr. Ornery good night, I talked about the many reasons people cry but he seemed unconcerned other than hoping that his cousin would be feeling better soon.

Then I sat on the couch with a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s and let the shock fade.

This is Mother’s Day weekend. This is the boy that first “made” me a mother. This is my love. And yet I struggle so hard to parent him. The emotional toll is huge. The physical burden gets overwhelming. The struggle to understand what he needs and temper his anger is intense.

Reflecting on his day, I can tell that he was very tired. He was probably also reacting to a long week of dealing with consequences for behaviors last weekend that left him without his Ipod and without his laptop to play games on (the XBox has been gone for quiet awhile – that will be another story). And, I have a strong suspicion that he is “detoxing” from sustained “digital heroin” intake and experiencing a reorientation of his dopamine neurotransmitters.

Too often I have relied on electronics to keep Super Tall Guy quiet and keep his emotions at bay so that he isn’t bothering his brothers. But time spent in this digital reality hasn’t been teaching him how to deal with the typical everyday annoyances of having younger brothers. It’s going to take years and years to learn that, I’m sure.

The day after his explosions he spent a couple hours doing “community service” for his aunt. He spent hours playing with his brothers and cousins. And, after an hour of TV and then a tantrum about how he “needed” more, he and I started a game of Monopoly before bed.

I remind myself that detox is not easy. I am going to need a lot of patience and friend support as Super Tall Guy and I go through this, I’m pretty sure.

And, I remind myself that this parenting gig is not easy.

But it is oh so worth it.

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

 

And Then There Were Water Beads…

“Hey, want to be Doctor and Nurse again for the kids’ science fair night?” I asked a friend a couple weeks ago. A few days later she sent me directions (so thankful) for creating a demonstration of blood using water beads as the red blood cells, ping pong balls as the white blood cells and pieces of red foam to be the platelets. Looked easy enough. Amazon delivered the supplies a few days later and I left them in the box until they were needed.

Chomping on some salad a couple hours before heading to the science fair, I pulled up the instructions on my phone to start getting ready. “Hmm…water beads….” I opened the box and read their instructions. “Soak in water for 6 to 24 hours.”  &!@$!!! But then I remembered many science lessons by my mother when I was young about the power of heat and soaked those tiny pellets in hot hot water!!  It was amazing to watch them grow!

Hours later, my friend and I were swamped by kids coming to play with our bucket of “blood.” Kids would stand there for 5-10 minutes just letting the little beads roll through

Bucket of “blood”

their hands. Some were semi-interested in learning about blood, but really, they just wanted to squish beads between their fingers. We even encouraged all the parents to put their hands in and the expressions on their faces were priceless. We witnessed awe, delight, relaxation, and sheer surprise that the beads weren’t “slimy.” I stood there as a perfect spokesperson (for Amazon!), “Don’t you think you need some of these in your house?” “Wouldn’t it be so relaxing?” “Excuse, Mr. Principal of this school. Don’t you think you should have a bucket of these in the office next week for the kids as they work on their PSSAs? A chance to relax and de-stress while they are filling in endless bubble exams?”

The entire next day, Super Tall Guy sat on the couch running his fingers through a bucket of water beads as he watched TV. I’d turn and see him letting them slip around his hands, squishing and squeezing them. I thought about how wonderful it was to see my boy who often has so much trouble regulating his intense emotions sitting so calmly and relaxing with this sensory stimulation. It seemed like a perfect item.

Except that all “perfect” things, in a household of boys, have a downside!  You can order a pack of 15,000 tiny beads and still have fights over even division of items among three boys! You can give all the warnings you want about keeping them in the buckets (and even outfit all the containers with snapping lids) and still you will find them all over the floor. (The vacuum worked, though!)

 

I don’t know whether I love these things or hate them. It’s only been 48 hours, so the jury is still out on whether these are a “helpful” experience for the boys. I can keep you updated.

But I can tell you that I haven’t ordered the “water bead gun” yet on Amazon and I sure haven’t informed the boys of its existence!!

 

A Climbing Wall: The Art of Parenting

“I need you to check in with me,” I said to the 9-year-old as he placed his foot on a ledge on the climbing wall. “I am what keeps you alive.”

In the boys’ endless quests for adventure, the climbing wall at the gymnastics facility was their next journey. There was fun and challenge to be had on the walls and in the attempt to swing up into a little “cave,” but the greatest fun was to descend into the pit, hook up to a harness, and scale the wall. My job was to belay them. My job was to keep them safe, to keep them alive.

This was a new adventure for me as well. I had no experience in belaying and it’s been way too long since I’ve tied any knots in Girl Scouting (“Form a guy, give him a tie, poke him in the eye.” – viola! – a figure-8 knot). I realized as a stood back, craning my neck, watching my fearless boy climb straight up that there was a great deal of learning happening in a short period of time.

Mr. Ornery was learning strategy of placement of hands and legs. With encouragement from the two men who climb each week, he was learning to focus on his legs to push him up higher. He was also learning to listen to others (even if he had just met them) who had more experience and thus could give him some guidance. If he could reflect deep enough, he was learning to respect his elders.

He was also learning to trust himself and develop confidence. The first couple times, the wall with an overhanging cliff loomed against his skill. Several attempts later, he fought to keep his toes in the footholds and extend his arms high enough to get the next rock. Scrambling over the edge, he shot to the top to ring the bell and joyously called out, “I did it.”

He was learning to trust his mother. “You sure you got me?” he’s asked several times as he reaches far up to the top. He knows he’s high enough that a fall would be devastating. He knows he’s connected to a rope, but he’s not so sure that rope is secure. He knows the rope is connected to me, but he’s not so sure this system is going to work. So, I remind him that he’s safe. I remind him that his mom has him. I remind him that he checked in with me at the start so that we’re in this together – he’s ready to explore, I’m ready to catch. Just as he used to walk off as a toddler and then circle back to check that I was still there, now as an adventurous third-grader, I’m still there. I’ve got his back in this life.

As I hold the rope, I contemplate this parent stuff. I’m responsible for keeping my kids safe, but also for encouraging them to try new things. Before clicking onto the rope, we review the knots together so that my kid thinks of safety first (helmets, seat belts, paying attention – whatever it is, safety matters). Before giving advice about the next possible step, I hang back as much as I can and let him struggle for a bit. Of course, I have an answer for him because I have a different vantage point (I’m not on the wall and I’ve already had a lot of experiences in life), but some of this he needs to wrestle with and I need to hold my tongue.

I am also reminded that part of what makes this parenting gig tough is that I don’t always have all the answers and new things (like belaying) come at me all the time. The great thing is that there are others, more experienced climbers, who can provide help – check the knots, teach me to hang the rope up at the end, provide soft encouragement. And there are more experienced parents who can give advice and share wisdom and provide soft encouragement when the going gets rough. There’s no way I could do this without them (and I’m looking for them as we approach the teen years!).

So, I’m learning to say “Go for it.” I’m learning to coach my kids just a little but hang back as much as I can so that they can figure it out. I’m learning to let others mentor and teach them skill sets that I don’t have. I’m learning to support but not hover. I’m learning to figure out what makes each boy tick and what they need on their journey. I’m learning the outward expression of the love withing.

Before you venture forth, my dear sons, check in with Mom.

And I will say, “Climb on.”

Believe Me: I am Smart

It was just another rough weekday morning. The same nasty tones and words. The same tomfoolery. The same old problem of too much grumpiness, not enough independent motivation, and plenty of hurt feelings before the day gets started.

I am working so hard on the concept of “respect,” but it sure is a tough one for me and these boys. The morning quickly disintegrated into my eldest yelling, “Stupid!!” at me, and I had had enough! “Don’t you ever call me or anyone else stupid!” I exclaimed (for the millionth time).

“Actually, my dear,” I continued after one of those long dramatic pauses, “I am one of the smartest women you will probably ever meet. My IQ is in the gifted range. I not only have a college degree, but I have a PhD and an MD. On top of that, I still take evening online classes and do a lot of reading. I am a doctor and the head of an organization [small, small one…but we’re not going into details]. I am a very smart woman.”

I don’t think I’ve ever said those words out loud. I know it though. I’ve seen my resume. I’ve been told I’m smart. I’ve been told smart women are intimidating (though that doesn’t seem to apply to one’s children!). But I’ve never actually built a case for my boys about how smart I am. It doesn’t seem right to brag.

And I’m not sharing here to impress anyone, it’s just that it struck me that my boys are under constant pressure to compare themselves to the opposite gender. They learned, “Boys rule and girls drool” around the age of three at the day care center. They happily proclaim “girls are so bossy and annoying” and “girls are stupid and weak” as they progress through elementary school. They hear people say “Don’t let a girl beat you” in sporting events, as I overheard just this week. They have so much peer influence trying to make them feel superior – on top of the natural self-absorption of this age range!

I am working to counter that. I intentionally try to stop myself from making gender-based generalizations. I try to model truth and goodness, strength and kindness, integrity and faith, and the importance of hard work.

The other night, Super Tall Guy and I chatted before he fell asleep. He mentioned that a neighbor boy said he couldn’t do something because his mom just lay on the couch most evenings. Super Tall Guy pointed out, “You never just lie around on the couch, Mom.” I agreed. “Yes. It’s important to me to take care of you boys and the house. I do some work in the evenings many times so that I can be available during the day when needed for you guys,” I replied. “But I do take the weekends off, don’t I?” I explained (thank you, Netflix!). I’ve learned so much from my incredibly industrious amazing mother and other strong women role models in my life. My goal is to show my boys the value of hard work and respect for the work that others do. My goal is to show them that women can and do make tremendous contributions to society.

I try to find examples of equality through picking movies wisely that show women “saving the day” and not just men all the time (loved Frozen for that!). I have read “Paper Bag Princess” numerous times to the boys. I look for books with strong female characters. I try to be intentional.

There are so many things that these boys of mine are going to learn by looking at my example. There are so many more things that they will learn from peers and social media and entertainment and the culture around them. And there are some things that I just need to say out loud so they understand. Mommy is smart!

Just maybe….some day… maybe they will listen!