I am your ACE

Sometimes the strain of parenting really gets to me. Sometimes I am not personally balanced enough on my own little teeter-totter, that when the boys throw me a curve ball, I fall off in the attempt to catch it.

I’ve been doing a lot of work in establishing a crisis nursery for the Pittsburgh area. Although a respite for any parent, it started as a child abuse prevention model. Put the young children in a crisis nursery for a few hours or a few days to keep them safe while the parent or caregiver takes a break and attends to an emergency or pressing situation.

This work is built on the premise that our young children are very vulnerable to stress under the age of 5 at the same time that their brains are developing at lightning speed. If they are exposed to “adverse childhood experiences,” their brains, genetic structure, and immune system can be altered for life. Yes – brains, genes, health…changed for life. This is some serious stuff!

So, these adverse childhood experiences are called ACE, because no one likes to say a mouthful of words. In the research, an ACE score was based on an experience of physical abuse, sexual abuse, exposure to domestic violence, having an incarcerated parent, living with a parent with mental health issues or substance abuse problems. The higher the ACE score, the harder the childhood, the worse the person’s health in adult life.

I spoke with a friend about this research recently. Her whole career is focused on this area and in helping people think about ACE and how we care for children and adults who have been traumatized by events in their life.

Naturally, as she is a mother of a boy….we also shared a lot of stories about the joys and stresses of parenting boys. I told her that when Super Tall Guy was around 2 or 3, Way I feelwe were reading a “feelings” book together that had wonderful illustrations of a range of emotions and the word identifying them on the page. He was silent as we turned pages….until the drawing of a red head with exploding swirls and dark eyes and jolting lightning bolts….and he said “Mommy” …  right there at the page labeled “Angry.”

I paused. That moment is imprinted on my mind. Sometimes, for my developing boys….“I am your ACE.” I am a stressful experience. I am a scary moment. I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to be the model of an angry face, even if sometimes my head is red and there are lightning bolts jutting out at all angles. (I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of these ACE “experiences,” just reflecting on how powerful emotions can be and a parent’s potential role).

I once took a mini-video of Mr. Ornery when he was having a huge fit of tears and anger. I played it back for him to let him see what it looks like as he yells and flails and stomps and wails. It’s probably the case that I should actually take a “selfie” of my own face sometimes when I’m in a “mood” with the boys….when I’m frustrated at having told them for the umpteenth (I now understand that that word refers to parental infinity) time to not stand on the piano to climb up and hoist yourself over the staircase railing…. when I’m reminding them to aim in the bathroom…. when I’m shaking my head and saying “really? Really? You just hit him for what?!?”

It’s quite possible that my selfie might make me reconsider my outburst. It might help me step back and count to ten. It might encourage me to put myself in my own room for a time-out break and some deep breaths. It might be just what I need to remind myself that I actually never want to be an ACE for my children and will do absolutely everything in my power to protect them from a single Adverse Childhood Experience.

Wrapping them in the “protective relationship” of unconditional love, body-slamming them with praise, encouraging their expressions of independence and individuality….these….these are the experiences I must provide. For I am your Absolutely Cherishing Each – ACE!

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Assumptions about Super Tall Guy – wrong again…

You know … you really have to watch your assumptions when you’re a parent. With this opening line, I could go anywhere, couldn’t I? But I shall try to tie this in.

Super Tall Guy is an extraordinarily shy guy. At least he seems to be. At least that is my assumption about him…built on a vast number of facts such as hiding behind my body on too many occasions to count, refusing to speak to someone that I am conversing with, and many other examples. However, every once in awhile, he isn’t shy and I am generally taken aback and don’t know how to respond.

This weekend we had a sunny and warm Saturday morning (wow – mid November!) meer catand so we strolled along the zoo enjoying the quiet of the morning. We eventually stumbled into the Polar Bears’ Birthday Party (who knew that Koda and Kobe are 8 and 11 years old….but I can’t remember which is which). All the crafts and activities and yet Super Tall Guy was Super bored until Radio Disney said they were going to have a hulu-hoop contest. He raised his hand and bounced “pick me, pick me.” I stood awestruck and watched him go forward. He easily won the first round – probably since the Little Guy was one of the 2 opponents, and then he went head-to-head against a very graceful school-aged girl. He was quite disappointed to lose. I was quite shocked to watch him compete. It was touching on the way home when he mumbled in the back of the van, “I was sad not to win the hulu hoop.” I still shook my head in disbelief and said, “I’m proud of you for getting up there.”  Where does this come from?

I was just as shocked last month as we started to leave the great party welcoming the Big Yellow Rubber Duck to Pittsburgh. As we attempted to skirt past throngs of people, we were approached by a man with a microphone near a canopy tent. He asked if we’d like to participate in his documentary. I laughed and began to move on when Super Tall Guy said “yes” and stopped. I paused and said to myself, “we’ll just see if this actually works!” So he asked what the rubber duck means to us and Super Tall Guy smiled, pulled me down to his height and whispered in my ear. I repeated his words and moved on thinking “well, that’s on the editing room floor!”  So – check it out (warning…we’re at the end….but it really is an interesting short piece.)

My other big really bad, definitely more significant mistaken assumption over the past couple weeks was related to Super Tall Guy’s first grade homework. For the month of October, they were expected to memorize Psalm 100. It’s a long one and I didn’t really understand it as homework and really thought that STG wouldn’t be interested in memorizing and wouldn’t have the brain-power to do so. Hence, I never reviewed the verse with him at home. Tuesday, the 30th, he lay in bed before falling asleep and recited the whole thing. I pounced on him with joy. He said “do that again,” and I body-slammed him again! (apparently this is the kind of praise that he likes). I confessed my apathy to his teacher the next day at the conveniently scheduled parent-teacher conferences and I promised in my head that I would never underestimate him again (until I do) and would do better at working with him on homework (until I don’t).

But reflecting on these few examples tonight makes me realize how I shape his experiences based on my assumptions of what he will and will not like. I love that he surprises me, but I hope that I’m not denying him some really fun and rich experiences based on my own judgment call. More importantly, I need to be wary of not challenging him to his fullest potential, but to expect the world of him …. and body-slam him whenever he proves me wrong.

What to do when you’re out of “kid joules”

So….I’m on empty. It happens pretty frequently, especially on the weekends.

Think of it. You wake up with energy (unless you’ve just lived through the nightmare week called “Post-Daylight-Savings-Time-Messes-With-Every-Child-Under-The-Age-Of-Seven!!”).  Let’s give that morning energy a number, such as 1000 kJ or “kid joules” (where a joule is defined as the energy expended to move one kid through the distance of one day under absolute pristine perfect conditions…which never exist).

So, on a good day, like yesterday morning, you wake up with 1000 kJ….or you expected to, but since The Little Guy was up 3 times in the 45 minutes prior to you groaning out of bed, you leave the warm comforter with 972 kJ. Knowing that it’s going to be a long day, you bribe your sister to run for mochas while you make pancakes (caffeine + chocolate = + 500 kJ for sure!).

The boys bounce around the house for an hour, tackling each other, fighting over who has which fire truck (which doesn’t really matter when you’re just racing the inside track of the house screaming at the top of your lungs anyway), and tossing a football towards the ceiling and pretending that they weren’t “trying” to hit the chandelier, really.  – 478 kJ

You text a few friends with kids to let them know that you’ve about lost it already and are heading to Chuck e Cheese. Yes, this seems counter-intuitive, but at least the boys are less likely to be trying to strangle each other or break household items when you’re in someone else’s enclosed space.   One friend shows up so you have a bit of interrupted adult conversation  + 135 kJ, and yet the presence of 38 other screaming monsters leaves you just barely ahead. – 112 kJ

You return home to let The Little Guy nap while you drug the older ones with rapidly-flashing animated scenes (“The Croods”) and sit down yourself for a minute, drawn into the drama of a  caveman father who risks his life for his family (sniff, sniff…oh, he lives).  + 289 kJ

If you’ve been keeping track, you’re at 1206 kJ at 1:30pm and you’re feeling pretty good about the day. Unfortunately, the next item on the agenda is the Circus!

– 25 kJ – getting 4 boys to go to the bathroom before leaving the house
– 55 kJ – finding 7 complete pairs of shoes
– 60 kJ – buckling in 2 boys and nagging 3 to buckle up
– 285 kJ – managing 5 boys in one mini-van for a 10 minute ride …. when they are sitting close enough to actually TOUCH each other!!
– 111 kJ – corralling all 5 yippy loose dogs in a line to enter the arena
– 2897 kJ – lights, sounds, explosions, acrobatic tensions, tigers, elephants, hungry whiners, elephantspilled popcorn, packed seats, potty breaks, toy grabbers, occasional punches, tired moans, “why didn’t I get a whirly flashing light thingy like The Rascal did?”….back in the car – PLEASE turn the video on, I say, so we can have some quiet (no positive joules, just the absence of further depletion).

Right, we’re home… It’s 6:00pm, I’m at -2227 and the boys need some dinner. Cereal sounds really good and it seems like it’s just about bed-time in this household too.

smaller chaos

Pause on this photo for a second…can you feel the energy?!?

The problem is, when I’m running in the negative….like on the day after the circus, I am naturally much less patient and much more demanding on the boys. They are likewise in a negative energy state and trying to make up for that by being particularly rambunctious and pesty. We spiral ever downwards, dragging mother and child through the maelstrom. Feeble attempts to bump the energy level are short-lived for both mother (bite of chocolate, escape to the basement to change the laundry…slowly….) and child (banishment to the isolation chambers of the upstairs toy room = worst thing in the world!). Nothing, nothing helps this situation except night-fall and the glorious sounds of snoring boys. It is then that the countdown begins… “just two more hours and it will be bedtime”…. “just 1 more hour”….. “just 45 minutes”…. “just 31 minutes”…. “just 28 minutes”…. “just 25….oh geez – get up to bed already!!” A little longer story time can soothe us all.

In these moments I remind myself that the days are long, but that we survive them.

I remind myself that I love each and every one of these crazy kids, even though my exploding face isn’t always showing it.  I take some deep breaths and back away, then hand out hugs to everyone.

I remind myself that we’re all in this mess together and when we create more mess, we have to clean it up together. And we do.

I remind myself that they will sleep, tomorrow will come, and it will give us all a new start. Each day we strive to be a little better and rest in the knowledge that love smoothes the bumps along the way.

When you don’t really want to cuddle with one…

Strangely, I’ve continued to meditate this week on the theme of a couple weeks ago of “I really would like some space around my own body.” I feel like I need one of those sumo-wrestler suits (except that I hear they are tremendously smelly inside from multi-person use!).

Here’s the thing. I love my three boys. And I’m pretty sure I love them equally, it’s just that I love them differently. I love the gentle spirit and heart within Super Tall Guy, even though it’s often masked by his excessive body movements. I love the quirkiness of Mr. Ornery and the fact that he absolutely positively must have chocolate milk every morning and evening – and I MUST sit beside him while he gulps it down in under 2 minutes. And I love the spirit of the Little Guy who gets involved in anything that happens, forgetting that he’s only 28 pounds and likely to be squashed easily by any of the other 4 bouncing-ball boys!!

But I’m going to be honest – I actually enjoy draping my arm around Mr. Ornery for his 2 minutes of milk inhalation, yet I cringe whenever the Little Guy comes flying towards me. It’s quite a strange phenomenon, but our bodies just don’t seem to mesh at all. Could it be that he is all pointy and boney and I am all pointy and boney….and our points and bones keep jabbing each other? Or maybe it’s the unexpected fling of an arm that catches me across the bridge of the nose leaving an imprint from my glasses rims. Or it could be that as he clambers up my leg, his fingernails dig in like a cat scampering up drapes. He does give the best hugs and often walks up to me and says, “Mommy, I need a hug,” in a most darling and adorable voice. But more often than I would have thought, I’m peeling him off me saying “ow.”

It’s not easy to admit this. It feels somehow that I’m a mean mommy and being negative about one of my boys, that maybe I don’t love the Little Guy as much. But I don’t think so. I think I’ve had to admit it to myself that everyone comes in different shapes and sizes and sometimes those shapes and sizes don’t fall into place like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes, those shapes and sizes bump into each other and scratch and bruise. I want to acknowledge this so that I don’t see our clash as an annoyance, but as a difference. To allow myself the freedom to truly know my boys in their uniqueness and in the way that we come together as a family. To allow myself to love each of them in our own special way and to celebrate the different kinds of love. This is not to say that I avoid being physical and loving to the Little Guy, it’s just that I see the need to accept that this is not our perfect “language of love” and that we need to develop in other areas. And that’s okay. Because sometimes in the middle of the night I hear him talk in his sleep….and a dreamy voice rings through the hall saying, “I wuv you, Mommy,” and I call back, “I love you, buddy” (even though he probably doesn’t hear me in his sleep).

For I love my three boys.

Halloween 2013