Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Quiet Chat in the Hallway

This is Part 1 in a series about the balance between self and parent, and parenting during challenges.

Part 1: The Quiet Chat and why I had it

When I worked in publishing, one of my authors, a doctor, introduced me to a new phrase: The Quiet Chat.

You don't want to know what it means, but I'm going to tell you anyway. It's the medical equivalent of the Blue Wall. In other words, when a doctor has a problem---drugs, alcohol, shaky hand, memory loss, etc---the medical world prefers to deal with it quietly, behind closed doors. Without going into any kind of discussion about the pros and cons of this strategy for managing problems, let's just leave our stomachs right in that gut reaction of More Than Faintly Disturbed and transition over to the kind of Quiet Chat parents get to have.

Don't you prefer to handle your family's situations privately?

And yet, how often do you really get to do that?

Of all the things in life, parenting tends to be one of the most public--possibly because it seems so very visible, and people think what they see is the whole story. it rarely is, though.

Like most, my husband and I prefer Quiet Chats, handling it at home, among our family---where largely it all resides. It usually starts with a conversation between co-parents...the conversation usually begins and ends with a plea, "What are we going to do about this?"

But sometimes it spills into school and that's when you get to have the Quiet Chat in the Hallway with the teacher, as I did today. I've had quite a few quiet chats with teachers lately.

Today's chat was about Persistence. Her teacher had noted some clinginess to me and some boundary-testing. Welcome to the club.

Persistence is a boundary-tester by nature. She notices lines and cracks in pavement. When we walk from the car to her school she hops over every crack, and insists on walking in an odd loop on the painted lines of the parking lot. These are her own rules and superstitions, all of her own making---the only kind she believes in and will follow. If I told her to walk on the lines and hop over the cracks, she'd immediately stop, and would abandon her superstitions about it faster than a politician forgets his campaign promises.

She also notices lines and cracks in people. She will find your buttons and push them, tip-toe along the edges of your boundaries, keep you off-balance. Nine out of ten times she will stay on the right side of the line, but on the tenth, she will cross over, and you will crack.

In dog training you learn that you don't have to give a dog a treat every time because he will remember that he got it once, and will always hope that this time will be that once again. Our dog trainer told us, "Dogs are wicked superstitious that way, if it happens once, they remember that." Once our dog leapt over a two by four to get into a room we didn't want him in. He was a puppy, and didn't clear the board, which fell on his paw and bounced back up, landing with a huge plop and clatter beside him. Even after he was a full grown dog, up to my hips, one two by four in a doorway will prevent him from entering a room.

Parents are as superstitious as dogs. We always remember the once, especially the onces that are treats to us.

"Do you remember that Saturday that the kids got up, got Cheerios, turned on the TV and played quietly until we woke up?" I asked my husband last weekend, who had been dragged from bed by a child who sneaked past my admonitions and defenses. "Leave Dad be," I told the children, "He's tired." My husband was exhausted, sleep-deprived after maybe 10 hours of sleep the whole week. But they wanted him, and so one distracted me while the other sneaked up and woke him.

"Maybe," he said, "Or maybe we just dreamed that."

It works against us too. As Persistence runs along the boundaries, I get to a point when I over-react, my nerves stretched to the ends, because I remember the times that she crosses the lines, and I am tired of waiting. I know she will do it. I am fatigued with the effort of keeping her on this side.

"Your hands are full with that one," my husband's coworker, coworkers actually, said about Persistence when I dropped the kids at the office on Monday night.

Yes, our hands are full with that one.

Our hearts, too, because as clever as she is about our lines and cracks, she is clever, also, about the effects constant testing can create, and so her charm is abundant, her charisma enormous. She can make you laugh out loud, or reach her for a huggy squeeze right before your temper tips to angry. There is just something about her, people have said to me, that reaches out and grabs your heart. She makes you care

Her teacher cares.

And so she just wanted to check in with me about the clinging, and the testing.

I confirmed, provided context---husband working a lot, I'm busy, she's in boundary testing mode defcon 8, Patience has had incidents at school and is coming home and taking it out on her little sister, and so forth.

"I just have to hold firm on the line," I told the teacher, "And sometimes that creates conflict. She resists, I discipline, and so forth. Today was a tough morning. She refused to get ready, we ran late, she missed breakfast so only got cheerios in the car, and so forth. She knows, and so, I think, she clings a bit, just to get enough reassurance that it's true my love doesn't go away, even in times like these..."

"That's what I thought," the teacher said, "She said you've been busy, using the computer, also that daddy's been at work..."

She said it with the kindness and understanding I know makes up the core of her, but I felt the icy chill in my chest. Guilt. Shame.

Parenting is choices. The things I love to do for me do not involve my children. I went to a reception and reading on Monday, for an author I admire greatly. He is the example I kept in mind every time someone told me my writing was too dialogue-y and not plot-driven enough. I like characters, how they interact, and the things they say. Action is fun but sometimes so is watching a river flow by. I live in my head, and so, it seems, do my characters. I came home Monday night with stars in my eyes. The conversations I had revolved around my favorites topics, and nobody got bored or told me the things I say and think make their brains hurt. Nobody laughed and said enough intellectual. Nobody threw an arm around my shoulder and said, "You are one intense chick but we love you anyway." Not once. They seemed intrigued and invested, as I was, and so I loved them all.

But my children could not be there. So, while my soul was renewed on the Julie-level, my children were at my husband's office until nearly bedtime.

In the morning, I was awakened by angry children. I had betrayed their expectation of me by doing for myself instead of for them, and their father had betrayed them by not following their expectations of being the me Substitute and for not making up for that by Doing Something Special.

"Daddy didn't take us out to dinner!" Patience said.

"Daddy forgot to go to the store and buy snack for school and today is my snack day!" Persistence said.

The dam opened and the children let flow a flood of whines. I rolled over to see the clock. My room was dark, but it was after 7 a.m. I hate daylight savings.

My mind, by this point, already soggy, was quickly drenched with the torrent of complaints.

"Patience," I said in my 'everybody be quiet voice,' "I'm sorry you don't feel like you got fun time with Daddy. Let's schedule some time this weekend, when you can do fun things, okay? Persistence, let's get ready fast so we can leave early. We'll run by the store and get the snacks, okay?"

Some people make a great living at a job like this for corporations.

I'm adding Solutions Expert on my resume.

But in that Quiet Chat with the teacher, my bravado faltered and fell off in a single sheet. Instead of "glue that binds the family" and "solutions expert" and "balanced woman and mother" I became, instead, "woman who is selfishly pursuing own ends and missing her desperate children's pleas for attention."

We think things are private, we think we manage things in the home, but when the teacher spoke to me, I realized that every time my children leave me and our home, they carry their own stories with them, which they share. Or broadcast. Depending.

I thought I was juggling work and family so well, but now my younger daughter is acting up and I saw it in the teacher's eyes: it is directly related to my busy days.

My husband and I have been trying to make up for it by devoting ourselves to the children on the weekend, especially with fun activities, such as trips to the Children's Museum and family get-togethers. The funny thing, the odd thing, is that I think, in a way, the kids would so much rather nothing very special at all. I think they'd just as soon be home, running in the yard, largely ignoring us until they happened to need us in some way, while knowing we were there at their disposal. Rather like an armchair.

We think our lives are opaque for our children, but they never, ever are. My children see me enjoying myself greatly outside the home, and on some level, this terrifies them. On another level, it enrages them. They want all of me.

Instead of feeling boxed in and resentful, I felt guilty. I immediately began sorting through my obligations, determining which could be dropped.

And then I felt resentful, because the truth is...if we had more of my husband, my role wouldn't be so crucial.

I'm not living more life right now, I'm not actually more busy than usual right now. I'm busy, it's true, but when I have an equal co-parent, it's not as noticeable.

My children have switched their dependence to me 100%.

And so...it is left to me to figure out what to cut. From my life.

After my laps this morning, I sat on the memorial bench and watched the waves lap against the boardwalk posts. I listened to a long-ago This American Life episode called "Didn't ask to be born," about parents, good parents who did their best, who lost their children in arguably the worst way: emotionally and relationally.

"I felt horrible, the worst failure and shame, like the welfare mom standing in the grocery line with food stamps and candy bars while everyone clicks their tongues in judgment," the one mother said.

And I knew how she felt. How do we not lose our children. How do we not lose ourselves.

It all flows together. Someday, Persistence's boundary testing will serve her well. Someday the example I set of being a person as well as a mother will serve my girls well. Each time we act up---me, or the kids---we are telling each other something, "Look at me, see me, see my needs." Someday it will serve us all well because we will not fall into the habit of ignoring one another or of creating a person and situation that is convenient for us, rather than who and how it really is.

Today, on the coast, the waves, wind, and sun were consistent, easy. Little waves lapped in to shore with a soft breeze in temperate air, with sun peeking from behind clouds just enough for bright, not enough for heat. I know tomorrow everything could be completely different, and I'll adapt.

This, too, will pass. And we will adapt.

Today I will keep in mind that the children really more want an armchair mom, instead of a well-balanced woman, and rather than trying to do something special, as I did yesterday after school, we will come home and just sit. I'll sit outside with a book and the children will run and play and largely ignore me until they need something, but I will be there, on the side, in their periphery. Until they need me.