The past seven days have not left me enamored with technology or electronics. First, it was a major website/email outage last Friday that left me unable to do a large chunk of my paid work for the entire day (and the scant five or so people who read this blog unable to access my inanity). Presently, a new mobile phone will not work (and is used for business and was to replace an older one that was irreparably broken), and it purportedly cannot be replaced in time before we leave on vacation this Saturday, rendering me, ironically, immobilized. I feel like I’m spending more and more of my time waiting on these kinds of annoyances the more we are all tied to technology to do even simple things like make a phone call. Waiting for something that is probably not all that necessary to begin with, yet it has become slowly ingrained that we cannot survive without it because it leaves us seemingly disconnected. Increasingly, I am growing tired of that kind of connection. In the span of just fifteen years or so, I’ve noticed a change from hanging out to phone calls to emails to Facebook posts to . . . even less. So, what are the connections worth waiting for, then? Re-connecting with my family on vacation, certainly, and indeed I am looking forward to our upcoming trip. (Though reading that makes it sound like we’ve gone too far afield already: re-connecting? I live with these people!). And friends. Friends who visit you in the flesh. They are worth waiting for. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when, not one, but two! beloved college friends went out of their way so that we could say hello in person. Always worth the wait. And this is just what M is doing this morning as she, very patiently, waits for her friend to come over and play. Today she will be connected in the most meaningful way. Soundtrack: squealing dryer (again!), plastic laundry baskets on wooden floors, a breeze sailing in on humid air, a bird sound that has me wondering whether someone around here got some chickens or whether the wild turkeys are afoot again, and the deafening silence of my broken phone.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
M’s love of the Brady Bunch has finally seemed to wane and she’s no longer interested in watching the show. Maxed out. But one souvenir from that dalliance with the 70s and her love of Cindy Brady is M’s desire to wear braid pigtails. Yet the kind of dexterity and precision concentration that it takes me to actually accomplish making them is on the level of studying nuclear physics in 100 degree weather while balancing on my elbows. I have the same difficulty with playing video games and driving a manual transmission car, both of which I don’t actually do and can avoid at all costs.
But the braids and her love for them? I know this moment is also fleeting, so I press on. I won’t tell you how long it took me to accomplish these (or how many attempts). Soundtrack: Spin cycle on the washing machine (I now realize I do a lot of laundry on Thursdays!), and M singing a song that goes, “I don’t want to be a person, I don’t want to be a person, I wish I were a pony,” followed by an abrupt break to ask me if there are any green ants.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you might have picked up on the fact that patience has not always been my strong suit. It’s gotten way better over the past couple of years. Much better. Wine helps. Increased amount of sleep over the past two years (for M and me) and a recent return to running are certainly key reasons too. But also in my bag of tricks are the two books tied for #7 in my Top 8 Parenting Books:
Buddhism for Mothers: A Calm Approach to Caring for Yourself and Your Children, by Sarah Napthali
Momma Zen: Walking The Crooked Path of Motherhood, by Karen Maezen Miller
As the titles suggest, the principles that inform the authors of these books are from Buddhist teachings. Prior to reading these books (which, I believe, were book club selections with my former group . . . that memory is a little hazy now), I had no experience with Zen meditation or Buddhism in general. I still don’t really, meaning that I did not go forth after reading these two books and begin incorporating a formal Zen practice into my life.
But through the stories that the authors share, I took away the greater principles of insight and perspective about motherhood, all offered within the context of Buddhist teachings. I also am now more aware when I need to go back to these books for a “refresher” (though both of my books are out on loan . . . perhaps I should consider an electronic copy as well).
These books are good for that period of the first three years, particularly for a first time mom (and perhaps for moms of 2+ kids . . . I just don’t have that particular point of view to know whether the books are as helpful “the second time around”). However, I do think the underlying messages are applicable to any point along the parenting spectrum.
It helps that they are short books containing essays, making it easier to read a chunk or two at a time when you have a spare moment (which feels like never when you’re juggling an infant and the rest of your life). In fact, that is how I preferred to read these books, a bit at a time. Reading in small doses helped to solidify the message that the authors were trying to get across. It is also not the kind of book that you have to read chronologically (though I did the first time for both books); you can certainly pick and choose something to go back to that might help you gain some much needed perspective. The personal anecdotes they share are also entirely relatable and translatable to your own set of circumstances.
The authors do not sugar coat the challenges that come with becoming and being a parent. That’s why they resonated with me. They are written by two women who understand the drudgery that comes with being a parent, no matter how much you love your children. If they had been written by non-parents, I’d be skeptical about whether they knew what they were talking about, much less whether they had an appreciation for how to apply what they try to teach the reader.* But these women help the reader see the broader picture and how to incorporate acceptance, calm, and a filtering lens of joy, no matter what situation is at hand (like tantrums, sleepless nights, frazzled nerves, and time that is not your own anymore).
These books might not be for everyone to the extent that they are based on Buddhist principles (primarily mindfulness; and it truly is a practice). I’m not a religious or even spiritual person, and so for those passages/quotes that seemingly draw upon something “divine” or from a “higher level”, I was able to tenor (ignore) it in a way that worked with my particular leanings, primarily because I can find value in the underlying principles from a purely humanist point of view. Not everyone may wish to do that kind of refocusing when reading these kind of books, though I still believe they are worth checking out if you are even remotely curious about living more mindfully as a parent.
Either (or both) of these books are a nice addition to the nightstand reading at the end of the day. Even a few pages of reading before sleep can help put a positive spin on the day just ending, and set the tone for the days yet to come.
* Here’s what I mean by that: one of the medical professionals that M has seen in the past year does not have children of her own. While this might make her more objective on some levels, this always makes me skeptical about whether she can really appreciate the ability to incorporate the advice she gives, at least the portions that we (as M’s parents) are supposed to do. I don’t discount her academic understanding of a situation, but I’m someone who tends to prefer advice from someone who’s “been there, done that” even if it’s not exactly the same set of circumstances. I want to know that someone has previously been in the trenches and occupied the same mental space as me if I’m going to take their advice. But that’s just me.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
I’m not sure if it was more M’s personality shining through or just part of the bundle of traits that comes with four and five year olds, but at some point in the past I realized that she was having a hard time when things weren’t going her way. Not in a drop down tantrum-y kind of way, but in a “woe is me” attitude kind of way. Like she was personally affronted that the world was not turning on her axis. Like life was hard.
Being an adult, I have the (arguably unfortunate) vantage point of knowing that her life is not hard, at least not when compared to so many others both near and afar. Far from it. I think that is why it was sometimes grating to me when she would act like that. Is it fair to parent from that perspective? Maybe not, but then I think of the amount of self-entitlement and the need for instant gratification that is seemingly pervasive among younger folks today. I don’t want to encourage that kind of trait in my own child. My personal feeling is that a lot of the reason we’re seeing teenagers and young adults who are unable to be patient and who break down when things don’t go their way—at school, in sports, getting that first job, etc.—is because of the expectations they learn at home.
For M, it usually turned up subtly when playing with friends—either with toy sharing issues, when someone didn’t want to play what she wanted to play, or even when a playmate wasn’t really in the mood to play that day. (Can you blame them, really? We’re the ones who schedule playdates so far in advance. I don’t know about yours, but my crystal ball has sometimes failed to plan them on days when both kids are actually in the mood to be around each other.) Sometimes it would happen at home if plans of ours had to change without notice. Sometimes it would surface when something wasn’t exactly perfect, like if she was trying to prop a doll up a certain way and it fell down or if her favorite shirt was in the laundry and she couldn’t wear it that day. Things like that. I wasn’t digging it.
And with an eye to the future where I have less and less control over the ambiance of her life—which, quite frankly, I don’t want to play a role in all of the time, nor should I have to for the reasons I mentioned above—it seemed like she was on the path to not being able to cope when the cookies crumbled.
But missives like “you need to share” or “you need to take turns” don’t always work. Moreover, it wasn’t always reluctance on her part—it was just as equally friends who didn’t want to take turns on a given day, something that I cannot control. And life has bumps, imperfections and unpredictability that require all of us to roll with the punches from time to time.
Yet whatever I was doing wasn’t working to help her move past certain situations. Then one day, I am no longer even sure how it came to be, I just asked her if she could be flexible on something. I vaguely remember her whining in the kitchen early one evening, so it was probably something related to dinner. I remember saying it with some amount of tired exasperation. I wish I could remember more clearly the exact circumstances. In any event, it worked. Hmm.
I think initially I would say things like, “it would be helpful if you could be flexible about XYZ” or “do you think you could be flexible about this?”. It was enough for her to stop and think about it for a few seconds. The amazing thing was, many times her answer or reaction was, “yes”. Not 100% of the time, but enough where it was making a noticeable difference in how she was able to cope. Then eventually I started using the power of suggestion with her, like if we were going to school during a spell where drop-offs were not great (we still have them from time to time), I would suggest to her that maybe she could be flexible if friend Jane wasn’t there yet, she could find friend Sally instead. Or on the way to a playdate I would remind her that she should try to be flexible if friend Wanda wasn’t in the mood to play dolls. It really was working.
I feel like it’s a little better than being a doormat and catering to others’ moods/whims/personalities all the time in the interest of making friends (in a “I just want them to like me no matter how they treat me” kind of way). It also gives her some power, in that she still can choose to say no (or be inflexible). It’s not my way (or someone else’s way) or the highway. Because it turns out that there are some times when it is just too hard, or there is no good reason, to be flexible. There is the balance I was looking for.
I had to tweak it a bit after I realized that the “being flexible” motto was not working (or was more abstract, perhaps) in certain scenarios. Two very recent examples: (1) M was trying to sit one of her dolls in a doll chair “just so” but this particular doll would really only sit if her legs were slightly askew (which M clearly did NOT want); and (2) M has a stuffy nose which, no matter how many tissues we go through, was still stuffy…better, but still slightly uncomfortable and stuffy. Telling her to be flexible about those wasn’t working quite the same (and also can sound kind of heartless when you’re tending to someone who’s under the weather and wants some TLC). So, in a very close corollary, I started showing her that sometimes things are not ever going to be “perfect” but “good enough”, “pretty good” or “better than it was”, and we can still live with that. Just last night, at 2AM no less when all kids’ defenses and patience are WAY down, M was having a tough go of sleeping due to her nose being so stuffy. Yet, in an almost sing song voice, after many failed attempts at blowing her nose clear, she just said, “that’s OK, Mommy, I guess it will just be good enough for tonight.” I mean it was so upbeat that I actually felt her head to check for full blown mania fever.
It’s parenting “wins” like this that give me the confidence that maybe I do sometimes know what I am doing. Teaching her to be flexible and that some things in life will never be “perfect” gives her the conscious choice to be in control about how she reacts to something. She might not be able to change the situation at hand, but she can decide how she wants to handle it emotionally. It took me more than 30 years to make this realization. This ability will hopefully—after many, many years of applied practice just by living life flexibly—help change the tide of the anger, impatience and stress that is already too much a part of our culture.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz.
Dear Ms. Huff-and-Glare:
You were probably only mildly annoyed the moment I sat next to you. You thought you would cruise into the city with an empty seat between you and whatever scourge of the general public might sit nearby. Looks like I spoiled your commute. I know, because I used to be like you.
I remember those days well. Thinking I would just commute to work in my perfectly tailored black suit, snag the end seat near the train door, hoping that no one would fill the empty seat to my right. This was my time. Anyone who disrupted my reading on the way to work, what with their loud cell phone talking or music seeping out the sides of their headphones, would get more than a muffled sigh and peeved glance from me. And children? A subway train during rush hour was no place for children, so they’d better be quiet and only there for some important reason, like going to the doctor.
So when the young woman—who probably made you uneasy merely because she looked nothing like you, with her too tight tank top, tattoos coursing up her shoulder and her obviously uncomfortably short cut-offs—walked in pushing a stroller with an unhappy toddler inside, I knew exactly what it meant when you shifted in your seat and sighed. You were pissed because you knew that her son was not going to give you the peaceful ride you thought you deserved for the next twelve minutes until your stop.
You were right, too. He screeched and banged his fists in protest. He wanted out of that stroller. But his mother held firm and calmly told him “no”, over and over. He put up a good (and loud!) fight, but it was clear he was not going to be the victor that morning.
You were probably thinking to yourself, “why can’t she just take him out so he’ll shut up already?!” You probably thought that all of the glaring that you did in their direction was somehow helpful to the situation. A situation that that mother clearly did not want to be in, now that more than half of the train had quieted down to stare at her and see what was going on. Call me crazy, but I imagine you are a strong proponent of these new “no children” policies that airlines are touting.
Five years ago, I would have thought and done those very same things. But since that time, I had a daughter. My self-importance, much less my opinion about public spaces and the folks who use them, has done an about face.
When I was in your shoes, I wasn’t compassionate enough to realize that no parent or caregiver wants to create a noisy scene that disrupts others going about their daily business. I wasn’t patient enough to understand that everyone has bad days, as adults and as kids. I wasn’t seasoned enough to know that sometimes the only way for a two year old to get his point across—even in the most communicative, structured and loving of homes—is by growling like a distressed lion simply because he does not have the language to express himself like we do. I wasn’t smart enough to realize that this situation had nothing to do with proper discipline but rather that he was just very young and having a stressful moment. I wasn’t empathic enough to appreciate that maybe she is, in fact, taking her son to an invasive or heartbreaking medical procedure and she has no other way to get there. Or, even still, that her young son knows what’s in store for the morning ahead. That maybe she is trying to get out of a stressful living situation or has a mother who is dying, and that that train ride to wherever she was going was the first hands-free respite she had to herself all morning. I wasn’t sensitive enough to think that maybe her son has some involuntary, sensory-based aversion to loud noises or motion. I wasn’t humble enough to realize that I may have screamed exactly the same way more than thirty years ago when I was unwillingly strapped into a stroller.
I wasn’t kind enough to give either of them a break for those twelve minutes.
I am not sure if you have children or not, like them or hate them. It really doesn’t matter. I’m not saying we have to be doormats or put up with aggressive or abusive treatment by others, but the fact of the matter is that we all have to learn how to be a little more forgiving of each other when sharing our world, even when—especially when—it is uncomfortable.
Whether it is at the grocery store, on an airplane, a restaurant or on the subway, we have to learn how to put up with each other a little better. Nobody is perfect, not even prim and proper well-heeled professionals like you. The kids who cry and scream (for whatever reason) and the parents who submit to it for the time being (for whatever reason). The folks among us who talk or move a little slower than we’d like them too. People who are entirely rude beyond reason, but have not been able to process their troubles in a more productive way. We are all guilty of having our less than finer moments. It is what makes us human.
So I hope you will remember this the next time you are near a noisy, unhappy kid or some other person who has rattled your otherwise peaceful day: these are all mere moments in time, nothing more than a few minutes or, at worst, a couple of hours. What better time for you to dig a little deeper into your reserves of patience and empathy, and offer it as a gift to the other person, knowing that you made the world a little more peaceful that day, even if they couldn’t.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz.
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