From Chrysalis to Butterfly

This past week my daughter, Snowflake, started first grade. In regards to parenting, this is a huge milestone for most people. Unless you are homeschooling, this milestone represents the moment when you turn your children loose to spend almost as much time per week with teachers and classmates than they do with you at home. You may think this story is about her transformation into a butterfly. It's not. This story is all mine.

The advent of an unrelenting school schedule has forced this "roll with the punches," "c'est la vie" parent to completely alter a six-year-long parenting style. Over the short time since school started I have met a whole new me. This parent that I have suddenly become is wed to her schedule, is attempting to simplify her life from commitments and surprisingly even manages to get housework done with ease. In general, she is a much happier person.

Let me explain. I just finished enduring the second worse summer of my life. I posted earlier this year on the the worst summer of my life.  Unlike the worst summer of my life, nothing changed, no one died and I didn't lose a job. Instead I endured a three-month vacuum of full-scale depression.

During most school years I work for Children's ministry. I put together programs, manage employees, write curriculum and work childcare for a quite a few different churches. I am surrounded by people day in and day out. I am too busy to think straight and certainly too busy to be depressed. I also spend my evenings as a dance instructor. When one works 7 or 8 small jobs with 3 small children it is impossible to ever sit down and stop moving.

Then summer comes. Summer, I have observed over the years, is the time when, although we all have more time that we could spend with each other, even the best laid, "Call me and we will set up a playdate" often goes unanswered. Summer is the time when each nuclear family pulls into itself and attempts to reconnect after the busyness of the school year. They go on vacation, they go to the pool, if the parents are working they put the kids in summer camp. But, either way, each family tends to go into its own cocoon, only to emerge in fall when the kids go back to school. This is the summer that my cocoon became suffocating but transformative. I was painfully and excruciatingly transformed into a whole new parent.

Last spring my husband approached me and told me, "If you don't get a full-time job, we are going to lose the house in 18-20 months." Well, that definitely got my attention. I started applying for jobs in April. Job application after job application went out. Six weeks later, the tidal wave of rejection letters started coming in.

"We are sorry..."
"Due to an overwhelming response to our job posting....."
"Over-qualified" (education)
"Under-qualified" (work experience)
"Unfortunately you will not be proceeding to the interview phase..."

Or, my personal favorite. Nothing. NO response, just a lingering curiosity if the application actually got to anyone or if they just couldn't be bothered to reject me.

The panic set in, I started yelling at the kids to go watch t.v, "Mommy needs to fill out this application." In the meantime, my husband, in attempt to help, took on overtime shifts. He took on a whole bunch of overtime shifts.

This led to me, at home by myself with the kids for 12 hours a day. No break. Three kids. No money to go anywhere to get a break.

It was fine at first. After the school year the two girls were excited to have time to spend with each other. They spent June playing elaborate games and making up stories and plays to act out. Then as July hit, the excitement wore off. The nothingness of every day started to wear on them and the fighting started. The girls would start in on each other the second their feet hit the floor in the morning. The baby was teething. One day Mr. Starman screamed for 6 and a half hours straight. Nothing I did helped.

The days started feeling LOOOOONNNNGGG and I would desperately count down the hours until my husband got home. This meant on some days I would let the kids stay up till he got home at nine because I was too tired to try and put them to bed myself. I felt like I was trapped in hell and I wished every day for a job so that I could escape my children.

The depression got worse. I stopped cleaning the house. The kids started running me instead of me running the kids. My husband, exhausted from working all the extra hours, started picking fights the second he walked through the door. "What did you do all day?" "Why are the kids still up?" "What is going on with you?" "You need to get it together!" At one point my Mom, who had become very concerned, asked if she should be worried about our marriage. I looked at her and told her honestly, "I don't know."

The only thing I could do was wait and count down the days until school started or a job came through. The idea that Snowflake would be gone 7 hours a day was like a mirage in the distance of the desert. You hope it holds the promise of rest and rejuvenation, but you aren't sure, so you just keep desperately moving towards it.

And then, before I knew it, it was here. It was with great joy, and absolutely no sadness, that I walked her off to her first day of first grade. And when I got home....there was quiet. It was peaceful. There was no fighting, no squabbling over who had the red crayon or who got to play with the pink-haired Barbie last. Raindrop sat down, happy to finally have time without her older sister issuing orders, and played with her play-dough for two straight hours. Starman took a nap. I sat down and had a cup of coffee and relished the silence.

And then, like a butterfly awakening from a long chrysalis I emerged from a scary two-month-long fog of stress and depression. I got up and started cleaning my house. The next day when she left for school I kept going. Soon I started organizing. When she got home she was too tired to argue and I fed them dinner and had them in bed by 8. I was suddenly following a schedule and I realized what parents have seen in them all these years. No longer was I the fly-by-night parent. Our lives had changed. My Snowflake had to get up each morning, eat breakfast, get dressed and go to school. Starman's teeth came in. The husband and I refinanced our house. I abandoned the job hunt. We took a breath.

I am now a parent of a school aged child, and quite frankly, if this is what it is like, I will take it! Suddenly I don't hate being home with the kids. I have fallen in love with parenting all over again. I can't wait for my Snowflake to get home from school so that we can talk about her day and do something fun together as a family before bedtime. Somehow having less time with her has made me appreciate her more. Now I am counting down 13 days until Raindrop starts preschool. I am even starting to think of projects I can do for me. The grinding daily neediness has subsided a little.

I am happy.

I am a butterfly.

Avoiding Tragedy

I have to say that whenever I see an article in the newspaper about a mother who went ballistic and killed herself and/or her children, I feel sad of course, but while everyone else vilifies her, demonizes her and recoils in horror, I think, "I can see how she would get to that point."

Sounds shocking, I know, but the fact of the matter is that, as I already discussed on my guest blog, "It Takes a Village", there is absurdly little help from the larger community for parents. Instead, there is a tendency to isolate and bully mothers with silent condemning looks that don't say, "Wow, it looks like you are having a really hard day, how can I help?" but, instead say, "Look at THAT woman! She is obviously not a very good mother. She should discipline those kids or they wouldn't act like that." We have this block that says that we can't cross that invisible privacy fence that surrounds each individual nuclear family and forces the members to deal with crises with their own energy and resources.

"How many children could we have saved if the mothers of those families had just reached out to someone?" That's what we say after the fact, when the shocking reality of violence has gripped our attention. When the woman in question has become the epitome of the role-reversed maternal figure. Then we point and shake our heads at the tragedy of it all and wonder futilely if we could have done something different.

I can tell you right now. YES! You could have done something different and I am here to tell you how you can prevent another tragedy in the making.

Child rearing in this country has been made to be a very isolating and often disrespected endeavor. We judge parents daily but do very little to help them make their lives better. The workplace has a disturbing history of discriminating slyly against women, and specifically mothers. Then we turn around and put down people, especially mothers, who are on public assistance implying that they are having children to avoid working. After we have cut women off from the pride of income production and then shamed them for accepting needed help, we then silently berate them in public for having a bad day with their kids and yet fail to step in and respectfully help out. If someone in a parking lot looks like they are at the end of their rope and yelling at their kids, it is somehow more acceptable to shoot them a sideways glare than step in and assist. And that goes both ways, most mother's don't want someone to step in, even when they so desperately need it, because in America it is shameful to admit you may not be the ideal mother all the time.

Now we add the final piece. Depression. Here is the insidious thing about depression. The worse it is, the less likely the person is to show you. The more depressed they get, the more they are going to pull away, shut down offers to help and the more they are going to maintain the front that everything is fine. And here in America, God Bless us, we are so tied up in the idea of the precious nuclear family, that we are perfectly OK with letting someone do that.

Now we have a depressed person who may or may not have a job, is stressed out, feeling judged, having nowhere to turn and feeling overwhelmed. So after examination, perhaps these stories are not so shocking after all. Maybe, just maybe, the woman in these stories is not the devil, but someone we chose not to see until it was too late.

Don't be afraid to cross a line. If it seems like someone needs help, don't second guess, just act. Show up and offer to alleviate some of their burden. Prepare yourself for objection and respectfully navigate it. Stop and tell the kid screaming in the Target cart, "Hey sweetie, let's give your Mom a break today and calm down." Will it make a difference in the child's behavior? Maybe, maybe not. But, what it will do is tell that particular mom, "Hey, this is not your fault and it is OK. I understand parenting is tough and everyone has those days."

We need to stop paying lip service in this country to family values and start actually looking at how we can value parents and in turn make them feel valued. And then we might even be able to prevent the worst from happening.

Have you ever seen a mother struggling? What did you do to step in and help?

Guest Post: Emily Bybee

I was recently talking to my friend Emily, an author of Young Adult fiction, about her experiences as a licenced child care provider. As we talked I realized that her encounters with parents in the community and the reactions she received when out with her charges would fit in perfectly with the topics and issues I explore on this blog. Luckily she was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to pen this wonderful article for me. Emily discusses the irony in the lack of respect we afford our care givers in America contrasted with the supposed precious nature that we assign to our children.

     Many moms have had the experience of meeting another mom at the park and having a great conversation until the working mom vs. stay-at-home mom question comes up. If you’re the stay-at-home mom then you’ve probably gotten the remarks like “Oh, you JUST stay home?” or the sideways looks that make you feel judged, like you need to explain what you do with ALL your free time. This isn’t always the case, but often it is.

     I frequently felt judged, like staying home put me at the bottom of the social ladder. I was so wrong.

     After staying home with my three kids for over five years I started an in home daycare so my husband could change careers. I got licensed but only took two young children so everyone had plenty of my attention. 

     After a few visits to the park with all five kids in tow I came to a realization. I’d dropped to a new low level of the social ladder. Now, not only did most of the working moms turn their noses up at me, the stay-at-home moms did as well.

     Needless to say, this is a generalization and only taken from my own experience over the four years I was a daycare provider, but the consensus was unmistakable. If I was a home daycare provider then I must be uneducated and unemployable in any other career and I hadn’t even married well enough that my husband could provide enough for me to stay home. It got to the point that I’d rather let people think I had five children than tell them I was a daycare provider. Just in case anyone is wondering, I graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in environmental biology and had the option of going to medical school but chose to stay home with my kids.

     Now, in my classes I took for my license I did meet some people who probably fit this description. They wanted to pack in as many kids as possible to make money with no thought of the quality of care they provided. What surprised me was that they had no trouble finding clients.

     The first question from everyone who called me about daycare, with the exception of one wonderful client, was how much I charged. Not about my qualifications or background with children or what we did throughout the day. No, it was always how cheap I would go. I know that money, especially now, is tight in so many families, but honestly the most important questions are rarely asked.

     It seems to be the consensus that if you are a daycare provider then it is only because you have no education and couldn’t get any other job. There is no respect for the position. How did we get to this point where the most important job, of taking care of our precious children should be given to people we don’t even respect? I just don’t understand the logic.

     I took providing daycare even more seriously than any other job I’ve had but got the least respect. This presents a serious conundrum. Important job, give it to people we think so little of? I can’t say I follow the logic.

The Pain and Pride of the Parenthood Mirror

Parenthood is funny sometimes, and sometimes it is decidedly less funny. In fact sometimes it is downright disconcerting. Sometimes there are these moments when we look at our kids and instead of these darling individual personalities we normally see, instead, we see....a mirror.

Anyone who has children knows exactly what I am talking about. From the time a baby is born the family immediately starts commenting, "Oh he looks just like his daddy," or "She has her mom's smile." As they grow older and start exhibiting more personality the comments begin, "Oh she is stubborn just like her dad," or "He likes art just like his mom." We see familial resemblances and it helps connect us to our family.

Then there comes the moment when a child does something that is exactly like his or her parent and the horrible realization dawns, "Oh wow not just the good stuff gets handed down!" And sometimes it is a behavior or a personality trait that you feel almost guilty about disciplining because you can see yourself in it and realize exactly what is going on in that little head. It is those moments, in my opinion, that are some of the most challenging moments of parenthood. It is like seeing yourself before your parents and life had a chance to forge your actions for the better, or worse. It is uncomfortable and disconcerting and makes you examine yourself and your choices, and hopefully challenges you to continue to try and be better.

For those who have worked hard to overcome or struggle through a flaw (and we all have them) it can feel as though you are starting over from scratch watching your child struggle with the same issues. It can also be an amazing thing. It can help you realize how far you have come. People who have learned to suppress a temper they have come by honestly, or overcome shyness or any other trait that holds them back, can look at their child and understand where they are coming from and how to get them through. And sometimes the difficult answer is to just sit back and watch them walk the same painful path you yourself walked because it is clear there is no shortcut or easy answer.

That is how I feel about my middle child, Raindrop. She is her mother's daughter, as my family says, in all of her high-need, stubborn, intense, over-emotional glory. She is also painfully and cripplingly shy. Now, here is something only those who have known me for an excruciatingly long time am I.

Anytime I tell someone that I am shy I am usually met with disbelief and derision. Surely someone as apparently outgoing and talkative as myself couldn't possibly be shy. But, the fact of the matter is, it has taken me 12+ years of theater training and dozens upon dozens of performance and public speaking experiences just to get me to a point where I can fake it...most of the time. There are times, however, when that shyness still overtakes me. I can think of a recent time, a parent get-to-know-you function at my daughter's school. I was late and when I got to the door I saw everyone engaged and talking already and no matter what I tried to convince myself, I could not make myself walk in. So, I turned and left.

I see those moments in my Raindrop. I see the moments where she approaches a group of children, even children she knows, and she circles them. She looks for the "weak link," the one where she could single out to talk to in the most non-threatening manner. It kills me to watch this. The painful longing of wanting to belong to the group coupled with the paralytic fear of rejection. It is like watching my own childhood in a curly-haired mirror and my heart aches for her and all the pain she will probably go through figuring out how and where she fits in. I wish I could spare her this.

But, then I realize in some ways I already have. I was an adopted only-child. She is the middle child with two siblings living with her biological parents. Watching my kids I have realized, siblings shape and challenge you in ways no other relationship could. She is braver when her big sister is around and I think ultimately it will help her find her feet faster than I did. But, introducing her to theater, my medium for overcoming my own handicap, has given me unspeakable joy. She took to performing just as I did and in doing so, gave me a mirror that I could gaze into with pride and hope. I turned out okay. So will she. And it is possible, just possible that this new version, Amie 2.0 if you were, may even have more talent than I did. But, then again, that may just be the mother-colored-glasses talking.

Here is my girl performing as the Passenger Engine in a rendition of "The Little Engine that Could." Watching this without prior knowledge, you would never guess that the little girl in the yellow dress suffers from severe shyness. It was so much fun to see my little Raindrop shine!

Guest Blogging on the Mom Pledge

You can find me over at the Mom Pledge today. Feel free to join me on a great site.
 A link to my guest blog, "It Takes a Village"