Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Training Wheels Come Off

In Which the Training Wheels do Indeed Come Off

And Other Adventures

The lazy summer days have come and gone, and with them summer vacation, unemployment and, really, free time in any quantity. It never ceases to amaze me how the thing we lament in one period of time we come to long for a few short weeks later. Being a housewife was never for me; I knew that, and expressed it loudly. Yet busy as I tried to make myself over the summer, it suddenly doesn't compare to the hectic pace at which days fly by. Now, bedtimes really matter. Not just for school; a Saturday afternoon lost to a prolonged temper tantrum that requires bedroom confinement is time you can never get back. He's in his room screaming about whatever it is he's found for an excuse to be miserable, meanwhile we're sitting there looking at the other 99 items on our to-do list and mentally reorganizing schedules. Always we're looking forward, trying to reassure ourselves that with the future, and the time that the future brings, we'll somehow manage to get to everything. Oh and maybe fit some sleep in there too.

I was unemployed over the summer. Often I had no reason to be out of bed before noon. Jump to late August when the husband has changed jobs and I drive him to and from work every day. Then add in getting the kiddo on the bus at some ridiculously middle of the morning time, then the fact that I started a business that also involves me being busy during those busy commuting times.  Then I took a part-time job, just to add to the fun. This is where the training wheels come in, I'm afraid. The summer was practice, a warm up for the real challenge. The summer was our training wheels. Did it help? Watching the youngster struggle to learn balance on his newly training wheel-less bike, we debated the merits of the crutch. Did they really provide a helpful step to independent bike riding? Did they just create a false sense of security that was rudely ripped away when we took them off? The summer was bike riding lite. Parenting lite, even (I don't mean we were part-time parents, just that we had a lot more time to fit parenting in with all the other stuff we wanted to get done). With the fall has come the real deal.

Training wheels, unfortunately, teach that success comes instantly. It was easy to do the dishes and run the vacuum when I had ten hours in which to get it done. Now I consider it a personal victory to have no dishes in the sink by the time five pm rolls around. As an adult I realize that the dishes will get done eventually. I can see that process in the future, and can visualize the steps leading up to it. As adults we can break down the complicated problem of managing the school/work schedule by breaking it down to manageable steps. 

Kids have to learn that the hard way, and sometimes we have to learn that little skill with them. For all our ability to see the process in front of the result, we have an uncanny way of forgetting that parenting itself is a process and not a series of end-results. We watch others go at the same problems we deal with, we mentally critique their processes, convince ourselves that we can go right where they went wrong, forgetting that every event is itself a step in a greater event--making a person out of a psychopath. By this time in our adult lives, we've forgotten what it was like learning to ride a bike (though we may convince ourselves we remember exactly what happened), and manage to believe that, hard as it was, and stressful, for every other parent before us, somehow it'll be different. We have just the right way to teach it, it'll be fine. 

As the custodians of burgeoning humanity, we have an urge not to let those small almost-people fail. We believe that somehow we can teach them every thing they need to know, save them the harshness of the world, prevent the bruises and skinned knees. The happy, easy times reinforce that, reinforce our willful blindness; those are our training wheels. We forget the process for the good result we think we've reached. Then we hear the frustration in a small piercing voice, reminding us how close failure is to those who expect instant gratification. We try to remain patient. We try to explain. We try to break it down to easy steps, then hold them up and keep them from falling when they try to skip one step to get to the result they expected to happen instantly. We're complicit in their failure. It becomes our own failure. 

Parenting, work, life in general: failure is not an option when you're an adult. But if you haven't failed at anything, you've never really done something that required effort. We can look forward, and see the possibility for success, plan how to overcome failure, because we've been through all this before. Every failure is training for life. Every scream, every accusation of agonizing pain, was an urgent call to let go, not hold on tighter as we do almost by instinct, trying to save our nerves and his. Probably it wasn't what we were thinking when we just sat down on the ground and let the kiddo go at it himself, relinquished control, watched him fall down over and over. We were tired and frustrated, so we just sat down. We watched him fall, tip, yell, drop the bike, and then we watched him ride. And then, like the silly humans we are, we assumed it would get easier after this.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Tale of Two Kiddies

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Sometimes at the same time. So it goes when you are six years old, I suppose. And also the parents of a six-year-old.

We went camping in the Finger Lakes for Labor Day weekend. Which was a first for me, as I'd never really been one to "do things" on holiday weekends. Usually I was working, but being unemployed has given me a newfound sense of liberation and adventure, and I now have no problem just taking off for the long weekend, work be damned. I'm a rebel, me.

I've been doing quite a bit of traveling this past month. The weekend before Labor Day involved a trip up to Maine, sadly for a funeral, though it's still a toss-up whether that or the camping trip was more stressful in the end. Most of us have now forgotten—having been adults for so long—the special power a kid has for taking even the most straightforward of situations and turning them into the end of the world. I think that just happens to be our kid's superpower, actually.

Anyway, my recent travels back and forth across New York state have revealed to me that sometimes a staycation, when undertaken in the right way, can take you to more places than even traveling half-way round the world. Just a few hours down Route 90 brings you to exotic locales like Rome, Syracuse, Ithaca, Amsterdam, Troy, Geneva, Liverpool, and Berne, just to name a few. You can also, it turns out, get to a fun little place called De Nial, and return to it again and again and again. But you have to take a kid with you; apparently only they know the way. In this wonderful land the real world is kept at bay by a careful rejection of reality for a version only you understand and can envision, a refusal to admit that your way is not the only way, and an adamant belief that if you just scream loud enough everyone will give up and do exactly as you expect.

As I said, a couple weeks ago I had to go to a funeral. It was for a distantly related family-member, though as a lot of people probably know, the length of the branch doesn't always indicate actual distance on the family tree. Although we'd only seen this branch of our family for a week a year, I'd known them since I was born, and spent some of the best times of my life with our Maine Family. The past handful of years had seen fewer trips up to Maine—there was something about a year abroad, or some such nonsense—and I'd forgotten all the exotic places we used to pass on the way up to old New England. It's funny how sometimes it takes a funeral to get all the right people back in the right place again. Perhaps it even brings back that special childhood ability to have the best and the worst time at the same time that we all seem to lose as adults. I enjoyed spending time with all the people I'd been closest to as a child. It was also quite miserable at times, for obvious reasons.

The past few weeks, with all its trials and tribulations and tripping up and down the state have shown me how much we, as adults, have evolved to simply put up with things. Much as many of us would call ourselves perfectionists, we've moved far beyond the point where anything in life must be perfect. We've learned to tolerate imperfection for the sake of practicality—and yes, survival, when it comes down to it but let's face it, kids live in a world in which they already have most of the necessities of survival handed to them as if they're naturally occurring so really they don't see a problem in seeking perfection over survival—and rarely choose to fight when it comes to getting something just right. And when we do we're usually labeled childish.

Kids have an amazing capacity for dreaming life. At times it's incredibly unintelligible to the rest of us, to the point where it seems like there are two kids living inside the one we can see right there in front of us. There's the happy one, for whom the tiniest things evoke wonder and enjoyment. Then there's the unhappy one, for whom the tiniest things evoke fear and impending doom. And we really never know which one to expect, even to the point where a treat like going to get ice cream turns into a situation worthy of an emergency emotional meltdown. And with all these swings, a kid can still end the weekend by pronouncing that, "It was a pretty good camping trip, Dad."

Now back to that first "I'm home, oh my god a whole new foreign world called parenting" post. Yes, you can often find whole new crazy worlds, exotic places, imaginary lands without even leaving familiar ground. But if anything, all the new kid-mergencies have taught me that life is rarely an emergency, that just like getting to the other side of the world may seem scary and stressful and never-ending, getting to the other side of a crazy weekend doing a new thing with a six-year-old is stressful and can seem never-ending, but one happy wrap-up is all it takes to make things worthwhile.

I think. Tomorrow is the first day of first grade, after all. Things may change. Unexpectedly.