MOTHERWELL SAID WHAT?…Motherhood and Waiting: From Boys to Men

Motherwell is a digital publication created by Lauren Apfel and Randi Olin “that tells all sides of the parenting story.”

Lisa Romeo, the author of this essay which is part of Motherwell’s series on Motherhood and Waiting “teaches writing to graduate students, and publishes a blog for writers. She is proud of her two young adult sons, boy number one and boy number two, and is committed to the never-ending practice of motherhood and waiting.”

God willing, I too will reap the benefits of waiting.

“From Boys to Men”

Here you are again. Waiting. It’s what parents do, or at least what you think most mothers do, or anyway, it’s what you do.

First, you wait to conceive, wait for the fertility tests to reveal what flaws and whose, wait for the drugs to work, wait for that positive pregnancy test. You try to, but can’t describe the fearful waiting through a high risk pregnancy, the anxious waiting of prenatal testing, the watchful waiting for boy number one to blossom. Wait for the right time to have the second baby, wait after the miscarriage to try again, wait for that strangle-throated boy number two to leave the NICU.

Wait. Hope. Pray. Wait.

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To The Domestic Violence Survivors I Work With: About Your Children

I volunteer for the domestic violence organization you are brave enough to seek safety and assistance from.

We are acquaintances at best. Perhaps we’ve exchanged pleasantries in the common area after a session, but I don’t like to chat or linger too long out of respect for your privacy. When I visit the shelter, you often leave before I arrive.

My job is to care for your young sons and daughters so you may have a few uninterrupted hours to do what you need to do to move forward.

Since little ones aren’t armed with the emotional maturity and language to understand, let alone navigate trauma, I brace myself before each appointment. As an unknown adult in a position of authority, I show up expected to be tested with tantrums, outbursts and physical displays of anger.

Like you, I’m a parent. A mom who wonders how my boys conduct themselves and interact with others anytime I release them into the world. With this in mind, here are 5 observations I’ve made about your children.

Each one is remarkably capable. A preschool aged boy insists on opening his own snack wrapper. Another wants to search for parts to build a Lego tower without guidance from a grown up. A third takes the initiative to find and put on his own jacket, zip and bundle up. The phrase, “I can do it by myself” is prevalent.

They take care of one another, especially the siblings. A toddler with few words makes sure his older sister has a hat before going out to play. A big brother unties a knot in his younger brother’s necklace string. Their instinct is to help and protect.

The children are kind. A brother encourages his sister to ride the tunnel slide for the first time and waits so they can go together. A school-aged girl teaches a cranky toddler how to fold a paper airplane to distract him from his tired mood. A little brother lets his older sibling try out his new rubber snake. They lean toward what is positive and good.

They are loving. A young girl reaches out to hold my hand as we walk to the lunch table and asks me to rest beside her on a bench to watch the clouds. They talk about you with adoration and beam the moment they know you’re close enough to accept a knee high squeeze.

And filled with joy with every pump “to the moon” on the swings, every giggle as they cook up an invisible order of hamburger and fries, bounce and roll of a deflated basketball and stomp in a dwindling mound of crunchy snow. Amid the pain, your children’s default emotion is happiness.

Motherhood is challenging enough under less strenuous and terrifying circumstances. I respect your strength, determination and resilience. You are a survivor. Your children are survivors.

As you all continue to regain power and heal, please know I am here. Consider me part the village.

PLAYFUL LEARNING SAID WHAT?…5 Great Reasons To Read Graphic Novels

I like to keep my tween reading, but helping him find a welcomed book or series has its challenges. Because my son is a visual learner who also struggles with focusing, the traditional novel format can intimidate and confuse him.

Fortunately, he’s found graphic and illustrated novels.

The proprietor of our local bookstore often finds me perusing his inventory for options. During my most recent visit to his check-out counter, the owner shared an observation; some parents discourage children from buying such novels.

He wished they felt otherwise. The storytelling in graphic novels is often superb, he explained. The ability to marry words and art takes talent and might inspire readers to try it themselves. The format also builds a reluctant reader’s confidence. Enjoying a graphic novel version of a classic tale today might encourage a child to pick up the original in the future.

Unfortunately, the owner has been hesitant to speak up; he doesn’t want to tell customers how to parent.

Playful learning outlines 5 great reasons to read graphic novels for anyone who might like to learn more about the benefit of illustrated books for older children or is just shopping for new suggestions.

And here’s a link to the Red said what? Pinterest page, which highlights Bubbe’s recent, favorite graphic and illustrated novels: Children’s Books: Thumbs up from a Tween Boy.

Happy Reading!

2 Things We Thought About Before Redshirting Our Son

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By the end of Bubbe’s second year in preschool, my husband Mac and I knew he wouldn’t be ready to start Kindergarten with the rest of his peers.

A sweet, quiet child with a sensitive disposition, our son struggled with skills that seemed to come naturally to many classmates.

Starting just shy of his 2nd birthday, for a few hours each week he worked with a helper teacher to learn how to play in an age-appropriate way during preschool and at home. He also strengthened his muscle tone, developed fine and gross motor skills and addressed sensitivity issues driven by sensory processing with a physical and occupational therapist as well as practiced communication pragmatics and articulation with a speech specialist.

Bubbe made fine progress over time, but mastery in one area was typically followed by a step back in another.

Even though he was tall for his age, had a birthday not particularly close to the school district’s cut off and knew his ABCs and 123s as well as he should, there were enough consistent inconsistencies in his development to explore the redshirting option.

Teachers and service providers agreed; giving our son time to “cook” for an additional school year, a total of 9 months was in his best interest long term.

For me, the decision to redshirt was a no brainer. Prior to becoming a parent, I had the good fortune of teaching elementary school. One professional lesson I learned was that regardless of knowledge, in order for a child to do the work, he first needed to be ready to learn.

Mac wrestled with the idea. He has a “late” birthday and went to Kindergarten on the younger side. Anytime we discussed Bubbe’s delays he’d say, “I hated school. Half the time I hardly knew what was going on. But life’s a struggle.”

“School’s hard enough,” I would argue. “Why make it worse for a child? If we push him through, what will his experience be like by the time he gets to middle school?”

After several iterations, Mac was able to take a step back and separate his experience from our son’s needs.

Since then, we have gone through the process of redshirting our younger son. I’ve also spent the last 10 of my 16 years in education working in early childhood programs. Whether I’m chatting with friends or sitting with parents of young children, the topic of Kindergarten readiness can elicit strong, mixed emotions particularly if the choice isn’t a no brainer.

With this in mind, here are the 2 things Mac and I considered during the process.

Question #1 – Is my child ready to learn?

Not, does Bubbe have the academic knowledge, but is he socially, emotionally AND cognitively ready to learn in a school setting?

At the time of our decision, our child needed consistent adult guidance to get in the mix with peers in both structured and non-structured environments. He didn’t understand how to play cooperatively. His low muscle tone and delayed motor skills made it tough for him to keep up on the playground; he often looked lost and preferred to be alone. Furthermore, Bubbe didn’t have the self-help skills for a child his age.  He couldn’t get dressed without assistance, put on his coat or use the potty.

While our son showed empathy and kindness toward others, his emotional sensitivity and shyness hindered his ability to advocate for himself, ask questions and navigate feelings. His discomfort in crowds as well as with noise and texture made it challenging for him to participate in groups scenarios like classroom station play and birthday celebrations.

We knew he was cognitively able. The “mechanisms of how one learns, remembers, problem-solves and pays attention” were present, but his struggle to move with the pack, manage time, attend long enough to listen to teacher directions and complete a task without help from a grown up emphasized the gap between his potential and performance.

Bubbe did have the academic knowledge. Testing showed he was “smart.” One helper teacher even suggested he might get bored once in elementary school if he waited the extra year.

But because Mac and I could not answer yes with confidence to all 3 components, we chose to wait.

Question #2 – What will happen as my child gets older?

The delay, albeit the right move was not a cure-all.

Despite his academic “smarts” going into Kindergarten, Bubbe didn’t learn to read with fluency until 2nd grade.

In 3rd grade, when the work became more sophisticated, some weaknesses he struggled with in preschool resurfaced. Bubbe ended up needing a little formal help from teachers again.

During our early debates, Mac and I wondered about middle school. How would Bubbe’s delays play out as a tween?

Well, the first year of middle school is half over and so far, the kid’s holding his own. Focus, organization, time management and interpreting complex situations continue to challenge and fuel anxiety. Fortunately, Bubbe is starting to understand his needs and take ownership of his learning thanks to consistent guidance from talented teachers, practice and maturity.

He’s told us being the oldest in the class is “kind of cool” especially to some of the girls. I’ve observed he is one of, but not the tallest boy in the grade as well as noticed some of the peers he started out with are still in his world through activities and family friendships.

Of course we get the occasional, “You left me back.”

When he digs in, the response is the same one Mac and I gave when we broke the news. “Some children start Kindergarten when they’re 4, some start when they’re 5 and some start when they’re 6 years old. Every child and family is different.”

The bottom line? School life would have been exponentially more difficult for our child had we not “left him back.” Bubbe is right where he belongs.

Redshirting isn’t for every child with a special need, late birthday or height difference. Our son has a grade level friend who’s 16 months younger. Even though the boy’s birthday is in the late fall, his mother felt his social, emotional and cognitive skills were on point. She sent him to elementary school when the district deemed him eligible. He too is thriving.

Kindergarten readiness is a stop on a long parenting journey. But I think if we keep perspective, stay objective, focus on learning readiness, advocate and most importantly, follow our gut, we’ll get the timing right.

JOHN PAVLOVITZ SAID WHAT?… To My Son’s Teacher, And All Those Ordinary Superheroes Saving Kids Today

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Each fall, our local elementary school hosts a Halloween parade. The children march around the playground led by teachers, administration and staff. Everyone wears a costume.

The teachers typically choose a theme and dress up by grade level. From the audience, I’ve spotted emojis, cowboys, royalty and fruit. After reading blogger and pastor, John Pavlovitz’s touching tribute to his child’s teacher, this year, I hope they all come as superheroes.

To my friends in education, current and former colleagues and my sons’ past and present teachers–this one’s for you.

Comic books have lied to all of us.
Heroism isn’t capes and costumes.
It doesn’t come from radioactive spider bites or metal suits or gamma rays or distant planets.
It isn’t tricked out all-terrain vehicles, gadget-laden utility belts, hammers from the heavens, or indestructible shields.
The real heroic stuff here on this planet is firmly seated in the chests of the ordinary people who embrace an extraordinary calling; those whose superhuman hearts beat quite differently than the rest of us mere mortals…

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My Father’s Gift

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When my father called to tell me he was having major surgery to remove a malignant mass from his chest, I didn’t hesitate to buy a plane ticket.

“The doctors have to break open my rib cage to get the whole thing out. Safest way to keep it from spreading,” he explained.

“How long’s the recovery?” I asked.

“Six weeks.”

“I want to come down and see you.”

“Okay.” His voice cracked through the line. Then my father, who under reacts in times of crisis and barely smiles for a camera began to cry.

I did my best to console his fears and hold back tears. I failed. We exchanged I love yous and hung up the phone.

Twelve years ago, had someone told me I would be speaking to my father let alone making time to be by his bedside, I would have thought they were nuts.

Divorced from my mother when I was three, my parents managed feelings about their contentious relationship and bitter divorce by throwing me in the middle even long after each remarried and had new families of their own. On our scheduled visits, which lasted well into high school, I figured my father to be a stubborn workaholic. Time at his house was spent getting to know my step-mother. In between those visits, my mother shared more disgust for and information about her ex-husband than a daughter needed to know. As such, I can’t remember a single birthday or holiday spent with my dad. I assumed he was too busy or lived too far away; but it’s likely he was never extended an invitation.

Whether my parent’s choices were driven by self-interest, youthful inexperience or something more, I’ll never know. At that moment in their lives, healthy co-parenting was not an option. To add to the dysfunction was the abuse I simultaneously experienced at the hands of my step-father.

By age 17, my entire being was a giant, rage infested mess masked by sarcasm, perfectionism and dramatic flair. Needing to simplify the noise to ensure survival, I thrust myself into the middle of my parent’s fight de jour over college selection and payment and cut ties with my father.

But skeletons and wounds weigh on one’s spirit. Fifteen years later, I was knee deep in therapy trying to make sense of our relationship. My therapist recommended I write my dad a letter. I was to consider it a cathartic exercise or an attempt to communicate. Sending was optional.

With the pressure off, I put everything out there; the anger and hurt, grievances and resentment, his emotional distance, my abusive childhood and our lengthy estrangement.

Afterward, I thought about my unborn son and what I might say if he one day asked, “Who’s my grandfather?”

Then I dug up my father’s address and dropped the letter in the mail.

He wasted little time. What followed was a blur of email exchanges followed by a planned call. I barely said hello when the words came out.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “My point of view doesn’t matter. You’re the child. I’m the parent and I take full responsibility for everything that’s happened.”

During a time when I was trying to piece together my self-worth, build a meaningful relationship with my spouse and prepare for motherhood, my father’s words were the light in my darkness and the greatest gift.

Whoever my father was or how I perceived him to be when I was young no longer mattered. His ability to take ownership without caveat or blame and express himself with vulnerability and honesty showed me who he was at present. I knew the least I could do was begin to forgive the man and let him in.

A dozen years travel fast. While I’m grateful for this second chance, it’s not nearly enough. Those tears shed over his operation were not about any cancer, but my fear of losing a father I’ve only recently learned to love.

Thankfully, he’s made a full recovery. The doctors cut out the stage one growth and replaced it with a 12 inch scar. We can only hope health and time are on his side.

During our visit, my dad was feeling energized so we took a walk around the neighborhood; no grandkids, spouses or pets. Just us. We kibitzed about his upcoming retirement, the politics of the day and puppies. Being able to experience such a simple pleasure felt, as he likes to say whenever presented with good eats, “pretty damn good.”

Occasional strolls and weekly phone conversations won’t replace the birthday parties missed, lost Christmas Eves or the father-daughter wedding dance we never had, but it gives me great comfort knowing we will mourn those losses and create new memories – together.

Negative Norton And My Family’s Road To A Growth Mindset

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Meet Negative Norton.

Nort was born from a doodle sketched on our CrossFit gym’s white board by Coach Will who happens to be part Physical Education teacher, part aspiring Games Athlete and part Tarzan upon hearing the 9:30am crew kvetch about the workout of the day.

While the teaching coach warmed up the class, Will moseyed over to the board, picked up an Expo marker and outlined a chair frame.

“Looks like a rocking chair,” I said.

“It does? Good.” He addressed the group. “I’m hearing a lot of complaining this morning. Complaining is like a rocking chair; gives you something to do and gets you nowhere. There’s 2 workouts. Time to get ‘em done.”

Schooled by young Tarzan, we shut our middle-aged mouths and carried on. But Will’s rocking chair analogy stuck. I took a picture of his masterpiece and brought it home.

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Negative fumes fueled by complaints, self-doubt, whining, tantrums and profanity pollute my house. And the smog is thickening.

Bubbe often works himself up into a frenzy of I can’t, I’m stupid and There’s nothing I can do I’m just a negative person when challenged by school, home or relationship expectations.

Skootch, who prefers to grin through an existence void of conflict will lash out as a first line of defense when work gets hard or he feels wronged. While a 7 year-old hollering, “Shut the hell off you idiot!” can be comical, it doesn’t benefit anyone.

Mac who prefers to laugh and embrace a positive outlook still beats himself up when he makes a mistake.

I’m far from a stellar role model. Negativity was thrown at me as a child. Mix that with an upbringing tainted by mental illness and trauma and it’s no wonder self-deprecation and snark come easier than silver linings. While committed to breaking the cycle, chasing my children shouting “Rocking Chair” doesn’t encourage self-awareness or offer strategies to promote positive thinking.

Dr. Carol Dweck, author and developmental, social and personality psychologist coined the phrase growth mindset or “the belief you can develop your abilities.” With the understanding that the brain is a muscle we can train and in the spirit of Dr. Dweck’s work, I crafted Negative Norton.

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Each time any one of us exhibits the above behaviors, we must feed Norton a penny. I kept the rate to one cent to avoid going broke and for logistical ease, emptied the pennies from our piggy banks in advance and stored them next to our new house guest.

The reward is two-fold.

Bubbe came up with a tangible one. He suggested if Nort eats less than 20 pennies in the first week, our family would do something fun together. If our negative behavior declined over time, we would challenge ourselves by reducing the penny cap.

Mac loved the idea of Negative Norton but was skeptical. “How do we make it foolproof?”

“We can’t,” I said. But I think the visual and tactile element combined with a consequence and reward will trigger us to stop and think. Self-awareness is the intangible benefit and the first step to teaching the boys their mindset makes the difference.”

Within 90 minutes of Negative Norton’s activation, we fed him 4 times. Our family has been feeding Nort for 5 days now. There are 15 pennies in the jar. On average, he scarfs down 2 coins a day.

Mac and I like having Negative Norton around. The boys want him to move out.

Skootch equates “pennying up” with getting in trouble. “My friends don’t have a Negative Norton. Everybody has tantrums. Bad idea.” He wants Nort to smile and get the money anytime we do something good instead. He’s onto something. Still, our current system is making an impact. “I miss saying bad words,” he recently said.

Negative Norton has been hardest on Bubbe who’s realizing how much he complains. “I need to get them out so I can focus,” he told me. When I suggested positive self-talk, he pretended not to hear me and continued on. “Nope. Useless. Everything I say is negative.” But there’s hope. After making a nice golf putt, Bubbe told Mac, “Dad, I visualized the hole and believed in myself.”

Negative Norton will take up residence on our coffee table for now. There will always be pennies in his jar. The key is to feed him less.

More self-aware, our family is ready for phase two: strategy application. Time to get cracking on Nort’s roommate; smiling, penny loving Positive Pete.

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