I keep starting to upload this post, and then, I do something wrong, we are upheaved by circumstances of impatience or emotion or disappointment. And then, hypocrisy trumps hope and I wait. Today, I will upload it anyway, and you will know that it is an aspirational parenting style, that I fail more than I succeed, that achievement is still a bit beyond my grasp.
I think it was Byron who wrote, "change everything, but your loves." And in that way, everything has changed.
I was not the parent -- we were not the parents -- needed by our children. I fought against change in my lifestyle, in generally-accepted ideas about children's schedules and things that were too hard, Jonathan fought against turning off the TV, making meals from scratch, departing from his own upbringing. When we should have made bedtime routines, we watched 'bedtime shows'; when we should have been firm and calm and loving, we were alternatively angry, screeching, permissive, dismissive, argumentative. It did not feel right, but we were hopeless, we did not know how to set the upended relationships back on their feet.
It was a gathering of ideas, a growing collection of concepts, a swarm of skills garnered from a dozen places. But in the end it was a philosophy of parenting born of a few unifying ideas: firstly, that children (like plants and chickens and all sorts of growing things) know best what they want, and that you should trust their desires. And secondly, that zen is paramount.
Zen in a child's life can look so many ways. For us, it looks like a dozen galvanized metal 'skrin' bins from IKEA, each on a shelf with its own category of toys. On the bottom we have 'little cars and trucks and airplanes', next to 'little animals and people', with 'trains and tracks' in a big bin on the shelf above. Puzzles, wooden blocks, board games and play food all have bins; Legos are in big glass jars according to theme; coloring books are in a special metal bin on the bookshelf. Nothing is labeled, yet Truman can put every errant toy away without assistance. It is order that he craves as his brother craves attention. It is obvious that, in this, we have done right.
For us, zen looks like an early bedtime, with two books each for Truman and Everett, a single bed to share, a mattress on the floor, with blankets and a stuffed dragon and two soft kitties, with me cleaning up their room every night as they are lying down. Melatonin helps, for us it is the stuff of quietude, if you had seen the screaming running jumping bedtimes of yesteryear, you would know how radical a change it is. A routine: dinner, books, a prayer, goodnight. I fought so hard -- why?? -- against the concept of scheduling my life, being a slave to a bedtime, I didn't want to have to do the hard work of constancy, endless repetition, always being there. But now that I am here, in this place, it is so much easier to say 'no,' to miss meetings that are at 7 p.m., to sit down on the couch with the baby at 8 p.m. and know that he is all there is now.
Zen looks like acceptance of many, many things. For breakfast and dinner, most days, Everett eats bread, and honey ("like Frances!" he says). I make the bread with organic stone-ground whole wheat flour and Northwest-grown oats and the honey is local and opaque with unknown minerals and I do not beg him, or order him, to eat whatever I am eating. Because one thing that zen looks like, in our family, is very few choices. The freezer is not stocked with chicken nuggets and corn dogs; there is no candy and chips stash any more. Roasted chicken, lentil soup, or bread and honey, like peasants. We accept that sometimes we are called terrible names by our eldest offspring; we accept that sometimes, there is screaming. If we are doing it right, we calmly and quietly wait until it stops, and if it doesn't, we turn away from Everett and toward the quiet child.
Zen looks like very little TV. This part is hard for Jonathan. It's how he was raised, from a tiny child -- the TV was on 24 hours a day. He understands with his mind, but not with his heart. So I rule the TV with an iron remote control during waking hours, the rare show or two from PBS Kids, nothing else. It's unusual now if the boys watch more than an hour's worth in a day; for us, a huge lifestyle change.
Zen takes on the form of help, and four days a week now is a nanny, a wonderfully patient woman who understands Jonathan's sense of humor and bakes bread, too. We cannot quite afford her (we cannot at all pay her true value), but the benefit from another adult paying attention is without question.
Zen looks like presence, zen looks like me turning my computer off at 4 p.m. and devoting myself to the children 'til bedtime, zen looks like putting down my knitting to read a book or really look at something Everett is doing. Zen looks like listening while Everett spells words from the newspaper; zen looks like playing Chinese checkers when I really want to blog, or sew, or clean the kitchen floor. Zen looks like singing "The Wheels on the Bus" again, and again, and again.
Zen looks like a new couch, one on which we can all fit, pretty carpet tiles that prevent slivers, a hanging chair, a little table with a chair for each of the boys. Zen looks like a reading nook, books and drawers and organization. Zen looks like a place for everything, everything in its place. Zen looks like a lot of work, work that is still being done.
Most of all, zen is me, taking a deep breath and selecting from a store of tools. Instead of "why are you doing this to me?!?" (a personal fave), I reach for "let's try a different way of dealing with that. A calmer way." Instead of, "I'll get you that toy if you'll be good!" I try the "as soon as you are helpful with your brothers, I'll play a game with you." Instead of ordering a child to stop an unwanted behavior (and then getting louder, and louder, when the stopping doesn't happen), I intervene quietly and physically, leading Truman back to the kitchen with the gallon of milk he's just brought out; running upstairs to gently take away the loud toy. My ideal parent gives experiences, not things, although my ideal parent is admittedly quite a reach, still.
Of all the parenting lessons I've learned, of all the ways I've changed, I think the most radical (to Jonathan, at least, and in many ways to myself) is to accept the way children are. Children do not often behave in convenient ways. This does not mean that these children are bad, or even doomed for a life of time-outs and detention. If Everett and Truman want to jump on the bed? Instead of screaming for them to stop, I put a mattress on the floor and let them go crazy. If they want to use a yoga mat as a sled down the stairs? I put a few extra pillows at the bottom and remove the breakables. If they want to live on milk, bread and honey? I offer them alternatives, and keep the house stocked with fresh bread. If they want to go outside in the rain? I put on my hat, I put extra socks on Monroe, and out we go.
I keep hearing from the wisest of people that children do not act out because they are awful children; they act out because they have suffered some loss. For Everett, who is very emotionally dependent on his father, there is immeasurable suffering from Jonathan's many months away in the Army and his struggle with alcohol. Truman acts out because his body doesn't yet make sense to him, he's a little out of sorts, he doesn't always know where the edges are. He holds hands too tight; he squeezes the chicks too hard; he oversteps, overleaps, overexerts. When he needs more, I give him more, even if it is the middle of the night and he is screaming and he just needs me to hold him with all I have, he needs to touch something with every part of his body so that he knows he is safe.
While I must remind you that we are not perfect, we are not there yet, we have done away with punishment, favoring "natural consequences" (next time, I won't want to take you to the coffee shop if you're going to demand a treat in that awful way!) and prevention (often, we just don't go to the coffee shop). I have slowed my frenetic pace. I have decided that I do not, after all, have to do everything just because it's there.
The ways we have changed go on and on. We almost never shop with the boys, except at the farmer's market or quick trips to Limbo (the neighborhood organic market) or Pastaworks (where we get our meat, cheese and butter). We accept that children need to crawl in bed with us at 2, or 4, or 6 a.m. We greatly restrict our list of babysitters. We do not pack our weekends and evenings with meals out, playdates, excursions, events. We have embraced the excellence of home.
I will not pretend that it has been an easy or natural thing for me, I will not tell you that I am the pinnacle of parent achievement. No, oh no, this woman has not yet gotten a handle on the enormous grace it takes to live with four gorgeous, vibrant, slightly broken boys. She has moments of sheer madness. But she is on the path, she is headed toward enlightenment. Stumbling forward full of hope, acceptance, without blame or resentment, toward a more complete and unquestioning love of these precious children. This is how we parent now.