Parenting H

Month: August, 2014

H and I have been playing our own version of Marco Polo.

“Mama,” H calls.

“H,” I reply.

“Mama.” 

“H.” 

“Mama.”

“H.”

And so on, until H says, “Mama don’t say H anymore.” 

I take his cue and bring the game to a close by saying, “Okay. Mama won’t say H anymore.”

Our Marco Polo is a remarkably versatile and powerful game, having as many meanings and serving as many purposes as we need it to. Sometimes it’s a playful, lighthearted, just because bantering game, a way to delight in letters and sounds and cause and effect. Sometimes it carries deeper meaning. 

Sometimes our Marco Polo seems to be a way of saying, “I can’t see you, and I need to locate you in physical space.” And, “I’m here. I can hear you. Can you hear me?”

Other times it seems to be, “I can see you sitting right next to me, but I want to make sure you are really present. And, “Yes, I am here in all ways. I am fully present with you in this moment.”

Sometimes it is, “Look! I am doing something exciting and fun, and I would like to share it with you.” And, “I love watching you play.”

And yet other times it is, “Something or someone unfamiliar is here! Where is home base?!” And, “Yes, this is new. I’m right here. We’ll brave this moment together.”

Sometimes it’s a short middle-of-play check in, “I’m still here. Are you still here?” And, “Yes. I am here. We are here together.”

“Mama.” 

“H.”

“Mama.”

“H.”

“Mama don’t say H anymore.”

“Okay, sweet pea. Mama won’t say H anymore.”

Until the next time we play.

“H is getting so big,” he tells me. 

He has slid forward in the bucket swing so that his body stretches long. His legs are dangling toward the ground, and they look more gangly than I remember them being a second ago.

He looks into my eyes, grinning. He looks proud. 

“Yes! H is getting so big!” I smile back at him, basking in the reflected glow of his delight.

In this moment, my heart understands something transformative. There is joy in growing, and I can take delight in my own growth as he does in his. Joy and delight will not be possible all of the time, no, but taking a longer view of the journey might help me meet the muck and the rocky terrain that inevitably comes up with less resistance. This painful moment is not all there is, and it will not stretch on indefinitely. It is a stepping stone to the next moment, which may well contain a counterbalancing joy. How much more likely I am to find joy strewn in with the pain when I believe it can be there and look for it. I feel my body relax and my mind become more spacious with the shift in perspective from ‘this growing is painful’ to ‘this growing can be painful and yet there is much joy, too, to be found in the journey.’

I don’t have to make it be so hard for myself. There is joy in growing. I breathe in the idea and let it go, making room for everything that is happening right now, the pain, yes, and also the joy.

I give H another push and let his laughter bring me back to him. He is getting so big, and I want to be witness to as much of his growing as I can. It is, as he knows intuitively, a joyful and beautiful thing.

H’s father is here to pick him up. He hands me a copy of the papers he filed petitioning the State of Washington for the dissolution of our marriage. I knew he was coming for H. I knew he had filed the papers. I was not expecting to receive them now. I barely make it inside and to the sanctuary that I have created for me and H in our bedroom before the tears make it hard to see.

There is a letter from his lawyer. She wants to help, but I am advised that she is representing him, not me. I wonder if her offer is genuine or a pro forma nicety, one of those things some people say when they see someone else in a horrible way, not actually expecting to be taken up on it. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want her help. I have my own lawyer.

On the next page I stare at our names. Him vs. me. So this is it. This is how a marriage ends. My mind flashes to us at the courthouse signing for our marriage license, us standing up in front of family and friends saying our version of “I do,” us sitting in an interview for T’s green card, flipping through our wedding album with a stranger, assuring the US government through this snuffling, sneezing man, also married a foreigner, that our marriage is genuine. And now here we are, apart, opposed. Him vs. me. Me vs. him. Undoing all of those things we had done to come together.

Our marriage date is listed on another page. July 24, 2005. And the date he chose to mark our separation. February 1, 2014. It could have been any number of dates, I think. The day he did not tell me how he felt, that there was a disconnection growing in his heart. The night she stayed in our apartment. The day he called from Leavenworth, his joyful voice a bullet through my gut. The day he chose to go on the hike even though he knew how I felt about it. The day he started the secret texting and instant messaging. The day of our last failed attempt at sex. They day I fell on his list of priorities, and the days after that I slipped lower still. The day he refused to go to couples therapy. The day I started to turn away from him. The day he completed his turn away from me. The day the words started to tumble out of his month. The day he sort of said it, said in the clearest way he knew how. The day I finally understood that there was nothing else I could do or say. It doesn’t really matter though. They are all painful dates, the day he moved out of our apartment as good as any for a petition.

Another page. There are so many of them. This thing we are doing is simple in concept, but it requires so many words. Reason for the petition: The marriage is irretrievably broken. Seeing it spelled out so explicitly stops me short, even though I know it. There is no hope for us as a couple. It is over. In truth, it has been over for a long time, and these are just legal hurdles we are throwing ourselves over now. Facing each one spikes the pain of the separation, becoming another opportunity to let the grief wash over me without attaching my self-worth to my broken marriage, to let go of the self-blame. The tide carries me back out most times before I understand how to stay away from the waves that pull me under to these dark places, the feelings of unworthiness, the self-loathing. My marriage is broken, I am not, but still I am battered and crushed, disappointed and angry and sad. I can feel the beginnings of bumpy, jagged scars in some places, and I run my mind over them now to connect with the healing.

I scan through the rest of the papers. H’s name is there. He is the minor involved. It is established that the State has legal jurisdiction over him, over me. Then there are a series of deadlines, the last being a year from now. It seems so far away, and I wonder if I will be caught up, ready for all of this by then. I wonder if I can bear it for so long. I put the papers back in the perfectly uncreased, pristinely new manilla envelope in which they arrived. I will try to understand them some other time, I think. Maybe. Maybe it will be a long, long time before I understand them at all.

Later, at bedtime, H requests that we talk about our day. It is part of our new bedtime routine. We change his diaper and brush teeth, and then we read books, always Good Night Gorilla and then a rotating cast of others. He has milk, and then he says, “Talking about morning.” Sometimes he lies next to me, droopy eyed, nodding yeah, yeah as I talk about the activities of the day, sometimes he listens as he is having milk, and sometimes, as tonight, I kneel on the bed and rock him in my arms as I talk. His body, heavy with sleep, fits into mine as if he had never left, his head nestled into my shoulder like it is my missing piece.

“We woke up this morning,” I start. “H had milk in bed. Then we read books. We got out of bed to look for Grandma. She was still asleep. We folded towels. Then mama changed your diaper, and we got dressed. We met Raleigh and J and had a treat. H had some zucchini carrot muffin. We went to story time. H held two egg shakers. We sang songs about outer space. Then we walked back to Raleigh and J’s house. H had some of mama’s chamomile citrus iced tea. We looked at flowers and bushes and trees, and H examined an irrigation pipe along the way. Then we said goodbye to Raleigh and J and got in the car and went home. Mama changed your diaper. We took a nap together. You slept on mama. When we woke up, Ben was here. He brought the mantle back, and he was fixing the cabinets. We went swimming, and H looked in the filter and jumped in the pool. H laughed and laughed. We splashed together and took catkins out of the water. Then we came inside and got dressed. We read books and did some playing. Then you saw your papi. It was a good day,” I say to H, my eyes closed, breathing him close. “It was a good day.”

It was a good day. A geyser of sadness and loneliness rushes through my body and tears sting my eyes as I say it, and yet I meant it. I surprise myself by meaning it. These things that I do not like are happening. They are painful, and I am in pain. They are happening, but it does not erase the things I have in life that bring me joy. I still have joy, too.

H and I were together today. We experienced companionship, friendship, and love. It was a good day.

***

A note on the piece: This is a story about one sliver of my life at one moment in time. Everything here happened, but other things that happened concurrently are not included. For me, it is a story about how painful separation and divorce can feel, how good togetherness and connection can feel, and about how those two seemingly opposite experiences can be nestled side by side in life. It is not a piece about how bad or wrong my co-parent is, nor is it a piece assigning blame for our divorce. It is not really a piece about him at all; it is about me: My experience, my feelings, my perspective, my shadow parts. I recognize that some of it may read as if I feel he is entirely to blame, but I don’t feel that way at all. We share responsibility for arriving at the place we have. I respect his privacy; he read this piece before it was published so that I would know how he felt about it. I would not have published it if he felt it invaded his privacy. He deserves as much.

“Milk on the big couch!” he says, and so we are on the big couch, his body twisting away while still attached to mine, his free arm like a windmill. When he is done with milk, he crawls down.

“I’ll be right back! Milk stay right here,” he says, patting the couch.

I pull my nursing shirt down.

“Open milk!” he orders. “Just be running around.”

He runs off down the hallway.

“Milk, milk,” he says when he returns, lifting my legs so that he can travel between the couch and the coffee table.

“Would you like some more milk?” I ask.

“No!” he says, grinning at me from the side chair.

I wonder if he realizes that I am not the milk, even though the milk comes from me. It amuses me to consider that perhaps he does not, and I smile.

“Like some milk.”

H is wandering around the condo, back and forth between the living room and the kitchen, where I am making blueberry peach popsicles.

“Like some milk on the big couch.”

“H would like some milk on the big couch. Okay, sweet pea. I am making some more popsicles and then I will give you milk. I will be right there.”

H gravitates toward the fireplace. He is jangling its wire mesh curtain. The sound is frantic and agitated.

“Hard to wait!” he shouts.

Hard to wait. He got those words from me, yet how often I am amazed when I hear them from his mouth. He listens to my words. Of course he does. But there is something different going on, too. The words he is learning describe concepts, and when strung together in a certain way, convey attitudes, beliefs, philosophies, and ideals. He is learning not just words, but a way of moving in the world, of sorting and naming his experiences and feelings, and of valuing himself and others. Someday his influences will broaden beyond our family circle, and he will learn other words from other people, words that describe points of view and values that might be different from the ones he hears now. He will learn other words and some might stick for one reason or another, either replacing or happily cohabitating with the ones he is learning now at home. I hope that he will trust me to help him wade through the words with him for a while at first, and, when the time comes, that he will be confident in his ability to pick and choose the words that serve him well and best. For now though, giving him words is my responsibility.

Having my words come back to me through him is a powerful reminder of my influence and of how important my word choices are. He is listening, and he hears everything. This is why it is so important to me to choose the words I use with him with care.

“Yes, sweet pea, it can be so hard to wait sometimes. I hear you. I feel that way, too.”

Waiting It Out

Getting him easily and peacefully into his nighttime diaper. Rubbing a dab of ointment on each of his scabbed knees. Struggling to brush his teeth. Working against a mouth shut clam tight and a head that won’t stop moving side to side. Failing even as I pull out all my creative tricks. Watching Grandma sustain a tooth brushing injury. Acquiescing with a full and gentle heart to sad pleas of, “Need a hug!” Declaring victory after the brush has at the very least touched each tooth. Crawling into bed. Lifting him up after he has placed a requested book on our pile. Sitting propped up on pillows while he has milk. Reading I Know Here, Quiet Time with Cassatt, and Big Wheels. Grabbing his ankle so he doesn’t fly off the end of the bed as he drops Big Wheels to the floor. Inviting him back to turn off the star light. Reviewing the events of our day together as he has more milk. Picking him up and cradling him in my arms as we enter the final stretch of bedtime. Taking a moment to drink him and this moment in. Giving him Eskimo and butterfly kisses. Responding gladly to his requests for more. Telling him of the place he holds in my heart. Lying him down gently and offering him the requested other side. Asking if he wants me to sing Stewball, Puff the Magic Dragon, Return to Pooh Corner, Over the Rainbow, Make New Friends, or Simple Gifts and getting a yes, finally, to Taps. Lapsing into silence after he says, “Mama just be quiet right now.” Watching his body twist and his leg dart up in the air and then slow to stillness. Listening to his breathing deepen. Knowing with certainty that he is on his way to sleep. Thinking about how much he has grown and changed over the past two years, including in his needs for support with sleep. Missing the baby he used to be. Marveling at the little boy he has become. Resting with him for a moment longer before getting out of bed to be here at the page.

I ran into a neighbor while taking out the compost last night. The early evening sun burned low and bright in the sky, and the heat of the day lingered with no signs of giving way to the usual coolness of a Pacific Northwest night. We are in the midst of what constitutes a heat wave in these parts, it having been in the upper 80s for the better part of a week. There’s always a reason to talk about the weather here, as everywhere, be it bemoaning the consistent dreary grey of our winters or marveling at the good fortune of our easy, beautiful summers. Of course the weather came up as we chatted.

“How has H been sleeping in this heat?” she asked.

“About the same as always,” I reported, explaining that he was a wakey wakey infant and that he continues to be wakey wakey as a toddler.

“How many times a night?” she asked.

“Probably between four and six, although I have stopped counting,” I said, smiling at her.

“But he’s totally worth it, right?” Her return smile was warm and empathic.

And then the truest, most honest words came tumbling of my mouth fully formed without thought, as if they had bypassed the thinking part of my brain and come straight from the gut.

“He is such a joy, I wouldn’t trade him for sleep.”

And it’s true. I wouldn’t. Not for sleep, not for anything.

It is dinnertime. H is in his chair with a plate of lentil salad in front of him. He picks out a piece of corn, eats it, and starts to explore the textures of his food with his hands, which makes them slick with balsamic vinaigrette. He rubs his hands together and slides them across the table in front of him, slowly at first, then picking up speed as he understands what the lack of friction means he can do. I note that he has turned dinner into a full-fledged sensory play experience and am wary of the near frantic speed with which his hands are moving back and forth on the table in front of him. This could go either way, but I sense that we have reached critical mass.

Sure enough, he throws a red bell pepper spear on the floor. It’s a casual toss that says, “Eh. I have no need for this.”

“If you don’t want something anymore, sweet baby, you can give it to mama,” I say. This is our thing, something he knows, something that has come to work the majority of the time.

He appears not to take it in right now though, because without skipping a beat, he tosses some corn, barley, and lentils overboard.

“Sweetie pea, if you don’t want something anymore, you can give it to mama,” I remind him.

“Give it to mama,” he says, pushing a fistful of food toward my plate, but it turns out to be a halfhearted concession.

He flings more food to the floor, less casual tosses now and more like he’s stepped into full costume for opening night. I can see a Jackson Pollock in the way he’s swinging his arm around and arcing the food through the air. It’s beautiful, but it’s also starting to get frustrating.

“The food is not for throwing, baby baby. The food is for eating,” I say.

Another shower of food flies from his tiny fist.

“You’re having a hard time with impulse control right now, aren’t you?” I ask him, keeping my voice even and calm.

“Yeah,” he says plaintively, almost as a sigh, as he releases another spray of food to skitter across the floor and under the table, the chair, the couch. Who knows where I will find it all later?

My mother, who had been quietly observing the whole thing, turns her head to the side to hide her laughter, and it sends me over the edge. I have to leave the room to conceal the convulsions my own silent laughter is sending through my body. It takes me a second to compose myself, and I return to the table.

“Want to get up,” H tells me, holding his hands out to show me they need to be cleaned.

“Yes, it looks like you are all done eating,” I tell him. The best thing to do now, it seems, is to change the scenery.

We decamp to the big couch for milk. His request.

We’ll pick up where we left off with the work of impulse control some other time in some other context with other players and props. We both did the best we could in the moment, and we are both in process. I am certain there will be plenty of opportunities to practice and plenty of times when the outcome looks different. He is, after all, just two. We have time.