I hate you. Stay right here.

First they learn words:  “Dada!” “Nana!” “Milk!”

Then they learn how to use them:  “I do it?” “Mine!”

Then they learn how to use them against you:  “I don’t love you anymore.” “I want you to go away to another home and stay there!”

“I hate you.”

Kostyn has taken to saying all these things to us when he doesn’t get his way. We tell him it’s unacceptable, that “hate” is too strong a word for him — or anyone — to use. We put him in Time Out for using the word “hate,” and talk to him about how to properly convey his feelings (“I’m mad at you!”) instead of projecting those feelings onto someone else.

Sometimes he catches us at the dinner table in mid-conversation. “…and you know I hate it when my boss says….”

“YOU SAID ‘HATE,’ DADDY!”

We exchange glances of guilt and amusement. Chris apologizes and tries to explain the difference, and everyone doubles their efforts to eradicate that word from our home. It works for awhile.

A couple weeks ago Kostyn got mad at me for something and the hate started spewing. “I hate you! I hate you!” He kept saying it and saying it, so after several obstinate minutes in Time Out, I tried to explain to him once again what that means and why it’s so hurtful.

“When you tell me you hate me, that’s like saying if I walked out this door and never came back, if you never saw Mommy again, if I never gave you another hug or made you another sandwich, never kissed you or tickled you or read books to you or anything, ever again, that would make you happy. Is that true?”

His chin quivered slightly but he nodded slowly, his tiny jaw set, his wide brown eyes staring right at me.

I caught my breath, turned and walked into the kitchen. I knew he was just pushing my buttons, trying to make me feel how he was feeling, but I still found my own words stinging me. As parents we’re not supposed to need validation, we’re not supposed to need our kids to say they couldn’t live without us, because frankly we either know they couldn’t, or we’re deeply shaken by the knowledge that they actually might be able to.

As the tears came, I closed my eyes and thought about the first time Kostyn ever acknowledged me. I will never forget that moment, in the first weeks of his life, when his scrawny infant hand reached up while he was nursing and wrapped itself around my finger. I remember the surge of endorphins brought on by that simple gesture, the exhilaration of such a tiny bit of recognition from the being who was actively sucking the nutrients right out of me, the one who in a matter of weeks had exhausted me physically, mentally and emotionally to a point where I no longer knew who I was.

I’m pretty sure that was the moment we both realized who I was.

How far we’ve come from that moment, I thought as I grabbed another tissue. After a good cry I collected myself, wiped my eyes and walked back into the dining room where Kostyn was still sitting in Time Out. “I want to talk to you Mommy,” he said. I knelt down in front of him.

“I’m sorry,” he said, scooting down from the chair and reaching out for a hug. Instinctively I opened my arms, wrapping him up, needing this hug more than he did. That’s when he whispered in my ear.

“I hate you.”

It was a verbal slap so stunning and unexpected it took my breath away; I pulled back from him and he watched my eyes well with fresh tears. He had wanted to see how much power he wielded with his words, but he was unprepared for its force. The sight of his mother crying made him cry. He dropped to the floor in sobs, and I was spun around once again, from wounded child back to soothing mother.

I scooped him up and cradled him in my lap, both of us in tears. While I held him I thought about an incident a few days before when I put him in Time Out and he cried. When I came around the corner to check on him he was on the floor in front of the Time Out chair, curled in a ball. He yelled “Go away! I don’t want you here!” and as I turned to go he grabbed my leg and wrapped his whole body around it.
“You want me to go away?”
“Yes!” he screamed, clutching tighter.
“Then why are you holding onto me?” I asked.
“Well I want you to stay here,” he said. “But I Don’t. Want. To talk to you!”
“So you want me to go away but stay right here?”
“Yes.”

So I did just that. Because that’s what parents do, right? We go away but stay right here. The memory reminded me of all the times over the years I’ve done that to my own parents, told them to mind their own business, that I didn’t need their advice, that it was my life, all while silently begging for their approval. Is this OK, Mom? Am I doing well? Are you proud of me, Dad? I need you. No I don’t. Yes I really do.

I thought about how I’d also done it to God most of my life. Don’t look at me! (Please save me!) I’ve got this covered. (Will you help?) I’m not ready for you. (I need you now.)

The two of us sat and rocked on the floor for several minutes while Pandora selected songs for us and I did that thing we parents have to do once in awhile, that terribly cruel chore of allowing it to register in our hearts how much bigger our babies feel in our arms. I thought about the growth spurt Kostyn is in, how his voice is getting stronger every day, his reasoning keener, his opinions more commanding.

I thought about how “in the trenches” I often feel, here at home with both of them all day, every day, picking my battles about getting them dressed, brushing teeth, picking up toys. Sometimes around here love feels like a battlefield. When I fluff their pillows and pull their covers up to their chins at night, Evan kicks his off — one last point at which he will not concede defeat. Some days feel like an endless strategic meeting between two opposing forces. Who will retreat? Who will negotiate an end to the battle? Who will melt into a tantrum? Who will fly off in a rage and plop a small bottom onto the Time Out chair? Who will win? Does anyone ever win?

With Kostyn especially, our relationship lately often feels like a tug of war. But sitting on the floor that day I realized with great relief that I am not on the other side of the rope. I AM the rope, and Kostyn plays both sides against himself, pulling and straining for things to go his way, for me to go his way, burning his hands and expending his energy to make me succumb to his will, beating no one but himself, challenging me needlessly because no matter what happens, he ends up with more of me.

I am the rope. I am the means to a very important end. And getting through our worst tug of war days, when he hugs me and hates me all at once, is easier knowing this, knowing the point is not for him to win or me to win because it’s not a competition between us at all. He’s not challenging me (though I do find it VERY challenging), he’s challenging himself, testing his voice and his power and his place in this world, and in this house.

“Go away but stay right here.”

OK, son, I thought as I kissed the top of his head.

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Clock-slaying Toddlers Bring Time Back to Life

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This morning I was woken up by my 2-year-old, Evan, who slid all the covers off my body, pulled himself onto the bed, climbed onto my back and proceeded to use all four of my limbs as train tracks for the little red engine in his hand.

Neither one of us said a word, and after opening one eye to see the time — 6:29 a.m. — I closed it and sank back into my pillow, trying to convince myself this was like a little mini massage and I could just go right back to sleep.

That’s when he turned on the train’s whistle.

As I lay there listening to the shrill whine and chug-chug-chug of the toy, I thought about how long it had been since I’d woken up on my own. My internal alarm clock is no doubt rusted out and dead from lack of use. Having children has meant their internal alarm clocks trump mine every single time. It doesn’t matter how late I stayed up or how many times they woke up in the middle of the night for feedings or diaper changes or a parental reassurance in the dark. They’re still almost always up earlier than my body would choose to be if it was in charge. Which it isn’t.

(more…)

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Pulling Double Duty (or ‘Exercise In Futility, Work Edition’)

As a full-time newspaper editor turned part-time freelance journalist, I feel blessed to be able to do my job while I’m home with my kids. The problem is that means I frequently have to do my job while I’m home with my kids.

Attempting to do two jobs simultaneously — one that calls for no background noise, the other that is the very definition of background noise — is often frustrating and sometimes laughable.

Case in point: Last Friday I had a scheduled 10:30 a.m. phone interview with a world-renowned doctor in New Jersey. The man has dedicated his life to researching reproductive health and actually invented a diagnostic test to determine a woman’s reproductive capacity. It’s a revolutionary breakthrough in reproductive medicine and is now being used all over the globe. Needless to say, the guy’s kind of important and the subject matter is kind of technical: I really needed to focus.

Enter the 2-year-old and the 3-year-old.

It was a gorgeous Spring day and I decided to try my luck with letting them play in our very small, completely fenced-in yard while I sat with my laptop on the back porch steps. I imagined them playing quietly in the new sandbox their dad had just set up while I got all my questions answered and some great quotes to boot.

And I was right — for about five minutes. That’s when they started removing sand from the sandbox by the shovelful, dumping it on nearby deck chairs, their plastic slide and the sidewalk. I glanced at the pile of sand in the box and tried to calculate how long this could go on, as the game was wreaking havoc on our backyard but was also keeping them quiet. No matter, though, because dumping sand quickly led to throwing sand and that, of course, landed right in Evan’s face.

Kids cry loudly when sand is thrown in their eyes. Luckily I managed to race over and silently console him while the good doctor talked without faltering through the Bluetooth headset. (Yes!) But the move put me back on the boys’ radar, which means they followed me like gnats back to my base camp on the porch. (No!)

That’s where Kostyn noticed the snow shovel leaning against the wall behind me and wanted it. He knew I was on the phone and he was supposed to be quiet, so we engaged in a 45-second silent battle of wills that involved me looking wild-eyed, shaking my head violently and pointing my finger toward the yard. It involved him raising his voice incrementally until I handed over the shovel to keep him quiet. He proceeded to SCRAAAAAPE it along the sidewalk, which to someone on the other end of a phone probably sounded like a small aircraft landing in my yard without its landing gear.

Then they wanted a snack. I’d had the foresight to bring out a bag of Goldfish crackers but I hadn’t brought out plates or napkins, so I hastily dropped my jacket on the steps and dumped Goldfish on it. Evan immediately moved the Goldfish to the dirty sidewalk and ate them off the sand.

In the middle of their snack Kostyn started dancing around — you know, that dance, the one small children do right before they start whining, “Mommy I have to go poooop!”

Somehow, silently, I managed to get both boys and the dog to follow me inside while carrying my open laptop and my phone and continuing to “Uh-huh….” and “Oh wow…” the source as if he had my undivided attention. Once upstairs, though, Kostyn started crying that he needed help. “I can’t get my pants off! Mommy my shoe is stuck!” (Because for some reason he has to strip naked from the waist down to poop.)

At this point I was kind of losing my mind. The doctor was giving me awesome quotes, but I couldn’t type them because I was helping a 3-year-old out of his big boy underwear while praying for him to just be quiet already please! In the blink of an eye I got him undressed and on the potty, gave him a handheld game and headed downstairs with my laptop and phone and headset and Evan and the dog.

Any other time, Kostyn would have happily begun playing his little Mobigo game. This day, he started screaming that he didn’t want to be alone. It was the only time the doctor mentioned being able to hear any sort of background noise. “Well, it sounds like someone’s not happy,” he said as good-naturedly as he could muster. I was thinking “NO. I’M NOT.”

I suppose I could have given up then. Taken a rain check. Asked to follow up via email. But I was almost done with the interview. There were just two crucial questions I still had to ask, and I’m a professional, dammit! Kostyn was neither dying nor in pain; I knew he was fine. So I made an excuse for my son, an excuse that most certainly did not involve disclosing where he was sitting at the moment, and forged ahead with my follow-up question from my new makeshift office space in the kitchen.

The good doc started in on his answer and I had both hands typing notes but both eyes on Evan, who was climbing onto one of the kitchen stools. Maybe he’ll just sit there, I thought, still typing. Maybe I can finish this interview in the next two minutes before

“I WANT TO EEEEEAT.”

“I WANT TOAST!!”

“AND WATER! MOMMY, WATER!”

There was only one way to shut his sweet little trap, and that was to fill it with toast. So I stopped taking notes again. I fetched the toaster, the peanut butter, the paper plates. Then I took furious catch-up notes while making sure the toaster didn’t set off the smoke alarm, which happens every day. (No, really, every day.) Luckily it didn’t go off, but that’s really because my son didn’t actually have “toast” so much as “warm bread” for lunch that day.

 And all the while, Kostyn continued to cry from his perch on the potty upstairs. He sobbed right up until he heard me say the word “Goodbye.” In the second it took for my headset to beep in my ear and my phone to go silent, I had one son happily playing a video game and another with his mouth stuck shut with peanut butter. The lack of background noise was deafening, and maddening.  And laughable.

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Exercise in Futility

I gave up my gym membership when we moved in January. Instead we’ve set up a small but adequate workout space on one side of the basement. On the other side is a rec room of sorts, complete with the boys’ train table, Kostyn’s drum set, an electronic keyboard, some large push toys and a cabinet full of puzzles and toys.

One recent morning I decided to exercise while the boys played with the instruments and toys. To ensure success with this endeavor, I set up their indoor Thomas the Tank Engine fort with two detachable tunnels. Pleased with myself for having this kind of foresight, I imagined they’d spend the entire time conspiring in the fort and racing through the tunnels, practically oblivious to my very existence.

This did not happen.

10:30: I got Kostyn settled on his drum set and Evan playing with a truck before hopping on my elliptical and punching in a 30-minute cardio program.

10:32: Evan wandered over to the drums and tried to edge his brother off the seat. “My turn! My turn!” Kostyn countered by screaming “NOOOOOOOO” Fearing he’d eventually use his brother’s head as a drum, I hopped off and refereed the fight.

10:35: Evan couldn’t get a push toy over a rolled-up carpet and needed help. Paused the iPod, hopped off the elliptical, mom to the rescue.

10:36: Kostyn grew bored with the drums and managed to get down by himself. Score one for mom’s warmup.

10:36:05: Evan wanted a turn on the drums and needed to be helped onto the stool. Off the elliptical I went.

10:38:50: “All done! Mommy? All done. Get down?” Fourth stop to my cardio in under nine minutes.

10:40: Paused the iPod but stayed on the elliptical as I talked Kostyn through how to turn on a remote control car. Instantly regretted that decision.

10:43: Broke up a fight over the car.

10:44: “The car’s stuck.”

10:44:20: “The car’s stuck.”

10:45: “The car’s stuck.”

10:45:02: The car got put on a high shelf.

10:50: “Mommy can you get this?” “No, Kostyn, find something else to do. Why don’t you play with your train. Or that awesome fort sitting right there in the middle of the room?!

Turns out nobody wanted to play in the fort, or build a train track. What they wanted to do was take a turn on the elliptical machine. Barring that, they wanted to keep me from staying on it. Nas and Damian Marley were piping through my earbuds telling me “the strong will continue….,” but I was starting to doubt I had it in me. As if sensing their victory was close at hand, they began an onslaught of questions:

“Mommy can you reach this?”

“Can I do this?”

“What are you doing?”

“Where are the people that go in this camper?”

“Can you go get them?”

“Can I go get them?”

“Mommy, I need to be pushed out. The stool is too close to the drums.”

“Help me, Mommy. How does this go?”

After a few minutes of this needy nonsense I realized, perhaps more clearly than ever before, that my workout time is as much about peace and focus for me as it is about cardio and strength training. And I was not really getting any of those things.

At 10:53 a.m., I gave up. I turned off the iPod, rounded up the kids, and felt the defeat and frustration wash over me as we climbed the stairs. I silently vowed to move the VCR/DVD player combo from the main floor to the basement, and try again the next day with the help of an old Disney movie.

I was wallowing in self pity, feeling like the morning was a total waste, when we reached the top of the stairs and Kostyn exclaimed, “We had SO MUCH FUN playing downstairs!” The laugh I got out of that statement did more for my abs — and my attitude — than all the effort put forth in the previous 23 minutes.


(This post first appeared on my other blog, Training Wheels.)

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Go! To! Sleep!

Is it just me, or does a child’s reasoning for calling you back into his bedroom at night get shiftier and shiftier with each “Mooooomyyyyy!!”?

First visit tonight: “Mommy, Evan’s crying.” Totally reasonable.

Second visit, five minutes after the first visit: “Mommy, I’m trying and I’m trying and I’m just not having any sleep.” A little lame but high on the cuteness scale, so he got another kiss and a sweet talk about what he should dream about tonight.

Third visit: “Mommy, I need my blanket.” Puh-leaze. It was covering him up to his stomach. Begrudgingly I yanked it up to his chin and left the room again, swearing to him, myself and God above that “I am not coming back in here tonight!”

(Incidentally, all three of us knew there’d be a fourth visit as soon as I said there wouldn’t be.)

Fourth visit: “Mommy, I’m just trying to scratch my finger. Can you scratch it?” OK this was clearly a test, but after four flights of stairs and four interruptions to the assignment I was working on, I was worn down. Feeling like a trained seal, I actually scratched his finger, people. I am not proud of this. (It was either that or repeatedly bang my head into the wall, which I sort of felt like I was already doing.) He smiled, said “Thanks. Good night!” turned over and fell asleep.

I’m not sure about the final score in this scenario, but I do know the kid’s well tucked, sufficiently scratched and, finally, down for the count.

(Aaaaand, now that I’ve typed that, there will be a middle-of-the-night visit. Guaranteed.)

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