Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Discipline. Revisited.

As with everything, an intense period is just that. An Intense Period.

It's been quite a month. Opal has been impressively committed to flexing her oppositional toddler muscles, especially while Jesse was away. I needed to set limits with her that matched her determined efforts and yet those limits were hardly making a scratch on the skin of the situation. Then she also happened to catch cold #112 and, though I wanted to cut her some slack and be extra nourishing, I didn't want to stray too far from providing adequate discipline.
All this creates a mama who is stone-tired.

But she has since relaxed a bit and got healthy in a flash. I have since toughened a bit and Jesse's been home for weeks. Things, I am pleased to report, have lightened up immensely.

In those first few wearisome weeks of the month, I dove into my parenting books (Parenting with Love and Logic, The Discipline Book by Dr. Sears, to name a few) to find some precious nugget of advice that would help me shift the weight somewhat, some technique I'd been overlooking that Opal would gladly respond to. Clear communication, consequences, nothing felt particularly helpful.

It wasn't until recently that I stumbled on some passages in Chapter 1 of The Discipline Book. I'd been skipping ahead to chapters like "Taming Temper Tantrums"and though I'd had the book for months, this was the first time I had actually taken the time to read the beginning.

After summing up the current most popular styles of discipline—the Authoritarian, Communication and Behavior Modification approaches—the book went on to discuss the Attachment Approach to discipline.

Parents who rely on any of the three above approaches to solve a discipline problem may find that their child's behavior improves, but only temporarily. Without a secure grounding in parent-child attachment, the other discipline approaches are merely borrowed skills, communication gimmicks, techniques that are grabbed from the rack and tried on in hopes of a good fit.

...With a firm grounding in a connected relationship, a parent can use the other three approaches to discipline (authority, communication and behavior modification) in a balanced way...but when these techniques don't work, you need to fall back on a deeper understanding of your child.

Eureka. This was what I had been waiting to hear.

Opal's misbehavior was not nearly as distressing as feeling like I'd been using one technique after another, rather blindly, naively, with no success. I had been so focused on making the behavior better somehow and was feeling somewhat disconnected from her in the process of attempting to achieve that end.

So I took those words as a cue to back off a bit. I also started applying much more energy to tuning into the moment before taking action if an action is needed. What is happening here? What is behind this meltdown? I had become quite the quick-draw.

Since I read that passage, there have been a few more nights like the one mentioned in the previous blog, where Opal wants her mama to get up with her during the night. A part of me certainly is still concerned that I am "training" her to need her mama to rock her to sleep, after all these months of helping her to learn to sooth herself. And granted, there are times when it is more than appropriate to allow her to cry for 10 minutes before going in (when that crying is a tired-cry and not a help-me-cry), times when it feels right to toughen up a bit after she suggests the 3rd dozenth stalling object and it's clearly all a game to her.

But there have also been a handful of times where—all rules, techniques and future concerns aside—it just feels right to rock her for 20 minutes in the middle of the night even if she's not sick and in her own cozy, splendid room. And that's for damn sure what I'm gonna do.

Here's the kicker: I find that I am much less tired—rejuvenated, even—when I am able to make decisions based on the temperature of the present moment and the voice of my loving intuition versus the voice of a set-list of rules. Parenting or not. Now, I'm not suggesting an increase in softness; I am suggesting an increase in awareness.

How interesting to discover that my ability to cope with Opal's strong will and the tricky, thorny, more baffling moments hinges much more on this fact than on whether or not she chooses to behave.

Again, Eureka.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Thin Line.

There is a line between the moments when my toddler is genuinely in need of help and affection or if she is, well, straight-up playing me. And it can be such a thin one. Kitty whisker thin. Spider web thin.

As an example, Opal was sick last week with a snot-filled nose and a whiskey-drunk cough. That was also a week that Jesse was out of town.

Because of her bug-induced discomfort, Opal was having a very hard time falling asleep and staying asleep. During her normal bedtime routine, she is transported to her crib after three songs, regardless of her level of obvious fatigue. When sick, she requires being rocked and sung to until a near comatose state, lying on my chest on the rocker, a folded crease down her center as she collapses around her beloved B. But even then as she omits a little whistle of a snore with arms like limp fillets, she will often catch me as I pause or slightly shift to relocate her little body, and say notha song mama.

Don't you go anywhere.

An extra 20 minutes of singing and rocking is a small price to pay for a sleeping sick baby. In fact, early in the evening there is nothing more splendid that doing just this. At midnight and then at 2 and then at 4:30am, different story.

I gave her similar leniency while we were away last weekend on a precious, low-budget family getaway. She was at the tail end of the cold and in unfamiliar environs.

Now she is better and we are home.

But she still, understandably, wants to lay wiss mommy.
One more time! she says with a plump little pointed finger and a face quickly squinching into desperation. One more time!

Last night was the first night she's been well and back in her own bed. Clearly time to tighten up the loosened elastic that our hallowed bedtime routine had become.

After our 3 songs, after tucking the "floor animals" in for bed (the ones who did not make the elite selection to be in the crib), I started to take her to her bed. No, I DO IT! she shouted, wriggling out of my arms. Predictable phase one of the stalling process. I helped her "climb into her crib" followed by telling her how delighted her ragtag crew of stuffed animals was to see her. Time for bed, honey. Mommy will tuck you in as soon as you lie down. The child has no intention of lying down on her own accord.

No, I do it! I do it! She says, meaning she wants to lie down in the crib by herself, which she is perfectly capably of doing. She just doesn't do it. She stalls and jumps around and begs for more songs or a drink or more chamomile or a band-aid. She even says she pooped (untrue).

So I tell her I love her and kiss her on the head and say for her to call me when she is ready for mama to tuck her in.

Honest author's note: I really hope walking away from her while she is upset doesn't fuck her up somehow in the future. I'm also a bit concerned about when she can simply crawl out of the bed and follow me. But nothing good comes from wrestling with a toddler. There is no creature out there with more stamina.

She never lets me get very far, though. Screams and screams, I'M READY! which is usually necessary for her to finally calm down enough to willingly go horizontal and to which I respond immediately. This is pretty standard bedtime fare.

Last night, she woke at 10:30pm screaming MOMMY! MOMMY! (That's a killer.)

I went in and she was hoping for a revisitation of the song and dance from earlier. I allowed for her a quick song in the rocker and put her back to bed, relatively smoothly.

But when she called again at midnight, I realized we were embarking on some unfortunate habits. This time I went in, hugged her, kissed her forehead—without picking her up—and said, honey it's time for bed.

The blood curdling screams that followed were the variety that, if heard from a different room, would have sent me launching over furniture, careening through any hapless barricade to get to her. Witnessing this while looking her right in the eye felt like allowing her to shut her hand in the door without stepping in to intervene.

Opal sleep wiss mama! she bargained, desperate. This, for the record, would not be something I was opposed to if we actually slept while in the same bed together, which we don't.

Mama PICK YOU UP! (pick me up.) PLEEEEZ! The screaming was so devastating and alarming that I came very close to going in and waking up Jesse as an allied force. (He wears earplugs and can often hear her through them but he slept through the whole thing this time.)

My fear was that picking her up would lead to being expected to do this every 2 hours every night from here on out and it was this thought that made it possible for me to not cave.

Finally, I said calmly, Opal, mommy loves you very much. But mommy is tired and Opal is tired. Call me when you are ready for mommy to tuck you in.

The screams peaked I'M READY MAMA!! and she let me lay her down and allowed kisses from all her stuffed animals. She kept crying a tired, throaty cry—Opal tired, Opal go night-night—for another minute as I left.

She woke up a handful of times throughout the night and gently called for me. But I knew from the sound of it that nothing was wrong and I let her find her way back to sleep.
And luckily I found my way back as well.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Battling of Wills.

There has been more than one morning this week where my daughter nearly drove me to drink.

Slugging back a cold one while still in one's pajamas is certainly not something I condone, but let's just say that I'm beginning to have a much better understanding of why some would succumb to such a notion.
To set aside fancier phrasing in order to get the point across, battling wills with a toddler can be really really really hard.

Here's an example.
(Mind you, it's just one. This last week, such instances have easily tallied to a half-dozen per day.)
Our two tasks for this paricular morning before heading out for a playdate with Krista and Zane were the following: to get Opal dressed (a change of diaper included) and to place lunch items into her lunch bag. To be clear, the PB&J was already assembled, the applesauce packet chilled and ready in the refrigerator, both requiring simply to be relocated to the purple bag.

Those two tasks took over an hour.

A whip-cracker, hardly, but I don't consider myself to be a mama who puts up with much child-induced grief. When Opal is uncooperative or contrary, she promptly gets a consequence. When she kicks or hits mommy, she gets a time-out, no discussion. When she uses a tone that is commanding or one that is whiney, she is instructed to use a gentler voice in order to get the attention or outcome she is craving or she is simply ignored until the volume chills out naturally.

Most times in the past, something has shifted after a consequence is given. Lately, not so much.

Recently, most actions that are not initiated by Opal's sharp little brain trigger a major meltdown. This morning it started with intense opposition to putting a diaper back on after sitting her little naked booty on the pink Dora potty seat. She ran around like a lobster avoiding the pot, screaming, squirming and wriggling with trained expertise. I tried to delay time-outs as long as possible, giving her choices as a first option.

Your choices are to change your diaper and get dressed on the floor or the diaper-table, which would you prefer? (Answer, of course, the floor, where she can zip and wriggle with no concern for falling.)

(A different angle.) When you cooperate with mommy you can help me pick our your shirt for the day! No response, just more jerking and flailing and orneriness for many minutes of stalling.

(Yet another different angle. More of a stern tone, not anger, just no-more-nonesense.) Ok, now it's time to cooperate with mommy. You can choose to cooperate now or go into time out. Same.

She was given a time out with a naked booty.

I did my best to not show my frustration and keep it light. One of the most recent books I've read stated very clearly that time-outs should not be a punishment, persay, as much as simply not offering your precious company to your child for a short period of time. That's the punishment. The book recommends to stay in a pleasant mood while remaining in eye-shot of your toddler. Being in the same space—reading a book, looking through the mail—while not engaging with them for the set amount of time.

After time-out #1, we traveled from diaper-opposition to straight-up hitting and kicking mommy, leading us post-haste into time-out #2, still with a naked booty.

I've had many chats with Jesse about this topic and I'd love to have dozens more with other parents. Opal is certainly just exercising her brawn and muscularity of being a two-year-old; she is obviously doing nothing wrong by pushing her limits. I recently read—in the book Parenting with Love and Logic— that if a toddler doesn't push back or throw tantrums, this doesn't mean he's being good, this means his spirit is broken. (Chew on that one.)

Yet having said that, there's still this strange expectation of cause-and-effect that I fumble with. If I give the proper consequence, she should respond, right? If I set the proper boundaries, she should shape up, correct? And when she suddenly stops responding, one can't help but to feel as if there may have been a better way of approaching the matter.

This line of thinking is a trap and more than just a bit self-agressive. During an evening chat with Jesse about feeling this way, we came to the conclusion together that it's our job to set limits that have her best intentions in mind, give appropriate consequences, remain consistent and let the rest go. But, ooh, not so easy in the moment!

So, back to the naked baby in time-out #2.
The opposition turned to a classic whining-fussing combo over the fact that she was not offered a Princess Band-Aid as a bribe, in spite of her passionately suggestions to do so.
Then, sadness. The tears. The MAMA PICK UP! Plunging her sobbing little face into my shirt, wriggling and still thoroughly clashing against being diapered. Lordy.

Luckily, finally, the excessive drama had left her tattered and limp and I was able to get her diapered and clothed. I paused for a moment in a just-off-the-worligig state of what the f— just happened? My toolbelt was totally empty—tools strewn about the floor in a state of disorder—and the thing that finally worked was pure and simple baby-exhaustion.

We resumed the present-tense mission to calm the crying, which was nebulous in whether its motivation was manipulation or real emotion. I carried her around the house in the Ergo backpack as she slowly settled and the sobs turned to sleepy tongue-clicks.

It was then that I wondered how long it had been since I last took a breath, considering how nice it would be to have some big, burly man smelling of Old Spice and peppermint to carry me around in one of these baby-backpacks. Weightless and snug, with legs dangling from each side like a synched marionette, having finally surrendered the collection of struggles and emotions that seemed so necessary just moments earlier. One arm curled around my blessed bunny, one holding a well-chilled gin and tonic.

(So now, I break out the discipline books to refine my game.
I shall report back with my findings...)

Friday, September 2, 2011


Opal's buddy, Zane, turned two last weekend.

This is quite a milestone because it means Opal will also turn two in a few months, a shocking but inevitable fact.

Zane's dear mama, Krista, and I were in pre-natal yoga together and we've been friends ever since, so the kids have spent time together literally since birth. And I can't help but wonder if it'll stick, if they will be suiting up to go to prom together fifteen some odd years from now while Krista and I deluge them with when-they-were-baby photos. Here you are at the mall that time when Opal hugged you with such gumption it toppled you right over. Here you are in the sandbox burying your toes. Here you are on Santa's lap looking as if sweet old santa—with the button-down cowboy shirt beneath red velour cloak—was pinching you both from underneath.
(He wasn't, we were standing right there.)

Or even better, if fate would have them turn out to be super-close buddies. The guy who Opal can visit after school to play boardgames with while she confides about the woes of growing up, the boys she likes, the things that intrigue her. In this scenario, they'd tease each other in that gentle way that's nothing but love and talk about their dreams while eating Monsterberry Crunch in their pajamas.

Krista had a party at her house for Zane last weekend and it occurred to me, not for the first time, that other parents—a brilliant, dynamic group of people, funny and relaxed and exceedingly easy to talk to—are now our sturdy peer-group. There we were, drinking beer and watching the kids play in the yard (nearly everyone there had children) while discussing life as a parent and life outside of being a parent (but with being-a-parent remaining the main reference point).

I couldn't help but to think about when I was growing up, how the adults at any kind of gathering seemed tremendously dull and featureless as a rule. As a kid, the gap of having two decades between us and them created an opaque partition making any kind of peer-like appreciation an impossibility between the youth and the adults.

But now I wonder how interesting our parents' conversations must have been as they lined the periphery at our holiday gatherings when I was a kiddo, how much effort was put into manning the grill, preparing the drinks and blowing up the balloons of appropriate theme. And how off-color the jokes must have been that were told just out of ear-shot.

I think of my mom, when I was young, and her mornings of having coffee with the other neighborhood moms and their kids. I distinctly remember watching Sesame Street at various houses on our block while sipping OJ from a tiny plastic juice cup—the word of the day is galoshes!—requesting a dozen refills. The moms laughed and gabbed in the kitchen, creating their own imaginary metropolis that was just as convincing as our forts and dollhouses. Monkey bread—with the sugary, cinnamony, buttery middle piece—may or may not have been involved, but my memory recalls something having always been baking in the oven. Nourishing, informal and relaxed.

It's a little different now with so many mamas at work. Krista and a few other mama-friends are so near and dear to my heart that it makes my voice quiver if you catch me on that kind of a day. Some have jobs and some don't. Some work a little and some went back to full time as soon as possible. There may not be a dozen of us gathering daily in the mornings with our strong coffee and OJ and galoshes, as with my mama. But we have our own version of gathering for walks and playdates and trips to the park with our Bakti Chi steaming from the drink-slot in the stroller. And then another birthday rolls around and faces from far and wide gather in one reverberating setting, shaking hands and giving hugs and sitting in groups of five and six in a circle like family around the campfire.

A community like this is so exceptionally important. It can be a lonely world to be a parent without an extended family of folks who are in the same boat—a clan who is adept at the same language—who can arrive unannounced long after the party is over and help themselves to tea or the beer in the fridge. These last few times I've been out sick for a few weeks, keeping a low profile so as not to spread anything or wear my energy too thin, I've felt a taste of that loneliness, particularly while Jesse is at work. It is a need for the kind of aeration that comes from getting out of the house and engaging in a highly nutritive visit, thus restoring my collapsed antennae back to their inherent state of fluffed-up, winged expansion.