The Tao of Frog and Toad

I’ve been watching a decent amount of children’s television lately. It’s cold as blank here and has been for what seems like close to forever. I’m still a relatively new Midwesterner and my first two winters were relatively mild compared to this one. Apparently it’s been below zero 90% of the time so far this year. Or that’s what I think my husband said over the din of our children both asking for more or less or differently arranged versions of whatever was in front of them for dinner.

Anyway, the children’s television. Love PBS, love the general idea of teaching kids good lessons about life through TV as opposed to how blowing things up has no consequence whatsoever. But after a recent Dinosaur Train episode in which a young triceratops was encouraged to try something new, was hesitant, but then loved it, I thought maybe sometimes these shows are trying too hard. Or pitching the wrong message.

My problem with the message is that it feeds into our known human tendency to evaluate our decisions based on the outcome. I know I read a book sometime that included real live social science research on this point. And the take home is, we should evaluate whether a decision is a good or bad one completely without reference to the outcome. A somewhat related truth about life is that sometimes we think something will suck, we try it, and then it actually still sucks. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have tried it in the first place. Or maybe it doesn’t mean anything, it just is.

Now I’m not promoting a ‘let’s show the worst that can happen isn’t so bad after all’ approach. That still includes a healthy dose of moralizing. And I’m not saying children’s stories should never moralize. On that point, I can say nothing more profound or eloquent than what is said in one of the first segments on Episode 8 (Kittens in a Basket) of the Organist podcast (put out by the Believer magazine). Just listen to it please. Anyway, I’m all for processing, but what if something just sucks. End of story. The fact of the story ending and moving on to the next thing speak volumes. More, perhaps, than preaching about it.

This is where the Tao of Frog and Toad comes in. I love the Frog and Toad books and now I’m able to put more of a finger on why. They proceed through life – sometimes things work out the way they want, sometimes they don’t, sometimes things have unintended consequences – and that’s that. There’s very little moralizing and they capture so many truths about life.

My favorite Frog and Toad story along these lines is “A Swim” in Frog and Toad are Friends. The gist is that Toad and Frog are going for a swim and Toad doesn’t want anyone to see him in his bathing suit because he says he looks funny in his bathing suit. He manages to sneak into the water without anyone seeing him, but word gets out that he thinks he looks funny, and when it’s time to get out he has a gathering of animals waiting to see him. Frog tries to get them to leave but they won’t. The mouse is my favorite because he says he hasn’t seen anything funny in a long time. And here I was thinking it was nothing but jokes from dawn to dusk with mice. Finally, Toad has no choice to get out or he’ll catch a cold. All the animals laugh, including Frog.

And the story ends like this:

‘What are you laughing at, Frog?’ said Toad.

‘I am laughing at you, Toad,’ said Frog, ‘because you do look funny in your bathing suit.’

‘Of course I do,’ said Toad. Then he picked up his clothes and went home.

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Have a breakthrough, forget about it, repeat…

My son is almost 3 and 3 months. Just before he turned 3 we had our second son. The last few weeks with him have been fantastic. The maybe month or two before that was really hard. The first month after the baby was born was good, but weird. I feel like the really hard 1-2 month period was all about me and him having our biggest growing/separation pains yet. Biggest in intensity and complexity. Both of us having weird internal conflicts about how connected we should be or want to be – physically and emotionally. Wondering what we were both capable of, for better or worse.

The changes and introspection that the rough phase prompted for me have been nothing short of life-changing, and that’s not a term I like to throw around lightly (except for maybe to describe a really great chocolate mousse).

Background – we have been really physically connected since he was born – probably mostly due to him wanting to nurse a lot, not taking a pacifier or a bottle, nursing to sleep, and after that stopped at 1.5 years, me still lying down with him to sleep and going back in whenever he needed me. I have generally been the only person he really wanted to snuggle with – he’s very outgoing and social, but not physically. This can really confuse people, but not me because I was the exact same way. Bodily integrity is of the utmost importance to him, and I can relate 100%. I did not feel that I needed him to need me in this way – I tend to like my space, and don’t need to be needed. But he is my son and I embraced it – the part that made me happy was that I could make him happy by being there for him physically. I also I think felt that if he was with me, I could protect him from others who didn’t understand how or when he wanted to be held or not.

Each time he has gotten to a point where he has been ready to physically separate a bit more from me, it has been difficult at first, and then easy. It has been clear when he’s ready because the closeness has stopped working. With nursing to sleep, it just wasn’t working anymore. The hard part for me was I had to be the one to say we are done with this, even though he still thought he wanted it. But I knew he was ready because I could see his internal conflict. These are the times it is my job as a parent to be firm and clear and confident. I have had lots of “room for growth” in this area – which is to say, I really sucked at it at first, and I have been getting progressively better, by thinking about it a lot and reading lots of books that make sense in my mind and heart.

Our last tough phase was around 2 and a quarter. It was probably about a month or two long as well. Highlights were him crying and yelling “mommy mommy” in the middle of the night for up to an hour off and on for probably around a month, even though I was right in the room with him, holding him if he wanted. We had our big breakthrough when I was able to find a way to calmly support him. Crap, I’m already starting to see a theme. If only I had been able to remember my previous breakthrough before going through the last month or two.

I have to skip ahead now to the themes:

  • Realizing I am not him and he is not me. Sounds stupid and not revolutionary, but think about it for real. Some people don’t have this issue, some of us do. I had to examine my reactions to understand what was going on. I felt this crazy compulsion to make him stop crying immediately, and crazy frustration when I couldn’t. Hmm, shocking that wasn’t very helpful for him. Now I realize it was about control.
  • This all boils down to control. Because I felt we were somewhat the same person, I felt I had to control him. I also was letting him control me – his emotions were becoming my own. Yet they weren’t my own, so I really couldn’t stop them. This hurled me full force into my scariest mindset, one I have worked for years to control – finding a way out of my own paralyzing, red-turning, out of control frustration, in which I throw fits and act like a complete freak. Also shocking that when I see him acting like this, it freaks me out double. Even more surprising that when I try to control him more, it freaks him out more. I was able to identify that when I am in that mindset, anyone engaging with me with any energy of their own, no matter their intentions, is just fuel for the fire. So it was with him.
  • It also boils down a little bit to him or his behavior being a reflection on my parenting. I feel like this is the downgraded version of me thinking we are the same person. A little less extreme, but still dead wrong. When I was approaching him with the premise that if I did things better or right, he would never have any freakouts, that was awful for me and for him. It’s not true and it binds us together in a very unproductive way.
  • Once I was able to let go of feeling that I had to either (a) make him stop crying or (b) fix whatever was “wrong” and making him cry (so that he would stop crying), it honestly got better overnight. I was just calm and sat there with him and told him I was there. I don’t know if my reaction changing, or we just both got to a better place at the same time, but it was so wonderful to have it end.
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Things I Don’t Want to Say as a Parent

This could be a daily, or even minute-by-minute log, but I am going to focus on one that has really been popping out at me lately.

A little background – I just had my second baby at the start of September, and I’ve been going to a moms’ group for the last few weeks with him. Even though this is now precious time on one of the three days my older son (3 years old) is at preschool, I just really like moms’ groups. At the shallowest level, I just find them fascinating in an US Magazine, hear the intimate details of random other people’s lives, sort of way. At a higher level, I also really like feeling the sense of community that can often evolve out of those groups. I also like hearing ideas for addressing challenges, and just appreciating the range of experience and reassuring myself that I am somewhere in that gigantic range, and wherever I am, it’s ok. Perhaps most importantly on some days, I also like that it is next door to a coffee shop that has a peppermint mocha named “the Bullfrog.”

All this background is totally unnecessary to my point, but now it’s too late. The word that has stuck out at me lately as being a word I really don’t want to use to describe my baby is “good.” What particularly got me thinking was the one woman in the group who just smiles every week during check-in and says her baby is a really “good” baby and they aren’t really having any issues. I think this is hilarious and weird and a little bit annoying. In a way, I think it’s so subversive, and thus cool and hilarious, to show up at a moms’ group and not complain about anything. What an amazing assault on the first unspoken rule of moms’ club which is you don’t talk about anything that’s going well at moms’ club (wow, that was a bit of a stretch – just thought it was worth it to try to weave in a Fight Club reference on a mom blog.) I like imagining that this woman is backed by some underground performance art fund (you didn’t know there was such a thing?) and hitting up every moms’ group in a 50 mile radius with her sunny disposition. It’s almost an act of civil disobedience.

It’s also weird and a little annoying to me because I have to admit I can’t totally buy the suggestion that she never has anything to complain about. I am pretty against complaining, but once I realized it was ok to name your challenges and process them, I think I’ve been a lot happier. Even happier than when I would just go around suppressing them and basking in the warm glow of not being a complainer.

But back to the word “good.”  I was surprised at how many women use that word to describe their babies – and these are all babies under six months old – and I started thinking about the underlying assumptions. The obvious problem is what does this mean? Good generally means, for lack of a more elegant way to put it, not f*ing up your sh*t. Leaving you alone, not requiring much of your time or effort, perhaps appearing happy, but I’m not sure that’s a prerequisite for being termed a “good” baby. Much like how everything in the “Happiest Baby on the Block” is not at all about being happy, but rather about being quiet. As the mom of a six week old, I am absolutely not knocking the value of that. But it may be a bit disingenuous to equate quietness with happiness.

The underlying assumption I find most problematic is that if a baby is not being good – i.e. easy – then they must be being “bad.” Now on the one hand it’s easy to say – well obviously these moms don’t think their “good” baby is bad if they start to cry, or they don’t think the mom who checks in after them whose baby never sleeps and cries every evening is a “bad” baby, and ‘”good” is just shorthand for a whole list of qualities, and we should appreciate these women for saving us time so we can make it to my check-in and I can ramble incoherently for a while and then say “so yeah, that’s what’s going on with us” as if that ties it all together. But language is powerful.

It brings to mind a section in Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn (a must read), where he talks about how your beliefs about human nature affect your parenting behaviors. I don’t own this book, though I should, so I can’t actually look at it to see how badly I’m bastardizing his point. But what I gathered from it was the pretty profound point that whether you believe people – and thus babies and children – are basically good and simply need some help staying in that mode sometimes, or whether you believe they have bad tendencies that need to be controlled with force or punished in order to be good, has a pretty big effect on how you act as a parent. He points out that parenting techniques that rely on control and punishment are generally founded on the latter view.

I found his point to be profound because it’s one of those things that so deeply and basically underlies what we do that we often never even realize it’s there. Unearthing our own views about people in general can be tremendously helpful, and also help us to understand our own knee jerk reactions, and most importantly, think through whether our parenting behavior is consistent with what we actually believe.

I know that I don’t want to communicate the belief that there is any such thing as a “bad” baby or a bad person by using the word “good” to describe my baby or any other baby. My belief in the fundamental goodness of human nature is one of my most deeply held beliefs and I don’t want to use language that goes against that.

I plan to come back to this post and add more slightly related points, and include more references to my desire for chocolate, but I’m publishing now because if I don’t do it now, who knows when it will happen…

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The Discussion About “Having It All” and Whether It’s Possible for Working Moms – It All Boils Down to Choice for All Workers

I have been fascinated by the many articles and books lately about parenting in general, mothering in specific, and working mothers (however that is defined) in even more specific.  I have no idea if there has actually been a huge increase in articles/books/discussion of this issue, or it’s just one of those things that you notice more once it applies to you.

The internet is stuffed full of responses to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article, so I figured why not try to stuff in one more.  I have enjoyed many of the responses, but I always feel like something’s missing. 

For me, I think it’s the underlying premise of so much of these discussions that there is some absolute truth out there; some right or wrong answer.  I simply do not believe there is.  Every single person is different, every mother is different, every “working mother” is different, and trying to lump people into groups is a crude and, in my mind, useless endeavor.  There is no “right” way to be a “working” mother.  Slaughter talks about where she came out on the very personal question of how much time to spend with her children and how much to spend on her job.  Where she came out may not be where others will come out.  It may change every year or even every month for any given woman, depending on the nature of her job, the age of her child, the availability of her partner, if she has one, her mental health, her physical health, and countless other factors.  What’s wrong with our society – and I do think some of the responses capture this better than others – is that people are not always free or supported to choose out the solution that works best for them and their families, at any given time. 

There are a lot of reasons we lack this freedom, but I think it’s easiest to focus on the economics.  When I read articles that focus on the lack of paid child care leave and affordable child care, I find myself nodding my head more vigorously (incredibly annoying habit, I know – luckily usually no one else is around). Federal policies, state policies, and work place policies could be so much better in terms of allowing parents who are employed to balance their family and work obligations.  Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but I keep hope that this can happen within the structure of capitalism.  I know far too many women who are extremely smart and well-educated (to the extent that matters), who are working either far more than they want to (the key being “than they want to” – not the amount of time they work measured against some objective standard) or less than they want to.  For the women working less than they want to, it seems to me that at some point the most savvy businesses are going to figure out how to employ these women and access their incredible skills and will get over the notion that women (and people in general) can only be effective/productive workers if they are in the office 40+ hours a week.  I would think this would translate into many benefits for those businesses/workplaces, including simple economic benefits.

These types of changes are satisfying for me to think about because it seems we could make some progress in this regard.  The societal attitudes are also incredibly fascinating to me, but so much harder to get my head around, and even harder to think about how to change them. 

I also think people often forget to acknowledge, perhaps because it’s too obvious, how deeply messed up our work life balance as a society is compared to many other developed countries.  To me, that’s at the heart of the issue.  As long as the 40+ hour work week and being available around the clock is the gold standard for a good worker, it will be difficult to parent, whether you are a mother or a father, single or partnered.  I remember reading a great article on a while back that framed the work life issue not as a working mother issue, but a working person issue.  We all have a variety of things we would like or need to do (with varying degrees of need, however you measure that) outside of work.  Workplaces could allow for so much more flexibility for everyone than they do presently.  I think this would require a colossal mind-set shift away from comparing reasons for being away from work, and a true understanding and acceptance of everyone’s differences, and a trust that everyone would be making as significant a commitment to work as possible.  I have been pretty disenchanted with the ability of even very progressive non-profits to make this mind-set shift, but at the same time, I have seen glimmers of progress and I have faith. 

I think we can make the most progress on the more specific issue of how working mothers can find work life balance if we focus on the broader issue of adjusting work life balance in our society in general.  The benefits to our mental health as a society would, I think, be nothing short of tremendous.  Here’s hoping.

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“Working” mom and “stay at home” mom – as useless as my land line?

I have no idea how I have been reading mom blogs for so long (the past 19 months counts as “so long” since it’s my little guy’s whole life) and haven’t before come across Mom-101.  One of my new favorites!  Awesome discussion over there of “doing it all” which prompted many comments, all fascinating and thoughtful.

It got me thinking again about one of the many false dichotomies in this parenting world – working moms and stay-at-home moms.

First, I think I have to untangle two issues if I’m going to make any sense to myself.  The first is whether there is or should be a war between these two groups (I’m going out on a limb and saying no).  Backing up, I do not personally believe there is much of a war between individual women, but people who want to sell newspapers and books want us to think there is.  My evidence – the 12 million results that come up in .9 seconds when you type “mommy wars” into Google.  More evidence that the war is not between individuals but is invented to sell books – even the author of the book “Mommy Wars” doesn’t fall neatly into one of the two categories (from her website: “the truth is I feel like a hybrid–neither working mom nor true stay-at-home mom.”).  Of course this did not stop her from sub-titling her book “Stay-at-home and career moms face off…”  Nuance, though tasty when paired with fine wine, does not sell books.

The competitive part of me wants to get a new team signed up for the league and start kicking ass!!  I even found an article suggesting that moms who work part time are a new “dominant power” in the “war between stay-at-home moms and full-time working moms.”  Heck yeah!  Where do I order my team shirt?!  We got next!

But even if we’re not doing battle (and really there are so many other awesome things to battle over), I think it’s also important to ask whether these two categories are even useful as descriptors – whether they tell us anything about people’s day to day lives (I’m becoming increasingly convinced that they don’t).

I realize that this point – that trying to force all moms into one of two categories fails to capture the breadth of the mom experience – is not revolutionary.  And I am certainly not against using categories, per se.  But these particular categories are used so much (insert ten day long link to all the articles on this issue) that it does seem it’s worth paying attention to whether we are getting our money’s worth from them.

The huge range of experiences of the people commenting on the Mom-101 post further convinced me that this is not a very useful way to break things down.  Arguably there is more difference between a mom who works 80 hours at a law firm/med student job (Mom A – not for type, but OK in some cases maybe a little for type), and a mom who works 30 hours a week, and sees her baby every lunch break (Mom B – not for grade, or cup size, or type of movie) than there is between Mom B and a mom who doesn’t work, but has a kid in preschool for a half day every day (Mom C).  Mom B and C might have a much more similar experience, yet Mom A and B would be lumped into “working moms” and Mom C would be a “stay at home” mom.   My own experience does not fit neatly into any category.  I was home for five months, then have been back at work part time (sneaking out to breastfeed my hardcore bottle refuser for the first few months back).   The comments also highlighted for me how these categories are not permanent traits for so many of us – so many of us go from one category to another (and then back again).  Makes trying to take sides in the “mommy wars” something like being a Brett Favre fan from 2007-2009.  You end up buying a lot of different jerseys and is it really worth the price.

Reading another Mom-101 post on this very issue made me also realize that probably a large part of why this “battle” rages on, is because it’s something we feel within ourselves.  We have some stake in watching the sides duke it out, hoping it will reveal some clues as to whether our particular combination of work and time with our children is the “right” one.  The sooner we stop judging ourselves, the sooner we can stop judging each other.  Free from the “wars” and the confines of the two made-up sides, perhaps then we can have real conversations about the challenges and decisions we all face.

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Diapers dot com is stalking me

I just looked up “man cave” on urban dictionary (long story, but I think the whole concept is super annoying and am trying to get my social psychologist mom to explain to me why) – and right in between definitions 3 and 4 is a picture of the last three things I bought on diapers dot com.  It freaked me out to see my son’s shoes and diapers right there.  I also think it’s awesome that a four pack of size 4 diapers can invade the sanctuary of even the definition of “man cave.”  Take that.

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The meaning of the name – and the answer is No

The name is from that youtube video of the kid coming home from the dentist that was a huge hit.  I watched it before I had a baby and my honest first reaction was just cracking up and thinking how it’s like being on various (extremely legal – depending where you live) mind-altering substances.  And then – to show that I also have a deep side – thinking about how a kid can often capture what things feel like in such a more accurate and genuine way than adults trying to impress themselves/others with how they talk/write.  Since becoming a parent I see it differently, and maybe more like this guy, though a dash of googling revealed that the kid’s family is now making money off of it and the kid seems to be happily along for the ride (though if he wasn’t, not sure how I would know that).

Regardless (add an “ir” to the start of that one if it feels better to you that way), the phrase that stuck with me, though I remembered it incorrectly, was “will this be forever?”.  Because that’s how it feels – and here’s where I tie everything together! – to (a) be on those substances, (b) be with a baby – if it happens to be your own baby and you happen to be me – who is crying for more than 10 seconds, or (c) be in any number of phases of your child’s development that for any number of reasons makes you feel like you are fucking up as a parent.  If, in those moments, you could believe 100% that it will not be forever, I think those moments become immeasurably easier.  I am at my worst when I do not remember this, and am able to deal so much better, and perhaps even find that things that were “issues” cease to be so, when I do.

That said, I don’t think this applies equally to every aspect of parenting.  I think there are two categories – one category is things that actually don’t suck  (issues that stop being issues) if you can remember as they are happening that they will not be forever.  My best personal example was walking my son around before he was comfortable enough walking on his own.  Physically, it was not annoying to me and I actually even kind of liked cruising around with him and seeing where he would take us (spoiler alert – the fire truck steering wheel under the stairs at the playground).  It would only become stressful when the voice would kick in asking if this was going to be forever.  First I’m thinking – why are no other parents at the park walking their kids around by the hands (answer: their kids are 3), next thing I know I’m worrying about whether you’ll be walking him around the basketball court at 8th grade tryouts.  I start thinking – will they just have to take us both on the team?  Are there age cutoffs that will pose a problem?  Will I count as the 6th man, or just a part of the kid, like sports goggles or something?  If I could just remember that it won’t be forever, I wouldn’t have to waste my time on these worries, and I could instead focus my energies on beating myself up for not cooking wholesome, locally sourced food for my family.

I do acknowledge, however, that there is a whole additional category of things that, even when you know they won’t be forever, just suck.  I doubt I need to provide examples.  But even with these, remembering they won’t be forever may take some of the edge off.  Lying in bed for a long-ass time nursing my kid to sleep, not being able to get up and watch Top Chef – that sucked.  It sucked even though I knew it would be over at some point because Top Chef was on right then, and I was hungry and had no food with me.  In those moments, getting the hell out of the moment was usually a life saver for me, and thinking forward to when I’ll be picking him up from soccer practice and he won’t want to come within 10 feet of me helped me get through the next 20 minutes (side note – why is the required mom future fantasy of teenage son all about picking up from sports practices?).

I was also recently reading The Scientist in the Crib, which includes discussion of research on how children have a very hard time recalling that they felt differently/thought differently in the past than they do in the present moment.  It also seems like much of the recent research (behavioral economics stuff, etc) shows that adults are really bad at this too.  Eighth grade essay quality conclusion: maybe just realizing and acknowledging that we are “programmed” to be bad at this can help us become better at it…

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