T is for Toddler

hisforhawkSome of you will know that I have recently been obsessed with and forcing on everyone I know the book  H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald. This is a really unique book. It’s the author’s memoir of the year after her father’s unexpected death. She (an experienced falconer already) buys and trains a young goshawk–a notoriously difficult bird. The book is the story of her grief, of her experience forging a relationship with the bird, a study of another troubled austringer: author T.H. White, and an immersion in anxiety (hers and his) and the primal drive to hide in the wild when civilization seems on the brink of disaster. It’s scholarly, but accessible. Wild, but meticulous. Absolutely undone and stiff upper lip-py. All at once.

Read it read it read it read it read it.

I suppose it’s not for everyone and, indeed, I suspect that most of the folks I’ve pressed it on neither want to read it nor will like it when they do, but it’s been the perfect book for me, at this time. I’ve read it twice in the last six months. Both times, I learned, I wept, I rolled Helen MacDonald’s lovely words around in my mouth, I got lost, I got found, and I felt better as she gave words to things I couldn’t.

Here’s what I didn’t expect: I also, it seems, absorbed child-rearding tips from her efforts to train her goshwak, Mabel.

The Fustible is now just a little over a week shy of two years old. She’s smart and verbal and understands (and can express) quite a bit. She’s also…opinionated…at the best of times and anywhere from exuberantly defiant to bitterly passive aggressive at others (gee, wonder where she learned that….)

I love her confidence, her opinions, her independence, her sense of self, her strong will. She will need them. I don’t want to stomp these things into docility or compliance. But it leaves us in a weird place where at every moment we’re a breath away from an out-of-the blue power struggle.

This week I realized that, inadvertently, I’d been applying a technique that really came from H is for Hawk:

Much is made in the book of the personality of the goshawk, and the need for the bird to be at the perfect “flying weight” before being asked to do anything in particular. Take the bird flying at the wrong weight, and it just doesn’t work. It’s not a question of how smart or well trained the bird is–if it’s not at the right level of energy, focus, interest, and physical engagement/need, they’re not going to respond, and nothing but disaster will ensue. (What this comes down to in reality is much about how much and what the bird has been fed. In the book when Helen has intractable troubles with the bird, it’s invariably because Mabel has eaten too much or too little. But I don’t want to draw that part of the analogy too here, since obviously that’s really not what I’m talking about when I talk about parenting)

What does this mean, then, for me and my two-year-old? It means, I know that my daughter knows intellectually what “Please go find your coat” means, and I know that she knows where the coat is and I know that she is physically able to get it. But depending on the day–how she feels, how tired she is, what kind of a mood she’s in, what we’ve been doing the last 10 minutes, etc.–she’ll either say “OK!” and run off to get her coat or say “NO!” and run to hide behind a chair. This all sounds like pretty typical toddler stuff–nothing too unusual here.

But what I’ve started doing without realizing it, is observing before I ask her to do something whether she’s at her “flying weight.” I also usually know in advance, I’ve learned, whether she’s going to respond positively to my request, or if it’s just not going to happen. And if it’s not going to happen, I don’t ask her. I don’t embark on the 20-minute battle that ends in tears and screaming and me physically chasing her with a coat. I just get the coat myself and put it on her *before* she gets worked up. Or put away the toys, take her socks off, whatever.

This was counterintuitive to me at first. It feels like a cop out or like giving up–doing something for her that I know her to be capable of doing.

But the point is that she’s not yet 24 months old–in these instances she actually is *not* emotionally/socially capable of doing what has been asked–even if she is capable in the other ways. And if I can tell that ahead of time, and I ask her to do it anyway, that’s on me: I’ve chosen an uphill battle.

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Helen MacDonald and Mabel playing with a rolled up tube of paper. Hm, also a game I play with my toddler. (from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18803640-h-is-for-hawk)

The outcome, I hope, will be to reduce a pattern of frustrating power struggles and to to build up a pattern of mostly positive experiences where she starts to see herself as capable, resourceful, independent, and helpful. And fewer drawn out battles, where we starts to see herself as my opposition.

Look, I’m not saying we’ll never have battles over what needs to happen. We will. And I’m not saying that when she’s 10 years old I’ll be bringing her her coat if I think she’s not in the mood to get it herself. But for me, it’s about choosing when and when not to push–trying to keep the long view in mind.

Right now, going to get a coat is  probably the most challenging, complex thing we’re likely to ask of her–so even though she *can* do it, she can do it only when she’s ready to rise to the occasion. It’s her Personal Best. That won’t be the case forever. When she’s 10 it will be, maybe, I don’t know, preparing a simple meal. Or something. Who knows what will be a reasonable reach for the ten-year-old she’ll turn out to be. At ten, I hope I would expect her to get her coat without asking–or to be reasonably irritated with her if she doesn’t–but I would expect to judge carefully before asking her to cook, perhaps assessing whether  she’s ready to pay careful attention, in the mood and capable of using the tools in the right way, and motivated to produce a good outcome. My hope is that each new skill will become gradually learned and assimilated as a neutral-to-positive thing, until it becomes natural. Once it’s natural, it will become reasonable for us to expect her to do it on her own, consistently. But when she’s learning, it’s up to us to ensure that we push her when learning is possible–in other words, not to fly her when she’s not at her flying weight.

I suppose this is nothing new for parents. Guidance for things like potty training–something else we’re exploring right now–are all pretty unanimous in saying, if the child is resistant, STOP!–forcing it will not help anyone, will not help you “win.”

But the image of a human and a hawk–companions, one ostensibly leading and giving the commands, but the other entirely its own self, never subordinate in the way a dog is–and the responsibility of the human to care for and observe and respect the hawk–to take as a given the fact that if you don’t, whatever you want to happen just won’t happen–suddenly made so much sense to me.

And when she is ready? Watch her fly.

How Life is Now Part II

Not that I was exactly succinct in my last reflection, but I keep thinking of other big and small things that are true of my life now. The beautiful thing is, this is my blog, so I can put them all here! Lucky you.

  • My nails are WRECKED. I have no idea why. When the Fustible was a newborn I figured it was because it was winter and I was washing my my hands so much. Now, it’s the mildest winter ever and (I confess) I don’t wash my hands as obsessively as when she was only a few weeks old. But still, my nails still just peel and shred and chip and shatter, more than they ever did before. Is it stress/lack of sleep? Malnutrition? Carelessness and distraction when doing stuff like grating cheese and prying outlet covers out of the wall? All of the above.
  • Nothing else that I used to stress about seems that important anymore. This is not some self-righteous philosophical thing, like, “Nothing compares to the majesty and importance of forming a human mind!” On the contrary: my expectations for overall success have been lowered so much that no day seems that bad on balance. Oh, I’ll still get frustrated or overwhelmed or tired or angry. I don’t mean that I’m now unflappable. Hardly. Indeed, I am probably more flappable because, as noted elsewhere, these days I don’t have lots of patience to spare for fools. But whereas previously someone’s snippy email would ruin my day, now, I’ll get pissed off, rant a little bit, and then at the end of day, shrug and walk out happily because no one died and now I get to go pick up the babe. I’m not really intimidated by anyone because no matter what happens, they probably won’t head butt me in the chin, pull my hair, and sob piteously as though the world is ending (though this may happen in other departments). Passive aggressive, weirdly competitive dudes interrupting each other and acting like I’m to blame for…something? I’m not scared. Today we got the baby to daycare, dropped one car off for an oil change, got to work on time, rolled from meeting to meeting right up til 5:15, hauled a load of tablecloths belonging to work home to launder (DEFINITELY not part of our job descriptions…), picked up the car where we learned that our rear brakes are essentially out and need to be replaced immediately for a mere $400, got the baby, walked the dog, and met friends out for dinner. And dinner took FOREVER–an hour waiting for a table and another hour to get our food. 18 months ago, my takeaway would have been “What an annoying and exhausting end to an annoying and exhausting day!” Today, I was like, we KILLED this day! I can’t believe we survived! We rule! Best day ever!”
  • I weigh more than I ever have in my life and I just don’t really care. When the Fustible was born I was already at a lifetime max weight. And then I put on 10 pounds in like two weeks. I was such a fool–I had all these plans, that since I had *not* just given birth, I was going to get SO MUCH EXERCISE bouncing the baby at home all day instead of sitting at my desk. Lol. On the contrary, I never exercised again and I ate only frozen pizza for months. And also I turned 30 and now it apparently takes more than skipping a couple of cookies to lose weight. Weirdly? I don’t mind how my body looks now. I even kind of like it. In most pictures now I look exponentially happier now than I did in 2012 when I was 25 pounds lighter. And I don’t spend hours every day tracking food intake and calories. So be it. The main downside is that probably 2/3 of my wardrobe is now off limits. If I lost 10 pounds I’d get a lot of clothes “back” and it would bring me down from the boundaries of the unhealthy weight zone. When I do buy new things, I get things that fit properly, but I’m surely not going to replace everything (or if I do, it will take another 10 years). Look, I do know that claiming to be happy with my body shape is no excuse for not exercising: I need to exercise, not necessarily or only to lose weight but because it helps regulate my moods, and because I need to be strong and flexible and fit to chase the baby around and not throw out my neck or back or knee every time I pick her up. (“Lift with your legs” was clearly not invented by anyone who ever lived in a house of baby gates, cribs, playpens, etc.). And also, not just for her but for me, because I should take good care of myself. I know, I know, I know. And that’s all I’ll say on this for now.
  • My cycles are shorter. No, not those cycles. What I mean is, the ups and downs and round and rounds of life are compressed. For example, anyone in a very long term relationship will know that your relationship is not always the same. Sometimes for a few weeks or months it will be just like when you first fell in love–fun and happy and sexy and easy. Then you’ll go through weeks and months where you’re brittle and tense and arguing and just nothing seems to fit right and you wonder what happened to your life. And other times you’re more like roommates or even neighbors, just acquaintances moving through each other’s space. And then you’re in love again. Now? Instead of over weeks or months, we go through all of these phases almost every single day. Sometimes multiple times. Likewise, I used to think of days as morning, afternoon, and evening. Now each of those has at least three or four sub-sections (pre-breakfast, post-breakfast-pre-nap, nap, post-nap, pre-lunch, etc.), and each of *those* might contain time for work, play, rest, food, cleaning, reading, and cat-chasing. Round and round and round we go. Do something. Correct. Iterate. Parenting is basically living life according to the agile development model.
  • My hair is the longest it’s ever been, ever. Like, by a lot. I barely wash it (I was always skeptical of those women who said they didn’t have time to wash their hair but, nope) and I barely brush it. This seems to be the best possible way to treat my hair. It’s never looked so good–wavy and golden and shiny and voluminous. Hey, maybe all the cells from my nails are going into my hair instead for some reason? I guess I should probably cut it someday but, eh. Why?  I can always go pixie again and I’ll probably go to my grave that way, but these are probably my last years of mermaid hair.
  • It pays to diversify your diaper situation. We do mostly cloth diapers when we can and when it makes sense to. But there are times when it doesn’t. The best thing about having both on hand is that you’re pretty much never out. I am the kind of person who will always be out of gas when I need to get to the airport, out of milk when all I want is cereal, out of flour when I want to bake, etc. I’m not great at planning ahead for supplies. I definitely would have died on the Oregon Trail. So: I would *definitely* have been That Mom at Meijer frantically buying diapers at 11 p.m. Every week. Practically my favorite thing about cloth diapers is that they are literally always in your house. We buy one large box of disposables probably every 3 months to swap or supplement as needed. And between the two? Never. Out. Of. Diapers. Thank God!
  • Speaking of diapers, diapers are the only thing that lasts. Bumbo seats, pacifiers, walkers, Sophie the Giraffe, sleep sacks, infant bathtubs–all these things that you stock up on, and then they’re just over, done, in the blink of an eye. But not diapers. Diapers are forever. We are probably not even halfway done with diapers. Sigh.
  • I thought when we stopped buying formula we would suddenly have a lot more disposable income but it was cruel lie. 

 

How life is now, or, “Things I never knew I never knew”

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Birthday hats are delicious!

The Fustible turned one last month. I had no idea this would seem so much more momentous than any birthday or anniversary or commemorative occasion, ever. Honestly, the last year didn’t feel especially fast or slow to me. There were the days that seemed like they would never end, and then there were the whole months that just evaporated. On the whole, though, the year felt substantial. It felt like, well, a year. But as we closed in on January 16, and I thought back to where we were a year ago–as the sense memories and the snow crept up on me, I started to relive those early days more vividly than I had, well ever. And it’s crazy. 365 days, and our baby’s no longer a baby.

So, in the spirit of sniffly noses and full hearts, here’s a bunch of random anecdotes and thoughts about what’s up, one year in (and some change). In the inimitable words of George Washington (or maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda, same thing), “I wanna talk about what I’ve learned, the hard-won wisdom that I’ve earned!”

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