It’s not about you

I stopped eating meat when I was ten years old, when I finally REALLY understood where meat came from (my rural counterparts who grew up on farms knew this at an early age–city kids can be so sheltered and separate from their food sources!). The thought of consuming muscle tissue simply turned my stomach, and I could no longer eat it without feeling sick. My mother initially thought that it was just a short phase (like when my father stopped eating meat for awhile after working for a week in a slaughter house as a student). She made it very clear that she would not make me separate meals, and that I would have to learn to cook and combine foods to ensure that I was getting adequate nutrition. She gave me the book “Diet for a Small Planet” and told me to read it and start learning about alternate protein sources, as she did not want me living on pasta. So I did. I became incredibly interested in nutrition and in how different amino acids combined to create complete proteins. I started to experiment with preparing different foods, and learned how to create tasty meatless meals. This skill set (research, food preparation, nutrition information) has served me well into adulthood and parenthood. My decision to avoid eating food that repulsed me for 12 years (yes, it was a long phase) was always about my personal comfort, and was never a criticism of the choice of others to eat a burger, although I certainly heard my share of unkind remarks when people discovered that I was a vegetarian. I was frequently questioned about my beliefs, cross-examined, ridiculed, pressured to eat meat, and even tested by a boyfriend’s mom who tried to hide meat in my sandwich to prove that I wasn’t a “real vegetarian”because I would “love the meat once I ate it”. It was as though other people could not go on living knowing that I was not eating meat. As though my choice to refrain from eating meat somehow meant that I was pointing a finger at them and calling them murderers. I never fully understood the hostility of people who seemed so threatened by my dietary habits. I eventually started eating meat in a time of financial instability, when my tuition was due but my first paycheque was delayed by three months thanks to an accounting error at my workplace. I was offered free meals at work, which always contained meat of some kind. I gratefully gagged it down and soldiered on, because I knew that gross food was better than no food. I still can’t eat meat that looks like an animal (such as skin-on salmon), and still do not enjoy touching/preparing raw chicken or other meat, but I’ve gotten better at shutting off that part of my brain that causes a complete stomach revolt when I see bloody hamburger meat in the grocery store.

My sister’s choice to not procreate has never been about criticizing or judging people with children. She enjoys spending time with children and is the most doting and loving Auntie that Willow could ever hope for. She prayed and hoped along with me for a niece or nephew (well okay, specifically for a niece) for six long years. Her child-free life choice is about knowing how she and her husband wish to live their lives, and trusting in that self-awareness in the face of society desperately trying to convince them that they need to have children (Who will care for you when you are old? You’re selfish for not having children! You’ll be lonely and you’ll regret it later in life! Don’t you want someone to carry on your name and legacy? The world needs your genes! Your biological clock is ticking! You’d make such great parents! Your kids would be so cute!). I’ve adamantly corrected people who have made unfair assumptions about her as a person based on her child-free status on multiple occasions. Why is it selfish to choose not have children? Wouldn’t it be MORE selfish to have a child just to gain the approval of your peers and society at large (and likely either consciously or subconsciously resenting that child)? Why does her lifestyle somehow seem to threaten others?

My inability to bear another child and our decision not to pursue adoption is not a criticism of families with two or more children, nor is it a slight to the many beautiful families created through adoption. It is what works for our family. It is, indirectly, a statement of gratitude and an acknowledgement of the blessing that we finally received after so long. It is an acceptance of what is, and a reflection of the contentment we have found in realizing that our family is truly complete with one beautiful, cherished, wanted and loved little girl. Willow is enough. She is everything I prayed for and more. Yes, we are aware that some people believe that only children are selfish, spoiled, and don’t know how to share. Yes, we realize that Willow will have a huge load on her shoulders when we die, and will have to lean on non-sibling supports such as close friends, extended family, and professionals to help her through her grief. Yes, we work hard to ensure that she has a variety of social experiences with other children, including day care, play dates, play groups, and various programs at the early years centres and libraries.  Our “only” is not a threat to society because she doesn’t have human siblings to teach her how to share (fur-siblings are doing a great job with this, thank you very much…). 

The guy who was biking in front of me wearing an air filter mask this morning was not judging me because I was driving a car (or if he was, who cares?). He was just doing whatever made him feel safe and happy as a cyclist surrounded by exhaust fumes. My safety and comfort is not affected by his choice. The neighbour across the street who diligently pulls every weed from his lawn on a daily basis is not making a passive-aggressive comment on our dandelion and clover-filled lawn. Does he hate looking at our lawn? Maybe. Or maybe he’s so busy taking care of his own lawn and revelling in his own beautiful garden that he lacks the time or inclination to judge ours. Either way, it doesn’t matter. His perfectly manicured lawn doesn’t harm our lawn. 

Our choice to honour Willow’s temperament, sleep needs, and natural circadian rhythm with an early bedtime and a predictable evening routine does not harm people who choose to stay up late, nor those who choose not to have scheduled times for sleep. Everyone has different schedules and operates best at different times of day. Do what works for you and we will do what works for us. Unfortunately, this means that we will not be participating in some evening events as a family at this stage of life, even if this choice is viewed as inflexible, rigid, etc. Again, our choice not to attend fireworks, late dinners, or another evening event with our child is not a criticism of others’ schedules or parenting choices. We are doing what works for us, which means doing what is necessary to have a child who is well-rested and is generally a true joy with whom to spend our waking hours. Reinforcing routines and rest will not harm our child or create a rigid, black-and-white thinker who cannot adapt to new situations or think for herself. Nor will it tear apart the very fabric of society as we know it.  

Some great things about being an older parent (yes, I had a “geriatric pregnancy”) after a long journey to parenthood include being mature enough to no longer feel that I require the approval of others in order to do what is best for our family, to have the life experience and confidence necessary to stay the course in the face of criticism, and the gratitude to truly enjoy and be present with the miracle child that we’ve been given. I stand by our parenting choices and am so proud of the amazing human that we are raising as a result. 

Our life choices are not a criticism of anyone else’s life choices. 

Or as a wise teacher once told me, “Get over yourself. It’s not about you.”

Bringing Her Into Our Peace

We choose not to yell at our daughter as a means of communication or discipline. I recognize that one day I will likely end up yelling at her or saying something quite unkind that I will immediately regret, and I know that I will have to be gentle and loving with myself when I make that mistake (or series of mistakes), and to trust that she will not be scarred for life as a result. 

I have never yelled at the children I teach, other than to shout a name across a playground or gym to get someone’s attention for safety reasons. I do my best to avoid contributing to the escalation of big feelings and behaviours by raising my voice or using unkind words. I try to invite kids into my peace instead of engaging in their rage, getting down on the same physical level as them, making eye contact where appropriate, speaking respectfully, gently, and confidently (often so quietly that children need to literally stop what they are doing to hear me-after all, everyone wants to know what the teacher is whispering, as it could be something juicy!). At both school and home I have found this to be the least stressful way for me to cope with being knocked off guard by kids’ verbally or physically aggressive outbursts. I often have to remind myself to take that extra moment to slow down, breathe, and calm my own mind and body before I can confidently and calmly respond instead of react to a situation. I find that I have to work a lot harder on this style of parenting and teaching on days when my own needs have not been met, such as adequate rest and nutrition. 

I try my best to set limits and speak to children the way that I would like to be spoken to in a time of crisis and confusion. The way that a surgeon spoke to me when telling me that my father’s cancer had unexpectedly metastasized and that he had done all that he could do. The way that my husband assured me that despite the hard patch we were going through in our marriage during our years of infertility and loss, that he wasn’t going to let me push him away and was not going anywhere. The way that my sister gently and lovingly told me that even if I spent thousands of dollars more on further diagnostic testing to determine the exact cause of his pleural effusion, my cat was never going to get better. 
Big emotions can rock our worlds and make even the most level-headed and peaceful person feel like they are going crazy. I want to model a loving and peaceful way of coping with my own big feelings. I don’t pretend that nothing bothers me, or ignore my own feelings. I let my daughter know when I feel angry, upset, sad, frustrated, etc. by naming the feelings and talking about what I can do to make myself feel better. 

Tonight I was privileged to experience a reinforcement that what we are doing is working. 
 Willow was in tears this evening and told me that she was “frustrated” because her dress-up bin necklace was “being very difficult”. I asked her what we should to do solve that problem. She asked for help to unravel the knotted necklace, then decided that she needed some time without the necklace because it made her feel angry. She requested her monkey to cuddle so that she could feel better. I could almost see her cortisol and adrenaline levels decreasing and her oxytocin and serotonin levels increasing as she smelled and snuggled her monkey and covered him in kisses. I wish that I had been able to both recognize and cope with my big feelings at 2.5 years old (or even 25 years old) with the maturity and grace that this child demonstrated tonight. 

“Terribly” Terrific Twos

 I’ve always hated the term “terrible twos”. I heard it used by parents while working in a toddler program for 18-36 month old toddlers, and always assumed it was a sort of joke. The children I was working with were far from “terrible”. Sure, they tested boundaries and explored the world around them in sometimes incredibly messy ways (Did I ever tell you the story of the toddler who tried to “paint me” using his diarrhea?). They sometimes cried or whined when they were overtired, hungry, sick, teething, or when big life changes were happening (especially during the addition of a new baby to the family). Sometimes they hit, kicked, bit, or pushed when big feelings overtook their little bodies. This did not make them “terrible”. They were just tiny humans learning how to cope with the confusing and sometimes terribly unpredictable world within and all around them. 

 The children I worked with fascinated me. They experimented with power and ownership, they slowly learned to use words instead of physical acts to get their needs met, and they learned to take turns and to share resources. They learned to follow daily routines and safety guidelines, and to create guidelines for themselves based on lived experience. They figured out how to ask for help when things became overwhelming, and how to verbalize their big feelings. They observed and experimented to find out how the world around them worked, and slowly developed the vocabulary and structural language skills to begin to question, reflect upon, and discuss their findings. I was amazed and excited by the changes that would happen literally overnight. Some of their learning came out of painful experiences such as skinned knees, hurt feelings, or broken structures. But nothing they did was “terrible”. 
 Referring to one’s child as a “little monster” or saying that he or she is “going through the terrible twos” is neither healthy nor helpful, especially when spoken within earshot of the child. I can attest to the vast differences in teacher attitude and treatment of the children in a centre where teachers were allowed to refer to the children in demeaning terms in the staff room, and those where that kind of name calling was forbidden. Our words reflect our thoughts and can shape our experiences and actions. Name calling creates a me-versus-you mentality, even when used half in jest. Referring to children as “beasts”, “monsters”, “terrible twos”, “jerks” (or other terms that I will not put in writing) is just a bit too close to Hitler’s use of the word “vermin” for my liking.  

 Since becoming a parent to a “terrific two”, I have become even more offended by the term “terrible twos”, and have corrected those who try to tell me that our daughter is “a terrible two”. We have an intelligent, charismatic and energetic almost two and a half year old daughter who experiments with the world around her, including testing to see if mommy’s answer will be the same as daddy’s answer. She can melt down into a puddle of toddler rage and sadness if we are out and about too close to nap time or meal time. She can become defiant or cry for seemingly no reason (although in retrospect, there is ALWAYS an underlying reason-oncoming illness, fatigue, sudden change in routine, blood sugar drop, etc). Like most humans her age, she thrives with a predictable routine and warnings about upcoming transitions, adequate rest, exercise, play, and good nutrition. She can be easily overstimulated in loud or crowded environments and needs quiet time to reset. Proactive preparation for outings (including escape plans if necessary) and frequent check-ins keep our ship running fairly smoothly on most days.  
 Parents and teachers are not in a war with our kids. There are no “front lines” or “trenches” in a family or an educational setting. Children are not obstacles to be overcome, nor barriers to adult happiness. They are gifts to be cherished, loved, taught, and learned from. It is our privilege and responsibility to be the adults in the relationship, to model the kind of behaviour and self-regulation skills we want to see in the next generation, including refraining from hurtful name-calling. The way we choose to think and speak about children’s behaviour and how we deal with meeting our own physical, emotional and spiritual needs (ensuring that we do not become overburdened and burnt out) have so much to do with how we experience our reality with children, how we treat them, and how happy or miserable we will be as parents and teachers. Even said jokingly, words can and do hurt not only the person spoken about but the person speaking.