Let The Littles Help

We all want our children to be collaborative team players who contribute to the order and tidiness of the family home, who do basic chores without constant bribery, threats, or nagging. We don’t want our kids to act entitled, or to expect others to tidy up after them. We want our children to grow to be independent, responsible, and contributing members of society.

If follows that if we want kids to help out, we have to let them practice helping us, right from the earliest days that they demonstrate interest in what we are doing. You know, those early days when “helping” usually means creating more work and cleaning for us than if we had actually just done it ourselves in the first place.

I don’t think that kids need to wait to learn how to do chores until they are developmentally advanced enough to have full control over their bodies and tools. If we wait until kids have fine tuned all gross and fine motor skills so that they can proficiently master chores without assistance, then we have missed a crucial window in which the desire to help is at full blast.

When we tell a child that s/he is too young or small to help us rake and bag the leaves outside, we extinguish the desire to be a yard work assistant. When we tell kids that we don’t want them helping to wash dishes because they make too big of a mess with the water, we rob them of both a sensory and service learning experience as well as a chance to see themselves as capable, helpful human beings. When we send them inside because helping with shovelling the sidewalk is making the job take too long, we take away their will to our snow clearing assistants, and thoughtful snow clearing angels for older neighbours. When we consistently shoo them out of the kitchen so that we can sweep the floor, it is certainly easier and faster in the moment to get the job done, but we send the message that sweeping is something only a parent does, and kids have no place trying to help.

As parents, we need to release our need for control and perfection, and let kids help, even when it makes us cringe inside. We need to let them sweep the kitchen floor with a sawed off broom or a tiny hand broom and dustpan, and swallow the urge to grimace at the dirt left behind. We need to let them use a small vacuum cleaner to clean up their crumbs after a snack, and fight the impulse to “just do it ourselves” or “redo it the RIGHT way”, so that we don’t undermine what they have just accomplished and discourage further helpful behaviour. We need to let them wipe surfaces with a damp cloth when they want to help wipe, whether or not the surfaces actually need to be cleaned. We need to let them use a small duster or cloth to dust furniture and walls when they demonstrate an interest in vanquishing cobwebs. We need to let them run around after us with a small shovel in the snow, feeling like they are also shovelling the sidewalk in winter and helping out their neighbours. We need to let them help us wash and cut fruits and vegetables using a butterknife (with hand-over-hand guidance at first) as they learn to enjoy both preparing and eating healthy foods.

It is certainly faster and easier to do things by myself. Sometimes time or circumstances require that I just get things done, but I am aware that I need to make a point of slowing things down and making space for Willow to learn and grow into a helpful and independent individual.

The truth is, kids are messy. So, so, so messy. Worthwhile play and learning makes a mess. Making and eating food makes a mess. Cleaning makes a mess. For those of us whose tolerance for disorder is low, mindfully allowing and working through the mess with young children requires faith in the “big picture” and intense focus on the endgame of a well-adjusted, self-sufficient human being.

I have faith that today’s mess will be tomorrow’s masterpiece.

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Look up, Momma

Sometimes we can be rushed and stressed in the morning when a wrench is thrown into our routine (yesterday it was a sick daycare provider and a scramble to get backup care).

In the midst of my stress, Willow gently reminded me to “Look up, Momma! The sky! It’s so beautiful like a wainbow colour!”

Proof that young children are mindfulness gurus.

I did look up. I paused my busy body. I let go of the worries and the rushing for just a moment. I noticed the gorgeous colours of the sky that our daughter, with her artist’s eyes, had already taken the time to soak in and appreciate. My shoulders came down from my ears. My breath became deeper. My heart rate slowed. My adrenaline and cortisol levels dissipated. My blood pressure came down. My head started to hurt a little bit less. My “stressed mom” face softened.

I took a photo to remind myself to take our three-year-old’s advice to “look up” the next time I feel bogged down by challenges.

And we still got where we needed to be on time.

(Un)Comfortable Routines

We have always taken our daughter to the haircut place by our house because it is so close, cheap, and we can walk in without an appointment whenever we happen to notice that Willow’s hair is in her eyes. As with many things in our lives, we default to that particular business because that’s just what we’ve always done. There’s a certain comfort in routines, and familiarity can cut down on the stress of the unknown. As a teacher who works with a particularly vulnerable population, I recognize the value of predictability and routine in our daily lives.

My grandfather once said to me, “If you always do what you always did, then you’ll always get what you always got.” It was a line from one of his 12-step books. I’m not sure that I understood what it meant at the time.

The truth is that I have always dreaded taking Willow for haircuts at the place by our house, because literally every time we go, the lady asks if Willow is an only child, then goes on to ask why we haven’t given our child a sibling yet. I tell her that I can’t physically have any more children. Then she tells me all the disadvantages of having an only, claims that every child NEEDS a brother or sister, and tells us we should keep trying. She has asked Willow if she wants a little brother or sister, in the same breath as she has asked Willow if she would like a sticker and a toy from the prize basket. As if a sibling were a commodity as easily created and given as plastic trinkets.

And yet… despite feeling incredibly uncomfortable and angry every few months for the past two years, I have continued to go to the place by our house, because it is part of our routine. It’s convenient. It’s cheap. We can walk there. I’ve told myself that I’m just overreacting and need to be polite and keep the peace, and that I don’t want to offend the woman who does a decent job cutting my husband and child’s hair. I politely listen to the woman insult my family, then quickly try to change the topic to something that doesn’t make me want to cry. Every time, I leave the haircut place feeling resentful and angry. Every. Single. Time.

This time, the interac machine was broken at our usual place, and I had no cash to pay, so we had to go somewhere else to get Willow’s hair cut. Our (un)comfortable routine was disrupted. Willow was sad and disappointed for a few moments, then decided that she was willing to give somewhere else a chance. We drove around for a bit until we found another place that did walk-ins. The hairdresser there did a great job and asked “is she your only child?” I said “yes”, and provided no further details. I waited for her to grumble about “spoiled” children and to ask me when we were planning to have another… but it didn’t happen. That was literally the end of that part of the conversation. She moved on to talk about her holidays, and the loss of literacy in her first language as a result of coming to Canada at the age of five and trying desperately to assimilate. She chatted with Willow about Elsa from Frozen. We had a wonderful conversation. It was MAGICAL. I left feeling content and peaceful. I wasn’t resentful and angry. I think that this should now be Willow’s “regular place”, even though it’s a bit farther away.

As humans, we sometimes resist changes in our (un)comfortable routines, but once in awhile The Universe forces us to discover that change can be a good thing.

A “Bwoken Heart”

There is a theory that I’ve heard from different sources that, like a loving and patient teacher, God/the Universe will keep presenting us with the same lesson in different ways until we finally learn it. Unless we fully take the lesson to heart, we will continue to be given experiences (often increasingly painful ones) to teach us.

I was enrolled in gifted education programs as a child, but when it comes to taking in the most important lessons in life, I am not a fast learner.

As Simon and Garfunkel told us in “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”,

“Slow down, you move too fast

You got to make the morning last…”

I disregarded the message of this song as a child who was desperate to grow up and find my way in the adult world. I continued to disregard this message as I overachieved my way through high school, always looking for the next goal to achieve, the next set of points to collect, the next club to join, the next paper to write, the next award to win. Even when I was struck down with a set of severe inflammatory conditions in my first year of University, I insisted on maintaining my three part-time jobs, attending my interfaith group, choir rehearsals and drama club meetings, all while completing a full time course load. When my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I modified my schedule somewhat to be able to travel every week to spend three days at home and four days at school and work… but I didn’t really slow down. I just learned how to sleep less and pack more things into less time. I performed in a play a few days after my father’s death. I had things under control.

In my first year of teaching, I ran the open house night for my school, attended every professional development workshop that I could find, helped to run fundraising events and assemblies, after school and recess time clubs, and offered tutoring and “hang out” space on my lunch breaks for at-risk kids. I became the school union representative, and joined my local union executive shortly thereafter. I joined several committees that were doing wonderful things for our community and our profession. I sang in a choir. I became deeply involved in Equity issues. I attended local labour meetings as well as province-wide assemblies. I continued to take as many courses as I could, and to do everything in my power to become a super-teacher who would save the world, one student at a time. I loved being involved, being needed, and being of service to others. I didn’t say “no” to any request for my time or skills, because I was convinced that the needs of others were always more important than my own. Through all of this busy-ness, I rarely ate dinner with my partner. My evenings were filled with meetings, events, and professional development activities. I was goal-driven, ambitious, and constantly on a mission. I had things under control.

Then came the years of infertility and loss, and I was forced to slow down. A bit. Just enough to convince myself that I had made significant changes that would allow for a healthy pregnancy and birth. I was the research Queen. I read all the reproductive endocrinology journals and did all the right things. I was the perfect infertility patient. I started to take care of my body in a way that I never had before, and felt that I had finally learned my lessons about slowing down and relinquishing control. Project Baby was my passion, and this passion quickly took the place of some of the extracurricular activities I had given up. I had things under control.

When we finally had a healthy fetus that made it to the 28-week gestation mark, I was relieved, overjoyed, and so thankful that we had finally made it. Then our little girl decided that she was tired of Chez Uterus, and tried to make a break for it. Like her Momma, Willow was an impatient little filly, and wanted to get on to the next big thing: her birth. I was placed on bed rest, and life as I knew it came to a screeching halt. I needed to not only slow down, but to come to a full stop. I was literally forced to rely on others for my very survival, and to release all semblance of control. I prayed, meditated, read, sang, and rested. I took the greatest care of my body, knowing that this miracle child’s life was depending on her Momma to finally slow down. I had things under control.

My heart’s desire came to this Earth with a host of lessons to teach her mother, not the least of which was to slow down and appreciate every moment that I am given with this miracle child. I have been learning to create firmer boundaries to protect our little family, including saying “no” to taxing social obligations and leadership opportunities, creating better work-life balance, and worrying less about what others think. We make a point of eating dinner together as a family, of honouring our need for regular outdoor time and sleep time, as well as time to wind down each night without unnecessary busy-ness. The rhythms and routines of our daily lives are sacred points for calm, connection and reassurance. This pace of life was carefully researched and crafted. I had things under control. Or so I thought.

My life has, more often than not, been more about rushing to prepare for the next moment, and less about enjoying the moment I’m actually experiencing. I’m a recovering control freak. My first instinct is often to over-plan, over-pack, and be so prepared for any possible deviation from “the plan” that I can adapt to any curveball that life may throw at me. But oftentimes, the big curveballs that get thrown in life are ones that cannot be planned or prepared for.

I recently discovered that I have cardiac issues, or as Willow sweetly refers to it, a “bwoken heart”. As a relatively young woman with partial Asian heritage (age, sex and ethnicity put me in a lower risk category), this was not something that I in any way expected at this point in my life. I am an insulin dependent diabetic, but have excellent glycemic control and an A1C that my endocrinologist has frequently referred to as “beautiful”. I enjoy walking and doing yoga, and eat a pretty healthy diet that includes plant proteins and natural foods from the “hippie aisle” of the grocery store. I meditate daily and do guided visualization exercises. As my cardiologist reminds me, I’m not the kind of person who typically develops cardiac health concerns at my age.

At our regular appointments, my endocrinologist has always asked if I have had my eyes checked and if I’ve had any heart attacks or other cardiac issues. I have always laughed, told her that my optometrist continues to say that my eye health is perfect with no signs of diabetic retinopathy, and that my heart is as healthy as ever. We have always chuckled and agreed that we should always be able to smile and laugh about the absurdity of asking me about these conditions, because with my consistent track record of excellent glycemic control I would be at a pretty low risk for any diabetic complications.

Until today’s appointment.

Today, when we reviewed my ECG and cardiology report together, tears welled up in both of our eyes, because we can no longer joke about diabetic complications. She reminded me that this is not something over which I have any real control. She told me that I need to slow down, acknowledge my limitations, and allow others to help me. She voiced the lessons that the Universe has been trying to get through to me for the last 30 years.

I have not yet fully learned what God/the Universe has been trying to teach me. This time, my own life depends on me taking the most important lessons to heart.

Pyjama Therapy

Sometimes it’s the smallest rituals and luxuries that bring about the best changes in our lives. Despite the advice of popular women’s magazines, self-care need not involve expensive spa treatments and shopping trips. One of the easiest self-care strategies I employ is the mindful use of Jammies.

I put on Jammies at Willow’s bath time (6pm) and wear them all night. It’s a mental wellness thing for me–I symbolically wash away the emotional baggage of the day with bath time, and shedding my daytime clothes helps me to get into a mindful and relaxed headspace to enjoy the precious, snuggly, fleeting moments I have with my family in the evening. Jammies represent comfort for me. They represent leaving behind work, worry, and the fast-paced freneticism of the outside world. Jammies are a physical reminder to give myself permission to slow down, breathe, and be kind and gentle with my precious self and with my loved ones.

I have multiple pairs of Jammies, giving me some leeway in terms of laundry day. My Jammies are made from loose and breathable material (usually cotton flannel or cotton with a tiny bit of Lycra for stretch), and I aim for cloth that feels very soft to the touch with no itchy tags or seams. I often ask to receive nice Jammies from Santa. I have a few second hand thrift shoppe buys in my rotation, which were purchased gleefully, as I already knew how the fabric would look and feel after being washed. I just bought a few pairs to replace some that had been loved to tatters.

Jammies are worth every cent to me. I store them in their own special spot in the bathroom so that I can change in there at bath time, and emerge from my steamy cocoon, transformed into a more comfortable and happy momma. Each pair has been blessed with the intention of bringing balance, comfort, and joy to my life, and I am ever so thankful for their service.

Death, Life, and Learning

“I will buwy this stick in the gwound and all the other sticks will come and say nice things about this stick. And how they loved the stick. And then the stick will be in the Earth. And it will help all the flowers and plants to gwow.” -Willow Mei, on burial and the circle of life.

Three-year-old children process the world’s big issues through their play. They may narrate the same story over and over until they have fully explored the topic and made it less scary or confusing for themselves. They have a natural and healthy way of coping with the world around them, if we only just step back and allow them to do so.

I never cease to be amazed at how gracefully our daughter copes with all of life’s big challenges. She continuously teaches me how to accept things as they are, how to be fully in the moment, how to tune out the things that do not matter, and how to appreciate the beauty in the world around us.

I spent seven years pursuing post-secondary education, but the learning I really needed to have in my life has come, and continues to come, through Sensei Willow Mei.

Grief Through The Eyes of a 3 Year Old

Dear Grownups,

I need you to read me "Nana Upstairs, and Nana Downstairs" by Tommie dePaola just one more time today, to see if Nana gets to come back this time after she dies in the story. I need to keep asking you if my Grandma is coming back and if I can visit her again. I need to hear the same answer, over and over, like a call and answer refrain. I need time to truly understand and process what "gone forever" really means. I need to play with my dollies and pretend that one dies over and over, comforting myself by allowing her to come back to life with my magical thinking within my pretend world.

I need you to know that I feel your big feelings, even when you think you are hiding them from me. I see the tightness in your jaws, the weariness in your puffy red eyes, the way your shoulders droop. I see your furrowed brows as you answer emails on your phones. I hear snippets of harshly whispered conversations and phone calls. I hear the tension and impatience in your voices, and I see through the false cheerfulness that you're using to cover your own fears, sadness, anger and confusion. I need to ask you why people seem so sad and mad, and I need you to reassure me that it's not my fault.

I find it distressing to hear comments like "She's in a better place", or "She will live forever in our hearts". I'm confused because dying means gone forever, but people say she is living and in another place. Why isn't she living with her family? Why can't I visit her?

I was frightened when I heard someone say, "Dying is like sleeping forever", because that means I don't ever want to let myself or anyone I love fall asleep or else we might die, too.

I'm scared because you told me my Grandma was sick and that is why her body stopped working. My daddy has a cough. He's sick. Now I worry that he is going to die. I don't want my mommy lying down in her bed because it reminds me of my Grandma lying down in bed when I visited her. I have to ask about all the people I know who are older. I have to know if they are sick. I have to ask if they will die, too. I need you to reassure me again that my Grandma's illness was different, that every cough and sniffle will not equal death.

I need you to understand that when I get easily frustrated with tasks I could easily do last week, that I need some patience and compassion instead of your criticism. When I wet my pants instead of going to the toilet, I need you to know that I am not being defiant, but rather, struggling with connecting to my own elimination cues as I struggle to understand the sudden changes in my schedule and the emotional reactions of the big people in my life. I am processing all of the huge feelings that are within and around me. When I ask you to help me put my shoes on or to hold the spoon for me while I eat a few bites of my dinner, it is not because I can't do it myself. I just feel really insecure right now and need someone to help me feel loved, cared for, and nurtured.

I need the safety net of my routines now, more than ever. I need regular meals, snacks, play, rest, and sleep. I need my bath and my bedtime story. I need my snuggles and my songs. I need my blankey and my stuffies, and everything that helps me to feel safe. I need as much "normal" as you can give me in the coming days and weeks.

I need you to understand that I may want your attention and love one moment, then may want to retreat into my own quiet space the next. I need you to understand that I am sensitive to all of the lights, sounds, smells and movement that come along with large gatherings, and that I may be easily overwhelmed. I need to not be tasked with being "on" as the "entertainment" to distract adults from their own feelings, and that I may shut down or melt down if I am the centre of attention for an extended period of time. I need you to protect me from becoming overwhelmed, and to help me when it's all become too much.

It's okay that you cried when you told me that my Grandma died, because it showed me that it is okay to cry when we lose someone we love, and that expressing big feelings is a safe and healthy thing to do. It's okay that you cried when you read me "Nana Upstairs, and Nana Downstairs" the first time, as it taught me that good readers make meaningful connections as they read texts, and that good writing can evoke powerful feelings.

In this time of hurt and healing, please don't forget about me. I need you. I need you to model healthy grieving and self-care coping strategies. I need you to take really good care of yourselves so that you can take really good care of me.

Love,

Your grieving child