Perspective, Resilience, and Happiness

I recently saw an article on my twitter feed about ways to cope when “disappointed by a baby’s gender” at an ultrasound.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be “disappointed in your baby’s gender” at an ultrasound, instead of just being relieved and thankful for the miracle that your fetus is actually still alive, but obviously it’s a real concern for some prospective parents with different life experiences than mine.

Discussions of cultural gender bias and gender being a fluid social construct aside (which could take up another entire series of blog posts), this article really made me think about how easy it is for us to take things for granted in our lives, and how important a sense of perspective can be to our happiness.

People who have been through the trenches of infertility and the loss of a pregnancy or a child rarely have the privilege of being disappointed by the sex of their child. People who have lived in refugee camps with no running water rarely have the privilege of being disappointed about the size of the shower in their apartment. Perspective is everything.

I have the privilege of working with amazing newcomer families from around the world, many of whom experienced a great deal of trauma before coming to Canada. The themes of resilience and gratitude are ones that I see every day with the families who are thriving instead of simply surviving. Not sweating the small stuff, the ability to positively reframe challenges, and finding joy in simple pleasures can really help to create a positive outlook and resilience to bounce back from a less-than-ideal situation.

On the days when I start to stir the pity pot over the speed bumps that life throws my way, I need to come back to these important skills that my families have taught me are vital to a positive outlook and a life of happiness. It’s okay to feel disappointed, angry, frustrated, and sad, but we can’t stay stuck in those feelings forever, or we will drown.

Many years ago, I used to think that happiness was a privilege granted to those who had not experienced pain or hardship. As I get older, I now realize that the happiest people I know are not those who have had the easiest lives. They are the ones who fell down or got knocked down repeatedly and then got back up. They are the ones who walked through the fire. They are the ones who are leading others through the fire.

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Making Friends

“Hi. I’m Willow. A moth landed on me, right on my arm. Let’s be friends, ok? Let’s play chase and pretend we’re birds. Follow me!” -Willow Mei, on making friends.

Willow met a lovely little girl at the splash pad today. The two chased each other and played in the water. They exchanged silly faces and noises, hugged, made up stories about imaginary creatures, and shared facts about insects and birds of prey (Did you know that an insect only has six legs? Did you know that a mommy eagle chews up food and feeds it to her baby because the baby can’t eat the food on its own?).

The grandmother of the little girl that Willow befriended today looked over at me and commented wistfully, “It’s so simple when you’re that young”. We shared a knowing nod and smile, then continued to watch the girls play together.

As I reflect on the simplicity of this summer playground moment, I find that I am relieved that Willow is able to introduce herself to others and to engage them in play. I am thrilled that she has the social skills to make fast friends wherever she goes, and I am happy that she is learning to negotiate and solve problems through her play with others. I know that she will not be the child about whom teachers worry in terms of making friends. The ability to seek out new friends is a real blessing, and an important survival instinct for many only children who do not have built-in playmates.

I am also saddened by the realization that it truly isn’t this easy to make and maintain friendships when girls get a bit older, and that Willow will one day feel the bitter sting of rejection and exclusion.

I know that I have to work hard to heal my own wounds around rejection and “mean girl” trauma before I can be fully present to witness and help Willow cope with her own relational aggression issues as they arise. We also have to work hard to build up Willow’s own self-esteem, compassion, kindness, and empathy in order to ensure that she does not end up being the “mean girl” herself.

There is much work to be done. I am exhausted just thinking about it.

Just for today, I will remember to take the time to breathe and focus on the present. I will cherish the innocent and loving child that we have, and appreciate the ease with which this sweet girl connects with other human beings of all ages. I will enjoy experiencing this stage with her and watching her enjoy these easy times while they last, and try not to wait for the other shoe to drop.

Summer

Summer is slowing down and living for today. Summer is exploring and playing with no rushing. Summer is finger painting. Summer is washing the same bike over and over with water and a sponge. Summer is a sidewalk chalk masterpiece. Summer is splashing. Summer is running though a sprinkler. Summer is barefoot sand sculpting. Summer is rolling down a grassy hill. Summer is cloud-watching. Summer is an intricate block tower that doesn’t have to be tidied right away. Summer is a fort built from blankets and sticks. Summer is fish-watching. Summer is tomato-growing. Summer is popsicle-licking. Summer is not having to share Momma with her “other kids” at school. Summer is being in the Now. Happy Summer.

Parenting With Authenticity

A boy was climbing on top of a structure in the Museum. His father was telling the boy to get down, as it was not meant for climbing. The father looked as though he was about to follow through by physically helping the boy to get down, when my family walked into the room. Suddenly, this father seemed to become unsure of his parenting choices. He now had an audience. Having another parent watching him made him stop in his tracks. Instead of following through with his original assertion that his son come down, he instead mumbled something along the lines of “well… just be careful up there”.

Part of me wanted to go up to the dad and say “Hey, I’m behind you 100%. Go right ahead and follow through with what you were doing. If he melts down, I promise not to judge. We’ve all been there.” I didn’t, but I kind of wish I had. I wanted to give this dad permission to continue to be the good parent he was, and to apologize for breaking his flow.

Although it is possible that the father suddenly had a change of heart about the safety of his son or the rules of being in a Museum, it is more likely that he decided not to follow through with his child in this moment because he feared judgement, and didn’t want to have a “scene” with his son. Having an audience can make even the most confident of parents doubt their parenting choices.

I see this happen frequently, and have definitely had my own moments when I adapted my own parenting style to better match the expectations of others in a public setting. Parents can fear the judgement of other parents so much that we feel pressured to adopt a completely different set of rules in front of others in order to avoid a confrontation and hide the fact that our child or family is not perfect.

This can send really confusing messages to our children when we switch gears half way through a problem that we are working through with our child. Consistency is one of the best gifts we can give to our children, even when it means feeling embarrassed, ashamed, or anxious in front of others. When we parent according to who is watching instead of who we are raising, we are essentially putting the opinion of other parents ahead of our own child’s needs.

Being a parent means being vulnerable. Being laid open to criticism and commentary by well-meaning strangers. Being open to judgement from others who are covering up their own wounds and insecurities by pointing out our mistakes and differences. It’s incredibly brave work to be an authentic parent, and it can be hard to do what we know is right for our own child, when we are surrounded by those with different beliefs or values.

The good news is that there truly is no such thing as a perfect parent, despite what we might assume based on polished social media posts. The discomfort that we feel now as we struggle to parent authentically under the lens of judgement from others will be rewarded with a generation who will know how to stand up for the things they believe in, and who will live fully because they were parented with consistency and fairness.

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.

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.