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.


Your grieving child


Hostility, digital footprints and the post that went “small town viral” 

I sometimes worry because I know that word choice, phrasing and the ordering of ideas can either help or hinder the author’s intended message. I endeavour to be respectful in my written communication, whether on social media sites such as Pinterest, Twitter, or Facebook, or while blogging or emailing. 
A few hostile responses posted in social media channels or directly on my blog can seem to overshadow the many supportive and respectful ones and can actually create a snowball effect by empowering others who are feeling negative or hostile to join in and create drama and conflict, whether in support of or against the original comment. Hostile discussions can become an endless cycle if we let them, and it is often easier in the short run but more difficult in the long run to give in to the urge to “feed the trolls”, even when this is done with the very best of intentions. 
I am starting to think that I could completely rewrite my previous blog post that has received the most flack via social media and still have a handful of readers/responders who believe that I am personally attacking them (possibly because they are already having a bad day, have already felt judged, and are feeling insecure about their own parenting choices). As one very kind early childhood educator reminded me, “You can’t please everybody all of the time… nor should you.”  Or translated into Twitter hashtaggery, #hatersgonnahate. 
Sometimes a piece of writing can come across as incredibly judgemental and harsh to one person, and completely rational and respectful to another, although both may disagree with the content or point of view.  It is hard for me to know how much of it is my writing style (possibly creating an overly negative tone) and how much is a result of people working through their own insecurities and issues. How much, if at all, should I be modifying or censoring my work to avoid upsetting random strangers?
If my blog were used to generate income, I would likely feel more pressure to please my “customers” by removing certain posts or by changing them so much that the integrity of the original piece would be lost.  As a blog primarily written for me and my daughter, with a typical audience of roughly 25 family members and friends, I thankfully have the luxury of not having to jump through hoops to try to achieve the impossible task of pleasing everyone who might possibly stumble upon my blog. 
As a writer, a teacher, and a mother, I feel strongly that while I am not responsible for the happiness or opinions of others, I do have the responsibility to ensure that my digital footprint does not include cyber bullying, the unnecessary creation or furthering of conflict for the sake of conflict, or any other kind of behaviour that I would not want my daughter or my students to witness or replicate. 
Does anyone remember learning about the ink blot test in introductory Psychology class? Different people saw completely different images and inferred different meanings based on their own states of mind, their experiences of the world, and the things that were lurking in their subconscious. One person might have seen a mother lovingly holding and nursing her child while another might have seen a small animal viciously biting a person.  Both saw the same ink blot picture, but had completely different interpretations. An ink blot picture is a randomly generated image with no artist’s intended meaning, so there really is no “right or wrong” interpretation, although the interpretation can give us some insight into the state of mind of the viewer.  To use a Hundred Acre Woods metaphor, Eeyore and Rabbit will always take away a much more negative message from a situation than will Pooh or Kanga or Roo. 
I wonder if we were all completely honest with ourselves if we would discover that the strong negative emotional responses to things we read sometimes have less to do with the original intention of the author and more to do with our own filters, fears, and experiences.  I have read Huffington Post articles about marriage that evoke anger in me after a sleepless night or a disagreement with my partner, but the same article can seem completely inoffensive or might even seem to offer a nugget of truth for me when I come across it on another day when I am happier and well-rested. 
Case in point: I wrote about respecting preverbal babies and toddlers by watching for and responding to their nonverbal cues, and gave an example of a five year old child demonstrating empathy and compassion for Willow by moving from treating her as a “doll” to decorate during a game of dress-up to respecting her as another (albeit smaller and nonverbal) human being with needs and desires of her own. I introduced this story with anecdotes about our family’s attempts to give Willow some reasonable and developmentally appropriate choices about her clothing, and shared my thoughts (as a teacher and a parent) on the need for children to be allowed access to appropriate, comfortable, functional and safe clothing (whether or not it is “pretty” or “name brand” certainly was not the point) for a variety of activities. The intended take-home message or “big idea” was about respecting all children, even ones who are not able to verbally express their needs and desires. 
My blog post received almost 18,000 views in a single day after it was shared on various Facebook groups and pages, then picked up by some social media news feeds. Needless to say, this was a huge increase from my usual 25 readers (Hi, Gramma Judy!). Many of my new readers, particularly those familiar with RIE practices, were cheering me on for sending an important message about respecting young children, even if they were confused about the association with clothing choices or felt strongly that their children should always be dressed in a certain way or even disagreed with my choice to allow Willow to wear mismatched clothing in public. A vocal minority reacted with a great deal of hostility, claiming that the post was personally attacking them by accusing them of being bad or even abusive parents because they dressed their baby girl in a fancy dress or their baby boy in a tie and designer suit. Talk about the author’s purpose not being clearly understood!  The post was not meant in any way to shame or judge parents for picking out aesthetically pleasing or expensive clothing for their kids, but apparently some are perseverating on the mention of toddler fashion, and completely missing the main idea of the piece. 
So …to answer what has become too overwhelming a number of similar questions to continue to answer personally, and to avoid wasting precious time on social media sites repeating myself when I could be spending that time playing and learning with and from a delicious toddler:
Yes, everyone including me has the right to enjoy fancy or dressy clothing, whether for attending a weekly worship service, a party, for photographs, a visit to Gramma’s house, or just to feel special. I have a pair of “happy shoes” in bold colours that make me smile when I am sad. It’s great when kids are given opportunities to have some (reasonable) choices about clothing, but we all know that societal expectations can and do interfere with individual choice, particularly when it comes to dressing up as a flower girl, ring bearer, or for a choir or dance performance, etc.  If given the choice as a child I may well have worn a tutu on top of a Winnie the Pooh costume to school and to Gramma’s house at every visit (and also in the bath tub if allowed). Tutus are not the focus of the post. I repeat, tutus are NOT the focus of the post. 
As a non-visual learner with the fashion sense of a rock, please be assured that if I see you or your child at the grocery store, I can pretty much guarantee you that I will not even register what either of you are wearing, let alone judge you or harass you or your child in some way for wearing something “nice”. I will be too busy finding my own groceries and focusing on caring for the most important people in my life: my own family members.
Having worked in both daycare and elementary education settings, I really did want to stress the safety, comfort and function factors when it comes to choosing appropriate clothing for the task at hand. As a colleague once reminded me, sometimes common sense is not as common as we’d like to think it is when it comes to what is safe and functional. I have experienced young children showing up for outdoor gross motor play and physical education activities wearing slippery, stiff dress shoes or heeled boots (tripping/slipping/falling hazard), outfits that severely limit movement and thus participation in active learning, and decorative necklaces (strangulation hazard, especially on the climber) because they look “pretty”, with no regard for safety, comfort or function. There is most definitely a time and a place for certain types of clothing and accessories. Thankfully there are gorgeous shoes and other pieces of clothing that are aesthetically pleasing as well as comfortable, functional and safe.  
No, I do not insist that all children must show up to school in mismatched, stained, or hand-me-down clothing, and I don’t believe that anything that is pretty must automatically be uncomfortable or restrictive. Thankfully, the world in which we live is not only black and white, although it is certainly easier to demonize someone and feed the desire for conflict by assuming that she is an extremist. 
Not everyone is ready or willing to accept a viewpoint or parenting choice that differs from his or hers, and that is okay.  I know firsthand that examining one’s own long-held beliefs is a scary and painful process to go through, and many people are just not in the right head space to accomplish this task.  And that is okay.  But it’s never okay to be cruel or rude, whether we are speaking to someone’s face or hiding behind internet anonymity.  It’s neither respectful nor responsible to create conflict for the sake of conflict, even if we are having a bad day. 
I understand that it can be easier to lash out defensively than to reflect and respond by providing suggestions, alternate viewpoints, or constructive criticism from a calm place of mutual respect.  I also understand that anything any of us writes on social media sites never really disappears. Once something is published or posted to the Internet, we no longer own it. We live in an era of instant screenshots and digital archiving. The web owns anything that we create (even if it is later modified or erased) and it can come back to haunt us years later. I, for one, hope that my own digital footprint is not something that I will be ashamed to have my daughter see in ten or twenty years. 
Here is what I know to be true: There is no such thing as a perfect parent. We parents are all just stumbling along and learning from our kids and experiences as we go, none of us any “better” than the rest.  Certainly none deserving of cruelty, taunting or name-calling.  We are all doing the best we can with what we have and what we know, and although it is easy to feel judged by others, most of the time the “others” are so busy taking care of their own families that we are not even on their radar!  The “mommy wars” only exist if we allow them to exist, and trolls can only have power if we feed them.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve discovered that I am too busy chasing after a delightful little toddler to bother wasting any more time feeding comment wars.  
I will not apologize for loving my daughter and the experience of parenthood so much that I am inspired to blog about them, nor will I stop writing at anyone’s request. I will not apologize for sharing my ideas, reflections, beliefs and “aha” moments, even if they do not align perfectly with those of all roughly 18,000 readers. BUT I will feel free to choose not to respond or to censor those attempting to elicit a strong negative reaction (creating conflict for the sake of “drama”) from me or others, especially when the language and tone used is purposely offensive, hostile, or contains profanity.  
Readers are more than welcome to comment if they wish to provide helpful, constructive and specific feedback about my writing, to reflect on emotional responses that were evoked, and to share their own divergent ideas, opinions and experiences in a respectful manner.  I have had some wonderful reflective “aha” moments about my writing and parenting choices after seeing some respectful discussion on a parent group when some of my articles have been posted. Readers also have the right to refrain from reading and responding to my work at any time. I may reflect on a piece and choose to tweak the phrasing or word choice in a post as a result of feedback.  I may add a comment or an explanation to respond to concerns. Or, I may choose to do nothing if I feel that no action is required. 
This blog is a safe space for me to reflect, learn, grow, and share. I am open to sharing this space with others, but please know that it will be on my terms. I know that is upsetting to those wishing to use my blog as a springboard for creating conflict for their own amusement or emotional outlet, and you may feel free to continue to create a negative digital footprint for yourself, if you truly feel the need to do so, on your own blog or other social media sites over which I have no censorship rights.  I ultimately want this blog to be a place where my daughter can one day go to be able to read and understand a bit of what was going through my heart and my head in these early days. I do not want her to witness bullying, name-calling, shaming, profanity, or any other kind of behaviour that I would not encourage her or my students to engage in as they learn to become respectful digital citizens. 
socil mEDia

Small Talk

People often innocently make comments or ask questions that they do not intend to come across as rude or hurtful, such as asking the cervical cancer survivor why she doesn’t have kids yet, or asking the pregnant woman whose last child was stillborn if this is her “first pregnancy” or “first baby”. My journey over the past several years has done much to create an awareness of just how much of our day-to-day “small talk” can trigger feelings of sadness, shame, and inadequacy for those of us who do not fit neatly into the box marked “normal”.

In the past few weeks I have been part of a number of awkward “mommy” conversations. Women have made comments or asked questions which have made my stomach churn. I know that none of them were purposely trying to upset me, and I have asked the same kinds of questions in the past. So, while I am not angry at them, I still feel the sting of their words and of the assumptions underlying their small talk.

“Oh she’s so beautiful! You should definitely have more. [to Willow: Tell mommy and daddy you want a baby brother!]”

“So you’re enjoying being home with her? Haha, I remember that. Just wait until you have another one. It won’t be as easy then.”

“So when are you having another baby?”

“Good for you for getting a gender neutral stroller. You never know what the next kid will be.”

“Don’t worry. Once you have more kids you won’t even notice the barf on your shirt.”

The assumption is that I, like many other women in our society, will have more than one child. The assumption is that I CAN have more children. The assumption is that our family is not complete with “just one”.

Before we were married, my husband and I spoke of having two or three children and filling our home with love and laughter. As the years went on, and the medical complications piled up, I started to realize that if we were ever given the gift of just one baby, I would thank God and be grateful for our miracle. We would still be able to fill our home with love and laughter. One child could and would be enough.

There are days when I feel great sorrow over the fact that we cannot just “decide to have another baby” and make it happen. On these days I need to remind myself of the gifts inherent in our situation, and of the beauty I have in my life as a result of our journey.

I have been told by some other parents that when they assumed they would have more children, they didn’t take the time to really appreciate the little things about their last child or his/her development. They didn’t take enough photos. They saved boxes of clothing, being sure not to let children wear a fancy outfit except on special occasions, lest it be ruined for a future sibling. They may have moved without mindfulness through certain developmental stages, rushing to get the last child out of diapers or weaned so that a brother or sister could soon be on the way. They missed out on drinking up every precious moment… appreciating, loving, and cherishing even the time spent cleaning up various bodily fluids.

Willow has baby memory books, countless photos, and a year long calendar with something written in each square about what she did each day. She gets to wear her fancy outfits just for kicks, and I don’t get upset when she vomits on them or a diaper explosion renders them rag-worthy. She fascinates and delights me with her every movement and sound. I don’t find myself desperately wishing for more alone time, reminiscing about life before baby, or fantasizing about my freedom when she moves out of the house or starts school. I don’t get upset that she will continue to spend some time every evening screaming until her digestive system fully matures. I fully experience the quiet moments of her night feedings with her and don’t resent their frequency. I enjoy watching and celebrating the fact that she is getting stronger and learning more each day, but I don’t feel the need to push her to quickly reach milestones or to move into a new stage of development before she is ready. I have the privilege of soaking up and stretching out every delicious moment that we have together, knowing that these moments are fleeting and I will never have them again.


Raising Patient Children: Response to an Article

I just read a Huffington Post article on what parents of impatient children should not be doing. The first example really resonated with me, as it was about allowing a child to interrupt a conversation.

As a child with many thoughts to share (read that as “chatty”, for the teachers out there), I used to resent it when I was completely ignored by adults having “important adult conversations”. I have a distinct memory of my friend’s mom completely ignoring his little sister for what seemed like an eternity while the mother spoke with another adult. The little girl’s pitch, volume and urgency rose higher and higher until she burst out in tears and her mother finally turned to see that she had soiled herself while waiting to tell her mom she needed help to use the bathroom. I vowed right then and there that I would not ignore a child’s needs so that I could carry on a conversation.

As a teacher I quickly learned that allowing or encouraging constant interruptions from attention-seeking students was NOT going to work in a busy classroom. Discussions with other teachers, educational assistants, volunteers, administrators, specialists, etc. are indeed important, and time is not provided outside of classroom time for these. Brief, important conversations between professionals can make or break a day for a child with special needs, and these conversations need to happen in the classroom, often while surrounded by thirty other needy little people. There is simply no time to allow for anything but extremely urgent needs to interrupt these vital adult conversations.

The answer, as with many things, lies in the middle path. We do not need to completely ignore children without acknowledging that they want our attention in order to “teach them patience”. Nor do we need to constantly make them the centre of our universe to prevent any and all discomfort.

As a child, when I approached my mother with one of my many “pressing issues” while she was on the phone, she would cover the receiver, tell me that she was on the phone and to wait until she was done, then calmly go back to her conversation. I knew that I had been acknowledged, and that I would have my turn to speak, and this generally placated me (even when I was determined to tattle that my “mean big sister” had smushed my baby doll’s head and made her look like an alien… but I digress). The same rule applied when we had company over. I will admit to falling asleep on the floor beside the couch while I stubbornly waited for my turn to share while my mother finished an after dinner conversation.

I had an associate teacher who used the “3 B” rule: blood, barf, and bathroom. If a child’s need involved one of these three issues he or she was permitted to interrupt the teacher with a quick but firm “excuse me” preceding the request or sharing of information. Otherwise he or she would have to wait quietly until the teacher was done her conversation. Incidentally, the part of her rule that pleased my inner child and sense of fairness the most was the teacher’s insistence that the rule applied to conversations with both adults AND children. Her interactions with other students were just as sacred as those with grown-ups, and each student felt respected and heard when it was his or her turn to have the undivided attention of the teacher.

Whether we have one child or thirty vying for our attention, we need to find a system that works to respect the needs of all involved, big and small.

The article also mentioned not immediately giving children electronic devices to keep them busy while they wait for appointments. I had never thought of this, as we didn’t have iPads growing up, but I do remember being given homemade trail mix or raisins to eat, and I always had books to keep me occupied and quiet when we were out and about. The author says that we don’t actually teach kids to wait by immediately providing them with something to do. I hadn’t considered this. Perhaps quietly and mindfully waiting for a few minutes in the doctor’s office before bringing out my iPod to entertain myself (a.k.a. “electronic soother”) is a good habit to get into, regardless of whether my child is there to see me do it or not.

The article also mentions not getting up from the table to refill a child’s milk until AFTER mommy has finished her plate. Please refer back to my post on Mommy Martyrdom for my views on this.

All in all, some good nuggets. I love reading things that make me go “hmmm”…

Here is the original article that sparked my thoughts today: