Love Is A Drive-By Fruiting

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I have “banana hair”, and I couldn’t be happier.  Tonight, our daughter was so excited to give me a hug that she was literally shaking.  I knelt down to her level with my arms out and she squealed and ran toward me.  In her excitement, she forgot to put down the banana that she had been eating, and it ended up mashed into the back of my hair and neck.

I have received the gift of being able to find the “bless in the mess”, thanks to the miracle that is Willow Mei.  From the mess of daily nausea and vomiting during pregnancy (which assured me of Willow’s continued presence right up until the day she was born), to the mess of experiencing hours of solid screaming (when she finally had the energy to find her voice after being too weak to open her eyes or cry), to the mess of waste products streaming out of multiple orifices simultaneously (proving that she was finally taking in enough nutrition to eliminate appropriately after three weeks of being unable to eat properly after birth), she’s given me reasons to find joy in all of the little things.  These things that others may take for granted or even possibly resent when they are happening, but may look back upon with a certain degree of fondness one day.  Like many of my silent sorority sisters who have been lucky enough to graduate from spending years praying for a child to finally having a living, breathing miracle, I don’t have the luxury of taking any of this for granted.  Perhaps one of the most precious gems in parenting after infertility and loss is that I don’t have to wait for “one day” to look back and feel love and gratitude for the messes, big and small.  I can and do appreciate it all now.

I remember working in a childcare centre where a little boy in my group was working in the sensory bin.  He looked up to see his mommy entering the classroom and broke out into a huge smile.  He toddled toward her, arms outstretched, with a look of pure joy on his face.  He reached his mommy and grabbed her around her calves, getting the mucky sensory bin material all over her legs.  She recoiled, disgusted by the material that had been lovingly deposited on her legs.  The little boy began to wail, likely upset by both his mother’s unexpected and sudden movement away from him as well as by the expression on her face. The mom wasn’t trying to upset or hurt the boy in any way.  She was just grossed out by the yucky contents of the sensory bin being smeared on her.  Who wouldn’t be?  We were able to clean everyone up and dry the boy’s tears, and everyone eventually went home happy.  It was a small moment that left a big impression on me, as it made me think about how our automatic reactions might be perceived by children.  If we string together enough of these small moments we can make a big impact on a child’s self-image.

With practice, we can be mindful of our reactions and of the messages we are sending to children with our body language and our words.  When I change Willow’s diaper after she has accidentally eaten a dairy product at daycare, what does my face look like as I register the sensory explosion before me?  What words am I choosing to use as I speak with her during the change?  When Willow helps me to tidy the kitchen after dinner by dumping the dirty cat food dishes into my drawer of freshly washed and folded kitchen linens, what does my body language communicate to her?

So… when I became the unwitting victim of a rogue banana, I giggled.  I held our little girl tighter for just a minute, kissed her sticky little toddler cheeks, and let her know with my words and my body that I was just as happy to see her as she was to see me.

Love is a drive-by fruiting.

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My Daughter Is Not A Doll

Willow’s everyday clothing is functional.  She wears items that feel soft on her skin, are generally loose and allow for easy movement, are often stretchy, and have closures that make them easy to put on without a fuss.  Everything is able to go in the washer and dryer.  Most items have been previously well-loved by other people’s children, so we don’t have to stress if food or bodily fluids land on them.  Willow wears clothing that matches the weather and her activity level.  She wears clothing that makes diaper changes as easy and as efficient as possible.  She is encouraged to choose which diaper cover, pants, shirt or bib to wear.  She sometimes looks as though she’s dressed for clown college, but she is comfortable, happy, and able to move and play with ease.

When discussing clothing choices for young children, my husband commented, “you wouldn’t wear your wedding dress to the gym, so why would you send your daughter to playgroups or daycare wearing Sunday clothes?”

Why, indeed?

Dress-up clothes are fine in limited quantities for photos and special occasions, but do babies and toddlers really need to wear restrictive, uncomfortable clothing every time they leave the house?  I know that people love to gush over those decorative yet tight and stiff embroidered denim jeans, those scratchy polyester dresses with crinolines that make the skin crawl, those shiny little dress shoes with the rigid soles that hinder healthy foot development and are unsafe to wear while running or climbing on playground equipment… but when we force children to wear non-functional clothing, we are often taking away their physical ability to learn, play, explore and move freely. We make them uncomfortable solely for our viewing pleasure. We are treating them like little dolls instead of like human beings who deserve both respect and comfort.

While working in child care, I remember repeatedly asking a parent if she could please send appropriate play clothing with her immaculately-dressed toddler. This little girl regularly came to school wearing tight miniskirts, high-heeled knee-high boots, tight jeans, belts, etc. Her hair was always perfectly styled. She literally looked like a doll. She did not want to play in the sensory bin or finger paint because she might get her outfits dirty or wet. She couldn’t run outside with the other toddlers (and could barely walk some days) because her high heeled boots made her trip and were not allowed on our small climbing structure. She was afraid to dirty her tights by sitting in the sand box. She couldn’t use the riding toys because her skirt didn’t stretch enough to allow sufficient movement. In short, she missed out on a lot of our gross and fine motor activities, sensory play, and therefore many major learning experiences that we had to offer.  But she looked ever so cute…

A few months ago Willow and I were staying at a friend’s house and playing with her two daughters. The youngest, a kindergarten student, wanted to play “dress up” with her many hats after school. Willow loves hats, so this was a fun game for everyone. We took photos and had a lot of fun. Our little friend excitedly cried out, “Here, make Willow wear this!”. I explained that we wouldn’t MAKE Willow wear the items, but would offer them to her to wear, because she “is a person, not a doll”.  I also explained that we would only play this game for as long as Willow enjoyed it and was having fun. That five year old child thoughtfully considered what I said, and completely understood when it was time to stop. She independently read Willow’s cues (squirming, turning away, no longer smiling or laughing), turned to me and said, “Oh. I think she’s all done playing dress-up now”.

This kindergarten student demonstrated the kind of sensitivity, empathy and respect that I wish all people could have with preverbal children. Just because Willow doesn’t have the words to tell us to stop or that she’s uncomfortable or not enjoying something doesn’t mean that we have the right to force her to do things for our amusement or pleasure… including treating her like a doll instead of like a person.

***NOTE: Thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to read, share, and respond to this post.  I am frankly a bit overwhelmed right now, and ever so thankful to Janet Lansbury for getting the ball rolling.  My follow-up musings in response to the almost 18,000 views of this post in 24 hours and the resulting flood of comments can be found in this post.***

A “Working Mother”

I am currently a working mother, as I am at home every day taking care of my beautiful daughter and two fur babies. This job does not grant “sick days” but it is full of benefits, including delicious post-nap snuggles and the privilege of learning with and from a gorgeous cherub of a baby (almost toddler). In a few short weeks I will be a mother who also works outside of the home five days per week. I recognize that this will be a huge shift for everyone in the family.

A wise mother and teacher recently mentioned to me that parenting books always focus on how to prepare a child for daycare, but never seem to focus on the separation that mothers go through when they return to the paid workforce.

I will miss many things about not being with Willow every moment of every day. I will miss witnessing and being a part of the incredible growing and learning that happens every day. I will miss seeing some of her “firsts”.  I will miss the quiet contemplation of mid-morning and mid-afternoon nursing sessions when we shut out the world and snuggle in a dark room with a kitten or two curled around us. I will miss having the time to finger-paint without worrying about bedtime creeping up, the spontaneous midday moments of singing, playing the piano, ukulele, guitar, and assortment of percussion instruments. I will miss the spur of the moment walks together through the park, rolling in leaves, and finding things outside to squish in our fingers. I will miss cloud-watching in the early afternoon and listening to the sound of squirrels nattering in the trees. I will miss being the one to kiss boo boos and teach “open hand” gentle cat patting techniques. I will miss making up words to songs to match our activities, reading book after book after book, and coming up with chants to describe what we are experiencing every day. I will miss smelling freshly-sink-bathed baby after a lunchtime spinach explosion. In short, I will miss all of the precious time together that someone else will be enjoying with our daughter.

BUT… I am also really happy and excited to be returning to the other job that I love.

I’ve had some well-meaning mothers in my various circles ask me about my upcoming return to work (many of whom are mothers who did not return to paid employment after becoming mothers, or only did so briefly before deciding to leave their paid jobs to raise their children). The conversations usually start with a sympathetic tilt of the head, a frown, and the phrase… “So… I guess you’re going back to work soon…” Some of the comments and questions have been of a supportive nature, and some of them have been meant to show me the error of my selfish, career-loving ways..

-“But aren’t you dreading going back to work?” No. Not at all. In fact, I am excited to be returning to a fabulous job in which I feel valued, competent, and appreciated on a regular basis. I am thrilled to meet my new crew of munchkins and to find new and exciting ways to teach and learn from them. I am happy to work with caring teachers, settlement workers, specialists and parents who all want the best for our newcomer families and students. Am I sad about my time at home ending with my daughter? Of course I am. But am I sad enough to quit a job that is a huge source of my identity and feelings of self-worth? Not on your life.

-“Oh my goodness… how can you just leave your baby with a stranger like that?”  Riiiiight. Because carefully choosing a loving childcare provider with over 22 years of experience is pretty much the same as dumping our child off with the guy asking for spare change at the bus station.

-“Don’t you enjoy spending time with her?” Obviously I am going back to work to get away from my beautiful daughter. A mother couldn’t possibly enjoy spending time with her child AND still want or need to work, could she? Please refrain from implying that I am any less loving of a mother because I am choosing to return to a job outside of the home.

-“I’m so sorry that you have to go back to work. Are things that tough financially? Can’t you find some way of staying home?” Yes, we’ve had some unexpected financial shortfalls in the past year or so. Owning an older home in need of serious maintenance, a trimester of bedrest and having a baby will do that to you. But having major appliances die and unexpected structural repairs on the house are not the reason I am returning to paid employment. I am not being dragged back to my paid career against my will in order to pay off our line of credit.

Here is what many may not realize about Willow’s mommy:

I LOVE MY JOB. I mean REALLY love my job. I decided that I wanted to be both a teacher and a mother before I entered kindergarten. I am a proud third generation teacher who delights in seeing the light come on as a child makes each new discovery. I am obsessed with language development and watching children learn to not only navigate this new language, but also a new land with new clothing, food, customs, and often a whole new way of experiencing things and interacting with others.. I love helping newcomer families to find resources in our community, and it is such a privilege to see so many families, many of which did not come to Canada by choice but as a means of survival, not only survive but thrive in their new homes. The same part of my heart that makes me love being a mommy also makes me love being in a helping profession such as teaching.

In all honesty, if I was returning to my old factory job, I may not feel as strongly as I do about returning to work. I am one of the lucky few in this world who worked hard enough to finally get paid to do something that I am incredibly passionate about. I recognize that many of the women who are incredulous about my positive attitude toward returning to work may have left paid positions that did not fuel their souls or make them feel fulfilled and happy at the end of the day. I completely understand that leaving a child in someone else’s care to toil at a job I despised would feel different than returning to a career that is such a huge part of who I am.

I am so happy that women of my generation living in Canada have the choice to stay at home for up to a year after the birth of a child, with the guarantee that their jobs will be waiting for them upon their return. I am thrilled that we have the choice to either return to paid employment or to continue staying at home taking care of a child or children, and I respect the individual decision that each mother will make about her own situation.

I know that returning to paid employment is not for everyone once they have a child, and I am thankful that so many women today have the CHOICE to do what their hearts call them to do. I will not apologize for going back to a career that fuels my soul and pays for a mortgage (not to mention the benefits that pay for a lot of expensive medication and medical testing supplies). I will not apologize for willingly and lovingly choosing to share my time with newcomer families, students and teachers. Teaching is an identity, and many of us who love teaching find that we consider ourselves teachers forever. Most retired teachers that I know still think of themselves as teachers, and many are doing things that seem suspiciously teaching-related in their retirement. You can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher…

I will be a mom who will be modeling having both a career and a family, and hopefully one who can model setting appropriate boundaries and achieving a good work-life balance. I will be a mom who is lucky enough to be returning to a paid employment situation that I love and that makes my heart sing, even on the tough days (often especially on the tough days). Yes, it will be strange to be with other peoples’ children instead of with my own child.

Yes, I will likely shed more tears than Willow on that first day (although I know from my three years of working in daycare facilities that it is best to save those tears for the car if I want her to settle into her day and routine at daycare as easily as possible). But those tears will eventually stop, and I will sit with and breathe through the ache in my heart, and then I will get through my day and remember how much I love my other job. I will put one foot in front of the other like the incredibly resilient, strong and capable human being I am, and I will be okay.

“‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright.” -B. Marley

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