Tag: Mamalove


Open-Source Parenting: Context

In a research-intensive book about couple communication that Dan and I are reading together, the authors emphasize how important it is to be aware of “filters” that might be affecting our conversations. A filter could be a bad mood, a distraction, an unspoken expectation—anything, really, that colors the way we hear and respond to our partners.

Immediately upon reading this, I thought of lunchtime. In our house, lunchtime falls anywhere from five minutes to an hour past my blood sugar threshold of niceness, and I inevitably become hangry. “Hangry” refers to the type of hunger-induced anger that, say, a cross-dressing Chris Farley might experience when denied French fries:

If Dan tries to speak to me when I am in this state of ravenous rage, I am liable to eat his head. This is an example of a “filter” through which his kind offers to help with lunch are interpreted as direct insults to my person and through which my attempts to express my feelings are interpreted as acts of cannibalism. Knowing that it’s my hangry hour, however, helps us get through it. (That, and compulsive snacking.) The point is that, by being aware of underlying factors, we take away much of their invisible power to manipulate situations for the worse.

8 - What the chef looked like

(This is the face of hanger, FYI… brought to you by lunchtime circa 2009.)

I was reminded of this charming tendency of mine when a wise grandmom wrote me following my last Open-Source Parenting post. She shared her realization that sometimes meltdowns (of both the child and the parent variety) happen when we don’t have enough nutrients in our system—when we haven’t had enough protein that day, or when we’ve been eating a lot of junk food. Of course! I thought, reading her email. It’s the hangry effect!

I don’t know why I had never connected that idea to my children’s behavior before, but she’s absolutely right. Sometimes behavior problems aren’t really behavior problems at all; sometimes they’re tummy problems.

Other times, behavior problems are actually sleep problems. I am firmly convinced that most children we know here in this Mediterranean culture of long, late dinners do not get enough sleep at night and that this makes their little brains jittery and contrary during the day.

I see it happening with emotional states too, how one of the girls will channel her sadness or frustration into unpleasant behavior. (Don’t we all do this, really?) It also tends to happen when our schedules are overfull or when there’s too little attention to go around. Sometimes, behavior problems really are behavior problems and need to be met with consequences, but sometimes—more than fifty percent of the time for us—our kids are acting out because of some underlying cause that needs to be addressed more than the behavior itself does.

This troubleshooting approach is not the easiest, I know. It would take far less work to pick a preferred brand of punishment and wield it each time our children misbehave. In fact, I’ve heard disciplinarians argue that because kids thrive on consistency, punishment should take a one-crime-fits-all approach. That’s terrible reasoning though, especially if we want to reach our children’s hearts. These are our children, not lab rats being taught to perform a series of socially acceptable actions. I’m not nearly as interested in how well my girls act as I am in how well they are. If my daughter is feeling stressed, that’s the issue I want to address above and beyond the fact that she yelled at me. If my daughter clearly needs some sleep (or a steak!), that’s what I need to provide before I even think about sermonizing.

When I pay attention the context of my children’s behavior, I often see that it’s not about the behavior at all, and this helps me to respond to their needs rather than react to their deeds. (Too cheesy? Feel free to turn that into an ironic cross-stitch wall hanging if you’d like.)

Your turn! What underlying causes have you noticed affecting your kids’ behavior? Do you have any tried and true methods for deciphering what’s going on behind your child’s tone of voice? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!


Open-Source Parenting: Write Through It

Reentering the atmosphere after a weekend away can feel like an exercise in crash-and-burn. Everyone is a little off his or her axis. The only thing in the fridge is a jar of pickles, that one duffel bag never manages to get all the way unpacked, and uncertain amounts of homework are due. We all start to run a little hotter than usual, but our unceremonious landing back into the daily grind is especially hard on the girls. Without giving away too many incriminating details, I will say that we had an epic meltdown of the daughter variety today, triggered by the fact that homework exists in this fallen world and will continue to be inflicted on humanity for the foreseeable future.

The sound level in our house during the meltdown was something like you’d expect at a hog stampede. After making sure that the melting child was at least safe in her room, Dan and I slumped against the doorframe and looked at each other with “OMG” eyes. You know the ones. We figured we had about three minutes before our neighbors called the cops on suspicion of manslaughter, and we were really really hoping that the other would telepathically convey the magic parenting solution that would get us out of the mess.

This did not happen. (Though neither, thankfully, did the police intervention.) What did happen is that our worked-up girl raged herself to sleep, and while she napped away the drama, I turned to my Hail Mary: a simple lined notebook in which she and I exchange letters when other forms of communication fail.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to write—how do you reason with a child on fire?—but I wanted first to help her define what was happening in her emotional core (tiredness from our trip, frustration over a difficult homework assignment) and second to encourage her to write back and help me understand her experience. I ended by making sure she knew I loved her, no matter what.

I have no prototype for this parenting strategy, just inspiration gleaned from mamas like Erika Morrison and Meredith Jacobs and the simple fact that I work through emotional turmoil more easily through writing. I realized this about myself in my teenage years when I filled journals to their paper-blade edges with hot black ink. I wish I had started the habit sooner though. I think a lot of my childhood would have been easier to understand and process had I known to write through it, to identify my emotions and their causes, to root myself in perspective.

This is what I’m trying to teach my daughters now. In my letters, I do my best to ask good questions that can act as bridges between our separate viewpoints. I prompt them to venture into the messy territory of their emotions, and I try to keep our notebooks a safe place to be honest with each other in the mad hope that we can continue through their teenage years. Sometimes, the lines on those pages are the only open lines of communication we have, but they never fail to help my girls and I understand each other better.

I know I can’t speak for all children here, and maybe not even most children, but my daughters really love this method of working through issues. We don’t always limit it to writing; sometimes we draw pictures of how we feel, and we often incorporate some silliness into our letters because that’s how we roll. Few parenting experiences are sweeter to me than hearing a notebook slipped under my door and opening it to find my daughter’s heart scrawled (or scribbled, or illustrated) on the page. Especially when we’re in a rough patch, this practice helps me feel that we’re doing okay after all—that I’m not a hopeless failure and the girls aren’t wild hogs and we haven’t completely botched our chance to build strong communication with each other in the few remaining days before teenage hormones start waging guerilla warfare on our household. (Yes, the girls come by their dramatic flair honestly.)

I’m sure that my daughters won’t always confide in me to the extent they do now. I hope, however, that this word-processing skill will stay with them for life and that these early letter exchanges of ours will help them to center themselves when the stakes get higher. I also hope that the better we get at this, the fewer OMG-eyed meltdowns we’ll have to weather. A mama can dream, right? (Write?)

Mama letters

Your turn! What parenting strategies have you found effective when life gets too overwhelming for your little ones? For kids with whom writing doesn’t jibe (or those who are still too young to write), what are some other ways they can learn to process their hard feelings? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!


Open-Source Parenting: “Make It Right”

Several years ago, I was introduced to the luminous Rachelle Mee-Chapman through her post about morning soul-care time with her little girls (who are both lovely full-grown teenagers now, which, how??). I never adopted the practice for myself—due mostly to the fact that I am soulless zombie first thing in the a.m.—but Rachelle’s creative, conversation-driven approach to her children’s spirituality stuck with me. I had the privilege to host her at our home a couple of years later, and watching her interact with my girls was one of my favorite things about her visit. Her parenting strategies and perspectives were straight-up gifts for me.

I was thinking over it this morning—how my mothering has been shaped over the years by others’ mama-wisdom. I used to lament that babies didn’t come with instruction manuals even as I read What to Expect the First Year, which is about as comprehensive a baby instruction manual as you can get. I didn’t just want to know what to expect though… or even what the experts recommended I do in any given situation; I wanted to know the how and the why. I wanted the kind of perspective that comes from experience, the kind that’s transmitted through stories rather than bullet points.

I’m so grateful for friends like Rachelle who have provided that for me through the early years of child-raising, and I’d like to pay it forward now by sharing a series of my own intentional parenting practices. Maybe you’ll be able to relate to some of them and maybe not, but I believe in open-source wisdom, and I’d love to hear your take in the comments or on Facebook. (Even if you’re not a parent, you were once a kid yourself; I’d still love to have your voice in the conversation!) Shall we get started?

My girls spend a solid eight hours a day in each other’s company, plus more on weekends. They go to the same school, share many of the same friends (and sometimes clothes!), and are each other’s most constant playmate. In a lot of ways, this is a beautiful experience for them. Growing up in a conga line of brothers, I often wished for a sister close in age so that I could have exactly the kind of glitter-coated rapport that my girls have with each other.

Spending so much time together, however, provides ample opportunity for them to step on each other’s toes… sometimes literally. One sister pushes the other’s buttons or breaks one of her toys or says something insulting or accidentally-on-purpose bumps into her with her fist, and we have A Situation on our hands. Ideally, the girls would work it out with each other, but they’re currently eight and six, and we’re still working on the whole independent problem-solving thing. Their first recourse is almost always one single word, spoken at the same decibel level and in much the same tone as a displeased chimpanzee: “MOOOMMMMMM!”

I start by trying to tone down the emotional energy in the room so that they can hear beyond their own indignation, and once I’ve gotten the facts of the case, I tell the offending party[ies] the same thing I always tell them, whether the hurt has been emotional or physical, intentional or not: “You need to make it right.”

I’m not sure exactly when this phrase entered our family. I didn’t grow up with it, and when the girls were much younger, I’d instruct them to say they were sorry if they’d hurt someone. It was such a simple thing to ask of them. It didn’t sit quite right with me though. For one thing, kids often hurt or offend each other without meaning to; asking them to feel sorry for an innocent mistake is inviting protest and might result in more bruised feelings. Second, what about a genuine grievance for which the perpetrator doesn’t feel remorse? I don’t see a grumbled “sorry” as capable of righting any wrongs. (My friend Allison has an excellent post about that here.)

At some point, “make it right” became part of our family vocabulary, and it’s turned out to be our go-to template for solving the girls’ skirmishes. Depending on the situation, making it right could mean anything from offering a hug to procuring a Band-Aid to replacing a broken toy. We usually put the impetus on the girls to figure out what would fix the situation; Dan and I want them to be cultivating this skill now in the safe space of our home so that they can rely on it throughout life when the stakes might be higher than their little sister’s indignation. And yes, nine times out of ten, the problem is mended with a quick apology… but we don’t insist on remorse. We do insist on thoughtful reconciliation.

Puzzle party

“Make it right” applies to us parents too, but that’s a post for another day. What are your thoughts? How do you help your kiddos (or others’) handle their inevitable clashes? Are you for more parental direction or less when troubleshooting hurt feelings? Is there a strategy that absolutely hasn’t worked for you? Let’s have a conversation!


Off-The-Shirt Parenting

…And so it starts.

One of the girls began crying out of the blue yesterday about a word a playmate had used to describe her months earlier (unbeknownst to us). It was an F-word. THE F-word, the one I had been dreading having to redefine for my innocent children’s ears:


Instinct rocketed an immediate protest to my lips—“You’re not fat!”—but I blocked it at the last minute. I’ve read so many wonderful articles and stories over the years about how to discuss body image with our daughters that I know better than to pick my fight with the word itself. “Fat” and “thin” can be such arbitrary descriptors, especially in a girl’s own mind. What’s more, they don’t even come close to covering the nuances of appearance, of stature, shape, skin, smile. They speak nothing of beauty, though of course we tend to associate one with beauty and one with its opposite. They’re subjective and emotionally loaded, and the last thing I want to teach my wounded little girl is to go through life relying on others to affirm her skinniness.

So I wracked my brain for tips on how to proceed in this conversation without crushing any eggshells underfoot, and I prayed a quick “Help!” and I started into every right thing I knew how to say. I told her that health matters far more than size. I talked about how each girl is born with a unique shape. I showed her this stunning photo of diverse Olympic athletes. I listed amazing things that her body is able to do. I read her passages from The Care And Keeping Of You. I assured her that she was utterly beautiful. And after a solid hour of this, we had gotten exactly… nowhere.

Someone had told her she was fat, and that one word had more weight than all of my words put together.

Finally, in desperation, I lifted my shirt to show her my stomach. This was not easy for me to do. My girls have seen my stomach plenty of times before, and we have been getting the European locker room experience for six and a half years now, but none of those times was I putting my deliciously squishable middle on display for someone to scrutinize. Besides, I haven’t worked out consistently since the marathon in October. AND CHRISTMAS HAPPENED. I was absolutely not ready for my midriff close-up.

I also had no idea what to say once I had my shirt raised. What was I even trying to convey with this? That my daughter should feel better because her stomach isn’t as big as mine? Or that the way to deal with insecurity is to become an exhibitionist? Gah, and again I say gah. I felt like an idiot and quickly put my shirt down… only to see that my girl had lifted hers and was examining her own lovely tummy with delight. When she went to bed a few minutes later, her feelings were still hurt, but she no longer seemed to be taking the F-word to heart.

Once again, I’m amazed by the power of vulnerability to heal. The stories and songs and works of art that have touched my life the most over the years have always been the ones that cost their creators dearly—the tender, raw, unpolished truth of themselves that they were brave enough to share. I’m forever grateful to authors like Maya Angelou (the first memoirist I ever read) and Glennon Melton (the most recent) for daring to hold their experiences up to the light, inviting us to look and touch and brim over with Me too!s. Artists like Frida Kahlo, songwriters like Fiona Apple, friends who whisper their hearts out over kitchen tables or email servers… their bravery makes me brave. It never fails.

In light of that, I can understand why a minute of pretending I was Gwen Stefani worked when an hour of impersonal truth-reciting didn’t. My girl needed to see a little of my skin to help her look kindly at hers, not in comparison but in recognition. I’m not sure exactly what she saw in my cookie-sculpted abs (do I want to know??), but helping her make peace with herself was well worth my momentary discomfort.

(Annnnnd as of today, I’m back to working out! You never know when the F-word will rear its fire-breathing head again, and a mama wants to be prepared.)


Grown-Up Shmown-Up

This morning, I signed Sophie out of school for a doctor’s appointment. I’d completely forgotten about it (see Instagram), so we were nearly two hours late, but I’m choosing to dwell on the principle of Better Late Than Never and to thank my stars that Italians aren’t particularly hung up on punctuality anyway. While signing the school release statement, I caught myself wondering for the zillionth time if I’m really qualified to be doing this. Being the grown-up, I mean. I’ve had nine years now to get used to the idea of being a parent, but the range of parenting tasks I feel well and truly qualified to do starts with breastfeeding and ends with changing diapers. Infants are and always have been my homies. But what do I know about raising KIDS? About homework help and birthday parties and PTA meetings? About big-kid insecurities and big-kid friendships and—Lord O’Mercy—big-kid hormones? What in the world do I know about ushering these small humans through the mysterious and noisy process of becoming themselves?

Right now, I’m cobbling together these sentences next to the piano bench while Natalie practices, and it seems unfathomable to me that I’m the one here offering corrections and compliments, promising her that one day she’ll appreciate having had a musical education. Who is this person in my head generating parent-y clichés, and what has she done with the real me, the eleven-year-old me who just knows she’s going to be stuck practicing scales and arpeggios forever?

These are the easiest and the hardest days of parenting, all at once. My girls are becoming delightfully independent; my friends with toddlers almost cry when they hear that Natalie and Sophie get themselves ready for school in the mornings down to their breakfasts. On the other hand, I almost cry when it’s time for their showers or their piano practice or their chores because teaching them independence in these things requires exactly fifty million times more effort than just doing them myself. They need me far less of the day than they did as babies, but they need far more of me now. They need more of my focus and my creativity and my present, intentional self. They look to me to troubleshoot emotional tangles and answer complicated questions, and my goodness. Never do I feel less like a grown-up than when I’m being looked up to as one.

Fortunately, the girls haven’t figured this out yet. They think I’m the real deal, even when I forget doctor’s appointments or burn the pizza or quake in my boots at the timbre of their curiosity. They’re perfectly okay accepting me as the grown-up in our relationship, and when it comes down to it, theirs is the only qualification I really need.

Still though… I might want to work on that maturity thing. Word has it, it can be helpful when one is trying to pass for a real live adult.


Swim Lessons

Natalie windmills through the water, her arms smooth as oars. She flutters her feet like mermaid fins and relaxes on the cushion of the water with an ease so unfamiliar to me. I didn’t take well to swimming as a child, and I still tense up in the water, trapping wisps of air in lungs squeezed too small, beating back the deep with panicky chops. Not my impossibly long eight-year-old though. She trusts the four feet of chlorinated blue beneath her and the tenor of her swim instructor’s voice. She breathes easily, my calm girl.

On the other side of the pool, Sophie laps up distance like a puppy, her hands pawing the water enthusiastically, a big grin visible just above the surface. Four months ago, she was afraid of getting water in her eyes; now, her confident splashes lead a pack of five-year-olds up the lane. I remember whispering to her about bravery last summer at the pond. We had stood barefoot on the grass staring down its rippling green, both of us trying to ignore the silvered flashes of fish through storm clouds of silt at the bottom, and I had whispered in her ear about how being scared is the first half of bravery; the other half is jumping in anyway. She jumps easily now, my brave girl.

I perch on a clear plastic stool and watch them through the glass like a mother hawk. I feel such tenderness toward those little bodies in motion below me and such fierceness toward potential threats, including that of the water surrounding them. My mind slips briefly toward Oklahoma and those children huddling around their teachers while the sky bludgeoned their school around them, but I can’t dwell there right now. I just can’t. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe when I’m not watching a poolful of little ones in the earnest upswing of learning.

For now, just this—calmness and bravery, and a childlike trust that we’ll be held in all that deep beyond our control.


Respectfully, No

We’ve always known that one of the biggest challenges of raising our children here in Italy would be religion. Here, Roman Catholicism is so entwined with the Italian culture that it’s practically a genetic trait. Everyone identifies as Catholic—even our irreligious friends who only darken God’s doorstep for Christmas Mass, even our grumpy old neighbor who thinks the Pope is a fraud, even the famously corrupt Berlusconi. But we don’t.

I suppose we’d consider ourselves non-denominational Protestants, which comes across as inoffensive (if annoyingly non-committal) in English. However, the term in Italian is evangelici, and the Vatican has repeatedly warned against the divisive strategies of Evangelical “sects.” With that one word, we’re painted as part of a subversive and politically sponsored movement deployed to steal ground from Catholicism, so we’ve learned to anticipate the awkward moments when new friends try to decide whether we’re cultish insurrectionists or just weird Americans.

Fortunately, Italians are as warm and welcoming as their food, and my heart swells a few sizes in appreciation for this culture every time someone initiates another respectful, curiosity-driven conversation about our differing beliefs. Those conversations are treasures for me, both because respect is such a commodity in these days of online mud-slinging and because I really do want to know more about what my friends believe, what fuels their spiritual journeys, what makes their souls tick. I’ve written before about laying down my own prejudices against Catholics, and I’m honored that they do the same for me. Friendship through diversity—it’s a glimpse of heaven on earth.

But I’ve also written before about my discomfort with religion being taught in the Italian public schools, and the older our girls get, the harder it is for me to navigate this cultural divide with confidence and grace. By law, we have the right to opt out of religion hour, and we do… though with some misgivings (especially because Natalie is sent to sit at the back of another class during that hour, which counts as illegal discrimination). One of the other mamas told me that the class teaches completely objective universal truths, and the slight sharpness underpinning her voice made me think that maybe we are being ridiculous, that maybe we’re sadly overprotective parents who are raising our girls to mistrust authority and fear differences of opinion. The religion teacher for Natalie’s class has been trying to convince us as well, assuring Natalie that the only thing they’re teaching this year is friendship.

Natalie spoke very carefully when she told me about this, using the same humble and slightly tremulous tone that poor little Willy Wonka used when he suggested to his tyrannical dentist father that maybe he wasn’t allergic to chocolate? maybe he could try a piece?

Maybe it would be okay to stay in the class because it’s about friendship? And we believe in friendship? And I don’t even have to listen? I could just be in the room?

Dan and I talked it over for a long time last night, knowing all too well that our daughters’ hearts will be affected in one way or another by our decision. We didn’t take it lightly. Though we both agreed that there is no way the religion class is objective (I mean, really), I thought that perhaps she could be. Natalie is thoughtful and intelligent, and even at eight years old, she might already have what it takes to filter various religious teachings through the lens of objectivity. Besides, we don’t want to force the girls into the molds of our belief system; we talk to them about what we believe of course, but we want their faiths to be personal and organic and informed. Maybe the class could be a good thing.

However, there is still the issue that religion is being taught as an academic subject. I agreed with Dan that second grade is too early to expect a child to differentiate between the universal truths of multiplication and spelling and the controversial gray areas of spirituality when they’re all being taught in the same format, graded in the same red pen. We would be putting our sweet eight-year-old in the position of either doubting her teachers or doubting her parents. I don’t want her to have to do either. I don’t want religion to be an issue at school. I don’t want to make my children question the whole academic construct, nor do I want to force them to take a stand for my beliefs.

Maybe we were just blowing everything out of proportion. Maybe if we stopped worrying and just let the girls attend religion class like all the other kids, everything would turn out fine. Maybe…

But then Dan brought up the one comparison I hadn’t considered—Sunday School at a fundamentalist Christian church. Would I let my children attend an hour a week of patriarchal teachings and expect that they could maintain perfect objectivity? Would I trust that doctrines of hell and atonement and salvation that I categorically disagree with would simply float past the viewing windows of my daughters’ minds and then dissipate? Would I really, honestly believe that my little open-eared girls could be taught dogma without any of it taking root?

No. Nonononononono. I wouldn’t even take the chance. And even though my experience with fundamentalist Christianity makes me think it is so much more potentially damaging than any other religion, and even though I respect my Catholic friends and don’t feel I’m in any position to call their beliefs harmful, I can’t simply decide that my girls will be vulnerable in one religious classroom but not in another. I can’t pretend that conflicting descriptions of God will affect them in one setting but not in another. Either my eight-year-old is already strong enough to hear all religious perspectives with curious detachment, or we should still be guarding her spiritual merge lane as best we can.

The Sunday School example settled the question for me. In future years, we probably will let the girls decide whether or not to attend religion class, but second grade is too soon for us. We had a family conversation about it over breakfast this morning, Natalie obviously disappointed and me feeling like Sauron himself but our hearts on the same page. Dan and I explained to the girls that our family believes some things differently than their classmates’ families do and that that’s okay—we’re all trying to follow God and do good and love each other well—but that we’d prefer them not to learn religion at school for now. I’m not sure the reasoning made sense to them, but both girls accepted the decision; we spent the rest of breakfast talking about saints and songs and the different things people believe, holding tight as a family to the value of respect—both for others’ beliefs and for the sacred spaces of our own hearts.

Photo: Basilica Papale di San Francesco in Assisi

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