Degrees of Difficulty: Little and Big Kids

Little Kid Hard

Once upon a time, I had three little boys each born three years apart. Even before the third boy arrived in the summer of 2000, many a day I could not remember when I last had taken a shower or even brushed my teeth. That is because small children, particularly those under the age of five, have constant, immediate needs. Many involving body fluids, both the voiding of theirs (pee, poo and vomit) and the consuming of mine (breast milk). While I do have fond memories of that time, particularly when we were outdoors, hiking in the Hocking Hills in southern Ohio or the Cuyahoga National Valley Park up north, for the most part, I recall that time in my life in darker tones. In a few short years I’d gone from being on a PhD track, in which I took stimulating courses, had vibrant conversations and certainly did a whole lot of work, to, well, minimal adult conversation and an abundance of body fluids.

Of course I loved my small children, none of whom walked before fifteen months, which I believe was because I carried them so often. And even though the first few days that I nursed my first baby, I repeatedly told myself, If I can just make it through six weeks of this, it’ll be good, I ended up nursing all my children well past two years of age. Once I had the hang of it, I found nursing to be lazy-easy—it’s always ready, perfectly warmed, and quiets a crying babe in a New York minute. But also, I love the feeling of my children nestled into my body knowing that while they nurse, they possibly feel as content as they ever will.

Candid shot in 1998 with Hugo and Claude

Yet no matter how much I enjoyed listening to my three little boys learn to talk or saw how their faces lit up whenever they first saw me in the morning, the resignation from my adult life felt woefully permanent. And then, not infrequently, some sadist would observe me in a harried state, perhaps nit-picking lice in Hugo’s hair in a park while trying to keep the other boys from wandering off, or dashing into a children’s store to buy something off the sale rack because one of them (yeah, probably Hugo) had exploded a volcano of poo out the back of his diaper, all the way up and past the collar of his outfit, reaching the hair on the nape of his neck. Sigh. And this is when a woman (never a man), maybe an acquaintance, but often a stranger, would cackle her unsolicited opinion:

It doesn’t get any easier when they get older, trust me, honey, they just have different problems.

I now know that is just plain bunkum. And cruel. Yes, big kids can bring on bigger problems like school work, sex, drugs and college applications (maybe not in that order), but let’s be clear on what else big kids can do:

Feed themselves

Brush their own teeth

Bathe themselves

Dress themselves

Wipe their own behinds

Put themselves to bed

Dishes

Laundry

Think abstractly and have rational conversations

Big kids, hands down, are easier. Life with our two caboose babies, Leif and Lyra, underscores this point for me each and every day. So when I see little children with a mother whose hair is kinda greasy, spit-up marks on her shoulders, bra askew from nursing, and patience straining in her voice, I make sure to tell her:

It gets easier. So. Much. Easier.

The Low Down on the Big Kid Hard

Here’s the scoop: what your little kids do day in and day out may have a cumulative effect on what kind of people they will become, but there is little to mess up. Love them, feed them mostly nutritious food, make sure they get plenty of sleep, and odds are your kids will turn out just fine. Even throw in a few days of eating all garbage food, not getting enough sleep and a some less-than-perfect-parenting moments and still the odds are that your kids will turn out just fine. But when they are older, a child’s actions can have immediate and long-term, even lifelong, consequences. Unprotected sex can result in disease and/or pregnancy. Experimenting with drugs and alcohol can be a distraction from what is important, can effect brain development and, worse case scenario, can lead to addiction. Less than optimal achievement in high school can result in fewer options after graduation.

My approach has been to push and support my kids from the beginning. People think my children are polite because they say “Yes, please” or “No, thank you” when offered something. This training began simultaneously with speech development, which is why it is routinized to the point of seeming innate. The hard work of parenting is in sticking to your choices. Again, and again, and again. Or as Waldorf teacher and author Jack Petrash says, it’s the job of parents to get kids to do their work and it’s the job of kids to try to get out of their work. It’s not that any one moment of parenting is arduous, it’s providing consistency, staying in your seat as the parent even as your child endlessly challenges you. Pick your coat up off the floor and hang it on your hook, Go back upstairs and make your bed, Put your dishes in the dishwasher, thousands and thousands of times over. For years I would ask Hugo every night before bedtime if he had brushed his teeth. He always said Yes to which I always replied Let me smell your breath prompting him to answer Just a second before he dashed off. Whether he actually brushed his teeth or just swished some minty toothpaste in his mouth, I never knew unless I followed him to the bathroom, which I rarely did. (For the record, once he was of an age where kissing might occur, Hugo developed high oral hygiene standards.)

Beyond my ability to control, because it is part and parcel of my personality, and therefore my parenting, is that I talk openly with my kids, starting at a young age, about life choices, including sex and drugs, and the consequences. And I do so well before the important events or choices are at hand. So, for example, I bought a large box of condoms years before they were necessary and placed it in the hall closet, letting the boys know I wasn’t encouraging sexual activity, but should they or any of their friends become sexually active, to use protection and why. Mostly this has been a successful approach, though on at least one occasion my openness backfired. I had read accounts of men recalling how horrified they were, some even thinking they might be dying, when they began having nocturnal emissions because nobody had told them it might happen. Oh, my, I didn’t want my boys to have such fears and I told them about wet dreams when Claude was about ten and Hugo seven. Thereafter, and for a long, long time, neither boy accepted invitations for sleepovers for fear it would happen at a friend’s house, which, of course, it never did.

As for drugs, I grew up in the seventies with marijuana in all my parents’ households. In my dad’s family, marijuana was openly acknowledged. My mother, however, repeatedly responded like a child caught in an illicit activity: she would tell me the joints I found in her wallet, bedroom, car, etc. belonged to a friend who had asked her to hold on to them for a few days. Though I never pressed my mother as to why her friends designated her the keeper of the joints, some on roach clips and partially smoked, I was as unconvinced of her explanations as, well, any parent might be. What I tell my kids about pot, which is the drug they have regularly been exposed to in their peer groups, is that in high school they are too young to smoke it. If I hear they try it at college, I won’t be surprised, but please, I urge them, wait until your brains are fully developed. So far, as far as I know, they have followed my advice. Then again, it may have absolutely nothing to do with me. Claude is a serious distance runner and Hugo a highly motivated vocalist. I think smoking anything might not fit into their lives.

So Not Perfect

The only problem I have in my life right now is her,” said Hugo to Max last spring, referring to me. The three of us were sitting in my office discussing Hugo’s grades. It was his junior year, arguably the year in high school that most impacts college acceptance rates and financial aid packages. Hugo, who has always challenged me to improve my parenting, to rethink strategies, to confirm that no matter what he does, I’ll still be there with him, had worn me down. Many times in the past year, I have written essays about Hugo but never posted them on the pages of Whoopsie Piggle. He said he wanted to go to college and study vocal performance and music education, but his grades in his academic classes were not what he needed. Oh, they were probably good enough to get him into a school, particularly along with his high ACT scores, but not good enough to assure the financial aid package necessary for him to accept admission. As Claude and I have paid for all of Claude’s college expenses, I assume the same will be true for Hugo. Which means he needs as close to a full ride as he can get.

“If I could move out right now, I would,” said Hugo. For months, Hugo would tell both Max and me what we wanted to hear, that he had a plan and was finally on top of his academic coursework (he has always maintained straight As in his music classes), only to find just the opposite, his academic grades had slipped further, simply because he wasn’t doing the work. When he said he wanted to move out, I turned to my computer to find when he could legally do so in Ohio.

“I’m afraid, Hugo, we are stuck with each other until you are eighteen,” I told him. In the end, I gave up. Not on Hugo, but on his dream of going to a highly-rated music school. The problem was not that Hugo was goofing off, smoking pot or having sex instead of studying in the courses he didn’t find interesting. He was in band, three choirs and, over the winter, indoor drumline. It was too much. But there comes a time when a parent must stop making decisions by fiat and let a child live with the consequences of his own choices. It killed me to see him focusing on things that were not going to benefit him in the long run (band, drumline), at the expense of what he claimed were his long-term goals (a bachelor’s degree in vocal music).

Summer came and we literally moved on. Hugo went to visit friends on Ocracoke Island and Raleigh, North Carolina, then he spent a week at Baldwin Wallace College for an intensive vocal program, before heading to Karmê Chöling with us for family camp. On the way home from family camp, Claude dropped Hugo off at band camp. Five weeks after school resumed, I realized we were in the same situation as last year, except worse. In addition to his regular choirs and band, Hugo has joined the Baldwin Wallace Men’s Choir and, also by invitation, the choir of a nearby Presbyterian church where the choir director is also on the faculty at Baldwin Wallace. And, on top of his regular high school classes, Hugo now takes two courses for both high school and college credit at the University of Akron.

When the chest pains began at band camp, Hugo thought was just indigestion. Five weeks later, Hugo weighed only 141 pounds, having dropped nine pounds off his six-foot frame, and the chest pains, he belatedly confessed, were more frequent and severe. I scheduled an appointment with the doctor for the following week. But it was the next day, while talking with me in the kitchen, that  Hugo bent over and grabbed the edge of the counter and I witnessed one of his attacks for the first time. He had a second attack a few minutes later. It was terrifying. I took him to the emergency room where, after running several tests, the doctor told Hugo his body was telling him he couldn’t do everything he was doing. “Band is killing me, but I can’t quit,” Hugo told the doctor.

“Do you think they can’t get on without you?” asked the doctor, “Because they are going to have to do just that next year.”

In a perfect world, Hugo would have recognized last summer, before the season started, that band would be too much. Once in and overwhelmed, he did not want to let down his section mates. However, when he spoke with them in the days after visiting the ER, they told him they understood. Exactly one week after going to the ER, Hugo quit band. Fortunately, I went with him when he told the band and drum directors, neither of whom expressed genuine concern for Hugo, his health or his grades. Their sole concern was what effect it would have on the band. For his part, Hugo did most of the talking and held his own. I resisted the urge to pipe up until the band director’s comments went from just inappropriate (Oh, I wish I would lose weight when I get stressed!) to aggressive (So you tell me, Hugo, since you want to study music education, how you would re-write and re-organize this program with you not in it, I mean come on, this is what you want to study, music ed, and if your body reacts like this to stress, maybe you should think about studying something else.)

“Hold it right there, he doesn’t deserve that. He’s seventeen and figuring things out,” I said and shortly thereafter, we left the cramped office. We went home and a few days later, Max pointed out that Hugo was back, meaning he’s himself again, more relaxed, playing guitar in the kitchen most nights after dinner. And then Hugo’s father came to town.

The Elephant in the Room

In the winter of 2007, after six months of intermittent pain in my right side, my physician ordered an MRI. The results revealed nothing and yet the pain not only continued, it intensified and became constant. Three months after the MRI, the pain abruptly stopped on the very day I told the father of the three big boys that I wanted to separate. Contrary to public appearances, it was never a happy marriage, but leaving was the hardest decision I have ever made.

One by one, as the boys have become teens, they have told their father how they feel and what they want from him. And each time their father has responded by telling them that their relationship with him is a two-way street and, when they do not just fall in line with his directives, he stops seeing them. Shortly after he turned thirteen, Jules alone saw his father for dinner one night a week and for lunch every other Saturday.

On a Saturday in August of 2014, Jules came to Max and me telling us, “I feel so trapped. Papa just called to say he’s getting off the highway with all his friends from the Cleveland Waldorf school and he’s taking me to go with them to some park and play boules. I just want to go to lunch.” We counseled Jules to call his father back and tell him just what he had told us, which he did. Rather than having lunch with Jules and joining his friends later, his father cancelled that day’s visit with Jules. They had dinner later in the week, and when Jules came home he was a mess of emotions. “Papa just told me over and over how unkind I was to not want to meet and get to know his friends, like, you know, this and everything else he’s done, I don’t want to be alone with him ever again.” Jules begged Hugo to join him at the mealtime visits with their father from then on and Hugo readily agreed. Two things happened at the next visit: their father told them he was moving to the Middle East in five days and, when Hugo went to the restroom, Jules was again told what a horrible boy he was to not spend time with his father’s friends. Five people breathed with relief when a certain plane left Ohio for Dubai.

Now, for whatever reason, their father wants to move back to Ohio. What he says to anyone who will listen is that he misses his three sons so much that he is doing everything he can to find work in the area. Toward that end, he let us know he would be in nearby Cleveland looking for work in early October and wanted to visit with the boys.

“I told him none of us believe him when he says he wants to come back for us, such bullshit. I told him it’d be easier for me if he just stayed away. He gave me that two-way street garbage again,” said Claude after his father visited him for the first time at the University of Michigan, where Claude is in his third year.

Jules was adamant that he never be alone with his father and wasn’t. The two times they met for dinner, Hugo was there too.

Hugo. Earlier this year when I took their father back to court for violating (yet again) the divorce decree, he claimed it unreasonable for him to contribute to the boys’ expenses because they don’t discuss their activities with him. Besides being untrue, it is an abdication of basic parental responsibilities, which is exactly how the court viewed it. For a few months, their dad began paying for some their expenses. Hugo, who never misses an opportunity, started asking his father to pay for all kinds of things. As soon as his father came to town, Hugo worked on getting a computer. But a funny thing happened. Hugo’s throat got sick. It felt constricted and he couldn’t sing with the fullness of his voice, and one day he couldn’t even speak in normal tones. It was the week before the most important vocal competition of Hugo’s life thus far, at Miami University of Ohio. Miami University is not only my ex-husband’s alma mater, he also taught there for a time. Eager to drive Hugo to the competition, his father said they could stay two nights in a hotel and he would show Hugo the campus the day after his competition.

I took Hugo to Lyra and Leif’s pediatrician, Dr. M, for his throat. She had never seen Hugo before and I’d never seen Dr. M in action with a teenager. In twenty minutes, he was crying as she laid it out for him. “Hugo, you say you don’t care about your dad, but you are seriously pissed at him. Because he won’t give you what you really want, which is for him to be a real father, you feel like taking him for whatever you can get. But the problem is that you are an honest person and this makes you feel conflicted. Let me ask you, is this a vocal competition you want to do well in? And so you are going to go there in a car with a man who once told you he was taking you to southern Ohio but instead took you to Tennessee and so understandably you don’t trust getting in the car with him? Let me ask you this, are you nuts? Write your dad, tell him why you want a computer and tell him he doesn’t get to parachute into your life when it’s convenient for him. You may want a relationship with him, but it’s on your timetable now, not his. This is your senior year, and he does not get to mess it up just because suddenly he says he’s ready. Maybe you tell him you’ll talk after the competition, maybe not. Maybe you won’t be ready until after you graduate. It’s your call, buddy, because he does not get to hijack your life.”

Hugo wrote the letter to his father. He told his father not to attend the competition. Hugo and I went to Miami University. In the first round of performances, the two singers before Hugo were nervous sopranos and it showed in their voices. When Hugo walked onstage with the accompanist, I could tell he was relaxed. He opened with a piece by Franz Schubert and although his German was lousy, his voice was sublime. And powerful. Hugo was named one of six finalists.

“I would not have made finalist if my father had been there,” Hugo told me on the way home.

One Kid, Always Hard

So maybe this kid, Hugo, is no easier, maybe even harder, as a teen than he was as a little guy. A little guy who had colic for six months (or maybe it’s like a fish story and the number grows larger with each retelling), the toddler who cried like we would never meet again every time I dropped him off at daycare, often resulting in tears of my own, the kid who never felt he fit in at any of his schools, even the Waldorf school.

“Hugo craves your constant attention,” Max recently said to  me, “and simultaneously pushes against it, it’s so strange.”

Life is complicated, people are complicated. As a parent, perfection is not required, but showing up is. Even without his father’s latest theatrics, Hugo’s senior year is an all-hands-on-deck time. I’ve stopped taking on new clients for now and drastically cut my hours at my “for fun” job at World Market. College applications are time consuming and at the same time, much like Claude in his senior year, Hugo is ambivalent at the prospect of moving out and on with his life in a few short months. He’s excited. He’s nostalgic. He’s nervous. I know this because every day he pulls me aside, corners me in the kitchen, or just plain hunts me down, to talk.

My little kids were so much work in large measure because I chose attachment-style parenting. I’m sure I made this choice in an attempt to heal my own upbringing with checked out parents. But I also believed it when I read that attachment-style parenting resulted in independent, undisaffected teens and, later, adults. I don’t know where Hugo will end up next year. His strong work ethic in all things musical, even more so than his raw talent, might very well result in him getting the financial aid package he needs to study vocal performance and music education at one or more of the schools he is considering.

What I do know is this: No matter what happens, Hugo will be fine. Whether or not cultivated by attachment-style parenting, Hugo is resourceful, hardworking and empathetic. He doesn’t always apply himself the way I want him to in all things, but what kid does? In fact, it would be weird if he did. If anything is easy with little kids it is that their needs (food, sleep, voiding) are pretty clear. Just as I had to get through the first difficult weeks of breastfeeding my first child, I see Hugo struggling to get through his six last months of high school, which requires nuanced parenting on my part. But Hugo’s got this, even if he doesn’t yet know it, and I still have his back.

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2 Responses to Degrees of Difficulty: Little and Big Kids

  1. Liane says:

    Really been missing these Whoopsie essays. So great to be back on-line. You are the best of mothers and a wonderful writer!

  2. samanthafreels says:

    Wonderful post Holly. Best of luck to Hugo.

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