Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Fish and Other Matters

I woke up last Saturday morning feeling brave enough for adventure. By that I mean brave enough to take all three kids somewhere on my own.

I love travel and taking day trips, but with three kids, and three with wildly varying interests, as well as trying to save money, we haven't really attempted much in the past year. In fact, as I thought about it, the only place I'd taken the kids was to a maple sugar house up in western Mass last March. That trip had featured a screaming newborn and me coming down with something, and really had just been attempt to prove to the world that I could, yes, hit the road independently with all of them.

But that was eons ago. I realized we hadn't gone to a museum, aquarium or zoo in well past a year. It was time. An aquarium about an hour away that wasn't too outrageously pricey or too large and overwhelming seemed like a good choice.

"Ethan, we're going to go to an aquarium today!" I announced when he came downstairs for breakfast a little later.

Pause. And then, "Awwww. I don't WANT to go there."

I knew it. I knew this was the response I was going to get. I took a deep breath and said very evenly, "But it's going to be fun."

"Do we HAVE to go there? I want to go to a waterpark."


This is the trouble with these types of plans, especially if I have to take the kids on my own if Dan is working. Anna loves every tourist attraction and will linger at each exhibit faithfully reading each sign. Ethan wants to blow through everything in five seconds unless it has a button. And Chloe just needs to be kept occupied in the stroller.

Packing a diaper bag, grabbing stuff for the kids to eat for lunches so we didn't spend our lives' savings at the aquarium café, and listening to Ethan's non-stop whining sucked away much of my enthusiasm like air slowly leaking from a balloon.

By the time we were ready to leave (of course nearly an hour behind schedule) I was starting to get mad.

"I DON'T want to go there. I don't like aquariums!" Ethan was insisting.

"And I'm tired of trying to do things for you kids and you never appreciate it!" I yelled back. I won't say there weren't a few tears involved.

In the car I sniffled and tried to think of a plan. What could I do to ensure Anna enjoyed the aquarium and got to actually see a few exhibits, and to help Ethan enjoy the experience just a little bit better? I wondered if I could give him some sort of assignment if he got antsy. Maybe he could count all the fish in a certain display or we could do some sort of "I Spy" game. Maybe I could promise a reward. That would, of course, miff Anna, who would wonder why her brother deserved extra prizes when we were already getting the treat of the aquarium. Trying to explain these things is sometimes difficult.

As we drove the amount of precision and planning it was taking just to do a family activity started to feel like a lead weight. At the same time, looking out at the sun and then Long Island Sound from the car brought back a sense of calm. A big part of me knew Ethan wasn't just being a brat, but that it was part of his make-up to have trouble focusing on an activity he didn't really care for. At the same time, I feel as if it's our duty to almost force him sometimes to do these sorts of things. How will he get along in life if he only chooses to do everything HE alone wants to do?

Our aquarium visit started with a parking garage and elevator -- two pluses for Ethan. The place was not too large and not too small, and just the right length of time away to make us feel as if we'd gone somewhere without the kids getting too antsy.

Inside there were jellyfish and touch tanks and the centerpiece, a big tank with at least 5 sharks inside. This caught Ethan's attention.

We watched the seal feeding time and looked at some other displays. Anna thankfully realized she was not going to be able to stop and read every single fact and Ethan with some needling managed to slow down (a little) and look at some of the fish. Chloe (thank you, God!) was a happy as a little clam sitting in the stroller, looking at fishies, and chomping on teething cookies.

We headed back to the big tank since a scuba diver was going to be jumping in and then taking questions from kids via a microphone hook-up. Everyone in the museum had the same idea. Soon this not-so-large space was completely jam-packed. Somehow Anna and Ethan had ended up directly against the tank but at an angle where they couldn't actually see the scuba diver. I was crunched into a corner with Chloe in the stroller and couldn't move an inch. I decided this was as good of a time as ever to attempt to feed her some yogurt. As I finagled things and handed her the spoon while the older two sat blessedly uncomplaining, watching fish in the tank, I felt for a moment like Super Mom. We were doing this! I savored the moment, because of course, these moments are always fleeting.

Then we looked at a few more displays, convinced Ethan it was NOT appropriate for him to play in the under 5 children's area (he looked like he wanted to wrestle the toddlers), and allowed Anna to do a few touch tanks on her own (Ethan's not into that) while we visited an interactive area.

After about three hours, we were done. Outside the sun was bright and it was gloriously warm for December. The kids hung out on a little playground and we walked to the shore of the Saugatuck River that was just outside the aquarium entrance. There -- joy of joys! -- we realized there was an actual swing bridge just to our right, and as we were looking it turned to let a barge through. Bonus for Ethan!

Heading home, I felt simultaneously tired but satisfied. The trip hadn't been perfect but what trip is? Chloe had been a dream. Anna wasn't disappointed. Ethan had expanded his world a bit.

I thought about the teenager we'd seen on the playground. I'd known as soon as I'd seen him. He was obviously autistic and most likely non-verbal.

I'd heard the parents chatting. "This would be a nice place to come back to sometime on our own," and "There were a lot of things we blew right by to get out here." I'd seen them inside, too. I'd seen the dad navigating the son around people and saw the way he didn't really look at the exhibits but wandered past them, possibly taking note of things others never saw. (I remembered Ethan at the Bronx Zoo gorilla exhibit a few year ago, commenting excitedly about the Exit signs.)

I wished I could have said something to these parents, but the situation hadn't been right. So I had watched and thought...thought about how I'm sure they didn't want pity, but how they had my empathy. I thought about how I needed to be thankful for all that Ethan COULD do...but that it was okay to be worn down sometimes by his quirks. I thought about how we HAD to keep doing these things. We had to expand his world, to let him know he had to try new things. We had to ensure Anna got to enjoy things she liked while sometimes accommodating her brother. And Chloe? Well, Chloe was going to be an expert at going with the flow.

Then we went home and Ethan asked me about 23 times if he could have screen time, and eventually disappeared into the world of Nintendo DS. And we realized later we'd left his coat at the aquarium.



Such is life.

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