Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Kids, Songs, and Courage

We were downstairs in the church basement after the service, and the kids were practicing for Christmas. Every year at our church the children sing a couple of songs during our special Christmas service.

I love, love, love watching my kids, and all the kids sing. (So does Chloe, apparently. Her little eyes lit up once they started.)

There was a time when I didn't know if Ethan would ever be able to handle getting up on the stage and singing. This is our third year, and the first two years went relatively well. He spent a good amount of time glancing at either his watch or the clock mounted high on the wall directly opposite the stage, but he was up there, happily singing, for the most part.

This is not something we would force either kid to do. But watching them at home, it's easy to see they love music. Anna is our lyrics person. I believe she (along with umpteen million other tween girls) wants to be the next Taylor Swift. Her goal is to memorize every song she likes within a few minutes of hearing it. These type of memorization skills (which she's inherited from Dan) have also served her well with drama. I've found all kinds of scraps of lyrics scribbled on papers in her room.

Ethan is the music guy. Like me he can figure out songs by ear and always seems to need to add a soundtrack when he's playing. It's quite funny, actually, to see him rolling around on the floor with toys that are "fighting each other," singing some sort of intense background music, or adding musical accompaniment while he's playing sports outside.

They both have good voices and Anna usually ends up with solos. Ethan, however, refuses them. The thought petrifies him.

And so there we were Sunday and once again "Ms. Marsha" was asking who would like to try for a solo. Wiggling hands went up into the air. Ethan's buddy right beside him sang the first solo. I love this little guy. He belted the words out, strong and true. The kid's got a great voice. And I noticed last year too how much he LOVES to sing. When his solo tryout was over, he couldn't stop singing. He kept going, through all the other solos. He didn't even notice. His dad gave me a sheepish smile.

I could completely relate. The kid reminded me of me, catching myself singing to the Muzak in the aisles of Big Y and wondering just how long I'd been singing without even realizing.

"Would you like to sing a solo this year?" I asked Ethan when they were done, knowing perfectly well what the answer would be.

"No mamma," he replied solemnly. "The solos are when you sing the song ALL ALONE."

Outside, he saw his little friend leaving just in front of us. His dad had hoisted him up and was carrying him. "Bye Ethan!!" he called out. Apparently, this kid loves Ethan and was very happy to hear Ethan would be singing with him again this year.

"Mamma?" Ethan asked. "How come he is a little bit younger than me but he is brave enough to sing all by himself?"

"Ethan, lots of people are afraid to sing solos, not just you. Do you know there a lot of grown-ups who are too afraid to sing up on the stage?"

"Really?" He seemed shocked by this. I knew why. Ethan had a system in his head that had to do with age and bravery. The older you became, you more brave you most concurrently must become.

I've known little ones who are more brave than most of us adults put together.

"You know what's even worse?" he asked. "If you are up on the stage and it's dark and there's a big spotlight shining right on you."

I thought back to a year our church did Handel's "Messiah" and I had a solo just like that. I'm not sure if that spotlight illuminated that my entire body went numb and I was fairly convinced I was going to pass out.

"I know, Ethe. You know, it's okay if you don't want to sing a solo -- unless you're letting fear stop you from doing something you want to do. That's not good."

There was no answer. We got in the car. I think we both needed to sit with that thought for a moment.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lessons from the Third

We were at church on Sunday morning, and Chloe was rubbing her eyes furiously in a way that could only mean it was naptime.

"Remember those days," I asked Dan, "when we restructured our entire church schedule around our kids' naps?"

It was true. I had a distinct memory of telling people you wouldn't see us at the second service for a while; we needed to go to the first one so that we didn't mess with Anna's nap time.

This nearly sends me into hysterics now.

This is what I've learned in the past nine months, since Miss Chloe was born: All of those internet stories that get passed around, those cute little jokes about how parents treat the first vs. second vs. third child (i.e. first child drops his pacifier and you sterilize it; second you quickly wash it off; third child, you put it in your own mouth to clean it and pop it back in theirs), well, it's just about all true. I wrote about this last year. I had an inkling that maybe, just maybe, baby #3 would break me, in a good way.

I couldn't be more thankful.

It's rather strange, having parented a baby girl at the beginning of my thirties and now at the end. Sometimes observing Chloe learn and grow is like watching Anna all over again. Except for the fact that Anna had more of a temper while Chloe is laid back, they're very similar. They look the same (I think Chloe's going to have Anna's green eyes). They both hit most milestones (a little bit) early. They both have had very annoying picky-eating phases.

But Chloe is not Anna. And even more than that, I'm not the same person, the same parent I was nearly 10 years ago.

If I had to sum up each of my children's babyhoods with one word, Anna's would be Wonder. Everything was brand new. Ethan's would be Challenge. I say that because I had such a hard time adjusting to two kids; Ethan was fussier than Anna and so hard to figure out; and sadly because I spent a good deal of time worrying about why he seemed "different." And Chloe? I would say Grace, which happens to be her middle name.

Something about the third child has given me a better ability to let go...of household messes and chores undone. Of backyard responsibilities and PTO meetings and of being everything to everyone. I have by no means perfected this. I'm just getting a little bit better.

The third child has reminded me that I only have two hands and that yes, someone may be left out momentarily. But if I can just learn to breathe, I'll get to the other one. I may not have two other very young children. Yet the older ones still need help with homework...tying shoes...cleaning their rooms.

Child #3 has taught me that there are times I'm going to have to say no. That I may miss appointments sometimes, when my calendar has something scribbled (or more than one something) on every single day.

The third one has shown me that wow, everything gets messier and laundry piles up more quickly. But it's okay. It'll get done eventually. Kind of, except that we all know housework with three kids never gets completely done.

I've learned that giving her a bite of ice cream isn't going to permanently scar her; that the only way to learn how to walk is for me to let her fall; that sometimes it just makes a lot more sense to let her pull the books or DVDs off the shelf and have fun than to hover and scold.

Best of all, 10 years of being a mom means I look at my third, and I know how quickly this time will pass. Anna moved from Chloe's stage to the young lady she is today in what seems like mere minutes. With my third, there is the gift of knowing that time doesn't stand still, that every gummy smile and shaky step should be appropriately treasured, for the day will come very quickly that I look at my grown child and ask, "Were you ever really THAT small?"

I wish, how I wish I could go back to myself as a first-time mom and whisper a few of these secrets. Only: I know I wouldn't have listened. There are some things we only learn from experience; from time; even from failure -- not just in parenting, but in life. Hindsight is indeed always 20-20.

Wonder...Challenge...Grace. I love what my kids have taught me. I love especially what the third has taught me. Yet I know that someday, I will look back at my almost-40-year-old self and smile sheepishly; shake my head a little. Yeah, I'm a newbie at this whole (gulp!) middle-aged thing. There's no shame in that. If we're still breathing, we're still learning. We're still works in progress. I kind of like that.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Legos, Ethan-Style

So, it wouldn't be accurate to say that the Lego craze has hit our house.

We don't have Legos spilling everywhere. Ethan isn't begging for the latest Star Wars model kits at Target. You won't find him asking to go to Legoland or wanting to go and build something at one of those events they have at the library.

No, Ethan's not Lego-obsessed like the majority of boys his age, but we're celebrating over here nonetheless. In the last few weeks he's become Lego-interested. For the first time. Ever.

Me and Legos go way back. I LOVED them when I was a kid. Oh, I couldn't stand actually following directions and building something like a spaceship or a car. No, I just wanted a big tub of Legos, and I wanted to get creative. Actually, most of the time I wanted to build houses that I would then fill with Fisher Price people and act out various dramas. Yeah, and the house was usually destroyed by a tornado.

That was my Lego experience, which is why I've had trouble grasping kids and Legos today. Who wants to buy a kit with just enough pieces to replicate a picture that's on the front? What's the fun of that? Maybe if you're engineering-minded. I just don't get it.

That being said, I've wished for a long time that Ethan would get "into" Legos or really any kind of building blocks. I've tried to be patient because some of his lack of interest has really come down to low muscle tone and literally having trouble connecting the blocks and pushing down hard enough to make them stick. Then there's the whole creativity factor. Coming up with ideas has sometimes been a challenge, and yet those kits out there that show him exactly what to do are too complex and have pieces too small for him to handle with any kind of ease.

For four years now our experience with Ethan and blocks has been primarily me asking him to build something and him refusing and wandering away. Every once in a while he would half-heartedly build a tower. Never, ever did he care about bringing Lego people into the equation and acting out any sort of scene (the way Anna did when she was about 3 years old and on, building block houses for her My Little Ponies). After years of pushing I let the Lego thing go. If there's one thing I've learned about Ethan it's that you can't successfully MAKE him do anything, particularly when it comes to play.

A few weeks ago, out of the blue Ethan pulled out our box of Legos and started building. Right now we have the bigger blocks, the one labeled for ages 2-5, since they're easier to handle. He sat there on the floor for over an hour, telling me he was working on a house. And he spent another half-hour trying to fashion a "lock" out of a piece of string for the door.

A few days later, he wanted to build a house again. And then another day, again. Not only that, he asked for people to put in the house. And I heard him acting out scenes. They were eating in the kitchen. They were going for a ride in their rocket. Later they were going to bed.

Ethan's house is, not surprisingly, not quite typical. Looking at it, I have to wonder if he sees often in parts rather than a whole. There is a big staircase that leads to nowhere. There's a section he calls "the kitchen." There's a tall chimney that's not really connected to anything. There is the garage. But there's not one building that you could define as THE house.

On a side note, I find it quite funny that he had to build not just a garage but garage doors, as garage doors have been near and dear to his heart since toddlerhood.

The other day, after he spent a full hour building, I heard it for the first time: "Mom? We need to go to the store so we can get MORE Legos!"

Walking through the Target aisle later (not to buy said Legos; we just seem to live at Target these days because there's always something that someone, usually the baby, needs), I looked at the shelves of Lego kits and rolled my eyes. Ethan wasn't interested, either. What I wanted was a good, old-fashioned, big tub of plain old Legos, but they were nowhere to be found.

And so, in my own way, I will embark on the oh-so-common mom-quest to find my child the ideal set of Legos. His birthday's coming. Maybe by then he will have graduated to something beyond building a Lego house. Maybe, but then again, when I think back to my childhood, I see myself building the same house, over and over, filling it with people, and destroying it with a tornado. And no one called me quirky. Ethan can build whatever he wants to. I'm just glad he's playing.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Jumping in Leaves

It's that time of year again. There's a chill in the air; reds and yellows are exploding on the maples everywhere; Dunkin' Donuts is foisting its pumpkin-spice-laden products on us all...

...and the rake is glaring at me from our garage.

I won't bore you with the details, but let's just say we've been fighting an ongoing battle with the leaves in our yard for oh, 10 years now. There are too darned many of them, and most are not even the beautiful sugar maples that produce amazing color but the swamp maples that are just, well, annoying.

She's writing about leaves? You ask. Yes, I'm writing about leaves. I get worked up about leaves. We used to pay people to do the darned leaves...until every year the price got higher and the job the people did got shoddier ("Oh, you wanted us to do the whole yard?"). Paying $500 or more was too hard to swallow. And so, for three or four years now, we've all grabbed rakes (and Dan a leaf-blower) and tackled the leaves every late October and into November.

Last year I raked while seven months pregnant and managed to contract poison ivy. I bribed the kids to help out (something like a quarter per bag). I ran operations in the backyard like a drill sergeant, barking out orders while the kids whined. In the end we raked 150 bags before the last day the town did leaf pick-up, and still didn't get them all. In fact, our backyard after a few days didn't even looked as if it had been touched. I wanted to cry. I prayed for early snow so I wouldn't have to look at it all.

Some time later, I looked out at the leaves that kept disappearing and reappearing under falling then melting snow, and it hit me:

For all of the time we spent with the leaves those five weeks or so, how much time had we spent jumping in them?

Had I even raked one pile for the kids to crash into, to bury themselves under?

I wasn't sure. Maybe way back in the beginning. Maybe the first day.


And I wondered why. I wondered how things had gotten so out of hand.

This is what we do, as adults. This is why we laugh less and fret more. This is why we become boring. It's when we see things like falling leaves as obstacles to...to what? To having the perfect yard? To what end?

I don't know why I didn't see it before. I'm not sure why I even bothered. The busy craziness of the past year has cemented it: we will never be able to keep up with the proverbial Jones'. Our bushes are way overgrown, our garden has turned into a sumac-tree wonderland, our grass never grows, and our siding really needs to be power washed. It would take thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours to make things right.

It would take time that I don't want to lose.

The people who owned our house before? According to my neighbor, the guy who lived here for 30 years before we moved in spent all of his time trying to coax grass to grow. There he'd be, out in the yard, spring, summer, and fall, sweating in the sun, watering, watching, experimenting, planting again. Only grass just wouldn't grow. Or at least not to his standards. And then? Well, then he died at a relatively young age. And his wife died not long after.

Yes, we'll rake this year. We'll do our best. We'll spend some Saturdays and the kids will whine and my back will ache. We'll pick up what we can, and the yard we still be blanketed with reds and yellows and oranges. Then snow will fall, as it always does.

But before that, I will rake more than one mountain. We'll take (yes, me too) flying leaps into the piles and get lost under it all. We'll breathe in the sweet scent of dying leaves. We'll get a few crunchy pieces in our hair and maybe our mouths. Someone will ask to get buried. We'll feel itchy.

I will learn to love even the things I cannot conquer. We'll run and jump. And we'll laugh the whole way down.

Chloe in her very first leaf pile

Friday, October 10, 2014

Math on the Highway

Driving Ethan to school each morning, it's all about the numbers.

We've learned that it's best to leave at 8:20. Our plan used to be to listen to the morning show on XM radio's Kid's Place Live and hear the birthday greetings at 8:30. But now that we're arriving at the school at closer to 8:28 to beat the crowds, we miss that. So we've come up with a new plan.

A while ago we noticed that if we were driving down the highway just before 8:30, a bunch of Fed- Ex trucks were on the opposite side, heading south. I realized that the Fed-Ex headquarters are not far off a certain nearby exit and that many of the trucks must leave at the same time, every day -- right when we're driving by. So we started counting them.

Sometimes I think me and Ethan are two peas in a pod.

Our record was 33. One day we saw only 2. After a while Ethan decided to count school buses and leave the Fed-Ex watching to me. So now on any given weekday morning, you'll find both of us craning our necks and counting on Interstate 91, trying not to get confused by the other person's numbers.

Hey, his first grade teacher SAID to make everything a math problem, to look for opportunities to count and do math in everyday life.

The one problem with Ethan counting buses while I count Fed-Ex trucks is that quite often there are more trucks than buses. This presents a problem to Mr. Competitive, whose eyes inevitably fill with tears if he falls behind.

Now we've worked out an "exchange" of sorts, that throws subtraction and addition into the mix as well. If I'm ahead, I work with Ethan to figure out how many of my Fed-Ex trucks added to his buses would make things equal. So, for example, today I had 17 trucks and he only had 9 buses. But by subtracting 4 and "giving" them to Ethan, we both ended up even at 13. This type of thing makes him very happy.

During the morning commute, some people are attempting to wake up, or belting out songs on the radio (okay, the latter could be me, at times). We're counting and crunching numbers. This is how we roll, in our family. Yup. We're getting our inner quirky on.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Little, Big Leap

We were running late. I needed to drop the kids off over with Dan at the business since I had singing rehearsal at church that evening. The plan is usually I drop them off for about an hour on Thursday evening and then Dan takes them home.

A little earlier, I'd called and told Dan when we'd be over. When we got on the highway, we hit traffic. I tried to call him again but he didn't answer his phone. Then, not only did the traffic slow us down, but my inner airhead came out and we got in the wrong lane at a long light, which meant I had to turn instead of go straight. And then I couldn't make a U-turn so I had to keep going, waiting through several lights, turning around in a parking lot, then getting in another long line for the light to now turn left and get back to where I was supposed to be going.

"Arrrgggh," I said in frustration to no one in particular. "We are REALLY running late."

"Mamma," said Ethan from the back, concern in his voice, "What if daddy is worried?"

No. Way.

He did it.

He put his head into someone else's head.

He took their perspective.

He wondered what his dad might be wondering.

In Autism World this is not just a simple statement. This is a big deal. In Autism World, you hear a lot about Theory of Mind, and about how people on the spectrum either don't have it, or struggle with it. Theory of Mind is the ability to attribute thoughts, beliefs and emotions to others and to understand they may be different from your own.

It's the type of thing that enables you to stop yourself from saying something so you don't hurt a person's feelings. To find a good hiding place during hide and seek where you know the other person won't look. Even to lie if you anticipate your parents will be angry about something you've done.

Ethan knew we were late and thought about what his dad might think about that.

(On a side note, we arrived five minutes later, and of course Dan wasn't worried, because Dan's not a worrier.)

Theory of mind. In action, in the backseat of the car.

Suddenly, I wasn't so annoyed at being late anymore.