This might be one of the last articles I can write about my daughter (hereinafter “the Hurricane”). She is now eleven and no longer finds it flattering to be the subject of my work. However, I decided that this information might be helpful to someone so please don't turn me in.
To be quite honest, I have spent the spring and summer months mentally bracing myself for her grade six year and thanks to some research, my dread has been reduced to a dull fret.
The Hurricane is giddily optimistic about going back to school but I can't as easily forget her tumultuous grade five experience. Starting in late September, I made a cup of strong tea each school day at 2:30 p.m. and tried to harness my strength for the coming storm. The rolling, dark cloud would come bursting through the door at exactly 3:10. Flinging her bag to the side, she would angrily recount hours spent locked in yet another catastrophic group work project. Wildly gesticulating, she could not understand why her ideas had not been embraced or her instructions followed without question. Drowning in daily waves of perceived injustices, I would clench my teeth, smile weakly and try not to freak out.
As the year went on she methodically managed to alienate her peers one by one. By March it was clear that no one wanted to work with her. My husband received his daily briefing but remained calm. We prepared for the school librarian to be the only guest at her May birthday party. Finally in late spring, she arrived home with an invitation to join a group for a class dance project. My heart swelled. On day two the Hurricane stormed in to report that the group would not respond to her suggested choreography. I promptly exploded and told her that she needed to zip it and fall into line. I reminded her that last I checked she hadn't danced since junior kindergarten and that nobody wanted to see those moves. I also loudly informed her that a loss of power was way less socially suicidal than a solo dance routine.
Like most parenting dilemmas, I felt tons of guilt for handling this so poorly. Most days I did listen patiently, providing her with counsel and strategies, but on others I would lower my head onto the wooden island and wail, “Why can't you just get along?” I really tried to empathize but she is so different from me. I would l have flunked out before risking social alienation. My parents would sadly concur that grades were always second to my desire to please friends. I would have eaten a home perm kit to have Alex Costello at my side for the duration of grade seven. My mother would never have had to say to me, at a birthday party drop-off, "Bye honey! Have fun and please don't try to organize anything."
Clearly it was time to reflect, evaluate and strategize. There are a few rules of child related combat that I cannot waiver on. I try to insist that my children be respectful and polite even in times of disagreement. I also think that hitting below the belt, verbally or physically, is never acceptable or a replacement for intelligent argument. The rest of relationship management can feel a bit murky. I want our daughters to become women who can communicate directly and demand equality. I know they will need to have strong negotiating skills for success.
My bedside books teach that society fails girls by telling them to be nice but also that female aggression amongst teen girls is a growing concern. Assertive is supposed to be the middle ground but what does that look like and what does it mean? I hate the use of terms like bitchy and bossy to describe strong women but am I a dinosaur and a hypocrite for wanting to ensure that the Hurricane remains likeable?
Remembering that my friend Jane had to call and apologize to each member of her group during her first week of MBA, I realized that my inner circle might have some insight. Starting in June, I made the decision to get uncomfortably honest. Whenever someone would ask me how the Hurricane was doing I would blurt out, "I am so worried about her! She simply cannot function in a group and may have socially alienated herself from most of her classmates." This exercise was challenging for me because I find it hard to admit that things aren’t always okay. Whether protective instinct or pride, I feel wary of exposing my children’s vulnerabilities to others. Privacy definitely serves a purpose but in hindsight, I should have shared my fears way earlier. Each response I received was like an amazing little birthday present.
My first stop was the porch of my friend Jennifer who, when presented with my blurt, smiled serenely, pressed the tips of her fingers together, and said, "She will be fine once she becomes the CEO of her own company. Like me."
On a following trip to North Carolina, I expressed my angst to a dear and delicate southern belle. Her words were poetic and assuring: “What the FUCK! Are they still making kids do fucking group work? I fucking hate group work! They are just little kids for fuck’s sake!”
Next I served up the dilemma to our friend Sean following a lengthy summer feast. He paused, leaned back in his chair and spoke: “I am with the Hurricane. Sometimes you just have to take over.” Rod agreed and looked like he had been poisoned even thinking about having to get along in a group. Perhaps the sweetest, most gentle advice I received was from James. He looked at me across the table with big brown eyes and said, "Sometimes kids aren't meant to be kids. They are adults trapped in kid bodies."
Taking my little experiment on the road taught me some great lessons that I wasn’t even looking for. I now know that is better to be vulnerable and honest than to stew alone. Real friends know you, love you and are in your life for a reason.
Secondly I have discovered that the Hurricane has her people and I have my people. We share similarities but are also very different. I am embarrassed that I spent the year trying to use only my experience to guide her. Interestingly a large number of the friends I love the most are her people. These bullheaded children of yesterday stayed strong but also became incredible, loveable adults. In the heat of this mess, I completely forgot that the man I share my life with chose his vocation mostly because he likes to be in charge. And while we cannot assemble a piece of IKEA furniture together without court ordered mediation, there is no one I love more. Working this through has greatly dissipated my dread that she will live alone, watering her plants with tears.
September is looming and I still haven't really figured out the perfect sixth grade survival strategy. Perhaps I might try to sneak back with an update. I will continue to insist that she is kind and fair but then I should likely get out of her path. Who knows? Maybe I could actually learn a thing or two.
I've come to the conclusion I might be a bit of an odd bird.
Those who know me well would more than agree. I came into the world with the chance to do anything. Dad, a family doctor, and Mom, a stay-at-home nurse, encouraged all four of their kids to go as far as we could academically and in our careers. They had no preconceived notions of gender and made university mandatory. At no time was it suggested that I be a stay-at-home mom. It was presented as an out dated option.
And so I went forth to university, followed by law school. But I had a secret. What I really wanted was to stay home and raise four kids. I realize that it is easy to want four kids when you have never actually carried, birthed, or cared for your own child. I wasn’t sure about much during those years but my internal compass was strong. Although excelling at school was important to me, I delighted in preparing tea and scones for my study group with a fresh load of sheets tumbling in the dryer. I prepared hard for a career in the hopes that I would change my mind and wake up to the 21st century.
Choosing to stay at home with your kids is a privilege but often viewed as dropping out. While sitting next to a senior surgeon, who I adored, at a holiday party, I felt the sting of his words: “So you are just going to throw it all away?” Little did he know that I was pregnant with my second baby, too sober to absorb the hurt and ready to throw up onto my plate. But it didn’t change anything. Not for a day. Wanting to stay home wasn’t really something that anyone could talk me out of which is weird because I usually need affirmation for most of my choices. I did once ask a close friend whether I should leave my stay-at-home position and she replied: “You are the only one of us who likes their job. Why would you quit?” I had placed this call after a visitor had inquired whether I used my home office for scrapbooking.
I love it when people ask me what I do and respond to my reply with, “That’s it?” But funny enough, it really doesn’t bother me. When my friends are creating companies, making partner, running methadone clinics, heading off to meet with Google, or accepting awards I feel a mother’s sense of pride. I don’t feel envious or that I have made the wrong choice. I do offer to pick up their groceries…
The funny thing is, I am not really the woman you are picturing. I hated playgroup, picture the girl smoking in the back of gym class, and recoiled in horror during most music classes. I still shudder passing the park years after enduring umpteen afternoons of mindless damage control. Our third child nearly killed us and was nicknamed Bad Baby from birth. She also was called, Where Is the Baby and Oh God, We Have Lost the Baby. My mother, Coco, once asked me if we should still be sterilizing Bad Baby’s bottle and I replied, “Mom, she is chewing on the leg of your chair!” Coco also assured me that if anyone were to kidnap Bad Baby, they would return her in fifteen minutes.
There are many days where I feel as though I might lose my mind or have already lost it. I have sat on the lid of the toilet with a locked bathroom door eating my cereal after insisting on my right to eat with dignity. On past dark winter days I have held out Eminem’s estranged mother, Debbie Mathers, as the standard I needed to stay just slightly above. I often stand in my basement with no idea why I came down in the first place. However, since it's quiet, I usually stay there until I remember.
My children are noisy, irreverent, and know way too many inappropriate song lyrics. Their hair is messy and I can’t keep on top of their nails. We have had stitches, broken bones, and multiple fevers. I need mandatory coffee in the morning and wine in the evening. My husband has found me crying on the floor in front of the dryer throwing in socks like baseballs. I am no saint but have never been one.
In the early days, I did a lot of solo road trips from Ottawa to Guelph with the kids. These memorable times were filled with lengthy brilliant conversations like: “Girls can do anything boys can do!” “No they can’t!” “Yes they can!” “They can’t be urinal testers!”
Despite the chaos, I am ambitious and pour everything into what I do. I will never be sorry that I went to school for so long and know that I will always be able to take care of my family. I feel so privileged to have been given knowledge, opportunity, and the most incredible bunch of friends along the way. Plus, legal skills come in extremely handy when negotiating with teensy criminals and their victims.
I am now stretching my legs after eleven years at my job and feel like I have a few stories to tell. I wish I could drive to random playgroups and loudly correct all of the bad information and shaming we go through when our kids are young. I want to go with young moms to their doctor appointments so that they don’t cry all the way home because their picky eater won’t eat the eggs needed for brain development. I want to go back to the park and tell the moms being showered with organic wisdom that a root beer or two doesn’t cause permanent damage.
My career choice may not be rewarded with a large salary, promotion options, or public accolades but what I do matters in the world. I don’t feel like I have lost or quit something because each day I learn, evolve, teach and try to do better. Lord knows I feel challenged. It takes all kinds, and thank goodness for that.
The topic of breastfeeding joins sleep training and the work versus stay-at-home debate, as one of the top most divisive and useless arguments women can get into. Throw in sleep deprivation countered with excessive caffeine and the discussions can quickly devolve into a blood bath.
My belief is simple. Breastfeeding is a choice. The decision to breastfeed or bottle-feed should be rendered without judgment. I loathe the guilt and pressure inflicted on mothers. It makes me crazy. I also feel sad and angry hearing stories about women who really wanted to breastfeed, couldn’t, and were made to feel even worse. I feel the same compassion for moms who get crucified because they have no desire to breastfeed.
Reflecting on my personal experiences with breastfeeding culminated with one conclusion. Easy doesn’t mean easy. I want new moms to know that even if someone tells you it was “easy” to breastfeed, it still wasn’t. I have made the mistake of thinking I was being helpful using this term to encourage and now I feel guilty. I would never want a new mom to quit breastfeeding, if she wishes to do so, because it wasn’t as “easy” as promised.
I don’t really remember when I decided that I would breastfeed my babies. I think my husband and I agreed that we would try it until the negatives outweighed the benefits. I wound up breastfeeding all three of my kids for a year apiece. I originally thought that this plan worked because breastfeeding worked physically well for me. I now give my breasts only half of the credit. Instead, the success of my feeding regime should also be attributed to the people and support I had around me from day one.
What I really want to share is that the decision to breastfeed requires the presence of a village. If not for encouragement and assistance I would have packed it in early on for any of the following reasons:
Whether it is your first or third baby, the initial days of feeding feel like rattraps have been attached to your nipples. Having the right nurse assure me this was normal and would soon pass allowed me to push on.
Little newborns are the most vulnerable creatures. The thought of them getting dehydrated is enough to make a new mother cry even harder. When Josie, my first, was born she refused to pee on day two for hours. Only wanting the best, hospital staff circled with bottles of formula telling me that time was running out. My husband gently suggested putting her in a warm bath. This made her go instantly and I forgave him for eating all of my labour candy.
As a new mother, I had to get almost completely naked to feed my daughter. In my haze I could not position and get her to latch without the help of an octopus. I never figured out the football hold and the idea of feeding in a sling made my eyes cross with confusion. Without my family and friends to help me through those intimate moments, I surely would have thrown in the towel.
Spraying milk, kicking feet, a tiny hand pulling up the cape and weird, wet noises coming from every end. We need to be okay with women breastfeeding in public because not every wedding has a broom closet. I am so grateful to the men and women in my life who did not make me feel awkward when attempting to feed in open spaces. If I had been made to feel embarrassed by comments or negative body language it would have been really difficult and discouraging.
I have truly never been so starving, thirsty or weak as I was during those years. My amazing mom brought me gallons of watered down lemonade and insisted that I “build up my supply” through rest. My mother-in-law cooked and kept me company during those many hours I spent on the couch. My husband took the baby away after feedings so that I could sleep. Despite all of this, I looked like I had been eating a steady diet of heroin by month eight. If we want our mummies to be successful with their choices we have to feed, water and care for them.
To conclude, I resolve to remove the word “easy” from any further discussions involving breastfeeding or parenting in general. To you new moms, please know that I would love to come over, turn up your AC, warm your bottle, pour you a drink and squeeze your breast into the perfect latch position. Sadly, my parole officer says no. In response to any meanness you have experienced, I choose to quote my road trip self, “For God’s sake! Leave each other alone and help your sister!”