Dragon Flies and Night Terrors: Parenting with Your Parents

Written by: Lisa Tobe, Executive Director, Wildflower Consulting, LLC

We’re close together, a landing between two attic bedrooms, so I can hear Mateo when he yells, “No. Stop.” He’s sleeping, and there is nobody else in the house, so I know he’s safe at least in this moment. Still I throw off my covers and open his door, white wood covered in a colorful circle of cartoonish truck and car stickers. He’s deep into a night terror and at first does not know that I’m in the room.

“Mateo, it’s Mama.” I reach over and touch his face with my hand. “You’re okay.”

He never wakes up, but he settles, so I kiss his cheek and leave. The next morning, I ask him if he had a bad dream. He doesn’t remember, so we move on in the rush of getting ready for school. Oats, cereal, lunch packed, jacket handed out and then five kisses before he catches the bus, one on each cheek, his forehead, nose and chin. Mateo kisses me back following the same pattern. It’s our way of staying with each other all day while we’re in different places.

That night, Mateo doesn’t want to go to sleep, says he’s afraid. We cuddle every night through a five-minute count down, which usually lasts more like 20. Often there’s very little cuddling; mostly tickles and giggles and words about his day. Lately he’d become a little clingier, his arms twisted in mine, like he’s not going to let me go. I like his tenderness.

“Tell me something good about your day,” I say.

“We got to go outside.”

“What did you do to fill up your kindness bucket?”

His night light, a series of blue, green and purple dragonflies lining his closet door, casts a glow in his room, so I can see his face scrunch in thought. “I fed the dog.”

“Good enough,” I think. Even though it’s one of his chores, I can see how he’d think of that as a kind thing to do. I smile.

“Time’s up.”

“No Mama.” Mateo clamps down on my arms. “I’m afraid.” My fierce little boy had been splashing in creeks and climbing up boulders since he was two, so at first I think he’s just delaying. I feel frustration rising in me. My dad, a good man from a different generation, might have called him a baby. And personally, I can see the temptation to push him into being brave. But it seems a slippery slope, a gender thing where we expect boys to behave one way and girls another. A feminist and single mom, I had always told myself that I would not parent that way.

Dad calls Mateo a ‘mama’s boy,’ which is not a compliment. This mama has: trekked internationally, including to Everest Base Camp; been a white-water guide that has run class four rapids in an oar-frame; supported herself through two graduate programs; founded a non-profit focused on violence prevention; written a memoir and survived child-abuse, complex post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer. This mama, like her son, is fierce, tenacious and outspoken about injustice. This mama completed her first triathlon six months after giving birth at 41 and learned to play soccer at 48. This mama has always taught her son to get back up when he falls and never quit when he’s behind. So, if Mateo is a mama’s boy, he’s lucky to be this mama’s boy.

Mateo 1

At three, when Mateo seemed drawn to Mom’s coral nail polish, she offered to do his. She set him on the counter, placing the color in quick tiny sweeps. He’d been in awe of the magic that transformed his pale-brown finger beds to brightly colored things he could wave about in front of him.

When Dad walked into the kitchen, he stopped short and announced, “Only girls wear polish.”

Mateo immediately wanted the polish taken off. He did not want to be a ‘girl.’

Mateo challenges me, negotiating, asking questions, wanting to be told what to do and wanting to do it alone. Lately, his whining has turned into talking back. Child development specialists say this will make him a successful adult – if he makes it I think. Apparently, he’s a perfect child when I’m not around or at least that’s what my parents tell me.

I have ways of dealing with these challenges, feeding him, making sure he gets enough rest and escalating consequences that I hope are appropriate to the moment, although honestly sometimes I find myself reaching, wishing for another me to step in. Neither of my parents, my dad especially understands this type of parenting. In their generation, you did not talk back period. If you did, you just might get switched or a spanking. In general, when we are in the same space, my parents follow my lead. My dad provides Mateo a much-needed male role model, since he has no contact with his dad who lives in Peru.

My mom and dad’s entrenchment in their generation’s parenting styles sets some expectations with my son that I would like to avoid, but we have the same core beliefs about being kind, compassionate, helpful and hardworking. We praise the same things, helping people, listening to directions, doing school work and thoughtful actions. And for the most part, we have managed to work out a parenting style that works for both of us.

Since Mateo’s birth, my parents have nimbly taken on the role of what we jokingly call my ‘husband,’ the other half of a childrearing duo. They watch him at least twice a week, putting him on and getting him off the bus; taking him to his games and letting him stay at their house for the day when I’m under a work deadline. Their support with Mateo has made it possible for all of us to lead richer lives, and it has allowed me the energy to parent the way I would like.

So, with Mateo clinging to my own on this night, he and I begin a new bedtime ritual meant to make him feel safer. First, we create an imaginary multi-colored, translucent bubble around him. Each night he will pick the weave of colors he likes; sometimes his favorite, sometimes mine and sometimes his own. Afterwards, I place my hand, palm open on his forehead before bundling it into a tight fist.

“Bad thoughts go away.” I say as I pretend to fling them to the far corners of the room. I move down to his heart and repeat the action again. “Bad feelings go away.” Then back to his forehead, “Bad dreams go away.” Each time his face seems to release a little.

Then we work in reverse trying to create positive energy, with the idea that when you let go of the bad, there is room for new.

“Good thoughts stay.” I take deep breath and with the exhale say, “Awww…”

We repeat this twice. “Good feelings stay,” I say with my hand to his heart.

“Good dreams stay,” my open palm lingers on his forehead. With each release of breath, I can see him sink deeper into a sense of safety until he drifts off to sleep.

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