Parenthood

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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A Heart In Pieces

Written by Tammy Hopper, Chief Strategic Initiatives Officer, National Safe Place Network

I was in a local grocery store recently. As I entered the store, I was bombarded with signs that Valentine’s Day is once again upon us. Red roses with white bows. Balloons reaching for the sky. Bouquets of candy bars. Sweets for the sweet. As I wandered about the aisles, my mind drifted toward the hearts that will be broken on this day when love is celebrated.

Somewhere there is a young boy who will be taunted and shamed by other boys who notice the small valentine he has clutched in his mittens for the teacher. They will grab the delicate card he worked hard to make and they will stomp it into the snow as they call him names. He won’t shed a tear – at least not now. He has learned not to cry. He knows that showing he has a heart will only make things worse. The older boys will get bored and move on to other targets. He will pick up the pieces and carry on.

Somewhere there is a young girl who has loved being daddy’s secret valentine until the day his touches made her scared. They made her uncomfortable. They made her confused. Now, when daddy says “I love you”, she nods her head and prays that he will not want to come to her when mommy goes to work. On this day, she will think God must have been too busy and as her father leaves her room she cries her heart out – and then she will pick up the pieces and carry on.

Somewhere there is a young mother who has worked all afternoon to make sure the right meal is on the table. Her husband will come home and she will know the drinking began before he ever left work. Her efforts will be buried under criticisms of how the food tastes, how the house looks, how she has changed, and how she disappoints him. She has long ago stopped hoping for a card or a rose. She nods in agreement to every word with the hope that her gift on this day will not involve touches filled with rage and disgust. As she looks in the mirror that night, she thinks about how she will cover the new bruise. She will pick up the broken pieces of the mirror and carry on.

Somewhere there is a father who will lose his job today. He has been saving every penny to pay bills that have filled his mailbox since his heart attack last year. The company can no longer afford to insure him so it found other reasons to let him go. He sits in his truck in the parking lot and takes out the handful of singles in his wallet to see if he has enough to take his wife a small gift for Valentine’s Day. He knows he must have gas in the tank to look for new work so he heads home and knows the woman who sat by his side while he recovered will stand by his side through this new challenge. She has his heart and together, they will celebrate the gift of life and carry on.

Somewhere there is a family surrounding a young family member in a hospital bed. Each member of the family prays for a miracle that is getting harder and harder to believe in. Their hearts are breaking and they ask the questions – Why him? Why now? Why? If he passes on this day their memories will be forever connected to their love for him and the pieces of their spirits that will travel with him on his journey. They cannot imagine or trust in the strength they have to pick up the pieces and carry on.

Our world is full of people who celebrate Valentine’s Day as a day of love, romance and endless possibilities. Our world is also full of people who see every day, including this one, as another day of heartbreak, fear, worry, and loneliness. Youth care workers, domestic violence counselors, workforce advocates, and hospital personnel are just some of the many hearts that do important work every day. They commit themselves to helping lift up others in times of need. On this day of love, please take a moment to thank someone for the gifts they share with others and know that the heart they lift up may someday be yours.

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Biking with Ninja Turtles: Exploring Boundaries with Kids

Written by: Lisa Tobe, Executive Director, Wildflower Consulting

I lost my six-year-old son Mateo under a yellow helmet with a face-cover. I could see his little hands and knee knobs stick out from what looked like black Kevlar body armor. My friend, Thea, stood beside him explaining the gears, throttle and brakes on the blue four-wheeler their seven-year-old son Trey rides. Mateo nodded gravely. I watched the side of his helmet bob up and down in slow, short movements. She had his rapt attention, but I wondered if he’d absorbed the directions. I hadn’t.

Instead, I thought, “Oh crap, am I really going to let him ride that four-wheeler by himself?” I’d been flooded with panic about the idea of broken bones, concussions and spinal injuries. Up until then Mateo had only ridden a bike attached to mine, a three-wheeled Green Machine that could do a wicked skid at the bottom of a hill or a red, battery-powered, plastic race car that barely moved across our gravel driveway.

Thea lives outside Nucla, a rough and tumble Colorado outpost with a great view of the LaSal Mountain Range. Kids run around outside unsupervised starting at a young age, the outdoors their only playmate when not in school. Unlike their urban/suburban counter-parts, these children have hayfields instead of soccer leagues and ponds instead of spray parks. When we first arrived, Mateo did not want to ride the four-wheeler period, so Trey proudly walked him around his family’s 22-acre ranch. We told them to be back before dark. By then, Mateo and I were several days into our cross-country trip to Quincy, California, a small town I lived in for almost a decade before returning home to Kentucky. Thea and I hadn’t seen each other since before we became moms. We sat on their porch catching up while the boys explored.

I’m a parent-in-training. I had Mateo when I was forty-one. I have been reading books about parenting since before he was born; books that told me how to be pregnant, how to give birth and how to raise him. They talked about attachment, strong-willed children and the whole-brain approach. The authors provided advice about how I could make Mateo happy, smart and compassionate, among other things. I read these books in what we in the south call ‘fits and starts’ whenever I got overwhelmed with his behavior. I thought if I followed their guidance, Mateo would be this perfect, happy child that turned into an amazing man. But I’m learning that parenting is as individualized as our DNA.

Mateo helmet
Mateo wearing his bike helmet. Photo credit: Melissa Simmons

I raise my son in a little village of helpers, which includes my parents. My dad has much more patience with Mateo than he ever did with his kids and perhaps counter-intuitively seems more afraid of bad things happening to Mateo than he did with us. My brother, Artie, and I grew up in the relative freedom like most children raised in the seventies. We scuttled up trees and scurried around the streets and woods in our neighborhood with impunity. We had few rules:

  • Tell our parents where we were going;
  • Stay within a one-mile radius; and,
  • Return home for dinner, when it got dark or when dad whistled.

My parents warned us about cars but never about people. We biked over a mile to school alone as young as seven, and by eight we were allowed to go on solo hikes around our cabin in Western Kentucky. During these excursions, I imagined being an Indian Princess hunting for food or a race car driver flying around the speedway. I felt fearless.

While my parents follow my lead, we have complex generational and personal differences about raising children. They placed a television in Mateo’s room at their house and give him desert after every dinner, often consisting of ice cream with multiple toppings. Both are remnants of my childhood.

Both my parents and I want Mateo to be independent. We know that everyone thrives in the I-can-do-it moments when Mateo learns sometime new. It’s just that we have differing opinions of independent, which have become increasingly divergent as Mateo gets older.

My parents worry about losing Mateo. They asked me to nail Mateo’s first-floor bedroom windows shut. I let Dad drill holes, but kept the nails on the window sill. I wanted Mateo to feel the breeze moving through his room.

As young as two, I took Mateo traipsing through the creeks by my parent’s house. He loved playing in the water and chasing elusive creatures that squirted past his chubby legs. At first I held his hand, afraid he might drown in the 6 inches of tepid water that made up our latest playground. But eventually I let go, following closely behind as he rambled and fell among the brown and green algae covered rocks. The water splashed around him before soaking through his blue shorts. Mateo cried at first. But when I extended my hand, he let me pull him up and tumbled uncertainly forward trying to offset his waterlogged diaper. When Mom saw our appearance, worry lines deepened around her mouth.

Before our trip, I had started giving Mateo a little more room. I exercised during his swim lessons or went biking during his soccer practices. I’d let him go to public restrooms without supervision. At first I hovered outside the door. Eventually, I had him meet me back on a certain aisle or rejoin me at a restaurant table. I admit that each time I saw him walking back, I felt relieved. I also started feeling less trapped by the crushing public perception that a child always has to be supervised.

Mateo and I have never had a long conversation about physical boundaries, just to stay away from the street and ponds. He also has some natural fears that keep him in our yard. I work at home and can often see him from my office window, where a collection of ramshackle fences border our acre in Louisville. Gaps have begun to emerge in the black wooden fence that folds around the side and back of our yard. Several poles lean in or out pulled off center by time and weather. Some slats, held in place by a stubborn nail or two, scatter at odd angles. A wire fence runs half way up the other side of our yard, separating us from a pond and horses. Cars and trucks rush past on a busy street in front of our house, parents running errands or construction workers expanding a subdivision that used to be woods. I’m told that our eighty-year-old house used to be a school and that the fields that surround it were filled with trees before a new owner decided they would get in the way and cut them down.

I mow about 1/3 of our yard. Tall grasses and wild plants grow in the rest. My mom calls them weeds. Mateo pretends they are a rain forest, although I have to admit he’s hardly ever in that part of the yard. Mostly, he stays around his play set and trampoline, beside the house where the grass is cut. I don’t worry too much when he roams out of sight. Like my outdoor cats, I figure he’s not far.

I could only imagine what my mom would do if she’d been standing there when Mateo got on the four-wheeler. After giving him directions, Thea threw her legs over the seat behind Mateo holding onto the steering wheel. She gently coached him. Then she let him drive alone at the top of her driveway where he hopscotched across the gravel as he got used to the engine and the brakes. After about three wide circles, Mateo stopped in front of us, his learning energy depleted. He wanted Trey to take him on a ride. They headed off in dust covered cloud energy. He came back sweaty and ecstatic.

“Mama, mama,” he said tumbling in the house.
“Yep.”
“I’m going to ask Santa for a four-wheeler.”
“Oh?” I grinned. “You’d better tell him to bring 22-acres with him too. There’s nowhere to ride a four-wheeler at our house.”
“OK, I’ll ask.”
“I don’t think it will fit in his bag.”
“But Mama? Maybe Santa can have someone else drop it [the land] off, and then he can bring the four-wheeler.”
“You can always ask.”

More and more lately, I have noticed that Mateo wants both me and his independence, a complex need that we have been sorting out in increments. Still there’s this complicated mix of teaching Mateo to ask for help and letting him just go for it. When we stopped at my friend’s place just off Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Mateo made himself home in the wood-covered lot. He scrunched himself up the house-sized granite boulders.

“Do you think I can get down that way?” Mateo pointed down what appeared to be the equivalent of a straight-edged cliff.
“I think you might. If you miss, it will hurt. It’s your choice.” This is standard refrain when I’m unsure.

Mateo peered over the granite face before heading back down the same way he’d come up. I never know what he’ll decide. Thus far his biggest injuries have been scratches and bruises. It probably works this way because of two reasons, he actually does have a pretty good handle on his limits and I won’t let him do anything that seems like sure death. I really like this natural check-in process he has developed. I feel safer because of it, so I continually push all our boundaries, the adult comfort and the child’s will. He has done these new things alternating between wild abandon and mild trepidation.

I watched for a few minutes. “Don’t kill yourself,” I told him before I walked into Seth’s house to sort our laundry.

After two weeks, we finally reached Quincy, a town of 6,000. My neighbor offered him the use of any of their bikes, a balance-bike without petals, one with training wheels or a two-wheeled bike. To my surprise, Mateo picked the big-boy bike.

Last year, he’d tried to learn to bike on our gravel driveway in Kentucky. It had been a hot late spring day. Neither of us had any idea what we were doing, me teaching him to learn to ride without training wheels or him learning. I only vaguely remember learning how to do this. I might have been five or six, no helmet, no knee or elbow pads, just a pile of dusty skin and determination. I’m sure my brain had been flooded with all those confusing chemicals that told me to be excited and afraid.  I’m sure there was blood and Band-Aides before the triumph. Mateo wore full riot gear including wrist guards. When he pushed down on the petal, Mateo lurched sideways and threw out his leg to try to catch himself. He missed. I missed. The red bike landed on Mateo. He wailed. I pulled him up.

“Let’s try again.”
“I can’t.” A small sweat droplet slid down the back of his jaw where one day he’ll sprout facial hair.

I’m not sure what had changed since last year, but now Mateo gets up when he crashes. He still blames me for the falls, but I see that as progress. He told me that I’d held on too long or not enough or … Truth be told, I didn’t’ mind, because his words guided me as I tried to help him find his balance.

“You’re pulling me,” Mateo said in a soft, frustrated voice. I had been running beside him in a sports bra, holding onto his bike with one hand and the shirt I’d stripped out of earlier with the other. At the end of the day, I found myself covered in a dust bath and Mateo able to ride a bike. By the second day, he was a pro.

In many ways, this little rite of passage opened up both our worlds. He wanted to ride to the end of our road, so I let him alone. When Mateo came back, Eli, a six-year-old from the corner, tagged behind him riding an oversized pink bike, his fresh crew cut covered by a bright yellow dirt bike helmet. Book-ended by two single mom’s, who live down the street from each other, these two boys disappear for hours now, somewhere in the expanse between our house and Eli’s. My neighbor’s two grandkids, both boys, have recently joined the fray. As I wrote this, I could hear them urgently creating story lines where their bikes become race cars, horses and Ninja Turtle dirt bikes.

Kids do not have as much freedom to roam today, for a number of reasons. Some families live in areas with high crime rates; schools are farther away; traffic seems more congested and quite frankly our society’s perception of risk does not align with reality. A  University of New Hampshire research center report published in JAMA Pediatrics showed that the rate of crimes against children dropped between 2003 and 2011.[i] As cited in a 2007 Pediatrics’[ii] article, several studies has shown that unsupervised and child-driven play enhances imagination, resiliency and confidence, as well as teaches negotiation and decision making skills.  I can see these things in Mateo. Somehow we have negotiated the boundaries that feel safe to both of us, and this has allowed him to center himself more in this world and himself.

The night Mateo learned to ride his bike, I typed as he related the story to me. He described his fear and new-found confidence.

“I had trouble. Sometimes I couldn’t really start myself. Then my mama helped me, so I thought I could do it and I did. Mama held the back of my seat. Then when I said I was ready, she let go, and I could do it.”

Mateo Bike
Mateo riding his bike.
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[i] JAMA Pediatrics. April 2011.Trends in Children’s Exposure to Violence, 2003 to 2011 David Finkelhor, PhD; Anne Shattuck, MA; Heather A. Turner, PhD; Sherry L. Hamby, PhD

[ii] Pediatrics January 2007, VOLUME 119 / ISSUE 1 The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Kenneth R. Ginsburg. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182