"I am Tiger Man! I can shoot labor beams from my paws at bad guys and I can fly and I have a hundred other powers too!"



Chicken stands atop the play structure, stomping his feet and snarling this declaration.

Other kids give him a wide berth.

That's probably for the best - in his eyes, they're probably bad guys, and I don't want to get sued. That's right, twinkie, you BEST be walkin away.

Obviously, I love this kid's imagination. The depth of his curiosity about the world, and his fearlessness, the way he plunges into the pools of his fancy without first dipping a toe. Man, he goes for it. As an adult, beaten down by decades of #society and #media and #becoolkatie and #allthatshit, I'm humbled by his commitment to Tiger Man, the ferocity that does not, at any point, appear to be a game.

When this kid plays, this kid ain't playin'.

Buuuuuuuuut sometimes I worry about his intensity. I'm no Dale Carnegie, but I'm guessing that his imaginative deep dives into roles characterized by extreme brutality and screaming miiiiiiiiiight be an obstacle for him in upcoming social situations. Like, say, birthday parties. Or whatnot.

Chicken is the Russell Crowe of 4-year-olds - he NEVER breaks character on set.

Or in his case, the swing set.

And if all he ever wanted to do was be Tiger Man, lone stomper of the playground, a vigilante, works-alone hero whose roar strikes terror in the hearts of baddies, I wouldn't be writing this blog post. But he doesn't want to always play alone. He's at the point in his life that he's learning how much fun it can be to run with a pack.

And therein lies the problem.

I've been watching him attempt to navigate the inscrutable, inexplicable dynamics of cooperative pretend play. And that shit is... well, it's a rocky road.

First of all, not every kid on the playground even wants to pretend play with a Super Tiger Man. Which, I mean, is obviously their fucking loss, but hey what do I know, I'm just SUPER TIGER MAN'S MOM.

So we're looking at a lot of this:

Chicken: I AM TIGER MAN!
Kid: That's too loud.
Chicken: BUT I'M A SUPER HERO!
Kid: (walks away)
Chicken: ROAAAAAAR!

and a lot of this:

Chicken: I AM TIGER MAN!
Kid: (ignores him, scoops more sand)
Chicken: ROOAAAAAAR!
Kid: (still ignoring him)
Chicken: (grabs scooper)
Kid: Hey!
Chicken: I'M TIGER MAN!
Kid: Gimme my scooper!
Chicken: ROAAAAAAAR!

and more than one of this:

Chicken: I AM TIGER MAN!
Kid: (bursts into tears)
Chicken: ROAAAAAAAAR!

I've suggested that perhaps running up to a strange kid and screaming into his face that you are a tiger man might not be the most effective invitation to play.

"That's probably pretty scary, Chicken. You're a big, strong, loud boy. Before you start being Tiger Man, you have to say, 'hey, want to play super heroes?' so the kid knows what game you're playing."

So far, he has not taken me up on that suggestion, which means that I have to watch both him and the pediatric psychology papers pretty closely - if specialists report a spike in tiger-related night terrors after Chicken and I spend the day at the playground, then we usually pop on our fedoras and head south for a bit, let the scene cool down before trying again.

We're looking at about a 10% rate of success with the "I AM TIGER MAN" opener right now.

So, okay, one kid out of ten isn't walking away or screaming in terror when my son "introduces" himself. One kid in ten is game. First hurdle, hurdled. (Leapt over? Summited? I don't know, the NBC coverage of Olympic track and field was so bad you guys.)

But then we have this problem:

Chicken: I AM TIGER MAN!
Kid: I AM FIREFIGHTER MAN!
Chicken: NO YOU'RE MONKEY MAN!
Kid: NO I AM FIREFIGHTER MAN!
Chicken: NO I SAID YOU'RE MONKEY MAN!
Kid: I DON'T WANNA BE MONKEY MAN! (walks away)
Chicken: ROAAAAAAAR!

and this problem:

Chicken: I AM TIGER MAN!
Kid: I AM FIREFIGHTER MAN!
Chicken: Let's go get some bad guys!
Kid: I wanna do the swings.
Chicken: But...
Kid: (walks away to do swings)
Chicken: ROAAAAAAAR!

and this problem:

Chicken: I AM TIGER MAN!
Kid: I AM FIREFIGHTER MAN!
Chicken: Let's go get some bad guys!
Kid: OKAY! I see some by the swings!
Chicken: NO, they're over by the slide!
Kid: NO THEY'RE AT THE SWINGS!
Chicken: SLIDE!
Kid: SWINGS! (runs away)
Chicken: ROAAAAAAAAR!

There are a billion ways that a game of Tiger Man & Company can go off the rails, and I'm pretty sure we've found literally all of them.

Why do we have such a low rate of success when it comes to Chicken, my smart, sweet, lovely boy, making a damn friend at the playground?

A few reasons come to mind.

1. As previously stated, Chicken has a fucking VISION for this narrative, and while he's smart and sweet and everything, he's also about as flexible as James Fucking Cameron when it comes to "hearing" other people's "ideas" for how he should tell HIS story.

oh
you think
a firefighter
and a tiger
makes more sense
than a tiger and a monkey
you know what i think
is that tigers
eat firefighter faces
for fucking snacktime
with a box of chocolate tiger milk
ass hole



2. Chicken is never less than staggered to discover that another kid has a fucking VISION for HIS own narrative, and that the other kid is about as flexible as James Fucking Cameron when it comes to "hearing" Chicken's "ideas" for how he should tell HIS story.

oh yeah
well
firefighters eat tiger faces
for breakfast
which is before snack
so by the time the tiger wants to eat the firefighter's face at snack time
he's like
oh no
my face is eaten
including my mouth
so
yeah
ass hole

3. This is actually a really, really hard skill.

In order for two four-year-olds to successfully play pretend together, they have to work both independently and interdependently.

They have to cooperate to negotiate the conditions of the imaginary world they are constructing, and then they have to clash, as characters, in order to further their narrative.

They have to understand when they are planning and when they are playing. This transition has no bell to announce itself.

They have to work at a similar level of intensity so they continue to engage each other without crossing boundaries of safety.

They have to each feel committed and accepting of each other's imaginings.

They have to feel free enough to explore the storyline they want to explore, yet restrained enough to allow their friends the room to explore other storylines at the same time.

They have to pass control of the world back and forth, freely, intuitively, over and over again.

I mean, my kids can barely pass a BALL back and forth freely, much less invisible command of an invisible world.

I just wanted to take a moment today to honor how incredibly hard it is for young kids to not only manipulate their own imaginations, but accommodate the imaginations of others.

I just wanted to share with you how many times Chicken has run off a child in tears, how many times I've had to walk him over to a confused-looking mom, say, "This is the tiger your son is telling you about," and wait until Chicken manages to murmur an apology.

If your kid hasn't found the balance between ferocity and politeness yet, welcome to our club. You can come over to our park anytime - Chicken has some karma that he needs to collect upon and we have only one rule: No clown wigs. Seriously, they scare the living shit out of Chicken, and they make Buster laugh so hard he farts, so it's a pretty sick scene actually.

If you feel like it's your job to make sure your child doesn't grow up to be Batman - lonely, grunting at the help, stalking around in the night, riding a motorcycle for God's sake - you are not alone. If there's anything that strikes more terror into my heart than motorcycles, it's the idea that my son won't make friends this year. That he'll show up on the first day of school fearless, roaring his fierce roars, and that his intensity will scare the children and put off the adults... that when friends won't invite him to play, the grown-ups won't be able to disguise their relief.

No wonder it's so special when two kids click, when they run at the same speed and are able to talk like this:

Chicken: I AM TIGER MAN!
Kid: I AM FIREFIGHTER MAN!
Chicken: Let's find some bad guys!
Kid: Okay!
Chicken: I see some by the slide!
Kid: Let's go!

(long scuffle with some invisible baddies, much grunting and "pew pew pew" laser-gun-type sound effects)

Chicken: Got em!
Kid: Yeah!
Chicken: Now let's put em in jail!
Kid: I don't want to put em in jail.
Chicken: But I want to put em in jail.
Kid: I don't want to put em in jail.

(long pause)

Chicken: Can we put em in jail by the swings?
Kid: Okay!

(running toward swings)

Chicken: ROAAAAAAR!
Kid: ROAAAAAAAR!
I have very, very, very smart friends.

Lessons from the Trenches is a series of a few things that I have learned over the last few months from watching and listening to my mom friends in action.

Check out Lessons from the Trenches: Stop Wasting.



"I will not yell for one hour."

Friend: Meg

Friend's Kids: 6, 4, 2, and new. 

Friend's Parenting Vibe: Coach, cheerleader, camp counselor, like a tough but fair teacher who's really warm and animated, who also gets down on her knees to look her kids in the eye and show them that she's right there by their sides.

Friend's Parenting Spirit Animal: Kangaroo


damn girl
check out those glutes
those are like
dude
you could seriously carry like 3 children around the zoo
for like 3
4 hours
on those pistons

plus another one

#pouch

#megsupial

I sat on Meg's couch and noticed, holy shit, this boss bitch has 4 kids and ZERO Cheerios under her kitchen table. Then I tuned back into the conversation just in time to hear her say that she's been working on celebrating the little victories every day.

"You know, like if I can manage not to yell until lunch, that's a win, I deserve a high five for that, or possibly something a little stronger."

Meg is fascinating because her internal experience as a mother is so at odds with her performance of mothering.

She's one of my parenting mentors, and I could honestly write an entire blog post about all the ways she impresses me. She's respectful of all children, but in a genuine, unshowy way, not in a theatrical "HEY EVERYONE COME WATCH ME MODEL RESPECT" kind of way.

She's able to listen to a new mom freak out about hind milk without cutting her off and saying something true/useless like "Seriously don't worry, that's not a thing." Instead, she nods, makes affirming "mmmm" sounds, and says, "I remember being scared of that, too." She waits for an invitation to offer advice, which IMHO is a fucking super power. Her parenting appears, to me, to be real, joyful, thoughtful, crazy but in a fun way, and at times literally magical.

I once watched her two-year-old climb too high up on a big kids' play structure. Meg noticed him, called out, "Romeo, that's too high buddy!" AND ROMEO SMILED AND CLIMBED BACK DOWN. (No, his name isn't really Romeo.)

teach me

teach me your ways

original painting by Adam Brown


But then she'll say, "Oh my God, I am about to FREAK OUT. Romeo is driving me CRAZY. I honestly don't know if I can make it another day... he never stops whining..."

She'll pronounce herself a woman on the edge, and in the next moment she'll place a hand on his back, as soft as a cloth smoothed over a table. "Ro, can you take a deep breath? I'm having a hard time understanding you."

She talks like she's about to come apart at the seams even as her stitches appear, to me, beautifully even.

But that's part of why Meg's so great (that, and she teaches kickboxing HOLLERRRR), the fact that she is not rooted in that flattened, glowy zen that frankly, I do not trust one bit. She struggles, she worries, she tries and succeeds, she tries and fails.

And that's why I wanted to write about her today.

She's trying a not-yelling thing and she's balls-out awesome.

So I tried a not-yelling thing.



THE DAY I DID NOT YELL

I woke up and said out loud, "I will not yell today."

I got out of bed, pulled on some clothes, and splashed water on my face. I will not yell today.

I looked in the mirror. Lookin good, Katie! 

I smiled. Feelin good, Katie!

So far, so good!

Not yelling wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. I just had to stay focused and centered, remember to breathe, and remember that this too shall pass.

Of course, at some point the children would wake up.

I checked the clock.

7:22 am.

I heard a thud on the other side of the door. Deep breath. I opened the door, walked inside.

___

Buster grabbed a full bowl of Cheerios off the counter and turned it upside down and I had to pick cold, soggy, slimy Cheerios off the floor.

Me: "Oh my goodness. Thank you for reminding me not to put food bowls so close to the edge of the counter. My, you are growing taller and taller every day! Okay, please help me pick these up. No, but don't eat them. Fine. Eat them."

___

I had to run into the kitchen naked but for one pant leg because I heard the telltale, hearty splash of Buster dumping an entire cup of water on the kitchen floor.

Me: "Woooooooooow." (DEEP BREATH)
"Okay, buddy. Let's grab a towel and clean this up together. I don't want anyone to slip in this puddle!"
(He runs away.)
"BUSTER." (DEEP BREATH don't yell don't yell don't yell)
"Buster? Babe? I know you don't want to clean this up, but hiding from me isn't going to work. Also you're hiding from me in the middle of the floor. With a napkin on your head."

(Please remember that I was naked, except for one pant leg. The other pant leg was just like dragging behind me. Yes, through the water.)
___

We were playing pirate, which is super fun because I get to lurch around scowling, but it's also a refreshing challenge because somehow I always go Irish halfway through.

Me: "YARRRR MATEYS, 'tis a foine day fer seekin' treasure lads, may the road roise up to meet ye..."

(No, this is not relevant for the yelling thing, but I do think it's an important detail in terms of my character development.)

___

Chicken played the Dog Catcher, which I guess in his mind meant Dog Serial Killer because he built a trap for Buster and then lured him inside and then slammed the "door" (a couch cushion) and growled "Now you will NEVER get out of the DARK AGAIN!"

Buster's face crumpled and he reached out from between the cushions calling, "Heeeelp me Mommy!"

Chicken screamed, "STAY IN THE DARK, STUMPY DOG!" and bit Buster's hand.

Me: "WOAH WOAH WOAH!"

(I know it's all caps but it wasn't a yell.
Okay, it started that way but then I kind of played it off like I was exclaiming in song.
Think, like, the "WOO WOO WOO" from Grease's "You're the One that I Want."
It was goddamned lyrical, okay?
Not yelling.)

"You know, Chicken, I can see that you're really interested in this character of the Dog Catcher. But a Dog Catcher is really more of a Dog Protector, not a Dog Trapper."

Chicken transformed instantly. Gone was Sweeney Todd: The Demon Dog Catcher of First Avenue. He brought Buster a basket of toys, crawled into the dog house and snuggled him, and then when I pretended to be a dog he gave me A PAW RUB.

Holy shit, not yelling is working so well. It's already...

8:09 am!

___

Buster started walking around the house, moaning "DA BOOOONE! DA BOOOONE! DA BOOOONE" in what I call his Forrest Gump voice - you know, the voice Forrest turns on his teacher after his teacher has just laid the pipe up in Mrs. Gump? 

If you don't remember, it basically sounds like someone dropped an accordion player into a chumming machine.

Me: "Bone? A bone? You want a bone? Are you still pretending to be a doggy? Like you want a bone? Are you asking for chicken? Chicken on the bone? Did you hurt one of your bones? Dinosaur bones? What bone? What bone, baby? BUSTER. YOU HAVE TO STOP MAKING THAT SOUND BUDDY."

___

I started changing out the laundry and Buster ran up hollering "WANNA HELP!" and slammed the washer door shut. 

"No thank you, Buster," I said, eerily calm. I'd found a new place of peace. A robot place.

"WANNA HELP!" he screamed again, and grabbed an armload of dirty kitchen towels to throw into the washer, which was still full of clean clothes. 

"Buster," I snapped, switching from Zen Robot to Lucille Bluth in the blink of an eye, "I don't want your help right now. Go play with your dinosaurs." 

He threw himself to the ground, hitting his elbow on the way down, turning his "whining" scream into a "wound" scream. 

I picked him up and hugged him. I said, "Are you okay." You know, the way you do when you go to the bathroom and find your friend who always gets drunk and cries, drunk and crying. 

I said, "Why don't you go play in the play room until I"m done." 

He got up and walked into the kitchen. 

"Play room," I said again. 

I heard him opening drawers. 

"Buster, please go into the play room." 

The clatter of plastic dishes hitting the floor. 

I almost screamed his name. Instead I stalked into the kitchen, grinding my teeth, and carried him into the play room, where he immediately toppled into a sobbing heap.

___

B: MOOOOOOOOOOOOK
Me: I hear that you want milk.
B: MOOOOOOOOOOOOK
Me: Yes, you want milk. I am cooking lunch right now so I can't get you milk but you will have milk with lunch.
B: MOOOOOOOOOOOOK
Me: Yes, baby, you want milk. Please stop yelling at me.
B: MOOOOOOOOOOOOK
Me: I don't like when you pull my pants down.

___


Okay, so, no, I didn't make it the whole day without yelling.

Which I honestly think is a good thing, because I was getting worried about what was going to happen to all of the unyelled yells I'd been choking back all day. I'm not a doctor, but I think that's how ulcers and schizophrenia get made.

I've started every day since then with the goal of not yelling, and at some point I break.

I always break.

Like a person on a diet, I hold on for as long as I can, and when the fast is broken, well, I gorge. Once I've nibbled the first crumb of yelling cookie, I can house the yelling equivalent of a pint of ice cream and four cheese quesadillas in two minutes flat.

Here are some of the things I've said yelled that have marked the breaking of the fast and the end of the day's tether:

Tuesday - 7:43 am - THIS IS NOT HOW I WANT TO START THE DAY

Thursday - 3:22 pm - I HEARD YOU JUST POOP IN YOUR PANTS I'M SCOOPING OUT A MELON

Friday - 6:06 pm (so... close...) - I AM NOT GOING TO ASK YOU AGAIN. DO. YOU. HAVE. ANY. EIGHTS.


Saturday - 4:18 pm - OH MY GOD YOU GUYS THE COOKIES ARE EXACTLY THE SAME SIZE


But Meg was right - there is something to be said for celebrating the little wins. Each day is an incredible tapestry of delights and insanity, rage and love and boredom. All too often we go to bed replaying the failures, analyzing the fumbles rather than the touchdowns (I talk sports!) and of course, we can all learn from these missed opportunities. But just as important as avoiding past mistakes is repeating past victories.

We have to be careful with this mindset. While I think it's wonderful to set the goal to not yell, and then celebrate as far as you get, all too easily we could slip into the guilty darkness wherein we set the goal to not yell, and then despair when we "fail."

Everybody yells. Some people (cough cough) yell every day, some much less often (I'm told.) I know for a fact that Meg doesn't make it through the day most days either. She's awesome, not stoned.

But the lesson here isn't about yelling - it's about honoring how hard even the simplest of tasks can be when you're operating under constant, unrelenting stress.

If you don't have kids, imagine making an omelette in the middle of a blackout at the MGM Grand Casino on fight night. Or try to listen to your mom recount what happened on each day of her 9-day Norwegian cruise, while giving your house cat a bath.

Maybe you burn the omelette; maybe you walk away from that bathtub with only one working eye. But dammit, that shit was INTENSE, and you deserve a high five.

Or maybe something a little stronger.


OH MAN YOU GUYS Chicken and I had an EPIC battle of wills this afternoon.

I spent over an hour last night folding a week's worth of child laundry.

I had two baskets filled with neatly-stacked pants and shorts, a pile of sharply-quartered shirts with their ribbed neck bands all oriented the same direction.

Chicken's basket also had a stack of itty-bitty boxer briefs, closed as prettily as tiny books and lined up in a rainbow stack.

Buster's basket also had two changing pad covers, rolled up awkwardly because they're basically miniature fitted sheets and I'm not actually Gandalf the Grey. #fittedsheets #folditlikeaball #aintnobodygottimeforthatshit

Today during quiet time, Chicken dumped both of those baskets of clothes onto the floor.

And then he danced.

see that shirt
in his hand

that
was his ribbon

oh
he's got the magic
in him


Or possibly did a floor routine. But I mean, what's the difference between rhythmic gymnastics and modern dance, anyway? Who am I to draw such a line? Bottom line: a staggering display of grace and athleticism upon a staggering display of being an insensitive dick.

I looked down at the pile of trampled shirts, pants, the once-neatly rolled socks now torn apart willy nilly.

My laundry sentence had just been doubled.

i did this
instead of
literally anything else
last night

this was done



Me: Wellllllll... shit.

Chicken: (sigh.) Yep. (Claps hands) Well! I guess my quiet time is over!

Me: Yeah... No.

___

As he screamed the feral, shattered scream of a child in his inaugural Bambi viewing, I stepped out of the room and locked the door behind me.

I'm gonna be vulnerable right now and share part of my journey with you, the part of the journey where I wanted to be like "THAT'S FUCKING BULLSHIT, Chicken."

Also, I want to share the slight detour off the journey where I wanted to get down on his level, look into his eyes, and say, "You will never wear clothes again. For I will burn them all tonight. I want you to think about that. The next time I clip you into a car seat that's been baking in the 115-degree car for an hour, that red-hot black plastic chest clip is going to lie directly on your nipples and the whole way home we're like 'damn, smells like someone's grillin' some RIBS!'"

Sooooo I feel like slamming a door in his face was like, not awesome, but definitely better.

A few breaths later I came back in.

Me: So, Chicken, let me explain how I'm feeling, okay?

Chicken: Okay. You're probably feeling like, huh, I guess my quiet time is over?

Me: NO. THAT IS NOT HOW I'M FEELING.

(Deep breath)

Me: I'm feeling like I spent an hour last night folding your laundry so you could have clean clothes in your drawers. I did that because I love you. Because I care about giving you a home where you can trust that there will be hot, healthy meals for you three times a day, where you know that I'll tuck you in every night in clean sheets, where you know that when you call out in the night I will come to you, where, yes, you can open your dresser drawers and find clean clothes whenever you need to change your shirt.

Chicken: Wow.

Me: Yes! Wow! I did this work after you had already gone to sleep. I did this work instead of going for a run. I did this work instead of seeing a friend, or playing a game, or talking to Daddy, or watching a movie. I did this. For you.

Chicken: Yeah... it really feels like my quiet time is over now.

Me: (eerily calm) No Chicken. Your quiet time has only begun. Your quiet time will be over when you have put all of this laundry back into the baskets.

Chicken: But...

Me: Folded.

Chicken: But...

Me: NEATLY.

Chicken: But...

Me: Call me when it's done.

___


At 4:57 pm it had been 2 hours since I caught him Groundhog Day-ing last night's laundry.

The first time I checked on him nothing had been done.

except
he'd shit
in his nap diaper


I shrugged and retreated behind the locked door again.

The second time, the boy needed some clarity as to the difference between "folded" and "crammed into a ball the size of Chicken's fists."

The third time, he had two small, messily folded piles of clothes in two baskets. He was about 10% done. He looked up and said, "This is taking a long time."

Me: (giggling hysterically) Hahahahahahaha! Yes!!! It DOES take a long time! A lot longer than it took to dump it all out, right?

Chicken: Oh yeah! Dumping was pretty quick. Like (pantomimes flipping a laundry basket into the air like a disgruntled board member flipping a conference table) THAT. Pretty quick.

Me: And how much time does it take to fold all this laundry?

Chicken: Ugh, it takes for EVER.

Me: That's right. Please remember that when you see a basket of folded laundry. Please remember how long it takes to fill it up.

Chicken: I will. I understand now, Mommy. I'm SO sorry.

Me: Thank you, Chicken. I forgive you.

Chicken: Soooooo... you can finish this up.

Me: Nope.

___

At 5:06 pm he called me in to review his work.

oh


oh my


Listen, please don't interpret this blog post as like me bragging about how I fucking BEAT my four-year-old. I mean, I DID. But I'm not bragging about it. If anything, the power struggle element of the whole situation feels a little small and hollow to me. Like, wow, Katie, slow clap for you, you're a 32-year-old woman with superior strength and the ability to lock a child in a room until he folded to your will. #HIGHROAD

I am proud of myself for staying calm and presenting his consequence as a natural result of his actions, rather than a punitive grounding. Natural consequences... when they fall into your lap, they are fucking beautiful to behold.

I am mostly proud of him, for making the connection that folding laundry is the fucking worst, and then being proud of himself for doing the damn thing.

The only thing worse than finding two hampers of folded clothes trampled on the floor is finding two bottles of fresh-pumped breastmilk spattered in a sad, still-warm puddle. Both spills are symbols of a mother's internment, how the promises that she has made to maintain the health and stability of her child's life must be kept, even if they fly through the air and land in a heap. Even if she has to start again, and again, and again.

As Chicken strutted out of the room, after a fierce hug and sting-y high-five, he crowed to the empty play room and fist-pumped into the air for emphasis, "Now I will ALWAYS follow the rule of NO! DUMPING! LAUNDRY!"

Yes, my son.

Yes.


Katie plugs in her phone, switches off the lamp, punches up her pillows, and rolls over. 

She sighs.

Brain: WAIT!

Katie: What?

Brain: You can't go to sleep yet?

Katie: I have to go to sleep. It's past 11.

Brain: No! No, you can't!

Katie: Why not?

Brain: Because you don't know ANYTHING about Margo Martindale!

Katie: WHAT.

Katie rolls back over, grabs her phone, googles "Margo Martindale."

Katie: You're right. I didn't know anything about Margo Martindale.

Katie reads some more...



Katie clicks off phone.

Katie: Margo Martindale. Check.

Lights off, rolls over.

Katie: Good night, brain.

Brain: WAIT!

Katie: Shhhhhhhhh.

Brain: No I'm so serious right now. This is serious.

Katie: What?

Brain: You didn't set out your clothes for tomorrow yet! You have breakfast with Allison and Sawyer tomorrow morning!

Katie: I stopped setting out my clothes at night.

Brain: But that was such a good idea! Since when?

Katie: Uhhhh since about 11th grade, brain. DUH.

Brain: You're so mean to me.

Katie: I'm really not. I do sudoku and take fish oil. You're welcome.

Brain: You ARE though. You're so mean to me, which probably means you hate yourself.

Katie: That's... that's just...

Brain: You hate yourself because deep down you're wondering if you're capable of something unforgivable.

Katie: ... but am I, though?

Brain: I don't know, Katie. I just don't know. There have been a lot of dark moments. Just today you yanked Chicken off his feet in the middle of a parking lot--

Katie: HE WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PARKING LOT, crossing the busy road ALONE!

Brain: But did you have to yank him back THAT hard?

Katie: Yes...

Brain: DID you, though?

Katie: I... I wasn't thinking... I mean, at the time I thought--

Brain: DID YOU?

Katie: No! I could have been gentler! But it's not like I left a mark or anything...

Brain: (slow clap) She didn't leave a mark, ladies and gentlemen.

Katie: Oh my god he's fine, I'm fine, it was an instinctive response to protect my child and I'd do it again if it meant keeping him safe.

Brain: You're right.

Katie: I fucking know I'm right. I'd rather violently protect him than gently allow him to get hit by a car.

Brain: We should unpack that statement.

Katie: And we will. But tomorrow morning, okay?

Brain: You're right. You've had a long day. You're tired. You should definitely go to sleep.

Katie: This feels like a trick.

Brain: Nope. Go to sleep. Night.

Katie: ... ... ... Good night then.

Brain: Last thing.

Katie: No.

Brain: Real quick.

Katie: What.

Brain: But what if you have cancer? Would you write those letters to the kids that they would open on their birthdays and weddings and stuff?

Katie: That's it. I'm turning on The West Wing.

Brain: Oh good. Do the episode where they banter.

Katie: That's all of them.

Brain: You know, the one where Toby enters the room and he's juggling a messy sheaf of papers and stuff.

Katie: That's... every single one.

Brain: No, no, I'm thinking of the episode where CJ is wearing a silk blouse messily tucked into a pencil skirt. She's capable, but also quirky and put-upon, and she has kind of a weird, funny problem to deal with. Oh you know, the one when Donna plays the idiot stand-in for the audience so Josh can explain to Donna/the viewer what the issue is and what the stakes are and stuff.

Katie: Literally every episode of The West Wing.

Brain: Oh come on. Stop fucking around. You know, it's the one where Sam has that idealistic monologue. The one where Abby stands toe-to-toe with Jed. The one where Margaret awkwardly channels Andy Kaufman. The one where Leo looks like his suits are four sizes too big. The one where the lighting is all moody. The one where they say "not for nothin" and "don't talk to me like I'm other people," and "eat em up," and references to Gilbert and Sullivan abound.

Katie: I'm going with "The Drop In."

Brain: (pops popcorn)

Katie: You know, next time you could just ask me for West Wing.

Brain: It's better if you come to it on your own, boo boo. Now close your eyes and go to sleep. I don't need you conscious to enjoy this civics lesson taught in the key of crackling wit.


I have very, very, very smart friends.

Lessons from the Trenches is a series of a few things that I have learned over the last few months from watching and listening to my mom friends in action.



"We only use what we need."

Friend: Olive
Friend's Kids: 2 boys, about the same age as Chicken and Buster
Friend's Parenting Vibe: Community-minded, calm, warm, thoughtful
Friend's Parenting Spirit Animal: Elephant


omg
i just look at this pic and i think
olive
all the way

(this is funny
because olive
has
super-taut knee skin
like
she's known for it
like
sometimes it's hard
for her to sit down)
___

Think about how many times a day you tell your kids to "stop wasting" something.
Or rather, EEEEEVERRRRRYTHIIIIINNNNNG.
Energy. Water. Toilet paper. Crackers. Batteries. Baby wipes. Stamp ink. Time.

I say it forty times a day but I've never liked it. First, because that shit never fucking works.

I say: "Stop wasting X"
Chicken and Buster think:

"I should definitely waste more X, and also there's more stuff to turn on and let run forever that we haven't even thought of yet, like HOLY SHIT look at that! A box of expensive organic plantain chips! Let's DANCE ON THEM. And WOW! LOOK! A toilet! We should check to see how many times it will flush!"

Second, because "don't waste," is a very difficult thing to ask of young children who have not yet formed the ability to self-moderate and control impulses.

Most of the time when we say "don't waste," we're not saying "don't use," or "that's not for you." We're saying "yes, but then stop." We're saying, "water is good, but only the right amount." We're saying, "use a tissue, but NOT THAT MANY!" We're saying, "interact with this object, and then stop at the right time, and you'll know it's the right time because I'm going to yell at you to stop wasting it."

We go from a green light to a red light without a crosswalk countdown or a yellow. It must be so fucking confusing for kids. What was okay in a teaspoon is unacceptable in a scoop. What was fantastic for five minutes is BULLSHIT for six.

Fig 1.1


Seconds of Hand Washing
Child’s Behavior
Parent’s Response
10
Washing hands
Great
20
Washing hands
Great
30
Washing hands
Great
40
Washing hands
Great
50
Washing hands
Great
60
Washing hands
YOU’RE KILLING THE EARTH YOU MONSTER


Has there ever been a person in the history of the world who's used the right amount, the first time?

There's an invisible line between "appropriate usage" and "waste" that children are bound to cross by accident, and I don't like coming down on them with the assumption that they're evil geniuses trying to waste resources when, in reality, Chicken was just transported watching the tiny white bubbles on his fingers pop, silently, as the tap ran cold, perfect water down the sink.

Also, sometimes kids use stuff in a way that I wouldn't, and it's so easy to label their, um, innovations as wasteful. One time I bought a new box of crayons and Chicken immediately glued a dozen or so of the still-pointy, still pristine crayons together in a pile, and then smothered them in even more glue. When I saw it I said, "Oh! Wow. What... what's going on here, babe?" And he said, "I'm building a house of sticks, but I'm making it very strong so the wolf can't blow it down. It'll be safe now."

What if I'd said, "Oh no! You wasted those brand-new crayons!" I totally could have. I mean, dude. The new crayons? Come on!

But if I had, I would have crapped all over his house of sticks, his idea to build a strong, safe place, his young mind's early, lovely openness to question the necessity of accepting stories as they're written.

We got our money's worth out of those crayons, even if we never colored a damn thing with them.

That's why I felt the proverbial lightbulb turn on when, one summer evening, I heard Olive say:

"We only use what we need."

I love it. For the following reasons:

a) "We only use what we need" is not a demand for obedience, but rather an invitation to share a core value to only use what you need, whether it's toilet paper or another person's time.

b) "We only use what we need" is another way of saying "we are respectful of the greater community," that gives a concrete form to an abstract concept. Have you ever tried to explain "respect" to a 2 or 4-year-old? I have.

Me: I need you to be respectful of your brother's body.
Chicken: What's respectful?
Me: It means showing respect.
Chicken: What's respect?
Me: It's... um... respect is when you show someone else that you value them and, um, respect them I guess.
Chicken: That's not very clear, mom.
Me: Yeah.
Chicken: I think you should try again.
Me: Respect is... it's when you don't touch your brother with sticks.
Chicken: Oh.

"We only use what we need" means "I'm going to leave enough for others."

c) "We only use what we need" invites the child to determine how much he/she needs. It gives the child room to envision his/her own choices. Might that child still need some guidance about how many squares of toilet paper he/she really needs to wipe his/her bottom after a successful #1? Yes. Of course. But the language is there that the child gets to examine at the offered resource (a roll of toilet paper made up of roughly infinity squares) and choose how much he/she needs. #lifeskill

d)  "We only use what we need" sounds way better when screamed across a birthday party at your child who is literally fist-deep in an uncut birthday cake that SOMEONE left out on the edge of the counter.

I haven't noticed a night-and-day difference in my children's ability to gauge appropriate use of precious natural resources or pretzels. But I have noticed a sense of peace in myself when I say "Baby, remember, we only use what we need," that was suspiciously absent when I used to snap, "Stop wasting napkins!" And if I've learned anything in my 4 years of parenting, I can tell you that a mother's intact sense of peace is the most precious natural resource of all.

So that's today's lesson from the trenches.

Thank you, Olive!
How to Nourish Empathy In Your Children
With This One Ancient Secret!!!
It's NOT What You Think!!!!!!!!!!



Katie Wanted Her Boys To Be Aware Of Their White Privilege...
You Won't Believe What Happened Next!



Is Your Toddler A Racist?
Tonight at Eleven!



9 Short Chapters
On Having No Idea How To Fix This

___

1
Bringing Up La Mère
Like every other pregnant woman in 2012, I read Bringing Up Bébé

Swollen with hormones and idealism, I nodded with every turn of the page. 

"Babe!" I'd call to Ryan from the other room. "Babe, we're NOT going to give the baby any snacks, and we ARE going to give the baby bleu cheese for lunch!" (Spelled it that way on purpose you guys. Just to show you how committed I was.)

I typed up a document with tips and highlights. I took the time to educate myself, read, think, and adopt a parenting style that really spoke to my values. I was going to be a GREAT MOM. I gave a shit. I was awesome.

(Fast forward 15 months.)

I found my copy of Bringing Up Bébé behind the bookshelf where it had fallen as we began shoving other books on the shelf; Happiest Baby, Brain Rules for Baby, Cooking for Baby, Positive Discipline For Baby, Baby Sleep How To, Baby Sleep How To NOT, and Infant Sociopathy: If He's Biting, Then You Already Know all lay half-read in dust.



and those were just
the baby books


"Oh shit," I said, flipping through the pages where I'd underlined, circled, even tabbed out specific passages for rapid recall. "Babe, remember this?"

"Mm hmm," Ryan replied.

Q: What had happened to all my big dreams for parenting?

A: They simply slid away in the chaos of new parenthood, the way you forget about your mosquito bite after you've fallen off a cliff.

After Chicken was born, I realized, both immediately and incrementally over a period of months and years, that attaining the French parenting ideal wasn't going to be as simple as putting on lipstick.

I couldn’t recall the capital of France, much less its parenting code, when I was trying to sleep more than 3 hours at a time. I didn’t give a flying coq au vin about snackless purity when my kid melted down at the zoo; I shoved a cheese stick in his mouth so fast it was smoking. I scorched that cheese stick.

French parenting in America means swimming upstream at all times.

One time, Chicken was sitting so nicely at the pizza place, coloring a placemat. I murmured through lipsticked lips, “Darling, thank you for sitting quietly at the table.” Just then, a herd of four-foot-tall savages in knee-length soccer jerseys stampeded past the table, screaming "FAAAAAAAAAAAARTS!!!!!" Chicken’s head whipped around and he stared up at me, eyes full of indignation, jaw dropped in an unmistakable j’accuse!

The quest for Frenchness, in America, is a never-ending slog.

I came to accept that you can’t parent in a vacuum, and I live at the cultural intersection of snacks and farts. 

Thank God, that French book fell out of style.
Thank God, the news cycle moved on.

___

2

QuickRacismSolutions.doc

My newsfeed is chock-full of meditations on white privilege. There’s so much to read!

As a white parent, I have spent the last few months collecting information about how I can raise my sons to advocate for the fair treatment of all people, and particularly those whose voices are least likely to be heard: people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people, people most vulnerable to hate speech, violence, and systemic exclusion.

How can I teach my kids to stand with them, against even the loudest cultural voices screaming that these people are the problem?

I’ve typed up a document with tips and highlights. I’m proud of myself for taking the time to educate myself, read, think, and adopt a parenting style that really speaks to my values. I am a GREAT MOM. I give a shit. I am awesome.

It all feels very familiar.

And of course, I know what comes next.

___

3

Behold, the Cycle

STAGE 1: THAT IS FUCKED UP

Read a bunch of news articles about the horror of [problem] – for this example we’ll say racism but it can be anything that horrifies you. Female circumcision. Dolphin hunting. Neck tattoos.

STAGE 2: I WILL FIX THIS

Commit sincerely and fanatically to banishing white privilege and unconscious racial bias from your child’s life.

STAGE 3: BALLS TO THE WALL

Hold nothing back. 24/7/365. Be proud of yourself for even, like, FINDING OUT about this problem. Buy a lot of books with brown people in them and read them with your most loving voice. Invent role-playing games for the 2-year-old with a black doll and a white doll. Wait to observe bias toward white doll, so you can wisely, gently, yet fearlessly shine a light on your toddler’s unconscious propagation of “the system,” and nourish the tender sapling of love and awareness that all parents must protect if we are to raise this generation in a world of respect and acceptance.

STAGE 4: ARE WE DONE YET?

Jesus, that was a lot of parenting. Be exhausted. Turn on Dora. Read the news. A teenage girl was just expelled from middle school for wearing golf shorts that exposed the controversial area of the body known in some circles as the “kneecap” and in other circles as the “slutbone.” That is so fucked up. I will fix this.

And you’re off! Again!

So here I am, at Stage 3: Balls to the Wall on Operation I Have A Dream. I’ve done all the prep – books borrowed, articles indexed. At the park I make a point of noticing children of other ethnicities, races, and backgrounds. I make a point, after we leave those children, of asking Chicken to observe how those children are different from him, and how they are the same.

I’m actively looking for teachable moments. And when I can’t find one, goddammit, I MAKE ONE.


Chicken: Where are we going now?

Me: To the store.

Chicken: Can we get bananas?

Me: Sure, babe.

Chicken: Can we eat one at the store?

Me: Well… not really. We are supposed to buy food before we eat it.

Chicken: Oh, but I don’t think anyone would mind?

Me: (lightbulb!) WHAT AN EXCELLENT POINT, CHICKEN! Nobody would really care if we did eat bananas in the store. Because we are white, it’s very unlikely that anyone would ever accuse us of stealing bananas.

also
have you ever noticed
that some bananas are yellow
and others are green?
you haven't?
ME NEITHER.

Chicken: But—

Me: I want you to remember that not all people get the same privilege of the benefit of the doubt. You are a kind, smart, honest, wonderful little boy, and luckily, when people look at you, that’s what they see.

Chicken: Yeah, I’m pretty good.

Me: You are! But so is a little boy who has brown skin, right? He’s probably all the same things you are – smart, funny, curious, kind. But some people might look at a little boy with brown skin and think, “Oh, he’s a troublemaker.”

Chicken: Why’s he a troublemaker?

Me: He isn’t! Or, I mean, he probably is, but so are you, right? But people look at you and see “nice boy,” and people might look at him and see “uh oh.” People look at you and choose to see certain qualities that they EXPECT according to their own biases toward white people. It’s called bias. Bias. Can you say bias?

Chicken: I just want a banana.

If you’re reading that thinking, oh my God stop Katie stop stop stop you are the actual worst, this is ridiculous, don’t worry – I say the same thing in my head the entire time. And yet (!) I keep talking. #iwillfixthis #ballstothewall

I can feel Stage 4 – Are We Done Yet? – lurking around the corner.

___

4

I'm Ready To Be Awesome Now


What’s hard for me is that I’m desperate to model activism and stand up for victims of bias. 

I just can’t find any at toddler gymnastics. I’m eager to prove my loyalty to the cause, but trapped in a world where dang it, nobody screams racial slurs at each other anymore.

Man, does anyone know where I can find like a racist grocery store shopper yelling at a black woman so I can stand up for her real quick and put this thing to bed?

___

5

... And They Lived Happily Ever... 
Wait... I'm Getting An Update...


AND THAT’S the problem with parenting the news cycle: a news cycle begins with the intention of ending fast and neat, two things that parenting has never been, not once in the history of news, or parents.

In the process of writing this post, literally just a moment ago, I became aware of the fact that I applied the same problem-solution, beginning-middle-end mentality toward teaching my children about social activism, justice, kindness, civil rights.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a parent might do this. I’m the mom of 2 young boys, a mean, lean(ish) machine programmed to efficiently recognize, diagnose, and neutralize the falling domino chain of daily problems ranging from “he took my sharky light spinner” to “I’m scared of the dark now.” Parenting is a foxhole in which you are the triage team and you have to just stop the bleeding and get the fucking lunch on the table.

More, when the mainstream news media packages these human stories for our consumption, the storytellers reveal their bias toward simplicity, clarity, and a traditional 5-act structure. Tell me the last time you saw a news story that did not cast its characters in binary shades of good and evil, right and wrong, French moms versus American. Have you lately seen a news cycle that did not begin with transgression and attempt to end, neatly, with justice? When justice eludes, we stop listening to the story, and then the news stops telling the story, and then we move on to a simpler, newer tale. Closure is critical.

Example: I didn’t get mad when Ferguson happened. I thought, “that’s terrible,” in the absent way that you do when there’s a plague on the other side of the world and your life is like super busy right then. And my life was super busy right then; Michael Brown was shot the day before Buster turned 2 months old.

And Robin Williams hung himself two days later. I wept for Robin Williams.

Now I have all kinds of questions. 

Did I mourn Robin Williams over Michael Brown because I felt I knew Williams, had grown up with him? 

Did I choose a celebrity over a kid because it was easier to mourn an adult than a child? 

Or because even though I loved Robin Williams, he was always too large to be real, and his death was a sad abstraction? 

Because Michael Brown was real, and his death unbearably so? 

Or because it was easy to see, early on, that Williams’ untimely death at least made narrative sense, and Brown’s would force me to think about good people doing ugly things, church ladies calling young boys “thugs” without thinking about the implications?

The endless messy loose-ended truth is that while there are steps parents can take to teach their children how to call out injustice, there is no SOLUTION. I repeat. NO SOLUTION.

Parents are off-script, in the wild here, and we are doing our damnedest to come up with a formula, a procedure that guarantees elimination of racism in our budding children. We are freaking out. We are buying books and reading blogs and trying to find the prescription. I don’t have it. Sorry.

Oh wow, did you just read 2,000 words on your smartphone in the hopes of getting the answers? Shit, my bad. 

Or, actually, your bad. 


___

6

Are You Sure You Want to Move
"QuickRacismSolutions.doc"
To The Trash?

YES          NO

This isn’t teething. There is no final eruption that relieves every day’s throb and ache.

The box next to “don’t be racist,” will never, ever get checked. Not for any of us. Or maybe it gets checked, but then the next day a new box appears next to a new item: “still don’t be racist today either.”

But before we talk about slavery and misogyny, violence and privilege, we can start at the beginning, with basic humanity. 

I don’t have to indoctrinate my children with a nonstop fact barrage to increase their awareness of the global wrongs that need righting. That won’t work.

I do have to let my children see me apologize, sincerely, when I am wrong. I do have to be aware of my own bias and be honest about it. Humility will be important.

I don’t have to seek out play dates with children of color for the sole purpose of increasing my child’s “diversity exposure.” That won’t work and it will be gross.

I do have to make play dates with the kids my kid enjoys, even if I’m worried about my own social fumblings when meeting a new parent who doesn’t fit in with our current squad. Courage will be important.

I don’t have to keep talking at them in the car until they seriously, literally, fall asleep. I can personally testify that shit doesn’t work.

I can take my hands off the throttle for a minute. I can ask them what they’re thinking about. (Bananas, natch.) I can show them what listening looks like. Listening will be important.

I can read them their favorite book about a mouse who finds an apple without finding a way to be like, “you know who Squeaky the Mouse really reminds me of? A man named Martin Luther King, Junior. He had an apple, too. Only his was a dream.” That won't work.



you know
this moose really reminds me
of a man

a man

who stood up for justice

a man

who would not eat muffins
because of the caste system


I can show them that even though they are small, penniless, utterly without clout, that my children - their dreams and favorite stories – matter. That they are small, and they matter. That every person matters. Respect will be important.

So much more important than how impressively and publicly we demonstrated our commitment to the news cycle’s latest parenting crusade.

___

7

Or Maybe a Gerund?


I went balls to the wall with French parenting and snacking and table manners.

I did it with gay rights and gay marriage and homophobia and love is love.

I did it with Syrian refugees and xenophobia and humanitarian aid and our responsibility as breathing heart-owning brothers and sisters to give and give and give and keep giving.

I did it with misogyny, sexual violence, rape culture, and Brock Fucking Turner.

Each time the world fell in love briefly, comprehensively, with another story, another tale of good and evil, I fell right along with it. I do not regret those fraught, fevered trysts with Frontline, though they embarrass me when I remember the breathless wonder with which I admired my own ability to feel, deeply, and call myself to action.

I thought, in my zeal, love doesn’t mean shit if it’s not a verb. DO something!

But love can’t always be a verb.

Sometimes love has to sit down and noun for awhile, exist as an object that can be held and shelved, a tool that can wait for you, something that belongs to you, works for you.

Love’s not always useful when it’s a squirming action, slippery and uncooperative, something with a pulse that devours to survive.

___

8

Chew Chew Chew


I want to talk to my two able-bodied white sons about their health, their whiteness and maleness without accusing them - after all, they didn't choose their ethnicity, gender, or health.

But their innocence doesn't change the facts of life: they have won the fucking lottery. When strangers look at them they will assume they are smart, kind, capable, and law-abiding. When knocking on the door of a professor's office, they will appear diligent. When waiting in line at the ATM, they will not be anything to worry about.

I want to say:

"If life is a video game, you're playing on the easiest setting. You'll still have to work, but if you look around you'll see that women, people of color, people who are visibly disabled, they are playing the game of life on a harder setting. They have less armor, fewer weapons, fewer allies. They have to work harder and they will fail more. Not because they're not as capable as you are, but because their path is harder than yours.

You need to be aware of this disparity.

You need to know that some people might be too quick to congratulate themselves for being white male employees promoted by white male managers who are not mean men but have never questioned why they feel so much more confident in Tom's ability than in Tracy's, or Tadashi's, or Talib's.

I'm asking you to question your own comfort and confidence. I'm asking you to stay open, every day, to recognizing your own bias, to seeing victims of bias, and to using your white male voice, which people will stop and listen to, to speak up for people that much of the world ignores and silences."

But in the moments I paused to put these thoughts together, the world has already shouted "all lives matter," a hundred times and "woman card," a hundred times more, and that's a lot easier to remember, even if it is harder to understand, and not at all what I said. The quest to defend complexity, ideas you have to chew on until you're tired and then keep chewing, is a never-ending slog.

It's hard to keep your kid from eating crackers when the whole world eats crackers. It's hard to teach your kid to sit quietly at the table when all the other kids are tearing through the restaurant like coked-up chipmunks at the nut shop.

It's hard to ask your kid to recognize that the world as he sees it is sometimes very wrong.

 ___

9

The World Is Good
Except When It's Not
And No
It's Not Always Easy To Tell

I murmured through lipsticked lips at the pizza restaurant, “Darling, thank you for sitting quietly at the table.” Just then, a herd of four-foot-tall savages in knee-length polyester soccer jerseys stampeded past the table, screaming "FAAAAAAAAAAAARTS!!!!!"


My instructions are not consistent with reality. He can see and hear the breathing, screaming evidence that I am wrong. He must think I'm blind, deaf, and dumb. 

He must wonder why I have such strong feelings about bananas.

He must wonder what we're going to be picking up at the library next week. Books about environmental stewardship? Strong women? Capable Latinos? Irishmen with honor?

Me, I'm thinking about the long game. 

I'm hoping that someday he will understand why I flailed and floundered, talked so damn much in the car, spent hours reading and writing in search of solutions.

I was just... trying.