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I seem to have entered a new phase of parenting for which I feel most unprepared.  Braedan, currently completely engrossed with reading The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, purchased a “Dude Diary” at his school book fair the other day.  It came with a key and everything!

Of course, he worked extra hard to hide said key from Austin, which is sort of ironic since Austin doesn’t know how to read yet.  But it gave us an opportunity to talk about respecting each other’s privacy, which then gave me an opportunity to ponder how much privacy a parent should grant her child.  I casually asked Braedan in conversation if the diary was only for him or if anyone else could ever look at it.  He promptly said only for him to which I replied, “Oh, okay,” like it was no big deal. But I suddenly felt left out — like there were some deep dark secrets he was sharing with the Dude but not with me!

After one short day, he excitedly showed me the pages, which are a series of prompts, like “If you had one superpower, what would it be?” (Braedan’s response was “to make all the kids be nice.”) There was nothing private or personal about any of his entries and he shared them willingly and proudly with me. The whole thing turned out to be a silly teaser of what is yet to come.

But it brings about some important issues of parenting: How much privacy do you grant your children and when does that start?  If your eight-year-old were to tell you not to come into their room or not to look into that third drawer of their desk, how would you react?  What if it’s your twelve-year-old?  When does the dynamic shift from you controlling most, if not all, aspects of their lives to allowing them to make their own decisions and have their own space, both physically and emotionally?

I think sometimes parents use safety concerns as an excuse to overstep those boundaries, always checking up on their kids simply because they’re nosy.  I agree that the world, especially with the Internet, can be a dangerous place for teens, who often don’t have the sense or know-how to navigate potentially dangerous situations.  But I also think we need to let our kids grow up and make mistakes and experiment and figure things out on their own, without our constant interference.

Of course, that’s easy for me to say because Braedan’s not quite there yet and, boy, am I glad.  I’m not ready to give up the reigns or have a dark curtain drawn over his emotional life. I love that he lies next to me in bed each night and tells me everything he’s thinking. But I know the day will come when he doesn’t and I also know that I probably won’t be ready for that no matter when it comes. He will be his own person, with his own ideas and thoughts and feelings and he may only share those things with the Dude and not the mom.  It’s not today, thankfully, but it will come.

How have you handled it?

Two other little tidbits about the Rocket Car party.

On Wednesday afternoon, the day of Austin’s actual birthday and the day before the party, the Rocket Car guy called me up at 3:30 to say, “Just checking in to see if you still want me to come even though it’s raining.”

Hmmm. Well, it was raining. A lot. But I quickly looked up the forecast and said, “Oh no, we’re fine. Tomorrow looks great.”

“Tomorrow? I though you wanted me to come today!”

Ummmmmmm, no. “No, definitely tomorrow.” And my heart was beating as I thought, Oh no. What am I gonna do with all these kids now?

So he checks his calendar, realizes he’d written down the correct date but wrong day and said, “No problem. I’ll be there.”

But thank god it was raining or he would’ve simply shown up at 4:30 on the wrong day and my kids would’ve been like, “Uh, mom? Why’s the Rocket Car in our driveway?”

And then the other funny thing was that when we’d first made the arrangements over the phone, the driver expressed some concern about the rides taking place during rush hour. So I gave him a good route that went east down Fairmount (while all the cars from downtown would be heading west) and then looped around some side streets. Well, as I found out only after some actual grown-ups rode along, he took the kids down Fairmount to Coventry to Cedar and then Lee! All major, crowded  roadways. Can you imagine if you had pulled up to the stoplight next to a bunch of unchaperoned four-year-olds riding an old relic of a roller coaster at the corner of Cedar and Lee??

At least it’s not as bad as these parents….

You’d think we parents would learn after a while that so many of the things we worry about regarding the development of our children seem to eventually just resolve themselves. I remember fretting over the fact that Braedan was the last kid in his playgroup to learn to walk.  This was a wonderful group of moms I’d meet at Heights Parent Center when our first babies were just a few months (and sometimes just a few weeks) old. We started getting together multiple times a week, mostly for ourselves (it was way more about the moms than the kids back when they were still babes in arms), and collectively watched as each child learned to sit up (Braedan last), crawl (Braedan last) and walk (Braedan definitely last). There was nothing wrong with him; he was simply content wherever he was placed — happy to look around or play with whatever toy was within his reach; he truly had no need to move. But right at that moment when I started worrying aloud to Mark (“But, honey, they can all walk. Even the ones who are six weeks younger than him!”), he walked.

Of course.

And so it has gone with each and every stage, and so it continues to go. Austin, whose shyness I was so worried about just a few months ago, has completely opened up. He’s not broadcasting his every move to strangers, but he has ordered his own meal in a restaurant and occasionally says thank you to the moms hosting him for playdates. He started his Pre-K year today, without a moment of hesitation. He let me walk out that door without shedding a tear, a first that’s been a long time coming.

And Braedan is suddenly Mister Independent. I’ve long worried that our generation of parents hovers too much, organizing our child’s every moment, tracking our child’s every move. So I’ve been pushing him since last spring: “Just go, Brady, just ride your bike down the street, just find someone,” when he’s bored. And finally, he’s doing it. Well, not quite riding down the street and befriending strangers (even I might warn against that), but heading off with friends to play at the school playground, without Mom but with little brother in tow.

Last week, I needed to pick up Austin when Braedan was home with a friend and he said, “Aaaaww, do we have to go? Why can’t we just stay here?” I thought about it for all of 30 seconds and said, “Ok, fine. Here’s my cell number, stay right here in your room and play.” I was back within nine minutes and they were — of course — totally fine.  He’s still only seven, but I was babysitting by the beginning of third grade, one small year ahead of where he is now. (I know that sounds crazy, but tell them, Caryl, it’s true.)

Tomorrow he and the neighbor girl will walk to school unattended. That may not seem like a big deal to those of us who walked without parents from kindergarten on, but not many people seem to do it anymore. I think it’s such a good and important way to gain independence. More than just the walking safely — it’s being able to manage yourself enough to make it there on time. I don’t remember any of us ever wearing watches as we walked our three-quarters of a mile four times a day (those were the days when we still went home for lunch), but we were never late. We knew how much we could play along the way and still make it on time. We were in charge.

So I am thrilled with these recent developments. Not that I want my beautiful babies to grow up too fast, but I do want them to be confident enough in themselves and capable enough to do things on their own. I want them to feel that sense of efficacy — that oh-so-important “I can actually do this” feeling of success.

It’s their time.

I gotta tell you, one of the hardest things about parenting is understanding a child who is deeply different from you. Of course, conventional wisdom always say it’s hard when you’re too much alike also, as when two strong headed personalities clash. But at least the parent can understand that; you can see where your child is coming from.

I’ve been struck lately by Austin’s extreme shyness. I don’t even know if it’s actually shyness, but he has this way of completely withdrawing from social situations that I find really frustrating. When he’s alone with any one person (Mark, me, my mom), he’s talkative and playful, creative and very very funny.  But when you throw the kid into any kind of group setting (even with people he knows very well, like family), he loses his ability to speak and simply hides his face behind me as if he’s two years old.

I know all kids are different and, of course, I know Austin’s been through a lot and relies on me for a sense of safety and comfort, but it is still so tough.  He won’t even look at people when they speak to him, won’t say hi to his cousins or grandparents, won’t accept offers from friends who want to play, and then regrets it afterward. He wishes he had engaged with the friends reaching out to him — friends he’s often eager to see but then rebuffs in person, wasting perfectly good opportunities to have fun.

I’m not sure what to do about it, or if there’s anything I can do about it, but I wish he was able to let his true self shine through.  I wish I could share the sweet and engaged and engaging Austin that I know and love with the rest of the world.

Another year gone by and all of a sudden I have a rising second grader. I know parents everywhere right now are marveling at the fact that their sons and daughters are graduating from kindergarten and elementary school, from high school and college, shaking their heads and wondering how on earth their babies got so darn old.

Braedan and his buddies at the first grade picnic

Lola’s ready for first and Braedan’s ready for second
(and no, I have no say whatsoever in what he
chooses to wear each day!)

The truest thing I’ve ever heard said about parenting is that the minutes go by slowly but the years go by quickly.  Just ask anyone who’s ever been home with a colicky baby or a fussy toddler. And just ask anyone who’s ever posed for a picture next to their proud graduate.

I’ve just finished reading My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, an author whose books I’ve been disappointed by in the past. Not this one. It’s been out for years now and I was actually encouraged to read it by friends before Austin was even born. Then my mom read it following Austin’s first round of treatment and she encouraged me not to read it, thinking it would touch too close to home.

But I am not one to shy away from delving right into a subject, even a painful one, plus my curiosity was piqued, so I finally picked it up at the library and, well, I’m glad I did. There is something amazingly universal about parenting a sick child. It makes me really really want to get my book out there into people’s hands. Not that it’s some self-help miracle or how-to survival guide. But just that I know it will connect with readers, those with sick children and those without. It humanizes an experience that can be so terrifying and overwhelming that most people would rather just push it out of the way and ignore it. These kind of stories (my true one and Picoult’s made-up one) force people on the outside to see and feel what it’s like on the inside, and I think that’s a good thing. It gives us all a sense of empathy and understanding that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

My Sister’s Keeper is a fictionalized account of a teenage girl who’s had a rare form of leukemia for most of her life. It focuses in large part on her younger sister, who was specifically conceived to be a genetic match in order to donate cord blood and then bone marrow and eventually, as the book opens, a kidney, in order to save to her older sister’s life. (In reality, even a perfectly matched sibling cannot donate a kidney under the age of 16.)

The book jumps back and forth between the points of view of both parents, the healthy sister, the older brother and a few other characters. This is hard to do well, but it is done very very well in this instance. I was struck by the fact that when I was reading anyone else’s point of view, I strongly disliked the mother — she was blinded by the task of saving her one daughter, at the expense of her other children, herself and her marriage. She was overpowering and single-minded and, well, not very likable. But when I was reading her parts, I got her completely. I agreed with everything she felt and most of what she did.

Which is sort of scary, because she made a lot of really obvious mistakes, like completely ignoring the needs and desires of her other kids. She could not see beyond each immediate health crisis and I think the book serves as a serious warning to parents against such a narrow-minded approach to anything.

But, still, I get these parents. They are us and we are them, in so many ways. When faced with yet another pending crisis: “And yet — like always — you figure it out; you manage to deal. The human capacity for burden is like bamboo — far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.”

And this one, as they’re slowly (or quickly, as it turns out) realizing that their daughter has relapsed: “It takes only thirty seconds to realize that you will be canceling all your plans, erasing whatever you had been cocky enough to schedule on your calendar. It takes sixty seconds to understand that even if you’d been fooled into thinking so, you do not have an ordinary life.” Sixty seconds, and, whoosh, you do not have an ordinary life. No matter how badly you want it.

And in one of the many moments when their daughter is on the verge of death and the husband, like Mark has done with me, tries to gently but firmly prepare the wife for what he sees as inevitable. And she says, “She isn’t going to die,” and he says, “Yes, she is. She is dying,”  and the wife responds simply, “But I love her.” Like that’s enough. Like that one little reason, the thing that drives us all in almost every decision we make — how much we love our children — matters at all. It doesn’t matter, not a bit. It is completely irrelevant.

I read these books and I give myself over to them. I feel at once so relieved not to be those parents and so sorry that I am those parents. We are them, even when we don’t want to be. Different outcome (hopefully a better one), different parenting style (hopefully a better one), but we are all the same. We all just want to save our children. Because we love them.

I’ve been asked to chime in with my thoughts on the whole Tiger Mother thing. Of course, the entire thing has been commented on by thousands and thousands, but you know I have an opinion, so here goes.

First of all, we simply must accept the fact that everyone has the right to parent in their own way and what works for one set of parents may not work for another. Part of the problem is the need people feel to declare their style as “superior,” which just creates defensiveness and a desire to retaliate on the part of others. Amy Chua’s very title, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” set her up for the vast and deep anger that is being thrown her way. Had she called her essay “How Chinese Mothers Differ” or any other benign, nonjudgmental title, the fury that ensued would, well, would not have ensued with such a fury. Some people have even suggested that the title was chosen upon the advice of her publisher because a massive national controversy the day before a book is released does nothing if not drive up sales.

So, I’d like to propose a kinder, gentler way — that we allow others to parent in their own style, according to their own values and background, while we parent in our own way without casting judgment on one another (or one another’s offspring). That being said, I am now going to cast a little judgment on both styles of parenting, the Chinese and the Western (as defined by Chua).

Obviously, I believe in unfettered joy as a natural and vital part of childhood. A child’s ability to experiment freely with their vivid imagination, to use their inherent creativity to see and approach the world in unique and nontraditional ways, to define themselves based on the basest qualities (what they love, what they want) is, in a word, wonderful. As in full of wonder.  I don’t think we should do anything to squash that sense of freedom and expressiveness, that joyous ability to focus so thoroughly on whatever seems interesting in any given moment without care for whether it “matters.” Think of a three-year-old studying a caterpillar creeping across a leaf. Should that child be left alone lying on his belly in the dirt to study that leaf for as long as it takes to satisfy his curiosity even if we grown-ups consider it boring or a waste of time or should he be dragged inside to practice the piano (which, by the way, said child may think of as boring and a complete waste of time)?

I am all for exploration and experimentation and imagination run wild. That’s what being a kid is about. And when else in life do you get to “waste time” with such a sense of purpose? Don’t we all wish we could latch on to some silly notion or frivolous idea and immerse ourselves in it for hours or days or weeks on end?

I obviously lean more towards the Dolphin Mother end of the spectrum than the Tiger Mother (and don’t get me started on Mama Grizzlies!). But there are some aspects of Western parenting, particularly in the past decade or so, that I find worrisome. As Chua points out, there is a tendency among the current generation of Western parents to insert themselves into their children’s lives in order to prevent them from  experiencing failure. I think failure is great. Granted, it’s not fun. But it is enormously important. Am I saying that I plan to rejoice when my child comes home crushed by a bad grade or devastated after being cut from the team? No, of course not. I will hug them and suffer alongside them (perhaps even more than them) but I will also know that they are learning a valuable life lesson. We simply have to fail. Hopefully not all the time, mind you! But failure is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. And as parents we need to let our kids fail without blaming others (the coach who pushed too hard, the teacher who expected too much). I don’t believe that kids need to be coddled in that way. They need to own the failure in order for it to be useful.

But all this Tiger Mother business and the huge outcry against her (and the loud support in favor of her) is simply one more example of how lousy we’ve all gotten at disagreeing. You’d think that members of this society would be experts at disagreeing because we do it so darn much! But we’ve really gotten very bad at it. If I read Chua’s article and think to myself, “Wow, that seems harsh,” or even “Damn, I would never treat my kids in such a cruel way,” am I somehow then entitled to go and send her a death threat? A death threat! The woman has received hundreds of them each day. That’s silly, people. Just disagree and get over yourselves.

Parent your children in the very best way you know how. Do some research on key issues like feeding and sleeping, have some basic understanding of the stages of development and what to expect out of each. And then go from your heart. Listen to your children and listen to yourself and do what feels best. Are you gonna make some mistakes? Of course. Amy Chua did and her book addresses that. Those of us with  different styles and different (not lower) expectations of our children will make mistakes too. Our kids will most likely forgive us (as Amy Chua’s have), whether they end up as concert pianists or shop-owners.

I just hope mine end up happy.

No, I’m not talking about LeBron James (again). And I’m not talking about whether or not we should build our own treehouse. I’m talking about our big decision. The decision. And we’ve made it.

Mark and I both feel comfortable leaving Austin’s kidney in until we have a real reason to take it out. We will continue to do abdominal ultrasounds once a month to watch for potential growth. And if anything shows up, we will obviously remove that kidney without hesitation. But it simply does not seem right to us to do something that will cause such immediate and long-lasting harm if we don’t absolutely have to.

Without doubt, we’ve given this great and careful consideration. We have the backing of Austin’s doctors, who have promised that if they believed we were doing something dangerous or too risky, they would intervene.  We know that, in addition to the obvious risk of cancer returning, there is also the possibility that the kidney will simply fail on its own before April 2012 (when Austin will finally be eligible for transplant). And of course, if that happens, we will remove the kidney without hesitation and start dialysis. In fact, we expect that. We’d both be surprised (and thrilled) if his kidney lasted for the next twenty months.  And if it doesn’t, well, yeah, we’ll be devastated but at least we’ll know that we’re doing these awful things because we have to.

The research and facts had us split down the middle so we relied heavily on our gut instincts to help solidify this decision. One key moment was imagining myself during the actual kidney-removing surgery.  I have paced those hospital hallways many a time while my child was laying on a sterile operating table with strangers in face masks opening up his small body. Six-hour, eight-hour, even ten-hour separations while Mark and I were filled with fear and anxiety. But every single time, I knew it had to be done. Not one of those surgeries was an option. For some of them, I was even excited: Go on, get that obscenely enormous tumor out of him. Or Come on now, good or bad, find us some solid information so we know what to do next.

But this? For this, I imagine myself second-guessing, triple-guessing, our decision every step of the way. I imagine myself at that moment of no return, racing back down the hallway and bursting through the doors through which no parent is welcome and insisting they stop. Stop, stop, you can’t do this to my child!

That is no way to think.

And then I imagine being at home the night before, climbing into bed with my boys and telling Austin what was set to take place the following day. How on earth could we explain such a decision to our happy, healthy, normal child? A boy who, despite all the extraordinary things he’s been through, still has completely ordinary expectations: He will go to school and have playdates, he’ll swim and learn to ride a bike, his body will function like everyone else’s. How could we look into his big brown eyes, again bordered by long dark lashes, and say, “Well, honey, this just seems like the right time to remove a part of you that you absolutely require in order to live a good life?”

No, no, that’s just not right. We will do what we have to do when we have to do it. And not one moment sooner.

No results yet from today’s test but have a timely post to share nonetheless.

Parenting is full of big moments, both good and bad.  Significant decisions, momentous occasions, important milestones. But sometimes it is the little moments, those small joys of parenting, that mean the most.

Snuggling in a thunderstorm, like we did last night, is one of my great joys of motherhood. The young child is awakened by the boom of thunder, cries out in the darkness wondering what just happened, immediately calmed by your presence at the door. What starts out as scary morphs into a middle-of-the-night adventure with Austin snug between us watching for flashes of lightening out the window, a grand fireworks display in the night sky. As you start to doze off, another clap jolts you back awake, little fingers gripping yours, small heart beating in your ears. Finally the rumbling would get more distant and the pause between lightening strikes would grow, grow, grow until they were none. And that small body would nuzzle in so close, so tight, drifting back to sleep.

Nothing can get to us here. Cancer is but an idea. Kidney failure insignificant. We are together in that big bed and we are safe.

Now it’s my little one’s turn. Austin had his first solo day of preschool today and, let me tell you, it was not easy.  He’d already done two days but I was in the building for both, a fact he knew and clung to for comfort and security. Today was the day that I’d actually be leaving, my first of many hundreds of days ahead with both my boys in school.  I was excited, of course, for my 2 1/2 free hours, ready to have coffee with my mom and then take a pilates class. Austin? Not so excited.

As we walked from Braedan’s school to Austin’s, he complained the whole time, saying he didn’t want me to leave and threatening to not play with anyone (“not a single kid,” he said with defiance).  We arrived and he kept whining, “But Maaaaahhhhhhhmmmmmmeeeeeee.” We hung up his backpack, washed his hands and in we went. Find your name from the pile, greet your teacher, see who’s parent helping, check out the Lego table in the hopes it would be enticing . . . But instead he was in my arms with his shorter ones tightly wrapped around my neck and crying.

Ugh. The worst. I know we all do it. I know I had to do it with Braedan when he was starting preschool and Mommy was leaving him behind to go take care of his brand new baby brother.  I know if it were another new parent there, I would coach them through, telling them it will all be okay, this is just part of growing up. But somehow with Ausin, everything seems magnified. The very fact that we’re there, that he actually has the chance to attend preschool, seems like a huge deal. And, as I’ve said before, Austin is a wee bit attached to his momma.  Comforting him has been my main job and such a significant part of our relationship, beyond the normal mother-child bonds. My physical presence has been his source of strength for the past two-plus years.

But I had to go. So after I exited, the teacher brought him to the window and I placed my hand against his and said goodbye one last time, walking away while his cry filled the air behind me.

My mom had come to take me to coffee, a first day of school ritual. She had a gift for me, a little figurine of a woman holding a bird in her outstretched arms, letting it go.

Letting it go.

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