Wednesday 24 August 2011

I Need

To take another month off blogging. 

Lately things have felt a bit too busy and a bit too tough. Nothing awful is happening, I just feel like I'm still (still!) trying to catch up from the time we had in Australia in June. I want to write, but the house is cluttered (and I hate, hate clutter) I never have any idea what we're eating from one day to the next, I'm dragging my feet at work and all I want to do in my downtime is watch DVDs, read blogs and trawl ebay for fabulous handbags. 

You may think I'm joking about the handbags. Unfortunately, I'm not. One day I'll write more about my bag-shopping-stress-transference-thing, but not today. Let's just say it was a Mistake installing the ebay app on my phone. I hasten to add that I've been wasting time rather than money, but still. Still. I've been avoiding working on my book since we've been home, which is crazy, because I love working on my book. I told myself that the ebay searching was actually to help my book, because I thoughtlessly sold the only bag I had that was both big enough to take my laptop and beautiful enough to carry proudly and after all I cannot possibly write this book until I have the appropriate laptop bag to take to the library! And by appropriate laptop bag, of course, I do not mean a nylon zippy thing. Unfortunately. And of course a plastic carrier bag wouldn't work. Oh no. Because so many of the old men at the library really care what bag I have with me. And so do the people who frequent my upstairs hallway, which is where I actually do most of my typing, since I have small children and rarely get to leave the house on my own. Hmmmmm. I've been transferring my stress about all manner of things into this ridiculous quest and today I said ENOUGH!  No more. I marched into a department store and bought a perfectly nice, inexpensive bag that is more than adequate (and I could have bought it ooooh, about four weeks ago when I first saw it but I'm trying not to think about that). Then I swore to myself that I would not waste ANY more time bidding on vintage satchels. Honestly, woman. Get a grip. 

So that is ebay sorted. This week, I've also done a big clear-out in our bedroom, which makes things feel a bit more under control. We also did our first family trip to IKEA on Saturday (milestone!) and bought some decent toy storage for our downstairs. So I feel like the haze is lifting a bit and last night I actually gritted my teeth and re-read some draft  book chapters I wrote earlier in the year and they are not quite as bad as I remember. We're not talking taut, supple prose, people, but it's not quite as much of a seething morass of ME ME ME EXCLAMATION POINT ME ME ME ITALICS ME ME ME EMOTION as I feared, which frankly is a huge relief. 

Obviously, the sentences are all too long. And some of it I have no recollection of writing, at all, which is a little weird. But I think what I'm trying to say is that (now I have an appropriate laptop bag) I need to spend the next month having some quality time with Scrivener and some hot beverages and finding out if I can bully my lazy muse into coming out of hibernation. I'm ready to go again.  I also need to sort out our holiday photos (again, from JUNE!) so there may be a photo or two. But apart from that, I've promised myself not to post. If you see me here, slap my wrist. (Oh, and if anybody can tell me how to remove the ebay app from my phone, I would really appreciate it). 

Wish me luck, people. See you at the end of September.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Thirty Three Short Thoughts About Being Conspicuous

This is my contribution to the topic of CONSPICUOUS. Have you linked to yours yet? LINK! And okay, this one doesn't get a cup-of-tea warning, it gets an entire kettle-of-tea warning. This topic was more complicated than I expected. Sorry. 

I never used to be conspicuous
My appearance is almost aggressively average. White skin, mid-length brown hair, brown eyes, medium build. No piercings. When I'm on my own, people's eyes always slide right over me, and that's absolutely fine. That's the way I like it. And until I was thirty, I lived my life in a pleasant, safe bubble of anonymity. Being anonymous meant I could go back to the same shop twelve times in a week to stroke their handbags or try on clothes I couldn't afford or order complicated coffees and nobody would care because nobody would remember me. It was awesome. It was easy. And then we adopted Pink and Blue.

Suddenly I became very conspicuous
For realz. 

What I mean, of course, is that we all became conspicuous
But I can only talk with any authority about what it means for me. I have all kinds of theories about what it might mean for my children as they grow up, and of course this is issue that cramps up my heart the most. But this is pretty much all going to be about me because that's what I'm qualified to talk about. 

I probably don't need to say
That your mileage may vary. You don't live where I live (otherwise, I wouldn't be so conspicuous. Ha). You're not introverted me. You may not have two kids. You may have some white kids, too. Thousands of things will different about your life and mine. But this is the way it is for me.

It's not about them, it's about us
We do not live in Whitesville, and I'm really glad of it. In our town, we have a lot of Black British and African immigrant families. If my kids had black parents, people would still gasp at their beauty (she said modestly) but I don't think they would remember  them the way they do now. My children are not the only dark-skinned, curly-haired twins in town. But they are the only dark-skinned, curly-haired twins with a white mother and that means we get a lot of attention. This is especially true because we walk everywhere, so we are exposed. I rarely drive because our house is so central, so we don't have a car-bubble to keep the adoring public away.

The attention we face is because people wonder how we got together; they don't wonder why my dark-skinned children are here at all.  This distinction feels important to me. 

It's not all in my head
I'm definitely not imagining the attention. I know that people love to talk to women with children, and I can't calibrate my current experience against any other version of motherhood. But I go out with friends - white mothers with white babies - and strangers approach us and only talk to me and my kids, blanking everyone else in a way that defies all the normal rules of politeness. There's one coffee shop I go to regularly with my friend H and her little boy and the waitress always, always tells us how much she loves my twins and how BIG they are getting. I'm glad she loves them, and yes they are getting big, but little Oswald (not his real name! Fortunately!) is sitting right there and she just ignores him. Every time. It makes me squirm with embarrassment.   And that kind of differentiated attention is the rule, not the exception.

It seems to me that
Being conspicuous turns any town into a small town. I have never wanted to live in a small town.

Overall, I find it draining
For me, the hardest thing about being conspicuous is that I can't switch it off. There are no days off from being That Family. Every time I am out with my children, we are noticeable. Not just when I'm in a good mood and the sun is shining and they are happily waving Hurrow! and Buh-bye! to everyone they meet, but also when we're running late and one of them is screaming and I want to sink into a deep, dark hole and never resurface.  On those days, I do not want to have to interact with strangers who think that they know me because they have seen me around. Some days, being conspicuous is exhausting.

Sometimes when I'm out on my own without the children, I get an unexpected rush when the blood flows away from my muscles and I suddenly, unconsciously relax because I realise that nobody is looking at me.  Most of the time I don't think about being on show, but my subconscious is aware of it even when it's not really on my mind.

Yes, I realise
That my children are going to have the same experience. One day they are going to wake up and realise that they will have an easier day if they go out without their white parents.

Sometimes nice things happen
The only person we have ever had come up to us out of the blue and speak Amharic to the children was a white guy.  He politely greeted them in Amharic, told us that he used to live in Ethiopia , and then he was gone.   The whole interaction was very quick, and absolutely pitch-perfect on his part. Not a word about adoption or luck or famine or families or anything. It was one of my two favourite stranger experiences.

My other favourite was just as quick. I was pushing the too-heavy stroller up the small hill to the park in the middle of town, feeling cranky and tired and muddled and worn out. In the opposite direction came a black guy in about his mid-twenties, carrying a briefcase and wearing a pin-striped suit and looking sharp and professional and together and everything that  I wasn't.  Suddenly he flashed me a grin and said you have got two VERY good-looking children and before I could think I grinned back and said I know. And suddenly,  I did know. I knew it because he said it and it made my day. And he never would have said it if he hadn't noticed us, if we weren't so blindingly conspicuous.

And sometimes weird things happen
Like the time a very loud (probably deaf) woman approached me in the library and shouted SO! ARE YOU MARRIED TO A BLACK MAN? in the middle of all the quiet. She wasn't having a go at me, she was just curious, and maybe a tiny bit insane. So I shouted back NO! MY HUSBAND IS WHITE! And then felt compelled to add BUT IT WOULD TOTALLY BE FINE IF HE WAS NOT! and then yes, I pretty much wanted the ground to swallow me up. Good work, mama.

Yeah, or the woman who thought that the child in the ergo (I had one in the stroller, too) was actually a doll. A life-sized doll. That I was carrying in an ergo. She didn't want to accept that it was a real child. Extremely freaky.

Generally, though, I would say 99% of our interactions with strangers are netural-to-positive
I don't find it easy being the centre of attention but I need to make it clear that at least 99% of our interactions are positive. People smile when they see us. They say kind things to us. They regularly tell me how beautiful my children are. I was really prepared for some overt hostility, for the need to justify who we are, but it just hasn't come. I suspect this may largely be a function of where we live. I am beginning to realise that I can acknowledge being conspicuous is difficult without having to think that these interactions are sinister. It truly is exhausting to be the celebrities around town, but that doesn't mean the people who are noticing us are doing anything wrong.

Despite all the positivity, or perhaps because of it:
Sometimes, after the fiftieth white person has told me 'your kids are so beautiful!' I get a bit prickly and think 'I wish people would stop objectifying my children and treating them like exotic pets!' But then someone who shares their brown skin and spirally hair tells me exactly the same thing - 'your kids are so beautiful!' and I think 'what a nice lady!' Which is incredibly inconsistent of me. I've also realised that I cut black strangers a LOT of slack for saying crazy adoption-related stuff that would offend me hugely if it came from a white stranger. I assume the best. Which is good, but I need to extend that benefit of the doubt to the crazy white people too, surely? Why the distinction? Sometimes I suspect that I feel a need to be finding covert racism in every interaction – or at least a fair number of them – in order to be approve of myself as a good transracial mother. This is a terrible attitude and I need to sort myself out about it.

(On the other hand
I have come to realise that there is no relationship – none at all – between how much people adore my children's 'beautiful brown skin' and how willing they are to really grapple with issues of race in society. This shouldn't surprise me, but it does. Some of the people who are most enamoured of my children's beautiful skin – and they aren't faking it, I'm certain – are the least willing to examine what it will mean for these kids to go through life wearing it).

Hardly any strangers have tried to touch my children's hair.

Not surprisingly
We are much more conspicuous if our whole family goes out together. When only one parent is there, there are lots of reasons why one of us might have brown kids. When we are both there, people are much more confused. I'd say we get more attention, but fewer people approach us.

As I write this paragraph, I'm in a coffee shop on my own. Sitting in the bay window on a pair of coffee sacks are a mother and teenage daughter (I think) who are brown and white, like my daughter and me. I keep sneaking glances at them while they read their books, but I'm trying to stop myself because I don't want to become the story that they go home and tell, you know? The crazy racist staring lady. It makes me wonder how many people who look at me have a reason for doing it. Maybe they are looking into their own future like I am right now; maybe they are looking at their past.

My favourite part about being conspicuous
I love being acknowledged by older black women around town. I have lost count of the number of times an older woman, passing us, has given me the eye-contact-head-dip-slight-smile that feels like it's saying keep up the good work. The presence of these older women around me is my main motivator for paying attention to my children's hair.

The attention is definitely tapering
Lately I've noticed that people look at us a lot less than they did when the twins were tiny. There's some strange magnetic force that babies exert over people's attention that is dwindling a little as they become toddlers. People still tell us how utterly adorable they are, all the time. But when they were really little, people would actually stop and stare. Once I went through the train station with J, and he went on ahead to the platform while I stopped to buy tickets from the machine. This meant I was about 50 metres behind him, and as I walked towards him I heard the people he had passed all saying to each other 'did you see those twins?' I was half-horrified, half-proud. It was intense. Things are definitely less intense now. For which I am extremely grateful. I'm glad Pink and Blue won't remember being the object of that much attention.

But there's still quite a lot of it
Even though people are mostly well meaning and positive, we do get asked a lot of questions, and sometimes this wears me down. I get frustrated that I've gently educated on the same topic again and again and again and that makes me impatient with the next person who asks. But this new person hasn't actually asked me before, and there's very little transracial adoption in this country so it's likely we're the first transracial adoptive family they've met. And why should people know about adoption stuff, why should they be educated about a topic that they haven't had any prior exposure to? Nothing is really a dumb question if you're starting from zero. Even when the question itself isn't appropriate, I've been really impressed by how graciously individuals tend to back off when I've explained this. Being aggressive about it, or getting offended doesn't really do anybody any good. Not me, not the stranger, not my kids. Once upon a time, I didn't know those questions were intrusive, and people took the trouble to educate me. I'm sure I wasn't the first person they educated; I'm sure I wasn't the last. And now it's my turn.

After all, there is no such person as The Public. Telling one person doesn't make a blind bit of difference to the next. The public only find things out one person at a time. That's slow and frustrating for me, but that's just the way it works. Expecting the guy I meet today to know something because I talked to someone else about it yesterday? Unreasonable. I might have been educating people for two years, but this particular guy has been learning for about ten seconds.  

That doesn't mean that I don't think some people are crazy
They are; there's no getting around it. And conspicuous people attract a lot more crazy because we attract a lot more of everything. Working out who is okay-crazy and who is run-away-quickly crazy can be a finely balanced thing. There should be some kind of warning device you can buy, but there's not.

Probably a lot of this seems obvious
But if I've learned one thing out of my experience of being conspicuous, it's that people feel a compulsion to comment on the very, very obvious - telling my six foot four husband that he's tall, as if he hadn't noticed - and people forget that the most obvious thing about the person they are talking to, whatever it is that they noticed first about that person, is also the most obvious thing to everyone else that person has ever met. That person has undoubtedly talked ad nauseam about whatever that is and probably doesn't need someone else to say Sooooo..... you're very tall / I see that you're wearing a pirate hat / I can't help noticing that you have a birthmark on your arm in the exact shape of a llama.   Although if it is the one about the pirate hat, I suppose the person brought it upon themselves.

And it seems to me that people treat transracial adoption somewhere in between a pirate hat and a visible disability. Everyone notices it, most people want to talk about it, but people don't want to be the one to bring it up; they aren't quite sure if the topic is taboo.  I've had very few strangers launch straight in with the so... where are they from? that I hear other adopters complaining about. Maybe it's a British thing, maybe we're all repressed.  Here, in my experience, I have a lot of people asking me tangential questions that I think are aimed at leading me towards talking about adoption, towards sharing our story, but don't ask the question directly.

And of course I realise
That during all of these conversations, my children are sitting, watching, listening. That's what makes it so hard, of course. I tell myself that's why it makes me feel uncomfortable. It's not much fun thinking about how this kind of thing is going to affect our children, but I know that I have to be honest with myself and admit that when the weird things happen, not all my discomfort is because of the children. Its hard, but important, I think, to be excruciatingly honest here (as everywhere) and separate out what really is mama-bear defensiveness of my cubs, and what is pain that comes from my own past, my own stuff, my own junk. Being constantly reminded how different my family is has the tendency to stir up a mixture of feelings that isn't always easy. To be blunt - prospective adoptive parents -  I think that if you would not be comfortable walking around with a placard that says 'please make assumptions about my fertility', you will probably personally struggle with the conspicuousness that comes from being a transracial family, and it's tempting to project all of that onto your kids. Even if you feel like that page has been turned, and you aren't struggling with significant grief about fertility stuff any more, that doesn't mean it's easy to talk about. When you're mother to kids who don't 'match', all the painful things that you never wanted to talk about are suddenly on show to the entire world, all the time.

(Oh, and that reminds me:
Those of you who did NOT have any struggles with fertility need to think very hard about how you will respond when people assume that you did. Please do it graciously and I beg you, don't be smug about your awesome lady parts. For the rest of us. Okay?)

I think where I'm going with that earlier point is here:
Honestly - I think a lot of the ire that comes out when people complain about the crazy things that people say  to their families is really about us as parents, not our kids. If I feel insecure or have unresolved grief about not having biological kids, when people notice us and say crazy stuff to us it can sound like people are telling me that after everything we've been through, all the years of difficulty, I'm still not really a mother. And if that's what I'm hearing, then yeah, that's painful. For me. But it's not really about my kids, although making it sound like it's about my kids gives me a great excuse to get angry about it.  You know that old saw about how adoption does not cure infertility? True dat. And when adoption makes your infertility conspicuous, it can sort of do the reverse. It's personally humiliating for me when people I've never met before want to tell me how I'll get pregnant next time, or say other things that stir up difficult and painful parts of my own life when all I wanted to do was take my kids for a walk. I think it can make us angry when people notice us, not because it's necessarily doing any actual harm to our kids, but because it's hard for us to be reminded that we are different. It's all jumbled up together, of course, but I think this is a risk worth being aware of. If I'm going to teach my kids anything about how to be comfortable with conspicuousness, I need to be honest enough to work through my own feelings about how it affects me.

Because after all
Who should we really be angry at, if we are angry? Who put our kids in this situation? We did. Let me say it again: WE DID. We chose this life for them. They didn't choose it, of course, but neither did the people at the supermarket. We chose this life for them, and then people notice us. Why shouldn't they? After all:

People are not stupid. People know how babies are made.
People know how babies are made. And when they look at two white parents with a brown baby, of course they know we didn't make that baby. I think that as adopters it's very easy to normalise adoption, to forget that it's actually a very strange thing that we're doing. It is not the norm for a child to have skin that is a different colour from both his parents, and no amount of positive adoption language will make that fact disappear.  I don't think we do our kids any favours when we pretend that our unusual family structures is not unusual, or that people who notice it are necessarily ignorant or mean. Normal isn't the same as real. Seeing that we're not normal doesn't mean my family isn't real. And we are not normal. And I need to come to terms with that before I can help my children to do so.

(Unusual isn't the same as bad
Obviously. Normal would be nice, certainly, but I remain convinced that our family was the best of the available options for my kids).

But while I'm saying uncomfortable things, I might as well lob this one in:
I found that, especially when our children were newly home, I didn't want to go to very many mother-and-baby groups, or very much of anywhere. This was partly sleep deprivation and partly twin-shock, but it was at least slightly because it's exhausting meeting a group of strangers when you know everyone is going to be interested in your story. One of the ironies here is that the more uncomfortable you feel being conspicuous, the more likely you are to stay entrenched in a small circle of old friends who already know you and your kids and your story; where you won't have to explain yourself. If you're like me, this is probably a small circle of white friends.  In this way, being a transracial, conspicuous family can actually make it less likely that you will get out there and make diverse group of new friends after your child is home, no matter what you told the social worker during the homestudy. Another risk that I hadn't thought about. I would encourage my fellow white mamas to be aware of it.

Speaking of fellow white mamas
It has crossed my mind that one day, Blue might marry someone with skin like mine. If that happens, and they have kids, I will have a daughter-in-law who has to do her own coming to terms with changing from an anonymous white girl to a conspicuous mother of a brown baby. That is a weird thought. If that happens, I hope that many fewer heads will turn than is the case today.

But when all is said and done
I may not ever like being conspicuous but I've got to be at peace with it if I'm going to be any kind of a good mother to these kids.

And a thousand times over
I would rather be conspicuous with my children than anonymous without them.

Monday 15 August 2011

I Cried My Heart Out

Last week - well, actually last week stunk. It was one of those weeks where I kept checking their gums for new teeth because they were SO inexplicably cranky. There was a lot of biting - you know the kind of week I mean. And I was already in a pretty foul mood myself, thanks to girl-hormones. Toxic combination. And I had two days off work scheduled but J needed to do some emergency house repairs so instead of some time for trying to work on my stupid book I had two extra days of very intense mothering instead.

There was a high point, however. Through a complex mix of bribery and determination, I finally convinced Pink to sit still for long enough for me to do her hair in twists. I know that most of you are going to look at this and think "Woah! How am I going to say something tactful about that?" but getting these twists onto her head was a big deal in our house. I'm very proud of them. And nothing that anybody says will make me un-proud. Okay? OKAY? (Sorry. Still working on conquering that foul mood).

Here she is, seeing herself in the mirror for the first time and entranced by her own beauty:
(a note about the video - noo-noo is what she calls herself, I'm not just making up silly names for fun, okay? Although I guess that is a fun name). 

Anyway, it was a big deal and we were happy about it. In fact, I got so fired up and proud of myself that I decided: THIS is the moment. I am finally ready. We are going to cut Blue's hair. Pink, at long last, has hair like a proper little girl; it's time for him to look like a proper little boy. When they are together, I want it to be really obvious why only one of them is wearing a dress.

So we did it. Actually, J did it because for some unfathomable reason he has proper haircutting scissors (!!!!) and wanted to give it a try. So we sat Blue in his highchair and J carefully cut off his curls until he only had about a third of his original length. I was ready for it, I had decided to do it, he needed it done because it will make combing much easier, I knew it was the right thing.  But by the time J had finished, a different child sat in front of me and I found myself crying and crying. With that haircut, my baby is gone.

And it strikes me - I had an imaginary baby for much longer than I had a real baby. While we were waiting, I had this sort of pretend baby who lived in my head and never got older. I didn't ask for him/her (the gender was never clear) to come and stay; he/she took up residence of their own accord, uninvited. This pretend  baby (because clearly, I'm trying not to use the word fantasy) kept me company for years and years and years. I'm sure some of you are a little bit horrified by that, but I'm guessing I'm not the only one this happened to. (Yes, he/she sort of had a name. No, I'm not going to tell you what it was).  He/she never grew up, and they certainly never had a haircut.

But now my real babies are all gone. I mean, okay, they can't actually do anything remotely grown-up like actually talk, or eat with cutlery, or invest in the stock market.  But they are just so clearly little people now. And it happened so painfully quickly. The imaginary baby did not prepare me for that. This has got all kinds of implications - you know, all the usual adoption stuff about how we need to remember that we are parenting future adults not perpetual children.   But that's not really what I'm thinking about right now. I'm just wondering when I'll be able to bear to take out the camera and record his new short haircut. Until it's on film disk, I can sort of kid myself I imagined it. He's no less beautiful, but he's getting so big. And like pretty much every mother who ever lived? I. Am. Not. Ready.


Mr Linky is now up for the topic of Conspicuous. If you want to take part (please do!) please write something and link up by the 24th of August - next Wednesday. 

Monday 8 August 2011

Your Matt Damon Index

So, who likes Matt Damon? Not me, particularly, although my husband is a huge fan.  Having said that, I'm not really sure he knows who Matt Damon truly is - he always refers to him as JASON BOURNE! As in, We have to see that movie, Claudia, it's got JASON BOURNE in it! And I always say okay because it seems like a pretty easy way to keep my man happy. (Although I'm not thrilled about the fact that this means I'm probably going to have to go and see Happy Feet 2.  The things I do for love).

[and now that people have told me via the comments that he is an education activist my indifference has definitely turned to respect - hurrah! I'm now officially pro-JASON Matt. Thanks guys.]

We own this DVD set. Of course. 
J's obsession awareness is probably the reason that Matt Damon is they guy I think of when I think universal fame. He is the man who has penetrated even my husband's non-TV-watching non-newspaper-reading non-celebrity-culture-interested memory-of-a-goldfish existence and J is aware of him. He doesn't know him, but he feels like he knows him because he's JASON BOURNE Matt Damon and he's famous. 

He and I were talking about this (J and I were talking, not Matt Damon and I, just to be clear) and came up with a thing I call the Matt Damon Index.  Here's how the Matt Damon Index works: 

Take the number of people who recognise YOU and call it x.  
Take the number of people who YOU recognise and call it z.  

Your Matt Damon Index is x-y. 

Matt Damon's Matt Damon Index is approximately six billion.  That is, pretty much the whole planet recognises him. Even if he recognises a thousand people, six billion minus a thousand is still approximately six billion. At the other end of the scale, that creepy guy who always seems to know your name but you can't quite place? Matt Damon Index of around minus forty. 

Got it? 

My Matt Damon Index used to be about zero. I knew some people; some people knew me. I recognised as many people as there were people who recognised me. The numbers evened out. x minus y was zero. My fame was pretty much exactly neutral. Until we adopted twins transracially, that is. And started pushing them around town in a giant red double stroller. With cow print lining. 

Since this happened, my Matt Damon Index has gone through the roof. People stop me and talk to me and say 'hey, I've noticed you around town!' and I want to say 'well, I haven't noticed you!' but I don't. Suddenly, people that I don't recognise, recognise me.  Our town is pretty diverse - especially in the centre, which is where I live - so it's not the colour of my kids, but the twin factor plus the white-mama factor plus the giant red stroller with cow print lining factor plus the I-go-into-town-nearly-every-day factor and all these added up mean that we are conspicuous.  And dealing with all that is a constant challenge. 

I've been meaning to write about it for months and months - well over a year, actually - and I need some kind of kick up the backside to actually sit down and do it. And I'd really love to know what everyone else's experience has been of this issue. My thoughts about all of this have changed a lot since we came home with our kids and I feel very differently about it now from how I would have expected that I would, say, two years ago. I'm really interested to know what other people think. 

So..... is anybody interested in doing another blog linkup like we did on attachment back in February

I was thinking of going with the theme of CONSPICUOUS. 

Obviously what's making me think about this theme is my own experience of transracial parenting.  But you don't have to link about that  - what makes you conspicuous? What makes your family conspicuous? How do you deal with it? Did you choose to be conspicuous or are you dealing with the consequences of a decision that someone else made, or something that nobody chose at all? Are you inconspicuous, do you feel invisible? Do you wish that something about you was more conspicuous? If there's more than one type of conspicuousness that you're dealing with as a family, does how you deal with one thing affect how you deal with the other?  

Let me know if you're interested. If people are game, I'll do another link thing at the bottom of this post. 

References to Matt Damon are entirely optional.

Okay! Here's the link. You really do not have to leave me a comment after you've linked - the text comes straight from the template and I have no way of changing it. It's Mr Linky bossing you around, not me!

Thursday 4 August 2011

Toddlers and Verbs

***this one gets an official 'long, go and get yourself a cup of tea' warning***

I've read a lot of parenting books in the last few years. Maybe you haven't - I guess you don't need to, since your kids are always perfect and all - but I'm unable to take any kind of decision or come to any kind of opinion without donating a large chunk of change to Amazon.  (And now I have a kindle. I can order books on the bus. This might get messy).  So yeah, I've read a lot of parenting books. I considered photographing our parenting bookshelf to illustrate, but which one to choose? There are three. Anyway. Here's the thing about parenting books. After buying about fifty, I've finally realised - I hate them. 

I didn't always hate them, and I don't hate every one. I'm just in a very specific hating-the-books point in my life because the thing I'm perpetually looking up is Toddlers, specifically behaviour, the management of, specifically tantrums, how to deal with, specifically how to stop the neighbours calling social services. 

Turns out there is a lot of really unhelpful stuff out there. For books that espouse such different stuff, they all feel weirdly the same.  They all seem to merge into one - let's call it The WonderMethod - written by a man called Dr Wonderful. So here's what I hate about that. 

I  hate the self-congratulatory stories about other people's kids . These go like this: A woman, let's call her Mrs A, came to me and she said 'oh, Dr Wonderful, my child is totally out of control. I'm at my wits' end! Whatever can I do?'  I observed the A family for ten minutes in my office and dispensed sage advice. Later that day Mrs A called me back and said 'Dr Wonderful, our problems are solved and it's all because of you! You really ARE wonderful!'. That was eighteen years ago. Baby A is now at Harvard.  

I also hate the stories where they use stories about their own kids to prove what mad discipline skilz they have. These are the ones that go Mrs Wonderful, the Wonderkids and I were at the beach. Wonderboy wanted to take his baby sister, Wondergirl, swimming. Mrs Wonderful said no and Wonderboy got upset. Gently and calmly, I told him that he had two choices. He could play on the sand with his baby sister or he could go swimming with me. Immediately, he dried his tears and said "Gee, WonderDad! Those two choices are BOTH wonderful. I'll go swimming with you now, then play with Wondergirl later'.  That was eighteen years ago. Wonderboy is now at Harvard. 

But maybe the stories that annoy me most are the ones about other people, you know, the ones who don't use the WonderMethod. These stories generally imply that parenting in any other way is some kind of Faustian pact, a foolish sacrifice of your child's lifelong happiness and security (and, if it's a Christian book, their entire spiritual life too).  These stories go like this: Some friends of mine, let's call them Mr and Mrs B, had a baby. They claimed to love and care for their child, but their words were proved false when they chose not to use the WonderMethod. That was eighteen years ago. Baby B is now in jail. 

Of course, if you're a Christian and / or an adoptive parent, there are two extra layers of that the books throw at you - and the worst part is that these two layers of advice often seem perpendicular to each other. 

The adoption books: A family, let's call them Mr and Mrs C, adopted a child.  They didn't understand that their child never actually did anything wrong, she was just processing her grief. Once they began to validate her emotions and only ever do time-ins, she blossomed and her behaviour was never an issue, ever again. That was eighteen years ago. Little C is now so emotionally healthy that she leads the student counselling team. At Harvard. 

The Christian books: Once there was a family, the D family, who did time-ins with their child. That was eighteen years ago. Baby D is now an atheist. 

Very helpful*.  

Another bugbear: most of these people have clearly forgotten what it is like to actually have children in the house. Even better - many of them seem to be men who have the gall to write books about how to do day-to-day discipline when they clearly spent their children's entire childhoods out of the house and at the office. Even if the office was a child psychologist's office, how is this not like taking parenting advice from Don Draper? 
I think she should go on the naughty step
 Someone who was always off being Dr Wonderful and never at home might know all there is to know about the amygdala but is very unlikely to really get what it is like to scrape jam off the cat for the third time in one day. I suspect there might be some kind of equation linking how smug authors are about parenting to the number of hours they actually spent parenting per week and how many years ago it occurred. But that's just a theory. 

This is nearly the last, I promise - It also drives me crazy how these books assume that you only have one child to take care of. This is almost universal. Oh, yeah, and you certainly don't have to ever do the dishes or make dinner. The assumption is that you can always focus on whatever your child needs to help them be the emotionally healthy well behaved toddler that they really are on the inside. Sibling rivalry usually gets a short chapter towards the end and other than that it's assumed there is nothing - nothing - in your life that you might have to do other than plan and execute fun-filled activities to do with your munchkin. Which is fine, because that is totally my life. Yeah. 

Oh yeah! (This really is the last one, I promise) -  I also hate it when books give the impression that there is some magical way of disciplining children that they are actually going to enjoy. I'm particularly bitter about this one because I keep falling for it, even though I should know better. I keep kidding myself that if I just try hard enough, if I just read the right book, I will find a way to make my children like being disciplined. I want my story to go like this: A woman, let's call her Claudia, because it's me, parented her children with such love and grace that they never questioned her authority or threw pasta at her. If it ever happened that they were naughty made poor choices, they would come and ask that she guide them back onto the way of happiness. That was eighteen years ago. Pink and Blue are now at Harvard.  Whereas of course the child is not really supposed to like whatever the sanction is. Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that this is kind of the whole point. I don't think there's really any such thing as toddler parenting by mutual consent because toddlers have pretty much no idea from one minute to the next what they need or what is good for them. But sometimes I forget this and I want it to be easy. I want to find the magic button, even though I know full well there is no magic button. 

I know the mentally healthy thing to do is to ignore all of the advice. I shouldn't let it bother me. But I can't ignore the issue altogether either -  parenting is incredibly important, and it behooves us to take it seriously. We are our children's most important influences, we have no excuse for not doing our best. As my children get older and more wilful, this becomes increasingly clear to me. So my new philosophy is this: I am trying to focus on doing this well rather than find the one way of doing it right. Isn't that a great philosophy? You can borrow it if you like. You're welcome. But take it from me- it is of absolutely zero practical use. 

This conviction to do it well, don't worry about doing it right doesn't help me when I'm facing off two screaming toddlers and trying to decide what to actually do with them. Let's say one of them has just hit the other one. Okay, so I'm not going to spank (and I'm not philosophically anti-spanking, by the way - there's a huge difference between spanking calmly (!) and hitting in anger and if you've only ever seen hitting then of course I understand why you would be totally anti-spanking but you might find yourself surprised by some of the evidence in the chapter on spanking in the ever-thought-provoking-book Nurtureshock, which surely you've already read because of the awesome chapter about why white parents don't talk to their children about race? Yes? But anyway spanking is a moot point in our house because UK adoption regulations determine that all adoptive parents need to agree to a no-smacking policy so we never had to make a decision about this. Okay, where was I?) Right. One of them has hit the other. I'm not going to spank. Most of the adoption books rain down dire warnings about the evils of time-out.  So what am I supposed to actually do, I mean actually physically do with the hitter at this point? 

It's really hard getting straight answers from people on this one. Even the books - the ones that don't fall into the you must use the WonderMethod or your children are forever doooooomed - are short on actual, well, verbs. You know - 'doing words', like send to their room or carry them to time out or talk to them or sit with them. There are an awful lot of adverbs about how to discipline- words like gently and calmly and consistently and lovingly and don't get me wrong they are fan-spanking-tabulous adverbs, every one, but I never know what verb the author is imagining these lovely adverbs are modifying. I've been reading a lot about writing recently and one of the pieces of advice I keep on reading is to ditch the adverbs because your verbs should be specific enough to not need them. And these books (and bloggers, and people, when I talk to them) seem reluctant to commit to specific verbs. If we shave out our discipline adverbs when we talk about how we parent (especially in adoptive parenting) we seem to be left with very little. Really, the adverbs are philosophy, not practicalities. It's great that an author is counselling me to be gentle and consistent but gentle and consistent in doing WHAT? 

So okay then, I'll be specific. We have been doing a whole lot of emotional validation and 'time-ins'. I love the idea of a time-in. The child knows they are being sanctioned, but they also that Mummy loves them and isn't going anywhere. Awesome! It sounds like a great big circle of win-win-winningness. Okay. So, I love the idea of a time-in, but have you ever tried to actually do one? I can see how they might work for older kids - maybe - but it's just a disaster with my toddlers. I try to hold their hand and do all the talking about how I understand how frustrating it is that they can't do whatever it is that they want to - validating their emotions, etc etc, but honestly? I just turn into a wall of words. I lecture. I don't intend to do it but before I know it I'm talking, talking, talking, telling Pink or Blue or whoever just how important it is that they obey Mummy, that they don't hit don't whine don't pull hair don't bite don't stand on your brother's head I know how frustrated you are but mummy needs you to LISTEN  and I'm telling them a whole lot of stuff that is both true and important but I know all that they are hearing is BLAH BLAH BLAH and honestly? That's not doing either of us any good. They get bored and I get frustrated and it doesn't take long for the circle of win to turn vicious. Also, while I'm quietly showering child #1 with focused time-in goodness, let's be honest: child #2 is either gawping and making faces (if we've stayed in the same room) or taking the opportunity to attack the cat (if we haven't). See above about how the books assume you've only got one kid to take care of.  Maybe there are families for whom time-ins are constructive and helpful but for us they are ten different flavours of wrong. Time-ins do nothing to change their behaviour and they also do nothing to help our relationship. It makes me feel angry, much angrier than it should and then sometimes I yell. (Oh right, this is why nobody wants to talk specifics). So. I don't think this is  popular position for adopters, but I am officially done with time-ins. 

We tried doing the choices thing too, really we did. Here's how that story goes: Blue was thrashing and flailing on the floor. I offered him two fun, constructive re-direction choices. Blue continued to have a tantrum. That was two minutes ago. Blue is now in time out. 

So yes! Time outs are now The Thing in our house. We're sort of 1-2-3 magick-ing the twins now - the general idea is three counts and then once they reach three they are silently and unemotionally taken to a time-out space. (I was inspired to read this book by Marcia and she has lots more about this on her blog). The book does have a few of the features I mocked earlier in this post but the general method is a winner for me because it stops me spewing forth words upon words. We modify it because I'm big into them saying 'sorry' and me saying 'I forgive you' after being disciplined, whatever form the discipline takes. (Once it's over, I want it to be over. I don't want them wondering whether I'm still mad). We've only been doing this for about two weeks but so far it's been much, much better. Who would have thunk it? Me, a time-out parent. As a Christian, it seems too wooly and thoughtless and only focused on externals. As an adopter, it seems to harsh. Maybe ignoring both of my instincts that means everything is okay. Yeah, that's a good parenting philosophy. 

Every stage of parenting I hit seems to knock me much harder than I expected it to. I really thought that I knew what I wanted to do about sleep. And I didn't. And then about eating. And I didn't. (I haven't blogged about it much, but basically my children only eat grated cheese). Now discipline is joining the list. What's going to be next, I wonder? I can't even begin to imagine. 

*And of course, adoption and theology both have a huge impact on how I think about parenting my child. As adopted kids, I know my children have a whole lot of stuff to deal with that most kids can't even imagine. But sometimes they are also really, really naughty. Adoption is a layer in my children's behaviour, but it's not the only layer. Adopted kids are naughty too. Adopted children have grief and attachment considerations to take into account and this makes my job as a parent more complex but not totally different from if they had been born to me.  Sometimes when we theorise and categorise and psychologise about adoption in general and our children in particular I think it's easy to forget that children are not rational creatures. Sometimes they act out because of grief. But sometimes (often!) they act out because they are in a bad mood and determined to make everyone in the house suffer, just like every other kid on this planet.  And as for theology - hmmmm., actually, maybe that belongs in a different post.