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Monday, October 21, 2013

A Smile In Our Hearts

Some mornings our family runs like a well-oiled machine. Not many mornings, but some. And on those mornings I feel as though I'm singing an opera with the angels and we're all incredibly, beautifully in tune. 

This morning happened to be one of those mornings. I've realized there are two keys to having a peaceful morning: one thing is that all the boys have to be in a semi-decent mood, which is something I cannot control. The second thing is that I have to be able, and willing, to help the boys with things that easily frustrate them. Things like getting dressed, putting socks on, putting shoes on, finding something for breakfast, brushing teeth, putting everything for school into their backpacks. If there is any disorganization, any frustration, anything that overwhelms any of the boys, all bets are off and the morning takes a turn for the worse. But today, all my children woke up rested and ready for Monday. Aidan didn't refuse to get dressed like he normally does, or stall with indecision about what to have for breakfast because his meds make him not hungry and nothing sounds good. Ben didn't refuse to get out of bed or complain of not feeling well, like he does most mornings because he doesn't want to face school. He only took 20 minutes in the bathroom, getting dressed and carefully spraying each armpit with an entire bottle's worth of deodorant, instead of his typical 45 minutes of prep time. When I went into Jonah's darkened room to rouse him this morning, I softly sang "Good morning Jonah" like I always do. As I opened his curtains, he THREW back the covers and said "HA!" as he revealed that he was FULLY DRESSED!!! Miracles do happen, people. We didn't have to fight about putting his clothes on this one morning. What a gift.

When Alex was done taking his shower and getting ready for work, he came down and was on dog/kid duty while I took a shower. Alex took Aidan to the bus stop, which went well (!) and then went to work when I came downstairs after getting ready. Well-oiled machine, people. Ben and Jonah went to school fine too, which is another miracle. I didn't hear a single complaint about the day. Incredible. I even got a half cup of coffee this morning before Ella and I had to rush out the door to her preschool field trip! 

This morning, all my children's moods were calm and relatively happy. I was available to them for whatever they needed. I went back upstairs for Ben's socks, because that totally stresses him out- having to go to up to his room for a forgotten something. The boys have always been that way about going upstairs once they are downstairs. I was there when Jonah needed help tying his shoes. I was able to help all the boys get all their items into their backpacks for school. I helped them find their coats (except Jonah who had left his at school on Friday, and today after school when he still had not located the coat he said he thinks he lost it, actually. Gr.) and hats. I basically ran interference all morning. Which is typical, but the kids were calm AND I was calm, which is sometimes not that typical. 

Alex and I both struggle when it comes to things like how much to help the boys get ready for the day. They are chronologically old enough to get ready for school independently. But emotionally and mentally, they just aren't there many days. We have realized that if we help put socks on a boy who is already frustrated, we can avoid an hour-long meltdown. If we find and hold a coat open for a boy's waiting arms, we can avoid the frustration of our son being overwhelmed at the mere idea of tackling the coat on his own and having a meltdown. 

We chuckle at the irony of how our 4 year old is in many ways much more independent than any of her brothers. And she is starting to realize that she is different than them, in ways I didn't think she would notice until she was much older. The other day one of the boys was having a meltdown. In exasperation, I said to Alex (I didn't realize Ella was listening) "Why do they all have so many problems all the time?" Ella piped up "We don't ALL have problems! Just the boys. Just Ben, Jonah, and Aidan. I don't have so many problems. You don't have so many problems. Daddy doesn't have so many problems. Just the boys." Huh. Ya got that right, sista. 

My daughter is incredibly perceptive and intuitive and wise. When she sees me stressed out, she rubs my arm or gives me a hug and says "I'm sorry you're having a tough time, Mommy." She is so empathetic and compassionate. My boys have all these qualities too, but there is an ease with which Ella experiences these characteristics. I don't see her struggling with life the way all her brothers have to. Life comes gracefully to Ella.

Another great thing about Ella is that although she sees differences in how her brothers struggle and react to life, she doesn't see these differences as negative. It is hard for all of us to be in the presence of a boy who is raging or freaking out with anxiety. But Ella loves her brothers with her entire soul. She is kind and sensitive towards them. She rubs their backs, if they let her, when they are sad or angry. She 'gets' them in a way I have never had to teach her, it just comes naturally to her. I see myself in her in so many ways. I know she loves her big brothers with the kind of solid, warm, unshakeable love that I also feel for them. I love that about Ella.

I have started to teach Ella how to handle the stress of a brother's extreme meltdown- by going to a different room with the brothers who are not having a problem, or going to her bedroom to read a book so she doesn't have to listen to all the yelling and crying. I have also seen how important it is to look her calmly in the eye when the world is crumbling around her, tell her that no one is mad at her, reassure her Mommy is fine and her brother is just very upset right now, and that she can go to a different room so she doesn't have to be a first-hand witness to chaos. Often the brothers who are not involved in the big problem take Ella with them and go play somewhere else in the house. That is something I never taught them to do, they just instinctively know to take their sister and head out of town. I realized I have to help Ella understand how to protect herself from the extreme-ness of our family, because she is so sensitive and feels so much. Sometimes it is very difficult to juggle the needs of all of my children at one time. Sometimes I feel schizophrenically discombobulated because while I'm firmly talking above a boy's tantrum to help lead him to peace, I have to make sure the dog isn't using my carpet as his toilet because he's freaked out, and calmly remind Ella she is safe and loved (she can sense if I'm truly not calm and then that freaks her out even more), and get the unaffected kids out of the room, all the while making sure the kid who is having the problem is safe and attempt to de-escalate him. I wish I was an octopus. I need more hands. 

Ella is a gift to all of us because she reminds us of what is possible: pride in being independent. She reminds us how to be compassionate and love unconditionally. She lets me see what it is like for a child to develop a bit more typically. She gives me hope that one day all my children will not struggle with the little things in life like they do. Because when you struggle so much with the little things, like brushing your teeth, imagine what a struggle the big things are, like going to school. 

This morning I think Ben, Jonah, Alex and I were still coasting on the 'high' of yesterday. Yesterday we bought the DragonSpeak program for our computer. We have had the app on our iPad, but it never worked well. So we gave in and shelled out the big bucks to get the real thing. It. Is. A. Miracle. It's a program that has the human wear headphones with a microphone, and the program types what the person says. For children with a disability like dysgraphia, which affects writing in a major way, this is an absolute miracle. For the first time EVER EVER EVER, Ben and Jonah both completed book reports yesterday ALL BY THEMSELVES. First time ever. Did I mention EVER?? You have no idea what a true miracle, what a gift, what a respite this was for me. I feel shackled to our homework table every single day. Not only do I have to sit there with each boy as they complete each assignment because of ADHD distraction issues and anxiety issues, I also have to write down most assignments for them because of their writing disabilities. It's frustrating but I do it because it's the only way I can get my boys to re-route past their frustration and anxiety and actually complete their homework. So having Jonah and Ben both complete a major writing assignment all by themselves was simply amazing. 

Once in awhile we uncover a shining, perfect gem of a treasure, and yesterday that happened. This morning we were a well-oiled machine, Mommy and Daddy tag-teaming it so that six people and one dog's needs were met and no one had a meltdown. I wish this happened more often, where we begin the day without meltdowns, because it sends all six of us off into the day with a smile in our hearts. It's a lovely way to begin the dawn of a new day.

I never count on two mornings of bliss in a row, but instead when reality comes back to smack me in the face, I will remember with gratitude the morning that was perfection. I will rejoice in the little victories. I will cherish Jonah's startling "HA!" as he wiggled with pride from under his blankets this morning, fully dressed down to the socks! 

Here's to the well-oiled machine making a comeback tomorrow morning. Here's to all six of us heading into another day with a smile in our hearts.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Warrior Mother vs. Anxiety

I'm supposed to be in the car right now, with a dear friend who I love to pieces and have so much fun with, headed off for a relaxing girl's weekend. The first one I've ever had the opportunity to consider going on, by the way. Instead, I'm home. I had to cancel the weekend. I had everything all lined up for the kids. Grandparents were willing to step in today and handle all the commitments the kids have. More grandparents were willing to be Distractors tomorrow and take the kids and Daddy to a fun children's museum. I had medicine all lined up for the boys for the weekend. Laundry done (Not put away, but at least clean and dumped in everyone's room! That's something!). My suitcase is packed. I even woke up early to shower and DO MY HAIR this morning!

But then my Real Life hit me over the head. As usual, whenever I make plans for myself. I knew one of my sons would have a tough time with me being gone for two days and nights. I thought I could talk him through his anxiety, assure him Daddy knows how to take good care of him, and calm his worries so that he could continue functioning normally while I was gone.


Anxiety started to rear its horrible, terrifying, ugly head last night. My son called me while I was getting a haircut, locked in his room, in tears. He didn't want me to go away this weekend. With wet, sticky hair dye all over my scalp and bleeding onto my phone, I spent a half hour talking my son "off the ledge" as we call it. I was able to calm him down to the point that he agreed to get off the phone and let me finish my haircut, and we agreed we'd talk about it when I got home. 

When I got home, everyone was in Chaos Mode because of my one boy's Anxiety. No one was where they were supposed to be in terms of our nighttime schedule. One boy was playing computer games- a sure fire way to make certain he activates all his ADHD brain cells and stays up way past his bedtime. Two other boys were in one of their rooms, in bed, trying to not be anxious about me leaving for the weekend. My little girl was sweetly agreeable about letting me get her ready for bed, but didn't have her pj's on yet. The night was in disarray because of one of our boy's Anxiety and the symptoms of complete chaos it brought to our home. When Anxiety hits, it takes center stage and everything else is put on pause. No schedule is followed, nothing is done, until Anxiety is put to rest. Poor Daddy. It's hard to deal with Anxiety, plus four kids and one dog, all by yourself.

I quickly assessed the situation and started doing triage. I took the easiest things first. I got Ella to bed. Then I went to work on the beast of Anxiety, and the poor boy who is suffering from it the most. We talked. And talked. And talked.  And my boy wept. We talked about my boy's worst fears, what is behind the Anxiety of being away from me. Because it's not just this weekend, this trip, that brings Anxiety to the forefront-- it's absolutely everything my boy has to do. It's going to school. It's going to our church's youth group. It's going to a movie. It's doing a karate class or horse riding lessons. It's having a babysitter. It's having a sleepover. It's. Absolutely. Everything. And it's worst and most intensely horrible when it involves Mommy being Gone. Gone for a date with Daddy. Gone for a weekend trip. Gone to the grocery store. Gone because my boy is at school. Mommy Gone is Mommy Gone, it doesn't matter where. 

Anxiety is crippling my boy. It is suffocating him. He is on the maximum dose of anti-anxiety medication he can take. He gets weekly counseling. He gets social work at school. He is loved and cherished and valued and listened to at home. He is supported in everything he does. And yet my boy's spirit is being crushed with overwhelming Anxiety. I don't know where it comes from. He has always had it, I know that. Anxiety has appeared in different forms for my boy at different ages. When he was a baby, I would have to hold his hand while I drove. Imagine me driving with one hand, while stretching my arm behind me to the backseat, spreading my fingers as far apart as they would go so that each of my tiny twins could hold a finger from their carseats so they would be able to deal with the intense sensory input and Anxiety of riding in a car. We chuckle about it now, but at the time it was the only way I could effectively transport my twins in the car and not have them scream their heads off the entire ride. 

As a toddler, my boy would cringe with physical pain if a stranger talked sweetly to him because he was so adorable. I would stand between my twins in the grocery cart and the grocery bagger, so that I was a physical barrier between the stranger and my boys so they would feel my love blocking any Anxiety they had from the stranger saying "hi" to them. My boy was terrified, to the point of blood curdling screams, of puppets. Forget Sesame Street or Baby Einstein movies. Any games or toys that had moving parts caused a complete meltdown from fear. Elephants were especially troubling. Remember Elephun? Where the butterflies fly softly out of the elephant's trunk? My twins worked in OT on being able to stay in the same room as Elephun for MONTHS. We're not even talking about playing the game. Just tolerating SEEING the game from across the room took them months. 

If I left the boys home with Daddy, he would have to lock the door so they didn't run after me. They would stand at the glass and press their small, tear-stained cheeks to the window and cry with sorrow I have never heard before. 

My one son would have pee accidents in first grade because he subconsciously knew I would bring clean clothes to school for him and "save" him. Some would say he was manipulating me. I know my children with all of my being, and I know when they are manipulating me versus struggling with something beyond their control. Once the accidents began to happen on a regular basis, and I realized it was Anxiety causing them, I made a plan with the school nurse and teacher, and we were able to nip the problem in the bud. But it took time, and getting wise to the Anxiety. In third grade, my boy would wake up at 3am most school days, in full rage mode, because of Anxiety about school. He would insist on being completely ready for the bus, including coat and backpack on, two hours before the bus arrived at our driveway. All the while, raging with Anxiety. This year, in 6th grade, we are fighting tooth and nail against Anxiety, and I don't think we are winning. 

My boy is so consumed with constant Anxiety that normal life is just not possible. Many days he goes to the school nurse, who is an absolute saint, with Anxiety symptoms. Because my boy has panic attacks and a heart defect, when he says he feels pressure on his chest, understandably no teacher wants to risk my boy's health. I know the school nurse was put in our lives for a reason. She is a calm spirit, nurturing and understanding. She reassures my crying boy he is not dying. His color is good. He is not ill. She assures him his chest hurts from Anxiety, not his heart exploding. She lets him call me and talk to me until he feels he can go back to class, or until we decide it's just not possible for him to function normally and I pick him up from school. Anxiety is breaking both him and me. I detest it more than anything in the world right now. 

When well-meaning people in my life hear that I am canceling a wonderful opportunity for rest and rejuvenation, like this weekend was meant to be, they scoff. They snicker at what they think is my gullible response to my children's whining. They offer advice. They tell me not to let my kid determine whether I get a break or not. They say not to let my kid manipulate me. 

They don't understand. Anxiety is our Disease. Anxiety is our cancer. It is eating us, our power, our happiness. Anxiety is as much a real disease as a physical illness. Anxiety is mental illness. It is an illness. It is debilitating. It is suffocating. 

When my twins were born 11 weeks early, they had to stay in the NICU for two months. I was there with them all day, every single day. Every day for two months. Because that is the kind of mom I was born to be. Being that kind of mom is not right for everyone, and I don't judge anyone for what kind of parent they are. But for me, this is who I am. My babies came into the world and changed my life. Forever after August 11, 2002, I will be there for them. I am committed to them. I am solely, whole-ly theirs. Not to the detriment of myself, just to the benefit of them. I know I need to take care of myself and nurture my body and soul so I can continue to be Mommy. But when the NICU nurses would tell me I should take a weekend "off" or just not come in one day, I realized that goes against every fiber of my being. I am not capable of turning away from my children, for the sake of a break, even for one day. I have friends who go on vacations without their children all the time and everyone is fine and healthy and happy. I love those friends for being able to do that. That's just not my life. That's not the kind of children I was given. My kids are not ok if I take a day "off". 

If my child had cancer and was in the throes of being violently ill, I wouldn't go away for the weekend. This morning when we all got up to begin the day, and I spoke to my son, I realized his Anxiety, his illness, was here in full force and he would not be able to function if I left for the weekend. My son is violently ill. Violently mentally ill. I know others don't understand because it seems like typical separation anxiety, and it seems like I'm giving in to it, letting my son throw a tantrum and then giving him his way. It's not like that, and I know that unless you're experiencing Anxiety, you will not understand. So all I ask is that you empathize and not judge. When I see my boy writhing and crying with the pain of Anxiety, I cannot leave him. It may make me seem weak. It may make me seem crazy. It may seem like I let my kids rule my life. But since August 11, 2002, I have known my kids would need a special kind of parenting. And I'm so up for the challenge. It may seem like I'm weak and a pushover, but I know that the truth is I am strong. I am a Warrior Mother. I am standing with my boy, fighting his Anxiety, fighting his illness. When my boy asks for help, I am not willing to say "Too bad. I need a break. I can't stay home this weekend." If I wasn't so "ok" right now, I may have needed to say that. If I was on the edge of insanity, as has happened in the past at times, I may have needed to say "I just can't help you. I just can't stay. I have to get away from the intensity of your illness." But I am ok. I am strong. I am a Warrior Mother. I am in a very good, solid place myself right now, so I am ok to say to my boy "I hear you. I see your struggle. I will face your Anxiety with you. You are not alone. I will give you what you need in order to function." 

It was all I could do to get my boy out the door to the bus this morning. I worked my Mommy Magic, though, and we did it together. He works so hard to stifle his Anxiety. He works so so hard to live life. He wants to be home schooled so he never has to leave me. He is afraid that if I am not with him, I will die. His Anxiety eats at him like a cancer, so that he can't function at school. He feels distracted and sad. He is afraid of failing classes and getting into trouble because of his Anxiety. This morning I told him "Here's the deal. I don't care if you fail everything you touch today. I don't care. What I care about is that your body goes to school. I need your body to show up for your day. I don't care if your brain isn't along for the ride today. Your body has to be there, going through the motions, so that you get counted as being 'present' at school today and you don't have to repeat 6th grade because you've missed so many school days. I don't care if you fail everything today, because I know that if your body is there, you are trying as hard as you possibly can. And all that matters is that you try." 

As that sunk in, my boy turned a corner. He agreed to make his body show up for his day. If his brain decides not to show up for school, we don't care. At least his body is there. I told him I would be here if he needed to call me today for reassurance that he is not dying, he is just having a panic attack, that Mommy is still here for him and he can go back to class. I said I want him to try not to go to the nurse. Just try to keep his body in class. He asked if I could pick him up after school. The thought of taking the bus home was just too much for him. I said yes, I can do that. If that's what it takes to get my boy's body to function and show up for his day, that's the least I can do.

This life is complicated. It's not as simple as 'I shouldn't let my kids dictate my decisions for my life'. When my child is a preemie, fighting for life every minute, I show up at the NICU all day every day. When my child is an 11 year old, fighting against Anxiety every minute, I show up all day every day. I make sure to take care of myself every chance I get, but as of August 11, 2002, I became a Warrior Mother and no matter how harshly I am judged for my decisions, or who thinks negatively of me for how much I give of myself to my children, it's just who I am. I will fight every minute against Anxiety, against the illness all three of my boys struggle with, every minute along side them. 

Before August 11, 2002, I had no idea I had a Warrior Mother spirit sleeping inside of me. It was lying dormant, in a cocoon, waiting for the right time to stand up and fill me with strength, hope, perseverance, joy, eternal love for my children. I had no idea what kind of mother my children would need me to be, would lead me to be. I am grateful for my Warrior Mother spirit that gets me up every morning, ready to face and fight any challenge or illness that rears its stubborn head in our home. Ready to wrestle ugly Anxiety to the ground so that my boy can have a peaceful soul.

So I'm not in the car, with my awesome friend, driving away from my struggles for a temporary respite. I am here, waiting for a phone call from the school nurse. Waiting for the next time Warrior Mother is needed to slay a dragon for my boy. And I'm ok with that. Because it's just who I am and I can't change that. So I embrace it. Bring it on, Anxiety. You have no idea who you are dealing with. We will slay you yet.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Window Sill

The window sill above the kitchen sink is a place of honor in our family.

The items on the sill change from time to time, but it is always a place filled with trinkets my children have given me. Right now I have a collection of friendship pins they made- tiny beads on safety pins. I have two pots, beautiful in their imperfections, that Ben and Jonah made in art last year. The pots are filled with acorns we have collected while walking Ollie. I have a card from my dad that says "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. When life hands you a load of crap, don't make anything. Trust me on this one." (I love that card. Every time I look at it I bust into a grin. It's so good to have people who love you and 'get' you and encourage you. And send you cards that make you giggle inside.) I have a lego creation that we'll call "abstract" that Aidan gave me. I have an acorn art project that Ella made at a library class last week hanging from the window latch. And I have a sun catcher that the kids made with me on our last visit to Door County. 
Part of me is LONGING for a home filled with rooms like you see in the Pottery Barn catalog- classy, put together, an oasis, a retreat. I realize I would have to win the lottery big time to afford the actual Pottery Barn paraphenilia, but I just wish for simplicity and peace, not necessarily the actual products from PB. 

Sometimes I wish my cupboards were shiny and stark in their simplicity, instead of covered with my children's sweet art work and school lunch menus. I wish I could see the surface of my fridge instead of having it covered with magnets from the dentist, animals for Ella to line up when she's waiting for dinner, and middle school schedules. I wish my dining room table was used for entertaining instead of homework, with its stacks of textbooks and pencils strewn across it. I wish my banisters were used for nothing- instead of being coat and backpack holders.

Then I remember how I feel these sweet years of having small children are sifting through my fingers like beach sand. The day will come when my kids are no longer making art work they want to display on the cupboards, or bringing home spelling tests they are proud to put on the fridge, or math tests that have a smiley face on them to stick on the pantry door to remind them how awesome they did. 

So I will keep peeling the tape off my kitchen surfaces. I will keep lifting the charming, kid-given clutter on my kitchen window sill when I dust. Because when I look out my kitchen window while I do dishes, I'm reminded of each of my little ones. When I get milk out of the fridge I smile at the picture of Ben and Jonah on their last day of preschool at our old house. 

Our house may not be a Pottery Barn house, but it is filled with love and memories. It may be cluttered most of the time, but every piece of paper that decorates my kitchen reminds me how far we have come in the last 11 years. Even if the spelling test that is taped in a place of honor to the cupboard earned a grade of D, we are proud. Proud of the kids' accomplishments, proud of how hard they work, proud they're doing their best, proud of who they each are.

I have it all planned out. When all my children are out of the house (I know, like that'll ever happen.), I will redo everything and make it a Pottery Barn house on a Target budget. When I walk into a room I will breathe in the peace and tranquility. Everything will have a place, everything will look like it goes together, everything will be calm.

 Then I will have my grandkids over and make them paint me pictures to hang all over my cupboards because I know I'm going to miss this time more than anything ever.