Mommy Groups: The Power and the Glory

The "Pregnant Woman" statue at Irela...

I gave Jeanine Cummins a blurb for her new novel, The Crooked Branch, which just released. It is an excellent, entertaining book, funny and dark in parts (with lots about the Irish potato famine) which everybody should immediately buy and read. You should also pick up THE OUTSIDE BOY (which I just recommended to my daughter), a coming-of-age story about an Irish traveller, and marvel at Cummins’ writing. Anyway, the contemporary main character is a new mother struggling with the  who tries to fit in with some mommy groups, which reminded me of my own experience.

Mommy groups are apparently a universally traumatizing experience among mothers. Everybody has a war story about a mommy group, just like everybody has a war story about poop and vomit.

When Eldest was a toddler, I tried out some Mommy groups. They had age ranges for the groups; she was on the older side. They met at playgrounds and Sea World and the point was for the moms to talk and the babies to play.

Two things happened at the groups: the mothers ignored me, and my kid tried to play with the other kids, but they didn’t play back. The mothers mostly spoke of Their Own Greatness or the Majesty of Their Husbands’ Paychecks, or how they were 100% verified geniuses because they bought a house before the market hit that crazy bubble and, like, THEY TOTALLY KNEW the houses were going to go up.

I tried to stick it out. To get out of the house. But I always ended up depressed and even more lonely than when I first started. Once, we went to a Cry Baby matinee, where you can see a movie for cheap and not worry if the baby cries. I met the mothers at the front and then bought my ticket at the booth. They went in without me.

There was no group for slightly older kids, so I started one. I went to one more playgroup event at the old group, and a mother literally confronted me. “You think your baby’s smarter than mine? Is that it?” she demanded. Such a nice human being.

I’m not sure what it is about Mommy Groups that makes insecure, threatened women even more outwardly uptight and defective. It’s like they suspected I was plotting to steal their husbands or my kid was going to get all the glory (no, and yes, ha ha).

Anyway, that Mommy Group I started went well. In particular, my neighbor Michelle joined and soon another woman, Rebecca, did too. Rebecca and Michelle run their own real estate business now.

After I had Little Girl, I decided to give Mommy Groups one more try through Meetup.

This time, it went well. I found the only group in the United States full of honest-to-goodness, no-bullshit women. I think sometimes dramatic, insecure women join, but they either quit because they can’t take the honesty; or they relax because they know they don’t need to pretend to be the fucking Queen Bee all day and night. And if there is the occasional sneaker who’s still like that, she’s tolerated. And if somebody is really just being unpleasant all the time, they are asked to leave.

In our group, the women talk about the nitty-gritty difficulty of life with young kids. They talk about work and home, how they miss one or the other or how they balance both. They talk about how they’d like to take a vacation but they can’t afford it; but if somebody actually gets to take a vacation people are genuinely happy for them.

In our group, we have married women, divorced women, working women, stay-at-home-moms, work-at-home moms, and combinations of all of the above. There is probably a woman who can give advice about nearly any situation you can think of beyond motherhood. Illness, special education, in-laws, mortgages, jobs, healthcare. Everything and anything.

If somebody has a Martha Stewart-like penchant for Pinterest and crafts, it’s common for women to openly or secretly despise her. But here we do not disparage her talent– we stand back and say, “Go on with your bad self, and make me one of those homemade cheeses while you’re at it.” If somebody loses weight or runs a marathon, I’ve never heard anybody whisper, “That bitch! I hate her!” In other words, I haven’t been witness to the ugly competitive I’ve seen in other groups.

In this group, women seem to understand that another woman’s accomplishment does not diminish you in any way.

For my last two book launches, my Mommy Group friends made up a large contingent of supporters. Nobody’s jealous that I got published. They’re happy. They get the book for their friends and relatives. I never feel like somebody’s waiting to shank me, the way I do with other groups.

So I’m still in this group, though my youngest’s seven. I go to the book club and Mom’s Night Out and bunco and to see movies like Magic Mike. This week, there was Death By Chocolate, which is exactly as awesome as it sounds.

It’s as if we’ve signed a secret pledge, acknowledging the truth that everyone has a unique struggle,  and that we will treat each person with compassion. Which, for some reason, is a quality that’s often buried in others.

Or you can distill it even further: if you’re in a Mom’s group or starting a Mom’s group, begin with the same rule preschoolers must abide by: BE NICE. End of story.

^Note: the picture above was suggested by WordPress, and I thought it was a really haunting, beautiful photo, so I put it in.

Girl Kitty

A few months ago, we began to experience a rat problem. They lived in the bush behind our house, the morning glory that wraps the fence. Morning glory is the devil’s plant– it’s related to poison oak, so it can give you a rash; and if you leave torn shoots on the ground, it will re-root. This plant is literally tearing down the fence and harbors all sorts of creatures. Since Kitty disappeared, the rat population went out of control. Rats came into the garage and pooped ignominiously on Cadillac’s tools (there’s not even any food on the tools!) and tennis rackets. We feared disease and rats setting up winter shelter in our garage, or worse, our car. We set traps with peanut butter and caught up to 5 rats per night for weeks. While I watched television or sat at my computer in the evening, I could hear them chirruping and skittering around outside. I heard thumps on our patio roof and turned on the light to see rats in the trees. When we went out to the garage to go to the car or do laundry, the rats would be outside on the fence near the garage door, boldly staring at us.

I saw an ad offering feral barn cats that needed relocation– a new home with food and shelter. They could not be kept indoors. I thought the barn cats might be a good solution to the rats, and perhaps the cat would let us pet it one day. A volunteer brought over two he’d trapped in central San Diego. The volunteers had taken them to the vet, updated their shots, and had them fixed. “We picked BBs out of these guys,” he said. “It’s not safe for them where they lived.” One was a seal point neutered Siamese, and the other a gray Siamese mix female. “The female will never let you pet her,” he said. “The male might.” The male had already been fixed when they found it, indicating he’d once been someone’s pet. The volunteer thought the male would do better because it was darker, and said the coyotes might get the female because the light color makes her easier to spot.

We kept them closed up for a while so they’d know this was home. I did not see them for about three weeks. We opened the garage again. Another week passed and we didn’t see them. We thought they’d run off for good. We kept setting out food and finally saw the male once. The litter box went unused– except by the rats, who pooped in that, too, as though they were mocking our efforts.

But one day, the rat traps went unsprung.

Then, one night, we saw Girl Kitty eating her food in the garage. I had Son feed her wet food every evening as I made dinner. Soon, around five, she’d hang out in the backyard, waiting. I meowed at her. She ran away.

I did this every evening– meowed. She sat and watched me. Then she began to meow back, rusty deep meows that made her sound like an old smoker. When a kid appeared, she’d run off. I don’t know where she stays.

Then, she began waiting at the kitchen door at the appointed mealtime. One day, I took a spoonful of wet food, squatted, and meowed. “Mrrooow,” she responded, and came forward. She let me pet her as she licked the food off. She felt thin, her fur coarse.

One afternoon, Eldest went out to the garage and shrieked. A lame rat lay in the doorway, its back legs broken and useless. Girl Kitty had brought us a gift. Too bad she hadn’t finished the job. She probably thought we wanted the pleasure.

Slowly, she began letting us pet her every night. My kids took turns feeding her. She allows Little Girl, to her delight, to stroke her head. Girl Kitty purrs. Her fur is thick and soft now, her purr sounding like an engine with oil added. She will eat right in front of us. Yesterday she came to the glass door and meowed right at us, indignant at having to wait. Tonight, she returned a few hours later, coming out when Eldest went to the garage, to get more petting from everyone.

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Gil Webber Killed Santa Claus

Little Girl has been asking for a Gil Webber doll. Again. I can’t believe I’m posting about Gil Webber twice on one blog.

To recap, we looked for one around Easter, and despite the best efforts of me, three Target stores, Toys R Us and the Mattel helpline, not a one could be found.

These days, old Gil is selling for over $200 on Amazon resale and over $150 on eBay. Crikey, as his girlfriend Lagoona would say.

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There was a huge Monster High booth at Comic-Con with its designer, Garrett Sander, signing their Comic-Con exclusive doll– doll boxes, I should say. I thought of how I could befriend him in case he has a case of Monster High dolls he didn’t want anymore, (including a spare Gil Webber floating around in his trunk) as if he’d be totally excited to meet a women’s fiction author. Unfortunately, that doesn’t carry much street cred at Comic-Con, though it does get me a professional pass. I really need to write a book about zombies, or better yet, the next big monster.

Anyway, LG proclaimed, “Santa will bring me a Gil Webber doll.” I told her he cost too much– she’d been looking on line with her older sister. “It’s Santa. His elves will make it,” she said.

That Santa can do anything.

This inspired a lot of discussion in my mom’s group.A friend said her son asked for an expensive video game system. No dice, she said. “I’m sure you’re just telling me that so I’ll be extra surprised on Christmas,” he said.Burn, Mama!

Another friend’s 4 year old asked for Cinderella and her flying horse and carriage. Not the toy, the real thing, which she wants to keep in her yard so she can look at them. Because Santa can do anything.

A mom suggested we say Santa’s got a dollar limit, so you can’t ask for stuff above that limit– but that brings up another question– what about when the neighbor kid has a different limit? What do you say then?

Now, we do things like buy toys for needy children, but I guess she hasn’t put it together yet about why Santa brings some kids more than others.

Or perhaps she’s at the stage where she WANTS to believe, because if Santa really is real, then he will be able to produce Gil Webber, won’t he?

This whole Imaginary Seasonal Heroes thing is tricky. We have the Tooth Fairy, and the kids get $1. It’s usually a gold dollar. But some friends get $5 or $20 from the Tooth Fairy, and those kids talk about it at school, and then the kids who got $1 wonder, “Why doesn’t the Tooth Fairy like me as much?” It’s kind of terrible, the Tooth Fairy showing favoritism, as if your parents got your sister a pony and gave you a bunny costume.

And then some other yahoos do the Halloween Fairy, where the Halloween Fairy leaves cash in exchange for candy, so the parent can get rid of it. Why doesn’t the Halloween Fairy visit our house? I think the explanation for that was something like, “Well, we did see the fairy but Daddy thought it was an evil imp, so he shot it with your BB gun, and now it won’t come back.” *
Quit messing things up for the rest of humanity with your new Imaginary Seasonal Heroes!

Anyway, I know there’s a large possibility that she won’t notice the missing Gil Webber. But she hasn’t asked for expensive toys (well, Gil’s only supposed to be $15) and it’s the only thing on her list besides another Monster High doll (Operetta, I think). The gift we got her wasn’t on the list, in fact.

I don’t know why this is bothering me so much. Maybe because she’s had to face some hard truths over the past year. Her dear aunt died just before Christmas last year. Around that very same time, we had to give away our beloved puppy because of LG’s severe allergies. The kitty disappeared forever (I just hid his Christmas stocking from the kids). Great-grandpa just passed away this week at age 99– ripe old age, to be sure, and the older kids understood and were stoic; but Little Girl burst into hard tears. She had played plastic animals with him, he in his wheelchair, she standing, a table in between.

I don’t want to kill off another childhood-magical notion.

*We gave our candy to the troops this year (to which I thought, hmm, are we imposing tooth decay and obesity on our armed forces? but decided that their 2 hours of exercise each day will take care of the extra calories. They can brush their teeth.)

The Writer and the Whale: An Overactive Imagination

After Cadillac and I got back from our trip, I regaled the kids with tall tales about Cadillac. My kids’ motto, like the X-Files, is, “I WANT to Believe.” They love hearing stories and sometimes believe them, even if they are far-fetched. And they often add onto them, spinning them into Paul Bunyan-Babe the Blue Ox-esque levels of exaggeration. I told them that Daddy drove the car at 110 mph through San Francisco, sending it airborne but landing safely. Daddy ate all the dumplings in Chinatown and then he was still hungry, so he ate all the chickens hanging in the windows. They still talk about how Daddy fought the zombies in NYC (largely thanks to their Monster atlas, which had a world map of monster origin locales, and seemed to stick Zombies squarely in the NYC area for some reason).

With this photo, I told them that it was in Daddy’s way, so he picked it up and threw it into the bay. Little Girl in particular seemed to really really want to think this was true, but of course she knew it wasn’t. “Were the people in San Francisco mad when he threw the anchor in?” she asked.

 

It made me think about my imagination when I was little.

Like a lot of kids, I had a crazy imagination, but mine was overpowering at times. I had trouble with Halloween, because everything seemed so real to me– kids in masks and makeup made me cry. Forget about the Haunted House– in 1st grade I fell down in the mild one at school, in the strobe light room, and just lay there until the vampire girl helped me up; and I remember feeling shocked, just shocked, that she was in costume and wasn’t going to hurt me. In the ’70s there were for some reason a bunch of movies about demonic possession and the devil in your house (along the lines of the Omen, but these were on television during the 70s so I don’t know what they were) and my family for some reason let me watch these movies with them, and I literally had nightmares for a decade about Satan coming to steal my soul and demons lurking in the house, with their red eyes peeking through the windows.

And I believed what people told me to imagine– around Christmas one year, I remember standing in the kitchen talking to my dad about what I wanted for Christmas one year when I was small, and he said, “Oh no, Santa’s going to bring you a lump of coal!” and I said, “No, he’s not,” but my father persisted, saying, “Yes he is, that’s all you’re going to get,” until I believed him for real and erupted into tears, prompting my mom to step in and put a stop to it like my dad was an older brother or something.

When I was maybe three, my parents took us to Disneyland, and we went over to the Storybook Land ride. To get in, you have to ride a raft through Monstro’s mouth. I’d found Pinocchio to be absolutely terrifying so of course I was wary of the whale.

“It’s not real,” my parents assured me.

But then I saw Monstro’s eye roll.

“No!!!” I screamed. I was certain that my parents and brother were suckers. Why didn’t they see that they were being tricked?

My dad stayed back with me while my mom and brother went on the ride. “It’s fine,” my mother said. “We’ll show you.” They waved merrily at me. I sobbed, sure that they would both be eaten. Disneyland was a horrifying place and Monstro was clever in his tricks.

The Disney employee and my dad said, “It’s fine, it’s not real,” and I just thought, “You fools, why do I see what you cannot?” I stood there crying on the docks until my mom and brother arrived, and I thought, “Well, he didn’t get you THIS TIME, but if *I* go I’m toast!”

And then I stood on the dock and quoted Descartes.

Whatever I have accepted until now as most true has come to me through my senses. But occasionally I have found that they have deceived me, and it is unwise to trust completely those who have deceived us even once

Well, I would have if I’d known about it.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwzuYma5ovQ]

And of course, since I’m a writer, having an overactive imagination is now really considered a Good Thing. I imagine scenarios and stories for passing strangers, endless What-Ifs, conversations that don’t take place. Once I narrated them aloud to Cadillac and his response was first to laugh at what I came up with and then said, “All that is going on in your head? No wonder you have trouble sleeping!” And my response was, “What? You DON’T?” But, this imagination thing has been true for nearly every writer I’ve met. We’ve got a crazy monkey in our heads, running wild. I guess the trick is taming the monkey, teaching it how to perform tricks instead of doing what it wants.

And as a parent, I think practicing tall tales are going to turn all the kids into Mark Twain, making my writing dynasty complete.

Homework Woes

Crying

Crying (Photo credit: Onion)

I’d like to begin this post by saying I don’t think my kids have too much homework.

I am trying to figure out a way to get my 7-year-old to do her homework without dissolving into a whiny puddle of tears. She has about 3 pages of homework a night; one math (two sided) and one reading comprehension (one sided); plus, she’s to read to herself. It doesn’t seem like an excessive amount. It should probably take a half hour at most for the written stuff, plus 20 minutes or so of reading.

Homework is supposed to supplement what the kid learned that day, but I wonder if my youngest daydreams during every math lesson. Yesterday, the homework had problem one done– I think they did it in class. She didn’t do it right, though. I had her read the problem aloud, and it was like she was reading gibberish to herself. She had absolutely no clue what to do. It was not dissimilar to dozens and dozens of problems she’d done in first grade.

One problem went something like this:

There are 14 mice outside the cave. 7 decided to go back inside. How many are still outside? Write a number sentence and draw a picture to show what happened.

She acted like I’d asked her to build a rocket to the moon. “I can’t do it!” she wailed.

Now, neither of my girls enjoy math very much. My eldest was rocking math until about 3rd grade, when they began having timed tests and she began freaking out. In that class, all the girls simultaneously had trouble with the timed tests; the boys loved them. The teacher worked with the girls to overcome this odd confidence problem. In middle school, she hated math. Her now-late aunt, who was a teacher and then a tutor, helped her quite a bit, and she ended up getting As. Now she’s in geometry, and after a hiccup the first day, says it’s not that hard. “I can do it. I just don’t like to do it,” she says. Too many steps.

I don’t recall my son ever having much of a math problem. He had problems in messiness, in shoving papers in his folder, in composing stories and essays that were two sentences long when they should be at least two paragraphs. His breaking point always came when I forced him to re-write things, because I couldn’t read them. And though I made him do that, his handwriting is still kind of terrible, unless he is writing something important, like a letter to Santa Claus, or a list of the world’s deadliest sharks.

I’m not naturally good at math myself. I barely pulled a C- in geometry, even though I went to tutoring all the time with the teacher; he ended up passing me out of pity. In retrospect, I think that might be have been largely a teacher issue, because he really could not teach me how to understand it with my artsy brain.  In college, my biotechnology professor told me if I ever had trouble in a science class, to tell my science professors, “Hey, I’m right-brained. Can you explain it differently?” to force them to change their teaching method.  Which I did, with some success. (He also told me I was smart enough to go to medical school if I wanted, and that being right-brained would in fact be a unique asset that would help me approach problems differently than everyone else. The comment served to increase my confidence exponentially, since I’d always thought of myself as “bad” at math/science). If a kid’s not getting it one way, then perhaps a different approach is needed.

Sometimes, people who are really great at math cannot understand why everyone doesn’t understand it. For example, my husband invariably begins every math-help session with my eldest with, “Okay, this is easy.” Which always puts her on the defensive. “It’s not easy for me!” And it’s not.

And then, there’s “new math.” Occasionally, a kid brings home a strange new way of problem-solving everyone is supposed to use; and the kid just doesn’t understand that way, but understands the “old way.”

And sometimes, the math worksheets (from a book provided by the district, not the teacher) are poorly written, even in the young grades, leading parents to all take to Facebook and say to each other, “Anybody know what this means?” That happened last year, during first grade math.

Anyway, we’ve tried various things with Little Girl. Doing the math right after snack, shortly after we get home. Doing the math after dinner. Me helping her, Cadillac helping her. Going to bed really early in case fatigue was the culprit.

She pretty much breaks down no matter what. I don’t think it’s beyond her. I think she just doesn’t want to do it. I’m curious to know about her classwork– if she’s doing it on her own, I wonder if she has any idea of what she’s doing, or if she just stabs randomly with her pencil at the answers? If she has no idea how to do it, and the teacher asks if anyone needs help, does she keep her mouth shut?

Last night, we made her go to bed at 7:25. Her usual bedtime is 8. She always takes a long time to go to sleep. If she’d actually sleep at 7:30, she’d get about 11 hours (WebMD says her age group needs 10-11 hours). I think last night she ended up falling asleep around 8:30, and she seemed much more chipper this morning. We’ll see how she is with her homework today.

I’m hoping this homework situation will get better with time. I know I’m not the only one with a recalcitrant homework-doer.

There are some bright spots. This year is the first year she has gotten up without complaining, done what she was supposed to do, and gotten all her stuff ready for school without stopping to play or having to be reminded to put her socks and shoes on, or brush her teeth. When she and her siblings get home from school, they unpack their lunchboxes, put the ice packs in the freezer, and put away their stuff without being told. Her older brother and sister do their homework now without reminders, managing their time appropriately. (So far this year, anyway, knock on wood).

Does anyone have any suggestions for homework help?

The First Day of School is the Best Day of School

My kids watch a show called Fred. The guy who plays Fred (who got his show by posting skits on YouTube, so good for him) speaks in a Chipmunk-esque voice that’s so annoying, I refused to watch it for years. But then I accidentally watched some and it was pretty funny.

He sings a song about camp which is technically entitled, “The Last Day of School is the Best Day of School,” but I switched it to “The First Day of School is the Best Day of School,” and annoyed all of them by singing that for the past week. Go ahead. Try it. It’s catchy! I think my mom’s group should do a cover.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAYgCn5aGtU]

TwainFest and The Right to Vote

So often, “Free” family festivals are anything but. You have to pay for the games, the rides, the everything, and suddenly the “free” festival saps all your funds.

But the TwainFest in Old Town yesterday was truly free and also a lot of fun. In fact, it was so fun, the impossible happened– my 13-year-old ADMITTED she had a good time!
How about that.

Cadillac dropped us off to find parking, which is kind of hard to find in Old Town, so the girls and I went to look at the donkeys (free) who were by the (free) stable museum and the (free) blacksmith demo.

We saw huge puppets. Little Girl asked if Twain was Poe’s wife, probably because he was dressed in white and had tulle for hair, like a veil.

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They had booths set up for word games. At one, you made up your own word; I was to make up a word for “how you feel when you’re trying to stay awake during a lecture.” I wrote, “slugstudious.” You could also add onto stories (the bit where everyone writes a few lines) in three different styles (adventure, gothic horror, and I forgot the other one). They had a puppet theater, “fishing” for words, a spelling bee, and more I can’t remember. There was a liar’s contest, music, monologues, and stories (it’s sponsored in part by Write Out Loud, the Playwrights Project, Lamb’s Players Theatre, and Cygnet Theatre). Pretty much every museum and store had something going on. All free.

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The wooden box, above, is the question answerer. You write a question and stick it in the slot, and it begins rumbling and shaking back and forth, and spits out a preprinted card. Little Girl was AMAZED.

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Each booth gave you a ticket, and when you got 5, you could go get a free book. We chose these two:

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We also took a literacy test to see if we could qualify to vote. I guess it’s based on a real test from the era. Little Girl and I painstakingly took the test. (Yeah, we got the last answer wrong. Now that I am looking at it again. Actually no matter what, she found something wrong with everyone’s test.)

 

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Then, in the most important lesson of the day, the woman stamped it.

DENIED.

(The actress really was in character here).

Why?

Women didn’t have the right to vote back then.

I explained this to Little Girl and she said, “WHAT? I don’t understand. What do you mean, women couldn’t vote? WHAT DO YOU MEAN?”

Now I remember when I learned this factoid, and it did not seem shocking at all to me the way it does to her. She can’t conceive of such a thing. What a visceral history lesson, for her to go through that test and get that big fat DENIED stamp. I don’t think she’ll forget.

Oh, and we also went to the Candy Store (an old-timey candy place). I think we spent about $5 on candy, and that was all the festival cost, plus the gas to get there.

School Phone Calls

It has begun. The thing I dread even more than back-to-school sales and making the kids get up early.

The phone calls.

Does your school do this? It didn’t happen in

English: This is an example of the angst cause...

English: This is an example of the angst caused by the use of a telephone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hawaii at all. We get at least one phone call per week, per school. Probably more like 2. These are recorded messages from the principal, nurse, and other personnel like that.

They don’t just call you if there’s a huge emergency that everyone needs to know about, like lice or vomiting (which really only makes me super paranoid, because most of the time it happens in another class, and really, you can’t do anything about it after the kids are exposed, can you?). They call you to tell you stuff you really ought to know, like, “School starts tomorrow! Don’t forget to come back!”  And many times they call about stuff they send fliers home about,  like yogurt sales after school. Do you have to kill a tree if you’re going to call/email me? Won’t the call/email suffice?

The other thing is you don’t just get a call, like a single call. I get a call, my husband gets a call, and we both get emails. We’ll be sitting there watching TV at seven at night and suddenly, all the phones will ring all across the neighborhood. Dogs erupt into barking. Babies wail. That kind of thing.

I imagine, then, there is no excuse for not knowing what’s going on, ever. Except sometimes, they neglect to tell us some of the free stuff. For example, the middle school had a free camp, and I did not hear about it whatsoever (note, email, phone call) until I read about it in the newspaper a few weeks after it happened. Come on! That’s the kind of stuff I want to know! The humanity!

I’m dreading the day when I’ll have one kid in each school and we will get three phone calls a week, probably more like nine. And I don’t even count the emails.

It’s gotten to the point where I see the number and hang up to read the email later. It’s like crying wolf; I’m getting jaded to the urgency of knowing what’s going on. I’m worried one day, there will be some kind of major thing I should listen to, and because of all the other calls about yogurt sales, I won’t.

In His Own Time– On the Spectrum of Normal

It started in preschool, during the language assessments. They asked me to discuss Son’s results.  There was a concern, they said.

“When we showed him this picture,” the assessor said, showing me a picture of a father, “he said ‘Dad.’ But when we showed him the picture of Mom, he would only say…’Honey.'”

I relaxed. “That’s what my husband calls me,” I explained.

The assessor wasn’t convinced. “He should still say Mom,” she said.

I shrugged. I didn’t know what to tell her. My son was stubborn. The speech assessor suggested we go to the pediatrician for further evaluation.

Ever since early childhood, various teachers from preschool to kindergarten, on the lookout for autism or ADD, have expressed concern about my son. He got frustrated and cried easily. He didn’t make eye contact when talking(many speculations about this: autistic? lacks confidence? because it’s somehow inherited through being Japanese? [is that even possible?]). He needed speech therapy. His motor skills, fine and gross, weren’t so good. He puts objects into his mouth. He doesn’t like to get his hands dirty (neither do I). He puts his hands over his ears during music class (well, have you heard music class for 4-5 year olds?)He doesn’t appear to be listening, ever. He is obsessed with trains.

Outings always had to be shorter than they were with Eldest, because Son couldn’t tolerate crowds. He liked to be at home. Any variation from routine threw him off enormously. Once, when he was four, we cleaned up the living room, which was a mess of railroad tracks and his sisters’ toys. He threw a HUGE tantrum, weeping inconsolably, saying, “I liked it before!” Things that were minor annoyances to other kids turned into what seemed like a life-and-death situation for him.

Okay, when I list all these things, I can see why they were concerned.

He was evaluated at school and the pediatrician and at Children’s Hospital. The speech therapist at Children’s, when he was four, really did expect something to show up on the tests, she said. But he was normal. “There’s something different,” she told me. “Keep an eye on it.”

When he was young, he often had a runny nose. I took him to the pediatrician. “Allergies,” he decreed. I took him to the allergist. Nope, no big allergies- a minor one to mold. She referred him to the ears-nose-throat doc, who diagnosed him with enlarged adenoids and tonsils in the hallway of his office, before we even sat down. Those came out, and his speech improved.

When he started kindergarten, he had trouble sitting still, even though he’d been to pre-K and developmental kindergarten . “He cries when I tell him to work,” his teacher said. “What should I do?”

“Tell him if he doesn’t work, he has to go to the office,” I said.

He started doing his work.

Cadillac and I tried to improve his motor skills.  Building with Legos. Picking up beads with tweezers. It was very difficult; he stopped trying after about thirty seconds.

We tried to get him involved in sports to give him better large motor skills. At T-Ball, he had to be told where to stand to bat. Every single time. At practice and at the games. He would face toward the backstop. He stopped trying to catch the ball after it hit him. In mini-golf, he held the club upside down and insisted on doing so after correction. If Cadillac tried to get him to catch a Nerf ball, he would simply turn away. When trying to dribble a basketball, he would sort of slap at the ball. It wouldn’t bounce. He would give up.

Yet, we noticed some other positive things that dispelled our worries somewhat.

During class or at home, he would appear not to be listening. But when the teacher asked him what they were discussing, he was able to answer the questions.

At home, let’s say we were watching a shark documentary. He’d be off in the corner, doing his own thing, yet would be able to recite facts from the documentary and relate those facts to other ocean-facts. So he didn’t just repeat– he could analyze.

One Christmas a few years ago, Santa (grandma) brought him a huge jar of Nutella in his stocking. He ran to the kitchen, got the Sharpie, and carefully and neatly lettered his name on it.

So he could write neatly– if it mattered to him.

He has always been very loving and engaged with his family and friends. He notices distress and rudeness. In other words, he has always picked up on social cues.

Last week, I took him back to Children’s for a speech assessment. Sometimes when he talks, he draws out a sentence by repeating a syllable. For example, “The roses–es–es are red.”

His teacher last year mentioned it and said he did it a lot during reading-aloud. Sometimes, I’ve observed him talking to people, and they look away or start talking over him. Sometimes he doesn’t even finish his sentence. It hurts my heart. We didn’t know if it was like a stutter, which you are not supposed to point out; or a habit, or how to address it.

He went through an hour-long battery of verbal tests. The therapist heard it, too, but we both noticed he has an exceptional vocabulary, can imitate modulations, and easily made up complex sentences about the pictures she showed.

“Usually,” the therapist said, “a stammer will come at the beginning of a sentence. His is at the end. It’s not the same. The question is, is it a habit, or not? If it’s not a habit, drawing attention to it could worsen it. But if it is a habit, it can be modified.”

“Maybe it’s like saying ‘um’,” I said.

“I think so,” she said.

He didn’t know he was doing it. I asked her if recording him reading aloud would work, so he could catch it. She said yes. We devised some exercises to try, with a contingency plan if those didn’t work.

Immediately, he became aware of the habit. Even now, a few days later, he is doing it less. I really think it is like “um.” At Toastmaster’s, where you practice public speaking, every time you say “um,” or “uh” or whatever, you have to pay a fine. Thus you break your habit.

After the therapist session, I thought back to all the times when he seemed to not be on the normal spectrum of development, and how much he’s progressed. Early on, I continually questioned my parenting. Am I doing the right things to help him? Is there more we could be doing? Things have improved tremendously as he’s gotten older. He has friends. He can dribble a basketball. He can swim. He can ride a bike. He loves to fish. He loves target practice with his BB gun and is super-vigilant about safety guidelines. He loves school. He loves playing board games. He puts together large Lego models and robot kits on his own. He loves reading. He’s still way more bookish than physical, but that’s fine. All we ask is he keep his body healthy and active. He still doesn’t like crowds (really, who does?) He has no memory of his train obsession or his frustrations.

And, most important, he is extremely kind and helpful– if a kid drops a container of pencils, he is the one there helping to pick them up. He offers people refreshments when they come over. He is generous. I have to tell you this story from some years earlier. I don’t know if I told it before. There was this kid at school who wasn’t very popular. Kids said he smelled bad, like he didn’t bathe. His parental figure was known as a kook. He got suspended for fights sometimes. Not a terribly happy kiddo.

Anyway, we were at the grocery store and my son sees this kid. This kid has his head down, way down into his jacket like he’s just praying he’ll disappear. But Son walks up to him, grasps his hand, claps him on the shoulder, and says, “Hey, Old Buddy, how ya doin’?”

And this kid got the biggest, glowing grin. He didn’t say a word back to Son, but clapped him on the shoulder too.

The kid walked off with his parents. “How do you know him?” I asked. The kid was older.

Son shrugged. “From school,” he said.

It sure seems like in today’s society, no leeway is allowed for late bloomers. Was he someplace on the autism spectrum? Did he just mature out of all these red flags? Or did the fact we kept badgering him to fall in line with how we wanted him to behave simply mean that he did so, eventually? I don’t know. We did all we could to help him along, but no amount of our prodding substituted for his maturity, in his own time.

I remember reading part of Temple Grandin’s autobiography a few years back, where she said she thought her autism symptoms would be a lot worse if her parents didn’t make her sit through church, wait for her turn at board games, and require that she be well-mannered. These skills are important for any kid to become a well-socialized adult.

So here are Temple Grandin’s Top Tips for Parenting, most of which apply to any child:

1. Get professional services like Early Intervention and Applied Behavior Analysis in place for your child as soon as you suspect he or she may be autistic.

2. Spend a lot of time playing board games (like checkers and Parcheesi) that have rules and involve taking turns – something Grandin says autistic kids have a very hard time doing.

3. Limit TV and video watching to an hour a day and focus on broadening your child’s world by exposing them to lots of different situations and experiences.

4. Match learning strategies to your child’s thinking pattern and areas of strength. Grandin identifies three different types of autistic thinking: Verbal Logic, who think in word details (they often love history, foreign languages, weather statistics, and stock market reports and aren’t good drawers); Music and Math thinkers, who see patterns (these people often excel at math, chess, and computer programming and are interested in music and play it by ear); and Visual thinkers – those like Grandin, who think in photographically specific images. (These thinkers are often good at drawing, other arts, and building things with building toys such as LEGOs. Many children who are visual thinkers like maps, flags and photographs.)

5. Increase your child’s social interaction by getting them involved in shared activities like science or computer clubs, horseback riding classes or interesting hobbies that could potentially turn into a career for them. Realize that one-on-one interactive relationships, while rewarding for you, may not feel the same to your autistic child.

6. Have clear and realistic expectations for your child’s behavior. Grandin is concerned that today’s looser social structure harms autistic kids far more than other children because of their inability to pick up on social cues.

7. Experiment with your child’s tolerance for different foods. Food problems with autistic children are frequently texture-related, so you should offer them many types and varieties of foods. Special diets like gluten-free or dairy-free are often successful in improving young autistic children’s overall functioning.

8. Be logical and thoughtful in how you use medication with your autistic child. Grandin believes that many powerful drugs with serious side effects are being given out to kids way too casually. Don’t be tempted to use strong medications to make your child a “teeny bit less hyper.”

9. Make sure your child gets lots of physical exercise. Grandin can’t emphasize enough how important this tip is and notes that the rhythm of horseback riding seems to be very soothing for autistic children.

10. Give your child lots of work experience, starting early. Grandin recalls that she had many jobs during her childhood including sewing dresses, cleaning out animal stalls and feeding livestock, and carpentry projects.

11. Get help! Caring for an autistic child 24 hours a day can be exhausting and emotionally draining. Grandin uses examples from her own childhood, noting that she had a nanny, lived with her aunt and uncle during some summer vacations, and also went to boarding school. Your family may not have those resources, but consider your options. Spending time with specialists, friends and family members not only gives your child new perspectives; it also gives parents much needed time to recharge.

Other resources:

http://abcnews.go.com/Health/extra-disorders-explain-autism/story?id=15407183#.UBbKU6OgHDU

Dollhouse Progress

We’re making good progress on the old dollhouse. Apparently people who enjoy dressing up in Downton Abbey-esque costumes are going to live here, like the lady in purple, because my daughters decided it will have a modern kitchen.

The purple lady is in what will be the kitchen. The wallpaper is Victorian era, allegedly.

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I made that desk from the kit. It was a really really old kit, balsa wood, so it was all warped. I just hot glued it all together. It looks better in the pic than it does in person. I probably should not have admitted that.

This is the upstairs parlor, or The Bar/Entertainment room, as my daughter calls it. She thought having this room was very important, and I cannot say I disagree with her. The occupants are obviously world travelers. Now we just need some more furniture, lighting, and lots of objects. Sort of like Indiana Jones meets The Most Interesting Man in the World. So far the people also have lots of animals, at least 10. There are no allergies in Dollhouse World.

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