Wednesday, March 12, 2008

seatbelt, please!

You fasten the strap across your lap, making sure it's tight enough, and your heart starts beating faster in anticipation. The operator walks by to check that the belt is secure and then returns to the control booth. Your heart beats even faster as he throws the switch, and your car lurches into a slow movement. Up, up a hill, slowly, slooooowly--suddenly you're at the top, and you go plunging down and around in a wild, spinning swoop that makes your stomach drop, and you're not sure the track will ever level out. But it does, and you no sooner catch your breath then you're off on another plunge. Maybe you scream, or shout, but you find it difficult as the wind rushing past blows your hair back and stifles the noise before it leaves your mouth.

The above excerpt is Dr. Sears' description of parenting a high-needs child. Many, many times at the end of a particularly harrowing ride on the Mighty Alexa have I gone back to my old friend Sears for support, for affirmation, for gentle admonition, for kind reminders. How can so much energy--positive, negative, creative, intense--be bundled up in one small, chipmunk-cheeked, cherub-faced little two-year old? When she was an infant, Alexa changed our parenting strategies and philosophies. With Dylan, compliant, good-natured Dylan, we were schedule-oriented, and we patted ourselves on the back when he listened to us, when he slept through the night, when he greeted all who approached with a smile. What great parents!

But Alexa? From the moment she emerged from my womb and I saw her beautiful, precocious eyes in the mirror the midwife held, I could see that this was going to be a different trip altogether. Her cry held a greeting that said, "Hello, Mom, thanks for pushing me out of there, now strap yourself in!" And she proceeded to cry almost nonstop for seven months.

And I turned to Dr. Sears, The Fussy Baby Book, and to The Happiest Baby on the Block, and in spite of my frustration, I learned. One of the things Sears says in Fussy Baby is that "you will mature along with your high needs child." Alexa's "colic" allowed me to discover the joys of attachment parenting. I nursed her nonstop, and even though she shunned the rest of the world for a half year, even though she woke us every hour of every night, when I took her out of the bath in the evening and held her naked body to my skin in front of the fire, "Blackbird" or Bic Runga playing softly in the background, I realized she was teaching me something about parenting, and about my approach to life itself. Not everything is in my control, and that's okay. I had to let go, to give in to my intuition and ditch the books that say things like, "At two months, your baby should be sleeping six hours at a stretch"--books that fool the parenting public into thinking babies are programmable clones that can submit to your will as long as you are persistent in your "discipline." Books that perpetuate the belief that everything has a quick solution, a pill, a two-day strategy. Bah.

Discipline. Sears says that attachment parenting is discipline in and of itself: when your infant cries and you hold her, you are teaching her that the world--or at least her world--is a place of comfort and love, and this, according to Sears, will give her the confidence she needs to go forward. I mean, really, can a 2-month old manipulate us, as many popular books suggest? When Alexa cried, I nursed her. I held her. I cursed her silently at times (sometimes not so silently), and Bryan and I bickered like brats in the middle of the night.

But look at her now--all confidence and opinions and amazing energy. And no, it's not all positive. And last night, after another crazy double-loop ride, I pulled out Sears again and asked for help. And he reminded me to think of the future. Do I want a dull, compliant child who never questions authority? Sure, that would make my life easier, but I'm not doing the world any good! One of the more frightening passages in the book states that how we handle our children's "high needs"--their tantrums, their defiance, their clinginess--determines how they will handle themselves with others. And their ability to feel empathy: this is something they have to learn, and learn through our example. That caught my attention, because just the other day in the English 150 class I'm teaching we discussed the lack of empathy in our culture and the possible causes of this.

And I know I'm impulsive and quick-tempered (though, thankfully, quick to cool down). So Alexa is helping me to "mature," because if I respond to her defiance with counter-defiance, I'm teaching her very little about positive human interactions. So I've got to remain calm during her screams, during her relentless bullying of her sweet older brother. And I'm not always successful, but at least I'm aware, and I confess that at times I even enjoy the challenge.

In our culture, 'good' children are ones who do what they're told, without discussion. They sit quietly in their high chairs and eat what they're fed. They obey the Sunday school teacher and take their seat when asked. They don't talk in class at school and they certainly don't argue with their parents.
"I've met very few children like that, yet we persist in the fiction. . . . (Sears, 160-61).

I love a good fiction like anybody else, but I also love a roller coaster. And thanks to my parents, who are willing to jump on the ride whenever we ask, Bryan and I are able to get off once in a while and gain some perspective over a few glasses of wine in some not-so-far off bed and breakfast or on a trail somewhere, away from the madness.

And when a child approaches Alexa and says, "Hi!" and she gives them that puffy-cheeked pouty face that smacks of defiance, I know it's temporary; on another day, she might just as well give the kid a hug. When she resists authority and is reprimanded, she cries out, "But I love you!" reminding us that she is, indeed, a sensitive child. She nurtures her baby dolls. She animates her Little People with lively narration and imagination. She is athletic and daring, but always steps back for a hug. And she's learning, too. Yesterday, she said, "Mommy, are you happy?" When I said yes, she said, "I like to make you happy. I like when you smile." Which opened up a conversation about just what makes mommy happy and how Alexa might help me get there.

And she did make me smile a couple of hours later, when we were walking on the Derby-Naugatuck bike path and she spotted an African American man, pointed to him, and said, "It's Rocco Bama!" (translation: Barack Obama).

(Dylan took one look and said, "That's not him, Lexi.")

"So don't resign. Instead. . .enjoy the ride!" (Sears, 167).

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