Rage

The day started off innocently enough. I got up early, answered a few emails. Dan and I were chit chatting in bed, neither of us ready to commit to fully waking up. I finally decided to get dressed, and started pulling through the clean laundry basket looking for a particular pair of shorts. When I couldn’t find them, I felt a tinge of annoyance, but – no big deal – I’d fold all the laundry and they’d be sure to turn up. Thirty minutes later, with the weekend laundry now folded and put away, there’s no sign of the black shorts I’m looking for. I’m questioning Dan, has he seen them? Could they be in one of his dresser drawers, what about the girls’ room?

I’m pulling out stacks of pants from my closet, emptying my drawers, acting frantic and growing frustrated.

Dan lovingly attempts to sympathize. “That really sucks. Remember when I lost my raincoat?” I do remember when he lost his raincoat, and the point he was trying to make was that it eventually turned up, but that was months later when the idea of checking his golf bag in the garage finally occurred to him. I clearly didn’t have months to waste! Why would he even bring that up? Why doesn’t he get out of bed and help with folding the laundry and cleaning up this messy house so I can find things. That would be helpful.

I traipse down the basement steps to the laundry room and search the girls’ dressers – nothing. I look through empty laundry baskets, and behind chests on the floor. I’m literally down on my hands and knees crawling around. For some reason, I can’t let this go. I’m losing it. Clearly the problem is we have too much stuff, piles of things everywhere and I need to prove I’m still in control by finding this one thing.

There’s a neatly organized pile of Ariel’s socks and underwear on the bed that I have sorted, and while I jet back and forth putting away the girl’s other clothes, I ask Ariel to please put away the small pile. She makes a half-hearted attempt to scoop it up with one arm, and the contents spill out onto the floor. We laugh, but then when I come back in the room and see her pile, the one she was supposed to have put away, placed back on the bed instead of in her drawer, I tell her to get it done – all the laughter drained from my voice.

If I could have paused here for a minute or two to consider I’ve been up since 6:00 am, it’s now past 8:00 am and I haven’t eaten (a major faux-pas and contributor to my mood) then maybe the scene that happens next could have played out differently or at least been less predictable.

On my way down to the basement, I pass a rogue elastic – Ariel’s hair elastic – so I call to her to please pick it up and put it away. We make eye contact, as though that seals the deal, but when I come back upstairs the elastic is still there. As I stare at the elastic on the step, out of place and glaring at me, I snap.

“ARIEL PURDHAM GET OVER HERE AND PICK UP THIS ELASTIC RIGHT NOW! AND CLEAN YOUR ROOM – IT BETTER BE SPARKLING!!!”

I’m raging. I rattle a toddler-sized plastic Ikea chair against the floor for effect, like a chimp making an aggressive display.

Ariel stares at me wide-eyed. She sits immovable at the kitchen table, looking at me.

“GO! NOW!”

I storm upstairs and out of view, planning to tear through every single one of my drawers until I find my black shorts. I yank open the first drawer within reach – my pyjama drawer – and there are the black shorts, sitting plain as day on top of the pile. I was the one to have put them there the night before, mistaking them for pyjama bottoms. I silently pulled the shorts on, still brooding, and went into the bathroom to splash water on my face. As I leaned over the sink and looked myself in the mirror, the idea hit me. Rage in all of its forms: choosing rage, being rage, feeling rage is “I don’t care.” Rage is I don’t care. Love, on the other hand, is I do care, let’s figure this out together; love is acceptance and patience. Love is “I care.”

As soon as the realization set in, my anger and frustration melted away, because I do care.

I went to Ariel and apologized. She hadn’t made things easier on me, but there were a million other ways I could have handled the jobs I needed her to do that didn’t involve yelling and raging.

Love is choosing the hard way. Love is putting in the work.

It’s obvious to me (especially now that my lost thing is found, and I’m no longer tired or hungry) that I was projecting my rage onto Ariel, but I couldn’t think about that in the moment. Rage is blinding and all-consuming, and rage doesn’t care.

I remember hosting a dinner party once with two other couples and the discussion somehow shifted to the wives’ dispositions. My friend’s husband spoke up, “Oh, she rages!” he said of his wife, then proceeded to tell us a story of his wife throwing something down a staircase. I didn’t know if she would want to kill him later for saying that or not. I did know I would be mortified if Dan relayed stories of my outbursts. I didn’t speak up and admit that I also experience rage, but I should have. There’s a perception of women who nag or get angry as being – insert derogatory name for female dog or comparable here – but the truth is, as human beings, we all experience anger. Anger is okay. It’s rage – blowing the roof off the house – that isn’t okay. Rage is destructive. But anger? Women are allowed to be upset, and sometimes we should be. Often, we should be. Men are allowed to be angry, too. But rage over losing a pair of shorts? Come on, not worth the emotional anguish. Time instead to take a deep breath, think about what’s really causing stress, and get on with the day.

To Give

My children bring out my best (and worst) qualities. I’m not sure if that makes me sound like a good or bad parent, forgetting that such judgements shouldn’t be made, but I know it makes me a human being. The resulting transformations and affirmations of self come about in two ways: the easy way, and the hard way.

Let’s start with the easy way, shall we.

The easy way was last night putting Penelope to bed. I’m fighting a cold, but she insisted on mommy’s presence and I know why. She is enchanted with our nightly ritual of oral story telling. As I laid downstairs on the couch, feeling miserable, but peaceful and resting, my eyes glued to the page of a book, she tugged away at my arm, “Come on mommy! It’s bedtime! You have to go to bed now! I need you!”

“Oh sweetheart, daddy’s going to tell you a story tonight.”

“No!”

“He’s going to tell you the story of the purple octopus.” Purple’s her favourite colour.

She considered this, and when Dan picked up the thread, playing along, she weaved her way upstairs and into bed. But sleep never came, and so I found myself by her bedside.

“Mommy, now can YOU please tell me the story of the purple octopus?”

Her poor daddy tried, but as though co-conspirators, Penelope and I huddled together waiting to hear the REAL story, the one her mommy would make up. I believe she was employing the same rationale Ariel uses when it comes to her lunch cesar salads. I wash and cut up two pieces of romaine lettuce which go in a square container. I then put one scoop of dressing in a separate container and Ariel mixes the two at school. Salad made, voila! If her dad makes her salad, following the exact same steps I might add, it inevitably comes home uneaten, the comment being, “mommy just makes it better.”

I realized, sitting there at Penelope’s bedside and making up the story of the purple octopus who lived deep down in the ocean and wrapped itself around the submarine Penelope was riding in because it wanted a hug, that I was completely delighted and in my element storytelling with my child. Penelope was equally enthralled, which only served to reinforce this notion I have of my third child being a kindred spirit. We get each other. Our personalities jive. I rarely find myself feeling anger toward Penelope’s behaviours because I understand her so well; I know exactly where she’s coming from. So there’s that, but also because it is easy to do what I naturally enjoying doing in the company of someone who adores and appreciates my doing it.

These are the moments of parenting when I don’t have to stretch myself to grow, I’m simply doing what I love best, being myself, and my children are benefitting. These are the moments that effortlessly evoke my best self.
Now let’s talk about the hard way we grow as parents. The lessons we learn from parenting by taking the long way around.

Often to grow we need to fail. We need to get it wrong so we can figure out how to get it right. Elyse’s hair has been one of those things we have failed at many times, but for which we are striving to get right. For as long as I can remember, my attempts to brush Elyse’s hair have brought on tears. And I’m not talking about a few tears. I’m talking about wailing, screaming, outrage. Not every time, but often enough that there’s a sore spot there. The mere mention of the brushing of her hair can bring wrath and meltdown city (as Dan and I call it). We have tried everything when it comes to brushing her hair. Different combs, brushes, de-tanglers. Mom or dad brushing gently right out of the tub, or when her hair’s dried, or the next morning; Elyse brushing her own hair, keeping it long or cutting it short, brushing more frequently or less frequently, trying to build in a routine, trying to brush at her schedule and pace to varying degrees of success. We’re finally at a better place with her hair brushing – she does it mostly herself, but we still have to help her do her hair. I cannot say that this screaming and crying behaviour from Elyse evokes the best behaviour from me. Of course it doesn’t! At a certain point, her tears left me feeling angry, resentful, and helpless. This has to get done! What do you want from me? I want to scream. It’s hard to admit when you’re a mother feeling like she doesn’t know what her child wants or needs. Thank goodness for siblings and insight.

Over the weekend, Elyse had her dance recital. I should make it clear to you that dance and music are Elyse’s life. She lives through movement, and in moments of tension, we often find solace and common ground through music and dance. Knowing full well I would be on hair duty for the recital, I took many deep breaths in preparation for the tears that would ensue in getting her ready to perform. Even as adults, it’s hard to break a pattern of thought and to think positively about a situation that once, or many times, has caused you emotional hardship. Burn me once…

Anyway, Elyse was a champ getting ready. She let me brush through her incredibly long hair with a comb after Dan did her tub, and she did an initial brushing herself. She staved off the tears that eventually rolled down her cheeks for as long as she could, but then they came, accompanied by short outbursts and wails as I ever gently worked her hair into two buns. Her tears made me feel bad. A dance recital isn’t a necessity in life, and yet I was putting her through this hair torture – for what? But to counter that thought, you can argue that nothing is necessary, and damn it, if my kids start something and reach a certain point they are going to follow it through. Tears or no tears.

I remained calm and composed in my role as hair dresser, though coursing below the surface was a long-standing annoyance over the responsibility and the difficulty of doing Elyse’s hair; the lengths I go not to upset her, the inevitability of her upheaval. On top of it all, I don’t particularly enjoy doing hair.

Ariel wanted to be in the room to watch Elyse get her hair and makeup done. Had it been me in her shoes, I would have bailed when Elyse started crying, but Ariel insisted on being in the tiny bathroom with us, and she was the one who comforted her sister better than I could with comments like “Your hair is going to look so pretty, Elyse!” and “You’re watching Teen Titans! Is that your favourite show?” Standing there, hairspray can in hand, I was amazed by how much Ariel had inside of her to give. She had more of herself to give than I did, of that I felt sure, and in that same moment, I lived an experience I have been writing about and talking about for years; that through her tears, Elyse was also giving all she had to give. She was at her max and that was it, there was no more. Expressing her frustrations about getting her hair done through her tears was all she had to give. I was giving all I had to give too, but I could do better. I could do better and be better by realizing that my child was doing the best she can, and that each of us only has so much to give. Myself included. I could be better by realizing that accepting the people you love for who they are, and for what they have to give, is what unconditional love is all about.

I realized I was setting myself up to fail by expecting that Elyse should behave the way I want her to, the way society would dictate, instead of just accepting her for who she is. Nobody willingly wants to disappoint their loved ones through their behaviour. She is communicating in the only way she knows how. And with that idea came the thought and true understanding of she is doing the best she can. I am too focused on do it my waythe right way – as the only way, when of course that is not true. Elyse, all my children, show me regularly that there is more than one way of doing things. I would be wise to pay attention.

While Ariel pointed the way through her shining example of unconditional love, it was Elyse who forced me to come around the hard way, who reached for that most sequestered place of my heart and called it forth by saying, here, even when it’s hard, this is what it means to love me.

Falling from Grace

Children are full of grace.

When I was a child, I was a free spirit for a while, picking up friends and dropping them off as I went. Books were my best friends for a time, but then something clicked and it was friends that meant the most to me. Friendships were the stuff I breathed. Making connections with other people remains important to me; it’s important to all of us. You could argue it’s why we are here.

I recently set up a play date for Elyse with a friend in her class after she was invited to the friend’s birthday party, but was unable to make it due to the timing coinciding with her dance recital. With three children’s social and extra-curricular schedules to coordinate, a conflict in the past may have meant I would have left it, but as Elyse gets older, it’s becoming even more important to me that she not miss out on this social opportunity. A chance to play with a peer and foster a friendship.

When a friend invites her to something, we pay attention.

More and more frequently, in attending conferences and reading the stories and being given advice by the generation of parents who have children with Down syndrome who have gone before us, I’m repeatedly hearing the importance of teaching social skills and supporting social development. Generally speaking, social skills are thought to be a strength in most children with Down syndrome, but of course, every person is an individual. As my friend Debbie Boycott writes in Common Threads, “As with all children, responding to others in a kind, compassionate way, making eye contact, creating a healthy self-image, are all essential for making friendships, working in a job, taking instruction, enjoying others, and showing compassion and empathy for others.”

I remember saying to Dan when I was pregnant with Elyse that just because she had Down syndrome didn’t guarantee that she was going to be a good person – that would be up to us to teach her. He laughed and teased me saying, “yeah, she’ll probably be a jerk.”

“Maybe if she takes after you!” I lovingly jabbed back.

Elyse’s little friend, who we’ll call Marcie, arrives in the afternoon. We were a bit late finishing lunch, so Elyse hadn’t yet finished her pizza. Still, she abandoned her slice to see what the commotion was about at the front door, and she instantly recognized Marcie and gave her a kind welcoming hug. Almost immediately afterwards, all of the children were outside in the backyard, with Ariel, the oldest, taking the lead; Marcie and Penelope not far behind, and Elyse – rushing to get her shoes on – the last one out the back door. Though Elyse lagged somewhat behind, the kids were eventually all outside, all of them together and somewhat playing together. Dan and I smiled at each other weakly, silently each worried about how long this might last.

What I’ve noticed about Elyse is that she likes to do what she likes to do. She often chooses to do what feels good in the moment, and chooses not to pay attention to social conventions. Being able to be in the moment, and fully enjoy what you are doing is an amazing skill, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into being a good friend, unfortunately.

As the kids came back inside, Elyse slid back to the table and her pizza, and Marcie pulled out some craft supplies she brought along with her and sat at the same table. Ariel squeezed in beside Marcie, and the two of them sat colouring, nicely sharing the same page of the colouring book. Again, this was fine. Everyone was engaged and together, though what I really wanted was for Elyse to be playing with her friend.

Dan and I thought it would be best if he were to disappear with Ariel, the big sister with a big personality, to give Elyse a chance to shine and play with her friend. Dan would take Ariel along to the barbershop with him while he got his hair cut, and I would stick around to watch the three girls.

With everyone now up from the table, craft time over, I watched to see what would happen. The girls were looking at toys in the other room, so I went upstairs to fold some laundry and give the kids space. Elyse followed me up. I put on some music so Elyse could dance (one of her favourite activities), but Marcie wasn’t interested in doing that so she wavered between Ariel and Penelope’s room, each of them happy to engage with her. Elyse would not have been happy if I were to turn off the music and suggest she play with Marcie. “Play” can be a difficult, abstract concept for a child, even though we want to believe it’s something that happens naturally.

As it were, Elyse could have cared less about what Marcie was doing. She was too busy doing her thing. While this sounds good at first glance, let me tell you that it was not a good feeling as her parent.

Gauging that Elyse was in a solitary kind of mood, I quickly assessed that the rest of the play date wasn’t going to go well. I decided to take the kids to the park, where everyone would be on an equal playing field and could play at their own physical ability level, but I wanted Dan and Ariel to come too. I was suddenly feeling less confident in my ability to successfully support this play date alone. I pleaded with him to stay and come with us to the park, but Dan was having none of it. “You’ll be fine! We’ll only be gone an hour.” He still thought it would be better if Ariel wasn’t around to interfere.

Outside on the driveway, we readied ourselves for the park. I planned to take the stroller, just in case Penelope got tired, but Elyse insisted I bring the wagon, whining and complaining loudly in front of her friend. I was all smiles and cheer and super accommodating, trying to avoid conflict at all cost with this little friend in tow. I wanted the outing to be fun. Elyse and Penelope fought each other trying to get into the wagon, typical sibling spat, which wasn’t helping matters and only served to further identify the elephant in the room: Elyse completely ignoring her friend. In the end, Marcie asked if she could be the one to pull the other two in the wagon, so she did. I wanted nothing more than for Elyse to walk beside Marcie, hold her hand, say something to her – anything. But Marcie didn’t seem to mind, and chatted with me amicably while Elyse sat sullenly in the wagon.

At the park, Elyse and Penelope immediately gravitated toward the swings, and that is where both of them remained for most of our time there.

Does it matter that I really wanted to see my daughter playing with her friend? As long as they’re happy, but what if you’re not, because you know what it means?

Marcie played using the entire play area, as Ariel would have. She climbed and called over to me to show me what she was up to, and I called back to her in between shouts from my two children to be pushed “Higher! More!” Penelope, truth be told, was on the brink of a complete toddler meltdown, having skipped her nap, and Elyse, master imitator, copied her every word. Under these conditions, it became near impossible for me to try and get Elyse to do something else willingly, where her friend might join her, with Penelope in tow.

I can say, on the one hand, the outing to the park was successful in its own right in that each child seemed to have enjoyed themselves, more or less; but on the other hand, my goal, and the point of the play date, remained unmet because they did not have fun together.

Penelope cried most of our walk home, but thankful Marcie, being a big sister herself and full of grace, understood that little kids cry and didn’t let it bother her. When we got back there was time for a quick snack, then Marcie was on her way.

While I’d tried to shield myself from my own stormy feelings that were rising up, like holding up a flimsy umbrella when the rain is blowing sideways, there was nothing I could do to protect myself from the deep puddle of emotions I stepped squarely in and I was left sitting there muddy and soaking wet.

Why had Elyse ignored her friend?

What skills did we need to teach her in order for her to be able to be gracious with a friend who’s come to play with her?

What have we done wrong? I feel like a failure.

While I struggled emotionally to process these questions and dawning realizations, Elyse and Penelope started fighting over their snacks while sitting at the table, their little hands clawing at each other. This was too much.

“STOP,” I screamed at them. They froze, mid-swipe; Penelope’s bottom lip quivered. I burst into tears, head in my hands. My outburst filled the space in the room.

Dan and Ariel arrived shortly after, thankfully, but I remained pained and terribly sad from seeing my middle daughter struggle with a skill that comes so naturally and effortlessly to my other two. Academic skills are important to me, sure, but being a kind and generous person? Learning reciprocity and being a good friend? Acquiring and demonstrating these skills are non-negotiables.

If there’s one burst of gleaming hope to be taken from this story, it’s that I have seen Elyse play with other children beautifully with my own two eyes several times. Every time I am filled with pride. When she wants to, she knows how to play.

Dan and I know we have some work ahead of us as parents. We know there needs to be a conversation with the school where Elyse spends most of her time. If there’s one thing I took away from the Canadian Down Syndrome Society’s conference in Victoria this past year it’s that inclusion isn’t just about being in the same room as other kids, that’s a first step, but to take it a step further to TRUE inclusion it’s about building a sense of community where everyone belongs. For Elyse to be able to build friendships at school, she needs to feel like she’s a part of the community by being engaged in activities WITH her peers – not simply alongside them. As her parent, I need to make sure that is happening.

I’m often hesitant to write about negative experiences with Elyse because, as an advocate and being the person that I am, I like to focus on the positives, and to be sure, there are many. But to only see and report on the sunny side of life would be to do a disservice to Elyse as a whole person. Human beings are complex. We will continue to plant and water the seeds of friendship, bring light to where we are, shower her with support, and with time, I know in my heart Elyse will continue to blossom. As will I, as her parent.

 

Author’s note: In the hour after I finished writing this piece, still carrying around the emotional baggage and mulling over points, a friend said to me at the gym, “you’re looking strong!” I was feeling the opposite, quite weak, which is telling in that how we’re feeling on the inside isn’t always evident based on outward appearances. It’s like looking through the window on a bright sunny day, blue skies overhead, then stepping outside into the chilly air.

The Best I Can

Ariel is performing a gymnastics routine with a partner in the school’s talent show. Penelope is sitting rapt on my knee, watching her big sister’s stage debut. “I can’t believe I did that!” Ariel says afterwards. The talent show continues, for Penelope – as nap time comes and goes – the show drags on. She’s no longer in my lap. She’s sitting on the floor taking her shoes off and making flirty faces at the other kids beside us. Now she’s standing, swaying her whole body back and forth to the music, and that’s when I see something catch her eye.

“Balls, mom!” She points to the open storage room across the gym with the large red, yellow and blue bouncy balls in sight, a question in her eye. I try to distract her, avert her eyes, willing her to look back to the front, “Look! What’s that?” Four pink ballerinas take the stage, but she’s making a run for it, and now I’m holding her down by the hem of her yellow dress with the kitten on it, and the kids beside us are cracking up. Penelope loves this new game, where she is the star of the show. I check the time on my phone. We’re getting close to the end, almost there. Hang on. But there’s one last lovely singer to go, and Penelope breaks loose like the wild creature she is and makes for the ball room. Another parent tries to intervene; a teacher attempts to coax her out of the room, but Penelope just stands there, her resolve impervious, those glowing half-moons for eyes gazing up from a starry sky of curls. I don’t want to dampen her spirit, not one little bit, but as the parent you’re expected to have control.

I make my way over to my feral child, ducking out of the way of a few other parents, and I grab her. Truthfully, the disturbance wasn’t that big of a deal.

By now the principal is speaking a few words of farewell to the school secretary who is retiring. I have no idea what she’s just said because things quickly deteriorate from there. The next thing I know, I’ve made it into the foyer where my two other children are waiting, ready to go, and Penelope makes a bee-line for the exit, in her sleeveless dress.

I should mention the weather outside at this point in the story. The sky is on the verge of hailing pellets of ice.

Another parent is blocking the door again, helping me out, while I try to rally the troops, “Time to GO!!!!” while chasing after Penelope. I attempt to manoeuvre Penelope into her outdoor gear, but as I do so, she wrestles free of my grasp for the twentieth time by rendering her toddler limbs limp and lifeless. She’s a puddle on the floor one minute – the next she sprints for the exit again. This time I say, “It’s okay, let her go.” I reason, once she feels the cold she’ll let me put her sweater and coat on. Outside, freezing, she is still resisting. She’s fighting against herself, and her own stubborn tiredness.

Now the parents are filtering out of the school and my kid is screaming and kicking her feet in classic tantrum formation. I have a relaxed smile on my face that says, we’ve all been here before – nothing to see here folks – move along.

Toddlers are destined for trouble. They’re learning boundaries and testing their limits – and their parents’. Even as I type this, Penelope’s little face appeared around the corner. “This got wet,” she says casually. She’s talking about her pants, which are now soaked with pee. To clarify, I’m waiting for warmer weather to potty train. She got herself dressed in pajamas and decided to take her diaper off and not tell me. She was sitting on the couch when her “pants got wet.”

Back at the school, the tantrum is over, but my smile is wearing thin; beneath its cloak I’m tired after a long weekend with our three kids and my husband away, all of it culminating in this moment. As I’ve finally wrangled the little beastie into her outdoor clothes, and I’m strapping her tightly into the fold-up stroller I wisely brought along to ger her home, Elyse, in the foreground, throws her backpack on the ground, abandoning it before running off, and yet another kind parent brings it over to where I’m standing. I’m happy for the distraction of Ariel chit chattering along on the walk home revealing her excitement about the talent show experience. I’m smiling hard, for her sake.

I took the girls to my cousin’s baby shower on the weekend, where there were many opportunities to test my patience. Ariel disappeared the moment we got there, then five minutes later declared, “these are my new best friends,” pointing to the gaggle of children she instantly joined. Elyse played with the kids on and off, but then hovered by the entranceway, exactly where I did not want her to be. Elyse has gotten better about staying with me, but if that door were to open, the temptation to walk through it would be too great, and I may lose her into the deep woods surrounding the building. Penelope obviously runs everywhere, obeying no one or nothing but her own toddler instincts. I frantically surveyed the buffet table looking for peanuts, to which she is allergic. Fatal allergies, escape artists and disappearing children – what’s one to worry about? Just for fun, let’s turn off all the lights and add burning candles to the mix (there was a power outage). What could possibly go wrong?

My brain churned with all these impending dangers, and while I tried to relax and settle in with family, doing so with three girls running around in the dark made it nearly impossible. Still, I smiled, I gritted my teeth, and I smiled. You can hide anything behind a smile. A boiling rage, a festering sizzle of discontent, a sense of failure and shame, humiliation and angst. Pain. Fear. Rejection. Don’t let a smiling face fool you. Look past the façade into the person’s eyes. You can’t fake the smile in your eyes, or hide that the light has been extinguished.

My candle still burns bright, even with Dan on an extended work trip away. I had help from grandparents all weekend, and those parents who leaned in to give me a hand when I needed it most. My stores dipped low, but were not depleted. As my children get older, it gets easier and easier to manage on my own (not that I want to!) But everyone needs a break and time to themselves. Everyone could use a support system, and not everyone has one. Anyone who’s ever had kids knows what a toddler tantrum looks like, and if you don’t remember it’s because you blocked that time from your mind for self-preservation – not because it didn’t happen.

As Penelope flung herself through the doors into outside, in the background I heard a parent exclaim, “…but it’s so cold!” The comment seemed directed at me, at my child’s bare arms, at my parenting, but in the moment, I had more pressing concerns, like catching my toddler before she got hit by a school bus. It is SO easy to judge, but the people I care about are the ones who lent a helping hand when it was easy not to, when they could have turned a blind eye.

Which type of person are you?

What my Kids Crave the Most

A father bemoans the inequities of the Easter bunny’s delivery of bounty on Facebook. “Please parents,” he pleads, “can we just stick to chocolate and candies this year? So I don’t have to tell my kid why the Easter bunny brought his classmate a bike, and my kid only got chocolate.”

Aside: this post is in no way meant to undermine the religious underpinnings of the Easter holiday, but rather I’m focusing on its commercialization. On the pressure each holiday brings to buy my kids stuff.

I’m a person who loves celebrating special occasions, but what I don’t love is the pressure to buy into all the paraphernalia and trappings associated with each holiday. Well, I do and I don’t. Items that can be reused year after year are wonderful. When it comes to getting new stuff, I liked getting gifts as a child (and arguably, I still do), but as an adult I find it tedious work buying trinkets at best, and at worst: wasteful, unhealthy, and extreme. Spoiling our children to the max on special occasions borders on harmful not only for our bank accounts and the environment, but in what it’s teaching them to value. Let’s face it: an abundance of junk is overstimulating for children and underappreciated, even if that junk has a hundred dollar price tag on it. Even if it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, too much is still too much. This is the trap I fall into: it’s cheap, so it’s okay for me to buy more of it. Take candy, for example. It’s easy enough to come across, but kids are going to get sick from eating too much of it – or cavities, or obese, or form life-long habits leading to an unhealthy lifestyle. Note: I said too much candy. I’m definitely not against some. If it’s too many toys, consider this. A toddler is more likely to play with a toy if they only have a choice or two or three in front of them, versus say, twenty. At twenty, the toddler walks away, overwhelmed. There is research to back this up: less is more.

Yet, season after season, I’m still out there, curating content to fill the stockings to bursting, ordering that last gift online to fill every nook and cranny under the tree because sometimes I get tied up in the myth that to show my kids I love them, I need to buy them stuff; and that if my love for them is superior, then so too should the gifts I provide for them. I’m guilty of perpetuating another myth of materialism – that it brings happiness – times a thousand. I buy enough chocolate eggs to feed a small army because these are the traditions I grew up with. I learned to associate more stuff with more fun! Because who doesn’t like getting more stuff? Especially as a kid who is entirely dependent on the adults in their life to buy them things. Precious, precious things! Like Seuss’s Once-lers’ thneed that everyone, everyone, everyone needs (note: no they don’t). Stuff, for the sake of stuff.

The Easter bunny visited our three girls. While we encouraged Ariel to write a letter to let the Easter bunny know her wishes as she bombarded us with requests, we were quick to remind her to keep her expectations in check.

“The Easter bunny isn’t like Santa,” I told her, “he doesn’t bring presents.” She nodded her head solemnly, but I know that’s not what she was expecting or hoping for because in the past, the Easter bunny has brought the occasional present. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, per se, except that my kids don’t need any more presents or toys, and you know what, they are happy, completely joyful, living with less of the things they don’t need.

Come Easter morning, on her way down the stairs, almost three-year-old Penelope picked up four hidden chocolate golden coins. She was so happy, she ran all the way back upstairs and climbed into bed to show me. “My gosh!” she was saying, “My gosh!” she couldn’t believe her luck, and she hadn’t even seen the baskets of candy downstairs yet; she didn’t even know about the egg hunt ready to go. Dan and I were thrilled for her, mustering up our best excited faces in response to her appreciation for the mundane in the early hours of the morning. Her glee turned my reaction into real and true enthusiasm. Her innocence left me feeling hopeful and inspired. If our version of Easter had ended right there for Penelope, it would have been a fantastic day.

In lieu of the toys a part of me wants to give my kids on Easter morning, I’ve taken up a practice my parents carried out for us in our teen years, the giving of essentials as gifts. Yes, there were chocolates and candies, but in addition each girl was given a new pair of shoes – and this is the important part – that she already needed, as well as a small stack of clothes for summer: a few t-shirts, a dress, or pair of denim shorts. Simple and practical. In a less than proud moment, I caved and got each girl a new stuffed animal too (of which they have dozens), but maybe we can overlook that and move on to how my children received their gifts.

The girls were overjoyed. Elyse especially gravitated right to her new rubber rain boots and held them up proudly in the air. She reached for the boots before even the chocolate in plain sight. “Look at these, mommy and daddy!” She needed new rain boots and I could sense she appreciated having that need fulfilled. Penelope walked excitedly around the house in her new runners, and wanted to test them outside, and Ariel was thrilled to receive her first pair or lace-up shoes. If tying laces doesn’t make you feel like a big kid, I don’t know what does. I spent a few minutes teaching her how to tie a bow, and she was off and running with a new skill. Each child played with their one new toy, the stuffed animal. Each child devoured copious amounts of chocolate. We all searched for eggs, which were then divided equally, and the kids had a really fun time, we all did.

What stuck out to me was the kids’ reaction to their new clothes and shoes. If it were any other day, they would be excited to receive new clothes, true, but it isn’t cause for celebration. Our kids are very lucky in that whatever they need, we are able to buy it for them. As childhood is such a transient time, each season generally warrants a new mini wardrobe. With three girls, we certainly do the hand-me-down thing, and also accept used clothing in good condition from friends, but even still, they get spoiled with new purchases. It’s so easy for them to take these purchases made on their behalf for granted; how could you not when they seemingly happen every season? By giving them items they need for summer, it was a statement: this is a special occasion, and receiving new clothing is a gift and something to be thankful for. And the girls were grateful because you know what? This clothing came from the Easter bunny! So it must be special.

Giving your children clothing on special occasions isn’t going to erase inequalities between families, but it is sending them the message they have many things to be grateful for and that it isn’t toys that make the holiday fun anyway – it’s family. Spending the time together, watching the girls’ reaction to their Easter baskets and their detective skills in the Easter egg hunt, made my morning.

What the girls actually receive means less than the traditions we are building as a family: decorating Easter eggs, the egg hunt, and a large bacon and egg breakfast Easter morning. The time we pour into our children, into each other, that is what counts.

As moms and parents, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get it just right, but my kids cared more about my willingness to engage in their games – my enthusiasm about their Easter treasures – then the actual treasures themselves. They were looking to me and Dan to gauge their own excitement. Well, except the chocolate. Sugar is sugar, and they’ve got that one figured out.

The best thing then, that you could ever give your child on Easter morning, or any day of the week, is your love and attention. Forget about toys and sugar, love and attention is what they crave the most.

Raisin’ Hell

At some point in adulthood, everyone needs a toddler in their life. Those belligerent little darlings. The things they say. The things they do. The mirror they offer into our own idiosyncrasies. This fleeting time of inane obstinacy. Defiance for the sake of defiance. Toddlers are, after all, miniature human beings learning how to regulate their emotions. One minute they’re up, the next they’re throwing a tantrum and crying hysterically, before tears dissolve into giggles – they were down, but now they’re up again! – at the sight of something as plain as a hat, or a sister, or a fluffy bunny rabbit you’ve made to hop up and down. Silliness reigns in the world of the toddler, as does autonomy of self. What begins as an “I do it” during the second year becomes a full on challenge of who exactly is the boss around here and what are the boundaries, if such a trivial thing as boundaries even exists, anyway.

Toddlers like to try on phrases and ask questions that make you blush or burst out laughing. Case in point, on our way to Sunday dinner at Dan’s parents’ house, Dan and I were engaged in a serious conversation about our jobs, our futures – real adult stuff – when Penelope pipped up from the back seat in her sweet little voice, “Daddy! Are you wearing pants?” She was genuinely concerned, so he assured her he was.

For the record, Dan normally wears pants, and there had been no aforementioned pants conversation that either one of us was aware of. Who knows what’s going on in that exploding synaptic toddler mind of hers? Pants or no pants? That is the question. I guess, in fairness to Penelope, Sandra Boynton characters are constantly putting clothes on the wrong body parts, or not at all, and these are the books we read to our children, the half-naked animal role models we portray, so of course she’s confused. Dan asked her back, “Are you wearing pants?” Her “yes” was confident in reply, and you could tell there was a satisfaction in knowing that she and her daddy had both got it right: pants for Sunday dinner, check!

Toddlerhood is also a unique time period in our lives where we seem to have a beautiful and simplistic window onto the world, because you see, the toddler sees things as they are; each new specimen of life (living or not) is a novel delight to their nascent senses. Second case in point, while changing her diaper, Penelope exclaimed, “Look at this, mommy!” holding up a piece of yellow Play-dough she’d be moulding in her hand, “this is beautiful!” and she stretched out the word beautiful, as though marvelling at its syllables as well.

Later, while bathing, and though I was downstairs clearing the dishes, and she was up with her dad, I could still hear her excitement, “Hey! I made bubbles with my bum!” Ariel, her seven-year-old sister, deeply appreciated this comment.

There is the trying on of words and phrases, and a great appreciation for an ever expanding world, and then there are the lived experiences; especially those you’d rather forget, like closing a finger in a doorway or falling off a stool or bothering someone bigger than you and getting bopped on the head for it. These hard won insights, also known as “learning the hard way”, are frequent during the toddler years. Maybe that’s why these are the years we mostly, if not completely, forget – in the name of self-preservation? Though surely, we retain the muscle memory of our falls, the sensory experience of burning fingers that time we took our mittens off in the cold; or the taste of chalky earth, the sting of soapy bubbles in our eyes. These memories come early and stay with us, I’m sure of it, even if we don’t completely learn or want to unlearn how to avoid them.

A memory I will certainly keep with me forever from Penelope’s toddlerhood years, in addition to her pleasant disposition, affable personality, our hikes in the woods, library time and gymnastics classes together, will be the time she shoved a raisin up her nose just to see what would happen.

I was driving along, completely ignoring my children in truth, as all good mothers do, and listening to an audiobook at that, (Girl, Stop Apologizing – I’m not!) when I heard a sob from the back seat. A quick look in the review mirror revealed Penelope was distressed.

“Ow, ow, OW!!!!” she wailed.

“Penelope! Penelope! What’s ‘ow’? What hurts? What’s the matter?”

I gave her a lunch box of snacks to keep her entertained. I shouldn’t be getting disturbed right now, but I’m feeling less annoyed, more concerned as her distress is genuine.

“Right here!” points to nose, “the raisin!”

“What!? Did you put a raisin up your nose? Is there a raisin up your nose!?”

“Yes! There’s a raisin up my nose right here.” Wail, wail.

Now, I have to tell you. I’m grateful for this kid’s competent verbal skills. I’m less impressed with her research methods.

“Okay, don’t worry! Mommy will get it out,” I say out loud. Inside, I’m saying what the fuck am I supposed to do now?

I decide I need to assess the situation and so I pull over into a Tim Horton’s parking lot. Thank god for Tim Horton’s everywhere. I tilt her head back and can see the raisin, barely. She’s stopped crying, and I stick my finger in to try to get it out, and it’s immediately evident this is a rookie mistake that will accomplish nothing. Think Adelle, think. I call Dan. He doesn’t answer. I text him, EMERGENCY, ANSWER CALL. He picks up this time. I let him know it’s not really an EMERGENCY emergency, more of an inevitable emergency if I don’t do something quick.

I have two children in the car with me. We were en route to one of Elyse’s appointments when the wrinkled fruit and Penelope became one.

Dan has no good ideas and is as perplexed as me. He suggests going to the appointment and asking if they have tweezers. Being the parent not directly responsible for the raisin kid, he, appropriately – not too flagrantly – finds the situation funny. I hang up with a new action plan in mind. I WILL make it to the appointment, but first we will stop at a pharmacy, buy tweezers, and extract a mucousy raisin.

I don’t need to tell you I got the raisin out, though I did, with some tears and much protestation on the part of my toddler. What I do need to tell you is more of a question: is this going to happen again? Or will she have learned her lesson? Will I ever feel comfortable putting raisins in her lunch pail for her to snack on again? Only time will tell and perhaps none of us will ever understand the intricacies and mysterious ways of the toddler.

On our stroller walk to pick up her sisters later that day, I offered Penelope a snack. She took it, then didn’t want it, then ADAMANTLY demanded it back, then refused it again a short while later, as though insulted I would ever have given it to her. I couldn’t help myself, “Penelope, you crack me up!” I could tell she liked that line, and was mulling over its meaning.

“No,” she said, “you crack ME up!”

Whatever you say, Penelope. Whatever you say.