I've gone on for a long time thinking I would never make this statement, but I think it might be finally time to admit it: In my experience, my girls have been much harder to parent than my boys. Hands down, across the board, they require more on any day of my parenting week.
Now I should also mention, the feminist in this mother has hair on the back of her neck that is now standing straight up after writing such a statement. As a preschool teacher for years, I had the chance to experience all different types of personalities and believed strongly gender was not at work in any way. After a few kids of my own, I'm not so sure.
The dynamic duo of Lucy, age 4 and Lyra, age, 1, had pulled out every toy in their room, had a glorious moment with some glitter, both changed their clothes at least five times and ran to hide when I told them it was time to get dressed for an outing, all before 9:00 AM. I snapped a picture of their cute, troublemaking little faces before the wrangling of getting them dressed.
They fight sleep like nothing I've ever seen, they play with ten toys all at the same time, they make enormous messes, they voice all their thoughts -- loudly, they demand right in the moment, they require all of you, they push hard, yet they also love wildly, care deeply and dive in with their whole hearts. All of it in a particular way I don't see in the boys, who I should also add, carry their own brand of magic.
As far as I can remember, I was not this type of child myself. I was gentle and more reserved, a strength unfolding later in life. Where did these whirlwind girls come from? I have no earthly idea. Even as tired as I am and wondering how I got the challenge on the back end after two chill older boys, I wouldn't trade any of it. I'll keep the drama, the tantrums, the big make up speeches, the running hugs, the constant fashion changes, the immense joy of girl good, even if it's harder.
Do you find one gender is harder than the other with your children? Do you think it is related to gender or just personality?
"I need to talk to you about this tweenage thing," my friend said to me a few weeks ago. Her voice was heavy with the need for confession. I didn't know if she was about to confess hatred for her impossible tween or some other more unspeakable act of parental frustration.
"Okay," I answered, all ears. "What's up?"
"It's just, you know...the Justin Bieber, the vampires, the glitter toenail polish..." She could barely get the words out. "I just LOVE all of it. Every single second. She's doing so well, and she's so happy about her life. Is there something wrong with me? I just can't get enough. I think it's great. Do you think that's bad?" She looked at me with the kind of worry a parent might feel after letting their teenager have a sip of champagne at her parent's 50th wedding anniversary.
I laughed. "Not at all," I reassured her. "I'm right there with you. As long as we're talking to them and staying connected and making sure we're honestly pursuing our own dreams for happiness--instead of living vicariously through our girls--I think it's fine. You're living your dreams. You're being honest with her about the hard parts. She can see all of that. I think it's great."
She sighed a deep sigh of relief and we sunk down into the couch for a long conversation, without the threat of censorship or the worry of "Good Mother" hanging over our heads. While some may be appalled and warn of worse pop culture influences to come (and believe me, I've got my eye on that horizon), there's something completely pure and innocent about being excited about the next chapter in a young girl's life. Some of these recent media crazes have taken on cult-level popularity for exactly this reason. They reflect the tension between being innocent and becoming wise. They mirror the euphoria of sometimes getting it right and the adventure involved in learning the difference.
So many of my peers were raised to be afraid of the teen years--the predatory boys, the potential pregnancies, the STDs. But what if in all of our caution and fears about what could happen, we're missing out on one of the biggest gateways to tween/mom connection--an ongoing conversation about what's good right now? What if in an effort to shield our girls from the negative messages their getting from the media, we're missing our chance to be a part of an ongoing dialogue about the things they don't want to miss--healthy friendships, really positive interactions with boys and the magic of discovering they are strong, beautiful and capable of learning the wisdom of their own intuition? Justin Bieber may not be a poster child for any of the above, but he taps into the hope of someone loving you passionately. And why shouldn't our girls expect that?
There's an old saying that youth is wasted on the young. At my house, right now, with the music blaring, the constant toe-nail polishing and the long conversations about the bright and exciting future, I beg to differ. Mistakes will be made, difficulties will be encountered, but all in all, there's something incredibly valuable about being excited about the ride. That's where I see my tween right now; that's what my friend sees, too.
We can't bring ourselves to not be excited for their high hopes--not because we haven't achieved our own, but because in so many ways we have and are doing so right now. And maybe a little late, because we lacked the courage to dive in headfirst. May our girls retain their courage and excitement for love, adventure and true happiness. May we not let our fears of the inevitable disappointments keep them from giving their all to the joys and delights that are theirs to be had.
I know this isn't the party line on raising girls these days, and I know there are dangers to uncensored media exposure. I'm not arguing that. But if you're connected and involved with your tween girl whose heart is open to you, why not be in that process of discovery together? What say you, internets? How are you handling your tween girls and the silly excesses of tween culture? On the continuum between keeping them young and letting them go, where do you fall?
And maybe more importantly, what do you think about the idea that we hold them back because we don't want them to be hurt or disappointed, the way we were (and are) ourselves?
I recently went to Uganda, where I spent endless hours plowing through red tape and bureaucracy to help two daughters, ages 12 and 15, obtain the documents they needed to be reunited with their mother here in the United States. When I left, I told my kids I wasn't sure exactly when I was coming back, but that I hoped it wouldn't be more than two weeks. I have traveled a lot over the last year working on a photography project, so I knew my kids were used to me being gone. Plus, I knew they were in excellent hands with our community of neighbors and friends and their father (aka Super Dad). Still, not knowing what it would take to reunite this family was weighing on me. In the back of my mind I was hoping my kids wouldn't hate me in the end for putting the needs of these other children ahead of their own.
As parents we're always working this equation, right? Your children's needs vs. what work needs. Your children's needs vs. what your partner needs. Your children's needs vs. what the house needs. And let's not forget, your children's needs vs. what you need. Sometimes it seems like there isn't enough of what everyone needs to go around, and we worry as parents that are kids will be scarred for life if we get the balance wrong.
I once had an older mom friend who suggested that I reconfigure the right answer to this math problem. Instead of going for 100% needs met at all times for everyone everywhere, she suggested I take an eraser to that penciled in figure and write "good enough". This seemed scandalous to me, since at the time I parented my babies and toddlers under the "over and beyond" is better than the "good enough" rubric.
As I've grown up over the years along side of my kids, I've been forced to reconsider the wisdom of her advice. I know in new and humbling ways that I cannot do it all. I'm gambling that fulfilling my own hopes and dreams will take a big burden off my kids who might be compelled in later years to complete my unfinished business in life. I'm hoping that making space for my own life work is making space for them to consider their own. And you better bet, I have my fingers crossed that "good enough" parenting will be good enough when my kids are running their childhoods under the microscope when they arrive fully awake in their early twenties.
On Sunday, not too long after my two week trip to Uganda stretched into a grueling three, Madeleine presented me with a beautiful handmade card. Neither one referenced the ways that I've taken care of her physical needs or been a steady presence or worked tirelessly on her behalf (three failings I'm tempted to write in the "not good enough" column), but her loving words convinced me that maybe, just maybe, choosing to live a life with a larger purpose might be "good enough".
With her permission, I'd like to share her poem with you. I'm sure I'll be clinging to it for dear life through the inevitable storms of girlhood, but for now, these kind words (and all the ways we all try to do our very best at loving and at parenting) feel like more than enough.
The Most Important Thing
The most important thing about my mom is that she cares.
She is the person I wake up for in the morning.
She lights up our lives like a dozen fireflies floating around in an open field.
She is loved beyond anything she can imagine.
She brings people together in a way so beautiful no photo, painting or word can describe.
She can solve any problem with the blink of an eye.
She loves people with no hesitation, thought or reason.
She doesn't know it, but they love her, too.
But the important thing about my mom...is she cares.
I don't even know what kind of flower it is, but she calls them her Ruby flowers. They grow on a tree in our back yard and every day she goes out back to pick whatever she can reach on her tiptoes. She carries them around and sings princess songs with a warbled voice, she "plants" them to grow new beautiful trees all over the yard, she takes them apart to string for a necklace. It is her very own utopia, created for and by her in her four-year-old world.
When she is done playing with them, she brings them inside and ties a bouquet. I find tiny bunches all over the house in all kinds of made up vases. Their deep red matches this fiery little girl who is just delightful. If you had told me there would be such a level of loveliness a year ago while in the thick of age three, I would have laughed but secretly believed you. Her light has always been there but it seems so bright these days.
When we walk the dog she can barely wait for the lawn with all the "candy lions" (dandelions). She picks every last one and somehow by magic there are more everyday. While we walk home she places one on each walk of every neighbor as an act of anonymous kindness. I smile and remember days when even weeds were special.
There is no shortage of joy and living completely in the moment. She tells me each morning when I try to wake her up that she can not possibly go to school because she is too tired. Only minutes later when she is fully awake that she totally changes her mind and insists we must leave that same minute. I find a contraband tiny stuffed animal in her school bag almost every day. I ask her about it and every day she insists that it is her show-and-tell day even though it isn't. We haggle and she finally relents in order to not miss all of the awesome of her pre-school.
She pulls old cereal and juice boxes out the recycling to make presents for her friends. I find dress up shoes in an old Capri-Sun box tied up with rainbow colored yarn, they are for Maris. I know this because she has a card sitting on top with a picture of two stick figure friends holding hands while a smiley face sun shines down on them.
I try to soak in the magic of four, the delightful time of independence mixed with the innocence of the imaginative mind. I mark this in my mind as one of my most favorite ages. I sit and chat with my most delightful daughter.
What is your favorite age(s)? What does the delightfulness look like to you? Share with us in the comments.
Madeleine is eleven and a half now and whether I like it or not, boys are on her radar. She's not silly or screaming or following her cues from all the media messages that tell her this should be her be-all, end-all. No, she's just aware in a new way that boys can be people who you could have deep affection for--partially in the same way she adores her friends who are girls.
So far, I think this interest is healthy and I hope all of her upcoming relationships in her teen years are just as reasonable, respectful and fun. The boys seem to be as engaged as the girls and when they do interact, the whole thing strikes me as the kind of thing you remember as innocent and fun your whole life long.
So what's the catch? Madeleine continues to ask for permission either to have one-on-one time with the boy of her choice or to host get-togethers with boys AND girls for things like dance parties and more recently, a boy/girl sleepover. I know without a shadow of a doubt that these things are totally harmless, but I have a big red neon sign flashing in the back of my mind that says six months deeper into her adolescence it will be a whole different story.
It's a common parenting dilemma, right? Go with what's just right for your child's development right now and make adjustments to your strategy later or hold back (or push ahead) because you see what'll be better for their development right around the corner?
In the past, I've always been inclined to go with what's best for my kids in the moment. I didn't smack my toddlers hands when they touched the Christmas tree ornaments because I knew experiencing things in a tactile way was key to their development; I simply redirected their attention instead. I didn't fuss when my three and four year olds showed signs of being the world's most creative cross-dressers because I knew that trying on different roles and identities was a essential for them establishing their sense of self.
These were (in some circles) controversial parenting decisions I made at the time because let's face it--it's hard to be that parent whose baby is all up in the Christmas tree or the one whose adorable boy is showing up to preschool in Mardi Gras beads and Cinderella shoes. But I let things go and reined my kids in on certain things when they were old enough to do things a different way--Mardi Gras beads still excepted.
Now sticking to that plan feels a little more loaded. Boy/girl sleepover? I've read the more normal, non-sexualized interaction kids have across gender in pre-adolescence, the more healthily they re-meet one another across the big divide. But the hassle of reversing the precedent and saying no in a year or two (who wants to monitor a houseful of 13 year old boys and girls in the middle of the night?) sounds like a nightmare, too.
What do you think? I'm especially interested in hearing from parents on the issue of doing what's right for your kids right now or getting them ready for what's around the bend--even if it means sacrificing what's currently best for their development.
When Madeleine was a preschooler, we both dreaded the task of combing out her long wavy hair. I'd tell myself that combed hair was overrated and that such neatness was unnecessary, but eventually--you know how it goes--someone had to make this child look like she actually had a mother. So to entertain her and help her stay still, I made up a story about The Tangles. The Tangles loved to play in Madeleine's hair, but every so often they needed to go home to their mother who lived in our big black brush. Sometimes it was obvious to me (and Madeleine) that the Tangles had been having a party or had been to the circus or had been riding roller coasters all day long. Other times it was clear that the Tangles had no intention of leaving--they were having too much fun--and the Tangles' mother would beg them to come home, so they could do scandalous things like eat ice cream in bed or watch television until morning. Madeleine loved not only to hear this story but to help create it. We told the story of The Tangles for a long time, until she was a much bigger girl and was learning to brush her hair without parental assistance.
I think of this story longingly now as Madeleine--fully capable of brushing her hair perfectly, now leaves the house with hair that I wish I could immediately drive to a salon for a thorough deep shampoo and conditioning treatment. Somehow it never occurred to me to add a rain chapter to the Tangles story, so I could work in the shampoo angle.
But what we do have is this story and this memory, and that gives us both a sweet and powerful place to stand as we deal with whatever challenges that come our way in the future. I'm hopeful about that and wondering what stories we need to share now to help us take on the next development stage of our growing up and learning together as mother and daughter.
Do you have a favorite family story that helps your child come along in the growing up process?
As mothers we love to complain about our daughters being too dramatic, while being completing forgetful of all the ways we were overly dramatic as girls ourselves--or in my case, overly dramatic yesterday. I keep thinking we should take this show on the road--Madeleine and me, but thankfully, there's a young troubled starlet on the cover of every gossip magazine to remind me that life as a child star (with or without the dramatic stage mother) means rehab is just a few years away.
Here are a few ways I'm trying to play the role of "mature grownup" when Madeleine is responding to life's every turn with drama, drama, drama:
Some of this is normal. Notice I say "some." Madeleine has been an expressive child since birth. It only makes sense that her capacity for self-expression would grow right along with her verbal and reasoning skills. She's got the full range of emotions going from across the spectrum and that's a good thing. My work is to channel her energy, not squelch it. Understanding (and honoring) her as a naturally expressive person helps me put this behavior in perspective.
Just because your drama queen is in hysterics doesn't mean you have to be. High strung kids can pull everyone else into their drama in no time. Before you know it, you're pacing, emoting, yelling, and throwing your hands around for emphasis, too. I find it helps most when I take a calm, quiet and somewhat detached demeanor. She's caught up in her own emotion, but Mom is doing just fine. This conveys a natural boundary that gives her confidence and something to count on. Not an easy posture for me, but I'm learning.
It's okay to step away from the fire. Sometimes Madeleine is too upset/tired/animated and/or offended to really entertain any other point of view. In these cases, things go better if I'm empathetic ("I can see you are really having a hard time") and clear ("I'm not going to talk about this until I have a chance to calm down myself and think it through") in the midst of her storm. By giving myself a little timeout to process, I offer an example of how to get through heavy-duty emotions. Just because her intensity is turned way up doesn't mean I need to react immediately. Giving myself time to think helps both of us.
Try passing notes. When Madeleine is really upset about something, sometimes we communicate best through writing. At eleven, she's well acquainted with the brilliance of the phrase "circle yes or no." By writing back and forth, we can boil things down to the underlying issues and say the most important things on our minds. Most of the time her outburst is connected to a tiny need she's feeling too big to own up to, like--"I need more alone time" or "I need quiet time with mom". These are the kinds of things that notes bring to the surface.
Don't feed the elephants. There's an disproportionate amount of media/books/music focused on the insecure girl, desperate for reassurance and approval. While I understand that much of this is designed to validate feelings and help girls get on towards empowerment, sometimes I wonder if we're telling our girls that it's normal to be unsure of themselves--that part of growing up is playing the part of the tentative ingenue, afraid of the world. I know Madeleine is listening hard when I tell her that this classic "girl" behavior doesn't have to be her destiny--and that working on social and academic skills is one way to keep her standing tall and calm in the inevitable storms.
Cry if you want to. Sometimes our drama queens are tuned into the big feelings that we long ago learned how to stamp out. It's okay to spend a little time in meltdown mode until the waves wash you back to shore. A gentle bubble bath is the perfect place to get it all out while doing some important self-nurture at the same time. Madeleine is learning how to self-soothe--an important skill for grownups as well.
Are you a drama queen? Is your girl (or boy)? Share with us what works well in the comments below.
How do you handle it when a grandparent or loved one is dying and you have to decide whether or not to include your children in the experience? How do you know when it's too much? Or whether being exposed to the natural process of losing those we love is a life process that your child is ready to face? How do you deal with your own grief at the same time?
This is a question we've encountered this last week as Madeleine and Carter's great-grandfather on their dad's side is clearly reaching his last days. To make decision-making more complicated, the news came while I'm overseas working on a project. Thankfully, modern technology made a simple text conversation possible. Here's what we decided.
Take age into account. Madeleine, at eleven, is probably more capable of taking in a sad scene, than Carter who is still, at eight, developing language for more emotional events.
Consider the personality. Carter is a natural emotional sponge who takes in visual content deeply. Seeing his grandfather dying might have a different impact on him than Madeleine who handles difficult subjects more directly and expressively.
Look at the family. At this point in our family life, it might be a good bonding experience for Madeleine to spend time with her dad. They both know how to be compassionate and offer their presence in a similar comforting way. With me being away, it might not make sense for me to get on a plane and do another trip--especially when this experience might be too much for Carter.
We decided in the end, Madeleine should go and I should come home and stay with Carter. Since this is a loved one who the children do not know well, we felt it was okay to not have both kids go, since the loss will not be primarily theirs. Madeleine would have the experience of being with family at a difficult time as well as the opportunity to share an important moment with her dad. Carter and I will process in a more conversational way at home.
This is a very sad time, but I trust that Madeleine will be shaped and formed by seeing how deeply loved her great-grandfather is and how important she is to her dad who loves them both so much.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I stood on the playground at Lucy's preschool before she even attended there. She was playing wildly on a tire swing with Jack while I spoke to a teacher and friend. Her little self, as she was no older than two and half maybe, keeping up with kids twice her size.
I was just starting to grasp the idea of her strong personality and starting to venture into new territory of parenting a girl after two boys.
"I don't know Kirsten, sometimes it is as if the entire world revolves around her. The boys adore her, she has this sort of way of being, this magnetism where she calls whatever she wants into being, it kind of worries me actually. Am I going to raise a totally self involved kid here?" I asked.
Kirsten laughed and then said very seriously, "Oh no Patience, build her up, guide her strength but don't worry about that because as a woman the world will challenge her, even try to take her down, you can count on that. "
Ever since that day, I kept that conversation and wisdom in the back of my mind, never letting it go too far from my thoughts as I parent my girl. It was the first thing I thought of as I watched the new PBS documentary A Girl's Life, where Rachel Simmmons, explores all the challenges and opportunities for young girls in our world today. Rachel has spent a decade talking to girls and wrote the New York Times bestsellers Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence.
I was kind of scared and inspired at the same while watching the screener. I became informed on how much more my own girls will face in their adolescence and also how much potential and opportunity awaits them. If I am honest, part of me wanted to bury my head in the sand as I have a few years to go before we are there. Yet then I felt so incredibly grateful to have watched as I realized this is the very time we should be talking and considering how we can help our girls be strong and confident individuals.
I find everytime I start to feel overwhelmed by a particular topic as a parent, gaining some knowledge seems to quiet some of my fears and gives me a small toehold for the climb ahead. I can imagine it is the same for our kids.
If you are a parent of a girl (at any age) you will want to see A Girl's Life airing on December 30th at 8pm on your local PBS station. (check local listings) You may even want to watch it with your young pre-teen, teen girl and gather her thoughts on the subject. Also, check out the Raising Girls section here on the site and the new A Girl's Life page for more information.
If you are a parent to a girl, what issues are your girls facing? Does it feel all that different from when you were growing up? Got any thoughts or advice for this mom who will be there before I know it? Please share in the comments.
I sat in the car pool line at preschool waiting for Lucy; her teacher Gillian held her hand as they walk towards the car. I could tell Lucy was about to cry, holding it all in, but just barely.
"I have a pretty present for you!" she wailed the second Gillian opened the door.
"Yes, Lucy has a present for you but it isn't quite ready yet, right? It will be okay Luce." she replied with an even voice, almost no emotion.
I laughed, knowing it had been the third time that week Lucy had cried when it was time to leave school. Each day held a different reason for all the emotion of devastation that my four year old girl feels. Feelings are so big at this age and I would venture to say even bigger for Lucy whose joys are as great as her sorrows. I always wondered how this part of her would play out at school when there are lots of kids with lots of different needs.
She needed understanding, strength and guidance all at the same time.
Just days later we found ourselves at the park, playing pretend as all roads lead to this game.
"Mom, you be the girl and I'll take you to school, okay?" she instructed.
I nodded and followed along.
"Now honey, have a good day at school! Be a listening girl and Miss Brea and Gillian will take good care of you, okay?" she mimicked my speech. I smiled.
She stopped the play. "Mom, let's get my teachers a pretty present for Christmas okay?" she insists.
I agree and wish I had about a hundred pretty presents to give these women. Sometimes when you are in the trenches of parenting, you wonder if anyone can see what you see. Maybe it is that you hope they will pick up where you lack, and love all the parts of your kid the way you do, even the hard ones.
The day I found out Brea and Gillian would be Lucy's teachers I just knew they were a gift to us both. The tattoos and a tiny nose ring combined told stories of strong and yet tender women who know what it means to choose the life you want. They embraced Lucy's strength while I still struggle to know my own and learn how to parent someone so different from me. They have offered boundaries yet still held space for her delightful spirit. They have helped her wield her power and remind me to keep my compassion. They have loved her well.
I feel all kinds of grateful for the village this holiday season. It is the kind of tribe that shows you how to live by standing beside you and jumping in to invest in love on so many levels. The place where we gather together and wish pretty presents could be enough to express our gratitude and love.
Who are you feeling grateful for investing in your child this holiday season? What pretty present are you wishing for them? It's like your very own talk show dedication in our comment section today.