Back-to-school brings scissors, pencils, cliques, and other sharp things

It’s mid-August, finally, and many schools in our country are back in session. In my neck of the woods, however, we still have a month to go before that first bell. There are beaches to visit, day trips to take, ice cream to scoop, camp-outs to plan, and all kinds of lazy days spread before us like a month of red-checkered picnic blankets.

Still, it’s mid-August, and while that means the summer’s last hurrah for the next few weeks, for many parents, it also means thinking ahead to the upcoming school year. In my house, we have summer reading (and notes) to finish, as well as math homework (yes, you read that right, we have math worksheets). Amid all the catalogues and online ads and social media posts of faraway friends’ kids having first days of school — first weeks even — there has been this gnawing thought.

What will this year look like for my kids?

Honestly, I’m not concerned about academics. It’s not that my kids are so brilliant. It’s just that I can handle helping them with schoolwork. It’s neat. It’s predictable. Sure, it’s often a challenge at one time or another, but it’s manageable.

What I wonder is what the year will look like for them socially.

talking behind backUndoubtedly it’s my own baggage that makes me feel this way, year after year. I had some struggles in middle school, sixth and seventh grades in particular, when both years found me an outcast for some alleged insult to a friend. (Yes, both times a friend heard a rumor I’d said something that I didn’t say, and suddenly no one in the grade spoke to me for months.) I remember this keenly, and have always been on the lookout for my kids. Are they happy? Making friends? Being a good friend? Enjoying school? Enjoying after school?

It’s usually a case of “so far, so good.” I don’t care about popularity and I don’t care about numbers. I think it’s okay to not be friends with everybody, but I try to teach my kids to be kind to everyone, even if they don’t want to foster a friendship. What I do care about is that each of my children has one or two good connections, true connections, honest and mutual friendships, to count on.

This year, I’m not so sure what to expect. This year, I have my doubts, and also my fears, about what back-to-school will mean for one of my children in particular, because for the first time, in the last few months I have witnessed some genuine Mean Kid behavior. Straight out of a Disney Channel movie.

The first incident happened at the end of the school year. My kids and I were walking to a nearby soccer field for someone’s game. Our route took us through the neighborhood across the street, a neighborhood filled with families and kids, many of whom are friends on some level with my kids. We rounded a bend and I saw them, the three peers of my child, stopped a distance away, chatting. My nerves got edgy; these kids are only peers, not friends, though they friends were at one time. But not any more, as far as I could tell by the sudden lack of phone calls. The were No Longer Friends.

We walked on. The trio walked as well, but stopped every once in a while to chat, or look at a phone or a flower. They saw us; I saw them recognize us. Yet no one spoke, not them, not my kids. Finally we were near enough when I could use my Mom/Teacher voice to say, “Hey there, Name, Name and Name!”

No one answered. By now my blood was a little hot. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined any of these kids (I know their PARENTS!) ignoring an adult. But ignore me they did. We closer still, until we were a few steps behind, and we all finally had to turn onto the single-file path through the woods, a cut-through to the fields. One of my kids was on a bike, and wobbled slowly just behind the ahead-walkers, and still no one spoke. As the path widened, my bike-rider shot past them, as did my kid, the peer and former friend of these three, and still not one spoke. Not to that child or the siblings, and not to me. And I thought, “What the what?” and “So it begins.” whisper1

Fast-forward a few weeks, to summer vacation, the local pool. Neighbors, friends, peers swimming, enjoying the hot July sun. They were there again, peers of my child, though not all three, but some, with another in the mix. At one point I gave the kids money to get some overpriced treats from the snack bar. Kids’ peers were perched at a picnic table, slurping on Italian ice. My kid walks past them. One says hi to my kid, brightly, friendly. My kids says hi back, equal in tone. Once she’d passed entirely, with back to them, that peer turns to the group, says something, they all laugh, harshly, glancing at my kid before laughing some more. Again, I was caught off-guard, again I was shocked, embarrassingly so, because one new group member, I’d thought, was my child’s friend. I wondered when that had changed. And how.

Fast-forward to today. Same pool. This was not witnessed first hand, but told to me by one of my other kids. Above scenario, almost to the detail, except one or two of the Other Kids had been replaced by one or two more. Same hello. Same whisper. Same laugh. (Apparently, my child who shared the story spoke up, called the Other Kids out, and basically got a “whatever.” Same child hugged his sibling, and said the Other Kids were a bunch of jerks. I had to kiss them both.)

My child shrugs off these incidents when they are mentioned. My child is kind and forgiving. My child calls them still calls the Other Kids friends. My child is an optimist, always able to see the good side of any situation, of most people.

And even as my child shrugs, I see the ghost of confusion in the corners of the eyes. Even as my child is too proud to acknowledge the insult, I see the flash of hurt, quickly replaced by a smile. Even as my child would never say something bad about a peer, I see the slash, ever so slight, in the layers of the skin.

We talk, and we don’t talk. I speak in circles, mining for the heart of the matter, edging closer. I have to be careful; the ground is very unstable. Too much, and it will all cave in, closed off forever. This is how we progress. Talking, listening, subject changing, whispers in the dark of things that are too raw to say in the light of day.

School starts in a month. These peers, and others, will be omnipresent; it is a small town.

I wonder what September will bring for this child. Re-connecting with true old friends? Finding new friends? Real Friends? I don’t know.

But I will bring all that I have, including the sized-for-the-soul Band-Aids that, for the first time, I fear my child will need.

band aid heart

 

 

 

 

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On advocating for early cancer detection — no matter what your trusted doctor says. SPEAK. UP.

I was just thinking about all the people in the last year, all of these loved ones who died very shortly after abrupt end-stage cancer diagnoses. It has been awful. Not a single cancer was a so-called “lifestyle cancer” (like lung, which too often is NOT from smoking).

But many might have been treatable with earlier diagnosis.

I was thinking about this, not entirely because of my recent losses, but for the losses of others in my world, the recent losses others have suffered.

I don’t know what the answer is, but please, please, advocate for early detection, and PLEASE question your doctors, who are often awfully hogtied by insurance regulations and have to always treat the simplest symptoms rather than testing for the horrible thing they suspect.

When she was just three, my oldest child went for almost two weeks with undiagnosed pneumonia. Her only symptom was a fever. That’s it. No coughing, no sore throat, no stuffy nose, no rash, no nothing. For days — days, and then weeks — the well-meaning but rule-following doctors put us off for lack of other symptoms. Wait and see, they said. It’s just a virus, they said. Hydrate. Give Tylenol. Eventually, the (way overdue) chest x-ray told a different story. After two weeks, by the time they figured out what was going on, her chest — not just her lungs, but her ACTUAL CHEST CAVITY — was filled with fluid. She needed surgical intervention to save her life, to drain the fluid and repair the damage, and spent more than 10 days in a hospital. (Incidentally, this event may or may not have triggered the years-later onset of Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disorder which many experts believe is directly related to an emergent viral or bacterial onslaught, such as was her pneumonia.) Had anyone done the chest x-ray earlier, just days or a week earlier, perhaps the outcome would’ve been different. On many levels.

But insurance companies — and because of that, well-paid and well-intentioned doctors — don’t approve anything at first. When it could count. Err on the side of statistics is the motto.

After all, most fevers are not chest-cavity-filling pneumonia. I get that. But an x-ray after, say, day four? Maybe justified. Maybe more than justified.

And then there is this.

My dad died of end-stage, too-late-undiagnosed liver cancer, but his doctors for many, many months treated his symptoms with prescriptions aimed at relief of reflux and related stomach issues, never once scanning for something else — despite his prior cancer history.

My mother-in-law is battling for her life. She conquered cancer twice before, yet despite that documented history, no doctor was able to effectively test early on based on her new complaints. The protocol was just not approved, based on a checklist which had nothing to do with any apparent rational thought. She bested cancer twice before and might lose the war now simply because nothing was done sooner. Because steps could not be skipped.

It’s not entirely the fault of the medical practitioners.

As patients, we are routinely assessed by medical professionals and treated for the simplest diagnosis. Because that is the rules of the insurance chart. You can’t move up the chart unless all the other steps are checked. There are rules for tests, depending on age, medical history, cancer statistics, etc. Days, weeks, months pass. And all the while, disease marches on, destroying everything in its wake.

I had a mammogram today. Not because it’s on the medical charts as “necessary” (I think I might be younger than the recommended age, but these days only just?) but because 7 years ago I had a lump.

It was a scary time, that lump and all the lumpy-related scans and biopsies and nights cuddling with four kids under the age of five and reading Good Night, Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where The Wild Things Are and wondering when someone would give me an answer and whether or not I would be alive to see my four tiny kids be potty-trained, never mind being alive to see them get married and have babies of their own so I could know they read Good Night, Moon or the story of Max  — or all the stories yet to be written — to those yet-c0nceived babies I absolutely would spoil in the way only grandmas can.

I wondered whether or not I would be alive to see my babies get to third grade.

It was a scary time, and thankfully, that ended okay. So now I get an annual test. It’s not the best way to spend part of the day, but the clear scans make the boob-smushing worth it.

Yet many women of my age (mid-40s) don’t have this exam. (Insert gratitude here for my lovies who survived even worse than I went through.)

Even more of us don’t get colonoscopies.

Insurance companies are even starting to question the funding of routine pap smears for anyone younger than, oh, 80 or something?

And almost no medical practice authorizes the regular chest screenings of patients who smoke (choose to smoke? Are addicted to nicotine? Maybe that’s why they don’t authorize tests? Because dirty smokers deserve to die?)

Almost none of us are screened for heart disease, other than through lifestyle questions.

I am in awe of the medical tests we have available to us in this lifetime. It is STUNNING to think of what doctors can see, can visualize, can touch and fix with all this technology! What we can do healthwise — what illnesses we can stop, what awful we can fix — it is amazing to consider.

We HAVE to become a society that not only expects, but demands our trusted doctors (not the faceless robots that answer our button-pushing insurance phone calls) to err on the side of caution. We HAVE to insist on something more than the wait-and-see. We deserve more than the lowest-common-denominator health care.

We have to insist on early testing. By doctors — not the paid lobbyists. We have to insist that doctors be allowed to save lives, and not just the lives of 3 year olds whose moms write poignant essays on social media, or the lives of all people who shop at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods and somehow proved something about their commitment to quality of life and are subsequently more deserving than everyone else, especially those who eat hot dogs. Or Cheetos.

We have to insist that everyone deserves proactive health care, that no one should be denied appropriate care because some chart dictated otherwise.

Babies, moms, dads, drummers, cashiers, homeless, lawyers, teachers, taxi drivers, florists, waiters, mail carriers, the owner of the yarn shop in the town square.

Everyone deserves more than the lowest-common-denominator health care.

Everyone.

Even the dirty smokers.

SPEAK.

UP.

March Madness, family style

One night not too long ago, as I kissed her good night, Joanna whispered in my ear: “I really miss being in kindergarten because I used to get to spend so much time with you.”

My heart sort of broke a little.

It’s true that with our town’s half-day kindergarten program, we did spend a lot of time together last year. We didn’t do anything special — lunch, stories, a game, and an hour of quiet time (she watched TV and I sat on the couch next to her, listening to Caillou or Max and Ruby with my eyes closed). It wasn’t exciting, but it was just us two, alone. And in a house with six people, alone time is pretty rare.

I gave Joanna another kiss and promised that soon, soon, we’d find some time.

I’m still looking.

Lately I’ve been feeling that everything is moving too fast. The days are filled and busy and fun and go-go-go, and we try to have family time in the form of playing board games or watching movies, but I can’t help but somehow feel like my kids’ childhoods are just slipping through my fingers like sand.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t know them that well any more.

March MadnessSo I decided to put an end to it, starting this month. I’m calling it March Madness (well, of course), because my idea is really, truly mad.

This month, once a week, I’m keeping each of the kids home from school for the day, so I can spend that entire day just with that kid. I don’t know what we’ll do — get out into the world, go to the Y or to the park or the movies or out to lunch, to the craft store or the rec center or wherever that kid wants to go. I’ll take the day off from work and writing and Facebooking and Twittering, and even from the Blueboards, and start to get to know that kid all over again.

It’s sounds almost embarrassing to write it down, that I’d need to do this. But, I don’t know. Four kids, busy days, nonstop life. I find pockets here and there for each one (bed time, errand-running, any chance I get to make each of my children feel special and unique and well-loved and well-liked), but it doesn’t seem like enough, not right now. They’re not far from being teenagers, and then they’ll be even busier and more outwardly focused, and somehow it seems that if I don’t start now, later will be too late.

I plan to make March Madness a seasonal thing (October Mayhem? January Blizzard Buster?), so it’s not once a year that a child sees Mom for a day, alone, especially at this age when spending a day with Mom is actually a fun thing, not an annoyance. A day just for that child to stand out, be special, a day when a child can pretend he or she is the only kid on the planet, the most important kid in the universe.

I’m starting this week, and I’m starting with Joanna.

Let the madness begin!

Have you done anything like my March Madness with your family? How do you find “quality time” with your kids?

An Open Letter to My Children

At least a few times a day, my kids accuse me of being the worst, meanest mother on Earth. Though I know they don’t read my blog, once and for all, here is my response:

 

I am mean.  Embarrassingly so.  I know I am, I really do, and I am not sorry.

I am mean and awful because I make you do things like clean up your toys and hang your coat in the closet.  I am mean because I serve you vegetables.  I am awful because I make you eat your age in bites of some dinner that you hate so much you’d rather vomit uncontrollably than force it down your throat.  I am unfair because I blame you when you hit your brother or sister and then make you apologize before sending you to your room.  I am uncaring because I demand you treat others with kindness, and that keep your elbows off the table when you eat.

I understand that you have a busy life.  You have to get up early and go to school and sit still (even when all your body wants to do is get up and move because you’re only a kid, for crying out loud).  I am so proud that, because you are kind and good and a do-gooder, you sit because sitting is expected.  I am proud of you for raising your hand and listening to your classmates and respecting your teacher, and for being smart and cooperative and enthusiastic about school.

And I know it’s an awful lot of work, that it’s all very busy and exhausting.

So I understand that, when the bus drops you off at 2:45 and you run up the steps, you let loose because you are home and you can.  I don’t mind that your first words to me, after hello, are can I have a snack, and can I call so-and-so for a playdate, and, because I know you have been quiet and behaved for the last 8 hours I say yes — but first.

But first.

But first, you must empty your backpack and hang up your coat and put away your shoes and show me your homework assignments.  Then we can snack and make phone calls, — unless you have religious ed or a sport, or unless we have to go to the library to return books and that Wii game that’s going to be overdue at $2 a day.  If we don’t have those other things, yes, of course you can play with your friend – but only for an hour, because there’s dinner and homework and bathing and bed by 7:30, and that takes a long time with the four of you.

You grumble about doing those things, and I get that, because I don’t always hang up my coat, and yes, that’s Daddy’s coat and umbrella and shoes by the front door, and if he doesn’t do it, why should you?

I understand that, by the time we are home once again, you are too exhausted to do homework.  There’s spelling and math and reading and handwriting and moon journals and multiplication tables and science books and enrichment word problems – and all you want to do is run to the basement and shoot mini-hoops or skip upstairs to play with your dolls or cover the kitchen table with nine million craft projects.  But I am Mean and I am Mommy, so you must do homework and I must cook dinner. 

And, no, it will not be your favorite meal because we can’t eat butter-and-cheese pasta or hot dogs or steak or grilled salmon with pesto every night because not only I am not a short-order cook, there is a budget. So I am mean and make you eat dinner, no matter what it is, and even though we laugh and talk about the day and tell jokes and make up stories, I am especially mean because tonight there is no dessert.

Then there’s washing up, and yes, you must use soap.  No, you can’t do laps around the bathtub while the water runs over you like rain.  I am annoying and awful because I make you brush your teeth and wear clean pajamas.

After some stories, you will have to go to bed.  No, you can’t have your DS or stay up late to read because in addition to being your mother, I also once took a cool science course in college where I learned that the human growth hormone is only secreted while you sleep.  If you don’t sleep, you won’t grow.   Plus, I have to wake you up early and don’t want a big crankypants at 6:45 a.m. grumping down to breakfast.

Also, I’m tired.  Yes, Mommies get tired. We’ve all been racing through the past 14 hours, and I need some quiet time.  I am therefore not only Mean, but also Selfish and Insensitive because I need a break from the chaos of my four kids and our schedules.  Just like you, I need to rest.

I am mean, demanding, and annoying, yes, but here’s what you don’t know.

An hour after bedtime, you are asleep.  Your hands are thrown over your head and your mouth is open slightly, and maybe you’re snoring a little, and though you are big now you look just like you did when you were a baby, cuddled in the bassinet by my bed.  You don’t know that I watch you breathe, sometimes just to reassure myself that you are still, in fact, breathing, and sometimes I want to climb in bed with you – but you are so big, when did that happen? – and I want to wrap myself around you, to remind you that I will do my best to keep you safe.  Every day — from monsters under the bed, and the ones that might come in the day with big knife-sharp smiles on their faces.  If someone bothers you at school or on the fields or around the playground, I will make sure it never happens again.

I know I can’t entirely protect you from the hurts of the world, but at night, I like to believe I can, just the same way as my cuddle or lullaby once protected you from the crawling things you were so afraid of in the middle of the night.

The funny thing is, you protect me too, a little.  Being your Mom makes me feel safe and full, and sometimes I worry that I’m screwing it all up, but you never seem to think I have.  The smiles and hugs and the quiet soft talk in the night-light darkness fill me with hope and comfort.  Sometimes I need you for much more than you needed me as Mommy the Monster Slayer.

You won’t know this, of course, until you are grown, and by then it won’t matter much.  Today, what you know is that I am a Mean Mommy. And yes, I will continue to be, because you really do need to learn to tidy your things and hang up your coat and be nice and use soap when you wash.  Until you leave this house, I will insist on these things.

But when you sleep or are scared or just feeling alone in the wind-swept world, know this: I will always be there for you.  Always.  I will always be Mommy.