When you become a parent, you anticipate that certain aspects of parenting will be difficult: not being able to soothe your infant when she’s crying; convincing your toddler that pooping in the shower isn’t funny; the year your kid gets a teacher that he just can’t stand; dating in any way, shape, or form; convincing your middle schooler that pooping in the shower isn’t funny; sitting shotgun and physically restraining yourself from pretending to step on the brake while your 16 year-old gets his learner’s permit. What you don’t necessarily anticipate is how difficult the day-to-day interactions can be, how much seemingly insignificant frustrations can completely throw you off your game, how utterly helpless and confused you may feel over what – you think – should really be easy, silly stuff. Those are the moments they don’t talk about in parenting books, the ones that your Lamaze instructor neglected to mention while she was glossing over words like perineum and crowning and don’t be alarmed if your partner has a bowel movement right there on the birthing table because pushing a human out of your hoo-hah can sometimes cause your body to do weird stuff.
Although we originally attempted to parent them in exactly the same way (it was all we knew, after all), it became apparent really quickly that Ella and Annie were – surprise! – very different people with very different personalities (yes, I did earn myself a Master’s Degree, why do you ask?). Some of these differences became glaringly obvious this past week, presenting me with parenting hurdles I had no idea how to jump.
Same outfit… same hair… do not be fooled.
This hurdle surely had to be something big, something important, something really mind-blowing, right? Um… nope. In fact, it was a worksheet from their new art teacher asking them to draw a picture telling her a little about themselves. When the first kiddo brought it home from school, she kept it private, refusing to show it to me at all. I didn’t push her to reveal her masterpiece, but did remind her (the night before it was due) to complete it. She did and then showed it to me – a pencil sketch, drawn with care but not particular effort. I thought little of it and asked her to place it in her school folder.
That same afternoon, the second kiddo brought home the identical assignment and set to working on it immediately, crayons and colored pencils flying as she added details and nuances and flourishes. Upon seeing this, I asked the first kiddo if she, too, was supposed to have colored in her paper; she said no. After clarifying (“You’re sure? No coloring?”) and being told, again, that no additional work was required, I let the matter go.
As I was straightening up before bed that night, however, I double-checked her folder to make sure that the paper was there – it was – and, for the first time, took a closer look. The directions stared back at me, very clearly stating that not only was the assignment to be colored in, it was also supposed to contain a decorative border and the instructions were to be cut off of the completed work. And suddenly every bit of parenting advice and prep work I’d undertaken up until that moment flew out the window as I thought, “That little twit!” and also, “What the hell do I do now?”
I had asked her about the assignment. I had specifically mentioned coloring, and she had specifically told me it was not required. MY GOD, WE’RE RAISING A LYING DEVIANT. Should I haul her butt out of bed at 11 p.m. to right her wrong? Should I awaken her in the morning and insist that she complete the work to the standard of which she’s capable? Should she receive some sort of punishment for her flippant attitude and disrespect for her art teacher? Should I inform her that, in our house, we complete our work and I expected more of her?
Or was I not a part of this at all – was it all on her? Since it was her assignment, should she just have to return to school with it unfinished and face the consequences? Was it okay for her to have her teacher see that she didn’t really give a care, to potentially form a negative opinion of her? Shouldn’t she be responsible for her own school work?
(It should be noted that Nick was already asleep, so these were conversations I was having with myself. Aloud. I always have self-conversations aloud, don’t you?)
And then it dawned on me that perhaps – and more likely – she had not actually read the instructions. Perhaps, instead of deliberately deciding to blow off the assignment (and, in the process, flip her teacher the bird), she genuinely didn’t realize that it was incomplete. Reading the directions – all of them – is still her responsibility, of course, but intent matters (or at least I told myself that it did). So, after running the tale of my little miscreant and my subsequent dilemma past some dear friends, I opted for an approach straight down the middle: I highlighted the instructions that she hadn’t followed, left the paper out on the kitchen counter for her to find in the morning, and then didn’t say another word about it. If she decided to do more, she could. If she decided to turn it in as-is, she could, and then deal with the consequences. But at least I knew that she was aware that the directions called for something else.
(She chose to color in her picture. I have no idea how well/much she colored, nor if she added a border; we never spoke about it. I may have superglued my mouth shut to achieve this, but still.)
Y’all, it was hard. How do you know when to push and when to let go? When is it time to back off and when is it time to move in? Is she old enough to be responsible for her own self or is it still time for me to insist on specific behaviors? Perhaps most of all, how do I understand and accept a child who is fundamentally different from me – I, who (despite my wait-till-the-last-minute, disorganized ADHD-ness) always made sure that my school assignments were just so? Not stepping in and hovering over her until the work was spot-on was almost physically painful; worrying that she’d be perceived as a slacker, as someone who doesn’t care was even worse… but I worried more for me, not for her. She isn’t concerned with her reputation – I am because, deep down, I’m afraid of how it reflects on me. How do you parent a child who goes about life from a completely different perspective than you do? How much of you and your beliefs do you thrust at her, and how much do you let her navigate her own way?
AND THIS WAS JUST A SINGLE ART ASSIGNMENT.
GAH, parenting. Bite me.
As the first child trundled off to school with her homework, I told myself that this was the hard part – parenting a kid who approaches life in an unfamiliar way (to me). With the second kiddo, the one who tucked into her homework so ardently, the one who is more like me, it was bound to be easier. Famous last words.
You probably know where this is heading, no? So, we arrived at the morning when the second child’s assignment was due. She had worked on it several times over the course of the week, adding color and finesse, and it was not only clear that she had put in a great deal of effort – there wasn’t really even room on the page for anything more. After reminding her the night before that it was due and being met with silence, I assumed that it was finished and tucked it into her folder for her to take to class. (Normally, this would be her job, but we’ve had a bit of a tough time segueing back into the school routine – okay, I’ve had a tough time keeping everything on track and making sure that the girls go to bed at an hour that allows them to get enough sleep – and she was so exhausted the night before, she had left half her dinner at the table and fallen asleep an hour prior to her “normal” time, so I took pity on her and loaded her backpack.)
Dutifully, she checked her folder before heading off to school… and immediately took out the crayons again, attempting to fill in the very few empty white spaces. She was still coloring when I announced that it was time to head to school, thinking this wouldn’t be an issue – the requirements had obviously been fulfilled, so she was good to go.
BUT NO, she was not good to go. Although she may have technically followed the instructions, she was not finished. The more I tried to coax her into getting out the door, the more she fell apart – she had a vision, damn it, and now it would be ruined. RUINED!! She clutched the paper to her chest (if I were a romance writer, I might say “heaving chest” because she was sobbing so hard, her chest was… well, heaving…), folding it up into a tight square as she shrieked that she could not turn it in like this – SHE COULD NOT.
I tried to reason with her – she had put in a nice, solid effort. It looked neat. It was clear that she had worked hard. Didn’t matter – it was pitiful; she wanted to do more. I tried to gently remind her that I had mentioned this the night before and she had essentially ignored me and that if she had wanted to work on it, then would have been the right time. But she DIDN’T, and now it WASN’T DONE and OMG SHE COULDN’T WORK LIKE THIS.
By that time, neither could I, and so I marched her off to school – still wailing – alternating between feeling empathetic and feeling infuriated. She continued to sob, and I do mean sob, for the entire walk, which was simultaneously heartbreaking and maddening. Yes, I get it – you don’t feel good about it. It isn’t done to your standards. You don’t want to turn it in like this. But guess what? SCHOOL IS STARTING IN THREE MINUTES AND BY GOD YOU NEED TO GET YOUR BUTT IN THAT DOOR AND DOWN TO YOUR CLASSROOM.
I offered her solutions: she could turn it in just like this and no one would be the wiser; it looked finished, bam. Or she could speak to her teachers – her homeroom teacher, the art teacher – about it and explain her dilemma, that she wanted to add more and could they help her? Could she finish it in class? Could she have more time at home? Or she could choose to not turn it in, period, accept whatever the consequence was, finish it at home, and then turn it in the following day.
(Side note: Why I was completely comfortable with one child deliberately not turning in her work at all because she was unsatisfied with it while I was horrified that the other might turn in an incomplete assignment is probably something I should look into…)
None was acceptable. What she wanted was more time – right then, to complete the vision she had for the assignment – with absolutely no consequence. Alas, while I sympathized with her plight (so much so, I actually debated allowing her to stay home to finish the paper, because my God, I remember that awful feeling when I’d neglected to do my work the way I’d intended to), I now have the strange perspective of time: the world would not end if the homework wasn’t done to her specifications. This was not a thesis. She had had the opportunity to complete it the night before but hadn’t taken it. And, most importantly, sometimes the choices that life gives you aren’t the ones you want, but you still have to make a decision.
Which totally sucks. I love parenting!!
At last, I physically pulled her by the hand into the school lobby, where we had a rather long conversation with the secretary, who could not have been more sympathetic. Her daughter had been this way, she told me, a perfectionist, but turning in work that wasn’t exactly just so was actually good for her. She also informed my still-sobbing daughter that of course she could talk to her teachers about it, but that she absolutely had to go to class – nothing could be accomplished by standing in the hallway. We were given a late pass, much to my – not her – dismay (the first ever in four-plus years at the school, *gasp*) and told to be on our way.
My girl nodded and trudged glumly down the hall but was unswayed; when we reached her classroom door, she refused – absolutely refused – to go in. She was in such hysterics, she could hardly breathe, and I knew she was embarrassed to have her classmates see her in such a frenzy. I hugged her. I reminded her to talk to her teachers. I told her that it would be okay. And then? There really was nothing more that I could do short of completely disrupting the class, so… I left. I left her crumpled against the school wall, gasping (heaving?) for breath as she continued to weep, unconsolable.
Remember when, last week, I’d assumed that parenting the kiddo who was not like me would be harder than parenting the one who is like me? Yep. Total walk in the park with this one. HA HA HA.
This was so not in the Lamaze brochure.
As I left the building, I passed the secretary again, who was on the phone with the art teacher explaining the situation and asking her to come down and talk to my little perfectionist. She then turned to me and said, “You did the right thing, Emily. It’s hard, but you really did the right thing. She’ll be okay.”
I knew that much – surely, she wouldn’t be in the hall all day long. She would eventually calm down and, more than likely, forget about the assignment a few minutes later. I wasn’t really worried about that (although what these I-have-a-vision-and-it must-be-realized-exactly-to–my-specifications tendencies may mean down the road, I don’t know) – but, dang, it was sure nice to hear straight to my face that I wasn’t an ogre.
Or, even better, that I was doing it right.
In hindsight, I have no idea if I actually got either scenario right. Both girls seem fine and there appear to be no lasting repercussions, but there are things I might do differently another time. I fully recognize the irony that the silly, no-sweat, introductory homework assignment turned into a parenting struggle not once but twice, for totally different reasons. Well played, assignment. Well played.
When I first became a mom, I’d anticipated difficulties with friendships. I know, despite my insistence that time slow down, that puberty is just around the corner, and I’ve got the cute American Girl book lying in wait. I dread the body-image issues that could crop up any time now. But a Tell Me About Yourself! assignment for art class? Nope. Not on my oh-shit-this-could-be-hard radar.
I can hardly wait until the intense homework starts.
I’d say we should just skip ahead until they’re, oh, 20, but then I’d miss the chance to show them Dirty Dancing for the first time and watching them navigate their first middle school dance and traveling abroad for the first time and introducing them to Starbucks lattes. So, yeah, I guess we’d better keep on going.
I’ll just remember to be on my toes – it’s amazing how quickly molehills (that you didn’t even realize were there) can become towering mountains. Good thing don’t mind climbing.