Sunday, June 21, 2009

One Crazy Weekend: Part 3 of 3

Hilary's graduation wasn't the only excitement of last weekend. As Keri wrote in her last post, it was a busy one for Erika as well.

On Friday night, Erika made her musical debut in Seussical, a production staged by the drama school where she has been taking classes for the last three years. Only students in third grade and older could audition for the main parts, but the director of the program always likes to give the younger children a chance to participate, so she encouraged them to audition to play "mini-Whos." I was surprised when Erika decided to audition, for two reasons: 1.) we happen to be a musically challenged family, although she obviously hasn't figured that out yet, and 2.) the part involved about eight minutes of stage time, for which she would have to go through four months of rehearsals. In fact, last year, she declined to audition to be a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz, because if she couldn't be Dorothy, she didn't want to be in the play at all.

But it seems as if Erika's grown up since then. In fact, learning that you can't always be Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz of life is a lesson many adults I know haven't figured out yet. Erika was happy in her role of mini-Who, and never complained about all the rehearsals, and all the waiting around she was required to do at said rehearsals. And she did great - especially in the final musical number, "Green Eggs and Ham," in which she made the best angry face of any Who on stage. Now she can't wait until the end of August, when auditions begin for the next production, Charlotte's Web. I'm just hoping for her sake that this one isn't also a musical.

I was proud of Erika's performances as a mini-Who, but not nearly as proud as I was later that weekend, when we ran together in her very first 5K race. We, along with Keri and Molly, ran as the "Cheetah Girls" team, and my friend Lauren and her daughter Abby (who was Erika's first real friend) ran with us. Three miles is very, very far for an eight year old (I didn't run one mile without stopping until I was in high school), so we took a few short walking breaks along the way, but the girls did amazing. It's so important to me that the kids grow up fit and strong, and I try to set a positive example for them (which is the only reason I play tennis three times a week, I swear), so I was proud, and Erika was proud, and I was proud that she was proud, as well as proud of her physical accomplishment - so let's just say that everyone was happy.

When it was over, as Keri already posted, Hilary, Declan, and Lauren's younger daughter Maddy ran in the track trot. Driving home afterwards, with everyone hot and sweaty and tired, I felt like a good mom. Heck, I felt like a great mom. I had spent the morning bonding with my kids, as well as exercising their bodies, bolstering their self-esteem, and laying a foundation for healthy, lifelong habits. How many days do you have a chance to do all that and still be home by lunch?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

O, Beautiful!

I'm kind of torn about the whole idea of "kindergarten graduation."

We celebrated Hilary's "commencement" last week, and it's true that she's now leaving behind the sheltered, nurturing pre-school/kindergarten she has attended since she was two years old (for the sheltered, nurturing environment of the wealthy Main Line elementary school she'll go to next year, but that's a topic for a different post). In that light, she is making a legitimate break. On the other hand, I would hardly call this the kind of achievement typically honored at graduations. No finals, no papers, no panic. Although she struggled with the subjects of swing sharing and glitter management, her "diploma" was never in jeopardy.

A few years ago, I read a study suggesting that all the effusive praise heaped on children today causes them to grow up with a poor work ethic and a huge sense of entitlement, so since then I've been wary about celebrating anything that required little effort from my kids. With Hilary, I've discovered, that can be said about most of her accomplishments - even her precocious reading ability, which has impressed both her father and her teachers. Although she was reading chapter books at an age at which Erika could barely read at all, I know deep down it wasn't because she worked hard to develop the skill. It happened very easily for Hilary, like it did for Jonah, because of the hard-wiring in their brains.

Of course, I'm still proud of Hilary, and I love her to pieces, but I think when your six-year-old decides to become an artist instead of a doctor because the latter requires "too much school," it's prudent to begin counseling her against always choosing the path of least resistance. I was, however, encouraged by the diligence with which Hilary applied herself to learning "O, Beautiful," one of the showpieces of the graduation ceremony. She walked around the house singing it (in a curious falsetto) so often that now, nine days later, none of us can shake it from our heads.

The pictures from the graduation all came out dark and blurry (serves us right for letting Erika take them), but you'll have to take my word for it that Hilary, as always, was beautiful.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Digging a Hole, Part 3

What can I say? We're a hole-y family. (Ba dump bump.)

But seriously, what is it about kids and holes? It's like spinning in circles; an activity kids are almost compelled to do, though adults are seemingly immune to its charms.

Last month at the beach, the kids spent an entire weekend digging holes. Here's Aaron and Erika in mid-dig:

And here they are, showing off their work:

Of course, once your hole is dug, there's only one thing to do:

Fill it! Many times over:

Happy digging!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sappy Days

This past weekend was tough for me. Between Hilary's graduation, Erika's first theater production, and her first 5k, I was spent. Emotionally drained. Why?

I'm a sap.

This may come as a surprise, but I'm about as sappy as it gets. From the first notes of "Pomp and Circumstance," I'm sunk. Tearing away. Last week, I caught a glimpse of Hilary's class rehearsing their graduation ceremonies, and just watching all those little 6-year-olds file into the chapel was enough to make me start bawling.

Thursday night was Hilary's official graduation from preschool, and though I'm sure Amy will write about it imminently, I'll just share how unbelievably proud I felt sitting in the audience.

But frankly, I'm not sure why. I certainly had nothing to do with it; I wasn't in any way responsible for her being up on that stage. She did it herself (with some financial assistance and guidance from her parents). But something about seeing her walk down the aisle and sit beaming on the stage just made my heart swell.

On Saturday we saw Erika's first on-stage performance in Seussical, and I couldn't stop the tears every time I saw her on stage (thankfully, it was only twice). But it was more than just Erika. As the cast gathered on stage for their final curtain call, the tears kept coming. And not just for Erika, but for all the kids up there.

Then on Sunday, we ran in our school district's 5k. Afterword, Declan and Hilary ran in the "track trot," a short run around the high school's bus circle. They got "medals" (actually, they were buttons). They were thrilled. I was weepy.

I think it's similar to the feelings I get whenever I see one of my kids slighted in any way (like on the playground...). I feel their sadness, embarrassment, dejection. And when I see my kids, or my nieces, or any kid, for that matter, up on stage, accomplishing something, anything, I feel their pride.

Nothing makes me happier than when Declan comes running to me with a drawing from school, pride oozing from every pore. Or when Ronan shows me a page in a coloring book, his preschool scribbles (almost) contained within the lines. And if that's all it takes to inspire them now, I can't imagine the joy they'll feel when it's them up on that stage, getting their preschool "diplomas" or acting in their first play or scoring their first goal in a soccer game (or maybe not).

The truth is, I don't mind being a sap. I love every minute of it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Strawberry Fields For... Yesterday

Thus begins our first week of "camplessness," those weeks between school and camp and then between camp and school when the kids have nothing scheduled. This year they have just one week off before camp starts, but a full month off after camp ends. (Wish us luck with that.)

In the past, I've dreaded this week, trying to keep a house full of kids occupied all day long. But this year is different. This year I'm enjoying this week a bit more because next week, when the kids head off to camp...

...I'm going with them.

That's right, yours truly is going to brave the world of day camp as a head counselor for a bunk full of 6-year-olds. Heck, we practically have a full bunk of kids here at home, how different can it be at camp? (Famous last words...)

So this week began with a trip to one of our favorite places, Linvilla Orchards. They have pick-your-own-fruit from May through October, and this week raspberries and strawberries were ripe and ready for picking. And eating. I finally realized why pick-your-own fruit is so damn expensive. For every one that went into the basket... went into each kid's mouth. So with six kids (Jonah and Erika were still in school), we definitely got our money's worth.

Tomorrow we're off to the Crayola Factory, with seven kids in tow (Jonah's the only one left in school!)... If the kids can each pocket one crayon for every one we buy, we only need to buy 10 to get a full set!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Adorable Boys! Now Stackable!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Is This the Little Girl I Carried?

While in Boston this past weekend, we stayed with an old friend, mother of two teenagers. I watched enviously as she slept late and discussed the family's plans as if her kids were roommates rather than children. "She won't be home tonight... He's going out... You might see him tomorrow." As I hovered over Molly as she desperately tried to tackle the racks of papers and stacks of books that seemed to be put right within her reach, as I wrestled pill bottles and fragile glass tchatchkes from the boys' sticky fingers, I thought to myself, this is what I'm moving toward. To a day when there are no diapers to change, no childproofing to worry about, to a day when I no longer have to literally hover over my eagerly exploring children.

But, as my friend wearily explained, when the literal hovering ends, the metaphorical hovering begins. She told me of dinners eaten in silence, her teens shooting her withering looks of condescension. She told me of rude comments and sarcastic asides.

But my friend also encouraged me to visit her daughter in her room, where I found a young woman, a person, not just someone's child. I saw her artwork, smelled her incense, admired her jewelry, and talked to her about colleges and photography.

This is what I've been thinking about this week as Molly turned one. Not her year of amazing milestones--sitting up, crawling, climbing, cruising--but her milestones to come--elementary school, braces, Bat Mitzvah, driver's license. Because if it seems that in the blink of an eye, she went from this:

To this:

Then how long will it feel like before she's taller than I am? How long until I worry about whether or not she's drinking alcohol rather than whether she's drinking enough milk? How long until the adorable baby who loves me best of all slams the door in my face and utters the most dismissive of teenage insults: "Whatever."

I know, I know, this is all a bit melodramatic for a simple birthday post. (The end of the school year always does this to me.) So I'll close with a simple, "Happy Birthday Molly!" and a note to her future self:

"Molly, I love you. And I'm much cooler than you think I am."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Complicated Conversation in the Car

This morning, I was driving Hilary, Declan, Ronan, Aaron and Gretchen to the pre-school/kindergarten they attend, when Hilary asked, "Can I marry Ronan?"

Ronan, really? I thought. Because of all the cousins, Hilary and Ronan have historically fought the most, although their relationship seems to have improved as both have gotten a little older and better able to articulate their frustration. Plus, he is half her age.

But I was afraid that probing her particular choice of cousin/spouse would take us too far off point, so I cut right to the chase: "No. You can't marry your cousins, or your brothers."

"Why not?" Hilary wanted to know.

I thought for a minute as I drove. How could I explain, in words a six-year-old would understand, about genetic diversity, and the increased risk of birth defects in restricted gene pools?

I gave up. "Because you can't marry relatives," I said firmly, hoping that if I spoke confidently enough she would accept my answer as the explanation it really wasn't instead of the re-phrasing that it was.

"Gretchen marry me?" Aaron asked, at this point.

"No, honey," I said again. "You can't marry your sister."

"Gretchen hug me?" Aaron asked.

"Sure, Gretchen can hug you."

"I dance with Gretchen," Declan piped up.

"You can hug Gretchen, and you can dance with her, you can play with her, but no one in this car is going to marry her."

"I going to marry my brother," Ronan said.

"You can't," I informed him.

"Boys can't marry boys," Declan explained.

This quieted the kids for the time being, and I wondered if I had missed a teaching moment, a chance to share my hope that, by the time they're grown, people will be able to marry whomever they want, without restriction, without stigma.

Except their cousins. And brothers. And sisters. But I'm glad they love each other enough to want to.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Jonah's Inner Life

An essay I wrote on misperceptions of autism was published today on Babble. Here's the link:

Working on that piece, I spent a lot of time thinking about why it's so difficult to parent a child with autism. There are many obvious reasons in my case - the tantrums, the aggression, the self-injurious behaviors, the constant elopement. But I think an even greater barrier is my total exclusion from Jonah's inner life. That is, I don't really know whether or not I know Jonah that well. Maybe I do - maybe he really only thinks about water parks, and ketchup-and-french-fries, and Sesame Street videos. But maybe there's more to him than that. There are several documented cases of severely autistic individuals who - although completely non-verbal - wrote essays or poetry once they were given communication devices. Which has made me wonder: is there any poetry in Jonah?

I don't think so - not poetry, at any rate. Jonah can write, and spends a great deal of time with markers and chalk, and has never felt inclined to write much more than titles or characters from his favorite videos. Still, there have been moments. One afternoon he wrote in chalk on the driveway: EACH DAY I LIKE IT BETTER. I still don't know where that came from. Could that possibly be a quote from a Sesame Street video? I really thought I knew each and every DVD backwards and forwards, and that phrase didn't sound at all familiar. Was it an original thought? If so, what did it mean? Each day he likes what better? I was so moved by the potential implications of that one phrase I took a picture:

I'm sure it's because I'm a writer, but I can't help seeing symbolism in everything. Jonah loves to tell me, and his teachers, and his aides, exactly what to draw, and he goes through spells in which he asks for the same pictures over and over again. Usually, they're Sesame Street characters, or images or animals from Sesame Street videos, but several times he's asked me to draw a series of purple doors with hands on them. In each picture, someone different wants to open the door: Ernie and Elmo, an umbrella with ten drops of rain, Hilary, Kaitlin (one of his favorite therapists from Kennedy Krieger). And whenever I draw these pictures I think, is there anything more saturated with symbolism than a door? Is the door a metaphor for the separation between Jonah and the rest of the world? What's on the other side of the door? Why does Ernie want to open it so badly?

And then I decide that I am probably imposing all this meaning on the picture myself. Probably.

There are other clues to what Jonah's thought process must be like. When I let him, he'll play his favorite song, "The Macarena," on my I-phone while also running a movie on his DVD player and playing another song on the CD player. And while all three going at once sounds like a mess to me, I suspect it doesn't to him. Is it possible Jonah's mind is crowded with thoughts, twisted together into something too complex for his limited conversational skills to articulate?

I know Jonah's teacher is working hard to develop Jonah's use of language, and I'm anxiously awaiting to see what might come of it. My dreams for Jonah have diminished in scope so much since his birth: from Nobel laureate, to college graduate, to Wawa stocker, to our present dream that we can just keep him from hurting himself or someone else. It would give me a lot of hope, maybe even invigorate some of those old dreams, to be able to ask Jonah, What are you thinking? and have him be able to answer me.