The First Days of Kindergarten: Like an Overturned Bathtub

Yesterday, the season changed to fall. We’ve had a long, dry summer, but suddenly the rain clouds have rolled in, the wind has picked up, and the sunlight—when it breaks through—is that pale yellow light that whispers “almost gone.” Last night, as I began the process of bedtimes, cold air blew through the open window. I closed it, and dug out the comforter that we had retired from the bed for July and August.

Our house is in disarray. On Monday, Smoke, Stump, and I returned from the east coast, and I still haven’t unpacked. We were gone for nearly two weeks, and Kellie used the time to remodel the bathroom; the floor underneath it had been rotting for years. But she hasn’t finished. We have a toilet, but no sink, no washer dryer, and the bathtub is upside down in our living room.

I’m beginning to realize that chaos is a choice we keep on making rather than something that is constantly happening to us.

For instance: about a month ago, Smoke got a packet from his kindergarten teacher in the mail. It contained homework. We looked at the various pages at the kitchen table. Within an hour, several of the pages were spotted with pizza grease. I worry about what this says about us.

So last night, the night before the first day of kindergarten, the night of the cold wind and fading light, I brought the kids home freshly bathed. I told Smoke that he could choose a show to watch while I put Stump to sleep. He chose Caillou.

Caillou. The bald toddler who interested Smoke for about a month when he was three and hasn’t interested him since. Caillou was quickly replaced by Dinosaur Train, and then Ninjago and Spider-Man and Chima, and there was no looking back. Until now. On the night before kindergarten, my son chooses Caillou without any trace of irony. He asked me to read him the episodes, and he remembered each one like he had watched them only last week, and finally he settled on “Caillou Tells the Truth.”

After Caillou and books he fell asleep within minutes, without protest, holding his stuffed fox. This is not how our days have been.

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 Our days have been full of contention. At least once every day, Smoke decides that any given limit I’ve set is proof that I am out to get him. A look crosses his face and he begins to taunt me. He’s silly at first, calling me a poop-butt or a stink-bunny, but if I react he comes after me. He’ll belt me in the gut, or kick me from behind. This is all very alarming, and the two things that keep me from running to the nearest child therapist are a) I seem to be the only recipient of these rages and b) in some weird way, he seems to have control over them. He has yet to actually hurt me, and it always seems like there’s a calmer, kinder Smoke only one layer underneath looking on in wonder.

Still, I’ve been struggling to explain his behavior to myself in any kind of satisfying way. I think perhaps that summer has bored him, or that he’s trying on his independence, or that he’s jealous of the constant attention his little brother gets, or that he’s anxious about the big changes coming his way.

This morning Smoke rose early, and I got up to find him snuggled into Kellie’s arms for the minutes before she had to leave for work.

Our morning began well, until I asked him to get dressed five times over the course of twenty minutes. He was jumping from the bathtub to the couch and could not be interrupted. His brother, for once, was eating quietly in his high chair. “I don’t know what to do with you,” I told him. “We need to go, and you’re not getting dressed.”

“You’re so mean!” he said. The look flashed across his face.

“How am I being mean?” I asked.

He stood on top of the bathtub and furrowed his brow. “I woke up excited this morning, and then you came along and hurt my feelings.”

I sat down on the couch and pulled him into me. I know that feeling so well—that feeling of bright expectation, interrupted by conflict. I knew also that I wasn’t mean, but was in that moment the container for his ambivalence, the voice that nagged about all the things that needed to be done. “I’m so sorry,” I told him. “I want you to be excited. Let’s both work at being nice, okay?”

Twenty minutes later he sat on the rug in his classroom while parents and siblings gathered at the edges. The teacher read a story called The Kissing Hand about a raccoon who was nervous to begin school. I held Smoke’s little brother Stump in my arms, praying he would not leap or cry out, or demand to run amok across the room. In the book, the raccoon’s mother kisses the inside of her child’s paw, and tells him he can use that kiss any time he needs some love from home. Her child returns the favor.

Once the book had ended, it was time to say goodbye and so the parents found their children one last time. Smoke looked around and had trouble spotting his brother and me. I could see him crumble just a bit. I called to him. Everyone around us was kissing hands. “Goodbye!” he offered brightly after spotting us.

“No wait,” I said. I offered the inside of Smoke’s hand to Stump, who eagerly kissed his brother, not once, but over and over. We did that all around, kissing hands until the moment passed and parents filed out. We closed the door behind us so it looked like we were gone, but many of us stole an extra moment watching through the classroom window. When I saw that the other parents were crying, a quiet sob shuddered through me. How long had it been lying in wait? All morning? All month? Since the day he was born?

That sob completed my rite of passage. Leaving Smoke behind us, I walked Stump home in the stroller, sniffling, now the mother of a school-aged child.

I’m So Sorry

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I’ve been thinking about apologies lately. A month ago, a friend linked to this post on Facebook (A Better Way to Say Sorry), and lately it keeps reappearing in my world. And then this week, in a creative writing class that I teach, a student wrote an essay about the art of apologizing. It was a piece that had everyone in the class laughing with self-recognition, because it pointed out the truth about apologies—that they are essentially selfish in that we seek to be relieved of our wrongdoings. At a minimum, we want to be forgiven. And so often we want still more than that. We want the other party to admit that he too was wrong.

Several years ago, in a parenting class, the teacher taught me something incredibly simple that has changed my life. It’s one of those things that should be obvious, but to me it was a revelation: You should apologize to your kids when you’ve wronged them, she said, and a true apology doesn’t include the word “but”.

“I’m sorry I yelled, but you weren’t listening.”

“I’m sorry I grabbed your wrist, but you’re not allowed to run off.”

It was a practical instruction, and when I got home I discovered it was something I could easily do. I couldn’t stop myself from making mistakes, but I could apologize for them. It felt delicious to own my wrongs.

“I’m sorry I yelled.”

“I’m sorry I called you a sugar fiend. You’re right. That wasn’t very nice.”

Sometimes, as it turns out, apologizing frees me from all of the emotions that get tangled in a conflict. Sometimes, once I apologize, my guilt and even my resentment seem to magically evaporate, as if the act allows me not only to forgive myself, but to forgive the other party too.

But then there are the times when I fail to untangle, when the fighting gets messy, when I sense I am wrong but can’t form the words to an apology, when I’m unwilling to look up from whatever deep wound I’m nursing.

image credit: http://blog.adoptandshop.org
image credit: http://blog.adoptandshop.org

This past weekend was hard for Smoke and me.

At five years old, he’s capable of helping, but I struggle to gauge how much I can reasonably ask of him. I do know this: I don’t want him to grow into one of those twenty-something dudes who leaves his dirty socks everywhere and whose toilet seat is covered in dried-up pee drips, with random pubic hairs stuck to everything. And so on Sunday, I asked him to help me with the laundry by folding his own.

He did a beautiful systematic job—it was his own system, but it was a fine one. He laid each shirt on the carpet, turned in the sleeves, and then tidily folded it into thirds. The result was a uniquely folded shirt with a few floor crumbs on it. I was happy with that, and so was he. Stump napped in the next room, out of our way for once, and together we amassed a pile of folded clothes on the sofa. I felt great, imagining my future twenty-something son whose bathroom would gleam and smell like lemons.

Stump woke up just as we were finishing the pile, and I warned Smoke that he better put his clothes away quickly, lest all of his hard work be undone. But Smoke decided he wanted to practice jumping over his pile of folded clothes rather than put them away. And meanwhile Stump, like a good bobcat, systematically thrashed at everything in his path.

It seems like such a little thing right now as I write it. My five-year-old had an interest in folding his clothes, but not enough persistence to put them away. That seems both clear and reasonable to me now. But in the moment it was terrible.

“Honey, stop jumping. Put your clothes away,” I told him, but he continued on as if he hadn’t heard me. More clothes were falling off the couch. It didn’t bother him in the slightest that his work had been undone. He was happy.

“Put your clothes away. Now.” I couldn’t bear his happiness. What would I do? Re-fold the clothes? Put them away myself? Resign myself to raising a son who would make future partners do all the cleaning? “This Is Not Okay.”

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Because he was ignoring me, I began to storm around the house, angrily putting away laundry. Smoke pays attention when I storm, but that doesn’t mean he cooperates. He escalates. He launched pillows at me; he shouted and cried. The whole thing ended with him curled in a ball on the couch to avoid me. I grabbed Stump and stood on the front porch, trying to let my breathing calm me, while Stump pulled on my shirt and my face, desperate to walk out into the rain. But my breathing wouldn’t calm me.

It was true that I was deeply, deeply sorry, but I couldn’t extract my sorry-ness from my bitterness. I didn’t apologize. Neither did Smoke. Instead, Kellie came home and I complained to her. “If you find yourself in a power struggle with five-year-old,” I’d tell her later, “you know that you’ve already lost.” The bitterness lasted into the night and as I put Smoke to bed, I felt awful. I had to say sorry; I wasn’t ready to say sorry. Mostly, I was mad at myself for taking what had been a rare moment  where chores feel like fun and killing it dead.

The next morning, the awfulness had cleared and I said it over breakfast. “I’m so sorry that I yelled about the laundry yesterday. I wasn’t being nice at all.”  Smoke looked up from his toast. “What?” he asked. He couldn’t remember what I was talking about. It didn’t matter. I still felt better after saying it.