Monday, August 29, 2011

Math and girls: How we got there.

Today is the first day of Eldest's math camp. I'm a fly on the wall, doing odds and ends like getting a trash bag for the paper scraps from cut-n-fold polyhedra, or providing a drink of water when I can hear Eldest's voice starting to go.

Right now they're learning about game theory using Skittles. I don't know half of what Eldest is talking about, but I'm used to that; I've been superfluous to her math education since she was ten.

I had some correspondence recently with a reporter from Newsweek who is writing an article about how to encourage girls in STEM subjects (science, math, etc.). Eldest didn't want to do an interview; she had enough of fame as "the brilliant one" in high school, and is happy being an anonymous brain at her brainy college.But this is what I told the reporter:

We did lots of things to nurture Eldest's innate passion for math -- online courses like eIMACS and EPGY, programs from Art of Problem Solving, a local math circle -- but in retrospect there are two things that worked particularly well.

The first was that we always drew a distinction between computational skill and conceptual ability. Kids can grasp many higher-level concepts long before they master the ability to actually do the number crunching. And since schools take forever to get past basic number operations, many bright kids get bored with math before they ever get to the good stuff. It's possible to provide brain food separately. There are fine books to have around the house: picture books by Greg Tang, the classic Math for Smarty Pants by Marilyn Burns, The Number Devil by Hans Enzensberger, The Ten Things All Future Mathematicians and Scientists Must Know (But are Rarely Taught), How to Lie with Statistics and so on. (For even higher-level math, browse the resources here.)  

The second, and most important thing we did was to get Eldest a "math friend". When Eldest was nine we hired Alison, a high school junior and math afficionado, to come over one afternoon a week. My instructions to Alison were that I didn't care what topics they covered, I just wanted her to nurture Eldest's love of mathematics.

Alison taught Eldest to do calculations in different bases, and they did cool Fibonacci stuff, and even some baby calculus. It was awesome. Alison was thrilled to earn $10 an hour (minimum wage back then was about half that), I was thrilled to get a young woman to mentor my child at a reasonable rate, and Eldest was thrilled to have the complete attention of a big girl who shared her passion. Win-win-win.

Alison came every week, and then twice a week in the summer. When she went off to college, she came home and taught Eldest whatever she'd learned that semester: symbolic logic, topology, and things I'd never heard of. She discovered there was a market for doing 'cool math' and started her own tutoring business. After graduation she went on to teach math in a private school.

When I first broached the idea of doing a math camp for girls this summer, Eldest said doubtfully, "Do you really think anyone would come?" Well, yes. With all the focus on standardized tests these days, it's the fun, hands-on, make-ya-think math that has evaporated from schools. And middle school is exactly when it's important for girls to get some reinforcement that it's cool to like math.

I only have one mathy child, so my experience in nurturing a math passion is based on n=1. (My other kids are quite competent, but do not have the blazing passion for math that Eldest has had since she was little.) YMMV, and feel free to ask questions.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Stemming the storm of information

My crockpot baked beans are not as good today as usual. I could blame Irene (the storm), but the truth is I forgot to cook the beans after soaking them. I forgot to cut the amount of brown sugar, too. Or maybe I put in too much; I don't really measure.

My husband, after 48 hours of listening to the radio and checking Twitter feeds, has finally reached his saturation point for hurricane coverage.He and I are different species when it comes to news. He wants every last detail. If I listened to the details I'd forget to cook the beans before baking them. And since I can do that without pummeling my brain with hurricane-force information, I only want the news that helps me function.

I want to know, for example, if we're supposed to evacuate. And whether our power station is located in a flood zone. And when the trains will be running again. If I get a gust of curiosity I can motion to my husband to remove his earbuds and ask, "What's the news on the latest raindrop?" He'll tell me; I don't have to go online to look it up. He's handy that way.

But generally speaking, I think it's more helpful to know that the 98-year old lady on the second floor's home aide can't make it in, and that the pharmacy has sold out of D batteries. It's useful to know that the line at the market runs out the door, and that the ATM is still functional.

I can't do much about the wind speed three states away. Except, of course, use my time in the long line at the store to pelt heaven with prayers for others.

Friday, August 26, 2011


I am supposed to lead a program for kids tomorrow (before the hurricane hits) on what plants are in our park that were around in the time of the dinosaurs. My printer is not cooperating. It is old and cranky. It is making me feel old and cranky, too. Or maybe that's just my latest excuse; I've aged out of pregnancy-crankiness, sleep deprivation-crankiness, kids-with-tantrums crankiness, and many other fine modes of rationalization.

Whatever, I'm feeling ornery. I don't feel inclined to talk myself out of it, either. Maybe if I go kick the printer I will feel better.

Maybe that's not a good idea. Maybe I'll just write about wanting to go kick the printer.

Maybe it will start to rain early and the program will be cancelled.

Maybe I'll turn off the printer, and it will work again.

Or duh! -- I almost forgot! -- I'm a mother. I know how to pivot, to adapt, to come up with another solution.

How about coming up with a Plan B that doesn't involve printing?

Heh heh. It's smart, it's tricky, and it just might work!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Changes, both good and bad (or maybe neither)

Big Guy will be moving home on September 5. He starts his new school on the 6th. Since I bring Eldest back to college on the 3rd, next week will be filled with transition.

How do I feel? Ambivalent almost sums it up, though it doesn't capture the hyperventilation-suppressing aspect of handling so much change at once. I am going to miss Eldest terribly. I will be glad to have my son home. Much of the freedom of this year will be lost, though, because he cannot be left unsupervised. Dancer asked to have two friends sleep over in September, and I had to tell her no, that can only happen before Big Guy returns. I don't know what life will be like later on. He might be fine, he might not.

I stave off worry by reminding myself that fearing the future impedes my ability to arrive there whole. For it's a fact that while life may bring good things or bad, worry never brings anything good.

Yesterday I watched an excellent (but old) TED talk about how abysmally we fail to predict what will make us happy. In some weird way I find this tremendously comforting. If I know I stink at knowing what will bring me happiness, it frees me up to find joy in what I'm given. I don't need to always get my way, don't need to follow my desires maniacally. I'm free to adapt, free to find whatever there is to treasure in each day. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Of earthquakes and mini-golf

No, I didn't feel the earthquake. If my legs were shaky, it was because Hopstop told me that the fastest way between Playground A (where the kids met up with one friend) and Playground B (where they were slated to play mini-golf with another friend) was to walk. So we walked. It was nice. For the first mile. Even part of the second mile was okay. We were walking along the river, so the scenery was pleasant. 

Somewhere about eight blocks north of our destination we noticed large numbers of business people milling about, rather aimlessly, on the sidewalk. It seemed like an odd time of year for a company picnic. But we went on (since we were late, on account of walking so far) and as we walked we passed lots of people on cell phones, all of whom seemed to use the word earthquake in their conversations. That was odd.

When we finally got to Playground B, our friends said, "Hey, did you hear about the earthquake? They evacuated a whole pile of buildings." Hmmmm. Maybe that's why there was no food at the company picnic. And here I thought the caterer was late!

Tonight Facebook was abuzz with descriptions of which emergency people thought they were experiencing (heart attack, seizure, stroke). There were also wistful confessions from those of us who somehow missed the not-so-big event.

In the midst of the chatter a memory rose to the surface, the memory of the stories I heard after 9/11. Everyone -- everyone -- had a story back then. And we all told our stories over and over, because we were alive to tell them. And each person we told them to was alive, and that was close to a miracle.

It struck me, back then, that people who lived in New York through 9/11 had a huge coping advantage over people in the rest of the country: we heard hundreds of survival stories. And somehow, perhaps, that helped us to process the other stories that were too-close and too-hard to bear.

Today's earthquake added a bit of frisson to an otherwise normal Tuesday. Memorable for the novelty, perhaps, or for the confusion and adrenaline rush.

My guess is that Little Guy will not remember this day as My First Earthquake, but because he got a hole-in-one at mini-golf. He's still a bit stunned, in that way one gets when good fortune arrives without any effort or preparation on your part. In later life (perhaps after decades of failing to get another hole-in-one) he will marvel at how he didn't really grasp the enormity of this stroke of luck.

We never really do grasp the enormity of how fortunate we are, do we?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Getting ready for (home)school

It occurred to me on Friday that I need to submit my annual homeschooling plans this week.

Then it occurred to me that to do that I need to come up with some plans. I might even need to order some books.

I knew there was something I didn't like about August.

In truth, homeschool planning has been on my back burner for a while. But you know how life is: sometimes those back burners stretch out to the horizon, and pots bubble away into infinity.It takes a deadline to pull something to the front. It's one reason I like deadlines; they keep my life moving.

This year I need to prepare Dancer for the more rigorous work of high school. So after I resolved to front-burner the homeschooling plans, I retrieved a syllabus I'd lent out to someone years ago. That looked good, so for 8th grade Dancer will be doing Greek literature and history: Herodotus and Homer and Sophocles and Plato. In translation, of course. The younger two will do a survey of ancient history. We can overlap with art history.

The drawback to this brilliant idea is that I have to get organized in order to do it. And I'll have to stay organized to stay on top of it.

Now isn't that a bummer!

I am not a micromanager. Detailed schedules and complex lesson plans give me the willies. I believe kids should be self-taught learners, so in my dreams I hand them their books and say, "Get through this stuff by June. Come to me with questions or if you need field trips or art supplies."

Alas, I can't do that. So I take a scheduling approach that I suspect has some vague connection to the farming approach of my Swedish forebears, who plowed around the immovable rocks in their fields. I plunk the time boulders into our calendar -- co-op on Wednesdays, construction class on Thursday, art on Friday, and soccer on the weekend -- and then focus on how to make the academics work. 

The school work follows the same approach: Big stuff first, smaller stuff second, little stuff last.The only real question is what falls in which category.

But that's always the real question, isn't it? 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Lessons learned from IEP meetings

I went to Big Guy's follow-up IEP meeting last week. An IEP is the legal document that outlines what services and accommodations have to be provided to a child with special needs. (If you have a special needs child, visit the Wrightslaw web site. It is great for learning how to advocate for your child.)

Big Guy has had an IEP since he was in 5th grade. Since he will be switching schools in September it needed to be modified. We'd already done the big meeting; this one was to confirm tweaks needed for the new school. I seriously considered doing it by conference call instead of riding the train for an hour to wait for 30 minutes for a 30-minute meeting.

But I went. And as I was scanning the final document (which hadn't been provided to me in advance) I noticed that two major accommodations had been omitted. I'd been told that only X and Y would change, and here E and T -- critical things -- had vanished. Nothing said, nothing explained, just gone. 

So I pulled out my draft copy, smiled as gentle a smile as I could muster and said, "For some reason E and T didn't make it onto the final draft. Should we write them in by hand, or does it have to be re-typed?" And the woman from the special ed committee looked momentarily flustered, but said we could write them in by hand.

I wouldn't have known those items were missing if I hadn't been there, or if I hadn't practically memorized the draft. Whew.

*        *        *        *         *

If you ever go to an IEP meeting, you need to be prepared to have superhuman patience and unflappable good will. It is good to bring a notepad. If you're asking for anything major, it is good to bring a man. (Balk if you wish, but even a silent male changes the group dynamic. Having a dad-figure in the room keeps them from discounting the case by assuming the child has an over-emotional mother.) You can bring someone else as an advocate, too.

If you ever go to an IEP meeting, read everything. Take your time. Did I say you need patience? Yes, you need it so that when you point out that the text calls for a one-to-one aide for your child for safety reasons but the service isn't actually listed, you do not commit a crime when someone says, dismissively, "Oh, but that takes a lot of paperwork to put in place!"

Because you have planned to be patient you can nod and say, "Yes, paperwork is annoying! But this is needed for safety, so it's certainly worthwhile filling out the forms. Because none of us here would ever want to look back and say, 'If only I'd done that paperwork, this child might still be alive today!'"

And then when the person counters with, "Oh, it's really a ton of paperwork!" you can nod sympathetically and say, "Sometimes the important things take time."

*        *        *        *         *
If you get upset while fighting for services for your child, it helps to remember that you also get upset about deficit budgets and runaway school board expenses. The people who are saying no have a two-part job: they are trying to get kids the services they need and keep costs manageable. This may conflict with your desire to provide your child with the best services possible. 

Accommodations are different than services. Accommodations don't cost anything, so they're easier to add to an IEP. They include things like extra time for tests, providing homework assignments online, reduced homework, having a place/person to go to cool down, etc. If your child has a diagnosis of anxiety or ADHD or a physical problem you can get a 504, without going through the IEP circus.  

If  the school system needs to pay for services (OT, PT, an aide, assistive technology, a specialized classroom or school), then you need an IEP.  A 504 is not a legal document, and some teachers may not comply with accommodations that they find inconvenient. Again,

Some won't comply with an IEP, either, but it's the law. The Wrightslaw site has a terrific section on how to write effective letters, and how to document things appropriately so that you get better results. If you read only one page on the site, read this one.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

She is sixteen, going on seventeen...

Tomorrow my firstborn will turn seventeen. In honor of that momentous occasion, I'm posting a piece reprinted from Daily Guideposts: Your First Year of Motherhood. For this girl of mine still makes my heart sing.


Month One, Day Nine

Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang, "He is good; His love endures forever" -- II Chronicles 5:13

I sent my husband out this morning to buy sanitary pads. I gave him detailed instructions: brand, size, price. Eager to help in any way he can (he's still feeling guilty about my long labor; the other day he threatened to walk up to complete strangers to demand, "Do you realize what you did to your mother?"), my dear Andrew went off to execute a task that I, as a woman, still find mildly embarrassing.

He came back a while later, breathless, and tossed me the bag. "I did it, but I was so flustered I left my wallet in the store!" he called as he left again. Fortunately the checkout girl had seen the wallet and set it aside. She returned it, suppressing a smirk.

Our marriage ceremony included no vows promising to do mortifying things for your spouse, but having a baby sure pushes the envelope. Seeing Andrew in this giddy state is kind of fun. He glows. He holds Elizabeth just so, fearful of breaking her. The tenderness with which he looks at her is divine. He startles as easily as the baby does, the Moro reflex of fatherhood kicking in each time he has to do something new.

I laugh with delight at this view of my husband, just as I chuckle at the ridiculousness of God's grace in giving me such a phenomenally dependent and delicious baby. Elizabeth, Elizabeth, I want to sing, Your life has changed everything! God knew His world wouldn't be complete without you! It's true, of course. The thanks that bubbles up is too big for my soul to contain, a sure sign that it's meant to be offered to Someone Whose heart is bigger.

Ah, dear Father! How good you are! How good you are!

© 2011 by Guideposts

Monday, August 15, 2011

Defining the problem differently

Andrew came up with the poor man's solution to my laptop problem: a $10.49 keyboard. Elegant, it ain't. But it works. How you define a problem often makes a difference in the solution you end up with.

"Ack! I need a new laptop!" is different than "My laptop's keyboard is dead".

"Which preschool can I afford?" is different than "How can I provide my three year old with an appropriate amount of socialization?"

"How can I get this child to stop?!" is different than "Why is he acting this way?"

"I can't take it!" is different from "How can I deal with this?"

And so on. It's easy to mis-define problems. But when we don't define them accurately, we don't resolve them definitively.

Though I'd gladly buy a new laptop, if I could.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Of worms and origami

I'm leading a program about earthworms today. It's a hands-on thing, designed for kids ages 4-6. Yesterday Little Guy and I went to a bait shop near Chinatown (couldn't find one closer) so I'd have some fat wrigglers for the kids to look at this morning. On the way home we stopped at a Chinese grocery store that had a stationary section, and found some origami paper. Little Guy has been borrowing origami books from the library at a rapid pace, and using whatever paper he can find. He folded critters all the way home on the train.

Last night Little Guy asked if he could come along to the worm class. Of course! Then he gets up this morning, confirms the time of the class, and pulls out the origami book.

"What are you doing?" I ask.

"I'm going to make a bunch of birds, so they can eat the worms!"

Of course. This is the kid who learned to read by perusing Calvin & Hobbes...

Friday, August 12, 2011

How you know what your kids are reading

I gave Little Guy a haircut this morning. He was surprisingly amenable to the idea. As I began to snip he said, "Don't throw away that hair!"

Somewhat suspicious, I asked, "Why?"

"Because I want it for my feet! I'm going to glue it to my feet an be a hobbit!"

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hearing ourselves, from the outside

Many years ago I was wasting time with Eldest and Big Guy in a toy shop in a ritzy part of town. They were little, at the age when a visit to a pet shop was on a par with a trip to the zoo. I never let on that you could actually buy things there, and they never quite knew.

A well-dressed, not-quite anorexic, perfectly complexioned mother came in with her preschooler. She needed to buy a birthday present for a five year old. "No more than $40," she told the saleswoman. then called to her son, "Henry, you can look around while I'm busy, but you can only get one thing."

The little boy wandered around the shop, much as my children were doing. Henry's mom yakked with the shop lady, and periodically called over to him, "Just one thing, Henry." I could tell she was determined to set limits. I wondered why she hadn't set the limit at zero, but figured maybe rich people could afford to think differently. Her shoes cost more than my annual gift-buying budget.

When the woman was done she came over to Henry and said, in an I'm-a-good-mom voice, "So did you decide what you want?"

Henry ignored her. He was busy exploring the shop. He didn't want to buy something and go, he wanted to stay and play.

The mother, assuming her son's disregard arose from a desire for too many things, grew irritated. "What do you want?" she asked, "Do you want the bubble set? Do you want a ball? The knight? I told you that you can have only one toy."

I watched the scene unfold in fascination. Henry played, and played deaf. His mom's increasingly shrill words echoed like a voice in a cartoon dream, "What do you want?...want...want?"

And I thought, How odd. She thinks she's teaching him limits, but what she's saying is that when you go in a store you're supposed to want something.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Arguing with the voices (or thoughts) in your head

The other day the New York Times had a riveting article about a man with schizophrenia who keeps his condition under control by figuring out which are the real voices and which are the heard ones, and talking back to the latter. It's endless work: day in and day out, he has to be alert and perceptive and resourceful and determined. He can't decide that life shouldn't be this hard -- it is this hard. He can't stomp off in a pout, or blame the stress of his job. This is the way things are, and if he wants to live a life of any quality, he has to talk himself out of things "others" want to talk him into.

Go read it.Most of us don't hear voices, but we all hear our own, negative thoughts.Some days they grind us down, and often they talk us into (temporary) paralysis. It's completely possible to talk back to those thoughts. They aren't always right. They aren't always honest. They almost always limit what we can do. But we're the ones who let them do that. Fight back.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


I was the shift manager for our CSA this afternoon. I walked up to the site and the sky started spitting. By the time I got there it was raining. And by the time the truck arrived with fresh vegetables, there was a downpour. It lasted two hours.

And it was a great afternoon. Volunteers showed up in droves to help out. The situation was so absurd -- we were drenched in a matter of minutes -- that we moved straight  past being annoyed into enjoying ourselves. Unload a truckload of containers? No problem. Figure out how to store cardboard boxes is the rain? We're on it. Help the people who are desperately trying to hold an umbrella and put three large handfuls of green beans into a bag, while steering a stroller? We're there.

By the time the second shift showed up my crew had raisin fingers and was beginning to shiver. At which point the sun broke through, the rain stopped, and we went home.My pants were so weighed-down with water I looked like a middle-aged hip-hop artist wheeling my granny cart of corn and squash and chard up the street. But I was happy.

Sometimes, even when you're an adult, rain can do that for you.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


I've been feeling mediocre lately. It's annoying. I ask myself, Why do you need to feel you're something special? And I have two answers.

1. Ummm, I don't.
2. Because I am the only me there is.

Funny how those seemingly contradictory answers are both true. I don't have to become anyone special because I'm already the only Julia in all of space or time made to be me. I don't have to prove anything, bedazzle anyone, create impressions, have people think X or Y or Z about me. I just have to fully inhabit the life I have been given, filling it with integrity and openness and love.

Which is a lot to ask, really.

If all I had to do was write a bestselling book, I could be successful (or not) at that task. But to be a full person is a goal of a different order of magnitude.

*       *        *         *

Many years ago I went to a church service that was done with solemnity and honor, and in its quiet dignity was soul-stirring. Afterwards I said something to the pastor about how it was a shame more people didn't show up. He replied, gently, "If we're doing something for God, the size of the congregation only matters to Him."

*       *        *         *

My friend Susy, a mom of five, said, "I think most moms have a kid age-range that they do really well. For me, it's preschoolers. I understand them and enjoy them and do well with them. Teenagers, not so much. I do my best, but I don't excel the way I do with little ones."

Some things in life -- and some stages of parenting -- come easily to us. Others don't. It's okay either way.

Sometimes the point isn't to be excellent, but to grow.

Growth is not always comfortable. It doesn't always feel like growth.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

In which all is not lost

I had a deadline Monday. It was for a monthly direct-mail letter that I write, one that requires considerable thought and research. I'd started on it last week, but Big Guy's mental health misadventures put a damper on my productivity.

Early Monday morning I wrote an email to my editor, saying I might not get the piece in until the next morning. And as soon as I hit Send, my brain turned to oatmeal. Lumpy oatmeal. I could not think, could not write.

The day slugged along, as I waited for news from the hospital. I offered to take my two youngest to a playground, but they preferred to bicker indoors. I lay down for a while. I got up. I tried to read, but since I'd just finished a fabulous book (Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche) nothing seemed  interesting.

The hospital still hadn't called with an update; I might as well cattle-prod myself into productivity.I went and got a tall glass of iced coffee, and sat down to work. I opened my laptop. My glass toppled over: on myself, on the sofa, on the computer.

I love the smell of coffee, though not enough to have a java-scented sofa. Fortunately, our living room furniture is upholstered in brown paisley (I have five kids; we don't do unpatterned anything), and I was wearing black pants. Whatever stains there were blended in with all the other stains. And Febreeze is my friend. A towel and a change of clothing, and we were fine.

The laptop, not so much. It went aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa and then it went zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz and then it shut down. Black screen, no response. Couldn't even re-boot. I wanted to go aaaaaaaaaaaaa and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, and bang my head on the arm of the coffee-soaked sofa, but I refrained. When you have oatmeal brain, even emotions move slowly. My despair blurped to the surface in lethargic bubbles.

Andrew came in and managed to get the computer running again long enough for me to move everything into Dropbox that I didn't already save there. So all was not lost.

By now the laptop was done with aaaaaaaaaaaaa and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. In fact, it seemed to have finished with those letters permanently. It worked just fine except for A, Z, S and D.

My password contains the letter D.

I stared stupidly at the laptop. How does a writer write without a or s or d? I closed the lid. Perhaps, like the sofa, the computer would dry out and be fine.

I took a shower, washing the last of the coffee smell off my body. I knew I was going to have to get up at 4am to finish my assignment on the kids' clunky school computer. Before I went to bed I turned the clunker on. I logged on to webmail, where I found a newly-delivered email from my editor. It said, "I'm on vacation this week. I'll look forward to seeing the piece when I return home on Sunday."

All is not lost. But the laptop is dead.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Using your head

There is a story in my family about a time when my mother and my father were supposed to meet up at the Howard Johnson's at a particular rest stop in, I think, Connecticut. My father arrived in his car, and waited. My mother arrived in her car, and waited. And after a very long and worrisome time had passed, it finally dawned on my dad that perhaps there'd been a mistake. He checked, and lo and behold, there were two rest stops in that particular town, one at the north end and one at the south, both with Howard Johnson's restaurants!

Yesterday Andrew and I were supposed to meet up prior to going to the hospital. He was bringing Little Guy and Snuggler, whom we were going to drop off at Dancer's godmother's house before heading to our meeting. On the way there, Andrew lost his cell phone. He eventually found it deep inside his bag (where Little Guy had deposited it) when I called and he heard it ringing.

When I picked up the kids after the meeting they were abuzz with the news that Daddy thought he lost his phone. They'd been worried we wouldn't meet up. "Oh, Daddy would have figured out how some other way to get in touch with me," I reassured them.

They looked doubtful. "How could he do that?" Snuggler challenged. I thought about it for a moment, bemused.

"I bet he would have walked you over to Ms. Dober's house and used her phone to call me on my cell," I told them.

Snuggler was miffed. "He didn't think of that!" she protested.

I laughed. "Well no, not right away," I told her, "Some solutions take time to think up. Some solutions take time."

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

When better is different from well

Big Guy will be released from the hospital tomorrow and return to his residence. The doctors feel he has stabilized. We asked about changing his meds, but were told that when he is older he will master the art of self control. 

 Do I believe that waiting is the best we can do? Do we have a choice? Do we have enough time before he is legally an adult to take that approach? This is not the hospital's problem; he is no longer a danger to himself or others, and so their job is done. Ours remains.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Helping siblings of kids in a mental health crisis

A lot of the crisis management that goes on when Big Guy is doing poorly has to do with keeping the rest of the family safe and calm. A good therapist will occasionally inquire how you, the parent, are holding up. But no one ever talks about how to help siblings cope.And it's a huge issue.

I know most of you don't have this situation. But there are bits and pieces in this that might help, I think, with everyday life.

1. Minimize the amount of trauma kids witness. Violent meltdowns aren't good for other kids to see, especially when they involve danger. The other kids get understandably anxious, which means they want your attention, which divides your focus, which is very frustrating. Not to mention kids can learn behaviors you don't want them imitating. And they could get hurt. After a lot of near-misses, we sat the other kids down at a calm moment, and explained to them that when Big Guy was falling apart we needed to be able to devote 100% of our attention to helping him -- and we couldn't do that if we weren't sure they were safe. After that, whenever he blew we'd turn to the others and say, firmly but calmly, "I need you to go in the other room until he is safe again." Once they learned to remove themselves, life became less complicated.

2. Make time to help your other kids process their feelings. This seems impossible, especially when you are running on empty. But there has to be a time when your 'normal' kids get 100% of your attention, too. This is closely connected to the next item...

3. Know what makes your kids feel loved. Another seeming no-brainer, but when you're stressed your brain isn't clear. I often tell moms who are expecting a second child to write down in advance all the things that make their first child's eyes glow with joy. Because then when you're exhausted you look at the list and laugh at your brain-deadness, saying, Oh my, yes! A bubble bath! I can give her a bubble bath! It's a simple, do-able thing that you were too stressed to think of, and it gets you a lot of mileage because it shows your child that of course you know the specific things she enjoys. (More about this here.) If you have a child who moves in and out of crisis, it helps to have a list for each of your other children. Eventually you'll incorporate it into your long-term memory. Most of the time.

4. Reinforce a we'll-get-through-it attitude. Kids need to know that real life isn't just a matter of making uncomfortable stuff go away. We work through problems -- and it's work, and it doesn't always happen at the pace we want, and we don't always get the results we want. It's not fun. But one thing about families is that we work through things together. Parents have to take the lead here. If your head is screaming I can't take this! I can't do this! you have to breathe deeply and talk yourself down. Have to. Little people are counting on you.

5. Keep life as normal as possible. Do all the regular things you can, and supplement with fun stuff. It's totally okay to call people and say, "One of my kids is in the hospital. Can I mooch a playdate sometime in the next few days?" Keep the chores moving, because simple things like laundry and cleaning the bathroom give us a tiny bit of control over our lives. And try to have dinner at a regular time, even if it's not the regular time.

6. Tell your kids how you feel about the fact they have to go through this. It stinks. If you could snap your fingers and make their sibling normal again, you would. If you could make things like they used to be, you'd do it in a heartbeat. But if we don't always get to choose the situations we have to live through, we do get to choose what kind of people we want to be. And we, in our family, want to be people who grow stronger and braver and more faithful. The situation stinks, but we're going to do what we need to do to make it as good as it can be.

7. Remind kids of other people they know who have siblings with problems. Undoubtedly you will know a family with a child with severe health issues, or developmental problems, or accident-related injuries. Just knowing that other families are hurting and adapting and coping can help.

8. Breathe, hold it together as best you can, and cry when you're alone. I am convinced that one of the reasons God made the day 24 hours long is so that mothers have 2am for sobbing. Make sure you take a couple of close friends into your confidence. You'll be surprised how many people have siblings of their own who had major problems.

Or, if you don't know anyone to talk to, write to me at . It's hard to go through this stuff alone.