Monday, November 19, 2007

Reflections on the first year

This time last year, I was 12 hours away from becoming a mother to two children. Little did I know that The Ambulance Ride would be just the first in a long line of adventures.

Before I continue, I need to make a name change. I'm going to stick with the Shakespearean theme I started with Hamlet, and rename his baby brother Puck. He no longer resembles a Bulgarian mobster - not only is he no longer that grumpy, but he also grew big blue eyes, long lashes, and soft blond hair - and he's incredibly mischievous. Among his favorite activities: trash-picking (and throwing his brother's toys away), climbing on top of tables, and going under the computer desk. He's 1 going on 4.

For all the joy this brings, it's also brought some weightier issues I never anticipated. First of all, I've had to cut waaaaay back on work. I only do what I have to to stay current as a freelance writer/editor, and to make enough to keep us afloat. I'm down to maybe 5 hours a week, though many weeks it's more like 1 or 2 hours. Puck must be constantly supervised, both with and without his brother around. I'm still writing fiction, though it's more limited than ever. I've actually become a little bit more structured:
  • Puck doesn't nap easily, so when he gets fussy on preschool mornings, I often load him into the car half an hour or more early, then sit in Hamlet's teacher's driveway and work on a story while Puck sleeps. I can get 20-30 minutes this way.
  • If I'm lucky enough to get Puck to sleep quickly (as opposed to the hour or more being rocked that it sometimes takes), I spend another 20-30 minutes working before Hamlet comes into the room to go to sleep.
  • Rain Dog and I agreed that I can spend Saturday mornings at a local Dunkin' Donuts. It's not perfect, but it's quiet enough that I can spend time on the next novel. Otherwise I'd never get to focus enough to work on it!
The writing, however, is small potatoes compared to the emotional challenges of caring for two children. Not that adding a child was difficult in itself, but that the addition dredged up issues and memories from my own childhood that I have had a very, very hard time dealing with.

I didn't get along well with my younger brother, who was born when I was 4. I felt insecure a lot of the time, afraid he was somehow usurping my identity when he played with my toys or imitated my actions. I didn't know how to be a sister and I don't remember being guided in that role - my father had been an only child, and my mother, although the oldest of 5 children, didn't share a father with her siblings. Security wasn't their strong suit, either. By the time my brother was school age, I was a full-fledged bully (fed by the girl-bullying I experienced at school).

Four is a tough age, from what I can see. The child is on the cusp of childhood, with one foot still in babyhood. Hamlet has had problems with separation anxiety, which he has never had (even as a baby!); he's halfway potty trained, but unwilling to take the final steps to complete it. He's often incredibly mature, helpful, smart, and witty - a true joy to be around. Other times, he can be a monstrous brat (usually when given more control over a situation than he can handle).

If I was anything like Hamlet, I can only imagine how my parents, dealing with their own childhood memories and baggage, would have seen and responded to me. All I have, then, are my memories of how I felt, and my desire that Hamlet never feels as insecure as I did.

Translating those intangibles into action, however, has been the biggest challenge. It's easy to catch him being good to his brother, and it's easy to talk about the times he wanted to be good to Puck but was just a little too rough. Harder is how to respond when he says, "I'm dumb," or refuses to tell me that his lovey got "hurt" because he was afraid I would be mad. Where does he get those ideas? Does he hear my negative self-talk so often that he now imitates it? Does he really believe that about himself? Do I really get upset with him so often? Is it his natural perfectionism, or mine, that he's responding to? How can I maintain high standards to challenge him, but still ensure he can succeed?

I know how my parents would have responded - and did respond - and put together with my memories, I can't bring myself to respond likewise. It would be easier, but I just can't do it. I then feel like I'm parenting in a vacuum, literally making it up as I go along. (With a little help from good friends.)

Why is this relevant to a writing blog? Well, because of the effect on creativity. I have a tremendous amount of anger that I'm working through - here's where it helps to write crime fiction. At the same time, I worry that it's too raw to distill into an effective story, that my fiction will turn tame, or that sometimes I don't feel as if I have very much to say.

Serious topic for a joyous first-birthday celebration? Sure. But a couple of people recently asked me how I freelance with small children around, and it's not as simple anymore as "write during naps" or "write in the morning, play in the afternoon." It's become a much more delicate balance of needs - mine, Rain Dog's, and the boys' - which grows even more delicate when fragile emotions are in play.

So, sure, business has taken a hit this year, and I don't expect the coming year to be any less of a roller coaster as Puck becomes more physically able. But it's worth it when I know I'm working as hard as I can to channel my creativity toward making life safer and more secure for my children.


Blogger Megan Powell said...

Thanks for sharing. The insight is appreciated.

I find my anger and frustration creeping into stories in unexpected ways. Sometimes the lighthearted ones have a darker origin than the ones involving murder. The subconscious is a weird place, and Mapquest doesn't go there.

It's scary what kids pick up. A while back--a year, maybe?--I was playing a game with a girl about six years old, giving her short words to spell and have other people guess. One of them was "diet," and I made an offhand comment about how I needed to go on a diet. And she remembered that and mentioned it when we saw her a couple weeks ago. My tone was joking, the comment was explicitly directed at myself, and I could stand to lose ten/twenty/thirty pounds...but girls' body image is so fraught...

19/11/07 4:21 PM  
Anonymous PT-LawMom said...

What a fantastic piece, Christa!

My thoughts:

1) Very often in response to my "Why didn't you tell me?", Pumpkinhead's answer is "Because I didn't want you to be mad." I really do think this is a common four year-old thing.

2) The way you described Hamlet is exactly the way I would describe Pumpkinhead right now.

3) My brother was very abusive, both physically and verbally. Honestly, we have issues. But I don't think that my parents could have done a lot to change him or to make our relationship better. You can encourage your kids to be who they are but ultimately their unique personalities will develop independent of you. Knowing the sides of you you'd rather not share is probably important. I know I struggle with watching my tone around Pumpkinhead. I can be sharp at times without meaning to be and I just hear my mother's voice coming out of my mouth.

It's a hard struggle and you captured it so well here. I'll be praying that things get easier as Puck gets older and more independent. Try to hold onto the fact that you have a very long life ahead of you. Although it may seem like this stage will never end, your boys will soon be headed off to school and you will have so much more time to do your work. It can't stay this hard forever.


20/11/07 12:04 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

You sound like a thoughtful mom. Hamlet and Puck are very lucky!

Hugs to you!

20/11/07 12:42 AM  
Blogger Christa M. Miller said...

Megan, thanks for the comment. It's strange how their little brains work, how they latch onto the most offhanded things but gloss over the more serious stuff. It amazes me that we are supposed to help guide them toward adulthood even though we in no way think like they do!

LawMom, I'm not sure my bullying was part of my intrinsic personality. I think it evolved over time based on how my parents interacted with me - my normal 4yo issues combined with all our adjustment to the new baby - and then what I saw from the other kids I looked up to. It would be really easy to label Hamlet a "bad" child when he just needs extra guidance right now. And sometimes I too fall back on the sharp tones I'm most familiar with, because I'm too tired to think about what I'm saying or how I'm saying it. I HATE that!

I'm really, really glad to know you're seeing similar from Pumpkinhead. And you're right about having a long life ahead of us. I often think that this year will be hardest, with both boys at home full-time. Then again, Puck only just started to walk. LOL

20/11/07 11:04 AM  
Blogger Christa M. Miller said...

Hey Spy, thanks for the feedback. I really appreciate it! Hugs back!

20/11/07 11:05 AM  
Anonymous Kristine said...

Great blog, Christa. Believe you or not, you are inspiration to writers and mothers everywhere.

21/11/07 2:26 PM  
Anonymous Kristine said...

Yikes! I meant to write..."Believe IT or not..."

It's been a long day. Sheesh.

21/11/07 2:27 PM  
Blogger Christa M. Miller said...

Thank you so much, Kristine! I really appreciate your feedback!

22/11/07 11:29 PM  
Blogger Mary Louisa said...

Sigh. And hugs. You said it all so well. And you are doing a fantastic job, momma.

23/11/07 7:56 PM  
Blogger Patti said...

Great post, telling it like it is. As mine get older and more independent, I sometimes worry I ignore them too much now. It never ends!

25/11/07 8:09 PM  
Blogger Christa M. Miller said...

Thanks, ML. So are you. Hugs back!

Patti, you seem like you have a good relationship with your kids. I'm sure that if they needed you, they'd let you know, one way or another. Hugs to you too!

26/11/07 3:46 PM  
Blogger Bethany said...

I could have written this post. Well most of it anyway (my parents were thankfully almost normal). But with two children--mine are a just-turned-5-yr-old and a 3 month old--it is just damn hard to stay on top of it all.

I am going back to work tomorrow and God knows how I am going to do it with only part time child care help. And fiction writing? Well you have me topped. I'd do anything for Saturday mornings at Dunkin Donuts!

Hang in there... I'll be here with you every step of the way!

2/12/07 2:19 PM  
Blogger Christa M. Miller said...

Aww, Bethany, when I had a 3-month-old, I wasn't getting any fiction time either. This is very very new and it still doesn't happen all the time (like the entire 5 days of Thanksgiving vacation). You'll work something out.

Good luck with work - I have faith that you'll soon fall into a rhythm where you can maximize the child-free time you have. :)

3/12/07 9:34 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Sometimes it helps to remember that whatever mistakes we make as parents, we make them while intending to NOT make mistakes. No parents want to instill anger in their children. No parents hurt their children intentionally. The fact that we do simply is the result of being imperfect human beings. Some of us are more imperfect than others. My own darlin' daughter lashes out at me from time to time over perceived injustices when she was a child. I have to remind her I'm not now and wasn't then omnipotent nor omniscient. Boys tend to be more forgiving than girls, so with two boys you may "luck out" and not have anyone full of anger at you years later for things yo have no idea you did 20 or 30 years before.

You might try focusing some of your creativity on that aspect of human relations, and remember, one of the last "developmental tasks" of becoming an adult is to learn to forgive your parents - as well as learn to forgive yourself!
With Love intended -

30/12/07 3:40 PM  

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