Appreciating and Understanding My Child as an Individual

February 27, 2014 By: Jenna Category: Parenting

I used to think that the only successful parenting approach was picking a system, the best system I could devise, and sticking with it no matter what. Through the sheer force of my will, I would mold my children into the human beings I wanted to produce. Disciplined, conscientious, ambitious. But children are not mixed-media art projects to be shaped as desired. They are living and breathing beings, and need room to grow. Parenting has been much better as I’ve come to see it more like the relationship between gardener and rose bush. My little roses can be pruned and fertilized as I see fit, but when they bloom it will be with a pattern all their own. I was standing over a flower bed screaming “GRRROOOOOOWWWWW” as though prize-winning peonies are regularly produced by verbally irate gardeners.

And so, for the first time since I became a mother 3 1/2 years ago, I realized I needed to pay attention to what my son needed from me, not what I wanted from him. I started to notice things about him, things I had previously passed off as character traits to be overcome or ignored.

He has exceptional attention to detail. Out of the blue he will tell me he likes my shirt or my shoes, and ask me if they are new and where I bought them. He walks into a room and instantly notices if things are different. Our morning happiness levels increased dramatically when I bought him seamless socks because we could never get them on just the way he wanted. All of the tags are cut out of his clothing now, which is going to make it fun for whatever mom wants to buy them secondhand at the thrift store. A friend once described her son to me as “particular,” and I think that is an excellent descriptor for T1 as well.

He doesn’t like loud noises, which we frequently encounter with flushing toilets, hand dryers, or fire alarms (I frequently forget about the toast in the toaster a lot).  He asks lots of questions about how the smoke detectors work because he wants to know what sets them off. When his little sister cries he puts his hands over his ears and yells for me to please make it stop. It’s not just that the sound is annoying or loud, it’s as though he is in some sort of physical and emotional pain if she cries for too long. This can be really challenging when we are driving and the baby is crying (because she’s a baby and that’s what babies sometimes do in the car).

He likes to know what to expect and doesn’t deal well with transition, change of plans, or deviations outside of our normal routine. This has been particularly hard for me because I don’t do a very good job sticking to a firm routine. When I drop him off at school it is essential that I follow the same steps every single day — open door, sign in, put belongings in cubby, push mom out door, stand at window and wave and blow kisses.

I’m an extrovert married to an introvert, and T1′s constant talk about being with friends made us think he was an extrovert too. He would wake up in the morning asking to get out of the house to see his friends, and as soon as we left a meetup he would ask if his friend could come to our house as soon as possible. Whenever we took him somewhere though, he would take a long time to warm up and easily melt down. I couldn’t understand why all of the other kids were running around and screaming with happiness while he looked so sad and overwhelmed. Wasn’t I providing him with exactly what he asked for, lots of time with lots of friends?

I have a friend who has talked publicly about her experience with a child diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder, and I started to wonder if we might be dealing with something similar. I went down the online checklists, and a few of the traits/behaviors listed fit our experience, but not enough to strongly feel that I had found the resources I was seeking. While looking up more articles on SPD I saw someone mention a book written for persons who identify as HSP, a Highly Sensitive Person.

HSPs are easily overwhelmed by stimuli, get stressed by loud noises and strong smells, are extremely perceptive, have rich and often intense internal lives, and need plenty of quiet and down time to maintain their equilibrium.  via Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 

I searched the phrase “highly sensitive child,” and as I checked the boxes that applied I realized that I had found the support system I so desperately needed to help me be a better parent to my sweet, yet resolute, son. It’s as though my child has been speaking French for 3 1/2 years, and I couldn’t recognize that we were communicating using entirely different languages. No wonder we were both confused and frustrated much of the time.

Learning about HSPs has been helpful for me too —  as I reflect on my own quirks and preferences I am able to have a lot more empathy and patience as I deal with his. I wouldn’t classify myself as highly sensitive, but there are things that I had previously described as “pet peeves” that are now things I identify as my personal sensitivities. Eating noises, particularly those of young children, top my list. I’m also very sensitive to the absence of sound, and almost always have music or a podcast running in the background. I don’t like anything spicy and see no reason to try to like a thing that to me equates the absence of taste in my food. We are all sensitive to something, and as adults we are able to engineer our world to minimize annoyances and frustrations whenever possible. Now that we are paying more attention to how he processes things we’ve made adjustments to our lifestyle and parenting approach, and these changes have greatly reduced the situations that overwhelmed him, which has in turn increased the enjoyment found in spending time together.

Labels are a tricky thing, especially when talking publicly about your children in a way that classifies them as something other than the current social norm. I don’t want T1 to ever feel boxed in by a label. For now, the highly sensitive child label will serve as a parenting map for me. If he desires to embrace the label of Highly Sensitive Person as an adult I will support him in that, but I also want to allow him the space to define his own self as he is able to do so.

I share my mistakes made and lessons learned in the hope that it will help other mothers who may be struggling in similar ways. I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to figure this out if I hadn’t read the experiences of my friends. It’s a very sad thought to think that I might never have done so and the many ways he would have felt misunderstood and invalidated. I deeply want my child to feel understood and supported by me, and I finally feel like we are speaking the same language. Or, it might be better to say that we recognize that we weren’t speaking the same language and are committed to learning from each other. Now we’re engaged in a two-way exchange of ideas and preferences, supplementing our exchanges with a whole lot of hugs and a bit of sign language along the way.

My next post in this series will explore some parenting situations where I adopted this new approach. I’ll talk about what happened, what I would have done in the past, and the actions I took under this new parenting model that had really positive results. As I gather a list of resources that have helped us (I’m reading Highly Sensitive Child right now and am consistently impressed by how much of it I can relate to) I’ll share those as well. Please share any resources that you think might be of help to us, I’d like to know more about what has worked for my readers as well.

Do you have a child that is sensitive? Are you someone who identifies as highly sensitive? What has your experience been like?

Dr. Laura Markham Presentations in the Bay Area

January 18, 2014 By: Jenna Category: Parenting

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I’m diving headlong into the parenting school of thought that advocates gentle discipline and the development of emotional intelligence. A friend referred me to Aha! Parenting and I saw that Dr. Laura Markham is doing a book tour at the end of January, with several of the events being held only 30 minutes from me.

I’m going to go to How to Get Kids Cooperating without Threats, Bribes or Consequences on the 28th of January. Let me know if you’re going to go as well, I’m thinking about organizing a dessert trip afterward so we can all discuss the changes we’re going to make.

Navigating the Santascape

December 10, 2013 By: Jenna Category: Holiday, Parenting

Our decision to be a “no Santa” household was largely inspired by our religious beliefs.  Even though we have left those behind we are forging ahead with the plan to take all of the credit for the gifts our children receive each year. I feel very strongly that our children need to have a firm grasp of money, and how very finite that resource is. Treating Santa as fiction instead of fact is one of the first steps we are taking toward that.

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T1 is 3 1/2 years now, and this is the first Christmas that I have had to act on my plans, instead of just getting philosophical about them in conversation. His friends tell him about Santa at school, we walk past Santa at the mall, he sat on Santa’s lap at a church breakfast. I struggled to converse with him about this and wasn’t sure how to react, until I was able to come up with a litmus test  to quickly think through each Santa situation.

Mentally insert Mickey Mouse whenever we see Santa. Mickey isn’t real, and no parents go out of their way to convince their children he is. But when you see Mickey Mouse at Disneyland no one says to their child “That is a man dressed as a giant mouse pretending to be Mickey.” Instead you let your child be excited about the experience, and at some point in time they realize that the characters they encounter in the theme park are college kids dressing up in furry sweat-boxes.

This approach is working great right now – T1 gets to excitedly point to every Santa that we pass, and to sing the songs and listen to the stories. I don’t have the options to bribe or manipulate him using threats about Santa not coming unless he listens to me (he should listen to me because I’m his mom and that’s the way the world works), and we get all the hugs and kisses and thank you’s for the presents he finds under the tree.

Solo Parenting

November 20, 2013 By: Jenna Category: Parenting

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It is ironic that I use this picture for this post – as it was taken by my husband. We really enjoy the time we do get to spend with him. 

I’m not really sure what I should call this thing that I’m doing, existing with a husband who travels for work M-Th every week, and is often working away from home 6-7 days/week. I’ve read enough posts written by actual single mothers to understand why it is hurtful and inaccurate for me to co-opt the phrase single motherhood. My partner provides monetary resources that afford me the luxury to work from home as a photographer and blogger while deciding when and how much to outsource childcare. He might not be physically present, but at the end of a hard day I am able to talk through the highs and lows of my day with him. When our children present challenges I have someone to brainstorm solutions with. We debate together, vacation together, make goals together. It’s been hard for me, but nowhere near as difficult as it would be if I were an actual single mother.

Taking on so much of the parenting load has been really difficult for me though, especially since parenting isn’t really my forte. We have no family in the area, and that means no breaks from the kids unless we pay someone. On weeknights I’m trapped in my bedroom (literally, since my oldest thinks that if I am awake and moving about that gives him license to stay up and move about his room), while my girlfriends in the area meet-up for movie nights and book clubs as their spouses watch the kids. We’re slowly building up friendships in the area, but haven’t made it to that perfect point where you don’t even bother knocking as you walk in the front door.

In short, it’s been challenging for me, with lots and lots of tears.*

The point of this post is to say that I needed something to describe my situation. Adopting consistent verbiage would help me accept where I’m at and give me a way to talk about it with others. I didn’t know of anyone else who had blazed that trail already, so I went with solo parenting. Single is the word our culture uses to describe someone who is not in a relationship, but solo is a word we use to talk about people who are alone. My husband is frequently absent, and so I am alone, though I am not single. Most of the time, I am a solo parent.

It’s important for me to talk about this, because the more I do so the more I realize how common it is. It’s very helpful for me to hear the stories and coping strategies employed by women in similar situations. The idealized 9-to-5 working schedule just isn’t an option for everyone, and I don’t think it is productive to be reductive in our discussions about work-life balance and career strategies.

I am growing daily, getting better at it with time. And I love living here! There is no other location in the world where I would rather live than Silicon Valley. I love the opportunities I have, and the way I’m living my life right now. If I want to have all of those things, traveling husband and solo parenting are also part of the equation.

What do you think, is there a better phrase to describe what I’m doing?

ETA: Lots of comments already about how we should get more help – babysitters, a nanny, maybe even an au pair. I would love that, specifically for one or two evenings each week, but our spending in other areas means we can’t afford it. Maybe you can tell all of your friends to hire me to photograph their weddings or lifestyle sessions, and then I’ll be able to pay to have some girl’s nights? :)


*I’m in weekly therapy now. No more breakdowns!

Phrases I Overuse

July 02, 2013 By: Jenna Category: Parenting

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He’s turning into a little mini-me in a lot of ways. For better or for worse.

Parenting forces you to come to terms with all sorts of flaws and quirks about yourself that you previously ignored. T1′s language explosion of the last 6 months has brought to light several words that I repeat frequently (overuse?) in my daily speech.

1. Really

T1 has to go potty “really so bad”. He is really hungry. Really mad. I really mean it. It’s really important.

2. Pretty

Pretty great. Pretty cool. Pretty quiet. Pretty bad. Give me an adjective, and I will put pretty in front of it.

3. ‘cuz

This shortened form of because has almost become grating for me to hear ‘cuz he uses it so often. At first I was a little bit embarrassed, and then I started listening closer to the adults around me and on television and I realized that everyone is doing it! Is this a socially acceptable slang term, akin to what “like” will be in 15-20 years?

What words/phrases do you overuse? And can we take some time to talk about about America and the future of “like”? Because I use it constantly, and everyone younger than me uses it even more. Do other English speaking countries use it as frequently as we do? 

      I'm a farm-raised almost-crunchy stroller-pushing picture-taking lifestyle-blog-writing gastronomy-obsessed divine-seeking thrift-store-combing cheese-inhaling pavement-pounding laughter-sprinkling lover of individuality and taking chances.
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