Monday, September 8, 2008

Back To School, AKA The Return Of The Von Crankensteins

What is it about the start of the school year -- or in my kids' case, the preschool year -- that brings out the worst in everyone in Late Blooming Mom's house?

Thing 1 and Thing 2 returned to school last Thursday after a nearly two-week absence from the school itself (it's where they attended summer camp), and promptly turned into the toddler equivalents of Dr. Von Frankenstein's famous monster and his bride. Worse, in reaction to their tantrums, whining, and incessant demands, Late Blooming Mom and Dad were similarly transformed -- into Von Crankensteins, the elders.

During the weekend following the resumption of school, there has been more outright yelling, foot-stomping, wheedling, needling, mewling, and collapsing onto the floor into a flailing heap while kicking at anyone daring to come into kicking distance than during our entire end-of-summer vacation, even though THAT involved two long airplane trips, sleeping in an unfamiliar location (grandma and grandpa's house) and the total disruption of daily routine.

Last year around this time, I remember talking with my dearest friend Karen, an elementary school teacher and mother of two who has always displayed the cool, calm wisdom of an earth mother even though she was pretty young by the standards of our post-collegiate crowd when she had her first kid. Karen told me that the weeks around the back to school period are ALWAYS stressful in her house. It matters not that her family has been through the school year's start time and time again. Crankiness abounds, snippyness becomes the normal mode of communication, and everybody seems to be in a constant bad mood.

Still, I was unprepared for the strength and force of this perfect storm, this emotional tidal wave of short tempers and hair triggers. Sometimes when I've had a bad night's sleep or two, and the kids are less pliable/more vehement about getting their way than normal, I find myself momentarily turning bitchy and tight-faced and gritting my teeth or storming out of the room until I can get hold of myself. But this past weekend, I was in a near-constant state of maternal irritation, just-about-to-boil fury, and more than once, my pot simply boiled over. I taught my kids bad lessons by modeling the loss of self-control when frustrated. Bring on the Child-Rearing Police. If yelling, door slamming and storming out are the charges, I plead very, very guilty.

I have an old friend I wish I was more in touch with, a Kentuckian by birth, whom I remember, when she had two toddlers, using the vividly colorful Southern vernacular phrase, "stepping on my last nerve." I guess the idea behind it is that you've got a bunch of exposed nerves when you're a mom, and your kids keep stepping on them, and yet you cope, until they get to that very last, untouched nerve. And then they don't just step -- they stomp. You utterly lose it, and the kids know it. It's as if they've been waiting to provoke you to reach this point, just to see what will happen, or worse, thrive on the negative attention this maternal volcanic explosion garners them.

My last nerve has most definitely been stomped on.

Dad's too, for it was he who had to get them out the door without my help this morning (I had an early appointment) and drag them, howling and clinging, into school in front of all the other moms or dads at drop-off. (Thanks to those parents who've helped out during moments like this, taken pity on him after a shared look of recognition and a sigh of relief that at least it wasn't their kid(s) this time).

Dad called me to vent on his way to work. It was his way of coping. Now I am coping my way: trying to take some time for myself to be calm, get into some kind of Zen place where fountains of water are gently flowing (or at least I hear the fountain in the courtyard outside my office window), my inner self is at peace, and I am in control so I won't utterly lose it later when I retrieve Thing 1 and Thing 2 from preschool.

I can't really blame them for their rebelliousness if I consider that, during vacation, they had mom and dad's undivided attention 24/7, doting grandparents, gifts of new toys and books for the plane rides, access to more treats than usual, and days devoted to visiting playgrounds, museums, a kiddie pool, and the toy-strewn houses and apartments of our relatives and friends with children. Then, suddenly, they were thrust back into full-day preschool, where they were separated from mom and dad for many hours, had to share with lots of other kids, and conform to what somebody else decided they should do. They weren't happy about this change, and registered their dissatisfaction sort of the way our cat did when we picked him up from four nights' boarding at the vet's. (That night, the cat pooped and peed in all the wrong places. Message received, oh furry one.)

But then again, my kids can theoretically reason and communicate at this age -- certainly more than my cat will ever be able to. So did they have to be SUCH primadonnas in venting their displeasure? I'm reminded of the scene in SPINAL TAP when Nigel Tufnel throws a snitfit over the size of the cocktail bread he's been given to snack on backstage (not to mention and his irrefutable -to-him, child-like logic that a guitar amplifier that goes to eleven is SOOOO much better than one that goes to ten, even though it really is no louder).

I console myself that after the worst of Thing 2's fits this weekend, she came and found me in my bedroom, where I'd curled up in a big comfy chair, utterly spent ... and she snuggled with me. Despite my having lost it in front of her, she still sought the comfort of my embrace, and we calmed down together. Later that night, my son held my hand and snuck into the space under my arm, where he so conveniently fits. Perhaps a lesson has been learned amidst the icky-ness of back to school stress: that even when mom -- or kid -- loses it, there is still plenty of love to be had around here. Getting angry doesn't mean you forfeit love and acceptance. My kids know my love for them is secure, even though their behavior may mean the temporary withdrawal of my apparently much coveted attention.

We don't have to like each other all the time, especially when it's back to school week, and we're all being impossible -- in kid or grown-up form. Somtimes we really wear each other out, but to paraphrase artist/author Ian Falconer of the OLIVIA children's book series, we love each other anyway.

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