Of boys and empowerment

“It takes a life to build a life,” the old Arab adage goes, meaning, essentially, that kids take a lot out of you. Quite a few years in fact. As any mother knows, that life feels shorter when you have boys. But don’t take my word for it. In 2013, an article re-published on the Scientific American website said that a study had concluded that having sons may indeed shorten a woman’s life-span (all caveats included). But we knew that already.

Here’s the thing though: it’s not them, it’s us. We tend to limit our children because we are afraid, not because they are afraid. Every ounce of fear that our child feels, if not planted by us, is certainly fostered by us. The more control we need, the more we foster this fear. The children stay close, tied, bound to us for fear that…for fear that what? If something happens to the children, are they the ones who suffer or are we?

On a recent trip abroad my three boys and I rented bicycles to go around town despite the fact that we already had a car. As soon as we got them my middle child disappeared and he has yet to return. The older one followed him soon thereafter and my youngest, the 11-year old, stuck with me when he was unable to keep up with them.

The only problem there was that I stuck to the car.

I didn’t stick to the car because I preferred the car. Quite the contrary, I love to cycle and renting the bicycles was my idea. No, I stuck to the car because as a 46-year old mother of three flirting with Alzheimer’s, I forgot that I had rented a bike.

And so it happened that later that afternoon when my older children called me to confirm that they could not pick up their younger brother and his bike from the local nautical club and that I had to do it, I picked up the car keys and went.

“Why didn’t you come by bike?” asked my youngest, proving that he had already built more intelligence and common sense than I ever hope to have.

Like any self-respecting idiot, I owned up.

“Because I’m an idiot,” I said.

“So what do I do with my bike now? How do I get home? You know I’m afraid to go on the road, especially by myself.” He was calm and articulate considering the situation he had to face. I offered him his choices: he could put the bike in the back of the car and we could drive home, he could ride on the road and I would try to stay as close as possible or he could ride on the opposite pavement and I would keep an eye on him from the other side as far as possible.

He asked me which option I thought he should choose.

“I think you should do what makes you feel com…uncomfortable.”

Un-comfortable?” he sneered, “why would I do that?”.

“Because then you will grow bigger and stronger,” I said, idiot that I am.

He chose the growth option. I followed as much as possible from the other side and, thinking that I saw him stop at the bike shop on the way back (he had been complaining about his helmet), parked and waited for him to come out. He didn’t.

At that point I figured that he had not, in fact, stopped at the shop and had continued home. So I went home. But he wasn’t there either. I waited. Maybe I had missed him on the way.

Nothing.

My sanity and insanity competed for dominance.

“He did stop at the bike shop and he’s still there,” said one.

“No he’s not! He’s been hit by a car,” screamed the other, “he’s been kidnapped! He’s fallen and hurt himself!”

Three years down.

I realized that I wasn’t ready for my son’s growth. I wasn’t ready for his empowerment. It didn’t matter what he felt. I couldn’t care less! I cannot handle this! I got back in the car to look for him, throw his bicycle in the car and throw him back inside of me, never letting him go. I wished I was a kangaroo.

I found him safe and sound at the bike shop. He thought he was lost and had stopped to ask for directions. “I have a problem,” he had told them apparently, “I lost my mother.” If only he knew the problems his mother was having at having lost him! They sagely told him to sit tight, that if he thought of stopping there, his mother would probably also think to go there. Clever guys.

“Where did you go?” he shouted at me with a grin from ear to ear, “I thought you said you were going to watch me! You went the other way!”

I explained that as a car, I couldn’t go against traffic and I had to u-turn. His eyes were gleaming with self-assurance. The distance from the nautical club to the bike shop was one mile and I could tell he already felt bigger and stronger.

“So what do we do now?” I asked, hoping he would wisely ask to stow the bike in the car and be done for the day. Growth be damned!

He got on his bike. “I know the way now,” he said, “I’ll meet you at home.”

I had empowered my son. I had made him a tad more independent. I had left him space to grow bigger and stronger. And it had cost me ten years of my life.

Ten years in the till. Ka-ching!

When my middle son was still nursing, I asked my pediatrician’s advice about leaving him for a few days because of a trip I wanted to take.

“I’m not sure about leaving this one,” I said, “he’s more attached to me than his older brother.”

He smiled. “Are you sure it’s not the other way around?”

I didn’t agree.

Fourteen years later, when my youngest told me: “I felt proud of myself today,” I knew exactly what my pediatrician meant.

Me too, I thought.

Open letter to my three boys

Notwithstanding that you are a miracle from heaven and that there is nothing in this world I care about more than your health and safety and happiness, notwithstanding that I would rather die than see any of you in misery, I feel it is nevertheless necessary that I share with you these few tips that should make for smoother relations in the years to come.

Tip #1

You will not ask the same question twice. Ever. Listen to the answer the first time.

Tip #2

“But why Mom?” is now officially banned lexicon.

Tip #3

You will not, ever, complain about the food on the table. You may choose to eat it or to leave it, but you will not complain about it. You will not play with it either.

Tip #4

You will finish your homework, it is a favor to yourselves, not to me.

Tip #5

“In a sec” will, from now on, be replaced by “yes sure.” Preferably “yes ma’am.”

Tip #6

I have a face and it can make expressions, so please address all talk to me and not to your screen. It doesn’t love you as much as I do.

Tip #7

Trips abroad are a luxury and not a given. So is eating out.

Tip #8

Yes you will have to work, save up, and buy your own car.

Tip #9

You will stop using my plugs, wires, pens and everything else that belongs to me. Should you need something urgently, you will ask me. More importantly, you will put it back.

Tip #10

You will learn to rely on yourselves and take care of your own affairs so you can become able, confident, young men.

For the night is dark and full of terrors.

Tip #11

I will tend to your issue as soon as I possibly can. I am ignoring you only because I am trying to focus on something else right now.

Tip #12

I am able to carry two conversations, talk and listen to two people at the same time, but I choose not to.

Tip #13

You will go after what you want, you will not wait for it to come to you.

Tip #14

The answer to “Why Mom?” is “Because.” The answer to “But why Mom?” is still “Because.” But anyway if you go back to tip no.2 you will see that “but why mom?” is banned anyway.

With love,

Mom.

P.S. No I will not be writing a similar letter to the dog because the dog cannot read!

On raising dogs…and boys

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who like dogs and those who don’t. Some would claim that they are indifferent, or ambivalent, but that is not true. They just haven’t bothered to really sort through their feelings on the subject yet. I used to think that I was indifferent to dogs until I had my own—not too different from my boys actually–and then I realized that I liked them. I like them a lot.

Then there is a small splinter group: those who say they like dogs in general, just not my dog. My dog, apparently, is too boisterous, too big, too brown, too friendly, too intrusive, too jumpy and too talkative. They would rather, they claim, that my dog kept a safe distance from them, better yet, ignore them.

I had even had the occasional claim that I let my dog, a female chocolate Labrador, get away with things I would never let my kids get away with. That is true. Naturally, I would rather my boys not chew bones, eat dead rats, rub themselves against slugs or sniff other people’s butts in greeting.

My point is this: a person is a person and a dog is a dog. It would be better and easier for both species if hey were not equated. Yet if you were to read Karen Pryor’s excellent book Reaching the Animal Mind, you would understand that there are many similarities when it comes to communicating with animals and people.

And yet so many people still do not know how to communicate or interact with dogs. They either fear them, causing their heart rates to rise and the dog to run to them in aid, which further raises their heart rate, or they run away from them, prompting the dog into a much-loved game of tag. Or they keep looking at the dog and telling it to go away, engaging the dog in conversation—dogs, as you know, cannot talk. They bark.

One thing that people, in my environment at least, do not seem to understand is that you simply have to ignore the dog—not engage with it in any way. Keep going about your business and it will understand. Believe me.

Because when dogs are communicated to properly, they understand. They understand faster than people do. They certainly understand faster than my kids do! For over ten years now I have been trying to teach my boys to say please when they want something, to eat properly and to raise the toilet seat when they need to pee and lower it back down again of course. Ten years and they still have not learned these basic skills. My dog, on the other hand, who is only three, knew from the age of six months to sit for her food. She slurps her whole plate clean without making a mess and knows not to pee except in certain places!

But there is another secret to dogs. Dogs have no shame, no pride and no ego. That makes dealing with then a lot easier than dealing with people. And most of the time they are more fun.

The problem my dog seems to have is that she is too friendly. She believes that everyone she meets either wants to be her friend or they need rescuing because they are in distress. Her only fault, it seems, is that she is being herself. An ideal that, according, to Caroline McHugh, founder and CEO of IDology, a movement dedicated to helping individuals and organizations be fully deployed, original versions of themselves, we should all be striving for. You can watch Caroline’s excellent TED talk here.

My dog, it seems, is not as well trained as my kids. Therefore she has not yet learned to think, and judge, and be critical and cynical. She is still primitive, asking for, and giving in return, love, companionship and comfort. My dog lets me be (except when I’m on my home trainer, in which case she runs to help!), accepts me for who I am and I, indeed, plan on returning the favor.

Although I will concede that her habit of snatching scarves and jackets is very annoying. We are working on that.

Of boys and falling down

The mother of boys has to be very fit. She needs to be fast and have quick reflexes, with enough mental stamina and explosive power in her arms and legs to get to the uncovered plugs before her crawling dumpling does. Or to skid fast enough to cushion the fall of a miscalculated jump, catch a vase that has just been shot off the shelf, or to simply pick her little boy up every time he falls. Because boys fall a lot. Physically and mentally.

And so it was, that at the tender young age of 45, I took up triathlon training. I had always been relatively fit, I had already trained for and run a marathon, worked out in the gym, dabbled with yoga and pilates and spinning, but this was serious s**t, with a coach and a training program that covered most of the hours of the day, most days of the week. There was no room for excuses, exceptions, justifications or pretenses. Here’s the program, shut up and do it.

And so it was that with a runny nose and a blocked ear (from the previous day’s swimming workout) I picked myself up early from bed and went running. Naturally, I was feeling very sorry for myself, I wanted to be in bed with my books and my box of soft tissues, not out here battling it on the streets of Beirut. I cursed myself, I cursed my coach, I cursed my boys and was thinking how perhaps this Christmas, as a way of getting back at them, I should teach them about the art of giving instead of receiving by donating some of their gif…

Then I fell.

Or more like thudded. Thumped. Clunked.

Crashed. Smacked. Clomped.

It wasn’t very elegant.

But whatever I did, I seem to have tripped over a piece of badly paved road and I found myself kissing the ground with a bloody nose, scraped knees and hands, a lot of pain and naturally, a bruised ego.

I think it was providence’s way for punishing me for feeling sorry for myself. But it went the extra step because I was still a mile away from home. With no money and no phone.

And that’s when the mental stamina needs to kick in.

I must have looked bad after my trudge home because it took my youngest only 20 seconds to realize something was wrong with me.

“I fell,” I whimpered.

He gave ma a quick reassurance hug before running around in a few circles and shooting off to grab cotton, disinfectant, ice and a towel, all neatly displayed on a tray. My middle one had by then got wind that I was hurt and, very un-teenage-like, also started fussing and looking for any sleeves we had for sprained knees, ankles and wrists. They fussed and swarmed around me with such tenderness and love and affection that I started making my Christmas list again.

After my shower and unending enquiries as to how I was feeling from all the boys in my household, I started tidying up the mess they had made while looking after me and thanking providence for allowing me to salute the street so intimately and being at the receiving end of so much tenderheartedness, compassion and care.

Tomorrow I may just fall off my bicycle.

Of boys and noise

When I was a young girl, I used to be partially deaf in one ear. I didn’t know that of course, but everyone else did.

My siblings knew because they would whisper to me when I wasn’t looking and see how long it took to get my attention. Finally, my mother, having given up on my siblings’ rudimentary way of testing, confirmed the diagnosis in a dim and humid doctor’s clinic. I was ten years old.

My mother at the time, bless her, had no idea that I would eventually end up living with four boys and that being partially deaf in one ear may actually be a good thing.

Because living with boys as anyone will tell you, is noisy. Doors don’t close, they bang. They don’t unlock, they’re wrenched open. Conversations are not had, they’re shouted across rooms and corridors. My boys are teenagers now, so they’re quite hormonal and so there’s a lot of shouting and screaming going on.

Then there are the musical instruments of course. The piano, played only with the foot constantly to the pedal, and the bass. And the drums. The drums played without the silencing pads.

And the music that stays on long after the premises have been vacated. Music is always in the background.

Boys also like to watch noisy things: a football match with all the cacophony of the stadium, action movies with long car chases and noisy exhausts, war movies. All with the volume pitched high.

And then there’s Big Boy Number One, of course. My husband loves to watch replays of football matches he’s already seen a couple of times already. If his favored team had actually won, I get treated to replays and commentary on television, tablet, phone…Location doesn’t matter either: bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, living room…it all works. This doesn’t bother me, I have to admit, except when I’m trying to read or I’m concentrating on something else, happily and quietly in my bed, in which case the commentary becomes quite a distraction.

Especially if it’s in German.

(Neither my husband nor I speak or understand German.)

And here’s an observation I made the other day. Boys don’t notice when a sound is too high, only when it’s too low. My eldest son recently joined the school choir and we were, naturally, invited to watch his first concert. It was really great to go and watch his lips move.

“How did you like it?” he asked me hopefully at the end.

“I liked it a lot though I would have liked it even more if I had heard you,” I replied, “your father was complaining that he couldn’t hear you at all! You sing louder than that when you sing alone at home,” I tried, wanting to offer one positive-sounding comment at least.

“Yes well, we were asked to keep it soft and melodious,” he explained.

“Well maybe that’s the problem,” I said. “Next time keep it loud…and try singing in German.”

Of Boys and Temporospatial Difficulties

When it comes to any kind of time or space assessment, boys suck. The passage of time and distance between two places is totally arbitrary and changes according to the movement of the earth and the moon, circumstances, hormones, weather…who knows?
Two of the most blatant examples of temporospatial difficulty that boys exhibit are when they shout “Mooooooooommmmmmm” across three rooms, or when they decide to have an important conversation with you, from behind the shower door, even though you have explained, on numerous prior occasions that you cannot hear anything above the noise of the water (this might signal a comprehension problem that we will deal with later, alternatively you can refer to my post on hearing and listening.

Recently, I attended an exercise class where the trainer, a very sweet big boy, had particular difficulties with space and time assessment. He had arranged a circuit where we are supposed to spend a minute at each station and complete two circuits before we got to rest for two minutes and then doing the same thing again with another circuit. As we were 6, that would mean a total of 12 minutes for the first circuit, 12 minutes for the second and a 2-minute break, so a total of 26 minutes of intense exercise that would be accompanied by a 5-minute warm-up and a 5-minute cool down. A total 36 minutes to fit within a 1-hour session.

He didn’t manage. The whole session was an awkward 63 minutes long. Most of us participants completed 1.3 to 1.7 of the first circuit and 2.2 to 2.5 of the second circuit, spending 38 seconds at one station, 75 seconds on another…the whole thing was a total mishmash of time and space interwoven with shouts of “Go!”, “Stop!”, “Rest”, “Again”, intermittently. We came out sweaty, but we were not exactly sure what we did. Or why.
Another example of a space/time problem that I know my boys struggle with is messaging. My husband and I sent our boys to camp recently and had set up a family chat for that purpose. I don’t think I need to say much more than what is below.

Home, 9:36 PM: “How’s everybody doing?”
Home, 9:55 PM: “Hello?”

Camp, 11:06 PM: “Hello””We were not free”

Home, 11:06 PM: “OK, everything going well?”

Silence…s…s…s…s…s…s…s

But the best illustration has to be:
11:03 PM, 4,823km away: “Mom, can you tell Nik [his brother] and his friends to stop bothering me?”

Boys, you’ve got to love them. Because if you don’t, no one else will.

Of boys and grieving mothers

To every grieving mother today, I pray for you. To every woman whose heart has been savagely wrenched, I pray for you. 

I pray that you find solace, I pray that you find peace, I pray that you find acceptance.

To every grieving mother today, I think of you. To every woman whose heart has been irretrievably broken, I think of you. 

I think of your stabbing wound, I think of your incomprehension, I think of the unfairness you have been subjected to.

To every grieving mother today, I cry with you. To every woman whose core has been ripped to shreds, I cry with you.

I cry for your pain. I cry for your tears. I cry for your loss.

To every grieving mother today, I hope that we will never forget, I hope that we will never comply, I hope that we will never accept.

May the angels walk with you and may they always be by your side in your time of need.
May every hand in this world reach out to cradle you, may every arm around you offer you comfort.
May your child rest in peace.

May you one day dance again.