Friday, June 14, 2019

Older Kids: A 3,000 Word Essay

I had lunch yesterday with three other working mom attorneys. In addition to the fact that I genuinely enjoy them as people, I've found it's essential to periodically gather with similarly situated professionals and just chat about being women and mothers and attorneys all at the same time, in all our glories and struggles and love of pizza. My youngest is older than the next oldest child in the group, so it was amusing and comforting to be back in the land of toddler and infant troubles. Not that those times aren't hard and real in their own right, I do not miss the exhaustion and the worry that comes with a screaming baby you can't decipher, but omg, I have found being a parent of older kids to be SO. MUCH. HARDER. I long for the tantrums of a toddler- the sky is the wrong color, gravity is a thing, being tired can destroy worlds... the occasional lack of sense made perfect sense to me. This is a small child. The world is a big and confusing place and they get so little control over it. Even in the frustration I generally felt like I got what was happening and we could deal with it. And if all else failed a nap, a simple break with a book or a cuddle pretty much cured all ills. And I could physically move them to make that happen. It was a simpler time.

After years of relative calm and rationality and increasingly fun and logical conversations and interactions with our ever-older children, it was such a shock to go backwards to the land of emotional extremes again. And harder, for me, because this was a bigger, older kid who had now spent years articulately communicating with me. When you step away from the emotional maelstrom, it makes total sense- their brains are exploding with growth, their hormones are a toxic soup surging around inside them, and the physical and emotional changes are as surprising to them as the effects are to me. But- and this was key for me- it doesn't LOOK like that from the outside. They still look like the kid you had a fascinating and factual discussion about world habitat preservation 20 minutes prior and now they're on the floor moaning at the utter awfulness of their life because they needed to go take out the trash. And you think words will fix it, because you have words now! You have thousands of words! And they have a grasp on the passage of time and consequences and cause and effect and all these fundamental truths that should make conversing between parent and child easier, but NO. And it's a surprise to everyone. They're also smarter and bigger and louder and omg just so much smarter. They know you, they know you better than you know yourself and they can get a rise and a reaction out of you with shocking speed and accuracy. My breath was literally taken away by the hurt that could come from these conversations- me, who totally understands they are a child and who is secure in my adult friendship and not looking for approval from a 10-year-old, but god DAMN. Pinpoint verbal arrows. And, as I learned, the emotional reaction on my part was the point, not the hurt that came with it. With toddlers I'd mastered the ability to stay calm, to be the point of true north, the center of the hurricane. With tweens I learned that response was MADDENING to the emotionally overwhelmed human hurting in front of me. It seemed like I didn't care. I wasn't affected. So the goal was to make me FEEL, to force me to be WITH them in this confusing moment of sudden big huge feelings. It didn't matter that the emotions they were pulling from me were negative- it was the emotion itself that mattered and as soon as I broke, the very SECOND I yelled or made a ridiculous threat or cried and hated myself for not being able to be the calm adult in the situation, the storm would pass. The skies would clear and that same someone would be cheerfully asking what's for dinner and can we play a game later and what's the weather tomorrow and I'm just there, crumpled on the floor in a new soup of self-loathing and regret, wondering where it all went wrong.

The other thing that is harder- at least for me- is the lack of a clear and open community of support. Toddlers are still extensions of you. They're expected to be irrational and it feels okay to share it. There's a lot of commiseration and shared stories and advice and tips you can pull from that. When it comes to parenting advice I've found what works best is just heading and sharing as many stories as possible. No one knows or sees your kid like you do, but they do see their own, and sometimes a story or approach that didn't make sense to you when you heard it pops in your head later and you give it a try. And no matter what you feel less alone. "Oh, my friend has been here, I'll tell her this story later and we'll laugh and toast to surviving another day." So I had a deep pool of stories and examples to pull from when it came to my younger children. But with tweens, there's fewer of those. Tweens are their own people and they deserve privacy, but they're also still yours and you need support. So it's a hard balance. I don't always strike it, but man do I miss it when I feel I can't connect with others. And because your children are more confusing (to both of you!) and your reaction to them is more confusing, the stories are less cute and funny and more "wtf I'm drowning here" and that also feels different. And then sometimes an internet commenter tells you that all your problems originate from the worst experience of your life 12 years ago and you just don't/can't love your oldest the way you love your other two and it's obvious to see and he feels it too. And even if you can reject that immediately (and you, always looking for things you're doing wrong, probably cannot), it is decidedly unhelpful and you're reminded why blog posts with thousands of words have gone the way of Instagram which is a single picture. I don't have Instagram but I get the appeal.

So, there's a lot of learning. What worked for the 3 year old does not necessarily work for the 10 year old. Okay. We're all handling this much better, at least until our next tween emerges and requires an approach that is totally different. And on the upside- because there is SO much upside- you do get to live with this funny, smart, fascinating human who is increasingly his or herself and not you or your partner and it is just an amazing thing to watch develop. Often surprising in the best of ways, I love have big kids in my house. I love traveling with them and showing them the world, I love hearing their thoughts on things that are so different from mine or from what I sometimes expect them to say. I love the conversations we can have, the plans we can make, the daily delight we experience in learning who they are and wondering who they might one day be. Big kids are awesome and despite the occasional challenges, I wouldn't trade this phase of life for anything.

Something I would trade? The internet. Holy fuck y'all, I feel like I'm constantly behind. We basically just ignored the issue for our first decade of parenting. We never had iPads; the kids got kindles that were charged up for 1 hour+ road trips ONLY; we had one TV and the kids watched 0 minutes of it during the week. Our general lack of electronics wasn't really based on any lofty principles, though I agreed with them, it was that our schedules were full and busy and anytime we introduced TV during the week it felt like behaviors fell apart. It just didn't work for us and was relegated to a weekend morning treat that pleased everyone. We've never used electronics at restaurants or outings or literally anything outside of a road trip. This was more of a purposeful thing- eating out and traveling is our favorite thing and I never wanted them to expect entertainment while waiting in line or for food. Handling boredom is a learned skill. But also, I just never wanted them messing with my phone, so phones were for grown-ups, full stop. Landon got a Nintendo Switch last Christmas after a year of asking and I hate it. Our house was a better place without video games, but I can make some allowances for a nearly 12-year-old who desperately wants to play with his friends. Turns out though, I was a step behind and didn't realize I could/should be monitoring his time on the device through an app on my own phone because he was sneaking it in his room and playing hundreds of hours more than he was supposed to and suddenly the prior 6 weeks made so much more sense when I discovered him paying under his pillow (very) late at night. He went into rehab (not a real thing, just his regular "boring" house without access to electronics), the Switch went to my office for 2 months, and we now have internal controls and an electronics approach based on clearly communicated rules, some slowly rebuilding trust, and daily app-monitored verification that the boundaries are being respected.

Enter the laptop. When I redid our playroom I added a laptop I'd purchased when I was feeling cheap two years ago and immediately hated and replaced with the nicer one I should have bought in the first place, and a printer they could actually use (our other printer is for the Swim School and we keep a firm separation between the personal and the business entity). Landon is going to middle school and will need access to a computer and we were already late on letting the kids play any of the educational games the school provides subscriptions to. I thought I'd put controls on the browsers and generally didn't worry about it too much because the kids aren't home that often and the computer is in an open area we keep an eye on.

And then I discovered a "sex videos" in the search history yesterday, realized it was Claire who searched it, and all the walls came tumbling down. Again.

For context I should note that this was after I got home from work to find Cora on day 2 of a fever that had now climbed to 103 degrees after Motrin, so my first 90 minutes of "home time" was spent in urgent care with a screaming 5-year-old who objected strongly to the strep and flu test swabs. The very second we got home, James pulled up with the big kids from swimming, and I spent the next 90 minutes closed in the TV room with my brand-new-9-year-old, sobbing and shaking, as she tried to explain that she just "wondered what sex was and thought videos would explain it." Except THEY DID NOT. They showed a deeply fucked up version of what sex is and the resulting images from that search haunted me all night. "It's so bad it's so bad I'm so sorry I'm so sorry," she sobbed. And so we had a sex education and counseling session that should have began a year ago and ended in reading "It's Not the Stork" together on the couch.

See, when you put limits on your kids' internet browser, you need make sure they're on ALL the browsers. I don't use Microsoft Edge and totally forgot it was installed on the laptop I never used. And not just installed, but the set as the default browser. So we're researching more comprehensive internet monitoring systems for the whole wifi network. Until we figure that out, the laptop has a new password no one knows but me and we'll add it back into our lives when I feel on top of the situation, which will be no sooner than mid-July. Also, and this is a whole different topic but one I managed to both feel passionate about and also fail at utterly: be the one who brings up sex with your children. Claire saw the word when it popped up in the title of a "suggested video" next to a totally innocent video she was watching at a friend's house (a friend she initially tried to blame for her search which caused a whole other mess, and the punishment she got last night relates solely to the lying/passing blame and not the curiosity that took her places she did not want to go). Being raised in the age of Google, she thought, I'll just look that up when I get home. And being parents who failed her on this, that was her introduction to what sex was. And it scared her and she thought it was wrong and she sat with that on her heart and mind for 6 weeks until I happened to go through the browser history.

I've read so much from the professionals who know more than me about the importance of introducing tough topics with your kids. On sex, I read and deeply believed that it's not a "talk," but rather the opening of an 18+ year long conversation. It's making yourself available as a resource. It's letting them know that this is something we talk about, not something we hide. When you don't introduced a topic and a kid hears about it, especially something as frequently coated in secrecy and shame or embarrassment as sex, your child's conclusion is some combination of "my parents don't know what this is" and "this isn't something we talk about." And that is EXACTLY what happened in my own house with my second child after we had done a generally good job educating the first in a timely and appropriate manner. We already had all the books, we've already had a round of allllll the talks, but somehow, it just surprises us when Claire pops up right behind Landon in the timeline of learning and development. She's also a curious inquisitive second kid who usually hears things way sooner than Landon notices them. She shares a room with her younger sister which make the natural nighttime solo talks we had with Landon less accessible, and, most importantly, she had access to a laptop he didn't at the same age. And my failures on this front sit heavily on my heart, particularly as I clicked through her actual search results long after she was in bed.

We're on a better path now. We started our initial sex talk a little differently than Landon- less "where do babies come from" and more "sex is a good, positive, healthy part of adult life; you completely own that part of your life and your feelings about it will change when you become an adult and we will have lots more conversations between now and then; the internet is not a good resource for childhood questions and we will be your filter; and also, yes this is about babies too." She went to bed with her new favorite book to "read again in the morning" and we now have a journal she can write down any questions she doesn't want to ask out loud and I have promised answers and/or appropriate resources to read herself. We ate a dinner James had valiantly pieced together from random things in our fridge, Landon and Claire played the game of Life, which felt almost too on point, I whisper-updated James on the journey taken in the TV room, and we tucked our feverish smallest child into bed. And then I took a very long bath with a very large glass of wine.

I'm drafting this in the lobby of a Hyundai dealership service center while my car gets its checkup and vaccinations. I'm not going to proof-read before posting, so apologies in advance (or too late, really, since you'll read this at the end) for any misspellings and sentences I altered midway through and now don't make sense. I probably lack the mental capacity to catch them right now anyway. Parenting is hard y'all. I raise a glass to all of you and am trying to find comfort in the fact that I seem to be acing my roll as a dog mom. I left Maggie sleeping the noisy but peaceful sleep of the untroubled bulldog. May we all have something in our lives that is simple.

Cannot Access the Internet


  1. Ugh, the internet is the WORST. I completely agree. I also agree that big kids are harder than little kids. You are a good mom and have good kids. This wouldn't all feel so scary and hard if that were not true.

  2. This. I can sympathize with ALL of this. Our kids are all adults now, but we found the tween years quite trying. Also, because we had our children when we were younger, none of our friends could identify with our issues because they were either still childless or had babies at the time. Not to mention that the judgement from other parents when you bring up issues has them assuming that your kid is just a brat and THEIR KID would never do something so must be a bad parent. Sigh.

    Funny story - after I explained to my daughter (the middle child) the mechanics of intercourse, she looked at me in horror and exclaimed, "ew! You and Dad did that THREE TIMES!!!"

    Anyways, it seems to me that you and James are handling this parenting thing like champs and I wish you smooth roads ahead, especially for the teenage years :)

  3. Oh goodness, that's an awful lot for one week. I tell you this as a mom of a teen boy. Teen boy emotions are hard. I feel like there is a lot about teen girls, but teen/tween boy emotions are tough. And Michael is a lot like Landon, it is all about the reaction. Hang in there, it gets worse before it gets better. You are a great mom!

  4. I'm posting this anonymously on purpose. I'm not a frequent commenter, but I do comment occasionally. This tween thing is HARD. We've had the sex conversations after discovering things in internet searches or similar. The worst we had, which is why I'm posting anonymously, was getting a phone call from the school principal that our tween son had looked up suicide while logged into his school google classroom account. Thank goodness this child is already seeing an excellent therapist, so we were able to get an appointment with her quickly. I'm still reeling from that call several weeks later and question constantly if we, including my son, will get past it.

    I miss the days of little ones when the problems were things like gravity, a wrong color plate or the wind blowing. This bigger stuff is difficult and intense.

    I'm not sharing this for sympathy, but to let you know that you aren't alone and raise so many of the same concerns the rest of us share and just don't know how to voice publicly.

    Finally, how dare someone comment that you love your son less than your daughters because of what you went through when he was a baby. The love and pride you have for all of your children shines off the screen when you write about them.

  5. My oldest is 14 and discovered the internet 2 years ago. He had access before then; we use this line to convey him going through puberty and the lengths he goes through to look at boobies. We have things locked down on our router, but there are ways around this--like starting a device in side mode and removing all security features. Google image searches can also bring up some questionable material within your firewalls. So, we focus on the fact that, yes, this is normal, but what he may be seeing is not real--it is a movie where people are acting and sex is different in real life.
    Being in Texas, I worry that the sex education won't address birth control adequately enough, so I make him show me where condoms are kept in stores. We have a discussion about the price of them vs. the cost of raising a child.
    I do not have a strong relationship with my family. It is similar to what James has, but not quite as extreme. My fear is wanting to make sure we have a relationship with our children, so we talk about how we, as parents, will always tell them the truth, but we may not share all details. We expect the truth back, but that can be hard at certain ages. I also discuss addiction and how it has impacted my family. Everyone will find their way, including you. You are doing a fantastic job and thank you for sharing. Keep at it.

  6. Rebecca, I used to be on a discussion board for parents of middle schoolers with ADHD where a frequent posting topic was something like, "I am going to kill my child and they will rule it justifiable homicide." That pretty much says it all. Of course, none of it was meant seriously, but it was shorthand for "my kid, who I adore, is making me crazy by behaving like an idiot and I desperately need to vent and receive validation that I have not lost my sanity permanently or done permanent damage to that child." Mostly, it was therapeutic and funny, but sometimes we were virtually drying real tears and sending virtual hugs to someone in genuine crisis. I will be forever grateful for the help and support I received, to say nothing of the fact that it was a mom who suggested a diagnosis for my kid-- a diagnosis that a developmental ped,a university professor and numerous specialists had missed.(Turned out that ADHD was about 5% of his issue, and central auditory processing disorder(CAPD)was 95%.)
    I hope you can find a tribe like this.

    I agree it will get worse before it gets better, and there will be times you will wish they could just go to CAMP somewhere and come back in time for the senior prom! Oh, and the timing and spacing of tween and teen behavior accelerates after Child 1 (as you have experienced with Child 2) and you should expect Child 3 to hit it in second grade or so. When Child 3 becomes the only child at home and you really have the time and energy to focus on HER, all he*% will break loose because she'll have been under the radar a bit while you dealt with ths crises and drama of the first two!

    Now that I've been all gloom and doom, I will tell you that both of mine became delightful adults who actually choose to spend time with us!

    Hang in there. Keep those photobooks close by so you can reassure yourself that they were cute little kids and you really did, and are doing, a good job.

    Sending hugs to you!

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  8. You are an utterly amazing writer and parent.

  9. I've read your blog for many years thanks to shubox but don't think I've commented. I am not currently a parent but enjoy the perspective you provide so much, seeing regular, daily life ups and downs with a job & family. The daily scheduling and craziness is often portrayed incredibly negatively online and in real life. I got to have a glimpse at how fun it could be to travel as a family and cheer them on in school and sports, but not in a fake or sugar coated way. Everything you're currently dealing with sounds very, very tough but you are doing a great job. The insights, reflection, and openness are appreciated. I was unsure about having kids and want to tell you that your blog has actually helped me make that decision (in the yes direction, just to be clear)!

  10. I'm sorry for the tween struggles you've been facing. My oldest is Cora's age, so I'm both enjoying where I'm at and a little nervous about what's to come!

    We're not at the stage where we're granting our kids internet access, but my husband works in computer information security, and when the time comes, he recommends and plans on using OpenDNS. It's a free service, and the security features and parental safeguards would go into effect for every device connecting to the internet in your home, regardless of web browser.

  11. I adore your writing- you are one of the few blogs I race to read when you have new posts and this right here is where. It’s. At. I am so sorry that these have been such tumultuous times but I am so so grateful that you still share your journey on this parenting ride. I also feel very equipped for the toddler/preschool years (of which I have several left, my youngest is one) but the mental skill of parenting older kids, plus the monitoring the internet, are daunting to me. I hope to find my tribe of older kid parents but for now, I really do see you as such an inspiration. It’s so clear how much you enjoy your kids and family time yet you also show us your struggles. What a rare gift in the age of Insta. And f*ck whoever told you that horrendous shitty comment. Seriously.

  12. I disliked the phrase "bigger kids, bigger problems" that more seasoned moms would tell me but dammit it, it's true. I know what you mean by knowing that others have or are experiencing the same struggles as you. Is that comforting? Not really when what I really want is someone to tell me the answers in a playbook that will lead me successfully down this unique parental path. Life will be fine for you and kids and you're doing a great job LL.

  13. I'm so sorry for Claire's experience and yours. Please know you are doing all the right things and I believe that this will soon be a distant blip. I strongly recommend Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth. It teaches concepts like justice and consent apart from the mechanics.

  14. Thank you for being brave enough to share all of this! I'm a new mom (18 month old) and have been filing away the way you and James parent because I admire it so much and am in awe of you. I've bookmarked this post for when my son reaches this time of life and my future self will thank you, too! Sending hugs to you all.

  15. I really enjoy your writing, and even though I'm not a parent, appreciate you sharing these things about your life with us. And WTF is wrong with people who think it's appropriate to tell you you love you son less than your daughters??? The internet is terrible for all kinds of reasons (at the same time that it's amazing).

  16. Thanks for sharing this, LL! I am still in the preschool/toddler years and my goodness, I do find myself looking forward to the days where they can go to the bathroom and get out the door (mostly) by themselves! But, you're right that there is so much that gets more complicated with the older ages, especially in our technological times. When I was Claire's age my friends and I were looking up sex in our parents' copies of _Our Bodies, Ourselves_ and _The Joy of Sex_ -- and the encyclopedia. With a modern lens that sounds downright wholesome!

  17. I'm dealing with a really THREE three-year-old right now, so I'm not sure your post made me feel better, but holy crap you're a great mom!! It sounds like you did just the right things given the situation (and, um, I listened to an EXTREMELY scary NPR piece on porn and kids at lunch today so now am completely terrified and running around to get all the books, so this post was incredibly timely too...). If you have good resources you used for younger kids I'd love to see them too - due to a situation at pre-K last week, let's just say I already feel very behind, and my oldest isn't even four yet!

  18. Oh, poor Claire! I shudder to think what she saw. But it's good that you found that search so you can correct what she must have been thinking. I feel so bad for her ( except for the lying part, but I kinda understand that too ). She must have been so scared. Good job Mama, with Landons device too!!

  19. I don't recall if I've mentioned this book before, but for the benefit of the mamas who read your blog, I highly, HIGHLY recommend the book "Protecting the Gift" by Gavin DeBecker, who just happens to have been the security consultant to the Supreme Court. I am a natural worrier ("is he still breathing?" kind of worrying) so I was grateful to find something that didn't freak me out or make me paranoid, but presented positive tips on how you could make your kids safer without making them worry constantly. Beyond "stranger danger" and milk cartons, he logically lays out the odds of various safety threats and gives tips on educating them. I wouldn't have known the reasons NOT to tell your child to look for someone with a badge if they need help, or tell them to grab on to the churros cart and wait for you if they get separated from yoj in a theme park. I wouldn't have had them go up to the counter to ask for ketchup packets at McD's so they wouldn't be afraid to ask for help. All of this was very calming to me: they were prepared without being afraid of the Big Bad Outside World. Best of all, when they encountered an unsafe situation (once, each) they handled it confidently-- even as they didn't know the details on the potential hazard.

  20. Oh man. I'm still traumatized by my kid's search history. Needless to say, I wasn't so quick to catch on and he got WAY deeper into the craziness.
    FWIW, I love the K9 browser (but I'm not sure it's on PCs, we have it on the phone)