By Sheana Ochoa
Recently, I picked up a book on the subject of biography. I’ve been writing a biography on Stella Adler, the first lady of modern day acting, for over a decade and was reminded how men have by and large been the writer’s of history (history). As far back as Xenophon writing about Socrates, men write about the lives of great men, although more recently women have also begun writing about the lives of great men. With too few exceptions, if a woman is the subject of a biography, she is usually the great man’s wife or love interest, not an achiever in her own right. The woman I’m writing about was a pioneer in her industry. Her story is about a woman’s insatiable search for knowledge at the cost of raising a child and building a home. Up to her death, she felt she was a failure because of her inability to create a “home.” She, just as much as I, was limited by the patriarchic structure of her era, the one that judges a woman with power outside of housewifery as threatening, unwomanly.
I am a feminist. Exactly what that means in 2013 is ambiguous. I was born in the 70s, which is when the women’s movement occurred, and as a young woman out in the work force in the early 90s I don’t recall any discrimination directed toward me personally, but then again I wasn’t working in areas dominated by men such as Film Direction, Piloting, or Engineering. However, today with women’s earning power lower than men’s (77 cents to the dollar), no one can argue life is equal between the sexes in 21st century America.
When I observe my nieces, who grew up in the new millennium, I see some progress. They seem to be color blind, which correlates with the historic presidential turn out for Obama by our youth. My nieces are not as progressive in the field of women’s equality as they are in racial equality, though interestingly, they are up to speed with gay rights. This leads me to believe that women’s rights are being undermined by an insidious, unrelenting patriarchy perpetuated by the media. A woman president? I don’t see that happening any time soon.
When I had my son, it was the moment when the doctor told me “it’s a boy” that the child growing inside of me became a human being as opposed to a nonentity. It would have been the same if he had announced it was a girl. It had a gender and therefore an identity.
I had actually wanted a girl, and thought I would have a girl, so I had to readjust my expectations the way one might be counting on eating a juicy steak for dinner, but ends up having sushi instead. It isn’t a matter of better than, just a readjustment. Crucially, when I thought I was having a girl, I did not research rearing my child. Once I learned I was having a boy, I went directly to the bookstore to find books on how to raise a boy, revealing the level of brainwashing of which I’ve unknowingly been the product. Also, I have to admit; it made me happy that this boy would have my last name as I was not married at the time, and that he would carry on the Ochoa lineage. In retrospect, my satisfaction with him having my name was another example of how I’ve been brainwashed to believe my father’s name is more important that my mother’s.
Here I must excerpt from Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon’s pamphlet, written in 1854, “Married Women and the Law”:
“A man and wife are one person in the law; the wife loses all her rights as a single woman . . . A woman’s body belongs to her husband; she is in his custody, and he can enforce his right by writ of habeas corpus. What was her personal property before marriage, such as money in hand, money in the bank, jewels, household goods, clothes, etc., becomes absolutely her husband’s, and he may assign or dispose of them at his pleasure whether he and his wife live together or not. The legal custody of the children belongs to the father. During the life-time of a sane father, the mother has no rights over her children, except a limited power over infants, and the father may take them from her and dispose of them as he thinks fit.”
Though these laws no longer apply, the rights of women today could be looked upon as having transformed immensely, but on closer examination, societal views of women are far from revolutionary. A woman with power, as I mentioned above, is viewed as a threat, and yet a man with power is viewed as commonplace. How far have we really come, and do women in heterosexual relationships realize the history of that institution which asks them to change their name to that of their husbands, obliterating their identity?
When I did marry, I hyphenated my name, which was a concession. I didn’t want to change my name, or the identity I had had for almost 40 years of living. I didn’t change my name, but I did alter it. At the time, I was thinking something along the lines of “I waited until I was almost 40 to marry. It’s a big commitment and I should at least take on his name to some degree as a symbol of my commitment.” What boloney. As if a name is going to save a marriage. News flash: If two people turn out to be unhappily married, a last name ain’t going to save it.
Now that I’m entering my 40s, I know what kind of a feminist I am: I believe in human rights. And for that I must take a stand. I have spent my life thinking I’m not a feminist of the bra-burning variety, but I didn’t have a model for an alternative. I didn’t want to be labeled angry or strident (whereas a man with convictions is seen as “strong” and “assertive”). But taking a stand does require a certain amount of motivation. Anger can be a good motivator, but so can compassion and tolerance of our differences.
We women have a long way to go. We can begin by writing more narratives, new “histories” of others and ourselves where women hold a position of power. When we are called bitchy or shrill or dykes, we know we’re getting somewhere.
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By Sheana Ochoa
Last night, my friend and her boyfriend came over for dinner. They brought his five-year-old, which presented me with the opportunity to talk to an “expert” of sorts since he is also raising a boy and the boy is a year ahead of Noah. Specifically I wanted to ask him about his experience with his son passing judgment.
It has only been a few months since Noah asked me, “Mommy, what does ugly mean?” Reluctant to give him a definition, I said unhelpfully, “When something isn’t pretty.” This innocent and beautiful question made me wonder when and how do children begin to judge others? Sadly, I didn’t know I’d have the answer so soon. Maybe when Noah was seven or even ten, but so soon after his earnest question about the definition of “ugly?” I imagined I’d get to revel in his purity a little longer – that innocence that prompted him to tell me that the obese man sitting next to us at Canters one evening was “just a little bit fat,” or that his grandmother, who’s pushing 70, is “just a little bit old.” I know 70 is supposed to be the new 50, but “just a little bit old” is forgiving to say the least.
That’s all over. Last week as I was undressing to get in the bath, Noah announced, “Mommy, your butt is round and fat.” My butt? Fat? When that three-hundred pound patron in Canters was “just a little bit fat?” Later, when we were driving into the Beverly Center, he looked at the woman in the car next to us and said, “Mommy, that lady is ugly. I don’t want to look at her.” I glanced over and saw a woman who wasn’t particularly good or bad looking, but that wasn’t the point: “Mijo, people aren’t ugly. All people are beautiful. Everyone just looks different from each other.” We went to do our exchange at Macy’s and the teller happened to be cross-eyed. At the register, right in front of him, Noah declared, “That man is strange.” I smiled and said, “He’s a stranger to you, honey,” trying to cover up an uncomfortable moment.
At dinner with my friend, while Noah and his five-year-old were distracted, I took the opportunity to summarize this transition of Noah’s from an oblivious working definition of “ugly,” to his recent fluency in judging others, including me. “Children are brutally honest,” the dad said.
“Yes,” I pressed, “but do you remember when your son started judging people?”
“I don’t think he judges. I think he’s just observing.”
“Ugly is a judgment.”
“Yes, that one he would have had to learn.”
And there I had it. What I had already known. He had heard it at school, or perhaps even on one of his Netflix cartoons and my angel was now a person who had judgment values. Could this have been avoided by several years? I don’t know, but I had to admit the truth. He wasn’t just observing. He had become a critic.
Before I had time to digest this revelation about my son, he surprised me by suddenly announcing: “I’m going to tell a Yeti story.” My son likes an audience, but although he can improvise lyrics while singing, I had never heard him invent a story.
I had commenced telling him stories about the mythical Big Foot of the Himalayas since he was three, sometimes never getting as far as having the creature actually appear before he discontinued the story because he was too “scared.”
“Once upon a time” he began, “there was a boy and a girl in a park.” Abruptly, he stopped, defeated and fretting that he “couldn’t do it.” I was happy he had simply achieved a beginning, a setting, and characters. My friend urged him to continue and he did:
“They were eating pizza. They had so much pizza. Then they were in a cave.” (Scene change, I thought, impressed –and an ominous one at that in line with the genre.) “They heard a sound.” He began making monkey sounds that weren’t at all scary, but a great effort. “And the Yeti was coming slowly and slowly.” (Suspense) “His teeth were very sharp and he had white eyes and black fur all over his body.” By now he was excited as the climax was mounting because just as the Yeti was about to eat the children: “Then the girl attacked him with her fork and knife (allegedly from eating pizza in the park earlier! He understands foreshadow) and poked him in the eye and cut his hand off. And the Yeti died. The end.”
My son had just created an original story with a beginning, middle and end. I was bursting with pride. He may be a critic, I thought as I was tucking him in bed after everyone had left, but he is also a soon-to-be writer and storyteller!
By Sheana Ochoa
As my four-year-old, Noah, and I were browsing Netflix for a kid-adult movie, I found “The Red Balloon.” I didn’t remember the plot so well, but I did remember that it was gripping, and that it had remained in my visual memory-library all these years.As the movie was loading from Netflix, I had it in my mind that the film had ended sadly, that the boy inadvertently loseshold of the balloon, that the film ends with an unattached balloon hovering over the Parisian rooftops only to become a red intangible speck. And that is the subjective quality of memory: it’s unreliable. I’ve even written a poem about a child losing his balloon. Where did that come from? My own fear of losing something? (That’s another blog.) And if the movie did end that way, why would I want Noah to see it? To instill in him an attitude of “if you don’t hold on to what you have, you will lose it?” But my instincts were to keep letting him watch it. Besides the movie is a cinematic, not to mention historical, gem.
As the film began, my husband, a French speaker, asked if it was subtitled, obviously wondering: “How’s Noah going to watch a sub-titled movie?” But I knew I had seen it at a very young age and the subtitles were irrelevant. Indeed, my memory of when I first saw “The Red Balloon” is hazy. I remember the movie, but not the circumstances. I deduced it must have been in school. Yes, it came back to me: sitting in a dark auditorium, not a classroom, watching this movie with my classmates. I must have been five or six.
The story begins when a boy finds the red balloon and almost immediately loses grasp of it. Instead of rising away from him, the balloon floats behind him, following him to school, waiting for him to get out. And it was the moment when my son realized the balloon was following the boy and not flying away that he exclaimed, “Wow.” I felt it too. I echoed, “Wow.” Those enchantingly innocent moments are one of the best things about being a parent.
I don’t want to give the real ending away, but it isn’t sad. The balloon becomes just as much of a character as the boy, and a metaphor for otherness and the way we as humans respond to what’s not “normal” around us. If you want to know why, you’ll have to watch it. I recommend watching it with a kid. Turns out the ending provided a better moral than the one I thought I had remembered, although I’m sure it went over Noah’s head.
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By Sheana Ochoa
Last week a married acquaintance shared with me that she was finding marriage boring. She remembered the “good ole days” when she made all the decisions, could spontaneously take a trip if she wanted, buy the big priced item without having to discuss it first, go out with friends and not have to check in.
I can see where she’s coming from, going from a freewheeling single girl to a married woman, but I don’t identify with being bored. We’re in our second year of marriage and just the fact that I started this sentence with “we” as opposed to “I” speaks volumes.
Mine, like most I suppose, is a marriage under construction. Sure it was frustrating spending six months looking for a new apartment because my husband never agreed with the places I thought would work. Sure it was infuriating when, once we moved into a place that met our criteria, one of which was to allow us to have a dog, I couldn’t just go out and rescue the first dog I saw, but had to wait until my husband was free and then suffer going to three different rescue centers. I am slowly understanding the word compromise in action. But I don’t find the process at all boring.
I can count the times in my life on one hand that I have been bored. Maybe that’s another way of saying my life has been drama-filled, but even when life is not all peaks and valleys, when I hit a few days or weeks of plateau, I’m never bored. There’s too much to be done, and as if I didn’t have enough “work” (raising a son, my writing career, practicing being present) there’s so many other causes in the world -from cheering up a sick friend to querying the press about a Syrian artist I know whose current exhibit is a statement about the massacre going on in her country that leaves you struck with the power of the imagination to cope with injustice and fear. (See below for details). And those are just two random examples of seemingly urgent tasks I sometimes don’t have time to get to because there’s not enough time on any given day like today.
Boredom is an uncomfortable state (which could be restless, weary, depressed but always uncomfortable) due to a lack of interest. What a terrible conundrum: to be miserable because you don’t give a damn. That sounds self-inflicting, but I imagine there are people who just aren’t motivated, or who just can’t get outside the walls of their mind/ego to be invested in anyone other than themselves.
Sometimes the desire to achieve my goals and dreams seems Sisyphean. For instance, I want to visit Nimule in Sudan and meet some of the children orphaned by war and see what I can do to help. I want to write a socially conscious musical although I don’t play an instrument or even sing. I want to open a shelter for chemically dependent single mothers. The list goes on and on and my life isn’t long enough, nor do I have the resources to do all I want to do. Just writing this article is the closest I’ll get to the musical today. Perhaps holding the door open for a fragile-looking mom at the supermarket and sending a donation to Nimule is the closest I’ll get today. And lest you think I have digressed from my opening premise of being bored in a marriage, my marriage is a microcosm of the bigger picture.
The marriage is itself a project and thus defies boredom. I have to figure out all sorts of things such as how do I learn to take care of the way I say certain things because I tend to be abrasive? How do I let him know I need him, which I do, but I can see how it wouldn’t look that way? How do I help us create intimacy? How do I support his big goals and dreams?
I feel as if I’m complaining about not being bored, about having such a full life there’s no time to be bored. Perhaps I am. Perhaps not being bored is as ego driven as being bored. Either way I don’t see how any marriage could be boring, unless of course it’s loveless. In the end, I’m striving for some kind of balance, where I can be proud of what I accomplish or don’t accomplish on any given day like today.
* “I Rise,” paintings by Fadia Afashe, a Syrian painter’s exhibit now showing through November 30 at Levantine Cultural Center
By: Sheana Ochoa
I don’t know where to begin.
Years ago after attending a friend’s wedding I wrote an essay on the origin of marriage and the subjugation of women. I didn’t think I’d ever get married. In my culture even the language reflects a misogynistic attitude toward the institution. Esposa is wife. Esposas are handcuffs.
And now here I am over a year into my marriage and boy is it challenging. This isn’t a bad thing. But if there were academic degrees in maturity, marriage would be a requirement. There’d be a graduate course just for people like me: Growing Up 101. Oddly, I don’t face the same challenges being a parent as I do being a wife.
I’m almost four years into parenting and I’ve discovered the name of the game is consistency. Consistency I can do. Brushing teeth twice a day, clipping fingernails once a week so no one gets scratched at preschool, bedtime rituals. I excelled in school so the whole responsibility track comes first hand. Also, my son has to do pretty much what I say so there’s no compromising. I love him unconditionally so I’m eternally patient. Just these three principles: compromise, unconditional love, and patience would go a long way if they translated from parenting into being a partner in marriage, but it ain’t that easy.
I don’t want to compromise. I know what’s right. So, just do it my way.
I can’t love my partner unconditionally because he’s forever not doing things my way. I can’t be patient with him for the same reason. Yet, as long as I listen to an ego that tells me I know what’s best, growing up is impossible. And yet I’m learning that if I don’t grow up, the marriage can’t work. I have to compromise, even when I think he’s wrong. I have to love him unconditionally even if he’s not doing what I want him to do. I have to be patient, because if you can’t respect and be tolerant of your partner, how can you expect whole countries to get along and the world to live in perfect harmony, which is what we all fundamentally want, right? Okay, that was a big leap, but I’m serious. I used to say that if women ran the world, there would be no war. Well, I have to revise that. If I can’t keep my own household harmonious how could I do so for an entire nation?
I don’t know what I thought marriage would be like. A house full of laughter and the smell of dinner on the stove? Sometimes it is like that. And sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it smells like dirty clothes and it sounds like raised voices in a heated discussion about something as trivial as returning the Netflix. Still, it’ s new. We have a lot to learn about each other. We’re just settling in. The trick, I’m learning, is to not stop communicating. And, although it’s difficult to do, I have to let him get his way too. (Damnit!) That’s something I should have learned in preschool, right? I watch my son letting others play with a toy that he prefers (compromise), waiting his turn (patience), sharing his treats (unconditional love). And I think I must have missed those lessons. Thank goodness my husband picked them up somewhere.
It’s a delicate balancing act, marriage. One wobbly step at a time…
By: Sheana Ochoa
As I accompany my mother to her doctor’s visit, I hear her telling the nurse that I have become the mother and she the daughter. Everyone laughs as if this is funny. It is what happens. The kids have to take care of their parents when they get older. I get it, but I’m not ready to stop being the daughter. It’s far too soon. I need her as a mother a little longer, especially since we planned and executed my getting pregnant with “our” miracle boy, Noah. I wouldn’t have been able to have a child on my own without my mother’s support. The woman who came home to a pouting teenager lying on her bed disappointed that her best friend reneged on going backpacking in Europe and suggested, “Why can’t you go by yourself?” was the same woman who, upon hearing I wanted to plan a baby on my own, whipped out a piece of paper and started writing down the pros and cons. That’s my mom: a no nonsense go-getter. She does what she says she’s going to do. And I’ve inherited that from her.
Growing up it wasn’t always easy having such a supermom. She was actually a workaholic and will admit today that she wished she hadn’t put so much time and energy into work at the expense of losing it with her kids, but there’s no point in regretting the past. My father wasn’t financially reliable so it fell on her to raise five kids. She worked and promoted until she became head of the institution where she had started out as a lowly service worker. At home she was just as ambitious. The house was spotless. Not just for company. All the time. We used to say you could eat off my mom’s floors. You can imagine then, how frightening it is to see a woman with boundless energy gradually become ill to the point where both her mind and her physical stamina are failing her.
I know what it is like to be in her shoes because I have Fibromyalgia and was once as exuberant and energetic as she. But I’ve had over a decade to come to accept my limitations. I think my mom is still in the denial stage, although recently she has been more willing to look at the evidence. Ergo, the doctor’s visit I mentioned at the beginning.
I thought it was just a routine visit, but by the time we came out of there we had referrals to four separate departments from psychiatry to audiology. During the visit the doctor asked for my mother’s medical “directive.” I didn’t know what they were talking about until the doctor said she would need to know many things such as would my mother, “god forbid,” want to be kept on a ventilator and my mother said she would not want to be kept alive on a ventilator. Unbidden tears surfaced to my eyes although I knew the “directive” was practical and necessary. Intellectually, I agree that one’s wishes should be known, a will should be made, death is a natural part of life, but sitting in a doctor’s office with my mom complaining of symptoms for which the doctor says there are medications to “slow down” early Alzheimer’s, I just couldn’t manage to tamp down my tears. Was she diagnosing her? Later I realized I should have clarified that. My mom’s concentration is poor, but I think it has more to do with lack of proper nutrition and exercise than anything else.
For reasons I alluded to above, my mother didn’t have that much time to be a “mother,” but when I turned 30, our relationship changed. She was getting closer to retirement and I had become an adult, and we had a heart to heart and our relationship suddenly became more important to both of us. Since having my own son, we’ve become even closer. He is only three and I’m recently married and I need a mother more than ever. I don’t know what I’m doing. I make a lot of mistakes as a wife and a mother and I need her to confess to and to tell me to what to do. So, my instinct is to fight this head on like I have with my own disease.
I’ve ordered her a juicer because I recently started juicing and it’s improving my fatigue. A few months back, being the A-types we are, we made a list of all the things we can do to improve our health. We decided we’d be accountable to each other to do these things: drink more water, take walks, eat three meals a day, meditate, pray. Since then I started yoga and she got off diet soda. Progress, not perfection.
I’m angry and sad. I want to fix my mom and so we make lists; I show her how to make vegetarian lasagna and give her yoga poses that don’t require using your hands because hers are riddled with arthritis. But actually, my higher intuition is telling me I really can’t do that much about her failing health. She has to. This is unbelievably frustrating for me. I don’t know how to process the idea of not being able to fix her because I’ve been spending so many years trying to fix myself from one cure to another and though I haven’t cured myself, I’ve kept my hope alive by moving on to the next possibility of a cure. I want to end this post saying that I just have to accept what is happening to my mother, but I cannot. I’m not even close.
By Sheana Ochoa
There have been studies indicating that kids that go to preschool are more successful fiscally and emotionally as adults. I can see the benefits of preschool in terms of socialization as well as keeping my son physically and mentally occupied, but, what I didn’t expect was Noah’s interest (at not quite three-and-half-years old) in drawing. He loves to draw. I pick him up from school and whatever it is he is doing, he stops and grabs the piece of paper he has drawn on and rolls it up scroll-like, and carries it to the car and into the house. Until recently, the drawings were pretty rudimentary, mere spherical circles, what one might call scribble . . . and then within a few days, he was suddenly drawing shapes!
This milestone occurred while he was staying with his favorite aunt in San Luis Obispo. I didn’t know about his advancement, until, bored with the four-hour drive back to LA, he asked for a piece of paper to color on. I didn’t pay much attention, but after about five minutes, he said, “Mommy, look.” And he handed me a piece of paper on which he had drawn actual forms, not squiggles. “Wow, that’s really cool,” I said, honestly impressed. “I’m not done,” he announced, surprising me again. Noah continued to work on this piece for twenty or thirty minutes, apprising me of his progress every five minutes until he finally announced that the picture was finished. He had in fact created what looked to me like a cityscape with dimension and form and different colors.
I’ve tried to get him to repeat the process, but he hasn’t had the forced attention span he had while held hostage in a car for hours on end. Still, he’s continuing to draw shapes, which just amazes me. How do you go from scribbling to drawing? It was like going from crawling to walking. Poof! Perhaps I’m impressed because I am the worst drawer in the world. Seriously, I have no sense of dimension or shape. When I used to teach and I tried to illustrate something on the board, I could never quite transfer what was in my brain through my hand onto the whiteboard. My students would end up telling me, “It’s okay, Ms. Ochoa. We know what you mean.”
Noah’s grandpa is an artist. Apparently he got some attention for drawing in elementary school, but he never pursued it until he found art again in his 60s. Now he paints full time. I don’t know if this art thing is a passing phase for Noah. Nor do I really know if his present skills are anything exceptional, not having other kids’ drawings to compare with his (and that’s not an invitation for anyone to tell me). I’m just amazed at how the mind and body of my little boy are developing: every day a new word, a new gesture, a new idea. I feel honored to watch it happening.
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By: Sheana Ochoa
“Where’s Christmas?” my three-year-old keeps asking. Since Thanksgiving ended, he sees signs of it everywhere. There’s another house with its lights up and more tree-lit avenues with elaborate wreaths or even Santa and the reindeer soaring across the intersection. “Look at the one in the front with the red nose,” I point out. “That’s Rudolph.” “Oh,” my toddler responds introspectively, “but where’s Christmas?” I tried explaining that Christmas was a day not a place, but for someone who doesn’t know his days of the week or even the concept of time, this whole Christmas season is baffling.
And let’s just get to the meat of the matter. He wants to know when he’s going to get his presents. Ever since his third birthday party he’s got the idea of presents down. And since Grandma and Mommy have been asking him what he wants for Christmas (chocolate), what he’s really asking is “When am I getting my chocolate?”
I hadn’t planned on bringing up the whole Santa myth, but when I picked him up from preschool last week he started in on the “Where’s Christmas?” inquiry. So, I drove around playing “I spy” with him as we found all sorts of Christmasy stuff and then there was Santa and Mrs. Clause on the corner of Wilshire and Rodeo and I pulled over. Maybe Santa could explain to him where Christmas was. But my boy was too shy with these strangers who wanted him to sit on Santa’s lap and wanted him to sing “Jingle Bells” to ask where Christmas was.
As we headed back to the car amidst fake snow jetting down on our sweaters, the “where’s Christmas” mantra started up again. So I just decided to tell him Santa was working on it and that seemed to (finally) satiate his curiosity. Nothing like making someone else responsible.
Without premeditation, I’ve indoctrinated my son into believing in Santa Claus and, of course, the reindeer and how he delivers presents in his sleigh. Yesterday, he saw a reindeer and it sparked a whining bit about getting his presents now. I used my Santa scapegoat again, explaining that Santa had a lot of work to do since there were a lot of people in the world, but it didn’t work and his whining escalated. So, I stooped to telling him that if he wasn’t good, Santa wouldn’t give him presents. I couldn’t believe I was bribing him since I believe it’s manipulative to bribe kids with a reward for being good.
Now my boy believes in Santa Claus and he thinks he has to be a good boy to get his presents. There’s only one thing to do. I will let him believe in Santa as a playful thing. I won’t hide stuffing his stocking or wrapping his presents under the guise that Santa does this. I won’t use Santa as a weapon to make him behave. Santa can just be a nice story, another emblem of Christmas like the tree we’ll get this week. What he will learn is that Christmas, like Thanksgiving, is family time. A day to spend and honor your family, which I will try to remind him can be everyday and everywhere.
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By: Sheana Ochoa
My son started preschool last Wednesday. It wasn’t pretty. We entered the school and because I was concerned about him wetting his pants (my last two blogs were about my struggle with potty training), the first thing I did was show him the bathroom. Next we went to the cubby area where each kid has a shoe-sized plastic box for extra clothes. I showed him his extra underwear, flushable wipes for number two, and pull-ups to put on at naptime. I suddenly felt like I had given him too much responsibility at once. At home, we put his pull-ups on at naptime. I began second-guessing this whole preschool thing; I mean, he hasn’t even turned 3 yet. Still, we continued to the common room where about forty kids were finishing breakfast and waiting to be told where to go next. They knew the drill; it’s a year-round school, and most had already been enrolled in school for some time.
I introduced Noah to his teacher and when I went to say goodbye, he began to cry, imploring me not to leave him. I was not prepared. All the other kids entered the classroom as I was trying to say goodbye to Noah in the hallway.
He had been home the last month, mastering potty training. Prior to that he was enrolled in daycare for over a year, a small, family-run outfit with a one to four adult-to-child ratio. He was comfortable there, knew all the kids by name. I don’t know if taking a month off and staying at home helped him or hindered his transition into preschool.
An aide appeared at the door in the hall. I looked at her helplessly and asked if I should go. She nodded. Against all my motherly instinct, I wrenched my son’s small hands from my clothes, told him I loved him, that I would be back and I left. I felt guilty and helpless back in my car. Should I go back in? Wouldn’t that make it worse? How could I leave my son so terrified with complete strangers?
I was supposed to have coffee with a friend whom I called and she began to tell me how when her son went to preschool she did not leave. She told him she would never leave him and that she would stay there until he said it was okay for her to go. In other words, she let him find his independence and take control when he was ready. I had denied Noah the opportunity to find his comfortable levels of safety. I deprived him of feeling empowered by becoming ready to let me go. I was the one with all the control to come and go as I pleased. My friend said she had sat outside where her son could see her through a window. She read a book for three or four hours a day until he came to her at the end of the week and said, “Mom, you can go home.”
This rang true with me. I went home and called Echo Parenting where I was going to start taking parenting classes. They put me on with a child development specialist. I explained what had happened and she listened, giving me an earful of ideas and concepts I had not heard before: at 2 and 3, kids don’t understand the idea of “I’ll be back”; throwing Noah into a new environment is a huge change that he should be transitioned into in order to make him feel safe and build trust between him and me. She began talking about what they do in their parenting and one-on-one classes at the center and it all sounded smart and child-centered. She told me to call the school and tell them I wanted to stay with him and help him transition into this new world.
The principal actually answered the phone. She didn’t like the idea. She assured me that after ten minutes Noah was up and playing with the other kids (10 minutes!? He cried for 10 entire minutes?) She questioned how he would build a bond with the teacher if I were there. Other kids transitioned without their parents. She had arguments that intimidated me, but I stood my ground, fortified with the information the child specialist had given me. “I will let you stay for one week only,” she declared even though I knew I had the right to stay all day all year if I wanted. I didn’t counter her, but thanked her.
Meanwhile I had emailed my husband and told him the story. His response was that if the principal didn’t believe I needed to stay, and if Noah was fine after 10 minutes, I shouldn’t worry. I felt alone. Suddenly I felt I had to justify to my own husband my right to transition Noah into preschool.
That same night we had a play to attend. Now I was left with the dilemma of picking up Noah from preschool, and then dropping him off again with someone I know and trust, but that he doesn’t know very well. I decided if he didn’t want me to go, I would not leave him.
When we arrived, I told my friend about my day, thinking she would be an ally, but she happened to have taught preschool and believed it was best to drop off the kid and leave. Now my husband had the ally. I was left with this nagging intuition that I knew what was best for Noah, but without anyone to support me. Noah was fine so we went ahead to the play where we ran into another friend who had taught preschool. She also believed it was fine to just leave the kid without transitioning. I thought the world was suddenly conspiring against me. Was I making too big a deal out of this? All I had to do was remember the look of terror on my son’s face to remind myself I was not.
The next day I asked my husband to come with me to drop him off so he could see first hand how excruciating it was. Afterward, I sobbed uncontrollably for twenty minutes. I met with a friend later and when I mentioned my predicament he shared his story with his son. His wife had researched separation anxiety and the needs of their child’s developmental stage. She decided to stay with her son until he transitioned. My friend called it “developmental parenting”. Finally, I thought, an objective fellow parent. The next day I stayed with Noah.
The entire hour and half that I stayed, Noah was afraid I was going to leave him. Sometimes he felt safe and ventured off to explore the variety of things to do, but if I stood up from my seat, he was on me, whining: “Don’t go.” When we went outside to play he ran out to the jungle gym. I thought it was a good opportunity to ask him if I could leave. I told him I was going and he seemed okay with it. I kissed him and walked away. Just before I left the play yard, I heard him running and crying toward me, but it was too late. I had reentered the classroom and I felt that reappearing would create the same situation. The following day I stayed again, but not as long. He cried again when I left. I felt gridlocked. I was confused because Noah cried whether I stayed or not.
I asked my husband to stay with him the next day. He stayed, but again, Noah cried when he left. I didn’t know what was best for Noah. Should I stay or should I go? Since he cried either way, I thought perhaps I should let him go and trust his resilience. The next day he cried again when I left and it tore my heart out. How long would this go on?
Then I recalled when I first put him in daycare. I was recovering from a major Fibromyalgia flare and could not stay with him had I wanted to. My days were spent in bed resting up in order to take care of him at night. Every day for the first month of daycare, Noah cried when I dropped him off. A month! I don’t know how I did it then. Maybe my own health was too fragile to be affected or maybe I didn’t know what I do now about transitioning. I would not let this separation anxiety go on for an entire month, which meant I had to stay with Noah until he felt comfortable with letting me go. I was back at square one. I sat in my car, every ounce of me wanting to walk straight into that school and scoop my child up and bring him home, but I drove away.
On the sixth day of school, Noah assured me from his car seat that I could stay with him. I decided to play out what I thought he might be feeling. I said I didn’t know the kids and that was scary. He said, “not scary, Mommy.” I said I didn’t know the teachers and that was scary. Same response. So when I dropped him off I said hello to the other kids and I kissed Noah goodbye, intending to stay if he cried, but he didn’t. I wanted to jump for joy all the way back to my car.
I believe that if I hadn’t taken the time to help him through his first week of school, the crying would have continued for more weeks. Even though I didn’t stay with him from day one, I showed him he was important enough to take the time to put myself in his shoes, in a new environment with new people. Both Daddy and Mommy spent time with him in school, which although it was inconsistent, showed him that his feelings were important.
I learned that I had to honor my intuition even when the odds were stacked up against me. The most revealing lesson I discovered was how afraid I was to assert my rights as a mother, although I’ve never been afraid to assert my rights for myself.
Parenting doesn’t come naturally. I can defend myself as a woman, but because I’m new at being at mother, it is difficult to defend myself as a mother. Despite popular opinion, parents can draw boundaries and be models, but they shouldn’t try to “control” their kids in order to make them bend to their own agenda. There are tools to be used as in any profession to assure that you are doing the best job you can do. I intend to seek out these tools as often and as diligently as I can, based on the developmental stage my child is at. I intend to listen to him. If he needs me, I’ll be there to teach him that he doesn’t really “need” me until he believes it for himself. Kids don’t learn that by themselves. They internalize abandonment or distrust. I’d much rather have Noah learn through love and empathy how to self-regulate his emotional life in order to prepare him for the turbulent roads ahead.
By: Sheana Ochoa
We took Noah out of daycare in order to potty train him so he would be able to start preschool next week. It was a long, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding month in which I learned:
1) It’s impossible to potty train a kid if he is still wearing a diaper all day. (During this past month, we had him in underwear and after an average of two accidents a day the first week, he began going on his own to the potty.)
2) You can’t expect a kid to be potty trained everywhere just because he goes potty at home. (After numerous accidents in his car seat for which I had to take apart the seat and wash and clean it almost every other day, I learned to just put a diaper on him for long outings.)
3) Going potty on his own doesn’t mean he’s potty trained. (You still have to teach him to shoot straight into the toilet and not all over the floor and then there’s the whole wiping business, which from what I read, he will be learning for the next couple of years.)
I also learned that even in matters as banal as potty training, my husband is a wonderful father. Together we set a goal and together we potty-trained Noah in time to start preschool. If I’m busy when Noah announces, “I have to go pee pee!” Jordan will take him. If he’s busy, I take him. Once I tossed the training toilet and had Noah pee standing up in the regular toilet, it was Jordan who modeled holding and aiming. He was also quite fastidious about having Noah wash his hands, which I appreciated, especially as we began teaching Noah to wipe his butt. For once, I’m glad he’s such a stubborn kid, because when it’s time to wipe, he doesn’t even like me to do the final, clean swipe. “I’ll do it!” he demands.
Still I am apprehensive. Noah starts preschool next week and because it’s a public school, the teacher cannot accompany the kid into the bathroom. Also, no one can actually change his clothes should he have an accident. I’m particularly worried that he might pee during nap time. At home we still put a diaper on him when he sleeps. I don’t want anything to impede his progress or traumatize him.
I can just imagine my sleepy-eyed grump waking up to a wet bottom and soaked clothes as he does when he naps at home and crying, “I’m all wet!” He still has trouble putting on his underwear if they’re not around his ankles. I don’t know how he’s going to put on a new outfit by himself. I know I can’t control this so I have to just expect the best and if it doesn’t work out, continue working with him until he can do those things on his own. BUT, I really want my mornings back again. I want to send out queries for articles, finish the endnote cleanup on my manuscripts, update my website, investigate writing contests, and just GET ORGANIZED!
At the same time, I feel we’ve, as a family, made such an accomplishment, a major milestone. The other day, Grandma called and he had just wiped himself for the first time after going number two. He said hello and when Grandma asked what he was doing, he proudly declared, “I wiped my butt!” It was hysterical and lovely. How often is something both hysterical and lovely?