Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Multigen Life

Multigenerational Living
Retiree (Snowbird): a northern tourist who vacations in the South during the winter.
 
The school bus rumbles up the hill. It passes so near the house that I can see every face in each window. My darling, tow headed, amazing granddaughter is wrapped in purple, blonde hair pulled back, front teeth missing. I wave and in the moment before the bus disappears, her face lights.

I wait in the yard as she flies down the hill, arms extended, laces floating, backpack flailing.
 
For some, retirement means escaping the winter snows by heading to California and Florida. Finally writing that book. Studying a language. Beachcombing, sports watching, feet kicked-backing. Exercising, reading, writing, cooking.
 
Others of retirement age? Add on as peers downsize. Meet school buses, oversee homework and piano lessons, volunteer at the Christmas Small Mall, help with class parties, attend musicals and field trips. Sift through teacher newsletters. Plan healthy, child-friendly meals. Do laundry. Lots of laundry.
 
"My Gramma Nonny is my Safe Side Adult because she loves me. And prets [protects] me. She feeds me. She helps me." Amaze Girl, age 6, 1st grade.
 
The US Census Bureau reports that nearly one in five Americans today live in multigenerational households – parents (and sometimes the parents' parents) synchronize lives to reside in communal harmony with adult children and their children.
 
There are many reasons adults and their children cohabit with older relatives. Economic concerns. Waiting longer to marry. The need to care for aging parents. A rise in divorce and never-marrieds.
 
And, sometimes, special circumstances. Like a family uniting to rescue children who've been hurt. A parent willing to delay independence to gift his children the best possible re-start to life despite the personal hardships presented by a grownup return to his childhood residence.
 
Yeah, sometimes multigenerational living happens because of that.

Multigen love
Multigenerational living is so prevalent that home builders offer options geared to the special needs of families and subfamilies as a matter of course: split living areas, multiple kitchens, linked bath spaces. And it's increasingly common for on-site grandparents to help raise their children's children.
 
"Are you FERPA'd?" Teacher, confirming that (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) paperwork was submitted so she's allowed to talk to me.
 
Sure, there's conflict. Chaos. Dirty bathrooms, cluttered kitchens. Persistent restructuring of responsibilities, contingencies and boundaries. Delayed plans and revised expectations.
 
But there's also compromise. Communication. Patience, purposeful unselfishness, kindness.
 
And? Bedtime stories, morning snuggles. Stealing a kiss when covering cold toes at 2am. The joy in helping a non-verbal grandchild find everyday words.
 
And there's satisfaction in being the one to get granddaughter laughing again when the flight from bus to home finally sends her tumbling head-over-toe.
 
Last summer I ran – and finished - three half marathons. This winter, I'm lumpy, gray and soft. In all the pillowy grandma places.
 
Wonder Boy pressed his body into mine. He squeezed my hand. I whispered, "I love you." He looked into my eyes and replied, "I love you too."
 
Multigen morning

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Death in the Family: Autism and Emotion

Beautiful afternoon at Leavenworth National Cemetery
Early on Halloween morning, 2017, Pop's little brother, Uncle-D, died. He was just 50 years old.
 
Uncle-D's death was sudden, unexpected and, for those who loved him, wrapped in emotion.
 
Individuals with autism typically crave structure and routine. Situations involving sudden change, quick transition and unknown faces are undesirable and incite negative response. For best results, introduction to new people, places and events require attention to the Three P's: patience, planning and preparation.
 
Preparing children with autism for unanticipated emotion belonging to other people? More complex.
 
A decision was made to protect Wonder Boy and Amaze Girl's routine from the turmoil surrounding the loss of Uncle-D. They would go to school. There would be piano practice, homework and therapy as usual. They would have dinner, bath and go to bed at expected times.
 
They would attend a weekend family gathering, but they would not attend Uncle-D's wake, services or burial.
 
Super Daddy missed nearly two days of work to be home with his children. Their favored, familiar aunt GAK met buses on funeral day. The children's favorite foods were prepared in advance.
 
The t's were crossed. The i's were dotted. Amaze Girl did fine. And yet.
 
All that week, Wonder Boy whined. He hit himself. He cried. He stopped requesting the bathroom. He had difficulty focusing on school or therapy. Although he ate and slept well, he appeared exhausted and out of sorts.
 
Were his troubles related to the transition between his two homes for Halloween? Did the chilly day zoo field trip wear him out? Was he distressed about an event at school or his other home that he couldn't express? Was he missing the routine provided by his usual caregiver? Was he sick?
 
Did he absorb the emotion of Uncle-D's passing in spite of efforts to protect the construction of his life?
 
Playing With Friends is Fun
Before a child with autism can conceptualize emotion in another person, he needs to understand it in himself. "Social stories" - a kind of rebus for life's events – and picture books are some of the tools used to teach children with special needs about holidays, field trips, changes to family structure, alterations to the expected routine – and emotion.
 
Here are some other ways Wonder Boy is learning to understand feelings:
 
In sweet moments together, while snuggling or hugging we say, "I love you." As he displays the emotion, Wonder Boy is encouraged to respond, "I love you too."
 
When he appears happy, frustrated, angry or sad he is prompted to identify his feelings using words or manipulatives. "I'm (happy/frustrated/angry/sad)."
 
When he needs his daddy or another loved one, we encourage him to express his desire out loud, "I want my daddy."
 
When he returns after being away, we say, "I missed you."
 
But the emotion surrounding a loved one's unexpected death? How do you help a child who's still learning to express the desire for a hug to comprehend that?
 
With luck, good health and a benevolent universe the answer won't be needed again anytime soon.
RIP Uncle-D
we love you

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Maternal No-Instinct

"…the notion of maternal instinct is a myth…"
Dr. Amy Blackstone

she has no idea what she's doing
Once upon a time I believed all women had the instinctive capacity to be fierce mama bears. Who would sacrifice honor, self-respect, livelihood; go hungry and die, if necessary, to protect baby.

But some women? Just. don't. have. it.

"For some women there is…no overwhelming urge to nurture and protect…" (The Guardian)

When a lioness is ready to give birth, she holes up alone in a cave or dense brush. Hormones coursing through her body, milk leaking from her teats, she delivers, feeds and protects her babies. Alone.

When the cubs are approximately 6 weeks old, mother and still-nursing babies return to the pride. Mom is ready to go back to the business of hunting! The cubs are absorbed into the family, which typically includes one lion and multiple lionesses, who share hunting, nursing and childcare duties - without concern for whose baby is whose.

Allomother: "an individual other than the biological mother of an offspring that performs the functions of a mother..." (Merriam Webster Dictionary)
new person clamoring for food

Like the lioness, a woman's body changes when she gives birth. Hormones alter her brain, rework her body. Her breasts fill with milk. Her uterus tightens. And there, at her feet, appears a tiny new person clamoring for food.

Mother's body signals her to feed it.

While some mothers handle the transition (and hormones) better than others, nature sets the stage during this sleepless, getting-to-know-you, new baby period for future connection. So that when mother's milk dries up and the baby-making hormones are gone, love, humility and a purposeful desire to nurture might take over.

"We're not born mothers; we become mothers." (wewomen.com)

A study conducted at Harvard Medical School indicates the presence of a gene called fosB may be one reason some women - and men – seem to be more instinctive caregivers than others.

The study involved a strain of mice that lacked the fosB gene. Without the gene, mice neglected their children. The babies died!

Both male and female mice injected with the gene transformed into vigilant, nurturing caregivers. (Baltimore Sun)

But mice aren't expected to "parent" their children. Mice don't educate, socialize or inoculate their babies. Mice don't lose custody for childhood neglect.

parenting without instinct: hard work, great reward
And neither instinct nor hormones guide a human mother to potty train her child, take her to well-child checkups, feed him fresh fruit and vegetables. Physical impulses don't press Mom to attend school music programs, open houses, field trips, Halloween parties, IEP meetings. Or remove children from harmful elements, like lead, once the danger is known.

With or without instinct, hormones, fosB or a pride of allomothers, human baby makers are expected to attend to the job of parenting. Sometimes that means enlisting help from friends, family and professionals. Communicating with an estranged partner. Putting your child's needs above your own.

Successful mothering takes selflessness. Humility. Persistence, perseverance, purposeful nurturing. A willingness to learn.

And humanity.

Unfortunately, some women? Just. don't. have. it.