Doors

It happens at bedtime. Wild-eyed and almost vibrating with anxious energy, Jack zooms through the house. He sweeps down the hall and into his bedroom, from which I hear frantic murmurs. Moments later he zooms out again and I catch him up in my arms to steady him. I feel his heart beating rapidly in his chest.

I ask him what’s wrong.

“I don’t know. I don’t feel right. Do you ever feel like you’re stuck in a dream? Do you ever look in the mirror and feel like it’s not you looking back?”

Yes, I say. Many times.

He doesn’t really hear me. He disengages from my arms and zooms around the room again, first toward the kitchen, next toward the door. “Doors,” he mutters and reaches for the knob. I say no and he turns on his heel and makes a beeline for his bedroom again.

I follow. He sits in his desk chair and taps his fingers on the desk. His brown eyes fill with tears and dart around the room.

“My brain doesn’t feel right. I think I’m broken.”

He goes on to tell me that everything is boring. He says that fairytales are lies that are written to cope with the fact that there is no real magic in the world. He reads them and he feels hope and then reality returns: there is no magic, there are only lies. He will never have adventures. He will get up in the morning and eat his boring toast at the boring table and then go to boring school…it is all so awful.

His eyes meet mine and he pleads, “Is there something that can fix this?”

He says he worries about taking pills. He worries he is not meant to take pills, that he is meant for something that the pills will suppress.

Where did he get this idea, I wonder… How can a 10-year-old even possess this level of critical thinking?

“I don’t know how to fix this, Son, but I have ideas for what to do to help right now. You don’t have to figure it out on your own.”

First I give him headache medicine for the pounding in his head. Then we find a music station on his iPad, a soothing station of instrumental lullabies.

Draw, I tell him. Draw the monsters that are in your head right now. Draw and listen to the music and breathe while I make a cup of tea.

I come back with a steaming cup of minty tea and hold it under his nose, telling him to take a whiff. He does and then continues drawing.

He sketches twisted faces, pairs of eyes, a vortex, a banana tree. An instrumental version of “Hey Jude” plays while he draws. A calm settles over him.

“I’m feeling better,” he says. “I’m starting to forget the thoughts. I just need to draw this one last thing.”

He draws a door. “I kept seeing doors,” he explains as he puts his sketch pad aside.

We climb into his loft bed together, where he sips tea while I read to him. He is mostly back to his easy-going self by the time I tuck him in and say goodnight.

I breathe a deep sigh as I walk away from his bedroom door. I am bewildered. I don’t know what happened to my son this evening or why it happened, but we got through it together.

It is behind him, for now. It is my turn to cry.

Reconsidering Our Bedtime Approach

When I got pregnant with Dez, I expected that it’d be easier than it had been the first time around because of all that I learned. And truly, I have experienced very few disadvantages in having my second child eight years after my first. Aside from the pregnancy being tougher due to being older, it has been easier for the most part.

There are some unique challenges to having kids so far apart, though. The biggest being that all the things I learned about being a parent were geared toward being a parent to Jack.

toddler

Jack, age 2.

I had eight years to get to know Jack very, very well. And over the years, I have gotten used to him and the way he works. And after all those years, it’s probably not much of a surprise that I went into parenting my second kid with what I will call “Jack-colored glasses.”

From the moment Dez was born, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast him to Jack. I wasn’t thinking in terms of better or worse; I simply made conclusions about Dez based on how his actions differed from Jack’s. And somewhere in those early days I got caught up in how different they seemed and couldn’t see beyond that.

On a recent night David and I had some time to talk before bed, which is very rare (Dave and I don’t see much of each other after 8pm, as you’ll read). We talked about Dez and the various things we’ve tried to make bedtime easier and reviewed how many things have totally failed. It was during this talk that it really hit me just how ALIKE my two kids really are. I’ve spent so much time thinking over the last two years about how different they seem, and not realizing that it’s only that they express the same issues differently. Ultimately they are both very sensitive little creatures with more emotion and personality than they know what to do with! Their behavior may look different, but it often comes from the same place.

With Jack, I was able to figure out by about 5 months that he needed a solid nighttime routine plus a dark, fairly quiet house. The bedtime routine became getting dressed for the next day, brushing teeth, reading three books, and cuddling a bit before saying goodnight. (For a while that happened in my bed, then he transitioned to his own bed around 2.5 years.)

Bedtime with Dez has been a mess from the start, though. Partly, I think, because instead of trying things that might work best for him, we tried things that we felt worked best for us. It seemed like a simple thing to have the new baby fit into our routine instead of rework how we did things. This was somewhat out of necessity, as Jack was still going through chemo when Dez was born, but we all had trouble adjusting to “normal life” even after the chemo stopped.

As time went by and a routine did not suddenly implement itself, David and I both started tearing our hair out over bedtime. We had many dark nights where we each just lasted as long as we could trying to get Dez to sleep.

At some point I finally went and did some re-reading of all kinds of parenting and bedtime advice. I thought about what I had done with Jack and what our parenting philosophy and goals are now, and I threw some ideas out at Dave. And somewhere in that mishmash of reading and talking and trying various things, we landed upon a couple of things that turned into some semblance a routine.

Thing 1: We must factor in time to wind down. It takes Dez a lot longer than Jack to wind down, which can mean 8 books instead of Jack’s 3. And that means Desmond’s bedtime routine can easily take 2+ hours. There is nothing we can do to make it go faster and if we try, it only makes the situation worse. (He’s stubborn just like the two of us!)

Thing 2: Both kids are noise-sensitive. Jack is unnerved by loud, unexpected noises (like garbage trucks) and avoids them, while Dez gets amped up. We tried a sound machine for a while, but it ended up just keeping him awake. Other noises in the house will also keep him awake, though! So, unfortunately, the rest of the house has to shut down at bedtime. All screens and lights go off at 8pm. The only “excitement” will be in Dez’s room.

Thing 3: Consistency is KEY. I put Jack to bed and David puts Dez to bed. EVERY NIGHT. Because if we don’t do the same thing every night, Dez will stretch things out waiting for the other parent to come in and “save” him, and that will just drag the whole thing out even longer.

These three things may not seem like game changers, but knowing them and acknowledging them has made things go more smoothly. Bedtime is still hard for us because, frankly, those 3 things kind of suck! Our evening (and any chance at couple time) is over by 8:30. No fun!

BUT so far there is less screaming from an overtired Dez, and that improvement alone is pretty awesome. It also makes a big difference for us to know that the bedtime routine will take a big chunk of time no matter what we do. I think once we stopped agonizing over how long it took and just went with it, we all felt calmer.

Hopefully things will improve even more as Dez gets more sleep, gets older, and has even more consistency from two clued-in parents.

We just need to remember that we are not perfect parents, and this surely will not be a linear process of improvement. But at least we can say we tried some things and they worked and this child isn’t a complete little troll who is trying to bend us to his will at every opportunity (probably).

In fact, he is quite sweet when he is well rested. He gives the best little kisses and loves to chant “click clack moo” and gives us pep talks complete with pats on the leg while we get him some grapes to eat! And he is full of great big belly laughs.

Toddler belly laughs

Little toddler, big belly laughs

Dez is full on adorable when he’s not screaming and refusing to sleep. And he absolutely deserves a bedtime routine that works for him, just like the rest of us.

And with that, I bid you all goodnight. I need to get some shut eye before he drags me into his bed before dawn and wraps his arms around my neck while breathing hot toddler breath in my face…

Why I Marched on Oakland

On January 21st, I marched in Oakland as part of the Women’s March on Washington. I know there are some out there who don’t understand what marching accomplishes. I don’t always know the answer to that, but sometimes you feel strongly about things going on in the world and you can’t sit there anymore and do nothing. Sometimes, marching just feels right.

It was a diverse group that marched in Oakland. It wasn’t only women; there were people of every color, size, shape, ability, gender, sexual orientation, and flavor. The reasons why participants marched were many and varied.

Jack and me at the march in Oakland. Photo © Rhea Avalos.

Jack and me at the march in Oakland. Photo © Rhea Avalos.

Here are the many reasons that I marched (with my son Jack) yesterday:

  • To show that I will not be a silent victim of Trump’s fascist agenda and toxicity.
  • Because every person who marches builds up a critical mass that results in 2.5 million people, which shows that we are not a small minority of people who are concerned with the dangers of a Trump administration.
  • To show support to every person who will be targeted and harmed by Trump’s agenda and toxic atmosphere for simply trying to live their life:
    • people of color
    • LGBTQIA people
    • women
    • immigrants
    • those in need of affordable healthcare and protections against pre-existing conditions clauses
    • children who deserve to go to school without worrying about gun violence
  • To feel solidarity with my fellow citizens who also want to build a better America–an America that is constantly improving and not trying to return to the past.
  • To be part of a movement so big that it cannot be ignored.
  • To show my children what freedom means.

I will keep marching because it means something to me and reminds me what it means to be an American.

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Sleeper

I have no idea what this kid needs from us. I am sure that we’re doing everything wrong, though.

It feels like we have tried everything to get him to have good sleep habits and yet…nearly every night involves screaming and kicking and throwing things and hours of time. Frustration and anger and tears and…youtube videos.

Yes…as a last resort, we are now regularly putting him to bed with youtube videos.

That is the wrong thing, I know. But what is the right thing for this child? Because we have tried everyfuckingthing and this seems to be the only thing that ends with him sleeping without us completely losing our minds in the process!

Even so, bedtime is a nightmare. We feel powerless. I personally get so dejected and angry when I finally leave the room (usually some time after 10pm). Hence, this blog post…

David takes on bedtime most nights now because it has taken a serious toll on my mental health. He fares better than I do, but he can’t do it every night. It wears a person down.

I want a toddler who sleeps through the night.

Still true.

It doesn’t end there, either. Dez sleeps for a couple of hours before waking and he will throw a gigantic hour+ long screaming fit if I don’t tend to him in the middle of the night. Sometimes we go the screaming route with Dave going in there while I try to ignore it and stay in bed and get some sleep through the noise. Other times, I take one for the team and head in there. We try to take turns because once we go in, we usually do not emerge again until morning.

The parent who goes in there gets a toddler velcro treatment. With me that means Dez scoots his face right up to mine, breathes his hot toddler breath on me, and locks his hands around my head. He falls asleep peacefully while I try to breathe air that isn’t coming out of his mouth and hope I can get back to sleep while locked in his embrace. All night long it’s a game of “shove the toddler over to get some space and a few independent winks” and “oh look here he is right in my face again.”

I probably don’t need to tell you that I don’t sleep well like this. I am pretty sure Dez is the only one on the planet who does!

And I haaaaaate it.

I keep trying to come at this sleep thing from different angles, try to analyze the situation and read tips and…nothing. Nothing helps. It looks like we will just have to get through it. Sigh.

This is not a request for sleep advice (and good lord, please do not email me trying to sell me something!), just an exasperated rant from a very tired mom.

Please let this child figure this sleep thing out. 2+ years of shitty sleep cannot be good for any of us.

Living That Normal Life

For the first time in nearly five years, Jack’s latest lab results were normal! While he finished cancer treatment over a year and a half ago, his body has taken its sweet time showing us that it could function normally. The last hold out on the labs was his ferritin level, which stubbornly refused to come up even with liquid iron supplementation. Finally, though, he’s off of supplements and his ferritin is normal!

Health aside, Jack is mostly living a normal life as a regular 5th grader. He’s been improving steadily in school thanks to a teacher that is pretty laid back and increased time in the resource room for math help. He even likes math sometimes!

Oh, and he can tell time now. That finally clicked when we got him a smart watch. He played around with the time display a lot and I think that helped him understand how time works.

Who knows, the increased ferritin level could also be a factor. (Apparently low ferritin can impede brain functioning.)

Things have improved considerably for all things Jack-related. No more fits over homework, very few missed days at school, and mood stability. In our darkest cancer days, we never thought we would get here. It’s pretty incredible!

At the end of January, Jack will reach 5 years disease-free. He survived.

We all survived.

Brothers

Jack and Dez on Thanksgiving.