Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Home of the Sensitive (Babble)

I’m the first to admit my kids have it pretty easy.  I expect them to help keep their toys and clothes picked up a bit, and to be responsible for their schoolwork, but I don’t make them do scheduled chores.  I remember how hard it was sometimes just to be a kid, and when I see them playing in the yard or creating a pretend restaurant for their stuffed animals or spinning in circles and just being kids, it makes me incredibly happy.  They are still so innocent and sweet and I want them to enjoy that.  It doesn’t last long, and they will have the rest of their lives to work hard and know unpleasant truths about the world.

They are good and kind little people, and I want them to look back on childhood as a loving, creative time with a lot of freedom.  I was lucky enough to have had that kind of childhood.  I want that kind of foundation for my kids, too.  They take a lot of things for granted, but only because they don’t know anything different.  And every now and then my kids stumble against some other reality that they find jarring, and I am amazed at how sensitive they are.

Aden has always been incredibly empathetic.  From the time she was a baby she hated to see me upset, and she is deeply affected by the suffering of others, especially children or animals.  When she’s moved by the plights of others she often comes up with creative ways of trying to help, usually by drawing people pictures or creating little plates of food for them.  I found out the other day that she gave away all of her birthday money to the charity drive happening in her class.  I asked her why she didn’t have money to buy the Yu-Gi-Oh cards she wanted, and she said when the funds came up short for the kid her class sponsored to buy him warm clothes for winter, she emptied her piggy bank and donated every last dime.  It made me proud.  I don’t know how much credit I can take, but I’d like to see this as evidence that I’m raising her right.

But it’s hard to know.  With Aden it may just be innate.  We read a book in the Magic Tree House series for a new parent/child book club we’re a part of, and there was a description of New York during the Great Depression.  The Magic Tree House books are pretty tame.  There is some suspense but no one really gets hurt and problems are solved quickly, yet they still make my kids nervous.  The moment things aren’t going well, one or both of my girls will insist I tell them it comes out okay so they can relax and listen to the story.  The descriptions of the Great Depression were mostly soup lines and people without adequate clothes for a blizzard–nothing too graphic–but Aden couldn’t take it.  “This book is too sad, mom,” she kept saying, tears streaming down her face.  “What’s going to happen to all of those people?”

I tried to tell her about how her grandparents on my mom’s side of the family lived through the Great Depression right here in Milwaukee.  How her great-grandma’s family had to sell their piano, and great-grandpa had to drop out of school to make money on a farm to support his parents and siblings, but it all worked out eventually.  Aden just kept wiping at the tears on her face and saying, “I don’t want to hear this book anymore.”  We did finish the story (I told her we had to if we wanted to go to the book club), but I had to keep pointing out the positive elements to string her along.

The stories out of Haiti since the earthquake have been particularly hard for her.  I often watch the news while preparing dinner, and Aden was transfixed by a story about an orphanage in Port-au-Prince.  I think it cuts too close to home for her.  She doesn’t have to imagine what it’s like to have one parent gone, and she’s fearful of the idea that something could happen to me.  I tried to point out that in the news story there were kind and generous people from all over the world who had come to help those orphans, and we should be happy there are such people in the world, but Aden put her arms around me and sobbed, “But I wouldn’t want another mother.  I want you.”  I told her I was very careful crossing the street and would do my best to be around a long time.  When she was satisfied that we were going to be okay, she asked what we could do to help the orphans in Haiti.

Mona wasn’t born with the same level of empathy her sister was.  For the first couple of years of her life I was a little worried about how oblivious she was to the feelings of others, mostly because I was used to Aden.  Mona continues to dance along through life keeping herself amused, but in recent years she has developed an incredibly sensitive streak.  Most often it’s about herself, but it was surprising when it first surfaced.  You used to be able to say anything to or about Mona and she would smile and move on, but now if she thinks anyone is being critical she bursts into tears and runs to her room.  She cares about the opinions of others in a way she never used to.  Her reaction to accidentally hurting other people is to get angry and sullen.  It’s hard for her to deal with the guilt of making her sister sad or disappointing her mother.  If I express frustration with her about anything she gets very huffy and can’t look at me.

When sad things happen to other people unconnected to Mona, that doesn’t usually affect her much, so I was shocked the other day when she cried during a movie.  I was in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner and I’d told the kids they could go upstairs and watch a Pokemon DVD we’d just rented.  After a little while there were wailing sobs from Mona and I thought she was injured.  I raced upstairs expecting to see broken bones or blood, but Mona was under a blanket, crying uncontrollably, with Aden and Quinn patting her lightly and saying it was going to be okay.  Apparently one character had sacrificed its life for another and it was too traumatic for her.  Aden kept saying the character wasn’t really dead because part of his essence had been passed on to the other character (I have no idea about the details because I just can’t bring myself to sit through a Pokemon movie), but Mona kept weeping.  She curled up in my lap (as much as her six-year-old self will fit there anymore) and I stroked her hair until she calmed down.

Mona had a scary accident back when she was two that caused part of her face to get badly scratched up.  Due to the miraculous healing powers of toddlers you can’t tell, except when she cries.  When Mona is really upset I can see the ghostly image of those scratches appear across her forehead and cheek.  I held her until those little pink marks faded again, and then offered to read her some Amelia Bedelia books to make her laugh.  She liked that, and cheered up considerably, but looked sad again when I tucked her in to go to sleep.  Mona has declared she won’t watch that movie again.  Aden’s emotions may be close to the surface, but I think Mona’s run deep because they are so strong and she needs to be insulated from them a bit in order to function.

Quinn is only three, and most of his tears are related to being tired.  He’s very cooperative and self-sufficient so he doesn’t get told ‘no’ very often.  The minute he does, though, and if he is overdue for a nap, his face dissolves into sadness and the tears flow freely.  On the sensitivity scale he is definitely closer to the Aden end of the continuum.  He hates to see me sad.  He hates to see his sisters sad.  I love my sensitive little guy.

The tricky thing from my perspective right now is trying to figure out how much Ian’s deployment may or may not be influencing any of their tears.  Back in 2006 we had to have both our pet bunnies put to sleep around the same time their dad left for Iraq.  Often that year Aden would start off being sad about the bunnies, and it would turn into a crying fit about her dad.  There was too much loss in her life at one time, and there were days it overwhelmed her.

This time I think I’m doing a better job of keeping them occupied.  I know it’s hard for them to see other kids with their dads, but they aren’t as quick to tell random people this time that they have a dad too.  I used to think families living on a base were at an advantage in terms of support during a deployment, but now I’m not so sure.  I don’t think being surrounded by reminders of what you don’t have is very useful.  We are always looking ahead toward fun things coming up, like the book club or movie night or events at the school.  We talk about all the fun things we’ll do when their dad gets back, and I only bring up their dad in a positive light.  There haven’t been any crying fits about their dad this deployment, but it’s possible they were disguised as tears over Pokemon characters.  It’s hard to know.

I like that my children are sensitive.  I know it makes them more vulnerable in the world at large, but they are so willing to help others that I believe the connections they form because of that will provide them with great strength in the long run.   I love them.  I know that’s the most unoriginal thing ever posted to a mommy blog, but it’s true.  I love my kids more than I know how to say it, tears and all.

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