I had another one of those soul-searching, crushingly humbling moments a few weeks ago. You know what I’m talking about, parents, please, please tell me that you do. I asked Mack to do some simple errand for me, and then I watched helplessly as my little boy melted down in anger and frustration for the twentieth time that day. I even knew in advance that it was going to happen, because it had been happening this way a lot, lately.
It occurred to me–rather, it smashed me in the gut–(newsflash, Mama!): something–isn’t–working–here!!
We had been swamped, it seemed, for several months: there simply hadn’t been a let-up in our busy schedule. We had gone from Christmastime with all its fun busyness, to producing and performing a melodrama, to a trip to Ohio, and then on a trip to New Zealand, and then straight back home to begin spring planting. All through this we were toiling on a kitchen remodeling project, of course . . . !
So, every day started with a long tiring legal-pad list of “must-dos.” There was–and is, really–no let-up for us right now. No days off, to speak of. I can cope with this for a time, before I start to suffer. But I’ve never found that children in particular thrive on too-busy parenting. Even when they were babies, I remember, my kiddos always seemed to be cranky and out-of-sorts if Mama was too doggone busy.
Poor little Mack was proving me correct on this observation, yet again. You might think that having his Mom running around like a chicken with her head cut off might have been a nice respite to him: he could go about his business–he could play, read, cavort, explore, do whatever–without my watching over his shoulder and micromanaging his time.
You know, he could have even gotten away with doing stuff I didn’t even particularly want him to do. He could have slipped away and watched Gilligan’s Island DVDs for as long as he wanted to, for example, and I wouldn’t have stopped him. I would have let him spend the afternoon with Gilligan and that crazy gang of castaways, just to keep him busily occupied and out of my hair (sorry, honey).
But no. The harder I worked and the faster I moved, the more agitated my son became, the more clingy and whiny and unhappy and angry he got. It had gotten to the uncomfortable point where I really loathed asking him to do the simplest task, lest he burst out in angry wails which, to my frustration, would last much longer than the actual task might have taken him to accomplish.
He and I had a kink in our relationship. We avoided each other. He would see me, and his eyes would narrow, and he would head in another direction. This–cut–me–to–the–heart. I would see him and feel a stab of confusion and sadness. This isn’t working. What can I do to make things better?
This, for example, was a common scene in our house:
Tired me: “Mack, would you please wash these few dishes for me—-“
Unhappy Mack: “No! Noooooooooo! NO!!” (accompanied by angry wailing and racing through the house, away from that dreaded sinkful of dirty dishes, away from the dreaded me.)
And . . . I’m not making this up, lest there are still a few of you who think (mistakenly!) that life is perfect at the Miller house, and that our kiddos never misbehave . . . Those of you who know my little boy on the surface, probably see him as a quiet, introspective, smart little kid with a mischievous gleam in his eye.
Well, all of that is true, but my little sweetie can also be cantankerous, mouthy, smart-alecky, and downright hard to get along with, if things in his life are less than what he wants them to be. He does not suffer neglect quietly, shall we say.
He must get that from his dad (cough).
I had started worrying about this problem, and praying about it, and wondering what I could do about it. Then one day I spotted him outside, walking around by himself. My heart lurched. I was working on some project, of course, or other, in the house. Malachi’s older siblings–all of whom he adores–have, one by one, grown up and moved away–at least the three oldest ones have. Timothy is living at home (for now) but is a hard-working web designer, and has very little leisure time, once his workday is over. Matthew and Andrew are far away, living in other states, and Bethie is a newlywed living in another town.
Only Amalia and I are at home with him most of the time, and Amalia works part time, is in a drama production in another town right now, and is researching colleges herself.
“He’s lonely,” I thought, as I saw him walk past my window. “I’ve got to do something about it.” I made a snap decision. It wasn’t much, but maybe it would help. I wouldn’t wait even another day; I wouldn’t mull it over or even make a plan. I’d just dive in. Whether it would repair our relationship or not, remained to be seen.
I called him in.
Mack dragged into my studio, where I had been working on a stack of bills. He looked at me out of the corner of one narrowed eye. “What,” he said darkly, the grumpy-pants.
“Listen, honey,” I said. “I want to ask you a favor.” It came to me then, that couching this idea in the form of a favor that only he could do for me, was the prudent way to go about it. Mack looked up at the ceiling, probably expecting a lecture. His little mouth twisted unhappily. He knew that I was going to ask him to do some chore or another. He was already set against it. But I plowed on.
“We have been so busy that you and I haven’t had a chance to spend much time together–I mean, just doing things together. I know we eat meals together and do chores together, but we don’t very often have fun together. And I need your help.”
Now he looked slightly interested. What was up?
“I have a problem,” I said. “I am really good at working hard, but I’m pretty bad at stopping the work. I’m really, really bad at letting myself stop and play, for example. But you–-” I said, noticing that he had dropped his annoyed look and now was just intently listening, “you are great at playing! Would you let me play with you every day, say, for thirty minutes or so? You would be doing me a great favor. I need the playtime. And I’d like to spend time playing with you.”
“Doing . . . what?” he asked, still a little guarded.
“Anything you like,” I said. “You could choose. We could go for hikes, go fishing, play a game, watch Gilligan’s Island together, you name it. We could play chess. Or LIFE. Or whatever. I just need some playtime in my day. It would be good for me. And it would be fun for both of us. I think. Wouldn’t it?” Now he looked almost excited.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’d be okay . . .”
“But,” I added, “there would be only one catch.”
“When the 30 minutes is up, you can’t complain or whine. When I say that my time is up, it’s up.” I winced at this, and watched him. I knew that, realistically speaking, committing to an hour a day (or more!) would have sounded much more attractive, but probably not doable for me. A half-hour was going to have to work.
There was a long pause while he mulled this over. I studied the meltingly-sweet freckles that were sprinkled across his nose and cheeks. I love this little boy so much. I so wanted to repair our relationship. When it’s time for him to wander off down the driveway to go to college (this will happen, I know, in a heartbeat), I don’t want my heart to be filled with regrets that can’t ever be fixed.
‘Cause what would it mean if I have a successful blog, a perfect garden, a gorgeous flock of chickens, a clean house (like that is going to happen) if I don’t have fun memories to savor about time I had spent well with my youngest?
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?”–Mark 8:36
“Okay,” he finally said. Then a guarded smile. “Can we start today?” I took a deep breath. I knew I’d have to organize my afternoon a little better than I usually did, in order to get dinner on the table and everything else done so I could take a half-an-hour off to play . . . but I was up for it. I smiled, and for the first time in a good while, he smiled back at me.
“Absolutely,” I said.
So that afternoon, we started. “What shall we do?” I asked. He had thought about it all afternoon. “Of course, hike over to the creek,” he said, “and explore.”
So that’s what we did. I had supper in the oven, and actually had 60 minutes, not 30, before it would be done. I had a feeling that we’d be gone for more than 30 minutes–the creek he was referring to was probably a fifteen-minute hike away–so I asked Amalia to watch the roast in the oven for me, just in case.
We took off across the fields to the creek that he wanted to explore. And this is what we’ve done nearly every afternoon since we started. We rarely can keep it to a half-an-hour, either. It’s just too much fun to rush back home.
And, guess what: I look forward to this play time probably even more than he does. I was just making that bit up, but as it turns out, my soul needs the playtime with him probably more than his needed it with me.
So far in the past couple weeks of our afternoon play dates, on our explores, we’ve:
- seen a pair of American kestrels.
- been startled by a barred owl, whom Mack promptly named “Wilkie.” (We saw him the next day, too.)
- climbed a 30-some-foot bank together, hanging onto roots that were exposed by erosion.
- crossed the creek–twice–on dead trees that had fallen down, crosswise to the creek–
- found a cache of wild white violets, which we snacked on (yes, they are edible!) and I made a mental note to come back and dig (just a few of them, not all, of course).
- built a little bridge across another section of the creek.
- seen frogs and tadpoles and minnows and possibly a mink!
- identified gooseberry bushes and nettles and dandelion.
Every day just gets better, Gentle Reader. I am amazed, frankly, at how much fun we are having together. On the days when we don’t have time to go to the creek and explore, we’ve done other things. We went boating on our little pond one day; we went for a ramble on our property on another day, identifying songbirds. We spent time cleaning out our martin house together and studying the various types of nests in it. The point is just that we are spending a completely unstructured, unhurried 30 minutes together. And most days, even more.
The entire day goes better now. Mack just seems more relaxed and is certainly more agreeable. The wailing fits have all but stopped. Whatever what causing his heart to be frustrated and angry has stopped.
Yesterday we ran errands in another town, and we split up for a few hours–I went to my writer’s group, and Mack and Amalia ran errands to a few shops in the vicinity. Then we had some difficulties meeting up again. I zigged when they zagged, or something. We couldn’t find each other. Finally we ran into each other in the library. I saw Mack across the room, and I watched as he turned and spotted me. Gentle Readers. His face lit up, and he threw his arms open wide. He rushed to me and hugged me. “Mom! Finally! There you are!”
What a precious moment to me, to have my son actually happy to see my face. *gulp* In just two weeks of these daily playdates, how much our relationship has changed for the better.
I am so grateful. If you have a child who is angry or frustrated with life as it is, I recommend this: make a playdate. Or, ideally, several of them. Leave the ‘phone at home. Invest in your kids, folks. They are certainly worth it, and you’ll never regret the hours you spent just pouring into them.
Disclaimer to the young mamas who are reading this right now with despair, wondering “how on earth could I do this . . .?” Little mamas, I know that when I had six kiddos at home, I never could have done this–there just weren’t enough hours in the day. The days were too cluttered and went too quickly. But then they had each other to do things with. And honestly, I wish I would have been organized enough (and well-rested enough, honestly!) to do this same sort of intentional playdating with one child a day, or something. I have a feeling that it would have been pretty difficult to keep up with, though, with diapers and toddlers and breastfeeding all the busyness and so forth, happening at that time. Not to mention that most of the time I was longing for a nap.
But it would have been worth it, even if I could have done one playdate per week with each child. I wish I could have made that happen. 🙁
Yesterday, Mack showed me some building plans in a book that he loves, this one:
“Absolutely,” I said. “Let’s do it.” 🙂
Stay tuned! I’ll let you know how it goes . . . !! 🙂 And I’d love ya forever, if this post touched your heart, or was impactful in some (positive!) way, if you’d share it with your friends. Humble thanks.
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