Out My Back Door

The serenity of a late summer evening. A time when a man can sit back in a lawn chair and enjoy the stillness of his shaded yard, the quiet antics of his dog, and the distant sounds of children playing.

This is it. This is what he has worked for. This is what makes worthwhile all the hassle of raising two energetic boys, starting his own business, and wondering at times if aches and pains are a sign of aging or if he’ll feel twenty again someday.

Image result for man reclining in lawn chair shutterstock

“Dwight?” [name changed to protect his identity]

A glance toward the deck he built. Shades his eyes against the glare of the setting sun as it reflects off his newly installed back door. But no one is there. Who said his name?

“Hey, Dwight! How would you like to feed a baby?”

Did he doze off? Is he having flashbacks of those few times his wife persuaded him to feed one of their babies? Again, he shades his eyes but this time it is toward the setting sun that he looks. The silhouette of a disheveled woman appears. As his eyes adjust, he sees that a baby is perched on the woman’s hip, a rag slung across her shoulder, and a baby’s bottle clasped in her hand.

Isn’t that my back door neighbor?

“If you don’t have any pressing deadlines, I wondered if you could feed this baby so I can finish making dinner before my parents arrive. My husband isn’t home, and the kids are all out front, so…”

A person ought to be able to sit quietly on their property without being handed a baby that isn’t theirs.

I am the disheveled woman, and I want to explain why I was prepared to hand my baby over the fence to a neighbor whom I had not spoken to in probably a year.

It was Friday evening, and after I rounded up all four kids from therapy, a sitter, and school, I began to throw together the “easy” dinner I had prepped for over the course of three days. All the vegetables were pre-chopped and the fruit and chicken had been prepared that day. As I reached in the drawer for the shish-kebab skewers, I thought, “Wait. Sharp sticks with kids?” and decided to just make a variety of stir-fry that didn’t involve stirring or frying. I threw it all in a pan, or was about to, when I remembered that I had children.

It occurred to me that at the very least, I should open my front window so I could hear if one of the kids needed help.

I opened the window while looking at my dismal houseplant. Then my eyes focused on something just beyond my front yard. My son, who had refused to ride his bike without help, was riding solo! The spurts of forward progress lasted about four seconds and landed him in the grass each time, but he was actually trying!

As I opened the window, I heard him telling his younger sister to “go get Mom because I need her help.”

Grinning from ear to ear, I called through the window screen, “You don’t need my help–look at you!” In a moment of reckless abandon, I cheered and whooped for my little guy.

And that’s when I realized that shouting was a bad idea.

“Shoot! That’s right! I have baby, too!”

After warming some water and setting a pre-pumped bottle in it to warm, I scooped up the crying baby, and glanced at the pre-heating oven. I decided I had a couple minutes anyway and headed out to see my bike-riding whiz up close. A couple little spills, but he was “OK!,” so I headed back inside to feed the very hungry baby.

Oh, yeah! The oven. It was ready for the pan of food, but I didn’t want to touch raw chicken (the final ingredient) just before feeding my baby.

What to do? What to do? I could feel Emotional Elissa beginning to take over.

I glanced around the room. No fallback. My older daughter is the fallback, and for the first time since the spring equinox she was finally riding bikes with her friend across the way. Determined not to interrupt her life and give her reason to resent her brother, I found myself lookin’ out my back door.

That’s when I saw him. A trustworthy man doing absolutely nothing.

I grabbed the crying baby, the lukewarm bottle, and a nearly clean rag.

“Look at me!” I almost sang in my mind. “I’m delegating! My therapist will be so proud (she was).”

As I reached for the screen door, I heard Rational Elissa still in the kitchen. She was probably making us a sandwich since food has a way of bringing us together. She asked me if I even knew his name. “Of course I do! It’s Dwayne. Or is it Dwight?” She started asking me something else as I settled on “Dwight, definitely Dwight,” flew out the door, and descended upon my hapless victim.

That’s when Rational Elissa dropped her sandwich and burst out the back door, stubbing her toe and swearing as she went that she would never try to divide and conquer with Emotional Elissa again.

She caught up with me just as I reached my logical conclusion that Dwight could feed the baby since he had nothing going on and I needed both hands to finish making dinner.

I tried to reassure her with “I got this,” but then she reminded me that we hadn’t spoken to him (only his wife) in probably a year, and what I was doing was rather unorthodox even if we chatted on a regular basis.

That’s when Dwight stood up and winced. The Rational and Emotional Elissas were immediately reunited as they grasped the truth: this man was sitting in his chair because he’d strained his back. He wasn’t just sitting there waiting for a baby to land in his lap; he was recuperating.

I assured the stooping man, who had started falteringly in the direction of his shoes, that he needed to take care of his back more than I needed him to feed the baby. After all, the baby had just burped and would be happier in no time.

He thanked me and sank back into his chair while his trusty pup barked assertively at my retreating figure.

The fence was there for a reason, I remembered, as I finished preparing dinner to the tune of a crying baby. It’s there to remind me where one identity ends and another begins.

My many helpers over the last few months have spoiled me. I’ve begun seeing empty arms as candidates for providing some baby care. They were just an extension of myself, just filling in for me when I couldn’t provide the care myself.

My oldest daughter really has become the go-for girl. If I’m not careful, every interaction begins with, “Sweetheart, could you go get x. y, and z for me real quick before you do your thing?” She had been so helpful there for a while, and this past week or so, I just get a disgusted groan from her. In fact, I had an irate moment Saturday after I’d asked her to help with dinner instead of just asking what it was going to be. I told my husband–in front of her because I was feeling really mature–that she was being a snot for having told me, “I can’t offer to help with dinner because I don’t want to.” When I apologized later for my unkind words and asked her how she’d felt when I did that, she responded, “I just thought it was strange that you were mad at me for being honest.”

Listening to my requests and allowing her to be honest (though we’re working on better ways to go about it) helped me realize that I was forgetting she wasn’t just my useful automaton. Perhaps she wanted to be treated like a person before she was asked to fulfill impersonal functions.

She has also suddenly become very adamant that everyone ask permission before entering her room. She even requested a locking doorknob. I haven’t been very good at teaching about privacy (what mom gets privacy anyway?), so I thought perhaps she had found some value in privacy after all.

But I think it’s more than that. I think that more than ever before, she truly wants to have her own identity. We had a really childish argument back in the springtime when she was doing a project about plants. I had an awesome idea, and she outright rejected it. I accused her of dismissing the idea just because I came up with it. She went Defcon 1 on me, and as I prepared my nuclear launch codes called “Don’t You Dare Talk to Me That Way!” and “Get to Your Room!” I remembered something.

This project wasn’t about me.

It didn’t matter how fascinated I had been by bugs, critters, and plants when I was her age; this project was her thing. It didn’t matter if other adults saw her project and wondered, “What kind of a mother would let her child turn that thing in for a grade?” because her final product was not a reflection of my creativity. I gave and help to sustain her life, but we are two separate beings.

So I apologized to her. I admitted that I had been thinking only of myself, and in reality I wanted her to do whatever seemed like a good idea to her. She integrated my idea into her own and made it into something brilliant, in my opinion (I can brag a little, right?).

I have had a fabulous parenting book sitting in my reading basket for a couple years. I assume it’s fabulous because I’ve at least heard of it. Only last week did I actually open it and read the first few pages.

It told me that most parents don’t accept their child(ren)’s feelings. I beamed with pride because I always “let my kids feel what they feel” when they’re sad, scared, or angry.

But then I read on. It seems that we parents tend to think that our thoughts and feelings are the only available options for our child(ren), beginning with their earliest declarations of how they feel.

Do I deny that my child is tired or hungry, as he or she claims, with a response like, “You can’t be hungry; you just ate” or “You can’t be tired already; nap time is in three hours?”

Oh.

My husband’s favorite way to scare new parents is to show them this video on how to make toast for a toddler. I had only listened to my sister’s advice on parenting up until I had kids, but I at least caught that offering options helped kids make better choices. So my response to this finicky connoisseur of toast probably would have been, “Do you want to have the toast I made, or do you want to be hungry?” And then when the tantrum started, I would have eaten it myself.

So I loved the tip I found on a Facebook post recently. This mom (to whom I can relate on at least two levels), pointed out that if the toddler says, “I don’t want it,” just reflect back, “You don’t want the toast?” And then wait. After a few moments, offer a realistic, non-emotional choice, such as, “You can eat the toast now or as a snack later.” And then walk away. My three-year-old and I are getting along much better using that advice since her favorite response lately to every idea I put out there is, “I don’t like (for example) chocolate ice cream.” She just wants to try out the phrase; she isn’t trying to start World War III.

Recognizing that she has her own set of emotions and reasoning abilities allows me to decide what I’m going to put into play: emotions, reasoning, or both. If I assume she is trying to get an emotional response from me, she probably will, and it will probably be negative. If I see her “pushing my buttons” as just a sign that she’s exploring options, then I can give her a couple options grounded in reality. She and I don’t have to agree on much in order to respect one another; we just need to agree that the thoughts and feelings of the other are distinct from our own.

To make this distinction, I recollect my first semester of nursing school. In groups of eight students, we learned about communication skills that I wished I’d been exposed to years earlier. It is more productive and less threatening when we communicate with the use of “I” statements, when we own our thoughts and feelings, and if we communicate at a time when emotions are cool.

My son loves to scream at the people he loves most: “You’re making me so mad right now! I’m just not happy at all!!”

I hope to eventually get him to the point that he can instead say something like, “I am so mad at you for doing such-and-such. In fact, I feel all torn up inside,” because it reflects the reality that his feelings are not forced on him by others. His perceptions, his emotions, his decisions, and his behaviors all have some level of manageability.

The burden we have as social, emotional, thinking beings is to experience feelings, thoughts, and urges without seeing them as the totality of our moment-to-moment existence. They’re just a way of gaining information so that we can make decisions. We are, because of Jesus Christ, “free…to act for [ourselves] and not to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:26).

So the rational me (there is one) and the emotional me (think e pluribus unum) has decided to start acting in concert with one another. No more slogging through my day only because it serves a purpose. No more doing what I love only because I’m feeling good. I get to do what I love even when I feel lousy. If I’m slogging through, at least all of me is there to pull the weight. I trust both to do their part, and I look forward to the outcome. I also gladly allow those around me to do the same.

[If you watch the CCR video, would you agree that the musicians might really be seeing “tambourines and elephants” playing in the band? They just look extra sparkly.]

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