I Want My Son to Be a Duck When He Grows Up

My duck at 5 months old
My duck at 5 months old

I have been to three “graduations” in the past two weeks. My son has had two end-of-the-year parties to mark his completion of another year of early childhood education. Those parties are not really different than the high school graduation party I attended. The conversations always revolve around how far a child has come and how exciting it is for the next step. Parents congratulate themselves for managing the tantrums (for toddlers and teenagers) and nurturing the signs of independence (for toddlers and teenagers).

In the first week of his life, I already had some very clear expectations for my son:

 Sexuality: I never had cravings for food when I was pregnant. I craved music sung by Madonna and Cher. I was excited to think I was giving birth to a gay son who could teach his mother how to dress properly for the pear-shape for which he was partially responsible.

Personality: As regular blog readers, you know I have a sharp wit and irreverent attitude. I expect the same from my son, someone who will undoubtedly follow in his mother’s foot-in-mouth approach to life. Jacob began living up to this expectation hours after his birth; he literally was giving the finger to my husband as Jacob nursed.

 Career: At four days old, I explained to Jacob that he was not born to a mother who “would let him be whatever he wanted” when he grew up. I was, and still am, an ardent watcher of Deadliest Catch. I told him he was not allowed to be a crab fisherman.

Despite stereotypical therapists’ views, who we are is more complicated than the expectation of our parents.

The Three Pieces That Make Up the Puzzle of Self-Conceptpuzzle of self

  • Part 1: Family of Origin: Both Nature and Nurture factor into who you are groomed to be. Lehman famously outlined personality characteristics of birth order by defining first born children as ambitious, natural leaders, middle children as peacekeepers, and youngest children as free spirits. Combined with a family’s ethnic and religious views for gender and birth order, we start life as a relative cardboard cut-out of a member of the family.
  • Part 2: Friends and Community: As we grow up, we enter a larger world where comparisons and contrasts to our upbringing begin. Erikson labelled this struggle identity versus role confusion. There are three ways we moderate our concept of self during this stage.
    • Differentiation = “That’s not me!” We test out concepts, feelings, and emotions we have learned from our family of origin against how our friends’ families define these ideas. Rebellion against our own family is necessary at this point in order for us to embrace independent thinking and a strong adherence to values.
    • Substitution = “I want to be like him/her.” This is another form of rebellion, rejection. Painful for parents, again, but a necessary part of the process of becoming an individual. This is also where we embrace social changes like accepting same-sex marriage and a black President. By replacing one set of beliefs with another our society becomes more inclusive.
    • platypusIntegration = “I’m a platypus!” This strange animal is the role model for a healthy self-concept. You have taken who you were raised to be, tweaked it by seeing how others understand the world, and settled on a unique whole.
  • Part 3: Current Family: In order to be YOU, the imaginary audience weighs in. Everyone has a heightened perception of people watching and judging each decision they have made throughout their lifetime. Once you are the final judge, the loudest voice in the room, your self-concept is set.

 Spark Note Summary

My duck 4 years later congratulating Grammy
My duck 4 years later congratulating Grammy

Asking “what do you want to do when you grow up” is never as impactful as “who do you want to be when you grow up.” If I had my way, Jacob would be a proud man who lets the judgment of others, including his over-opinionated mother, run off his back like water off a duck’s back.

Huck Finn, Beowulf, and Star Wars

student teachingI started my student teaching nearly 20 years ago. My assignment was split between an accelerated sophomore English class and a regular junior English class. I was twenty years old, smart, cocky, and completely unprepared for what being in the classroom actually meant.

My sophomores had to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I had designed fantastic lesson plans surrounding the use of the n-word and the allusions to Shakespeare all to disguise how much I detested the book. I was not impressed with Twain’s satire despite my self-proclaimed coronation of the Queen of Sarcasm. I was not a fan of the protagonist’s introspection on the river. (My own introspective years came much later.) This teaching assignment was going to be painful; I was all creativity and no content.

My junior class assignment was the opposite. I struggled to find ways to interpret a complex text like Beowulf (which I learned to pronounce BAY-AH-WULF three days before the end of the unit) for regular level juniors. My students had the same opinion of this unit as I did, a necessary evil for both of us to move on to the next step in our education. My cooperating teacher had the answer for years; compare Beowulf to Star Wars as examples of mythic heroes. That plan also gave me the chance to shamelessly enjoy one of my favorite movies AND complete a daunting teaching unit. star wars poster (First, don’t ask which Star Wars. This was twenty years ago; there was only one. Second, don’t worry about wasted time. There was a six page packet to fill out while watching to prove or disprove the monomyth’s applications.) The outcome of both of those experiences was a lesson learned that resulted in a blissful fifteen years as an educator and an insightful eight years as a therapist.

The Power of “And”

It was tricky to be a teacher and a student. That never changed. But, once I embraced that a teacher can remain a student AND learn from her students’ fresh approaches and reactions to material, I became an award-winning teacher. In therapy, the theory behind seeing how two seemingly polar opposites can be true is called dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

An old woman AND a young lady.
An old woman AND a young lady.

DBT is a treatment model used for chronic mental illnesses such as addiction, self-mutilation, eating disorders, and anxiety. Unlike previous posts, these struggles cannot be helped without professional interventions. The modality was created to help balance the contradictions imbedded into lifelong mental illness. DBT allows for the harmful effects of the illness to be incurable while making them manageable.

Similar to my post on group therapy, I will attempt to summarize the basics of this treatment modality which works to keep patients in a steady mental state. (Still, no Spark Notes.):

  • Stage 1: The focus of this stage is stabilization. Therapy is centered on safety and crisis intervention. The goal of this stage is to help people achieve some control over themselves despite the recurring messages they give themselves that life is out of control.
  • Stage 2: Despite more overall stability, behaviors characteristic of mental health issues may still be prevalent. Now is the time to investigate the origin of the pain. The goal of this stage is to help people process an experience instead of silencing or burying it. start on road
  • Stage 3: This stage focuses on creating a new life under new terms; the individual is in charge of life, not the trauma. Optimistic exercises like goal-setting are the focus with the reminders that stability breeds happiness.
  • Stage 4: This stage is all about maintenance. The new “you” discovered is vulnerable to doubt. It is important to stay engaged in therapy even at this stage in order to have support when natural mistakes threaten to derail incredible progress.

Spark Note Summary

With the start of summer, adults want to be kids. Friction occurs when kids still need their role models to be adults. The answer is to live in a world of “and” by being both. Get dirty in the mud from summer rain AND be responsible enough not to trek it into the house. Show your kids who invented fun!

Hooray, Spring! Boo, Cleaning…

Everyone has a mild hoarder inside. My husband’s grandfather was a survivor of the Great Depression who became a very successful businessman; he also had a drawer full of rubber bands that had been used and re-used for decades.(Ironically, today would have been his 97th birthday.) One of my closest friends has such a love of sticky notes, she trained all of her 4th graders to think, rethink, and really think about whether the page being saved or reminder being written was truly worthy of a sticky note. For me, it’s containers.sticky notes

I’m not just crazy about boxes – don’t we all keep shoe boxes to collect and organize the crayons and cars littered around the house? I keep the zipper plastic bags from new sheets, the cardboard partitions from wine boxes, old baby wipes containers…even the plastic rings that bind the oversized salsa bottles we buy from Costco. Much to my husband’s chagrin, my obsession keeps my house more cluttered than categorized.

With spring cleaning finally here, it is time for me to decide what goes and what stays. It’s also a great opportunity for all families to work with their children in developing a systematic moral code.

Pay It Now, Pay It Later, Pay It Forward

Parents are always looking for a way to direct the moral compasses of their kids. moral compassWe are successful in teaching the rules of morality, holding doors open, saying “please” and “thank you”, and taking turns. But, these successes are only in one-on-one relationships. Without fail, my clients consistently ask me how to teach their growing children how to be moral members of a group, their family, their school, their community. The answer is to set up a system of “paying” for things now, saving for later, and donating to others.

When talking about a lifelong lesson, it is best to start young. Here is how the morality code system works for toddlers, the youngest age you can effectively begin to mold morality. Consider each step using the commodity of toddlers, toys.kids in playroom

  • Pay It Now – Setting priorities: Every parent has suffered through the nightmare of turning down the wrong aisle in Target and landing smack dab in the sightline of the seven aisles of toys. At that moment, we all become Monty Hall and make deals with our toddlers. Getting one of the toys asked for during that shopping trip is a great experience for our young ones because they needed to decide which toy was too special to leave on the shelf.
  • Pay It Later – Understanding patience: Psychologist Lev Vygotsky introduced the idea of providing children the opportunity to achieve goals just beyond their reach with the help of a caregiver. zpdHe called this the zone of proximal development, or ZPD. Most of us practiced this theory instinctively when our infants’ hands couldn’t entirely grasp their spoon off the feeding tray, so we propped it up for them to snatch it. Buying, or better yet, allowing doting grandparents to buy, toys they are targeted for the next age bracket achieves the same goals. Toddlers love work-for toys targeted for big boys and girls; parents love watching them learn how to wait for gratification.
  • Pay It Forward – Learning empathy: The best trick I learned from another mom was the concept of a bag or bin of “non-sharing” toys for playdates. The idea is for your child to identify toys that are so important and special that nobody else is allowed to touch them. (When you “pay it now,” they have already internalized that decision-making skill.) kid donatingParents can take this one step further, especially before holidays and birthdays, by working with your child to sort through toys that no longer hold interest or develop advanced skills. A quick car trip to the Salvation Army or donation to CASA gives our little ones big feelings of empathy and pride.

Spark Note Summary

The reason why parenting is unanimously considered the hardest job is because its goal is to make the world a better place, one moral person at a time. We cringe at words like “bully” and “apathy” and lose decades of sleep hoping they don’t apply to our kids. The earlier we start to teach our kids what good morals look like, the earlier they will know what good morals feel like.

The Queen of Tic-Tac-Toe

My husband and I take silly seriously. We spent a great deal of our courtship playing Warcraft over an Ethernet hub with six friends in a two-bedroom apartment. (Really, it was incredibly romantic to be advised to “make a peon” every three seconds.) So, when we are overwhelmed with responsibility, we find a way to shirk off the dusting and vacuuming by playing a game.

tic tac toe

The other day, I downloaded an app so I can write text and draw on photos before posting them on Facebook. I demonstrated this new toy to my husband by scribbling on a picture of him. Somehow that devolved into using the app to doodle a tic-tac-toe board. Seventeen games later, Joe still had not won one. Not one. Many of you are smiling because you know the same pattern I do, the one which secures the top left, bottom left, and bottom right corners guaranteeing a win regardless of what pitiful move your opponent makes. I’m lucky that Joe is a good loser because I am a horrible winner. What is worse than that is I set him up to fail…seventeen times. That is the epitome of unfair and an issue I see in marital counseling all of the time.

Developing a Definition of Fairness

It takes a lifetime to develop a working definition of fair/fairness. There are developmental models in psychology, Supreme Court cases, and dictionaries that attempt to define this complex issue. It’s no wonder that a couple has a hard time negotiating the content when there are as so many different ways of understanding the construct. I have my own developmental model of fairness:

  • moralityAs a therapist, I learned all about Kohlberg’s developmental model of morality. Kohlberg designed a scenario similar to the Kobiyahi Maru of Star Trek legend. The beginning of fairness falls into Kohlberg’s Level 1, Stage 2, Individualism and Exchange. Between the approximate ages of four through 9, children’s moral codes are defined by outsiders and authority figures. Rules are clearly outlined by parents and teachers. Children can easily observe whether they are being treated fairly when compared to peers.
  • Adolescence brings with it the mantra, “That’s not fair.” Parents don’t allow extended curfews or call in an excused absence to cover missing homework. These are the years I call the “War of the Door”, one side slams it and the other removes the door from the hinge. Erikson believes the actual war is the teenager’s struggle between identity and role confusion. Young adults are consistently comparing and contrasting the adults who make the rules to decide whether to emulate or reject those values. Success in this stage breeds fidelity, a close relative of fairness. Young adults align themselves and show loyalty to people who share the morals, like fairness, that match their individual identity.
  • Society is hyper-focused on fairness. We want to make sure women have equal pay for equal rights. We want to make sure same-sex couples can marry and raise children like their heterosexual friends and neighbors. Fairness morphs into equality in adulthood. Supreme Court cases legislate concepts that consistently examine equality of outcome vs equality of opportunity. Fairness becomes a question of winning or losing. But, with 300 million individuals in America, winning or losing depends on perspective. (Rosie Perez explains this best in White Man Can’t Jump.)

Spark Note Summary

Marriage is not a game. If you are already counting wins and losses, you have lost a fundamental building block of your marriage. Fairness in marriage is a feeling. And feelings are not shared through slammed doors.

I’ve Misplaced Myself

IMG_4541My son turned four years old on Sunday. That was also Mother’s Day. Anyone that pointed out that coincidence (which will happen roughly every seven years) heard me gush that without his birthday, I wouldn’t be able to celebrate Mother’s Day. Sounds sweet, doesn’t it?

My Mother's Day Cards
My Mother’s Day Cards

Secretly, though, I was a little cranky about sharing my day. It has nothing to do with how much I adore my son. It has everything to do with losing the opportunity to be seen and celebrated. Like so many moms, motherhood put me one step further away from who I am as an individual void of relational terms. I used to be Amy. She was silly and smart, irreverent and intense, selfish and selfless. Every year, it seems like I add more titles, mother, supervisor, blogger, that load me up on external expectations and make it harder to see the individual behind those roles.


Part of my job is providing workshops for any and all individuals who devote their lives to others, firefighters, volunteers, moms… At the end of my Help for the Helpers workshop, I provide an acronym that helps keep people reconnect with the individual in the mirror. These are everyday tricks to lower stress based on what biologically happens in your brain and to your body.

landscape of green

  • Breathe in oxygen: When you are experiencing stress, your brain channels its activity to stay alert and keep you alive. The fight, flight and freeze responses stay active until the levels of adrenaline and cortisol let the body know you are safe. The problem is there is a lack of oxygen going to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that you use to set priorities and regulate emotions. By surrounding yourself in an oxygen rich environment, you can force oxygen into the prefrontal cortex and help yourself return to a more rational, measured state of problem solving effectiveness.
  • Emote – tear up, sob out: Crying sheds the body of toxins. Research shows that emotional tears, separate from tears of pain, have a high level of the hormone that controls mood and stress tolerance. When the levels of that hormone return to normal, so does the emotional state.
  • Celebrate micro wins in a macro way: Finishing the laundry. Getting your child to complete homework without a fight. Getting praise for a project completed at work. These events are all worthy of a celebration. By recognizing that you are taking successful baby steps towards a larger goal, a clean house, an independent child, a successful business person, you can sustain yourself for the long haul.
  • Accept a compliment: You are unique, and the things you are able to accomplish are also unique. Plenty of people are parents or hold the same job title as you do. But, only you have achieved success in those arenas. Along with the micro win, you need the recognition from someone outside of the mirror to tell you that you did well. Our society is trained to connect accomplishment with pubic validation. We give our kids participation ribbons and employees premier parking to publicize their worth. There is nothing wrong with a barista telling you the time you spent before ordering your chai was worthwhile. When you dismiss your success, you distance yourself from the ability to celebrate the bigger win.
  • Let one day be all about you: Women are forever pushing themselves down the priority list. We sacrifice a manicure for a kid’s toy. We give up an hour of peace and quiet to let our husband have time out with his friends. For one day, treat yourself like you treat the ones you love. Commit with your whole heart and calendar a measurable chunk of time to appreciate and celebrate the individual you are by giving the cook, cleaning lady, scheduler, shopper, etc. a day off!listening to music
  • Music, music, music! – a no brainer: Research conducted with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, and recorded in the documentary Alive Inside, has concluded that music accesses a part of the brain that connects individuals to parts of themselves and their brains that were once thought lost to disease. As pregnant mothers, we played Brahms and Mozart through headphones on our bellies because we understood the power of music on a developing brain. That brain functions much the same way at the other end of the life span. Grab your iPhone and give the family some headphones, or grab some headphones and ignore the family altogether, and blast the music from your childhood. Choose music that connects to when you had the least amount of titles, pre-mom and pre-wife and pre-bad ass businesswoman.

Spark Note Summary

The analogy about self-care that likens it to putting the oxygen mask on yourself before others in the event of a plane crash is problematic. It implies you only need to take care of yourself in a crisis. If you can take care of yourself a little every day, the chance that an event will feel like a crisis is…what? The same chance as being in plane crash?

Validation in the Carpool Lane

Tuesdays are my market days. They are also the days my husband catches up on sleep from Monday’s day job before Tuesday’s night job. I try to sneak some quality time in with my husband by convincing him there will be a delicious home cooked breakfast lovingly prepared once I bring back the groceries.

First confession: although mostly true, this deal is to make sure I have help unpacking the car and the groceries.

Second confession: this week, I lied about breakfast. By the time I got home, it was much more like lunch.

I know, it was a white lie. But, this week, I’m not talking about the many shades of lies. I want to explain WHY I lied. You see, I was late with the routine of food shopping and breakfast making because I was chatting with the three moms I see at drop-off every morning.school drop off

You know the scene: the same group of parents (can be moms or dads) pulls into their usual parking spaces, can be overheard using the same pleas and cheers to get their children out of the car, and gives you the same nod or smile or quip of understanding. Solidarity. I wouldn’t call us friends. We don’t socialize outside of the few minutes we have after the kids go inside of school or while we are waiting for them to come out. Those few minutes, however, are not gabbing about recipes or weather. These mommies and I are engaging in group therapy about the trials, tribulations, and emotional upheaval of parenting special needs children.

Traditional Group Therapy

Group therapy is an essential part in the treatment plan for some mental illnesses. Struggles with addiction and anger, for example, depend on the dynamic of group therapy. In grad school, our textbook for group therapy was The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom. Since there are not SparkNotes (believe me, I looked), I can sum up some of the major benefits of group therapy that are discussed:

group therapy

  • Hopefulness:Therapy groups contain members at different stages of the treatment process. Seeing people who are coping or recovering gives hope to those at the beginning of the process.
  • Universality:Being part of a group of people who have the same experiences helps people see that what they are going through is universal and that they are not alone.
  • Information sharing:Group members can help each other by sharing information.
  • Self-esteem:Group members can experience a boost in self-esteem, confidence, and self-efficacy when they share their strengths and help others in the group.
  • Cohesiveness:Because the group is united in a common goal, members gain a sense of belonging and acceptance.
  • Catharsis:Sharing feelings and experiences with a group of people can help relieve pain, guilt, or stress.

(There is a great article that details more of these positive outcomes on VeryWell.com for anyone who wants to learn more.)

DIY Groups

 Feeling more hopeful, emotionally stronger, and more connected seems like a dream. There are all kinds of ways to join a traditional group in order to chase this unicorn, MeetUp, Facebook groups, and PTOs. Our school district even has a monthly meeting where my mommy group is invited to listen to speakers and get information on our kids’ challenges while the district provides babysitting. How dreamy, right? How many times have my carpool friends and I attended? None. Top down groups like the ones offered by districts, community agencies, or advocacy groups often miss the mark for those of us in the grind. The times never work for our work or family schedules. The topics may be poignant but not the help we need on the day we need it. I don’t need to know the benefits of occupational therapy or the latest changes in disability law on the day my son decided to throw a fit and stare at the sky in the middle of the parking lot.

Spark Note Summary

No man is an island. It takes a village. Whatever motto makes sense to you as long as the message is clear: you need help. We all do. Your support circle is right in front of you…smiling and mouthing “I know” in the next parking spot over.