A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Zen of Attention-Deficit Snowpants.

                I think there should be special branch of philosophy dedicated to the art of patiently waiting for twin preschoolers to get dressed to play outside… in Fairbanks Alaska… in January.  We could call it The Zen of Attention-Deficit Snowpants.
                I’m not usually the kind of mom who imagines disorders for my kids based on what’s trendy.  I figure there are more than enough parents suffering through the rigors of raising kids with disabilities.  If Molly and Lizzy are sometimes prone to asking a thousand questions before I’ve even managed to eat my bowl of Cheerios, I should just be grateful that they can talk. Sure, my kids sometimes bounce off the walls, but when I see other people’s children cannon-balling around the supermarket or escaping parental clutches in the middle of SEA-TAC airport security lines, I’m pleasantly reassured that my offspring are not, in fact hyperactive.  Sometimes, though, I do wonder if ADD can be diagnosed based solely on the inability to remember that after putting on the LEFT boot, it is almost always going to be necessary to also put on the RIGHT boot, too.
                There’s a genetic rationale for my suspicions.  At least one of the kids’ uncles, one aunt, and one cousin struggle with ADD, and the jury’s still out on the rest of us.  My husband Jay and I both have days when we forget what we’re doing somewhere between the living room and the kitchen…which are only two feet apart.  Jay sometimes has entire conversations with me that he denies recalling a day or two later.  He claims that I do the same, but he can’t be right about that, because I don’t remember any such thing. 
To be fair, though, I distinctly recall overhearing a conversation between my mother and father when I was about eight, in which they bemoaned my seeming inability to bring home from school things like permissions slips, assignments, lunch boxes, and potentially my own head.  Even then, I was dimly aware that this might be a problem, especially given that my mom, dad, and older sister Sarah never forgot anything, ever.  They were never late.  They were never unprepared.  They simply couldn’t fathom why my brain sometimes escaped from orbit and headed for Neptune. 
Faced with all this evidence, it becomes harder to cling to the notion that Jay and I – and by extension, our kids – are somewhere in the normal range when it comes to maintaining focus.  Focus.  I seem to be using that word a lot these days.  Ok, honey, you need to focus on finding your mitten right now… where do you think you left it?  I’m not sure why I bother to ask questions like this, because the answer is always the same: “I don’t know.”  This is all the more frustrating because I know I’m at least partly to blame.  The twins are four.  I’m thirty-eight.  If Mommy had been focusing, Mommy would know where the mitten was.  But I was busy focusing on the bag of snacks, the water bottles, the sack of overdue library books, the car keys, and my wallet, not to mention my own boots, hat, mittens, sweater, jacket, and neck warmer.
                To compound the problem, Molly and Lizzy like to take toys with them everywhere they go.  I started letting them do this because it seemed unfair to trap them in the car or in the bike trailer with nothing to do.  Young minds need stimulating!  But I now understand why my own mother disallowed this practice.  Just when I’m trying to get everyone gathered on the doormat, in the vain hope that being close to the boots and hats will foster a sense of urgency with regard to their proper usage, the kids are running around their room like feral cats, trying to choose what they want to take along.  “Can I bring Kanga, Mommy?” No, she’s too big.  Kanga is the size of a microwave.  “Can I bring Playmobil?” My god, no.  All Playmobil sets come with roughly eight bajillion small pieces, each of which becomes unutterably precious to a small child the moment she is unable to locate it. “Ok, well, then I’ll bring this tub of Legos.” Look, kiddo, I’ve changed my mind, how about you just bring Kanga?
                At long last, the kids make it to the doormat, and the dressing begins.  I stand by to dispense basic rules of physics (the snowpants have to go on BEFORE the jacket), and to help maintain focus.  Lizzy, can you please choose a hat?  Lizzy, please choose a hat.  Lizzy?  Hat?  HAT!  HAT! HAT!  Heaven help us if it’s a “real” winter day, because at minus forty, each kid needs a balaclava, a neck warmer, AND a hat.  That’s after we’ve already dealt with the two pairs of socks, the long underwear, and the extra sweater, and before we broach the snowpants, jacket, boots, two pairs of mittens, and head lamp.
We do, eventually, make it out the door.  We waddle down the path.  Just as we’re approaching the car, someone remembers: we left Kanga sitting on the mat.
This is the point in time at which I need to perfect the deep breathing techniques of the Zen of Attention Deficit Snowpants.  Hyperventilating inside a balaclava is a bad idea, and yelling has been proven, through repeated not-at-all-scientific trials, to be counterproductive.  But, perhaps even more importantly, I need to be calm so I can think this through, and I need to think this through so I can decide whether I should worry, laugh, or move to Barbados.
Are we suffering from collective ADD?  Are we the victims of a challenging climate?  Or is this level of discombobulation and dysfunction actually normal
“Normal” of course, is a matter of opinion.  On the assumption that part of my guilt and anxiety comes from growing up in a family with such excellent focus, I started looking for counter-examples, to comfort myself.
What about the friend of mine, a highly intelligent scientist, who sewed an elaborate Halloween costume for her son, but suffered a memory lapse on the crucial evening that resulted in her son being eight miles away from his ears, his paws, and his tail?  Then there’s the little girl at Molly and Lizzy’s preschool who always seems to be sitting on the bench in the coatroom with one boot on and one boot off, and a dreamy expression on her face.  I wouldn’t have though it would be possible for anyone to dress and undress more slowly than my kids, but this child has them beaten by a mile.
Yes, I tell myself, but the fact that other people are dysfunctional doesn’t mean that my family isn’t.  Shouldn’t I be looking for POSITIVE examples?  Shouldn’t I be comparing myself to people who have their proverbial ducks in a proverbial row?  Shouldn’t I be aiming for the level of focus demonstrated during my own childhood?
And then I remember.  Amidst all the perfectly-orchestrated birthday parties, on-time train rides, and well-equipped beach trips, one childhood memory shines forth in slovenly ADD glory.  Once – just once – when our family went on a vacation, my parents forgot to bring the (carefully packed) suitcase that contained clothes for myself and Sarah.  All our clothes.  We visited friends, family, restaurants, parks, and historic sites.  In every photo, my sister is wearing a rather lurid multi-colored dress.  In every photo, I, aged four, am dressed in the same pair of grubby corduroy pants, and the same suspiciously stained t-shirt. 
I am smiling a lot in those photos.  I was probably enjoying all the friends, family, restaurants, and parks.  I may even have been enjoying the historic sites, given that they included both cannons and cows.   I was easy to please, at age four.  Somewhat more surprisingly, my parents are smiling a lot in those pictures, too.  Despite the rapidly accumulating filth on their children, they seem to be having a fabulous vacation. 
Why?  Maybe they were putting on a brave face.  Maybe they were in denial.  Or maybe – just maybe – they’d realized what I am still figuring out now, three decades later.  Perhaps they were smiling because they’d discovered that there can joy amidst anarchy.  There can be contentment in the face of distraction.  There can be humor in that moment when you open the trunk of the car and realize that something is utterly, irrevocably missing. Even if you ‘re forced to explain to a whole host of distant relations exactly why it is that your kids smell funny, life is still pretty good.  And if that’s the case, then all of us can strive to attain the level of peace and harmony epitomized by The Zen of Attention Deficit Snowpants