A mother of five finds her life is the stuff of reality television| From First Person | By Michelle Nicholasen (COM’88)
Illustration by Fernanda Cohen
I had five children in four years, and one of the more bizarre outcomes of this major life transition is that my days are now the stuff of reality television. Our mornings, for instance, have more drama and absurdity than a celebrity rehab camp. I’m a documentary filmmaker (on hiatus at the moment) — I know good material when I see it.
Here’s a typical episode of our little show: two middle-aged parents use all their college smarts to get their children — ages seven, five, five, five (that’s not a typo), and three — to school on time. Last year my husband and I managed to do this about six times.
Seven a.m. is the pivotal hour. As contestants, we face our first challenge right away: getting out of bed at the same time. No rolling over and groaning. It’s reveille, babe. Get up and jump into yesterday’s pants.
The next hurdle is to rouse and dress our children. Two of them will be awake but engrossed in an urgent project they can’t possibly put down, like “making a paper airplane store.”
After a speed-round of cajoling and snake-charming, all five children are in the dining room, cereal boxes flying. I collate the contents of five lunchboxes (prepacked and temperature-separated the night before). We’ll lose points if we screw up the blacklisted foods: peanuts OK, but no tree nuts in the triplets’ classroom; no nuts of any kind in our son’s pre-K.
It’s time for toothbrushing and shoe-finding. But one child is still in her pajamas, and another refuses to eat. “I tried already,” says Lucy when I ask her to get dressed. “But there’s nothing I like.” She looks stricken. I move on to Bevin and ask her to eat something. “I already did,” she says, skipping off to tend her baby-doll day care, her bowl of soggy cereal now one bite smaller.
After mediating a three-way fight between our son and two daughters about who gets to wear a particular barrette, my husband marches them to the driveway. I rush to the basement hoping for good dryer karma. It’s there! I give Lucy her favorite cat T-shirt, then turn to Bevin. “No, no . . . !” she cries. “My baby needs a nap. She’s not ready yet. I told you, I’M NOT DONE!” I take a deep breath, hoist her up, and fly the reluctant airplane out the door.
I should have this down by now. After all, I wrote a book about all the frustrating little-kid behaviors you can imagine, and how parents should respond. Raising five small children with very different temperaments was the most intense learning curve I’ve ever had, and I wanted to share what works (and what really doesn’t) with other parents.
One truth: dawdling is here to stay. You know the scene — your whole family is packed into the car to go on vacation, and at that very moment your youngest starts a painting project. Flabbergasting, yes, but normal for a tyke who is exercising his powers of focus and concentration. Whether you’re setting a timer or counting down from five, little kids need you in close proximity to get motivated. No more hollering from the next room to get dressed, please.
Another nugget: you must follow through with your, ahem, reasonable consequences. If you only make threats and never act, you’re basically toast. You will not be taken seriously by your child the next time, and he will not learn about what’s really expected of him. If your child won’t stop throwing sand at others after several attempts to redirect him, then pack up and take him home. Inconvenient, but necessary. Never threaten with far-off events: “If you don’t pick up the toys, then no ice cream store tomorrow!” A child simply cannot connect the dots.
What about tantrums? It took me a while to realize that I should not try to reason with, or even talk to, an incoherent child. Better to just put her in a safe spot, save my voice, and ride out the storm. And here’s a little dose of prevention: don’t fight the “No” opera. If your child insists she is not going to school today, and you reply, “Oh, yes you are,” then you have just launched your first battle of the day. Better to just say, “Uh, huh” and listen. Or, “I understand. I remember there were some days I didn’t feel like going to school.”
But now that I allegedly have all the answers, why can’t I just blow a whistle and have my kids line up like the von Trapps? Modern parenting calls for vast reserves of creativity and patience. Every day my kids present me with a situation I never anticipated, and I start to question myself again. That’s the funny thing about parenting: we can never be perfect, but we are called on, by our consciences and best hopes, to try to do better every day.
Michelle Nicholasen is the author of I Brake for Meltdowns: How to Handle the Most Exasperating Behavior of Your 2- to 5-Year-Old, with Barbara O’Neal (DaCapo Press/PerseusBooks). ■