I mentioned last week that there has been some tension between Noah and I lately. Most of that tension has revolved around the ABSOLUTELY MISERABLE school drop offs that started occurring very shortly after writing this post. The miserableness of the drop offs involved Noah not getting out of the car, grabbing my hand (or arm or leg), refusing to go into the school (even when the playground had been emptied of kids), running after me if I walked away, attempting to climb up me when handholding was insufficient. There was whining, crying and sobbing. Often, I had to walk Noah into the school, open the door to his classroom, push him through the door, and close the door. It was terrible. I don't know how many times over I thought, HOW did we get here? I never would have behaved like this when I was a kid!
Naturally, there was a good deal of concern around our house about why this was occurring.
Noah had the same answer every time he was asked. "I want to spend more time with Mommy." Initially, Fritz and I couldn't quite accept that as the answer. First of all, Noah has not shown strong signs of separation anxiety since he was a 3 years-old in preschool. Last year, Noah attended the same school for the same length of day. His behavior reports from school this year are shining. His teacher promised us that he was fine the minute he got into the classroom. He was fine all day long. Everyday after school (and on the weekend), Noah would run next door to see if his friend was home and available to play. All of these facts led us to believe that Noah's separation anxiety was more complex than just Missing Mommy.
For Fritz and I, there were possible developmental causes, like adjustment issues related to Trixie (new baby) or too much homework or the newness of a new class with new classmates and new expectations. And then there were the possible scarier causes: Serious Matters, like bullying or abuse that might be showing up in this unrelated way.
One of my first goals was to be hyper alert for Serious Matters. In doing so, I attempted to kill two birds with one stone. I tried to increase my one-on-one time with Noah, which gave him lots of opportunities to open up and talk with me. I managed to squeeze about an hour of time out my schedule each day to spend (more or less) with just Noah. Honestly, that felt like A LOT OF TIME. We cuddled and read books and talked. I stopped exercising, I avoided blogging so that I could focus on him. We tried to come up with techniques to manage his fear. For some reason, Puff Up Your Cheeks and Hold Your Breath was popular, but not successful enough. We talked about How Sometimes We Have to Do Things We Don't Want to Do. In all this attention and time and effort, I never managed to find a Serious Matter, but I tried my best to be a good parent-sleuth: sometimes stealthy in discussions, sometimes direct in questioning, and sometimes eavesdropping on play. This continued for about 6 weeks. And over the course of those 6 weeks, I got no closer to uncovering a Serious Matter. I started to think there was no Serious Matter.
In the meantime, school drop off, if anything, got worse.
I should also confess that by week 4 or so, I was getting pretty angry at the situation. Look at all the accommodations I've made, I'd fume. I would vent to Fritz and then pep talk myself back into better form by the next morning: Okay, we can do this. Breathe deeply. Noah's sobbing while trying to climb your arm again. The Protectress in me would kick in: And Trixie is about to fall out of the carrier and onto the floor! And Mattias is standing in the middle of all these big first graders who are knocking him all over the place. But it's okay! Be patient. Be loving with your child who is endangering the the other two! We'll get through this. It WILL end, just keep your cool. It's fine. FINE, dammit, FINE!
But all was most certainly not fine.
As I got angry, I got punitive. Punitive in a modern-parenting way. I tied good drop off days to days when Noah could play with the neighbor after school. Bad drop off days meant no playdates. I reminded Noah that he said he wanted to spend more time with me. If he was having a hard time at drop off, then, I told him, he needed to spend more time with me. Internet: I only half-heartedly believed this reasoning I was giving him. Mostly, I was angry. I was out of ideas for how to motivate his good drop off behavior. I knew tying his behavior to a consequence was an acceptable parenting strategy, but I felt like I was grabbing at straws and threatening a healthy friendship with my methods. Basically, I felt crappy about the way I was handing the whole situation.
Drop off continued to NOT improve, which meant I had to continue to enforce my no playdate policy, which meant I continued to feel angry twice over each day: once, during a horrible morning drop off and once in the afternoon when I reminded Noah that no, he couldn't play, because of the bad drop off/ Missing Mommy. On top of that, Fritz still worried that there was a Serious Matter we had failed to uncover. If so, wasn't this no playdate policy the completely wrong way to go about solving the problem?
It was maddening. Finally, I had to admit defeat. I was so frustrated that I might not be the drop off problem, but I certainly wasn't helping it.
It seemed to me that there were three questions at stake:
1) Is there are Serious Matter to be be addressed? (If yes, the following questions would adjust relatively...)
2) How do we address the emotional aspect of this problem?
3) In a very tactical sense, how can drop off be handled most effectively?
After much nail biting, I decided to contact the school psychologist at Noah's school, particularly for her help with questions 1) and 3). I felt that whatever emotional aspects (2) were contributing were really going to be ours to fix at home. Maybe she would uncover something new (and minor) but...well, I really felt like we'd covered just about everything. And we were already working on those. Maybe it would just take time for our changes to work. However, the Serious Matter Question and the tactical aspects of drop off were parts of the problem that I simply couldn't handle on my own. Or on my own with two other kids in tow, as the case was.
I asked Fritz to start handling drop off for at least the next month. He wasn't terribly pleased about it since it would shorten his work day by about an hour and an half. I felt a sense of profound failure that I had to ask this of him. My position on being a stay at home parent is that I AM THE BUFFER. I've really seen it as an integral part of my job to let Fritz do his professional job with as little kids-induced chaos as possible. If you've been reading this blog over time, you know that there's a sizable part of me that would really, really like to work outside of the home. Staying at home, and handling most of the kid's "schedule," has been a decision less for me and more for the benefit of the kids and Fritz. When I worked (part time) in the past, higher levels of stress descended over the whole family. We - as a unit - had a division of labor: dissimilar, but more or less balanced, for the last 4 years because it was the best for the most.
That said, things change. Maybe, in this situation, with regard to this problem, I needed to hand off my responsibilities.
So Noah's drop off, with all of its tactical chaos, would become Fritz's primary problem.
With the school psychologist, we first asked her to talk with Noah and see if there was any Serious Matter that she could find. As my aunt pointed out to me, sometimes children have things they feel they absolutely can't tell their parents. Really? At age six? Hmm. Well, okay. I'll concede that it might be possible. So we're trying to make sure that Noah has someone, other than us, that he can talk to. If he needs to. (Can you tell I'm a little doubtful?)
Second, we asked the school psychologist to give us some help with the tactical aspects of drop off. Both Fritz and I saw drop off head steeply downhill the minute we stepped inside the school building. So we set up a bit of theater for Noah's benefit: we arranged to have a teacher meet us at the door with Noah and tell us (the parents), in front of Noah, that we may not go into the school. It's actually an unenforced rule. We knew that Noah would benefit from seeing the rule enforced. Also, it's always good to see us parents following the rules if we expect our kid to follow the rules. We also requested that a teacher or aid be available to walk him into the school building. This stopped him from running after us AND it stopped us from constantly looking over our shoulder as we walked away. We emphasized with the school psychologist that this would ONLY be a temporary situation, and we would like to phase him into the normal procedure as quickly as possible.
It's now been about two weeks since Fritz took over drop off and we contacted the school psychologist. I, personally, felt immediately better as soon as drop off was Fritz's responsibility. My mother noted in a telephone conversation, "You sound better."
"Yes, I've just washed my hands of school drop off.... Well, not really washed my hands, but... uh..."
"You're sharing the soap and water?"
"Yes, exactly. I'm sharing the soap and water."
Noah, at first, continued to have a hard time. And then, after about 4 days, drop off started to get better. It got better before we introduced any of our proposed tactical intervention from the school. Noah's teacher figured out that she could distract him by placing her hand on his head and asking him about his night as he walked through the school door. Fritz discovered that if he stood Noah in the front of the line going into the school, Noah was less likely to panic. Also, we don't say, "Goodbye." This particular piece of the puzzle was counter to pretty much everything I've ever read about separation anxiety. However with Noah, even a quick, understated "'Bye" seemed to be a signal to panic.
At home, once I was under less pressure to get school drop off right, that gave me some space to have perspective on other factors that may be triggering problems.
For example, I'm starting to suspect that Noah's daily after school play dates were too much for him. Typically, he had played with the neighbor for about half an hour after school each day. I had felt that this was a reasonable amount for a 1st grader. He also had been so eager and keen to play with his friend. They played imaginary games that I had deemed really wonderful, like "weathermen," which involved sitting on a balcony and writing weather observation in notebooks. It seemed so healthy! But once I began limiting Noah's playdates further, he tempered his own play as well. In retrospect, the eagerness to play with his friend might have been a little more frantic. The degree to which they enjoyed playing together might have been more like Noah getting buzzed. (Does anyone say "buzzed" anymore? Why does typing this make me feel really old and out of date?) With fewer playdates and Noah regulating the remaining ones better, our house actually got calmer! Sometimes, on the weekend, he would come home after playing for 15 minutes and say, "I was tired of playing." Taking away much of Noah's privileges to play seems to have given him permission to self-regulate.
I think we might still have some loose ends to tie up before we can close the book on this topic. But in the meantime, things are going a lot better. And that's a big relief.