Friday, April 27, 2012

My Son Doesn't Want Me Anymore

The little boy shrieked at the top of his voice. Glancing around the room, he all but ignored the frustrated man trying in vain to comfort him. His eyes raced furiously to the boxes of toys arrayed around the room; he paused if only to give them a cursory glance, before dashing out of the room. Still in tears, the child wandered from room to room to no avail. Then suddenly he stopped - and sprinted into the waiting arms of a familiar figure - his mother.

It has been a difficult couple of weeks. I'm not sure exactly when, but I think it all began not long after our recent trip to Vietnam. My wife and I have pinpointed our Vietnam trip as the time when our son Z's temper tantrums became more frequent and more acute. Upon reflection, I have also ascertained that the period immediately after the trip was the start of Z's "clingy" behaviour.

I have been involved in the care of my son since his birth, participating in his night feeds, changing him, bathing him, feeding him, playing with him etc. And all this while relations with my son have been good. For the past 21 months I had prided myself on being able to comfort him when he cried, whether it was because he needed milk, or whether he needed to be changed. It is a father's heart - to be there for your son whenever he needs you. But in the past few weeks, the reverse has been true. It has seemed that everything I do makes upsets him.  When I bathe him, he starts screaming; when I try to read to him, he brushes me off. Even after a nice one-hour father-son walk with him, he would dash to his mother the minute we arrive home. And I seem not to be able to comfort him whenever he's crying.

Turning desperately to the collective wisdom of parenting advice on the Internet, I realised that Z's behaviour is part of a developmental phase for toddlers around the age of 2. An article by the Dads for Life movement, Dads of Toddlers: My Toddler Wants Mum More Than Dad, for example, quoted experts who explained that such behaviour is a result of the separation anxiety exhibited by toddlers between the ages of 18 months and 2/1/2 years. During this period the children are supposed to have formed strong attachment bonds with their primary caregivers, and are therefore more "clingy" to them. While I can understand the reason for such clingy behaviour given that Sue is a stay-at-home-mum, and that Z spends most of his waking hours with her, I was however still sad, as the "Internet experts" did not seem to present a viable solution for me - the article advocated among other activities, spending more quality time with my son, something which I feel I am already doing.

Moreover, there was a conversation last week with my wife, and she suggested that perhaps Z is behaving this way because I have been too strict with him and disciplining him far too much and far too often. I was rather worried by that comment. It was true. Looking back at the past couple of weeks, I realised that I had been especially strong in my disciplining of Z - especially since this recent clingy behaviour phase also paralleled his tantrum-throwing phase.

A discussion with my sister-in-law Andrea helped to frame the situation from a different perspective. Andrea recently graduated as a doctor and she shared that according to the development milestone guide published by the KK Women's and Children's Hospital, a 2-year-old can sometimes demonstrate "possessive", "egocentric" behaviour, and that he or she "constantly demands attention" and "clings to [the] mother".

I also turned to my good friend Edwin, a seasoned father of 3, for his advice. Over a meal of nasi lemak, my wise friend reassured me that Z was probably not clinging to his mother because of my firm disciplinary approach. He shared that for himself, he had learnt the importance of love deposits in his daughters' lives. Edwin likened the relationship with each of his children to a bank. While he said he did discipline his children when the situation called for it, however this had to be done in an atmosphere of love. He stressed that his children had to know that he loved them, even while he was disciplining them.

My good friend noted that he would never be able to spend as much as time with his children as his wife Christine, since she is a stay-at-home-mum; nor did he want to - as that would mean quitting his current job to do so, a move that would cast doubt on the family's financial situation. He had, however, learnt how to meet the needs of his kids even though he might not always be able to spend so much time with them. This, Edwin shared, was all because he has a wise wife who "coaches" him on what the girls need most during the times when they are upset with him. For instance, there was a time when Christine disclosed that the oldest daughter was extremely excited over an art project she had done. And when Edwin asked her about the project, the little girl's gushing response to her father confirmed that all was well again. It was his wife, Edwin declared, who helped him to be the good father he was to his children.

I know that I have been depositing dollops of love into the relationship bank with my son throughout his life. And I know this has matured into tangible dividends for us - for instance just over the past few days Z has been asking me to carry him after we return home after a family outing. He has also recently demonstrated a certain sadness in his eyes each morning when I go to work. Sue recounted that only yesterday our son was very insistent in attempting to come to work with me as I waved goodbye to him at the carpark.

I am learning many things from my wise wife. Just a few days ago, she reflected on our son's personality, and shared that the more she spent time with him, the more she realised that he is a person who loves physical touch among other sensory needs. Her realisation has helped me to pursue a more physical interaction with him - by tickling him, massaging him, and just doing the more "Daddy" things with him. I can tell that he is responding well to this manner of interaction, and I know I am doing something right for the first time in a long while. These precious moments seem to serve as an imaginary pen that is re-writing the sad script of "My Son Doesn't Want Me Anymore", and is instead articulating a story of "My Son is Very Attached to His Mother, but also Loves His Father Very Much."

Friday, April 13, 2012

Raising Parents

All was quiet on the 2-year-old front. The group of active, squirming toddlers seated in a wobbly circle waited eagerly, each looking forward to his or her turn to put their circular cardboard name tags up on the flannel board which the teacher was holding. 

It was a moment of reckoning for Z and me. For the past 3 months in playgroup, my ever-determined son had steadfastly refused to follow the other children's leading to put his cardboard circle on the board. His highly anxious Mummy (i.e. me), eager to please and be a good student in class, had been the one to nervously take the circle from his teacher and put it on the board for him instead, when my little one refused to cooperate after a few awkward minutes of silence and gentle urging from his teachers.

I was, truth be told, very exasperated by this time and wondering whether it was because Z did not know how to do this simple task, or he was simply refusing to be told what to do, in the way that teenagers often do the complete opposite of what they are told. It may sound ridiculous, but I even had his grandparents praying this week that their only grandson would cooperate and finally be able to carry out the task in question. So high were the stakes on this week's performance (or so it seemed, from my perspective).

It had been a difficult playgroup session the week before. Despite having had  a full 12-hour night's rest, Z had somehow decided to be difficult from start to finish, refusing to participate in the Easter craft activities, emptying his cup of water on himself and the table during snack time, and pulling a few of his classmates' hair, having led to some unpleasant remarks from their offended parents. That afternoon, I hung my head in shame and frustration as I walked home with Z, wondering if perhaps he was not ready for school yet.

It appears that the lowest of times for parents can often turn out to be the best soul-searching times for us. I spent the rest of the week moaning about the whole matter to my sweet hubby and patient parents. God must have known how much I could take, because He sent along our good friends Edwin and Christine, who were such an encouragement to us that Good Friday evening. Christine, a mother of 3 girls, the oldest 7, shared with us her own journey as a mother, and how she had reached the point of knowing that God's strength is made perfect in weakness. She also shared a wonderful verse from Isaiah 54:13, "All your children will be taught by the LORD, and great will be their peace." She told us that she could see that Z was a passionate boy, who experienced the whole of life with an intensity of emotion, whether happy or angry or sad. God used Christine to remind me of what was truly important - that we bring up our children to know God. 

As I continued thinking about the matter, I realised how trivial and ridiculous my expectations of Z had been. It was not so much my worry that he was not developing well socially, but more about how I had been shamed in front of the other mothers and allowed myself to be subjected to the terrible ills of comparison. I had observed other children and allowed myself to compare them with my poor son, something I had sworn never to do, having seen its destructiveness in the lives of other families. I had forgotten that my son was still only a child, growing and developing well in his own time and to the beat of his own unique drum. Most of all, I had forgotten to see my son in the way his Creator sees him - fearfully and wonderfully made, and in His eyes, perfect. I had forgotten to be thankful and grateful for this precious gift I had been given, and to appreciate the wonderful qualities of my little one.

And yes, when I finally relaxed and allowed both Z and myself to enjoy this week's playgroup, my son enthusiastically stuck out his little hand, grabbed his photograph, and placed it on the flannel board with a few taps for good measure. From the look on my face, you'd think he had just gotten a scholarship for an Ivy League college. I was relieved and overjoyed.

Dan B. Allender in his powerful book How Children Raise Parents says,

"Thank God for your children because they are the ones who grow you up into spiritual maturity. Far more than being concerned about how to correct, or convert, or counsel your children, thank God for what your children are teaching you. To the degree that your heart is overwhelmed with gratitude for your children, they will gain the education they most need - the knowledge that they are truly loved, treasured, and delighted in. Only a genuinely thankful parent can invest in his or her children the conviction that they are the focus of unconditional love." 
(Allender, Dan B. How Children Raise Parents: The Art of Listening to Your Family. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook, 2003: 4.)

The main premise of his book is that as modern-day parents we are often so caught up in child-centred activities - the best speech and drama class, the best CCA, the best sleep-training methods, that we as parents are running on empty, having forgotten most importantly to nurture ourselves and to grow our parenthood. We have forgotten that the best gift we can offer our children is the gift of a good parent. And that often, the best way to become a good parent is to allow our children to mould us. They are God's gifts to us.

My dearest Z, even as I write this, I want to always be reminded to be grateful for you - for this dear gift that our Heavenly Father sent to Daddy and me from above, and all His gifts are good and perfect.

Thank you for teaching me what it means to love someone unconditionally. It has been easy to love you when you learn something new or make us laugh. It has been much harder to show love in the times when you are angry and throw tantrums. You have taught me to hold you tight in the face of your anger, and still continue to love you and be present when emotions overwhelm you. 

You have increased my assertiveness and taught me how to set clear boundaries. You have taken a scared and timid mother and compelled me to be firm and confident, so that I might be able to train you well in the ways of our Lord. You have helped me to surrender my anxieties to God, remembering that He is the one who takes care of you.

You have reminded me to fear God and not man, during the times when I have worried about whether you are growing well and been so easily tempted to compare myself with other mothers and to compare you with other children.

I am still learning to be the mother God intended, so that you can be the man God has intended you to be. I am constantly reminded that His strength is made perfect in my weakness. Through you, I am learning to be more dependent on Him.

Most of all, you are a reminder to me of how I should always be thankful. It is a miracle the way that God has brought you into our lives, and you are a constant reminder of His faithfulness and goodness. I know God intends for each parent and child in a family to be together for a purpose, a combination of special personalities and gifts. I can't wait to see what God has in mind for ours! Thank you for making me a mother and for raising me to be a good one.

Lots of Love,