Lessons Learned: Parenting after Years of Infertility

Photo by Melissa Glynn Photography

Photo by Melissa Glynn Photography

I haven't thought much about how our parenting was impacted by the years we spent trying to conceive, but looking back now, I realize there was a dramatic effect.

We ached for a child. We went through test after test, and treatment after treatment. I was finally pregnant with our first in vitro cycle, and then I wasn't. After our second in vitro, we were blessed with this beautiful baby girl in our arms. After more than four years of trying.

And so we lavished her with our affection and attention. 

And I mean lavished.

The sun revolved around Sydney Addison Miller. And so did our family.

Sydney never spent a moment by herself unless she was sleeping. If she fell asleep for a nap in the car, one of us would stay with her, no matter where we were or what we were doing. Even on Christmas Day. Chris literally ate Christmas lunch on a china plate, in the car, while Sydney snored on.

Speaking of the car, when Chris was driving, I rode in the backseat with her to keep her company. Always. I think back now at just how crazy that sounds.

As a baby, I would sing her to sleep nearly every night, slow dancing with her in the dining room where there was the least amount of light. When she climbed out of her crib at 18 months and moved to a "big girl bed," one of us would lie down with her for an hour until she fell asleep. 

We constantly entertained her, read to her, taught her and played with her.

The first time I remember Sydney actually playing on her own was at exactly two years old, three months before her little sister was due. She spent an hour lining up her collection of chapsticks. I remember being amazed just watching this feat. Not the balancing of the fruity sticks across the couch, but that she didn't require any attention for a full 60 minutes.

We had date night once a week, and I would feel so guilty as we walked out the door while Sydney screamed and cried loudly in the background to make sure we understood the depths of her disappointment and despair at our abandonment.

Now, I will caveat all of the above with the fact that Sydney was a fussy baby (at least in the opinion of this mom, who admittedly had very little experience with babies). Which is the reason we spent so much time with her. She cried often, and once she got going, it was hard to get her to stop (and still is today, at age six). She cried nearly every minute in the car unless we were singing Old McDonald Had a Farm. She cried at bedtime most of all. And cry-it-out, which I tried to brave at the four-month-mark when Sydney was still awake at 10pm, did not work for her. It just made her more, and more, and more riled up. To the point where she almost threw up. You know that hormone that gets released when children cry that makes them sleepy? That doesn't happen with Sydney for some reason.

I spent endless hours online researching why she was crying. I took her to the doctor five times as often as there was a fixable problem, like an ear infection. I changed my diet to make sure it wasn't my breastmilk that was making her colicky. 

As Sydney's grown up, she has gotten easier. As a baby, she was upset more times than not. As a two-year-old, we'd have four outbreaks a day. At three, she was down to two outbreaks a day. At four and five, she would have one spell a day or less. And at six years old, we can make it a few days straight without a "crazy" moment.

We do still tiptoe around anything that will trigger a "Sydney Spell." For example, Sydney used to get very upset when anyone held their hands to their lips to tell her to be quiet. And once she got upset, she would stay upset, squeezing her neck and gasping for air. For an hour or more. So instead of shushing her, we created a secret phrase to ask her to be quiet. Spell avoided.

Have other parents gone through these great lengths to keep their babies and kids happy? Maybe. But had we started trying to conceive, gotten pregnant in that first year, and had our little boy or girl without any complications, I think our attitude would have been different. And our attention a little less lavish. As is evidenced by our behavior with Sydney's younger sister Sabrina (3), and brother Luke (2), who received a lot less attention (as often happens with the second and third kid).

I believe they are the better for it. They are much more laid back. They are not as strong willed. They aren't nearly as sensitive. They are comfortable playing on their own. They are capable of entertaining themselves. They are happier more often.

Here is how I describe our three children to a new babysitter: If Sydney gets a shot at the doctor's office, she will still be crying an hour later. When Sabrina gets a shot, she cries for about 45 seconds, until she can pick her lollipop. When Luke gets a shot, sometimes he doesn't even cry out, but if he does, he stops as soon as the nurse says, "All done!"

Were Sydney, Sabrina and Luke simply born with their temperaments, and different actions would not have resulted in different outcomes? I honestly don't know the answer. But in the end, our lesson learned is that while attention is great, too much attention may not be.

Lessons Learned: Going with Your Gut

There is a lot of research that says it's not always right to go with your gut instincts. For instance, my 2-year-old is suddenly into painting and coloring. He runs into my office and proudly says, "Look Mommy!" and holds up a picture of 8 squiggly circles. My gut instinct is to say, "Wow Luke, that's awesome!" because I see the smile light up his entire face with praise. Instead, I say, "Look at all those colors you used!" or "Did you do that all by yourself? It looks like you worked really hard on it!" Why? Because I've read all the research about the pitfalls of "good job praise," and try to avoid it whenever I can. I've been practicing the "specific praise" for years. It still feels unnatural. And you can tell they just want you to say, "It's Beautiful!"

So as parents, our gut instincts are not always right, even when they feel right.

But when it was time to decide where my daughter should go to Kindergarten, I had no choice but to use my gut instincts (which apparently isn't some mysterious inner source, but a form of unconscious reasoning—one that's rooted in the way our brains collect and store information).

When our oldest daughter, Sydney, was three, she started preschool at a private Montessori in our neighborhood. The school is for 3, 4 and 5-year-olds, and ideally, children stay for three years, including Kindergarten. That last year is very important for leadership development, because the five-year-olds are setting the example for the classroom and helping teachers with the younger children.

Montessori is all about independent work and learning through repetition. The teacher presents a lesson once, and the child returns to that work over and over until she's mastered it. That's all great, until you have a child who doesn't want to return to something she's already done. She only wants more and more lessons on the new things. Sydney would drive her teacher crazy over lesson requests, even when she'd already had a new lesson, or even two, that day (keep in mind there is lead teacher giving lessons to 30 children in a class!).

Sydney learned so much in her two years at Montessori, probably even more than we can see at this point, but my fear was that she'd spend another year avoiding work she was already familiar with and never learn how to master anything. I thought the competition and camaraderie of our public elementary school, which everyone in the neighborhood rants and raves over, would suit her personality much better. She'd make friends who were reading at a higher level and want to read more. She'd run harder because there were other kids who were faster. I'm sure there's research that says fostering competition is bad too, but I'll worry about that another day.

When I asked Sydney where she wanted to go for Kindergarten, and briefly explained her two choices, she chose the new school. Which I thought was interesting and a little surprising, since she didn't know much about it and would be leaving the friends she'd made over the last two years. But that was the final kicker for me. She was ready for a new adventure, and this is our I'd rather stay home than go to the park or the pool kid. The child who rarely wants to do anything new. So we decided she'd head to the public school for Kindergarten.

How'd that decision turn out? Nearly every day this past year, Sydney replied to my inquiry about her day with, "It was the best day ever." She went to the doctor with an ear infection and the first question she asked him was if she could still go to school the next day. She had never loved school this much before. The environment ended up being perfect for her. And I hope she will stay this enamored with school in the years to come.

Now Sabrina, our three-year-old, just finished her first year at Montessori. Unlike Sydney, she loves perfecting a lesson and teaching others. It's very likely she'll stay for all three years and learn even more from a classroom and leadership perspective than she could from public Kindergarten.

At the end of next school year, I'll have to go with my gut again, and hope that I've made the right choice...

Lessons Learned: Temper Tantrums

Do you have a strong willed toddler like we do? Up until Sydney was seven months old, she would fuss briefly when she didn’t get her way, but was easily distracted. Then suddenly we experienced her first real temper tantrum – over wanting a popsicle. She was tired, and probably hungry, and started to fuss while we were fixing dinner. It escalated from fussing to a screaming fit when we tried to get her to sit down and have dinner. We let her know that once she ate with us, she could have a popsicle and go outside, but instead she decided to hold onto the freezer door, jump up and down and cry hysterically.

We learned many lessons in that 15 minutes:

  1. Ignoring the tantrum didn’t help at all, but sitting down beside her didn’t seem to help either, nor did carrying her back over to the table to try to get her to eat.
  2. Letting her know that we understood exactly what she wanted did not make her feel any better about the situation.
  3. She can work herself up so much that she throws up (though it appeared to be mostly phlegm).
  4. I wish we’d never let her try a popsicle, or a piece of candy, or a cashew for that matter (she always wants one, but then spits chunks of it out all over the floor), or anything else she pitched a fit over, even though I know that’s only a temporary solution.
  5. And most importantly, she needs to be taken far away from whatever she’s coveting.

As soon as we finished with dinner, Chris took her outside (without a popsicle needless to say), and although she fussed a bit when she came back in, she did not touch the freezer again and was happy as can be by bath time. 

Funny how much easier it is for kids to forget the tirades than it is for their parents.

Lessons Learned Recap: Tantrums will happen. All you can do is ride out the storm and figure out the best approach to shorten their duration.

Do You Have a Sensitive Child?

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Sensitive? Emotional? Hard to Calm? Our oldest daughter, Sydney, seems to be "wired" this way. Here are some examples of her super-sensitivity:

  1. From the day she was born, she cried whenever she saw or heard anyone else crying.
  2. You know how when most kids cry, they release some kind of chemical that makes them settle down and sleepy (why "Cry It Out" works so well)? Sydney is one of the 5% of kids who have the opposite reaction to crying. She gets more, and more, and more riled up until she nearly throws up. Needless to say, Cry It Out did not work for her, while it was perfect for her younger sister and brother.
  3. When she was eight months old, I bought her the cute book, Goodnight Gorilla. She started sobbing as soon as the zookeeper's wife took the animals back to the zoo. After that, she'd shook and cried if she even saw the cover. We hid the book on the bottom of a drawer. Six months later, she spotted it on the shelves at a bookstore. She grabbed every one off the shelf and threw them on the floor. There were several other children's books over the years that followed that made her too sad to look at.
  4. She was two the first time she heard the song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Giant teardrops ran down her cheeks.
  5. When her SIBLINGS get a shot at the doctor's office, Sydney cries longer and harder than they do. When SHE gets a shot, she's still crying an hour later.
  6. She came home from Kindergarten the other day and said she'd just seen the saddest movie ever. Charlotte's Web. I asked her why, and she exclaimed, "Everything in it is sad! They take the pig away from his family and he's lonely. They want to kill it. And worst of all, Charlotte dies in the end!" She was still thinking about it before bed that night, so it took her two hours to fall asleep.
  7. She can go from saying it is the "Best Day Ever!" to exclaiming it is the "Worst Day Ever!" in less than 30 seconds.
  8. When she was upset recently, she squeezed her neck so tight that there were finger marks on her skin the next day. If I hadn't been with her the whole weekend, I would have worried someone had tried to strangle her.
  9. Her dad made the mistake of saying he would be in heaven someday. Sydney was up until 10pm that night crying, wanting to know how she was going to be able to find him in heaven. He had to come up with a solution (a special key to help her find him) before she would settle down and go to sleep.
  10. It's not just her mind that's sensitive - her body appears to be super sensitive too. In the past six months, I can't recall a day without some kind of ailment - a headache, a stomach ache, her throat hurting, her tooth hurting, her ears hurting, her toe burning, etc., etc.

Sydney's life is like a roller-coaster ride. One minute she can be the happiest child on earth, the next she can spend an hour in tears over having to take a bath, or her sister being mean, or not wanting to run laps at school the next day. You never know what will set her off, but she finds a way to let something upset her at least once a day.

We've accepted that a "crisis" will happen daily, which I think is half the battle. Now we're just trying to find a way to help her out of sensitivity funk when she gets in it...

Parent Tips: Finding The Bright Spot in Every Age

Sabrina is three. Sabrina is three. Sabrina is three. That was not a typo. It’s the sentence I repeat to myself most days when she’s doing something “very three.” Like fussing about the fact that her smoothie is too small (even when it's larger than her head), or making Luke cry by taking the toy in his hand (again), or throwing a temper tantrum over something crazy like wanting to open a child-proof bottle all by herself. 

Here is one of the biggest lessons I've learned with three children five and under. There are pros and cons at every age.

When they're babies, the crying and their neediness is exhausting and often pushed me over the edge. I've handed off all three of my babies to their dad at times and exclaimed, "Help! I can't take it anymore!" (That's the G version.) Those were the times I appreciated single moms or dads the most - just the thought of having nobody there to save my sanity makes me shudder.

But once I had a toddler in the house too, I realized all the benefits of babydom. They can't throw a tantrum. They can't throw anything at you (at least not with any accuracy). They can't fight with their siblings. They can't tell you they hate you. They're just these beautiful, loving creatures who crave attention and companionship and nourishment...and sometimes cry a lot.

Toddlers gain their independence and can play on their own and can bring you such joy. But then you also have to deal with having to carry them kicking and screaming out of a store, while they're trying to tear all of your hair out, because they wanted to buy a $50 mermaid that you politely informed them they couldn't afford with their weekly allowance.

I don't know what having a teenager is like yet, but I can guarantee you it will be more of the same. The good with the bad. Just like human nature.

Lessons Learned: Never Make Your Office Door Out of Glass

When we moved into our four-bedroom house, with no kids, we had our pick of the place for our office. It's moved several times in the last ten years. When Sabrina was born, Michelle decided to move it from the back hallway bedroom to the front hallway bedroom. When Luke was born, we needed that fourth bedroom, so we moved the office to the extra living area off the family room. We closed the space off with double glass doors.

That was a ridiculously bad idea. 

Now while we're on the phone with clients or trying to concentrate on a writing project, we have three kids looking into the fishbowl. Or banging on the glass. Or screaming so loud you can hear every word.

We're seriously debating about building a back-house, just so we have a place to work in peace and quiet without having to drive to an office. 

Lessons Learned Recap: Use the most remote room in the house for your office if you have young children. Ideally with a vault door, extra thick insulation and an escape hatch. 


Lessons Learned: Never Use a Light Pole as Home Base

We were having the best morning at the Texas Capital today. We enjoyed a picnic with breakfast tacos and pastries, in absolutely gorgeous spring weather. We found a bird's nest above us and listened as the momma bird fed her tweeting babies (the eggs from our breakfast tacos). We chased the squirrels. Sydney and I laid side by side and soaked in the sun. We read a WWII memorial dedicated to the Texans who served and those who lost their lives fighting for freedom. We looked up at the mini Statue of Liberty and explained to the kids how we were going to New York City soon, where there was the same statue, but as tall as the Capital building. Chris explained to the girls how it greeted millions of immigrants and embodied freedom and hope and opportunity for those seeking a better life in America. We taught Luke how to play Duck, Duck, Goose and laughed hysterically that he didn't get it, and kept walking around the circle patting everyone's head saying either Duck or Goose, but not understanding he needed to run if he said Goose.

It was one of the best mornings of my life.

And then it wasn't.

Did you notice the "were" in the first sentence? Well, that's because it all went terribly wrong in a matter of seconds. We were playing tag, with a light pole as home base. I was IT. We were all running and laughing. Sydney and Luke were trying to hold me so that Daddy could get to the pole safely. Then Luke tripped (on the grass, on his shoe?) and dove head first, hitting the base of the light pole with his chin. 

Chaos ensued. Blood came pouring out of Luke's mouth (he'd bitten his tongue) and from a large wound on his chin. His t-shirt, applicably labeled "Dirt Expert," was soaked dark red.

Sydney was screaming and crying, worried about her little brother. Daddy was screaming for everyone to collect their things so we could take Luke to the emergency room. Luke was screaming from the pain. I was rocking Luke back and forth trying to calm him down. And Sabrina was still hiding from the game we'd been playing.

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Here's Luke after three shots (don't get me started on why he needed three!) and three stitches. He screamed and fought every single stitch. But otherwise, he was a trooper like usual.

This was not exactly how I envisioned my perfect Mother's Day Weekend going.

Lessons Learned Recap: Never use a light pole or any other hard object as home base for a game of tag. Or, never play tag with a two-year-old? Or, never let your children out of the house? But if your young one does need stitches, especially on the face, take them to a children's ER where they give them a nose spray that makes them loopy and not care that they're getting stitched up!

5 Inevitables for Moms with Toddlers, Take I

Here are five "inevitables" for moms with toddlers:

  1. After a very long, exhausting day/week/month, just when you finally get a moment of peace and quiet, enjoy a bath and get completely comfortable in bed, and think - AHHH, I'M FINALLY GETTING TO BED EARLY - your child will wake up crying, throw up all over you, and require an emergency room visit. You will manage to get about two hours of sleep before morning. Or similarly, the child who never wakes up in the night will startle you out of dreamland at 12:59am screaming and crying...on Mother's Day.
  2. Any sick day, snow day, or other random reason that day care or preschool is cancelled last minute will be the absolute worst day possible. Same goes when your nanny calls in sick. Your significant other will be out of town and your calendar will be filled with scheduled meetings or appointments or any other activity that can't be changed. A two-year-old Sydney literally sat on my belly once while I was lying in a chair having my teeth cleaned.
  3. You should never, ever, ever wear a pair of white pants or shorts when you have a baby or toddler and expect them to stay clean for more than five minutes. Be prepared for a giant strawberry handprint, spit up, apple juice spilled all over the front so it looks like you've peed your pants... or worse - chocolate sauce finger marks all over your butt.
  4. If you enroll your toddler in a class/camp she's been begging for, she will happily attend the first class/day and then whine and complain about going to that class/camp for the rest of the semester. You'll be scratching your head wondering why you put yourself through the hassle while also wasting your money.
  5. If you must buy a gift in advance, expect that by the time that holiday rolls around, they'll be into something totally new. I just ordered a custom Frozen Elsa costume on Etsy for Sydney's birthday party at the end of May. There's little chance she'll still want to be Elsa by May 30th, but there was also no way to make sure I had the outfit she wanted without taking the risk. Motherhood: So often you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Lessons Learned: Swim Class

When Sydney was about to turn two, everyone we talked to about swim lessons said the experience with Austin's well-known “Swim Whisperer” was really tough to stomach, but that it was worth it. It was supposed to be worth it because, at the end of the 5-day class, Sydney would know how to swim and we wouldn’t need to worry about her drowning in a pool. Well, it was every bit of the nightmare people had warned me about.  And it was not worth it in our case.

The fist day, Sydney screamed for Mommy and cried and gulped down gallons of water and scrambled to get out of the pool 15 minutes later when the first lesson was over. Meanwhile, I had barely been able to breathe while trying to encourage her. She was almost comatose by the time she dragged herself out of the water and I just held her in my arms and whispered that I loved her and how proud I was of her effort.

The second day she was even more upset than the first, since she knew what to expect.  From the minute she woke up that morning, she started saying, “No pool Mommy.” And because I felt like it was still the right thing to do, I said she had to go, but not to worry about it – that it was much later in the day and that I’d be right there. I’d been planning for Chris to deal with this, since I’m pregnant and already emotional enough, but he was in London the week a spot opened up, so Grandma Kit and I got to bear the burden. She started crying more than an hour before her lesson, even though we did our absolute best to distract her. She screamed even louder getting into the pool, cried most of the time she was in the pool, and threw up pool water when she got out. 

Days three and four didn’t go much better. More crying and screaming. Not a whole lot more progress.

On day five, we got to join her in the pool – Daddy was finally back – and she seemed a little bit happier that she got to swim to us. But she still wasn’t really “getting it” in terms of kicking her legs. She would glide at a snail’s pace under the water and I’d will her to kick so she wouldn’t breathe in pool water and choke. But I did feel that if she fell into the pool, there was a good chance she wouldn’t panic and would be able to get herself to the side and climb out. The only positive out of the experience.

We were supposed to take her to the pool that weekend and practice what we learned, but while I was balling my eyes out Friday night getting the entire week’s tension out, I told Chris there was no way I was going to make her go under the water. If he wanted to, that was his choice.

Saturday morning when Chris mentioned going to the pool, Sydney started crying immediately. We told her she didn’t have to go to the pool if she didn’t want to, and then spent a long time trying to help her understand that going to the pool was different than swim lessons, and that the swim lessons were over. Late that afternoon, we went to the park down the street and when we peeked in on the kids swimming, Sydney decided she wanted to get in. She was so determined to swim that she started taking her clothes off! Chris ran home to get Sydney's swimsuit and we spent an hour playing in the pool with her. Phew – at least she wasn’t scared of the water or permanently traumatized. We’ve been going to the pool every weekend since, and sometimes she’ll say, “Sydney wants to go under,” while crying and she’ll even try it once and then remember what it’s like and not want to do it again.

In the end, maybe Sydney was just a little too young?  If I had it to do over again, I would try several other alternatives first.

A year later, we enrolled Sydney in swim classes at Emler’s Swim School.  We were careful to call it “swim class” instead of swim lessons after our previous swim disaster. This time around, we went slow and she enjoyed it. It took a LONG time for Sydney to get comfortable going under water. It seemed like she was never going to do it on her own. Every class, she'd tell the teacher, "I don't want to go under the water!" They were very patient with her. We didn't push. We found an instructor we loved and had her work with Sydney one-on-one. And then one day, out of the blue, Sydney decided she "wanted to go under water the whole class." And that's just what she did. 

Lessons Learned Recap: If you have a strong-willed, sensitive child like we do, it's probably not worth potentially scarring them for life to force them to swim under water before they are ready. Take it slow and patient and they'll take the plunge eventually!