Poopy Accidents And Other Trials In Parenting by Maureen Eich VanWalleghan

Every phase of raising a child feels incredibly challenging. A few months back in a group chat for Motherhood Later the question was posed asking how have we overcome challenges, which help us know that we will have success in future challenges in our parenting (or something to that effect).

The first story shared was about working through difficulties in potty training a son. This opened the door for almost everyone to share their own “war stories” about reaching this milestone. Just about everyone sharing had older children with one mom who was beginning to embark on the journey.

There was laughter in recounting the process, germ phobias, tools, and tips. But I also remembered how I felt working through the poopy accidents: sometimes it was just hard and messy and worrisome. Toilet training is one of the first big milestones of parenting. When one is going through the process it’s hard to know that success is imminent because it is a process with advancements and regressions and everything in between. It’s physical. It’s measurable. It’s milestone by which the outside world knows the parent has been successful.

As an aside and something to consider: I could imagine though that if one had a special needs child this would be a sensitive issue.

But as our child ages the milestones become more and more invisible. How do we know we’ve achieved success when the outcome is immeasurable? Fast forward now I have a teenager. Everything is under the surface. She knows me, but in someways I must reconnect to this new young adult who is moving more and more away from my direct sphere of influence.

Regularly she gets mad at me and there are days that I can not for the life of me figure out why. I am a sensitive person and amorphous anger is hard for me to manage. I work at not taking it personally, but I would say that I fail at least 50% of the time. I do try though to reconstruct what might have been the triggers for me or for my daughter.

But sometimes it’s just teenage frustration and it’s hard to know for her even why she’s mad. I have really been trying to see the ways I may be undermining her autonomy and confidence in the guise of being helpful. This is an issue that I have with my own mother. Even now in my 50’s there are times when my mother’s reminders and helpfulness can bring up my ire, so my task of late is to be less helpful and wait to see what my daughter needs and to ask first if she needs my support.

This year she is a freshmen at high school, which would be a new milestone, but with COVID-19 that has changed. Successfully entering high school much like potty training is a sign that all is moving forward as expected. Except now it’s not. After much discussion and also the extinguishing of Plan A and Plan B, we are now onto Plan C, which is me homeschooling our ninth grader. The beginning of the process was painful and included a fight at our first shared meal with my wasband, daughter and I. We decided that twice a week we need to eat together. See thefamilydinnerproject.org for all the reasons why. As an update I am now uncoupled after 14 years of marriage, but we are neighbors in the same apartment building co-parenting our daughter.

Homeschooling: the ultimate challenge of how to empower and guide at the same time. Ha, I laugh at this challenge…

But how do I really feel? I am anxious and nervous and confident all at the same time. For background this will be my third round of homeschooling. The first was her fifth grade year. Many personal setbacks for our family found us living with my mom and stepdad on their remote Arizona property with my then husband away for many weeks at the time as an over-the-road truck driver. That year I only bought one piece of Waldorf curriculum. I was very much grieving the loss of my girl being in a Waldorf school. There was an unexpected death of a close friend that found us supporting that mother and son for two months back in Santa Fe. Also in that process my daughter and I did a lot of traveling and connected with relatives in California. There was reading every night to her, Girl Scouts, Skype math tutoring with the math tutor from her former school in Santa Fe, and Skype viola lessons with her wonderful strings teacher, who was also in Santa Fe.

Part of that time also involved me moving my parents into a retirement community. It was a full year with not much traditional schooling, but a lot of life education happening. Also I was lucky because my daughter loves to read and read she did. She probably read 30 or more books that year.

Once my parents were settled and their house sold we moved to remote Colorado. A very close friend from college got a teaching job in town at the local charter school and so we decided that this could be a great area for us. My daughter started 6th grade at the school. It was a disaster. And the most terrifying moment of my parenting life. As my daughter became more and more silent and withdrawn, no amount of direct intervention with the teachers or administration had any impact. My girl went from loving school with math as her favorite subject to hating everything about school except the skiing program.

When school finished she asked if she could do homeschool again, but she didn’t want me to be her teacher. That was a tall ordered, but I was able to set up mentorships for her as this was  already a concept in place in the local community because of the charter school high school. I was able to connect her with a number excellent artists who worked with her for free in the areas of photography, computer design, pottery, clay sculpture, and sewing. And in a stroke of good fortune I found a former high school math teacher who also tutored her in math for free. Since I am a former high school English teacher and college writing instructor she already had my attention in this area and we did small writing tasks. She also kept on reading.

Her big spirit returned and she recovered from that awful 6th grade year. When 8th grade came we decided to enroll her in the traditional public school. It started out strong. She enjoyed cross-country running, and basketball. She really liked her science, English and Social Studies teachers. Second semester looked promising. She had a robot making class which she was really into. Then the COVID-19. Basically things went downhill fast. I was away because my stepdad had recently died. I got home mid-April and my presence helped, but her invisibility with her favorite teachers became a big disappointment. All her hard work as an A student was erased because it took much longer to complete the assignments than the deadlines given, which meant her “A” work because it was presented late became “D” work. Again no intervention from me to the teachers or administrators to address what many students (and families) were dealing with had any impact. She passed, but at a tremendous cost with lots of fighting and sadness all around.

For this year, the first year of high school I thought of moving to find a better school situation for her. That didn’t happen as I didn’t get the jobs I was applying for to anchor that kind of big move. And as the COVID-19 still continues, it turns out all schools everywhere are facing the same issues. I am lucky because I have this homeschooling option when so many don’t.

Fast forward again: now we are at the end of the first semester. It has at times been bumpy, but opportunities that would not be present if it weren’t for COVID-19 have taken hold. We bought a Waldorf curriculum through BEarth Institute, which has us connecting via Zoom once a week (through a rather serendipitous set of circumstances) with families in Nairobi, Kenya and British Columbia, Canada. Also the math component through the Jamie York Math Academy has connected my girl twice weekly with fellow math enthusiasts in Florida, Oregon and Washington. We also have enrolled her in the Clonlara School Off-Campus program where she will actually earn credits that are transferable or will go toward earning a high school diploma.

But tonight was when I really felt the gift of this moment. Since I’m not competing with traditional school there is an openness about what I as her mother/professional educator have to offer. Tonight we had the discussion of a lifetime, the moment where we spoke about what the world could look like, where we imagined what our world would be when the labeling process finished breaking the rigid rules we seem trapped into keeping in place even as the “rules” strangle us.

We talked about rights for the planet, gender rights (beyond women’s rights), queer rights (beyond LGBTQ+…), mental rights (beyond mental disabilities), physical rights (beyond physical disabilities), body rights (beyond body positivity), race rights (beyond “minority” rights), animal rights (beyond animal cruelty) and we considered how language defines how humanity sees itself.

My daughter’s beautiful idea of how to encompass all of these rights was this:
Organism Rights, the right to exist.

For this moment I will forget all the difficult and worrisome phases of parenting and hold hope in my heart that humanity is evolving even when we can’t see it. Parenting is the work of holding space for all living things.

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