Sunday, December 6, 2015

Peregrine, Whom I Love...But I Do Not Understand

He's defied explanation since he was born.

And yes, I realize every child is unique. But Peregrine is especially unique. Sylvia is unique--in personality and quirks and loveliness--but she's just more typical. She's more predictable. Peregrine isn't.

He wasn't an easy baby. Not at all. He was stiff and straight and loud and discontent. He wanted to be held, all the time. But not in a carrier. He wanted to be in my arms, facing out, taking in the world. He ate all the time, hungry or not. But it had nothing to do with comfort. He was just easily bored.

I'm a relaxed person, by nature. I take life as it comes, and I adapt to life as it throws me curveballs. I don't plan much, because plans always change, and it isn't usually worth it to me, taking the time to do something I know I'll have to redo. I started parenting this way. Relaxed, gentle, easy. Then along came Peregrine. Nursing on demand didn't work for him. Sleeping on demand didn't work for him. The only thing he really demanded was movement, and I did that until I couldn't do it anymore. And he wanted more of it.

He got fussy, around two weeks, and stayed that way for awhile. Was he colicky? I don't know. He rarely ever just screamed. But I spent hours every day and night keeping him from getting to the point where he just screamed.

I was inundated with advice about him, of course. Try this, don't try that, more of this, less of that, cut out that, add this, and so on. The general consensus being that my baby was now a Fussy Baby, and I need to adjust my strategies accordingly.

Only, he wasn't. I read every description out there. Fussy Baby, High Needs Baby, whatever you want to call it, he wasn't one. Yes, he demanded being held all the time, but he hated being snuggled and only barely tolerated being worn (unless we were hiking, in which case, he was perfectly happy no matter what). Yes, he demanded to nurse all the time, but he wasn't really happy with it, and he had no desire to comfort-suck. He was happiest when I fed him a large amount of milk (preferably from a bottle) and then took him on a hike for three or four hours before feeding him again. (Really, he just wanted to hike all the time). He fought going to sleep and woke constantly, yet it wasn't that he didn't have a need for sleep, he just didn't calm down. Adding a decoration to his room was enough to throw off his sleep for days, because he'd sit there and stare at it and not be able to relax enough to sleep. And with everything I read about fussy babies, they were supposed to be sensitive and clingy, distrustful of people other than mom (maybe dad if you were lucky.) They were supposed to be easily overstimulated and rarely happy, only wanting to be held and nursed. And Peregrine? He delighted in everyone he met. He was never happier than in a room (or better yet, a hike) filled with other people, passing him from one to the other. His smile was easy to tease out of him, his joy and enthusiasm were boundless. He ate up life with everything in him. He was simultaneously the happiest baby and the least content I have ever known.

All the advice for Fussy Babies was about letting go. Let them build their own routines. Feed on demand, even if that means they're on the breast all the time. Forget about sleep training, or even a nap and bedtime schedule. Hold them close, facing your heart, let them know that you're there. But I already had let go. I already went with the flow. I didn't care about nap times and bedtimes. But every time I inched in the opposite direction, with more routine, more structure, the more content and "easy" Peregrine became. He never lost his intensity, his drive, his tendency to boredom, or his joy. But he settled a bit, and was less demanding of the world.

It took trial and error, and a rewriting of what is my natural parenting style to fit the little person he was. And yes, I know every parent does this, but I wouldn't have done it so strongly for Sylvia. We started him on sleep training and solid foods. We thought up errands just to get him out and among people. If I had baby Peregrine to parent all over again, I'd probably start him on a feeding and sleeping schedule from the beginning. People, routine, and the outdoors--he needs those things, all of them, in way higher quantities than I would ever assume a child--or a tiny infant--needs them.

Fast forward some years, and I still can't place him. I've become accustomed to his needs for structure and routine. I've had him in school since he was two--actual preschool, with sit-down learning--something I wouldn't have seen myself doing, with my general live-and-learn, figure-it-out-as-you-go philosophy and personality. He's on a daily schedule that's way, way more rigid than I had thought I'd end up implementing and living with.

But when it comes to discipline, I still can't place him.

He is relentless at testing rules and boundaries. Relentless. He has a promising future as the best, most annoying lawyer ever. He will pick apart our rules and limits and exceptions, looking for a loophole, and as soon as he finds it, he starts wearing it down, slowly and inexorably, until it's big enough for him to squeeze through. I can pretty much guarantee that no matter what I tell him, he'll disobey me. Once, and only once, but he'll always try. He argues with me constantly, and they're fine-tuned arguments that involve logic (rudimentary logic, yes, but he's not just protesting, he's honest-to-goodness debating). If he ever gets away with disobeying, or breaking rules, for any reason at all, he will keep going and going and see how much more he can get away with. It's exhausting. He is never content to just take things at face value. No matter what fence I tell him to stay inside, he will go right to the edge and squeeze all but a few atoms of his body outside it, and then argue vehemently, with science involved, that he is still technically inside the fence.

And yet, when people ask me if he's strong-willed, or difficult, or spirited, or whatever you want to call it, I honestly don't know what to say. Because he isn't, really. I could probably count on my fingers the times he's actually thrown a tantrum. He's incredibly well behaved in school. If I put him in any position of responsibility, he will step up and excel. He never pushes boundaries when he's alone. I trust him pretty completely to follow my rules when I'm not around. He never lies, ever. His heart is huge, and his generosity is boundless. He's incredibly tender and loving, especially with smaller children. He's deeply community-minded, and will happily sacrifice just about anything if he believes it is for the good of his family, class, church, neighborhood, or any group of people at all. He's a lovely bundle of curiosity and generosity and quirky observations about the world.

I've found a lot of blogs and books and discussions on moms' groups that deal with children who are a strange blend of difficult-and-delightful, but again, I can't place Peregrine there. Words like "spirited" and "high needs" are thrown around, and with them, a picture of a child who is kind of like Peregrine in testing and fighting boundaries, but who is also emotional and volatile, who feels deeply and is deeply attached to his or her own way of doing things. And Peregrine isn't. He isn't really that emotional at all. He's pretty stoic, actually. And the maddening things about the fights he picks and the power struggles he chooses is that he often isn't invested in the issue itself. He doesn't care. He just wants to find the loophole. He had a teacher--one of the few teachers for whom he misbehaved--who called it "scientific disobedience," and I think that describes it perfectly. He's not throwing a fit about getting his own way. He's fighting a rule because it's there. And yet? He wants it to be there. He's not a free-spirited child who doesn't see the point of rules. On the contrary, he loves rules. He has a deep respect for them. I have never seen a child who loves rules so much, and disobeys them so eagerly.

All the advice I see about power-struggle-happy toddlers and preschoolers is, again, to loosen up. Provide more choices. Pick your battles. Make only a few rules and care about the ones you make. Make things a game and avoid saying no unless you really, really mean it. Focus on the positive, ignore the negative. Say yes as often as possible. Let things go. These don't work with Peregrine. At all. If I let things go, he will work and work at it until he finds something I won't let go. If I make things a game, he sees right through it. I do pick my battles, but more often, he picks them for me. And if I back down, ever, if I decide something isn't worth fighting, he will pick a new one.

But when I move the opposite direction, things get better. When I tighten things up, give less choices, say no directly with no game involved at all, give consequences immediately with no grace or exceptions, he relaxes a bit and becomes a much easier, happier child. Again, he doesn't lose his drive to argue and test and prove. But he's visibly, noticeably safer. Sometimes I'm convinced he breaks rules in order to be disciplined. To rest in the sheer beauty of cause and effect, or something like that. I don't get him, I don't understand the relationship he has with rules and consequences. I was not like that as a child at all.

But this is learning mothering, isn't it? Watching the little soul whose care I've been given develop? Finding ways to help him thrive and grow, even if he doesn't make sense to me, even if he seems to defy categories. Because I love this boy. I love every bit of him. He drives me no end crazy sometimes, and he can be exhausting to parent. As Sylvia grows into a little preschooler herself, going through all the ages and stages Peregrine has been through, Andrew and find ourselves constantly saying, "Oh, it isn't two-year-olds, it was Peregrine. It isn't toddlers, it was Peregrine. It isn't having kids, it's having Peregrine." But I love him. I love his mind, his quest for knowledge, his thirst to know and discover. I love his heart, how he effortlessly balances his macho and his tenderness and doesn't even stress about it at all. Most of all, I love his boundless generosity and the core of deep unselfishness that forms the foundation of who he is. I tell him all the time that his heart is pure gold, that his heart is full of too much love, and it is. He's a treasure, and the world is a better place for having him in it. And if his quirky little heart and soul require a bit of a different approach, and different way of thinking, than I've been told, and than what I do naturally, well then, I'll do what I can with what I have. And the years ahead will be full of adventure. And I pray every day that I will navigate the adventure with grace and joy and love, and take good care of the little soul whose welfare I treasure so very, very deeply.

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