I did not set out to write a didactic story when I wrote Solomon’s Puzzle. The characters came to me and I knew I had to tell their stories. Writing for me was like watching a dream, peering closely to see and understand. However, writing a story that examined parent/child relationships actually helped me figure out some things about parenting. That’s because by creating fictional characters I could think about the principles in an abstract way. It gave me some perspective and there are several things I learned while watching my characters live out their conflicts. I would like to present these thoughts in a couple essays.
My car makes an irritating pinging noise when I’ve used up all gas. Not only that, but a light blinks, warning me that if I don’t supply, the car will stop. Because I’m somewhat terrified of running out of gas, I tend to pay attention to these subtle warning signs.
Years ago I asked my son’s teacher, (my dear friend Jo-Ann) if I could bring cupcakes in to school for his birthday. She patted me on my arm and said, “Way to keep the ol’ emotional tank filled up!” I had never heard that term before but it stuck with me and it was one of the things I pondered while raising my children and while writing Solomon’s Puzzle.
Some kids seem to be so easy. You give them food and shelter and clothing, you smile at them and read to them or take them on a walk to the park and they are content. They hold your hand and smile back at you. That’s because the things that you are doing, the things that feel natural and easy to you are what fills that particular child’s emotional tank. In Solomon’s Puzzle Peter is this sort of kid. He has a peaceful, sort of unity with his father, is calm and solid.
Other kids not so much. Like Joe in Solomon’s Puzzle, some children have a seemingly endless need for intense emotional contact. Joe craves continual attention, doesn’t mind if that attention is gained through misbehavior. He’s made with different strengths and weaknesses, has a different calling. In real life, the less easy children may not like to read; they may find the park boring or shudder when you give them the “privilege” of having the dog sleep on their bed. What this child needs are things that may not come naturally to you or things you are not seeing quite clearly.
Love fills a child’s emotional tank best of all, but there are different sorts of love and kids need different expressions of their parents’ love. Children that fuss and fume need something. This may be discipline — and by this I mean a schedule and the certainty that the parent will stay true to his or her word about behavior and life in general– the assurance that the parent will teach and will take care of them. Other fussing and fuming has to do with the child’s more mysterious needs.
To use an example from my own life, my daughter was a fairly easy child except for a few stages. She did have a crying stage when she was around 6. She would hang on my hand crying—in an ear-splitting volume—in the most dramatic way.
I decided she needed to get out and away and I assumed that because she was a girl, she would want to go shopping as a recreational activity.
This was not true.
She did like to go to the fabric store, but she hated and despised shopping – even shopping for her own things. She showed this disdain by pouting, whining and when that failed to persuade me, throwing dramatic tantrums.
I felt disappointed and frustrated. But because she was young, she was not able to explain what I realized later: she is not a person who enjoys gathering things. And she was genuinely uninterested in clothing, new toys, books or anything else one can shop for with a little girl. Now I realize she was bored to tears while shopping. She wanted to be home. She had things going on at home that I knew nothing about.
When I gave up trying to make her like shopping, I discovered what she really wanted from me. She wanted me to enter her world and listen. When I did so, I found out that my daughter had a big heart, a vivid imagination and a way with words. She began her narration with this explanation of her view of life, “When I grow up and have my own family, I want to have one hundred boys and one hundred girls and two sets of twins.” Valerie’s dad travelled al over the world and brought her a doll or stuffed creature from each country. Valerie loved these folks and infused them with lively histories. She liked best to gather her dolls and people around us both and tell me the amazing and dramatic stories she’d invented for each one, intertwining the stories of the other folks so that “everyone belonged.”
I realized that it was my calling (that is a heavy word and I mean it to use it with all the weight it suggests) to make space in our home and in our lives for her particular gifts and needs. It was my calling to do this for each of my children no matter what age the child’s emotional tank ran empty or how often.
The funny or ironic thing about this is that creating stories is exactly what I wanted to be doing. I’m a fiction writer and am always thinking of characters, imagining scenes, describing color or scent. For some reason I thought the typical things termed “fun” for mothers and daughters were what would fulfill us. Valerie’s tantrums helped me understand both of us.
Now Val is an astonishing poet, a wonderful mother of her own children and she still prefers not to shop. She can tolerate, at the most, 40 minutes of shopping and that only on a really good day with specific goals and money set aside. Even now she thinks outside the fashion box and either shops for something very specific in color and style that she’s imagined or she sews her own original and admirable garments. When she was working at a coffee shop, she did unwind by cruising through junk or antique shops, but that is because those old things had stories attached to them and they were the sorts of things that could be useful to observe for someone with an imagination, someone like her.
up next in this series: Someone has to do it.