Discover more from The Overshare
Stories as Parenting Strategy
And other transferrable writerly skills
A year ago, I wrote an essay I loved that I couldn’t find a home for. Today I realized I have a home for it right here. It has been a busy month of teaching and book releases quarantine and the slow and steady writing of a first draft, so it seems the right time to use a pre-made but never-before-seen bit of writing that I wish had found some fancy publication to be in, but who’s to say my substack isn’t fancy anyway???
I do still use this parenting strategy constantly and it has never faltered in efficacy. If anything, it’s even better now that she’s older and a little less prone to epic meltdowns.
Bad Mornings, Sad Stories, and Other Things I Tell My Toddler
What’s funny about watching your toddler have a tantrum is that you forget everything else you believe about the world and who you want to be in it, you forget what you do for a living and what matters to you, because you just want the screaming to stop.
Actually it’s not funny so much as simply true, at least for me, a children’s book author who believes in the power of story and the hope embedded in honesty and the strength of connecting over heartbreak. A hopeful, story-obsessed children’s book author who also is starting to fully unravel because of a jack-o-lantern t-shirt and, I suppose, trying, to parent in the midst of a global pandemic.
My toddler is a great one, with a deep and pure curiosity about feelings. Hers are of the large and stubborn variety, laughter that rises up and explodes, bottom-lip-out pouts and big tears when her sandwich gets stolen by a sweet but sneaky dog, and full body meltdowns when I suggest it is time to get dressed in the mornings.
Which is what is happening on this very cold morning. It has been twenty minutes of crying, and still my daughter is only in her jack-o-lantern shirt, her favorite clothing item, a leftover component of her Halloween costume. This morning, she does not want pants. She does not want a sweater over the shirt. She only wants the shirt.
The parenting book tells me to offer my toddler choices, so I try that, picking out an oatmeal-colored cardigan and a rainbow-striped sweater and saying in my best everything is fine, I don’t care that this is taking a literal hour voice, “Which one do you want to wear?” She swats both out of my hands with a loud and convincing “NO!”
Parenting books have also told me to validate her feelings.
“You’re so mad,” I say. “You’re really mad about covering up your t-shirt.”
“NO!” she sobs back, “I’m not mad!”
“You’re sad?” I try.
“NO!” she wails, very, very sadly.
I don’t mind the big feelings. I have spent ten years writing books about kids having big feelings as they navigate the difficult and heartbreaking and also beautiful world we live in. This happened, and then I felt this, my books say, that’s okay, right? You might feel that too, sometimes?
I’m comfortable with emotions, but I want to get to work and I can’t do that if my kid won’t get dressed. I have been working on answering interview questions about my newest book for kids, ONE JAR OF MAGIC, which is a book about a girl who wants to be as magical as everyone promised she would be, but who isn’t.
Today, I am that girl. And so is my daughter. And maybe we are all a little bit that girl who is waiting for a magic that isn’t coming.
Because of those interview questions, I have been thinking a lot about the power of stories, and why I spend my days writing them. I have been telling the interviewers that I believe in sharing heartbreak, in order to locate hope. That, I have said over and over, is my mission.
Heartbreak, in its own way, is happening here in my toddler’s green and grey bedroom. Underneath a sweater, no one will see my daughter’s prized jack-o-lantern shirt. She’s hungry and maybe she didn’t sleep enough and she is confused about her new schedule, which is different than her other new schedule, and the coronavirus is not over no matter how many times she has asked, earnestly, in her little-kid voice when coronavirus is over, can my friends come to my house to play?
I am lost and frustrated and ready to yell and maybe I have yelled, already, a little, and I am closing my eyes the way parents do when they are at their wit’s end but trying to pretend it away, when I realize, Oh. Wait. I know what to do with heartbreak.
“Are you having a bad morning?” I ask.
“NO!” She screams, having what could only be described as a bad morning.
“Oh okay,” I say. “Well I have a lot of bad mornings. Do you want to hear a story about a bad morning?”
“NO!” She screams again, wiping away angry tears for a beat before reconsidering. “Yes,” she says, in a much smaller voice.
“Well. Just yesterday. You know how I make a special breakfast with eggs and scallions and cheese every morning? In the oven?”
“You will not believe what happened yesterday when I was trying to make my special breakfast” I say. “It was awful. It was such a bad morning. I realized I hadn’t bought any cheese! Can you believe it? No cheese.”
Her eyes go wide. She looks at my face for feelings. She is always searching for feelings. Her favorite ones are the big unruly ones that look like hers. I do my best, and it’s not hard, because lately everything hurts, even the littlest things that didn’t used to.
“I WAS SO MAD,” I say. “It was SUCH a bad morning. I wanted CHEESE. And there wasn’t any cheese. And it was awful.”
My daughter smiles. Mornings are bad sometimes. It happens to everyone.
“Can you tell me another bad morning story?” she asks.
Of course I can. There was the morning the dog puked in our bed and the morning where there was no hot water to shower in and there was the week or two of mornings when the pandemic began and the coffee shop at the bottom of the street with the best baristas and the best maple scones and the best way of making my days feel real had to close and I didn’t know how unmoored the closure of a neighborhood coffee shop might make me feel in the midst of a global pandemic.
That one almost makes me cry. The neighborhood coffee shop is my jack-o-lantern t-shirt, a thing that makes the day that littlest bit brighter, so that it is that much easier to survive.
I tell her the stories of all the bad mornings, and she lets me put her in blue pants, and, eventually, over her jack-o-lantern shirt, a cozy sweatshirt. Because what works for us isn’t measured and reasonable parenting advice. What works, maybe not for everyone, but for us,. is stories. Ones with tears and stomping feet and memories that tell us other people feel this too, this is a thing that happens and a thing we feel and it isn’t okay except in the way that we can be in it together.
I am not, it turns out, very good at such parenting skills as making sure my toddler maintains her afternoon nap past the age of two, or convincing her to let me brush her hair, or knowing what to do on the playground when she steals someone else’s umbrella and then hits me in the face when I make her give it back.
But. I know how to tell a story. I know how to tell a story that is true about the way the world hurts.
And maybe that’s enough.
TOMORROW (TUESDAY) evening, 1/25, I will be doing a VIRTUAL launch of my new YA novel in verse, LAWLESS SPACES. The event is at 730pm EST and you can register here. I’ll be in conversation with author Joy McCoullough, author of many beautiful books, including one of my faves. I know we all have Zoom fatigue, but I would love to know some pals are in the “room”, so please come on by if you’re around even for a part of the event. And you can order to the book through the same bookstore! LAWLESS SPACES came out last Tuesday, and I’m very proud of the book, its two starred reviews, and all I managed to write about in there— motherhood and acting and trauma and bodies and much more.
The week before that, the final book in my HAND ME DOWN MAGIC series came out! It’s about a mysterious tea set, written right in the midst of Fia’s most serious tea party obsession days, and I’m so happy with how the series concluded. Fia is almost four and happily listen to me read a few chapters, and older kids who are reading on their own will also find it fun and relatable I think. A lot of the series is about the tiny little hurts of friendships, something I am interested about in all my work these days! Truly I have something to say on the topic for every conceivable age range!
I came across this chicken salad recipe and it is easy and perfect. I make the chicken in the slow cooker, and then mix up all the ingredients and it is the simplest dinner or lunch imaginable. Pairs great with soup.
Fia is very into the series we stumbled across after watching all possible Charlie Brown holidays specials, SNOOPY IN SPACE. The episodes are short and smart and I absolutely love her watching it. Your kid will love it, you will be charmed.
I am reading this strange and fascinating novel that is deeply interior and voicey as anything. If you’re looking for some new energy in your reading list, this is it.
If you enjoy this newsletter, please do share it with others. Writing here has been a true bright spot for me, a way to connect quickly to the joy of storytelling, and way to feel connected in a sometimes-disconnected time. I would love more people to find their way here. :)