An important lesson for kids as they move out of toddlerhood and into preschool age is delayed gratification. You can’t always get what you want when you want it. This has been a hard lesson for the five year old in the Mala household. My constant single mami work from home presence has come to mean that most of the time Poroto gets what she wants when she wants it. It also mean that I am a horrible disciplinarian and boundary maker. If I’m writing and poroto wants to play, I’ll usually hit save or put down the pen and play. If I’m tutoring and she wants a snack or a drink, I will continue my lesson on solubility while preparing a bowl of cereal or sticking a straw into a juice box. Hell even my 14 year old has come to think that I am always available. When he comes home from school and I am tutoring she will announce how her day went, ask for a snack and to use the computer. I usually pee, shower and shit with the bathroom door open so I can field questions from my kids. I don’t have a separate office space I can lock myself into when I am on deadline. I’ve really failed at setting and sticking to boundaries and teaching my kids that they are not the center of the universe.
Amazingly, my children’s expectations of getting what they want, when they want it at home, hasn’t transferred itself into their classrooms. I will admit that I wasn’t so worried about it when my now 14 year old started school. She has a fairly chill personality and a go with the flow attitude. My now five year old is a different story. Before she started Pre-K, I imagined getting an endless stream of teacher’s notes and phone calls. I envisioned dreading parent teacher conferences and getting called into the principal’s office. I underestimated my energetic five year old’s ability to distinguish between someone who wasn’t playing like a teacher and someone who wouldn’t follow through, like me. My five year old is thriving in Pre-K. She follows directions, plays well with others, and moves from one activity to the next with ease. Once she comes home however, it’s a completely different story. So maybe her bubbly personality isn’t the problem but my inability to hold firm is.
Growing up there were a ton of boundaries set up for me. Most of them relating to expectations around grades and privileges. As long as I did well in school and stayed out of trouble, I could hang out and do other things. It helped that I liked school and studying. Yes, I was a nerd and was rewarded for that. But there were also boundaries that didn’t make sense. Like how my sister was allowed to throw violent tantrums that disrupted my sleep and ability to do homework to the point that I had to move out. There were guilt trips for writing instead of accompanying my mother on walks. I witnessed boundaries being set out up in front of me to respect but I was never allowed to create my own or taught how to do that. So no has been the hardest word for me to utilize. I take on too much. Swallow too much. Allow my time, space, work to be disrespected and I’m teaching it to my kids. Not a good pattern.
I especially allowed many boundaries to be ignored in most of my past romantic relationships. Wanna call me drunk at 3 am? Sure I’ll wake up and spend hours on the phone with you even though I am a single mami to two kids and have to wake up early to take them to school. Want me to do some work for you for free and without me getting any credit or acknowledgement? OK because I want to show how much I love you and respect the work that you are doing. This goes double if you are a radical man/woman of color. I will then seethe silently and quietly mourn the death of my own creative work.
I am trying to change that pattern in my current romantic relationship. When my partner and I are in different time zones, which is most of the time, it’s easier to demand respect for my boundaries. I can slip into my routines of writing and mamihood. I go to bed early and wake up early. Sometimes this means conversations are hurried and light. We are both busy people with commitments and we respect that. Sometimes there are moments of jealousy or neediness on both sides but we work through them. And I will admit that I still ere on the side of sacrifice meaning interruption in the name of a good relationship, which is not a good habit. When we are in the same time zone it gets tricky. I usually feel so bad about all the time we are apart that when I am out of town visiting him or he is in town visiting me, I drop everything. I don’t write everyday. I try and tutor less even though that is my main source of income. I feel like I have to entertain my partner constantly and be accessible all the time. Instant gratification.
But what happens when you have an adult who wants instant gratification and a five year old who wants it too? I felt like I was smack in the middle of this question during my partner’s last visit here. It was a slice of semi-reality. My older daughter was away with my mom and sister but I was full time parenting my 5 year old. My partner, who is a great father to his own teen son and amazing with my 14 year old, has some work to do with my five year old. I feel like he’s not used to an energetic five year old and he’s not used to dating a single mami. Hell people I have dated have no idea how to handle the single mami thing, especially regarding how much time and energy it takes to solo parent. I also know that it is really hard for me to accept help and experiencing him set boundaries with my five year old drove me to tears at times. OK many times. To me a lot of the boundary making felt harsh and made me feel like a shitty mother. I mean you’ll have to excuse me, the current election cycle has made the fitness of single mothers into a national issue (again) so I’m admittedly sensitive about that. Plus I’m not sure that any of us : my partner, my five year old, and me, have really figured out how our new family configuration will look like and how that getting to a good place for all of us will be a learning process that will take each of us out of our comfort zones. Perhaps that is the biggest lesson in delayed gratification.
Here’s to working towards loving endings.