The Groan Zone

“I don’t love you.  I don’t like you.  Why I’m going to dance class, Mama?”  My newly-three-year-old looked up at me with abject pain in her eyes.  I recognized the feeling: the fear of starting something new, especially something you really care about.  But what I wanted to say in response was, “Um… because you asked for an ENTIRE YEAR to go to these classes and I worked all these odd jobs to pay for them?  Maybe that.”

Our tiny, sad ballerina.

Our tiny, sad ballerina.

What I’ve learned about my daughter is that the amount to which she’s excited about something is directly proportionate to how much she’ll freak out on the day she’s set to do it.  We do our best to keep her in the present moment, so she doesn’t have a lot of time to get anxious about such big new beginnings, but with so many happening at once – the start of preschool, her first dance classes, and her birthday – it’s all a building cloud of excitement and fear.  A cloud that bursts in a rain of toddler tantrums as I try to wrangle her into the dance clothes she so proudly plays in, and get out the door to her class each Saturday morning.

Many areas of our family life are currently residing in the dreaded swamp of the Groan Zone.  I first heard this term when I was describing what it has been like to help my daughter get over her fear/over-excitement about dance class and be able to get in the actual class and enjoy it, and her godfather said, “Oh yeah, you gotta get through the Groan Zone.  I tell the youth I work with this all the time, when they are learning a new music tool, and can’t imagine when it will start to click.  Push through the Groan Zone and you got it.”  Well, we’re pushing… and I’m wondering, how long is this damn Groan Zone?  Is it really just a zone, or is it a veritable ocean of challenges, or a huge sprawling scary forest of vines to trip over?

Change is hard for adults, but for toddlers, it is almost impossible.  Their little bodies/brains/souls cannot imagine that life can exist differently, and they live in the now, so they think that this transitional period will go on forever.  It is hard not to collude with this mindset, and feel hopeless that we’ll ever get out of this friggen Groan Zone.

My peaceful time of post-summer productivity lasted one week.  After that, my daughter started struggling with the changes in her schedule (i.e. school), and started expressing this in the only way she knows how – anxious tears, constant questions, and standoffs about control.  Olive’s godmother, in a conversation in which she was giving me some concrete ways to work with Olive’s fear, said, “Isn’t it crazy that as soon as you think you’ve got parenting worked out, the children change and it’s something else?”  Yes.  Exactly that.  I never thought I had it entirely figured out, but I did think we had a rhythm that was going to work for us for a couple of months.  Now everything is in question again.

Many of the things that I was most excited about this Fall have become areas of stress and disappointment.  They’ve still been fun, but I was unable to foresee the added challenges they could bring.  My daughter turned three a few weeks ago, and we planned a killer hip-hop-themed birthday party for her.  There’s no doubt that many people had a blast, but I am not sure that my daughter was one of them.  She enjoyed it, but it also made her overwhelmed, fevery, and needy for a lap to sit on.

She was happy as long as she was attached to one of her parents! I was happy we rocked the theme.

She was happy as long as she was attached to one of her parents! I was happy we rocked the theme.

I know that this is totally normal, but it still made me a little sad.  Did I create a party experience that was way too over-stimulating for my child?  I think what is happening is there are so many changes at once, that to have a birthday in the midst of everything just put it all over the edge for her.  Fortunately we plan parties that are very fun for the adults, so even if the kids are going through a hard time and don’t totally appreciate it, we still danced it up and enjoyed it.

Me along the "brick wall" we had people tag, holding the amazing edible boombox my friend Heather made as part of Olive's cake!

Me along the “brick wall” we had people tag, holding the amazing edible boombox my friend Heather made as part of Olive’s cake!

Olive is going to school for longer hours, so that I can do my new job, which is writing about home goods so luxe that I often have to look up what they are and what people use them for (apparently folks use benches on the end of their bed to lay out their clothes or blankets, and they use sideboards to hold their dishes in their dining rooms, and they have so many different kinds of lighting in their houses that they need an electrical grid to hold it all together.  Who knew?).  I’m calling it Game of Sconces, just to add a little fantasy to the whole freelance endeavor.

Olive has different teachers in those afternoon hours, when I’m sconcing away, and it is taking some getting used to to attach well to them.  I’ve had to get very creative with how to deal with her new anxieties about school.  Some mornings it feels like we do two hours of intensive creative therapy before she even walks out the door.  She now goes to school with an invisible shield of protection on, with a kiss on her hand that seals my love in all day, and with two Goddess cards of her choosing, for nap time protection.

Olive giving a goddess card reading to our friend. Totally cosmic.

Olive giving a goddess card reading to our friend. Totally cosmic.

I’m hoping these grounding practices will sink in like a wonderful spell or prayer, allowing her to find safety in her own body wherever she is, trusting in her own inner sense of well-being.  But these things take time.  So I wait, and I worry, and I write, write, write my way through the Groan Zone.

My husband is also working through his own personal Groan Zone – he started an exercise program!  Three mornings a week he wakes up even earlier than usual, and runs up the biggest hills in San Francisco.  For four miles.  They stop at intervals, but only to do sit ups, push ups, burpees (even writing that word makes me want to throw up) and other physical feats. I am unbelievably proud of him for making this self-care change.  But it also means that I have to get up at 5:45am three days a week as well, because Olive wakes up when he leaves the house.  Groan, groan, coffee, groan.

The thing about all these changes is that they are all ultimately really positive.  But they hurt.  And they are scary and different and make my heart stretch.  And I’m worried about the groan-inducing government battle that is going on.

So I’m doing the only thing I ever know how to do – telling stories, writing them down, and taking care of myself and my loved ones in the most simple, gratifying ways I can imagine.  But I’m also allowing myself and my family a few groans here and there.  The power is in the struggle, and I don’t want to clip my daughter free of her cocoon of growth before she is ready to transform.  So we groan together.  And then we create some stories.

4 thoughts on “The Groan Zone

  1. Amen! I love the groan zone and will embrace it! Have you read the book the kissing hand? Seems just like the ritual you and Olive do! You teach me so much about being there for my kids in the space they are in. Love you!

  2. Rhea, your blog entries continue to be like devotionals for me—they make me laugh, inspire me and leave me thinking.

    I have another marriage advice query for you if you’d like to receive that. I would trust what you’d have to say..

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