As you've gathered from my posts last week, our vacation in LA was great.
With one significant caveat.
Throughout the course of our time away, I noticed that Matthew was becoming progressively quieter. He was interacting less than usual with his beloved cousins and uncles, and spending more and more time playing by himself...whether in the pool or out of it. Because the younger kids were easily entertained during our time away, I had a chance to simply observe Matthew more closely than I'd been able to do since we came home from Ethiopia as an expanded family. And I was a little worried.
On our second last day, I had a chance to pull Matthew aside for a wee bit of private time, and quietly told him that I'd noticed him withdrawing a little in the previous few days, and told him of my observations about how his play had changed.
Matthew looked at me solemnly for a second, then burst into a flood of tears.
"I'm just not trying any more," he said through his tears.
I asked him what he meant.
Matthew: "Whenever I want to play with them (one of his cousins or his uncles), Seth or Lizzie get there first. And then they get the attention. Then I wait for a while and try again when Seth goes away but then something else happens and I still can't play with them. And then Seth interrupts again when I try next to play with them, and he gets all of the attention again. Then that's the end of the day and I go to sleep or forget by then, and then it all starts over again the next day. So I gave up trying."
I gotta tell you, that broke my heart, hearing him put voice to what I'd been observing. Somehow I'd hoped he wouldn't really notice, but that would have been too good to be true. The fact of the matter is, I have three very social children. But it's the younger two who are more aggressive in their socializing, who are by nature (and necessity) bigger risk-takers relationally, who are still relatively new to the family and are perhaps somewhat of a novelty, and who are undoubtedly the squeaky wheels that get the grease. Matthew, by contrast, though very social, is slower to warm up, even to those he loves the most. He is my deep thinker, the boy who wants so badly to be singled out and known by those he loves and is loyal to. He's the boy who adores his uncle D. because he bought Matthew dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate like he bought for the other kids...just because he knows Matthew prefers the dark chocolate. Matthew remembers that stuff for eons. Just like he remembers for eons the woundedness that comes from being innocently overlooked in favour of his younger, overtly-attention-seeking, charming younger siblings. Matthew is the one who hangs back just a little, waiting to be noticed and acknowledged before he will leap into his loved one's arms and, oh it hurts him when that notice doesn't happen as readily as for his siblings.
It's no one's fault. Matthew is who he is, and his siblings are who they are. And it's really, really easy to pay attention to the squeaky wheels - I do it myself sometimes, too, rather than always to remember to look to see what my eldest really needs from me in any given moment. Just one morning last week, I got the younger kids' teeth/face/hair/skin/clothing issues done before heading into the shower myself to get ready for the day; as I was walking towards my bathroom, I suddenly stopped and realized that I'd done nothing to facilitate Matthew's getting ready for the day. He wasn't complaining, but when I retraced my steps and offered to help him get ready for the day, he had a lovely little smile going on for me. I wondered how many other times I'd overlooked him in recent months without even being conscious of it.
Those tear-filled moments with Matthew crystallized something for me...something that had been hovering just below the surface for a few weeks. Though Matthew is doing all right on the face of it, given everything he's gone through in the past almost-eight months, I think there's still a little more anxiety happening than I'd thought there was. For a time, thankfully not too long a time to change this, I was deceived by the mask of ok-ness. And he is managing so much better than in the first six months after his siblings came home. But the inside stuff still needs processing, and he desperately needs Geoff and me to help him do this in a healthy way.
So we have resolved that we simply need to do a better job of one-on-one time with Matthew...time when he gets all of the attention, time when he can have freedom to talk about what he wants to talk about, time when we do something relational with him on a regular basis. I'm all over this now.
You'd think that because we h/school, finding time with our kids on an individual basis would be an easy thing to do. But it's not. Our days are filled with our being together as a foursome while Geoff is at work. The four of us are rarely apart, and that extends to the five of us when Geoff isn't working. And when Geoff arrives home at the end of a workday, we scramble through the dinner hour and the getting-ready-for-bed routines that all families go through. Like any parents, it takes a deliberate and sometimes sacrificial effort on both of our parts to make time for a one-on-one time with any of the children.
Just over three weeks ago, I asked Matthew in private if he'd like to go on a date with me on the coming Saturday. Just him and me. He looked at me with a face that I can only say melted - everything about him softened, and his face lit up with a smile as he answered. For the next two days, he reminded me of what was coming, and we honed our plans together.
First up, we went to Costco together. Mundane, I know, but Seth and Lizzie stayed home while the two of us made the trip. And from there, things picked up. We went for lunch together at his favourite restaurant - Montanas. I gave him the choice of what to order and we ended up sharing a platter of nachos. Yum. We talked and laughed and told jokes, and he beamed and smiled and glowed in a way that I hadn't realized I'd been missing. He was visibly thrilled to be there with me. But the afternoon wasn't done yet. Last up on the agenda: a movie. We went to see the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, complete with popcorn and a blue slushy for Matthew. It was a day of junk food and great conversation, and we both loved it. These big (expensive!) events aren't always going to be possible, but I felt strongly that we needed to go big on this one. I have told him that one-on-one time with me or his dad are going to be a more common occurrence, and I told him that it was terribly important to me that he feel taken care of and treasured...because he is.
The following Saturday, as Matthew and I ran a couple of errands together (by ourselves), I made sure that our time out of the house included a hot chocolate - something that he loves, and that always gets him talking! Geoff, too, has been more deliberate in making time for Matthew on a one-on-one basis, and they're both loving that, too. It's going to be a regular part of our schedule.
I don't think it's a coincidence, to be honest, that things have gotten better for Matthew since Christmas. He has come a long way since before Christmas: playing much more cooperatively with Seth; listening more to me when I ask him to do something; seeming to be less anxious and more ready with a laugh than a meltdown; demonstrating mixed feelings again; and even falling asleep more easily. Given how hard our family transition has been on him, the difference in him is really quite remarkable. It feels like I have my Matthew back more and more...the one that I was almost starting to forget.
I'm so thankful for the opportunity to observe him a little more closely over Christmas, because I'm not sure I would have connected the dots nearly as quickly without having experienced myself a little more capacity for observation. Matthew is so worth the investment of time...he is an amazing child and every effort I make to get to know him better is energy very well spent.