Adventures in Parenting

Finding Presence in the Present Part 1

I’m busy. I mean really busy. There are more things on my plate now than when I was working full-time and the kids were little. It’s a different kind of busy, but no less real. I love what I’m doing, and I feel blessed to be doing it, so I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. I’m not. But I am tired. Sometimes it feels like life is speeding by faster than light, and I worry… Am I paying attention? Am I present for my family and friends? At the end of the day, have I attended to the most important things?

Our culture reveres busy. We wear the title with martyr-like resignation, a twisted badge of honor. A friend of mine just wrote a blog post about her guilt over the hours she spends reading. Now, we both have to read for work – we write reviews and interview authors as part of our job. But still, she felt that curled on her couch reading, she was somehow not being productive enough. And even if she were reading for pleasure, why should this be something to hide?

We - and when I say we, I’m including myself - throw around words like balance and emotional health, but do we really mean them? When we see someone taking time for themselves, creating boundaries around their work and personal lives, or saying no to a new project, do we secretly judge them?

My husband and I are both type A personalities. We thrive when we feel productive, and we generally have a lot of energy. We’ve tried to instill a healthy work ethic in our kids, and model the sense of accomplishment that comes from a job well done. And now that they’re older, we’re able to see they’ve internalized these values as their own. But they may have a thing or two to teach us as well.

In high school, my second son took a full load of challenging courses and performed pretty well overall - but in our opinion, not always up to his academic potential. We had many conversations with him over the years about limiting his future choices, doing his very best, etc. etc. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like this, “I know school is important, and I’ve worked really hard at it. But there are only so many hours in the day, and I am not willing to give up my creative writing and my music, or completely sacrifice my social life to turn a B into an A in trigonometry. I do plenty of community service and I’m engaged in all my classes. That will have to be enough.”

This summer he is booked to perform nearly every weekend at comedy clubs, his guitar playing skills are outstanding, and his writing portfolio impressed the college admissions boards enough to admit him - early action - to his first choice school. I guess it was enough.

Maybe my kids are on to something. I’m still a believer in hard work, perseverance, overcoming challenges, and participating fully in life. When I commit to something, I endeavor to do my best. But, if I really value balance and good health, I have to give myself permission to do things that support attaining them. And maybe this means saying “no thank you” to my constant state of busyness.

Please teach manners. Thank you.

Someone once said to me I was lucky to have such nice children. I politely thanked her, because my own manners are pretty well ingrained, and then went on to rail at a friend that this was not luck! It took years of nagging, badgering, and issuing friendly and not so friendly reminders to produce these barely civilized beings! We hand-write thank you notes. Come on, that takes commitment!

Lest you think my children are perfect, let me dispel the myth. Footballs are thrown indoors, bedroom walls have been decorated with permanent marker, and yes, we are familiar with the inside of traffic court. Why dirty socks should be found on the dining room table, I have no idea. How someone can leave a bathroom with no toilet paper baffles me. There’s more – we’re a boisterous, messy bunch, facing all the normal challenges of a big family. But one thing we value, above all else, is respect. And good manners demonstrate respect.

My children will shake your hand when they meet you, look you in the eye when they speak to you, and nearly always say “please” and “thank you.” These deceptively simple social graces required years of practice, but they matter.

Those of you who know me know my parenting style is pretty relaxed. Four kids have taught me that most of the small stuff is just not important. But when one of my kids made a snarky remark to me at dinner one evening, the other three turned and yelled at him in unison, “Run!” They know.

I like to believe we are all wonderfully unique, special individuals, here on planet earth to follow our own path and hopefully do some good. Obviously, manners won’t solve the world’s problems, but they go along way in facilitating healthy communication and establishing some ground rules for living in a community.

My husband likes to say to the kids, “Be someone other people want to be around.” And other people appreciate simple kindnesses. Good manners say, “I recognize you as a fellow human being and I will treat you with respect.” This is really important. When we teach our children to make eye contact when speaking, we are teaching them to listen. When we teach them to shake someone’s hand, we are teaching them to authentically meet a fellow human. When we teach them to say please and thank you, we are teaching them grace and humility.

The world could certainly use more of that. So please, teach manners. Thank you!

Bad Mommy Moments

I was chatting with a new mom the other day and one of the topics that came up was how much unsolicited advice other people like to offer. Often judgement accompanies that advice. And nothing makes a new mom feel better about herself than telling her she’s doing it all wrong.

Now, I am not a new mom. I haven’t been one in years. In fact, at one time, I was an old mom with another new baby. So I have the luxury of perspective. I don’t give out advice unless I’m asked, and I always preface it with, “This is what worked for me, but you have to trust your own instinct.” Because really, what new moms need is encouragement, and permission to ask for help when they need it.

I’m not sure this post counts as either encouragement or help, but sometimes a good laugh is worth just as much. So I’ve put together a collection of “bad” mommy moments. Some are my own, but a few have been graciously donated by other imperfect, yet perfectly wonderful moms I know.

Maybe these stories will help new moms realize that no one has all the answers, we all embarrass ourselves, and everyone makes mistakes. Your kids will be okay. Mostly. You may want to put aside a little bit of money for therapy just in case.

But seriously, everyone has a story (some of us more than one), even the person who just lectured you on appropriate potty training. They just aren’t willing to share. But I am, and so for your reading pleasure, I’ve divided these terrible tales into helpful categories.

1. The distracted mommy:

I’ve locked all my kids in the car at one time or another. As in buckled them in the car seat, shut the door, and realized the keys are locked inside with the kid. You’d think I’d have learned by the fourth, but nope, she got stuck in the mini van for about an hour too, just like all her brothers. When I shared this story with my hair stylist, she admitted she too had locked her toddler in the car, but luckily she was able to dive through the open sunroof like a modern day super-woman and rescue her child in just under two minutes.

A friend shared that while yelling at her husband on vacation in the Caribbean, she failed to notice her daughter eyeing a life size water fountain. Moments later the toddler fell in, face first. In a dramatic fashion, the gurgling, spluttering child had to be fished out of the water.

Another friend told me she once tried to order Dunkin' Donuts for her kids from the extended mouth of a garbage can, thinking it was the speaker, while a line of cars piled up behind her.

2. All in good fun, right?

The same garbage can ordering friend has a daughter who enjoys playing “Cinderella.” Mom gets to be the Wicked Stepmother, demanding that the poor young girl scrub the floors on her hands and knees, with a bucket of real water and a sponge. If mom isn’t nasty enough, the daughter gets upset. Wanting to be a good playmate on this particular day, Wicked Stepmom really gave Cinderella the “what-for.” She didn’t realize, however, that the oilman had been in the basement refilling the tank and had wandered up the back stairs. He’d obviously been standing there for a while, and it was evident by the look on his face that he didn’t know it was just a game.

3. Kids say the funniest things!

One mom’s sweet little boy tried to comfort a crying child in the checkout line. In his attempt at solidarity he announced, “My mom once stuck an M&M up my butt and it hurt.” Mortified, the mom squealed, “I did no such thing!” The indignant child worked himself into hysteria, insisting that yes this happened, and yes it hurt. Finally in the parking lot, his reference became clear. “I had to poop, mom, and the M&M in my butt made it come out.” Who doesn’t confuse M&Ms and enemas now and again?

4. Things I’ve done when I’m angry, for $200 Alex.

My kids are generally pretty bright. But occasionally I wonder if we’ve really passed along the best of our genetic material. Walking back to the car from a baseball stadium, one of my sons complained loudly about a rock in his shoe. “Kick it out,” I advised. A minute later, “Mom, the rock is still in my shoe.” More whining ensued and he continued limping through the parking lot. I finally turned to him and yelled, “You are wearing flip-flops you DUMB ASS! Just kick the rock out!” An older woman walking next to me gasped in dismay. “Don’t judge me,” I growled, turning on her. “I’m usually nice.”

A friend’s daughter was in the tub playing with her Barbie dolls. The door was closed, but the mom could hear chatter from the bathroom. She can't recall what her daughter said to set her off, but something made her irate. Throwing open the bathroom door, she ripped the doll out of her daughter's hands and threw it down the stairs. Quickly realizing the error of her ways, she slowly trekked down the steps to retrieve the doll. Poor Ken lay on the floor, headless. He’d been decapitated on descent. She tried to put the doll’s head back on but to no avail. Embarrassed, she apologized to her daughter and sheepishly handed back a stumpy-necked Ken.

5. Dads do dumb things too.

Lest you boys feel left out, I’ll share a fabulous daddy moment courtesy of my husband. When my oldest son was about three, he had a cute little red hat, the kind with earflaps and a brim. It was a chilly day and we were at an outdoor festival when my husband had to use the restroom. My potty-training son was happy to join him. When they returned a little while later, the hat was missing and my son was wet. “Uh, where’s his hat?” I asked confused. My husband could barely contain himself. "I was peeing and the next thing I know he’s out of his stroller, looking into the toilet bowl. It wasn’t like I could just stop, you know?” Incredulous, I sputtered, “You pissed on his head?” “Yup,” he answered.

Rethinking Sibling Rivalry

When my oldest son comes home from college for a visit we are all so excited to see him, the younger children especially. It’s lovely to watch him reconnect with his teenage brother and disappear into a room to catch up, or take his youngest brother out for breakfast when no one else is up, or snuggle with his little sister on the couch for an episode of “My Little Pony.” The nature of their relationship as siblings, and as friends, shines through in these moments.

Don’t get me wrong, there are days when I need a whistle to referee their incessant bickering, but I think there is a difference between normal, we live together and get under each other’s skin type of bickering, and real discord.

I am saddened when I see young siblings display blatant disrespect for one another, and parents who chalk this up to normal “sibling rivalry.” Over time, the nastiness might reach a toxic level, and I can’t help but think these siblings won’t want much to do with each other when they have a choice later on.

So what are some ways we can consciously help our kids build healthy relationships with one another? There’s probably no magic recipe, but here are a few things we try to do in our house:

Foster a culture of respect and healthy communication between them.

The other day three of my four were just absolute monsters. One kept going into another’s room without permission to steal a coveted charger. One was constantly tattling. And the third was getting physical with the other two out of sheer frustration. I needed a megaphone never mind a whistle!

We sat them down and told them they were driving us nuts and needed to work it out. Their assignment was to go off together, acknowledge one thing they knew they were doing that was disrespectful to the others, and then offer a solution to correct the behavior. Turns out they were pretty self-aware and confessed quickly to their own part in the madness. By having them approach the situation this way, we encouraged them to take responsibility for their own actions vs. blame each other, and we didn’t allow the bad feelings to linger.

Respect and good communication skills are a cornerstone of any healthy relationship. Why shouldn’t good habits begin with siblings?

Allow them space from one another.

My sister, a girlfriend, and I had an impromptu girls’ night at my house last week. Once dinner was over I shooed my swarming children to their own rooms and told them to entertain themselves. We girls had to catch up.

My brood are used to mom and dad having date night, dad having guys’ night, mom’s book club, and numerous other events to which they are explicitly not invited. So I think it’s perfectly acceptable, necessary even, to allow them space with their own friends minus annoying sibling interruptions. If one has a play date, then I make sure the others are out of the way.

It’s also important they learn to respect each other’s personal space. It's a rule to knock before entering anyone else’s room and to ask before borrowing someone else's things.

In a family we obviously have to share, but it’s equally important we learn to respect each other's boundaries and privacy.

Require them to care for each other.

When my oldest son was fourteen, he was home babysitting while I was at dinner with some friends. About an hour in, he called to say the baby was sick (the baby was actually three and a half, but as with youngest children, she will be forever known as “the baby”). I told him I’d be right home. “No,” he said. “I’ve given her a bath and changed her pajamas. The sheets are in the laundry and I put the sleeping bag on her bed. I stayed with her until she fell asleep and she seems fine now.”

I nearly cried. Not only is this one going to make a great daddy some day, but his sister will remember the love and care she received from him, even if she doesn’t remember the exact event.

My kids certainly aren’t raising each other, but I think giving them some responsibility for one another has real value.

Cultivate a relationship with each of them as individuals.

My husband and I had a plan when spacing our children. The rule was no two in college at the same time. This worked great for the first three and then number four came along twenty-two months later. Best laid plans and all that. 

But the age gap between the first three allowed me to spend quality time with a new baby while the others were off at school. Then my attention could switch, guilt-free, to the older kids later in the day. It helped me establish a relationship with each of them as individuals.

Of course the more kids there are, or the closer in age, the more difficult it becomes to carve out one-on-one time. But it’s still important. We’ll often forgo large birthday parties and do something special with just the birthday child. One of my favorite memories is taking our third son to Fenway Park for a Sox game on his tenth birthday. He’s a huge baseball fan, but I know he treasured the time alone with us almost as much as he enjoyed watching the game. 

We try hard to honor our kids as individuals, and we find opportunities to explore their unique interests with them whenever possible.

Sibling relationships are a training ground for adult relationships, and our siblings can be built-in best friends if these relationships are nurtured. My relationship with my sister is one of my most treasured. I want that for my kids. And I think it’s working, most days!

It's Not Our Job to Make Them Happy

This morning I gave one of my children the option to stay home from school. He’s been under the weather and I thought a day in bed with some chicken soup would be just the thing. At first he agreed, snuggling back beneath his blankets, but a few minutes later I heard him brushing his teeth in the bathroom. “Today is my favorite day of school,” he said, and then went on to list all the great things that happen on Wednesdays.

This is relevant because last year the same child was begging to stay home from school, sick or well. It had been a rough year for various reasons, many his own doing, but I think we’ve made it to the other side. As I celebrated this quiet victory, I started thinking about our role as parents when our children are struggling.

Of course it’s gut wrenching to watch them struggle. Our instinct tells us to swoop in and make it better, to fix it. But is this always the right thing? When they face a challenge beyond their capacity to manage, it most certainly is our job to step in. Sometimes we have to take matters out of their hands and into our own. But, in my experience, this should be more the exception than the rule. 

We live in a culture of helicopter parents. When I googled the term to make sure I had it right, article after article appeared. The theme was clear. We’re a generation of parents who micromanage our kids’ lives. Consequently we’re creating a generation of kids with fewer life skills and an attitude of entitlement. I think we are doing them a grave disservice.

A recent example: My husband is Commissioner of the local flag football league. In general, it is a fantastic instructional league with levelheaded parents and a dedicated group of unpaid staff working to give the kids a positive experience. But you can’t imagine some of the emails he receives. After days of tryouts to create balanced teams, and numerous communications indicating that no team placement requests would be honored, parents nonetheless wrote to complain and request team placements. And the complaints went something like this, "Johnny can’t be on that team. None of his friends are on that team. You need to switch him.”

I think about the message these parents gave to their children. You are incapable of making new friends. Your needs outweigh those of everyone else in the league. You should avoid uncomfortable situations.

It actually feels crippling. But if we shouldn't always fix problems for our children, we have a responsibility to help them learn to do it for themselves. And maybe this is a more difficult task.

Back to the son who wanted to go to school today. Last year was rough, and he’d been the cause of some of the strife. Part of working through it meant taking responsibility for his actions and then making amends. My heart broke for him, but I couldn’t fix it for him.

What I could do was tell him I loved him no matter what, that I was right behind him every step of the way, and that his home and his family were a safe haven. I could remind him that doing the right thing mattered, even when it was hard. And I could, and would, send him to school to face the music.

As difficult as things were in the moment, he is better for having had the experience. He’s learned hard things don’t last forever. He’s learned he is brave and good, and he knows he is loved. He’s learned something real about hurt and forgiveness, and he understands everyone makes mistakes. 

It is not our job to remove all obstacles from our children’s lives. But it is our job to equip them with the skills they need to navigate the world and manage those obstacles. If they don’t face struggles, and successfully make their way through them, they won’t know how capable they are.

It is not our job to make our children happy, but it is our job to love, guide, support, and empower them, even when this is the more difficult task.