Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Asking the "village" - Saving for therapy or bail

Lucy and her "five-cents-please" psy...
Lucy and her "five-cents-please" psychiatric help booth as depicted at Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There was a time when I only half jokingly looked at my two boys and then back at myself and determined that instead of saving for college, we should instead save for future therapy bills and bail money.  I can say that in this public forum, because now I look at my two sons and am truly amazed by both of them.  They know that I am in awe of their present day selves and that I must have been forced back then, at gunpoint, to say such things.  In fact, I was just an awfully sleep deprived, mildly depressed, mom of  a toddler and preschooler who couldn't seem to believe that the whole thing (meaning their very lives) was going to turn out all that well with me at the helm.

As suspected, when I raised the question about what other people felt was on their parenting test, the fear of "ruining" our kids and specifically, "parental screw-up induced therapy" (I'm coining that), came up.  After thinking about all the funny or self-deprecating things I could say on this topic, I changed my mind.  What I decided is this, if you are a person who is taking time to read blogs and then spend even 2 seconds reflecting on ideas from other parents, as they relate to your parenting, you should shake off your fears.  You are awesome!  We all survived our own childhoods.  I'm pretty sure my parents did a quick skim of Dr. Spock and left it at that for the entirety of all five of our childhoods.  Some of us were lucky and had parents who were super great and guess what?  Some of those lucky people still go to therapy (not that it's a bad thing, some of my favorite people go to therapy). 

The interesting thing for me about my therapy or bail quandary was that I was thinking of the choice because of how different my boys were at the time.  I knew I wasn't going to screw them up in the same way because they are not the same.  I had one son who couldn't get enough hugs, hand holds, kisses, and lap sits even though I was completely touched out from the demands of a little one and breastfeeding.  There were days when I felt like I was actually rejecting him.  The other boy didn't need the touch as much as he needed structure and physical activity.  Again, a problem for me on those days (too many it seemed), when I just wanted a very long nap or at least another viewing of Elmopalooza while I stretched out horizontal on the couch.

Cut to the present day and I'm proud to proclaim that I have beautiful, talented, caring, truly amazing, and still very different boys.  I honestly don't know how it worked out.  Kids are pretty resilient though and deep down they can tell if we love them or not.  It turns out that we can make a ton of mistakes and be normal, imperfect people.  What does seem to work really, really, really well is when we figure out how to love them more than we love being right, or more than we love approval from our family or neighbors, or more than our own self-image.  We probably should just save for our own therapy.  All of our anxiety about our choices and parenting style boil down to us trying to finish our own stuff.   Drop the anxiety.  Embrace your imperfection.  Love.  That's what your kids want from you, that and another hug, and a bike ride, and a new toy, and a.....

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Asking the "village" - Home Alone

Home Alone (film)
Home Alone (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I loved hearing from people about my question, "What's on your parenting test?"  It confirmed my assumption, which is always gratifying, that our concerns are similar and that by talking honestly, we could all start to feel better about our choices.  Enough thoughts were shared that I will use it as a theme for the week.  Here's today's - leaving kids home alone.  When is the right time?

The question was specifically worded this way,   "My biggest concern is I just don't feel ready. If something were to happen I think I would blame myself for letting them stay home alone when they weren't ready or too young. Our daughter is 11 and our son is 10 and she is probably mature enough and responsible enough that I wouldn't have any concerns. He definitely is not ready which brings up all the competition and fighting they get into when anything isn't fair or equal. If she can stay home "IT ISN'T FAIR!!!!!" if he can't."
First off, I realized (after the fact) that there were actually rules about kids being left alone in my state, so check that.  No need to worry about sibling rivalry if you should really worry about the Department of Children and Family Services showing up at your door.  Next, it was helpful for me to sort out my fears about strangers breaking in hurting my kids and my fears of my own children setting the house on fire, hurting themselves, or just not being confident enough to go to a neighbors house if they were scared.  Random violence is impossible to control for, in my opinion.  We can make ourselves sick about it but random is random.   Random has just as much chance of touching kids who are sheltered their whole life as kids who were raised by wolves. It's terrible and life-changing and if we only live our lives waiting for it to come, perseverating on that fear, then we have allowed "Random" to actually become a very predictable and routine presence. 

Thankfully, most of my fears were things that I could teach and that my boys could practice.  I think the Free Range Parenting movement is about teaching those independent living skills and teaching them earlier rather than later.  (Editorial note: I have not read the aforementioned book.  I did hear an NPR story on it once though.)  For me, my big fear and question was when to let my kids ride public transit by themselves.  Thankfully, we are a one car family so we had plenty of chances to ride the bus together.  Over time, our rides turned into lessons.  "You tell me when our stop is coming.  I'm going to read my book.  You're in charge."  The trick with that is that they really have to be in charge.  I had to be willing to overshoot our stop and have them problem solve the solution.  I also gave a lot of quizzes, "What do you think we should have done when that man who was screaming came on the bus?"

These choices are absolutely going to be unequal, child to child, but they don't have to be unfair.  Each person is capable of different things at different times.  If we have our list of the issues and values that are important to us - the things that our kids must agree to if we are to trust them alone, then we can have them practice that even when they are with us.  Using the phone to ask a neighbor a question, locking up the house for you when you leave for school, and following directions in general, are great litmus tests.  "I can't leave you by yourself if I can't see that you know how to handle yourself.  Show me."  That comment seemed to bring surprises.  They did know more than I thought.  When they realized I was paying attention, they could be more than just silly goofballs who were trying to make sibling arguing an Olympic sport.

Eventually, we all find a way to run to the store for some milk, and then maybe a lunch date in the afternoon, a dinner at night, and then one day, find our little ones are amazingly, in a regular schedule of after-school independence.  We figure it out.  We also get used to multiple calls at work or on our commute.  Calls that help reassure us, frustrate us, and maybe most importantly, calls that help fill the silence for our child, alone at home.
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Monday, February 27, 2012

Asking the "village" - background check vs. gut check

This blog emerged, in part, because I felt like I needed a place to be honest about all this parenting and general life stuff.  We've been told to avoid politics and religion as conversation starters in mixed company, but for me the list was much larger.  School choices, chore schedules, organic food, fast food, sleepovers, and even Christmas presents are some of the innocent topics over which I have imposed self-censorship in some way or another.  If I'm honest, will the other parent think I'm judging them?  If I'm honest, will they judge me? One of my hopes for this blog is that those conversations might happen honestly.   If we are all honest we might find some comfort in the simple reality that we are all struggling with choices, filled with regret and pride, and doing our very best to care for our loved ones.

Yesterday, I asked you all what questions were on your "parenting test".  What are the choices that pick at you?  One response came that I'm calling the background check vs. gut check dilemma.  Here it is:

"I just had a question in my mind today and thought 'I wish I could ask other parents about this.' so here it is: We just moved and our new neighbors kid invited our son over to play and we just let him go to their house for a few hours. All I know about them is what the parents do for a living, that they have a dog, and they brought us cookies the first day we moved in. Shouldn't I have had the parents over for dinner or done some more investigating before I let our son go over there? Without overreacting and looking paranoid, how do we keep our kids safe in a world where even trusted teachers and family members end up hurting children?"

Now one way we could approach this is to recall all of the CSI/Criminal Intent/ER/Law & Order/ episodes we've watched and definitively respond that the world is a dangerous place beyond measure.  Therefore, you are stupid beyond measure to ever leave your child with someone who hasn't been thoroughly background checked and drug screened, checked for gun ownership and parental screens on their cable, and had the home scoured for violent video games and pornography.  If your kids are older, you can add checking for proof of any adult presence whatsoever and the size of their liquor cabinet. 

What I think actually happens, is that we ruminate on all of the stuff above and then give in to reality (how busy or tired we are or how embarrassed we are to ask our neighbor if they own guns) and let our children do many things that still leave us feeling nervous.  We are always going to be a little nervous.  What is important is that we pay attention to our gut.  When the next door neighbors handed over the plate of cookies and talked to us for 2 minutes, how did we feel?  Were there any immediate red flags?  Are our kids excited about the play date or quiet and anxious?

For me, the problem was the safety of the home and specifically hand gun violence.  I live in a big city and it seemed like a possibility that weapons might be present and in the hands of very nice, yet defense-minded people.  It also felt really gross to ask the parents of my kid's friends if they had guns in their home as a conversation starter.  My sons were excited to go visit, but I would feel like my worrying about other people's feelings was putting my kids in danger.  I did let them go to visit new people who were very, very new to me.  I also said "no" at times.  After picking up my son at one friend's house I spotted the little discarded nub of a joint on their porch. I assumed that it was not left by a postal carrier but never confronted the family about it. The kid wasn't a close friend so we just planned for their time together to be at school events or public places after that.

Here's the thing, if you do the gut check and you let your kids leave your sight without the level of screening that you think is ideal, it's not a permanent, set in stone, for all time decision.  We can't keep our kids safe from all bad things or bad people, but we can listen to them and their experiences and make adjustments based on that.  You are still going to talk about what they did at Johnny's house and evaluate how they behave when they return home.  You can still thank the family that first extended the invite by having them over for coffee or dinner and serving up your own batch of cookies - maybe in the shape of handguns and peace signs, just to help get the conversation going.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

What's On Your Test?

Question mark
Question mark (Photo credit: Ciccio Pizzettaro)
A quick question in lieu of a regular post, "What questions/issues are on your parenting test?"  I know what pecks at me, how about you?  How do you keep the self-doubt demons at bay?
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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Coming Out of the Fog

Yesterday, I found myself telling lots of people about this new venture with writing.  I actually said to one, "I haven't felt so alive in a really long time."  As soon as it came out I paused a little.  Oops.  Unplanned, unprocessed sharing - what was I starting to sort out?  If I wasn't fully alive before, what was I?  Where was I?  The quick summary is that a major personal shake up, a stretch of unemployment,  the loss of some important supports and friends, and a foot surgery that was slow to heal had left me in a fog.  I was moving forward, one foot in front of the other, getting the laundry done, and buying groceries but sort of in a highly functioning, zombie type of way.  O.K., that may be a slight exaggeration, but in general, I wasn't anywhere close to embracing Oprah's challenge to be my best self.

Fog in Wayanad
Fog in Wayanad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've been reading a daily meditation book every morning and about a month ago the entry encouraged me to trust.  You don't know what to do with your life?  You don't know what actions you should take or what direction to go?  Trust.  Things will not always be this way.  People, ideas, opportunities will cross your path.  Healing/peace will come.  Trust that that is true.  Trust enough to listen.  Trust enough to stay open to possibilities.  For me, it was trusting two dear friends expressing concern that, "you aren't yourself".  Listening to their caring nudges encouraged me to make some significant changes.  One of the changes I had made was the reading of the daily meditation.  A month or so into it and I read the passage on trust.  I remember thinking, "I'd rather have a to do list."

Trust I did though and as promised, pain morphed into zombie plodding which morphed into awareness which morphed into openness which transformed into the ability to hear my own voice again.  I knew deep down that this would happen.  I'm glad that I had the patience to remain open.  I'm glad that I was able to start listening to the new thoughts and ideas in my own head and not just run a constant replay on my negative reel.  I'm glad that I had enough people around me who were cheering my voice back into it's full timber.   I hope you have those things in your own life or can be one of those cheerleaders for someone else.
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Friday, February 24, 2012

"As Long As I'm Alive..."

I work for an organization that helps stabilize people who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness.  At an event last night, where we were talking with potential board members, a woman said a very surprising thing.  During the introductions she shared, "My son is about to complete college and I told him last night that one of my gifts to him is a promise.  As long as I'm alive he will never be homeless or hungry."

I was surprised because she is a very accomplished business woman who lives in a relatively wealthy area.  My assumption for someone with that brief bio would be that they would feel safe.  It turned out that she was a much wiser person and much more sensitive person than I realized.  She is wise in my mind because she understands that life is fragile.  Money, education, connections, and enriching experiences can't protect us from all of life's challenges.  Medical and mental health problems, car accidents, and natural disasters, to name a few, touch people of all backgrounds.  Her promise to her son was a reassurance -  I can't control everything for you but I will be here for you.

It touched on one of my key parenting motivations.  Teaching self-reliance.  I learned early that life is unpredictable.  It's why I feel that the greatest gift my mom gave me, beside her unconditional love, was responsibility.  By high school I knew how to change tires and oil, do laundry, budget, cook, and maybe most importantly, delay gratification.  She died soon after I became a legal adult and I have lived my life without her hands on support and guidance ever since.  She wasn't able to give me every material item that I desired as a child.  Instead, she gave me the things that I needed in order to succeed without her.  As parents, that is absolutely in our control, for as long as we are alive.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Pg 197 Xray of Adult hand
Pg 197 Xray of Adult hand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Last night I took my son to the emergency room.  You know the one, the juggler.  Two weeks ago he was running, fell, and then landed on his hand.  Nothing was poking out and he was able to move it so we applied ice, gave him Ibuprofen, and went about life.  A week later he left the same hand in a door jam while he closed the door.  Still, after ice and TLC he seemed fine.  Fast forward to last night and he can't practice guitar because applying pressure on the frets hurts too much....

You can imagine the string of bad names I called myself.  What kind of mother lets her child's injury go untended for two weeks?  How many doctors are going to give me the stink eye when I take him to the emergency room (I called his pediatrician and he agreed that x-rays were the only way to tell what was going on)?  So we trotted off to the ER, just in time for the evening rush.  This is not about ER drama or frustration though.  The staff were all great and we were even offered free sandwiches by a Pastoral Care intern!

This is about self-doubt.  My first instinct was to trust my gut and say that he needed time to rest and heal.  It turns out I was right.  The x-rays came back and showed healthy and whole digits.  They did stabilize his fingers with a nicer splint than what I had in the first aid kit and referred us to a Pediatric Bone Doctor/Surgeon!  That's right, they told me he was ok and then referred me to a specialist.  Here's how the conversation went,

Doctor: "So x-ray doesn't show any breaks.  We're going to put it in a splint and have you follow up with a specialist in a week.  Sometimes in young kids their bones are still growing  (something about a growth plate) so everything doesn't show up on a regular x-ray."
Mom: "So what will the specialist recommend for treatment if there is some trauma to the growth plate?"
Doctor:  "They'll put it in a splint and have him rest it more."
Mom:  "So he'll go to a specialist and have a fancy x-ray and then be told to do the same thing that you just did?"
Doctor: "Right."

How can we ever be expected to trust our guts when it comes to our own kids?  The conversation above is not made up and the entire message was given with a straight face, on the doctor's part, at least.  I don't know what I'm really trying to say here except this - do your best.  Sometimes we make the wrong call but even when we're right, there will be someone dropping little bits of doubt in you. 

I don't plan on taking him to the Pediatric Bone doctor (unless someone gives me some good reasons) but I'm sure I'll be wondering the rest of the month if I made the right decision.
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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Giving Up Shame, Not Guilt

Today is Ash Wednesday and as a former Catholic, it holds a lot of memories for me.  Many of my ideas about the Lenten season that leads up to Easter are expressed pretty well in this article on what people give up for Lent.  What I'm really thinking about though, is the guilt that often comes with religious practice.  If you are Christian, you know the question, "What are you giving up for Lent?"  There's really no reason to ask the question unless you want to evaluate somebody else's spiritual life.  Sometimes the interactions in religious settings leave people saying that they feel guilt or shame.

Now, I'm speaking from my own little head and heart here.  I'm not checking the dictionary or theological texts.  To me, guilt is good.  Guilt is the real outcome that results when someone is in relationship with another or committed to a set of values and beliefs and falls short of their own intentions.  For example, if I say something carelessly, or don't take time to really listen, or eat a ton of Girl Scout cookies (just a random example), or don't stop for a pedestrian in the crosswalk, I feel some guilt.  My intentions for myself are that I care for the people that are in my life, I care for myself and my health, and I care about being a good citizen.  My guilt is the little twinge that helps me remember to do better next time.

The problem is that instead of allowing ourselves to have healthy guilt we way too often dip into shame.  Again, from my own little head and heart, shame serves no purpose except to put people down and limit them.  Guilt says, "Why did you do that?  That's not who you are.  Make it right."  Shame says, "It sucks to be you.  Too bad you have to be so unacceptable, unlovable, (fill in the ick here)."  Unfortunately, I think we've all experienced shame at some point and it really leaves a mark.  The trap is that we sometimes avoid making any critical comments to ourselves or our loved ones, including children, because we don't want to leave that scar.  Not holding ourselves accountable or our children accountable, to our values is no good.

The reality is that being honest about mistakes, falling short and then owning it is good.  Having expectations for ourselves and our kids means that we believe that there is inherent goodness in them/us. It means that we want healthy relationships and strong connections and we want to learn how to "make it right" when it gets broken.  If you want to have a spiritual practice this Lent, think about your core values (related to God, your family, the Earth, whatever) and the thing(s) you can do to bring yourself back to who you really are.  That's some good guilt.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


I started this writing project as a creative outlet.  Thoughts and ideas were swirling in my head and I was tired of hearing really great people beat themselves up so much.  I felt like I had something to say about being kind to ourselves as parents.  The title is meant to hint at the persistent scrutiny that we tend to impose on ourselves. 

Here's my observation to date.  After only four days of writing, there is an overwhelming response of concern from my friends (which I appreciate).  The comment is some variation of, "Don't feel like you have to write everyday.  It doesn't have to be a permanent thing."  I don't think this is just them responding to me and my unique personality traits - at least not completely.

I think they are responding to a way too common tendency of women or parents or people in general (I'm not sure if women or parents have a monopoly on this trait) to be harsh critics of themselves.  Is it impossible to take on a creative project simply for the enjoyment of doing it?  Will I beat myself up if I skip a day or a week or a month?  If no one follows this blog, will it be enough to do this just for myself?  You know what I'm talking about.  We find compelling reasons to put ourselves second, third, or even last.  We find ourselves too exhausted to do the very things that invigorate us.  And when we do take time for ourselves we too quickly start criticizing our effort and dump guilt on ourselves (I could have worked out longer, I should have done this sooner, I really ought to be doing some other thing right now...).

My challenge to you and for myself is to do something that is calling to you, nagging at you maybe.  Don't worry about whether you will keep up with it forever.  Do something for yourself and enjoy it in the moment.  Forever is just lots of moments strung together.

Monday, February 20, 2012

#!?&*%! Moments

After two happy memory posts I figured it was best to show another side of my parenting experiences.  Trust me, it's not all  Hallmark moments.  In fact, just last night I had the "opportunity" to be tested and managed to both fail and pass.

We had spent the night at a Mardi Gras fundraiser at a friend's church.  (The main thing to remember about this story is the last word in the previous sentence.)  My friend offered to send us home with some of the leftover jambalaya AND gumbo and I jumped at the chance.  My hands were full with other items plus the car keys and so I of course enlisted the help of my children (cue ominous music).

My youngest (13 yr old) is a fabulous, multi-talented,  playful guy.  One of his many talents is juggling (cue shower scene music from "Psycho").  Knowing my son well, I prefaced my request for help with, "Just hold it for me. No juggling."  Some of you may think that statement would be unusual or unnecessary.  I can only say that there was a time (about 13 years ago), when I also would have thought it unnecessary.  In fact, I said it twice because after the initial statement, I saw my son flip the leftover container over his neck. 

As the words of the second plea were crossing my lips, I saw it.  First, a missed catch, then a wobble into the other hand, a frantic third attempt and then finally free fall to the floor.  Shrimp jambalaya splayed on the indoor-outdoor carpeting of the church foyer.  I looked up at my son and said in an angry but not screaming voice, "Get out. Go outside.  I can't be with you right now."

I knelt down and scooped up the rice from the very forgiving carpeting, threw the mess in the garbage, gathered our lighter load, and headed to the car.  Once there, I took a deep breath and asked my son in a very calm voice, "Do you know what upset me just now?"  Surprisingly, he did.  "You're upset because I ignored you."

"That's exactly right.  When you ignore me like that it feels like a big f. you."  Now, even though I only used the initial "F", it still felt wrong.  It wasn't a proud moment for me.  Being honest with my feelings with my kids is important but being honest in the heat of the moment is rarely insightful.  On the good side, I didn't belabor the incident with him or try to shame him at length for being such a twerp.  I also didn't let out my full frustration in public where he might have been embarrassed in front of his friends.  On the not so good side, I counted to 2 or 3 before talking to him instead of the full "recommended" 10 and my phrasing showed why it's good not to rush these conversations.  I passed and I failed.  I could have done worse and I could have done a whole lot better.  Like most days.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Big Boys

Garage Roof - launch pad during Snowmaggedon
**Before anyone starts calling child protective services, let me just say that no animals (or children) were harmed in any way during the filming of these stunts.**

The boys had finished hours of shoveling after a huge snowstorm last winter.  They were having snowball fights and shaping a large igloo in our front yard.  They wanted more.  There was so much snow and it seemed to be calling to them.  We asked for their help with one more project - shovel out the garage door.  The snow had drifted and packed up against the door into a nice, firm, wall of white.   Ingeniously, they filled their sleds with snow and carried it to other areas of the backyard to dump.

Just when I thought that I heard a cup of hot chocolate beckoning, I looked up to see my sons on our garage roof.  The high packed snow made the trek not only possible but very easy.  Then, I saw it.  The little orange, plastic, disc was on the roof too.  My son's butt was in it and perched at the edge.
Air time

We negotiated for awhile, laughed an anxious laugh, checked the snow padding at ground level, and said, "O.K., Go!"

They were thrilled.  They were also scared (had they been secretly wanting us to say, "No?").  It was truly a wonderful moment.  They felt larger than life and couldn't believe how cool we were for letting them take on these feats of daring.  It wasn't enough though.  "Dad, Mom, you have to try it!"  As I was insisting that my role was to keep a firm hold on the phone so that I could call "911" at a moment's notice, my husband climbed up to the roof.  What!?!  Unbelievable.  Earth-shattering.  "DAD'S going to do it!" 

We had spent a big part of the day with two boys who were offering tremendous help to us and to our neighbors.  They were in fact, acting like little men with a very high level of responsibility and an intense work ethic.  My husband reminded me and them that hard work only feels good when it is balanced with hard play.  Teaching my sons how to be little men happened best when my husband showed that he is still just a big boy.       

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Little Men

I thought of this picture soon after I decided to start the blog. It feels like a good way to begin.... Thirteen years ago, we had moved into an old house and had a massive list of projects, very little money, AND a two year old. Our answer to most of the flaws in our new, "home sweet home", was paint. The actual needs of our garage included an electronic opener, new door, replaced trim, service door, and roof. We managed to do most of those things over time (still waiting on the new roof) but slapped on a coat of whitewash immediately.

My memories of the garage painting are helpful lessons still:
  1. Everybody in a family can help and pitch in.
  2. Even the smallest kids like to feel big and important.
  3. Patience and zen-like calm are transformational.
  4. Things don't have to be perfect to be pretty great, and-
  5. You can't build skills and self-esteem and confidence without a little mess.
Our son got to think of himself as a little man, taking on a big job for the family. The other side of the story of course is that it probably took longer to wash all the latex paint out of his hair than he actually spent painting. The garage painting project may have only taken off when naptime kicked in, but for our son, dad helped him paint the garage.