Friday, March 30, 2012

Fessing Up

1970 Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser
1970 Oldsmobile Vista-Cruiser (Photo credit: aldenjewell)
At the movies recently I saw a promo for a movie about stay-at-home dads.  They repeated several times to one of the newbies of the group that, "There's no judging."  That mantra was followed by a stream, a hilarious stream, of mistakes each of them had made or crazy things their children had done, while they were distracted. In each case, their children had survived.  I immediately thought of the day that I curiously tugged at the gear handle in our boat of a station wagon and started rolling the family tug down the gravel driveway.  I flashed on the morning that my 1 1/2 year old son opened the front door of the house by himself (we didn't know he could do that) and went for a walk, crossing two alleys and traveling 3 blocks before we found him.  No judging.

I  want to hear your own confessions.  I was raised Catholic and am ready to use this space for a little emotional purging.  What is the thing that you survived that still amazes?  The parenting mishaps/indiscretions that your own children survived?  I'm prepared to share a bunch of mine but it would be so much more fun if I wasn't the only one laughing at myself...

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sibling Memories: Letting Them Go

Sibling! (Photo credit: Gus Dahlberg)
I've highlighted some of the fun moments that I shared with my siblings this past weekend and now feel like I need to be honest about one of the not so fun moments - at least for me.  It was when I had to confess my jerkiness to my brother and apologize. Family dynamics, birth order, reactions to grief, geographic distance, and just simply having different personalities, means that my relationship to each of my siblings is different.  Over time, relationships that were awkward can feel nonexistent or icy if they are not tended.  Such was the case for me.

As I sat enjoying the company of my two brothers and two sisters this past weekend, I had a mini epiphany.  Listening to stories of childhood moments, present day struggles and joys, and future hopes led me to the basic realization - we're all just doing our best.   There are things that I regret in my own life and mistakes that I've made.  My brother is the same.  I realized, as I sat listening to his hopes for his marriage and his conversations with his children, that I really owed him an apology.  In my own mind, I had been replaying a sequence of events between him and his family from over a decade ago, keeping him frozen in time.  It was embarrassing to own. 

It was humbling to see how small I could be and how easy it was for me to drift away from my brother.   I realized that I needed to let go of some of my memories.  Holding on to images of our younger selves, trying to find our way, sorting out our priorities, rebuilding our lives after major loss was not fair.  The real truth is that my aloof, emotionally distant approach to my brother was hypocritical.  My own behavior wasn't modeling anything healthy or loving.  Things happen in relationships that we regret, or that make us angry or sad.  We have to be vigilant and know what our memories are preserving.  Some memories we just need to let go of.

Can you imagine letting go of some of your memories - memories that are holding someone in your life in a freeze frame?  Or, if not let go, then allowing space for new memories to be added? 
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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sibling Memories: Affirming the DJ

The Black eyed peas
The Black eyed peas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
At the wedding this past weekend, I had a chance to eat great food, visit with family, soak up some beautiful sunshine and surf, and I got to dance.  Dancing is not necessarily something that I go out of my way to do.  I'm terribly self conscious about my limited repertoire of moves.  One of my favorite memories from the weekend though, will be dancing with my brothers and sisters at the wedding reception.  Four of the five of us were a bit nervous that we wouldn't have anything other than country music to dance to.  The fifth sibling enjoys the country but was also the mother of the bride and in high demand.  The dj played several country songs at the very beginning and we sat nursing our drinks.  No one else was dancing either so we didn't really stand out as a protest contingent.  Then out of nowhere we heard the beat of the Black Eyed Peas (I think that was what stirred us from our seats) and we charged the floor.  We danced by ourselves through three quarters of the song while others were begging and cajoling their friends to join in.

We broke open that dance floor.  Perhaps people saw how much fun we were having and felt jealous.  Perhaps people saw my moves and realized that they could look really great in comparison.  Who knows.  We stayed on the floor for a couple more songs and sat when the country came on.  Everyone else sat down too.  We decided that we would have to make a commitment - we had to affirm the dj in playing non-country music (sorry sis).  Whenever he played non-country we would get up and dance and give him positive reinforcement.  It's been a long time since I was just goofy like that - just hanging out with my group and cutting loose.  It was an extra rare treat that my group was my two brothers and my two sisters, a great memory.

I was in high school when my youngest sister was born.  My youngest brother lived with my husband and I over his college breaks.  The wide age span of my five siblings has meant that our relationships have taken very different shapes and hues over the years.  There were times when I felt more like a mother figure than sister.  In the present day, we are a very adult mix of work, relationships, debt, and health concerns and our decade and a half age span isn't all that significant.  We all too easily put people we love into categories, defining and limiting them to a narrow template.  Sometimes we take a template that's been put on us and resist acting beyond it's confines.  Big sister or oldest in the family are templates that I've held.  The great thing about the dance floor at the reception was that the five of us were just having fun.  All the templates were set down and we were just enjoying each other.  I've always liked the Black Eyed Peas and now I have a whole new reason to appreciate them.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Sibling Memories: Indian Paintbrushes

I just returned from my trip to Corpus Christi, TX where I attended the wedding of a niece.  The best part of the trip was that all four of my siblings were present at the wedding.  We converged on Texas from Washington, Illinois, Indiana, and Ontario, Canada.  Five years have passed since the last time we were all together.  There are so many thoughts and as one of my brothers commented, "There's a lot of fodder for your blog from this weekend."  Indeed.

As we started the drive from San Antonio airport to Corpus Christi we were all taken by the very different landscape.  Watching the cactus pop up along the roadside was foreign to all of us. We were all admiring the beautiful and unfamiliar wildflowers.  I can't remember the sequence of the conversation but I basically commented on a pretty flower, my youngest brother made a joke about pulling over to pick some, I said, "Don't offer unless you're really willing to make good on it."  Then, all of the sudden, my brother pulls over on the side of the highway and calls my bluff.  Next thing I know we're all spilling out of the SUV and making a mad dash to pluck coral colored blossoms.  I was actually a little nervous that some Texas Ranger was going to come upon us and arrest us all for poaching a part of their state.  (An idea planted by my one brother who was convinced that he wouldn't escape Texas without an arrest from one of the Rangers - it may just have been a fantasy).

Back in the car we gathered our individual efforts and had a very beautiful bouquet.  We drove the remaining two hours and found the church where the rehearsal and dinner would be that evening.  After dinner we returned to the car and found our lovely bundle had shriveled, wilted, in a word, died.  We found our way to the beach condo where we stayed and plopped them into a plastic cup of water.  It was sad and a little pathetic, looking at the pink cup of dead flowers.  I wish I would have taken a picture so that the rest of this story could be more dramatic.  We left to go down to the beach for a bonfire and returned probably two hours later to find the flowers in the photo.  My sister who has lived in Texas calls them Indian Paintbrushes.  The rest of my siblings thought that calling them Lazarus flowers might be appropriate too, (reference to Bible story about the man who rose from the dead).

The weekend was great.  It was great because we had a chance to make new memories instead of relying on a stash of old childhood stuff that we all remember differently anyway.  And in a very hokey way, it was good to bring our wilted relationships with one another back to life, dip ourselves in some cool water and draw upon that to rehydrate our connections.  Those flowers just kept offering themselves up to us, opening up even after being terribly neglected.  I am thinking about other people in my life that I might do the same.  I am thinking about people who I need to take on a road trip and pick some flowers with.  What are some of the ways that have helped you restore life to your relationships?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sacred Community

The Book of Mormon English Missionary Edition ...
The Book of Mormon English Missionary Edition Soft Cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Last night I told my husband that I want to become Mormon.  As part of my job, I visit with different school, civic and faith communities, talking about the work of our organization and seeking support for that work.  Last night I met with a group of parents from a neighborhood block club and then went to talk with a women's group at a Mormon church on the North Shore.  It was my first time inside a Mormon church and based on the things that I had read, I wasn't sure what to expect. 

I walked in to what looked like a very nice community center.  My host told me that most Mormon churches have a similar simple design, "Our buildings are built more for utility than decoration.  We like to have a good gymnasium and meeting rooms."  I liked that.  A church built for activity.  When I met with the women they had incorporated into their meeting a time for service.  They were all asked to bring laundry detergent for the transitional shelter that we operate and they were busy measuring it into little baggies that we could distribute to individuals.

There were young women in their early 20's, pregnant women in their 30's and others who were 60+.  It was a group that had made a commitment to cook dinner once a month for our shelter, for the last 21 years.  I spoke and they asked great questions and I left with multiple offers from them to do more in the future.  I left the building and was immediately hungry for that community in my own life.  The sacred community that calls me to be my best self, most generous self, most intentional self.  The sacred community that asks me to think about others, not just the people that live in my own home.  The sacred community that cares for it's babies and it's elders and holds everyone in between.  The sacred community that serves as a safety net and extended family for "their own" and a welcoming hand for the stranger.  I miss it all.

Unfortunately, there are some deal breaker parts for me regarding the Mormon church, their rejection or unwillingness to offer the full sacred community to LGBT  member being the most profound.  I am grateful to have been with those Mormon women and to be reminded of the amazing gifts that intentional community offers.  I know that I need to find or create it again in order to feel full or whole - it's just who I am. 

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Murphy's Law

Metsu, Gabriel - Sick Child, the
Metsu, Gabriel - Sick Child, the (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Last week I had a major fundraiser for my job and unplanned travel to SD for a family funeral.  I travel again on Thursday, for a wedding at which I will see all four of my siblings.  There's a lot going on and I've had "short weeks" to get things done at work and to get things done at home.  So, since I have a long to do list with a tighter than usual schedule what do you think would be the obvious thing to have happen?  Murphy's Law.

My very healthy, optimistic leaning, go getter son is sick as a dog.  He is a pool of snot, hot with fever, NO APPETITE, and has a cough that makes it hard to breath.  He is a mess.  Being a high school student, he's also feeling an oppressive weight of homework starting to press on his chest.  We have to get him to the doctor not because there is going to be some miracle cure there (although I hope) but so that he can have an excused absence and not be penalized for having a flu bug.  I have to admit, I had a moment of "Why me?" frustration that surfaced.  I'm worried about my son and I'm worried about my own work load and how everything will get done before I leave again later this week.

The answer of course is that it won't.  Everything will not get done.  People will be let down and may even be annoyed with me.  Dishes will sit in the sink, clothes from our last trip may not all get put away.  It will be stressful wondering if I am choosing the right things to prioritize and the right things to postpone.  I can only worry about one thing at a time.  Take a number.  My son gets to be at the top of the list.  Everything else will get done...eventually, just not today.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

"Children Learn What They Live"

When I was a kid my parents had this wood plaque with a poem on parenting that was a fixture in our home.  At the time, I knew that it held a lot of wisdom and was grateful that my parents, for all of their faults, found it important to hang such a poem in their home.  There are many versions, but this is the one that I saw growing up:

Children Learn What They Live (1969)

Gay Couple with Child
Image via Wikipedia
If a child lives with criticism,
He learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility,
He learns to fight.
If a child lives with ridicule,
He learns to be shy.
If a child lives with shame,
He learns to feel guilty.
If a child lives with tolerance,
He learns to be patient.
If a child lives with encouragement,
He learns confidence.
If a child lives with praise,
He learns to appreciate.
If a child lives with fairness,
He learns justice.
If a child lives with security,
He learns to have faith.
If a child lives with approval,
He learns to like himself.
If a child lives with acceptance and friendship,
He learns to find love in the world.

I thought about this poem a lot this past weekend.  I traveled to be with family and honor and remember my husband's uncle who died.  It was a great time of stories and reunion, mixed in with profound sadness.  Lots of people were talking about their childhood memories and the ways that their experiences shaped and scarred them.  It was a time to reconnect and to be reminded of the ties that bind. I'm back home now, in my own routine, and am ruminating on a series of interactions with one specific relative. 

No matter what topic was raised, no matter the time of day, no matter the age of the person that they spoke to, negative, critical, and disagreeable commentary spewed from their tongue.  My reaction was typical annoyance and frustration, replaced soon by anger and now as some distance is provided, pity.  All I can think of now, is the level of criticism that someone must have endured to turn them so negative.  This morning I rise and send up a prayer of thanksgiving for my flawed and loving parents.  I dig deep and send up a prayer for the broken and wounded bullies too.
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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Setting the Paddles Down

The rest of the family drove to South Dakota yesterday to attend the funeral of our dear Uncle Leroy.  I have a major work event and will be flying out at the last minute tomorrow morning.  There are all kinds of things that I'm thinking about as a result of the trip and this work stuff.  The one thing that is overwhelming my senses right now though, is the silence.  I came home yesterday and was overtaken by the peacefulness of my home.  There was no teasing, tapping, or juggling balls dropping.  No yelling instructions from the floors above or below, no dog barking at people on the sidewalk.  It was wonderful.

A "street defibrillator". Having a c...
Image via Wikipedia
This is where you might expect me to launch in on the restorative qualities of meditation or yoga.  I know that meditation on a regular basis would probably be great.  What I'm reflecting on is the jolt that my system felt, not on the creation of a new discipline. What was so good about the silence yesterday was that it was a change in my normal life routine.  I didn't realize how much noise was in my life until I had those few conscience hours in the house by myself.  For someone who lives alone, I imagine that intentionally planning dinners or parties in their home would have a similar impact.  There is value in shocking our system a little, creating opportunities to BE in a different way.  Allowing ourselves a chance to see what we take for granted or what makes us uncomfortable.  When the paramedics charge up the "heart shocker" machine and set the paddles down, there is the anticipation of revitalization, renewal, restoration.  I feel lucky that I had a moment where the defibrillator was unexpectedly set down on me.
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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Secure Your Air Mask First

MD-88 (Photo credit: grahamwetzler)
I'm about to travel on an airplane later this week and it couldn't come at a better time.  I don't need the trip to escape from anything or to have a break.  I need the flight attendant instructions, specifically, the clear expectation that " the event of a disruption in cabin pressure, secure your air mask first and then assist the children in your care."

I need that metaphorical image because I've had one of those weeks where my fully grown, adult person has internally morphed into myself at age 14.  We all have those terrible days where we become filled with doubt or flirt with an ugly self-hating loop.  The thing that I have going for me (and that I hope you have), that I didn't have as my younger self, is the faith that these feelings will pass.  In order for these type of days to pass I have to focus on the basics.  It's the time for me to get good sleep instead of doing another load of laundry.  It's the time for me to read a book instead of worrying about the list of errands.  It may be the time to go see a friend instead of planning something fun for the family.

The flight attendant instructions are key guidelines for every parent, every son or daughter, or every good friend - we have to take care of ourselves first, just a little, before we can tend to others.  Secure your air mask first. 
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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Touching Base

There was a time when I felt I was being "touched out".  Little sleep at night, nursing, carrying one baby in the sling while the two year old climbed my lap, vying for attention, had me a titch tapped.  My two year old had come upon the perfect solution to grabbing some mommy time, even if I was busy with his baby brother. He would sit or stand next to me and lay the palm of his hand on my cheek.  He would do this as I was sitting and talking to a friend, feeding his brother, or on the phone.  It was like his compromise stance that said, "I know I'm not the baby anymore but I need to know that you're here for me".

Both boys followed the developmental game of hide and seek when they were toddlers.  Basically, the game goes like this: Child runs away and plays/gets into trouble/wanders the house and then runs back after about 20-30 minutes, to make sure that you are still where they left you.  They want to be a "big kid" and separate from us but when they do it gets a little scary. They need to check in and confirm that we're still with them even when they can't see us.

The little boys are gone and young men are emerging in their place.  A new, revised version of the hide and seek game has also emerged.  It's 10x more important for my teen guys to learn how to be independent and they have all kinds of things where they need to be assertive and distinguish themselves as their own person.  Just like the original version of hide and seek though, every once in awhile they have to pop back in and make sure that we're still there for them.  The twist on the game is that sometimes we have to be the ones to figure out that they want us to come seeking. 

Now it's us as the parents, negotiating a cool way to check in with our teens and remind them that we are here for them. My young men  aren't sure what a kiss goodnight or a hug from their mom and (God forbid) dad will mean for their manhood.  We don't have a long bedtime routine anymore where we read books and talk about the day.  Instead we are in the process of discovering new compromise moves that allow us to touch base.  My husband has this very long and complicated fist bump sequence that has replaced any hugs or kisses.  I will frequently use goofy voices and surprise bear hugs to get a little love from my youngest.  Tender and caring gestures traded out for rough housing and slapstick.  When they were little and I felt completely touched out, I always knew that a little hand on my cheek could calm the fears and anxieties.  Now, I have to remind myself that just when they seem to want TLC the least, is when I should sneak up from the left flank and give a big squeeze.

Monday, March 12, 2012

ISAT Testing

Standardized Test
Standardized Test (Photo credit: biologycorner)
ISAT testing takes place this week for my 7th grader.  For the public school kids in Chicago, this is a test that can steer their future in scary ways.  The standardized scores will be one of the factors that are used to determine who can even apply to be in the "good" public high schools in 9th grade.  My son is smart and is lucky to already be in a junior high that feeds into a good high school.  The intense pressure on his ISAT isn't as big an issue.

When I was a kid, taking the Iowa Basics, I used to see the tests as an interesting  bit of information, the score that told me how I matched up to all the other kids in the country.  I was fortunate enough that my scores were always a bit higher than the averages.  What would I have learned from the tests if I had scored lower than average?  If I look back on those scores and my adult success, I think there are an awful lot of things that never showed up in my IOWA score.  That in fact, have never been quantified.

I wish we could score our children on how emotionally expressive they are or how they show concern for other people.  Maybe we could come up with some questions on how to use your body to accomplish specific tasks or how to create an object that evokes a specific feeling.  Do you think there will be day when these tests, that determine which doors will open and which will close, will measure perseverance, humor, common sense, or kindness?  My son will take some tests this week.  They won't evaluate ANY of the things that make him so amazing.  His success on these tests and in school in general is important, because of the power that the tests have been given.  They are important because they can limit his opportunities and his own idea of himself.

Future employers, partners, friends, and neighbors want people who are engaging, likable, "play nice in the sandbox", are dependable, and honest.  School can test all they want but will never be able to evaluate what makes a person someone that you actually want to be with. 
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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Protecting Our Kids or Ourselves?

A very dear uncle died this weekend and family members are gathering to be together for his service.  It is a sad time and a confusing time.  I remember when my children were very young, several aunts and uncles as well as my grandfather and grandmother died.  Each time we would have numerous people tell us that the boys didn't need to be at the funeral home or burial.  A few people actually gave us a judgmental  once over, saying that it wasn't really a place for kids.  At the time, I just knew in my heart that I wanted them to be a part of all the different aspects of family life and of love.  I also knew that they would largely be witnessing grief and pain, not feeling it deeply in a personal way.  They didn't have super close ties to the people who had died, except through me or my husband.  They were there for two reasons: 1. They were part of the family and, 2. In a semi-calculated way, I  knew that I wanted them to be able to have these experiences with people they weren't so close to.

I know that some folks think that we should try to protect our kids from the cruelty and harshness of the world, that we should let them be kids and shelter their childhood  for as long as possible.  In some ways I agree.  I think we should keep violent movies and games as far away, for as long possible.   We should protect our children from abstract pain and suffering, but not from the real life grief that comes when we lose our loved ones.  

When my grandmother was very close to the end of her life, we traveled to visit her as a family.  She was in a nursing home for the first time in her life and it was hard for me to see her there.  I wasn't sure what to say to her or how much she was understanding or remembering.  We walked around the halls with her and took her for a stroll outside on the grounds.  I was flashing on past visits with my grandmother and all the corny jokes and puns she would use, all the little craft projects that she had given me.  I was filled with sadness and regret that I hadn't seen her more over the years.  My two young boys were more quiet in the nursing home than at our own house but they were not nervous around her.  The problem came when they both wanted to be the one in charge of steering her wheelchair.  It turned out that it wasn't them that needed protection but my sweet grandmother.  She had a 7 and 9 year old ready to play tug-o-war with her. 

We don't need to hide our feelings for fear of scaring our kids. The intuitive little buggers will figure it out anyway.   In some of these painful moments it can be hard to be so vulnerable in the presence of our children but how else is it that they will they learn empathy?  We might be scaring them more by pretending that everything is "fine". 

Friday, March 9, 2012

A Time for Everything

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven— A time to give birth and a time to die;
         A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal;
         A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
         A time to mourn and a time to dance.
A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;
         A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.
A time to search and a time to give up as lost;
         A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear apart and a time to sew together;
         A time to be silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate;
         A time for war and a time for peace.- Ecclesiastes 3

English: 3-day-old tamarind sprout, Chapel Hil...
Image via Wikipedia
Regardless of our religious beliefs, the words from Ecclesiastes are common sense type wisdom.  Good and bad times will come and go.  We hope for more of the good than bad but have less control than we would like over the reality of that balance.  There are many things that we can control though.  Is it time for us to love? Or throw away? Heal or plant?  Is it time to give up something as lost? To speak?

For me right now, I have to remember that I can't move through the world in one set gear.  I need to let go in some parts of my life and embrace in others.  Mostly I need to make enough space so that I can sit and reflect a little, every once in awhile.  Awareness needs to be cultivated, it doesn't just appear.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Terrible Twos is for Sissies

tantrum #500
tantrum #500 (Photo credit: demandaj)
When my boys were toddlers I remember feeling completely duped.  I'd heard that the "terrible twos" were a real parenting minefield that should be taken seriously, very seriously.  My first son turned two just after my youngest was born.  I thought that maybe his head wasn't spinning on it's neck, with him foaming at the mouth because of the novelty of the new baby.  A few months passed and still no hyper charged tantrums.  I figured that I was just blessed with an unusually mature tyke - no terrible anything for me, just normal crying jags, whining, and overtired spas attacks.  I relaxed and counted my blessings.  Then he turned three....

I felt like I had safely crossed the parenting minefield, feeling relief and gratitude, only to be hit by a car.  Did I have a freak for a child or had everyone been lying.  Was there a conspiracy going on?  Had parents everywhere decided that after enduring the incessant back and forth of need and asserted independence of the twos that it was best to never speak of the threes?  If parents knew what the threes might have in store for them would an epidemic of child abandonment take place - hundreds of little angels (%$#**@) deposited in the safe care of firemen and ERs around the country?  A lot of that time is hazy for me.  I'm glad that I came out the other side still loving my children and still married to their father.  I will simply say that while the twos were draining, the threes brought the first ever, full out, seizure-like, floor thrashing, screaming, emotional meltdowns.  The entire period taught me two very important lessons.  1. The experts don't know your wonderfully unique bundle of joy and 2. Be a boy scout.  Be prepared.

I was tricked again, about 7-8 years later, when my almost 11 year old started going through huge mood swings.  I was relaxed during these years, thinking that I had some breathing room before THE TEEN YEARS.  Instead, once again I was tricked.  Both times my kids hit 11 years, I faced emotionality I had not seen since... they were three.  Profound sadness, or anger, full out rage, and isolation, occurred in spurts, and was completely unpredictable to me.  Now they are both teenagers and at this precise moment I'm enjoying them more than ever before.  But do not be mistaken, I am reciting the adage, fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me three times, NEVER.  I am on high alert.  I am going to go find a scouting kerchief and get me a merit badge in preparedness.
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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Good Fight

I never had a fight with my mom.  I was a desperately shy teen, not prone to outright rebellion.  I was also the oldest of five kids so combined with my introverted nature, I was a little mama's girl.  My relationship with my mom was very positive and she was a huge influence in my life.  Even with a very positive parental figure there is a fairly big part of me that is filled with self-doubt.  I am slow to confront conflict or even broach subjects that will air disagreements.

The question of how my parents fought came up in a conversation the other day and I realized that I had never seen my parents fight.  Then the more important and personal realization came that I had never fought with my mom.  The woman who I frequently describe as my source of unconditional love had never been tested.  She died very young, as I was just starting my post college life.  What would she have said if she knew that I went over a decade without attending a church?  Marched on Washington for reproductive rights?  Shared an apartment with my fiancee?  Would our relationship have remained as strong?  Would I have withheld parts of myself from her?  Would she have continued to love me and support me in the same deep, meaningful ways?
Boxing Generic copy
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We can worry about how we speak to our children.  We can try to avoid shaming or imposing our own agenda on their lives.  We can use our most "bestest" good listening practices.  When push comes to shove though, we need to be honest in our relationships, including the ones with our kids.  That means that they will know our opinions, our hopes for them, and our values, and at times, we will most certainly disagree.  Even if we completely blow it and use every "should" and "ought to" phrase and lecture them on what they REALLY need to be doing or feeling, all is not lost.  The disagreement or the full out fight may be the loudest piece of the scene but it  isn't the most important.  The most important part comes when we circle back around (an hour, or day, or month later) and remind them that the love thing is unchanged.   They may not believe us right away but we have to put it out there.   It's what makes for a "good" fight and it can never be in doubt.

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Monday, March 5, 2012

The Project

Science fair exhibit (butterflies), probably t...
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I sit here typing with the telltale signs of my least favorite part of parenting displayed all around me.  The dining room table (and floor) is a mess of books, paper scraps, and colored construction paper.  One large display board sets it all off, mocking me from it's perch in the living room.  Tomorrow is the deadline for my seventh grader's history fair project.  It used to be that we just had to deal with science fair (which I loath even more than history fair).  Now the stress and anxiety come twice a year. 

Tonight is the night.  There is usually some last minute drama, often related to a small logistical detail to which I never paid any attention.  "On the third paragraph of the summary statement, underline all the words that relate back to your hypothesis.  Make sure that all photographs are labeled in italics and placed in the left corner of the display board."  I'm of course being fictitious.  It's not that hard for me to understand the details of their teacher's requests.  My problem is me.

It's very important to me that my kids learn how to be responsible and be able to handle themselves, take care of the stuff that is their business.  I don't hover.  I ask if their homework is done and when I'm able, I answer questions.  That's pretty much what I offer.  When they were in second and third and maybe even fourth grade, I would offer to help type up their essays for school.  Mostly because I wanted to use the computer before the next month had passed and their own typing was so slow it verged on torture.

So, during science and history fair preparation my values butt up against my sanity.  Do I correct all the typos, grammar mistakes, weird phrasing, and undocumented facts or do I encourage them to check their work again and let the quality of their own effort be reflected in their grade?  Do I let them struggle with the typing and the making of charts when it would take me half the time?  I know that other parents are probably going to help out (does a 7 yr old really know how to run those color graphs with the attached video feed?).  Am I really just putting my kids in an unfair situation - being compared to students who have a design team from their parents pr firm offering support?  As is the case with so many of my dilemmas, they are rooted in my real values vs. my own adult fears of judgement.  I don't want them to turn in a project that isn't really theirs but I also hate the idea of their tilted, glue smudged display standing next to the matted, black and white photographed project, all printed on archival quality paperstock.

In the end, I am going to do what I've done the last seven years.  Tonight, I will brace myself.  I will be calm and wipe away any tears of frustration that may come.  I will model deep breathing and patience.  I will affirm and encourage.  And maybe, just maybe, quietly suggest that the summaries should be glued neatly onto the board instead of the "pin the tale on the donkey/willy-nilly" alignment that is my son's preferred method.  He will turn it in, even though I know that I would do it differently.  He will get a grade that provides relief or frustration and that grade will be all his.
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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Anchor Photos

I was looking through some pictures and was quickly bored by page after page of posed photos.  I love photographs and for many years I kept beautiful histories of my life, all through pictures.  My updates to the photo albums used to happen annually, at a minimum.  I would sit down over Christmas break, visiting the in-laws, and quietly organize and sort the events of the past year into neat little pages. Now, the archival process seems to be happening on a per decade schedule.  The number of photos I'm taking has decreased considerably too, so the backlog (unfortunately)  isn't that bad.

Anyway, back to the posed photos problem.  I realized that I need some pictures of my kids WITH me.  I want pictures for myself and for them.  I want to catch a few miracle shots where my deep love and pride is shining through.  I want something that I can hang onto when they're off at college and living their own life miles away.  I want something that they can use as an anchor.  A photo that grounds them in the ups and downs and steadies them.  A photo that whispers, "You are loved - profoundly - unconditionally."  A photo that reminds them, in the eyes of this love, you can do anything.

Friday, March 2, 2012

What Will They Remember?

My brother follows my thoughts in this blog, which is absolutely wonderful since we're so far away from each other.  Anyway, he just wondered aloud about what his children are going to take from the parenting style/choices that he and his partner have chosen.  Stay tuned!  In about 10-15 years you might have the hint of an idea as to the answer.  As soon as I saw his question I realized that this is the thing that plagues us - no immediate affirmation that what we are doing is going to achieve our objectives.  If I give X amount of chores for them to do, will it build a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility or will it turn them against me and increase their desire to be couch potatoes?  If I maintain the expectation that they continue their music lessons am I teaching perseverance and commitment or am I setting up a scenario for rebellion and eventually a full out music boycott?  If I hold out and don't buy the most recent gaming system am I helping them develop their own creativity and holding the wave of adult like influences at bay or am I merely setting up a scenario where they over indulge when they are at their friend's house and ensure that they never want to invite their friends over to our place (we don't have enough cool stuff)?  Ugh!

The list of these queries is long, perhaps endless.  I do know that I feel slightly better when I am able to describe the values that are driving our choices.  I also feel better and feel like there is the possibility of lasting impact, when I know that I'm consistent with my behavior and there's.  For example, when the boys were little, I would tell them to get out and exercise, enjoy the fresh air, get away from the t.v.  If the value and life lesson that I wanted them to remember was physical health and active living then I should have shared that message from somewhere else other than the couch.  A couple of years ago, I started going to the gym on a regular basis and invited my youngest son to be my gym buddy.  That was a great turning point in our relationship.  It turned out that he could hold me accountable to what I said was important AND I got to interact with him using our bodies and just being together instead of a bunch of talky talk.  Similarly, our boys are both very sensitive to other people and pretty appreciative of what they have in life.  I know and they have confirmed this for me, that it is a result, in part, of them having two parents who work in social services.  We've invited them to volunteer in a variety of ways since they were 4 or 5.  They also see us caring about other people in little ways, donating to causes that are important to us, bringing food to sick friends or shoveling the walk for our elderly neighbor. 

We talk about our values.  We live them out in visible, real ways.  We invite them to live them out with us.  We still don't know what all will "stick" with them but we can rest easier knowing that we weren't hypocritical or offering mixed messages.  They will very likely live out what we try to teach in ways different from us. They can make different choices and still retain the values that we shared. I firmly believe that what we do has just as much impact, if not more, than what we say.   Arrested Development has a song that I LOVE called, "Mama's Always On Stage".

"Words of wisdom should be ways of wisdom!
That's exactly how u must walk.
Life's too short your missions too dire.
Nurture another mind before yours expires.
...But mama don't sleep your lifes a turnin' page mama's
always on
stage!"        (By Speech)

They are watching, learning and remembering.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Asking the "village" - apples and oranges

I started talking about this yesterday but just to remind you - my boys are very different.  They have the same mother and father, born two years apart, live in the same environment and go to the same schools, and yet they are different as apples and oranges.  Per my brief bio, my boys were born at home, so we can rule out some weird mix-up at the hospital.  Whether our kids are with us from birth and share our DNA or whether they come to us as toddlers or teenagers, through adoption or foster care, or whether "our kids" are the neighbors who visit us on a regular basis, they are "our kids" because we love them as they are.  We love the pieces of them that we recognize and the pieces that are bizarre and foreign (my husband is convinced that our one son's early morning rising is perhaps an early warning sign of some strange mutation).

So, if we accept the fact that our kids are going to be unique creatures and not cookie cutters of us, how do we meet the varied needs?  We want to encourage their talents and be sensitive to their concerns but we also want to be sensitive to our desires or those of others in the family.  Take my guys, one is a raging extrovert.  His ideal day would be talking non-stop in a mosh pit of humanity, taking breaks only for food and reading.  My other son can be very social but in his perfect world he is juggling or unicycling for hours, with no more than one other friend. They are both smart, but one thrives on group projects while the other prefers to work alone with focused attention. One lingers on, saying, "goodnight" multiple times and remembering one more story or footnote on the day that needs to be shared.  The other keeps watch of the time himself and can disappear at the bewitching hour without a peep.  If we decide to go to a museum, we have one child who is in heaven, reading material and mingling with people everywhere while the other son is "peopled out" 30 minutes into the outing and begging to do laps around the parking lot instead. How do you engage two (or three or four) divergent personalities in a way that honors everyone?

This was my dilemma last summer.  Our normal vacations involve road trips to visit family members.  For the very first time we took a family vacation that was just our little foursome, planning our days and nights, routes, food, and entertainment for a whole week.  As the planner of vacations I was a little nervous.   I decided that the best way to get "buy in" was if everybody was part of the plan.  I asked everyone what a perfect trip to the Black Hills would include from their perspective. We made a list of all those ideas and made sure that everyone knew their thing would get done and when.   I also told them that if we ever got to a point where we weren't sure what to do next on a given day, everyone could have one wild card choice during the trip.  They could choose to use it during the week if they felt their needs just really needed to be considered most in our decision.  That week we went horseback riding, explored caves (in the dark and in very confined space), toured the Wounded Knee Museum, and took incredibly long and beautiful scenic drives through Custer Park.  We all participated, even though the museum almost bored my youngest son to tears and my husband had a bloody scalp from scraping the ceilings of the caves. 

When the kids were little such idyllic displays of cooperation and enlightened compromise did not exist.  It often felt like a day was not complete unless someone was pouting, crying, or in full blown, red alert mode.  Usually the upset was directly linked to somebody needing to sit outside of their comfort zone for just a titch too long.  I could count on a meltdown when the extrovert was forced to stay home with me all day or the introvert was required to hangout at a church activity AND stay indoors.  I would sit at baseball games for one, watching the game part of the time and part of the time playing catch with the other one who hates team sports but loves being physical.  I ended most days feeling like I had let somebody down.  

Fast forward ten years.  to my oldest son surprising me and  putting all of this in perspective.  He said that while he didn't like it at the time, doing things together as a family helped him.  His insight came when I asked him if he had any idea how he came to be such a cool person (the single most awesome conversation I've had with him).  He shared some interesting thoughts and one was, "I hated having to do everything together but I also think it ended up helping me.  Whether you planned it or not, it was teaching us that "it" isn't always about what we want."  It absolutely wasn't planned but he's right.  The differences in our families allows us to practice cooperation and compromise.  They allow us to set aside our own personal desires once in awhile and think about other people.  They allow us to learn new things and try new things that our own little comfort zone wouldn't have made possible.  It isn't very pretty at times but it's absolutely better than only doing things that we want, when we want them.  Our family is our first little practice run at having classmates, coworkers, and personal relationships.  You know the people in your life who didn't get enough practice as kids.  Differences can be a pain but they can also help us learn how to be great grown ups.