Sunday, September 29, 2013

To Tell the Truth

The only way to pass the "parenting test" is with heaps of humility, honesty,and humor.  

That's what I said when I first started this blog. This past month though, I haven't followed that rule very well. In all kinds of big and small ways, good news and sad, I've screened my true thoughts. For example, I had some really great news this month but felt a little weird every time I would share it, especially if I was talking to another parent.. The news was that my son made it to the next round of an intense scholarship interviewing process - yay! He went through a  gamut of interactive games, leadership tests, improv exercises and impromptu essay writing with about 100 other high school seniors. After the group interview was all done, they cut half of the applicants. Instead of being cut, my son got the email that told him he was invited for a one-on-one interview. The hoped for prize when all is said and done, is a four year scholarship for college. It's nerve wracking and exciting and I'm so incredibly proud and shocked at the ways he's putting himself out there in the world and it's all just swirling in my own little head. How do we celebrate and brag without making someone else feel like crap?

And there's plenty enough of those feeling like crap moments.  Worrying about why our kids are anxious, prone to wild temper tantrums, chronically constipated, or emotionally distant, fills the secret places of our thoughts. One layer below our concerns for our kids is the darker place where we assume that we've messed them up somehow. We look at the latest Facebook updates, where only good news seems to be shared, and wonder if we would have any friends at all if they knew our true thoughts and colossal mistakes. There are layers of parenting silence. We start by talking about our perfect, precious babies instead of the crazy anatomical reorienting that our body is going through after childbirth. The silence continues and hovers over the changes in our relationships.  We stay silent when things are bad, keeping the self-doubt, shame, and feelings of failure under wraps. Telling the hard truth though, is the key to releasing all that crap. If you want to test this and have a real catharsis or just a good-pee-in-your-pants laugh, you can unload your truth at Scary Mommy, a blog that also serves as a confessional for the real deal stuff of our lives.

Bragging is just fine. So is crying and screaming and fretting and laughing. Humility, humor, honesty. We can't possibly know it all. We can't take ourselves too seriously. We only get support for the things that people know about. Go to the "scary mommy confessional" and let it out.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Love Bomb! - Part 2

On my oldest son's 16th birthday we presented him with a bundle of letters from friends and family. The letters had been written in the weeks after he was born and expressed the hopes and dreams and pure joy that his life set into motion.  Reading the Love Bombs! encouraged my son to present me with a similar gift on my birthday. My birthday present was a green sparkly box filled with little slips of paper. On each slip he had written some of the things that he thought were proof of my awesomeness.  He told me that it was a box of reminders for those days when I was doubting myself.  I'm not writing this to brag, in fact the opposite is true.  My birthday was in May and it took me three months later to open the box.  Trust me, it wasn't a lack of self doubt or negative self talk, that kept me from seeking out the affirmations.

As I read his notes I was struck by the disconnect. The thoughts I have about myself and the ones that he felt compelled to celebrate were at odds. This I think is a universal truth. Whether it's good or bad, our perception of ourselves is almost always different, in part at least, than what our friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors think of us.  Take some of the reactions I had to my love bomb slips:

You inspired both of your sons to start committed gym schedules. Why did I sleep in today and miss the gym?

You have the talent of being able to interact peacefully and productively with difficult people. Why can't I have better relationships with_____?

You is kind, you is smart, and you is important.  This makes me smile because I love the reference and then a little twinge because I know that I need this reminder every day.

People have religious experiences when eating your Christmas cookies. Ok, some perceptions are just basic facts that can't be debated.

You make a commitment to stay in close contact with your friends, whether it be a breakfast date or on the phone. When was the last time that I called...?

You started a blog which is cool. I can't believe how long it's been since I wrote anything.

You've got some mad ping pong skills. True, so true.

Yellow Sticky Love Note #4
Yellow Sticky Love Note #4 (Photo credit: madlyinlovewithlife)
So why did I wait three months to open this amazing box of affirmations? Why did I actively avoid positive words of encouragement when I was feeling down? Once I opened the box, why couldn't I just read the notes and absorb the sentiments without any counter commentary? Why do we cling to the things that are still in progress, the flaws, the small imperfections? The fact that we are imperfect is not the big news. Imperfect people creating beauty, acting with kindness, supporting others, teaching, and working in spite of their deficits, that's what's amazing. Drop a couple of love bombs today.  Drop one on yourself too and then be quiet.
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Friday, June 21, 2013


I am sitting at work today and receiving hourly text messages about my son's unexcused absences. Oops, he missed first period. Darn it, 2nd and 3rd he's nowhere to be found either! Truth be told, I stopped checking my phone, knowing that he wasn't running late. He was ditching.

In an unexpected turn of events, I gave him permission to ditch. My husband gave a very formal and clear commentary about his reservations, but ultimately agreed. Yes, son, you have our blessing to ignore the rules and go to the beach instead. The reason I caved so easily is simple. It's the end of the year and evidently instruction of any kind is no longer necessary. Our son has spent the last week watching movies in his classes. He finished his finals and brings a healthy pile of books to read, not Shakespeare or a literary classic, but World War Z or a David Sedaris collection.

When I was a kid...(can you just picture the eye rolling) we worked up until the last day, finishing off every possible workbook page, catching up on art activities or creative writing assignments. We did spend more time outside in recess and gym but I never once remember watching a movie, let alone in multiple classes. We set aside a part of each day in that last week to clean our classrooms. Monday might be the washing of all the desks, Tuesday return textbooks to storage, Wednesday thoroughly wash the boards and sweep the floor, Thursday remove all papers and projects from the classroom and take them home, Friday hang out and relax and see our teacher as a pretty nice person overall, while daydreaming about swimming and street carnivals. 

The last week of school, for me, was fun. We got to be more creative, more physical, and more interactive than we'd been allowed the whole rest of the year. We were excited for summer and for being done, and we were relieved to learn our subjects without a grade attached.  

Instead, my son's teachers are cleaning their classrooms by themselves. Since no more grades will be given there seems to be no need for learning.  Practicing what they've already learned and integrating it into their life when the standardized tests are completed, appears pointless. Why bother taking up frivolous pursuits like relay races, jam sessions, or fun trivia games?  Is it really possible that on a certain day in June, everything there is to know about creative writing, jazz, physics, or Spanish was mastered so fully that there was just nothing left to do?  Have we trained our kids to only want to learn if a grade, an assessment from outside of themselves is given? Yikes!  

When my son said he wanted to ditch his last day and go to the beach instead, I said "yes". For one, how could I not reward such an honest kid with such a great argument? Secondly, I figured a cardio workout on his bike coupled with an "in the field" exploration of the natural environs of the Great Lakes was more productive and educational. 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Zombies, the Apocalypse, and Resurrection

The Walking Dead (season 2)
The Walking Dead (season 2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm embarrassed to say that I like the terrifying and grotesque zombie apocalypse tv show, The Walking Dead. My teenage sons began watching and with every gasp and groan of disgust I found myself drawn closer to the screen.  Decaying flesh and gunshots to the head in a seemingly endless stream of blood and gore are not my usual thing. What keeps me intrigued are the choices that the survivors make and by survivors, I mean the non-zombies. The obvious analysis for the show's popularity is, in my mind, that we are already living like zombies or fighting zombie tendencies on a daily basis.

In some ways I am a terrible, terrible cliche. Middle aged woman, wife, and mom walking on a treadmill of routine, numbing myself with food and (zombie) tv - longing for something but not really working that hard for anything.  I don't mean this as a debbie downer rant.  Whether it is work or parents or children, at a certain age most of us begin looking outward to what other people need of us, instead of inward to our own still unmet desires and interests.  So when someone started talking to me about The Walking Dead as  insanity, and asked, "Who would really be fighting so hard to live in that type of world?", my unexpected reply was, "We're doing it right now, all the time."

My most recent attempt to stave off zombie cooties occurred over the past month (one of my excuses for not writing here), as I applied to an alternative certification program for urban teachers in high need schools.  More than one person said, or thought, "I never knew you wanted to be a teacher?!"  Either did I really.  It emerged after a conversation where someone asked me if I had ever thought about a different career and if I did, what would I be?  I said teaching, in part, because the presentations and teaching moments I have in my current job, I enjoy quite a bit.  As a test I believe, the universe plopped an advertisement for the alternative program in my email the next day.  Instead of giving in to my routine (zombieness), I ran from the zombies that were chasing me and towards the application, and then the interview, and then towards the preparation for the basic certification tests.  It was the scariest thing I have done in about 16 years (birth of my first son) and it was exhilarating. Unfortunately, this week I found out that I did not pass one of the pesky math exams which means I can not be in the 2013 cohort and begin training. It is disappointing but I am grateful for the experience.  It's like the whole, "it's better to have loved and lost", type of thing.  For the past month I was not a zombie. For the past month I was more than just someone running away from zombies.  In fact, I was listening to my gut and trying new things.  I was running towards a goal. I was walking towards resurrection.
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Sunday, March 31, 2013


This image was selected as a picture of the we...
This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 1st week, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Thinking about my teenagers and how they are going to fair when they "launch" is a preoccupation of mine. How will they handle the inevitable emotional, physical, and psychological tests of life?  I recently read an article on the issue but as it relates to whole families.  The Family Stories That Bind Us
describes how Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University and colleague Robyn Fivush tested their theory that family stories build resilience in children.  They created a series of 20 questions linked to their families and how history, good and bad, got communicated. The result was that the more children knew about family stories the better they did when they had to face difficulties.
 The questions about their families were simple, basic things. From the article, " Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?"

Within the group of children that knew their family history, the best results for resilience came from those who told what Duke called, an oscillating family narrative.  The oscillating stories go like this,  "Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family. ”

When I worry about the heartache, cruelty and suffering that is possible in the world and how it might brush up against my sons, what I'm really thinking is "do they have what it takes?"  Have I shared enough to help them understand that the good AND the bad don't last forever? Do they know that their family will be a constant in the midst of whatever success or failure comes their way?  As parents, as people, we need to retell the stories of resilience so that we can repeat history (in a good way). 
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Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Prior to our first born son's birth my family hosted a baby shower for us. In the midst of  Goodnight Moon and hand crocheted blankets was a time capsule. The time capsule actually looked like one of those big, tin, popcorn containers. Inside was a memory book that you could fill out and document the music, history, fads, and prices of the day. The main accessory of the capsule was stationary.  The idea was that we would ask all of our friends and family to write letters to Levi, sharing their feelings about his birth and their hopes for his future.  We collected them all and then "sealed" it away for some future reveal. 

Love Bomb
Love Bomb (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Yesterday was that future day. On his 16th birthday we unearthed the canister from the depths of my closet (more hidden and forgotten than any underground treasure chest) and presented it to him.  We cheated a little. Right before his birthday we invited others, who didn't know us or him at the time he was born, to also write letters. Friends for whom he now babysits, a third grade teacher, friends from our old church and neighbors all joined in and shared their wisdom, admiration, and love.  As the day came closer to present it to him, I started feeling like I was preparing a LOVE BOMB.

As he opened the container and saw the newspapers from the week he was born and the book of memories (gas cost a $1.39!) he was excited and curious. Then he picked up the pile of letters. It was thick. He was speechless. He picked up one from a neighbor, and then from a good family friend and then from the friends who he also serves as babysitter.  He saw that there were two letters from his great grandmothers, both now deceased.  It started sinking in. "Oh my gosh, this is the most awesome present ever!"

At 16 he's looking at colleges that will take him away from his home base. He's figuring out how to break away from us, his parents, on a daily basis. He's working out the parts of us he'll keep and the new ideas and experiences he wants to pursue. It felt like the perfect time to remind him of the deep pool of love that he comes from and that he can access.

I recommend  LOVE BOMBS for everyone. 

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Monday, March 18, 2013

My Spring Break

A little over  a week ago I did a very unusual and wonderful thing.  I took a vacation, by myself, to a place with palm trees.  I've never gone on a real spring break where you dip your toes in the surf and reacquaint yourself with the sun, in the middle of a midwest winter. (Except, I realize, just last year.)  In practice, it felt  decadent and fabulous and left me with just a few moments of guilt pangs.  The guilt over leaving my children and spouse behind in relentlessly grey Chicago, was overcome by my complete rejuvenation.  Who knew that natural vitamin D could change your attitude so much!?                                                                                                                                

All of my little concerns and frustrations remain but now I have the memory of a brilliant sunset, palm trees and pink succulents to balance out my funk.  I learned that sometimes it is good to just runaway and get a new perspective.  I remembered that when I take care of myself, everybody in my life ends up reaping the benefits and there's no guilt in that! Spoiling myself a little, surrounding myself with dear friends and taking a break from my normal responsibilities was exactly what I needed for a "reboot" to occur in me.

Take some time today for yourself. Really. Figure out a way to put yourself first.  One of my awesome days included a drive to San Diego, a bowl of margueritas with girlfriends, a palm reading from a psychic and a gorgeous drive watching the sunset. Mixed in was uninterrupted talks, gorgeous scenery and dark chocolate. We are all worth it. Whoever helps take care of people deserves to be cared for in return.  Do it!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

You're Hot!

English: YMCA logo (international and USA)
English: YMCA logo (international and USA) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My son started going to the gym.  He's never been super interested in sports unless you count marathon reading.  For the last month though he has taken his bike out every day.  For the last two weeks he's taken that bike to the YMCA and worked out every evening after school. On top of that he went through another growth spurt that left him with chiseled lines.  Any faint remnants of baby fat are stripped from his face, leaving a strong chin and dramatic cheekbones.

Every night he returns from the Y and talks me through his improvement. 5 pull ups, then 10, 12, today 20!  "I can do 30 minutes on the treadmill now!"  He has biceps all of the sudden and a two pack.  I am stunned at the quick progress and physical changes and yes, tremendously jealous.  Why doesn't my weight lifting produce such easy results?  Is there such thing as a negative metabolism rate? Anyway, my child, just weeks away from his 16th birthday, is looking more like a man.

The kicker.  He comes home yesterday after getting a haircut.  The thick sweep of hair was gone. In it's place was a near buzz cut with just enough extra on top to style and look a little daring. I couldn't help myself. I saw him and said, "You look hot! You're like a model."  I know that probably wasn't the best mom reaction but damn if it wasn't true.  All of the pieces are starting to fall into place.  The muscles and haircut are forcing the reality down my throat - my boy is growing up. I'm in awe that he is a part of me.  Every day he's looking and acting more like his own person, borderline foreign to me. I've always known that he was of course. Adolescence is just so intense (and not just for the teens). It's like seeing the color red in all it's beauty and then panning out and seeing that it's not a swatch of red but a full bouquet of roses. A gorgeous, cut, bouquet.

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sibling (Dis)Order

I'm the oldest child in my sibling quintet.  As a teenager that meant that I was in charge of keeping the peace, babysitting until the parents returned from work and was trained in the art of diaper changing twice. In many ways the uber responsible, family container, role of the oldest child fits me well.  As each of us age however, the assumptions I had about the middle child and youngest child stereotypes and those about the oldest (me), have proved false. Maybe my notions were incorrect to begin with or maybe my siblings are uncharacteristically awesome (the likely answer). All I know is that I frequently feel like I am the younger sib.

Visiting with my sister this weekend, I was reminded of these thoughts and feelings. I am filled with pride, which sometimes tiptoes into jealousy when I am with her. The middle child who was "supposed" to get lost in the shuffle is now a power house of a woman who routinely loses other people in her dust.

Likewise, my baby brother, who by most standard sibling order articles could be the slacker of the family without anyone batting an eyelash, is instead a dynamo.  He is an amazing dad, marathon runner, justice fighting, superhero type dynamo. 

All four of my siblings prove that it is not birth order that defines us.  There is some cosmic cocktail of when and where we are born, to whom, with what resources, and how we respond to all those ingredients that lays claim to us. How we respond is the mystery piece that intrigues me most.  The resilience factor. 

I look at my own kids today and remind myself that the older brother/younger brother images do not consider the cosmic cocktail. The assumptions and predictions can not forecast the inner spark that exists in them or the paths that they will discover.  I keep reminding myself that imposing my own hopes on my kids is futile.  They will be who they are going to be - taller or smarter or more creative than some, shorter, dumber and less than others.  It's really pointless to compare.  It was pointless for me at 16 and it's even more so now, 30 years later.  Encourage, affirm, nurture.  Helping my kids figure out who they are, what they're good at, and how they thrive is what matters. That's what needs to matter for me, for myself, too. Birth order, not so much.
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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

One Point In Time

English: Homeless man in New York 2008, Credit...
English: Homeless man in New York 2008, Credit Crises. On any given night in USA, anywhere from 700,000 to 2 million people are homeless, according to estimates of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
4:00 AM in the car, driving on near empty streets north of Chicago.  9 degrees exterior temperature registers on the dashboard. I meet three other people who will make up my team for the National Point In Time Count of the homeless. We go out in the dark, frigid, early morning hoping that we will be unsuccessful in our mission.  None of us really want to find people sleeping outside in 9 degree weather. 

We spend three hours driving through parking garages, construction sites, and public parks.  We walk the embankments of the canals and then the suburban transit stations, looking in the stairwells and tucked away corners.  We pause at empty lots and look for cars with steamy windows or ones with ice on the inside of the glass.

We know that most people will try to ride the trains in the city, break into an abandoned building, or enter one of the crowded and intimidating emergency shelters in Chicago when it's this cold, but we keep looking.  Before our shift ends at 7am we find 2 men at separate train stations.  They both refuse to admit they are homeless and one won't talk to us at all. The station attendants know their routine though and mention an ATM lobby that one of them stays in overnight. The attendant explains that the one man stands at the bank of public phones, pretending to make calls and looking busy as  the commuters start coming through. We record the location but have nothing that will help us match this person with housing services sometime in the future. It is humbling, moving through a suburban landscape on the lookout for hiding places.  So many people that know they must be quiet, out-of-sight, or undetectable or lose their spot.

Later that morning I talk with one of the men in the homeless drop in program at the agency where I work. I ask him if he will answer the survey for the Point In Time count. "Where is the last place you lived before becoming homeless?

He had to go back seven years before he remembered, "I used to have a place working with construction. They let me stay in the buildings as soon as the walls went up. Sometimes they let me do day labor. They paid me $25/day. There wasn't any electricity or water though."  He and his friend stayed on the train during the night and have been homeless for so long that anything that has a roof and windbreak is considered housed. For seven plus years he's been figuring out how to be safe and survive and make it through the 9 degree nights. 

Walking in someone else's shoes. It will get you every time.
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Friday, January 18, 2013

Shedding the @#$%!

I didn't make any official resolutions at the beginning of the new year.  It's not that I didn't have any ideas, it was worse. I knew that I wasn't feeling committed to success. Why say it if you know you don't really mean it, was my thinking.  My list, if I had made one, would have included better fitness, eating healthy, watching less tv, and thinking more positively.  Writing more was probably on the "non-list" also. Alas, there was not a list and 17 days into 2013, I remained listless.

As I let the obligatory guilt and low level shame sluff away, I noticed something important.  As much as I wanted to lose a few pounds off my midsection, I wanted to lose a whole bunch of other things maybe even more.  It started as a disdainful look at my cluttered closets and turned to a long, piercing stare down of my kitchen cupboards.  Slowly but persistently I began to hear an official call to arms -  purge!

clutter (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)
I woke this morning mentally prepared for a day of letting go of the c-rap in my home. Who knew that we had three separate jars of cinnamon, oregano, and baking powder? Combined and tossed. Herbs that I don't even like to cook with but that have secured prime real estate on my lazy susan for years and years - garbage. How long have I stared at that half used jar of confetti sprinkles? Can't remember when? Goodbye.  I tell you, it was like a mini-colonic.  I opened the cupboard again and nothing fell out, nothing tumbled past my head or crashed to the counter. (What is this new feeling?)

Recycling bins
Recycling bins (Photo credit: olishaw)
Next, I went through the medicine.  Again, how many bottles of ibuprofen does one family need? Outdated prescriptions and boxes of allergy pills with one lone tablet remaining.  Why did we keep that dog medicine that our neighbor gave us when her pet died? Why do I have vodka, Irish Creme, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil mingling on the shelf willy nilly?  The recycling bag of emptied bottles was filling up with completely gratifying speed. (Do I look thinner in these yoga pants?)

Upstairs, the chair in my bedroom screamed out to me.  The chair from hell that holds the perfect nightmare of odd socks and mix matched tidbits.  Mutual fund statements, an Easter card, a broken and half dismantled trumpet, and so many socks! Sort to charity, toss, match and toss some more. I gave those socks a fair shake.  They had at least a year or two to find their mate.  The jig's up.  After this last load of laundry, all single footwear will be banned from my chair! The "maybe it'll show up" whispers will not sway me.  This is a brutal purge and I am not playing. (I look so good in this v-neck tee.)

The unread books, untouched refinishing project, unused cookbooks, cracked containers, and dusty jewelry still remain but they are not long for my world. The truth is that shedding so much of my @#$%! is exhilarating.  I feel 10 lbs lighter and notice a little muscle definition. During my break I sat down to jot these thoughts instead of watching an episode on Netflix. I feel absolutely positive!  Maybe this is just the jumpstart I needed or maybe I'm just better at sprint activities than I am at lifestyle marathons.  Whatever it is, I'm taking it and loving it.
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