School Daze

Ready, Set…Not So Fast

 

Moments ago my twelve-year old announced that he has not yet done the “optional” summer math packet. He was throwing around the term “optional” cavalierly, as if it absolves him of all responsibility toward the aforementioned math packet. I think he and I have different interpretations of “optional.” Not only has he not completed the packet; in fact, he has not even started it.  And, the first day of school is tomorrow.  The bad news is that since the school website has been updated he can no longer print out the packet so it will remain exactly as it was on the day school let out last year: untouched, unseen, undone. The really fantastic news is that not doing his math freed number three son up to watch all two hundred fifty episodes of Dr. Who this summer.

I feel the familiar stress of uncompleted schoolwork begin to seep into my weary fifty-year old bones. The usual platitudes start to roll around in my head. It’s his work.  A child has to learn to fail to succeed. But, those thoughts are quickly supplanted by nagging tentacles of guilt and doubt. Should I start calling around, try to get the packet from someone, spend the day tormenting both of us? But, whose work is this anyway and where does my responsibility end and his begin? And, what am I teaching him if I don’t? If I do?

In the scheme of things this is not something to lose sleep over. I’ve been around for a while now and I know what to lose sleep over.  This is more like the proverbial fly buzzing in my ear, irritating beyond measure.  It’s like the college essay that hasn’t been written, the common application that hasn’t yet been filled out, the summer reading books that lie on the table half read.  Why can’t they JUST. DO. IT.  And, how much of this undone work is a parent’s burden?

When I was a kid my parents had their work and I had mine and the twain never met.  I don’t think that my parents felt responsible for my work. EVER.  But, things were just different back then.  When I was a kid first grade art projects looked like something created by a first grader, not like Rembrandt’s early works. When I was a kid my second grade diorama was a hundred popsicle sticks askew covered with hardening knots of glue and not a flawless early rendering of the Taj Mahal. When I was a kid you wrote an essay, you asked your parents to read it and they said, “Why would I read your essay?”

Over the years when it comes to homework I’ve tried to be more like my own parents were, more of a helper than a doer and truth be told I’ve been more hands off with each subsequent child not because of them but because of me. This will be my fourth go round at seventh grade and let’s just put it out there, seventh grade was just borderline okay the first time around and maybe even the second time around but I really don’t know many people who could stay engaged for the fourth hit of seventh grade.

So today we’re going to enjoy the last day of summer and tomorrow my youngest son is going to tackle seventh grade.

And, both of us are going to survive.

Probably

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Why I Don’t Regret Being A Stay At Home Mom

Helene and her boysI just finished reading Lisa Endlich Heffernan’s Huffington Post article entitled, Why I Regret Being a Stay-at-Home Mom, (link below) in which she discusses her “misgivings” about her twenty years as a stay at home mom.  And the truth is many of my friends have told me emphatically that Heffernan has given voice to how they feel.  It saddens me that so many of my friends regret their life choices. I would argue that, although currently many of us have reached a transition point, for most of us staying home was the highest and best use of our resources at the time.

In her article Heffernan says,

“Now, on the downslope of parenting, I have misgivings about my decision to stay home. While I don’t know any parent who regrets time spent with their kids, especially kids who have moved on to their own lives — and I include myself among them — in hindsight, my decision seems flawed. Although I am fully aware that being a SAHM was certainly a luxury, staring at an empty nest and very diminished prospects of employment, I have real remorse.”

Heffernan states that being a SAHM was “certainly a luxury” but given the countless woman who are forced to work just to put food on the table and who would give anything to be home with their children, I find that statement to be jarringly glib. We need to be extraordinarily mindful of the gift of choice, a gift that not all women are privileged to enjoy.

Heffernan’s assertion that her decision to stay home for twenty years was “flawed” is also a little too flippant for me.  It’s not like Heffernan ordered the hamburger and fries and then decided she really should have had the salad.  This is the kind of decision you make every day, every month and every year during which you are home with your children. And, what shall we say to mothers who worked outside the home while their children were young and now say they wish they had spent more time at home with their kids? You can never get that time with your children back, they say. Somehow, the grass is always greener.

Over the course of twenty years,  Heffernan contends,  “I stayed home with my kids because I wanted to be with them….I did not stay home because I believed they needed me or that the nanny I had hired could not do a great job.”

If we’re not with our kids because they need us, why are we with them?  Although I was trained as a lawyer, I stayed home with my children because whatever mediocrity I offered the law paled in comparison to the excellence I offered my children, not because I was an outstanding mother but because I was THEIR mother.  Even on my worst day, no nanny, no au pair and no babysitter no matter how highly trained or paid could give them what I could…the imperfect parenting of a mother who loves them perfectly.

Heffernan lays out nine specific reasons for her remorse:

I let down those who went before me.

I used my driver’s license far more than my degrees.

My kids think I did nothing.

My world narrowed.

I got sucked into a mountain of volunteer work.

I worried more.

I slipped into a more traditional marriage.

I became outdated.

I lowered my sights and lost confidence.

As for me:

The feminists who preceded me gave me choices and I thank them for that but I’m under no illusion that my personal choices are meaningful to anyone but me and my immediate family.  My driver’s license and my lawyer’s license are both just pieces of paper and driving my son to a social action project seems far more valuable than reviewing another lease.   I don’t care what my kids think I do, because I know what I do and I know they would be worse off if I didn’t do it.  I’m the adult and in the end, it is my failure if I have not taught them to respect me. Yes, my world is narrow but does working in a white shoe law firm or a high-end financial firm make it any less so?

As for the volunteer work, if it’s not meaningful to you, don’t do it and find some that is meaningful. And while it’s true that when the volunteer work is over, it’s over, there is always more to be done. Does being home mean you worry more about your kids? It can but I know working moms who are extreme hoverers and SAHM moms who are not; less correlation here than you might think.

Slipping into a more traditional marriage would have happened anyway.  The statistics are clear that even full time working mothers do the lion’s share of the childcare and housework.  The only difference is that you would have eventually become Ozzie and Harriet anyway but Harriet would be working and working Harriet would be furious at Ozzie for not pulling his weight at home.

We become outdated and our aspirations for ourselves slip. I think that even when you stay in the workplace eventually you lean on those young men you raised to change the channel on the TV.  We are all on a journey toward obsolescence and sorry, but obsolescence delayed is not obsolescence denied.

I think, for all our purposes we need to reframe the conversation, not to dwell on our regrets but on how we can make child rearing easier for all of us: how to make woman feel less isolated after they have babies, how to afford women who need to work better options for childcare, how to make part-time work more feasible, how to allow women to on-ramp back to work after a lengthy absence, if they so desire and how to be more supportive of each other’s decisions. What is right for one is not right for all.

There are no do-overs for any of us but I feel fortunate to have been able to stay home and do this very challenging job of raising well-adjusted young people. If making a nest for my children meant clipping my own wings then so be it. If I am blessed with thirty more years there may yet be a second act for me. And, if I’m not, this is where I wanted to be but more importantly, this is where my children needed me to be.  These twenty years were my gift to them and to me.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/grown-and-flown/why-i-regret-being-a-stay-at-home-mom_b_3402691.html

Cherishing the Moment….Not So Much

get-attachment-4.aspxI’m a huge fan of Anna Quindlen’s writing.  I recently stumbled upon an excerpt from her book, Loud and Clear, which was published in 2004.  I was in the “thick” of child rearing back when I read it the first time and it made me feel guilty for not “treasuring” my children’s youth more.  In the excerpt, Quindlen talks about how much she’s enjoying her adult children, but then she waxes nostalgic about her children’s babyhood regretfully saying,

“But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of the three of them sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 6, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.”

Well, I’m of a different mind than Quindlen.  I’m just thrilled that that moment has passed.  Does that make me a bad mother? Maybe it does or maybe it just makes me an honest mother.  I’m a better mother to older kids than I was to younger ones.  I found those early years to be physically grueling and endlessly challenging.

And, as for all the things Quindlen doesn’t remember, well, maybe that’s my problem because even with my pathetically poor memory I remember all of those things in living color and with laser sharpness.  Let’s break it down.  I remember what we ate. How could I not? Although, it was barely recognizable as food, I scraped those food-like substances off the floor, the ceiling, the high chair, myself, and my children for years.

I remember what we talked about, the same things over and over and over and over.  Did the kids once in a while say the most penetrating, insightful, adorable stuff?  Of course.  But, in the meantime did they prattle endlessly until I wanted to pull my hair out? You got that straight. Most of all, I remember how they looked as they slept at night because those little bed hogs would often wake us up as they crawled into our bed.  If memory serves, they looked like fully prone starfish as we, their parents perched precariously on the small sliver of bed left to us, and just as an aside, their body temperature was usually upwards of a hundred twenty degrees making the bed more of a steam bath than a bed.

Is it ok to admit that looking at colleges blows away looking at cribs by about a thousand miles? Or that I would choose to grip the sides of the car in abject terror while sitting next to my sixteen year old novice driver rather than watch a two year old take his fiftieth spill from his Big Wheel as he goes up and down the driveway for the millionth time. The former may be hives-inducing but the latter is so excruciatingly mind numbing, as to be physically painful.

Was I in a hurry for them to grow up? Yup. I’ve just never been one of those mothers who wanted to keep her kids young or who wanted to keep them in the moment. And, if I wanted to freeze a moment in time, that moment would be now. Would, I go back to 10, 5 and 1? Not to be young again. Not to be svelte again. Not to be wrinkle-free again. In other words, not for nothing.

Forgive me if I’m just trying to look back without the rose colored glasses.  I can’t remember the good of it (and there was plenty good) without remembering the overwhelming difficulty of it.

I just don’t have a nostalgic bone in my body. And, as I look through old photos searching for a picture to insert with this post, I’m gobsmacked. Those babies of mine. Oh. My. Stars. They were so darn cute!!!!!

If It’s Not One Thing It’s Your Mother

images-3If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.

My relationship with my mother is complicated. Of course it is. She is a product of her childhood, as we all are, and hers really sucked. Big time. She spent her formative years in the Tarnopol ghetto with a front row seat to starvation, cruelty and death. She and her mother escaped from the ghetto right before it was made Judenrein (Jew free) and were hidden in the attic of a barn for a year before being liberated by Russian soldiers. Upon liberation her legs were so atrophied that she had to learn to walk again.

Nowadays, if you have one traumatic experience, you go for years of counseling. But, back then, after the war, you simply carried on.  End of story, or so they thought, but those of us who have been picking up the pieces, know better.

My father gathered mom in and sheltered her in the cocoon of his love. He never pushed her. The boundaries of her comfort zone were narrow and carefully maintained. She took excellent physical care of my brother and me, but emotionally it was a long climb down from that attic and I think she’s still stuck somewhere on one of those downward rungs.

When I was growing up mom had frequent, recurring nightmares about a little girl being chased by the Nazis. Not surprisingly, the little girl in the dream was her. One morning, as I was getting ready to go to school, mom informed me that she had had the dream again but this time when the little girl turned around she realized that the little girl in the dream was me. Recently, while we were driving somewhere mom told my kids that when I was a child she tried not to get attached to me because she was afraid something could happen to me.  She failed in her attempt “not to get attached.”  She didn’t say that.  She didn’t have to. I just know it to be true because she is me and I am her and she and I are bound up in that most complex and timeless dance between mothers and their daughters.

We don’t all get a Hallmark mother.  Some of us get a good enough mother with a great deal of baggage.  If I complained to my father he would beseech me, “ She’s doing the best she can. What do you want from her?”  What indeed?  There are no perfect mothers, just as there are no perfect daughters.  Today, I thank God for the gift of a mother who emerged from her attic prison, bent but not broken, hobbled but not hopeless.

And from one flawed mother to another, I love you, mom.

Happy Mother’s Day.

And So It Begins….

And so it begins, for the third and final time.

Today was my youngest son’s first tutorial for his bar mitzvah. As I wait for him to finish his lesson, I ponder the ways in which it is all so different this third time around. When my oldest son began his bar mitzvah lessons we marked the date of his first lesson on a large paper calendar as if it was some sacrosanct event. In contrast, a half an hour ago my iPhone startled me a bit as an alarm went off reminding me that D had a bar mitzvah lesson. Without that reminder and a nudge from the child himself, this lesson might have been forgotten. And, isn’t that just the way it’s always gone for my sweet, delicious third son.

When I was pregnant with my second child I worried that I wouldn’t be able to love another child as intensely as I loved the first. It turned out that my worry was unwarranted. Each son, in his turn, captured my heart fully and completely. I love each of them with the kind of love that would gladly coopt their pain as my own, and although the depth of my love is no different, I am a different parent to my third child than I was to my first.

The oldest son, of course, got all of the firsts, which has been both his blessing and his burden. I can sense that burden in the seriousness of his character and in the way he worries about all of us. The middle son, with his big personality, divined early on that as neither oldest, nor youngest he needed to declare himself. And, so he has. Loudly.  He has always demanded our attention and we are not likely to forget that he’s in the room. My littlest man is a quiet diplomat who has a gentle soul.  He doesn’t demand attention, or carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, and sometimes I’m afraid he gets a little lost in the shuffle.

His parents are older, wearier, more likely to let things slide but we are also wiser and more weathered. Although, of course, I knew the first time around that a thirteen year old was not a man I truly didn’t realize how long it would take for that chrysalis to turn into a butterfly. I didn’t know that the years before a man emerged from a boy would be filled with such joy, such angst and so much agonizing push/pull. I didn’t know that I was capable of holding my breath for four hours while my son drove to college by himself the first time. And, I didn’t understand that even when they largely resemble men, complete with facial hair and deep voices, inside they are still little boys.

And this is what I think as I sit here listening to the sweet murmur of my baby’s voice. But, I also think that today is a beginning of sorts and a day worthy of blessing and I silently whisper, “Blessed are you God who has preserved me, sustained me and allowed me to arrive at this day and help me God to find the wisdom, patience and fortitude to love and guide this child according to his unique talents and abilities.”

And so it begins, for the third and final time.

Advice To The Daughters I Never Had

If you haven’t read or heard about Susan Patton’s Letter To the Editor in the Daily Princetonian (link below), where have you been?

In her letter, Ms. Patton appeals to the undergraduate women of Princeton, “the daughters” she “never had,” to “Find a husband on campus before they graduate.”   She has been absolutely skewered since writing the piece.  The outsized and outraged reaction caused DP’s website to crash.

There is some truth in what Patton says, if you can wade through the overwhelming amount of self-laudatory crap. But, let’s call this piece what it truly is: a delivery system for good news about Susan Patton.  And, I think that is what most people are objecting to, not necessarily the fundamental idea, but the tone.

Patton begins by giving herself kudos for having maintained her relationship with, “her best friend from freshman year.” She alleges that at the Women and Leadership conference she attended at Princeton, the undergraduate women were avidly interested in how she and her best friend had “sustained a 40 year friendship.” Really?  Is having a long-term friendship fabulous? Definitely.  Is it a subject of rapt fascination for 20 year olds? Um, no. I’m around a fair number of college age kids and I have more than one long-standing friendship.  Not one of the twenty somethings I know, including my own children, has ever expressed a scintilla of interest in how my friends and I sustain our relationships. Sorry, I’m just not buying it.

Then we get to the heart of the matter. Ms. Patton states, “I am the mother of two sons who are both Princetonians.  My older son had the good judgment and great fortune to marry a classmate of his, but he could have married anyone.” Really?   He could have married anyone?  Anyone? I think Patton just wanted to inform the Princeton community that her sons go/went to Princeton and that her older son is married and, better yet, he married a girl who went to Princeton. The younger son’s dating potential is, according to mama, “limitless.” Oy. I hope the younger son has entered the witness protection program. Poor kid.

But, putting Ms. Patton’s self-aggrandizement aside, I think she makes a fair point. I knew people in college who made silly lists of qualities for potential dates, not too short, not too thin/heavy, brown hair/blonde hair and so on.  Susan Patton is correct that college is one of those critical times in life. Don’t make lists that confine you. Look at your classmates with an open mind. Making friends is every bit as important, if not more so, than the classes you take.  And, you never know, your best friend or your life partner or both may be sitting next to you in class.

So, here is what I would tell “the daughters I never had”: College is a fantastic place to meet someone but if you don’t meet “the one” in college don’t panic.  There’s time. Don’t say, “He’s too nice.” Nice boys generally grow up to be nice men and nice men are, well, nice. If a guy is crazy about you, put that in the plus column, bolded and highlighted.  Look for red flags and if you see them, don’t walk, run. Don’t pass up the very good for the perfect because perfect doesn’t exist. Choose someone who makes you laugh because at the end of the day you want to spend a lot of time with someone who makes you laugh. If you can’t stand to be with someone even if they have a 200 IQ or 200 billion dollars, say goodbye. It’s just not worth it.

And, I would tell my mythical daughter the same thing I will tell my real son.  You will meet the right person at the right time.  And, when you meet that person you will know, maybe not immediately, but you will know.

Trust your own judgment. I do.  And, remember dad and I love you.

http://www.dailyprincetonian.com

Quiet Moments of Joy

french-laundry-garden.jpgIt’s about the small stuff.

I have long lost any patience I once had for sixth grade math homework.  Or, let’s be honest, I was never really any good at sixth grade math but, nonetheless, I’m attempting to help my youngest son with his nightly math assignment.  My oldest son is home from college for the week and he dismisses me. “Why are you yelling at him?” he asks, followed by, “I’ve got this mom.”  I skulk into the family room but surreptitiously watch them.  Their heads are bent together, the little one and the big one, and I feel a physical ache in my heart.  Watching the people you love, love each other, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I’m having a moment, a quiet moment of joy.

I once thought that joy came from the big milestone events in life like weddings, graduations, bar mitzvahs or the birth of a child.  But, maybe I’m just too neurotic for that to be the case.   For me, those big events are always completely fraught with anxiety.  Who will wake up with the plague the day of the big event because, let’s face it, you know someone will. Is everyone having fun at the party, even the scowling old people with the earplugs? Does everyone have the appropriate clothes? I mean, those pants fit him ten minutes ago. Can a teenage boy outgrow his clothes in a week?

I have found that happiness comes in the small moments of joy that creep up on me in an ordinary day.  Some of the moments are part of the daily routine like that first sip of hot coffee on a cold morning and the morning telephone conversation with my daily callers to reconnect after the night.  Then there are the moments that are purely sensory delights; the feel of the sun on your face after a long, grey winter, the sight of a beautiful sunset or the thrill of hearing your favorite song on the radio.

Some moments of joy surprise you.  There’s the moment that you realize you’ve made a connection with someone and your relationship with an acquaintance has deepened into a friendship.  Recently, I ran into someone who told me that some long forgotten thing I said to her years ago gave her great comfort at the time. That was a joyful moment for me.

But, the best moments for me are when I see my children interacting with each other as adults.   Big and middle shop together now, consult on fashion, talk about relationships and I think to myself,  “You had a hand in this. You nurtured these brothers who are now capable of giving and receiving advice, support, encouragement and love.”  It’s a heady moment.

So, milestones will come and go, together with their attendant stresses, but here I stand, full of wonder, waiting and hoping for more of the small stuff, more quiet moments of joy.

All My Life’s A Circle….

Life is funny in its circularity. Not haha funny but wistful.

My oldest son had a bank CD which was about to roll over so, given the abysmal interest rates, we decided to close it rather than allow it to roll over. We went to the bank this morning.  I was the custodian of the account and it turns out the account was opened in 1998 when my son was just six. As we were closing the account certain things became clear. I no longer needed to be the custodian. It’s his money, as it was always intended to be. I have been removed. Oh, let’s not get melodramatic. I haven’t been removed from his life but in some ways it’s another small rip in the fabric that binds us. It’s a process and we’ve been tearing off that band-aid for a while now. I’m not a sentimental person, but I had a strange lump in my throat at the memory of that adorable six- year-old boy transformed into a twenty one year old man of whom I’m insanely proud. And, it’s all good. It’s as it should be but, even so, it makes me a little sad.

This has dovetailed with my mother asking me to be a joint account holder on several of her bank accounts.  I understand that it’s her way of giving up control. It’s her way of falling back. It’s never been a question of trust but it’s a hard thing to give someone that kind of carte blanche authority over your finances. She needs me more than she ever has. Perhaps life is a series of tightening and loosening of the bonds with the people we love or a constant redefining of our roles as either the caregiver, or the cared for.

And, as I sat at that bank I thought that if life plays out as it normally does the next time my oldest son and I have a joint account it will be because he is accepting responsibility for me and not vice versa.

And that, my friends, is the most terrifying thought of all.

My bio…. (a stay-at-home mom’s response to a request for her bio)

Trying to write a short bio on myself for a committee I wanted to be on opened up a Pandora’s box of issues for me.  It got me to wondering how to define what I’ve done with the last twenty years of my life.  I was born in the early 60s and was blessed to grow up in a home where education was stressed. I went to a fine University and then followed that up with three years of law school.  At that time, the wisdom of the crowd was that a woman could have it all.  I balked at all the traditional women’s career choices such as teaching because “I was better than that.”  Yet, inside I had no doubt that someday I wanted to be a mom.  In fact, from the time I was very little playing dolls with my friends the one thing I was certain of was that I wanted to be a mom.  I guess you could say that being a mom was my passion.

I was blessed to marry young and luckily my husband was on board with the whole children concept.  I had my first son four years after starting work as a lawyer. I soon found that I could not have it all.  Others found a way but I could not and as my father said, “The law will have many masters, your children will have only one mother.” My husband, also a lawyer, worked crazy hours and was earning enough for me to stop working.  It would be a falsehood to say that I was devastated to leave work, but staying home was also an adjustment and never easy.  For a thinking person to watch an infant drool or to keep a toddler from drinking lye eighteen hours a day is probably just a hair worse than waterboarding. I do not look back on those early days with great joy.  Two more sons followed and the insanity of three children left little time to think about personal sacrifice or fulfillment.  I did a lot of volunteer work at the kids’ school, made fantastic friends, built community and made our house a home.  Along the way, I have become a decent cook, a passable hostess, an outstanding chauffeur and an unlicensed pediatrician who rarely needs a tongue depressor to know if a child has strep. In twenty years I have never been bored. Now, with the kids older and more independent I stare at a blank page and think they want to know what I’ve done for the last twenty years. What do I write?

Well, how’s this? For twenty years I’ve “been there.”  I have been there for my husband, my sons, my friends, my parents, my in-laws and my extended family, some more than others. I am not perfect and sometimes I’m not even good but I have tried really hard. Sometimes “being there” is easy.  Sometimes it’s just about spending fun time with people, but sometimes it’s really hard.  I’ve been there to rub my friend’s back at her brother’s burial and just maybe that meant more to her and to me than any brief I would have written or any deal I might have closed as a lawyer.  And, sometimes  “being there” is just what it sounds like, the day in/day out drudgery of “being there.”  I am here every afternoon at 4PM when my slightly anxious sixteen year old calls and asks who’s picking him up? After all these years of hearing the same answer you might think he would be a little less concerned.  I am here every night even though I can barely stand the sound of my own voice when I hear myself saying “please take out your homework” for the hundredth time to my twelve year old. In the end, most of it is about those three boys of mine. Even though I know life is a crapshoot, I am here every day loving them, shaping them, praying that if I stay here they will grow up strong and healthy, loving and capable.  And, I am here because I want to be here.  This is really what I always wanted to do and I don’t have a single regret.

So put that in your bio and smoke it.