Thursday, March 26, 2009

Blank Slate

Tonight was our third Parents' Book Club meeting at the high school. The Club was conceived in part from a sense that as our children grow, we have fewer opportunities and forums for sharing the triumphs and travails of parenting, despite having just as many questions about whether or not we're doing it right.

As a parent of young children, my husband and I have numerous occasions to touch base with other parents: at school drop-off and pick-up, at the playground, at sports games and birthday parties, and in front yards in our neighborhood as our kiddoes zoom around on scooters and Big Wheels. We also still feel some license to discuss our children's habits and peculiarities; we've bonded over the vagaries of poop, pee, and vomit.

But at some point it won't be cool for us moms to talk about our kids and how and when they go to the bathroom. As our children grow into independence, boundaries between adult and child grow more distinct. Trust and respect between us and our children will be predicated upon appreciating their needs for privacy.

But we can't parent in a vacuum; we will still need our village. We will still need reassurance that we're not completely crazy, unreasonable, and unfit parents. We need comfort in knowing that our peers will supervise our children in their care--not so much so they won't run in the street or use the sharp scissors, more so they don't raid the liquor cabinet or initiate a game of strip poker. We will still need strategies, insights, and warning signs.

Parents' Book Club seemed like a non-threatening way to bring parents together to provide one another with listening ears and support. So far this year we've read Michael Riera's Staying Connected to Your Teenager, Kindlon and Thompson's Raising Cain and Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes, and Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers, by Chap Clark.

Our discussion this evening was on Clark's book, a sort of anthropological look at adolescents. Feeling like I take an anthropological look at teens on a daily basis, the book held few surprises but confirmed much of what I've learned over the years, particularly in my role as vice principal. And one major conclusion I've drawn (true, arguably, for kids any age) is that teenagers want adults to demonstrate genuine interest in who they are as individuals, and they want to be taken seriously.

Four years ago Vanity Fair magazine sponsored an essay contest on the topic, "What is on the Minds of Youth Today?" Feeling fairly qualified to expound on the subject, I submitted an entry. My thesis was, essentially, we should ask the kids what's on their minds; we spend too much time and money (marketing to teens) making assumptions about their thoughts and concerns.

I didn't win, darn it, but as consolation I humbly published my own essay in newsletter/journal of which I am co-editor, ha ha. You can read my essay here in The Dialogue, the publication associated with the San Diego Area Writing Project (educators' professional development organization).

I haven't officially parented any teens yet, and I've struggled mightily enough with my own five-and-unders. So I will continue to seek all the help, advice, and support I can get as my children grow.

It is impossible to quantify how grateful I am every day for my "village."

Monday, March 23, 2009

'fessing up don't always fix it, sister.

Last weekend Daddy was out of town, leaving me and the girls.

The first tactical error was thinking that I could buy myself some Me Time on Friday night by setting my daughters up in our bedroom with a movie. My vision included them falling asleep mid-film. I would just crawl into bed later and join the slumbering angels, their little innocent countenances glowing in the light of the TV screen, credits rolling.

Nothing doing. When the movie ended at 10PM they were wide awake, overtired, and DEMANDING. Little C insisted on staying in my bed. Kindergartner M preferred sleeping in her own bed, but didn't want Little C sleeping in ours without her. There was arguing, fit throwing, threats, crying, and finally...sleep. Husband absent, I kicked myself in bed for piss-poor planning and unrealistic expectations.

Curiously enough, everyone appeared cheerful in the morning. Kindergartner offered to make Breftist. All By Herself. Great! says me. And sister liked the idea, too.

Breftist comprised bowls of blueberry yogurt and untoasted English muffins slathered with strawberry jam, served up at the little table in the kitchen. Little C ate her muffin and licked her bowl. Big Sis? Not so much. The Breftist she put together apparently wasn't her favorite. I asked her to please finish the yogurt she so generously served herself.

She balked. "But I don't like that kind," she whimpered.

"Well, honey, you chose it. I'd like you to eat it. You may have something else when you finish your yogurt."

She pouted. Stared at her yogurt. Stirred it around in her bowl. I grew bored of the drama and left the kitchen. Five minutes later she declared herself done. I verified her empty bowl and morning pastimes resumed.

About twenty minutes later she appeared at my side, Little C trailing behind.

"Mama, I need to tell you something." She hung her head and shook it regretfully.

"Uh oh," I predicted. "What happened?"

"Well, you know when I finished my yogurt?" I nodded. "Actually, I made my sister eat it."

I looked at Little Sister. She nodded gravely. "Did you eat your sister's yogurt?"

She grinned and rubbed her tummy. "Can I have more?"

Oh for heaven's sake.

"See, Mommy? She liked my yogurt."

"Yes, but, you knew that was wrong. And while being honest about it later is commendable, we still need to work on not doing the naughty thing in the first place, right?"

Yeah, yeah...whatever you say, Mommy. Can I have a snack?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Long and the Short of It

On my last trip to Target I fell prey to Product Placement and Retail Suggestion: in the "$9.99 and Under" section was a "Boggle to Go!" set which I could not resist. Honestly, though, who needed a travel version of Boggle? It wasn't exactly an unwieldy game in its original inception. On, by the way, I learned that you can pay an extra dollar to make this game LESS portable.

It would be fair to say I was seduced by Price Point. But actually, it was more sentimental for me. It was time for me to own Boggle. And my daughter, I thought, is just maybe ready to try it.

Tonight our kindergartener's homework ranged from identifying which ribbon is longer or shorter to understanding and correctly placing quotation marks in a story (Gulp! We're still working on this skill with 11th graders?). I held the Ribbon Game as a Homework Holy Grail as we toiled through sh- and wh- worksheets.

The Ribbon Game was simple: Cut out the pre-printed strips of paper featuring "ribbons" of various lengths. Place them in a bag. Each player pulls a "ribbon" and compares. Whoever has the longest (determined by the kindergartener, of course), keeps both. The person with the most ribbons at the end of the game wins.

I frontloaded this activity by suggesting to my competitive daughter that some games require skill and some are based on luck. This one, we agreed, relied on good fortune, as there would be no way to "try harder."

Okay, cool. We're ready to play; let's hope for no tears.

And guess what? I won the first round, with a strip of stars longer than her line of stripes. But the next two in a row were all hers. I watched her begin to stress out. Her shoulders slumped as her ribbon proved longer than mine in the third go.

"What's wrong?" I asked, curious.

"I want you to win, Mama."

"Hey, this is a game of luck, kiddo! Don't worry! It's okay if your ribbon is longer! Let's pull another."

And the next pair, she acknowledged with an audible sigh, was hers too. She handed me both crumpled papers. "You keep them, Mama."

Suddenly tears sprang to my eyes, and I thought of Boggle.

My grandma, my father's mother, loved word games. She was crazy about crosswords, and she also loved Scrabble and Boggle. When she came to visit us, as her oldest grandchild I was often the focus of her attention, which translated into hours of Boggle at the kitchen counter.

I became pretty good at that game, though I played it almost exclusively with my Grandma. There was something about her and my sense of her pride that made me want her to win most of the time. In order to maintain my interest in the game but also allow her to prevail during most rounds, I created some unspoken rules for myself. The 3X3 Boggle grid allows for words of three letters or more to count; I would limit myself to writing down words of four letters or more. When the little hourglass ran out, if Grandma were still immersed in word-finding, I would try to imperceptibly stop writing as she jotted a few more answers.

I'm pretty sure she wasn't on to me.

And I didn't think a lot about that little private arrangement I had with myself and my Grandma until tonight. It was the newly-acquired Boggle game which provided the triangulation for my amazement that even at the tender age of 5, my little daughter usually so bent on winning--not annoyingly yet, but certainly notably--was working on her own accommodations for those around her whom she perceived needed her TLC to Stay in the Game.

"Why do you look sad, Mama?" she queried as she simultaneously registered her disappointment over "winning" the game of Paper Ribbon Strips and noticed my emotional moment.

"I'm thinking about my Grandma, Sweetie," I swallowed. "And I am also feeling grateful that you wanted me to win."

Grandma, I want you to know that the Online Bogglers are cheaters (and those who aren't are SCARY smart). And that you would appreciate your little wordy great granddaughter.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Spooky Crew

Every kiddo has her quirks. Not to be confused with the strange habits that are actually agreed-upon behaviors adopted by a National Association of Toddlers. For example, our firstborn went through a stage during which she would not allow me to sing. Not in the car, not at home. I was not even allowed to hum. Any utterance from me that sounded remotely melodic would incite a shrieky "Mommy! NO SINGING!"

I thought it was bizarre. Then I found out that most mothers of two-to-three-year-olds are also not permitted to sing. Why? I do not know. All I know is that my same daughter, now five, regularly hands me the microphone and begs me to sing the karaoke version of Aladdin's "A Whole New World." And I comply. Because I am a good Mommy. And because I can rock that song.

Meanwhile, our three-year-old covers her ears in protest because she is a new member of the Facebook Group, "My Mom Sings; MAKE IT STOP."

Our second child has some other interesting characteristics. A little Goldilocks, she won't eat if her food is either too hot or too cold. Normally frozen foods, like POPSICLES, must be mummified in towels so her little paws don't get cold. And if we warm up our dinner--you know, cook it--we have to put hers in the freezer afterwards so it doesn't resemble food that was ever warm by the time she puts a bite near her lips. In that regard, she's high maintenance. And just a little annoying.

Every night when she goes to bed, yes, she has to have her blanket just so, and of course, she has to have the flower light on, and then, she has to have a kiss and a hug and finally, she tells whichever parent is present that she needs to tell a secret. And the secret is usually something like, "Ummmm....remember when we went to Disneyland....and I was...there?"

Yes, yes, I do. Thank you for that. NOW GO TO SLEEP.

But she doesn't go to sleep. This is the part where she hunts through her toys in various drawers and bins for those she has deemed "scary," and when she finds them, she dumps the offenders just outside her bedroom door out of sight. The Bat and the Snake, along with the Dragon and Witch from Sleeping Beauty are usual suspects in this exclusion drama, but once in a while, a rather innocent-looking smiling yellow dinosaur is included in the bunch.

Each morning we put these items back in what seems to us to be a bottomless pit of plastic toy doodads. And impossibly, each night she uncovers the very same ones and unceremoniously rejects them. It's a little household mystery with a strange consistency.

So I capture here the collection of scary critters whose presence in her bedroom threatens our three-year-old's timely slumber.

That would be the three-year-old who regularly threatens our timely slumber.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Risk of Changing It Up

I thought I would wear something a little different to school today. Something from my closet, natch, but something other than say, button-down shirt and slacks. Something besides shirt and slacks. Something different from blazer and skirt. I tend toward funky jewelry and I have some sassy shoes, but lately, certain circumstances have been limiting my wardrobe.

I've been less than inventive. So you know what that means: anything off, anything different, say, haircut or color, brighter lipstick, or new belt or outfit, is That Much More Noticeable to those who are paying attention. Like the 1000 teenagers I see everyday.

Well, heck. I was getting sick of the couple of pairs of pants that still fit. So I dusted off a tiered black skirt and paired it with a turquoise-camisole-and-black-blouse combo. I added a turquoise necklace and my black cowboy boots--the ones with turquoise cutouts. I usually don't go so matchy-matchy. But this was not that obvious, I thought, as I threw on a black cardigan because it was cold this morning.

It was our late-school start/morning staff meeting day. I had a few compliments from colleagues on my fresh ensemble by the time I began striding across the quad en route to the Multi-Purpose Room. I wasn't feeling overly confident, however; I was under caffeinated and grumpy. But I was secretly glad that something was working, if not my husband's turn to set up the damn coffee maker.

By 10:10 I had downed the Triple-Non-Fat Latte I suggested would be appropriate for my husband to drop off at school and it was "Nutrition" Break for the kids. I headed out to the quad to mingle. One student, I had heard, had just been accepted to Macalester College; I would congratulate him and exchange sarcastic witticisms with his group of friends as usual.

But before I could be sincerely congratulatory, I was stopped cold by one student's greeting.

"Hello there, Ms. M.," she chirped, appraising me up and down. "Ummm...where is Shania Twain, and why are you wearing her outfit?"


Oh how I tried to come up with a witty lyrical reference. But my shallow store of country discography had me morphing Twain with Hill, and instead of proclaiming "Man, I Feel Like a Woman!" I mumbled something about a "slow and steady rush." And then I threatened a referral for that girl if I heard any more Shania Twain allusions before the end of the day.

Onward and upward. I am gearing up for Stevie Nicks Day.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Power of XX

Today was my mom's birthday, and it happened to coincide with the nationwide screening of the documentary film A Powerful Noise, in anticipation of International Women's Day. My mother and two sisters-in-law and I went out for a glass of wine and the movie, which was followed by a live panel discussion featuring Madeline Albright, Natalie Portman, Christy Turlington Burns and others involved in women's health and advocacy.

The film, about three women (from Vietnam, Bosnia/Herzegovina, and Mali) who have initiated programs to empower women in their communities, was enlightening, sobering, humbling, and inspiring. On the way home in the car my sisters-in-law and I discussed the strength of women, which, in contrast with men's strength, cannot be so easily characterized as physical. Our strength is often more subtle and manifests in a variety of ways, particularly when in the service of family, as perseverance, fortitude, resilience, defiance, loyalty.

It felt fitting to suggest to my mother that we honor her birthday by attending an event in honor of strong women. My mother has taught me many, many things (beyond how to cook without recipes and to properly clean a toilet), but one moment's lesson in particular has stayed with me and resonates in the words of Madeline Albright on tonight's panel: "There is a special place in hell for women who do not support other women."

It was a December evening; I think I must have been of middle school age. Our town was holding its Holiday Open House, and my mother and I were walking to meet the rest of my family uptown where the stores were open for the evening and a parade would commence. I remember it still being light; it must have been no later than 5 PM. We were walking briskly down the block and approaching the recessed entrance of our local Vons store when a couple burst out of the automatic doors. In a flash, and before I could register what was happening, the man in the pair pushed the woman up against the wall adjacent to the entrance and, hands on her shoulders, hollered something threatening in her face. It was the most frightening and violent exchange I had personally witnessed since a fight in the bathroom at the roller rink three years prior.

My mother didn't hesitate. She strode over, shouted at the man to "Leave her alone!" and pulled the woman aside, advising her that she "shouldn't allow anyone to treat her that way," and to "Get help," all the while suffering the profane abuse of a cowardly man called out by a woman in public. He directed his own woman to follow him, and she ruefully complied, after thanking my mother.

I remember experiencing myriad emotions as a witness to this event: among them fear, followed by the embarrassment of my mother inserting herself in this intimate drama played out on a busy sidewalk. But my personal mortification quickly gave way to fierce pride, awe, and admiration of my mother.

I was old enough to understand domestic abuse existed but sheltered enough to not have seen it firsthand. I was horrified by the trap this woman inhabited. I began to understand it that night: her fear, her lack of control, her sense that she had no options.

So many bystanders had turned away in discomfort; not my mother. In that moment she bestowed upon me the responsibility of acting in the face of injustice. I would not be able to use as an excuse for inaction fear or timorousness and I certainly couldn't claim that my response would make no ultimate difference. It's more than possible that my mother did not save that woman's life that night, but I know she affected mine. Part of my middle-school mortification was my awareness that other witnesses focused later on my mother's bold actions in contrast with their own; surely she affected their lives as well.

I have never forgotten that evening and how my outspoken, opinionated mother acted courageously on behalf of another woman.

How strong, then, must be our community of women. Not just in the face of physically strong and abusive men. But in the face of all that daunts us and holds us back--all that convinces us we are not worthy nor able.

My mother has shown me that silent lips, in fact, can sink silent ships. Speak up and speak out, she has taught me. Always a champion of women with fewer resources and rights, more recently, my mother has embraced her local community of women as they support one another and their own children in death and divorce, grandmotherhood and career transitions.

What can you say about a mom who truly taught you to be a woman? Happy birthday, my capable and courageous mother: I thank you for my strength.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Parenting Verses (Versus Before)

I like me a good poetry challenge now and then, so I was excited on Monday to see that Brian over at Looky, Daddy! had come off of blogging hiatus to open his Third Annual Haiku Madness.

I was disappointed on Wednesday morning to note that I had missed the deadline to enter my own parenting haiku in his contest. Never you worry, though; the potential of prize is not necessary for me to spend my day distracted by five-seven-five-syllable lines of glib goodness.

Here's what I've got by the end of the work day:

Parenting low point:
Even I eat Cheerios
Off the floor of car.

I used to sleep in.
Now I just sleep whenever--
Mostly mid-movie.

As for Mom's night out,
Let me stay home alone, please.
Everyone else, OUT!

Family: two kids,
Plus our marriage (the third child)--
always on Time Out.