Friday, August 30, 2013

Enough

Recently I read this little gem on the Internet. It was an article reviewing a study that had been conducted by a German social science group on a sampling of approximately 1,400 children in Western Australia over a number of years, asking for parent-directed feedback on their behavior at ages 5,8, and 10. Of this sampling, there was a significant correlation between increased negative and/or aggressive behavior among boys who have fathers working on average more than 55 hours per week. Similar statistical patterns did not follow among fathers who on average worked less hours, and among the girls in the same statistical group.[1]

This of course made me think of that tasty little Pew study that came out not too many months ago equally skewering female breadwinners. In Pew’s survey on the increasing role of female breadwinners, they offered up an awesome little public opinion component where they sampled approximately 1,000 people who indicated that women’s increased presence in the workforce makes it harder to raise children.[2] So you see if you’ve got a hardworking father figure in your family or a smart ambitious mom, you can bet you’ll have a hell of a time raising those rowdy, aggressive kids.
Of course if you are a woman who chooses to circumvent these problems by “opting out” of your career, you and your family might also be in trouble as this widely circulated article suggests.[3] You ladies are truncating your career trajectories just as you start to step on the most important rungs of the ladder. You’ll never get back what you were professionally. You will never be able to command what you once did in salary. And of course going from a two income household to one income might just strain your marriage enough that you just might end up penniless and divorced with little or no future income prospects. Imagine just how aggressive your kids are going to feel then.
So let me just sum this up for you. If you live in a home where your husband works long hours, this seems to be bad. If you live in a house where the woman is the breadwinner, this too is bad. And if you choose to stay home with your children and not work, this also can be very bad. In summary, all of us, regardless of what we choose, are doing a horrible job!

And frankly, this national non-discussion where we berate ourselves and our families and our neighbors for things which we may or may not have within our control is really becoming quite tiresome. Work! Don’t work! Work sort of – but not too much. Lean! But don’t fall over. We aren’t raising a generation of aggressive kids. We are raising a generation of passive aggressive and thoroughly confused adults.
We are all doing the best we can do, for ourselves, and for our kids. To argue that any of these studies and articles which are being conducted and widely disseminated and then exhaustively dissected over social media ultimately benefit working (or not working as it may be) parents by creating a discussion about work alternatives is a complete fallacy. There are no substantive policy discussions being generated here about how to create more flexible work options for families. There is just a lot of judging and making people feel bad about stuff that they probably can’t choose anyway.

Many hardworking people I know who work long hours are doing it because they have to.  It s a first world problem to think we all have the luxury of choosing by design how and when and for how long we do or don’t want to work. The majority of us are driven by some combination of financial incentives and needs as well as (and equally important) some combination of personal ambition and drive. That doesn’t negate the fact that we love the crap out of our kids. And making people feel badly about stuff they have to do or choose to do (even under the guise of social science and public opinion) doesn’t necessarily make it more useful.
I do not know what it will take to advance the national dialogue beyond this loop, putting an end to the painful circular process of punishing everyone I possibly know for everything they do or don’t do when all they’ve ever really wanted to is to be productive members of society who love their kids a whole hell of a lot. But when we finally do it will perhaps be because we have finally recognized that happy kids and happy companies need the same things: parents who have the support they need to get up every day knowing they will once again try to be everything to everyone and probably fail, but in the struggle find enough opportunity and joy to make it all worthwhile.




[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/28/aggressive-behavior-in-boys-dads_n_3830591.html?utm_source=concierge&utm_medium=onsite&utm_campaign=sailthru%2Bslider%2B
[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/29/single-moms-pew-research-_n_3349525.html
[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/11/magazine/the-opt-out-generation-wants-back-in.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Steady Pull

My father always used to say the amazing thing about the change in seasons in New England is that it always feels as if someone has flipped a switch. Seemingly overnight, summer fades and the first peek at fall begins. This past weekend, we went to our favorite little breakfast spot. There, we literally had our first bite of fall. They were serving up Apple Cider Donuts which, if you’ve never had one, might just be the greatest thing on earth. It was cake-y and left our fingers and lips sugary. With every bite I could feel summer getting farther away. On the drive home, we started to notice trees that had inexplicably already started to turn colors and leaves that had started to drop. At night we lit our last three sparklers, left over from July, and spent a few extra minutes on the swing set. When we put the kids to bed, it was already dark. When had that earlier sunset crept up on us?

The momentum was gathering, a long lazy summer of PJs and hours in the backyard and swimming pools and popsicles was coming to a close. I have mostly loved this long unstructured time with them. But I know they are ready and hungry for more. Dylan started counting down the days till Kindergarten last week. I guess Camp Mommy, with all of its promise at the beginning of summer, must really be sucking by now. I mean truly, how many times can you watch the Mission Marvel episode of Phineas and Ferb and call it educational?
At any rate, they are both ready for school to begin. I had visions of what each of their first days would be like. I would carefully pick out first day outfits and dress them like someone else’s children, all neat and finely pressed. There would be lots of pictures at Dylan’s bus stop and I would sob uncontrollably as the bus pulled away. We would lovingly settle Ruby into her preschool room as a family. And I guess it went something like that. If by something like that I mean nothing like that at all.

Dylan woke up and was completely dressed in his favorite mostly wrinkled mostly clean Ninjago shirt, teeth brushed with shoes and back pack on by 6:45AM. At 8AM even though we explained the bus wouldn’t be there for another 15 minutes, Dylan could no longer be contained. So we all went outside to wait for the big moment as a family. Phil brought the video camera. I had the still camera. We would use the extra time to capture this moment of sending our first born off to school, for posterity.
But because life is not a fan of plans, the bus arrived 15 minutes earlier than expected. We did a light jog so as to not miss it (which ps most of our neighbors did). There were no pictures and I don’t think I even said goodbye to him. The doors closed and just like that he was gone. My baby. My first born. Off on some school bus version of Speed. There was no time for mommy tears which I guess was probably a good thing and I said a silent prayer for his safe arrival at a school literally 1.1 miles away. Then we turned our attention to Ruby. I got off a couple of pictures of her but the classroom was already bustling by the time we showed up. Phil kept yelling at me to leave because I was hovering too much and just like that, Ruby was launched in her new room. Two babes – a new school year. And off we go.

As I pulled out of the preschool parking lot on this gray morning of stumbles and starts, a Jonatha Brooke song that I hadn't heard in way too long played on, singing of the danger in complacency and the steady pull of things unseen. Time is passing and the seasons seem to be turning a bit more quickly. They seem to be growing a bit faster than I’d like, and the more steady and constant I feel the pull of stuff I can’t touch or manage, yet somehow that feels right. A bit uneasy, but right.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Walking With Friends

I spent this past weekend doing something that has literally been I think 8 or 9 years in the making: I went away with two of my very good friends. How completely unremarkable is that? Ever since we became mothers, we spoke and started to plan but amazingly never actually pulled together one single kid-free, husband-free moment in that entire time. We held our friendship together through playdates and birthday parties, holidays, and whispered phone calls in the middle of nap time, and work time. We had laughed and shared in each others’ lives, but I don’t think we’d legitimately finished a complete and honest thought with each other in years. That is until this weekend.

We went somewhere relatively unremarkable that was within 1-2 hours of all of us. And it didn’t really matter where we were, because when we got there we followed a simple formula that we could’ve used in just about any spot in the country: we walked and talked. Truly, that was it. We were completely agenda-less with ourselves and each other for an entire 24 hours. To tell you that it was liberating and clarity inducing and truly therapeutic in every sense of the word would legitimately be an understatement.
There are many things that I love about being a mother and specifically my children’s mother, but something that is always there that I think I underestimated in how particularly challenging it can feel on a day to day basis, is that pervasive pace that children somewhat instinctively set for the day of what is coming next? What’s the plan? Where are we going? How long till we are there? When we get there, what will we do? Maybe I’m a crappy parent for overly managing the expectation that I can answer those questions and that this is why they constantly ask them. Or maybe they just ask them because they are 3 and 5. But either way, I totally undervalued how much this was starting to wear on me.

And so we met up and we walked. And when we got hungry we ate. And then we walked some more. And if we were tired, we sat on a bench. If we saw a market or store that looked interesting, we went inside; not to buy anything, but just because. And then we wandered aimlessly about the markets and stores just browsing. We didn’t look at our watches for nearly the entire afternoon. When we realized at 6:30pm that we wanted our toes painted, we dipped into the nearest salon and painted them.  And the whole time we talked and actively listened to each other. We shared our stories and finished thoughts that had been left unfinished maybe for 8+ years or maybe just for 8+ minutes.
We meandered and sauntered and laughed and ate. It was truly heavenly. The next morning I woke up at 6:34AM which frustrated me to no end on my one kid-free morning so I went back to bed and slept until 9AM. It was delightful. We ate brunch and there was more talking and strolling and strawberry butter. And after just about 24 hours together it was time to part ways again. I felt completely restored.

I was left with some sharp reminders of seemingly obvious stuff that I had clearly forgotten in recent times. Firstly, I was reminded of the importance of having friends. Not particularly of the need to have a lot of them or to do spectacular things with the ones you have, but just one or two really good folks, the ones who you can spend a whole day with doing absolutely nothing and everything at the same time. 
And last but not least, I was reminded of the friend I’d missed the most: me. When I returned home to my family I felt so calm and refreshed. I felt so humbled and grateful for them. My brief time away had been truly good for all of us. Indeed good friends and family restore your soul and help put mommies back together, even mommies who might not realize the extent to which they had started to become a bit undone or broken.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Some Say You Should Teach A Child To Swim

In the Talmud, a set of ancient rabbinical teachings, Jewish parents are instructed to teach their children 3 core things: the Torah, a trade, and how to swim. I’m not sure how well we are doing on the first two, but we’ve taken that last piece to heart.

I found myself reflecting on this as I watched them in the pool this morning. It was their second to last swim lesson before the new school year started. The progress they’ve made in the pool over the past few months is remarkable. They are confident, eager to try new strokes, eager to learn. They soak up knowledge and readily apply it in the pool. And their hard work is showing. Dylan confidently jumps in and can swim multiple strokes with a fairly high degree of skill nearly the whole length of an Olympic sized pool. At just 3 years old, Ruby is confidently jumping in as well. She shows no fear in nearly 5 feet of water, carefully keeping herself afloat as she watches her brother and begins to move her arms, the primitive beginnings of her own crawl stroke.
It was one of those moments when I saw my kids. I mean really saw them. Saw how much they’d grown up even in just one summer. They weren’t babies. They weren’t just keeping themselves afloat. They were really swimming. They were scanning the pool for my approval and thumbs up, not for my arms to encircle them and hold them up.

This seems right. Especially for Dylan who begins Kindergarten in just two weeks. While I know that I will be an emotional mess on that day, I have no doubt in mind that he is completely ready for this next chapter: a new bus, new school, new classmates and teacher. There will be a whole host of challenges and I can just see how ready he is to dive into it, ready to soak it up. I’m not worried.  I’m perhaps a little nostalgic and pregnancy-driven hormonal. But I have no hesitation about his ability to not just meet any challenges but even to embrace them; to struggle, to pull himself up for air. I know now he can do it.
For Ruby too, she is beginning a new year of preschool. Yet again she will surely be the youngest in her class which from a social and emotional perspective will almost certainly be daunting. But as I watch her in the pool, I see her readiness to go farther, a little deeper. She is not scared. I am, but she is not. At a lake that she had never been in yesterday, I watched as she ventured well beyond my reach. But I stayed close. I knew I could get to her in an instant if I had to. But I wanted her to try. To feel confident and free to go farther than she’d gone before. We were all out of our comfort zone. She flailed and floated and kicked and glided. She proved herself and all of us wrong and swam right on by.

Whether literal or figurative, the Talmud commands us to teach our children to swim. Regardless of the interpretation, I know we’ve made significant strides this summer to do just that. And in the process, they have taught me something about their ability to achieve and learn and progress through dogged determination, to readily exceed baseline expectations that I think we tend to set somewhat arbitrarily low for kids simply based on their young age. Our job as parents is to keep them safe. One way in which Phil and I are trying to do this is by reminding them of just how strong and capable and resilient they truly are, both in and out of the water. As we move forward out of our long wet summer and into a new school year, my wish for them is that they continue to go still deeper into the waters, testing, pushing, thriving. I will be there, not to hold them up but to encourage them to go farther than they’ve gone before, all the while cheering them on.