My parenting time these days seems to be split equally between putting out fires and quietly fading into the background. Things go from one extreme to the other around here pretty quickly. It’s fire and ice. Spicy or mild. Extra crispy or original recipe. (Author’s note: I probably shouldn’t write when I’m hungry.)
The point is, when my kids need me – they need me.
Mom, I need you to wash my uniform!
Mom, I need you to take me to the mall!
Mom, I need you to sign this form!
But when they don’t need me, I am largely overlooked. I am not reviled; I am not adored. I am simply there. A permanent fixture, like a banister on a staircase or salt on a pretzel. Necessary, functional, but not something you want to focus on.
At 10 & 12, my kids are not really old enough to be embarrassed by me yet, but I can tell they are starting to create a distance in their minds. Upon any expression of my individuality, my 12 year-old gives me the jokey eye roll; my 10 year-old calls me “weird.” (Author’s note: Boy-howdy do I wear that label like a badge of honor – if you are not weird to a 10-year-old girl, you are without a doubt the most boring person who ever lived. Believe.) And most pre-teens I know would prefer for people to think they were zapped into this world, fully formed, the spawn of nothing and nobody, a blank canvas devoid of any outside influence, parental or otherwise. But kids this age still need things – things they can’t really get on their own. Having once been a pre-teen myself, I kind of remember this stage. I wanted my parents to be like genies, an external force there in an instant when I wanted something, and then zoop! back into their bottle until the next time. I’m starting to get that vibe from my kids.
But to my children’s great dissatisfaction, I do not exist to fulfill all of their wishes at a moment’s notice. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t – but whichever way the hammer falls, I do what I do for my kids in service of their impending adulthood. It is my one job as their mother: To create responsible human beings capable of living on their own.
So I guess it isn’t a surprise, when I look at it through that lens, that my practical significance in my kids’ lives is starting to diminish as they get older. This is what happens. I recently read a quote from Neil Gaiman’s Newberry Award acceptance speech for The Graveyard Book, a book that appears to be about childhood but is really about parenthood. He said,“[it is] the most fundamental and comical tragedy of parenthood: That if you do your job properly, if you, as a parent, raise your children well, they won’t need you anymore. If you did it properly, they go away.”
I agree with this sentiment down to my very bones. I mean, I don’t want my kids to ever “go away” permanently or anything. A phone call every now and then would be nice. (And it would it kill them to come visit once in a while?) But it is our job as parents to raise self-sufficient people. People who have lives of their own and jobs and families and friends and futures. People who hopefully like to spend time with their parents– but who don’t need us. Not really.
I know this is pretty obvious. We all head into parenting knowing what the end-game is. But when I used to think about the end-game when my kids were younger, I thought about it in 2 distinct stages: childhood and adulthood. I never really thought about what the process of getting from one to the other would look like. As I near the mid-point of this journey with my kids, I’m starting to learn what it feels like. For me, it’s a feeling of flickering importance. One minute, I am indispensable, the next I’m superfluous. I go from being the sun and the moon, to the wind in the trees, and back again, sometimes within the same hour. Sometimes within the same sentence. This schizophrenic push-pull is new, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
If I let myself think about too long, it makes me want to hold my kids tight and snuggle them into my bed and lock the doors and move to rural Alaska or 1902 or an episode of Little House on the Prairie -someplace or time when kids didn’t grow up so fast. But in other, more rational and less panicked-crazy-lady moments, I feel confident and comforted by the people I see them becoming – I know this is all as it should be, no matter how hard it is or how uncomfortable the process feels. (Author’s note: I guess they aren’t the only ones with the schizophrenic push-pull thing going on.)
I’d love to hear from others out there on how you feel about this – especially those of you with older kids. Despite the name of this blog, advice is always, always welcome here 🙂
As parents, it is our job to teach our children important life lessons. We teach them everything from how to treat others to how to tie their shoes. But in the midst of all this “being the expert,” it can be easy to forget that our kids have lessons to teach us as well. And I’m not talking about warm-fuzzy stuff like smelling roses and dancing like no one is watching. (Do not be fooled. People are always watching.) In a very practical sense, kids can teach us certain things that we tend to lose sight of as we age. Specifically, I’m talking about how to embrace creativity.
When it comes to creative pursuits, kids follow Yoda’s teachings: “Do or do not. There is no try.” They don’t try to finger-paint. They dip their chubby little fingers knuckle-deep into that paint and fling it like Jackson Pollock. They don’t try to write poetry. They just write it. They don’t let minor details like spelling, grammar, or coherency get in their way. When they tell you a knock-knock joke, they are a stand-up comedian. When they pick up a blob of clay, they become a sculptor. Have you ever seen a four-year-old transform into a mixed-media master while up to his eyeballs in construction paper and googlely-eyes? It’s a beautiful thing.
But this magical sprinkling of I’m-good-enough fairy dust usually wears off somewhere between five and eight-years-old. This is when kids start to worry that their drawing of the elephant doesn’t look like the one in the book. Or that the way they sing, “Roar,” sounds different from Katy Perry’s version. As a parent, you can see this change take place. It’s like watching a light go off. Whatever gatekeeper has kept the self-consciousness away walks off the job and doubt swoops in to take its place, all furrowed eyebrows and straight lines. Kids stop doing things and start trying to do things. And while this might be okay when it comes to sports or schoolwork (things that require mastery before advancement), when it comes to free-form creativity, it’s kind of sad.
Instinctively, we know this isn’t a good thing. We don’t want their light to go out. We don’t want them to hold their creations to someone else’s standard of perfection. We’ve been there and we know that is the surest way to run the imagination well dry. So we say to them, “Don’t worry about coloring inside the lines, honey.” But they still look at their picture like it’s a plate of boiled onions. Because even though we are saying one thing, too often we are doing another. How many times have we obsessed over wrapping a gift just-so. Or tried to make a project as perfect as it looks on Pinterest, only to ultimately fail and lament it out loud. Our kids see us try to be creative in the Right Way and they absorb it. They watch us judge ourselves, and since they view themselves as an extension of us, they apply those judgments internally. (Or completely rebel against them… but that’s a subject for another day.)
I think the best way to protect our kids innate creativity, is to do as they do. Turn our own lights back on and just do, without worrying so much about the outcome. Children know that creativity has nothing to do with being good at something. It has nothing to do with skill or talent or ability. And it certainly has nothing to do with Perfect. Creativity made up of 100% confidence. The confidence to do instead of try. If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to be a painter, paint. If you want to be a dancer, dance. Even if someone is watching. Because they are – and chances are it’s your kids.
Back in college, I had a friend who went on a blind date with a guy I’ll call Billy Bob. That was not his name, but could have been for reasons that will become clear in a moment. On the date, Billy Bob took my friend to the McDonald’s drive-thru for dinner and while ordering, he yelled into the speaker, “I’ll have a number 2… and while you’re at it why don’t you go ahead and super-size that son-of-a-bitch.”
The moral of this story is two-fold. First, things could always be worse. You could be on a date with someone who:
- A.) Takes you to McDonald’s for dinner.
- B.) Orders a “Number 2.”
- C.) Calls his Number 2 a son-of-a-bitch.
- D.) And wants that son-of-a-bitch super-sized.
The second moral of the story is that people love to upgrade. It’s true. Entire companies – hell, entire countries – have been built on this practice.
- “Would you like a mid-size instead of a compact?”
- “Would you like to add the protection plan?”
- “Would you like me to change the election laws to allow me a third term as President?”
Once a person has agreed to something, getting them to agree to a small percentage more is a piece of cake that’s just been upgraded to a la mode.
I’ve decided I’d like to incorporate this highly effective strategy into my parenting regimen. I think it’s a natural fit as I often have to sell the idea of certain household responsibilities to my kids. Loading the dishwasher is fun! Raking leaves is great exercise! If you help me wash the windows, you can spray the Windex!
The problem is that at 9 & 12, my kids aren’t buying it anymore. They are no longer taken in by my enticements, and household gadgets have lost their appeal. I remember the days when my daughter begged me to use the Swiffer. Now she runs away when I get it out. They have discovered that the scrubbing bubbles don’t really talk or have mustaches, the fabric softener teddy bear won’t hop off the label and give them a big hug, and that no matter how clearly they yell, “Accio!” that broom ain’t gonna fly ‘em to the Quidditch pitch.
The problem with trying to up-sell my kids into doing their chores, is that chores don’t really have much of an upside. Sure, there is comfort that comes from a clean house, but that doesn’t mean much to your average preteen. Their comfort comes in different packaging. For them comfort is knowing their mother won’t rap along to that new Eminem song when their friends are in the car, or take them with her go bra shopping. Rather than the satisfaction of a job well done, their comfort mostly lies in being left alone. Except when they need money or food or help with homework.
So it makes finding the added-value in household responsibilities a bit of challenge for this age group. I’ve taken a stab at it and here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
- If you clean your bathroom you can avoid getting dysentery!
- If you clear the table, you will be offered food again at the next meal time!
- If you pick up your dirty clothes, you will get to keep them and thus avoid having to go to school naked!
- If you throw away your trash instead of stuffing it under the couch, you won’t have to share the sofa with rodents!
- If you check your attitude even when you’re grumpy in the morning, I won’t yell, “Mommy loves you!” at the top of my lungs when I drop you off at middle school!
Ok. So some of these are more like blackmail. But still. I think they might just work.
I like the concept of teaching my children that there are added, perhaps under-appreciated, benefits to even the simplest of tasks. Even if those under-appreciated benefits are really just me making up ways to torture them should they decide to be non-compliant. Now that I think of it, maybe this isn’t so much me up-selling them on chores, as me super-sizing my threats. Either way, if it gets them to take out the trash, I’m good with it.
My son’s first assignment from 6th grade English was to write a poem about where he is from. Poetry does not come easily to the literal-minded 6th grade boy, especially a literal-minded 6th grade boy who doesn’t like to write. We ended up working together on this poem for nearly two hours. And in the end, he did it. He didn’t like it, but he did it. I and thought his poem was great. (Don’t worry – I am not going to make you read it.)
The poem he was asked to write was based on the famous poem Where I’m From, by George Ella Lyons. Apparently, this poem is used as a teaching tool in schools and writing workshops all the time because it has a very definite structure. The framework of the poem is always the same; but each individual poem written by using it, vastly different. Having never taken a creative writing or poetry class, I had not seen this poem or template before – so of course, felt I just HAD to try it. My son thought I was insane. (This is not new.)
My poetry writing over the past 20 years has been limited to 2 categories: the multi-stanza-sorority-girl-bridesmaid-toast, and the limerick. Poetry with a capital “P” would spit in my eye. This was the first time I tried to write a real poem – maybe ever – and indeed, the framework and structure of the Where I’m From template made it feel manageable. I’m putting a link to the website where you can get the template, and I’d encourage any of you out there who think this might be fun, to give it a try. I really enjoyed this. Even though I’m pretty sure Poetry with a capital ‘P’ is rolling its eyes at me right now…
I am From by Jill Orr
I am from orange shag carpeting and dark wood floors, neon sculptures, stained-glass windows, and harvest gold refrigerators. From wide suburban streets, lined with tall old trees and faded chalk four-square courts. I am from radiators and asbestos in the basement, from the first house on the block to get a microwave.
I am from watery eyes and serial sneezes, from bug-bites and itchy grass. From grape Benadryl and asthma attacks and freckles and sunburns. I am from staying inside whenever possible. I am from air conditioning.
I am from family vacations in wood-paneled station wagons and silent laughter in the way-back, from my Mom who always knew the latest, best thing and my father who told me the truth whether I wanted it or not. I am from my sister who understands this all without me having to explain. I am from one family split slowly, painfully, into two.
I am from spending every other weekend in the city playing long games of gin rummy with my dad, from watching my mother rebuild her career, from vicious fights with my sister, to seeking refuge in my friends. I am from closing my door and writing it all down.
I am from “You can do anything you set your mind to,” and “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” From I love you’s not spoken, but never doubted. From the security of “I’ll always be here if you need me.”
I am from those Jewish enough not to eat ham on white bread, but not enough to stay away from bacon or attend synagogue; from Darwinism and the Golden Rule and Karma and always try your best. I am from pop culture, song lyrics, and fortune cookie wisdom. I am from the glass half full.
I am from hot dogs with pickles (but never ketchup) and deep dish pizza. From cheese tacos and peanut butter & jelly in a bowl when my mom wasn’t looking, from buttered noodles, fried Matzo, and the Joy of Cooking. I am from one tragic fat-free Thanksgiving where my mom made us go around the table and introduce ourselves to each other.
I am from the time my parents told me I had chicken pox by bok-bok-boking at me through my bedroom wall, and the way it still makes them laugh, from needle-pointed baby books, PTA presidents, homemade Halloween costumes, Kodak slide shows, and learning to drive a stick shift in the East Bank Club parking lot. From carnival birthday parties on the front lawn and trick-or-treating after dark. I am from knowing there would always be someone there when I got home.
Where are you from?
One of the great joys of parenting young children is getting away from them. At least for a little while. Be it a couple of hours or a couple of days, there is nothing like a little distance to recharge everyone’s batteries and make you grateful that you are legally/morally/financially bound to the little bloodsuckers darlings until the end of time.
The problem with getting away is finding someone to watch the kids while you and your sweetie are off guzzling margaritas and/or sleeping 16 hours a day. Trusting someone to watch your precious babies is not easy. Will they remember to use the dye-free detergent? Will they limit screen-time? Will they cut the hot dogs lengthwise and across?
No. No, they won’t. And that’s okay.
Years ago, my sister-in-law, Dawn gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten from anyone before or since. I was about to leave my kids for a week for the first time with my in-laws, and I was a nervous wreck. I worried that favorite books would go unread, binkies would go unwashed, and (gasp) bedtimes would go unheeded. Dawn looked at me, told me to pull my shit together, and said, “As long as they’re alive when you get back, that’s all that matters.”
And she was right. Of course my in-laws weren’t going do things like I did. Or even like I asked them to. Did I really expect them to follow the 5 page, single-spaced, uni-bomberesque manifesto I’d left behind entitled, “A Typical Day in the Life of Fletcher & Ellie.” They probably had a good laugh before lighting it on fire, deciding instead to rely on what they’d learned in their 30+ years of parenting their own children.
And really, my fear had nothing to do with them. It was all me. As a stay-at-home mom, creating and protecting my kids’ routines was what I did. It was my job. My life. Whether it was a survival mechanism or simply my ego, I had to believe that those routines were essential to a peaceful existence. If not, then why the hell was I working so hard?
As long as they are alive when you get back… It was just the paradigm shift I needed! It helped me see that going on vacation would be a break for all of us. Just as Jimmy and I wouldn’t spend every day of our lives eating surf ‘n turf and drinking mai tais, the kids wouldn’t spend every day of theirs watching 8 hours of Thomas the Train and drinking chocolate milk by the gallon. The hard work I’d put in on sleep-training, potty-training, and don’t-think-throwing-a-fit-is-going-to-get-you-what-you-want-training, would still be there even if it went unenforced for a week.
The fact is that if you are going to reap the benefits of getting away (and they are many), you must get comfortable with the fact that whoever watches your kids will not do things your way. This goes for grandparents, siblings, friends, or hired help. I repeat: They will not do it your way. They will think your way is stupid. Over-protective. Unnecessarily complicated. Likely to turn the kids into entitled spoiled brats, who don’t know the value of a dollar. But that’s fine. As long as the kids are alive when you get home, it doesn’t matter if they’ve fallen asleep in front of the television 3 nights in a row. It doesn’t matter if they’ve eaten ice cream for breakfast every day. It doesn’t even matter if they missed that birthday party you’d RSVP’d to on Sunday. None of that is important. What is important is that you got some much-needed time to remember that you are more than just a mother/father, that you actually like your partner, and/or that you actually like your kids. Because time away provides one thing you simply cannot get while at home with your kids: perspective.
Would it be nice if the kids were well rested, well fed, and content when you got home from your vacay? Sure. But alive is all you should really hope for. If you set your expectations at “alive,” you will probably end up pleasantly surprised. After all, getting the opportunity to gain valuable perspective (read: sleep more than six consecutive hours) is luxury enough… you wouldn’t want to get greedy now would you?
Dear Loyal Readers*:
Several** of you have asked when you could see the video of my reading in the St. Louis Listen to Your Mother show, so I am posting the link to the YouTube video here. If you feel like maybe being mildly amused, you’re in luck! If you feel like being moved, astounded, touched, impressed, and inspired – watch the videos from my castmates. (Seriously, these ladies are a amazing.)
*Mom & Dad **Both
PS: I now know my bangs are way too long.
My husband is the type of person who runs out of gas. This is not hyperbole or some way of saying he gets tired easily. I mean he literally drives his car until it uses up all its fuel and stops moving. And he hasn’t done this just once or twice. It happens with some frequency. The worst part is, it isn’t like this happens when he’s out in the middle of nowhere with no gas stations around. It isn’t even because he doesn’t pay attention. He runs out of gas because he likes to play a twisted game of chicken with the inanimate object that is his gas tank. (Spoiler alert: The gas tank never flinches.)
I, on the other hand, have never run out of gas. I fill up long before the needle dips below the ¼ line – and I cannot understand how anyone in this day and age would ever allow their tank to get to empty – unless they were driving through a desolate wasteland, had a broken gas gauge, and/or had lost both their sight and hearing, in which case they probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel in the first place.
From where I sit, running out of gas is ALL downside. The only upside I can think of is the satisfaction that… what? Your nerves of steel allowed you to eek out one last mile, landing you on empty at the exact moment you roll in front of the pump? Pretty thin upside, if you ask me – considering the downside is expensive, dangerous, time-consuming, and messy.
But downside be-damned, Jimmy loves to play Gas Tank Chicken. Except when I’m in the car with him. When I’m in the car with him, here is how things go down:
Ding-Ding. Ding-Ding. Ding-Ding.
Me: Is that the gas thing?
Me: We should probably stop.
Jimmy: Oh no– we have like, 50 miles left. Trust me. I do this all the time.
Me: But it’s dinging.
Jimmy: I know.
Me: Doesn’t that mean it’s time to stop?
Jimmy: No – that’s just what they want you to think.
Me: That’s what who wants us to think?
Jimmy: We’re fine. Relax.
Another few minutes pass. I try to get past the ‘relax’ comment.
Ding-Ding. Ding-Ding. Ding-Ding.
Me: It’s still dinging – I think we should stop.
Jimmy: Babe, we can go another, like, 100 miles on this tank. I guarantee it. I do this all the time.
Me: Did you really just call me babe?
Jimmy: Don’t you want to see how much farther we can make it?
Jimmy: Aren’t you curious?
Me: Not even a little.
Jimmy: You’re telling me you don’t want to know if we could get all the way home on this tank? He smiles with a slightly insane glint in his eye.
Me: If we run out of gas – we’d have to walk. I don’t want to have to walk. That’s why we have a car.
Jimmy: We won’t have to walk. I guarantee it. Trust me, I do this all the time.
Yeah, the problem is that the other thing he does all the time is RUN OUT OF GAS. These sorts of conversations usually end in me getting all panicky and hysterical and basically insisting that we pull over and fill up. Which he does. But the entire rest of the drive he mutters to himself about how he knows we could have made it without stopping.
Need I point out the irony of a man who is completely unwilling to risk bad fruit, travels with a 6.5 pound Dopp kit (actual weight) filled with ointment, medicine, gauze, and salve for every eventuality but who IS willing to gamble on being stuck on the side of the road with cars whizzing by while he is forced to walk who-knows-how-many miles to the nearest gas station? I guess I just did. But the point is, I think this behavior may very well mark the beginnings of Jimmy’s downslide into Crazy-Old-Manhood. (That and shooting at squirrels, Lee Harvey-style, out of our book depository bathroom window. True story for another post…)
Anyone else out there play Gas Tank Chicken? If you do, please comment and enlighten me on why an otherwise sane person would EVER do this…