A Decade of Parenting Lessons

Parenting Tips, Parenting Advice, Free Parenting Advice, Parents

This summer, our oldest daughter, Ava, turned 10. That means I’ve officially been a parent for ten years.

With a decade of parenting lessons under my belt, I now qualify as a parenting expert. At least in my own mind.
Some lessons I’ve learned the hard way, like how it’s not a good idea to give your kid silly putty before she goes to bed.
Others, I’ve learned the very, very hard way, such as there is no way to protect my daughters from experiencing pain or sadness or disappointment, no matter how much I try.
In honor of our daughter’s 10th birthday, here are the top 10 lessons I’ve learned about being a parent so far:

1.  Screaming at your kids to get them to stop screaming is counterproductive

Go figure. Every few weeks I test this one just to be sure it’s true. Trust me, it is.

2.  Parenting is like watching your heart walk around outside your body

Watching those four long legs (two per kid) walk into their first day of school last week broke my heart. Thankfully my heart healed quickly and was soon jumping for joy.

3.  Stop trying to be the perfect parent

I tried for too long to be a perfect mom, regularly raising the bar of perfection to keep me on my toes. What did I get in return? A healthy dose of resentment and martyrdom. Brilliant strategy, no?

Now I strive to be authentic with my kids, to show them the real me. Am I too real? We won’t know for a few more years when the therapy bills start pouring in. Our kids’ future therapy appointments will go like this:

Our Kid:  Feelings, feelings, feelings, that’s all my mom cared about when I was growing up. She didn’t hide any of her feelings, and she encouraged me to express all of mine!

Therapist:  How did her obsession with feelings make you feel?

Our Kid:  Torqued and cranked. Why couldn’t she have pretended she didn’t have any feelings? Like normal parents. Would that have been too much to ask?

4.  If you think you’re in control, think again

I want my kids to express all their feelings, needs and wants and feel safe doing so, but I’d prefer it to be on my timeframe.  Preferably when I’m rested, fed and have finished using the bathroom by myself. Is that wrong?

Unfortunately, my kids couldn’t care less about my agenda, preferring to express their beautiful (aka loud) feelings as we’re trying to get to school on time or on the rare occasions my husband and I are both feeling amorous. They are giving that way.

5.  White lies don’t count if they keep your kids safe (or make your life more convenient)*

For years we’ve warned our kids about the imaginary snapping turtles that live in the pond behind my in-law’s home. Our girls never went near the pond without an adult, and we didn’t have to watch them every second they played in the backyard. A twofer – safe and convenient!

*Caveat:  I assumed our ten year old had figured out the truth by now, but this summer, after fishing on the pond with her uncle, she expressed relief at not catching a snapping turtle. Really? I can only imagine that future therapy session.

6.  Make peace with your kids’ disgusting habits (and await the positive power of peer pressure)

I spent months trying to curb my oldest’s nose picking habit when she was four or five years old. I tried to trust she would grow out of it, but mostly I tried to convince her it was a disgusting habit. She kept picking. By age six or seven, she’d stopped on her own, likely because her school friends teased her mercilessly.

I rarely notice when my youngest daughter picks her nose. She prefers to pick at home in the privacy of her bedroom (and to leave her boogers on her bedpost). I may have to wait a little longer for peer pressure to do its magic this time. At least until we start allowing sleepovers.

7.  Accept the things you cannot change (aka put down the whip you use to self flagellate) 

Our daughters are five years apart in age. I’m a different parent now than I was ten or even five years ago. Which one of my kids got the better parent? How badly did I screw up my first kid? Why hadn’t I learned to relax and trust way back when? Why am I even asking these questions? Our daughters “get what they get and they don’t get upset.”  (At least until they have a therapist on their own payroll.)

8.  Make peace with the “H” word

I don’t freak when my kids tell me they hate me. I try to remember that hate and love are kissing cousins. And I hate them too at times. Yet my love for my daughters is more intense and real than any other I’ve had in my life, even the love I had for my husband early on in our relationship. Lucky for him, I’ve also learned to hate him too at times.

9.   Look in the mirror

Our kids reflect our best and worst qualities. Both of our daughters are loving, kind and responsible. They’re creative and dramatic, bright and persistent. They’re also impatient, stubborn, opinionated and dictatorial. From their dad’s side.

10.  Stock up on support & self-care

I get by with a little help from my friends. And when I say “a little” I mean the daily, near constant, sanity-providing support I get from my peeps, spiritual groups and overpriced therapist. I credit them with the rare glimpses of sanity I string together. They remind me to put the oxygen mask on myself first and make time for myself and dates with my husband a priority.

None of this parenting stuff would work without support. And babysitters.

What are some of the best parenting lessons you’ve learned? Although I’m now a certified parenting expert, I’m entering the tween years, so cough up the good stuff in the comments. 

End of Summer Directive: Make Memories Or Else

summer-funI love countless things about summer:  the sweet juiciness of a ripe peach, the freedom from all the gear necessary to survive Chicago’s other seasons, the hot sun on my car’s black interior. What could be better?

Yet every summer I struggle with the pressure to be the poster girl for summer fun.

When it’s sunny and warm, I tell myself we should be outside taking advantage of the weather and our city’s non-stop summer events. Every speck of free time should be jammed with swimming, biking and outdoor adventures like the rest of the northern hemisphere (or at least my summer loving Facebook friends).

That much of the time I’d rather be home writing, reading and futzing – my favorite season-less activities – never factors into my idealized image of summer fun.

photo via Wikimedia Commons

photo via Wikimedia Commons

This summer started off the same. I had many wonderful plans for others – teach our youngest to read, write and ride a bike, help our oldest improve her division, backstroke and jump shot, make hubs more romantic clean out the basement. In July, we’d enjoy nightly family bike rides, weekly movies in the park, and every museum/beach/swimming pool in a 30-mile radius.

My summer plans for me? Coordinate all this spontaneous joy, of course!

Contrary to popular opinion, memories don’t just happen. They require military-quality planning! And for years I’ve been just the drill sergeant person for this social director job. If I made my loved ones miserable in the process, so be it. We would enjoy every last drop of summer, like it or not.

We have memories to make, people, and summer is running out. Where’s the damn picnic basket?

But, did you see us around town enjoying all these glorious summer activities? No, no you didn’t. As my mom used to say, “my eyes are bigger than my stomach.” Back then, she was referring to my food, but this expression applies to my approach to summer. My ideas and expectations of myself outweigh my ability to digest. I overload my plate with shoulds, and then feel guilty if I don’t devour each.

As the end of summer nears, instead of panicking and attempting to pry every drop of fun out of summer’s stingy little hands, I’m ready to let go of the pressure. Enough with the guilt and shoulds and pushing. Enough.

I don’t know how this miraculous transformation came about, but I suspect divine intervention a la Touched by an Angel. As far as I know, Roma Downey did not tap me on the shoulder in a gauzy haze of godly love. But somehow I’ve let go of my summer whip and am ready to relax and enjoy connecting with my family without an agenda. We’ve been playing card games, watching movies and walking around the neighborhood eating Italian ice. And I’ve never been happier.

I’d still like to make a trip to the zoo and another museum before my kids start school in two weeks, but there’s always next summer. Or this winter. If we’re not too busy snowshoeing, ice fishing and tobogganing.

When Does Parenting Cross the Line From Encouraging to Controlling?

The plan was to jog the 5K with my daughter’s Girls on the Run teammates. Instead, Ava and I sat in our car for ninety minutes inching the final two miles to the event parking lot and missing our race start time by 45 minutes.

By the time we arrived at her team’s base camp, her friends had crossed the finish line, beaming at each other and glowing with endorphins and pride. Ava was devastated. I felt ashamed. Hadn’t these people hit the same butt-numbing traffic we did? Apparently, they’re better parents. Or at least better drivers.

At that moment, my desire to run the race disappeared, replaced by a voracious urge for large quantities of junk food. But was that the message I wanted to send my daughter – Life hands you lemons, binge at the nearest Dunkin Donuts?

Instead, my tenacious side won out. I didn’t drive two hours to give up. We were running that god damn race. And we would have fun running it, even if it killed us.

Ava and I lined up hand in hand at the starting line. Earlier that morning, I promised Ava we could walk as much of the race as she wanted. She felt scared. I did too. While Ava had spent two months jogging with her teammates to prepare for the race, I had run exactly twice – once for training purposes, once to buy a corn muffin as big as my head from the bakery down the street.

Walking the race originally sounded like a brilliant plan. But as we stood at the starting line with the many others who had arrived late, adrenaline ignited my competitive streak.

“Can we walk now?” Ava said after we’d run approximately 25 feet.

“No way, kiddo,” I said. “We’re running. Let’s go!”

I felt strong and was eager to burn maximum calories before our long trek home.

“Mom, you’re breaking your promise. I can’t trust you if you break promises.”

Her words sounded vaguely familiar, but I was too full of energy bars to back down. “Ava, you worked hard for this moment. Don’t let your disappointment ruin it for you. Let’s switch off jogging and walking until we finish.”

Block by block, I pushed Ava to keep up with my plan. She jogged, walked and complained simultaneously for three miles.  When the finish line came into view, she begged me again to walk.

“You can walk if you want, but I’m running. I’ll race you!” I said, registering the anger in Ava’s eyes.

While I told myself I pushed for her benefit, I’m not sure that’s true. My motives weren’t pure, but when we ran across the finish line, Ava’s face radiated pride and joy. I saw a mirror for myself, and I liked what I saw. Maybe a little pushing is a good thing. Maybe I’ll call it leadership. I may be justifying my behavior, but I’m grateful we ran half the race, even if Ava spent that half hating me.

Worth pissing her off? Check with me in 20 years.

Worth pissing her off? Check with me in 20 years.

Memorial Day Menu: Humble Pie

After enjoying several days of a lovely long weekend, apparently I’d had my fill of relaxation, barbecues and fun with friends and family. I spent Memorial Day on a bender, tearing through our house in my best martyr mode, uncluttering, organizing, cleaning and folding the loads of laundry stacked up since my last martyr fest.

I was a whirlwind of non-stop activity. And I silently let all the lazy asses in my house know just how annoyed I was at them for relaxing and enjoying their day off. And by “them” I mean my husband.

As I hauled out bag after bag of clothes for Goodwill, I made sure to sigh in front of Mike as often as possible as he enjoyed yet another snack while reading the newspaper. I gave him my best evil eye as I cleaned the floor under the breakfast table where he sat. He smiled and expressed his love for me.

I gave him my best harrumph as I dragged bags of garbage out to the alley. He sipped his coffee, blissfully unaware of my seething inner monologue. (For those of you untrained in master martyrdom, keeping hostility bottled up is part of the fun. Asking for help isn’t nearly as satisfying as hoarding a heaping bowl of resentment.)

There was no reason I couldn’t have sat on my ass all morning. We had no big plans for the day and our daughters were playing happily together (after I cajoled them into picking up their toys by withholding the iPad until the playroom was cleaned. My husband is cajoled by one thing and one thing only, and I was too steeped in annoyance for that!).

Though I made myself miserable, I got a lot accomplished that day.

Today, my husband is working from home. He’s busy with reports and conference calls, a steady stream of activity. And I’m having trouble getting anything accomplished. Not one thing. I’ve sat down to write at least three times and haven’t been able to jot down a coherent thought (not that I usually let that stop me!).

The more he works, the less I accomplish. Has he harrumphed me even once? Not yet.

Is he feeling superior and resentful? Mike doesn’t work that way. Frankly, he’s not at all concerned with what I’m accomplishing. That treasured measuring task falls solely on my capable shoulders. I’m the scorekeeper and today he’s ringing my bell.

He could chastise me or rub my nose in it, but he’s too busy working. What I should be doing. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

Letting myself relax feels impossible today. I feel like shit for not accomplishing something. Accomplishment is my higher power, and I bow at its altar on a daily basis. I need a new way of relating. Or maybe a lobotomy. And sex. Either way … HELP!

I’ll Be the One Screaming: Around the Bonfire

I am one of those people. The type who on the outside looks pulled together, in control, on top of things in life. And sometimes, I am. Mostly on Tuesdays. The rest of the time, my calm exterior hides a riot of emotions ranging from anxiety to joy, with buckets full of anger sandwiched in between.

Although I’ve shared about anger in posts like Anger Looks Good on Me and Making Room for Chaos, I’m taking a leap of faith today and guest posting at Gigi Ross’s Kludgy Mom about how we’re navigating anger in our family. My post, Screaming With My Daughters, is part of Gigi’s weekly “Around the Bonfire” series, and I’m honored to be there.

If you don’t know Gigi Ross and her insightful, hilarious blog, Kludgy Mom, you’re missing out. And we all know how much I you hate to miss out. So check out Gigi’s site and join us today (Wednesday) from 12Noon to 1 pm (Central) for a live Bonfire Chat  to discuss anger – yours, mine and ours – and how we’re teaching our kids to express this complicated emotion. Hope to see you there!*

*That’s a lie. I’m terrified to do this webchat and secretly hope no one shows up or my computer crashes. But then I’ll be sad and angry. So either way, it should be a good time!

Around-the-bonfire

Parenting Through Tragedy

I had the opportunity last week to attend a workshop at my daughters’ school about talking with kids about tragedy in the world and its portrayal in the news.

I chose not to go; convinced my husband and I were already doing a fine job protecting our daughters from the onslaught of media attention surrounding national tragedies and processing our own emotions so they didn’t come out sideways with our kids.

I was confident we had this parenting topic nailed. At least for now. And what were the chances anything would come up again soon?

I got a pedicure instead.

Photo via Good.is

Photo via Good.is

On Monday afternoon when I picked up our daughter, Rhys, from preschool, I was prepared to be a responsible, loving parent. Or so I thought. After tucking her safely into her car seat and listening attentively to the details of her day, I flipped on the radio and was horrified and riveted to hear about the Boston Marathon tragedy.

I listened for a few minutes, praying my daughter wasn’t paying attention, but too caught up in my own emotions and morbid (albeit human) fascination to care. Finally, I shut off the radio and turned to check on my daughter.

She was attentively feeding Goldfish crackers to her stuffed animal, Knufflebunny, and appeared happily ensconced in her own little world. Relieved she was blissfully unaware, we went about our errands. I swallowed the pit in my stomach and resisted my visceral need for information, knowing I’d have time later at home to devour the media coverage surrounding this tragedy.

When we picked up my older daughter, Ava, an hour later, she bounded to the car and eagerly spilled her news, “Mom, mom, did you hear about Boston? School was so scary today.”

Surprised and concerned, I encouraged her to tell me what happened, but urged her not to mention any details in front of Rhys.

“Mom, we heard about the bombings and all the people that got hurt. What happened? Will you tell me what you know?” she asked.

“NO. Not now,” I snapped. “I don’t want to talk about this in front of Rhys. Tell me what happened in school, but don’t mention the b-o-m-b-s.”

Ava’s precious little face fell at my scolding. I was peripherally aware of my hypocrisy, but more willing to try to control Ava’s need for information than my own.

Ava explained that during U.S. Studies, a boy in her 4th grade class read about what was happening in Boston on his iPad and immediately announced the details aloud to their teacher. One of Ava’s friends started screaming and crying that her mom was running the Boston Marathon. Ava and her other friends lovingly comforted the young girl as their teacher made phone calls trying to get information on the mom’s whereabouts. Thirty minutes later, the teacher was able to confirm that the young girl’s mother was safe and accounted for.

“Mom, I told [my friend] that bad things only happen to moms in Disney movies and fairy tales, not in real life,” Ava said.

Relieved that her friend’s mom was safe, I didn’t address Ava’s naive comment but simply smiled and told her I was proud of her for comforting her friend. Ava beamed. I breathed, knowing Ava and I would have more conversations about this topic later, out of Rhys’s earshot.

Moments later, Rhys asked, “Mom, what about Auntie Rita? Did the bombs hurt her like they hurt those other people?”

My intake of breath was sharp and audible. As tears filled my eyes, I realized I had forgotten all about my older sister who lives in Boston. And Rhys hadn’t missed a detail, Knufflebunny or not.

I wept openly as we dialed my sister’s number, unwilling and unable to control the emotions that had built up in me over the past few hours.

So much for protecting and influencing the flow of information in my children’s lives. So much for processing my own emotions before talking with my children.

At least I have pretty, mint green toes.

My sister is fine, unharmed. I’ve forgiven myself for my parenting mistake and have been processing my own terror and sadness along with the rest of the country. My daughters and I have had several conversations about this most recent tragedy.

Talking with my daughters about violence and those who transact it is not a parenting skill I ever intended to get good at. Unfortunately, it’s become a necessity.  And I’ll be in the front row at the next workshop.

Not For the Faint of Heart

My husband, Mike, is the one with a concussion, stitches and cracked teeth, but I feel like I got hit by a Mega Bus. Not one to ignore an opportunity to make someone else’s crisis about me, here I go…

I keep having flashes of seeing Mike unconscious on the stairs, bleeding from his head. I burst into tears at random times. I feel a sense of dread and alternate between feeling patient and loving with the girls and incensed at their constant noise. Rhys (4) dropped her doll over the stairs to Ava (9) yesterday, and I nearly lost my shizz. When I come home after being away for a couple hours, I’m scared I’ll find Mike on the floor again or dead.

This is the price of being attached, of loving. I hate this price, always have. I hate that once we open ourselves to love, we stand to lose. We are vulnerable to hurt; to the whims of the world, of life, of nature. After our daughter’s bike accident last fall, I thought God and I had a deal. Apparently, I still have some learning to do.

I'm all for love, strength and courage, but could live without the vulnerability love brings. Photo  Credit: http://pinterest.com/yazoah/

Could I take a pass on the vulnerability love demands?
Photo Credit: http://pinterest.com/yazoah/

Coincidentally, before Mike’s accident I was reading the book, Signs of Life by Natalie Taylor, about a young woman whose husband died after hitting his head in a freak skateboarding accident.  She was pregnant at the time of her husband’s death and somehow wrote this heartbreaking, compelling memoir in her spare time. Reading Natalie’s poignant words was helping me feel grateful for my husband; appreciative of his simply being in the world.

I have so much relief and gratitude that I’m not in the author’s shoes, yet at the same time I feel panic that something horrible will happen. And I have to be on guard. As if.

Life may be trying to teach me that I’m really not in control. I surrender. Sort of. I’ve been holding on too tight, walking in terror much of the time. Instead of trying to control my terror, I want to learn to embrace it, live with it, give it a seat at the table, but not the head of the table.

I want my terror to serve me, rather than the other way around. I don’t know what benefits embracing my terror will offer, but I want to find out because pushing it down isn’t working and controling offers no benefits other than pause and paralysis.

My brain tells me I don’t want to open my heart any more, yet I will. I will because I am the hero of my own story and the hero opens up her heart and reaps the benefits and the sorrows. Life didn’t work any better for me when I played it safe. Life didn’t deliver the promises I longed for until I was willing to be vulnerable. Now that I have those promises, I have to learn to live with this fear of loss.

I’ve wanted all the pluses of attachment – joy, love, excitement, a heart bursting with life and joy. Got ‘em. But safety isn’t one of those promises. Is love still worth it? I think so. I hope so.

What is the alternative? A life of searching for an attachment that won’t leave me hurt or aching? I didn’t feel the same vulnerability all those years I was yearning for a spouse and children. As long as I was longing, I was in control. Once attachment set in, I was toast; no longer guarded against pain and fear and hurt.

As I think about the Natalie Taylors of the world and all the parents and loved ones of the victims of Newtown, the Brazilian nightclub fire and the daily accidents, shootings, diseases and the like, I’m reminded of the saying, “Love is not for the faint of heart.”

And for me, today, there is no acceptable alternative. There are, however, helmets. And we’ll be sporting these beauties at all times from now on.