Falling In Love with My Life Again

A friend recently shared her favorite advice for keeping her marriage strong. Her method doesn’t involve sexting or Kegels or kinky sex positions. Instead, whenever she’s feeling disillusioned in her marriage, she literally walks outside of her home and looks in the window at her husband, as if she’s getting a glimpse of a stranger’s life.

While I suspect she’s a wannabe voyeur, she swears this technique helps her fall in love with her husband again.

At first, this exercise sounded like a lot of work to me, what with leaving the house and all, but after a particularly difficult afternoon with my own family, I needed to look at my life with new eyes, so I took her advice.

I stepped out our back door and slammed it as hard as I could, enjoying both the dull thump of door rejoining frame and the brittle rattle of wooden blinds bouncing off the adjacent window.

The incessant hum of the nearby air conditioners provided a cocoon of white noise, the ideal backdrop for my peeping-tom activities. The warm mid-September air still held traces of summer’s musky scent, like the lingering smell of sunscreen on skin after a shower.

I counted to ten, willing myself to forget every pre-existing frustration with my family before looking through the kitchen window.

As the late afternoon sunlight cast stripes on his lean face, I watched a man with a freshly shorn crew cut and soft crinkles around his eyes slicing a cheese pizza into small squares. The man had an easy looseness about him as he moved through the kitchen pouring milk into plastic tumblers and piling grapes in a bowl, abiding by the five-second rule on dropped food.

Two young girls, years apart in age and build, played separately across the room.

The younger child, wild brown curls tumbling across her face, appeared to be playing school. Looking up over the edge of a clipboard, she cocked her head and paused for an answer from imaginary pupils before drawing a red check mark on her notebook.

The older girl sprawled on a couch nearby reading a book, her long legs wrapped around a striped pillow. While she read, she fidgeted her toes to remove the bright pink socks covering her feet, then threw them at the younger girl, hitting her on the head and launching a firestorm of muted screams.

Moments later, when the family gathered around the counter for pizza, I wondered what the man was saying to earn his children’s rapt attention. (Perhaps he was making up a story about a strange woman who skulks around looking into people’s windows?)

The father pulled his fingers back and blew on the tips as he divided the steaming slices onto three plates. (Three? I resisted the urge to knock on the window and remind him to save me some pizza or never see me naked again.)

He helped the younger girl cut her pizza into small bites and gently brushed a sticky curl off her cheek. The older girl tapped the younger one on the shoulder and pointed down the hall, snatching a piece of pizza off her sister’s plate when she wasn’t looking.

The younger girl, bug-eyed with anger, curled her lips into an Edvard Munch-worthy scream. Even enraged, this child with spindly arms and an unusually wide mouth was strangely adorable, reminding me of a hairier version of E.T. And from a detached distance, the older girl’s actions seemed more of an awkward, playful attempt at connection rather than as mean-spirited instigation.

The father walked around the counter to give both girls a hug, stealing pizza off his older daughter’s plate and eliciting a stream of playful screams and giggles.

I glimpsed my smile reflected in the window and felt a surge of gratitude for this spirited bunch. Mission accomplished.

They're trouble but they're all mine.

They’re trouble but they’re all mine.

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.

Souvenirs For Everyone

imagesI fanned my neck with the Shedd Aquarium map and searched the signs overhead for the entrance to the dolphin show, oblivious to the dangers lurking behind me on row upon row of overstuffed, expertly lit shelves. Only when my daughters dry humped my legs, their squeals of excitement echoing through the crowd, did I turn toward the source of their frenzy.

The museum gift shop.

Specifically, the stuffed, near life-sized beluga whale display.

I gripped my purse strap tight to my body, as if that simple act would protect me from the onslaught of their impending souvenir attack, and searched for a distraction. Sharks! There’s nothing like sharp teeth and beady eyes to distract frenzied, pint-sized consumers.

Without comment, I quickened my pace and headed toward the Wild Reef exhibit.

“Mom, come back! These beluga whales are only $4.99! Can I get one? Can I?” Ava said.

I should have used my well-honed selective hearing and kept walking. Instead I looked at the price tag – $49.99.  Whaaaat? Did my kid need glasses? Or a remedial math lesson?

“Can I get one too?” Rhys said.

Baby beluga, how did I not see that coming? stuffed beluga whale

“No. These whales are expensive. Let’s go watch the dolphin show.”

“But Mom, you can get it for my birthday next week,” Ava said.

“Me, too.” Rhys said, forgetting her birthday was in May.

Unwilling to be the bad guy yet, I said, “I’ll think about it. Let’s go see the dolphins.”

As the dolphins flipped and splashed, Ava elbowed me every three minutes to ask, “Did you think about it yet?” I cursed the gift shop and myself for my rookie delay tactic.

My children aren’t easily dissuaded. Like Great Whites eyeing a shiny appendage, they smell my discomfort with saying no, then circle, strike and clamp on for the kill.

If I didn’t handle this firmly and decisively, my daughters would badger me incessantly, like feral birds nipping at Tippy Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film.

“Girls, we’re not buying souvenirs today. Our gift is coming to this museum.”

And then we held hands and skipped off together to fondle the live stingrays.

Yeah, right.

Thankfully, the hallway outside the gift shop was filled with moans and wails from other kids whose parents refused to buy another stuffed anything.

I wanted to tantrum too. But first I needed a snack.

As we ate our popcorn amid exaggerated silence and pouts, I wondered how fun mommy had quickly morphed into tired and pissed off mommy. Screw that. I decided to have fun even if my daughters were disappointed and sullen.

Once I made that decision, I ignored my kids’ exasperated sighs and complaints and enjoyed the rest of our oceanic outing, especially the playful beluga whales. I may buy myself a stuffed one. Just for fun.

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.

Why I Should Be “Mother of the Year”

Unlike my dear blog friends Ilene from The Fierce Diva Guide to Life and Chris from The Mom Cafe, I have not been officially designated “Mother of the Year” by any governing body or election committee, nor have I earned a congratulatory badge to display on my blog.

What I do have, however, is photographic proof that I should be considered for next year’s contest (or at least receive an honorable mention for best decorations) for pulling off what has heretofore been an impossible feat for mothers around the globe me – a drama-lite, at-home birthday party for our newly-minted five-year old daughter and 15 of her closest friends.

After ignoring the warnings of several more experienced mom friends (“You’re having how many five year olds in your house?”), I honored Rhys’s wish for a birthday tea party and invited all the girls from her preschool class. Impossibly, everyone said yes, and several moms inquired about bringing siblings. What the hell, I thought! Bring ’em all! I’m nothing if not a “yes” person! Gulp.

Fortunately, we encountered nary a meltdown and zero very few fewer than expected mommy (meaning me) tantrums. Victory! Oh and Rhys had fun too …

Hanging those poofs and lanterns resulted in the biggest argument hubs and I have ever had. Worth it, no?!

Hanging those poofs and lanterns resulted in the biggest argument hubs and I have ever had. Definitely worth it, no?!

A dear friend and consumate party planner loaned me all the decorations for our tea party. Can you say eco-friendly? That should buy me extra points with the selection committee! Right?

A dear friend loaned me all the decorations for our tea party. Can you say eco-friendly? That should buy me extra points with the “Mom of the Year” people! Right?

I almost didn't mind when all the kids messed up my artfully displayed creation!

I almost didn’t mind when the kids arrived and messed up my perfectly arranged stuff!

I say, what's a tea party without a magician? The little one is my newly minted five year old!

What’s a tea party without a magician? The little one is my five year old!

I eagerly await the “Mother of the Year” nominating committee’s congratulatory email! Until then, happy birthday, Rhys! We love you!