Archive | November, 2011

You FAIL, Mom!

28 Nov

“You’re mean, Daddy!” my daughter shouted as we walked into the house from the garage. I had just picked her up at a birthday party.

“Why?” he asked, understandably perplexed at being accused of meanery when he hadn’t seen the child in nearly two hours.

“You thought you were supposed to pick me up at 5 and you were supposed to get me at 4:30, so I was the last one there!” She bounded up the stairs with her party goodie bag, no longer angry since she’d laid her grievance at her father’s feet.

“We failed,” I said to my husband in that “what else is new tone” we’ve developed for discussing our parental deficiencies.

“Again!” our daughter yelled from her room at the top of the steps.

Of course, she’s right. My husband and I have failed numerous times in our parenting escapades. I have a friend who insists that you don’t have to be a good parent; you just have to be a good enough parent. Intellectually, I know she’s right. Childishly, I think, “Yeah, she doesn’t have any kids!”

My son likes to remind me of the time I left him in the car on a hot summer day while my daughter and I went shopping. It’s not as bad as it sounds. He was 13 and it really wasn’t all that hot. And it is every bit as bad as it sounds. I forgot he was in the car.

We had gone to the library, the three of us. My son chose to stay in the car while my daughter and I returned our books and got new ones. We had a good time picking out our books. We were having such a good time that I thought we could extend it with a little shoe shopping, as my daughter needed shoes.  So, we left the library, holding hands.

We went to the shoe store; she picked out two pairs. The afternoon was so nice and sunny, we decided to top it off with a trip to the candy store. Ours is a real, old-fashioned candy store where they make their own fudge and caramel corn. We picked our treats and started back to the car. I was in one of those mellow moods you get when you’re with your child and everything is peaceful and calm. Then we reached the car. I saw my son hanging out of the window. “Oh, shit!” I thought.

“Where have you been!?” he screamed. Then he saw the shoe bag.

“You went shoe shopping!” he screamed. Then he saw the candy.

“You went to the candy store!” he screamed. “You left your son in a hot car in the middle of summer while you took your daughter shopping for shoes and candy?!”

I did the first thing that came to my mind. I blamed him.

“Well, you chose to stay in the car,” I said as calmly as a guilt-ridden soul will allow.

“Because you were going to the library!” he screamed. “You didn’t tell me you were going shopping!”

“You didn’t have to stay in the car. You could have come in the library.”

“But you weren’t in the library, were you?” he asked. “You were shopping! For shoes! And candy! While I was waiting in the hot car!”

“You’re 13,” I shot back. “You could have gotten out of the car any time you liked. And it’s not that hot out anyway.”

By then, I had gotten the packages and bag of library books into the trunk of the car. My daughter and I were buckling in. It was silent for a few heartbeats.

“You forgot me, didn’t you?” my son said, an eerie calm in his voice. He knew the answer and he knew he could use it to his advantage again and again and again.

“I am done with this conversation,” I said and drove home. My son, however, was not done with the incident. He still isn’t done with the incident. Anytime he needs a little parental guilt to help him get his way, he merely needs to say, “Car” and he’s well on his way to winning any battle.

Most of my failures are far less spectacular. My daughter whines more than we’d like because we will do anything she wants to make her stop. She eats too much candy and doesn’t wash her hair enough. Our son has more failing grades than I care to admit. While I realize that the grade is, in the end, his responsibility, I feel responsible. Also my fault are his lackadaisical approach to practicing scales and his enthusiastic embrace of video games. Did I mention both of their rooms are hazmat sites?

I asked my husband if he ever felt like a parental failure. He related an incident with our daughter. He had tucked her in; she got out of bed for some tremendously important reason. He tucked her back in. She popped out again. He refused to tuck her in a third time, it being far past her bedtime. She looked him in the eye and said, “Most daddies like putting their daughters to bed and tucking them in,” then sobbed into her pillow. I consider this incident a resounding parental success. The girl had already had two tuckings, for crying out loud.

I took a break from writing this just a few minutes ago. My daughter was downstairs having a snack. Apparently, the dinner I prepared failed to fill her sufficiently. I snagged a chip from her, dunked it into salsa and popped it in my mouth. She asked me to sit and play with her for a while. “I have to work,” I said. Not looking at me, she said, “Well, you could go back to work or you could eat chips and salsa with your daughter like a real mom.” I sat and had the chips and salsa.

If I were a better mother, my children would be earning medals and trophies. They would be captains of teams and presidents of clubs. They would volunteer their time helping the elderly and feeding the starving. They’d win scholarships to Harvard and Julliard. But I’m not that mother. Instead, my kids are pretty health, fairly happy and completely loved. I’m a good enough mom and that’s usually good enough.

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Gratitude, Schmatitude

21 Nov

Some years ago, I asked my children what they wanted for Christmas. Actually, I ask them what they want for Christmas every year, but I’m talking about a specific year. Money was tight, tighter than it had been in years just prior. The children asked for myriad things that we couldn’t afford. I used their lists for inspiration but bought things I could afford. So, instead of the My Little Pony Magical Castle with running water and a hot tub, I got my daughter a smaller MLP play set and some MLP bubble bath.

Christmas morning came and the children woke early, begging to go downstairs. I went with them, anticipating their whoops of joy and excitement. When she got to the tree and saw her gifts arrayed under it, my daughter said, “I didn’t ask for these things. These must be someone else’s toys.” Then she started crying, wondering where Santa had left the things she ordered.

My children have since been instructed in the ways of Santa. Even when they still believed that their stuff came down the chimney, they knew that Mom and Dad had to pay Santa for the toys. “Why?” they wanted to know. “Because the world is over-populated,” I told them, “and Santa couldn’t possibly make all the toys for all the children in the world.” I think I fed them a line about the elves only making wooden toys; “Santa has to buy all the branded stuff,” I explained.

My son has graduated from wanting really expensive game systems to wanting really expensive musical instruments. We’ve taken to giving him money or gift cards that he can combine with gift cards from family to purchase what he desires. Giving cash and gift cards is so boring, though.

One Christmas, my mother gave my siblings and me really nice fleece sweaters from Land’s End. Each sweater had a surprise in the pocket…a crisp large denomination bill. I decided to use my mom’s idea for my son. I found a cozy shearling-lined hoodie that I knew he’d like. I put a large denomination gift card in the pocket. I put it under the tree. He loved it. He looked for other presents. There were none. “That’s it?” he asked, “a hoodie?”

“It’s nice hoodie,” I said.

“It’s a hoodie,” he said. “I got a hoodie.”

“Put it on,” I said.

“Mom, it’s a hoodie. It’ll fit.”

“Just put it on. It was expensive. I want to see if it looks good on you.”

“Fine,” he said. I figured he’d put his hands in the pockets, the way everyone does when they try on a hoodie. He stood in front of me, arms limp at his sides, disappointment draining from his pores.

“There,” he said. “It’s on. It’s a hoodie.”

“Look in the freaking pockets,” I said.

He looked in the pockets, pulled out the gift card and looked sheepish. But did he say thank you? No.

I’m not freaking out about his apparent lack of gratitude, though. Frankly, I’m a little burnt out on gratitude. There are gratitude societies, gratitude experiments and any number of gratitude websites. Gratitude has replaced grace as the favored state.

All this emphasis on gratitude leaves me feeling like an ingrate. It’s not that I’m not grateful for the good things in my life. I’m just getting really tired of apologizing for expressing disappointment, frustration, anger, sadness, grief, resentment and the range of other emotions we’re told are negative and will eat our souls if we let them.

My sister is an artist and teacher. She’s tenured and has two advanced degrees in her field. Until this year, she had a job she loved teaching the art topics she loves to students who loved them. That’s all changed because of budgeting concerns in her district. She now splits her time between two campuses, traveling between them daily. Her student and class loads have been changed so that she’s teaching students who don’t want to be in school, let alone art.

She’s angry, frustrated and sad. She’s embarrassed to talk to me about it because I don’t have a teaching job. She’s in a crappy situation. Even though I’ve told her it’s more than ok to complain to me about it, I can tell she thinks she doesn’t have that right. At least she has a job, she reasons.

My mother died three years ago. Hers was a long, slowly-progressing illness that every year took more and more of her freedom. At the end, she was on just about every kind of support a life can need and it still wasn’t enough. We chose to end it. Her suffering ended and, for that, we are all grateful. But she’s still dead and it still sucks. And every day that I remember she’s dead, it sucks all over again.

I’ve been a runner long enough now to know it is in repairing the tiny tears running creates that my muscles grow. I am grateful that there is benefit in the training I’m doing. But, I’ve got to do the damage first. Ice and ibuprofen help ease the pain, but only time makes the permanent changes possible.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh instructs his followers to be where they are. If you are happy, be happy. If you are angry, be angry. If you are frustrated, be frustrated. If you are sad, be sad. Tell yourself, “This is me being sad.”

When my mother died, there were days I could hardly tell you who I was. There were days I expected to be swallowed whole by sadness. I told myself, “This is me afraid I will be swallowed by sadness.” When I missed her terribly? “This is me missing my mother.”

I will not rush to gratitude through the challenges in my life. I will sit with them; I will honor them. Then I can give myself completely to thanks.

Riding Elephants

14 Nov

Being a mom is a lot like being in a circus act. The clichéd parallel is the juggler, but that’s not accurate. Jugglers choose to make their lives more difficult. They begin the act with one ball, then add another, then another. While one could compare that to having one child, then another, then another, that doesn’t get to the heart of being a mom. Neither does comparison with the plate-spinning guy. No, he put all those plates up there. No one else is putting plates up there and he damn well knows that the plates are going to stop spinning eventually and will fall. If he’s any good at his job, he can predict pretty accurately which plate will fall when.

For me, being a mom is like being that woman who rides the elephant. No matter how experienced a rider she is and no matter how well she knows the elephant, at any moment a mouse could run across the elephant’s path. Instantly, she goes from a nice sedate ride on Jumbo to trying to wrangle a gentle landing from a raging pachyderm.

I have been riding the elephant for more than 16 years now, since my son was born. In that time, many are the mice that have skittered across my path, wreaking havoc that lasts long past the time they’ve disappeared into the woodpile.

My most spectacular tumbles from the elephant have involved my son. Every year, my sister’s family hosts Christmas Eve. Our son was 15 months old. I am a much more experienced elephant rider than I was then else I would not have allowed my son to stand on a chair and play at the kitchen table while my husband and I got on coats, gathered our contributions to the dinner, etc.

How many stories of children’s accidents include the words, “I looked away for just a moment,” do you suppose? I looked away for just a moment. My son fell from the chair. My husband grabbed the boy from behind and thrust him toward me saying, “Is he ok?” As the child was screaming and his face was covered in blood, I decided that, no, he was not ok.

One minute, my elephant was on its way to my sister’s house, the next it was on its way to the hospital. Four hours later, I had learned that my son is virtually impervious to pain and my husband is a rock when it comes to getting a toddler through a CAT scan. I also learned that a divorced oral surgeon is not just ok with spending Christmas Eve stitching up a little guy, but welcomes the excuse to not shop for his ex-wife.

Four hours seems to be the requisite amount of time to spend in the ER with a child as evidenced by another elephant crash, this one when my son was three. We lived in Oak Park, which seems to have an inordinate amount of deadly nightshade growing wild. It’s actually kind of pretty with its little purple flowers followed by small berries that turn a brilliant red. Still, with “deadly” in its name . . . well. I did my best to eradicate it. I tried pulling it, thinking myself tremendously environmentally responsible. After an hour of barehanded nightshade pulling, I felt distinctly queasy and more than a little dizzy. A little research revealed that nightshade will kill you, but first it will make you feel queasy and dizzy. Further, pulling it merely signals it to grow, grow, grow. I got out the Round Up and got rid of the weed.

Cue ominous music. I did not get rid of all of the weed. My son found it as I was readying to ride my elephant to a business meeting.

“Mommy,” he said, displaying a handful of nightshade berries. “What are these?”

“Oh, honey,” I said. “You must never, never eat these. They will make you very sick.”

He started spitting immediately. I immediately took him to the hospital. I recall having a rather nasty “Screw the meeting; my kid just ate poison” call. Four hours later, I learned that the only cure for nightshade is to wait it out, treating the cardiac symptoms as they emerge. I also learned that modern toxicology tends to focus on illicit drug overdose. The ER doctor had no idea what nightshade was or even what it looked like. She was fascinated. I was appalled.

I can’t recall a time when my daughter caused such a dramatic divergence in the elephant ride that is our life. My son seems to inspire disruption when I am in motion. My daughter has elephant repose radar. I sit down to read a book and within minutes I hear, “Mommy! Come here!”

“What is it?” I ask.

“I need you!” she says.

“Why do you need me?” I ask.

“I want a hug.”

So, I set the book down and go give my daughter a hug. The variation on this theme is I sit down to read a book and she comes flying into the room, shouting, “Huggy!” and lands in my lap.

Last night, the elephant lumbered to my office with me intent on writing this post. My daughter, you may recall, has trashed her room so utterly that she now sleeps in said office. I thought we could quietly share the space, so I began writing. She began reading a history of Ancient China. She began pointing out interesting facts about Ancient China and asking for assistance with complicated words like “foreign” and “conquered.” The elephant crashed, depositing me on the daybed next to my daughter.

We read “Ancient China” for a while, lying next to each other. When the elephant stirred my “I should be working guilt,” I kicked it soundly. Then I tucked my daughter in and kissed her goodnight.

Welcome to the Library! Now, Please Shut Up.

7 Nov

Naperville is supposed to have the best library in America. Now, I’m sure that this ranking is determined in such a way that there are at least three asterisks. Still, it’s a pretty good library. There are three branches, all of them fairly convenient to my house. I can check out a book from any branch and return it to any other. They even have these totally automated checking out thingies that make cool beeping noises when you scan your books. When I go to the library alone, I get a secret thrill over not having to share the scanning fun with my kids.

We use the library at lot since we’ve been trying to live like church mice instead of fat cats. Just about every book or movie we want is there for the picking. Even if we have to wait a bit, the online hold system will let us know the minute our media is available. My son has assembled a large enough music collection that he believes he is entitled to an iPod with a much larger memory. I laugh at him.
Even with all of its wonderful conveniences, I miss the library of my childhood. It probably didn’t have near as many books; I don’t recall it being all that big. The catalog was kept on index cards. The music was all on vinyl. I have a particularly fond memory of my sister, headphones on, belting out “da na na na na na na na” for the entire library’s amusement while she listened to the theme song from “Peter Gunn.”

The fact that my sister could cause a ruckus gets to the root of my problem with the Naperville Public Library.

It’s loud.

The library my sister and I used as children was quiet. It was as quiet as, well, a library. One strolled the stacks silently. If you happened to be at the library with a friend, or sister, hand signals and really exaggerated mouthing of words stood in for talking. Whispering was reserved for communications at the circulation desk. Any noise louder than a sniffle was met with a “Sh!,” hissed from the nearest librarian.

Walk into the Naperville Public Library and you would hardly know you are walking into a library. There are people talking in the lobby. There are people talking at the library catalog computers. There are people talking in the stacks. There are people talking at the tables. And they are all talking with their regular talking voices.

This is how bad things are at the Naperville Public Library: there is a Quiet Reading Room. Having a quiet reading room in a library is kind of like having a coffee drinking room in a Starbucks. I understand why they need the room, though. People talk on their cell phones in my library.

When my son was little, we went to the library often. I would take him to the children’s department and read him books. See, it’s ok to read books—quietly—in the children’s department. Lots of the kids can’t read yet. Even when they can read to themselves, kids still like to be read to. I like to be read to. I don’t think you’ve had the complete Harry Potter experience until you’ve had the books read to you by Jim Dale.

At the risk of sounding like a crank, parents today just don’t care about proper library manners. My kids make fun of me when I talk like this. My son sucks in his lips and pokes out his lower jaw, giving himself an oldman-ish toothless grin. Then he says, “Back in my time . . .” It’s very funny and I get his point, but when it comes to libraries, I’m not bending.
Back in my time, children didn’t scream in the library, even in the children’s department. They didn’t run in the library either, or chase their siblings. Elderly patrons didn’t fear for their hips because a rug rat could come barging out the front door at any minute. And parents didn’t shout at their children to get them to stop running.

Back in my time, no one wrote in a library book. I’ve checked out books that I really wanted to read and found it impossible because some blockhead thought it would be ok to write in the book. Even though said blockhead wrote very lightly and in pencil, as if that would make it ok, my eye was inexorably drawn to whatever blockhead had underlined. Reading the book became an exercise in analyzing blockhead, pondering who would underline this particular sentence when I would have underlined that one. I knew it was time to return the book when I became angry that blockhead didn’t see the book my way.

Back in my time, no one dog-eared pages. I once thought that the books I was reading that looked like they’d been to the kennel were used books, maybe donated by some charitable book lover. Recently, though, I checked out a brand-spanking new volume that was still on the best-seller list. I know the library got this book fresh. There were dog-eared pages. For crying out loud, ANYTHING can be a bookmark. Sure, fancy bookmarks are fun but a magazine subscription card works as well. So does a Target receipt or even an unwrapped mini-pad.

I realize that everyone in Naperville pays taxes to support the library, but, people, that doesn’t mean you own the books, can talk in the stacks or can let your kids use it as a playground. While I refer to the library as “my library,” I know that I share it with hundreds of thousands of other people. Back in my time, everyone knew that.

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