Motherhood, insanity and everyday life.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Lost Identity

Now that my kids are teenagers, I actually have time to breathe once in a while. I also have time to worry, fret, fume and generally agonize over everything they do. However, because they are more often pushing me away than clinging, I find myself with a moment or two to myself. It's not like they don't need me. They think they don't, but they do more than ever. It's just that now I'm more the landing pad than the runway.

So suddenly I find myself taking stock of my life. It's as if I'm at a new crossroads in my life, or at least on the cusp of one. Momhood can be such an all-encompassing, flesh-eating, bone-numbingly tiring journey that you have no clue what you are doing or where you are going. Sure you worry if your hair is combed or that your shirt fits, but more often than not, you obsess over all things "child." Without warning, you somehow get absorbed into your children's lives and they become your own. It's wonderful and dangerous at the same time. Wonderful, because, well...what could be better than juggling basketball practice, piano recitals and First Communion all in the same weekend?

Dangerous? Hells yeah, as my teen daughter would say. The danger in sponging off your kid's life is that it eventually dries up, or at least it should if you're raising a normal child, both physically and mentally. One day you look around you and you no longer have to schedule somebody else's life. You're left with yours and your husband's. It's what you wanted, you really did. In fact you begged for it at 2:30 am in 1987 when your then 2 month old son had no interest in sleeping. And so it's arrived and so have you, but much like Tom Hanks in "The Terminal," you're just not sure in what country you belong.

I can feel myself preparing for that day (my youngest is in 7th grade so I'm not quite there) by sneaking out and doing things I wouldn't dream of a few years ago, like, GASP!, going to a movie on a weeknight. Or sitting down to read a book in the middle of a weekday while a pile of laundry screams my name. They're guilty little pleasures all designed with one thing in mind - avoiding the inevitable question: What am I going to do with the rest of my life?

I'm not panicking...yet. Although I do admit to worrying about the fact that my knees kind of hurt and those electric scooter commercials are looking more and more appealing. I just want to make sure that I don't stop growing once my kids do. It's disarming to think about this because for so many years, I haven't....thought that is. I'm sure I'll figure it or, like motherhood, it'll just happen and I won't have time to think.

Let me make this perfectly clear: I am not looking for a new career. Been there, done that. It's more like I'm looking for a new way to be productive, whether it's volunteering, exploring, expressing myself....or all three.

Meanwhile, I guess I'll look for my copy of What Color Is My Parachute? Or better yet, I'll splurge on a new copy. After all, it is a weekday....

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Reality Bites

Reality TV is, of course, the latest craze in television programming. It seems like every network is jumping at the chance to show people doing stupid/dangerous/funny things while cameras roll. Many of these shows focus on families, such as SuperNanny, Nanny 911 or Wife Swap.

I admit to watching some of these and other reality shows. I have no excuse - I just find them entertaining. But the one thing that I always wonder whenever I watch one of these shows is, what are they NOT showing? I like to put myself in these people's places and consider what I would do in that situation. My first thought is that I'd be embarassingly crabby. I generally work well under stress, but if I didn't have a hot shower and a halfway decent meal in more than a day, it would NOT be pretty.

I'm especially amazed at the new nanny shows where the children are beasts and the mothers have great bodies and the patience of Mother Theresa. Where do they get these women or where are they hiding their valium and their TrimSpa? If one of my kids was bouncing all over the house, ignoring me and talking back, I'd be screaming so loud the windows would rattle. But on these shows, the women calmly look at the kids and say, "Please listen to Mommy."

When couples are shown on reality shows, it's often endearing to watch them support each other, call each other "baby" 25 times and cheer each other on in challenges and difficult circumstances. Talk to my husband and ask him what I would be like in one of those situations. Let's just say that 21 years of a solid marriage wouldn't be enough to keep us together in that moment. With no sleep, lots of stress and a TV camera in my face - what - are you kidding me? He'd catch the next plane home and I'd probably buy him a ticket.

What is real? Real is kids who don't wake up in the morning until the third time you pound on their door. Real is kids who won't talk in the morning when they do wake up. Real is making your kids lunches that you know that they'll hate but you had nothing else in the house to give them. Real is feeling so frustrated by motherhood that you wonder why you didn't listen to Sister Nila in 7th grade when she talked about vocations. Real is cleaning your house by dumping your clutter in laundry baskets and hiding it in the basement. Real is kids who cry the night before a giant project is due because they never worked on it since it was assigned two months ago. Real is going days not talking to your spouse not because you don't love them but because your brain has atrophied from the lack of adult conversation and if you sit down to talk to them you'll definitely fall asleep. Real is skipping several pages in a child's book when reading them a nighttime story so that you can get back downstairs to finish the laundry.

I've seen reality and I've seen reality TV. One has almost nothing to do with the other. And isn't it better that way? I don't know about you, but I really don't want to watch my life onscreen at night. I much prefer a good drama!

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

One Mom's Choice

Lately, as I plan my gloriously empty days as a stay-at-home mom, I wonder why it is that I'm feeling rather...content. I'm not a content person by nature. I have an annoying habit of taking a perfectly wonderful day/experience/occasion and turning it into a nightmare of stress, worry and unhappiness. So here I am, suddenly, doing what I've always wanted but was afraid to do and I'm not looking over my shoulder or around the corner to see if there's something else that I should be doing or wish I could do.

I attribute some of this to something a friend said recently at a lunch of stay-at-home moms. We shared child care stories, all of us having worked at one point during motherhood. My friend mentioned that a very good pediatrician once told her that it would be better if she worked when her child was an infant and then stayed home later in her child's life.

I used to think about this a lot. Obsession would be a good way to describe my interest level in this subject. I worked until my son was 12 years old and my daugher was in about first grade. I did this because I had to. I wanted to live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood and I wanted to have children at the same time. So I did what many women my age did - I worked. I should point out, however, that one reason that I continued working is that my career was going fairly well. I was working my way up in a small private corporation doing - surprise! - almost exactly what I earned a college degree to do. Not being a stellar student nor someone who always wanted to be something in particular, it was exciting for me to be earning a good living.

The biggest thing that compelled me to continue working and utilizing child care was the vast improvement in my self-esteem. Unlike some of my honor roll/dean's list/pretty damn smart friends, I had always been average. Finding myself ahead of the pack for the first time in my life was invigorating and reaffirming. It's as if God reached down with his giant hand, patted me on the back and said: "Yes, you're OK."

So as my career rolled on, so did motherhood. The fact that the two competed with each other was no surprise. I was blessed to have a husband who was truly a partner and very supportive of my ambitions. He was willing to feed and change and entertain, all in the name of me putting in late hours to make a good impression.

I should be perfectly honest and say that these days were not without major, big-time stress. I constantly wondered if I was doing the right thing and went overboard to prove to others (perhaps the stay-at-home moms?) that I was by baking treats and chaperoning field trips and hauling pets to school for show and tell. Meanwhile I started early and stayed late at work to show that I was part of the management team.

After a while, I realized that I was trying to impress those that really mattered the least. One day it dawned on me that I cared more about picking up my kids early from child care than staying late to show the boss that I had the right stuff.

I must confess, however, that this realization came after my success had peaked. I had reached career goals that I had set for myself including being named vice president. It's as if I had won the race and I was looking for a new challenge and motherhood was staring me right back in the face.

Despite promising myself that I wouldn't become the personal embodiment of the Peter Principle, I became just that. I began to care less about department meetings and more about parent-teacher conferences. I lost my motivation because I had already proven to myself that I could do it.

It was right around this time we found out that my son had to be phased out of child care. He wasn't bad, he was just getting too old. It forced a decision on my part: Either hire someone to watch the kids after school or cut back on my job. My change in thinking made the decision easy. I cut back to part-time and so began the end of my career.

Even though I convinced my boss how valuable I would be in my new position, it was inevitable that I was becoming obsolete. It was at this time that a good thing happened. I learned to swallow my pride and let others step up to the plate. It was what I feared most and once I conquered this fear, full-time motherhood was just a step away. Of course it took a budget cutback and paycut to force my hand, but it also made it easier to make my excuses and bow out.

So now back to my friend's comment and my current contentment. Many women wrestle with the dilemma of staying home when their children are infants or when they are older. I was lucky and life chose the path that worked best for me. Other women prefer to stay home with their infants and get out of the house when their kids become more independent. Either way, it's a personal choice. Neither way is right or wrong, except for each individual woman. I guess I'm content because my self-esteem is intact, my kids are pretty much OK and I don't have to wonder "What if....?"

Still, I think that today's women have a tough row to hoe. My mother said it best after one of my children was born: "I'm glad that I'm not having children today. You girls have too many choices!" Ironic, isn't it? But oh so true.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

New School Versus Old School

I can imagine that being a teacher is incredibly challenging, especially if you've taught the same subject, perhaps in the same school, for many years. I'm sure that you try to do things that spark not only the students' interest but also your own. But there's a trend happening in elementary education that's starting to bug me: teachers are creating bizarre projects that seem to have nothing to do with the subject that they're teaching. Or, if it does relate, then it's a group project.

For instance, my daughter's Spanish teacher is constantly assigning the kids art projects. Yes, art projects. Last week, she had to create a family tree and write a sentence and have a photo for 10 people on the tree. Does the teacher have any idea what a pain in the ass this is for ME?! I don't know about most people, but I don't have a lot of photos of my in-laws in my house. Not that I don't love them, but all of the photos are them in groups. I literally had to raid our wedding album and take the damn photos to Kinko's for color copies! Then there was the drawing of the tree. Do you know how hard it is for kids to draw trees? All of this so that my daughter could learn that "Abuela" means grandmother in Spanish.

Then there's the Math teacher who has the kids draw the dimensions of their bedroom as well as every single piece of furniture in it. I don't know about other people, but you're lucky if you can even find the floor in my daughter's bedroom. I understand what the teacher is doing - demonstrating practical applications for math skills. But why is it always something that requires some artistic ability?! Can't they just make a chart with all of these dimensions? NOOOOOOOOO....they have to draw the bedroom and all of the furniture in scale. C'mon! My kid isn't Frank Lloyd Wright and I don't expect her to be.

Then there's the Literature teacher who has the kids act out plays as well as create scenery, costumes and other peripheral items and then perform these plays in front of the whole school. What happened to reading an old, boring book and discussing the metaphors?! Don't get me wrong, I actually love this particular teacher, but group projects like this require driving and coordination and supplies and a nearly equal effort on the part of the parents as the children.

I know, I know, as one teacher aptly said: "Life is a group project." Well, I don't know about you, but when I was working, I rarely had to gather at my coworkers' houses after work to work on budgets or plan conventions.

I do understand that school takes work and effort, but shouldn't it be the kids' work? Unless you live in a commune complete with an Office Depot, you'll have to drive these kids to all of these houses, find and purchase poster board and myriad other supplies that are required and then find the energy to motivate your child to do the work.

I wouldn't mind all of this if the teachers truly graded the kids on the content and effort. If they understood that some kids just can't draw or make posters. Or perhaps their mom works full-time and doesn't have a lot of time to shuttle them all over town. They say that's what they do, but they don't. They always give the high grades to the projects that look good, time-consuming and expensive. The ones with sizzle. Style over substance.

How about a little old school? How 'bout memorizing tables and charts and learning things by rote and parsing sentences and conjugating verbs? Are we worried that they'll get bored? Too bad! We were bored...and we liked it! I'm pretty sure that when these kids get jobs as firefighters or architects or Engineers or CPAs, their boss isn't going to say to them one day: "Bobby, the Smiths are here to do their taxes. Have you drawn their family tree to identify all of their dependents?"

Monday, March 14, 2005

The Mom Whisperer

The moment you give birth, you are given a gift above and beyond the beautiful new life that you brought into the world. You are suddenly blessed with superhuman hearing. When my kids were infants, I could hear the sound of their sleeping and especially their pre-dawn awakenings even in the midst of my deepest sleep. And this was before the prevalence of baby monitors. It was crazy, but I knew when my babies were waking up even before they cried. For some reason, my husband was not blessed with this same power. Sometimes after an especially long, sleepless night spent in a rocking chair, baby on shoulder while watching VH1, he would wake up in the morning, look at us and ask: "Did the baby get up a lot last night?"

As my kids grew, this power became my own personal built-in baby monitor. I could easily tell the difference between plastic toys falling over and CDs being unceremoniously dumped from a shelf. I could hear a tumble that would result in a bruise and tears versus gentle landings on a diapered "bumper." I started to learn when to rush to their side or when to let them solve their own mini crises.

Once school started, I could tell which child had really gone to bed and which one was still playing GameBoy or listening to Britney Spears. I knew who actually woke up on time for school and who would need a second wake-up call. When homework was being done, I knew who was actually doing it and who was trying their hardest without much success.

Now that they're teens, their sounds might be louder, but they often make much more subtle statements that often require interpretation. A slammed door can mean that they hate their sibling, don't want to go to school or simply can't find something to wear. A rock power chord on the guitar can mean that a puppy love has become more challenging than expected or perhaps better than they ever thought possible.

I'm learning to distinguish other sounds as well. I'm getting really good at hearing the difference between typing a term paper and Instant Messaging friends. I know when a bedroom is truly being cleaned as opposed to dancing around pretending to be Kelly Clarkson. I can hear doors that haven't been closed and coats that haven't been hung up. Sometimes I scare myself.

I can tell the minute that they wake up what mood they're in...without them ever saying a word. I listen for the way faucets are turned on or backpacks are loaded.

On a good day, I can hear the sounds of their happiness - a friendly scratch for the dog, shoes gently slipped off instead of flung, even soft humming if things are going particularly well.

And now that one is nearly off to college, I realize that this soundscape will soon change again. Sure, it'll be quieter and there'll be less arguments and screaming at each other, but I think in a funny way, I'll miss the extra sounds that signal that one of my own is safely home again.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Mother Figures

As I was sitting in church this past Sunday, looking at the women around me, I started thinking about moms and what our bodies look like. I thought about mine - plump, sturdy, not scary big but a long way from skinny - and I did my own informal research study on what happens to us as we nurture and raise a family. It's as if our bodies were ever-changing hunks of clay meant to evolve at the whim of the great cosmic artist.

Around me there was every type of mom - young, old, pregnant, middle-aged, menopausal - and each had a unique shape. Of course this is expected as we are all individuals. But what got me thinking about this was watching one mom stand there placidly while her toddler climbed on her like a jungle gym. It was a demonstration of the sacrifices we make in order to have a family. We give up not only our looks, but also our personal space.

There were thin, fashionable-looking moms who looked like they stepped right out of a Prada dressing room. There were moms of teenagers who appear to finally have time to focus on their personal appearance. There were grandma-moms, whose bodies had long ago ceased having a true shape and are now more like a monolith of maternal love. There were moms who once were shapely and now have lost the battle of the bulge.

When I was a teen, I remember spending way too much time silently criticizing my mom's appearance, never really knowing what led her to that body type. Today I appreciate it more than ever.

I'm sure if I talked to each of these moms I'd find out that most are very critical of their appearance. Motherhood is both their excuse for the shape they're in and also the roadmap of their young adult life. Some of us could show off our c-section scars, true battle wounds from labors gone long or gone awry. Our bodies have been bruised, beaten, pushed to the limits and often hung on, like that one mom. We've been a cushion to rest on for a feverish child or a soft place to land for another who has been bullied. We've been clung to and pushed away, all in the name of love.

And even though many of us long ago gave up our dreams of modeling and magazine covers, we're all so incredibly proud of our children that we're willing to arrive at this dress size just to have a healthy family. Sure, we could eat less and exercise more or pick up the phone and call a personal trainer - and many of us do. But the important thing is that our kids will always look at us, in good or bad times and say: "That's my mom." I can't think of many other things I'd rather hear.

Friday, March 04, 2005

My Immortals

I heard today that Pamela Anderson has turned down another opportunity to pose nude because she's worried about embarrassing her child. However, there are about 20 other times when she didn't worry about this. Perhaps she'd better start buying up back-issues of various magazines or figuring out what to say when her child finds them.

This got me thinking about things that I've done in my past that I don't want my kids to know about. My husband and I have discussed this, especially now that we have two teens living in our house. Naturally, we worry that our kids might follow our example and make the same mistakes that we did, something that parents spend a lot of time trying to avoid. We generally don't say much, although as they get older, we tend to let little transgressions slip out while sitting around the dinner table. These are done more in the spirit of story-telling than life lessons.

Still, there are times when I wonder if some of the dopey things that I did might not be a good "How NOT To" lesson, especially for our newly teenage daughter, who tends to enjoy socializing...a lot.

For instance, would it be a bad thing to say: "There was this one time when I drank a lot - mostly out of nervousness and peer pressure and it was my birthday - and I threw up for hours"? Or: "Once I tried marijuana and it made me high for three days. I never did it again after that." Or: "When I was a freshman in college, I took a math class and I never studied and I was failing by mid-terms and had to retake it during summer school so I could graduate on time."

Looking back and comparing notes with friends, these aren't unusual or unforgiveable things. And I've generally turned out OK. It's just that there's always this yin/yang thing as a parent. Will our kids learn more from our warnings or their own mistakes? Kids rarely tend to believe their parents and yet sitting back and watching them make mistakes, some of which could be dangerous, is often even more frightening.

Lately, I lean toward the former. Even if my words might fall on deaf ears, at least I know that I did my best to warn them of the hazards that surround and tempt them. I also use the tried-and-true method of showing them things in the newspaper or on the news where kids their age MADE BAD DECISIONS and disaster ensued. I've decided that I'd rather be annoying than be right. Nevertheless, they usually shrug and walk away, feeling immortal as most kids do.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Doctorate in Family Management

Nearly 23 years ago, I was fortunate enough to earn a college degree. It's nothing special, just a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, but hey, there are lots of folks who never get to attend college, let alone earn a degree. I was also fortunate to have found gainful employment that actually related to my degree. I did fairly well in my career and then three years ago, I hung it up. I retired. I quit my job to stay home.

I learned a lot in college, although most of what sticks with me today seems to have been taught outside the classroom. The classes that I took sometimes seemed other-worldly - full of information that was deemed important, but rarely applied.

Looking back, I realize that I learned more than I can imagine. Here then are some of the classes I took in college (and a few I didn't) and how they are utilized today:

Accounting - Any mom worth her weight in salt has balanced Girl Scout Troop checkbooks, collected admissions on gym duty and the ultimate challenge - figured out why the $10 in lunch money disappeared in two days even though "there wasn't anything good on the menu."

History - Which carpool mom drove to basketball practice last week, where did we go for Thanksgiving dinner last year and what city were my parents born in so that my child can fill out her family tree?

English - "LYLAS"* is not appropriate on a thank you note to Grandma, a dangling modifier is not a new style of earring and "I'm going by Kathy's" is not a specific enough explanation of a child's plans for the day. (*Love ya like a sister! Hello! This is instant-message speak.)

Engineering - If the left turn signal on the minivan isn't working, somehow navigate a right-turn-only path to school. When the vacuum has sucked up another rawhide dog chew, it's important to unplug it before dismantling and removing the item.

Computer Information Systems - When the teenager has downloaded an e-mail attachment that causes pop-ups every 3 seconds, re-start the computer and re-install Windows, first saving all term papers and essays onto a floppy disk.

Management - When Johnny needs to be at football practice at 3:30 pm and Mary needs to be dropped off at a classmate's house to work on a group project at 3:45 pm and dinner must be served by 5:00 pm in order to get to parent-teacher conferences by 6:00 speed down side-streets, call in a favor from another mom and order from Pizza Hut, while promising to serve a healthier meal the next day.

Philosophy/Logic - If Bobby is late in filling out college applications which are due on Monday and he accepts an offer to be the drummer in a friend's garage band that has a gig on Friday followed by practice all weekend long, it is likely that Bobby will spend Thursday evening playing video games. Bobby is to logic as mom is to sanity.

Marketing/Public Relations - When an unexpectedly low airfare is found and husband's work schedule finally allows for a week-long escape, it is important to point out in a letter to the teachers that pulling the children out of school the week prior to the end of the quarter will actually result in supplemental education opportunities and a lower teacher to student ratio in the affected classrooms.

Community Relations - If it snows on Monday, it's vitally important to shovel the sidewalk of the nearest neighbors, knowing that your vacation is coming up during a predicted snowstorm next week and you'll be out of town, unable to shovel. Attending the Alderwoman's Tupperware party, and purchasing a lot, is a good idea, especially knowing that you promised your son he could have a live band at his graduation party.

Political Science - If the president of the PTA/room mother makes a pan of brownies, it is a good idea to enthusiastically compliment her on them, even if you hate her guts and know that she's never been a real blonde and her daughter's a little bitch in training.

As they say, learning is a lifelong project and it doesn't stop when class is over. Now if I could just get my kids learn this!

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Myth of Mommy Dearest

There's an assumption going around on the part of our children. I know they make this assumption because I too was once a child and I too once made this assumption. They assume that we parents enjoy the role of dictator, disciplinarian or unpaid nag. I remember as a child thinking, with great disdain, that I couldn't wait to be a parent so that I could one day dole out punishment and sit back and enjoy the disgusted looks and tears of outrage that my children would exhibit.

Sigh along with me, mothers of the world, as we dispel the myth of the maternal protagonist. Our children have no idea how much energy it takes to yell at them for the 48th time in a week to THROW YOUR CLOTHES DOWN THE LAUNDRY CHUTE. They have no clue that nothing ruins our day faster than a breakfast time conflict with one of our offspring. They don't watch us drive around between errands questioning whether we were too harsh, too quick to judge or too bitchy. They don't know the sleepless nights we've spent after being disappointed in a child that left a 10-page term paper till the night before it was due. Even when we're right, it sucks when we have to come down on the side of the law. I don't know about the rest of you, but I never get used to it.

I've always prided myself on being a little more fun, a little more hip than your average mom. Well, there's nothing to kill a good mojo faster than banishing someone from computer after repeated IMing violations. Fun? I don't think so.

It's almost as if that crappy cliche thrown at us by our parents is true: "This is going to hurt me more than it's going to hurt you." 30 years ago, this was generally uttered prior to a swift swat on the butt and seemed ludicrous and insulting. Now, I think about it and there's a ring of truth in it. If I punish my kids, they go to school and get loads of sympathy from their friends and further validation that parents are mean and out to ruin their life. I, on the other hand, generally keep it to myself, sometimes sharing it with my husband just to get a little support. It's a lonely job and honey, it ain't fun.

I hold out hope that we'll all look back on these events as just blips on our memories, sometimes even something to chuckle about. In the meantime, here's a big, fat digital hug to the moms out there who scold, yell, nag, bitch, guide, insist, in other words LOVE their children.