Motherhood, insanity and everyday life.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Back to School...Way Back

As my child heads off for college in a couple of weeks, my mind wanders back to August of 1978, the year I began my long strange journey through college into young adulthood. I can't help but compare - it's my only frame of reference. As I try to relate funny or perhaps comforting anecdotes, I realize that's it's all so different. For example:

- There was no internet. Computers were something that the government stored in giant, secret places.
- Term papers were typed on typewriters. If you were well-off, you had a correcting typewriter. Most of us didn't. Carbon paper and Liquid Paper were our friends.
- There were no cell phones. If you left your dorm room, you could not be reached. Dorm rooms did not have answering machines.
- Microwaves were not common. In fact, we suspected they may be nuclear. Instead, we used hot pots and actually consumed Cup-O-Soup.
- Only the wealthy had refrigerators in their dorm rooms.
- There was only one meal plan and it didn't include Pizza Hut, Chick-Fil-A or Taco Bell.
- College kids did NOT have credit cards. We paid cash - if we had it, that is.
- If you had a car, it was very old and you only paid .63 per gallon of gas. Your responsibility was to drive your friends everywhere because you had a car.
- Cable TV was something for people in rural areas who couldn't get regular TV. The rest of us only dreamed.
- VHS and Beta recorders and players were just on the horizon. If you missed a TV show, too bad. If you didn't see a movie, too bad. You couldn't rent or own movies.
- We purchased LPs and lugged them to college along with turntables and stereos with speakers larger than coolers.
- We all listened to the same radio station - the one that played hits.
- If we were really cool, we actually owned a cassette tape or two.
- The drinking age, which was 18 in some states, factored heavily in school choice.
- When you researched a paper, you went to the library and looked in the card catalogs and the guide to periodicals. If you were successful, you might spend many hours looking through microfilm.
- Registration consisted of standing in an un-air-conditioned hall or gym with a blank look on your face while teachers at tables told you that the classes you need are closed.
- If you took pictures, you had to wait at least a week to see them.
- If you graduated from college, you may be the first in your family to do so.
- A college degree gave you a great shot at a decent career.

Fortunately, some things, no matter what the year, haven't changed:
- Teen hearts are still fragile and easily broken.
- Studying for a test still takes hard work and time.
- Mail - real mail, not e-mail or voice-mail, still brightens a college student's day more than anything.
- Home cooking is still better than dorm food every time.
- Getting a roommate is still a crap shoot.
- Hit songs are still loved and sung-to-death by everyone, no matter how many choices we have.
- Profs and teachers still love the kids who ask a lot of questions.
- There are still suck-ups and brown-nosers.
- Most kids still start college with absolutely no idea what they'll do for the rest of their life.

Most importantly, the one thing that never changes, year-after-year, is the fact that once you leave for college, your life is never the same again.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

God's Standup Routine

I have a theory about motherhood. The theory is that just when you think you have it figured out, God throws you a curveball. I call it God's sense of humor. If, for instance, your first child is quiet and well-behaved, you eventually decide that child-rearing isn't nearly as bad as you expected. Then, POOF!, comes child #2 who seems to be the devil's spawn. (Oh, come on! Am I really exaggerating?) That's the beautiful and confusing thing about children - no two are alike, and, therefore, your parenting technique that worked effortlessly on one, will have zero effect on #2.

See, I think that God wants us to be well-rounded individuals and parents. If we only knew how to parent one type of child, we'd never chaperone a field trip or lead a Brownie meeting. We need these skills, not just to deal with our own brood, but to have any chance of understanding the grimy little friends that Billy or Suzie will eventually drag home one day.

If you believe that God is looking down on us, snacking on ethereal popcorn and soda, watching us humans like a great epic film, there have to be some light moments in this full-length feature. Even "Gone Like the Wind" had a couple of giggles. So he sees us, hears us being glib (thank you Tom Cruise) and decides, "Hmmm, let's mix it up a little." Your kids are behaving like little angels? Enter the new children who just moved in down the street. Their parents have taught them to be one with nature and animals, free and easy and to be TOTALLY honest. Suddenly, Suzie tells you: "Mom, your car is an evil gas guzzler and your makeup is tested on innocent animals." Huh?! And Billy chimes in: "Hey Mom, what's really so bad about marijuana anyway? Don't you think it should be legalized?"

God's sense of humor is boundless. When you think you've found the perfect school, your child will then be put in a classroom with the craziest nun since Sister Mary Holy Water. Feeling like you've mastered the art of making lunches? Suddenly Suzie decides to become a Vegan. Did your first child excel at classical piano lessons? Well, then it's only fitting that the second will take a serious interest in death metal guitar.

The point is that to make it in this world, mothers have to be compassionate, flexible, patient and have a damn good sense of humor. How else do you cope when you're driving alone to your parents' house 90 miles away with two children under the age of 5 and the older one decides to throw up....all over your car? Sure, you could cry, but the kids aren't going to pat you on the back and tell you everything's going to be OK. Oh, and nobody else is going to clean up the car either.

Somehow, you have to dig deep and find the humor in every situation. Because it's almost always there. Maybe the humor will be the outrageous story that you'll tell your girlfriends or the incredible embarassment that you suffered at the hands of your little darlings. Either way, it'll be character-building and hysterical.

There's another benefit to appreciating God's sense of humor: it gives us compassion to get through another day of motherhood. Haven't you ever been at your wit's end when a friend shares a story with you that makes you think: "Thank God I'm not the only one!"

If motherhood is a sorority, and it is, then sticking together must be through thick and thin, horrifying and hilarious. And when we emerge, years later, and our offspring are offspringing their own, don't you think that we, and God, will get a huge chuckle out of that next chapter?

Monday, July 18, 2005

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Once a year, I have the privilege of sharing an entire weekend with six girlfriends. Some of these are friends I see often and some I don't get to see as often as I like. The seven of us meet at a small cottage on a lake in Central Wisconsin. There's no air conditioning and very few amenities. Nevertheless, we make this weekend a priority in our busy lives. We've been doing this for 15 years and hope to do it till we can't do it anymore. We call it Girls' Weekend.

You see, this weekend is just for us. It's a time when we pawn our kids and pets and responsibilities off on spouses, partners and roommates and leave civilization behind. We bring piles of magazines, books, drinks and food and give a huge sigh of relief when we get there. We look forward to catching up on each other's lives as much as sitting on the pier with a beer and a trashy book with no interruptions except to decide on what to eat next.

What amazes me every year is how well it works. We're all very different from each other. We're married, single, gay, straight, career women, working moms, stay-at-home moms, democrats, republicans--suffice it to say we have virtually every female demographic covered, except for geriatric, although we're certainly headed that way. Still, we talk till we can't talk anymore. We consult each other on child-rearing, jobs and mates.

What might be surprising to those who know us is that we talk surprisingly little trash on the Girls Weekend. It's all about fun and very little responsibility. We're not out to dump on our spouses or partners, even though that's not an official rule. In fact, the only rule, and it's really unspoken, is that anybody whose spouse or partner calls more than twice during the weekend is mercilessly harassed. It's only fair, because the primary goal of Girls' Weekend is that it's all about us and having fun. This is the one time a year when we try and remember who we are and sometimes who we were. It's our chance to be selfish, even when it feels foreign.

By the end of the weekend, after we've eaten and laughed and crafted and sunbathed and floated in the lake, most of us are ready to get back. We miss our families and our air conditioners and sometimes even our routines. So with our spirits buoyed and friendships solidified we head back for another year of life--whatever that means to each of us.

Most importantly, we know that we can look forward to this weekend for many years to come. Damn, we're lucky.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Fashion Victim

Apparently a memo has gone out from the FIA (Fashion Institute of America) to our teenage children. I haven't seen it, because I'm not on the distribution list, but I've done some research and I'm pretty sure it reads something like this:


TO: American Teenager
FROM: Fashion Institute of America

SUBJECT: What's Hot

Wear shirts....lots of them. Make them tight. Never wear the same shirts in the daytime as you do at night. Try shirts on....lots of them. If they don't look right, (they never do the first time) just throw them on the floor. You'll pick them up later....YEAH RIGHT!! Buy shirts...lots of them. If you think you have enough shirts, you don't. In fact, if you're not shopping right now, well, it's too late.

Sponsored by American Eagle/Gap/Limited/Express/Abercrombie & Fitch/Hollister/Hot Topic/Old Navy.....

Suffice it to say I'm doing more laundry than the local Best Western. And in a maddening case of Deja Vu, the same shirts are returning to my laundry room....virtually every day. It's insanity.

And I have to tell you from personal experience, there's no reasoning with these teens. If you try to explain that you just took them shopping yesterday, well, duh, that was YESTERDAY.

And don't get me started on the jeans. How many pairs does one human need? They all look the same, but apparently, 12 is not enough. I shouldn't go public with this, but to me, the beauty of jeans is that you wear them till they can walk on their own. They hide dirt and you never worry about what they look like. Well, apparently, the jeans have been hanging out with the shirts and love to go for a tumble in my washer and dryer.

There are days when I feel I hope that I'm on a new episode of PUNK'D. It's like I'm trapped in this funhouse of horror and there are dirty shirts and jeans falling all around me and I can't wash them fast enough.

Calgon, take me away......

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Get in the Game

I heard an item on the news the other night about a new trend in parenting. It's called "Parent Coaches" and, because this is America, you find these people by hiring them. I kid you not. To quote the Parent Coaching Institute: Parent coaching is a compassionate, collaborative way to help parents identify priorities and make clear choices based on what is most optimal for themselves and their children. All I can say is, what the hell is wrong with us as parents?

I'm not saying that the goals of Parent Coaches are wrong, but haven't we taken this strive to become better parents just a smidge too far? Sure, I could use help identifying my priorities and sometimes I wonder if I'm making the best choices for me and my kids. But the point is that I'm making the choices. Right or wrong, true or misguided, I'm making the mistakes and learning from them. Not to mention that my kids are watching me and taking mental notes of what to do or not to do when they have their own families. The point is to participate, not to hire out the experience.

Apparently, one of the things that a Parent Coach can do is teach your kids to learn to ride a two-wheeler bike. Look, I know that this is a daunting task. I'd go so far as to say that it was not one of my fondest memories as a parent. It involved crying, screaming, frustration, falling and generally countless attempts until success was achieved. But eventually it was achieved and I was glad to be a part of it. I can't imagine saying to my child: "Do you remember when you told me about how you learned to ride a two-wheeler and Mr. Smith kept picking you up from the concrete?"

I admit that there are times when I could have used a sounding board or perhaps a shoulder to cry on. My husband was always very supportive but sometimes a third-party can give you non-partisan advice that you won't resent. On the other hand, when I was about to lose my mind, I usually figured out some kind of wacky solution that got me through the crisis. If I had called a Parent Coach, would I ever have developed the skills that I probably used later on with some other issue?

The question is whether this is just another way that we're pawning off our responsibilities on other people? I'm not talking about day care or education or sports. What I mean is: what are we teaching our kids by hiring Parent Coaches? That when the going gets tough, the tough hire out? And what about the people that can't afford Parent Coaches at $75 an hour? Are they bad parents? I don't think so.

I don't doubt that these Parent Coaches have great advice. Perhaps they've encountered exactly the problems that I might face in the coming year. But what will I learn by leaning on them instead of figuring it out on my own? Is this much different than somebody else writing my kid's term paper? It just doesn't seem right. I'm not saying it's unethical, I just don't think it's a wise idea.

On the other hand, maybe there is a place for these newfound professionals - let's hook them up with teen parents. These are the people that really need their help because they're hardly adults themselves. Why is it that in America you need a license to drive a car or pull a fish out of a lake but you only need a sex drive and fertility to become a parent? Let's take these Parent Coaches and send them out on tour and force every teenager to attend a gathering called "Mamapalooza" where Parent Coaches share the ugly truth about parenthood - it's hard. Can you think of a better form of teen birth control?

Parenthood is like marriage - it's for better or for worse. And if it's not both, then it's not real. If a hired "professional" walks you through it, are you really participating? At my son's graduation, one of the speakers, who happened to be the football coach, talked about life being a game and we all play a position in it. Sure, as parents we're going to strike out, get tackled, miss a goal and drop the ball, but that's what makes the game exciting. Because you never know when you're going to hit a home run or score a touchdown. Or think of it this way: Some of the greatest sports stories of all time, such as Rudy or Hoosiers, are about underdogs - people who overcame great odds to succeed. Isn't that exactly how you feel some days as a parent?