Here's the thing about "this is a time to slow down and enjoy the gift of time with family and letting go of our schedules and our need to be productive:" It's painful. There, I said it. I know our old way of doing things was neurotic and toxic and isolating...but letting go of that is painful. I was attached to it.
Today I felt the pain. Today I had to stop everything and grab my seven-year-old and lay on the couch for awhile, surrounded by dirty dishes and Chromebooks and dog hair. Today was, in a word, janky.
I'm letting you in on this mess because I have a sneaking suspicion I am not the only one struggling today. Maybe I'm not the only one who scrolled past pictures of moms who were resourceful and energetic enough to actually acknowledge that today was St. Patrick's Day. Maybe I'm not the only one who compared herself to those moms and felt like a failure. Maybe I'm not the only mom who wondered where everyone else found the energy to deal with this thing that's actually turning out to be pretty impossible.
If you are one of those moms, please hear me when I say that you are not alone, and you are doing just fine. This is the part where we wrestle, struggle, and feel generally miserable. Maybe that means the other side of this is closer than it was yesterday.
I'll probably write more tomorrow but for now I am signing off with an elbow bump and a wish for strength and a spark of whatever it is you need to get through tomorrow.
Today was the first day of this...thing...that we are doing now. I needed to come up with a name for it, and here were my first two ideas:
March Madness - because we don't get actual March Madness, and this situation right now is legit madness. But the words made me anxious, so I didn't go with this choice.
Spring Sabbatical - Because a sabbatical seems like something that only fancy people do. (Side note: I tried to explain the meaning of a sabbatical to my nine-year-old boy this morning, and I made the mistake of using the example of a college professor taking a semester off to go to Iceland to study volcanoes. So now if you ask my son what a sabbatical is, he will tell you it's when a college professor goes to Iceland to study volcanoes.)
Anyhoo, I nixed Spring Sabbatical in favor of a more realistic description of this...thing...that we are all doing now, which is:
Janky Home School
Shall we begin? Today was day one of Janky Home School, in which I introduced the schedule that I swore I wouldn't make because schedules turn into straight jackets when my rule-following little hands get hold of them. But I caved and made a schedule late last night because I needed a security blanket, and mommies get schedules instead of security blankets. (Although I do have a security blanket that I keep in a desk cabinet and wear all day when I'm writing. No big deal, let's move on.)
I separately showed each kid the schedule and they each independently found it personally offensive that they would be expected to take a shower EVERY DAY. Other than that, they were cool with the schedule after their customary 9,536 questions about anything that involves them, ever. I just noticed that this schedule has just as much screen time as it does learning time. OH WELL. Life be janky.
Since we hadn't picked up our packets from their teachers yet, the kids got to pick what they wanted to do for learning time. Will chose to teach Emily division with remainders, and Emily was all about it. Better him than me. My earliest memory of crying about math (not my only memory of crying about math. My earliest memory of crying about math) had to do with division.
The rest of the day flowed along well, and we got a chance to pick up packets from their teachers, which was swell because the kids had no less than 5,765 questions about what would be in the packets, and it was a relief to be able to answer at least 4,567 of them. Seeing their teachers and their school was like another security blanket. Everything feels weird right now but their teachers are still THE BEST EVER and their school is still the sweet, old, stable, friendly place it's always been. Also, it smelled really clean, for the record.
After we got our packets we dropped off eight bags at Bags of Hope, a local nonprofit that supplies free food provisions to students experiencing food insecurity. Not because I am such a philanthropist, but because Emily's Girl Scout troop put together enough bags to feed eight children for a week, and I volunteered to keep the bags in my trunk, which turned into me driving a lot of food around to a lot of places without having my act together enough to figure out where and when and how to drop them off.
I finally had time, so we did it today, which worked out nicely because the kids got to be involved, and because these bags were supposed to be for Spring Break, which doesn't seem to be a thing right now, so we were happy to do one small thing to help children who rely on our school cafeteria (you know, the one that's closed indefinitely?) for meals.
After the Community Service portion of Janky Home School, it was time for Physical Education, also known as Dog Needs to Poop. We took a walk on a local trail and it was gloriously refreshing and beautiful, even with the gray mid-50s weather. We brought some friends and I was reminded that no matter what is going on, kids always find a way to have fun with sticks and dirt and water. It made my heart happy, if you want to get all schmaltzy about it.
This would be a good time to remind you (and me) that I have a job. I tried to squeeze in priorities whenever I could but I really have to figure out a better way to get work done while my kids are out of school. I am definitely the first and only person to have this problem. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.
For dinner I made Change Your Life Chicken because The Lazy Genius is my life coach who doesn't know it yet. Emily in particular is a big fan of this dish because she likes the crispy chicken skin. However, I am not a big fan of the questions she asked at dinner, which included:
Is this chicken skin I'm eating?
Is this what human skin would taste like?
Are humans edible?
It's probably best if we move on now.
When Nora Ephron was growing up, her mother constantly told her that everything is copy. I take this to mean that everything will make a great story someday, even if it feels uncomfortable, or sad, or uncertain, or frightening. As someone who likes to have a schedule and a blueprint, I am not feeling particularly warm and fuzzy these days. But I am writing it all down, and I am looking around and noticing how my kids are taking all this upheaval and uncertainty like champions, and how my friends and neighbors are cheering each other on, and how strangers are offering free resources and support to each other.
It may be a janky home school, but it will make a great story some day.
There we were, sitting in those foldable chairs that sports parents lug everywhere so they don't have to deal with the torture of bleachers. The hum of the lights filled our ears as the sun went down on a sticky Tuesday night.
This fall my son is playing "kid pitch" baseball for the first time. If you've never experienced it, all you need to know is that the innings are long. What's the word for longer than long? Interminable?
On this particular Tuesday night, our team's pitcher had a no-hitter going, but the other team still had five runs. We're talking walks, people. Five runs worth of walks. Batters routinely get hit by the ball in kid pitch. So do umpires and catchers. It's rough, guys.
This is what learning looks like. People get bruises. Parents get numb bums from sitting in their foldable chairs through interminable innings. Their hearts get tugged violently along on the tilt-a-whirl of watching their loved ones strike out every time they come to the plate.
Growth is a messy, long, bruising affair. It involves nine-year-old kids standing alone on the mound in front of their friends and family and giving it a shot. Risking failure in front of an audience. But also risking greatness. To get one you've got to risk both.
It was time for our son to bat for the second time that game. His first at bat ended at strike three. I'm one of those parents who "just wants the kids to have fun." But as I watched my boy at the plate, I had to remind myself to breathe.
We've been rooting for this kid so hard, for so long. He's one of the smallest kids on this team, and it's been awhile since he played the sport. He's also not a "natural." He practices almost every day with his dad. He goes out before the sun comes up, before breakfast on a school day, to get his practice swings in.
He's never had a hit. Pitch after pitch, we remind ourselves to breathe, and we root for a hit with everything we've got. Pitch after pitch, he swings and misses.
Except for this pitch. This pitch, on this Tuesday night, makes contact with the bat. I jump out of my foldable chair. It's a hard line drive down the third base line. My son makes it to first base easily. Everyone is cheering, even his little sister who has been reading Highlights Magazine the whole time.
The euphoria is all-consuming. Like the breeze from a dusty baseball careening down the third base line, it blows away all the sitting, waiting, pitches and strikes that led up to this moment.
This is growth. Whether it's a kid pitch game or a freelancer starting from scratch, you can't get the glory without the slog. Pitch after pitch, until you get that hit.
Progress comes down to showing up at the plate, giving it a shot, and practicing on your down time. You may get bruised, you may fail many times, and you may get bored. But one day you'll get that hit, and it will cancel out everything else.
The glory is fleeting, but it's addictive. Once you feel it, you'll want more. On the drive home from that baseball game, my son said he couldn't wait for his next game. He also said he wants to play in the spring. I might invest in a cushion for my foldable chair.
This video is blurry (technology) and jumpy (Tom's excitement) but the audio tells you everything you need to know about the glory of the hit.
When I was a kid, I loved book reports. Reading a book and getting to tell someone all about it was my jam. So that's why my goal for 2019 is to read one book a month and tell you all about it. I hope my nerdosity helps you find a great book to read, or simply take something useful away from one of my posts.
I knew something had to change when my six-year-old told me she didn't want to be a mommy "because it looks like too much work."
When I heard about How to Be a Happier Parent by KJ Dell'Antonia, the former editor of the New York Times Motherlode blog, I was like, "Yes, please!"
It's not that I'm an unhappy parent. I love being a mom. It's just that there's so much of it all the time. If I don't occasionally take a step back, I find myself doing more nagging than hugging, and I reach the end of the day wondering where the joy went. And according to my daughter's comment, I don't get to have grandchildren unless I can make motherhood look a bit more joyful.
I generally avoid reading parenting books, and when I do read them, I take them with a healthy dose of skepticism. I once read a book that said I should repeat all my toddler's words back to him like a caveman. And then there's the sleep chapter in What to Expect the First Year, which will make you want to set the book on fire and throw it in front of a speeding UPS truck.
How to Be a Happier Parent was the most helpful, empathetic, and accessible parenting book I have ever read.
Why? Two reasons.
First, her content and delivery are phenomenal. This is not a researcher talking about lab rats. This is a real mom in the real world. She comes from a compassionate, nonjudgmental place. And she's one of those skilled writers who makes it look easy.
Her examples are self-deprecating and authentic. Example: "This morning two of my children argued for ten minutes over whether their school was closed for Rosh Hashanah in 2015." My children tend to fight over pieces of garbage they find in the backseat, but I still relate to this example and love her for sharing it.
Second, she gets us. Rather than hitting us over the head with statistics and impossibly complex action items, she gives us the problem and follows it with a handful of solutions. Then we get to pick the solution that works best for us.
KJ starts the book by giving us Ten Mantras for Happier Parents. I LOVE THESE SO MUCH I have to share them with you:
1. What you want now isn't always what you want later
Taking the easy way out now means your kids won't have the stuff they need to be functional or happy adults. (i.e. Make them put their own dishes in the dishwasher.)
2. There is nothing wrong
"Fundamentally, nearly always, things are still okay." Even when you're surrounded by squabbles, unfolded laundry, and that damn norovirus.
3. People, including children - especially children - change
Let your kids change and grow; don't assume they will stay lazy, messy, stubborn, picky, obsessed with hornets (that last one might be particular to my child).
4. You don't have to go in there
This is my favorite. This is life-changing: I don't have to be infected by my family's moods. I can just...not go in there.
5. If you see something, don't always say something
This is another big one for me. I don't have to intervene in every squabble or make a thing out of every single item left on the floor.
6. You do you
I know my limits and I know what will work for my family. Some people are campers. We are not. Some people take pictures of their babies with adorable signs announcing how many months old they are. I was lucky if I even knew how many months old my second baby was. And that's OK. I don't have to be exactly as energetic, productive, and sociable as the most energetic, productive, or sociable mom in my Instagram feed. I gotta be me.
7. You can be happy when your children aren't
"Sympathy and empathy don't have to mean that our worlds come crashing down around us when that's how it feels to our kids." In fact, it's way better for our children when we can stay calm in the midst of their perceived crises.
8. Decide what to do, then do it
As a mom, I don't have to make that many decisions. Just about two million per day. It helps to remember that most of these decisions are not life-altering. Just decide, then stick to it, and move on to the next decision, which will be coming up in one and a half seconds.
9. You don't have to get it right every time
It's the intention and the effort that matter. "You will bring the wrong child to the dentist, you will buy dinner from a vending machine, and you will realize that there isn't always a "right" choice anyway."
10. Soak up the good
Our brains want to remember the negative, in order to protect us in the future. But we don't have mammoths lurking outside our cave doors anymore, so we have to train our brains to soak up the good.
I try to ask myself, "What is good in this situation?" when I need a mental reset. And there's always an answer to this question. Except during homework time. Homework time can suck it.
Speaking of homework, that's one of the issues KJ delves into later in the book. My next post will cover her tips for being a happier parents while dealing with things like homework, sibling squabbles, screen time, discipline, and meal time.
Please share which mantra blew your mind the most!
I knew I had a problem when I took my kids to see The Grinch and it was like looking in a mirror. I recognized myself in his anti-Christmas antics. I related to his desire to just be left alone in his (awesome, in my opinion) cave lair. I sunk down in my movie seat when he freaked out about having to go to the grocery store the week before Christmas because it would be too crowded. I've done that. A lot.
I don't tolerate the retail experience well under the best circumstances. I'm such a grumpy bugger that I don't even go to Target or Walmart...like, ever. So when December rolls around, and all the fair-weather Trader Joe's shoppers turn my happy place into amateur hour, and all the parking spots vanish, I get crabby and kind of stay that way for the rest of the year.
Couple this with the other rituals of December, and my patience bucket empties out right quick. The Sign Up Genius emails bombard my inbox with their baked good demands, the germ parade starts marching around the neighborhood school, the days get shorter while my list of obligations gets longer, and I turn from Grinchy to Grinchier.
For me, December represents too much of everything. I long for the clean slate of January, when there's nothing to do except make goals and schedules and all that nerdy stuff that I like. Everyone goes back into their own lane, puts their heads down, and carries on.
So...yeah. I'm super fun to be around in December. Just ask my family.
Which brings up the number one (and only) reason I try, every year, to figure out a way to find the joy in the chaos: my family. Every year, I approach the holiday season determined to mitigate the struggle just a little more than last year. I make an honest effort to find a way to be a smidge more pleasant for the people who have to put up with me.
In 2016 I actually typed up and printed out a list called Things I Learned in December and pinned it to the December page of my 2017 calendar. The first item on that list? Don't be Class Mom. I'm in my kids' classrooms at least once a week. I put my name on every Sign Up Genius that comes my way. I try to help wherever I can. I have been Class Mom at least three times, and my oldest is only in second grade. But I know myself well enough to admit that being Class Mom during the holidays makes me less enjoyable to be around, and that's not fair to my People. So it's a Christmas Don't.
Want to know what else is on my list? I doubt any of you are as Grinchy as me, but I hope some of these things are helpful. I know I'm not the only one who struggles during this time of year.
1. Practice Saying No
This year marked the first time I ever put my name on a Sign Up Genius and then...didn't bring the thing I signed up for. It was a batch of baked goods for the service club my kids belong to. They were singing at the local police department. I love our local police. I love the fact that my kids got to sing Christmas carols for them. And I love all the other moms for bringing their homemade treats, because it made my lack of participation inconspicuous. You have to pick and choose what you bow out of, but I highly recommend you practice bowing out when it's harmless.
Homework: Look at these five research-based ways to say no during the holidays. They're practical and doable, even for all of us people pleasers. Pick one and use it before December 31.
2. Choose a Motto
Did I mention how much I hate winter weather? And I live in North Carolina. I have no right to complain. But here I am complaining. I won't run outside if it's colder than 45 degrees. But I also have to run or else I will get so irritable that my family will make me find a new house to live in. So, I've been using the treadmill, and listening to podcasts to counteract the crushing monotony.
On a recent episode of the Happier podcast, Gretchen Rubin and her co-host (and sister) Elizabeth Craft talked about choosing a holiday motto. The motto serves as a mantra to keep you focused on what you love about the holidays. It's also a way to decide which parts of the holidays matter to you, and which ones you can let go of.
My motto this Christmas is Comfort and Joy. I am such a task-driven person that I have to consciously remind myself that comfort and joy matter. Having the motto helps.
Homework: Choose a motto and use it to stay focused on what matters to you. You can also use your motto as a theme around your holiday activities and gift giving. Here are some examples from the podcast: Let it snow, let your heart be light, 'tis the season to be jolly.
3. Plan and Prevent
Every year we get up early on December 26 and drive ten hours to New Jersey to spend time with our family. It is SO worth making the trip to see with the people we had to say goodbye to when we moved to North Carolina.
We do a post-Christmas get together, catch up with each other, annoy the teenagers by talking about how much they've grown, and reconnect with the place we called home for eight years.
This will be our third year making the trek, and by now I've learned how important it is to plan and prevent, so we can focus on enjoying our visit.
Ain't no packing list as detailed as my December Road Trip packing list. Don't forget the Yankee Swap gifts. Make sure we bring the gift cards for the cousins. Pack some plastic bags for our road trip garbage. Do the final Highway 78 pit stop before we get past Harrisburg unless we want to use public bathrooms that require HAZMAT suits.
One aspect of being a grumpy bugger is not sleeping well when you're away from home. So I prevent sleep deprivation by bringing my "special" pillow (because I'm a five year old), my melatonin, my chamomile tea, and all my other fussy sleeping supplies.
No one wants to be sick on a road trip, so I try to prevent germ infestation by stocking up on Zicam for noses, antibacterial wipes, and my Aunt La's famous Elderberry Elixir.
Homework: This is actually homework for me but you're welcome to join. My goal is to plan for a simplified holiday season next year by getting all my shopping done by December 1, 2019. I hope this will prevent me from going full Grinch by the time Christmas rolls around.
Christmas is four days away, all the shopping is done, everyone has agreed to go with the easy option of Spaghetti Bolognese for Christmas dinner, and I got my annual meltdown out of the way yesterday, so things are looking up for the rest of 2018.
Therefore, I am currently being sincere when I say: Merry Christmas. May your holiday be filled with comfort and joy.
Here is a list of actual, word-for-word questions my children have asked me. Read at your own risk...
Who invented life?
Is Cupid real? Do people be mysteriously waking up and getting in love?
How did God get so popular?
Does space ever end?
Can you repeat time?
What controls the sun?
How did God become God?
How old was I when I met my childhood?
Is the future real?
Can the future happen to you?
What's the opposite of New York City?
Is Mother Nature God's wife?
Do bad guys have to learn how to swim?
Do girls have armpits?
Is there such a thing as hedgehogs?
Special section for questions whose innocence broke my heart:
What's a bullet?
What's a spanking?
And, my all-time favorite question, and one that I honestly will never have an answer for:
What is the point of golf?
Words fail me. If you followed Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing, I bet you’re right here with me.
I know how I feel about aspects of the hearing, but there is no word for the overall feeling this situation elicits. I feel awe for the unimaginable strength of the 156 women who read Victim Impact Statements just feet away from the man who tried to ruin their lives. Disgust for the monster in the prison uniform. Disbelief that he was able to get away with so much for so long. Grief as I watch a rage-filled father lunge at Nassar. Hope that this hideous situation will serve as a moment of reckoning for all of us.
So here’s what I’m reckoning with at the moment: Niceness.
“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
“Is that a nice thing to say?”
As a lifelong people pleaser, I’ve said all of these things to my children, many times. Being nice is important to me. I can’t stand it when people are mean or dismissive for no reason. I love those adorable shirts that little girls wear, decorated with messages like “Choose Kindness” in shimmery, curlicue script. I’ll be damned if my own children are going to act like entitled jerkwads who treat waitresses and customer service people like disposable doormats.
What do we do with niceness in a world where a human garbage bag like Larry Nassar gets to prey on girls who were taught to be nice to adults? What do we do with manners in a world where a whole assortment of coaches, friends, and colleagues turned a blind eye to Nassar’s crimes because they were taught to never rock the boat, never be the squeaky wheel, never burn bridges?
As a mother, how do I balance #choosekindness with #reality?
It’s important for my son and daughter to know that they are no more special than anyone else. It’s important for their actions to reflect this belief. Before they step on anyone to get ahead, they had better reach down and help their teammates stand beside them.
It’s equally important for them to know that they deserve as much love, respect, safety, and kindness as everyone else. It’s just as important for them to ask for what they need and feel confident that they deserve it when they get it.
It’s my job to teach them how to speak up when someone crosses a line. It’s crucial that they know these lines exist, that they keep these lines strong and clear.
How do we raise children with suits of armor and open hearts? What kind of life do you end up with if you surround yourself with impenetrable walls? But what do you invite into your life if you have no walls at all?
How do I raise my children to be respectful, but also to know that respect goes out the window as soon as their gut says something is off?
I don’t have answers for any of these questions. Just like I don’t have a word for how I feel as I follow the Nassar situation.
I will probably never find the balance between nice and fierce, but I will never stop looking for it, either.
Maybe we can start small. Maybe, on the back of those adorable “Choose Kindness” shirts our daughters wear, we can add a message to balance it out: “Don’t EVER mistake my kindness for weakness.”
...was the name of my column in Phillips' Finest, my middle school newspaper. If it was good enough for seventh grade, it's good enough for "adulthood."