Saturday, December 31, 2011

Looking Back on the Year

Since coming back home from my in-laws' as the holiday season winds down, I've been feeling a little down. The stress of packing fourteen people (seven adults and seven children) into a small space for a week with dreary, cold weather and lots of opinions on parenting and cooking and politics and everything in-between has caught up with me. We had a lovely time with these amazing individuals, but after a few days of rubbing up against each other, things get a little chafed and it was time to head for home. For a person like me who tends to be very introspective, the tendency to self-judge and second guess becomes overwhelming. Unfortunately, we came home to a very sick hamster (Lola's) who was valiantly fighting off a bacterial infection and lost the battle yesterday. We are all very sad to lose this adorable, feisty member of the family and, as grief comes in waves, at any time of the day one of us can be found in tears over her loss.

As the sun rose today and I contemplated the gathering we will have tomorrow to welcome the new year, Bubba recognized my mood and strongly encouraged me to head to yoga. I did, and struggled a bit to stay "on my mat" in mind and body during the 90 minutes, but now, 90 minutes after class, I'm feeling somewhat more centered. I gathered the girls at the kitchen table to review our year a bit and was astonished to discover how quickly we amassed a pretty impressive list of things we have done in the past twelve months. In no particular order, here goes:

Eve: successfully learned to manage her 6th grade schedule
survived (and thrived at) her first sleepaway camp
had her first official babysitting job
cooked an entire dinner for the family (with significant help from Lola)
Turned 12
Broke her first bone
Played on her first basketball team and loved it
Did the dinner dishes for an entire month by herself
Went on her first class camping trip
Learned to sail with her classmates

Lola: started skateboarding lessons
survived (and thrived at) her first sleepaway camp
played her first season of lacrosse (and kicked butt)
did all of the laundry for an entire month by herself
cooked an entire dinner for the family with her sister
started a recycling education project in her classroom
lost her last baby tooth
got braces

Both girls: chicken-sat for the neighbors
went to the San Diego Zoo for the first time
visited Joshua Tree National Park for the first time (me, too!)
took paddleboarding lessons (me, too!)
steered a boat in the Pacific Ocean
saw a stingray off the coast of Maui (me, too!)
learned to play beach volleyball in Santa Barbara
kayaked in Lake Wenatchee

I managed to get published on line in BuddhaChick Magazine, created a relationship with BlogHer that increased my readership, took approximately 60 yoga classes, learned to make good gluten-free baguettes, took my first trip with Bubba away from the kids, turned 40 and saw U2 in concert. Bubba's company grew, he participated in his first camp singalong, he traveled to some new places and made new friends and became more beloved to each and every one of us.

Looking over the list we managed to put together in a few short minutes began restoring my faith in hope. I had Lola grab a fresh sheet of paper so we could scratch out some predictions for 2012 and we were quickly laughing and fantasizing. I've decided to leave both lists out so we can add to them throughout the day as inspiration or memory arises. Maybe it was the yoga. Maybe it was finally settling back in at home. Maybe I'm feeling better because the sadness is running its course. I don't know, but I am happy that the simple act of looking back on our year for a few moments had such a profound effect on my mood.

I am struck by the notion that most of the things on this list were not earth-shattering. Most of them were not things we specifically set out to do. They were simply things that happened in the course of our lives, moving along through space and time the best way we know how, loving each other and sticking to the values we hold most dear. I hope that a year from now I can look back again and be amazed at the adventures each of us have had, together and individually.

Here's to 2012 and all it brings.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A New Perspective on the Holiday

Five days until Christmas day. The kitchen is silent but for the sighs of the dog splayed out on the floor next to me. Eve and Lola are upstairs, straightening up their rooms so that they can find a place for each and every new treasure they receive on Christmas Day. Eve cleans while belting out popular songs with no pretense. Lola stops every few items to crouch on the floor and read a few pages of a Calvin and Hobbes book.

The day outside is grey and misty and I'm determined to avoid the reality of winter in the Northwest by only gazing at the 4x4 photo of Dad sitting on the front porch with the girls as babies, squinting in the sunshine, his freckled legs showing in a rare moment when he wore shorts outside of the gym.

I feel as though I ought to be rushing around completing last-minute tasks, but all but one gift is wrapped and under the tree and I'm not baking any treats this year. We have deliberately scaled back gift-exchanges over the years in deference both to those who have more stuff than they know what to do with as well as those whose needs run to the more serious - like groceries and money to pay the heating bill. We still spoil the children and delight in odd gifts for each other here and there, but I'm thrilled to be part of the older generation now, my true delight in watching the children's eyes as they rip the glossy paper off of their presents.

More than anything I look forward to the gathering. The unexpected history shared after a few glasses of wine that sets everyone to hysterical laughter. The moment where the youngest child discovers the piano in the living room and the magical sounds it makes. The stolen moments on the couch where I pretend to be asleep and hear philosophical conversations between adolescents. For all of the hoopla around Christmas cookies and intricate wrapping methods and hours spent in the kitchen preparing the roast, I look to the next five days for rest and quiet spaces and spontaneous bursts of joy. For this, I wish Christmas came more than once a year.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Life Lessons with Lola

On the way to school yesterday, Lola started complaining about her loose molar. She has one left to lose (yes, she is only nine, but both of my children were precocious about getting and losing teeth) and it is at that hanging-by-a-thread point that is making her nuts.

Eve used to love having wiggly teeth. She would push them back and forth, back and forth with her tongue and her finger, working it and working it to see just how precariously she could get it to cling before it fell out. She delighted in disgusting friends and family by pushing the tooth until it was perpendicular to the others in her mouth.

Lola was terrified of losing teeth. And I didn't help. Her first tooth began coming loose when she was five and in Kindergarten. Every day she would complain that it bugged her to eat with it like that and at bedtime she would cry in fear that it would come free in her sleep and she would swallow it or choke on it. Day by day it got more and more loose but she was afraid to touch it or let anyone else touch it for fear that it would rip violently from her mouth and she would bleed to death. Despite Eve's repeated efforts to calm her by telling her it didn't hurt to lose a tooth and my lectures about it being totally normal, Lola became increasingly hysterical as the days wore on.

One afternoon as I passed by the playground where Lola was having recess with her class (I worked in the office at the Montessori school), Lola ran to the chain-link fence and called to me. When I walked over to her, she burst in to tears and told me she was so worried about losing this tooth. I was frustrated and, frankly, done hearing about this damn tooth, so I asked her to open up and show me. As soon as she opened her mouth to its widest point I reached my thumb and index finger through the fence and into her mouth, grabbed the tooth and pulled it out. [It was only holding on by a thread, trust me, it didn't even bleed.] She jerked away from the fence, her eyes wide in horror and I presented the tooth to her.

"Here you go. Now you don't have to worry about it anymore, honey."

I know it was mean. But, honestly, after all of the drama we'd had for over a week about this damn thing, I was ready to show her that it wasn't such a big deal after all.

She never let me see a wiggly tooth again unless we were separated by a wide table or an entire room. I can't say that I blame her.

So fast forward four years and I'm terribly relieved she only has one more to lose. I asked her if she still feels as frightened now when she loses a tooth as she did back then.

"Not really, but you have to admit, Mom, the way you talk about it is pretty scary."

Huh? Turns out she's right. To a kid, "losing" something is always bad. Losing your favorite toy. Losing your mittens at school. Losing your TV privileges. And so when we say to a kid that they are going to lose a tooth, it doesn't sound natural. It sounds scary.

"You're right, Lola! I never thought about that. How else could we say it?"

"I don't know, Mom. Telling a kid their tooth is going to fall out isn't much better. Nobody wants to have some part of their body 'fall out.'"

She's right. And, ironically enough, by the time you are able to truly understand that losing a tooth is an exception to the rule that losing things is bad, losing a tooth actually would be a bad thing.

So here's to Lola's last baby tooth "leaving the nest."

Monday, December 12, 2011

Lola's Holiday Heartbreak (and Recovery)

Let me start by saying that Lola, my nine-year-old, has a heart of gold. A heart the size of Texas that is solid gold. She is very emotionally sensitive and idealistic and sometimes this means her heart gets broken. It's hard to watch. It is even harder to watch when I know it's my fault (or Bubba's - in this case, it was Bubba's fault).

Lola has always believed in Santa Claus. Even after discovering that her older cousins and her older sister thought it was all a hoax, Lola maintained that they were crazy. From time to time she would come to me and ask how to counter their arguments (or taunting), and I could see that she so desperately wanted to believe in Santa that I would help her out. And maybe I was setting her up. But there is something magical about the notion that there exists someone out there in the world who loves you just because you are a kid. Someone that doesn't have to love you (they aren't your family, after all), but who, once a year, acknowledges the mystery and wonder that is you and surprises you with some of your heart's desires. Just because. And when you put it in that context, who wouldn't want to believe in that?

Bubba and I played our part - wrapping gifts from Santa in special wrapping paper that didn't match our family gifts and using our left hands to write out the names in case the kids scrutinized the handwriting. We even colluded with our extended family to share wrapping paper and buy the same kinds of treats for the stockings when we were planning on sharing Christmas morning with them. I will admit that we indulged a bit in the coercion of "Santa is watching" for the last few weeks before the holidays, but it was mostly joking. Or so I thought. But it's tricky to know how kids interpret things unless they talk about it. Or write to Santa.

Lola's letter to St. Nick last year went something like this:
"Dear Santa,
I do not think I deserve any presents this year. I've tried to be nice this year. But I
can't do it. But if you think I deserve it, I want a Zune.
Love, Lola
P.S. Never quit your job."

I started out chuckling when I read this letter, but quickly got a lump in my throat. Poor dear. Bubba was also charmed by the note and decided that we ought to keep this letter indefinitely. Even if we never showed it to her, it was a priceless keepsake. So it remained tucked in his desk, safely inside the envelope addressed by Lola herself, until Lola discovered it this July.


I never would have imagined how betrayed she would feel. She was mortified, both because she felt duped by her own parents (and stupid in the face of her cousins' teasing the last two years), and because of the implication. No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.

Bubba and I felt horrible. She cried for a long time and my only consolation was that it was the middle of summer and Santa's demise wasn't associated with Christmas.

Fast forward to December and I began wondering how she would handle the notion as the holiday approached. When I picked her up from school last Wednesday and inquired about her day, she told me her teachers had asked her to write a Christmas story to share with the younger kids in class. (Lola attends a mixed-age Montessori school and her classroom has kids in grades 1-4. She is the oldest.)

"So I wrote this story about this kid who asked for a toy boat and a scooter from Santa Claus and, since her parents didn't believe in Santa, they bought the things for her. But when Christmas morning came, the little girl got two boats and two scooters. The parents got into a fight later because they each accused the other one of buying the gifts but it turns out Santa did it. They still didn't believe it, but their daughter decided to give one boat and one scooter to the homeless shelter and she felt great. The next year, the same thing happened and the girl got two of what she asked for and gave half away. The next year, the parents both stayed up to spy on each other and catch the other one in the act, but they caught Santa instead. They were surprised and talked about not getting the little girl something from then on, but finally decided she had so much fun giving away half of her presents that they would just keep doing it. And Santa was happy, too."

Huh. I think she's recovered the spirit of the holiday. Something tells me she'll be just fine. Santa lives on in Lola's spirit, believe it or not.

Friday, December 09, 2011

President Obama Decision Fear-Based, Disappointing

From the AP Newswire on December 8, 2012:
"President Obama said today that 'as the father of two daughters' he supports his health secretary's decision to block over-the-counter sales of the Plan B 'morning after' birth control pill to girls under 17 years of age."

My response:
As the father of two daughters, Bubba once considered investing in chastity belts.
As the father of two daughters, Bubba has mentioned more than once that he is counting on me to talk him off the ledge when he considers shadowing Eve on her first date.
As the father of two daughters, Bubba is uncomfortable recalling what it was like to be a hormonally-driven teenage boy.

As the mother of two daughters, I realize that my girls may not always be completely honest with me about the pressures they face to do things that they aren't ready for LIKE HAVE SEX.
As the mother of two daughters, I am certain that my girls will make mistakes and I hope that they have the opportunity to clean up their messes and learn from them without it changing their lives forever.
As the mother of two daughters, I am appalled that President Obama, the man I voted for, would let his own discomfort with the notion of one of his daughters needing Plan B cloud his judgement on this issue.

I wish there were a world where girls as young as 10 and 11 couldn't possibly need access to Plan B.
If there is, we don't live in it.
And if I'm being totally honest, with this move, I can't honestly say that I trust Obama to protect abortion rights without requiring parental consent for girls under the age of 17. I don't see that that is much of a leap from this position, frankly. And that scares the crap out of me.

From the AP Newswire on December 8, 2012:
"Sebelius, overruling the Food and Drug Administration, said there are too many questions about the safety of Plan B for girls who can bear children as young as 10 or 11 years old."

My response:

Are you kidding me? Where to begin?
1. Overruling the FDA? Honestly? One person decided, despite the legions of scientists and policy-makers at the FDA who actually TESTED THE DRUG, that she knew more than they did? I don't think so.
2. What about the safety of a 10 or 11 year old child GOING THROUGH PREGNANCY AND CHILDBIRTH? Isn't that a consideration?

From the AP Newswire on December 8, 2012:

"He [Obama] and Sebelius decided 10- and 11-year olds should not be able to buy the drug 'alongside bubblegum or batteries' because it could have an adverse effect if not used properly. He said 'most parents' probably feel the same way."

My response:

Bubblegum and batteries can have an adverse effect if used improperly, too, President Obama. When I used to work with mentally ill populations of children I can remember a rash of attempted suicides where the kids would purchase - you guessed it - batteries and ingest them so that their stomach acids would break down the batteries and release the acid inside, killing them.

And since when is policy made based on an assumption that "most _________ probably feel that way?" The reason we have organizations like the FDA is so that policy will follow accepted guidelines of rigorous testing and examination of the implications of different actions. We don't make decisions based on how we THINK other people PROBABLY feel.

Yes, as a parent, the notion that Lola would need to sneak down to her local drugstore to buy an emergency contraceptive is terrifying. Because she is so young. But what about when she is sixteen? I hope against hope that both of my daughters will feel as though they can come to me if they are in any kind of trouble and I am working hard to create an atmosphere like that in our family. And I'm damn lucky. And so are Eve and Lola. Scores of girls don't have the luxury of a stable, supportive family. Some girls are neglected, abused, and even sexually exploited by their family members. So, please, Mr. President, don't use the emotionally evocative image of a 10-year old girl to justify your decision based on fear. Your daughters will grow up. And I hope that they feel comfortable coming to you and Michelle for support when they screw up, no matter what form that mistake takes. In the meantime, there are so many other girls for whom you are creating a hardship and a barrier to taking some control of their own lives, girls who are 13, 14, 15, and 16. Girls who we know, thanks to information professional organizations like the Guttmacher Institute, ARE HAVING SEX and are AT RISK FOR UNWANTED PREGNANCIES.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Importance of Acknowledgement

Occasionally, I re-realize things that send shock waves through my life. Generally this happens after a bit of struggle and strife and when the shining moment comes for the pertinent message to penetrate my thick skull, I am astonished. And then, the more I think about it, the less astonished I am at the actual notion and the more shocked I am that I forgot this lesson in the first place.

My most recent realization? Humans need their actions to feel meaningful in order for them to be motivated.

I know. Duh.

Author Dan Ariely puts it so well in his book The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home. He conducted experiments to determine whether people will continue to be motivated to complete tasks they knew were meaningless even if they were paid to do so. Not surprisingly, he discovered that the interest level falls off sharply when the work is disregarded or set aside without acknowledgement. Somewhat surprisingly, he noted that even the slightest form of acknowledgement (looking over the page of work and nodding your head before setting it aside) was enough to keep most people going for a long time despite the fact that they were paid the same amount as those whose work was not acknowledged.

I began thinking about the implications of this when it comes to my life. I know that when I had a job that made me feel as though I was making a difference in someone's life, I was not likely to grumble about it or drag my feet to get to work. I can't say that I am ever excited to get out of bed to the tune of an alarm clock before the sun rises, but I have always been much more likely to do so if I felt like the tasks ahead of me were important. (This may be why I hate packing school lunches so much. If the kids acknowledged the food as delicious and appreciated and I didn't see much of it come home and go into the trash, I might be happier making lunches every morning pre-dawn.)

When I quit my job to stay home with my kids I can honestly say that the monotony got to me. It is discouraging to change diapers again knowing that there will be more coming soon. The same tasks day after day, performed in the service of a non-verbal companion seemingly incapable of truly appreciating them didn't exactly feel meaningful.

Then I thought about the implications for my kids. The one year Eve went to the local public school, she came home with reams of papers to complete every week as homework. She quickly became discouraged despite the fact that her homework was always completed and turned in on time. Or maybe because of that. At some point her teacher learned to expect that from her and Eve was no longer acknowledged for being a student who was timely and efficient. At her first conference, the teacher verbalized her lack of concern for Eve by saying, "Oh, she's fine. I don't worry about her. She sits quietly in class and turns all of her homework in." That was nearly the extent of the entire conference. Eve felt meaningless. By December, she knew that the only way to get any attention at all from her teacher would be to misbehave. She couldn't intuit any sort of global meaning or ultimate pinnacle that all of the paperwork was leading up to (nor could I, for that matter), which led her to believe that it was all just busywork. Meaningless.

She checked out mentally and emotionally. She began pretending to be sick every day and begged me, in tears, not to make her go back to school. She was not being bullied or harassed. She was not performing poorly in school. She was somewhat bored, but more importantly, she was frustrated with the lack of meaning her days contained. I wonder how many kids feel that way. I wonder if we could find some way to help them understand the context of their school work and help them feel as though the assignments they are completing are important in some way, whether they would perform even better.

I also thought about the implications this lesson had for my relationships. How often do I let people know that they matter to me? I suspect not often enough. I suspect that there are times when Eve or Lola or Bubba would love some acknowledgement of their efforts. I know I would. When I was really struggling with depression several years ago, it was truly a crisis of confidence that I mattered. At my lowest point I truly believed that I was entirely replaceable. Bubba could hire a housekeeper and a nanny to take over my daily duties and nobody would miss me a whit. I know now that they would have missed me, but I still struggle from time to time wondering what value I bring to the world. Spending five years researching and writing a book that never gets published is a particularly effective way to become convinced that your work stands for nothing. Especially when so many of the other tasks I perform on a daily basis are "consumed," like the food I cook and the laundry and the housework. I know from experience that something as simple as a comment like, "Mom, great dinner tonight! Would you make this again?" can sustain me for days as I shop for groceries and do dishes.

As so many people find themselves out of work right now, I wonder if we wouldn't all do ourselves a big favor by finding ways to occupy ourselves that feel meaningful. Whether or not it brings in money, volunteering to help organizations in our communities or friends or family members can give us such a big boost in terms of our own self-worth that it may just elevate our spirits to the point where we catch the eye of a potential employer. Short of that, I think I will make a concerted effort to remind the people in my life how much their actions mean to me personally.
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