Feeling Contemplative on a Bike Ride

A day for me. As a home child care provider, let me stress to you how rarely this happens. I have worked for 12 years in my home, every day, all day. Think about it – when you’re a child care provider, you can’t leave the house. You don’t run out for a cup of coffee, or take an afternoon off for a dentist appointment. You don’t even get to stop at the market on the way home for a gallon of milk. You just – stay home. It’s a little confining. Don’t have claustrophobia and become a home child care provider.

Lately I’ve found myself taking a few steps back into the world. It’s been wonderful getting re-acquainted, and seeing the town around me for the fun and lively place it is. Of course in true motherly fashion, the day for me became the day I scheduled the recall work on the car. But that’s OK because it forced me to take a bike ride around my town, which is one of my favorite things to do.

I dropped the car off early and relished the quiet morning before the world woke up. I rode to the bridge over the river and took pictures of the rowing crew working out. Smelled the fresh air and flowers (and the garbage truck), and watched all the people dressed up in business clothes heading to work.

As I passed the sights along the way my moods changed wildly: traffic building at the highway entrance. A homeless man sleeping along the bike path. A grandmotherly lady with her bike basket, smiling and ringing her bell. The words “kill you” graffiti’d on the bridge underpass. A nanny with two young boys on bikes. A young guy with headphones actually smiling pleasantly. A serious bike racer all decked out in spandex.

My mind wandered and I couldn’t help but flash back on the days when I used to get up and go, like these folks, to a real professional-like office job. I thought about the plans I’ve made that have come true, and those that didn’t. How I felt about the loss of those things and how I’ve come to be content where I am. The benefits of a corporate job versus being my own boss and working with children. I thought about working at home and how nice it would be to work away from home again. Did I make the right choices, for myself and for my children?

I was probably in this speculative mood because we spent the weekend at a family wedding. My sons got it – the meaningfulness of what was happening. They knew they were part of something big and they took it seriously. They loved every minute of spending time with family and were incredibly sad when it was over. When I asked Older why he didn’t want to leave he said, “I don’t know when we’ll have everyone together like this again.” I promised right then to find an occasion, or throw a party for no reason just to make it happen.

My husband and I have recently had some deep conversations about the meaning of real parenting. Is it sending your kids away to camp to teach them independence? Is it letting them lay around the house all summer and get the desperately-needed downtime their bodies require for summer growth spurts? Is it strict discipline or having fun? Where is the balance and what is right? Does any of it matter that much, if they grow up to be relatively happy and sane people?

In the end that’s really the most you could ask for. I think parenting comes down to this: having fun. Teaching them to be grateful for what they have and to share what they can. Keeping them interested in trying new things, and showing them the joy of exploring new places. Letting them know that things may turn out as planned, or they may not, but you move on and find the next thing. Giving them a sense of hope, and the resiliency to keep moving ahead no matter what comes.

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Don’t Make Me Go All Amnesty on Your Ass

Some moments in child care take everything you’ve learned up until that moment. It sometimes feels like the culmination of my whole life as a daughter, sister, mother, master’s degree student, teacher, and therapist. The last of which I’m not, but often find myself having to be with the demands of the job.

This week’s moment was with my brother and sister pair. They are typical siblings with the usual squabbles who band together rabidly if anyone else bothers them (she’s MY sister – only I can beat the crap out of her!). This time it was brother who took the blow. I missed the beginning of the fight but saw and heard the outcome. He hit the deck, hard. Full-on WWE body slam.

I walked into the room and all eyes were on me. I had a lot of choices as to how to handle this situation. I could yell and make a big scene, I could punish her, I could try to set an example for all the kids by showing everybody how wrong this was, and how angry it made me.

Sister was too afraid to even say she was sorry. She was staring at me waiting for the hammer to come down.

I looked at brother. He was laying on the floor, pained not only because he’d whacked his head pretty good, but I could see it in his eyes: How could she do this to me? My heart melted.

I didn’t say a word to anybody. I went to him, knelt down, pulled him into my lap, and just sat and hugged him in silence.

No one knew what to do. They spoke a few words here and there but were at a loss as to what I was thinking. I looked around at the kids and realized they were all playing their roles. Sister knew she was in trouble and was trying to blend into the background while knowing she still had to atone for it.

The other instigator of the fight knew this was big, but was thinking I didn’t know she had anything to do with it and she might get off scot free. My class clown started being funny to try to distract everybody from the tension. But I wasn’t going to move on without addressing the moment.

As I sat and held brother I took a moment to collect my thoughts and decide how I was going to handle this. It was good to let the kids stew for a moment, worrying about how much trouble this was going to be. And it’s good for me not to have to make snap decisions all the time. Sibling fighting is a ploy for attention, and sometimes when you give the right attention the fight is resolved (doesn’t mean there won’t be another one).

I remembered raising my own boys and being so angry at one when he’d hurt the other. It didn’t matter who was the perpetrator or what they did – when one of my babies was hurt, mama bear roared. It was unacceptable to me – you do NOT hurt your brother! This is your FAMILY. That may be the one thing I fought them the hardest on, and I know I got it from my mother.

My sister and I rarely had fights but when they did, they were a doozy. I didn’t necessarily want her to be punished – I just wanted someone to understand how I felt. My mother would spend a while talking with her in her room, then come to me. Usually we’d have to say sorry, but it didn’t feel so hard after we aired our feelings and got the attention we needed.

In the end I just ignored everyone but brother and kept asking him how he felt. We talked about how hurt and scared he was. I asked why she pushed him down. He said he took her toy. I said, “Do you think taking her toy made her angry?” He nodded yes. Then I asked, “Do you think it’s fair to be tackled for taking a toy?” After that, sister approached and genuinely apologized to him.

I don’t know how much it sank in – it certainly didn’t stop them from battling out the rest of the week. But for the moment, she really saw that what she’d done was wrong. Brother felt comforted, not because it came from me but most importantly, because it came from his sister.

And at lunch time, when sister told me, “You always give me the food last,” I resisted the urge to tell her that those who try to destroy their brother will eventually pay the price.

Remembering a Hero

There’s nothing I hate more than when someone passes and the tributes come rolling out. Our heroes should hear the tributes and get the thanks before they die. So I sit here with the regret I knew I’d have for never sending that fan mail to Maya Angelou.

What held me back was, she’ll never read it anyway. Who’s to say she would even care? She’s heard it all before. But who’s to say she wouldn’t have read it, been touched, and even written me back? (That’s positive thinking. I stole it from my therapist friend.)

So now, without irony, I roll out my tribute to Dr. Angelou. I had the privilege of seeing her on two of her lecture tours in 2003 and 2006. She was still agile even moving in slow motion, so eloquent and funny, full of wonderful stories, bawdy, and even a little harsh. Tough love, but mostly love.

She spoke so much truth and beauty that I found myself scribbling what she was saying on the covers of my Playbill. Here is what she said (paraphrased, not direct quotes, from notes I scribbled on my Playbill in the dark ten years ago):

We all have the potential to touch. Our power to make the world a better place is immense.

Laugh as much as possible.

(On a young girl’s stubborn use of the n-word): It’s poison and it diminishes me. It diminishes us.

We are more alike than unalike. Too many facts hide the truth. If we truly internalized this our world would not be in the state that it’s in.

Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.

(On her uncle, who helped raise her): I am where I am today because somebody dared to be a light and shine on me. He made me love to learn. The power of the light to infect, to lead someone out of the dark, to dim, into the light; for each one of us who dares to think we can be of service – we are lights, and we have the possibility of lighting our family. It is time for us to take the responsibility of being lights.

I can still hear the breadth of her voice and the timber and cadence she used while saying those words, and I could’ve listened to it forever. She was mesmerizing. Once at a work convention we had to answer the question, “Who would you have dinner with if you could choose one celebrity?” and I chose her. That day I met and became friends with an amazing woman who I’ve kept in contact with for years since then. She said when I spoke Maya Angelou’s name, she thought, there’s a person I want to be friends with. So I have proof that Miss Angelou brought people together in ways she never knew.

The regret I have for not sending that fan mail reminds me of the time I saw Stan Lee in the lobby of a hotel and was too afraid to approach him. My husband tried to coach me on what to say but I was frozen. I even thought about writing him a letter too, explaining that the dork who was secretly trying to take his picture with her phone was too shy to say something like, you are amazing and your work is a gift and thank you so much for sharing it with us. (Well it WAS Comic-Con weekend and I’m sure the poor man had enough of weird people coming up and worshiping him to hold him for a long time.)

So, Stan Lee, thank you for the world you created that enthralls and entertains my sons and me. Thank you for sharing your creativity and stories and the life lessons snuck in there (or slammed over our heads with Thor’s hammer). Thank you for inspiring us to create as well.

Thank you to all the friends and mentors, famous or not, who have inspired me on the way. It takes a lot of support and guidance to keep a person going. It often comes in the smallest moments, when you’re least expecting it, sometimes from the last place you’d expect. In reflecting on Maya Angelou’s legacy, I hope to be more open to those moments.

And I take the responsibility of working as hard as I can to raise good people. During her lecture she recited some verse on the death of a loved one: “Look for me. I am present in the songs children sing. I’m living in the games children play.” That is where our work lives on and our light shines strongest.

Pawns in the Game of Common Core Chess

Here’s something new. Louis CK has a new season of his show starting tonight, and while on the press tour he has decided to start a battle against common core standards. Just when I thought I couldn’t love him anymore.

I came across this information in this month’s New Yorker blog, which mentions US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s battle FOR common core and support of standardized testing. In Arne’s opinion, opposition to the Common Core State Standards has come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were. You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.'”

Wow. There are so many things wrong with that statement I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s just start with my rage. My privileged, white suburban mom rage.

I happen to know my kids pretty well. I know they’re not Einstein, and I know they’re also pretty damn smart. I also knew what I was getting into when I made the choice to live in my town, all by my big grownup girl self (and I managed to make these life decisions without the benefits of MCAS, PARCC, or Common Core in my public school education!).

I know that my kids aren’t stressed out because they’re over-scheduled privileged white suburban youths. Their weekend soccer games are their outlet, the place they get to shine, as opposed to the school system that tells them they are built wrong (but perhaps I’m just an overwrought soccer mom whose priorities are in the wrong place).

My kids are stressed out because every day they are made to feel there is something wrong with them if they can’t easily understand the work they’re supposed to be breezing through and producing results on. They’re stressed out because every night we struggle through homework for hours and spend most of that time with nobody in the house, including mom and dad, understanding the meaning of the questions or the point of the exercise.

My kids are stressed out because they hear that their teachers are doing a shoddy job when everyone in the class hasn’t gotten stellar ratings on a test that shows absolutely nothing about their abilities or chances for future success in the real world, where people’s talents and performance aren’t based on filling in bubbles on a page.

As to Arne’s opinion on us suburban moms and how we feel about our schools: my kids have had what I feel to be the best education they could in this day and age, and that is in spite of testing, not because of. They’re getting a good education because of their TEACHERS, who are outrageously dedicated and caring despite the ridiculousness of the situation they’ve been put in, and the incredible (and unnecessary) amount of stress they have to shoulder on a daily basis.

That the head of the education department in this country considers parents to be whiners because their kids aren’t successful is telling. It shows the true depth of his ignorance regarding the people he’s serving.

The Washington Post further states that “when confronted with the truth through lower test scores and other indicators, the unhelpful response, in Arne’s view, is to say, ‘Let’s lower standards and go back to lying to ourselves and our children, so that our community can feel better.’ The more productive response for a community or a state is to ask, ‘What can we do to get better, so our students can graduate from high school, succeed in college and be competitive for good jobs?’”

I’d say the most productive response would be to say, why don’t we ask the experts what children need to succeed in school? And why don’t we leave that schooling in the hands of the educators who actually have experience, knowledge, education, and wisdom in the area of working with children? And why don’t we take some of the billions of dollars we’ve spent on testing and put that back towards education?

Aye, there’s the rub (Hamlet reference. I know that from my public school education). Far too many people are making far too much profit off our children. That’s why they are no more important than numbers on a graph, and their mothers are marginalized as hysterical, spoiled, over-reacting princesses when we question why our kids, teachers, and schools are suffering.

I have to fight the battle every day to convince my kids that school is important and homework is important even when I don’t believe in the system. It can be easy for people like Arne Duncan to confuse my frustration with white suburban privilege. I do believe in my schools and teachers. I believe in my kids. And I’m bright enough to be able to see when they are being used as pawns in a political game, and then blamed for not knowing how to play.

This year I let my kids choose if they wanted to opt out of their standardized testing. They wanted to do it, if only because of the candy and free time at the end of the day. Next year I don’t think they get the choice. They will not be subject to this madness any more. As a parent, it is my job to protect my children from those that would abuse them, and that includes the unskilled, ill-informed politicians who are wrongly in charge of their education. Arne, we’re not playing your game anymore.

Tax Time

This happens every year. I don’t do my taxes quarterly, as I’m supposed to, just because I’m lazy. So tax time is several hours’ worth of digging through a giant pile of receipts. It is a bittersweet exercise in remembering the highs of the year and realizing how much my kids have grown.

It’s like going through a scrapbook of the year. As I check store names for deductible items I find a record of my family’s activities: meals out at favorite restaurants, holiday and birthday fun, visits with friends and relatives. Ticket stubs from the movies we saw (Star Trek Into Darkness: yeah!! Thor the Dark World: eh) and trips to the museum (including a memorable one playing with cousins in the giant stick house).

Here’s a receipt from the day Younger almost had to get a tooth pulled, and was in so much pain that I bought him a toy just to take his mind off it. All the early weekend morning soccer game Dunkin’ Donuts runs, and treats bought at convenience stores. The days we rode our bikes on the Cape Cod bike trail to the general store for root beer, Italian ice, and cinnamon donuts that you can’t find anywhere else.

The night Younger and I wandered through the mall for three hours trying to find him hiking shoes for our trip to Utah. No one understood why we were going to the desert except the girl in the Merrell store, who finally got excited and jealous for us, and from whom we happily bought overpriced shoes that he’d be able to wear for all of one season.

And here’s the restaurant we found on that trip, where Older loved the brownie sundae so much we had to go back and get him another before we left. And of course I said yes because it was VACATION.

Here was the day after Thanksgiving, when we had to drive from one family in NJ to the other on Cape Cod. It was a mighty trek across five states and though we tried to make it, we had to stop for lunch at a diner. It’s not even that they were cranky, because they’re superhero travelers now, but more because we all needed a break from the monotony and to look at each other’s faces. We played Chat Pack and laughed at the crazy, big, loud family at the table next to us.

The annual weekend in NH with Grammy that we’re still trying to squeeze out of them before they get too old and uninterested to go. If she keeps up the swimming/spending/eating/spoiling trends we’ve set, I think we’re guaranteed to get them for at least a few more.

The afternoon when Younger and I went to a lecture at the museum to research a school project. We ate lunch in the museum cafe and I marvelled at my grown-up boy, wondering how many lunches we’ll share in the future.

The last batch of Valentines to pass out at school. It’s simply not done in middle school. Which is a relief for me, rushing out to buy them the evening before they’re due, getting home to find out there are only 20 and we need 24, stuffing them all into those little envelopes and spending the rest of the evening at the kitchen table making sure he signs every single one. Or, is it a relief after all?

The grocery receipts tell the story of school lunches: the snacks they liked as young ones are long gone. Fourth-grade juice boxes have been replaced by fifth-grade water bottles. And that reminded me of the kid on Younger’s baseball team whose nickname was Juice Box, and we all thought it was the greatest thing. Will he be begging them to stop this year?

And that reminded me that Younger refuses to try out for baseball this year because he’s all about soccer now. The little league pictures of smiling boys in baseball hats are already relics.

During tax week I’m up until midnight several nights in a row, exhausted from trying to get through this exercise, which makes me an emotional wreck as well. I’m involuntarily crying on the receipts that I’m trying to read clearly (with my new reading glasses because my eyes are getting worse as I get older). But I am filled with the memories of a beautiful year. Time passes quickly, parents. Soak it up while you can.

Bye Bye, Olympics

At the beginning of these Olympics, I commented on friend’s Facebook status that this would be the worst host city ever. Between Putin’s anti-gay propaganda, terrorist threats, and poisonous water in the hotels, I wasn’t excited to watch at all, and I felt bad for the athletes who’d worked so hard to get there.

Of course as soon as the opening ceremonies started I had to peek. The President of the IOC took everyone to task, saying it wasn’t fair to put their politics on the backs of the athletes. After that moment I was happy to keep watching.

That, and my kids were totally into it. They enjoyed the summer Olympics in 2012 but this is the first year they were able to really start digging into the big picture issues. I let them stay up late whenever they wanted and we talked politics, geography, history. We looked up about a hundred facts online every time they had a question. (Younger was particularly concerned with when America had beaten Canada in men’s hockey and it was actually quite difficult to find that stat. I’m still a little annoyed by it.)

We talked about why it’s fun to watch the Olympics. I told them about the 1984 winter Olympics, when my ever-patriotic mother actually whooped and applauded the American team walking in with their cowboy hats on. And how fun it was for me to watch with my kids, as it was for her.

I told them about the year Older was two and we’d decided it would be a good weekend for a getaway with the grandparents. We rented a house in New Hampshire and were ready for a nice relaxing weekend, when Grammy and Grampa both came down with the flu. Older commented, “Well at least you had something to watch.” (Was he referring to the Olympics or flu action?)

It turns out there was a lot to love this year. We were amazed by Ted Ligety, entranced by the cross-country relay, and discovered freakin’ slopestyle! Younger Son dug Katie Uhlaender’s tough attitude and red hair, in fact we loved anything that happened on the bobsled track. None of us could wait for snowboard cross and then we found out they were doing it on skis too?!

Of course I couldn’t dream of getting anyone to watch figure skating with me but they did listen to the story of Plushenko, and we all felt he was wrongly criticized for dropping out. But I am sad that I missed out on seeing more of Jonny Weir sending “the message that one can fight intolerance simply by putting on a tiara and showing up for work.”

We even dug the ads. My favorite was the oddly creepy Cadillac commercial with an over-zealous American businessman, but only because he was played by the oddly creepy evil bad guy from Justified (Neal McDonough, as the terrifying Robert Quarles in season 3). Nes pa?

And I had a soft spot for the incessant one with Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society, a character based on a professor that my husband and I had – yet another story the boys enjoyed. The incessant ad usually haunts your dreams for a few months after the Olympics, but I won’t mind if that one does. (Actually the last winter Olympics incessant ad wasn’t bad either because it used Lou Reed’s Perfect Day.)

On the last day of the Olympics I dragged myself out of bed at (a very late for me) 8:00 (because I was tired from watching Olympics for two weeks). Older was already sitting on the couch watching the men’s hockey final and telling me to hurry up and watch with him.

They were both looking forward to the closing ceremonies and asked if they could stay up even though it was a school night. As if I ever say no. Even though it was sad that the Olympics were ending, this was still fun because we knew the athletes and could remember all the cool stuff we’d seen. The best moment was when they actually poked fun at themselves and didn’t open the fifth Olympic ring.

Younger asked, “Will there always be Olympics?” and Older celebrated a little when I said definitely. Then he pointed out that “They shouldn’t do the closing ceremonies until the Paralympics are over.” I am so pleased at how their horizons seem to have actually broadened as a result of watching this year.

Maybe that’s what keeps me coming back, besides the thrill of watching athletes win, and the sympathy of knowing that when they lose, there are a lot of people who don’t actually see their dreams realized but life goes on (and still, they did something great).

Maybe it’s the idea that people care enough to see this event continue beyond politics and pettiness. That the world can be made to feel smaller even when so much of it is out of control. That ultimately, we all want the same things from life. Peace, people.

Children and Fear

I have a two-year-old, Mr. O, who suddenly developed an insane fear of the Wiggles. (Well most adults are afraid of the Wiggles so maybe it’s not that outrageous.) I usually put on the Wiggles to distract the kids while I make lunch and they’re all pretty obsessed.

One day after seeing the same video about fifteen times, I heard Mr. O crying in absolute terror. Thinking someone had attacked him, I ran to the room to see what was wrong. Nothing. No one near him, no visible injuries, he’s standing alone in the middle of the room screaming. 

I asked him what was wrong and he kept repeating, “I don’t want it. I don’t want it.” These are the hilarious but frustrating moments of caring for kids. No one is forcing anything on you. You don’t have anything. What in God’s name are you talking about, child!?

I used an old day care provider trick to deal with pre-verbal kids who know a whole lot in their heads but can’t express it yet. I asked him, “Can you show me?” He pointed directly at the tv.

But it’s the Wiggles!! You love the Wiggles!! It’s Five Little Ducks – we sing this every day at circle time. What is going on? Then Captain Feathersword started to cry. (Never imagined I’d be writing that line one day.)

He was sobbing, crying, wailing, and pouring his tears into a bucket. Of course the Captain and Murray the Wiggle were giggling their way through the bit, but Mr. O couldn’t stand how sad he was! It’s a testament to what a sweet boy he is that he cares so much about sad father duck and sad Capt. Feathersword.

Most kids at this age are generally this sympathetic. It’s a nice thing that people don’t often get to see when it happens among small children. It’s also a developmental stage where self-conscious feelings begin to grow and a toddler’s perception of their own relationship to the outside world begins to change. They start to realize hey, that guy’s reacting to something scary, so maybe that scary thing is nearby. And even worse, if that guy is that upset, I should probably be that upset too.

There are scary things in the world and fear is a healthy defense mechanism. But it’s often scary for both the parent and the child to be in this moment. We want to run in and comfort our baby and shield them from everything bad in the world. But if we never expose them to fear or allow them to feel it, we’re stunting their necessary growth. It’s the never-ending parenting question: what’s a healthy amount of exposure and what’s too much?

So we have to find ways to teach our little ones how to handle fearful things in a gentle way. Often this is about stepping back and trying to see what our kids can handle, and waiting just a little instead of rushing in at the first moment. I knew that even though he was struggling, this was a teachable moment for Mr. O.

At first I just skipped the song because he was so plain terrified. This is showing him that we have some level of control over the thing that is scaring us. But after a few times of doing that, I let it play. I stayed with him, hugged and held him, and we talked about how the song had a happy ending. He still didn’t like it very much and cried a bit. But after a few more viewings he got more used to it. Now all I have to do is talk him through it and though he still doesn’t love it, he can watch without getting so terribly upset.

Fear is actually a very necessary life skill. It keeps us out of a lot of trouble. For little ones it tends to be about not falling off ledges or running into traffic. But we need fear throughout our lives to keep us safe. We need to be able to recognize and respond to that prickling feeling at the back of your neck that tells you this isn’t right – I need to get myself in a safer position, and to know the best responses to do so.

For my little guys it goes back to showing them that help is here, the scary thing is scary but we can handle it, and maybe someday it won’t be so scary. But I never totally eliminate that scary thing, because my kids need to know how to protect themselves, and I won’t leave them defenseless.