Husbands: What Happened to Your Wives?

This one was in the Gazette last week and I liked it so I decided to put it here. To my non-traditional friends, I know you face similar problems but it’s more complicated than swapping “partner” for husband. All you have to be is a co-parent to understand this insanity.

I’ve been having some seriously interesting conversations with my girls lately about how becoming a mother changed us. Which led to us feeling bad for our poor husbands, who had no idea what was coming.

We know they must be shocked. Mothers react in completely different ways than we did pre-children. Our husbands used to be number one, the center of our worlds, the person we were most interested in and fascinated by.

The poor guys. It’ll come back. (Just give it until the kids go off to college.)

Husbands, where is the girl who wanted to skydive, and see the world, and go out and hear bands who didn’t come onstage until 2AM? Who cooked you dinners and ironed your clothes? Who looked adoringly into your eyes every time you walked into the room?

You’re lucky if you can get her to notice you now. And if you need to discuss something really kind of big and important, like where you’re going for your next vacation, you have to schedule time with her on a family calendar.

What is happening here? Your wife still loves you, and probably on a completely different, and much deeper, level. You gave her the children that are the most important part of her life. She might be in awe of what a great dad you are, and how you work to provide for the family and do your part to raise healthy kids. And how being a dad has changed you to the core as much as it has her.

But on bad days, remember, you gave her the children.

I kid. But there are many factors at play here that are just bigger than man and wife. For one thing, when a woman becomes a mother, she becomes public property.

This begins as soon as her belly is obviously holding a baby and complete strangers start rubbing it. They give their opinions on pretty much everything, ask ridiculously personal questions, and tell horror stories about childbirth that make her want to go back and reverse the whole decision.

This treatment doesn’t end when she gives birth. Oh, that’s just the beginning. She has entered a new phase of life, this motherhood, and now that she has a child it means one thing: no matter what she does, she’s doing something wrong.

Disposable diapers – destroying the earth. Cloth diapers – uptight and difficult. Free range parenting – endangering her children. Attachment parenting – spoiling (while simultaneously smothering). Let’s not even get into whether she decides to go back to work and put the kids in day care.

But the biggest change, and one that takes even us by surprise, is becoming the Mama Bear. We are connected to the kids on such a primal level that even we can’t control our responses sometimes.

On most issues we will form a united front with you and use our combined strength to defeat the uprisings. Do your homework. Bedtime is 9:00. No, you cannot have the new $600 PlayStation.

But the weird thing is, when we sense a threat to our children – even if you’re doing nothing wrong, it can be that something just inexplicably rubbed us the wrong way – we will fight you.

I’m sorry, dads. The bottom line is, the kids come first now. This can be hard territory for a man to cede. We’re not trying to emasculate or deny you of something that belongs to you. We’re just overcome.

Moms are under a lot of pressure. We have to remember innumerable details of life (not only for ourselves but for our children, and that increases exponentially by the number of kids we have). Our heads are filled with project due dates to clothing sizes to practice times to where the broken piece of the Nerf gun ended up.

We are constantly caring for someone else, and even when we “get away from it all,” we feel the pull of people who need us. A hundred demands are made of us before breakfast is finished, and if we want to be thanked we usually have to demand it.

So, husbands, we expect you to take care of yourselves for a while now, because we’re taking care of everybody and everything else. (Except ourselves.)

Recently my husband asked if I was mad that he doesn’t send me flowers. Good Lord, no. That’s the cost of a whole new pair of soccer cleats. It’s just one more thing to clutter up my kitchen table and drop pollen that makes my sinuses explode. Though I did appreciate the thought.

Husbands, here is the best thing you can do for your wife (and I should let it be known, before I get myself in trouble, that my husband does this). When the house is in chaos and it appears that your wife is at her wit’s end, don’t get mad. Just ask this simple question: “How can I help?”

That girl who fell in love with you will be back instantly, falling into your arms, gazing lovingly into your eyes.

Until you hear a gut-wrenching crash from the next room and have to go figure out what just got destroyed.

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So What IS Discipline?

After my last piece about finding a balance in parenting styles I had several people ask, well how do you do it? How do you reach that magic place where your kids are behaving without having to beg, negotiate, or yell at them? How do you get kids to do what you want them to do?

In my mind, we’ve got it all wrong. Let’s look at the word discipline. Merriam Webster has this definition:

1: punishment
2 obsolete: instruction

And there you have it. Somewhere along the line, we twisted the idea of discipline from teaching to punishment. I’m not surprised. We’re pretty good at warping stuff here.

Dictionary.com has this definition:

discipline: activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training: A daily stint at the typewriter is excellent discipline for a writer.

Ha! Love that. It really said that. What’s a typewriter?

And finally, the Latin root for discipline is:

disciplina: teaching, learning. “Instruction given to a disciple,” from discipulus.

Have I made myself clear?

When parents begin to see themselves as teachers rather than disciplinarians, things are going to get a lot better for us.

Kids worship their parents (up to a certain age, of course). Your parents are the ones who tell you what’s right and wrong. They give you their outlook on life. They interpret what happens in the world and filter it for you. They make the rules and show you – with their actions – how to behave.

Now, if you had to be governed by your very own demi-god in your very own home, wouldn’t you want that god to be a benevolent one? One who understands how you feel and tolerates your mistakes? Who gets your whims and truly forgives your transgressions?

The behavior you want to see from your children is the behavior you should be teaching them. If you yell at your kids, are you shocked when you see them yelling? Really, that shocked? So it’s not only teaching, but demonstrating. Living. And you have to teach it over, and over, and over, and over, for years and years, until they get it. Practice and discipline.

Seriously. I’ve never said parenting was easy.

I can list off my cardinal rules for parenting, but unless you have the discipline to use them, it’s not going to work. (Bazinga!! See how I did that?)

So. Cardinal rules for parenting:

1. Remain calm. I cannot stress this enough. Kids throwing rocks in a pond want a big splash. They’ll find whatever makes you go splash and use it to their heart’s content. No splash – no rock thrown.

2. Don’t hold grudges. For God’s sake, have a fight and then be done with it. If you keep bringing up the lie he told when he was seven, how do you really think that’s gonna go over? Somehow that’s going to improve his future behavior? Let. It. Go.

3. Do not be moved by nagging, begging, whining, and all-around annoying behavior. Ignore it. Be moved by politeness and direct communication. Teach your kids how to be respectful by being respectful to them. Talk to them like they’re human. (Newsflash: they are.)

4. Reward the behavior you want to see. Constantly. Always. Whenever you see it. Don’t see them do something right and have that smug little I-told-you-so attitude about it. Celebrate it. Tell them how well they’re doing. How proud you are. This makes so much more of an impact than any other thing you will do as a parent. I swear. Even if they don’t respond, and just turn away like they didn’t hear it – they heard it. And they’ll do the same thing again within 24 hours, I guarantee.

5. Practice gratitude. We are lucky enough to live in a place where we have everything we need. Security. Freedom. Food. Shelter. Hot showers. Medical care. Protection by a virtual army of civil servants who are willing to rush to our aid at the drop of a hat. And yet, kids are outraged because they have to go to the store to buy the latest game release on DVD instead of downloading it instantly. Wow.

6. Have boundaries. Enforce them consistently, but not cruelly. This is where that whole “discipline” thing gets tricky. You don’t have to yell, intimidate, or punish your kids to get them to behave. Just mean what you say. If you say, “Don’t climb on the table,” and your child climbs on the table, remove them. Repeat steps one and two until they stop climbing on the table. After about seven or eight times they’ll get that you’re not gonna let them climb on the table.

7. Use logical consequences. We make this so complicated, but if you start practicing it, it will begin to be more obvious after a while. In fact, that’s the trick: go for the obvious consequence. When our kid breaks a window, he pays for it, and either helps fix it, or owes us time for how long it takes us (my husband swears that fixing a window is a one-man job). Taking away Xbox for a week doesn’t make sense. Did he break the Xbox?

And really, in so many situations, the true, natural consequence is simply having to make it right. Saying you’re sorry, that you regret what you did, or going back to someone you wronged and finding out how you can fix it.

We ground our kids and expect them to learn a lesson when so often the real lesson is humbling yourself enough to apologize to someone. Trust me – way scarier, more effective, and they will actually learn something that will benefit them throughout their life, instead of being pissed off and sulking around the house for a week with nothing to do.

They may even learn that being direct about what you did wrong, showing some remorse, and feeling someone else’s forgiveness is way better than carrying guilt around on your shoulders.

Coincidentally, this week I found out that the state of New Jersey does not allow its child care providers to use timeout. I mentioned this to one of my dads and he said, “Well of course, that’s because you just spank ’em.”

I humbly disagree with the state of New Jersey. One of the hardest things about being a parent today is telling your child when they’re wrong. Because we’re never supposed to do that, we’re just supposed to “re-direct” them. But if you don’t address the problem, how is wandering away from it going to help?

Humans – especially small children – are quite full of natural arrogance. At the risk of sounding a bit militant, it is our job as parents to tamp that attitude down every once in a while. Yes, you are the light of my life and the most precious creature I’ve ever seen, but you’re also acting like a total ass right now. Let’s work on that.

But most importantly, to balance all this tamping and rule-setting and deep breathing and understanding, Cardinal Rule of Parenting #8: just laugh. Please, I beg you, make it fun. Don’t take it all so seriously. My husband and I allow our kids to be outrageous at home so they don’t have to try that particular skill out in public. And when we get going, our dinner table time is hilarious. We laugh so hard. These are the best moments of my life.

And PS – put down the screens. Right now. Go hang out with your kid.

Going Back to Basics

Everything comes at you so fast sometimes that you forget how to make it all work. We’re back to school, which is huge, plus constant soccer playing, plus work, plus trying to keep up with life – I can’t breathe most days.

So I’m in the mode of dealing with whatever crisis rises to the surface and needs to be dealt with NOW. This week’s was getting to school on time. It’s been a few days (OK three weeks) of forcing my kicking-and-screaming kids out the door while every day I hear the very very long list of all the reasons why they don’t like school. But when we almost missed the bus – for only the second time in our bus history – I knew something had to be done.

I had to think about what works for us. How do I get this kid moving? How have I been successful in the past? I have one kid who is motivated by nothing but doing the right thing. My other is motivated by nothing but money.

Maybe it’s my fault. When he was three years old he starting begging for his first toy that wasn’t a birthday or Christmas present. The thing he wanted was $40 and I certainly wasn’t shelling that out for no reason. So I made him earn it – every one of those dollars. I may have been a bit too harsh. But when a 3-year-old wants $40 toys… Plus at that point I was probably giving him money for peeing on the potty or not throwing his food on the floor.

We made a chart with a circle for each dollar (I thought about making them worth quarters but he would’ve been twelve by the time he earned it) and checked them off when he did something worthy. He called them “checkmarks” and since then we’ve gone through dozens of checkmark charts, whenever he wanted to buy something.

In fact as I look at my fridge there are four checkmark charts decorating the front. I shit you not. He is currently obsessed with buying himself a Nintendo game system that I already owned once, when I was 19 and in college. Really? This went out in a dumpster years ago, dude. Now I have to buy it again? Thanks alot, Angry Video Game Nerd.

So when I asked Dave for help with the getting to school problem he simply said, “Why not give him checkmarks?”

Genius. Twenty minutes before the bus comes he stops whatever he’s doing, gets dressed, brushes his teeth, checks that his backpack and binder and lunch and gym clothes and all the other details are together, puts on his shoes, and then he gets a checkmark. It seems so silly. But sometimes you just have to break it down. Back to basics.

To some people, like my best friend Michelle, this would be ridiculous. She tells her son, “Go get dressed and brush your teeth” and he does it. This is like a miracle to me. But I have that great excuse that “I run a day care.” When you have parents and children walking in your door at 8:00 and you are occupied with them, your own kids get to sit around playing video games for another half hour. Then suddenly – oh crap! We gotta GO!!! And my kids aren’t ready because we’ve been talking about the last time your kid pooped!

So do I feel bad about bribing my kid to get dressed and brush his teeth? Sorta. Do I see it as a parenting failure? No. It’s finding what motivates him and using it instead of bringing the hammer down. And guess what? Mornings have been cake since we started it.

The other day a woman was complaining to me that it took her half an hour to get her one preschooler out the door. I thought, yeah, that’s tough. I get eight kids out the door in five minutes every morning.

So I have a truly extensive skill set. It just doesn’t always extend to my own kids.

So How’d You Spend Your Saturday Morning, Part 2

I am sitting in my kitchen with the doors closed, music on, trying to drown out the screaming of my Older Son.

*Possibly the best line I’ve ever written on my blog.*

He’s losing his mind over Mario Super Sluggers and screaming so loud that even Younger Son said, “He needs to take a break.”

He did the same thing last night and we eventually left him to go upstairs and read Harry Potter (yes, thank you Lord, my son is finally reading the books after owning them for three years, because the endless unanswered questions left by the movies drove him to it).

Anyway it’s such a wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning. I had to give Older credit because he was up an hour before me and didn’t make a peep so that I could sleep in. Holding that in must have been hard but he did it for his dear old Mum. And for that I have to hold in my urge to tell him to “KNOCK IT OFF!!!!”

I thought we were finally past this phase. He used to do the exact same thing when he was younger, venting his frustration at seemingly impossible video games. Then he finally grew out of it and it was like a cloud lifted.

But now he’s back to it and I think I’ve figured out why: hormones. He’s getting flashes of pre-teen angst, snide comments here and there, running up to his room and hiding. ANYTHING my husband says to him is taken as a personal attack.

Dad: You made a great save.
Older: I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT!!!!!

I knew all of this was coming and I’m not surprised or upset. I’m really quite sympathetic (well he’s my kid, of course I’m on his side). I think part of why I work well with children is because I remember quite vividly what it feels like to grow up. Not the exact details or events, but the VERY BIG FEELINGS that made everything seem like your life was about to end dramatically.

I look at the challenges he’s facing and they’re pretty big for an 11-year-old boy. His team gets crushed every Saturday and Sunday. He’s dealing with a whole new set of fears that have just appeared after a long time of feeling overly confident about the world and his capabilities to handle it. He has a huge burden of homework, some of which he doesn’t understand and no one can seem to explain to him. He wants to feel capable and strong, not confused and emasculated.

Of course none of this compares to my Polish neighbor, who was in a German POW camp at age 11, so we do try to keep it in perspective.

But still, the pain of the screaming. I have a hard time relating to Older’s outbursts because well, first of all the sound makes me want to do horrible things to him. But it’s also not how I handle anger. I hold it all in until I lose it and have to go in the basement and punch the heck out of Nubs. Older vocalizes his pain.

But then I remember, I learned this technique when I was in labor and it really worked. Someone (probably my pregnancy yoga teacher) told me it’s the worst pain of your life, you’re allowed to yell. But do it in a growling way to release it instead of shrieking like a banshee. And it actually did work.

Nowadays if I stub my toe (or slice my hand with a knife, which I did last week while cutting the cantaloupe and yelling at a day care kid to stop hitting someone), the rumble comes up from my gut and actually eases the pain, or at least takes my mind off it.

So I have to accept for a while that this is Older’s outlet. I know it will pass because it has before (and then God knows what he’ll use to soothe the pain).

It seems that my banshee finally won the level so he’s calm for the moment. But I know he’ll be back.

I Miss the Power Outage

My husband and I were almost disappointed when the electricity popped on at 2:30 in the morning, waking us from a deep winter slumber. It was the end of our adventure, the test to see how we’d survive without heat and light.

On the first morning without power, we scanned the radio for news. The local stations weren’t even broadcasting. No internet, no phones, no tv, we felt cut off and worried but also enjoyed the quiet. What we did hear was Boomer Esiason talking about the big weekend football games, and, of course, Led Zeppelin. As Dave said, “Nothing stops classic rock.”

When we realized this was going to be a long haul, our first priority was ice. I went downtown looking for any store that might be open and found nothing for miles. People were already out building snowmen, one an Autumn Queen with a wreath of colored leaves on her snowy head. It reminded me of the broken branches my son carried in from our maple tree, which had been crushed in the storm. He asked me, “If the tree dies, can we keep these to plant next year?”

People were being really good to each other. Driving through town everyone took turns at the blackened stoplights, patiently letting each other go through the intersection. I finally found that Big Y was running on generators. In the store the mood was upbeat – people were chattering and sharing stories. I actually felt like I’d done a good deed by helping someone find the ice freezer (which in twelve years of shopping at Big Y, I never once took note of before).

It seemed that rather than being upset about the damage and chaos, people were relieved that the worst was over and we were all OK. After a ridiculous five-month span during which our quiet little valley has seen a devastating tornado, Hurricane Irene, an earthquake, and now this crushing early winter storm, it felt good just to make it through safely.

On day two, in an effort to find heat (and snow clothes that fit), I took the boys to the mall. As soon as we walked in the bright lights and the blare of dance music hit my ears and I shuddered. I remembered hearing the Dalai Lama once say that after he visits America, he has to go into seclusion for a while. I got that.

It’s amazing how little we need to get by, yet how much we require to get by. In all our talk of developing new power sources, there’s never a thought given toward consuming less. These four days were a reminder that even my family, which tries to live very simply, could use some serious energy-consumption belt-tightening.

We also found that we want to connect as a family more. It was so nice not to be distracted by all the talking boxes that invade our lives. We made a couch fort out of blankets and read books all in a row. We ate by candlelight. In the mornings we huddled in bed for much longer than normal, afraid to get up because it was too cold out there. When the boys got cranky without their video games, we reminded them that we were camping in winter! And wasn’t it fun to have no school? (That beat the camping bit by far.)

On the third night without power our neighbors came over with their two daughters for a backyard campfire and “s’mores in November.” The parents sat back and let the kids tell story after story, mostly about when they puked and injuries they’d had. Younger Son, who is taking his sweet time coming out of his shell, was animatedly telling a story and I was staring at him, probably with wonder on my face. I happened to glance at my neighbor and she was looking at me watching him. We shared a smile that only mothers can truly appreciate.

My doctor once told me that “humans are amazingly adaptable beings,” and I think it showed this week. We were able to do so much to make ourselves comfortable, to find ways of getting by more simply, and sustain ourselves without really having to struggle. We actually kept having moments where not having power was just absurd. We laughed at how I charged my laptop thinking we’d be able to log in for at least a couple of hours to get news – but then we had no router. Every time I went into the basement or a closet I’d flip the switch out of habit but, duh?

We take so much for granted, and we can get by without it. A little blip like this shows you just how well we can do under duress. And that’s what this storm was for us – a blip. When you’re in a disaster like this you need to ask yourself two questions: 1. Is my family safe and unharmed? 2. Is our home destroyed? If that’s all good, you thank God and move on with gratitude for everything you have.

There’s Something in the Glade There…

Last night I had a dream that my Older Son was lost in the woods.

I had left him in the care of many other people but they still somehow let him disappear for hours, and when I came back one of the other kids told me he was gone. I put on my hiking boots and was heading out to look for him, my mind racing over the trails and which ones he might have taken, and how scared he must have felt when he realized he was lost.

Then a police car drove up and he was sitting in the back seat. His beautiful 10-year-old almost grownup face was calm and smiling slightly, filled with relief but still a little scared, and I knew it would break into tears when he saw me.

Then the police car turned and Older went off to reunite with someone else, and I was being questioned for how and why he disappeared.

This isn’t a difficult dream to interpret. It’s pretty much a straight line from my subconscious to what’s going on in our lives. Not that I’ve lost my son in the woods, but that we are heading into that metaphoric realm right now, in so many parts of his life. Sports, school, extracurricular events, friends, family; who can he trust and who will help him when he reaches out for it?

And who do I turn to for help when bad things happen? The teacher? Principal? The parents of the kid who bullied him? The grownup who saw bad things happening and just let them, instead of stepping in to protect the children involved? Or the adult who did something hurtful and made my child cry?

What do you do after the fact, when there’s really not much you can do about it? Do I confront them? Am I a lousy mother if I don’t? (Because really, I’m a big chicken and I’m much better at confronting children than adults.)

And then I get to sit and obsess over all the ways I have failed him. It’s my responsibility somehow. I am to blame for being negligent, for letting him get hurt when I wasn’t there. And for not doing anything to avenge him when it happened.

This is why superhero stories are so popular, by the way. In case you were wondering.

I’ve been asking my friends for help as our kids reach the age where the hurts of life start to have a real impact. I think we’re all equally confused but we’re trying so hard to help our kids. That counts for something.

The question for me is not so much what will I do to protect him out there, since I can’t always be there. Even sometimes when I’m in the room things are happening that I don’t know about. I have to focus on what I can do to give my sons the tools they need to face it all, and support them when they don’t understand why something awful happened. And of course try to help them figure out what to do when it happens again.

And as my husband says, when someone does something mean, there’s one positive you can take out of it: recognizing how not to behave.

Being someone whose career involves protecting children, I think it upsets me more when I see other adults who don’t. So even if you don’t know what to do, please step in to help kids who need it. Sometimes all they need is an adult to say, “Hey, what’s going on here?” and diffuse the tension. Do something – don’t just pretend you didn’t see it.

And now for today’s Broadway musical interlude. A sad little ditty set to sprightly music should lift up my depressed mood:

Into the woods, it’s time to go
I hate to leave, I have to, though.
Into the woods, it’s time, and so
I must begin my journey.

Into the woods and down the dell
The path is straight, I know it well.
Into the woods, and who can tell
What’s waiting on the journey?

The way is clear
The light is good
I have no fear
Nor no one should.
The woods are just trees.
The trees are just wood.
No need to be afraid there-
There’s something in the glade there…

– Stephen Sondheim

Kids vs. Housework

Question of the week:

“i choose my babies over housework am i a failure?”

The answer is, no, ma’am, you are a WINNER!! A big winner!!! Anyone who can make this choice, who is strong enough to say that their priority is their children and not the hardened dust coating forming on the blinds, is OK in my book.

I was actually just having the same thought the other day while climbing the stairs in my house. Each stair was buried under a small pile of my sons’ toys. I’m sure this happens in other homes, but it’s worse here because when my boys leave their stuff in the living room, I have to move it to the stairs so the day care kids don’t get it. There is a large basket on one step that’s usually filled to overflowing, and then the stuff cascades to all the steps around it.

I spend a lot of time trying not to break my ankle on the stairs.

Then, when I got beyond the toy avalanche and made it to the top stairs, I saw all the little tumbleweeds of dust blowing around on them. And I thought, I am a pathetic housekeeper. (Which does tend to lead to, “and a failure.” I get that.)

But I was on my way upstairs to get changed because we were taking the boys on Mommy-Daddy dates. Every once in a while when the boys start acting out we realize it’s because they need a little alone time with one of us. This weekend it was Younger Son’s turn with me, and he wanted to see the Yogi Bear movie. Daddy and Older Son went to Barnes and Noble to get new books. Oh, we’re such cool parents. *Sigh*

And when one of us cool parents gets cranky because the house is a disaster from bottom to top, we have to remind each other of this: We have made a conscious choice to be in our kids’ lives. That means less housework. Or less playing on the computer or having “me” time. But you know what? When my kids are gone and I’m depressed and lonely, I won’t be regretting the time I missed with them. (And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon…) Sorry I couldn’t help it.

OK back on the topic of being a VERY GOOD mom if you choose to let the floors be dirty because you’re playing with the kids. Occasionally when I start feeling like “I can’t live in this filthy house anymore it’s an embarassment,” I will get on a cleaning jag. But it doesn’t work. All I do is cause a lot of stress when I try to push my kids away so I can buff things that nobody ever looks at anyway. What’s the point? They’re sad that I’m ignoring them, I’m angry that they’re bothering me, and within hours whatever I just cleaned will be dirty again. And there goes our whole Saturday.

It’s like when my poor husband mops the floor and I don’t know it so I go trotting in the kitchen for something. I’ll hear him desperately/angrily bursting out with “I JUST CLEANED THAT FLOOR!!” Of course I tell him I’m very sorry. And then I think…Welcome to my world.

So WHY bother? When you have kids that want to play with you, take it as a compliment and give them everything you’ve got. They won’t always want to hang out with you, remember? Those teen years are approaching fast. Faster than you’d imagine.

I taped this poem to my fridge a few months after my first son was born. I’d say it sums up my cleaning philosophy. And I know it sounds lame but when I feel bad about my housekeeping skills I go and read it, to remind myself of why I live in a pigsty:

The cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow
But children grow up as I’ve learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down cobwebs; Dust go to sleep!
I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep.

– Ruth Hulburt Hamilton

You can read the full version here, but get the tissues first.