Groaning the End of Summer Blues

Last week Google told me it was the first day of fall. Shut up Google. I haven’t even turned the calendar in my kitchen from August to September yet – because if I don’t, summer’s not over. This is just my way of showing mother nature that I object. I’m usually fighting the power, but I might have to admit that there’s nothing I can do to keep fall from coming.

In the weeks before we went back to school a lot of parents were excited to get their kids out of the house. I even saw a few non-parents posting funny cartoons on Facebook, dancing chimps and frazzled moms, with comments like “I hear this is how parents feel this time of year.” They haven’t talked to me.

The grind of the school year is too much for me. I like lazy summer days with their own rhythm. I let the boys sleep in, then they get their own breakfast, watch a little tv, get bored, and hop on bikes to ride to all their friends’ houses and see what’s up. They come back hot and tired, with some goodies from the candy store, and maybe hang out with me and the day care kids in the yard for a while. In the evening it’s another ride or walk to town, a board game, kicking the soccer ball around in the yard, grilling, ice cream.

Now that school is in session I’m finding ever more creative ways to pry teenagers out of bed in the morning. Hustling them out the door against their will. They come home and there’s barely time for a snack before it’s off to practice (well that’s fun). Then the endless late nights of homework are like sticking a needle in my eye. Nobody is any good at that hour. We are barely three weeks into it and I can hardly keep up.

The sad remnants of a provider's summer: one last apple from the tree, bathing suits to be packed away for next year

The sad remnants of a provider’s summer: one last apple from the tree, bathing suits to be packed away for next year

Fall also means another year gone by. I sit here writing this in my house that will be 100 years old in eight months. The previous owner lived here for forty years and when I, the young pregnant wife bought this house from her, I thought good God, forty years. That’s a whole lifetime. Well the new housewife has been living in this house for fifteen years. She has four (blink-of-an-eye, instantaneous) summer vacations left until her baby goes away to start his own life. So yeah, I don’t want to send them back to school. I want them with me all the time.

I’ve always been fascinated with the detachment that moms of older children have – they don’t always seem to be as engaged with their kids as the moms of younger children. I see the goodbyes that parents of younger kids go through, the long hugs and kisses, secret handshakes, hanging around to be sure they’re OK before mom and dad leave. Now my guys just march themselves off to the bus while trying to avoid my hugs. So it’s self-protection to become a little detached the more our babies draw away from us. It’s not because we’re not interested – we’re naturally a bit hardened by all those goodbyes.

My big boys and I still have our own ritual, even if I’m not allowed past the hedge. They each have a saying for me and I try to keep it simple. I can’t yell, “Goodbye sweet darling light of my life I love you so much my little petunia, have a wonderful day and don’t let anything bad happen!” (Though I do toy with that every day.)

They can’t possibly know that my “Have a good day” flung out the door as they leave means so much more than its words. It means, I hope you don’t get bullied. Take care of your friends. Be smart. Behave but be cool too. Don’t stress yourself out over getting perfect grades. Think of me when you’re in a bad place because I am always thinking of you. And I’m always wondering how you’re doing, if everything’s OK, if there’s anything you’re not telling me. And what could I do if you did? It means my child, you are the most important thing in the world to me, and I will be missing you until you’re with me again. Forever and always.

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.

Feeling the Love

Sometimes in the middle of the insanity you can feel so much appreciation. Or maybe it seems even better than usual because you’re in a bad place. I needed it today, and boy did I ever get it.

This is a job where you don’t always feel that love, especially in summer. Parents are stressed out because they’re juggling schedules and trying to find care for kids who are out of school. My kids are home feeling neglected and bored while I work. And then there’s just the normal job stuff of making everybody follow the rules and managing extra equipment and activities for multiple ages – in your living room.

Today was looking to be a doozy. Without school in session I am IT for both my usual crew plus the after-schoolers, and I am overloaded. Usually the house and yard are trashed from one end to the other by the end of the day. I was expecting chaos from the get-go.

Instead, I started my morning with the sweetest moment. One of the moms was dropping off and she commented, “Your house has a certain smell and I realized what it is when I came in today. It’s comfort.”

Wow. Could you say anything better to someone who spends her life trying to comfort many little people? (And isn’t it nice that the soccer and baseball equipment are laying right there in the front hall, but she could still say that somehow.)

Another wonderful thing today has been my boys. I finally offered to pay them if they would stay with me and help with the kids, and geez why didn’t I think of that before. They have been all over me, doing everything I ask IMMEDIATELY. I need to mention that I’ve spent the first half of the summer begging them to put away their dirty laundry and dishes to the point of wondering, is there something mentally wrong with them?

Not today. Throw a little cash at them and they’re suddenly professional child care assistants. Having them with me has been delightful. They’ve carried babies (I’m still hurting from the bad back), set up pools, served lunch, and led the arts and crafts time. They’ve been simply amazing.

My five-year-old who already spent a week at camp commented, “Your house is like a campground!” So we decided that my boys are the camp counselors. They didn’t mind. In fact I think they kinda liked it.

Finally, I have a little one who has been fighting nap and her mom has been very concerned because she wants her on a good sleeping schedule. Today, after a few days of fighting through nap, she fell asleep for the first time. I was thrilled and immediately texted mom. Her response: “YOU ARE A SUPERSTAR.” (Her caps.)

It may sound silly but that’s exactly what I need to hear. A little bit of praise is so nice. When it comes to kids, I know what I’m doing, I’ve been doing it for a long time, I get good results. But on a day when eight of them are running through my house in various states of nakedness and/or dripping wet, I have my doubts. So that little bit of extra love every once in a while is just what I need.

First Day of Summer

Let’s talk about today.

First off, I started the week by putting my back out. Mr. O is going through a second phase of stranger anxiety but at 18 months instead of nine. So now he’s twice as heavy as a 9-month-old. And I’m twice as old as somebody who should be hauling around any baby.

When Famous Carol came to sub for me to go to Younger Son’s graduation from elementary school, I picked up a screaming Mr. O, the back went pop and so, pretty much, did the rest of my week.

With school out I don’t have to transport the boys back and forth, which is great, and I love having them home more than anything. But they are two extra bodies in the house who, however self-sufficient, still need attention and feeding and leave a trail of dishes, crumbs, and wet/dirty/smelly clothes in their wake.

Younger actually wants to help with the day care kids, which is awesome, but requires extra work in finding supplies and cleaning up after the highly complicated art projects he chooses at random each morning.

I had an interview coming at noon and had to print out a contract – and the printer was out of ink. I should add that an interview makes you want to have everything clean and tidy. But there are seven kids underfoot who don’t care all that much about cleanliness. And that just creates a lot of angry noise in your brain that you’re carrying around on top of the usual chaos.

The weather has been crazy this week and it was downpouring all morning. At 10:15 when there was a break in the rain I told the kids, we need to get out in the yard now before it comes back! Once we got there, the skies cleared and the sun was beating down on us.

I hadn’t brought out any supplies for swimming (towels, bathing suits, change of clothes) but the children were already half-naked and jumping in the pool full of rain water.

Well, OK fine, they’re distracted, we’ll deal with that mess later, I thought. Now is the perfect time to put together my new climber that the neighbors donated and are bringing over at this very moment. The interview will see it and think, what an awesome place to bring my daughter. That climber will put me over the edge, I’m sure of it!

The babies were running around naked with soaking wet “pendulum diapers,” as my neighbor noted. Miss A was playing a half-serious game of chase with Mr. L in which she showed him her doll, he tried to take it, and she ran away screaming, “You can’t have my doll!”

I stopped her and explained that she should stop showing it to him if she didn’t want him to take it. She listened politely, showed Mr. L the doll again, and ran away screaming with him trailing behind her.

I realized the climber was going to need more help than a good swift kick to pop it together, so I went to grab the rubber mallet out of the garage. Not there. But this small axe should do the trick!

The two big girls were playing a game of princess rescue in which one of them hid somewhere in the yard and screamed in pain to warn the prince that she needed help. This game intersected with the baby doll chase and four children were now running through the yard tackling each other with various levels of real- and fake-pain screams. The babies were beginning to melt down, lunch time was approaching, and I feared my interview could walk in at any moment.

Pay no attention to the axe in the play area.

I hustled the sweaty, dirty, crying, mosquito-bitten, sunburned, droopy-drawered children into the house and somehow miraculously managed to get them all cleaned up, changed, and sitting down ever-so-beautifully at the lunch table when the interview arrived.

I found out five minutes after she arrived that she used to be a preschool teacher. She was completely nonplussed by the disaster, and sat down with a book and two kids on her lap while I finished cleaning up lunch. Some things are meant to be.

They left and I put the kids down for nap and to have a lie-down on the living room floor (oh yes the back is still twinging amidst all this). I have lately fashioned a pillow out of two comforters and a pillow case for Mr. L who, instead of drinking his water, dumped it out in his bed and wailed about having a wet bed.

It’s 1:50. I’m just sitting down to lunch. We’re only two hours behind schedule. And I’m just a few clicks away from a nervous breakdown. Welcome, summer!

Jack Frost, I Salute You

I’m a member of several child care provider groups and every winter there’s lots of buzz about whether or not we stay open for snow days. I finally started closing for them a few years ago, and it’s been incredibly liberating.

I know for my parents it can be a hardship (sorry guys), but usually there’s at least a little warning time and they can prepare for the possibility with a backup plan. It’s not like my sick days where they get a call at 5AM with the bad news that I’m not making it today.

I try to tell people my snow day horror stories so they understand why I do it: I’ve had kids stuck here until 7:30 at night because their parents are out in the storm somewhere. I once had to carry a child through knee-deep snow to meet his parents at the end of my street because it wasn’t plowed. That was fun. And really, if the towns and safety officials are saying it’s too dangerous and we should stay in, why push it? Isn’t it better to just be safe?

But there’s more to it than that. Child care providers never get to play hooky. Even my kids don’t really get to play hooky. They don’t get to have sick days at home with mom tending to their icky-feeling-need-lots-of-extra-hugs time, because she’s watching the six other kids who don’t care if you have a headache, and they just keep on screaming and crying and doing what they do.

Heck, I don’t even get to go to doctor’s appointments without having to pay a sub. I can’t just tell my boss, “I have to see the dentist this afternoon,” and then not come back after lunch. So I either neglect my own checkups, or have to go through the trouble of finding a sub, and coordinating her schedule with the doctor, and then paying both of them for the privilege of getting a mammogram.

It’s not fair. So that’s what snow days are to me. They’re for the half day of school last week, when my mom friend posted a picture of lunch out with her kids, and my heart blazed with jealousy while I fought my way through quiet time, trying to keep the after-schoolers settled so the babies could nap. Or girl-day manicures or trips to Six Flags or all the other awesome things that people with normal jobs get to do when they sneak away from their responsibilities and have a day of fun with their kids.

The title of this blog refers to the movie Rise of the Guardians, in which Jack Frost is mad because no one appreciates him. He has to learn why he’s a true Guardian and what his center is. Spoiler alert: his center is FUN. And not just fun, but the kind that comes in the dead of winter when there’s really no good reason for it except that we all need a break.

That’s what snow days are about. No school, no work, snowmen, shovels, cold fingers, sleds, hot chocolate. The thrill when you hear your town’s name in the list of closings, and then you listen again to make sure it’s CLOSED, and not just a delay. And turning the alarm off and pulling the covers back up over your head.

So I ask you to put aside the work for a day. Be the most important person for your kids, not your co-workers. Because these days are short, and fleeting, and you only get to play hooky for a few joyous childhood years.

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.

Kids and Violence

“There’s so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy in the streets?” – The great Dick Cavett

I don’t want to write about Aurora. But sometimes you can’t write about anything else until you write about the thing you don’t want to and get it over with.

I have no expertise in this area and don’t intend to comment about that event. In fact I’ve been doing my best to put it out of my mind (though I was reminded by my dear friend who lives in Aurora that we don’t all have that luxury). These three articles explain it far better than I could ever attempt to.

What I do have expertise in is kids and violence. In the rush to explain why someone would do this, out come the statistics and quotes from all the children’s groups. It’s TV, it’s movies, it’s children being desensitized to violence.

Of course we’re trying to understand why it happened and how we can stop it from happening again. We want to be able to predict it, avoid it, or even see it coming and do something about it. And I think as time goes on it becomes less and less easy to say “that will never happen here.”

There are ways to teach our kids that violence is not acceptable. We do it every day by being non-violent people. I have to agree with Mr. Cavett. We deny a child’s capacity to know the difference between reality and imagination when we say “if they see it on TV they become it.” Kids actually don’t like violence, and they don’t like to be hurt or see their friends get hurt.

I have two boys. They’ve been playing with guns since they were five. I’m not proud of that, and I wasn’t very happy with it, but I realized it was inevitable. Now they love watching the WWE, witnessing some of the ugliest behavior and nastiest hand-to-hand (or table, ladder, chair, 2X4, sledgehammer, whatever’s handy) violence you can see on television.

But my boys are also sensitive, kind, thoughtful, and caring. They’ve learned it because it is my number one priority to raise kids who have compassion. Good grades, what they eat, how they do in sports, it’s all secondary to being a good person. I pick my battles with other subjects, but meanness is never allowed.

They’ve also learned it because they’ve watched me for ten years now using compassion every day, all day, when dealing with my day care kids. I demonstrate for them over and over again how anger does not work in interpersonal relationships. In fact it pretty much never works (or if it does, the momentary success isn’t worth the hard price you pay trying to clean up the mess).

At the same time we learn what to do when we are angry, because we sure as hell get angry. And that’s completely natural and normal, and you’re not wrong to be angry. But you can’t take it out on someone else – and there are very good ways to get the anger out of our body without hurting another person.

My boys certainly fight, to the point of pain and tears sometimes. Without this book I wouldn’t know how to handle that. It saved my life. So I recommend that EVERY PARENT OF SIBLINGS read it. Now.

When I was young and my future husband started taking me to grimy clubs in New York to see groups like the Ramones, Stiff Little Fingers, and the Butthole Surfers, I told our friend I didn’t understand the allure of punk music (I have since seen the error of my ways). He said, “Look – we’re angry young men. We’re full of testosterone. We’re sexually frustrated. Isn’t it better to be here taking it out on the music than picking fights with people?”

That one little comment spoken on a drunken night at 2AM changed the way I see the human animal. And now that I’m raising two small (male) human animals, I remember it often. I have no answer for mental illness and psychosis. But I do know that depression – some say the leading cause of shootings – is anger turned inward. If we could learn to handle our anger we’d be a happier society.