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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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.

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.

The Tyranny of Expectation

I recently wrote an article on school choice that I thought would earn me a good deal of backlash. Instead, what people responded to most strongly was the idea that we expect too much of our public school system. It got me thinking about expectations.

Parents are probably the kings and queens of expectation. We want the world to be safe and kind, all teachers to be perfect, all coaches to be nurturing, all drivers to slow down, all bullies to get theirs, and for our children to have the best of everything all the time and total happiness and fulfillment in their lives.

Is that too much to ask?

What about the expectations I’ve been given, as a woman and a mother? The debate that women can have it all rages on but I can tell you, we can’t. Did I expect that this job, which is harder, more demanding, and more complicated than any other job I’ve ever had, would eliminate me as a viable candidate for any other job I applied for after I was done? Nope. But it has. I am now “just” a day care provider, my label for life.

However. I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be if I had any job other than this. So I gave up a career to be a mom. Also not what I expected, or what I was led to believe I could have. I could be mad about this, or I could be grateful that I am here for my kids as much as I possibly can be. No “career” job could make me that happy. Though it would certainly pay better.

The very idea of “motherhood” is laden with expectation – no pun intended – right from the start of pregnancy. I was reminded of that by this hilarious (and profane) blog post, “A Letter to My Pregnant, Child-less Self.” Birth plan? How can you possibly control birth? And who decided it would be a good idea to let us expect that we could? Here’s what to expect from labor: a lot of pain, a lot of pushing, elation, fear, exhaustion, and hopefully a healthy mom and baby at the end of it.

Besides letting us down, expectations take us away from a place of gratitude. If there’s anything I’ve tried to teach my boys (in a world full of Joneses), it is to be happy for what they have. When they start envying what their friends have, I remind them of the friends we know who have less. When you can look at what you have and be satisfied, life is so much easier.

The other day I was explaining a “bad” event to Younger Son using the Zen story about the farmer whose son breaks his leg. The neighbors say how awful, but when the army comes and can’t take the boy to fight, they say how wonderful. At every turn, the farmer simply says, “Maybe.” (For the full text, click here and scroll down to “Maybe.”) We can’t see the benefit when we’re in a struggle, and we can’t presume to know the outcome. We need to learn how to accept that what we have may be just fine.

Fifteen years ago my husband took me on a hike to the top of Somes Sound, touted as “the only fjord on the Atlantic coast.” I sat on the smooth rock looking over the harbor below and thought, this is not what I expected. I wanted a dramatic chasm of rock rising on either side with boats like ants in the water below. Instead it was a gentle slope down to a rather wide, average-looking waterway. But it was beautiful, and blue, and breathtaking in its own way.

In a few weeks we’ll go back to that fjord with our sons, and climb the same hill and look out over the harbor. I’ll force them to stand still, pose, and smile for the camera though they can barely tolerate my picture-taking after a few days on vacation. It won’t be what I expected, but it will be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

Help! I’m Surrounded by Children!

When I was 16 I swore to my boss at the ice cream shop that I would NEVER have kids. I hated them and everything to do with them. I’d had a series of failed babysitting gigs and was convinced that I would never have what it took to be with children.

All I had to do to prove my point was show him the behavior of the whining little ones and their overly-doting parents as they held up the line of fifteen people for ten minutes, choosing their sprinkle color while their cone melted down my wrist.

He used to love teasing me about this, saying, “Just you wait and see,” while his infant napped in the baby swing that was installed in the back corner of the serving area.

Today not only is my professional life riddled with kids, but I’ve found that the rest of my life is as well. The neighborhood kids know that I’m here after school, and it attracts them to my house. In the past week we’ve had snowball fights in my yard, indoor basketball tournaments, Nerf gun battles, and fights over who gets to eat the rest of the raspberries. All impromptu, because they were looking for something to do and we were here.

So my boss was right. I love being this mom to everyone, having all the kids know that if something goes wrong, Amy is ALWAYS there. Just show up and you’ll be taken care of. My parents’ house was like this growing up, and now I’m here. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But the funny thing is, besides all the fun and games, I do spend most of my day arguing with all these kids. For the littles, it’s why you have to put on your shoes, why it’s time to go inside, why you have to get your diaper changed now whether you like it or not. And we go right on up the line to why you can’t have a sleepover every weekend and why you have to do your homework NOW, before video games.

They fight with me simply because I’m in charge. That’s what humans do, fight the power. But being in charge isn’t a natural state for me, I have to work at it. I want to say yes to everything but being mom means setting boundaries. I’m not always the strictest person in the world, but I am the most trustworthy. I don’t care if you say a swear, as long as I never see you bullying anybody, ever. And I’ll love you no matter what, but you will pay for bad behavior.

This parenting thing really forces you to grow up.

I had a realization last week while I was making them eat apple slices instead of Thin Mints. The reason they love it here – all kids, all ages – is not just because I’m here, but because of the arguing as well. They’re safe. They may want to eat a whole bag of Cheetos and have a Harry Potter movie marathon but I’m here to tell them why they can’t. And even though that sucks in the moment, they know someone is taking care of them. (Deep down. Really. That’s what I keep telling myself.)

This weekend I saw a sad exchange between a father and his teenage son. The father was storming out, staring at his phone, and the son was running after him, calling “Dad!” The father barely looked up and when the son reached him he said, “I knew you would just be humiliated to be seen with me.” I could see the son trying to make peace with the father, and I knew that dad was angry because his son had done something that every typical teenager does. But instead of just accepting that, he was taking it personally.

We have so much misunderstanding in how we deal with our kids. It’s so sad how we view kids, especially teenagers. They’re bad, they’re cranky, they’re crazy, they fight us. They invent languages so we don’t know what they’re saying. They keep secrets and tell lies. Us vs. them.

I wanted to tell both the dad and the son not to take it so seriously. Kids aren’t bad, they’re just kids. When they fight us or act out it’s because they have to establish their own identity separate from us. This is a healthy, natural, and necessary developmental process. And it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t need us. Inside every tough pose is a scared little person just trying to figure out their way in the world, and they always need our support and guidance.

So I’ve come from hating kids to being constantly surrounded by them. And I’m happy. I know that these are the fullest, most complete years of my life, because I’m contributing my little part to raising all of them. Maybe I reached that level of understanding after all.

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.