Parenthood: The Job You Can’t Quit

“I stink at being a parent, and I don’t want to do it anymore. All my kids are going to end up in therapy, and I’d just rather go hiking really.”

(via pictures funny16.com)

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably been here. You’ve had those days when you were just so discouraged that you couldn’t see a way through the tangled morass of hope, fear, joy, worry, doubt, and dread that is parenthood. It’s a colossal task, raising kids, and most of us are woefully unprepared for it.

There’s no magic rule book, no fool-proof training. The only models we had are our own parents. But they raised different kids in a different time when children actually played outside occasionally and didn’t carry smart phones in their pockets. The old tricks don’t always apply. And just when you do manage to become an expert on your particular kid, he/she will change. Kids do that. They grow, they develop, they enter puberty, and then all bets are off.

So here I am trying to make decisions on a daily basis that are going to affect the development and future potential happiness of our children, and I’m guessing. Most of the time they are educated guesses, sure, based on past observations of said child, the experience of other parents, and often, extensive reading.  But when it comes down to it, every decision is a judgment call, an educated guess at best, and one that is very often swayed by how much or little patience I’ve got left for the day. And lately, I’ve got to say, the reservoir is pretty darn low. I’m thinking about rationing, but I can’t figure out how to get my family to go along.

And that’s where I run into my other little problem – raising a child in the context of a family. Everybody has needs, and they don’t always spread them out so that you can deal with them one-by-one when you are well-rested-and-emotionally-prepared. That’s not the way life happens. No, life likes to descend on you like a shit-storm of need, nausea and broken appliances. It’s failing grades and juggling bills and used Kleenex and muddy paw prints on the spread you just washed. Life happens in your face, when you least expect it, or when you honestly think the very next thing will be the last straw. You know what happens when you have that thought? Something awful, usually.

Life is like someone calling your name over and over, but they never come to you. You must seek out the caller and carry out their commands. Can you get me a towel? I don’t understand my chemistry homework. Will you get those dogs to stop barking? I’m stressed, I’m nauseous, listen to my problems, fix it, fix it, fix it! It’s like being a genie with a house full of frantic wishers. And just when you think you have a handle on it all, when you have put your house in order, walked the dogs, and anticipated and prepared for every child’s (and your partner’s) every need – life will surprise you. It will wait until you have done your very best, until you are sweaty and dirty and proud of yourself, and then it will walk up, wag its tail, look you right in the eye – and then hike its leg and pee on your shoes.

So this is where I would probably be expected to add a paragraph about how it’s all worth it in the end and how the joys by far outweigh the stresses. And yes, that’s true, though I’m not feeling it so much at this particular moment. Because we all know, you have to work for that attitude. So this is my first step – writing it down. It’s therapeutic. Then I’m going to go have a cleaning frenzy all over my house, because that’s what I do when I’m stressed and don’t know what to do next. (I already had a cleaning frenzy on our yard last evening and may have been a bit too vigorous with the weed-eater and gardening shears. I’m a little afraid to look.)

So after I’ve obsessively put our house (and yard) in order for a few hours, I will be sweaty, tired, satisfied in a way only a career house-not-wife can be after a day spent cleaning, and happy to see my partner and our children when they get home this evening. And we are going to have a happy and fun Friday evening together with lots of hugs and positive affirmations. But until then, I’m going to go bleach something.

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Fifty-one Years and Counting

A year ago, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and I wrote this little essay for them. Since then Fork in My Eye was born, so I thought I would post it here to honor another year added to their tally:

June 24, 1961 – She had just finished high school and he had just graduated from the Naval Academy.

This is the story of an artist and an engineer and how they have weathered 51 years of wedded bliss including: parenthood to three neurologically atypical children, a multitude of pets representing at least 4 of the vertebrate phyla, 10 years living at the command of the US Navy, hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours on the road, a sandstorm, two earthquakes, 39 years of Mississippi heat and mosquitoes, and several hurricanes including a category five that washed their house away. Together they’ve witnessed the elections of ten US presidents, the end of the Cold War, and the doubling of the world’s population. They survived cars without seat belts, lead paint, asbestos, mercury thermometers, second-hand smoke, McDonald’s transfat French fries, Hare Krishnas at the airports, and Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door.

During the Navy years, they spent more time apartthan together. While Kennedy and Khrushchev sparred in the news and the young  officer’s ship stalked a Russian submarine off the coast of Cuba, she was home in Norfolk, Va, caring for their firstborn infant son and still unaware that she was pregnantwith their second.

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969
Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon, July 20, 1969
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon and she watched from home with their three young children, he was serving his country 9,000 miles away in My Tho. During these first 10 years of their marriage, they drove roughly the equivalent of the earth’s circumference, up and down the Eastern seaboard, then ocean to ocean and back again on shiny new interstate highways. And they did most of it with 3 kids and a dachshund in a Pontiac station wagon with no air conditioning.

In the seventies, they settled in the deep South and upgraded to a Freon-cooled, blue Mercury station wagon with genuine, faux woodgrain paneling along the sides and a profile longer than some baby limousines. As the decade got rolling, the Beatles broke up, Nixon got caught, bell bottoms became hip huggers, Happy Days premiered on TV, and two men were abducted by a UFO from the west bank of the Pascagoula River just a few miles from the Gallaghers’ new home in the Mississippi woods.

Dad designed warships by day, went to school at night to earn his masters degree in business, worked most Saturdays, and served in the Naval reserves one weekend a month. He came to every softball game and soccer game and refereed a few of the latter. He would always play chess or Scrabble or gin rummy on request. And notably, he gave up smoking at the request of his youngest child.

Mom took art lessons and soon was giving them, planted beautiful gardens, decorated the house, joined the garden club and the Hickory Hills Country Club and the PTA. She sewed clothes for the kids and costumes for school plays and Halloween, attended umpteen swim meets in the sweltering Mississippi heat, read Erma Bombeck’s books, and listened to Paul Harvey every day on the radio.

The King Tut exhibit toured the US and everything Egyptian became an American fad. We saw the exhibit in N.O. in 1978.

Together they dutifully attended three years (one for each child) of beginner band concerts without once pointing out to each of their children the clear deficit of musical talent in our family. They took us to see Jaws and Star Wars and the King Tut exhibit when it came to New Orleans. The house was always full of books and art and animals. Their family expanded at various time to include not only dogs and half-feral cats that wandered in from the woods, but also tropical fish, parakeets, mice, gerbils, box turtles, rabbits, snakes the boys caught in the woods (these, our mother asserted, were temporary guests), and one mean duck.

The eighties rolled over. The boys graduated high school and left home for college. Dad took up jogging, read all of Dr. James Fixx’s books, and amassed an impressive collection of tacky t-shirts from 5K and 10K runs. Mom realized Father Cleary, the stern, sexist, philanderer of a rector of the only Catholic church within 15 miles had finally been replaced and dragged her youngest child back to mass, started arranging flowers for the altar, and then dragged the same child through fields full of fire ants, chiggers, briars and bull thistles in search of wildflowers (which the youngest child thought was way more fun than church). She taught a year of art at a Catholic high school and then went to work part time at a florist where the ladies always had the latest gossip because they did the flowers for every event.

Finally, the youngest child left home and they were alone. But not for long, because we came back – each one of us for some length of time over the next few years ran back to Mom and Dad. And then we didn’t for a while. Dad had to quit jogging because of a bad back so he focused on scholarly interests that come naturally to him – genealogy, history, world economics, politics, applied sciences, new technologies. He became active in local politics when their tiny community finally incorporated and became a city. He retired as a captain in the US Navy in the early nineties but continued to work until just last year because he said, he was still enjoying himself.

Mom began to sell her paintings at galleries along the coast and still does. Her gardens became even more extensive havens for local wildlife including, almost every summer, at least one water moccasin which she dispatched herself with whatever garden implement was at hand. Her house became a showcase but always a comfortable one. She was also active in local politics and always had her finger in a dozen community pies.

They took their first trips alone since their honeymoon posing for photos on a Canadian glacier, exploring Yellowstone, strolling through Stonehenge and Blarney castle (and yes, Dad kissed the stone). Their children finally grew up and grew more interesting, probably because one son travels the world and brings back cool stuff and stories and photos, and the other son and daughter acquired children of their own and by virtue of being parents themselves suddenly had more in common with their own parents.

After the turn of the new millennium, Mom and Dad decided that 30 years in one place was long enough, pulled up roots and moved 50 miles west to a charming artsy little community on the beach. A year later, Hurricane Katrina roared in with a 30 foot surge and washed their new house, and everything they had accumulated over 40 years together including all the family photos, away. In the months that followed, as they and their children scoured the debris field, they found no piece of their house bigger than half the staircase. They salvaged a few things in the rubble – some jewelry and silverware and knick knacks.

They have rebuilt. Bigger, better, more beautiful than before, and several feet higher – their new home is full of light and air with high ceilings, lots of windows, and big screened porches. Mom’s new gardens are maturing beautifully and the wildlife is coming back. The pool that was a festering swamp for two years is sparkling blue again and surrounded by new foliage. Visiting them is like staying at a beachy bed and breakfast  run by my own mom and dad and it’s is one of my favorite places on the planet.

And I wish I could be there today. But since I can’t be, I’d like to take this opportunity to once again apologize for any time I may have vomited on you, wiped my nose on your shoulder, or kept you up all night. I am also heartily sorry for years of making dubious noises with brass instruments in your home, any time I bitterly complained about helping out around the house, and especially for my late teens and most of my twenties.

I love you and miss you both. Happy 51st anniversary, Mom and Dad.

What My Dad Did

One of those Florida trips, circa 1978.

My dad, who has freckled, Irish skin that burns at just the thought of a summer sun, didn’t love the beach. He usually spent our time at the sandy edge of the continent in the shadow of a colorful umbrella in a shirt, hat, and dark glasses, squinting in the glare of the subtropical sun trying to read a paperback without sweating too much on the pages. He never complained and always seemed content to wait for my mother, my brothers and me to tire of the ocean for the day and to help carry all our sandy detritus back to the car, but he never looked terribly comfortable to me. Yet every year he took us back to the sunshine state to spend his vacation time with my grandparents (his in-laws) on the rim of the Atlantic.

I remember those vacations like a personal, idyllic mythology of big family breakfasts and packing picnic lunches in wicker baskets to take to the beach and coming home hours later to their little bungalow near the sea all damp and sandy and sunburned. It was a week permeated with the smell of Coppertone, the tang of icy lemonade, the rustle of palms trees and scuttle of chameleons in the courtyard, the bright towels perpetually drying on a line in the sun, and always the scratch and heat of sun-scorched skin that my dad was always smart enough to avoid.

It was on the way back from one of those visits, my family packed into our 1972 Mercury land yacht, the air conditioner on high, when I, already heavily dosed with Dramamine, informed my father, who had endured hours at the wheel on the interminable Florida turnpike, that if he lit another cigarette, I was going to vomit on him. Daddy took one look at my pale face and carefully tapped the unlit cigarette in his hand back into the pack. He would smoke when we stopped, he said. And for the rest of the trip, that’s what he did. Later he told me he would no longer smoke in the car on future trips. I was exceedingly grateful, and would have left it at that.

But my mother saw an opportunity. When we arrived home, she took me aside. I’ve been trying to get him to quit for years, she said. But he won’t listen to me. But you’re his little girl. If you ask, he’ll do it.

Every year at school, they showed us a film about the dangers of smoking. In it, a father was sitting on the couch watching TV at night after his family had gone to bed, when he nodded off for a moment and accidentally dropped his cigarette behind the couch. Then he goes to bed, the smoldering cigarette ignites a fire, and the house burns down while the family sleeps and the dog barks frantically from the garage. I don’t remember if they survive. It was really quite a horrifying little film.

Oh that’s good! my mother said when I told her about it. Tell him about that!  I was a little startled by how delighted she seemed at my account of the disturbing film, but I did what she told me and gave Daddy a week to taper down. Then he had to promise me not to touch another cigarette.  He gained 30 pounds over the next couple of years, but he never smoked again.

Daddy and me.

And that’s how I discovered, at ten years old, that my dad would do anything for me. He braved the sweltering heat and swarming mosquitos of June evenings, perched on rickety bleachers, surrounded by other parents who shouted and cussed the coaches or umpire by turns, all because his daughter was playing short stop. When I started jogging and Mom didn’t want me to run at night alone, he ran with me, though for the first few months, it was apparent, he would much rather be home sitting in his chair reading a Robert Ludlum novel. He suffered through beginner band concerts and refereed my soccer games and took me to play tennis even though I had the temper of John McEnroe but none of his talent.

Dad when we were stationed in Key West not long after I was born in 1966.

He had already spent years proving himself a dedicated father before I was old enough to notice. In 1971, when my big brothers and I had all reached school age, my dad gave up his career as an officer in the U.S. Navy and he stepped into civilian life to give us a hometown and a house to grow up in. Then, there were years of working late and on weekends and night school to get his MBA.

Dad, circa 1980.

Since I grew up and moved away, he’s traveled thousands of miles to come visit me where ever I’ve lived and spent half of each visit fixing things. He’s funded house repairs and dental work and dog surgery and many other things my partner and I couldn’t afford. He sent me cards every time he went on a business trip until he retired. And though he’s not a fan of sun and sand, he took us to the beach every year because he knew my mom and brothers and I loved it (and did it again just last year so we could all celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary together).

Dad, the day after he retired in 2009.

I’ve left a lot of stuff out for brevity’s sake but I remember it all, Daddy. Just wanted you to know. Happy Father’s Day. Love, #1 daughter

How to Be an Effective Public School Principal in Five Easy Steps!

As the parents of 2 specials needs children, my partner and I have had our share of run-ins with the public schools in our efforts to advocate for our children in the face of a system that is designed less to educate children than it is to provide underfunded and often low-quality daycare. As any parent of a child that has obstacles to thriving in the mainstream can tell you, it’s an exhausting, discouraging and often lonely uphill battle. And the face of the primary opponent, the smiling one across from the table from you in an IEP meeting, is usually that of your school principal.

This clown is not your child’s friend.

I want to be sure to note, that my partner and I (and our sons) have been blessed to encounter some amazing teachers who work tirelessly within a system that undervalues and underpays them to provide a safe, appropriate, and fertile environment for our children. But we have yet to meet one school principal who we felt actually was on our side or had the best interests of our children (rather than their own agenda) at heart.

So after years of observation of this particularly political animal of the world of American public education, I have noted a few common traits and strategies that they all seem to possess or employ – a few simple rules, they all seem to follow.

  1. Treat all children the same! Uniformity is key! Remember it is not nearly so important to provide a free and appropriate education for each child (no matter what the individual differences in their abilities, challenges, learning styles, or circumstances), as it is to make sure they conform to the herd at all costs.
  2. Move them along! Differing rates of development, circumstances or intervening illnesses are not nearly so important as making sure that ALL STUDENTS move along in a timely manner from one grade to the next. Remember, the goal here is not to provide the student with the best chance of graduating. It’s to make sure they move on to the next school without delay so that they (and their loud-mouthed parents) will become another principal’s problems.
  3. Always listen politely to the parents! And then ignore their concerns and advice and make your own decisions based on political expediency and handy tools like standardized tests. (There is some leeway here for allowance for personal style. Some principals may choose to interrupt constantly with their own uninformed opinions in an effort to derail or distract the parent.) Whatever your personal style, though, remember that parents will constantly try to get you to break rules 1 and 2 by whining incessantly about their child’s “needs.” Be firm. Be resolute. And above all, when it comes time to make your decisions, ignore the parents.
  4. Strategy is important.Some of the more wily parents may persist in making nuisances of themselves in an effort to “advocate” for their child. In dealing with them, remember this simple three-part strategy:

–          Make yourself as inaccessible as possible.Don’t return their phone calls or emails. When they ask for a meeting, make sure they are given a date and time at least 6 weeks out that conflicts with their work schedule.

–          Patronize them.When they do somehow manage to get access to you, lead them to believe you are actually considering their input and educating yourself about your child and their issues. (See number 3.)

–          Put them off for as long as possible. Wait to spring your decision on them at the last minute it so they have little time to respond or prepare their child. Just before the end of the school year or just before the beginning of a new year are particularly good times to spring unwelcome changes on a parent. The former has the advantage of the fact that you and most of your staff will shortly be unavailable for the duration of the summer and the latter will usually catch the most wily of parents off-guard.

5. You are a demi-god! Remember, you are a public school principal. Your word is law. In some school systems, there is no avenue of formal appeal open to the parent. But remember, ultimately, you are bluffing. If your problematic parent becomes angry enough, they may engage an attorney and your school system has no money for legal fees. (Fortunately, neither do many parents, so knowing their economic status may be a pretty good gauge of how far you can push them.)

So what do you think, parents?! I’d love to hear from you! Especially parents of any child who has special needs or circumstances (with or without an IEP). Have you ever been so angry with a school system or principal that you felt like vomiting? Stand up and be counted!

Field Tripping

Via memecenter.com

Last Friday, I found myself in a sea of children of all sizes darting about like excited electrons bouncing off each other and the adults scattered through the crowd in their kinetic eagerness not to miss anything, building walls of human sound and mechanical noise that rose up like waves and crashed down on me. I was awash in a thundering kaleidoscope of sensory input – the swirling movement of the children in their color-coded t-shirts, the bright metal and glass of the interactive science exhibits, the human smells, the voices, the light, the collisions, the random if momentary disappearances of children I was chaperoning.

I was a little rattled.

I looked at my watch and realized, with an exterior calm that I hoped masked my panic, that it was only half over. I only had to endure another 3 hours of chaos at the museum before we would take a walk, pile ourselves back onto a crowded bus which would take us to a slightly quieter but still-crowded train which, 3 hours later, would deliver us home.  I found myself fervently wishing I could duck out for a moment of quiet and a cigarette and was already planning my escape when I remembered that I didn’t have any cigarettes. Because I quit smoking 5 years ago. Damn. I was sad.

It got better. When we first arrived at the museum, it was packed with several other groups of children on field trips from other schools. Many of them departed and others arrived, but the population of the museum never again reached the density that existed when we first arrived. Then we all had lunch in a quiet room they found for us somewhere, and I relaxed a bit. When we set the kids loose in the museum proper again, I even began to enjoy myself.

Then we visited the gift shop and found all the children that had vacated the museum floor. The rest of the day went like that – kind of an ebb and flow of sensory overload, stress and fun. After the gift shop, we herded most of the kids into a 3D theater for a 20 minute film on insects and I snuck off to the cafeteria for a much-needed cup of coffee with another parent. Later, I rather enjoyed a 20-minute walk through downtown Charlotte, admiring the beautiful weather and the architecture.

Until we arrived at the largest bus station I had ever seen and spent 15 minutes on a concrete island amidst 6 lanes of arriving and departing buses coughing clouds of exhaust while the lead teacher investigated the departure time of our bus. Fortunately, we had plenty of time to have dinner there at the station where we could choose from a dizzying variety of fast food places (three) and enhance our dining experience by observing the interesting underworld characters currently populating the station. Later, our bus delivered us to the train station where we had another hour to wait and I could enjoy the comparative sylvan paradise of a square of grass in the sun between the depot and an abandoned building.

I had quite enjoyed the train ride to the city and so looked forward to embarking on our return trip. Little did I know that trains apparently differ in character. While our first train ride that morning had been a smooth, quiet, well air-conditioned journey with 20-odd still very sleepy teenagers, the train that returned us home impressed me with its ability to rock and sway with such remarkable energy without ever actually leaving the tracks. Fortunately, I was too distracted by the rising temperature to dwell on this as our coach’s air-conditioner gradually lost its battle with the combined body temperatures of 20 over-stimulated autistic teenagers and their exhausted teachers and parents.

The first half of the trip home, one of those over-stimulated kids, a sweet but very excited boy, regaled me with his high-decibel, blow-by-blow descriptions of his favorite video game, punctuated frequently by a raucous retelling of an off-color story his dad had told him. When one of the other boys appeared and asked me to change seats with him, I gratefully fled.

After a bit of musical chairs, I spent the rest of the trip cross-legged on the floor between the last seats and the bathrooms just so I wouldn’t have to return to my original chair. My son, another mom and her son kindly joined me and her son shared his encyclopedic knowledge of F5 tornadoes which she and my son had apparently heard a thousand times, but I quite enjoyed because I had never heard his lecture before.

When we finally got home that evening, my partner had a cold beer waiting for me in the fridge and I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so grateful to climb into my pajamas. I suppose I’m a little out of practice. When our boys were in elementary school and both in self-contained autistic classes full-time, I went on many field trips with them. But now that they’re older and mostly mainstreamed, there have been few trips to tag along on. But this one promised a train ride, and I thought, Cool. We’ve never ridden a train. It turned out to be a day of firsts that I think I will back on fondly – now that it’s over.

Mother 1966

It was 1966. Dr. Zhivago was raking it in at the box office, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass put 4 albums on Billboards top 10 and troll dolls were so popular that even the first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, claimed to own one. On a rainy afternoon of March of that year, a small woman stood in the middle of a dirt road in front of her house in Newport, Rhode Island, holding an egg in one hand and a pair of pliers in the other. She was almost 23, she was pregnant and she was stuck in the mud.

Anita looked down at the mud that held her boots firmly in place. She pulled her right leg slowly up until the boot began to slide off. Sighing, she stepped down again. It sank up to the ankle. She tried the same thing with her left foot and got the same results. She stepped down again, unwilling to walk barefoot through the cold mud. It began to rain again.

Looking over her shoulder, she saw her mother pass by the kitchen window inside her house. She was making the boys lunch. Anita had two young sons who excelled at mischief and mayhem. Normally, Anita did a pretty good job at keeping up with them, but now, in the last weeks of her pregnancy, it was a little harder. Her mother came to visit as often as she could get away to help her with the boys.

She passed by the kitchen window again. Anita waved the pliers. “Mother!” she called, though she knew her mother wouldn’t hear her through the closed windows. She didn’t. Anita sighed.

She looked ahead of her toward a small house across the street. An older couple, Irene and Al, lived there, the only neighbors she knew so far. They had been very kind to her since she had moved in.

She stared hard at the house willing someone to come out. And someone did! The front door opened. Al stepped out, whistling and jangling his keys, and strolled toward his car. He glanced her way, stopped and stared a moment. Anita smiled and tried to wave with the egg hand. Al started to wave back, shook his head and strode toward her. He stopped a few feet away, squinted at her boots and cleared his throat, covering what sounded suspiciously like a chuckle.

“Mornin,’ Anita,” he said.

“Good morning, Al,” she said smiling brightly. Al looked up at the leaden sky.

“Miserable weather we’re having,” he noted.

“Yes,” she agreed. “It is.” Al stared first at the egg and then the pliers. He raised an eyebrow. “I borrowed an egg from Irene yesterday,” she said. “And your pliers.” Al nodded and rubbed his chin. The corner of his mouth twitched.

“Thought they looked familiar,” he said and studied the mud covering her feet. “Looks like you got yourself in a spot, Anita,” he finally noted.

“It would seem so,” she said and smiled again, this time a little sheepishly.

“Well, alright then, let’s get you out of there.” He stepped behind her, gently hooking his arms under hers, and struggled to drag Anita out of the mud. She curled her feet to keep the boots from slipping off and finally came free with a squelch.

Al walked her back to her house, lecturing her on the way about why young pregnant women, whose husbands are at sea, should probably not go out in the rain to return an egg and a pair of pliers. She smiled and agreed. He left her at her front door with the assurance that if she needed anything, all she had to do was call and he or Irene would be there, and walked back to his own house, shaking his head and muttering to himself about crazy pregnant women all the way.

Mom, me and my brothers on Easter Sunday, 1967.

My mother told me this story the first time a few years ago, and I laughed until my eyes leaked. The mother I remember was just so confident, so supremely competent, I couldn’t imagine her getting herself in such a predicament. Until I realized that at the time she first told me the story, I was already several years older than she was then.

And now, here I am, exactly twice as old as she was then in 1966, the year I was born. I’ve spent the last 12 years as a stay-at-home parent to my partner’s three sons. I feel incredibly fortunate to have as a parenting partner the woman who gave birth to the children and nursed them and stayed at home taking care of them before she handed off to me and went back to work.

She knows exactly what it feels like to spend all day taking care of young children with no breaks and no help so when she’s home from work in the evenings and on weekends, she is completely present and an active, involved mom.

But even with my partner’s help and support, there are times when I have felt overwhelmed or lonely or inadequate. So I called my mother, who unfortunately lived several hundred miles away, but still always made me feel better. Because that’s what good mothers do. They raise their children with all the love and attention they need and then provide emotional support for their daughters (or daughters-in-law or friends or sisters or partners) when they have their own.

So this story is for my mom and for her mother, my Nana, who I still miss and wish had lived to see me become a parent. It’s for my partner, the mother of our children, who also taught me how to be a mom. It’s for my mother-not-in-law who raised 5 amazing daughters and all my partner’s sisters. It’s for and my sister-in-law, mother to my niece and nephew, and all our friends who have raised their children alongside ours and all the talks we’ve had and stories we’ve traded. And it’s for our childless friends who have also loved our kids and supported us emotionally and understood when we turned down invitations for years because of the kids and came to see us when we couldn’t get away.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Four generations of mothers in my family. I’m the little one
sitting on my mom’s lap. And that’s my grandmother and
great-grandmother.(Also my brothers in back
and Willy and Junior in front.)

Do You Know Where Your Dogs Are?

The other day I heard a mother express her outrage at childless people who proudly and publically put forth the absurd (her word) notion that having pets is like having children. “How ridiculous!” she exclaimed. “How presumptuous!” Speaking as the primary caregiver of 3 sons and 2 dogs, I think the lady is wound a little tight. As well as being wrong. Pets are absolutely like children, and I can prove it. Or at least I can offer up some very insightful responses. Or sarcastic responses. One of those. Just follow along and I’m sure you’ll figure it out.

For the record, I’m just talking about the fuzzy canine kind of pets. I really can’t speak for parakeets (just 4 ounces of stupid covered in feathers) or Burmese pythons (17 potential feet of appetite) or other remarkably dull or exotic pets. And cats are way too autonomous to equate to children. But I’ll speak up for dogs, because as I’m writing this, one of mine is sitting next to my chair whining, wagging, and about to have a conniption fit because he’s bored and wants me to get up and play with him.

Jack

So I just took a brief break from writing this to play with my dog and when that wasn’t enough, I gave him a new stuffed animal to distract him. See? Just like a small child when you really, really want them to hush and leave you alone for a while. Except my kids rarely took such glee in gutting stuffed frogs or fluffy ducks with their teeth and spitting the fuzz all over the floor of the living room.

But still, there are some definite, and obvious, similarities between dogs and children.  You have to teach them when and where to pee, for instance. You probably shouldn’t ever let them on the furniture. They love to play in the backyard and chase squirrels. (Yes, one son did. Don’t you judge us.) They really, really like cookies. And sometimes they’ll get sick and vomit on the rug. See? I think I’ve pretty much made my case, but for those doubters out there, let me tell you a little about Jack and Ozzie.

A few months ago, we adopted two dogs from a local animal rescue. They are young adult brothers as different from each other as day and night. Ozzie is tall, dark and shy. He’s the deep thinker of the two (nice way of saying he’s the smart one) and infinitely sweet. Jack is short, light, and spastic. He’s a bouncy goofball with impulse control issues who wags his tail in his sleep and loves everyone on sight.

But we saw a cat...

Jack and Ozzie are very much like new furry family members to us. Though of course, we realize there are real differences between them and our sons:  We’ve tried to teach our sons not to pee at the park whereas that’s kind of the whole point for Jack.  When they meet someone new, the boys wisely refrain from licking his or her face. When I say “sit,” the dogs actually do. Both the boys and the dogs track dirt in the house but only the dogs leave muddy footprints on my bedspread.

I think, though, that the irate woman who resented the equation of raising dogs with raising children, probably meant that children are a whole lot more work. I think my examples clearly illustrate, though, how much care the dogs really take as opposed to children who are theoretically more trainable and eventually self-sufficient. Okay, so we’ll never have to help Jack or Ozzie with their Algebra homework or teach them to drive and for that I am exceedingly grateful.

Ozzie

But in simplest terms they have the same basics needs our boys did when they were little. They are pretty darn happy if they just get plenty of affection, play time, exercise, regular trips to the park, cookies when they’re good, and a new toy occasionally. They play with bugs and sticks and love piles of dead leaves. They love visitors to the house and think that everyone comes here just to see them. Sadly, now that the boys are in their teens, much of this is no longer the case for them. So the way I see it, dogs are the perfect solution for those of us who miss having small children (but not enough to have more).  And for the childless parent, they become the furry incarnation of family and unconditional love. And there’s just nothing bad about that.

Talking with Teenagers (or Don’t Kill the Chickens or the Villagers Will Attack)

Every morning, I eavesdrop while three teenaged boys talk about things I don’t even begin to understand. I drive a carpool to the high school – our middle son, Link, and two of his friends. I consider it my training in popular culture. If I listen carefully and venture a question now and again, I might learn just a bit about the world my son lives in – because I’m fairly certain it’s not the same one I inhabit.

Our son’s favorite user interface.

So this morning, Link and his friends had a lengthy discussion about whether it was better to be a thief or an assassin in Skyrim (our son’s latest video game obsession).

“Yeah, my latest character is a level 25 thief,” said Link, “but I’ve never killed a dragon. I have all these shouts but I can’t use them because I don’t have any dragon souls.”

I was trying to figure that one out when a yahoo in a pick-up truck from the oncoming lane whipped across the double yellow line right in front of me, sped into the parking lot of a fast food joint, and then slammed on his brakes to avoid ramming into the last car in the lengthy drive-through line which left his bumper sticking two feet out into the street. I hit the brakes hard, swerved to avoid the dumbass’ backend, and had a mental conniption fit about idiots who are willing to kill me and three kids for a biscuit from Bojangles. When I tuned in to the boys’ conversation again, I heard this:

Friend O: “Yeah I killed a chicken and then I had to kill everybody.” Chuckling from the other boys ensued. I couldn’t help it. I had to ask.

“Okay, why is that funny?” Link perked up. There’s not much he loves to do much more than lecture the ignorant about his favorite video games.

“Well, you see,” he began, “You can kill a person in Skyrim and the guards will yell at you to stop and maybe give chase. But if you kill a chicken, everyone in the village will try to kill you.”

“Aaahh,” I said, because that’s what I say when something makes absolutely no sense to me. “Uh…why?” Link had no idea why, but he was heartily amused by it. And now that he had started lecturing, he was by no means finished.

“There was another funny glitch that allowed chickens to report crimes to the guards, but Bethesda found it and fixed it before they released the game.”  Friend D perked up at that point and jumped in.

“Yeah, and now some people want to create a mod with informant chickens. Then we would have to kill all the chickens.”

“And all the villagers too?” I asked.

“That’s what I did!” said O cheerfully.

My attention was again called back to the road when a gentleman driving a Volvo and talking on his cell phone (i.e. speeding jackass with an Apple in his ear) passed us (i.e. whipped in front of me almost clipping my front bumper), and accelerated smoothly disappearing into the distance (sped away loudly for two seconds before his brake lights blazed as he hugged the bumper of the large slow-moving vehicle (school bus) directly in front of us). I spent a few moments imagining the colorful language (i.e. blunt instrument) I would use if I had the opportunity to calmly explain (apply the blunt object vigorously and repeatedly to the driver’s head) the concept of “school zone” to the man (child-endangering scum bucket).

When I tuned back in to the boys’ conversation, they were still talking about virtual chickens. At least, two of them were.

While I think that most teenaged boys play video games, not all of them play them with the same intensity of focus of our son and his friend, D. (They are nerds.) O, however, was a fairly typical young man who also enjoys fishing, wrestling, horror movies, and classic rock. Our son Link and his friend enjoy video games with villagers and chickens. And sometimes they play Dungeons and Dragons. Once a week, actually, with the nerd club at school.

Now, having grown up a nerd myself, I completely understand and support the so-inclined. But I was a pre-video game nerd. So I actually played outside. A lot. And still do. Link, on the other hand, suffers from a vitamin D deficiency. And while I completely put the heaviest part of the blame for that on public schools for insisting that our child spend 7 hours of daylight sitting indoors, I also realize that our son is by nature, a sedentary troglodyte. He even looks the part: he has fair skin and enormous eyes (excellent for functioning in low light situations). He’s very slender, has no muscle tone and cringes when exposed to direct sunlight. Most of this came on with puberty. Before that, Link was happy to punctuate his bouts of electronic entertainment with frequent breaks spent running around the back yard with his little brother and our dogs, wielding a toy sword and acting out his favorite games. But sadly, no more. (Now he acts out his games with miniatures and dice while sitting at a table eating pizza with several other nerds.)

His friend, O, on the other hand, loves the outdoors. He hunts, he hikes, he swims, he fishes. Especially, the latter. So sometimes, I try to engage him in conversation about fishing (about which I know only slightly more than nothing), just to remind my son that some of his peers actually still enjoy going outside.

It is not difficult to get O talking about fishing. I ask a question and he talks about lures and lines and reading rivers and such nonstop until we get to the school. I find O’s enthusiasm interesting and entertaining. And I get a kick out of turning the tables on Link, who has spent years lecturing me on such fascinating topics as Pokemon and Star Wars (which I love but I don’t really need to know how to speak Wookie), in addition to his gold standards, video games and D & D. He’s not used to being on the other side of it, though, and the expression on his face while O waxes on about fishing is priceless.

And it gets me through the snarl of cars that is the front of the high school as I wait my turn in line, dutifully following the school’s drop-off traffic rules, and mentally cussing each jackwagon who decides to drive up at the last minute, pass all of us in line, and then try to insert their SUV into line several cars in front of me. Finally, when it’s our turn, the boys shoulder their backpacks and climb morosely out of the car, and I listen to NPR’s Morning Edition on the way home (which is not nearly so entertaining as teenagers).

Boys Are Gross

I heartily approve of a kid who goes to play outside and comes back thoroughly filthy. Every boy (or girl who’s so inclined) should wade in ditches to catch polliwogs and climb trees and wander the woods investigating everything or play with pill bugs in the dirt. They should have sword fights with sticks and play kick ball in the street and ride their bike until they’re thoroughly sweaty, tired, and grimy. Getting dirty is a necessary consequence of having quality kid fun. So you’ll know I’m not talking about dirt when I say, boys are gross.

I don’t think boys necessarily corner the market on being gross. I’m sure some girls are gross too, and I completely support a girl’s right to be gross. No gender stereotyping here. But we’re raising sons, and I have come to believe that they have a genetic inclination to some of the things I’m about to describe.

So after a lifetime spent observing and gathering data – as a sister, a friend, and mostly, as a parent to boys – I think my conclusions are sound. Boys are gross and I have years of field observations and anecdotal evidence to support it. Here are a few simple assertions I have found to be true when it comes to boys:

1. Farts are funny. – From the time he was very young, before he went to school, when I spent almost every minute with him and knew exactly what books had been read to him and what TV shows and movies he had watched, even then, before any outside factor had a chance to influence him, our middle son thought almost any bodily expulsion of gas was hilarious. He couldn’t burp or break wind without bursting into giggles. If someone else did it, he laughed even harder. And if someone else could do it on command, like his big brother, he just completely lost it. He was five then. He’s sixteen now and still giggles when he farts.

2. Table manners are unnatural. – Our boys eat like barbarians. Sometimes I think I should just give them all turkey legs and let a pack of hunting dogs lounge under the table to eat the bones they throw down. The youngest, who is 14 now, still prefers his hands to a fork or spoon. Our middle son still can’t remember to chew with his mouth closed or to avoid talking while his mouth is full. And the oldest, at 24, eats like someone is going to take his plate away at any moment.

The conversation is even worse and often involves the youngest trying to gross out his big brothers and the middle boy pretending to throw up in his mouth (which he learned from his older brother and they all think is just hilarious).  I take what comfort I can in knowing that one day, when they have children and/or pets of their own, they’re going to spend more time than they ever imagined cleaning up vomit, and this little bit of dinnertime karma is going to come back on them.

3. There are no trees in the bathroom. – Until 3 years ago, we lived in house with one bathroom. One. It’s the source of unending delight to me that our current house has 2 and a half baths and I don’t have to share with the boys anymore. But the bathrooms they do use are still a problem, and I have invested considerable time in trying to convince our sons that the toilet is not a tree and requires a little more finesse in terms of aim. I beg, I plead, I threaten. If they invested just a little more time and attention, I implore, then life would be ever so much more pleasant for all of us. Much to my dismay, many of my friends who are married to men assure me that this often remains an issue well into adulthood.

4. Tidy bedroom is an oxymoron. –  When the oldest still lived with us, his room was a mulch pile of dirty clothes, wet towels, and organic remains of snacks. Banana peels and empty Mountain Dew cans were prominent. I once found a pile of a broken glass under a layer of clothes next to his nightstand. A large irregular area of the hardwood floor around it had been dyed a powdery Kool-Aid red. Our second son has proudly followed in his footsteps. We make him clean it thoroughly once a week, but through the action of a mysterious and spontaneous natural process (i.e. our son), it returns to its original disheveled state with remarkable speed.

So while concepts like “restraint” and “tidy” and “etiquette” are not a natural part of our boys’ philosophies, we are determined to teach them. One day, we hope, they will each be the kind of housemate a future wife or partner will be happy to share a home with. When all the wives are sitting around trading horror stories about their husbands’ habits, I want ours to be the ones that make all the other men look bad. It’s worth a shot, anyway.

Sad Anachronism, the List

A dozen things I grew up with that would befuddle my children

1.  Shag carpets – I wouldn’t even know how to describe to our boys why so many homeowners decided that carpet that required raking was a good idea.

2.  Pet rocks – The dumbest or most ingenious fad of all time depending on your perspective. In 1975, for about 6 months, you could buy a Pet Rock for $3.95 that came with its own cardboard carrying case (with air holes and straw bedding) and an owner’s manual entitled, The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock. The man who conceived the idea became a millionaire

3.  Finding silver coins and wheatback pennies in pocket change – My dad was a coin collector, so in his honor, here are a couple of numismatic facts: Quarters and dimes made of 90% silver were minted until 1964. Wheatback pennies were only minted through 1958 but there were tons of them. So when I was a kid, combing through pocket change for silver and wheatbacks (and the occasional steel penny from WWII) was like hunting for treasure.

4.  TV rabbit ears – We got three channels, ABC, NBC, and CBS. And if you managed just the right antenna adjustment, you could sometimes coax PBS out of the fuzz on UHF.

5.  A percolator on every kitchen counter – My dad’s was shiny stainless steel with a glass knob on top. For years, the smell of coffee was linked with the gurgling of that pot in my memory. They were replaced by automatic drip coffee makers in the seventies. Now relegated to the camping supply aisles or kitchen specialty shops.

6.  Walter Cronkite – The man America trusted to bring us the news. When he said “And that’s the way it is,” we believed him because our parents did. He was in our living room every evening throughout most of my childhood.

7.  Movies with lousy special effects – Kids like my boys who have grown up watching movies like the Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings, take computer-generated Hollywood magic for granted. It’s hard to explain to a kid who has never seen an old sci fi B movie why movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the original Star Wars, which still used models and stop motion, were such a sensation in the seventies.

8.  Telephones with dials and curly cords – Our boys will never know what it’s like to try to have a private conversation with a friend on a handset attached to the wall of the kitchen by a long curly cord while Mom cooked dinner and Dad and siblings came and went.

9.  Smoke-filled teachers’ lounges – I don’t know about your schools, but at mine, the teachers’ lounge always smelled of smoke even when clouds of cigarette fumes weren’t actually billowing out. I wonder what teachers now do to calm their nerves between classes.

10.  Chalkboards in classrooms – Another staple of our childhood. My boys’ classrooms have white dry erase boards which are already falling into disuse as their teachers transition to smart boards connected to laptops to display internet content. They have never been asked to bang the erasers.

11.  The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau – The wiry French diver who seemed to me like the last great explorer, traveling the oceans on the Calypso and showing us things that few people had ever seen before. Now with amazing videos of virtually everything under the sea available to them, my boys could hardly imagine how exciting it was to go Scuba diving with Cousteau.

12.  Sets of encyclopedias – Everyone had a set. Ours was the Encyclopedia Britannica, 24 volumes plus an index, full of information that was outdated almost before it was printed. A completely foreign concept to my boys growing up in the information age with much of the sum total of human knowledge available on the internet, just a few keystrokes away.

So what do you think? What else do you think should make the list? What fixture of your childhood is now obsolete or unheard of? What would puzzle your kids? Write a comment and remind us of what we’ve forgotten.