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

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.

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!

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