I picked up Katie from school early the other day for a dental appointment. She wasn’t happy. It wasn’t because she dislikes our dentist. Dr. Sam is our longtime family friend, and my kids like going to his office. (Er, they like Sam. I’m not sure I can fairly say they like teeth cleaning appointments.) Katie was bummed that day because she was missing her teacher’s weekly drawing.
During the week, if a student gets “caught” doing something right—working quietly, putting away supplies, being kind and courteous to another student—the teacher puts your name into a box. At the end of the week, she draws names from the box for a prize. You increase your chances of winning by having your name entered more times into the drawing. (My kids will be ready to play Washington State Lotto in no time!)
Last year, one of the prizes was lunch with the school principal. Katie, somehow, didn’t think this was a coveted reward. “I don’t want to eat lunch with the principal,” Katie told me halfway through the year. “When my teacher tells me to write my name on a paper and put it in the box, I write down the name of a girl I don’t like and enter her name into the drawing for lunch with the principal.”
Yup, that’s Katie, working the system. This year, she’s more excited about the prizes. I asked her what she would have won if her name was drawn on teeth cleaning day. “Well, if my teacher drew my name, I get to take my shoes off in the classroom!” Katie told me. I’ve smelled Katie’s feet when she doesn’t wear socks in her Toms. I’ve smelled them from the driver’s seat when Katie removed her shoes in the back row of the minivan. Her classmates do not want Katie to win this particular drawing.
But shoes aside, it’s really classic classroom management stuff: Catch good behavior and reward it. I was also thinking about the Festival of Trees, put on annually to benefit Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma. I’ve volunteered for the Jinglebell Jam for years, and I love to see the amazing trees that volunteers decorate and put up for auction. A travel-themed tree may have first class tickets to Europe and hotel accommodations awarded to the winning bidder. A Toyland tree might come complete with bedroom furniture and a motorized toddler car.
Today, I decided to create my own behavior management, reward-themed mini tree with Starbucks and iTunes and Barnes and Noble gift cards and more as tree swag. If I catch my kids doing their chores without being reminded, doing extra work to help around the house, or anything I deem particularly noteworthy, I’ll enter their names into the tree drawing. Bad behavior will require a contribution of allowance money for me to purchase tree swag.
Christmas Eve, I’m drawing the name of the winner who gets all the prizes on the tree. May the odds be ever in your favor…
On Valentine’s Day this past year, my mother told me my father bought her a necklace she liked in the store. I asked what she bought him. Mom said she bought Dad a Kit Kat bar.
“Dad gave you a necklace, and you bought him Kit Kats?” I asked.
“He likes Kit Kats,” Mom replied. “And I bought him a giant, king-sized Kit Kat.”
Today is my parents’ 48th wedding anniversary—two years away from their Golden anniversary. Dad offered to make reservations at a swanky restaurant in Laguna Beach. Mom suggested they get noodles at a local strip mall restaurant instead, which suits my father just fine.
Theirs is the marriage that formed some of my earliest notions of matrimony, the marriage I’ve been most privy to, next to my own. My parents are closing in on 50 years. Mine officially ended on what would have been our 14th wedding anniversary.
I think a lot about what makes some marriages last and others fail. I’ve read stacks of marriage and relationship books after my divorce, which is a bit like going through your car’s owner manual after you’ve signed the pink slip transferring ownership.
I’ve often thought it would be interesting to gather couples married for 50+ years and ask them how they’ve made their marriages last. No doubt, some couples just endure. But I’d like to know about the marriages that last and grow richer through the years.
My parents would tell you their marriage has not been endless walks on the beach and handholding at sunset. They’ve fought over in-laws and spending priorities…and everything else under the sun. They’ve had long, drawn-out arguments that started over who forgot to do something or why something was done, or not done, a certain way. And they often don’t seem to notice how short and sharp they sound talking to each other, in private and in public.
Over the years, I know they have come to places in their marriage where they’ve wondered about the very essence of the other, the impossible finality of traits that drive them insane…and likely won’t change.
But somehow, teetering on the precipice of calling it quits, they’ve managed to step back each time and stand by the vows of “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…”
My father is the romantic one in their relationship—the one who still buys tickets to Broadway plays, where they both complain that the show isn’t as good as “The Sound of Music” or “My Fair Lady.” Dad plans dates to the Hollywood Bowl, or hires a singing telegram to show up at a house party, or surprises my mother with long-stemmed roses while she is just as happy with a flat of flowers from the nursery to plant in the backyard.
One year, Dad went through extraordinary efforts to surprise my mother with a designer dress she liked, talking her out of buying it at the store and having the sales woman quietly send the dress to his office. A few weeks later, on my mother’s birthday, Dad insisted he needed to pick up something from his office before they went home to get ready for an evening event, which infuriated my mother. She sat in the car mumbling and grumbling about how little time she would have to get ready. That was the afternoon the elevator in Dad’s office building malfunctioned, and Dad got stuck in the elevator with Mom’s “birthday suit,” waiting for someone to rescue him.
Mom gets Dad Kit Kats for Valentine’s Day. She also counts out vitamins and keeps track of any medications Dad needs to take. Over the years, as my father built his own business, my mother—an introvert who is shy until she knows you well—stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him as they met with his clients over dinner and entertained an endless stream of business colleagues at our home.
She’s not overly sentimental by nature, but I’ve watched my mother zealously stand in Dad’s corner throughout his career.
“Your Dad has so much integrity. He cares very personally about the welfare of each of his clients,” she’d tell me. She admires my Father’s work ethic and his honesty. She’d watch him handle the stresses of a fluctuating stock market and anxious clients watching the fluctuating market, and she would look for ways to help him manage the stress. Mom handled all of his packing for business trips, took him out on long walks in the evening where he could disconnect from persistent clients who wanted to reach him at home (in the pre-cellphone days); offered an empathetic ear when my father just needed to talk about his frustrations at work.
Two years ago, Dad was hospitalized with pneumonia and other health complications during a family vacation in Hawaii. Mom stayed up several nights, washing and changing his sweat-drenched pajamas before he was admitted to the hospital. She called family doctors for advice and stayed at his hospital bedside. Mom took active care of him through his convalescence. She may not be a romantic soul, but Mom loves people through her actions and her unwavering commitment.
At the worst points in their marriage, someone could have said, “Don’t stay in it for the children. If you’re not happy, your kids won’t be happy. Kids always know when their parents are miserable, and everyone is better off if you end a bad situation.” It’s the advice I hear offered up to people regularly these days. And I’m sure that in some situations, it might possibly be true (although social-science research would say divorce might be positive for adults but often has long-term detrimental effects for children*)
I look at 48 years of my parents’ marriage, and I’m both grateful and glad they stuck it out. For my sister. For me. For them. I don’t believe I’d be better off today if my parents had opted to divorce. I would have hated a parenting plan that divided my life between two houses. The financial resources stretched to cover two households would have closed off all kinds of opportunities I enjoyed growing up and through my college years. I can’t fathom the emotional upheaval I would have experienced if my parents had divorced, except by watching the life my kids have had to navigate.
Today, my parents’ union also serves as the intact marriage my children get to see up close. My kids witness their romantic gestures. The spats. The respect and empathy. My children see commitment and sacrifice and partnership.
Grandma and Grandpa’s marriage is an example to my kids of what it looks like to live out the vows of “for better, for worse,” with both scenarios present on most days.
*Judith Wallerstein, who passed away in 2012, was a clinical psychologist and a researcher on the impact of divorce on children. Wallerstein, who conducted longitudinal studies over 25+ years on children of divorce, ignited a firestorm when she published findings on the long-term negative impact of divorce on children.While parents often claim their kids will be better off if they divorce because of the negative effect of marital tensions, Wallerstein’s research published in “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25-year Landmark Study” presented a different picture.
Another interesting article on children and divorce is this older piece from journalist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.
I told my graduate school professors I wasn’t writing a Mommy blog on subjects like potty training. That’s just not my thing. (None of my kids wear diapers anymore; No need to visit those medieval times.) But something’s going on with the alignment of the moon with Uranus or something because there was a definite theme to my day yesterday…and the theme was toilets.
It started in my guest bathroom where I noticed we were out of toilet paper, just the brown cardboard roll, forlornly hanging there, deprived of some soft folds of Charmin.
It’s a simple thing for me to grab a new roll of toilet paper from under the sink and replace it, which I promptly did. But the simpleness of that action annoyed me because it’s a simple task that any one of my four kids all using that very bathroom could have done, too! And suddenly I’m sitting there…no, I’m standing there, lest you’re forming a mental image of this…I’m standing in the bathroom thinking, Why am I always the one to have to replace the toilet paper???
A great wave of indignation and self-pity engulfed me, so I did what we all do when these crazy notions occur to us, I wrote about it on Facebook because my friends needed to know that my children are selfish little creatures, untrained in the art of replacing toilet paper.
Then I arrived at my class last night, and a portion of the lecture focused on communications and behavioral change.
I typed lecture notes into my laptop: “Behavioral intentions, what you say you will do, is one thing, but what you actually do is different. Behavior is usually considered the hardest to change.”
My mind went to Mr. Whipple and his inability to stop squeezing the Charmin and my children’s inability to ease a roll of Charmin onto the toilet paper dispenser. Grrrr.
I was thinking behavior change –> children –> toilet paper and, just like that, telepathically or something, Hanson Hosein (one of our instructors for the course) started talking about the men’s restroom at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.
Apparently, men have terrible aim. Their minds wander. They lose track of what they’re doing, and they make absolute messes of the walls, the floors, whatever surrounds a urinal. And it’s a safety issue because the floors are, as those signs say, “slippery when wet.”
Enter Dutch behavioral economist, Aad Kieboom, who decided they should etch the outline of a fly onto the back wall of each porcelain urinal at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. It’s inexpensive and easy to install. Kieboom’s staff conducted the fly-in-urinal trials and discovered the “etchings reduce[d] spillage by 80 percent.”
The fly improved a man’s aim, gave him something to think about, I guess. Without signs, instructions manuals, or even Siri to guide them, the fly appealed to guys’ sense of target practice or gaming instincts or whatever it is that improved their accuracy and the sanitary conditions of Amsterdam’s lovely airport restrooms.
I love happy-ending stories like this! It’s not just because clean bathrooms delight me. I appreciate simple solutions. Cheap solutions. Solutions that require some out-of-the-box thinking to affect appropriate behavior changes.
It made me recall the children’s book, “All-of-a-Kind Family” by Sydney Taylor where the author wrote about her large Jewish family growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Taylor wrote about the sloppy job she and her siblings did of cleaning and dusting the front room of their house until their inspired mother hid pennies in the room that the children could find if they did their jobs thoroughly, lifting vases and rugs to clean everything.
I’m betting Taylor’s mother knew nothing about behavioral psychology on habit formation and addictions, but she wisely varied her penny rewards, sometimes hiding pennies and other times not, which caused her children to vigilantly, obsessively clean the room every time in the hopes of turning up a reward.
That was my takeaway from Networks and Narratives last night. I shall figure out my own urinal fly: a simple, cheap, fun solution to getting my kids to replace toilet paper rolls in our home. It might require “approximations” (rewarding small steps to learning a new behavior). I might need to figure out an “incompatible behavior” that prevents my kids from leaving a bathroom if they’ve used up the last square of toilet paper without replacing the role.
No monetary rewards for replacing toilet paper because my children are geniuses at gaming the system and our household will suddenly experience a marked increase in toilet paper usage (or half-used rolls in the trash) if I incentivize them with money.
I’m not sure what modification technique I’ll employ, but I’ll keep you blog posted. Suggestions most certainly welcomed.
Earlier this week, I was trading text messages with my friend Tim, a widower raising three sons and a daughter on his own. We were commiserating over parenting issues (I have the inverse of his family, with three daughters and a son) when Tim mentioned that he knew a thing or two about raising daughters…and had the toe nails to prove it. Hmmm…toe nails?
Tim’s 8-year-old daughter, Mary, wanted to gain some experience with nail polish and decided to practice on her Daddy’s toes. Bright pink polish. (You need to know that Tim is 6’ 3” to fully appreciate the image of him with flamingo-colored toe nails.) Mary finished his left foot and decided to stop. One foot was all she wanted to do.
Tim’s been walking around for a few days with his pretty, pink toe nails. I guess he’s enjoying them too much to find or purchase some nail polish remover.
That’s life when you’re both Dad and Mom to your kids. Parenting is full of some of the sweetest moments of unrehearsed whimsy, but single parenting can also be a bit like having fewer hands than you need, and two left feet, minus the pretty polish.
Sure, my children have their Dad in their lives, an evening a week and every other weekend, but it’s not the same as living in a household with both Mom and Dad.
Like it or not, single-parent households are a reality in the United States where 13.6 million parents are raising 21.2 million kids on their own, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics. That number represents just over a quarter of the children under the age of 21 in the U.S today.
Those single parent households statistics include families like Tim’s, who’ve lost a spouse and parent through death. And those single parent household numbers include my family, through divorce.
I wince over the label “single mom.” I’m afraid it conjures up negative images and (shall I say it?) binders full of women: Unemployed women. Women on welfare. Undereducated women. Promiscuous teens.
The term elicits disparagement or pity from people, and I cringe over the thought of being the recipient of either sentiment. But it’s my reality; the label that technically fits, even if the stereotypes don’t.
I don’t intend to delve into measures and programs and policies that might help to lower the number of single parent households in America. Interesting topic, but not one for me to take on right now. Instead, it might be helpful to share some thoughts on what I’ve learned about being a single parent.
It takes time—and time for yourself—to get it together
You know that speech flight attendants give about securing your own oxygen mask before assisting those around you? It’s relevant to single parenting as well. In the immediate aftermath of death or divorce, there’s so much to handle….everything from legal tasks, to household issues, to your kids’ needs. Unfortunately, there’s no child-pause switch to activate when you’re overwhelmed by it all.
I came down with pneumonia a few years ago and, in desperation, planted my kids in front of the television so I could sleep for a few hours. I awoke to my 4-year-old, Katie, standing by my bed poking me. “Are you done being sick yet? I’m hungry,” she told me.
A friend listened to me share my concerns about my divorce’s effect on my children and my fears about not having enough time and energy for them. Then she said to me, “The best thing you can do for your kids is to take the time to be solid and stable yourself.”
She was right. You can’t assist your children with their oxygen masks if you’re passed out on the floor. I had to be sure I was exercising, eating well, and getting enough rest (ha!). I’ve learned to streamline household tasks and decline extra activities that just can’t be maintained in a one-parent household.
Initially, it felt selfish to hire a sitter to go out to eat or to see a movie with friends, but then I remembered that these actions are my way of securing the oxygen mask to my face. Sure, there are extremes: Parents who are constantly out taking care of their own needs while their kids struggle through on their own. It’s a fine balance of making your kids your priority, but taking care of yourself in the process.
It takes a village
More than ever, I’ve needed a village: a community of church members, neighbors and friends who help to fill in the gaps. These are people like my girlfriend Judy, who drove 30 minutes to my house and then 40 minutes over to Gig Harbor to take my daughter Megan to a Halloween party when I was down with pneumonia.There were neighbors who came over to my house to stay with a sick child when I needed to be in the office for a meeting.
I don’t know what the mom/son equivalent is to dads-painting-toe-nails-with-their-daughters, but I do worry about raising a son in a female-dominated household. My son, Ryan, might have been 3 or 4 years old when he came up to me one day and told me he couldn’t find his panties. Yikes.
I wish that was the last of it, but just last year I discovered I didn’t know a thing about boys’/men’s underware. I thought there were boxers and there were briefs, only to find out there was a third category: boxer briefs. How did I not know this? And which ones to buy for Ryan?
I consulted mom friends with sons and husbands who know these things and was advised that Ryan needed boxers or boxer briefs before he gets to the locker room.
I know, crazy example. But it’s the stuff that keeps me up at night!
(By the way, I laughed my way through a recent story on public radio’s The Vinyl Cafe where the mom was utterly perplexed when her son told her she neglected to buy an item on his sport’s uniform checklist: athletic support. She had checked it off assuming she was his athletic supporter!)
Moreover, I need a close community of families where my son and daughters can interact with other fathers; where they can see how husbands and wives relate to one another. Keeping my own circle of friends ensures that I’m not tempted to turn my children into my confidants. I love spending time with my kids. They’re funny and mature, and it’s a blast to talk with them. But end of the day, I’m their parent and they are my children—children who need to be kids without having to be my friend or assume responsibilities for me.
It takes hope
Finally, I’ve learned my kids can adapt and even thrive despite adverse situations. A relative of mine sighs and murmurs to my Mother every time she sees her over how sad it is that my kids will be “so damaged” because of the divorce. She means well. She’s full of sympathy and pity for us, but it’s hard for her to fathom how much power we have to choose our response to difficult things.
I wish my children got to experience growing up with both of their parents under one roof. I wish my nieces’ father didn’t pass away when they were so very young. I wish Mary could paint Tim’s toe nails…and her mother’s as well.
It makes me long for another home; A different world. But for now, perhaps what my kids gain from the losses is a clearer understanding of what it takes to make a marriage last from their parent’s mistakes. They’ve watched me struggle, but maybe they’ve also learned that it’s not the end of the world when people leave or someone dies. In the hard stuff, maybe they’ve witnessed what it means to have a peace that passes understanding and composure regardless of life’s circumstances. I don’t know, but this gives me hope.
Two years ago, my ex-husband, Eric, and his new wife, Angela, had a baby together. They named her Tessa Faith.
I thought about a lot of things the morning Eric texted our daughter Megan that Angela was in labor. I thought about the births of our four children and wondered if Eric was remembering those days, too. I thought about the baby showers Angela and I threw for each other when we were friends; the day she went into labor with her daughter Julia, and called Eric and me to take her to the hospital because her husband was out-of-town. We were close friends back then, back before I knew about the affair she was having with my husband.
I wondered if Angela was experiencing really awful labor pains this time around. And, because I can be a mean and spiteful person, I hoped her contractions were excruciating. I wondered if God would be okay with me praying for her labor to hurt like hell. Does He answers prayers like that?
When my kids announced the baby was named, “Tessa Faith” I was curious to know if anyone else besides me thought the name sounded like a “Test of Faith.” Was that intentional? Did they see her birth as some test of faith? Or was the sound and meaning of her name merely overlooked, the way my parents might have inadvertently named me, Ida Ngo? [As in, “I dunno.”]
I’m not an overly sentimental soul. My kids have had to rescue their artwork from the trash in my unrelenting desire to purge the house of stuff. No heroic dry-cleaning efforts to preserve and mummify my wedding dress in boxed splendor. I donated the dress to Goodwill years ago.
But Tessa’s birth made me ache. For me, a baby is such a tangible reminder of an intimate relationship. Eric and I dated for 6 years and were married for 14, so after 20 years of life with someone, it’s difficult to be reminded of his intimate relations with another person. I know. I have romantic notions of what babies symbolize. In reality, they’re actually sophisticated sleep deprivation units.
The morning Tessa was born, I unloaded the dishwasher and wiped my eyes and blew my nose and felt miserable for crying over Eric’s new baby. I was jealous of his celebration with a new wife. I felt a sense of betrayal all over again. I can’t explain how much it hurt, except that it was the worst possible deep and throbbing pain.
The next day, Eric came over to the house to get our kids to introduce them to their new half-sister. I sat by myself at home and thought, What fresh hell is this?
It’s been two years now since Tessa was born. Slowly and somehow, something has shifted. The pain has dissipated. Sometimes there’s the smallest twinge, the way my ankle might occasionally shoot me a reminder of the time I twisted it last November. Yeah, I’m still snarky at times. I think my children are immensely cuter than Tessa, but that’s a factual statement rather than mean-spiritedness. Over time, goodwill has replaced grief.
I wonder a bit at how this happened because if I could map the path of forgiveness, I might be able to take other offenses down that road. Except I can’t trace the path. I have no idea how I traveled from the initial agony, to finding myself offering to help Megan purchase and wrap a Christmas present for Tessa. Or taking my little girls, Paige and Katie, to buy a pillow pet for Tessa’s birthday this past March. My children return from their Dad’s house with tales of what Tessa said or did, and I find myself smiling at how cute toddlers are.
In July, Eric and Angela took a road trip with their seven (yes, seven: yours, mine, and ours) kids to California to visit Disneyland. Megan called to talk with me one evening and told me about how my 8-year-old, Katie, took Tessa on a kiddie ride at Disneyland. The ride scared Tessa, and Katie wasn’t sure what to do, so she wrapped her arms around Tessa and hugged her throughout the ride. When Megan shared this, all I could think about was how proud I was that Katie has such a kind and tender heart. A kinder, gentler heart than mine at times.
This is what I’ve come to believe: There is a God who is at work within us; a God who heals the unfathomable hurts in our lives…in my life. He lets me sit for a while with things I don’t want to forgive; with my own stuff that I don’t even want to be forgiven of, and then, in time, He pries open my hands. I’m unaware that I’ve been clutching sharp blades, and forgiveness is about taking the knives away.
Refusing to forgive, the saying goes, is like drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die.
Yet some things in us have to die in order for us to experience rebirth: Our anger and resentments; Our stubborn sense that life needs to happen on our terms, in our way. In some odd irony, Tessa Faith, has tested and grown my faith that God can work through circumstances I hate, and yet all will be well in the end.
If my faith has grown, so has my sense of grace. I love that we gave Katie the middle name, Grace. Katherine Grace. I love the sound and the meaning and the beauty of Grace. I have an image in my mind of Katie wrapping her arms around Tessa through the scary parts of the ride, and I glimpse God holding me close whispering, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10)
Growing up, I loved the long days of summer; the evenings when my father would get home from work and join my sister and me in our swimming pool. Before I learned to swim, I’d climb onto my dad’s back, wrap my arms around his neck, and pretend I was riding a whale in the ocean.
“Swim fast,” I’d tell him. “But don’t dive down, Daddy. I don’t want to go under the water.”
The summer before I turned 5, my parents hired an instructor, Molly Stern, to come to our house to teach me to swim. In my mind, she lived up to her name. She was stern and insistent that I had to put my face in the water. In fact, she expected me to put my whole head under the water.
Miss Molly was unmoved by my long explanations of how I couldn’t hold my breath, and how water got into my nose, and, “My God, Woman! You are going to make me go under the water, and I am going to DIE!” (Okay, my pre-kindergarten self didn’t use language like, “My God, Woman…,” but you get the picture.)
Miss Molly persisted. I cried. My mother stood by the side of the pool and cried with me. Miss Molly asked my mother to please go inside the house.
Begrudgingly, I learned to swim. I learned to dive into the pool and tread water. I mastered the breaststroke, the butterfly, and the crawl. At our final lesson, Molly had me practice an emergency rescue, in case anyone ever needed life-saving measures from a 4-year-old.
I jumped into the pool with my regular clothes on, removed my immediately waterlogged tennis shoes and socks and excess clothing, and “rescued” Miss Molly by swimming to the pool steps with one arm in a choke-hold around my drowning instructor’s neck. We must have reached some level of friendship by then, because in the initial days of my swimming lessons, I would have readily left Miss Molly to her watery grave at the deep end of our pool.
I still have that swimming certificate from August 1975, the summer I was convinced I would drown and, instead, learned how to swim.
Life is like that sometimes. I pray for everything to go swimmingly in my life. No waves. No circumstances where I’ll be pulled under the water. It’s too uncomfortable. Too scary. It feels like certain death. But I have to learn to swim.
To me, grief feels like a huge wave of water that overtakes you and threatens to keep you roiling in its undertow. It takes time, but eventually, you begin to realize that life events might knock you off your feet for a while, and then you surface again. You might get pulled under, but you’ll find your footing. You learn to ride the waves.
These days, it’s my children and their cousins who swim with my father during family vacations. They clamber onto Grandpa’s back and order him to take them for a ride.
“I don’t want to go under the water, Grandpa!” Katie will say to him, reminiscent of my childhood requests. And Dad does his best to keep Katie afloat.
It seems to be my Dad’s goal—to keep us all afloat in whatever ways he can. He checks the tire pressure of my cars when he visits. He stocks the freezer full of ridiculous amounts of ice cream, or fills my email box with long notes of financial advice.
My brother-in-law passed away when his daughter Lauren was 4. When my niece Lauren started kindergarten, my father took it upon himself to call her every afternoon after school to ask for her teacher’s question of the day. I was in the car once, listening to them on speaker phone:
“What is the fastest cat in the world, Grandpa?” Lauren asked.
“A Cheetah,” my Dad told her.
“Wow! How did you know that, Grandpa?” Lauren asked incredulously.
I listened and smiled because sometimes we just need to feel like there is a Father who’s got the whole world in His hands. We want someone to be able to tell us about the world’s fastest cat, or assure us that we can swim, holding onto someone’s back for a while, before we learn to dive under the water.
[Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Thanks for making sure I learned how to swim. And for always being in the waves with me.]
When I stop writing and turn off my computer tonight, I will crawl into bed and sleep for 7, maybe even 8 hours. Blissful, uninterrupted sleep. But crazy as it might be to say this, I’m also going to bed a little envious of some friends for their disrupted sleep tonight.
My high school classmate Brent is in the labor room with his wife, Lasa, as I type, anticipating the birth of their second daughter, Joon.
Another high school classmate Brad, and his wife, Michelle, welcomed beautiful Marleigh Sue into their family this past Monday.
Both babies are enormously blessed to be entering some really good families, and I’m flooded with happiness for my two friends this evening. I look at the precious photos of Marleigh and I think, “God is good.”
Then I think of Megan, born 15 years ago this next week. She was ruddy and cone-headed when she arrived after hours and hours of labor. All I thought was, Oh my gosh, she is the most perfectly, beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! Then I thought, Oh, look at that! She has all her fingers and toes!
I was so grateful that I didn’t have to assemble her. I was so busy during my pregnancy that if it were up to me to put together all the pieces throughout the nine months, she would have come out missing an ear or a liver or something that just slipped my mind. Besides, whenever I assemble something, I finish and then discover some extra parts and pieces…no idea where they were supposed to go!
I’ve had some amazing adventures: watched an exorcism in a thatched hut in Tanzania; been stranded in the volcano regions of Guatemala without a boat to cross the lake to grab a cab to catch a plane home; rode mopeds, weaving through Bangkok’s infamous traffic; met movie stars, rock stars, and rubbed elbows with numerous politicians. (Elbows were the only things I rubbed as an intern, lest anyone is thinking of Monica Lewinsky.)
Those adventures pale in comparison to the mundane, but nevertheless magical moments of my children’s lives. My kids are crazy, infuriating, whimsical little wind-up toys that spin around and sputter and make a lot of noise. I had no idea how much I would love, and could love, another human being until I had them.
Since I’m 15 years ahead of some of my fellow class of ‘89ers on the whole parenting thing, I thought I’d share some random thoughts. Three, because all speeches or essays seem to mandate the rule of threes.
Train Up a Child in the Way He Should Go
Rebecca, my first editor at work had the most beautiful explanation of this Biblical admonition from Proverbs. She told me the verse is often misconstrued as an instruction for parents to dictate the course for their children. Sometimes parents see children as further extensions of themselves; little beings to fashion in their own image. So they map out their lives. Dictate career paths.
The meaning of the verse, Rebecca told me, was an analogy of a tender reed, growing toward the light.
A young shoot develops with a certain bent but needs support in the early stages to thrive. The verse calls for parents to diligently study and learn about their children; Look for God-given talents and leanings and then cultivate those gifts so “when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
I have always thought that was a beautiful but big charge for parents. I live off of to-do lists. I’m distracted by texts on my phone or Facebook postings. My mind wanders when my kids talk to me. It’s constant work to stay in the moment and listen to them. Watch them. Be a student of my children’s natures so I’ll know when they need to be curbed or when gifts need to be cultivated. Training up a child requires an attentiveness that eludes me so much of the time. When I do listen, I am often incredulous over what I hear. My kids are sometimes wise; often witty and wonderful. I want to listen more.
Glass and Rubber Balls
My colleague and friend Peggy and I used to talk extensively about the juggle of working full-time and parenting. Peggy, who worked as a news anchor for ABC news with Peter Jennings when her children were young, had this advice for me: When you’re juggling all those balls in the air, Shelly, remember that not all the balls are the same. Some of those balls are made of rubber. If you drop them, they’ll bounce away. Some of them are glass balls. If you drop them, they’ll break.
I’ll try to remember that when I head back to work, start graduate school studies, and manage my household and kids. I’m still a novice juggler.
Love Means Having to Say You’re Sorry
Okay, I’ve shared some of the wisdom of my village. What would I personally add? I guess I’m learning that there is no such thing as perfect. My kids are privy to all of me, the highs and lows.
They enjoy the fun of backward dinner nights on Thursdays and Groupon days where we try out activities and restaurants based on what Groupon/Living Social/Bloomspot offers I’ve purchased
Ryan can tell you about Don Quixote, the Man of La Mancha; Katie has been reciting entire stanzas from Les Misérables since she was 5. Let’s just say, if there was a jeopardy category for Broadway song lyrics and plays, my kids would totally dominate the board. (They’ll likely disavow any knowledge of this when they’re teens and realize what geeks I’ve made them!)
They are also pros at packing suitcases and stepping through the paces of airport security as we travel on our vacations (shoes off and in the bins; electronics out of our carry-ons; 3 ounce toiletries in zip-locks). Megan calls our family, a “Party of Five.”
Then there are the times when they’ve quietly murmured to each other that they may not get home because Mom is lost. They will announce (as Paige wrote this week) that Mom is always late. (Megan will spend the rest of her life being half an hour early to things in reaction to the embarrassment she feels over being late so many times in her life.)
My kids have stared wordlessly at me, with tears streaming down their faces when I’ve utterly lost it and yelled at them. They witness me being tired and irritable; disorganized and distracted. And they call me on it regularly.
Paige and Katie were listening to me talk to someone on the phone. “You are so nice when you’re talking to other people,” Paige told me. “You’re grumpy and mean when you’re talking to us.”
So I’ve learned to say “I’m sorry” a million times. I wonder if I will wear the words out. Somehow, when I say “I’m sorry,” it makes my children cry again. They hug me. They pat my cheek or back and tell me it’s okay. And the episode is lost from their minds in much the same way that a sense of direction is lost on me.
My high school friends Brent and Brad, likely already know all of this. They are wise and smart so they’ve likely figured out the whole parenting thing even before having kids, while I’m still a novice parent. Pay attention. Juggle without dropping the glass balls. Say, “I’m sorry.”
I’m terribly relieved I didn’t have to assemble the parts and pieces of my children. I wouldn’t have known how to put so much love and laughter and forgiveness and joy inside them.
It started with my dog, Whistler. Most of my troubles can be traced to him. When my son, Ryan, left the breakfast table to use the restroom, Whistler snagged Ryan’s bagel and gulped it down…didn’t even bother to spread some cream cheese on it first. His sister Paige stood by and watched.
It was negligence on the scale of passive observation to the holocaust. Ryan was ready to haul his twin to the Hague and have her tried in front of an international tribunal.
I was brokering peace accords and grabbing jackets and blocking the refrigerator with a chair (battery’s dead on Whistler’s invisible fence collar, so he’s back to opening the fridge for snacks). I climbed into the car, started the engine, and realized Katie wasn’t in her car seat.
So I’m back in the house on a frantic search mission only to find her huddled in the corner of her closet wearing just her panties and crying. She had “nothing to wear.” Hard to believe that the There’s-nothing-in-my-closet gene on that second X chromosome had switched on already. She’s six!
I offered up five shirts and two pairs of jeans before Katie agreed to get dressed for school. By then we were running late, and Ryan’s wrath had transferred from one sister to the other.
We pulled up to the school. As Ryan exited the car, he slugged Katie’s arm for making everyone late. Katie snarled and took off after her brother, slinging her lunch box at him for hitting her.
It was a fine start to a beautiful autumn day in Washington. The leaves were turning red and falling off the trees. My kids were seeing red and falling out of bed. Megan was at home with a cold. Not the full-on symptoms of swine flu, but piglet flu, perhaps?
Thank goodness I’d spend the day in meetings with mature and professional adults.
I work on a virtual team producing a weekly program for public radio. Reporter assignments are made from Chapel Hill to journalists around the world. Scripts are edited in Boston; the show is tracked by our host in Dallas or Chicago; the program is mixed in Seattle and posted to ftp sites for public radio stations across the country to download.
It’s invigorating to work with a group of amazingly intelligent colleagues, but distance has its difficulties. We try to have in-person meetings at least twice a year to plan our shows and work through production and editorial issues. This time, we were meeting in Seattle.
I was planning to start the meetings with a Powerpoint presentation on our program–financials, web analytics, web marketing results–but my computer caught a virus and was in the intensive care ward of our IS department.
Hotel shuttles delayed team members at the airport the night before. The hotel had placed someone in a first floor handicapped room which wasn’t acceptable to her. They were served fake eggs at the hotel breakfast buffet. WiFi wasn’t working at the hotel or in the office for them.
By the afternoon, I was beginning to feel overlooked by the Nobel committee; bitter that Obama had received the honor.
But no time for self-pity. My phone indicated my nanny was trying to reach me. The kids had set off the car alarm while she had taken one child to the bathroom.
By five ‘o clock, I rushed home to placate my frazzled nanny, hand off the kids to their dad, and then back out the door for dinner with my staff. At the restaurant, our server took copious notes of food orders and special needs. Shell-fish allergies. Mushroom allergies. (Just some types of mushrooms. Fine with the hallucinogenic variety.) Gluten-free meals. Vegan diets. Preferences for free-range poultry and locally grown organic ingredients.
I silently wondered if our server would deliver our dishes with napkin-wrapped EpiPens. I imagined our group in a third world feeding center and wondered if I could get them to eat Unimix. Maybe plumpy nut would be a better choice for this team…
In the course of our conversations, I listened as team members told me about a parent fighting cancer; dealing with the aftermath of a spouse’s death; worries over mothers/sons/daughters/spouses; and their own health issues.
That was Day 1 of our week’s meetings. After dinner, I picked up my kids from their dad’s and headed home to read stories, make lunches, run a load of laundry and clean the cat litter. Whistler met us with the cat litter box door stuck around his head like an Elizabethan collar.
I started to pack lunches, only to discover that Whistler had pushed aside the chair in front of the fridge and helped himself to the roast beef for the kids’ sandwiches.
The Shirelles sang, “Mama said there’ll be days like this, there’ll be days like this, Mama said…”
But Plato said it better: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
There are many grand, classic novels delving into the themes of transgression, forgiveness and, sometimes, redemption. I’m adding another one to the list: Beverly Cleary’s, “The Mouse and the Motorcycle.”
I know. We’re not talking Victor Hugo and the bishop’s candlesticks here. But it so happens that Ralph the Mouse and Jean Valjean both know a thing or two about the transforming nature of grace.
I had forgotten this, ahem, mouse tale, until I dug it out and read it aloud to my kids last week. Whimsical is so overused, but the story really is a fun and fanciful story of young Ralph who lives at the decaying Mountain View Inn and Keith, a little boy who checks into the hotel with his family.
Keith has a shiny toy motorcycle that Ralph rides around the hotel until the fateful day that Ralph lands in a heap of bed linens and, in a desperate attempt to escape the washing machine, loses Keith’s motorcycle.
At first, Keith is devastated and angry. The motorcycle was his favorite toy—the one he had saved his allowance to buy. But after a day, Keith initiates a conversation with the guilt-ridden mouse and asks what Ralph and his family would like for breakfast.
“You mean we still get room service? After what I did?”
“Sure.” Keith pulled his knees up under his chin and wrapped his arms around his legs.
“You mean you aren’t mad at me anymore?” asked Ralph.
“I guess you might say I’m mad but not real mad,” Keith decided. “I’ve been lying here thinking. It wouldn’t be right for me to be real mad, because I get into messes myself. My mom and dad tell me I don’t stop to use my head.”
Ralph and Keith begin to swap stories of the ways they’ve gotten into trouble. They’re both hasty to jump into things before learning how to do something properly. They commiserate over their impatience to grow up. And in the stories of their common struggles, their friendship is rekindled.
I’m trying to remember to switch from mouse voice to little boy voice as I’m reading aloud, but mostly, my mind is thinking about what Keith said: “It wouldn’t be right for me to be real mad, because I get into messes myself.”
Kind of reminds me of the story of the servant, forgiven by the King of his staggering debt, who responds by rushing out and demanding compensation from a debtor who owed him a trifling amount. I’m like that at times—forgetful of the unmerited grace I have received; harboring my anger at someone who’s done me wrong. All the while, I’m oblivious, or worse yet, indifferent, to the ways I’ve hurt those around me.
I’m not minimizing the wrongs that happen in this world. On a grand scale, genocides, slavery, robbing children of their innocence—all of these are horrific injustices that deserve our outrage. On a more day-to-day level, we struggle with betrayals of trust and friendship. Or we are the victims of slander. Or adultery. Or just plain mean-spiritedness. Somebody cheats or steals or lies and seems to get away with it. Sometimes, on every level, we really are right.
My pastor friend, Clarence Schilt, astutely observes, “We do the most sinning when we are right, and right is not happening.” When terrible things happen to us, we are angry. Self-pitying. We want a heart-felt apology and some groveling or retribution. Mysteriously, though, we want grace, not justice, applied to our own transgressions.
The kids and I threw out our bedtime protocols of one chapter a night and read the final three chapters in a single evening.
I never feel myself growing, Keith tells Ralph near the end of the tale.
“You wait long enough, and you will be a grown-up.” Ralph felt as if he had said something very wise as he slipped the rubber band on his crash helmet around his whiskers.
“I guess so.” Keith slumped back on the pillows. “But it takes so long.”
“I grew up, didn’t I?” asked Ralph. “You said yourself I had become a responsible mouse.”
“Yes, you did,” said Keith thoughtfully. “I guess that’s part of the secret. Just getting bigger isn’t enough. You have to learn things like not taking off down a steep hill on a bicycle when you aren’t used to hand brakes. Stuff like that.”
Once again, Keith is right. Getting bigger isn’t enough. Growing up is learning about grace from a boy and a mouse and a motorcycle.
My father recently sent me an email about the steadfastness of dogs. It read: “Want to know who truly loves you? Lock your husband and your dog in the trunk of your car for two hours. When you open the trunk, see who greets you with tail-wagging kisses.”
I love dogs. Always have. I grew up with two Shetland Sheepdogs, a Samoyed, three Bouvier des Flanders, and a German Shepherd—not all at the same time, but it can safely be said that I’m a dog person. Either that or I grew up in a kennel.
Even so, I wasn’t sure as an adult that I was ready to be a dog owner: the time commitment, the house-breaking (as in, truly breaking!), the care and feeding of a four-legged creature. I decided to have four children first, kinda as a trial run. Turns out four kids isn’t so tough.
I remember to feed them—usually. I give the kids fresh water every day. The potty-training took some time, but now they’re great about whining at the door when they need to go outside to do their business. All in all I was gaining some confidence that if I could raise four kids, I might just be ready to go to the next level and get a dog.
Guys at work were pretty helpful with dog breed suggestions. Jon told me to get a Labrador as they were great with little kids. John also recommended a Labrador because they were gentle and good-natured. (Yes, all of my friends are named John/Jon. I’m hoping this will simplify my life when senility sets in. And judging from this wide, scientific sample, all Jons/Johns like Labradors.)
As luck would have it, I was standing at a receptionist’s desk one morning and glimpsed a photo of some Labrador/Rhodesian Ridgeback pups on her desk. They were adorable puppies, as opposed to those non-adorable puppies whom I’ve never met. Sure they had ginormously big paws, but that’s what made them so cute. They were 7 weeks old and looking for homes…though not in the real estate sense.
I did the levelheaded thing and told my children that we were “just going to look” at some puppies. Then we were just going to cuddle the cute little guy who snuggled up on our lap…all the way home. Spontaneity requires afterthoughts, so we detoured to Petco on the way back to buy a few items for our new puppy: a water bowl, a food bowl, dog food, a leash, a collar, a dog crate, a puppy gate, piddle pads, chew toys, bones, and 15,000 other “critical-only” items needed for our new pet.
If I had taken the money we spent that evening and invested it in Petco stock, I’d have a controlling share of the corporation today. But really, who can put a price tag on puppy love? Well, yes, my father can give you a running total of the financial damage wrought by my dog to date, but deep, deep down, he secretly loves my dog.
We considered several names for our puppy: “Semiahmoo” based on a recent visit to the seaside resort; “Chewy-barka” because he chews and barks and we’re avid Star Wars nerds; and the first runner-up name suggested by my friend, Kari, was “B.I.” ‘cuz my last name is N-G-O, so Bingo was his name-O. In the end, we settled on Whistler.
Bob, a contractor who’s been to my house several times to repair puppy damage, calls Whistler his retirement account. It started with Whistler chewing on the corners of my wall—and chewing through the dry wall to the studs. I consulted the Jon/Johns at work about this. Oh yeah, Jon told me, suddenly remembering a few of the downsides to Labrador-ownership. Apparently Jon put metal plates on the corners of his walls for oh, say two or three years, until his dog outgrew the chewing phase.
Whistler is largely indiscriminate about his diet: Legos, Christmas ornaments, leather car interiors, underwear, Barbie dolls, American Girl dolls—he eats ‘em all. Soon, almost every doll around the house was an amputee. We have Sierra Leone Barbie, and Samantha, the American girl who needs an orthopaedic surgeon to re-attach her limbs.
Whistler has a special fondness for unattended cups of Starbucks coffee; also an intestinal intolerance for Target’s plastic bags. We learned this the hard way when he ate a bag and then tried to expel it at the dog park the next day. He squatted. Part of the bag made the journey out. Then, with the job half-done, the dog gave up and got back to the business of meeting new canine friends.
The dog-park dogs did the usual canine handshake of sniffing each other’s behinds, only Whistler had half a Target bag there to greet everyone. He was nonplussed. I was mortified. Especially when other dog owners started noticing the white bag hanging out of “that dog” and wondering who the owner was…
I’ve attempted to be a responsible dog owner, so I signed us up for Positive Approach dog-training classes and discovered that I was being very obedient to Whistler’s whims and fancies. (I’m thinking that Negative Approach classes might be the thing to explore.) Nowadays, I do my best to establish myself as the authority—the alpha dog in the family pack—but sometimes my instincts are off.
One time, the phone rang and Whistler, true to his breed, “retrieved” it for me. I was delighted. Wrong response. From then on, Whistler eagerly sought out phones—house phones, cell phones—to carry to me for my praise. Unfortunately, he has iron jaws, so the very act of carrying the phone to me has damaged endless handsets. I couldn’t believe how flimsy the plastic was, so I tested a phone by placing it in my own mouth and biting as hard as I could. That was the moment that my daughter Megan walked in, looked at me oddly, and wanted to know why I was carrying the phone around in my mouth…
When you get past the moments that Whistler’s gone swimming in the pond of a golf course, learned to open the refrigerator to help himself to luncheon meats and cheese, or ingested the fill material of my wrist weights causing the vet to insist that intestinal x-rays showed his stomach was full of buckshot, he’s actually a pretty wonderful pet.
Whistler loves his kids. He devotedly sits with Katie when she’s on a timeout. The dog gamely demonstrates the dangers of riding without a seatbelt in the car by body-slamming into the dashboard when I hit the brakes—a visual lesson for the children. He plays hide and seek with his kids. And he climbs onto the girls’ beds every evening to listen to nighttime stories.
In the aftermath of my divorce, Whistler was the one who kept me company when the kids were at their father’s place, moping almost more than I did when the kids walked out the door.
Whistler and I covered miles of trails and roads as I tried to clear my head on long walks and jogs. And when some friends from high school died in a plane crash a few months ago, that darn dog somehow had the sense to once again curl up at my side through a long, teary evening.
At the beginning of a conference call one afternoon, my work colleagues somehow started in on a litany of the things Whistler destroyed on visits to my home: car keys, shoes, purses. It was embarrassing to listen to the damage report. But when one of them suggested I get rid of the dog and find another, more suitable one, I found myself rising to his defense: You don’t just get rid of your pet because he’s difficult or destructive. It’s tough love. You work with the dog. You establish boundaries. You make accommodations. You stick with it and figure it out.
“Do you think that maybe you’re projecting your feelings about your marriage onto your dog?” my colleague asked.
“Of course I am,” I told her. “But come what may, Whistler and I are planning to take a cruise together for our 20th anniversary.”
And that’s the thing of it. Some dogs are perfect. Well-behaved and obedient. Naturally loyal and loving. Whistler is some of that. He’s also something of a work in progress. But that’s life, be it with pets or partners; friends or family or anyone worth loving. All relationships can be messy at times yet perhaps our pets have the unique ability to teach us the most about unconditional love.