Monday, April 30, 2012

Success

I was voted Most Likely to Succeed my senior year of high school.  It made sense.  I was always a good student;  school came easily to me.  I expected to receive straight A's and did.  It was important to me and, while I didn't realize it at the time, it was much of my identity.  I might not have liked being called "teacher's pet" when I was in elementary school, but I liked excelling at something.

I was achievement-oriented and competitive.  I intended to go to a good school (and did, by the skin of my teeth).  When I got there, I realized that I wasn't so smart after all.  The work was hard, and I wasn't very good at much of it.  I struggled, not only with the homework but with whether I ever should have been admitted at all.   Eventually, I found my way and my major, but didn't know what my next step was.  Like many an English major with no marketable skills or specific career aspirations, I drove myself to do well on the LSATs and went to law school.

Strangely, when I reached law school, I was a good student again.  I'm convinced that certain people just "get" law school, and I was fortunate in that regard.  It didn't guarantee I'd be a great lawyer, but I was a good law student.  The thing is, I began to find that, while competitive, I didn't have much urge to compete.  I attribute it to the bell curve and some freakishly competitive classmates.  I always wished to do well, but unlike many of my peers, I never wished others to do poorly to bump me up on the curve.

I graduated, got a good job, then got a "better" job by all conventional metrics.  Here, in all the long hours and all-nighters, is where I think things really started to change for me.  With every assignment, I cared very much about doing it well, but I never aspired to work with the hottest companies or on the sexiest above-the-fold WSJ deals.  I wanted to form meaningful personal relationships with my clients, peers and staff, and to do things right and well.  I never wanted the corner office.

One night, on a coffee run with a colleague, I lamented the state of things at the office by saying, "I just don't get why everyone is so bent out of shape.  It's just a job.  It's not who I am or what's important."  Completely earnestly, the shocked colleague looked at me and inquired, "Then what is?"  When I listed friends and family, he looked at me like I had three heads. (I should probably note that this colleague went on to found a company familiar to any tech or Silicon Valley types, which I discovered only a couple years ago when I found his face staring out from Time Magazine's Top 100 Most Influential People, so I guess it all worked out for him.)

Like many lawyers without a real passion for their profession, I eventually found myself looking for a second career.  I found a job I liked, then less than a year and a half later found myself quitting to stay home with my first child.  It was a difficult decision and serious adjustment.  There wasn't much room for intellectual stimulation, achievement or peer recognition while spending my time changing dirty diapers and talking to an infant.  If personal achievement formed much of my identity, who was I now?

It took a while, but I found my way at stay-at-home-parenting as well.  Lately, I have begun to notice that I'm not so competitive anymore, and I'm certainly not achievement-oriented in the traditional sense.  I've begun to use some of my newfound free time (with both kids in school) to pursue some interests of mine--photography and writing this blog, among others.  I have discovered, in my 40s, that I derive great satisfaction from working with my hands. I enjoy doing things that have an immediate visible benefit, whether it's organizing a closet, painting a room, or weeding a flower bed.  I think I might even have a latent creative side hidden under my analytical exterior.

For now, I don't need to be the best at anything.  I don't need to be well-compensated or climb the corporate ladder to increase my self-worth.  It's enough to do things that make me happy, to learn new things, and to do those things well.   I can gauge my own success in the projects and hobbies I choose to undertake, and I don't need a successful business plan, a good report card, or the corner office to mark my achievement.  I am happy, and if that doesn't mean I've succeeded, then I'm not sure what does.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

It's the Little Things

"You have been my friend," replied Charlotte. "That in itself is a tremendous thing." 
--E.B. White, from Charlotte's Web


As my husband ducked into the standard black car service vehicle in the pouring rain this evening, I was reminded of ducking into just such a black vehicle in a similar downpour. It was June 24, 2000, the car was in my parents' driveway, and I was wearing white. It was raining cats and dogs, and despite my father's enormous golf umbrella, the most expensive dress I'd ever worn was getting wet. So were my shoes.

I climbed into the limo, followed by five of my dearest friends, all dressed in celadon. As we began to drive to the church, I noticed a sizable mud smear on my wedding dress. In the real world, I know that a smear of mud is nothing to hyperventilate about. On my wedding day, the one time in my life I've ever really, truly cared, stressed, and had nightmares about looking my best, it was devastating.

As I began to overreact, my maid-of-honor and friend since the fifth grade whipped out a strange little white thing from her purse. This is a friend that I would love to have with me in any real crisis--she helped me through many perceived ones in my youth--and she didn't fail me in my moment in need. Claiming the strange item in her hand was something the shoe salesman had tossed in as a freebie in case she scuffed her shoes, she calmly rubbed the little piece of magic over the mud. It disappeared. Problem solved. Crisis averted. Blood pressure returned to normal. She put her magic wand back into her tiny purse and declared her maid-of-honor work done.

Her work that day was not done. She also vehemently insisted that I not cry while standing with my dad in the back of the church, lest I ruin the makeup she'd applied for me. She held up my fancy dress every time I needed to pee. She was there for me--for the big things and the little ones, just like in life.

After thirty-one years of friendship, I have nearly unlimited stories I could tell about my friend. Some are sad, most are funny, and many involve her making me laugh through my tears. Whatever the crisis-of-the-moment, she's always there doing something to make things better. I could tell of grander gestures and greater need, but sometimes the little things say it best. As in so many other instances, in that downpour and mud, she was holding me up and helping me through, all with a shoe store freebie.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Stories Parents Tell

I often get grief from people that publicly, here and on Facebook, I share only the negative, frustrating aspects of parenthood.

Actually, that's not true.  Several friends who are also slogging through the daily grind of raising kids have been kind enough to tell me I am amusing, and everyone who thinks I bitch too much pretty much keeps that opinion to themselves.  The one exception is my husband.  I suppose he has a right to voice an opinion. He may not want the world to view our home life as overrun by devil spawn offspring and a cranky wife who likes her wine just a little too much.  Plus, his perspective reminds me that there may be people reading my words who don't know me very well, don't appreciate my level of sarcasm, or just don't want to hear it any more.  All true and well-deserved.

I frequently defend my negativity by explaining that I use these forums--for better or worse--as a relief valve.  However, upon further reflection, I think it may be more than that.  I think I may have an inherited need to share my worst stories about parenthood.  I'm sure that my parents have many fond memories of adorable things I did, but those aren't the stories that come up most often.  Some day, ask my mother to tell you a story about my childhood.  Odds are, what she has to say will be one of the following three anecdotes.

1.  I am blind as a bat and first needed glasses in the second grade (thick plastic bifocals, mind you--it's no wonder I'm bitter).  The family optometrist led me through my annual eye exam that year.  Matter-of-factly, he looked to seven-year-old me and asked, "Have you been having trouble seeing the board at school?"  Never wanting to give a wrong answer, I promptly said, "Yes."

Unfortunately, I apparently had omitted to mention this little problem to my mother.  As a parent myself, I can see how this may have made her feel a bit out-of-the-loop, but she has never let me forget it.

2.  Like most kids, I always had my annual check-up with the pediatrician immediately following my birthday.  As the doctor poked and prodded me one morning, he reached my stomach and, trying to distract and engage his child patient, asked what breakfast was in that tummy.  Again, always wanting to be truthful, I answered, "Birthday cake!"  At the time, this didn't seem tremendously outrageous to me, as it was true, but I don't think my mother has yet recovered from her parental mortification on this one.

3.  When I was seven, my parents generously took me to Disney World.  I grew up in Northern Ohio in a family that drove to their destinations.  I don't know how many hours it took my parents to drive to Orlando while I slept and read in the backseat, but I'm guessing it was well into the teens (and I'm guessing they each still know the precise travel time).  For nearly every waking moment of the many-houred ride, I talked about Space Mountain.

In case you are of a different generation, let me tell you about Space Mountain.  In 1978, it was a pretty big deal in the world of seven-year-olds.  It was an indoor, in-the-dark roller coaster.  Didn't get much better than that.  I grew up in a town with a major amusement park and was already a wily roller coaster veteran at age seven.  I thought that Space Mountain was the most exciting thing that would ever happen to me, and I let my parents know so at every opportunity while confined in a car for a bazillion hours.

We arrived at Disney World, entered the park, and waited dutifully in a long, winding line for entry into the Space Mountain building.  And that's when I realized the fatal flaw in my plan;  I loved roller coasters but was afraid of the dark.  Terrified.  Slept with the closet light on every night afraid.  I cried and refused to even enter the darkened building, while my father simmered.   I think that, nearly 35 years later, they are beginning to get over this one, but I'm not confident about that fact.

So there you have it.  My childhood in a nutshell, summarized by the three times I most annoyed or embarrassed my parents.  It's not my fault that I want to tell the world every time my kids drive me nuts.  It's nature.  Or nurture.  Or something.  But it's a common sentiment and one I'm not afraid to share publicly.  Perhaps the rest of the world is trying to build a brand or craft an image online, but not me.  I'm the same person, sharing too much information, that I always have been, hopefully with a dash of good humor about it all.

And, in case you're wondering, missing Space Mountain was one of the great wasted opportunities of my life.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Mastering the Basics

One of my biggest mistakes as a parent is opting for short-term ease over long-term benefit.  My mantra seems to be: "It will get done faster [better/just the way I want it] if I do it myself."  While this is true, it creates a lot of work for me, and I'm not teaching my children to be responsible and take care of themselves.  Heck, if I'd do it, I'm pretty sure that the eight-year-old would still have me dress him in the morning.

In my defense, I had it pretty easy when I was a kid, and I turned out okay.  I had few chores, and my room was always a mess (or so my mother tells me).  An expanded single with a slovenly freshman roommate was all it took to change my messy ways.  By junior year, my henpecked then-roommate bought me a copy of Little Miss Neat, which still has a home on my bookshelf.

Up until recently, my kids had no regular chores at all.  I did pretty much everything.  I was tired of doing everything.

Fortunately, just as I was starting to get fed up, the kids began to ask for chores and an allowance.  They had all sorts of schemes, and we discuss many methods of setting up a chore system.  I couldn't decide if they should get paid for basic stuff, or just for extra chores.  Should they have a base allowance, with charts of additional chores and the potential for additional earnings?  What chores could a five-year-old do, and what could an eight-year-old handle?  Overwhelmed by the complexity, I didn't do anything.

Over Easter weekend, I realized that we'd been making the whole thing way too complicated.  Since Mom had been doing everything, we needed to master the basics before adding in vacuuming, taking out the trash, or feeding the fish.  I sat down at the computer with the kids, and we typed up a list of their basic responsibilities.  Both kids agreed to the list.

I'm very pleased with the list.  I think that if all members of our household could take care of the following items, our house would be a nicer place to be and I would be a happier person.  My household version of "Everything You Need to Know You Learned in Kindergarten" is:


1. Make your bed.
2. Put your dirty clothes into the hamper right-side out.
3. Put away your clean clothes.
4. Pick up your mess when you’re done playing with something.
5. Take upstairs and put away any things at the bottom of the stairs.
6. Clear your dishes after eating.
7. Clean up any toothpaste spilled in the bathroom.
8. Hang up your coat and put away your shoes.

To get them interested, each kid chose his or her own font for the list.  We printed it, cut it into fun shapes, and glued it to the colored paper of their choice, one for each of their bedrooms and a copy for the kitchen.  The plan has been in place a couple weeks now, and while we are by no means at 100%, the kids have improved and are trying.  Because it is a system to which we all agreed, they argue little when I remind them to do something on the list.


Boy List (note LEGO font)




Girl List (note personalized hearts over I's)




Mom's List (note lack of creativity)

By far, my favorite addition to the list is #5.  The kids and I went to Target, and each chose a foldable canvas cube in a color of his/her liking.  The cubes live on the first floor of the house.  Whenever I find stuff lying around--books, LEGOs, hair accessories, art projects, rocks, shells, you name it--I put it in its owner's box.  This way, I can pick up downstairs as I encounter things without hauling them upstairs piece-by-piece or piling them somewhere.  Whenever the kids ask, "Have you seen my....?", I tell them to look in their boxes.  They are starting to do this before asking.  We still have a way to go before each takes up his/her box and immediately puts away the contents, but we are improving.



I have been amazed at how easily I could sum up the basic responsibilities, and I feel that things are trending well.  Even if I'm not actually doing less work, I feel like I am because the kids are participating and trying to do their part.  I haven't even paid anyone an allowance yet, telling them that they need to regularly do a good job on the chore list before earning it.  

I plan to stick with the core list of chores for quite a while, until no one really needs the list to remind them.  What are your kids doing to earn their keep?  Do they have an allowance?  How much?  Just how lazy have I allowed my children to become?





Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Moment of Paranoia

We all have something, at least one little OCD thing that needles us.  When I was growing up, there was always a TV mom fretting whether she had turned off the iron.  Since I think a lot less ironing goes on these days than it did in 1970s sitcom-land (or, in my house, no ironing), we've diverted our paranoia to other matters.  Did I turn off the coffeemaker?  Did I blow out the candle?  Did I lock the door?

I've been known to leave the door unlocked, both on purpose and by accident, without anxiety.  What fixates my little brain is:  I have people coming over.  Did I clean the bathrooms?

On a day when someone is coming to my house (and today is one of them), I can worry about this off and on all day.  I've never been one to worry about impressing people--even less so as I get older--so when I entertain we are likely to be using melamine, not china and crystal.  When good friends are coming, I certainly don't care whether the house is vacuumed or dusted.  I may even leave dishes in the sink, and will certainly have piles of stuff on my kitchen counter.  However, common decency requires that any bathroom that may be used by your guests should be clean.

I've always (I believe reasonably) felt this way.  It turned into a full fixation a couple years ago when two women I know were discussing how positively disgusting the bathroom of an acquaintance had been when they visited her home.  One mother wouldn't let her two-year-old use the toilet without lining it with toilet paper.  I feel bad for this hostess, who I hope was just having a bad day, but her poor housekeeping has led to my obsessive moment.  What if, God forbid, people talk about my bathroom that way?  And so I worry about whether the bathrooms are clean.

Those of you who do not have small children may question why I don't just clean the bathroom the first time I think of it on the day I'm expecting company.  Those of you who do realize that cleaning a bathroom is a complete waste of time if the kids may use it before the guests arrive.  Those little buggers can pee anywhere in the vicinity of the toilet, and dirt, finger paint and pudding could be smeared all over the sink in the blink of an eye.  So, bathroom cleaning has to be the last thing I do before guests arrive, timed precisely so that the children will not use it again before a guest has the opportunity to enter it.

I guarantee that, in the next 5 1/2 hours before my friends arrive, I will worry about whether the bathrooms are cleaned at least 15 times. I will zippily clean and sanitize them the minute I send the kids up to bed, minutes before the guests are due to arrive.  So, friends, if you are coming over this evening, please wait a few minutes before using the bathroom, as it may still be damp from the disinfecting wipes.  It will be clean, but only recently so.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book Love



I would be the most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who 
think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves. - Anna Quindlen

We are a bookish household. (Well, at least three of us are, while the other tends to focus on newspapers, magazines, spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations, but let's not talk about that). We have stocked bookshelves in three bedrooms, the upstairs hallway, the living room, and the family room, designated chairs just for reading, and a bean bag-filled kid corner designated the "book corner." This makes me happy.

One of my greatest joys as a parent is sharing books with my children. The Going to Bed Book will forever be associated with the rocking chair in the babies' rooms, I can recite nearly all of The Cat in the Hat, and I have discovered that easy readers can be fantastic, thanks to Frog and Toad. While reading to my children when they were little(r) was special, what brings me the most pleasure is sharing more complicated fare with them now that they both can read and comprehend at least some of the more advanced material.

When my son first read the Harry Potter series, he was amazed that I knew every detail (it may have been my most "cool mom" moment to date;  they are rare). He was strangely even more impressed when I admitted my knowledge of the last two books was somewhat lacking and reread them both so I could better discuss them with him. He returned the favor later by recommending the Percy Jackson books and urging me to read them. I did, thought they were great fun, and loved being able to share the experience with him.

Sharing old favorites is particularly special. I have been reading The Little Prince aloud before bedtime with both kids. I know they don't get all of it, and they find humor in moments meant to be poignant, but they know I love it and are interested to hear more. After an introduction to the book at school, my daughter and I have been reading Charlotte's Web at bedtime. I've warned her that the ending is sad, but I refuse to give away any plot detail. She has started using salutations and humble in conversation, thanks to Charlotte. Today, we started listening to the audiobook of A Wrinkle in Time.  I was hoping the kids would read the book, which is on the shelf awaiting their interest, but when searching for a new audiobook finally couldn't resist the urge to share this favorite.

Speaking of my old favorites, my parents were kind enough to save many of my childhood books. My kids have the opportunity to read my copy of Charlotte's Web or The Trumpet of the Swan, and when the time is right, will have Anne of Green Gables, the works of S.E. Hinton, and most of those by Judy Blume, complete with my name in the front in either print or cursive, from long before my only handwriting was a weird blend of both. Already, they love to read "Mommy's books" that are a little worse for wear.

We spend a lot of time in the car, so we've taken to listening to audiobooks. In addition to A Wrinkle in Time, I've introduced the kids to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but when it comes to audiobooks anything is fair game, and we love a good series. Recently, we discovered The Underland Chronicles, a five-book series by Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games. The series has prophecies, quests and fantastical things, but is an allegory about war. I don't know how much the kids picked up, but the books deal with biological warfare, genocide, war crimes and "just following orders," and the role of arms vs. diplomacy. Heavy fare for those who know history, but a rousing good story even for those who don't.

I sincerely hope that the kids will continue to share my love of books and that they will share their books with me. Despite my vast to-read backlog, I'm always looking for a good book recommendation, and there are few things I love more than discussing the age-appropriate ones with my kids. I'd love to increase that backlog, so what are you reading at your house?