Monday, June 29, 2009

A cautionary tale

We went to the beach as a family Saturday and had what was just about the most perfect day ever. The weather was ideal. The beach was crowded but not obnoxiously so. The occasional cloud rolled over us so we weren't constantly being abused by the sun. The kids had a blast and only ticked three or four other beach-goers with (mostly) accidental sand baths. We had a nice dinner out afterward--peaceful while the kids chowed down after spending hours working up their appetites. And then we grabbed a $2.50 box of Nutty Buddies for the way home and everyone was happy.

Until I got home and realized I'd done a great job of putting sunscreen (spf 50) all over the kids and Ron and myself . . . except for my upper back. I have my first sunburn in years and it's not fun. After Ron slathered aloe vera on me, he called the kids into the room: "This is why we make you guys wear sunscreen when you go out. This is what happens when you don't."

Ah, yes... look at Mom. And don't make the mistake she did.

Then yesterday my arms started itching. I looked down and lo and behold, I apparently have sun poisoning. My arms, stomach, back, and thighs are covered with itchy bumps. Not pretty. Not fun. Not smart. Another family gathering: "Kids, come in here. Look at your mother's rash. This is also what can happen when you don't use sunscreen." A collective "Awwww" followed. "Poor mom."

When you have kids, you hope you'll be a good example to them. I don't know how often we think about whether we'll be a bad example. Chances are, though, that we will be equal parts of both, like it or not.

My favorite writing blog is Murderati. The posts are generally very personal, which is why I like it so much. Today's post by author Peri Noskin Taichert really got me thinking about all of this, about how my kids will look back and remember me, about how the scales will tilt: toward Mom as a cautionary tale or as an inspiration.

The post itself was about giving up, specifically, giving up on writing when discouragement weighs you down. I posted a comment, and here's what I said:

Maybe we just need to stop revising our goals upward. I wanted to finish a book. I finished the first draft and cried because I was just so darned proud of myself for finally doing what I've been swearing I'd do since I was 12. And I've continued to write, sure, hoping for publication and working toward it, but when I start to get discouraged, I look back instead of ahead: I finished it! I did it! I kept my promise to myself.

We raise our children to be proud of a game well played even if not won. We tell them, "You stuck in there for every single inning." We ask them, "Well did you try your best?" And when they say yes, we say, "Then that's enough. Good for you." But we forget to applaud our own accomplishments, even if they're not as grand as we want them to be each time. Few people out there--writers, musicians, or "even" professors and doctors--are exactly where they'd like to be. But when they were kids and dreamed of what they *wanted* to be, they didn't qualify that dream by saying, "I want to hit the bestseller list at least a dozen times. I want to go platinum in the first month. I want to get tenure after 4 years. I want to be a world-renowned surgeon." Yes, we grow up and realize we need to fill in a lot of blanks we left empty when planning our futures, but I still believe we also need to embrace every small success, allowing ourselves our moments of discouragement, but also allowing ourselves an occasional "well done."

My kids all know I write, Simon paying the most attention to my progress. He read the first several chapters of the book I'm working on now, and he keeps asking me when I'm going to be done with it. He knows this is my fourth book. He knows I don't have an agent. He knows I've gotten plenty of rejections on my queries and a few on requested partials and fulls. He knows I've stopped querying and am working on rewriting the first book (my current project). He knows I get excited about writing. He knows writing makes me happy, makes me frustrated, makes me discouraged. And hopefully he knows I don't take the rejections personally, and as more time passes, hopefully he'll know I'm not going to give up something I love this much.

Ron said several months ago that he wants me to make sure the kids, the older ones in particular, are aware I don't feel like I'm failing.

And I don't feel that way. Even if I never get published, I won't feel like I failed.

Kids watch everything we do. And I'm okay with being held up as a sunburned example of what not to do. But I also hope they'll look back at their childhoods, see my occasional good moments, and be able to say, "Mom didn't quit"--not so they'll admire me but so they will know they should always believe in themselves . . . time after time after time. Because I believe in them. It's a family tradition.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Ron and Simon left for Scout camp today. And I have to say, I don't like how empty the house feels with 1/3 of its usual occupants gone.

Several years ago, I was in a book group or some such setting where the host asked us to say something about ourselves that wasn't, "I'm so-and-so's mother" or "my husband's wife." I thought, "Well, of course, I can define myself just fine without them. I'm Bobbie. I . . . like to write. And read. And play the piano. I'm an editor. And I guess that's it." Then afterward, I thought, "What's wrong with defining myself according to my kids or even husband? What's wrong with calling myself a mother and a wife and then an editor or writer or reader or pianist?" I mean, my life is intentional. All of it is. I made conscious choices that landed me here, exactly where I want to be. I have a right to claim all the labels I want since I'm the one that wrote them in a black Sharpie, peeled the stickers off the paper, and pressed them against my chest.

Also around that time, I read "Year of Wonders" and remember clearly how the main character talked about becoming "too" attached to her child. Well-meaning friends warned her not to love the child completely until he turned 2, but she doesn't listen. Child mortality rates were still so high at this time that people knew there was a pretty good chance the baby you birthed and loved even for the first couple of years wasn't going to make it beyond the toddling stage. Although not much about the book was light and happy, this particular part really broke my heart. I wondered how and if parents really could separate themselves from their children like that. How do you not fall in love with your children from the moment they're a part of you?

I sat watching my younger three on a playground tonight and paid particular attention to the moms following their children around, playing chase with them, hide and seek, or just slowly circling the equipment to keep an eye on them. And I thought, "Oh, I'm so glad my kids are old enough to play without me having to do that." Then almost immediately, I thought, "Should I be glad? Should I be chasing Ivan around, even though he's perfectly happy without me right behind him?" Those thoughts carried over to "Am I not doting enough? Will they not remember me loving them enough? Do I work too much when they're at home? Should I sit down to do more crafts with them, take them to museums more often, have spontaneous parties for them? Am I a warm mother? A distant one? Cuddly? Prickly? Am I doing any of this right, and if not, is it too late to fix things?"

One of my motherhood fears has always been what comes after they're no longer living with me: Will I know how to function daily without a child at home? I've been afraid of becoming the mother who can't find anything to do except collect recipes to be used during their next visit home and plan every moment of our holidays together.

And is this why we, as mothers, are so often pushed to define ourselves outside of our children? But at what cost? Will alternative definitions of Me mean I have to learn to separate myself from Them?

There are some days more than others that I feel the imprint of the label. And I wear it proudly. Honest to God, I do. And it's a good thing that Sharpie is waterproof and permanent.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

I hope you wake up happy

"Good night. I love you. Sleep well. Have nice dreams. I hope you wake up happy. Tell Mom (or Dad) that."

That's how every night ends with my kids. This bedtime mantra wasn't always so long, and the last part was tacked on after Ron OR I--instead of us both--became the one to tuck them in at night. But it's grown over the last few years to encompass everything they think they need to say to us before they fall asleep--everything they need to hear back from us even if only as, "You,too. I love you."

I was reading a friend's blog yesterday in which she says that she tries to wake up every morning full of joy for what lies ahead. For me, that attitude can be rather overly optimistic. I'm glad it works for her; I just haven't reached that peak myself yet. I don't find "joy" in errands to be run, dentist appointments to which I need to drag my kids (or myself), phone calls I need to make, bills to pay, and so forth. But most mornings, I do wake up happy. And that's enough for me to get out of bed and tackle, with or without finesse, my schedule.

Part of that schedule yesterday was hanging plastic flower garlands in Emma's room. I've been promising to do it since we moved here in August. It was a compromise, since what she really wanted was for me to repaint the room, complete with a garden mural on at least one wall. The room's current paint job was perfectly acceptable, however--not a scuff or scratch mark on it. Granted, it's a light, mossy green--not exactly girlie--but it didn't "need" a makeover. And I'm not an artist. Sure, I can picture what a mural on her wall could look like, but there was no way I was going to bring it to fruition either by my own hand or by putting money in someone else's. So we agreed to a new bedspread and to flower garlands draped along the chair rail that rests about 18 inches from the ceiling. Her birthday tea party last month was the push I needed to at least buy the (admittedly tacky) garlands so I could decorate the kitchen like a garden since it was too cold to be outside that day. And after four weeks of looking at them in my windows, I decided it was time to move them upstairs. Another trip to the dollar store gave me enough to make it all the way around her room, and with less finesse than my mind had pictured. Still, I finished it and used the leftover garlands to wrap around her bed's foot- and headboard.

When she got home from school, I sent her upstairs to take a look. I could hear her whispering in awe and figured she didn't notice the tacks showing or the lack of pattern in arranging the daisies and roses and whatever that other flower was supposed to be. She came back downstairs all grins, ate a quick snack, and asked if she could go back to her room to read. She was up there for most of the late afternoon.

The night before, she'd come into my room to wake me after she'd had a bad dream. She has lots of bad dreams and comes to wake me every time. I cuddle with her for a moment and then send her away with assurances that the dreams aren't real. So before bedtime last night, I told her that the flowers were there to take away the bad dreams, and that if she did have a nightmare, she needed to open her eyes, look around at her flowers, and realize nothing bad can happen in a garden room. She liked that idea. And this morning, she said she slept well, no bad dreams at all. Then she scurried off to school, full of joy for whatever lies ahead today.

We wish all sorts of things for our children, but mostly we wish them that kind of joy for the rest of their lives. A bedtime mantra may not be the magic words necessary for that joy, but if they believe it is then that's enough. As they get older, I'm recognizing that they also need reassurances. They need promises that the doors are locked and that the bad guys are far away. They need garden rooms and daisy-bedazzled headboards and space in Mom and Dad's bed for when the bad dreams do sneak through the petals. Simon has outgrown the need to repeat the phrase to us every night. Although once in a while, he'll say it before heading up to his room on the third floor, and I'm glad to see the little boy in him still on those nights. I don't have fantasies of my children needing me like this for the rest of their lives--quite the opposite. I have fantasies of them leaving home with enough stowed-away joy and confidence to tackle all their days ahead and to know that even when we're not tucking them in at night anymore, we're still saying, "I love you. Sleep well. Have nice dreams. I hope you wake up happy."

Monday, June 1, 2009

Decisions, decisions, decisions

Chores I dislike in order of greatest to least:

Grocery shopping
Organizing the numerous papers that come home from school
Changing sheets
Clearing the kitchen counters
Putting away laundry
Cleaning the toilet

Most other household chores--vacuuming, dusting, sweeping--aren't really dislikes for me. In fact, I love sweeping. When I was a kid, I swept the kitchen and dining room with great satisfaction. I spent most of my inside time in bare feet, so any amount of grit on the floor bothered me. I loved the sight of a dustpan full of crumbs, a testament to my efforts to contribute to the upkeep of the house. If you ever call me on the phone these days, chances are I will sweep my kitchen at some point during our conversation. If we talk for more than a few minutes, I'll sweep the stairs, entryway, and dining area as well. And then I'll do the same thing when the next person calls.

But in case you didn't notice on that list, I would rather clean the toilet than grocery shop, I have several explanations for this: (1) Cleaning toilets takes next to no time at all, as long as you don't wait weeks between cleanings, and a trip to the grocery store can take up to an hour, including the drive there and back; (2) I generally have to take at least one child with me when I shop, which not only extends the time I'm there but also results in tears (mine or theirs--it varies), but I can clean the bathroom alone; (3) I always forget something important at the store and have to go back again in the next day or two, but once that toilet flushes, I'm done; and (4) I don't like making decisions.

Organic apples that are generally bruised and occasionally wormy? Or the pesticide-laden ones that, if you wash them well enough, taste better? How about bacon? Even though I know how smart pigs are and feel guilty for eating them? Yet I really do love bacon--its smell and texture and taste. And sausage isn't awful either. What about chicken? It's cheaper with the bone in, but I don't like the work involved in deboning and skinning those breasts. And I know they're treated horribly, too. Organic beef is the best bet, but it's expensive and I don't like it very much. But don't the kids? How much is too much though? I don't want to clog their arteries before they get out of middle school. Should I make that leap toward vegetarianism now, or are we not ready for that many beans? Are sugared cereals okay now and then, especially if I hide the Lucky Charms and keep them all to myself for my late-night snack? What about if I make the kids mix the Cocoa Krispies with the Rice Krispies? How much fiber do we need as a family? Or should we go on a hot-cereal-only spree to save money and teach kids how the pioneers ate? If we go that route, we have to have brown sugar, right (even if the pioneers didn't)? But dark or light? Then how many bags of those Ghiradelli chocolate chips on sale should I buy to go with all that brown sugar? And is now the time to switch to reusable bags, or can I buy just one more box of Ziploc?

I bring my own bags to the store, so at least the paper or plastic question is no longer an issue for me.

But cleaning the toilet? Not decisions to be made there at all--except, perhaps, how soon I can have the kids take over that chore so I can finish making out that grocery list.