With Nana and Papa

With Nana and Papa
Family Times at Flathead Lake

Thursday, September 23, 2010

New Directions

Today my mood needs lifting and my patience needs lengthening. Outside looks gray and cool, a bit rainy, but the weather actually calms me. No, my problem lies in a frenzied mental state and clenched innards, which register in short, meaningless breaths and quick verbal cuts to the children. Is it hormonal? Vitamin D shortage? Thyroid issues? Or just plain cussedness? The situation seems to warrant a call home to ask mom what age she embarked on perimenopause and then to blame dad for giving me his temperament.

The root of my problem, I know, grows in my head and not in my parents or their genes. Several factors work together these days to depress my mood and ripen my self-doubt. First: I turn forty in March. Intellectually I know this is not a big deal – I have friends five to ten years older than I who can run or walk circles around me, accomplish five times more in a day and remain absolutely beautiful inside and out. But somehow, the echoes of Vogue or Mademoiselle articles (last read in college) whisper in my ear, and I feel old. What should I do now? If the first half of my life is done, what will I do with the second half? I don’t feel like buying a sportscar or getting a facelift, but I wouldn’t mind a sense of my new direction.

Compounding my anxiety is the fact that my youngest child will go to all-day kindergarten in the fall. I will have TIME for the first time in ten years. I often catch myself thinking in terms of Meg Wolitzer’s book about motherhood, The Ten Year Nap. If I’ve been napping for ten years (with a few nightmares thrown in) what do I do when I wake up? My resume is out of date, my transcripts are so old that they probably need to be mounted to photocopy (do schools even accept photocopies anymore?) and I still cling to the hope of being home in the mornings and in the afternoons when my children get out of school. Add to that a less-than-robust economic outlook and you can see how the options shrink before my eyes.

I used to be a businesswoman, then a teacher, then a coach, then a mom. I wonder which title could be complementary to that last one, which is a permanent fixture on both paper and psyche. I’ve enjoyed writing a great deal this past year, but could I do it well and consistently? Could I call it a job? Could I make any money at it? You can see how the questions multiply. If I were patient, I would put the questions aside and keep my eyes open for opportunity over the next year or so. I would work to improve my writing skills, listening to my own voice while simultaneously researching graduate schools and weighing the pros and cons. (The problem with listening to my own voice: which voice will I hear? Will it be a productive voice or will it be a DJ from the radio station in my head that Anne Lamott calls KF****D?) I may yet end up waiting – and faking patience - but in the meantime I want to know NOW, and can anyone clue me in as to how this story ends? If only I could cheat and skip to the last page . . .

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Just Words

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."

That is a lie. I never realized how hurtful a lie it was until this week, when I saw a girl on TV react to being called "queer." Words hurt; they can twist your insides, hammer through your mind, change your perception of yourself. Words can be hard to forget, hard to shake loose, like a burr stuck to your wool hiking sock. Two nights ago I found my junior high year book while cleaning an old bookshelf. Some of the faded, loopy, handwritten entries contained my least favorite label, which was "smack." It was applied to kids in advanced classes, and was sometimes offered in the form of an offhanded compliment, but the underlying implication was "weird, uncool, not fun to hang out with." I worry now for my kids and the labels that will be thrown at them. I hear through the grapevine that some of the kids on the elementary school playground may have tossed out "you are too smart to play with." I don't know what was said or who the target was, but I think, 'and so it begins.'

Of course we can overcome our labels, work through heated discussions and redefine ourselves. But this takes work, and the process can hurt. One of the best pieces of advice I ever read on marriage was to think very carefully before you spoke to your spouse. Don't let anything out of your mouth that you will want to take back. I'm a bit scattered these days, and forget anything that's not written on a sticky note and pasted in front of me at the table, but I have never forgotten that piece of advice, and my husband and I really try to live by it. It takes a long time to forget hurtful words, as we all know by this point in our lives.

Words can also lift us up, define our sense of self through cultural reflections or reactions, restatements of universal truths, and works of spiritual guidance. The tremendous uproar over the pastor in Florida who wanted to burn the Koran caught my attention. Words printed on a page; it seems so simple. Yet the symbolism is powerful enough to change - even end - lives. I just read a quote that cogently addresses the topic of book-burning: "There, where one burns books, one in the end burns men."
(Heinrich Heine). Words should be respected for both the good and the harm they can accomplish, and for how dear they are to the hearts of men, and women, and children.

I know one thing, I'll never recite 'sticks and stones' to a child ever again. I'd almost rather someone threw a punch; it's cleaner, less personal, and often easier to rebut. (Not that I'll tell the children that.) I hope everyone encounters good, strong and uplifting words in their day, today and all days.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Replacing Marmee

Marmee: “You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it.”
“Yours, Mother, why you are never angry!” And for the moment Jo forgot remorse in surprise.
“I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.” (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. Nelson Doubleday: New York, pp 65-66).
*******

“When asked for an example of a Good Mother, the women I polled came up with June Cleaver and Marmee, from Little Women. Both of whom are by necessity, not coincidence, fictional characters.” (Bad Mother, Ayelet Waldman. Anchor Books, 2010: p 11)

I first read Little Women at the tender age of nine or ten, an age at which analytical thought is not yet developed. From the time I read the book, I loved it. I – like many girls – identified strongly with Jo, and also loved the figure of Marmee, whose image I carefully extracted from the book to place on my mental trophy shelf as the prototype mother figure. As my own mother joyfully sacrificed for the five of us and rarely lost her temper (at least in the years after I developed my long-term memory), the actions of my real mother supported my election of Marmee as model. Though the book is so moral that even Louisa May Alcott failed to love it upon first reading, and all of the characters are idealized to some extent, it did not dawn on me to ever critique Marmee. I never saw a word against this beloved figure until reading one of Ayelet Waldman’s books. I cannot recall which book it was, but the heroine’s mother said something to the effect of, “Oh that Marmee, I just couldn’t stand her!” After nearly falling out of my chair in shock, I had to admit that it was a relief to read that someone did not like Margaret March.

Strangely, the things we read, hear, or see in childhood help to shape our world despite the obvious flaws which could be discerned from even a haphazard critical analysis. We are just not suited to perform such analysis in childhood, and by the time we reach our teen years and develop a healthy skepticism and/or cynicism, it is usually directed at events, persons and authority figures of that time, not our earlier years. At least that is how it went with me . . . whose believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus outlasted that of all my peers. Perhaps we just don’t want to be critical of our beloved constructs.

In case you have not made Marmee’s acquaintance through Alcott’s books, here is a quick summary of her character from the (not-so-analytical) experts at Shmoop.com:

““"Marmee" is the affectionate name that the March girls use for their mother, Mrs. March, whose real first name, like her eldest daughter, is Margaret. Mrs. March is essentially the perfect mother: she works hard but is never too busy to console and counsel her daughters; she cheerfully does charitable work and helps out with the war effort; she's an ideal housekeeper, a loving mother, and a highly principled woman. She never loses her temper, she never misses anything, and she protects her children while still allowing them to make mistakes and learn their own lessons. “
(http://www.shmoop.com/little-women/marmee-mrs-march.html)

You can see how a mother operating under that blueprint might occasionally get a bit down on herself. In a recent fit of Google-mania I searched high and low for criticism of Marmee. I got many positive and simplistic character analyses like the one above, feminist criticism warmly noting Marmee’s strength as a woman in a virtually single-parent home who had a strong educational influence over her girls, and a note about the “realism” of Alcott’s books, which were ostensibly ahead of their time by twenty or so years. When I searched specifically under the key words ”criticism of Marmee” I had only typed the capital M before I saw “criticism of Mother Teresa” but when I finished my original thought I had exactly zero hits. So either I am alone in my past reverence of Marmee or there truly has been very little written about the negative influence she has had on modern-day motherhood.

To wit: I can recite nearly word for word the dialogue between Jo and her mother about losing their temper. I have even borrowed the phrasing, telling folks that I try to hide my temper and “hope not to feel it” in another forty years. Now that I have nearly reached forty, and fail remarkably at hiding my temper every day, it seems that I finally have to admit that I am not as perfect as Marmee. This is a bitter pill to swallow. Instead of trying to attain her level, I will have to try to replace Marmee as my image of perfection. Roseanne Barr, anyone?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Born to Run???

"The Tarahumara have a saying: “Children run before they can walk.” Watch any four-year-old — they do everything at full speed, and it’s all about fun."
- from an interview with Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run (courtesy of Amazon.com)

I attended Back to School night last night, and came away with a brain chock-full of knowledge. If my children learn even one half of what was explained, outlined, and scheduled last night I will be duly impressed and possibly overwhelmed. The comment that won my highest praise and lasting gratitude, however, related to recess. As background information you should know that my children only get two recess breaks per day and both are quite short. They even lost five minutes of recess from last year; to what purpose those minutes were snatched away I do not know. To add insult to injury, a school policy regarding late or missing homework places the offender at their desk or "on the wall" during recess, resulting in the loss of precious time when they could be burning off energy and frustration.

My son's second grade teacher explained that she had a new policy regarding late work; if a first-time offender, the individual retains their recess and has to take a warning note home to the parents. The note and the missing homework need to be returned promptly, or recess may yet be lost on a succeeding day. However, she understands that more time spent burning excess energy equates to more time sitting still and focusing in the classroom. Such good sense and excellent judgment can be difficult to find in any institution, and I am thrilled to hear that recess is a priority for someone (besides my son) at the elementary school.

My internal review of recess time sparked a connection to Christopher McDougall's excellent book, Born to Run. In the book, McDougall presents research and argues for the hypothesis that humans evolved to run. Our weird two-legged gait, forward-leaning spine, and odd hip joints all serve a purpose: to hunt in packs and to escape predators. As he says in the Amazon interview, "According to a new body of research, it’s because humans are the greatest distance runners on earth. We may not be fast, but we’re born with such remarkable natural endurance that humans are fully capable of outrunning horses, cheetahs and antelopes. That’s because we once hunted in packs and on foot; all of us, men and women alike, young and old together."

Last autumn I read his book and got so fired up to run that I upped my mileage and started trying to run barefoot, an option which McDougall and Harvard University espouse (http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu). Unfortunately, I got ahead of myself and hurt my foot trying to do too much too soon. (The foot problem was followed by a serious IT Band issue, and resulting physical therapy.) I am still not positive that I, personally, was born to run, but I know that my sons and daughter and their friends can hunt and chase with the best. It seems cruel to move from hours of exercise each summer day to a scant forty minutes of daily recreation during the school year; one of my biggest hats as a mom is the "coach" hat where I make sure to get them all outside and running around. After all, if I can't hunt or run from predators, I had better make sure that someone in my family can!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Prepare ye the way, or prepare ye the child?

“Do not prepare the path for your child, prepare your child for the path.”

My sister read me this quote from her co-worker’s bulletin board. They are fourth-grade teachers, and it is not surprising that I found the advice relevant since I am newly the parent of a proud fourth-grader. It dawned on me recently that my daughter has only two years left before she has to take the bus over to middle school, and her father and I decided that a little responsibility and independence would come in handy. The prime example of this would be asking the two older children to walk home from school, as their final bell rings very shortly after their little brother’s preschool gets out, and it makes life much easier if we can all meet at home instead of at the elementary school playground, as we did last year.

The children love to walk. The weather thus far has been beautiful; many friends, parents of friends, and neighbors line their path, and they only have to cross two streets on the way home – neither major. I started walking to and from school when I was in kindergarten, and my route was about twice as long as my children’s. Many of my friends had the same experience growing up, and many of these same individuals have to pick their jaws up off the floor when I tell them my second and fourth graders are now ambulatory and solo after the final bell.

As one perceptive individual stated, “My first reaction is to say that the world is different now . . . but really it isn’t. It may even be safer.” It’s common knowledge to any parent that the media preys on our fears with countless stories of abducted or terrorized children, but if we can step back out of the frenzy we realize that the children do have to grow up and they have to learn the skills that will make them strong and independent. I have taught the children about cars, crazy drivers, driveways, not to talk to strangers, what type of person to go to if they need help, etc. I keep my cell phone on me during their walk home in case a friend needs to get in touch with me (the children do not have a cell phone yet). I am definitely a product of the age, but I tell you what scares me more than hypothetical bogeyman on a sunny walk home is the specter of pre-teen and teenage boys sexually harassing my daughter on the bus on the way to school. I have multiple firsthand accounts of this type of danger, and the only way for me to combat that is to create a strong, independent, and confident child (who will report such behavior to any responsible adult in power and be able to keep her father from beating up the offending children.)

As I scribbled the notes for this blog entry in Starbucks yesterday, I stared across the aisle at two young moms who supposedly met to chat, but whose true focus stayed on the two car-seated babies next to them. The babies were young, round, darling, with lopsided figure-eight yawns and dimpled toes. They drew their mom’s gaze like a magnet, and every movement precipitated a helpful response. I remember those days so vividly; the children’s dependence was overwhelming and total. It was hard to envision a night when they would be able to go eight hours without eating, or a day without diapers, let alone an entire seven hour period when they could navigate academics, social pitfalls and travel without your influence. The baby / mom quartet across from me brought home the difficulty of letting go. . . .we bond so tightly in the beginning by having to anticipate and fulfill their every need, and already (not a decade later!) they want us to step away.

But step away we must, for the path takes them in new directions, and we cannot make the way smooth, at least not forever. Better to give them some navigational tools and provisions, and get ready to welcome them home.