Valentine Foxes: One Mother’s Review

If ever I need a reminder of why I stopped making babies after my first two, the children’s book Valentine Foxes written by Clyde Watson and illustrated by Wendy Watson is it.

This past week, we had some snow, and as a result, we also had back-to-back, two-hour delayed starts for school, which meant juggling our morning routine. Since my husband was at work both days and since my day begins earlier than there’s does, our children got to practice walking themselves to school in the morning (in addition to walking themselves home from school in the afternoon).

After work, I had stopped at the store and so I was armed with groceries and ready to tackle dinner when I got home.

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{pictures by Wendy Watson from Valentine Foxes}

When I walked in the door, my youngest quickly informed me that she hadn’t done her reading yet. She had picked out a book at the library that day at school, and she thought I would like it, so she wanted to read it to me.

Once I got dinner going and had a few minutes to sit down, we snuggled on the couch with the book. It seemed like a good choice on her part. It was February after all. Valentine’s Day was only a week away. While it was a picture book, there was enough text on each page to challenge her, and the illustrations were rather cute. But from the moment the foxes wake up in the morning and Papa Fox hurriedly leaves for work (with his shirt on inside out), Mama Fox has, what I would call, a parenting day from hell.

Little Dilly is the baby of the four children (that’s right, FOUR) and it’s unclear how old Zandy, Pandy, and Poot are—but none of them head off to school and aside from identifying the first letter of each ingredient in a recipe for cake, none of them can read.

Mama Fox does her best to feed and entertain the crew, but there was no television in the fox den and shit goes from bad to worse starting with a breakfast where Little Dilly “sat on her banana and threw spoons, as usual.”

The kitchen is already a mess when Mama Fox decides to bake a cake for Valentine’s Day and puts some butter in a blue bowl to soften. She sets the kids up to make Valentines when the baby fox becomes “fretful” and “grumpy” and ends up grabbing the bowl and smashing it to pieces on the kitchen floor. Mind you, it isn’t even noon yet.

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{pictures by Wendy Watson from Valentine Foxes}

After lamenting the loss of her beautiful bowl, Mama Fox goes to the store to replace the butter, but she leaves all the children at home. This seems like a genius idea (although one that surely, the other fox mothers will judge her for) and I was secretly wondering if she hadn’t just decided to call it quits altogether and head for the nearest Greyhound station. Alas, she does come back, but the house—by that time—is a complete disaster.

“Zandy had cut up lots of red paper into tiny little pieces and was standing on the table making it snow. Pandy had glued most of her valentines to the chair. Poot was drawing designs on the floor, and Little Dilly was sitting there with her hair full of hearts and glue, eating a doily.”

And you know what Mama Fox does when she walks in and sees all this? She sighs—And then she unpacks her shopping. I think it’s clear that Mama Fox either picked up some Valium along with that butter, or it’s an indication that she’s resigned herself to this life just as she’s resigned herself to never fitting into her pre-pregnancy jeans again.

Of course, the minute the foxes see their mother it’s all wah-wah-wah and “I’m hungry,” so Mama Fox makes them some cream cheese and honey sandwiches, which surprisingly, no one complains about. Soon enough, they are eating lunch (leaving their crusts) and spilling their milk and demanding more—and never has a book hit closer to home.

By this point in the story I was looking to see if Wendy Watson had included in the illustration a picture on the wall that reads, “Excuse the mess, we’re busy making memories,” but there was none to be found.

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When Mama takes Little Dilly upstairs for a nap, the rest of the children attempt to make the cake in her place, which is sweet considering they’re illiterate little monsters, but they make even more of a mess in the process and when Mama Fox finds them, they are covered in flour.

As you may have predicted, the baby doesn’t nap although Watson leaves out the part where Mama Fox questions her life choices and hides in the bathroom for an hour…or five, because suddenly it’s dinner time and she’s heating up soup and worrying about what Papa Fox will say when he sees the house.

Mama Fox asks the children to help clean up, and they don’t—the baby has finally fallen asleep on the floor under the table and they use that as their excuse. I’m sure Mama Fox was thrilled knowing that Little Dilly would now be awake half the night, but she lets him sleep anyway because, let’s face it: Some days, you take what you can get.

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{pictures by Wendy Watson from Valentine Foxes}

By the time my daughter reached the end of the book, I was trying to figure out when I could schedule my tubal ligation, but thankfully, I remembered that we’d already gotten my husband a vasectomy and so I stopped hyperventilating and poured myself a large glass of wine. Then I poured one for the fictional Mama Fox and drank hers too.

In looking up the book on Goodreads, I found that I wasn’t alone in realizing that reading Valentine Foxes is the quickest way to induce a full-blown panic attack. Empathetic reviewers confess to feeling exhausted after closing the book. But, there was a bright side to this dark tale of woe: Following the anxiety came a wave of relief as I looked at my two children. Children who, thankfully, are not foxes. Children who know how to run a vacuum and cook and read (and occasionally, still nap). And children who can be trusted, when necessary, to walk themselves to school on time and back home again.

And if that was why my daughter thought I would like the book—she was absolutely right.

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My two Valentine Foxes {photo credit: Hunter Beadell}

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Another GenXer Lives to Tell: Parenting Through the Generations

Once upon a time, people woke up and read the newspaper. On weekends, perhaps they’d do the crossword puzzle or share the funnies with their kids. As time marched on, people stopped sitting down to breakfast and instead of the paper, they switched on the TV to listen to the news and hear the weather forecast. Today, upon waking, we reach for our phones to silence our alarms, and shortly after, start scrolling through various news feeds before beginning our day.

It was during this ritual on Monday morning, when I came across this tweet by @thebradking.

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Reading through the comments sparked nostalgia for my own upbringing. Born in 1978, I’m on the cusp of being a Millennial, but lugging my sister’s Brother typewriter with me to college cemented my GenX status.

Due to the popularity of his tweet, Brad King went on to post this: “GenX Tribe: Breaking Bones and Other Stories of Walking it Off,” which got me thinking…

While I have never broken a bone, my daughter has. As part of the GenZ cohort, hers was a similar story to many of those shared by the GenXers responding to King’s tweet.

It was my first day back at work for the new school year. Our children wouldn’t begin until the following week, so I had hired our babysitter and given her permission to walk to the park with the kids. My daughter decided that rather than walk, she’d Skip-it there.

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{via Giphy.com}

When the Skip-it, along with many other 80’s and 90’s toys, recently made a come-back, I thought it was a clever marketing idea. I got a kick out of watching the mom in Target trying out a Pogo Ball in the aisle while her kid, trapped in the cart, continued playing on his tablet.

I never loved the Pogo Ball, but the Skip-it was my jam, which explains why, when I saw them being sold again, my kids I had to have one. In hindsight, it was an expensive mistake.

The walk to the park from our house is half a mile, downhill. If you’ve ever used a Skip-it, you know that momentum is key. If you ever Skipped-it while walking to the park…You probably haven’t because that is an utterly ridiculous idea that only a nine-year-old would have. Had I been home, I would have looked at her like she was crazy and told her no, crushing her spirit like only a mother can. But since she was in the care of a fifteen-year-old (partially developed prefrontal cortex and whatnot), this is what happened:

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As my daughter tried to keep the Skip-it in motion, and because she was also headed down a hill with a spinning ball hooked to her ankle, she ended up going faster and faster until, at full speed, she tripped herself. Putting out her hands to break the fall, she came crashing down on her own wrist.

When I came home from work, the babysitter told me about the spill. I asked some questions, checked it out, and found her arm a bit swollen, but it wasn’t bruised and she wasn’t crying or howling in pain at my touch. She moved it around for me, and so, we did what any parent would do: We took her to the hospital.

Did that sound right to you? Of course we didn’t take her to the hospital! We gave her an ice pack. We wrapped it in an Ace bandage. We kept an eye on it and asked her how it felt. Meanwhile, we took her to golf practice where she swung her clubs for an hour, and we took her to soccer practice where she ran drills with the ball. We took her to the water park where she went down slides and swam in the wave pool. We took her to a birthday party (at another park) where she practiced trying to make it all the way across the monkey bars. We did all this for two whole days. It wasn’t until day three that we took her to the doctor, and only because the swelling hadn’t gone down yet, not because she was complaining.

She had broken her wrist in two places requiring that she get a rather large cast that went from her hand all the way up to her armpit. After eight weeks in that sucker, she got a smaller cast for the last four weeks, thankfully getting it off just before we went on vacation.

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The comments on Brad King’s Twitter feed don’t just talk about broken bones that weren’t attended to, but being left outside to play for hours (unsupervised), being latch-key kids (after school and all day long in the summertime), and taking care of one’s own college admission packets (gasp!). There are stories of riding bikes without helmets, and sitting unbuckled in the back seat of the car—in the middle so as to have a better view. Parents smoked in the car and in the house, feeding their children bologna sandwiches on Wonder Bread.

As a kid, I never owned a bike helmet. To this day, I still forget to buckle when I’m in the back seat. I drove myself (eight hours) to my college orientation, pre-Siri. And while my mother was always a fan of whole wheat bread, I have had my fair share of bologna sandwiches.

For GenXers, this was our childhood, and despite the few commenters who claim it was negligence and abuse, we’re no far worse because of it.

My mother laughs about how, when we were babies, she used to hold me and my sister on her lap while my father drove the car. She’d take our little baby arms and make us wave to the neighboring cars when they were stopped at a red light. (Britney Spears did something like this once circa 2006 and was publicly shamed for it.)

My mother will tell you that for many of the parenting decisions they made, they just didn’t know any better, and I think that’s the god’s honest truth.

When my father lit up a Winston while in the car with us, he wasn’t purposefully ignoring the dangers of second-hand smoke; his knowledge was limited to a Surgeon General’s warning that smoking may be hazardous to one’s health. While those warnings sometimes addressed pregnant women who smoked, they never mentioned the three kids who were riding backwards in the third seat of the station wagon making faces at the cars behind them.

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{via knowyourmeme.com}

Partway down King’s Twitter feed, I found a comment that read, “This thread completely sucks. Parents, do better.” But as Maya Angelou (and my own mother) said, people do better when they know better, and we (mostly) know better now.

Regardless of what we know, we are also a product of our upbringing. The fact that my mother continues to hang onto a biscuit cutter that she’s had since before I was born (wooden handle with chipped red paint that likely contains lead) is probably because she was raised by parents from the Silent Generation who fixed things when they were broken (although, not their children’s bones) and rarely threw anything away.

Evidence of this frugality showed up the other day in my own home when I cut up a cucumber for my daughters to eat with their lunch. After snacking on only a few slices, my youngest threw the rest in the trash. Hearing the wet thud it made as it hit the bottom of the garbage can triggered something in me and I lectured her for way too long about the starving children in Africa. Whether it was because of my mother’s upbringing or because, as a single mom, she often didn’t have the resources to go to the store and pick up all that was needed for dinner, I was raised to never waste food. In my home, we eat our leftovers. I may end up feeding some to the dogs, but rarely will you see food in my house go to waste, even if it is a 33-cent cucumber.

The “Parents, do better” comment is typical of the self-righteous, judgmental online culture we face today. My parents (like most parents) were trying to do better. When my mom held us on her lap, she probably thought that it was safer than having us roll around in the back seat. Had the five-point harness been invented, I know she’d have used it.

With the advancement of technology, we have access to way more information than our parents ever did. With my firstborn, I spent hours online researching the safest forward-facing car seats. It wasn’t a question of which one we could afford, it was a question of which one was best, with every reviewer’s opinion weighing in.

Even when we’re not actively seeking it, online parenting advice often comes unsolicited. Take Jersey Shore’s Deena Cortese , for example, who was recently mom-shamed for a photo she posted of her newborn in his car seat on the way home from the hospital.

In the end though, the parents of today, just like the parents of yesterday, mostly defer to doing what feels right, and often, parenting the way our parents did isn’t such a terrible idea. (If you haven’t kicked your kids outside to play in a while, I highly recommend it.)

Despite which generation we belong to, no matter how much we learn or what we do, we’ll never perfect parenting. Nor will the perfect parent ever exist.

I hope the day comes when my daughters will reminisce about their childhood with each other like my sister and I do, or reminisce online with a group of strangers who belong to the same generational tribe. My youngest might laugh about that time I totally freaked out for her having thrown away half a cucumber. My oldest already sees the humor in how she spent several days with a broken arm before being taken to urgent care. My husband and I will chuckle too, especially when our children become parents themselves and get to experience what it’s like to be the ones making the judgement calls, because in the end, isn’t that really what parenting is all about?

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On Giving Thanks

Confession: Our family does not go to church.

That’s not to say that we’ve never gone to church, it’s just that we aren’t regular church-goers. Heck, we aren’t even annual church-goers. To be completely honest, we’ve been to church together as a family once. It was Christmas Eve and my sister thought we should  “try it out” for something different to do. It was as though she were suggesting we prepare a roast beef for dinner as opposed to our usual glazed ham.

“Why not?” And since none of us had a good enough answer, we went.

Our church experience that evening was neither good nor bad, but with the lights and the stage, the cushioned chairs and the Christian rock band, it was nothing like the church we remembered.

We haven’t been back since.

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I mean, I don’t think our visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City counts. Does it?

Fairly early in our marriage, I realized that my husband and I didn’t exactly share the same religious beliefs. I would say that I’m two-thirds spiritual and one-third Christian. My husband? I would call him agnostic, which is why I was a little surprised when not that long ago, I suggested we start saying grace at dinnertime, and he wholeheartedly agreed.

What I was proposing wasn’t necessarily religious. I’d been listening to this podcast with food writer Michael Pollan about conscious eating, and in it, he suggested that we take time to really think about where the food on our plates came from: Think about the farmer who grew that lettuce, the animal who provided the meat in your hamburger, the chicken who laid those eggs.

If I wanted our family to begin a practice of saying grace, this sounded like a good place to start, and it is how we initially introduced the idea to our kids. Still, the end goal wasn’t to raise children who were just more conscious of their plates, rather to raise children who were more conscious of their world.

I’ll admit, right from the start, my husband was better at remembering to say grace than I was. By the time I had prepared the meal, served it, and sat down, I was often on my second or third forkful when my husband would “a-hem” and begin, “I’m thankful for…”

Our girls quickly learned to give thanks for everything on the table. From slaughtered salmon to sacrificed broccoli, there was not a grain of rice nor a garnish of parsley that wasn’t included in the litany.

Still, if we wanted to encourage our children to move beyond just talking about their food (and we did), they were going to need some better modeling.

Giving thanks is an act of appreciation that needs to be practiced, but, according to Happiness Coach Andrea Reiser, “gratitude goes beyond good manners—it’s a mindset and a lifestyle.”

It was this mindset, this lifestyle, I wanted to foster.

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Studies have shown that cultivating gratitude results in living a happier, more satisfied life. It can also increase self-esteem, optimism, hope, and empathy.

I’d witnessed this empathy recently when I chaperoned a field trip with my daughter’s fifth-grade class. They were headed to the Reno municipal court to learn about the legal system, but first, we’d taken the children to a nearby park to eat their bagged lunches. It was here that they encountered several of the area’s homeless sitting by the river and napping in the sunshine. Unbeknownst to their teacher, some of the boys in the class had decided to give their lunches to them.

“Had they asked me first, I would have told them no.” Their teacher said. “That’s probably why they didn’t ask me,” he chuckled.

On our way to the courthouse, I ended up walking behind these same boys. As they passed by the people to whom they’d donated their food, the men called out their thanks. “God bless you. God bless you.”

The boys waved, and walked a ways in silence before one of them remarked, “That made me feel really good and warm inside.”

“Yeah, it made me feel good… but also, kind of sad.”

“I know what you mean. I’m glad we gave them our food, but I’m sad that they don’t have anywhere to live.”

I wondered if those boys would think differently about their dinners that night, or about their warm beds when they went to sleep. I imagined they would.

Fundamentally, gratitude is about being aware of who or what makes positive aspects of our lives possible, and acknowledging that.” Children especially have a hard time recognizing these things. I hoped that through the act of saying grace, my children might hone their awareness.

Because in some way or another, we’re all blessed, and it serves us well when we recognize that.

We’d been giving our thanks to pigs and chickens and cows for months, when finally, one night, right before we ate, my oldest daughter said, “I’m thankful for people like my mom who care about education, and I’m thankful for the nice people who write books for other people to read.”

This, I thought. This is what I had hoped would come from a ritual of saying grace.

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According to Brené Brown, “What separates privilege from entitlement is gratitude.” My children are certainly privileged—more than some, and less than others– but I don’t ever want them to grow up feeling entitled. Saying grace is one of the many ways we can combat that, but there are so many other benefits to living a conscious life.

We still don’t go to church, and we occasionally forget to say grace before we eat, but a few times each week, we remember to pause and reflect upon our blessings, and for that, I am thankful.

What are you grateful for today?

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The Dads Who Do

I’d like to give a shout-out to the dad in Safeway at 8:45 Saturday morning walking straight to the donuts with two kids following behind like baby ducklings. They were all in pajamas, and while they had shoes on their feet, no hair had been brushed and you could still see the sleep crusted in their eyes.

I hoped that there was a mama at home who was getting a little break. Maybe she had gotten the chance to sleep in that morning. Maybe she would wake up to a steaming cup of coffee and one of those donuts the kids were carrying in their clear plastic bags as they all shuffled towards the check-out line. Whether they were gone for twenty minutes or an hour, I knew she’d relish that time.

This one is for the dads who do.

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Dads, like my husband, who volunteer to referee the Saturday soccer games even though he himself was never a soccer player. Dads who chaperone field trips, fill up flat bike tires, and don a gigantic hair bow at the JoJo Siwa themed birthday party. Dads who watch The Little Princess on a Friday night and shock their daughters when he cries at the ending. Dads who learn how to braid hair, help with math homework, and don’t complain when they spend an entire afternoon of their vacation at The American Girl Doll store.

You may not think we always see you, but we do.

We see you playing a game of keep away with a football on the living room rug while we read our book. We see you having sword fights with foam noodles on the front lawn while we decorate the house for Halloween. We see you packing school lunches and folding the laundry, and we couldn’t love you more if we tried.

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For all the times you remembered to hide the tooth fairy money or to move the elf on the shelf, saving us from self-inflicted mom-shame, we owe you more than just a sheepish grin and a whew. For all the times you thought to snap the picture–a picture that shows us really being a mother, in all its strength and tenderness. For all the times you told the children, “your mother is right.”  You might shrug it off as no big deal, but to us, it means the world.

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Those nights when we end up crashing before the kids’ bedtime and you keep them quiet so that we can get some rest. Those nights when we head out for drinks with our girlfriends and you give us a kiss as we leave, telling us to have fun. Those nights when you clean up the kitchen after supper and suggest we go take a hot bath.

For all the foot rubs and back rubs. For all the nights you stopped at the store to pick up a bottle of wine on your way home from work. For all the times you watched This is Us despite still not knowing what happened to Jack…

This mom thing is hard. This full-time working mom thing is even harder. Adulting day-in and day-out while simultaneously keeping small humans alive is the toughest work we will ever do. The best gift you gave was the acknowledgment of that fact by giving us a break. Whether it be a time-out or a time to ourselves, whether it be entertaining the children so we can get a chore done or taking over a chore we would normally do ourselves, you strengthen our super powers so that we can go back to being the super-moms our children believe us to be.

For all the dads who do, we thank you. We wouldn’t want to do this without you.

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My Children Will Never Know

When I was in junior high, my mom saw a bunch of boys that I was friends with buying Trojans in the local grocery store. Even though many of those pimply faced teens would never get the chance to use those condoms until long after they had expired, my mother panicked.

Deductive reasoning told her that if the boys in my grade were purchasing rubbers, then…

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We hadn’t had “The Talk” yet, and so, like a mad woman, she raced home to find me, only I wasn’t there.

As any bored thirteen-year-old would do on a Saturday afternoon, I had hopped on my bike and pedaled to a friend’s house. I’m sure I left a note of some kind, albeit one that didn’t reveal my destination since I often didn’t have an exact end in mind, but these were the days before cell phones, the days when it wasn’t unusual for kids to spend whole afternoons in the fresh air. Yet seeing how I didn’t live in a neighborhood so much as in the middle of a potato farm, my boundaries were less-defined. My mother could yell for me till the cows came home, and cows might literally show up before I would.

In this instance, my mother had only two choices: to wait for me to return (mind racing, envisioning worst-case scenarios) or to track me down like a bounty hunter.

With the determination and paranormal instinct that only a mother can possess, she got in her car.

I was a whole town over when she pulled up alongside me. By the time she had stopped and rolled down the window, my mother had worked herself up from a low simmer to a full boil.

“Get. In. The. Car.”

I’d heard that tone many a time: I was in dangerous territory.

“But my bike.”

I didn’t know what I had done, but I reasoned if I could ride back home, I’d buy myself some time. Hopefully, it would allow for my mother to calm down enough to realize that killing me wouldn’t benefit either one of us; instead she popped the trunk.

I struggled to fit my ten-speed in the back while she waited inside the vehicle, and once I had buckled up, it didn’t take long before she broke the silence.

“I saw those boys you’re friends with buying condoms at the store today. Condoms! What were they buying condoms for, Sara?!”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“Mom, I’m not having sex if that’s what you think.”

“I know you’re not having sex. You know how I know? Because I’m your mother. I know everything.”

“The Talk” ended up being fairly short– the gist of it being that I was never, EVER, to have sex with those boys. I was able to reassure my mother of my virtuous ways (“Ew, Mom, gross!”), and seeing as how she didn’t really want to have “The Talk” any more than I did, we dropped the whole conversation, that is, until my sister came home later that evening and I got to retell the story over dinner in a dramatic rendering that left us both laughing. (Mom did not find my reenactment all that funny.)

Still, this is more than just a story about my mother’s psychic abilities, which I still believe she possesses today. Rather, this is a story about an experience that defined my adolescence.

Last year, my oldest daughter began sex-Ed in school. She was traumatized by some of what she learned, refusing to play with the boys at afternoon recess that day because, as she put it, “It’s just weird now, it’s like, I know their secrets.”  After she came home, and in the weeks that followed, there were lots of questions. I guess, in many ways, we’ve already begun “The Talk.” Still, if they are fortunate enough, my children will never know what it is like to have me hunt them down and find them with only sheer will, maternal instinct, and a little bit of luck.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of all the experiences that today’s children will never have.

Fewer and fewer kids are making mud pies or playing outside till the streetlights come on. When my children start roaming farther from home and I want to know where they are, I’ll probably just send a text. And by tracking their phones, I could know exactly where they are, letting a GPS take me there turn by turn, a thought that terrifies the teenager I used to be.

On the flip side though, my children will also be able to text me when they need a ride. They won’t sit outside the dentist’s office for hours plucking at the grass and wondering when their mom will finally remember she was supposed to get them. They won’t wait outside after play rehearsal watching one by one as their friends leave, the occasional mom or dad calling out from a minivan, “Do you need a ride?” They won’t hoof it home after swimming at a friend’s house, walking for miles in damp jean shorts that chafe the inside of their thighs, turning them an angry red. No. With phones at everyone’s fingertips, my children will probably Uber before they’ll scrounge for a ride.

Technology has made it so my children will never know what it is like to go to 7-11 in order to find out where the party’s at. When the parking lot of Sevs was empty, we didn’t get FOMO. We got Big Gulps. Then, we got back in our cars and drove from beach to beach trying to find the party for ourselves.

When I was a teen, we didn’t have group messages, we had three-way calling. If you were lucky, your family had a portable phone. If you weren’t, you stretched the cord from the kitchen to the bathroom to talk in privacy until your mother picked up the other line and told you to hang up.

We weren’t drug dealers or doctors, but nevertheless, we carried beepers and sent our boyfriends the first numeric text message: 143. And when our best friend stayed home sick, we took a quarter to the pay phone in school and dialed one of the many numbers we knew by heart to find out how she was.

We waited all night for the radio to play the perfect song to record on the mixed tape we were making for our Boo, and waited all week for our pictures to get developed at Genovese Drug Store. Out of an entire roll, we were lucky to get two or three good ones, pictures that wouldn’t go on Instagram, but ended up in our scrapbook next to collages we had made from Seventeen magazine. That was our #aesthetic.

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My children will never spend the first week of school making covers for their textbooks from brown shopping bags. They’ll never know card catalogues or what it’s like to find information without Google. They’ll never peck out their first papers on a typewriter, feeling the agony of every mistake. While I would much rather write a research paper today than when I sat at a microfiche machine, there are some things I experienced growing up that I hope will remain the same.

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I hope my children will know what it’s like to have someone ask them out face-to-face. I hope they will know what it feels like to hold a sweaty hand in a darkened movie theater, wondering if tonight will be their first kiss.

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{via Gifer.com}

And even though I work in a public high school and vomit a little in my mouth each time I witness a make-out session in the halls, I hope they will have someone who waits at their locker and walks them to class someday. They don’t need an elaborate promposal, a grotesque gesture designed to get the most likes on social media, but a simple, heartfelt request that makes their cheeks blush and their heart flutter before they answer yes.

I want my children to see their friends’ faces illuminated by bonfires, not screens. I want them to know what it feels like to spend hours on the phone talking with a loved one. I want their relationships to take place in real life, but fewer and fewer these days do.

Still, when I recently chaperoned the homecoming dance at the high school where I teach, I realized, as more and more kids showed up to dance the night away, that it hasn’t all changed. As I watched the awkward encounters of boys and girls and listened to the shouts as the DJ played a favorite song, their movements becoming more frenetic, the gymnasium hotter, the air less sweet, my friend yelled over the music to me, “I’m glad they still do this. I’m glad that technology hasn’t taken away everything.”

Looking out at the sea of bodies on the dance floor, I thought about my oldest daughter who in four short years would be here, singing along with her friends to the song that marks the end of every dance. As the students swayed, belting out the lyrics of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, I couldn’t agree more.

 

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We Took Our Kids to a Fancy Restaurant, and Here’s What Happened

Our oldest daughter was turning 10 and this seemed like cause for a celebration. As parents, we had managed to keep her alive and well for an entire decade. I haven’t been able to keep a houseplant alive that long, and they require much less than a child, so as my husband and I exchanged high-fives, we were likely feeling a little smug which would explain the momentary lapse of judgement we experienced when we suggested going out to a “fancy” restaurant for her birthday dinner.

Our children eat at restaurants frequently enough. At ten and six, they possess a modicum of self-control and basic table manners. Sure, they fart and burp during dinner at home, but we’d remind them enough times to act like princesses. And this was a special occasion, after all.

In my mind, we were all going to dress up nice, have a delicious meal, and make a wonderful memory. But over the course of our parenting, there have been a lot of those Expectation vs. Reality moments, and this was no exception.

Red flag number one appeared when I was leaving work and mentioned to a co-worker that we were taking our daughter to the steakhouse for her birthday dinner. He commented that she must have a sophisticated palate, and I chuckled.

No. She’s quite picky, actually, I answered in my head, but it was too late to second-guess our decision. Our reservation was in a few hours and I wasn’t even home from work yet.

I guess the next red flag should have been that my youngest daughter didn’t even have an appropriate coat to wear. I might have remembered the last time she dressed up for the daddy-daughter dance and we made her wear her velvet cape from her Little Red Riding Hood Halloween costume. I might have remembered that her winter jacket was a puffy neon-pink hand-me-down from her sister that was two sizes too big and that most days she ran around the house naked. As we were all scrambling to get out the door, I didn’t notice her choice in outerwear till we were already in the car.

“You can’t wear that jean jacket to the restaurant.”

“Daddy said I could.”

“Well, you can’t. The sleeves are filthy. And what’s that green stuff?”

She looked down and answered matter-of-factly, “Avocado.”

“You’re just going to not wear a coat, I guess.”

“But I’m cold.” She whined.

“You won’t be cold in the restaurant. Daddy will drop us off out front.”

As it turned out, she was cold in the restaurant, and she didn’t fail to remind us of it. All… Night… Long. 

After arriving at the steakhouse, we were led to a round table in a candlelit corner of the restaurant. It had booth-style seating that circled around half of the table, and the bouncy cushion pleased the birthday girl to no end. She promptly plopped herself down on it again and again. I had a flashback to my old roommate’s waterbed before I gave her my best mom-glare to get her to stop.

In fact, I spent most of the evening telling my children what to do and, more importantly, what not to do. Don’t grab the parmesan cheese with your fingers. Put your napkin in you lap. Don’t put your elbows on the table. Use your knife. Be careful. Don’t spill that drink. 

I was tense and it wasn’t relaxing. Then the waiter came over to greet us.

“Would anyone care for a cocktail?”

Me! Me! Me! I was going to need one a few.

As is their custom, because we were celebrating a special event, a photographer snapped our picture.

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After which, the birthday girl leaned toward me and whispered, “This isn’t what I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?” I asked.

“I thought it was going to be like that place we went before the basketball game where I got that burger.”

The sports bar?

“Yeah, that place. Do they have any burgers here?”

They did, in fact, have a burger on their menu. The Wagyu beef burger topped with a short rib served with bone marrow butter, truffle brie, and bacon onion jam. It was 24 dollars and that’s what she ordered, minus the bacon onion jam, which I asked them to put on the side and ate with a spoon. It was seriously the best condiment I have ever tasted in my life.

“Try it,” I begged her.

She refused.

Her father and I were fighting over it now.

“It’s bacon. You love bacon. Try it.” He put a small schmear of it on her plate.

She pursed her lips and shook her head.

“How’s your burger?” I asked.

“Meh. I prefer In and Out.”

FML.

I looked towards my youngest who had stopped eating her special order of pasta, since ya know, there wasn’t a children’s menu.

“How’s yours?”

“There’s too much sauce. I don’t like it.”

I rolled my eyes and downed the rest of my wine.

For dessert, we were served Bananas Foster. We watched the rum catch fire and the orange flames leap higher as they prepared it tableside.

Our daughter doesn’t like bananas.

Or caramel.

My husband and I devoured it while the birthday girl picked at her complimentary cheesecake. (She doesn’t like cheesecake either.)

Throughout the meal, I kept wondering why we hadn’t hired a babysitter for the night. Then I’d remember that this wasn’t our date night. It was her birthday and we’d done this to ourselves. We could have been at Red Robin with balloons and crayons and a kids’ menu that includes Kraft mac and cheese, but we were foolish and naïve.

Still, it wasn’t a total fail. During the evening, an elderly woman came over to our table and complimented us on our well-behaved children. She even paid the photographer to take another photo of us.

I whispered to the birthday girl to make a funny face, and aside from palate cleansing sorbet and the hot hand towels, this is what they’ll have to remember.

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the little one finally managed to snag her sister’s coat

In the wake of that compliment (and my second glass of wine), I looked at my children and realized that they are pretty amazing little humans—but they’re still just kids. Filet mignon and lobster tails aren’t their thing just yet, and that’s okay.

Of course, the next time we’re in the mood for fine dining, we’re leaving the kids at home.

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and just like that, she’s 10

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Request Denied

“Mom? Can you do me a favor?”

This was the voice of my nine-year-old.

“When you fold my laundry, can you turn my socks so that they are the right way for when I put them on?”

I paused to consider the request.

Three beats was all it took before I said, very simply, “No.”

In my mind, though, this played out quite differently. There was an actually buzzer, like that which signals the end of a basketball game, like the dreadful X when a wrong response is given on Family Feud, like the handheld noise-maker for the game Taboo (the only game my brother-in-law will agree to play and only if all he has to do is auditorily tell players that they have erred by sounding the buzzer in their faces. Think Sissy Spacek in Four Christmases.)

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Hearing my curt “No” crushed my daughter. She had asked so sweetly and had been so brusquely denied. She looked crestfallen, and for a moment, I considered granting her request if only so that I didn’t feel like a total biatch, but then I remembered that crucial moment when my mom made me start washing my own laundry. And I remembered why.

I was in the fifth grade—one year older than my daughter. My mom had told me to clean my room. So I scooped all the clothes, dirty or clean, and threw them in my hamper.

Clean room?

Check!

Later, when my mother went to do laundry and saw that there were clean clothes, still partially folded, tossed in the hamper, she cracked. She very calmly told me that I would henceforth be responsible for washing my own clothes. For. The. Rest. Of. My. Life.

“But I don’t know how!” I argued.

And then she taught me. And she never did my laundry again.

Well, until she retired. Now all she does is laundry. My step-dad jokes that he only needs three pair of underwear. Doing the wash is kind of her hobby these days, so when she comes to visit, my washing machine doesn’t quit, which feels like an apology…And I accept.

But back to my daughter.

I guess she wasn’t asking a lot, but something about her request, much like when I heartlessly tossed clean clothes into my hamper, made this mother crack. Each person in my family has two feet, and there’s four people in my family, times that by seven days in the week (or perhaps five since at least twice a week my kids try to wear flip-flop, even in January). If each sock took two seconds to turn right-side-out, that’s…

I don’t really do math unless I have to, but what I do know is this:

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Every mother in America will tell you that there is never no laundry to be done. There are always clothes in the dryer that someone forgot about, and sometimes clothes in the washer that also got forgotten about, clothes that now smell like mold and cheese that need to get re-washed.

My mom may have been on to something when she decided that one decade of washing my dirty (and sometimes clean) clothes was enough.

For my oldest child, time is running out.

Meanwhile, round-the-clock laundry marathons continue every weekend. I may even start a load or two during the week. I continue to fold my children’s clothes and provide them with clean underwear. But about those socks…

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Summertime Rules

Listen up, Kids–

We all know that summertime rules, but there are also some new and improved rules for summer–rules like sometimes the only thing that really needs to be washed before bed are our feet. My advice to you is to roll with it. Before you know it, we’ll be back at Target stocking up on Ticonderoga number two pencils and jumbo glue sticks.

Having a mom who is also a teacher means that you are way more likely to get a yes out of me in the summertime when requesting frozen yogurt for dinner or asking to sleep outside on the trampoline. You can pretty much guarantee that if it means less work for me, I’m in. After all, I’m off for the summer, and sometimes I can get a little carried away with that.

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So in case you were wondering, these are our Summertime Rules:

  1. Bedtimes are Flexible

Some nights you might be in bed by 8 pm, questioning why you must sleep when the sun is still up; some nights we won’t walk in the door till after 9 or 10. As a result, many mornings, I’ll get to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee when the air is still cool and the sun is just peeking over the back fence.

  1. For the Time Being, French Fries are Considered a Vegetable

As a mom who tries to make sure that you consume a fruit or vegetable with every meal, from the months of June through August, the French-Fried potato is perfectly acceptable for fulfilling that requirement. Bonus points are awarded for choosing ketchup over ranch.

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  1. If it Weren’t for Beach Towels and Bathing Suits, the Washing Machine Might Never Run

I’m not one of those moms who does laundry round the clock so that it is always under control; I’m more of the weekend warrior. During the school year, my washing machine starts on Fridays at 4:00 and runs till Sunday night when the both of us are officially off-duty. You had better hope you got enough clean underwear for the week otherwise you’ll be turning those suckers inside-out.

Come summer, you may find the washer running mid-week, but only because we need towels for the beach. Be thankful for the warm weather as you will get considerably more use out of that birthday suit.

  1. And Speaking of Cleaning…

I might run a Lysol wipe over the bathroom counter. I might clean the toilets from time to time, but not before there is a visible mildew ring. Yes, I’ll drag out the vacuum, but the primary purpose is to suck up a spider that is crawling along the ceiling. Speaking of which, have you seen the impressive cobwebs in the kitchen? Is anyone going to take care of that? 

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During the summer months, I find myself asking deep philosophical questions like: If one is not home to see the dirt, does it exist?

  1. Naps are In

The day after a sleepover, in the car on the way home from the lake, or on the couch mid-afternoon for no other reason than your eyes needed a break from that book you can’t put down, naps are a thing. These naps can happen at any time of the day or night and it’s not going to interfere with anyone’s schedule, because there is no schedule.

It doesn’t matter if you are going into the fourth grade or your fourth decade, naps are for everyone.

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  1. Most Meals will be Eaten Out of Doors and Out of Coolers

Summer is a picnicker’s paradise…except for the fact that like cleaning, I’ve also stopped making any regular trips to the grocery store, and when I do go, it’s for a box of Bomb Pops and a bag of Doritos. This brings a fun element of surprise to every meal. You may find yourself eating a slice of cheese sandwiched between two different types of bread.

You thought your school lunches got pathetic at the end of the year? Just wait till you see what constitutes as dinner come August when we’re at Music in the Park.

  1. Books, Books, and More Books

Summer is for devouring all the books I wanted to read during the school year, but couldn’t. The Amazon Prime account will be used to its full potential as will my library card. Pretty much everything we do is covertly planned around creating time for my own selfish reading. Yes, we are going to the water park again because throughout the day, I can get through a good five chapters in between frolicking in the wave pool.

Likewise, if you tell me you are bored, you know what my suggestion will be.

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  1. Running Around = My New Workout Program

I know I started the summer with good gym intentions. I know I said I was going to attend yoga class three to four times a week, get in a couple long runs, and lift weights in-between. Those first couple of weeks, I did go to the gym practically every day, but now that it’s July, I’ve decided that running from one activity to another is my exercise.

At the very least, I can say that I’ve mastered my corpse pose.

  1. I’m So (Not) Fancy

On the rare occasion that I shower, blow-dry my hair, apply make-up, and put on anything other than a swimsuit, cut-off jean shorts, or yoga pants, my youngest will invariably ask me why I am so fancy.

Note taken, Kid.

  1. We’ve Got Time to Kill 

The other day, we dropped off my oldest at golf, and then my youngest and I went to Starbucks where we ordered and then sat at a table. I found a penny on the floor and we used it to play games that we made up on the spot, like seeing how long we could balance it on our noses while calling out tricks for the other person to do. Now take a sip of your drink. Can you wink with the penny balanced on your nose? Now wink with the other eye.

We giggled and we got some strange looks, but it was all made possible due to that glorious thing called time, which for once, was on our side.

Every day in the summer is another opportunity to wake up and ask, “What shall we do today?” And that, my friends, is the beauty of summer.

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A Mom Has A Dream

Parents: Let us not wallow in despair.

While it is true that we have not slept past 7 AM for many, many years, and while it is also true that we have been continually anointed with the bodily fluids of our children, while our voices have gone hoarse from repeating the same simple instructions every day only to have them fall on deaf ears, and while the laundry mounts to dangerous heights, I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow…for the next eighteen years–give or take– I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in every parent’s dream.

I have a dream that one day, my home, a modest three-bedroom containing two young children, a couple of dogs and a cat, will remain neat and tidy for at least twenty-four hours. A dream where my words, like stones in a river, will sink into my kid’s heads and they will act upon them. Parents and children will live together in unity knowing that there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place.

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I have a dream that one day, I will walk into the bathroom and find all the toothbrushes standing at attention. Globs of toothpaste will not sit like fat slugs on the bathroom counter nor will the remnants of that which was spit from their mouths encrust the sink. No longer will I twist the caps back on to multiple tubes of toothpaste since one child insists on only fruity flavors while the other demands mint. One day, my children’s sensitive palates will unite in harmony.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, in the dining room, my children will sit down together at the table and eat their food. We will not barter for how many more bites one must take. All servings–whether poultry or fish, spinach or rice–will be treated as equals. No speck of parsley nor dice of tomato will be pushed aside. And during this time, expelling gasses will cease, water shall not be spilled, and they will lean over their plates so that food does not tumble to their laps and onto the floor with every bargained bite. There will be peace at suppertime.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that my children will not find a new pair of shoes to wear each time they leave the house, but will put the same pair on that they took off earlier and left by the back door, the couch, or under the kitchen table.

I have a dream that one day, last night’s pajamas will make their way to the hamper. Dirty socks will not hide in the shoe bin nor under the bed but will instead be carried to the laundry room and deposited next to their kin with dignity. Clothes, when neatly folded and left in a pile on the child’s bed to be put away will not topple to the floor, but will be carefully laid in the appropriate drawers—drawers which shall be pushed in!

This is my hope, and this is the faith that I go back to their bedrooms with.

With this faith, we will transform ballads of nagging into melodies of praise.

I have a dream that one day, children will look upon their mothers, and their lips will not be dripping with the words of “clean up this mess.” One day, right there at home, little girls and little boys will be able to join hands as sisters and brothers and set the table or feed the dogs without arguing over who did it last night.

And when this happens, when the children have finally learned to hang up their wet towels after the shower, and to put their toys away, when they are able to flush the toilet every time they have used it so that the dog stops lapping up their pee, when they not only clear their plate from the table but also stack the dishwasher, their moms and their dads will be able to join hands together and sing:

                Free at last! Free at last!

                Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

 

 

 

My Reasons for Watching 13 Reasons Why

One of the things I love about my job as a high school teacher is that it keeps me young. Most of the time, I find out about the latest trends before my own children do. I learn the newest slang, and my students think it’s funny when I’m able to work it into my own speech during class. Dealing with teenagers on a regular basis reminds me what it was like; it helps me to remember, including those parts that I’d rather forget.

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Teaching English, my students confide in me through their writing. These windows, in particular, let me see some of their darkest moments. It didn’t surprise me then that when 13 Reasons Why premiered on Netflix, my students were abuzz. There was a resurgence in kids that wanted to read the popular novel by Jay Asher. As a representation of what they experience in high school, it resonated with them.

My students are participating in book clubs right now and I have six groups reading 13 Reasons Why. Others have chosen it as one of their independent selections for the semester. I’m stoked for anything that gets kids reading, but some of the students who have picked it up have had to put it down, unable to stomach the sadness. All the attention the title has received piqued my interest, if for no other reason than to form my own opinion, so in addition to buying a copy of the book, my husband and I recently cued it from our Netflix list.

If you haven’t heard, the show has been criticized for glorifying and romanticizing suicide. I’ve read pieces that talk about how the producers did the exact opposite of what one should do when dealing with this subject matter, warning anyone who might be suicidal or prone to suicidal thoughts not to watch. In contrast, I’ve read other works that praise the piece. Not to mention the press that surrounded this group of high school students who started an anti-suicide campaign: 13 Reasons Why Not.

I knew going in that it wasn’t going to be a show I could binge-watch. Each episode was heavier than the next, and several of them required additional warnings for their explicit content. However, in the end, I was glad that I viewed all thirteen episodes, not just as a teacher, but as a parent. While my children are only five and nine, startling enough, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for ages 10-24.

Did you see that? TEN.

I often write about the difficulties of parenting, yet I know raising an adolescent will be the most trying of all. This is only the boot camp for the eventual war of the teenage years. And as parents, we sometimes forget what it was like to be young, which only intensifies the conflict. Even if I find it easy to empathize with what my students go through, I might find it more challenging when it comes to my own children, when my love for them and the storm of emotions I feel clouds my understanding.

After the final episode, Netflix included “13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons.” In it, the cast talks about how teenage brains don’t function the way that adult brains do. I’ve done enough lessons with my students on this very topic, usually in conjunction with our study of Romeo and Juliet, another suicide story. We watch some TedTalks about the adolescent brain and listen to podcasts from NPR before deciding whether Romeo and Juliet would have made different decisions if they each had a fully developed pre-frontal cortex.

Suicide is a subject that is a part of most teenager’s reality whether they have thought about it themselves, or known someone else who has. Just as Shakespeare didn’t shy away from it, neither does Jay Asher, which is why many students of mine find both works so intriguing.

The creators of the Netflix series hoped that the show would spark conversations between parents, and in my home, it did just that. I confessed to my husband that this scared the shit out of me long before we viewed the episode where Hannah’s mother finds her in the bathtub. (I had to shield my eyes from the graphic nature of the actual suicide.) My husband and I shared stories about the people we knew—friends and friends of friends– who’d taken their own lives. We discussed their reasons, and the impact it had on others. As a teacher, sadly, I add to the list alumni from schools where I’ve taught who didn’t choose life.

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In one episode of the show, Clay imagines telling Hannah how he feels about her. Her response: Why didn’t you say this to me when I was alive?

In “Beyond the Reasons,” the producers advise parents not to ignore what they went through as teenagers, to be honest with their children, and to talk to them without judgement. They implore people to tell others, “You matter to me; I’m glad you’re in my world.” These small steps, they say, can make a big difference.

As a teacher, I appreciated 13 Reasons Why. Not only did it remind me about many of the issues my students face, but it also reminded me there are consequences for our actions, even when, as in the case with Mr. Porter, the action is inaction.

As a parent, it reminded me that what I say to my daughters can make a difference, things like, “It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to not be perfect.” Most of all though, it reminded me to take every opportunity to tell my children what they mean to me, to tell them that they matter. They’re not only in my world, but they are my world, and I love them no matter what.

 

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