Is Silver Medalist Pikus-Pace a Role Model?

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AP Photo – Michael Sohn

Noelle Pikus-Pace’s silver medal win and choosing to share the moment with her family has drawn international attention. It is the sort of moment for which the Olympics are made. She is amazing. The moment was awesome. Who could help but be swept up in the moment of it all?  In a moving interview with Summer Sanders, Pikus-Pace’s new career as a role model was launched. Let’s jump on the bandwagon and celebrate an amazing moment and person but let’s also be clear about who our role models really are.

Pikus-Pace is a world-class competitor. She is absolutely a role model for aspiring athletes. You can look to her to see what it takes to be an Olympian: talent, exceptional strength, determination, commitment and sacrifice – arguably sacrifice being at the top of the list. What she sacrificed for her moment of glory, her once-in-a-lifetime achievement, is immeasurable. As a parent, I’m certain time with her family is near, if not at, the top of the list. Those sacrifices are real and heart-wrenching for her and her family. Her silver medal is a memorable, extraordinary moment for her, her husband and their children.

However, her achievement should not be confused for her being a role model to all kids, all women, all mothers, or all parents. While the qualities she embodies are important, and something worth teaching our kids about, she applied them for a specific purpose – to win a race, to reach her personal goal.  I don’t doubt the image that is being painted of her but she is being launched into famedom for being an athlete, not for driving the carpool or getting dinner on the table by 6:00 every night. We should be careful to draw the lines of comparison too closely between her and us mere-mortals.

It would be easy for me to look at Pikus-Pace and say, “Look at what she has done! I could and should do more! I haven’t done enough! I could set such an example for my kids!” I implore, let’s not use Pikus-Pace as another reason for women, parents, and moms to beat themselves up and feel a need to do more. Pikus-Pace is undoubtedly a remarkable role model for kids about hard work paying off and that it is possible to achieve outlandish goals. Yet, let’s not fool ourselves – my kids, most kids, don’t know about her or won’t remember her six months from now. I know some children idolize athletes or (eegads) entertainers. I’m all in favor of using positive influence, wherever it may come from, to help kids find motivation and fulfillment and be productive contributors to our world.

In reality, it is the people my kids interact with and watch everyday – parents, teachers, coaches and neighbors – who have a bigger impact on their view of the world and their place in it. Everyone is a role model, for good or bad, and parents are their children’s most important role models.

I am a role model because I show my kids everyday how to treat other people. They see how I talk to their friends, other parents, teachers, neighbors and strangers. I am a role model because my kids learn from me how to let other people treat them when I teach my kids to say to other children they don’t like being called names. I am a role model because I show my boys how to treat their future spouses when I take the time to hug and kiss my husband and listen to him talk about his day. My kids learn from me how to be a good friend when they help me cook a meal for a sick friend. I am a role model because my children watch everything I do and everything I say and learn how they are going to succeed (or fail) in this world. That is enough. I am doing enough. Let’s celebrate Pikus-Pace without making it a commentary on our own achievements (or lack thereof).

By all means, heap praise on Pikus-Pace as a role model for athletes, as an example of what can be accomplished with properly applied talent, commitment, sacrifice and determination.  Before beating yourself up about not making a difference or being a role model though, consider what you’re modeling and who’s actually watching. The next time you have the chance, take a minute to say something nice to a person who is doing something right, even if it’s just holding a door open for someone else. It’s not a silver medal but it’s the kind of recognition that really matters.

Yelling Less Is Totally Worth It

I am 21 days into the Orange Rhino’s 30-day yelling challenge. Essentially, it’s 30 days of learning how to yell less at my kids. The good news is that my angriest moments have gone from exorcist-like temper tantrums to a more civilized yet firm (usually through gritted teeth) frustrated whisper. I had one totally ballistic, lose-my-shit moment yesterday that left me feeling horrible, small and stupid but compared to a month ago, I think I’m doing pretty ah-MAY-zing.

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More importantly, I see and feel a difference with my kids. There is less tension and anxiety. I discovered some good tools to diffuse our most-likely-to-cause-yelling transitions (getting out the door is much easier…bedtime still has some work to be done). I’ve spent time talking to them about how I am managing my anger and I see them practicing it, too. My five-year-old now regularly asks to “just be left alone for a minute while I calm down,” and it always makes my heart soften and get all mushy. Not only do I know that what I’m doing, showing and teaching is making a difference in our relationship, but he’s also reaping benefits by learning how to recognize when his emotions are getting too big for him.

A friend often tells me that I shouldn’t be so concerned – most parents yell at their kids. Maybe you’re thinking, “Yea, well, yelling is just part of parenting. Most people do it and those who don’t, well, they’re just holding it in and that’s not healthy either.” I could point to lots of articles that talk about the damage yelling does to the kid/parent bond but they’ll just make you feel bad and guilty and will likely fuel the cycle of anger that leads to yelling outbursts.

Instead, I’ll ask, “How do you feel after you yell?” I doubt you feel good. I bet you feel guilty. I bet if you really look at your kids in the moments immediately after you yell, the looks on their faces are not associated with the feelings for which you want to be responsible. I know, you’re probably squirming a little and considering not reading anymore. It’s easy to rationalize away why we can excuse yelling, but bottom line is that everyone feels bad -mom, dad and kids – when we yell so why not try to do it less?

The Orange Rhino has been a wonderful way to kick-start changing my bad habit (I don’t know her and am not promoting her for any personal gain). Great tools, great community and the 30-day challenge gives it some structure. But, it takes more than 30 days to change a bad habit and I found I was craving more information to better understand why I yell and find more tools to help stop. There’s a lot out there. A lot. Which tells me that, yep, lots of parents yell and lots of people want to stop. Most importantly, that it’s really hard to stop.  I found lots of articles with great info but three articles stood out as helpful, informative and digestible:

Q & A,” from Symbio’s newsletter (a lovely, realistic, forgiving look at the problem)

How to Handle Your Anger at Your Child,” by Dr. Linda Markam (a more psycho-analytic take)

Yelling Doesn’t Help,” from Parents.com (warning: this article has some parental shaming language in it – yuck! – but it has some good info.)

Here are some things I learned from these articles and the Orange Rhino:

  • Figuring out common circumstances that often lead to yelling (triggers!) and coming up with preventive measures and management tactics is key.
  • We are all human which means we have a fight/flight response that can be triggered by the small humans we call our children, despite their diminutive size (surprise!). It is in the heat of the moment that our reptilian brain takes over and makes it very difficult for us to manage our outburst response but it is possible with practice.
  • This fight/flight response happens to our kids, especially preschoolers, when they throw a tantrum which is why we feel so silly when we find ourselves acting like three-year-olds screaming nonsense over misplaced shoes.
  • As adults, it’s important to recognize when this reaction is happening and to be able to appropriately experience, manage and express those emotions.
  • Experiencing, managing and expressing emotions are distinctly different processes and each plays a role in these moments of anger.
  • I must remind myself constantly that I must learn to manage my response – this is different than repress. I must work to recognize the anger, experience it, appropriately express it and then move on.

I have a long ways to go and lots of work to do, but I feel better-prepared to tackle this bad habit. I don’t beat myself up about it as much because I know I’m human and I’m trying. Tomorrow is another day. I also have seen the difference my no-yelling has made to my kids. It’s worth it. Totally worth it.

Photo Courtesy of Martha Soukup via Flickr

The Yelling Project

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I’m a yeller. I hate yelling. Yet, I can’t seem to stop myself. My Little Loves just push my buttons and then – WHAM! – nuclear Mommy meltdown and I start spewing forth all kinds of toxic loudness. It usually happens after I ask my kids 37 times to do something and it usually ends with me yelling some sort of Dr. Seuss sounding nonsense at them: “Time to go. Put on your shoes. Put your shoes on. Put your shoes on. Shoes on. Shoes on. Shoes on your FEET. Put SHOES on. Shoes go ON YOUR FEET. SHOES. Feet. On. GO. Feet. PUT SHOES ON! FEET AND GO!!!” And my head spins half way around my body and my eyes glow red all Exorcist-like.

I hate it. I feel horrible. My kids hate it. They feel horrible. Then I’m a Bad Mommy and I just feel worse and my patience is that much shorter making it that much more likely I’m going to lose it.

Bleckh.

So, I decided to do something about it and I found the coolest blog: The Orange Rhino (not a promotion. I don’t know this nutty lady. Just something I stumbled on in my search for help).  It’s awesome. The premise is to set a goal of number of days to stop yelling. The nutty lady set a goal of one year. And did it. Holy shitballs. A whole year of not yelling. At her husband. At her kids. At anyone. I was terrified and decided she was crazy and clearly had the help of tranquilizers, long child-free vacations and a live-in nanny. I dismissed it. Impossible. Liar liar pants on fire. A whole year is impossible. I mean, how did she make it through the holidays? How did she make it through a car trip longer than 30 minutes? How did she make it through a meal out at a restaurant? No way. 

But then I found out she was starting a 30-day challenge. I’m a sucker for challenges. I’m competitive. Ok. I can do 30-days. I’ll show you Orange Rhino Lady. Thirty days is nothin’!  I can do a month. 

So, here I go – 3o days of no yelling.  I’ve been reading up. I have my strategies. I’ve stocked the freezer and wine rack. I told my husband and kids (husband stifled a laugh but said he was on board and kids were genuinely excited). I’m telling all of you, so now I’m accountable. I’m nervous but excited. I’ve started rehearsing my song for “Put Your Shoes On” sung to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The kids love it.

This is gonna be hard but fun(ish).

Wanna join me?

Photo Credit: The Found Animals Foundation.

The Silent Friend

A few weeks ago, my husband and I got a phone call that no parent ever wants to get. Our oldest son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. This post is not about him. There isn’t much to write because we don’t know very much. It is a complicated situation, as these things usually are. The tumor’s location and my son’s age dictate that we must wait to get a biopsy and, in the meantime, carefully watch its growth. Without knowing what type of tumor it is, treatment is impossible. We are reassured by his doctors that the tumor is slow-growing and we have every reason to think it is treatable. And so we wait.

In the days following my son’s diagnosis, I reached out to close friends and family. Partly out of necessity (somebody needed to watch our younger son while we made repeated trips to the hospital for follow-up) and partly because I was floundering emotionally and needed support. As I shared the news, I was amazed at the  range of reactions: complete anguish to absolute silence. Having never been in a situation like this, I didn’t know what to expect of others or myself and often found myself babbling, reassuring me as much as the the other person that, “we are fine.” I was overwhelmed and so grateful for the outpouring of support. Many people were seemingly boundless in their generosity and willingness to help. I was humbled.

(Yes, here it comes – ) But, there were many people I didn’t hear from. I was so buoyed by the support from others that I didn’t give it much thought initially but as days turned to weeks and I still hadn’t heard from some very important people in my life, I had to wonder, “Really?!?! I send an email telling you my son has a brain tumor and your response is to delete it from your inbox and move on with your day? Even after I send another email and message you on Facebook?? Really!?!?”  I have heard the phrase, “It’s times like this when you really learn who your friends are”. Mere acquaintances sent heartfelt notes of encouragement, dear friends offered warm hugs and shoulders for my tears. Yet, others said nothing and offered nothing.   Indeed, it’s times like these…

Then I came across an essay by Margaret Feinburg, “The Three Worst Things You Can Say To Someone Battling Cancer or Any Kind of Adversity…”   (I’ll save you the trouble: 1-  I’ll Do Anything To Help; 2- Been there, done that; and 3- Silence). Yep. Check, check and a big fat check. Amen, sister. There it was, someone else validating the dark side of sharing bad news. Yet, something bugged me about this list. I realized I had said the first two things to other people in the past.  Even though I cringe to think that words I spoke may have been insensitive or even hurtful, at least I said something. But the third reaction, silence, is just plain callous.

Then I thought of the reactions from my friends and family. I heard the first two phrases many times but I found I was not actually bothered by them. Most people are not purposely going around saying hurtful things to people going through a tough time. I like to think they are saying those phrases because they believe them to be true or maybe they don’t know what else to say.  Surely, they don’t intend to hurt or be insensitive. I know when someone says they would do “anything” to help they don’t mean it. They are not going to pay our medical bills. They are not going to entertain my son for four hours while we wait in the doctor’s office. “Been there, done that” is a poorly worded attempt to connect over a common experience. Even if it usually is a misperceived commonality, it’s still an attempt to connect.

Some of the hardest experiences in life are moments we must face and endure alone.  It is through meaningless phrases like, “I’ll do anything to help,” that we are trying to acknowledge the loneliness of hardship. I can easily forgive well-intentioned, if mostly empty, offers of support but I can not forgive silence, can I?

Then I heard from a friend who had remained silent in the wake of my news. She apologized for not calling sooner but she had just decided to leave her husband and was trying to navigate the initial stages of separation. She simply didn’t have the emotional capacity to talk to me. Soon thereafter, another silent friend emailed me and said she simply didn’t know what to say and so said nothing. Likewise, our son’s situation can evoke very real fears for other people. One friend told me she didn’t sleep at all the night she received my email because she was petrified something was wrong with her own child.

It was then that I realized two things: 1) a friend’s expression (or lack thereof) of support likely has very little, if anything, to do with me and everything to do with their own emotions or circumstances; and 2) lots and lots and lots of people are overcome with their own life whether it’s a million little things weighing them down or a couple of emotional catastrophes. The burden of my news might be too much for them to deal with at that time.

In reality, it’s not for me to decide if a friend’s silence is a legitimate reaction to bad news. Silence is a legitimate choice for them. It was easy for me to sit in judgment and say that if I could get up every morning and get my kids to school and plan Halloween parties while my son has a brain tumor, someone else should be able to send me a three sentence email. But each person’s ability to cope with their life circumstances ebbs and flows, changes and morphs, depending on all kinds of things I simply know nothing about. Sharing our devastating news, though it is our devastating news and our story to live, impacts those I tell, too. Even silence is okay.

“It’s times like this when you really learn who your friends are.” I’m not so sure about that. Friendship spans greater lengths of time than a single life-event. Someone may not be there for me now, but maybe next week or next year or when they live closer or after they change jobs or…or…or…the permutations of life circumstances are infinite. I cannot make or break a friendship on one life event. My list of friends is intact, growing even.  I have deep gratitude for the people in my life – even the silent ones.

Fighting Words

In my previous post, I wrote that I thought I was the one in our family with the most anxiety about our oldest starting kindergarten. As it ends up, Boy Wonder had a lot of anxiety, too. He cried everyday for the first two weeks, clinging to my arm, leg, shoulder, neck – any part of my body he could wrap his little arms and legs around, begging me to take him home. Thinking back to my dream from my previous post, he was no longer happily playing in the water; he was drowning and screaming for me to help him and I had no (real) choice but to keep throwing him back in the water.

We weren’t the only ones struggling and I exchanged looks of sympathy with a handful of other parents with their own children velcroed to their legs. I was somewhat prepared for this. Actually, it went down about the way I expected it to with one little surprise wrapped up in a 45 inches tall, 50 pound package – a little boy named Anthony.

Anthony (not his real name) is one of those little kids I didn’t like from the moment I met him. Yes, I admit it –  I don’t like all children. All children are loveable (by someone) but Anthony is the type of child that makes me grateful for my own sons on their worst days. He is loud and rambunctious. He runs everywhere with arms flailing about, often running into and knocking down other children, sometimes on accident but usually on purpose. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him walk. Did I mention he’s loud? Really loud.  Worse, the words coming out of his mouth are often not the words that should be spoken loudly around children, especially when the person speaking them is a child himself.

On the second day of kindergarten as I knelt with my son in line outside his classroom, feeling his head buried in my shoulder and spilling hot little tears on my neck, Anthony stood in line in front of us. He turned around abruptly and said to us loudly (it’s the only setting on his volume dial), “You’re such a cry baby! Only babies cry like you!”

“Flick (Dylan Earhart) is tortured by school yard bully Scut Farkus (Calvin Whitney) while little Randy (Harrison Goyette) lays helplessly in the snow in A Christmas Story.I was stunned. I looked around for Anthony’s mom or dad, expecting them to step in with a quick admonishment (at least) and then model more helpful language (a hopeful long shot in most cases, I know). I scanned the parents standing around. Where were they? All of the other kids’ parents were there. No one stepped in so I ignored him and placed my body between him and my son. Anthony left us alone.

The next day I chose a place away from Anthony but he actually sought us out in line and he proceeded to taunt my son again: “You cried all morning yesterday. Are you gonna cry again today? Jeez. Such a cry baby! I don’t cry. My baby brother cries but I don’t. Quit crying already.”

I looked around again for Anthony’s parents, desperately hoping someone would intervene to say something to this child. Seeing no one, I felt my own anger, hurt and need to protect my child rise up like a red hot bowling ball from the pit of my stomach. My fight-or-flight instinct was kicking in and it was telling me to fight: “Who are you to call my son a cry baby! You little loud-mouthed runt! Step off or I will throw down! You think that just because there are a bunch of people around that I won’t? Just watch!”

Oh. My. God. I had just played out in my head what that fireball in my stomach wanted me to do. My body was preparing to take down a five-year-old! A kindergartner! He’s not even half my size! Horrified and embarrassed by my reaction, I swallowed the fireball, picked up my son and walked/stomped to the back of the line, certain everyone could see the steam coming from my ears and the lasers shooting from my eye sockets aimed straight for Anthony.

The next day, as we approached school, I felt my son tighten his grip on my hand and I started to feel my own anxiety rise. We were one of the first to arrive but Anthony was already there. He left us alone at first but inevitably he found his way to us and started hurling his insults at my son again. I swallowed my fireball and immediately knelt down and said in my kindest, softest mommy voice, “Anthony, it’s ok if he wants to cry. He’s feeling scared and sad and he feels better if he cries. Do you sometimes cry when you’re scared or sad?”

Anthony looked at me hard. I don’t know what he was thinking. Maybe he was thinking if he told the truth it would mean that he was a cry baby, too. And if he lied, well, then he was a liar. He didn’t say anything but instead turned to talk/yell at one of the other kids in his class. He left us alone.

The next day, Friday, my son and I were the first ones in his class to arrive at school. Anthony was the second. He walked right up to us and said at a volume that resembled normal, “Hi Mrs. Mommy. I brought my lunch today. It’s turkey.” I stood with my son on one side of me and Anthony on the other, instinctively feeling the need to protect my son, uncertain how this exchange was going to go.  As the three of us continued talking, I noticed Anthony stepping closer and closer until he was leaning against my leg.  Somewhere between telling me about his backpack and asking my son about his lunchbox, Anthony reached up and gently held my hand. He proceeded to have a very nice conversation with me and my son for the next couple of minutes before another child arrived. He let go of my hand and started talking/yelling at the other child, and my son started his routine of clinging to me tighter and tighter until we both enveloped ourselves into our little ritual to get him through the routine of walking with his class and into his classroom. But Anthony left us alone and has ever since.  I haven’t heard Anthony call my son a cry baby and Anthony almost always comes to say/shout hello to us when we arrive in the morning.

I can’t help but wonder and worry about Anthony. Who in his life is telling him it’s not ok to cry? Equally important, who is telling him it’s ok to treat others the way he treated my son? More importantly, how do I better prepare my son to weather these emotional attacks when I’m not around? What will happen when I’m not there to intervene? I hear my son stick up for himself in other situations and use the language I’ve taught him to use: “I don’t like it when you treat me that way. It hurts my feelings. If you don’t stop, I’m going to go play somewhere else.” I know he has no qualms about reporting to adults when he or someone else is physically injured; he’s probably closer to being a tattle-tale than anything else. Right now, I’m ok with that. He has time to learn more advanced social skills that will allow him to be more self-sufficient but he’s only five years old! He should still feel like he can go to an adult for help if he needs it. Maybe that’s exactly what Anthony was trying to do, and ultimately, it’s what he got.

The River

I am sitting on the banks of a river watching my five-year-old boy swim and play in the calm water. He dives underwater, exploring, inventing a new game every few minutes. His water games take him further and further away from the bank, until he drifts away, too far for me to reach him. I stand at the edge of the water bellowing for him to swim to me and come back. Too far away to hear me, he is happily swimming and playing, blissfully unaware of the possible danger and my panic.

And I wake up.

medium_3577182683It’s 4:30 this morning and after regaining my senses I’m disappointed in the transparency of my subconscious. My dream is uncreative in its reflection of what is going on in my life. After much (too much?) deliberation, we decided to enroll our oldest in kindergarten and he starts next week. We not only started him in kindergarten but we chose a Spanish immersion program at our neighborhood public school. After attending an informational meeting last winter and being blown away by the fifth graders in attendance who easily moved between speaking English and Spanish – and had a degree of maturity and confidence that surprised almost everyone in the room – we were sold. We entered in the lottery and were elated when we received notice this summer that Our Boy would be enrolled.

Reality hit hard this week. Much like millions of families across the country this week, we started the back to school shuffle: gathering school supplies, filling out paperwork, buying new clothes and running endless errands. I was fine. I was more than fine! I was excited and relieved to be starting this new chapter. I couldn’t relate to the many Facebook posts from friends sending their little ones off to kindergarten amidst tears and sadness. We had a great summer and I was ready for school to start and so were my kids. Our Boy was showing all the signs of being excited for school and it thrilled me to see him happily exploring reading, writing and math on his own.

We were ready.

Our boy went to his assessment and reported back to us (we weren’t allowed in the room) that the teacher only spoke Spanish but he figured out what she was asking and answered in Spanish when he knew the Spanish words (his numbers and colors) and in English when he didn’t know. He seemed unaffected. I was thrilled for him. But, I was unnerved when I learned the teacher would not speak English in front of the children. Period. I panicked. How was I going to talk to her? She didn’t offer an email or phone number (hopefully that’s coming). I was told by another parent that a separate appointment is needed at a time when the child isn’t present. The logistical nightmare became obvious and I started to worry but took comfort seeing how comfortable Our Son was with this new landscape. He was unphased.

A couple of days later we had Kinder Round-Up, a meeting at school giving kids the chance to meet their teacher and classmates and see their classroom. The teacher, speaking only in Spanish, invited the kids to sit on the carpet with her and read a book.  Predictably, Our Boy sat at the very most outer-edge of the carpet and he kept one eye on the teacher and one eye on me. About half-way through, he finally gave up and came and sat on my lap. The teacher invited him to participate and he refused. He didn’t cry or get upset but he withdrew. He has shown no other real signs of stress (yet) but I couldn’t help but panic a little more.

This panic took grip after the kids went to bed. I eventually fell asleep but then woke at 2:30, never to return to sleep for the night. His little bit of withdrawal threw me. Seeing the teacher interact with the kids only in Spanish threw me. The looks of confusion on the faces of almost every child threw me. I started to think we had made a mistake.  I carried this suspicion with me the entire day. We headed to a playdate organized by the school with other parents of kids in the Spanish immersion program. I sent the kids off to go play and immediately set out to find a parent who could answer some questions:

“Did your kid freak out?” “What happens when they lose it?” “Will the teacher speak to them in English?” “What about in an emergency? Will the teacher speak to the kids in English then?” “If the teacher won’t speak English in front of the children, when will I talk to her?” “Was this a mistake?” “Should I just pull him out and put him in traditional kindergarten?”

I found a group of moms with kids who had been in the program for at least a year. I happened to know one of them and elbowed my way into their circle. I got half-way through my first question before I felt the pinch in my voice that gave me away that I was about to lose it. The mom next to me said in a surprisingly reassuring voice, “He’s going to be fine.”

In my mind, I replied, “No he’s not.  Fear, confusion and intimidation are going to squash his confidence and curiosity. He’s gong to become a shell of his former self, start listening to heavy-metal, death-rock music, completely withdraw and start torturing bugs and small animals. I’ll have to check him into rehab at the age of eight and surrender him to the state before he’s 10. I’m making a colossal parenting mistake. The biggest of my life.” In my mind, the fragments of my dream were starting to form. I could see water swirling around Our Boy and it was dark and moving faster and faster. I swear I could see alligators and sharks circling him, ready to eat him up.

She repeated it again, “He’s going to be fine. Like most things, this is a lot harder on parents than the kids. He’s going to be confused and frustrated for a while but he’s going to be fine.” The other parents nodded in agreement and offered their own stories of sleepless nights, doubt and oaths to “just pull their kid out.”

After talking to these parents, I realized that my anxiety was all about my fears. I’m not afraid because he’s afraid. I’m not panicked because he’s panicked. He’s not losing any sleep. He doesn’t know the difference; he doesn’t know what it’s like to go to a kindergarten class where the teacher speaks English. He doesn’t know that I’m going to have a communication barrier with his teacher and, even if he does, he doesn’t care. He wants to play, learn and make friends. And he’s going to do exactly that.

He needs to play and drift from shore and be oblivious to my shouts for him to come back. I need to stop panicking. Instead of shouting for him to come back, I need to smile and wave and tell him to have fun and go explore. I’ll be right here on the banks of the river, waiting for him to come home and tell me all about the wonderful things he discovered in the water.

Happiest of Birthdays

My oldest son celebrates his birthday this week. His birthdays are always bittersweet for me. Yes, there is the bitter because he’s getting older (and I am, too) but I’ve made peace with that sentiment (at least for now). The bitter for me is still in how long and how hard it was to finally be able to celebrate his birthdays.

This birthday is a turning point of sorts. This year, my son turns five years old. Five years is how long I waited before he finally arrived – five years before I knew, for certain, whether I would be a mom.

Six years ago this week I laid next to my husband on a beach in Santa Cruz, and despite wanting to embrace the purpose of our visit – to relax, take a break from the four-year roller coaster of trying to get pregnant, have some fun, reconnect – all I could do was sob…uncontrolled, primal, heart-destroying sobs. We had just finished our first, brutal round of in vitro fertilization and found out that I was not pregnant.

Again.

Still.

In the midst of my grief, my thoughts kept turning to a woman I had met a couple of months earlier. I attended a dinner for work and was seated next to a stranger, the wife of a work associate. She looked to be a little older than me and had a smile that invited conversation. We chatted about small stuff and I quickly learned she was the mother of twins from whom she was happily enjoying a night away. She asked if I had any children and I gave her the answer I gave everyone who asked at that time in my life, “No, not yet.”

By that point in our quest to have a child, it really meant, “I desperately want children but can’t and I’m holding onto my last thread of hope that I will someday.” But I couldn’t really say that. I could hardly say that to my immediate family and closest friends, let alone a perfect stranger.

She went on to share that her twins were the result of multiple tries of in vitro fertilization. It was a personal revelation and one she shared in confidence, maybe somehow knowing it was very relevant to me. She related a familiar story of desperately wanting children with years of failing absent a clear reason why the usual medical interventions didn’t work. Her eyes became wet with tears. I was touched but a little baffled. I thought, “She has kids! She has a happy ending to the infertility story! Why is she on the verge of tears?” As I wrestled with this, she looked me in the eyes and said, “The heartache is unbearable, even now, and this was years ago. I hope you get to have children soon.”

It was obvious what she shared with me was not for public knowledge. She lowered her voice and spoke slowly, with measure, to make sure I heard her. I still wonder what it was about me that made her think she not only could tell me this private experience, but that she should. She had no way of knowing that my husband and I had our first appointment just that morning to begin the process of in vitro fertilization. After years of trying unsuccessfully to have a child and talking to countless doctors, trying various medical procedures, having surgery, receiving acupuncture, and taking up meditation, we were still childless – and heartbroken. She couldn’t have known that I spent most of my morning sobbing, cradled in the abyss of hopelessness and I knew the unbearable heartache she spoke of very well. Until this night at this dinner talking with this mom of twins, I had not found comfort in any other person’s words. Not my husband’s. Not my mother’s.  Not my sister’s. Certainly not any of the doctors’.

But here she was. Her hope for me was genuine. Her sentiment was heartfelt and not condescending or patronizing. She didn’t give me false hope by saying, “Oh, I’m sure it will work out.” She didn’t insult me by telling me, “Just relax, it will happen.” Instead, she simply reflected the only thing I had left. Hope.

And so, laying next to my husband, sobbing on that Santa Cruz beach, I took a deep breath and realized that hope really was what I had and that it was what would get me through until I answered the question whether or not I would have children. I also realized that even if I were lucky enough to have a child, the pain of the experience, the perpetual, seemingly never-ending grief I felt each month when I realized – again – I wasn’t pregnant, would be something that became a part of me. I would always be willing to cry with a stranger over the heartache of not being able to have children (which I have done in the years since).

A little over a year after I laid on that beach in Santa Cruz, our oldest was born. The joy was endless, my gratitude immeasurable. But grief is a funny thing. It is triggered by memories and events and the passing of specific days on the calendar. So, while I celebrate my son’s fifth birthday, all of the amazing things he has brought to my life and the wonderful human being he is, I also give a nod of my head to the road I took to get here – grateful it is the road behind me.

Blind-spot (Or Epic Parenting Fail #221)

When the time came for our family to move from one city to another, we thought about how to prepare our kids for the transition. My husband and I talked about if for many weeks in the presence of our three-year-old and one-year-old and we took them with us to look at a couple of houses. We read them children’s books about moving. When we decided on a house and proceeded with our plans to move, we felt like everything was falling into place and our kids were as prepared as we could get them.

At family dinner one night, close to the date of our move, my husband and I talked about logistics: when were the movers coming, did we need a bigger truck, did he call the landlord to switch utilities, I needed more boxes for toys, I needed to dismantle all of the beds and crib, etc. In the midst of our conversation, our oldest stopped eating, stared hard at his hands in his lap, and his chin started to quiver. As I realized that he was beginning to cry he crawled out of his chair and into my lap and dissolved into tears. I asked him what was wrong, fully prepared to answer questions about leaving his friends and neighborhood, all of the things that were of comfort to my young boy.

He said very quietly and sadly, his voice starting to break, “But, who will take care of me after you and Daddy move?”

I almost laughed (or maybe I did?). Of course he was going with us! How absurd to think otherwise! How could he not know that when we said “We are moving,” that “we” included him?

There I was, driving my Life Tour Bus, guiding my two little passengers down the road, pointing out the landmarks of moving and life transition and -WHAM! Right there in between talking about moving boxes and how we needed a house with a yard was a Mack Truck. The Mack Truck barreled into our dining room and smashed my little boy to emotional pieces. I was smashed to pieces, too. The thought of my little boy spending one minute thinking and, more importantly, feeling that we were going to leave him – no, abandon him – was heartbreaking.

(More money out of the “College Fund Jar” and into the “Therapy Jar.”)

photo credit: takeasmartstep.com via photopin cc

How was my tiny three-year-old, so new to the world and the language that rules it, supposed to know all the permutations of “we” in our family? There were so many variations: “We are moving,” and “We are going out to dinner and the babysitter will be here at 5:30,” and “We are getting ice cream while Daddy goes for a bike ride.” Sure, he could count and sing his ABC’s and knew more about cars and rockets than I will ever know. Yet, he didn’t know the meaning of “we” in this context.

Countless times since then I have discovered other things hiding in my tour bus’s blind-spot and I’m sure there are plenty more waiting to be discovered. I try to check my rear view mirror often but inevitably something’s there; sometimes it’s a bicycle but sometimes it’s another Mack Truck. The same thing that makes parenting so wonderful for me – helping my children experience the world for the first time – is also the greatest challenge. I must slow down, think in small steps and talk explicitly in the midst of a life that races along at highway speeds, indifferent to the hard work of small, young humans navigating life’s varied topography.

I guess I should buckle up and get some bigger mirrors.

photo credit: takeasmartstep.com

Bouquets of Dandelions

Mother’s Day held many traditions in my house growing up but my favorite was picking a bouquet of flowers from our yard to present to my mom with her breakfast. My mom has a beautiful flower garden that blooms March through October. The appearance of the first crocus in March is always a remarkable event. It’s followed by the daffodils and tulips. May brings the lilacs and the roses start blooming as the lilacs start to fall off. The variety of summer flowers is too plentiful to name.

Spring in Colorado can be unpredictable with snow, rain and sunshine all happening in the same week (or day). But Mother’s Day usually marks the official end to the possibility of snow and my Mother’s Day bouquet started the season of fresh-picked garden bouquets on the breakfast table. When I was really little, my bouquets were a huge handful of dandelions, so big that my hands and the stems would be covered in the sticky dandelion milk. As I got older, my bouquets were more varied with lilacs, tulips and daffodils. If I was lucky, the peonies would be blooming too, and my bouquet would be something to rival that from a European flower market (at least in my mind).

Without fail, my mom would say to anyone who stopped by the house the week after Mother’s Day, “Oh yes! Aren’t the flowers beautiful! Jennifer picked those for me for Mother’s Day! I so look forward to my bouquet every year.” As an adult and before I had kids, I wondered if my mom loved my bouquets as much as she seemed to. Looking back they were asymmetrical, had sticks and random pieces of long grass and dandelions were still the predominant flower. They really didn’t look anything like a flower market bouquet.

Now that I have kids, I have no doubt that she loved all of them. When my kids actually have the thoughtfulness and take the time to make me something or to express their affection, I revel in it. It’s the stuff moms wish they could bottle up for those other, more plentiful days when their job feels thankless.

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Today, my boys took me to the flower shop to pick out flowers since our flower garden is comprised exclusively of mostly faded roses and, thanks to our gardener, there is not a dandelion in sight. They told me to pick out whatever I wanted. I looked at some roses and lisianthus. There were a few Gerber daisies and sunflowers and lots of tulips and hydrangeas. Then I spotted my flowers. Tucked in the back of the shop on a little shelf, I found two vases, one full of lilacs and the other full of peonies. I took them all.

Now, we just need to find some dandelions.

Mother’s Day is such a bittersweet day for me. I so appreciate the affection and thought my boys have put into today. I will absolutely soak it up. But, my mom is far away and I would love to walk in her garden this morning and pick flowers for her. I’d give just about anything to hear her say, “Oh yes! Aren’t the flowers beautiful! Jennifer picked those for me for Mother’s Day!” Only now do I understand how much those bouquets of dandelions meant to her. There aren’t enough flowers in the world to tell her how much I appreciate all she has done for me over the years.

I love you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

I’d Like to Thank the Academy

I’ll admit it. I’ve practiced my Academy Awards acceptance speech. The problem is that I’m not an actress. I have no aspirations to be an actress, but I think it would be amazing if regular Joes or Janes would receive public recognition for their own accomplishments, no matter how ordinary they are:

“And the Academy Award for Best Husband Response to the Question, ‘What Do You Think Of My New Haircut?’ goes to…” (I know there are some contenders out there.)

Besides those benefit dinners that everyone except me seems to get invited to recognizing a “Volunteer of the Year” or “Humanitiarian of the Decade,” there isn’t a lot for a stay-at-home mom to aspire to in the “Awards and Recognition” department. It’s been five years and I’m still waiting for a cost of living adjustment to my salary. So I’ll take Mother’s Day as my “I-Am-Finally-Winning-Something” Day. Consider it my yearly bonus. Let the party planning begin!

Since I’m a shoo-in (I think my only other competition in the house is the spider hanging out in the corner of our stairwell whose babies hatched last week – shDSC_0032e promptly ate half of them), I think I should have my acceptance speech ready. So, I’m going to put on my best pair of black yoga pants and favorite hoodie and thank away. (pic of my party shoes.)

Any success I have as a mom, most notably not dying of embarrassment or imploding from frustration, is owed to many people – but mostly I’d like to thank some kick-ass moms who get me through my days:

-My mom. Duh. There isn’t enough time in the world to list all of the ways she is amazing. That’s a whole other post.

-My mother-in-law. Your son’s ability to love me reminds me how important it is for me to teach my sons to show and express love. Thank you for giving him that ability. It is such a gift to me and our sons.

-My sister for being brave and smart enough to leave a broken marriage and setting an example for your kids (and mine) that sacrificing your own happiness for the perceived happiness of someone else is never a good idea.

-My sister-in-law for putting up with my countless phone calls every week. And, your child sleeps less than mine so I always take comfort on my sleep-deprived days knowing you have it worse than I do.

-My friend whose husband left her last year when she was seven months pregnant with their third child and is now facing a life she never saw coming with amazing strength and courage. You leave me speechless.

-A mom I know who is working a full-time job, volunteers at all three of her kids’ schools, sits on the board of several nonprofits and runs marathons. You give me hope that one day I will be able to do more – or I should at least reconsider my decision to not drink coffee.

-A friend whose husband has terminal cancer and is grieving the “last time” every day while still raising two beautiful, active, inquisitive boys with more thoughtfulness than I can ever conjure up. If you can do that, I can manage to get my preschool registration forms in on time.

-My next door neighbor growing up who raised five boys and a girl without any of them going to jail. You give me permission to let my boys be boys and my house be filthy dirty.

-My friend who has one child and doesn’t volunteer for anything and doesn’t have aspirations of going back to work because you feel best when you are only focused on your son. You give me permission to say “no” and not get sucked into things out of obligation. You inspire me to be more focused and present when I’m with my kids.

-My friend who makes the time to exercise almost every day, even with three kids, and is healthier than ever before. You remind me that my health and getting exercise must be a priority. I’m a much better mom when I take an hour to make my muscles, heart and lungs work hard.

-The mom who I don’t know but was sitting at a table next to me at a restaurant and brought over a pile of napkins after my four year-old hurled his milk at my two year-old’s face for no particular reason, soaking me, my two year-old, and the entire table. I was stunned, horrified and embarrassed. You simply saying, “I have two boys,” probably saved me from starting a full-fledged food fight with my four year-old. Thank you for the gentle reminder that many, many people have walked in my milk-drenched shoes and I, too, shall survive – and so will my kids.

-The many friends and neighbors who have offered to babysit, drop off food, run errands or pick up my kids when they know the other parts of my life have become more demanding than my kids. I cannot do this mommy thing alone and you make it easy to ask for and accept help.

My boys wouldn’t be the spunky, funny, and loving little beings that they are if not for these and many other people because, if I had to do this alone, I would have dropped my kids off at a fire station months ago and headed for a Caribbean island. Yes, I am their primary caregiver and I will happily take my one day of recognition but I am filled with deep gratitude, too. Thank you moms, and Happy Mother’s/I-Am-Finally-Winning-Something Day.