Going Back to Work: Using My Powers for Good

My days of living in yoga pants, optional shower days, and comfortable footwear are coming to an end. It’s time for me to start the process of finding a paying job.

Working outside the home part-time or full-time or staying home full-time…this dilemma is one that most moms encounter at some point, sometimes repeatedly, once that little pink, squirmy, and warm bundle of joy enters her life. For me, I put work out of my mind with the arrival of my second child. It was a decision based largely on my complete inability to accept that I couldn’t be “the best” at my job. In the words of my eighth grade gym teacher, I’m a competitive little fart. I wasn’t sure I could handle the competing demands of a job and the needs of very young children. I chose to embrace the opportunity to be home with my kids while they were very young. I packed away my suit and high heels and invested in lots of stretchy black clothing.

Reality came knocking on my door this week. A friend stopped by to drop something off and during small talk mentioned she was waiting to hear back on a job interview. It was her first job interview in eight years after she also made the decision to stay home full-time. She related the challenges she was having in conveying to potential employers her viability as an employee after being out of the workforce for eight years. After she left, it hit me that I had not worked a paying job in almost four years. I pulled out my resume and immediately felt like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz left out in the rain too long. As I read my resume, I could hear the rusty squeaks of the wheels turning in my head.

Yowzer.

I’ve spent some time the last few days thinking about jobs I am interested in and whether or not I could go back to my previous career. I am reading about strategies for stay-at-home moms re-entering the workforce and everything I read says to start by considering what jobs I might be qualified for based on my experience. Thinking of the skills I’ve honed for the last five years, the stereotypical maid, chauffeur and cook come to mind but I feel like my days of full-time mothering are not useless. I brainstormed a list of potential jobs last night:

1- Bartender. Come 5:00 at the end of one of those days when my kids have done nothing but screamed at me and each other and there is no visible indication that I actually have hardwood floors in my dining room because they are covered in toys, blankets, crumbs and mystery stickiness, I’ve perfected the art of a 5:00 cocktail leftover from whatever I happen to have in the house. Red wine mixed with bourbon and coffee isn’t as bad as you may think.

2  – Sleep deprivation study coordinator. I can round-up twenty people in about two minutes from my group of friends and document the countless ways sleep-deprivation ruins your life. “Hmmm. I see…you haven’t slept for more than four hours at a time in three years. What effects have you seen? Hmmm…you lost your engagement ring three weeks ago only to find it in the fridge on top of the cream cheese. Mmmmhmmm. Yes, yes. Totally normal.”

3 – Server at some Fancy Pants restaurant catering to those with a sophisticated palette. Don’t laugh. This position can make six figures at some restaurants. Consider this scenario that played out at my house last week:

“Oh, I’m so sorry sir. Your carrot was cut in half lengthwise instead of chopped into thirds? I’ll be right back with a replacement carrot,” said me to my three-year-old. I could do this job in my sleep. My three-year-old hurls cheese sticks at my face on a regular basis because “it is cracking.” It. Is. String. Cheese. It’s supposed to do that. I handle all of these complaints with calm, detached indifference to the ridiculousness of my sons’ requests and continue to cater to their endless demands.

medium_29017384594 – Spy – Physical abuse? No problem. Days of sleep deprivation? Ha. That’s nothing. Try six YEARS of sleep deprivation.  Psychological torture? I’ve tortured myself over all of the ways I’ve screwed up my kids and all of the ways others are going to screw up my kids. Never mind the really horrible nightmares all parents have when they realize their  emotional Achilles heel walks around most of the day completely unaware of the dangers hurtling towards them at lightning speed: cars, trucks, kidnappers, earthquakes, tsunamis and the bully  next door. I can handle a little physical and psychological torture. You won’t break me.

5 – Hostage Negotiator – “Yes, yes. I hear you’re very upset that your brother threw your football onto the roof. Yes, I see that you want to strangle him and pound his head into the ground repeatedly. I think you can make a better choice here so that he doesn’t get hurt and you don’t get in trouble. Let’s talk about your options.” Rinse. Repeat. Everyday. My kids are still alive. I negotiate the preservation of their lives everyday.

6 – Presidential Scheduler – If I can handle the schedule of two adults and two children, I can handle one President. Yesterday I scheduled the exterminator to come to the house during a 30-minute break in my day created by me rescheduling a kid’s haircut and calling two moms to cover school pick-ups while I let the exterminator into the house. I get bonus points for not ripping the guy’s head off when he showed up 20 minutes late – coincidentally the exact time I originally asked him to come. I can handle a President and some annoyed foreign leaders, no problem.

7 – Professional Poker Player – The lies I tell my children to get them to do things without ever once twitching my eye, tugging on my hair or raising an eyebrow!  “Yes, I promise I will not eat any of your Halloween candy while you are at school.” Never mind that I know nothing about poker. I’ve got the game face down pat.Full house? Royal flush? Four aces? I’ll never give up my hand without someone giving up lots and lots of money.

8 – Jedi Night – There’s a scene in Star Wars where Obi-Wan says, “These are not the droids you are looking for,” and waves his hand in front of the storm troopers and the storm troopers trot off in the opposite direction. I do this every single day. “That is not the cookie you want to eat.” “This is not the child you want to play with.” “You love to eat broccoli.” “You will go to sleep now.” A small wave of my hand, magic words spoken at just the right time and in the right tone and miracles happen. These skills would be useful for anyone looking for help with a hostile corporate take-over or, even better, world domination. Surely there’s money to made there somewhere.  (Disclaimer: some days the wave of the hand is also accompanied by lots of screaming and threats of violence. I should maybe consider this position a “stretch goal.”)

9 – Ninja – Come on. This almost goes with the list of “maid, chauffeur, etc.”. I can sneak in and out of my kids’ rooms, put away clothes, rearrange furniture, change their sheets, undress and redress them without them ever waking up. I need to brush up on my steel  star-throwing skills but otherwise I’m set.

medium_10253833610 – Self-defense class assistant. You  know the people who wear those super-padded suits while students in the class practice hitting, kicking, biting and throwing techniques? I take that kind of abuse everyday from my three-year old just trying to get him dressed. I do my job without some sissy padded suit, too. I’m immune to that kind of punishment. “What? Are you hitting me? I can’t feel a thing. Go ahead, have at it. I’m just going to catch up on some sleep in here.”

Ah, yes. Feeling much better about my employment opportunities. So if you have any connections at the Jedi Knight Academy, I’d appreciate the introduction.

Photo Credits: Stolen Wheels and University of Denver
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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.

The man on the bike with the baby

We have moved to the set of The Truman Show. At least, that’s what I keep telling my husband. In the movie The Truman Show, a man (Jim Carrey) is going about living his mostly idyllic life that, unbeknownst to him, has been a carefully orchestrated and scripted Hollywood reality show. The houses are charming and the lawns well cared for, the neighbors friendly and helpful, the wives beautiful, the husbands successful and handsome, the kids cute and perfectly behaved. We live a short walk from a cute downtown with a combination of boutiques, cafes, and “everywhere” stores (Gap, Pottery Barn, etc.). Carter rides his bike to school three blocks away with his new best friend who lives across the street. For every three people there is a golden retriever or labradoodle. There is no road-rage. Everyone waves and smiles when they pass each other on the street.  It’s wonderful…and unnerving. I often find myself fighting the urge to walk around saying rather loudly, “This is all a charade! You’re all actors! You can stop it now! I know what’s going on!”

And I feel guilty as hell. The deep, Protestant, you-can’t-go-to-enough-church-to-wash-you-of-your-sins, kind of guilty.

Shortly after we moved here, I was on my way home from driving Justin to work (I was driving our convertible Mercedes because our SUV was in the shop…not because it was broken but because it was getting serviced, what a luxury) when I stopped at a stoplight. I was on a busy street lined with old apartment complexes built in the 40’s and 50’s that haven’t been touched since and are now occupied by low and middle income families. Outside my window, I watched as a man dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and baseball cap stood in the doorway of his apartment, said his goodbyes with a kiss and hug to a woman and then leaned over and kissed a baby in a stroller. I was struck by how similar that scene looked to the one that had played out countless times in our own house. Justin goes off to work (but dressed in a button down shirt, khakis and dress shoes), kisses me goodbye and hugs and kisses the boys before he goes off to work. For some reason, I was momentarily comforted by watching this universal ritual unfolding in a setting so different from my own.

But then, in a fluid motion, one that revealed it was something this man had done countless times before, he picked up the baby in the stroller (tiny little bundle!), wrapped it in thick blankets, put the baby on his shoulder, hopped on his bike and pedaled down the street, holding the baby with one hand and steering with the other.

I couldn’t believe it. Forget that he didn’t have a helmet on (I could hear my son’s panicked voice in my head, “Mommy! He doesn’t have a helmet!”). Forget that the baby wasn’t wearing a helmet (they don’t even make helmets that small, do they?). Forget that the baby wasn’t even in a baby seat or baby trailer. Forget that the man was riding down one of the busiest streets in the area. I had a million questions flood my mind. Where is he going? Is he taking the baby to work with him? Is the baby sick? Are they going to the doctor (the only legitimate reason I could come up with for why he would put his baby at such risk)? Or is he dropping the baby off at a babysitter or daycare? Where, in God’s name, is he taking a baby wrapped up in a blanket while riding on a bicycle?

As I sat in my convertible Mercedes, I thought of my boys and the obscenely expensive, currently empty car seats carefully and tightly strapped into the rear seats of our SUV and how much energy I had expended in the last four years ensuring my kids were securely strapped into the seats every time we went anywhere in our car. We rode bicycles for fun and only after lengthy lectures on safety and responsibility.

My momentary comfort in the universal ritual of dads saying goodbye to their families in the morning fell away. I had no context or perspective from which to view this scene.

My guilt and confusion was overwhelming. I began to sob. And there I sat in my convertible Mercedes driving back home to our newly painted and decorated house in Burlingame/Truman Show, CA to ride bikes with my four year old who was most certainly already having his Oma help him get the straps to his bike helmet tightened under his chin. And when I got home I would carefully strap my two-year old into our way-too-expensive stroller so we could take a walk to the neighborhood park to play with other kids who were in all likelihood doing just about the exact same thing.

I came home and told my mom who was visiting for a few days what I had seen. I said,  “It’s not fair that I get the luxuries of safety and security and education when so many other people don’t. Why am I any better or more deserving than anyone else?” Because I worked hard? Lots of people work hard and don’t get what I have. Because my parents could afford to send me to college (at a state school with ridiculously low tuition)? Because I can afford to pay my law school loans (because of said ridiculously low tuition)? Because I married a man who also works hard and is smart and works in an industry that compensates him well? Because, frankly, we had also been very lucky?

And then my mom told the story of my great-grandmother whose husband died unexpectedly when my grandmother was a senior in high school. There she was. Mother of four kids aged 17, 16, 14, and 12 years old with a farm in Iowa to run just as the Great Depression was starting. How unfair. She did not wallow. She did not feel sorry for herself (of course she did but no one knew it). No time for that! And she did everything she needed to to keep the farm afloat (it is a business, after all). Rather than sending her two oldest girls to college, as was the plan, she kept them close to home and they worked in town, giving all of their pay to keep the family farm alive. My great-granmother got up before dawn to tend to the farm animals, gather cow pies (that’s dried cow crap for you city slickers) to burn for fuel. She turned her home into a boarding house to help bring in a little more money. Once the two youngest boys were old enough, they started helping with the farm, too. This wasn’t temporary. This was how she spent the majority of the rest of her life. She saved the farm and it’s still in the family. One of her great-grandsons still lives in the house. Below is a picture of it that I took during our trip to Iowa this summer:

The four kids helped my great-grandmother as best they could, all raising their families close to the farm. My grandmother later married my grandfather who also lived in the small Iowa farming town and moved to a nearby farm. Here, they raised my mom and her two sisters. Farming life is not easy nor lucrative. My grandparents worked very hard, lived modest lives and sacrificed like crazy to give their three girls a chance at going to college and having careers. Which they all did (still do).

My mom married my dad, also raised on a farm in the small Iowa farm town. My two aunts married men from the same farming community as well. And they all promptly got the hell out of Dodge. Not in a spiteful way (our family remains close-knit) but in a way that honored the opportunities my grandparents tried to create. And my parents did everything they could to provide me and my siblings the same opportunities, with an exponential increase in expectations and sacrifice. Standing on that foundation created by my parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ sacrifices (and the inherent advantages of being a middle-class white female in our society), I went to college and law school and built my career and life with my husband. And then Justin and I made our sacrifices to start a family and began to build a foundation for our children on which to build their futures.

Maybe the-man-on-the-bike-with-the-baby is doing the same thing…he’s just a couple of generations behind my family. The evolution of wealth is usually slow.

Maybe. Maybe not.

I still feel guilty.

I also told my husband about the-man-on-bike-with-the-baby and in the only way that he can give me an ass-kicking, he gave me an ass-kicking (reason #3 I married him). He said, “How do you know that the man you saw is not actually every bit as happy as you? Maybe his life in the last 10 years has been hell and he’s thrilled to be enjoying the life of a new dad and he’s grateful for a job that makes it possible for him to live in that apartment. Just because the two minutes of his life that you witnessed is shocking to you doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his life.”

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe Justin was also just trying to make me feel better (reason #8 I married him).

The truth is, I have no idea where the-man-on-the-bike-with-the-baby was going and whether or not he was happy or satisfied with his life. Just like I have no idea whether the beautiful wives, handsome and successful husbands, and well-behaved children we are now surrounded by are happy or satisfied…or not.

But, right now, I am happy and satisfied. And I’m going to enjoy it and be very, very grateful for this moment in time.  My great-grandmother wouldn’t want me to take my happiness for granted but she’d be damned if I felt guilty for it, too.