Thursday, March 25, 2010

If Motherhood Were Easy, It Wouldn't Start With "Labor"

This motherhood thing has been somewhat, um, challenging lately. I've got a gum-smacking, miniskirt-wearing, eye-rolling pre-teen chatterbox who thinks I'm the world's worst mom because I won't buy her a cell phone. I've got a selective-hearing, persistent, precocious Kindergartner who thinks she should be allowed the same freedoms (but not the same responsibilities) as her older sister. And I've got a husband who says things like, "Ask your mother," or "What should I feed them for a snack?" or "What does Mommy usually do in this situation?" Or, my personal favorite, "I'll think about it" when what he really means is, "No way in hell!" because he doesn't want to be the bad guy.

So guess who gets to be the the bad guy and actually make the decisions?

Moms make literally thousands of decisions over the course of a typical day. Thousands. Some are easy, like no, you can't eat pixie stix for breakfast. Here's a bowl of oatmeal instead. Some are trickier, like what to do about a baby on nap strike or a mean girl on the playground or a gossipy neighbor you just can't stand. Sometimes I'm on a roll, handing out verdicts like a veteran judge, doling out punishments and juice boxes like a pro. Other days, I struggle with simple things, thinking, "What, am I new at this? Why can't I get it together?" But over the years, I've found that the easy decisions, the easy days, do not test me, do not make me a better mom. It's the hard days, the hard choices, the tough times, that define us as parents.

Think about it: The easy days, the days where everything goes right, no one gets sick or hurt or upset, the days where I have it all together, don't make me a better mom, a better person. The easy days are, for lack of a better word, too EASY to be interesting. If everything is going right, we aren't challenged to rise to the occasion. But on those OTHER days, the days when I'm thinking, "Is it bedtime yet? How early can I reasonably tuck them in? And what time does Happy Hour start??" I find myself being more resourceful, more creative, more EVERYTHING than usual. On those days when I'm thinking, "Man, this is SO NOT what I signed up for, SO NOT what I imagined motherhood to be!" - well, those are the days that make me a better mom. Those are the days that end with me thinking, "I got through this; I can get through anything!"

Case in point: When my girls were 2 and 4, I spent three weeks visiting my family in Los Angeles. My husband flew back a couple of weeks earlier than I did, but I'd flown with both kids on my own many times. So I was undaunted by the prospect of changing planes in Dallas/Fort Worth with two kids, a double stroller, two car seats, and three carry-ons. No sweat. Piece of cake.

Of course, nothing went smoothly. Our flight out of DFW was cancelled, and the only other option would take us into Reagan/National in DC, and then to our final destination, Pittsburgh, around midnight. I only had 20 minutes to reach the gate, which meant that I literally ran through crowded terminals like in that old OJ commercial, jumping over bags, pushing a double stroller filled with 90 lbs. of kid and two car seats strapped on top, singing silly songs to keep my kids entertained, much to the amusement of other travelers. Arriving in DC, I found that, due to airport renovations, they couldn't bring my gate-checked stroller to me - so I had to drag sleepy kids, car seats, and bags to the check-in counter just to get my stroller. Then, because I'd been re-routed to a different carrier and had no bags to check, the computer program selected me for secondary security screening - and no one could override the all-powerful computer. Swabbing my stroller for explosive residue, x-raying my diaper bag, patting down my toddlers, dismantling my car seats - of course, I missed my next flight. By this time, no one had eaten dinner and everyone was exhausted. My flip flop strap broke, so I was hobbling around, people staring, looking like an idiot - but again, that may have been due to my singing in an attempt to convince my kids that this was all just a grand adventure. I was booked on a later flight, a puddle jumper (in whose seats neither of my car seats would fit, so more gate-checking) that arrived in Pittsburgh at 2:00 AM.

And that's when I remembered that when my husband had flown home two weeks earlier, he'd driven my car home from the airport. And he was now - get this - in DC on a business trip.

So, because I'm a mom and we do what we have to do, I smiled at my kids, collected my car seats and stroller, claimed my bags, and rented a car. Completely loaded down and with no one to help me, I got my kids and my crap settled into the rented minivan in the middle of the night. I made the 2-1/2 hour drive home safely. It remains, to this day, one of the toughest days of my parenting career - but I wouldn't change one single aspect of it now. I dug deep, and I learned that I can handle just about anything life throws at me.

Slacker Mom Says...sometimes, parenthood is tough. Sometimes, we think, "This is not what I signed up for!" Some days, we have to dig deep, really really deep, into the well of creativity, patience, self-reliance - and we find that indeed we can handle more than we thought we could. We have to think of tough times as a test that helps us fine tune our parenting skills, a test that challenges us to be better parents, better people. It helps us grow as mothers. We learn that we can. We CAN. We're moms. We CAN - and we DO.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Italian Time" and Motherhood

As a young teacher, on a ten-month salary schedule, I always needed a summer job. You know, so I could pay the rent, buy shoes, have drinking money, that kind of thing. One summer, I was hired to teach English for an international educational foundation that did a sort of glorified summer camp for European teens whose parents wanted to travel and not be bothered with their obnoxious (and stinky) offspring. (I say stinky because, man, these kids reeked. We actually had to tell them that American teens shower daily. Your average teenager is smelly enough without adding in soccer games in 80 degree weather. P. U.) Most of our students came from wealthy French and Italian families. The kids spent the morning in English classes; afternoons were spent at various shopping and site-seeing destinations. American teachers and European chaperones lived in the dorms with the students, taught classes, and planned and supervised the outings. (Yeah, it sounds fun; really it was just ten weeks of utter exhaustion. But I made some lifelong friends, probably due to the Helsinki Syndrome-like conditions we worked under.)

One of many things I learned during four summers teaching rich, smart-ass European kids was how to swear and talk dirty in 14 different languages. But another useful thing I learned was that the concept of time is somewhat, um, fluid in Italy. "We're leaving in five minutes" meant anything from 5, 10, 50 minutes to them. If we said, "The bus leaves at 9:00," then we expected the kids to show up about 8:45, get on the bus, and leave AT 9:00. Reasonable, right? Wrong. They'd start showing up about 9:30, 9:45, we'd start yelling, then we'd have to find their Italian chaperones (in the cafeteria, complaining about American coffee), and we'd finally leave campus around noon. OK, I may be exaggerating, but only a very little bit. It was very frustrating the first few times. But we got used to it pretty fast, and we learned to beat them at their own game: We started giving them fake departure times. If we wanted to leave at 9:00, we'd tell them to get on the bus at 8:00. Sneaky, but it worked.

Another thing I realized about Europeans was that their concept of "hurry up" is NOTHING like ours. We walk faster, talk faster, eat faster, shop faster, play faster; EVERYTHING is faster here. I was always saying, "Let's GO! Hurry UP!" to my students. They took forever to eat lunch, pick out a Swatch Watch (don't ask, it was the 90s), do that scarf-around-the-neck thing that only European women can pull off. It drove me crazy. When I finally quit that summer job, I thought I was forever free of "Italian time."

And then I had kids.

There is NOTHING in the world that will prepare you for how long it takes a toddler to walk to the mailbox at the end of the driveway. Every single crack in the concrete, bug on a leaf, stray piece of mulch, blade of grass, twig, or ladybug must be examined with the intensity of a scientist in the field. What used to take me 2 minutes now takes 25. And there is no way to know beforehand how long it will take a five-year-old to put away 16 blocks and 2 stuffed bears. Trust me, it can take 5 minutes or 2 1/2 hours. You just never know.

When I had my first baby, I had no idea what children would do to my timing. Where it used to take me 10 minutes to get to the mall (grab purse, get in car, go), it now took me 45 minutes. Get the diaper bag, strap the baby into the car seat, adjust her straps, struggle through the garage door without banging the car seat into the cars, snap the car seat into the base, put the stroller in the trunk, and adjust the baby mirror 18 different times so I could see her (sleeping, unmoving) face in my mirror. Then, when I arrived, I had to unload the stroller, unload the diaper bag, adjust the seat and seatbelts properly...and oh, yeah, get the baby out of the car and into the stroller.

Once, when my oldest was about 5 weeks old, I had a particularly bad morning. I just wanted to go to the grocery store, like a normal person. But every time I picked my daughter up, she spit up on me. I don't mean a nice little Gerber baby dribble. I mean like Mount St. Helens erupting down my back. I'd put her down, change my clothes, clean the wall and the floor, pick her up - and then she'd have a diaper blowout. So I'd clean her up, clean myself up, pick her back up - and she'd spit up again. This went on for, no joke, about 40 minutes. And then she needed to eat, which took another 45 minutes (a firstborn, obviously - the second kid could drain me in ten minutes flat). Finally, I was out of clothes, she was out of ammunition, and I was in tears.

Kid time. It's even worse than Italian time. At least with my students, I found a way around it. With my kids, no matter how much time I give them, they need more. They take more. "Five more minutes" means absolutely nothing to a child. Try to rush them, and they slow down even more. It's maddening. If I need them to just put on their shoes and get in the car, I can pretty much count on the fact that at least one of them will choose that exact moment to poop, need a band-aid, or have to tell me a very long story about a caterpillar on the playground last week that was missing a leg. (WTF???)

Just tonight, after story time, my Kindergartner said she had to go potty. I sat on her bed while she went in to bathroom, fuming about how long it was taking her. How hard is it to just go in, do your thing, wash up and come out? But she had songs to sing, soap to splat, water to play in, earrings to admire, a nightlight that needed to be flicked off and on approximately 84 times, and, of course, she had to check her look in the mirror, "to see if my French braids made my hair all springy and crazy." It took forever. And all I could think about was all the crap I still had to do downstairs before I could finally relax and watch "Modern Family" on my DVR.

But then I realized something important: Kids are kids. No timetables, no mental to-do lists, nowhere else to be, nothing else to do. It's always summer vacation. They can live in the moment without worrying about all the little crap that we worry about. Did it really matter that she sang her songs, stared in the mirror, took a few extra minutes in the bathroom? She was happy, singing, giggling, enjoying life. I wish I had that much fun peeing.

When we're at the zoo, my kids can gaze for an hour at the sea lions. They'll stare at the monkeys forever, watching them groom each other and swing around, giggling and pointing. The lion cubs could keep their interest all morning; comparisons to Nala and Simba are nonstop. But my husband and I find ourselves glancing at our watches, hurrying them along, saying things like, "Don't you want to have time to see the meerkats? the ponies? the turtles?" All the while, they are content to just watch, observe, enjoy, without worrying about anything at all. That's childhood. Why take that away from them? Why rush and hurry them unnecessarily? We're at the zoo for THEM, after all, so why not just stand there and let them take whatever time they need?

Slacker Mom Says...don't fight kid time. It will not end well. When it really matters, when it's work or school or an appointment, that's one thing. Build some extra time into the schedule, be silly, give them a fake leaving time, do what you have to do. As a teacher, I had songs we'd sing to mark the transition to the next activity. They had to be done by the time the song ended, and they usually were. But sometimes we need to just stop and think: Does it really matter if it takes a few extra minutes? I am constantly rushing my kids through every little thing. I might get them to do it faster, but at what price? I'm yelling, they're crying, and we're all stressed, all so it can be finished a few minutes early? Not worth it. In a very short time, my precious girls will be grown and gone, and I'll have all the time in the world to watch whatever I want on TV. Shoot, I won't even have to DVR it, because no one will be here to interrupt me when it's on the first time. How sad will that be?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Grocery Shopping is Not "Me" Time (Unless You're Tina Fey)

With my kids in school all day, you'd think I'd have plenty of time to myself. I mean, come on: seven hours a day of kid-free time should mean plenty of "me time", right? The occasional manicure or pedicure (or both!), lunch with the girls, browsing the bookstore, coffee with a neighbor, enough workouts to achieve the body of a trophy wife.

You'd like to think so, wouldn't you?

No, I can count on one hand how many lunch dates I've had this school year. (Kindergarten cafeteria duty doesn't count.) I haven't had a mani/pedi since last Mother's Day. No one comes over for coffee because we're all already on our third cup by the time we wake our kids up for school. And that trophy wife thing? Well, that all depends on your definition, I guess. If you're looking for someone who's obviously popped out (and nursed) a few kids, desperately needs to see her hairdresser, and has tee shirts older than her kids, then yeah, I'm your woman.

Truth be told, these days it's all I can do to make the house passably presentable, get some food in the fridge, spend a little time on my treadmill, and do some laundry before it's time to pick up the kids from school. And we all know what the after school hours are like (lessons, practices, projects, homework, playtime, dinner/ bath/ bed, and those damn reading logs). I have four hours between pick up and bedtime, and I make the most of it.

Ask the average husband, and he has no idea what we do all day. Why would he? Sure, on some level, he gets that there's cleaning, errands, volunteering, laundry, kid-related stuff to do - but in a superficial way, much like I understand that binary code is somehow important to the inner workings of my computer, but I really don't get how it all works. And I don't have to. Someone else figured it all out for me, and now the thing just does what it does without my having to think about it. I think husbands are often like that: they don't really want to know the mundane details of our days. They just want to know that everything is running smoothly, efficiently, like my computer. I turn it on, it works, end of story. They come home; house/kids/chores have been taken care of; end of story.

So why do we feel the need to justify our time? And who, exactly, is asking us to? Is it really our husbands? When they ask, "Did you have time to (wash my socks/ buy dog food/pick up my dry cleaning/get eight 8 x 12 foam sheets in various pastel colors for the Indian Princess bottle rocket craft that I need at 6:00 tonight but I just told you about right now)?" are they making a statement about what we do all day, or just asking a question? When they ask, "So, what did you do today?" are they passing judgement or merely making conversation? Let me tell you, I'm fairly certain that my husband has zero interest in hearing how it took me 90 minutes, 4 washes, and a LOT of OxyClean to remove the fruit juice stain from my Kindergartner's favorite blue horse shirt that she wore last week on the field trip (and which only cost $8, less than I spent on detergent and water to get it clean, but hey, whatever). And while he can appreciate the adorable additions to the playroom decor, I'm pretty sure he doesn't want the play-by-play, just the highlights - like SportsCenter, but without the annoying theme music.

Or do we do it to ourselves? And if so, why do we feel the need to remind ourselves how busy we are, how much work it is to run a home and care for our kids and meet our obligations to our communities? Every mom, working or at-home, knows exactly how much time and effort it takes to be all things to all people at all times. No one actually asks me to justify my time - except for me. I have a constant conversation playing in my head that reads like a train schedule, down to the minute, what I've done, what I need to do, how much time has elapsed, how much time is left. It's mentally exhausting. It's ridiculous. And it's completely unnecessary.

(Once, when my kids were both toddlers, I actually kept a running timetable of my day. For an entire week, I wrote down every single thing I did, every single minute of every single day and night. I then made my husband read it, so that he would finally, truly understand why I was so tired all the time. He got to noon on the first day, looked at me and said, "I'm exhausted just READING this!" Exactly.)

So where does the "me" time fit in? Wherever the heck you can find it! My friend Coley eats lunch - alone - at 10:00, just to have some time to herself before preschool pick up. For Nina, it's an afternoon run - the kids have to keep up and no one is allowed to talk to her. My sister has no problem grabbing the remote from her preschooler and saying, "Mommy's shows now!" Even Superwoman Tina Fey finds time for herself: She grabs a fountain drink and wanders around Target, alone. Shoot, if she can do it, anyone can do it! For me, it's a phone call to my friend Michelle while we drink our morning coffee, right after her kids catch their bus. A few minutes of kid-free, chore-free, obligation-free time, and I'm a new woman, ready to take on the day.

Slacker Mom Says...find some time each day that belongs to you. Maybe it's a soap opera, maybe it's bad reality TV on the DVR, maybe it's a trip to the bookstore that doesn't involve a train table or a visit to the children's section. Whatever it is, whatever your status, moms need "me" time. It makes us better moms, better wives, better people. No one's going to "give" it to us; we've got to make it happen. Tomorrow, my friend Nancy and I are hitting our local taqueria for some salsa and gossip, and nothing short of a sick kid will stop us! I know I'll come back refreshed, renewed, ready to take on piles of homework and reading logs without complaint.