The Start of School

I am excited for school to start. My kids fight so much that I name them Israel, Palestine and Syria. That is not why I’m excited. We have been around each other 24/7 since June. That’s not why I’m excited. I’ve actually kind of enjoyed that, when Palestine wasn’t throwing rocks at Israel, and Syria wasn’t wailing about something. I’m ready because it is time.

P1010920We had a wonderful summer. I didn’t over plan it, like last year. We visited family, took some swimming lessons, and did minimal piano practice. We didn’t do camps, classes, sports teams, or any of the other extras that gorge on time and finances. I taught Bear to embroider. The kids played with friends, read and listened to books, did a lot of chores, and watched some TV. It was delightful.

I’m sure they would have liked to play baseball, attend camps, and other organized fun. Those are wonderful things- enriching, engaging, and good for kids. But my children get their heads pumped full of enriching, engaging activities throughout the school year. They do full days at school and take weekly music and dance lessons. If they do the prescribed homework and practice that goes along with these activities, their days are full. They are scheduled or getting nagged to work, from the time they get up, until they get ready for bed.

Summer is opportunity for contrast and a different kind of intellectual training. I’m convinced that after 9 months of cramming it full, the brain needs some down time to sort it all, put it away, forget that which it doesn’t want (to the chagrin of teachers,) and take some creative actions of its own design. Okay, so the forgetting isn’t great, but the sorting and creativity are at least as important to my children’s mental growth as is pushing them to do above grade level math. I suspect it is more important.

The best classroom ever

The best classroom ever

Unstructured time allows children time to listen to their own quiet minds and help them find resources within. They discover their own interests and practice navigating social situations without an adult overlord watching over them. They learn to amuse themselves and that being “bored” is a natural state for a mind unengaged. It is up to them to relieve their boredom, not me. (I do not create amusements at home. I make bubble solution, provide them with art supplies, take them to the library, and invite them to help me with household duties. That’s it.) Luckily, our neighbors and playmates have a similar philosophy about summer.

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

Q wrote a neighborhood newspaper with her friend. They busked on a busy corner, playing tunes on a lap harp, fiddle, and a banjo. They made three dollars! They gave each other pedicures, which consisted of soaking their feet in water full of floating bits of lavender, rosemary, mint, and… chives. (Mmm, onion feet.) They rode scooters, bikes, ate berries and cucumbers out of the yard. They designed Halloween costumes and spent a lot of time talking. That is a summer well spent.

But all good things must end and too much unstructure fosters ennui if it stretches out for too long. They are showing signs of discontent. They loll around and sigh. Easy amusements have lost their charm. They bicker longer, harder and about sillier things. Bear can’t stand how AJ chews gum. AJ can’t ride her bike if anyone else in on the sidewalk for the entire length of the block. Q is sick of everyone.

They are ready for work. Structure, goals, tasks, and challenge are part of a vibrant human experience and it is time. Get ready, kids. School starts tomorrow. Sharpened pencils and clean notebooks full of expectation and promise await your well-rested brains. Work hard. Be good. This is the season of work. Do it as well as you did the season of play. Ready. Set. Go.

Mommy Wars- Call a Truce.

I made the mistake of reading the comments section of an article about Lean In author, Sheryl Sandberg. I’m old enough to know better, but after avoiding comment sections for months, my faith in humanity recovered and it was time to knock it down again. Comment sections are brutally efficient for this purpose. The article was about the continuing controversy surrounding her book. Most of the comments were hackneyed dismissals of her person, not the content of her book, many convoluting her career choices with her parenting choices, each comment revealing more about its writer than it said about Sandberg. Blech. Enough. Grow up.

Wyatt Earp and his Mom. I'll bet she didn't even have a Moby wrap.

Wyatt Earp and his Mom. I’ll bet she didn’t even have a Moby wrap.

Parenting is too complicated to waste time pecking at the choices and lifestyles of others. The Mommy Wars are squabbles of the bored and privileged.  I don’t care if you’re a tiger mom, a free-range dad, a Montessori mama, a homeschool champion, a Ferberizer or an attachment adherent. I don’t care if you’re career driven or a devoted stay-at-home parent. If it works for you- if your children are content and engaged, if you’ve managed to retain some semblance of self- I applaud you. You are doing great! There are some parenting practices that raise my eyebrows- I am suspicious of unschooling, and I am wholly intolerant of disrespect- parents letting children run roughshod over the rights of others to not be maltreated and disrespected by unfettered progeny. (Is there a name for this? I think it’s called, “Parental Narcissism,” but that might just be in my own head.)

There are so many ways to parent because parents and children are all maddeningly varied and their interactions complicated. Ploys work for a while, or for one child, and then must be amended or discarded. If your children’s clothes are stained because you make them do their own laundry- kudos! If they eat McDonalds on the way to tuba lessons because you can’t work, cook, and get homework done- awesome, they get music lessons! If you store your homemade, organic, locally sourced baby food in BPA-free jars- wow, this is really important to you! If you chew up a granola bar and then feed it to your baby, a la Alicia Silverstone– I will not bat an eye. That is among the more benign things they will ingest and I’d like the parent who never licked off a pacifier to please come forward so we can wonder why he’s so weird.

Josephine Baker and her rather unconventional family.

Josephine Baker and her rather unconventional family.

The only parenting experts are those who aren’t parenting at the moment. I write and read about parenting because it helps me sort out goals and lay plans. The only thing at which I’m expert is getting back up after falling on my parental face. Talk is cheap. Opinion is a wisp of smoke. Action and results are the only things that matter. What is true in war is true in parenting- No plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

In the quiet of evening, I resolve not to yell because it isn’t effective. I plan to set aside time to teach Bear to embroider to enrich his mind and our relationship. I say that I will not morph into a harpy of rage when practicing music with Q because it is detrimental to everyone.

The next day, I do it all… until the children wake up. AJ makes us late and I yell, “Where are your shoes!” I weed the garden instead of embroider with Bear. I get so frustrated during music practice that I close myself in the bathroom and scream into a bath towel.

Maybe I am inadequately equipped for parenting. If that is the case, then I am a member of a big club. The parents I know reasonably well struggle, search out new tactics, try stuff, find something that kind of works and pray it keeps working (It never does.) They struggle to manage their own natures as they teach their children to manage theirs.

Everyone struggles, even families with the most enviable exteriors.

The Kennedys. Everyone struggles, even parents with the most enviable exteriors.

I am glad the dad at the park brought his child out to play, even if dad’s smoking.  I have only sympathy for the mother trying to get through the grocery store by feeding her child Skittles the whole time. I do not know how the rest of her day has gone, or what else she’s got going on in her life. I get judgy like everyone else, but I remind myself that it is foolish and futile, especially when I’ve got my own trio of young humans to manage.

1101120521_600The media bait and we bite, stirring up a heady froth of black and white judgment. The sensational Time cover and its accompanying story ruffled a lot of feathers. The vaccine “debate” is drowned in emotion and distrust. The advice of Sheryl Sandberg and Gwyneth Paltrow grow patches of feckless disagreement. It seems that one must have an opinion on all of it. The only beneficiaries of all this ugly chatter are publishers. (I did purchase Lean-In after reading that article, encouraging the pot stirring  to continue. My bad.)

Peace with the life I’ve made comes from owning my choices and reminding myself of the good things that grow out of those choices, instead of envying the things I don’t have. Confidence in my parenting stems from seeing my children’s growth and behavior move in a positive direction. It does not come from judging my efforts as superior or the wholesale dismissal of another’s experience. If it were that easy, I’d get myself a gavel and judge with abandon. It would be easier than relying on results to confirm my work.

Read Sandberg,  Sears,  Dobson,  Chua-  a broad variety of experience and philosophy. See what they offer and get familiar with other ways of approaching the struggle. The only goals are respecting ourselves while raising healthy, wise, confident adults who can stumble through their own adulthood at least as well as their parents and maybe, (if we’re really overachievers,) a little bit better.  If someone else has managed to do that; they’re worth a listen. Even if you don’t buy all their suggestions, you’ll learn something.  Abandon the Mommy Wars. They are an utter waste of time and energy when we all need help, understanding, and to feel free to find the things that work for us and our children, here, in this moment.

Post Script: To that end,  I do not hate advice. I do not equate being offered advice with being judged as failing. Frankly, if your advice is good, you can judge me however you like. I don’t give a fig. If I’m struggling and something worked for you, please, share it! I take all helpfully offered suggestions seriously and with a good attitude. I want all the help and wisdom of the ages to get my children from birth-20 as best as is possible for them and for me.

Creative Destruction

There is a fine line between encouraging children’s creativity and letting them ruin your life. When their imaginative and explorative minds are fully active- watch out- something is going to get trashed. Children who are not fed on a steady diet of screen time are dynamic mess makers. It is the price paid for turning off the TV/smartphone/tablet/computer/DS/game console; they come out of stasis and commence learning.

I once came upstairs to find my 2 and 4 year old “greasing the piggy”- spreading Eucerin skin cream (the really thick one) like frosting on Bear’s piggy bank. It was all over their clothes and they were having a ball. Being the party killer that I am, I put a stop to it, but I couldn’t be mad. No doubt it was tactily stimulating.

At some point, each one of my children turns a lipstick all the way up and mashes the cap back on. They dump out boxes of neatly ordered items- bandages, cotton swabs, tea bags, but lack the interest and small motor skills to put them back in. They unroll rolls of toilet paper, pull out entire boxes of tissue, gleefully rip out page after page of phone books. (Alas, our youngest never had this thrill as we received our last one before she was of paper ripping age.) They are on a mission of discovery that usually entails moving from order to chaos.

As older children, they body paint themselves with sidewalk chalk or mud. Walls double as canvas, napkin, and Kleenex. Peony petals are stripped from their stems and flung about in a Disney excess of beauty and delight, leaving plants dejected and a near carpet of pink on the grass that quickly turns to something resembling brown snot. They’ll cut a ticker tape parade worth of paper nitnerts before they vote in their first election. They will all end up on my floor.

I was similarly busy as a child. While my parents lived with much child-made chaos, there was one feature that made harmony between childhood and adulthood easier.

My natal home has a two-part backyard. Visible from the house is the lawn, babbling pond, patio, and bonfire pit- all against a DSC_0080backdrop of a 5’ stucco wall and a riotous wisteria. There is only a glimpse of the Neverland that lies beyond- the back back[yard.]

The back back was our realm. We were essentially free to do anything there that didn’t involve shedding our own or each other’s blood, or at least not much of it. We had everything a child’s imagination and ingenuity required. A patch of 10’ bamboo-like grass served as building material for teepees, fishing poles, pit traps, spears, and anything else that required a stick. Queen of Heaven trees grew like weeds and, when we were old enough, we were allowed to cut them down for sturdy lengths of stinky green wood. We had food- apricots, grapes, and apples. A spigot watered our meager garden, filled multiple buckets for countless uses, and slaked the thirst of small throats. We dug a huge hole one summer that morphed from swimming hole to Egyptian tomb, to bear trap, to root cellar. We buried small pets there (previously expired,) marking their graves with haphazard markers that were always conspicuously absent after the next mowing.

We played at farmer, Peter Pan, and weeks worth of “Refugee”- a game of pretend in which we survived in the jungles of Vietnam with our family and pet panda.- like “house” with a touch more drama. We had many adventures. We discovered many things. We made a mess. If it had not been for the shield of that masonry wall, if my parents had had to look at a pit trap from the living room, or the bundles of tall weeds we harvested and tied as sheaves of wheat from the dining room, our activity would have been curtailed. That wall separated our worlds enough that they could let us be creative and imaginative and still have their adult preference for purposeful landscaping and order.

My family was lucky to have that wall there when we moved in. I doubt my parents would have divided their yard by choice, but it proved beneficial. Adults with children in their lives should consider the level of chaos with which they are comfortable and how attached they are to their possessions. Then they ought to set meaningful boundaries they are willing to enforce. If they do not, children will naturally expand to fit the space allowed, just like grown ups.

Of course, this is all highly individual. I know families who live by the Montessori mantra, “Everything in its place and a place for

Montessori- take me away!

everything.” I am in awe of those parents. I know families who are comfortable letting their children have the whole house and don’t mind the mess. Every room is full of children’s detritus- books, art, toys, games, etc.  Other families have rooms that are off limits to children, lest small feet mar the uniform nap of the carpet, or leave other evidence of their being lying around. My aunt, who had 3 boys and was married to a 4th, had a room that was just hers- full of girly projects and things she didn’t want broken. If you possessed a penis, you were barred.

Based on households I know, I consider my chaos tolerance as middling. Art and drinks stay at the table (That is the rule, but I have found a glass of milk turning to yogurt in a closet.) Playing with water happens outdoors or in the bathtub. Toys are not allowed on stairs; that is just dangerous. There are two rooms where children are not permitted to play- the kitchen- because I am always there and don’t want to trip on Legos, and my bedroom.

The parental bedroom is adult space. Period. Hot Swede and I are quite capable of trashing it ourselves and require no youthful assistance. After a whole day with children, I want one place where I can go and not have to step over plastic food or ruin a foot on a die cast car.  Other than that, they are free to roam. Of course, I am also a terrible troll and make them pick up their messes… when I have the energy.

Some parents feel guilty if they limit or carve out specific spaces or ways for children to play. Hot Swede and I are not among them. We

hmm, maybe a bunker?

hmm, maybe a bunker?

love our children and pay a financial and career-stifling price so I can devote these few years to caretaking this family. But, this is our life too, not just theirs. We live here as well. Heck, we own the place. Hot Swede pays for every material thing about our home with days of his life. I don’t want our children to squander that. I protect pockets of order and set rules about our home to retain a grip on my tenuous sanity and decrease the sense of fruitless effort that comes with keeping a house where children live.

Children need space and permission to make messes and do their learning.  Adults need the order and predictability that children unravel. It is about finding balance- a shifting equation of adult and child needs, unique to each set of people and circumstances, each finding her space and peace, being true to herself and respectful of others. Where do you put your walls and boundaries? How do you manage living with young inquisitives and youthful creatives?

I’m Not Lazy; I’ve Got Priorities

Last week, my parents flew across the country to see us. I let the lawn grow long. I let the blog idle. I didn’t clean the basement, workout, scroll through Facebook, or do any solitary things that could wait. The weather finally turned from garbage to gold, and I shifted everything of lesser import further down the list. I spent the week eating, walking, and laughing with, cooking for, and talking to these people who first believed I was worth the trouble, while soaking up beautiful weather with all my senses.  To do otherwise would have been foolish.

Relationships are the richness of life. It is incomplete when not shared, in some way, with others. Loved ones come first. Work will always be. People are precious and temporary.

5500724272_a8f55edbe4_z(Not my family, just another one, doing the most important things.)

Bumbling towards Responsible Adulthood

I blew my lid with the kids this morning. Our babysitter left her bag at the house and my children took out her sidewalk paint and gleefully used it all up. They went into her bag and helped themselves. I was horrified. “What? You just helped yourselves to someone else’s property? Would you rifle through Grandma’s purse? What made you think that was okay? I am ashamed of your choices…” and on… and on.Hendrick_Jacobsz._Dubbels_001

There are times, like this, when I feel like the most terrible parent around. I felt guilty for losing my cool (but not that guilty.) I felt like a failure because my 8 and 6 year-old took stuff that wasn’t theirs and they should know better. I was embarrassed. I clearly had not done my job. I cried on the way to school. I knew I was over-reacting. My rational self kept mumbling, “This is not about you.” But she lost control of the ship; it was all she could do to keep me from blurting out, “I guess I’ll have to come visit you in prison!”

Knowing that I was teetering on the edge, I called Hot Swede at work. He is experienced and effective at talking me down from emotional cliffs. His level head and calm voice soon lowered my crazy sail, and I began to think sense.

People make mistakes. Kids are inexperienced people; they’re going to make a lot of them. Of all the lessons children need to learn, moral and ethical ones the most difficult.  Moral action requires mastery of oneself- doing what’s right instead of what’s desired. Ethical behavior takes courage, thoughtfulness and maturity- three things that my young have yet to develop. It takes practice, redirection, consequences, forgiveness and love to learn to behave in moral and ethical ways. It is part of children’s job to push boundaries and figure out how they will operate within and on the world. That is where I come in. My job is to help them learn these lessons with sidewalk paint, instead of more expensive property and consequences.

I thought they had “do not steal” all sorted- my fatuous mistake. When rational, I understand that, of course, I am not done teaching and reinforcing lessons about respect for others and their property. They are 8 and 6. Duh.

So, I will explain why I was so upset this morning and the seriousness of stealing. They will each buy a set of replacement paints with their saved allowance and write an apology.  Two sets- because I want them to feel the cost and because when we wrong someone, we often have to expend extra effort to make things right.

I wish I had been prepared with an attitude of “Wonderful, here’s a chance to teach a lesson.” instead of caught off guard and horrified.  I will pray for wisdom and grace in anticipation of the next time they make a bonehead move. Because this is just the prelude.

Still the best option

Still the best option

Mind Their Manners

A plea for parental courtesy, for everyone’s sake.

A few weeks ago, an elderly man lurched out of our church service in a hurry. The effects of stroke encumber his body, but he moved quickly and was clearly distressed. Four ushers rushed to his side to see what was the matter. Agitated, he repeated himself four or five times before they understood- “The children, yelling in church!” It was true. This gentleman had been seated near a small child who had been yelling (not crying or fussing, just yelling) for quite awhile.  I had trouble hearing the sermon and I was 20 feet away. This gentleman ended up sitting near the nursery and listening to the remainder of the service over the speakers. The yeller stayed in her pew.

When did it become okay for people to inflict their disruptive children on large gatherings of the public? When did parents stop minding their children’s behavior

and removing disorderly youngsters from church services, movies, restaurants, waiting rooms, weddings, etc? I may suffer from early onset curmudgeonry, but I am not the only one to notice this trend. Fed up restaurateurs ban children from their establishments. I’ve seen waiters with trays of food trip over Lilliputian diners who are allowed to frolic about the dining room. Hostesses provide crayons, coloring pages, games, and pizza dough to play with, in an effort to keep children in their seats and reasonably quiet. Clerks in shops full of breakable baubles bristle like porcupines when I walk in with three small people. On airplanes, childless travelers tighten their jaws when seated next to my 6 and 4-year-olds and then compliment them and me on their good behavior at the end of the flight, their words sighing with relief.

Ugh, airline travel.

Ugh, airline travel.

I like children. From experience (three kids worth of experience) I know how little control I have over any family situation. I can’t always predict what kids will say, when they will need the toilet, or puke on an airplane. (Dear sir next to me in the last row of that Delta flight, you were so gracious when my daughter threw up all over us… twice. If I hadn’t been so flustered, I would have bought you a drink. You are a gem.)

Most people are pretty patient with normal childlike behavior, and just want to know that parents are sensitive to the impact their young have on others. Babies make noise. Toddlers get tired of sitting still. Pre-schoolers are not always capable of controlling their behavior. This is why we hold parents responsible.

As the adult, I am responsible for extending courtesies to the people with whom my children come in contact. Young children are not yet capable or skilled enough to do it themselves. If my child pours milk into your handbag, I will be horrified, apologize and try to make amends. Because he is my child, I take on the consequences of his actions as though they are my own. Common decency does not allow me to dismiss the act with, “Kids will be kids. What are you going to do?”

Direct destruction of property may be an extreme example, but what if my kid ruins your romantic dinner by banging her fork on her plate repeatedly, talks through an entire movie, stunt drives his die cast car across the hood of your new car, or cries loudly throughout your daughter’s wedding? And what if I do nothing?

I frequently see parents laugh at or ignore a child who is impinging on another’s experience. You may find your child’s behavior charming and excusable. But here’s the truth- No one thinks your kid is as darling as you do, not even her grandparents. Ask yourself how you would feel if the loud, obnoxious, boorish gal stumbling around, throwing peas and yelling was a full-grown adult. Not as tolerable, is it?

That isn’t to say that people should not give a little grace to children and their parents. (Actually, we could stand to give a little grace to everyone.) Children will melt down despite a parent’s best efforts, and it is important to remain calm and give the parent a chance to handle the situation before becoming incensed and offended. For me, as long as the parent is addressing the behavior, and is sensitive to the people around them, I have no problem. We were all children once and our parents taught us how to behave. These children are the people who will be our caregivers when we are in the nursing home, so- be nice.

We parents owe it to our fellows to minimize the impact of our children’s negative behavior. It is common respect. We owe it to our children to teach them good 20762534_660705a831_zmanners and to protect their young reputations. When parents allow bad behavior to go unchecked, they make all children guilty by association, thus- bans on children in restaurants. Worse, they make pariahs out of their innocent children. Adults don’t want to be around them and other parents don’t want their children around them either. They won’t say it to the parent’s face, but hey say it to everyone else.

So, what? Do we keep our kids at home until they can use choose the right fork at a fancy dinner? No, they need chances to practice and learn. Parents should take them out in public, but only if they are willing to do the work of teaching and guiding. Talk about the expectations for behavior ahead of time, and how different events demand different kinds of behavior. Don’t take them somewhere where you are unwilling or unable to skedaddle if it all goes south. Remove children when they are disruptive; it is less awful than staying. Don’t take them places where you know they have no chance of behaving reasonably (courtrooms, late night dinners, screenings of Ingmar Bergman films come to mind.) Yes, there have been times when I’ve spent entire church services cajoling toddlers to be quiet, or standing in the narthex with a fussy baby. I have been known to employ gum and orange Tic Tacs liberally. I’ve spent hours on a plane with a hand on small legs, reminding them not to kick the seat in front of them.  It’s all part of making small savages civil.

Human society is complicated and nuanced. It takes years to learn its rules and absorb its conventions. This is why human childhood is so long and why we have parents for the duration- to guide us through the social jungle and soften the discord between our inexperience and the adult world. When their behavior is good, children are an absolute joy to be around. They infuse life and beauty into any gathering. The best part of any wedding reception are the diminutive guests- shoes off, shirt half-untucked, getting down on the dance floor.ba1de2eb0ff97867d7aa474eb3c3e20f-d5z94e5

Have you had experiences with unruly children and their parents? Am I off base? Please tell me if this is a personal quirk and I need to lighten up. I will listen. I’d especially like to hear how other parents handle their children’s less than ideal public behavior and how you handle OTHER people’s unruly kids. (There’s a thorny one.) I take all tips and suggestions.

Flawed Perfection

My mom was a mess. She’s pretty pulled together now, but when I was a kid, I remember wondering why she was such a flake. Her life was a stupefying Rube Goldberg machine of family life-467px-Cassatt_Mary_At_the_Window_1889 bewildering in its intricacies and number of moving parts. Somehow she managed it with only an occasional dropped ball. As a kid, I didn’t see the complexity. I only knew that she frequently called me by my sister’s name and called my brother by the dog’s.

For years, I thought toast was made by burning it black and then scraping it down over the sink to the desired lightness of char. Mom was always barely remembering snack day, or coming home from the store with sour cream instead of cottage cheese and looking at the carton with an incredulous look that I now recognize as- “What the hell?”

My mom broke a hairbrush hitting it on the counter in frustration while trying to get three little kids, my dad, and herself ready for a professional portrait.  (I’m surprised I got out of the ordeal with only uneven bangs.)

She was tired. She was flustered. She was awesome. She was perfect.

Since becoming a parent of multiple children, my opinion of my mom has gained significant altitude. I understand what it means to be at the mercy of a small tyrant who doesn’t give a fig if I haven’t slept since last Thursday. I struggle to keep my cool when we are late to school and one child is still shoeless.  I understand why so many people drive around with forgotten mugs of coffee on their roofs. (Car companies- do us a solid and put a cup holder up there.) I know how endlessly fragmented parents’ brains are, how no task is ever completed- just started, and how a clean kitchen floor is a magnet for the spiteful side of buttered toast.

399px-Cassatt_Mary_The_Bath_1891-92I yell. I get lazy. I forget all kinds of stuff. I want to quit. I need a vacation. I discipline out of desperation instead of wisdom. I am a flawed, messy human. How fortunate I am to have a flawed mother.

How else would I know that I am okay and not ruining three young lives? Mom did plenty of top-notch things. She fed us healthfully at nightly family dinners. She taught me to cook well, sew poorly, and knit only as a last resort. She made sure I could swim, ride a bike, provided opportunities for me to try a whole slew of activities, even when she knew they would amount to naught. She called bull on me when I needed it, listened when I needed that, and kept her mouth closed when an argument would have served neither of us well and I was too immature to bridle my own tongue.

But it’s her shortcomings that reveal the grace of imperfection. I need her blunders now as much as I needed her successes as a child; they bring me assurance and comfort. If Mom had always kept her temper, remembered all appointments, and remained smiley and well coiffed at all times, I would despair my own shoddy efforts at parenting and adult living in general. I would think my children doomed by having me for a mother, because I am a mess. Her example reveals the lie of perfection- it can’t be true because it isn’t honest. I am faulty. I needed a similarly flawed mother to teach me how to parent well despite my limitations and shortcomings.

1024px-Mary_Cassatt_-_Susan_Comforting_the_Baby_No._1_(c._1881)_detail_01Thanks, Mom, for forgetting to pick me up from sixth grade that one time. I needed that. Thanks for losing your temper and asking for forgiveness. What a good example you set. Thanks for always asking how my soccer game went, even though I played volleyball. You give me hope. Thanks for all the wise and unwise things you said. I only remember the wise ones. Really.

Parenting is a difficult job and the stakes are high, but unless your little dirty-handed booger eater is perfection incarnate, she needs someone like you to show her the way. Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers in my life. You are inspiring admirable women, imperfect and just right.

Happy Mother's Day!

Happy Mother’s Day!

Laundry is for Suckers

I love my washing machine

Washing machines: the best thing since washable fabrics.

I am a sucker, a chump, a fool. Every week, I wash and fold about eight loads of laundry. That’s pants, shirts, socks, dishtowels, sheets, etc. for five people. I fill my baskets with towers of uniform rectangles, folded according to the depth of their intended drawers so that the folded edge will stand next to all the others and a census of the drawer’s contents can be taken at a glance. I don’t put clothes away; I file them.

I organize drawers, ostensibly so people can see what they’ve got and find what they need. A week later, I walk upstairs and, in any room,  am greeted by vomiting dressers, drawers spewing sleeves and pant legs over their lips.  I grumble, shove the mess over, and make room for my neat little stack of good intention- all ready to be disheveled tomorrow.

Is there another household chore that takes as much time and is as equally futile? I can’t think of one. Cleaning out the fridge is important for organization and hygiene, even if the pickle jar with the bad lid ALWAYS tips over on the top shelf within a week of cleaning.  Cleaning kid-level windows is a waste of time, but it isn’t something I do every week [read: year.]

Why do I do it? To model neatness? Because that is the way laundry has always been done and I’m a slave to tradition? I think I do it because deep down, I believe an organized laundry practice has merit. That said, all my trouble is only worth it if all parties agree to operate on the same system, and, well, they don’t.2628256853_8f0cd46700_z

It doesn’t matter to anyone but me if the drawers are neat. As long as there is a pair of underwear in there somewhere, I will hear nothing about it, good or bad. My children think the hamper is a folding machine- throw it in; it magically reappears in the drawer, clean and ready to wear. Do the children care if their clothes are wrinkly? No. Likely, smooth shirts would clash with their hair, which gets impressively sculptural under winter hats. Do I care if their clothes are wrinkly? No, not unless it’s picture day and the shirt has an archaeological aesthetic to its creases.

If I were sensible, I’d sell the dressers and get everyone two laundry baskets- one for above the waist, one for below. I would wash and dry clothes, sort them into north or south piles by owner and dump them into the appropriate baskets. The family could root around for what they want and I would save HOURS of wasted labor each week. You have to admit this system has merit. It saves loads of time and takes into account the reality of our clothing situation.

I currently entertain a Disney level fantasy of children and husband whistling while they refold their clothes and tuck them away in neat rows. There may even be songbirds folding t-shirts and chipmunks pairing socks. Then I get irritated when the reality falls short.  This is not a smart mindset.

I must be chicken, or a little OCD. I can’t change my broken system. I don’t know why, because I’m able to let go of other futile endeavors: flattening my post 3-baby belly, singing bass-baritone, not letting the kids eat in the car. I would feel like such an iconoclast- giving folded laundry the old middle finger and getting rid of furniture that is full of pointless expectation.

I cannot wait until I can share laundry duty with the children. (rubs hands together and cackles.) They are learning to fold, and I give folding as a chore- especially if I catch a kid throwing clean clothes in the hamper/folding machine. I am determined; they will do more. The summer chore campaign is approaching. Will I make them keep their drawers neat? No, but drawers must close fully and there must be room for fresh laundry to fit. Will I make them fold in uniform shapes? Yes, they will learn the proper way, even down to how to fold fitted sheets. (Yes, it’s possible.) Then, if they choose a more chaotic laundry practice as adults, it will be by choice and not because they know no better. I hope that some day, my children will appreciate that daily dressing need not involve the added stress of scavenger hunts for matching socks and quests for the one pair of magical sparkle tights.

Even if they end up choosing a less fussy system, they will learn one important lesson from me: Sometimes you just have to do pointless stuff because that’s what the boss requires.

I'm gonna need you to fold those in thirds. M'kay?

I’m gonna need you to fold those in thirds. M’kay?

The Labor of Children

            My kids have chores because I want them to grow into functional adults. Also, I am mean and cruel and sneer like Cinderella’s stepmother. They sweep the ashes, black the stove, rub my bunions, slop the pigs and darn their own socks. Okay, I darn the socks (read: throw them away.)

Except I'm not usually this put together and my nose fits in a Chinese tea cup.

Except I’m not usually this put together and my nose fits in a Chinese tea cup.

Daily, they must make their bed and put their clothes away. On weekends during school, they each have one housekeeping job to complete per day. I choose the jobs based on what is needed, how long it should take to complete, and how much whining I can stand. Common tasks include: sort or fold laundry, pair mismatched socks, sweep a room, wash cupboard fronts, empty the dishwasher, pull a bucket of weeds, pick sticks out of the yard, and organize books. It is not much, but it takes half a day and half my daily allotment of positive energy to enforce it (which is why they only have one job.)

I started daily chores last summer. The first morning of summer break, they each woke up to a job list like this: bed, piano, small job, small job, big job. 7 year-old Q got a written list; 5 year-old Bear and 3 year-old AJ got theirs in pictures. Happy summer! (insert sound of whip cracking.) Mouths hung agape; tears welled in eyes; threats of running away were made, and then we had breakfast.

After 3 weeks of this, Bear and AJ didn’t like it, but they accepted it as a part of life that was just “toopee [stupid]” and horrible. Q, on the other hand, was shocked, SHOCKED each morning when greeted by a fresh job list. She fought it every single day, seven days a week. The week before school started, at the end of August, she was still appalled that she had to make her bed.

Q: What? Again?!

Me: Did you sleep in it last night?

Q: Yes.

Me: Then yes, you need to make it.

Q: Fine. I’ll just sleep on the floor.

Me: Well, that’s one solution.

 

Now, 10 months in, she still doesn’t like it (that’d be weird,) but she doesn’t raise a personal insurrection every day.

It's fun now            Children should do chores as soon as they are capable. My grandmother was in charge of making the family bread at age 6. She was too small to knead it, so she used to stand on a chair and beat the dough with a rolling pin, gather it all back up with her little hands and hit it again. I’m pretty sure that if 6 year-olds can make bread and young farm kids can be expected to milk cows, gather eggs, and muck out stalls, my soft city kids can fold clean dishtowels.

It builds confidence in skills that they will need when they are grown and (god willing) no longer living in my house. We all knew 18 year-olds who couldn’t do laundry, sew a button back on, or use a knife without fear of losing fingers. At some point, they will have to do their own housekeeping. Until they do, I want them to learn to appreciate what it takes when someone else does it for them. And I want them to leave my nest with the skills required to make one of their own. Then, I’ll be changing the locks.

Chores nurture self-confidence (which is earned) and independence. Recently, Q asked if she could help make an egg casserole. Because I knew that she had enough experience in my kitchen, I gave her the recipe, reminded her to tie her hair back, and she and Bear made the batter by themselves.  It was a banner moment for us all. They were proud of being trusted with a new task, and I was grateful that I had seen and taken the opportunity to let them try.

When I don’t want to hold them to their chores for their own sakes, or my own, I think of their future roommates and spouses. A grown up who doesn’t think to empty the trash when it’s overflowing and instead puts her empty chip bag on the counter is inconsiderate and kind of a pain. Yes, we can all be slobs, but we should know we are being slobs and know enough to not habitually inflict our slovenliness on others.  Non-slobs, I believe those people are called “childless”, are busy enough with their own garbage and don’t need to wade through someone elses’ who can’t be bothered.  My kids got so tired of me telling them, “Picking up after yourself is like wiping your butt or brushing your teeth- it’s just part of being healthy and living with other people.”

I am joyful as I watch them learn new skills, real skills that they will need everyday, or at least once a week, when they are grown. My biggest challenge is to continue expanding the chore list and giving them more and more complex and challenging work, as their skill and maturity warrant. My mom waited until my brother was 9 before making him plan and cook family dinner for a month. I can’t wait. Then I will sit on the porch, sipping a gimlet, whilst the youngest rubs my bunions.

 

The book, Cleaning House, reenergized my belief in chores. It is full of real ideas.