Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sink or Swim

I haven't established any kind of routine for the morning yet, which is ridiculous, given that it's been a year that we've had basically the same amount of time to do the same amount of things -- the same things, in fact. Wally has been sleeping so gloriously late (often waking on at 7 when he hears Alex leave and jumps up to tell him not to work) and I just got really lazy and I usually sleep until he wakes up. But then I selfishly still want time to myself to write, because I can get into the best writing flow first thing after I wake up and nothing throughout the rest of the day ever equals that state. So the reasonable thing to do would be to get up before Wally, and have that time all to myself. And you'd think with the boot camp training he gave us of getting up between 4:30 and 5 (for the day! not waking up at 4:30 and going back to sleep, which people sometimes thought I meant when I'd say that and even then they'd say, "Oh that sucks"... no, no no, up then for good) for such a long stretch of his life that I could easily say make it up by 6 or so, right? I mean that should be a walk in the park. But no, it's like projects expanding to fill the time you have to work on them or stuff expanding to fill the space you have available in your house, so too with the demand for sleep. What I could scrape by with before I simply can't dream of surviving on today, because I don't have to.

Maybe this will change, soon. Maybe I'll sufficiently embarrass myself by admitting I often let him watch Oswald or Jake and the Neverland Pirates or some other show with singing animals just so I can write. And even then he's still just on top of me...coming into the kitchen every 3 minutes or so and I think that show can't possibly be over yet, isn't it at least 24 minutes or something? But there he is, saying, "I want to be with you" and giving me a hug making it just impossible to feel anything but be happy he's there.

We have just under 2 hours, basically, to get dressed, take shower, eat breakfast, get his lunch packed, check his notebook. More than enough time, and I need to start using it more efficiently, because those few things end up taking almost all that time. Plus there always seems to be a lot of cleaning to do in the morning, how, I don't. Straightening up, dishes, other things I don't want to deal with on "my" time that I cram in then. 

Today I set Wally up with a simple sink or float game. Then I told him to draw a chart showing his results. It took a good five minutes or so, and he could be there with me in the kitchen while I'm stirring oatmeal or whatever else I'm trying to do (not very time-consuming stuff here, to go to Eli's comment on the last post -- not like I'm hand-squeezing oranges. I even find it an irritant to remove that extra safety/no spill camp inside the cap on a regular carton). 

The orange, lemon, apple and pomegranate all floated nicely. (Well apples would have to, I suppose. How else could you go bobbing for them?) The grape and nectarine both sank. The zucchini didn't fit in the bowl and remains untested.

We got out the door on time and I got back to my work on time too. The house was not too much of a mess. Another morning we both stayed afloat. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sunlight (add to your To Do list)

This is a poem by Tony Hoagland taken from his book Sweet Ruin published by University of Wisconsin Press in 1992. 

The Word

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between "green thread"
and "broccoli," you find
that you have penciled "sunlight."

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,

and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing

that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder

or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue,

but today you get a telegram
from the heart in exile,
proclaiming that the kingdom

still exists,
the king and queen alive, 
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time
to sit out in the sun and listen.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz

After four days awash in apples, cinnamon and honey, outdoor singalongs, family dinners, games of freeze tag, cleaning, sorting, reading Nora Ephron, ushering in a symbolic new year (we never really celebrated Rosh Hashanah as kids, but even then this was always the time of new beginnings, as it is for so many people, new (school) year, new you), now my dad is off to meet with Jazz at Lincoln Center peeps about revitalizing underprivileged schools and neighborhoods with jazz music, an ambitious plan, Wally's back at school, Alex to his post, and this invigorating fall air, clear, bright day makes me eager to settle down to work myself. There is always that sense -- every year -- that now you'll finally get organized. Keep track of things in your calendar, schedule necessary appointments, hang up jackets and file papers in hanging folders, maybe even start a meal planner, like the one my friend just sent me. Like keeping all these minor things sorted will somehow allow for grand dreams to take hold. And you feel energized with these schedules, notebooks, calendars and colored pens. Even though you've made all these promises before and never kept them. But maybe the continued optimism in that case is even more worthy of praise.

title: Ginsberg, Howl

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Interview with a Mean Mom

So I got the chance to (virtually) interview this awesome writer/mom named Denise Schipani, author of Mean Moms Rule: Why Doing the Hard Stuff Now Creates Good Kids Later. Her book makes such a convincing case, I found myself cheerleading the whole way through. And of course my first thought upon finishing it was -- other parents need to read this! Because if I've made a convincing case for anything on this blog (which is far from certain), it's that over-indulgent parents drive me nuts. 

So, here are my questions and Denise's answers (in blue), plus a few pictures and a link to the book of course.

Q: I’m a huge fan of your book. I definitely think I’m a mean mom – but I’m way more consistent and confident about my approach after reading Mean Moms Rule. I wish all the helicopter, snowplow, over-indulgent, over-involved parents could read it. I just want them to know that this kind of parenting that you’re making the case for– the more old-fashioned, boundary-drawing, limit-setting approach where parents have the control and kids have to pitch in around the house and don’t get everything they want the minute they want it– is not just better for the parents but better for the kids too!

In the first chapter you summarize nicely some of the dangers of over-indulgent parenting, such as kids who can’t deal with criticism, “feel little genuine compulsion to try their best” and aren’t grateful.

I’ve often thought about the fact that by over-indulging our kids we are ruining holidays and birthdays for them. There can be little excitement and anticipation if you already have everything you want. I love that line in there (and now I can’t find it) about kids in a roomful of presents ripping the open and tossing them aside, completely uninterested in them because of the overload. How do you manage to titrate gifts in terms of what others give them? Do you tell friends not to bring gifts to parties? Are holidays and birthdays exciting for your kids the way you remember them to be when you were a kid (full of I “hope I hope I hope I get…” daydreams leading up to the big day)?

A: I think, in terms of gifts and gift-giving, I’ve been fortunate in that my kids have not, since birth, been showered with piles of gifts. In part this is me, of course: I never gave them gifts before they had an idea what gifts even were. I remember one time, at a family party for a boy about my younger son’s age (I think it may have been his third birthday), after we all watched this nice kid open up a ton of gifts, everyone around us was making the same noises about “oh, my goodness look at all this stuff!” and “wow, now where will you put all this stuff?” It occurred to me that we all say these things as though we have no control over it at all. But of course we do, and we should take that control. Why invite 25 kids to a preschooler’s party, for example? Then you’ll just get 25 gifts, and invite a whole lot of chaos. Keeping parties very small is a great way to keep the tone right, too. Don’t think you’re disappointing your child if you keep parties low-key; they’ll enjoy them more that way, probably. You can also institute a policy of clearing out older toys prior to birthdays, for charity.

As for family, well, I was lucky there. We don’t have, on either side, grandparents who are eager to buy the kids’ love with too many toys. In fact, both my parents and my in-laws have always asked what the boys need, not what they want. And because the kids’ birthdays are in the fall, they always end up supplying those big-ticket things they need, like winter coats or school clothes. And for Christmas they’ll give them one thing, and maybe slip us some cash for their college savings.

You asked whether my kids had that same “can’t wait!” wide-eyed holiday feeling I used to have. I think they do. We never go overboard ourselves in the “from Santa” category. In fact, the kids got exactly zero from Santa presents before they were old enough to know who Santa was. And since then, they both get a reasonable stack of presents and stocking stuffers on the holiday, and that’s it. In my wider family, we long ago instituted a family Secret Santa, for both adults and kids. There are just too many kids for every one of them to get gifts from everyone else. Each member of the family gets one gift to open on Christmas day, and it’s a huge hit. And it has the advantage of being exciting all in itself – everyone gets a turn to sit in the special chair, wear a Santa hat, open his or her one gift, and get pictures taken. It’s exciting, much more so than if each kid were by him or herself with a stack of mostly un-wished-for junk.

Q: That does sound fun. Much better than the Yankee Swap our family tried a few times, which inevitably ended in kids wailing because presents they liked had been ripped out of their hands. Wonder if we had the rules wrong. Anyway, I liked your anecdote about being baffled that a mom who gave her baby buttercream frosting way before the baby would have ever known or cared that something that delicious existed. I felt the same way when I saw people handing out cupcakes and ice cream to their babies while my toddler happily slurped down pureed carrot, not realizing there was any difference. I guess this is all part of wanting one’s offspring to be happy every single second and focusing on being well-liked rather than respected.

A: I remember when my first son was a baby and I made it clear to family that he wasn’t to be given sweets that he wasn’t reaching for, and certainly not without my knowledge. My mom sort of smirked and said, “just you wait!” But if anyone thought I was planning or hoping to maintain a pureed-carrot stance forever, they were mistaken; I knew that was unrealistic. My point always was, let them come to it naturally, after they’ve developed a taste for carrots. If they think a whole grain muffin is exciting, why swap that out for a sugary cupcake?

Q: Exactly! Were you at all anxious that the “buttercream” moms in your life or the ones who always have the dollar ready for the vending machine or the quick “yes” in response to any request would feel judged by your book? Have the moms in your family and among your friends been critical of your ideas? Supportive? Split? Have any changed their behavior for the better?

A: Honestly, yes, I did wonder if those moms would feel judged, but when I thought about it (and I did think about it, as I was writing certain anecdotes, and believe me I left out some anecdotes that I thought would be too easy to identify) I made the decision to open myself up to criticism that I was being judge-y, in order to make certain points. It’s hard to say that I feel that giving in to relentless vending-machine requests has the opposite effect from what you want (you want to be the cool fun mom; you end up being the mom who gets no respect with the kids who don’t know the meaning of “no”), without ruffling some feathers.

As for mothers I know: I haven’t heard anything critical. Most mothers I know, such as friends and family, already know that this is how I am. Anyone who knows me for more than 10 minutes knows I’m not the shy, retiring type; my opinions are usually well-known. They also know my heart is in the right place! I do have a funny story about my sister, who is three years older than I am, but whose kids are mostly grown already (hers are 25, 20, and 17). There’s at least one anecdote in the book that has to do with one of her kids – her son, now 20, is the one who didn’t know how to hold a rake.) When my book was about to come out, she told me that she said to colleagues in her office who have young kids, “Buy my sister’s book! It’s too late for me, but it might help you!”

Denise Shipani, mean *and* stylish

Q: Ha! The wanna-be cool mom that ends up being a doormat reminds me of those overly nice but ineffectual teachers. As with mean moms (better outcome for kids), so with mean teachers.  

Your kids are past the toddler age so I’m guessing they are more influenced by peers no, more aware of what others are doing. Have you been able to maintain a slowed-down rhythm to your lives and avoided the over-scheduling so rampant among families now?

A: I’ll take that in two parts. First, yes, they have more outside influences, at ages almost-8 and almost-10, than just their mom and dad. But that fact doesn’t erase the influence we do have. I think that right there is a major point many parents miss. You get to this phase, the “But Jack has an iPod” and “Joshua brings $10 to camp every day,” and you think: that’s it! My influence is over and all I can do is choose a few battles and fight them! But you do still have influence. You can still say, “Sure, I know jack has an iPod. I still don’t think you need one, but if you really want one, save up your allowance and birthday money, kiddo.” You can still be honest with them and say that you simply don’t have a spare $10 a day, and if you did, it wouldn’t be spent on Slushies and cheese fries.

As for the second part, the over-scheduling: Again, isn’t the scheduling up to the parents? I don’t have a hard time with this because my kids, even given their ages, aren’t all that into activities. Much as my younger boy loves soccer, he grumbles about going to practice (and his dad is the coach!). To my mind, that’s him saying he’s not ready to be over-scheduled with sports, and doing that, in my area and I’m sure in many parts of the country, is very easy. I could sign him up for one-on-one lessons to sharpen his skills. I could have signed him up for a week of intensive soccer camp this summer. My kids like to hang out at home, and I encourage that. We point out how nice it’s been when we’ve had a relatively fallow Sunday putting around as a family.

Q: You're right! Even the way I phrased the question makes it sound like it's out of your hands. Have you been able to avoid over-scheduling, like, were you able to avoiding traffic on the FDR? All right, let's talk about other books in for nonconformist parents. What parenting books have particularly influenced you? Do you see your message as overlapping with others who are promoting the values of old-fashioned childhood like Lenore Skenazy (author of Free-Range Kids) or Tom Hodgkinson (The Idle Parent)? I’ve also heard quite a bit about Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman who was amazed to see French kids sat at the table to eat and played by themselves at the playground without interrupting their parents but haven’t read it myself. Seems like there might be a fair amount of common ground there.

A: Funny you should mention those three! I haven’t read the Hodgkinson book, but I do want to (one of the perils of writing a parenting book is then you have so many others you’d like to read, but less time – always a problem!). But I did read Lenore’s book (she is a friend of mine, as it happens), and Pamela Druckerman’s, which I enjoyed. Both Free Range and Bebe overlap with me, which I love and felt validated by. I feel like the gamble I took – that the “time” was right for a book like mine – has paid off, or is paying off. 

Q: Do you see this backlash against over-indulgent parenting gaining momentum?

A: Yes, I do, but these days in the intense media soup we all swim in, a backlash can get its own backlash within days. It’s more like whiplash. But aside from the media storm, I think just parents in general are getting tired of either watching over indulgent parenting, or seeing its results in spoiled, entitled kids, or not being able to say that they wish it were different. Many of the messages I’ve gotten since Mean Moms Rule came out have been from folks who thank me for validating what they have themselves thought. I feel like I may be part of creating a safe atmosphere to say, “Yep! I’m a mean mom, too! Count me in!”

Q: You definitely are. And that's so true about a backlash getting its own backlash. Since way before I had a child I noticed the model of peer parenting that I wrote about on my blog last month. You put it very simply: kids don’t need another friend, they need parents. I’ve been using it as a mantra whenever I’m faced with a decision point where I’m tempted to cave to the friend answer – yes you can have an ice cream, yes I’ll play another round of Go Fish even though I should make dinner, yes you can watch one more Fireman Sam even though I said only one and you already watched two, yes I’ll help you get dressed even though you’re perfectly capable of doing it yourself. What are some of the toughest moments for you to hold firm? Do your kids have strategies to make you cave? Have you had any noticeable failures lately, not the good kind that you talk about in Mean Mom Manifesto #9, but moments where you lost sight of the end goal and gave in to your kids in the moment (gave them control)?

A: Just this morning, I had a bad moment that made me see that I had not been standing firm on some of the stuff I talk/write a good game about: chores. My younger son was helping me make French toast, and I said that after breakfast, I wanted him and his brother to empty the dishwasher. And he started crying! Like it was too hard, too much to ask. Oh, my goodness – how did I go so wrong?! My older son started emptying the dishwasher last year some time, spontaneously, though he gave up the spontaneous part (I guess the novelty wore off) and started having to be asked. But the younger kid really plays the younger-kid card (even though he bristles at being called “my baby”), and I realize I’ve let it go for the sake of keeping the household moving and at peace. This will stop as of now, and I’m doubling back down on my chore/responsibility manifesto.

Denise with her husband and two boys, none the worse for having to empty the dishwasher
Q: I hope it works out. I know you started writing about this issue on your blog, as well. 

Overall in thinking about some of these modern parenting issues, I’ve found such an odd duality between parents doing too much (their kids’ homework, all the chores etc.) and letting their kids do too much (make decisions about activities, schedules, dinners, vacations). Where we should be hands off we’re hands on, and vice versa. Any thoughts on how things got so out of whack?  I know you speculate about the pendulum swinging to indulgence after strict parenting, a kind of Child Knows Best following the era of Mother/Father Knowing Best, but it seems to me that throughout history parents have generally had more control and now have – in many cases – almost entirely relinquished it.  It’s so true that in the past, as you write, “A parent was strict, or in control and in charge, because that was her job.” That it wasn’t unusual. A mom who said no would be seen as a mom, not a mean mom. Sometimes I wonder if the pressures of a consumer culture have eroded our grip a little bit. We are basically bombarded with messages that our kids are missing out if we don’t give them this or that educational toy or sign them up for some enriched learning opportunity before they can sit up. Do you think there’s any correlation there – between media exposure, cradle-to-grave marketing, and more indulgent parents?

A: Asked and answered! You are right, in my opinion, that there’s a pendulum that swings back and forth in a general way (strict to permissive and back again, with the generations). And you’re also right, also in my opinion, that an intense and pervasive consumer culture has been effective in persuading us that we have to give our kids all this stuff and opportunities and an “edge” over others. When you focus on that, as a parent, it’s harder to keep your eyes on the present, on discipline, on character-building. It’s a good impulse at its core – wanting to give your children the tools to succeed, a better start in life than you had, etcetera – but it goes out of whack when you believe that the path to better opportunity means pushing others out of the way, or buying stuff.

I absolutely agree! I hope lots of people hear your message. After reading and thinking about your book, it became clear to me that to raise the kind of kids we want to raise – ones who are independent, grateful and in control of their lives – we have to take more control now, delay our own gratification, as well as theirs. To see our kids (with a good shot at being) happier in the future means seeing them, at various times, sad, disappointed, bored, and angry with us in any given moment now. Maybe those moments would be a good time to play The Rolling Stones album “Let it Bleed”, assuring our kids that they can’t always get what they want, but if they try sometimes, they just might find, they get what they need. And parents will find lots of parenting advice they may not want, but desperately need, in the pages of your book. Thanks Denise. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

I didn't want to write anything yesterday unless it was about September 11 or sending good wishes to the victims' families. I wrote last year about visiting the area and the year before about going to the top of the World Trade Center as a child. This is the first year I did not visit on the anniversary. I don't know why, except that going because it seemed like the right thing to do felt like maybe it was driven more by OCD than by genuine desire to memorialize the day. To really memorialize it I should think about it, write about it, do something for the first responders (against whom Paul Ryan voted multiple times -- preferring to deny them health benefits -- I know, no partisan remarks surrounding 9/11 but this guy manages to make Romney look slightly human, and that is no easy feat). 

Still all day I just wasn't acting in line with the way I thought I should be acting. And as I fell asleep, in the back of my mind there was this poem nagging at me. I could only remember September, and oars in the water, the still night, and the overwhelming sense of loss. It's not about September 11, but it seemed like it would fit, for the victims' families. Various google searches with various combinations of the phrases I remembered turned up empty, so finally I sifted through catalogues of poems on loss and death and found it. It's called "September" and it's by Jennifer Michael Hecht from her book The Next Ancient World.

Tonight there must be people who are getting what they want.
I let my oars fall into the water.
Good for them. Good for them, getting what they want.
The night is so still that I forget to breathe.
The dark air is getting colder. Birds are leaving.
Tonight there are people getting just what they need.
The air is so still that it seems to stop my heart.
I remember you in a black and white photograph
taken this time of some year. You were leaning against a half-shed tree,
standing in the leaves the tree had lost.
When I finally exhale it takes forever to be over.
Tonight, there are people who are so happy,
that they have forgotten to worry about tomorrow.
Somewhere, people have entirely forgotten about tomorrow.
My hand trails in the water.
I should not have dropped those oars. Such a soft wind.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Listening to Gym Class Heroes, distracted by thinking about this great wedding we went to this weekend in Connecticut (legs still hurt from endless dancing, which shows how out of shape I am. My sister does not stop! Should not have tried to keep up with her). I'm trying to focus on work now that Wally's back at school and I'm getting ready to post an interview with mean mom Denise Schipani here soon so stay tuned! 

Thursday, September 6, 2012


It’s early September, a gray day, a threat of rain that won't deliver. Yesterday was Wally's first day back at school. He had less than a month of summer vacation. I felt conflicted about the summer program. Since I am a stay at (work from) home mom, I technically could have had him with me the whole summer. Though I doubt I would have gotten any work done, it still feels a little selfish, or maybe just hypocritical, to be another supposed "free-range" mom with her kid tied up much of the day even in summer. 

Last year he wasn't anxious at all about starting school. He didn't know what to expect--ignorance is bliss, kind of thing. This year the lack of nescience makes it harder -- he knew there were lots of things he doesn't know. Where would he sit? Where would he put his backpack? Why wouldn't there be any of the same kids? Most of all, why couldn't he stay with the teacher he loved so much? 

I could only think to reassure him by telling him how many friends and cousins of his are starting new schools this year where they have to make all new friends, too. Last year on the first day he walked in, started playing trains, and looked up only long enough to say, "Go, Mom" when he realized I was still there. This time he was shy and clingy, looking off in the distance when people asked him questions. Still, he was okay with me leaving, happy enough at pickup, and raced ahead of me to get to his class without so much as a backward glance today. So all in all, a pretty easy transition. 

For me the transition last year felt huge. Going from that little cocoon of the two of us together to a school kid. Last year in the days leading up to the start of school, when I knew something big was about to happen but Wally didn't really, I felt sad and something else...something like guilt but that's not quite the word. That sadness of the countdown...the last days of eating lunch together, the lovely quiet of an afternoon nap...then a trip to the library...a stop by the park. Though the days were broken up with appointments, my running around, my attempts to get work done...there was still a semblance of that quiet life of a small children: the snacks, the picture books, the crayons scattered about...those few precious difficult years when you are the center of their world. Those were all coming to an end. 

This year felt like hardly any change at all, to me. Yet for Wally who was uncertain and a bit afraid, putting his backpack on and walking through the classroom door was tough. He seemed braver last year, but I remind myself of that quote from the WWI pilot about how "There can be no courage unless you're scared" and realize the opposite is true.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

And then of course there is that time in the late light of August when someone points to his or her wrist, to the place that a watch would have been in the days when we used to wear watches, and tap it twice, to mean not only, it's time to start thinking about leaving, but really, the time to start thinking has already past. We have no choice now but to pack our stuff up, and go.