Wait, What Happened?

Well, it happened. Our youngest daughter, who was supposed to always be (as far as I remember from description in the catalog) the baby, turned six. This means that all four of them have crossed the border, out of the land of infant and toddler care, with its diapers and nursing and teething and burping and spitting up and constant vigilance and all those snaps, and into something else.

What is it? What’s the name of this country?

In some ways, it seems like this is easier. We are up fewer times in the night, for one thing. And it is nice that they can dress themselves. The oldest one (eleven) can babysit the rest. And fry and egg. And bake a cake! It’s a miraculous thing.

And yet.

Now the stakes are higher, somehow. The things they need are more complex, less material. Things like privacy, validation, and just enough guidance but not, if we know what’s good for us, too much.

And there’s the purpose thing. As a parent with young children, you will understand the beautiful and terrible burden of all that responsibility, of knowing that a tiny creature, one that can’t run away or make an emergency phone call, depends on you entirely. Once we take on that burden, it can be hard to put it down. Because when we do so, we have to start thinking about things like what is the purpose of my life now? and how will I start a conversation with someone without a child on my lap?

And somehow, this shift has brought with it all the existential questions, about mortality and age and how will I ever be a grandparent, and what if I’m not? Granted, we started a bit late with parenting, statistically speaking (I’m 43 now). And logically, I know that having another baby to raise would not actually make me younger again. Plus, it would be even harder to bend over.

What about a puppy?

Anyway, happy birthday, Molly! You are, like all the rest, so big now.

 

The Power of Sharing

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope you enjoy it and, as always, we look forward to future posts by Esther. 

I remember facilitating a group once when a parent tentatively brought up the subject of his son’s sensitive feet, “he refuses to wear socks—he says they have bumps that bother him.” To his surprise several parents—including me–spoke up. “Oh yes, my son turns his socks inside out.” “My daughter just wears sandals.” “Sock bumps, I’m very familiar with that phenomenon.”

Sharing about his experience benefited this parent and the other parents in the group. How? They all gained:

  • Perspective on what’s normal
  • Sources of support
  • Insight and options
  • Recognition of strengths

Perspective: Hearing from other parents changed this dad’s perspective. He realized he wasn’t facing a unique situation, nor was his son completely unusual. He wasn’t alone. His story also benefited the other parents—they knew their children weren’t completely unusual. Parents unfamiliar with the phenomenon learned that some children have sensitive feet.

We start our journey as parents with different levels of knowledge and experience with children. It’s worthwhile to hear from other parents (as well as from credible resources) about common behaviors. Parents with children in the same daycare or school can also clue us in to what our children’s social environment is like.

Whether we are conscious of it or not we are always asking: Who is my child? How is my child like others? How is my child different from others?

What if no one else had experienced sock bumps? Trained facilitators can provide perspective based on their knowledge about child development and individual temperament. And provide other resources for that parent and child. Whether the experience is common or unusual, hearing about it benefits all the parents.

No matter how knowledgeable we are about developmental stages, temperamental traits, typical behaviors, and parenting strategies, actually being a parent to our own child(ren) is different from reading, watching, and even caring for other people’s children. Because being a parent brings up our own issues. We need perspective on what it’s like to be a parent. How does it feel when my child refuses to wear socks? What does it mean about me as a parent? Am I somehow causing this behavior? How should I react?

Sources of Support: Many studies of workplaces and employees have found that interaction with fellow workers is an important factor in job satisfaction and performance. Parenting is a relationship, but it is also a job. Classes and groups provide support that is centered on the work of parenting. Does support solve the issues? Not necessarily.  But having someone to talk to (and complain to) who understands what you are going through is a tremendous help. And sharing information about everyday challenges helps create friendships among parents which benefit both them and their children. Many groups focus on specific challenges or ages: breastfeeding; postpartum health; toddlers; teenagers; special needs; and many others.

Insight and options: We often gain insight into a situation simply by talking about it out loud or explaining it to others. Questions from others can lead us to think more deeply about possible causes or contributing factors to a problem. Other parent’s experiences further our understanding and help us consider other approaches to the situation.

Facilitated parenting classes and support groups establish ground rules about sharing. These may include: confidentiality, respect, right to pass (not to share something), no judgement, and sharing from your own experience/background. Participants and facilitators DON’T tell others what to do.

Facilitators provide evidence-based strategies that have proven helpful to others and the rationale behind those strategies. Although most parenting curriculums have suggestions for how to handle specific problems, facilitators recognize that what works for one family and one child may not be right for another.

Sharing experiences and ideas respectfully allows other parents to consider and choose how they want to respond to a situation. Respect also helps give parents more confidence in their ability to deal with the challenges they face.

Hearing about the other parent’s experiences provided that father with ideas about how his situation might be handled: maybe turning the socks inside out would work for his child; perhaps together they could find socks that didn’t seem bumpy; maybe going without socks was normal and acceptable and therefore NOT a problem.

Recognition of strengths: Sharing about problems we have experienced and how we handled them also benefits us as parents. Amidst the endless work of parenting and daily life, we often don’t consider the challenges we have already faced and overcome—we are busy with dealing with the latest challenges! Taking time to reflect on our experiences—and sharing them out loud with other parents helps us recognize our abilities and strengths. Maybe it is simply realizing that we survived a difficult time and that it didn’t last forever. Maybe it was that we figured out a strategy that worked well. Reflecting on things that didn’t go well is helpful, too. Instead of berating ourselves for mistakes we can choose to learn from them. Our parenting abilities are like our muscles—they get stronger the more we work with them.

Parenting provides us with many, many opportunities for learning and growing. Parenting education and parenting support groups help us make the most of those opportunities.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

The Marriage Meeting

Being married is hard.

That’s one of those statements whose truthiness gets lost in the repetition, like “they grow up so fast” and “even bad pizza is pretty good.” I may have made one of those up. But really, dude, it’s hard. So much so that 1/3 of married couples decide not to do it anymore.

As with any endeavor that comes with a lot of challenges and a lot of questions (parenting, for example), there is more advice out there than anyone could possibly absorb, much less put into practice. Leave it to The Art of Manliness, home of tutorials on hand-to-hand fighting techniques and beard care, to cut through the deluge of marriage advice and land a blow for good relationship sense. Their solution, via marriage therapist Marcia Berger: the weekly marriage meeting.

Most of us are used to meetings and what they entail (we even had ’em at Taco Bell), yet for many, myself included, the idea of sitting down for a structured chat with my spouse seemed–I don’t know–unnecessary, if not unnatural. After all, if we couldn’t share basic information through the course of a regular week, how would this help?

Turns out, though, that apparently I’m not the only one who will not make a request, or pass on a reminder or timely fact, just because it always seems awkward, or there’s not enough time to give it context, or it seems like it might just land wrong. And before I know it, that lack of communication or engagement is causing problems of its own. Is it just me? Am I neurotic like that? Probably. But so are a lot of other people, which is why marriage meetings, as laid out in this article, are so helpful.

We have started to hold these meetings in my home, and we are running on three weeks now. I can say with no reservations that this was an excellent idea.

Berger proposes a specific structure to the meetings, which can be flexible and serve the needs of each couple or situation. But they really should happen in this order. Briefly, it goes like this:

  1. Appreciation: bring up things about your spouse you’re grateful for. Something they did, some quality they possess, they way they looked in that thing that one day. This is a good way to start off any meeting, as it puts everyone in a positive and thankful frame of mind.
  2. Chores: this gets you right into the nitty gritty. It’s for scheduling, to-dos, financial thingies, reminders and deadlines. It’s the stuff that we usually manage to talk about eventually, in bits and pieces, if we’re lucky; but having a time and space to talk about it is just terribly helpful.
  3. Plan for Good Times: this is not something we would always necessarily bring up on our own, but it’s important. This is the time to talk about dates, but also self-care, and fun activities with the family. What, are more fun things going to kill you?
  4. Problems and Challenges: this is where the skills come in. We all have things we’d like to talk about that are just difficult, especially in the setting of a long-term intimate relationship. Berger recommends approaching this time with a positive, supportive and humble attitude. Topics in this area may cover difficulties in the relationship, but also in parenting, with extended family, work, spirituality, etc. The structure of the meeting gives a safe space to bring up the things that are bugging us.

I can’t recommend it highly enough. We’ve found ourselves taking 30 minutes from start to end. And that it’s good to have snacks.

 

 

On Peanuts, Truth, and Other Stuff

Earlier this month, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (say that three times fast) released new guidelines for prevention of peanut allergy in children. These guidelines were rather surprising for many people, because they were a complete reversal of the previous ones. Whereas previously the official scientific advice had been to avoid feeding peanuts to allergy-prone children until the age of three, parents are now urged to begin introducing it “before they are 6 months old,” as a preventative measure.

Needless to say, the press release introducing the new position, and the flurry of news coverage that followed, led to much consternation on social media. Many parents, rightfully concerned for the health of their kids, expressed fear and distrust of what appears to be a dramatic turnaround in scientific thought around the issue. A lot of questions were asked about why we should trust the new results when we clearly could not trust the old ones. If scientific research is supposed to give us answers about life or death issues, why does it seem so unreliable?

As far as social media controversies go, the peanut allergy studies are somewhere in the middle. Much more contentious has been the continuing debate over the safety of vaccines: on the one hand, concerned parents who mostly don’t want their kids to get sick are accused of endangering everyone around them. On the other, the lingering suspicion of a link between vaccines and autism (a link that has been strongly–and repeatedly–debunked by several studies).

Not so controversial, but certainly as high-stakes, is the changing advice on how to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Late last year new recommendations included letting children sleep in the same room as parents, and taking away blankets and soft toys.

As someone who does research-based work with families, I try to keep up with new studies, and I like to be able to present parents with the context behind my advice other than “because I said so.” Parents want to do the best thing for their kids, especially when it comes to their health and safety. When the science gives ambiguous or seemingly controversial advice (though really, sudden reversals such as the one about peanuts are pretty rare), the guilt we feel about our decisions may shade into suspicion. How do we know what information to trust?

When I “asked” this question online, nearly everything I found was from academic websites. If you’re writing a research paper (and I’ve taught a few of those classes), you want to be sure your sources are sound and reliable. When it comes to the news and the kind of information we rely on, like medical advice, it is just as important (maybe more: more important than research papers!) to distinguish the solid stuff from the shaky.

The articles I have linked to in this post are from major publications. Major newspapers and newsmagazines have editorial boards and fleets of fact-checkers. They don’t want to be sued for slander. When they make a mistake, they quickly publish a correction and add it to the bottom of the piece. All three name authors and include dates and other identifying information. They link to the studies they discuss (presented by the organizations in question), so that we can see them for ourselves.

When it comes to parenting (or really, health in general), the internet is not the best place to get our information. Pediatricians, clinics and public health agencies contain real, verifiable people who can confirm or deny when needed.

Practicing this kind of discernment is more important now than ever (and I’m not even going to use the words “fake news.” Oops). Regardless of the anxiety we may feel as parents over keeping our kids safe and healthy, if we know how to pay attention we’re doing the right thing.

Transitions

A couple of recent changes have come to our house. One is that my wife, in addition to her full-time homeschooling duties, has been leaving town every other weekend to help her sister. The other is that I have rearranged my schedule in order to have an extra day off. The upshot, for purposes of our family, is that I have been parenting solo quite a bit. Now that this is a more or less regular thing, I find that it is…complicated.

I have written on several occasions that being the dad in our particular household means that I figure out what the routines are and carry them out. In other words, their mother writes the script (and revises, and stages, and restages it) and I simply try to follow it.

So, I’m pretty good at making bedtime happen, and I have enough of a repertoire built up to make food for all three meals (and mostly different food, at that! Or at least, in different combinations). I carry out the housekeeping and repairs for which there is no time in the course of a homeschooling day. And as long as I don’t have to improvise too much, it’s fine. As long as nothing unexpected or unusual happens. Nothing different. No worries, right?

One way I know that this is the new normal is that, for my daughters, it has lost all novelty. This weekend I have been told numerous times that I’m not doing things right, and that “they wouldn’t behave like that if Mom was home.” I can only agree.

This experience has brought home the different ways that men and women nurture. And simply how different people do it. Try as I might, I can’t duplicate what their mother does that works. I’m lenient in some areas and strikingly uptight in others. Surely it has always been this way, but for some reason the repetition brings it out. “Wait, I have, like, a thing that I do?”

I’m not feeling terribly successful these days, as the transition continues apace. But I’m trying to be comfortable with that. It’s the nature of transitions.

Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to watch an old Popeye cartoon before dinner. Don’t tell Mom.

 

Some Thoughts for MLK Day

My habit of listening to podcasts, while driving or while doing the dishes, is usually fruitful (in case you were wondering, I’m a longtime user of Stitcher). But sometimes I come across something that is truly striking. Appropriately for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I wanted to share two podcasts featuring journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones on school desegregation.

In 2015, Hannah-Jones narrated a story for the long-running NPR program This American Life, entitled The Problem We All Live With. This episode, which has since aired again, focuses on an issue I had been unaware of, which is that efforts to desegregate public schools, which began with the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, have been largely abandoned in recent decades. According to the story, school desegregation peaked in the 1980s and has since fallen off dramatically. The result has been a return to conditions seen in schools prior to the decision, in which schools in low-income communities, and populated mostly by non-white students, have fewer resources, less able teachers and administrators, and as a consequence lower test scores and graduation rates. Hannah-Jones points out that the only factor that has been found to alleviate these problems–and did so with amazing effectiveness in the decades following desegregation–was integrated schools. When students from mixed ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are in school together, everyone benefits. So do the schools themselves, and the communities they serve (and arguably, society as a whole). I urge you to listen to the podcast.

I was reminded of this story by the latest episode of Fresh Air, featuring an interview with Hannah-Jones about her schooling choices for her own child. She wrote about this in an article for the New York Times Magazine, which is also well worth reading. She relates her experience as a parent witnessing the adamant resistance to integration of the mostly Black and Latino school her daughter attends. The interview is worth a listen for a variety of reasons, but what really brought me up short was her explanation for why she decided to keep her daughter in the school rather than exercise her available privilege to place her elsewhere:

“The original mission of public schools … is this understanding that no matter where you come from, you will go into the doors of a school and every child will receive the same education.

“And I say this — and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent, because a lot of other parents look at you a little like you’re maybe not as good of a parent — I don’t think she’s deserving of more than other kids. I just don’t. I think that we can’t say ‘This school is not good enough for my child’ and then sustain that system. I think that that’s just morally wrong. If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?

As a parent, I do find myself making choices for my children based on what I think will give them the “best” advantage. What Hannah-Jones is advocating for is simply to think about the needs of our kids in a broader, more big-picture way. What if giving our own children the best education means fighting for all children to do so? More importantly, how crucial is it to our children that their parents really live according to their values?

That’s the hard thing. I’m going to be thinking about this for a while. Happy MLK Day.

A Dinner Conversation

I’ll admit it. There are some weeks I just don’t know what to write about. I thought I’d quiz some of my coworkers (especially the ones that have promised to write a guest post and are still procrastinating) about a topic. There was a lot of interest in aspects of teenagerdom about which I’m simply not qualified. But I thought I’d go with it, and when I got home I tried something that has proved fruitful in the past: I talked to my kids.

At dinner, I asked my older ones (nine and eleven) what they were most looking forward to when they were teenagers. The nine year-old was pretty decisive. “Not a thing.” She went on to explain that she would prefer not to be any older than she is right now.

My eldest daughter equivocated. Finally I made a suggestion: “Learning to drive?” It was something we had been talking about recently. She was unsure. “It just seems so complicated.” This set my wife and I on stories about our misadventures experimenting with independence. Here’s one of mine.

When I was thirteen I was able to bicycle all the way to an area shopping mall, in which there was a diner we had frequented as a family. I was proud to finally have the chance to dine alone, sitting at the table with my book (something I still enjoy whenever I can manage it). I walked out when I was finished, only to realize several hours later that I had forgotten to pay for my meal.

I was mortified. Seized by guilt, I was not able to tell my parents what happened. I barely slept that night. As soon as I thought it might be open for the lunch shift I sped my way to the diner, cash in my pocket, and made my way, panting and dripping sweat, to the counter. I breathlessly explained what had happened and offered to make immediate recompense.

The boy behind the counter, by the looks of it not much older than I was, was not impressed by my story. He did not immediately have me arrested; nor did he seem to know what to do about it. He left me at the counter and returned with a waitress, who said that she had been working yesterday but didn’t remember any criminal activity. They declined to take my money.

At this point my five year-old interjected that she had no concerns about adulthood because she would immediately find a husband, have many children and collect farm animals. The seven year-old looked forward to having the opportunity to dress like a pirate and not have to wait in line, as she would just threaten to run people through.

Surely there’s nothing to worry about. Right?

Home for the Holidays (Postscript)

Happy New Year, everyone!

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about taking an extended vacation at home with my family. I wasn’t sure how it would work to have crash-landed into what, in my house, is a pretty stable set of routines and rhythms. I also saw a parallel between my experience of being at home in a homeschooling family and having kids home from school for the long haul (I understand, from social media, my own childhood, etc, that sometimes the haul seems looong for parents).

So, how did it go? I’m sitting here in the middle of the last day before work (weather permitting) and I have to say, quite peachy, thank you. Luckily my interventions in cooking, dishes and errands were well received. I now have a greater appreciation for just how difficult it is for a homeschooling mom to be “on” at all times. I would now like to arrange for a full-time teaching assistant as we start the new year. Any takers? I’m not paying.

I also learned that two weeks is a long time. As in, it is quite possible to settle into new routines in that time. Do I have a job? Do I know anyone else? I’m still going to be able to read two books a week, right?

What I’m worried about now (because there has to be something) is how we will all get back on track now that I’ve fixed my ship and I’m leaving the planet. Transitions are always difficult.

Plus, I’ve been sleeping in every morning until at least 7:00. Sinful!

Parent as Accessory

As parents, we want to be able to talk to our children: to give advice, to impart discipline, to encourage and challenge and teach them. As they become teenagers we may find that this is no longer as easy as it once was. We may even find that they don’t seem to want it. Our teenagers may become surly, evasive, and strangely quiet (at least around us). They may even seem to avoid conversation altogether. But recent research supports the notion that they still need us as much as ever.

There are a lot of resources for how to continue to talk to kids as they get older. One I can recommend highly is the book How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. But as valuable as it is to continue to make the effort–sometimes meeting them more than halfway–it is especially helpful to just be…hanging around.

A recent article in the New York Times is entitled, charmingly, “What Do Teenagers Want? Potted Plant Parents.”  It suggests that there is value in being present for our teenaged children no matter what signals we may be getting from them. In the article, Lisa Damour writes:

“Many parents feel that their adolescents hardly need them anymore. Teenagers often come and go on their own schedules, sometimes rebuff our friendly questions about their days, and can give the impression that interacting with the family is an imposition that comes at the cost of connecting, digitally or otherwise, with friends.

So here’s a complaint one might not expect to hear from teenagers: They wish their parents were around more often.”

It has long been known that it is important to an adolescent’s well-being for parents to be home when they return from school, and to share meals together if at all possible (as long as you don’t ask, apparently, “How was school?“). But as Damour explains, when you are home together it can be enough to be a physical presence in the room. “In other words, it’s great if you and your adolescent get along well with each other, but even if you don’t, your uneasy presence is better for your teenager than your physical absence.” Teenagers find comfort and safety in this presence, and if we are consistently around it is that much more likely that they will come to us when they need to.

In this, as in many other aspects, the emotional makeup of a teen is much like a toddler. Writes Damour, “Ideally, children use their parents as a safe and dependable base from which to explore the world and exert their autonomy. Indeed, studies tell us that securely attached toddlers quietly track their parents’ movements from room to room, even while carrying on with their own activities.”

So, it’s great to be a counselor or a wise elder or even a shoulder to lean on. But sometimes the best thing we can do is to just be an accessory. Who knows? Maybe eventually they’ll get curious and start pushing buttons.

Home for the Holidays

Through reasons that are mysterious to me, I had grouped all my vacation time into the last three months of the year. This year I was able to take two full weeks off for Christmas. It seems excessive in some ways, though my workplace, source of the generous time off policies, insists that this is the best way to take it. So, this will be an experiment.

As I have written recently, taking a vacation can be more work than leisure, at least on the sheer planning end. This holiday break will be much more…domestic. Where normally it’s the kids who are strangely home for several days, this time it’s me! (my kids are always home). Don’t get me wrong; I am looking forward to the change of pace, and I’m as much a homebody as anyone I know. And anyway, my taking more time off was a specific Christmas request from my daughters.

So why am I complaining? I think it comes down to the uncomfortable realization that my being home can be an unwitting disruption of my wife’s well-oiled routines. I can only imagine how I would go about my job with my spouse just sort of hanging around all day. I would be glad to see here, sure, but– my job is my job. This must be what it is like for a homeschooling homemaker (or, as Roseanne Barr once put it, “domestic goddess”) with the breadwinning husband at home. Sure, I’m around to “help.” Whether she likes it or not.

I’m going to try and make up for my presence by getting the kids out of the house for a couple of days. This way my wife can finish all the Christmas sewing, knitting, felting, Instagramming, online shopping with coupon codes, etc.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Happy Holidays to you!