Tag Archives: Mothers

For the Soon-to-be Obsolete Mom Who “Leaned Out”

images[1]So you leaned out—not in. Now what?

For some time now, you’ve been a full-time mom—A.K.A. a cooking, errand-running, laundry-doing, schedule-making, care-taking, house-yard-and-pet-managing chauffeur. Or maybe you’ve been a mostly-full-time mom, working part-time like I have, arranging your work schedule around your kids, knowing yours is a second income, and sometimes a wash when you factor in expenses like childcare. How often have you looked at back wistfully at your pre-kid life, when you put on nice shoes, skirts and blazers every day for work, when your hair was coiffed, when you had fast-paced, intelligent discussions with other adults, when you went to the gym on your own schedule, and met your spouse for dinner after work without worrying about a sitter? Of course, back then, all you wanted was a baby. You got one—or two or more—and the subsequent years have been the most fulfilling imaginable. You wouldn’t trade a single day.

Also, you’re thankful to have been in a position to “lean-out” in the first place. Not everyone gets such a choice. You’re grateful to have a spouse whose income supports the family, grateful to be able to devote yourself to parenting.

Still, some part of you looks back on your full-time-work days, thinking what a great deal you had. You knew exactly what your purpose was, who you were. Your nose may have been to the grindstone, but that was what it took to compete in the “real world.” And now, every weekday morning, looking out of your kitchen window, you can see your leaning-in neighbor—in her suit and smart haircut—dashing, briefcase in hand, for her train to that same “real world.” There she goes, you think. She’s still in the running, still excelling. Fully competent, responsible for her family’s economic well-being, dependent on no one. Her children look up to her. They miss her when she travels, are still excited when she comes home. With a queasy mix of guilt and jealousy, you think, there but for my own choices go I.

And where did you go, exactly? Besides the pediatrician’s, the barber’s, the Tae kwon do studio, the PTA executive board meetings, the grocery store, the playground, Petco and Home Depot? Besides driving to two thousand piano lessons, three thousand dance classes, four thousand soccer practices and thirty thousand playdates? Sometimes it feels like the self you once had got submerged under all those obligations, crushed under the tires of your own SUV. I used to be competent, you think. I used to get respect. But the fact is, the daily endeavors of full-or-mostly-full-time mothers frequently go unnoticed and unapplauded because they are a given.

You and I know that supporting the status-quo of a family takes enormous effort and stamina. But if you do it right, no one else notices. It’s a mother’s job to render herself obsolete, right? Bit by bit, you’re supposed to do less and less for your children, so that gradually they learn to master their own lives and become happy, self-assured people who can care for themselves. That’s the challenge of being a full-or-mostly-full-time mom. If they don’t need you to do everything for them anymore—if you’ve achieved your goal of obsolescence—then who the heck are you?

I remember pushing my daughter’s stroller through our Brooklyn neighborhood, later pushing my son’s through our New Jersey suburb, thinking Now I am complete. Now I am fully me. I had wanted to be a mother so badly, for so long—after working in schools and adoption agencies for seven years—I felt actualized at last. Most of my leaning-out friends feel the same way.

Now, however, our kids are big, at least bigger than they were. We still drive them some places, but they walk to soccer practice and no longer need us to make playdates for them. We have no hand in their social lives whatsoever. As they race out the door, heading to school (without us taking them there), we shout after them that they must text to keep us apprised of their after school plans.

Then they’re gone. And here we are. Ready for something else to make us complete. What will it be? You’re a different you than you were before you had kids. You can’t go back, so what does forward look like?

Some moms look at what they used to do and combine it with the life experience they’ve gained over their parenting years. For example, a former neighbor whose child had verbal delays went back to school to become a speech-language pathologist after spending years immersed in that discipline. Another mom I know followed her passion for fashion and is now an executive for a clothing company. Still another mom—a former attorney who has spent several years advocating for her special-needs child, demanding services that the school district was slow to provide—is considering a run for office.

It might seem like a luxury to take stock and branch out like this. In most cases it does require significant resources. But some of my mom friends, suddenly under pressure to support themselves and their children following a divorce or job loss on the part of their partners, have done it out of necessity, scraping together help and support from friends and family.

A single mom whose ex is much less of a financial support than he could be,  took out loans for a degree in social work. Through connections, she landed her dream job while still in the MSW program. Now that she has her license, her career is moving in a direction she’s happy with.

Another mom turned her parenting blog—begun when she was pregnant with her second child, chasing the first around a playground—into a parent coaching business. Another blogger and mom-friend began researching her ancestry, blogged her efforts, and has transformed her life in the process. She has written a book and given lectures on her family’s remarkable history and the process of her search. (You can read her amazing blog here.)

These women looked at what they knew, combined it with who they were and what they loved. Each added some research and a little elbow grease and gave herself a second act in the work force. On her own terms.

What would it look like if you filled out this home questionnaire:

 

What did I do before I was a Mom?

What kind of paid and unpaid work have I done since becoming a mom?

What else have I done that might look nifty on a resume? (e.g. PTA treasurer, Local Soup Kitchen Volunteer Coordinator, or—in my case, choreographer of elementary school musicals.)

What have I learned about myself since becoming a Mom?

What skills and interests have I discovered?

What are my Passions?

 When you’re done, look to see if there is any overlap among the categories.  If so, is there a field out there that might combine your special mix of skills and passions? If not, is there one thing on your list that jumps out at you, begging for exploration? Once you cast your net wide—looking at all possibilities—the next step is to focus. Pick something, zero in and deepen.

To be honest, I didn’t “lean” in or out specifically. Instead, I’ve “leaned” a whole bunch of different directions. I’ve been a dancer, a choreographer, a teacher, a writer and a clinical social worker/psychotherapist. Instead of doing so many different things, I could have gotten farther in each by “zeroing in” more. For every field I’ve sampled, there’s an alternate reality I can picture where I’ve focused all my professional energy on that one thing—writing, psychotherapy, ballet—and achieved a higher level success. My fellow social work trainees at the Ackerman Institute are now faculty members who have published papers on their specialty areas of family therapy. Those I started out with in the corps of various ballet companies are now renowned ballet teachers and choreographers. n particular, a fellow classmate from the first and only creative writing course I took in college, is now a literary household name.  Jodi Picoult.

As for me, I’m a psychotherapist with a private practice I keep manageable enough that I have time to write, be available to my children, and teach ballet (a new development I’ve added to my plate). Or I’m a writer who’s a licensed psychotherapist and ballet teacher. Or a ballet teacher who … you get the idea. It’s working for me. Though I’ll admit, it would be nice to have a simple answer when someone asks what I do, there’s no part of my mix-n-match career that I would give up.

It’s an amazing thing to put together the pieces of you and—with equal parts focus, patience and effort—begin a journey to the next phase of your career. You’re doing it for yourself, but you’re also modeling something invaluable for your children.

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Reposting: Just What Kind Of Mom Are You Anyway?

This post originally appeared in March 2012.  I’m reposting it today for Mother’s Day.    Enjoy!  Hope my followers who are also moms had a great day!

images[1]Boy we American mothers are hard on ourselves!  No matter how much we do, it’s either too much, or not enough.  We work, work out, shop, cook, do laundry, clean (sometimes), garden (sort of), manage everyone’s schedules, carpool, volunteer for school events, remove splinters, banish spiders, read stories, perform monster-purging rituals, walk the dog, rescue the cat, and—if we’re lucky enough to have partners who help out a lot—find time to secretly re-fold, re-wash and re-neaten the stuff our helpful partners folded, washed and neatened. (We still appreciate it, fellas.)  THEN, when we actually find time to sit (HAH!) and put our feet up, we have to read all these new books about how much better people from other developed nations are at mothering, how much more time everyone else has to enjoy la vie!, how much better everyone else’s kids are—whether at playing the piano, not getting pregnant, or eating coq au vin—AND how much more fun all those moms are having without us.

American bookshelves are buckling under the weight of all the parenting advice, each expert swearing by opposing tactics.  Even though American parents know What to Expect at every stage of the game, we still don’t trust our instincts.  It still seems that our neighbors, our sisters, the French, the Dutch and the Chinese are doing everything better.  But no one tries harder than we do to parent right.  We nurse on demand, then on schedule; we switch to formula so our partners can share feedings; but worry about what’s in the formula; we switch to soy, then abandon soy because it shares properties with estrogen.  We co-sleep, then Ferberize, then count to three for Magic!  , we tame our spirited children, bless skinned knees, give time-outs, then take them back in favor of “positive discipline.”  We say “good job!” because we want our kids to have high self-esteem, then stop saying “good job” when we read that empty praise leads to anxiety.

And, what’s that you say?  One in three American children is overweight or obese, at risk for all kinds of bad stuff?   Well, we can’t realistically cut down on sugar or increase vegetables unless everyone else does too—otherwise our kids will feel deprived, miserable and be more likely to gorge on sweets when we aren’t looking. Plus, we don’t want to restrict our children’s access to the American bounty of trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup, because that might lead to an eating disorder.  So, we focus on health and sign our kids up for sports.  Then we read about head injuries from soccer and other sports, as well as the fact that our kids are overscheduled and lack the time to just play freely outside.  So we cancel the sports and discover that no one else’s kid is playing outside, because they’re either at soccer practice getting a head injury or inside playing computer games (with an IV feed of trans fats and high fructose corn syrup).  So we throw up our hands and let our kids go inside and play computer games.  Then feel bad about it.

It’s not just being American parents that makes this so hard; it’s being American parents right now.  Who hasn’t heard an older person—someone who raised kids in the nineteen-fifties or sixties, for example—marvel at how orchestrated parenting is today?  Whose mother-in-law hasn’t observed that, all we did was open the door in the morning to let the kids out and make sure everyone made it back for dinner at night?

Yes, I know, many of our mothers smoked and drank while they were pregnant, gave us a steady diet of red meat, whole milk and all the outdoor freedom we wanted and we turned out okay.  But things were different then.  People weren’t so worried about abductions or skin cancer or bullying or all the other things that keeps us heli-parenting.

Besides, as a parent, sometimes you have to go with the flow and do something close to what other parents are doing—get with the program, as it were–because rejecting the program is not always worth making your kids feel like freaks.  For example, a very loving, nutrition-conscious mother I know instructed her child’s teacher—anytime there was a class birthday party or another occasion involving cupcakes—to scrape the frosting off her child’s cupcake.  This way, the child wasn’t forbidden the cupcake, but was spared the oodles of extra high-fructose corn syrup that everyone else ate.  Win-win, right?  Possibly, but I can’t help wondering how the woman’s daughter felt about the whole frosting-extraction ceremony.  (Healthwise, I am with that mother 100%, but emotionally, not so much.)  Maybe the kid didn’t mind, but most would.  Not only was she not getting what other people were getting, but she wasn’t getting it in a very public way.  If she asked why, did her mother say, because I care about you more than the other mothers care about their kids?  And if that was the mother’s response, what was the little girl supposed to do with that information?

My point is that it’s often hard to break with parenting norms, even when you know it would be way, way healthier to do it your own way.  Because it’s not always fair to ask your child to be an outsider.  It’s a tough choice to make, but sometimes bad nutrition, for example, can be the better parenting choice in the long run.

There are so many opportunities to judge yourself as a twenty-first century American parent.   But here’s the good news.  Being American makes us inherently eclectic in everything we do, including parenting.  For example, a few days ago, when I wouldn’t let my son give up and walk away from the piano after making the same mistake in the same spot, six times in a row, I was a Tiger Mom.  Well, minus the verbal abuse.  What I actually did was sit beside him on the piano bench and make him play right and left hands separately until he got it right, then try the whole thing from the top.   He protested and protested; I insisted and insisted and finally got him to agree.  Theo felt proud and victorious when it worked out and I felt glad that I’d made him stick with it.

Last month, I was Cool(ish) Mom, when I took my daughter and her BFF to the mall and pretended I was shopping on my own when we were in Abercrombie and Fitch, so all the other eleven year old girls would think they were there on their own.

On Mondays, when my son and his friends have basketball and chess and my daughter and her friends have tap and jazz dance, I’m Carpool Mom.  When my daughter and I have long talks over emotional stuff she brings up at bedtime, I’m UP-ALL-NIGHT Mom.  I wear dozens of hats, as I’m sure you do too.

(And as I write this, I’m trying to think of an occasion where I’ve been French Mom: cool, hands-off, yet lovingly supportive with a fool-proof approach to nutrition that fosters a life-long love for, as opposed to obsession with food.  Kick-ass wardrobe.  But alas, sorry to say, I’m never French Mom though, after reading reviews of the book, Bringing Up Bébé (but not reading the actual book because I know it will make me feel even worse about not being French than French Women Don’t Get Fat), I often wish I were.  But c’est la vie!

And the other day, when my kids had been playing outside with the other kids from our idyllic little cul de sac, when they’d been playing for hours and it was beginning to get dark, I opened the front door and hollered down the street:

“Zoe!  Theo!  Dinner!”  And wiped my hands on my apron as I watched the two of them scoot up the road, shouting farewells over their shoulders.

Okay, so I didn’t have on an apron–I don’t even own one.  But still, at that moment I was Quintessential American Mom From The Middle Of The Last Century … back when people read Dr. Spock and left it at that.


[Please note that I will be away for the next five days and may only have sporadic access to the internet.]

Breastfeeding: Choice or Privilege?

As a mom who weaned her last baby almost eight years ago, I feel I have to weigh in on the breast-feeding discussion.  First, some background for those who’ve missed it.  Slated to begin this September, New York City hospitals will be locking away infant formula, just as if it were medication—part of Mayor Bloomberg’s stepped-up efforts to encourage all new mothers to breastfeed.  Similar initiatives are being promoted at the state level—all with the goals of better health and outcomes for children.  Good intentions, no doubt, but are the rights of mothers, of families, at stake?  That’s what critics are saying, including many mothers who are feeling judged for not nursing, as women who are dismayed at the lack of general support for breastfeeding mothers. There have been several good articles  as well as hundreds of thought-provoking comments on this subject.

I’m no expert, but I breastfed for pretty close to three years total, and that’s only spread over two kids.  So, I happen to be on the privileged side of this debate.   I say privileged, because often privileges are what it takes to exclusively breastfeed your baby—a fact that is often overlooked in the discussion.  Too often breastfeeding is described as a choice all mothers have the option of making.  The right choice, as opposed to the wrong choice (presumably formula).  And while I believe everyone is entitled to make that choice; every mother should be entitled to decide what really is best for themselves and their children—often there is no choice involved.   For me, it worked out great.  For me, it was the lazy-mom option.  My kids latched on like pros.   And for me—with the exception of one week where I was making way, way too much milk, so much that my poor daughter sputtered and nearly choked—it came easily.  I was so exhausted and totally out of my depth with a newborn baby.  Nursing was what made them happiest so I relied on it, probably too much in the beginning.  Formula just seemed too complicated; I didn’t feel I had the wherewithal to measure anything, let alone mix anything or warm anything up.   So I nursed.  And nursed.  Sitting up, lying down, wide awake, sound asleep, cradle hold, football hold—you name it, I nursed that way.  Does that make me a better mother than anyone else?  Does feeding your child non-stop because it is less tiring than anything else make you a better mom?  Does reading both Bridget Jones books and American Pastoral and We Were The Mulvaneys in the first two weeks of your child’s life because your child is conveniently occupied at the breast make you a better mom?   You decide.

It’s true that I was planning all along to breastfeed.  Reason number one was that, yes, I’d heard it was healthier.  Reason number two was more personal.  As my followers know, I’m classical ballet dancer by training and by first career.  But (and here’s what I haven’t mentioned before on this blog) I was an anomaly: a classical ballet dancer with what can only be described as a rack.   Now, a ballet dancer with a B cup is considered busty.  I was at least a D.   My breasts had plagued me throughout my dance career, contributing to my eating disorders, and keeping me distant from what I considered my true identity.  Therefore, I told myself—and told my “Girls” as they swelled beyond their normal large, to their mammoth proportions of late pregnancy: they better damn well be worth something!  And lo and behold they were.  When it came to nursing, they served me (and my babies) very well.  They were not only latch-on-friendly to both kids, but productive.  Very, very productive.  Once I figured out how to tame the wild, high-force-shower-nozzle spray of milk that threatened to gag my newborn daughter (my son, it turned out was game), nursing just happened to be a breeze for me.   But how could I possibly judge another mother whose lactation experience was different from my own?  Volume and supply was not the only privilege that allowed me to nurse seamlessly.  Here are the rest:

  • Time.  I had left my job as a special-education coordinator at a charter school a few weeks before my delivery.  My return to work when Zoe was four weeks old, meant seeing psychotherapy clients one morning per      week—Saturdays when my husband was home and usually at least one other      relative was visiting.  When she was      six weeks old, I resumed the second night of sessions, along with a full day of a post-masters family therapy externship at the Ackerman Institute,  a short subway ride away.  I carried my pump to work, had easy access to privacy and refrigeration.  I also had time to pump.  Pumping wasn’t fun, but it was only  twice a week.   My kids, I’ve been told, hated the bottle, but took it begrudgingly.   No one starved.
  • Emotional support.  I was lucky in this: there wasn’t a  single person in my whole life who had any issue with my nursing, not a      single person who didn’t applaud my efforts—from my pediatrician to my      husband to my mother and mother-in-law, to all the other breastfeeding mothers      on the park bench.  And there were lots and lots of them in my ‘hood.  Which brings me to:
  • Good Company: When my daughter was born, it was the beginning of the rise of the Breast is Best movement and I lived in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where everyone, it seemed, was out nursing their babies (some demurely covered up, some not so much).  In my neighborhood, even adoptive mothers found creative ways to nurse their babies, using complicated      contraptions involving tubes and pouches of goat milk.  That said, adoptive mothers are some of the best mothers I know, and on average, NONE of them nurse at all. (See below.)
  • Location, Location, Location:  Another thing about our neighborhood in Brooklyn, if I walked my stroller-baby too far from  my apartment building to go home and nurse when she needed it, I was always less than a minute’s walk from one of several nursing-friendly locations: Starbucks, Cobble Hill Park, my pediatrician’s      waiting room.
  • A loving, unconditionally supportive, and nicely-employed partner.  While my husband didn’t do any early morning feedings, he would have if I’d asked.  As it was, he was always on hand to burp a baby, change a diaper, sing a song, or do anything at all in his      power to make this whole new family thing a happy place for all involved.
  • Access to other moms who told me how to avoid confusion in the hospital.  In my day, back when I started having babies at the turn of the century (2001), hospitals didn’t just hand out free formula, they would feed it to your crying baby any time your back  was turned—unless you had a big sign on the bassinet that said “NO FORMULA!  NURSE ON DEMAND,” which meant you were a  savvy, in-the-know mom, an educated mom, who might sue if someone snuck formula into your little angel’s mouth.   Without a sign, your baby might get bottles of formula as well as sugar water if they cried and it wasn’t convenient for an orderly to bring him/her to you.  I had a sign. (I knew to have one because I’d learned from      other moms, to whom I had access, and the leisure to seek out.)  Though my babies were both with me on the ward, sometimes they got taken away to be measured and washed and vaccinated and honestly, who knows what else?       But the minute they cried, the sign meant they were delivered to my waiting arms (and breast).

And lastly, did I mention,

  • Babies who latched on without a hitch and were not allergic to anything?  (Worth mentioning twice.)

Yes, all the breastfeeding stars lined up for me.  They allowed me to nurse Zoe for fifteen months—until I was ready to try for a second child and weaned to increase fertility—and Theo for seventeen months until one day he decided that was just about enough, thanks (when I offered him a breast, turned his head away and shoved in a thumb).   Does that give me the right to judge, or to lord it over those who didn’t have it so easy?   Absolutely not.  My children are healthy, smart, lean, well-adjusted and awesome, but so are many of their friends who weren’t breastfed.  Those friends had mothers who worked more than I did, or whose offices were not supportive of nursing women.  Some of those friends’ mothers had trouble nursing, or were on medication contra-indicated for nursing, or got infected breasts, or didn’t produce milk no matter how they tried.  Some of those friends were in the NICU and were unable to be nursed.  Some of those friends weren’t nursed for reasons I can’t name, because it wasn’t my business to ask.  Also, some of those friends joined their families through adoption.

Speaking of which, where—in all this discussion—is the acknowledgement that adoptive parenting—every bit as “real” as non-adoptive parenting—does not generally include breastfeeding?   If formula is good enough for children who joined their families through adoption, why can’t it be good enough for children whose families’ lives just aren’t set up for breastfeeding?  Ask any one of my friends who have adopted children.  These mothers will tell you: formula is not poison.  You can tell that by looking at their bright, beautiful and awesome kids.

“Yard Sale” or “A Piece Of My Heart For Two Bucks Or Best Offer”

When we lived in Brooklyn—before we had kids—we were addicted to them.  While they didn’t wholly furnish our apartment, they helped us add what we considered some “great pieces” to what we had.  They provided the details: a set of pretty, antique glasses, some interesting ceramic bowls and vases, picture frames and loads and loads of books (which, in retrospect, we probably didn’t need to add to our already bulging collection).

In Brooklyn, they were called stoop-sales.  All over our section of the borough (Cobble Hill) and the neighboring sections (Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook and Park Slope), people would spread their once loved wares over the steps of brownstones which lined most of the side streets.  Some customers were devoted scavengers, determined stoop-salers.  Others were simply out on casual weekend strolls—to Court Street and Montague Street where lazy weekend brunches would be shared.  Finding someone else’s discarded treasures—perhaps no longer treasured but valued enough for a price-tag rather than the trash bin—was enormously satisfying, voyeuristically as well as economically.

Some items were store shelf new, the re-gifted gifts someone finally had the good sense to put out.  Other things came with stories, like the lamp with the Tiffany shade—cracked but not too badly.  This was the seller’s first purchase for the apartment to which she’d moved following a bitter divorce.   “A true emblem of my liberation,” she smiled ruefully.  It was no longer needed after fifteen years.   A  beautiful carved chess set, missing half the pawns.   Formerly belonging to a beloved grandfather, kept for sentimental reasons only.  They were giving it up because none of the current family members played, and photographs of Grandpa took up less room.

Outgrown children’s clothes came with histories too.  I overheard one seller, taking a last whiff of a stretchy with sailboats, sharing a baby story as a few coins changed hands.  Outgrown adult clothing might inspire nostalgia too: a cocktail dress worn in younger days—only those stories were private.  Sometimes you bought an object you just liked a lot, even if you couldn’t say why.  Jon and I bought a candle holder one day: ceramic with a lid on top and little holes in the sides for the light to shine through.  To this day it sits on my desk, though it goes with nothing.  It’s part of our life together.  We never asked where it had come from.  Sometimes you don’t care; your own meaning is enough.

In the suburbs, stoop sales are called Yard Sales or Garage Sales, depending on the weather.  Today we were lucky; it was sunny and seventy-five degrees, unquestionably a Yard Sale Day.

As I’ve noted in previous posts, I live on a cul de sac with eight houses including my own.  All told there are eighteen children on our block who range in age from three to sixteen.  But the feel of community is not only due to the fact that our children play together constantly.  I have wonderful neighbors but one in particular is the glue that unites us.  She is a mother, like many of us, though her only son is older, a grown up himself, who lives on his own in another state.  She works, she cares for her dogs, takes walks with her husband.   But for me, her claim to fame is mobilizing our little corner of the town.  We should have a block party, she’ll say.  And make it happen.  We should have cul-de-sac-wide yard sale, she said about a month ago.  The rest of us wholeheartedly agreed, and she organized it, chose a date that worked for everyone, got the permit from the town, placed the ad in our local paper.  And today the shining sun along with the ad brought the crowds.

Jon and I have been gathering things to sell for the last few weeks, clothing, shoes toys, unopened duplicate art kits.  We staged things into the garage first, in boxes, on hangers, piece by piece.  As STUFF accumulated in the garage, we expected the living part of our house to begin feeling emptier, but somehow that wasn’t the case.  We’re natural STUFF gatherers, as are our children. We can’t resist used books; they can’t resist interesting rocks and other small treasures.  It adds up.  There was also clothing—left from my blazer phase, his vest phase, my maternity and nursing clothing: really STUFF we’ll never use again.

Jon started putting things out yesterday, while I was at rehearsal. Today, while I made coffee and breakfast, he started with the heavy lifting: big pieces of furniture—a cabinet, a table, an entertainment center cast off by relatives who’d upgraded—books, an old, boxy who-remembers-when-we-last-used-that television set.  When I got outside, the driveway was covered with our life—at least with our eight years since the last sale.  Sure, I’ve kept records, made baby books, boxed up and saved the most special baby mementos.  But looking over the stacking toys, the sweet little shoes with the Velcro closures, I felt so sentimental.  All I could think was there we wereThat was our family: board books and sippy-cups, pants with snaps up the legs.  How we’ve changed.

Though as I watched Jon collect a dollar seventy-five for the old bottle sterilizing machine, I knew it was okay.  I was ready.  Only once did I find myself reluctant to let go.  It was a musical flying saucer that had first belonged to my daughter, though it was my son who had loved it most.  It was red, blue and yellow—regulation Little Tikes; when you pressed the big white button in the center, it played either a Bach minuet, a Beethoven allegro or a Mozart scherzo.

As a growing baby, Theo would sit with it in his lap, eyebrows knit with intensity and punch the white button until he got the scherzo.  Then, little fists clenched, he’d perform what can only be described as a furious, eight month old rendition of the twist.  The music would stop; he’d start it again, pound the white button once, twice, three times until the scherzo came on so he could “dance” again.  I was charmed like only a mother could be: my son was not only adorable; he was brilliant too.  (He could play Mozart!)  Holding this toy in my hand today—though the batteries were dead; we weren’t sure if it worked at all (in the end it wound up in the “free stuff” bin), I wasn’t just holding a piece of Theo’s childhood, I was holding a piece of me.  A true emblem of the young (thirty-something) mother I had been; with an infant and a preschooler at home, working two days a week in the city, carrying my Medela breast pump everywhere I went, transitioning my therapy practice to a counseling center here in town.  I worked but I didn’t write much.  (I’d put the book I’d been writing since a little before my wedding on hiatus until my youngest was about two).  I was busy with paperwork, engaged with my clients during sessions, thinking about their stories in between.  But when I was home, I was all about my children.

Exhaustion aside, it was fun to be so immersed in the world of Little.  I loved marching around town with my double stroller, loved that the contents of my purse always included a few green and purple teething toys.  I’ve got little kids: I wore it like a badge. I wanted to be doing just what I was doing: changing diapers, nursing, reading The Little Engine that Could and The Big Red Barn nine hundred times a day (twice in a row at bedtime).

Recently, Theo was looking at pictures of himself and Zoe from several years back.

“Mommy?”  he said, “Do you miss us when we were little?”

I had a flashback: the two of them at six months and three, sitting in the tub together, Zoe and I singing to distract Theo from his wild splashing.  I reached in and hugged both their wet bodies.  I did say it–though he was too little to understand and she was singing too happily to hear:

“I’m going to miss you guys when you get big!”

But I don’t.  Which is what I told Theo when he asked.  “I loved you then,” I said, “but I love you more every year.”

The truth is that I am grateful for the fact that my kids can be independent; I’m proud of the strong, interesting individuals that they are.  Now I can do my at-home workout when my kids are awake; they can help me with groceries and laundry and other chores (not that they always do). We have real conversations where I am often amazed at their insights and not just their cuteness.  Though I know they sometimes resent that my book takes me away from them, it’s their independence that gives me the mental space to write.  I couldn’t have done it when they were little, nor did I need to.  I was a different version of me back then.  At home I wore striped nursing tops (these didn’t sell today so I am donating them).  To work, I wore the blazers which went today for three dollars a pop.

Just What Kind Of Mom Are You Anyway?

Boy we American mothers are hard on ourselves!  No matter how much we do, it’s either too much, or not enough.  We work, work out, shop, cook, do laundry, clean (sometimes), garden (sort of), manage everyone’s schedules, carpool, volunteer for school events, remove splinters, banish spiders, read stories, perform monster-purging rituals, walk the dog, rescue the cat, and—if we’re lucky enough to have partners who help out a lot—find time to secretly re-fold, re-wash and re-neaten the stuff our helpful partners folded, washed and neatened. (We still appreciate it, fellas.)  THEN, when we actually find time to sit (HAH!) and put our feet up, we have to read all these new books about how much better people from other developed nations are at mothering, how much more time everyone else has to enjoy la vie!, how much better everyone else’s kids are—whether at playing the piano, not getting pregnant, or eating coq au vin—AND how much more fun all those moms are having without us.

American bookshelves are buckling under the weight of all the parenting advice, each expert swearing by opposing tactics.  Even though American parents know What to Expect at every stage of the game, we still don’t trust our instincts.  It still seems that our neighbors, our sisters, the French, the Dutch and the Chinese are doing everything better.  But no one tries harder than we do to parent right.  We nurse on demand, then on schedule; we switch to formula so our partners can share feedings; but worry about what’s in the formula; we switch to soy, then abandon soy because it shares properties with estrogen.  We co-sleep, then Ferberize, then count to three for Magic!  , we tame our spirited children, bless skinned knees, give time-outs, then take them back in favor of “positive discipline.”  We say “good job!” because we want our kids to have high self-esteem, then stop saying “good job” when we read that empty praise leads to anxiety.

And, what’s that you say?  One in three American children is overweight or obese, at risk for all kinds of bad stuff?   Well, we can’t realistically cut down on sugar or increase vegetables unless everyone else does too—otherwise our kids will feel deprived, miserable and be more likely to gorge on sweets when we aren’t looking. Plus, we don’t want to restrict our children’s access to the American bounty of trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup, because that might lead to an eating disorder.  So, we focus on health and sign our kids up for sports.  Then we read about head injuries from soccer and other sports, as well as the fact that our kids are overscheduled and lack the time to just play freely outside.  So we cancel the sports and discover that no one else’s kid is playing outside, because they’re either at soccer practice getting a head injury or inside playing computer games (with an IV feed of trans fats and high fructose corn syrup).  So we throw up our hands and let our kids go inside and play computer games.  Then feel bad about it.

It’s not just being American parents that makes this so hard; it’s being American parents right now.  Who hasn’t heard an older person—someone who raised kids in the nineteen-fifties or sixties, for example—marvel at how orchestrated parenting is today?  Whose mother-in-law hasn’t observed that, all we did was open the door in the morning to let the kids out and make sure everyone made it back for dinner at night?

Yes, I know, many of our mothers smoked and drank while they were pregnant, gave us a steady diet of red meat, whole milk and all the outdoor freedom we wanted and we turned out okay.  But things were different then.  People weren’t so worried about abductions or skin cancer or bullying or all the other things that keeps us heli-parenting.

Besides, as a parent, sometimes you have to go with the flow and do something close to what other parents are doing—get with the program, as it were–because rejecting the program is not always worth making your kids feel like freaks.  For example, a very loving, nutrition-conscious mother I know instructed her child’s teacher—anytime there was a class birthday party or another occasion involving cupcakes—to scrape the frosting off her child’s cupcake.  This way, the child wasn’t forbidden the cupcake, but was spared the oodles of extra high-fructose corn syrup that everyone else ate.  Win-win, right?  Possibly, but I can’t help wondering how the woman’s daughter felt about the whole frosting-extraction ceremony.  (Healthwise, I am with that mother 100%, but emotionally, not so much.)  Maybe the kid didn’t mind, but most would.  Not only was she not getting what other people were getting, but she wasn’t getting it in a very public way.  If she asked why, did her mother say, because I care about you more than the other mothers care about their kids?  And if that was the mother’s response, what was the little girl supposed to do with that information?

My point is that it’s often hard to break with parenting norms, even when you know it would be way, way healthier to do it your own way.  Because it’s not always fair to ask your child to be an outsider.  It’s a tough choice to make, but sometimes bad nutrition, for example, can be the better parenting choice in the long run.

There are so many opportunities to judge yourself as a twenty-first century American parent.   But here’s the good news.  Being American makes us inherently eclectic in everything we do, including parenting.  For example, a few days ago, when I wouldn’t let my son give up and walk away from the piano after making the same mistake in the same spot, six times in a row, I was a Tiger Mom.  Well, minus the verbal abuse.  What I actually did was sit beside him on the piano bench and make him play right and left hands separately until he got it right, then try the whole thing from the top.   He protested and protested; I insisted and insisted and finally got him to agree.  Theo felt proud and victorious when it worked out and I felt glad that I’d made him stick with it.

Last month, I was Cool(ish) Mom, when I took my daughter and her BFF to the mall and pretended I was shopping on my own when we were in Abercrombie and Fitch, so all the other eleven year old girls would think they were there on their own.

On Mondays, when my son and his friends have basketball and chess and my daughter and her friends have tap and jazz dance, I’m Carpool Mom.  When my daughter and I have long talks over emotional stuff she brings up at bedtime, I’m UP-ALL-NIGHT Mom.  I wear dozens of hats, as I’m sure you do too.

(And as I write this, I’m trying to think of an occasion where I’ve been French Mom: cool, hands-off, yet lovingly supportive with a fool-proof approach to nutrition that fosters a life-long love for, as opposed to obsession with food.  Kick-ass wardrobe.  But alas, sorry to say, I’m never French Mom though, after reading reviews of the book, Bringing Up Bébé (but not reading the actual book because I know it will make me feel even worse about not being French than French Women Don’t Get Fat), I often wish I were.  But c’est la vie!

And the other day, when my kids had been playing outside with the other kids from our idyllic little cul de sac, when they’d been playing for hours and it was beginning to get dark, I opened the front door and hollered down the street:

“Zoe!  Theo!  Dinner!”  And wiped my hands on my apron as I watched the two of them scoot up the road, shouting farewells over their shoulders.

Okay, so I didn’t have on an apron–I don’t even own one.  But still, at that moment I was Quintessential American Mom From The Middle Of The Last Century … back when people read Dr. Spock and left it at that.


[Please note that I will be away for the next five days and may only have sporadic access to the internet.]