Although lovely in many respects, this summer was an interesting one for me, surprising and hard in ways that I neither anticipated nor welcomed. I believe that difficulty is often a sign that one’s current course should be reconsidered, altered, and/or learned from. That said, challenging times sometimes come when you’re not remotely interested in reconsidering, adjusting the sails, or learning new techniques. And yet we must stay dynamic, for life and those around us surely do.
I wrote earlier that it was a real limp to the finish getting the boys to camp. Once home, relaxation did not wash over me like a fragrant and refreshing breeze. Rather, I felt anxious, had trouble sleeping, and generally found it hard to settle.
Initially, I tried to keep busy not least because I love feeling productive, but also because, in honesty, busyness makes it harder to sit and ponder what isn’t quite right, what isn’t quite working. I taught myself to repair wood trim, puttying, sanding, smoothing, painting, and reveling in the way much of the wainscoting and trim in our house took to the refurbishing. In general, I feel that new coats of paint on your walls and mulch in your yard are like the best red lipstick out there; they finish the picture and make it shine. But there is also something satisfying about learning to do things instead of paying for another to do them; self-sufficiency feels good.
Tom and I gutted our laundry room and then redid it, hanging new cabinets, repairing and painting the walls, reconnecting the plumbing after the new counter and our old sink were reinstalled. That, too, felt good. Useful. A lovely way to spend time together during a summer we couldn’t travel so instead stayed here.
But in the background, I considered the busyness and the relative inability to relax. I realized I didn’t much know what relaxing even meant anymore. For thirteen years I’ve been on the parenting hamster wheel. I’ve loved a whole lot of it, but the day-to-day relentlessness of raising and guiding kids, ferrying them, keeping their appointments and cooking for them, managing the household and the pets and the volunteer work and the yard and and and. All that alters our courses more than we know, even when we try to maintain selves.
For me, both out of intentional and loving input and without realizing a thing, my mother-son dyads turned my sails out of my wind. There are many reasons for this, and I assess no blame. But I do see this summer as a come to jesus with myself, and that’s a good thing.
The week before we picked the boys up, I started thinking hard about what I needed to do to build in time for self care while parenting. The kids are 10 and 13; they’re not toddlers, they’re not incompetent. They spend six weeks a year in a place without electricity or running water, a place in which every single day they have to make multiple decisions, about how to spend their time and how to be as people. Do archery? Go on an extended hiking trip? Assert their feelings or stay quiet? Join with friends or do what their inner voices are suggesting?
That is them learning to be. And as they forge paths like those, I need to be doing the same, relearning what it is to live meaningfully and wholly with the kids here so that when they’re not, life is still full and balanced and not a fatigued mess of catch up and question.
One of my oldest, dearest friends is also a really good mother from whom I’ve picked up not a few insightful tidbits about parenting. She mentioned something about a chore jar, a bucket of popsicle sticks with a chore on each from which her children pull a job every morning. I stole this idea immediately upon learning about it and made a jar specific to my crew. Some are silly like “Have a dance party to a crazy song” while others are serious such as “do the dishes” or “clean the litter boxes.” Since their first morning home, the kids have pulled a stick and done the chore. Jack and I have taken two great selfies (with real smiles), Oliver has learned how to do a load of laundry, both have organized their desks and played with and brushed the cats. Both dreaded cleaning the litter boxes, but this is not my problem and Jack got over it quickly (Ol has yet to pull that one).
And what I have found, as with so many things related to parenting, consistent, non-negotiable rules, like the chore jar and our longstanding No-Screen Monday, make whining and push back much (!) less likely.
Over the summer, we also had reading hour every single day. That was as much because they had required summer reading and book club work as the fact that I desperately wanted to read through the stack of great books that beckon on the regular. And so we sat together and read, and it was nice. And not negotiable.
Some might say that of course these things should have been happening already, and maybe that’s right. But while I have kids who like to read, it’s never their first choice. And while I’ve always asked for help from them, I’m sick of needling and reminding. The set reading hour and daily pull from the chore jar cut the crap completely, and there’s a lot to be said for that.
We have never given the boys an allowance, in large part because they get a decent amount of birthday and Christmas money from generous grandparents and aunts but also because I don’t feel that making your bed or helping at home necessarily warrants payment. That’s a family decision, and I’m not judging allowances; I grew up getting one, and it taught me a lot.
But my boys tend towards laziness and they live privileged lives, so I’ve decided that the money they have beyond gifts will have to be earned. Several years ago, Tom and I told them they had to earn all spending money for trips we took them on. What they have chosen to purchase since then has been infinitely more thoughtful and frugal than before. And now, as Jack enters his teen years and wants things like more Magic cards and what not (which I’m not buying), he decided to start a lawn business in our neighborhood and has done a great job. He’s learning what it really takes to earn $10 and the thought that needs to go behind purchases when your budget is limited. He’s learning to correspond professionally and to keep track of appointments, and because of his income, he now has a bank account and knows how to deposit, withdraw, and all that jazz. I love it. It is beyond compare to watch from behind as he asks the guys at Dice City if he can see a specific Magic card, decides to buy it, pulls out his wallet, makes change, and says thanks.
This guidance towards and enforcement of independence allows for space for me. It will allow me to search for ways to make meaning in my life that are just for me even if they involve others. I’m teaching myself Irish and, impossibly and yet actually, I am taking two literature classes at Politics & Prose (my favorite local bookstore) on four Friday afternoons in late October/early November. The logistics of making that happen were ridiculous: class from 3:30-5:30 and 6-8p on Fridays? That is right smack in the afternoon frenzy of carpool, weekend commencement, dinner, sleepovers, etc. But instead of missing this chance as I have so often before, I registered and then figured out how to make it work. I am excited for myself and also for what this models for the boys. I am Mom but I am also Emily.