Parenting at my age and theirs

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.

On the Basis of Sex and the Open Discussion Project

The boys returned to school on Monday, and today Oliver stayed home sick. He is the easiest, most darling sick kid ever, and as today was frigid, we enjoyed a roaring fire while reading for book club, doing homework, and so forth. I got a bit of work done, though not as much as I’d hoped or planned. I am lucky that that’s OK, but it can be hard to not feel disappointed at times- at the loss of time, of the quiet hours counted on but taken. Tom and I showed the kids The Pursuit of Happyness last weekend, in part because it’s such a good movie but also for perspective; how on the line so many people are constantly, and the stress in that. It’s excruciating.

I didn’t think about it all too much until we picked up Jack and a friend and, as everyone had finished homework, went to see On the Basis of Sex. I felt this intense determination to see it. Today. I bribed my children with candy; Jack’s pal said, “Oh, that sounds wonderful. I’d love to see that.” I swear to god sometimes being with other people’s kids makes you believe that while you may not always see your lessons coming to fruition in your own spawn, you can have some faith that they are and will. Interacting with other kids with good parents lets you see that they can and do apply their skills and loveliness when the time is right. I see this all the time in my students too. Ah, parenting.

Anyway, after plying the children with all manner of “food,” we settled in to our seats, and I exhaled deeply. I’ve felt fitsy all week- tired, and an unsavory blend of worried and furious. The shutdown continues, hurting and stressing so many Americans. It continues because of an ignorant, mean man and the craven, pitiful people who enable him. It continues because of a greedy desire for power, nothing more. This shutdown has nothing to do with protection, nothing to do with security. It is wasteful and rude and the wall is stupid and ineffective.

I mention that because on Sunday I begin participating in the Open Discussion Project. I am both thrilled and honored to have been selected to do so, and yet, as the time approaches, I find myself nervous. The ODP, a joint project of six American bookstores, including my beloved Politics & Prose here in DC, is an effort to talk over the chasm of polarization dividing our country. You can learn more about it here, but in short, it brings together groups of people from across the political spectrum to talk and read books about current events and discuss them. “The goal of this effort is not conversion but conversation and understanding.”

I applied as soon as I read about the opportunity. I exclaimed aloud when I was accepted. I have studiously read our assigned book, highlighting and making mental notes all the while. And yet, I am nervous. I’m nervous because I’m furious. I’m nervous because although I value emotion and fully believe it comes from places of feeling and love I also recognize that it can counter reason, inhibit objectivism, and cloud and fuck things up. Emotion has always been part Achilles heel for me, part gift. We have a skeptical relationship, I think it’s fair to say.

In any case, I admit to feeling extremely correct in my belief that our country is in seriously bad straits, and I am sick to death of racism, sexism, bigotry, religion, and exclusivist conservatism cornering the fucking market on “real” and “salt of the earth” Americans.


I, too, am a real American. A patriot. I am an atheist, an active anti-racist who recognizes that I will always have work to do, a feminist, and a proud progressive. I do not want walls built, on our borders or in our society. And so I worry that I will be unable to hear arguments for the wall. I worry that I will react badly to support for this “president.” I will try to listen, try to understand, but I’m nervous.

Back to the movie. We all loved it, the 7th graders and me especially. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a boss. Incredible human. I cried at the end and found myself struggling not to cheer or retch aloud several times throughout.

“Please introduce yourselves and tell us why you deserve a spot that would otherwise have gone to a man.”
”You used to be pretty and so smart. Now you sound shrill and bitter.”
”You’re just not a fit. I mean, our firm is a family. The wives get jealous.”
”The natural order of things…Caretakers are women.”

Jesus christ. It’s enough to make me insane. Talk about rousing emotions. I was nearly apoplectic at times. And yet still, women carry the bulk of the familial load, the mental load, the emotional load, and so on. We manage the expectations of how to look, how to act, how to be. But most women can never actually win. Not really. Can never strive without seeming strident. Can never assert without seeming shrill. I mean, just look at “grab them by the pussy and take what you want” having zero consequence versus “I want to impeach that motherfucker” being talked about ad nauseum for days. (Trump, Tlaib, respectively.) Really?

I think I carry all this with me into the ODP. I am mad. And driven. And worried. And strong. But that leash of propriety is still around my neck, yanking me back at times. Into expectation or submission or appropriateness or whatever.

It’s infuriating and in instills fear, often simultaneously. And I’m white.

"What is better than food?"; reboot; OMFG; a farty IOU

So says my Oliver who is a hell of an eater. Today in his camp lunch I packed some salami and a wedge of triple cream brie in addition to yellow bell pepper slices, a Granny Smith apple, and the requisite Pirate's Booty. He was thrilled. God love that child. Jack has a much more truncated palate but he's as enthused about all he does like as Ol is about his wider berth. At least both of them adore Louisiana food. Jack will eat your body weight in gumbo and red beans and rice, and the two of them can take down a loaf of stanky garlic bread like nobody's business.

This is really quite a critical quality, in my opinion. I'm careful not to say too much out loud or to over-exalt in front of them, lest reverse psychology wreak havoc on my desired outcome, but food and drink, and the pleasure that can be taken in trying, enjoying, sharing, and crafting them, add such a zest to life, such a depth of experience, such an opportunity for celebration and memory. And so I like what I so far see in terms of their culinary preferences.


So, I started this post last night when the house was finally quiet and I was feeling marginally zen. And then the stupid low-light or no blue light or whatever the hell program blocks whatever it is in screens that supposedly ruins your sleep flipped on and I couldn't see my pictures and Tom had conveniently forgotten how to adjust the timing of the stupid program's onset and I lost my bizness and called it a day.

The children had been talking loudly and nonstop since I'd picked them up at camp and then driven home through a gale-force thunderstorm -legitimately branches were blowing across the roads- as both asked me to "look at this, Mom" as if I have not been saying for a decade, "I cannot look at you while I'm driving." 

Apparently, they have heard and ingested that as well as they've heard and ingested:

1. "Please do not talk to me through the bathroom door. I would really appreciate going to the bathroom in peace and privacy."
2. "Please do not attempt to tell me something while I'm vacuuming. I cannot hear you and then you get annoyed because I cannot hear you but I have already told you that I cannot hear while the vacuum is on and if I stop and start as often as you attempt to talk to me, I will literally never get the vacuuming done."

I'm fully serious when I tell you that both happened yesterday after we managed to make it home through that storm which was as verbal as it was nature-made.

I would like to insert a brief mention here that while the children are attending the same camp, they are doing different programs there. Not only is said camp an hour and change round-trip two times a day (I did not know this when we registered) but also Jack's program finishes at 3 and Oliver's at 3:30 (another thing we were not told before or during registration). "Well," you are surely saying, "just pick them both up at 3:30." 

Ah yes, that is logical BUT Jack only has a fifteen-minute grace period and so in order to avoid a $30/day "late" fee, I must pick him up by 3:15 and then leave the pick-up location and return 15 minutes later to fetch Oliver. This is lunacy, people.

I would also like to assert that most of Virginia needs to briefly move to Boston so as to learn how to drive. Yes, I know that Boston drivers have a "Masshole" reputation, but I would rather drive on the roads with them and their excellent skills ANY DAY if it meant I could avoid (and therefore live) the incapable Virginia drivers who appear to not know or not care that minimum speed limits, lane markers, turn signals, and no-turn signs are NOT suggestions. Jesus h christ, people. 

Suffice it to say that when I returned to this blog post today, it was without the iota of zen I'd harnessed by last night. I agree with all I'd written yesterday but that foodly blush has been supplanted by the finding of the IOU Oliver was forced to write to Jack last night after farting on him, purposefully, again.

I'd threatened last time Ol did this and Jack came to me in raging tears (because really, Ol has a toxic arse) that next time he decided that laying one on his brother was a fine idea he'd owe him $10.

I don't know about you, but $10 is a hefty fine. I'll be damned if I do something stupid that results in me just throwing $10 away. There are many things I can and want to do with $10 and paying to fart on someone isn't one of them. 

Oliver seemed chastened. It has been a month since any issue, and I thought my intervention had worked.

Last night, after a hellish half hour of enforcing saxophone practicing and summer math review (don't even ask) after driving home though the cyclone, I threw in the towel and put on a movie for the kids so I could cook their dinner in peace and maybe read an article in the paper.

Soon enough, I hear Jack scream, "That's it. You owe me $10, Oliver. Mom, Oliver farted on me. He owes me!" And I said, "You are right, Jack. Oliver, pay up." I swear to G, y'all, Oliver moseyed upstairs and came back with a $20. I don't even have a $20 right now. 

"Jack, all I have is one of my birthday twenties. Do you have change?"


"Fine, I'll write you an IOU. 'Jack, I owe you $10 for farting on you again. -Oliver"

There is a fair amount wrong with this situation but the amount of my fine, which Tom said seemed harsh, is clearly not part of the problem. 

I would love to continue venting but it's time to get in the car to approach the multiheaded beast known as Avoiding a $30-for-15-minute Fine Pick-Up. 

Thank the lord Tom and I are blowing this joint at 5:30 tonight and heading to FedEx Field for the U2 concert. Thrill of a lifetime. Seeing U2 in concert has been on my bucket list for years. Woot!


I'm going to attempt to regain some zen by sharing with you this picture of my first blackberry harvest from the bushes Mom brought me from Nanny and Papa's yard. The original plants are about 65 years old now. I'm so lucky to have two of them (or their offshoots).