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.

40 in forty: Get your annual exams and know your body

When I was a newlywed and thinking ahead to the childbearing years on my horizon, I began tracking my basal temperatures each morning. I can't remember why I first started doing so; maybe I already realized how irregular my periods were, or perhaps I just wanted to get my ducks in a row and a good friend who tracked her temps suggested I do the same as she'd had trouble ovulating and getting pregnant.

Armed with my basal thermometer, some print-out charts and the marvelous book, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, I soon found that I wasn't regularly ovulating; that would make getting pregnant difficult.

We were in Cambridge then, and, lucky to have the benefit of the fantastic Harvard medical system, I made an appointment to figure the ovulation thing out and found that I had a small cyst on my pineal gland and that I had a significantly under-active thyroid, an integral part of the endocrine system that regulates many important hormones, not least those linked to reproduction.

Because I found all of this out early on, I could 'take charge' and take care of my body. A few MRIs found that the pineal cyst was totally benign and had probably been there for ages. Basically, I can ignore that now. And hypothyroidism is easy to treat; you simply need to find the right dose of synthetic T4 (an identical replacement for what one's thyroid gland produces in non-hypothyroid folks) and take it daily. 

During the regular blood tests during my first pregnancy, I found that I have a naturally lower platelet count. That knowledge has enabled me to inform subsequent physicians about my platelets when my bloodwork comes back and they mention it as a possible issue.

After I had Jack (with no issues at all) and finished nursing, I resumed tracking because my menstrual cycles again seemed haywire. This time I found that I had a vastly protracted luteal phase, the latter part of menstruation, which makes sustaining a pregnancy a challenge. Because I knew this, when I became pregnant with Oliver, I was immediately put on progesterone. It made me awfully sick, but I had no troubles with the pregnancy so totally worth it.

Throughout all of this, I found that I became infinitely more aware of my body's rhythms and "personality." It is always very clear to me when something isn't quite right, and I know immediately when I need to get something investigated.

I've kept detailed records and histories which has made appointments and changes in my doctors over the years really easy to navigate. There aren't any real question marks, and I feel both empowered and totally aware of my health. 

The same is true for my children. For both self and dependents, I have found it essential to advocate. Doctors are rushed, many often want quick and easy answers, and some think they know me or my kids better than I do, even though that feeling is in many ways absurd. I'm the one who spends all my time with self and children, for pete's sakes. 

I am confident that my repeated insistence that Jack's regular fevers weren't the same virus on loop was what finally led to the discovery that he actually had PFAPA, a febrile disorder marked my regular bouts of high fever and swollen tonsils. It was a breeze to treat WHEN we knew what it was. Before that, he was missing a week of school every five weeks and sick as a dog during those absences; often he had fever-induced night terrors. Once we started him on the medicine, old-school cimetidine by the way (a basic stomach acid reducer that is super-safe for pretty much anyone to take), Jack was never sick again and finally outgrew the syndrome.

My plea to you is to get your annual exams, know your body and your history, write it all down, and advocate for yourself and your health.

  • See the dentist at least once a year. In the meantime, floss every day. Every day!
  • Get your annual physical without fail.
  • Ladies, get your annual or biannual gynecological exams. Ovarian cancer is a mean, stealthy beast that often slinks in without symptomology. HPV is about as common as the common cold and is linked to cervical cancer. Find out what you have, if you have something, and treat it!
  • Ladies, I also want you to take care of your breasts. Do self exams, get mammograms when you come of age.
  • Men, if you have a family history of prostate cancer or any symptoms suggested prostate trouble, get your prostate checked. Come on, guys! You also need annual physicals, and watch your blood pressure and cholesterol which are, according to a doctor friend of mine, the big issues for men in their 40s and 50s. Please see the comment from DrBabs below for helpful links!
  • You should also get an annual skin check and in the interim periods check your own skin and wear sunscreen daily. I am an insanely freckly person so it's especially important to be vigilant. I've had moles removed from my back and foot and have a great relationship with the irregularly-shaped and colored moles on my shoulders and chest. Skin cancer is not to be trifled with.
  • Do NOT ignore your mental health. Anxiety and depression are real and do not in any way mean you are weak. They can be treated and should be. Therapy is a gift and in my opinion should be something everyone does. We're all human, people, and even those who lucked out in the family department have shit to deal with.
  • Eat cleanly and exercise. I eat butter and olive oil and full fat cheese and a bit of dessert every single day. By eating cleanly, I mean Eat Real. Avoid processed shit, diet stuff, things with infinite shelf-lives, and too much sugar. 
    We all need regular exercise, but ladies, as we age, it is especially important that we do weight-bearing and balance exercises. We lose bone mass as we grow older, and weight-training and core strength will help us keep our bones strong AND avoid dangerous falls.

Most insurance covers all above-mentioned tests because they count as preventive care. 

It might seem scary to venture into unknown lands where you could discover something ugly. But I believe that it's better to know as early as possible so that any needed treatment can start pronto. 

Go forth, know yourself, love yourself, care for yourself. Encourage others to do the same!