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 arts and their value

Ensconced in a transparent plastic chair with file cabinets of sheet music on one side and a colorful array of instruments on the other, with bleats and squeaks and scales and low frequencies radiating from studios all around, I turn a page in my book and smile. Mozart, the resident dog, ambles over for a scratch behind his ears.

Although I've little musical ability, in Middle C each weekend, as I wait while Jack and Oliver finish their lessons, I feel at home. The test notes and amiable chatter and warm ups and expanding lung capacities are individuals at practice in a place that both challenges and nurtures them. I gravitate toward places like that and the people who both work and learn there.

I felt a similar homeyness during the AWP conference earlier this month, despite the fact that literally thousands were in attendance, and I knew approximately five. Armed with my schedule, badge, and a bag of books -I never go anywhere without reading material; do you?- I made my way from panel to panel, toggling between the convention center and the elephantine Marriott across the street. Lost among friends, really. And happily so.

This is not to say that all musicians and writers and artists are nice, expansive people. Good grief- of course they aren't. Some are egotistical and competitive, and others are pathologically shy. Some are troubled while others prefer words or paint to people. Many have wrestled with periods of feeling awkward or different. Many still do. Some have experienced abuse or trauma or stunning loss. Many are delightfully eccentric, some fit every stereotype.

I've often wondered just how mental health, creativity, and intelligence co-exist, for many have written of "madness" as creative fire, of angst as a torturous fuel, of tragedy and loss as a sort of generative phoenix. A spherical spectrum seems to fit the bill of any synchronicity better than a linear one. 

Most every artist I've ever encountered relishes or at least feels the utter need to get at the root of who they are, who we are, and to express those selves in some way. Communities of artists are like multi-celled organisms undulating toward kernels of truth and understanding, toward justice and inclusion. The arts push the boundaries of what is and should be accepted, what is and should be normed. They teach us empathy, allow us to better understand the beauty and strength in difference, usher in respect and tolerance, and diminish fear and hate.

It is not hard to understand why dictators seek to control messaging and especially artistic expression. So really, stay sharp right now in the face of alternative facts (bullshit), lies messaged as news (also bullshit), the spread of fear versus hope (carnage, anyone?), and attempts to quash the humanities (the Trump admin's desire to cut the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, disallow peaceful protests, etc). 

Politics aside, this post is actually a piece about me and the gratitude I feel for the arts.

When I was a young child, my parents (who both studied art history in college and have collected art for decades), sister, and I often played two games: one was an artist and artwork flashcard-based gig (more fun that it now sounds), and the other was a sleuthing game in which the player whose turn it was donned a blindfold, reached into a paper bag to pluck a cardboard object from a large assortment, felt its curves and angles, size and stature, and ventured a guess as to what it was.

I attended summer arts camps and took drawing and painting lessons for years. I have spent more than a night in Corning, NY, because my father wanted to see the glass museum there and specifically a piece, Jay Musler's Cityscape, in it. I remember that our B&B smelled like tequila and lime and that the proprietor was a zany woman who sang "Customers, come here!" when we knocked on the wrong door. Cityscape remains vividly seared in my mind, a stunning piece of glass rendered meaningful in a gifted man's hands.

Courtesy of the Corning Museum; isn't this magical? Although sadly, I read it so much differently than I did when younger. Now, though still beautiful, it strikes me as environmental doomsday.

Courtesy of the Corning Museum; isn't this magical? Although sadly, I read it so much differently than I did when younger. Now, though still beautiful, it strikes me as environmental doomsday.

And yet, with all that steeping in the arts, I wasn't comfortable expressing myself artistically until my thirties. The general aging process has helped, but I wouldn't be nearly as complete a person as I am (and let's be clear, it's a real work in progress with more work to do; likewise it's not painless!) without open artistic expression which began with cooking, segued into photography, slid easily into blogging about those things, and has evolved into so much more.

I don't consider myself a Writer yet (though I aspire to be such), but I do know that writers and artists and those who truly appreciate them are my truest tribe. The sensitivity and openness, the shared experience of some struggle and the gentle embrace of what has challenged each of us, the multitude of identities lived and loved and celebrated...all of those things are treasures, gifts, and each time I experience, witness, or grow from relationships forged in and around arts communities, I become more me. More of the me I want to be. More of that fully unhusked kernel of self truth.

Not perfect, but whole

I'm not even going to delve into the matter of today being May 1 and I'm in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. That seems as wrong as the fact that there are only five weeks of school left. 

It really does take my breath away that summer break is nigh. Didn't my baby just start kindergarten? And soon my big boy will enter 4th grade and approach a double-digit age?

I chose not to think of those things this week, although they flitted through my attention when my eyes wandered to my calendar and reminders for camp payments rolled in. Instead I focused on being present with myself and those around me; my boys and friends, classmates and pets. 

Recently, I spoke to a very neat woman, wise and kind. She radiated serenity, a quality in others I am always drawn to like a moth to the brightest light. I want to know that secret, I want to understand the peace in this woman's face. So I talked to her for as long as she let me.

She told me about the importance of knowing ourselves deeply. That knowledge, and the acceptance of it, pads our hearts and souls. It nourishes us and is also protective, especially in our relationships with others both known and not. 

"When we know ourselves, Emily, we cannot be manipulated, for we are already whole. We don't have to spend energy defending ourselves against unknowns [unknown attacks], because we are already aware of our attributes."

Our conversation reminded me of an Adult Development class I took in grad school. Drawing on psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg's six stages of moral development, our professor, Robert Kegan, argued that the highest stage of adult development was at the point an individual could see him/herself as the subject and any given other as the object. Intimacy and deep connection are infinitely possible, but the Self is not enmeshed with the Other.

Put differently, the Self's identity is not dependent on the relationship with the Other. Rather the Self as an independent entity can approach and relate to and with another without worry that the Self will be lost or subsumed. 

The point is this: it is wise to make all effort to truly understand the essence of who we are. Then, faults can be addressed and worked on, strengths can be honed, real acceptance can be found. In the process, an authentic sense of self emerges and can be carried into relationships.

I think it's those sorts of selves that I find so appealing. People who recognize what is awesome about themselves and what is less optimal and who embrace it all in an accepting hug. They work to be just who they are but in a responsible way, fine-tuning internally as they go.

They are not perfect, but they're whole. And outwards from that core radiates pure light.

This week, I wrote a lot. I spent hours on the couch. I felt utterly alive and yet lazy too, as if this life of fitting words this way and that were but a puzzle of leisure I've not earned. And yet, something is different, and I wonder if it's growth. The very sort that might just radiate light.