In celebration of celebrations

It appeared again after St. Patrick’s Day like a pile of green laundry. The mom blogger of Rage Against the Minivan, Kristen Howerton, beseeched in a witty post (linked below), “Can we bring the holidays down a notch?” I read it this time last year, and my response hasn’t changed.

In a word, no. No, I’m not going to bring them down a notch.

Yes, I am one of those moms who, to quote the chagrined author, sent in a “whole freaking goodie bag” for my kindergarten son’s Valentine exchange. And for his birthday treats earlier that week, I baked sugar cookies with alphabet cookie cutters, so each child in his class got the first letter of their name. I’m pretty sure she would frown upon that, too.

I didn’t plan either of those out of any sense of expectation, though. I just wanted to, because I thought the kids would enjoy them. For lack of a more apt phrase, that’s just how I roll. I love celebrating holidays with what I consider fun traditions. I don’t expect anyone else to feel compelled to do so.

I respect Howerton’s desire to carry on the tradition of pre-made plastic Easter baskets she says she had growing up. But that’s not what I grew up with. My mom baked wonderful homemade cookies, the recipes I use now. And I still have the special Easter basket she gave me that I looked forward to setting out every year.  My sister had a matching one. These are traditions I want to carry on, but to each his own.

Is there more holiday hoopla now? Maybe so. The creative Elf tableaus noted in her rant, for one, do seem to be a more recent addition. I was reluctant to embrace that one myself. It came to our family in the manner the blogger mom decries – something heard about at school followed by choruses of “But where is our elf?”

At first it did strike me as a bit much, and I recognize why the phrase “holiday overkill” came to her mind. But I must admit that Elf grew on me. It’s hard to argue with the gleeful excitement on my sons’ faces when they wake up wondering where they’ll find Elfie that day. I, too, delight in the fun of Elfie hanging from a chandelier, wrapping the Christmas tree with toilet paper, and driving the toy cars.

So no, I don’t think we would all be happier to take a more “slacker” approach to special occasions, as she suggests. For that matter, I don’t think there’s any reason we all have to take the same approach to holidays. We don’t all take the same approach to a lot of matters. Other moms have a lot less clutter in their houses than I do. Hats off to them! And by hats, I mean the ones strewn across my house, while theirs are hanging tidily. That discrepancy doesn’t bother me, though. I don’t tell them they’re “setting up expectations I just can’t maintain,” to quote the post again. That’s just how they roll.

The truth is, we may debate this seemingly endless parade of celebrations while our kids are in kindergarten, but by the time third grade rolls around it will be a moot point. In those few years the joyous 100 Days of School celebration gives way to the killjoy hundred school days of preparing for standardized tests.  The hours of blowing bubbles carefree cede all too soon to hours of carefully bubbling in bubbles.

So can we bring down the complaining a notch? We’re just trying to have fun over here and aren’t inclined to rein in our revelry to the lowest common denominator. You do your thing, I’ll do mine, or you’re of course welcome to join us. Just like holidays – in my book, the more the merrier 🙂

Toxic testing?

The standardized testing juggernaut in our schools shows no signs of slowing down. Recent headlines announce that now even kindergarteners in some parts of the country are being required to bubble in answers so their skills can be assessed.

In a seemingly unrelated headline, the self-appointed Food Babe, blogger Vani Hari, petitioned Subway to remove the chemical azodicarbonamide, a dough conditioner, from its bread. They announced three days later that they would phase it out.

My suggestion: Let’s have the Food Babe see if she can find some azodicarbonamide in standardized testing. Maybe then elementary schools would finally be able to toss the endless pages of test prep to the trash bin where they belong.

The Subway petition actually struck me as over-the-top, although that’s in keeping with Food Babe’s style. She investigates the food industry extensively, but her reports have been decried by some observers as “fear mongering.” Her letter to Subway cited studies questioning potential health risks but grabbed attention by emphasizing that azodicarbonamide is also used in making yoga mats. “We want to really eat fresh, not yoga mat,” her petition declared.

How silly, I thought. Eat yoga mat? Regardless of whether or not this additive is harmful, surely she would reach a wider audience and gain more credibility if it weren’t so overly dramatic and alarmist. Every can of Play-Doh is labeled as containing wheat, but nobody thinks we need to remove wheat from bread because it’s in Play-Doh. And nobody thinks we’re eating Play-Doh when we eat wheat.

But within 24 hours 50,000 people had signed the petition, and Subway conceded (or seized an opportunity for good p.r. by agreeing to something they were already planning to do – your call.) The Food Babe declared victory.

So why don’t we put her to work figuring out what kind of mental yoga mat our young kids are consuming by spending hours upon hours preparing for these tests? It hasn’t worked that teachers have spoken out against them. Neither has it made a difference that parents loathe them. Perhaps if there were some chemical we know to be harmful – like red food dye or trans fat – involved we could rally support to just say no to multiple choice. I can see the headlines now: Students subjected to toxic testing, parents protest.

We know growing kids need healthy food for their bodies, but the trickle-down effect of this mandated testing robs them of another valuable resource for their minds: time. Time to learn at their own pace, to read when they’re ready, to delight in the joy of learning before the endless drumbeat of A, B, C or D drains the fun out of it all.

Is there anyone who thinks these legions of tests are making our kids smarter and better thinkers? Are any teachers pleased with these exacting standards to which they are required to tailor their instruction? Do any parents look at the page after page of multiple choice worksheets coming home in their kids’ folders as early as second grade and think it was a commendable use of their class time?

Surely so. Otherwise the reality of public education today wouldn’t be that excellent schools with excellent teachers are handed a myopic definition of education to which they’re expected to adhere and told that test scores will determine their success. Dedicated, caring teachers and school administrators today still succeed in preparing our children for the future – but it’s wholly in spite of standardized testing, not because of it. It’s because they are caring and dedicated that they find a way to teach our children regardless of these restrictions.

Calling Food Babe: Help us find the academic azodicarbonamide. Maybe an alarming trend needs an alarmist response after all.

Better late than never?

Interested in joining my new club? Membership is open to anyone who will have trouble getting to the meetings on time. Maybe we’ll be more of a support group. Let’s call it “Likely to Arrive Tardy Excessively.”

Yes, LATE.

Truthfully, it’s a club I’d rather not charter. I’d prefer to be a reformed ex-member, not the poster child. I have tried before, unsuccessfully, to disqualify myself from this not-so-prompt posse.

I know I’m not alone. At my Bible study yesterday, a group of several hundred women, the coordinator announced that a table in the back of the room by the doors would be reserved so those coming in late would still have a place to sit. I applaud this welcoming gesture. I couldn’t tell you, however, what she announced last week. I had arrived after the announcements, regrettably late. Hopefully I wasn’t, in fact, the inspiration for the tardy table.

The real kick in the pants, though, was when I recently found myself the next-to-last car in morning car line at school. My children were not tardy, but I do know that arriving at 8:04 (and a half) for an 8:05 bell is not acceptable. I felt terrible and decided then to take action to rehabilitate myself. Guilt, in appropriate doses, can be an excellent motivator.

I started tackling the delay dilemma by seeking advice from my ever-punctual husband. “Just be on time,” he said. As if it were that easy. “If you can be there at 9, you can be there at 8,” he continued. Hmm, how? Anyway, I’m not ever that late. His final analysis: “You let the discretionary get in the way of the have-to-do.”

There may be some truth to that point. I struggle with time management and prioritizing tasks. I also tend to underestimate how long tasks will take and overestimate how much time I have available.  And if procrastination is the thief of time, there’s been grand larceny around here.

It’s not that I’m always late. I do somehow arrive on time – sometimes – and do enjoy the feeling of not being rushed. It’s pleasant to sit at a stoplight and not clench the wheel wondering how much longer it’s going to stay red. The lights are always red, of course, when you’re running late.

Or is that just another rationalization those of us who are habitually late tend to find? I got every red light. We couldn’t find my son’s shoes. I accidentally hit the snooze button twice. The morning I was bringing up the rear in car line, for example, I was helping with an 8:15 classroom volunteer shift because no one else had signed up. I found myself thinking after the fact that having to make myself presentable, too, made us late leaving. Truthfully, I should have gotten up earlier to allow myself more time. Sometimes what we see as a reason is actually just an excuse.

Excuses are a slippery slope. We all too easily find countless ways to justify to ourselves bad habits we know we should change. And then comes the real danger – when the habit is so entrenched that it has become part of how we see ourselves, consciously or not. I am a person who is always late.

When the habit is etched somewhere in self-identity, the idea of change seems overwhelming. Conquering all the reasons (excuses?) at once looms so insurmountable, that our resolutions for drastic change seldom fare well. Is there an effective solution to always be on time – or, for that matter, to always eat well, exercise more, get better sleep, waste less time, et cetera)? If so the world surely would be populated entirely with punctual, thin, fit, well-rested and productive people.

No, we have to change our habits one day at a time. What we choose today is what matters. We can make changes just for today. And then tomorrow we can work on tomorrow. If we string enough good todays together, our new and improved habits eventually gain ground.

In the wake of the 8:04 arrival debacle, I now focus each morning on what I need to do to be on time today. I set my alarm earlier. I wake the boys up earlier. I do the essentials first, like pack lunches. It may seem obvious, but the results have been promising. The first rehabbed day I dropped the boys off at 7:46.  The next day was 7:48. Fridays must be our Achilles heel: today, in week two of reform, they hopped out of the car at 7:57. I did hit the snooze button today, though. I will set my alarm a bit earlier on Monday.

Little by little, day by day, we can become who we want to be. Our lives are essentially the sum of our days. As Mark Twain said, “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.”

Let’s rename the club. How about “Getting Ready Earlier Achieves Timeliness.” GREAT. Or maybe “On Time One Day at a Time.”

We’ll have an empty table in the back. But hopefully we won’t need it.

The rise of selfies and self-esteem

Oxford Dictionaries named “selfie” the Word of the Year for 2013. Richard Sherman named himself the best corner in the game in his infamous postgame rant. Unrelated headlines – or part of a sweeping trend that’s emphatically putting the ME in social media?

Selfies are everywhere now. Oxford says usage of the word increased 17,000 percent in the last year. I don’t typically take pictures of myself to post, but I don’t necessarily object to them either. I do, however, find their boom in popularity to be a social trend worth noting.

For so many years, people have taken photos of the world as they see it. Your lens is your perspective – what you find interesting, what you want to remember, what you value.  Now, more than ever, our favorite picture subject is…ourselves?

And not only are we as a society constantly turning the camera on ourselves, but we feel compelled to share these shots with the rest of the world, too. Facebook gives us this opportunity – as do Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, Snapchat – there’s even Selfie, an app devoted to this self-portraiture.

Granted, self-portraits are nothing new in the art world. But what Rembrandt and Van Gogh created were images of lasting value. The same can’t be said of the pics Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber are so fond of sharing. It’s fair to say their selfies cross the line to self-promoting.

Which brings me back to Richard Sherman. His exuberantly narcissistic response to Erin Andrews has been analyzed from many angles already, perhaps exhaustively so. What struck me, though, was how incredibly self-centered it was. Yes, he had just made a quite commendable defensive play. But football is a team sport, and his team won the game to advance to the Super Bowl. How many points did he score in the winning effort? Yep, none. His focus, though, was on his own accomplishment.

Sherman’s brashness garnered attention for the prominence of the occasion, but the truth is social media gives us all a stage for self-promotion every day. Certainly, ours is a much smaller scale than a nationally televised audience, and we don’t choose to use it for such vain pronouncements. But perhaps having the ability to announce whatever we choose to our audience of “friends” with just one click – our own thoughts, our own images, our own online self that we’re essentially creating one post at a time – lends a potentially exaggerated sense of importance to it all.

What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks, and so we answer. Then are reassured when we are “liked,” buoyed by nice comments, and, the ultimate compliment, delighted when someone finds our status worthy of sharing. Posting can be a great self-esteem boost, even if that’s not our intention for doing so. It’s harmless fun in small doses, but it can be a slippery slope if we start to find “what’s on our mind” to be at the center of our daily decision making. Our own desires and motivations often should take a backseat to the needs of others, our responsibilities to our families (and teams), and most notably, how God calls us to live our lives. It’s easy to forget, though, when we’re surrounded by selfies.

C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”  Good advice to Richard Sherman – and us all.

Wonderful wise words

One advantage to having more candles on your cake is the ability to reflect back on those years with a clarity only the years bestow. And for those of us unsure whether we’ve yet acquired said clarity, it’s worthwhile to heed the advice of those who have.

The wonderful writer Anna Quindlen penned one of my all-time favorite reflections on motherhood. It made the rounds as an email forward called “All My Babies Are Gone Now” and landed in my inbox six years ago, long before the boom of contemplative mommy blogs.

I’m grateful I read it then. Being in the trenches of diapers and/or Legos sometimes make it hard to for young moms to see the forest for the trees. Her heartfelt retrospective originated from a place in life that seems so far-off when you know right away if it’s a new episode of Team Umizoomi. But, it included such profound advice: I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less. I saved that essay and would reread it from time to time. I still do.

The responsible journalist in me felt compelled to ensure the piece was cited properly before sharing. I found that these wise words of Quindlen’s were published as a chapter called “Good-bye Dr. Spock” from her 2005 book Loud and Clear. Random House’s web site includes a feature to look at the book in its entirety. To my delight, the chapter included more than what was originally circulated in the email forward, some of which really hit home: The literate parent, who approaches everything – cooking, decorating, life –  as if there was a paper due or an exam scheduled is in particular peril when the kids arrive. I think I could write a whole post on that point.

Another day, maybe. I’ll leave you with her words. They’re such a treasure – just like every single day before our babies are gone.

All My Babies Are Gone Now/Good-bye Dr. Spock

From Loud and Clear

by Anna Quindlen

If not for the photographs I might have a hard time believing they ever existed. The pensive infant with the swipe of dark bangs and the black button eyes of a Raggedy Andy doll. The placid baby with the yellow ringlets and the high piping voice. The sturdy toddler with the lower lip that curled into an apostrophe above her chin.

All my babies are gone now. I say this not in sorrow but in disbelief. I take great satisfaction in what I have today: three almost-adults, two taller than I am, one closing in fast. Three people who read the same books I do and have learned not to be afraid of disagreeing with me in their opinion of them, who sometimes tell vulgar jokes that make me laugh until I choke and cry, who need razor blades and shower gel and privacy, who want to keep their doors closed more than I like. Who, miraculously, go to the bathroom, zip up their jackets and move food from plate to mouth all by themselves. Like the trick soap I bought for the bathroom with a rubber ducky at its center, the baby is buried deep within each, barely discernible except through the unreliable haze of the past.

Everything in all the books I once pored over is finished for me now. Penelope Leach, T. Berry Brazelton, Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling rivalry and sleeping through the night and early childhood education, all grown obsolete. Along with “Goodnight Moon” and “Where the Wild Things Are”, they are battered, spotted, well used. But I suspect that if you flipped the pages, dust would rise like memories.

What those books taught me, finally, and what the women on the playground taught me, and the well-meaning relations and the older parents at cocktail parties – what they taught me, was that they couldn’t really teach me very much at all. Raising children is presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay. No one knows anything. One child responds well to positive reinforcement, another can be managed only with a stern voice and a time-out. One child is toilet trained at three, his brother at two. When my first child was born, parents were told to put baby to bed on his belly so that he would not choke on his own spit-up. By the time my last arrived, babies were put down on their backs because of research on sudden infant death syndrome.

As a new parent this ever-shifting certainty is terrifying, and then soothing. Eventually you must learn to trust yourself. Eventually the research will follow. First science told us they were insensate blobs. But we thought they were looking, and watching, and learning, even when they spent so much time hitting themselves in the face. And eventually science said that we were right, that important cognitive function began in early babyhood. First science said they should be put on a feeding schedule. But sometimes they seemed hungry in two hours, sometimes three, sometimes all the time, so that we never even bothered to button up. And eventually science said that was right, and that they would be best fed on demand. First science said environment was the great shaper of human nature. But it certainly seemed as though those babies had distinct personalities, some contemplative, some gregarious, some crabby. And eventually science said that was right, too, and that they were hardwired exactly as we had suspected.

Still, the temptation to defer to the experts was huge. The literate parent, who approaches everything – cooking, decorating, life – as if there was a paper due or an exam scheduled is in particular peril when the kids arrive. How silly it all seems now, obsessing about language acquisition and physical milestones, riding the waves of normal, gifted, hyperactive, all those labels that reduced individuality to a series of cubbyholes. But I could not help myself. I had watched my mother casually raise five children born over ten years, but by watching her I intuitively knew that I was engaged in the greatest – and potentially most catastrophic – task of my life. I knew there were mothers who had worried with good reason, that there were children who would have great challenges to meet. We were lucky; ours were not among them. Nothing horrible or astonishing happened: There was hernia surgery, some stitches, a broken arm and a fuschia cast to go with it.

Mostly ours were the ordinary everyday terrors and miracles of raising a child, and our children’s challenges the old familiar ones of learning to live as themselves in the world. The trick was to get past my fears, my ego, and my inadequacies to help them do that. During my first pregnancy I picked up a set of lovely old clothbound books at a flea market. Published in 1933, they were called Mother’s Encyclopedia, and one volume described what a mother needs to be: “psychologically good: sound, wholesome, healthy, unafraid, able to deal with the world and to live in this particular age, an integrated personality, an adjusted person.” In a word, yow.

It is good that we know so much more now, know that mothers need not be perfect to be successful. But some of what we learn is as pernicious as that daunting description, calculated to make us feel like failures every single day. I remember 15 years ago poring over one of Dr. Brazelton’s wonderful books on child development, in which he describes three different sorts of infants: average, quiet,and active. I was looking for a sub-quiet codicil (see: slug) for an 18-month old who did not walk. Was there something wrong with his fat little legs? Was there something wrong with his tiny little mind? Was he developmentally delayed, physically challenged? Was I insane? Last year he went to China. Next year he goes to college. He can walk just fine. He can walk too well. Every part of raising children at some point comes down to this: Be careful what you wish for.

Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined in the “Remember When Mom Did” Hall of Fame. The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language—mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell off the bed. The times I arrived late for preschool pickup. The nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer camp. The day when the youngest came barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her geography test, and I responded, ‘What did you get wrong?” (She insisted I include that.) The time I ordered food at the McDonald’s drive-through speaker and then drove away without picking it up from the window. (They all insisted I include that.) I did not allow them to watch the Simpsons for the first two seasons. What was I thinking?

But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of the three of them, sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages six, four and one. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.

Even today I’m not sure what worked and what didn’t, what was me and what was simply life. How much influence did I really have over the personality of the former baby who cried only when we gave parties and who today, as a teenager, still dislikes socializing and crowds? When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I’d done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be.

The books said to be relaxed and I was often tense, matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top. And look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best in the world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential humanity. That’s what the books never told me. I was bound and determined to learn from the experts. It just took me a while to figure out who the experts were.

New year, new box?

I turn 35 next week.  I’m a person who loves birthdays, but I can’t say I’m excited about this one.

I wasn’t expecting this to feel like a milestone.  I figured the feeling-old moping would be at least five years down the road.  But then I had to check the box.

It hit me at Bible study, of all places.  As I filled out my spring registration, I was asked the check the box for my age group:  20-35 or 35-50.  And it occurred to me that I was at the end of that first age box, where I had been so happily ensconced the last fifteen years.

That box was wonderful – so many exciting life events.  In that box I studied abroad, got married, bought our first home, checked off the only thing I had on my bucket list (three times, actually, but I’m pretty sure no one saw the second show), had my first child, traveled, had my second child, and loved all of it.

And now?  I’m not sure I’m ready to identify with a new box.  I really liked that last one.

Last year I overheard some fellow moms talking about how depressed they were when they turned 35.  At the time, my 33-year-old self didn’t get it, but my 34-and-51-weeks self does.  Because since then, the gray hairs have appeared.  And, ugh, wrinkles.

I guess we have to focus on how we’ve improved over the years.  Do I know more?  Hmmm.  I probably know less than I thought I did at 20.  I think I understand and appreciate more about life.  I pray more.  My faith has grown, as have my relationships.  As the lines on my face have deepened, so has the love – for my dear husband, my precious children, my wonderful family.  At least by the time the gray hairs arrived, I know deep down that they don’t really matter.  And at least they’re fixable.

Maybe it was just my 20-35 self who found them alarming.  Maybe I am ready for the new box, to embrace the wisdom and maturity that come with it.  I do at least get to be wise, right, if I won’t be dewy and youthful?  Maybe I’ll finally figure out how to be punctual.  I have a terrible sense of time and am such a procrastinator.

Actually, maybe that’s the key here.  I should procrastinate.  Let’s just change the box to 20-40 and put this whole transition off another five years.  Done.  Wow, I’m enjoying this wisdom already.

After all, my mom said not to stress over any of these new ages, that they really do just get better and better.  And if there’s anything I’ve learned in this box, it’s to listen to my mother.

Bring on the cake.