Vacations can be the “busy season” at work for Mom

I love to travel. I also revel in the fine detail work of crafting intricate itineraries. Planning a trip brings me as much joy—maybe more!—as setting out on the adventure itself.

That said, for a stay at home parent like me, taking a vacation is often the greatest challenge of my “job.”Welcome Signs montage

I create opportunities for my working spouse to relax

After all, if my husband is coming along, he’s taking rare time off from his demanding career. One of the divisions of labor that we’ve agreed to, in our partnership, is my assumption of responsibilities for vacation planning.

Also, DH is a homebody, so most trips are my idea. If his role isn’t a relaxing one, he won’t want to travel the next time. My family would lose out if my husband just stayed home.

I believe studies that suggest there are health benefits to travel, especially when a trip is well planned.

The kids need to see their dad with fewer distractions, stepping outside his comfort zone, and with more time than usual to spend with them. DH benefits by seeing the kids blossom in a new environment.

Plus, I miss him like crazy when we leave him home alone.

I want to give my overworked husband a relaxing break from his daily stresses. That’s a loving gesture on my part because I like doing nice things for the man I love.

It’s also good sense for a spouse who doesn’t generate income. I am protecting our financial future by allowing the partner who brings home the paycheck to unwind a little.

My husband’s success is due largely to his creative mind.  He should also get credit for his hard work and specialized skills, but many people can and do work hard and complete advanced degrees. Few of them manage to push scientific boundaries in new directions as he does. A refreshed intellect generates better ideas.

OH hill - 1

View from the highest hill in Ohio within city limits

Parenting work is complex away from home…

Some vacations offer reduced efforts in the realms of housework and feeding the family. My favorite thing about staying in a hotel is walking into an immaculate room with nothing on the floor!

And eating in restaurants? It’s hard to say how much I enjoy dodging the washing of dishes and the wiping of sticky counters. My admiration for those who work in food service borders on love and devotion. I hate most of these tasks, and I’m so grateful to those who are willing to do them for me.food - 1

But, though these jobs take up plenty of time at home, they don’t comprise the bulk of my effortful work as a parent. They are necessary, but not particularly complex or demanding. Even at home, when I want a break, I can hire a house cleaner or take the kids out to eat.

The really challenging requirements of parenting relate to its most vital goal: raising small people into fully-formed adults.

A few examples:

  • Assisting a unique individual to maximize his own potential
  • Negotiating the complexities of relationships between growing personalities
  • Helping them—but not too much!
  • Guiding them—but encouraging them to seek their own paths
  • Keeping them safe—but allowing them to take enough risks to fail, to learn, to try again

Most of these tasks get harder on vacation!

With all the predictable routines of daily life gone, we experience the thrill of something new. This has a cost of anxiety about the unknown. Using myself as an example, I know that I lose my cool more rapidly when I feel anxious. I don’t blame the kids for doing the same.

My job is to keep my own composure, and offer enough strength of will to help the boys do the same. Or throw an upset child a lifeline that he can use to drag himself back to equanimity.

We grow when we are challenged. Changes—even positive ones—create challenges. Travel promotes growth, but it is rife with challenges, small and large.

gazebo - 1Preparing my family for a trip is part of my “job description” as a stay at home mom. It’s a task I enjoy, and one I do pretty well. It’s not a burden.

…and it remains complex upon our return

That said, when we return from a really great vacation, I’m typically exhausted. Sometimes I even fall prey to “leisure sickness” (or something like it), succumbing to a cold as soon as the work of vacation preparations is complete.

Last month, for example, after a whirlwind road trip with a van full of boys and a week of family camp supervising the full crew, I “enjoyed” ten days of respiratory illness and coughing of the oh-my-aching-stomach-muscles variety.

It hit me the day after I returned the borrowed children to their parents and got my oldest settled for a week of sleepaway summer camp. This was the week that I was scheduled to enjoy some down time with my own mom while the men (and DS2) went fishing. And God said, “Ha!”

Beyond the physical, returning home after weeks away comes with an emotional let down, too.

“The trip I planned for months is over?”

And then there’s the housework

I will have mounds of laundry to wash, snack foods to re-shelve in the pantry, suitcases to search for stray socks and hitchhiking bedbugs, mail to peruse and respond to…

In other words, life goes on, and so does my work. I’ve even made more of it by going away.

But, I have learned to plan for at least one quiet day upon our return. When asked, I give the date we’ll be home as a day later than my plan. That final “vacation day” gives me a chance to nudge our life back into order.

I don’t schedule early appointments for a few days after a trip. I plan to sleep my fill until my body’s ready to resume the usual routine.

I’ll order groceries from Amazon Fresh or a similar delivery service if possible. There’s usually a pizza night right after a trip.

I do what I can to ease the transition. I accept what I can’t change as a cost of the new experiences gained. I let the post-vacation let down run its course and give myself permission to have mixed emotions.

I help the kids process their own transitions, too, from jet lag to lost toys to keeping in touch with new friends in faraway places.

“Mom, what time is it in Minnesota?”

And, in the middle of all this, I usually spend at least a few minutes daydreaming about what might be our next big adventure—between loads of laundry, that is.laundry.jpg

Road Trip! New England to Minnesota Part II: a mom, four kids, 1633 miles, and two hotel rooms.

2.5 days, 26 hours, 1633 miles

If you missed my introduction to this road trip, click here for Part I

In a nutshell, I will be the lone driver bringing four children (my two sons and two friends) from New England to summer camp in Minnesota. School lets out Friday; our camp session begins Monday afternoon. This will be an efficient, not leisurely, journey.

I enjoy road trips, but I wish I could take one without beginning in the over-crowded American Northeast. I used to have a 7 mile commute that took 50 minutes because of traffic and poorly designed roads. Actually, I believe cows designed those roads, so maybe I should be less critical of their engineering prowess.

Road trip overview

Google still thinks we should fly. Or possibly make a run for the Canadian border? Google Maps clearly doesn’t appreciate a good old American summer road trip.

We have an advantage setting out on a Saturday. We shouldn’t meet rush hour traffic anywhere, unless Eau Claire, WI (Monday’s starting point) has an unexpectedly vicious traffic problem.

Day 1: Massachusetts to Avon, OH

Saturday. 10 hr 20 min, 687 miles.

The kids might be tired from their end of the year party the night before, but they can sleep while I drive. (Cue Melissa Etheridge: You Can Sleep While I Drive) As the only driver, it’s critical that I begin the trip well rested.

Our target departure time is 6:30 am. Loading the van Friday night means very little last minute prep work is required. I’ve even laid out the boys’ clothes so they will have no decisions to make.

Babushka (grandmother), who lives downstairs, asked if she could make the kids breakfast. This was an easy sell, leaving me free to get myself ready, grab the cold snacks from the fridge, then load everyone up and go. 

I become less sociable as I become more goal oriented. My husband likens my behavior during travel to that of a commanding general leading her army into battle. The niceties suffer.

We packed lunches to avoid eating too much overpriced junk food early in the trip. I thought having something packed by their mom might also ease the twins’ transition from her care to mine. We will make pit stops as needed, and will require one midday fuel stop, but intend not to make a long stop until our dinner time arrival at our hotel.

Massachusetts & New York


Driving the Mass Pike (I-90 toll road in Massachusetts) or the New York Thruway (I-90 toll road in New York State) offers an almost identical experience once you’re past any urban traffic close to Boston. The road is long and straight. Exits are few and far between, but service plazas are evenly spaced, have clear signage, and offer everything you need if nothing of special interest. These are efficient roads as long as traffic is moving.

Pennsylvania & Ohio

One passes through a tiny corner of Pennsylvania on this route. I think you spend less than an hour in the state. You get your first glimpse (westbound) of a Great Lake here. If I tell you that you pass through a city called Erie, PA, can you guess which Great Lake that is? 

There’s nothing else that sticks in my mind about driving through this state along I-90.

Ohio is memorable for having very clean, comfortable Rest Areas and more law-abiding, courteous drivers than most other eastern states in which I’ve driven. Beyond that, I’m usually fixated on getting to my next stop as I pass through here. 

It’s a stretch of road that is inoffensive enough that I have little to say about the experience.

Night one: Cambria Hotel & Suites, Avon, OH

Our estimated time of arrival is 6:30 pm. Taking 12 hours to drive for 10.5 sounds about right, factoring in rest, fuel, and meal breaks, but I’m not sure whether my usual estimates will apply with extra kids in our party and no second adult to wrangle them.

Our hotel for the first night in Avon, OH is the Cambria Hotel & Suites on Detroit Road. There appear to be many restaurants to choose from in the immediate vicinity, and we expect to enjoy a sit down dinner before settling in for the night. 

The Cambria brand is part of Choice Hotels group. Choice properties include EconoLodge, Comfort Inn, and Rodeway Inn, amongst others. I’ve stayed at a number of these, but I hadn’t even heard of the Cambria brand before booking this one based upon location and room availability. 

I have a Choice Privileges membership (rarely used), so I will earn points for this stay. Joining these programs is almost always free, and usually awards at least some minimal benefit in addition to the points, which may or may not add up themselves to a redeemable award before they expire. 

I believe Cambria is Choice’s top tier brand, but the price was competitive with a local Holiday Inn and other brands with which we have more experience.

This stop is placed to make our first day the longest travel day by a few minutes. I prefer to do a little extra driving on Day 1 to create a hedge against later delays.

I chose the Cambria Hotel & Suites over other Cleveland area lodgings in part because it is next door to a Costco with a gas station. They also had a suite available (sleeps 6) with 2 Queen beds plus a Queen sofa bed in a semi-private nook. (Remember, two of the kids I’m traveling with are teens who aren’t relatives.) 

I also prioritized hotel rooms with fridges for this trip since we carried perishable snacks and extra (frozen) water bottles in a cooler.


Access to Costco gas stations is restricted to members. Their prices are almost always amongst the very best in the area. I’m also confident in the quality of any product Costco sells. While their low prices often result in long lines, I expect we can avoid waiting by getting gas late Saturday or early Sunday when the Costco store itself is closed. This strategy is very successful at my local Costco location.

Day 2: Avon, OH to Eau Claire, WI

Sunday. 10 hr 10 min, 639 miles.

I’ve driven cross country from coast to coast at least four times before, and usually on the more northerly routes of I-90 and I-80. My least favorite stretches are almost always between Chicago and the Indiana-Ohio border. This is an area that often has heavy traffic. I’m not looking forward to this piece of the trip.

Since we’re crossing this area on a Sunday, I don’t need to time our arrival at major cities to avoid rush hours. If our first day felt very successful, and because we will experience a one hour time zone change that lengthens the day, I expect to allow the kids some extra time in the morning. I estimate we’ll depart from our hotel in Avon, Ohio by 8 am.

Indiana

Indiana, as far as I can tell, is always doing road work on their stretch of I-90/I-80. I find it really aggravating to pay for a toll road in poor condition. I have no recollection of facilities here, so they are either nonexistent or not very impressive. Perhaps they were just overshadowed by frustration from sitting in traffic due to road work lane closures.

Illinois

Illinois (at least in the Chicago area) doesn’t offer pleasant roadside Rest Areas. They are basically just gas stations with large convenience stores attached. Drivers there also tend to be aggressive and rude, and I’m saying that as a resident of the Boston metro area, where the term Masshole is considered a badge of honor to some. 

Tolls around Chicago still require frequent stops for payment of small amounts in cash–a system Massachusetts had twenty years ago when I arrived, but has since been replaced with a quicker, more convenient all-electronic system.

Speaking only for the experience of the long distance road tripper, I call this stretch of highway in Illinois the “land of lying liars” because of repeated bad experienced with posted signs indicating facilities that are impossible to find or closed. 

I like visiting Chicago by train. I’m unlikely to ever stop in the Windy City with my own vehicle.

Wisconsin

I believe this will be my first time driving in Wisconsin, though I’ve visited friends and family in Oconomowoc and Wisconsin Rapids in years past. 

My expectation is relatively pleasant and easy driving once we’re past the Chicago urban area. At least in the parts of Wisconsin I’ve visited, I saw decent roads, low population density, and polite people.

Night two: Holiday Inn Eau Claire South I-94 , Eau Claire, WI

Our estimated time of arrival is 7:00 pm. That’s 12 hours of driving time instead of 11 due to crossing zones from Eastern into Central time where Indiana gives way to Chicago. This allows about 1.75 hours for rest, fuel, and meal breaks.

We plan to eat a nice dinner after we arrive.

I usually don’t take long meal breaks during the day on road trips. After a heavy meal, I get sleepy. I eat lightly at midday while driving long distance.


Holiday Inn and other brands within the IHG group are my default choice when I think a predictable experience will make life less stressful for me or my kids. 

I prefer interesting boutique properties when I’m exploring a new area in a leisurely way. When I want to concentrate on other things, or when I believe the kids will be experiencing some form of travel stress, I appreciate the way a known environment reduces anxiety.

My favorite IHG properties are the Staybridge Suites with their apartment style full kitchens. These often offer two bedroom units (with two full bathrooms) which I strongly prefer to connected standard rooms as a family with kids. 

Connecting doors are designed to swing shut automatically; I want this door open night and day with my kids in the next room. The living room area gives me added space to keep larger luggage centrally located and ready to re-load the next day. 

Even if I don’t plan to cook in the full kitchen, having one gives me the option, and, somehow, the larger fridge makes it easier for me to remember to grab my cold items before we depart. I almost always make use of the dishwasher to give our reusable water bottles and utensils a good clean somewhere along the road on a multi-day trip.


Even during travel with takeout meals, we try to avoid using disposable cups and utensils. Silicone “ice pop” molds keep small utensils clean and are themselves dishwasher safe and reusable.

For this stop, however, we went with a Holiday Inn property. I was using IHG Rewards Club points to pay for one of our two rooms, plus the location on Owen Ayres Court in Eau Claire, WI was in a very convenient spot along I-94. 

I did call ahead and make sure hotel management knew my request for connecting rooms was to accommodate a pair of teenagers. Any decent hotel will work overtime to keep teens near their supervising adults!

Booking a hotel with a full restaurant on site also allows for easy dining if we experience delays or I arrive too exhausted to take the boys out. There are many restaurants very close to this location, however, without needing to get back on the freeway or navigate unfamiliar city streets.

Day 3: Eau Claire, WI to Bemidji, MN

Monday. 5 hr 12 min, 307 miles.

Hopefully, Eau Claire, WI doesn’t have a significant rush hour since we will be here on a Monday morning. Allowing for six hours of driving time today, we plan to depart at 8 am.

Our plan is the head north first and then cut west at Duluth. This puts us on Hwy 53 northbound, then Hwy 2 west instead of continuing on I-94 to Hwy 10. These two options show very similar travel times on Google maps.


My assumption is that going through Minneapolis/Saint Paul on the Interstate freeway carries a greater risk of weekday traffic vs. taking the state highway to Duluth. If I were driving alone, or at night, I would probably take the more populous route because I would feel safer. 

I’m comfortable opting for less heavily traveled roads for daytime driving with several fit teens in my party. I doubt I could loosen the nuts to change a tire by myself these days, but I’m pretty sure the boys could help me do it if the need arose.

I would call AAA first if I had a roadside emergency, but even my backup plans have backup plans. That’s how I roll. Read this if you missed my thoughts on preparing your vehicle for a road trip.

I’m looking forward to this segment of our trip. I’ll be seeing areas of the country I’ve never visited before. I expect much of it will be scenic, and most will be uncrowded. As a transplant from the less populous Northwest region to suburban New England, I positively crave wide open spaces.

Arrival in Bemidji, MN

Monday afternoon, 2-4:30 pm arrival time for camp.

Because the camp allows a 2.5 hour window for arrival, we aren’t allowing much (if any) extra driving time today. We would like to check in as early as possible so we get first dibs on bunks, etc., but not enough to wake up extra early at this stage of a long, intense road trip.

On our first trip to this camp, we opted for airport pickup via charter bus, so I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the roads into the property. I do remember that it wasn’t too far from the Bemidji airport (BJI), and it didn’t seem like a challenging surface to negotiate (for a camp in the woods.)

I also took note of the parking situation for families, considering my options for future trips. This shouldn’t present any obstacle that requires extra time upon arrival.

Summer morning snapshot: mother saying goodbye from a fishing cabin

Just before 6am, chilly in an unfamiliar bed in a rustic fishing cabin, I try to burrow deeper under a strange, thin blanket, and I listen as my little guy leaves the house with the men.

He’s small for his age, barely the size of an eight year old, though he’s actually nearing the end of his elementary school years. How does he qualify for manhood?

Answered easily enough: by waking at dawn without complaint, and by catching more than his fair share of last night’s dinner. So far, he has out-fished Grandpa, 15 fish to Grandpa’s ten.

With my older child gone away to camp and the younger snapping on a life jacket and struggling valiantly to lift–by himself–the smallest Igloo cooler, there are no small bodies left to join me for a morning snuggle. To warm the child, of course, but also very much to warm my heart.

There are no softly snoring or sleepy heads peeping out of heaped blankets that I can kiss on my way to put the kettle on.

I tried to go back to sleep, but there’s nothing that can fill the vacant space where my babies should be except writing this down, letting it out, making room for them to grow… and, eventually, to go.

There’s the heartbreak of a mother’s job well done.

Road Trip! New England to Minnesota Part I: a minivan, a mom, and four kids.

Why am I rushing from New England to Minnesota the day after school lets out for summer? (Cue Alice Cooper: School’s Out!)

And how does one rush to Minnesota from here, anyway? Why, by minivan, of course.

MinivanRegular readers may have noticed another oddity already: the title of this post says there are four kids in my minivan. Two of them are mine. Where did the other two joyriders come from?

I’ve posted before about the rare domestic opportunity for immersive study of foreign languages that exists in Bemidji, MN. I read about it for years before taking the plunge and attending Family Week with DS1 at Concordia Language Village‘s German language site, Waldsee. That was two years ago.

We’re heading back to Family Week at Waldsee this summer. Due to an abundance (some might say surfeit) of enthusiasm on my part, I wasn’t content to return with just DS1. He is a middle schooler who has been learning German since 1st grade.

His younger brother, DS2—who keeps reminding me that they don’t study German at his school, they do Spanish!—has also been drafted into our party. I remain convinced that DS2 will be a full convert to the joys of Waldsee after his first bite of Kuchen from the Café. He also loves to sing and dance and generally make a spectacle of himself. He’s going to fit in just fine.

Our party is completed by the addition of a pair of friends—brothers, and, in fact, twins. They are making the transition from school to home education for next year, and German is one of their areas of interest.

The seed of this idea was planted when I discussed with the twins’ mother the difficulty in finding local home school classes in less popular languages. It clearly grew into her acceptance of my offer to act in loco parentis for the twins during Family Week.

OSV 2 yellow flowersIf CLV is willing to define a family as any group of at least one adult and at least one child who wish to be counted as family, so, apparently, am I. Let’s see if my crazy idea flowers.

I’ve known the twins for several years, and, by all available evidence, they are very nice boys. Ask me in July if I’ve revised my opinion.

Our route from New England to Bemidji, MN will take two and a half days (25 road hours) of driving. God bless America, but it sure takes an effort to cross it.

The plan is to complete two ∼10-hour days on the weekend, then complete the final five hour stretch on Monday morning, arriving in Bemidji around check-in time for camp. That’s 2:30-4 pm.

If I survive, I then immediately begin an intensive language learning program while supervising my four charges.

Or maybe I will smile beatifically, let it all roll over me, and eat lots of Kuchen. We’ll see how my energy holds up.

We’ve got our Pimsleur German lessons loaded in the car‘s hard drive, headphones for all the kids, and enough distracting electronic devices for a small army. I’ve packed water bottles, snacks, and a Tupperware bowl with tight-fitting lid in case motion sickness* strikes.

Embarking on an epic road trip a few hours after school ends with no alternate driver and a van full of kids might be counted as one of my more… optimistic endeavors.

Remember, that which does not kill us, or any of the children, makes us stronger. (So we can kill them better at a later time?)

I’ll accept any prayers, well-wishes, or cones of silence from whomever cares to offer. Ah, those carefree summer days… (Cue Beach Boys: I Get Around)

Continued in Road Trip! New England to Minnesota Part II.
*Add ginger candies, mints, Sea Bands, and an eye mask to the list of offerings to the god of seasickness. DS2 is a risk. No screens allowed for him during motion. He’s got hours of audio books on his iPad.

Summer vacation isn’t the enemy of modern parents, but it reveals social boundaries

Last week, I saw an ad predicated upon the idea that summer vacation is a nightmare for parents. It wasn’t even Memorial Day yet, and, already, they’d infected the airwaves.

Do parents really bemoan summer break?

I despise commercials that attempt to advertise products based upon the perverse notion that I loathe spending time with my children.

The Back to School ads are even worse than the End of the School Year set. Parents dance in the streets because they are unable to contain their joy at giving up the burden of spending entire days in the company of their own kids.

Are these the same kids Americans were so desperate to have that more than 10% of US women of childbearing age have used infertility services? Bah, humbug!

My kids are cool, and I enjoy their company. Summer means no alarm clocks and more opportunities to say yes to their (admittedly, sometimes goofy) requests. Summertime equates to free time.

Or are parents with limited resources desperate for better solutions?

I’m crying foul. I think this is primarily a lame advertising trope.

But, of course, there is added stress for families where all available caregivers work outside the home. Finding appropriate summer camps or childcare is a pain. That’s true 365 days a year in America for kids too young for public school.

This isn’t a summer problem, or a parenting problem. It’s a political problem, and an economic one. This is not proof that parents want their kids to stay locked up indoors year ’round.

Instead, we see a sign of a childcare problem in a society expecting high rates of worker participation from able bodied adults. (Those would be the same adults who most frequently produce offspring!)

Really, how many of us resent watching the kids pour out of the schools and into the home, onto the beaches, and into the parks?

Most parents work their butts off attempting to earn the best for their kids, and that includes fresh air, exercise, and time and space to dream the biggest dreams. That’s where summer vacation can really shine, but only for those with the time and resources to let it happen.

My family’s summers include travel, museums, hours poring over books of our own choosing, and lots of time with extended family. I don’t even have to question whether or not this is a good use of my kids’ time. Of course it is!

I can barely express how grateful I am for this privilege.

We supplement our lazy summer days with hours of Khan Academy and specialty family camps, not because we feel compelled to keep up, but because learning new things is awesome and we want to share the joy with our kids.

I don’t believe for one minute that there are legions of caring parents in America who want more testing, more trivial comparisons, and more common core for their beloved children.

Parents want their kids to have access to opportunities. Parents want their kids to learn useful stuff. Parents want their kids to grow up well and be successful and happy.

I can’t even say how much I wish summer vacation was an equal opportunity benefit for all children.

Who really hates summer break?

Parents today—like most people today—struggle under a burden of technology and schedules seemingly designed to detract from a fulfilling life.

Theoretically, we live in an era of reduced physical effort and greater access to information, leading inexorably to an easier life. In practice, maybe not so much.

These commercials are lazy work on the part of advertisers, but they do reveal a modern day American tragedy.

Some of us have to get a little desperate when school lets out for summer.

Some of us get to enjoy our kids’ company in the same situation.

Blessings by the minute, from the playground into sleep

By school pick up time—around 2:30pm, so hours before many people even think of finishing their days—my reservoirs of energy are nearly empty. What used to be an afternoon lull is more often, now, my afternoon collapse. It’s the most persistent and insidious symptom of my autoimmune condition.

Afternoon delight? Fugeddaboutdit!

The work of a stay-at-home mom may include some flexible hours, but school pick up time is not among them. The kids are done when they’re done; someone needs to go get them. There are a few dads driving up in the daily rotation, but most chromosomes in the car pool lane are XX.

Add me to that list of who’s who.

playing outside - 3

Outdoor “play equipment” doesn’t have to be expensive or complex

One of the things I like best about my son’s school is the emphasis placed on time spent playing and learning outdoors. They aren’t quite as adamant about it as our preschool was—there, kids went out, rain or shine, unless there was a truly bitter freeze or risk of lightening strikes—but the value of free time, active play, and exposure to fresh air and sunshine is respected.

So, while I’m often running on fumes by 2:30pm, I bring a book, I pack a thermos of tea or an appealing snack, and I just generally prepare myself for a comfortable wait so my little guy can stay longer with his friends and play even more after school. It may only be a half an hour, but what a precious 30 minutes for a kid.

I’ve read that child’s play is currently endangered. I tend to agree that this is a grave loss for the kids in question and society overall.

On a beautiful spring day, it isn’t much of a sacrifice to allow this time for my child to release some of that seemingly boundless energy. My arthritis doesn’t flare as often on moderate days, lessening the cost of pain. In the absence of rain, I can move around and avoid getting stiff from sitting in the car. I get to socialize today, too, with other moms and some lingering members of the school staff, all of whom take advantage of the beautiful weather to linger outside.

DS2 and his knot of friends are involved in a complex dance of running, falling down, enacting simulated agonies, then jumping up to do it all over again. Some of the girls join in at times, weaving themselves into the game, then drifting away to huddle under a different tree, whispering their own solemn secrets. They start a new adventure by climbing a large, horizontal tree.

playing outside - 2

An admittedly awesome tree, some string, and a lot of imagination sparked this adventure

“Watch out for that poison ivy,” they advise me when I come closer to take a picture. After confirming I’m not there to take my son away, they quickly re-submerge in their play. They stop only when a preponderance of mothers appear, all ready to go home.

There seems no possible sweeter moment for me, as a mother, than this one, until later, after a tick check and bath, after dinner, after fun, when the little guy is lying asleep nearby and I’m restless and reflective. His breathing is deep and even with no sign of the nocturnal asthma that sometimes harries our nights.

No doubt the fresh air and tree climbing contributed to his deep, peaceful slumber, even as the memories of the same disrupt mine.

He’s so big, now, my little boy, but still so very small. My love for him swells in my breast like a wild thing rearing up to escape its confinement in a cage. It is ridiculous how much I adore this child. I’ve always found it easier to really notice this while he’s quietly sleeping.sleeping - 1

The night air drifting in the window is still soft and smells of spring. Many hours remain for slumber, and there’s more play in store for tomorrow. It’s time to tuck this unbridled passion for a silly little boy and his winsome ways away, and attend to my own dreams.

“Teenagers, Kick Our Butts” is my parenting anthem

I’d like to talk about a song that I consider my parenting anthem:

Teenagers, Kick Our Butts by Dar Williams

If you enjoy indie folk music, you should definitely give it a listen. For those with different musical tastes, just read the lyrics and follow along.

Dar Williams End of the Summer

“Teenagers, Kick Our Butts” is track 6 on Dar Williams’ album End of the Summer

Some of the song’s lessons apply to raising kids well before the teenage years. I’ve been playing it in the car since my boys were little, and I’ve always pointed out certain lyrics, making clear these were sentiments with which I agree.

…I’m sure you know there’s lots to learn
But that’s not your fault, that’s just your turn, yeah, yeah…

…Find your voice, do what it takes
Make sure you make lots of mistakes…

Beginning this conversation when they were young was meant to pave the way for the impending struggles of adolescence. I wanted them to know that I was aware of the future when they would reject my authority, and that some of that was not just tolerated, but to be celebrated.

…Teenagers, kick our butts, tell us what the future will bring
Teenagers look at us, we have not solved everything

We drink and smoke to numb our pain
We read junk novels on the plane
We use authority for show so we can be a little smarter
We still can grow, and many do
It’s when we stop we can’t reach you
We feel the loss, you feel the blame
We’re scared to lose, don’t be the same, hey hey…

I talked to my little boys about the older kids they knew: young teens from school, older cousins, and family friends. I tried to point out gallant gestures made by gentle young men, and raise questions about the motivations of more rowdyish examples.

…Some felt afraid and undefended, so they got mean
And they pretended what they knew made them belong more than you….

…I’m here today because I fought for what I felt and what I thought
They put me down they, were just wrong
And now it’s they who don’t belong, oh, oh…

Lately, as I’ve discussed with my own teen the popularity and value of a contentious novel revolving around a girl’s tragic suicide, I’ve been able to point back at a well-known verse from the same old favorite:

…And when the media tries to act your age
Don’t be seduced, they’re full of rage…

I adore seeing this pointed out so succinctly.

New Media can be a legitimate forum for the formerly disenfranchised (e.g., youth), but it’s equally true that most of what achieves popularity gets bought out by the same old media cartels. Consumers of media must learn to be exceedingly critical of every source lest they inadvertently find themselves dancing to the tune of an unknown, objectionable master.

And what’s the alternative to blindly consuming pap that’s been prepared for you? Some people never learn to peek behind the curtain and discover the humbug working distracting magic tricks in the name of the Wizard. Here’s an answer by way of my favorite lyric again, this time expanded for the audience approaching maturity:

…Find your voice, do what it takes
Make sure you make lots of mistakes
And find the future that redeems
Give us hell, give us dreams
And grow and grow and grow

And someday when some teenagers come to kick your butts
Well then like I do try to
Love…

The funny thing is, I’ve always heard that final lyric differently. Williams sings it in a set of long, drawn out syllables rising up and down the octave, obscuring the simple word “love.” When I sing it, I’ve always twisted those same notes into the word:

“Learn”

I’d like my kids to discover the value in both lessons.

Are land line phones as archaic as the nuclear family?

My husband and I have a long-running joke that goes back, I think, to our first experience traveling together. Our shorthand for this very long discussion is:

“It’s all about the sharing, and the commitment.”

It began with a difference of opinion (ongoing!) about combining both of our belongings, intermixed, into two shared suitcases vs. packing individual bags. I prefer the former; he prefers the latter.

DH believes this is an entirely biological imperative: I am the female who needs full relationship participation from my mate and maximal expression thereof so I can ensure the successful maturation of our offspring. I’m putting my eggs (wardrobe) in his nest (suitcase), so to speak.

My argument on the subject is that suitcases are regularly lost, and the distribution of at least one full outfit per person in the other bag means less chance of radical inconvenience if a bag goes missing. It is also nice for my loving feelings that we are sharing, which corroborates the commitment.

I’m right about this, of course*, and I follow the same strategy when traveling with my children, so it isn’t all about co-opting DH’s suitcase real estate, but that’s not my main point today.

Moving beyond the travel example, this sort of discussion arises over other daily actions like asking for a bite of his meal (the sharing), or asking him to weigh in on a household decision he might not really care about (the commitment.)

Sharing and commitment are the very nexus of healthy relationships. It’s hard to imagine a family thriving without them.

So what does any of this have to do with the great 19th century innovation of the land line telephone?

For the first time since phones became ubiquitous in the USA, cellular only households now outnumber those with a traditional land line. This is hardly surprising, and there are a number of downsides to this trend that have been covered by major news outlets. The most obvious relate to dispatching emergency services, power outages, and rural or elderly populations who depend heavily on wired phone lines.

Nowhere have I seen mentioned what I’ve found the most personally disruptive feature of a cell phone only culture: it is no longer possible to call a family as a unit. I have to choose an individual to contact, even when my business is with the whole group.

Sometimes, that’s inconvenient: “Hello, neighbors, your garage door is open and the sun’s going down,” or, “I’m driving by and want to drop something off to whomever is at home.”

No, it’s not the end of the world to spray a series of texts or voicemail messages, but it fundamentally ignores the shared nature of a household and its tangible collective purpose.

Sometimes, that’s kind of sad.

Is a family home anything like a collaboration of tenants in common? Should it be?

For individuals who choose co-housing for financial or other reasons, the personal cell phone is a great innovation. Anyone who’s lived in a dorm or otherwise shared a public hall phone knows the benefits of a private device. But is there any advantage gained by a family in the same scenario?

It’s positively quaint to watch an old TV show set at home and see teens racing to answer the communal family phone, or demanding that a sibling conclude a conversation quickly lest an important incoming call be missed. I showed my kids Family Ties last summer, and I marveled at the repetition of that once common scene—now inconceivable—every time.

I don’t mean to romanticize the inconveniences of sharing, but I do question what role the act of frequent sharing has on members of a family. Might these regular points of casual contact mean a more regular chance to check in? I’d guess that it would act in much the same way that sharing any habitual activity leads to better communication between teens and parents simply by providing a low stress opportunity for it to happen.

And then there’s the effect of sharing itself. Parents spend an awful lot of time and energy teaching this vital skill to their young children. Why? Because we want them to grow up into caring adults who treat others well. Participating in a shared family mode of communication means taking part in the functioning of the family itself.

To be clear, I wouldn’t advocate spending twice to have both a cell phone and land line in a scenario where every penny counts. If you have to choose between buying vegetables and having two phones, I vote for the healthy green stuff. If only one phone is in the budget, a mobile phone provides the most flexibility and would be my choice, too.

But for families more like mine—having the privilege to elect music lessons and summer camp, organic food and restaurant meals—the move away from a family phone seems short-sighted. We are constantly bemoaning how hard it is to communicate with our kids while literally cutting the copper lines we used to share.

Shifting more and more experiences from public to private space—personal iPad viewing vs. negotiating the channel of the family room TV, meals on the run vs. around the family table, and, yes, a social life conducted primarily through a tiny handheld computer instead of in the yard or the living room, or even at the mall or the movie theater—every one of these is a vote, intentional or not, for the primacy of the individual experience over a commitment to the family.

These are choices, conscious or not. They are every individual family’s to make, and I don’t presume to know what’s best for yours.

I do, however, hope that I’ve made my point that these are choices best made based upon one’s values, and not by default. It is easy to convince oneself that a situation is made by circumstances and not by choice. Sometimes, its harder to live with the consequences.

 

*This is a joke. I respect my husband’s opinions as he respects mine. We both think we’re right, obviously. But, probably, I am, which is a joke that’s become recursive…

13 reasons aren’t necessary to get to why

Make no mistake: the Netflix video production of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why is reckless. I hate to see adults enriching themselves by exploiting adolescent pain, and Hollywood’s record in this regard is abysmal.

Can anyone make a video people want to watch that accurately depicts the degeneracy of suicide? Drawing a sympathetic character fundamentally romanticizes the abhorrent actions to come.

Parents are up in arms, and schools are sending frantic emails to prove they’re on top of the crisis.

Suicide, as currently being glorified in 13 Reasons Why, is known to be contagious, especially amongst young people aged 15-24. Parents fear for their children. Schools fear taking the blame.

“It is only when we see ourselves as actors in a staged (and therefore unreal) performance that death loses its frightfulness and finality and becomes an act of make-believe and a theatrical gesture.”

–Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the nature of mass movements (§47)

Kids are shaking their heads at the sudden storm of attention; nothing in their world has actually changed. They made this book a bestseller in 2011.

I’m shaking my head, too. Nothing in the world of being a teenager has changed since I gratefully outgrew that burden over twenty years ago.

Adults don’t listen to children. Schools are bureaucratic temples to the arbitrary that demand conformity while telling blatant lies about the value placed on individuals confined therein.

Nothing has changed.

Except, in a more crowded world, contagion spreads faster. It took the growth of cities to create immense pools of victims for epidemics of plague and flu. Similarly, the growth of social media fuels the twin scourges of mass hysteria and shared delusions.

Our children are vulnerable to the foolish, romantic notion that they can solve their problems with suicide because they are adolescents. It is the nature of the undeveloped prefrontal cortex of a teenager to fail to observe his own errors in judgement, and to experience heightened pleasure from the reward center of the brain when taking risks. Teens literally can’t yet grasp the enormity of the long term consequences of their actions.

But what about this show, this crisis, the teens at risk today?

Here’s a radical thought: why don’t we listen to them? Why not participate in a conversation about this show and its appeal to the kids who’ve made it so popular? Don’t let them watch it alone, even if that means viewing it by yourself to share the experience afterwards in conversation.

Do not let it drop until you’ve seen the conversation through.

I watched the entire series. I find the depiction of reckless teens making foolish, selfish, sometimes deadly choices just as aggravating as I think I would have when I was their age; now, as mother, I also find it terrifying.

I’m not watching this show because it’s great, or because I’m fascinated. (I’d judge it an interesting story with good production values.) I’m watching because I have a teenaged son.

Having viewed the show, I’m also reading the novel, because my son has, and because he thinks the book is important.

Most of the teen-oriented viewing that I do (e.g., The Fosters) seems to carry a similar message, though always padded with plenty of foolish, risk-taking behavior that makes for dramatic, cliff-hanger moments:

Here I am, with my complex feelings and powerful emotions, and the adults around me don’t see what I’m going through and misunderstand when I try to explain. I wish someone would help me, but I have no faith that they can.

Some of this goes back to the as-yet-undeveloped prefrontal cortex. Kids can’t always hear you through their own internal noise. At least, they don’t hear you the first time. That’s when you have to try again, and keep trying with different words, or mime, or finger puppets… whatever it takes until you get through.

To fail at this is not a good option.

That seems to be the message Hannah Baker tried to send by filling thirteen audio cassettes with desperation in Jay Asher’s story.

So I’m sitting down to watch 13 Reasons Why, and I’m inviting my son to join me, if he wants to. I’m talking about the show. I’m talking about my reactions to the show. I’m asking his opinions of the story, the show, the novel, the dynamics between the characters, and how it all relates to real life.

I’m talking to my kid about this.

This isn’t a subject I’m going to let go, and, after some initial reluctance to delve into the darkest corners of the conversation, I am hearing back from my son.

I’m listening to what he has to say.