Long Weekend

Piggly Wiggly was the first self-service groce...Image via Wikipedia

The kids have the day off in honor of Yom Kippur. Geeky Girl is currently at a friend’s house, having spent the night there. Geeky Boy, still asleep. I, too, slept in. It was much needed after the last two days of running around. Saturday, we had 3 hours of soccer. Pictures, lunch, then practice and a game. It was colder than it’s been all fall and so after the game, Geeky Girl and I went to Starbucks and I got my first Pumpkin Spice Latte of the season. Yay!

Sunday, I had an 11:30 meeting, which I had forgotten about until the woman I was meeting with called me. Luckily it was 5 minutes away. I threw some clothes on, put my hair in a pony tail and rushed out the door. Geeky Girl had to be dropped off at a party at 1 and picked up at three, then dropped off again at 7:30. In between, I finally showered and did a few loads of laundry. I sent Mr. Geeky to the grocery store, which he was none too happy about. He claims he’s never going again. Apparently, there was an altercation with the clerk and they were out of half the stuff on the list. I might have to try delivery again.

Geeky Girl and I had to make a map out of homemade play dough before her sleepover and I had to put together a beef stew for dinner almost simultaneously. Thankfully, the two projects did not get intermingled.

We popped the map into the oven and then went to Staples to get paint when we realized we’d sold all of our art supplies in the garage sale. As a sign of how I was feeling, I stopped by the beer store, which was right next door to Staples, and got a case of Pumpkin Ale. I promptly put two beers in the freezer. The map and the stew came out great and we ate the stew while watching Gosford Park. Shortly thereafter, I dropped Geeky Girl off and then settled in to kill virtual monsters, which felt pretty damn good.

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My Family’s Keeper

One of the roles I least like in my family and one that seems to have been mine for many years is that of “keeper.” By keeper, I mean the person who keeps everyone on track, at both the micro and the macro level. I know, for example, when the first field trip is, and I know when the soccer games are and when back to school night is and when school is out for 1/2 day. I’m also the one who makes doctor’s and dentist’s appointments (obviously). I actually make Mr. Geeky’s appointments for him because if I don’t, an appendage is likely to fall fall off (no, not that one), or a tumor will take over his body. As an example, after months of watching him squint while reading and doing the arm telescoping thing, I called the eye doctor, because after prodding him to do it for months, I knew he would never do it.

On the micro level, I’m the one waking everyone up in the morning, making lunches, prodding kids to take showers and eat breakfast, gather school materials and find soccer socks. I try to get the gathering to happen the night before, but alas, it’s hardly ever successful. On the plus side, I don’t have to do this for Mr. Geeky, though I do have to remind him to eat lunch. Geeky Boy has actually taken to texting him when he goes to lunch.

All this tracking is exhausting. Periodically, I’ve tried to extract myself from tracking everyone, but when I have done this, it’s always an epic fail. A kid is late to school, forgets an important assignment, can’t go on a field trip, or only has milk for lunch. And when I was working, it totally pissed me off because I myself was in a hurry getting ready and getting ready for something I didn’t always enjoy so that I wasn’t in a good mood to begin with.

Yesterday, as I was downstairs making lunches (peanut butter and banana, fruit, and a bag of pretzels), I realized that Geeky Boy was not down for breakfast yet. So, I stopped in the middle of spreading peanut butter, walked upstairs, poked my head in our bedroom where Mr. Geeky is catching up on email and reading the news, and said to him, “You know, when I’m downstairs making lunch for the kids, you could make sure Geeky Boy is on his way down and poke him if he needs to be poked.” “Okay, okay, all you have to do is ask.” And this morning, I didn’t have to ask. A small victory.

After school is a similar scenario of checking on homework, requesting rooms to be cleaned, and asking for help with chores.

The thing is, I know that I don’t have to be the morning keeper. Geeky Girl needs no keeping. She sets her alarm in the morning and comes down to get breakfast on her own. She often eats in our bedroom, chatting with us while she eats. She gets dressed, gets her school stuff together and gets out the door to the bus stop without any prompting from us. She has a strict schedule–which she made up herself–for after school activities. First is homework, then violin practice, then soccer practice. Though I check in with her, I never have to prod.

I don’t know how I ended up in this role. I didn’t want it, for sure. It could be because I’ve always been the one with the 9-5 job and so kept a regular schedule. It could be that I’m more organized than the rest of my family. Or it could everyone else is lazy. I don’t know. But my goal is to ease my way out of this role. I don’t mind having to check on everyone with gentle reminders. What I don’t like is the feeling that I’m the only one thinking of these things. So, I’m going to do a couple of things in the next couple of days. One, I’m getting Geeky Boy an alarm clock. Two, I’m going to set him up with Google Calendar–which Mr. Geeky is using too and makes some of this tracking sooo much easier. I’m sure there’s more I can do. Ideas welcome!

Why we get defensive

I was going to post something fun here today, but nothing floated to the top as worth it, and after I read Historiann and Dr. Crazy this morning, I found myself with a lot of thoughts to put down. Dr. Crazy’s post on speaking out as a non-parent on parent-related issues is excellent as are the many comments which dig into the topic further. What she and Historiann both marvel at is the defensiveness with which many of their parent commenters express in their responses. I feel that defensiveness pretty keenly these days in all kinds of different situations. It feels to me that no matter what choices I’ve made–to be a parent or not, to work or not, to mother a certain way or not–I’m criticized for them. I think many parents–mostly mothers, imho–feel they’re in a basically lose-lose situation. And I think Histioriann’s discussion of patriarchy is right on the money as to why this happens. Here are some of my humble thoughts, mostly based on my own experience, so, as they used to say in the old days of the Internet: ymmv.

1. Women in the workforce have a difficult time. They are still often perceived, even in places that are “family-friendly” as the primary caregivers. This leads to assumptions about how dedicated they are to their work and whether they’re going to up and quit because of a child. Unfortunately, many women do quit to manage family matters because they find they can’t once they realize there’s no (affordable) child-care, no (affordable) afterschool programs and their workplace isn’t flexible enough to provide time to juggle child-care and work. Even if their partner can take on part of this, they both need the flexibility to manage this and workplaces are often even less friendly to men who want that kind of flexibility to do their part as parents. And all this is systemic, having nothing to do with individuals as individuals who just react and make choices that make sense within that system.

2. On the flip side, when mothers who work find themselves among mothers who don’t, they’re often treated as if they’re not being good mothers. They’re leaving the kids with less than ideal care (ideal being a parent). Also part of the system.

3. Mothers who don’t work feel awkward among mothers who do because again, they feel they’re being judged. As one commenter noted, and as I myself have experienced, some women will expound on the “anti-feminism” of the sahm. I’ll admit to having had those thoughts, but would never say them out loud. And now, I think that some people are sahm’s because they are persuaded or caught up in certain social norms that stem from patriarchy, mostly having to do with appropriate gender roles. And some are sahms because they get forced out of the workplace, which as I said in #1 functions under these same social norms.

So, here’s the thing. This was my first week at home after school started. The kids aren’t here from 8-3. For the first time in 13 years, I am making absolutely. no. money. It feels very, very weird. I feel all at turns useful and completely useless. And yes, sometimes defensive. When I was working at my polling place a couple of years ago, my across the street neighbor came in and one of our other neighbors, a man in his 50s, started talking to her, and she explained that she’d quit her job to stay at home (her kids are older than mine–oldest is a senior, youngest is in middle school). He said, “Good for you. As it should be.” That has stuck with me, and just the other day, when I was standing at the bus stop, a neighbor said to me, “Hey, don’t you teach too?” And I stumbled a bit, and said, “Not anymore. I quit my job last fall.” And he said, “Good for you.” And I heard “As it should be” in my head. And that does not feel good–at least not to me.

There are subtle messages that we get as parents about how we’re expected to behave. Those messages are often different for fathers than for mothers. One would think the easy path would be to meet those expectations, but most of the time, we end up trying to overcome those expectations. A working parent often has to prove to her workplace that she’s not a slacker and prove to the mothers at the soccer game that she’s a good parent. I’m getting a nagging feeling all the time that I should be working, but then I realize how much work it would be to manage the house and kids and I cringe, thinking about putting in a 40-hour week plus god knows how many hours juggling the home front. And I don’t feel comfortable at all running around with the PTO crowd, some of whom have literally said they put their children’s needs ahead of their own. I’m not even doing that now, as a sahm. I quit work for myself, for my own mental and physical health and to give myself some time to work on some projects that may or may not make any money, but I feel like I can’t say that.

So what am I saying? I guess I’m just saying that it’s complicated, but I’m very glad that the conversation is happening. And I think we should all be observant of the ways in which we might be participating in a system that reinforces stereotypes, one of which might be that parents need extra “perks” as Dr. Crazy suggests is the norm at her school, but another of which might be that non-parents have all the time in the world, which is equally untrue. Those stereotypes are damaging to us all, put us all on the defensive and make it so we can’t work together toward viable solutions, which might be local, but which might also be part of a larger policy goal related to working conditions.

She would be 38

Today is my sister’s birthday. Some years, this day goes by like any other, coming as it does so close to the hustle and bustle of the beginning of the school year. Many years ago, I wrote about my sister in a post that captures most of what I remember about her. I’m so glad I wrote that stuff down. Those memories seem to fade with every passing year.

One thing I didn’t write about is how much her death changed who I am, in some good ways and in some bad ways. Right after she died, I keenly felt how short life really was and how important people were in that life. I cherished my friendships more, then, and made more time for them. In part, I’m sure, I needed to not feel alone. In part, I saw that each person in my life was there for a fleeting moment. I also threw myself into my work, finding a source of creativity and for good or for ill, a rich topic for my poetry. I felt confident in my work, took charge of my future, and felt ready to face the world after college.

But once I got past college, some of that confidence and those humanitarian feelings began to fade. People, it turns out, are not always magnanimous spirits and can be hurtful and rude. I had difficulty explaining why I didn’t have any siblings. So, I started saying I didn’t. Which felt very wrong. One thing about siblings is they often tell it like it is, but they also just listen–at least my sister did–and so you knew you always had someone to turn to and complain about life to. I no longer had that. And, to this day, I haven’t quite found someone who could replace that. Sometimes you need someone to talk to about your parents, your husband, your job. And though I have some people I can talk to about these things, it’s never felt complete.

I miss her at the oddest times. Holidays, to be sure, but also the kids’ birthdays and on visits to my parents. I’m about to go on vacation to the beach we went to as kids, where it was always just the two of us, having adventures, entertaining each other. I always think of her then.

It seems odd to think she’d be middle-aged by now. Would she be married, have kids? Would we live close together, far apart? Would we spend holidays at each other’s houses? I will never know, and it’s often that thought that makes me most sad, that I lost someone, sure, but that she lost a whole potentially happy life.

Our Technology Infused Life

Via Chuck Tryon’s delicious feed (which, I bet he didn’t even know I followed), I found this New York Times article that describes my family as well. Basically, it says that nowadays, families hop on laptops and blackberries and iPhones over their coffee and cereal, barely interacting with each other. The morning isn’t as much of a problem for us as the hour before dinner. Because the kids have such a spread out schedule in the mornings, with Geeky Boy having to get up at 6, but Geeky Girl not needing to get up until 7 (even stretching until 7:30 without a problem), we’re kind of running around from about 6-8. I do hop on the computer while Geeky Boy is in the shower, but then I fix lunches, get him out the door, get Geeky Girl up, and this year, I *am* going to go for a walk (more on that later). So there isn’t really time to stare at a screen for long.

But before dinner, we all retreat to our separate spaces for about an hour, catching up on blogs, gaming, answering a couple of last-minute emails. It’s not terribly problematic, but our computer use in general has increased over the summer as we’ve run out of things to do. We’ve filled too much of our empty time with the computer rather than other things. In part, this is because our schedule is out of whack. Mr. Geeky, who was going into the office every day at 9, stopped doing that this past week, and what is he doing? Working on the computer. We had just gotten used to a certain routine that involved other activities and the presence of Mr. Geeky has thrown us off.

Grace mentioned in a comment yesterday that she had technology fatigue. Although her blog post is about not wanting to learn new technology that will be outdated the day after she learns it, my fatigue has more to do with using it. Will Richardson wrote a post recently pondering whether he was a slave to technology. I’m not sure what it would mean to be a slave to it; I suppose being unable to live without it. But I can imagine living without it. Sometimes I want to chuck it all and go become a chef or something. So, what do you think readers, when is technology too much?

What about me?

As someone who stepped off the full-time career track recently, I’m naturally drawn to articles about women who choose to stay home or who want part-time options or who are struggling to manage a full-time career. Via a comment to this Motherlode post about a women who recently quit her job (after attempting to create a part-time one) to raise her daughter, I found this post about Jack Welch’s recent speech where he suggests that women can’t have a family and an upper level management position. Maybe they can’t, but it has nothing to do with women and everything to do with societal and workplace norms.

Anyway, what has struck me about the rhetoric of many women who choose to leave is that they often say they don’t want to miss out on the milestones of their children’s lives. It’s not really about the kids, per se, but about the mothers’ experience of the kids. Occasionally, usually in situations where the kids do need extra attention for health or other reasons, the mothers will mention how their kids need them. The other rhetoric surrounding these decisions is that the mothers feel their families are suffering, as the latter post quotes from Womenomics “the costs to family of a high-octane career are just too great.”

I’m going to ignore for now that one rarely sees the conversation about men revolve around these issues. Even if fathers do want to witness their childrens’ milestones or feel their families are suffering because of their long work hours, there isn’t a lot of ink, digital or otherwise, spilled over it.

What intrigues me is the sliding that occurs between the mothers’ personal desires to be present and the families’ needs for said presence. It seems that when weighing whether to work or stay at home, the personal (and potentially selfish, but not in a negative sense) desire to be with one’s child must be refigured as the family’s (not the mother’s) need for a maternal presence. Even the original post by the mother referenced in the Motherlode post makes this slide. On returning to work, Anna feels like she’s missing out–a personal desire. Then, she says she wants to do what’s right for her daughter.

I find this interesting not because I think mothers are bad for wanting to spend time with their children, but that after an initial expression of this desire, they feel the need to frame their argument as something that’s better for their children or for their family as a whole. They seem to find it difficult to say, I want this for myself. I can see why they would have trouble saying this. It reframes the whole working vs. sahm debate very differently and plays into all the worst stereotypes of sahms. I don’t really quite consider myself a full-blown sahm. I’d say I’m working very part-time at the moment, but I can say that I made this move mostly for me and secondarily for my kids. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but I can definitely say that I experienced a lot of personal stress and unpleasantness as a result of trying to juggle a career (not just a job) and a family. I had very little support from either the workplace or the home front. I was also watching my son suffer in school. Whether I played a role in that or not, I knew or felt that if I could be more present, I might alleviate that suffering. I might have suffered through the personal stress to get to my career goals if my family was cruising along fine (as it did for years), but because things seemed to be falling apart (and I was suffering as a result of this as well), I needed to change something. It was a complicated decision to make and I think reducing it to my own desire to be with my kids or my kids/family’s need for me is too easy.

When people love what they do and/or can achieve a good balance between their work life and their family life, they tend to continue to work. I found that I’d quite loving my particular position, though I loved the field in general and I found I’d lost any sense of balance. When I think about my previous work life, I see many signs that I was personally suffering. My mental and physical health declined. I felt pretty despondent about going to work. It’s pretty clear I needed to take a break for myself. As parents go through the process of raising kids, of dealing with their particular kids and their particular employment circumstances, they make different decisions at different points. Our careers peaked at about the same time, leaving us both with little time to focus on family issues. Ideally, we each could have picked up the slack for the other, but it didn’t work that way. I often advise new mothers, especially, that parenting actually gets more challenging as the kids get older, and to consider cutting back at that point rather than when the kids are infants and toddlers. But some people have challenging infants and toddlers. They get sick or they have special needs of some kind or they just take more energy.

I guess this is a long and rambly way of saying, sometimes it is about you and your ability to manage, physically and mentally, the challenges that life throws at you. And I think we, as a society, need to quit judging each other for decisions we might make as a result. It would be even better if we could go to employers and say, “you know what, here’s what’s going on in my personal/family life and I need you to accommodate me in this way” and know that we won’t get fired. I have that now, as my own employer, and any future employer is going to have a hard time competing with the flexibility I provide myself.

The Freedom of Childhood (or not)

Two posts on “Free-Range Childhoods” caught my eye yesterday. Both were comments on Michael Chabon’s article on childhood adventure books and the general idea that our childhoods and our parents’ childhoods were much more adventurous than our children’s are turning out to be. To some extent that’s true. I can remember venturing all over our neighborhood, basically spending entire days outside roaming around rather aimlessly. It seems like I did this every day in the summer, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I suspect I remember the days I did spend outside and not the ones I spent in front of the tv.

We’ve been lucky in that most of the neighborhoods we’ve lived in have been conducive to wandering. My son, now 14, has ventured pretty far from home on foot, mostly once he reached the age of 11 or 12, a little later than I remember wandering myself. Of course, my mother sent me to the corner store when I was about 4 or 5, with a quarter to buy a cheap toy and some bubblegum. Like Tim said, I think there was a definite separation between the adult world and the kid world. I was sent to the store in large part because my mom wanted a break, to reclaim her adult space. Likewise, I suspect we were encouraged to roam the neighborhood so she could have her space.

Tim suggests that there’s a definite loss for the kids in that those adventures teach great lessons of independence and confidence, but there’s also the gaining of a shared experience as a family or as parent and child. I have vague memories of wishing my parents would join in with us and I remember family vacations as being times when they had no choice, when we did things together because we were in unfamilar territory and we explored it together. Although my kids have spent some time hanging out with friends, running around the neighborhood, they’ve also spent a lot of time with me. We’ve gone to the park together, to the pool together, etc. And I think that’s been a positive thing. I’ve often lamented the separation of generations. Perhaps what’s happening now will mean our kids won’t see such a gap between generations.

Double the Income, Quadruple the Work

Elizabeth Coffman writes this morning about the myth of the two-income family. She says:

we need to have a broad, political discussion asserting that the two-income family is not working for many people. This economy, our government, and our own illusions have failed us.

We used to have the “where are the women bloggers” conversation every few months. Now we have the work-family balance is a dream conversation every few months. It’s a conversation we need to keep having, I think. In addition to the government deciding that paid maternity/paternity leave, daycare, and other family friendly policies are a national issue, they need to encourage the business community to provide flexible work schedules for both men and women at no cost to their careers. If people do good work, they do good work, whether they’re around for 20 hours/week or 60. We need tax policies that support all kinds of work-family arrangements. We need schools that accommodate working families better and reach out to working families more and that outreach can’t just be “contribute to this cause” or “volunteer for this event.” It needs to be an effort to make them feel a part of the community, that they’re welcome even if they don’t have the time to volunteer.

It’s embarrassing enough that the US as a whole fails so miserably in its support for families. It’s even more embarrassing that higher education is not more progressive when it comes to supporting dual income families. Like the corporate world, higher ed still has a work load that assumes a wife at home to handle the details of life while the husband slaves away at his teaching and research. We need to figure out a way to make that work more balanced without causing problems for those without kids.

I’ve already decided that if I take a job while my kids are still in school, it either needs to be flexible or we need to do some serious talking within my family unit to make the dual-income thing work for us. I think it was okay for Mr. Geeky, but not so okay for me, and at times, not okay for the kids, which makes it even less okay for the kids.

Teaching the Balance

I caught this NPR show on the way into work yesterday. The guests for the show discuss a module of a Women Entrepreneurs Class that teaches about work/life balance. I thought this was interesting that the issue would be brought out into the open this way. The thing that struck me the most was the ending comment when the host asked what one piece of advice would they give to women to help them achieve balance. Both Leslie Morgan Steiner and Kathy Korman Frey said, “Talk to your spouses early on, before it’s an issue and work out exactly how you’re going to balance.” I think that’s excellent advice, advice I didn’t follow. Hell, I grew up in the era of “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let him forget he’s the man.” The very idea that we would discuss who stays home with sick kids, what to do for career moves, etc. was foreign to me. We did talk about these things when they arose, but by then, we were in crisis mode. As either of us have gotten frustrated with some aspect of the balance of work and life (usually it’s me), we’ve discussed it and worked something out. Certainly, you can’t anticipate every little thing that’s going to happen, but there are lots of things you can. I do wish we’d sat down and said, “Okay, what are we going to do when you’re up for a career move? What if I’m up for a career move?” Instead, we both made assumptions. Early on, for example, I made an assumption about when Mr. Geeky would finish grad school. When that dragged on longer than anticipated, I was left in a limbo state, careerwise. While in that state, I had my first kid, but I think it would have been better if we’d took a hard look and maybe set some real deadlines about when we (or just one of us) would move on. There were opportunities I could have taken if we’d set a real timeline instead of playing it by ear.

The other thing the guests noted was that in other contexts (not the class, since it’s marketed specifically to women), they’ve noticed many more men showing up to hear about work/life balance. They noted that while the job of being a mother has changed in the last few decades, the job of being a father has changed even more dramatically. Fathers are now expected to and want to be involved in their kids’ lives, so they’re feeling the pull of family life and the tension that creates with their work life more than ever. Certainly this creates an opportunity to have those conversations about how to balance.

I’m curious if any of you out there have had these conversations with your spouses or if, like me, you tend to go with the flow. Is it better to have the converation or not?

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Run for the hills, I have a teenager

As of 1 a.m. today, I am officially the mother of a teenager. Geeky Boy turned 13. Holy cow, how’d that happen? Wasn’t he just 2 last week? People ask me all the time if he’s a “typical” teenager. I don’t think so–mostly. He does a few typical teenage things, like sleep until noon. But so far, he hasn’t been mean or rebellious or surly or any of the so-called “bad” traits of teenagedom.

So far, he’s at core a good kid and will remain so even if the road gets a little rocky in the next few years.

Conversation happening right now.

Geeky Boy: “I want to catch up with George Lucas.”
Mr. Geeky: “What? Why?”
Geeky Boy: “I want to pass him in age.”
Mr. Geeky: “Why? It’s not a race.”
Geeky Boy: “Yes, it is.”
Mr. Geeky: “You know each year you get older, the closer you are to death.”
Geeky Boy (staring incredulously from the doorway): “That’s a nice thought, Dad.”
Laughter ensues.

Yep, that’s how we celebrate birthdays–reminding ourselves how much closer to death we are.