Category Archives: parenting

Me Second!

Some of you might remember an old commercial for the US Army. “We do more before 9 a.m. than some people do all day.”

I know a woman like this. I met her back in the eigth grade at an all-star cheerleading event the Diocese of Pittsburgh used to do for Catholic schools. Later, we went to high school together. But we never really loafed together, as my mom would say. 

Today, this woman and I are Facebook friends. And she is high on my list of mommy idols. 

My friend has eight children. Yes, eight. Ranging from twenty-something to elementary school age. From what I understand, from people other than her, they are some pretty amazing kids. Involved in helping others through their Church, serving at Mass and so on.

My friend is not divorced, an addict or irresponsible. These kids have a stable, if financially tight, home. She is a true Mama Bear – every ounce of energy, every waking moment, every cent in her pocket goes to raising those eight. Don’t try leaving one of them out, bullying one of them or mocking their situation. You’ll regret it. 

In the sense we often hear in scripture, or our priests discuss at Mass, she has died to self as Jesus did, and lives her life for others.

That’s what inspires me. If anything has challenged me as a parent, it’s the need to step away from my own desires and live my life for my family. I know that’s an old fashioned if not out dated idea to some. But I’m pretty sure it’s how you raise quality people. 

This belief, founded in my faith in God, is much at odds with the person I once was. Even now that I’m striving for this ideal, my personal selfishness often raises its ugly head in my parenting. I was a career woman once – ambitious, driven and some say talented in my field. I left my career because it didn’t want my girls along for the ride. I miss it sometimes, and more than once I’ve had to catch myself in moments of frustration from asking my girls if they actually realize what I sacrificed for them.

Not exactly an attitude of dying to self and allowing God to guide me so I can guide them.

Added to the general loneliness that comes with being a stay-at-home mom and kid taxi driver, I’m miles away from being the parent my friend is. Maybe she can’t give them all the stuff I can give, but she has truly given them herself. I push myself to that ideal, but there are times when I pull myself back from my family, and I want them to acknowledge what I do so that I can feel some type of achievement that I felt when my opinion was sought out and my work defined me.

And then I think of my friend – a true angel on Earth for her children. Not with wings and a halo, but as a protector and provider of love. Up at the crack of dawn getting her kids to various schools (all Catholic by the way), toiling at fundraisers, driving her youngest to weekly appointments for Lupus treatments and finding new ways to sustain their family. 

That’s when I realize I need a smack in the head for not being more present with my own family. For ignoring them sometimes when I don’t want to deal with their crises or would rather watch the X-Files than Supergirl. Or whenever I choose myself over them. My friend, who could use some downtime, likely does little of that. She doesn’t have time. Yet what she does is so much more important and rewarding than my career ever was.

She makes me want to get up early to watch cartoons, cook breakfast and play video games. To be there for every moment until I can’t be anymore. Like God has been wanting me to.

Girl Power-Up

For a little while now, I’ve been reliving some of the worst memories of my adolescence.  I suppose it’s my way of living vicariously through my daughters, both now tweens. 

Like all mothers, I pray they will grow into level-headed, self-loving, decent young women. In my generation, many of us instead grew into neurotic, self-doubting, low-self esteem bundles of emotion. Sadly, and many women won’t admit this, we developed this way at the hands of other women – bullies, social climbers, gossips, etc. In my day, women were their own worst enemies. And I think very well may still be.

We give a lot of lip service these days to raising strong, independent, self-actualized young ladies. We encourage them to do whatever they dream, to be who they are, and see themselves as powerful. We remind them they’re capable of math and science. We have them playing football and hockey. We change the body type of Barbie so they don’t see themselves as sexual objects. And yet somehow, that cattiness is still alive and well in females everywhere, and at even younger ages.

I have been working for the last 11 years now at raising my own strong little ladies. I don’t sugar coat the lesser amenities of life for them – we all need to be responsible and productive. Even with my own very pronounced short comings (depression, diabetes, heart disease) I’m dedicated to providing them with the tools they will need to take care of themselves with confidence as they become adults in a very cruel world. 

Yesterday, for the first time, I began to wonder if I’m doing it wrong. 

My oldest daughter asked me if she could go to a different school. I was surprised…somewhat. She has had a hiccup or two in her emotional development, and is regularly referred to by people at our school as “sensitive.” That means she’s known to cry at school when she feels put down, alone, overlooked, overwhelmed or teased. She shows her hurt. That makes some kids think she’s not cool, and some teachers that she’s less intelligent. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. She’s quite smart, a wonderful cartoonist, dedicated musician and overall good-hearted person. Her academic test scores are well above average. And she’s very likable. Similar to other girls her age, she’s also a bit awkward and confused. Like others, she’s gained a little weight, struggles with athletics, is stymied sometimes by her developing body and feels left out of almost everything. She seeks affirmation.

She’s had a few “best friends,” but all in all, it seems when she finds one, that girl finds someone else who doesn’t want her around. It appears she’s been labeled uncool, and is regularly alone in a sea of little girls, who, unlike her, do not appreciate country music, trombone, Disney animation, black jelly beans and Minecraft. 

I was like this growing up. Like her, I lived a bit farther away from the others in my class, didn’t play with those kids often after school, and my activities were considered weird. I went through that awkward phase where I got a little overweight and couldn’t get my hair to lay just right. I was an early bloomer. I was teased and bullied regularly by kids who today don’t remember doing it. But I remember – and that treatment stayed with me my whole life. I still doubt my worthiness and abilities today.

I had hoped in this new age of the Strong Girl, my daughters would not experience this catty competitiveness that should have died off by now, allowing young women to support one another while appreciating their differences. Yet it now seems to start more strongly at younger ages. (For my youngest in first grade.)

What are we doing as mothers, teachers, role models that tells girls it’s ok to ostracize other girls on the basis of what society tells us is cool or not cool? Is it right not to invite one girl out of a class to a party because she doesn’t get an A on every test, or because she doesn’t have the coordination to play basketball? What about if she’s chubby, or tells silly jokes or repeats herself when she talks?

All girls, little ones, tweens, teens, even adults, want a friend or two to share life experiences with. As adults, as a society, are we subtlety telling our daughters that some girls don’t deserve friendship or an ally in the battle of growing up? 

It seems so. We can do all we can to encourage them to be who they are as their parents. But there’s little we can do when their peers deconstruct that confidence daily simply because who they are isn’t in style. When push comes to shove, they believe other girls over parents “who have to tell them nice things.”

As women, likely all of whom have experienced this type of abandonment by friends, shouldn’t we be encouraging our daughters to embrace differences and build support for and among all girls facing the perils of young adulthood?  Let’s find ways to kill the spectre of “popularity” among kids before we create more girls who are afraid to engage their gifts.

Believe

If your a parent of a school-age child, you probably know the last thing that’ll get you into the Christmas spirit is the annual school Christmas concert.

It’s always just a few days before the big day, there’s no where to park and sometimes no where to sit at school, parents are all dancing around getting the back of their heads in someone else’s video or picture,  there are strange delays in the schedule – like unscheduled bathroom breaks, crying or a performer who won’t take the stage, tweens who take the stage and refuse to sing because they’re too cool, wardrobe malfunctions and so on. 

Our annual concert was shaping up to be more of this chaos, up until the actual event. My kids were complaining about changes in words, songs and choreography for weeks. We parents weren’t really crazy about having to pull together “costumes” while making our traditional Christmas time purchases. And a new teacher was producing the show. No one knew what to expect.

We got the traditional stuff. Phones in the air blocking everyone’s view. Kids off key, words forgotten, wrong gestures at the right time, and so on. And of course, huggable little ones smiling, hamming it up and “hi Mom-ing” it from the stage, while some how forgetting the words to Frosty.

But as acts moved from kindergarten through the eighth grade (this is Catholic school), something happened. The Christmas Spirit I’ve been struggling to find for weeks showed up. The seventh grade, a class I have no children in, began to sing “Believe” from The Polar Express movie. These kids – many of whom I know personally and love dearly – began to sing about growing up into not believing. Some of the same kids who have been sewing doubt about Santa in my girls. And I began to think – the worst thing anyone can do at a time like this.

I thought of those kids on the stage, coming out of childhood into a world where they must face so much more than I ever had to at that age. How the simple fact that we outgrow Santa signifies so much more. The song wasn’t sung perfectly, the music wasn’t live, but I found myself crying as I watched one of my favorite, most active young men sing this gentlest of carols. 

“Turn back!” I wanted to yell to him. “Stay young! Be a kid while you still can. Growing up only brings confusion, pain, and things that aren’t any fun!”

I began to realize my own age. My parents age. I remembered that this year, I have one major Santa skeptic, and one true believer. And I began to think about my own waning belief that there are decent people still in the world. And I realized that I want to be one of those good people.

And then, I knew what I wanted for Christmas. I want the patience, wisdom and understanding to love those I’d rather not. The courage to stop hiding from other people because I don’t want pain, rejection and pushback. 

At the end of the show, all of the kids sang “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” So simple. Yet so meaningful in our day. 

Those children. At one of those chaotic concerts. You’ve taught my heart to sing. And helped me find the real spirit of Christmas. Thank you.

The Force is Strong with this One

My oldest daughter is just not into the whole Star Wars thing. She’s asked me more than once what the fuss is all about. 

I respect her skepticism and her curiosity. Yet as someone who watched George Lucas’s world blossom as a child, fell in love with Han Solo as a tween and wore Princess Leia costumes for Halloween before they were readily available in stores, this is devastating somewhere in my inner psyche. Thank God for the younger child who asked for a Lightsaber for Christmas, even if she still calls it a Light Saver. 

Star Wars, I told my daughter, is about more than toys, robots and coffee creamer with Darth Vader’s picture on it (yes this exists). The phenomenon is actually based in something quite important to our world – the epic struggle for good and evil. That is why it’s so all encompassing and so beloved by my generation, the first to grow up espousing the virtues of the Force. 

 

Me, channeling my inner Princess Leia , with the Jawas at Disney World’s Star Wars Launch Bay.


 I know, you’ve heard it before. I’m not the first to say it, and certainly not the one to say it best. Joseph Campbell did that when he wrote “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” Luke Skywalker, our hero, embodies the goodness and innocence essential to save the galaxy from evil, illustrated through, guess what, government. There are so many parallels to the modern struggle that even Disney couldn’t have projected a better time to release this movie. But that’s not the point.

We need rich stories like Star Wars to remind us what the focus of human development should be. To wrestle the story of humanity from the red tape of living and teach us how to behave honorably. Sara gave me a pretty blank face when I told her something similar. I was talking above 10-year-old again.

So I went somewhere that would make other Star Wars geeks gasp – the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Sara’s been reading those books and knows the story. She knows good wins, evil loses again as it has over and over in the greatest stories of all time. Think about it: Harry as Luke, Ron and Hermoine as Han and Leia, Dumbledore as Obi-Wan/Yoda, Voldemort as the Emporor. You get it. Same story.

One of the more beautiful facets of the Star Wars Saga is its basis in the goodness of family. Our heroes are tied together by family, albeit probably the most disfunctional one ever imagined. But in the end, it is the tie that binds – Darth Vader’s dying words “Tell your sister you were right.” 

Luke is right about so many things – but ultimately about the fact that he could not have come from someone completely evil. That he and his sister were honorable people created and born from love that was indeed a good thing. We cheered Darth Vader when he threw Palpatine into the abyss to save his SON. Family saves the universe. 

I probably over philosophized this one, but Sara got it. She’s been running around telling me what other stories she’s found the classic good vs. evil theme running through. She’s also finding that good ALWAYS wins. I hope it’s giving her solace as we face unthinkable evil in our real lives.

I’m looking forward to seeing The Force Awakens, and feeding my Star Wars geekiness. It’s already resurrecting old jokes and fun memories I share only with my older brother. And I am excited about sharing it with my girls – particularly in the form of Princess Leia, who after my mother was my first role model for the woman I wanted, and still want, to be.

I worry in these last days before the release that the theme of good and the strength of family ties will be diminished in the movie by the darkness that hangs over our world today. But I know in my heart that is what makes Star Wars the juggernaut that it is. It’s hollow without it.

May the Force Be with You.

It Takes a Family

After I had my children, I often wondered how friends who had moved “away from home” (away from their parents and families) were able to cope.

My mother and father, in many ways, make my family possible. In today’s crazy world of child rearing, it’s inexplicably hard for mom and dad to do it alone. Without grandmas, grandpas, uncles, aunts, cousins and the like nearby, I don’t know how other parents do it.

Today, as I sit in a hotel room in Omaha, supporting my husband’s employment with an out-of-town company, my mother is walking a few days in my shoes. Since Wednesday, she’s been shuttling my girls to and from school, to and from gymnastics and cheerleading, feeding and enduring my ridiculous dogs, likely doing my laundry and cleaning my house. This trip, she dealt with the dishwasher repair man and a birthday party I forgot about. And she still has a makeup trombone lesson to get to before I land back home. Her gps is getting a workout, and no doubt everything she brought to my house is covered in white fur.

As a parent, I often wondered how the mothers of my generation – those 70s and 80s moms – ever dealt with being mommy. They seemed to be so much more graceful, competent and together. Then, I remember disposable income then was much less (meaning fewer belongings), fathers did less helping, kids expected less and women perhaps were not pulled in so many directions. But they were still better at it.

I’ve always worked to keep my family in driving distance of my extended family. We’ve never lived more than an hour away, and our most recent move, to within a half hour of my parents, was designed with grandma and grandpa in mind. 

I’ve been blessed to have never had to leave my children with anyone other than the most trusted people in my life. I’m glad I’ve never had to decide if new friends in new towns or some type of service was safe enough for my kids. They stay only with people I trust most. I’ve often wondered how hard it must be for parents to leave their kids with strangers – that stat, one in four girls will be sexually abused by 18, echoes in my mind. I can’t imagine the stress.

We’ve never had to board a plane or travel farther than across town for holiday celebrations. I watch my mother and father’s brothers and sisters struggle with geographical distance from their grandchildren, and I pray their hearts heal. I send gifts and drag kids to family events so that each of my aunts and uncles and even my brother’s in-laws hear the sounds of kids laughing regularly, and see the miracles of their growth. It’s a gift I find I’m always able to give, that’s always happily received.

Extended family is more than people to babysit and car pool when you can’t, however. They comprise a community that provides love beyond the nuclear family and provides kids with a safety mat that spells out what might happen if mom and dad are somehow restricted by health, distance, or even death. Extended family is extra padding, backup support, a help desk. It’s permanent. It teaches all how to deal with relationships we can’t jettison from our lives and what it’s like to have people we can count on when the world lets us down.

Families can be close even if they aren’t geographically near. And they can be distant even if they live across the street. But children so often have the super human power to heal family wounds and rejoin broken bonds. Let them work their magic where possible.

Family first, as my 10-year-old reminds me. Family first.

A Muslim Saved My Life

As far as many people are concerned these days, there’s little room for debate on anything.  If you agree with something, you agree wholeheartedly with no questions or doubts. If you don’t, every fiber of your being is against it. You apparently have to be an “extremist” to have your opinion count on any issue.

That seems to be the case when it comes to the world’s current refugee problem. At least when it comes to the solutions our leaders have to offer us. The truth of the matter is that most people who have truly taken time to consider the conundrum were in fall around the middle. No one really wants to turn aside people in true need – no matter their background. And no one wants to be conned into complicity by terrorists.

When I was in high school, my German language class traveled to Germany on the ultimate field trip. It was about six months after the Berlin Wall “came down.” It was also handy to the time of the Lockerbie air plane crash. 

On the way home, in the shuffle of 20 something high school kids getting into the Berlin airport, through customs and to the right gate in a foreign language, a friend of mine lost his ticket and boarding pass. Our chaperone, a Catholic Marianist Brother, and my friend appealed to the airline to reissue – the ticket was paid for, the seat reserved as part of an educational package. It was just a piece of paper that was lost.

Airline officials in Germany were already dealing with air port security issues then, in 1990. Americans really had no idea why there were soldiers in the terminal with large guns. The airline didn’t want to let my friend on the plane. After quite sometime and probably some serious Catholic guilt from our teacher, the airline acquiesced – if my friend agreed to check everything he was carrying straight through to the States. I still remembering him fretting over expensive Germab beer steins he was taking home for family.

My friend is Middle Eastern. I’d say he’s Muslim, but I’m not really sure how active he is in the religion. I know when we were in Catholic school together (yes, you read that right) his older brother was trying to learn more about Islam. I remember him attempting to fast during Ramadan once and speaking to my world religion class about the amazing fatigue he felt. To make matters more interesting, my friend with the lost ticket had  a variety of health problems that made him look closer to 30 than 16.

I “speak” with my friend still over Facebook. He’s an American. Like those Muslims you hear about who serve dutifully in the US Armed Forces. We have interesting conversations about the refugees. He reminds me not all Muslims are part of or agree with ISIS, Al-Quida, Boko Haram, or any other extremist group. I remind him that people like me fear for the lives and future freedom of our children. Shutting the door, so to speak, doesn’t sound bad to us. 

We think about ways to separate Middle Easterners, Americans of Middle Eastern descent, and peaceful (yes, some are) Muslims in people’s minds from Muslim extremists. Almost two decades of PR experience and I’m stymied on that one. Our leaders need to think as hard as we are. There must be something between turning our backs on refugees, and allowing the fox into the hen house in the name of morality. 

Today, I remembered something that kicked me right onto the fence on refugees, from what on Saturday was a lock the door and throw away the key stance.

Just a little less than three years ago, I almost lost my life to a heart attack brought on by diabetic ketoacidosis. Not only did I survive, I am again thriving. The doctor who saved my life on the operating table with almost no damage to my heart, and who has sustained me, is a Muslim.

Not everyone is dangerous. But some certainly are. Which are you?

Teach Your ParentsĀ 

A few years back, before love, marriage and children rudely interrupted, I was working with my favorite client on a profile of her company. One afternoon, we were meeting with a freelance writer and the conversation turned to children and parenthood. 

The writer asked if I had kids. I was just newly married and still honeymooning. He remarked that I would understand the conversation better when I had some. I was incredibly offended. What could a child teach me about life? I was finally an official adult – on my own, a good man at my side, making my own choices. I knew how life worked.

I’d like to give that 20-something me a whack to the back of the head. Now, I do indeed get it.

Children. Change. Everything.

It’s not cliche. It’s truth.

Catholics often talk about the power of giving one’s life for another, as Jesus did. I’m never going to achieve that level of love-giving, but I think being a parent is as close to that as I may ever come. It’s not about death and dying for love. It’s about putting yourself last and someone else first -not in the same way you do with a man or woman you love, but in making someone else’s life your responsibility.

Parenting is one of the greatest opportunities God gives us to “die to self.” I think this is the reason many (not all) people today don’t want children. I personally never really understood this concept until I was faced with it directly. When you have a child, you decide if she lives or dies, thrives or struggles, eats or starves. If you truly love the child, you put its needs before all of yours – physical, emotional, spiritual, social.

I have wrestled with this and continue to fight demons of self-centeredness everyday. That’s another blog post. But my daughters have changed me in ways I never dreamed possible. For instance, if you’ve known me a long time, you might be surprised how conservative I’ve become. I know I am. Eight short years ago, I was lobbying friends to vote for Hillary Clinton. I thought she’d be a good president because she was a mother. Today, I wouldn’t vote for her for all the money in the world because I’m a mother. 

Two high-risk pregnancies that required sonograms every two weeks taught me to hate abortion. The horror of 9/11 taught me the fragility of our freedoms. Having had my career destroyed by office politics and watching my girls face bullies as early as preschool has me instilling a healthy caution about others’ motives.

My kids hear about American history more than they want to – I demand they understand how regular people sacrificed and struggled for what they take for granted. Recently, I beamed with pride when my daughter started her own petition for something she wanted to see happen in her school. My husband and I are what some people call strict – not because we’re mean, but because we care. We’re trying to raise respectful Catholic Americans.

Sunday morning, after the sting of ISIS’s attacks on Paris, my eyes welled talking to my Deacon after Mass. I told him I wasn’t sure I could explain the world away to my children any longer. I was angry that my younger daughter had been scared of ISIS even before Paris – now she doesn’t want to sleep. At Catholic school they’re taught to love others. What would they think if they knew some considered them “extremists” not unlike terrorists? My older daughter asked me why no one is protecting the people of the world. I had no answer. And she has no faith in our leaders.

I want ISIS dealt with. I want fiscal responsibility from my elected officials. I want people in my country to stop blaming other people for their problems. I want them to stop claiming ownership of what other people earn. I want respect for all life and all belief systems – even the ones I don’t like. But most of all, I want the ideals of America preserved for my children, so they may live free and safe. 

And should my girls decide in their teens or early 20s to eschew the more traditional values we are using to sustain them into adulthood, well, so be it. We all rebel as we grow – I know I did and my parents are why I survived.  I will no longer hold responsibility for the girls’ lives when they’re grown. It will hurt to see them struggle. They too will have their own experiences and will think they get it just fine, thank you.

Should they have children of their own, they may also find the need to step up their game, as I did. It’s our own experiences after all that teach us to be cautious when someone else’s life and future are in our unsteady hands. Loving another person more than yourself, wanting someone to have it better than you had, makes some of us, even the rebels, seek tradition, truth, and stability.