Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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Hovering is Relative

Our kindergartner’s paperwork was late, but the principal of her new school didn’t know that.  She only knew that the post office had held their mail during the summer, and that our paperwork was in the pile.

I introduced myself at an end-of-summer picnic.   “Oh, Mrs. P.!” she replied, “So sorry that we didn’t send your welcome letter sooner.  When I saw your papers in the summer pile I knew that I had to send you something right away.”

And when she emphasized the ‘you’, I knew that I had been pegged.  We had toured the school the previous spring, and I had requested a specific classroom for my daughter.  I had inquired about class size.  I had e-mailed about volunteer opportunities.  We turned in our paperwork on time, and even got her physical and dental check-ups.  Early.

“If there’s anything you need Mrs. P.” she continued, “you just let me know.  We’ll take very good care of your daughter this year.”  She looked at me intently as if I wouldn’t believe her, and suddenly I felt embarrassed.  Uh oh…

In the world of my kindergartner’s new school, I was a helicopter parent.

whop, whop, whop…

****

Now get in your car (I assume you don’t actually own a helicopter), and drive five miles east.  We have another daughter, a first-grader, who attends a private school.  It’s not a fancy or exclusive place–80% of the students are there on scholarship–but it is small, and comfortable for our daughter.  Easy.  The transition from kindergarten to first grade involved moving across the hallway, and she already knew her teacher, her teacher’s aide, and 16 of her 18 classmates.

(Little sister didn’t make kindergarten cutoff this year, which is why she is attending the large public school of the previous section.)

Her school requires “substantive parental involvement,” and they are not joking.  The baseline commitment is 24 hours a year per family, but I suspect that many parents do more.  Volunteers produce an elaborate spring musical, serve monthly breakfasts to the teachers, maintain an outdoor classroom, and organize an annual all-school camping trip.  On Fridays parent volunteer supervise lunch in every classroom.  Before school begins in September we bring our buckets and mops and clean the entire school.

Unfortunately, I know of most of these commitments (other than the bucket and mop) second-hand.  We barely made our 24 hours last year.

And just last week a parent, a very-involved-parent, handed me a service opportunities survey.  I read down the list of everything I didn’t do last year.  Then I turned the paper over, and found another full page.  Oops.

And I ask you:  How can the helicopter parent of one school be a complete slacker at the other?

****

I am one of those people who tends to take everything personally.  For example, I felt guilty last year when I couldn’t do extra volunteer opportunities at our older daughter’s school.  It was hard to look the very-involved-parents in the eye!  This year, I find myself holding back at our younger daughter’s school, not wanting to be perceived as too eager.  I care about what people think (or what I think they think), and so I try to manage my reputation, carefully striving to find the balance between over and under-involved, and trying to appear neither lazy or over-zealous.

It’s all a bunch of foolishness.

I’ve decided that this year I don’t have time for self-scrutiny.  My two girls are at two schools, and they both need “substantive parental involvement.”  So within the time constraints of reality, I will try to be involved in both places.  This probably means that I will appear both lazy and over-zealous, depending on the location, but so be it.

Because in the end, it’s not really about me anyway.


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Has Anyone Told You, You’re Beautiful?

She was two years old, and covered in cream cheese.  Pink cream cheese smeared across her nose, the corners of her mouth, the tips of her pigtails, and even (somehow) on her stomach.  Her stomach was available for decoration because it stuck out, soft and round, peek-a-boo below a too-short shirt that her mother needed to remove from circulation.

She was two years old, and she was beautiful.

Her mother was watching her.  Watching the progress of the pink cheese and calculating the inevitable clean-up.  Watching the belly bounce and the shirt ride the wave.  Watching when someone walked by, outside, on the sidewalk beyond.

The woman outside was not like the mother and daughter inside.  She was clean.  Her hair was done, her face, stunning.  Her clothes were stylish; pressed and curved to her sculpted body.  She laughed into her cell phone, stood for a moment, and then moved on.

The watching mother sat as the earth shifted beneath.  A wave of sadness hit.  She looked at her daughter.

One day you won’t know how beautiful you are.

One day, the mother knew, the self-consciousness would hit.  The bar would be raised, raised to a standard as high as the perfectly sculpted woman outside the window.  Her daughter would look at herself and compare.  She would look at her clothes and complain.

She would wipe the cream cheese off her face.

The mother knew the lying voices too well.  Beauty that can be bought, sold and measured.  Beauty as a competition.  Beauty as an unattainable goal.  But this wasn’t beauty.  These were lies.  And the mother made a vow.

Beautiful.  We will tell you that you’re beautiful.  Again and again, forever and ever.  Beautiful when covered in mud.  Beautiful with mismatched clothes. Beautiful when taller than the boys.  Beautiful when sleepy, beautiful when poised, beautiful when laughing so hard that milk comes out of your nose.

Beautiful when your eyes are wide… like they are right now.

The mother vowed to reclaim a word that had been stolen from her, and hopefully, over the years, to help her daughter (and help herself) see that there is more beauty in the depth of the eyes and the warmth of a smile than there could ever be in a flat waist or a perfect outfit.  Maybe, together, they could see it.  Maybe, together, they could hear and speak the truth.

And maybe the beautiful truth would set them free.

*The title of this post is taken from a song that ran through my head as I wrote–“Beautiful For Me” by Nicole Nordman.


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Bringing the Helicopter Mom in for a Landing

From the beginning, I just wanted to do everything right.  Is that too much to ask?

It’s been six years since I hit the ground running.  Two babies in two years, and oh so many things to try and do right.  Natural childbirth.  Organic homemade baby food.  Attachment parenting.  Cloth diapers.   I read books, skimmed websites and listened to family and friends.  Tummy time.  Self-soothing.  Sleep training.  I filtered it all through my own intuition, consulted with my husband, and kept on parenting, one day after the next.

One stage after the next.  Just keep running.

Soon we were out of diapers and into new waters.  Preschool and other childcare options.  Time outs.  How to encourage independence for a child who still might run out into the street at any moment.  How to teach a child to say sorry without that parroting tone.  Playing together and playing alone.  More sleep issues (do they ever end?).  Age-appropriate chores and toys.  Kindergarten.

Just typing this list makes me tired.

Don’t get the wrong idea–I am not a perfectionist.  If you need proof, just look in my car.  But I have labored at parenting.  I have agonized over many small and big decisions.  I have run hard.  And six years into it all, I have one thing to report:

I have often had this gut-level sense that I am blowing it.  Blowing it big time.

Now, most of you are very kind people, and right now you are thinking, “Oh, I’m sure that she’s a very good mother.  She’s probably just being too hard on herself.”  You’re right of course, but this isn’t really the point.  The point is that I’ve got these unspoken standards of ‘doing it right’ that I can’t live up to.  And sometimes they eat away at me.

Wonder if I’m the only one.

****

I am able to write this post because my children are at summer camp.  They are at summer camp from 9-4, for five days a week, for four weeks.  We have never done anything like this before.

It began on a bit of a whim.  Wide-open summers can be daunting when you have small children, and I had been trying to find more time to write.  When I saw “9-4” on the brochure, I may have drooled a bit.  Then I signed up on the spot.  Four weeks!  Four glorious weeks to write and work and learn and run and read and draw and… “Honey?”  My husband interrupted my reverie.  “What’s the camp like?  What will the girls do there?  How is it organized?”  He must have been shocked at my uncharacteristic response:

“Oh, I don’t know.  I’m sure it will be fine.”

As camp drew nearer, my confidence wavered.  What had I done?  I had no idea what the student to teacher ratio was, no sense of their daily schedule, and no clue if this just wasn’t the biggest mistake of our parenting lives.  On the first day I still wasn’t sure what to think.  It seemed organized, but there were kids everywhere and my goodness it was loud.  The counselors seemed eager, but oh my were they young.  “Welcome to CAMP!” one of them screamed as we arrived.

What could I do?  I dropped off my kids and walked away.

Just.  Walked.  Away.

Seven hours later I grilled them in the car.  What was it like?  What did you do?  Tell me everything.

“Well, Mama.  Once I got lost, but then a tonsilor found me,” my oldest began, not realizing that they are called ‘counselors’ or that her mother had stopped breathing.  “We were going to the girl’s room and I had my eyes closed cause I was making up a dinosaur story in my head and when I opened them my group was gone!”  I sucked in air.  “Oh… really… honey… and what happened then?”  “Oh, a tonsilor found me and walked me upstairs, oh and guess what Mama, we had brownies for snack!”

Brownies are not a very nutritious snack.

****

There in the car, when I began breathing normally again, I noticed something.  My daughters were buoyant.  Beaming.  Gushing even.    The tale of the missing tonsilors wasn’t the forlorn story of an abandoned child, or even a frightening memory;  it was an adventure tale.  It was as exciting to my daughter as a dinosaur story, and oh-guess-what-Mama, there were even brownies for snack.

The two little girls in my car had had a fabulous day.

With this revelation came, oddly, a sense of freedom.  For the mother who just wanted to do everything right, this day had been a disaster.  I had left them for seven hours with screaming counselors who had lost one of my children and then fed them sugar for snack.  All this, and not only had my precious, fragile children survived–they were thriving.

I had blown it, blown it big time (or so I thought), and my children were thriving.  Amazing.

And surprisingly… freeing.

It’s been two weeks now since that afternoon in the car, and with the benefit of hindsight I can see that things were not nearly as out of control as I supposed.  It seems that my daughter was separated from her group for approximately 2.3 seconds on that first day, and nothing like it has happened since.  The girls love their caring, energetic ‘tonsilors’ and the ‘welcome to CAMP!’ young man is a particular favorite.  There are healthy snacks too, the directors maintain an incredible 8:10 ratio (that’s 8 adults for every 10 kids) in the pool, and the consistent routine has stabilized our summer.

It’s been two weeks, and it hasn’t been perfect, but it has been good.  Good for the girls.  Good for their Mama.

I didn’t expect this, but the best part of camp for me hasn’t been the extra time.  The best part of camp has been a new stage of letting go, a new realization that Just Walking Away is sometimes the best thing you can do.

I’m not talking about apathy here.  We still have our daily grilling in the car, and I still talk with the counselors when I have a concern.  I still prefer smaller groups and more experienced teachers (say, for kindergarten), but this is camp and they are having fun.  They are having so very much fun.

After all, the opposite of apathy isn’t caring for your kids.  The opposite of apathy is agonizing.  And this is where my tendency lies.

Camp, with its accompanying brownies, has been an important corrective.