3 Parenting Classes We Never Got – But Need

July 22, 2011

Listen up, you local hubs of educational offerings – like UVA Health System, you offer some really necessary basics, and we’re grateful for them. Yep. And they stand us in good stead during those first few months of pooping, breastfeeding, bathing that runs us through the ringer of our own mental fortitude harder than a drill sergeant in one of those Vietnam movies.

But then the kids graduate, the classes for parents disappear – now all you can find are ballet, soccer, karate for the kids – and your brain, while not taxed to the maximum of human endurance, now faces ever increasingly mind-boggling strains of the psyche for which this parent at least feels utterly unprepared.

We need some Continuing Ed, people!

Here are my suggestions.

1. Scientific Answers and Cop-Outs

Okay, I somehow swam my way through advanced chemistry and physics in high school, and I doggy-paddled to some As in college biology. Still, my five-year-old daughter manages to come up with some questions that stop me in whatever tracks I thought I was making away from having to recall any of that stuff.

I can handle the philosophical whys, because the answers are themselves questions. I can handle rhyming games. And, English major that I was, I enjoy the word-origin queries – “Why is it called a Kitchen? Why is a seal called a seal?” and the abstract concept confusions – “But what is lying?” These are challenges I am happy to meet. That’s why I studied English. You could find the answer in a dictionary or make up a theory. I got that part nailed.

But the bulk of the questions fall into the category of Things I Should Know Because Didn’t I Learn Them in Earth Science 101? And they come. Incessantly.


Before dinner: “Why is part of the air conditioner outside?”

At the dinner table: “Why do we put things in refrigerators? But what does a bacteria do? Why are some good and some bad? Are they in the air?”

And, right after lights out: “So many animals have black stripes. But why?”

I don’t know. It seems like I should know, but I really really don’t. I’m making dinner, I’m trying to keep the three-year-old from somehow getting all of his dinner on the floor and not his mouth, I’m hoping they’ll fall asleep – I don’t know why the air conditioner is halfway out the window. I start to explain as if I DO know, and it becomes incredibly obvious I haven’t a clue.

“Well, you know, it brings in air and cools it” – and then is there too much air in the house? “or does it pull out the hot air?” – seems too old to do all that – “well, it pulls it out and puts it in – ” I’m scrambling – “so it sticks out.”

Bacteria? I try to steer the convo to a rationale for why she shouldn’t suck her toes. Yes, she needs one. But it just brings on more questions. I go to Wikipedia for a quick fix of facts. Good god, the explanation is complicated. I don’t have time for all this chemical crap and canoodly language. Do bacteria eat stuff the way worms do? Is that how they make things rot or curdle? Just tell me so I can satisfy the kid and finish my beans!

Scientists don’t excel at really getting to the nitty-gritty, concrete, obvious terms and analogies to help a parent like myself offer a kid like my daughter something that is both basically true and equally simple to grasp. Give us a class! Or at least a support group.

2. First Aid 101

No, I don’t mean Red Cross certification. I’m talking about your kid gets a cut on his or her face and you call the doctor and he asks you to examine the wound.

“How deep is it?” he asks. I dunno.

“Is there a separation in the tissue?” Huh?

“blah blah blah compression blah flap of skin poodle poo can help you determine whether or not to go to the ER.”

Huh? I have to know what kind of cut looks like it needs stitches? How the hell do I know? I grew up in the land of the 70s. We didn’t have helmets when we rode our bikes, seat belts in the backseat of the car, organic food, and we certainly didn’t go to the ER when we got gashes, sun burns, what have you. We just scarred and waited for the skin cancer.

So I need a class in how to talk to my pediatrician on the phone, what to look for in my kids’ symptoms, how to know if the thermometer isn’t working, whether you’re supposed to use a bandaid or not, what constitutes throw-up vs. regurgitation, etc. Basic stuff that some people learned and the rest of us didn’t but are expected to know, obviously, because there are no remedial classes around to take.

Subjects to be covered also include:

  • A little rehash of germ theory wouldn’t be hurtful. For instance, when my first baby peed in the bathtub at 9 months, I freaked: Evacuate? Restart? Let it go? No clue.
  • Temperatures: How to take them, read them, and what they should be (so I get confused sometimes)
  •  How to read OTC medications – Do I want the kid to suppress the coughs or express them?
  • Is the little proverb “starve a fever, feed a cold” true or a myth?
  • Cutting toddler nails and hair 101

3. What Can I Get Away With?

Other possible titles: How Bad Am I? or How Much Will Therapy Cost? or Grab Bag Miscellany

So this sounds bad, but seriously, there are some legal and psychological mysteries hanging around out there that I think all parents should have a clue about, like:

Is it allowable to leave your kids in the car while you run into 7-11 for a soda? (Answer: No.)

I accidentally swore in front of my kids. Am I going to hell?

Are five year olds really preteens?

Is two really terrible? Because it looks pretty good now that we’re in three.

How long can they go without a bath and still be considered civilized?

Do they always need underwear?

What’s the appropriate etiquette in a restaurant when your two year old poops in the aisle in plain view of all the dining customers?

Do you give a child a time out for drawing on her arms a tattoo – when I have a tattoo, a real one?

How much TV will scar them – really?

How long can I let my kid suck her thumb? Her pacifier? Her feet?

Please let me push them in the grocery cart, even though it says they’re too heavy?

Is it ok I can’t answer all her questions?

Are they screwed because they get chicken nuggets (vegetarian at least) at least once a week because I’m a single parent and I’m tired?

Will they ever sleep?

Will I ever sleep?


Will they ever wipe their own butts?

Will they ever eat healthy meals?


So, those are the three I need. Any others I should add to the wish list?


The Gender Thing

July 19, 2011
My son in a dress

My son in a fancy dress

As those of us who waste time at work reading media headlines know, the issue of little boys playing with girl stuff has gotten a lot of panties wadded around a lot of conservative ankles recently. There was the ad with the boy getting his nails painted, the kid dressed as a girl for Halloween…

…and, simultaneously, there was my then-two-year-old son donning his older sister’s dress to preschool, pretending to walk in my shoes with his heels up, and getting deemed a girl by passersby because of his flouncy golden curls. Even today, at 3 1/2, Sam sometimes goes for days being a fairy princess named Chana, arguing with his sister that he IS a girl and DOES have the necessary equipment, and speaking in a high-pitched voice.

But is he a cross-dresser or gender-confused?

No. He’s THREE. He also tells us that he’s four, lives in an imaginary office where he has five daughters, shoots imaginary rainbow pellets with anything long enough to work as a gun, and believes he can fly.

He also pretty much adheres to a standard of saying the opposite of whatever his sister says. So, if she says it’s cold, he says it’s hot; if she says he’s a boy, he claims otherwise. (And she gets annoyed. It’s so predictable.)

What gets hard is all these voices out there, around us, telling Sam what he can and can’t be, in ways you wouldn’t, these days with a girl.

No one ever told Josephine that she needed to:

– Wear a dress

– Only wear pink

– Not play with balls or cars

– not pretend to be a boy supercharacter

And if anyone had, I would have hit them (like a boy?). But no one would; we all know better. Yet frequently, caregivers and others tell Sam – in my presence – :

– Boys don’t wear dresses!

– You don’t need a headband

– Be a big boy, don’t cry

– You’re a boy, you can’t be Supergirl

– You don’t want to play that, you’re a boy

– He needs more boy things

– he’s  a mama’s boy

There’s this huge concern that somehow, if he puts on a skirt or plays with Jo’s pony dolls or cries or prefers fancy clothes that there’s this huge, pending danger that he’ll end up – oh my gosh, as a girl, or gay. That if we don’t beat in enough Boyness now, he’ll be lost to that gray land of indeterminate identity…

…and what? He’ll actually know how to do laundry? He won’t beat his girlfriend? He’ll have healthy emotional expression? He’ll know how to trust people? He’ll be a fun dresser?

It distresses me how ANXIOUS people get about this.

Now, I didn’t really have a tomboy in Josephine; she has definitely been a girly-girl. But she does love to climb trees, kick balls, see fire engines, play rough and dirty with dogs, have adventures – she and Sam both. No one is worried about her not being girl enough.

I look around at most of the men I know who are my age, and I feel a great deal of pity for how many of them are so emotionally retarded, expressively restricted, psychologically bound up. Males in our society are offered such a limited range of identity – their clothes are standard-issue bland, their demeanor can range from tough to tough & quiet, their hair can be short and maybe a little shaggy, etc. And when they skew even slightly off this teeny band of Normal, they risk getting harassed, called names, beaten up, discriminated against, worse.

As I’ve often thought, feminists have only done half the work by trying to get women outside the strict boundaries of cultural gender biases. If we don’t get guys, starting when they are little boys, accepting themselves as whole people, developing their whole selves, we’re going to have an unequal society still, perpetuating this notion that women are civilized and men are not. Which is actually a very old notion. And doesn’t hold men accountable for much.

In an age when we need role models of every kind…

… well, I just beg you: Let my son wear a dress. Let your son try nailpolish. Let your kids cry. Let your children explore what it means to be human, whatever that means. And breathe. They’ll be okay – they’ll be even better than okay, if you just let them be who they are.

Be Yourself: Kid-Advice That’s Good for Moms, Too

July 7, 2011

Playing with my daughter

Something happened to me when I had a baby.

And I don’t just mean my body turned into a bloated pickle, though that happened, too.

Another transformation began, out of my desire to Do Well and Be Good for my child. I went from being “Amy” to “Mama” – I became “a mom.” A Mom. Not myself.

Mom: A role I was playing without any rehearsal, an archetype I was enacting without any experience.

My little girl tottering in my heels – me teetering in mom shoes.

Of course, you have a baby, you stop certain things, like swearing; and you start other things, like caring about nutritional values and safety ratings. Your goals shift from enjoying yourself and achieving personal aspirations to keeping this little needy little human from getting run over or choking on a safety pin. The years blur.

And then, several years into Motherhood, you realize you’re trying really hard to be This Person, this Mother, and you’re failing, desperately, and the reason you’re constantly stricken with bouts of inadequacy is because you’re striving to be something that you’re not.

Contemplating this recently, I asked myself: What would it be like if I gave up trying to be A Mother, and instead was just me, myself, Amy again? Amy, who is a mother, but who is – still! – Amy. Me.

I’m not sure if it was the kava-kava tea or not, but relief flooded my veins, just at the thought.

In my meditation practice, I’ve been learning to be true to myself, to find my authentic self. But I noticed when it came to mothering my kids, I felt this requirement to listen, not to my own needs, instincts, and preferences, but to some strange idea of Perfect Parentness.

Included in this was:

– trying to get the kids to behave properly at all times

– ignoring my own feelings

– behaving like a drill sergeant

The real Amy:

– sings incidental songs

– is playful and flexible, but definitely not perfect

– has feelings and needs

Of course, there are things that go against my original self that I still try to do – creating/adhering to routines, eating regular and robust meals, being on time to things.

But I think being honest about these challenges – to myself, and even somewhat to my kids, is more helpful than my attempt to just make them happen, forcing myself along with my kids.

Being a single mother is harder than anything I’ve ever done. It frays my nerves, it strains my heart, it kicks my ass on a regular and nonstop basis.

But I think remembering myself in it and through it, being myself and being present, I can draw on my strengths and be honest about my weaknesses and survive with an adequate amount of humor and grace. Trying to be A Mother is just pure exhaustion and totally unachievable. Trying to be myself is both a help and a hope. It’s a lot more fun. And being a mother is more fun, too.

Good With Kids

June 19, 2011

Thought struck me yesterday, as I was analyzing the state of my Motherhood at the moment. Admittedly, I’ve been exhausted. I don’t feel like I’ve been a whole heck of a lot of fun.

Sometimes parenting when you also work full time feels like the army, and I’m the reluctant drill sargeant: Brush those teeth! Wash that face! Eat those greens! Do ten on the floor if you mouth off!

Last week I went with my daughter on a field trip, held her hand and sang funny songs and talked to all the kids. I was entertaining. I made them laugh and feel special. I’m good at that. I’m “good with kids.”

I normally don’t have the energy or drive to joke, sing, tell funny stories with my kids on a daily basis. No doubt I’ve had my Julie Andrews moments…

But you know, kids might adore their parent for being funny. But being a parent isn’t about performing. Being ‘good with kids’ isn’t about making animal balloons, doing magic tricks – on the field trip, the enthusiastic police officer interrupted the tour of the station to open up his tackle box and do some slight of hand tricks.

Someone had decided that his magic show abilities -and how loud he talked – made him good with children.

But I noticed that he rarely listened to them. He didn’t inspire dialogue. He was proud, I guessed, of how loudly and slowly he could talk about what it’s like to be a police officer, but he didn’t connect. He was giving a presentation. And it really held very little meaning or impact for the children.

Being able to listen to a child – I think that is the skill that makes you good with kids. They can turn on the TV or go to the police station, apparently, for entertainment. What they need from me, from you, from the rest of us – is the chance to ask questions, to design ideas, to share feelings, to tell their own stories and dreams. They need to be heard, they need our undivided attention.

“Children should be seen and not heard.” What kind of idea is that? I am not at all advocating for pure child-centered or child-led child-rearing – kids need to listen, too.

But where are they going to learn how to listen?

From you – listening to them.


The Dinner Drill

July 14, 2010

I’ve never been a cook. I don’t have the gene that causes a person to derive pleasure from constructing a meal and watching people’s pleasure as they scarf it. I love to eat, and I can find ways to enjoy meal – making – but really – alien territory for me, mostly.

(Just ask the people who have had to eat my bizarre food combinations.)

Anyway, as a single working mother, I have to make dinner every single night – for two picky children, and sometimes for adults who require more sophisticated creations. Yikes.

One of my favorite ways to deal with this daily challenge is as pictured – my fresh fruit and veggies with hummus and cheese plate, easily turned into a ridiculous happy face, easily put together, and easily ramped up into something more spectacular. (I would assume.)

Make Me Dinner!
I will never forget the radio story I heard on NPR about the place in Spain where mamas whose children have left the nest but who want to cook big, traditional meals have formed an online service where young professionals who don’t have time to cook can order this home-cooked food – even form a steady relationship with a local mother.

Collective Solution
Wouldn’t that be fantastic? I would like to see more collective-type enterprises like this start up in Cville. I’m thrilled with the new local Retail Relay service – that’s the right idea – a grocery delivery service that shops at a variety of local stores and CSAs.  Sure, Cville has a bunch of stay-at-home moms and those who can afford help, but there’s a lot of working parents, too.

Toy shares, toy exchanges, CSAs… all heading in the right direction. I don’t think the barter thing took off… but I like the idea…

The only problem: I don’t know that I have either time or money to put in the pot. Unless you can somehow quantify my children – certainly their health and wellbeing is worth something to the larger society?

Thoughts, ideas?

Fast Food, Slow Food

April 29, 2010

It’s like the title to a Dr. Seuss book:

Fast food, slow food

Green food, white food

Food in the car

Food with a star

Some food comes in packaging

Some food comes from gardening!

Food in the morning and food at night

Food in your tummy and –

Okay, I need to stop. This is getting out of hand.

The other day I ended up getting friended or fanned on Facebook to someone who wrote a book on “slow food.”

Sure, I’m a fan of slow food…

…just like I’m a fan of margaritas on a veranda overlooking the azure Mediteranean waters that lick the heels of my personally owned island…

…just like I’m a fan of sleeping through the night without getting woken by a kid… just like I’m a fan of not wiping other people’s bottoms… just like I’m a fan of getting a massage from my own personal trainer who visits my house on a daily basis…

That is, I’m a “fan” of a lot of things that just aren’t part of my reality right now. It’s something I find happens to me a lot, as a person of limited means: I can be a fan of expressionist paintings or of Spanish tiled roofs, or of really nice clothes, but I can’t afford them, so no one viewing my life externally would know these things about me – so:

  • Iis being a fan of something you can’t have just fantasy?
  • Is it something you can realistically claim if it’s only an idea, not an action?
  • Can you love something (or somebody) in thought only?
  • Isn’t true love – or fandom – the physical expression, the bodily commitment, the concrete evidence, that you show?
  • Am I starting to sound like the beginning of an episode of “Sex and the City” – sans the sex, sans the city, sans the shoes?

[In the background, we hear the rising volume of Eliza Doolittle singing, “Words Words Words, I’m so sick of words… Don’t talk of stars twinkling above, if you’re in love – Show me!”]

I definitely answer “yes,” to all of these, though on Facebook, I can see my “friends” seeing I’m a fan of “slow food” and thinking that this means I eat it.

I do not. Not really.

I mean, I believe in a world where all the food is organic and local and fresh and humane to both animals and workers – I believe that would be best. But putting my money where my mouth is – and my time – and my energy – is still a vague happy bubble of an idea.

I’m mostly okay with this. I have to be. I’m a “single, working mother”- I have two kids and sometimes, we run out of milk for cereal or syrup for frozen waffles – very fast food – so then we go to even faster food, the donut shop around the corner.

But – you are what you eat. So: Do I get to believe it, even, if I don’t actually do it?

We’re just talking about food here, but what about other things? Certainly no one is forgiving high-falutin slave owners for believing that all people should be free and equal, but not actually letting any of their own slaves go…

And even cycling back to food and the planet: It’s pretty hip to be “green” and eco-friendly right now – but wearing the badge without doing the action is basically a lack of integrity – it’s making your values as superficial as a fashion statement.

The thing is, it’s easy to wag our fingers at dead slaveowners 200 years later, and it’s easy to shake our heads at people who don’t recycle – it’s easy to question the gap between thought and action in other people – not so much oneself.

Let’s face it: For most of us, when it comes to living with integrity, we’re pretty forgiving of ourselves. We give ourselves an A for Effort and stay “realistic” about the rest of it. I mean, that’s what I tell myself: “Let’s be realistic; I’m a single working mother on limited income – I have to be realistic – I can’t afford everything organic; I don’t have time to cook slow meals; yadda yadda.”

I’m sure owning slaves seemed pretty “realistic” back in the day.

“Realistic” is a euphemism, I think, for “convenient.”

The real question I have to ask myself is, Do I really, truly believe in slow food?

Because if I’m not willing to give up making my eating decisions based on convenience, then maybe I don’t really think it’s the great idea I’m saying I do.

Maybe I’m just saying “it sounds good” – but I’m not really touting it as a core belief.

One thing I do know that I believe at the core is that, if you truly love something, are passionate about something, believe in something, there’s a way to do it/find it/ express it/ whatever – you will find a way. You can find a way.

For example, if I really believed in very nice clothes, I would probably save my money for spare, but planned purchases of said nice clothes and then spend more effort taking care of them. I may not have a whole wardrobe at my fingertips, but I could have a few items.

I obviously really don’t believe in nice clothes. And this is true: I’m not a person who pays attention to fabrics, materials, labels, and yes, sometimes even the size. I like to dress up but I’m not at all a clothes person. I don’t really care.

And the food thing? Maybe I don’t really care.

On the slow food website, they say they exist to:

counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.

Oh dear. I think this might be describing me.

What I do value? Getting time with my kids. I noticed this when last week we prepared an intensive soup that required over an hour to prepare and hectic shifts of grating and chopping and slicing, and while the result was awesome, it was not something I care to do every night. I hate to do it, but I’m one of those people whose interest in food is dwindling.

I think what I CAN safely say about slow food: I am a huge fan of other people cooking and preparing it for me; I am a huge fan of other people doing it; and I definitely believe it’s the way for people to go.

But maybe not me, not now.

Accepting this to be true may not be pretty, but it’s better than the pretense of pretty, which is ugly.

This is clearly a useful exercise in self-knowledge, for helping  one discern what is truly a core belief and what’s just a faddish notion or idea – take a minute and go through it yourself. What do you believe in – in idea only? And is that because you’re lacking integrity – or because you don’t really value what you thought you did?

Toxic Crying it Out

April 26, 2010

Interesting news: Crying it out may hurt baby’s brains

Dr Penelope Leach says recent scientific tests show high levels of the stress hormone cortisol develop in babies when no one answers their cries.

If this happens over long periods and repeatedly, it can be “toxic” to their brains…

Apparently there’s research on both sides – this is not big news. But I have to say, any report that backs up my instinctual inability to let my baby scream himself to sleep makes me feel better… I’ve always felt like I was a failure at being tough…