Eyes Open

There are life's small concerns, that endless string of details that keeps a low hum in the background of our minds at all times, eventually taking on the same familiarity as a kitchen appliance; harmless little things like permission slips, emails awaiting reply, overdue library books. The decibels ramp up steadily as the worries grow into larger subjects like an unexpected home repair, a child who is heartbroken over an argument with a friend, the existential crisis that seems to plague us all at some point in our adulthood...divorce...a health scare.

I foolishly assumed, for some time, that this was the loudest the noise would get, that the things listed above were the likely culprits to look out for. And while the world did not suddenly change, the landscape shifted. I thought we were doing our part to speak openly and frequently with our white, middle class, suburban sons about the issues of race that had plagued our country in a historical sense and what the future might look like for them as they grow older. I still remember the conversation we had with our son, then ten, about white privilege - a gauzy, hard to grasp concept that life would somehow be easier for him because he happened to be born white, likely heterosexual and male. My son instantly took offense to the notion that he, someone who works hard, looks out for others and cares about humanity in general would ever expect special treatment because of these seemingly insignificant factors, over which he had absolutely no control. "No, no," we assured him, "it's not that you'll ever expect it. We know that. It's that it will happen automatically. It will be so subtle, you won't even know it's happening. You will work hard, you will try your best. There will be things that are difficult for you and you'll have to overcome those obstacles." Unfortunately, prejudice does not share the same helpful identifier as pornography. It's shadowy appearance can allow it to slip by undetected and we don't always know it when we see it. We tried to explain that the world at large will naturally bend, ever so slightly, for people like him and that he should never take that for granted, that he should always be open to the existence of this inequality and not allow it to make him bitter or angry but instead, more concerned about the difficulties of others. After this conversation I couldn't help but think of the flip side, undoubtedly happening around other kitchen tables, where children were told about the ways in which the world would not be bending ever so slightly to help them. It bolstered us to keep the talks going as our children have gotten older. We had ripped off the bandaid and now, each time the opportunity presented itself, we started to look deeper and speak more openly. 

The weight of injustice of all kinds was a hum back then but it's steadily grown to a siren over the last few years. Even as I had these "difficult" conversations with my sons about race and gender inequality I was keenly, uncomfortably aware that they were a luxury not afforded to many. I tried to temper their knowledge of racial issues, bigotry and homophobia with age appropriate stories from my own childhood, a treasure trove of cautionary tales that I found, ironically, to come in useful for such a thing. I wanted to prepare them for a reality they would someday encounter without forcing it on them. I wanted to help them transcend that sticky layer of white guilt so many of their peers would likely wade through, starting with the appropriation they would try on through their very (very) limited exposure to other cultures. I told them of my cousin, who found himself the only black person in a suburban white neighborhood with a police officer stepfather. The relief he felt when he transferred to a predominantly black high school, only to be shunned by his classmates because of his cluelessness around black culture, his light skin, his amber colored eyes. How alone and confused he must have felt. I told them about my own feelings of helplessness as I watched this unfold. That as much as I understood his pain, I knew even then that his situation held nuances I could never grasp. Relaying the story of someone close to me, it felt awkward to be speaking a story that was not, ultimately, my own to tell. I did my best to honor that experience and to acknowledge that my retelling it may skew it or inadvertently diminish it in some way.

These conversations then carried us over to puberty and as my son bemoaned his own slow train to men's shoe sizes, we talked very candidly about what it must be like to be a girl, the gender who typically "gets" to advance first. The feeling of towering over your classmates, the horror of starting your period unexpectedly halfway through the school day. The sudden addition of training bras to your daily wardrobe. Uncomfortable and awkward subjects? Yes, definitely, but we've kept on, a sense of obligation to build this compassion and empathy just as we do with multiplication facts and diagramming sentences. 

There are times that the heartache and anger I feel when I see the news feels like one that needs to be shared with my kids but I've learned that the hardest thing is to know when to temper their knowledge of things that will likely confuse and terrify them. Because of their ages, who they happen to be and where they live, they don't see or experience examples of injustice and prejudice every day, so they have no frame of reference for these larger, more egregious occurrences. Knowing that these events still deserve to be acknowledged, that the conversation must continue, we've started to frame the discussion with our kids in a way that will hopefully serve them better in the long run. We've discussed that their jobs, as children and young adults, is to pay attention to how others are treated. ALWAYS. In school and sports, with their friends and classmates. Among parents and neighbors. Animals. Nature. Pay attention to how people are treated. 

Armed with their new edict, our kids started to come back with observations and questions. They've told us of times when they felt compelled to point out the unfair treatment of someone, slights big and small that they felt deserved to be righted. We talked about their other responsibilities - the importance of being curious about other people, interested in their stories as individual humans and to not put the burden on their black friends, Hispanic friends or even girl buddies to be their own personal translators. That it's unfair to ask someone to speak on behalf of an entire people. The danger of stereotypes. The time and effort it takes to really understand someone. And, mostly, that there are so, so many times in life when they will not be the person in the room who has all the answers or the best solution to a complicated problem. There will be many times when your job is just to go into a situation being open to hearing what others have to say. Since those initial conversations I feel like this notion of paying attention to how others are treated has given me, as a parent, a bridge to connect the larger issues I am aware of to the ones my children bring home. On those nights I lie awake in bed, unable to sleep as I churn over the events taking place in the world I wonder, like all parents, what more I can do to heal, to help, to take action. We choose our path as adults in the bigger work we take on with our activism but I take comfort, too, in knowing that as my children grow, so will their awareness and their understanding, and that they will not have the feelings of crippling naiveté many of us have felt as adults, that their generation is already well-versed in the realities they will face. I take comfort in the fact that by the time they can vote, hold jobs, run for office or start families of their own they will already have the power of knowing how others are treated. 

 

A Feather in All of Our Caps

I'm not ashamed to admit that when it comes to parenting advice, I'll take inspiration wherever I can get it. And while it's safe to say that my frequent viewing of The Real Housewives franchise is not the thing I'm most proud of, I also don't hide it. What can I say? It makes me happy. If I'm having a bad day I'll often let myself watch Luann fall into the bushes a few times...or the infamous prosthetic leg throw...or really any of Phaedra's one-liners but I digress. On an episode of last season's Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Kyle Richards was talking to a friend about her ongoing issues with her sisters, Kathy Hilton and Kim Richards. She got emotional speaking about her mother, "Big Kathy," was really the glue that kept them together when she was alive, that even though the girls had similar interests that often brought a competitive note into their relationship, Big Kathy worked tirelessly to make the girls see each other as a team, rather than rivals. Kyle tearfully recounted that whenever something fortunate happened to one sister, she would tell them that the person's success was a feather in all their caps. And it really stuck with me. 

I've spoken before about my sons' larger gap in ages and while you might think that would make them immune to many of the classic scenarios of sibling rivalry, it really doesn't. The problem for us is that, age difference aside, they have many of the same interests; soccer, running, drawing, school work, helpfulness. There is still quite a bit of overlap and acknowledging one person's accomplishments often feels like you're holding it up as a gold standard for the other son to use as a measure which more often than not, makes them feel that they are falling flat in comparison. And that's just not the case. 

Whatever feelings my husband may secretly have on my devotion to my list of Bravo shows, he agreed that it makes sense to highlight accomplishments in this way, a victory for one or the overcoming of an obstacle as a win for our whole family. A feather in everyone's cap. We quickly came to see that it really does work - my middle son's huge leap in math facts may have been due largely to his willingness to not give up and spend extra time practicing, but we also get to share in that as the people who quizzed him over dinner and encouraged him each step of the way. A toddler potty trained in a week? So proud of my little guy but you know that was a group effort. The list goes on, so many instances where someone is able to stand in triumph of an achievement, celebrate the moment and then acknowledge that others played a part, too. 

I encourage you to give it a try and in the meantime I'll just be over here waiting for a grateful family to thank me for the hours and hours I've sacrificed, dutifully watching Housewives installments to find such gems. 

Defining "Done"

As my kids get older and life gets busier the expectation that they will do chores and finish tasks without being double-checked has grown considerably. There are the basics that we do every school day (brush teeth, make beds, care for pets, unpack lunches, etc) and then there are other items that are needed too - vacuuming rooms on weekends, cleaning up the yard, putting away bikes and cleaning out the car after a marathon day of sports shuttling. And I can tell you that there are fewer things that make me want to fall to my knees and shout, "WHY?! WHY?!" at the skies more than what usually happens when these jobs are doled out. My kids will dutifully march off to do whatever was asked, then, after a period of time they'll call out that "______ is done. I'm gonna go play/read/whatever." And then I'll walk into their room an hour later to see that the floor is vacuumed, but the vacuum is in the middle of the room, still plugged in. Or they swept, but left the dustpan full of bits. A car that was recently cleaned out will sit in the driveway with every door open and a bag of trash in the back seat. Bikes put away? Yup! Shed closed. No. Dishwasher loaded with dishes and soap? Done. Start button pushed? Uh, probably not.

It is this vexing problem that led me to start thinking about how I, and they, define when a job is truly done. As frustrating as it is to see my kids suffer from not quite finishing a job I also realized that I am also guilty, too, and more often than I'd care to admit. The last steps are usually the most tedious and least desirable but those are often the pieces separating a job well done from something that stays on a list. I've noticed little and big things I do with varying frequency that I really struggle to finish and how much those loose ends weigh on me. Compound that with loose ends from three kids and it quickly becomes a ball of knots. 

The more I've thought about this the more clear it has made me want to be when handing out little jobs or asking favors from not just my boys but others, too. I think about what a finished job looks like to me and that becomes part of the ask - so, "Can you please vacuum your room then empty it out and put it away?" So simple but it keeps us on the same page. Generally, this expectation becomes the norm pretty quickly which is good because if done too much, it can feel like too much micro-management. In doing this, it's also made me come to the uncomfortable conclusion that my definition of done is not the one that others share and that I sometimes need to let go of that ideal. Less so with kids, more so with adults. Specifically spouses. ;) There are times when it matters and times when it doesn't. Starting to put tasks in these two columns of those that need extra instructions and those that don't frees up mental space and takes so much less time. 

As we quickly barrel towards summer and all the communication and planning those eight weeks involve, I highly recommend putting some thoughts around this as a way to preserve sanity and keep the peace. 

Midsummer

There are certain times each year that feel especially bittersweet; the day after Christmas, when a kid's birthday party has wrapped up and you survey a house strewn with used paper plates, crumpled wrapping paper and discarded toys. But no day draws conflicting emotions quite like the first day of school - I think it will forever remain King. I spend a lot of early summer trying not to think of that looming square on the calendar and in those first days of freedom it's easy to do. The summer stretches out before us full of anticipation and excitement and we sit around asking, "What should we do this summer?" then feel slightly punchy and giddy when the answer is, "We can do anything! We have the WHOLE SUMMER!"

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