Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Emergency of Parenthood

A renowned psychologist once identified the baby/toddler years as the “Emergency of Parenthood.” I first heard that statement when I was in the thick of it with an 8, 6, 4 and newborn and it resonated. The sleepless nights coping with  a baby, the constant supervision of a reckless toddler, compounded with the pure mindlessness of being a stay-at-home mom, completely isolated from the buzzing world around me, left one to conclude that my life was a fire drill.

I was in Trader Joes, hauling all four kids through the aisles, desperately trying to get some milk and eggs;  suddenly the straw broke the camels back. “You have your hands full,” some unwitting person smiled at me.

“No f-ing sh-t,” I replied only to be met with her shocked expression that I was swearing in front of these innocent youngsters.

You see, that was what I heard every time I stepped out my front door -- five or six times a day. This particular day, Charlie was sick and had thrown up on me. The aroma of his barf still rising from my hair while Teddy pulled on my pants trying to get my attention trying to  tell me he was not feeling so hot. If I had bothered to listen (instead of cussing out the shopper) he probably would have made it to the bathroom instead of projectile vomiting on the aisle floor. I can still hear the loudspeaker ("Clean up on aisle 4.") and picture the poor woman racing away from the disaster scene.

Emergency indeed. That night I went home and started my blog, You Have Your Hands Full, handsfullsb.com. It just felt better to write it out instead of assaulting some innocent bystander at the grocery store. And write I did, for the last five years. Sometimes I was desperate and needed an outlet, other times I just wanted to chronicle something that happened that was funny. (So when the desperation inevitably hit  again I could go back and laugh.)

My blog turned into the Sentinel column a couple years back. After a long hiatus brought on by becoming a parent, my name was in newsprint again writing about, what else? Parenting.

My emergency stage is now past. I can sit at a cocktail party as my pack runs about, or read poolside with out worrying  about  a drowning. We are stable (more or less).. I tend to shop at Trader Joes when they are in school (sorry folks, no longer am I the freakshow with four kids).

To Jacksons relief, I will not write about the ups and downs of his growing up as a teenager in the local paper anymore. The life and trials of the Petersfamily is coming to an end. We just moved to Connecticut when school got out. A new chapter for Alpha, which means a new chapter for his 1950s wife.

For all of those who reached out to me, at the gym, on State Street, even in the grocery store, THANK YOU enormously. As I wrote my column, I sat in my chaotic house, with dinner cooking and kids screaming, unaware that my own thoughts and feelings as a harried parent were shared. In the moment, I was isolated and cut off. Often times, it is a lonely choice to stay at home. So every time I got a hug or heard “I read your column” from someone, it made me realize that I am not alone. There is an amazing community out there that has laughed and cried with me.

It has been a blast to write my inner most feelings. Thanks to The Sentinel for reminding me that before I was a 1950s housewife, I was a writer. And thank you Santa Barbara for reading me.

Surviving a Train Wreck

“You've got to stop talking about news with the kids,” Alpha told me the other day. All I could do was stare back in complete disbelief.

I know his comment won't seem shocking to most. But I am a tabloid news journalist by trade, a news junkie. I love to read train wreck stories -- let them clutter my mind, feel the horror of it all. Always have. Always will.

I have talked to my kids about everything under the sun from Bosnia to Ebola. Nazi Germany to the shooter at UCSB. The artist Banksy to Michael Brown. Santa Barbara is a bubble and they should (and need) to know about the larger world.

 But it was the depressed German pilot that crashed the plane into the Alps that put Alpha over the edge. “You are talking to them about a complete freak of an incident by a very sick person,” he scolded me. In my view, I was just doing what came naturally, relaying the latest tabloid news. And I was definitely guilty as charged.

“There is so much news out there that is innovative, exciting and inspiring,” he said after the kids were in bed. “We need to elevate the conversations in our house.”  My response (he'd thrown me off my game) was lame, "There is a reason why tech and astronomy don’t sell papers.”

 I am the first to say, I dont take criticism very well. I felt personally attacked. After all, he decided to marry me when Id come home from work describing the difficult decision we had to make for the day's front page --- “Bouncing Baby Survives 25 Flight Fall” or “Jilted Bride at the Plaza.” After 15 years of marriage maybe he was falling out of love with that person? Doesnt he see I want to have conversations that are interesting to me and not just discuss four square on the playground?

I tossed and turned all night. Deep down, I knew there was some truth to his comments. I have been home with these kids for 13 years now and my filter for the outside world has narrowed. I have less time to sift and have passively let the news headlines grab my attention. I was “twitterizing” the news. While I thought I was educating, I was painting a dark, dim and depressing world to our kids.

“Your right,” I said to him a few days later.  It was hard for me to say that -- I was acknowledging that my own view of the world had not become an altogether good one. “I will make some changes.”

Over the last couple of months I have tried to switch it up. News is important. Essential, actually. And I still want to be able to discuss important things with the kids. I just need to be more proactive about what we discuss.  My role is more editor and less broadcaster of all that is wrong with the world.

Ive taken the time to become a discriminating reader, pouring over the events that captivate my attention like the conflict in the Middle East, racial profiling, and changes in monetary policies. Steering clear of the screaming headlines and pictures, Ive pushed myself to buy the papers and the magazines that had longer more thoughtful pieces. I have stopped reading news online (well almost).

Just this past Thursday, my 7th grader asked me about ISIS and the way they are torturing people. I redirected the conversation to what is happening in Iraq between the Shites and the Sunnis and why regions are vulnerable to groups like ISIS. He was all ears; sponging up the information. Thanks to my new policy he left to middle school sans beheading images in his mind.

Trust me. Im not having an identity crisis. I have no plans to graduate to the New Yorker just yet. Ill admit that when I stand in line at Gelsons, Bruce Jenners transition catches my eye. But that’s all it is. A train wreck. I can rubberneck for a few minutes and then just get on with my life. I'm a recovering news junkie. Just one day, one story at a time. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Challenges of Yes

Can I open an Instagram account?
Can I hang out with friends on State Street?
A bunch of kids are going to the beach, can I go?
Will there be girls?

And so goes middle school. Every day, he asks questions, seeks permission, pushes me to let him do things. Every day, I push back. Everything out of my mouth is no. Im constantly in the defensive position and it wears thin, on all of us.

"Mom, why won't you let me do anything? Why do you say no all the time?" My seventh grader challenged me a couple months back. And that was when it hit me: Im uncomfortable with everything that is happening when it comes to him.

"Jeez Mom, I am not a bad kid. I never get in trouble," he told me.

“This is not about you, this is about me,” I explained to him one night. It was an epiphany. “It is really hard for me to let you grow up.”

Ive thought back a lot on those conversations. You see, I finally said yes. Jackson left for Cambodia with his grandmother to do Operation Smile (a non-profit that funds doctors to fix cleft palettes).  That was two weeks ago and, as I write this, he is due to walk through the front door in a couple of hours. This kind of experience was something my mom has always wanted to do with her grandchildren. And when she brought it up to me, I immediately jumped on it.  A loud YES.

But the day they left, I sat on his perfectly made bed and cried.

Yes is not an easy word.

From the moment he left, I wondered and worried about him. Was it too soon for such a big trip? Would he be able to handle such an emotional experience? Was he too young, too immature? That was when I started to get the emails. The first from my mom:

To see these babies come in with holes for their entire mouth and see the surgeon start to go to work and work and work sometimes for several hours and suddenly there would be a stitch and then a mouth!! Nose!! A normal face begins to emerge —it was like magic and every time standing on my feet for several hours that stitch would fall into place and I would cry. The first surgery for Jackson was a shock in that he had to stand very still— it is very emotional to see these grossly deformed babies. He got calmer and one surgery that he was able to watch longer was a man under a local who had a fatty tumor in his back---was fascinating to watch.”

It was fascinating to read. I was starting to see my own child in a new light. Did I ever think he could stand on his feet for hours, no fidgeting, watching a surgery? Or the other experiences like touring S-21 Tuoi Sleng Prison where the Khmer Rouge imprisoned and tortured hundreds of thousands of Cambodians? My mom was seeing (and treating) him as a young man; something that I have fought ever since he entered middle school.

That was when I got his email.

“Hey mom it's me, Cambodia has been a blast, I'm having so much fun. I miss you guys so much and I'm really excited to show you pictures and tell you about all the amazing things we have done.”

He sounded so good. So grown up. And then, another update: They took a boat ride from Phnom Penh up the river to Siem Reap. It was supposed to take six hours and it took ten. In stifling heat. With one dim sum to savor. Such is travel. Unpredictable. Hard.

To counter the experience, my mom wrote, Jackson had left for the day on a dirt bike expedition with a guide. Alone. For a moment, my mind screamed no. My god, at 13, hes in Cambodia all by himself for the day?  Then there the irony of the whole thing crashed on me. I dont even let him hang out at Paseo Nuevo.

Waiting for him to come bursting through the door, I know something may need to give.

My son, whether I let him or not, is growing up. And it is going to be okay. It is time to say yes. And watch him embrace adventure, learn the merits of patience and flexibility, and experience his life with out me.

And such is the bittersweet life of a parent. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Stepping into Someone Else’s Shoes

“You matter,” I told her across the table. She locked eyes with me. Like she always had. You see, I met her in kindergarten. She grabbed my hand, her eyes searching for mine. Once she caught my gaze, I was bewitched. “I’m Ashley,” she had said to me way back then. And I loved her. Right then and there.

I have watched her grow over the last seven years from a tiny little girl to a beautiful pre-teen. Getting a view of the world through the life of a low income Latina. As my daughter Olivia started to advance in accelerated classes in third grade, Ashley, smart as a whip, was placed behind. The disadvantage of an ESL kid clearly at play. Yet, every week she navigated the bus system with her mom and brother to the Kumon center. Quietly protesting. Working.

“You are going to go to that middle school and many of the white kids are in the advanced classes and most of the Latino kids are not,” I told her. “And you know what you are going to do?”

“What?” she asked, eyes bulging.

“You are going to say, ‘Screw You.’ You are going to succeed in spite of it all,” I told her, “because you can.”

“This is so helpful Mara,” she said taking a bite of her chocolate tart. Her eyes sparkling as bright as those days in kindergarten. And there we sat, in our bubble of connection, hope.

I can’t say I would have even been aware of Ashley and what it takes to advance out of poverty if it wasn’t for my mom. For the last 25 years Linda Mornell has placed low-income high school kids all over the country in summer programs. Interrupting negative patterns, instilling confidence, and ultimately teaching them to reach their potential.

Her new book about her experience with adolescents and building Summer Search, Forever Changed, is full of stories of kids like Ashley. Each one, prevailing in their own way, pulling themselves out of the deep hole that they were born into with the help of mentorship, serious introspection and a lot of character altering life experiences.

Changing their course ultimately changed my mom’s as well.  And mine to a much smaller degree. I saw Ashley. That is the bonus. Of looking outside your own world and seeing anothers. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

With confidence, I explained to Ashley, the circumstances would flip if she can manage to stay above water. Ignore the forces against her, work hard and embrace the possibility. All those coveting spots in college will be looking for her, not Olivia. Finally, a first generation Latina whose mom cleans houses and whose dad works in landscaping has the advantage.

And over dessert we plotted. In six more years her time will come.

Friday, February 6, 2015

I Swear We Are Normal

“So there he was dropping the F bomb at a party,” my friend was telling me, over a cup of coffee, about her son, my sons best friend. “We gave him a choice:  Tabasco or soap. He chose Tabasco.”

I looked at her and nodded in approval. I was the supportive parent/friend as she was putting it out there. Clearly she had reached her limit, and it was time to lay down the law. Music to my ears, of course. Im all for extreme punishment. Alpha and I are old school: we spank our kids when the circumstances warrant it.  It's always a challenge matching the punishment to the crime and I'm certain the kids would argue we've erred on the side of being too severe.

But there is a particular rub with the whole swearing thing. “I thought it was something you would do,” she smiled at me, “You inspire me Mara, really.”

That is when my eyes started to shift. It was hard to look  her in the eyes. I took a gulp of my coffee hoping that the conversation would change. Because the swearing in my house has hit all-time highs. And whats even worse? Its with my full support; in fact, I'm the ring leader.

It all started in Schatzle class. We had killed ourselves, burned our buns, sprinted around the block, done an insane number of sit-ups and lunged until there was no way to lunge another lunge. Beet red in the face and tired as hell Jenny put that microphone on and started to lecture us about positivity.

Wake up in the morning, she advised us, jump out of bed and start your day right. So as we closed class we did a few inhales and exhales and I thought we were bringing it into prayer position for a Namaste when she shouted out, “FUCK IT ALL, I AM GOING TO HAVE A GREAT DAY.

That night, over dinner, it came up. Schatzle, positivity and well, FUCK IT ALL I AM GOING TO HAVE A GREAT DAY.  The kids jaws dropped to the floor as they listened to the story. Laughter ensued and all of us jumped from the table a little lighter.

“Guys, I have an idea…”I started in at clean up. “Why dont we try that every morning and see if it works?”

“You mean using that word?” my kindergartener asked me. “The one that we are not supposed to use?”

“Yes, the F word. Use it every morning when you jump out of bed and tell me if it makes you feel better,” I said, throwing all caution to the wind.

The next morning, Alpha and I were fast asleep when we heard the rallying cry ring across the house. “FUCK IT ALL I AM GOING TO HAVE A GREAT DAY!!!” Alpha, who had missed the dinner session sat bolt upright in bed. “Did you hear that?” he asked me.

I started to giggle as we heard it repeated from each child. And then the laughter. That was last week. Now it has become the new morning ritual at the Peters house.

Over pancakes just this morning, a tired Olivia walked into the kitchen and quietly sat down at the table. “fuckitallIamgoingtohaveagreatday,” she mumbled in an unenergetic whisper.

“Where is the Tabasco sauce?” I asked Alpha. “Someone just used the F word in this house.” She quickly snapped her head up from her plate, shocked. She looked at my insistent face, and it registered quickly. Shouting at the top of her lungs, “FUCKITALLIAMGOINGTOHAVEAGREATDAY!” she burst into a huge smile.

“Thats better Liv,” I told her. “Dont get me wrong here, you are lucky and privileged to be able to use the F word every morning. Treat it with respect.”

I couldnt help but catch Alphas eye. The eyebrows were raised. Indeed, we are in unchartered waters. But one thing I know for sure. If we are going to do something, we do it well.

“We have to set some standards in the house,” I simply stated, flipping the pancakes.