Friday, March 30, 2012

Purgatory in the Land of Motherhood

I don’t fit in anywhere…

It’s reminding me of middle school during lunch…

In the past few months, I have found myself is some strange type of motherhood purgatory. I am currently stuck in the ‘in between’ world of stay at home moms and working mothers…and I don’t seem to belong to either.

Ever since quitting my job to pursue my ‘real passion’, I feel a lot of gratitude and happiness. But in between those moments, there are some days when I feel a bit lost. Here is what I am struggling with…

A mom from my son’s class recently asked me if I wanted to help her wash lettuce from the school Garden for a couple of hours. I just stared at her like she was crazy. Why are we washing the lettuce? Shouldn’t that be something the kids learn to do? If we are teaching them to be farmers in a 4x4 clearly non-organic garden, don’t they need to know how to harvest and clean their own crops? I knew at that moment I would never fit in with the overzealous, always smiling but a little stressed out, stay at home moms. Earlier last month, I had showed up at the end of my daughter’s preschool Valentine’s Day party and one of the mothers said, “Oh, I can’t believe you didn’t help with the party. I thought since you were staying home you would be getting more involved?” Nope, no Valentines day party set up and no cleaning the semi-organic lettuce.

When I see the stay at home moms in the carpool lane, dressed in Lulu lemon sweats driving Honda Odysseys or Toyota Sienna’s (I have the Sienna but my work out clothes are from Old Navy), they look so serious. Each time I ask them how they are doing, they always say, in a very peppy, yet exhausted voice, “A bit crazy…as usual! But aren’t we all!” No, I’m not…should I be? Would it be wrong to tell them while they were hanging up red Valentine’s Day hearts and passing out tootsie rolls, I was at home reading my Kindle and taking a nap?

Don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful for the parents that are always helping out…our kids and teachers need all the support they can get. Honestly, they are better people than me. But I have now realized that in one seemingly innocent agreement to help chaperone a trip to the museum, you can quickly be convinced/pressured to be present and involved in all room parties, fundraisers and fall festivals. I have a great fear of being swallowed up by my son’s elementary school, so for now, I am going to take it easy.

After my brief time as a stay at home, I am convinced that we have a nationwide problem of women who are overcommitted. Didn’t most of us choose to stay home because we wanted more time and freedom to do what we wanted? I know myself well, and because the fact that being responsible for bringing snacks to my son’s little league team after their game makes me nervous, I am very clear that I must choose my involvement carefully.

Unfortunately, I have nothing in common with the working mom’s anymore either. When I see my old working mom friends, they always seemed to be stressed out, walking while on conference calls, or typing away on their computers at Starbucks. When I ask them if they can do something, the answer is always no. “I would love to but my boss has me working on this project and I will probably KILL him before it is over.” I remember those days well. They tend to be well dressed, smelling good, and overall put together. Yet beneath their ironed shirts and stiletto heels, it looks like their heads might explode. They come running in late or sneaking out early to school presentations and I feel their pain. When you are working full time and have small kids, a lot of days you feel like you are barely hanging on. Personally, I still have PTSD from my last three months at my job…every time I hear a blackberry ring, my stomach tightens up and I think I might get sick. When these moms see me, they always ask me how my new life is going. I tell them, “So far so good” and they look amused. They smile and say things like, “Really? That’s great! It is so good that you get to be with them. I love my kids but I could NEVER stay home! They would drive me crazy!” I tell them they do drive me crazy but because I am with them so much, I no longer have the need to constantly talk or engage with them. It’s wonderful…as a matter of fact I have gone days without saying much to my two little ones…you won’t believe the things they have painted and built while I left them alone.

Right now, I don’t work outside the home and I haven’t gotten into volunteering yet. (I am VERY clear it is a great privelage to even have this choice and MOST women in this world do not have this luxury.) But where does that leave me as a mom? Does that mean I am super lazy or super smart? The truth is after I drop my kids off at school (my daughter only goes three days for three hours so don’t get too jealous), I really don’t know what to do next. Yes, there is all the typical stuff that I can always do. The laundry, the cable people, the cell phone bill, the drain won’t drain, the Internet search for a new career, Facebook research, mopping the floor, and of course the groceries. But for some reason, it seems to be that the exact moment I come home is the same time that the morning sun shines into my house in a special way. At that moment, two things are very obvious. First, every dirty window, nasty floor and piled up dust ball is immediately glistening in the morning light. Second, as I pass a mirror, that same sunlight also magically highlights every dark, stray hair on my face. Therefore, whatever plans I originally had are now immediately replaced with a tweezing and cleaning marathon. I have tweezers in one hand and a swifter in the other and the rest is history. Before you know it, my free time is up and it is time to go get the animals from school.

I didn’t think it was going to be like this. In my mind, I was to spend my time home writing great articles, insightful blogs, and possibly award winning screenplays. In terms of my kids, they were going to grow and improve in every area. I had great plans to enroll them in educational summer camps, piano lessons, and Japanese immersion classes. We were going to laugh together, tell stories about our days, and become the happiest family on earth. When I wasn’t writing, I was going to research the best place to buy kids shoes that support their arches, go on nature hikes around our 6x12 backyard, and make homemade everything. I had so much to do in so little time and I needed to get moving.

But then I just got tired.

I have found myself taking naps and reading a lot. My kids are wearing the same Target shoes from before and I am sure they don’t support their arches. When I sit down to write, nothing comes in my head except the word “relax.” As I read mom blogs with titles like “People I Want to Punch in the Throat” and “Mommy Needs a Drink”, I realize I am not the only one that needs to chill out. What has happened to all of us? Why are we are flying around our lives in a state of low-grade hysteria? How did we get here and how the hell do we make it stop? I know that for the first time in history, many women (not all, most don’t have a choice) have the opportunity to work, stay home, do both or do neither, and yet we are more stressed out, depressed and unfulfilled than ever before? What if we all took a collective breathe and realized we don’t have to do it like this anymore?

There is a scene in the movie American Beauty where the husband and wife (who currently hate each other yet have a rare moment of attraction to one another…sound familiar?) started to make out. Right as they begin kissing, she suddenly stops him because she doesn’t want to mess up the pillows on her Italian couch. My husband always tells me that I was that woman the last couple of years...not exactly the type of fun, warm person you dream of growing old with.

So, I have come up with a new plan. I am going to stay in purgatory for a while and just chill out. I am not going to do much of anything…not much volunteering, not much worrying, and not much working. For the first time in my life, I am going to try to enjoy the moment and get a grip on my anxiety, stress, and need to achieve. My kids are going to be under-scheduled and I am going to shower more. I am going to be more joyful and less judgmental. I am going to be aware of my addiction to Facebook, cheese, and white processed bread. I am going to try to have sex with my husband without rolling my eyes or saying things like “Now? Are you crazy?” I am going to yell at my kid less and put us all in time out more. I am going to go to church, go on walks, and pray everyday. This is going to be my non-traveling, suburban version of Eat, Pray, Love…

And if none of that works, I am going to become an expert on Groupon. Either way, it is going to be great…

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Parent/Teacher Conference...Gone bad

Is it really necessary to take an entire week off of school in order to share with parents whether or not their child has mastered finger painting? I have nothing against parent/teacher conferences, obviously they are an important part of the educational process. But when we are talking about kids who have only been out of diapers for a year, it might be a bit much.

Last week, I met with my daughter's preschool teacher to go over her development. It did not go exactly as I had planned.

Socially, I thought they would tell me that my daughter is a happy, outgoing child that is normally a pleasure to be around. Academically, I thought they would tell me she had some work to do...and this I took full responsibility for. Let me explain...

When my son was little, I would spend hours with him in the bath going over letters, making all the sounds, and teaching him to spell. We would do flashcards, listen to kid’s songs, and read a hundred books a day. My son started each day out with Sesame Street and ended each day by reviewing the countries on the life size World Map we had tacked to his wall.

By the time my daughter came along, I had lost my steam. During bath time, instead of reviewing the alphabet, my main objective was to keep my two kids from drowning one another. My second goal was to keep them from splashing water outside the tub and causing the already moldy grout to get even more black and disgusting. Instead of reviewing flashcards, I somehow found myself spending the afternoons with her shopping or going through my closet. As I pulled out clothes, she would tell me if she thought I should keep, donate, or throw each item away. Based on the fact that my ‘throw’ pile was always the biggest, I knew that although she didn’t know her shapes, she had the fashion sense I had always desired.

Instead of listening to kids music like “Wheels on the Bus”, she and I spent most our time perfecting dance moves to songs like “Get on the Floor” by JLO and Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind”. I have always thought that knowing how to break it down in the dance circle at your first middle school dance was way more important than math or reading, and because of this, I was prepared for the fact that academically we probably had some work to do.

So you can imagine my surprise when the teacher told me that in terms of academic progress, she was doing very well.

Me: “How can you tell?”

Teacher: “Well, she knows her letters and was able to identify the color grey.”

Me: “Knowing the color grey makes her smart?”

Teacher: “Yes, at this early stage in development, most kids can’t identify the color grey.”

If only I had known it could be that simple! In one quick color recognition exercise, she went from community college attendee to Ivy League hopeful. Things were looking up. Next, the teacher pulled out two pieces of paper from a folder and placed them next to one another on the table.

Teacher: “The drawing on the right is from September. The drawing on the left is from January. As you can see, she has shown a lot of improvement over the past 5 months.”

Me: “Really? They both look like scribble to me.”

Teacher: “Yes, but see how much better her scribble is in January?”

Okay, I didn't see it but I was still proud. She was a good scribbler, she knew the color grey, and she hadn’t had to use her extra pair of underwear. Maybe these conferences were great. For a quick moment I thought maybe I should write a parenting book and share my child rearing secrets with others.

But then, everything changed.

All of a sudden, the mood at the little table with the little chairs changed. The teacher and the two aides looked at each other and nodded. They closed her glitter and glue folder and looked at me with concern in their eyes.

Teacher: “Although academically she is doing well, we do have some concerns.”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Teacher: “It seems as if she has fallen into the ‘wrong crowd’.

Me: (visibly confused) “She’s three. What do you mean ‘wrong crowd’?”

Teacher: “Your daughter used to be a very sweet girl. Not anymore. Unfortunately, her behavior has gotten worse and she is hanging out with a group of kids that are getting in a lot of trouble. They are pretty exclusive and don’t really include anyone else in their group.”

Me: “Wow, that doesn’t sound good.”

Teacher: “And another concern is that she spends almost all of her free time playing “husband and wife” with one of the boys in class. We feel it is not age appropriate”

Me: “What in the world could possibly be fun about playing Husband and Wife?”

The teacher nodded and agreed with me…she had been married for twenty-five years.

Teacher: “We suggest you help her change her social life and encourage her to make some new friends. Here is a list of nice girls and their mothers that you may want to start scheduling play dates with.”

I didn’t like what I was hearing and I didn’t like that they were telling me this while I was sitting in a small chair at a tiny round table that smelled like a mixture of glue sticks and rotten milk. I wanted to understand…Was she in a preschool gang? Did they find her sniffing finger paints in the bathroom? When they played 'husband and wife' did that mean they ignored each other the entire time or that they glared at each other while arguing about money problems and household chores?

I understood this was their job, but I feared we were getting ahead of ourselves. Of course I didn’t want my three-year old to be mean or hanging out with the wrong crowd. And I certainly didn’t want her playing husband/wife all day. But ‘falling into the wrong crowd’ was a bit premature. Her friends at school were the first friends she had ever made, how could she have picked so wrong, so soon?

I wanted to take all of this seriously, but I was struggling with what this information meant. Maybe she was just a kid that liked to do her own thing or possibly the 'nice' girls bored her to tears. All I knew is that it was a little early for us to be making a reservation at a Christian boarding school or grounding her for the weekend. I felt like we were doing okay. But my husband on the otherhand took it a little bit harder.

When he heard the news about her choice in friends, he was very upset. He immediately thought his dream of having the perfect daughter was shattered. He kept saying, "I always hated the girls that were in the "bad' crowd...what a waste!" I gently reminded him that all they were doing was coloring together and sometimes sharing paint, but still he wasn't happy. His idea that his daughter would be the classy girl who follows the rules, plays a division I sport in college and marries a nice guy was replaced with visions of motorcycle riding and marijuana problems.

As we discussed the situation over wine that night, we decided that for now we aren't going to be too worried. But we did go ahead and schedule some play dates with few ‘nice’ girls in her class. We had one little girl over earlier this week. They dressed up like princesses, had a snack, and then ignored each other the rest of the time. It wasn't perfect, but at least it was a start.

In the end, I still think conferences at this age are a bit much. Instead of taking the week off from school, I would rather have the teacher just drop a note in my kid's lunchbox that says something like, “good news is her colors and numbers are great, bad news is she thinks it is fun to play ‘husband and wife’ with a trouble maker, may want to get on that asap!”

But who knows, maybe they are important. Next year at her four-year old conference, they might tell me she knows the color Fuchsia. Can you say “genius”?