May 25 2009

Other Mothers

My friend’s daughter ran into the kitchen, full of tears. A gang of girls followed with widened eyes, stepping over each other’s words, their explanations filled with proclamations insisting it wasn’t their fault that one of them had fallen from the swing. My friend kneeled before her daughter
swingsetand in the softest voice, the one reserved for addressing bumps and boo-boos, she made the appropriate inquiries and offered all the standard reassurances. I stood on the other side of the kitchen table, watching. There was nothing for me to do, no reason to interject myself into a situation fully under control.

Like a magician pulling a quarter from behind the ear of an unsuspecting spectator, my friend reached to the shelf behind her daughter and produced a roll of decorated bandages. It was Hello Kitty or some character that delights young girls. She offered one to her daughter, who really didn’t need it, but as all mothers – all parents – know: even the mildest of scratches demand TLC, and this is easily done in the form of an unnecessary band-aid. And then she offered a bandage to each of the other girls.

When I saw her do this, I said to myself, “Brilliant. Band-aids all around.” I wouldn’t have thought of that.
Later, sitting in her garden (it was a weekend get-away to the country) taking in the sun and drinking from a fresh pot of coffee, my friend admitted to me that often in situations like this little incident with her daughter, she feels at a loss, not knowing exactly what to do. I knew better than to say something stupid like, “but you did a great job.” She wasn’t asking for that. She was telling me, out loud, what I suspect every mother feels more often than we dare to admit.

When I told her how often I feel the same way, she was surprised. Like I have any confidence or expertise in mothering? “But you make it look easy,” she said. This just reminds me that I have no idea what I convey to rest of the world. Inside I feel like a loser; my history with mothering is anything but confident and easy.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you know that I am in awe of my children. But you also know that I struggle, always needing more time to myself, always feeling like I’m treading water or falling behind with my
out_the_train_windowown sanity; and I will get to it, really, after I fill out those school forms or organize the babysitting schedule for coverage while I’m on a trip or pick up that present for the neighbor’s birthday party on Wednesday. On top of that, they run to me crying and I’m supposed to know how to make it all better? But what happens when I feel like running and crying to someone to make it all better? Oh and the guilt: that there’s something wrong with me because I don’t love every moment of being a mom, or because it isn’t effortless for me?

I remember when the girls were toddlers, I endured tedious play dates, where any semblance of adult conversation was interrupted with patronizing reminders to our children to share their toys. When we did finally get to finish a sentence, it wasn’t complete: the complaints were minimized, our desperation hidden, the “unacceptable” feelings buried. We only allowed ourselves to speak of the joy of mothering. To say anything else, I suppose, would be to rock the very foundation of our society.

But I’ll just say it now: I have no clue what I’m doing and it’s no picnic. But I’ve stopped beating myself up about it. I’m so shooting in the dark, with occasional guidance from a useful book or a good friend. I’m making it up as I go along, just like all the other mothers.

May 21 2009

Not my Problem

She stands expectantly at the kitchen island. “I’m thirsty,” she says, regressing by at least three years using her baby voice. I tell Buddy-roo how I’m sorry to hear about it, cuz geez, I’ve been thirsty before and I know how uncomfortable that can be.

“But I’m really thirsty,” she says it again, adding a whine. I tell her it sounds like a serious problem she’s got on her hands.

“Yeah,” she answers, waiting for me to offer her a drink. But I don’t.

When somebody tells you their problem, it can feel like they’ve tossed a bowling ball in your lap. There’s a weight to it, an expectation that by telling you, they’ve somehow handed it off, and you’ll do some thinking on it and put things right. Some people are better than others at deflecting this. (I also know people who have radars so ill-attuned that it doesn’t even occur to them to step in and offer a solution.) Most mothers, I would argue, given our instinctive and learned propensity to be of help, may go too far in the let-me-fix-it-for-you department.

This is what I’m trying to avoid.

A problem, simply stated, is just a complaint. But if you phrase it as an open-ended question, its nature changes immediately. It becomes a quest for solutions, or request for help. I think it’s a more productive way to look at problems, and a more responsible way to invite other people to help you solve them.

Anybody who’s been in one of my workshops or meetings has heard me say this: “How might you put that in the form of a question?” Short-pants and Buddy-roo have heard it ad nauseam, too, and yet – as this thirst incident demonstrates – they still need reminders.

“What’s the question you mean to ask me?” I say to Buddy-roo. A look of recognition on her face, it all comes back to her now. “May I have some apple juice… please?” (At least she adds the magic word without being prompted.)
I’d like to take credit for this little nugget of wisdom, but I can’t. It’s something I picked up while attending CPSI, the Creative Problem Solving Institute, a conference about creativity.

Until I went to CPSI, I thought of creativity as something uncontrollable, some unbridled spark that comes or doesn’t come, related to an innate, natural talent. What I learned at CPSI is that everyone is, in some way, creative – and that we can be creative on command if necessary, by using a creative process to enhance or disrupt habitual thinking. CPSI was my introduction to deliberate creativity.

If this is all sounding a bit like an advertisement for CPSI, well, it is. Today is a CPSI blog party and I’ve joined a few colleagues to help get the word out about the conference, coming up in Boston, on June 21-24. Check out what other CPSI friends and fans are saying:

New & Improved
Gregg Fraley
Filed Under Missylaneous
The Artist Within
Pablo Muños Román

I attended my first CPSI twenty years ago – and for many years it was an event I wouldn’t think of missing. Now, with school-aged kids, it’s harder to manage the trip to the states every June. So unfortunately, I won’t be at CPSI this year. (I did get to go to CREA, a European spin-off of CPSI, in April.) But here’s a really good reason to consider signing up for CPSI in June: if you go, you’ll get to see De-facto!

I’ve learned a lot from going to CPSI, but one of the most powerful take-aways, for me, was this idea of re-phrasing problems as questions. Instead of “I’m thirsty,” it’s “how might I get a drink?” Instead of “I don’t have any work,” it becomes “how might I find new jobs?” or “how to get more work from current clients?” or “how might I enjoy the newly-found free time I have as a result of having less work?” What ends up happening is that you realize there are a number of questions embedded in any given problem, and answering one of them that you hadn’t thought about before might actually solve the damn thing.

Of all the crappy wisdom I try to shove down my daughters’ throats, I hope that this is one thing they’ll remember. Well, and then there’s always this, phrased – of course – as a question: in what ways might you be sure to wear clean underwear just in case you’re in an accident and you end up at the hospital?

May 18 2009

The Hundredth Hug

In an effort to get the homebodies outside over the weekend (they would stay inside in their pajamas, all day, if we let them) a challenge was issued: Could you get a hundred hugs?
Two years ago, De-facto filmed Short-pants and Buddy-roo at a little park around the corner and created a copy-cat version of the “Free Hugs” video that was rushing around the internet at the time. The girls still remember it; occasionally they’re inspired to scratch out calins gratuit (French for “free hugs”) on a sheet of paper and troll around the house looking for extra love. That’s why my challenge was met with enthusiasm and succeeded in propelling them outside and into the fresh air of the real world.
“Don’t be too close,” was Buddy-Roo’s command as we walked out of the building. She and her sister ran ahead, their signs held high above their heads as they solicited affection from any and all passing strangers.

I know some mothers who would frown upon this: setting two adorable little girls free in a thick crowd of tourists, Sunday shoppers and falafel-eaters (our ‘hood, being a Jewish one, is the only quartier that’s open and vibrant on a Sunday). The girls were in view, more or less, as I trailed them from a distance while they made their way through the busy streets and around the block. I admit when I was first mothering I had my worrywart moments, but I’ve grown to appreciate the benefits of a longer leash – rest for me, confidence for them – and I subscribe fully to the idea of Free Range kids.

But in truth, helicopter-moms need not worry. I couldn’t get over the number of people who actually recoiled when presented with a small smiling child holding a sign offering a free hug. They’d nervously look the other way, or move deliberately to avoid the path of my love-hungry children. Hardly an invitation for abduction, it appeared that the signs actually succeeded in keeping strangers away.
The girls were discouraged. A grenadine at my local café-bar was in order. But as soon as they’d guzzled the red elixir, they were at it again, out on the street, signs in the air, expectant smiles at work. Though Buddy-roo tired of the effort, her older sister was relentless. A comment made by a friend at the bar: “Send her to the states in 2012, she’ll get Obama re-elected.”

Persistence pays off. The hugs started to roll in. Short-pants kept careful count, assigning each hug a number and yelling it out to me (inside) every time she received an embrace. Buddy-roo traveled back and forth to the street and hugged her sister again and again, pushing the count up toward the goal. When a hundred hugs was finally achieved (half of them between sisters), I was wondering if it might trigger some kind of cosmic tipping point and suddenly everybody in the café would start hugging each other. There was, however, no visible hundredth monkey shift.

Short-pants was supremely proud of her accomplishment. Buddy-roo was thrilled, too. I was just happy for a little break at the bar.

Then it was time to go home, eat some dinner, have a bath and get back into our pajamas. Along the way, the hugs kept coming, at least another hundred – maybe more.

May 10 2009

Mother du Jour

Today, families all across the United States are celebrating Mother’s Day. However in France, where I woke up this morning, it was not officially Mother’s Day. So even though our household could be called American, there was little fanfare.

By mid-day I’d left my children behind and was on the train to London where Mother’s Day has already happened (in the UK, this event was in April). Once again, no fanfare.

A few weeks from now, it will be la Fête des Meres in France. Unfortunately, on that hallowed Sunday, I will not be in Paris to take advantage of it. I’ll be in the US (visiting my mother, in fact).

I’ve gotten it all wrong, haven’t I?

But what are the rules? Do you celebrate the Mother’s Day of your nationality? Or is it a question of the soil you’re standing on when the actual Mother’s Day comes up on the calendar? If we accept these geographical guidelines, then I’m out of luck; not even one bouquet of flowers or a clumsily served breakfast in bed.

Historically, if you forget the American Mother’s Day but you live in France, you can just say you only celebrate the French one. (That only works once, by the way.) But one could argue that if you’re American living in France, you ought to celebrate both Mother’s Days, right?
I know that Mother’s Day is a Hallmark-non-holiday, invented for commercial purposes. I try (really) not to buy in to it. But in the end, don’t we all want to be fussed over just a bit? Yes it’s silly. But I’ll take any holiday that anyone cares to remember.

The good news is I’ve not been forgotten. My darling De-facto did slip an envelope in my bag just before I left for the train station today. I caught him red handed, which foiled his intended surprise, but anyway I enjoyed some very sweet home-made cards with beautiful princess pictures (and an uncanny portrait of me) while speeding toward the Chunnel.

And the really big news: Apparently, I have been named Mother of the Year.
Who knew?

May 2 2009


I assume some responsibility for Buddy-roo‘s addiction.

When she was about 10-months old, she started spending her mornings with the television. This is because she’s always been much too early a riser. We compensated by feeding her a breast-in-bed (and later a bottle) and then removing her from the room designated for sleeping adults, and exiling her to the living room.

Far from punishment, she delighted in the placement, upright and secured in the exersaucer, smack in front of the television. First it was Baby Einstein (et al) that entertained her. I choose the word entertain carefully, as I never bought into the intelligence-enhancing promise of these DVDs and I would prefer not to be confused with that sort of obsessive mothering. Let’s call it like it is: survival parenting. Ya gotta sleep.

De-facto and I would take turns. One of us would fetch her from the crib, and then after the feeding, the other would carry her out to the living room and sleepily plant her in the large plastic circular device. Having set up the video the night before, it’d be just a matter of hitting two remote buttons and she’d be glued to the tube while we could stick to our pillows.

As Buddy-roo outgrew the marbles dropping (and other hallucinogenic images) in sync with Mozart, her morning fare evolved to longer movies, mesmerizing her for sometimes up to an hour and a half, permitting us the equal prolongation of that oh-so-needed shut-eye.

A gold-medalist, Buddy-roo broke all the exersaucer records. Not only could she sit in that thing twice as long as Short-pants ever did, she continued to use it until she was more than 3-years old. Her legs would be bent into a full squat, even with the saucer raised to its highest setting. Pulling her out required pressing my own foot on the saucer tray to hold it down and get enough purchase to wriggle her legs and feet through the holes of the cloth seat/harness. It was like pulling Winnie-the-Pooh through Rabbit’s window. (Another favorite, by the way.)
We created a habit. Like a drug, Buddy-roo consumes movies. She thinks about watching one first thing in the morning. She asks for it the moment she’s home from school. This is her most favorite pastime.

As a rule, we watch very little television in our home and we try to avoid watching it when the kids are around (our HBO box-sets come out after bedtime). The exceptions to this include only the CNBC’s Squawk Box (De-facto loves his business news fix) and Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central relay on CNN. But despite our abstinence, Ruby-doo loves the idiot-box. At least we avoid commercial TV; she’s limited to a world of DVD movies.

We have many-dozen. Half of them are Disney. I know there’s a whole storm of anti-princess sentiment. I don’t particularly love those caricature films, but Buddy-roo does. Sure, we’re promulgating a false rescue by non-existent Prince Charming, but I’ve tried to compensate by coaching the girls a bit about the gender roles depicted in these films. While watching Sleeping Beauty, I asked Short-pants and Buddy-roo, “What if the prince pricked his finger and fell into an eternal slumber? Would you fight the goblins, forge through the thorny forest and slay the dragon in order to deliver the awakening kiss? Would you do it for him?” After a moment of reflection, Short-pants responded, “If I felt like it.” Good enough.
I’ll admit that I use the electronic babysitter when I have work to do. This becomes problematic when the kids choose to watch something more educational, like Sesame Street or The Electric Company episodes. De-facto and I can’t help ourselves; we end up gravitating to the couch, too. What’s not to love about award-winning actors Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno and Bill Cosby teaching your kids how to read? I’d argue that the 1970s produced the best children’s programming on television.

Perhaps I should be ashamed or discouraged about my tube-headed daughter. But I’m not. For her, watching a movie is a physical activity. This becomes especially evident when she’s watching a musical. She’s up in front of the TV screen acting it out. She’s marching up the mountain and sitting with the Von Trapp children as they do-re-mi through their first picnic. She’s kicking up on the rooftop with all the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins. She dances every move with Miss Turnstile in On the Town. She hides behind the couch during the fight scene in West Side Story. (I know, that’s a kind of a tough movie at the end, but I figure I’m introducing her to Shakespeare.) For Ruby-doo, television is not a passive activity. It’s her greatest pleasure.

So we mete it out. A little each day. Her reward is our salvation.

The other day, while watching Mary Poppins, Buddy-roo asked, “Why do people put their money in the bank?” I gave her a simplified explanation about savings and interest and borrowing, finishing my tutorial just at the start of that scene near the end of the film where there’s a run on the bank. She watched the panic as the bank tellers slammed their window screens shut. “But why do people put their money in the bank?” she asked again.

Maybe she is ready to watch Squawk Box.