I think I must have said twice today “I’m turning into my mother.”
The first time I said it was when talking with a friend when I asked her for the names of two neighbors. I knew their children’s names, but for some reason, the mom’s names just escaped me. I felt horrible. I called my friend whose been on the block for almost 20 years for help. As I was apologizing for asking her, I said flippantly, “I must have early-onset. I’m turning into my mother.” (My mom has Alzheimer’s and fear creeps in at times I can’t recall names!)
The second time I said “I’m turning into my mother” was to myself as I tried to listen to my four-year-old talk during bath-time. I was listening to him—sort of—but my mind kept mulling over the events of the day, and how poorly I dealt with them. My little guy has been fighting yet another nasty cold and potential pink eye all weekend. We had gone to urgent care to get those pink eye drops just in case and I shouldn’t have expected that he’d be a perfectly behaved boy. But Friday night he woke up a lot and crawled into my bed coughing on my face so much I didn’t rest well with fitful dreams of catching something. I was already a bit of a zombie on Saturday, so I had no right to go to a friend’s house and to stay up late watching a movie. Boys were asleep, but I stayed up till after midnight watching a Clint Eastwood flick. (I’ve become a fan recently, go figure!) So when my youngest woke up at 6 a.m. Sunday, coughing and making a lot of noise, stomping on the stairs, jumping on me and then later fighting with his brother, I was instantly anxious and grouchy and started rounded up all items for a quick exit. I even talked to myself snappily (something about hating my life and bad decisions) as I stomped around and tried to get the boys sorted. I over-reacted and was in panic mode about kids waking up the household. But of course, I behaved badly by not staying calm and said things I didn’t mean.
It’s just silly. I mean, what was I thinking? Of course he’d get up at 6. Duh.
My day got a little nutty, which is to be expected with a sick kiddo. James had a temper tantrum in the Vet’s office where I was picking up meds for our cat. He sat on the floor between the halfway open front door, where he had jammed his rear-end, and screamed, “I’m SO tired. I just want to go back to the CAAAARRRRR!” Followed by a hick-up.
So, I picked up my 40 pounder and carried him to car, now kicking and screaming that he now doesn’t want to go to the car. You know, the typical insane rant of a tired, not-feeling-well, four-year-old. I snap him in, without a word, straighten my back and blow out air. Thank God his older brother was on a play-date. I naively thought he’d go to sleep right away.
We go on a long drive out to Palos Verdes to rise above the clouds, get a vista, and let him sleep. He screamed for 10 minutes, which felt like an eternity. I couldn’t even understand what he was saying. My heart started racing. Seriously?! This again? I begin to feel sorry for myself a bit, and handed him a sandwich. (My kid has an amazing relationship with food, so snacks are key.) A few bites and he falls asleep with the ham sandwich still in his tight, little grip. It would be comical if I didn’t have cortisol surging through my veins. With silence enveloping the car like angel’s breath, I thought: How the Hell do moms of three or four kids do this?!
As James was relaxing and chatting NONSTOP in the tub tonight (now onto the topic of just how Lion King’s dad kept talking to him since he was dead), I zoned out and thought about that moment in Palos Verdes in the car when I wondered how other moms keep their sanity. And then it hit me: I’ve turned into my mother.
My mom was such a wonderful, stressed-out, loving, mess. Seriously, she’d gasp sharply whenever the phone rang and jump with fear of an impending emergency. (She was a child-protective services social worker who gave out her home number to clients, so we often had interesting calls.) Occasionally when all four of her children were driving her crazy, she’d snap, “Someday, I’m just going to run away!”
I used to laugh then, but I now know exactly what she meant! I’m sure she was just thinking out loud, not even aware that she said it, as her heart raced madly while four kids were either yelling, hitting, punching, torturing one of our many pets, or up to some other mischief. I’m frankly amazed that she wasn’t a drinker.
Kids are tough. No wonder my brain is mush by Sunday night. It’s a wonder that I can even write this column. I apologize if it’s under par. Maybe I should just quit writing on Sunday evenings due to kiddo brain drain.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love, love, LOVE my little guys. I’m the luckiest mom on Earth to have them.
Three weeks ago my words were taken away. Since the Dec. 14th horrific shooting in Newtown, Conn., I haven’t been able to write. I haven’t written in a journal or in this blog until now. Nothing on my previous blog schedule interested me. It felt almost treacherous to write about the mundane holiday stress story, or the single parent wishlist. I couldn’t justify the importance of such trivial, albeit timely, topics. I couldn’t find the energy. On the morning that the events unfolded, I was at home with a very sick four-year-old, and as he slept, I watched the T.V. and wept. And from that moment, nothing—no topic—felt compelling. So, the article with an expert interview on keeping traditions alive post-divorce never got posted. The reviews of the best children’s books to buy this year also fell to the wayside. I just couldn’t muster up the energy to write on these topics.
How could I? There are 26 families who would barely be able to celebrate the holidays this year. Their worlds will never be the same. What about the families in Colorado who lost loved ones this summer in the movie theater mass shooting? What about the families across America who lost babies and children after they tragically found unlocked guns at home and shot themselves accidentally? How many American children have been caught in the cross fires of drive-by shootings? (I read more than 500 people were shot in Chicago this past year!)
Seriously, how many distraught, depressed and lonely people ‘celebrated’ the holidays and rang in 2013 desperately missing family members who were killed by kids wielding guns?
Right now, the media is obsessed with the Fiscal Cliff drama. But I can’t move on from the terribly important topic of keeping our kids safe and healthy. And that INCLUDES the mentally ill kids who desperately need their medications and therapies that may be too expensive or too scarce in many communities. I know I’m not the only person in America in this debate. In fact, the gun rights debate sickens me. I’m originally from the South and am ALL too familiar with the typical NRA stance.
All I know is that right now I just can’t continue to write about typical single parent topics as the ONLY issue weighing heavily on my mind is how Americans can continue to live in a country that allows easy-access to rapid-fire guns and very little access to mental health services. I just can’t muster up the typical parenting topics right now. It just feels treacherous or wrong—like the feeling one must get when watching a magnificent sunset emerge above a battle field strewn with bloody bodies. Yes, life goes on. You and I can forget about Newtown and Boulder and Columbine. But this battlefield will keep emerging. How can it not? America can’t seem to limit its gun sales—and at the same time, doesn’t offer proper and affordable resources to assist the mentally ill. Add our culture of stress and violent video game habits and we’re brewing the right cocktail for yet another mass shooting to emerge in some picturesque town near you.
I’m fairly convinced that we are, in fact, stuck as a country. It will be a long time before I feel safe, or I feel my children are safe. Whenever they travel back to the South, I’ll worry about whether friends or family members have guns in locked safes. As someone who experienced a high school shooting, I know first hand the post-traumatic stress of finding a friend shot and nearly missing your own death at the young age of 16. What that sort of experience must do to a five, six, seven or eight-year-old is unthinkable. Right now, I just don’t think it matters what side of the gun debate you are on. The conversation about whether you think our founding fathers would want everyone (including teachers) to carry guns—or whether you’re thinking about moving to Europe in order to find a safe spot away from machine gun wielders—isn’t the conversation I want to have.
I want to know why we can’t provide better assistance to the mentally ill. I want to know why we can’t keep machine guns or rapid fire assault weapons out of our country. Why are social services departments strapped? Why is it easy for the wealthy to buy prescription drugs online to numb what doesn’t really ail them—but it’s almost impossible for the lesser thans to get medications and counseling they desperately need?
In order for me to feel inspired to write about the topics of helping children of divorce feel safe and thrive—I need to feel as if they have a fighting chance of surviving elementary school, middle school and high school first. Our children’s safety is what should connect all of us—no matter what side of the gun debate or raising taxes to provide more social services argument we may fall.
In the new year, expect to find more articles that explore the stigma of mental illness; services for the mentally ill; stress-coping skills for teens and tweens and parents; post-traumatic stress from trauma (and this includes nasty divorce trauma) and kids; and combating violence at home and at school. I’ll still have posts specifically for single moms, but I just can’t ignore what’s really important. It would be like getting diagnosed with cancer and deciding to take an Asprin and wish for the best. Here’s to a safe New Year in America and a future for our children.
A year ago, just after launching this blog, I wrote the post “Adjusting My Attitude”. The title itself is misleading, but I was new to blogging and often picked titles back then that didn’t accurately convey the real subject-matter at hand. Yes, I was adjusting my attitude—but the post really outlines survival tips to help us single moms keep our sanity and our families intact. Last weekend at one of my son’s soccer games, I was reminded of how easy it is—just after a few careless remarks and questions from an insensitive mom—to sink into self-doubt or pity or fear. The mother of another child, who has known me for four years, says loudly (after watching me run after my 3-year-old and not watch my 10-year-old play): “You clearly need your husband.”
I smiled and looked at her, with my huge, wiggly three-year-old in my arms, and saw a few moms and dads of the other players whom I didn’t know well, look up at me—and I took a deep breath. Here we go again, I thought.
Talking about the divorce with strangers is never a good idea. It not only sets you up to be the subject of gossip, but it also re-hashes old issues that may really not bother you anymore—even if it bothers others. This woman did not have my best interests at heart, but I felt I had to respond when she continued with her questions by asking why he didn’t come to the games.
“He lives in London and I’m divorced,” I say to her. (I figure it’s better to say I’m divorced than I’m still separated as I’ve been separated for more than 3 years with a lengthy, drawn-out divorce process.)
She begins tisking and sighing and I literally block her out as she starts asking question after question very loudly and I can sense the other parents intently listening: “Does he see the boys?!” “How can you deal with this?” and “OMG, I’d just DIE!” I somehow pretend I see someone I know and walk back to the playground with my little guy. I swear I told this woman about the divorce 3 years ago at a playdate at her house when she inquired about my husband and where he was, etc. I think that she’s doing this on purpose—or that she’s incredibly dense—or just socially inept and insensitive in the very least—but I decide to shake it off. I don’t need a husband at the games. My boys are loved and they both know that I’d do anything for them. I’m juggling just fine and we ARE a complete family, I think as I clap loudly for my older son—whom I’m watching from a distance away from the chatty Cathy, gossipy mom.
I’ve learned a long time ago to block out the noise and the opinions of others and to focus solely on the health of my family: my boys. So with that in mind, I’ve decided to re-publish the majority of one of my first posts. It’s a great reminder to me, (and likely other single moms) as I prepare for many more soccer games with this woman and the others who may dig up the past for me with a barrage of questions and/or gossip—that I am strong. I am focussed. I am happy. Their self-projecting pity, gossip, or wonder over my situation is not my problem and I’m not obligated to talk about anything with them. Talking about the divorce doesn’t do me or my boys any good. I’m focussed on the future—and it’s already becoming a better one every day.
Single Mom Survival Tips:
1. Think of your divorce as a springboard for positive change.
Instead of thinking of myself as a victim, I have to think of myself as a champion for change. This is our opportunity to live a better life. I thank God every day that I have this chance to build a better life and a better self for my children.
2. Your family is complete if you are. Another well-meaning friend came over for dinner one night. I made a roast chicken, roasted vegetables and a salad. As we sat at the table with my two boys she seemed really sad. Later after the kiddos were asleep (which was a miracle!), she admitted to me, “I feel so sad for your boys. The family just doesn’t seem complete” (meaning without their father.) I know she meant well, but I told her that it has almost always been just me and the boys or just me and William, my oldest, as my ex hardly ever made it home before dinner time. I still think it’s important to have dinner and sit around a table and chat. She apologized profusely, but I still had her thought in my head. To clear it out, I remind myself that we are complete. I take an even more concerted effort to plan dinner. As we sit around the table and chat, giggle or make fun of the two-year-old who wears more food than he eats, I say a silent thanks for my complete family as I watch them eat healthy food. (See my Cooking section for more inspiration.)
3. Be thankful. Every night for the past 9 years I have made William, my oldest, say a list of what he is thankful for. Because he’s ten, he says the nine things he’s thankful for. Jamesy says the three that he’s “tinkful” for. It’s a great way to remind us to focus on what’s good and what’s working in our lives. Since I’m a bit in denial of my increasing age … cough … just know that I now have a long list to come up with each evening of what I’m thankful for—and what a great way to end the evening!
4. Become a planner.
I’m trying hard on this one as it’s not my strong suit. Every weekend seems to spring upon me and I end up a bit lonely as I shuffle to find things for me and the boys to do. (Most of our married friends are enjoying family time and there are few playdates to be had for my little ones on the weekend, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t stay busy!) If I don’t plan something ahead of time, I end up a bit blue with bored kids on my hands. Now, I plan day-trips and museum outings and am reaching out to other single moms who may want to get together for dinner, brunch etc, in order to stay busy and survive the weekend! (Read this post of my two-day unconventional Thanksgiving escape with the boys: “Wide Open Spaces.”)
5. Continue with or make family rituals.
Who says I have to have a husband to have family night with the kids? I love long dinners and board games. There, I said it. I am definitely not very hip. I love playing games of monopoly, charades, trivial pursuit, checkers, scrabble, etc. My oldest does too. Since I’ve been separated, I barely manage to do these things as the then baby, now three-year-old, usually grabs game pieces or makes it a bit tricky. I’ve decided to re-institute family game night slowly this time. It may be hard at first, but we’re going to try to do games the youngest can master too: big puzzles, for instance. We’ll see. It may end up as family movie night until Jamesy is at least four. But we’ll get there!
6. Stop talking about the divorce.
This is difficult, but I’ve learned the hard way over the past three years that it’s better not to talk about the impending divorce with anyone other than your therapist, trusted friend or sister who remains positive, or your support group. I find that when I do respond to well-intentioned questions from neighbors or friends, that I end up feeling badly when I might have been feeling great before I started talking with them. It’s weird isn’t it? Maybe it’s just that I start to see their pity. Or maybe they may say things like “He’s such a jerk!” or “How the Hell do you do it? If I were you I’d have slit my wrists by now. Your two-year-old is such a handful!” These are just two comments I’ve received from well-meaning friends over the past few months. Ok, they aren’t helping. So what I can do in response to a well-meaning question is just smile and say, “I’m really doing well. Do you mind if we talk about something else right now?” It’s a better way to go. It also limits your exposure to being the focus of gossip. Even on my bad days when I’m actually not doing well. Fake it till you make it, isn’t such a bad way to go sometimes!
7. Limit Drinking.
I’ve never really drank much. But I find that when I do have a glass of vino with friends on the rare occasions that I go out now, I start to feel worse, rather than better. And, I still have to get up at 6:30 a.m. every morning. Enough said.
8. Work out!
Think of this time in your life as parenting boot camp. I take out all of my frustrations with the impending divorce and parenting solo during yoga class or on a bike ride. I’m lucky enough to live near the beach, so I run, walk or bike every day during the week. It’s the best way to clear my head and get the endorphins soaring!
9. Learn to Meditate.
I’m new at this, but over the past year, meditating has helped me tremendously. Even if you can just focus on your breath for 5 minutes, do it. My good friend and wonderful therapist Lisa Nastasi, Ph.D., outlines a great mindfulness meditation technique in her guest post: “The Power of NOT Holding It All )together).”
Did any of these tips help you? What ideas do you have? Please chime in!
Few executives are as engaging or as approachable as Gina Panettieri, a 20 year veteran in publishing. I could sense her boundless energy and excitement about her job and her family during our phone conversation. Gina has built an incredible career helping other authors get published—and she did so while juggling her own writing endeavors and raising three children as a single mom. Gina worked as a freelance editor, writer, agent and now founder of Talcott Notch Literary agency, which she established in 2003.
Milford, Connecticut-based Talcott Notch, is a rapidly-growing boutique agency that seeks to represent “fresh new voices in fiction and nonfiction.” Gina’s writers have been published with small indie publishers as well as major players such as McGraw-Hill, Wiley, Berkley, HarperCollins and others. And I could tell from our conversation that Gina loves working with her writers and finding new ways to inspire them while thriving in this ever-changing publishing environment. Her ability to adapt in business seems to be rooted in the very fact that she has become an expert in change and finding new ways to succeed while juggling multiple roles—something she had to master as a single mom, and likely why she seems so mothering and supportive of her writers.
I discovered Gina via her well-written and insightful book: The Single Mother’s Guide to Raising Remarkable Boys , which she published in 2008. The book is based on her own experience—but also on research in such areas as financial and educational grants for mothers. Gina’s book helps prepare newly single moms to tackle the many varying roles required of them and to find inspiration to do so. As one can imagine, I’m thrilled to interview Gina for NV’s Single Working Mother Series!
Q: As the single mom of two young boys, I can relate to many things that you write about in your book. What especially resonated with me is the need to find good male role models and the many jobs moms juggle for their kids, including: “coach, chef, cheerleader, buddy, housekeeper, teacher, disciplinarian, and nurturer.” How did you best manage all these roles as a working single mom?
GP: I’m never going to say it’s easy, because it’s not. One thing I did very intentionally was build a career where I worked for myself and could set my own hours. Those were long hours, but they were flexible. I also made certain I was up an hour before my kids were. I needed to clear the decks, get my day’s agenda set and orient myself before anyone was up needing me. If your kids are up before you, you’re always going to be behind the eight-ball since the first thing that will hit you upon awakening is some problem, some issue. You need your own time to get your head clear.
Know your limits. Don’t beat up on yourself if something’s not perfect. Streamline housekeeping by getting rid of what you don’t need and learn the world’s not going to implode if you eat sandwiches for dinner. Set your priorities, and do it right. Time with the kids, being there with them, is the most important thing. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to something that would stretch your resources too far, or find someone reliable and trustworthy to help, whether it’s carpooling your kid to sports, or tutoring in a subject you’re not that great in (a little rusty on that Trig? Call your cousin the engineer or a neighbor). Skype is a wonderful thing.
Beyond that, in being able to act in a number of different and often conflicting roles with the kids, I found it important to speak very directly and openly with them. Establishing rules, expectations, discussing the realities of our living situation. As a single parent home, we couldn’t possibly have the same lifestyle as the high-income, dual parent families and we needed to keep a dialogue about that.
(Later in a follow-up phone interview, Gina suggested that some parents seek out a big brother/big sister program to find good mentors for their kids. I think that’s a great idea, as it’s tough to qualify as a big brother and most are stable and not likely to move out of the area any time soon.)
Q: What advice do you have for other working single moms to help them manage the guilt we all feel when trying to juggle work responsibilities and passions with that of parenting?
GP: You know, all working moms feel the same guilt. We’re all in the same boat. That doesn’t go away even if you had a partner at home helping. I think the most important thing to do is to make time to spend with your children every day and not let them get swept away on the tide of your responsibilities. Make it OUR time. Don’t let yourself be so busy you can’t talk to them, or come sit with them for a while. That’s one of the reasons I got up before them in the morning, to try to get the little pesky duties out the way before they got up. Yes, the laundry may pile up, and the dishes may not get done. Have them help you with them and do them together. We actually were renovating the home we were living in and I taught my boys (and some of their friends) how to lay wood flooring and we all did it together and it was fun. (I did end up with some socks stuck between floorboards as the pieces were nailed in place (!), but we cut them away all but for a few threads that became part of the living, breathing home we were building together). Share what you do with them. And when you’re in the car, pull their damned headphones out and make them talk! Seriously, no tuning out, you or them.
Q: How old are your children?
GP: Now, gosh, Rachel, my older is 32 and has two sons who are going on 12 and 9. My sons, Aaron and Aric, are 29 and 26. And Aric and his wife have a little baby daughter, Jordan, who is 18 months. Can I get an AWWW? Aric’s with the 82nd Airborne and his wife works full-time from home on post with the baby at home, so she’s employing a lot of those multi-tasking skills! But when I started working as a single mom, Rachel was in college and Aaron and Aric were in middle-school and high school. Keep in mind, we also had a number of other boys who came to live in our home from other situations, whether because they were in extremely conflicted relationships at home with new step-parents and everyone needed room, or they were orphaned and their local relative was already overwhelmed with their own children, or they simply had no place else to turn. It was often a houseful!
Q: Was there a stage in your working life and in your boys’ lives that was more difficult for you to juggle? I dread the teenage years, for instance, and worry that I may not have enough time to spend with them—or that I won’t be able to help them navigate issues with sex, drugs or video games. Was this a tricky period for you? And if so, what helped you through it?
GP: Time-wise, the younger years were more difficult because they simply needed more sheer time. But the teen years were more emotionally-complex. I got through those by keeping the lines of communication open and not being judgmental. It’s a practice that needs to start early. Don’t ever think you’ll get a teen to sit down and stare into your eyes and pour his or her heart out! Talk while doing other things. Talk about other people. Don’t probe, but let them get around to talking about themselves in their own time. Be interested in their lives but don’t criticize their friends. They may be testing you in reporting something that happened to see how you will react. Instead, ask them how they or others saw or felt about the event. Own up to your own errors (my favorite line is to wail ‘I’m such a dumbass!’ when I screw up, which cracks them up). If you try to be ‘perfect parent’, you’re setting too high a bar for them to clear to talk honestly to you. Laugh. A lot. Not at them (well, sometimes, in private), but with them and at yourself.
Q: I read in a LiveStrong article that you advise single moms to: “Search for federal grant options available for single mothers via grants.gov.” Is this still the way to go for single moms seeking educational grants for low-income families?
GP: Yes, but look at ALL resources. When my single-mother low-income adult daughter went back to school, we dug deep and found local organizations that would supply money to untraditional students (the Network of Executive Women paid Rachel’s way through summer session). Check out fastweb.com, too. Register there to learn about all sorts of financial aid opportunities (and I mean ALL kinds! There was a $500 prize for a 100 word ‘essay’ on your least favorite vegetable sponsored by a bunkbed company). Check out individual colleges and what special programs they have for returning adult students. I found one college in the west (noted in my book) that had special scholarships for single parents and even had furnished apartments for them on campus as part of the package. You won’t know what’s out until you research, and think outside the box. Don’t think all your money has to come from one source. Cobble together bits and pieces from here and there.
Q: I understand that your children are now grown and that you have married. Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently as a single mom?
GP: Hm. That’s a tough one. Every mistake taught us something, so there’s value in those. Perhaps understand that there are some relationships that you may think they need to have that they’re really best off NOT maintaining. Children don’t need to have a father in their lives who will ultimately be toxic, even if they feel rejected by him and thus jump at any chance to be with him. YOU have to be strong and advocate for what is best. Look at the bigger picture of what patterns of behavior do to a child. They need caring adults, not necessarily someone who shares their genetic material.
Q: It’s so inspiring to meet other single (or formerly single) moms who managed to pursue their passions and thrive in their careers while also raising kids alone. As a former freelance writer, editor and now agent, what are you currently pursuing? Do you have any more writing endeavors of your own slated for the future?
GP: I’m focused on really expanding my business, taking it successfully through the transitions that publishing’s experiencing right now. We’re also more deeply-involved than ever in shaping our clients’ projects, editing and working with them to shape them for market. It’s become ever more competitive in publishing, so the writers need every edge we can give them. We’re also looking into the new business of agency-publishers, where agencies sometimes act as publishers for projects they passionately believe in but which don’t fit squarely into the traditional publishing model.
We’re building our relationships with film studios, foreign publishers, and multi-media producers as well, expanding our own personal network. I’m building something for the newer agents coming up, and for the children of our agents who will be joining us in years to come.
We also do workshops called ‘boot camps’ for Writers Digest about once a month, helping new writers hone their skills and develop their craft. These are done virtually, over the course of a weekend. It’s exhausting, but enjoyable and the writers report they’re getting a great deal out of it, so that’s music to my ears. Now, at my stage of the game, it’s about giving back, teaching, mentoring.
I don’t have any full-length writing in the works at the moment. I’m having too much fun playing with my clients’ work right now!
Q: Which projects and clients has Talcott represented that you are most proud of?
GP: I’m tremendously proud of all of them! Some of them have stood out as exceptional, like Beth Fehlbaum’s COURAGE series (Patience in Courage, Hope in Courage, and other titles to follow), which are based on her own experiences as a survivor on childhood sexual abuse. These have gotten so many heartfelt letters of thanks from victims, teachers and counselors, I know they’ve touched a lot of lives.
We’ve also heard so many wonderful thank-you’s for Kim Lutz’ THE WELCOMING KITCHEN cookbook, which are recipes that are completely allergen-free. Kim’s the mother of a child with multiple allergies and this cookbook is the culmination of all her love and learning and for once, allergy-free eating tastes good! (To read a bit about her, visit her blog, Welcoming Kitchen.)
I have a special place in my heart for Bruce Wolk’s MADE HERE, BABY! This book was painstakingly researched to compile listings and histories of manufacturers that make their goods for babies and families exclusively here in America, using all-American parts, assembly, packaging, and paint. There’s a special emphasis on women-owned businesses in Bruce’s book. It’s so important to be sure what you have in your home is safe, so this is really quite a resource.
Brette Sember’s wide range of books and magazine articles makes her the quintessential freelancer, from original concept cookbooks like THE MUFFIN TIN COOKBOOK to her highly-specialized legal self-help guides, like GAY AND LESBIAN PARENTING CHOICES, and business books like the popular ESSENTIAL SUPERVISOR’S GUIDE. A former family law-attorney and guardian ad litem, she opted to leave a career outside the home to work from home writing to be with her children.
Q: Talcott has helped publish many parenting books, such as THE CONNECTED CHILD (McGraw-Hill), the #1 adoption book in America, by Dr. Karyn Purvis, Dr. David Cross and Wendy Lyons Sunshine. What topics or genres are you currently seeking to represent?
GP: We’re really omnivores. The only things we don’t work with are picture books and poetry. We love hard-hitting nonfiction, beautifully-written literary fiction, mysteries, history, medicine and science, psychology, business, memoir and all sorts of books for tweens and teens. Between the four of us at Talcott Notch, we handle just about everything.
When you’re a single mom, juggling your children’s activities can seem overwhelming. In fact, I find myself not letting my oldest sign up for all the sports he’d like—especially not club teams—as I can’t always manage to go to all the games or pick him up late at night. It’s getting a bit easier to ask other moms to drive him home now that I’ve officially been in California four years. But in the early days, when I was first separated and taking care of a baby and a 7-year-old, it was tremendously hard to ask strangers to take my older son home from a game. Some coaches were supportive, but others not. I guess it’s hard to imagine not having another parent or family nearby to help. But that’s the way it is for some of us, and we don’t want to punish our older children and not let them participate in the group sports that they used to, just because of a divorce or a baby sibling who needs to nap or gets sick often. Juggling activities and sports really can seem overwhelming sometimes, and I’m so thankful that it’s getting easier. When I wrote this post, I was clearly still in the trenches.
Last year, I couldn’t always cheer my oldest on at the soccer matches, for instance, as his baby brother was tantruming, or running wild and I had to monitor him. Then, occasionally, I’d have to leave mid-way through since the game times always happened at naptime. With all the other kids’ dads screaming from the sidelines, I really wanted to make sure that at least one parent was always present to cheer my son on—but it doesn’t always work that way when you’re a single parent. I know some divorced parents co-parent well, but for me, my ex lives abroad, so he’s just not here often. It was a depressing time for my oldest. I could never get him excited on game day and yet, he loves soccer.
As we move toward the school year, I’m coming up with a strategy so that game days and late practices will start to get easier for us. If you are a single parent, perhaps this list will help you as well:
The minute you find out who your child’s coach is, email him and explain your situation—especially if you are juggling activities for more than one child solo. Let him/her know that you’ll make sure your child doesn’t miss any games (barring illness) but that you may need help occasionally with a lift home if your other child is playing a game elsewhere or another child is sick. Would he mind?
Suggest to the coach that all parents bring their own snack and water. And if he still wants each parent to volunteer to do a group snack one week, don’t feel obligated, just say you’ll bring your child’s snack and water each week. Carrying all the gear and another child up to the field and a tray of muffins is ridiculous. If you can’t get out of it, just bring a box of granola bars.
Get to know the parents on the team and exchange cell phone numbers as soon as possible. That way, if an emergency happens with another child, you can call a parent on the team to help.
Do some networking to find a great coach. Sometimes it just isn’t possible to sign up your child with a particular coach—like with AYSO, you find out who your coach is a few weeks before the season starts. But if you can, network with parents at your child’s school and find a supportive, enthusiastic coach who can help mentor your child. It’s especially important to find good role models for your kids when you’re going through a divorce.
Don’t do multiple sports each season. There is only one of you. Tell your children to pick one sport per season, so you’re not going out of your mind trying to make multiple games each weekend.
Don’t pressure your child too much about performance. This likely goes without saying, but make sure your son or daughter know that the game is about having fun. Sit him or her down at the beginning of the season and explain that you may not be able to stay for the entire game every time because of the other games of brothers and sisters or due to a baby brother’s or sister’s needs, but that you’re happy that they get to play, do their best and have FUN.
Show gratitude at the end of the season. This is especially important if a coach and other parents have been particularly helpful. Hire a sitter for the last game and go solo, bringing goodies for everyone if you can. It lets your child on the field, and the team, know how much you appreciate them.
In my own way, I really do know why the caged bird sings. And I know why the bird stays too—even when the cage door is open. It seems selfish to take more than a quick flight around the room. No, the bird comes back to where she’s comfortable and finds beauty in her surroundings and in how happy her singing makes those in the house. Even when those in the house barely notice her and come and go as they please—she knows her role and knows that, somehow, the beauty of her singing and her reliable presence is helpful to those she loves.
I read that in Vietnam (and probably elsewhere) Buddhist worshippers release caged birds to improve their karma. In theory, this sounds wonderful. But I doubt that it’s a wonderful feeling for the birds. A picture I saw of a Buddhist releasing three birds spoke louder than words. Instead of flying away, the three birds crashed into one another with their wings barely opening widely enough for flight. It’s not easy to just take flight away from all that you have known, is it?
Now that my cage door has been blown apart, I see how ridiculous living for others all the time truly is. It’s okay (and healthy) to do things for yourself. It’s okay to take flight once in a while just because it makes you happy. Taking flight is scary for some of us. Doing things for ourselves can seem selfish. Especially if we are the person who fixes things, who kisses booboos, who makes sandwiches, checks homework, listens to woes and gives advice, and who lives daily for the crazy schedules of playdates and homework and dinners, and sports events and mommy-and-me classes. That’s the good stuff, right? It seems to give most of us (I’m talking the co-dependent us) more pleasure than our work—if we work outside the house. And it’s tougher than most work too—at least the two- and three-year-old tantrums are. When you’re the person who supports others, it’s hard to support yourself. (You know who you are: you’re the one who remembers birthdays, writes thank you notes, sends presents, plans parties, playdates, activities, camps, Dr. visits—all between other work duties you master. You’re the one who feels guilty taking time for yourself to exercise or get a rare manicure—as your goal is to make others happy and pleased and not to think about yourself, right?) So where do you exist when all of that is cut off? Where are you when that fades to black? Sound familiar?
I wrestled with all of that after my husband left at the end of 2009. But since he lives in Europe and I care for the boys pretty much 24/7, they kept me insanely busy and not able to focus too much on this question. Back then, I was just making it day by day and trying for force myself to eat and keep going. That’s how it was in the beginning with a baby and an 7-year-old to take care of. Flash forward two years and you’d think that I’d have overcome this crazy guilt I have about taking time for myself. To be fair, I have really been taking strides that started with baby steps and I’m getting there. At first, I felt insanely guilty about putting the baby in daycare so I could write (I’m a freelance writer) and get a break. After a year of separation, with me weighing in at 90 lbs and getting little to no sleep due to my insanely sleepless toddler, a good friend urged me to put my little guy in a small, family-run daycare so I could pursue my work and get a break. I did and within a few months landed some great freelance writing gigs. I was able to grocery shop without drama. I wan’t driving for an hour to let the baby sleep since he doesn’t nap at home. I was able to take a run and eventually joined a gym. Taking a pilates or a yoga class felt crazily selfish—even though I went months without a day off to sleep in. Why I felt this way is such a long story including a family history of co-dependency and an upbringing in the South where ladies who do-it-all and support their man are still highly admired.
But all of this is part of why the rare, cherished time-off from the kiddos, can be extra-ordinarily and oddly, hard for me to adjust to. The summer holiday for my kids with their dad should be a time for joyous celebration, right?
I should be thinking: Hurray! I’m finally going to have some time to myself!
And I am excited about that. I’m so looking forward to being me, traveling, writing and reading and just being a woman and not always a mommy. But a large part of myself is also wondering if my kids will put on sunblock or whether they’ll remember to say their prayers/gratitude lists at night or whether they’ll have fights that I can’t help them with, or if a tantrum might push someone over the edge, etc. Seriously, it’s so sad. Even as I write this, I wonder about my sanity. I am the quintessential co-dependant woman. There, I said it. So now, I guess I’ve become the co-dependant single mom who is having a hard time adjusting to the fact that she’s going to be away from her boys for a full MONTH. I haven’t had a week off since last Christmas and I think the last two days off was three months ago. So, yeah, I guess I’m due.
Why, then, am I not jumping up and down with glee!? It’s scary to take flight. It’s frightening to venture out and try to reclaim life outside of motherhood. I’m grateful for the chance, but hesitate at the door.
Any advice out there, my soul-sister, single moms? Seriously, any words of wisdom will be greatly appreciated this week as I say goodbye to my little guys.
How many of you out there are still fighting daily or weekly with your exes? How many of you are insanely frustrated over late or missing child support payments, or looming court dates, or missed visitations—among the myriad of abusive scenarios that some divorced parents face when one parent puts ego and/or selfish agendas above children’s needs? I’m sure many of you may be nodding your heads about now. But, sadly, even if your ex is a convict or a sociopath who deserted you and your children and doesn’t visit with the kids or pay child support—YOU (yes, even you my devoted single mommy friends)—may be accidentally causing more emotional harm to your children, say experts.
What?? (Insert record rip sound now.)
As hard as it is to believe, single parents are guilty of consistently doing one thing wrong. There are plenty of things divorced parents stumble on and I interviewed a UCLA expert earlier this year who helped define “The Top 5 Mistakes Divorcing Parents Make”. Going through a divorce is insanely painful and no one is expected to handle it perfectly. But experts say if there is one thing you need to remember for your children’s sake, it’s this: SHUT YOUR MOUTH.
Think about it. We are ALL guilty of saying disagreeable things about our exes at some point (even if it’s just reporting the truth). Some single parents have certainly lived through their share of horror stories. And even if you think you are vigilant about not talking about your ex in front of the children—be honest—it slips sometimes doesn’t it? And these slips usually happen during the most stressful times and can be reactions that we later regret. For example, imagine this scenario:
You are at home with your children waiting for the ex to pick them up for a scheduled weekend visit. You did laundry, you packed their bags, you got them hair cuts the day before and you even carefully picked out their favorite books and toys and DVDs for the visit. The kids are excited and you’re hiding your fears about the weekend—especially if your ex drinks too much or has a new girlfriend or if he takes them to inappropriate venues, like bars. You keep yourself busy in the kitchen while the clock ticks. One hour after he is supposed to arrive, the kids get anxious and keep asking, “Where IS he?” in exasperated tones. You text the ex. He doesn’t reply. Finally, two hours after he is supposed to pick them up, he calls.
“Sorry! I got held up at the office and my boss wants me to fly out tomorrow on business. Can’t get them this weekend.” You are infuriated and before you can stop yourself you scream in response: “What the hell? You’re doing this again?You haven’t seen them in three months! This is NOT OK!”
Your heart is thumping so loud in your chest you can barely hear anything else, until a sob, from the corner of the room stills you. You look up and your six-year-old has a tear sliding down her little face.
Yes, this is your ex’s fault. No, you shouldn’t cover for him. But you don’t want to have fights in front of the kids either, explains Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., an award-winning author and family and marriage therapist.
Coleman, who I interviewed this month, says parents need to remember that they are pouring salt on their children’s wounds when they fight in front of the children or talk poorly about the ex in front of them. The better way to handle the outlined scenario is to hold in your anger and respond calmly to your ex: ‘That’s too bad. The kids were really looking forward to it. I’m handing the phone to them so you can explain, ok?’ Allowing him to talk with the kids, and likely promise to make it up to them later, is a better solution than yelling and putting their father down in front of the kids.
If the children cry after they hang up, Coleman warns against adding more drama and hurt to the situation.
“You then don’t want to say something like, ‘Your father always does this kind of thing at the last minute! It’s unforgivable!’ Instead, you want to just give them comfort, by saying something like, ‘You’re really sad aren’t you? I’m so sorry that you’re hurt.’ This lets your children know that you are there for them without adding more pain,” Coleman explains.
If you’ve experienced a similar situation to this, than I don’t need to tell you about the flash of anger that sparks and the mixed feelings that emerge about wanting to protect your kids, but also being angry about your own inconvenience. It may have been months since you’ve had a proper break or a morning to sleep in. With that said, experts say it’s critical to try to hide your disappointment and anger as your children will be highly sensitive and bruised after their father stands them up. They don’t need to feel like a bourdon to you, as well. It’s so tempting to call a friend the minute the kids settle down after such an experience. How many of us are guilty of calling a girlfriend to vent after such a scenario? What if you made plans for that evening and now they are blown? You’re still better off texting your friend to cancel. The last thing you want to do is grab a glass of wine and call a girlfriend lamenting about how you now can’t go out, and what a jerk your ex is. Your children, even if planted in front of a TV show, have amazing listening abilities. They want to know what is going on and they likely will hear your conversation, or the tone of your conversation at the very least.
I know it isn’t fair. I know that if your ex repeatedly lets you and your children down, you need to vent. But this is our test in life. (I’m right there with you.) In times like this, try to take a deep breath, and dig deep for grace. Remember that you can email or call a friend once the children are asleep—or that you can go online and chat with other single moms in support groups, such as AloneTogether. It’s so important to have the support you need—but there is a time and a place for everything. I don’t know why we’re in the situation we are in. But I’ve decided that I no longer care about figuring out why. It’s hard to let go of that, but it serves very little purpose. If you can remember anything from this story, I hope it’s this:
“Children learn to love themselves by being able to love their parents,” Coleman says.
They can’t feel free to love their father (or mother) if either parent consistently puts the other down. Sure, your ex may not be the parent you want him (or her) to be. But you can be the parent your children can model. You can be the example for them. And they can learn to love themselves by watching you.
I stumbled upon this wonderful article “25 Things I Want My Ranch Kids To Know”. You’d think I’d have little in common with this ranching family. But as I read through her list, I realized how universal so much of what she has to say is. I found myself tweaking her vernacular for my now Calif. kids. For instance, her #2: “Boredom is a Choice” I adored and in my mind I changed from: “If you can’t entertain yourself with a stick and a bucket full of calf nuts, we’re doing something wrong” to: “If you can’t entertain yourself with a surfboard/boogie board or a bikeride…I’m doing something wrong.”
Life in California—especially in a Southern California beach town—is dreamy for kids. Or so it should be. We have gorgeous stretches of sandy beaches, strewn with volleyball nets and a strand for bikers to ride safely for miles. Our town has plenty of parks and violent crime is low. We literally have beautiful weather nearly year-round. Yet, my oldest cares more about video games than a day at the beach. Getting him to ride his bike or skate board or kick a soccer ball with his buds in the alley (we live in a beach house without a yard, but share an alley with loads of families with kids) takes an olympic effort. He’d rather stay inside and play Minecraft. So I bought a pingpong table and that’s helping a bit.
That’s just one issue I’m battling right now. Some days it seems that there just isn’t enough of me. I need at least two clones in order to be a better parent. I’m guilty of juggling my two boys and their drastically differing needs (and of course the loud three-year-old tends to get most of the attention) with other issues such as work and any social life. I’m not always there for both of them the way I’d like to be. (I’m sure my single parent friends and readers empathize with this feeling!) So, I’m inspired to come up with my own list that I hope will help my boys become sensitive and caring men—regardless of being raised in LaLa land!
Mom’s Top Life Lessons:
1.It’s okay to get angry, but it’s not okay to hit.
Life isn’t meant to be fair. You are guaranteed to get disappointed and frustrated when things don’t go your way. It’s okay to punch a pillow, talk with a friend or write in a journal about your disappointments. Hitting your brother, your friend or your mother is never ok.
2.Stand up for yourself.
Don’t go looking for trouble, as my mom used to say, but if someone is bullying you or threatening you, you have every right to stand up for yourself. Tell the person to stop, and/or get a teacher if it becomes violent. If that makes it worse for you, remember, bullies are weak. They thrive on putting other people down. Do not believe a word that person says about you and please tell me about the situation. I’ll always listen. I’ll always be in your corner. Remember you’re own worth. You should never put up with abuse.
3. Be kind.
Always think about how your words and actions affect others. If someone at school is annoying you, or if a friend starts gossiping about another kid, try your hardest not to say anything nasty or join in on the gossip. Putting other people down does not make you look better. Find other ways to deal with it. Think about how you would feel if you were that other kid.
4.It’s okay to make mistakes. (And don’t be too proud to apologize.)
We don’t always do everything the way we intend to. If you over-react or say something rash, just apologize. It’s not a sign of weakness. In fact, it is usually all you need to do to make things better.
5. You are special because of who you are: not what you have.
Just because some neighbors and friends have more expensive toys than you, does NOT make them better. You are kind, smart, caring, loving, creative, curious, fun and inventive. These things aren’t created by owning a huge flat screen T.V. or a swimming pool.
6. Pursue your passions.
Sure, you’d like to vacation in Hawaii and drive a sports car one day—but don’t pursue a career just because it earns a lot of money. Do something that sparks your interest. If you love science or history, keep studying that in college and find a career that incorporates your passions. You’ll never regret being happy on the job and you’re more likely to be successful.
7.Be a team player.
It’s just as important to block a goal as it is to make one. You’re not always going to be the player who makes the most goals or baskets. But that’s okay if you’re giving it your all, supporting your teammates and HAVING FUN.
8.Don’t curse like a sailor.
Sure, sometimes things slip when angry, but don’t make a habit of cursing. It’s crude, rude and makes you look unintelligent.
9.Be Confident and Don’t Give In To Peer Pressure.
Just because some surfers are getting high every day before and/or after school, doesn’t mean it’s a good choice for you. And drinking and driving is NEVER Okay. I love you. Call me and I’ll always come get you or pay for a cab.
10. Don’t lie.
We all tell those white lies occasionally, such as: “thanks for inviting me,” even if you didn’t have a good time. But don’t lie about the big stuff and especially not to your mom. She’ll always listen and try to help you—even if you are in trouble. She will never stop loving you. You will always have a home here, no matter what you do. So don’t be afraid to tell her if something’s gone wrong or you’re in a bad situation. She’s made mistakes too and can help.
11. Always be Courteous to Parents. Say “nice to meet you,” shake hands, and look parents in the eyes when you are visiting a friend’s house. Do not EVER just walk into a friend’s room when you are teenager without addressing the friend’s parents. When you leave, say, “Nice to see you again,” or “Thanks for having me Mr. & Mrs. so and so.” Good manners NEVER go out of style.
12. Don’t Settle.
Remember that true beauty comes with integrity, intelligence and kindness (a sense of humor is a plus too!). If the gal you like is gorgeous, but is lacking in these other qualities, move on.
13. Focus on Gratitude. By now you’re sick of hearing me ask you to say what you’re thankful for each night at bedtime, but keep doing it. Letting your mind drift towards what is good in your life, instead of what is bad, brings more good to you AND helps you feel safe and happy.
14. Meditation Isn’t For Sissies. Staying active is great, but finding a way to connect your mind a body through your breath, reduces your stress and allows you to think calmly about your goals and intentions for your life. The sooner you learn this, the better off you’ll be. Sit still for five minutes each night or morning and focus on deep breathing while you let your mind drift to a positive, relaxing location.
15. Eat Something Fresh and Green Every Day. The secret to staying healthy is avoiding junk food and remembering the simple rule of eating raw fruit and something green every day.
16. Get Lost in a Good Book.
There’s really nothing like finding yourself transfixed by a good book. In today’s hectic world where everyone multitasks, I will know I’ve done a good job if both of you can find yourself, at some point every year, lost in a marvelous novel.
“I want PIE!” Jamesy yells at me this morning. He has already climbed onto the second shelf of the pantry, which he knows he isn’t allowed to do.
“Well, I didn’t make the pie, and besides, that’s not a breakfast food, is it? Lets get down from there,” I reply calmly, trying to mask the tension that is rising like bile in my throat. I look at my angelic, chubby three-year-old with star-lit, midnight blue eyes and tousled blond hair. I know what is coming next—what has been happening in our house for months now.
‘NOOOO!!!!” he wails like a super sonic boom and then hurls a kitchen timer against the wall.
I take a deep breath and pick up his squirming body. “Ok, time out buddy.”
His legs kick my calf. Hard. A zinger of pain flashes up to my kneecap and down to my swollen achilles’ heel. Why did I forget to put that damn boot back on? I think as I grimace with pain. Almost three weeks ago I tore a tendon in my left calf, so chasing after my three-year-old has now become an Olympic endeavor. I manage to strap him into his time-out chair—which is my second car seat. As I walk to pick up the now broken kitchen timer, he kicks his seat over, landing with a thud. His head is now on the floor, his feet raised above him in a sitting position. The crazy guy laughs, looks at me victoriously, and then starts screaming again.
William and I just shrug and sit down to eat our breakfast. We have gone through this scenario many times since we took the advice of Jamesy’s teacher who recommended that I place a car seat in my kitchen and strap him into it for a time out each time he throws things, yells, hits, climbs the pantry walls, bites, etc. Ignoring him, threatening with a consequence, taking away toys, and dare I admit, even a spanking, all don’t work on my little guy. Putting him in time out didn’t work before because he just refused to stay seated. Strapping him into time out is helping, believe it or not. It’s just taking an extraordinarily long time. I have a very stubborn three-year-old who hates to hear the word No or not be able to do what he wants to do. Like most I guess, but his older brother was never this ballsy or stubborn. Eventually, he stopped these shenanigans. Plus, I didn’t have William and Jamesy close together in age. William is 10, James 3. I can’t imagine surviving life as a single mom with an insanely stubborn James and a brother only one or two years older. Seriously, with an ex in Europe and no family help, I might have ended up in Betty Ford or some mental facility.
Today, when I was taking James to school, I thought about my mom. You may be wondering what my son’s behavior, and how the scene I just described to you, has anything to do with a Mother’s Legacy. Well, a lot actually. My mother had four children and a husband who would work three-day shifts at the hospital. Back then, three-day-shifts were not frowned upon like they are today. She was virtually a single mom in Boston with my brother 3 and two sisters ages 2 and 1. They were all still in diapers!!
“Well, I just didn’t know any better,” my mom said to me 10 years ago when she visited me after I gave birth to William. “I mean, back then, you didn’t expect your husband to help you. You didn’t complain either. And I just thought it was fun,” she laughed. I clearly didn’t believe her last statement.
When she said this to me, I was in the throws of repeated sitz baths for a class 4 tear, (men reading this, DON’T ASK), sore nipples, engorged breasts verging on infection since I couldn’t get the milk to come in properly, and hormones raging to the point where at certain moments I literally wanted to die. Exhaustion, hormones, whatever it was, I realized that what I was feeling was akin to what clinical depression must feel like. Having three kids one right after another, and than four years later her oops child, (which I am), my mom must have always been on the brink of despair. But I don’t remember seeing her succumb to it, not over raising children anyway. Maybe she was just too busy.
Mom and William, three months.
Over the next two years after William’s birth, she graced me with her stories. But her stories about raising three babies were what inspired me most. She didn’t know why I was in shock, but clearly, she loves babies and has a higher threshold for stress, than I do. Her stories gave me strength, however. Luckily for me, once my breast milk came in with earnest and I could breast feed around the clock, my cloud of depression lifted. I listened to her stories and began to think I can do this.
“Every Sunday I called my mom and we’d talk about politics. I loved our Sunday calls,” my mom told me 10 years ago. “Well, this one Sunday, I’ll never forget it. Your father was at the hospital and I looked around as I spoke with NiNi (her mother) and I saw your sister (and with her next description, I knew exactly which sister it was) climbing up the curtain rod! I started to go for her, but then I heard something and looked out back and your other sister was pushing down your brother from his bicycle. Well, I’m still on the phone, but as I go to your brother, I turn around and look back and I see your sister now putting a screw in her mouth!” Amazingly, the whole time she’s telling me this story, she is smiling. What lesson did she learn? Not to decorate, or put up curtains partially, and then take a phone call when you have three children. I, on the other hand, was completely horrified. I had my one and only baby suckling at my breast and began to think I will never, ever, have another child.
“Well, I laughed and laughed about that. Of course, I had to get the screw out of her mouth first!” my mom said. Over the years as her Alzheimer’s began to take hold, she repeated that story to me over and over again.
Mom and William, 2 years.
It was as if she knew that I’d need to remember it too. That I would need to pull it out of a file in the back of my mind to remind myself that this craziness is what it’s all about. We’re all pushed to the brink when raising children. But it’s how we handle it and carry through that matters.
Three years ago I was visiting my mother. She was still at home then, although we had assistants to help her. It was evening, and she had fallen asleep with her TV on. I went in to shut it off. She raised up and pointed to the hall light.
“I finally put a cover on it. Like it?” she asked me. I turned to look at the hall light and noticed a new sconce. “Oh. Wow. Yes, we finally have one.”
“I know, I never replaced the old one because I was so ashamed,” she said to me, clear as day.
When I asked her what she was talking about, she replied, “Well, one day, when you four were up to something. I can’t recall really, but one of your sisters was yelling and your brother was doing something, I don’t remember what, but I got so mad, I actually threw my shoe up the stairs and it hit the hall light. I never did replace it (the sconce) because I wanted to look at that ugly bulb to remember how stupid I was. I didn’t want to lose my temper like that ever again.”
I swallowed hard and held her hand. “It’s ok mom.”
“Oh, it’s silly. I should have known better. Don’t do that kind of thing, ok?”
The next morning, when I told her I enjoyed our talk she replied, “Oh? What talk? Didn’t you just get here?”
Well, call it Divine intervention, but I know we did have a talk and I’m so grateful—that even though she didn’t remember it—I always will. And I thought about her advice today after Jamesy threw his smoothie across the car and it landed with a SPLAT across the entire backseat. Sigh. I’m clearly on the brink too. But I’m going to be brave and stand on the edge and take a deep breath. I may have to dig in my heels and brace myself or a long stay. But my little guy will grow up eventually, right? And if I make it through with my sanity in check, just think about the stories I’ll be able to embarrass him with!
(And Why There’s Really Not Much You Can Do About It)
I have spent days writing and re-writing this post. I know I shouldn’t admit that as inevitably there will be a professional writer among my readers who will still be able to point to indelible flaws in its structure or word choice. Oh well. My hesitancy isn’t from a fear of perfection. It actually has been one that surprised me as I began writing on this topic and discovered how very personal it is. My dear friend pointed out to me last night that if it’s too hard to be honest, I either leave my own family and past out of my writing, or stop blogging altogether. I think he’s right on so many levels. The topic of how the youngest grows up too fast is one that hits very close to home. There is just no way I can write about it without my own filter—without touching on my own unique childhood. I am the youngest of four from parents very distracted by their important careers and failing marriage. Because of that, I raised myself to a large degree. I am a product of those times and I grew up very quickly. Instead of rebelling with my independence and lack of attention, as others may have done, I became a little adult. I had watched my older siblings and some of their friends struggle and I became a very serious child. By 17, I had managed college entrance exams and visited colleges solo and even drove myself three states away on the first day of college. A few weeks into college, I had a job at an NPR radio station with a spot after “All Things Considered,” interviewing visiting judges and attorneys and had a legal beat at the newspaper by end of that year. That winter, I landed an internship at a TV station. Sophmore year I left for a summer study-abroad in London with British media. Senior year, I had a writing internship in Maine. As you can see, I was working professionally before my junior year and could barely focus on studies from all my “work” demands. It’s just the way things were for me as I had little understanding of how to relax, let alone party, like most co-eds—as I had to take care of business. My childhood shaped who I am today and why, surprising to some, after working so hard, I was able to throw my career into first gear, freelance, and focus on my children. It was a knee-jerk reaction. It had deep-seated psychological roots stemming from a lonely childhood. And it is why I may sometimes get labeled as a ‘too involved’ mom. I had a strong desire to always be near my children. To always be there for them. To not let them grow up on their own. A fabulous career with a national magazine could wait if that required latchkey kids at home. Sadly, that’s the gut fear raised out of my past. And I wrestle, even today, with my strong belief that all women should follow their dreams and their careers. It’s a conundrum that I own up to. (Trust me, critics.) So, with all of that out of the way, here is my original essay:
As the youngest of four, I remember sitting in my big brother’s room, looking at his rock posters of The Rolling Stones and Jimmy Hendrix, and covering my ears as Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” blasted at full volume. “We DON’T Need No Ed-U-CA-tion!” … “We Don’t Need No Thought Control!”
The bass reverberated from the L-shaped walls of my big brother’s room. My hip, big brother would smile a sheepish smile at me. I was maybe nine or 10 years old. My brother, who is six years older than me, was always playing music. I thought he was incredibly cool. He could do anything with a camera too (before Photoshop and digital cameras, mind you.). He’d go into dark rooms and super-impose a picture of himself dressed in character, between Mick Jagger and the rest of The Stones, or walking across Abbey Lane with The Beatles. He introduced me to Led Zepplin, Santana, Ozzie Osborne, and a whole host of bands—not that he always wanted to. Like the time I listened to “The Wall” at full-tilt. I recall that I couldn’t open his door to leave, so I was forced to “listen” at such excruciatingly high volume that even my screams couldn’t be heard. But I’m sure this was probably done after I had begged repeatedly to be included when all the big kids from the neighborhood would go into his cool room and leave me alone in the den with my art and books.
After school hours are always tricky for younger siblings of parents who work. There’s a lot to do between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day. And life for the youngest in a household involves politics and daily maneuvering. Big brothers and big sisters ignore, pick on, and then periodically threaten or bribe their youngest sibling on a weekly basis. (The threatening and bribing are the big guns that only come out when the little one knows too much about rules being broken or any mischief your parents “can’t know” about.) You get the idea.
I usually hated knowing about boyfriends or friends coming over or parties when the parents were away—as I would be wrought with guilt and fear: guilt for lying to my parents, and fear from what my older siblings might do if I told. Again, that’s just life as a much younger sibling. And when the age gap is very big, the youngest grows up much faster and is then left alone. By the time I entered high school, I was an only child as my two sisters and brother (who are all one year apart from each other in age) were in college.
So, I’m looking back at those times and thinking about the future for my two sons. My oldest is 10 years and my youngest is three. It’s a big age gap. And for the past year, my youngest has been exposed to video games, movies and music I’d rather he wasn’t. It’s excruciatingly hard to monitor. On occasion, a new babysitter will let the older one pick out a movie to watch that I don’t want the younger one to see. Or, my oldest plays LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” on his ipad and suddenly, the three-year-old is running around the house singing it. Or, the older one will start playing a video game in front of the baby when I’m in the shower, etc. etc. For two years I’ve been lecturing my oldest tonotwatch certain movies and TV shows, or play certain games, or say certain words around his little brother. I lecture him and remind him that there were no big brothers forcing him to watch inappropriate things when he was little. I even dock TV time, or take away games when he disobeys. I think I’m getting a handle on those type of things.
But this Spring Break, my oldest son’s best friend from London visited and I watched little Jamesy stare up at them both with awe. He trailed them wherever they went. He idolizes his big brother and all of his friends. He wants to be bigger. He wants to do whatever they do. As the youngest, I completely understand. Before you know it, my oldest will be in high school and my youngest will be in elementary school, listening to rock, watching inappropriate YouTube videos, and possibly keeping secrets about his big brother’s friends who are all hanging out at some point after school while I’m at work.
I’ve read some expert commentary and articles about how to help kids from growing up too fast. Almost all of them focus on the youngest ages and on whether we push children to learn too much, too quickly, in kindergarten. Some, like Lisa Belkin, wonder how some parents also manage to simultaneously “helicopter parent” by hovering too closely. That may all be true in today’s society. I’m also sure that I had far too much independence as a child and a teenager. But even today, with our “helicopter” and “tiger mom” parenting styles, aren’t they usually on a timer? Or are these styles relegated to non-working parents only? How many parents still hover over multiple children during high school years, for instance? How many working parents—or single working parents—can afford to do so? I mean, who wants to pay for a part-time nanny for a teenager and an elementary-aged child? At a certain point, the high school kid is usually allowed to be home alone after school and expected to “babysit” the youngest.
I think it’s absolutely okay. This article is in no way an endorsement for all women to stay home, by the way. (And why is it that in 2012, almost everyone still expects the mom, not the dad, to stay home?) I’m very intrigued by The Conflict by Elizabeth Badinter, to be released soon in the U.S. The New York Time’s Motherlode post equating modern day motherhood to today’s version of sexism, is quite compelling. Perhaps the pressure to be the perfect parent isolates and represses women? Perhaps that pressure also leads to more divorce or more mid-life crisis down the road? It’s hard to leave careers and focus solely on the kids to the exclusion of one’s ambitions, one’s passions, one’s interests and sometimes one’s own health. It’s also hard not to leave careers and stay home with the kiddos in today’s world that seems to scream that staying home is necessary (at least in elementary years) for your children’s proper development.
I know I’ll have to go back to work full-time fairly soon. My divorce settlement, and California law, means that I’ll have much less to live on by the time my three-year-old is six. (California law says spousal support is only mandatory for half the number of years you were actually married, and begins the day of your legal separation. Part-time work won’t be enough, I’m afraid, to make ends meet.) I’m actually not frightened by all of this. I’ve worked full-time before and will work full-time again. Being a single mom with no family nearby and an Ex in Europe, means my little guys may find themselves home alone after school in the very near future.
I expect that many of you face this scenario already. And while you may desperately want to shield your youngest from growing up too quickly, there is really little you can do. I’ve decided that the best course of action is to decide right here and now not to ‘check out.’ Just because I may not be able to be with my boys each day after school—does not mean that my only option is to just hope it all goes well. I hope to enroll them in sports and after-school programs. I will try to find them male mentors. Because without all that, they’ll be left to their own devices, a lot, in L.A.—and there’s plenty of temptation here. To a certain extent, kids have to have enough room to find their own way in this world. But I know from experience that it’s critical not to turn a blind eye as a parent during the teen years. I am so thankful that I’ve put my divorce—and the madness that occurs when one parent is desperately trying to keep a marriage together—behind me. That chapter is closed. As someone who is now in her 40s, I see couples all around me who are beginning the middle-age malaise. You know what I mean. It’s that time in life when people start thinking critically about their choices, their life, their disappointments, their relationships, their dreams. It’s a time when many couples fall apart. It’s a time when many parents “check out” and focus on their own needs.
I lived through that. As I mentioned, my parents literally checked out as they focused on work and saving their marriage. I was completely on my own after school and had no curfews and no over-sight. Luckily, instead of rebelling in high school, I grew up. Little girls sometimes do that. I took on responsibility. I didn’t screw up or skip school or do drugs. I rose to the occasion by becoming a little adult. I had little fun, as you can see from my work ethic in college, but at least I didn’t do drugs or get pregnant. But I had neighbors, mentors and lovely teachers who helped me. Not all youngest children in my scenario would fare so well. And I imagine boys may be different. Thinking about my little boys in L.A., I wonder how I can help. There isn’t much we can do to slow down how fast our youngest children grow up—but perhaps we can help them make better choices? We can choose to keep lines of communication open. We can choose not to ignore them when we come home from work. We can choose to check in during the day by phone or have neighbors check in. Yes, even single moms who may work long hours away from home can find mentors, coaches, other moms and family to help us stay connected to our kids.
So I fully expect my youngest to idolize his big brother for years to come. My oldest is a sweet and thoughtful boy, but as a teen, he may get hit with teenitisis. Aren’t most teens obsessed with their friends and their own needs? I expect that there will be moments when he is supposed to be babysitting and friends are over. I expect that my Jamesy will experience many of the same things that I did as the smallest with much older kids at home alone. These moments will help shape and define him. There will be many lessons to be learned away from mommy’s eyes, and I have to be ready for that.
Thanks for reading! Phew, this was a long one! Please chime in if you have any advice or similar fears. X
AloneTogether: Single Moms Support Group (This is a closed group, please say you found their site from me, Laura Roe Stevens, when requesting to join.)
The UCLA Family Commons: http://www.uclacommons.com/
Single Parent Housing: www.SPAOA.org
Pell Grants For Mothers: PellGrants.ClassesAndCareers.com