Thursday, October 27, 2011

Drinking my own Kool Aid

Ah, the teachable moment. Why do I always seem to learn from them too?

Recently, in the chaos of a weekday morning, despite a caution, my son spilled grape juice on his khaki pants. Time to learn about stain removal! We went to the laundry. The stain was identifed. I pulled out the stain stick, ready to preach to ...the apparently converted.

"OXY CLEAN!!!!!" My son starts wiggling and waggling and his eyebrows are all up in his forehead with delight.

I think my boy, seven weeks into kindergarten, has just read the label. My eyebrows shoot all up in my forehead with excitement. Yes! Yes! Oxy Clean!

"That's on TV!!!!!!!"


"We have that?!!? I didn't know we had that!!" He is grinning from ear to ear. "I gotta tell my sister. Veev! Veev! We have something from TV!"

Now my son is teaching me, a mother who has spent 17 years making television commercials, five of them for Kool-Aid, the effects of advertising on children (They would they have loved those ads - Oh, Yeah!).

I suddenly understand the Oxy Clean media buy, which seems to own a time slot during Tom & Jerry, which, for my sins, we record. This past weekend my son got marker on my mother's carpet. She got her Spray n' Wash stick. They both watched as the marker stayed in the carpet. My son shook his head. "Grandma, you should have used Oxy Clean."

This compounded teachable moment has led to another about healthy skepticism, and not accepting things at face value. This is a bit much for a boy of 5 to absorb. But so is the concept of car insurance, which apparently he was urged to buy this morning.

The final teachable moment? Perhaps it's time to press pause on Tom & Jerry afterall? Nah, we just mastered fast-forwarding instead.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Daughters of the Revolution

I am the Gen X daughter of a Boomer, and the mother of a girl who, I learned today, is on the trailing end of the newly named Generation Z, or the iGen. Lately I have been thinking a lot about what one generation of mothers gives to the next, and how some of our challenges are timeless, while others are shaped by the times. What will my daughter take from my choices and experiences? And how will those choices and experiences shape the advice I give her?

Our Boomer moms were the first generation of liberated women, and they raised us Gen Xers to forge new paths, follow our dreams, maintain some degree of financial independence and yes, pursue successful careers. Because of them, we are the lucky beneficiaries of the Freedom to Choose, finances aside, whether to work or not. But lots of moms (grandmothers) have strong opinions about the choices their daughters make when they become moms themselves - especially when there is already a working spouse in their house. The question I've been mulling is: Do Boomer Women's attitudes around working women and working mothers shift when they become grandmothers? Or have they simply shifted with the trends of our times? Or are we all collectively grappling with the newer complexities that freedom and choice give us?

Yesterday I read Kate Bolick's provocative and well-researched article All the Single Ladies in the Atlantic about the rise of single working women and the dearth of conventionally-defined "eligible men" as an unintended consequence of the rising success of women. I was struck by the parallel path I had been taking with this post, and how the issues our generation faces are as thorny for those who marry and mate as they are for those who do not. Bolick writes how her "future was to be one of limitless possibilities" and how "this unfettered future was the promise of my time and place." Amen - I hear that! But when she added, "What my mother could envision was a future in which I made my own choices. I don't think either of us could have predicted what happens when you multiply that sense of agency by an entire generation" I sensed it wasn't just the single ladies who wondered if maybe there needed to be an asterisk to the promise of limitless possibilities* (like, *they all come with trade-offs). And at what point do I start incorporating that asterisk into how I inspire my children about their futures?

The Boomer voices in my world - not just my mother's - repeat the chorus 'It goes by so fast.' It resonates. I can move myself to tears just imagining an empty nest years from now. But it seems to me when this truth is spoken in the context of career choices - the implication is if you work too hard, you'll miss it. It's worth noting that I don't know a lot of Boomer women who sustained successful, demanding careers through motherhood - and I certainly haven't had Boomer moms as mentors or sponsors in my professional life. So I'm supplementing with the views of two prominent feminist Boomer grandmothers who have had their cases made in the media this summer - Elisabeth Badinter and Erica Jong.

Soon to be released is Badinter's latest book, Conflict: the Woman and the Mother which was profiled at length in the New Yorker (in an article by Jane Kramer that I recommend paying to download if you have to) and more briefly in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in which she takes aim at "motherhood fundamentalism," laying out a number of themes that have driven women back into the home and away from work. In response there were several pieces by Erica Jong published in the Wall Street Journal ("Mother Madness") and the New York Times this year about today's mothers - including the assertion that we are so focused on family that we are shunning sex. (To this there was a lovely response from a young mother named Hallie Palladino, in the New York Times' parenting blog, Motherlode).

Essentially they both argue that motherhood - with the rise of attachment parenting, co-sleeping, year-long breast-feeding, cloth diapers and home-made baby food have trapped mothers into an impossible set of expectations, all of which are keeping us increasingly tied to the home and feeling guilty when we provide any less than a 100% of ourselves to our children. Jong asks, "Is it even possible to satisfy the needs of both parents and children? In agrarian societies, perhaps wearing your baby was the norm, but today's corporate culture scarcely makes room for breast-feeding on the job, let alone baby-wearing. So it seems we have devised a new torture for mothers—a set of expectations that makes them feel inadequate no matter how passionately they attend to their children."

Still, when I surveyed my peers about what their mothers think about managing both career and family, there was a wide range of perspectives, some surprising, some inconsistent, but almost always coming from a supportive, well-meaning place. I wondered, when they discourage us, however subtly, from trying to juggle it all, is it because they falling victim to the same trends we are? Or, I wonder, it is a highly personal response - one that thinks of what is best for the grandchild first, then the daughter? Or is it simply a perspective that can only come from having a generation's worth of experience in parenting - that childhood is fleeting, and you don't need to have it all, all at once? Or that they see how hard the juggle is and wish it wasn't so? I've come to believe it is mainly the latter, but perhaps elements of all those things are true.

A college friend hit it on the head for me: "Overall, I think our mothers have the perspective of knowing there is no perfect/ideal choice and there are compromises to ourselves or our family, whatever path we may go. What my mother has stressed to me is how the level of contentment a mother feels directly correlates to the harmony of the family. For me, I believe this is an absolute truth - and my choices are, and will continue to be, a function of my families' unique needs, at any given time. I hope I can maintain that mantra...and maintain myself at the same time. I think my mom is most troubled by the amount our generation of mothers is attempting to juggle. Put to a simple example, our mothers (working or not) used playpens and didn't for a moment feel guilty about it -- that type of dynamic has completely changed and the impact to the family is very real. My mother-in-law seems saddened by all the pressures we have to be mothers and career women as well. There are serious growing pains with the choices we have - and our mothers are witnessing it. (italics mine)"

Do you think your children's well-being depends almost exclusively on you? Does your mom? How does she advise you about juggling it all? What's the most encouraging tip she's ever given you?

Before you respond, and I really want you to -- here's are my own mother's thoughts on this particular conundrum:

"The predominant factors that influence the advice a mother gives to her daughters are drawn from personal experience. So in my limited way, I gleaned “wisdom” from my own personal experience and passed along my feelings, observations, opinions and aspirations to my daughters. I felt happy, lucky, and very fortunate indeed to be able to stay at home and care for my daughters during their formative years. I surrounded myself with caring, upbeat, educated, professional women who had made the same choice that I did. We loved caring for our children and relished in bonding lifelong friendships. That was a magical time of discovering what really mattered in life. We volunteered in the community, engaged in creative activities, took classes, learned to cook, worked part time, and visited every child-friendly resource available. We stopped and smelled the roses. It was an option that today’s women and most men never have the good fortune to experience.

But all was not like the life of June Cleaver. There were days when being a full time mom felt trying and stressful, frustrating and limiting. While I was busy building my family, other women were busy building their careers. Being an achievement-oriented person, I sometimes felt that my life could have taken a different path, one that led to making lots more money, or one that led to more prestige, responsibility, accomplishment of things more highly valued and rewarded by society. I was outside looking in, and saw the glamorous, rewarding side of being a professional woman. I knew that excelling in a profession demanded concentration, hard work, time and energy, but because I had not chosen that route, I never gave much thought to how that concentration, hard work, time and energy could affect one’s life as a mother.

Throughout my formative years, I remember hearing over and over again that teaching was such a wonderful job (not career, profession, but job) for a woman. That, in fact, proved to be true. I could have it all. Or did I? I did feel that that career choice (did I have a choice?) in itself, was limiting. I don’t remember having a choice of what I wanted to do. It was always assumed that I would be a teacher.

When I returned to teaching full time at age 40, I was able to juggle my time, vacations, and experience success and fulfillment in my teaching career. What I did not have to do was work late, commute long distances, find daycare during school holidays, travel, worry about building my resume, posturing myself for raises or promotions, or keeping an eye out for future career opportunities for climbing the corporate ladder.

The advice that I gave my daughters over and over again, was that they could make whatever choices they wanted when choosing a career path. The world was theirs. However, this advice was heavily slanted towards keeping their options open for advancement, increased earning capacity and accomplishment in that path, something that was not available to me in my career. If you love teaching and stay in the classroom throughout your career, you are doing the same thing at the end of your career that you did on the first day of your career. And whether you are a rock star at teaching or a slacker, you are receiving the same pay as everyone else. I wanted my daughters to have choices that I felt I did not have. The advice that I gave never focused on careers that would be good for a woman, or for that fact, for a family.

Late in my career in education I moved to a position as an administrator in the central office of a large school system (15,000 employees). This position was similar to one in a large corporation - with it came stress, long hours, pressure, extreme visibility, politics, management and budgetary issues. I found myself so busy and consumed with work that my husband had to step up to the plate and manage the plans and arrangements for our daughter’s wedding!!! Was there such a thing as work/life balance? I was caught up in what my daughter is now experiencing, only I was doing this as an empty nester and she as a mother of young children. I’m not happy about the choice I inadvertently made to “opt out” of the wedding plans. Can I go back and redo it? That moment in time is lost forever.

We only get one chance to raise our children. There are no do-overs. But there are continuing opportunities to get back into the job market and a time to devote yourself to your career with a vengeance! When reentering the workforce, one might find, as I did, that I had the total support of my husband who was secure in his own career and shared family responsibilities and believed in me, maturity to make good decisions and the time to carry through and execute ideas flowing from those decisions. It’s true, I envisioned great opportunities for my daughters, but I could not have possibly imagined what it would be like to walk in their shoes. Times, economic conditions, attention to unique situations that arise in the family, nanny issues, and other outside influences all contribute to the stressors that make up life for a working professional and a mother. That said, seventeen years later, the house is very quiet. A person could feel drained and empty if all their eggs had been invested solely in the mommy basket for all those years."

She ended with, although we are not overly religious, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 - 'To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven'. So this isn't new afterall. I guess doing it all, all at once, has been fraught with difficulty for thousands of years.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Ode to Working Mothers - with apologies to Rudyard Kipling

If you can be queasy morn after morn
And not complain, or tell others why
If you can keep up 'til the baby is born
But never allow an occasional sigh;
If you can fly to Dubai, jet-lag be damned
to negotiate, standing in for your boss
And still make the egg hunt as planned
But miss the first word, and not give a toss;

If you can climb the ladder, rung by rung
And get the results you yourself demanded
And not dwell on the lullabies a nanny sung
And focus instead on the deals you landed;
If you can make the most of every meeting
And catch the early train and bolt home
If you treasure each moment no matter how fleeting
and always make your priorities known;

If you can endure sudden illness at night
Or nerves, or bullies, or allergies, lice
Despite having to - must - go catch a flight
If you can be ruthless while still being nice--
If you have a partner who's willing to share
And can trust and depend on your sitter
If you can work late without much of a care
And miss bakesales, etc., without being bitter-

If you can arrange playdates while busy commuting
And stay ahead of the game, the trends and all this
If can juggle it all without losing your footing
And see all that you have, and not what you miss;
If you can beat those at the top (men)
If you can do this - and avoid all the drama
Then yours is the Industry - you'll be the Captain!
And what's more, your kids will be proud of you, Mama!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Commuting [is] for Dummies

In my twenties, I moved around a bit. My first move, I moved 5,126 miles, from New York City to Chile. Then, I moved 7,246, from Chile to London. But by far the scariest move I ever made was the 12 miles from Manhattan to the New Jersey suburbs. Suburban life is all about trade offs, and many of them were terrifying, but ultimately rewarding for me. But one trade off that still smarts is the c-word. The commute.

So for those working city moms dreaming about play basements, backyard bbqs and free, fantastic schools, let me lay this out for you as best I can. Here is the truth about transit.

The Good:

- Ask any working mom about personal time and you will hear a low, scary cackle begin to form in her throat. It's hard to come by. But the commute can be a great escape - consider it Forced Relaxation. Read your mags, catalogs, play a little scrabble, you name it. Go to sleep. Goof off. Enjoy your coffee.

- Time, personal or otherwise, is precious and the train or bus provides nice, 40 minute chunks of it. You can also be incredibly productive with work work or home work while commuting if you can't bear to relax.

- It's greener than driving yourself.

- There's a unspoken solidarity amongst commuters. You all have to suffer through the snow days and signal failures. And whether you realize it or not, all those peeps are your neighbors so perk up!

- There are really cool, interesting, challenging jobs in the Big Smoke. And there are beautiful places to live in the suburbs. Commuting lets you have both. Amazing! Fantastic!

The Bad

- Mother Nature. Rain, wind, sleet or snow, you still have to go to work. But you will not, I promise you, get there on time. You will get there after shovelling your driveway, slipping, falling and cursing to the station, and waiting through extended delays in 2 degree weather with ice boogers in your nose.

- The Lunar Calendar. Thanks to daylight savings you will be doing all or part of this commute, for half the year, in the dark. And in your really cool black city outfit, you will be completely invisible to motorists, unless, of course, it's snowing again.

- The bookends. It's not just the train, or the bus, but getting to the train and the bus, and then getting to your office. Forget about in arriving in those new platform heels, mommy - because you'll be rocking flip flops for 9 months of the year.

- The Buzz Kills. Not that there is a euphoria to commuting but there are always those folks who just make it worse. You will identify them for yourself, but for me it is these guys: the ones who sit on the aisle with their bag in the center seat who make you ask if you can sit there, then roll their eyes, pick up their bag, stand, step aside, so YOU can sit in the middle, instead of scooting over and letting you sit down. Also, smelly people (includes coffee breath), drunk people and people who berate their girlfriends/dump people on their cellphones at 7AM.

- The schedule. Again, "Time" makes the bad list. No matter where you choose to live, it is unlikely that you will have train service running every 15 minutes throughout rush hour. No, you will have about 4 options inbound and outbound, which means you will spend a lot of your morning and evenings, hustling, I mean hustling, to make your train. It's about as fun as it sounds.

- Delays. As if the limited schedule was not bad enough, whether you are driving, busing or taking the train, delays are inevitable. If you are really unlucky you will get to spend this extra unplanned time in beautiful Port Authority or Penn Station. The clevercommute will fill your email with warnings so you can alert your partner, nanny, kids, boss that you will not be where you are supposed to be at the intended time.

- Driving. Driving is good if you go off peak - no traffic, reasonable parking rates. But by off peak I mean 6 AM in and 9 PM out. Otherwise, be prepared to remain in first and second gear for an hour, not look at your blackberry, get car sick anyway, pay an astronomical toll and then an even bigger parking fee. Oh yeah, and gas.

- The Drunk Train. Work dinner? Long, overdue catch up with old friends? Have a blast! But if you don't feel like spending $70 on a ride home too, be prepared to catch the 11:12 with a whole bunch of people who partied more than you. If you manage to stay awake and get off at your stop, you still have to get home, alone, late at night, in the dark.

The Ugly

-Squandering your most precious resource. This is the true calamity of commuting. No matter how much relaxing, emailing, texting, reading or planning you do during your commute, for working moms caught between trying to succeed at the office and be an engaged parent and spouse, commuting time is a black hole of 2 - 4 hours a day that are not furthering your career or making you a better parent. Because it's all about being present, and you can't be present when you are on the train. It's just a fact. And it sucks.

I don't know any moms who like commuting, although I know a few who don't seem to mind it. If you're out there - let us know how you do it. Me and all the other moms who want it all - or at least of lot of both - would like to know.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I am for the Child.

Nearly six years ago I became a mother, and like most parents, having a child changed me in ways both expected and not. Today's post is about how motherhood awoke in me a profound sense of personal responsibility not just for my own child, but for children.

Stories about children going through medical, financial, physical or emotional hardship are difficult to bear for anyone - and perhaps doubly so for parents. When my son was born there was a heart-breaking story headlining about a child who was killed in her home through extreme abuse. There I was, in the hospital, coursing with hormones, overwhelmed with joy and fear and grace, unable to reconcile the fact that there were children who are at risk in the very places they were supposed to be safest: at home with their families. Children who were not going to benefit from the kind of promises I was making to my son. Born with him was a real commitment to helping vulnerable children. I didn't know how, but I knew that I would.

It wasn't long before I found CASA - Court-Appointed Special Advocates for Children - an amazing (if difficultly-named) organization that recruits, trains and supervises dedicated volunteers to provide advocacy to children in foster care. While still on maternity leave I reached out to CASA, and I have been with them ever since. First as an advocate, and now as a board member.

CASA's mission is to help fulfil "society's fundamental obligation to make sure that a qualified, compassionate adult will fight for a child's right to be safe, be treated with dignity, and thrive in the security of a loving family." Across the country, tens of thousands of CASA volunteers do this on behalf of nearly 240,000 foster children. But with over 700,000 kids in foster care in the U.S., there is much more to do.

For our part, in Essex County, we are serving around 20% of the foster care population, which at over 2,000 kids, is about quarter of the foster care population of the entire State of New Jersey - even though we have only about 8% of the State's general population. The figures are rough because they change frequently as kids come in and out of the system - but these serve as a general guide. However you cut the data, the need in Essex is tremendous.

I am so proud to be a part of this organization, which has been quietly and carefully providing this service for 25 years, and growing into one of the strongest CASA programs in the country. We match each volunteer with a case selected by a judge for CASA involvement. But the advocacy doesn't stop there, we are also building a mentoring program for the kids aging out of the system, and training family search & connect research volunteers, who are finding family members for kids where none were previously thought to have existed. The success stories with this program in Essex alone are astonishing.

As a board, we focus constantly on how to make sure that in our community, every child who cannot live safely in their home has a CASA who will help assure their safe passage out of foster care. As a mom, I always wish I could do even more - not just for the kids, but for their parents too.

If you learned something powerful about CASA through this post, will you help us spread the word?

If you'd like to support us, or become an advocate in Essex County please visit our website or New Jersey CASA and everywhere else at National CASA.

To see our moving new campaign PSA, visit our youtube channel here.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Who Cares?

All summer I've been road testing this new motto and it has done wonders for me. It efficiently dispenses with all manner of BS. The pediatrician can't vaccinate today because the appointment falls two days before a birthday? Who cares! You want beige walls but your husband wants beigy-grey? Who cares! You drove all the way to a mall that is closed on Sunday? Who cares! See?

But yesterday, the motto was stress-tested in the dressing room of Nordstrom by the four pounds that tacked themselves onto the five I already wanted to lose while I was running around having my aforementioned fun, carefree summer. I am sorry to say that my new attitude experienced a catastrophic system-wide failure in front of a three-way mirror.

It occurs to me that I have stumbled onto a new lesson - that career breaks, as precious as they are, are not only risky because of the career consequences, lost income, or the emotions of the whole family when you go back to work, but also because being happy can make you fat. Who knew!

So to borrow a phrase from Cindy Gallop, I am declaring my own Fatmageddon.

But there won't be a word about it mentioned in my house, because I have a daughter who, at 4, already cares too much about how she looks. When she looks in a mirror, I want her to aim higher than "who cares?" even if I can't always.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

You're Fabulous!

Good morning, everyone. As I can say with a fair amount of confidence that my readership is limited to an intimate but highly important (to me) group of close, personal friends, today's post is a shout out to your fabulousness.

A short while ago a high school friend posted on her blog a review of Ellen Lubin-Sherman's book The Essentials of Fabulous.

I haven't read it yet, but I plan to as soon as I finish Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein, but more on that later. What I can gather from the post is that Lubin-Sherman's come up with a handy little list of Ten Plus Traits of the Truly and Completely Fabulous and guess what?

You guys nail every point.

No surprises here.

Monday, October 3, 2011

It's a sign

Late this summer, after several weeks out of town, I was tidying up the backyard. There was a terrible smell of dead fish but I couldn't figure out what it was. Then, as I was dumping a load of sticks behind the shed, there it was. The dead thing.

I let out the biggest WHOOP you have ever heard, had a full-body shiver and ran into the house. I called my husband at work and let him know what I expected him to do about this, but the man of my dreams (really, he is) said "this one's all you, babe."


So I called our town's public works office and left the most pathetic message - and hours later (joy!) a very nice man came and disposed of what turned out to be a squirrel, all while fielding approximately 75 questions from my 5 year old son. Peace, and the smell of flowers, returned to the yard.

THEN, two days later, walking home from the school, BANG - right on the middle of the side walk, right in my path, was another dead squirrel. In between disgust and alarm I briefly considered and discarded a move back to Manhattan and then quickly determined there might be a rodent-borne virus upon the township. In four years nary a dead vermin to be found and then two in one week? I left another pathetic message for the public works man alerting him to the potential crisis.

Then, I called my husband AGAIN to fill him in on all of this in full detail. There was a beat of silence when I concluded my speech. I filled it in for both of us: I need a job, don't I?

I guess it was a sign.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Family meals: great in theory, tough in execution

A few months ago I was sitting in a meeting (ironically, if I recall, about mommy bloggers) when the presenter suddenly sprung this beautiful video on us about the importance of eating dinner as a family. We were discussing it in dry marketing terms, but I couldn't help but wonder how everyone else around the table felt, because most of us never get home in time for dinner, and it made me feel like crap. Because in my house, the pre-school set likes to dine right about the time that the last round of formally scheduled meetings start: 5:30. I wondered how many years would have to pass before we could all be eating together at 7:30 - because right now that hour is reserved for bedtime.

Then, in this weekend's New York Times Magazine, there was this article about what eating together means to different families - and acknowledging that it's tough to pull off for a full half of the country. Half!

In our house, we started doing family meals on Sunday - either lunch or dinner. With a three year old and a five year old it was time to finally start using the most expensively furnished and least used room in our house: the dining room. A meal is prepared, the table is set, and then chaos begins. Food is rejected, manners are poor, spilling is unavoidable and tears are not unusual. After three attempts even my husband complained, "This isn't fun." I agreed, but we also agreed that's why we had to stick with it. Because you have to learn how to have a family meal, and use your fork, and politely decline offensive offerings. And in between all the coaching, pleading and bribing, we are laughing, praising and treasuring two genuinely funny (and messy) little people.

When that 7:30 dinnertime finally rolls around, we'll be ready.

Is it hard for you to eat as a family? How old were your kids when you started?