August slump

I know I am not the only person caught in a serious slump.

The summer is becoming a blurry afterthought as I cling desperately to every ray of sunshine, every ripe tomato, every minute of twilight in the driveway, watching the girls ride bikes or color with chalk.

This was the summer when our new house became our home. We have wrung lots Kids meet the beachof precious moments out of our days: picking berries, jumping full force into the pool, building castles at the beach, eating anything outside, and most recently streaking in the backyard (the kids–not me).

Now that it is finally August, things are starting to unravel at a fast clip. Overnight, temperatures in the northeast have dipped slightly and on my way to work this morning, I saw red leaves on the trees. Autumn is creeping in.

Though the summer has been full of some routine for my oldest, this week she asked if it was autumn yet. When we told her it was still summer, she was sure it was July. She is trapped in a time-space continuum that makes complete sense–no one has had circle time in weeks so why should she know that we’re inching closer to Labor Day?

There are less than fourteen days until school starts and everyone is ready for someone to give us some structure. We are getting tired of everything.

Tired of the never-ending cycle of laundry. Wet towels, soggy bathing suits, that favorite sundress–piling up day after day, spinning over and over again. Loads remain unfolded and I’m nearly certain some items don’t have any homes at all. The homeless towels take up residence in the pool bag or the kids’ backpacks, never quite finding their place anywhere.

Tired of the debris all over the house tracked by dirty feet that I’m scrubbing every night in the “foot bath” because we’re all too lazy to run a full tub. Blades of grass, bugs from outside, buttercups and dandelions picked hours ago, now wilted on the kitchen floor.

Tired of the interrupted work time. Having worked in sporadic but concentrated stretches all summer, it is no surprise that I am coming up short on my completed projects. And as we close in on the start of the semester, I want my courses to be prepped and settled but I can’t bring myself to put the finishing touches on my syllabi.

Tired of lacking motivation. I want to read the books stacked up on my nightstand–the ones for work and the ones for me, but I just can’t bring myself to read more than a page or two. I want to exercise outside but I can’t bring myself to wake up in the morning. I set my alarm every day for 6:30am in the hopes I’ll get up and do some writing or reading or exercising and nothing happens. I snooze twice and wake up to curly heads climbing into my bed.

Tired of the lovely burdens of summer. The constant shucking of corn on the cob, the carting of dinner plates out to the yard and into the house, shlepping to pick berries or checking on the garden in my neighbor’s yard, the constant fly infestation from doors left open too long, the search for sunscreen or hats or that missing flip flop kicked off carelessly on a tear into the house. Nothing feels orderly.

And tired of being tired. The late bedtimes, the tantrums pitched in exhausted desperation before passing out under covers (“but not sheets, Mommy”). The discovery and rediscovery of toys long forgotten after hours spent at camp and the wars waged over “who got it first”. The protestation over going to camp because “I just want to stay home” mingled with the exclamation that “I want to go DO SOMETHING because I’m bored” while spending a scant hour in the house.

We are standing on the precipice of new territory. Soon, my oldest will start kindergarten and my youngest will begin proper preschool. I will start my last year on my contract at my current institution. My husband’s company launches a redesigned version of their main product. It is a busy time for us.

In a few weeks, when twilight creeps in minutes and then hours earlier, and when our new routine has regimented our days, we will long for carefree, post-dinner walks, for the quick trip to the farm for ice cream after dinner, for our soggy bottoms at the pool, or our lazy mornings with nothing planned.

And that is when I’ll remind myself that this isn’t really a slump. It’s just life.

Posted in everyday life, family, gardening, kids, lessons learned, personal, summer, Uncategorized, vacation | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Vacation hangover (and Chatham redux)

This time last week, we were on vacation.

Lighthouse Beach

Sunrise at Lighthouse Beach, Chatham, MA

On Sunday, we returned from a trip to the beach, and it was mostly magical. We went to a favorite summer spot of my husband’s family in Cape Cod, where we had stayed once before. Our last trip (and my first time in Chatham) was a family affair when our oldest was 15 months old. From the beginning of that last trip, I was crabby because everyone in the group including my California-born sister-in-law and my four-year-old nephew had been to the Cape before, and all they could do was rehash memories of trips past. I felt like I was crashing someone else’s vacation, but it was mostly all in my head. The trip came a few years after my mother has died, and I was with my entire married family, feeling jealous at the assembly of people. I eventually relaxed, came to love their shared family memories, and carved a few of my own spaces in their beloved Cape village.

This time, the trip was on our own terms. When we were close to our departure, my husband said, “I’ve never been there without my parents so it’s really us navigating things.”

I was thrilled.

We are at our best when we’re in things together. I am notoriously terrible at trip planning because I find it difficult to understand the landscape of a place sight unseen. Having been to Chatham once before, I had a hazy memory of where things were and that meant I could focus on doing and going rather than being lost half the time. This was my kind of trip–not overscheduled or mapped out. Just us, the beach and loads of ice cream.

Our vacation was breathtaking at times. I wrote blog post after blog post in my head where I rarely store my words because like the sand on the shore, the tide took them away. I took almost 300 pictures of my kids and my husband (and even appeared in some myself). I took even more pictures in my mind: my little daughter riding on my husband’s shoulders in the middle of the ocean with the blue sky and clouds behind them. My girls coloring in their pajamas on the little coffee table in our very cozy (read tight) cottage for the week. The crumpled face of my three-year-old daughter when she spilled an entire ice cream cone in her shoe. The Cape Cod National Seashore at the end of a brief bike ride through the woods, listening to my little one squeal, “I love the downhills.” Their delight at the “mermaid store” on Chatham’s main drag full of girly treasures.

It was ice cream and sand sculptures, walks on the beach, bike rides and the Friday night band concert, hot dogs and Cape Cod baseball games, and it was really, really nice.

We discovered that upon our return, the kids have slept better in their own little beds than they did on vacation. On vacation, they were up at 6:45am ready to take on the day, unwilling to miss a minute of excitement. On vacation, they learned to entertain themselves together, a unexpected by-product that warmed our hearts. But back home, they’re sleeping in a little more and clinging a little more. My husband and I aren’t complaining about the extra sleep in the morning, but we can hardly bring ourselves to get out of bed, too. A few days back from a lovely week off and we’re all slogging through the days.

It was certainly not all sunshine and rainbows, either. There were some entirely real moments where I remember dragging my sandy, sweaty children screaming into an outdoor shower or dead lifting them off the ground mid-tantrum, but I can hardly blame them. A child on vacation is in real heaven: they were overexposed to the sun, up past their bedtime and pumped full of hot dogs, pasta, and ice cream.

I did discover a few new parenting practices that I want to remember:

  • No matter how much they protest, make sure you take your children to the restroom before you leave your house.
  • Picnic tables are not an appropriate seating option for a three-year-old. They need more supervision than you think.
  • You can triple up on the sunscreen lotion and still get a sunburn.
  • Your husband with minimal coaxing will grow a goatee….and it will be awesome!
  • Your husband will for once be right about storing the bread in the fridge to avoid soggy sandwiches on the beach–who knew beach air was so wet?
  • It is okay to disconnect, to not answer text messages and to get off of social media. You won’t miss it and you’ll feel like you really got away.
  • Make time for at least one thing for yourself–for me it was beach yoga.IMG_6244

And so I don’t forget our favorite Chatham spots, I’ve made a little map to remember them.

And now, back to reality….

Posted in everyday life, family, kids, lessons learned, personal, summer, travel, vacation | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Sometimes it takes a village, except when it shouldn’t

PlaygroundLast week a story surfaced about a woman in South Carolina, Debra Harrell, who was arrested because she made the conscious choice to let her 9-year-old daughter play in a public park while she went to work. I had already seen the story in my Facebook feed and followed updates posted by a complete stranger when a friend sent me a link to the story. [The same stranger is raising money to support the legal case that will inevitably unfold.]

I wrote a simple reply to my friend: Makes me so sad.

My friend asked for clarification, “Yes, but sad for who?” and in person, he repeated the question, clarifying further, “Don’t say you’re sad for everyone involved.”

“No,” I replied, “I feel so sad for this mother.”

By all accounts Debra Harrell was making the best of a difficult set of non-choices. In an economy where unemployment is rampant and where the unemployment rate for black women (over the age of 20) is double the unemployment rate for white women, here is a mother who was gainfully employed without childcare in the summer. Working at McDonald’s and getting by with a child is hard enough. In Aiken County, South Carolina where the story transpired, a food service worker earns on average about $8.50 per hour. This would be sufficient for one adult, but it is not a living wage for one adult AND one child.

Besides the harsh financial reality of family life, parents raising children face a daily gauntlet of decisions, and every one of these choices carries with it some risk. What should we feed our children, what should they wear, how should they spend their time, with whom should they spend their time, and most importantly, am I screwing this up? Many of these decisions are easy if you have money and a partner and extra time in your life. Without those things, the scope of your choices is limited. Often, you have no choices at all.

Ms. Harrell has had to grapple with some decisions that, so far as a parent, I have not encountered. I have a partner and we have a stable childcare arrangement. My children are also very young, and surveillance of little ones is more clear-cut than older children. Based on the way the story has been told in the media, I believe that she made the right choice for her family because she trusted her child.

Much of the court of public opinion is working through the rhetorical conversation about when children should be allowed to stay home alone, go out alone, or be in charge of themselves (here and here). Not every nine-year-old could handle being on their own for several hours a day, but according to countless retrospective accounts of “free-range” childhoods, many present-day adults roamed their neighborhoods without supervision as children, returned home when the street lights came on (or when their parents rang a cowbell), and lived to tell the tale. Many will counter this nostalgia, saying that we live in a different and possibly more dangerous age. More likely, twenty-first century parents are hyper-vigilant of their own children and the children in their village.

I have had my fair share of parenting fails—some public and some private. Most parents (especially mothers) proclaim their silliest or most embarrassing mistakes, crowning themselves “mother of the year” in jest. In my parenting village, there are probably some parents who find my choices radical and others who find them conservative. If a mom or dad friend casts aspersions on what I do with my children, I typically listen and move on, internalizing what might help and shedding what stings. The bystander in Ms. Harrell’s story seems to have skipped this step—the parent-to-parent moment. Instead, Ms. Harrell’s story opens a whole vortex of parenting worry I had never even considered—the meddling stranger.

Never have I witnessed or worried about another parent or child to the degree that I would have to bring in law enforcement. And even if I had, I would probably bring it to the other parent first before making a fateful call to local police. I’ve been in public parks where there were too many children to follow, where big kids were running around like maniacs, and when I may have wondered, where are the parents? But I never cornered those kids and asked them point-blank. It makes me wonder what am I doing that others might evaluate even in passing that might warrant that fateful call? Do I dare even share those details here for fear that someone would find our home address and follow up?

If we use this story as our barometer, we would have to inform on many other parents (both real and fictitious). Since summer has started, my children (ages 3 and 5) run in and out of our house to the back yard and the front yard and not always under our watchful eyes. Any neighbor could catch them riding their bikes or more likely arguing in the front driveway without my husband or me close at hand. As irrational as it might seem, I worry slightly about the call of some meddling stranger who disapproves of our choices. For all of the times when I wonder where is my village, now I am left wondering, should other folks stay out it?

Whether we agree that age nine is an appropriate time for children to be on their own, age nine is certainly more than old enough to remember everything that happens in your life. Nine is old enough to understand when your life is in the middle of serious upheaval, and it is old enough to feel scarred by a system meant to protect you. Maybe we should think about what we want for our own children and use this child’s pain as the barometer. I doubt we would wish estrangement and foster care on seemingly functional families.

I felt relieved when I learned this week that Ms. Harrell has been reunited with her daughter and has had support from countless strangers who saw the need to offer support without judgment. Being a good citizen of the village means knowing when to intervene, when to pass judgment from afar and when to simply look on from a distance.

Going forward, all I hope is that we find ways to make our villages better by trusting each other, looking out for our families and kids, and offering up a helping hand instead of the arm of the law.

Posted in community, everyday life, family, kids, lessons learned, motherhood, parenthood, personal, vacation, women, work, writing | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Where I write and what I think about it

I write….

…in blank documents that exist only on a computer screen.

…in slim, Moleskine notebooks full of creamy, unlined pages.

…in the Twitter composition window under the watchful eye of the character counter, ticking off every precious letter, space and ampersand.

…in the journal on my nightstand where I log my daily comings and goings.

…in my mind in fleeting moments of solitude as I wash dishes or take a shower or watch my daughters play.

…and in times of true desperation (as I write these words) on scraps of paper found deep in the recesses of my bag or in moments of even greater desperation on the backs of crumpled receipts for our dry cleaning or our groceries.

And I will never be sure which medium I prefer because none of them are truly permanent. Because data bytes are saved in the air and fire could consume paper. Scraps of brilliance are easily lost or trashed. And the brain is no place to save ideas.

And so I wonder what can be trusted. And then I wonder whether it is worth thinking thoughts or writing words in the first place.

And when the word purge is over, I click save, close the book, stuff the scraps, retire the pen and sigh deeply because what weighed heavily on my mind exists somewhere else now.

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Everybody’s free to wear [organic] sunscreen

When a friend casually mentioned the Environmental Working Group’s sunscreen report to me in passing, I should have nodded, smiled, and moved on. Instead, I asked her to share it with me.

Like any curious parent, upon clicking open the report, I did not read the methodology, I ignored the small print, and I went straight for the explanation of my own tried and true brand, Neutrogena. EWG tested for the accuracy of the UVA/UVB spectrum and for the presence of several potentially toxic chemicals, and Neutrogena gets low marks on both. I was deflated.

Sunscreen is one of my few parenting neuroses. As a fair-skinned mother of two fair-skinned littles, sunscreen is all I have to protect my skin and their skin from the punishment of a toxic sunburn. I am aggressively concerned about protecting their skin. When my oldest could barely talk, I drilled into her head that we need sunscreen “to protect our skin” and while she loathed the lotioning up, in five years, she has never had sunburned skin. Thank. Goodness.

To think my only line of defense had toxic chemicals in it? That sent me over the edge. I did the only thing a reasonable person would do. I hauled ass to Whole Foods and picked up some Badger suncreen stat. Totally pathetic.

I have become my own worst parenting nightmare.

If you always bought organic sunscreen, I am sorry if I ever judged you.

Buying organic has never been a priority for me. Many consumers believe that an organic label signals something, but I am not sure it signals anything besides a false sense of security. Organic labeling and production are more complex that most consumers know. While I care about the purity of my beauty products and my food, I care more about other qualities like: how far did this product travel, how are the elements of this product sourced, how were the folks who make this product treated in the process? I care about where our food comes from and when it comes to products like sunscreen or lotion, I never gave them much thought.

The adoption of organic sunscreen is an move unprecedented in my household. I am not the parent who reads something incendiary and runs out to the first natural grocery store to buy my way out of a child-rearing panic. My husband is slightly agog with my hysteria. To be fair, my husband has never endured a painful, blistering sunburn and cannot fully understand how unbearable it would be to see our littles look like lobsters. 

Worse, yet, I cannot seem to calm my brain down. Every day I visit the pool or the park and I see a friend (or a perfect stranger) lotioning up their child, I inquire about their chosen brand. And since summer is full of sunny days, I have many chances every day to make myself crazy. Even as I wrote this essay, I kept surprising myself at the level of worry I harbored over this incidental detail of my day.

This is not the kind of parent I want to be. I am the calm one, the unruffled, unrattled one. I keep trying to remind myself that we never cared about this kind of thing in the first place, that we will be fine with whatever sunscreen we choose.

It’s not about the sunscreen, really.

Parenting has this way of feeling like smooth sailing and impending hurricane at the very same time. And every parent has their own struggles–their children’s allergies, major or minor health conditions, behavioral problems–and their own hangups. But, no one is really watching or judging how you manage those hangups (big and small) except you.

Which means no one is going to let you off the hook except you.

So as our sunscreen supply dwindles, I’ll have to relax and perhaps revert to our conventional, if toxic, standby brand. And I won’t judge me if you won’t. 

Posted in everyday life, family, kids, lessons learned, parenthood, personal, summer, weather | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Fringe benefits of parenting

If I would make a pros and cons list for parenting (and I would never actually do such a thing), I be able to amply populate both columns. And it would be easy to focus on the negative things happening on a day-to-day basis like the tantrums, the bickering, or the whining, right?

But, in my life, the frustration is easy to forget in the delicious moments with children when they surprise or delight you.

And I am finding that when you spend most of your day with children, there is some balance between wretched and stupendous.

For instance:

Earlier last week while I frantically checked my inboxes before heading out for the day, my little daughter walked up to me in undies and asked for help with her T-shirt. Clothed from the waist up, she left my office. Two minutes later, I popped my head in her doorway to see her sister helping her put on shorts. When I asked if they needed me, they replied, “No, we’re okay.” Minutes later, I heard a triumphant announcement that they were “ready to go.”

Or….

In the summer, there is an outdoor concert series in a park that also houses the country’s oldest rose garden. We go the concert with a group of friends and inevitably run into lots of people we know. The concert series kicked off last week, and I was reminded of the ways I can mark our children’s lives by these Wednesday nights with friends. We have pictures of our first concert when my oldest was 15 months, the summer later when my little was in a stroller, then toddling, and now everyone is running. It is incredible to see my children with their friends in their bare feet trampling through arches full of roses in bloom, always a few inches taller and certainly much bolder. But even more enchanting than traipsing around the garden after them (including a few frantic shouts to slow down), I was overcome watching my husband and daughters throw down at the front of the concert on the dance floor. They were dancing like no one was watching.

These little moments asserting their independence and carefree living remind me that the aggravating moments of parenting are frustrating but not intolerable. Without these little people, I probably would not choose to east cupcakes for dinner or skip instead of walk. But I do. And in summer, it’s what I love to do.

Posted in community, everyday life, family, kids, motherhood, parenthood, personal, summer | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Summertime with my academic babies….

It was a really good week.

Some highlights: strawberry picking, blue skies, homemade shortcakes, playtime in the yard, swimming at the pool, and the first CSA delivery of the year.

Some low moments: 2 sick days, plenty of bickering, a few epic tantrums, and some summer rain.

On balance, I’d say we are doing just fine.

It was easy for me to disconnect, but the summer does not feel slow around here because in a few short weeks, it will be back to school time.

This week, I had to stay slightly tethered to work, because my first big essay was making the rounds. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae section published my essay, “The Perfect Academic Baby.” The editors have bravely taken on the issue of faculty and family life beginning with a series on motherhood and the academy and my essay was the first to run.

It has been thrilling to see people respond to the essay. I have been hoping to share these thoughts with an audience for a long time and I simply thrilled that the Vitae editors took me up on my pitch. And then to hear from some of the folks I really respect and admire (like Karen Kelsky and Rebecca Schumann who both write about the academy) respond and share the essay, too, well that was also a thrill.

I feel lucky to be hearing from people I know and people I have never met and knowing that this essay is reaching people.

I am working on two more essays for them and I can’t wait to see how they go over, too.

If this first week is any indication, I am staring down a really, wonderful summer.

Posted in academia, blogging, community, everyday life, family, kids, lessons learned, motherhood, summer, what professors do, women, work, writing | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment