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 , , | 2 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.

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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 , , , | Leave a comment

In summer….

I was getting really tired of people asking me if I had the “summer off.” Over a year ago, I ranted about academia and vacation time. Spoiler alert: there is none.

It’s not that there is no vacation time. During the school year, I feel pulled in many different directions. And considering I have prepped something new every semester for the last four years, I have not had the headspace to establish a good balancing act.

And in the last four years, I’ve also had two little girls under the age of four. The fact that I made it to class with anything intelligible to say while clothed (and caffeinated) with any more than four hours of sleep is a small miracle.

So when summer approaches and my grades are posted and suddenly the dust clears, I am slightly in heaven. I might actually be able to tie up loose ends, to get started on new projects and to think with my head screwed on correctly over coffee at Hartford Baking Company.

I have always been touchy about summer. Beginning two summers ago, we juggled childcare for the girls when I was not being paid so that I could complete my dissertation analysis, write up my project, and prep for my second year teaching. As a family we decided to continue the part-time parenting schedule after I finished grad school. In those first days of the summer schedule, I was jittery and nervous–was I missing something not sitting in my “office” all day? I learned, slowly but surely, that I was missing nothing.

This is the first year that I am employed continuously over the calendar year, where I am fully paid all summer, and when I technically have plenty of work to do. Except, I am staring down my third and final year at my current institution. And though I have research in progress, two papers to send out, and some syllabi to tweak, when anyone asks me if I have the “summer off,” instead of groaning in frustration and lecturing about how I never have “time off,” I will simply reply, “yes, I do” because this summer, it’s true.

Am I working? Yes. Am I parenting? Also, yes. I am toggling between full-time parent, full-time work and it will simply have to do.

So, I have trashed the self-righteous posts about the importance of summer work, and I am easing into this amazing vista over the shoulder of our girls. Because it’s time to pick berries and stop feeling guilty.

If you need me, I’ll be baking strawberry shortcakes (and writing)….IMG_6060

Posted in everyday life, family, guilty pleasures, kids, lessons learned, motherhood, parenthood, personal, summer, vacation, writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Open letter to our village on the last day of preschool

Dear village,

We did it. We made it through another year of “school” with our kiddos.

The last week has been full of “lasts” for our oldest. Last community Shabbat gathering, Star Night (preschool graduation but not), last dance class of the year, last swim day, last, last, last. It has felt bittersweet for us until we realize that she seems to be unphased by the transition before her. She is not sad about the end of some days, and she is instead glad for another new day.

Feeling sad about her last day of preschool is largely selfish. I have loved seeing your faces at drop off and pick up time, getting to know your families, and being a part of a community of people. There is something reassuring about a sense of routine and familiarity and you are all a part of that for me.

So if I haven’t done it already, please accept this letter of thanks.

Thanks for the reassurance on tough days. Thank you for calling “hang in there” or “I hear you” over your shoulder as we struggled through a parking lot tantrum or a teary drop off. Thank you for the high five or the hug when we were having a tough parenting day or a rough professional moment. Thanks for that coffee date, park meet-up or ladies’ night out over adult beverages.

Thanks for the little things you probably don’t even remember. Thanks for the extra cup of milk you tucked into your kiddo’s lunch box because we came up short on a busy morning. Thanks for making sure my kids never ran like crazy people into oncoming traffic during pick up time. Thanks for waiting in the lobby on a day I was stuck in traffic. And thanks for checking in on my kids on your way to music class at Beth Israel or in your travels at the JCC.

And thanks to our virtual village of friends who we do not see often but who are still connected to our daily lives. I do not post nearly enough pictures or videos but your support from afar is invaluable to us.

I am a little sad today on this last day of preschool but not too sad. We have been so fortunate to meet a small village when we first enrolled our oldest in daycare. Those villagers are still some of our closest friends today. Beginning in your living rooms around birthday season in 2010, at the park or the pool, on the sledding hills, at Shabbat on Fridays, at pumpkin festivals or berry picking, we have spent several charmed years in your company. And when we chose to switch preschools, we found even more villagers to help us in the adventure.

If we never met you, our lives would not be filled with your children and your families. We have so much to be glad about.

So, thank you. On to summer!

Smiles,

Rachel

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