My parental friends, can we please participate in a little collusion? A little organized action. I mean, we aren’t unionized, so “big birthday” can’t come after us, right? Although I have a healthy fear of clowns (thanks to Stephen King), I feel safe enough taking them on. And I know, deep down, you want to too.
Here’s what I’m talking about- yearly birthday parties. Every. Damn. Year. It’s too much. Can’t we all agree to just go every other year? I propose that A – L takes the even years and M – Z takes the odd years. We’ll make exceptions for sweet sixteens and quinceaneras. Voila- between presents for the parties our kids attend and throwing a party, we’ve probably saved a $1,000 per family a year. Then, put that money in their college account or spend it on yourself. You probably deserve a nice date night or ten!
This year, when our girls turned 8, we did a “family party.” This used to be an acceptable way to mark a kid’s birthday, and indeed- the most common “party” a kid had, but now- with the birthday party arms race that has sprung up- the family party has been replaced by the institutional party machine- bouncy houses, climbing walls (we are guilty of this one), bowling, trampolines, gymnastics, mobile video game trucks, professional laser tag, pony rides- there is no limit because with everyone throwing parties, all the kids have done all the activities. It’s gotten completely out of control. Six year olds are having more elaborate birthday parties than I have ever had and I’m forty years old.
I know it’s a losing battle to ask everyone to restrain themselves from throwing these parties- that would be like asking everyone to go back to riding horses. Cars are here to stay and so are these birthday parties. We’re just as guilty- we did a party at a climbing gym when our girls were 4 years old! Four. Years. Old. I must have been mental. But I’ve come to my senses! I am calling for moderation! A truce- let’s just tone it down a teensy-weensy bit.
I make this plea with tongue in cheek, but I do think there is a serious side to it. What is left for a young person who turns 16 or 18 or 21 when they’ve “been there, done that” at all the great birthday venues by the time they are 10 or 12? The only thing I haven’t seen at a kids party is a bartender (and maybe if a little booze was served up for the parents, I wouldn’t be so over it).
Chatting with another mom awhile back, she protested that her daughter would be disappointed if she didn’t have one of these IPC (Industrial Party Complex) parties. That all her friends had them. My thoughts were in rapid succession- 1) Getting used to disappointment is one of the most valuable skills you can teach, and 2) How many more times are we going to hear that excuse as our kids grow up? I mean, I have probably said the one about “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?” ten times already. Disappointment is part of being a kid. I WANT them to move out someday- we can’t make it too much fun to live at home.
Also, I’d like to say that our family party was really fun. We put up crepe paper streamers (the remnants are still hanging from the ceiling), had chocolate fondue instead of cake, and got to relax and enjoy ourselves- there was no 2-hour turn around on the room. Admittedly, I may have gone slightly overboard on things to dip in the chocolate fondue- we probably didn’t need donut holes, marshmallows, angel food cake, AND brownies… but I’m still getting used to toning it down too. (Side note: Angel food cake is THE BEST. Donut holes are surprisingly meh.)
A final, perhaps too radical, thought. I’m also an advocate for the “no presents/no goody-bag” party. I mean, I know I don’t live in Seattle anymore (being eleven whole miles outside of it) but I still love the sweet granola crunch of consuming less. (Sure, my eastside house is twice the size of the house we lived in, in Seattle- but we moved FOR THE SCHOOLS!) I know your kid doesn’t need the present we got at Target 45 minutes before the party and my kid doesn’t need a bunch of candy and crappy toys that I am going to surreptitiously throw away after they go to bed. The unicorn ride and custom, monogrammed cupcakes that you served at the party were treat enough.
Even with all the lights and the holiday fun- the Argosy Christmas Ship, the Bellevue Botanical Garden d’Lights, and the 1st graders holiday concert that had me tearing up every two minutes, it wasn’t enough to keep the Grinch at bay. I’m still a horrible Grinch- or at least I have one lurking inside my imperfect heart.
Maybe it’s just inevitable at this time of year, but he poked his ugly green head out and made himself at home at our dinner table yesterday. Let me explain.
As I have shared before, we do a “gratitude practice” at dinner, where each person says one thing they are grateful for from the day. So last evening, Sofia started us off. “Trees.” she said. Okay, not a great answer and kind of generic, but okay. Now, it was my turn. I was feeling worn out from a day of holiday cheer (see aforementioned Christmas Ships), and feeling somewhat bitter and grouchy about the general lack of gratitude and appreciation that seems to be rampant among our children at the moment, and so I said, “I’m grateful you kids have camp tomorrow.” Yes, I said that. DURING our gratitude practice.
Well, kids aren’t stupid. They knew that my “gratitude” was actually a thinly veiled dig at them. Sofia looked at me with big eyes and said, “Why are you grateful for that?” I’d been caught. Ugh. Bad mommy. BAD. MOMMY. I mumbled something lame about how I had to work the next day, so I was glad they’d have something fun to do. But that wasn’t really why I said it. I’d said it because I was tired of the whining, the grousing, the total lack (at least to my Grinchy-self) of appreciation from the kids. My husband’s look from across the table was one of grave disappointment. I stared back defiantly. What, this massive hole that I’m in? I like it here, in my dark, grinchy place. Thank you very much.
Audrey was next. Whether because she has truly the sweetest soul or because she is a guilt-trip mastermind (I suspect the former but wouldn’t put the latter past her- she’s wicked smart), she said, “I’m glad it’s winter break, so that I get to spend more time with you, Mommy.”
Yes- she went there. I felt about one inch tall and shrinking fast. I think I may have actually transformed into a heel, like you see in cartoons, for a moment. Here I am saying snarky things about shipping the kids off to camp for Winter Break (To be clear: this was NOT the intent when I booked Drama camp as a special treat months ago.), and here is my lovely daughter talking about how all she wants to do is spend time with me. It wasn’t like a knife to the heart, it was like a chainsaw.
I wish I could tell you that my mood immediately lifted and that for the rest of the evening we snuggled, and read Christmas stories, and ate Christmas cookies, but that’s not real life. I did have enough grace to at least look further ashamed of my comment and I thanked her softly.
After dinner, I needed to run to the store quickly, so I popped my head in their bedroom to say bye before heading out. The girls were all tangled in heap on the floor, like a couple of sour tomcats, hissing and kicking over whatever inconsequential thing they could come up with to fight over. This fighting has taken a significant uptick in the last couple weeks. I shook my head and went to the store. We all are infected by the Grinch.
My takeaway from my complete failure during our gratitude practice and from the month of December is that the holidays are hard and stress everyone out. Parents have high expectations, kids have high expectations, and those expectations are just plain unrealistic.
When we strive for that ideal of sailing through the holidays without tears or complaint or well-laid plans gone awry- we set ourselves up for disappointment. Disappointment may be the present not received, the smile not gotten in the Santa photo, the special holiday dress that doesn’t get worn, the relative that can’t come or does come home for Christmas. It can take a million forms, and inevitably you find your emotions and expectations tossed around like a tiny ship in a hurricane.
This morning when my husband got up, I said, “I’m sorry for being such a grouch with you and the kids.” He said, “Me too. Good thing today is a new day.” The hurricane had passed, at least for the moment. We hugged and promised to try again today to keep the Grinches away. Then I went and did the same with the kids.
Even over the holidays, we are still human and flawed and messy. In fact, we’re worse. The highs can be higher, but the lows are lower. Even with the Christmas lights, and carols, and all the effort we put into smothering that Grinch.
So, be kind to yourself and your family, and when you aren’t- forgive quickly. Forgive yourself. Forgive your spouse. Forgive your relatives and friends. And most of all, forgive your kids. They are just learning how to navigate the high seas of the holidays and if we don’t have it right yet, how can they?
Although our kids are early in their school career, I noticed an interesting phenomenon before the start of this school year- jockeying for the “best” teacher. I had no idea the amount of chatter and behind the scenes positioning that goes on among parents about who their child will get the next year. I tried to adopt an attitude of nonchalance, but honestly did breathe a sigh of relief when both kids got “good ones.” But this phenomenon extends far beyond just teachers- there is this insidious desire to ensure that your child has the best of whatever’s on offer.
I’m here to say, “Stop the madness!”
Remember when you were a kid and your Mom made you take the first cookie offered- you couldn’t dig through the plate to find the biggest or the one with the most chocolate chips? There’s a valuable lesson in there. It’s not to say in some Orwellian way, be satisfied with your lot in life, but rather that there are important lessons to be gained out of not having “the best” <insert your preferred noun here: teacher, coach, babysitter, principal, toy, equipment, computer, clothes- whatever>. Not to mention, the broken cookie really does taste JUST AS GOOD.
In fact, while we are praising “lousy” teachers, let’s praise lousy parents too. When I use the word lousy, I am being slightly misleading in an effort to make a point. Obviously, if a teacher is truly not qualified or not performing up to a district’s standards, that’s different. But a teacher who is just performing at the mid-point, who’s room doesn’t look like it came off “Classrooms of Pinterest” or who tries to maintain some semblance of work/life balance? They run the risk of not being one considered one of the “good” ones. But if your kid (or my kid) ends up with a middle of the pack teacher- we should probably rejoice!
Here’s why- if you always demand “the best” for your children, you are setting an impossible standard, one to which you too, will not measure up. We simply can’t be at our best all the time. Sometimes you are going to be a lousy parent- whether missing an important game or conference, making a dinner of canned chili and left over fried rice (last night), or how about just telling the kids you don’t feel like reading a book to them before bed? The Horror! Maybe you are just tired- I’ve heard that happens to parents.
Another important reason is that coping with adversity is a critical skill and building resilience is a process that a) takes a long time, and b) is difficult to measure. And yet, we all know how important resilience is in our adult lives. Jobs are hard, managers are crappy, relationships end, money is scarce, opportunities vanish. A teacher who isn’t half Mary Poppins/half Miss Honey doesn’t put your child on the road to destitution, he or she actually helps them flex & build important mental muscles that don’t show up on the report card.
Tough times DO happen over the course of your life and almost always the right answer is not going to be to drop what you are doing and walk away from it. On the rare occasion where that is the answer- it is a decision that requires great courage, and unlike The Boy Who Cried Wolf, you better be a careful shepherd of that precious resource.
In our home, we take a pretty pragmatic approach when “lousy” shows up in the kids lives. We have a strong bias towards “This too shall pass.” If it’s something more serious, we talk about the importance of getting along or continuing to learn despite whatever challenges the situation may present. But, we also haven’t really been tested yet.
It’s not like the physics teacher I had in high school, who regularly fell asleep in class or the born-again Christian biology teacher who refused to teach Evolution… I’m not sure what I would do if something that extreme presented itself. My reaction as a student was to get mad that they were standing between me and what I was supposed to learn. I’m sure I talked to my parents about both situations, but they didn’t march down to the school, they told me I had better make sure I was keeping my grades up to par.
There is no doubt that children learn far more from good teachers and good parents, but I think we should consider stopping there. You know what, good is good.
There is no doubt that children learn far more from good teachers and good parents, but I think we should consider stopping there. You know what, good is good. Being a good person, having a good life, having a good job. These were the things that the “greatest generation” strived for. They were great because they were good.
I might say it another way and here, I’m going to lean on some big brains- so I’m taking no credit. I was looking to attribute the quote, “Perfect is the Enemy of the Good.” when Wikipedia tossed a few heavyweights my way, to back up my line of thought. Aristotle, Confucius, Voltaire, and others wrote about the idea of the golden mean, which counsels against extremism in general, and further explores the idea that since perfection is likely impossible to achieve anyway, chasing it only leads to diminishing returns.
Now, before you say that undermines the entire idea of striving and achievement- hold up. Let’s remember who these guys were- not exactly slouches. If you apply this principle in your home, and your kid comes up to you at some point and says, “But Aristotle says I don’t have to be the best!” You just say, “Fine, keep up with Aristotle and we’ll call it good.”
Thanks for reading! Please share my post if you enjoyed it- I really appreciate it and always appreciate you taking the time.
I was in my favorite place on earth, Winthrop, WA, a few weeks back to celebrate the 4th of July. Winthrop is charming, rustic, Western-themed town that today continues the tradition of being a hub for ranchers and farmers, and importantly has transitioned into a tourist destination for those seeking active getaways in a beautiful valley. On a busy summer weekend, every car on the street will bristle with all manner of outdoorsy paraphernalia from mountain & road bikes, to kayaks and inner tubes, to camping and hunting gear, bulging from Thule roof racks.
We were enjoying a break from mountain biking ourselves, strolling down the diminutive main drag, ducking in and out of the shops, without a care in the world- when it happened. One moment I was saying something to my 6 1/2 year old daughter, and the next moment I was staring at a gun. Now, it wasn’t pointed at me, but it was about eight inches from my daughters face, so to say my heart skipped a beat is an understatement. It was as out of place as if someone had walked up and slapped me.
The man in front of me was participating in the practice known as open carry. As in, I have a gun stuck in the back of my pants and I want you to know it. The gun was in some kind of fanny-pack (he’d call it a holster) and it was perched there like a flower stuck in a vase- a very deadly flower. My initial reaction was shock followed quickly by anger. Then, almost as quickly as he was in front of me, he was gone. He turned into the next shop and we kept moving down the block toward our destination.
However brief that moment was, it was a lightening strike. As bright and harsh as a fiery bolt of electricity, it illuminated in a flash why open carry is so harmful.
Let’s Get One Thing Straight
Let me state emphatically- I am not opposed to gun-ownership and I am a supporter of intelligent gun rights. Please don’t read any secret agenda into that- I truly support the right to bear arms and given the chance, I’ll happily have a dialogue about the parameters that should be implemented to ensure everyone who wishes to, can enjoy and own guns safely. The comparison to car ownership and operation may seem like a cliched argument (and may not be enshrined in the constitution- because let’s be honest, it would be an amendment about horse ownership) but it is incredibly relevant and apt. I’ll come back to that in a little bit. In fact, NYT Opinion Columnist, Nicholas Kristof, just had some great thoughts about this idea.
Like most Americans, I have many friends who are hunters and frankly, if you are a meat eater, you are a bit of a hypocrite if you don’t support hunters. I admire the ability to dress a kill and have enjoyed the fruits of these endeavors (whether as jerky or steaks). When the zombie apocalypse happens, I’ll be glad to count these folks as friends. Further, I have many friends who enjoy owning a handgun and although we may argue about whether or not possessing a gun actually makes them safer- in many ways that’s beside the point, they have the right to own a firearm.
Not to mention, the United States has the highest rate of firearm ownership in the world, 97 guns for every 100 people; 50% more than the next two closest countries (those paragons of civil society, Serbia & Yemen)- so to a very real degree, regardless of your feelings on the subject- guns are here to stay. No one (at least not me) is arguing that fact.
What I do want to address is the impact of reducing the complex issue of gun regulation to a one-dimensional “all or nothing” argument. It’s ridiculous. We should feel embarrassed as a nation to allow that kind of shallow invocation to distract us from the real opportunity and need in front of us. We must find a way, both in terms of our laws and more importantly, in our attitudes and social mores, to ensure public safety and security. To do nothing is selfish, arrogant, and short-sighted. One place to begin is with a careful look at the impact of open carry on social dynamics, freedom of speech, and safety.
The Reality of Open Carry
Back to that moment in the sun in Winthrop. Recall, the open carry individual and I didn’t even make eye contact, though my first impulse was to reach out and tap him on the shoulder. I wanted to ask him, “What the HELL are you thinking?” How dare you introduce that kind of threat into our peaceful afternoon? What if my daughter had tripped and instinctively reached in front of her to catch herself? What if I had tripped (a pretty common occurrence) and stumbled into him? What if he thought I was a threat? An unarmed person, even one spoiling for a fight, would do no more than push me, but this guy- who’s arrogance and slavish devotion to belief puts every member of the community at a very real physical disadvantage. He could shoot me. He could KILL me. In front of my daughter. And he might even successfully claim it was self-defense. That’s the reality we invite when we tolerate open-carry in the public sphere.
It’s important to note that in Washington State, open carry is legal (even without a permit), so this man wasn’t legally doing anything wrong, but he was in a very tangible way, impacting every person around him, by destabilizing the dynamics of power, community, and freedom from fear that our society relies upon to function.
Critics may move to dismiss my assertion as hysterical or naive, but that’s the lazy voice of misdirection. The crux of the issue is this: when one person has a gun and another doesn’t, the person without a gun has less power, less voice, and in point of fact, can be under threat of death in an instant. Standing eight inches behind that open carry person as a pedestrian, I was “safe”. However, I have no doubt that I could have provoked the guy into shooting me (perhaps with words alone) and that is not okay. It is not okay that my ability to speak and move about on a public street was limited because one guy had a pointless point to make. The other lazy answer to this is to arm *both* people. But we know that’s a violence multiplier, not a violence reducer. It’s bananas to think that any rational person would want to live in a society where we all walk around armed.
Cars vs. Guns
Back to the cars vs. guns analogy. Although the right to own a car is not in the Constitution (again, it would be a horse amendment), US car ownership is on par with gun ownership; particularly with respect to other nations. We have the highest level of car ownership in the world. Car ownership and what it represents in real terms and psychologically, is vitally important to America and yet, we have a whole body of comprehensive laws that folks are more or less happy with and abide by. It is not only against the law to drive on the sidewalk in the US, but it’s also socially unacceptable. You may laugh, but that’s NOT true in all other countries. Social norms in Kenya (where I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer), dictate that cars can drive wherever they can fit- sidewalks, center dividers, into on-coming traffic- whatever they can get away with. Through enforcement of our laws and our social norms, we have made car ownership a reasonably safe and regulated prospect. Insurance, training, safety features, consumer protections. Remember when seat belts weren’t mandatory in cars? Okay, me neither- the law was changed in 1968, but I DO remember when it became the law to *wear* a seat belt in California in the mid ’80’s.
Only someone grossly out of touch with reality would *ever* suggest we abolish cars in the United States. It’s not even a serious conversation, BUT it is a good discussion to talk about ways to continue to improve safety, efficiency, affordability, and alternate methods of transportation. The same holds true for gun legislation. Criminal background checks for gun buyers has overwhelming popular support among Republicans and Democrats and yet it becomes Kryptonite the minute Capitol Hill goes near it. And it’s true- no one piece of legislation will be a silver bullet (see what I did there?), but again, that’s beside the point. That’s like saying that seat belts don’t save ALL the lives, so let’s just forget them. We must take some moderate, common sense steps toward improving the safety and security of guns for the benefit all Americans.
Our Collective Responsibility
Changing our attitudes and laws takes courage and it will, ultimately take trust. So I am taking a first step, gathering my courage and showing trust. It was difficult for me to write this post. I had to consider whether someone might decide that my voice, my words, would be considered a threat to their “security” or “freedom”. In writing this, do I put my family at risk? As a parent, this is a sickening question to ponder. But the answer is- if I don’t speak up, if I don’t advocate for common sense, if I don’t call for the nation to join together in support of safety for all, in conjunction with (not at the expense of) the rights of the individual, who will? There are many individuals and organizations doing this, but we haven’t seen the groundswell of moral conviction and support that must be present to change, not just the laws, but our society itself. Again- it’s crucial to reject the urge to marginalize or derail progress by sounding the “slippery slope” alarm. It’s a specious cry and one that Americans must step up and prove that we are smarter than.
So, my call to action? Share this post, comment on this post, write your own post. Get involved. Add your voice. Conventional wisdom would say call your senator or representative, but maybe it’s time to expand our approach. Contact your local gun store, contact your local NRA chapter, your hunting club, your shooting range. Contact the gun manufacturers- tell them you will support the makers and sellers who are committed to responsible gun ownership.
As for my encounter in Winthrop? It was a grim reminder of what we are allowing to become “the norm” in the public sphere.
Tonight I became completely unglued at my kids. I mean completely. COMPLETELY. I yelled, I stomped my foot. I slammed the bedroom door. I told them I couldn’t believe they could be so ungrateful. Ask for one more thing tonight, I taunted them. Go for it, I said. So yeah, I was all the things I never want to be and all the things I don’t want them to be. I was a jerk and I was mean. But you know, it was legitimate- there was laundry. On. The Floor. Two days worth. So it makes sense, right? No.
No, of course it doesn’t. Whatever it might have been, it wasn’t justified. After I was done with my audition for Mommy Dearest, I went and sat in the backyard for ten minutes, just staring off. What the hell was that? Who the hell am I? I could still hear one of my daughter’s crying upstairs. Yeah, I’d be crying too- how did she get stuck with this fuck-up as a parent?
So, I texted a friend- Do you have a minute to talk? Thank goodness she did. She listened and commiserated and made me feel just a tiny bit less shitty and alone and that was enough. I took a few deep breaths and went up and apologized- to the one that was still crying and to the one that had fallen asleep. I apologized and totally owned my anger (rage, really)- I said it was wrong of me to take it out on them. I said I was mean and unfair and that I was sorry.
I don’t know if that’s enough. I don’t know if putting this confession up on a blog helps. Does it help to “own” it or does it just mean that I can quickly justify my behavior? I get scared that I am not normal- that my moments of fury are different or more frequent than others. I *think* they are infrequent but don’t really know. I don’t know because it’s one of those things we rarely discuss as a community of parents. At least amongst my friends.
Sometimes, a mom or dad will refer to getting angry, but it’s always vague- I guess because it’s so shameful and ugly, and it shows how horrible we can be at times.
The joy of being a parent often takes my breath away for all the right reasons, and I am often filled with so much gratitude for this gift that I have been given. But other times, I am reminded that I am human and human beings can be ugly and cruel, even to those who are the most dear and precious to us.
I know that a lot, probably even the vast majority of the time, I am a good parent. Truly good at it. I can’t bring myself to say great, because in moments like this, I don’t know what that means. I think I just got my “great” revoked for awhile. But I am good- I think about building confidence, being kind, being forgiving, providing structure and opportunity, providing security and comfort. I really work hard, consistently to be a thoughtful, good parent. But every once in a while, this horrible part of me shows up with a rocket launcher and I look around at all the neat little things I’ve made- these carefully constructed, fragile towers of good moments, good intentions, good experiences, moments of tenderness and love- and I just blow those fuckers up like they are tissue paper. I guess that’s why we call it coming unglued- because you are going to need a lot of glue.
So, I asked my daughters to forgive me and they nodded mutely. I don’t think they know what that means exactly, but they reached out to me and hugged me. Hugged me hard, like I deserved it, which I did not. I couldn’t have felt more low and undeserving. Asking for forgiveness from your children feels like a coward’s request, but I don’t know how else to move forward. I suppose you do it by picking up all those shattered bits of glass- the good intentions and experiences, and start building again.
Then you ask yourself, how long will I build this next time? Will I be smarter and slower to anger? Will I be able to sidestep the twister of rage that out-of-nowhere picks me up like a rag doll? I don’t think so- not every time, anyway. I fervently hope that in the long run it’s enough- that I am a better builder than wrecking ball, that the ultimate balance tips in the right direction. I hope that I can be worthy of the fierce and loving hugs they gave me.
It feels like a long, long walk but I guess I am already on my way.