Mid-Summer Crisis

The months of June, July, and August offer endless possibilities for children: lessons, camps, reading programs, etc. My seven year old is not interested. Summer for him is swimming in the pool, hanging out at home, and playdates with his friends. He wants nothing to do with anything that smacks of organization, instruction, or scheduling. I am baffled by this behavior. I blame it on the fact that he has no social media account, so he cannot understand what he is missing out on via social comparison.

I even restrict his screen use. It’s something that he needs to earn via reading, personal hygiene, and household chores. Many times throughout the day, he and his sister are happy playing with their respective figurines: she with her Polly Pockets (thank you e-bay) and him with WWE wrestlers. They set up bowling games with water bottles. They turn his bunk bed into a restaurant. I should be happy. This is what is encouraged by experts, what many lament today’s children are missing: self-directed, imaginative play. However, I am still caught up by the scheduled activities and excursions that my children don’t know they should want.

Clearly, I have too much time on my hands and too much time to reflect if my greatest parenting crisis is that my children are content to stay home. When the fourth of July hit, and our plans for the fell through, I was crippled with angst, experiencing a full blown mid-summer break crisis. What have we accomplished? What have we done?

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Summer SAHM-ing

I envisioned my summer nights differently: bursts of creativity, late night typing, epiphanies, and professional growth. Instead, I find myself heavy-lidded and drained, searching for mindless entertainment. My summertime days of full-time parenting are relentless. I understand this time to be a privilege, both because I can do this and because I do not always have to do this. In a few short months, I will be back in my college office and immersed in my conversations on writing, education, and culture. But for now, I am the invisible architecture of my children’s existence, creating boundaries and direction, making the space in which they live.

However, it is difficult to shed what I have come to see as valuable and productive. I prefer enduring work, a piece of writing, a new learning experience, then the ephemeral household labors. Last night, I began reading Charles Duhigg’s new book, Better, Stronger, Faster, the Secrets of Being Productive. I completed the first chapter on motivation, which discusses how when faced with challenging circumstances, Marines-in-training were asked why they were completing a particular obstacle. If they could identify a larger goal, such as building a better future for their family, they were more motivated to keep going.

While the concept of “big picture motivation” is not new to me, I began last night to consider it in light of my summer at home. Why am I limiting screen time? Why do I need to vacuum? I am setting up standards of behavior that will shape how my children live their adulthood. This exercise was a good reminder that what I am doing is important, even though it does not require me using my Ph.D., even though it is considered ordinary and to some unambitious.

Meditations on Housework

Growing up, I was not encouraged or even expected to do many chores, aside from cleaning my room. I have vague recollections of cleaning the undersides of tables as a small child, but generally the expectation was for me to stay out of the way. Whenever I started to do something, my mother would inevitably take over. I understand why now that I have my own children, as watching them tackle a household task or even a craft is painful. It’s all I can do not to push them aside. Also, it is terribly inefficient, as I will end up having to rewash streaky windows and re-sweep the crumbs that did not make it into the dust pan. Inevitably materials will be lost, as papers are ripped, stickers misplaced, and glue globbed on in puddles. I try to see their end products more holistically instead of thinking, I could have done this much better by myself. The experience is what matters. So what if a cake only has sprinkles on one side?

Luckily my children are stubborn and will not quite trying to do things on their own, even in the face of my exasperation. My four year old must continue put the toothpaste on herself, even though half of it ends up on the sink. I’m proud that they are not deterred by failure. This is my reminder.

It is also a reminder to appreciate the peace that comes with completing a task on your own, even if it is cleaning the kitchen. I had a perfect cleaning day today, as I discovered that cleaning is the best task to complete while listening to podcasts. While listening to the Tim Ferris Show and On Being, I kept a notebook handy to jot down notes. I lit candles without having to worry about someone continually blowing them out. I squirted my stainless steel cleaner without having to share the bottle and contain my cringes as five dollars worth of product is devoted to a quarter-sized surface area. Who knew cleaning could be so relaxing? Some days it is part of my in-house Montessori program and other days it is meditation.

A Herculean Challenge: The 12 Labors of Tucker

One reason I dislike my children watching regular, non-PBS cable TV is the commercials, those 30-second seductions perfectly geared to Id-driven young children. Last week my son begged me to take him to Popeye’s Chicken, as if it were a five-star restaurant. This week it is the hamper hoop, which is exactly what the name indicates, a laundry basket with a basketball hoop. I placed a laundry basket under the small indoor basketball hoop we already have and said, “Voila.” My six year old was not impressed.

My husband and I have no clear policy regarding buying nonessential items when it isn’t a birthday or holiday. And right now, our son is not ready to manage his own money. If we unlocked his piggy bank, I guarantee it would be followed by a binge of impulse spending. I also did not want to do a trade — if you do this activity, you will get this reward. According to Daniel Pink’s book Drive, we shouldn’t give rewards for chores, as that creates an expectation. The logic being if I pay them once for making their bed, why should they ever make it for free again?

My solution was to introduce my son to the twelve labors of Hercules. As luck would have it, a children’s version was available online and I was able to introduce him to Greek mythology and give him a way to earn his hamper hoop. To acquire it, he needed to come up with twelve challenges. Some of the challenges he came up with were to complete a puzzle, pick up his toys, read a book to his sister, and complete a craft. He isn’t strangling lions or moving rivers, but unlike Hercules, he is not going for immortality, just a glorified hamper.

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How do you raise spiritual, moral children without religion?

Both my children were baptized Catholic in a beautiful ceremony full of rituals and blessings, as my husband and I were decades earlier. However, this initiation full of both traditions and superstitions, felt more like a placeholder than a forever commitment. While I believe in the communal benefits of a church, I do not believe in organized religion.

Growing up, I enjoyed Catechism classes and devotionally read my grandfather’s old prayer book. I never enjoyed, though, sitting in church. It seemed more of an hour of mental discipline than spiritual awakening. For one hour each Sunday, I would try to contain my natural propensity to fidget and roam and to stave off boredom. It seemed so passive.

As I grew older, I became more resentful of the role of women, the discrimination of homosexuals, and the history of corruption and violence. I remember my first college philosophy class and how existentialism spoke to me, how we can self-create and regulate our own reality and find eternal life through the legacy of our actions. Every action becomes weighed then and no slate can be wiped clean simply by asking for forgiveness.

I feel every step of my spiritual journey, which continues, was important. So how do I start off my own children in a way that feels honest? Inevitability, as citizens of a predominantly Christian culture, they are already aware of the concepts of God, Jesus, heaven, and hell. However, they do not all quite make sense and they have endless questions. Today, my son asked why the devil is evil? I had no ready answer. I ended up explaining how the world is full of opposing forces. However, my six year old was not ready for an epistemological discussion of dualisms. I then, and I regret this, discussed how you could not have superheroes without villains. Is it blasphemous to discuss God as the ultimate superhero?

More than anything I want my children to understand that people hold a variety of beliefs and that anything is possible. I want them to believe in something, but I do not want to dictate, or have a specific book or religion dictate, the tenets of that belief. How do we begin?

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Mr. Sketch and the Morning of Doom

The final fifteen minutes before it is time to leave the house I feel like Indiana Jones, navigating a booby-trapped cave. Every moment is fraught with peril: the serving of breakfast, the selecting of clothes, the powering down of electronics. Today, the rolling boulder coming towards me goes by the name of Mr. Sketch. The scented Mr. Sketch markers are the Air Jordans of first grade, an aromatic status symbol that comes in an array of twelve colors. For weeks, my son begged for these markers, going as far as putting them into my Amazon shopping cart.

When they arrived in the mail, it was a celebration of rainbows. For the next week, my son and daughter both sported Mr. Sketch mustaches from all the aggressive sniffing. However, there was one blemish in my son’s happiness. The markers were for home use only, to be shared with his little sister. Every morning he would try to sneak them into his backpack, and every morning I would remove them. Today he caught on to me catching on to him and checked his bag that I dutifully packed with his lunch and homework and found no Mr. Sketch. It was 8:25 a.m., time to leave the house. Let loose the boulder.

In the face of a tantrum, rationalizing only does so much. However, I still tried, calling to mind every parenting book and calmly explaining we had already told him “no.” He countered with, “I only want to take them today.” We countered with, “This is a privilege that you need to earn. We can discuss how you can earn this privilege after school so that you can take them tomorrow.” Delayed gratification is not in his wheelhouse. I try not to think of the Marshmallow Test and what this means for his future. The tantrum escalates. It is now 8:30 a.m.

If I had a time machine, I probably would have hopped in and took away my “no.” Because, honestly, I did not care that much about the ink levels or potential disappearance of a marker. However, once a negative answer has been issued, I believe it cannot be taken back. A no cannot be made into a yes by whining or crying. I am a stressed, heartsick woman of my word.

In a situation such as this, where reasoning is not an option, I believe the experts would recommend I remove the child from the situation. So I carried my son into the vehicle, squirming and crying and shoeless. To my credit, I did not raise my voice. I simply grabbed our coats, our bags, and his shoes and threw them in the vehicle and let him kick the back of my seat all the way to the elementary school. Tonight on Amazon, I believe I am going to order an Indiana Jones style whip.

When Yes Became No

When I began my professional journey applying for internships as an undergraduate journalism student, my mantra was to always say yes. Whenever an opportunity arose, I took it. By the time I graduated from college, I had completed five internships for a variety of nonprofit organizations, an advertising agency, and a newspaper. At the age of 22, I became the head of cable company marketing department. At 23, I was the editor of an alumni magazine for a liberal arts college and running my own freelance business. I took graduate classes simply on a whim, because I could. Now I am a college professor.

My mantra began to change after I had children. Instead of pursuing endless opportunities, I needed to set boundaries between my work and personal life. It took many meltdowns of mother and child, an endless stream of late night grading, and many disgruntled meetings where I wondered, why am I here?, before I arrived to this moment.  And this moment is not perfect.

Whenever an opportunity arises now, I realize I am not simply saying yes or no. Every time I say yes to something I am saying no to something else. When I said “yes” to the gym this morning, I said “no” to vacuuming. When I decided to sit in on a podcasting class, I was no longer able to join a book circle. It is for moments like these that the hashtag #firstworldproblems was born. My cross to bear is too many opportunities.

The benefit of too many opportunities is that is has forced me to reflect on what it is that I really what to do. It should be a simple task to do what you truly want, but often we are trying to do what we think we should want to do or what some nonexistent version of ourselves would do. Right now, I just want to go to sleep, even though it is only 10 p.m. and the cool kids stay up until at least midnight 🙂