Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How to Have Amazing Kids

1. Pick a spouse who balances you. I come from a line of nervous nellies, but we're creative and passionate. My husband is a rock - for good and for bad. This combination gives our kids the benefit of both roots and wings.

2. Pick your first born well. Our family would so not work if either our second or third born had been born first. The first guy was delighted to have siblings. He didn't feel displaced - he was thrilled to have playmates.

3. Give up sleep.

4. Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray. And teach them to pray.

5. Be entirely real.

6. Say you're sorry when you mess up.

7. Cheer your guts out for them.

8. Let them be who they are created to be.

9. Create rituals, boundaries, rhythm.

10. Play with them.

11. Take parenting really seriously. When my kids were little, I had file folders of stimulating, fun activities for them, and I did them with them. Little minds blossom when stimulated.

12. Go on adventures. Every day.

13. Narrate their world in ways that help them understand it better, that connect it to what they already know.

14. Protect their innocence. For me, it was shielding my kids from 9/11 when they were young, and keeping them from movies and television shows that would have them grow up too soon and would taint their imaginations and souls.

15. Read aloud books you all love.

16. Love your spouse.

17. Tell your kids how amazing and wonderful and beautiful they are.

18. Take care of yourself. Stock your larder so you have something to give. Do things that give you an identity outside of them, things that bring you deep pleasure. Do your own emotional work.

19. Cook from scratch. Grow vegetables and pick fruit together. Avoid processed foods most of the time. Don't make McDonalds part of your life. Nutrition is under-rated when it comes to child development.

20. Know that no matter what you do, it's not your fault and it's not something for which you can pat yourself on the back. Kids and parents are human, and humans are broken and sometimes the best efforts don't pay off, and that some kids become amazing despite a lack of parental effort.

21. Don't judge other parents. We're all trying.

22. Relax. Don't oversteer or worry, and don't over-program them. You relax and let them have down time too.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Your Turn

Here are some questions I've been asking. I wonder what your answers are:

What would you do even if you didn't get paid for it?

What if God asks someone to do something too big for them to do?

What will the summer schedule look like?

What do you do to recover from a stressful time?

Why do weeds grow so quickly?

Where, other than the place you live, does your heart feel at home?

Cat person or dog person?

How do you get back on track in any relationship?

How do you not miss a single moment of this glorious life?

When will the mail strike be over?

What are your 'special needs'?

Blue or green? Which is your favourite?

What do you need?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Summertime and the Living Is Complicated

I walked the dog in a low-cut shirt this morning. Me, not the dog. Not J-Lo-low, but lower than usual for me. And so, I got to meet a new guy in the neighbourhood, who wanted to shake my hand and know my name. Maybe it was just that he was new, but somehow my Spidey sense wondered if the friendliness was sartorially inspired.

My boy is in Quebec City this week on a school field trip. He has plans to cross the river to Levis, secretly, this week on a pilgrimage to our favourite ice cream store anywhere, where soft-serve ice cream is dipped, not in half-waxy chocolate, but fine Belgian chocolate. I don't even like ice cream, and this stuff makes me moan with pleasure. He got his first suit yesterday and my over-active imagination darts to the morbid idea of him being buried in it. Of all the 14 year olds I know, I would trust him the most. But I would have trusted him far more a year ago, before the invincibility set in. He and his buddies entertained the idea of throwing a pinata from the bus onto the 401. They chose not to do it, mind you, but I'm not sure what they are capable of. When our puppy bites the kids, part of my chastisement to him includes, "Don't bite x. He's very special to me." My boy has medium brown hair. He probably looks like every other grade 8 student who's descending on Quebec City for the Grade Eight Field Trip this week, but he's very special to me.

My puppy is sleeping through the night. (Cue the Hallelujah Chorus.) Just over a week ago, we tried Ferberizing him, but he outlasted us. We polled everyone we knew on their dog whispering techniques. And then we decided to listen to our guts. We put his soft bed in our closet, plunked him down at 11 pm, and there he slept till 6. And has done so every night since. (This in contrast with his pathetic cries until 4 am, when we put him in his crate.) He still has no fondness for the crate by day, but he seems a bit more secure in it, and we put him in it when we go out so we don't have to hear the sorrows. He is far cuter when we've had sleep, let me tell you.

Am I the only person who must declare the end of a crisis? The May long weekend was when the puppy arrived in our family and it was also the beginning of a month of a fast-paced, multi-faceted project I took on for a client. I had to manage the project as well as edit it. As much as I take unusual delight in large scale military operations like this, I will say that it turned into a crisis, where I needed to be accessible every ten minutes around the clock for the last five days of the project. Correction, the last two days of the project and then THREE DAYS AFTER. I'm still recovering, but today I realized I needed to declare the crisis over: the puppy sleeps at night and the big beast of a project is inviolable at the printer now. Personal hygiene and normal life can resume.

My husband has commented more than once that singing in church is strange. "Where else in the world do we sing?" he says. I once read a home decorating concept that suggested that we make sure we fashion our homes to satisfy the senses that most strongly appeal to us. For many, sight ranks first, but for me it is smell and touch. Sound comes in last. We have an antiquated stereo system and rack upon rack of rarely-listened-to CD's. About a year ago, though, my family dragged me into the 21st century by buying me an iPod. Then, they showed me - more than once - how to buy and download music. Oh, I said. 80s music. I found my favourites. And then, I realized there was lots of music I loved, new and old. Two weekends ago now, though, music came to me in a new way: on neighbourhood porches. Signs were posted throughout the 'hood for weeks, and musicians noted on Facebook where they would be playing. It turned out that Alternatives, an environmental magazine based out of the University of Waterloo, was sponsoring and organizing concerts on porches around our neighbourhood, as part of an upcoming issue. I was held up for much of the afternoon but I was determined to be part of this. Late in the day, I hopped on my bike and rode up and down streets. It was pretty magical. Sidewalks, lawns and even streets were crowded with folks of all ages, standing or sitting in front of musicians who played a wide - and I mean wide - variety of music. I loved how, as I cycled past one and on to another, the musics blended.

I've been feeling guilty lately about being a less-than-adequate soccer mom. I have the competitive streak down pat, and the parental pride, but I wish I had known when we signed our wee tots up for Soccer Fun on Saturdays lo, these many years ago, that our lives would be dominated by the sport. But the guilt is more than that. We actually do manage the soccer juggle, with three kids playing at high levels of the sport, and I do enjoy it, and am glad they aren't lurking in skateboard parks every evening instead. But I just ain't one of those soccer parents. The ones who have the stats memorized, who have the correct Gator-Ade for before, during and after a match, who have decided their lives will happily be dominated by sporting events and who welcome spending weekend after weekend at tournaments. No, I'm the mother who sometimes loves it and sometimes resents it, the one who longs for more unplanned family time, the one who daydreams on the sidelines and plots books on the back of my chequebook while I watch. I did not play sports growing up. I was active but I swam and I ran and I biked. I had sporty siblings, but I just wasn't that kid. I don't bring a deficit to my kids' gene pool, physically speaking. I could have played sports, I imagine, if I had wanted to. Only I didn't. And my dirty secret is that I don't always want to now. And honestly, I feel like I'm the only one out there who feels this way.

This week, I'm thinking about summer. For the first time ever, Dave has to work for the summer, and I am giving myself permission to say that I too need to work. The last few summers, I have felt perpetually conflicted between my roles as mom and writer. This summer, I'm saying it's okay to be both, and I'm creating more of a schedule than I usually do, so that I know when to wear which hat. I'm also thinking about how to encourage my kids to take on creative projects of their own. The oldest is a photographer and will play around with film to beautiful effect. The middle child has noodled around with the idea of writing a novel, but I'm not sure how to set the stage best for that to be explored. The youngest plans puppy training as her goal. I'm thinking about how to extend that un peu. I'm also thinking about chores and whether I can pawn off the weeding on the kids. Why else did I have them?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Life and Art

Behind the kitchen in Nathalie’s house, there was a long, dark cold room. It was shadowy with cracked wavy glass windows. It smelled of earth and faintly of decaying apples, damp plaster and old wood. It was a quiet, well-ordered room and the pale light trickled in at the windows and onto the rows of glass jars. Nathalie had decided to start the cleaning out of the house in the cold room.

“He makes me so mad,” Nathalie had said to Jason after she had talked to her uncle. “As if she is a crazy old lady. He say, ‘You know Maman. Jars of pennies and rolls of string. You need to look everywhere, Nathalie. She may have keep envelopes of cash.’ But she will not leave the treasures in an envelope. Whenever she receives her pension, she goes right away to the Caisse to deposit it, to get the most interest. The jars of pennies are Joacquin’s.” She sighed heavily. “The rolls of string and the jar of plastic bread clips, these all are because she hates the waste. I remember one time, she wrote to the head of the Lafortune bakeries asking how she can return the tags to be reuse.”

Oncle Antoine had said that the brother and sisters should see anything of value in the house. But what was of value? Jason wondered, looking around the cold room. Nathalie came and stood behind him and put her arms around him.

“Mmmm,” she said. “This is the smell of home to me. But you are cold. You need more than the tee-shirt out here.”

“How do you want to do this?” He gestured helplessly.

“I have been thinking about this,” she said. “We will divide everything into three piles: the garbage, the recycle and the dividing up. When we are done, we can invite the brother and sisters – le frère et des soeurs – and they can make the final decisions.”

“Why don’t they help you?” he asked. “Wouldn’t that be easier?”

She rolled her eyes. “First of all, Maman is still in Florida so she will oppose this plan. And Antoine he works at a bank so it is impossible. Gertrude has cows so of course it is impossible.”

“But surely, it’s their mother’s things.”

“The bank, the cow and Florida prevents them from seeing their mother before she dies. My Tante Marie, she will come if we ask and Tante Isabelle will be happy to come but Maman and Oncle Antoine say she will put the treasures in her pockets.”

“Okay. You win the crazy family award. And you win about the temperature too. I’m going to get my jacket. And make some coffee. Do you want some?”

“I already make some.” She stood on tiptoe to kiss him and the noses that met were cold.

A cardboard box sat at the front of the lower shelf. Nathalie pulled it out. It was a low open-topped box filled with rows of small brown envelopes. She put it on the counter and fingered through the envelopes.

“This is Yvette’s writing,” she said. “I will look at it later. Put it with the trésors.”

“How do you know?” He was taking another stack of cardboard fruit baskets to the recycling box, which had already become a stack next to the filled recycling box. “Did your grandmère run a fruit stand or something?”

(“Please tell me,” he would say later to his mother and to Eleanor. “Tell me you don’t keep every fruit basket you ever bought.” “Think of your little cars, Jason,” his mother said. “I barely keep anything.” He remembered coming home from university to discover that his room had been turned into a sewing room, with only his bed a reminder that he had ever lived there. She had boxed up the contents of his desk but had thrown out the box of his beloved cars. “What if I have a child someday?” he had protested in response to her explanation that he was far too old for little cars. “I’ll buy your hypothetical child his own shiny new cars,” she said. “Now get off my patterns.” The only little Matchbox car he had left was one he had kept in a box of pens - the last one to arrive in his Christmas stocking, the year before his father left. He had it in Ste. Agathe with him now. Was it better to be like his mother or Nathalie’s grandmother? Surely there was a middle ground.)

There was one row of cranberry-colored jelly in jars. It was dated only two years before. He held up a jar to Nathalie. She put a hand over his mouth and started to cry. “I know something will make me cry but not what,” she said, taking the jar from him. “This is the last confiture. She and I pick the framboises together. We do it every year, even when I am living in Halifax with Steven. I remember the day we pick these framboises. It is the week before school start and it is so cold and wet but we must go anyhow or we will have none at all.”

He looked again at the date on the jars. “I was here then, trying to decide if I would stay, wondering why anyone would stay in this foggy wet place.”

“It was the morning of the garden party,” Nathalie said, looking up. “The party where I first see you. Je souviens now – I have to rush and even though it is wet, there are so many bees and I have to go back and I make my grandmother pick fast. I pick fast because it feels like a chore, like one more thing that is necessary to do. Only –“ and the tears fell in sheets down her cheeks, “ I never for one instant think it will be the last time. I think, next year it will be better. Only next year, she is gone and I don’t even think to make the confiture. I don’t even know how for to make it.” Her voice grew louder. “I forget to learn how to make jam.”

“I know how,” he said, putting his arms around her. “Eleanor showed me last summer. I’ll teach you.”

“What if it’s different?”

“It will be,” he said. “But maybe the recipe will be in that recipe book of yours. And we can experiment till we get it right. Here, sit.” He moved a box from the counter to the floor and patted the space. She sat and he went into the kitchen. He was back a minute later, carrying a spoon.

“It feels hot in there.” He held up the spoon and raised his eyebrows. She nodded. He uncapped the jar and slid out a white waxy layer.

“Paraffin,” Nathalie said.

He scooped out a spoonful and held it before Nathalie.

“Remember,” he said and she opened her mouth and shut her eyes.

“I remember,” she said, smiling at the thought and the taste. “The first day of school almost every year. I come here after school and my grandmère is making the confiture. She do the strawberry at the end of school, the ground cherries in the middle of summer, the raspberries on the first day of school and the chilli sauce before Thanksgiving. But my favourite is the framboises – the color is so brilliant and always she allow me to put the foam on a slice of bread for my snack. Joacquin he gets to lick the pot – only she says he must use a spoon, not his fingers. One time, he sticks his whole head in the pot. I eat my pain et confiture and I tell her the news at the school and she lets me pour the paraffin on the top when I am ten years old – not before.”

“Eleanor doesn’t use paraffin,” he said. “She has a canner to boil the jars.” He handed her another spoonful. “Doctor’s orders.”

“I want to save this confiture,” she said. “I don’t think the frère et des soeurs will want it. Joacquin maybe. But I want to make a little musée and inside I can put the jars of confiture.”

“I know,” he said, screwing the lid back on. “Do you want to tackle this room another day?”

She took a deep breath. “No. Your good medicine helps me very much. Or maybe it is the sucre. We can do it – but first you need to taste the confiture yourself.” She opened the jar again and dipped her finger into it, and then into his mouth.

- from The Victory Garden by Susan Fish

Friday, June 10, 2011


A week after the puppy barged into our lives, we had a family meeting to take stock of where we all were, and frankly, whether this was working out.

I will admit I had my doubts. Even though my family had always had dogs as I was growing up, never before had I been the Adult in The Situation. Like my kids do now, I blithely went off to school and life, leaving my mom behind to do the house training. I slept the first night on the floor with every puppy we had - and my recollection was, "after that, it was easy." So, I freely admit that the challenges of integrating a new and energetic puppy into a household took me by surprise.

Back to the family meeting. There were tensions in the house - one child was opting out of engaging with the dog, while another believed that the child who wanted the puppy most in the first place was happy to take on the lion's share of puppy care. That child had been in tears more than once at the frustrations of our wiggly wonder.

There were accusations and exasperation flying around the room before I stopped the conversation.

"OK," I said."I once read a book about marriage and it said it's easy to fight by saying, 'you never' or 'you always', but a more productive way is to look at the marriage as a third thing, to say,'what does the marriage need?' Only here, instead of marriage, we're going to say, 'what does the puppy need?' and 'what do we all need to take care of him?'"

The tone shifted. A few minutes later, as we were heading too close to the same precipice of accusations, I threw in another approach.

"We all have 'tendencies,'" I said. "Defaults. Approaches we fall into, if we don't think about it. So let's talk about what each of our tendencies are."

And we sat and admitted our foibles, our propensities, our strengths turned weak. We helped each other see ourselves better. We talked about how we could counter these tendencies.

"Yours, Mom," the kids agreed."is that you take on way too much and then you blow your stack."

Moi? I fluttered my eyelashes.

I thought about the conversation last night. Last night when I was overwhelmed. I have four work projects due in the next week, kids in soccer every evening of the week, a puppy with a witching hour, some challenging interpersonal stuff in my life, a business I'm trying to launch and general June-ness.

Last night, I had had enough. "I haven't showered in two days," I complained. "Today I had to work on three projects at the same time, and the puppy whined while we had him tied up so we could move our shoe rack into a closet. And I didn't have tuna for the dinner I had planned. And the lawn needs mowing yet again."

"Take care of yourself," my husband said, and he took the puppy and two kids to soccer. I put on my iPod and mowed the lawn. I swept up maple keys. I asked third child to vacuum and to clean the kitchen. I cut third child's hair.

And then, I took myself off alone on my bike to get a tall glass of refreshing bubble tea. I sat in the shop, still unshowered, sweaty but mercifully alone and not worried for once about the puppy, and wrote notes on the back of a chequebook. Little ideas about ways to make my full life run more smoothly, to find bits of space where I needed them. Ideas that never would have occurred to me if I had just kept pushing through.

A young woman sat at the table next to me, working away writing longhand in a binder. She packed her stuff up, just before my bubble tea arrived, and she inclined her head in my direction, to get my attention.

"I know this will sound weird," she said. "But I wanted to tell you you look beautiful today."

"Thanks," I said. "I need to hear that right now."

But, as I biked home in the cool evening air, bubble tea perched on my handle bars, I realized the value - the beauty even - of recognizing my tendencies and taking just a few minutes to live counter to these strengths made weak.

There's beauty in letting yourself be weak, be human, be yourself.