Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Bully Me This

The following appears in the September edition of Chicago Parent.

I love me some Steve Harvey like no other, so I obviously watch a lot of Family Feud.

Yet a recent question left me reeling.

“Name the worst grade of grammar school.”

Being a Family Feud devotee, I naturally scored the number one answer: 7th grade. Zero hesitation. And it had everything to do with the dawn of the bully.

The causes of bullies are historically varied: insecurity, unstable home lives, malicious strains in the DNA to name a few. The result is the same: indiscriminate attacks throughout junior high school, leaving kids in an anxiety-induced state of alert, needing to decide:

Run, fight, or follow.

For those who follow, the statistics aren’t good. Bullies face much higher rates of substance abuse, depression, unemployment, incarceration, divorce, and suicide. So when my first son approached 7th grade, he was warned. Prepare to walk away from friends who will follow. Prepare for kids being total jag-offs. But the toughest warning of all?

Prepare to have your heart broken. Again and again.

It was a difficult year for him and me. I fought the urge to march over to the stoops of parents: DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOUR KID IS DOING? DO YOU KNOW WHAT HE IS SAYING? IS ANYBODY PAYING ATTENTION IN THERE???

My sane husband talked me down. It didn’t stop me from giving the side-eye whenever I spotted certain parents, but I tried not be obvious.

Fine. I was completely obvious.

So as my second son geared up for 7th grade, I started having the same talk with him. He cut me off.

“My grade doesn’t have a bully. Whenever a kid tries to be one, someone stops them.”

“A teacher?” I asked, astonished at the prospect that some miracle educator had finally found the cure to this horrible multi-generational ill. Who could this Marie Curie be? How had she eviscerated bullydom? Give me her name, son!

“Jake Brady.”

Wait. Jake Brady wasn’t a teacher. He was a kid! An always-smiling, slightly shorter-than-average kid. Sure, he was good at sports, but there was nothing terribly intimidating or scary about him. How was this even possible?

“He just stops it. Right when it starts. And everyone listens.”

Call it leadership. Call it confidence. Call it the gift of true humanity finding itself in a 12-year old boy. My son went on to clarify that Jake stuck up for everyone, not just his friends. He even stuck up for kids he didn’t like because he thought it was unfair for bullies to go after them for being different. And suddenly, my inner 12 year-old girl with the awkward perm, lazy eye, and stack of books wanted to hug Jake Brady. For someone who has never known a day of cool in her life, it was hard to believe that people such as this existed.

So thank you, kid. You have shown us all that empathy lives. That kindness lives. That good exists.

Please don’t ever change.


Friday, August 11, 2017

The Baby Shower


The following appears in the July edition of Chicago Parent.

After receiving an invitation for a baby shower last month, I immediately headed over to the online registry. I was curious to see how far child-rearing had evolved from when I last had a newborn. Surprisingly, the list was as timeless and practical as if it had been produced in 1950.

There was a strong focus on the necessities (diapers, pacifiers, bottles, bedding, etc.), but not a hint of the vegan/organic/gender-neutral lifestyle I assumed all millennials were now embracing.

Grumpy old Gen X’ers like myself are known to occasionally make sweeping and unfair generalizations while yelling at neighborhood kids to get off the lawn.

The stroller resembled something out of NASA, but I wrote that off to the ever-changing improvements in space-baby technology. The crib, which I dubbed Optimus Prime, had the ability not only to transform into a toddler bed, but also a twin bed frame and ultimately a tiny home.

Talk about sound planning.

My mind drifted back to the day I registered. Overwhelmed by the endless choices before me, I waddled around Babies ‘R' Us fighting back nausea and immense feelings of inadequacy. Was I going to need a breast pump? I didn’t know for sure I wanted to go that route. The bassinet was adorable, but our one-bedroom condo could barely fit a crib. And what the hell was a Pack ‘n Play? And an ExerSaucer?

AND IS THAT A RECTAL THERMOMETER??

I handed the registry gun off to my mom who proceeded to request 150 sets of baby sheets and mattress protectors.

“Trust me. You’re really gonna need those,” she smiled.

My shower came and went with a U-Haul full of items that were supposed to keep my baby alive, happy, and on course for meeting every developmental milestone.

Prior to that day, I always thought of showers as happy occasions. Instead, it was my holy crap moment.

What had I gotten myself into where I now required an entire aisle of Costco?

And as all moms before me, I became wise to the marketing. The most important item? A purse big enough to accommodate a diaper, a sandwich bag of wipes, and some loose Cheerios. My Nana’s gentle reminder also helped:

Half of our country’s presidents once slept in drawers.

There is one item I wish NASA could develop insofar as mothering. It is a time machine. The magic of expecting my first child was overshadowed by a lot of needless worry, angst, and fear. I would go back and tell myself it would all be fine. Danny would be fine. Joe didn’t need to re-screw every bolt on the crib six times. Taking three infant CPR classes may have been overkill.

I would instead have soaked up the miracle.

And realized my mom was right.

You can never have enough infant bedding. Especially when flu season hits.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Pregnant Pause


The following appears in the June edition of Chicago Parent.

I was two weeks late before I even gave it a thought.

After all, tubal ligations are one of the most effective means out there. When I reluctantly accepted medical advice after three c-sections, a big part of me felt I was closing down shop prematurely.

I had planned for five boys. My imaginary 4th and 5th sons, Sean and Michael, were supposed to be the charmers. The hellions. The ones who refused to play chess and instead chose rugby. As the youngest, they would hear stories from their brothers about their Tiger Mom and her dictatorial leanings and shake their heads in disbelief.

“Mom is easy. Just make her laugh and she’s all yours. You guys did it wrong.”

But I never took the risk. I never got to meet Sean and Michael.

When I ran into a hockey mom from last season pushing a stroller, infants were the furthest thing from my mind.

“You have a baby! In an ice rink. I didn’t even know you were expecting!”

“Oh, Marianne. I had a tubal years ago. I was almost five months along before I knew. This just proves God really does have a sense of humor.”

I peaked in on the beautiful grinning baby girl wrapped in pink and my mind started doing the math.

Oh sh*t.

A few hours later, I found myself watching the clock, awaiting the results of my impromptu Walgreens purchase. I thought of my Nana. Her mother (my great-grandmother) had died three months after giving birth to her final child at age 47. No, geriatric pregnancies simply didn’t end well in my family.

But again, I thought of Sean and Michael. And a part of me was excited. While I couldn’t fathom doing car seats and diapers at 43 years old, there was nobody in my life who brought me as much joy as my children. How could another one be a mistake? Even though the results read negative, several more weeks went by before I knew for sure.

My husband was relieved.

 I cried.

The moment I decided to indulge in a full-blown depression, I discovered our dryer was broken. Then the ice hockey bill came due. The boys all came home with a list of materials needed to build their much-hated dioramas. The crack in our minivan windshield (which I put off having fixed) spread out so that driving morphed into peering through a pair of bifocals. So much for my funk.

No, Sean and Michael were never meant to be. I will always mourn that fact. But my husband and kids prove every day that God does in fact have a sense of humor.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Blame Game

The following appears in the May edition of Chicago Parent.


When two dozen heavily frosted blue cupcakes mysteriously disappeared at a class birthday party several years ago, the offender was quickly identified. Little Matt looked like he had been devouring Smurfs whole. His hair, face, and fingers were covered in the telltale frosting.

Mass hysteria broke out as attendees began realizing the implications of Matt’s actions:

“NOBODY IS GETTING CUPCAKES!”

Well, besides Matt.

There were hushed whispers. A group of moms gathered in the corner. Blame was assigned. But it was not Indigo Matt’s fault.

Nope.

It was HIS MOTHER’S.

Why hadn’t she been watching him more carefully? What kind of child was she raising? Who teaches her son that it’s perfectly acceptable to devour an entire tray of cupcakes?

Yet when Matt’s dad came strolling in a few minutes later from an apparent cigarette break, the villagers put down their pitchforks. Mom wasn’t even at the party. Dad mumbled a half-hearted apology. The tone changed.

What a great guy to have brought Matt to a birthday party all by himself! Dad of the Year! Get this man a slice of Little Caesar’s!

It was the first time I truly comprehended how society cuts mothers zero slack. Sociopaths go on murderous rampages and receive far more leniency than moms. And who do the psychologists usually blame when serial killers strike?

 THE MOTHER.

She obviously never hugged him enough. She probably didn’t sign him up for scouts. She gave away his dog when he was nine simply because he wasn’t taking care of it.

I realized that I would be getting the blame for ever poor decision my kids made for the rest of my life.

Several years after the Great Cupcake Debacle, I was at an event where my oldest son ran around helping the hostess collect plates and clean up.

“It must be so nice to have a child who was born that awesome,” commented a nearby dad.

And that’s when it hit me. Mothers are manipulated into believing they are responsible for every misstep, but if a child shines?

That’s happenstance.

How often do we hear about Mother Teresa’s own mother? Did you know she raised three kids on her own after her husband died? Mother Teresa credited her mom with teaching her kindness and instilling a deep sense of compassion. Yet history barely acknowledges her.

My boys hold the door for people. I used to play along and pretend they arrived on planet Earth doing this. In all actuality, it took several years of going batsh*t crazy and having doors slam on my butt as I balanced a baby and groceries while my two oldest jettisoned themselves into the house without so much as a glance back. Finally, they started remembering to show this basic courtesy.

It is time moms stand up for ourselves. Stop feeding the narrative that mothering isn’t a boatload of work and every success exists in a vacuum. If we are getting nailed for each blunder, then we should take ownership of a small fraction of the victories.

Every trip to the museum. Every bedtime story. Every time you helped them up after they fell and reminded them that the learning is in the falling.

That was you.

And you were wonderful.

Friday, March 3, 2017

I Spy with My Mom Eye

The following appears in the March edition of Chicago Parent.

When certain moms tell me how much they love being the focal point of neighborhood action (having kids over, feeding feral children, maintaining mob security), I feel a degree of shame. Not only do I eschew groups of kids gaining access to my home and pantry, but my thought when others don’t?

You people are crazy. 

I do not enjoy my cabinets raided, my ears accosted, and the whirlwind of jumping, leaping, and shouting boys. I’ve got sensory issues, dammit.

The argument I hear most often from open-door policy moms is that they are keeping tabs on their kids and their friends. They know exactly what is going on. They have their fingers on the pulse of tween society.

For me, it seems like an awful lot of work and expense to secure the same information I get by employing a series of enhanced interrogation techniques. I am the daughter of a special agent. My father utilized his years of government training in raising his four kids. He could detect a lie with a mere blink or shift in eye contact. He knew the targeted questions to ask. And we never, ever doubted his ability to kill us 100 different ways and make it look like an accident. Unfortunately for my kids, my dad was generous enough to share this training with me.

My best intel comes via carpool. For whatever reason, kids are naïve enough to buy into my distracted driver performance. I fumble with the radio. I mutter about traffic. I sing Journey tunes. In all actuality, I am making mental notes of every inappropriate comment and act of unkindness.

I’m essentially Jason Bourne.

And after I lull them into a false sense of security? That’s when I pounce:

“So, who is like the MEANEST kid in your grade?”

“Who would you trust with your life?”

“What kid do you hear the teachers complaining about most?”

“Who gets everybody else in trouble but never gets caught?”

There is an old adage that states, “show me a kid’s friends, and I’ll show you his future.” Even God backs me up on this up in Proverbs 13:20:

“He that walketh with wise men shall be wise, but a companion of fools shall be destroyed.”

As my boys get older, I know I have less and less say in who they choose to befriend. It doesn’t matter how many secret files I maintain, if some kid appeals to their sense of humor or sense of fun, there is very little I can do. I am left hoping that my lectures against mob mentality and choosing right when everybody else chooses wrong will hold up.

But if not?

I’ve got my dad’s old files.

And Russia on speed-dial.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Marriage Fantasy


The following appears in the February edition of Chicago Parent.

My husband and I recently logged in another successful year of marriage.

Our body count held steady at zero. No dishes were thrown and/or broken. The ability to feign interest in each other’s favorite topics has never been stronger.

Joe seriously thinks I like Fantasy Football. When he rambles on about possible trades or player pick-ups, I am reminded of the adults from the old Peanuts cartoon: Mwha mwha mwhua mwha.

Yet with a well-timed raised eyebrow or occasional “NO WAY,” my attentive performance goes unquestioned.

Joe and I both possess fiery personalities. Yet we rarely fight. I would like to think it has to do with the mature status of our relationship and our ongoing evolution as a couple.

But I’d totally be fibbing.

Joe loses his mind over the small things (“Where are all the clean socks…YOU KEEP SWITICHING DRAWERS!”). Though when real disaster or tragedy strikes, he holds it together.

Not me. Those are the moments I barely comprehend English, and logic and reasoning become as foreign to me as the top 10 Fantasy picks for wide receiver.

As the kids started dropping off the assembly line twelve years ago, there was definitely increased tension. I had to lose the notion of “the marriage fantasy” promised to me by dozens of rom-coms and poorly written romance novels.

Now our lives were a litany of questions. Who would remember to grab formula on the way home from work? Who would take off to go to the pediatrician’s office? Who would get up for the next 3 am feeding?

And whose idea were these kids anyway?

In all seriousness, the kids were the impetus for us being together. Many of my earlier relationships failed because I sensed future bad dads. The men were often too selfish, too fragile, or too unreliable to invest myself.

When I met Joe, there was instant safety. He was okay with my brand of crazy and not easily shaken. Plus, I thought he was totally dreamy.

Joe eventually bought me a beautiful engagement ring that I never wear because I have sensory issues and I hate rings. He is okay with that.

I reluctantly went along with the idea of a wedding even though I wanted to go to Vegas and get married by Elvis. My dress was off the rack and cost about $200. I think I ordered my invitations from the same place that killed George Constanza’s fiancé.

I never cared about the visuals. The big diamond. The big day. The big honeymoon (which I’m told we’ll get around to taking one day).

I cared about creating a family with someone I loved who would not run away when things got tough.

Recently, I directed my husband to the wrong school for one of the kids’ games. It was on a snowy day where we had five different events to hit. When we arrived, I realized my mistake. The actual venue was two minutes from our house, but we were now 45 minutes away.

Joe frowned, threw the car into drive, and tried his best to avoid getting another red light ticket. We made it in time for my son to play the second half.

Joe wanted to gripe, to direct his ire at me, and to go into full blown rant mode.

But he didn’t. So I questioned him about his Fantasy Football team. I asked him not to spare a single detail.

He had earned that one.

And so much more.