Friday, November 3, 2017

The Cult of Parenthood

The following appears in the November edition of Chicago Parent.

I do not watch much television, stubbornly retiring my remote after “Breaking Bad.” The pinnacle of programming had obviously been achieved, so why mess around with crap like “Fuller House?” Still, I found myself inexplicably curious about the A&E series, “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath.”

Perhaps it was the basest of all human emotions. I wanted to check out the train wreck. Maybe gather some gossip on John Travolta and Tom Cruise along the way. Weren’t space aliens involved?

Ten hours of binge-watching later, I gained a different perspective.

Listening to the tragic trajectory of people sacrificing savings, belief systems, and families for something “more,” I was overcome with déjà vu.

It hit me.

Scientology is a lot like the cult of parenthood.

It starts out innocently enough. You are a parent! You are part of this fabulous club where everyone is BFFs and eager to share diaper coupons! The world is exploding with possibility, much like the volcanic cover of “Dianetics.”

Slowly, things change. You’re presented with the ladder to childhood success. What? You never signed your kid up for tee-ball? Music lessons need to start before age four. You bought that Irish Dance costume USED? What in the name of Xenu is going on here?

More time passes and you find yourself mortgaging the house for travel teams, private coaches, and boozy tournaments all in an effort to move up that ridiculous ladder.

Not that I’m opposed to the boozy tournament part.

You barely see your friends and family. You start sounding insane when discussing your nine-year-old’s hockey “career.” Anyone who isn’t equally focused on their kid’s development is considered an outsider and obviously “suppressive.”

Leah Remini delivered a wake-up call. Although my kids revel in a wide variety of activities, they didn’t need to be their very best all the time. It was fine to phone it in now and then. Skip the ladder. Take the escalator. Save your tired feet to fight another day.

With a renewed focus on reducing the intensity of our lives, I registered my kids for the inaugural season of a local Chicago Park District hockey program. It was a less intensive program than what we’d done previously. My middle son threw himself on the ground in protest:

“I cannot be a HORNED FROG!!!”

Too bad, kid. Now practice your ribbits.

Due to the massive savings, all three could play fall hockey. I was okay knowing two of them would struggle. They were thrilled for the opportunity nonetheless.

Danny is reminding me of a steam engine, but definitely up for the challenge. Jack is slowly finding ways to be supportive towards teammates just starting out. It’s not his nature to be patient, but he’s giving it his all. And Joey remains a maniacal drunken giraffe on skates, improving ever so slightly, but smiling up at the stands when he does.

I am relieved my kids aren’t playing AAA Hockey and I defer to others to pursue becoming a prince.

For now, it’s good to be a frog.


Friday, October 6, 2017

Recreational Obsession

The following appears in the October edition of Chicago Parent

I occasionally have been known to get obsessed with certain topics, researching theories and historical timelines until the wee hours of the morning. I am so well versed in my fixations, I could probably defend dissertation-worthy papers on my findings.

Unfortunately, my papers wouldn’t exactly fall under the “Ideas that Benefit Humanity” category:
  • How Jive Records Destroyed JC Chasez’ Career in Favor of the Less Talented but More Marketable Justin Timberlake 
  • Why George Clooney Never Really Got Over Kelly Preston 
  • The Truth Behind Matt Damon’s and Ben Affleck’s Secret Control of the Oscars 

Now before you take away my foil hat, I would like to point out that folks with OCD can go many different ways. There is my clean-freak sister whose house reveals no tangible evidence that anyone actually lives there. My older brother’s perfect vacuum lines and angles would impress Archimedes himself.

Exhausted after trying to keep my house immaculate with three boys and a husband who simply does not notice mess, I applied my genetic code to the world of celebrity gossip and conspiracy theories. It makes me happy. And possibly a little insane.

My youngest son, Joey, began demonstrating OCD at an early age. As a baby, he would sit in his high chair and scream bloody murder if we accidently left a drawer or cabinet open. By two, he was marching firmly towards hoardersville, saving candy wrappers, old socks, and free plastic cups from kid meals. In order to shake that habit, I told him he would most likely die under old boxes and dead cats.

Brutal, but it worked.

Yet recently, there has been a distinct shift in behavior. We visited Camp-Land RV. Joey was dazzled. He reviewed the brochures like a classical scholar inspecting the Rosetta Stone. He woke me up at 5 am the next morning to explain the differences between RV Class A, B, and C motorhomes. He took a tape measure to our narrow Chicago driveway and explained where exactly we could park an RV.

He is also researching financing.

My inclination is to let the obsession play out. If he is anything like his mother, he will eventually move to a new subject after a year or two of solid research, chart development, and cost analysis.

Or maybe he will grow up and find employment at an RV dealership.

Either way, I will always view those with OCD as kindred spirits. They are passionate and knowledgeable, and perhaps the best teachers out there.

Now ask me what really happened between Taylor Swift and Harry Styles. Totally know.


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.