Wednesday, December 11, 2019

A Knock at the Door


The following appeared in the April edition of Chicago Parent.

In surviving motherhood, I need to believe I’m right about most things. Getting bogged down with self-doubt is far too time-consuming. Over the years, I have felt somewhat confident in my methodology. My kids are pretty good (so far). They are decent students (so far). They haven’t committed any felonies (yet).

My mission statement has always included steering my kids away from “the bad kid.” Yes, I can be a haughty wench sometimes.

“Bad kids” are the ones who swear in kindergarten.

The ones who push.

The ones who can’t control themselves.

A while back, my oldest son, Dan, had an out-of-state hockey tournament. From the beginning of the season, one particular boy made it his life’s purpose to antagonize Dan. There was pushing. There was swearing. There was lack of control. For the most part, Dan kept his cool.

I quickly assigned “bad kid” status to the boy.

As is true in all tournament weekends, the boys spent a lot of time gathering up teammates and congregating in different rooms. Dan assembled such a group and knocked on the door of “the bad kid.”

They all hung out together until the wee hours of the morning, eating, joking and re-living hockey highlights and lowlights.

I didn’t give the evening another thought until I ran into “the bad kid’s” mom.

She thanked me. She was so grateful for this team. Her son had certain issues that inhibited his making friends and feeling part of something. He acted out sometimes as a defense mechanism.

“You don’t understand, Marianne. NOBODY has ever knocked on our door until last night.”

I chocked back a sob. This young man was not a bad kid, but I had certainly been a bad mom in trying to assign standards to him that were medically and physically beyond his control.

While it is important to my sanity to feel like I’m not messing up mothering, I appreciated this clear knock on my own door. As I move ahead, I know I have to work harder on not labeling. I need to embrace the unique qualities of all children who cross my path. I need to be less judgey.

It won’t always be easy, but I want my family to be the type of people who will knock on someone’s door.

It can truly mean the world to the person waiting inside.


Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Eighties. WTF.

The following appeared in the February edition of Chicago Parent.

The year was 1984.

I went over to my friend’s house to check out the hot, new thing: cable television.

For the very low cost of $30 per month, people could watch TV with NO COMMERCIALS.

The audacity. The bravery. The brilliance. Sign me up!

Unfortunately, I was only making $1.50 an hour babysitting, and there was no chance my parents would ever pay for such a luxury. So I kept going over to my friend’s basement. At first, we were all about the videos.

Van Halen. Cyndi Lauper. Michael Jackson.

I was definitely going to marry Eddie Van Halen.

Then we discovered the MOVIES.

Porky’s. Animal House. Revenge of the Nerds.

In hindsight, our selections were far from appropriate for a pair of 11 year-old girls. But few parents back then were paying attention because of a historic reliance on network television to filter out such smut.

Today’s world would suggest that such exposure would damage us for life. We’d marry misogynists. We’d probably do drugs. Arrest records were inevitable.

Instead, I would argue these experiences are responsible for a certain appreciation of the absurd.

It’s why I love Seinfeld.

Recently, I spotted one of these films (edited) on television. My high school son wandered into the room and watched Revenge of the Nerds with me. He could not stop laughing at how completely non-PC the movie was.

“Oh my God, it was anything goes in the ‘80s, wasn’t it?”

I started getting flustered, even the edited version was raunchier than I remembered.

“Uh…this stuff was wrong then…uh…drugs are bad….uh don’t film people naked….”

“Relax, mom. It’s a movie, not a morality lesson.”

And there it was. As I kid, I understood the characters in these films were ridiculous and laughable.

I knew what they did was wrong.

While I don’t condone most 11 year-olds watching these flicks, I did realize something important: 

Parenting dictates how a lot of movies are received.

But we’ll all be watching The Sound of the Music next week.

Just in case.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Eye Rolls & Relevancy

The following appeared in the January edition of Chicago Parent.

When picking up the kids from their various activities, I usually encourage them to walk outside and look for me in the parking lot. It just makes all my after-school shuttling easier.

Yet the other day, I decided to park the car and walk into Dan’s hockey work-out facility for a peek. Behind the glass, my giant 14 year-old stopped, smiled, and delivered a spot-on Forrest Gump wave.
The other parents marveled. They shared how their stereotypical teenagers refused to acknowledge their very existence, and their kids’ only reaction to having parents was unadulterated embarrassment.

I had to tell them.

Yeah. I got one of those, too.

My middle son, Jack, has recently regressed to verbal infancy and only uses monosyllabic words to answer questions. His poker-faced history of being difficult to read has only gotten worse with age. It’s been worrying me a lot lately.

In response, I started peppering him with more questions than usual about his daily life, incorporating inquiries like:

How did you FEEL when your friend threw up in gym glass?

Did it BOTHER you when you lost that hockey game?

What made you laugh the HARDEST today?

Yeah. Jack grunts and I still get nothing.

I was forced to incorporate a time-honored tactic of parental espionage:

“I’ll let you stay up a little longer if you sit next to me and talk.”

This last time, I had to know. Was Jack happy? Was he enjoying his childhood? Was he ready to move out and pretend he didn’t have a mother anymore?

So I asked:

“What is the BEST thing that’s happened to you during your childhood?”

I was expecting Jack to go on about a tournament win or one of our many family vacations. Instead, he responded:

“Remember that one play-off game where you wore my hockey jersey?”

I did. All the other hockey moms had big kids, but I had to squeeze my chubby self into my smallest child’s jersey. Breathing was restricted. I felt like I was wearing a half-shirt. But I did it anyway.

“Yeah. That was the best.”

Suddenly, despite the grunts and eye rolls, I realized I was still the center of my child’s universe.

And it made having to walk 50 yards behind him at all times just that much easier.

Friday, May 3, 2019

School Spent

The following appeared in the December edition of Chicago Parent.

As we get deeper into another school year, there are several recurring themes in my life.

First up: I suck at homework. Remember when we were kids and couldn’t conceive of a more heinous punishment than diagramming sentences?

Hold my beer, Punky Brewster.

In teaching my boys this new form of math steeped in the absurd, I have officially become the ferryman of Hades. Every basic rule has been tossed. I feel deceived! Misled! Don’t even get me started on the great Metric System Lie.

I AM STILL WAITING, MISS FLOWERS.*

Last month, my youngest son delivered a list of after-school activities. I immediately honed in on “Homework Club.” Sweet Jesus, there was outsourcing for this! Salvation would be mine. I picked three slots a week.

Then I received a nice little note from the assistant principal gently pointing out that I was to select ONE post-school activity, not three.

I returned to my weekly spot in the kayak to hell trying to understand Common Core math.

The only thing contributing more to my premature death than homework?

School attendance offices.

For 10 years, I have followed the rules. I have submitted the doctor notes. I have made the phone calls. And my kids have approximately 150 unexcused absences.

These so-called “attendance offices” clearly exist only in the realm of unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster.

The educational system underestimated people like me when they started putting this all online. In the 1980s, if an absent was marked “unexcused,” our overwrought mothers wracked their brains but typically forfeited the fight.

Now?

I can obsess DAILY. I stalk the attendance offices harder than I stalk Kohls for 30% off coupons.

School is stressful for parents, and previous generations got off easy. Report cards were dropped on our parents without warning. Dad would lose his mind over a bad grade or two, but everybody moved on to watch The Love Boat by 7 pm. All was forgiven and quickly forgotten.

Nowadays, we suffer from information overload with the expectation of doing something with it. There is no winning. There is no safe spot between being disengaged and being fanatical. It makes me wish I could have parented in a completely different era.

I bet the property taxes on Little House on the Prairie were awesome.

*Miss Flowers really was my 3rd grade teacher. Despite the big metric system lie, she was quite lovely.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

In Defense of Fortnite

The following appeared in the November edition of Chicago Parent. 

A letter came home from my sons’ school last year suggesting that the devil himself was behind the video game phenomenon Fortnite. It was described as a dangerous epidemic. Crack cocaine for the middle school set!

My kids have engaged in many fads over the years: Angry Birds, Pokemon, Bakugan, Fidget Spinners, Bottle Flipping, and Dabbing to name a few. Some of these were all-consuming obsessions. They typically resulted in the standard school abolitionist letter warning that continued engagement could only result in a life of poverty and petty crime.

Whatever.

Not that I am a fan of video games. My boys were very late entrants into the whole video game arena, and even then, choices were carefully monitored. No blood. No prostitutes. No brain matter.

I initially put the kibosh on Fortnite because guns were involved. But after a while, I realized there was also communication! The boys implemented teamwork and strategy to win.

For the last several years, I’ve noticed a depressing shift in behavior. Once rambunctious boys whom I had to shush in the car were now zombie-like pre-teens staring blankly at their phones.

I rejoiced at the return of banter. Of joking. Of kids being kids.

Then there was the dancing. Never before in recorded history have so many boys suddenly mastered an arsenal of choregraphed and somewhat ridiculous dance steps. There was The Floss, The Shoot, Best Mates, and The Default Dance. Sure, I might have preferred an injection of the occasional Tango or Waltz, but beggars can’t be choosers.

People criticized the atmosphere and implied violence.

I then reminded them that Pac-Man was a cannibal. And the ghosts were clearly members of the occult.

As is true with most red hot fads, Fortnite interest is waning, another casualty of fickle kids. But unlike the whole bottle-flipping craze which left me twitchy, I am a little sad to see this one go.

For once, my boys actually danced like nobody was watching.

You know.

In between building panic walls.


Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Road Less Traveled


The following appears in the October edition of Chicago Parent.

I live in an amazing neighborhood of Chicago filled with cops, firemen, and public school teachers. Everyone knows everyone. There are constant food trains for the sick and fundraisers for those suffering hard times. When a local kid does good, you read about it in The Beverly Review. A trip for milk can take two hours as you will invariably encounter your Catholic School principal, your cousin, and the kid who pummeled you in fifth grade.

As a closet introvert, I fought with Joe 12 years ago to remain living downtown. Neighborhood life wasn’t for me. I am terrible with names, and I accidentally refer to everyone as Bob or Mary. Living in a neighborhood with limited anonymity? Pass. Not everyone needs to know how often I trip and swear.

I ultimately caved when I envisioned my sons learning to ride their bikes outside the Rain Forest Café.

Our neighborhood experience has been overwhelmingly positive. My kids feel safe. There is freedom to roam. Sure, our 7-Eleven occasionally gets robbed and the soundtrack of my kids’ youth is police sirens, but that’s the price of urban life.

When it came time for my oldest son to choose a high school, I was curious:

Would he select one of the nearest choices absorbing most neighborhood kids?

Would he test for selective enrollment along with some of his old gifted buddies?

Would he gamble on his dad’s school, Mount Carmel, where he knew absolutely nobody?

In a neighborhood with an established social hierarchy and a reputation for being unable to reinvent yourself after the 3rd grade, I was pulling for Carmel. I wanted my son to understand the greater world. I wanted him to eschew the safe and known and seek out those who inspired, challenged and supported him - regardless of background or status.

I held my breath. As much as my husband and I love our neighborhood, we didn’t want our choices to limit the choices for our kids.

Dan chose Mount Carmel.

Only time will reveal how this will shape him, and whether reaching for the great unknown is a worthy endeavor.

But I plan to one day tell him how his mother, too, once chose the road less traveled. And it has definitely made all the difference.

Ultimately, it led me to three young men I am so very proud to call my sons.