Wednesday, October 19, 2016

October Skies, October Lies

The following appeared in the October 2015 edition of Chicago Parent. I never got around to sharing it here because I was hiding under several blankets eating Ding-Dongs with a box of Kleenex.

Gentle autumn breezes and bright seasonal foliage are supposed to be relaxing. Instead, I view them as subterfuge. People who try to market fall as the perfect season are extremely suspect (or have much better prescription drugs than I do). The worst month of them all? October.

October blows.

The enormity and pressures of October have been on a steep, nerve-racking trajectory over the last several years. When I spot that first decorative scarecrow of the season, I must fight the urge to torch the sucker. The Wicked Witch of the West got a bum rap in my book. I stand with Elphaba.

This growing aversion to what was once a childhood highpoint cannot be traced to a single annoyance or repressed memory. It is rather a cornucopia of disaster, riddled with one pitfall after the next:

The Pumpkin Patch
Before I had kids, I thought a pumpkin patch was a farm you stopped at for approximately ten minutes and picked out a couple of gourds. Rookie mistake. A visit can run you several hundred dollars for entry fees, rides, food, and (if you remember), those godforsaken pumpkins.

The only thing more pressing than the cost is the burden to capture that perfect pumpkin patch moment. I once witnessed a family arriving with a professional photographer and makeup artist in tow. Sadly, my photos chronically document one kid blinking, one kid scowling, and one kid refusing to hold still.

Epic patch fail.

Growing up in Chicago, it is understood that football is practically a religion. I am well-versed in screaming things like “Kill that guy!” or “Destroy their quarterback!” But now that I have a son playing the sport? I consider all the players just wee lads in need of some mothering and neurosis.

My new chants include “Watch out for traumatic brain injury!” and “Keep the cerebral spinal fluid intact!” My husband refuses to sit next to me and the other parents try not to make eye contact. 

With my children always too tall for age-appropriate costumes, I have been forced to peruse the Sexy Nurse/Killer Zombie rack for years.

Then there is the treat issue. My boys lobby hard to hand out candy while I prefer the safer and more inclusive route of cheap trinkets. The one time I stocked up on a year’s worth of Halloween-themed yo-yos and erasers? A notice came back from the public school requesting sensitivity towards those not celebrating the holiday.

The harder I try to get this one right, the more I screw up.

Topping things off, my favorite grandfather died in October a long time ago, but I still associate the month with my first serious loss. My husband’s mother also died at 55 on Halloween, and despite never having known her, there is not a day I wish she wasn’t here.

For me, October is the taker of warmth and destroyer of sun. No, I do not love October, but my kids sure do. So I play along. For them, I will plant the scarecrow in the front lawn. I will buy paper clips as treats. I will drop a mortgage payment at the patch. I will work my hardest not to taint them.

And I will pray they fall for it.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Days of My Life

The following appears in the September edition of Chicago Parent.

A new school year.

A new set of worries.

A new set of developmental obstacles.

A new case for increasing my Xanax prescription.

Every year for the last seven, I have spent September second-guessing myself. First, there was the life-changing and soul-sucking Selective Enrollment route. The testing, waiting, deciding…it was overwhelming. Danny was fine (I bought him an ice cream cone after his exam), but I knew The Holy Grail would include a spot in one of the state’s preeminent grammar schools.

I think I locked in an ulcer during the process.

A while later, I picked up a nervous tick in choosing to send my two oldest to Catholic school. But you know. JESUS.

This year, I am leaving behind the wonderful Chicago Public School therapists and counselors who have doted on my youngest as though he was their own. They have worked with him to the point where his IEP probably wouldn’t even be re-issued if he was starting anew. He was never in better hands. Joey has been dropped off the spectrum and will now sally forth into the world with only a mild case of ADHD (or as I consider it, a mild touch of his mother’s DNA).

It will be the first time all three of my children will be attending the same school. I should be celebrating, but instead?

I’m totally verklempting.

I grew up in suburbia where there was never any doubt where kids would go for their education. Folks moved to a certain neighborhood FOR a school. There were no choices. My favorite Tab-drinking, chain-smoking moms had more time to worry about important things, like whether Marlena would finally escape the evil clutches of Stefano DiMaro.

No matter the era, geography, or pharmaceutical intervention, there will always be things to keep parents up late at night.

We worry about education. We worry about them finding friends. We worry about them finding the wrong kinds of friends. We worry about a world that is now foreign to us, steeped in social media and cyber bullying, where any slight misstep could be live-streamed on the local moms Facebook page.

My husband tells me to relax.

My mom tells me it will all be fine.

My ticks and insomnia refuse to listen.

The thing is, there is no way of knowing what decisions are more likely to result in a happy, well-rounded child. I do not have Miss Cleo’s psychic abilities. I am riding high on guts, instinct, and love.
One of my favorite times as a kid was actually watching a bit of “Days of Our Lives” with my mom. I loved the intrigue, the anguish, and the all-important cliff-hanger.

I never knew how it was going to end, but I never stopped hoping for the best.

It reminds me of parenting. Except I have not once sent a baby upstairs to nap and had him come back downstairs a gorgeous, grown-ass 20-year old man.

When I learn that trick, I will be sure to share.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

On a Brake

The following appears in the August edition of Chicago Parent. 

It might not have been the cherry-red Ferrari from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but it was close. For a minivan mom, anyway.

It started a few months back when my well-traveled Honda Odyssey began making peculiar noises. They stubbornly persisted despite my belting out “7 Years” at full volume in accompaniment with the radio. I pretended the obnoxious grinding sound was actually coming from whatever car was next to me at red lights.

Truth is expensive.

Denial is cheap:

I think Danny’s teeth will straighten out by themselves. 

We can totally afford ice hockey. 

If something is 70% off, that’s like free, right?

With nearly 150,000 miles on our minivan, the thought of a fatal diagnosis paralyzed me. My husband, who does not normally drive the minivan, questioned me after a hockey roadtrip to Crystal Lake.

“Have you noticed your car making noise?”


“It sounds like the engine is gargling shrapnel.”

“No. I wonder what you did to it.”

With an emergency call to our mechanic, there came the frantic search for a loaner car. It took a desperate text to my friend Kathy to see if she could spare one.

Hers wasn’t just any car.

It was one of those snazzy Volkswagen Jettas. And she said yes.

The first thing I had to figure out was the key. I scratched my head in bewilderment before pressing a tiny silver button that unleashed it with a magician’s grace.

What kind of sorcery was this?

As I got behind the wheel, a different enchantment took hold. I wasn’t minivan mom.

I was JETTA lady.

Zipping in and out of traffic without a care in the world, I felt younger. When I pulled up in front of our local ice arena to unload several hockey bags (now somewhat smooshed) and related kids, I heard a deep, low whistle.

It was not for me, mind you.

Hockey people just don’t typically see sexy little Jettas.

I discovered a different level of treatment in having to valet park downtown for an appointment. There was no apology for all the empty Gatorade bottles rolling around inside. The man did not grimace upon entry.

He smiled at me.

Perhaps if my minivan truly was dead, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing?

Ironically, I forgot why I bought a Honda Odyssey.

They are like Christmas fruitcakes. They never, ever die.

So when Joe called to tell me the crunching noise was due to some issue with the emergency brake, and was fully repairable, I was a little disappointed.

I liked being Jetta Lady.

After exorcising the twin demon spirits of putrid hockey bag and pre-teen boy, I dropped off my friend’s car. I knew I was bidding farewell not only to a lifestyle that no longer fit, but a simpler, easier way of life.

The heft of my minivan and all that it entails was never more apparent than when I first slid back into my familiar seat. The smell. The empty Gatorade bottles.

And in blue ink, next to where Jack had once parked his kindergarten booster, there was written:

I luv mommie. 

In the words of Ferris Beuller, I am reminded, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Friday, July 15, 2016

All Things Being Equal

My latest column in the July edition of Chicago Parent.

My husband hails from a family of seven children and is the fifth consecutive boy. I often tease him that nary a soul looked up when he arrived home from the hospital, baby boys being old hat and all.

I am not sure if Joe’s strongest stance on child-rearing is based on birth order or an innate sense of fairness, but he consistently argues:

“What we offer to one child, we offer to all.”

It has proven to be a maddening and expensive concept.

After my oldest son’s somewhat traumatic birth, therapists suggested he engage in activities that develop core strength. Ice skating was high on that list.

My husband peered over my shoulder as I registered Danny for Learn-to-Skate.

“You’re not doing ALL the boys?”

The righteous indignation was palpable.

I had no intention of dragging three little kids to an ice rink. At that time, lacing up just one pair of skates was daunting. We eventually compromised and agreed to hold off on little Joey until he could, you know, WALK.

A while later, we discovered my first son enjoyed chess. I located a local group and planned to send the two oldest boys. Joe again rallied around the cause of no man left behind.

“What about Joey?”

“Joey thinks chess pieces are army guys. And that they should fly.”

“Sign him up.”

I begrudgingly agreed.

Over and over, one child would express an interest and Joe would demand the whole motley crew gain exposure. I was ready to mutiny when I noticed something.

Jack, the tag-along kid for skating, developed a passion for ice hockey. Within one year, he went from the rejection of not making a house team to being promoted to a travel team. Fast as lightening, the kid now sleeps with his hockey stick and speaks with religious fervor over the happenings in the NHL.

It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.

And Joey, my bundle of energy and limited attention span, flourished under chess tutelage. In learning to consider consequences more than one step out, his grades and focus improved enormously. He also gained confidence in being one of the only second-graders proficient in a complex game.

I could not have predicted that outcome in a million years.

With a new appreciation for exposing children to a plethora of activities and sports, I sometimes get frustrated when parents insist:

“That (sport/activity) just isn’t my child’s thing.”

How can you be so sure?

For the uncoordinated child, sports offer repetitive motions and drills that rival years’ worth of physical therapy. Music lessons can actually improve balance. Martial arts and swimming have been known to help with ADHD.

Many local park districts, schools, and communities provide affordable alternatives to privately run programs.

It was never my intention to be so tired or so poor running these kids here and there. I still try to hide my disappointment when long-term interests fall to the wayside (piano, cello, swimming, soccer). I can only hope that the strong base provided will remain should a passion suddenly reignite.

I do not blame parents who think I am crazy. Yet a long time ago, before my husband and I had kids, we both agreed to offer our kids just one thing:

The entire world.

But they would still have to take out the garbage first.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Source

The following appears in the June edition of Chicago Parent.

As a semi-practicing Catholic, I was a bit surprised by Pope Francis’ recent comments on “helicopter parenting.” In his treatise on family life, His Holiness suggested that parents who constantly keep track of their children are actually sabotaging their kids’ independence.

Perhaps if the institution had done a better job tracking its own black sheep, I’d listen.

 A little helicopter priesting would have gone a long way.

One of my favorite expressions is “Consider the source.” It is why I can’t bite my tongue when the neighborhood know-it-all tells me everything I’m doing wrong (while her son sets the dog’s tail on fire after gorging on forbidden processed foods).

Consider the source.

It is why I ignore Facebook posts and articles about not sticking up for your child when he or she is being treated poorly. These posts usually come directly from the people who run everything, dictate everything, and simply don’t want to be challenged on anything.

Consider the source. 

I do not welcome financial counsel from the bankrupt and I do not seek marriage advice from the thrice-divorced.

Consider the source.

If a friend of mine is a regular patron of Denny’s, I simply cannot take her restaurant recommendations very seriously. Her favorite entrĂ©e is Moons Over My Hammy for chrissakes.

Consider the source. 

When I had my first baby, I would listen reverently to the park mom pitching the latest theory on parenting. She seemed to know her stuff. She spoke with authority. She had cute shoes. Twelve years later, I now see her rotten kid around the neighborhood and the only word that comes to mind is “jagoff.”

No, my sources no longer include online gurus, celebrities, or moms with cute shoes.

They are instead the parents of adult children I find intelligent, warm, and accomplished. These moms and dads miraculously raised wonderful people without the aid of the internet or fad parenting.

These are the sources I consider.

So when I asked an old acquaintance how he managed to raise five of the nicest boys I have ever met, I took his comments to heart:

Love them. 

Keep them busy. 

Buy plenty of duct tape. 

The advice was both simple and breathtakingly complex. Loving them was easy. Keeping them busy now requires a matrix worthy of Stephen Hawking. And assuring our house is flush with duct tape at all times? My husband could use a third job. But the advice still guides me every day.

I would encourage every parent to find the right voice. The right source. And seriously. Load up on duct tape.

 You’re going to go through that sh*t like water.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Noise of Motherhood

As a newly minted, two-time national gold award winner for column, humor, I really feel someone needs to start coming over and doing my laundry. Bueller?

Anyway, here is my latest in Chicago Parent magazine. I am rather fond of the topic.

“My mom likes things quiet and clean,” my son Joey once announced to a good friend of mine.

“True, but how do YOU like things?” questioned a clearly amused Shannon.

“I like things LOUD AND MESSY.”

Seasoned moms advise that when a house suddenly falls quiet, it is time to worry. The kids are likely planning a coup or plotting some nefarious deed. Based on this hypothesis, I will never experience a moment’s angst with my youngest son.

He never shuts up. And my house is never, ever quiet.

Recently, Joey stood in front of a Cheesie’s food truck, debating his selections. An extremely patient employee encouraged him to take his time. Joey hemmed and hawed before revealing:

“I hate cheese.”

Undeterred, the young man attempted to steer his young patron towards several non-cheese options. Joey continued to waffle. Finally, the employee took a fresh approach and asked him what he loved most in the world. Without missing a beat, Joey replied:


During a hockey game for his brother, Joey abandoned his usual post as the leader of the younger siblings to corner one of the quiet dads. For nearly an hour, I nervously watched out of the corner of my eye. I waited for the man to either signal for help or simply walk away. He never did. I later discovered that Joey had bombarded the poor guy with random thoughts on life and its most pressing questions, including:

“Do you think it would be better to play dead when a bear attacks you, or do you think it would be safer to run away?”

I learned from the man’s wife that he had enjoyed his time with Joey, despite a lapse in grizzly bear knowledge.

Joey is not the kid you want next to you while playing hide-'n'-seek or robbing a bank. He works valiantly to keep it together during school, often writing himself reminders to stay quiet. Yet as the proud recipient of Mount St. Joey after seven hours of holding it all in, I find the explosive verbal barrage overwhelming:

“You know how cousin Gracie got a confirmation name? I want mine to be BOB. Have you seen my red sweater from kindergarten? I was keeping that for memories.”

“Remember, mom, how I threw up in school and on my book and on Mrs. Stankus’ shoes and down the hallway and she called it the ‘Oregon Trail’? It was SPECTACULAR. I wonder who cleaned my math book. Did you ever return that shirt they gave me, mom? Can I have some cake?”

“When you die, mommy, can you visit me? But don’t be a scary ghost or anything like that. Now that I think about it, you don’t really have to visit me. You can just stay in my heart. I miss Sue.”

For someone like me who prefers things “quiet and clean,” Joey has tested the very limits of my patience.

The kid also makes me laugh every day.

There will eventually come a time when Joey is not with me. He will grow up, move out, and hopefully share his enthusiasm and love of everything with the world.

Those moms who once told me to worry only when things were silent were wrong. My house will eventually fall quiet, and the unique and precious gift of Joey will be made all the more obvious.

Being his mom, to use his favorite word, has been truly spectacular.

Now who’s got cake?