Thursday, July 19, 2012

I Wouldn't Mind Some Instant Gratification Right About Now

I woke up this morning groggy, and in a low mood. Groggy, because despite being tired I've been staying up too late, and in a low mood because it hit me that the vast expanse of time that I thought having all three boys in camp represented is now almost over. And of course I haven't done half of the things I thought I should.

It certainly isn't as if I haven't done things. I started sorting the boys' clothes and made substantial progress towards clearing out the clothes that don't fit any more. I've got several bags of clothes to give to a friend whose son can wear the 3Ts and smallish 4Ts that Son #3 has outgrown, and then I've got several other bags of even smaller stuff, which somehow escaped past purges, to donate to charity. The Pit of Despair (aka, our garage) lost some weight this week as well, since hubby pulled out several bags of clothes that he had sorted to be picked up by a local charity and I stumbled across a stack of materials from an old freelance job of mine that went into the recycle bin. I made a tiny little baby step towards beginning to sort out old toys by boxing up the old peg puzzles (and yes, realizing that I had a drawer full of them was a classic facepalm moment--after all, Son #3 is only about 2 years beyond them developmentally). I even made major progress on a project that has been haunting me since last summer (and which will be worthy of its own post when I finish up the final niggling details, so I won't elaborate here).

So why the grumpiness? Well, the first part has to do with realizing that I'm past the fun opening stage of embarking on a new project (in this case, decluttering the house and simultaneously trying to restore some balance to my life) but still miles away from realizing my goals. I will soon run out of low-hanging fruit to pick and start running up against the obstacles that made me decide that, say, cleaning out the closets could wait until after I checked out what everyone was doing on Facebook.

The second part has to do with underestimating the size of the task. I had thought last summer that getting rid of 1,000 pounds of stuff would make a noticeable difference in my house. Well, between the bags of stuff we gave to charity, the papers I recycled, and the batteries my friend took to the hazardous waste disposal, we got rid of about 100 pounds of stuff in the last week. That's 1/10th of the total goal, and you'd never notice. To paraphrase Roy Scheider in Jaws, I'm going to need a bigger goal.

Getting rid of stuff hasn't been my only attempt at self-improvement. I started trying to exercise regularly shortly before the last school year ended, when I found that my anxiety was waking me up at a brutal 5:30 a.m. every day whether I liked it or not. (And for the record, I like sleep. I need sleep. I am more pleasant to be around, and not-so-coincidentally, my family is much happier when I've had my sleep.) It seemed much better to get up and walk/jog around the neighborhood than to lay in bed having anxiety attacks. Now, I can't really say that I've ever had a regular exercise program in my adult life, and my two favorite hobbies (reading and knitting) involve a lot of sitting around. My physical condition is exactly what you would expect of a primarily sedentary 40-year-old, except that I'm not overweight. (Won the genetic lottery there, because up until now I've done nothing to earn it.) My main accomplishments so far have been not quitting, and improving my jogging speed to the point where I might be the second person caught by the undead hordes in the zombie apocalypse, instead of the first. It's not nothing, I suppose, but I still feel like kind of a fraud when I put on my exercise clothes.

And why the lack of sleep? The public school system is adjusting their calendar to start earlier in the fall, which means the kids will get out much earlier next summer. In the meantime, though, this summer is being cut nearly a month short as we transition from a late-start to an early-start calendar. As I realized we had less than a month of summer left, the old feeling of anxiety that I left behind for a couple of golden weeks started to reappear. All of the plans that had existed in a cozy space of "wouldn't-it-be-fun-if" in my head (books to read, craft projects to do, time to hang out with friends) have now crashed smack into the reality that there are really only three weeks to go, and only one unplanned weekend, before the boys are back in school.

Last year I started the school year in the hope that I would be able to juggle my obligations and my interests, and ended up overwhelmed, hopping from task to task. I'm so hoping that it won't happen again, but I worry that just like last year, I am not far enough along in trying to make changes to the status quo to be able to maintain any momentum. I'm enough of a grownup to realize that I'm not going to transform my life and the stuff-laden crazy routine my family has gotten into overnight; it is more like trying to make a U-turn in a river barge. So yes, a little instant gratification would be nice right about now to keep up morale, but I'll settle for a random squirrel picture instead.

Hey look at that--I figured out how to put a picture in a blog post! The day isn't a total waste.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Getting Over Myself to Accept a Favor

One day about two weeks ago, I got a phone call from a friend of mine. She was headed off to the hazardous household waste disposal and wanted to know if I had anything I needed taken over there.

Boy, did I. I have been saving dead batteries for years, knowing that they didn't belong in the regular trash. However, I never quite managed to get them to any one of the not-so-conveniently located disposal facilities, so they piled up. So what started out as a small plastic bag of dead AAs and AAAs became a larger bag, which then finally ended up as a 25-pound box of batteries. (Yes, I weighed it before I handed it over to her.) To her credit, though my friend was visibly surprised when I lugged it out to her car (I think she was expecting a few CFLs and maybe a handful of batteries), she gamely took it, even when I expressed doubt that the facility might have a limit on how much material you could turn in at once. She reported "mission accomplished" via text about half an hour later.

Here's the crazy part of this story: When she called to ask if I had anything to get rid of, I almost said no. While one part of my brain immediately started trying to figure out where in the garage that box had been stashed, an internal counterargument immediately kicked in, which sounded something like, "It will be a lot of trouble for her to take care of that for you. You should do it yourself. It will be too embarrassing to show her how long you've been putting this off." It did take a slight effort of will to ignore that inner voice and just take her up on the offer. After all, she was just offering to take something along to a place she was going anyway--so why did I feel like it was such a big deal to let her do me a favor?

There are two answers, one simple and one more complex. The simple one is that whatever that box physically weighed, its weight in guilt was enormous. It was a pretty potent symbol of the domestic things I do not manage to get done, and getting rid of it appropriately was, from an emotional standpoint, a pretty huge favor.

The other one, though, left me wondering about the nature of friendship. I realized that I often do not ask for favors from my friends, even when I need them, even when the task is simply accomplished, and even when I know the friend who I would ask would be more than willing to help out. But the part that gets really screwy is that I don't mind being asked for a favor when the situation is reversed.

I found when I first moved to L.A., over 12 years ago, that making friends was harder than I expected. My main avenue for meeting other women was through my kids, and I rapidly found out that sometimes all I had in common with them was the fact that we both had kids. It took a long time to find anyone with whom I felt comfortable discussing more than the superficial dishing that parents do with one another on short acquaintance about lack of sleep, the nastiness of dealing with diapers (and the related discussions on green poop), and Odd Things That Children Put in Their Mouths. It felt kind of lonely to constantly be communicating at the level of cocktail-party banter, all amusing anecdotes low on substance.

In those early years, I made some rules for myself to help weed out the acquaintances that I knew would never end up in the category of Friends I Call for No Reason Whatsoever When I Need to Talk. One of the first rules was to avoid flagrant violators of the unwritten Social Contract of Sisterhood in Motherhood, which states that when someone tells you something unflattering about their child, you do not respond by talking about what a perfect angel your child is. For example, if I told another mom about how Son #2 got into the laundry room and dumped a cupful of cat food into the fountain-type water dish, necessitating a half-hour cleanup and a superhuman effort on my part not to swear in front of him, and she responded with an anecdote about how her similarly-aged daughter insisted on putting her own dishes into the dishwasher immediately after every meal, then I'd know she wouldn't make the short list. You are supposed to then relate how your child did something similar (i.e., telling a tale about how your child is apparently using the scientific method to determine exactly how large a toy can be flushed down the toilet before it stops working entirely and a plumber has to be called) so that your friend can feel assured that her child is not the only one in the world who does stupid/mischievous things.

The other major rule was to avoid the What Did Your Little Devil Do to My Little Angel types. These people are pretty easily spotted when their kids are in preschool, because preschoolers tend to get in spats where everyone involved has done something wrong (i.e., Child A grabs toy away from Child B, Child B responds by whacking Child A). In a perfect world, Child A's mom would explain to Child A that while it was not okay for Child B to hit them, it is also not okay to grab toys away from other people, and Child B's mom would be giving the reverse explanation to Child B (with perhaps a soup├žon of "hitting is worse than grabbing" thrown in). Ideally both moms would then talk to the kids about the appropriate way to interact. With the Little Devil/Little Angel types, what happens in practice is that whatever your kid did was wrong and whatever their kid did was okay, thus throwing all the blame on to your child no matter what the situation is (i.e., Child A's mother insists that Child A had been waiting a long time for that toy and just can't be expected to wait forever, and Child B is a monster for hitting them). These people are impossible to deal with, and while the situations get more subtle as their kids age, the basic M.O. is the same. 

The rest of my friend-selection strategy simply has to do with time. I don't have a lot of it, so I'm choosy about who I spend it with. I love to read and I hate reality television, so I'm not likely to have much in common with someone who reverses those preferences. My idea of a luxury shoe buy is a pair of Dansko clogs (so comfortable...), and most of my friends similarly favor comfort over style in their footwear. In short, I do consciously what we all used to do unconsciously in our youth--find my level with people who have similar interests and attitudes.

Luckily, in the nearly eleven years we've lived in our current house, I've gotten to know a number of women I would describe as good friends. So why do I hesitate to accept help from them when I need it? And why do I almost never ask? Have I simply lost the ability to instinctively know who to trust after all those years of holding people at arm's length until I could determine if I could relate to them? I'd describe this as a personal problem except that I see my friends do the same thing all the time. Not all of them, though; clearly the "rugged individualists" among us need to take a cue from the moms who are more willing to connect and ask for help.

I'll remind myself of that the next time I hesitate to take up a friend when they're offering me a hand. After all, what's 25 pounds of dead batteries among friends?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Some Random Thoughts on Being a Mom

[This was not what I intended to write about next, and it is a bit off topic for what I mostly intended my blog to be about. Still, I've been thinking about it enough that I wanted to write about it to get it off of my mind.]

As I recently cruised around the internet, reading this and that, I found a piece someone had written about women who hated being moms, which cited examples from various sites that the author had Googled using the phrase "I hate being a mom." Of course I had to go check it out for myself, since I'm just as much of a rubbernecker as the next person. But I didn't have the heart to read more than a tiny sample of the results--it just made me kind of sad.

Parenthood is hard, and I'd even be willing to go out on a limb and say the kind of stay-at-home parenthood traditionally associated with moms is particularly hard. Kids themselves are demanding, and as soon as you master one phase of development they change on you. I also found that a kind of anti-glamour descended over me when I became a stay-at-home mom (not that I was ever glamorous to begin with)--I could be in a perfectly kid-free situation, not obviously in my role as a mom, but once someone found out that I was a stay-at-home mom, it was as if some mysterious enervating ray sucked out their ability to treat me as a human being. I'd either get the politely glazing-over stare of the person devoting their mental energy to the quickest escape route out of our conversation, or I'd get the overeager condescension of the person treating me as if I were some sort of domestic saint for giving it all up to nurture a child. Meh.

For the record, my decision to be a stay-at-home mom was mostly based on economics and control-freakhood. When I got pregnant with Son #1, I crunched the numbers and figured out that most of my take-home pay would be required to hire a nanny (and other child-care options were, if memory serves, not easy to find where we were living at the time). I also knew that, of necessity, I would be the parent who would be taking off of work to go to routine doctor appointments or to stay home when the baby was sick, since my husband worked across the bay in a far more demanding job than mine. So my circumstances involved a choice, if not a fabulous one--stay at home with the baby and give up work, or try to do both and most likely feel like I wasn't doing a great job at either. More than once since then I've been grateful that I had a choice at all, since I know many moms who have to "do it all," whether they feel like they're "having it all" or not.

I like being a mom, even if I don't like all the parts of it. I'd advise anyone who wants to try it to develop a sense of humor and some thick skin--there is almost no way to get through having your child throw up on the bed you just changed (and the last set of clean sheets in the house) without laughing about it. It also helps to not take it personally. Just as your child didn't intentionally get stomach flu to keep you up at night, much of what they do that annoys you isn't done just to drive you crazy. 

You also have to accept that no matter what you do as a mom, someone is going to think you're wrong. At times it will be your kid, who thinks your "no ice cream before dinner" policy is tyranny, or your husband, who thinks you're too picky because you refuse to let the kids go bath-less three days running in the summer, or your mother-in-law (or maybe your mom), who drops broad hints that maybe your kid is spoiled because you let him have so many toys. It will definitely be the person behind you in line at Target, no matter whether you give in to your kid's temper tantrum over a pack of gum to shut him up or you tough it out over his 75-decibel wails. To take an example from my own life, I know that as soon as my  boys' hair gets long enough for my mother-in-law to think it is cute, my own father will start muttering about how they look like "damn hippies." Again, this is an area in which a sense of humor will really come in handy. 

The part I like the best, however, is going to sound a bit weird, especially given my aforementioned control-freakhood. That is that ultimately, I am not in complete control. I didn't get to decide who my kids are, and their personalities and their actions are often still a surprise to me. Son #1 can dive into a book and read for hours; he likes to write little fan-fiction scripts featuring himself and his friends in whatever game or book is his current favorite. Son #2 has a more artistic bent, which mainly expresses itself in building things out of paper and tape. I got him to finish his mission report in school last year by promising him that he could build a model of the mission after he finished. (Son #1 wouldn't have built a model of his mission if I had threatened him with the loss of his beloved Xbox.) And Son #3 is both charming and confident--he dismissed me on his second day of camp this week as soon as I dropped him off because he wanted to go run and play with the other kids, rather than having me lurking around cramping his style. To learn to be mom to three boys who have as many differences as similarities, I had to learn and grow myself.

But honestly, I don't believe motherhood is for everyone. (Obviously not, if the internet is exploding with testimonials from women who hate motherhood.) And I guess I'm a little horrified at the idea that there are all these moms posting often barely-literate wishes that their children would disappear or hadn't been born. My kids didn't ask me to have them, and if I didn't know what I was getting into (I didn't, even though I thought I did), it wasn't their fault. I guess all I can say without getting judgmental is if you don't have kids and think you don't want to--then DON'T. If you already have kids and aren't happy that you do--then I hope you try to do something about it more constructive than griping about it on the internet.

[To both of my regular readers, thanks for your patience. I'll be back to amusing anecdotes about my domestic disorganization in the next post, I promise.]

Monday, July 9, 2012

It's Quiet...But Not Too Quiet

Today I sent all three boys to summer camp. It's just a day camp, so I'll be picking them all up around four-thirty-ish after a whole seven hours to myself. It's Son #3's first camp experience, so I'll admit I was not only a little nervous leaving him in the hands of the impossibly-young-looking camp counselors (and when exactly did undergraduate students start looking like infants, anyway?), but I also felt a little neglectful as I drove away. Because really, I didn't just sign them up for camp so they could meet new friends, have fun new experiences, and be active instead of rotting their brains in front of the TV or computer or video games, though all of those reasons were part of why I signed them up for two weeks of camp, and why I chose this particular camp.

The truth is, on top of those excellent reasons, and equally important as any or all of them, is that I needed some time to myself this summer. Time not spent refereeing sibling spats. Time not delivering threats over the amount of time Son #1 has glued himself to the Xbox. Time not paying one iota of attention to the volunteer work that absorbed most of my virtually nonexistent free time and mental bandwidth during the last school year. And yes, admitting that feels kind of selfish.

Mind you, feeling selfish about it did not stop me from signing them up with giddy glee several months ago. I'm not interested in sacrificing myself on the altar of maternal martyrdom. There are many inconvenient things that I will do in the interests of my children (driving Son #1 a round-trip of 50 miles once a week so he can go to his social skills/group therapy session comes to mind), but it is better for all of them and me if I'm a happier human.

I've heard many different ways of describing the desirability or necessity of putting yourself first at least some of the time. I personally like the "oxygen mask" analogy--i.e., you put your own oxygen mask on first in the case of emergency, because you aren't much use to your children (or anyone) if you've passed out. A friend of mind uses the term "self-care." Whatever you want to call it, I'm lousy at it. I overschedule myself, delude myself that I'm the only one who can do certain things, put the things that make me happy at the bottom of the list, and say yes to unnecessary obligations that increase my stress level.

This sounds like a pretty bleak picture, but I'm not completely hopeless. There are certain things that I say no to, or say yes to only sparingly. For example, I know that having a noisy houseful of other people's children tends to make me cuckoo-brains, so playdates are planned in advance so I can mentally prepare. I have not signed up to be a room parent at the kids' public school or their religious school in...well, possibly ever now that I think of it. Nothing irks me more than dealing with people who are uninformed and apathetic about their kids' education, and the likelihood of encountering at least one of those sort of folks when you're a room parent is pretty high, given the random nature of the group you have to work with. My blood pressure and I agreed long ago to say "no, thank you" to those opportunities with nary a qualm of conscience. And, of course, I recognized months ago that a completely unstructured summer with me and all three boys under one roof 24/7 would be...less than ideal, shall we say?

What stymies me is how to keep things in balance. A week of manic activity and the associated stress is not balanced out by a warm bubble bath. And yes, it's great to take a stack of books on your annual vacation and plow through them one after another, but that's not so fabulous if that's the first time you've gotten to relax with a book in months. How exactly do I say "enough" and stick to it? How do I take time for the things I like to do, without needing a reason beyond the fact that it makes me happy?

Hell, maybe this is all an elaborate justification for why I'm typing up a blog post right now instead of clearing Son #3's drawers of outgrown clothing. (I'm getting to it, I swear!) But this topic is very much on my mind as I enjoy these quiet hours, knowing that the school year is fast approaching. Am I going to fill up my suddenly free hours with a lot of nonsense, or will I have the self-control to keep some of my time for myself? 

I'd like to think that it will be the latter...because I know that when I do genuinely take some time for myself to work on things that may not be practical but that I love (NaNoWriMo, anyone?), then I'm a much better person to be around. And I think my boys would much rather be picked up by happy-mom-who-springs-for-ice-cream rather than grumpy-mom-who's-stressing-about-the-chores-she-didn't-do-yet, don't you?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Back to Square One

Well, as anyone who has bothered to look at my defunct blog over the last nine months can tell, my last post proved to be eerily prophetic. It didn't take long for me to get sucked into the whirlpool of school obligations, volunteer and otherwise, and for my project to rid my house of extraneous possessions to grind to a halt. So now I get the dubious pleasure of starting back at the beginning, armed this time with some knowledge of what does not work. Lessons learned include, but are not limited to:

  • Expecting to carve out time for yourself when you are still doing all of the tasks that made it impossible to carve out time for yourself is just as insane as it sounds.
  • One person cannot manage the belongings of four. (I give my husband credit for handling his own stuff, though after over a decade in the same house he still doesn't know where things go in the kitchen.)
  • Waiting on people who are both able-bodied and younger than I am makes me cranky.

So what am I going to do differently this time? To go point by point:

Point One: I actually am starting this summer a couple of obligations lighter. Son #3 graduated from his co-op nursery school on June 22nd, and I handed over the treasurer's notebook and responsibilities to my successor around the same time. On top of that, no more co-op means no more work days, so instead of spending my Monday mornings wrangling preschoolers and praying for not-rainy, not-windy, not-too-hot-not-too-cold weather at our outdoor school, I could conceivably go get a mani-pedi every week if I wanted to. Ha. I'm not kidding anybody. I'm far too cheap to spend my money on that. But you get the point. And as of mid-August, son #3 will be in school five days a week, six and a half hours a day, just like his brothers. I think going from his twelve-hour-a-week preschool schedule to over thirty hours a week in school is going to be just as big a jump for me as it is for him.

The other major obligation I am handing over is the booster club presidency. Much to my surprise and delight, a volunteer stepped up in April, just as I was beginning to think I was going to have to leave my notebook on the magnet coordinator's desk and enter the witness protection program to get out of the job. (Never mind the fact that I've been saying for two years that I would do a two-year term--nobody was listening to me.) I'm beginning to suspect that my successor is going to be better than I was, and though I feel a slight twinge at the thought, I am resolutely letting it go. I can tell myself she is building on what I started and all my friends will back me up on that, no matter what they actually think.

Point Two: This is a stickier wicket, since I have three boys and the oldest one is twelve. They all suffer from the apparently y-chromosome-linked blindness that allows them to wade through piles of dirty clothes or discarded toys without ever noticing them. Nevertheless, as I worked on cleaning up Son #1's room yesterday I made him sit with me and help sort through the mountain of papers he had amassed on his desk over the school year. The boys are old enough to clear their own plates from the table, put their own clothes in the hamper, pick up their toys, and generally not act as if their parents are their servants. Which brings me to...

Point Three: My new favorite line is, "No, you can get you _______." As in:

Son #2 (sitting and watching a Pokemon video on the computer): Mom, can you get me some apple juice?
Me (washing dishes at the sink): No, you can get you some apple juice.

This usually results in a dramatic groan, but Son #2, whose hands are not on backwards, does then go get himself the aforementioned juice. One of my many failings as a parent (I'm sure the boys could give you a fuller list than I could) is that I do give in to the temptation to do things for my kids that they can do themselves simply because it is faster and easier to do it for them (though I am hardly the only parent to behave this way). In the long term, this does not help them one bit.

Following through on this step will be a win-win: my boys will learn both useful skills and manners (as well as losing the expectation that the world is going to act like their secretarial staff/pit crew), and I will end up with less to do.

I won't lie. It is a bit demoralizing to think that I ended up a year later with almost nothing to show for my ambitions to organize my house and my life and claim some time for my own needs. On the other hand, the last year was not a total waste of time; I did do some things I was proud of and I may write about them on this blog in the future. But failing once does not mean that I should quit trying. So here we go again...