Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The whole "simple beginnings" thing isn't going too well.

The three greatest minds I’ve ever met came from very simple beginnings.  I’ve recently realized how much this created a rigid script for me:  Simple backgrounds + lots of parental love = Great Mind. 

I’m not talking about the most traditionally-successful persons who’ve ever lived – not Nobel Prize winners, although all 3 probably could be if they’d chosen a different path. Comparing these three men, though, the parallels between their lives are remarkably similar.  And so is the outcome, at least via my definition: They have wisdom from ideas they create themselves – not ones in books or from other people – and analyze situations with this incredible insight and awareness.  All three of them, I am amazed by their minds every time we delve into a topic.

I can dump all my thoughts on any of the three, and they will absorb and process whatever I give them.  Take it, re-engineer it, and hand it back to me better than what it was in my own mind.

I love this so much.

I knew I wanted this for my children – this ability to approach any topic with a flexible intelligence and deep insight. 

It’s only recently that I’ve recognized the cognitive dissonance in me: I’ve wondered if opportunity and parental success was an obstacle to what I ultimately want for my children. 

I was raised by one of the Great Minds, and I married another one. And while both appreciate their simple beginnings, they also seem equally committed to giving their children a bigger life than the one they had.  It’s the power of parental (and grandparental) love, I think, wanting to push out the boundaries for the next generation.  Take life and experiences to the next level.

One of the Minds didn’t go to school until high school, and the other two weren’t at private schools or tagged for Gifted programs.  And here I am, believer in Simple Beginnings, bringing my children to this boutique French school.  It doesn’t resonate for me.

To be fair to my cognitive dissonance, the school isn’t fancy.  It’s two rented rooms in a church basement, with only a few families.  It’s like an incredibly expensive homeschool co-op, in many ways.  But it’s certainly diverging from this path that was ingrained in me.  
I’ve had to tease out the variables from my equation and compare them more closely.  What if it wasn’t about the simplicity, but the lack of parental pressure that let them develop their own interests?  Maybe they didn’t have museum memberships or trips abroad, but there was support and lots of love.

And maybe we’ll find out what happens when you keep all that support and love, but add in more opportunity and experiences?  Maybe we’ll see that opportunity isn’t an obstacle to Great Mindedness, but actually a step to another level?

I have no idea.  I really don’t.  My children’s lives are filled with language immersion classes and road-trips and museums on weekends.  I’m fighting my internal Script for Greatness, while also delving into our shared need for experiences, novelty, and stuffing our minds.  My children aren’t feeling pressured and stilted; they are actively begging for MORE. 

Somehow, I need to quiet the voice inside me that whispers: “Simple beginnings.  Simple beginnings.”

I don’t really know what this revised type of childhood is supposed to look like.  And, like all great parenting experiments, I haven’t any clue how it turns out in the end.  I keep thinking that if I watch the baby-steps along the way, it will keep us moving down some “right path.” That if my children remain curious and happy and intellectually-hungry, then it’s going well?

When you throw out conventional models of parenting, and then also throw out the script you thought you knew, you’re left with this blindingly white canvas staring at you.  Kinda cool.  Kinda scary.  Always interesting.

Monday, October 22, 2012

"...And knowing people will still love you."

To me, the most interesting part of life-change is that I define the parts of me that stay.  Change things enough, and you notice the parts of you that will always exist, no matter what the conditions.   

For years now, I’ve defined motherhood as the interactions throughout the day.  I was their mother because I helped create them, yes, but that’s not the only defining element -- or else adoption wouldn’t exist.   

Maybe I was their mom because I fed them, taught them manners, and rocked them all night when they were sick.  But Steve was just as influential of a parent, even being gone long hours of the day. 

So now, I am a working mother.  I have always worked, since they were tiny, but not in this ratio of work-to-children time.  I get to see what parts of me are still Mother, even with this new variable. 

I’ve decided that motherhood is about bringing who I am, and what I’ve learned, into their lives.  That my time with them is now less, but I bring something else to them.  

I love my job so much.  I have learned a bazillion things in the last few weeks.  My brain is exploding from the incredible deluge of new information, and I feel a fiery excitement that I bring home. We all spend our days collecting experiences and stories and refining parts of ourselves, and then we bring them back to the dinner table.   

For this moment, in this section of life, we are bigger and better for our time apart. 

I tell them stories from work, like Joe, who is blind and runs the snack shop. How I tell him what I have (“Dasani water”), he tells me how much it is (“$1.35”), and then I put the money in his hand (“$2.00, sir”).  And he gives me the change.  I tell them about how much I love standing in line, watching the people ahead of me do the same routine.  There is so much respect for Joe, and so much kindness in how he treats people. How great is it that a snack-stand cashier can bring joy to that many persons.  That when they grow up and have jobs…whatever job it is…I hope they give joy to others like Joe gives me when I buy a Dasani.

Jack tells me that he learned the Russian word for “bat” is literally “flying mouse.”  He asks to stay up a bit later, so he can practice writing in cursive.  Andrew tells me about what he learned in his cooking class, or a new French word from school.  And Simone rattles off her day in her typical chirpy monologue – detailing everything from why she chose her outfit to the girl she met at the playground.

I ask them questions, like: “Does everyone know that I love you all the time, even when I’m not there?” They look up at me from their drawings, nodding quizzically like I’m crazy, and go back to what they’re doing.  Or: “Does anyone know HOW MUCH I love you?”  And they answer in robotic unison: “A lot.” 

As if it’s so foundational that it’s not worth discussing. I love this so much. Nobody is missing me.  It’s as if I spent 4-8 years stuffing my presence into their little souls, so now it’s just There. 

Maybe the best way to be there for loved ones is about what happens when we’re not there.  Even on the days when Steve gets home pushing midnight, having worked on his Excel sheets for 12-14 hours a day, my day is changed because he is in my life.  I walk around with this awareness that someone out there cares about my minutiae.  Will be excited to see me.  That if an emergency happened where I really needed him, he would close those Excel spreadsheets and come home immediately.  There are these invisible threads between us, and I get to experience them in ways I didn’t understand before.

We had a complicated weekend as a family.  Our incredible Saturday night, for one, and still smiling about it on Sunday. But also, tears over this being the final few days of Robin’s life.  We talked about memories of her – like when she came out for 5 days to care for them while Steve and I were gone.  The kids all shared Robin-stories and cried, and we had some difficult discussions about death and why bodies break.  They decided to have a celebration for her, with Jell-O and donuts like she bought for Andrew’s birthday.

In the middle of the tears, Andrew said to me: “The best part about being a family is having any emotion you need to have, and knowing people will still love you.”  I was amazed by the pure truth in it.  That even as we go off and experience different paths in life, there’s this resting place in the middle of the chaos – where we can come home and be authentic, and yet still accepted.  Have any emotion we need to have, and know people will still love us.   

I think I like that definition of motherhood best of all.  That I'm a place in my children's lives where they can be authentic...have any emotion they need to have...and still be loved.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"Maria Poppins"

I want to publicly thank every single babysitter/nanny who has ever shown up on time.  Took the kids bike riding, to the park, and to the library -- not even once turning on TV.  Dropped them off safely at school and picked them up again.  Swept the floor, did dishes, and did 2 loads of laundry for their mother (even though "light housekeeping" wasn't even hinted at in the job description) -- and had the kids helping, thinking it was a fun activity.  Texted pictures of smiling, happy children to their mom throughout the day, with a little note saying, "We're doing great!"  And gave big snuggles to the children at the end of the day, like you'll authentically miss them until the next day.

If I could sculpt, I would sculpt a statue of Maria for our front yard.

The most complicated part of this new stage of life was finding someone to replace me in those hours after school, until I get home.  I am pleased to see that we found someone who not only replaces me, but might even be an upgrade. ;)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Thankgoodness, the nanny showed up today.

Well, in terms of my ability to hire nannies for my children, the 4th time is the charm. 

I have never been so bad at anything in my life.  Except learning Czech when I lived in Prague.  And saying "bread" in Russian, which is a closely related skill.  And singing.  And not getting ADD while browning meat and walking away from the stove. 

I guess I'm bad at many things, but this was perhaps the most stressful thing with which to be unskilled. The nannies weren't just agreeing to do it and then changing their minds, they were changing their minds at the last minute.  I am deeply grateful to retired fathers and the ability to change airline tickets, because we survived last week thanks to my dad's awesomeness (and flexibility to stay longer). 

And in case you think we were just under-bidding our nannies, the ridiculous fact is that I was offering to pay at the higher-end of the range...and offering bonuses for the first week.   In hindsight I wonder if they were suspicious about how awful my kids were, since I was paying bonuses to be around them? 

Like I said, I'm not very skilled at the whole nanny thing.

If I wasn't in love with the new job, and feeling like it was the absolute perfect fit for our family, I would have seen it as life's red-flag that my working was a terrible decision.  I wasn't ready to say that yet, though.

But all is well that ends well, and today a completely precious woman named Maria picked up my little children at 1:00. And Jack at 4:00.  And I left work at 5 to find my children smiling...alive...playing board games...and begging her to come back tomorrow.  She was such a professional that she was even wearing nursing scrubs. I adored her.  I would have given her a giant bear-hug, but that seemed like a very creepy way to start a nanny-employer relationship.

There have been two puzzle pieces to fit together with my new job: Loving my children's sitters who watch them during my work-hours, and loving my job.  In this particular moment of this particular day, I am over-the-moon about both of these.

I always tell Steve that the first month of a new job, you usually hate it -- and the first 3 months, it's hard to know if you'll eventually like it. It takes awhile to settle in. We both hate being new and learning everything from scratch, because we like doing a good job.  And it can be very difficult to do a good job as a complete newbie.

With this job, though, it's what I've been doing (in much smaller portions) for the last 12 years.  Give me a stack of papers to grade, and you'll get them back with a filled-out rubric, margin notes, and a typed letter to the student with comments.  I'm a grading fiend.  So to have a job that asks me to do what I love and has the added coolness of the military back-drop (I get to learn so many new things!), and I couldn't really be happier right now.  I've met three levels up of my superiors now, and am amazed by all of them.  I feel like a freakishly happy Pollyanna, walking down the hallway at work.

Plus, I now have a reason to dress like a grown-up and curl my hair every day.  So that's something too.  I do need to tame down my pink skirts and leopard-print umbrella, I'm thinking, as I'm feeling painfully out of place among all the green-suited uniforms.  But they are gracious to me and tell me they like my umbrella, so maybe they appreciate me spicing things up a bit. :)

Anyway, that's my joyous vent right now.  We have a nanny, for AT LEAST today!!!  I will focus on these small victories. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

A month's worth of updates in one little post. Er....long post.

I love change.

Which is good…because this last month has had copious amounts of it.

A month ago, I accepted a job offer for a full-time work-at-home position, doing technical writing for a bank. I was thrilled by the experience, but the transition was complicated. Figuring out how to balance conference calls and my children at home (other than the 6 hours my two little ones are in school each week) was definitely a work in progress. I had two nights where I had to pull all-nighters to do my work – since Steve was gone 3 of the 4 weeks of September and I wasn’t ready to give up chaperoning field trips and being with my children during the day.  

I learned important things, and I’m grateful for them. I learned that my children don’t mind my absence -- but they don’t like my physical presence yet emotional absence. They seem proud of my work and love when I go teach at night and they have a babysitter at home.  But when I was sitting at the kitchen table and scrambling to write a procedure due at 5pm that night, they felt conflicted and uncharacteristically clingy.

I also learned that I’m a hard worker.  And that when I say I’ll do something, I really will do it.  I tested that to the outer limits, and came away with a triumph that I had juggled the full-time work with hardly any babysitters, met every deadline, chaperoned every school trip,tucked my kids into bed, made all their meals, and passed the supermom test for that brief, insane trial.  I wouldn’t choose it as a long-term solution. I’d get babysitters, for one thing. But I appreciated seeing my capabilities tested. I appreciated seeing the depths of reserve in me to tackle logistically mind-blowing month of my life. Blogging didn’t happen. :) And sleep didn’t much either.  But the primary things, like my children surviving and getting the occasional bath….well, that did.

That contract was only short-term and was ending.  And then I got an email from the JTCC Dean about a position for the Department of Defense, as an instructor for military officers. I sent in my resume, interviewed, and got the job within a span of a couple of days. The lucky brown interview suit, the one my mom bought for me for college graduation 12 years ago, still has a perfect record of interviews to job offers. Thank you, Mom.

I wasn’t expecting the job, and it wasn’t necessarily my plan for our family.  At first.  It was a surreal whirlwind, taking our family in a completely new direction.   

But it felt right, it was the right time, and I knew I wasn’t deciding about forever – I was deciding for this particular phase in our lives.  This was the right offer at the right time. It stunned me with the salary, autonomy, and flexibility -- and it seemed time to make the shift.  I’m still being spoiled, as I have 5 weeks off a year and 20 holidays.  And wide freedom to bring the papers home to work.  But even with those luxuries, it’sa shift for our family.  I’m waking up at 6 to get into work, and someone else drives them to school in the morning and does the daily grind many days a week.

So, I am now a military contractor. I started this week. I come in and teach them communication skills as a 2-hour lecture every 7 weeks, and then grade papers the rest of the time. Primarily, I’m there to do one-on-one conferencing with the officers about how to improve writing.  They’ve all been to college, but this is about learning the Army standard and how to advance into higher positions with strong writing skills.

This will be the first time in the last 7 years that I’ve done a full-time job where I work outside of the home.  I’ve done every type of work at this point –staying at home full-time, working at home part-time and then full-time.  At one point, I was teaching 12 online courses.Now, I have a commute and pack a lunch and am researching nannies for the times my kids aren’t in school. 

To me, life is like exploring a new house filled with rooms and corridors.  I love cracking open a new door and seeing what’s inside. It’s one of my favorite parts of being human – not knowing what’s ahead,and the anticipation with exploring the next phase.

I love this job.  Love it. I love the foreign-language aspect of hearing the military-lingo, and having NO IDEA what they’re saying.  The acronyms!  The way they outline every specific detail -- like my 31-page job description, or the assignment sheet that says it will take a student 151.7 minutes to read the article. I love all of it.  

I loved meeting our Department Chair today, and the truly great men who’ve risen through the military ranks.  These men have seen a lot over the years, and I have a lot of respect for that.  

I love sitting at my desk at lunch, reading my book. I love the long walk across campus to my car. These quiet moments haven’t happened much in my life lately, and I feel like I’m coming home with a full emotional tank to scoop up my children and find out about their day.

This new period lets me experience another perspective on motherhood.  Simone is nearing 4.5, and I’vebeen with them almost 100% other than a few hours here and there.  In some ways, I think we began to identify with it.  We stopped questioning whether that was what made sense, we just kept going down that road. But different stages call for different things, and I was definitely seeing some of that need eroding.  

Even before this opportunity came up, I knew we were applying old rules to a new phase.  But I wasn’t sure how to define the new phase. Or what it needed.  That still might be a work in progress, but I do believe this particular job is part of that new place.

In the last 6 months, I felt unrest.  There was a part of me that wondered if it was about going back to work, but what would I do?  I didn’t just want any job; I wanted something that would nurture my spirit so I was more emotionally available to my kids.  And financially, I wasn’t sure what job would cover the expense of their French school and childcare to the point that it was worth me losing those daytime hours with my kids.  Paying to work didn’t make sense, especially since I had a part-time teaching job already. I needed to at least break-even. 

I didn’t know this particular job existed at the time, but it was perfectly designed for this moment in life.

One thing I realized: My children were begging for things that no longer had to do with me.  That was fascinating to watch.  Instead of asking me to hold them or read to them all day, they were asking for things like ballerina lessons or martial arts.  I was becoming a coordinator and chauffeur for this Big Life they wanted to create outside of our home.

They were growing up.  

There are things that remain unseen – childcare being a major component.  Our schedules are allover the place, even on the best weeks, and the first two people we hired full-time bailed on us. Clearly, I’m new the childcare realm, as I suck at hiring nannies.  I was hiring people based on their warm-fuzzy child-loving skills, and then the professional element of them fell flat.   My dad extended his stay this week to watch the kids, and we’re re-configuring our action plan.  

My dad told me a quote from a movie about how things work themselves out in the end -- and if they haven’t worked out yet, it isn’t the end yet.  I know childcare will be that way.  We’re interviewing a girl from Estonia, as Jack said he wouldn’t mind someone living with us if they spoke Russian and played piano.  Simone wants someone who can teach her dance.  And Andrew wants someone to teach him how to cook and take him to bounce-houses.  It might be the oddest job description ever posted, but we’ll figure it out.  

I’m excited.  I see good things ahead of us.