the parent trap: let’s get together, yeah yeah yeah

I’m tired of flexing my mommy muscles. But I do it anyway.  I roll my eyes, roll up my sleeves, and throw my elbow down on the table.  Ready to armwrestle yet another mother.

It starts before the baby is even born.  In active labor, I walked into the hospital, stopping every minute or so to claw at the wall.  The man at the reception desk asked if I wanted a wheelchair, and all I could bring myself to do was shake my head and keep walking.  “They never do,” he said behind me.

We never do. Because we’re showing off our muscles.

And then the baby is born, and so is the competition:  How long were you in labor?  I had the longest labor on record.  Or I had the shortest labor on record.  And I didn’t have an epidural, did you?   And how big was your baby? Mine was in the 95th percentile for both height and weight . . . 

Right.  Because all of that means you’re a better mother.

This is what women (or at least those of us who are mothers) do.

We engage in complex battles over breastfeeding; the women who can’t or choose not to feel like they have to explain themselves, the women who do feel the need to let everyone know. (At one point, I think I started basing my self-worth as a mother on how many bags of breastmilk were in the freezer.  And then I got suddenly sick and had to be medicated, and the medication made the baby sick.  The frozen breastmilk was not enough.  And so I was not enough.)

Right.  Because a mother is nothing more than the milk her breasts produce.  (And, apparently, now, in order to be “enough,” you need to breastfeed your children until they reach the second grade.  Thank you, TIME.)

My son slept through the night at six weeks.  Mine crawled at six months.  Mine was walking before a year. My baby’s first word was “loquacious.” 

And perhaps the most well-known is the ongoing conflict between the stay-at-home-mom and the working mom. It might be amusing if it wasn’t so bitter.  Both sides have reasons for believing they are superior, but really, no one is right.  And so we’re no better than the popular girls on the playground in grade school;  we form cliques, we alienate, we gossip.  (I was at a PTO committee meeting a few weeks ago, and when I mentioned that I worked outside the home, the women around me recoiled as though I had some communicable disease.)

 My son scored six goals at his last soccer game.  My four-year-old reads at a tenth-grade level. 

Oh, shut up.  Please shut up, ladies.

I’m too damn tired of this.  I’m tired of using these sculpted arms for defending my choices as a parent. I’m tired of people like Anne-Marie Slaughter telling me I can’t have it all when she has no idea what my all is.

So I think I’m done with this fight; don’t ask me to show you my mommy muscles, because I won’t.

I need to use them to hold my strapping toddler while he sleeps during church. I need the muscles for the days my daughter wakes up with a fever and vomits curdled milk all over her face, and for the times I carry my sleeping six-year-old to bed.  Or maybe for the night I catch my three-year-old flipping quickly through the pages of Love You Forever, telling herself, “the mom doesn’t die, the mom doesn’t die,” again and again.

I have them, I promise. But I’ll save them for when my week-old infant is hospitalized with something that can’t be identified, and I try to comfort her while she’s hooked up to monitors and I wonder if she might die because no one is telling me otherwise.

Or for the days when mommying and teaching and writing don’t satisfy my restlessness and I want to be closer to my all . . . whatever my all may be.

The truth is that the competition exists only because none of us know what we’re doing.  We have no idea whether or not the choices we make are the right ones.  What is truly self-doubt disguises itself as a boisterous pat on one’s own back.  (Maybe if someone did pat us on the back once in a while, we wouldn’t have to use our mommy muscles to do it ourselves.) We can only do what we think is right for our kids, and because our kids are different, our choices will be different.

Ultimately, we have to trust that the goal is the same, no matter how we try to get there.  (I mean, who doesn’t LOVE a choose-your-own-adventure book, really?)

We don’t need each other to tell us that we’re not enough.  We’ve got ourselves to do that.

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hey! teachers! (don’t) leave those kids alone!

On my first day as a brand-new teacher, a student approached me in the hallway, stopping only when his face was inches from mine, and said, “What the [expletive] are you looking at?”

I had no idea.

And what I mean by that is, truly, I had no idea what (or who) I was looking at.  But, moments later, he was sitting in my classroom, and  I was supposed to teach him something.

I learned, quickly, that I had to win them over, that the fact that I was standing in front of them with a chalkboard behind me didn’t guarantee their gratuitous respect.  If you don’t know the kids, or don’t care to know them, then you can’t teach them.  You can try, but they won’t learn from you.  And I don’t mean that you’ve skimmed  their cumulative folders.  Just because you know that Chris has lived in thirty-six different foster homes by the time he’s sitting in your sophomore English class doesn’t mean you know Chris.  In fact, at my very first school, the policy was that teachers weren’t allowed to look at the cumulative folders until they had worked to build some kind of rapport with the kids.

The problem is that getting to know one’s students takes time.  A lot of time.  And time is not something teachers have a lot of.  Each year brings more demands and more threats (I can’t think of a friendlier word).  But wait — we “only work nine months a year” (they always forget to count Sundays and all of those nights during the week) and if we used our planning periods effectively, we wouldn’t have to take all of that work home.  Right.  Every teacher knows that most planning periods aren’t for actual planning and grading, because no one can do that kind of intensive work in such little time.  No, it’s for catching your breath, for stopping your head from spinning, or (pardon me) using the restroom for the first time all day.   And for those of you (us) who have difficulty saying “no,”  your classroom might be usurped by high school seniors who happen to have study hall and so your fourth period planning becomes otherwise known as the fourth period “mancave.”  (By the end of this school year, after factoring in my lunch bunch, I realized that the only time I was by myself all day was during that one bathroom break.)

We emphasize standards and benchmarks and results and data and intervention and remediation and learning trends, but what I know now is this:  so much of teaching has nothing to do with subject matter expertise.  Yes, we want “highly qualified” teachers (oh, Teddy Kennedy, I loved you for your idealism, if nothing else — it seems idealism was inflicted upon your family) and so we jump at resumes with the highest degrees, but none of it matters if we don’t think first about what the kids need in order to learn about being human.  And if we don’t focus on that, we’re leaving all kinds of children behind.

They (the people in charge) want us to look at a student and think, “You’re my bottom 25%.  How am I going to get you to retain enough to make the required learning gains?”  In reality, we look at a student and think, “You have your head down, which means you fought with your dad last night.  How am I going to help you feel okay about going home by 3pm?”

New teachers (I was one once) have a romantic idea of what it’s going to be like.  They look at the empty desks and imagine well-groomed students (who actually sit in those seats without being prompted) bursting with enthusiasm, filled with inspiration from those carefully-designed lessons.  They spend hours and hours decorating their classrooms, making sure the posters are straight, arranging seating charts, creating a Word Wall or a Wall of Fame.  (The romanticism tends to subside when you find a pencilled illustration of a penis in the corner of one of those colorful posters, or the ice-breaker that was supposed to take forty-five minutes is over in fifteen because you overlooked the fact that they have all known each other for years and you’re the one they don’t know.) The reality is that the amount of instructional time spent on the actual curriculum pales in comparison to the amount of time spent saying things like:   “Please put your phone away”;  “No, you may not use the restroom”; “Well, if you pee in the corner we’ll have a bigger problem on our hands”; “Please put your phone away”; “Why do I feel like I teach preschool today?”;  “Please pick your head up”; “English!  English!  You’re supposed to be speaking English in this classroom!”;  “Yes, you can start a petition, but I’m pretty sure you’ll still have to tuck your shirts in”;  “Please sit down.  No, in your seat”; “Please pick your head up”; “Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want”; “Please put your phone away.”

Now that I think about it, maybe those legislators and new teachers have the same unrealistic idea of what a real classroom is like.  They believe that each student has been prepared in exactly the same way, that each student will work to his or her full potential, that if you are a good teacher and you tell them to do it, they’ll do it.  If you give them iPads and Smartboards and clickers and laptops, they’ll learn.  If they just work hard enough, they’ll pass.

I’m not saying standards and benchmarks aren’t important.  Of course they are.  And I’m not saying I think students and teachers shouldn’t be held accountable.  Of course they should.  But what’s just as important is taking the time to nourish and cultivate who these children are as people in addition to percentages.

I’m also not saying that we should go easy on them; we shouldn’t.  In fact, it’s easier to be hard on them once you have them on your side; it’s easier to teach the curriculum and expect more from them once you know them.  I promise.

I suppose that what I am saying is that along with the frenzy and fear that surrounds AYP, perhaps we should also concern ourselves (just a little bit) with assessing what they’ve learned from us about tolerance and compassion.  About decision-making.  About confidence and humility.

Because here’s the thing (there’s always the thing, isn’t there?)  — it doesn’t always turn out as rosy as The Freedom Writers did.  Sometimes, the kid who made you proud by passing that state test gets shot in the head.  Or maybe you see his mugshot on the front page of your local paper for killing his two best friends in a drunk driving accident (and immediately, you know who the [expletive] you’re looking at).

And then there’s the day you drive home from work, crying,  because you know that you’ll never be able to take the hurt from an aching sixteen-year-old boy, and you think, “I’m not made for this.  An effective teacher would know what to do.”

But what would a “highly qualified” teacher do?  Would she lock the door and push that kid away, saying she can’t talk to him about his absent father (while knowing he can’t go home and talk about it to his mother)?  Would Ms. Highly Qualified say that she doesn’t have the time because she has a five-benchmark summative assessment to design?

Sure, on paper, even I am “highly qualified.”  But my question is this:  qualified for what?

Earlier this year, when one of my really bright and motivated students told me that he was thinking of studying to become a teacher, my heart broke a little bit for him.  For what was ahead.  He said to me, “If you were me, would you do it?  Would be you become a teacher (again)?”

I still don’t know how to answer him.    

soft-serve: the entitlement generation

I’m telling you, I knew it.  According to my research (Google), the wipe-warmer was invented in 1983 and first entered the market in 1988.  Yep.  That means there’s a direct correlation between the wipe-warmer and the entitlement generation.

A baby is tough.   Look at what she goes through just to get here.  And the struggle doesn’t stop once she’s here; then she’s faced with cold dry air, food she suddenly has to work for, and an internal system that hasn’t yet figured itself out.

But she’s strong and determined. Don’t soften her.  She can handle a room-temperature wipe on her buttocks.

Maybe it stems from a desire we have to make things easy for them.  Our intentions are good; we want them to be happy.  But we want to give them that happiness, instead of encouraging them to find it on their own. (I wonder if all babies could be self-soothers if we just gave them a chance to soothe themselves.  My youngest, perhaps because he is the youngest, shakes his head back and forth and sings to put himself to sleep.  Occasionally this is embarrassing, as he sings louder the closer he gets to sleep.)

When they’re infants, we set up audio monitors and video monitors in every room so that we can respond to each sound with something that might appease them.  When they become young children, instead of teaching them to sit through a wait at a restaurant, we put iPads on their placemats.  Instead of teaching them the license plate game or the alphabet game as a way to stomach a long car ride, we install miniature screens into the backs of each headrest in our SUVs.  (During our commute one morning, Jane, my daughter, saw one of these in the car beside us.  She yelled out, “Look!  That car has a TV in it!” and giggled maniacally as though it was the craziest thing she had ever seen.)

About a week after I learned that the iPhone was the number-one toy among three-year-olds in our nation, my husband and I took the kids to Big Jammalamma, a music festival in Lakeland, Florida.  There was an older couple selling hotdogs from a booth near our blanket, and as the sun went down and the evening wore a purplish halo, the man approached us to say how much he admired the fact that our kids had been playing outside all day long without any electronics.  He got a kick out of their dancing, their thorough examination of the bark of a nearby oak,  and their impromptu game of tag over the open field. (At that moment, Jane was rolling around in a pile of dirt that, it turned out, were fire ant mounds.  A few minutes later, I watched from afar as a half-dozen children swatted and slapped at her in what looked like some kind of hazing ritual before I realized what had happened.) 

I thought it was strange to be receiving accolades for letting our kids play.  But maybe it was more than that.  Maybe it was for asking our kids to entertain themselves, for asking them to work to find their own happiness.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing about me that is anti-technology.  I mean, come on, people.  This is a blog, after all.  And my kids know who the Angry Birds are, I promise.  But I don’t believe in technology for technology’s sake.  And I don’t believe in making everything in life “easier,” if it can create detrimental consequences.

And, as a high school teacher, I don’t like what I see in my classroom.  I don’t like asking a hard question and getting a Googled answer.  I don’t like being ignored for text messages and Words with Friends and Facebook.  And I don’t like that my students want me to give them the answer, to give them the A.

But maybe this is what happens when we sugarcoat everything for them.  When we hand them the difficult events of life and the world wrapped in shiny armor made of rock candy.  When we give everyone a trophy because everyone is a “winner.”  When we do it all for them just to make it a little easier (Oh, Mary Poppins, please don’t tell me this is your fault   . . . a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down . . . ).

But here’s the thing:  life isn’t going to be easy.  It’s going to be hard.  Really hard. And everyone can’t always win.  Sometimes, no one does.

And, really, for whom does it make things easier?

So, listen.  If you’re going to a baby shower and your mother-to-be-friend has registered for a wipe-warmer, do her (and the baby) a really huge favor, and don’t buy it.  And if someone else buys it and you watch her unveil it from behind that pretty pastel wrapping paper, don’t clap.  Don’t oooohhh and aaahhhh.  Just sigh.  And be prepared.