Sunday, August 24, 2014

Best Mom Tip #194: Invest in someone younger

Clearly, if you're reading this, there's a decent chance you're a parent and therefore investing in someone younger than you all the freakin' time. Keep doing that.

But, also, find someone in their teens or early 20s and invest in someone on the verge of adulthood. It's mind-blowing and hard and funny and poignant and can matter in ways that you will probably never see.

For the last four years I have been blessed and honored to volunteer with a special group of students through my church. In 2010, these girls were giggly, goofy, boy-crazy Freshmen who were far more concerned with how they were "betrayed" by "like, my best friend in the whole world" than they were about becoming decent human beings with meaningful and purposeful lives. They were loud and gross and there were, no joke, originally 42 of them on my roster because we didn't have enough adult volunteers.

Over the next four years I was challenged in so many ways and I was often totally unsure what to say. We dealt with unwanted pregnancy, emotional scars from child abuse, parental divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, and the suicide of a friend. For the first year I didn't have a fellow adult to share these burdens with and when my wonderful co-leader Courtney came into my life, I found a new friend as well as a fellow volunteer. Courtney and I did the best we could in situations where we almost always felt out of our depth.

Courtney and me totally acting like adults
What it really came down to, every single time, was just listening. Responding to texts late at night. Offering advice for what to do when one boy has asked you to prom, but you're really hoping another boy will ask. (Answer: say yes to the first boy--he gets props for having had the guts to ask first)

We went on weird trips where the carpet was always vaguely wet feeling and it turned out that the only blanket we could find was actually a mattress pad cover. Yuck. Also, we once got chiggers and then had to go be adults while scratching the heck out of our legs.

This month, the girls with whom we've become the closest started moving into their dorm rooms and heading off to their next adventure in college. As I got texts about new rooms and roommates and heard about class worries and parent stresses, it made me think back to my own college experience.

Super awesome dorm room decorating in progress
Twenty years ago I was an 18-year-old Freshman at the University of Georgia. I'm pretty outgoing so I met lots of people and was doing fine adapting to college life. Until one night I found myself the designated driver at a keg party looking around at a bunch of drunk people and thought "I'm bored. And my mama raised me better than this. I have got to find something else to do with my time."

The next week I got invited to a Bible study for freshman at the Methodist Student Center (Wesley Foundation). The boyfriend of a girl I had gone to high school with said he'd been invited by a guy in one of his classes. I grew up going to a Methodist church so that seemed like as good a place to start looking for something to do as any.

What happened next changed my life.

I met Tom and Melissa Tanner, the director and his wife, at a pig roast. Which basically grossed me out, but I went back anyway. Tom was the first preacher I'd ever heard who spoke to me-- to what I wanted to learn about God. He and Melissa were warm and open about their lives, they were honest about their struggles, and they created an environment I wanted to be in.

They fostered church without condemnation. They encouraged growth and connection with other people.

Last week I had the privilege of hearing Cori Moon sing (she's an old friend from my UGA Wesley days) and it got me thinking about how many adults can point to Tom's influence on their lives today. How many of us are more giving of our time, more passionate about our desire to spread joy and love, because of something Tom and his family taught us?

Amy Griffith and her family have spent years overseas, giving to impoverished communities. Tyler Reagin, Rodney Anderson, Joel Brooks and many others have devoted their lives to ministry and leadership.  I literally do not have enough time today to recount all of the amazing people I got to know in my college years who are inspiring me and encouraging others today.

Good grief, Jud and Carrie Thompson, Andy and Miranda Byers, and Jay and I have more than doubled Tom's influence on the six of us through sheer reproduction alone.

Most of us are not called to or gifted with the qualities that gave Tom the opportunity to matter so much to so many men and women during their formative years. But every Christian is called to investing in future generations. We are all called to teach and share and support--to build one another up according to God's word.

Tom's impact on me made it possible for an 18-year-old girl to be so excited about her new dorm room that she texted the picture above to me, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom with four kids. That girl, in turn, has chosen to spend her summers leading camps in eastern Europe that help students there learn English and learn more about their faith. What a gift. What a blessing.

If you're thinking that you might, maybe, want to be involved somehow with students or young adults, go for it. Stop wondering if you have enough knowledge or patience or child psychology know-how. All they need is faithfulness--to feel as though someone cares because they've chosen to care.

I encourage you to reach out and volunteer at your church or a community center nearby. Get a chance to tell a kid "there is nothing you can do that would make me stop caring for you" and just see how far that one statement gets you in earning the trust and the ear of someone who can still learn major life lessons before they make major life mistakes.

How beautiful is the ability to encourage someone else, just because you're there? I am certainly grateful for those who invested in me and I definitely hope for the same love for my children in the years to come.

So, Happy Sunday! Now go volunteer.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Best Mom Tip #193: Set House Rules

Write Your Own House Rules
I love back-to-school preparations. I love the anticipation and the nervousness. I even love the smell of a school building and the heat from the laminating machine. I just love school. As the daughter of teachers, a former student, a teacher in my own right, and now the parent of school-aged children my entire life has moved with the rhythm of the school calendar. Although I no longer head into the classroom to teach, I still think about setting up my classroom and how fun it was to get started with the new year.

Back when I was in teacher school, one of my professors gave me a truly solid piece of advice about making class rules. He said, "keep it simple and keep it broad. You cannot possibly anticipate what goes on in their minds." And, boy, was he right--I just didn't know it yet.

The rules I came up with for my classroom were incredibly simple:  Be Kind. Be Respectful. Be Prepared.

I found, over the course of my 10 years teaching, that I could apply just about anything a kid did into one of these three simple rules. For instance, I could have said "keep your hands to yourself." That sounded reasonably simple and reasonably broad.

Except that it wouldn't have covered the time a kid went up to my desk for hand sanitizer, carefully collected a large glob in his hands, and gingerly walked back to his desk. All in order to throw the giant mess onto his buddy's new shirt, because in 15-year-old boy world that is hilarious.  He did, in fact, keep his hands to himself-just not his hand sanitizer. I believe I told him I was giving him administrative detention for "being a doofus."

Also, boys can use farts as a weapon.  I'm not going into more detail, but trust me when I say it falls under rules against being both unkind and disrespectful.

There was the kid who put his shirttail up over his head in the middle of a presentation.  I don't know why he was possessed to do that, but I know I would never have thought of a rule to cover it.  I guess, "keep your clothes in place" might have done it. He, by the way, told me he was being "Yellow Man."  No clue what that means.

I had a girl start dancing to the music only she could hear in her head who was highly offended when I told her that it was somewhat distracting, and therefore, disrespectful. One time I had a rather well-drawn and very explicit depiction of a sexual act penciled into a textbook. The participants had no heads, which I'm sure means something from a psychological point of view, but I know I wouldn't have made a rule against headless sex drawings because, really, I wouldn't have thought I needed to.

I learned that kids will test the limits of specific rules even if they don't really disagree with the rule itself. Some kids will honestly misunderstand the rule if it is too complicated. Still other kids will have no idea that there are rules, that they are posted in 12 inch letters on the wall, or that you read them out loud every day for two weeks. Those kids are the ones most likely to dance to the music in their heads.

So when Jay and I decided to come up with a list of house rules, I knew that we needed to use the same simple approach.  Our kids are getting to the age where we start telling them "no" for things that are not as easy to explain or justify as they once were. When your kids are toddlers this is easier--no one else's parents lets them go to the grocery store naked or only eat hot dogs for every meal, either.

But explaining to our 9-year-old that she can't go to a spend-the-night party because there's something that just gives me the creeps at Katie's* house is a lot harder.  We need rules that apply to a broad range of situations, allow us to adjust the specifics depending on the age and personality of the kid, and that are easy to remember.  Here's what we've come up with:

1. Be a good teammate
     We spend a lot of time talking about being a "family team."  We want our kids to know that we are in this life together, we work together, and we support each other.  We will always be a team. This is the rule I use to cover every form of brotherly torture you can imagine.  "Hands to yourself" would just not cover sitting on your brother's head, stealing his lovey, luring him away from the sofa to steal his spot, or using him as spitting target practice.  Brothers are brutal.

This rule also includes cleaning up after yourself, helping with chores and tasks around the house, and using positive and encouraging words. A good teammate is helpful, kind, and loving. A good teammate shares the ball. A good teammate focuses on the entire team winning, not just his or her own stats.

2. Be safe and healthy
     Jay and I have been talking a lot about our rules on electronic usage, phone ownership, and internet access with our kids.  And although we have some decent guidelines (no one is allowed to personally own an electronic device of any kind except for Jay and me), we know that those guidelines will shift as kids age and have different needs or concerns.  We do not currently have any electronics in bedrooms and our kids are not allowed on the internet without our supervision.  All internet access happens in the common rooms of our house.  But I know that these are rules for younger children, so we really talked about what the purpose of the rules are: we want them to be safe and healthy.

It is our job to allow their minds to grow and flourish just as we do the same for their bodies.  So, in this rule we cover movies/TV/songs they can see or listen to, where they're allowed to play with and without us, how many vegetables they have to eat, and why they can't just sit on the couch all Saturday long. When I was teaching I realized that even when a kid didn't like a decision, they could still understand (if they really believe you care about them) that you're doing something in their own best interests. When faced with a "Can I, pleeeaase" moment about a borderline activity we ask ourselves if we have any concerns about that particular child's physical and mental safety if we say yes.

So, no, you can't watch the new Spiderman movie because I think the bad guy is scary and it would not keep your dreams safe. Feel free to be mad at me.

3. Be well-rested
     This rule may not seem as important as being a good teammate or being safe and healthy, but I think it is. Our home should be a place of peace and rest for our family. No one person gets to disrupt the joy and calm of another. Right now, this applies mostly to hours of sleep at night and that, if you want to pitch a fit, you have to do it in a room by yourself. Every parent knows how angry and miserable a tired little kid can be, but on a regular basis it becomes a bigger problem. Sometimes it's worth it--we went to a Braves game this weekend that definitely messed up bedtime for everyone, but it was fun and an exception, not the general rule. What we're really talking about is that we set up a lifestyle where every family member has a reasonable expectation of being physically and mentally rested enough to take on the outside world.

As parents, this one is our job to enforce regularly. As the kids age, it is also coming to mean limits on the number of extra-curricular activities that they can pursue. It means saying no to some birthday party invitations. This rule does not make us popular with the kids, but if we don't help them learn how to set boundaries in their lives early on they will become like the millions of adults who feel overwhelmed and squeezed by their lives before they even wake up in the morning. It's a big deal.

4. Be of good character
     The number one thing our children can do to discover the vast array of our punishments is to lie to us. More than any other behavior, this rule cannot go unpunished. Without character, without honor, nothing else our children do will have meaning or purpose. When a liar does something good, people just wonder what they're up to.

When one of our kids lies to us, we bring the hammer down. If the crime would lose you a day of TV, the lie to cover it up loses you a week. We are downright draconian about lying. I know our kids are far from perfect and that they will lie to us--out of embarrassment, or fear of retribution, or because they just feel like it. I will still love them, but my trust will be damaged. I don't want them to wander around with guilt and shame, but I do want them to know that the words they say and the actions they take have real and lasting consequences. Convicting though this is, this rule is best taught by example. Jay and I have to keep our own characters in good standing to have any credibility with our children.

This rule also covers defending those weaker than you are, being generous to those in need, and respecting your parents. We are raising adults here, not children. They already know how to be children--loud and messy and irrational are not qualities we have to teach. Faithful, responsible, honest, patient--these take more practice.

That's it.
1. Be a good teammate
2. Be safe and healthy
3. Be well-rested
4. Be of good character

These are our house rules for the foreseeable future.  They are simple and broad. They can be interpreted for a wide variety of situations and they give us four pretty easy responses to the "but why can't I..." whine that we often hear. I'd love to hear if you have house rules or are thinking about it for your family. Happy back-to-school and good luck with writing your own general rules.

*not an actual kid. I'm not dumb enough to talk about the children of people who might read this. :) 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Best Mom Tip #192: Put down the celebrity mom article

For some unknown reason I keep clicking on any article where a celebrity talks about motherhood.  O.k., I know the reason.  It's because she is pretty and has on pretty clothes and I, too, long to sit around in pretty clothes and have someone photograph me.  That is not likely to happen unless you count my daughter who went through a phase where she would sneak into our bedroom and take pictures of us sleeping with our own phones.  So, that's a topic for another day.

Anyway, I keep reading these stupid articles and then I get mad and then I am yet again annoyed that I fell into the trap one more time.  Surely this must be the goal of publishers when they write these articles anyway.

The one that got me this week had a gorgeous actress showing off her sweet little baby boy...there was breastfeeding in a designer gown and great cleavage shots due to breastfeeding mom endowments.  I didn't get mad until the question about being a working mom came up.

The actress said that she was definitely going back to work and that she wasn't going to "sacrifice any part" of herself.  Now, I'm sure she's a lovely person and I get what she most likely meant and in the context of an entire conversation it probably didn't sound like she thinks everyone who's ever sacrificed something for their kid is an idiot.  But the blurb the article printed certainly came off as though mothers who sacrifice parts of themselves are just not willing to work hard enough.  It was SO frustrating.

I'm not mad at the actress herself.  Really, what is she going to say when asked about working motherhood?  She wants to keep getting jobs and she wants to raise her kid.  She has to say something.  It's the fact that every one of these types of articles is written as though the famous person being interviewed has some sort of advice for the millions of working mothers in the world that gets me.

I know that even famous people have to figure out nannies and how much they see their kids in the daylight, but the rich and powerful have a far more flexible set of circumstances with which to work. When Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo) had a baby just as she was transitioning into her executive role, much was made of her decision to return to work 4 weeks after the baby's birth.  Yes, it is hard to do anything with a 4-week-old. It is a lot easier, however, if you build a nursery onto your C-level office and have your nanny come to work with you.  If I were Marissa Mayer, I would do the exact same thing.  I don't begrudge her decision at all--I am, however, completely annoyed that this was somehow supposed to mean something to other women faced with making work/life balance decisions. Take Your Kid to Work Month is not really an actual thing.

We don't seem to like to talk about this as a culture, but most American companies are so uncomfortable with how to create a balance between home and work that they just pretend you don't have a home life.  It's totally fine to share the cute thing your kid did at lunch with your coworkers, but a sick kid should never be the reason you're late or staying home from work.

When I worked outside my home, I was a school teacher.  You would think that teaching public school would be a job that supports new and working mothers, but it has it's own problems.  In my district (a very large one in metro Atlanta) there is no actual maternity leave.  You are allowed to take days off as required by the Family and Medical Leave Act, but you use your accumulated sick leave if you want to get paid.  Men and women are given the same (rather generous) number of sick days each year and you can accumulate them from year to year.  It is absolutely the same rule for everyone, but it certainly feels unfair when you need to take maternity leave.

When my daughter was born I used up all of my sick leave to stay home with her in her first weeks of life. When I returned to work, I had no sick leave which meant that, until the next school year started and I earned more sick days, I was just docked part of my salary if I had to take the baby to the doctor.

I actually got into an argument with a male co-worker over the fact that we did, in fact, have an hourly pay rate. Of course we were salaried employees, but to determine how much pay to dock me for going to the doctor with my newborn, the county took my yearly salary, divided it by the number of days teachers were required to work that year (it varies depending on the whims of the state legislature) and then divided that number by 8 hours.  That was my hourly pay rate.  In order to get a substitute you had to take at least 4 hours off.  So, after returning from giving birth I was charged about $120 in salaried pay for taking my newborn for a well visit. And this was my job working for our government.

These are the kinds of stresses that moms face all over the nation every day.  My required time at work was at least over by about 4 p.m.  I still graded papers and other stuff, but I could leave if I needed to.  And, of course, teachers get far more time off than most professions.  For every working mom in the country there is some sort of grinding, challenging, no-win kind of situation she will face while trying to create a semblance of both motherhood and her working life.

Lots of women don't have the choice to work or not. My own mother was our primary wage earner for most of my life and it was just plain hard.  She sacrificed far more parts of herself both working and mothering than she would have doing only one or the other.

I think what really makes me angry about these celebrity articles is that, for all the talk the notion of work/family balance gets, there aren't very many actual solutions for the problems of everyday working moms.  Where can you find affordable child care?  In my community my child care literally outpaced my salary--my entire salary--by $100/month.  I could drive really far out of my way for childcare, I suppose, but anyone who's ever visited Atlanta knows we'd do almost anything to avoid traffic.  And I have the luxury of owning a car and being able to afford gas.  What would my option be otherwise?

Where can moms go to be assured of the quality of childcare?  There's no real certification process of nannies and the ones for daycare facilities vary wildly.  I don't have great answers...I'd just like to read an article that addresses the very real concerns women are faced with just because they have children.  It's not like having kids is the outlier here...lots of people have children.

Once, quite a few years ago, I was watching the Rosie O'Donnell show.  Remember that?  She used to shoot koosh balls into the audience.  Anyway, someone she was interviewing said, "I don't know how you do it with all your kids."  According to my somewhat fallible memory she responded, "Me?!?! I have a nanny, I have help.  Ask a woman with four kids working at McDonald's how she does it. That's the question."

That's still the question--a woman was recently arrested and subsequently fired from McDonald's (she was later rehired) because she let her 9-year-old play at a park while the mom was a work.  I don't know if what the woman was doing endangered her child in her community or not, but I'm pretty sure the mom was trying to do the best that she could with limited resources and her kid out of school for the summer.

We still don't have many answers and the people who need them the most, moms in the midst of building careers,  putting food on the table, and raising children, are too incredibly tired and busy to lobby for some other option.  We are losing well-educated women from the workforce, creating family tensions that are not helping our children any, and for some reason, still only asking women how they do it and ignoring dads.

Here's what I know we moms can do.

Working moms:  Stop using language like "I'm not going to sacrifice any part of myself."  It is insulting to assume that people who quit or went part-time or turned down promotions are idiots.  I can't tell you how many people have said to me, "I don't know how you stay home.  I would go crazy."  Umm, thanks?  I guess the lobotomy helped?  Don't judge them. Very few women really only want to change diapers for the rest of their lives--this is a phase and they're doing the best they can.

Stay at Home Moms:  Stop shutting the working moms out of your stay-at-home mom PTA play group.  It's mean and it makes your kids weird.  Invite a working mom's family over for dinner during the work week so she doesn't have to do it that one night.  Call your working friends and listen about their work drama--it helps them get it out before they get home. And don't judge them...they're doing the best they can.

All moms:  We are ALL doing the best we can.  Be encouraging to women you see out in the world. I saw an acquaintance at the movies the other day who is expecting her first child.  I told her motherhood was fun and she gushed, "OH, THANK YOU! I can't tell you how many horror stories I've been told lately between the birth and the newborn phase." How twisted is that?  Of course it's hard, but our constant negative dialogue about all motherhood topics is not helping anyone get through this any better.

Now, if you'll excuse me I need to go put on a silk gown and change a diaper while someone takes pictures.