What I Learned From Mr. P. And His War Stories

When I was 15, I met an elderly gentleman (though he would balk at the notion of being either elderly or gentlemanly) who told fantastic stories while I worked my after-school job at a small library in an equally small town. I called him Mr. P for as long as I worked in that library. He was there at least twice a week for the six years I spent shuffling through the stacks for hours on end. Mr. P. was a cheeky Liverpudlian who came to the Lower Mainland in British Columbia, Canada, settled down at some point with his lady, and somehow got old along the way. The specifics of that story are lost in my memory in the 14 years since I left that library job. The stories that stuck, on the other hand, have been rattling around in my brain for the last few months with a strange sort of clarity that I’d never expected.

I have an eight-year-old daughter, and if you want to turn your world further upside down during a pandemic, toss a child into the mix and navigate lockdowns, social distancing, masks, and everything else this year has offered. It’s been mind-bending while I’ve worked on juggling the very adult world, while nurturing whatever sense of childhood wonder I can while I ask for an updated snack list for the weekly grocery shop from a kid who has, undoubtedly, grown a hair too attached to her ipad. The strangest hurdle so far has been learning how to tune out the 8th play through of the entire Full House series, though I have made my peace and graciously accept the half-hour intervals of mind-numbing.

And I think of Mr. P.

“I remember the last day of school.” I had been complaining to Mr. P about some irrelevant high school drama that was likely going to wind down by the end of the year only a few short weeks out. I initially accepted his statement as an opening to a comfortable almost-grandfatherly moment of reassurance. Instead, it was followed by a sort of wistful grin. “It was in May of 1941. I went to school one day, came home, and found out the next morning that the school was bombed in the night during the blitz.”

He went on to tell me that the destruction of the school meant that he and his friends were suddenly thrown into the world of adult things. His mum needed a man of the house, what with his dad gone away for the war. Now that there was no school for him to attend, he worked odd jobs and helped repair whatever he could in a ravaged city while he helped his mum around the house.

“Of course,” he added, “being a young boy, there were days when I wanted our house to be bombed so I wouldn’t have to clean it. Of course, I imagined that Mum and I would be elsewhere and safe. I’m not that horrible. Only a little horrible.” His humor never wavered.

I think back on this story and I’ll happily take the provincial briefing that announced school closures back in March. For all the things I’ve had to figure out, navigating a war hasn’t been on that list. My daughter hasn’t known that sort of terror; buildings destroyed in the nighttime and a parent somewhere far away with no way to know for certain if they were coming back. I’m able to safely say that the worst we’ve had is a headline and a generic email blast, which is a far cry from the sort of blast Mr. P was talking about.

But there is a different sort of weariness and, in some sort of prophetic way, Mr. P addressed it. I commented that I couldn’t imagine how it must have been: How hard it would have been to manage. He waved off my naive attempts at empathy. “I was young enough that it left its mark, but I was able to grow beyond it eventually. Things kept moving forward. I always had my friends. We all had community. I think if we didn’t have that, then I’d have been in a proper state, and would be an even bigger arse.”

That’s the part of the story that resonates with me. I think, for every major crisis the world has seen in the last 100 years, there have been unique struggles for each generation caught in whatever upheaval. War, economic catastrophe, disease. These have all thrown people off their trajectory at some point or another. 2020 is such a time, and our upheaval is one that a man who saw his city bombed for months on end said he wouldn’t have been able to handle with the youthful exuberance he’d had amid a rubble-filled schoolyard.

Our isolation is a valid challenge. It brings out anxieties and despair, while we trudge through in a strange internal battle as we reconcile the greater need with the desire to run into the arms of friends and family that we haven’t seen for months and hold them so tight as if that would be enough to carry us through whatever new waves could come. Is it the ugliness of war? Not at all, and I am thankful for that. But it is a struggle worth noting. It is a struggle that is shaping us in real time into versions of ourselves that we’d never considered before. And it’s a struggle that has our kids trying to navigate a strange sort of quiet that humans aren’t meant for.

So I reflect on those wartime stories with Mr. P and I imagine what stories my daughter will tell as she nears her 70s. Stories of a time when she couldn’t visit her friends or her family, and how she had to work with me to find new ways to play and fill time while the usually busy street below our building saw less and less traffic, and the stores were lined with arrows and reminders for masks. I wonder if she’ll regale some wayward teen at a part-time job with dark humor punctuated with hearty laughs as she explains just why no one blows out birthday cake candles, but she remembers a time when it was a standard event.

And I wonder what she will say when she’s met with the same naive empathy I once tried to offer to a man approaching his 70s who went through a war.

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What I Wish I Had Known About Adopting An Older Child

My adopted son joined our family when he was nine years old. My husband and I had never planned to adopt a child, but his need for a home came about because of a family emergency and it was a bit complicated. My husband and I didn’t hesitate. We knew adding an older child to our family would be challenging, but we believed we could offer him a loving, safe home to grow up in.

But there was no way we could know all that could come along with adopting an older child.

Our adoption story is not the norm. My son is actually my cousin. His birth mother is the youngest of 10 kids; my father is the oldest. His mother was also adopted. And his need for a home came about because she suddenly became very ill due to complications with diabetes. Although our adoption story is a bit complicated, we still experienced much of what typically happens in the adoption process.

I thought that we would be able to quickly gain full custody of my son due to the fact that we had the full support of his birth mom. But the foster care system and family court can be very complicated entities. I was not prepared for how long and arduous this process can be. What I thought would take months turned into an almost two-year process to get full legal custody of my son. Court dates were pushed back several times, or we would make it to court and some random piece of paperwork was not in place and the date would have to be rescheduled. And even after having legal custody for over five years now, the full adoption process is still not complete.

With older kids, the adoption process can also be complicated by birth families. It is not uncommon for members of a child’s birth family to contest the adoption. Usually the goal of the foster system is to reunite kids with their birth parents or other family members, and they will try to exhaust all possibilities before allowing a child to be adopted. That can make for a very complicated process. In our case, my family was the birth family — and although they were supportive of the adoption, we did have to face contention of custody from his birth father. And there is just no getting around how heartbreaking all of that can be.

Separating a child from their birth family is traumatic, whether they come from a neglectful or abusive background or not. The older the child is, the more aware they are of what is happening. My son had to move across the country to live with a family he barely knew and adjust to an entirely different way of life. He was suddenly in a home with other kids, being parented by new people, and had to adjust to a new school all at once. Not to mention, he was fully aware of the fact that his mother was very ill and he may never get to be with her outside of a hospital again.

We knew counseling and family therapy would be a must. Our kiddo had a lot of feelings to process, and his feelings often showed up in angry outbursts and sometimes even shutting down completely. Like many adoptive parents, I wished I could take all of that on for him. I never imagined how hard it would be for him, and all we could do was provide him with the support he needed and lean into the help of professionals.

The older the child, the more history they may come with. That history likely comes with some very big feelings that no child should have to feel. And they will need a great deal of support processing all those feelings. That is something you will definitely need professional support with — and you have to give it the time your child needs.

The other thing that came up for us was helping our birth children adjust to having a new family member. We had two kids prior to gaining custody of my oldest son. We realized that the shift in birth order for our first born child was quite an adjustment that we had not anticipated. Our firstborn went from being the oldest child to the middle child. He was not very happy with that change at first, and was sure to let us know. Thank goodness over the years, the two of them have grown quite close to each other and now like to team up to annoy the crap out of my youngest two.

We also had to come to terms with the fact that the way we practiced parenting was not how our adopted kid was used to being parented. First and foremost, he came from a single-parent home, so having an active dad in the home was a bit of an adjustment for him. We also had very different rules, expectations and ways of communicating in our family. It was a learning curve for all of us and required quite a bit of patience, reiteration and lots and lots of communication.

We probably overkill on the communication, but I have always wanted my son to understand why we are doing things a certain way or asking certain things of him. I know that he sometimes struggles with feeling like an outsider and I want to be sure to do everything in power to circumvent any of those feelings. I never want him to feel like he doesn’t belong. But joining a family as an older kid can definitely make a child feel that whether they want to or not, and it shouldn’t be up to them to create an environment where they feel wanted and loved.

Adopting any child is a rollercoaster ride of unexpected ups and downs. And there is no way you can fully understand the level of patience and understanding until you are deep in it. But you have to be in it for the long haul, because at the very least an adopted kid should have a home where they feel loved, accepted and safe.

Unfortunately, we lost my son’s birth mother a little over three years ago. But I am so happy that we were the ones to be there to love him through that pain. He has grown from a hurt, scared, and unsure kid to a confident, thriving, and yes, annoying  teenager. He has all the normal mood swings, everyday eye rolls, and sweet moments of growth all rolled up into an awkwardly tall and skinny body. Every day still presents learning opportunities and chances to grow, but even knowing what I know now, I would adopt my son 1,000 times over.

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A Day In The Life Of A Mom Working From Home During A Pandemic

On an impromptu department lunch call this week, my colleagues were discussing the books they’ve been reading and the shows they have been watching on TV. I had nothing to add to the conversation. Zero. Zilch. Why, you ask? Don’t you read for leisure? Don’t you decompress with eye candy on TV?  Truth be told, I can’t remember the last time I binge watched a show or had several uninterrupted hours to read a book. I have dozens of partially completed knitting projects in my closet and too many house projects to list.

As a lawyer, I’m used to keeping track of my time. Here’s an example of my typical day working from home with three kids during the pandemic.

5:45 a.m. Wake up. Say hello and good bye to husband for the day as I walk out the door to go to the gym and he prepares to leave to go teach high school. Read text from my mom at 6:00 a.m. (“Looking for Christmas gift ideas for the kids!”)

6:15 a.m. Work out (check email while warming up on treadmill). Have been working on PRs lately (bench press, dead lift, squat). Set PR on dead lift (185)!

7:25 a.m. Arrive home. Check email. Confirm 16-year-old daughter has packed a lunch and water bottle before ushering her out the door for school at 7:40 a.m. Put dinner (planned on Sunday) into crock pot and forget about it. Another text from mom (“Looking for Christmas gift ideas for the kids!”)

7:50 a.m. Encourage 13-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son to eat breakfast while I grab a quick shower.

8:30 a.m. Put birthday card to friend in mailbox (hooray for remembering). Make a cup of coffee. Sit down to work at dining room table. Force 9-year-old to sit at table with me to help minimize distractions. Remind 13-year-old not to doodle and to pay attention during her zoom calls. Respond to son every five minutes when he says, “Mom, look at this! Mom, look how cute the dog is! Mom, what does this mean? Mom, I don’t understand what I am supposed to do!  Mom! Mom! Mom!” Breathe. Revise a lease amendment.

9:50 am.  13-year-old is jumping around doing gym class warmups in living room. Dog starts barking incessantly. Dog clearly needs to go out. Argue with kids over whose turn it is to take dog out. Remind 9-year-old to do asynchronous gym class (supposed to be 20 minutes of soccer drills). He wants to do this with a friend. Text friend’s mom, invite friend over for outdoor, socially distanced gym class soccer drills. Witness child and friend biking in circles around back yard.

9:55 a.m. Revise a purchase and sale agreement. Send a client comments and instructions on another purchase and sale agreement. Begin to review a zoning ordinance for an upcoming redevelopment submittal.

10:55 a.m. Realize that the load of laundry I ran overnight using the delay setting was done about four hours ago. Throw load of laundry in dryer. Throw frozen pizza in oven for lunch.

11:00 a.m. Send emails. Call with a paralegal regarding a title and survey matter.

11:20 a.m. Remind kids to eat lunch.

11:22 a.m. Review and respond to emails. Remind kids to eat lunch.

(Thank goodness the dog is now asleep.)

12:28 p.m. Kiss 13-year-old and 9-year-old good bye and wish them a safe walk/bike ride to school for their hybrid start times of 12:47 and 1:00, respectively (which are an hour earlier on Wednesdays, as if this isn’t hard enough to keep track of).

12:30 p.m. Breathe in the blissful quiet. Walk in kitchen to make a cup of tea. Notice sink overflowing with dirty dishes. Open dishwasher to put the dirty dishes in it and realize the dishwasher is full of clean dishes from dinner last night. Unload dishwasher, reload dishwasher. Eat lunch while catching up on emails.

12:45 p.m. Sit down to work.

12:49 p.m. Receive call from nurse at son’s school. I forgot to submit the daily Covid self-certification form online (again). Submit the forms for the two younger kids before I get a similar call from the junior high nurse.

12:50 — 2:45 p.m. Calls, drafting, work, emails, texts. Yes!! Almost 2 straight hours of work!

2:45 p.m. 16-year-old returns from school and interrupts the quiet. We discuss her day and the latest election news.

3:00 p.m. Sit down to work again. Text from mom (“Looking for Christmas gift ideas for the kids!”)

3:40 p.m. 9-year-old returns. The noise is home.

3:50 p.m. 13-year-old returns. More noise. Remind 16-year-old to leave for her sports class at the gym at 4:00.

4:00 p.m. Encourage children to go to park to enjoy the beautiful, unusually warm November day. Children park themselves on couches to play Minecraft and Fortnite. Argue with children over whose turn it is to take the dog out.

4:05 p.m. Make a cup of coffee. It’s a little late in the day for coffee, but such is life. Escape back to my “real” office upstairs. Express silent gratitude for having an office upstairs.

5:05 p.m. Husband returns from work. We are two ships passing in the night. We discuss what time the 13-year-old’s basketball practice starts tonight. Encourage 13-year-old to eat dinner before basketball practice. Return to office to work.

7:00 p.m. Take a break from work to have dinner with 16-year-old and 9-year-old. Express silent gratitude for the crock pot. After dinner, we clean kitchen and then walk the dog. I then sit back down to continue working while the 9-year-old returns to the Xbox and the 16-year-old does her homework.

8:30 p.m. Husband and 13-year-old return from basketball. We all say hello and I help them find dinner. I encourage the 9-year-old to take a shower. I remind him 5 more times over the next 35 minutes.

9:25 p.m. 9-year-old is finally out of the shower. I remind him to brush his teeth. We read a chapter of A Series of Unfortunate Events, book 12: The Penultimate Peril. I tuck him in and kiss him good night. The 13-year-old puts herself to bed. I return to work at the dining room table with the 16-year-old.

11:30 p.m. I’m unsuccessfully trying to stay awake so my 16-year-old daughter and I can “do our homework together” and retreat upstairs at about the same time. When we both get to a stopping point, we head up. I realize I forgot to respond to mom’s text. Bleary-eyed, I finally text mom: “gasoline gift cards for CC, Lego Avengers for AJ, Xbox headphones for CJ.” Collapse into bed and ruminate for 30 minutes while trying to read a book to settle my mind.

Today’s time sheet:

1.5 hours cooking; 0.5 hour wrangling children to walk dog; 0.75 hour household chores; 0.5 hour conversations with family; 1.5 hours to and from the gym and working out; 0.75 hour shower/get ready for the day; 2 hours of silly interruptions; and of course, all those billable hours …

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Why Do I Have To Lose My Sh*t Before Anything Gets Done?

I lost my shit this morning. There was yelling. There were tears. And then there was the guilt over losing my shit.

But you know what else happened? My kids actually finished their chores. They picked up their clothes. The cleaned the cups and bowls that were growing mold on their bedroom floor. They cleaned the bathroom and vacuumed the living room. In other words, they did what needed to be done in the first place.

These chores aren’t a surprise. My kids know what they need to do. It’s written down right in front of them and the chores don’t really change. So why does it take me turning into Medusa with eyes bugging out of my head and my voice hoarse from yelling for them to actually listen?

I’ve tried it all. We use an app for their chores so they have them written down. I give firm reminders. We take away their phones and dole out other consequences (granted my husband is much better at this than me). So why does it take me losing my shit for anything to get done?

By now the cycle is predictable: Ask kids to do something. Kids ignore you. Ask kids 15 more times. Kids still ignore you. Lose your shit. Kids finally listen. Feel terrible. Rinse and repeat.

I wish I could say it was just my kids, but the truth is, it’s not. I don’t even listen to myself. I know that I need to practice self-care. I should meditate and turn off the news and stop doomscrolling. And yet it took a full-blown emotional breakdown about a month ago for me to realize that I need to actually do these things instead of just reminding myself that I should do them. After spending an entire day sobbing (yes, an entire day), I finally listened to myself. I got myself back into therapy. I downloaded a meditation app. I limited my time on Facebook and news websites.

But it shouldn’t have taken a full emotional breakdown for me to listen to myself. Just like it shouldn’t take me going all Clark Griswold on Christmas Eve for my kids to pick up their clothes, finish their homework, and load the damn dishwasher.

I just shouldn’t. But it does. And I’m not really sure why.

I mean, I’m aware of the “love and logic” approach to all this. I’ve heard all the advice about the importance of consequences and boundaries. I know all of this. And yet somewhere between knowing it and doing it, everything breaks down.

How do we break out of this cycle?

I’d love to just say something once and have people listen. Then again, I apparently don’t even listen to myself. So…

Maybe it’s because we’re so tired of this hamster wheel of pandemic life with no end in sight. Add on the general exhaustion from saying the same damn things all the time. We’re tired of giving constant reminders to not act like slobs and to pick up their damn clothes, to put the toilet seat down, and to put your damn phone away.

I know that I sound like the wah-wa-wa-wa-wah teacher in all the Charlie Brown shows. Honestly, I’m even annoying myself. And I’m totally over it.

But if I don’t remind everyone of everything, will anything get done? Or will the dirty bowls start growing legs? Will the crusty toothpaste in the bathroom sink turn into concrete? And more importantly, if my kids don’t figure out how clean up after themselves now will they turn into sloppy, lazy adults?

It’s all so frustrating. I don’t want to nag. It feels absolutely terrible. And yet if I don’t lose my shit every now and then, things get sloppy. And I’ll be damned if my kids are gonna turn into privileged a-holes who don’t clean up after themselves. Not to mention that I’m sick of the crumbs and the dirty clothes and the crusty plates and missing spoons. (Seriously, where do all the spoons go?!)

I don’t have a solution. I suppose I could be better with the boundaries and consequences. But I am who I am. Boundaries and consequences are a challenge. Losing my shit now and then comes more naturally.

Sigh…

Maybe one day things will change. Maybe my kids will eventually figure out how to use that chores app we all downloaded. Maybe one day they’ll pick up their dirty socks without being asked, and they’ll turn in their homework on time without being reminded a million times. Maybe one day I’ll get better at doling out consequences and setting boundaries. Maybe.

In the meantime, I’ll be over here nagging and badgering and, yes, occasionally losing my shit.  Which means I’ll also be over here forgiving myself – and my kids – for being imperfect works in progress.

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I Worry About The Amount Of Screen Time Necessary For My Teen With ADHD

My nagging has gotten out of control since COVID-19 hit. Just as I am adjusting to being both my kids’ parent and their elementary and high school teacher, they’re adjusting too, and it’s hard on all of us. My 13-year-old son hears from me every single day, “Turn off YouTube and get back to work,” or my favorite as of late, “Are you in study hall (which is 80 mins)? Study hall is meant for studying!” I mean, I don’t even take myself seriously anymore, and I am certain he stopped weeks ago.

What my wife and I do take seriously in our household as his moms, is that he and our daughters get too much screen time. We all need a break at the end of the day, and our fallback after playing outside and before dinner is allowing them to have television for an hour, then settling down by playing a fierce game of Guess Who.

I worry every day about what the constant access to the computer or television is doing to the developing brains of my three kids, especially my son, who is both on the autism spectrum and has Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). By the time his school day ends, I am ready for the computer and all screens to be turned off, even if he’s not.

As a family who works every single day to support one another, being home together has added a new level of understanding of what it means to show up for one another. For my son, this means that we support his need for improved social interactions with others through the array of extracurricular activities we’ve signed him up for. He participates in our church’s children’s choir (via Zoom for now), takes piano lessons, has joined a musical theater group, and runs cross country for the first time this year. In all, he gets out of the house and engages with other people which he needs (heck, we all need).

We’ve signed him up for activities even during a pandemic, because if we do not, it will have detrimental effects on how he formulates and understands healthy interactions with other human beings outside of the screen.

I cannot help but think about my own schooling as I wake my kids up every morning, sleepy-eyed, encourage them to put on real clothes and come down to turn on their laptops from school. When I was in high school, my English teacher rolled in a square television to show us a black and white movie, a Hitchcock film I believe. When I desperately contacted my son’s school counselor asking them to turn off YouTube from my kids’ computer, her response was, “We can’t do that; teachers use it for teaching.” Such a difference from my school days. We couldn’t turn on YouTube and watch anything, and I am better for it. But I digress. 

These are the facts: my kid (s) are going to school online and they know how to navigate the internet. They are forced to attend school in ways that I have never needed to. The coronavirus has given us a new way to look at what’s normal for the reality we are living in now, and like it or not, this includes spending an excessive amount of time in front of a screen.

How I’ll survive this school year is a question I ask myself every single day. What has been a godsend is that we’ve been able to keep to the school schedule, and that consistency is essential — especially for a child with ADHD or autism. Assistant Professor of Special Education at Indiana University, Sarah Hurwitz, Ph.D., says in an article for California Life HD, “These kids rely on the predictability of a set schedule. Schedules not only provide cues about what they should be doing, but they can also help reduce stress and anxiety.” In many ways, having a consistent schedule has been our saving grace, for all of us, not just my son.

I look at screen time and my kids’ access to it in a kind of disjointed way. I understand its importance for school; even if I don’t like it, this is what we have. As the parent here, I need to figure out how to take myself out of the equation and look at how screen time can be beneficial, especially for kids like mine.

Randy Kulman, Ph.D., says in Psychology Today, “Many kids with ADHD are impulsive and do not display the best judgment or problem-solving. Keeping kids in the house and engaged, even with screens, is preferable to the risks of infection in the community. Encourage video chat, massively multiplayer online video games with their friends, social media, testing, or even an old-fashioned phone call for children and teens who miss their friends. Remember that they normally spend seven hours a day with their peers in school.”

The internet, as we all know, can be unsafe — and for the teen with ADHD and autism, it can even be a dangerous place. While my role as a mom continues to morph into a hybrid version of my past self, what I am learning is that I too need to adjust to how much screen-time my teen is getting, and get on board sooner rather than later.

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School Is Virtual Enough — We Need Actual Textbooks, Please

I had just picked up my seventh grader’s school supply kit. School-in-a-box, with folders, a protractor, a whiteboard, and everything else needed to successfully learn at home. But something was missing.

“What about textbooks?” I asked the harried staff member handing out supplies, who had already moved his gaze to the next car.

“No textbooks. They’ll get that online this year.”

I grimaced behind my mask.

I don’t know how many other schools have given up on textbooks entirely this year. But even before the pandemic, schools were using textbooks less and less, in favor of cheaper, more adaptive online learning.

I’m not a fan of this trend, and I suspect the pandemic will accelerate it. Over the years I have had numerous conversations with my kids that go something like this:

Kid: “Hey Mom, do you know how to do this kind of math problem?” **shows handout**

Me: “Maybe, if I look at an example of how to do one.”

Kid: “This sheet is all they gave us.”

Me: “So, um, you don’t have a math textbook?”

Kid: “No.”

Me: “Like, a book that introduces a new concept, illustrates it with examples, offers practice problems with some answers in back, like of the odd-numbered problems or something?”

Kid: “Still no.”

Me: “So…how exactly do you learn math?”

And that is where things grow murky. Seems that my kids have learned much of their math, science, and other subjects from a combination of online apps, some type of workbooks or journals that they leave in the classroom, and a bunch of handouts that end up crumpled in their backpacks.

My kids think it’s weird that I have an opinion on their learning materials. After all, I’m not the one in school, or the one teaching school — I’m just the occasional tutor or study buddy. But when I step into that role, there’s nothing more useful than a textbook to yank me up to speed quickly on what the kids are supposed to be learning.

Surely textbooks have advantages for students, too, especially this year. After spending a good chunk of the day staring at screens, reading on paper is a soothing break for kids’ eyes. And unlike a tablet or laptop, a textbook isn’t a glittering gateway to a universe of distractions.

Research suggests that kids learn better from actual books, in part because they read hard-copy text more slowly, which lets them pick up more details.

But I suspect the learning benefits go beyond that. The beauty of a physical book is how easy it is to flip around and find things. If you’ve ever tried to locate something in an online textbook — say, how covalent bonds work — you know that it can be a cumbersome process. In fact, you’re tempted not to do it at all. But seeking out and reviewing information is how we build knowledge. It’s how our understanding of a topic, like molecular bonding, eventually clicks into place.

Textbooks spoon-feed information to kids, in a good way. They take the universe of content on a given subject, put boundaries on it, organize it, and walk the learner through each step. This keeps kids on track. Some of my kids’ best teachers have “taught to the textbook”: it was always clear what their students were expected to learn. When course materials are a mishmash of online sources, handouts, and notes, it takes college-level organizational ability to keep track of things, which most school-age kids don’t yet have.

Of course, textbooks don’t do everything well. They can be biased (also true of online sources) and outdated. This is most likely to be a problem with social studies and history textbooks. So perhaps we can do without those, or at least supplement them heavily with other sources. But other, fact-based subjects are perfectly-suited for textbooks: basic science, math, foreign languages.

It’s also true that textbooks can’t adapt to the needs of individual learners, as educational apps using artificial intelligence claim to do. So why not use both, reaping the advantages of each?

My opinions may put me out of step with current educational thinking. As my kids like to remind me, I’m old. How old? Well, let’s just say that in my elementary school, handouts were cranked out on a purple-ink ditto machine.

No one wants to go back to those days. But as technology continues to reshape every aspect of our lives, we are going to discover that some things have unique value in their analog versions.

The other day my middle-schooler was struggling to grasp a new concept using her math instruction website. When I checked in with her a little later, she looked pleased. “I figured it out,” she said. She showed me a thick stack of paper; explanations she had printed out from the online program. “Look,” she said. “I can follow along with this while I do the problems. It makes sense now.”

She had, in essence, made her own textbook.

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Stop What You’re Doing And Tell Your Kid They’re Doing An Amazing Job

This morning, before I’d even had my first cup of coffee, I started nagging my son. To unload the dishwasher. To put away his laundry. To turn in his late school assignments.

A few minutes later, he went downstairs to sit in front of his computer and “go to school,” and I realized, WOW, these kids are actually doing a really great job.

Back in March, their worlds were flipped upside down. They were cut off from their friends. They saw their teachers a couple times a week on an often-chaotic Zoom call. Vacations and birthday parties were cancelled. In the several months since then, things have only gotten marginally better.

There’s a lot of talk about how much kids are suffering right now — emotionally, socially, mentally. And this is true. Without in-person school, and frequent interactions with friends, lots of kids are lonelier and more anxious than usual. These are serious issues, and shouldn’t be dismissed or taken lightly.

But can we also acknowledge how amazing kids also are? When I look around – not just at my own kids, but their peers and friends – I am literally in awe. Their worlds have been flipped upside and they are dealing with it better than most adults I know.

They wear masks without hesitation.

They go to school in front of a computer for 6-7 hours a day, with no less dedication to the task at hand.

They’ve mastered new skills like video conferencing on a dime.

And most importantly they’ve learned that daily life can become almost unrecognizable from the life they’ve known, and they are able to adjust and evolve and maybe even find some happiness in all of it.

Lots of folks talk and write about the soft skills that kids are building right now – resiliency, flexibility, creativity, empathy – but they’re sometimes dismissed or minimized because they’re so squishy. People tend to think of them as bonus skills — sure, they’re great, but not as important as, you know, math facts and reading. Except they actually are as or more important. They are HUGE.

I’ll be honest, even though we’re several months into pandemic life, it still doesn’t get any easier. In fact, I have to resist the urge to put my head down on the table and cry most days.

Even worse, there are lots of adults who literally throw a giant tantrum over something as simple as wearing a face mask. Other adults are protesting and demanding things go “back to normal,” even if it means putting entire communities at risk, because they can’t deal with change of this scale and they simple refuse to be flexible. And I kind of get where all this is coming from. Change is hard. Those of us who were kids in the ‘80s were fed a hefty diet of “this is how things are done” with a side of “pay our dues” and “play by the rules.” Sure, we were taught the value of hard work and sacrifice, but in an individual kind of way.

Our kids will be different. Better. They are learning the importance of collective sacrifice. They are practicing every day how to be flexible and adapt to new situations. And they are becoming more resilient in the process.

It can be so easy to get caught up in how our kids are driving us bonkers these days. After all, we’ve been cooped up with them for months and months on end. We can dwell on the frustrations that come with living with teens. The constant video games. The dirty dishes and candy wrappers all over the house. The late assignments and forgotten chores. The TikToking. (OMG, the TikToking!) But when you step back and take a look at things, they are really doing some amazing things. They are learning – and teaching us — how to adapt and change and find happiness even when life gets all out of whack. And this is no small feat.

So take a minute to tell the kids in your life how amazing they are. Because they are.

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Why The Pandemic Is Making Me A ‘Backseat Mom’

As a psychotherapist who has treated many mothers over the years, and as a mother myself, I’m fascinated by the history of maternal identity. How do American moms think about their role in raising their children, protecting them from harm, and helping them become well-adjusted adults? I’m seeing signs that the current pandemic is triggering a change in that identity, away from the “helicopter parenting” of the past 25+ years.

First, some context. In the 19th century, parenting was mostly authoritarian. Children were seen and not heard, doing lots of chores, always putting the family’s needs first. Most women didn’t worry about their kids’ emotional health, just their physical survival in a time of rampant child mortality.

The first half of the 20 century brought the Freudian revolution. Freud’s psychoanalytic concepts about adult disturbances and intrapsychic conflict didn’t offer a blueprint for parenting, but they got mothers worrying that they might give their children “a complex” if they did something wrong.

Benjamin Spock’s 1946 bestseller, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, launched an era of more active child-rearing – repudiating rigid toileting practices and feeding schedules in favor of positive experiences that allowed each individual child to lead the way. Over the next few decades, middle class American moms began responding to their children’s cues and parenting in more flexible ways.

By the early 1990s, the rising trend was “helicopter parenting” – a stronger focus on ensuring good grades and college admissions. Mothers worried more than ever about minimizing all kinds of risks, big and small – from drug abuse and teen pregnancies to skinned knees at the playground and heartbreaks at the 8th grade dance.

But in 2020, powerless against the pandemic’s devastating toll, I see mothers losing faith in their ability to shield their kids from any sort of harm – physical, emotional, academic, or social. Many are worrying about hanging onto their own jobs or trying to stay productive while working from home. Some are also feeling stressed out about their food supplies or their own elderly parents. And though it was always difficult to work while raising kids, the new challenges of homeschooling and isolation-induced anxiety have raised the bar dramatically. My patients are reeling from the sudden shift: instead of feeling like they can (and should) fix any problem for their kids, many are feeling like they can’t fix anything.

“COVID makes me feel powerless as a parent,” Colleen said when her daughter, Emily, a college junior, opted to remain halfway across the country, close to campus and her research lab. When Emily began feeling stressed and experiencing chest pains, her mother begged her to see a doctor. But she became angry, saying she was busy and it was hard to get a telemedicine appointment. The more her mother pushed, the more Emily resisted. While her symptoms eventually remitted, stay at home orders made Emily feel isolated, and she began lashing out.

In our sessions, Colleen agonized over whether to helicopter in to relieve her daughter’s misery. She lamented that Emily rejected offers to visit and shot down suggestions about finding ways to socialize. It all came to a head during one especially heated FaceTime exchange, when Colleen pleaded, “You can’t be alone all the time. At least meet friends in a parking lot. Stand six feet apart.” Emily threw her hands up and yelled, “Please stop! You can’t help! You can’t fix this!” When they hung up, Colleen retreated to her bedroom and cried over her helplessness. “It was as if mothering as I’d known it was gone forever.”

These sorts of questions about how involved to get rang true in my own home, where my teens had also been struggling since the onset of the pandemic. I had always prided myself on being helpful – listening, understanding, guiding, and stepping in when necessary. I’d tried not to hover, but had been active and present, seeking tutors or fighting for medical specialists. I encouraged my kids to fight their own battles, to get back up when they stumbled. Whenever they faced something they couldn’t handle and asked for my help, I was there.

But recently, amid closures and cancellations, it has become harder to help my teens cope. My suggestions and empathy often aren’t well received. I can’t protect my kids from a potentially lethal virus, or even fix their disappointments or repair losses they’d suffered. That strikes at the core of my identity as a nurturing and protective mother.

I’ve been worrying lately about the re-opening now underway: Will the virus come steamrolling back, forcing a second round of school and workplace closures? Can our already fragile economy handle this additional stress? How many more lives will be lost to the pandemic? The only certainty right now is uncertainty, which takes its toll on people of all ages.

While my high school-aged son has adapted, taking on household challenges like figuring out to snake a backed-up sink and reboot the WiFi, my daughter has had to deal with mounting losses, including an early return from college and the loss of a coveted summer internship. Despite repeated suggestions of walks, TV time, cooking, and reading material, my every outreach brings an angry smack-down. After each K-O, like a boxer on the ropes, I head back into the ring. My job as a mother is to show I care: survive the attacks and set limits while being present and loving, and help her integrate painful emotions, without rushing in to resolve the difficulties.

Following a particularly charged weekend, I found myself questioning my approach. Feeling terrified that months of disappointment and isolation had taken a permanent toll, I considered arranging a telehealth consultation or booking online meditation classes for my daughter. Would she ever be okay again? Would I?

After we started venturing out, first only for necessities like groceries and doctors’ visits, then for socially distanced visits, I noticed that tensions appeared to be settling. My daughter found a virtual research position, brought home stellar grades, and practiced social distancing without being reminded. When a new challenge arose – her school cancelled all in person classes and on campus engagements – she cried bitterly, and I worried that her already negative outlook could not survive another blow. But within a day she’d contacted friends, taken virtual tours of off-campus apartments, and proposed a plan to use savings to offset rental costs.

It was then I knew that amidst the deprivations, losses, and challenges of the past few months, I’d been given a gift: a unique opportunity to get to know my children in ways that might have eluded me had daily life been as frantic as usual. Seeing my teens on a daily basis, shepherding them through their fears and bleakest moments, I’ve had the privilege of watching them build resilience and strengthen their inner reserves.

Parenting through sadness, fear, and adversity has shown me that I can’t fix everything for my kids, and that’s okay. After watching them in action over the past few months I know that they are equipped to handle whatever comes their way, and I no longer feel a pull to repair every single thing that goes wrong.

Hearing echoes of this same theme from patients, neighbors, and friends, I think we’re starting to see a new version of maternal identity, winding down the era of the overly obsessed helicopter parent. After living through so much loss and disappointment,I can’t imagine seeing moms stressing out nearly as much about excessive screen time, a B on a report card, or too many snacks between meals. Involved mothering won’t go away, of course. We’ll still have huge investments in the health and happiness of our children, and we’re not going to ignore them when they need help. But I think we’ll bring a more balanced perspective to the post-pandemic world. Call us backseat moms.

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‘Wouldn’t That Be Great?’: How 4 Simple Words Changed My Tween Son

The storm gathered quickly, erupting from the clouds and shocking me with its rage. No clouds dotted the horizon. No warnings sounded in the distance.

That’s not exactly true, actually. If I had paid attention, I would have seen the changing barometer of his face. I would have noticed the frustration and the building pressure, threatening to burst. But this phase of life is new; I’ve never been the mother of a tween before.

Today, he is angry and hurt because I don’t support his dream of being a gamer and/or YouTuber. It’s almost funny, typing that, except that to him it’s not. His best friend has a strong affinity for the apps that kids love to play currently, and the best friend’s father shares his love for them as well. My son sees them playing together and he envies that.

To our son’s chagrin, neither I nor his father are gamers. I did have an Atari console when I was a kid, but Pong hardly held my attention the way games do now. So the idea of him becoming someone who spends hours in an online world and not pursuing something else … anything else, practically … is something I can’t fathom. And so the conversation goes like this:

“I want to be a gamer when I grow up,” he says.

“You’re not going to be a gamer,” I say. And then I lay out the reasons why he needs to get offline more often.

My son and I have had talks about puberty and hormones and his changing body, for a few years now. I bought him a book called “Guy Stuff” by the makers of the American Girl doll because I had given my oldest niece a similar one for girls when she turned 13. We’ve talked through mood swings and the ways his body will change and I tried to prepare him. I remember the confusion and bewilderment of his age and how rapid the transformation from kid to young adult felt to me.

Courtesy of Kristin Shaw

Tonight, though, the emotions are overwhelming to both of us.

Tears stream down his face as he struggles with the feeling of loneliness that accompanies feeling misunderstood. And he surely feels betrayal as one of the people he loves and trusts most has just told him that his ideas are invalid. He hears me say that his dreams, in a word, are garbage. To him, I have just said that he, by extension, is garbage. Now that I can see that in my rear-view mirror, I am heartbroken by my callous and flippant response.

So I did what many moms have done for eons: I asked for advice from my friends. Explaining that I am opposed to the idea of my son locking himself to a game console for hours on end because I don’t want to encourage this pursuit, I laid out the situation. My mom friends, as they often do, offered real talk about how to process this hurdle. First of all, they said, he’s 10. His windshield to the world is partially obscured; he’s still figuring out his place and expanding the view every day.

My friend Leigh Ann has three girls with daydreams of their own, and when they bring up an idea that seems preposterous to adults or a silly notion, at best, she says four little words that validate them, shows that she is listening to them, and stops to imagine that with them for a moment. All this, without telling them that their desire to be an animal trainer for bearded dragons or a trapeze artist or even Batman is impossible.

“Wouldn’t that be great?” she says.

Think about that for a second. What did you dream about becoming when you were a child? At one point I wanted to be a child psychologist. Then I wanted to be an artist. Then I was sure I’d be a fashion designer. No one ever said to me, “That’s ridiculous.” Or “That’s impossible.” Maybe I got a neutral “Mmm-hmmm” from my mom when she was distracted.

By telling my son that he could not be a gamer, I was telling him that his hopes and reveries don’t matter. I’m supposed to be the one who lifts him up and tells him that not even the sky is the limit. That he can be anything and anyone he wants.

I started to take Leigh Ann’s advice and started saying, “Wouldn’t that be great?” when he daydreams aloud. And I found something remarkable started to happen: he daydreamed even more. He built a roller coaster for his stuffed animals in our living room. He designed a whole theme park on paper. He and my husband created a game with wood and power tools. It’s as if he started to bloom again, nurtured by rain and rich soil and someone to bathe him in sunlight instead of putting a blanket over him. These four words have kicked open the door to possibility. And not a second too soon.

I could beat myself up for being insensitive and obtuse, but instead I’m going to give myself a little grace. I’ve never been the mother of a 10-year-old boy before, and I want to be the ideal mother who never wants to make any mistakes ever again.

Wouldn’t that be great?

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My Son Started Middle School Today — From Home, From This Desk — And I Have All The Feels

Six years ago I walked this tiny boy into kindergarten. My oldest child, my first round of real “goodbyes.” I came home after the teacher literally pushed me out of the classroom and closed the door, and sobbed.

Did I do a good job? Was he ready? How on earth was he going to make it all those hours without me? Surely he needed me for something. I stared at the clock. Time stood still. I was at school pickup 45 minutes early that first day eagerly staring at the dismissal door.

For the first few weeks of school that year, I invented ridiculous reasons to email his teacher, hoping for a glimpse into his world. Hoping for, frankly, a detailed report of what he was doing at that very minute and every minute before and after. As a seasoned teacher, she’d had plenty of first-timers like me and usually responded with a short email—maybe a sentence or two—and it crushed me, not being a part of every single thing happening around him anymore.

Well, somehow that little boy with wire-rimmed glasses and an adorable lisp and affinity for all things Harry Potter sailed through six years in five minutes, as kids heartbreakingly are known to do.

And now he’s nearly 12.

Tomorrow is a day I’ve thought about for a long time. Another first. I will now start learning how to be a middle school mom. This kid—my first pancake kid who always shows me the way and gives me grace as I mess up—is starting 6th grade.

From home. From this desk.

And he’s totally chill and ready, despite me buzzing around him, still trying to be over-involved.

“Can you log into all your Zoom links okay? Do you understand your schedule? Do you see how you now have a 3-minute break between classes to get up, stretch, pee, do you want me to help you make a lunch ahead of time…”

And, of course, I’m met with a “I got it, Mom. Really. I’m just gonna watch a video with my headphones on, k?”

And I slink away, knowing he really does “got it.”

The truth is, this is never in a million years how I expected my oldest child and I to jump into the middle school experience, but here we are.

6th grade. Old enough for me to say, “Dude, go take a shower” but young enough to still snuggle with Mom on movie night. Old enough to stay home alone now and then and download a game called Dead Cells, but young enough to still want to play board games & say prayers with me at night.

I’m not any more ready to watch him enter middle school as I was to watch him enter kindergarten. Again, is he ready? Did I do a good job preparing him? Does he know what to do when ___ happens or how to handle ____?

I probably won’t sob tomorrow like I did all those years ago, mostly because all my kids will be 10 feet from me all day long doing online school, but it will be an emotional day nonetheless.

Another chapter closing. A new one opening. A worried mom who, when she looks at her newly minted middle school son who’s nearly as tall as her, still sees that tiny boy and remembers that first goodbye all those years ago.

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