Monthly Archives: May 2010

What’s Next for Me?

If you have known me more than a couple years, you have observed that I piece together my work life in a new way almost every year.  I think that since the kids were born there may have been a couple stretches of two years when I did things exactly the same way but otherwise there’s always some sort of rearrangement, and when I say that we’ve tried every type of child care out there, I am not kidding.

This is something I value highly about my career and one of the reasons I chose to run my own practice: I get to decide the days and hours I work, rearranging things to suit the changing needs of my family over time.  I have never worked more than 3 days outside the home since Baxter was born 9 years ago, but running a business is a full-time job so I am accustomed to squeezing in the paperwork, billing, and report-writing at other times.  It is much, much easier now that I have two school-aged children in the same school, believe me, but still not exactly a piece of cake.

I hired a full-time speech-language pathologist to work for me nearly two years ago, so for a while now she’s been seeing the vast majority of our clients.  For the first school year after hiring her, I co-directed a wonderful preschool program, and this past year I’ve continued with a couple long-standing clients and have been running the business the rest of the time.  This has taken a great deal of my time now that I am a Blue Cross Blue Shield provider.  This business model has worked out very well for the past year, insofar as I was able to spend four afternoons a week at home with the kids and volunteered in Lyle’s kindergarten class a lot. I was also one of the Room Parents for his class. I’ve had time to cook more, do errands during the work week, and meet friends and colleagues for lunch.  I’ve also done some great consulting jobs with school districts and families, made possible by my flexible schedule, and that’s been really fun for me. I’ve had time to start the Communication Therapy blog, jump start the music class I’d always wanted to create, and visited quite a few schools and other programs in the Chicago area to better understand what’s out here. I’ve also had a chance to put new systems into place that have made the business run more smoothly. Having more time at home allowed me to spearhead getting a dog and to be here getting him acclimated to our home. It has worked brilliantly for my family, despite not being as lucrative as hoped for due to the economic downturn.  It’s challenging to support myself and a salaried employee when neither of us is ever quite busy enough on paper. But, again, it was perfect for Lyle’s first year in full-day school and the practice did just fine during a very tough economic period in Chicago; I would do it all over again.

But June approaches, and big changes are afoot.  My amazing employee is moving out of state and I am on my own again.  It doesn’t make sense financially to replace her, even if I could find another such magical employee. And so we’re back to simpler times in my practice, with just me providing the therapy (with Northwestern grad students, I hope) and a new business manager coming on board to take over the bookkeeping and billing.  I will go back to being a therapist, which is why I started a practice in the first place.  I’ll be working three long days in my new clinic, starting the first week of the boys’ summer vacation next month. I’ve chosen Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday to accommodate the million days off in public school (which usually fall on Mondays and Fridays) and also to give me opportunities for long weekends year round.

I have no doubt that this change is a good move for my professional life.  I’m looking forward to getting back into the flow of treatment and being involved with a variety of kids and their families again. I sense my old energy for it coming back and that’s a terrific feeling. At the same time, I feel mild trepidation about the impact of this change on my family. They’re used to me being around and available more, and so am I. My kids will probably go to some type of after school care a few days a week next year; now that they are older there’s no need to invest in a babysitter at home, which has really never been in our budget to begin with. I envision later dinners and some homework being done in the evenings on my work days; these things are hard to imagine for my early-to-bed boys. The evenings and weekends will be busier for Matt and me as we try to make up for the daytime hours I will no longer be around the house.

I know I will find my balance again.  The past nine years have taught me how to do this as the intensity of my work waxes and wanes.  In preparation for increased work outside our house I have begun to pull back on my responsibilities; I won’t be a room parent next year, for example, but hope to go in on my days off occasionally to help out. Perhaps we’ll feel we can afford help with housecleaning again, which would lighten our load on weekends. I’m grateful that I have this summer to get back into the groove of my new schedule before we add the kids’ busy schedule and all the insanity that the school year brings back into the mix.

My life is like a puzzle that gets taken apart once a year and put back together in a completely different way, but it’s a really good puzzle that holds all the things that make me happy: family, home, friends, work. And as long as it does, I know I can make it all fit.

City Living

Raising kids in a big city can be challenging.  The difficulties that typically send parents running for the hills aren’t necessarily the things that have been difficult for me; I revel in the busy-ness, the racial and economic diversity, and even the loud Loyola students and occasional singing drunkard in the alley outside our bedroom late at night.  Those things give the neighborhood a lot of character, and I love that there’s a coffee shop, bank, movie theatre, used bookstore, Chinese take-out, dry cleaners, and music store all within half a block of my front door. I don’t mind that we lack a backyard for the kids and dog to run free and the privacy of a single family home: I like our daily forays into the big park along the lake or the small play lots nestled between houses where we run into friends and neighbors and meet new people.  And we’re lucky enough to like our condo neighbors and have a great situation where kids can get together and play in their pajamas if they so choose (and they do).

But other things are challenging about raising kids in a city as big as Chicago. Getting them into a good public school takes time, energy, and the resources to know how to navigate a complicated and often frustrating system. Happily, there are quite a few families close by whose kids attend our kids’ magnet school (which is 20-25 minutes away), so the boys do have friends very nearby and we have a great carpool community, but it’s still not the same as walking to school with friends every day. (There are no school buses here for public school kids unless your child has transportation written into an IEP. By the middle school years – and certainly high school – my kids will be on public transportation to and from school.)

Although they have many benefits, by and large, city schools don’t have the resources many other schools have.  One reason we chose our kids’ school was because of the strong level of parent support and commitment we saw there. Parents raise tens of thousands of dollars each year for the music program, among other things, and we make an automatic donation to the school’s fund-raising organization every month.  The school is amazing and well worth the extra funds and commute – I always say if this were a private school I’d gladly pay the tuition – but once in a while I dream of being at a neighborhood school where the daily logistics would be easier and my kids’ friends wouldn’t live all over the north side.

Despite the day-to-day challenges, there are near-constant reminders of why I love raising my kids in this urban environment. Over the past few days my kids have had a string of really amazing opportunities that remind me of the advantages of our city life.  And if you’d like to consider the following to be three-posts-I’ve-been-meaning-to-write all crammed into one, I would support that.

First, on Saturday morning, I took the boys to a family drop-in class at the fabulous Lill Street Art Center.  I love Lill Street, and not just because I am obsessed with both First Slice Cafe (where a portion of the proceeds go to the homeless) and the gallery shop inside. My new office is only two blocks from there so they may fear I have actually moved in.  I’ve been encouraging the boys to consider taking an art class or camp session but they’ve been reticent, so when I noticed this family drop-in hour for only $10 per person, I signed us up so they’d get more familiar with the place.  We all loved it. For an hour, we sat together and let our creative juices flow. The boys made dogs, each in their own way (Lyle’s has a miniature bowl of food and Baxter’s has a huge bone and stands on a rug) and I learned to make a bowl. We used various tools, chatted with another family, and had fun painting on the glaze. We’re looking forward to picking up our work in two weeks.  The boys were so enthusiastic about the class that we decided to go back frequently and make Christmas gifts for relatives there this year.  They are disappointed that I suggested we go once a month; they’d like to go more often. And I’ll add that it was wonderful to see my two boys engaged in a fine motor task that was so motivating for them.  I wanted to take a photo or two here but since my hands were covered with clay it just didn’t seem like a good idea.

On Saturday afternoon we drove Baxter up to Northwestern University, where he is participating in the 4-week L.A.B.S. program (Laboratory Adventures in the Biological Sciences).  This is an incredible opportunity for kids interested in science – they wear real lab coats and work in small groups with students in an actual university science lab for two hours a week. The department has a grant to run this program, making it very affordable.  I can’t express how much Baxter loves it!  I am also pleased with the emphasis on health in their experiments.  One week they studied the effects of SPF-30 on cells and last week he ran an experiment on the effects of nicotine on human cells, and he’s been struck by the very obvious results. Yesterday he sat with me and showed me all the work and information in his binder and I was impressed with how much he knows and how much of it I didn’t learn until high school.  He goes into the lab with his widest grin. The older he gets, the more I see his strengths in math and science. The dude impresses me.

And finally, today: Baxter’s school band performed at Meritfest, playing three challenging pieces of music on the main stage at Chicago’s Symphony Center with other bands from the city.  As my mother-in-law wrote after looking at the photos tonight, “Can’t believe our Baxter is sitting just feet away from podium used by CSO greats like Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti.” My boy asked to iron his own clothes (and quite nearly ironed his entire hand before I jumped in, which proves that mothers are helpful!), strutted into the kitchen proudly this morning, and was incredibly excited to be on that stage in front of a big audience playing his flute.  The acoustics were – naturally – beautiful.  It was a special day and I was reminded of why we work so hard to raise money for our music program (run by Merit School of Music).

So, yes, there are challenges to raising our kids in an urban environment.  But we also live in a world-class city with all kinds of unique opportunities right outside our door. Every time we are involved in one those things I am reminded that our efforts are worth it.  Tenfold.

One Lucky Mama

It was almost time for Lyle to change into his pajamas this evening when I offered to take him on a short dog walk with me.  We decided to walk just down to the beach and back to get a little fresh air.  As Lyle ran ahead, screeching to a halt as if his shoes had some sort of braking system at each driveway and alleyway, I took in how still the night was.  It had been a chilly and windy day here, necessitating my winter down coat for our earlier walks; I didn’t need it anymore tonight.

The beach lured us in, sunlight glowing on the rising waves.  The air was still and we watched a dozen seagulls coasting over the water, waiting to see one diving for a fish. We talked about different types of shells we found and I showed him that there were huge shadows over the lake because the sun was setting behind us, behind the buildings at the end of our street. But where the sun was bright, the light on the water, the sand, and my boy was beautiful.

The scene reminded me of one of my favorite Mother’s Days, when we lived in San Francisco, a few months before Lyle was born.  I woke up in our apartment that day to breakfast in bed brought in by Matt and Baxter (probably from Arizmendi Bakery), and we looked out our bedroom window at a clear, sunny spring day.  On a fogless day like that we could see the ocean about 30 blocks away from our bed, and suddenly being there was all I wanted.  And so the three of us headed out to play at Ocean Beach after breakfast and it was a glorious morning. My sense memory of the clear California sunlight and that blue, blue water is very strong. I felt lucky to be in it.

3-year old Baxter patting unborn Lyle on Mother’s Day 2004

As I thought about that long ago morning, I was overwhelmed with the realization that I was standing on a beach in Chicago this time, talking to that once unborn child, six years later on the eve of Mother’s Day, when suddenly it started to rain. Hard, and from out of nowhere.  “Lyle!” I said, delighted, “the sun is shining and it’s raining! We should look for a –” I turned as I said it and there in front of us was suddenly forming the most incredible rainbow I’ve seen in my life.  It extended over Lake Michigan in a perfect arc, both ends resting atop the water right in front of us and appearing to be close enough that we could reach out, grab it and take it home in our pockets to admire later.  As the colors became brighter and stronger, there emerged a slightly lighter second rainbow – a double rainbow! – above it.  I looked around but we were the only ones on the beach to witness this wonder so close up. If I’d had my camera with me you would have thought I’d photoshopped it in, it was that unbelievable.  I searched for an image similar to it and it was somewhat like this one without the landforms behind it and a little brighter and closer.

We stood there in amazement. I told my boy that seeing a rainbow like this will bring us great luck and we talked about how special it was to have seen it together. We stood back on the sidewalk before it faded and carefully made our own visual memories of it so we’d never forget it.  I know we never will.

I now have another amazing Mother’s Day memory from another beach in a different city with my second child to add to my cache. I felt like the luckiest person in the whole world.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Lyle’s rendering: to help him remember

Happiness is…

…listening to the ball game with your dog.

Circles of Kindness

Oh, the squabbles. You know the ones I mean: not the Real Arguments™ or Actual Disagreements©. The ones that start small and stay small but go on endlessly, throughout an entire interaction such as a car ride or an after-school snack. They begin as a few off-kilter notes and usually they continue along, a quiet low disgruntled hum. On occasion they hit a sudden angry crescendo when you least expect it over something minor that turned out unpredictably to be The Last Straw.

I am fortunate.  My kids don’t tend to squabble that much.  In general, they get along better than most siblings I know, and are genuinely good friends. But when one of them is tired or in a bad mood, things get rolling in a bad direction quite easily. I generally try to stay out of their arguments, counseling them to talk to each other about it and work it out. Sometimes they get really stuck and do need my help.  My tendency is to listen while they each share with the other what their needs are and facilitate them working it out.

But recently the two of them were grumping at each other incessantly as we walked to the car after school. Little nitpicky, mean comments were flying back and forth. I stopped short and crouched down next to them.  At first I was at a loss for words (yes, me!) because I was so incredibly annoyed with their behavior.

Finally able to talk, I noted sternly, “You two are stuck in a circle of unkindness. It doesn’t matter who started it or what it is about. The problem is that this could go on all afternoon because you both keep it going. This will take all the fun out of our afternoon and I will be much less likely to want to spend time with you.” They were listening intently. (Although maybe this is because I was kneeling in front of them and had them backed up all the way against the schoolyard fence.  But, hey, small details.)  I went on, “The only way to stop a circle of unkindness is for one of you to make the choice to start a new circle: a circle of kindness. It’s not easy but I know you are both capable of it.  I hope one of you will choose to do that so that we can have an enjoyable afternoon.”  And then I stood up and walked with them to the car without another word.

For a moment both walked along quietly. One (and I won’t name names here, but one of my children might be a wee bit less flexible than the other and it might surprise you to know which one that is) continued to walk with a deep scowl on his face.  The other, however, walked alongside him a few paces and then suddenly addressed his brother in a cheery voice about a new topic. And it worked.  That particular meaningless spat was over and he’d effectively hit the reset button on our afternoon.  You’d better believe I heaped on the praise.

It sounds so basic. If you told me this was trite I wouldn’t argue. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.  I believe it’s one of the hardest things to do, because you’re not only “dropping it”, you’re given the onus of making the effort to start over in a kinder way. It requires practice. A lot of it.

Please understand, I am not suggesting we should all just get along.  I don’t think we ought to stop fighting the good fights, and we aren’t always going to be nice about them, nor should we be.  But I do believe that if we stop and think about it, there are many people in our lives (partners, siblings, neighbors) with whom we have these relationships filled with meaningless, continuous little spats that really amount to circles of unkindness no one is willing to break.

I challenge you with this: if my grade schooler can do it?  So can you.

On Quitting, Judgment, and Choosing My Battles

As you may recall, Lyle took up the violin last fall around the time Baxter started playing flute in band at school and in private lessons. He was an interested and willing participant, but I certainly drove the decision and made it happen.  After a horrible start, we found a wonderful teacher who has done a fantastic job of moving him along at an appropriate pace.  Throughout the winter, he was willing to practice with only minor cajoling and made nice progress.  He was proud to have an instrument like Baxter does and loved earning stickers and moving through his book. He was never the kid who just picked up his violin and started playing on his own for fun – never once – but he did okay when I asked him to practice with me. However, as he moved from plucking strings to putting the bow to them – and then putting his fingers on those strings – it’s safe to say he shut down.  He went from being a willing participant to what my grandmother calls a “reluctant dragon”.

From there it went downhill to the point where the very idea of practicing or even listening to violin music that happened to come on the radio in the car made him apoplectic and nasty.  He stomped and fussed through the few practice sessions I could get out of him.  He didn’t want me to play my violin and he sure as hell didn’t want to play his. Everything to do with the instrument felt like pressure to the sensitive little dude. He started asking to quit about a month ago and I’ve worked hard to encourage him to keep it up by making it fun and not stressful.  Finally last week he really made it clear that he was done.  I asked him to sleep on it, and told him that once our violins went back to the rental place we wouldn’t just get them back right away if he changed his mind.  This slowed him down a bit and I know he did think about it.  The verdict: he was done.

Although I felt some sadness about this, having greatly enjoyed our early violin practices together, I wasn’t upset. After all, the child is only five years old.  I don’t see the point of a major control battle over playing an instrument when a child is five, and I feel that by letting this go without it going downhill further, he may be more willing to try another instrument later.  I’ve said on a weekly basis since he began that even if he quit that day, I’d be thrilled with how much he’s learned about music, and I absolutely am.  As one friend pointed out, we didn’t do any activities at age 5, and she used the word “dabbling” to describe what kids this age do in activities; I love this perspective.  At this point, Lyle has dabbled in violin and soccer and hasn’t particularly enjoyed either of them.  Next up we’ll check out swimming and art, things that he seems to be more naturally drawn to.

But today we ran into the violin teacher when I took Baxter in for his flute lesson. Our conversation was a difficult one for me and I’ve been turning it over in my mind for the past few hours.  When I’d let her know that Lyle was discontinuing, I was extremely positive about her work with him and how impressive it was, also noting that if he ever went back to violin or wanted to try another instrument (such as the piano I think we’ll be getting this summer) I’d love to go back to her.  I talked about the motor challenges involved for Lyle and that I didn’t want this battle to get out of hand.  I don’t want him turned off to music.  But our young teacher was dismissive of the situation, telling me that the control battle was to be expected and of course he just wanted to quit because it was a “challenge” and he’s so “bright and airy” that he is used to things being easy all the time.  (Wow, that’s SO not the child I know!)  She told me that really it’s the parent who’s the teacher and suggested that I keep him thinking about the instrument by playing fun rock violin to inspire him while we clean the house together (which happens when, exactly?), because that worked for her husband, who started violin at age 3 and is a professional musician. Obviously, she hasn’t been in my car when violin music is playing.

In other words, I’m supposed to be firmly in control of Lyle’s violin playing and stay in that driver’s seat, and I’m a total wuss for letting him quit.  I was told that no one plays violin without going through a period like this.  I noted that I suppose I didn’t go through it myself because I started in fourth grade; I should’ve also pointed out that my motor coordination was a little better than his. Oh, and that I thoroughly enjoyed it and that’s what I would want for my child.

I think what’s difficult for me is that I know she’s right – it’s hard and there are going to be challenges and of course we should encourage our kids to handle challenges and work on being disciplined as they get older. But I do that all day long.  I am working with this kid on fine motor and emotional regulation challenges day in and day out.  I’m the mom who sneaks into a room before Baxter puts on his sneakers every morning and unties them so that he has to practice tying his shoes more often, for God’s sake.  I just believe in choosing my battles and since I have nothing invested in Lyle becoming a violin virtuoso, I’m willing to let this one go.

I tried to say these things when I could get a word in – and in between calling the kids back from their attempts to exit the building without me – but I don’t think it mattered.  I also tried to explain that next month I’ll start working out of the home a lot more again and our life will change.  I noted that Lyle needed to have at least a modicum of motivation to practice with other people when I am working a few long days a week, and that we wouldn’t even have a spot in her schedule anymore soon, given my new schedule.

But in the end I felt crappy and misunderstood.  I had clearly gotten my name added to the list of Lame Moms Who Let Their Kids Quit As Soon As Things Get Hard.  I’m not a big fan of that list and I’m pretty sure I don’t belong there.   I guess what I have to remember is that I’m only on that list in one person’s mind – it just gives me pause that it’s someone I like and respect.

But, really, what I guess I want to say about this is something that is probably obvious to all of my readers: judgments don’t do anyone any good.  No one knows my child the way I do, and no one could possibly see the Big Picture of our family life the way Matt and I do.  And therefore, flippantly suggesting that I just need to persevere and make my child push through this challenge without understanding more about us is not appropriate.

I always say that the longer I parent the better I become at understanding and working with families.  Let’s chalk this one up to another notch on that belt, shall we?

Surprises

Kids are full of surprises.  Our inspiration for getting a dog came from Baxter, who is a big-time dog lover and has been for years.  Dogs and toddlers: Baxter’s two loves. But somehow, although he loves Gus and cuddles with him whenever he gets a chance, he hasn’t bonded with him as much as one might expect.  Perhaps it is because Gus is hopelessly devoted to me and this bums Baxter out; he calls the dog to him and the dog just looks at him and runs after me.  I try to invite Baxter to come snuggle with us and take him for walks, but it’s probably not what Baxter dreamed of.  I understand that and I think it’ll come in time.

On the other hand, Lyle – who could take or leave other people’s dogs for the most part and expressed some ambivalence about getting a dog, saying, “I’ll be jealous of the attention you’ll give the dog!” – has bonded more firmly with Gus in the first month than I’d ever thought possible.  He plays with him, offers to feed him, and when looking for things to do will spend quite a bit of time training the dog. Surprisingly, he’s good at the training.  At age 5 he commands the dog’s full attention and gets him to do everything we do.  It’s uncanny.

This evening, just before bedtime, Lyle came into the kitchen in his pajamas and asked if he could take the dog out to pee.  I loved that he remembered I always do that before I leave Gus for a while to put the kids to bed.  I agreed that we could do that together, so he threw on some flip flops with his winter snowman pajamas on this warm spring night, and out we went.

It’s a good reminder that we truly don’t know who our kids are until we see them actually move through life, encountering new experiences as they go.  Surprises can be very, very good.