I got this quote in an email from a fellow MIA member yesterday morning, and I haven’t been able to pry it from my brain: “I bargained with life for a penny…only to learn dismayed, that any wage I would have asked of life, life would have paid.” The author, Jessie Belle Rittenhouse (1869-1948), was a poet, literary critic, and compiler of anthologies. She was also the only female founding member of the Poetry Society of America, and she worked on the editorial staff of the New York Times for ten years in the early 1900s, as well.
I know it sounds crazy, but I feel immense pride when I think about women who were writing, publishing, and professionally employed in journalism before my grandmother was born. I know that Jessie Rittenhouse was a pioneer. She got her degree, went to work, and became well-respected in a male-dominated, intellectual field in a time when what she was doing was the exception rather than the rule. I am impressed by her gumption and wonder what might have made her choose such a non-traditional life for herself. After all, she didn’t bother getting married until she was 55, and she never had children.
I have a feeling that perhaps she did not so much intentionally choose that path as her talent and drive chose it for her and along the way she merely continued to raise the bar for herself. I examine the excerpt from her poem and I think that she clearly understood that she was the architect of her destiny. Her successes, taken within the context of the time period in which they were accomplished, were a direct result of her asking more of her life than her contemporaries were likely asking of theirs. While her college classmates were keeping house, she was hanging out with Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot and reviewing their poetry.
I think the reason that I am so affected by Ms. Rittenhouse’s poetic words, however, is because they embody the entire reason I started this Moms Into Adventure group. I realized it was time for me to ask more from life. I started down a different path than I originally had mapped out for myself and for a while I felt lost, but then I realized that my slight shift in direction didn’t have to mean that I had necessarily sacrificed all my dreams for myself. I still had those dreams. I still wanted those things. I was just traveling a back road to reach them.
When I think about what I want out of my life before it’s all said and done, it goes beyond having family. I know. I know. Having my beautiful and precious family should be enough for me; our culture indoctrinates us early with this idea, and I feel a tad bit uncomfortable knowing that I need more. I’ve always been a bit on the greedy side, though. I have perpetually asked life for more than a penny’s worth and now can say in all honesty that I am happy with who I am. When I ask more from myself, I rise to the occasion. When I want something, I find a means to get it because I am nothing but absolutely determined to have my way. When I feel like I’ve hit rock bottom, I somehow find a way to pull myself out of the chasm. I refuse to believe that I can’t have what I want. It might take me longer than anticipated to get it, but I will get there. I know it. When it comes to my dreams and goals, I have patience and perseverance.
You can gain none of life’s prizes without being brave and perhaps ruffling some feathers along the way. You know Ms. Rittenhouse’s mother was constantly railing on her: “You’re an old maid. Why don’t you settle down? Get married and give me some grandchildren already.” But her determination to walk her own path and ask for more than a penny’s worth made her powerful. Asking life for what we want is always a worthwhile venture, even if it means we encounter some opposition. I’ve long said my greatest fear is getting to the end of my life and realizing I’ve lived someone else’s. So, I’m going to continue asking for the things I want from life. I’m betting I’ll get them, so I’m going to be bold, up the ante, and enjoy taking home the whole pot.
I have this small plaque on my kitchen wall that reads, “Who are these kids and why are they calling me Mom?” No. Seriously. Explain it to me. Some days I honestly wonder how I got here…and by “here” I mean “mother of two boys.” Okay. Okay. I know how it happened technically speaking. I just mean that I never imagined myself here. I’m sure many women envision growing up, getting married, and starting a family. I just never did. But five years after we got married, hubby and I found ourselves saying, “This is great, but now what?” Apparently our next great adventure after getting married, buying a home, and caring for two dogs just in case we decided to have kids, was actually having children.
I can’t believe I thought that becoming a parent would make my life dull. My life hasn’t had a dull (read: “quiet”) moment since the boys arrived. Raising them has been incredibly interesting. Remember before you had kids when you were worried about changing diapers and sleep deprivation? As if those were going to be your biggest concerns? HA. I giggle now when I think about it. It never occurred to me that there might be actual issues with my boys. I never imagined that they might have trouble with growth and development. It never crossed my mind that one of them might be ADHD. I certainly didn’t foresee my son feeling socially awkward or having a hard time making friends. Nor did I imagine how I would handle it when I found my six year old tying Barbie to trees or my eight year old researching “skinny dipping” on Google. Why is it that I have a million books on raising children, and not one of them tells me what I should do about my son with the killer gag reflex who vomits at least once during every dental appointment.
Through my time with my children, however, I have learned more than I did in 6 years of college and graduate study. What I couldn’t get in “book smarts” from college, I learn in hands-on lessons in real life. With my boys, I truly do learn something new every day. Granted, maybe I didn’t need to know that there is a gecko in Namibia that survives the deadly desert temperatures by using its large webbed feet to burrow deep beneath the sand it traverses during the day. I also probably didn’t need to know that baby powder, when completely emptied unceremoniously from its container, would take weeks to remove completely from the walls, carpet, and baseboards of a bedroom. I know I didn’t want to know that boogers are virtually impossible to pry from heavily textured walls or that you can pick up a so-called permanent tooth that has been knocked out and shove it back into its socket in the mouth, hold it there, and probably save it.
For each thing I’ve learned that maybe I didn’t feel I wanted to or needed to know, though, I have also learned something about myself. I pick my battles more carefully these days. I understand that sometimes it’s just best to cut your losses and that doing so doesn’t have to imply failure. I’ve become much better at problem solving and much more adept at improvising. I’ve learned that worrying about things doesn’t affect their outcome. I now know that sometimes even when things don’t work out as I’ve planned they have still worked out just fine. I’ve also learned that I am much stronger than I ever thought I was.
Parenting has been my life’s greatest adventure so far. It hasn’t always been a pleasant journey, but it’s been infinitely educational. Please remind me of that the next time Luke pukes in the dentist’s chair all over himself, me, and the floor, and I’m looking around as if I have no idea whose child this is. Please remind me that there are lessons to be learned everywhere in life. And then remind me that Spray ‘n Wash will remove regurgitated chocolate milk from a khaki sweatshirt if you catch it quickly enough.
Moms are constantly being called upon to fix things. We sew stuffed animals, superglue broken toys, and settle sibling squabbles. When trouble is brewing, we’re on the front lines. I know I take this role of Caretaker of Everything quite seriously. I’ve probably taken it too far. I’ve heaped responsibility upon responsibility upon myself because, let’s face it, no one can get the job done as well as I can or as quickly. If something is broken or in need of repair, I am The Fixer.
I internalize struggles my children are having and, reminiscent of some grand, imaginary machine full of life’s answers (something like Spencer Tracy was promoting to Katharine Hepburn in The Desk Set), I try to spit out a response towards improving them. It’s exhausting. My oldest son has ADHD, and I’ve spent the past year and a half trying to coach him around it. I feel this is my responsibility. In my work with him, however, I think I’ve made him pay more attention to his deficits than I’ve asked him to pay to his strengths, which are many. How sad is that?
My mom challenged me with this thought yesterday: what if, instead of trying to fix everyone we thought was broken in some way, we focused instead on what is unique, right, and wonderful about that individual? I mean, there are amazing things about my husband that I overlook because I’m too busy nagging him about things that really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. If I focused on his positives, like his limitless patience with me and his constant willingness to give of himself, then the fact that he has seven pairs of shoes under our bed perhaps is a small price to pay for his genuine kindness.
Dealing with my oldest son’s ADHD has been quite a challenge for me. I don’t understand how his brain works. I’ve spent so much time being frustrated by how his true intelligence can’t be measured in his average grades that I’ve forgotten to pay attention to how truly awesome he is. The same goes for my youngest son. While his grades are not an issue, I get wrapped up sometimes in trying to rein in his boundless energy and creativity to improve him in areas where he needs focus. Why am I doing this? Because I am The Fixer. And, it’s my duty to turn out well-rounded, responsible, successful individuals with something legitimate to contribute to the world, right?
But, what if the best thing I can do for my children and my husband is not to fix them but instead to cherish them for who they are and for what they bring to our family? We each have a role to play. Why can I not let go of my queen bee hat and just accept that we’re all doing the best we can with what we were given? Wouldn’t our house be much more peaceful if I stopped harping on things I see that I believe need to be fixed? Wouldn’t I be much happier if I paid more attention to people’s positive qualities instead of their negative ones? I’ve been incredibly blessed, and yet I make work for myself trying to fix things that aren’t broken. They might be different than I would like, but that doesn’t mean they need to be repaired.
And what if, while cutting everyone else some slack, I applied the same principle to myself? What if I stopped trying to fix things about me that I dislike and I allowed myself to be authentically me, self-perceived flaws and all. I’m not broken. I am who I am because I have something to contribute from this one-of-a-kind perspective. It would be a shame to eliminate differences. They’re what make the world interesting.
Now, none of this is to say that I’m gonna put my superglue away and stop mending things permanently. I’m not sure I’m capable of that, nor do I believe my family would appreciate it. But, perhaps, I will try to tread a little more softly with myself and the people with whom I come into contact. Maybe instead of wanting to strangle the guy who cuts me off in traffic, I can approach the incident from a very zen place and appreciate his skillful maneuvering instead? Yeah. You’re right. I don’t think I’m quite ready for that either. I guess that’s just a good reminder that you can’t fix everything.
Maybe it’s the appalling lack of sleep I got last night due to relentless and excessive wind gusts, but today I feel myself oddly compelled to write about Star Wars. The Star Wars saga permeates our house. Action figures traverse the staircase. Countless Star Wars encyclopedias litter bookshelves and tables. A two-foot tall Imperial AT-AT Walker stands sentry in the family room. Our daily conversations are peppered with words from worlds that don’t exist, worlds like Tatooine, Naboo, Alderaan, and Geonosis. And, at least once a day I am sure I use the term “gunship.” I have no one to blame for this complete Star Wars infiltration but myself. I introduced my boys to it. And now, two years later, my 9 year old is as wrapped up in Star Wars as my male classmates were when I was 9.
As an adult, I admire the series because George Lucas is a genius. He just is. He created one of the biggest franchises ever. He has not only vision but the talent to turn his ideas into a reality. Even if I didn’t care for Star Wars as a story (which, by the way, I completely do), I would still admire George Lucas simply for his creativity, meticulous attention to detail, and skill at bringing his ideas to fruition. So, honestly, I don’t mind that my boys are completely addicted to Star Wars. I don’t even mind that every Friday night, without fail, I get hounded to let them stay up until 10 p.m. so they can watch a new Clone Wars episode as it airs. Because, at the end of the day, I know that through the series there are valuable lessons about life, loyalty, friendship, good and evil, and human nature.
What I like best about Star Wars, especially when thinking about my boys and their impressionability, is that the females kick ass. There. I said it. If you must, please forgive the profanity, but seriously…”kick booty” or “kick butt” just makes the characters seem weaker than they truly are. I get so depressed seeing females cast merely as the hot sidekicks in action flicks. Princess Leia has intelligence, determination, and attitude in spades. She may be tiny, but she’s not about to get relegated to the background. Jedi females Aayla Secura, Adi Gallia, and Luminara Unduli are wise and skillful in battle; they are considered equals by their male Jedi peers. And, the villainous females, like Asajj Ventress and Aurra Sing, truly personify the Shakespearean phrase, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” I love them all. But, what appeals to me the most is that my boys see them and recognize them as powerful in their own right.
Call me crazy, but that’s how I want my boys to see me too. That is one of the reasons that I take on these adventures and that I push myself to achieve. I don’t want them to see me merely as a means to obtain clean laundry and awesome chocolate chip cookies, although I am that as well. I want them to honor that I am capable in many ways. I want them to believe beyond the shadow of a doubt that I am intelligent, strong, determined, and powerful…a force to be reckoned with. If I do my job then perhaps by the end of my time with my sons, they won’t think of me as a strong woman but remember me instead as a strong person.
So, as I sit here today coming up with a loose training plan for the upcoming spring and summer months, I think of those Star Wars females. I envision applying my inner Jedi to achieve great personal successes this summer, no matter how difficult the challenge might be. I imagine using Jedi mind tricks to convince others to watch my children so I can spend hours in my bike saddle. And, I know that by the end of summer 2011 when I have achieved all my short-term goals, I will be even more powerful than I am today. Go forth with Jedi strength and kick ass, my friends. May the force be with you.
For years now I have been knocking things off my to-do list, most often big, nerve-testing things that have brought me greater confidence and a better understanding of myself. But, I’ve realized recently that some things that have been grand adventures were never on my list to begin with. Some of the smallest choices I’ve made have brought the greatest, most unexpected joy and taught me the biggest lessons.
Years ago, my oldest son asked me for a turtle. I’m not anti-reptile, so I told him I’d think about it and did some research. Turns out that a common box turtle, the kind you would get from a pet store for your son for example, can live for thirty years. Deciding I did not want to be moving into a nursing home with a turtle (which, let’s face it, is the probable outcome of that scenario), I gently nudged my darling son towards a different pet.
After a lot of discussion, we decided to get a tadpole and grow ourselves a frog. The tadpole experiment was far more interesting than I imagined it would be. For weeks, we waited to see some limbs develop. I swear I was more excited than Joe was when we first noticed legs beginning to form. Over the couple months of development, we anticipated the time when we would begin to feed him “real” food. Real food, it turns out, is live crickets. That took some mental finagling on my part. I was all for a frog pet but was not really thinking about how keeping a frog pet meant that I would have to keep cricket pets as well.
When the tadpole was starting to lose its tail, I began the odious task of raising crickets. I decided they would have to live in the garage; I pay an exterminator way too much money to keep bugs out of my house to move some into my house intentionally. I bought the smallest crickets I could get because our frog was still very small as well. Finally, when most of his tadpole tail was gone and he was starting to come out of the water for longer periods of time, I dropped a couple crickets in with him and crossed my fingers.
For days I watched that frog, but it would not eat the stupid, teeny crickets. I checked on it every couple hours. I was starting to fret that froggy might not make it so I decided to visit the pet store to see if there was something else he might eat. I went in to check on him before I left and found he was dead.
I was heartbroken. I cried over the loss of that little frog, sobbed and carried on in what had to be one of the world’s ugliest cries ever. I was the one who had convinced Joe that he needed a frog, and then I starved the poor creature to death. I had failed as both froggy parent and real parent. And then I had to pull myself together, go pick up my son from school, and tell him the horrible news. Sensitive boy that he is, he was convinced that it was his fault. We spent hours discussing life and death, crying, and finally burying that frog out on the open space behind our house. We decided no more small pets for a while.
Then, a year ago I saw our next adventure in a Brookstone store. It was a small aquarium holding two tiny, aquatic frogs. The frogs eat (get this) food pellets and not live anything. I knew that we might finally be able to put the great tadpole experiment behind us and have a potentially more positive amphibian experience.
So, in addition to four people and one neurotic border collie, we’ve had four African Dwarf frogs in our house since last May. These frogs are more my pets than my boys’ pets, and I am fine with that. I love those little frogs. I love them more than any creature has loved a frog since Miss Piggy worshipped Kermit. I am rather partial to Luke’s frogs, who seem to recognize my voice and swim over to see me when I come to their aquarium. Splashy and Swimmy love classical music and especially enjoy swimming to Beethoven’s 9th. Every day those silly frogs make me smile. They are constant reminders that sometimes life’s most rewarding and educational adventures are the small ones that we don’t plan for.
My husband and I have been parenting boys since 2001, and between our two boys we now have a combined sixteen years of parenting experience. So, it annoys me when we make rookie parenting mistakes. After this much time you’d hope we’d have a clue about how this whole parenting thing works. But, alas, sometimes we’re no better than we were the day we brought the little buggers home from the hospital.
Today we took our boys cross-country skiing. We tried this with them last month. Joe had been on skis before and took to cross-country immediately, but it was Luke’s first time on skis and he presented us with a bit more of a challenge. Luke, god bless him, always knows what to do before he is instructed and he has no intention of letting you tell him what he already knows. So, we spent the first thirty minutes of our last ski trip plucking him up off the snow because he refused to slow down and practice before setting off to catch up to his brother. The whining was unbearable, and don’t even get me started about the noises Luke was making. But eventually, when he figured out that he wasn’t catching his brother by becoming a snowball, Luke listened to our instructions and then took off like he’d been skiing for years. The whole experience had ended so favorably that we decided to spend the money to do it again today.
The boys remembered how to get into their boots and skis, and we were sure we were going to be able to ski three miles no problem. Once we got down the first big hill, though, Luke started having trouble. He was right back to where he was when we started skiing with him the last time. He wasn’t listening. He was perpetually on the ground. He started into the complaints about how he couldn’t ski. He was defeated, and we were getting incredibly frustrated. You know things are going poorly when you have to take turns relieving the other parent of their duty because things are getting ugly. After a half an hour, we had already had changed the guard several times.
The last time hubby scooped Luke up off the ground, he noticed that Luke’s skis were marked as “skate” skis and not traditional touring skis. The difference lies in the distinct lack of any gripping sections on the bottom of a skate ski. The smooth skis are great when you are skating your way up a hill, but not so great when you are trying to stay in the traditional, grooved ski paths and climb. I suddenly felt like Gru in Despicable Me: “LIGHTBULB.”
Had we really just wasted all that time thinking the dang kid was being stubborn when, in fact, he really couldn’t get up the hill? Steve and I have both been skiing most of our lives. You think it would have occurred to us that skiing is a muscle memory activity, and once you learn a skill in skiing you generally don’t lose it. Yet, we were so certain that Luke was being his independent self that we couldn’t even hear what he was saying. Not once did we stop to size up the situation and step back far enough to see that he was indeed slipping all over the place. Rookie parenting mistakes are almost always made when you make snap judgements. We had immediately concluded that Luke was simply not listening to us without even pausing to reflect on the situation.
The whole episode got me thinking about how often we get into a routine and we stop paying attention. We coast along as if we’re in those little cars at an amusement park, the kind where the cars are attached to a rail and even though you’re steering you’re actually just along for the ride. We’re just going through the motions, cruising along under the same tired assumptions totally oblivious to what’s happening around us. It’s fairly easy to get caught up going in circles when you’re on automatic pilot all the time.
In yoga class, the instructors constantly remind us to be present and to check in with ourselves, and on a yoga mat that is easy for me. But, in day-to-day life, it’s normal for me to coast along unaware. I wonder what better place I might be in if I looked up once in a while and made sure I was reading the signs and heading in the right direction?