Traveling way outside my comfort zone

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“East or west, home is best.” This is a phrase I grew up hearing my father say often, especially when he got back from another international business trip. It’s something I say to myself nearly every time I pull into my driveway.

Even though I’ve been a single parent for the past several years, I’ve never in that time taken my kids anywhere overnight by myself. I don’t really enjoy traveling, flying, or going to new places. This spring and summer, I decided that had to change.

My kids and I just got home from a one-night trip to western Pennsylvania (about four hours away), to places we’d never been before. My older son developed a fascination with Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house. He set a picture of it as our computer desktop background and asked me every few months about going.

Wow, was it worth it! We had a great time. My older son said the tour was even better than he had expected and my younger son (the one I’ve now and then accused of taking all his blessings for granted) thanked me many times for our trip and how much fun it was.

I will confess that I naturally have a lot of anxiety and the main way I keep it at bay is through routine. Get up at the same time every day, have the same breakfast every day, follow a to-do list I wrote the night before every day… what may sound boring to you is comfort to me.

Most people would be shocked to hear that I’m anxious because I come across as easygoing and carefree a lot of the time. That’s because I happen to be fortunate enough to have a lot of control over what I do when (a major indicator of human happiness). Only those who know me well see the cracks at the seams when we eat dinner two hours later than I expected or had plans to go somewhere that get changed last minute.

I am not a go-with-the-flow type of person, so taking a last minute trip to somewhere I’ve never been before, finding a hotel online, and driving across the state with some handwritten directions scrawled on a scrap of paper were definitely pushing my boundaries. To one of my world-traveling coworkers, I equated it with her going to Russia.

It got me thinking, what else can I do to keep growing and experiencing new things? What do you do, large and small, to get out of your comfort zone and into the great big world? I’d love your ideas! (Please don’t suggest varying my breakfast, ’cause that ain’t happening.)

If you enjoy reading my blog, please check out my first novel, Giving Myself Away, about a divorced mom making tough choices and a fresh start.

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The broken cup

I am a person of routine. I wake up at 5:40 without an alarm, make a cup of coffee, toast two pieces of raisin bread, spread two tablespoons of peanut butter on my toast, then have my toast and coffee with the same cup and the same plate every morning.

As you can guess, the cup is the one that’s all smashed up in the picture above.

One morning I used a different mug to make green tea because I wasn’t feeling well and I knew the tea would be soothing. My son was reaching up over his head in the cabinet to pull out a cup for his own breakfast and wouldn’t you know it, my favorite cup smashed all over the floor. He was extremely apologetic, and I told him it was okay, but I had to go into the other room where I burst into tears.

This was a cup that my mom had bought for me. It was handmade glazed pottery. It felt smooth in my hands and it was the perfect size and the perfect color. If you have a favorite coffee mug, you know the feeling I mean when the cup is just the right weight and the handle fits just right with your hand. This cup felt like it was made for me. I loved the soothing color of the glaze. I loved that it was a gift from my mother that I used every day and enjoyed so much.

My son picked up the handle from the floor and said, “This piece doesn’t have any jagged edges. We could put it in a special little box and save it.”

This is the moment I snapped back to reality and was thankful that I had a son who needed my guidance on how to handle broken things, because life is full of broken things.

“We’re going to pick up the pieces and throw them out,” I told him. “If we save the handle, every time we look at it, we’ll remember the broken cup. It’s just a cup and we can’t make a shrine to a cup.” Of course, I had to take a picture of my cup. I never would have thought to take a picture of my cup when it was intact because I took it for granted that it would be there to use every day. But after a few days, I deleted it from my phone, realizing I needed to let it go.

This happened a few weeks ago and I’ve moved on. I have a new favorite cup. It’s made in China and it’s not very attractive and I don’t feel like looking at Christmas lights in the summer, but it holds coffee and it does the job. I figure this cup will get broken someday too, and that’s okay.

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If you enjoy reading my blog, please check out my first novel, Giving Myself Away, about a divorced mom making tough choices and a fresh start.

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When your children stop telling you everything…

This is me enjoying one of those bittersweet cuddle moments with my boys that I never want to forget. They are letting go and I am letting them let go, because I know they need to.

The other day when I picked up my ten-year-old son from the school bus stop, he looked preoccupied.

“There’s something I wanted to tell you, but I can’t because I promised my friend,” he said. I asked him a few questions about whether he was in trouble, the friend was in trouble, or it was something I really should know, but beyond a few vague reassurances, he clearly wasn’t going to tell me more.

I felt conflicted: proud of him for keeping his word, but sad that he is reaching the age where his relationship with his friends is growing more central than his relationship with his parents.

I remember being a teenager with three younger brothers and feeling like my inner thoughts were the only privacy I had sometimes. I used to look out the car window and daydream and feel smug that no one else knew what kinds of things I was thinking about. Most of the thoughts were about hopes and dreams, things I wanted to accomplish, stuff about my friends, and of course, boys I thought were cute. I didn’t spend too much time thinking about my family during those years. Maybe you could say it’s a good thing I was able to take them for granted in that ways.

As my sons get older, our periods of quiet time have grown longer. They used to tell me a lot more in a lot more detail, but now, other than when they feel talkative or sometimes really down about something, most of our conversation is like “How was your day?” “Good.”

Parents with older kids have told me to enjoy all the hugs and cuddling and hand holding and talking that my kids want to share with me now. As we all get swept up in everyday life, I try to stop and remember to hug my boys.

I’m happy they’re growing up. And sad. You know what I mean. Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers whose hearts are bursting and breaking all at the same time.

If you enjoy reading my blog, please check out my first novel, Giving Myself Away, about a divorced mom making tough choices and a fresh start.

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We are not a broken family

I have been heading a single-parent family for nearly six years now. I am a teacher, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in meetings and conferences while others lamented the fact that we have to deal with “broken families.” I think it’s a hurtful phrase and one that I’ve had to work hard to overcome. My family is not broken. While maintaining our family’s privacy, I will just say divorce was not a decision that was taken lightly.

My ex-husband and I have made many compromises and more importantly, made peace with each other, in order to be the best co-parents possible for our kids. Yes, there are differences in our parenting styles, but we discuss all major decisions and are in general agreement on the important things. We face the same issues we would have been dealing with if we were still married.

Just because a children’s parents are divorced, it doesn’t have necessarily mean the family is broken. Broken to me means deficient in a way that is beyond repair. We may not have two parents living together in the same house, but I still consider my ex and his family my family and I always will.

We are bound together for the rest of our lives by our two children, and I want to make the best of it. I am happy that it’s not awkward or painful to sit together at recitals or meet up to go trick-or-treating. We will not have to sit in separate rows when our children graduate or get married.

Although it’s a sad statement about our society that the divorce rate is so high, the most practical way to help children is to give them a sense of family no matter what its makeup. I support the institution of marriage. When it works, it’s a beautiful partnership. But there are other types of families that work too. We may not look like the Pajamagram picture above, but we’re still a whole, beautiful family!

 

Please check out my first novel, Giving Myself Away, about a divorced mom making tough choices.

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How to Have a Meaningful Parent-Teacher Conference

I’ve been on both sides of the desk for conferences. Some have been more successful than others, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the preparation beforehand that makes the difference. I’d like to offer a few tips on how you, as a parent, can get the most helpful information from your child’s teachers on parent-teacher conference day.

  1. Don’t bring your child with you (unless the teacher requests it): There are times it’s helpful to have a parent/teacher/student meeting, such as when strategizing study skills, organization, or other things where direct communication will facilitate a solution. However, unless you are meeting with that purpose, it doesn’t allow for as much information to be shared between parent and teacher. The dynamic is totally different because when there’s a student in the room, the teacher tends to talk to the student. There may be things I want to say to the parent that I wouldn’t say in front of their child.

 

  1. Ask the teacher how your child is doing socially: A big advantage of attending a school as opposed to home schooling or cyber-school is the social skills that students begin to master only by being forced to interact daily with their peers. For some children, the main stress of school has nothing to do with academics. By middle school, kids aren’t telling you much about their social lives, but their teachers may be able to give you some insight.

 

  1. Come with an open mind: As a parent, I have to remind myself of this often, but my children’s grades and behavior are not a reflection of who I am as a person. They have free will and will make mistakes and decisions that I don’t approve of. It doesn’t make me a bad parent. As a teacher, I remember this too. My goal in working with parents is to be a problem-solver, not a judge. If you are not willing to be open-minded about your child’s challenges, you may walk away from the conference feeling defeated instead of empowered.

 

  1. Bring specific questions or concerns: The toughest opening for a teacher is, “So how’s my kid doing in your class?” Since we only have a few minutes to talk, I’d like to know right away which areas are of concern to you.

 

  1. Share personal information when you can: There are times parents have called to report that a grandparent or a beloved pet recently passed away, there has been a change in home environment for a child, or they are overcoming a serious illness. All of this information helps teachers because students often look or act different in the classroom without explaining what’s bothering them. It’s especially important to tell teachers if your child has been evaluated for learning disabilities or health issues. As a teacher, I have worked as a partner with parents in monitoring kids with food allergies, asthma, and changes in ADHD medication. We are the eyes and ears when you can’t be and can often provide information that will aid you and your child’s health care provider.

 

  1. If your child’s teacher doesn’t provide some positive feedback, please ask for it: The last thing you want is to walk away from a conference feeling sad or hopeless about your child’s school experience. Even kids with the toughest behavioral or academic challenges have redeeming characteristics and good days that we as teachers can point out. If your child is unhappy in school, you may be the emotional dump at home who hears about all the things that went wrong during the day. You didn’t get to witness your children having fun with their friends at lunch or delivering a great presentation to their peers or answering a question that stumped everyone else in the class. We need to focus and build on these little victories together.

 

  1. Tell your teacher what works well at home and what you need help with: You may feel like you’re on your own once your child gets home, but teachers often have tips that may help studying and getting organized at home go more smoothly too. If getting out the door in the morning is an issue, or getting homework done before ten p.m., please ask. Many of your children’s teachers were or are currently raising children. I feel fortunate to have that “insider’s perspective” on how best to work with my children academically and I’m more than happy to share my thoughts because happy, well-prepared students make my workdays pleasant.

 

  1. Take notes: Especially if you are meeting with more than one teacher, you will be hit with a lot of information, too much to process all at once. Taking notes gives you an opportunity to look back on what you learned, possible areas to follow up with the teacher on later, and a chance to see patterns (maybe your child always forgets homework that’s due on Monday, or something else that you may be able to adjust).

 

  1. Tell us what your child loves to do at home: Parents have told me about non-academic skills their children have, unusual hobbies, or passions that lie outside the classroom. When I know these things, I can work to connect them to what I teach, making school more interesting for students and helping them feel like they are essential people in the classroom.

 

  1. Ask your child if he or she thinks there is something you should ask or address: Teachers encourage their students to be advocates for themselves, but there are times kids feel intimidated to talk to a teacher about something. A parent can be the intermediary, at least to get the conversation started.

 

If you like reading about families, please check out my novel Giving Myself Away, available now.

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Photo credit: stock photo by patrisyu http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

 

Why clinging to the past (or the future) makes you suffer

Being a parent forces you to constantly be aware of the passage of time. Your life runs to the rhythm of school years and holidays and sports seasons and annual checkups. Parents feel it, and kids feel it too. I don’t know how many times my kids have said they can’t wait for this day or that trip or alternately, that they don’t want summer to be over or to grow up too fast.

If you haven’t seen this video about the girl who doesn’t want her baby brother to grow up because he’s just sooo cute, it hits you in two layers. The first is how adorable she is (and she’s right about her baby brother). But there’s also a deeper undercurrent of the pain we share with her of wanting to stop time.

I recently read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Tolle explains the difference between clock time and psychological time. Clock time is what you use to function day to day, to get places on time and do what you need to do. Psychological time is the attachment you feel to the past or the future, anything that is pulling you away from the moment you are in right now. Psychological time can bring suffering because you are either comparing now to the past and finding it lacking, or you feel that you need something in the future to make you happier.

The girl who doesn’t want her baby brother to grow up was experiencing the pain of living on psychological time. I see it in my own life as well. I am flooded with old emails that I don’t want to get rid of in case there’s an important memory I’ll lose. I sometimes feel sad when I look at family pictures, even though they are from happy events, because I long to relive them or to be younger (or especially to see my kids be younger again).

When we hold on to the past like this, we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to fully experience the present. By lamenting about how short the summer seems or how quickly a vacation passes, you are robbing the event of its enjoyment by anticipating its end. If you are a planner like I am, you might spend a lot of your present time with your thoughts on the future. People say I’m “organized,” or but it’s really a form of anxiety about things that haven’t happened yet.

Since reading Tolle’s book and watching Sadie cry over her baby brother, I am trying to keep re-centering myself in the present moment, to stop dwelling on the past and worrying about the future. I hope that my kids see a difference in my attentiveness toward them and that they too practice living in the now.

As Oogway says to Po in Kung Fu Panda, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”

If you like reading about families, please check out my novel, Giving Myself Away.

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I hope my kids will always be able to look up to me

“Mommy, I don’t want to grow taller than you. I always want to be able to look up to you,” my tween son told me last night. I’m sure he meant that literally, but I couldn’t help but take the message as a figurative one. Can I be a mom who will always be worth looking up to?

I give a lot of thought to what I can pass on to my children because I realize that I have limited time left in which their parents will be the central figures of their lives. Soon their friends will matter more, followed by girlfriends and wives. I can only hope that the seeds of what I’ve tried to plant in their hearts will take root and bloom.

These are the ways I hope to be a mother worth looking up to:

  1. Faith: My faith brings me comfort in this modern “I need proof” and “I need answers now” world. No matter what your belief system, just the thought that there’s something out there larger than ourselves that there’s a plan for us (though we may not understand it yet), eases the pressure to feel like I need to know it all. This leads me to

 

  1. Humility: Our privacy has been replaced by the overwhelming popularity contest of social media. For many of us, our jobs depend on what others think of us and how many people know and care that we exist. To be humble today takes an extra measure of self-control. Of course I hope you read this and enjoy it and comment on it and share it, but whether you do or not, does that have bearing on my worth as an individual? I need to say what I believe and live my live according to my principles, which leads me to

 

  1. Openness: I never want to offend anyone and I can see multiple points of view on just about any issue. I tend to be a private person as well, but two years ago, I adopted a “theme” for myself of Put Yourself Out There. This simple statement brought about so many wonderful changes in my personal and professional life that I became determined to stop hiding. Kids (especially firstborns) try hard to please adults, a habit I never fully outgrew, but now I accept that not everyone will like what I say, and that’s okay. My desire to respectfully be who I am leads me to

 

  1. Kindness: The comedian Louis CK in one of his hilarious skits pointed out the fact that even the most mild-mannered people can turn aggressive in their cars. I have been known to utter “What are you, an idiot?” (and much worse) while driving. I’ve had uncharitable thoughts about other people that I wouldn’t say out loud, but my goal is to not even think them. It is so easy to get caught up in our own egos that we forget the struggles and fears and tragedies that have molded the people around us. And going back to the principles of faith and humility, who am I to judge? My desire to believe in the innate goodness of people leads to

 

  1. Optimism: There are two ways you can go through life: believing that humankind is selfish and inherently evil, or that people (for the most part) do their best with the resources they have to be cooperative and generous. The filter you choose is the one through which you will measure everything that happens to you, both good and bad. The good things will seem less good because you’ll attribute them to chance, while the bad things will seem predestined, part of life’s agenda of screwing you over. Like everyone else who exists, I’ve had some really good parts of my life and some really bad ones too. It’s a decision I make every day, but I choose to believe the universe is fundamentally good.

There are so many things I could wish for my children: that they find good partners, do well in school, have fulfilling and well-paid careers, and become good parents themselves. But instead of wishing they become certain things that may or may not happen, I will try to nurture who they are right at this moment. I hope that regardless of height, they see my path as one worth taking.

 

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